Diana walked away from her splotchy white house, her messenger black slung haphazardly over her shoulder, her hair tousled and disheveled, her hands shaking. She didn't know where she was going to go - she had quickly packed whatever she thought she might need for a few days: clothes, money, her cell phone and it's charger, and her notebooks. She just knew that she needed to get away before he could come back.
A few blocks away, her quick, shallow breathing had not slowed its pace. It was a bitterly cold day in late November, and each time she inhaled it felt as though her insides had lost their edges. She pulled the sleeves of her thin sweatshirt over her hands and crossed her arms, pressing them close to her body. She reached a main road, threw a quick, hesitant glance behind her, and fumbled to pull her cell phone out of her bag as she darted along the crosswalk.
She dialed the first number she could think of, punching each digit in with careful precision with numb fingertips, as if she had this once chance to dial correctly. She resumed her quick pace along the sidewalk, occasionally looking up at the cars passing by as she pressed the phone tightly to her ear. Her heart pounded as she counted the rings. If he knew who she was calling, he would be so angry…so furious -
"Hello?" a familiar, friendly voice questioned on the other end. She breathed in quickly and harshly through flared nostrils, her mouth hanging open slightly despite the fact that she could not bring herself to speak. She knew that her number must have come up on his phone. He must have known who she was.
After a moment, the voice questioned again. It held its smooth, friendly tone, but sounded a bit more urgent. "Hello?" Again, she was silent except for her shaky breathing. "Diana? Diana, is that you?"
She licked her lips, suddenly realizing how dry they were from the cold. Finally, she spoke. "Alex…" She swallowed and glanced behind her, clutching the phone tightly.
"Diana?" Alex's voice was concerned now. "Diana, what's wrong?"
She breathed in quickly, and then pulled the phone away from her ear and hung up.
A half an hour later, Diana had twelve missed calls on her phone. Each time she had looked and seen the same name, then shoved the phone back into her pocket. She wanted to answer, she knew she wanted to. She wanted to tell him what had happened, what had been happening for months but had finally manifested itself in white knuckles and ugly bruises.
She felt her phone vibrate in her pocket. She knew it was him. She hesitated, then quickly ran off of the main road she had been following, ducking under a tree a few houses away. She swallowed and answered, her hands and voice still shaking.
"Hey." She tried to sound as casual as possible.
"Diana!" Alex's voice sounded relieved. "I've been calling you for the past hour -"
"Half and hour, actually." She interjected, shivering. It began to snow. "Thirteen times in a half an hour."
There was a pause on the other end, and she could hear him smile when he spoke again. "I knew you weren't picking up on purpose." The smile faded. "I was worried, Diana."
She hesitated, and she did not notice that her teeth began to chatter. Alex, observant as always, quickly asked, "Are you outside?"
"Yes," she breathed, concentrating on keeping her jaw still.
"Where are you?" He asked for no other explanation.
"Almost to the top. Just off of the road." She couldn't help but smile. She knew she had been going to his house all along. She had a hunch that he knew that as well.
"Don't move. I'll be there in five minutes."
The snow fell around her, soft and cold. She hugged herself around her middle, rocking back and forth. Occasionally she brushed the snow off of her hair. She couldn't feel her fingers or her feet. Her cheeks were a blushed a pinched rosy color. She mentally kicked herself for not wearing a proper coat. She had just grabbed a thin sweatshirt, thrown it over her camisole, and shoved on a pair of sneakers, not bothering to change her cotton pajama pants.
Suddenly, she saw Alex's car pull up along the curb a couple of yards ahead of her. He jerked to a stop and rushed out of the car. She ran to him after hoisting her messenger bag across her chest.
She cut him off, kissing him roughly, mashing her lips against his fiercely, her icy hands pressed against his warm cheeks. He did not push her away, although she didn't doubt that he had been surprised. But she wasn't thinking about that.
After a long moment, she pulled away. His arms had ended up around her. She gave a faint smile, looking up at him. Neither of them spoke.
Suddenly, weakness and cold and hurt overcame her. Her knees buckled unexpectedly and she fell against him.
"Woah," he said, supporting her gently. The zipper to her sweatshirt had fallen slightly as she ran to him, revealing her pale chest. He glanced down, and then his expression sharpened. She followed his gaze, knowing what he had spotted.
Angry, ruthless bruises, ugly splotches of purple and blue and black and yellow that trailed up to her neck and stopped just underneath her chin. There were welts and scratches that were the results of dull, groping fingernails. She could feel him staring at her, but could not look up at him. She blinked back the tears stinging at the corners of her eyes and swallowed.
They were both silent for a few minutes. Finally, Alex cleared his throat quietly and began helping her to the car. "Come on. We'll go have some dinner at my house."
Thankfully, as her parents had been, Alex's parents were out of town for two weeks. Both families, which, like Diana and Alex, had known each other for as long as anyone could remember, had planned a large off-season vacation. Diana had convinced her parents that missing two weeks of school was not educationally sound for her to do, and Alex had just turned 18 and told his parents that he technically did not have to listen to them. Both families had reluctantly left them behind.
His house was large and soft and warm and smelled like new books. He sat her down by the fireplace in the living room, gave her a thick knitted blanket which she thankfully wrapped herself in, and then ran into the kitchen. He returned with two steaming bowls.
"You're lucky I was hungry just before you called." He sat down and handed her one. She stared down at the unnaturally orange contents of the bowl and smiled. Kraft macaroni and cheese.
"It's not homemade or anything, but it's hot," he shoved a forkful in his mouth and smiled, "and cheesy."
She looked up at him with a soft smile on her face after delicately slipping a few hot noodles into her mouth. "It's my favorite."
"I know," he said nonchalantly. He ducked and shoved another large forkful in his mouth.
He had not said anything about what he had seen. She was thankful, but knew that she should tell him eventually. He should know. It was only fair after what he had done for her.
After they had both finished, they put their bowls down and watched the fire for a while. The silence was comfortable and Diana breathed easily.
She looked up at him, realizing that he had been staring at her for the past few minutes. He looked back at the fire after their eyes had met. After a moment of hesitation, she inched towards him.
"Alex," she spoke softly. "He-"
"You don't have to tell me, Diana." She was surprised to hear that his voice was faint and distant. He looked at her and gave a sad smile, squeezing her hand. She knew that he understood what had happened.
They were quiet for another few minutes. The fire crackled and she rested her chin on her folded knees. She swallowed.
"I'm sorry," she said shakily. She saw out of the corner of her eye that he had cocked his head to the side questioningly. She didn't give him a chance to speak. "I'm sorry for kissing you before. I know you just ended things with Rachael, and I know what a rough time you're going through. It was so unfair of me to do."
He didn't say anything. She shifted. "I just…I don't know why I did it. I just needed to feel something other than…" She balled her fist up and raised it slightly. Her sleeve fell back, revealing fingerprint-shaped bruises on her forearm. She covered them quickly, embarrassed. "I needed to feel the opposite. I needed to feel…" She hesitated. "…love…" What a strong word. She hated using that word. She spoke again quickly. "…protection." No, no, do not sound like a vulnerable little girl. "Life!" she said with a little too much emphasis and bit too quickly. She swallowed and continued. "And you were there and I just…I couldn't help myself." Tears began stinging at the corners of her soft, liner-smeared eyes. She didn't know why she was crying. Her voice cracked softly. "I'm so sorry."
She felt her stomach clench and she allowed herself one soft, jerky sob before forcing everything into her chest. She felt those tiny spasms against her breastbone, and she desperately hoped he didn't notice the single tear slowly crawling along her cheek.
After a moment of silence, she began to turn away from him. She felt a hand against her shoulder that gently turned her back towards him. He held her hand against her cheek, wiping away the tear with his fingers. She closed her eyes tight against the rush of warmth behind her lashes and leaned against his hand. Then, unexpectedly, she felt his lips brush gently against her own. Her eyes opened and he was close, studying her face. Then he kissed her again slowly, pulling her closer towards him. He pulled away, the corners of his mouth turned upwards ever so slightly.
"You're so beautiful, Diana." She did not believe the words coming out of his mouth. "More beautiful than you could ever imagine." His voice softened and he cupped her face in his hands. His eyes were the saddest she had ever seen them, betraying the soft smile that still played on his lips. "I'm so sorry he hurt you."
Suddenly, the tight ball in her chest exploded, and tears gushed from her eyes. He kissed her quickly and passionately, and then pulled her against him. She sank against him, sobs racking her body. He stroked her hair and leaned his cheek gently against her head.
She cried herself to sleep against him. He did not let go of her during the night.