There's this look a man gets when he's consumed by anger.
It's a sort of haunted, terrified look, but mixed with a raw kind of power that makes you wonder whether they could incinerate you on the spot. I've only ever seen that look three times in my life: once from Dad, once from my brother Chase, and once right now - from Jason.
At first, he doesn't speak. I'm not sure exactly how much time passes. The clock on the wall looms down over the both of us, ticking ominously into the silence we've created. Those ticks fill the room, stretching out between us like some unseen tether; like we're frozen, a moment in time.
I can't take my gaze from his eyes. Even from across the room, grasping the door handle, he gives me a look so intense I wonder if I might burn beneath it.
Finally, he releases the door handle, and crosses the room. He goes to say something, then stops, the words failing him. He tries again, and the same thing happens.
Nice to know I'm not the only one incapable of really processing what's going on here.
I jump at the sound of his open palm coming down hard on his desk.
"Jesus Christ, Alex."
And with those words, the silence shatters, joining the pieces of my life on the floor.
Jason raises his hands, covering his face and pinching the bridge of his nose between his index fingers. He lets out the tiniest sound, not quite a groan, but enough to make me think he is struggling with something. Then he takes a deep breath, steadying himself, and lowers them.
His eyes are masked by an impassive barrier. I'm struck by the alarming difference that's just overcome the man in front of me. This is no longer Jason, my flirtatious new neighbour; this is Mr Sharpe, my somewhat pissed off teacher.
I swallow, glancing away, seeking refuge in the window. That traitorous window. If I hadn't been gazing into its depths, I might have had a bit of warning about what was about to happen. But, no.
"Aren't you going to say something," he says hoarsely.
I close my eyes, just for a moment. A moment of peace. "What is there to say?"
He looks at me as though I've just asked him why the sun is green. "I'm not sure on the etiquette, but I think some kind of explanation is in order," comes his sarcastic reply.
For some reason, the tone he's taking prickles at the frustration within me. I frown, wanting to shout, to raise my voice, but at the same time not wanting to draw attention to ourselves, even though his classroom is fairly out of the way.
"What kind of explanation is there?" I shoot back. "You're a teacher. I'm your pupil. That isn't my fault."
"You told me you were a student, Alex! At university!" He punctuates my desk with his index finger. "You let me believe you were - "
He stops himself, backing off from me and pacing towards his desk, where he stands for a few long moments with his back facing me, his arms hugging his torso. I can tell from his neck, from his shoulders, just how tense he is; wound tightly like a spring, helpless to the ministrations of fate, or chance, or whatever it is that's put us in this situation.
I glance to the window once more. It's started to rain.
The silence between us starts to build again.
"I'm sorry," I say quietly into it, to his back. "I'm sorry, all right? Is that what you want?"
He sighs, following it with a bitter chuckle. Then, over his shoulder, "I shouldn't put this on you. You're right. It's not your fault. It's mine. I'm sorry for..." He pauses, hesitating over his next words. "I'm sorry for Everything."
That stings a bit. Everything? Memories of our meeting, of the brief moments we've shared since then, rise up to my mind's eye. I'm not very good when it comes to the whole romance thing - I don't exactly have an amazing track record - but I thought, I thought maybe, maybe, there was something just beginning to start between the two of us. That's how it goes, right? Boy meets girl, boy and girl spend some awkward but endearing moments together, boy gets to know girl, boy falls in love...
I shake myself. Jason may have flirted with me, I think, but that's - that's all. I mean, look at him. The guy is a fucking teacher. He's in an established career. Or, well, the beginning of one, at least. At most he might have thought, what, that I was a pretty face? Someone he could charm for a night or two?
The idea is so laughable I almost actually do. Me, a pretty face: ha ha.
The best thing I can do, I decide, is make this easier for the both of us. He probably thinks I'm going to make life weird or difficult for him, perhaps fawn over his handsomeness and make both our lives a misery in the process. Tough chance. He might be lovely, and sweet, and like no one I've ever met before, but I'm better than that. Even I can see that this situation is wrong.
Steeling myself, I reach for my backpack.
"You don't have to apologise, Jas- Mr Sharpe," I say, with more authority than I feel. It must be a surprise to him, too, because he turns, confusion laced in his features. I swallow down the lump of ice that's risen to my throat, forging onwards as I fumble with the straps on my bag. "This is just a big misunderstanding. I'm sure you didn't mean anything by, well..." I falter, forcing a smile. "I'm sure you were just being nice. Like my brother said."
Mr Sharpe blinks at me, his face unreadable. "But, I..."
"It's okay," I persist. At this point, I'm really not interested in what he has to say. Nothing he could possibly say to me would be good, and I absolutely have to find a way out of here, away from this impending mess, and pretend that none of it ever happened. Which will include deleting those text messages.
I give him a wry smile. "Although, you might need to find someone else to show you around town."
For a moment, my imagination tells me he looks as though he wants to contradict me. But it passes, as the pangs in my stupid, girlish heart will also pass, and I shoulder my bag, getting ready to leave.
He makes it to the door before I do.
Palm splayed against the wood, he looks at me with the open kind of earnestness he's shown me since I met him. I can't put my finger on it, but it's about the most real thing anyone has ever shown to me. It makes the breath catch in my throat and my heart thump against my ribcage.
"Alex," he says, ever so softly, searching my eyes with his own, "I know what you're doing. And I appreciate it. There are women I know who would never do... Look, never mind. The point is, once you step outside that door, everything will change. It will be like the first time we met was in this classroom. It has to be that way. I know you understand that. But you have to know, I want you to know, that if things were different, I..."
This is so not fair. That mask he managed not moments ago has slipped, and now he seems tortured, like he's fighting himself - and playing with me.
But he's so close, I can smell his cologne, and as much as I want to leave I want to hear what he has to say, want to spend as long in this moment, drowning in his eyes, as I can.
"What?" I prompt, quietly.
He gives me the barest hint of a smile. It goes against everything I see in his eyes. "If things were different, Alex, I wouldn't just be 'being nice'. And I absolutely would not be sorry. For any of it."
And with that, he opens the door.
I somehow manage to cross the threshold without dissolving into the raw, childish tears that I so desperately feel. When I look back, it's Mr Sharpe standing there, with a square back and a tight, polished smile, ever the picture of professionalism. I don't suppose I shall ever see Jason again.
It's always been easy for me to put on a happy, carefree exterior.
That sounds more grim than it is. I don't mean that I'm the kind of person who stays up weeping every night, wondering why their life is so meaningless. I'm also not the kind of person who lets really shitty stuff get to me. On the whole, I try to take the bad with the good, and while some crappy things have happened to me over the years, for the most part I have been happy and healthy.
There was an exception to that content normality, once upon a time. That exception came in the form of Seth Carmichael.
We met when I was fifteen.
At the time, Seth was eighteen, going on nineteen, and boy was he the coolest thing who ever walked the planet.
He sailed into the Tannery one evening, a complete stranger to everyone there, and immediately caught the eye of Rhianna. Tall, dark, handsome, and edgy, he had it all. The leather jacket, the scuffed doc martens, the hint of eyeliner, and the nicotine stained fingers. All that textbook stuff, the things that girls swoon over - especially girls like Rhianna.
I can't say I was particularly taken with him, at first. He seemed kind of like an arrogant dick, but of course the second I said as much to Rhi, she scoffed and said I was jealous. I know, I'm not painting her in the greatest light here, but I put some of that blame at Seth's feet.
He was as charming as he was enigmatic. Normally, strangers weren't really welcome at the Tannery - unless of course they showed up with someone else who was - because the staff were, rightly so, quite protective of the kids under their care. They couldn't just let anyone wander in and start... influencing people.
But Seth was a different story. He came with a way of telling stories, with a laugh that was infectious, and with a smile that could have got him straight into hell and back again. I couldn't read him at all. I normally consider myself a good judge of character. I'm the kind of person who, in a group, will sit there trying to figure people out. Not really on purpose - it just seems to happen.
I listen to not only their words, but how they say things. I'll watch their body language, I'll see how they react to other people I know well, and from that, I'll get a sense of the kind of person they are.
With Seth, I got none of that. It was like trying to navigate the road with a brick. And, despite his stories and his charm and the spell he cast on my small group of acquaintances at the time, I just couldn't bring myself to trust him.
And yet, he started spending more time with Rhianna and, consequently, with me. He wouldn't ever come to the school grounds, but he'd hang around outside the gates to meet us after school, having spent the day texting her. Charlie found him weird, so stayed away from us when he was around. Charlie had a better sense of him than I did.
It got to the point where whenever he wasn't around Rhianna, Seth was around me. He wasn't exactly a welcome addition to my life, but what was I to do? Rhi would have killed me if I'd been rude to him, or tried to scare him off, and despite my distrust of him, he hadn't actually done anything. So it continued, the three of us hanging out after school, drinking in the park (well - they would drink; I would have maybe two sips and pretend to be done) and thinking up all kinds of mischief.
There was one afternoon in autumn, while the sun had just started to set, that I will never forget. We were in the park, taking up residency across the swings, when Rhianna leapt to her feet and proclaimed we didn't have enough alcohol.
Seth chucked her the keys to his car, telling her to fetch more. Rhianna happily obliged.
As I watched her curvy figure fade across the car park, I became aware of a body behind me on the swing, a wall of heat permeating my senses.
I didn't turn. I didn't want to. Seth's calloused fingers, rough from years of playing the guitar, came down on my own, clutching the iron chains of the swing around mine.
It was both one of the most terrifying and exhilarating feelings of my entire life.
I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that he started engineering more and more occasions for the two of us to be alone, and I - much as I hate myself to admit it - did nothing about it.
It's not that I liked him. It's that, well, this is going to sound really terrible, but it's the truth: I liked the attention.
When they were together, Seth only had eyes for Rhianna. But while we were alone, he made me feel... things. Things that were perfectly natural for a fifteen year old to feel, even with a guy who really, really should have known better.
Our meetings started getting longer and longer. He'd find ways to touch me, to get his hands on my body in some way. Nothing overtly gross, at least not at first; he'd just splay his fingers over the nape of my neck while talking to me over my shoulder, or place his palm in the small of my back as we walked. He'd run his fingers through my hair, trace patterns on the tops of my hands and up my arms, and just generally thoroughly and utterly confuse me.
The first time we kissed, it was with the taste of beer, and far too much tongue.
I'm not proud of that moment.
The first kiss is something that girls like me cherish. I guess I'm a bit of a lamer really, but cheesy as it sounds I wanted my first kiss to be special. And honestly, it wasn't, really. There's nothing special about stealing something that very much doesn't belong to you, and then having no one to tell about it.
And the worst thing was, it kept happening.
Whenever we were alone, whenever we could find shelter, there was kissing, more kissing, pressed up against walls, inside his car, in the porch of my house - breathless, stolen moments that became more heated the more of them there were. And at the same time, I watched him share chaste, empty embraces with my best friend during the day.
Like I said. Not my proudest moment.
Eventually, Rhianna broke up with him. She had no idea of our affair, but she told me he was boring, that he'd lost his excitement, that just because he was a few years older than us, it didn't actually make him interesting.
She was right of course, but that didn't stop me. If anything, that made it worse.
I still hid it from her. I had to lie, constantly, about why I was busy - why I couldn't spend time with her, about how my homework was just so hard, about how my parents wouldn't let me out because the sun was down.
Lies, because I was out, but with Seth.
Our trysts became more intimate. We pretty much stopped talking altogether, not that there was a whole lot of that to begin with. It became routine. Meet up, drive to a secret location, kiss, explore our bodies, get a little drunk, rinse and repeat.
Turns out, I was right not to trust him.
It was a cold December night the first time he put his hand down my trousers. There was absolutely nothing romantic about it, and the first time I felt the brush of a man's touch anywhere near the most intimate parts of me, all I remember feeling was abject fear. It was ice cold and overwhelming, shocking me right to the core. It couldn't have been more heartstopping if someone had thrown a cold bucket of water over me.
He stopped when I asked him to, so I guess there was that, but that didn't stop him from persisting.
Every time I saw him after that, he would push a little bit more, a little harder. And me being me, I didn't know how to say no - I didn't really know that I could.
Eventually, we started doing things that would make my mother blush if she ever found out, and my father incandescent with rage. I couldn't really tell the difference between right and wrong, or where what I wanted stopped and where what Seth wanted began. I started fearing our meetings, wondering how far he would go, whether he would listen to me if I asked him to stop. He always did, but it seemed to come at the price of his lowered opinion of me.
It lasted a few more weeks. Just before Christmas. He wanted to go all the way. I didn't. He called it an early Christmas present, begged me to let him do things to me he'd been imagining ever since we met. Suddenly the reality of it hit me, and it made me feel sick. I didn't love him. I had some kind of weird, complex feelings for him, probably as a result of how much exposed skin we'd shared, but it wasn't love. I didn't want my first time to be like that.
I told him I didn't think we should see each other any more. I remembered Rhi, who I hadn't seen properly for weeks. I remembered Charlie, who I hadn't seen for even longer. I remembered the lying, the endless misleading, and just how tired of it I really was.
His eyes grew hard and cold, and he called me a bitch. He said he'd even been faithful to me - as though that was some kind of special treatment, just to prove himself - but that all I did was lead him on. That I was a cocktease. That he would make me pay.
I got out of his car and walked five miles home, in the bitter cold, alone. When my parents, surprised, asked me what had happened, I told them I had had a fight with Rhianna, but that we would make up in the morning. More lies. Then I trudged upstairs to my bedroom.
Only Chase seemed to sense what was really going on. He knocked on my door a few moments later, asking me if I was all right. I wanted to lie to him, like I had lied to everybody else, but when I looked up into his eyes I could tell that, somehow, he knew.
I couldn't keep the tears from falling. He came into the room quietly, closing the door behind him, and curled up next to me on the floor, pulling me into his embrace. It's one of the few times I can really remember him being so sincere. Don't get me wrong, Chase is a great older brother, but he's the silly one of all of us. He makes bad jokes and laughs off the most serious of circumstances with misguided humour.
But that night, as I lay broken in his arms, bereft of any hope of repairing the damage I had done to myself, he just held me and let me cry. I will always be grateful for that.
I didn't have to tell him and he didn't have to ask. All he wanted to know was whether the guy - or girl - had done anything to seriously hurt me, beyond being an insurmountable prick (his words, not mine).
That was the time I mentioned before. The time when he looked so consumed by anger, I wondered whether it would burn him up. Irresponsible as Seth had been, it wasn't like he was the only one to blame, and I didn't want to see the wrath of Chase's anger taken out on him; I just wanted it to all go away.
So I lied, again, for the last time, and told him that I was fine.
Seth's threat of making me pay turned out to be an empty one. A few days later, I heard he'd hooked up with some blonde, busty bimbo from the local college. Rhianna and I made a joke about what a small penis he must have, and then she asked me if I wanted to go shopping at the weekend for some last minute Christmas presents. It was like nothing at all had changed.
When I got home that afternoon, I even found Charlie waiting for me in the kitchen, a perfectly wrapped box clutched in his hands. Apparently he had been waiting for the perfect time to give me my early Christmas present: a friendship bracelet, woven from all different kinds of leather, one that Charlie had made himself.
"I wanted to give it to you ages ago," he said as I took it from the box, marvelling at its intricate pattern, "but that Seth guy was weird, and I thought he might have killed me, so I waited."
I have never hugged anybody as hard in my life as I did Charlie that afternoon.
"Thank you," I whispered, as earnestly as I could manage.
He patted me awkwardly on the back. "You're welcome. What did you get for me?"
The toilet cubicles at school aren't the most classy place to sit and cry, but right now they're the best that I've got.
I sniff, wiping away another tear that's leaked from my tired eyes, as I survey the graffiti on the wooden door ahead of me. There's some crude anatomy and a guy's name I don't recognise, and it doesn't exactly make me feel better.
As I sit there trying to put the shattered pieces of my pride back together, the bathroom door bangs open and I have to hold my breath.
"What an absolute god," claims that preening voice that I hate so much, and I close my eyes, lifting my feet up out of view, and praying that Michelle bloody O'Connor can get sucked into a faraway land via plug hole.
Her friends titter, their laughter as shallow as her feelings for Jas- Mr Sharpe.
"I'd heard he was supposed to be good looking," she carries on, oblivious to my presence just a few feet behind her, "but I had no idea he would be so yummy. What do you think, girls? How long before I have him right where I want him?"
"Depends where you want him," points out one of her gum-chewing lackeys.
"Hmm. On his knees, I think. Worshipping me."
More laughter. Kill me now, I pray to myself, trying to become as small as possible on top of the ceramic beneath me.
"You're not actually serious, are you?"
This comes from Abigail, who's been the quietest of Michelle's friends for as long as I can remember. To be honest, I'm not exactly sure why they're friends at all. Abby hardly fits their usual crowd. For one thing, she appears to possess more than two brain cells - all to herself!
Michelle tuts loudly, a sound of disdain. "Don't be ridiculous, Abigail. I'm sure I can do much better than Mr smarmy know it all English professor. Still... He would be my greatest challenge yet."
A weird kind of silence descends on the bathroom, and I have the horrible feeling I'm witnessing the beginning of an idea I really want to be nowhere near.
"By Christmas," Michelle says resolutely. The sound of lipstick snapping shut resolves her point. "I'll have kissed him by Christmas, at the very least. I bet you twenty quid."
"Fifty," chirps the girl who had spoken first. "A guy that hot, no way he doesn't have someone warming his bed at home."
"Fifty then," Michelle agrees. "And a party at your house once I do, where Mr hottie will attend, of course, as my honoured guest."
They disappear from the bathroom in a fit of laughter that dissolves rapidly behind them, and I let out a shaky breath.
I know it's all talk, really. Michelle has about as much charm as the carcass of a gazelle, and as much hope of wooing Mr Sharpe as if she were one. Still. As I wash my hands, I can't help but wonder why that sinking feeling in my stomach feels so inescapable. I want to warn him.
But... about what? Some stupid bet? How stupid does that sound? Why does it even matter? Probably because I don't know what's good for me, I tell myself firmly in the mirror. He's a grown man. He can handle some immature girls. Whatever happens, I am absolutley going to stay out of it.
Author's Note: A few points. Firstly, thank you so much for reading, and the reviews I've had so far. You guys are the best. I really tried to get this chapter the way I wanted it, especially Alex and Jason's parting at the beginning (and I absolutely promise this is the beginning for them, not the end). I would seriously love to hear what you thought of that, so please do let me know. Secondly, I have a book cover now. So that's a thing. Thirdly, I'd like to give a shameless plug to something else I'm working on right now (actually the reason why I ended up picking this up again!): a romance called The Unconventional Ransom. It's somewhat unloved at the moment, so if you have the time or patience, I would owe you hundreds of chocolate buttons.
Thanks again for reading and following, and I hope you enjoy the next installment!