I woke up around noon, which was strange for me, even on a weekend. I spent a lazy second dismissing it as a fluke. Then I sat up and stretched and the whole of last night flooded my brain along with the sickening pain brought along with the movement. Oh, yeah.
More carefully now, I pulled myself out of bed, pausing to look around at my room. The weak winter sun poured in through my window, creating a happy picture that was totally unaffected by what had happened to me. How strange to think that it would have looked exactly the same whether I had been here to see it or not. I let out an aggravated sigh that was as much frustration as exasperation. I felt like I’d indulged enough in thoughts like that already; I just wanted to let it go. Still, I knew they’d be cropping up unbidden for at least the next couple of days, so I would have to get used to it.
I left my room and padded down to the bathroom. I could hear voices floating up from downstairs—Eve’s and my Dad’s murmuring together in a sound that was not exactly comfortable. In the bathroom, I stood in front of the mirror and grimaced meanly at my reflection. I was a mess. I shouldn’t have expected much better, but it still really irked my sense of vanity to see my face drawn and dark, exponentially worse than typical after-party damage. I forced myself to take a good look at my new friend The Bruise. As predicted, it had begun its journey through a rainbow of colors on its way to healing. Mentally, I scanned my wardrobe, looking for shirts with collars high enough to hide it. There weren’t many options.
I went downstairs only after I had rid my face of any traces of the haggard appearance I’d seen in the mirror, pulled my hair into a braid over my shoulder, and donned a turtleneck sweater. People were going to think that I was hiding a monstrous hickey, but even that was better than having the truth get around.
I came to the last step, took a breath, and turned into the living room, dreading the explanations my father would no doubt demand. But when I came in, he only gave me a long, concentrated look that swept me from head to foot. He was dying to get up, to run over and use his sense of touch to confirm my existence; I could tell by the too-controlled posture of his body. He didn’t move though, and I was glad to be spared the outpouring of emotion that must have occurred when Mom had told him. I sent another mental thank you her way for sparing me trauma.
“There’s coffee in the kitchen,” was all Dad said.
“Thanks,” I replied, for his restraint more than anything.
Before I left, I looked inquiringly at Eve. She gave me an embarrassed smile that was tempered by a deep expression of sadness. I turned around and scowled. Tyler had better hope that fallout from the accident overshadowed him in my thoughts for a little while. I was still a little bit afraid of what I might do to him.
The coffee in the pot was hot. It was noon, but it wasn’t leftover from the morning hours. Dad had made it just for me. I smiled and decided that no matter how much I disliked the idea, I owed Dad some time. Maybe after Eve left, I would let him purge his worry the way Mom had last night. For now though, I came back into the living room and sat down in front of the couch on our low coffee table instead of next to either of them.
Eye to eye, Eve looked no better. “How do you feel?” I asked her, referring as much to the post-drinking headache she must have as to her fractured heart.
She shrugged noncommittally and said, “Not so good,” but she wouldn’t give me any more details. I noticed that she was holding on to our house phone and wondered with suspicion who she’d been trying to call.
I didn’t want to shoo him off, but I gave my dad an imploring look. Eve would never talk to me the way we needed to with him in the room.
The subtle glance was all it took. He stood up immediately, if a little reluctantly. “I’ll let you two talk,” he said.
As he passed me, he squeezed my arm. The gesture was a little desperate and I gave him a soothing smile in return.
I waited until he was a fair distance away and then said to Eve, “Please do not tell me you were trying to call him. I really don’t think I could restrain myself if I had to see you next to him again.”
She grinned, not her usual bright one, but still one that said she thought I was joking.
“I thought about it,” she admitted.
I groaned loudly, pointedly. How many more times could I repeat my speech about how destructive this relationship was? Probably not very many without my head blowing up in frustration.
“Don’t worry,” Eve said with a regretful sigh. “I didn’t. I won’t. He’s never going to change. Time to move on.”
With a smile that felt good because it was so genuine, I set my cup down and moved to the couch to hug her. “There you go. Just remember that and you’ll be happier.”
She gave me a dubious look.
“In the long run," I insisted.
“Yeah, well, in the short run I have a lot of baggage to take care of. Starting with the real reason I grabbed the phone. My parents.”
I winced sympathetically. I loved Eve’s parents as much as she loved mine, but we both knew how strict they could be. Once news of the accident reached them, it would only be more proof of what they already considered Eve’s too-wild antics. Add the actual crash to the party and the drinking and she could be in real trouble.
“Are you going to tell them?”
Eve shrugged, going for nonchalance but falling way short. “Too late. They got a call saying that my car was towed and impounded. I was listening to the message they sent when my phone died.”
Eve nodded, resigned to her fate.
“How much are you going to tell them?” I should have started with that question; it was the more relevant one. The details of the crash couldn’t be avoided, but everything that led up to it could easily fall into the what-my-parents-don’t-know-can’t-hurt-them category.
Eve looked at me with remarkable clarity. It was the first time I’d seen her really all there since yesterday afternoon. “Everything.”
“Eve…” I began with trepidation.
“I don’t want them to blame you just because you were driving. It was all my fault in the first place. If I hadn’t been moping around pining after Tyler, you never would have had to come in and rescue me.”
“It wasn’t like that,” I said, a little uncomfortable with this vein of conversation. “You would have done the same.”
"You never would have let some boy trample all over you. You would have pushed him down the stairs.”
“I almost did.”
And suddenly we were laughing, pressed against each other in a fit of giggles like midnight at a slumber party. It was the best thing I could possibly think of right now. We deserved a good, restoring laugh.
“You’ll be all right,” I said when we’d calmed down and were wiping at our eyes.
“I know. Eventually. Besides, if I play up the betrayed maiden angle, I could rack up some sympathy points.”
But when the phone rang in her hands, she didn’t look so sure anymore.
I reached a hand out. “Let me, Eve. They can’t blame either of us for some moron texting on the road.”
“Good line,” she said with forced humor. “I’ll be sure to use it.” Then she pushed “Talk” and put the phone to her ear. “Hello?...Hi, Mom…Yes, I got your message.”
Through the receiver I could vaguely hear Mrs. Davis, just enough to catch her tone but not the actual words. She sounded overly patient, waiting to hear Eve out before she jumped prematurely down her throat. I heard too, a quiet knock on the front door. I ignored it and kept my eyes on Eve, offering her support in the only way she’d let me.
“After the party last night we got into an accident…Yes, we’re both fine, don’t worry.”
“Alli?” My father’s voice, calling me from the vicinity of the door.
“Just a minute,” I called back.
Mrs. Davis’s voice was softer now. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad for Eve. After all, generic worry about what could happen whenever Eve stayed out late was a much different emotion than the response to something actually happening. Eve would be okay. I might even get to see her before graduation if she got out of her punishment for good behavior.
“What happened?” Eve looked at me and in the space before her usual coy grin took over, I wondered how much she actually remembered. Lucky girl. “Some moron was texting.”
I grinned back.
“Alli,” my Dad again, “it’s Chris.”
“Okay.” I looked questioningly at Eve. She gave me an encouraging look and made a shooing gesture with her hand.
She covered the mouth piece and whispered, “Go ahead, get out of here. This is going to take a while.”
She nodded emphatically.
“Okay. I won’t take long.”
The nod segued into a head shake in the flawless imitation of a bobble head. “Don’t worry about me. Go have some fun. You’ve earned it.”
I left her talking on the couch and made my way to the front door. When I got there, I had to roll my eyes. No wonder my father had been in a hurry for me to come over. He was leaning fully against the door frame, effectively barring Chris from the house. The posture was not nearly as casual as I’m sure he imagined it to be.
“All right, I’m here,” I said by way of announcement. Dad got the hint and let Chris squeeze into the entryway before leaving us alone.
“Hey,” I said with a heart-felt smile. It was good to see Chris. It had really only been half a day since I had seen him, but enough had happened to make it feel like a long time. Chris very distinctly represented my normal life and I was glad to get back to it. “I thought your parents had you under lock and key?”
“They do. But as soon as I told them about you, they set me loose.”
“What about me?” I asked warily. Already I could feel my sense of normal slipping away.
“You know. The accident.”
A sound escaped me that was undeniably a whine. “How did you find out about that so fast?”
Chris’s usually charming smile now had a teasing edge to it. “Some guys I know went by when they were cleaning up and recognized Eve’s car.”
The illogic of this struck me hard, but since when had high school rumors ever been logical? “How did they know it was hers? And why did they go to you? It’s not my car, who said I was in it?”
“No idea,” he said, and now his smirk was way past teasing as he thoroughly enjoyed the joke. “But there are some wild stories going around.”
I didn’t ask. I did not want to know. So much for keeping things quiet.
Chris sensed my mood and his smile faded. “Anyway. You doing okay?”
“I’m fine,” I answered stiffly. I got the feeling this was only the first time I would have to answer that question.
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence while I stewed. Then I loudly cleared my throat. When I spoke, I was able to recapture my original cheerful tone.
“You want to go for a walk?”
We went outside hand in hand, the sunlight warm on my face. In spite of everything, it was beginning to look like a good day and I was determined to press forward. I’d never let anything drag me down before and I wasn’t going to let it happen now, no matter what kinds of thoughts this incident was intent on dredging up. So I got Chris talking, first about school and casual things, then about potential plans for tonight. Chris and I had met during one of a thousand school-related activities earlier this year. I'd liked him for his happy smile and easy personality. He took things in stride, and I hoped some of that would rub off on me. It must have worked at least a little because right now I was happy to simply be a girl with a boyfriend, casual and familiar. Eventually Chris’s hand moved away from mine and slithered around my waist instead. It was a comfortable moment, blissfully free from fear or any kind of responsibility.
Then we rounded a corner and I saw him.
It shouldn’t have been a big deal, just some guy hanging out across the street behind some trees. It was creepy maybe, and adequate cause to move a little faster, but only because it was a weird place to be spending time.
What I was feeling at the sight of him wasn’t the result of mere weirdness.
This scared me.
I was aware that I had stopped and was staring, but I didn’t care. To be honest, I probably would have stared even if his presence hadn’t made me feel so disturbed. He was so different from any one else I’d ever seen in real life. His body was long-- not extraordinarily tall, but still the type that could be classified as skinny, even though the tone of his muscles suggested athleticism. Nothing so hulking as a football player, more like a streamlined gymnast. Even as I watched, I saw him rise up and down on his toes, pushing upwards like his body was desperate to be on the move. Still, not even that could hold my eyes away from his face. It was like staring through a screen at an actor from some black-and-white movie. The distinct lines of his cheek bones, the broad plane of his forehead, the soft set of his mouth all spoke of something classic, a look that you just didn’t see anymore. Add to this his dark clothing on top of pale skin and shining eyes and the illusion was complete.
But his good looks, unique as they were, could not take my mind off of one unsettling thought. His presence filled me with dread in a way that not even last night’s close call had managed. It was a feeling that multiplied when I realized that the reason I could see the steel in his eyes was because he was staring back at me.
More upset than I wanted to admit, I wound my arm around Chris and squeezed hard. He had stopped with me, unquestioningly.
“Do you see that?” I asked him without taking my eyes off of the stranger. I hated that I needed to ask, but my sanity demanded it.
“Yeah, I see it,” he said in a comfortingly hostile tone. I began to relax, but when I looked into Chris’s face, I saw that his eyes were fixed in a totally different direction.
Dismayed, but curious, I followed his gaze. In front of us, on the same side of the street as the stranger but several houses down, a group of guys had quit their street basketball game and were staring at us—at me—in a way that could only be considered lewd. I wanted to scowl, would have at any other moment of my life. Now though I was only too happy for their presence, glad to have something so mundane to worry about.
Letting myself turn away from my dark apparition, I said: “Don’t worry, Chris, they won’t tempt me away.” I used a teasing tone that didn’t make me feel much better or allow me to ignore the shadowy spot of a person that I could still see in my peripheral vision.
“I trust you,” Chris said, his grip becoming tighter, more possessive. “But still…” I felt his hand around me shift into a fist. It was a manifestation of the same protective attitude that I could have used against the other driver last night. The jealousy though, I could do without.
“Stop,” I commanded.
Chris looked at me and some of the anger that had been building faded away.
“It’s no big deal.” I rose up and kissed him just below the ear, a place intimate enough that no two casual people would share it; there wouldn’t be a question in the group’s mind that we belonged to each other.
“Yeah,” Chris said on a deflated breath. “Not worth it. You’re right.”
“Always am,” I said with a playful wink.
I locked my arm around him and began to lead him away. I kept him looking straight ahead, which was better for everyone’s temper but not for my nerves. Keeping us moving forward meant that I missed my chance at using Chris to confirm what I’d seen. Was the stranger, out of place as he was, really there? Or was this just my mind playing tricks again? Uninvited, an image came to me, a perfect melding of last night’s silver light onto the back of this person so that they fit seamlessly like wings. Crazy. I looked back once more all the same. He was gone.
The thought that had been prevalent in my mind since my upsetting dream flashed again like red neon in my head, a warning: It’s getting worse.