I throw my keys, missing the bowl on the entrance table. It clatters to the floor. Bending to pick it up I felt the flesh on my shoulder tear. I winch.
“Where’d you get that?” I look up and Mel is giving me the strangest accusatory look. Her hazel eyes probe my face.
I grab my keys and place it into the bowl.
“Ah… I was just … we were just.” Oh how do I explain? “I… Nicky, he didn’t mean to…”
Shit. Exactly what I didn’t want to say.
“Nicky did this?” Mel’s eyes close and when she reopens them her accusatory stare is gone. “Come on … let’s get that cleaned up. You might need stitches.”
Why. Why wasn’t I a better liar? I follow her into the bathroom.
“Sit. Let me take a look.” Melanie has her no nonsense veterinarian look on her face. After a quick examination, “You won’t need stitches.” But I still cringe as she brings out the iodine, cotton balls and gauze.
Five minutes, a sink of bloody cotton balls and a tightly bandaged shoulder later, my aunt still hasn’t said anything. I try for comedy, “What’s the prognosis, Doctor? Am I cured?”
Mel trains her intelligent cat-like eyes on mine. “You are not to see Nicolas again.”
“What? Why?” I search my brain for anything. Any excuse. Nothing appears.
“Julia, kitten … this isn’t an ordinary scratch. Nicolas could have seriously hurt you.”
Wait. “Mel, what do you mean, this isn’t an ordinary scratch?”
“Sweetie. I can’t explain…”
“You can’t or you won’t? I can’t believe this! It’s the same thing Nicky said. It’s the same thing Alison said! Now you?” I grab the medical supplies and begin to clean up. “I’m starting to get really sick of this.”
“I wish I could explain…”
“… but the Law prevents you. Right?”
Mel’s eyes widen.
“Yeah… I don’t know much but I know enough because everyone seems to think I can’t handle what all-encompassing secret that everyone seems to be privy to except for me.”
“No.” I grab the trash and head out the bathroom door. “No, Mel. You don’t get to decide what I get to know and who I get to be with if you can’t be honest as to WHY.” I let the bathroom door swing shut behind me.
I make my way throughout the apartment grabbing the trash in every room. It fits my mood. Would my mom have been a part of this stupid conspiracy against me? Who knows? I beat that thought down. No room for the “My mommy left me” self-pity treatment. Loaded with trash, I manage to open the front door.
I drop a few things on my way down the front stoop. I throw the trash into the cans out front. I see something or someone across the street. It looks furry.
God. Stop it Julia. I really really have to stop seeing things. I pick up the rest of the trash, throw it out and head inside.
I wake up at five-thirty thinking that maybe Nicky would be there with his huge goofy smile and a bag of old-fashions. No Nicky. I jump in the shower. The entire time I’m hoping that my sound system will blast with some great new band. No music. No Nicky. What did I really expect? A phone call might have been nice.
By seven I hear Mel leave and I run down to the kitchen. I hear my iPhone beep, signaling the arrival of a text. Before looking at my phone, I stick a pop tart into the toaster and look outside the kitchen window. There is a small black car parked outside in front of the stoop. Nicky’s car. I look down at my phone.
Happiness blooms as I run outside the front stoop and the window rolls down. “Where’s your stuff?”
“Why didn’t you come in?”
“I didn’t think you or Mel would want to see me after yesterday.” Nic looks away. “Grab your things and throw that pop tart away. Those things are bad for you.”
I run inside and grab my school stuff. I stuff one of the pink gooey bad pop tarts into my mouth before throwing the other in the fridge. The passenger side door pops open.
“I thought I told you to throw those awful things away?”
“How’d you even know I had pop tarts?”
“I can smell them. And you have crumbs all over your mouth.” Nic cracks a small smile before tossing me a brown bag. “Ham and egg.”
“Thanks.” I take a bite and although it seems good I can’t get it down. My stomach has turned to knots. I know something bad is coming.
“You’re welcome.” With that he puts the car in gear.
School ticks on by. All day Nicky is distant. It’s not nearly as bad as before but every time I try to get close he moves away.
Laurie and Cami shoot daggers at me from a cross the room. Nothing new there. Sam is still missing. Alison and Caleb try to cheer me up but I can’t seem to get rid of this lost feeling I have every moment I’m with Nicky.
Gym is a daze until… “I’ve been noticing that people are forming little cliques,” Coach looks at the various pairings in class. For the past month I’d been teaming up with Jennifer whenever possible. Coach was on a rampage, “I will not have this in my class!” Coach Barrett drones on about teamwork and sportsmanship. I didn’t listen until he begins to call out names. The last two names he calls… “Miss Lyons and Mr. Brown to the other end of the field today, please.”
What? Rich was back? I am going to be sick.
Great. I look at Jennifer. “When did…?”
“I don’t know. I thought Mr. Stiller said he was transferred. But the school also has a sort of rehab program…” Jen stops as if she said too much. “You know you can go to Coach and ask him to switch or I can probably come up with some devastatingly witty excuse for up to both cut today’s class.” She related back to our first meeting. I smile.
“Rehab program?” Jen chews on a manicured nail. “You can’t tell me. Right. Like everything else in this school. You know what? No. I’m going to handle this.”
“No. You don’t.”
“Jen, what’s he going to do to me here? Coach is right there. I gotta take care of this now.”
“If you need back up, I’m right here.” Jennifer gave me a long searching look. She was unsure.
Even though I didn’t like the weird secrets, it was great to have such caring friends, but they all seem to want to save me. Especially from myself. I give Jen one last smile and run to the far end of the field. They couldn’t save me all the time and I knew this was something I need to deal with. Rich was there, waiting. I stop about ten feet away from him, refusing to look his way.
“Julia?” That deep rumbling voice makes me want to fold in on myself. I immediately regret coming down here. Maybe I did need to be saved … from my own blatant stupidity. How did I get myself in this situation? I don’t look at him. I glance at Jennifer across the room. She was staring warily in our direction. Something in my face makes her step forward. I must look terrified. It wasn’t far from the truth.
I look at Jennifer again, arranging my face in a composed mask, and I shake my head just enough that she’d know I was all right. I took a long breath in to clear my mind. I mean, really, what could Rich do in a crowded Gym with two adults watching. Breathe out.
I turn to face my predator. Where there should have been a 6 foot – something bear-like man, there was a slight boy. His shoulders looked hunched and his face wane. The tanned muscular football player that had once taunted me, teased me to tears and almost damaged me irrevocably was … emaciated.
I should have felt the glow of retribution … but I couldn’t. I couldn’t speak. It had been less than a week. He’d changed so much since that night. He looks like he’d lost about three inches to his massive height. His body was swimming in gym clothes that were a few sizes to large although it was the same uniform he’d used since the beginning of school. I stare, astonished.
He shudders, the tremble seems to forcibly and visibly shake his frame. “I’ve really needed to talk to you.”
“Hey LYONS!!! Heads up!” Coach Barrett kicks a soccer ball my way. I let it hit my chest and roll down my body effortlessly. I step on the ball and look at Rich. He dropped his head back down in defeat.
I had to make a decision. I could rattle off the list of expletives that rested on the tip of my tongue. The hurtful words that I had devised for this moment ached to lash out at his visibly weak figure. Or, I could listen to him. I could let him try to explain himself. He didn’t deserve to have the chance to speak. Nothing he could possibly say could make what he did, what he would have done if Nicolas hadn’t stopped him, any less disgusting.
I kick the ball at him. He stopped it with his foot without looking. At least his reflexes were still impeccable, I note. Even if this conversation was going to be a waste of time, at least Coach Barrett had paired me with someone who could play. Rich looks up and is searching my weary face, his beady brown eyes wide with surprise.
I don’t say anything. I wasn’t going to make this any easier for him. He dribbles the ball a bit before kicking it back to me. He kicks it like a wimp. I know he can play better than that. I didn’t wait for the ball to stop rolling back to me. I took a few steps and beamed it back at him. He stops it, his chest caving in with the force of my kick.
Good, I thought. Even if I let him give me his weak explanation, even if I didn’t reduce myself by yelling at him, even if nothing good came out of this long Gym hour…I would at least leave him with a few large bruises.
He rolled the ball between his feet. “Julia…” his voice was gruff and deep with some mixed emotion. I watch the ball lazily roll from his right to his left foot and back. “I know there is nothing I can do or say to make the other night go away. I’ve tried to think of way to make it better but I’ve realized that there really isn’t anything to be done. I know you’ll never forgive me but I had to tell you,” his breath was labored, “that I am sorry.”
I looked up at him. “Just pass the ball.”
I didn’t want him to be sorry. That didn’t cut it. His body slumps even more. He knew it hadn’t worked. I wasn’t impressed. I wasn’t going to forget what he’d done.
I kick the ball back at him. It launches full speed at his head but turns mid air and slams into his shoulder. I hear him yelp as he loses his balance and falls to the dirt. That was going to leave a huge black and blue he’d be nursing for a few days. I approach cautiously as he sits up. There wasn’t the anger I’d expect to flare up in his eyes. He looked broken.
“You’re right. I cannot forget what you did. Nothing you do or say could erase that from my mind. Now get up ‘cause people are looking.” I back up into my position and wait for him to make the next move. I watch as he gets up. There is a small light that seems to flicker in his eyes.
“I know there is nothing I can say except I am so sorry, Julia.”
“No. I’ll probably get into more trouble for telling you this. Shit, I’m in enough trouble already. You have to know that that person, that Animal that you saw … that wasn’t me. I would never hurt you like that. I don’t remember any of it. Nic, Alison and the Professor told me what I did. I know I hurt you but … I couldn’t control the Animal within me.”
“Rich I don’t wanna hear this shi…” I begin to interject. “Wait … did you just say … Animal?” Flashes of that car ride flew through my brain. Rich blurs and seems to change… Another face replaces his… Crap. It’s too blurry. Rich getting dragged out of the car by a pair of golden hands … or was it paws? I touch my still tender shoulders. One side bore witness to Rich’s attack while the other… My mind wandered to last night. To the golden blur that Nic had become.
In the distance, Mr. Stiller appears next to Coach Barrett. They both look our way.
“Shit. Julia. I said too much. Just be careful here. Watch yourself. I’m sorry I won’t bother you again.”
“No… Rich wait.” Animals. Bears. Lions … Snakes … what was going on at this school? Rich’s face is haggard and drawn. Wait… his face. My silver bracelets shift as I lift my hands to touch Rich’s face. He flinches but does not move. I turn his cheek towards the sun. His face is unshaven but clear. The revelation is so close. “Rich, I know this is going to be a weird question. Actually… all things considered… I guess it wouldn’t be weird to ask you if you have super-human self-healing powers?”
A ghost of a smile flitted over Rich’s face. “No… I don’t have anything like that, Rainbow.”
Huge fireworks of memories burst in my head. I grab Rich’s hand and march us over to The coach and Mr. Stiller.
“Rich didn’t attack me.” I look down at my hands. “This is going to sound super crazy… but this school is crazy so… I somehow turned my hand into a claw and slashed it through Rich’s face and though I didn’t see it I know Nic beat the crap out of him.”
Mr. Stiller’s face lights up, “And again you have surprised me, Julia. We were just about to pull you both over. Rich, you were framed. Julia, we caught up with the individual who really attacked you. He will no longer be a problem.”
“Who…” Rich and I ask at the same time.
“Sam has been taken into custody. He has suffered numerous injuries, including serious lacerations to his face, and is currently in a coma.” Mr. Stiller says. The bell rings. “Rich, please come with me. Julia… Don’t worry. All will be explained in due time.”
And with that they leave me alone on the field.
I glide aimlessly through the rest of classes. Not concentrating. Not listening. Trying to make sense of everything when to make it sensible is to believe the impossible. The school day ticks by until I am back at the start. Nicky’s car.
He opens the door for me. I sit and try to meet his eyes. He doesn’t look at me. I miss his goofy smile. Why did things get so weighted between us?
Nicky slides in and starts the car. He looks at me. “Julia, we have to talk.”
Now it’s my turn to look away, “Nothing good ever comes out of a conversation that starts off with those words.”
“Don’t make jokes Julia.”
“I’m not joking Nicky. What really happened yesterday at the park?” Images of animals parade around in my brain. My worst nightmares. Maybe I needed to get my head checked again.
“I lost control. I am sorry I scratched you…” Nicky started the car.
“Don’t bullshit me. Nicky you … I SAW you Change … you became a…”
Nicky looks at me, eyes blank. “And what did you see Julia? Are you seeing Animals again? You really should go back to that shrink if that’s what’s happening.”
“Is that what you think, Nic? You think I’m crazy? You think I should let the shrinks and your Dad hop me up on meds again? I KNOW what I saw.” My words were stronger than I felt. Maybe my stupid brain was playing tricks on me. Nicky wouldn’t lie to me. “I … you’re right Nicky. Maybe I am crazy. Maybe I’m just tired … I don’t know…”
The weighted sadness I’d been feeling all day was suffocating. I didn’t think I’d survive this one. Deep down I knew Nicky was about to break me. I hear his breathing pick up as he pulls out of the school parking garage. He makes his way to the Westside highway … he was taking the quickest route back to my place on 22nd and 8th.
What feels like only moments later he pulls up to my front stoop.
“I can’t be around you Julia.”
“I need to get away before I do something else I’ll regret.”
“Something else?” I whisper. “You regret kissing me.”
He flinches then steels himself. “Yes.” He hands me my jacket. “We’re friends Julia. We shouldn’t do things like that. I don’t think we should see each other anymore. We’re not going to see each other anymore.”
I feel like the breath has been knocked from me. How could he hate me so much? What did I do? He stammers on, “My parents are moving us to Europe. They said there is a school there where I can have a fresh start.” Silence. He exits the car and appears at my side holding the passenger door open. Numb, I step out into the cold and walk towards my building.
No. I want answers. I turn back walk right back up to him and smack him. A red welt appears on his cheek. He just stands there, his sad cloudy blue eyes are cast down. “You said you didn’t want to hurt me. You said you wanted to be with me.” I am out of energy. I cannot do this anymore. The tears I’d held in all day begin falling. “I’d ask you for an explanation but I know you can’t or won’t give me one. I will ask you this, why come back into my life just to slap me down again?”
Instead of answering, Nicky does the worst possible thing. He hugs me.
I fall apart in his warm arms. I can’t stand it any longer. It takes every last ounce of strength in me to look up into his eyes. His eyes, were brimming with tears of their own. The new golden-blue, so much like the sun rising from the ocean, were clouded. With regret? Remorse? Desire? I’m so confused. I want him to just take me in his arms. His mouth was an inch away from mine. His sweet mouth. His lips part as an anguished sigh rose from them. I can’t breathe. I close the distance between us by another half inch that seems more like a mile and I close my eyes.
“I’ll miss you.” Then he was gone.