"You broke her idiota. . ." Mari spoke harshly into her cell phone, the breakfast table rattling in her fervor, "No I didn't call you a girl; it just ends in an 'a,' estúpida."

It was the Saturday before Christmas and today was Mari's day to yell at him—we'd taken turns. After the first day of keeping my head underneath my comforter, Darla pushed me out of my shell, found his number, and left multiple, lengthy voicemails on his phone. Nancy followed suit on Friday, and Mari was talking to him now. He actually found the time to pick up the fucking phone this morning.

I used my spoon to smash an Oreo into my early morning ice cream, making banging sounds on the table with each jab. For the record, it wasn't my repressed anger behind the force of my fist—it really took some serious strength to crack this cookie.

Mary laid her hand on my wrist, and held her cell phone away from her mouth, "Keller, calm down, you don't want to break the table. Take it to the kitchen counter or something." There was some talking on the other line, and Mari raised the phone again, "No, she's not trying to break a table. She thought she saw your balls and tried to smash 'em." Pause, pause. "No, no. That's stupid, and you're stupid, and ugly, and frankly, a douchebag. . . if you dare step a foot back in Texas again, I will find you and rip off your ball—because you only have one."

Her hazel eyes appraised me as I finished smashing the last cookie; she silently pointed to the counter.

Ignoring Mari's suggestion about me moving, I reached towards the syrup towards the other side of the kitchen table. It sat just an inch too far for my reach, just sitting there, taunting me. The woman on the bottle seemed to smile and tease me. I wanted syrup, and I couldn't have it. I just didn't feel like moving.

"Mari, could you—"

Without breaking her conversation, she pushed the bottle towards me, snorting. "Can you talk to her?" Mari's hazel eyes shifted to mine, wolfing down my ice cream, now topped with Hershey's chocolate syrup, "She's not here. . . No she isn't; you don't know everything, and she doesn't want your Christmas present if you're not man enough to give it to her in person." Mari licked her lips, "Unless its money, she'll take money if you send it. . . No, don't even think about just coming down to give her a present. You made your choice, you left. Keller's moving on. . . Yeah, she's already got three dates lined up."

I poured my little cup of walnut pieces onto my ice cream and began to stir it in.

"Well point is, I'm not happy. There's a ball shredder at this house with your name on it. . . Yes that exists. . . You don't know idiota. . . Shut up. . ." She paused, because the fucktard on the other line didn't know how follow directions.

I stared at her as I finally took my first bite of ice cream. So good. Tasted like there was happiness left in the world.

Mari grimaced into the phone. "I don't care. You hurt my girl, and I come at you with a ball shredder. I hope you hate yourself."

She shut her phone and softly set it down onto the glass table with a sigh, and then smiled pitifully at me before eying my breakfast with her nose turned up. Mari was more torn up than I was about Flynn, her anger rekindling with every glance in my direction. On the first night, I was watching the Christmas specials in the den, she walked in, and she started muttering about the fuckball who just walked out of my life. The next day I sat in the kitchen eating my second cup of Instant Ramen Noodles when Mari came in, saw me, gave me a hug, and then started berating the douchebag.

I mean, I wasn't disagreeing with her. In fact, I agreed with her completely—he did need a ball shredder taken to his pretty little jewels. He needed a bear to come and maul them apart and then tear his fucking head off. Maybe somebody could invent a little nuclear bomb that would tear him apart from the inside. Or maybe somebody would mistake him for a punching bag. That would be cool. Or maybe. . .

Erm.

Within the few days of Christmas break that had passed, I'd found peace within myself, reveling in my anger quietly.

Because really, I was fine.

Perfectly fine.

A-O-K.

Slightly angry, but fine all the same.

In a way though, I really was doing well. Better, some might even say. Just two days later, Dad suggested that we clean Mackenzie's room before Kwanzaa came around to put together a room for the baby.

And after getting past walking into the room and letting memories hit me, I emptied out the closet, keeping a few sweaters for myself, and I began to clean out the chest in front of her bed, blowing off the 8-year dust that laid on the top. It really wasn't as difficult as I'd imagined. The guilt from feeling responsible in my sister's death had slowly risen off of me. It was an accident. Accidents happened.

And we needed to move on.

Perhaps it wasn't really moving on, but throwing away her old, crackled nail polish that she'd left in the back of the closet made me feel like I was finally accepting something. That the clog in my throat was finally going down one inch at a time.

It was enough.

. . .

"So, I was at work today and I was thinking—" My dad started in this dubious tone, never a good sign.

"Lord, help us." My mom muttered glancing at the ceiling in the kitchen, and then sipping a glass of water. She leaned against the kitchen counter, reading the directions for a loaf of easy-cook garlic bread with Mari looking over her shoulder.

Bundled up in a huge sweatshirt I found in Mackenzie's room, I sat at the glass dining table, playing a game of Angry Birds on Mari's phone. Pretending the little birds were someone else's face.

Dad sat across from me, a newspaper laid out on the glass table in front of him, but he watched me for some reason. I kept my eyes trained on the little screen of Mari's phone.

"Mari," Dad eyed my cousin who was still in the kitchen, reading that food box.

"—Yes?"

"Have you been dating Keller's English teacher? The Jameson kid?"

My eyes left the screen and they slid to my dad sitting at the other side of the table. What was my dad up to?

Mari rolled her eyes, "No. He's dead to me. Why?"

All eyes were on my dad now. And as I saw where this conversation was going beforehand, my life seemed to move in slow motion for the next few seconds. I'd been expecting this to come much earlier, like a month ago. But I figured I'd have to face it sometime. Or not.

Realization set upon my dad like a rainy cloud, just waiting to spill. "I was wondering why he was at our house the other day. He's not with Mari—so who is he with?" And then my dad's eyes met mine. They looked black. His hands folded over his newspaper. It was my turn to speak.

My body fidgeted a little, but Mackenzie's sweatshirt hid me well. I hoped I appeared nonchalant, as if the words about to come out of my mouth weren't a lie. Mom still stood in the kitchen, gripping her water and the garlic bread, waiting for me to speak. She wasn't going to spill anything. So why should I?

If I told him that I was… seeing my English teacher, I'd be sure to see some explosives. If I told him that there was nothing there, I'd be lying. But it wasn't like Flynn was coming back.

A dim smile turned my lips upwards, "Rumor is, he's got a thing for Mom. I think it's pretty gross, seeing he is—or was—my teacher, but the heart wants what the heart wants." I shrugged and pretended I wasn't an awful person. Rerouting my attention to the phone in my clammy hands, I flung an angry bird into a stack of bricks.

But my dad knew, he narrowed his eyes, his voice deep and demanding. "Keller."

"Yes daddy?" I tried to make my smile a little bigger. Mari and Mom were now looking worriedly at me, they knew what was coming.

"You're lying to me."

The tension in the room was so thick; I was worried it would shatter that glass table to bits.

I couldn't even feel the smile on my face any more. The nervous beating of my heart was so loud that it erratically pulsed through the insides of my eardrums, causing me to forget what I needed to say. How I could rationally respond to this without giving myself away, if I hadn't done so already?

It was like my brain was going through its own Scott Pilgrim moment.

What to do. . . What. . . To. . . Do?

"Dad." I started, my eyes lowering to his hands folded over his paper. How could I word this? Slowly, I set Mari's phone onto the glass table. "I—was never seeing my English teacher like you seem to be assuming."

When Dad's eyebrows shot up, I grimaced, that sounded pretty bad when I said it out loud, it was as if I was making him the bad guy. I already knew it was my fault. I was the one who made the mistake.

"What am I supposed to assume? You're not telling me anything here, in fact you're lying to me. I know you're lying, Keller. I know you."

"I'm not a liar either. We were never really—it was nothing, I promise.

"So what were you doing? Was it a. . . a friends with benefits thing?"

"Dad—"

"Or teacher and student with benefits?"

Aw god. The way he said it. . . I didn't think it was a friends with benefits situation. It never seemed like that to me. I might've been wrong up until the end, but hearing my dad just spit it out like that disgusted me.

"Dad, will you just—"

His voice was deep and demanding. "I didn't raise my daughters to go off and mess with their- their-" The sentence was left hanging as my dad too his hand and covered his eyes, squeezing, and rubbing his hand down the remainder of his face. I noticed the way he said daughters as if there was still two of us. He inhaled slowly, and then met my eyes again. "Keller, what did I do wrong?"

"Keith. . ." My mom murmured from the back corner of the kitchen. Surprised. But she didn't move, she just stood there and watched.

My eyebrows pushed downwards. "What did you do wrong? So something is wrong with me now? I didn't even say I dated the guy—which I didn't. "

"Don't lie"

"Okay, fine, we tried to avoid each other. I swear." It was the truest thing I'd said all evening. But it wasn't enough.

The corners of my dad's mouth straightened for a second, and then they turned down again, "What is that supposed to mean? You tried to avoid each other but what? He's been at this house a lot, I'm not stupid, Keller. Stop trying to brush it off. I already know, I'm just waiting for you to say it."

My teeth sunk into my bottom lip as my brain raced. Mackenzie's old sweatshirt warmed me despite the drop of temperature in the room.

What did he want me to tell him? Say that we did go out on a date once? Say that we'd done a little bit more than holding hands and hugging? Say that I loved him? Or should I say that he borderline broke my heart?

But I couldn't say that because he didn't break my heart. If I said it out loud, it would make it true. I wouldn't let him beat me down like that.

"Do you see Flynn Jameson anywhere?" I held up my hands, Flynn's name feeling foreign against my lips. "He's not here anymore. He's quit his job and he's left Texas. Bam. Gone." My father's eyebrows went up a fraction. "He's in Seattle now, taking c are of his depressed mother. He told me he was leaving to do me a favor, to keep me from getting into more trouble. He was doing me a favor keeping me safe."

Dad sensed the distress in my tone, "What did that bastard do? Why is he in Seattle? Do you need me to go there? Did he break—" My, he turned around quickly.

"Dios mio, Uncle Keith, let her talk."

I smiled weakly at my cousin, thanking her with a nod. Mari leaned comfortably against the counter. She motioned at me to continue. She was on my side.

Inhale. "Dad, I don't need you do anything. I need you to just back off. I don't need you to help me out and go and mess with some stupid guy. I don't need a stupid guy to go and leave the state to keep me out of trouble. I don't need other people to hold my hand anymore. So just stop." Exhale.

"He's your teacher."

"Not anymore. He's gone, and I'm an adult. So if I make a mistake, it's my mistake to fix. Not yours or someone else's."

Slowly, he sat up. His hands that were once fists loosened, and he pressed them flat against the table. "Fine, okay. Fine, Keller. But I don't like this. Remember you're under my roof. If you want to be free so badly, maybe you should stop eating my food. Maybe you should stop driving my car."

My eyes rolled, "Save it, dad. I pay for the gas, and I planned on buying my own car anyway." I shrugged. "I didn't say that I wanted to be free, I just don't need people breathing over me. You do it; mom does it, and I understand; you're my parents. But Mari does it too, and we're the same freaking age." I held up my hand at Mari, "No offense. But I've been babied. Darla's younger and me, and she bosses me around, and without even realizing it, Flynn did it too. I'm just—"

"I got it, you're grown." Dad sucked on his teeth for a second, "I don't like it-"

"I don't care."

"-but I got it."

My mouth was ready for another smart comment, but my dad caught me off guard. This was it. I stared at him and spoke slowly as if I was walking on a minefield. "O-kay."

Dad nodded, "Okay."

Okay.

My dad just realized that I'd been messing around with a teacher and I'd gotten off with an 'okay'. There were quite a few other choice words. But in the end, all was okay. I was safe.

With the sudden peace in the room, Mari stuck her hands in the pocket of her dress, and walked out of the kitchen to my side.

"I don't boss you around." She murmured as she snatched her cell phone from the table and checked the screen. "And I think. . . that you and I should go out tonight."

Agreeing with her last suggestion, I stood up from the chair, stretching my legs, sore from sitting for so long. I had no protests with going out. The stale air from the tension in my house was rotting my brain.

"Uh, hold it," My dad, however, still had some protesting left. "You're going out? Where are you two going? Maybe you should take Roman with you."

I snorted, slipping on my right shoe that I'd left under the table. "That's not happening. Don't worry, I won't do anything illegal. Dad, you don't have to hold my hand—or Roman. Roman's gross."

"Fine, fine." His frown set. "Stay away from young male teachers."

"I'll hit on the principals or maybe a headmaster this time. Mix it up."

After leaving the house, Mari took me straight to a club right outside of the college campus, some place she frequented with her friends. I wasn't surprised when she pulled the car into a loaded parking lot, taking a good ten minutes to find an empty parking spot and eventually finding one a building away from the club.

For a normal nineteen year old, I knew for a fact that I didn't get out enough. In fact, I rarely got out at all. Most girls my age were out an about. College was the open doorway. Parties. Guys. Gaining weight. I was a little behind the curve.

Stepping out of Mari's mini cooper, I consciously pulled my dress down, not used to showing so much of my legs, especially during this time of the year. Mari kept a wardrobe in the back of her car, and a white mini dress was the only clean dress she had. It was cute, admittedly, knit with some sparkles here and there. It even had long sleeves to make up for the leg exposure, but it was awfully short.

I shivered as the wind wrapped cool air around my skin, and I power walked towards the front of the club, unstable in the four-inch heels, but eager to get inside. Because god, it was frigid.

Despite the warm cloud of smoke that welcomed me into the building, I was happy to be inside.

Immediately, I shut the glass door and watched as Mari sauntered towards the door, checking her phone as she walked. The girl was wearing a pillowcase, barely covering her ass, and she was walking at the speed of a snail.

Taking a deep breath, I turned around and faced the other people in the bar. It wasn't really a club, no guard at the front checking for IDs, no grinding or blaring music. It was actually a tasteful place an open bar, tables, and a small dance floor. The tables were mostly full with people talking to the hushed sounds of the smooth music. It surprised me that Mari could actually find a classy place.

Eyes from the bar shot in my direction when I noticed the bartender point me out. I accidently made eye contact with one of the guys whose black eyes traveled down my body. Great.

Quickly I trotted back to the door, eager to have my cousin by my side. This was not my scene. The glass door opened with a squeak, and I hissed at my cousin, still behind a row of cars, talking on the phone.

"Walk faster!"

Mari looked up from her phone for a second, rolling her eyes. And then she looked back down and finished whatever she was saying. A few second later she pressed a button, stuck her phone inside of her shirt, and met me at the door, smiling like she hadn't just let me walk into a lions cage. I could still feel stares at my back.

See, the good thing about the classy club was that it was relaxing, a good place to have a date or have a guys night out. But I didn't have a guy at my arm, and I really didn't care for the single male company at the time. They could keep their grimy hands, predator eyes, and lying lips away from me.

Mari pushed me forward as she swayed past me, her hair brushing me on my shoulder since the dress I was wearing had no fabric on the shoulders.

"Relax, Keller. Just because one guy was an abhorrent butt licker doesn't mean you should close yourself up."

Butt licker? What?

I followed closely behind her, careful not to look at the bar of hungry men, careful not to fall over on these damn heels. "It also doesn't mean I should open myself up." My feet wobbled a little on a tile and I steadied myself on my cousin's shoulder.

Mari snorted, "I didn't mean literally." She walked to the other side of the bar (thankfully) where some girls were sitting. They smiled and greeted Mari like Jesus had come back—a lot of squealing and hugging and laughing as I stood on the outside.

I'd turned 100 years old by the time the other girls realized I was standing there. They tugged at the bottom of their stretch dresses while Mari introduced me and then greeted me with brief nods and one, "Hey girl, hey!" A puff of beer-tinged breath blowing in my direction.

My nose scrunched up when she began to talk, and she gave me this fake smile, tilting her head and her short blond bob to the side. And then she said, "It was nice to meet you," blowing more beer-breath in my face. And then she turned away.

But that was it.

Unable to get into their conversation about the last episode of some show and why Ronnie should get with Lisa already, I sat at the end of the bar, Mari on the right side of me, buffering me from her friends, but not attempting to me engage me in the conversation either.

Mari offered to get me a drink because her friend had an ID, but I declined. I'd been feeling depressed lately, drinking wasn't probably the best idea. So instead, I just sat there next to the girls, listening in on their stupid conversations, breaking toothpicks that had been so carefully assembled in the can on the counter.

Eventually the girls all got up and pulled each other to the dance floor with some guys they'd picked up. I saw Mari jumping up and down to the music. It looked like I would have to drive home tonight.

My joy was ruined when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the man who'd been staring at me from the other side of the bar. Great. Just what I wanted.

He grinned, a feral, almost wicked looking thing. "Hi, can I get you a drink?"

"Yes you can, but please don't. I'm not thirsty."

The answer just spilled out of me. Bitchy Keller was back. I appraised the man, and a man he was. Broad shoulders, large chest, sleeves rolled up so I could see his hair arms. Much bigger than Flynn. He reminded me of the bad guy from Beauty and the Beast with his black hair, slicked back, and the dark stubble on his face.

My response seemed to amuse him, his full lips turning up, his dark eyes dropping a shade darker.

He cleared his throat in an attempt to disguise his laughter, "Maybe I'll just get you a drink anyway."

I moved my eyes back down to the counter, wishing big-man would disappear, snapping a toothpick and half, picking up a broken piece, and snapping it again. "Really, don't."

"What kind of girl are you? A beer girl? Daquiri? Sex on a beach?"

"None," I groaned internally. Maybe I should've brought Roman with me. "Water girl, if you're desperate to get something. I'll pour it on some plants."

Pause, "There are no plants."

"So I'll just pour it on you."

Another pause, "Does that mean I'm a plant?"

"Whatever," makes you go away. . .

"Aw, does that mean I'm growing on you?" His voice lowered a fraction as if that line wasn't nearly as cheesy as it sounded.

Sighing, I gathered my little broken toothpicks into a pile, watching as one rolled onto the floor. I looked into the guy's eyes, realizing he was sitting much closer than I'd originally expected.

I scooted my chair back a little, "In fact, you are growing on me. You're like that green stuff on the side of a fish tank that collects from all of the poop." The sound of his low chuckled through my ears, the guy had scooted closer again. Was he just a freak, or was he not getting the hint? I scratched my hair with my fingernail, careful not to mess up my bun, "Can you—go away?"

"I thought we were getting along."

"You thought wrong," I said offhandedly, turning the chair so I could see Mari on the dance floor. Her hazel eyes met mine, squinted towards the guy sitting next to me, and she knew immediately I wanted her back over here.

"The name's Matteo."

"Grr-reat."

Mari should be getting over here any second. Impatiently picking up another toothpick and snapping it in half against the counter, I watched my cousin squeeze her way through her friends.

The guy behind me, Matteo, whispered, his voice low. "You could tell me your name, you know."

"I could." I didn't turn around.

"Playing hard to get, I get it. Why are you here? I saw you with those girls, they weren't really talking to you. Did you come by yourself?" When I didn't answer, he continued. "I came with a few friends to celebrate a new job. They all left though."

Mari was taking her sweet little time getting to me, stopping and talking to some guy at a table before clopping high heels over to me. She approached and stood closely behind my shoulder, eying the guy sitting right next to me. And I mean right next to me. He managed to stop talking and take a breath when Mari arrived.

She tilted her head animatedly, "Hey Keller. Who's this guy?" Her voice was high and colorful, obviously tinged by the alcohol.

I tilted my head in the same manner, "I don't know, Mari. I forgot his name."

Matteo smirked. The expression looked a bit evil on those stubbly cheeks. "Matteo." He held out a hand, and then a second later, he withdrew it, clearing his throat, when Mari didn't even flinch. "I-uh- saw your friend sitting here, thought she was beautiful, and decided to come and talk to her."

Aw, baby puke. This guy was made of pure mozzarella. So. Freaking. Cheesy.

Mari's eyebrows went up a fraction as she pursed her lips, "Did you think that line would win her over?"

"I hadn't said it yet," Matteo dragged his heavy eyes to me, long eyelashes, seductive stare. "Would that line work on you?" God, was I a freak magnet?

"Nope." I jumped down from the bar chair, remembering that I was wearing these high heels. "Mari, are you ready to go?"

She licked her lips, eying Matteo behind me. "Are you ready to go?"

Anything to get me away from this guy. If I just walked onto the dance floor, he'd follow me. Going home was the only solution—and I was craving some ice cream anyway.

"Yes." Self consciously, I tugged Mari's tiny dress down on my legs. I could feel Matteo's eyes on me. Why did agree to come out tonight? To test my dad, right. Well, he'd be happy to know that we were coming home early and sober, well at least I was. I motioned my hand, "Give me the keys."

"You don't want to stay and chat for a little while longer?" An annoying voice rattled on behind me.

"Nope."

And this time, I took the lead, walking Mari through the bar despite the eyes on the back. I just wasn't in the mood tonight.


A/N

Gawd, that took forever.

My bad.

Busy, you know?

PS. I PROMISE, PROMISE, PROMISE to finish this. I'm seriously almost done. seriously.

Sewww, comment lovelies. Comment if you're breathing!

-Xxluvbugger213xX