Chapter 14 - Alex
“Aly, sugar, can you open your eyes for me?”
The familiar voice, while low and soothing, sent jackhammers of pain roaring to life in my skull. I groaned, lifting a hand to my aching head, but my arm was heavy and unwieldy. I let it drop back to my side.
“Is she coming around?” asked another voice, this one louder and unfamiliar. Feminine and chipper. It was more like a icepick than a jackhammer.
“I think so. Aly, can you hear me?” Fingers gripped my hand, squeezing hard, and something told me I needed to squeeze back. I tried, and heard a stifled sob. Something wet dripped on my arm. “Oh, sugar, it’s okay. I’m here. I’m here.”
Daddy? I tried to speak, but my tongue felt like sandpaper and my throat felt swollen and sore.
“Open your eyes for me, Aly,” said the female voice, closer now, and small, cool fingers brushed over my forehead. “If you open your eyes you can have some water.”
This lady knew how to make a deal. It hurt like hell, but I managed to peel open one gritty eye, then the other. The lights were dim, but I still flinched as shafts of pain seemed to shoot straight through my eyeballs and into my brain.
“Good girl,” Daddy said, and his face materialized above me, puffy and tear-streaked. His face was covered in stubble and dark shadows surrounded his eyes. Even so, he was smiling, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he leaned in close and pressed a kiss to my forehead. “You’re okay, Aly. I’m right here.”
Where is ‘here’?
Mr. Winger, why don’t you go get Aly some ice chips,” the stranger’s voice said, and I tipped my head toward her as my father left, with promises to return shortly. A young woman in a purple top with rainbow polka-dots stood on my right side. A stethoscope hung around her neck and there was a badge clipped to her pocket. A doctor? Nurse?
A rhythmic beeping I hadn’t noticed began to speed up as panic flashed through me. Why was I here? The last thing I remembered was… what was the last thing I remembered? School, maybe? Fighting with Nate in the hallway? Was I in a car accident or something?
“Easy, Aly,” the woman said, pressing a hand to my shoulder as I fought to rise. “You’re safe. You’re at St. Luke’s and you’re gonna be just fine. My name is Maria and I’ll be your nighttime nurse while you stay with us. Do you remember what happened?”
I shook my head minutely, aware that any greater movement would set off bells in my pounding head.
“That’s okay,” Maria said, smiling broadly. “You’ve got a pretty bad concussion so it’s normal to have some memory loss. It should come back.”
I wanted to ask her what the hell had happened, but my father came back, holding a paper cup and a plastic spoon. He settled into the chair next to me while the nurse fiddled with some machine by my bed. All I could do was lay there while my father spooned ice chips into my mouth. They melted on my tongue, soothing my throat, and I nearly moaned in pleasure.
“Not too many,” the nurse chided, patting my shoulder. “I’ll be right down the hall if you need me. Just press the call button,” she said to my father.
Daddy just kept feeding my ice chips, until I weakly pushed his hand away. Tears hovered in his eyes and he kept wiping them away before they fell, like that would somehow keep me from noticing.
“What happened?” I whispered, finally, not trusting my voice.
Daddy’s face crumpled, and he let his head drop forward onto his hands, which were wrapped around mine. My other arm was in a heavy plaster cast, propped up on pillows by my side.
“I’m so sorry, sugar,” he moaned, shaking his head without looking up. “I’m so sorry I let him hurt you.”
Alarm jolted through me. “Who hurt me?” I asked, but he was crying, his shoulders shaking. “Daddy, who hurt me?”
“Just rest now,” he said, raising his head and offering me a quavering smile. “We’ll talk when you wake up. Go to sleep, okay? I’ll be right here.”
I didn’t want to obey, but my eyelids were so heavy and every muscle in my body felt battered and bruised. Sleep sounded awfully appealing.
“Where’s Tom?” I mumbled, letting my eyes slip shut.
“He’s here,” Daddy said, letting go with one of his hands and brushing it gently over my hair. “He’s out in the hallway with the cops.”
The cops? I thought, but before I could muster a coherent query, the darkness swallowed me up.
* * *
The next time I woke, it was with one pressing, urgent thought--
Where is Nate?
My father was still by my side, slumped in an armchair by my bed. Tom was curled up on the hospital bed beside mine, the curtain between us pushed back. He was wearing his pyjama pants and a shirt that was on backwards. Now that I paid attention, Daddy was dressed in track pants and a ratty old t-shirt as well. They looked like they’d crawled right out of bed to come to my side.
But where the hell was Nate?
My memory was spotty, but the important bits were, to my relief, all there. I remembered what we did at the spot. I remembered the walk back. I remembered insisting that I climb through the window. I remembered falling.
Then nothing. Not even a flicker to clue me in as to what had happened after I hit the ground.
My arm was broken. I knew that much by the heavy cast that encased it from elbow to wrist. My head pounded with my heartbeat, and I felt sharp pain and scratchy tape on my temple. Reaching up with my good hand, I probed the area and felt a thick gauze bandage. There was an oxygen tube blowing a trickle of cool air into my nose, an IV in my wrist, and a handful of wires protruding from the neck of my hospital gown.
I gathered that I was in rough shape. I gathered that I’d scared the hell out of my father and brother.
But where the hell was Nate?
He’d been there when I fell. Had he run off and left me bleeding? No. I knew with absolute certainty that he wouldn’t do that. Had he summoned help and then taken off before it had arrived? Maybe, but still unlikely.
He should be by my side. I wanted him by my side, no matter the hell it would raise with my father. Surely Nate would have understood that. Maybe he was just out in the waiting room because they wouldn’t let him in.
“Daddy?” I tried, but my voice came out harsh with disuse. Wincing, I cleared my throat and tried again. “Daddy?”
My father jerked awake, blinking sleep out of his eyes and looking around in bewilderment. When his gaze met mine he shot out of his chair and sank onto the edge of my bed.
“Aly, how are you feeling?” he asked, gripping my hand.
“I’m okay, Daddy. Where is--”
“You must be thirsty,” he cut me off, reaching for a plastic cup on the table by my head. It had a straw in it, and he held the straw to my lips. I took three large gulps, grateful for something more than ice chips. When I’d slaked my thirst, I pulled my head away and he set the cup back on the table.
“Daddy, where is Nate?” I asked, frowning when his face sagged, fresh tears standing in his eyes.
“He’s nowhere near here, sweetheart. He can’t hurt you, anymore. I promise you, you’re safe.” His hand stroked my face, but I jerked away, confused.
“What? He didn’t hurt me!” I exclaimed, astonished. I was so loud in my conviction that Tom sniffed and shifted in his sleep, rolling away from us.
“Oh, sugar, you don’t remember,” my father said, gripping my fingers so hard it almost hurt. “But he won’t hurt you again.” There was steel in his voice, which I hadn’t heard in years. In other circumstances, I’d have been thrilled at the life and conviction where I was concerned. I didn’t have time for gratitude, though.
“Daddy, he didn’t hurt me,” I repeated, more firmly. “I fell out of a tree, that’s all. Where is he?”
“The police have him,” my father said, sitting back and frowning down at me. “Sugar, you don’t remember? The doctors say… they say he…. he…” His faced collapsed once more as he fell into shuddering sobs, unable to get the words out. Realization coursed through me, and I tried to sit up before pain sent me back to the pillows.
“No,” I breathed through the pain. “He didn’t. He didn’t, Daddy. That was consensual. I’m so sorry. I know you’re angry, but it was consensual. We…” I trailed off, trying to gather my thoughts. I cast around for a way to explain everything to him without hurting him, but all I could come up with was the truth. I took a deep breath and fell into our story, from the beginning.
By the time I finished, my father had moved back to his armchair and was sitting on the edge of it, hands clasped in front of him, staring at the white tile floor. His brow was furrowed, the only sign of movement his right thumb, which tapped a rhythmic beat on his left. He breathed deep and steady through his nose, absorbing my story.
I’d left out the gritty details, of course, but over the course of ten minutes he came to learn everything I’d been trying for so long to keep from him. He knew about my midnight adventures. He knew about my long-standing secret friendship with Nate. He knew that we’d kissed, and knew that Nate had been in my room every night after mom died. He knew about my depression over the last few months, and he knew that I had asked Nate for sex last night, and that he’d given it to me.
Shame I didn’t expect began to creep over me as I finished my story. I’d told myself I no longer cared about my father’s opinion, but that was before I awoke to find him shattered and distraught at my bedside. I didn’t regret my actions, but it worried me that he would be disappointed with my wanton sexuality.
“Daddy?” I asked, when my story drew to its conclusion and he didn’t respond, still staring in silence at the floor. “Daddy, I’m sorry if you’re mad. I’m sorry I let you down.”
“Stop,” he said firmly, looking up at me, but there wasn’t anger in his eyes. In fact, if I didn’t know better I’d say I saw a smile lurking in the tired, glassy blue eyes that were so much like mine.
I snapped my mouth shut, waiting for his judgment.
“So he didn’t…” he trailed off, pulling a deep breath and gathering himself. “He didn’t force himself on you.”
“No,” I said.
“He didn’t hurt you.”
“He’d never hurt me.”
“You fell out of the tree.”
“If you go home and look, you’ll see where the branch is broken by my window.”
He drew a deep, shuddering breath and let it out before standing, brushing his palms against legs as if to wipe sweat away.
“Never lie to me again, Alexandra,” he said firmly.
I waited for more, but that was all he said. I nodded. “I won’t. I promise.”
“Use the front door from now on. I’d rather you break curfew than break your neck.”
“You’re not mad?” I asked, confused by the notable absence of fire and brimstone.
“I’m furious,” my father said, sinking onto the edge of my bed and wrapping a hand around my shoulder, leaning close. “I’m furious with you, Alexandra. But I just spent the last twenty four hours thinking my baby girl was raped and beaten. I would prefer ten thousand secret boyfriends and premarital sexual encounters to that. Tell me you understand that.”
I blinked unbidden tears from my vision and nodded silently. He bent forward and pressed a kiss to my forehead. “I’m going to go talk to the police officers. I need to get your young man out of jail so I can give him the ‘wrath of God, hurt her and I’ll kill you’ speech,” he said, pushing to his feet.
Warmth flooded through me as I nodded against the pillow. He squeezed my fingers, smiling down at me, and then left me alone with my sleeping brother.
Everything was going to be okay.
* * *
I didn’t see Nate for four days. I gave the police my statement from my hospital bed, using every opportunity to emphasize his innocence. After they left, I waited all day for him to show up. Surely he would come to visit me as soon as he was released from custody.
He didn’t, though. He didn’t show up that day, he didn’t sneak in that night, and the next morning when my father signed me out of the hospital I still hadn’t seen him.
Daddy and Tom doted on me endlessly when we got home. I was situated on the living room couch, surrounded by pillows I didn’t need and covered with blankets that made no sense considering the season. They fed me an endless supply of medicine and food, and Tom insisted that I choose the channel on the TV even though all I did was sleep.
By day three of being coddled, I was losing my mind. I felt good, except for a lingering headache and a persistent but low-grade pain in my arm. I saw no reason to remain chained to the couch, and the role-reversal with the men in my family was starting to drive me insane.
With nothing to do all day, my mind wandered to things I’d rather not think about. I wondered what the rumor mill had come up with to explain my absence. How would people look at me when I showed back up? Gemma had brought me my books and homework, but she clammed up when I asked her what people were saying.
Mostly, though, I worried about Nate and fretted over his continued absence. As the days wore on, I convinced myself that my initial assessment had been right. All he’d wanted was sex and now that he had it, he had no time for or interest in me.
Then, on the evening of the fourth day, the doorbell rang. I rose to get it, but my father beat me to it, glaring at me as he passed by the living room.
“Stay still, Alexandra,” he scolded. “You’re supposed to be taking it easy.”
I sat back, frustrated, only to shoot up again, heart in my throat, when I heard Nate’s familiar voice from the doorway.
A few seconds later, my father escorted him into the living room. “I’ll be in the kitchen,” he said pointedly, giving Nate a pointed look before walking away. I rolled my eyes, but Nate just smiled.
“Hey, angel,” he said, closing the distance between us and sinking onto the couch by my hip. Before I could speak, he leaned forward, wrapping his arms around me and planting a firm, possessive kiss on my lips. When he pulled back, his hands lingered, one cradling the side of my face, the other curved around my side. His fingers brushed the edges of the horrific bruise on my temple. It had turned a mottled purple-green color with a row of heavy black stitches marching up the center toward my hairline. Nate grimaced. “You look like shit.”
“So do you,” I said honestly. He looked like he’d gone and goaded a grizzly bear into a fist fight since the last time I saw him. “Where were you?”
He sighed and shook his head. “The cops released me to my foster dad, and he kept a pretty close eye on me for a few days. Wouldn’t even let me at a phone.”
“Why?” I asked, confused. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
He looked down and took my hand, brushing his thumb over my knuckles, refusing to meet my eye. “He’s not real pleased I got arrested,” he said, lifting a shoulder nonchalantly. “Doesn’t really matter that it was a misunderstanding. Plus the cops told him what I told them, and he’s real pissed I’ve been sneaking out every night.” He laughed, but there wasn’t a lot of humor in it. “But that’s boring,” he said, brightening his tone and looking up, offering me a worried smile. “How are you, really? Don’t lie.”
“Bored,” I said with a sigh. “I’m chained to this stupid couch.” I lowered my voice so it wouldn’t drift to the kitchen. “My dad is driving me crazy,” I whispered.
“Well, you’re supposed to be taking easy, right?” Nate asked, squeezing my fingers. “So he’s right to hover.”
“You’re teaming up on me,” I said with a groan, dropping my head back against the pillows and closing my eyes. “It’s a conspiracy.”
Nate laughed. “So when do you bust out of here? It’s gotta be killing you to miss so much school.”
At that, a ball of dread dropped into stomach and I sank back against the pillows, shaking my head.
“I don’t really want to go back,” I said, voicing worries that had been building up for the last few days, turning to a thick stew of apprehension. “The rumor mill must be having a field day with this.”
“Yeah,” Nate sighed, and my nerves tripled in volume, twanging away like an off-tune symphony. When he met my eyes, his were full of worry and regret. “Everyone knows about us now, Al. It’s my fucking fault, too, I’m so sorry.”
I frowned, confused. “How is it your fault?” I asked, nonplussed. “I’m the one who fell out of the stupid tree.”
He scrubbed a hand over his face and shook his head, looking up at the ceiling. “I kinda freaked out,” he said, lowering his gaze back to mine, his eyes pained. “When the cops took me, I panicked and told them the truth instead of just keeping my fucking mouth shut. They told Tim-- that’s my foster dad-- they told him everything and he came home ranting and raving about it. Deb heard and she told her friends and now everyone fucking knows.”
My brain took a second to process his words and their implication.
Everyone knew. Everyone knew. Everyone knew that dumbass Aly Winger had put out in the middle of the night in the middle of the woods and fallen out of a goddamn tree like some kind of demented sloth. I covered my eyes with my good hand, trying not to cry.
How could I ever go back? I’d be the butt of every joke. The topic of every gossip circle. I didn’t know what was worse-- imaging what the girls would say about me, or imaging what the guys would say. Suddenly the thought of staying on the couch for all eternity like my father clearly intended didn’t sound so bad at all.
“Al,” Nate said hesitantly, his voice an unwelcome lifeline, pulling me back to a reality I wanted no part in. “Al, c’mon, it’ll be okay.”
“How?” I moaned, looking up at him and trying like hell not to cry.
He frowned, his eyes pained, but the set of his jaw and the tone of his voice were pure determination. “We’ll fix it,” he said, nodding as if to affirm his own words. “They’ll be obsessed with the story for a couple days, but they’ll lose interest. We can publicly break up if you want. You can even slap me or something, but it’s gotta be with the good arm. If you hit me with the cast you might knock me out.”
He smiled at his own joke, but I scowled, suddenly furious.
“Are you serious?” I hissed, shoving at him. “You think that’s what I’m worried about?”
He frowned. “Isn’t it?”
“No!” I said, so loud I heard the sink turn off in the kitchen and knew my father was listening in. I lowered my voice to a fierce whisper. “No!” I repeated, glaring at him. “I don’t care if they know I’m seeing you. I care that they know we had sex in the middle of the woods, Nate! The girls are all gonna think I’m some kind of whore, and the guys... “ I shuddered, imagining what nasty things the guys would think and say.”
One of the reasons I hate-- and love-- Nate so much is that he never reacts the right way. When I expect him to laugh, he gets serious. When I expect him to be sad, he makes jokes. When I expect anger I get sweet words, and when I expect sweet words, I get kissed and caressed until my blood turns to liquid fire.
That day, I expected somber commiseration with the unfortunate state of my tattered reputation. Instead, I got a bright smile that made his eyes dance.
“Alex,” he said, trying to smother his smile in serious words and failing miserably. “This is like the bullies, remember? Fuck ’em. The girls who spend their time making up shit about other girls aren’t worth your time. And any guy who opens his mouth about you is gonna wake up in the ER, preferably with no memory of how he got there. And none of that even really matters, because nobody knows what we were doing. They just know we were together. Beyond that, they’ll think what we want ’em to think.”
From anyone else, the words would’ve been trite and worthless. Nate, though? He never lied to me. He never blew smoke up my ass. If Nate looked me in the eye and told me aliens had invaded earth I’d have packed up my bags and done whatever he said it woudl take to survive. Relief spread through me, making me sleepy, and I relaxed against the pillows, drowsy-eyed and smiling.
“You need rest,” Nate said, leaning forward and brushing a chaste kiss over my cheek.
“Can you stay?” I asked. I sounded like a little kid-- whiny and needy-- but he just smiled sadly and shook his head, pushing to his feet.
“Nah, I gotta head out. I’m not even supposed to be here, now. What day do you go back to school?”
“Next Monday,” I told him, a shadow of lingering dread creeping up from my gut.
“Okay,” he answered, smiling down at me. “I’ll be here on Monday morning to pick you up. We’ll show up together. You gotta lean into your scandalous new reputation as a girl with a boyfriend.” The grin he flashed at me melted my dread to a puddle of warm gooiness that oozed out from my chest into my limbs. Then the grin turned to a smirk, cocky and self-assured. “Plus I’m pretty hyped to show up with you on my arm. I dunno if you know this, angel, but you’re kinda out of my league.”
I rolled my eyes at that, trying to hide the fact that I wanted to drag him down onto the couch with me. My father probably wouldn’t approve of that, though.
“I’ll see you on Monday,” I said, trying to hide my grin.
“Love you, Al,” Nate said, stooping to give me one more kiss. It was barely more than a peck, but it left my lips tingling, yearning for more.
“Love you, too,” I whispered, watching him leave.
Daddy came in a few minutes later, handing me a bowl of soup and sinking into the armchair beside me. He stared thoughtfully at the entryway while I ate.
“You know I’d prefer you were single,” he said, giving me a stern look that didn’t reach his eyes.
“I know,” I said, swallowing a spoonful of soup and smiling.
“You know I’ll kill him if he hurts you,” he threatened emptily. “I don’t care if it’s a sin. I’ll string him up and cut his heart out, sugar.”
“I know,” I laughed, following his gaze to the entryway. “I think he’d let you.”