A Stagnation of Love

Chapter 8

Part 37

April 23 2008 I think

This is taking too long. I keep forgetting what I just wrote and then I have to go back and reread it. I'm just so tired. It's getting difficult to remember things, to focus. I keep losing chunks of time. Chunks of myself. I don't want to do this anymore, but this will be my last chance. I hope. My track record with last accounts hasn't been great so far. I thought for sure that early morning in the park when I had opened my left arm would be it. Yet here I am, two… no, no today is Wednesday… I think it is. Yet here I am, three days later. It doesn't feel like it. It feels like weeks. I don't know if it's because I haven't slept or it's everything that's happened in those three days or I'm getting crazier than I think I have. I don't know anything anymore. Everything keeps blending together.

Monday is a blur. Or maybe the right word is a nightmare. There are moments when I think back on that day and I'm so sure it never happened, that the whole thing was a hallucination, but life isn't that kind. I had my first time lapse that morning in the park after my rather half-assed attempt to not bleed to death. Not a big one, just a couple hours. I knew I hadn't fallen asleep in the same way I always do when my insomnia gets bad and my brain decides to take these mini vacations. My head just kind of went… somewhere else for a while. When I came back to myself enough to register anything consciously, the sun still hadn't risen yet, but the darkness was receding in the sky to pale, dusky light. It was probably around five in the morning or a little before. It was a good thing I had snapped out of it, the early morning joggers would be around soon and someone would definitely notice some weird teenager lounging against the most visible tree in the park with a bloody jacket wrapped around one arm.

The possibility of someone finding me like that and how blatantly obvious it would have been that my wound was self-inflicted should have shocked me into finally getting up and doing something instead of sitting there like a lump, but it was actually the cold. Outside of my head and back into reality, I realized how cold I was. I couldn't stop shaking, which only made my arm hurt worse. I moved slowly and stiffly at first, like a bit of rusted machinery that hadn't been used for years. First my legs so I could sit up a little, then I uncurled my right arm from around my knees. It was a bit lighter now so I could see where I had put my windbreaker and started the process of putting it on one-handed, my movements lethargic like I was an old man. I managed to get it on halfway without much issue, but it hurt like hell when I finally had to unbend my bound right arm and put it through the sleeve. I almost couldn't do it, but forced it in, feeling like I was moving something that wasn't even attached to my body. I probably should have checked that it wasn't bleeding anymore, but it had been hours. If I was still bleeding, I wouldn't be awake, let alone moving around.

Getting my jacket on had the additional benefit no one being able to see my injury, but there was blood everywhere. On the lap of my jeans where it had dripped off my elbow and hardened there. On the grass where I had been sitting. By some miracle, the shirt that I was wearing was too dark to see the stains, but I needed to do something before someone showed up or it would like I had just stabbed someone. That thought almost made me crack up in hysterical laughter, but I knew that if I got that started, it was going to quickly become something else and I would never get it stopped. I didn't have the time for going even further off the deep end.

Despite the urgency, I don't really know how I found the strength of will to stand up. I think it was more that I didn't want to be there in the dirt anymore than being scared of discovery. It was a very ungraceful stumble to my feet. My head swam and for a moment, I was sure I was going to go right back down and not be able to get up again. I had the energy of a kitten and I easily recognized the malaise I felt as a symptom of blood loss. I had lost just enough to feel woozy and dizzy and faint, but not enough to die, just great. I had to lean against the tree for a couple minutes before I was able to shake off enough of the dizziness to move. I had to take care of the blood. It turned out to be a ridiculously easy task. My shirt was long enough to cover the stains on my jeans and I just kicked some dirt over the patches of blood in the grass. To anyone that cared to look around the tree, it would just look like someone had kicked up the grass out of boredom. No one would look twice at it besides the gardeners.

I don't know how I made it to the bench. I don't remember it at all but I don't know if it was from another time lapse or another effect of the blood loss. I was just standing by the tree, making sure it didn't look like a crime scene one minute, then sitting on that bench the next. It was a good middle ground between sitting on the ground and walking around, which I didn't feel up to yet. I rested my arm on my lap where it throbbed and ached like a screaming child, petulant at what I had done to it. It felt completely swollen and strange crammed into the windbreaker, swaddled in cloth like that. I think I had gotten to the point where I could admit to myself no matter what the damage was, I needed some kind of medical attention. But while I did know that, I also didn't care. Finding myself alive that morning made me depressed and listless. Now that my head was starting to clear, I didn't regret stopping. I had made the right choice, not for myself but for Josh. And for my mom. I just didn't know what I was supposed to do now.

So, I sat there for a long time, unable or unwilling to move, I don't know which. 'I don't know' really summed up how I was feeling. I was once again paralyzed by indecision, just like before. But at the same time, I felt numb to it. My choices didn't matter to me. I could have stayed there on that bench for the rest of my life and wasted away and it wouldn't have bothered me. I had nothing left, so I sat there unmoving and just watched the world as it passed by me. It wasn't long that I saw my first couple joggers, people that either wanted to get some exercise before work or, like me, had just wanted to go as early in the morning as possible so it would be less crowded.

I watched people run past me on the path, sometimes by themselves, sometimes with a partner. As the sun began to rise, more and more of them began to congregate in the park. Mothers walking their young children or pushing baby carriages. They would walk for a half an hour, maybe a full hour, then go home to their families or to the apartments. Make breakfast. Read the paper. Talk about what they were going to do for the day before they headed off to work or the grocery store. Hang out with their friends. Normal lives. Things that I never have and never will experience. I had gotten a taste of it when I had been friends with Josh, seeing how he lived his own life, but it was something that I had never known myself and I didn't know why. Why I was so different from all of them. Schedules and consistency, mundane lives but steady ones. A new, bright, fresh day full of possibilities. I felt completely detached from that world. I felt like a ghost, a shadow as I sat there and watched, a heavy weight sitting in my chest. An emptiness and yearning that I had known for most of my life.

I watched as a young couple walked to the water fountain to fill a bowl for their dog. It was some kind of golden retriever mix, all dopey dog smiles and looking like it loved every single person and animal it came across. The couple were clearly north-enders. Their clothes were expensive athletic wear that you could only buy in a sports shop instead of the sweatpants and tank tops that a lot of the other joggers had. They waited as the dog drank and talked animatedly, the girl laughing at something the boy had said. He cut off what she had said in response by leaning in to press a kiss to her cheek, right next to her ear. She blushed as he grinned cheekily at her and she swatted his arm lightly. My heart ached.

Having gotten my masochistic fill, I pulled myself from the bench and walked out of the park. That was enough. I still felt a little faint, but despite the weighty pain in my chest that completely dwarfed the pain in my arm, the more I moved around, the more strength I felt I had. Which would have been great if I knew what to do with it. When I exited the park and walked down the street for a little while, I hesitated. I still didn't know where I was going or what I should do. Common sense said the hospital or the clinic. I hadn't gotten a good look at the cut so I wasn't sure if I might be able to write it off as a stupid accident, but it wasn't like I could give them a fake name, get treated, and get out of there. Not in the Nausten clinic anyway and I didn't have the money to catch the bus. I had been there too many times and the nurses there knew me and the first thing they would do was call my mom. I wondered at the probability that I could tell her that it had just been an accident. She has a tendency of taking any bullshit I give her if it means not believing in something she doesn't want to, but my mind was a fuzzy rat's nest of thoughts.

It reminded me too much of when I had been in shock after getting hit by that truck, that senseless buzzing making it difficult to think. I didn't know what to say to her to make her believe that. It would have been easier if I had just been coming off work, I could say it was a work accident, but my boss would have called the house if that had happened and my mother probably knew that I had been home. God, I didn't want to think about it, the kind of scene she had walked into when she had gotten off work. Had my father and Pat still been there? Had he lashed out at her for what I had done? Had he told her that I had pushed Pat and ran off? Was she worried sick right now, not knowing what had really happened and where I was?

It kind of hit me then what I had nearly done, from her perspective. I hadn't done much thinking about consequences until that stupid voice in my head had butted in. When I had first put that glass to my skin, I had only been trying to run away from everything. I had given my mother very little thought, but I was suddenly horrified imagining her coming home that morning, finding out that I had run away, only to get a call from the police telling her that I had offed myself. Never mind what she would think and how much it would hurt her to find out that I had committed suicide, how could I leave her alone like that? Alone with my father and Pat?

That thought shook me to my core. I'm so selfish, so fucking self-centered. I had only thought about what Pat had done to me as something that affected me, my burden to bear, my nightmare. But it wasn't. It was my mother's. Pat didn't want me. I was just a scrawny kid with average looks who couldn't do anything right, even just being a man. He had only touched me because I looked like her and she was off limits. But how long would that remain true? He had been bold as hell that morning, feeling me up while my father was just a room away. How long before he got that drunk again and I wasn't around? How long before he decided that the reward was worth the risk and went after her? Maybe I didn't even need to worry about Pat. Maybe it was my father that I needed to be concerned with. Maybe, without his favorite outlet available, he would try to force her. Hurt her. Even if that would never happen, I would still be leaving her alone to deal with the both of them. How could I do that to her?

My thoughts about never going home again, just wandering the streets or going to a shelter or even walking out of town and never looking back dissipated. I had nowhere to go. I had no money. No clothes besides a now ruined hoody and the ones I was wearing. No relatives, no friends, no ID, nothing. It had been months since I had first run to the park after my father had tried to molest me, but in reality, absolutely nothing had changed. I knew I couldn't go back even more than I had back then. This time, I knew what was waiting for me, what could happen if I ignored an obvious threat again. I had no defense against Pat, or against whatever my father wanted to do to punish me for shoving him like that. But just like last time, I knew I couldn't run away, either. I had someone who loved me depending on me and they were worth the risk to whatever is left of my soul. Last time it was Pepper, but this time it was my mother and she was a lot more important. She had sacrificed so much for me. She had crawled out of the abyss for me. How could I ever abandon her, no matter how scared I was?

My mind was made up with a lot more clarity and surety than it had all those months ago. I would stick my head in the lion's mouth and if it bit me again, what did it matter? At least my mother would be safe and this time I would do anything to keep her from finding out about it. She was hurting enough, she didn't need to know about Pat. Still, it almost made me laugh as I began walking again, this time towards my side of town. My mother was smart. Smarter than me. After my grandfather had groped her, she had refused to go back to that house ever again and put herself further at risk through ignorance and complacency. She had put her foot down and said enough. She had saved herself. I couldn't do that. I guess that little trait had skipped me by entirely.

I trudged through town, feeling a bit like a man wearily walking to the executioner's block. I felt like a trapped animal, unable to defend itself or even end its own life peacefully to escape inevitable torture. I loved my mother, but in that moment, I resented her in the same way I was coming to resent Josh and the destruction his absence had done to me. I felt the irony in that strongly. The thing that was killing me and had stolen any slight happiness I could have felt was also the thing that was keeping me tied down to the life I didn't want anymore. If it weren't for my mother and Josh, I would have killed myself in that park. Instead, I felt like a zombie, a creature that was still moving around and giving the appearance of life, but had already died. I felt like I shouldn't be there, that I was a disgusting phony just for still being there.

I made it back home somehow, drained of almost all the miniscule energy I had left, but I was there at least. I got myself there on the fantasy of taking some pain medicine and crashing in bed for a few hours. The thought of going to school that day after the long, endless night I had had on top of my self-inflicted injury was laughable. My tiredness and wooziness aside, I couldn't see Josh that day. It would be a bad idea in a never-ending line of bad ideas. I was too raw. I wanted to be near him too much. It was too dangerous, even more dangerous than facing Pat.

I thought I was doing ok on my walk back to my street. My chest felt a bit tight when I crossed over into South Nausten and that buzzing in my head grew with every block that I got closer to my house, but it was bearable. But when my house came into view and I saw my father's car in the driveway, I stopped frozen on the sidewalk. I don't know why, it wasn't any kind of shock. It was too early in the morning for him to even be awake, let alone having left for work, but the sight of it almost drove me to my knees. My house loomed next to it like a crypt in a horror film. It hit me all at once in a very visceral way, what I was going back to. My heart thundered in my ears as I forced myself to take one step after another closer and closer to my house until I was at the front door. My head pounded in time with my arm and I could feel myself shaking again for reasons that had nothing to do with things like low body temperature, shock, or blood loss. It was difficult to breathe, like there was a vice around my lungs.

This was absolutely ridiculous. This was nothing like the days after my father had first raped me, so why was I reacting like this? Compared to everything that my father had done to me, what Pat had done was nothing, absolutely nothing! Hell, what Wren had done in that empty classroom had been worse! It was like Pat had said, it wasn't like he had hurt me. Only he had. His touch and his repulsive intentions and cruelty had left their scars on me and it wasn't my father's wrath that had me feeling like I was going to throw up, but him. I felt like a terrified child in the wake of it, not to even mention the utter shame of having to look that man in the eye after he had had his fingers up my ass. I didn't know what to do, how to move on past it. I had thought the same thing after my father had raped me. But the thing is, although I like to lie to myself about it, the truth is that I never have. I'm still stuck in the nightmare of that night. Feeling my father force himself on me, hold me down and wrap his belt around my wrists. Feeling him violate me while he told me that he loved me. I never woke up. I never moved on. Pat might not have raped me, but I didn't bother to lie to myself that I could just move past it, either.

I snuck into the house very quietly. Both my father and Pat were asleep and I would like for them to stay that way. Beyond that, I didn't know where my mother had crashed for the night but her shoes were by the door and I needed to do something about my arm and bloody clothes before she saw me. At a distance, I could pass scrutiny, but not in close quarters. Blood, even drying blood, has a distinct smell and I was obviously holding my left arm differently. I couldn't let her notice that something was wrong. I could come up with some story about why I hadn't been around. It wouldn't even be much of a story. She would easily accept that Pat had set me off about something and I had pushed him in anger, only to flee when my father had seen it so I wouldn't get my ass beaten. That's all she needed to know. The arm was a lot harder to pass off as anything but what it was. I needed to make a quick dressing, toss the clothes, and… I didn't know. It depended on how bad the wound was, something that I really wasn't looking forward to checking out.

I slipped into the bathroom as quickly as I could after taking off my sneakers, shutting and locking the door behind me and hoping that no one would bother me while I was doing this. I was already perched on a precarious edge, my heart still going a mile a minute and I still felt stuck between screaming and puking. I didn't want to deal with anyone needing to use the bathroom on top of it. I flicked on the light and winced as it shot another predictable bolt of pain through my skull. That was the real icing on the cake. Not only did my arm feel like I had been shot and flayed, I had to deal with my fucking headache. Painkillers soon, I promised myself. I would even take one of my mother's pills this time. The pain warranted it.

I caught my reflection in the mirror and almost flinched again. My earlier thought that I was like a zombie was a lot more accurate than I had thought. I looked like a stranger. A lifeless stranger. My eyes were red and sunken and rimmed with black smudges that were becoming more and more of a permanent fixture and my hair was dirty and limp, like straw, but it was my complexion that screamed out that there was something very wrong with me. My skin wasn't just pale but colorless. I recognized that tone from my early days in the hospital after my first real suicide attempt. I looked about as right and healthy as I felt. In reality, it was probably a miracle I was even on my feet.

My confidence shaken, I looked down at my left arm. There were a few spots of blood on sleeve. Nothing noticeable, but clear evidence that the wound either still was bleeding or had been when I had put the windbreaker back on. It was likely that trying to get it on me had caused it to keep bleeding. My hand trembling a little, I gently pried the jacket off me, being incredibly careful with the left sleeve. It still hurt like hell, but it was a lot easier to get off than on. I let it fall to the floor, not having the care or the energy to put it on the row of hooks on the back of the door where we hang our towels.

My clothes were a horror show. My jeans were completely ruined. Part of my upper left leg and the seat of them were soaked in blood. It had dried into a hard, reddish-brown mess and there was no way in hell I was going to get that stain out. My shirt had fared better, but not by much. The left sleeve was also a lost cause and the state of my hoodie was laughable. The only things that had come out unscathed were my socks and sneakers. I felt a deep anger at myself. I was going to have to throw it all out except for my windbreaker, and for what? I hadn't even been able to go through with it.

I tentatively touched my rushed binding. Some of the blood had dried and hardened, but some of it, too much of it, still felt wet and fresh. Fuck. I had really hoped that the stupid thing had stopped bleeding, but I must have done something to reopen it. I found the tie I had made out of the sleeves and gently picked at it to untie it, but as the knot started to come undone, my fingers became more unsteady and stilled. God, I didn't want to do this. I didn't want to unwind that jacket from my arm and see what I had done to myself. Just the thought of it, how bad it probably was and that I might not be able to deal with it on my own made me feel shaky. That's probably funny. I had the spine to open up my arm but not the guts to handle the consequences. Yeah, it would have been hilarious if I wasn't feeling so scared.

That childish part of myself that I was really starting to get sick and tired of dealing with urged me to find my mom, wake her up, and tell her the truth about all of it. Tell her what Pat had done to me, tell her about trying to kill myself and that I needed to go to the hospital. Just confess to everything and let someone else take this from me for a little while. It was a stupid feeling, one that I would never act on. That would be a great way to get committed in some institution. It wasn't like my mother of all people could do anything about Pat and how the hell was I going to explain to her why I had cut open my wrist? Tell that I'm a fag and Josh wasn't just my best friend but my boyfriend and I had dumped him because I couldn't handle hurting him anymore and now I regret it so much but I'd rather just kill myself than talk to him or deal with any of my other problems? I would only hurt her, too.

I didn't even know where that urge came from. Even when I had been little, I had almost never gone to her for help with anything, even back when there had still been some of her that the alcoholism hadn't touched yet. She had always been working, too busy and too tired to deal with me, and while she didn't beat me like my dad did, back then he had been the one there for me. Sure, if he was drunk or in a mood, it was a bad idea to ask him for anything, but on a normal day, a good day, his moods had ironically been more stable than my mom's. She had always been miserable and irritable. So, I'm not sure why I had the urge to let her take care of things for me when she had only done that a handful of times before she had gotten sober.

It didn't matter anyway, if I could rely on her or not. I had done this to myself. I was the only one that needed to deal with it. It wasn't even the probability that I had seriously injured myself, maybe permanently, that frightened me, just the whole not knowing thing. The sooner I looked at the damage, the sooner it would ease. Feeling a bit more courageous, I unwrapped my hoodie from around my arm. Or tried to. Cloth is not a good bandage for open wounds, or at least a hoodie isn't. The areas where the blood had dried had cemented the damn thing to my skin and when I gave it a gentle tug to try to remove it, it felt like trying to pull off a scab from a very sensitive wound. A very large scab. There wasn't anything I could do about it, though, besides pull and hope for the best. I gritted my teeth, knowing that this was going to hurt like hell, and carefully but firmly pulled the cloth off me. I gasped when it was finally free, tears in my eyes from the pain, and fresh blood dripped down my arm as I reopened the little bit of dried blood and fluids that were vainly trying to close up the injury. I knew it was going to happen, though, and thought ahead to aim my arm over the sink so I wouldn't need to worry about cleaning up the mess.

Steeling myself, I finally took a good look at what I had done to myself just hours before and came very close to throwing up. The cut was six inches long and nasty looking, the skin inflamed and angry and peeled apart to show a bloody mess. The bathroom light was pitiless and as I forced myself to study the wound, I realized that I could see… meat and other unpleasant things in there and had to look away for a moment before I really did make myself sick. I had studied enough of it to see that I really had missed the vein I had been trying to cut. Only by centimeters, but my haste to cut in the dark had probably been what had saved me.

I had mostly cut into skin and muscle and I had still lost quite a lot of blood. My entire arm was covered in the stuff, most of it drying, but there was a thin, fresh stream coming from the deepest part of the gash. The wound was deep, which should have concerned me, but it was the size of it that made me feel dizzy. It looked so… big compared to my thin arm. Just a single cut from a thin piece of glass, but it looked like I had been attacked by a bear. A couple band-aids weren't going to fix this. I needed stitches. A lot of them. Which was something I did not have access to. I didn't even know if we had enough gauze. My hand shaking even harder now that I had seen just how badly I had hurt myself, I turned on the faucet and put my arm under it. Not a great idea. Our tap water isn't exactly pristine, but I felt this frantic urge to get that blood off my skin. It felt tacky and itchy, like I was covered in paint and I wanted it gone. A lifetime of taking care of my own wounds told me that I was panicking a little, rushing things and not doing what I was supposed to do, but I really didn't care about things like infections.

I bit back a cry of pain when that water hit my arm. It felt awful. The stinging alone made me want to scream. But I couldn't give in to it. I just had to keep moving or I was going to break. I grabbed a clean washcloth from the pile in the cabinet over the toilet and scrubbed everywhere that didn't hurt. It took several minutes just to get the blood off me, but it didn't stop the fresh bleeding. I quickly went through the cabinets, looking for anything I could use. I found three butterfly bandages, half a box of gauze pads, two larger gauze pads, and a roll of gauze. Not great, but definitely better than band-aids. There was also half a tube of antibiotic cream and a third of a bottle of my least favorite thing in the world: hydrogen peroxide. I would have rather used a hot knife on the damn thing than that shit, but I didn't have a choice. Between the tap water and wrapping the wound in my well-worn hoodie, it was far from clean. I probably wouldn't have bothered with it all, but I was running on auto-pilot. Stop the bleeding. Clean the wound. Dress the wound. It was an almost comforting process.

The first step was easy but painful. Using the biggest gauze pad we had, I placed it over where the cut was deepest and, girding myself for the inevitable, clamped down on it, putting as much pressure on it as I dared. The pain left me gasping, but I refused to relent on the pressure. I leaned against the counter and closed my eyes, riding out the heavy, nauseating throbbing in my arm. It took about ten minutes, maybe more, long enough for the gauze to be soaked with blood, but eventually that trickle petered out. I breathed in relief when I cautiously removed the gauze and didn't see any fresh blood. If I hadn't been able to get it stopped, I would have had to go to the hospital anyway.

Cleaning out the wound felt worse than squeezing down on my arm. I was grimacing even before I had the cap of the bottle of peroxide off. I've hated the stuff since I was little and it isn't even good for big wounds like I had. Technically tap water is better, but we've had so many problems with rust and roots breaking into our pipes that I really didn't trust using it. I probably shouldn't be drinking it either, but I didn't have much a choice in that most of the time. I could have used some of the water in the fridge, but that would mean leaving the bathroom. I didn't want to admit to myself that I was too terrified of running into Pat to leave my flimsy little sanctuary. It was the truth, but I wasn't ready to admit it yet. It was one of those things that if I had to put a voice to it, it would only break down the walls and let all the shit come flooding in.

I braced myself, but still hissed when I poured the peroxide on the cut. I used only a tiny amount of it, remembering a lecture from an ER doctor when I had been a kid that too much of the stuff could be toxic. Even that tiny amount burned like you wouldn't believe and I was beginning to indulge in fantasies of just cutting the damn thing off. I rushed through the rest of it while my arm was still burning, figuring it couldn't be much worse. I applied the ointment to the outside areas of the cut, then bandaged it with the butterfly bandages (not a great substitute for the stitches I was sure I needed, but I worked with what I had), padding it with the rest of the gauze, and wrapping it. Half-assed, but the best I could do with the supplies at hand if I didn't want to see a doctor.

I was just tying off the gauze wrap when I heard a sound in the kitchen. I froze like a deer that had heard something rustling not too far from it, my breath caught in my throat.

'It's just Mom,' I told myself, 'She probably has an early shift and I was concentrating too much on taking care of my arm to hear her come down the stairs.'

That was a logical assumption, but not one that my fear believed and when I heard footsteps make their way across the kitchen, my heart thundered in my chest. They had come from the direction of the living room and they were too heavy to belong to my mother. Terror completely swept me up and my vision greyed as the panic attack hit me hard, although I wouldn't realize that was what was happening to me until after it had relinquished its claws from me. Without even thinking about it, I tried the doorknob to make sure that it was locked, even though I knew it was. It didn't give me an ounce of comfort. Even I could break open the door when it was locked if I slammed my shoulder into it at the right angle.

It was an idiotic thought. Why the hell would Pat bust down the bathroom door whether he knew I was in there or not? My father sure, but Pat had no reason to come after me like that. That didn't stop me from being scared out of my mind that there was just a flimsy door and a few, scant feet separating me from the man that had become a monster in my mind, a few feet that were rapidly being depleted because there was only one thing he could possibly want that early in the morning and I was standing in it. The man that had started this nightmare. I might have been feeling suicidal long before he had felt me up, but it was because of him that I had ended up at the park with a seam in my arm that particular night.

'I can't do this,' I thought, 'I can't.'

I realized that the reason why I was suddenly finding it hard to breathe was because I was hyperventilating. I tried to get it slowed, but my body didn't want to listen to me. The fear was so strong and mindless that it made me feel physically ill. At any moment he was going to try that doorknob, at any moment…

I put my back to the door and my legs seemed to give out, because the next thing I was aware of, I was sitting on the bathroom floor with my back firmly pressed against it. It was a childish thought that I could keep that door closed like that and completely unnecessary, but for some reason it made me feel a little better. A miniscule amount but it was better than completely losing myself to that terror. I wrapped my good arm around my legs and just sat there and shook and tried not to vomit or scream. If a black hole to an endless void had formed right there in my bathroom at that very moment, I would have pitched myself into it without a single hesitation. That's exactly what I wanted, to hide. To find some dark corner and hide away, maybe that little space behind the wall in the attic, somewhere that no one would ever be able to find me. Hide away from Pat, from my father, from my memories, from Josh, from the entire world. Completely disappear so none of this could touch me anymore. But I had given up on my one chance to do just that for the sake of the people that I love.

I listened and tried not to breathe, tried not to give any indication of where I was, which was pretty fucking stupid because the light was on and the bathroom door hadn't locked itself but I was so scared that I was beyond logical thought. Pat's footsteps walked through the kitchen and I squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for him to get to me. A loud sound made me flinch hard, rattling the door and my heart just stopped. I waited for the moment when he would call out like some monster from a fairy tale, tell me that he knew I was there and he was coming for me. He just cursed and some intelligent part of my mind surfaced enough to inform me that the sound had been him hitting his foot against one of the kitchen chairs. He didn't even seem to have noticed the bathroom door moving. I waited for what seemed like an endless of time of paranoia and fear but was probably only a couple minutes. I heard the fridge door open and close. He rummaged around in the cabinets until I heard the telltale clink of a glass and the sound of a liquid being poured. The fridge opened and closed again, then he was walking back to the living room. He hadn't needed to use the bathroom, he had been getting up to get a drink (hopefully of water, but who the fuck knows with him).

I didn't stop holding my breath until I heard him settling in my father's lounger. The second I heard that creak of the well-used piece of furniture, it was like someone had cut my strings. All the tension blew out of me, leaving me hollow and empty. I sagged against the door, still breathing hard like I had just been out jogging. Every muscle I had ached painfully from being drawn tight from anxiety for so long and the pain in my head had surged to a steady, loud roar. I pressed my bruised face to my knees and just breathed for several minutes, trying to get myself under control. But even when I stopped hyperventilating, I couldn't stop trembling. I really couldn't do this anymore. I was so tired of being scared of the men in my life, of cowering like an animal from memories of pain and degradation. I think in that moment, I truly hated my mother and Josh, even more than I had that morning at the park, for dragging me back there.

It was several more minutes before I was able to drag myself back to my feet. I didn't know how to go on. Just hearing Pat walking around had almost had me screaming and losing my mind. How the hell was I going to find the spine to leave that fucking bathroom? What the fuck did he want from me? To bring me down low, toy with me like a cat with a wounded mouse? Rape me just like my father? Because he couldn't get over his attraction for my mother? I met my eyes in the mirror again. They looked old and very tired, like they didn't belong on my face. I didn't see what he saw… what my father sees. I didn't see someone that they would desire, just a scrawny, pale teenager with bruises all over his face, a black eye, white skin, and weird colored eyes.

They kept saying that I looked like my mom when she had been my age, but I didn't see it. My mom had been beautiful and vibrant, like a golden-haired princess from a fairy tale. Flawless skin, eyes the color of darkened silver, long glowing hair and a petite figure. I wasn't her. Our hair might be the same color and we might have the same pale skin and a few features here and there the same, but we weren't carbon copies of each other. I was taller and my hair was shorter. I might look more like her, but there was still some of my father in my face. My eyes were green, not grey. Her lips were fuller, pinker. I might not be the most masculine guy on the planet, but her features were a lot more feminine, her hands much smaller.

They weren't interested in me. The only parts they were interested in were my hair and ass, just like Pat had said. Him, my father, Wren, Brian… those were the only things that matter to them. I couldn't do anything about the latter, but what if I took one of them away? What if they couldn't see her in me anymore? Would Pat and my dad finally leave me alone? Would they finally lose interest?

"You know, you really are far too pretty to be a boy."

I felt his phantom fingers in my hair, trailing through it. Touching it intimately, like he might have his wife's and fought against queasiness again. I didn't care if it stopped him. He had touched it and I wanted everything those repulsive, groping fingers of his had touched gone. I ripped open the top drawer of the cabinet by the sink and found the scissors that my mother used to use to cut my hair when I had been little. I hadn't touched them since Brian had told me I should cut my hair because it made me look like a girl. This really seemed to be a day for shitty things from my past repeating themselves, didn't it? I had written once that the past never dies and boy is that the truth. I never move past anything, do I? Everything I survive, everything I fight to put behind me just waits for the right moment to come bite me in the ass again.

I don't even know why I've fought so hard to keep my hair the way it is. I didn't have some grand, poignant reason for letting it grow out. It had just gotten longer and I hadn't been assed to cut it, so I had put it into a ponytail and that was that. I liked it more than when my hair had been short and Nate had said that it suited me, so it had stayed. And then when Brian had pushed me and I had almost cut it, I hadn't felt reluctance because I couldn't stand having short hair again, it was just… My entire life, almost everyone has been pushing me and barking orders at me. My parents. Wren and Saren. My teachers. Smile more. Be quiet. Keep the house clean. Turn off the lights after you're done using them. Do your homework. Don't wear that. Until I had befriended Josh, Nate and Kane were the only ones that had never told me what to do or how to act or not act or what to be… It had been refreshing. Relaxing. I think that's one of the reasons why I felt I could be myself around them.

I had considered Brian to be one of them. My friend. Someone that might understand me and like me for who I was and not push me into a mold. So, when he had told me I should cut my hair because it didn't fit into his idea of masculine, I hadn't just been pissed, I had been hurt. Betrayed. And in the end, I had decided not to cut it because Brian wasn't my father. He wasn't an adult, he was just a dumb kid like I was, only a year older. He didn't get to push me to do something I didn't want to do just because he was my boyfriend. That ended up not being the truth, but right then I had put my foot down. And when Wren had nearly cut it, I had fought again even though I had risked a beating over something so stupid because my hair was not his trophy. My hair was mine. One of the last things I had that I had any control over. My father might bitch at me about its length, but he had never ordered me to cut it. I had the final say over it and if I wanted it long, then fuck everyone else, it was going to be long.

It was a petty, immature thing. Howling at the darkness and throwing rocks at the void. It didn't matter. All my hair had brought me in the last year was misery. I was sick of it. I was sick of being told that I had my mother's hair, that because of my ponytail, I looked just like her. I was sick of people grabbing it and calling it pretty like I was a hooker and putting their sick desires on me because they thought it was feminine. Kane and Wren didn't have to deal with it and they got to have long hair, but clearly this was just another one of those things that I didn't get to have. I didn't have that right. The right to have something of my own, the right to respect. What else is fucking new?

I grabbed a lock of my hair that had escaped from my ponytail and I didn't even think about it. I snipped it right off, the scissors dull but still managing to do the job pretty well. I studied the hank of hair in my hand. I didn't see anything special about it. Some gold, some strands of chestnut and darker gold, that was it. I let the strands fall into the trash bin and slid the open blades of the scissors just under where the elastic tied off my ponytail. It would be easy. Just one cut and my hair wouldn't be long again. I would look just like every other boy in class and while I wasn't naïve enough to believe that it was going to keep me from getting bullied, if Pat left me the fuck alone, it was worth it, wasn't it?

I froze as familiar fingers lightly ran through my hair, but they didn't belong to Pat or my father or Wren or even Brian.

"Your hair is beautiful."

I froze as Josh's voice filled my head, gentle and full of love and awe, not callous or abrasive or mocking. It wasn't that weird voice this time but an actual memory. I tried to fight against it. I didn't need to remember that right now, but the lure of warmth and affection was too strong, like a smoldering fire on a lonely, cold night.

"Let me?"

I closed my eyes. I didn't want to fight it. It felt good. I could feel the warmth of his body as we sat so close to each other that I was almost in his lap. His hands as they raked through my hair were gentle, reverent, like my hair was something to be worshipped. Even when he picked up the comb and swept it through my hair, it didn't hurt. He always knew how to brush it so it only felt good somehow, although he had never had long hair himself. I felt tears drip down my cheeks but I didn't care. I didn't want to leave that memory or any of the others like it, memories of him putting my hair up for me, memories of him being amazed seeing my hair right after I had left the shower. Memories of him stroking it when I was upset or timidly asking me if he could let it down when we were making out. It was the closest I had been to happiness since I had hallucinated that Josh had been in bed with me and I think I realized that was what this was. They might be memories, but they felt too real to be anything but hallucinations.

It didn't last long. The pleasant ones never do. Other things started to invade the hallucination and soon, it wasn't just Josh's hands that I felt, but Wren's and Pat's and my father's. They were all just memories, but as they mixed with Josh's, I felt like they were pulling me apart. Cruelty and love. Degradation and respect. I felt Wren grab my ponytail and slam me into the locker. I felt my father pull off my hair tie as he raped me. The scissors slipped from my slack fingers and made a sharp, metallic noise as they fell to the floor, but even that jolt of sound wasn't enough to pull me out of what I was seeing and experiencing.

I clutched at my head as this terrible, sharp and biting pain filled my skull as those memories pulled me every which way, burrowing into my brain like a drill. My vision went grey with that pain and, distantly, I realized that I was having another panic attack, but I didn't have the energy to do anything but just ride it out and try to remember to breathe. Try to remember that I was having some kind of bizarre mental breakdown and none of the things that I was feeling besides my headache were real. Like that's ever worked for me before.

This one lasted even longer than the first one and when it finally ebbed away, every inch of me was screaming in pain and I was shaking so hard that I had to grab the edge of the sink for support. What the hell was happening to me? I couldn't remember having two unrelated panic attacks just minutes apart, at least never this strong. It was embarrassing, but I could at least somewhat understand freaking out over Pat's presence. It was similar enough to what I had gone through after my father had raped me that it wasn't an alien sensation. But over trying to cut my hair? Was I really so sleep deprived and stressed out that I could lose all control over something like that? Never mind going to an institution over trying to kill myself. If I told a doctor that I was experiencing memories like they were really happening and hallucinating things that were causing me physical pain, they would lock me up for the rest of my life.

I forced myself to close my eyes and take a few deep, if shaky breaths. I was losing it. I needed to regain control over myself before I did something really stupid. A few more deep breaths and my breathing started to even out. Just relax, focus on reality, not the things in your head. Calm down. I focused with a herculean effort on the feeling of the cold sink under my hands. The throbbing pain in my arm. The smell of cheap soap and mildew and peroxide. I opened my eyes, being very careful not to look at my reflection again in case that was something that was going to set me off. My hand shaking like I was having a seizure, I opened the medicine cabinet and took out my mother's bottle of pain medication. It took me an embarrassing amount of tries to get the cap open, but after a few minutes I finally was able to shake out a single pill and down it dry. The bitter taste made me shudder, but it was the taste of medicine I sorely needed. I doubted it would help that much, but I was at the point where even the tiniest amount of relief would be like a mountain. I had had this damn headache for over a week and it was only getting worse by the fucking day. My arm felt like I had dipped it into an angry hive of fire ants. My muscles were heavily fatigued and while my eye had opened, it felt like it was still swollen and filled with hot sand. I would take what I could get.

I put the bottle back into the cabinet and stood there in front of the sink for a few more minutes, not knowing what to do. I could take a shower. My hair was dirty and I was having a hard time remembering the last time I had showered. I could just wrap my arm with something or keep it out of the spray. But I didn't care about washing my hair and I knew it wouldn't wash his stench off me. That smell that had been clinging to my skin since he had stuck his hand down my jeans. I have prior experience. The thought of undressing and redressing twice with one functioning arm was too tiring anyway.

Intellectually, I knew I had to leave the bathroom. I needed to check on my mom and make her breakfast and maybe take a nap. I could probably make it through school, but I really needed to lie down for a little bit. It probably wasn't a good idea, going to school after the morning I had had. After what Kane had told Justin and after I had almost run into Josh at the store. But I couldn't stay here, either. Not with Pat. Even school was preferable to being in my house. Kane's face floated up in my mind. It was certainly an idea. He wouldn't ask me any questions and he works most of the day. I could just crash there, sleep for a while and not have to worry about anyone… touching me while I slept. It was tempting, but dangerous. Kane can be incredibly perceptive. He might notice that I was favoring my arm. He might notice the bandages.

So, I supposed I had a plan. If you could consider 'sleep before I keel over' a plan. Which was fine. But the second I got to that first step, my mind went blank, because that step would require me to leave the bathroom. I picked my windbreaker up from the floor and carefully put it on to hide the blood stains on my jeans and shirt just fine. It was easier getting my arm into the sleeve this time now that it fit without the bulky hoody making it painfully tight. I balled the hoodie up, intending to toss it in the garbage the second I got. If my father hadn't forced my mother to finish my aborted job of cleaning the kitchen, the trash bag would be full. I could change my clothes, toss the bloody ones, and take the bag out and no one would ever know. But when I faced that door and tried to reach for the knob, this smothering fear and anxiety filled me. I would have to go out there. Out where Pat was, only this time with no locked door between us and that prospect drained me of every conviction and every ounce of strength that I possessed.

I knew what I needed to do. I knew there was nothing else I could do. I couldn't hide out in that bathroom all morning until he left any more than I could escape whatever punishment that my father had in store for me, but there was a massive chasm between what I knew had to be done and doing it. This wasn't trying to go on with a broken bone or a concussion or trying to get groceries for the week with only enough money for a few days. This was easy. Just leave the bathroom, go upstairs. Pat had probably fallen back to sleep already and even if he hadn't, he wasn't going to try anything now, not with my mother home. What had happened had probably only happened because he had been so drunk.

'I thought the same thing about Dad,' I remembered bitterly, 'But he really didn't have that much trouble raping me when he was sober after that first time, did he?'

But Pat hadn't tried to rape me, not really. Ok, I knew that was an excuse, just like the drunk thing, but I had to face him at some point. Being so terrified of him that I was cowering like a rat made me feel ashamed, which only made me angry at myself. I was so tired of this shit. Of living like I was in a warzone. Tiptoeing around my father's moods. Making sure I wasn't anywhere that Wren or his friends could corner me. Now I had to do it with Pat, too. I was so worn down by it. I just wanted to give up. Let Wren and Pat rape me if they wanted to. Let them do whatever their heart desired because I didn't want to fight anymore. I had been ready to die this morning. I hadn't had second thoughts, I had been absolutely ready. I had only stopped myself because, as always, I love Josh and I will do anything to keep him from getting hurt. But that didn't mean that I had wanted to stop myself. I had surrendered and given up and put down the shield. Now I had to pick it up again and it felt so heavy. So endlessly, pointlessly heavy.

I forced myself to wrap my hand around the doorknob. I had to get over this. It was just like with my dad. I had to just keep going, no matter how scared I was. No matter how much it hurt. There was nothing else. I had nowhere to go. No one I could talk to about this. No one that could help me. Just myself. And that was fine, really. I was better going alone. Better not to drag anyone else down. If only I could believe that. My heart racing again and fighting down queasiness, I turned the knob. That child in my head screamed at me to stop, didn't I know what I was doing? But he was easy to ignore this time. I was getting a lot of practice ignoring him these few weeks. I opened the door, wrestling down that urge to run, just run out the door and keep running and never come back, and nearly collided into my mom.

"Oh, Frey!" she exclaimed, grabbing me by the shoulders so we didn't trip each other.

My eyes went wide and if there had been any color left in me, it would have been long gone. I hadn't even heard her come down the stairs. My body moved quicker than my scrambled head and I wrapped my arm tighter around my hoodie, hoping that she wouldn't remember what color it had been and notice how stiff it was.

"When did you get home?" she asked, her hands slipping from me and I let myself relax a little. She hadn't noticed the blood or that something was off about me yet.

"Just a little while ago," I admitted, "I'm sorry for disappearing."

It felt incredibly weird apologizing to her when in the past, I had disappeared frequently and she hadn't even noticed. But now that she knew I didn't have a friend to hang out with, I don't know what she had thought to my not being home all morning.

"And I'm sorry about Dad," I added, searching her face for fresh bruises but I couldn't find any.

"Oh, he was asleep when I got home," she said and immediately switched tracks to worry, her voice became tight with fear, "Why? Did something happen?"

Her own eyes searched my face and I didn't know if I should be further relieved that I didn't have any new bruises myself (at least on my face) or nervous that she was going to see how pale and shaky I was.

"Nothing serious," I lied, "I just… Pat was being an asshole again and I lost my temper at him. I pushed him and Dad saw and-,"

"Did he hurt you?" she demanded and relented when I shook my head.

"I left before he did more than yell at me," I confessed while omitting the part where he had tried to grab me, "I didn't know if he still had a temper when you got home."

"Both of their majesties were passed out by then," she said with bitter anger, "But you know your father. It might be best if you go to school early."

"I'm actually feeling a little sick," I told her, deciding that I would need to be a little bit truthful unless I wanted to go straight to school, and it had the added benefit of giving an explanation to how shit I looked, "I didn't get any sleep. I just walked around town a bit until I thought it was safe to come back home. I was hoping I could skip my first two classes and lie down for a bit. If that's alright."

"Of course it's alright," she frowned and put her hand on my forehead, checking for a fever, I guess, "Frey, you feel frozen. I'll call your principal and tell him you aren't feeling well and will be in later. Why don't you head right up to bed?"

"I was going to make breakfast first-," I began to protest.

"Good. I'm starving," Pat spoke from the living room doorway.

The fear that exploded to life in me just then, hearing not only his voice, but his proximity and his words that were directed at me was nothing like the fear I had felt hearing him walking around earlier. I completely froze. Even the air around me felt like it had turned to ice. My muscles twitched, itching to run. My legs felt like they had been replaced with jelly. He wouldn't try anything, not with my mother right there, but no matter how many times I told myself that, I didn't believe it. After what he had done to me, I would never trust him about anything ever again. I shrunk in on myself as I felt his eyes on me, but I couldn't say a thing. I couldn't even look in his direction, I was using everything I had not to start hyperventilating again. My mother gave me a strange look, obviously catching that I was acting strange but not understanding what was going on. Her eyes went sharp and she glared at him.

"I will make you breakfast," she snapped at him.

I only found my voice when I saw how angry she was. She was either pissed about him ordering me around again or understood somehow that Pat was the reason for my weird behavior. I didn't like the idea of leaving them alone together, especially if Pat thought she had caught on to things.

"I can-," I said and hated how weak my voice sounded.

"I am perfectly capable of making breakfast, Frey," she chided, "You need to lie down," she kissed my forehead, "I'm going to take a quick shower and I'll make something you can heat up when you wake up, alright?"

"Alright, Mom," I conceded, warmed at her consideration.

She gave me a soft smile and, before I even realized what was happening, disappeared into the bathroom. Leaving me alone with Pat. The sound of the click as the door closed and locked was like a slap to the face, waking me to reality. I felt like my stomach had plummeted to my knees. Every instinct I owned shrieked at me to go, run upstairs or hide in the basement, go anywhere that he wasn't. But I was still paralyzed, I couldn't move at all, like his mere presence had rooted me to the spot. The both of us just stood there, two statues, until we heard the sound of the shower being turned on. It would be now, I realized with a bastard mix of paranoia, anxiety, and fear. If he kept his voice low, the shower would drown out anything he said. Just like before. That slap of reality became the exact opposite as I had to fight against the pull of memory, of reliving that moment with him pinning me to the sink. My heart thumped painfully in my chest as I felt the same terror I had just hours ago, realizing how powerless I was again and what Pat wanted to do to me.

I finally managed to look at him, although it was more that I was now too scared to take my eyes off him than any kind of bravery. He was going to do something. Give me that sick, snide little smile of his. Make some comment about my ass or how he had felt me up. Threaten me not to tell my parents about what he had done. This was Pat, there was no way he could resist taking me down another peg. But when he took his own eyes off the bathroom door, he only glanced at me briefly. There was nothing there. No smug expression. No leer. Not even that hardness he would get when he was threatening me or challenging me. Just a flat acknowledgement of my existence. Then he turned and walked back into the living room, dismissing me entirely.

I watched his retreating back, stunned. What the hell? I could understand him not wanting to say anything in front of my mother to play it safe, but just nothing? Not even a smirk knowing that he had gotten away with it? Pat would never do that. He wouldn't be able to help himself from gloating. But there had just been nothing at all on his face. Had… had he really forgotten about it? Had he been so drunk that this morning was just a blur to him, or even a blackout? Or maybe it wasn't him. Maybe… maybe it hadn't happened at all. Had I hallucinated it? Like I had hallucinated Josh and Mariela? Had I seen and felt something that didn't exist? Memories of Wren and my father superimposed on Pat from hearing the things my mother and Ms. Liddle had said about him? Could my mind really have done that to me? Played a nasty trick and Pat had never-

No! No, Goddamit! It had happened! He had molested me! He had grabbed my ass and trapped me and put his fingers inside of me! I hadn't imagined that! I'm not crazy. I'm not crazy. I'm not. I'm not crazy. I'm not crazy! I don't care if the bastard forgot or not and he was just fucking with my head, I'm not crazy, not about this! It happened. It happened! I put my hand to my throbbing forehead. The pain was immense, threatening to turn my vision to grey again. But then why? If those things had really happened… if I refused to believe it was all in my head… why was Pat acting like this?

"Oh, just let him go, Nat. Some people really can't take a joke."

Was that it? Had he actually been telling my father the truth, at least the truth in his eyes? Had the whole thing just been a sick, drunken joke to him? I know Pat's sense of humor is cruel and repulsive, but did he really see it that way? As no big deal at all? I'm not sure which option was more sickening, that it was a hallucination, a joke, or that Pat was actively trying to make me think I had just lost my mind. I told myself it didn't really matter. If he really thought it was a joke, hopefully it was one he wouldn't play again. If he wanted me to forget about it, that wasn't happening ever and I would not let my guard down just because forgetting or believing I had imagined it was more comforting. I wouldn't tell my parents and he had won in that regard, but I was never turning my back on the prick again.

With him out of the room, I was able to move again and rushed upstairs to my room. Closing the door didn't feel much better. I don't imagine I would feel better until he left, but at least now there was a door between me and him that he wouldn't open unless he was going to try something again. The sight of my unmade bed was actually more comforting than the closed door. I had figured my mother had crashed in my room again and I almost wished I hadn't bolted that morning. It would have been nice to share my bed with her. It would have made me feel safer, even if I knew there wasn't much she could do. I ignored the snide thought that it had nothing to do with my safety, I liked my mother sleeping in my bed because I couldn't stand the loneliness of sleeping by myself anymore and that it wasn't my mother that I wished was sleeping next to me.

The very first thing I did was bury my bloody hoodie under my pile of scraps where hopefully no one would find it. It would be safer to throw it and my other stained clothing out when no one was home. I found a pair of pajama pants and a long-sleeved top that would keep me warm. I still had a chill, although it was difficult for me to tell if it was actually cold in the attic or if I was still feeling the effects of blood loss. Lying down in that bed was the best thing that had happened to me all fucking morning. Just lying on my side and not being upright for a few minutes was like heaven. I knew that I had been dragging since I had left my first shift, but I hadn't realized just how tired I really was until I put my head down on that pillow.

I listened to my mother finish her shower and start breakfast. The sounds were just as comforting as the smell of her shampoo on my pillow. I didn't hear Pat so I guess he was leaving her alone for now. I closed my eyes, the dark soothing some of my headache. I just wanted to pitch myself into it and disappear. Sleep should have come easily after that. I was ten levels above exhausted. I had absolutely no energy left and I sure as hell didn't want to be awake anymore. But ten minutes later, after I could smell the light, homey aroma of eggs cooking and my mother snapping something at Pat, keeping her voice too low for me to make out what she was saying, but I recognized the angry tone, I was still awake.

As tired and out of it as I was, I couldn't fall asleep. Between knowing that my father was pissed at me and might wake up at any time, and Pat just existing, I was too anxious and stressed. I kept thinking about what might happen if I did sleep, what kind of tricks my mind would play on me. What kind of nightmares it might dredge up. But there was a much worse fear than just some bad dreams. What if history decided to repeat itself again? It had already seemed to be stuck in a loop since a few hours ago, so why wouldn't it do it again? What if I thought things were safe and fell asleep, only to wake up after my mother had gone to work and found Pat on top of me, holding me down, pulling my clothes off? Just like my father. I had already decided to not let my guard down this time, but how could I possibly protect myself when I was asleep? It would be the perfect time for him to overpower me, in the privacy of my bedroom when I was helpless.

The image of Pat pinning me down just like my father was as good as a shot of adrenaline to the heart for keeping me awake. But it also made me aware of a very twisted fact. I didn't know Pat's work schedule or his comings and goings. He just always seems to be here lately. If my father was home, Pat was home, although sometimes he would be here even when my father wasn't. I didn't know if he showed up when my father was around and my dad just let him stay here when he was at work or he had given him a house key or what, but how would I ever known when it was safe to sleep? Pat seemed to be here whenever he freaking felt like it and I couldn't even trust that he wouldn't do something when my mother was home. My father sure as hell didn't care about holding himself back if my mother was around, so how could I trust anything?

I couldn't sleep, I realized. It was too dangerous. It made me too vulnerable. That was the choice. Either I could risk sleeping and accept that it was likely going to screw me over like it had with my father or I could stay awake and hope that I could hear Pat coming for me and be able to get away. I didn't have any other options. My dad doing what he does to me… I could accept that, as painful as it was. It had been going on for so long, it was all I could do. It was what it was. I couldn't fight him and I knew he would get his way eventually, so accepting it was the only way I could keep myself sane. But not Pat. Never Pat. I couldn't accept that. Of the two options, not sleeping seemed the most viable. It wasn't like I had been sleeping very much or very well lately anyway. And I was so tired of the nightmares. So utterly tired of them. Between those and the night terrors and the insomnia, I didn't give a shit about sleeping. It had betrayed me anyway. All I had wanted was to see Josh again. To be in his arms. But since that first time, he hadn't come. I still wasn't even sure how it worked, if I had needed to be asleep or if it had been a real hallucination and I could be awake for it. I might even see him more if I denied myself more sleep. Even if I couldn't make myself see him again, did it matter? Sleep hasn't done me any fucking favors for four years.

I tried to get out of bed at that point. If I wasn't going to sleep then I should help my mother. Or just go to school. Or clean the house or something. But while I told myself that, my body wouldn't listen to me. It was like I was paralyzed again, only if I'm being honest, I didn't try that hard. I couldn't find the energy to care about anything even more than I had the previous week. I didn't want to move. I didn't want to do anything. Nothing was important anymore. Even standing up had become a chore. It was all grey and pointless and I didn't want anything. So, I lied there and listened to the sounds of the house for I don't know how long. I listened to the clink of cutlery against dishes as Pat and my mother ate. I listened to her do the dishes. I listened as she called Stoan and informed him I was feeling a little sick and would be in after I had a little more rest. I was surprised that he seemed so ok with it and didn't just expel me already. A little over twenty minutes after her phone call, I heard my father leave his bedroom sounding like he was on a rampage, complete with stomping feet.

"Where is he?" I heard him snap at her.

"What?" she feigned innocence.

"Don't you fucking 'what' me," he was clearly in a mood, "You know exactly what I'm talking about. Where the hell is he?"

"If you mean Frey, he went to school," she lied neatly, "It's late, Nathan."

I tensed, waiting for the inevitable crack of flesh hitting flesh and her cry of pain, or for Pat to butt in and point out to my father that my mother had called me out of school, but only heard him curse lowly.

"That fucking brat," he growled, "You tell that little shit that the second he gets home, he's scrubbing this damn place from top to bottom and he'll apologize to Pat and if I hear that he's so much as given him a dirty look from now on, he can forget about having free meals and a roof above his head until I fucking say so."

"Of course," my mother responded, not missing a beat, keeping her voice completely devoid of any tone, "There's a fresh pot of coffee and some scrambled eggs."

"I can see that," he snapped at her again, "I'm not fucking blind."

I heard him storm further into the kitchen and then the sounds of plates being filled with food and then eaten resumed. Someone (my mother) must have finished the dishes that morning because he didn't bark at her to clean up the kitchen and she left shortly after. It was at that moment when I heard the door closed and I realized that I was now alone with my father and his friend that I was the most frightened. My father clearly believed what my mother had said about me being at school, but I kept waiting to hear Pat tell him that his ungrateful bitch of a wife had lied to his face and I was sleeping in my room. This was Pat, he would sooner stop breathing than miss a chance to stir the pot, especially when it concerned my mother. But he was strangely silent. I couldn't figure out what his game was, if he was playing it safe so he wouldn't push me to say the wrong thing to my father or playing some kind of trick that I wasn't able to see until it would sucker punch me in the face. I almost thought that he had left at some point and I just hadn't heard him.

My father finished his breakfast quickly, dumping his dishes into the sink. He would usually watch some television and read the paper, but my mother was right, he had woken up later than usual and had to rush out the door. I heard him go into the living room and say something in a muffled tone, I assume to Pat. I heard a twin pair of footsteps walk through the kitchen and to the door, open and close. My tension didn't ease until I heard that door shut and I was absolutely certain the footsteps had matched two people walking and not just one. Even then, I couldn't trust myself that I hadn't hallucinated it or heard things incorrectly, but the house had settled into a hollow, lonely quiet. I was as safe as I was ever going to be. I guess I could have tried to sleep then, but I was still too scared that it would be a mistake and Pat would come back. If he had left at all. Not even twenty-four hours and the man had started to become some mythic boogieman figure in my mind. I really was losing it.

I laid there for a long time. Thirty minutes maybe. It was getting hard to tell time. I was more certain now that I was alone. Surely Pat would have turned on the television by then, but I still didn't want to move. I think I might have spent the rest of the morning and afternoon in that bed like a stone if I hadn't come to a realization by the time my father had left for work. It wasn't a new one. It had started to grow in my head like a well-watered seed for the last couple days. It had finally sprouted into acceptance that morning as I had sat under the tree in the park, holding my bleeding arm closed with my hoodie. My panic attacks and utter terror just to hear and see Pat again had only made that realization more obvious. There was something that I needed to do. Something that I had to do, or I should just finish the job and open my other wrist right then and there. I couldn't do it by lying there like a lump for the rest of the day.

It was still a long process to get to my feet and dressed. My body didn't want to cooperate with me at first and I had to dig into my closet to find a pair of pants that were clean and not full of holes or stains. I felt irritated at myself that I had to toss another pair of jeans, but I didn't have the money to even go to the Goodwill and hope they had something that kind of fit. No way in hell was I asking my mother for that kind of money either when it was my fault I had ruined this pair. Things moved a bit more quickly after that as I remembered that this was the best opportunity to erase what I had done that morning. I grabbed my bookbag and soiled clothes and went downstairs to the kitchen where I tossed my clothes into the trash. Just like I had suspected, someone had cleaned all the dishes from that morning and put them away. My guilt stung me. But they hadn't remembered to take the trash out, so I was able to fill the bag and take it to the barrel on my way out of the house. I quickly mourned my hoodie as well as my jeans when I got outside and my chill worsened. It hadn't been doing a lot to keep me warm but it had been better than my single windbreaker.

I took the long way to school. I had left earlier than my mother had said I would and I needed to pick something up on the way there. I crossed through south Nausten and into Central. I could have stopped at any of the convenience stores on my end of town, but I knew I wouldn't be able to do what I needed to do. I walked to the pharmacy that my mother always sends her prescription for her migraines to. I was familiar with it and I knew it was always understaffed on Monday mornings while being fairly busy. Sure enough, the second I stepped in, I saw that there were only three attendants: one showing a woman and her baby around the vitamin isle, one working on prescription orders behind the pharmacy counter, and one cashier arguing with an elderly woman while trying her hardest not to sound like she was arguing. No one even saw me walk in, too lost in their tasks to notice one more customer among the almost dozen that were there that morning.

I patiently waited for the clerk waiting on the rather beleaguered looking mother to lead her to the baby aisle before slipping into the aisle they had vacated. I had never shopped in the vitamin aisle my entire life but I knew a place like that would have exactly what I needed. I perused through the multivitamins and iron tablets and vitamin C and D gummies until I found a neat little row of caffeine supplements. Without so much as glancing at it, I angled my back slightly to the security camera above the front of the aisle. It wouldn't completely hide me, but it would obscure what I was doing without it looking suspicious. I looked from bottle to bottle, all different colors and sizes, feeling completely lost. I hadn't looked at caffeine pills any more than I've looked at vitamins before, but despite some of the flashy bottles and pitches stamped on them, they didn't look to be all that different from each other, some just had more pills than others, but even the dosages all seemed the same.

I used my peripheral vision to scout the aisle, but there wasn't anyone around. Most of the customer seemed to be filling prescriptions or looking at the deals in the pain relief aisle and all the clerks were still busy. It was now or never. Keeping my left side mostly hidden from the camera, I reached into the row of pills for one of the medium sized bottles way in the back with my injured left arm. My heart raced, but unlike when I had been bandaging myself or when I had heard Pat moving around, my hand was strangely steady and even my increased heart rate wasn't nearly as bad. I snagged a bottle and quickly retracted it into my sleeve. I had purposefully chosen a shirt that was a little too big on me so the sleeves would cover my hand.

The grooved cap on the bottle caught on the gauze wrapped around my arm, keeping the thing exactly where I wanted it and, just as quickly and deftly, I grabbed another bottle, pulling it from the row in clear view of the camera. I looked at the back of it for a minute, pretending to read it while ignoring this little voice in the back of my head demanding to know what the hell I was doing. I put the bottle back behind the others and dropped my arm to my side, just a little behind my leg, enough to look completely natural and not like I was hiding something as I slipped my hand completely in my sleeve again and let the first bottle I had grabbed fall smoothly into my hand. Luckily, or unluckily depending on how you look at it, the clerk who had been with the woman and her child earlier stepped into the aisle just as I finished my slick magic act, free of his burden.

I didn't panic. Actually, compared to how I had been in my house, I felt disturbingly calm by his presence. I wasn't confident, I think I just didn't care. Vague recognition came over his face, that kind of recognition people get when they know your face is familiar but they don't actually know you. He knew that I was a frequent customer, he might have even rung me out a few times when I came in to get my mother's medication or buy first aid supplies, but he didn't know me like Yung-Jae did, we weren't on a first name basis.

"Good morning," he said with a luke-warm smile, obviously still half asleep at that hour, which is exactly how I wanted him to be, "Did you need help with anything?"

"Yes, actually," I lied and, not missing a beat, grabbed a bottle of vitamin D gummies from the shelf right next to the caffeine pills with my free right hand, "My mother's doctor says she needs 4000 D3 but all of these say 2000. Do you have anything stronger?"

He took the bottle from me and looked at the back of it. He didn't so much as glance at my left arm. Not that he would have noticed anything odd if he had. The only visible bulge in the sleeve was my fist.

"2000 is the highest we stock," he informed me, handing it back, "You can just get two of the 2000 though, it's really the same thing."

I frowned with disappointment.

"Oh," I said regrettably, "That's a bit more expensive than what I have on me. I was really hoping you would have the 4000 for a bit less than double these."

"Sorry," he apologized in that complacent way store clerks always do when they have to tell a customer no and are hoping it won't end up being an argument, his smile slipping a little, "2000 is really all we have."

"That's alright, I understand," I said with my own little smile, "I'll just come back when there's a sale."

He regained his and told me to have a nice day, then rushed off to accost another customer. He didn't so much as look back at me as I headed to the entrance of the pharmacy and walked out the door. No alarm went off. No clerk yelled and chased after me. No one even asked what a teenager like me was doing out of school. I just walked out of there with a couple other customers like it was a normal morning. I don't even think the cashiering clerk noticed me the entire time I had been there. I walked a little further down the street until I got to a row of benches in front of a closed consignment shop and sat down heavily in them.

I'm not proud of it, ok? I didn't feel any relief that I hadn't gotten caught, or any pride that I had filched the first thing in my entire life without a single snag like I'd been shoplifting my entire life. What I felt as I slipped my hand out of my shirt sleeve and looked at the bottle of caffeine pills I had stolen was a very deep and awful shame. I know my reputation, the same reputation that all kids on my side of town get stamped with the second you tell anyone where in town you live, but it's bullshit. I've never done drugs. Never sold them, either. I don't run with gangs. I don't break shit just for fun and I sure as hell have never stolen anything. Even when I've been broke and we needed food or toiletries, I had never let myself get so low that I shoplifted. I had just… made do with what I didn't have. Skipped meals. Washed my hair with bar soap instead of shampoo that we didn't have. Worn clothes years past when I had outgrown them. But I had never stolen anything.

It's not like I'm some goody-two-shoes. It's not like I haven't had those thoughts. Everyone does, even people that don't live hand to mouth. You want something that you can't afford right then and that insidious little thought pops into your head that you could just take it. So, it's not like I haven't entertained those thoughts, but I've never catered to them. For one, my dad used to be a freaking cop. I had grown up listening to him rant about shitty teenage shoplifters wasting his valuable time and what happens to those kids who can't keep their hands from wandering where they don't belong. But mostly? I didn't want to be just another 'south-ender kid'. Another reject. Another disappointment. The kind of kid that north-enders lecture their kids not to get involved with. So much for being a good person, huh, Josh? Good people don't steal caffeine pills of all things just because they don't have any money.

Well, like it or not, I guess I really was a south-ender now. Wouldn't my father be so proud of me? But I needed them. I'm sure every shoplifter justifies it like that, but it was the truth. I needed them. I couldn't fall asleep and my willpower was only going to get me so far. So what if I had let myself fall low enough to shoplift? I was low. I didn't care about starving. I cared about not letting my father's best friend fucking rape me and if some caffeine pills helped me do that, then I guess I would just be a thief, wouldn't I? It wasn't even just the sleeping that I was worried about. I needed to be alert and aware if I was going to keep out of Pat's way.

There's probably some fucked-up irony in all this. I've been struggling with insomnia on and off for the last four years. I would have given my right arm to sleep just for a few hours that time when I hadn't been able to sleep for almost weeks. Hell, I had been restless all last week. Now when I actually couldn't afford to sleep, the damn ailment had abandoned me. At least I couldn't trust it. Not with this. I looked at the label of my prize. 100 pills. 200mg a pill. I didn't bother with the side effects since I had been dealing with the side effects the last week of constantly chugging coffee and I didn't care what it did to me so long as I stayed awake. Take 1 pill every 3-4 hours, I read, do not exceed 4 in 24 hours.

I broke the plastic seal off the cap and struggled with it for a minute before managing to get it off. My left hand and arm still didn't want to cooperate. The stupid appendage felt swollen and stiff and the medicine I had taken wasn't really doing much for the pain, but at least it wasn't dripping blood everywhere anymore. I finally twisted off the cap and shook out two white pills. They were tiny compared to the pills my mother takes for her headaches and shaped like discs. They went down a bit easier than the other ones, too, but they still tasted bitter, making me wish I had some water to take them with. My shitty little chore/crime completed, I put the bottle in my backpack and began my trek to school.

The more I walked, the less I regretted what I had done and the more relief started to worm its way in. I had only decided to stop sleeping that morning and I already felt like ten miles of bad road. A part of it was that I hadn't slept at all that morning, but that wasn't the biggest reason. It was… everything, really. All my memories and fears and anxieties piling up on me and drowning me. It was that epiphany I had had at the park that morning. My shoplifting adventure had made it take a back seat for a while, but it had still been there, needling at me. It should have made me feel lighter. Relieved. Better. It didn't. As I walked to school, my heart was as heavy as a stone. My head felt like it was being ground between two stones and even my eyes hurt. They burned so badly, it felt like I had been crying, but they were completely dry. I was utterly miserable and only a small portion of it was from being sleep deprived.

And the very worst part was that the closer I got to school, the closer I was getting to the north end of town. And the more I kept thinking that maybe I should just walk past the school. Maybe I should walk all the way north. Maybe I should just walk to Josh's. Maybe I could break into his house. If Justin hadn't changed the security system code, I could switch off that annoying, shrill beeping and go upstairs to Josh's room and slip into his bed. I could sleep without worrying about men coming into my room and jumping me. I could sleep in that familiar bed and smell him on the sheets until the cops took me away.

That was a middle ground I hadn't considered. I didn't need to kill myself. I could just end up in juvie, far away from Josh and Pat and my father. Why not? I had already just made myself a criminal, what was stopping me from doing something really crazy? If I was breaking the law, why couldn't I do one thing that would make me happy? I discarded the fantastical, psychotic fantasy easily. As much as I didn't want to go to that school and do what I had to do, that had been a pretty stupid thought. I still felt like I was going to puke when I was finally standing in front of that very familiar, old brick building that had become a prison to me.

As I had sat in my miserable little heap under that elm tree that morning, my arm gashed open and blood pouring out like a river while I had frantically tried to undo the damage I had done at 'Josh's' behest, two thoughts… two realizations had come to me. The first had been how fucked I was. That even if I stopped the bleeding and hid it from my mother, even if I survived and moved on from this, it didn't matter. I was fucked, and it had nothing to do with Pat. It was just me. I was coming apart at the seams, turning into something distorted and monstrous. The longer things went on, the worse it was getting. I had lost myself. I couldn't hold on anymore. It wasn't much of an epiphany, as far as realizations go. But on the tail end of it came another that felt more like it had eviscerated me: Breaking up with Josh had been a mistake.

It was far from the first time I had thought that. Hell, I had thought that even before I had broken up with him, that I was about to make an immense mistake. But I had always fought against it. It was the only thing I could do for him, pushing him away, keeping him from getting hurt. I had believed in my reasons and any doubts had just been for selfish reasons. Every time I had thought those things last week, I had reminded myself that I hadn't had any choice. It might hurt now, but it had been the right thing to do. For him. But that morning, for the very first time, I admitted the truth to myself. It hadn't just been a terrible mistake. It had been the worst decision I had ever made. I had been wrong. God, I had been so wrong. I hadn't protected him from pain, I had done the exact opposite. But it was more than just admitting that I had made a mistake. I also admitted to myself the truth that I had always known but hadn't fully understood until this morning, hearing him bring me back from the edge. I can't go on without him.

It hurts. It hurts so much without him. Everything is so empty, so pointless. All I see is grey bleakness. My life is… it's nothing without him. He had brought love and purpose and friendship back into my life and now that it was gone again, I couldn't cope. I was so angry and so full of grief all the time now and I couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't do it not just because I love him too much, it's more than that. He never really left. He was always there in my thoughts, behind my eyes. Etched in me. His voice always haunting me. His eyes always burning me. The ghosts of his fingers on my skin, his arms around me. It didn't matter if I saw him at school or around town. He was still always there. Simultaneously reminding me of everything I had lost, everything I had turned my back on, and never being enough to soothe that ache. I never should have done this. I never should have pushed him away. I ruined everything, just like always and now, all I can think about is how I would do anything to erase it.

I didn't even know if I could. Or should. I had hurt Josh so much. I had lied to his face and maliciously set out to break his heart. I had announced it to our entire gym class, for fuck's sake. I had said that I was done with him. I had said that right in front of him. And every time he had reached out to me to help me when Wren or someone else was picking on me, I had pushed him away even harder. I had made him miserable and alone, just like me. Did I seriously think that he would want me back after all that? He would probably just tell me to go fuck myself. I guess that's what scared me the most and why I was standing outside that school, frozen to the spot. That I could pour my heart out to him, beg him for his friendship back, and he would turn his back on me. I was terrified that there was nothing I could do to fix this. That I had fucked up permanently and lost the only purely good thing that's happened to me since Nate died. So, while I should have felt some relief and hope that I had finally reached rock bottom and was doing something about it, I didn't. I only felt scared out of my mind. My heart couldn't take another break. It was already being held together by tape and glue, one more blow and that would be it.

But as scared as I was, I knew that I had to do this. If not for my own sake, then for Josh's. I had to tell him the truth, he deserved that much from me. I couldn't tell him about my father still, but I had to tell him the rest of it. I had to tell him that I still loved him, that I had always loved him and I was sorry, more sorry about this than I had been my entire life. If he didn't want to get back together with a backstabbing snake like me, I would understand. It would probably be for the best. I just wanted my best friend back. I would do anything, take any punishment he wanted to dish out, but I needed him. Anything he wanted to do to me, I deserved anyway, but he deserved to know why I had done what I had. I took a deep, shuddering breath. I was more terrified of going into that school and facing Josh than I had been facing Pat. I felt sick down to my bones and my heart was going a mile a minute. I don't even know how I managed to move forward and open that front door to the school. It felt like I was moving in a dream.

The school was quiet as I walked inside. It was only halfway through first period. I felt a little bit of anxiety ease. I had somehow managed to time things perfectly. I just needed to get through the rest of the first period and Josh and I had separate classes for second period which would give me some time to grow a spine and figure out exactly what I was going to say to him. Like that had been working out so well for me. Every time I had made a plan to break up with him, I had completely flubbed it and lost my nerve. When I actually had broken up with him, it had been completely spontaneous. I really didn't want to go through with something like that again, flying by the seat of my pants. This was too important. Just the thought of seeking him out shook me, having to admit to all this felt like an impossibly daunting task. If he even let me speak to him at all. But this was my fault. I had started this and I needed to take responsibility. If I didn't have a mental breakdown first.

I went straight to my marine biology classroom. Technically I was supposed to go the principal's office to tell them I was there, but I doubted I would get into much trouble for showing up earlier than my mother had said I would be. And if Stoan saw how I looked after that stupid chat we had had last week, he might end up sending me right back home. The whole mess reeked of irony. Last week I would have been relieved to get the hell out of there, but now I needed to be here. School was the best chance I would have at getting Josh alone. It was too bad I hadn't had this stupid epiphany earlier, I could have caught him at the store.

It was so loud inside the classroom that I hesitated to enter. It sounded like everyone was chatting and laughing all at once, making my head scream. Our teacher isn't all that strict, but there was no way he would let even one person talk in class, which had to mean that he had stepped out. That screamed danger to me. I had thought with coming in halfway through class, I would at least be safe from having to deal with Wren and his cronies until I left class. He might not be in my biology class, but Alex was, so was Lucy and Saren. My head was too stuffed full of shit that day, the last thing I needed to deal with on top of everything else was those assholes. I steeled myself and walked into the classroom. Sure enough, our teacher was missing and the class was in the typical disarray whenever this happened, everyone having shuffled around to their particular friend groups and talking animatedly.

I gripped the strap of my bookbag and slipped into the classroom, hoping that no one would notice me in the chaos. As if I could be that lucky. Most didn't, not Alex or the group of boys he was talking about football with, but Saren immediately stopped talking to Lucy in her little circle of girls to shoot me an acidic glare. She had been doing it all last week, ever since word about me breaking up with Josh had gotten around to all the right people but it was easy to ignore her. Josh was another story. He was sitting alone at his desk, browsing his cell phone, and looked up as soon as I fought my way past the throng of our classmates to get to my own desk. He glanced at me, just a flick of his eyes, then looked back down at his cell phone.

The only indication that he had noticed me at all had been that brief meeting of our eyes and that he seemed to tense, but that was all. There was nothing on his face to tell me what he was feeling, if he was annoyed that I was there, if he had even really noticed me at all or had just looked over at the movement of someone new. Something clenched down on my heart. Saren seemed to notice Josh's reaction, too, and her frown became more severe for some reason, but I had stopped trying to figure out what crazy bullshit goes through that bitch's head when I had been nine years old. Lucy interrupted a redheaded girl that was gabbing at Saren by leaning in and whispering something in her ear. Like always, Saren's best friend had her complete attention the moment she opened her mouth and Saren smiled at whatever was being said, giving the other girl a tight nod.

Lucy left the classroom and I forced myself to relax a little. It wasn't safe now that she was gone, but she had a wonderful habit of instigating things a bit too far. I still had the scars from when she had burned the back of my neck and I'll always remember how she had goaded Josh to almost take a swing at her. She and Saren really were perfect for each other, both a bunch of crazy bitches with a sadistic streak. I tried to put all of them to the back of my mind and found that it was disturbingly easy to do now that I had something a lot scarier to worry about. I let my face fall into my hands, not caring about how much it hurt my bruised eye. God, I was so tired. The caffeine pills had helped but I could still feel that weariness and I knew no amount of caffeine on the planet would make it go away. I felt like I hadn't slept in about five days and my school week was just starting.

I think part of it was that I was standing on this precipice, or maybe a better word for it is a crossroads. Whatever was going to happen that day, it would decide my fate. Not just for the rest of the week, but for the next year and a half. Either Josh would forgive me and give me my life back, or… or I couldn't think about that. I couldn't think about any of it. It wasn't that I was trying not to get my hopes up. That was just the thing. It wasn't any fight at all because while that hope was there, it was side by side with my logic and pessimism, which calmly told me that I was nuts. I was risking getting my heart torn out even worse and for what? Josh wasn't going to forgive me. The guy was a saint, but there were limits to forgiveness. If I told him that he had been suffering these last eight days because of a lie, he would be furious. Telling him that I didn't love him anymore and didn't even want to be friends with him anymore had been a betrayal. But if he knew that I really had loved him that entire time and had still broken his heart? Who the hell would forgive someone that did that to them? Someone that was supposed to be their best friend?

I fought hard not to look over at him and try to find something to feed my very faint and weak hope. It wouldn't do me any good. Even if he did forgive me, it didn't mean he would want to be friends again. Anything more than that was off the table completely. No way in hell he would want to get back together with me. I had killed any hope of that. But I could deal with that if he would accept my friendship again. And if he did, it would still be a long road before he would want me around. I didn't even want to think about what his parents would say about the whole thing, but I couldn't think about that either without that pragmatic voice snorting derisively at me.

Just one thing at a time. I still hadn't figured out how I was going to get him alone since I was sure some yelling was going to happen, what I was going to say, how I was going to plead and beg without completely losing it. At least I had until lunch. I figured that was the best time to talk to him, if he would let me talk to him. We could go up to the studio for privacy and he could have it out. It was safer than going behind the school where Wren might be. After school would have been better, but risky, especially if Justin was picking him up again. And I really didn't want to wait any longer than I had to. If trying to break up with him had taught me anything it was that the more time I had to stew over things, the more I would let them drag on or chicken out. I just needed to wrap my head around this asinine idea I had gotten and ignore that little voice in my head ranting at me that this was absolutely ridiculous and crazy, that all I was doing was making a fool of myself and making another mistake. I probably was. I can't do anything without failing and fucking everything up, even the smallest, trivial things and this was far from trivial.

Lucy returned quickly with what looked like a steaming cup of coffee in hand. I was too pre-occupied with my thoughts to pay much attention to her, but I did wonder where she had even gotten that from. The cup was from the cafeteria. There was a machine that you could buy hot tea or water or hot chocolate from and I recognized the plain, white cup without one of the cheap plastic lids it usually came with. But the cafeteria didn't serve coffee to students, even that machine and I knew that Saren doesn't drink tea or hot chocolate. The only place in the school that had coffee was the teacher's lounge and I seriously doubted Lucy would sneak in there for a cup no matter how loyal she was.

I put it out of my mind as a mystery I really didn't give a shit about, returning my thoughts to the whole problem with Josh. I almost missed it when Lucy handed Saren the cup, Saren smiling a little bit too sweetly at her in that way that always puts a chill down my spine. Cup in hand, she stood up, immediately setting off an alarm in my head, and walked down my aisle. I had a few seconds between her walk and when she stood by my desk, looming over me, when I could have gotten up and left. I had been dealing with Saren Parker for eight, miserable years. I knew all the signs when she was up to something, almost always at my expense. But I didn't move. Compared to what else I had dealt with that morning, Saren Parker seemed so small and unimportant, no matter what she had in mind.

"You have a lot of nerve," she said coldly.

The group of classmates that were sitting right behind me fell silent as they realized their queen vulture was circling around her prey. I looked up at her blankly. I had this strange urge to tell her that that morning, my father's best friend had molested me and I had cut my arm open, so she was really going to have to step up her game if she wanted me to give a shit about whatever she was harassing me about now.

"Who do you think you are, faggot?" she continued, her tone like a block of ice and her blue eyes full of black hate. Whatever this was about, it wasn't her usual shit, "I heard what you did to Josh. What makes you think that trash like you has the right to treat him like that?"

"I thought you'd be happy," I shot back at her flatly, "He broke up with you, right? I thought you'd love for him to know what that feels like."

I don't know why I said it, why I was poking at the snarling bear. She just makes me so angry. So hateful. Maybe it was a self-destructive urge. Maybe it was apathy, not caring anymore what she did to me. Maybe it was because I was so fucking sick of people commenting on my breakup. Maybe it was because she was right. I was trash for what I had done to Josh. And I hadn't had the right to do it. Maybe I just wanted to hurt the one person that deserved every barb I could throw at her instead of the people that I loved that kept ending up being my collateral damage. Those light blue eyes of hers that all boys in that school seem so obsessed with went as hard as stone. It was the same look that Pat and my father would get, that threatening look that always told me that they were just one push away from snapping.

"Don't you dare talk to me about heartbreak," she snarled at me, "What would a freak like you know anything about normal relationships?! Just because you poisoned him against me, you think you get to say anything about our relationship?! You're nothing but a fag who should have been grateful to even have a second of his time! What makes you think you have the right to throw him away like he's nothing?! You're the one that's nothing!"

From my peripheral vision, Josh stood up at the sight of his two exes snapping at each other. Boy was that weird thought, that we were just his exes, having some kind of cat fight over him. Her words went right through me and I just kept staring at her without any kind of reaction. She was completely delusional. She still thought that I was the reason for their breakup, that I had seduced him or whatever the hell other ridiculous ideas she had. She wasn't completely wrong. I was responsible. No matter what Josh had said, I was. If I hadn't been in danger, he never would have saved me, we never would have become friends, he never would have felt compelled to break it off with his group of friends, break it off with her. He had told me that it would have been inevitable, saving me had just been what he had needed to wake him up but he had hated being Saren's boyfriend and part of Wren's circle. It might have been, but that didn't change the fact that things had gone down the way they had because of me.

It just angered me that she could not accept for one fucking second that Josh hadn't really liked her, that she might be the queen of that damn high school, smart and pretty and wealthy with a bright future and all the right friends, but none of that made up for her black heart and cruelty and maybe, just maybe, the boy that she had considered her prince had been more turned off by that than because I had sucked him off or whatever delusional fantasy she chose to believe in. She would never let him go. No matter what he did, how far he tried to get from her, she would always cling to him like a leech. Just like me. I felt a pang of doubt right then, seeing how furious and psychotic she was. Was I really any different than her? I had pushed Josh away but I was still latched to him like a parasite. And now I wanted him back. I would drag him back even knowing how much I had hurt him and how much I would still hurt him. Wasn't I just as delusional and disgusting and pathetic? She was right. What right did I have to judge her? What right had I had to break Josh's heart when all he had ever shown me was love and respect?

"Because unlike you," I said coolly, the words slipping out of me like they had come from some alien intelligence beyond my control, "I know when to give up something that doesn't belong to me."

My own words stabbed me right through the heart. They were such a sour lie on my tongue. I had known when to give up something that doesn't belong to me, but I hadn't been able to stay away from it, had I? Did I still know when to give up? Should I just give up? Was I being a fool again, chasing after things that had never been mine in the first place? My words made me feel very heavy again. Weighed down by guilt and doubt. The classroom went completely silent, the air of hostility around Saren and myself so potent that even those deep in conversation had felt it. I felt dozens of eyes boring in me, but there was only one set that I cared about. I could feel them, too, but I fought to not give in to the pull of them, just keeping mine trained on Saren's angry ones, like looking into the dark eyes of a viper. Her face contorted into one of absolute, furious rage and her hand tightened on the cup she was holding. Even before her hand moved, my intuition kicked me in my ass and I ducked my head, closing my eyes, knowing what was about to happen.

The pain was immediate as Saren dumped the contents of the cup over my head. Immediate and familiar. It wasn't the first time that someone had dumped boiling water on me. My dad had done it to me a few times when he had gotten pissed at me while I had been cooking. Wren had done it once a few years ago. Not for any particular reason, just because he had wanted to. I had been right about the coffee thing. It had just been hot water that Lucy had gotten Saren. I probably should have suspected that with that damn smile Saren had given her that she had no intention of drinking it.

"Oh my god!" I heard Josh cry out, the only voice among the eerie silence of the classroom. Everyone else was too used to this, "What the hell did you do?!"

"Oh relax," Saren shot back at him, "It wasn't even that hot."

I heard the scrape of his chair and knew that he was doing it again. Coming to my rescue because no one else would. Because it was the right thing to do. I couldn't handle that, not again. I ignored the burning pain in my scalp and trailing down my neck and swept my soaking bangs away from my eyes. I didn't even check how he was faring getting from his aisle to mine with all the people milling about in his way and Saren was too transfixed on him to give a shit about me anymore, I just grabbed my bag and bolted.

"Frey!" he called after me but I knew that as soon as I hit the empty hallway, there was no way he would catch up to me. He was fast, but I've always been faster.

I made it down exactly two hallways before I had to stop and lean against some lockers, breathing hard. God, I was so tired and drained that I couldn't run more than a couple minutes. How pathetic. That's me all over. Just fucking pathetic. All I could do was run away from everything. From him. I had wanted to reach out to him, but the second he tried to help me, I had run away again out of shame. The only benefit to this mess was that I was so sleep deprived that things like pain weren't hitting me as hard. I could still feel that terrible heat on my scalp, though, and that itching, stinging pain. I really fucking hate burns. But at least she hadn't gotten me in the eyes. Fucking bitch. I really should have known better than to let her get close to me when a teacher wasn't around and she was pissed at me. If I hadn't been so miserable and depressed, I might have laughed about the whole thing. I didn't need the gash on my arm to tell me that I was suicidal, baiting Saren when she was gunning for me was plenty.

My hands itched to touch my scalp to feel the damage her stupid act of temper had caused, but I knew enough about burns to know what I needed to do. I went to the nurse partly because it was part of the ritual, partly because it was something to do, and partially because it was expected. The real story of how I had gotten my scalp burned wouldn't make it to the teachers' ears, but I was sure that someone would tell my biology teacher where I had gone when he showed up again. If not for that, I probably wouldn't have gone at all, not wanting the fuss. Maybe it was just the desensitization talking, but the thing that was bothering me the most wasn't the pain but how the back of my wet shirt was sticking to my skin.

The nurse's office only had a couple other kids waiting and when I told the nurse that I was in for burns, she rushed me in immediately. I didn't have the energy to concoct a believable story so I just pulled one out of my ass about being clumsy and spilling my own hot tea on myself. I knew her well enough to know that she wouldn't believe it and she knew me well enough to know that I wasn't going to tell her the truth. She gave me an exasperated look, but she clearly didn't have the energy that day either because she just moved on to examining my head.

"You're extremely lucky that your hair is so thick," she groused, "or this would have been a lot worse. First degree burns and your scalp will hurt for a few days. No matter how much it itches, keep your fingers off it, but I'm sure you know that since this isn't the first time we've gone through this."

I nodded, ignoring her dry tone. She got a tube of burn cream and I sat still as she worked it into my irritated scalp, being extra careful not to move my arm at all so my sleeve wouldn't ride up and expose the bandages.

"Use a wide-toothed comb on your hair, starting from the ends up and don't comb too close to your scalp. Only use chemical free shampoo and lukewarm water to wash your hair and don't use a blow dryer," she rattled off, "No hair spray, gel, any of that garbage. I'll give you this ointment to use for a few days, but you can also use a conditioner that has vitamin E and aloe vera. The vitamin E will help heal the burn and aloe will help with the itching."

I nodded although I didn't intend on doing any of that. Compared to everything else that was wrong with me, the burns were barely a footnote. The only person in my house that had a wide-toothed comb was my father and I wasn't going to ask him to use it, let alone ask for money to buy new shampoo or conditioner. The nurse finished with the ointment, handing it to me, and dug a thermometer out of the same drawer the ointment had come out of.

"What's that for?" I asked in confusion.

"To check your temperature," she said still in that dry, almost sarcastic tone of hers, "You look even worse than you did the last time you were in here. You probably caught the flu that's been going around."

"I'm not sick," I insisted with irritation, "And I definitely don't have a fever."

Of that at least I was sure. I was cold, not hot.

"And your headache?" she pressed.

"Is better," I lied, "Besides being a little tired and stupid enough to spill hot water on myself, I'm fine."

"It's your health," she looked far from convinced, but conceded sternly, "If your headache comes back or you start to feel under the weather, you need to go to a doctor. With your medical history, you can't afford to try to 'tough it out' or whatever you boys call it when you're being macho and bullheaded."

I bristled a little, more at the reminder that I was different and weaker than the other students that were catching this stupid flu than that I was being stubborn. I took the ointment and left the nurse's office. A quick glance at a clock on the wall in the hallway told me that I just had ten minutes left in that period, then it would be time to go to my short stories class. Then it would just be calculus before lunch. Oh, fucking joy. At the rate I was going, I wasn't even going to survive until lunch. I was waiting for the ceiling to fall on me or something. At least I would have a period without Josh or Saren. I didn't want to go back to biology and I didn't see the point in doing so. To explain to a teacher that I was just a clumsy idiot while Saren smirked at me? No, thanks. I couldn't handle dealing with either her or Josh while trying to think about what I was going to do.

"Because unlike you, I know when to give up something that doesn't belong to me."

My own words made my heart feel heavy again, heavy and aching. Was I doing the right thing? Was telling Josh the truth and telling him that I wanted to be friends again really the right thing for him, or was I just like Saren? Was I being selfish because I was lonely? Throwing away everything I had done to push him away? I had been so sure that breaking up with him had been the right thing. Was I really so sure that it wasn't? Or am I just that short-sighted? The more I thought about that stupid fight Saren and I had had and the things we had sniped at each other with, the more confused I felt about my motivations, and what I should do. Stay the course and hope that it was better for Josh in the long term or backtrack. I didn't know. This was like breaking up with him all over again. I didn't know what to do, if the logic I was hearing was coming from my heart instead of my head or if this would make Josh happy again.

"No, I never really did forgive him even after all these years. But I still loved him. He still loved me, too, and I thought that was enough. I thought that love was the only thing that was important."

If he could forgive me… if he still loved me… If my mother could still love my father after he had hurt her so badly, then could Josh? God those thoughts were a siren call that I couldn't stop gravitating to, my wounded heart lightening with a hope that I really couldn't afford. But it felt good. After over a week of being depressed and miserable, the thought that I hadn't completely ruined things and Josh still wanted to be my friend was such a balm.

I decided to skip the rest of biology after all. I needed to think. I needed some shred of clarity. Fat chance of that ever happening. I should have asked Kane. Instead of jumping at my stray thoughts and clinging to ghosts, I should just wait and tell Kane that I was thinking about telling Josh the truth and trying to be his friend again and if he thought I was nuts teasing Josh like that. Kane was the only one I could talk to about this. He didn't know everything, though. He wouldn't really understand it. Besides, it was like I had wrote before. The more I procrastinate, the more confused and conflicted and stagnant I get. If I put this off like I had when I had broken it off with Josh, I would be doing it for a week. It would drive me crazy, if I ever was able to do it. But none of that told me what to do.

I walked down the sciences hallway towards the wing of the school where all literature classrooms were, my head still whirling with my mental tug-o-war. I almost missed a very familiar, raised voice among the soft drone of lecturing teachers and chatting students further down the hall.


I had another one of those moments when I was sure that I was hallucinating. I had been thinking about him so much that I was hearing things. But it sounded too real and obscure to be some fantasy or trick of my mind. What was he doing out of class? I should have just kept walking on. He was obviously talking to someone and it was none of my business, but if he was out of class, maybe this was the right time? My chest felt tight as I followed the sound of his voice to a nearby classroom. A voice in my head screamed at me that this was stupid, he wasn't going to want to talk to me even if he had left class. But when he had seen Saren dump that boiling water on me, he had still reached out to me. And I had run off like a child. But… it couldn't mean nothing, right? It couldn't just be that he was a nice person and the only one who would stand up for me, could it? Of course it could, but that wasn't what I wanted to believe. It wasn't what I needed to believe.

"-no idea what you're even talking about!" he was snapping at someone, "Are you fucking insane?!"

I paused outside the classroom. I really shouldn't be listening to this, eavesdropping on whatever Josh was arguing about, but when I heard Saren's voice, smug and as sweet as honey, I couldn't pull myself away.

"You broke up with me, Josh," she said but despite her words, there was no hate or hostility in her voice. She sounded like she was talking to a child instead of the ex that had broken her heart, "I'm the one person who understands you, but you couldn't have expected anything else from him. Fags never stay together long. But I'm not angry at you about it. I forgive you for wanting to experiment. He's the one that led you astray and look at what he did to you as soon as he got bored! They're all like that, Josh. I got back at him for you because I know you're too kind and too much of a gentleman to do it yourself. And because I still love you. I always have, even when you broke my heart. I love you and I would never break up with you like that repulsive faggot did-,"

"Love? Love?! You don't even know what that word means!" he exploded at her, "After everything, every time I told you that I love him with all my heart and how much he hurt me, all you care about isn't me! It's the same way it's always been with you since the moment we met! All you care about is yourself, what you want, what you need! You don't know a single fucking thing about love or sacrificing your heart for someone else! My heart is broken and the first thing you can think of is how you can use it to get what you want! Don't give me this bullshit about how you understand me and you dumped boiling water on him for my sake! You don't care about how much pain I'm in! You're probably happy that we broke up because you're under some kind of crazed delusion that he was the only reason why I broke up with you! Like I could ever love someone as cold hearted and inhuman as you!"

"Josh," she sighed and again, her tone was one that an exasperated mother might take when her child was throwing a temper tantrum.

"No, shut up! Shut the fuck up! I don't want to hear a single word you have to say! Leave me alone and leave Frey alone! Our relationship is none of your goddamn business and he does not deserve your bullshit!"

"How can you say that after he broke up with you?!" she finally lost her own temper and yelled back at him, "What do you care what I do to him anymore after he threw you away like garbage?!"

"Because I still love him, something you'll never understand!" he screamed at her.

I stood there in the hallway, as stunned by his words as if someone had walked up to me and shot me. He still loved me?

'It isn't too late?'

Hope blossomed in my heart like a vibrant flower and this time, I didn't fight against it. It was a dangerous thing, but it felt good, like an addictive drug. I hadn't heard those words from that voice in over a week. But it felt like much longer. So much longer. Even hearing them, I couldn't wrap my head around them. That after everything I had done to him, he could still say them, and to Saren of all people. He still loved me.

"You don't even know what real love is," he continued to rant at her, his voice twisted up and thick with tears. Even as he screamed at her, he was crying, "what real friendship is! I had a real friend and I lost him and I don't even know why! He broke my heart and I hate him for what he did but I can't stop loving him. You have no idea how that feels, what it's like to love someone and not being able to stand looking at them every day! Don't you think I want him to just disappear so I can stop having to feel this way?! But you don't really care but any of that, do you? You only care about tormenting him because you can. You only want me back because I'm a thing you think you're owed! You're just a reptile without an ounce of human compassion!"


"I hate him for what he did"

Oh, right.

"Don't you think I want him to just disappear"

Yeah, that made sense. It made a lot more sense now. The pieces of the puzzle slid back into place and the world righted. That's all I could think. 'Of course.'

My heart in bloody tatters, I walked away from the classroom, continuing moving towards my Short Stories class. I felt like the bottom had dropped out of reality. Numb. Cold. Just like I had felt when I had almost gotten hit by that truck. Those words kept replaying in my head. "I hate him." "I want him to just disappear."

"But under that love, I resented him for taking his father's side over mine, for not at least giving me the respect to just tell me that he believed me, he just wasn't going to do anything about it instead of trying to make me feel like I was crazy and imagining things. No matter how hard I tried to forgive him, to understand that he had just been a teenager back then, a kid making a stupid mistake, I couldn't make that hurt go away and I couldn't forgive him. I would keep my silence and keep on loving him, being the dutiful girlfriend, and then the dutiful wife, but deep down, I still felt like he had betrayed me. That resentment festered for a long time, but I was only ever able to say anything about it when I got drunk and we would fight. Not that it mattered. He still insisted that nothing had happened. Sometimes he even said that it was my fault. I think could forgive him for not standing up for me, but blaming me for it? Lying to my face and treating me like the stereotypical, hysterical woman? I could never forgive him for that. If I had known that the boy that I had loved back then, regardless of all his faults, would only end up turning into his father, I would have left him the second he had uttered those words to me."

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. There was my clarity, huh? All the clarity I needed. All the hope I needed, too. That's the great thing about hope. It can be the most beautiful, filling emotion next to love. But the bigger and more vibrant that hope is, the bigger the hole it leaves when it's gone. And it always leaves, eventually. Mine hadn't lasted more than five minutes, but the hole it left was the size of an ocean, drowning everything. I had thought… But it didn't matter. I had heard him loud and clear. He didn't want me back, as a boyfriend, a friend, or anything in between. He didn't even want me around. I didn't blame him. I couldn't blame him because when he had been yelling at Saren, telling her that his heart had broken, there had been real and deep anguish in his voice. Why the hell would he ever want me around when all I did was remind him of everything he had lost because of me? It was like he had told Saren. The best thing I could do for him was to disappear.

I thought about doing just that. Leaving school. Leaving this town. Just disappearing like a puff of smoke in a strong breeze. Everyone would be better off if I vanished. I wished I had gone through with it that morning. I should have finished the job and ended it and not let my guilt talk me out of it. If I had, I wouldn't be walking down that fucking hallway with my chest hurting worse than my arm ever had. That's a funny thing about a broken heart. It actually feels broken, like shattering a bone. I had thought it had broken as much as it could, that it was just dead tissue. I hadn't even realized what I had been doing this entire time. Hoping. Hoping that there was still something there, that I hadn't burned as many bridges as I had thought I had. Subconscious hope. It was like a rot sneaking into the roots of a tree. But hearing Josh say that he hated me… there was nothing left.

"Frey, wait!"

Josh's voice calling my name from far behind me, right as I was thinking about that same voice almost made me jump ten feet. This time, I really wished I was hallucinating. Josh was the very last person on the planet that I wanted to deal with right then, including Pat. But when I looked behind me, he was right there walking towards me, as real as anything. Had he noticed that I had been eavesdropping on them? No, I decided. With how far back he was, there was no way he would have noticed me until long after I had started walking away. He must have finished his spat with ex-girlfriend and had started his own walk to his next class when he had spotted me. The literature wing was right next to where all the language labs are, including Josh's Spanish class. Seeing him coming after me made a flash of anger burst in me.

Why couldn't he just leave me alone? He didn't want anything to do with me, so what the hell did he want? When all I wanted was for him to notice me, he acted like I was a bad smell, and the second that I wanted to be left alone, he was always just there like a fucking splinter. Angry and hurt and fighting back tears that I refused to shed in front of him, I put him to my back like he had been doing all the previous week to me and continued walking, quickening my pace.

"No, goddamit, Frey, wait!"

I heard him jog after me. I could have bolted and taken refuge in my classroom but that only made me feel stupid, running from Josh like he was Wren or my father. But in the last five minutes, he had damaged me more than either my father or Wren ever could. I only stopped when I felt him snag the back of my shirt, not wanting to look like a lunatic by trying to wrestle it away from him. I turned to face him, putting on a mask of irritation so he wouldn't see that I was bleeding from his barbs.

"Just hold on. I'm not trying to start anything," he attempted to assure me, "I'm so sorry for what Saren did. It was all my fault. Are you ok?"

I stared at him incredulously.

"Are you ok?"

For a moment, it was like I had traveled back in time to when Josh had cared about me. His face was gentle, his blue eyes kind. He actually seemed to want to know that I was alright. That should have comforted me, some kind of physical proof that, at the very least, he didn't want me to be physically hurt. But all it did was make me madder. This was the same person that had just told his ex, a girl that loathed my guts and had been after me since day one, that he hated me and wanted me to disappear. He had told her that our relationship was none of her business and then had blabbed his feelings, things he clearly couldn't tell me. He had spent all last week ignoring me and now he wanted to know that I was ok? He dared to look at me like that? Kinder than anyone else ever had, like I was still someone special to him? He was two-faced. Just like everyone else. He could pretend that he was the nice guy, just doing a good thing for his poor, pitiful ex-boyfriend when all the while, he wanted to stab me in the back.

"Leave me alone," I snapped at him, simmering with hurt anger.

My anger seemed to rebound back onto him because he suddenly looked as angry as I felt, his eyes hardening in a way that he has never looked towards me before. He might have gotten mad at me before and we might have fought and raised our voices at each other, but he's never lost his temper at me like that before. That look on his face… it was the same one my father would get when I had disobeyed.

"Dammit, Frey-," he snapped as I started to turn away, ready to walk away again, his cheeks flushing with frustration.

His hand darted out towards me, probably just to grab me, but in that moment, I didn't see him, not really. At least, I didn't see the boy that had once been my friend, who would never, ever physically hurt me. I saw the boy that had told Saren he hated me. I saw the boy whose heart I had broken, who deserved to take his pound of flesh from me. I saw my father and when his hand moved towards me, all I could think, even though it was completely ridiculous, was that he was furious at me for breaking his heart and he was going to hit me. Instinct took over like someone had flipped a switch. I took a dodging step back, out of his range, and flinched. Hard. There was no mistaking what I had just done. Josh's hand jerked back from me like he had been burned. He stared at me, his eyes wide and completely horrified, the coloring draining from his face.

Josh knows how I am. He's seen me flinch from people making quick, aggressive motions around me. He's seen me withdraw and become apprehensive when people raise their voice at me. But I have never, ever in all the months that we've been friends, even after all those other months of him tormenting me with Wren's friends, I have never flinched from him. Since he saved me from Wren and he showed me what he's really like, kind and patient and understanding and caring, I have not had a single moment when I have seriously thought he would hit me.

"I would never! I would never do that to you! Not ever! I would never lay a hand on you like that!"

"I know that, Josh. You know that I know that."

"Say it. Please, please tell me, Frey."

"You would never hurt me. Never, Josh. You would never strike or harm me."

Were things really that broken between us? So broken that everything that I knew about him… so broken that I didn't trust him anymore? That I no longer felt safe around him? That I no longer believed what I had told him that day when Lucy had insinuated that she believed Josh was the one that had turned my face into mashed potatoes? No, he might have hurt me… he might have smashed my heart to pieces and eviscerated the rest of me, but I knew he would never think about hitting me. He might hate me but doing that would never cross his mind. But that belief no longer lived in my bones, only that dead heart. I might still love him, but my body didn't trust him anymore. Because it knew the second I heard him say those things to Saren that had destroyed us. He had told me once that there was nothing I could do to make him hate me. But I had. I had taken that seemingly eternal love for me and I had shattered it just as surely as he had shattered me. I didn't know him anymore.

I took advantage of his horror and paralyzing pain, letting him wonder over my reaction, and slipped away from him. He let me go. I guess after I had just acted like he was going to clock me one, he didn't want anything to do with me, even just to keep up the act of checking up on me. That was fine. I didn't care. This was what I had wanted in the first place, right? For him to leave me alone? To push him away so he could finally move on with his life? Mission fucking successful. I don't need him. I never did. What am I so upset for? He's just some guy I knew for a few months, not even a full year. Just another friend that's come and gone, just like all the others. That's life, it happens. Nothing to get so maudlin about. I lived my whole life without him, I can live the rest of it just fine. I always knew he would leave one way or another.

Tears poured down my face as I walked down the art wing hallway, my classroom in sight. I had to move on. I had to let him go, like everyone and everything else. For real this time. No more thinking about him every second. No more thinking about calling him or visiting his house because I was having a bad day. No more looking for him when I walk into a classroom. No more obsessing. No more hoping. That glass wall between us is bulletproof and no matter how much I beat it until my hands are bloody, no matter how much I shatter it over and over again, it will always be there. I hadn't completely understood that dream I had before I had broken up with him, but I do now.

I don't need him. I don't need anyone. I never have. I've always been alone. I've always depended on myself. When my parents had left me alone in the house all day when I had been six, I had walked to the library by myself. And that night when my mother had been at work and my father had been too passed out drunk to bother with dinner, I had tried to make myself macaroni and cheese from what I remembered seeing my mother doing. The pasta had been mushy and I had made a mess, but I had fed my own damn self and the next time my parents had been too drunk to remember to make me dinner, I had gotten a little better at it. I had taught myself to wash my clothes and sew and cook and use the vacuum cleaner before I had even gone to public school. And after Nate had died and I had survived that suicide attempt, for all those years, I had gone on. Alone and depressed, but I had gone on with no one's help at all. Just like always. One person wasn't going to change that.

I slipped into the classroom just as the bell signaling the end of the previous period rang. I hurriedly sat down at my seat. My vision was too blurry from the damned tears to get my bearings, my throat tight as I tried to keep my breath from hitching into the sobs that wanted to burst out of me. I rubbed at my soaked eyes, but they didn't want to stop. Through the tears, I saw the bandages peaking from under my shirt sleeve. It kept slipping up. I tugged it back higher up my wrist, hiding the gauze. Looking at them suddenly made me feel like a fool. Kill myself? How pathetic. I need to grow the hell up. My mom needs me. Josh never did.

I gave scrubbing the tears off my face another try as people started to filter into the classroom, this time using my sleeve and was more successful. Anyone that got a good look at me could probably tell I was crying, but for once, it didn't bother me. Nothing much bothered me at all. If there was anything on my mind, it was how dead tired I was. Either the caffeine pills were already wearing off, which was unlikely, or they weren't working because I felt like fifty miles of bad road. I just wanted to go home, except I didn't at all because I knew what might be waiting for me there and it wasn't like I could sleep anyway. I didn't want to be at school and I didn't want to go home, I didn't want much of anything. I had no idea where I was going to go or what I was going to do when school let out. Work was a sanctuary but I would have a few hours between that and the end of school and if I showed up at Leneski's looking the way that I did that early, someone was going to ask all the wrong questions. Probably Kane and Leneski himself.

I don't remember anything from the rest of that class. I'm not sure if I had another time lapse or I had just fallen into this mental black hole that wouldn't allow me to escape its pull to notice anything outside of myself. I don't even remember if my teacher had scolded me for once again not having any homework to turn in. I'm sure he had, but my mind is completely blank. I guess that's a bit scary, that someone had a conversation with me that I don't remember. It was like that last bout of insomnia, but I wasn't that far gone yet, was I? I had slept a little the other day, obviously not enough, but I hadn't thought I would be having these time lapses and hallucinations so soon. The next thing I concretely remember is sitting down at my desk in calculus. Complete auto-pilot, I guess. I was thinking about just going back to the nurse once the class was over and telling her that I really was sick after all. I didn't want to go home, but not taking the time to lie down for a little while had been a mistake. Never mind the sleep deprivation, the blood loss and my depression were making me feel completely hollowed out. Calculus was about the last place on the planet that I wanted to be, but compared to everything else I had dealt with that day, Harkins felt like a pesky mosquito at worst.

Josh walked into the classroom shortly after I did. My chest went tight when he came down his aisle and sat down at the desk directly across from me, but somehow that was the most reaction I had to him. I felt his eyes on me in a twisted and rather irritating bit of irony, but it was easy to ignore him for once. I barely had to try. Harkins walked into the classroom and all the chatting strangled off like someone viciously twisting a wet washcloth. I tensed, but that was nothing new. The two of us had been at each other's throats before I had come out. She didn't like anyone from my side of town, especially teenagers, but she especially disliked me because she liked the Parkers and knew that Saren and I couldn't stand each other, and because I hadn't bothered to fight against my urge to mouth off to her whenever she looked down her nose at me. We knew about each other's reputations so even before we had spoken to each other, we could practically smell the other's disdain. It also didn't help that she was a rather outspoken homophobe, so she hated me just on the principle that I had rumors flying around about me from middle school that I might be a fag.

I simmered a little just seeing her, my anger on a wire trigger by then. That feeling just from her being in my presence should have clued me in that I should take that trip to the nurse's office before lunch, like right then, because I wasn't in any state to be civil to the bitch. She reminded me too much of Saren and Wren and especially Pat. That smug way he would look at me, practically oozing the fact that he knew I was so far beneath him that he could do anything he wanted to me and there was nothing I could do about it. My patience for people like that had run out. Who she was and my temper were a very dangerous mixture that had the potential to blow up, but I was even apathetic about getting into trouble with her for about the billionth time since last semester.

Sure enough, Harkins was like a shark that had sniffed the blood of a wounded seal in the water and went after me almost the second class started. There were no warm hellos to the class as she put down her stack of papers and there never have been from her in all the months I've been in that stupid class. She just immediately launched into telling us that we would be tested on everything we had learned last week tomorrow and out of the goodness of her heart (ok she hadn't said that part, but her tone pretty much implied it), instead of heaping more new lessons on our heads, that class would be a refresher so not a single one of us would have an excuse to not ace the test if we could take our eyes off our cell phones for long enough to pay attention to her class. That or we were just incompetent. She had not subtly at all looked at me when she said that, but I was used to that barb. It made me bristle, but I forced myself to ignore her. I wasn't the least bit surprised when she filled the chalkboard with a variety of equations and word problems on the board and I was the very first person she called up to solve one.

I should have told her to fuck off, which might have been an overreaction, but it would have cut through the bullshit a lot more efficiently instead of dragging it out. At the very least, I should have told her that I was sick from a migraine and couldn't think well enough to do her stupid problems. It would have been embarrassing but she had once again put me in a position where embarrassment was inevitable and admitting that the numbers and letters and lines and symbols on the board looked like gibberish to me probably would have been less embarrassing than demonstrating that to the entire class. But that would have required logical thinking and I was so far past that at that point.

I got up slowly from my chair and trudged to the blackboard like my body was made of wood. I picked up a piece of chalk and looked at the equation that Harkins wanted me to do. I don't know why I even bothered. I couldn't remember a single thing that we had been taught last week, not even back when I had been doing my homework. My head was too much of a jumbled mess of everything from the last twenty-four hours, let alone everything that had happened last week. It felt impossible to sort through all of it and extract specific information from any of my lessons the previous week, let alone from calculus. And that was considering that I had paid enough attention in class last week to even have those memories in the first place. With a clear head, I might be able to recall tiny details from Tuesday, maybe Wednesday, but the rest of the week when I had been fully swallowed by my apathy was a complete wash. As I stared at them, the numbers and symbols blurred into a white and green mush, becoming even more indecipherable and a terrible, white-hot pain filled my skull, turning my vision grey again like it had that morning when I had almost cut my hair off.

"Mr. Johnson," Harkins' voice cut through the pain like her nails were being raked over my brain, "sometime this century would be nice."

I pulled my attention from the chalkboard to level a glare at her, not caring if she sent me to the principal's office for having an attitude. I figured she wouldn't since keying me up was her goal and my glaring at her probably satisfied her, knowing she was getting to me. The sight of her, like the numbers, was blurry and disjointed. My eyes were watery from the pain in my head and I hated that she probably mistook them for me crying in frustration. I looked back at the problem on the board, but it wasn't any clearer. I knew without clearly seeing Harkins' face that she was smirking arrogantly at my back. She knew that I didn't know the answer and could have just sent me back to my seat with little fuss, but no, she had to humiliate me.

"So math isn't your strongest subject, so what? Harkins knows it and she picked you on purpose, she set you up to fail, not you. It was a fucked-up think for her to do, but it isn't your failure, it's hers as a teacher."

'Shut up, Josh, just shut the fuck up.'

"We have been working on derivatives for two weeks, Johnson," Harkins sighed in exasperation even though I knew she was enjoying this, "A monkey could do these problems. You have no excuse to be this brainless."

In my head, I turned around and punched her in her smug face. I think if my brain didn't hurt so much that mere movement was agony, I might not have been able to control my temper enough to keep myself from doing it just on the principle that punching Ms. Harkins would probably feel really, really good, consequences be damned. In reality, I put the chalk back down, I didn't even slam it down or throw it, and went back to my seat. I could hear Saren, Lucy, and a bunch of others sniggering at me. I tensed as I walked past Josh's desk where I was sure he would be laughing, too. The fear was as ridiculous as thinking that he would really hit me. Whether he hated me or not, that wasn't the kind of person he was, but I couldn't shake that fear, that surety. I could feel his eyes on me as I sat down, but his laugh wasn't among theirs. I'm ashamed to admit that for all my big talk about putting him behind me, the relief that I felt when I didn't hear him snickering with the rest of the inhuman hyenas at my embarrassment was so strong and so painfully bitter that I almost cried. I chalked it up to a mix of my exhaustion, the lingering symptoms of blood loss, and my anger at Harkins. I've never dealt with humiliation well, especially public humiliation.

I stewed in that anger for a while as she forgot about me for the next fifteen minutes and moved on to her next victim, calling up someone else to work on the problem with more success than me, although they seemed pretty nervous after her treatment of me and did one of the steps wrong and had to start over. I pulled my calculus book out of my bag and opened to the chapter I assumed we were on just to look like I was doing something besides simmering and fantasizing about walking out of that school and never looking back. When all the problems on the board had been answered, she went around the classroom to collect last night's homework. I thought about my chances of slipping out of the classroom undetected. The woman is as blind as a mole, it wouldn't be that difficult. I wasn't ashamed that I once again didn't have anything to turn in, I just didn't want to deal with her anymore and I knew that she was going to get on my case again. But if I did, that only meant that I would have to deal with Stoan, which was in some ways worse than dealing with Harkins, especially after the last time.

"Well, let's have it," she drawled when she got to my desk.

Her tone was heavily beleaguered, like she was weary of dealing with me, but I knew her game and I was sick of being forced to play it.

"I don't have my homework," I said flatly, only just barely managing to not snap at her.

She snorted.

"Why am I not surprised?" she said in this holier-than-thou tone that drove me up a wall, even though it had been several months since I had missed turning in a homework assignment that hadn't been because of an illness or injury, "Mr. Johnson, do you want to be dumber than a monkey for the rest of your life, because I sure as hell don't want to be stuck teaching you for the rest of mine. With your grades, you can't afford to not pay attention in my class or miss a homework assignment, yet you think you can just coast on by like you're sleepwalking. Is that it? Are you lazy or are you just too stupid to understand the course work for basic calculus?"

I squeezed my right hand into a tight fist, my nails digging into my palm and leaving bloody, crescent shaped indentations. It was better than hitting her, but I didn't stop myself because I didn't want to get in trouble or I knew that it was crossing a pretty big line, I just didn't want to give her that satisfaction of knowing how much she had angered me. She stared me down for a couple seconds, like she was daring me to do something. Lose my cool. Scream at her. Give her any reason to send me to the principal. She would love nothing more than to get me detention, or better yet, suspended. But I refused to rise to the bait, quickly looking away from her and back down at my textbook, not responding to her at all. She knew that she had gotten to me, all she had to do was see how rigidly I was sitting and how hard my eyes were as I looked at nothing. She snorted again derisively and started walking back down the aisle, putting her back to me.

"Useless faggot," she murmured under her breath so lowly that only someone right next to her would have been able to hear either word.

That person being me. Even then, I barely heard her. I almost thought that those words were in my head, would have if her face still hadn't been in view and I could see those words on her lips. She hadn't intended for me to hear it, but that didn't do a single fucking thing to curb the intense wave of rage I felt hearing that word, the same word that's haunted me like a curse since I had been twelve years old, come out of her. This entitled, old, nasty bitch who had accused me of sexually assaulting and practically brainwashing Josh just because he had decided to be friends with me. Who had always been there with some snide little comment or a pompous smirk to remind me of what I was and where I belonged, under her shoe heel. Just like Pat. Just like Saren. Just like Wren. Just like my father. Instead of grey, this time I saw red.

"Homophobic cunt," I muttered back hatefully, but unlike her, I made damn sure that she and everyone within a couple feet of us could hear it as clear as day.

The classroom had been respectfully quiet as people studied for the impending test, but when those harsh words left my mouth, the silence was as deafening as a tomb. Every eye in the room was suddenly on me. Even classmates that were seated too far away to have heard what I said turned to look at me, sensing that something had happened. Josh had been staring at me that entire time and I knew he had heard me with crystal clarity because from the corner of my vision, I saw his eyes go wide in shock. He's seen Harkins and I butt heads a thousand times and even he's called her a bitch a few times, but I have never called the woman a cunt before, not even in private conversation with him. Hell, the only person I've ever called a cunt outside of my head is Saren and I don't care if it's misogynistic or not, I refuse to feel bad about that. But I've never uttered that word around Harkins, let alone called her that to her face, no matter how much she pissed me off. I've never lost that much control, but it wasn't a loss of control. It had been deliberate and I meant it. She had never called me a faggot when I had been in ear shot before, either.

She whirled on me, her eyes wide and bright with utter fury, her face pinched and pale. She looked like a harpy.

"What did you just call me?" she hissed at me.

Her looking down on me the way she was made my blood boil again, so I stood up from my desk, meeting her angry stare with my own, icy hate, unashamed, not caring about apologizing or trying to take it back or try to make it seem like I had said something else. I wasn't sorry and I wasn't backing down this time.

"Sorry," I said coldly, "I didn't realize you were hard of hearing as well as blind, let me spell it out for you: C. U. N. T. Cunt."

A few people behind me gasped, but they had all faded into background noise for me. The world had narrowed down to just Harkins and myself. The woman had lost her pallor of enraged shock and had gone bright red, her eyes narrowed to almost a squint of pure rage.

"You little bastard, I'll see you expelled for that!" she snarled at me, now looking less like a harpy and more like a dog barking its head off at a passerby, "Go to the office, now!"

I didn't need to be told again. I swiped up my bag and strode out of the classroom, relieved to get out of there and away from Josh's wide-eyed stare of horror and Harkins' screaming at me and that word she had muttered. As I passed her, I only narrowly repressed the urge to punch her, that word still echoing in my head, and from the look she gave me, she had repressed the urge to slap me as well. Probably best that I get out of there before one, or both, of us got charged with assault. When I left the classroom and walked down the deserted hallway towards the principal's office, I felt like I could breathe again, the quiet dimming the sharp edge of my headache. Or maybe it was just getting away from Josh and Harkins.

I could have walked out of there. Just left the school and gone anywhere else. I was sure I was going to get expelled, just like Harkins had threatened. I had a record a mile long at that point. Punching Saren and Wren. Talking back to teachers. Getting sent to the principal's office more than probably any other student in the history of that school system. I hadn't just talked back to Harkins, but called her a slur in front of the entire class. She was probably on the phone with Stoan right now ranting to him about it. She wouldn't be satisfied until I was kicked out and even if he could ignore her demands, he couldn't ignore me calling an elderly teacher a cunt. So why bother? I didn't want to talk to him. I didn't want to deal with his professional respect and questions about it, like knowing why I had called her that would change what I had done. But the thought to leave didn't occur to me at the time. I just didn't care what happened to me. That that was probably my last day at that high school didn't faze me in the slightest. I was done with all of it. I was done with the bullying, the abuse, from being called a faggot every fucking day of my life. I was done with trying to be something I'm not. I was done with failing. I was done with Josh.

So, I walked to Stoan's office because that's what I had been told to do and it didn't matter anymore. If I felt anything at all from my impending expulsion, it was at what would happen when my mother found out. She would be heartbroken and I wanted to feel bad about that, but so what? I break her heart every damn day. It's inevitable. And really, what did she expect? I was just another Johnson failure, that was inevitable, too. Just another high school dropout. Just another loser. My father had been saying I wouldn't make it through school since I had been a kid. I was too stupid. He was right about that, but he never would have guessed that I would get expelled over cussing out a teacher instead of my grades, so that was some kind of victory, wasn't it? The only one I would ever get over on him.

Thankfully, I was the only one in principal's office when I walked in so I didn't need to deal with anyone as I waited except for the receptionist. She gave me a wry look as I sat down in one of the chairs, seeming more amused than reproachful for some reason.

"Hello again, Frey," she said, "I'll let him know you're here."

"Thanks," I murmured.

The chair felt good, so did being able to rest my throbbing arm on a cushioned armrest instead of a hard desk, but what felt the best was the utter silence in that office as the receptionist went into Stoan's main office, leaving me alone. I wanted nothing more than to rest my burning eyes and drift off. If Stoan did expel me, I wondered if there was anywhere I could crash for a few hours. My best bet would be a shelter, but that was too embarrassing and I didn't want them asking questions that I had no answers to. I couldn't think of anywhere at that hour, unless I checked myself in to the hospital or went to Kane's if he was even home. Sleeping on a park bench or at a bus terminal would get too much attention. I could go to Ms. Liddle's and beg to use her couch until work, but that was even more embarrassing. And she knew too much about what was going on at home, she might guess things that were too close to the truth.

I felt helpless again, just like whenever I had insomnia and I wanted to sleep so badly, but my body refused to listen to me. Only I was trapped by completely different circumstances this time. Little by little, everything had been taken away from me. Josh had taken the beach and the library. Justin had taken my work. Pat and my father had taken my home. And I had taken away my only sanctuary from myself. I had nowhere left to go that I felt even a sliver of comfort or safety. Can you feel homeless when you still have a place to go home to? It just doesn't feel like home anymore? Of course, I had asked myself that very same question when my father had tried to molest me that first time.

"Come in, Frey," Stoan's voice woke me up from my stupor.

He was standing in the doorway of his office, ushering me in. I hadn't even noticed the receptionist had gone back to her desk. I got off the chair stiffly, moving like an old man. I had that hollowed out feeling again. Maybe I was bleeding again. I hadn't checked the bandage since I had left my house. Or maybe it was still the effects of the same blood loss. Had I had anything to drink since I had left work? I couldn't remember. I followed Stoan into his office where he shut the door behind us and I relocated myself in the chair across from his desk. He sat in his with a heavy sigh.

"I was really hoping I wouldn't be seeing you this week," he scolded me.

He sounded like he always did when I came in, exasperated to see me but not hard or angry. It wasn't the tone I had expected him to take after what I had just done. I knew he didn't like Harkins, but she was still an employee, and an elderly woman. He should have been angry with me that I had called her a cunt of all things, but he was acting like it was just a regular day of me being tossed to him because of a slight attitude problem. He waited for me to respond, but I didn't have anything to say about his comment. I didn't have much to say at all besides telling him to just get this over with. He sighed as he realized I wasn't taking his bait.

"Do you want to tell me what happened?" he asked, unnecessarily as I was sure Harkins had given him an earful.

"I called Ms. Harkins a cunt," I repeated, my voice rough and emotionless, "That's all there is to it."

"I doubt that," he muttered, scrubbing a hand over his face, "Is there any particular reason why you decided to call her that particular word?"

'Because she was being a cunt,' almost slipped out of me, but I had no intention at all of telling him that she had called me a faggot. It wasn't that I was trying to protect her. I would be ecstatic if she got canned whether I was expelled or not, but it would open a whole bunch of cans of worms that I didn't want to open. Like talking with Stoan about my being gay and having to prove something that either no one but myself had heard or if they had, no one would care enough to stick up for me. And so what if she had called me a fag? I knew how she felt about me and half the school had thrown that word at me at some point. It wasn't going to keep me from getting expelled and I just didn't care. I just shrugged.

"She was on my case and I got angry," I murmured, the closest thing to the truth that I was willing to admit to.

It felt more like an excuse than a reason for snapping at her the way I had. She had been on my case that entire class, sure, and yeah, hearing her throw that stupid slur at me had pissed me off, but it didn't account for how good it had felt to take her down a peg for once. I had liked doing it and nothing excused that. I really am no better than my father, even if Harkins was no innocent and probably deserved it.

"I know you and Ms. Harkins… don't get along," he said diplomatically, "and I know she has a habit of blowing things out of proportion when it comes to you-,"

"She isn't lying," I snapped at him, "I'm not trying to get out of trouble. I called her a cunt in front of the entire class, anyone there can tell you what happened."

He frowned at that, although I don't know why. Having witnesses to rely on should have been a relief, that he didn't need to take anyone's side.

"Frey, are you alright?" he suddenly asked me. That damnable question that made me want to tear my hair out.

"What does that have to do with anything?" I shot back testily, getting irritated that he was dragging this out. Talking was exhausting.

"Well, I know that you were sent to the nurse earlier today because of burns. Saying what you did to Ms. Harkins is not acceptable, but if you lost your temper because you're in pain-,"

He was trying to give me an out, I realized with shock. Why? Because he didn't like Harkins that much? Because he pitied me? I hated it, being coddled like that. I wasn't the kind of person that needed to be looked out for. I wasn't the victim here and I rushed to cut him off before he could even finish the sentence.

"That has nothing to do with it. It was an accident. First degree burns, I barely feel them," I lied.

It was more that my arm was hurting me so much and I was so sleep deprived that my scalp was more like a minor annoyance, but I didn't bother to explain that.

"Alright," he conceded, "But you don't look well. You look worse than you did the last time we spoke. If something is going on at home-,"

I was starting to get really pissed off again. I didn't want to be there, talking about this shit. I didn't want to deal with his questions and statements like 'if something is going on at home.' I didn't want to remember. More and more, with every passing second of that day, I wished that Josh had never spoken up in my head. I wish I had just ended things when I should have. It would have been better than this shit.

"I was up too late last night," I admitted, "That's all. I'm fine."

"Frey, do not insult my intelligence," he said with a hard tone, "Or my eyes. You're as pale as a sheet and you don't look like someone that just didn't sleep well enough for one night. You look sick and you aren't acting like yourself lately. It isn't just Harkins, it's all of your teachers. You've been spacey, not turning in your homework assignments, your grades on tests have been in a steady decline in the last week, and you've skipped several classes without a note from your parents or a doctor. Your mother took you out of class this morning, but you showed up hours before she said you would and now you're claiming to me that you aren't sick. This isn't my first year as a principal, Frey, I know when something is going on. As much as you and Ms. Harkins have been at each other's throats, you have never crossed this kind of line with her before, so don't tell me that you're fine and there isn't any kind of reason for you losing your temper."

I felt myself flush at getting caught in my rather obvious lies, but there was absolutely nothing I could tell him to appease him. What? That I hadn't slept normally in over a week? That my father's friend had molested me? That I had broken up with my boyfriend and now he hates my guts? That I had tried to kill myself that morning and the only thing I regretted was that I had failed? Yeah, that would go over real well, right with a one way trip to a mental institution.

"Whether I'm sick or not doesn't excuse me calling her that," I said coldly.
"No, it doesn't," he agreed, "Which is why you're still going to be punished, but you can't sit there and tell me this was unprovoked. I know you well enough to know that you aren't the sort to throw slurs like that around just to rile things up. And I know that Ms. Harkins also has a history of treating you unfairly. If you won't tell me what's going on with you, can you at least tell me what she said or did that set you off this time? It won't get you off the hook, but she does not deserve to get away with being unprofessional."

I didn't have to read between the lines there. I knew that ever since he had found out she had tried to keep me from going to the nurse that one time that he had been looking for any excuse to fire her, but I refused to tell him the truth. Maybe I was ashamed of it, of her calling me a fag, or how she had called me useless or no better than a stupid monkey or the rest of it. Or maybe I was so apathetic that I really didn't care what happened to her. I had to look away from him, knowing that if I lied, he would be able to tell. He sighed heavily again.

"Fine," he said and actually sounded a little angry with me for refusing to answer all his questions, "You have detention for an hour every day this week and next. You will also submit a two-paged essay on why words like that are unacceptable and hurtful, no matter who the target is. And you will apologize to Ms. Harkins tomorrow after the both of you have had some time to cool down, is that clear?"

I stared at him utter shock. What the hell was he talking about? Detention? After I had called a teacher a cunt?

"She wants me expelled," I argued.

"I know what she wants," he said tiredly, "but that isn't her job, it's mine, and as inappropriate as what you said was, I don't expel students for using vulgar language towards teachers, especially when they don't make a regular habit of it. I would suspend you, but between your history with each other and that you are very obviously not fine, I'm willing to keep it as extended detention on one condition: if you come into school tomorrow looking like this or worse, I'm calling your parents and telling them to take you to a doctor. I will also tell them about your attendance issues and your declining grades. I'm serious, Frey, or I really will suspend you."

I had to look away from him again as my chest tightened with a mix of shock, embarrassment, and most of all, anger. I think it was the fact that I was angry and not that he was going easy on me again that shocked me so much. Because it wasn't him threatening to suspend me if I didn't take better care of myself or dragging my parents into this that angered me, or even him insisting that I wasn't fine, it was that he was giving me detention, not even suspension, let alone expulsion, out of pity. I know he meant it as a kindness, and because he knew I was hiding something about all this and maybe he was even right and he didn't expel students for calling teachers cunts, but all I saw right then was that he had taken one look at me and decided I was pitiful, sick, pathetic. Just like Josh. Just like Kane.

Why didn't any of them understand that I deserved this? And I deserved whatever they could throw at me? Maybe I had lashed out at Josh because he had hurt me, but I deserved that pain just as much as I deserved his hate. And maybe I was tired and depressed and anxious and all that shit and I had lashed out at Harkins because of it and because she had thrown the first slur, but that didn't mean I didn't deserve to be punished for it. I was no better than Pat, throwing that word in my mother's face at every opportunity or behind her back to my father whenever he was pissed at her. Detention wasn't a punishment, it was a stay of execution. And all Stoan's act of mercy meant to me was a humiliation, not him being nice. And I guess, if I'm being completely honest with myself here, some part of me had wanted him to expel me. Wanted to fall just a little bit further. Wanted for another ledge of my life to crumble away into the abyss. Sure, I didn't want to be there. Being expelled meant not having to deal with bullying, at least at school, anymore. And I wanted to run away as far and as fast from Josh and that pain as I could.

But mostly, I wanted to throw it away. Eight years of work and striving towards something I neither deserved nor was destined for me. Just like all those writings I had thrown in the trash. And here this man was depriving me of that when I had actually done something worth being expelled for. I wanted to lash out at him like I had Harkins, maybe even physically instead of just verbally, but Stoan isn't Harkins. He's been nothing but nice and respectful of me. One of the few people in that fucking school that has been. I might have been half out of my mind and furious and looking for something to destroy, but he didn't deserve that from me. So, still not looking at him, I just gave a terse nod of acceptance. He gave another sigh, obviously not satisfied with that, but knew it was the best he was going to get out of me.

"I will deal with Ms. Harkins, you just go to lunch, alright, Frey? And please try to stay out of this office for the rest of the week?" he asked dryly.

I gave another nod instead of outright promising that, which is just as well because it was a promise I would have broken by the end of the day, let alone the week. I didn't point out to him that it wasn't lunch, realizing that he was letting me skip my computer science class probably to give me some time to get my head back together. I wasn't going to complain about it. At least I wouldn't have to see Wren for another block. He opened the door for me and closed it behind me when I left his office, probably because he was going to call Harkins down to discuss things with her. She was going to be far from happy about this. I guess that was a small victory over what she had called me, a better one than calling her a cunt out of spite anyway. She would be insufferable towards me for a long time after this, but I didn't care. I tried to think about positives, like how I didn't have to hurt my mother by telling her that I was expelled, she didn't even have to know about this incident at all unless Stoan had been lying about his threat and would call her anyway, but I was just too angry at myself and bitter about everything.

The secretary gave me a little wave as I left the office, but I barely noticed her, too caught up in my twisted feelings and even more twisted thoughts. It was only a couple minutes into the new period and I should really figure out what I was doing to stay away from Wren when it ended and spend the next two periods. I should probably get something to eat. After not eating since the night before and my blood loss, I was sure that my blood sugar was doing something freaky. At the very least, I should drink something to keep hydrated before I keeled over. But that was probably the most I could do since I didn't have a cent on me. But hey, I'm a thief now, if I really needed some food, I could just steal it, couldn't I? The thought was heavy and repulsively bitter, strangely weighing me down more than anything that had happened in Calculus or with Stoan.

I scrubbed my hand over my face and opened the door to the main office. I felt too tired. Too empty. I wasn't going to make it through the second half of school at this rate. I needed to take more pills. I made it a few feet down the hallway, lowered my hand, and almost ran physically into Josh. I jerked back, my heart hammering unpleasantly in my chest suddenly seeing him there, like he was a fucking stalker or a vengeful ghost. What the hell was he doing there of all places? He had just been standing there, leaning slightly against the wall and staring off at nothing like he had nothing better to do when he was supposed to be in his photography class. Or like he had been waiting for me. Was that it? Had he made a beeline here as soon as class had let out and he was waiting to catch me leaving the principal's office? So he could gloat about however Stoan had punished me? Tell me that he hoped I had been expelled? I knew, logically, that he was not that sort of person. Just earlier that day he had tried to check up on me, but I couldn't stop that paranoia, or my bitterness at what I had overheard him saying to Saren. He was the last person on the entire planet that I wanted to see right then, including Wren. He startled a little, too, but nowhere nearly as bad as I had, telling me that my theory was right, he had been waiting for me.

"Frey," he started.

I didn't want to hear whatever he had to say. I walked past him, not even looking at him.

"Wait," he lightly jogged after me, matching my stride, "Dammit, Frey, will you just let me talk to you for a second and stop brushing me off?"

I stopped, but only so I could glare at him. Why the hell did he think that I wanted to talk to him? I was the one that had told him to leave me alone. And he was the one that had told his ex-girlfriend that he wanted me to disappear, so why the hell was he suddenly hounding me?

"What the hell happened in Calculus?" he demanded, "I heard what you said to Harkins. What is wrong with you? You haven't been acting like yourself and you don't look well. Are you-,"

"Why do you care?" I snapped at him, my blood boiling at hearing that from him, "Just fuck off and mind your own business."

He recoiled a little at my harsh words and I felt my heart bleed a little more. I didn't want to hurt him. I was angry and hurt myself, but I still loved him. Despite everything he had said, I still loved him with all my battered heart. I didn't want to hurt him anymore. He looked so unsure of himself now. He was probably remembering how I had flinched from him earlier. I used his unsteadiness to turn from him and try to walk away, but when he saw that I was about to walk away from him again, he instantly lost his hesitance and snagged my arm, pulling me back.

I almost flinched again, but it wasn't from any instinctual reaction of guilt and survival this time. He had grabbed my left arm and as he squeezed it and dragged me back with a jerk, I felt a terrible, sharp pain and an instantly recognizable wetness. I probably would have flinched from the shock of that sudden pain alone, but it was his touch that paralyzed me. Even through my jacket and shirt and bandages, I could feel his hand. It was heartbreakingly familiar, that touch. His hand was warm and pleasant, firm but not rough. If it weren't for my injury, it wouldn't have hurt at all. I felt a wave of dizziness that had nothing at all to do with the physical pain as, for a moment, I was somewhere else and that touch was much gentler. Just him touching my arm or my face or my shoulder, his fingertips grazing my skin. I felt like another hand had sunk into my chest and was crushing my heart.

"I know you said that you thought it would be better for both of us if we weren't friends anymore," his tone was gentler, kinder, and if I let myself, I could hear the love that I wanted to so badly to hear in it, if I didn't know it was a lie, "But I do care for you. You're still my friend and I'm worried about you."

I told myself not to look at him. Just pull away and run, just like earlier that day. Tell him to go fuck himself and that you don't care how he feels, he stopped having a say in your life over a week ago. Do anything but don't look at him because those words were too much. I care for you. I'm worried about you. I'm still your friend. I couldn't handle those words. They made me feel like I was suffocating. But I could survive if I just didn't look at him. But of course, that was impossible. The second I heard that tone of his… that soft, honest tone that he would have whenever he knew I was having a hard time and he was trying to get me to open up, that one that radiated love and friendship and kindness… I was powerless against it and I couldn't stop myself from looking into his eyes.

The expression on his face was like a slap to mine. It wasn't just his tone, but his eyes. His expression was as soft as his voice, and just as open and kind. There wasn't a single glimmer of hate in those eyes when I looked into them. Just the calming, comforting depth of blue that I had always known since the second he had dropped his mask for me. The person looking back at me, telling me that he still cared for me, was not the person who had told Saren Parker that he wished I would just disappear. It was my best friend, reaching out to me because he sensed that something was wrong and I needed help. It was the boy that I loved and who had loved me back fiercely. Feeling his hand on me, the warmth from his body seeping into me, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to kiss him and hold him so badly that it made me feel like I was breaking down again. Like just him holding my arm had made me go mad with all the desires going through me. That familiar but no less overpowering electricity dancing across my skin, and he wasn't even touching my skin.

I think… if he had just come to me then and I hadn't heard that argument he had had with Saren, I would have broken like a cracked plate. I would have spilled everything to him like I had gone to school that morning intending to do. I wouldn't even have hesitated. But like with most things in my life, I was late. I had missed my chance. Or maybe he was the one that had. Because some things… some wounds can't heal or be covered up. Some things hurt too deeply to ignore. Those eyes might have once belonged to the person that I loved more than anyone or anything, but they weren't. It was just an illusion. I knew the truth. I had heard it from his own lips. Liar. He was just another fucking liar, trying to trick me. Trying to force the blinders over my eyes. I pulled my arm out of his grasp violently, hurting myself more and not caring. That soft look became stunned and that was better, more honest. Less painful. But I didn't like how close he was to me still so I shoved him. Not hard enough for him to lose his balance completely, but hard enough that he stumbled back a few steps.

"No," I snarled at him coldly, "We aren't friends. I made that perfectly clear. None of this is any of your fucking business anymore so leave me the hell alone. I never want to see you again."

Josh paled and the look on his face and in those beautiful blue eyes was almost more painful than when I had heard him say that he hated me. It was the same look he had had when I had broken up with him, that same hurt. I turned from him and strode down the hallway, just shy of actually running from him. He didn't follow me. He didn't yell after me. He didn't try to stop me at all. It told me all that I needed to know about his sincerity. Still friends? Right, good one. I know that isn't fair. I know that I have no right to think those things or be hurt and angry at him. I kept pushing him away and lashing out at him whenever he tried reaching for me. I had broken his heart, I deserved any pain that he could give me. But I couldn't stop from feeling hurt by his lies and his truth anyway. I didn't even want him to chase after me, so I don't know why that hurt me so much. My memories of him and our friendship and his love for me were a cancerous tumor. I wanted to cut them out with a hot knife, to move past them. I wanted him to go away. But I know that's impossible. I can't cut him out no matter what I do, unless I get full amnesia. He's… a part of me forever, for good or bad. Even before I had broken up with him, I had known that he would always be there, in my head. My lingering ghost. It didn't matter if he left me alone forever or not, I could never escape him.

I went up the first stairwell that I came across and went straight to the art wing. Just like always, the studio was locked tight, but I made quick work of it, slipping inside and quickly locking the door again. It was an incredibly stupid idea, going there. I had been avoiding the studio because of all the memories it held of Josh and Brian and on the one day when I wanted to forget the most, I had picked there to hunker out. But I didn't have anywhere else to go. If I went out back of the school or to the cafeteria, I was likely to run into Wren and his friends, if not that period then certainly the next. The safest place would have been the library, but I didn't want to be around anyone. I wanted a dark, empty hole to crawl into and the studio was the closest thing I was going to find without leaving the school entirely. It didn't really matter anyway. I had come to accept that I didn't need triggers like places we had been together for those memories to haunt me, they only made them more vivid. Either way, I would remember, so it seemed like an acceptable risk to go somewhere no one would bother me. If Josh decided to hunt me down, I doubted he had figured out how to pick the lock just from watching me do it.

I ignored the chairs and couch where Josh and I used to sit to have our lunches together, and the patch of sunlight spread across the floor where Brian and I had lain down together and sat down in one of the shadowed corners of the room where no one would be able to see me from the tiny window in the door. It was cold in the corner, but it made that itching feeling in my back go away. Too bad it did nothing about the anvil sitting in my chest or the drill eradicating my brain. Just getting off my feet for a little while felt better. I was completely washed out and felt nauseous again. But was that the blood loss or other things?

"But I do care for you. You're still my friend and I'm worried about you."

"I want him to disappear."

"Are you ok?"

"I hate him."

I drew my knees to my chest with the arm that wasn't angrily throbbing in fresh agony and, pressing my bruised face against them, I sobbed. I didn't try to stop it or compose myself out of shame of my overblown emotions. I was alone. There was no one to pretend for and it was too hard to bottle it up. It hurt too much. So, I let the barriers down for a little while and I let myself cry like the wounded child that I had become. I didn't want to. I wanted the numbness to swallow me up. My heart felt like it had been ripped out, so why did it have to hurt so much? Why did I have to feel anything at all? How Josh felt about me shouldn't matter. What Pat wanted to do to me shouldn't matter. How hopeless and sad and somehow empty I was shouldn't matter. I had decided to move past all of it, hadn't I?

Even if Josh didn't hate me, it had been stupid of me to think that we could ever be friends again. If I told him that I had lied to him, he would just be hurt and furious. How could I have ever been stupid enough to believe that he would forgive me? Had I gone completely insane? All I would be doing is throwing away all the reasons I had had to break up with him in the first place. All the heartache and pain and struggle the both of us had gone through, I would have spit on all that. Hadn't I decided that I didn't need him? That I could survive without him? And even if I couldn't, even if I was just lying to myself, it wasn't a lie that my mother did need me. Instead of moping around about the love that I had lost, I should be focused on her, on something on the other side of this. Getting a full-time job, helping her get out of debt, help make things easier for her. Not harder. Why couldn't I do that? Why was everything so difficult? Why couldn't I keep hold of myself? Why was I so miserable just from hearing how Josh really felt when I had done all this to get away from him? I should be concerned that he kept trying to reach out to me, not that he hated me. The more he hated me, the more likely he would move on past me. Wasn't that what I wanted?

Everything weighed on me sitting in that damn room. Joshua and Brian, all the mistakes I had made with them. Him trying to get me to jerk him off in that same room, hiding out there with Josh after Wren had assaulted me while he held me close, not knowing that he hadn't really saved me at all and I had already been tainted and mutilated by another man. How he had rocked me like a child, like something to be protected, and called me 'sweetheart' for the very first time. My two ghosts. Only they weren't the only ghosts that weighed on me. Nate had never been to that studio. He hadn't lived long enough to have made it to that high school, but I still felt him there with me, like a vengeful spirit. Or maybe a curse. I remember a late afternoon when he had spilled his heart to me. When he had told me why he kept clinging to a boy that he was too scared to be honest with, even when it hurt him so badly. When he had made me make a promise that I had been sure, so absolutely sure I wouldn't be able to break.

"Just promise me one thing, Frey," he had begged me so desperately, strangely focusing on me like he needed to have this promise from me like he needed to breathe, "Promise me that if you find someone you love, you won't give up on them no matter how much it hurts you."

And I had made that promise so easily, like it was nothing. It would make my best friend happy when he was so upset, it was something I could do to help him, so why shouldn't I? It wasn't like I was ever going to fall in love with anyone. It had only taken me four years to break that promise. That guilt was what really weighed on me. Not just that I had broken the promise of a boy that had killed himself because he had been unable to promise himself the same thing, but that I had had that very same thing. Had it in spades. I had a boy that loved me, that had been willing to do all the things for me that Brian hadn't, who would have done everything for me, and I hadn't been able to do it. I had given up so easily. It had hurt, just like Nate had said, and like him, I had just… let it go. But so what? It was just a stupid promise to someone who wasn't even alive anymore to know that I had broken it. Even that guilt wasn't enough to take a chance and confess all this to Josh, even if it was just to tell him the truth and not to get his friendship back. I've caused enough pain to the people I call my friends. What's one more broken promise to one of them? I've betrayed everyone I've ever cared for, so this was just another piece of straw to add to the pile, small and insignificant compared to the rest.

My tears petered out just minutes before the end of lunch bell rang. I think I had just gotten to the point where I was too tired to even cry and not that I was getting control over myself. I untangled myself from my stiff ball of misery and grabbed the edge of the counter I was huddled by, pulling myself to my feet. It wasn't easy. It wasn't just that I had been sitting there for too long or that, between not having eaten anything all day, the blood loss, and the emotional… strain, I really didn't have anything left to give. All that was true, and enough of a reason to make me sluggish and listless, but I mean it more literally. My body didn't want to move. I didn't want to move. I was done. The day wasn't even half over, but I was just done with everything. I didn't want to move from that spot. I didn't want to leave that empty and quiet room and have to deal with anything else. I wanted to curl myself up as tight and as small as I could and disappear.

Instead, I went to the sink and quickly searched the cabinets above it. I don't know why. What the point was. Even if I somehow managed to get through the rest of the school day, which at the rate that I was going that day, was laughable, what point was there after that? I might as well just hide in some dark hole. At least then I wouldn't have to ever deal with Josh again. Or Pat. It was tempting, but I think I was on autopilot. It was just as well. Someone would find me in there eventually and I didn't want to have another talk with Stoan over something that I didn't want to explain to him. Either I needed to do a much better job of disappearing, or I needed to get my shit together and just focus on taking one step at a time. Not think about the great leaps, not think about seeing Josh again after our fight outside the principal's office or what I would do after that final bell rang, but the little shit like just leaving that studio and figuring everything out once I did that tiny thing, or even that I had to get up and go through the rest of my school day so I could go home and start dinner for my mother.

I guess it's a little ironic, but it wasn't those thoughts that got me to my feet but how utterly tired I was. I didn't move to kick start doing something or because I had found a grand purpose. I did it because I desperately needed more caffeine pills and, while I could take them without any water, I was aware of how dry my throat was and that, after losing so much blood, I really should have had something to drink by then. At least it was something that got me moving. I found a cup in the cabinet that had once been used to mix watercolors. It was stained with the browned remnants of streaks of paint and dust but it was the closest I was going to find to something to drink out of in that room. I was apathetic and self-destructive, but I still wasn't foolish enough to brave the cafeteria for a cup of water, or to find a water fountain to take some pills in a crowded hallway. I wasn't going to get into trouble for some caffeine pills, but I had just come from the principal's office and didn't feel like going back there a period later.

I rinsed the cup out in the sink and filled it with water. The tap didn't want to work at first. The sink hadn't been used probably since the last time there had been a class in there. I had never used it in all the times I had hid out in there, knowing that water from a faucet that hadn't been used in, best case scenario, months would probably taste like ass. Sure enough, when I took an experimental sip from the cup, I almost threw the water back up between the brackish taste of the water and the lingering taste of paint from my rather half-assed cleaning. On any other day, I probably would have tossed it out and gone for a water fountain anyway, but it was a sad testament to the state that I was in that the second I got over the initial shock of that taste, a deep thirst woke up in me and chugged down two more gulps of water eagerly, if with a slight grimace.

I dug out my pilfered bottle of caffeine pills and shook out one, taking it with the rest of the water. It sure as hell didn't taste good, but it felt good just drinking something. It felt like a sign of how much I was fucking myself up, but I just didn't care that much. I had more caffeine in my system to help me through the rest of school and maybe the hydration would help me to feel less washed out. That's all that mattered to me at that point. I put the bottle back in my pocket and left the studio, joining the throng of students returning from lunch. I don't remember the next two periods very well. I remember getting to my history class and sitting down in my seat, letting my wounded arm rest in my lap because it was still throbbing too harshly after Josh had grabbed it for me to put it on the hard surface of the desk.

I remember noticing Josh turning in his seat to look at me as I sat down from my peripheral vision and the piercing pain in my chest that had been so much worse than my arm. I remember noticing Saren glaring at me as I walked past her and Lucy smirking at me, probably still smug about what she had helped her friend do to me earlier that morning. That smirk made me bristle and stoked the heat of my rage, remembering, not the hot water she had supplied her friend to dump on me, but the things Saren had said to me before that. I hated that look. That holier-than-thou, ant under a magnifying glass kind of smirk that I can always remember her having whenever she saw Saren or Wren mess with me, if she wasn't doing it herself. It had always gotten under my skin and right then, it made me want to go right over to her and slap it off her face. It wasn't like I cared about what the bitch would do to me anymore. But I was too tired to even work up a proper rage enough to act on any of those feelings.

Everything after that is just a big, messy blur. I don't remember the rest of history class, if Josh had spared any more of those glances at me, if he had tried to talk to me, what the class had been about, if Miller had scolded me again for not having any homework to turn in, nothing. I don't even remember if he had assigned us any homework. Home Ec is the same. I remember walking to the class and leaving it, but everything between is mush, like heavy static. I don't remember what we made, let alone if I had done well on it or not. All I know is that there were no fresh cuts on my fingers or hands, so if we had used knives, I had been coherent enough to get through the motions without hurting myself again. Which is probably a good thing because I don't know how much blood I had left in me to shed before my body couldn't handle it anymore.

When I walked into my 19th Century Literature class, my second to last class of the day, I felt like I was slowing waking up from a deep and sluggish dream. One of those dreams that doesn't let you go for several hours after you wake up from it, leaving you muggy and unfocused. Although, it felt a lot more like a dream dissolving into a nightmare. It was that little, bitter bit of knowledge that snapped me out of it, that it was my second to last class. The last period I had without Josh. My last breath of peace, or as close as I was ever going to get to it. Saren and Lucy were in the class, but despite what they had done to me that morning, they weren't even on my radar. I only had three concerns as I saw that hourglass trickling away, and two of them I would have to face in gym. I had barely seen Wren all day, partially thanks to my little hissy fit in Calculus. If he realized that, he might be biding his time to remind me of my place. If he didn't, then I had just gotten extremely lucky. Even with that possible threat looming over my head, he was still on the lowest level of my concerns for once, a fact that, if he figured it out, he would go out of his way to make sure he was boosted back to the number one spot.

Fighting for that top seat without gaining an inch on each other was Josh, my ever-present worry lately, and a more recent one wrapped up in a much more ancient one: gym meant the end of my school day. Freedom from Josh and Wren. I wasn't quite so stupid to hope that it meant freedom from my memories of that day, but at least I wouldn't have any more to add to them. I had a full night of work to distract me from the things he had said, both about me and to me, and I needed that. I desperately needed that. It was that terrible gap between the end of gym and the start of my shift at Leneski's that was weighing me down just as heavily as knowing that I would have to get through the entirety of gym with Josh.

Neither were things that I wanted to think about. Even if I took the fight I had overheard between Josh and Saren out of the equation, I once again didn't understand where we stood. He kept doing that to me. Every time I think I have a grasp on things… every time I think I know how he feels or how things are with us, he rips the ground out under my feet. He ignores me, then he asks me if I'm ok. I reach for him and he walks away from me. He says he hates me, then he tells me that we're still friends. Never mind the constant nightmares. Never mind the hallucinations. Never mind my frenzied, uncontrollable, swinging emotions. The way he was acting towards me was what was making me feel like I was insane. His hot and cold routine, so reminiscent of how things had been between us back when he had still been with Saren, was tearing apart my head almost as viciously and thoroughly as he had my heart.

I had no idea what I would be walking into when my literature class was over. Was he too hurt over what I had said to him outside of the principal's office? Or was he going to stubbornly try to talk to me again? What the hell was even his game? Why did he want to talk to me in the first place? Why had he said those things to me? Why tell me that he cares about me and he's worried and we're friends? Was he just putting on appearances? Trying to insist to himself that he was a kind and caring person? Did he have some kind of ulterior motive or was he just going through the motions? What the hell did he want from me?

See, my other fear I understood. It was terrible and was making me crazy in a completely different way, but at least I understood it if I didn't think about Pat's weird behavior that morning before my father had woken up. I was still terrified to go home. I still didn't know what to do about any of it. I had decided not to run away or kill myself, but the rest of it was tearing me apart. But I got that terror. I've been living with it since mid-fall. I guess that's kind of sick. I could wrap my head around my fear of being raped by my father's best friend and being unable to do anything more to defend myself than trying not to put myself in a vulnerable position, but it was this teetertotter act between myself and my ex-boyfriend that was making me nearly psychotic with confusion and frustration and anger.

I had barely sat down at my desk and I was a wreck of anxiety and stress and fear. And yeah, there was a good deal of that anger there. I didn't even bother to pick apart the reasons for it, I just felt it. Boiling in my chest and my guts, making me wish I had taken that swing at Harkins after all. I hated her and I hated Stoan for not expelling me. Then I wouldn't have to see Josh or Saren. I could have been home or walking around town right then, not trapped in a classroom like a prisoner waiting for their turn at the executioner's block. Saren might not be high on my list of concerns, but she was a reminder of them. I didn't want to look at her or hear her voice any more than I wanted to see Josh. I didn't want to hear her speak and remember the things she had said to him in that deserted classroom, or what he had said to her. I didn't care what she did to me, I just didn't want to hear her fucking voice. That I could feel her and her stupid fucking friend staring at my back as I sat down at my desk already made me feel angrier. I just wanted the both of them to go away and leave me alone along with the rest of the universe.

Despite now being mostly aware and present, I still don't remember much of that class, too buried in myself to pay attention to the things happening around me. My anger just… festered that entire time. Every time I thought about anything, the things that had happened that day, what was going to happen in the future, Josh, Wren, Pat, Saren, my parents… the more I thought, the more things I found to make more anxiety eat away at me until I was loitering right outside the door of a panic attack. Like how I wasn't going right home after this, or even taking a walk until I got the spine to go home, because I had detention. Which should have been a balm, having an excuse to not go home, but it wasn't. It only made me angrier, and then hate myself more for that anger because it was my own stupid fault that I had detention in the first place.

Or that work wasn't the blessed respite that I needed either because I didn't know how the hell I was going to get through both shifts with my arm without anyone finding out that I had seriously hurt myself and asking the wrong questions about it. Which of course, again, only made me angry at myself and at Josh. Which also made me hate myself more because it wasn't really his fault. He had kept me from killing myself, but that had just been a hallucination. But while my anger was ugly and misplaced, it still was his fault. Because I love him and I don't want to do that to him. Because him begging me not to do that to myself might have only been in my head, but it was exactly what he would have said if it had really been him. I resented him for that and I hated myself for that resentment.

The little things that I do remember from that class only fed my anger until it was a twisted, writhing knot in my guts and my chest, the coyote snapping and snarling and pulling on his leash. Overhearing Saren and Lucy's snickering comments about how they should be rewarded for doing me a service, that the hot water Saren had dumped on me had likely killed all the fleas nesting in my hair. My teacher scolding me for not having the homework and not even knowing what book we were reviewing that day. Again there were those infuriating words that kept being thrown at me. 'This isn't like you, Frey.' I wanted to scream. I wanted to just leave. But those thoughts were old and pointless.

By the time the bell rang, I was a wreck of stress and anger, my headache screaming and my arm throbbing almost as badly as it had been in the park. I was starting to notice the itching pain in my scalp more, too. I hated that feeling. Not the burns but the rage. I hated the way it felt sitting in my chest, making me nauseous. I wanted all this to be over with. I was so tired and I would have given just about anything to not go to gym or detention or home. Just find someplace dark and quiet where I could lie down. I wanted to find something solid and hard to beat my still healing fists on until they were mush. I wanted to breathe. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to forget. Just bash my head into a wall until I couldn't remember anything from the last two weeks. Until everything that was me was long gone.

The bell rang and I was one of the first people out the door. I thought about going to the nurse and telling her I was sick after all. I didn't have a temperature, but with the way I looked, I might be able to get a note to get out of gym from her. I wouldn't be able to skip the class entirely, but sitting on the bleachers away from everyone that I didn't want to deal with would be an easier way to pass the time. Maybe if I had, the rest of my afternoon would have unfolded exactly like that. Sitting on the bleachers pretending to do schoolwork while I really tried to pull some excuse for my arm out of my tattered and overworked head. Sitting similarly in detention. Going home to quickly throw dinner together before I headed off to work. Figuring out how I was going to handle coming home the next morning, knowing that Pat was likely going to be there. Never mind how confused I was about Josh or how stressed I was about having to face that bastard again that day or night or the next morning. How was I going to deal with him when the weekend began? When he and my father were drinking their weight in booze again while my mother was out of the house?

I didn't want to think about it. Chores at Ms. Liddle's would keep me out of the house only for so long. What if I came home Saturday morning and found Pat and my father in that state again? What if I thought it was safe because they were out barhopping or whatever the hell it is they do on their days off and my father brought him back to our house looking to stir things up with me again? I had no escape plan, nowhere I could hide. I couldn't defend myself. If I tried, my father might come after me and make my mother collateral damage. That was my other fear, nestled in with my fear of being molested again or raped. That my mother would find out. That I would hurt her again with my problems. Or that she would try to protect me and something even worse might happen. It was all too messed up in my head. The more I tried not to think about it, the more I couldn't stop thinking about it and it was twisting me up. I was just too tired. I was too fucking tired and there was no end in sight.

I stopped at the water fountain outside of the gymnasium and took the time to have a long drink. I still had that nasty taste in my mouth from my previous drink, but this water was cooler and cleaner and once I took one sip, my body happily reminded me that it needed a lot more than a cup of room temperature, paint tasting water to make up for the damage I had done to it that morning. I thought about taking another one of those caffeine pills, but it hadn't even been a couple of hours. The last pill I had taken had helped a little, but I had to accept that drugs weren't going to make me any more alert or awake than I was. I'm not an idiot. I know caffeine supplements don't make up for what sleep can do for you, but it was all I could do.

I just didn't know, with how I already felt, how I was going to get through two work shifts like this. My thoughts were all over the place, I was dragging myself around, and I couldn't sleep. No matter what, I couldn't sleep. It was too bad they don't have adrenaline shots over the counter, they would probably help me a lot more than a few caffeine pills. Although at the rate that I was going, I was likely to give myself heart arrest with them. That might not be a bad thing, though. That was a cheery little thought, wasn't it? Maybe I could find a way to make a suicide look like something natural. It wouldn't hurt my mother as much if I had just died from some freak thing like an aneurism or getting hit by a car instead of killing myself. Hell, I had gotten hit by a truck before, how hard could it be to do that again? I pushed the thought away, as tempting as it was. I had already decided that I wouldn't do that to her. I wouldn't leave her alone just because I didn't have the strength to pick myself up. It was hard and it hurt, but I loved her and I couldn't-

"Hey, Johnson."

Lucy's cold, superior voice from directly behind me almost made me flinch. I had been so deep in my thoughts again that I hadn't been paying attention to anything outside myself. It was incredibly lucky that it was just Lucy that had come up behind me and not Wren. I doubted I would have noticed him, either. Though 'just Lucy' was far from accurate. The bitch is often worse to deal with than Saren, Trant, and even Alex. Saren is cruel and Trant and Alex are a bunch of brutes, but Lucy has always been downright sadistic, more like Wren than her best friend. Saren picks on me because she genuinely hates me and because it's the right thing to do, me being the lowly, disgusting maggot that I am. Lucy does it because it's fun, and the more blood she can draw, the more fun it is. The bugs down my shirt and the cigarette burns on the back of my neck are bad enough, but I've been wary of her ever since her gross little comments about Nate had outed me. I guess that isn't really her fault, I had been in a bad place that day and she had just blindly managed to find the right buttons, she certainly hadn't planned for me to yell what I had at her, but I still usually tried to keep as much distance between us as I could and it made my skin crawl having her sneak up on me like that. Her pale lips quirked into a small, arrogant smile and her light blue eyes had that sadistic light in them when she saw that she had my attention. The only time there ever seemed to be any life in them at all was when she was around Saren or torturing me.

"See, Daniel and I have this little bet going. I say that you broke things off with Inori because he was such a lousy lay, he couldn't even remember where to stick it half the time, but Daniel says it was because you found a richer a john. Do you think you could do us a big favor and enlighten me on the subject?" she asked me with that crocodile smile of hers, taking a step closer.

It reminded me so much of before, when she had cornered me that day and told me that I reeked of sex, only this time I didn't take that step back. It was strange. I should have been panicking having her that close to me. I didn't see Saren with her, or even Trant or anyone else from their immediate posse, but Lucy is dangerous all on her own. We were surrounded by classmates and teachers, but that didn't make me feel safe. Lucy is crafty, as crafty as Wren but without his streak of recklessness. If she was messing with me, she had a reason for it. But as she dug her verbal claws into me, I wasn't scared. Wary, but not scared. I didn't feel pain at her callous reminder of my breakup or how I had been responsible for it like I had when Saren had done the same thing earlier. I just felt very numb and empty, like her words barely touched me at all. I didn't even feel angry anymore. Her eyes bore into mine, looking for any wounds she might have inflected, even just the smallest drop of blood, and only met my flat stare. Saren would have been angry at my non-reaction. Lucy just saw it as a challenge.

"Well, it doesn't really matter what the reason was, I guess," she said candidly, like we were the best of friends, "Saren has every reason to be upset about it, but I'm not going to rail you about it. You did the right thing, breaking it off with him."

I actually felt that one. Just a little, sharp dig, but it broke through the fog just enough to make a dent. Not her words. Her telling me that breaking up with Josh was the right thing, rubbing my nose in the thing that had been ripping me apart for so long, pulling me in every direction until I tore to shreds, should have been the thing that cut into me, but it wasn't. Somehow, in the last few hours since Saren had done the same thing, my skin had thickened. No, it was more like I was disconnected from those feelings. It was that arrogant smugness of Lucy's as she had said it that got under my skin. My pain… Josh's pain was nothing more than some disgusting bit of filth under her shoe. It reminded me of the way that Harkins had called me a faggot that morning, with that same, superior tone. She somehow caught that she had gotten some reaction from me and her eyes went sharp and predatory.

"I mean, you didn't really think you would stay together, did you?" she pressed, going after me like a fox after a wounded chicken, "The prince only stays with the pauper in fairy tales, and they don't make fairy tales for white trash faggots. The only way someone like you could snag someone like Josh is because he got bored. He didn't know what you were really like, and I guess it only takes someone like that so long of hearing what a great cocksucker you are before they get curious. I'm only surprised he stuck around after the first couple times. You have to tell me, Johnson, how does someone as ugly and pathetic as you turn someone as straight-laced and normal as Josh into a full-blown pillow biter overnight? Are you really that good or just that easy? I would love to know the secret."

Her words should have enraged me. They should have flayed my heart open. I should have been looking for an escape route to get away from her. I should have done a lot of things as she kept at me so sadistically, toying with my broken heart just to get some kind of response out of me, just to keep turning the screw to see if I could break. But I didn't. I felt this heavy ache in my chest as I wondered the same thing. Not how Josh had 'changed sides' or whatever else nonsense she and the rest of them thought. But why he had stayed. Why he was still trying to stay. But beyond that, I didn't feel much of anything at all. It was like I was sleepwalking through fog. My flat look didn't seem to anger her, though. For some reason, it only amused her further, like my shoring up my defenses was only evidence that her attacks were a serious threat.

Then, that smug smile of hers spread into a very familiar, arrogant and sadistic grin and that ache in my chest tightened into something else, something that I couldn't quite name. It was the same grin as before, when she had cornered me in another school hallway and recoiled from me with disgust. That was all it took. Suddenly, I wasn't outside of the gym, I was in that hallway. The day after Thanksgiving. I hadn't slept in two days. The only sleep I had gotten that day was when we had watched a film in class and I had dozed off with no one noticing. My head had been in tatters from my father raping me that morning, although at that point, there really hadn't been any reason for that rape to have gotten to me any more than all the others, and it hadn't. It had just been everything piling up on me, wearing me down. I hadn't been in a good place back then before Josh had saved me that day. I had been spiraling down the drain. The rapes. My mother finding out about them. Josh's weird behavior around me. Trying to kill myself and then trying to kill my father. The night terrors. The constant pain and self-revulsion and anger and guilt. Feeling like every time my father touched me, he had stripped away some essential part of myself and knowing that, soon, there wouldn't be anything at all for him to take. I had been dying from a fatal wound that hadn't stopped bleeding since that first time.

I hadn't even gotten the time that day to take a shower after he had raped me that morning before school. I'll always remember that part, how it had felt like the smell of sex and his scent had clung to me like a layer of grime, making me reek like sewage under a hot, unforgiving sun. I know, intellectually, it hadn't been that bad, but that's all I could smell. I had felt so dirty and so tired, my skin crawling with it, and then I had walked, very literally, into Lucy. Even now, I don't know if her repulsion and claims that I smelled like an orgy had been real, if she had really smelled sex on me that afternoon or it was just more of her usual bullshit, but I remember very clearly how it had made me feel. Like I wanted to take about a dozen showers, just run from her and go to the showers in the gym locker room and scrub my skin off. I think if I had let her see how much it had bothered me, that might have been the end of it, but just like in the present, back then she had seen my non-reaction as a challenge and had kept digging, sexually harassing me, pressing herself to me and telling me that she could pimp me out if I needed the money.

Then she had brought up Nate, which was bad enough. Her calling me a whore had been painful, but hearing her talk about my dead best friend, who she had had a hand in killing, had been enough to make me want to rip her face off. But when she had said that maybe Nate had killed himself because I had raped him? I'm surprised that screaming at her was all I had done, even if what I had screamed had finished the job of ruining my life at that fucking school. I'm surprised I hadn't smashed her teeth in. She had had that same look when she had said it. She had had that same, superior, smug grin on her perfect face as she had accused me of molesting the only friend that I had had ever had. As she had plunged her hooked claws into my raw and bleeding wound.

That smile… it was the same one, the same grin. The same sadistic, haughty, confident grin that my father had when he was beating my mother and me to a mashed pulp and he knew that neither of us could do a single thing about it. It was the same grin he had when he had been gloating about Josh and I not being friends anymore. It was the same grin on Wren had when he had held me down and forced that bat down my throat as his friends had jeered him on. It was the same grin stretched across Pat's face when he had pressed his erection against my leg like a horny dog and shoved his fingers inside me. That same smugness. Like I was nothing. Just a thing that existed to amuse them. Like my pain and my vulnerability were just that. Amusements for them, the cruel gods, to play with. That's who I really saw as she kept at me. Him. Pat. Wren. My dad. All of them. Smirking at me. Laughing at me. Making me small and filthy.

My aim was a little off, but the feeling of slamming my fist into her pert, little nose was just as satisfying as if I would have hit her smirking mouth. Watching her crumple to the floor like all her bones had just turned to water from that single blow was even more satisfying. Someone cried out, but not me and not Lucy. She sat there sprawled on the floor, looking stunned and pale, like she didn't understand what had just happened, less from the suddenness of the hit than from being shocked that I had been the one to hit her. That look alone made it worth it, no matter what was going to happen to me. Knocking Lucy Stephen off balance (literally) was not an everyday occurrence.

She lifted her hand to her face and touched the river of blood that had erupted from her nose, only going paler when she saw the redness on her fingers. I looked at the back of my own hand and, sure enough, my knuckles were streaked with blood. Looking at that red smear was the first time that I realized I should be scared. Not just what was going to happen to me, but of myself. Of what I had just done. This wasn't calling someone a bad name or picking losing fights because someone had called me a loser. I had hit a classmate who hadn't been doing anything more than verbally harassing me. She hadn't been threatening me. She hadn't gotten physical at all. She hadn't even really said anything that bad compared to some of the other things she's said to me and about me before. But I had snapped and not just hit her, but lost all control and not held back even a little bit. I had hit her with the intention of hurting her. I hadn't done that since I had punched out Saren and Wren in middle school.

Not that what was going to happen to me now was any small thing, either. I had just assaulted a fellow student in front of dozens of witnesses and this was far from my first offense. And not just any other student, but a girl and one from an upstanding family. The Stephens weren't as well off as the Parkers in either income or reputation, but they were wealthy and well regarded. And I knew that Lucy's parents were as tight with the Parkers as Lucy and Saren were. The two of them had been practically destined to become best friends. I was sure that the Parkers would be more than happy to give the Stephens anything they needed to go after the white trash, faggot punk that had punched out their daughter. That that daughter was a monster was irrelevant. I hadn't hit her because she had burned me again or been one of the people in that classroom when Wren had tried to rape me. I had hit her because she had smirked at me. No matter how I felt about what I had did, I had zero defense here, not a single excuse for my psychotic behavior. Never mind being expelled, I was probably going to be criminally charged for assault by the end of the day.

I should have been scared. I should have been guilty. No matter how much I hated Lucy, she hadn't deserved me hitting her, at least not for the reasons that I had. I wasn't even entirely sure of the reason. I had hit Wren and Saren because of Nate, but this time? I didn't know, it had just happened. But I didn't feel anything that I was supposed to be feeling right then. It had felt good, hitting her. After all the years of torment, her sadistic bullying and pranks, that holier-than-thou attitude and everything she had done to me and Nate and Josh, it had felt good slamming my fist into her smug face. That should have sickened me, but that elation had faded quickly by the time her ass had hit the floor and now I just felt numb again. Everything was switched off and I didn't feel anything at all. The only thing I felt was a sharp throb in my wrist from hitting her, awakening whatever injury I had done to it when I had been beating on that post days ago.

That one moment in time between her smirking and my busting her nose had slowed to a crawl, but everything after that went by in a blur. A dead hush fell over the small crowd of fellow gym goers and other students and teachers that had been passing by in clear view. A girl that I recognized as one of Saren and Lucy's friends broke out of her stupor to rush onto her knees next to her, helping her to sit up and pressing a wad of tissues to her bleeding nose. It didn't seem to do much, the red soaking through in seconds, but her face under her nose, mouth, and even her chin was covered in the stuff. I realized that, while Lucy wasn't exactly screaming in pain, I might have broken her nose. I had certainly hit her enough for it. Her nose had swelled up like a balloon. A firm hand grabbed my arm, thankfully my right one, and dragged me away from them. For a moment, I thought it was Wren or Saren or even Trant, ready to do their own body part breaking for what I had just done to their friend, but it was a teacher, one that I had never had before and I only vaguely recognized in that way you recognize a face you've seen every day but have never actually spoken to.

"Principal's office, now," he snarled at me, continuing to drag me in that direction.

He sounded absolutely furious, like he was considering hitting me himself and I didn't really blame him. I didn't try to fight him, either. What the hell would I say? I guess I could have tried to run, but I didn't see the point. If I got arrested for this, it wasn't like I didn't deserve it. I cared even less about the prospect of getting arrested for assault than I had over getting arrested for shoplifting that morning. The teacher still didn't let go of my arm the entire walk to the principal's office like he thought I really was going to try to run, although he stopped dragging me when I matched his stride and didn't try to pull away from him. I thought about telling him that he was actually doing me a favor just to be a shit, that he was saving me from a much worse punishment at Wren and Saren's hands than being expelled, but he looked pissed enough that I didn't feel like ruffling his feathers more. Now that my very brief adrenaline rush was long gone, I felt tired and emptied out again and nothing was worth the effort, let alone talking with another human being. The receptionist didn't look amused this time as I was marched into the office, just utterly bewildered.

"Is he in?" the teacher snapped at her, pointing to Stoan's open door.

"Y-yes," she stammered, "You can go in, he isn't on a call."

That was all the permission he needed. He brought me over to the waiting area that was right by the door and finally let go of my arm.

"Stay right here," he barked at me and then at the receptionist, "Make sure he doesn't leave."

She nodded but didn't look all that concerned about me trying to flee. She had no idea what was going on, but she knew me well enough by then that she knew I wasn't the type to try to duck out. The teacher didn't move until I sat down in one of the chairs. I thought about telling him that I had nowhere else to go, but that would probably just key him up more. He strode into Stoan's office and was thoughtful enough to close it behind him. I sagged in the chair and closed my eyes. This whole mess felt like a dream, not because it was unbelievable, but just because of how things were progressing. The trip from the front of the gym's doors to the principal office felt blurry, disjointed. Everything was a haze. I was just so tired and none of it felt real. But my fist still throbbed, a very real sensation, so I guess it had.

The teacher wasn't in there with Stoan for very long. Honestly, it wasn't a very long story to tell, was it? I was sure that the whole process would be rather swift. Stoan didn't even need to do much investigating, enough teachers had seen what had happened clearly enough and I wasn't going to lie about it. The closed door muffled much of the conversation, but I easily picked up my name, Lucy's, and 'waiting room.' Then, the door opened again, probably no more than fifteen, maybe twenty minutes later and the teacher strode back out. He shot me a last, stony look and left the office, his job done. Stoan stepped out of his office and sighed heavily. When he looked at me, his expression was tired, not exasperated. This time, he didn't have any beleaguered jokes for me being there again. He didn't ask me what had happened or if I was alright or tease me that he had told me that he didn't want to see me for the rest of the week, not just a few hours later. He wasn't angry and I guess that was something, but he looked like he didn't have a single clue what to do with me.

"Frey, I'll be with you in a while," he finally said, sounding as reluctant and worn as he looked, "I need to reach out to Lucy's parents. Do you mind going to the other waiting area?"

At the time, I didn't connect those two things together, although I really should have. The office was completely empty, there was no reason to have me move seats unless he had an ulterior motive, but I was so tired and out of it by then that I didn't care even if I would have thought about it, I just did as I was told. Stoan walked me around the far side of his office door where the other waiting area was, but unlike with the teacher, he didn't seem concerned that I wasn't going to stay where he wanted me. When I sat down in one of the chairs against the wall next to his office, he shocked me by giving me a small, but comforting smile. That had definitely not been on my list of expected reactions to hearing I had assaulted a classmate again, but before I could puzzle out why he wasn't treating me like a criminal, or at least a misogynistic punk like the teacher that had taken me there, he was gone back into his office, closing the door for some privacy. I didn't need an open door to know what he was doing. After being dragged to a principal's office twice for assault before, I knew the procedure. He would call the nurse to see if Lucy had made it to her and what her condition was.

Next, he might call in any other teachers or students that had seen the incident, but I didn't think it was necessary. I'm sure the teacher that had talked to him had been pretty clear about the situation and Stoan also knows me well enough to know that I don't lie to him. If there's something that I don't want him to know, like who bullies me, I won't tell him, but I've never lied about something I've been guilty of. After that, he would call Lucy and my parents to ask them to come in. I don't think I've ever been more relieved that he doesn't have their work numbers. All he would get was our answering machine. Not that I thought I could keep this from them, no matter what happened to me, they were going to find out. Even if I didn't get charged with assault, I was definitely getting expelled, and even if Stoan didn't manage to get into contact with them, it would be all over town by the end of the day. But at least they wouldn't get called in for a meeting with my principal that afternoon to hash it out with him and Lucy's parents.

It was that thought that finally made fear spike through me and evaporate some of the numbness. My father would be absolutely furious to be called in from work. He was going to be furious when he heard I had been expelled, and if I got arrested? The embarrassment alone of having his kid, the son of a cop, arrested like some juvenile delinquent would make him absolutely enraged, but he wasn't the reason for my fear. For once, I wasn't scared of anything he would do to me. It was my mother's reaction that I was scared of. If she found out that I had hit a girl and gotten expelled… god, she would be so ashamed of me. I guess any mother would be to hear that her son had assaulted a girl, but this was so much worse than that. I remembered sitting in the kitchen with her as she poured out all those painful memories, telling me how much my father was just a chip off his father's block. I remembered all the times she had told me what a good person I was, how I wasn't like my father, and all the times before we had reconciled when she had treated me like him, like I was just one step away from snapping and hitting her, too. Well, I guess she had been right after all. I was just my father's son, just like he was his. The cycle continues. I'm just another brute, a thug that lashes out of anger.

Only I can't even claim that much, can I? If I had been angry, that was one thing. Not excusable, but probably understandable. But I hadn't been. I hadn't felt anything at all. I had just… hit her. And it had felt good. Just like my father, hurting another person had made me feel better than I had in a long time. A deep and very terrible shame filled me. I didn't want to face her. I didn't want to tell her that it was true, what I had done, and not even have a reason for it. Just another monster in her life. Out of all the things that were about to happen to me, that was the one thing I couldn't handle. I closed my eyes again and willed the world to go away, only it wasn't the world that was really the problem. God, why had I listened to Josh's voice that morning? Why hadn't I just ended it?

I sat there for what felt like a very long time, but probably wasn't because I heard the door of the main office open long before the end of school bell rang. I had a paranoid moment when I thought Stoan had somehow managed to actually get ahold of my parents, but relaxed a little when I heard a subdued, female voice and a hard, tense male one greet Stoan, neither of which I recognized and realized they had to be Lucy's parents. I couldn't see either of them or the front of the office from where I was sitting and as my principal ushered them into his personal office, again shutting the door behind him, it finally dawned on me that the reason why he had brought me back to the other waiting area was that he hadn't wanted the Stephens to see me. He hadn't wanted to cause a scene by having her parents yell at me in the middle of his office, or maybe he had even been protecting me in case they wanted to do more than just yelling.

Either way, it had been a smart move, one that my principal in middle school hadn't thought of. Then again, my circumstances had been different back then. Ms. Daniels had been there to defend me in place of my parents and he had still given the Parkers some time to cool down before he had called me in to meet with them. The Parkers had also been pretty lenient back then, given the circumstances. I doubted the Stephens were going to be that nice. I tilted my head back and closed my eyes, listening to the soft murmur of voices from the other side of that wall. Stoan was talking too softly for me to hear exactly what he was saying, but I was sure he was just explaining what he knew of the incident and that Lucy was with the nurse. His voice was calm and reasonable, his tone more like he was in a school board meeting than he was informing a student's parents that their daughter had been hit. I couldn't say the same of Lucy's father.

"I want that little bastard expelled, right now," he snapped at Stoan, his voice as clear through that wall as if he had been in the same room as me.

"Mr. Stephen, I understand that this is a difficult-," Stoan tried to placate him.

"No, you don't understand a single, fucking thing," Lucy's father snapped back.

"Honey-," her mother tried to interject and I was surprised she was as calm as she was and not joining him.

"No, this is ridiculous! You aren't seriously sitting here and saying that you need to 'review the situation'. Just what is there to review?! Students and members of your own staff saw that… that little punk punch my daughter in the face, and you're going to review it?!"

"Mr. Stephen," Stoan tried again, "Kurt. Expulsion is a serious matter and until I speak with the boy's parents, it isn't something I'm going to jump into. All I can tell you right now is that Lucy was not seriously hurt and I am going to personally make sure the deserved punishment will be given. The superintendent will also want to review the situation and the student involved-,"

"Student involved my ass," Mr. Stephen barked angrily, "You think I don't know who did this? You think that I didn't hear it from Mark Trant's own son the second I stepped into this school? It's that Johnson kid again, the same one that assaulted both of James and Rebecca's children a few years back. He's a fucking rabid dog. Something should have been done about him back then, before this ever happened again! Screw expulsion, he should have gotten a one-way trip to juvie for that! And what did you lot do? Absolutely nothing!"

"Mr. and Mrs. Parker decided to drop any charges due to the circumstances of those incidents," Stoan reminded him, with that almost exasperated tone of his, "They also agreed that suspension would be the best course of action."

"And look where that got us! Right back here again! Well, I'm not James Parker and he isn't getting away with it this time! Expulsion is the bare minimum that animal deserves! I'm talking about criminal charges! My daughter was assaulted in your school, Stoan! And all you can talk about is 'circumstances!'"

"I understand that you are looking out for your daughter," Stoan said, still keeping his calm, "And if you wish to press charges, you are entirely in your right to do so. I am only asking that you allow us to investigate the matter fully and wait to decide what to do once everyone has cooled down."

"I don't need to cool down and this doesn't need to be freaking 'investigated.' You know who did this, that's all anyone needs to know and I'll make sure he never gets the chance to hurt my daughter or anyone else ever again, since you're too spineless to do it yourself! I'm taking Lucy home and contacting my lawyer."

"That's fine, Mr. Stephen," Stoan said coolly, but his tone was terse. I doubted Lucy's parents caught it, but I had been around the man enough to recognize when he was losing his patience. I don't think he liked Kurt Stephen very much, and he instantly dropped trying to be candid with him, sticking with being purely professional, "Mrs. Paulson will show you to the nurse's office. I only ask that you make yourself available in the next few days. I'll be meeting with the Johnsons and the superintendent to discuss things further."

"Fine," he snarled at the principal, clearly not feeling fine about any of it.

I'm surprised that I didn't overhear any more fits of temper out of the man, but Stoan opened his office door and I heard the Stephens fairly collectively leave with the receptionist. Like the Parkers, they seemed to care a lot about appearances. Mr. Stephen might yell and snap at Stoan in the privacy of his office, but the second he left, he had seemed to slip on a mask of civility and calmness that I recognized from when I had met with the Parkers in middle school. I wasn't really sure how to feel from everything that I had overheard, him calling me an animal (he wasn't wrong) and saying that he was going to press charges. I was just glad that he was gone. His yelling had hurt my head.

The office fell to dead quiet for a few minutes. I assumed that Stoan was collecting himself to gather me for another talk so he wouldn't end up snapping at me after that cheery little talk with Lucy's father. I wondered if the man was always that hotheaded and pissy or if he was just protective of his daughter. Judging just from the one thing I had heard from her mother and how easily she had backed down and how uncomfortable she had sounded with her husband and Stoan's confrontation, she seemed to be a meek, quiet woman. It reminded me of how strange I had felt meeting Saren and Wren's parents for the first time. I had known they had a good reputation, and they did a lot of charity work, but I had assumed it was a mix of everyone wanting to stay on their good side and them putting on an act to seem like the perfect family or some shit.

I was used to seeing that from my father back then. Even when I was little, I noticed that when he was around his cop friends or the chief or he had to deal with other adults, he was charming and friendly. He was only ever the monster when he was with us. To everyone else, with the exception of a few of our neighbors that he didn't like, like the man with the dogs that lived across from us or Ms. Liddle, he was just… normal. Saren is the same, exact way. When she was around me or Nate or any of the other classmates of ours that she torments, she was a monster. But when she was around teachers or other adults, she was the perfect student, smart and pretty and nice, exactly what they thought the daughter of the prestigious Parker family should be. It was the mask she wore, not just for appearances' sake, but also because it allowed her to get away with anything. It's one of the reasons why Nate and I had never tattled on her much, even when we were younger. What teacher would believe that perfect little Saren Parker could be so awful? It was easier for them to believe that we, or anyone else that accused her of anything, was stirring up trouble out of jealousy.

So, naturally, I had assumed that her parents would be like that, too. How could they not be? Both Saren and Wren were malicious and cruel and terrible. So, their parents had to be that way, too. Why else would they be like that? Maybe if it was just the one of them, I could chalk it up to some freak of biology or a bad seed or even something twisted that had happened to them, but both of them? It had to be intentional. There had to be a tangible reason. And considering what they had been brought in for, I had expected the worse. But even though they had been upset over what I had done, they had been… nice. As nice as any parent confronting the punk shithead that had punched out both their children could be.

More than that, they had been genuine. Just the kind, generous, normal people that everyone in town saw them as. There had been no dark shadows behind their eyes, no hidden cruelty. They had listened to Ms. Daniels pleas for leniency and, unthinkably, had agreed with her. Actions speak louder than words ever could. That's the truth I learned before I learned anything else about the world. People say all kinds of shit. They lie and manipulate and hide their true selves, but you can't hide what you do. My father could lie about the bruises on my face, but he had still put them there. Brian had said that he cared about me, but he had hit me and manipulated me and tried to rape me. Josh had said that he was still my friend, but he had spent most of last week pretending that I didn't exist.

The Parkers might put on this banal, normal face, but it was the fact that they had let me go with just a suspension that meant more to me than anything else they had said in that stupid meeting. I still don't really understand it, how two people like them could make two monsters like Saren and Wren. It didn't make any kind of sense to me. Knowing what I now know about my father and grandfather, I finally make sense. But they were completely mysteries. It was the same with Lucy and her parents. Even if her father was usually that hot under the collar, how the hell did someone like him and someone like the woman I had heard quietly begging her husband like a child make someone like Lucy? A cold, sadistic witch? Why couldn't I escape the fate of my own genetics but Lucy and Saren and Wren seemed like they had just dropped out of the sky compared to their own parents? Then again, I was also aware of the kind of things that could happen behind closed doors. I know all about the twisted secrets that can hide behind a warm smile.


Stoan's voice tore me away from my tangle of thoughts and back into the real world. He was standing in the doorway of the waiting room. He didn't have another smile for me, but strangely, he didn't look angry as our eyes met or even frustrated with me. He just looked wary and tired, which was pretty much how I felt.

"Come on," he urged in a very quiet and subdued tone, gesturing his head towards his office.

No matter what he had told Mr. Stephen, I was well aware that I was walking towards the gallows, but I didn't care about fighting it and I didn't want to make Stoan's job any harder than I already had. I rose stiffly from my seat and followed him into the office. As he closed the door behind me, I felt this bewildering sense of déjà vu like a sucker-punch before I reminded myself that it was because I had already been in that office early that day. Somehow, in the span of not even a half an hour, calling Harkins a cunt felt more like it had happened days ago instead of hours. Everything before I had punched Lucy felt like it had happened days ago. Everything except overhearing Josh tell Saren that he wanted me to disappear and him insisting to me that he was concerned about me. Funny how those two things were still so fresh and detailed in my mind when everything else was mush.

Stoan sat in his chair behind his desk and just looked at me for a minute, giving a heavy sigh, probably formulating some speech in his head or gathering the strength to go on with this. I suddenly felt bad for him and guilty for dumping this mess on his lap. But that was me to a T, wasn't it? Always causing problems that other people have to deal with.

"Did I break her nose?" I blurted out before Stoan could start with his questions.

My own seemed to take him aback for a moment. I guess, in that situation, most people's first question would be if they were really being expelled, but I figured, for all of Stoan's insistence on investigating the matter, that was a closed and done thing. No need to waste his time asking stupid questions. All I actually wanted to know was how badly I had hurt Lucy. Now that my blood-thirstiness had abated for now and I could calmly look back at what had happened, enough of the fog had lifted for me to feel guilt. I hate Lucy, I won't deny that. If I had been a bystander and not the culprit, I would have felt vindicated, not guilty. But as much as I hated her and I would be the very last person to cry if something happened to her, I hadn't had any right to do that to her. I hadn't hit her because she had done something to me, or hurt a friend, or had been threatening me. I had reacted to something insane and lashed out at her. I knew no one would believe me and would just accuse me of trying to garner sympathy for what I had done, or at least leniency, but I didn't want her to end up in the hospital because I was losing my grip on reality.

"No, Frey," Stoan finally got ahold of myself and answered me in a soft voice, "She wasn't seriously hurt. A bloody nose, some bruises and swelling, but her nose isn't broken. She can go right home with her parents and she'll just a have a swollen nose for a few days."

A tension that I hadn't even realized had been weighing on me eased a little. I guess I hadn't hit her as hard as I had thought.

"Frey," my principal gave another one of those tired, heavy sighs, "what happened?"

I looked away from him and gave a half-hearted shrug.

"You already know what happened. Enough people saw it," I pointed out, not seeing the point in this talk at all. Why couldn't he just expel me and be done with it? It wasn't like I was trying to hide anything.

"I want to hear it from you," he demanded.

I wished I could cross my arms as I felt him staring me down, waiting for an answer, but my left arm was still too messed up from when Josh had grabbed it, so I just kept burning a hole in his carpet. It was a dingy grey-blue that had probably been pretty when it had first been installed, but that looked to have been about twenty years ago.

"I hit her," I said simply.

Stoan sighed again, but this time it was in pure exasperation.

"That isn't good enough, Frey. That isn't nearly good enough. I know you hit Lucy. What I want to know is the one thing that no one else that witnessed what happened can tell me. I want to know why."

His voice was frustrated, but not accusatory or angry, but how could I possibly answer him? 'I hit her because she smirked at me' sounds crazy. And I just didn't care what he did to punish me. The reason didn't matter, how could he not get that? I didn't want leniency. I hadn't wanted it that morning when he had only given me detention for calling Harkins a cunt. I just wanted him to expel me so I could leave. I deserved to be punished for losing control and hurting someone, reasons didn't change my guilt. He let me stew for several minutes, staring me down, probably thinking I was going to crack under his sharp gaze, but only got more frustrated when I refused to answer him.

"Frey, I want to help," he insisted, and the honesty in his voice was what finally made me raise my head and look at him.

That frustration was etched all over his face, but I realized in shock that it wasn't because I wasn't answering his questions. He genuinely wanted me to give him something to work with, some bone he could use to be lenient on me again. He was frustrated that I wasn't doing that. Or maybe he was frustrated because he knew there was nothing I could say to excuse what I had done. His hands were tied.

"I can't do that if you don't tell me what's going on," he continued to press me.

"There's nothing going on," I lied defensively, "Lucy and I got into an argument. I lost my temper and hit her. That's it."

"Frey, don't treat me like I'm a child who's too stupid or naïve to recognize when something is wrong," he scolded, getting further annoyed with my standoffish behavior, "I've known you for almost four years now. I know you had an… incident with the Parker siblings in middle school, but I also know that you were going through a lot after Nate Millen passed and you haven't had any violent incidents since then in four years until now. This is serious and it can't go on like this. I don't want to expel you-,"

"Am I expelled?" I cut him off, getting to the meat of the matter.

I didn't want to talk about this shit anymore and I didn't see how it mattered. I could tell Stoan everything. I could tell him about my breakup with Josh. I could explain my little delusion with Lucy and her damn smirk. I could even tell him about my father and Pat. What would it change? I had still hit her. I had still lost control over myself and attacked someone. Stoan scrubbed a hand over his face wearily.

"You're suspended," he told me in a hard, but also resigned tone, "From now until Thursday."

I stared at him incredulously, getting another strong feeling of déjà vu. Suspension? Was he serious? I had attacked another student in front of a ton of witnesses! I had a history of doing the same thing on two other occasions! It might not have been at the same school, but what difference did that make? This wasn't my first offense, or even my second. Anyone else would have gotten a one-way ticket out of there, right?

"Suspended?" I asked stupidly, unable to wrap my mind around his decision.

"Pending an investigation," he clarified, again with reluctance, "The final decision for expulsion comes from our superintendent. He'll want to meet with your and Lucy's parents and investigate the matter before he decides on any kind of punishment."

'If I'm not in jail by then,' I thought.

"In the meantime, you'll be suspended from school. I'll be in touch with you and your parents when he comes to a decision," Stoan informed me.

I relaxed. That made sense, a hell of a lot more than just my being suspended. I didn't think it should take two stinking days to come to the sensical conclusion that a student that breaks, not just a school rule about not getting into fights on school property, but committing criminal assault on another student, should be expelled. But I was also aware that the Nausten school system was just one of a bunch of schools under the superintendent's authority and it would probably just take a day for him to come to Nausten and schedule meetings with everyone involved. Hell, it was going to take a day just to get either of my parents on the phone. And of course they wouldn't want me in school after what I had done until they came to a decision on what to do with me. It was probably for the best. Keep me away from everyone. And my father was likely going to kill me when he got wind of this. At least if I was suspended, I wouldn't have to hide my injuries.

"And if he does decide to expel me?" I had to ask, hoping it would be a quick procedure but Stoan easily shot down that hope.

"There will be a hearing," he told me, again looking like he had swallowed something unpleasant. I wonder how long it had been since he had needed to expel a student, let alone one that he had gotten to know and like for some bizarre reason, "Your parents will need to attend to discuss your side of what happened with three members of the board of education. They'll have the final say if you're to be expelled."

"A hearing?" I echoed in disbelief.

They really did things like that? I know expulsion is a big deal, but I didn't realize it needed to jump through some big, legal hoop, especially in such an open and shut case.

"If your parents want to fight it," he explained, "Or if they agree to the expulsion, there is a waiver they can sign to forgo the hearing. They would also be able to negotiate the terms of expulsion, but they wouldn't be able to contest it like they would at a hearing. I know it sounds scary, but it's the best chance to get your side of things out there and try to fight expulsion if it comes to that."

I almost snorted. I had no intention of fighting whatever the superintendent decided. If they wanted to expel me, they could just expel me. Why should I waste my parents' time when dozens of people had seen what I had done and the school board would be fully within their rights to kick my ass out? That wasn't even considering that we would probably need a lawyer for something like that. I don't know how my parents were going to react to this beyond being furious at me. My dad would be embarrassed and I'm sure that a part of him would want to fight it just on the principle of the thing, but he had to realize that we would lose. Going through a hearing would be much more embarrassing than signing some waiver and not kicking up a stink, but my father isn't the most… logical person when he's pissed off and prideful. Still, I think he would just want to make it go away and just take his wounded pride out on me than go to a hearing. My mother was the wild card. She was more aware than my father was how we couldn't afford something like this. She might try to fight for it for my sake or she might understand that it wasn't something we could really fight and it would be better to cut our losses, I really didn't know. I wished that I could just sign the fucking waiver and be done with it so I didn't need to drag my parents into the problems I had fucking caused, but of course I'm still a minor and don't have a say in my own goddamn education.

"If it does come down to expulsion, it's only for a year, Frey," he seemed to realize that I was upset with the news and thought it was over the expulsion itself and not having to tell my parents about it and rushed to give me some measure of comfort, "And if you don't want to skip a year of schooling, there are other options. Other schools outside of the district, or you can be homeschooled."

I almost told him to not bother trying to make me feel better. This was my own mess, Lucy was the one he should be talking to like that. Besides, I didn't give a shit if I went to a different school. I didn't give a shit if I graduated. None of it mattered anymore, so he didn't need to look out for me or try to smooth things over. But I was pretty sure telling him all that would make things worse.

"I haven't been able to reach either of your parents," he switched tracks, seeing that I wasn't in the mood to be placated and was barely responding to anything he was saying. He probably thought I was in shock and didn't realize that I didn't give a shit about anything he had told me after confirming I hadn't broken Lucy's nose beyond a need to compile information, "I take it they're both working."

"They work late," I confirmed.

"Do you have their cellphone or work numbers?" he asked.

"They don't have cellphones and I don't know their work numbers," I lied. Well, it was a third of a lie. I knew my mom's work numbers but I had never bothered to learn my dad's because I would never call him at work in the first place, "My mom works two jobs but her shifts have been fluctuating a lot lately. I don't know which job she's at right now and my dad changed jobs a few months ago. I don't remember which factory he works at. He never gave me a number."

This was also a half-lie. Kind of. My mother's shifts have been all over the place, lately, but I had both work numbers for him to try. And while I didn't know the company name of the factory my father works at, there's only one steel mill in town. But I wasn't going to tell Stoan that. My father was going to be pissed enough about this, no reason to bother him at work. And if he called my mother, she would freak. It could risk her job or she might even leave to pick me up and talk to him or something. Stoan gave me this look that was sympathetic, but not quite pitying. My tired brain wouldn't figure out for several more hours that I had just confessed to being used to my parents never being home for me and having no way of contacting them if I needed help. This was completely normal to me, but Josh's family life had taught me that it probably wasn't the norm, or at least not a preferable one. Before we had become friends, I had only known my own weird, distant family and Nate's, who had also been distant and disjointed, just in a different way. I hadn't known what it was like to have parents who were supporting and there for you, whether it was to talk about some shit thing that had happened to you at school or help you with homework or just make sure there was dinner in the house. Hell, I had stopped longing for my parents' presence when I stopped being able to remember the last time they had treated my existence with something other than a fist or snapped command or hissed insult. I had always felt lonely in that house when they were working, but eventually, them not being around had become more of a relief.

"Do you know when they'll be home?" Stoan pressed.

"My dad won't be home until ten," I told him, too tired to lie about it, "I don't know about my mother. She usually comes home after I go to bed."

I didn't tell him that it was more like 'if' I go to bed and that bed was sometime in the small hours of the morning.

"They should be home if you call early tomorrow," I added before he could accuse me of lying to keep him from contacting them, even though he just looked mildly frustrated about it and not suspicious.

I probably could have lied. Performed the evasion dance to keep Stoan from talking to my parents about this for a few days. But what would be the point of that? It wouldn't put off the inevitable and it was too much effort. I didn't want to hurt my mother, but I had, she just didn't know it yet. At least I would give her a few hours before breaking her heart again. If there was one reason for wanting to go back and stop myself from punching out Lucy, it was that. She was all that I cared about anymore.

"If it's before 7:30, you'll catch my dad," I decided to tell him, "He starts work at 8."

Maybe if he called right before my father left, my mother would already be gone by then. She was going to learn the truth eventually, but that didn't mean that I wanted her to be the one to take that phone call.

"Alright," he said, satisfied for a moment before looking very somber, "I'm sorry, Frey. There isn't much I can do-,"

"It's my fault," I said flatly, "I'm the only one that needs to apologize."

He didn't have much to say about that. He might be sorry about it, but he knew that I was right. I had made my own bed. He stood up and I mirrored him, understanding that our little unpleasant chat was done. I was surprised he hadn't scolded me or lectured me. He hadn't seemed angry at all over what I had done, which I didn't understand. Then again, I supposed that giving me a lecture was pointless if I wasn't even going to be his problem anymore in just a few days.

"I'll walk you out," he said in a very subdued tone.

I opened my mouth to protest. There was still ten minutes left in the school day so I didn't have to worry about being ambushed by anyone and it would be a lot less embarrassing to leave on my own than being escorted out by the principal like an employee that had just gotten fired and security had to make sure they weren't going to steal anything on the way out.

"It's procedure," he explained with a small smile that told me he thought it was ridiculous, too, but he had to do his job.

I surrendered to it. I understood the reasoning for that procedure, but it wasn't like I was going to pick a fight on my way out or hunt down Lucy. But I knew that Stoan was well aware of that and just went along with it.

"Do you need to stop at your locker?" he asked me as he walked us through the rest of the office.

The receptionist had returned and had the same look that Stoan had had since he had told me to sit in the other waiting room, like she had swallowed a mouthful of bitter pennies.

"No," I told him, "I have everything on me."

That was also a lie. Since I had stopped doing my homework, I had stopped taking all my books to class. No point lugging around the equivalent of a block of lead when I wasn't using most of it. The ones that I did have on me were just props to keep teachers off my back anyway. It was kind of funny. I had lied to Stoan more in the last twenty minutes than I had in the last three years we had known each other.

"I'll make sure one of your classmates takes notes for you," he said, not adding the part about if I ever got to go back, but he didn't need to.

I thought about pointing out that would just be a massive waste of time to task someone that probably thought I was scum at worst or a loser at best but kept it to myself. He could be pointlessly optimistic or think he was giving me a shard of hope if he wanted. I knew it wasn't going to amount for shit and he probably did, too. I wasn't going to rub his face in it. We were dead silent the rest of the relatively short walk to the exit doors of the school. I felt very strange suddenly as I realized that it was probably going to be the last time I would ever walk those hallways. I didn't know how to feel about that. I still felt like I was walking through a dream, like everything that had happened since my last confrontation with Josh was somehow less real than my hallucinations. My emotions didn't make any sense. It wasn't my apathy, or that fog blanketing me. I understood those things. I understood being sad and angry. I understood why I had lost control and called Harkins a cunt. It was reprehensible, but I understood it, even if it disturbed me. The woman has always gotten under my skin and her calling me a faggot had just been one straw too many.

But ever since I had come back from the principal's that first time, I haven't felt… right. I hadn't been angry when I had hit Lucy. I hadn't been scared when I had heard her father say that he was going press charges against me. My best-case scenario was just expulsion, but I didn't feel anxious or scared about being arrested. I had to tell my father that I was getting kicked out of school and that should have scared me, too. Not just because he was going to beat the shit out of me for it, but his scorn. He had been telling me since I had been little that I was just going to flunk out, that I was too stupid to get through school. Him being right about it was one thing that he would lord over me, but that I had gotten expelled instead of just flunked out? At least he and my mother had voluntarily left, neither of them had been kicked out. I should have felt utterly ashamed about it, both being a chip off the old block and being an even bigger loser than him, but the only shame I felt was that I was going to need to tell my mother that I had hit a girl.

I've never exactly… enjoyed school, for obvious reasons. Between a few of my teachers treating me like my only purpose in their classes was to cause trouble and the whole bullying thing, school felt like a prison. It's only become more nightmarish the older I've gotten. But there had been a time when I had enjoyed some of it, before Saren had beaten me down enough times. I had liked learning new things and being with Nate and getting new books to read. And every time I had gotten a good grade on a test or a teacher told me I was well read or that I excelled at something, it had made me feel so good.

It had felt like a validation, something I could show my father to make him see that I wasn't the burden he accused me of being when he was drunk. I could make him proud. Of course, it never ended up working that way. Any time I had gotten a B+, he would snort derisively and tell me it should have been an A. When I had won that spelling bee and had been so happy that I had won something for the first time in my life, he had told me that spelling bees were for babies and that being able to spell was about as useful as being able stand on my hands. There were computer programs that could spell for you. Spelling wouldn't get me anywhere in life, so what was there to be so proud about? I still had that hope, for a few years at least, that I would measure up in his eyes. And to be fair, while he had never been impressed or proud, sometimes, when I had been younger and he hadn't been drinking so much, he would at least approve of some of my grades. He would always act like it was to be expected, but he didn't talk down to me about it at least.

I had tried so hard. I had worked so hard, every year. Not just to make my parents proud, but out of fear of ending up like them. Of being a disappointment to them. The more they called me a burden, their biggest regret, the more I had to make sure I succeeded to prove to them that I was good enough. That I could make that sacrifice worth it. And every time I had gotten a bad grade, I hadn't just been scared to tell them, but angry at myself for not doing better.

So, I had worked my ass off to do the best I could. Through all the screaming fights that kept me from studying and math lessons that had always felt like they were in a different language to me and days when I couldn't do my homework at all because I had been in too much pain from a beating, through all those days when I had to skip school from an illness or injury, I had tried my damned hardest. And now, all of that work, all of that struggle and frustration had been for nothing. Eight years down the fucking drain. I should feel something about that. I should be in tears from shame and grief, seeing what a waste my life has been. I had been thinking a lot lately about leaving school forever, just walking out and being done with it. I had even fantasized about doing something to get me expelled just so I would have an excuse not to be there anymore, to not deal with Wren or Josh or any of it. But those had just been thoughts, this was reality. This wasn't deciding not to do my homework anymore or picking fights. This was throwing all my writing in the garbage. This was putting the spare key Justin had given me in their mailbox. This was finality. It was over and done with, truly, just like all those other things. Another piece of my life turned to dust. Even if I had only done this to myself, I should be upset. I should be ashamed. I should be something. I just felt nothing at all.

"I'm very sorry, Frey," Stoan said again as we walked out of the school together, like I had been wronged in all this instead of the one that had done something so incredibly stupid and violent, "I'll be in touch, alright?"

I gave him a little nod. He looked so pained and I had no idea why. I was just a student, not his friend. Although, I guess we had built a kind of rapport over the years. He was probably thinking what an utter waste this all was.

"Go home and get some rest," he urged and I wondered just how awful I looked now that that was his main concern.

"I will, Mr. Stoan," I murmured my lie.

I walked through the parking lot and off school property, feeling him watching me the entire way, but I didn't look back to check. It felt incredibly strange, leaving that place and telling myself that I was never going back there. I don't know if I felt numb or what it was, but it just wasn't hitting me no matter how many things my tired brain dredged up. I would never open up my locker to find a nasty surprise waiting for me again. I would never get to use the home ec lab to make all the things I couldn't experiment with at home because we couldn't afford the ingredients or the tools or I knew it was something that my father would never eat.

I would never have to navigate the familiar halls making sure I had enough people around and enough exits that Wren or one of his friends couldn't corner me like I was a deer nervously drinking at a water hole and not knowing where the crocodile was. I would never have to deal with Harkins' homophobia or Saren's pranks or the threat of Wren's sexual assaults or tests or grades or showers after gym or whispered slurs from classmates that I had been around since I had been nine years old ever again. And I would never again step into that place that was filled to the brim with so many memories of Josh. Early mornings sharing coffees and small talk. Lunches in the studio. Him comforting me in the library after that stupid prank with the school newspaper. Helping each other with homework. Brief touches between classes. Playing badminton and watching out for each other's showers in gym. Him urging me to try out for track. Him holding me as I cried over Wren's assault. Helping wash off his jacket after Wren had dumped piss on him.

So many memories. Not all of them happy ones, but still pieces of us. Our friendship. Our relationship. Him coming out to the entire school in support of me. Him always being there, my rock when everything else around me had been going to shit. Standing up to Harkins for me. Smiling at me for the first time in chemistry, long before we had ever been friends. I should have been relieved to be away from that place, if not to be away from my bullies, then to be away from those memories. They were part of what was killing me, weren't they? I had thought it couldn't get worse than that, than being constantly reminded of everything I had left behind, everything I had lost. But walking away that afternoon, knowing I was turning my back on those same memories? That I would never be allowed back into the places where those memories had been born? Like we were being erased from the fabric of the world. Like we had never happened in the first place. It was so much worse. I didn't feel relief at leaving school, or sadness at the loss of my educational career. I just felt this deep and pervasive ache.

As I walked out onto Main Street, I felt completely lost for what I was supposed to do now. Where I was supposed to go. I had one less place now. One less sanctuary away from my father and Pat and what was supposed to be my home. One less thing to fill my days. I didn't know how I was going to cope with that just yet. Honestly, I was just trying to deal with one thing at a time and not think about it. I wasn't even supposed to still be alive, let alone have nothing left to do outside of work. Although that might be a balm on all this. Not just to my parents, but to me. If killing myself was out, at least for the mean time until I could figure out what my other options were, maybe I could take that full time position Leneski had offered me and help more with our debt. It was something at least, something a lot more useful to me than school. I didn't want to think about how I was going to explain to Leneski and Kane why I suddenly had all this time. I'm sure they were going to hear about it along with the rest of the town in the next few days, but I didn't know what to say about it if they outright asked me, any more than I knew what the hell I was going to tell my mom.

There was really only one place I could go, the one place that I really didn't want to go: home. My other prison. There was no way that Pat would be there at this time of day, but that didn't make it any easier. But I was so awfully tired, down to my bones. I felt even sicker than I had sitting in the park that morning after cutting myself and I recognized some of the signs of my body crashing. I had lost too much blood, gone through too much that day. A cup of water and a few sips at the fountain was not going to cure what was wrong with me. I needed something to eat, something with iron. I needed to lie down for a while. I couldn't sleep, but staying on my feet was disgustingly taxing. I needed to make dinner for my parents and figure out what I was going to do now, not aimlessly walk around town until I had to go to work. At the rate I was going, I was going to pass out before the end of my first shift anyway.

So, I went home. I made it a few blocks from the school in the direction of the south end of town when I really wished I had some spare change for the bus. It would have been a waste of money, but the long walk was making me drag. Or maybe that was less how tired and done in my body was and more the weight of all the things I refused to think about. I made it home without keeling over anyway, so it really would have been a waste of money.

I felt the fear and trepidation and ironclad grip of anxiety that's become so familiar over the last half year, only now coming from a different target, fill me as I entered my street. No, more like it was doubled and boosted than just transferred. It twisted my guts to mush and made me wonder if I really could just go to Ms. Liddle's or Kane's. Even when I came to my house and saw that my father's car wasn't there, I felt like I would be sick if I had to go into that house. Although I loathed my cowardice and inability to move past this, I didn't bother telling myself that it was ridiculous, feeling this way. Being scared of wolves when walking through the woods at night stops being ridiculous after they maul you the first time, let alone after a hundred times. But I just keep making that walk.

I dragged myself to the front door without much thinking about it. Just going through the motions because thinking was too painful. I unlocked the door and went inside. The house was dark and there were no shoes by the door. The relief I felt almost made me crumple to my knees, but it also disgusted me because I wasn't just relieved that Pat and my father weren't there, but my mother as well. I was too tired to pretend to be ok around her, and as much as I ached with loneliness, it was better to be alone. Being around people… talking with them, trying to remember all the things I was supposed to be and say was too taxing. I dropped my book bag in the kitchen and dug out a couple pain pills from the cabinet in the bathroom. Just the over-the-counter stuff this time, although with how much my arm was hurting me, my mother's would have been a better idea.

Back in the kitchen, I poured myself a glass of water to swallow the pills with, figuring that hydration was probably a good idea at that point. My hand shook hard as I held the tumbler under the tap. My right hand. I had held it together pretty well at school, but I guess that walk back home had finally been too much. I felt a little bit faint, shaky in more than just my hand. I carefully put the glass on the counter so I wouldn't drop it and for the first time since it had happened, remembered the blood on my knuckles. I quickly washed it off before taking a sip of the water, not caring if I scrubbed off some scabs. Just like always, the water tasted metallic, like sucking on a penny, but it still tasted better than the water in the art studio. And just like the last two times, once I took that first gulp of water, it was like my body couldn't get enough of it, instinctively knowing what it needed after that agonizingly long day of exertion and blood loss.

I ended up drinking two more glasses of water before I had to stop because putting that much of anything in my body was making me feel queasy. I didn't have the strength to throw up, so I figured that was enough for now. I did need to eat something, though, or I was going to pass out before I ever got to work. I needed iron and protein. Some of the sirloin I had bought would have been the perfect thing for me, but I wasn't feeling hungry enough for something that big and I needed to make the fish before the beef. I carefully looked through the fridge for something that would be quick to eat and wouldn't take anything away from what I planned to use for my parents' dinners that week. I couldn't stomach much anyway. I took an egg from the carton and one of the spare apples from the bag I had bought, knowing that I was the only one that was going to eat them. Protein, iron, and sugar. Probably not exactly what I needed, recovering from how much blood I had lost that morning, but better than nothing.

My lunch passed by in a blur just like most of that afternoon. I don't remember cooking the egg or washing the apple, but I remember the awful sawdust taste of the apple and how sick just that little bit of food made me feel. It might give me enough energy to make it through the rest of the day, debatably but it was a nice thought, but for the moment, it felt like I had just swallowed a handful of rocks. I dumped the frying pan, plate, fork, and glass in the sink and stumbled to the living room. The only thought in my head was lying down and trying to fight off my nausea. Even if I couldn't sleep, I wanted off my feet. On my way out of the kitchen, I noticed that the light on the answering machine was blinking. Obviously, a message from Stoan. I could have deleted it to give myself some time, or listened to it to see exactly what he had said, but I didn't see the point so I ignored it.

I less lied down on the couch than I plummeted onto it. I needed to be careful. The allure of sleep was powerful the second I was off my feet, but for right now, it felt good, especially when I rested my injured arm on a pillow instead of the hard surfaces I had been using up until then. I gathered up my mother's afghan to use as a pillow, but mostly as a comfort. The light, floral scent of her shampoo would have a balm against the lingering, stale smell of cigarettes in the room, but I quickly retracted in disgust when I realized that smell, along with the equally familiar smell of beer had seeped into the afghan and I angrily kicked it down to the far end of the couch. I couldn't smell her shampoo or perfume on it at all. He had erased her. I felt a thick vein of irritation, like all the gods of the universe were joining to conspire against me. I couldn't even rest on my own fucking couch without smelling… without smelling him. It made my nausea rise, heavy and choking my throat. I wanted to hit something, but I was too fucking tired.

I felt the edge of the couch dip right behind my back as Josh sat on it. His familiar hand settled on my head, lightly stroking my hair. It would have been that comforting I had been looking for if it didn't make my heart bleed.

"It's alright, Frey," he soothed, his voice so solid and real and perfect that, if I let it happen, I could really believe he was there. Only if he had really been there, he wouldn't be touching me like that.

"Piss off, Josh," I snarled at him, looking over my shoulder hatefully at nothing.

There was nothing behind me, not even a dent in the couch where he had been sitting. The crazy thing wasn't that I had hallucinated him or that I had spoken to nothing more than a delusion, but that for a moment, I had really thought there would be something there, that I would see the indent of his weight on that edge of the couch. I really was going clinically insane. Feeling cold, I wrapped my good arm around myself and curled up as much as I could into a small ball. But… even though I had known he wasn't real… and even though I had made him go away… it had felt nice… him stroking my hair. Telling me that it was ok. Just like he used to.

Arms that I recognized as well as my own but were much warmer wrapped around my waist. Familiar weight settled on my shoulder. I didn't fight it this time. It wasn't a hallucination anyway, it was a memory. Lying on the couch in Josh's living room. His arms around me. His body pressed sweetly against my back. Warm and safe. Back during that other time when I had felt sick from not sleeping and heartsick over everything else that had been going on. I had told him about my rage, about almost killing my father, almost killing myself. He should have been disgusted with me. He should have hated me for being like my father. For being just like those boys that had killed Sarim. Angry and lashing out at anything that moved. No better than an animal. And he had told me that it didn't make me a monster. Didn't make me him. He had held me and soothed me to sleep as he had cried against my shoulder for what I had almost done to myself. It used to be such a bittersweet memory. I had told him so many awful things about myself and I had felt so ashamed, but his forgiveness, and lying with him after like he thought I was this precious thing despite all the blackness in my heart is still one of my sweetest memories. But now when I found myself being pulled back into that memory, I could only see those sweet moments and none of the bitter.

I could have fought against that pull of memory, but I didn't want to. I was so tired of fighting. I was tired of blocking him out, tired of putting up walls in my head to protect me against those memories. It wasn't just that I didn't have the strength to keep it up anymore. I just didn't want to. I missed him. I missed us. I missed remembering being happy and content being with him, having a true friend and someone that loved me, just because I knew it would hurt. I was already hurting trying to isolate myself from it and I was so tired of feeling empty and grey and numb. I didn't care about the pain anymore. I didn't care if it killed me. I just wanted to be with him. And the Josh in my memories wasn't the one that hated me.

So, I let the dam crack and burst and flood me until I drowned. I let those barriers down and let in all those things I had been holding back all this time. I didn't fight against the arms around me or the phantom warmth I felt at my back. I focused on it, dredged up every little detail of that memory that I could until I was submerged in it. In them. Reality melted away and I lived only in those memories, all of them that I could still remember well enough. I ran with him on cold, early mornings to get myself in shape for track, feeling him right there by my side, matching my stride, our footsteps beating against the ground in a companionable rhythm. I lied down with him on the living room couch early on a Sunday night just because he knew I was feeling tired. He put his arm around my waist to keep me close and I used his chest as my pillow, listening to the soothing sound of his heartbeat. He told me that I was perfect. He stayed up with me when I was concussed and read to me, his voice sweet and melodic and soothing through the pain. He watched with rapt attention as I made his mother's cake. He told me I was amazing. We put up the treehouse together, working in perfect unison, so comfortable together that it was like we had been to fit together, like two puzzle pieces. He found me at the library when I was upset because he knew exactly where I would go and he held my hand, not caring who saw because the only thing he cared about was that I was sad. We sat out on the jetty and watched the tide come in. He told me that he loved me so many times.

"I always want you, more than anything."

"You're home."

"Everything else… how we're treated at school… Wren, Saren, all of them… It's all so ugly. But us? We love each other. We're strong together. This relationship we have makes me feel like I can face all of that like it's nothing. How can that not be beautiful?"

His voice was sweet and melodic, pulling me deeper and deeper under. They were all words I had heard before, but that didn't matter. They were like a lullaby, something you've heard a thousand times before, but were soothing instead of repetitive. It was the closest to happiness I had been since long before our breakup. I knew it wasn't real and I knew it was insane, but I spent the rest of my day like that, disconnected from my tired and sick body. Reliving memories that were more like fantasies. Because even if I was nuts, and even if it wasn't real, I still got to be with him. Nothing else mattered.

I had been right about it hurting, though. Several hours later, when I was unwillingly dragged from my delusions by the sound of the front door opening, it felt like some uncaring hand had firmly gripped my broken and bleeding heart and callously ripped me back to reality. From the warm, loving comfort of Josh's arms to cold, stark emptiness. The pain that seemed to radiate through my entire body was a very real and terrible thing. It felt even worse than sitting in the park that morning, my wounded arm screaming at me and not knowing if I was going to survive. It felt like breaking up with Josh and walking away from him all over again. I didn't want to be there. I didn't care if it was crazy. I didn't want to be back there.

I felt a burning, intense hatred for whoever had brought me back, but it quickly dissipated when my mother bustled past the living room doorway to the kitchen instead of my father or Pat. I still felt bitter, but I couldn't hate her. She was all I had left. Her and Kane and my memories. She was the only thing I had anymore to tether me to that reality, whether I wanted it or not. She must have noticed that someone was on the couch when she had walked by because I heard her quickly walk back to the doorway.

"Frey, what are you doing home?" she asked, her voice not accusatory, but concerned, which was a lot worse.

It was in me to pretend that I was just asleep. My head felt heavy and muggy even though I hadn't dozed off at all and it was pounding angrily at the sudden transition from my imagination to real existence and I didn't want to deal with anything, filled with a toxic mix of irritation, grief, and depression. But I knew that if even I tried my hardest, I wasn't going to be able to go back into those memories with my mother there and slowly willed myself to move. I winced as I unwrapped my right arm from around myself, glad that I was facing away from her so she couldn't see my reaction. It was stiff as hell and ached all the way up my shoulder. I must have not moved it for a few hours. Moving like someone who had just woken up from a coma, I woodenly and very slowly shifted myself onto my back and immediately felt a wave of dizziness and nausea hit me. I felt like utter dog shit.

"What time is it?" I muttered, scrubbing my right hand over my face, my eyes squeezed shut and hoping my mother didn't catch the slight trembling in my arm.

I felt completely disoriented and so tired that I didn't even catch on what my mother had asked me as anything significant.

"9:30," she told me, only sounding more worried.

I blinked my eyes open in astonishment. 9:30? That couldn't be right. But as I craned my head in the direction of the window behind me, I saw that it wasn't a mistake. It was pitch black outside. I had been on that couch for over seven hours. Not sleeping, but lost in my fantasies. I hadn't even noticed the time at all. Until my mother had opened that door, reality had been completely lost to me. It was no wonder why I felt so awful.

"Are you alright?" she pressed.

"I… I feel a little sick," I admitted.

I didn't have the strength left in me to lie and try to slap on that mask of 'everything is just fine.' I hadn't been fine in over a week and I was too sleep deprived anymore to figure out what I was supposed to be doing to placate her, let alone pull it off. I just didn't see the point of it. The most I could do was lie about what exactly was wrong with me.

"You look awful, Frey," she said, not sugar-coating things either and frowned, getting a better look at me and not liking what she saw at all.

She sat on the edge of the couch and slipped her hand under my bangs to rest on my forehead. Her touch was more focused, sharper than Josh's had been in my memories and it helped to wake me up a little bit more, although I couldn't quite shake that heavy, muffled feeling in my head entirely. It was like a part of me was still there, with Josh in my memories. Or maybe a part of my brain was trying to get back to him.

"Honey, you're cold," she said in surprise.

I thought that she meant that I didn't have a fever, but she seemed more worried instead of less, her frown deepening.

"I just feel a little sick to my stomach," I tried to assuage her, knowing that with my medical history, she had every right to be worried if I wasn't feeling well.

"When did you last have something to drink?" she asked me.

"When I got home from school," the answer slipped out of me before I had a chance to edit it.

Although I probably wouldn't have even remembered that I should. Exhaustion is a great lie detector. That little bit of knowledge only made her more worried and she lightly brushed my bangs out of my face, studying me for another few seconds.

"We don't have any ginger ale," she said regrettably, "but I have some chamomile tea that's good for nausea. Do you think you could stomach some?"

I didn't want anything to do with either eating or drinking, but I gave her a small nod, just wanting to make her feel better. She gave me a quick kiss on the top of my head that made me feel weird, warmed and terrible at the same time, and rushed to the kitchen to make the tea. I hoped she would make some for herself, too. I assumed that she was between shifts and had come home to eat something and suddenly I really did feel awful. I had been lounging around on the couch when I should have been making dinner for her. That was the very first thing I should have done when I had gotten home, made sure dinner would be ready for her or at least so my father could pop it in the oven. I hadn't even checked my bandages or anything else reasonable. I had just… crashed. What the hell was wrong with me?

I rolled over to my other side to the edge of the couch and stood up from it. I immediately almost ended up on the floor on my ass as everything tilted, only barely managing to stay upright with one hand gripping the closest armrest of the couch. I pressed a hand to my forehead as I swayed, feeling like I was going to puke. Was it how little I had eaten? How long I had been lying down without moving? It couldn't possibly still be the blood loss, right? I was trying to ignore how much my arm was still throbbing and aching all those hours after Josh had grabbed it, and how fat and swollen it felt under those bandages, but I had hydrated myself and even put something in my stomach. Although, considering how much blood I remembered seeing that morning staining my clothes and the ground, a single egg and an apple and a few glasses of water probably weren't cutting it.

When I thought I was steady enough on my feet to fool my mother, I walked to the kitchen. She was standing at the stove, staring into a small pot of water that she was waiting to boil with a focus that the act really didn't warrant, clearly thinking about something. For a moment, I thought she knew about what had happened at school and she was getting up the courage to rail me about it, or formulating what she was going to say, but a quick glance at the phone told me that she hadn't listened to the message yet. The light was still blinking.

"When do you get off in the morning?" I asked her, my voice still weird and rough, like I was fighting off a sore throat, although it was more from disuse.

She startled for a moment, not having heard me get up, but gave me a weak smile.

"I actually don't have another shift tonight. I took too much overtime last week," she admitted sourly, and I didn't need for her to tell me that she was frustrated that she had hit another roadblock in trying to dig us out of the hole we had found ourselves in.

"I'm taking a longer shift at the other diner, though," she rushed to assure me, "So, I'll be leaving earlier in the morning."

I wanted to tell her that she didn't have anything to prove to me. I wasn't Dad. I wasn't going to be pissed if she wasn't working every second of the day. I wanted to say that, but the bitter truth was that we needed the money. She couldn't even take a break because of all the long hours she had put in last week because all that work still hadn't gotten us out of debt. It probably hadn't even made a sizeable dent in it. Dad refused to pick up a second job and if I offered to take on more hours, it would only make her feel guilty. But… but things weren't the same as they had been yesterday.

'Should I tell her?' I wondered as I met her tired eyes.

Should I tell her about school? Anxiety crushed my heart and writhed in my guts, but I refused to turn away from that thought. It would be better coming from me than my principal, but ignoring my guilt and knowing how upset it would make her, should I tell her that I had time now? All the time in the world to take on a full-time job instead of these stupid part-time ones? Make more money? With the three of us working full-time shifts, would we be able to catch up on our bills? Wasn't that more important than a stupid high school diploma that I wasn't going to do anything with anyway? Wouldn't that be a balm to her? She could actually have a day off once in a while, for the first time in fucking years. Couldn't I do that for her?

"I can cook up that piece of fish I got for dinner," was what came out of my mouth instead, "If you want, since you'll be home."

"Oh, honey, you don't need to do that. Not when you're feeling sick," she said, but I saw the hunger in her eyes, a hunger that had nothing to do with anything physical.

We hadn't had fish outside of what came in a box of frozen fish sticks in a long while.

"I'm not so sick that I can't make dinner," I pointed out, "And it won't keep for much longer. I was planning on making fish au gratin, if that's alright. I-I'm sorry, we don't have the spinach to make baked Florentine," I told her regrettably, suddenly wishing I had grabbed some the other night anyway, whether it would have pissed my father off or not.

"Au gratin sounds amazing, Frey," she smiled more honestly at me, knowing full well the real reason why we didn't have any spinach, "But not until later. You need to rest. Sit down."

I obediently sat in one of the kitchen chairs. It was easier going along with whatever I was being told to do, whenever I could. My head was too foggy to fight it, or even decide if this was something I should be fighting. I would say that this was the moment when I realized how fucked I was in the sleep deprivation department, but I was way past that. I felt a small flare of frustration as she returned to brewing the tea that her boss had screwed her over, but mostly I was relieved that she would be there for the rest of the night. I didn't want to be alone. As much as I couldn't stand being around people, I didn't want to be alone, and her presence was more of a comfort than an annoyance, even if I was in near panic worrying about how I was going to make her think that I was fine. I didn't want to be alone with Pat, as much as I didn't want the two of them in the same room together, but it was more than that. I didn't want to be alone with myself.

The water finished boiling and my mother poured it over the teabag in one of our mugs, then went to the bathroom while it steeped. The kitchen filled with a familiar, pleasant, and homey aroma that made it hard to breathe. Thankfully, my mother was back before I could think about it.

"Here, I want to take your temperature," she said, thermometer in hand.

I thought about fighting it like I had with the nurse, but it was a weak thought. It would take more effort to come up with a reason why I didn't want my temperature taken, so I just went with it. While she was waiting, she removed the tea bag from the mug and added a little bit of honey to the tea. I didn't know if she remembered that I like honey with my tea from some of the few times I had made the stuff for myself or if it was just something she did to her own and figured I might like it, but seeing that little touch made my chest hurt. She gave the tea a stir and put it on the table while taking the thermometer from me in a trade.

"Well, you don't have a fever," she remarked, but didn't seem too happy about it for some reason, "Is it just your stomach bothering you?"

"My head hurts a little," I lied, "I just kind of feel a bit out of it."

"You didn't get enough sleep this morning," she fussed, almost scolding me like I had had anything to do with that, "I want you to go to bed early tonight, Frey. You're as pale as a sheet and you have dark circles under your eyes. I don't want you getting seriously ill."

I gave her a sluggish nod. I didn't care about getting sick and I wasn't going to sleep, but it seemed like an easy thing to placate her about. Faking sleep if she shared a bed with me again would be hell, but I was sure I could pull it off. She looked reassured, so it was clearly the right thing to do.

"I want you to drink all of that," she ordered, "and have a decent dinner tonight. If your stomach is bothering you that much, I can make you some white rice instead of the fish."

"I'm not that nauseous," I assured her with another lie, "You don't need to make anything special for me. I'll have the fish."

I didn't want to eat anything for the rest of the day, especially seafood, but if it made my mother believe that I was ok, I would choke down as much fish as she wanted and try not to puke. The iron would probably make me feel better in the long run anyway.

"Alright. Give that a few minutes," she warned me, "It's still boiling hot."

I gave her another nod, not really listening to her and understanding that she meant the tea. She left me alone to take a shower before my father would show up to hog it. She didn't get many opportunities when she was home before him. I carefully dragged the mug by its handle until it was closer to me, the steam wafting across my face. That smell was so achingly familiar. I wrapped my hand around the mug. It should have been searing hot, but I didn't feel anything. But I could smell it. I wondered why that was. Why I couldn't taste or feel, but I could smell perfectly well. Or maybe I couldn't and it was in my head. That was entirely possible. My mind painting things from my memories again. I could remember that last time my insomnia had been bad, making tea in Josh's kitchen. It had been valerian, not chamomile and my memory of that time is still so fuzzy that I'm not sure if that had been a conscious choice or just a coincidence, but it had still had that homey, brewed tea smell.

Mariela loved chamomile tea. I don't think I had ever seen her use a tea bag over the loose stuff, but it smelled the same. She had brewed me a few cups of it before, although I had never had the courage to use one of those fragile, little porcelain teacups she always drank from. We didn't have any teacups, even the cheap ones, just a couple of cracked mugs that were mostly used for coffee that my mother had picked up from yard sale after my father had broken the Nordic, ceramic ones that had been my grandmother's during one of the many fights my parents had had. My mother had started that one, but he had ended it with that cruel bit of destruction. I had been fairly young when it had happened, but I remembered them. Not that I had been allowed to use them, of course, but I remembered how beautiful they had been. They had been a mix-matched set, one a spring mug, all colorful flowers against a deep green background, and the other a winter one, a gold tree etched on the pure white mug with little silver stars.

They had been the nicest bit of drink ware we had ever owned, although they had been a far cry from Mariela's teacups. I wondered if hers were also hand-me-downs or if she had bought them herself. If I took a deep breath of that floral-smelling steam and closed my eyes, I knew that I could see her sitting on their couch, sipping her tea and asking me with a warm smile if I wanted a cup. I felt the strong pull of those memories, just like I had lying on the couch, feeling Josh's arms around me, but I fought it this time. As much as I wanted to return to that strange stupor I had been in and be with Josh and Mariela, I didn't want my mom to see me like that. I didn't even know if I could with her around, or hearing her would pull me right out of it like she had when she had opened the front door.

I slipped my hand from the mug and opened it. My palm was a bright, startling red, but there were no blisters and I still couldn't feel it even if I knew intellectually that it should have hurt. I wondered if I drank some, if I would feel the scalding tea on my tongue or if I was so numb that I wouldn't even be able to feel a serious injury like that. I blew on the steam instead to cool it down. I had already gotten a burn that day, I didn't need another one. Not that my scalp was bothering me as much as it should have, either. The only thing that I could feel beyond my anger and depression was my wounded arm. I guess I had done enough damage to myself that my body had to register it.

I gave it another couple minutes before I deemed it cool enough that I wasn't going to stupidly hurt myself and took a sip. As stupid as it sounds, and as foolish as I knew the thought to be, there had been a part of myself that had hoped I might be able to taste it. That remembering Mariela making me a cup of it so vividly would… trigger something. I could remember the taste, so maybe my senses would clue into what they should be doing. But to my disappointment, it was the same as everything else. Bland. Nothing. Like drinking a cup of hot water. Only disappointment isn't really what I felt after I took that first sip. I felt this… explosion of sorrow deep in my chest. Grief, like I had lost another friend, not quite as terribly as Nate and Josh and Brian, but still painful. It was a feeling that I was becoming repulsively accustomed to, although I was far from getting used to its bite.

I still drank the tea, vainly trying to ignore its nostalgic smell, just because it was what my mother had wanted. I was halfway done with it when my mother finished her shower. She had taken a lot longer in the shower than she usually does, and instead of dressing in the bathroom, she walked out in her bathrobe, something she never does, especially now that Pat's always around. I guess she felt safe with only the two of us in the house to do whatever she wanted. She still didn't linger long, just giving me an approving smile when she saw that I was doing what she had asked, even if it was taking me forever to drink a single cup of tea, then went into the bedroom to change.

I looked down at what remained of the tea, swirling the golden yellow liquid a little. It looked like melted honey. There was a part of me that wondered what I was supposed to be doing now. Not just that second, or even that night, but the next day. But that part was so small and faint and I neither cared nor wanted to think about it, so it was easy to ignore. Instead, I was thinking about whether or not I should take another caffeine pill. That was a much easier and more immediate issue. I didn't feel right. I wasn't just dragging myself around, I felt this aching heaviness that wasn't going away, like there was a block of cement chained to my shoulders. I felt weary in ways I never have before. I wanted to lie down and shut my eyes and disappear, but I couldn't do that. The pills weren't helping that much with the problem but they were keeping me awake and semi-alert.

I didn't really care about overdosing, but I realized that I was so screwed up, I couldn't remember how many I had taken that day or when I had taken the last one. Were they still working and I just didn't realize it? I was less concerned with double dosing than I was with running out of the stupid things. I wasn't so sure that I could steal another bottle as successfully as that first time and it seemed stupid to risk it. Besides, I didn't want my mom to catch me taking them. I didn't have any answer for how I had gotten them or why. I was already worrying her, her figuring out that I wasn't sleeping on purpose was not something I wanted to deal with. That was the only purpose I had anymore, keeping my mom from worrying. At the very least, I needed to save some for later that night after she had gone to bed. It was going to be a very long night. My adrenaline and injury had gotten me through the morning. I wasn't so sure of this one.

I finished the last few sips of my tea by the time my mother left the bathroom wearing a pair of thin sweatpants and a loose t-shirt. In a moment of intelligence that was getting rarer and rarer by the hour, I realized that while the outfit was likely comfortable, it was also the most unflattering combination of clothes she owned. Even her hair had been bundled into a lazy bun bunched at the base of her neck instead of having it loose, which would have been more comfortable, the braid that she would often wear during a long shift at the diner to keep it out of the way, or her usual ponytail. It was a hairstyle that looked more at home on a woman twice her age. I wondered if it was intentional or if I was just reading into it too much and she was wearing the sweats because they were comfortable and the bun because it kept her hair out of her face and she was feeling too lazy to braid it. I also wondered how she could wear the t-shirt, loose or not, and not be freezing. I had had a chill since I had fled the house earlier that morning and our house has never been warm when we aren't running the heating, but she didn't seem bothered by it at all.

All thoughts about my mother's attire fled as she walked over to the phone, finally seeming to notice the blinking light of the answering machine. Pure anxiety suddenly strangled me, making it impossible to breathe. I don't know why. Hitting Lucy hadn't made me feel anything. Hearing her father tell Stoan that he was going to press charges hadn't made me feel anything. Even Stoan telling me that there might be an expulsion hearing and that he was going to notify my parents hadn't made me feel anything. I had told myself that I didn't care what my father did to me or if my mother heard that message. The most I had felt was guilt knowing that I had let her down again, but I had only felt numb when I had come home to see that light blinking. And it shouldn't have bothered me. It didn't matter. My mother was going to find out about it anyway.

But suddenly realizing that it was happening now, that she was going to listen to that message and hear that, not only was I likely going to be expelled, but I was going to be expelled over hitting a defenseless girl, and she was going to look at me with shame and anger and disappointment made me feel like I was on the verge of a full-fledged panic attack. Suddenly, I felt like I was a little kid again, knowing I was going to get yelled at for something, or taking home a lackluster report card and that my dad was going to beat the shit out of me for it, which was bad, but before that, he would tell me how worthless I was, how much of a disappointment I was to him, and that was so much worse. My heart raced as she almost made it to the phone, that red light like a beacon, and felt like I was going to throw up. Only to feel like, instead, I was going to cry when she walked right past it and into the living room.

I only took a breath when I heard her turn on the television and pull the ironing board out of the storage closet. It came out shaky and I realized that my hands were trembling a little. What the hell was wrong with me? Lately, I either reacted to everything like a fucking robot or I was incapable of dealing with things at all, there was no in between anymore. I felt completely psychotic, like my emotions were a disease, infecting me and eating me from the inside out. Parasitic invaders making me feverish and nonsensical. I rested my face in my hand and wished I had never gone home. I wished I had gone back to the park and… and I don't know what. It wasn't like I could have slept there in the middle of the day like that. I guess all I wished for anymore is that Josh's voice had never popped up in my head that morning. Only I don't even really wish for that, either, because if it hadn't, it wouldn't have kept him from finding out that I had killed myself. Whether he hated me or not, I still would have hurt him.

I stood up from the table, feeling completely unsteady, and was suddenly struck with this paralyzing confusion. I didn't know what to do. What I was supposed to do. It was only a bit after ten, not even midnight, and I had nothing to do. And what little I could do, I didn't have the energy for anymore or I couldn't do with my arm still fucked up. I felt lost, even more lost than that first day I had had after breaking up with Josh. I felt adrift in some great, black ocean, just biding my time until the sharks found me, I guess. Maybe the answer is that there isn't anything I can do. Maybe there's just nothing. I was still considering it when the front door opened again and this time, my father walked through. Instead of bitching about my sudden life upheaval, I should have paid more attention to the time.

It's kind of funny. My father's schedule has always been something I've paid almost obsessive attention to, but even though I had registered that it was past ten, it hadn't clicked that it meant that he was off work and would likely be coming home, if he didn't stop off at a bar first. That, more than how tired I felt, more than what little energy I had, and even more than my escaping into a fantasy world for seven hours told me how messed up I was. I guess it would also be funny that I didn't feel my usual anxiety about him coming home, it was Pat that I was more scared of, if the reasons for that fear weren't still so vivid. If I still couldn't feel his weight on my back and his fingers inside me and smell the booze and tobacco on his breath. That kind of took all the humor out of it. So, I guess it's strange to admit this, but I hadn't really given Pat that much thought when my mother had woken me out of my stupor and told me how late it was. I didn't think how I would have to be in the same house as him all night. I didn't even think about his weird behavior after I had gone home that morning. I wanted to hope it was genuine and he had just forgotten what he had done to me, but I knew where that kind of denial led.

I tensed as taut as a string pulled far too tightly as my father walked in, and nearly sagged in utter relief when he closed the door behind him. Pat wasn't with him. The relief only lasted half a second. I wasn't so stupid as to really believe that he wouldn't show up that night. I couldn't possibly be that lucky. Especially not after my mother had kicked him out of the house the other day. He would make damn sure that he would be there as much as he could just to rub it in her face. I've never been around when my father has come home from work, so I was sure that Pat just had a longer shift or the commute would keep him away for an hour or so. I'd ask God or whoever is in charge of such things to get him into a nice, head-on collision with a tree or pole or something on his way over here if I didn't know that those kinds of prayers always go unanswered. God and I aren't really on great, friendly terms lately anyway.

As soon as I saw that my father was alone, my burst of anxious adrenaline faded, leaving me feeling wrung out. I felt like I had just been battered around from one extreme to the other for the last ten minutes. Fear. Relief. Fear. Relief. It made me feel hollow and scraped thin. God, if I was this tired at ten o' freaking clock, how was I going to get through the rest of the day, let alone the entire week? I still forced myself to stand up from the table and push the chair back in. I didn't like being around my father when I was sitting down, especially when he listened to that message. He shrugged off his jacket with the heavy air of a man that was worn down after a long day of hard labor and put it on the hook of the coat rack almost like an after-thought, barely looking at it.

He wasn't scowling, but he had the same hard look he always has now after work, the one that told me he was tired and in a bad mood, but not over anything specific. That quickly changed when he glanced over at the kitchen and saw me standing there, his irritated expression actually twisting into a scowl. It kind of hit me then that we hadn't seen each other since he had tried to grab me as I had run out of the house early that morning and if he wanted to kick my ass for shoving Pat, now was probably a good time. I could have left before he had shown up, but I didn't see the point. We were going to run into each other eventually, I had just wanted it to happen when my mom wasn't around. He strode into the kitchen, his eyes like stone and with that expression that told me that he might not be itching for a fight, but he would sure as hell give me one if I so much as breathed. I prepared myself for the first swing or for him to kick me out of the house. Not that I especially cared about either option, but if it was just exiling me, my mother would be less likely to get involved. If he did, well, it was probably late enough and dark enough that I could get away with loitering at the park for a while.

"What the fuck are you doing home?!" he snarled at me instead of saying anything about Pat, which stunned me enough in bewilderment that I couldn't even come up with an excuse like I had with my mom, "Why the hell aren't you at work?!"

I blinked at him in utter bewilderment, like he was speaking an alien language, before the gears finally slid into place. Work. Shit. Suddenly, my mother's surprise to find me home at 9:30 had a whole different context. I'm not sure what's more psychotic, that I hadn't given work a single thought since I had left school or that I hadn't realized why my being home in the middle of the night was weird. What the hell had happened to me that afternoon? Since I had had that run-in with Josh after leaving the principal's office the first time, it was like my brain had gone into full shutdown. I'd say that it was like I was on autopilot, but I know what I'm like when I'm on autopilot. Hell, I know what I'm like when I'm sleep deprived and go full screensaver, automatic mode and this sure as hell isn't it. Making the conscious thought to skip work would have been one thing, but I had just… not remembered.

I hadn't called out, I hadn't checked my bandages, I hadn't taken a shower, I hadn't done any of the things that I should have done when I had gotten home after school. Nothing. I had just shut off and fell into this black hole. And the really scary thing was that I didn't care. I was probably going to get fired for not calling in again, on top of being expelled, and I just didn't care. I should. I had been thinking that my getting kicked out of school was only a good thing because I could work full-time and now that I had skipped and was going to, at the very least, get written up, I should have been scared. Work was the one thing I had left to fill my time and instead I was just there, sipping tea and staring out into space. Leneski's was a lost cause, but if I hurried, I could salvage my factory one.

"He's sick, Nathan," my mother appeared in the doorway with one of her uniform shirts on a hangar in hand, freshly ironed. Her own expression was just as hard as his, "I told him it was alright if he stayed home tonight. He might have that flu bug that's been going around and his bosses would just send him back anyway if they think he's contagious."

I stared at her this time, surprised that she was bothering to stick up for me when he wasn't being violent for once, just snapping at me. Nothing she was saying was exactly a lie as far as she knew, except for her telling me to stay home. If she knew just how bad off I really was, she probably would. I think she only hadn't because I had given her the impression that I had already told my bosses I wouldn't be in that night. Which meant that if I went to my factory shift anyway, my father would think she had lied and she would worry even more. Wonderful.

"Yeah?" my father sneered and strode past us to the table where he snagged the mug I had finished drinking from and had just left there. I expected him to throw it at the wall to shatter yet another of our dwindling collection of drinkware, but he just slammed it back down on the table, making my mother flinch, "And his majesty is so sick that he can't do the fucking dishes? He's just been sitting around all night on his ass while this place is a mess. Again. What's his excuse this time? That he has a cold? Well, tough shit! If he's capable of sitting around drinking tea, he can pick up a fucking washcloth or a dust rag! All you do is fucking baby him-,"

While he was ranting, I took a quick glance at the sink and saw that there really were a bunch of dishes in there. It wasn't full to the brim or anything like earlier that morning, but he had clearly had his break there, and maybe my mother, too, because there quite a few dirty dishes. I hadn't noticed at all. Now that I was looking around, I saw that the counters were dirty, too. The place wasn't a disaster, but he was right. The very first thing I should have done when I had gotten in was make sure the place was clean and instead I had been lying on the couch for hours. I should have been the one making tea and done the dishes, but I had just sat there at the table like a lump while my mother had showered, too absorbed by my problems. I guess it might have angered me on some other day, him snapping at me when the mess was his, but when he turned on my mother instead, like my being lazy was her fault, it only made me feel guilty, like the useless shit he was accusing me of being.

"I made him tea because he's sick to his stomach," she snapped back at him angrily, "Dammit, Nathan, stop taking everything out on him and just look at him! He's as pale as death and he looks exhausted! He isn't well!"

"Then what's your excuse, huh?" my father didn't seem all that concerned with what I looked like and continued to attack her instead, "What have you been doing since you got home? You allergic to doing a little bit of cleaning up around here? Dinner isn't even made and you're watching television like a little kid! Even sober, you're lazier than he is!"

A hot flash of temper broke through my fog of numbness as he yelled at her. He knew exactly what my mother was doing, he could see the shirt she was holding. And even if she had just been watching television, so fucking what? She worked like a dog and she finally had a night where she could relax. He was the one who sat in front of the television as soon as he got off work and wouldn't lift a finger. I felt true hate for him as he talked down to her like she really was a child, his hypocrisy making me feel the same rage that I had felt in Calculus when Harkins had called me a fag.

"And what about you?" an icy voice asked.

A chilling silence fell over the room. Both of my parents looked over at me, my father's stare hard and threatening in that quiet way he got right before he would snap and my mother wide-eyed with shock. She looked scared. I realized that I was the one that had spoken.

"What did you just say to me?" my father demanded, his voice low and one hand curled into a tight fist.

All my warning lights went off, screaming at me to apologize, to tell him that I hadn't said anything. I knew that was what he expected me to do, that his question wasn't a question at all but a challenge wrapped in a threat. If there's one thing that he can't stand, it's when someone talks back to him, especially if that person is me. But just as I had realized that I was the one who had said those words, I also realized that I didn't care. I didn't want to reign myself in. I didn't want to apologize. I didn't care what he did to me. If he wanted to beat the shit out of me, that was fine, but I was going to have my say one way or another.

"I said 'and what about you'," I repeated, unashamed, "All you do is call us lazy and useless and how you have to do everything around here, but when was the last time you did anything, Dad? When was the last time you made dinner or did your own laundry? When was the last time you washed a dish? When was the last time you vacuumed or replaced the lightbulb in the basement or fixed anything around here that's broken instead of barking at me to do it?"

My mother dropped the shirt she had just ironed right on the floor and went to me, grabbing my arm, her eyes wild and terrified.

"Frey, stop it!" she hissed at me, but I ignored her, pulling my arm out of her grip.

"Mind your own business, cunt," my father said harshly, but he didn't even look at her, his eyes just boring into me, the black hate in them growing between the words that had come spilling out of my mouth and her interruption.

Her face reddened. She hated it when he calls her that. I always have, too. I did feel an intense rage in my gut hearing that word again, but this time it was mixed with guilt. Guilt that I had always hated it, but that very day, I had used it anyway, just like my father and Pat did. The guilt made the anger deeper and more terrible, but I could barely look at her, either as I stared directly into that dark, endless pool of hatred in his eyes, directed right at me and no one else. A hate that I was too used to seeing in those grey eyes the morning after he raped me. Is that how Josh feels about me now? Had those blue eyes that used to always light up whenever I had just walked into the room looked like that when he had told Saren that he hated me?

"No, I want to know," I snapped at him, refusing to so much as glance at my mother, like I thought that if I did, she could see what I had done, she could see my guilt. I stared the tiger right in his sharp, inhuman eyes, "Why are we the lazy ones, Dad? Why does everything around here have to fall to us? Just because you work hard four days a week? Mom has to work double shifts every fucking day, sometimes more than that just to pay off our debt and you won't even make dinner for her or do her laundry for once! What gives you the right to talk to her like that?! You get to work one shift a day, get drunk with your friend, and come home to get waited on hand and foot and complain about how hard your life is. It must be fucking nice! It sounds to me like we're the ones that don't need you around! You're the useless one!"

I was waiting for him to hit me. Hell, it had been what I was aiming for, keying him up as much as I could. It was a stupid thing to do in front of my mother, but I couldn't stop myself from poking the tiger any more than I had been able to stop myself from calling Harkins a cunt or hitting Lucy. I was still completely unprepared for the moment when he finally snapped and slammed his fist into my face, right in my still healing eye, firmly closing it again. What amazed me in that moment wasn't how hard he had hit me but that it had taken that long for him to do it. I had been expecting that punch since the moment I had spoken up against him. I started to fall back, the feeling going out of my legs as the world upended itself, but my father was prepared for that. He quickly grabbed me by my shirt, keeping me in arm's length, and delivered a series of brutal punches to my face. He hit that right side of my face more than just a couple times. I also felt a solid blow against my nose, making it erupt with blood and I almost laughed. I guess Lucy had gotten her revenge and she hadn't needed to take me to court to do it.

I heard my mother cry out in alarm somewhere in there, between the familiar sounds of flesh hitting flesh, but my father's attack was too swift and violent for me to get my footing, let alone pay her any attention. He hit me twice in the mouth, splitting my lip, and I felt my mouth fill with blood but I couldn't tell if it was from my lip, I had bit my tongue, or if he had loosened a tooth.

"Stop it, Nathan! Stop!" my mother screamed at him.

He completely ignored her, just keeping me there by my shirt and getting into my bloodied, mashed-up face.

"You had better mind me, you little shit," he growled hatefully at me, "Do you fucking hear me? You had better show me some fucking respect-,"

"Or what?" I rasped, spitting out a mouthful of blood, the feeling of it trickling down my chin repulsive, "You'll beat me into a hospital bed? Why not? That's all you're good for."

My father had been pissed before. He always gets pissed when I talk back to him about anything, even if he was just construing my having a different opinion or trying to get him to understand something as 'talking back.' But now, when I said those things to him, told him that all he was good for was a beating, his face twisted into this black, awful rage and I knew I had just crossed a very big line. I had to wonder why, in the few seconds I got of rational thought. He had never been ashamed of his tendency to violence around us. In his eyes, it was justified. His God-given right as a father and a husband to do whatever he pleased. And really, if we angered him enough to get him to hit us, it was obviously our faults. Ignoring, of course, that a lot of the times there hadn't been a reason at all.

But it wasn't like when either my mother or I made the mistake of mentioning him raping me. Him beating us was another thing that we never talked about, because it was pointless to, but when we did, it was always met with derision, not rage or shame. But when I said it was all that he was good for, he became monstrously furious. It was the same rage I had seen on his face when he had dragged me back home from Josh's and he had almost broken my back. When I had lost his money and he had nearly beaten my face into literal mush. When he had broken my rib and dislocated my shoulder not even a full twenty-four hours apart. When he had found me picking up milk for Josh's parents and he had almost caved my head in. When he had almost strangled me. In those scant seconds, I wondered what he was going to do to me this time. What line he would cross. And if I was going to survive it again.

Then he punched me in the face again and any kind of thought fled from another sudden bolt of pain like I had been hit by a battering ram. I don't know how many times he hit me after that one. Things got a little… fuzzy with each blow to the head until it all got as mashed up as my face. But I do remember the hard blow to the side of my face that cracked my head into the wall. I remember hearing my mother cry out something, but the words weren't sensical to me. Then, I was on the ground, but I can't remember if it had been that hit to the wall that had made me crumple there or if my father had put me there. I wasn't on the ground for long. I had a sharp sense of dizziness as he snagged my arm and jerked me back up like I weighed nothing more than a sack of potatoes.

There was a terrifying moment when my legs kicked out, trying to find the floor and only met air. It had only lasted for a second, but it had been completely disorientating and, despite the fact that I had baited this on purpose, a little bit terrifying to remember how strong he is. My feet had only settled on the ground for maybe thirty seconds, not even long enough for my mind to register to balance myself, when my father suddenly slammed his knee into my gut. All the repeated blows to the head had been making me fuzzy and disconnected from what was happening to me, even the pain, but that blow to my stomach was like a shot of adrenaline, jerking me back to reality. It had been so brutal and I had been so unprepared for it that it drove me back to my knees and I struggled to breathe, my body not really knowing what to do. The fresh taste of blood in my mouth was nauseating, or maybe that was the heavy, throbbing pain in my gut, but I was suddenly torn between three very necessary tasks: breathing, not vomiting, and not panicking when I didn't think I could pull off the first two.

"Stop it, Nathan! That's enough! You have to stop!" my mother screamed.

The ringing in my ears turned her shriek into a damn railroad spike going right through my skull, but I didn't have the voice to tell her to quit it. It wasn't like he would listen to her. He would only stop when he damn felt like it. Through the peripheral vision of my one good eye (although for how much longer that would be true, I had no idea), I saw her move. She grabbed at his arm and tried to pull him away from me, which was insane, but she didn't look like she was thinking rationally anymore. Sure enough, he ripped his arm from her so hard that she almost ended up on her ass and for a moment, I thought for sure he was going to strike her, too. He shot her an acidic, hateful glare that she cringed from, flinching even though he wasn't even facing far enough towards her to hit her.

He gave her one, last black look that I couldn't quite decipher, then turning back to me, swept out his foot, his still booted foot, and nailed me in the chest with a hard and vicious kick that sent me crashing into the wall again. It didn't take a fucking genius to figure out that he had only done it because of her, that that look hadn't just been hate and anger but vindictiveness, the bastard. At least this time it was my chest and not my head, but holy hell had that hurt. If I had been able to breathe, I would have laughed. I really could have used some of that numbness back after all. He hadn't broken a rib. I don't know how in the hell he had managed that, but my chest was more or less intact unless he had just cracked something, which was also likely. Something had happened, though, whether it was just the physical trauma of the blow, how unprepared for it my body had been, or if he actually had cracked a rib because it felt like something heavy was crushing my lungs and I was breathing through a very thin straw. Which, combined with the blood still in my mouth, was not great and left me audibly gasping for breath.

If he heard my gasping, he cared even less about it than he had my mother's pleas and he lashed out at me, blindly kicking at anything in reach over and over. My mother's renewed cries and demands that he stop were muffled and diluted in my ears, like my entire self was smothered in thick cotton. My head was still little more than mush, but my body had seemed to finally figure out that it needed to protect itself from the onslaught because I quickly curled into a tight ball, one arm flung over my much-abused head while I cradled my bad arm close to my chest. It would really suck if one of his wild kicks caught it. I wouldn't even begin to know how I would explain why I was bleeding everywhere from a single kick.

My new position helped protect most of the fragile parts of me from his rain of kicks and stomps, but it didn't do my breathing problems any service. I couldn't catch my breath and I couldn't tell if there was actually something wrong with me or if I was having some kind of psychosomatic freak-out from my father's attack, but the slow trickle of blood pooling down my throat from my bloody nose and lip felt like it was drowning me and my lungs refused to get in more air, like my throat had collapsed to the size of a reed. I couldn't even breathe through my nose because it was too swollen.

But it wasn't just my breathing. My vision, what was left of it, was starting to go grey around the edges, but I didn't know why. Everything just kind of… hurt. But this was absolutely nothing like when he had beaten my ass into paste. I didn't think he had broken anything yet, but my body was telling me so many conflicting things that it was impossible to be sure. It could have been the physical panic that I always feel when he goes after me like this, or I might have a concussion from hitting that wall, or it had just been too many blows to the head.

'Is this it?' I thought as I felt him continue to kick at me like I was nothing more than a stray dog he had found raiding the kitchen.

Was it? Would I be able to open my eye again? Will he do it this time? Finally, after all these years, was it time? Was this the moment? His boot slammed down on shoulder, bloodying it even through my shirt while my mother's cries filled the kitchen, reminding me so much of when he had hit me with the chair leg. That thudding sound of the blows and her crying. Was it the same? Would he lose control again and cross the line, break something that really couldn't be fixed this time? Would he shatter me to pieces? Paralyze me? Bash my skull in? Finally do what I had been too scared to voice, even in my own head, since I was a kid and kill me? Would he even care if he did? I didn't. Not anymore. I wasn't scared of that thing that I had denied over and over again, denied that I even could think it. I was scared that he would stop.

He planted his boot on my right cheek, not kicking me but almost stepping on me and forcing the left side of my face to the floor like he was trying to crush my head in. He ground down on my cheek, the tread tearing open my skin and I felt more blood drip down my face. It stung, but the demeaning way he was looking down on me, like I was a literal bug under his shoe that needed to be squashed fed my rage, not any kind of fear.

"Stop it!" my ears finally cleared enough to understand what my mother had been screaming, "Leave him alone, Nathan! That's enough, you've made your point!"

I don't think he had a point. Maybe at first, because I had talked back. But somewhere in there, the blows had become less about causing pain and more just lashing out at me. Less about his anger and punishment and more because he just wanted to. I expected him to give me a few more kicks to punish her for ordering him to stop, but surprisingly, he did stop. I don't think from anything that she had said but just because he was tiring out. Ignoring her completely, he grabbed me again and hauled me up, slamming me against the wall. It felt like just another blow and I coughed up another small spray of blood as he jarred my ribs. He twisted his fist in my shirt and held me there, glaring down at me with naked contempt.

"You'll apologize to me, right now," he snarled at me, "I'm your father and if you don't like that fact, you can go. Just fucking leave and be with the other worthless vagrants and rats, but you will show me some fucking respect, you useless piece of garbage."

I stared up at him, meeting his glare with a hard, stubborn look of my own, the entire right side of my face swollen and bloody, a fine trickle of the stuff still going down my chin. My vision was messed up. Kind of wavy and it was difficult staying on my feet, but I kept my eye locked on his, refusing to submit like I always do. Apologize? For what? Telling him the truth for once? Standing up for my mom? I was so fucking tired of apologizing to him for everything, whether I had done anything wrong or not. And yeah, I had crossed a big line, I had disrespected him, but I've been finding less and less to respect him about since he had shoved his dick into me. Since he had started taking too much of me.

"No," I said flatly.

His hand tightened so hard on my shirt that I was amazed he hadn't torn it.

"Excuse me?" he asked me in that cold, expressionless way of his he always gets when I am truly pissing him off.

It was a warning, that tone. That stoniness. He always gets quiet before he really snaps, right before he loses all control. But I didn't care. I was still breathing, even if it was breathing with an iron weight on my chest, so I really didn't care what he did to me. I hated him. I hated everything. Nothing mattered, least of all myself, so he could do whatever he fucking liked. He would do it anyway, so why shouldn't I get a few licks in, too? Why couldn't I hurt him for fucking once? I hated him so much and I knew he hated me even more. Why were we even doing this? Why talk at all? Why demand an apology? It wouldn't be good enough for him and he knew that. Nothing I did was ever good enough. He would be happy if I died. Fucking overjoyed. Finally released from the ball and chain that had been dragging him down these last seventeen years. So why the fuck was I still here, dancing this same, stupid, tired dance with him again?

"I said 'no,'" I repeated, my voice hard and completely unrecognizable to me, "I'm not apologizing to you for shit."

That hate in his eyes exploded into utter rage and loathing. It wasn't a look that belonged in any father's eyes. Why had it taken me until I had met Justin and seen what a father is really like to realize that? To see how much my father truly hates me? I had wondered my entire childhood if he loved me. Why? Wasn't it obvious? How many times did he need to make me feel like garbage and beat me to bloody ribbons for it to get through my thick head that the only love I've ever seen from him was just my own, useless feelings bouncing back at me, reflected on a cold, unfeeling sheet of glass? All those memories of him being kind, of showing me love, they were delusions. I'm an idiot. A fucking sentimental, delusional fool. Really, how dumb and childish am I? Who the hell could possibly love me?

My father's hand tightened into a white-knuckled fist and he pulled it back and I knew this one would hurt. This one, he wouldn't hold back, not a single inch. This one he meant, with all of his being. And I don't know why. It wasn't that fist but something else, something that twisted and tore and eviscerated its way through me, this helplessness, this rage, this frustration, this terrible storm of hysteria. I snapped.

"If you're going to kill me, then just kill me!" I screamed at him.

A silence fell over the room like I had just shot a gun off, although it was one of those silences that was heavy and oppressive instead of still and hollow. My mother's cries were cut off like someone pulling the plug of a stereo. She put both of her hands over her mouth in utter horror, the color draining from her entire face. The fear in her wide eyes would have made me sick from guilt, but I barely acknowledged her. It was my father's reaction that shocked me to silence. I had expected him to hit me even harder for daring to accuse him of being so out of control that he might kill me, but the blow never came.

Just like my mother, his face paled to a stark white and that blackness in his eyes seemed to grow faint and bleed out of him. He looked stunned, more like I had slapped him than I had said something like that. I can't remember the last time he looked like that over anything, let alone something involving me. But the most incredible thing of all was watching him uncurl his fist and drop his hand limply at his side, like all the life had gone out of it. His other hand followed suit, untangling itself from my shirt and falling to his side like he was repulsed to even touch me. The only thing that came close to it was when he had almost hit me after Justin had informed him he knew about the abuse, only to back down because he knew Josh's father hadn't been bluffing about telling everyone about it. But it wasn't the same. He hadn't had that shock in his eyes and even when he had decided not to hit me, he had still been so angry. But now, I didn't see a single hint of that anger. He just looked… hollowed out somehow. And I didn't know why. It wasn't just him, either. My vision of him was slightly blurry and it took me a couple seconds to realize that the reason wasn't because of the beating. I had tears in my eyes. I was crying… had been crying when I had screamed that at him. I didn't know why, either.

It was my mother, of the three of us, that broke enough out of her shock and stupor to take a hesitant, shaky step towards us. Her hands dropped from her face, but they didn't look steady.

"Frey… baby, don't say that," she breathed, her voice as unsteady as her hands.

I couldn't meet her round, terrified, tear-filled eyes because I knew she wasn't upset that I would accuse my father of such a thing. That desperate plea was because she had the same fear. She had been scared of it for years, that one day he would get into one of his tempers and he would lose absolute control and kill one of us. And after the last few times that he had really gone off on me, that fear had only grown closer and closer to reality. But, like me, it was a fear she couldn't voice. One that she didn't even want to look at because it was too terrible. She knew he was capable of it, but it was so much easier to live in denial. To believe that she was just being paranoid. That the boy that she had once loved might have gotten rough around the edges, might have become a monster, but he would never do that. He could never kill her, or her son, there was no way that would happen. So, hearing those words coming out of my mouth must have been like someone ripping off that complacent mask for her. A blow that struck too close to an infected nerve. Maybe there was even a part of her that had hoped it was a truth I would never figure out on my own. Or worse. Maybe she really was too much like me. Maybe she was scared that if someone said it out loud, it would become real.

My father snapped out of his own paralysis and this hard anger came over him, but it didn't even come close to touching the rage or hate he had had in his eyes when he had been beating on me for some reason, even though accusing him of being an out-of-control monster that was trying to kill me should have made me more furious than my calling him lazy. Or maybe not. Maybe he didn't consider it a wound to his pride like being accused of not doing his manly duties was. Maybe it wasn't even something worth being in denial over for him. Maybe he knew that was exactly what he wanted to do to me.

"You're fucking crazy," he hissed it at me with such open anger and honesty, meaning every, single one of those words, jabbing a finger into my chest, "I don't need this shit."

Without another word, or another punch or kick, he stormed out of the house, almost knocking his shoulder right into my mother before she quickly dodged out of the way. He went so quickly, like his ass was literally on fire, that my taxed and rattled brain barely had the chance to acknowledge the fact before he snagged his jacket and flung the door open. He slammed it so hard that the entire house shook and both my mother and myself jumped, my nerves so tight and raw that that last display of violence from him made my heart race even faster, even though I should have been relieved that he was going. I should have been thinking that I hoped he would be gone for the rest of the night, but honestly? Although my chest and head were still in screaming pain, my father and the beating wasn't even on my radar, and they were far from the reason for how on edge I was. For a psychotic moment, I actually wanted him to come back, if only not to leave me alone with my mother and my screamed words, echoing between us.

My mother glared furiously at the front door as we listened to the car door slamming shut with the same force as the door to the house and he peeled out of our driveway recklessly, the tires probably tearing up gravel if that grinding, straining sound of the car being kicked into as high a speed as he could get out of it was any indication. He was going to kill himself if he kept driving it like that. As soon as the sound of the car faded, so did my mother. That fire of hatred in her eyes snuffed out and she seemed to just collapse in on herself. She turned to me, her expression full of worry and fear and hurt and sadness and desperation, a frantic need to make something better, even when she didn't really know what was wrong. Why I had egged my father on like that. Why I had screamed those words. I could have taken them back. Said I hadn't meant them, that I had just been angry and saying nonsensical things. That's what she wanted, to believe it hadn't meant anything. But even if I had been in a better state of mind, I don't think I would have been able to. She could be in denial all she wanted, but she had heard the raw honesty in my voice.

But I couldn't even do that much. My heart was racing too fast and there was this hysteria eating away at me. My mother wanted to not face this, to wrap a blanket around it and pretend that everything was fine. I wanted to run. I wanted to run until there was nowhere else I could run to. I wanted to scream until my throat was too bloody to make a whisper. I wanted everyone to go away and leave me the hell alone. I wanted to go back to the park and finish the job I should have finished that morning. I wanted to tear myself open. I felt… raw and bloody and crazy. I was crazy, just like my father had accused me of being and I just couldn't handle any more. My mother walked towards me and reached out her hand carefully to touch me, like she was trying to touch a wild, snarling animal. I guess that's exactly what I was to her. She probably thought I was crazy, too. Barking mad.

"Frey-," her voice was gentle and motherly, a tone she hadn't taken with me until lately, and when I had been very small, like she was trying to mend some broken thing.

I could see her taking me in her arms and telling me that everything was ok. I could see her asking me if I was alright. I could see her fussing with ice packs and probing my wounded face and chest to make sure nothing was broken and rushing around with water and pain pills and bandages. Everything but asking the questions she couldn't bear to know the answers to. I pulled away from her violently, not wanting to feel her touch me.

"I'm fine," I snarled at her.

She flinched from me, her eyes wide and startled again. Hurt. It was the same expression she used to have when I had been young and my father had lashed out at her for absolutely nothing at all, back when there had still been enough between them for her to be hurt by his behavior at all. I strode past her, almost running, and escaped from that hurt look on her face into the bathroom. I slammed the door behind me, not as hard as my father had, but hard enough that I heard the clink of something shifting in the sink in the kitchen. I locked the door, hoping that would be enough for her to understand that I didn't want to talk to her and she wouldn't try to get me to come out, either to talk about what had just happened or to make sure my father hadn't seriously hurt me. It turned out to be completely unnecessary because she didn't try the door at all. I couldn't even hear her out in the kitchen, what she was doing. I hoped she would go back to ironing and give me some room to breathe.

I put my back to the door and slid down it as I sat, all the energy just seeping out of me, what little I had had. I felt woozy, like my skull was full of lapping water. Swimmy. A sign of a pretty probable concussion. I closed my eye and rested that relatively intact side of my face in my hand, being careful with my mangled right side and throbbing nose. The darkness was nice, even if it made the pain seem sharper. I thought about just lying down there against the door or in the tub and letting the blackness that was threatening to swallow me take me. I couldn't do this. I was so tired, so stripped bare and I just wanted to surrender to everything. To not think or feel, especially about anything that had just happened. Surely, it would be fine. The door was locked. My mother was home. Pat and my father weren't. I knew my father would be back, no matter how pissed he was at me, and Pat could show up at any minute, but I wouldn't sleep through someone busting the door down and Pat couldn't be so stupid as to try anything with my mom there, right?

Yeah, even on… god, I had no clue how much sleep I had actually gotten in the last few days, but even on as little sleep as I had, I wasn't so delusional to really believe my mom could do anything to help me, or that she was any kind of deterrent for Pat. And I was too scared, even to risk taking a ten-minute nap in the damned bathtub. Besides, if my mom found out, she would freak and I had already freaked her out enough. She had already taken a shower, but what if she needed the bathroom? That wasn't fair to her and it sure as hell wasn't something I could explain any more than I could explain my outburst earlier. It just wasn't worth it.

I dropped my hand from my face and rubbed at my chest with a wince. It ached terribly, not just where my father had kicked me, but all over. It felt tight, like there was a solid, iron weight sitting on my chest. I curled my hand around my side where he had kicked me so hard and put just the barest amount of pressure there to see if my ribs were broken or not. I immediately winced again as the right side of my chest responded to my probing with a sharp, heavy pain. Yeah, definitely at least cracked. It was impossible to tell if it was a clean break without an x-ray, but it hurt too much and the pain was too sharp for it just to be some bruising. If nothing else, I could tell just from feeling the area that the rib wasn't out of place. Even if it had been, it wouldn't have mattered, it just meant I could breathe more deeply.

My thoughts slipped into the safe territory of ritual, shutting off any other considerations. It was probably for the best. I felt like I had just been in a car crash, but it always feels that way when my father goes after me that viciously. It was easier to think about the damage he had done to me than the how or the why, just like always. I might have instigated it purposefully this time, and there might be thoughts kicking around in my head that I didn't want to look at, but it really wasn't any different than any other time he had lost control. If I kept telling myself that, I might actually believe it. But it wasn't a complete lie. In reality, this really wasn't any different than him hitting me with that chair leg. Of course, that was something that I still couldn't wrap my head around either.

It was easy to go through the motions like this was nothing more than an ordinary beating. Checklist. Likely concussion. My cheek felt like a serious case of road rash. Eye swollen shut. Cheek puffed up like a balloon. Bloody, swollen nose. Split lip. No lost teeth, but they ached and I could still taste blood. Cracked rib or ribs. More bruising and swelling on my right side. Probably the same around my stomach from where he had kneed me. Shoulder scraped raw from him kicking me but no serious damage there. No dislocation, no other broken bones. My breathing was back to normal. My head was absolutely killing me, but that was to be expected. No injuries to my legs. And my arms… I wasn't sure, I realized. My right arm was fine besides my shoulder, but it was difficult to tell with my left. I was sure he hadn't hit it or my sleeve would be soaked through with blood. It was throbbing angrily, but it had been like that since Josh grabbed me.

I hadn't checked on it since I had first bandaged it so I had no idea how bad it was and I really didn't want to know. I didn't care if the thing rotted off and I didn't want to deal with it. Why the hell couldn't my father have kicked me harder and let my fucking rib pierce through my lung? Or shattered my nose right into my brain? I had meant what I had said to him. His only use around here anymore was beating the shit out of my mother and me and making us miserable. And the one time I wanted him to beat me into oblivion, he couldn't even do that much for me. I wondered which one of us was more useless than the other. Him for hitting and constantly fighting with my mother, or me for being a constant disappointment to her. I guess we have that in common. We've both broken her heart.

I grabbed at the sink counter with my right hand, apathetic but still knowing that doing it with my left was asking for needless trouble, and pulled myself to my feet. I almost ended up right back on my ass. The wave of dizziness and nausea that hit me had me doubling over even as I managed to stay upright and I gagged into the sink. Somehow, I didn't puke, which was pretty damned fortunate because I didn't have anything to throw up except for a cup of tea and I really didn't have the strength to be vomiting. I spat out a couple mouthfuls of bloody spit, the taste only making the nausea worse. I gave myself a couple minutes for the dizziness to fade, then found a clean washcloth to start cleaning my face off. I didn't bother to look at my reflection. I had a pretty good idea what I looked like and I felt sick enough.

I wasn't very gentle as I washed my face clean of blood, but I felt a little better when I got the tacky stuff off my skin. I thought about taking a couple pain pills, the throbbing in my eye was bad enough to warrant it, but I was too worried that the bitter taste of them would push me over the edge. Then there was nothing left to do besides either leave the bathroom or look at my arm. I really didn't want to do either, but it didn't take that much soul searching for me to realize that I wanted to face my mother even less than I wanted to see the damage that I had done to my arm again. I rolled up my sleeve and saw with irritation that the bandages along the entire inside of my arm was stained red. Most of it was dry, but there were a few bright crimson splotches here and there. I guess my father really had hurt it and I just hadn't realized, or maybe I had pulled the wound when I had tucked it close to my chest.

I tried to be careful unwrapping the bandages, not having unbandaged my arm in over twelve hours and not knowing how bad it was, but there was just no way to do it that wouldn't cause pain. The blood had dried too thickly, cementing the bandages to my skin, and my hand wasn't steady enough to do it with a lot of patience. It hurt like hell, worse than the beating my father had just given me for some reason. My nausea deepened as I pulled the last of the bandages free and got a good look at the damage under the unforgiving light of the bathroom. It… didn't look great. I couldn't tell if it looked worse than it had that morning since it had scabbed over in a bunch of places, but it still looked too long and too raw and too wide. I told myself that it was just my imagination that the cut look bigger, that no matter how hard Josh had grabbed me, it hadn't made the wound itself grow, but the gash still looked… daunting I guess is the best word for what I was feeling as I looked at it, along with repulsion.

I had broken apart a bunch of the scabs when I had unbandaged my arm and they were bleeding freely again. Not nearly as badly as it had early that morning, but more than I felt it should be. The deepest part of the cut was still a bloody mess, too. It was obviously healing, but not very quickly. Not that I expected much not even twenty-four hours later. The amount of blood wasn't even the biggest concern looming in my mind, it was the watery tinge to the blood. It could have just been because it was a fresh wound, but it wasn't just the blood. There was bleeding under the skin, dark hematomas where Josh had grabbed me that looked nastier than they probably were, but the worst was the skin along the cut that didn't have any of those purpled bruises. It was a dusky red and puffy, undeniable proof that the wound was getting infected. That wasn't even remotely surprising. I hadn't exactly done much to take care of it and I hadn't been elevating it much or changing the dirty dressing that had been a bit rushed in the first place.

Without stitches or trying to keep it clean, it was no wonder it was already infected. And I guess I should have cared about that, but I really didn't. It was just a bit inflamed, it wasn't like I had blood poisoning or something worse. If I left it unchecked for too long, it might turn into that, but what did it matter? Even if I did worry about it and had the energy to take care of it, I didn't have the supplies. Getting blood poisoning was going to solve more problems than it would cause and I just couldn't muster up the ability to care about my own wellbeing anymore. I was too tired. All that mattered was dealing with my expulsion and trying to keep my mom from worrying and I was doing a piss-poor job of that. This stupid cut wasn't even a drop in the ocean. I had already decided not to go to the hospital from the start, so I just pushed it out of my mind.

I used the washcloth to clean as much of the blood and discharge running down my arm as I could, patted it dry, then put a bit more antibiotic ointment where the redness was the worst. It took what little gauze we had left to wrap it back up and I had no clue what I was going to do the next time I needed to change the bandages, but I didn't care about that, either. Thinking that far ahead into the future was impossible for me now. I was walking the very small and shortsighted path of an insomniac. Just one thing at a time, one minute and then the next. Anything more than that was shrouded in shadow, if it existed at all.

I don't remember much from the next couple hours. I remember taking the gauze out of the box and noting that I was going to need all of it. I don't remember finish the dressing or leaving the bathroom or if I had had a discussion with my mom over my fight with my father. One minute I was in the bathroom, the next I was lying down on my mattress. I'm not even sure around what time that was. I just remember coming back to myself enough to register the horrible, deep and heavy throbbing of my arm, and how miserable I was. I don't know why, but the pain had just overwhelmed me. The pain in my arm, what I had overheard Josh say that morning, cussing out my teacher, hitting Lucy, getting suspended, Pat molesting me, my loneliness, my father beating the shit out of me, all of it just piled up all at once and suddenly, I was lying there, cradling my injured arm with my other and crying my eyes out at all of it.

I cried until my eyes burned and it was difficult to breathe. Then, I was gone again. I came back to myself for the second time about two hours later, maybe a little more. At least my clock told me it was around one in the morning. I have zero memory of anything that had happened in that gap of time, but something told me that my last memory of being on that bed and now were completely different occurrences and that more had happened between then and now than my lying there. It wasn't just a feeling of time having passed, but a few key differences, like the bag of water sitting inches from my face on my pillow that I assumed had contained ice hours ago or the faint taste of mint in my mouth. Apparently, since the last time I remembered lying there and crying, I had gotten up, iced my eye, and brushed my teeth without recalling any of it. My eye was still swollen shut, but it didn't hurt as much, giving credence to that theory.

I hadn't slept. My marbles were scattered and quite a few of them were missing, but I had enough sense left to realize that much. I had had one of those time lapses again, but I felt even more tired and worn down than I had when I had escaped into the bathroom earlier. I might have assumed that I had spent the last couple hours just lying there and staring at nothing like a zombie if it weren't from the smell wafting from downstairs. It was very faint, even more so with my busted nose, but I recognize the scent of cooked fish anywhere. I really hoped that I had been the one to make it in my stupor and I hadn't been so far gone that my mother had needed to. I had obviously eaten some of it, too. I felt unpleasantly heavy and more nauseous than before, but at least I had gotten something with iron in me and hopefully placated my mother a bit. I guess it was a little alarming that I could have a meal, maybe even cooked it, and not remember a damn thing, but I was used to it.

I struggled to my feet. The pain in my stomach and nausea felt worse when I was lying down and while I didn't really care about what I might have missed in my little zone out session, I didn't like not knowing what was going on, who was home and the state of things. I needed to know if my father had come back. I was pretty sure I didn't have any new injuries after the last beating, but I needed to know that he hadn't taken what had happened out on my mother. And I needed to know where Pat was before I did anything. I almost groaned as I got upright and another wave of dizziness hit me, but it wasn't because of that. The pain in my head had only grown since I had laid down, but worse was that my arm throbbed even more heavily and felt as stiff and hard as a slab of stone. Being on me feet turned out to not do much more for my nausea than lying down had. I wished that I could just puke to get rid of the feeling. The fish, while necessary, had been a very bad idea. But I was pretty sure that if I did, I was going to black out.

I dragged myself downstairs, my stomach churning for a completely different reason than what I had had for dinner. My skin prickled the closer I got to the kitchen and the blood in my head felt like it had turn into a white-rapid river. Every muscle tensed, ready for just about anything. My father still pissed at me and ready for round two. Pat just existing in my presence. My mother angry because she had finally listened to that message from Stoan. It felt like there was an enemy coming from every angle, my anxiety viciously kicking my ass over every little 'maybe' and 'might be' scenario that my tired mind could dredge up. But when I stepped into the kitchen, all I found was my mother sitting at the table with a book and a cup of her own tea. From the bottom of the stairs, I could see that there was no one in the living room, either on the couch or in my father's chair, and that the bedroom door was wide open. My dad never sleeps with the door open, so unless he was in the basement or the laundry room for some reason, he wasn't home. I refused to believe that I was that lucky, though.

"Frey?" my mother lifted her head from her book to give me a baffled look, "What are you doing up? I told you to go get some sleep."

I froze, unsure of myself and whatever might have happened between us that I couldn't remember. I didn't think we had fought, not because I thought I would remember something like that, but because of how she was looking at me. She was very subdued, her gaze shadowed, like she wanted to look away and was forcing to meet my eyes… err, eye. I knew guilt when I saw it and I know my mother. When faced with something that she didn't want to deal with, something painful or uncomfortable like her alcoholism or the rapes, she always preferred to tuck it away in some dark corner where she wouldn't have to deal with it. That probably isn't fair, after all she's sacrificed for me, to say that she's a coward. But she is.

She can be strong, I've seen that for myself, but she's been married to my father for seventeen years and that marriage has become a war. A very long and bloody war, with no end in sight. I can understand why it's just easier for her not to acknowledge things that she knows she can't fix. It's tiring. And it hurts. I knew just from that look on her face that what had just happened between myself and my father had fallen into that dark place. It scared her and it hurt, but she didn't want to face it, to ask me what the hell was wrong with me. To worry that I had lost control, that I had even asked for what had happened. And what I had screamed at him. She didn't want to face it because of guilt, because she knew this was something she couldn't fix and it was something she had a hand in. And I was sure that she was terrified of what I might say, what was really on my mind. She wanted to believe that it could be fixed with some ice and a night's sleep because if that wasn't the case, she had no idea how to even approach it. And she couldn't even begin to accept that it might be something that couldn't be fixed. I didn't mind it, though. It would have been hypocritical if I did. I sure as hell didn't want to talk about it. I was just glad she wasn't trying to lock me up in the loony bin.

"Can't sleep," I muttered.

She frowned, not liking that answer at all, understandably. I was sure that I looked like absolute garbage between not sleeping and my busted face. I ignored it and walked past the table towards the fridge. I opened the door and glanced at the rows of various bottles and food items for a can of ginger ale or any other soda that might help with my nausea.

"I want you to see a doctor," my mother suddenly blurted out, her voice hard with that same tone she used to have when I had been little and she had been ordering me to do a chore, like she knew that I was going to tell her no before she even spoke.

I paused in my search, feeling a brief flare of irritation, but I was too tired to even be annoyed at her fussing at me.

"We can't afford it," I pointed out in a flat, weary tone.

It wasn't the real reason why I didn't want to go, but it was still true. We had insurance, it seemed like the only thing paid off nowadays, but it was shit. Even if all the doctor did was prescribe me sleeping pills or give me a lecture about taking care of myself, we would still have to pay a copay, which wasn't exactly cheap with our limited budget, especially right after we had just bought a bunch of groceries.

"I know that!" she snapped angrily, but her voice was all twisted up with pain and I knew that it was frustration and desperation that were making her mad, not what I had said.

She knew that we were broke and even a small, unexpected fee was more than we could deal with, but she was obviously worried about me. I think she wanted a professional to look at me and assure her that I was ok more than she thought I was seriously injured or sick. It reminded me too much of her helping me to the couch after my father had attacked me with the chair leg and how upset she had gotten when I had pointed out we couldn't even get to the hospital, let alone afford it. It made me feel weird. Sad and upset and guilty that the thing that was hurting her wasn't that we couldn't afford new appliances or a car that actually works or to heat the house through the winter. It was that there was something wrong with me and she couldn't even take me to the doctor like she was supposed to do as my mother. I hated that. I hated that I was responsible for hurting her so much again.

"I'm fine, Mom," I insisted, closing the fridge door. I wasn't finding anything I needed in there anyway.

"You are not fine!" she stood up from the table, ready to have this argument with me, her eyes suddenly fierce, "Frey, you look-,"

"Nothing's broken," I lied neatly, deflecting her remark towards my injuries and not that I looked like one of the walking undead. It was a cheap shot, but I didn't want to talk about it and I knew that she was still scared about the beating I had taken and it was the easiest way to derail the rant she was winding up to, "It's mostly just bruises, but nothing time and another icepack won't fix."

Her frown deepened, clearly not believing that at all.

"You need rest," she said stubbornly, "I don't think you should go to school tomorrow."

My heart skipped a beat at her just mentioning school. I had to restrain myself from looking over at the answering machine. I couldn't believe that she still hadn't played that damn message. Actually, considering what had happened, she probably had a lot more things on her mind and hadn't noticed it yet. I had gotten extremely lucky, I wasn't going to do anything to draw attention to it.

"I'll get some more sleep," I insisted, skirting around the whole school issue entirely so I wouldn't have to completely lie to her, "I just needed to get up for a little while. I was too restless and my stomach was really hurting me."

I hadn't even thought about the possibility that my parents wouldn't find out about the whole expulsion thing that night or that I might have to come up with an excuse to explain why I wasn't going to school in the morning, but there my mom was giving me an understandable out. I could lie and make her think I was just skipping because I was still sick, but I didn't want to lie to her about that. She was going to find out about it anyway and I lie to her about everything nowadays, I didn't see the point in this one. I was so out of it at the time that it didn't even occur to me that it would have been a very short-lived lie whether she listened to that message or not. She would have found out when she called me out of school in the morning. My deflection had the desired results. As soon as I mentioned my stomach pain, she winced, forgetting her declaration about school entirely.

"Are you sure you don't need a doctor to look at it?" she fretted, loosing that stubborn look and reverting back to her fearful timidness that she always has when I've been seriously hurt.

"It's just bruised. I'll go back to bed in a little while," I told her, not saying that I was going back to sleep, but she didn't notice the careful word-play dance I was doing with her.

"Alright," she said hesitantly, not looking sure about that at all, but at least she sat back down and tried to hide her concern by taking another sip of her tea.

I gave up on trying to curb my nausea and went to the sink instead, seeing that it was still full of dishes from a dinner that I couldn't remember. The fish was still in the oven, too, probably to keep it warm. That gave further credence to my theory that my father had just never come back home after he had stormed out. With any luck, he had met up with Pat to drink and rant about us and wouldn't be home for hours still. Luck isn't something either my mother or myself have ever had an abundance of, but I would take any minute, any second that I could without the either of them around. I couldn't feel too relieved about it, though. If my father really was with Pat, his so-called best friend would do all that he could to take my father's lingering rage towards me and key him up further.

I dug a dish out of the pile of dirty dishes, which looked to be a combination of our dinner and dishes leftover from my father's lunch, maybe even breakfast. I tried to remember if I had seen them before now and just hadn't done them, but I was having a difficult time remembering much of anything that hadn't been my father beating the shit out of me since I had left school that afternoon. I guess that was part of the reason why my father had been so pissed even before I had opened my big mouth, it was obvious that neither my mother nor myself had done any of them. My mother heard the clink of dishes and raised her head from her tea, frowning severely again.

"Frey, leave those be, I said I would do them," she said, her tone stern but her expression was downcast, like she felt guilty that she hadn't done them yet herself, "It's bad enough that you've been doing all the cooking lately."

"I made the mess," I mumbled, ignoring her command and turning on the water, "Besides, if I don't get them done…"

I tried to, but I couldn't stop myself from glancing over at the front door to make sure that my father's boots were still gone. It was stupid, I knew he wasn't home and I didn't want my mother to think about it, either, but my paranoia took control for a few seconds. But of course, the only shoes there were my mother's and mine. My mother caught my look and her own turned black and bitter.

"He hasn't come home yet," she told me icily and then muttered, "and good fucking riddance."

I had to agree with that. It would be a peaceful night if my father didn't come home, but I wisely didn't say anything, not wanting to key her up. There was a good chance that he wouldn't. He had been furious when he had left. He might not want to see us any more than we wanted to see him. If he stayed away… if it was just the two of us, it would be alright if I slept, wouldn't it? It was a risk, but not that big of one and I felt the alluring pull of it like sleep had become some illicit drug. Just a few hours, just enough to shake some of this deep, bone-aching exhaustion. But I was still so terrified of letting my guard down. Maybe it was a small risk, but it was still far too big. A few hours of sleep wasn't worth what could go wrong if I trusted I was safe. I had learned a very long time ago that I never was.

I was still trying to talk myself out of putting myself in harm's way for a nap when the front door swung open and a heavy boot tread strode in. I flinched so hard that I almost dropped the glass I had been washing. Like I've said many times before, hope is shit. I tensed to the point of physical pain as I waited for him to start in on me again, grab me or hit me or just threaten me. But then I heard that stride move into the kitchen, not even bothering to take off his boots, and I thought I was going to throw up. My father isn't exactly a neat freak, but he hates when we walk in without taking our shoes off because it leaves tracks on the linoleum. Not that he ever cleans it himself, but he still will rant at us about it. The only time he doesn't take them off is when he sees something that immediately distracts him or pisses him off, like his son being home when he isn't supposed to be. Even if that weren't the case, I know my father's walk anywhere.

"I'm home, honey," Pat's voice filled what had been comfortable silence, his mocking tone as jarring as if he had set off a firecracker.

He was still several feet behind me, far from arm's length having barely stepped foot into the kitchen, but I already found myself shaking. I really couldn't have anything, could I? Not even one, tiny respite.

This was fine, I told myself. My dad wasn't around for him to poke and kindle. We weren't alone together like before and my mother wouldn't let him do anything to me. I was as safe as I was ever going to be around the bastard. I didn't even know if he remembered what he did. And if he did, so what? He wasn't going to disappear off the face of the planet just because I wanted him to. I had to get used to him. Be careful, stay away from him as much as I could, but I had to deal with this. Too bad I was too scared out of my mind just with him in the same room as me to listen to any of that.

He took a few more steps into the room, almost coming up to the kitchen table. My back itched fiercely and the little kid in my head screamed at me to turn around to make sure of where he was. He kept chanting over and over that it didn't matter if my mom was there or not. She had never been able to protect me. He reminded me that this was exactly the same position as it had happened last time. Pat at my back, me doing dishes, and if I kept standing there, he was going to pin me down again. He was going to make me helpless again and this time, he wasn't going to stop. I squeezed my eyes shut but refused to listen to that crying, pitiful voice. I refused to turn around and look at him. I couldn't tell who Pat had been addressing, but it didn't matter. I couldn't look him in the eye again. I didn't want to see him at all. I didn't want to know if he was drunk. I didn't know if he would look at me like my dad does sometimes. I tried to keep washing the dish I had been working on when he had walked in, but my hands wouldn't listen to me. It was like I had been shot up full of Novocain. I couldn't feel anything. And I couldn't move.

"Nathan isn't here," my mother snapped at him, "And take your damned shoes off. This isn't your house."

"Who says I'm here for him?" he sneered at her and continued to walk further into the kitchen, completely ignoring her order to take off his boots.

I hunched in on myself, getting smaller and smaller the more I heard him moving around. Bile rose in my throat, along with some ugly memories that I desperately walled myself off from. Breathing became my entire focus, just breathing and not hyperventilating so he wouldn't know that I was scared of him. But the closer he got to me, the harder any kind of logical thought became. Panic was starting to claw at the edges of me, a high-pitched whine building in my head. I couldn't do this. I had thought I could, that I could just… force my way past this, just like dealing with being around my father after he had violated me, but I felt like I was going to scream. I couldn't do it. It was too much or I was too weak, but my heart was pounding hard and heavy in my chest and every instinct I had was screaming at me to run. To where, I didn't care. I just needed to get away from him.

Pat stopped at the oven and opened it, having obviously smelled the fish.

"You made me dinner," he smirked at my back, although I wasn't acknowledging him or facing him at all, "How thoughtful. At least one of you isn't completely useless."

"That's Nathan's," she snapped at him angrily, though I think it was more how he was talking to me than him trying to get a free meal that didn't belong to him, "If you're hungry, you're welcome to order something for yourself or go home and make something. I'm sure that big house of yours has a kitchen."

He turned that smirk on her, not at all daunted by her snide attitude.

"There's no need to be nasty," he said, "I don't need much. And I'm sure Frey doesn't mind whipping me up a little snack, do you, kid?"

He took a step towards me and I knew he was going to do something. Touch me, try to get me to pay attention to him in some way. Something to piss my mother off even more. Just him saying my name had me almost jumping out of my skin. No way. No. I couldn't do this. I couldn't even breathe. Before he got a chance to take those last couple steps to where I was standing, I slammed my hand against the faucet to turn off the water, hitting it so hard that I practically slapped it, and tore myself away from him, quickly walking around the other side of the table where my mother was. It took everything left in me not to run out the door like I had the previous morning.

"Frey!" my mother called after me in alarm as she saw that I was going towards the door.

"I need some air," I managed to get out, barely louder than a murmur.

I shoved my feet into my sneakers and then I was gone, out the door and out of that house and away from Pat Donovan. I almost did run when my feet hit the sidewalk. I probably would have if I had the energy to, my body wanting to surrender to the panic attack that was screaming through it and start to run and never stop. I settled for a light jog, at least until I was a few houses away from mine. Then I had to fall into a sluggish crawl as my breath came out in whooshing pants that had nothing to do with physical activity. Oh god, I felt like I was going insane. Everything was shifting around me like the world outside of me was made of writhing maggots and I felt like I was breaking apart. I didn't know if I should cry or throw up or scream or what. All I knew was that I couldn't go back there. I would find a park bench to lie down on for the rest of the morning or a bus stop or under the boardwalk with the rest of the insects and unwanted vermin, but I couldn't go back there.

I made it almost to the end of our street when I heard someone jogging behind me. They were too light and quick to belong to Pat or even my father. There was a crazy, reality bending moment in there when I was sure that if I turned around, I would see the monster's grey, gnarled form lurching towards me, its pinprick, animal eyes glowing in the dark, sharp with hunger and malice. Its hooked, sharp teeth glinting in the low light of the other homes and scant streetlights.

"Frey, wait!"

My mother's voice, sweet and welcome compared to all the other alternatives, made me falter to a stop. She slowed to a light jog when she saw that I had stopped until she reached me. Her eyes filled with worry, she lightly touched my arm.

"Are you alright?" she asked, frantically searching my face for something.

"I'm fine," I managed to get out without my voice shaking or stammering, "I just needed some air."

She frowned at that and I was so sure that she was going to try to drag me back to the house, but she quickly smiled at me. It was wan and insincere, but still a smile. I blinked in bewilderment when she handed me my jacket, not having realized she had it draped over her other arm or that she had put her own jacket on.

"Here," she said, "Why don't we take a walk? It's a nice night out."

It was kind of nice out, I guessed, although it was early morning instead of night. The black sky was clear and dotted with stars, not raining or freezing, but I still felt cold even if I couldn't see my breath. I felt off balance enough by her chasing after me like that that I took the jacket from her and put it on without any protests. The sleeve felt tight around my bandaged arm and it wasn't that warm, but it was better than nothing. I thought about telling her that I was fine and to go back inside, there was no reason for her to waste her night off because I couldn't stand to be around Pat, but I didn't want her alone with him, either. As we started to walk further from the house, she hooked her arm with mine very companionably. I glanced over at her and the smile she gave me was much warmer and affectionate instead of placating. The position made my arm throb worse, but I didn't care. Hers was warm and the feeling was comforting as my heart started to settle from its screaming panic.

We walked for a couple blocks, passing homes and a convenience store and liquor store across from a dirty laundromat that almost looked derelict, then another stretch of small homes and apartments. When we got far enough from our house that I couldn't hear the barking dogs anymore, I felt myself truly begin to settle, the stillness and quiet of the early morning soothing. For a moment, I was able to put Pat out of my head and just breathe. It was bittersweet, knowing that it was going to be short lived, but still nice. We were just starting on the third block when my mother finally dared to break the silence with what she had probably been holding back on since she had seen me flee the house.

"Did he do something to you?" she asked, her voice soft instead of accusing, but it still made my heart stop.

"W-what?" I couldn't stop myself from stammering because I knew exactly what she meant.

"Donovan," she clarified, "Did he do something?"

My chest suddenly started to hurt again.

'Did he do something?'

'Breathe, just remember to breathe.'

It was sound advice and I listened to it, taking the time to take in a deeper breath, just trying to make it come out steady so my mother wouldn't notice.

"Nothing happened," I lied.

I felt a little bit proud that my voice didn't tremble as I tried not to let those memories pull me in and remind me why I had left the house in the first place. But even though my voice had been solid and not off, my mother frowned.

"Frey, don't treat me like an idiot," she scolded lightly, "You left almost the second he walked in and you've been acting weird around him since yesterday. I know something happened. Is this about yesterday morning when you shoved him?"

I hunched in my jacket a little, suddenly feeling colder. My skin crawled and I wanted to run. Run from her and her questions. But her arm was still around mine and I still liked how that felt. I could tell her, I realized. I could tell her what Pat had done to me and she was probably the only person on the entire planet that would believe me. She knew what he was like. And she knows what my father does to me. She knew I wouldn't lie about that shit. But this wasn't like it had been with Josh. I didn't feel the burning urge to unload on her, to tell her the truth and ask for help. I didn't want help. And I sure as hell didn't want anyone to know about it. It was disgusting and embarrassing and utterly humiliating and no one was ever going to find out about it.

"Did he say something to you?" she continued to push.

"That's right. It's not like I'm hurting you."

An icy hand found my heart and squeezed.

'Shut up. Just shut the fuck up!'

"It's not a big deal," I heard myself say like I had suddenly found myself outside of my body and another lie was tumbling out of me as easy as breathing, "He was just being an asshole and I don't feel like dealing with him right now."

To my surprise, instead of calling me on my bullshit or pressing for more details when I was obviously being evasive, she gave me an understanding and rather bitter smile.

"I know," she said and I knew that she did. If there was anyone on the planet that understood how much I hated Pat, and hated him worse, it was my mother, "I can't stand that he's been around all the time, either. If I could talk to your father about it…"

"I know," I echoed her words back, "But it isn't worth it."

It wasn't worth him hitting her again for daring to suggest he tell his best friend to go home. We both knew he was too prideful and stubborn to even listen to mother about it. She sighed heavily but let it go. The frustration and weariness on her face was painful to see. She really did loathe him and, just like me, found his mere presence to be exhausting, and the fact that she couldn't do anything about it besides leave the house when he was around like we were doing was driving the both of us nuts. She slapped her smile back on, but couldn't quite erase her pained and bitter expression as she stopped walking, forcing me to do the same.

"Let's head back," she said, "It's late and I want you to go back to bed."

"I-," I started to protest, but I couldn't formulate anything reasonable to say to her to convince her that I didn't want to go back there and my words just died stillborn in my throat.

And really, there wasn't anything reasonable to say. I was being a child. I definitely couldn't sleep with him there, I could barely think instead of just reacting like a trapped animal, but I didn't know what to do. My fear of him was turning me inside out. But I had nowhere else to go. I didn't have the energy to walk around town until… God, I didn't even know until when. It wasn't like I had school as a sanctuary. Until Pat left, I supposed. But I didn't know when that would be. And there was no way my mother was going to let me do that. And there was still that stupid message on the answering machine to worry about. Or be blasé about. I didn't know what to do about anything anymore and thinking about it so hard was just making me feel dizzy.

"It will be ok, Frey," my mother said softly, easily reading my hesitation, "I promise."

My heart raced at her words. 'It will be ok.' Did she know? No, there was no way she could know that, I was just being paranoid. But she knew that something was wrong, something that I wasn't telling her and that was enough to bring me right up to the edge of panic. She knew that something was going on between Pat and me and that was bad enough. And whether she knew what had happened or not, how could she ever promise something like that? Nothing was ok. Nothing ever was ok. Everything was shit and she couldn't protect me. She couldn't stop Pat or my father or anything they wanted to do to me. She couldn't even protect herself and neither could I.

If he wanted to rape me, neither of us could do shit about it. And deep down where I didn't want to look, there was the thought that maybe I should just let him do it. It was the same, repulsive thought that I had about Wren. I was just so tired. Tired of being scared and running and hiding like a timid mouse. Tired of the people in my life that wanted to tear me apart and tired of entertaining the thought that I could keep them from doing it. They just take what they want anyway, every single time. So why bother? What was the point of the struggle? What was the point of running away from my father when I knew that the very next night, he would be back in my bedroom and nothing I had done before had really mattered? What was the point of biting and stabbing Wren to slip from him or narrowly running from him and his goons when I knew that, one day, he would catch me anyway?

Why had I run from my house when I knew that, sooner or later, if Pat really wanted to do what he had done the previous morning to me again, he would get me eventually. One night when my mother wasn't there and he was too drunk to care and my father wasn't in the room with us, I wouldn't be so lucky. He would get me, just like everyone else. It was like fighting Brian about having sex. What was the fucking point? It was so exhausting and it didn't matter. What I wanted and what I was scared of didn't fucking matter. No one gave a shit. I shouldn't either. It wasn't like I was a virgin anymore. And it wasn't like I had anything to protect or save for anyone anymore. I knew what rape felt like. I knew I could survive it, even if I didn't want to anymore. What was one more time? Wouldn't it be better to just get it over with? Tell Wren and Pat to just do it if they wanted to and maybe they would work it out of their system. I had caved to Brian, so why not them? What the fuck difference did it make anymore? Because of my pride? What the fuck did I have to be proud about?

Those thoughts made me sick and I guess it says something that it was only that nausea that made me ignore them. That I couldn't come up with a single rebuttal, and a single thing that those thoughts were wrong about. I nodded, too tired to argue about anything and just not caring anymore. I guess that's strange. I was scared out of my mind, but I was also apathetic. My head couldn't even figure out what to do with those two conflicting emotions. I didn't want to make choices anymore. Everything I had done since I had broken up with Josh had been shit and I couldn't do it anymore. It was better to go with the flow, even if they were rapids that would just smash me into the rocks. I was done with all of it.

I walked with my mother back to the house. She kept her arm around mine, which helped a little to curb the sting that I felt knowing what I was walking back to. Deep in the dark recesses of my heart, I couldn't quite keep myself from hoping that Pat with no one around to torture and order to make him dinner, he would just leave. He could have the fucking fish and whatever beer my father had in the fridge, I just wanted him to go the hell home before my father showed up. I had lucked out on the latter at least. When we got to the house, my father's car was still missing, which surprised me. He obviously hadn't gone out with Pat and I couldn't imagine he had a lot of money to be drinking alone. Not that I gave a shit where my father was, it just mystified me. At least I was still aware enough to be mystified. Another day or two of not sleeping and that was going to become as impossible as any other complex thought processes.

My luck ran out however when we got inside and I saw Pat's boots by the door. At least he had taken the fucking things off. The fear that had been eating me alive that entire walk back to the house clawed at me as I kicked off my sneakers, screaming at me that I might need to make a quick getaway, but I forced myself to take them off so my mother wouldn't notice me acting weird and just settled for making sure they would be tied if I did need to run. It was a foolish impulse. If something did happen, I wasn't going to abandon my mother again. I still hated myself for the last time. Stubbornly ignoring that fear, I tried to take my jacket off but my left arm didn't want to move. I had hoped that the cool air would make it feel better, but it still felt like wood. My mother helped it off and I felt another burst of paranoia, thinking she had realized that there was something wrong with my arm, but if she did, she didn't say anything about it, making me think it might have just been a motherly gesture.

I felt like a complete coward for it, but I let her walk in front of me into the kitchen. Pat was exactly where I had left him, standing by the kitchen counter, like he hadn't moved in all the time we had been gone. He was eating something after all, but to my surprise, he had left the fish alone in the oven and was instead eating one of the sausages I had bought for my father. I hadn't really cared if he had eaten the rest of the fish. So long as he left myself and my mother alone, I didn't give a shit what the bastard did and if my father came home to no dinner, if he came home at all at that point, he could explain it. Not that he would, he would just let my father believe that no one had made him anything, but I just didn't care. But it still surprised me because Pat basically just does whatever he wants, so either he hadn't wanted the fish in the first place or it was a part of some trick or, most likely, a continued effort to be seen as the good guy in my father's eyes.

I think the thing that surprised me the most was that Pat even knew how to cook a damn sausage. Hell, it surprised me that he had figured out how to boil the water to cook it. He had made a mess somehow when doing it, too, but I was pretty sure that was intentional. Even more surprising was seeing that he really had helped himself to a can of my father's beer, but that it was just a single can. He swallowed a mouthful of sausage when my mother and I walked in and gave me one of those superior smirks of his.

"Hissy fit all done?" he jeered at me.

I shrunk from him, his dark eyes on me making my skin crawl. They weren't like they had been the previous morning, but they were piercing. I was just glad that he hadn't lit up a cigarette yet or I would have puked right there onto the kitchen floor. My mother noticed my reaction and narrowed her eyes hatefully at him, her features looking like they had been carved out of ice.

"Get the hell out," she demanded.

He blinked at her stupidly, like she had just told him to put on a dress.

"Excuse me?" his voice came out hard, almost threatening.

"You heard me. I want you out of my house," she said icily, not the least bit intimidated by him.

He regained his smirk, looking at her like one might a small child that had said something especially ridiculous.

"Are we really going to go through this song and dance again, Helen?" he asked in the most condescending tone I've ever heard, "Nat won't be very happy-,"

"I don't care how Nathan feels," she snapped back at him, "I want you out of my house and away from my son."

The second she mentioned me, all traces of mirth bled out of him and he looked at me with that hard, dangerous glint in his eyes. I would say that that look was hate or contempt, but those were personal emotions, things that my father had for me. When Pat looked at me, it was almost inhuman, like he was looking at a mosquito that had dared land on him. When he looked at me, I couldn't breathe.

"Oh? Telling stories to your mother to get me kicked out, huh?" he accused me with another smirk, but this one was completely detached and soulless, nothing more than a mask, "If you want me to leave, brat, at least have the balls to say it to my face instead of running to Mommy," he looked at my mother, his expression switching to one that was calm, almost bored, like switching on a light, "I never did shit to him. Whatever bullshit he's saying, he made up to get out of trouble for pushing me like a little kid throwing a temper tantrum."

It clicked into place for me then, although it felt more like a cruel slap than a puzzle piece sliding into position. That hard look hadn't been for trying to get him kicked out. It had been a threat. He thought I had told my mother about him molesting me and he was sending me a message to keep my big mouth shut. It shook me a little, all those childish parts of myself that were scared of him. But underneath that fear? I felt relief. Pure, crying relief. I wasn't crazy. It had really happened and he was lying about it to save his ass. I had told myself that, I had refused to believe that he had just… forgotten about it or that it really had never happened and I was crazy. He wanted me to believe that. He wanted me to think I was nuts and nothing serious had happened, that he had just been messing with me. I had told myself that it couldn't possibly be true, that I knew what had happened to me, but… deep down… there had been a part of myself that had doubted. And I was still doubting it as I watched him. There was still a part of myself, a tiny piece but still piercing, that wondered if I was hallucinating this, if I was mistaking what he was doing because that's what I wanted to believe for the sake of my sanity. I think that part of me will always be there no matter what I choose to believe had happened between us.

"Frey hasn't told me anything about what happened yesterday," my mother coldly cut him off, "And I don't really care what happened, who is lying and who is telling the truth. I don't need Frey to tell me a single, goddamn thing for me to know that he feels uncomfortable around you and I sure as hell don't blame him. The simple truth, Patrick, is that I don't need a reason. This is my house and my family, not yours, and I want you gone."

Pat's eyes narrowed and went as icy as my mother's tone and for a moment, I seriously feared he was going to hit her.

"Nathan will-," he started to threaten tonelessly, his voice low and deadly.

"I'll take care of my husband, Patrick," this time, it was my mother who sounded like she was talking to a child, a very slow one that wasn't catching on quite as quickly as she wanted, "You don't need to worry about him. We'll talk things over like adults without your help. All you need to worry about is getting back to your own house. You can take your dinner with you."

His lips quirked into a grin, but it was like watching a corpse smile. It was terrifying.

"Be careful, Helen," he warned in a friendly tone that was really anything but, "You aren't his homecoming queen anymore. You're just a white trash princess now. Even Daddy wouldn't spare the time to spit on you if he could see you now. But don't worry," his hand suddenly shot out and he grabbed her chin in a hard grip.

My mother's eyes only became more furious and frigid at his words, but she flinched. I grabbed her arm to do… something. Pull her away, protect her, anything that I could as I imagined him beating her to paste or something infinitely worse. He leaned in close to her face and the both of us tensed like marble, her with repulsion and me with fear.

"I still love you," he leered at her, so close that he could have licked her nose if he wanted to.

She pulled her face out of his grip with a sound of utter disgust and he laughed like this was just another one of their typical, bullshit wars with each other. He kept laughing as he snagged the beer he had been working on, leaving the sausage on the counter and went to the door to shove his feet back into his boots.

"See you around, kids," he called out and even that parting remark sounded like a threat to me.

It probably was, knowing him. I was sure that my father was going to hear about this, probably before he went to work if Pat knew where he was. Neither of us were so naïve and stupid to believe he was really gone just because my mother wanted him to be and neither was Pat. But she had awarded us a few hours of peace.

"Disgusting pig," my mother spit out as soon as the door had closed, although neither of us relaxed until we heard his car pull out of our driveway.

She rubbed the back of her hand against her chin like she was wiping away grease and filth.

"Are you ok?" I asked timidly.

There were bright red spots along her jaw from how tightly he had grabbed her. She gave me a wry and very insincere smile.

"I'm fine, Frey. Better with him gone," she admitted.

I chewed on my words for a minute, knowing they were pointless, but unable to stop tying myself in knots with worry.

"I appreciate it, Mom, really, but he was right. Dad's going to flip again. I don't want you to get hurt because of me," I said, already hating myself for whatever my father was going to do to her the second he found out that she had kicked out his friend again.

My mother sighed heavily.

"I meant what I said to him, Frey," she told me stubbornly, "I did it partially because I know something happened between the two of you and you shouldn't have to be uncomfortable in your own home around him. But it isn't entirely because of you. I kicked him out because I can't stand him hanging around here all the time. He's vile and I'm just as sick of him as you are. As for your father, I'll deal with him somehow. I know he'll never agree with me that Donovan needs to stop treating this place as some kind of boys' club, and I'm sure he'll be furious, but that's nothing new. Just… promise me you'll stay out of it, Frey? Even if he loses his temper, please promise me you won't get involved."

"Mom, I can't do that-," I protested vehemently.

I didn't care what he did to me, I couldn't let him beat on her again because, as much as she insisted she had done it for herself as well, I knew that the real reason why she had kicked Pat out was because I was too weak and incapable of keeping my emotions to myself. If she hadn't figured out that I was so bothered by him, she would have just tried to bear it and ignore him.

"Frey, please," she begged me and the desperation on her face tore me apart, "You're hurt enough. He almost broke your nose. I don't want him to go after you again. Just please stay out of his way. For me?"

I nodded numbly, hating her a little for looking at me like that and making me promise and hating myself for caving into it. I didn't want to. I didn't care what my father did to me, I only cared about protecting her. Protecting the one thing I had left. And not only would she not let me do that, if I refused, she had put me in a corner that was a 'damned if I do, damned if I don't' situation. Do and my dad was going to beat the shit out of her again and I would just have to stand by and watch it happen like all those other times. Don't and he would just beat the shit out of me again, which would make her worry and feel guilty, and then he would beat her anyway. I felt like the only thing I could do was make that stupid promise.

She instantly relaxed, looking relieved and I thought maybe it wasn't the right thing to do, but at least I had put her mind at ease for a little while. It ended up being a moot point anyway because- No, wait, that came after, a long while after. At least I think… No, not such a long time, but still not then. It's mixed up. Before that, I went to the mess that Pat had left behind, contemplating what I was going to do with the food he hadn't finished eating. He had only had half of the sausage, but he had dumped a mess of condiments and odds and ends on it like a hot dog. It was the kind of lazy, half-assed thing that my father would do. They might rag on me about not knowing the ins and outs of a car engine and not being able to lift anything remotely heavy, but they didn't even know what to do with a fucking sausage. Or maybe that was just the bitterness talking, seeing that he had once again taken something that wasn't his just because he knew that if my father threw a fit about it, it wouldn't be at him.

"Throw it out, Frey," my mother said, her own voice tight with irritation.

"There's a lot of it still left," I argued, hating to throw out that much food when it had come out of our very tight budget, "It would be a waste."

"It's already a waste," she said hotly, more at Pat than myself, "And it won't keep like that. Might as well just toss it."

It was my turn to sigh. I knew she was right. She wouldn't eat it and even if I cleaned the condiments off the meat, my father wouldn't either. With how sick I felt, I couldn't force myself to eat it no matter how much money the damned thing had cost. Just thinking about taking a bite out of something that had been in Pat Donovan's mouth made my stomach churn. I threw it in the trash and gathered up the frying pan he had used to cook the thing along with the plate to put in the sink so I could, once again, start doing the dishes.

"Frey, leave that," my mother said in exasperation, "You need to go to bed, we both do."

I thought about fighting it, but I knew she wouldn't let it go and I had already kept her up longer than she needed to be with my bullshit, so I nodded. Lying down, even if I wasn't going to sleep, sounded pretty good anyway. My guts still hurt, but the long walk had settled me a little. Or maybe that was the effect of Pat being exiled from the house. Knowing my father was going to find out was another anxiety piling on top of me, but just knowing that his friend wasn't around, and hopefully wouldn't be for the rest of the morning, had eased a lot of my stress and restlessness.

I hoped, and half expected, my mother would ask for permission to share my bed again. I hated my co-dependency, using her like that, but I didn't want to be alone and being near her made me feel a little more comfortable, safer, which was odd considering that I knew she wasn't any more capable of providing that safety than I was. But to my dismay, she simply disappeared into her bedroom and closed the door. It made sense. It was one of the rare occasions that my father wasn't around and she had to take whatever opportunity she could to sleep in her own bed, but it hurt. It shouldn't have. I'm not a fucking child that needed to be tucked in at night. But knowing that I would have to resign myself to my bed alone for the remainder of the morning hurt for some reason.

I made another ice pack before trudging up the stairs, figuring that I could at least work on trying to get the swelling in my eye down. I dressed in night clothes in the dark, really not in the mood to blow up my head any more than it was by turning on the light, and lied down on my mattress. My body was still screaming at me from my head to my gut, but lying down felt pretty good. At least it made my head stop swimming. I lied there with the icepack pressed against my eye and listened to the strangely hollow, stifling sounds of the house settling for the night. My mother finished dressing for bed and went to the bathroom to brush her teeth, then to the kitchen for a glass of water, then back to the bedroom. Her whole nightly ritual didn't take more than ten minutes, then the house fell to dead silence. If there were any sounds from her sleeping or creaks from the house or all those other noises a house as old as ours makes, they were muffled in the attic on a windless night like that. The silence was eerie and made the emptiness of the house seem to bloat and fill every corner and crevice. The attic room felt like this alien planet, distant and detached, like my mother was a galaxy away instead of just one floor below me.

I closed my eye and, keeping one hand on the ice pack, rolled over to my side. That emptiness sat heavier on my chest than the pain from my likely broken rib. God, I felt so drained. It wasn't just exhaustion anymore, I was weary down to my fucking bones. I was completely empty of everything, just like the stillness of that damned house. Every inch of my head and upper body was in screaming pain. I could feel it wanting to let go, wanting to submerge itself in some dark, quiet hole away from reality, somewhere to escape that pain. I had no strength left to fight it. There was a very self-destructive part of myself that didn't want to. It wanted to surrender and let what was going to happen, happen anyway. It told me that it didn't matter. It told me that I couldn't fight it even if I stayed awake. So why suffer like this? I didn't want to be here. My mind and my heart were broken and I couldn't take any more of this. Reality, life, call it whatever you want. There was too much… shit in me and I couldn't deal with it. I wanted to escape and I didn't care anymore how terrible the nightmare was. Let the monster come and feast on my eyes. Let me do the most awful and disgusting things to the people that I loved. It was still better than staying awake and remembering the things that had actually happened to me.

It came to me then that I had completely forgotten to take any caffeine pills. I wonder now if that was intentional, if that self-destructive part of myself had taken the reigns before I had even lied down. But I also realized that, even if I wanted to rectify that mistake, I didn't have the energy to get up and look for them since I was so out of it, I really couldn't remember where they had ended up. I'd say that it was probably for the best since my heart had felt a bit… off since the last ones I had taken, but I really didn't care about that. It wasn't even that I didn't have the energy to move, I couldn't make myself move. I was paralyzed, listless, like all my strings had been cut. I didn't even think I would be able to crawl, let alone get to my feet and walk to wherever I needed to walk.

'Can I sleep?'

The timid, almost childish thought crawled into my brain like a parasitic worm. Could I? I was still scared of what might happen if I did, what might end up in bed with me while I was vulnerable and senseless. But my tiredness had taken on a life of its own, twisted around me like a hungry snake and it was getting so hard to think. To reason and analyze things. Beyond my encroaching inability to make these kinds of decisions, I had just enough sense left in me to acknowledge that staying awake was soon going to be almost as dangerous as falling asleep. If Pat cornered me again, I was going to be in no shape to recognize the signs of a threat and get out of there before he made sure I couldn't do anything again. But even half out of my mind with exhaustion, I could still do something. The memory of what had happened when I had let my guard down around my father and what I had woken up to ate at me. That single memory had refused to release its iron hold on me since the moment I had realized that Pat had me trapped against that counter. The risk…

But how long could I keep this up? I was already tying my mother into knots over how obvious it was that I wasn't sleeping normally. At least I wasn't going to be around Josh anymore to do something really stupid, but that wasn't even what scared me the most. It was that, the more tired I got, the harder it was becoming to shield myself against all those memories of him. That would be bad enough, but I was finding it harder and harder to remember why I needed to shield myself. Even as I told myself that I needed sleep so I could build those barriers back up, another part of me pointed out that if I slept, I might see him. It was the same part of me that had happily submerged itself to a fantasy world of memories of him. The same part that, for that entire night, had wanted nothing more than to go back. To leave reality in a much more twisted way than just dreaming. That's all that part of me wanted anymore, to go back to those memories. To relive the moments when I had been happy and loved. To have him smile at me again.

That part of me wasn't wrong. That's all I had anymore. Beyond taking care of my mother, life didn't hold anything else for me that I could see. I couldn't kill myself, but I didn't want to be here either. My grasp on that reality and even my fear over being raped was slipping more and more. Every part of me outside of that fear was screaming at me to just succumb, that even if I was raped for it, would it really be as bad as staying awake? Of course not. I had all the prior experience I needed to know that was a mountain of horse shit, but this was as close as I was ever going to get to being in the ballpark of 'safe'. Or at least an acceptable risk. Pat was gone and probably wouldn't be back for the rest of the morning. I was sure he would be by that night, but it was Wednesday… no, it was Tuesday, I think. He had to have work to go to and even if he and my father had met up and he brought Pat back that morning, my mother was there. He wouldn't really do anything with her in the house, would he?

My father hadn't come back yet, either. Maybe they really had met up and Pat had let him crash at his place. This was likely my last chance to get any at all for a long time and I shouldn't waste it. It's probably demented how easily I had accepted those two things as permanent fixtures: Pat always being here even though he had only started sleeping over here last week, and my pledge to not sleep, but I hadn't really thought about it much since that morning. Pat wasn't going away. I couldn't have possibly known that, but I just did. I doubted that, after the tantrum my father was going to throw after this time, my mother wasn't going to have the luxury of throwing Pat out on his ass again.

So, knowing it was probably an overwhelmingly stupid and risky idea, I curled myself up deeper into my blanket as much as my bruised and aching body would allow and let go of it. Let go of all of it and tried to surrender to the exhaustion that had been trying to drag me under for what felt like days, even though I had only made that pledge to actively not sleep the previous morning. Or tried to. Despite how tired I was, both physically and mentally, a half an hour later, I was still awake and I recognized all the signs from my many long nights of insomnia that told me it didn't matter how long I lied there for, I wasn't going to fall asleep. I opened my eye and slowly, with a few groans of pain, I rolled onto my back, looking up at the blackness of the ceiling.

Utter frustration made my head throb harder, but at least this time it was a frustration that I was used to. I had been in panic mode for so long that I physically couldn't sleep. My body was still in that stupid flight or fight mode it had been in since Pat had touched me the previous morning and although he wasn't there, that feeling hadn't gone away. I was still scared. I still felt like I did when I have those stupid night terrors, like I'm being hunted. Even when I was as safe as I was ever going to be, I couldn't get myself to settle down enough to let sleep take me. I was used to my body and head screwing me over when I knew I needed to sleep, but that didn't make this any less infuriating. As I scrubbed at my forehead, a twisted, almost hysterical laugh wrenched itself from my throat. I couldn't tell if it was one of actual humor or just insanity, but I could certainly appreciate the irony of this stupid situation. Even the humor of it not being irony at all but just another thing the universe gleefully piled on my shoulders.

It didn't take long for my bitter mirth to fade and the loneliness to come seeping back in, overriding any other feeling. It made me feel like everything inside of me had been scooped out again. That emptiness… it hurt. It made me want to do something stupid, like reach out to my mom. Tell her how I was feeling. Tell her how much I was hurting. But I couldn't. I would just hurt her back. Or she would hurt me because everyone hurts me. The people that I love and think could never hurt me like everyone else have are always the ones that rip my heart out and crush it under their feet like it's nothing. Whenever I hope… whenever I let myself be vulnerable and reach for something, that's when I get torn apart. So no matter how lonely I was… no matter how alone I felt, I couldn't talk to anyone about it. It was my problem anyway. Always has been since I was a kid. I didn't need to burden anyone else with it, especially my mother. I had been enough of a burden to her without even half trying.

I lied there for a while, just feeling miserable and despondent, too depressed to even feel angry about my inability to sleep or care about the probability that my parents were going to find out about school in a few hours or what I was going to do about the expanse of free time I suddenly had in my life or what I was going to tell Leneski and Lorathe after not calling out. It would have ended up being a complete waste if I had managed to fall asleep because I couldn't have been lying there brooding for more than twenty-five minutes before I was scrambling, although slowly and stiffly, to my feet at the sound of the phone ringing downstairs. The shock of it, like a gong had a gone off by my ear, had me actually panting. Adrenaline flooded my system, a system that had been overtaxed in the last twenty-four hours, and my heart thumped in my chest painfully. I rubbed at my chest but it didn't do anything to help.

The phone rang again and even though I should have been expecting it, I almost jumped. For a paranoid moment, I was so sure that it was Stoan or Justin, but a quick glance at the clock told me that it was just shy of four in the morning. Who the hell would be calling that early in the morning? My immediate thought was of my father. I saw it so perfectly in my head. It had finally happened. He had stormed off to a bar to drink the rest of his rage away and had crashed his car going back home and that was an officer telling us he was at the hospital. After all these years, my father has never been in an accident, drunk or sober, but with how much he drinks and how recklessly he drives and how little he cares about consequences, it was bound to happen eventually.

I think my mom had the same idea because on the next ring, she left her bedroom even though she usually ignores the phone entirely when she's trying to sleep. My dad is the one that can't stand to let it ring if it wakes him up. Her stride as she went to the phone radiated annoyance and while I couldn't hear exactly what she was saying as she answered it, her voice was tight with pissyness, but she also sounded wary, clearly thinking this had to be an emergency at that hour. I went to the door and down the steps. I'm not one for eavesdropping, but if it had something to do with my father, I wanted to know what was going on. If it was something really bad, my mother might try to keep me in the dark.

"-again?" I heard my mother saying as I got to the foot of the steps. She was trying to keep her voice low, obviously assuming I was sleeping, but I could hear how testy her tone was. Whoever was calling, she wasn't worried or scared but aggravated, "This is the third time this month… Sure, that's what she says," my mother responded to something in a tone that I can only call catty, "but this has been going on since the fall. If she can't get her act together… I'm not saying she doesn't have a good reason. Frankly, I don't care what the reason is, but don't act like there isn't something going on between her and Morris. You know full well he would have fired her months ago after the second time she pulled this," my mother paused for several minutes as she listened to the person on the other end of the line. As they finished, the pissyness seemed to go out of her entirely and she just looked very tired, rubbing the back of her hand against her forehead, "Ruby, I wanted to be with my son. I barely see him at all anymore- No, I understand that and I know it's only for two hours but I have an early morning shift and now I'm only going to have a couple hours. I haven't even slept yet-," the other person said something that seemed to derail her tired rant, "Oh. Is that coming from you or Morris?... Fine, I'll be in, just tell him to give me twenty minutes."

She didn't even bother with a cordial goodbye, just slammed the phone back down with an exasperated sigh and ran a hand through the hair that she had let down when she had gone to bed. The gesture sent a sharp pain through my chest, but I refused to acknowledge why and stepped into the kitchen.

"Is everything ok?" I asked cautiously

At least it wasn't about Dad. I recognized Morris as the name of my mother's boss at the diner, he of the infamous wandering hands that my mother couldn't stand. But in a way, a work thing could be worse than a Dad thing. She looked frustrated enough by whatever she had been talking about. She tried to bury it under a slightly strained smile, but it was painted faintly over a bright agitation.

"I'm sorry that woke you up, Frey," she sighed, "It's just work. One of the other waitresses has to leave her shift early and they need me to come in to cover it."

"Didn't you already have an early morning shift?" I asked in concern, only vaguely remembering that she had told me something like that.

"Someone who had an afternoon shift was willing to trade with me. I'll have to come in now for a couple hours, but I'll have the rest of the morning off. You'll barely know I'm gone," she flashed me a weak smile.

Panic squeezed at my rapidly beating heart and a childish voice rose in a cry in my head, begging me to tell her not to go. I didn't want to be by myself. I disgusted myself. I echoed her smile back at her, although I hoped mine was a lot more genuine.

"Ok," I said through numb lips, unable to string together more than that.

She paused, looking worried, and I felt another toxic jolt of adrenaline go through me as I thought I had done something or said something wrong and she knew what I had been thinking.

"If your father comes home-," she said instead, making that electric feeling fade as I realized it had nothing to do with the way I was acting.

"I'm sure he won't," I lied, "It's so late already, he's probably found somewhere to crash."

"Alright," she said, sounding thoroughly unconvinced, "But if he does and he knows about Donovan, try to stay out of his way and get out, ok? And please get some sleep."

I nodded, not promising either of those things, but the gesture seemed to be enough for her and she disappeared into her bedroom again to change into a clean version of the uniform she had just changed out of an hour ago. I went back up to my bedroom to create the illusion that I was actually going to do what she asked. I leaned against the wall between the door and my broken bookcase and listened to her hurrying out the door. I hoped she could find a bus at that hour and not have to walk all the way to the diner, but I doubted it. Nausten busses run twenty-four seven, but they run less frequently after eleven pm and she was probably too much in a hurry. I closed my eyes as I heard the front door shut. She was gone and I was alone again. I pushed myself off the wall like there was a strong magnet keeping me there and shuffled to my desk. The walk up the stairs had made me feel dizzier, so I sat in my chair and rested my head against my arms, not caring that the position pulled on the wound on my arm.

I felt too drained and too depressed to do much else but sit there and let that emptiness eat me alive. I regretted those feelings, like I had projected them out into the universe and gotten back some twisted monkey's paw scenario twenty minutes later when the sound of the front door opening and slamming shut jolted me out of my stupor. I listened to the very familiar sounds of my father kicking off his boots and swearing and felt like giving the bird to whatever god clearly hated me. My loneliness had been suffocating me, but having my dad around sure didn't help any. I had the paranoid thought that he had only come in because he somehow knew my mother wasn't around, but that was insane. Her presence didn't mean shit to him in the first place, but the one good thing I can say about my neighborhood is that it's impossible to sneak around the place. The thought that my father had driven off and walked back to watch the house was beyond crazy, but there was no way anyone could have done that without setting the dogs off. Then again, all my thoughts lately have been pretty fucking nuts.

The only relief I felt hearing my father stomp through the kitchen was that his were the only footsteps I heard. He hadn't brought Pat back with him, which could mean all sorts of things, but all that mattered to me was that he was gone. I know that sounds strange. In the past, it would have been safer with Pat there. My father would have reigned himself in, at least a little, and maybe Pat would have done the same around him. But I didn't believe that anymore. I didn't trust Pat's presence to be enough to keep my father's temper and anything else he wanted to do to me in check. But mostly I didn't trust my father to protect me. I still remembered that previous morning and how I had realized that he probably wouldn't care what Pat did to me. My only measure of safety was the hope that Pat didn't have that same realization. Or that my father didn't realize the same thing about his bastard of a friend. Pat being there wouldn't keep me safe, he would just make things worse like he always does.

I didn't fully realize how true that was in that moment as I sat there at my desk, but it was short-lived as my father strode right through the kitchen and to the stairs. He didn't stop to use the bathroom or get a drink or a throw a fit or anything else. As soon as he had gotten his boots off, he had been heading for me like he was on a damned mission. I thought it was pretty obvious why he was gunning for me. Either he was still pissed over our fight and was now ready for round two or Pat had gotten hold of him and had told him what my mother had done and he was going to take it out on me because she wasn't there or I was his intended target because she had only kicked Pat out because of me in the first place. That understanding should have had me on high alert and panicking, but honestly, hearing my father storming up to the attic didn't scare me like it should have. I wasn't frantic, I wasn't frozen in place or ready to bolt like a spooked animal. I was annoyed that I had to deal with him, but mostly I felt relieved because maybe if he took all his anger out on me, he wouldn't hurt her too badly.

Hell, maybe he would forget all the damage he had already done to me and drive my (likely) broken rib into someplace it wasn't supposed to go and finally just end this stupid dance we had been doing together for the last few years. I knew I shouldn't want that. I had stopped myself from ending my life just twenty-four hours ago because I didn't want to hurt Josh or my mother. If my mom came home and found out that in the couple hours she had left me, my father had killed me just like I had accused him of wanting to do… No matter how tired I was, no matter how much pain I was in and how empty I felt… I couldn't do that to her. But that didn't stop a part of me from wanting it. From not wanting another day like that day. From being too weary and sad to want to get away from my life in any way that I could.

The door exploded open. Being as calm and collected as I was, not even startled by the jarring noise of the door slamming into the wall, I guess I could have gotten up and tried to bolt around him. He wouldn't expect it and I had a suspicion that he had spent the entire time that he had been gone drinking himself into oblivion, so I would have had a decent chance of getting past him. But not only was I running in the negatives, energy and mental faculties wise, I was still beat to hell. My chest was messed up and it was impossible to tell if the dizziness that I couldn't quite shake was really because of my exhaustion or if I had a concussion.

I was slow, mentally and physically. And I didn't see the point in running. It would only piss him off more and my mother had said she would be home in a few hours. Even if I had promised her I would, I couldn't run off and leave her to face the wolves. He had already beaten the shit out of me and he had already broken as much of my heart as he could, not nearly as badly as Josh had. Really, what more could he do to me anyway that would leave any kind of scratch? My shields were down, my heart raw and exposed. But it wasn't a heart anymore. It was just a mass of tattered scar tissue, dead and necrotic. Let him lash out at me all he wanted. Let him beat the dead horse for a little longer.

"You," he snarled at me like a wild animal, the light streaming through the open door from downstairs just enough for him to see me sitting at the desk.

He was still in his jacket, his hair messy and his eyes dark with rage. As he stalked across the room towards me, I could smell the booze coming off him, mingled with the sharp scent of cigarette smoke. I'm a fucking prophet.

"Get up!" he snapped at me and, not even giving me the chance to so much as breathe, grabbed the back of my shirt and hauled me out of my chair.

He pulled me at an angle, making me fall to the floor, but with a steely grip on my uninjured arm, he yanked me back up again, giving me serious déjà vu.

"Who the hell do you think you are?!" he screamed right in my face and I almost flinched from him. Not at the volume or how utterly furious he was, but the smell, "Huh?! You think you're the man of this family all of a sudden?! You think you have the fucking right to make the decisions around here behind my back when you aren't even old enough to fucking hold down a real job or vote or know what real responsibility is?"

I blinked at him in confusion, too tired to untangle his rant and figure out what he was so pissed about. It had a vein of the things I had said to him earlier, I could see that same anger radiating off him from my talking back to him and accusing him of being lazy, but this was mostly over something else.

"What are you talking about?" I suddenly asked incredulously before common sense, or even a sense of safety, could stop me.

That black, hateful expression was back full force and he punched me hard in the face. Thankfully, the blow was poorly aimed, sloppy with how drunk he was, and he hit me in the cheek instead of my abused right eye. It was still a very hard blow and I went reeling, only barely able to stay upright with a hand on the edge of my desk. My cheek throbbed angrily at me, but it was already so swollen from his previous punches that I didn't think he had done much more damage to it. He grabbed me by my hair and forced my head to look up at him.

"Don't get cute with me, you disrespectful punk!" he roared, shaking my head violently, "You think I'm so fucking stupid, don't you?! You think you can do whatever you want around here because your father is just so stupid and lazy and incompetent because you have every little thing figured out! Did you honestly think that I wouldn't find out about this? That I wouldn't hear from Pat that you kicked him out of here?! That you had the fucking gall to force him out in the middle of the night when this is my fucking house, not yours?!"

I stared at him like he had just sprouted another head. The hell? Was this a bluff? Was he trying to trick me to tell on my mother? Trying to get me to save my own ass so he could use it to hurt her worse? No, I decided. It was something he would do if he was feeling sadistic, but he was too honestly enraged at me. He really believed that I had been the one to kick Pat out. Had Pat really told him that or had he misunderstood? I didn't believe the latter. Only Pat could work my father up to this kind of fervor, the question was why. My mother was the one he was pissed at. Why would he waste his opportunity to mess with her after she had thrown him out on his ass? That wasn't like him at all. No… it was exactly like him, I realized. I remembered the hate in his eyes as he had looked at my mother before leaving, the smile on his lips, like a crocodile, and felt chilled.

He wasn't giving her a pass, he was doing the one thing I expected out of the prick. He was punishing her, hurting her in the one place where she was most vulnerable: me. She had disrespected him and her getting the shit beaten out of her for it wasn't going to appease him. But if she found out that I had gotten hit again for something she had done? That would have hurt her a hell of a lot worse. Of course he had done that, I thought, feeling my own hot burst of rage, of course he fucking had, the bastard. And he had pushed me right into a corner as well. I couldn't do a damn thing. If I told the truth or tried to run, my father would take it out on my mother instead. And if I let my father beat the crap out of me, Pat would win. Either way, he took his pound of flesh. Fucking malicious, disgusting bastard.

With a loud growl, my father snapped at my blank expression and non-reaction to his accusations and drove his fist right into my gut again. I went down hard on my knees at the pain, doubling over and gagging, my entire world narrowing down just to fighting the impulse to vomit. He hadn't gotten my ribs, but god those gut punches fucking hurt. I could feel it all the way down my damn legs.

"You think you can talk to me like that?!" he snarled at me, "Huh?! How fucking dare you!"

Through the waves of agony, I was confused again. What the hell was he talking about? I hadn't said a word to him besides asking him what he was talking about, admittedly in almost snide tone, but I was aware enough to realize that he was far too angry for it just to be about that. There was more in his hateful expression and explosions of dark rage. What in the hell could he-

"If you're going to kill me, then just kill me!"

Oh, right. I suppose that was the last thing I had said to him before he had come back. But that only confused me more. Why would he still be more pissed off about that after all these hours and not about Pat getting kicked out? What I had said had been disrespectful, but the whole thing with Pat, especially coming from his friend's mouth, hadn't just been disrespectful but embarrassing for him and I know what embarrassment does to my father. He had even said that he thought I was crazy for saying those things, so why was he this angry? Some kind of delayed reaction? Or because my mother wasn't around now? That made even less sense. Her presence never kept him from holding back anything, but looking into those hate-filled eyes again, I realized that anything he did to me, it was because of those words, even if I couldn't understand why.

I braced myself for what I was sure was going to be another vicious and senseless beating. Maybe this was really the moment, the one I had been fearing and the one that I had accused him of. I guess that would have been kind of ironic. He was so pissed off about what I had said and now he was going to fulfil that accusation by beating me to death. It felt like the only outcome between how utterly furious he was at me, how drunk he was, and that I was already injured. I didn't think I could take many more blows to the head before my brains were going to get scrambled permanently. I knew that my chest definitely couldn't take much punishment. But I knew he didn't care about any of that. I had embarrassed him and been condescending towards him all night and I needed to be taught a lesson. Consequences didn't even exist to him when he was like this. But I wasn't scared. My mother was gone, the one obstacle to my surrender removed. I didn't want for her to be hurt by this, but at least she wouldn't have to see it until everything was all done.

My father startled me, not with another blow, but by jerking me to the ground by my hair and dragging me the few feet towards my mattress, practically flinging me onto it on my abused stomach, making me almost vomit again at him jarring the injury.

"Stay down!" he roared at me.

He didn't sound human, let alone like my father, in a rage or not. I think I knew what he wanted the second that he had dragged me instead of beating me to a pulp like he was supposed to be doing, but I hadn't wanted to admit it to myself because it still didn't make any sense to me. He wasn't in one of his horny moods, and even if he had been, that anger of his should have been at the forefront of his mind. But then, when he saw that I was doing what he had ordered and wasn't moving or fighting him, he fumbled at his belt to unbuckle it and I didn't have the luxury of not accepting it anymore.

The mattress dipped a little as he kneeled down behind me. He planted his hand between my shoulders and shoved me hard down on the mattress. I went limp, becoming what he wanted, just a thing to use, knowing this would go a lot quicker that way. Trying to fight him off was like trying to pulverize a mountain on a normal day. I didn't have the energy left to do anything and escaping felt even more pointless than it usually did. I was just relieved that he was doing this instead of another beating. I know how sick that sounds. Ever since this shit first started months ago, all I've wanted is for him to go back to just beating me. I would have done just about anything for that. I should have been thinking that now, that I would rather he really did beat me to death instead of rape me again. Instead, I felt like laughing. If he had beaten me again, there was no way I could have hid that from my mother. My face was already mincemeat, but she would know and Pat would know. But this? This wouldn't leave any marks that she could see. This I could hide from her and all it would take was doing a load of laundry and cleaning myself off. As far as my mother would know, nothing had happened at all besides a single, fresh bruise to my face. Pat wouldn't win this time and it would be thanks to my father taking his anger out on me in a much sicker way than his bastard of a friend had intended, but this wouldn't impact the person Pat had really aimed to hurt. Wondering how he would react when he found out his shitty little setup had failed, and wonder how my father would react if I clued him into his role in it, was what had me biting back laughter.

It was short-lived as he yanked my pants down and immediately shoved himself inside me and that laugh I had been choking down became completely aborted as I grit my teeth at the suddenness of it. The pain was bad, like it always is when he's like this. When he isn't using me out of loneliness or any warped thing in his head, but when he needs to take out his aggression or anger or his hatred in those moments when he's horny and I'm easy and he hates both me and those disgusting urges. There was no uncomfortable, creepy intimacy like there had been with Pat as he had been molesting me. He didn't whisper that he loved me to whoever he was fucking in his head. He didn't touch my hair or kiss my shoulder or any of the other admittedly messed up things he would do that always tear my heart apart worse than any act of violence. There was just his strong hand still firmly on my back and his other grabbing my hip so hard that I could almost feel it in my damn bone, and his wild and violent thrusts as he raped me.

This was a punishment, but hell if I knew why. This wasn't like it had been during that weird but very brief cease fire with Justin. There was absolutely nothing holding him back from beating the shit out of me anymore. He hated me for what I had said to him. He hated me for talking down to him, and he probably hated me even more because I hadn't said anything that wasn't true. So why? Because he had figured out that this hurts me more than anything he can do with his fists? As twisted as our relationship has become… as much as I hate him now… I still don't want that to be true. I don't want to believe that my father has such little disregard for me that he would do this to me just because it hurts me. Just to degrade me. Even if I know it's probably the truth, I just can't accept it. I can accept him using me as his whore, but I can't accept that he would rape me to get back at me, especially for something that petty.

Numbness filled me again as it went on. It still hurt, physically, and I could feel the wetness that could only be blood on my thighs, but underneath all that was just… nothing again. No fear, no hate, no sadness, not even anger. It was all blank, like it had been that day when he had raped me in the bathroom with my mother pounding on the door. Just like then, it should have made me feel some kind of relief, but it only made me feel inhuman. It didn't drown out my humiliation, that feeling like I had this stain stuck to my skin. It didn't stop me from hating myself. It just made me feel like I really was an object, a thing, a tool he was using. Again, I felt frustrated that I couldn't control it, that I couldn't just use that numbness to take away the things that I didn't want to feel anymore. Even when it did, it was just temporary.

The most reaction I had after I had gone limp and passive like the good sex doll he had turned me into was a single wince when I felt him ejaculate inside me. He pulled out of me and I felt a small, diluted spark of relief that he wasn't in the mood for a second round. I still half-expected him to stick around to knock me around a little. Why not? He could have a two-for-one special. But just like always, as soon as he was done, he wanted nothing more to do with me or the act, even just to toss another scathing insult my way or tell me that I had gotten what I deserved. He cleaned himself off, zipped and re-buckled his jeans, then he was gone like it was his ass on fire instead of mine. To hammer that fact home, he didn't just go down to his bedroom or the bathroom to shower or the living room to crash. He left the house like a whirlwind, slamming the front door closed again, getting into his car and peeling back out of our driveway. It was like he hadn't been there at all. He hadn't even turned off the lights downstairs on his way out.

I had the same feeling I had had hours earlier when he had beaten the shit out of me, like I had just been run over by a car in a malicious drive-by. Just a flash of violence, and then silence, leaving me with that hollow feeling again. I didn't even need to wonder where my father was going. I knew. I lied there on my stomach for a few minutes, letting the new pains settle in with the old ones that weren't really that old. My face and stomach throbbed worse than before and my hip felt a little swollen from how hard he had grabbed me there, my nose caked with fresh blood, but it was the terrible, burning, screaming pain in my ass that was the new winner.

When I had enough energy to move, I turned onto my back with a soft groan like an old man. Things shifted and I felt more than just blood flow out me. This time, the feeling that slipped through that fog of numbness was revulsion. My thighs felt tacky with that nasty mixture and my disgust screamed at me to get up and clean it off, but even that impulse had been bled of its urgency and importance. I couldn't find the willpower to do it, no matter how gross and awful it was. Not to clean myself off. Not to move. If breathing weren't an automatic process, I wouldn't have had that willpower for that, either. I couldn't keep my promise to my mom to stay out of this after all. Pat had made damn sure of that.

I slipped my hand between my thighs and brought it up to the faint light streaming through my open door from downstairs. Sure enough, what coated my fingertips was creamy, but red. The last time I had gotten that stuff on my fingers, I had completely freaked out, but this time, I didn't really feel anything at all. I just found myself staring at it like I couldn't pull my eyes away from the evidence of all the ways he had just hurt me. This was what I had pulled myself back from the brink for? This was what I had clung to a life that I didn't want for? Just this. Because there was nothing else. This was my life from now on. Just nights and nights of rape and my father and his hate and Pat and this nothingness sitting in my chest. Not Josh. Not school. Not my writing. Not anything that brought any meaning to my life. Just the feeling of my father's cock in my ass and that black hate in his eyes. Just the certainty that this was the closest thing to a permanent, tangible relationship with another person that I would ever have. The certainty that it was never going to stop until I finally died.

A heavy wave of misery filled me and I let my hand fall away. I was so tired. So utterly tired in ways that had nothing at all to do with sleep deprivation. The only glimmer of brightness in any of this was that I hadn't had any more nightmares. That I couldn't have any more nightmares. Not even those stupid night terrors. Hell, I was practically cured of them. How was that for thinking positively? A bitter laugh tore its way out of me, hitched and probably sounding a bit mad, but when that thought popped into my head, I couldn't stop. I had finally found a cure for them, and I hadn't needed to see some stupid therapist or take sleeping pills or whatever the hell else to do it. After all these months of waking up in strange places and dreaming of some monstrous thing hunting me down and eating me and doing weird ass shit in my sleep, I had finally found the solution where so many doctors and therapists hadn't. If only Justin had known. Someone should tell him that all it takes is not sleeping.

My laughter quickly threatened to dissolve into something that I really didn't want it to, so I cut it off at the knees and forced myself to stumble back to my feet. The room swam violently, but I managed to make it to the desk and kept myself upright. I could still feel… stuff leaking out of me and felt the need to get rid of it. Not because it was gross but just because it was the next logical thing to do and it was better than lying there thinking the things that were coming to me in that early morning hour. If I kept at it, I really was going to crack.

I grabbed a clean pair of pajamas and went downstairs, taking the steps very slowly as I limped slightly. The fresh injury paired with my tiredness and the blindness on the right side of my face made any shift of position and balance dangerous. If I went down, there was nothing on those stairs to grab onto, either. I was just thankful that my father hadn't made a mess on my clothes for once. All I needed to do was clean myself off, change my clothes, and then… I didn't know. Again. The house was empty, but even if I was absolutely certain neither my father or Pat would be back that morning, I didn't think I would be able to sleep regardless of any insomnia. Not after what had just happened. Not when I could still feel his hands on me. Like I said, the only glimmer of brightness in all this shit.

I took my time cleaning up. I guess that was another positive. My mother would be gone for a long while. She had said the shift she was covering was… two hours, I think. But that didn't count how long it would take her to get to and from the diner on foot. At least I would have plenty of time to erase everything that had just happened so she would never find out. There was a fair amount of blood, but that was nothing new, and compared to the amount I had lost the previous morning, it really was nothing. It had already mostly stopped bleeding. I shed my nightshirt even though I didn't need to change it. I knew that changing clothes would make me feel a little better, even if it was just a psychosomatic reflex. It still felt a bit stupid when I struggled to get the new pair on. The pants were bad enough with my new injury. It wasn't anything I was concerned about, but the burning pain made it difficult and fucked with my already shitty balance.

The shirt was actually the bigger issue. Getting my bandaged arm through a shirt sleeve wasn't getting any easier between how stiff it was and how it kept swelling up, and that wasn't considering how much it hurt moving it around like that. I felt washed out and vaguely sick again by the time I managed it several minutes later, feeling like I had been wrung out like a wet towel. It throbbed so fiercely that I took the risk of rolling the sleeve up, which was high. My head was far gone enough that I worried I might forget to pull it over the bandages when my mom got home, but it felt a lot better not having it constricted by the sleeve.

I should have just pulled it up and moved on to washing my sheets, but once that task of changing my clothes was completed, I just stood there, staring at my arm. The fresh bandages were speckled with red in several placed, trailing down the center of my arm. A few of the spots were a little bigger than a quarter. I couldn't remember my father grabbing my arm, and if he had, there probably would have been a lot more blood than that, but I must have jarred it at some point. I should have checked to see if it was still bleeding and changed the bandages, but I just didn't have the energy to care.

Looking at it, I was suddenly swept up in this utterly surreal feeling, like what I was staring at wasn't a part of my body at all. It was just a hallucination, like Mariela. Like Josh. It felt completely unreal to me that just twenty-four hours ago, I had been holding together the am I had opened up. It was like standing at the edge of some sprawling cliff. You think about falling off it for so long, but when you do, it's just this split-second, impulsive decision. You just do it, and you know you're falling, but the consequences of that knee-jerk decision feel like they're happening to someone else. I remembered slitting open my arm with that shard of bottle with repulsive clarity. I might have forgotten a good chunk of the rest of my day, but I would always remember every sick detail of what I had done that morning. Even so, telling myself that I had done it just a day ago felt like something that had happened in a dream.

I jerked my sleeve down over the bandages, ignoring the angry throb of pain at the motion. I didn't want to look at it anymore. I left the bathroom, only barely remembering to take my discarded night top with me, but my forward momentum petered out when I stepped into the kitchen. There was too much time. I had well over an hour to kill before my mom came back home, but that hour and a half, maybe more, felt like it had grown and bloated. Even when she did, I didn't know what I would do. It would be nice to have her around, but I would have to pretend to sleep and even if I washed my sheets, I really didn't feel like lying down there for a few hours and letting my mind churn.

I didn't bother considering the possibility of lying down to rest. Even if I had been able to sleep and I knew that Pat and my father wouldn't be back that morning, I didn't want to try, even just to rest my eyes or shake off my dizziness and nausea. When I closed my eyes, I could hear my father's fist cracking against my face. I could hear his hips smacking against me. It was better if I didn't close my eyes. But in order to do that, I needed to keep busy and when I tried to think about anything outside of how tired I was, it just came up blank and paralyzed me.

"And his majesty is so sick that he can't do the fucking dishes? He's just been sitting around all night on his ass while this place is a mess. Again. What's his excuse this time? That he has a cold? Well, tough shit! If he's capable of sitting around drinking tea, he can pick up a fucking washcloth or a dust rag!"

Oh, right. I still hadn't finished the dishes, had I? Let alone all the other things he probably wanted me to do. I didn't know if I had the energy to clean the entire house, but the dishes were a good start. I was so far gone that I didn't consider what my mother would think when she came home and saw I had done the dishes when she had told me not to and I was supposed to be resting. Not that it would have changed my mind if I had, but it didn't even occur to me. It was pathetic, but suddenly having that one thing to do, especially something that my father had thrown a fit over what seemed like constantly the last few days, made me feel lighter. This was what I needed. Not sleep. Not hallucinations of the past. Just something to keep my hands and mind busy.

I went upstairs and stripped the sheets off my bed before I forgot to do it and started a load in the washing machine, neurotically throwing in my night clothes, too, even though there was nothing dirty about them besides having worn them for a handful of hours. On my way out of the laundry room, I spied my backpack. It had been tucked away in the far corner of the room by the doorway, although I couldn't remember if I had done it or my mother had. Digging through it, I found the bottle of caffeine pills and felt another, tiny surge of relief. If they hadn't been there, I couldn't think of any other place they would be. I couldn't do much thinking at all.

I shook out two pills, burying the bottle back in the bag where they would be hidden at a glance, and took them with a glass of tap water. I'm not sure if it was the bitterness of the pills or the metallic taste of the water, but I almost puked them back up immediately. The nausea was getting worse, along with my headache, but for once I was less concerned with the pain in my head than how heavy and drained I felt. I needed more than a slight and brief caffeine kick to keep on my feet. I needed something to drive away the hollow quiet of the kitchen, something to focus on and some mundane chores weren't going to cut it alone anymore.

I went back to the living room and dug through the laundry room and went through the shelves above the washing machine looking for… something. I didn't really know what I was doing beyond going through the excess of appliances and all the shit that people accumulate in junk drawers and other places in their home that they don't want to throw out and don't have any room for elsewhere. Our junk drawer was filled with bills and paperwork mostly. Everything else my dad just tossed on those shelves. Zip ties, screws, nails, batteries, rubber bands, candles, all that crap. I was starting to consider just turning on the television and jacking it up so I could hear it in the kitchen since there wasn't anyone home to yell at me about it when my hand found a familiar, rectangular gadget. With as close to an air of triumph that I was ever going to feel lately, I carefully pulled my father's little radio off the shelf without disturbing the clutter enough that anything would fall. The last time I had seen the thing, I had put it back in the shed outside after using it when I was trying to do chores when my back and leg had still been fucked up. My memory was shot to hell, but I remembered that pretty clearly and couldn't recall putting it in the laundry room, but my mother must have been using it. She was the only one who could have. I couldn't remember the last time my dad had listened to music or even a game on the radio.

Music. That was exactly what I needed. Something loud and obnoxious to keep me at least semi-alert. I put the radio on the counter by the sink and plugged it in. It immediately buzzed to life, churning out some obnoxious pop song, one of those that's sung by the flavor of the month whose hips have more talent than their singing. Some vapid, synthesized mess about partying and the weekend and girls that just made me wince between the jarring bass and the faint static that we always get when we aren't tuned in to local stations. I turned the tuner dial, fussily looking for something that wasn't too mellow, nor anything that would hurt my head. At that hour, it was a lot of smooth, soft rock and pop and radio shows. I skipped past anything playing rap or pop or classical. The classical was better than the synth stuff, but it was too soft. Besides, it reminded me too much of Justin and he was the last person I wanted to be hallucinating in my kitchen just then.

My fingers stilled as I heard the strains of a very soothing melody. It was familiar, one of those songs I had probably listened to a lot when I had been a kid, but I couldn't place it exactly, only that it was pleasantly nostalgic. Maybe something my mom had liked. It was all soft drums, smooth guitar, some sweet chiming instrument, and piano. Inoffensive and calming, but not something that would put me to sleep. It was as good as anything. I turned the water on and poured dish soap into the washcloth lying on the far edge of the sink. I wasn't sure how well I was going to wash anything with my busted left arm, but I just didn't care what I did to it anymore. I had been babying it all day and all it had been doing was throbbing and bleeding on me anyway. I was halfway through a dish when the instrumental section of the song seemed to end and a woman's voice joined the melody again, crooning but also strangely powerful. Just like the rest of the song, that voice was familiar and soothing, even if I couldn't put my finger on the band.

"Time cast a spell on you

But you won't forget me

Well, I know I could have loved you

But you would not let me

I'll follow you down until the sound

Of my voice will haunt you

You'll never get away from the sound

Of the woman that loved you

I'll follow you down until the sound

Of my voice will haunt you

(was I just a fool?)

You'll never get away from the sound

Of the woman that loved you-," (1)

I pulled the cord out of the wall so violently that I almost snapped it. The radio gave an agonized buzz in protest, but the voice and that tender music cut off abruptly. My heart pounded in my chest so hard that I could feel it in my throat and I was panting like it was difficult to breathe. Rage filled me as I fought against the urge to grab that damned radio and fling it into the nearest wall.

"Fuck off," I hissed at it angrily instead.

It just sat there, looking small and cheap and innocent and completely oblivious to the fact that it had just put the remains of my heart through a blender. When I looked away from it and down at the sink, my vision was blurry and I was clutching at the edge of the sink with white knuckled hands, although I didn't remember grabbing it or when my arms had started trembling. Despite the pain in my chest and the panic that was crawling through my veins, I had to bite my lip bloody to keep from letting loose the crooked, bitter laugh that was sitting in my throat. Great, I thought. Just great. Now even the fucking radio is mocking me. Yeah, that was pretty fucking hilarious.

Taking in a few very shaky breaths that didn't want to reach my lungs, I rested my face in my wet hand for a moment, then ran my fingers through my bangs, making them stick to skin with soap as I tried to get hold of myself. I felt like I had early that day when I had walked away from the classroom where Saren and Josh had been arguing. Like I was walking through a nightmare. I couldn't laugh at my own black humor because I knew that it wouldn't be long before that laugh became a scream that I wouldn't be able to stop.

As the words of the song echoed in my head, I felt like I was suffocating. I couldn't do this. I couldn't be here. It was like my throat and heart and head were in a vice. I couldn't stand one more second in that damned, empty house. I couldn't focus and I couldn't breathe. My walls were cracking around me and I couldn't keep them shored up anymore. Those bits of brick and metal were crumbling through my fingertips. I couldn't do this anymore.

I quickly turned the faucet off and it's a miracle that I remembered to do that much as I practically bolted for the door, jarring my arm again as I put on my windbreaker. I shoved my feet into sneakers and then I was gone into the dark, early morning that was closer to the middle of the night. The air was crisp and clean and I stopped there right outside my house and just breathed it in deep, trying to still my racing heart, but it refused to listen to me. It was the cool air that always comes after a rain, only it hadn't rained. At least, I didn't remember it raining. But the gravel that made up our driveway was glistening in my neighbor's lights and the grass was wet when I prodded it with the toe of my sneaker.

I tried to remember if I had heard it raining when I had been trying to sleep, but it just made my head hurt worse. But the more I tried to pull those details out of my scrambled mind, I finally found one that stuck out: my father's hair had been wet the first time he had come into the house. I had been too focused on his temper tantrum to put that together with anything significant. It looked like it had stopped, though. There weren't any stars out, but it wasn't so much as misty out, just cold. It was still better than being in my house.

I walked briskly away from my house, not paying attention to how dark the streets were or where I was going. I didn't know and I didn't care, I just focused on putting as much as distance as I could between me and where I had just been. I had walked several blocks before I realized I was retracing the route that my mother and I had taken… that same morning. If the ground hadn't just crumbled under my feet again, I would have taken the moment to be shocked about that. That long walk in the cold felt like it had happened days ago, not just a few hours. I was losing all sense of time. All the hours and days were piling up and stretching out like they went on forever and there was still no end in sight. It was the same, weary feeling I always have when my insomnia gets bad, but this felt worse somehow. It was closer to how I had felt when Nate had died, that each day was like a year and the future was some kind of purgatory.

"Well, I know I could have loved you

But you would not let me."

"I had a real friend and I lost him and I don't even know why! He broke my heart and I hate him for what he did but I can't stop loving him. You have no idea how that feels, what it's like to love someone and not being able to stand looking at them every day! Don't you think I want him to just disappear so I can stop having to feel this way?!"

"You'll never get away from the sound

Of the woman that loved you."

"But I do care for you. You're still my friend and I'm worried about you."

I broke out into a run. I didn't have the energy for it and I could barely see where I was going in the dark, but I didn't care. I put every, tiny, miniscule bit of energy that I still possessed into running as hard as I could, ignoring how much running hurt. Not just because I was tired, but the motion of running made my chest feel like it was in a vice and each pump of my legs sent another wave of agony from my anal injury and various bruises. Exhausting myself was irrelevant. The pain and possibility that I was damaging something worse was irrelevant. All that mattered was moving forward and away from that house. Away from the voices in my head. His voice. It took a pathetically short amount of time for my lungs and legs to feel like they were on fire, but I kept pushing myself harder and harder. Eventually, I ran out of sidewalks and pavement and felt dirt under my feet made soft and slippery from the rains. I recognized the road. It was the backroad to one of the mills near my end of town, a dirt path that all the trucks delivering lumber and who knew what else went down. If I kept going down that road, I would hit a big fence and a gate with a massive sign warning that it was private property, but I didn't even try to slow down. I couldn't tell anymore if I was really running away from my thoughts or if I was trying to make myself break.

I met that breaking point a lot quicker than I had thought I would, not even coming remotely close to the trek to the edge of town that I used to be able to do in my sleep. This intense weakness came over me. It reminded me too much of how I had felt the previous morning, sitting under that tree, trying to bleed to death. I was hit with a strong wave of dizziness, like the world itself was spinning wildly out of control. Suddenly, my foot met a thick patch of mud that was still wet and loose and I slid violently. On a normal day, I easily could have regained my balance. The slip was barely anything at all, not even remotely close to slipping on black ice or a wet floor. But I had nothing left and I went down through the mud hard right on my knees and stomach.

I pushed myself up on shaking arms and almost fell right back into the mess. It was a miracle I hadn't landed on my broken ribs or head or my left arm. A miracle that I had only slid and not rolled through the muck down the hill and hurt myself worse. My knee screamed in pain at me along with my swimming head and my pajama bottoms, top, and a good portion of my face was caked in mud and leaves and grass, but I hadn't jarred any of my injuries somehow. I tried to stand and just ended up on my ass.

As I sat there in the dark in that mess with another hurt piled on to a hundred others, I started to cry. At first, they were tears of frustration and anger that I couldn't even run without fucking it up. That the universe had dumped another bale of straw on my back out of pure pettiness. But those tears of frustration quickly became something else entirely and I sobbed brokenly, curling my body up tightly and wishing that the mud had just swallowed me up. That I had just kept my head down and let it drown me.

'I'm so sorry, Josh,' I thought as I cried miserably, 'I'm so sorry for everything. I miss you so much.'

My tears dried up around the same time that the mud caking my shirt and pants did, turning into an unpleasant, hard coat. It didn't take long. I didn't even have the energy left to cry. I thought about just lying down in the mud and staying there for the rest of the morning. There was nowhere else to go. Nothing else to do but keep going. Keep pretending. And right then, the thought of doing that, the same thing that I had been doing every day of my life, was more tiring and terrible than the entirety of that run. I just wanted to give up. Lie down and let the world do with me what it wanted. I didn't want to resist anymore. I didn't even want to try. I think that's exactly what I would have done, but two things spurred me to move. One was the reminder that my mother would be home soon, or at least in an hour if my sense of time wasn't completely fucked, and I needed to make sure I was there when she did or she would freak. The other was that, between the cold air and the cold, wet mud I was covered in, I was starting to shiver, which was making every single hurt and injury I had feel worse.

Getting to my feet almost finished the job of doing me in. I'm not sure how I managed it. I had nothing left. It felt like trying to move a dummy made of a burlap sack filled with cement and not like my body at all. I almost went back down to my knees as the world spun chaotically around me. I don't know how I kept on my feet. I don't know how I walked back down that road to where I had come from and not in a completely random direction with how dark it was and how difficult it was to get my bearings, not even considering my new limp. I barely remember anything beyond just keeping taking one step after another, but I must have done something right because I didn't fall back into the mud and soon, I felt hard pavement back under my feet and eventually I got to lighted, familiar residential streets. Some deity either felt sorry for me or I just subconsciously knew where I was going from taking similar walks my entire life.

I had a small, near panic attack when I got back to my street and saw the lights on in my house and thought that my mother had come home before me after all before it dawned on me that I couldn't remember turning them off before I had left. My father's car was still gone. That continued to seem like the single, bright spot on that fucked up morning. I was so involved trying to get my muddled brain to work long enough to catalogue what I was going to do when I got to the house (chores and seeing how badly I had fucked up my knee mostly) that I almost missed it. Something was wrong. Some tiny, stupid little thing that was off, like a smudge on the corner of a camera lens. I was standing on the sidewalk right in front of my house and everything looked exactly the way it always did, but there was something needling at me.

I had another one of those bursts of paranoia. They were becoming more and more common as my mental state deteriorated into sleep deprivation and apathy, but this one seemed reasonable. Although that might just be part of the whole going nuts thing. They do say that crazy people are crazy because they don't know they're insane, but for a moment, I saw those lights on in my house and I wondered if maybe I hadn't forgotten to turn them off. Maybe someone had broken in. That thought itself was nuts because who the hell would want to break into some shitty house on the shitty end of town right across from another house that had the lights on for hours and two vocal dogs patrolling the fenced in yard? Someone equally insane.

'Or,' the strangely reasonable thought seemed to come from some alien intelligence in my head, 'someone with enough of a grudge to not care. Someone Dad pissed off when he was a cop who decided to take a chance when no one was home. Or someone who knows they're bulletproof. Someone like Wren.'

I felt a chill go down my spine and I was too shaken up by that thought to wonder that I could even feel something like that anymore. It wasn't the possibility that Wren Parker could be in my house, though that was creepy enough, but that one of my worst fears was once again coming to life that morning. That if I ever left school permanently, it wouldn't mean the end of having to deal with him. He would find me, hunt me down like a bloodhound, because he wouldn't accept losing his favorite prey. He would never be done with me until he decided he was too bored to give up, but it would be under his terms, never mine.

Maybe it was that fear, the same one I had had since I had been a kid and scared that I would never be able to escape him, or maybe it was just how plausible it all was, but I frantically scanned the front of the house, looking for some sign of what my eyes were telling me that my sluggish brain couldn't catch. A broken window. A shadow in the lights of the living room or my parents' bedroom. A splinter along the front door. A strange noise. But there was just nothing, no indication that my eyes hadn't just played a mean trick on me. It looked the same way I had left it. I couldn't even hear the television on, which it would have been if Pat had come back, another possibility that I didn't want to admit to. I was just looking away from the living room window and giving up on the whole thing as just me going even more nuts when I finally saw it.

On the front, right side of the house near where the gravel of our driveway ends and the matted grass and weeds that makes up what one could consider our lawn begins, our trash bin had been knocked over. Nothing revolutionary. The bin is flimsy and when there isn't a lot in it, all it takes is a strong gust of wind to knock it over. But there wasn't any wind that night, unless it had died down in the last few hours, and the bin wasn't even close to empty. It had only been a few days since trash day, but it had half full the last time I had dumped out the trash in the kitchen, thanks to Pat's contributions. There was no way the wind could have done it, which only left human or animal intervention. It was entirely possible that my father had knocked it over in a fit of temper on his way out, or even Pat, although that wasn't really his style. He had been plenty pissed at my mother when she had kicked him out. But as I walked towards it, although the early morning air was dead still, I saw that the bin wasn't. It was rocking back and forth slightly on the ground in a very unnatural way. Whatever had knocked it over hadn't left yet.

'Pepper?' I thought, confused.

Gravel crunched loudly under my feet as I got just a couple feet away from the bin and a head suddenly poked out from inside it. The ears were very cat-like, but it wasn't the small, rounded head of a kitten, or even one of the toms that prowled the neighborhood at that hour. It was big, angular, and grey, and even in the dark, there was no mistaking the black stripe over its face. I stood there, frozen as it peered up at me warily, it's beady eyes two pinpricks of light, glowing eerily in my neighbor's porchlight. Not a cat or even a dog. Just a raccoon.

"Sure," I agreed a bit too quickly and realized that I was smiling a little bit before I could stop it, unable to not feel a small bit of excitement to go see an adaptation of a book I had read a bunch of times as a kid.

Suddenly Brian had an arm in front of me, keeping me from walking forward and I worried that he had spotted someone. We hadn't really had any close calls so far in our relationship and I was at a loss of what to do if we ever had one.

"What's wr-," I started to say and he shushed me, his eyes fixed to some point ahead intently.

I followed where he was looking and saw two raccoons clinging to one of the trees, staring at us with beady, black eyes just as intensely as Brian was staring at them. They didn't look nearly as big as the raccoons that visited our trashcans late at night and I wondered if they were cubs or the 'coons where I lived were just oversized.

I looked back at my boyfriend. He looked… enthralled by them, like he was seeing something rare and wonderful. That childlike expression of wonder turned his handsome face into something outright beautiful. I felt, for the first time in years, that I was seeing the real him. All those hard, bitter edges that had taken root in him after Nate had died just melted away and I finally saw the boy that my best friend had fallen in love with. I wanted to take a picture of it, preserve that expression somehow.

The memory left a terribly bitter taste in my mouth. Just like I had told Brian back then, raccoons are far from a rare sight on my street, or anywhere else in town, really, but for some reason, seeing it there in my trash bin instead of any other animal angered me. Because it wasn't Pepper? Because it had reminded me of Brian? As I limped a few steps closer to the bin, a couple more heads poked out to glare at me. These were also full grown raccoons, not kits, so probably just tolerating each other for a quick meal and not a family. They were having a regular party in there. The first raccoon apparently didn't like how close I had gotten because it bared its fangs at me and made this strange sound that was half a growl and half a hiss.

That sound made my anger burn as a spike of pain shot through my head, but it wasn't the pain that stoked it. I'm not sure what it was exactly, but hearing that damned raccoon hiss at me made me senselessly furious. I took another step towards it, meeting its challenge, not caring if it bit me or that it might have rabies, and hissed back at it. The sound coming from me was louder than the raccoon's had been, piercing and feral, sounding closer to how Pepper had sounded when she had hissed at Kanuck the first time they had met than the raccoons own warning, high-pitched growl. Which turned out to be a bluff itself because all three raccoons didn't seem all that interested in facing off against something five times bigger than they were. They bolted out of the bin and scattered, the big one that had hissed at me taking off for my backyard while the other two scrambled further down the street where there was some brush to hide under.

My hiss had scared off the stupid raccoons, but the volume of it roused the dogs across the street and the both of them suddenly exploded with loud, thunderous barks. I grabbed at my head as it felt like a landmine had just gone off in my skull, the pain so immense that my vision went weird again for a few seconds, all watery and grey and distorted. My fury erupted with that pain in my head, and I whirled to glare at the two infernal mutts for always starting a racket over every last, stupid thing and the motion almost had me puking right there, or it might just have been from the overwhelming rage I felt.

"Shut the FUCK up!" I snarled at them, wishing I had a brick I could throw at them for good measure.

The younger Doberman made a sharp cry almost like a scream that petered off into heavy whimpers as it jumped back from the fence. The older, large pitbull, Brutus, who had been tormenting me since I was a little kid had the opposite reaction, leaping at the fence, letting loose furious snaps and snarls and sharp barks that rivaled my own enraged shout. I had no doubt that if there hadn't been a fence separating us, he would have been on me faster that I could blink with my throat in his jaws. The new burst of pain scrambled what was left of my brains and I had to turn away from the piercing cacophony across the street. It made me feel dizzy and disorientated and the fucking thing just wouldn't stop. I didn't have time for this. Mom would be home soon. I had to finish the dishes. I had to feed Pepper. I had to make sure the house was clean. I had to… I had… I couldn't remember, but it had been important. More important than fighting with the neighbor's dogs.

I limped to my front door and without even thinking about it, grabbed the knob instead of fishing my keys out of my pocket. But when I turned it, the knob turned easily. I hadn't just forgotten to turn the lights off, I had forgotten to lock the door, too. A week ago, finding that door unlocked would have scared me worse than any other sign of my recent absentmindedness. I had never forgotten something that important, not after all the times my father had blown up at my mother about it when her heavy drinking had made her forgetful about everything and not after how much he had drilled it in my head as a kid thieves were everywhere, even in a small town like Nausten, and that there plenty of perps he had rubbed the wrong way that might try to break in and an unlocked door would just make it easier for them. He didn't seem to realize during all those heated lectures that I wasn't scared of our shit getting stolen. I was much more scared of angering him.

But this wasn't a week ago and I just opened the door, numb even to my stupid blunder. That I should probably be worried about there really being someone in my house and that I should be looking around for signs of an intruder occurred to me, but it was barely even a passing thought. Anything worth stealing we had sold over the course of many lean times and bill increases. If someone had really taken the time to sneak into the place, they were welcome to our crappy television that's older than I am. I was too tired to care and I felt strangely lightheaded, although I couldn't tell if it was from the dogs barking or my walk back to the house. My dad was the only one that would miss it anyway.

I closed the door behind me and kicked off my shoes, not caring if my dad got mad that they had tracked in a little bit of mud. My windbreaker took a lot longer to get off as I had to gingerly work the sleeve down my swollen arm. I think I had jarred it a little when I had fallen after all. It felt worse than when I had left the house. If it was bleeding again, there really wasn't anything I could do about it. There weren't enough bandages left and I didn't have the energy to bother with it. I started to head for the kitchen. I needed to get as many dishes done before my mom got home so she wouldn't do them, but I wanted to change my clothes first. The mud had mostly dried, but now my nightclothes were tacky and encrusted and sticking to my skin.

As I limped down the very short hallway between the front door and the kitchen, I suddenly felt weak, like someone had scraped all of my insides out and left me with nothing but skin and hair. Everything felt strangely off. It felt similar to when I had fainted from pain in Josh's kitchen. Not quite as bad, I didn't feel washed out and out of my body, just very weak, but the suddenness of it felt the same. I stubbornly tried to ignore the feeling as just another stupid temper tantrum that my body was throwing from not sleeping, but as I took another step forward, I felt myself falling. It was odd, I hadn't fainted, I was aware of it this time. It was more like I had just lost all control of my body. Or maybe I had been in mid-process of fainting and had just been more aware of it this time. If I had been, I was brought right out of it when my shoulder slammed into the wall. The shock of suddenly meeting the wall like that jarred me enough to keep me on my feet and conscious, but the very brief and rather pathetic trickle of adrenaline didn't do much for getting me any strength back.

There was a moment of startling confusion as I couldn't figure out where I was or why I was sagged against a wall, but I was still unable to move, like a damn bird that had flown headfirst into a window. I stayed there for several minutes, maybe even longer, letting the wall hold most of my weight and panting heavily like I had just run fifty miles. That's exactly what it felt like, that I had been running for hours and there was nothing left, instead of just a leisurely walk for a few blocks. It took an embarrassingly long time to get my breath back and be sturdy enough to push myself off the wall and walk forward again. I limped to the living room and gingerly lied down on the couch, less because I was being mindful of my injuries and more that I had to move slowly or I was going to fall on my ass.

I'd like to say that it was a conscious decision, that I had gone to the couch instead of doing any of the other things I needed to do because of my dizzy spell, but it wasn't. I didn't really think about it at all. My feet just moved and then I was lying down, everything else forgotten in the murky fog suffocating my head. Whether it was intentional or not, I expected it to make me feel at least a little better, if only to take the weight off my stinging knee and aching… well everything. But as my un-mutilated arm found one of the pillows and drew it tightly to my chest, I didn't feel anything. Not the pain from my ribs or my skinned knee or my throbbing stomach or face or even my arm. Not the grief I had felt crying in the mud or the heart break that had caused me to run from the house in the first place. There was nothing at all.

I stayed like that for a long time, lying on my side, still as a stone, staring at the back of the couch. Or at least it felt like a long time. The dogs eventually stopped barking their heads off. The sun rose outside, only casting a very faint light into the living room. I didn't move from my spot on the couch, not even to shift to get more comfortable. I could have at least turned the television on for background noise, that would have been the sane thing to do, but it was like I couldn't move. Like I was frozen in place. I didn't even close my eyes or come close to dozing off, although I didn't have anything else to do and those caffeine pills hadn't done much for my exhaustion.

My mother ended up coming home a little later than she had said she would, but that wasn't surprising. It happens to her a lot, getting roped in for extra time, or having to wait for a bus. I should have felt relief when I heard her opening the front door. I knew it was her and not my father or Pat, I knew it would just be the two of us. That was what I had wanted since she had walked out of that same door that morning. Scattered or not, that loneliness was still fresh in my mind. But knowing that she was back and I wasn't alone anymore still didn't make me feel anything.

Before I even saw her, every sound and movement she made exuded weariness. She kicked off her shoes by the door with a heavy sigh that I heard even in the living room and as she walked towards the kitchen, her gait was slower and heavier than usual. After the long morning and everything that had happened, she had to be completely exhausted. And although she had said that she was taking a later shift, I doubted she had more than a few hours to rest before the next one, so I expected her to just make a beeline for her room to crash while she could.

Instead, when she got to the living room doorway, she stopped and lingered. She obviously noticed me being a lump on the couch, I could feel her eyes on me. My entire body tensed like a taut string as a deep anxiety filled me, though I couldn't put my finger on the exact source of it. I should have been happy that she was home, not nervous. I should have been telling her welcome back, not hoping that she thought I was sleeping and wouldn't talk to me. Was it the mud on my clothes that I couldn't explain without sounding like I was nuts? My bloody knee? My red eyes from crying? Or just more baseless paranoia?

I never figured it out. Before she said a word or decided to go to her bedroom, while I still felt her studying my back, the phone rang. I almost jumped right off the couch at the sound that had ingrained itself in my psyche lately as a hostile force. My heart raced wild and unbearably heavy as I heard her stride to the phone and take it off the cradle.

"Hello?" she asked warily, her voice tight with irritation she was failing to completely mask, though I didn't blame her. While it was too early for telemarketers, anyone calling at that hour wouldn't be calling with good news.

My breath caught in my throat. I don't know why Justin was the first possibility that came to me. I couldn't remember the last time he had tried calling the house number and after his talk with Kane, I didn't think he was going to keep wasting his time with me, but that was my immediate thought. That it was Justin, the last person on Earth that I wanted talking to my mother. I still didn't think he would tell her what was really going on, no matter how mad he was at me, he wouldn't be that callous and cruel, but what if she didn't understand the situation and made me talk to him? What if he let slip something I didn't want her to know, even if it wasn't that Josh had been my boyfriend?

"Oh, good morning, Mr. Stoan," my mother greeted with surprise, taking my anxiety and ramping it up to about twenty.

Shit. Shit. I had completely forgotten about the whole school thing. I don't know how. My almost getting expelled had happened a lot more recently than Kane telling Justin to beat it. Hell, Stoan's message was still on the machine and I remembered that I had told him that if he wanted to reach my parents, he would need to call around now, but it had slipped my mind. What the hell was I going to do? What could I do? This was inevitable, I knew that, but having the two of them discuss it right now, with me in the next room, shook me to the core for some reason. It was almost like the fog had lifted and I was feeling what I hadn't been able to the previous afternoon. Only that wasn't right because it wasn't my probably expulsion that was making me panic, only that my mom was about to find out about it. And why.

"I was just about to call you, actually," I heard my mother say, "Frey really hasn't been feeling well the last few days, I think-," she paused, "Message? We didn't get any-," I could practically see her glancing at the answering machine and when she spoke again, it was with chagrin, "Actually, my husband and I haven't checked our messages from yesterday. Things have been a bit hectic around here. What did you want to speak to us about?... No, he isn't here right now. I think he went to work early," she lied neatly, "But I can tell him when he gets home tonight. What did you need to speak to us about?"

There was another pause, a lengthier one this time. I felt like I was going to puke again.

"He what?!" my mother suddenly exploded, losing all pleasantry and only giving Stoan another thirty seconds to repeat what he had told her before cutting him off again, "No, you're wrong. There's been a mistake. Frey would never, never do something like that! Especially not to a girl! He isn't like-,"

She fell silent again and I was sure that Stoan was giving her an earful about what had happened and how there was no misunderstanding. I felt like my heart had crawled down into my stomach.

"I don't understand," I heard her say in this small, confused voice that made my guts clench and guilt tried to eat me alive, "That isn't like him. He's never done anything like that before… No, he didn't tell me he was suspended… Wait, expelled? They can't do that-," I winced as she yelled into the phone, but Stoan had cut her off again for another solid minute. I thought he was just explaining the expulsion process to her like he had me until she exploded again, "That rat bastard! Kurt was a rat in high school and he's an even bigger one now that he thinks he's hot shit with his Porsche and accounting firm and yacht parties! Over my dead body is he going to press charges against my kid, you can tell him that for me!"

I stared at the back of the couch in astonishment as I listened to my mother rave at my principal like he had spit in her food. She sounded like a mother bear about to tear his head off. She sounded like Mariela when she found out that someone had hurt Josh… or me. She and my father had had some awful fights, but the only other time that I could remember her sounding that utterly enraged and protective had been when my father had dragged me into the bathroom because she had pushed him away again. That same, chaotic fury was smoldering in every word she bellowed at him.

Or maybe it wasn't protectiveness at all. Maybe she only wanted it to sound that way, but in reality it was just pride, because how embarrassing was it for her to come home from another shift and hear that her son had beaten up some girl for no reason? That she would have to face a man that she clearly hated, if her comment about Lucy's father being a rat was any indicator or the scathing tone she had when calling him that, all to beg him not to have me arrested for assault. Maybe I was really the one she was furious at. Just the possibility that that rage was directed at me made me curl up into a tighter, smaller, and much more miserable ball. I didn't know what was worse, that she was probably mad at me, or that I was being a burden to her again.

I thought, with how pissed off she was and knowing that she could go on for hours if she had built up a proper furious rant like this, she would continue to scream at him for some time. But amazingly, Stoan seemed to cut through with something that strangled off her angry tirade. The only other thing that I had ever witnessed doing that was my father hitting her or threatening to hit her.

"Damn straight I'm contesting it!" she shot back hotly, "I don't care who saw what or what he did, my son isn't some… some troublemaker! He's a good student, he works hard. I won't accept him being expelled over this, whether he did it or not!"

I almost cringed at her words. I love my mom. Since she got sober, she's been trying more and more to get re-involved in my life. But when it comes to anything that happened before that, she's completely oblivious. She didn't know about my hitting Saren in middle school or all the times I had been sent to the principal's office or my behavioral problems after Nate had died. Any time the school had managed to reach out to her about my disciplinary problems, she had been too drunk to remember after the initial blowout. She didn't remember that this wasn't my first offense or that, intentional or not, I had become a troublemaker in the eyes of most of my teachers and peers. She fell silent for a few more minutes, her temper cooling enough for her to stop yelling and take in whatever Stoan was saying to her. My chest and throat went tight as I assumed that he was filling her in on all those things I didn't want her to find out about. All the things that would make her disappointed in me. But surprisingly, she spoke too soon for it to have been all of that, and her voice was too calm for it to be the worst of them.

"And when will this hearing be?" she asked, suddenly taking this in stride and waiting for his answer before responding with icy anger, "A meeting? Why bother wasting everyone's time? It's clear Kurt's made up his mind how he wants this to go and according to you, the superintendent has all the proof he needs to go through with this…" after another few minutes, she sighed heavily, "Fine. When is it?"

I felt as confused as she was by that. I assumed Stoan was talking about arranging a meeting between himself, the superintendent, Lucy's parents and my own, but like my mother, I didn't see much of a point in that except for a chance for her father to lash out against my parents for what I had done since he couldn't do it to me. It wasn't going to change anything. It would just be a waste of everyone's time, like she had said. It was almost impossible for my mother to get away from work and if my father found out about it, he wouldn't even bother to go, no matter what Stoan said. I remembered him telling me that he wanted to arrange the meeting, but I hadn't thought to tell him to just do whatever Lucy's father and the superintendent wanted to do to me and be done with it.

"Today?" she blurted out incredulously.

She went silent again, either listening to something Stoan was saying or thinking over what he had just told her, but I could practically feel her anxiety leaking through the wall separating us. She only had a few hours before another work shift and unless it was a medical emergency (and even sometimes when it was), there was no way in hell they would let her take off if she couldn't find someone to cover her. She should be spending that time resting, not dealing with this shit. And Lucy's father didn't strike me as an accommodating man. If my mother couldn't make the meeting at the time that he wanted it to be, he would probably just go on without her.

"I can't make that on such short notice," she confirmed my suspicion, but as she spoke, her voice wasn't angry or frustrated. It sounded small and stressed and utterly helpless. My guilt sunk its fangs deeper and deeper into my heart, "I… I might be able to get off work Thursday or Friday to meet with you to talk about the hearing… Thank you," her tone softened and she actually sounded sincere, "I really appreciate anything you can do… Ok, please let me know."

She fell silent again, this time for a couple minutes. Then, the sudden sound of her slamming the phone back down on the cradle almost had me falling off the couch. She did it three times, rapid fire and so hard that it was a miracle the whole thing didn't come off the wall.

"Fuck. Goddamn it," she swore, but her voice was light, barely more than a whisper and there wasn't any anger in it, just more of that helplessness. There were tears in her voice.

I closed my eyes and waited, feeling so sick and so full of self-loathing as that voice twisted me into knots. I guess I could have just left. I was between her and the door and I doubted she would chase me down, but as much as I was dreading the conversation, or rather fight, we were about to have, I wouldn't do that to her. I had hurt her deeply again, and put her in a terrible position. Embarrassed her. Inconvenienced her. Just like always. If she wanted to scream at me, I wouldn't do anything to weasel out of it. I wasn't going to lie to her or fight any of it. I deserved it, no matter how much it was going to hurt hearing that she hated me. And I knew she did. She had to. Not because she was ashamed of me or she now had to deal with this on top of everything else she had to deal with. No, I knew that she hated me because of what I had done.

"Don't you have a job? The only thing that makes you living here bearable is that I don't have to look at you all day! Now you're skipping out on work, just like that bastard father of yours?! Why are all the men in this family so damned useless?! And you got into another fight again! You're turning out real well, a regular thug, just like him! I suppose one day you'll come home and tell me that you've knocked up some tramp next!"

This wasn't getting a bad grade or skipping class or giving a teacher some lip. I had hit someone. Someone who had been defenseless. Someone who hadn't even been threatening me or trying to hit me first. Just someone that had said some mean things to me, things that weren't even unwarranted. A girl. And I had punched her in the face for barely any reason at all. At least not any that I understood. Even if I had one, she would still hate me. Because she was right, what she had said to Stoan. This wasn't like me. This was like my dad. Lashing out at someone. Hurting people just because I could. Because it made me feel better, because I knew they couldn't fight back. Just like he always does to us. Like everyone does to me.

All those times when my mother and I had fought, especially when she had first started to get sober when I hadn't been aware of it and she had been fighting against awful mood swings are still fresh in my mind. It wasn't just that one time that she had seen me after Wren had beaten the shit out of me for befriending Josh and she had accused me of getting into fights and being a thug like my dad, but also every time I had raised my voice at her, she had always flinched and shied away from me, assuming the worst out of me. That I was like him and I was going to hit her.

But more than all those times, what I most remember is the look of wonder on her face when she finally realized that I wasn't like that, that I would never hurt her like that. She had looked at me with such guilt for making such ugly assumptions, but also a great deal of love. And I had thrown that away with a single punch. How could she feel anything for me now but hate? I remembered what she had told me the other day. How much she had loved my father, and how that love hadn't been enough when he had started treating her like a punching bag. How him beating on her had made her hate him.

I've always been scared of ending up like him, but when I heard her say that, it had turned that paranoid fear into sure reality. That punch I had thrown at Lucy was no revelation. It felt as obvious as the full moon causing waves, an almost boring and trite consequence. How could she possibly not hate me for doing the same thing that had eroded her love for him? The thought of her looking at me like she used to or never talking to me again or even just telling me that I wasn't any better than my father made my heart twist up in a terrible pain. A cruel voice popped up in my head to gloat that it had only been a matter of time before I had lost the last person that had loved me. Only a matter of time before she saw me for who I really was. Only a matter of time and my fumbling inadequacies before I lost everyone that mattered to me. First my father and my mother, then Nate, then Brian, then Josh and his parents, and now my mother again. This time probably forever. It was the only thing I had ever been good at. Breaking things. Kane was all I had left and I knew I would ruin that, too. Like that voice had said, it was just a matter of time.

I stiffened as I heard my mother finally step into the living room. Even before she said a word, I felt my heart breaking, knowing what was coming. She didn't speak for several, long minutes. She just stood there, staring at my back and every second that passed only made me feel sicker and sicker, knowing her anger and disgust was probably building and any second, she would explode with it.

"Frey, I know you're awake," she finally said, but strangely, there was no exasperation or anger or even just irritation in her voice.

Her voice was a little soft and she only spoke as a matter of fact, but that didn't help my anxious, guilty feelings. It took everything I had not to flinch. I was caught between the childish urge to run and hide and the overpowering urge to vomit. I didn't even have the presence of mind to feel pathetic about it. I've never dealt well with my parents being mad at me. With anyone being mad at me, honestly. But if there was a good reason for that anger? If I had fucked up and they were disappointed? My guts turn to water every time.

"Frey," she tried again, her voice still soft and strange and oddly hesitant, more like she was nervously telling my father about a problem with our bills or that some appliance needed to be replaced than scolding me for fucking up, "you need to tell me what's going on."

I knew she was right. I couldn't tell her about Josh, but she deserved some kind of explanation for why I had hit Lucy. I just didn't have one to give. There was nothing I could tell her that wouldn't make this worse. Refusing to answer out of fear was childish, but my head was completely blank. I didn't know what to say to her. There were no words there, whether they were good or bad. I waited for her to lose her temper and start screaming at me. I knew she wanted to. If not for being suspended and committing assault, then certainly for ignoring her. But she just walked further into the living room until she was just a couple feet away from the couch.

"I know something is very wrong," she pressed, but strangely, there was no accusation still in her voice. She sounded upset, but not angry, every word dripping with worry when she should have been furious at me. That one sentence, full of concern and confusion and maybe a bit of frustration, seemed to open the flood gates and she lost all of that nervous hesitation, "You haven't been acting like yourself these last couple weeks. Hitting that girl. Not sleeping. Picking fights with your father. You've been so quiet and subdued. And all this about Josh… You went through so much to stay friends with him and now you won't even talk about him."

I felt her sit on the edge of the couch, right at my back, and flinched. Although I couldn't say for sure if it was from her sudden proximity or her uttering Josh's name. Her words weren't angry or exasperated, but fearful. She knew. I had tried so hard to keep her from seeing how I had been acting, that there was something wrong, but she had known anyway. And somehow she knew that whatever it was, it was the reason why I had punched Lucy. I didn't understand it, why even if she knew something was wrong, she wasn't furious with me. Just worried. Didn't she get it? I had fucked up. I had lashed out at someone. What did the reason matter? Those fearful, concerned words burned into me like a brand of guilt.

"I know there's something very wrong with you," she ignored my flinch and kept pushing and prodding at me, refusing to relent, "I know you're hurting."

I refused to open my eyes and look at her. Her voice was kind, but crueler than if she had been heaping verbal abuse on me. I didn't want her concern. I didn't want her to try to fix things. I didn't want that worry born out of love that threatened to flay me open. Her kindness probed at my cracks, looking for an opening, even if it meant shattering me. She didn't get that and it wasn't her fault, but I just wanted her to go away. Just leave me alone and let me finish rotting away in peace. What the hell did she even want from me? If I could fix this, didn't she think I would have done that already? There was nothing she could do and anything I could say would only hurt her, not help me. She stayed silent for a few minutes, letting her questions hang in the air and weigh on me, clearly hoping that the uncomfortable silence would get me to say something. When she realized that it still wasn't enough and launched her next attack, I was completely unprepared for it.

"I took the trash out the other night."

A sharp jolt of shock and fear ran through me before I even understood what was upsetting about what she had said. The trash? What the hell did our garbage have-

A memory hit me with all the blunt, terrible force of a steam train. What I had put in the garbage days ago. Digging through it to rescue my journals, but leaving everything else. Every note, every stray thought, every poem, every short story. But there was a much worse memory, one that I had almost completely forgotten as irrelevant. Just one of those memories like white noise, small and insignificant, especially compared to all the other shit that had happened to me last week. But right then, it felt as big and important as a whale. It was the memory of a morning or two after that, it was getting harder to remember specific details like that. But what I concretely remember more than what day it had been was walking to my house and, like that morning, thinking that there was something wrong because the trash bin had been moved. Only it hadn't been tipped over, but actually moved to the curb. And just like that morning, I had freaked out, thinking that there was something insidious about it, that someone might have even found what I had put in there.

I had dismissed it easily as paranoia when I had realized that it was trash day and the bins were supposed to be at the curb. I hadn't given more than a passing thought to the possibility that both those things might be true. My blood turned to ice as I envisioned her opening that bin to dump more trash before dragging it out to the curb, only to find my heap of papers and three-ringed notebooks full of pointless scribbles. Had she read any of it? She obviously knew what it was, that it was mine at least. But that didn't mean she had really read anything. She knew my handwriting and she knows that I write… wrote. She had snapped at me enough when she had been drunk and feeling mean when I had been a kid. And it wasn't like they could belong to anyone else using our trash.

But had she done more than just glance at it? The possibility made me feel horribly sick. There were some very angry and hateful and ugly things in there. Stories and poems that I had written after Nate's death and after my father had raped me. Things that I never, ever wanted my mother to read, especially when she was the only person besides my father who might know what those things really meant. But I didn't think she did or we would have been having this conversation a lot sooner.

"It worries me so much," she said in a moment of brutal honesty that was rare for us, "Your writing, Frey… why?"

That one word overflowed with bewilderment and the frantic worry she claimed she had felt when she had found my writing in the garbage. Had she really realized what it meant? That I hadn't just thrown out some useless scraps? The weight in her words was all the answer I needed. But even if she did, I didn't understand why it mattered. Why she was acting like I had a gaping wound when she should have been disgusted with me. The sudden touch of her hand on my shoulder made me pull away in shock, but she refused to let me retreat from her and kept her hand on me. Her touch was warm and gentle. I felt tears prick at my eyes, but I couldn't cry. Not in front of her like that. Not when I could hear how much she was fighting against her own in her voice.

"Please, baby," it was a fight we both lost as her voice cracked and the pure, frantic, hurt desperation in her words broke, "Please, talk to me! Just tell me what's wrong!"

Tears dripped down my cheeks as her words, as well-intentioned as they were, tore me apart worse than if she really had screamed at me instead. Probably because they were well-intentioned. Because she could have been so angry and repulsed by me, and instead she was trying to reach me because she loved me. And I didn't deserve that love, not one drop of it. She was hurting and it was my fault. Those tears making her voice thick and that distraught tone to her words were all my fault. I wanted to wrap my arms around her and tell her that it was ok. I was fine. None of it meant anything. Nothing was wrong. I tried. I tried to say any of it. All the lies that she wanted to hear.

I even tried telling her the truth. Because while I told myself that all I wanted was to comfort her and let her believe that there was nothing wrong, the real truth was that everything was wrong. Everything had been wrong for a long time. I was drowning. And there was some crying child that lived in my head that wanted… no, needed to tell her that. Needed to tell someone that, anyone that cared. Because I was scared and tired and lonely and heartbroken and I couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't even pretend that things were fine anymore. I wanted to beg her to help me before I suffocated. I wanted to cry and break apart the dam and let everything, all the darkness that had been choking me, come pouring out. I wanted to come clean about all of it, even if that made her stop loving me because there was nothing left. Nothing left of me. Nothing left for me. Only the truth.

But no matter how hard I tried to speak, I couldn't manage it. It wasn't that I had some moment of sanity and knew that I couldn't tell my mother these things or that I didn't want to make things worse. It was that when I thought about everything, all those things in my head and everything that had happened in the last few weeks, there was suddenly this ball of pain in my throat. It was so immense, so thick and unpalatable that nothing could work its way past it. All I could do was choke on it. I couldn't say anything at all. It was like the pain was so immense that I was going into shock. Only it wasn't just that ball of pain. It was like… every part of me had been paralyzed. My vocal cords. My muscles. I couldn't move at all, not even to turn over and look her in the eye. It was like that painful truth had turned me to stone. I guess I was wrong. The truth wasn't the only thing left. There was also just more silence. More nothingness.

But that was fine. I think, even if I had been able to speak, I still would have refused to. I told myself that I wanted to spill everything to her, that I wanted to reach out for help. And I guess a part of me did that want that. But that part was small and fleeting. For the rest of me, there was this feeling that had been rooted deep in me for a long time now and I felt it then, lying on that couch, listening to my mother cry, more powerfully than ever. I didn't want anyone to help me. I know what a contradiction that sounds like. No, that it isn't the right word. It was a delusion. My mind cracked and distorted and delusional. And it was that desire to come clean so I could reach out to someone, to unburden myself, that was the delusion.

"Frey," she cried, "Please, talk to me."

Those repeated words sounded less like her other pleas as she pressed her face against my shoulder and more like a senseless noise of grief. She sobbed against my shirt and her arms wrapped around me as she wormed her way onto the small couch with me, lying down behind me. My shirt where her face was pressed firmly against me was soaked in minutes. As she held me tighter and tighter, her grip hurting my ribs but I didn't care about the pain, I lost the ability to discern if she was trying to comfort me or herself. Feeling her sob harder against me made me cry harder, too, although mine were purely out of an unbearable feeling of guilt and helplessness. I didn't sob. Even my crying was weak and empty and almost apathetic, but my vision completely blurred over from the sheer volume of tears. Her embrace was warm and painful. I didn't deserve it. I didn't deserve her comfort. Or her love.

We stayed like that for what felt like a long time, but it could have just been a few minutes. My sense of time had become completely shot since I had stopped sleeping entirely. My tears ran out long before hers did. I didn't even have the energy for that anymore. Even when I felt her hitching sobs peter out, her arms stayed tight around me, like she couldn't force herself to let go of me anymore than I could force myself to move. It completely gutted me knowing that I had caused her to fall apart like this, and that there was absolutely nothing I could do to comfort her back, nothing I could do to fix it.

"I'm sorry," I rasped, finally finding the strength to speak, but my voice sounded like I hadn't used it in weeks.

Such pathetic, pointless words, but it was all I could say to her. Her arms went tighter around me, like a reflex, and she shifted her face to the crook of my neck.

"It's alright," she murmured against my skin, but I could hear the lie in her words.

She didn't know what was going on with me, but she knew enough to know that it wasn't alright. Not how I was acting, whatever was wrong, or above all, my refusal to talk to her about it. It wasn't ok to her at all and I didn't need to look at her to know how much it upset her, but for some reason that I didn't understand, she was still trying to smooth things over. Still trying to comfort me. It made me feel unfathomably heavy. Everything was so twisted and fucked up because of me. Why did I keep doing this? Why did I keep making things worse ever since the day I was born? Not just for myself, but for everyone around me? Why couldn't I ever make things better, for even just a moment?

"I don't know why I hit her," I confessed lowly under my breath, the most truthful thing I was able to say to her.

I didn't bother to elaborate. She knew what I meant. She froze for a moment, I think in shock that I was even addressing it. She didn't tell me that it was ok. It wasn't and she knew it wasn't without knowing anything else about what had happened. That made me feel a little better, knowing that even if she didn't hate me for what I had done, she wasn't going to dismiss it either and try to blindly comfort me and insist that it wasn't my fault. She had accepted that I had done exactly what Stoan had told her I had and she knew it was awful. I just couldn't understand how, after hearing I had attacked a classmate, she could still hold me like this. How she could still love me. I could almost believe that she hadn't heard what I had said at all, but I knew she did as she came out of her shock and lightly stroked my hair. Comforted without forgiveness.

"I won't let her father do anything to you," she said as she rested her cheek against my hair, somehow sounding both fierce and soothing, "I promise, Frey."

There really wasn't much of anything that she could do if he went through with his threat to have me charged with assault, but pointing that out would have been cruel and I might have done some pretty monstrous things the last couple weeks, but at least I had enough humanity left to not hurt her on purpose. It wasn't anything that she wasn't aware of anyway, not with how her body had stiffened against mine as she had made that false promise. I shifted slightly, signaling to her that I wanted to get up. I didn't really want to and when her arms slipped from me, they left me cold and hollow, but I wanted her to go to bed while she still could and I really didn't want to talk about anything anymore, not Lucy or my inability to tell her the truth or what we were going to do about my probable expulsion. I wanted to be blank again.

I turned towards her as I felt her start to shift in turn, expecting her to leave the couch so I could have room to do the same, but her expression suddenly hardened and she cradled my face in her hands instead, being careful of my bruises, but clearly unhappy about what she was seeing.

"Frey, you look awful," her frown deepening as she took in every inch of my face.

"I didn't sleep well last night," I murmured, my voice still rough.

This incredibly strong sense of déjà vu hit me. How many times had we had this conversation? How many times had we said the same, exact thing to each other? The feeling was quickly shattered as, instead of being placated by my words like she usually was, something that I had said seemed to upset her even more, but I couldn't figure out what it was. Something about last night? What had been last night? I couldn't remember. I couldn't remember anything. What day was this? What time was it? Morning? Afternoon? I was on the couch, so was it still night time? My head scrambled, I was on the edge of panicking, feeling like I was drowning, lost in some senseless abyss, like being adrift in space with no sense of time or up or down when my mother brought me back to reality by lightly brushing the tears that were still stubbornly clinging to my cheeks and chin away with her fingers.

"Well, you'll be home today, so you can get some sleep, alright? You'll have the house to yourself," she said.

The myriad of emotions that those very simple, and very banal words gave me split my head open. Shame at the reminder that I should have been at school, or getting ready for school depending on what time it was, but I had nowhere else to go anymore but here. Irritation at her for her continued obsession about my sleeping. Guilt that she was trying to find something good in this whole mess. Relief realizing that she was right, I would be alone. I wouldn't have to deal with my father or Pat, and even she would be gone for her shift later. I could lie down and not have anyone bother me. Not have to worry about Pat being around or my father coming to rape me again. And finally, a small bit of panic for that very same thing. Being alone in this house. She finally sat up and moved far enough on the edge of the couch that I was able to do the same. She gave me a wan smile that didn't even come close to reaching her eyes.

"Come on, I'll make you some breakfast, then you can go right to bed," she said, putting a hand on my back to help me sit upright.

Breakfast. I guess that answered my time-of-day quandary. I fought back a grimace as the thought of putting any food in my stomach, or even just smelling it, repulsed me. I knew that I needed to eat. I couldn't remember how much of the fish I had eaten, but after barely eating all day, I was sure that it hadn't been enough. It was just a miracle that I hadn't thrown it up, but I had been fighting queasiness all day and that stupid fish had only made it a hundred times worse. Anything more was going to be pushing it.

"I'm really not hungry," I murmured truthfully.

"Just some toast, then," she said stubbornly and with a gentle hand under my left, upper arm, thankfully far away from my bandages, she helped me to my feet, "I want to take your temperature again, too."

"I don't have a fever," I tried to protest, but she shot me a hard look that immediately shut me up.

"Indulge me," she said a bit sharply.

I bit back a heavy sigh and followed her into the kitchen. I didn't want to deal with her fussing over me, but I knew it was unavoidable. I had scared her… was still scaring her. Her sharp tone wasn't from anger, it was from being worried out of her mind. The least I could do was let her have her way over this, even if I knew there was nothing she could do to fix any of it. As she put two pieces of bread in the toaster, I sat down at the table. I was overwhelmed by the feeling that there was something very important that I needed to do, but that little jolt of adrenaline I had gotten from listening to my mother talk to Stoan had left me feeling lightheaded and hollowed out. As pathetic as it was, in just the few steps from the couch to the kitchen, I felt like I had to get off my feet again. As the toaster did its job, my mother poured me a glass of water and fetched the thermometer from the bathroom.

While we waited for the thermometer, my mother gave me an ice pack for the busted right side of my face and started on the dishes. I thought about telling her to just go to bed. It was my fault the dishes still weren't done, my fault that she was still awake. I could take my own temperature and eat the damn toast, she didn't need to watch after me. But it was still so hard to speak. That heavy weight still felt like it was crushing my lungs and I knew she would fight with me about it and I just didn't have the energy for it. I watched her back as she worked, feeling guiltier every time she placed another dish in the drying rack.

Her behavior bewildered me. Not her doing the dishes, but why she was doing them instead of interrogating me more. I knew she was still upset that I had refused to talk to her like a child while she had cried. I knew that she still desperately wanted to know what was going on. But she had just dropped it so easily, accepting my apology for not coming clean to her and letting it lie. Even if it was just for now, I didn't understand why. But I had this sickening suspicion that the reason why she wasn't pushing me all of a sudden was that she thought the reason behind my behavior was also the reason why I refused to talk to her about it. Only it was less of a suspicion and more of a certainty. That she thought that this was about… about Dad raping me. My lashing out at him. Hitting Lucy. Breaking off my friendship with Josh. My moodiness. My withdrawing from everything. Not sleeping or eating. And most of all, why I didn't want to talk about it with her.

It didn't make any sense. It had been going on for months. Almost… almost half a year. Why would she think that I was just having problems with it now? But at the same time, it would make perfect sense. Her knowledge about it, and especially her guilt for just letting it go on and not stopping him, weighed on her heavily. I knew that it was in the back of her mind whenever she looked at me, that memory of seeing him fuck me in the kitchen in front of her, of dragging me off that one morning into the bathroom while she tried to break door down in vain. I know because whenever I look at her, my own guilt over her having to see that and my guilt over every hardship I've put on her since I was conceived is always there.

So, of course that would be her assumption. She didn't know of anything else in my life that could have caused this and well, being raped by my father was pretty up there in possibilities of why I was acting so strangely. It wasn't even a wrong assumption. It wasn't the sole thing by a mile, but I can't say that it didn't have a big hand in the state I had found myself in. I didn't even know how I could assure her that it had nothing to do with that. Lie or not, I didn't think I could and she was clearly lost for what to do. She probably didn't want to talk about it any more than I did.

My mother halted her assault on the dirty dishes to take the thermometer from me. I thought she would just remark that it was normal or a little low again, but she frowned as she studied it and pressed the back of her hand against my forehead, her frown only deepening.

"You have a fever," she told me, slipping her hand from my skin.

I stared at her, dumbfounded, for a moment. A fever? I didn't feel warm at all, and unless I had hallucinated it, she had just taken my temperature yesterday and it had been normal, hadn't it? Had that been yesterday? My head hurt too much to remember. I thought I remembered that being right before I had blown up at my father, but had it been then, or when he had flipped out at my mother for tossing Pat out? This time or the last time? It was all mixed up and trying to sort it out made me feel like I was sticking a mixer into my brain. I needed to stop trying. Besides, it wasn't really that surprising. I had been running on empty for too long. I couldn't remember the last time I had slept more than a couple hours, if I had slept at all. And I was 95% certain that the cut on my arm was infected. Either I had gotten a fever from that or I was getting sick. I might even have that stupid flu that was going around. The possibilities were endless.

"Your temperature is just a little elevated," she admitted, "but it's definitely a fever and you really don't look well, Frey. I want you to rest today, alright? No housework, no work, no going for runs or anything else, just rest."

I nodded although I really didn't have any intention of sleeping. I could at least try not to tax myself and worry her more.

"I don't have work at Leneski's today," I remembered in a moment of intelligence that was getting rarer and rarer, "But I have my factory shift late tonight. I skipped yesterday, so they might fire me if I skip again."

At least I thought it was yesterday. Honestly, time was getting so messed up in my head that it felt like I hadn't been to either of my jobs in weeks when I knew that couldn't be true. My mother chewed on that information, looking very unhappy. I could tell that she wanted to tell me no way in hell I was going to work that night, but my point that my volatile boss might use it as an excuse to can me made her hesitate. Unlike me, she wasn't thinking about what we would do if I got fired, I just knew she was thinking about how furious my father would be. She wanted me home, but she knew as well as I did that my father was already pissed at me and it wasn't going to take much to make him lose control again after the last time. And after the beating he had already given me, I imagined she wasn't too eager to give him reasons to hit me again.

"We'll see how you're feeling by then," she said very diplomatically, but we both knew she was going to cave on this one.

I was saved from any further discussion about work when the toast popped up and my mother busied herself with putting a little butter on it before putting the plate down in front of me. I looked at it like she had just given me some slabs of concrete covered in excrement and cockroaches or something else equally repulsive instead of just a couple pieces of bland toast. She hadn't even put any jam on them, but the thought of putting it in my mouth made me feel even sicker. My much abused gut throbbed in response, reminding me that my lack of appetite was only one of many reasons why eating anything was not a good idea. My mother watched me intently until I took a bite of toast. It tasted awful, like biting into hay that had been hardened with clay, but my mother smiled at me with satisfaction, one of her worries sated, so I kept my expression free of my disgust and took another small bite.

"When you finish eating, why don't you take a shower before your father gets home?" she offered, "I can throw those muddy clothes in the wash. I need to do a load."

I stared at her again, this time bewildered, before it came to me that she was talking about the clothes I was currently wearing. I glanced down at myself and saw that most of what I was wearing was caked in the stuff. Oh yeah. I had forgotten. I was surprised she hadn't said anything about it earlier, especially with me lying on the couch and probably getting it everywhere even if it had been dry. It was the sort of thing she would have screamed at me about when I was a kid. She had never been as strict as my father, but she used to always find something wrong to yell at me about when she had been in a mood or drunk or, usually, both. And if I spilled anything or tracked mud in the house, she would just completely lose her shit at me.

"What the hell is wrong with you? Why can't you ever use your goddamn head, Frey?! How stupid are you?!"

No. No, she wasn't like that anymore. She hadn't even been like that back then, not really. It had taken me a long time to finally realize that she had never cared about the carpet or the couch or if I left a stain. She had gotten angry at me because my father was the one that cared. I think when I had been young and she had still felt something for me beyond pure resentment, she had wanted to protect me. But I also think that it fed into that resentment until that was all there was left, that because of my carelessness, she was going to have to deal with my father's anger. Because I kept fucking up, I put her in the line of fire. I guess nothing's really changed.

Still, even if she didn't care about me getting mud on the couch, I had expected her to say something about my filthy state, or at least the tear at my knee. The dark mud probably hid the dried blood from my skinned knee, but she had to find it odd that in the space of the few hours that she had been out of the house, I had left it and come back looking like I had gone mud surfing. But she had barely acknowledged it at all. I wondered if she was scared to, somehow sensing that she really didn't want to know the answer or if she was just so preoccupied with all this shit with school that she didn't care enough to bother. I gave her a small nod, although I really didn't care about washing my clothes or taking a shower and I especially didn't want her doing my laundry for me. I was the one with more spare time than I knew what to do with now and looking for things to do, and it had been my stupidity that had gotten my clothes dirty in the first place, but doing this for me seemed to ease some of the tension that had been radiating off her since she had taken that phone call with Stoan.

She left me to go into her bedroom to gather her and my father's laundry. I forced myself to take another bite of toast and instantly regretted it. A strong wave of queasiness hit me and my throat suddenly felt tight, my stomach like I had just dropped a boulder into it. I recognized the signs from the last time I hadn't slept for this long. The memory of trying to eat the cornbread Mariela had made for me when I had been halfway out of my mind with exhaustion threatened to resurface, but I desperately pushed it back down. I didn't have the strength to go down another fucked up trip through memory lane, and deal with all the things that were tangled up in that one memory. I ignored my nausea and forced myself to finish that piece of toast and start on the other, eating slowly and carefully but it didn't do much to help. It didn't matter how sick it made me feel, my mom wanted me to eat it and all that did matter was making her feel better after everything I had just put her through.

She left the bedroom with an armful of clothes and went to the laundry room. I hurriedly finished my glass of water and limped upstairs while she couldn't see me so I could grab a change of clothes and give her the dirty ones so she could just go to bed. I expected her to still be sorting through her own laundry and I could just slip into the bathroom, but as I rushed to the bathroom, feeling dizzy and realizing that my time was getting short, she was stepping out of the living room. She still had her arms full, but it was a different pile than the one she had gone to the laundry room with earlier. I don't know how I noticed that when I was starting to be so far gone that an elephant might have escaped my notice, but it immediately pulled my eyes to it. She was holding the sheets and night clothes that I had put in the washer earlier. The sheets that my father had soiled and the clothes that I had put in there just to get his smell off them.

That realization was like a slap. That was the thing that I had forgotten, the very important thing that I was supposed to be doing. I had put them in there to get them clean before my mother came home so she wouldn't know what had happened when she had left the house. It was the most important thing to remember, the only real purpose I had anymore, not upsetting her. Not hurting her or making her worry. And I had forgotten it. There was no way I could write this off as just my doing the laundry, the load hadn't been big enough to justify it. And even if it was, she had seen me wearing those same night clothes hours ago. There was only one reason why I would feel compelled to wash them. But all I really needed to do to know that I couldn't lie my way out of this one was look her in the eyes. They were dark and clouded over with an intense pain. No repulsion or disgust, just pain. She couldn't even look at me even though I was right there in front of her. She knew. Guilt filled me like pus in a gaping wound. I was such a failure. Such a fucking, loathsome failure. I could have kept her from finding out, if I had just fucking remembered. This was all my fault, that pain, her guilt.

"I'm sorry," I rasped, feeling like scum, but I didn't know what else I could say. I couldn't make anything better, only worse. It had taken me years to accept that, but I finally had it figured out. That all I can do is hurt people.

Her eyes flew to mine, wide and startled like I had told her every gory detail of what my father had done to me that morning, instead of just apologizing for it. She looked stricken, her face losing what little color she had left. My guilt obliterated me. All I had done was apologize and I had still hurt her. The only right things I had done that morning were when I had kept my stupid mouth shut and stayed away from her. My failures weighed down heavily on me like a blanket of iron, suffocating me. I think some of my guilt might have shown on my face because she got over her shock quickly and gave me a small smile. She had meant it to be reassuring, but it was terrible, like watching a corpse or wooden doll smile.

"You have nothing to apologize for, Frey," she said softly, but despite her smile, there was still a dark pain in her eyes, "I'll take care of this, you go shower."

I wanted to protest. This was my mess to take care of, my damned fault, but I didn't have the energy to argue with her and I knew that there was nothing that I could say that would make her feel better. My aching guts and throbbing face reminded me that I couldn't do anything anyway if I didn't want to make things worse, and the longer she had to look at me, the more she would worry. I just nodded, words caught in my throat again, and disappeared into the bathroom. As soon as the door was shut, a weight, small but still smothering, lifted. It made me feel like a shit, but having my mother out of sight and not seeing those guilty shadows behind her eyes made me feel like I could breathe a little better, just as I was sure leaving my mother to herself made her feel better.

I peeled out of my dirty clothes as quickly as my battered body would let me, which wasn't very. Between the beating, the skinned knee, the fucked-up arm, and how exhausted I was, it was like fighting to untangle myself from a rat's nest of kite string. Feeling disgustingly worn out already just from wrestling with my clothes, I listened for my mother, but heard her back in her bedroom and hastily dumped my dirty night clothes outside the door for her. I wasn't just being a prude, I knew she would freak if she saw the damage my father had done, or the bandages wrapped around my arm. Or worse, she might realize that I had lost weight. I knew I was really pushing my luck, but with the door firmly closed again, I quickly dressed in the cleaner pair of night clothes. I didn't like loitering around naked, even if no one could see me.

I listened to my mother leave the bedroom, gather up my clothes, and disappear again into the living room. That might have been good enough, but the walls were too thin for me to trust that she couldn't hear me. I silently begged her to hurry up as I braced my hands on the sink counter and closed my eyes. I didn't know how much longer I was going to be able to hold it back. Thankfully, someone seemed to be listening to me because she only spent a couple more minutes in the laundry room before I heard her turn on the washing machine. Feeling that I didn't have another minute to waste, I hurriedly turned on the shower. I hoped it would be loud enough for her not to hear anything else, but I couldn't trust the thin walls and that she was concerned enough for me that she might pick up something that she would normally ignore, so I turned on the sink full blast and hoped it would help. It was the most I could do.

I almost didn't make it to the toilet. One second I was turning on the sink tap, the next the telltale burning and acidic taste of bile was filling my throat and mouth. I twisted myself towards the toilet just in time for a sudden, intense spasm in my gut to send me to my knees. I barely had time to grip the rim of the toilet to keep myself upright enough to stay above the toilet instead of the floor. I didn't think I had the strength to clean up after myself. That was the last coherent thought I really had as I retched hard into the toilet. Sideways, but it sure beat the alternative.

The next fifteen minutes were utterly miserable. All I had in my stomach was a glass of water and a couple pieces of toast, so it only took a couple rounds of puking to empty me out, leaving me dry heaving and feeling like my guts were trying to propel themselves out of my throat. I hadn't been that awfully sick to my stomach since the last time I had stopped sleeping for more than a few days. Throwing up hadn't even made me feel better. When my stomach stopped spasming enough for me to stop puking, or rather trying to puke, my queasiness had only abated a little, if at all. My body felt heavy and sick, only now my throat was in agony and the taste in my mouth only made me feel more nauseous. Worse was how weak and hollowed out I felt, like I had just expunged a lot more than my forced breakfast. It was all that I had left just to collapse over the toilet and not on the floor, but my arms were shaking so much that I couldn't keep a grip on it anymore.

I stayed there on my knees for a few minutes, trying to get my breath back and listening intently to anything outside the bathroom, any sign that my mother had heard me vomiting. I couldn't hear anything through the rushing water of both the shower and the sink, but she wasn't pounding on the door, so maybe I had lucked out for once. If she found out that I puked after just two pieces of lightly buttered toast, she was going to drag me to see a doctor, no matter how much that would cost. She was already on the verge of doing it thanks to how I looked. While my luck was still good, I flushed the toilet, just hoping that the vomiting was done for now. I didn't think I had the strength for more of it. I don't think I had even had the strength for the first round.

When I had my breath back and as much energy as I was ever going to get, I leveraged myself off the toilet and almost slipped off it and into the cabinet next to my head, only barely managing enough of a grip on the rim to keep from giving me another head injury. That near slip made it clear to me that my time was growing short and I couldn't stay in the position I was in, but I didn't think I could stand up, either. Hopefully just not at that moment. It would have really sucked to have put all that effort in to hiding this from my mother only to end up needing her help to get back to my feet.

I managed to ease myself off my knees and onto my rear, slowly and stiffly, but without any incidents like hitting my head on the floor or dry heaving again. I was able to plant my feet against the base of the toilet and cabinet and push myself the few inches backwards until my back was firmly against the wall. The sudden support helped to make me feel less dizzy. For once, I was thankful the bathroom is barely larger than a closet. I sat there for a few minutes with my eyes closed, just trying to get the room to stop spinning. I knew I didn't have the luxury of time. I couldn't keep the water running for long. The cost of it was one issue, if my dad came home and realized how long I had been in the 'shower' for, he would flip. And my mother might not get mad at me for taking a longer shower, but it wasn't like me and I didn't want her checking up on me. In the state I was in, she was going to know something was wrong just from the sound of my voice.

I rubbed my trembling hand across my face and accidentally hit my swollen eye. I winced a little at the flare of pain, but it was diluted, like a faded photograph. I should have been in absolute agony. My dad hadn't just given me a few love taps, he had beat the ever-loving shit out of me. I could feel it on some level, how messed up my body was. Every bruise, all the swelling, my busted head and eye and cracked ribs. But the pain was coming through that heavy fog that made it all feel so distant and unimportant. I guess that was something. My ever-present headache and nausea were really the only things I had to deal with. I knew that was likely reckless. I might not be feeling the pain well, but my injuries were still there and I should be more careful about moving around much, but I just didn't care. It was more than my apathy and how little I cared about my welfare anymore, my brain just felt so taxed with everything else at the rate that it was unraveling that it couldn't be bothered to care about some contusions. Even just remembering to hide things from my mom and what time it was and chores I was supposed to be doing were more than I could handle anymore.

When my nausea had abated enough to handle visual input, I opened my eyes. The room was steady again. I would take any small miracle I could get. I looked down at myself, cataloguing because I suddenly couldn't remember what the hell I had been doing. I had a disturbing moment when I was utterly confused what was going on because there was no mud on my clothes before my head decided to do its job and remind me that these were clean clothes. Sort of. I guess I had hurt my knee again when I had gone to my knees to puke because there were some drops of fresh blood on my pajama pants. There wasn't much of it, it wasn't something that my mother was going to freak out about, she might not even notice it, but I still rolled up the pant leg to see the damage.

I had definitely skinned it, but most of the blood caked to my knee was dry and, like the burns on my scalp, I was so desensitized that I could barely feel the stinging that should have been driving me crazy. I pulled my pant leg back down and tucked my legs close to me to get enough leverage to grab at the counter edge. Somehow, although hell if I knew how, even using mostly just my right hand and the leg that didn't have a sizeable patch of skin stripped from it, I managed to pull myself to my feet. Even more miraculously, although I swayed and felt like I was going to puke again, I stayed on my feet. While I was still there and hadn't fallen on my head on the floor, I stumbled to the shower and turned it off. My sense of time was all fucked again. I had no concept of how long I had actually been in the bathroom and considered it a miracle that my mother hadn't knocked on the door yet. I had no plan for the next hour, let alone the rest of the day, but I needed to at least get out of the bathroom. It was a pathetic first step, but all my head could handle even trying to take things one at a time.

Before I turned off the sink as well, I dunked my head under the tap to soak my hair, only just barely managing to realize that it would have been weird to come out of the 'shower' with completely dry hair. I don't even know how I thought that far ahead. I must not have been in the bathroom for as long as I thought I had, because when I left it, instead of being asleep in bed or even on the couch, my mother was at the sink washing the dishes. I could still hear the washing machine going and my mom only had a handful of dishes clean, so she hadn't been at it for long. I felt that very familiar stab of guilt and I should have told her to just go to bed, it was my mess to clean and I should have finished it hours ago. But I just didn't have anything left in me, even to do a decent thing for her.

I trudged past her and to the couch where I immediately lied down. I felt like I had done nothing else for days, just lie on that couch, even if I knew that wasn't really true. My sense of time was fucked, but it wasn't that fucked. At least I really hoped it wasn't. I felt chilled worse than before with the water from my wet ponytail soaking the back of my shirt and trickling down my back, but I didn't reach for the afghan. I assumed it was still at the foot of the couch where I had kicked it and even if it had been in arm's reach, smelling beer and Pat on it again was the last thing I needed. Being cold wasn't that bad. I closed my eyes, even just the sight of the back of the couch making me feel ill again. I still didn't sleep, refusing to let myself drift off, and listened to my mother. It actually didn't take her long to finish the dishes. Either I had lost a small chunk of time again or I had misjudged how many dishes were in there.

The washing machine buzzed the completion of its cycle. It might have just been my imagination, but I thought I heard my mother sigh heavily. She walked so silently to the living room doorway that I almost didn't hear her at all, clearly thinking that I was asleep. As she paused there and I felt her watching me, I let her believe it, keeping my eyes closed and my body still, feigning sleep. I didn't want to talk and I knew it would make her feel better to think I was resting. After a moment, she crept past me into the laundry room, taking the wet clothes out of the washer to dry in front of the space heater and starting another load as quietly as she could. That task done, she left the living room and disappeared somewhere. Her bedroom, I think, but my head was so fuzzy that I couldn't tell.

I drifted for a while. I don't know how long exactly, but I didn't sleep or even fall into my memories like before. I stayed awake, but not really aware of anything other than a vague knowledge of time passing. I didn't even notice when my mother came back into the living room until I was roused out of my stupor by the feeling of something being draped over me. I blinked my eyes open in the almost dark, not startled, but very confused. There was a faint light source coming from somewhere, maybe the laundry room, but I hadn't noticed anyone turning the light off in that room, either. I didn't need it to know that what I had been covered with was my mother's afghan, I recognized the feel of it, any more than I needed it to know that she was the one that had pulled it over me. It was a glaring statement of how fucked up my life has gotten lately even outside of my breakup with Josh that I knew it was my mother and not my father, not because he would never be that nice, that strange time when he had laid me up and had put that same afghan on me because I had been shivering had robbed me of the confidence to say that outright, but because I definitely would have heard him come into the house.

The afghan was warm, I realized and had at least two cents left to put together that it must have been hanging by the heater while I had been spaced out. Sure enough, when I breathed deep, all I could smell was that light floral and pleasantly fresh scent that all clean laundry gets. Maybe if I pressed my nose right into it, I might have been able to have gotten the faint aroma of alcohol, but I couldn't smell Pat on it at all. Not the beer, cigarettes, his deodorant, none of it. Tears pricked my eyes. Had she figured it out? Had she somehow realized that I was cold but had stubbornly refused to use the afghan because of how it smelled? Or had she been planning on washing it in the first place? She must have known, I realized, because just like she had said, he bothered her just as much as he did me. She must have hated smelling him on her afghan, too.

I didn't know how I felt knowing she had cleaned it for me. Warmed by her kindness, and equally horrified that she had figured out how sensitive I was about using something that Pat had touched like some scared rabbit. Shamed that she felt the need to do that for me, or love that she cared enough to make sure I was warm and comfortable. I think love won that battle because I felt a tear escape down my cheek and hoped that she couldn't see it. I didn't have the time to get an answer to that question or do little more than sink into the warmed afghan as I heard the unmistakable sound of my father's car pulling up to the house. I tensed like a bow string, having forgotten about him entirely since I had been in the bathroom. I wished reality could work like that, that when I forgot about something, it would just disappear. I didn't want to deal with him with how scattered I felt.

This time, my mother's heavy, beleaguered and very tired sigh was definitely real as we heard that car stop out front. I didn't blame her. I was sure that she had been hoping he wouldn't come back home at all, but it would have been a weak hope on a workday. I was only surprised that he didn't have a change of work clothes at Pat's. I didn't need to be clairvoyant or just in my right mind to know that he didn't want to come back here after our fight and Pat being thrown out of the house again, and he would probably be hung over if he really had been with him this whole time. Like I needed that confirmed. I winced as I heard him slam his car door shut. I hadn't needed it confirmed that he was still pissed off, either, but it still wasn't welcome to hear it.

My mother strode back into the kitchen, to head him off, I guessed. Or to give him a target. I don't know why she kept bothering to try to be a shield between the two of us. This whole shit was my fault and all it did for me was make me feel like I was the one hitting her. Besides that, if my father was still angry at me like I was sure he was, he would either go after me no matter what she did, or go after her to punish me. My father opened and closed the front door with the same force that he had the car door, making the walls shake a little. My mother wisely didn't make a comment about it. He kicked off his boots so hard that I could actually hear it and it was a wonder that he didn't leave a dent in the wall.

I should have gotten up and gone to my mother. A united front would probably piss him off more, but I didn't like having her out there with him when I couldn't see what he was doing or judge his level of drunkenness. But all I did was sink further into my little cocoon, trying to use the fleeting warmth of the afghan to banish my chill. I wished I could wrap it around myself completely and disappear in it. I can't even say that I was scared of him or paralyzed, I just couldn't find the ability to care enough to move. He felt less like a monster to me since our fight and more like an annoyance, like a car alarm that had been going off for hours. I was so sick of dealing with him, even more than usual. Every second he was around me was draining. I just wanted him to take a shower, change his clothes, and go the hell away for the day. I didn't have the energy to start another fight with him. In the state I was in, he might actually kill me.

I can't even say the thought of being forced to go to the hospital if he did worse to me this time than some cracked ribs and a concussion was unpleasant. I didn't want to deal with the fuss of doctors and finding a convincing lie any more than I wanted to deal with him, but to get away from that house for a while, somewhere that was safe to sleep, somewhere I could finally let my guard down after days of being on high alert sounded pretty nice. But I didn't even have enough left in me to antagonize him into doing it, even if my mother hadn't been around.

"Where the hell is the coffee?" my father suddenly snapped as he walked into the kitchen past my mother.

I was still facing the back of the couch, so I didn't get a look at him, but I didn't need to. The thick quality of his voice was unmistakable and all I needed to gain three lovely facts: he was still drunk, he was close to snapping at whatever target made a convenient one, and he hadn't slept. A house full of people that hadn't slept and one that was looking for an excuse to lay into someone. It was a ticking time bomb, one that could only be diffused by ignoring it completely and staying out if his way. I prayed that my mother was aware enough of the situation and not still so angry at him that she would do just that. Even as scared of him as she usually was, she sometimes wasn't able to stop herself from poking at the bear.

"I didn't make any," she told him and to my relief, her tone was flat and simply matter of fact instead of catty or pissy, "I just got off work a couple hours ago and I wasn't sure if you would be coming home before your shift, Nathan."

She made a sharp sound that was almost completely drowned out by the familiar sound of flesh hitting flesh as he slapped her hard. I flinched and almost immediately went to her, but moving my body was like trying to move a heavy sack of potatoes through molasses. I just couldn't manage it. With enough time and effort, I might have been able to prop myself up with my right arm and forcefully roll off the couch, but my left arm didn't want to listen to me at all.

"I don't need that shitty attitude from you, do you hear me?" he snarled at her, even though she hadn't given him any kind of attitude at all, "You aren't a fucking child! It doesn't take two brain cells to put on a pot of coffee. Or are you too stupid to manage that much anymore?"

"I'm sorry, Nathan," she apologized in the submissive tone she always takes with him when she's stopped caring about whatever they've been fighting about and just wants to get out of the situation as unmaimed as possible, "I can put some on now-,"

"Don't bother," he sneered back at her, "Too little, too fucking late and you know it, just like everything with you, you moron."

He strode back to the living room doorway and I tensed more, sure it was my turn to fall under his wrath.

"And what the hell is he doing home?!" he snapped, more at her than at me, although he had to know that I was awake with how much noise he was making.

That answered my question of how late it was. Either he was too drunk to realize what time it was and was just lashing out at anything in his way or it was late enough that I should have been on my way to school. School. Shit. I had forgotten again. I should have gone for a walk or something to make him think I was at school. I knew I couldn't hide either my suspension or my probable expulsion from him for long, but in the mood that he was in, finding out that I was going to be kicked out of school was going to do just fine for getting him to beat me into a smear. No comebacks or attitude needed. I didn't even have the energy to explain it to him if he had been in a better mood, so I was sure my apathy was going to be plenty to make him lose his shit.

"He has strep," my mother lied neatly, "I think he's had it for the last few days. I took his temperature a little while ago and he has a fever. I thought it would be best to take him out of school for a few days until he gets over it. They would send him home for being infectious if they found out anyway and we can't afford to take him to the doctor if it gets worse."

I could practically feel his utter disdain oozing into the room like a toxic gas. Disdain for me for always getting sick and being a pain in his ass, and disdain for her for both not giving him the target he wanted and for sticking up for me again. My being sick must have been believable because he didn't accuse her of lying her ass off, even just to start a fight. I wondered just what I looked like, and what I had been acting like, if even my father didn't bat an eye at my mother saying I was too sick to go to school, especially since he can usually sniff out lies like a damned bloodhound. I heard my mother walk to the phone, actually putting her back to him in an act that was either incredibly stupid given his current mood or incredibly brave, I wasn't sure which. Then, to my utter astonishment, instead of making a phone call or whatever reasonable thing I had thought she was doing, I heard the recognizable beeps of her going through the answering machine's menu, then the machine cheerfully informed us that all messages had been deleted. She had just, completely brazenly, erased the message Stoan had left, right there in front of my father.

"What was that?" my dad, far from being an idiot even when he's drunk, asked suspiciously.

I expected her to break under that accusing, sharp tone, or fumble with some explanation, but to my shock, when she spoke, she sounded completely calm and reasonable, almost bored like they were discussing the weather. I wondered if she had planned everything she was going to say to him from the second she had heard his car pull up.

"The school called yesterday," she said, feeding him that little grain of truth that would make the lie go down smoother, "Some fundraiser thing. A field trip or new equipment, I don't know. I didn't listen to the whole thing."

It was smart, every word carefully chosen and stated so nonchalantly that in my exhaustion, I almost believed her. Now, if he checked the phone log to see if she was lying, he would see that it really had just been the school and she wouldn't be caught lying to his face. It was a trick that I used when I had to lie to him about something that I knew was going to piss him off. I was amazed that she had the guts to try it and actually get away with it instead of just tell him the truth to get herself off the hook and let him go after me. But sure enough, instead of accusing her of anything, or just hitting her again, he snorted derisively.

"Barking up the wrong tree on that one," he sneered bitterly, "Those pricks aren't getting a cent out of me."

I almost snorted myself hearing him say that like it was some conscious decision of his and not that we couldn't even afford to pay our bills. I didn't even know what exactly the source of his bitterness here was, that he hadn't graduated, that thanks to families like the Parkers our school system is very well funded, or some other prejudice that only exists in his head. Pick a number, really. He stormed off to the bathroom and I closed my eyes again, hoping he would just get ready for work and leave. That little moment of stress had ramped up my headache again and I felt like if he stuck around and kept being his charming, antagonistic self for much longer, I was going to have an aneurism.

That's the last thing I really remember for a long time. Lying on the couch, listening to my mother muttering to herself in the next room while my father rushed to get ready for work and I fought back the screaming pain in my head and the heavy sickness I felt in my guts. The next thing I can consciously recall besides brief flashes of things that don't make enough to sense to categorize is sitting on the floor in the kitchen right next to the living room doorway, my back propped up against the wall. I don't know how I got there. I don't know how long I had been there, either, beyond the fact that both my legs were asleep and my back ached a little from the position I was in, so it hadn't just been a few minutes.

There was a freight train screaming and tearing its way through my head, but I was able to focus enough on reality to register a few things. The kitchen was dark. So was the doorway to the living room. We don't get much light in the kitchen to begin with, but it was still too dark to have still been the morning or afternoon or even early evening. My parents were gone and I was alone. I knew that from how eerily quiet the house was. With a little more light, I could have verified that by looking towards the front door for absent shoes, but it hurt just opening my eyes, let alone turning my head to look. I don't remember my parents leaving, but I understood that I wasn't just missing my father leaving for work, but several hours from the day. The only other thing I knew with certainty was that I hadn't just woken up from sleepwalking or something. That would have been a mercy, just knowing that I had slept. I recognized the difference even between my weird night terrors and having a time lapse. Although this one had been pretty sizeable and jarring, even compared to the ones I had the last time I hadn't slept for this long.

The sudden, shrill ringing of the telephone almost gave me a heart attack. It probably would have if I hadn't been more concerned with the piercing, agonizing shriek echoing in my ears and skull at the same frequency as that damned ringing. I grasped at my head, but it didn't do anything for that pain or the nausea or the dizziness and every time that fucking phone rang, it was like another bomb had gone off. That must have been what had dragged me out of my stupor. It wasn't like I wanted to be back in reality. Even if I wasn't aware of any time passing, it was still better than being aware of anything else.

I glared up at the phone hatefully through my one good eye, watery from the pain, as the ringing stubbornly continued. It had been going on long enough that the answering machine should have picked it up, but it just kept going, which meant that whoever it was calling was either desperate enough or mulish enough that they had hung up and re-rung. And probably would keep ringing until someone answered. It wouldn't be telemarketers, or the school. I didn't know what time it was, so it might be bill collectors. They never knew when to quit, but they would usually leave a hostile message after the first attempt. So, what did that leave? My mother would have left a message. So would have either of my jobs. Which left…


Just the thought of his name as it suddenly popped into my head sent a jolt of panic through me. It couldn't be him. Ever since Kane had told him to back off, I hadn't gotten a single phone call from him. I was sure he had finally realized that it wasn't worth the effort and that Kane was right, I was just wasting his time, so it had to be someone else. But no one else made sense. I mustered up a thin vein of strength and dragged myself to my feet, hoping that the ringing would stop by the time I managed it, but it kept going with more energy and resilience than I had. I glanced at the caller ID, also hoping that it was just some wrong number or maybe Lorathe calling me to threaten me into coming into work that night, but the number was unlisted. That could mean literally anything, from someone calling from a cell phone or a private number.

I should just ignore it, I realized. No matter who it was, it was no one I wanted to talk to. They would give up eventually. And if it was Justin, I would just delete the message again. I didn't need to answer it, even if they were being annoying and the sound of the phone made me want to ram an ice pick through my brain. I definitely didn't want to answer it if was Justin. My hand trembled as it reached for the handset. Probably from caffeine withdrawal. I didn't know what time it was, but I was sure that the stupid caffeine pills had stopped doing their job. My fingers touched the cool, hard plastic of the phone. I should just mute it. That would solve everything. I wouldn't have to hear it ring, or any message they left. But once I touched the handset, I couldn't pull my hand away even to flick the switch on the side of the phone that would turn the ringer off. I asked myself what the hell I was doing, but I didn't have any answer. I didn't know what I was doing, only that I couldn't stop myself from doing it. Feeling like I had completely lost what little sense and sanity I had left, I lifted the phone from the cradle.

"Hello?" I asked timidly.

My voice sounded rough and strange and my hand wouldn't stop shaking even as I gripped the handset to my ear. My stomach churned violently as I waited to hear his voice. Waited for him to say my name, either coldly or angrily. But there was nothing. No voice. No sound at all. Had they hung up since I had picked up? No, I would be hearing a buzz if someone had dropped the line. I couldn't hear anything at all, which meant that they hadn't hung up. They were either still there or their phone was still off the hook. Listening to that silence over the line, a very unpleasant memory rose to the surface.

"Hello?" I repeated, my voice stronger from irritation instead of fear.

This wasn't Justin. If he was mad, he would say so. If he was upset enough to call me in the middle of the night, after over a week of being unable to reach me, he wouldn't just… not say anything. Justin has always been eloquent. He's always known exactly what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. This wasn't like him, or work, or even some bill collectors. It was like…

"Hello?" I croaked, my voice rough from sleep.

There wasn't any answer at first, but there was a dial tone, and I thought that I could hear someone breathing.

"Hello?" I asked again, starting to get annoyed.

"Uhhhhn," a voice moaned through the phone, "Yeah, that's right, suck on it, ohhhhh, you're so good at this…"

I almost dropped the phone, just like I had all those months ago. It couldn't be the same thing. That had almost been four months ago and since my cellphone number had been changed, I hadn't gotten any more prank phone calls, obscene or otherwise. And this was our landline, not my cellphone. It couldn't be more bullshit from Wren or someone else from school. But it was. It was the only thing that made sense. This was because I had hit Lucy. I had hit her and now I was some place that Wren and the others couldn't get to me. For now.

It was more than just a gut feeling. As I listened to that silence on the other end of the line, I realized I could hear someone breathing. My chest went tight and I could hear my heart beating rapidly and loudly in my ears. I felt like I was going to throw up again as all those unpleasant memories of the last time Wren had pulled this bullshit came back and socked me in the gut. It was the same feeling I had when I got that first nasty, perverted phone call that morning. Only I didn't run to the bathroom to puke this time, or dry heave in my current state. I was sickened and scared like before. Just like then, those memories of my father raping me that first time threatened to worm their way in. But this time, fear wasn't the emotion simmering on the surface, burning its way through me. It was rage. Rage that this was happening again. Rage that those pricks couldn't just leave me alone. Rage that the whole universe couldn't just stop fucking with me.

"Fuck you," I snarled and slammed the phone back down on the cradle so hard that I heard the plastic mounting stress almost to the point of cracking.

I glared at it, waiting for it to ring again and considering just how pissed my father would be if I ripped the damned thing out of the wall. But surprisingly, it stayed silent. They had given up, but I wasn't stupid enough or naïve enough to believe they wouldn't call back eventually. They never stopped until they got their pound of flesh. The sudden quiet didn't help my racing heart, or the intense, heavy pounding in my head as I fought to breathe. I felt pressure around me at every side, every angle. It was too much. Josh. My expulsion. All the shit rattling around in my head about my father. Pat. Upsetting my mom. The pounding ache in my left arm. Work. Justin. Josh… just everything. And now this. Another straw to add to the pile on a broken back. I couldn't do this anymore. I shouldn't have listened to him. I should have finished the job.

I stumbled to the bathroom, my head swimming and my body screaming at me too many things to make sense. I flicked on the light and was so preoccupied trying not to hyperventilate that I didn't even register the pain it should have caused. More than half blind between the bright light, my distorted vision, and the stupid black eye, my hands found the sink, gripping its edges, more out of memory than vision. I bent my head low over the sink like I was going to vomit again, but I took several deep, if shaky, breaths in and out. The sink felt cool and smooth clenched under my fingers. I breathed in an out again, slower and deeper, trying to tell my stupid body that there was nothing wrong with it while my heart still raced, not believing me. My hand trembled as I turned on the faucet, but I managed to still it a little as I cupped both of them under the flow of water.

I brought my water filled hands to my face and pressed my face into them. The water was icy cold and stung my split lip and the other breaks in my skin from my father's fists and boot, but it was fine. I barely felt it. What little I did feel helped ground me back in reality and the next few breaths I took were less chaotic and desperate. I kept my face in my cold hands for several minutes, maybe longer. It felt good, shutting myself off from everything else. From the sight of the small, dingy bathroom. The bright light. The sound of the dogs and traffic outside. Even the sound of my own beating heart. I wanted to submerge myself in that darkness, that lack of all sensation and feeling for longer than just a handful of minutes. Why didn't I? It had only been a day, but I suddenly couldn't remember why I had gotten scared enough to stop. Why I was still alive, still doing… this.

I took my hands away from my face and found myself staring down at them, unable to look away for some reason. They were just as ugly as the last time I had bothered to really look at them. Too white, thin, bruised and scabbed. Hitting Lucy had only made my right hand worse, but at least most of the swelling had gone down. The smear of blood that had been streaked across the knuckles and the back of my hand was gone. The scabs that had broken open had scabbed back closed again, but as I looked at my knuckles, I flashed to that moment like it had just happened minutes ago. With disturbing, vivid clarity, I remembered the feeling of my fist slamming into Lucy's face. I remembered the sound it had made, muffled in the noisy, crowded hallway, but I had somehow heard it like it had been blasting through a speaker.

I remembered watching her crumple to the ground like a lifeless doll, her face white except for the blood streaming down her lips and chin, her pale blue eyes wide with shock and looking, for the very first time since she had started to make my life miserable for the last eight years, just like a normal, teenaged girl. Unpoised, every trace of smugness and superiority gone. Stunned like a bird that had just flown into a window. She had looked like my mother had when I had been very young and my father had hit her for little reason at all. Like the ground had just disappeared under her feet, betrayed, not by the fact that he had been the one to hit her, but that she had gotten hit at all. I remembered how someone from the crowd had cried out, one of her friends.

But what I remembered most vividly was the feeling of blood on my hands, all those eyes on me, everyone staring at me, me and not her. Starting at the monster. And most of all, I remembered how satisfied I had felt seeing her there on the ground bleeding because of me. How righteous. Finally I had knocked Lucy Stephen down a peg. Finally, I had hurt someone instead of being the one left mangled. It had felt so good in that moment, but now… now remembering how I had felt, how I had looked standing there above the girl I had just struck, how much I must have looked like my father… I only felt sick.

I lifted my head. The reflection looking back at me from the mirror was a stranger's. His hair was messy, limp and dirty. His face was thin, drawn, and weary, his one open eye flat and expressionless, like a doll's. His skin was devoid of any kind of color, except for the black and purple bruises, the large, bloody scab on his cheek, and darkness under his eyes. He looked like a corpse, or very sick and heading in that direction. He was completely unrecognizable to me and I had to remind myself that I was just looking at me, that that face in the mirror was the same one that had looked the person he had loved in the eye and told them anything and everything he could to break their heart. To push them away. It was my face, but who am I anyway? Those memories burned in my brain like a brand, scorched there forever. Stabbing Josh in the heart. Hitting Lucy. Goading my father into attacking me when I knew I was putting my mother in harm's way, just so I could feel better. Pushing Josh away again and again when he tried to reach out for me. Hurting him every time we crossed paths. Every time I just walked in the room. I didn't recognize myself at all.

What had I become? This hateful thing that can hurt the only person who had ever truly loved him? And the monster that had to lash out at everyone for it, just because he had made a mistake? All I had wanted to do was protect Joshua. Everything I had done, every painful, terrible decision, every secret, every betrayal, had been to keep him from getting hurt. But instead, I've hurt him more than anyone else could have. All I've done since I let him into my life is hurt him over and over and over again. I was a monster long before I had lashed out at Lucy. What had I become? And where was that person headed? What would I be a week from now? Two weeks? A month? Who else was I going to hurt?

What was going to happen to me when the inevitable finally happened? When Josh finally realized that I was not worth his kindness and the pain of reaching into the fire over and over, only to get burned every time? What was going to happen to me when he finally realized that I have never been worth wasting his time and gentle, good heart on? When he finally turns his back on me for good and finds someone that is worth it? Not even another boyfriend, but just another friend that can actually be just as good to him? When he leaves me behind forever. I'll be a ghost again, just like I was after Nate died, with no one that cares for me. No one that wants anything to do with me. But that's what I deserve. I wanted him to turn his back on me. Get away from me before I hurt him any worse. I didn't want him to see me like this, to see the monster that I am. How disgusting I am. If he hasn't already. If there was some part of him… some tiny part buried deep inside that still loved me… it has to have died. He must have seen it, after I attacked Lucy. How ugly I am. He must really hate me now, for becoming like every thug he loathed. I was my father. I was Wren. I was those boys that had killed his best friend. That was all he could possibly see when he looked at me now. He could only hate me.

Intense, insane panic filled me and ripped me apart, making my last panic attack after that stupid prank phone call feel more like faint anxiety and I had to grab at the edges of the sink again to keep myself steady as my heart raced so hard and so crazily in my chest that it actually hurt. I heard this terrible buzzing in my ears and my throat went tight, making it difficult to breathe. Thoughts rushed in my head, swarming in a senseless frenzy, screaming a thousand things at me at once that I couldn't understand beyond that feeling of helpless fear.

No. No! I didn't want Josh to see me like this! Tears poured down my face in a torrent, my breath hitching painfully as his eyes flashed in my head. Warm. Full of love and tenderness. I felt his hand touch my cheek, so gently, fingertips resting on my skin. My frantic heart broke and bled. I didn't want him to leave me. I didn't want him to hate me. Breath came through a pinhole, half hyperventilating, half sobbing. I hated myself for feeling this way. I didn't deserve it, I never had, but I screamed in denial against that image in my head of those blue eyes going cold and full of hate, making him look more like my father than Josh ever could. I still wanted him to love me. I had no right at all to feel that way. After everything… everything I had decided to do, everything I had lashed out with him with, all my resolve, even after hearing him tell Saren that he wanted me to disappear… I still wanted him to love me.

I didn't used to be like this. When I had been a kid, I had loved everything. The books I read, learning things, my home, my parents, my town, the television shows I had watched when I waited for my dad to get off work. I had been lonely when my parents were at work, and sad when my dad got angry, but when they were around, I had only felt love for them. I had been happy. Just to have those moments with my dad when he would read to me or make me dinner or take me for drives. Maybe we hadn't been perfect, but back then, I had still been capable of feeling happy to have the things I did have in my life. Even when I went to school and I became jaded seeing how cruel people could really be, and how different my home life was from the other kids in my class, I had still loved my parents. I had loved Nate. Being around our classmates had hurt, but I loved having a friend. Sneaking into the woods during recess. Talking with him behind the library. Going to movies.

I had loved him and them and I had wanted to please everyone. Be the good son, the good friend, the good person. That was all I had wanted as a child. To be like Nate. To be kind and loving and accepting. To be the person others could rely on. To always do the right thing. Be responsible, show my parents and my friend how much I loved them. What had happened to that child? Why couldn't I keep that person inside of me? When had he slipped away from me? When had I become this angry, hateful, loathsome thing? Like a parasite in his shell? What had started this erosion? The rapes? Dating and losing Brian? Nate's suicide? The bullying? The escalation of my father's abuse? When had it started… and how could I stop it?

My breathing evened out, the pinhole widening and the sobbing and tears ceasing so abruptly that it was like a switch had been thrown. Or like the sheer force of my epiphany had ruthlessly severed some mechanism. It was a simple one, but like most simple things, powerful and ironclad and irrefutable. I lifted my head and met my face in the mirror again. Tears soaked my cheeks, but my eyes were flat again, completely devoid of anything, either misery or anger, like glass. I was never going to come back from this. That person staring back me from the mirror… the monster that had hurt so many people and had coldly and smugly almost a broken a girl's nose not even twenty-four hours ago… that person has become who I really am.

The face in that mirror didn't belong to a stranger. That child that I remembered, the one that loved everyone so blindly and could hope for and believe in so many things, like having friends and being loved, he was the stranger. Hoping that it was someone else, someone else that had just become a mask over my own face that I could remove with some determination and strength was a delusion. A fairy tale that I had been trying to live my entire life. Maybe I had a chance once. Maybe I could have pulled myself back from the edge before I had fallen down into that plummet, but not anymore. I gave up my last chance to be anything better when I broke Josh's heart.

End Part 37

"Cold dark sea

Wrapping its arms around me

Pulling me down to the deep

All eyes on me

I push you away

Although I wish you could stay

So many words left unsaid

But I'm all out of breath

So go, go, go

Get out of here

Go away

Get out of here

Go, go

Get out of here

Go away

Get out of here

Go, go

Get out of here

Go away

Get out of here

Go, go

Get out of here

Go away

Cold dark sea

Your waves are rocking me

I close my eyes and fall asleep

All eyes on me

Your eyes on me."

-'Sinking Man' by Of Monsters and Men

'Silver Springs' by Fleetwood Mac

Author's Note: Apologies once again for a long wait for this part. A few of my notes needing to be rearranged. I also lost my job that I had for five years thanks to a pandemic and got a few messages from a reader that forced me to take a break from writing for a few weeks to focus on my mental health, but I'm back in the swing of it. Part 38 is also likely to be a big part. The notes for it are pretty solid, but the ones for part 39 are an absolute mess, so I'm going to be taking a few days off writing to work on them. As always, thank you to everyone who took the time to review ^^