On the outside, it was almost impossible to notice what had taken place in the building during the night. The front gate was closed as usual and there were no red and blue lights painting the main entrance. But, everywhere Allison looked, she found small reminders of what she and Nicole had gone through not even twenty four hours before. From the curb where the ambulance had been parked to the small piece of yellow tape she spotted on the ground, everything was a memento.
But the biggest reminder were the reporters, camping outside their home, hoping to get a glimpse of the pop star and her fiancée. Mike had warned her before and they had dealt with a few of them on their way out of the hospital, but things were much harder at their apartment, the place everyone knew the attack had happened.
A police cruiser parted the crowd so Anthony could move his rental car forward and into the garage, away from prying eyes. Mike brought in the rear in a car with a couple of security guards she had tried convincing him weren’t needed. With Jess in police custody, Allison didn’t think she was under any other threat, but she reconsidered her opinion when she noticed just how many people were waiting for them to get home.
Allison readjusted the hoodie over Nicole’s head before helping her out of the car. They were far enough and secluded that no cameras should be able to spot them, but there were no limits to Allison’s protectiveness when she could still see Jess’s empty stare every time she closed her eyes.
A cold chill went up her spine the moment Allison stepped inside the apartment. Mike had done a good job getting people to clean up the mess and replace the door the police had kicked in, but the singer could see everything that had happened as if she were watching a movie. She could see herself closing the bathroom door and she could see Jess running down the stairs after her and she could see them rolling on the floor, a kitchen knife between them.
A squeeze to her hand brought Allison out of her thoughts. She looked to the side and found Nicole smiling softly at her, just waiting until she felt steady enough to walk further into the place. “I’m okay.” Allison whispered so only Nicole heard and kissed her naked shoulder. “I’m gonna talk to Mike before he leaves.”
“Sweetie, do you want anything? Maybe some water or something to eat?”
Nicole smiled at her mother’s offer. Even if part of the reason Erica wanted Nicole to go back home with her was because she didn’t fully trust Allison, Nicole could still see the worry etched in every single one of the lines on her face. There were dark circles beneath her eyes that the reporter hadn’t noticed before and the woman just looked exhausted.
“Thank you, mom. But I’m okay.” She walked up to her mother and surprised her with a hug, tight and long and full of meaning. “I think I just want to take a shower and maybe get some sleep.”
“Yes, of course.” Erica kissed her daughter on the forehead, making her feel like a child again.
Nicole stopped on the first step of the stairs. Something heavy settled on her chest as she remembered Allison’s face as she told her about rolling down some steps with Jess. Nicole had been tied and drugged when it all took place, but her mind was working overtime to fill in the voids and blank spaces. She could almost hear Allison’s pained gasp.
“Nic? Everything alright?” It wasn’t a gasp, but it was Allison’s voice.
“Yeah, I was just going upstairs to take a shower and get some sleep.” She stretched her hand in her fiancée’s direction. “Come with?”
It took her a while to answer Nicole. Allison had been dreading the moment she would have to set foot into her room from the moment they left the hospital. Realistically, she knew she wouldn’t be able to avoid it for the rest of her life unless they decided to move, but she was hoping she would manage to postpone it for a few more hours, maybe until she was too tired to even care. But as she looked up into Nicole’s eyes, she noticed the woman had been dreading the moment too. Since she had been a victim and not a witness, Nicole had no idea what she would find in there. The only thing she knew was that Jess was in their shower when Allison found her.
“Of course I’ll come with you.”
Allison tried focusing solely on the feel of Nicole’s body against hers and the warmth of her hand and not on the memories and images that were assaulting her mind. She focused on her breathing, on her steps, on her posture, on the itch where her arm had been stitched up; on anything she could think of. Anything to not think of Jess.
Much like the rest of the house, there was no sign of the night in the room. Allison didn’t even know what she expected to find out of place, since much of the struggle happened in the living room, but she was relieved to see that their room was still theirs. It hadn’t been tainted, it hadn’t been desecrated.
Mike promised he would take care of everything and he delivered.
“Can you get your arm wet?”
The question pulled Allison back to the present like a hook. She turned around to find Nicole standing by the bathroom’s open door. “Not yet. And even when I can, I shouldn’t get it too wet. Why?”
“I was hoping you could shower with me?”
The idea of a shower allured her. Water cascading down her body and washing away the stress and the fear and the anger and all of her other feelings she wasn’t capable of naming at the moment. “Maybe we could take a bath, instead?” She offered with a small smile and a forward step. “It’ll be easier to keep my arm dry.”
“I’ll start the water.”
Allison stood in front of a mirror as she stripped. She counted the bruises scattered around her skin and the small flecks of dried blood still on her upper arm. She found scratches she hadn’t felt and new lines creasing her forehead. Allison touched her cheeks almost in a trance, as if the skin she felt beneath her fingertips wasn’t her own, as if it weren’t her eyes watching her from the mirror.
The sweet smell of lavender invaded her nostrils and she breathed it in deeply, letting the scent calm her from within.
The bathtub was already full when Allison joined Nicole in the bathroom and the journalist smiled at her through the mirror as she pulled her hair up in a bun. The singer was the first to get inside and she scooted back to have her fiancée sit between her legs.
The warm water and Allison’s right arm wrapped around Nicole like a cocoon and she sighed and relaxed against the solidity of the body behind hers. Their breathing synced up and Nicole took the hand Allison had around her middle in between both of hers and played with her fingers, like she had done so many times before. The repetitive motions almost lulled her to sleep, until she felt Allison’s hold around her tighten at the same moment she buried her face in the crook of her neck.
Nicole turned around as best as she could in the confined space and found Allison with her eyes closed, tears leaking down and drawing a path on her cheeks. When the first choked sob shook her small frame, Nicole brought both her arms up and held Allison around the neck, fusing their torsos. The touch of their skins and the tightness of the hug, made the last of Allison’s resolve crumble and she cried in earnest; she sobbed and she choked on air and she held on to Nicole as if her life depended on it.
Allison had never cried as much in any moment as she did in that one single day. But she had never feared for her life before, she had never feared for Nicole’s life. And in those arms, where she felt more at home than anywhere else in the world, she knew it was okay to let go. In there, she knew she could cry her fears and her helplessness and her frailty.
For the first time since she woke up in that hospital room, Nicole cried too. The severity of what had happened – and of what had almost happened – hit her all at once and she allowed her tears to overflow too.
The water had started to run cold when Allison finally leaned back a little to look at Nicole’s face with her red, swollen eyes. She looked at her as if she was seeing her for the very first time. She didn’t know what to say in that moment. I’m sorry seemed too little. Thank you, even less. And I love you didn’t begin to describe how strongly she felt for Nicole. But, when words had failed her before, Allison knew there was one language she could always trust.
Their lips tasted to salt and desperation and all the things they didn’t know how to say. It wasn’t about a caress, it was about being devoured whole. It was about offering themselves up for sacrifice. They kissed as if that was their only source of oxygen, as if they tried to paint their love on each other’s tongue. They did it to have something to remind themselves, something to hold on to.
But as much as they wanted to live inside that kiss, they still needed to breathe.
They remained in silence as they stepped out of the tub, something sacred in the air as they dried each other’s bodies. Allison took Nicole’s hand and led her back to bedroom, pulled the blanket, lay down and opened her arms, inviting Nicole to rest with her.
Allison’s skin against her own, her front to her back, their legs tangled together, a protective arm around her waist; the sum of all those sensations made Nicole melt against her fiancée and pulled a deep sigh from within her. The sound made Allison smile against the back of Nicole’s neck.
“I love you so much, Nic.” Her whispered voice was thick and full of emotion. “So much.”
“I know, Al.” She laced her fingers with Allison’s and brought them to rest on her chest, where the singer could feel the beats of her heart. “I love you, too.”
Allison never got any sleep. Although every cell in her body begged for rest; although the exhaustion had turned her muscles useless and heavy, she couldn’t get her mind to stop spinning. Thoughts ran wildly through her mind, all the worst scenarios she had tried to avoid until that moment, came back the moment the bedroom was immersed in silence. She ended up watching over Nicole’s sleep, removing the strands of hair that fell on her face and smoothing the wrinkles on her forehead.
In that state of contemplation, Allison almost believed the nightmare was finally over.
As if sensing where Allison’s thoughts were taking her, Nicole turned around, facing the singer and nestling herself in her body. Allison, who used one of her hands to support her head, used the other to draw circles on Nicole’s naked back. She could feel her deep breaths against her collarbone and it helped slowing her mind down a little.
Outside the window, the sun was already low on its downward journey. There were traces of blue and lilac high in the sky and the first stars were slowly showing themselves. The idea that life went on was oddly comforting to Allison, the notion that tomorrows would always exist no matter what.
When she looked down again, Nicole had her eyes opened and was gazing up at her with the fondest smile on her face. Allison mirrored her expression and kissed her on the forehead, tightening just a bit the hold she still had on Nicole’s back. “I think your mom is cooking.” The first words to break the silence were whispered as to not disturb their sanctuary.
The sound of pans clashing downstairs reached their room, crumbling the private world they had built over the last hours. But Nicole wasn’t ready to go back out there, yet. She circled Allison’s waist and ran her fingertips over the length of her spine. Her eyes were focused on the hazel ones that stared at her and they stayed like that for long minutes, silent and thankful, drawing strength from their connection to rejoin the world and face what came their way.
Dinner was quiet – no one was really in the mood to make small talk. Erica asked Nicole a few questions about how she was feeling, but stopped when she noticed her daughter didn’t want to answer them. After that, only the sounds of the cutlery scraping the dishes could be heard.
Allison felt like a stranger in her own home. If it wasn’t for Nicole’s hand resting comfortably on her thigh under the table, there would be nothing tethering her to what was happening around her. Nicole’s mother didn’t even look her in the eye and Anthony watched her every move as if he had a lot he wanted to tell her, but wasn’t sure how to voice all of his thoughts.
How do you cohabit with people that can’t even stand your presence?
Allison wasn’t ready to answer that question so, after helping Nicole settle back in bed and making sure she was comfortable, she retreated back to her office. Without the reporter there to act as a buffer and take her mind off of the fact that the other two people in the room had barely spoken more than a dozen words to her since earlier in the day, Allison just didn’t have the energy to go back to the living room and force her presence on her future in-laws that ignored her existence.
It was still her home, but she was the one in exile.
After a couple of hours of listening to a playlist she had made with songs that calmed her, Allison felt like she was ready to try and get some sleep. It wasn’t so late, but she hoped Anthony and Erica had already gone to the bedroom she had pointed out to them earlier in the night. She knew she would have to talk to them at some and straighten things out, but exhaustion was starting to take over and any serious could wait until the next morning.
The house was dark and silent. Allison walked with soft steps all the way to the kitchen and made sure the cabinet’s door didn’t slam when she closed it. She was almost turning around to go up the stairs to her room when she heard steps behind her. It wasn’t Nicole, because she would be able to recognize her footsteps at any moment. With that knowledge in mind, Allison drank the water she had poured to give herself a few seconds to breathe and compose herself before turning around.
“I would like to talk to you, Allison.” Anthony’s voice echoed in the empty room and Allison’s shoulders sagged a little. She would rather deal with him than with his wife. He was standing in the middle of the kitchen when she turned around and Allison noticed the shadows painting his face in fatigue and worry.
“Of course, Mr. Black. We can talk in the back porch.”
“I remember telling you once to call me Anthony, Allison.” She nodded and lowered her head to hide the small smile that threaten to stretch her lips.
The silence was heavy and uncomfortable around them as they walked together, each one lost in their own thoughts. Allison took the big couch on the balcony and a wave of nausea bubbled up her throat as she thought back to the last time she had sat on that same place with Nicole; how distraught her fiancée looked and how different things could’ve been if she hadn’t been so stubborn.
“Go ahead, Anthony. I’m all ears.” Allison wanted to feel bad at the cynicism she could hear dripping from her words, but she couldn’t. She was too tired to smile and be polite.
“Look, Allison, first of all, I would like to apologize for my wife’s behavior today. She--”
“Was just being a mom.” She completed for him. “I get that.”
“Yes, she was. But, she needs to understand that Nicole isn’t a little girl anymore. She’s a grown woman, capable of making her own decision.”
“And something tells me you two don’t agree with some of her decisions.”
“I’m not going to lie to you.” He leaned back on the chair he was sitting on and combed his fingers through her hair. “When she told us you were back together and that she was leaving San Francisco to move to New York and live with you, we thought she was making a mistake.” He spoke slowly, choosing every word carefully. “After the way you two ended things the first time, it’s understandable that we didn’t fully trust you.”
His words took them both back a decade, to the day Allison left their home with tears running down her cheek. She felt like a hole had been punched through her chest and she had nursed that pain for long and miserable months. At the time, she convinced herself that the end of their relationship hadn’t hurt Nicole the same way, but she knew better now. And she could understand why Nicole’s parents didn’t trust her.
“And we continued fearful even after she was here.” Anthony resumed speaking and Allison forced herself to swallow the bitter memories to hear the bitter words. “It seemed like she was diving, head first, into something that had hurt her immensely in the past.”
“Let me finish, Allison. Please.” His tone was clipped and choked. “But, then, you called us yesterday and I could hear it in your voice. How much you love her, how distraught you were, as if her suffering was your own. And I witnessed today how you look at her as if she is the only thing in the room and how she leans on you. The love you have for each other, it’s beautiful and it’s clear.”
Allison didn’t know what to say. Ever since joining Anthony and Erica at the table for dinner and realizing the size of the grudge they held, she knew she would need to have a serious talk with at least one of them. But she never imagined that conversation would take this path.
“And it’s because of the love I saw today that I’m willing to forget how much you made her suffer in the past. Nicole has forgiven you and you make her happy and that’s all that matters to me.”
“Thank you, Anthony. That mean a lot to me and I’m sure to Nic, too.”
“You don’t have to thank me, Allison.” The man got up and walked to the door that linked the balcony to the rest of the apartment. Before sliding it open, he turned around and looked at Allison one last time. “Just don’t hurt her again.”
Allison was rooted to the couch. The heavy feeling she had had on her eyelids before going down to the kitchen vanished in the aftermath of her conversation with Anthony. It sent her mind reeling back, trying to place her thoughts and her feelings back in order, but she didn’t know what order was anymore. It was a foreign concept after her very foundations had been shaken.
And she would have to relive it all the next day, when she and Nicole went to the police to give their statements. The detectives had wanted them to go in right after Nicole was discharged, but given the nature of the attack, their high-profile status and the fact that Jess wouldn’t be going anywhere, they agreed to give the couple another night. Thank god for small mercies, she thought.
Sleep took over her body all at once. One moment she was alert and retracing her steps the night before, to make sure she relayed to the police every single detail of what had happened, and on the other she was having a hard time keeping her eyes open. Allison’s head fell forward full force and the movement startled her awake.
There was a bed and a pillow and a woman she loved calling out to her, but Allison knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep at all if she didn’t check every lock and every window and every alarm in the house. The security men were still stationed outside downstairs and in the hallway and they had fully checked the house hours before, but she had to see for herself. She had to turn the handles and force the windows and peek outside the curtains at the shadows that lurked around. Even with the men guarding the place, Allison still felt like it was her job to keep Nicole safe. And she had already failed her once; she would not do it again.
Nicole slept peacefully when Allison entered the bedroom. She was lying on her side, clutching Allison’s pillow to her chest. The moonlight that invaded the room gave the singer just enough light to get changed without turning on the lamp on her side of the bed and disturbing Nicole’s slumber. She slid her body under the covers and pried away her pillow from Nicole’s grasp and replaced it with her body.
Before she finally succumbed, with the scent from her fiancée’s hair invading her lungs, Allison said a small, silent prayer. She hadn’t really done that in a while, but looking down at Nicole’s unharmed form curled around her body, Allison knew she had a lot to be thankful for.