I turn down every offer of a celebratory brunch. I'm not very hungry and I have the grandest urge to crawl into bed and sleep for the rest of the day. I doubt I'd be able to do that though; my parents will start thinking that I'm depressed and send me to a therapist or something. Either that, or my mother would want to start cleaning up my room because I'm not doing it on my own.
Christian gives me a look as we get into the car. He notices my stubborn resistance to everything, but says nothing. My dad insists that I drive home, now that I can actually be on the road legally, and I oblige just to this one thing, knowing that if I'm driving, I get to choose where we go.
The ride home is utterly quiet, no words exchanged in the sealed compaction of the car. Breaths are heavy and congested from the cold of winter, fogging up the windows to the point where Christian constantly rubs the sleeve of his jacket back and forth over the window in the backseat. He looks like a child, sitting back there all alone, his face sullen and unsuspecting of my watch. I often take glances of him in the rearview mirror, pretending that I'm checking for cars behind me. His face looks small, kind, and wholly innocent, and it makes me think of the long taunting gashes on his back. I wonder whether or not they've healed, or if they look worse than they did before.
When we pull up to the house I give my dad the car keys back and head up to my room. On the stairs inside, Christian grabs a hold of my arm and says, "What's wrong with you?" I turn to look at him and, without saying anything in answer, i motion for him to follow me up to my room. I don't immediately hear his footsteps behind me, but once I'm in my room, he's there too, standing in the doorway. He asks again, "Princess, what's wrong with you?"
"Come sit down," I say, pointing to the spot next to me on the bed. He furrows his brows and comes to sit next to me. His weight makes the edge of the bed sink. He looks at me with curious eyes and opens his mouth to ask for the third time what is wrong with me, but I scoot back farther onto the mattress and sit behind him. I cross my legs and reach down for the hem of his T-shirt, pulling it over his head.
"What are you doing?" he asks. He starts to turn so he can face me, but I put my hands on his waist to keep him the way he is. The scars on his back are even more frightening than I remember. The gashes stretch all the way across his skin; all there is is red, his skin utterly ruined. It looks as if all the skin on his back was torn off piece by piece, in sections. The skin is raised, trying its best to heal properly.
I run my fingers over the scars and Christian flinches, his back muscles tensing up. "Watch it," he growls. I pull my fingers away, not wanting to irritate his sensitive skin anymore, and sit next to him again, looking him right in the eye.
"Who did this to you?" I ask in a whisper. I don't really expect to get an answer; I know he won't give it for whatever reason he has. Maybe he's just afraid, or he doesn't have the strength to talk about it just yet. His gaze is solid, locked with mine, as if I'm the only one that exists in his world. I hold his chin between my thumb and forefinger and lean in, placing a kiss as soft as a feather on his lips. He smiles and lets out a small huff of breath. He grabs me and lays me back, leaving a trail of kisses from my temple all the way down to my collar bones. His breath is hot and tickles my skin and I laugh.
He scoots up and kisses me, then props himself on his elbow and says, "Now will you tell me what's wrong, Princess? I can tell you're upset about something. Tell me, please."
I don't look at him when I answer, instead tracing little shapes onto his chest with my finger. "You're going to miss my birthday."
"Oh yeah. I forgot." He sighs and buries his face in the sheets, letting out a long, overly exaggerated groan. I lean over and kiss the back of his neck.
"It's fine I guess. I didn't even expect you to be here anyways."
"What's that supposed to mean?" he asks, lifting his face.
"I didn't plan on bringing you into my life like this," I say.
He smiles. "Why don't you come with me?"
"Come with me, Princess. Come on the trip."
I look at him, baffled, and shake my head. "No, I can't. That's your thing. It's your time to spend with your friends. I can't intrude on that."
Christian chuckles, wrapping an arm around my waist. "You won't intrude, Buttercup. I can talk to them, they'd understand."
I continue to shake my head, but on the inside I'm smiling. I didn't expect for him to invite me on his trip. "I can't."
He leans on me heavily, making himself dead weight, and he purses his lips into a pout. "Please? I get bored of those guys anyways."
As I'm looking at him, I can hardly imagine the guy he used to be: tough, rebellious, mean. I'm looking into his eyes and he looks like the sweetest looking puppy you would fall in love with at the animal shelter. He's more calm than he used to be, less angry and menacing. He hardly gives out his snide remarks anymore; he doesn't tease me as much as he used to. I think something broke him, got underneath his skin and changed him. The last time I witnessed his anger was when he fell through the front door, bleeding. I can still recall how he screamed at me, the way his voice cracked out of anger and fright. It was an awful scene, with all the bloody towels and his skin continually oozing red and crimson. Now that I really think about it, they looked like whip marks.
"When are you going to tell me who did this?" I ask quietly, tracing my fingers over his skin where it is still unmarked.
"When are you going to say yes to my offer?" he asks. He still doesn't want to talk about it.
I sigh. "Fine. I'll go."
I hate giving in so easily, but seeing him smile right now is one of the best sights I have ever seen. For someone so angry, he has a smile that's brighter than the sun.
My mom calls us down to dinner later in the evening. As I descend the stairs, the smell of pasta and steamed vegetables fills my nose and I just about swoon. Behind me, Christian's stomach growls. My mom calls us over to the kitchen counter to serve ourselves. The table is already set, and we all sit down together, except for Christian. He kind of hovers near the counter, staring at the pots of food, an empty plate in his hand. He almost looks sad.
"Christian?" my mom says, walking over to him. "What's the matter, sweetie?"
He looks at her, shaken out of his reverie, and smiles. "It's nothing, Mrs. Alder."
My mom gives him a smile and pulls out various drinks from the refrigerator. "Come sit everyone!"
My father and my mother sit at each head of the table, Christian and I across from each other. We all look at each other for a moment, awkwardly waiting for who knows what, and then the first sound of the fork scraping against the plate comes from my dad, so we all dig in. No one says a word for the first half of the meal, but the silence is nice. I look around the living room and the dining room, notice the little places where my mom's OCD comes into place. There is not one speck of dust anywhere, and the television sits on the TV stand, perfectly parallel to the couch. The couch cushions are perfectly fluffed, looking brand new and as if it has never been sat on yet. I don't know how my mom does it, or how she can even stand to live like that. It drives me crazy just to even watch her.
"Melinda?" my mother says. I look at her and she smiles at me. "What do you plan to do for your birthday? Anything? I was hoping that we could throw you a little party with a cute little theme. What do you think?"
Christian and I look at each other. He lifts his fork as gesture for me to tell her about the trip.
"Actually," I say slowly. "Christian has this...thing. A trip that he's going on with his friends. He invited me to go, too, so I thought that I would."
My mother and father exchanged looks. My mom is the one to speak first. "Oh. You don't want a party?"
I shake my head. "I don't have that many friends anyways. I really only have Kelsey and Christian that I hang around with. That wouldn't be much of a party."
"What happened with you and Cole?" my father asks.
I glance at Christian, then look down at my plate. "We broke up a while ago. But don't worry, I'm not sad about it or anything. I'm not bitter," I say with a smile. A real, genuine smile.
My dad chuckled. "Well that's good, then. That you're not bitter, I mean."
"Well I'm sorry to hear that, Melinda," my mother says. "I really liked Cole."
"I know you did. So, is it alright if I go on the trip with Christian?"
My mother and father exchanged looks again. My father looks to Christian and says, "Where are you going on this trip?"
Christian swallows and gives a somewhat smug grin to my father. "Our plan is to go down to Arizona. Probably see the Grand Canyon or something. We don't really have a real plan, to be honest. All I can really say is that we are going to be in Arizona for three weeks."
"Three weeks?" my mother asks in disbelief. "Oh my, that's an awfully long time. Almost a month. I think, if you really want to go, you should only go for a week. You can take the second car and drive home early on your own. Three weeks is just too much time to be away.”
"Now hold on a minute," my father says, looking at my mother. "Let her go. She's going to be eighteen, and we can't really stop her. Arizona is a beautiful place, let her experience it in its entirety."
My mother shakes her head. "No! What if something happens to her? We won't be there to help her! What if she needs us?"
I wave my hand in my mother's direction. "Um, hello! I'm right here. You can talk to me about it. Honestly, mom, I'll be fine."
My mom tightens her jaw, holding back her building anxiety. "I'll think about it. Your father and I will talk about this later. I just want to have a pleasant dinner with my family."
"And Christian," Christian says smugly.
My mom tries really hard to hold back her smirk, but it blooms into a beautiful smile. “And Christian.”