He was the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes.
Country music was playing on the radio, low, almost inaudible. I’d been enjoying the muted sound for several minutes, feeling dazed but content, relaxed by the slight throbbing of the car. My body felt heavy and disconnected from my brain, as if I was just awakening from a long, deep sleep. And then it hit me. Where the hell am I?
I opened my eyes, feeling a sudden and irrational bout of panic, but hands on my shoulders prevented me from sitting up. Before I could shake them off, I realized I wasn’t just laying in the backseat of a car; I was lying on someone’s lap, in the backseat of a car. His face, upside down, was watching me up close. The panic washed away and I stilled; I knew that face. I knew his lips, recognized the way they stretched into a lazy half-grin. Despite the familiar annoyance that smile sparked in me, I had to focus several seconds to remember his name.
“Your hero,” he said. Rolling my eyes hurt. “You’re safe, Olivia.”
What a strange thing to say. Why wouldn’t I be safe?I tried to straighten up again, but he kept me down as easily as the first time. I turned my head slowly, minding my sore neck. Yup, not dreaming. It was nighttime and I was in a moving car, head resting on a guy I hated, with no idea why. Confusion, thy name is Olivia Haynes.
“Almost there,” the driver said, catching my attention. Square face, hair long enough to be half-tied in a low, messy bun. And who are you?
Ignoring Cole’s attempt to keep me put, I pushed myself up. The movement jarred new pains awake and my head spun, but I still sent Cole a dark look when he rolled his eyes at my persistence. I instinctively reached for the throbbing spot in the back of my head. It was sticky with blood.
“What the—“ Words grated on the inside of my throat, provoking a coughing fit that left me breathless and dizzy.
“Don’t worry about that, we’re taking you to the hospital,” Cole explained.
I made a gesture with my hand, silently asking what happened, but before he could answer the car went over a speed bump and something in the front seat was jolted against the door. Wait, that’s someone.
I saw the blood first. Then his face. A heavy, uneasy feeling crashed on my chest and spread through my body like a wave. The tip of my fingers tingled, and I felt boneless. Again, the dizziness.
Unconscious, his head bobbled from right to left with the bumps on the road. Blood darkened his neck and the collar of his tee-shirt; so thick I wasn’t sure where it came from. He looked just as sweaty and dirty as I felt. Nathan, of course, Nathan! We were picking ice-cream flavors just minutes ago, and… I turned, looking at the darkness outside. No, the sun had still been way up in the sky, blazing almost too strong, making the weather unseasonably hot and sticky. What happened after that? I tried to lean forward to touch him, wake him, just do something against his stillness, but Cole stopped me again, overpowering me easily.
“He has to be checked for internal bleeding, but he should be fine.”
The throbbing in my head was starting to transform into a pulsating headache. I closed my eyes and passed a shaky hand on my forehead.
“Why couldn’t you just run away when I told you to?” Cole sighed and shook his head.
Why is he so calm?
“Run away from what?”
The driver turned to glance at me with a frown, then threw a knowing look at Cole.
“Olivia, what do you remember?”
Good question. I lowered my head, massaging my temples. This was driving me crazy. The last hours of my life were just there, frustratingly close, but completely out of reach. If only I could shut everything else out and focus, I was sure I could catch them back. I closed my eyes again.
I’m with Nathan by the ice-cream truck, on the town’s main place. The crowd around us is almost stifling, a woman in a blue camisole stares, but I can’t focus on her, she’s too far in the back of my mind. I just see Nathan’s face, smiling confidently while I wonder what the hell I’m doing there with him. We walk, and then we’re back by the truck, and he’s smiling at me again. It’s the exact same scene, stuck on repeat.
I shook my head slowly, and Cole frowned. It was a strange look on him; I’d rarely ever seen him without his signature cheeky grin, or at least a smug half-smile.
“We’re here,” the driver said.
I hadn’t even realized we were touching, but I missed the rough warmth of Cole’s hands on mine as soon as he let go of them.
“Ezra will stay with you, I’d better not go in myself,” he motioned to the driver, who saluted me almost cheerfully, and jumped off of the car.
“Wait, why? Where-“ I choked, my scorching throat made it impossible to breathe for several seconds.
“For once in your life, don’t talk back.” His tone held no bite. “Forget I was even here, okay? Don’t mention my name. Ezra will do all the talking.”
He made to leave the car quickly, but I grabbed his leather jacket, jerking him back and frantically shaking my head despite the spots in my vision. What’s going on?
Cole put a hand over mine and, with the other, gently removed my clawing fingers from his jacket. He looked me in the eyes and drew closer, as if to make sure I couldn’t miss a look, a word, a single breath. His expression was serious again, but this time it didn’t throw me off, I anchored myself into the soothing forest green that emanated from him.Wait, I’m concussed.
“We didn’t realize you’d forget what happened. I know it must be hard, but don’t worry, you are okay.”
That’s not enough. I started to shake my head again, but he didn’t waver.
“As challenging as this must be for you, you have to trust me.”
“Yes, I know,” he added with a small deprecating smile. “but try anyway.”
He winked, and he left.
I hadn’t seen the other guy, “Ezra”, leave, but he was already coming back with people pushing a gurney and running toward us. I climbed out but spots of colors danced on my closed eyelids. My legs buckled, I held onto the car.
“We need another one here,” someone said. Too loud.
A man came from the side and, passing his arm around the small of my back, pulled me to his chest. His clothes smelled of gasoline.
“You’re going to be okay,” Ezra whispered by me ear. His voice was light. Light blue, I decided, with strokes of serious cerulean.
I wanted to believe him, but something deep within me had shifted. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know what, but as I clung onto consciousness, the only certainty clear enough in my otherwise fuzzy brain was this: nothing would ever be the same.
Cole had been right; Ezra did all the talking. I wasn’t supposed to exert my throat anyway, so I kept my mouth shut. For four days. The hospital, my parents, the interrogation, the return home…they flew by, never touching me, never taking me out of my own mind.
Maybe I’m in shock.
I discovered with a detached kind of amazement that I’d been mugged. Ezra’d been driving by the small park a couple of streets away from Main Place when he heard screaming. He saw me trying to fight two muggers off of an unconscious Nathan, and one of them ended up pushing me, making me fall over and hit my head. I wasn’t even surprised; of course my first date with Nathan Meadows had to end up at the hospital. Olivia Haynes, everybody.
“Those are traces of strangulation,” one of the doctors had said a little later, pointing to my neck. Everyone spoke quietly around me, as if they thought my ears were malfunctioning too.
Strangulation. Choking. Hot flushing chest, tingly fingers, spinning head. Hunger for air. Despair. Choking. Choking. Yes, that rung a bell.
When Nathan woke up, he was told what happened, and confirmed everything. No one mentioned the woman in blue. No one mentioned Cole Smith.
Maybe I’m in shock.
“Let it go,” Mom said on Wednesday morning, as she walked in my room to find me looking at my reflection in the mirror. She drew nearer, standing behind me toward the vanity that had been in her own childhood bedroom before it was moved into mine. The bruises on my neck were impossible to miss, they begged for attention until all eyes were on them, and then they glared back ostensibly. “The doctors said your memories would come back eventually, no use in trying to force it.”
Easy for you to say. I was on my way to batshit cray-cray town, not remembering anything. I didn’t know how to just let go - never had, probably never would. And why the heck did that woman in blue keep popping in and out of my memories every time I thought I was making progress? I almost felt betrayed by my own confused, limited, little brain.
Of course, to my mother, I just nodded and smiled; the bags under her eyes were almost as dark as the skin under my chin. Oh, mom. Thankfully, we both heard a car pulling up in the driveway.
“The relief team is here.”
Riley, my breath of fresh air. I kicked the legs of the vanity and rolled on my ancient chair until it bumped on my desk. I had a clear view on the street and front yard from the only window in my room.
“Jamie’s here too,” I said, delighted.
My closest friend, Riley, had been coming by everyday since I’d gotten out of the hospital, but Jamie, with his part-time job at the book-shop and the babysitting of his twin-sisters, had been less frequent. My mom went down to open the door, and soon they let themselves into my room in their usual way: as if they owned the place.
“Look at you, dressed and decent for visitors for once!” Jamie said as he kissed the top of my hair and moved on to the chair I’d just vacated.
“I thought for sure your mom would keep you tucked in bed forever. I was starting to look for your replacement in Haywood,” Riley said with her usual energy.
“Don’t worry, Dad checked on me from time to time to make sure she hadn’t accidentally smothered me to death. And if you had to replace me, you should go with Short Karen. That’s who I’d choose, anyway.”
“You traitor, you thought about this before, didn’t you? You already have it all figured out.”
“Gotta be prepared, a girl needs her sidekick,” I said with a fake drawl.
Though Jamie’s quiet smile showed his enjoyment as we kept piling on, he took out several notebooks and his computer from his bag.
“Oh come on Jamie, do we have to dive into it right the second?”
“I’m guessing you didn’t keep Ollie updated on anything school-related this week, so I brought her my notes.”
“Thanks J-J,” I winked at him and he answered in kind.
“That’s not true, I brought her lots of news from school. Admittedly, not work related, but still…”
“I’m pretty sure I even know about a breakup that hasn’t happened yet.”
“But it will,” she tapped her nose, “I have a gift for these things.”
“Did she also tell you that you’re a star, then?” Jamie asked.
“Wasn’t I always?” I batted back, then “but… why now exactly?”
“Your little misadventure made Haywood High’s news. Everyone’s waiting to hear the whole story from Nathan or your own mouth . I’d expect a little staring tomorrow, if I were you.”
“About that, do you know when Nathan--“
“Well, he got the doctors’ green light to go back to school but his parents want to keep him home a few more days, just in case. He’s having really bad nightmares. On the first night he spent at the hospital, he woke up so freaked out they had to sedate him to get him back to sleep.”
“Have you been sleeping in the guy’s room, Ry?” Jamie quipped.
She rolled her eyes but chuckled. “Ollie,” she touched my hand, and her voice lost some of the silliness she often over-played. “I think I’m glad you don’t remember what happened.”
“Not you too, Ry! I already know what happened, I just want to remember it on my own. I feel so… ugh. As if my brain’s broken. The sooner it comes back to me, the sooner I can leave it all behind.”
“Look at what Nathan’s going through. Knowing what happened and actually remembering every moment of it aren’t the same. Just keep that in mind, okay?”
I promised, if only because I couldn’t handle the worry in her eyes. Her round face was made for smiles and laughter; it fit the bright colors she wore, the bounce in her step, and the chime in her voice ... so much so that the rare times she was really serious I felt a compulsory need to right all the wrongs in the universe. I squeezed her hand, and glanced at Jamie, who winked at me despite his own serious composure, and soon changed the subject back to homework.
I was dying to ask about Cole Smith, but I hadn’t said a word about his involvement to anyone. I kept all my questions and doubts about him in the same mind drawer as the woman in blue, which had moved from a random face I remembered to a haunting memory. What could I have said about her anyway? “I see a woman with curly black hair and black cold eyes looking at me when I close my eyes?” Yes, right. I wanted to be allowed out of the house at some point soon, not hospitalized again.
The next morning, Riley spent the drive to school trying to mentally prep me for my big return. I hadn’t been allowed to drive, as if I was too sick or broken to handle a wheel. Of course, my parents had no clue that Riley was a far more serious danger behind the wheel than I could ever be. As usual, she parked like the whole lot was reserved for her, taking two spots and making a third one difficult to access. I’d feel better –and safer- as soon as I could resume driving us both to school in the mornings. As soon as I got out of the car, Riley wrapped herself around my arm as if she meant to suddenly turn into a shield. I knew I was not center-of-attention material, but it couldn’t be so bad, could it?
Yes. Yes it could.
That first day back was almost hellish enough to be considered cruel and unusual punishment. Half of my classmates treated me with extra-care, as if I was traumatized and maybe suffering from PTSD – which was ridiculous because I felt fine – and the other half clapped my back and joked that I really was the high school Warrior Girl - which annoyed me because it meant that one of Cole’s nicknames had stuck. Boys nudged their friends to turn and look at the bruises on my throat, girls whispered behind their hands as I walked by, and between periods, kids I didn’t know harassed me with questions I didn’t even have the answers to.
“When did Haywood become a teen-movie cliché?” I whispered to Riley, who was still firmly attached to my side, going to lunch. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people randomly burst into a choreographed song right now.”
“Oh a musical would be so cool,” Ry laughed. She was already thinking of a plot and themes for the songs, when I caught a glance of Cole Smith crossing the hallway. He barely nodded when our eyes met for half a second before he walked into class. Well, that’s new. Cole always had a smart-ass remark, a new nickname, or something else to annoy me with when we crossed paths before. His serious attitude left me uneasy for the rest of the day.
When Nathan came back on Friday, it was to a new social status. He’d gone from classic jock to instant hero. Girls followed him around, sighing dreamily when he talked to them, and his name was on everyone’s lips - even the lunch lady, who gave him extra dessert. He didn’t seem to enjoy the attention though. Each new question clearly weighed more on his shoulders, and when we finally met up between classes, his usual easy-smile was non-existent.
“The library’s my personal fortress of solitude, but I can share it with you,” I said, just as the bell rang.
“Any free period today?”
“The one after next.”
“Meet you there,” he whispered. Paul whisked him away before I could get a sense of what he had in mind.
The library was so small; I spotted him right away, sitting at one of the tables furthest away from the door. He sent me a small smile when our eyes met.
“I think I’m going to move into your fortress permanently,” he said. The circles under his eyes seemed darker than earlier, and his pale, tired complexion made him look downright sick.
“Take out the garbage, don’t walk around in your underwear, and we’re good. I want the rent in cash, though.”
He snorted and rested his head on the table, pressing two fingers against his temples and massaging them slowly.
“I tried calling you, but your mom…”
“Yeah,” he cut me off, and shook his head slowly. “She went full mama-bear on me this week. She wouldn’t let anyone visit or talk to me on the phone, said I had to rest.”
“I had Riley for that.”
I smiled. I wanted to ask about the nightmares, but I couldn’t bring myself to be so intrusive, even if –in a twisted way- I felt like I had a right to. Not finding the right words, I just looked him over as he stared thoughtfully at something over my shoulder. Other than the dressing on his neck and his obvious exhaustion, nothing was out of place.
“Isn’t it weird how there's always trouble when we're together?” I wasn’t even sure he was talking to me.
"Well, I wouldn't say always but..."
"I meant the three of us. Cole, you, and me.”
He was referring to the Incident, as Riley put it. I’d never even spoken to Cole before it happened, last year. I’d been waiting for Ry in the otherwise deserted school parking lot one evening, when a desperate scrawny kid ran past my car as if chased by beasts. I recognized the two 18 year-old seniors that shot after him right away: trouble.
They trapped the kid –Ben- in the dead end around the corner of the science building, so I did what I thought everyone would: I got out of my car and ran after them. That’s when I saw Cole Smith, sitting on his shiny black bike. He was so still the three boys had run right past him without even noticing him.
“It’s none of my business,” he shrugged. He looked like he barely even cared, but I was pumped on adrenalin and a growing feeling of indignation.
“Are you serious? We have to --”
“Hey, I’m not stopping you,” he said, smirking. “Go right ahead, Warrior Girl!”
It only served to fuel my ire. I barely took the time to tell him what a coward he was, and did exactly as he told me: I went right ahead.
“You hated him so much after that night,” Nathan called me back to the present.
“Ben could have been hurt.”
“I know, I know,” Nathan said. “And Cole Smith, a six-foot-four junior, stood there doing nothing. How did you call him?”
“Slimy Coward,” I mumbled. Not my best find, but I’d been pissed off and in a hurry, so I’d said the first thing that came to mind. That was the start of the stupid nickname war. “But you helped,” I reminded Nathan. “You intervened as soon as you saw what was happening.”
Nathan had seen us running on his way back from the lockers.
“I did, didn’t I? I can take high-school bullies, but…” he looked like he was far away again, eyes glazed over, until he snorted: “Slimy Coward, yeah right.”
“Nate, you’re kind of freaking me out. What’s going on?”
He visibly shook himself and forced a smile. “Nothing. Just funny how things are.”
“I meant to go talk to him,” I said after yet another uneasy pause. “And ask why the hell he didn’t want us to say anything about him.”
“You shouldn’t. Actually, you should stay away from his whole family,” he warned very seriously.
I’d never liked Cole Smith but I couldn’t help but feel indignant on his behalf. “Didn’t he save us?” Ugh, the word tasted bad.
Nathan pinched his lips. “Something’s off about him,” he was leaning in on the table, speaking softly so that his voice wouldn’t stand out in the quiet room. “He’s bad news.”
“You always defended him when I said he was a jerk, and now that he actually helps us, you say this?”
“Olivia, please,” he shook his head, glancing around us again. Why are you so nervous? He passed a hand through his dirty blond hair, making a mess. “He was there with his cousin in the car. I don’t know why he didn’t want us to mention him, but it can’t be good.”
I clenched my jaw, trying to control my sudden urge to jump over the table and shake him until he stopped lying.
“Just—just trust me on this, okay? I’m trying to forget. And you’d better do the same. Nothing good can come from this.”
“No, Nathan. I want to talk about what happened. There’s a woman in my head, who drives me nuts and--“
“What do you mean?” His hand abruptly clenched into a fist on the table. “I thought you said you didn’t remember.” His voice was low, but something like barely quelled panic made it vibrate.
“I—well, I don’t. Wait, is she real? Was the woman in blue there?”
He released a long, controlled, breath. “No. No, Olivia, it’s like we said, two guys. No women.”
“You are hiding something from me, Nate.”
“Believe me, what you know is enough.”
“I’d like to be the judge of that.”
When he didn't reply, I snatched my bag and left, pettily ignoring his weak attempt at calling me back.