Chapter 18 - Alex
The day things started to end was appropriately dreary. I woke up to rain falling hard on the roof above me and, although it was well past sunrise, heavy clouds blotted out the sun giving the impression of evening.
Despite the weather, I woke up chipper and cheerful. It was Monday, and I hadn’t seen or heard from Nate since our date on Friday. I missed him. Where, to other kids, Monday meant the first day of the slogging school week, to me it meant something different. It meant the first of five days of guaranteed facetime with the guy I loved. Our Friday date had been a rare exception to the rule. Nate worked so many hours, we didn’t get afternoons together, and evenings were even worse. His foster parents were way too strict, and he had to wait until after they fell asleep to sneak out.
My father was sitting at kitchen table when I came downstairs.
“Morning, sugar,” he greeted, lifting his coffee cup in greeting without looking up from his book.
“Morning, Daddy,” I answered, pulling a travel mug from the shelf and mixing my own coffee. I took my coffee with a gallon of creamer and eight metric tons of sugar mixed in.
My father and I had reached a tentative agreement. Loathe as I was to admit it, whatever Nate had said seemed to have worked. I was still on thin ice, but the lectures had stopped and my father had started mentioning tickets to my orientation over the summer and plans for a road trip to drive me out at the start of the school year.
Of course, he never said he was proud of his daughter for gaining admission to one of the most prestigious universities in the country. I couldn’t hold that against him, though. It was my dream, not his. I was just grateful he was letting me live it.
I barely had time to shove a piece of toast into my mouth before I heard Nate’s truck rumble up outside. He honked twice and I kissed my father on the cheek before pulling on a rain coat and dashing through the rain to Nate’s truck.
I had my head down against the downpour, and I didn’t look up until I pulled the car door open.
I froze. Rain pounded against the hood of my jacket. My right hand was wrapped around the edge of the door, and droplets trickled down my hand into the sleeve. Nate sat behind the wheel, jaw clenched, right hand wrapped tight around the gear shift. Next to him, arms crossed and glaring at me...
She looked different. Usually she dressed to impress. Or, rather, she dressed to depress anyone who liked to think that women were something more than sexual objects. Today, though, she wore jeans instead of her usual short skirt, and her hair was dull brown and pulled into a sloppy ponytail. There wasn’t a trace of make-up on her face, and I could see dark shadows beneath her eyes.
Call me self-centered, because I was, but I hardly even took the time to notice that she was clearly going through something that had her shedding her trademark air of sexual confidence. My brain went straight to the absence of her usual leather jacket-- two sizes too small so that, when zipped, it pushed her boobs up toward her chin. My attention focused on what she wore instead-- a sweatshirt that was three sizes too big, swallowing her frail frame.
There was a rip in the sleeve of that sweatshirt, from where it had caught on a branch while Nate had chased me through the woods. There was a stain near the hem from where Tom had spilled hot chocolate on him during the big snow storm. It was his. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s only one girl a teenage boy should give his sweatshirt to.
“Deb, scoot over,” Nate growled, still not looking at me. “Let her in.”
Shooting me one last glare, Deb shifted over the bench until she sat flush against Nate’s side. The sight sent a stab of pain shooting through my chest, and I lowered my gaze as I climbed into the truck, pulling the door shut behind me.
The ride was painfully silent, and my thoughts expanded and multiplied in the vacuum until I was halfway to tears with despair. Nate was cheating on me. He’d got what he wanted from me and now he was going to dump me. He’d loved Deb all along. I was just a distraction. As we pulled into the parking lot, I forced myself to calm down. All I had to go on was Deb’s presence and her strange attire. I needed to give Nate a chance to explain.
Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to want to give himself a chance to explain.
“You go ahead, Al,” he said as he put the car in park. “I’m gonna walk Deb to her first period.”
Walk Deb to class? Are you fucking kidding me?
“Sure,” I said, the pain my chest so powerful I could hardly breathe. I shoved the door open and went to hop out, but Nate’s voice stopped me.
“I’ll see you in English,” he said unnecessarily. It wasn’t the words that held me up, but the tone. He sounded almost desperate, and I heard the unspoken plea in the undercurrents. Please don’t be mad. I’ll explain.
“Sure,” I said, unable to keep the residual bite of hurt from my voice as I slid out of the car.
First period was AP European History. I don’t remember a word the teacher said. Every time I tried to tune in, I got distracted by the memory of Deb’s fierce glare and the way she tucked Nate’s sweatshirt around her, huddling closer to him while he drove.
Second period was AP Chem. I couldn’t really afford to miss a word of that lecture, but I did. I spent that class wondering exactly what had happened between his departure on Friday night and his arrival that morning. I’d never felt closer to him than I had on Friday. He’d brought me to a high I’d never imagined, then held me close as I floated back to earth. We’d slept together, our minds mingling as we dreamed. It had felt like the first stone in a path to forever.
My entire weekend had been a series of daydreams, imagining what the future held. What had his weekend been like? Had he taken Deb out to that exact same spot and shown her that exact same future? Had he held her as she slept? Had he wrapped his sweatshirt around her shoulders when she began to shiver in the cool night air? Did he make her feel as loved as he made me feel? Was that why she’d abandoned the too-short skirts and the pointless shirts and the caked-on make up? Because he made her realize she didn’t need it?
Tears blurred my vision, and I blinked them back, forcing myself to concentrate on the board as the chemistry teacher scrawled out equations.
I was halfway insane by the time third period English finally rolled around. Nate and I didn’t sit together. He insisted on the back of the classroom and I always sat at the front. Sitting with him would have been pointless, anyway. He always slept in Mrs. Parker’s class. Shamelessly, too.
That day, he didn’t even look at me as he entered the classroom. He kept his head down as he walked by me, and I forced myself to look straight ahead. Even so, I followed him with ears, listening as he slumped into his seat with a sigh. Anxiety made my stomach turn, and my heart hurt like someone was squeezing it in a fist.
At the end of english class, I let myself get my hopes up again. Nate ate lunch with me and my friends. Always. Every day since we’d come out to the school with our relationship. But when the bell rang, he swept past me before I’d even zipped my backpack. When I reached the cafeteria my reluctant eyes found him in the corner, sitting with his old crew.
It would have been bad enough if he’d been laughing and joking with his friends. Instead, he sat in the corner with Deb and they ate in relative silence. As I watched, Deb picked up a piece of pizza, then dropped it back onto her tray. She said something, her face crumpling, and Nate wrapped an arm around her, pulling her to his side. He lowered his face, but I could tell he was speaking by the way she nodded occasionally, tucking herself further into his body.
“What in the actual fuck is going on with lover-boy?” Gemma asked, appearing by my elbow. I realized with shock that I was standing in the middle of the cafeteria, staring. That, and half the cafeteria was watching me, eyes wide, expecting a reaction.
“I don’t know,” I said, tearing my gaze away from Nate and leading the way to our usual table. I purposefully sat with my back to Nate. If the school wanted a show from me they’d be waiting a long time.
“Seriously, Aly, what gives?” Gemma asked, sitting across from me and glaring over my shoulder. “You two are all lovey-dovey one day and the next he’s making googly eyes at the sister, which… I know they’re not really related but… ew.” She made a face that would’ve had me laughing in different circumstances.
“I don’t know,” I said again. “I haven’t seen him since Friday. I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Ohhh, you had your date, right?” Gemma said excitedly. Then she lowered her voice. “Is that what happened? Did he want you to put out?”
Even Gemma didn’t know I wasn’t still a virgin. I’d oscillated a lot about wanting to tell her. Now I was glad I hadn’t. If this really was the beginning of the end, I was glad nobody knew how much of myself I had given to the jackass. Nobody except my father and the jackass himself.
“Just leave it alone,” I sighed, shaking my head and pulling my lunch out my bag. Since October, I’d made two lunches every day. One for me, one for Nate. His sat in the bottom of my bag, and I resolved to throw it out on the walk home from school. Walk because there was no way in hell I was going to endure another ten minute ride, stewing in the silence and the significance of Deb’s presence.
“Fine,” Gemma said. “But if you need me to beat him up, I will.” She flashed me a grin and I tried like hell to return it. “I have it on good authority that he doesn’t hit girls, so I’m pretty sure I could ge a few good shots in.”
“If anyone hits him, it’ll be me,” I said, but my words took me back to the fight we’d had back in March. I’d been so angry, but the fight had drained out of me at the panicked gleam in his eye. I’d been reaching out to take his hand, and he’d reacted like he thought I was going to snap his neck. It blew my mind that he thought I’d actually hit him, and the look on his face when I promised I never would had ripped my heart in two. Disbelief. Polite, restrained, unspoken incredulity.
No, I’d never hit him. Even if he really had cheated on me. Even if he did dump me for Deb. I couldn’t prove him right. Not on that count.
* * *
At the end of lunch, I bid farewell to Gemma and made my way to the library for my study hall. Unlike English class and lunchtime, I didn’t let myself get my hopes up. I resigned myself to an hour of lonely studying and silence.
My heart lurched when movement caught my eye and I looked up to see Nate walking toward me. Swallowing the lump of emotion that had formed in my throat, I lowered my face back to my book. Let him believe I didn’t care.
I didn’t look up when he reached the table. Or when he sat down. He didn’t pull out any books, and I knew he was watching me, waiting for me to explode on him.
“Don’t you have homework to do?” I asked icily, looking up from my book.
Again, my heart lurched. I hadn’t gotten a good look at him all day, and what I was finally seeing had the soft, loving part of me clamoring for supremacy over the strong, vindictive part.
He looked like shit. I don’t know if it’s possible to lose weight over the course of two days, but he looked thinner. Rendered down to muscle and bone, the hard lines of his face harsher and more pronounced than usual. His eyes were glassy with exhaustion and rimmed by dark shadows, and the emotion in them sliced clean through my resolve.
He looked lost. The boy who picked and won fights with guys three times his size-- who had unwanted answers to every one of my problems-- who had held me in strong arms through every crisis-- looked unbearably, incurably lost.
Was it guilt? Guilt for having cheated on me?
“What’s going on?” I asked, before my mind could come up with any more unpleasant possibilities.
He shook his head, lowering his face. “It’s complicated, Al.”
“Is it Deb?” I said, my voice barely more than a whisper. I couldn’t bring myself to utter the words louder, for fear that they might be true.
Nate nodded, his face still downcast, and my heart broke. The fist that had been tightening around it all morning suddenly clenched, and for a moment I thought I was actually dying.
I didn’t, though. My broken heart kept beating, pumping blood to my arms and legs, helping me move as I clumsily stood, gathering my books and shoving them into my bag.
“Al, wait!” Nate said, reaching out to grab my arm, but I jerked it out of his reach. He stood, blocking my way as I went to leave. Unwilling to touch him, even long enough to shove him away, I turned around and circled to the other side of the table. He met me there, still blocking my exit. “Al, stop,” he pleaded, holding his hands out.
“Why should I?” I hissed.
“It’s not what you think,” he insisted, glancing over his shoulder to make sure we hadn’t drawn an audience. It was just us, though.
“You’re not… with her?” I hissed at him. “Because it sure looks like you are, Nate.”
“No!” he exclaimed, before lowering his voice. “Of course not, Al. I’m with you. I’m yours. I swear. I just…”
He trailed off, shaking his head and pushing trembling fingers into his hair.
“Just what, Nate?” I asked, stepping forward. I desperately wanted him to set me straight. Call me foolish, but I’d have believed anything he said. All he had to do was give me something.
“I can’t, Al,” he moaned, sinking back into his chair and burying his face in his hands.
“Can’t what?” I asked, trying so damned hard not to cry. You can’t admit you cheated?
“I can’t explain,” he said into his hands. “I want to, angel, but I can’t. Please just trust me. I swear there’s nothing between me and Deb. I swear on my life. It’s you and me.”
“How can I trust you if you won’t even try to explain what’s going on?” I asked. I desperately wanted to sit down and take his hands and tell him everything was alright, that I forgave him, that I believed him. He needed to hear it. I could tell by his hunched shoulders and the desolation in his voice. My heart pleaded with me to fix it-- to fix him.
My brain knew better.
“You’re not giving me anything to work with,” I said, my voice remarkably even considering I could hardly think over the screaming in my mind. The begging him to help me understand. “I want to trust you, but you have to understand how it looks. All of a sudden out of nowhere, you’re driving Deb to school and hanging out with her between classes and eating lunch with her and your old friends. What else am I supposed to think?”
“Just trust me, Al,” Nate said, looking up at me. “Once I explain you’ll understand. I just can’t yet. Please just trust me. Give me time.”
“You have a week,” I said, reason and self-preservation buckling beneath the weight of my love for him. “I’ll give you a week.”
* * *
I gave him two.
Because I’m weak, I gave him two weeks to pull himself together and tell me the truth. The only time I saw him during those two weeks was in class and at study hall. I couldn’t bring myself to go to the spot and sit with him beneath the stars in silence, while the weight of his secrets suffocated us and stifled every good memory we’d made there.
To this day, I wish I’d gone. It wouldn’t have been pleasant, but I wish I had subjected myself to that uncomfortable silence, agonizing over whether or not I should hate him. I wish I’d let him hold me and suffered through the agony of passion and hurt his touch ignited. If I could go back, I’d go to the spot every night and put myself through all that pain. It would be better than the pain that came later, when I learned that he went there every night. That he waited for me until dawn kissed the horizon. That I laid in bed and wept tears of angsty teenage hurt while our last moments of youthful love and relative innocence were trickling through the hourglass.
I like to think that, with the gift of hindsight and knowing how limited our time really was, I’d have gone to the spot and let him love me so we both had something to carry into the years that followed.
But I didn’t. I saw him only at school, and what I saw there broke my heart.
He was slipping. Quickly. Snowballing back into the boy he was before we started dating-- before he jump started my life and let me breathe hope into his.
He slept through our classes together, and stopped turning in his homework. He sat with his old friends at lunch and hung out with them during lunch, cutting class with them to smoke cigarettes in the parking lot. Deb was with him nearly every moment of every day, stuck to his side like a leech. She never smiled, but I caught her watching me with warning and loathing in her eyes.
Once, I looked up in the cafeteria and she caught my eye. While I watched, unable to look away, she linked her arm through Nate’s. He flinched away from her, confusion on his face. Then he looked up and saw me, and his face twisted in anger. He pulled his arm from hers and spoke words I couldn’t hear over the din of the cafeteria. I don’t imagine there’s anything he could have said to her that would have stopped my heart from breaking. Because even if they weren’t together-- even if she was marking territory that wasn’t hers to claim-- he still spent every waking moment with her. He still chose her over me.
Ironically, Deb wasn’t even involved when the powderkeg finally caught a spark and the whole thing went up in flames.
It was the end of the day, and I was heading home. It was a fifteen minute walk, but with the way everything was going I didn’t mind the time alone to think. Even before things went south, I walked home because Nate had work after school. It wasn’t a hardship.
That day was a Friday. I remember everything about it, from the weather to what I was wearing. Sunny and unseasonably cool; jeans and a sweater.
A car pulled up beside me as I turned the corner and started walking through the residential neighborhood surrounding my school. The neighborhood looked a lot like mine-- white picket fences. Green lawns. Tire swings and minivans and rose gardens. It was lovely and idyllic, and it made me sneer.
I looked up, and saw Isaac Campbell leaning out the passenger side window of a shiny red BMW. Without stopping, I stooped and saw Pat Curry behind the wheel. Both were leering at me as Pat idled the car along the side of the road, gong just fast enough to keep up with me.
My gut churned and I wanted to flee, but I forced myself to keep my step even and raised my chin, ignoring them.
“Oh, sweetheart, don’t be a bitch!” Isaac said, thumping gently on the side of the car with his open palm. “We just wanna talk. Do you need a ride home?”
“I’m fine, thanks,” I said sweetly.
“I heard you and Reynolds broke up,” he said, a sneer in his voice. “That’s a shame. You must be real lonely.”
“No, I’m fine,” I said, false cheeriness invading my tone. Cheeriness and, I hoped, a note of warning. Leave me the hell alone.
“Oh, I doubt that. It’s okay to be sad, sweetheart.”
Don’t call me sweetheart! “Well, I’m not, so you can leave me alone.”
My stomach clenched when the car pulled over at the curb and Isaac hopped out, blocking my path on the sidewalk.
“C’mon, Aly,” he crooned, taking my shoulders in his hands. “Just let us give you a ride home.”
“I’m not stupid, Isaac,” I said, pushing past him, only to have him circle around in front of me once more. Dead grew to an ache in my chest when I heard another car door shut, telling me that Pat had gotten out of the car as well. His heavy footsteps approached me from behind and the skin on the back of my neck stood on end. Surely someone in one of these big, beautiful houses would see what was going on and interfere.
Maybe none of them were home, because nobody did. I kept walking, in lurching five-foot increments, each spurt of movement halted by either Pat or Isaac. Their words were nothing but kind but their eyes were lecherous, unabashedly roaming my body, and their fingers dug into my shoulders every time they stopped me.
I felt the barest shred of relief when I heard the familiar clunking of Nate’s truck approach and draw to a stop on the curb beside us. Then I panicked. What were the odds he’d just ask them politely to leave? I quickened my step in a vain attempt to drag Isaac and Pat with me and outrun the problem.
“Get the fuck away from her,” accompanied the sound of a slamming door, and suddenly Nate was there, towering in front of me, fists clenched at his sides, every muscle locked in anticipation.
“Stop,” I said. “It’s not a big deal.” But it was as if he was beyond hearing. Isaac and Pat both backed away a step, but they didn’t leave.
“We were just trying to give her a ride,” Isaac said, glancing nervously from Nate to his friend. Pat just glared, puffing out his chest, drawing himself up. My mouth went dry with dread. There was only one way this ended.
“Nate, it’s not a big deal,” I said again. “They were just trying to give me a ride.”
“Did you want a ride?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Did you tell them that?”
“Then it’s a big deal, Al. Go wait in the truck with Deb.”
What the hell did he think I was? Some kind of distressed damsel?
“I’m fine here,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest, although his back was to me so I suppose my defiant stance was wasted on him.
“You fucks have two seconds to get the hell out of here,” Nate said.
“Ease up, man,” Isaac said, holding up his hands. “We thought you were done with her, that’s all.”
“Done with her?” Nate echoed, his voice quiet but sharp with venom. Isaac and Pat each took a step back. “I’ll never be ‘done with her.’ And whether I am or not shouldn’t matter.” He was walking forward now, driving them back along the sidewalk. Nate was neither short nor scrawny, but the two football players each had him by a good fifty pounds. From where I was standing, though, he seemed to dwarf them. “She told you she wanted to walk. You harassed her. This isn’t a pissing contest. This is fucking war, and your window to withdraw is closing.”
I’d never heard his voice like this-- all chilly and hard. It made my spine tingle, and not with pleasure. With fear. Base, animalistic fear that told me to flee to the hills from the predator standing before me. Apparently Pat had no such instinct for self-preservation.
“You know what, man? Fuck you!” he said, stepping forward, his face beat red. “I’m sick of you lording around school like you own the place. You’re just some piece of trash with an anger management problem who dipped his stick in the preacher’s girl and caught a god complex.”
I didn’t even see the punch. One second Pat was standing there, chest out, face red, flecks of spittle flying from his mouth as he yelled in Nate’s face. Then I blinked, and when I opened my eyes he was on the ground, holding his jaw, and Nate was shaking his hand out at his side.
“How about you?” he asked, turning to Isaac and holding his arms out as his sides. “You want some, too?”
“Goddammit, you pussy!” Pat yelled at his friend. “Fucking do something?”
Isaac’s eyes flicked from Pat to Nate, then back to Pat. I saw resignation, and before I could scream warning he was barreling into Nate, tackling him to the ground.
As they rolled around on the ground, it occured to me that I’d never actually seen Nate fight. I knew it was happening, of course. I couldn’t remember a day since I met him that he wasn’t bruised up in some way or another. Even after we started dating, I knew he was getting into it with someone. But I’d never actually seen it.
It was terrifying.
I don’t know who that boy was, but he wasn’t my Nate. My Nate was sweet and thoughtful and annoyingly in control of not only himself but every aspect of the world around him. The guy trading punches with Pat and Isaac wasn’t any of those things. He was vicious and reckless and… feral.
I stumbled back as Isaac tackled him and they both tumbled to the ground. They rolled about, but before I could find the brainpower to be anxious about the outcome, Nate was on his knees, stradling Isaac’s chest, driving fist after fist into his face. His teeth were barred and I swear his eyes-- normally the color of a stormy sky-- were glowing red with bloodlust.
Then Pat was up, and before I could yell out a warning, he had Nate by the back of the shirt and was hauling him off of Isaac. Instead of toppling off balance like I imagine Pat intended, Nate used the momentum to his advantage, letting Pat pull him to his feet and turning as he rose, driving an elbow into the side of Pat’s face.
“Stop it!” someone screamed from behind me, but I couldn’t move. My feet were rooted to the sidewalk as I watched Pat drop to the ground with Nate on top of him.
“Keep…” Nate growled, wrapping a fist in Pat’s shirt and pulling him up so they were nose to nose. “Your…” he let him drop back to the sidewalk. “Fucking…” Pat’s head snapped to the side with the force of Nate’s blow. “Hands…” Another punch. “Off…” Behind me, footsteps were slapping the pavement, but I couldn’t look away from the carnage before me. “Her…”
“For fuck’s sake stop!” Deb screamed, streaking into my field of vision. I wanted to stop her. She was going to get herself hurt. But she threw herself into the fray like she was bulletproof. “Stop it!” she yelled, grabbing Nate by the shoulder and pulling him back, leveraging herself into the space she created between the two men. “Stop!” she shoved him back, hands on his chest, and by a divine miracle the fight suddenly went out of him.
It was like someone flipped a switch. The fire went out, his fists unclenched, and he didn’t offer any resistance as Deb pulled him to his feet, dragging him away from his victims with an hand around his wrist.
“If any of you go to the cops about this,” she hissed, glaring at Pat and Isaac who were struggling to sit up. Then at me. “... I will tell them you tried to rape me.”
“You’re a lying slut,” Pat said, and Nate lunged, held back only by Deb, who placed herself between the two like some kind of perverse force field.
“I might be a slut,” she said over her shoulder as she marched Nate away from the carnage he had caused. “But I don’t lie, and you don’t want to test me on this.”
The fight had carried us ten feet from where Nate had parked his truck, and they were halfway to it, Deb dragging him by the wrist, before he planted his feet and marched back to where I still stood. My body was still frozen as my mind struggled to process everything that had happened.
“I’m driving you home,” Nate growled, reaching towards me, and I flinched away in spite of myself. I no longer recognized him. For the first time, I feared him as much everyone thought I was supposed to.
His hand dropped to his side like I’d burned him, but he didn’t turn away.
“I’m not leaving you here, Al,” he said, jerking his head toward the truck. “Either come with me or I’m walking you home. There’s no third option.”
Isaac and Pat were weaving unsteadily as they helped each other stand. As much as I feared Nate, I feared them more. Feeling utterly powerless, I turned and followed the stranger to his truck.