"Did he see you?"
"Yes." I sipped on coffee just to have something to do.
"Did he… say anything?"
"No," another sip, "I ran away before he could do more than look at me."
"Oh, honey." My mother blew a sharp sigh. "I'm so sorry."
"It isn't your fault," I looked up from my coffee mug for the first time since my mother found me at the door, sobbing and brought me into the kitchen, "It's not your fault at all, so please, mom, don't even think about blaming yourself."
My mother gave me a helpless look. "But look at you. You're…"
Broken? In despair? Wanting to die? I formed various words in my head. I had stopped my sobbing the very instant I heard my mother coming to me, but it hadn't been fast enough. All I could do now was be brave and convince her that I didn't care. Because I don't think I can let myself hurt my mother one more time.
My mother faltered, unwilling to say the words I knew we were both thinking, "…I just - I wish…" she trailed off.
"I know, mom." I traced the rim of my cup with my finger. "I wish, too."
There was silence save for the sound from the television. I wondered where the twins were. Probably up in their room, plotting various ways to annoy me and amuse themselves.
"Where should we go after this?" I heard my mom's voice. "Phoenix… honey, what do you think about Minnesota?"
"What?" I looked at her.
"Minnesota." Her eyes were narrowed and she was tapping a beat on the counter with her fingertip, like she always does when she was concentrating on thinking. "I hear there are some pretty good schools up there. We could get the twins enrolled in –"
"Mom, wait. Wait. We're not moving anywhere." I looked at her incredulous face. "We already moved once, and that really was a burden. No, mom," I knew she was going to protest that it wasn't a burden, "you can deny it all you want, but it was a burden. You went an entire two weeks without working because there wasn't a break in any law firms around here. The twins couldn't start school until a month later. And meanwhile the house was practically dead because all we had was the furniture. We had take-outs every single night until even the twins got tired of it. We can't go through that again."
"But this boy, if he's here –" my mother looked anguished. "I just don't want you to go through all of that again."
I sighed and traced the rim of my cup again. "I can do this." Her silence let me know she highly doubted it. "Last time… the entire school was against me." The memory felt like a shard of glass slamming into my chest, but I pushed on. "Now… it's just him. It's just one person. I can do this."
"And what if the entire thing repeats itself?" My mother questioned. "What if he lets slip – or what if he intentionally tells everyone about it?"
"Then I'll deal with it." My mother stood up in frustration, shaking her head. I stood up, too. "It's senior year. Only one year to go through. It's not going to kill me. The people at my school now will only know the story. They can only hate me."
She slammed her hand on the counter. "I will not have all those people treating you like they did to you last time. I do not want to see you friendless and miserable and coming home every day to lock yourself in your room and cry, again. I do not want you to go through it again, Sophia."
I registered the use of my full name and her sharp tone. This was the tone and expression my mother used in court. I berated myself for being so open with my emotions last time. I should've known she'd use everything that happened against me. Lawyers, I tell you.
"There won't be a repeat." I looked at her steadily. "Please, mom. It's my final year at school. We can't afford to move away one more time." And I can't afford to do it all over again.
She looked at me, calculating.
How many times have we had this conversation two years ago before I finally gave in? Mom would defend me and slam her hand, like she did earlier, countless times against any flat surface just to validate her points, and I would bow my head and pray like hell I wouldn't start crying. I had to be brave for my mother, and for the twins. I already knew my mother was fragile, and frankly, I was a screw up, but that didn't mean the twins had to go that way, too.
But again and again when we argued and I cried my mother always skirted around the main fact we were ignoring, the elephant in the room, so to speak. That it was my fault and I certainly did deserve all the hate, bullying and physical abuse I was getting every day in school. Even when I stopped going to school the vendetta did not end; they merely found other creative ways to express their disgust towards me. It was all well-earned, but it didn't stop my mother from gasping in anguish, and then, at night, when she thought we were all sleeping, sobbing herself to sleep and spitting out anguished words to her sister about how I didn't deserve this hell, how I was just a teenager and how she wanted to protect me.
And I guess that's what made me hate myself. That I had this coming and yet I got the sympathy, the caring mother who would leave her job, drop everything she's owned and move halfway across the state to protect me.
My mother and I looked around, simultaneously arranging our expressions to a smile. Only my twin brothers didn't buy it. They were young, but they were incredibly smart for their age. It got on your nerves sometimes.
"Hey kiddos." I greeted, smiling. Michael and Jacob ran over to hug my legs. Adorable, right?
Haha, no. They always had an ulterior motive.
Which was why I wasn't surprised when they 'accidentally' pushed me down to kiss the floor. I groaned, feeling a sharp pain in my tail bone. Tail…butt… bone… oh, you know where I mean.
"Brats," I muttered, standing up. My mother simply shook her head and smiled at our antics. "Don't you have stuff to do? Homework…video games…world domination or something?"
"Are we moving again?" Jacob chirped suddenly. Michael watched and waited for an answer with bright eyes. They were the polar opposites of each other, Jacob being the loud, outgoing one and Michael the quiet, observing one. But in reality, Michael was the schemer of the two. Michael planned, Jacob added details, and they carried out various tricks and pranks, usually (99.9 per cent of the time, actually) on me. It was kind of hard not to love them, though…but at times they can be too smart for their own good. Like right now.
"No, we're not," my mother answered after a pause, giving me a sharp glance that let me know her decision wasn't a permanent one. "And what have I told you boys about eavesdropping?"
"Eavesdropping is bad and extremely rude and if I catch you boys doing that again you'll be grounded," Jacob immediately mimicked my mother's voice, while Michael put his hands on his hips and glared, like my mother would do, and mouthed the words as Jacob said them.
I could tell my mother, like me, was having a hard time trying not to smile.
"Yes, and this is your last warning," she said, barely concealing her amusement. "Now shoo. I have to make dinner. Honey, aren't you going to be late for work?"
"Oh, shoot." I caught the time on the kitchen's clock. "I'm out of here." I raced upstairs to take a quick shower and tripped over Munch in my haste to rush back downstairs. I yelled a goodbye to my mother and grabbed my shoes before slipping on a pair of comfortable flip flops. I was about to leave the house when all of a sudden my legs felt heavy.
"Boys," I said exasperatedly, "I don't have time for this."
Michael and Jacob had each clung to my legs and were looking up at me, pictures of innocence.
"Take us with you," Jacob said.
"Please, Sophie," Michael added.
"Not today," I tried and failed to shake them off. "But if you let me go now, I might have time to buy you some Twinkies."
They didn't move.
"Twinkies and Skittles."
They looked at each other, calculating. Michael nodded and they let me go. I shook my head at them, smiling, and got into my mother's car. I arrived at Harlequin Dance Studio ten minutes later and rushed to the employee's room to store my bag away.
"You're late," a deep, male voice greeted me.
I turned and smiled. "Well, hello to you too, Miyc."
Miychric was half Russian, which gave to his wonderful accent and good looks, and he was also my dance partner as of two years. In dance terms that wasn't very long, but we had somehow managed to connect and produce the synchronization and chemistry that enabled us to win several competitions and Best Couple Chemistry awards for both ballroom and contemporary categories under our belt.
"What kept you?" he asked, watching me pull out my shoes from my bag.
I dropped my bag onto a table and hoisted myself to sit on it.
"Twins," I explained, lying without meeting his eyes. "They wanted me to bring them. I'm sorry. Did you start the class yet?"
"They're all doing warm up now." Miyc helped me to strap on the 3-inch high heels to my right foot while I put on the other. 3 inches were a godsend when I usually had to dance in more. "I was waiting for you, didn't want to start without you." He grimaced and I laughed, cottoning on.
"Aw, poor Miychric. The ladies won't leave you alone? Maybe you should give them a chance."
He scowled. "They are all 50 years old."
I tsk-ed at him. "Age is just a number."
"And jail is just a room," Miyc said. I laughed.
We walked out of the room to our class. Miyc and I were qualified enough to teach dance, and we taught jazz for children and for elder/middle aged women, jive which was basic ballroom and for the slightly more advanced class, like tonight, the cha-cha. They were all good-natured people just learning to dance and have fun, even the men, and I enjoyed teaching them. Everyone usually ends up laughing in classes, as sometimes the steps become complicated and they can't keep up.
"Hello everyone," I greeted with a smile. "We'll pick up from where we left off last week, is that okay?"
"Oh damn it," one woman muttered to her partner, "I completely forgot what we learned last week."
"We'll demonstrate the steps one more time and then you can work on it," I said, winking at the woman. "Miyc?"
Miychric put on a song and I walked towards him. It was generally a moderately difficult song, and Miyc guided me through the steps with one hand around my waist and the other clasped in my hand. We ended the song fairly quickly with a few twirls and kicks, and broke apart to applause.
"Now you try," Miyc said, and we moved between the couples, correcting and teaching them when they needed it.
The door to our room jingled open and Faye, one of the instructors poked her head around it. "Sophie, I need you."
I grinned at a cringing Miychric and walked over to her.
"There's a woman here to register for jazz," Faye said, "I've already taken her in my class but the registration isn't complete. I have to get back to the class, Robert isn't here tonight," she grimaced, mentioning her partner, "her son is here, though, will you be awesome enough to help me out and complete the registration?"
"Okay," I laughed. "I'll be at the counter in a sec." Faye nodded her thanks and withdrew and I turned around to call out at Miyc, "I'll be right back, continue without me," and felt extremely amused when Miyc shot me look of helplessness, surrounded by ladies. I made my way to the counter, my heels click-clacking against the tiled floor.
"Hi, do you need help? Faye had to get back to her class and – "
I sucked in a sharp breath. Oh, god. Today is just not my day, is it?
His eyes remained on mine as he slowly turned around to fully face me. I felt my breath catch – it was like I could feel my heart hammering against my ribcage. I heard the laughter, I heard the malicious threats and the familiar feeling of total uselessness was threatening to return. All of this, just by looking at him.
"Sophia Dalton," he said.
I nearly keeled over. How many times have I heard that voice mock me and yell at me and call me names that still threatened to reduce me to tears whenever it crossed my mind last time?
But this wasn't last time.
I remembered my words to my mother. I wasn't weak anymore, I've learned the hard way to be tough. I could handle it. I could handle him.
But I made no move. All I could do was stand there and look at him.
"We were fine before you came along and destroyed everything. God I wish we never met you, and you know what's better? I wish you never existed. You deserve this. You deserve everything that's happening to you."
I shut my eyes in order to block out the thoughts and memories. The sharp ache that made its way to my chest reminded me of the fact that he had every right to yell at me or call me harsh words. Because it was my fault. But it wouldn't do to break down now. Pull yourself together. I opened them, sucking in a deep breath and meeting his gaze squarely.
He was looking at me, not in the way he looked at me years ago before it all happened, but also not in the way he looked at me when it happened. His gaze was hard to read. It was indecipherable but crystal clear at the same time.
I prayed my voice wouldn't shake.
"Hello, Luke." I sounded calm. Good. It was the total opposite of what I was feeling, but it was good.
He opened his mouth – and I flinched. I could have kicked myself, but I couldn't help it. It was an automatic reflex, as I've come to expect nothing better from Luke Sterling.
He closed his mouth, something flickering in his gaze, and spoke again. "Sophia –"
I held up a finger. I wanted nothing more than to leave, but I was not going to let him have what he wanted. I may be breaking, but you will never see it.
"You filled out the wrong side," I said, moving around him to get behind the counter. I pulled out a new form and handed it to him. "That was for the office's use. Fill this form out, please. The registration fee is as indicated here." I pointed to the fee on the form. That was it - that was my tolerance quota. "I'll be back."
I turned away and swiftly walked towards the washroom before he could say anything. I shut the door and leaned against it, breathing heavily. Passing a hand over my eyes, I slid to the floor.
Don't I deserve to be happy? Even a little bit?
I went to the counter after a few minutes, bracing myself, but whatever luck I had left seemed to be on my side as he wasn't there. I saw the registration form and fee on the counter, a pen placed on top of it as a paperweight. Sighing, I took the form and filled the details on the computer.
Confirm new member?
Yeah, like I had a choice.
"Sophia," Miyc suddenly whispered in my ear. "Are you alright?"
I was so distracted I forgot one step and stumbled; luckily, Miyc caught me and we managed to continue as if the slip never happened.
"I'm fine," I said back, just as he pushed me out and caught my wrist just as I was about to slip away.
Cha-cha classes were over and as usual Miyc and I stayed back to practice. We developed this routine ever since meeting each other, and it proved effective in terms of improving partner chemistry.
Besides, I could use the distraction.
"You're an open book, Sophia," Miyc said. I gaped at him, and he grinned before twirling me into his arms. "I'm joking. It's just…you have a tell."
"I have a tell." I snorted.
"Yes. Your mouth goes all…" he pulled his mouth in a way that made him look like he was half pouting, half biting the inside of his bottom lip.
"I do not!" I checked my face in front of the mirrors. Dear god, he was right. I arranged my expression to a neutral one and huffed. The mixed CD currently playing over the speakers morphed into a Frank Sinatra song and we gently eased into a waltz. "If I didn't know any better Miyc, I'd say you were stalking me."
He chuckled. "But I do stalk you. How can I not stalk when I have a beautiful woman in my arms every night?" He considered. "Well, except on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays of course."
"Well, I am a sexy beast," I said, nodding sagely. We burst into laughter, knowing each other too well to take our banter seriously. "Tiana would have my head. How is she, anyway?" I referred to his girlfriend of 5 years. Yes, 5 years. In teenage terms that was practically forever.
"She's fine, as she always is. Oh, shit –"
Miyc had forgotten to catch my waist after twirling me out, thus sending me to kiss the floor. I landed on my butt with a yelp of pain.
"You always drop me," I accused, laughing along with Miyc as he pulled me up.
"It is because you are so stunning that I often find myself distracted," Miyc joked, winking.
"Oh, no. No, you did not just pull that Russian accent on me." He only ever uses his accent whenever he wanted to charm someone, which is really unfair seeing as how I melt into a gooey puddle whenever I hear the accent. (Or any accents, come to think of that.)
He grinned, but almost abruptly turned serious. "All jokes aside, are you alright, Sophia? You look troubled."
I couldn't bring myself to fake a smile. I couldn't even talk for the fear of finding it constricted, so I stopped moving and just stood there, one hand locked in his palm and the other around his neck.
"I'm a bad person, Miyc," I blurted out suddenly. I didn't know why, but I felt like I had to let it out. "I'm… I've done something horrible. I'm a horrible person." It horrified me even more when tears started building up. Shit, I wasn't that weak.
"Sophia." Miychric took both of my hands in his and squeezed them. "We've all done stupid things in the past, yeah? We all have skeletons in our closets."
"You don't understand, Miyc. My skeletons are darker and more terrible than anyone else's. I…" I shut my eyes and opened them again, and was delighted to find the pressure on my eyes gone. "I moved here to run away from all that bullshit, and now… it's caught up with me."
"Look here." I met his concerned gaze. "You are not a bad person. I know you, and you're a nice girl. With a bit of a temper, but who's counting?" He smiled. "Whatever secret is troubling you, it'll pass."
I smiled wryly. "You're wrong. You're wrong, but thank you. It means a lot to me. But you wanna know something, Miyc? The trouble with secrets is that even when you think you're in control, you're not."
That line that Sophia says about not being in control with secrets is from Grey's Anatomy season 1.