Delta

 

 

 

 

 

 

i.

 

 

School was hell.

I could deal with the teachers and the boring classes. I could deal with the monotonous routine of copying down notes and listening to lectures day after day after day. I could deal with the crappy cafeteria food and the more-than-annoying pep rallies. What I couldn’t deal with were the kids.

I was, essentially, their punching bag. The outcast. The freak. The girl with the target on her back. And boy, did they make sure I knew it. They ripped into me with sadistic glee, making fun of me, tripping me in the halls. Laughing at me. Telling me to cut myself and kill myself. That what the hell was I doing, anyway? Who was I trying to fool? When there was a real spectacle to be had, they stood in excited crowds and watched me get beat up, shouting encouragement at my attackers. And if I was really lucky, they’d tell me, disgust marring their words, that they hated me.

(That part was okay, because I hated myself too.)

I was that girl, Hester Prynne in the modern era. Ostracized for everything from my clothes—slightly on the punk side—to my music taste—definitely on the punk side—to my hair—bright turquoise—to my, well, promiscuity. I was the outlier, and thus the easy target. Rebekah and everyone else who’d made it their mission to break me knew it. They could feel that there was something so fundamentally wrong with me like sharks could smell blood, and they were closing in for the kill.

All things considered, today had—thank God—been fairly abuse-free thus far, and I definitely wasn’t itching to change that. As soon as the bell rang for the end of school, I was out the door and at my locker in record speed. Finally, I thought, heaving an internal sigh of relief as I stuffed my dog-eared Algebra textbook into my bag. I’m free.

(Ha. As if.) “Hey, bitch,” someone snarled from behind me. I sighed for real this time and turned around; really, I’d been stupid to think I could get through a day without encountering them.

Allyssa glared back at me, her perfectly-manicured eyebrows drawing together. If I looked at just the right angle, it looked like she had a unibrow. God, did I ever wish I had a bucket of water—or industrial-strength makeup remover, because knowing her, that shit was probably slathered on thick enough to leave a permanent stain—to throw at her. “Got plans for the weekend, bitch? How many guys will it be this time? You know, if you keep going at this rate, you’ll have to install a turnstile.”

The resulting shove was expected.  I had already dropped my backpack to free my arms, but I didn’t have enough time to brace myself before I slammed bodily into the locker. Ouch. Yeah, that was definitely going to bruise.

Allyssa burst out into giggles at the thump of me hitting locker, sounding for the life of her like a chipmunk on helium. Around me, a crowd was gathering, and they laughed along with her maliciously, slowly. I blew my hair out of my face and pushed myself away from the locker, my muscles protesting. “Ooh, turnstile!” I snapped back, balling my hands into fists. “That’s a big word, Allyssa!  Do you want a gold star?”

The crowd stopped laughing. As Allyssa’s eyes flashed murderously, I could feel the excitement growing in the air and buzzing around me. They wanted a show, and when Allyssa flew forwards to grab a fistful of my hair and slam me against the locker again, they got it.

“You go, Allyssa!”

“Get her!”

Yeah!

“Pound her!”

I was their light entertainment: come one, come all! Watch Lydia Mason eat locker, today and every other day by the locker bay. Refreshments not provided. But if they wanted a show, I’d give them one.

I kicked out at Allyssa, thankful that I’d decided to wear my combat boots today, and used her distraction to elbow her in the stomach and pull away. Luckily, I’d gotten quite good at fighting over the last year—I’d had to.

“Rot in hell,” Allyssa spat at me between pants, holding her stomach as she glared up at me. A few people inched forwards as if they wanted to join in, but she held them back with a single look. It was a familiar one: stay back. She’s mine.

It’s probably a rule that you shouldn’t egg someone on when you’re outnumbered, but my head was pounding and I was just so sick of being treated like garbage that I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “only if you rot with me.”

A gasp of shock came from the peanut gallery, but Allyssa just froze, staring at me. I could practically see the fury churning around in her Stegosaurus-sized brain. Then, finally, after several moments of silence, it clicked and she launched herself at me. And that’s when I took my chance.

I darted to the left and stuck out my leg to trip her. She stumbled, and I shoved against her shoulder, using her momentum against her, and she went down. But her fingers circled around my wrist and tugged sharply as she fell, and she almost brought me down with her. By the time I regained my balance, she was up and launching all 103-lbs-soaking-wet of herself at me, hands outstretched. I caught her left hand before she could make contact and pulled her off course and into the same locker I’d been thrown against.

“Don’t you ever touch me again,” I growled, twisting her wrist behind her until she whimpered. No response. I pressed harder against her wrist, and she let out a small shriek. “Got it?”

The crowd was, for once, silent. I released her with another shove and bent down to scoop up my backpack, making my way down the tiled hall as fast as I could. The crowd might be silent and unmoving now, but I had no idea how long they’d stay that way. It was better to leave while I still could. But because the universe hates me, I was halted just before I reached the door.

“Miss Mason.” I stopped in my tracks immediately, fear shooting through my veins, and snuck a look behind me. Principal McIntyre was standing by the open door of his office, looking highly unamused. “My office, please.”

Great, I thought miserably, ducking my head down as I did the (other) Walk of Shame past my jeering classmates. Could this day get any worse?

 

-Δ-

“Please sit,” the principal said crisply, pointing imperiously toward the folding chair in front of his desk. As I sat down, trying to look as meek and innocent as possible, he walked—nay, marched—around his expensive desk and sank down into his own chair. Frankly, it was more like a throne than a chair, and it made me feel even more like a rule-breaking punk than usual. And the stern look he was giving me over the top of his horn-rimmed glasses wasn’t helping, either.

“So,” he said quietly, steepling his fingers. “What do you have to say for yourself, Miss Mason?”

Principal McIntyre was this balding old dude who always wore a freshly-pressed suit and tie no matter the temperature, and he was, by rare unanimous consensus, the most cliché principal ever. The kids might actually hate him more than they hated me.

“I’m sorry, Mr. McIntyre,” I said softly, biting my lip. What was I supposed to say? Oh, sorry, bro, some girls were being bitches so I hit them back. Not my fault. Yeah—that wouldn’t exactly fly.  “The fight wasn’t my intention. I know you probably saw something else, but she swung at me first, and I reacted in self-defense.”

The principal humph-ed in disbelief.  I didn’t really blame him; with my hair, clothes, and notable piercings—three lobe piercings, two left helixes and a nose stud—I certainly looked like a troublemaker, and lately, I’d played the part pretty well, too. “I can quite easily access the security cameras to find out the truth. Are you sure this is what happened?”

I nodded. “I stand by what I said, sir,” I answered, trying not to roll my eyes. Though I could understand the reason, it was still pretty frickin’ annoying when everyone treated me like a criminal. “Allyssa McIntosh attacked me first. I was just trying to get away.”

I met the principal’s eyes, and he looked back at me steadily. “I hope you know that Miss McIntosh is a model student,” he said, holding my gaze steadily. Though Principal McIntyre didn’t seem to have any hobbies, I was willing to bet all the money I had (three dollars, plus an expired bus pass) that he’d be awesome at poker. “She is kind to all, involved in many extracurricular activities, a member of student council, on the honor roll, and has never had a detention.” Though he didn’t say it, what he meant was clear: and you, on the other hand, are not a model student, and I have a lot more reason to believe her over you.

I kept my mouth shut, sure that if I opened it to speak, I’d start cussing him out. He had no right. I used to be a model student too. I used to be nice, but it was kind of hard to be all sunshine-and-daisies when everyone so visibly and openly abhorred you. I used to be social, happy, studious. I was involved in the school. I was on the Junior Girls’ Volleyball team. Hell, I was on honor roll freshman year with a near perfect GPA. I hadn’t had a detention either until last year, when everything fell apart. (And also, Allyssa McIntosh, the second biggest bully in school, kind? Yeah, and I was a purple platypus named Elvindork.)

After several more moments of staring at me, Principal McIntyre sighed one of his famous I-am-too-old-to-deal-with-this sighs. “Very well, Miss Mason,” he said, finally looking away. “I hope you know that if you are lying, you will be punished with a week of suspension and a weekly detention for the next month.”

It was harsh, but I’d been caught ‘fighting’ before and couldn’t really argue with him, so I just nodded quickly. As soon as he turned away, dismissing me with a flick of my hand, I hurried out of the room and away from the school as fast as I could. My heart was still pounding. Nice one, Mason.

 

-Δ-

 

Unfortunately, if I thought school was hell, then home was the fiery pits of Tartarus.

At least school was busy. People talked, shouted, laughed and ran around. There were enough assignments to do, enough notes to take, and enough lessons to listen to to keep me distracted. Home was silence and stillness. Nothing moved. No one talked or laughed. They’ve shouted, maybe, if you counted my mom’s drunken two a.m. scream-cries. But no one laughed; there hasn’t been happiness in this house for five years.

In the biggest understatement ever, my family was dysfunctional and always had been. When I was younger, my parents had had a very intense relationship; sure, they might’ve cared about each other, but they were always fighting, never stopping, never taking a break. And I wasn’t talking about small arguments—no, I was talking about the kind of blowouts that had left the walls rattling and me rocking back and forth in my bedroom, hands clasped over my ears.

My dad always had a temper, to say the least. Although he never used it on me, it was always there in the line of his shoulders, the clench of his fist, the set of his mouth and eyes. He’d done a pretty good job of keeping it in check for the first part of my life, but by the time I was nine, new noises started to mix in with the shouting and screaming. Slaps. My mom crying out, gasping for air. Her back hitting the counter. Skin hitting skin. It was never with me, just my mom, but that didn’t make it easier to listen to.

The first few times it happened, he seemed like he regretted it. Sometimes, I heard him apologizing brokenly, or I’d see the apology in his eyes at breakfast the next morning, when he wouldn’t look at my mom and looked much too small for his size. But then he stopped saying sorry. Maybe he’d realized that saying sorry meant nothing anymore. It certainly didn’t mean anything to him when my mother was a broken heap on the floor, sobbing out those words to the beat of his kicks. (‘Sorry’ didn’t mean anything to me anymore, either.)

My mom used to be full of life. She was happy and bright—childish, even, in the way she saw the world—and though there had always been times when she drew into herself and stayed in her bedroom for days, she always bounced back. She always had more life to give. But my father, the one who used to care of her lovingly when she was ‘bad’, sucked all the life out of her. No longer was the happy woman who’d painted the kitchen cabinets yellow when I was five, insisting that the house needed more happiness. Instead, she became the empty creature that took my father’s beatings silently and didn’t fight back.

As I got older, I started to sit at the top of the stairs, watching them in the shadows. I wasn’t sure that she’d stop him if he took things too far, so I watched from the shadows, promising myself that I’d step in if I had to. But I never did. I was too scared that my father would turn on me instead. So I just watched from the staircase as he colored her black and blue, my whole body shaking with fear. And when I was eleven, I watched him wrap his hands around her neck.

I can still remember the moment when her hand, wrist mottled yellow and brown, grabbed the kitchen knife and swung it at him. I can still remember her voice when she told him in the steadiest voice she’d used in months that he had an hour to get the hell out. I can still remember the fear on his face as he did. And I can still remember how I pretended to know nothing about it when my mom came into my room a half hour later with a necklace of blue fingerprints and told me that my father wasn’t coming back.

My mother didn’t do anything but go to work, get drunk, sleep and occasionally eat now. Her bipolar had gotten even worse; before, her happy periods far outweighed the ‘bad’ ones, and now, she didn’t have any happy periods at all. It was a miracle if she could even pull herself together enough to function as a proper adult, but no matter what mental state, she was adamant about two things: she didn’t have bipolar and my father had left out of his own accord. I guess we were both liars in the end.

And maybe I should’ve been more patient with her, but instead of having one parent, it was like I had none. I wasn’t the child anymore; my mom was the child, and I was her parent. I was the one who tucked her into the couch with a glass of water and a Tylenol when she drank herself to sleep. I was the one who bought the groceries, who cooked, cleaned. I was the one who called her boss to tell them she was sick when she was too fucked up to go to work. I was the one who put a lock on the knife drawer and made sure there were never enough pills in a bottle to overdose on. Sure, she made the money (and drank half of it away), but it was me—not her—who kept the two of us above water.

With a sigh, I dropped my backpack by the door and kicked my shoes off, heading for the nearly-empty fridge. I’d have to go grocery shopping—a whole ’nother adventure in and of itself— because we were getting low on food and I wasn’t about to give my mother another excuse to not eat. I couldn’t stand it in here, anyways—the quiet boxed me in. There were too many memories trapped inside this room, and too few of them good. So before the memories could grab a hold of me, I grabbed the wad of cash off the counter and slipped back into my boots, slamming the door behind me. Outside wasn’t much better, but it was something at least.

 

-Δ-

 

I made it until the checkout line before seeing Rebekah.

Until then, everything went surprisingly well. I mean, I’d still gotten the usual dirty looks and whispers, but that was pretty normal. I lived in a fairly small town, and I was notorious all by myself regardless of any of the drama between my parents. I was the wild child, the girl with the blue hair, the freak, and in the words of one particularly nasty old lady, the ‘town harlot’. But lo and behold, when I finally arrived at the checkout lane, there was Rebekah Holt, Allyssa’s best friend and bitch-in-arms, and her mother.

Rebekah caught sight of me at the same time I caught sight of her and smirked. “I’ll be right back, Mom,” she said, turning to throw a smile at her mother that was so sweet it made me want to throw up rainbows. “I’m just going to go talk to someone, ’kay?”

Without waiting for a response, she sauntered over to me, eyes cold as a Siberian winter. “Hey, Lydia, I didn’t know you would be here,” she greeted me brightly, smiling widely. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her mom leaning in to eavesdrop as her stuff got scanned and had to stop myself from laughing. Oh, revenge would be sweet.

“Yeah, I just had to get some stuff,” I responded, smiling at her just as fakely as I started to unload my groceries. “We were running out of food, so I offered to get some groceries.”

Rebekah smiled again poisonously. I could almost imagine the horns poking out of her dark hair. “How’s your mom doing?” she asked innocently, eyes glinting wickedly. “Is she still drinking? I hope she gets better.”

Okay, that was it. I was done with pretending, done with letting her walk all over me. “No, actually, you don’t hope that she gets better, Rebekah, and we both know that,” I said dryly. “In fact, you’ve actually said several times that you hope my mother drinks herself into a stupor and that you’re sure I’m going to end up just like her, so why don’t you just drop the pretenses?” I handed the cashier, who was glancing between me and Rebekah like we were a particularly riveting tennis match, a couple twenties and grabbed my receipt and change. “Really, Rebekah, you can call me a whore and tell me to die like usual. I don’t mind. I’m sure your mother wouldn’t either.”

Rebekah’s mother stopped dead in her tracks, her mouth open to catch flies, as I hoisted the grocery bag onto my shoulder and walked past them serenely. On my way out of the store, I caught a priceless glimpse of Rebekah’s infuriated face and her mother’s shocked one in the glass.

Rebekah: 53012. Lydia: 1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ii.

 

 

In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have taken my cheap shot at Rebekah. It was only too easy to guess that it’d come back to bite me in the ass.

You know that clichéd move you see in the movies where the unpopular girl walks into school and everybody stops doing whatever they’re doing to stare at her? You know, the one where she shoulders her way through the sea of people, feeling like the worst kind of outcast. That’s what happened.

I kept my head up and walked down the hallway, feeling every bit like a pariah as I tried in vain to ignore the many eyes filled with hate and disgust, the lips curled upwards, the harsh shoves of shoulders against mine. I tried to ignore everything except for my feet and how many steps it would take to get to my locker—the locker that conveniently had the word ‘SKANK’ spray-painted across it in bright red block letters.

I heard the people around me whispering and laughing as I packed up and got ready for class. Bitch, they sneered. Whore. Slut. Skank. Her mom should’ve got an abortion. Freak of nature. Prostitute. Rebekah’s gonna get her. She deserves it. Dyke. Wonder if she has to pay THEM to have sex with HER.

“Don’t let it get to you, don’t let it get to you,” I chanted under my breath, blinking rapidly to keep the tears from falling, but my voice was breaking on the first word. It didn’t work—it never had. And God, did it hurt.

 

-Δ-

 

I spent most of the morning looking over my shoulder and wondering when I was going to get beat up. Every passerby was a threat, and I flinched at every single jostle and shove from my loving classmates.

I didn’t have to wait long for my punishment, though. I was in the bathroom washing my hands when Rebekah and her entourage sauntered in, all of them glaring at me through fake lashes.

My heart rate automatically started to race once I saw her smirk a grin that promised me pain. “Well, well, well. Look who we have here, girls,” Rebekah mocked, stepping closer with a wicked smirk that set fear pumping through my veins. Her steps were soft, but not uncertain: she moved slowly, but with all the grace and steely calm of a hunter stalking its prey. Every single step was calculated to make me fear her, and it was working. “Little Miss Whore.”

That was Rebekah’s nickname for me; it fit, apparently. “Oh, look, it’s Little Miss Boob Job,” I managed to force out through gritted teeth, quickly drying off my hands before balling them into fists in preparation for the upcoming fight. “And entourage.”

Rebekah snarled, hurtling forwards to trap me against the wall. In the rush that came afterwards, her elbow pushed into my airways, leaving me gasping for air. I tried to strike out at her, kick her, punch her, do something—but she had the upper hand, and four of her cronies held my arms and legs in place while a fifth recorded the events taking place before her with a smirk on her face.

“When will you learn that you’re just making it worse for yourself?” Rebekah hissed, slapping my cheek harshly with her free hand. “Wake up and smell the roses, Lydia. You don’t deserve to live, and you’re too worthless to be able to die. So I guess that this is all you’ll ever be: worthless and pathetic.”

I felt faint. Oxygen, I need oxygen, I thought hazily as I tried to get air into my lungs. Rebekah’s elbow cut even deeper into my windpipe and my vision tunneled. I could barely see an inch in front of me. With one last desperate effort, I blindly tried to fight back, but the girls just held me even tighter.

Rebekah finally took her elbow off my windpipe, still smirking, and I swallowed in large mouthfuls of much needed oxygen. But as soon as it looked like I wasn’t going to die, the brunette in front of me delivered the first blow.

For a girl of her size, she sure packed a punch. Blow after blow, gasp of pain after another, she beat down upon me, hitting me again and again in an incessant torrent of torture. On either side of me, the girls cheered Rebekah on and yelled insults at me. I twisted and turned, desperate to get away, but it was in vain; Rebekah yanked my hair, forcefully sent her knee into my stomach, and continued to beat me.

Finally, I was dumped upon the floor, dizzy and lightheaded with pain. I didn’t even realize that I was sobbing with hurt until I heard the sound echoing around me in raw gasps. As footsteps crossed over to me, I curled myself into the fetal position, feebly trying to ward off any more pain.

Through my half-closed eyes, I saw Rebekah’s fuzzy outline crouch down next to me. “No wonder your dad left you and your mom,” she whispered into my ear, and I could hear the malicious smirk in her terrible words. Fear consumed me whole, tightening my chest more than any beating could. “He was scared you’d turn out like her. I guess it’s good he didn’t stick around, though, because you’re even worse.”

My sobs just got even louder.

 

-Δ-

 

Smoking calmed me down, at least a little. Although I absolutely hated the vile smoke that came out of the cigarette, it did help me get a grip on things. I wasn’t a habitual smoker by any means; I was one of the lucky few who didn’t get addicted—a good thing too because I sure as hell didn’t have the cash to fuel a cigarette addiction—and only smoked when I was stressed out. Smoking was pretty crappy therapy, but it was better than some of the other forms I’d tried.

Sometimes I wished I was alone all the time—just me, no one else. Though at this point it probably wouldn’t have matter much; I did a fine enough job of putting myself down. I shouldn’t have cared about what Rebekah and Allyssa and everyone else said, but I found I did anyway.

Whore. Slut. Skank. Prostitute. Can’t you close your legs? Ugly. Worthless. Waste of space. I bet there aren’t too many guys who can say that they’ve slept with a blue-haired girl. Oh, wait, now they can.

Maybejust maybe—the reason that I cared was because it was true. Every single word of it was true: I was a whore. I was a slut, I was a hoe, and I was a skank. And it was my fault and no one else’s.

No wonder your dad left you and your mom. He was scared you’d turn out like her.

How did Rebekah know? How did she find out? God, she’d taken the worst thing she could and used it against me. I guess it’s good he didn’t stick around, though, because you’re even worse. My mother being bipolar was a secret I’d always made sure stayed secret, and the idea that I’d inherited my mother’s bipolar even more so. What if she told everyone? I took another deep drag from my cigarette, trying not to breathe the foul stench through my nose, and sighed heavily. SHE SHOULDN’T KNOW!

Calm down, Lydia, I told myself, running an anxious hand through my hair, my upper canines chewing my bottom lip to shreds. It’s only the stupid populars. Rebekah can’t know about what happened, there’s no way she could. She’s probably just pulling that out of her ass—she probably just said that blindly to try and get a rise out of me. (And she did, God, she did.)

“You know you’re killing yourself, right?” a voice suddenly asked from behind me, interrupting my inner monologue. I jumped a little and turned around, the cigarette still burning feebly in my hand.

For one moment, I was too startled to say anything, and just froze, watching as he looked down at me with kind blue eyes, a teasing smile playing out across his lips. Unfortunately, he might have been one of the best-looking guys I’d ever seen.

“What’s it to you?” I finally retorted as I yanked my earbuds out, harshly cutting the music. I might’ve been rude, but I’d learned the hard way that when a hot guy was nice to me, he was usually only after one thing. Even if this guy didn’t exactly look like the popular jerk type, I was done both literally and figuratively getting myself screwed over.

“I just hate it when pretty girls end up killing themselves,” he responded, grinning toothily at me as he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his dark jeans. Right. And I was an eight-foot tall pink unicorn named Fluffy. Dimples formed on his cheeks as he scuffed the toe of his grey converse against the tarmac, drawing even more of my attention to his angular features. This kid had a hell of a jaw line, unfortunately.

I laughed at his words, the near-derisive sound spilling unwillingly from my lips. “Next pickup line, please.”

“Not a pickup line,” he said as he sat down on the curb next to me, still smiling. This boy sure smiles a lot, I thought, half-amused and half-admiring. “A truth.”

I blushed, the color blooming over my cheeks like splattered tomatoes, and busied myself with putting out my cigarette, tilting my head downward so my hair covered my reddened cheeks.  “Nice try,” I muttered, my voice acerbic as I placed the put-out cigarette butt in the pocket of my jacket to throw out later—because honestly, why else would a boy of his attractiveness say that to a girl like me? My reputation always preceded me. Always. Boys didn’t just come up to me and call me pretty and express concern for my wellbeing. They came up to me at parties and said hey, baby, how’s it going? and pretended to like me to get in my pants. The only reason guys even bothered to talk to me was for sex. I was a commodity, an object; for all I was worth, I might’ve been nothing more than one of those blow-up sex dolls. (Besides, it wasn’t like anyone would find me attractive of my own right anyways.)

“Are you always this inherently mistrustful of the male population?” he retorted teasingly, laughing when I shrugged my admittance indifferently.

Undeterred, the boy plopped down beside me easily, his shoulder accidentally brushing against mine. The contact sent a shockwave of heat throughout me, my whole body tingling with the feeling. I almost started in surprise, but managed to let nothing loose bar yet another blush. felt something—I, Lydia Marie Mason, the previously numb person, just felt something.

(WELL CALL THE PAPERS, JIMMY, WE GOT OURSELVES A NEWSPAPER STORY.)

“Y’know,” the boy said over yet another of my internal conversations, and I could tell without really looking at him that he was smiling as he tugged his beanie forwards so it covered more of his dark hair. “I never actually introduced myself. I’m Hayden. Hayden Parker, actually. My mom and I just moved in across the street.”

Part of me really, really didn’t want to talk to him. I’d been hurt by too many boys to want to open myself up to another. But I was already mostly numb from the pain anyways; I had nothing to lose. If this boy turned out to be just like the rest, well, then I’d just say no. Besides, there was something so nice about him, something so inherently kind in the turn of his lips and the set of his eyes that I couldn’t help but trust him a little.

I smiled grudgingly at him and took his outstretched hand. His long fingers were warm and slightly calloused, and when they closed over mine, my hand felt like a live wire. It was like that tingly feeling you get in your foot when you flex it after it’s been asleep for a while, like my nerves were suddenly waking up after a long, undisturbed sleep.

I felt a joke coming on. “Well, Hayden-Parker-Actually, the name’s…” I paused for dramatic effect. “Bond. James Bond.”

Hayden burst out laughing. I watched with upturned lips as his shoulders curved slightly against his chuckles, and then that I realized that I quite liked the sound of his laugh.

Great, I thought, feeling a bit irritated. I’m getting feelings for a guy I just met. Send help, I’m turning into a ten-year-old girl. Feelings are messy things. I’d been through too much—I couldn’t just go getting feelings for some guy I’d just met, especially after Erik, especially after I’d seen how terrible people could be. I didn’t even know anything about the dude, for Christ’s sake. Friends I could maybe do, but feelings were another thing entirely.

I needed a distraction. So when Hayden was busy laughing, I reached over and jacked his beanie, shoving it onto my own head. “Hey!” he protested, a smile still etched onto his face. His dimples were prominent, easily viewable, and yes, sort of adorable.

(Okay, maybe more than sort of. God, I wish I had dimples.)

Hayden reached over to get his precious beanie back, but I’d scooted out of reach, trying not to flinch.

“You shall never get it back!” I told him, smirking and sticking my tongue out at him, scrunching my face up in what I was sure was a really attractive manner. Hayden merely rolled his eyes in response to my immaturity.

From an outsider’s point of view, it might’ve seemed like we’d been best friends forever, when in reality we only met a few minutes ago. “You beanie stealer! How dare you steal my precious away from me!

I could tell he didn’t really care, but whatever. I’d go with the flow. “Is there a problem?” I asked monotonously. Mr. McIntyre wasn’t the only one with a good poker face.

He matched my expression. “Well, dah-ling,” he said in this terrible gay-socialite-with-a-head cold accent. “For one, that color totes clashes with your hair.”

“‘Totes?’” I asked incredulously, cringing visibly. “What the hell is wrong with you? Were you dropped on the head as a baby? Given a lead-painted crib?”

Hayden chuckled quietly, holding his hands up in surrender. “Point taken,” he said, his eyes twinkling at me mischievously. “I shall never utter that word again.”

“You better not,” I warned him, my own mouth curving up into the almost forgotten pattern of a smile. “Or I will hunt you down and use my insane ninja skills on you.”

“I can take you any day,” he retorted easily, softly nudging his shoulder against mine. This time I didn’t flinch at the contact. “By the way, I never did get your name, Miss James Bond.”

It was snowing now, and for a few moments, I watched the snowflakes fall silently. “It’s Lydia,” I finally said, brushing a nervous hand through my hair to shake the snow out. I’ve never liked my name; it was too pretty, too fancy, too not me. It was one of those names that was meant for a certain kind of person—the kind of person I’d never be. It was meant for someone unique, someone who was bubbly, fun and everything I wasn’t.

So Hayden’s response came as an intense surprise. “Pretty,” he commented quietly, turning to smile at me. His eyes seemed to turn even lighter when they meet mine, and I quickly looked away as Hayden cleared his throat nervously and busied himself with picking at the hood of his skater-boy coat. “It suits you.”

I snorted derisively. Whatever floated his boat, I guessed, though it wasn’t true.

We sat in silence for a while, but it was a different kind of silence than I was used to. Over the years, silence had come to mean sadness or pain, but this… this was almost nice. “By the way, I was dropped on my head as a baby,” he smirked after a few moments, and really, I should’ve known how this was going to end. “Into a pool of sexy.”

I groaned, burying my face in my hands as Hayden laughed uproariously.

Well, this should be interesting, to say the least.

 

 

 

 

 

 

iii.

 

 

It was probably safe to say that Mondays were never my favorite day of the week. Though weekends at home were tedious, at least there I (usually) wasn’t under threat of physical harm. Two whole days of not being called a whore or being beat up was as close to heaven as I’d ever get, and that was why it was always so hard to get out from underneath the covers on Mondays. But today there was a certain reason why I had to resist the urge to skip to school with a stupid grin on my face, and unfortunately that reason had brown hair and blue eyes and his name was Hayden Parker.

We’d talked for a while after he made the dumb pool-of-sexy joke. After he somehow roped me into playing 20 Questions—it was those damn dimples, I swear—I found out that he’d moved here from Chicago, his favorite color was red and he never actually stopped smiling. Seriously, was he an alien or what? Not only was he insanely attractive, but he was like this ball of happy that never stopped smiling and laughing. No human being was that happy.

He didn’t even seem perturbed by my hair, further evidence that he was actually an alien. To most people I’ve met—bar little kids—my hair color made me even more of a freak, but Hayden actually seemed to like it.

“May I?” he asked hesitantly, reaching his hand up to my hair slowly as if to gauge my reaction.

I nodded back just as hesitantly, feeling like I was back in kindergarten. This was nervous, hesitant, everything I wasn’t used to. I was used to loud music, sleazy guys that would only tell you that you were beautiful in attempts to get you into bed; attempts that in my case, usually worked. I was used to guys oozing with confidence and arrogance, guys that smirked at you and expected you to swoon. I was used to guys whose every move was calculated to get a girl to fall into their arms, guys who used the same moves over and over again on a dozen other girls.

His gently took hold of a lock of my hair and twirled it around his finger. “Pretty,” he said absently, smiling at me through his eyelashes as he let go.

“Uh, thanks,” I stammered, hastily smoothing my hair back down with a nervous smile.

Hayden chuckled softly at me. “You’re adorable,” he remarked, glancing at me with a smirk on his face as I turned beet red from his compliment.

“Stop it!” I whined, shoving him away playfully.

“Hmm, let me think,” he said, putting a hand up to his chin. “How about no?”

By the time I finally came out of my reverie, I was smiling goofily at my reflection like a love-sick little girl. If I didn’t hurry it up, I’d be late for school. Great. Thanks a lot, Parker.

 

-Δ-

 

Oh, how nice, I thought when I finally reached my locker. Today, I was greeted with the word ‘trash’ above the previous ‘SKANK’, written in what looked like crimson nail polish. How thoughtful of them. The students were just so kind, weren’t they? With a sigh, I spun the lock and jerked the door open, trying to get my books into my bag as quickly as possible.

“I just love what you’ve done with the place.”

I smiled as I turned around. Think of the devil and he shall appear, apparently. “Hi?” I asked confusedly, and then realized he was talking about my locker decorations. Oh, good Lord, his presence diminished my brain cells, too. Could this get any more cliché? “Oh, yeah, I know. It’s kind of like Mean Girls and Easy A had a kid,” I said thoughtfully, staring at the sloppy paint. “And that kid had some serious anger management issues.”

Hayden snorted loudly, leaning against the locker beside mine as I continued to mercilessly stuff textbooks into my bag. There was a yellow paper in his hand—assumedly his schedule—and he kept swinging it back and forth like he was nervous. “Does this happen often?” he asked lowly, looking at me with his brow furrowed in concern.

I shrugged noncommittally, trying to hide the bubble of panic rising up in me like carbonated water. “Sometimes. I mean, whatever, I guess. It’s not that big of a deal anymore, you know?” I babbled, smiling to try and convince him that it really was no big deal. I could tell from his eyes that he didn’t believe my façade, but thankfully, he was willing to let it go. “Anyways, it’s just another part of high school, right? I’m kind of used to it by now.”

Fun,” he said dryly. “I’m beginning to get a bad feeling about this school.”

“You should,” I retorted, throwing him a smirk as I slammed my locker shut. “Don’t listen to the Yelp reviews. They’re all lies. This actually place sucks ass.”

He saluted me jokingly, grinning obnoxiously. I wanted to slap that grin off his face. “Aye aye, cap’n.”

I rolled my eyes and plucked his schedule from his hands, starting up the hallway.  “C’mon,” I called over my shoulder, raising an eyebrow. “I’ll show you to your first class.”

I kept my head down as he caught up to me, trying to avoid the questioning looks. People were already staring at us and whispering, and it wasn’t just because Hayden was new and attractive. Part of me wished I hadn’t offered to help him; even being in my presence probably wasn’t doing his rep—or my wellbeing—any favors. But it was too late now. “So you’ve got English with Sanders first,” I told him, making a left towards the English department. “You’re lucky, he’s really great. Then you’ve got Science with Kamara—she’s not too bad, but if you interrupt her class, you will be unleashing the kraken—and then lunch, and then Gym with Tanner. I don’t know who he is, but we’ve got Gym at the same time, so you might see me. And then finally you have Functions with me.”

His eyes lit up as we reached the English classroom. “We have math together?” he asked, excitement clear in his voice. I nodded my confirmation back at him with a small smirk just as the first bell rang.

“Yeah,” I told him. “Listen, I’d love to give you the full tour right now, but I’ve got to get to class. Your science class is on the other side of this floor—go straight to the end of this hallway and then turn right and it should be at the end of the hall. Got it?”

“Think so,” he says, readjusting his backpack with a small smile. “But this place is pretty big. It was completely different in Chicago.”

He was giving me the puss-in-boots eyes. Do not give in, I chanted inside my head. Do not give in. I repeat, do NOT give in. You are stronger than this. “Meet me at my locker after second period and I’ll show you around,” I told him resignedly.

“Thanks,” he said, now full-out grinning—that cheeky little shit—as he ducked into his classroom.

Damn it. So much for not giving in.

 

-Δ-

 

“Once you get used to the layout of the school, it’s not too bad to navigate through,” I said, once again leading Hayden through the school. I’d almost hoped that he would forget about meeting me, but when I went down to my locker after second period, he was already there, looking mighty pleased with himself. Luckily, though, most of the kids were either in the cafeteria or at the nearby mall, so there weren’t nearly as many people to stare at us as we walked around. “The starting letter of the room code will tell you the part of the school you should go to. ‘A’ is music and arts, ‘B’ is Math, Geography, History and Social Sciences, ‘C’ is Languages, English and Science, and ‘D’ is Gym and Tech. ‘A’ starts on the east side of the school and ‘D’ finishes on the west. And the first number of the room code is the floor,” I rambled on, realizing only after my word-vomit that I was kind of lecturing the poor dude. “There are only two floors to the school, so it won’t be that hard.”

I’d learned a lot more about him over the past half hour or so that I’d been showing him around. He smiled at everyone he saw, and once, when one of the asshole populars rammed into this kid and sent his books flying, he stopped to help him pick up his stuff. This kid was the kind of nice I’d been deprived of for a long time. I honestly don’t know how he could be that nice—it was exhausting just watching him.

And even worse, he was perceptive. Within the first few minutes, he’d caught the looks I was getting, and he wasn’t afraid to ask about them, either. “Why is everyone looking at us?” he said as we turned a corner, taking the hallway up to the Gym department. (He was nice enough to say us, bless him.)

“Dunno,” I said around the sudden knot in my throat. “Guess it’s just the hair or something. It kind of sticks out, you know?”

Hayden laughed, but his eyes didn’t lose all of their worry. Before he could ask anything else, I nodded towards the gym’s open double doors. “There’s your next class,” I said quickly, hoping he’d take the bait. “They split the gym in half so two classes can go on at the same time. We’re really into athletics; we’ve been in the state championships four times in the last five years.”

He did indeed take the bait, interest replacing the worry in his eyes. “I played volleyball at my old school,” he said. “Varsity. It would be nice if I could get on the team here, too, but it’s pretty late in the season.”

“Well, you’re in luck,” I told him, smiling, “’cause tryouts are next Thursday.”

His eyes lit up again. It was kind of adorable, the way he got excited about the littlest things. “Really?”

“Really,” I confirmed, unable to keep from smiling as he did this terrible happy dance on the spot. “Dude, seriously. Calm. Let’s just hope you’re good enough to get in.”

Hayden stopped dancing and pouted at me. “A little faith would be nice,” he sniffed, turning away dramatically.

“Sorry,” I said, continuing down the hall towards the Math classroom. “I forgot how fragile the male ego is.”

“So fragile,” he agreed, hurrying to catch up. “I don’t know how I’ll go on now.”

I snorted and shook my head amusedly. “You’ll live.”

He opened his mouth to say something, but unfortunately, he was interrupted before he could get the words out.

“And who’s this, Lydia?” a honeyed voice called out, and I stopped and whirled around, my heart sinking. Rebekah stared back at me smugly, that goddamn ever-present smirk dancing around her lips. Allyssa and Lindsay, my back-stabbing ex-best friend, flanked her, effectively blocking off the hallway. I resisted the urge to look up and curse the heavens, desperately thinking, why can’t I ever catch a break?

“Nice to see you too, Rebekah,” I snapped back, crossing my arms over my chest to hide my balled fists. Beside me, I felt Hayden tense, his gaze shifting rapidly from Rebekah to me, eyes widening.

But Rebekah paid me no attention. She was staring right at Hayden, her smirk growing wider and wider with every passing second. And suddenly, I realized why—he was new, unaware of her methods, and hot enough to be a male model. AKA the perfect combination for another brainwashed jock.

“Hey,” she said to him, sauntering forwards with a hand on her hips. She stopped a foot away from him and held out her hand, eyelashes fluttering pathetically. “You’re new, right? I’m Rebekah. I can show you around, if you want.” Even for her, this was over the top. She was pushing her chest out in a way that made me wonder whether “around” was a euphemism for her boobs and her voice had lowered into something much huskier and breathier than usual.  I pretended to gag over Hayden’s shoulder and Rebekah spared me a glare, Allyssa and Lindsay copying her only a second later.

Hayden didn’t even look down. The tips of his ears were pink and his eyes darted around the hallway, looking at anything but Rebekah. “Uh, hi,” he stuttered, scuffing his shoe against the tiled floor. “Sorry, but I’m going to be late for class. Bye!”

He grabbed my wrist and all but dragged me away from them. “Anxious to get away from a certain someone, are we?” I asked smugly, feeling wonderfully victorious.

Hayden just nodded quickly in response as we sped down the hall. As we turned the corner, I caught a glimpse of Rebekah’s mouth set wide enough open to catch flies and smirked. I could practically see the steam coming out of her ears. Rebekah Holt was the type of girl who had always gotten whatever she wanted whenever she wanted it. Having an attractive guy not even give her a second glance—and even further, pick me over her? That was like coming home and finding that someone had stolen your car and ran your dog over with it.

I couldn’t help but grin. Oh, this was good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

iv.

 

 

Two weeks later, my world came crashing down for the fourth time in my life.

The first week was been surprisingly good, and the second week—or at least the first three days of it—even better. Hayden and I settled into a rhythm: we’d walk to school together, go to our separate classes, eat lunch together in some secluded part of the school, and after goofing off in the one class we had together, walk home again and repeat the cycle the next morning.

But ever since my run-in with Rebekah, I’d been getting strange letters stuffed through the slats of my locker, written in an unfamiliar scrawl.

You won’t win.

Savor it, because it won’t last.

You don’t deserve happiness.

You play innocent, but you and I both know you’re the devil in angel’s garb.

I’m going to break you if it’s the last thing I do.

I’ll rip him away from you and you won’t be able to do a thing about it.

Sooner or later, he’ll find out just what kind of monster you are.

Hayden knew about them, and every time he saw another letter, he got more and more concerned. As he learned more about my social status, he began to assume somewhat of a protective role over me. The second day he was here, some kid thought it’d be funny to go, “hey, look, it’s the mermaid skank!” and Hayden gave him a stony look that made him turn tail and run. He’d been sticking up for me ever since, and after the first week had passed, I was (mostly) left alone.

And it wasn’t just me, either. On his third day here, he’d told off one of the football assholes for picking on this gay kid. He’d ended up in detention for it because the jock had started beating him up instead of the other kid, but afterwards, Hayden told me that he didn’t really mind as long as the other kid was fine, and besides, the football dude had gotten suspended.

But though Hayden’s concern for me was touching, it made me nervous. Frankly, the letters scared me more than I was willing to admit. I’d gotten letters like this before, but back then, I had had nothing to lose. There was nothing they could do that would make things worse. Now they could, and that terrified me.

Out of all of the populars, Rebekah Holt was the most formidable. She wasn’t just mean and ruthless—she was smart and cunning, too, a dangerous combination. She’d spent years building up a network of allies through blackmail, intimidation and bribery. She knew how to completely break someone apart to get her way, and for me, that way was Hayden—the one friend I had. I’d spent so long protecting myself that now that Rebekah could find a chink in my armor, I was sure she would use it.

Hayden, bless him, seemed to know that I was worried—even if he didn’t know why—and did his absolute best to distract me, always waiting for me on my front porch in the mornings with some new story or joke to tell. I knew he had a few other friends—he was already worming his way into the volleyball clique, that sneaky bastard—but he seemed to spend most of his time with me, despite my many objections. He never seemed to mind, though, even though I was sure it wasn’t doing him any favors socially.

“Did you finish the math homework?” he asked on Thursday morning, his breath forming little clouds in front of him. It was nearing February, but if anything, it seemed to be getting colder instead of warmer.

“Yeah,” I said, pulling my coat closer around me as we continued up the sidewalk.  “I’m not sure how I did, though, and I had that stupid science project too, so…”

“I’m not letting you copy,” Hayden said immediately, smirking as he turned to face me.

“Well I don’t want to copy off you anyways,” I huffed indignantly. “You probably got the questions all wrong.”

We both knew that was the biggest lie ever because he’d gotten a 92% and an offer to join mathletes on his latest math test, but Hayden made a noise of indignation anyways as he stopped to stare at me. “Did not!”

“Sure, sure,” I retorted, smiling slightly. “Now why don’t you go to the time out corner, little six-year-old?”

Hayden laughed at my words, the sudden sound echoing around us. “You’re weird,” he commented, the dimples in his flushed cheeks resurfacing.

(Dimples. Ugh.)

“So I’ve been told,” I grinned back at him. “But I think everyone’s just jealous of my awesomeness.”

“Yeah, that’s definitely it,” he retorted, bumping his shoulder against mine playfully.

But it turned out that we had gotten the same questions wrong in Math, which gave me just enough bragging rights to rub it in.

“In your face!” I whisper-yelled at him, sticking my tongue out at him defiantly.

“Big deal,” Hayden replied dryly in an undertone, smirking back at me. “So I got a few questions wrong. Shoot me.”

I made a faux-sad face. “But I don’t have a gun.”

Hayden laughed into the sleeve of his hoodie, the not-quite muffled sound attracting the attention of the teacher. She immediately stopped writing on the blackboard and paused in her lesson to stare at us. “Is there something you would like to share with the class, Mr. Parker?” she asked acidly, arching a grey eyebrow as she tapped her foot against the floor impatiently. From the other side of the classroom, Rebekah sent me a death glare, face full of disgust.

Hayden quickly straightened his features into a charming smile. “Not at all, Mrs. Fleming,” he told her pleasantly. “Sorry for interrupting. Please continue.”

What a little shit. Mrs. Fleming stared at us for another moment, her thin eyebrows arched sternly. As soon as she humph-ed and turned back to the board, I wasted no time in elbowing Hayden. “Kiss ass,” I groused, huffing in annoyance.

He bit his lip to stop from laughing. “You know you love it,” he returned, throwing another wink at me just as the bell rang and everyone rushed to get out of the stuffy classroom. Together, Hayden and I weaved our way through the throng of people clogging the hallways. I could see the exit in front of me, twenty yards away. Freedom. So close. And then the hand grabbed onto the back of my shirt.

“Lydia!” a too-familiar voice called out. I threw an eye-roll at Hayden but stopped in my tracks, wondering what it would be this time as I tried to calm my racing heart.

Rebekah, alone for once, stepped in front of me and crossed her arms over her chest in her signature pose. “You going to the party this Friday?” she asked loudly, her gaze sliding over to Hayden with a small smirk.

I shook my head, confused. What party?  “Uh, no. Why?”

Rebekah’s smirk grew even more poisonous. “Oh, I just assumed you’d be going,” she said, picking at her manicured nails with an innocent air that fooled no one. “Because you always go. You know, go to a party and go home with someone else… I thought that was your motto.”

Oh God. My eyes widened as I finally understood. Oh God, please, no. Beside me, Hayden’s gaze shifted between me and Rebekah, finally settling on me, looking confused and hurt. My heart kick-started to the speed of light. I knew what Rebekah was doing. What was it those notes said? I’ll rip him away from you and you won’t be able to do a thing about it. Sooner or later, he’ll find out just what kind of monster you are. I wasn’t religious by any means, but right then I was praying to whatever was up there with all I had. Please, I thought desperately. Please don’t let it happen.

But God didn’t give favors to girls like me. Rebekah caught Hayden’s bewildered look, looking for all the world like the Grinch on Christmas Eve. “Yeah,” she said, glancing back at me with vindictive glee. “Didn’t you know, Hayden? Your little girlfriend sleeps around.” My heart stopped at the look on his face as Rebekah’s words sank in. “I bet half the guys in our school have had their way with her—she gets what she wants and then she dumps them on the ground and walks away. I guess you were just going to be another in the long string of boys whose hearts she’s broken,” she told him, patting his shoulder with a sympathetic look on her face. He wretched away from her like her touch burned, face twisting. “Don’t worry—I bet it was nothing personal.”

I didn’t say anything; it felt like my throat had sealed shut. Hayden just looked at me, mouth hanging wide open, sky-colored eyes as horrified as they were fractured. “Lydia,” he whispered, every syllable ringing with hurt, “is it true?”

I panicked, the haze of it settling in my mind and taking over. I felt breathless, dizzy. The words were there, but when I tried to force them up, they scraped against the inside of my throat like little knives. “I—I—”

Somewhere far away, I was screaming at myself to get a grip. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t think—I could barely even breathe. And after a few moments passed and nothing else came out, I guess my silence answered for me.

I watched as Hayden’s eyes hardened, my heart shattering. Rebekah reached out for him again, but he just jerked away from her—and from me. “Don’t,” he said fiercely, turning away and half-walking, half-running out the door. He didn’t look back once.

I wanted to go after him, but I couldn’t move. My feet were stuck to the floor like they were coated with superglue. The only thing I registered other than my inner chorus of he’s leaving, it’s all my fault was the roar of blood crescendo-ing in my ears. Behind me, Rebekah laughed an evil ice-shards laugh, cold and concise. “I told you I would break you,” she hissed softly in my ear, shoving me forwards harshly.

The shove was enough to break the spell and re-start my brain. Gasping, I stumbled towards the door, trying in vain to hold the pieces of me together and catch up to Hayden at the same time. I could see him in the distance, walking to his house with his backpack slung around the tense set of shoulders, and I pumped my legs even harder to try and catch up with him. “Hayden!” I called desperately, my breath coming out in shallow gasps, the sound whooshing out of me like it was being punched out. “Hayden, wait, please!”

He kept ignoring me until I finally caught up to him and tugged on his jacket to make him stop. “What?” he snapped, voice flat. I felt like he’d slapped me in the face.

“Hayden, please just let me explain—”

He whirled around to look at me, betrayal and hurt forming a bitter cloud in his eyes. “You could have told me,” he said lowly, anger marring his voice as he stepped closer. I forced myself not to flinch. “God, Lydia, you could have said something. I honestly thought that you were different from everyone else. I honestly thought that you wanted to be friends with me because you liked me, not because—not because you were using me.”

I tried to speak, to say something—anything at this point—but Hayden held up a hand to silence me, sucking in a single deep, shuddering breath. “I thought you were different, Lydia,” he said, brushing his hands over his face and shaking his head back and forth as if breaking out of a daze. His eyes were filled with pain and regret—the two emotions I’d hoped to never see staring back at me. My fault my fault my fault. “All my life I’ve passed by people who just want to pretend that they’re something they’re not, people that try so hard to be perfect and play the part so well that everyone believes them. Everyone seems to want you for their own purposes and then they just throw you away when they’re done. I thought you were different from them, Lydia. But I guess I was wrong.”

Hayden looked at me one more time, spearing me with one final pained gaze, and then turned away, his footsteps carrying him farther away from me. I watched his retreating figure, once again frozen to the spot, until he walked up to his house and shut the door behind him.

My mother once told me that all good things come to our end. I guess she was right. Hayden was my good thing, and this was our end.

 

-Δ-

 

I managed to unfreeze myself and walk home after a few minutes. I did everything like usual—I did my chores and my homework, went grocery shopping, cooked dinner and did the dishes. But I did everything on autopilot. I was an automaton, emotionless and unfeeling. I couldn’t let myself feel. If I did, I would fall apart.

There were four stages of grief. The first was denial, which I was quite acquainted with by now. If I kept myself busy enough, I could almost pretend that it had never happened, and that when I got to school the next morning, Hayden would be waiting for me with a smile and a joke.

But then I went to school the next morning and my wishful thinking fell apart. The truth waved in front of me at every single turn. There was no Hayden waiting for me outside the robin’s egg blue double doors; there was no Hayden standing beside me, making a joke about my abused locker, no Hayden to joke with in Math class.

It hurt worse than any physical beating ever could, and for the rest of the day, I had to keep blinking back tears. I had to try to hold it together while I was falling apart inside. I had to try to pretend nothing was wrong when everything was. I had to try to ignore the jeers and smirks that until now had been chalked up to mere daily abuse.

Rebekah was the worst part, though. She was always there, waiting, watching, an ever-present reminder of my mistakes. In came the second stage of grief: every time she sent a smirk at me, and every time she sneered at me, knowing what she did, knowing how it affected me, a red-hot wave of self-hatred rolled through me. My fault, my mistakes. I hated my life even more than I used to, something I didn’t think could be possible. I hated everything about myself: my problems, my face, my behavior, my life, my everything.

I hadn’t seen Hayden for more than a second or two since our fight. If I crossed paths with him in the halls, he would disappear into the crowd. If I tried to wait for him outside one of his classes, pressing my back into the brick wall and wishing I could melt into it, he would just hurry away the moment he caught sight of me. When I tried to talk to him in Math, he turned his head and gave me the most heartbroken look I’ve ever seen. His eyes were stormy with a thundercloud of emotions: pain, hurt, betrayal, regret and anger. All because of me. That one look was enough to silence me. I shut my mouth and tried to ignore the pain burning in my chest, blinking away tears for what must be the fiftieth time that day.

The class was much longer than usual, the minutes ticking by at an unbearable pace. The hurt rolling off of Hayden was palpable. Every second I spent in the classroom was another eternity of the worst tortures. When the bell finally rang, I scooped my books into my bag and ran into the bathroom as fast as I could, dumping my possessions on the cracked tiles. I slammed the stall door shut behind me as my knees gave away and I sunk down to the floor, my back finding purchase against a heavily-graffitied wall.

It started off as sniffles, getting louder and louder in a never-ending crescendo, and then it turned into body-wracking sobs. I curled into a ball, pulling my legs up to my chest and wrapping my arms around myself. My head dropped onto the tops of my knees as I rocked back and forth, trying in vain to sooth myself, to find shelter from the waves crashing me against the rocks.

And then I blinked, and blinked and blinked again. My vision sharpened for a few short seconds before it was warped again by the deluge of tears. Slowly, words became visible on the wall I was leaning against and connected themselves into sentences.

LYDIA MASON IS SUCH A WHORE!!!!!!

OMG, I bet she has an std!! Lol, everyone shuld stay away from her, might catch herpes or somethin 😛

She’s NASTY.

Slut.

Her momma shoulda got an abortion.

Lydia the Skank!!

Well, obviously, we’ve got a SKANK in town. She’s climbin in yo beds, snatching yo men up, trying to disease ’em. So y’all need to hide your fathers, hide your brothers and hide your boyfriends ’cuz she’s diseasing everyone up.

^^LOL!!!

Damn straight.

I didn’t think that I could feel any worse, but apparently I could. I don’t know how long I stayed there, curled up on the bathroom floor, but it was long enough to settle into a pattern: sob hiccup sob hiccup sob. (And repeat ad nauseam.)

Eventually my legs unfolded and took me out of the bathroom stall, my movements choppy and robotic. When I slid the deadbolt over and flung the door open, the mirror on the wall opposite mocked me. My reflection was gruesome—black mascara tracks ran down red-splotched cheeks and my hair was tangled into messy snarls. Eyes lifeless. Skin pale and bleached of color.

I automatically raised my hand to wipe the mascara tracks away, the black smearing carelessly onto the sleeve of my hoodie as I used my other arm to hoist my backpack up around my shoulders. I didn’t worry about the stain that would surely never come out; it didn’t even cross my mind as I walked over to the door, footsteps clacking harshly against the tile—the only sound other than the static buzz inside my head.

My feet dragged on the floor listlessly as I made my way through the school. I was the kind of bone-tired where everything—my bones and my muscles and my head and my heart—ached. I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. Sleep would bring me comfort; I didn’t hurt in my sleep.

In a way, being numb was a good thing. It provided protection: if I couldn’t really ever muster up strong feelings about anything, then I couldn’t get hurt. But when the walls fell, I was left exposed, vulnerable. It was like I had this gaping sore in my side and I’d been covering it up and covering it up until it had stopped hurting. But then Hayden ripped off the bandages and I was left exposed, vulnerable. Now, I felt everything at once, and it was terrifying.

By mere chance, I found myself by the gym. Volleyball tryouts. It was Thursday; how could I forget? I knew Hayden was going to try out for the team. And because it was just my luck, there he was, playing with his back facing me.

Even from this distance, I can see the tension and suppressed anger coiled in the set of his shoulders. As I watched, he spiked the ball across the court with far too much force, and it ricocheted off the opposite wall.

A few of his potential team mates laughed and booed at him. The person playing right forward, a tall, lanky boy with dirty-blond hair, swung an arm around Hayden’s shoulder. “Dude, what’s up? I’ve seen you in Gym. You’re good.”

Hayden turned to face him, and I barely managed to keep in a gasp. He looked almost as bad as me—the circles under his eyes were dark purple, and his mouth was thinned out into an angry line. Quickly, I moved so I was hiding behind the door and he couldn’t see me. I wouldn’t—couldn’t—cause him any more pain.

Hayden took a deep breath and let his eyes flutter closed. When he opened them again, the anger was gone and replaced by a fierce, desolate determination. And as he crouched into position and sent the ball to the other end of the court in a perfect serve, it seemed like I was the only one who saw the sadness in his eyes.

And before I could see anything else, I ran out of the school, tears blurring my vision.

 

-Δ-

 

Later that night, I was lying in bed, shrouded in blankets that failed to warm up a frozen body.

My chest felt heavy, and I could barely breathe. I was choking in my own pit of despair because I was a stupid, stupid little girl. I’d let down my walls. I’d trusted Hayden, actually talked to him. I had loaded the gun, given it to him, and stood in front of him as he went in for the kill. In the end, it was my fault.

Maybe I was desperate for attention, I don’t know. But being like it was at home, it was really no wonder. I had brought this on myself. Every time I gave myself to another boy that called me pretty or hot or beautiful for a fleeting amount of time, I was digging my own grave deeper and deeper. Because this was what I had become: a silly, stupid girl that whored around because she wanted to feel loved and accepted. Everyone wanted to be accepted; everyone wanted to fit in, and everyone wanted to have someone dependent on them. I fit that bill, and guess where it got me—swaddled under a Mount Everest high pile of blankets, crying my eyes out. And it was all my fault.

Earlier that evening, my mom had entered my room. She didn’t say anything for one long moment, just stood there in my doorway, looking small and broken, pain splintering beneath her eyes. “I told you it always ends and you’re always left with a broken heart,” she’d whispered quietly, because if anyone knew what a broken heart was like, it was my mom. And then as quickly as she came, she was gone.

My fingertips sought out the ridged flesh of my forearms, scratching almost deep enough to draw blood. I let out a scream into my pillow, even though there was no one to hear it—not even anyone that would have wanted to hear it, not even Hayden. It had been weeks since I’d last used the blade. But as I reached down behind my mattress and pulled it out, that was all about to go down the drain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

v.

 

 

Saturday and Sunday were spent the same way as Friday: lying alone in my bed, half-asleep but still all too awake, and only getting up occasionally to go to the bathroom or get food.

I suffered through another week of torture, another week of painful silences from Hayden and smirks that Rebekah didn’t even bother to disguise. Another week of crying in bathrooms at school when everyone else had gone home. Another week of hating every bone in my body.

Volleyball tryouts finished. Hayden made the team, and so did the blond boy who helped him at tryouts. He was good; I watched him from behind the doors a few more times, because I was a masochistic bitch who apparently loved tearing herself apart. Rebekah and her cronies set up a gossip page for me on one of the popular anonymous question-asking site. It was like online graffiti, only worse, because everyone had access to it and everyone took advantage of it. I read their comments every night, and I cried myself to sleep every night, too. I didn’t cut again, but I kept scratching the gashes back open, preventing them from healing. I wasn’t living—hell, I was barely even existing. I went through that week like a zombie, until finally I got the guts to go talk to Hayden on Sunday.

I tackled the simpler missions first: getting out of bed, slipping into the shower, washing my face, brushing my teeth and getting changed. By the time I was done, I’d already half-convinced myself not to go. But I had to go, I knew I did. I had to at least try to mend our friendship, or it would stay like this forever and I’d always hate myself for what happened. I would regret it until the day I died, and I already had enough regrets to worry about. So with great reluctance and fear, I made my way down the street to Hayden’s house.

But I stopped just a few feet away from the red door. I didn’t want to go any farther; I didn’t want to do what I knew I had to do and spill my soul to the one person who could hurt me the most. But I knew I had to tell him the truth. If I didn’t do it now, I never would. So I took a deep breath, forced myself to walk up to the door, willed my shaking hand to knock thrice and then held my breath, my heart beating frantically against the lining of my chest.

This is it, I thought, swallowing thickly. This is my last try. This is all I have left.

The door creaked open and a tousled-haired Hayden poked his head out. The sight of him made my chest constrict, but moment his eyes, ringed with an even darker purple than before, landed on me, he made to shut the door. Quickly, I put my foot out to stop the door from closing and Hayden sighed, letting it swing open again.

“What do you want, Lydia?” he asked me tiredly, voice resigned. Hurt flooded my veins; it was clear that he didn’t want to talk to me. I had to remind myself that I deserved it.

“We—” My voice caught, a lump building in my throat. I swallowed and carried on, trying not to let my voice shake. “We need to talk.”

Hayden stared at me blankly. I cleared my throat, suddenly feeling self-conscious in my raggedy jeans and old sweatshirt, even though I doubted looking perfect—if such a thing was even achievable—would make things run smoother. “I—you’re right, Hayden, I should have said something. That part is my fault, and I accept full responsibility for it. But I need you to know the truth, and it’s not what you think it is.”

Hayden continued to stare at me blankly, his face devoid of any emotion. I looked down, shame coloring my cheeks and voice. “I didn’t become friends with you because I wanted to screw you, Hayden. I wanted a friend, because as you probably know, I don’t have many. Or any, for that matter. And you just—you just came up to me that day and said hi and actually tried to talk to me. You just talked to me because you wanted to, not because you wanted something from me or were dared to. Just because you wanted to, because you’re the kind of person I’ll never be. And you talking to me like I was a normal person is the kindest thing anyone’s done for me in months. Years, maybe. And you’ll never know how thankful I am for that.

“I know I have a reputation for sleeping around and that’s partially based on reality, but that’s not me, not really. I didn’t want to become that person, but I did, and now no one will let me forget it. I just… God, this is so hard to say.” I rubbed my hands over my face tiredly, trying to find the will to keep on saying what needs to be said. One last try, Lydia. One last shot, and then you can go home and cry. “I make the same mistake over and over again, like a skipping record, and I can’t seem to stop. Those boys just—they come up to me at parties or after school and talk to me, like I’m an actual human being. Like you did. And I know all they want is sex. God, that’s the terrible part—I know they don’t care about me, that the only reason they play nice and tell me that I’m pretty or beautiful or hot is because they want to use me.”

I took a deep breath, my voice thickening with emotion. “But the worst part of all is that for the short period of time between them treating me as if I’m normal and them finishing and leaving, I almost feel wanted. Like for once somebody actually cares that I’m alive and breathing and not dead. I walk around numb from this thing, this pain inside me, and in that short time, it almost goes away. But then they leave and God, it just hurts even more because I know I’ve fucked up, I know that I’m just being used and that they’ll never care about me.”

I was saying too much. I was handing Hayden the loaded gun again, shaping his hand around the trigger and guiding the barrel towards my heart. “I’m not telling you this so you’ll pity me. I didn’t come here to beg for your forgiveness. I just want you to know the truth, and the truth is that lately, I haven’t been able to feel anything at all and it’s scary, Hayden, it’s so fucking scary.”

The words were coming out in a rush, blurring into each other in my panic to get everything out. “God, I used to think that the monsters were the things under our beds, but they’re not. The monsters are inside of us, a part of us. Monsters are the things you see in your mirror. They’re the voices inside your brain that tell you how worthless you are. I’m my own monster, and I have no one else to blame for my mistakes. I keep screwing up again and again and Rebekah won’t leave me alone and I—”

My voice caught. For one moment, everything stopped. I was no longer standing on Hayden’s porch—I was eleven and shaking at the top of the stairs again. “My mom is alcoholic and bipolar and my dad hit her when I was little and I would watch,” I blurted out, staring determinately down at the ground. “I would sit on the top of the stairs and watch.”

Silence. I could feel Hayden’s eyes on me. The light had gotten brighter but the air even colder. Everything was clearer, sharper, and standing there in the aftershocks of my own confession, I felt naked and stripped bare. Trembling, I held my breath and wished for something—anything—other than this unbearable silence.

Tears started burning at the back of my eyes. I blinked them back impatiently, trying to focus on the concrete below my feet. Calm down, Lydia. Calm down, you’re okay, you’re fine, I told myself, drawing in a shaky breath.

Suddenly, I felt a warm finger tilt my chin upwards. “Hey,” Hayden whispered softly, unexpected concern coloring his rich voice. His eyes weren’t angry or disgusted like I was sure they’d be; he just looked upset and worried. “Hey, you okay?”

His voice was so kind, so different from what I felt I deserved, that I started sobbing.

The first tear leaked out of my right eye, but when I took a step back from Hayden to brush the tear away, the dam broke. Mortified, I tried to cover my mouth to stop the sobs from breaking through, but they just came out as raw gasps, barely muffled. There I was, on the porch of a boy who probably didn’t give two shits about me, breaking down into tears like a little girl. Pathetic.

“Oh, Lydia,” Hayden sighed, sounding pained as he grabbed my arm and gently pulled me towards him. “Come here.”

I hesitantly obliged, still sobbing, and Hayden pulled me into him, wrapping his arms around me. He rubbed a hand across my back as he gently rocked me sideways, left to right, his other hand gently moving from the roots of my hair to the tips. I sobbed into his shoulder, ruining his grey pullover, but he made no move to stop me. And I wasn’t about to pull away first. It had been a while since my last hug, and I’d forgotten how nice they were.

We stayed like that for a few minutes, me crying sobs that were gradually diminishing in volume into his shirt and him just holding me. “I’m so sorry,” he finally said, face buried in my hair. “I should’ve heard your side first before I got angry.”

“No, it’s my fault,” I sniffled, inhaling his rich scent of vanilla and nutmeg and something muskier. “I should’ve told you. I’m sorry, I really should have. It’s just hard for me to trust anyone anymore. And I’m sorry for ruining your shirt, too.”

Hayden laughed quietly. “Shirts can be washed, Lydia. Don’t worry about it. But I really should have listened to you first before freaking out. I shouldn’t have assumed that what Rebekah said was true. It’s just… something like this has happened before, and I guess it still sort of stings. I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge you, though. I just hate it when people try to be someone they’re not. Society is so screwed up right now, you know?”

I managed to choke out a wet-sounding laugh. “Amen to that,” I said, trying to lighten the mood. “When there are websites specifically for posting videos of people getting beat up, you know the world has gone to the dogs.”

Hayden tensed, pulling away from me just far enough to look me in my blood-shot eyes. “Is that what they do to you?” he asked quietly, eyes searching. “Hurt you and post it online?”

I nodded succinctly, averting my gaze. “Yeah, Rebekah set up an account for me,” I murmured. “Among other things. She’s quite the campaign leader—I hear I’m quite popular online.”

Hayden winced, shaking his head like he was trying to get the images of me getting beat up out of his mind. “You need to talk to the principal,” he told me lowly, raising his hands to my shoulders. “Get them punished for this. It’s not right.”

I looked down. I knew I would have to eventually, but I didn’t have the courage yet. “I will,” I finally told him, biting my lip. “Just not now. So, uh, are we good?”

My voice was hesitant, quiet, but when Hayden caught it, he laughed loudly. “Yeah,” he said, smiling softly at me. “Yeah, I think we are.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

vi.

 

 

Life gradually went back to normal, or whatever I considered normal these days. Hayden and I were friends again, and it wasn’t long before we returned to how we were before Hurricane Rebekah blew everything apart. There was still a slight hesitancy between us, though. Ever since that day, something changed, and I wasn’t sure if it that was good or bad.

Another downside and upside to our renewed friendship was that I was slowly learning to talk about stuff. Hayden was becoming my confidant, and he was getting annoying about it, too: once I showed him the videos Rebekah & Co. had posted of me, he wouldn’t shut up about me telling the principal about it and putting a stop to them once and for all. I finally gave in—although mostly just so he’d shut up about it—and so there we were, walking back to the school to tell Principal McIntyre the truth.

He was walking beside me in a silent sign of support, his frame hunched over against the cold and his hands stuffed in his front jeans pockets. “Question for a question?” he asked suddenly, sounding nervous.

“Sure,” I responded, feeling confused and slightly nervous too. “Ask away.”

Hayden cleared his throat and fidgeted for a moment, looking uncomfortable as he kept his gaze level with the outline of the school in the distance.  “Um… don’t take this the wrong way, I was just wondering because you’re so skinny and stuff but… are you anorexic?” Hayden finally blurted as the red brick façade of the school came into focus, sneaking glances at me as if to gauge my reaction. “I just… I dunno. I was just wondering. You don’t have to answer.”

I looked at him, startled. “I… not consciously, no. I don’t starve myself or make myself throw up or anything. I just… this depression or whatever it is just kind of doesn’t make me all that hungry sometimes,” I tried to explain. “If that even makes any sense, which it probably doesn’t.”

Hayden nodded, clearly relieved. “Okay. I was just wondering.”

I nodded back at him absently, but my thoughts were elsewhere. What was I going to tell Mr. McIntyre? What would he say? What if he said nothing? What if Rebekah retaliated? Oh God, what if things just got worse?

Hayden grabbed my hand and squeezed it gently as if he knew what I was thinking about. “Don’t worry, Lydia,” he said softly. “It’ll be okay.”

But the thing is that he couldn’t know that; he couldn’t know if it would get worse or not. I suddenly started to get anxious, the fear seeping into my veins and pumping a rush of adrenaline through my blood. To take my mind off of the oh my God, I’m about to tell the principal that they’re bullying me and beating me up and it could get ten times worse, but no big deal. It’s not like they’d come after me again or anything, right? Right? I racked my brain for a question. “So… a few days ago, after um, you know, you told me that (and I quote) ‘something like this has happened before, and I guess it still sort of stings’. What happened?”

I regretted the question as soon as Hayden winced, his eyes clouding over with something that looked a lot like regret. He sighed, sneaking a quick sideways glance at me before looking down. “Almost a year ago I, uh, had this girlfriend.” He still wouldn’t look at me, which was good because I was pretty sure I wasn’t doing a good job of pretending I wasn’t immediately jealous of his ex. Poker face, Lydia, poker face. “Her name was Macy. I kind of really liked her, but apparently she didn’t really like me back. She was always nice, but there was always something off about her, you know? Like there was something missing. But I didn’t realize that until later.

“I guess what I liked the most about her was how blunt and almost tom-boyish she was—she wasn’t weak, she was confident; she spoke her mind, no matter how unpopular her opinion was, and she didn’t really care if she got dirt on her hands, so to speak. But I guess it was an act. We dated for three weeks before, um, you-know-what.” I found the fact that he was blushing cherry red at the mere implication of sex a little too endearing and adorable. Part of me was really, really tempted to try and force him to say the word ‘sex’, but I decided to be nice and kept my mouth shut. “The next morning I woke up and she was gone. When I checked my phone she had texted me to say thanks for the night before and that she wanted to break up.”

Well, that certainly cleared things up, though it made things awkward because I had no idea what to say to that. I settled for twining an arm around his waist and quickly squeezing before letting go. “That’s crap, bro,” I finally said after I found my voice. “What happened to her?”

Hayden was failing miserably at not smiling as he held the school’s door open for me. “She, um… right before I left, I heard she got pregnant. One of my old friends told me she’s planning on dropping out.”

I’d like to say that I was a good person and didn’t burst out laughing, but I did. “Karma sure is a bitch.”

“Don’t look so pleased about it,” Hayden shot back, not bothering to try and hide his smile this time. “Karma could bite you in the ass too, you know. Maybe it’s waiting for you, Grim Reaper-style.” His voice turned low and dark. “Watch your back, Lydia, it’s coming for you.”

I sent him a weird look. “No offence, kid, but a mouse is scarier than you. And I find mice quite harmless.”

“Hurtful,” he pouted back, clutching his heart dramatically like I’d mortally wounded him.

“Deal with it,” I retorted, winking at him as we walked down the hallway to Mr. McIntyre’s office. I could feel people looking at me, but the crazy thing was that for once I was completely oblivious to all their stares and whispers. For once, I let their pettiness roll right off my shoulders. They could think whatever they wanted for all I cared; I had Hayden back. Cliché as it was, it was true: it was easier to deal with the bullying when you had someone to care about you and offer support and dumb jokes along the way. “Because there’s definitely more where that came from.”

The imposing door of the principal’s office now stood in front of us. “Ready?” Hayden asked, squeezing my hand reassuringly.

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes to calm myself and my rapid thoughts. (Oh my God oh my God oh my God what the heck am I doing why am I here why the absolute hell am I even doing this oh God.) Then I exhaled slowly, opened my eyes, and knocked firmly upon the door.

The wait was nerve-wracking. I counted the seconds until the door opened: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… Finally, the door cracked open slightly and one of Mr. McIntyre’s eyes peered back at me suspiciously. “What is it, Miss Mason, Mr. Parker?” His voice was as clinical as a doctor’s—there was absolutely no warmth to it. Well hello to you too, Principal McDouchepants.

“We, I, um—”

“We would like to report a—well, several—incidents of bullying, sir,” Hayden cut in smoothly, saving me from my incoherency. I shot him a grateful look. “Could we please come in?”

Mr. McIntyre studied us for a second, trying to figure out if we were telling the truth. Apparently, he had a hard time trusting his students. “Very well,” he grunted, opening the door wider. “Come in if you must.”

 

-Δ-

 

Mr. McIntyre braced his chin on his steepled hands, looking at us over the video playing on Hayden’s phone. “When exactly did this start, Miss Mason?” he finally asked after a few moments. Halfway through his words, video-me started screaming in pain, and the rest of his words were punctuated by quiet sobs. (Talk about awkward.)

“The end of last school year, I guess,” I answered, ducking my head. Beneath the ornate desk, Hayden took my hand and squeezed it gently for support. It helped calm me down a little, but the feel of the callouses on his fingers against mine was distracting. “But it wasn’t as bad back then as it was now. It was mostly insults and rumors and maybe a few shoves and slaps. But it got worse and worse as this year went on.”

Mr. McIntyre kept looking at me, but this time I detected a hint of pity in his normally stone-cold eyes. “How many incidents have occurred, Miss Mason?”

“Um…” I snuck a look at Hayden’s tense face to gauge his reaction. “I, uh… Dozens of times, probably. I don’t really know. You’d have to look at the number of videos they have posted and add a few extra to find out.”

“May I check, sir?” Hayden asked, his hand partially outstretched as he indicated his phone.

A rare smile crossed the principal’s face as he clicked on the channel button himself. “I may not be of your generation, Mr. Parker, but I am somewhat competent in the workings of modern technology,” he said dryly, watching with what looked like amusement as Hayden blushed and ducked his head in embarrassment. “There are thirty-five videos on this site.”

Hayden’s mouth dropped open in shock. “Lydia?” he whispered, turning towards me.

I saw the question in his eyes nodded. It was at least that many incidents, if not more.  “Yeah, that’s probably about right,” I said, bitterness lacing into my tone, “and probably another half-dozen more.”

“While your answer will not affect the punishments given to Miss Holt and the others, do you have any idea what prompted the bullying to get worse?” the principal finally asked, breaking the tense air in his office.

Oh, great. Now I had to answer this. Shit. This would be fun. “I… I, um, well…” I rubbed my hands across my face to try and calm myself down. “I, uh, kind of maybe accidentally slept with Rebekah’s boyfriend and, well, she says I ruined her life so now she wants to ruin mine.”

“Accidentally?” Mr. McIntyre’s eyebrows almost hit his receding hairline. “How do you ‘accidentally’ have sex with someone, Miss Mason?”

I blushed, shame and regret washing over me. It should never have happened—but it did, it fucking did—and now I had the pleasure of putting it into the big box of Things Lydia Regrets. “I… well, okay, it wasn’t an accident, per se. I mean, they were already bullying me before that, and I was basically an outcast. No one really talked to me, but he did one night and I didn’t know that Rebekah was dating him or have the sense to realize he was playing me. I swear to God I would never have done it if I’d known they were dating, but I didn’t know and now I regret it more than almost anything else.”

Mr. McIntyre nodded. I could tell he believed me—possibly for the first time, like, ever—but he needed to figure out what to do about it. “Very well, Miss Mason. You and Mr. Parker may go.” And with that, he handed Hayden his phone and turned away. The two of us we scurried out the door of the office as fast as we could—and ran into our welcoming party.

Some of them were shocked, others angry or suspicious. Some looked scared, and few of the crowd even looked admiring. And Rebekah’s face was full of pure rage.

She took a step towards me, trembling with anger. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she hissed, her green eyes narrowing into slits. Quick as a tiger, she leapt forwards and shoved me harshly. Caught by surprise, I almost fell down. Luckily, Hayden caught me by the waist, righting me and then moving in front of me protectively.

It seemed like Rebekah hadn’t seen him until then, because as soon as she caught sight of him, she froze. Eyes wide, nostrils flared, mouth thinned out. I kind of wished I’d brought a camera or something, but unfortunately the shock only lasted for a moment before her inner banshee made another appearance.

“What the hell?” she repeated, shooting through about three octaves. Hayden leaned away, cringing subtly. “I told you the truth about her and you left. Why are you still with her?”

“Well,” I said slowly, “I’ve been told that I have a good sense of humor.”

She growled—actually, literally growled at me—before turning back to Hayden. “Whatever she said was a lie. I told you the truth. Why do you believe me over her? She’s just a freak, don’t you understand?”

She sounded desperate. Her makeup was perfect, her hair impeccable and her clothes spotless, but she was going unhinged. I could see that, and by the looks of the people around me, they could too. “Don’t talk about her like that,” Hayden snapped, glaring down at her. “You didn’t tell me the truth, and I shouldn’t have believed you in the first place.”

“She’s the one who’s lying!” Rebekah hissed, brushing hair out of her face jerkily. “She’s a liar! She pretends like she’s innocent but she’s just a filthy little whore. All she does is try and ruin other people’s lives!”

“No, Rebekah,” I said softly, smiling bitterly as I stepped out from behind Hayden. “That’s you.”

She shrieked. Behind her, people started to back away, looking scared. “You little bitch!” she screamed, and then lunged at me with lightning speed, her nails outstretched.

I didn’t have time to react. Her nails had already raked down my cheek before I’d even realized what was happening. I hissed, feeling the sharp pain stabbing into my cheek, and then swung my fist towards her stomach in retaliation. Rebekah immediately doubled over, obviously not used to being the one in pain, and I took advantage of her distraction and shoved her into the crowd. I was seeing red, anger consuming me entirely. I was so sick of being the victim, the helpless little girl. I’d been handed that role my entire life, and now, all I wanted to do was pound Rebekah’s face in until she felt what I felt every single day of my goddamn life. But before I could strike again, Hayden grabbed my wrist and pushed me back behind him.

“Leave her alone.” His voice was furious as he glared at the crowd with an anger I’d never seen on him before. If I didn’t know that he was basically a teddy bear inside, I’d probably be scared out of my wits.

“Why should we?” Rebekah purred, stepping closer to Hayden. With a finger, she traced a line down from his collarbone to the middle of his chest, obviously trying to be seductive. Oh great, the Devil Inside was back. “She needs to learn her place.”

Hayden’s eyes flared again, and he tried to pull away, but Rebekah fisted her hands in his t-shirt and held on. “You can’t stop us,” she said sweetly, smirking as her eyes locked onto mine over Hayden’s shoulder. “I know who you are. You’re too nice to beat up a girl.”

Then she let go, smoothing out the hand-holds she’d left in his t-shirt, and snapped her fingers. “I think it’s time we taught someone a lesson,” she said, glancing behind her with a vicious smirk.

I looked around, my heart thumping. The crowd had subtly thinned, and now there was only about a dozen or so people hanging around—a couple jocks, a few of Rebekah’s cronies and a frowning blond boy. Still, she wouldn’t try to hurt me here… right?

She pranced over to one of the jocks—the captain of the football team, probably, from the way he carried himself—and slipped her arm through his before beckoning towards her ‘friends’. “C’mon, girls.”

The group of plastics followed behind Rebekah like baby ducklings while Asshole Jock walked up to Hayden, cracking his knuckles threateningly. Assumedly, he was here to “distract” Hayden in the case that he did actually fight a girl. Rebekah was nothing if not thorough, I’d give her that.

Hayden pushed me farther behind him, his body tensing. If I wasn’t as desensitized as I am to this kind of violence, I would’ve been frightened at this point. But no—I’d reached the sad point where this was normal for me.

“Walk away, dude,” Hayden managed between clenched teeth, balling his fists.

“Ain’t gonna happen, dude,” Asshole Jock answered before swinging his fist at the side of Hayden’s face.

Smack. It hit its target and Hayden stumbled back a few paces before he regained his balance. Asshole Jock swung again and this time Hayden managed to sidestep, smacking his hand away.

“Hey, man, back off,” someone else interrupted. It was the blond guy from before, the one who was frowning. He leisurely strolled over to Hayden’s side and smirked as Asshole Jock turned towards him, face reddening.

“Oh yeah? Whatcha gonna do about it, Michaels?” he retorted, spit flying in all directions.

The blonde boy laughed. “This.” And then he pulled back his fist and hit Asshole Jock straight in the jaw.

Asshole Jock immediately fell to the floor like a dead weight, clutching his face and moaning in pain like the world’s biggest crybaby. “Shit, man, what a sissy,” the blond boy told the groaning form on the ground, his lips quirking up into a devilish smirk. His face was slightly familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “I’ve been wanting to punch this asshole in the face for months, and that’s all the fight I get? Guess those big bad football players really can’t take it, can they?”

He clapped Hayden on the back and then turned to me. “Sorry, haven’t introduced myself yet,” he said in the kind of voice that gave no indication that he had almost broken Asshole Jock’s jaw, stretching his hand out towards me. “I’m Carson Michaels.”

I shook his hand hesitantly, feeling more than a little bewildered. “I’m Lydia.”

He laughed yet again, eyes twinkling. “Oh, I know who you are.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

vii.

 

 

I still had absolutely no clue what was going on. The familiar boy—Carson—stood with his profile to me, talking with Hayden in low tones. I kept staring at him, trying to figure out where I knew him from. He was pretty, the kind of pretty that usually belonged to the airheaded and/or arrogant—tall, silver eyes, bee-stung lips, flushed cheeks. Finally, a memory began to tug at my brain.

“Hey, you!” I called, and he turned with a slight smirk dancing around the edges of his mouth, raising an eyebrow at me questioningly. “We met at Alisha Miscotchi’s party, right?”

He broke out into a real smile this time, the kind of grin that stretched across his whole face. He looked a bit like a puppy: overly excited and endearing. “Yeah!” he said, trotting over to me, his head tilting to the side and his eyes dancing with amusement. “We kissed.”

I automatically turned to look at Hayden, who was pretending to be engrossed in his phone. His mouth was thinned out like he was upset. Uh oh, a voice in my head said. Is someone jealous? (Yeah, right, the other half of me said. Him, like me? Ha.) “Yeah, and then I puked on your shoes,” I added, turning back to Carson.

He rolled his eyes and made a ridiculous face. “Yeah, and me being the amazing gentleman that I am—” cue snort from me, “—and having such a weak spot for damsels in distress, I drove you home because you were off your face drunk,” he said, crossing his arms but smiling to show me that he wasn’t really angry. “I never actually got a proper thank you, mind. You’ve had so many chances, too. I sit like three seats away from you in English.”

I snorted again, laughing despite myself. I hadn’t even connected him to the blond-haired boy in my English class. “Thanks for the drive, hotshot.”

“Oh, no problem, Lyds,” he said cheerfully, slinging a long arm around my shoulders and steering the both of us back to Hayden. “I’m Carson, by the way.”

“You said that already,” I told him, raising an eyebrow.

“I know,” he returned, still grinning. Was this always-smiling thing a thing for him, too? I could barely handle it with Hayden; having both of them be twenty-four hour smile machines could be a bit much. “I just wanted to make sure you heard.”

I rolled my eyes at him as we stopped a few feet from Hayden. Boys. I was surprised I could even fit into the hallway with that ego of his.

“Stop trying to be charming, Carse,” Hayden interrupted staunchly, putting his phone back in his pocket as he turned to me, still looking slightly irritated. “The bell’s going to ring in five minutes. We’d better get going.”

I nodded at him, wondering what was wrong. “’Kay,” Carson said, nodding. “Just remember we have volleyball practice after school today.”

Hayden forgot to look irritated in his apparent surprise. “We still have practice? But Mason’s off injured,” he said, looking at Carson questioningly. “And Aiden and Kyle are off on vacation.”

“Yeah, but Nick’s taking over as captain for now,” the blond boy explained as I tried to pretend like I knew who they were talking about. “So we still have practice, just without a player.”

An idea occurred to me. A dangerous one, but then again, almost all of my ideas were dangerous. “I could sub in for Mason if you want,” I told them, trailing off as they both turned towards me. Yeah, this idea definitely fell under the dangerous category.

“You know how to play?” Hayden asked in surprise, his brow furrowing in a way that I absolutely did not find cute. Nope, not at all. Shut up, brain.

“A little,” I said quietly, shifting nervously on the balls of my feet. “I was on the girls’ JV team freshman year.”

Carson looked confused too. “So why aren’t you on the varsity team now?” he wondered, looking down at me.

“Because Rebekah’s captain,” I told him bitterly. “And she won’t let me on the team.”

I looked down, but I could still see them looking at me with pity I didn’t want out of the corners of my eyes. “Well,” Hayden said finally, “we have to get moving now, but yeah, come with me after Math and we’ll see what we can do.”

I looked up, and to my surprise, there was no pity left in his eyes, only concern. So I smiled at them, said okay, and waved goodbye to Carson and Hayden as I hurried off to my class.

 

-Δ-

 

By the time Hayden and I walked into the gym after Math, I wasn’t sure if I was more excited or more nervous.

I knew I was pretty good at volleyball, but the last time I’d played it with a group of people and not just by myself in my house was gym class last year (and that hadn’t exactly been volleyball so much as it was let’s make Lydia look like a loser-ball). I loved volleyball; it was something fun, something that let me get my anger out, and something that I was good at. But I was still nervous as hell.

The majority of the boys’ varsity team was already there when we arrived, some already changed, some still in their school clothes. Though they had been so loud and rowdy that we could hear them before even entering the gym, they all fell silent and stopped goofing around the moment they caught sight of me, looking bewildered, and in some cases, suspicious and disgusted.

Finally, someone stepped forward. “What is she doing here?” he asked angrily, and I gulped. I knew who it was: Nikolas, my ex-boyfriend’s older brother.

“Hey,” Hayden butted in, frowning. “She has a name. It’s Lydia. And I invited her here because we’re a player short and she says she’s good.”

Nick snorted derisively, glaring at me. Behind him, some of the other boys hid smirks behind their hands. “Yeah, good at playing, if that’s what you mean. At being a slut, more precisely,” he spat out, looking disgusted. “But probably not at volleyball.”

Carson stepped forward to stand on my other side. “Jesus, Nick, why are you being such an ass to her?” he asked incredulously, crossing his arms. “What’s she done to you?”

Wow, was that ever the wrong question. Nick let out a humorless bark of laughter, and my eyes widened reflexively. “What’s she done to me? Nothing,” he answered heatedly. “But she did a hell of a lot to my brother.”

I swallowed nervously. “That’s not what happened,” I said quietly, looking down. “That’s not the truth.”

Nick smiled darkly. “Yeah, you’ve always clung to that. But we all saw the pictures. Everyone says they saw you at that party with that guy.”

Angry tears rose to my eyes. I shook Hayden’s reassuring arm off and marched forward, jabbing the point of my index finger into Nick’s chest. “Yeah, that’s what they would say,” I snapped at him, relishing in the nervous tense in his jaw, “because that’s what Rebekah said. But that wasn’t me. It was photoshopped. Of course, it was too believable for anyone to care or notice that the girl that’s supposedly me in that fucking picture was wearing different clothes than I was that night.”

“Yeah? How am I supposed to know that?” he returned, but he sounded more uncertain than before.

“Look at the other pictures from that night,” I said quietly. “Because I was wearing a red flannel and dark jeans, not a grey crop top and light jeans.” And I remembered that night perfectly because of what happened, from the clothes to my jewelry—double lobe studs, two leather cord bracelets and my nose stud—to my shoes—combat boots—and to my hair—down and wavy—because it was the only thing I could cling to.

Nick stepped away from me. “We’ll see,” he said, turning away like the sight of me burned. “Go get changed.”

I ducked my head and headed off to the change rooms, trying not to smile at the quasi-victory. It took me less than three minutes to get changed, though most of that was spent critiquing myself in the cracked mirror. Unfortunately, the gym clothes I had in my bag consisted of a charcoal sports bra, a pair of short athletic shorts and a loose white singlet that showed the sides of my sports bra when I raised my arms and a bit of the top when it fell too far forwards. It could’ve been worse, I guess, but for a bunch of guys who already thought of me as a slut (including and especially Nick), it probably wasn’t the best outfit choice.

I took a deep breath. Boys are idiots, I reminded myself. They’re not going to give a shit, because a) if they really wanted to think of me as a slut, they would, and b) they’re boys. They’d like it if I dressed trashy.

And with that, I tied my hair back into a high ponytail, squared my shoulders and marched out of the change room.

Hayden was still in the boys’ change room, but he was the only one not dressed. The rest of them were already on the court, playing a two-a-side game. Carson was grinning, but he was the most relaxed. The others ranged from suspicious to nervous, and in Nick’s case, as tense as a slab of concrete. As I walked towards them, he kept botching serves, his movements jerky and erratic.

They stopped as soon as I came within ten feet of them, all of them tensing except for Carson, who cheerfully bounded over to my side and shouted, “I CALL LYDIA FOR MY TEAM!” at the top of his lungs. Sure that I’d blown an eardrum, I jerked away and cut a glare at his suddenly innocent face. As the door to the change room banged open, he added, “and Hayden too!”

Hayden laughed as walked over to us. “Your loss, guys,” he said, raising an eyebrow at Nick’s sour expression. “You’re so going to lose.”

One of the other guys snorted. “Right, Parker, because I bet the skank over there is good at anything athletic,” he retorted, leering at me. After a few moments, I recognized him—Jason, failed picker-upper number five hundred. “Except maybe screwing.”

“Really?” I asked him, sneering back. “And you would know, wouldn’t you? Because it was totally some other Jason who tried and failed to get into my pants a few months ago.”

A chorus of oohs surrounded me as Jason flushed cherry red. “Whatever,” he muttered, glaring down at the floor. “We’ll see how good you really are.”

 

-Δ-

 

Carson, Hayden and I worked better as a team than any of us thought we would. Hayden and Carson were clearly amazing at volleyball, and I was better than anyone had expected. We were winning by a wide margin, and Nick, of course, was getting madder by the second. His serves were becoming more forceful and erratic, and he’d taken to serving them straight at me in hopes that I’d fumble with the ball. But his anger was a tool to me, and on his next serve, I opened my hand and spiked it back right over Nick’s shoulder.

“TWENTY-THREE TO TEN, BABY!” Carson crowed, giving our opponents the finger before starting in on some sort of happy dance. Beside him, Hayden smiled warmly at me, his cheeks flushed with adrenaline. “TAKE THAT!”

It was Carson’s serve; he hit the ball over the net with a perfect jump serve, and one of Nick’s teammates bumped it back to our side. I set it and Hayden spiked the ball over the net right under Jason’s outstretched arm. Jason swore angrily and I smirked at his slowly reddening face before giving Hayden a high five. He smiled back at me, wide and euphoric, and I had to force myself to look away and focus on the game (after all, it would’ve been a shame to lose after so much hard work).

The other team scored once, a flyaway floater hit that slipped over my head. The other team laughed at me for that, so I gave them an angelic smile and two middle fingers.

“Feeling sassy today, are we?” Carson called cheerfully as I returned to my spot beside him, having just switched court positions. I pursed my lips at him and rolled my eyes upwards, turning away from him just as Nick hit the ball towards us in a flawless topspin serve. The ball moved too quickly to process things clearly, each team trying to outsmart the other: I made a fist and hit it back over the net; Nick bumped it back; Carson sent it back with an overhand serve; Nick hit it towards Hayden, who returned with a jump serve; Jason dove to stop it from hitting the floor, his spike just clearing the net; and then I jumped up, and with a sharp puff of air, hit it back over the net in an underhand serve that hit the floor, untouched. And that was how we won.

Carson was whooping in delight. “GO LYDIA!” He screamed, running towards me and throwing me over his shoulder, spinning around and knocking the breath out of me. I hit his back until he put me back down, laughing.

Hayden was watching us amusedly, one eyebrow quirked up. He opened his arms as I walked (okay, okay, skipped) over to him and tackled him in a hug, nearly toppling the both of us over.

“Nice job,” he said admiringly, smiling softly, eyes bright with excitement. He was sweaty as hell, but so was I, so I couldn’t really complain. “I didn’t know how good you were.”

“Me neither,” I confessed, and then realized what I’d said. “I mean, in a humble way. Like, I didn’t know I would be okay—”

Hayden laughed loudly. “Lydia?” he interrupted, now raising both eyebrows. I stopped talking and looked at him. “Shut up.”

I gave him a sarcastic salute as the other team made their way over to our side, clearly still nursing their loss. They stopped several yards in front of us and didn’t say anything for a few moments, Jason and Adam, their other teammate, shuffling their feet guiltily and Nick refusing to look at me. “Nice job,” Jason finally said grudgingly, looking like he’d just swallowed a particularly sour lemon. Cautiously, he held out his hand. I took it and then, lightning fast, tightened my grip and pulled him closer to me, raising my knee at what could not have been anything but the perfect time. Jason immediately bent double, groaning and clutching his crotch. Everyone else muffled smirks.

“Now we’re even,” I said, and smiled as I skipped back to the change room.

 

-Δ-

 

Hayden invited me over to his house after practice was over. He had the kind of house that was a home; while mine was like a mausoleum, his was cozy, happy. I could practically see people laughing in here.

We settled in the living room, and once again, decided on the (cliché) 20 questions. “Favorite candy?” he asked, smirking at me.

“Sour Skittles,” I answered immediately. “You?”

He held up a finger and got up. When he came back, he passed me a bag of Sour Skittles and had a package of Reese’s cups in his other hand. Bless this boy. “Reese’s cups,” he said, indicating the package he was tearing open. He bit his lip when he concentrated; it was cute. “Or peanut butter M&Ms. But Sour Skittles are pretty good too.”

“Likewise,” I said, ripping the package open and stuffing a handful of Skittles into my mouth unceremoniously. The face I made at the intense sourness made Hayden snort. “Favorite color?”

“Red. You?”

“Turquoise,” I answered, blushing, fiddling with the bag. “Yes, like my hair.”

Hayden smiled, carefully biting off a corner of his peanut butter cup. “Guilty pleasure?”

“Um, I don’t know,” I said, wrinkling my nose as I thought about it. “Candy, I guess? Or listening to music.”

“That’s mine, too,” he commented, disregarding his manners and stuffing the rest of the Reese’s cup into his mouth. Classy. “What’re your favorite bands? Or artists?”

I grimaced. “Don’t judge me,” I cautioned, fiddling with the bracelets around my wrist. Hayden gave me a look, so I rolled my eyes and continued. “Okay, um, Ed Sheeran, the Neighbourhood, Fall Out Boy, Mumford and Sons, Paramore, Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, Halsey, Cage the Elephant, My Chemical Romance, All Time Low, The Black Keys and Panic! at the Disco.”

Hayden stared at me in shock. I blushed and looked down, stuffing more Skittles into my mouth for a distraction. Yeah, it’d probably freak him out that I was into pop-punk music (although it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise—I wore combat boots and my hair was blue, for God’s sake). “Wow,” he finally breathed, grinning crookedly. “You like some of my favorite bands. Most of them, actually.”

I smiled into my hair and looked up—just in time to catch him stealing some of my Skittles. “HEY!” I yelled, snatching the bag back and cradling it close to my chest, scowling at him. “Don’t touch my Skittles.”

“I gave them to you!”

I scowled further, knowing he had a point, and reluctantly offered him the pack. Hayden laughed at my expression and took a few before his face suddenly turned serious. “Hey,” he started cautiously, watching my face, “can I ask you a personal question?”

“Only if I can ask you one in return.”

“Seems fair enough.” He smiled, but it flitted away as briefly as his laughter had. “So, uh, what happened between you and Nick?”

I swallowed a mouthful of Skittles in my surprise and somehow managed not to choke. I should’ve known that would be what Hayden would ask, but Jesus, way to give a girl warning. “Well, uh…” I shifted nervously. “I used to date his brother.”

Hayden nodded; he’d probably already figured that part out. After sucking in a deep breath, I continued. “Keep in mind that this was shortly after the whole mess with Rebekah’s boyfriend. That time was kind of the eye of the storm, so to speak. Not many people were nice to me, but not many people were actively mean to me, either. But Erik was nice to me. Really nice. He was a really decent guy.”

Guilt coiled in my stomach. I didn’t really like thinking about it—what happened back then was one of my worst regrets, and the fact that I’d given up so easily even more so. “We ended up dating. For six months, which is actually a pretty long time in sophomore terms.  But then Rebekah decided it wouldn’t do for me to be happy and everything went to hell in a Gucci handbag.

“Erik went to a different school, see, so she couldn’t interfere with him in person. So she had to wait for a while. Then last July I was at this party that he wasn’t at with the few friends I had left, and Rebekah took her chance. She took a picture of this couple that were making out, and somehow she managed to Photoshop that picture convincingly enough that everyone thought it was me.”

“I guess it wasn’t too hard,” I said, laughing bitterly. “I mean, all she had to do was change the hair color. But anyways, the photo got online, and Erik saw it. When I said he was nice, I meant it; he was the kind of nice that doesn’t survive well in this world. I broke his heart. And he broke up with me.”

Hayden was looking at me with sympathy. “And he didn’t wait to hear your side of the story?” he asked indignantly.

“No, he did,” I answered quietly. “But you have to understand how believable Rebekah’s lie was. I was already known for being a slut. And a photo is pretty good proof.”

“Still,” Hayden replied, frowning. “He should have believed you. I would’ve.”

I felt a smile tugging at my lips, but it wasn’t all Erik’s fault—it was mine, too, for being a coward and slinking away to wallow in guilt the moment he told me to leave. “Thanks,” I said. “Now, it’s my turn to ask you a question: where’re your parents?”

Hayden looked surprised. “My mom is a fancy-shmancy business person,” he told me, smiling slightly, “so she goes on a lot of business trips. And I’ve never had a dad. I was, uh, born out of wedlock. He bolted as soon as he found out that my mom was pregnant.”

I pursed my lips. For better or for worse, at least my dad stuck around while my mom was pregnant. “That sucks,” I said, smacking myself internally. Really, Lydia? Really?

Hayden shrugged. “Not really. I mean, I’ve never had a dad, so I can’t feel nostalgic for one. And besides, he’s an asshole. I wouldn’t want to know him anyways.”

I smiled at him softly, still not sure what to say. “I have another personal question for you,” he said nervously, starting on his second peanut butter cup. I nodded my assent at him and he continued talking, looking increasingly awkward. “Um, when you were, uh, talking or explaining or whatever last week, you mentioned something about ‘those guys’.” Oh God. I could feel a blush rising to my cheeks. “If this offends you or embarrasses you in any way, please feel free to not answer, but um, how many guys were there?”

was embarrassed. No, that wasn’t the right word for it—I was ashamed. But I trusted Hayden, and I wanted to be honest with him. “Please don’t judge me,” I said, trying not to sound like I was begging.

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” he replied, actually crossing himself. This idiot. “Stick a stick through my eye… or however it goes.”

Hayden waited patiently as I tried to force the number—my number—out, watching my face closely. “Four,” I finally said, biting my lip and looking down at my crossed legs.

I heard Hayden laugh. “See, that’s not too bad,” he told me lightly as he moved to sit beside me. “I was worrying it was going to be some gigantic number like twenty-three.”

I laughed along with him, lightheaded with relief. “So it doesn’t matter to you?” I asked quietly.

He shook his head. “Nope.”

I hid my smile in my hair.


 

 

 

 

 

 

viii.

 

 

February 14th was known as many different things to many different people. For some, it was Valentine’s Day, AKA World PDA Day, the day where everyone in a relationship flaunted their coupley-ness and single people felt like crap. To some, it was the day before the candy went on sale. But to my mom, it was her and my father’s anniversary.

Every year on that day (and on the anniversary of my father leaving), my mom would get off-her-face drunk, yelling and screaming and swearing and breaking things. I learned the hard way that if I went near my mother on these occasions, I would get sworn at, insulted, cussed out and occasionally slapped. Needless to say, I learned pretty quickly to just stay out of her way and try to drown out the noise as best as possible.

The day was almost bearable until I’d gotten home. I’d spent a large percentage of my time with Hayden and Carson, and they’d done their best to help me laugh off my poor excuses for Valentines: pieces of paper with insults, slurs, comments on my body and a couple requests for sex (seriously, one read, hey, wanna be my Valentine so I can bang you all night? I think not). I’d been over to Hayden’s house a few more times since the first time a couple weeks ago, and the volleyball team—even Nick, which was a miracle in and of itself—was starting to warm up to me. I thought it was because Nick had finally realized I was telling the truth, but hey, for all I know, it could have been my awesome volleyball skills.

But home was a completely different story. I’d known it would happen; hell, I’d had dinner at four and brought all the necessities up to my room shortly after, knowing I wouldn’t be able to leave once my mom got home. Yet this was worse than I’d imagined; even turning up the volume to an ear-splitting level didn’t fully drown out the sounds from below. I spent hours waiting for her to calm down, finishing off homework, listening through my entire music library, doodling on the plain white walls (there was a butterfly over the grimy mirror I’d started two weeks ago but hadn’t finished). But by the time the clock struck ten, I couldn’t do it anymore. I’d had enough of listening to my mom break things and scream curse words, and without really thinking about it, I called Hayden.

My crappy cell phone trembled in my hand as I dialed his number and put it up to my ear. The dial tone did nothing to mask the sobbing, cursing, and heartbreaking screams coming from downstairs, and certainly did nothing to ease my nerves.

He picked up less than three rings later, sounding a little too eager for his own good. “Hey,” he said excitedly, and I automatically smiled; I could picture him sitting on his bed with a wide smile plastered across his face, looking as adorable as a newborn puppy.

Downstairs, my mom screamed loudly, and beneath that was the sound of glass shattering. “Uh, are you okay?” Hayden asked confusedly.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said quickly. “Just my mom. She’s, uh, having a bad day. So what’s up?”

“You’re calling me at precisely ten-oh-four to ask me, ‘what’s up?’ while your mother is screaming bloody murder?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said, wondering how to word this. “I mean, not really. I mean, just—uh, my mom is drunk again, and like… it’s totally okay if you say no, but can I, uh, stay at your house tonight maybe? You really don’t have to say yes.” Oh my God. I was babbling like I was as drunk as my mom. This was embarrassing.

“Sure,” he said softly, and my heart fluttered stupidly with hope. “I’d love for you to come over.”

“Really?” I asked, just as hopefully as I felt.

“Really,” he reaffirmed, chuckling. “It’s no problem. I’d much rather you be here then there right now, anyways.”

“Okay,” I agreed, feeling way too giddy for my own good. A night without the soundtrack of my mom’s misery was more than I could have ever asked for.

“Okay,” Hayden repeated, and I could picture him smiling. “Come over whenever you want.”

There was a slightly awkward pause on the line after that before I decided to break it. “Umokaybye,” I said in a rush, and as soon as I had a response of ‘bye, Lydia’, I hung up. I could tell that my cheeks were flushed as I searched for my backpack, dumping its contents onto my bed.

I didn’t really keep track of what I packed, just kind of threw stuff in my bag—a tank top and the girl version of boxer shorts for pajamas, a pair of underpants and socks for the next morning, my hairbrush, toothbrush and makeup, my earbuds and the notebook and pencils I kept with me for sketching and song lyrics. I knew I was forgetting something as I stuffed a few dollars into my bag and zipped it up, but I didn’t care.

As I hoisted my bag over my shoulder, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and stopped. My hair had fallen out of its ponytail and my makeup had mostly worn off, leaving my freckles on full display, but that didn’t have anything to do with it. My cheeks were flushed, twin spots of red in the middle of my cheeks like a five year old had finger-painted on my face, and there was this weird sparkle in my eyes.

Jeez, I was in deep.

 

-Δ-

 

Hayden opened the door less than a second after I rang the bell, a bright grin across his face. “Hey!” he said tugging me into the house by the arm and pulling me into him. I smiled into his shoulder as I hugged him back; apparently, enthusiasm really was infectious.

“You can put your stuff upstairs,” he told me after he’d released me and I’d kicked off my shoes, directing me up the stairs. “We don’t really have a spare room, but I have a futon in my room that I can sleep on so you can take my bed.”

I stopped halfway up the staircase. “Wait, what?” I said, startled. “No, honestly, I’m not going to take your bed.”

He arched an eyebrow at me, looking amused. He’d probably known I would react like this. “You’re taking the bed, Lydia,” he repeated.

I glared at him. “I can take the goddamned futon.”

Hayden snorted and continued up the staircase. “Well then you’re out of luck, because we don’t have a goddamned futon, only a regular one.”

I made a face at his back as I reluctantly followed him. “Smartass,” I grumbled at the back of his head. “But seriously, I can take the futon.”

“I know you can,” he said patiently. “But you’re gonna take the bed. My mum taught me right.”

Fine,” I finally said, giving Hayden a sour look. I could practically hear his smirk as he rounded the corner.

 

-Δ-

 

We spent the rest of the night just talking about random things. I told him about some of the funny stories I’d collected over the years, and he told me about Chicago and his life back there.

At about a quarter to one, we realized the time and hurried to get ready for bed. I took the bathroom and he claimed the bedroom. I tried to be as quick as possible, changing quickly into my pajamas and taking off what was left of my makeup. When I brushed my teeth, the face that stared back at me was foreign—she was happy and pretty, even without the makeup. She—this girl in the mirror—was the exact opposite of me.

I knocked on the door, and when I got an amused ‘all clear’, re-entered the bedroom and switched spots with Hayden. He took even less time than me—figures; he was a boy, after all—and came back into the bedroom just as I was putting my clothes back into my backpack.

“What’s that?” Hayden said suddenly as I stuffed my sweater into the bag.

I froze. There was a tone of alarm in his voice, and when I turned to look at him, I found his eyes glued to my bare wrist. Shit. I’d taken off my sweater and was just in a tank top, the bracelets and cover-up gone too. There was nothing left to hide my scars.

Panic flooded my head. Shit shit shit shit shit. I straightened up, trying to keep my face blank as I angled my wrists away from him. “What’s what?” I asked carefully over the sound of my racing heartbeat.

That, on your arms,” Hayden answered, his eyes widening with the same panic I felt. He got up slowly as if in a daze and started to walk towards me. “Are those—”

I pulled away from him hurriedly, stumbling backwards, my breath quickening. “It’s nothing, don’t worry. I just nicked myself on a cupboard door once because I’m completely clumsy, it’s really nothing—”

Hayden grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me over to the bed, facing me. Once I sat down beside him and stopped struggling, reluctantly accepting that he was about to find out about the one part of me I never wanted him to, he turned my arm over.

He gasped at the sight, his jaw tightening as he stared down at the burns and raised scars on my right wrist. He didn’t speak for a minute, only breaking the silence when it almost suffocated the room. “Lydia,” he whispered, his voice completely terrified. When he looked at me again, his blue eyes looked fractured like the shards of glass I’d surely find on the floor when I returned home. “Lydia, why?”

I shook my head jerkily. “I— I don’t know,” I answered quietly, feeling ashamed. Hayden looked at me again, raising his eyebrows. Not in a patronizing way, but like he wanted me to figure it out. “I… I guess I just needed an out. No one likes me, everyone makes fun of me and beats me up, etcetera.”

“Some of these look fairly new,” Hayden said after another pregnant pause, focusing on a few still-red lines closer to the bottom of my wrist. “When was—uh, when was the last time this happened?”

I winced at the forced casualness in his voice. “I… about two and a half weeks ago,” I answered, not able to meet Hayden’s eyes as he winced, realizing what time frame that was. God. “I’m sorry, I just—”

“Don’t apologize to me,” he interrupted, looking pained. “God, Lydia, don’t apologize to me. I should be the one apologizing to you.”

I bit my lip, looking down. My arm was trembling in Hayden’s grasp; as I watched, he reached his hands down and caught my fingers between his. “Please don’t ever do this again,” he whispered, bringing up a hand to cup my face. “Please. If you feel like doing it again, call me. I don’t care if it’s four a.m. or I’m in the middle of a game—call me.”

A huge wave of gratitude went through me. I’d spent so long with no one who cared about me that now that Hayden was offering help, I felt completely underserving of his kindness. “Why?” I asked quietly, looking up. He looked straight back at me, unflinching, his bright eyes clouded with worry. “Why do you care about me?”

He swallowed, still refusing to look away. “Because,” he said slowly. “Because you are beautiful and funny and amazing, and I care about you.”

He was so close—less than a foot away, still staring at me, still cupping the left side of my face. I watched, not daring to look away, not daring to waste a second of looking at him and memorizing the angle of his cheekbones and the cupid’s bow of his lips. Watching as he leaned in closer, his nose brushing mine, my breath hitching uncontrollably. Watching as he jolted forwards and smashed his lips onto mine.

I immediately pressed myself closer, gasping into his mouth. All of my previous lethargy melted away as I wound my hands into his hair, pulling him even closer. I’d kissed a lot of boys before, but suddenly it seemed like I’d never kissed anyone. Certainly I’d never kissed anyone like this, never felt like this. I hadn’t known that my lips had that many nerve endings, and that when we kissed, I would short-circuit.

Somehow I ended up on his lap, our mouths moving frantically against each other as if we needed it like oxygen. His arms were around me, one resting on the curve of my waist, the other still cupping my cheek, both pulling me closer. My hands were fisted in the soft material of his t-shirt, scrabbling for a handhold. He used the hand cupping my cheek to take my hair out of its ponytail, tangling his fingertips into my hair. God. It could have been a few minutes, or a few hours. But it was like my body was conducting lightning, a thousand volts of electricity arcing simultaneously through my body. Like I was finally waking up.

Hayden was the one who pulled away, his lips swollen cherry red. His eyes were darkened, hair wild. I could only imagine what I looked like, with my chest heaving and hair in a wild snarl, but he just smiled softly at me, his eyes full of affection.

It was like all words had failed me. What was I supposed to say? ‘God, you’re super hot and I want to jump your bones?’ Yeah, no. But before I could say anything, Hayden laced his fingers with mine. As I watched, he bent down over my arm, his lips touching each scar on my wrist before he straightened up again and pecked my lips one last time.

“‘Night, Lydia,” he whispered, getting off of the bed and flicking the light off before climbing onto his futon bed.

“‘Night, Hayden,” I whispered back, dazedly smiling into the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ix.

 

 

When I woke up the next morning, I was disoriented, sitting up quickly and blinking at the unfamiliar surroundings. The room I was in wasn’t mine, and to the best of my knowledge, I hadn’t stayed over at anyone’s house (or room) since before my Dad left. Finally, I realized I was in Hayden’s room.

I fell back onto the bed, smiling goofily, and then covered my face with my hands to mask my smile. Hayden himself was still asleep on the futon bed, shirtless now, flat on his stomach with his face smushed into his pillow. Even in my half-asleep state, it was hard not to ogle his shoulder muscles, because God, did that boy ever have nice shoulder muscles.

It had to be about nine-ish—the light was filtering through the windows brightly, but not as sharply as it did closer to dawn. I had a little time to kill, and even without considering the kiss and heart-to-heart, I was feeling more than grateful towards Hayden for letting me stay the night. And the key to a boy’s heart is food, so pancakes it was, because a) everyone loved pancakes and b) they were all I knew how to make.

I got out of Hayden’s bed as quietly as possible, trying not to wake him, and went down the stairs and into the kitchen just as cautiously, tying up my hair as I went. I’d only ever caught glimpses of Hayden’s kitchen before—yellow walls, white countertops, oak cabinets—but never its entirety. Plants lined the window sill, and the refrigerator was covered in pictures. If I looked closely, I could watch Hayden grow up from a wriggling toddler to the male model of now. It was so much different from the emptiness of my kitchen. We only used ours to store food, but this place was twreclectic and homey, even (especially) with the subway tile backsplash. Like a kitchen was supposed to be.

I started to rifle through the cabinets, looking for the necessary supplies—flour, baking powder, sugar, etc.—but I didn’t know where anything was, so it took longer than expected. After about a minute or so of only locating the flour and sugar, I abandoned the cabinet looting and went over to the refrigerator. But just as I opened the door, someone coughed from behind me.

I spun around, slamming the fridge shut with a little too much force in my surprise. A woman was sitting at a table that I hadn’t noticed before, watching me with one eyebrow raised. There was a half-empty coffee mug next to the spread-out newspaper in her hands. “Hello,” she said, the corners of her mouth pulled up in amusement.

Christ. There was no doubt about it—this was Hayden’s mother. They had the same smile and eyes. “Uh, hi,” I said quickly, my voice slightly higher than normal as I tried to rearrange my face into a smile. “You must be Mrs. Parker.”

Hayden’s mother lowered the newspaper but didn’t say anything for a moment or two. She was beautiful, the sort of beautiful that didn’t fade over time, and young—probably not even forty. “I never was Mrs. Parker,” she answered, still watching at me. “You can call me Johanna.”

“I’m Lydia,” I told her, trying out another nervous smile. God, was I ever terrible at these things. “Lydia Mason. And this is a really awkward introduction. Sorry. Also, I swear I’m not trying to rob you. I was just going to make Hayden breakfast.”

Johanna laughed for real this time. She had the kind of infectious laugh that could make anyone feel comfortable. “I didn’t assume that you were robbing us. I have a little more faith in my son than that.”

It wasn’t exactly a compliment, but it felt like one. “Uh, thanks,” I said, the words turning up at the end like a question.

That was about the time that I realized Johanna was supposed to be on a business trip, and seeing as there weren’t any bags or jackets lying around, she must’ve gotten in a while ago. Which meant she might’ve seen me in Hayden’s room. Jesus. Mother. Hecking. Christ. This was literally the worst possible first meeting of one’s best friend/crush/something. She—a teenage mother—had found a blue-haired, locally notorious sixteen-year-old girl that she had never met before in her sixteen-year-old son’s bed while she was away. Oh Lord, please kill me now.

“Uh, Hayden let me stay here because I had some personal issues going on at home,” I said before she could say anything else.

Johanna smiled again. “I thought it was something like that,” she responded, turning back towards the newspaper. “Otherwise, I assume you two would have been sharing the bed.”

Oh God, she did see me. I blushed and quickly changed the subject. “So, um, can I…?” I drifted off, pointing over my shoulder to the ingredients I’d managed to find.

Johanna nodded. “Sure, go ahead,” she said. “The eggs and baking powder are in the fridge.” (Of course they were.)

I scavenged around the kitchen for the rest of the ingredients and got everything set up. Johanna and I didn’t speak again until I was pouring pancake batter into the pan. “So, uh, how was your business trip?” I asked awkwardly, grimacing towards the pancakes. Nice, Lydia, nice.

“Good,” Johanna answered, the pages of her newspaper rustling. “It ended earlier than expected. I got in around one this morning.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, what was the business trip for?” I questioned carefully, glancing over my shoulder to gauge Johanna’s expression. She didn’t seem to mind.

“I’m the administrator for the local hospital’s ER,” Johanna replied, setting her newspaper down. “It was this boring conference about budgets and new ways of treating people at the hospital board.”

“Oh,” I said, surprised. “So you work in medicine?”

“Yes,” she responded, sounding amused. “I went to university for nursing. It was lucky that I finished.”

I was confused. Somehow my silence must’ve translated correctly, because Johanna continued after a moment. “I was in second year when I got pregnant with Hayden,” she told me, half-smiling. It was more wistful than anything else. “His father bailed when I told him, but luckily my parents were good enough to not kick me out. I finished my second year through electronic correspondence, and my mom would babysit Hayden through my third and fourth years and when I went into residency.”

I was speechless. I wasn’t sure what I should say, but thankfully I didn’t have to because at that moment, footsteps sounded down the stairs and Hayden walked into the kitchen.

God. Even now, half asleep with messy hair and tired eyes, he was adorable. Scratch that—especially now. And he was shirtless, too, but that was more attractive than adorable. Apparently the smell of pancakes cooking had woken him up and lured him downstairs, because the first words out of his mouth were, “are those pancakes?”

I laughed at him and nodded. Behind me, Johanna echoed my laugh and added, “it’s nice to see you too, Hay.”

Hayden must’ve had the same early-morning lack of awareness problem that I had, because he swiveled around in shock when he heard his mom’s voice. I watched with only a small degree of wistfulness as a grin blossomed over his face and he ran over to Johanna, who stood up hastily in preparation. “Mom!” he shouted happily, wrapping his arms around her tightly and twirling her around. “I thought you weren’t going to be home until later today!”

She smiled breathlessly at him when she was finally put down, tousling his hair and ignoring his responding face. “The conference ended earlier than expected,” she told him. Abruptly, her face became stern. “And Hayden Thomas Parker, go and put on a shirt. We have a guest here, for Christ’s sake.”

Hayden glanced down at himself and blushed a little. Smirking, he walked over to me, bumping his hip against mine and wrapping an arm around my shoulders. “But Lydia doesn’t mind,” he said mischievously, winking at me. I shrugged him off and turned back to the pancakes to hide my blush, busying myself with flipping a few of them over and putting the done ones on a plate.

And the thing was that I most definitely did not mind—Hayden didn’t have, like, rock hard abs or anything, but he did have a smooth, softly-muscled upper body. I preferred muscles that way—there, but not so defined that you could break a rock in half with them.

Regardless, Johanna pointed imperiously up the stairs, though she looked like she was biting back a smile. “Upstairs. Change. Now.”

Hayden gave her a sarcastic salute and turned towards the stairs. As he passed me, he leaned in to whisper, “good morning, by the way,” in my ear. I swallowed audibly, and by the smug look on Hayden’s face as he snatched a pancake off of the cooked pile and stomped up the stairs, he’d heard. Great.

I quickly untied my hair and busied myself with the pancakes again so Johanna couldn’t see my blush.

 

-Δ-

 

By the time Hayden came back downstairs, fully clothed, the pancakes were done and I was talking with Johanna at the table. “So, if you don’t mind me asking, why did you choose to dye your hair blue?” she asked, her voice light but with an edge of caution. “I mean, of all colors, why blue?”

I swallowed a too-large piece of pancake and choked a little, hastily downing a few gulps of orange juice and waving away Johanna’s concerned look. “I’m fine,” I reassured her once I’d stopped coughing. “Well, I’m not quite sure why I picked this shade of blue, to be honest. I think I just chose it because it was my favorite color. But thinking back on it, there was a lot of great symbolism to my choice.”

Johanna watched me curiously, silently willing me to go on. “Blue can symbolize sadness or depression, and this particular shade of turquoise can also symbolize peace and truth, which I’m trying to achieve with myself. But I dyed my hair in general for a concrete change,” I babbled. “I was going through a rough turn of events at the time and doing something drastic to my appearance felt satisfying.” I wasn’t about to add that I’d dyed my hair in the hopes that my mother would notice and say something (but she didn’t).

Hayden plopped himself down in the chair next to me, grinning. “I like the blue,” he commented, pausing in dousing his pancakes in maple syrup to tug gently on a lock of my hair.

“It would look tacky on most people, but it works well on you,” Johanna agreed.

“Uh, thanks?” I said, not totally sure if that was a compliment.

“It was a compliment,” Hayden told me, smirking around a mouthful of pancake.

“Thanks,” I said decisively to Johanna, and then stole one of the pancakes on Hayden’s plate that had been spared most of the maple syrup.

“Hey!” he complained—or at least tried to, because the word came out as ‘frey!’ with a side order of pancake chunks and spit. I grimaced and used the back of my hand to delicately wipe the spray zone clean.

Hayden swallowed noisily. “Sorry,” he said. “For the pancake shower. But not for the pancake stealing thing. That was completely uncalled for.”

I made a face and looked down at his plate pointedly. “You have almost a dozen pancakes on your plate,” I told him, frowning, “and I clearly misjudged my level of hunger when I gave myself three. Also, I made the damn pancakes, so therefore your entire argument is invalid.”

Hayden snorted. “I never had an argument,” he told me, but sighed dramatically. “Fine, I guess you can have that pancake.”

“Good.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Johanna smirking at us.

 

-Δ-

 

After breakfast, Hayden and I went upstairs to get ready. It was then that I realized that what I’d forgotten in my rush last night was clothes for today, and thus I was forced to ask Hayden for a shirt.

“Did you actually not pack extra clothes, or is this just some plot to steal my clothes?” Hayden said when I asked him, smirking slyly.

I shoved his shoulder. “If I wanted your clothes, I would’ve just stuffed my bag with them yesterday,” I pointed out, rolling my eyes as he laughed and went over to his dresser. He pulled out a grey hoodie and tossed it to me after a few moments of rifling around and then pulled out several other items for himself.

“You can get changed here,” he said. “I’m going to get ready in the bathroom. I’ve gotta get ready for work.”

“Work?” I asked confusedly, tilting my head. He’d never talked about having a job before.

“Yes, Lydia, work,” he responded, chuckling. “I have a job at a small café a couple blocks away.”

“Oh,” I said meekly. “Okay. That makes sense.” Hayden merely grinned at me as he shut the bathroom door.

Once he was gone, I pinched the bridge of my nose, exhaling in irritation. Why was I so awkward around him? It was only being around him that made my brain turn to mush and my tongue knot up. I’d never had this problem before.

Sighing again, I unfolded the hoodie Hayden had given me. Lincoln-Way North Phoenixes and a drawing of a volleyball was on the front and Parker and the number twenty-two was on the back. I changed as quickly as possible, pulling the sweater on last. Though I wasn’t short for a girl—I stood at about five-foot-eight, to be exact—the sweater was still a bit big, the hem a few inches lower than usual and the sleeves down to my knuckles. The hoodie smelt like Hayden, too, but I totally didn’t pull the shoulder of the hoodie close to my nose to find that out. (Totally didn’t. Because that would be weird.)

I was brushing my hair when Hayden knocked on the door between the bedroom and the bathroom, wearing a navy polo and slim khaki pants. Once he re-entered the bedroom, I grabbed my toiletries bag and made for the bathroom. “Wait,” Hayden called, and I turned in the doorway to face him. He looked serious, which probably wasn’t a good thing. “I, uh, wanna talk about last night.”

I swallowed, thinking, uh oh. That couldn’t be good. “I, uh, just wanted to let you know that I’ll be whatever you want me to be,” he said, blushing but holding my gaze determinedly. “I get it if you’re not ready for a relationship or anything yet. If you want me to just be your friend, I will. But I like you, Lydia. I like you a lot. And I want you to know that.”

It felt like someone had just sucker-punched me in the gut. I was shocked speechless, completely stunned that a boy like him could have feelings for a girl like me. My mouth was glued shut, and it took me a few tries to get it to work right. “You shouldn’t care about me,” I whispered, closing my eyes against the harsh truth of my admittance. Shame knotted itself into a bow in my throat. There. Finally, after all this time, there was the truth: I wasn’t the kind of person who deserved to have someone care about them, the kind of person who did things right and didn’t screw up like I had.

Hayden paused in the doorway. I could imagine him looking at me, a small, sad smile across his lips. “But I do,” he breathed back, and left.


 

 

 

 

 

 

x.

 

 

After what became known as That Day and That Night, Hayden didn’t mention our kiss or the talk that came afterwards. We stayed friends, nothing more and nothing less, and Hayden seemed to be completely okay with that. In fact, I would’ve thought that I’d dreamt That Day and That Night up if it weren’t for the way he’d glance at me when he thought I wasn’t looking, like he was trying to figure me out but couldn’t. (Or the way I was looking at him like I was trying to figure him out but couldn’t.)

About a week after That Day, I was sitting on the bleachers in the gym, doing my homework. I hadn’t played with the team since Mason came back, but both he and the rest of the team accepted my background presence pretty easily—even Nick, who didn’t glare at me anymore and instead usually ignored me, which I guess was an improvement. Some other things had changed, too—Rebekah had been punished with in-school suspension. I think the principal would’ve given her worse, but because Rebekah had to be extraordinarily cliché, her dad was a lawyer, and somehow daddy dearest managed to find a few loopholes for his daughter. (But at least that was something—I had a one-person party when I found out.)

It was probably about halfway through practice when I came to the conclusion that Calculus was goddamn hard, especially when you had six rowdy boys running around and shouting whilst playing some ‘special’ version of volleyball (or at least some pre-societal Caveman form of volleyball that had three balls going at once. Boys. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t… yeah, that’s about it). I was trying really, really hard to focus, and it almost worked until Carson shouted, “LYDIA! INCOMING!”

I barely managed to duck the volleyball flying towards me in time. It hit the wall behind me and bounced to my feet, rolling lazily. “Okay,” I called, scooping up the ball and standing up. “Which one of you idiots was it?”

Everyone except Nick pointed at Kyle, who was pointing to Carson. I rolled my eyes and served the ball back at him, making sure I hit it hard enough that it smacked him in the chest. I was back at my homework before I could see if it had hit its mark, but by the muffled thump, indignant “ow!”, and various childish sniggers from the rest of the team, I assumed it had.

“Nice shot,” Mason called, smirking. I looked up just in time to see him get nailed in the side of the head by a ‘flyaway’ ball. “You should really try out for the girls’ team next year.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes again. “Yeah,” I said dryly, “I’ll be sure to get right on that. Rebekah would just love for me to be on her team, don’t you think?”

“He tries not to think,” Carson said, serving the volleyball over the net with a wicked grin. “It gets in the way of being a dumbass.”

Mason frowned at him. “Says dumber.”

“Uh, I think that title goes to you, King Dumbass,” Carson retorted, crossing his arms.

“I’m still your captain, Michaels. I’d watch your tone if I were you.”

“Ladies, ladies,” I said, shaking my head. “Break it up. You’re both very pretty.”

That got a laugh from Hayden, but everyone else was too involved in the ‘fight’, throwing their own insults and jokes into the mix. “Oh Jesus,” Hayden sighed, shaking his head as he ducked under the net and walked towards the huddle of Egotistical Boy. “C’mon, guys, get yourselves together…”

I just shook my head and tried to get back to my homework, but I hadn’t even finished the first problem before I felt a tap on my shoulder. Immediately, I flinched and spun around. When I saw who it was, my eyes widened with fear.

“Let’s have a little chat, shall we?” Rebekah asked sweetly, her smile poisonous. She was flanked by two girls on each side, all of them ready for a fight.

I looked behind me. The idiots had escalated to shouting now and were paying me no attention. Great. I was outnumbered and I had no one to help me. “Whatever,” I told her, forcing myself to roll my eyes as I stood up.

As they escorted me out of the gym, I searched around frantically for someone to warn. The problem was that the boys were so loud that I doubted they’d hear me if I shouted, and they were so distracted that they probably wouldn’t notice anything was wrong until long after I was gone. The only one who noticed that something was off was Nick, who was cutting his gaze between me, my escorts and the fight furtively.

Of course. It would be Nick who’d be the only person who could help. I knew he didn’t like me—to be fair, if I had been in his position, I probably wouldn’t like me either—but right now, he was all I had. Across the court, I met his eyes, widening my own and trying to convey without words that I was probably in mortal danger. He nodded slightly once, hopefully to show me he understood and not that he was saying goodbye or something, and I allowed myself to be led away.

Once out of the gym, a Barbie took each arm and another fell behind me, prodding me forwards harshly. I could hear Lindsay’s footsteps behind us, her feet dragging. Rebekah, leading the way in front with her head held high, threw me a smirk over her shoulder.

“Don’t fool yourself into thinking that anyone’s gonna save you,” she told me, her smirk widening as she turned back to the front. “Right now it’s just you and me and a little friend of mine I like to call pain.

I gulped.

 

-Δ-

 

We finally stopped when we reached the second floor stairwell. The Barbies dragged me up the staircases before pushing me against the railing that overlooked the second set of stairs, and for one frightening moment, I thought they were planning to throw me over and let me break my neck. I had to remind myself that no, they wouldn’t do that, because that could be considered murder and Rebekah wouldn’t go that far… right?

Rebekah sauntered closer, the heels of her boots clacking loudly against the floor. With lightning speed, she hooked one of her feet around my leg and brought me down, my head bumping dangerously against the concrete wall. I barely had time to brace myself against the floor. When I righted myself and looked up, Lindsay was behind her, a red light flickering beside the lens of her phone.

“So,” Rebekah started, her voice rising easily over the giggles of her cohorts. “You’ve made yourself some friends.”

I arched an eyebrow at her. “Wow, great observation skills, ’Bekah!” I said, my voice filled with false admiration.

The giggles of the peanut gallery quelled instantly as Rebekah crouched down in front of me, gritting her teeth. “Be smart all you want,” she told me lowly, eyes flashing. “It’s just going to make things worse for you later.”

I rolled my eyes up at the ceiling, but when I glanced around me, I realized I was surrounded, a Barbie leaning casually against the wall on either side of me and another—Allyssa—flanking Rebekah. “So you made some friends,” Rebekah repeated, sneering down at me.

“I did.”

“You don’t deserve friends,” Rebekah hissed. Her face was less than half a foot away from mine now and suddenly filled with a manic kind of fury. “And you certainly aren’t the kind of person who can make friends. So therefore you must be paying them somehow.”

“And how exactly did you come to that conclusion?” I asked, trying not to sound withering. (Jesus—I didn’t even have any money to pay them. Rebekah must be slipping; she ought to know that.)

“Because you’re an ugly bitch,” she responded immediately, her eyes narrowing. Oh, wow. Haven’t heard that one before. “So either you’re paying them, or you’re screwing them. Personally, I’m leaning towards the second option, because everyone knows you don’t have any money.” (Ah. There it was.)

“Sorry, but I’m not paying them in money or sexual favors,” I told her, this time not quite succeeding in not sounding patronizing. “There’s this thing called being nice and being funny. Maybe you should try it sometime.”

Rebekah grabbed my arm roughly, digging her manicured nails into my bicep. I forced myself not to wince. “You’re not nice or funny,” she snapped, her eyes glaring down at me with something more than contempt—something a lot more frightening that contempt. “You’re a cold-hearted bitch. And because you don’t deserve to have friends, you’re going to stay away from them.”

We were past the point where being cooperative would help. Either I agreed to her terms—which I most definitely wasn’t going to do, because I was happier now than I could ever remember being—or be subjected to another beating. But I wouldn’t go down easily. I was never good at doing that. Sure, I was overpowered six to one, and yes, I’d almost certainly get bruised, but no matter how hard I’d get beaten, I wasn’t going to let them win. And my smart mouth almost always made things worse, but that didn’t stop me from sassing them, because it helped me guard the last piece of dignity I still owned. Sure, it’d be a Pyrrhic victory, but it was victory nonetheless, and that was better than nothing.

“And why would I do that?” I asked Rebekah, forcing amusement into my tone.

Rebekah’s nails dug in deeper, bringing tears to my eyes that I impatiently blinked away. If she tightened her grip any more, she’d draw blood. “Because I’m giving you two options here: either agree and stay away from Hayden and Carson, or we’ll give you the worst beating you’ve ever had. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll choose the first option.”

I pretended to think about it. “Hmm…” I said. “How about no?”

Rebekah smiled, this victorious little thing that scared me more than her smirk ever could. “I’ll break you if it’s the last thing I do, Lydia,” she told me softly, drawing her hand back. “Sooner or later, you’ll realize the monster that you are.”

The first sucker punch caught me square in the gut.

 

-Δ-

 

I didn’t know how long I lay there, curled into a ball in an attempt at protection. Pain was everywhere. My eyes were closed, but even if they were open I doubted that I could’ve seen any better. One of my eyes was already swollen shut, the other squeezed shut with pain. My stomach felt like it was about to explode, aching with the hurt of too many blows to count.

My feet feebly kicked out, blindly reaching for relief from the pain. I made contact with something, and the responding grunt of pain told me I’d hit someone. But in retaliation, they grabbed my wrist, jerking it around harshly. My mouth immediately flew open in a blood-curdling shriek. “Get off me!

I opened my eyes with difficulty and Rebekah laughed, her fuzzy outline standing above me. She held firm to my wrist as I struggled to pull away from her. The anger in her eyes hadn’t subsided yet—if anything, it had gotten worse. She wasn’t anywhere near done with me yet, but it didn’t matter. I wouldn’t—couldn’t—let her win. Not this time.

Rebekah saw the stubborn refusal in my eyes, and slowly let go of my wrist. I pulled as far back as I could against the wall, refusing to cry, to give any more indication of how in pain I was. “Well then,” she said sweetly, her chest heaving. “Looks like you’re going have to brave through a little more of this, Lydia. Remember: it’s your choice.”

She leant over so her mouth was mere inches from my ear. I was trapped—I couldn’t run, and even if I could, there was nowhere to go. They’d just find me again. “You know what to do to make it stop,” she whispered, her voice soft and persuasive. I almost wanted to say okay, that I’d give them up. Almost. “Just say it, Lydia. Say it.”

But I refused to say it. I hadn’t had friends for so long that now that I had Hayden and Carson, I wasn’t going to let Rebekah take them away from me. I wasn’t going to let her take away my newfound happiness like she’d done so many times before. “No,” I gasped out, bracing myself for more pain. “I’m not going to give up my friends because Queen Bitch Rebekah wants her way.”

And a moment later, any remaining breath I had whooshed out of my lungs as Rebekah sucker punched me in the gut yet again.

I bit my lip to try and keep my cry of pain from escaping as the crowd of animals around me laughed cruelly. I forced my eyes to stay open, focusing them on the red light until things finally re-sharpened. I stayed silent as they continued wailing on me, waiting until I got my breath back. Just as it did, Rebekah yanked on my hair, forcing a chunk of it out. I gathered up the anger I had—and God, was there a lot of it—and turned it into adrenaline, striking out at Rebekah with my good hand, my busted wrist cradled protectively against my chest.

“GET OFF ME!” I screamed at them, probably sounding like a feral animal. I didn’t care; I just wanted it to stop. “LEAVE ME ALONE!”

I closed my eyes, now striking out blindly, flailing my non-injured limbs around wildly and hoping to catch someone. I couldn’t fight them on my own, not when I was this outnumbered. I’d have to wait and hope that Nick passed on the message and that someone was coming to help get me out of this hell.

But no one came for a long time. I waited through punch after punch for someone to come while I struggled to get away from them with all I had, biting and clawing and kicking and screaming my lungs out.

Then, finally: “What the hell?”

I could’ve cried with joy at the sound of Hayden’s voice, though from the wetness on my face, I probably already was. Groaning, I peeled my eyes open again, blinking painfully against the harsh light as I waited for my vision to focus. Hayden and Carson were standing on the first staircase’s landing, fists balled at their sides and fury blazing in their eyes. Their presence made all the girls freeze and look up like deer caught in headlights. I took my chance and kicked at the closest Barbie with my good leg; when she fell, she took out the two beside her like a row of dominoes.

A second later, I felt a push against my side and then another against my back, and before I knew it, I was tumbling down the stairs—the concrete, so-steep-it-probably-wasn’t-to-code stairs. My head banged against the lip of the stairs, over and over again on repeat; my knee twisted and made impact multiple times; and my already injured wrist also twisted again. And of course, because it was me, I managed to fall down the second set of stairs past Hayden and Carson and have an extra staircase to injure myself on.

When I finally landed on the main floor, my ears ringing and the world around me spinning, my mouth was filled with the coppery taste of blood. Everywhere ached. “Lydia!”

Footsteps sounded down the stairs. Hazily, I opened my eyes and looked up. The Barbies were gone; only Lindsay was left, standing by the railing and looking down at me with an expression of horror, the phone nowhere to be seen. While Hayden knelt down in front of me, Carson turned around and growled at her to get out. By the time I was upright, the world spinning even more than before, she was gone.

“You okay?” Hayden whispered to me, voice taut. I looked up at him and my vision warped. I was shaking like a leaf. Carson came over to us and knelt beside me, his hand on my shoulder. When I blinked and turned towards him, a sharp pain went through me and I whimpered.

“Lydia?” Carson whispered, looking alarmed.

“I don’t think so,” I told Hayden, gasping when I shifted my arm. Hayden immediately caught my wrist and held it still, his other arm going around my waist.

“How bad are you hurt?” he said quietly, his eyes flickering over my figure. The anger and frantic worry turned his eyes a hard navy.

I reached up with my good hand and felt around my face and head. “I… I think my right wrist’s twisted. Can’t move it. They bumped my head agains’ the wall, so I might have a con—concussion, and I think… I think my right knee’s busted,” I slurred out, my vision blurring again as nausea took over my stomach. “H—Hayden, help me up.”

Carson and Hayden both helped me up carefully, gently drawing my arms over their shoulders and putting theirs around my waist. After a few heavily-supported steps, I felt my stomach churn and knew with certainty that I was going to be sick.

“Oh God,” I muttered, slapping a hand over my mouth and pulling away from them. I hobbled as quickly as I could over to the garbage can, favoring my right leg, and was emptying the contents of my stomach into it before any of us could blink. As I started a second round of agonizing dry heaves, I felt hands gently pulling my hair away from my face and rubbing across my back in soothing circles.

“Go ’way,” I told Hayden between heaves, gasping for breath. “Don’ want you t’see this.”

Hayden chuckled quietly, still rubbing my back. “I don’t mind,” he replied, smoothing my hair back once more. I was immediately reminded of That Night when he told me he cared and That Day when told me he’d wait for me—not exactly something one should be thinking while vomiting.

I finally finished heaving and leant back from the putrid smell, taking a deep breath through my mouth. But when I looked back down into the trashcan, I saw something that scared me more than anything else that had happened today.

Blood didn’t usually faze me. I was used to it in certain places—my lips, when I’d bitten them too hard; my arms on particularly bad days; and other unmentionable places during certain times of the month, etc. But I knew it certainly wasn’t supposed to be in vomit.

“Hayden,” I started, unable to stop myself from sounding panicked. “There’s blood.”

He gently pulled me back by the shoulders and peered into the garbage can. Immediately, he snapped his head back to look at me in alarm.

“Lydia,” he said, looking panicked. “What do we—”

I leant back over the garbage can and coughed up some more blood, pushing Hayden away from me. He tensed and held me steady by my shoulders as I straightened up and swayed, my knees starting to buckle. “Okay, we need to get you to a hospital,” he said shakily, glancing backwards at Carson. “Now.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xi.

 

 

“Can you walk?”

I tried to limp a few paces and almost collapsed. “I… no,” I admitted, looking down.

There was a pause before the world suddenly turned upside down and I found myself being picked up bridal-style by Hayden.

“Super Hayden to the rescue!” Carson cheered sarcastically, walking along beside us. Even though he was joking around, when I looked over at him, his eyes were still taut with concern.

“Carson?” I called quietly, feeling dizzy.

“Yeah?” he said, his eyes immediately snapping to mine.

“Can you… can you get my bag? It’s on the bleachers.”

He shared a look with Hayden and then nodded. Tossing Hayden something—a risky move, but Hayden somehow managed to keep a hold on me and catch whatever it was—he said, “take her to my truck. I’ll meet you outside,” and jogged down the hallway backwards, disappearing from sight.

Feeling guilty and very much like a bother, I threw my good arm around Hayden’s neck to try to help him out. “Sorry,” I mumbled, turning my face into his jersey. I always hated being a burden.

Hayden stopped walking for a second. “Why are you sorry? You didn’t do anything,” he said, sounding adorably confused. “It’s not your fault.”

It sort of was, but I was too out of it to argue the point. After a few more steps, I heard the creak of a door opening and felt cold air against my back; we were outside, then. I turned my head away from Hayden’s chest to see that he was walking towards a beat-up blue pickup truck. Thankfully, he walked smoothly enough that his gait only rocked me the slightest bit, calming me like a lullaby would instead of making me more nauseous.

When we reached the truck, Hayden set me down carefully but kept an arm around my waist, using his free hand to try and unlock the door with the keys Carson had thrown him. He fumbled a few times in his haste, cursing under his breath after the first few failed attempts. I was surprised—I’d never heard him swear before.

Finally, he got the key in right and the lock turned. With one hand around the back of my knees and the other under my arms, he carefully hoisted me up into the back row of seats. I closed my eyes as another wave of vertigo overtook me and turned my face into the seat to block out the light. The leather smelt like old guy aftershave and ancient cigars, and I quickly turned away from it.

Hayden went around to the other door and sat down in the back with me. After a few moments, he hesitantly whispered, “you can lie down with your head in my lap, if you want.” I knew him well enough to know that he was blushing. Normally, I’d be blushing too, but now, I just nodded, letting Hayden help me lie down. When I was settled, he carefully placed a hand on the side of my head, gently smoothing down my hair. It didn’t numb the pain, but it calmed me down a little.

Abruptly, I heard yelling and the slap of shoes against the tarmac. “Hey,” Carson said breathlessly. “I got your bag, Lyds. And I grabbed yours too, Hayden.”

I squeezed my eyes shut tighter, hoping it would dull the pain. It didn’t. “Can you drive?” Hayden asked quietly, still smoothing his hand over my hair.

“No,” Carson told him sarcastically. I could practically hear the eye roll in his voice. “I have my truck here but I can’t drive. Of course I can drive, dude.”

Hayden grumbled something but didn’t say anything back as Carson pulled the door open and slammed shut it shut again, just pulled on his seatbelt and put his arm around me as a makeshift one. As the truck roared to life, sounding for all the world like a lion’s roar, and started moving, he started combing his hand through my hair gently.

“Sorry,” Carson said from the driver’s seat. “The suspension is really crappy on this thing. It’ll be a bit bumpy.”

“It’s okay,” I mumbled back, wincing as we hit a pothole.

The rest of the drive wasn’t any more pleasant. Though Carson was careful not to hit any more potholes, the truck still lurched to a stop at every stop light—and it seemed like every stop sign we reached was red—and lurched when it took off again, too. And when we finally reached the hospital, the truck screeched to a halt with a terrible jolt that nearly sent me flying. Luckily, Hayden caught me around the shoulders before I could hit the back of the driver’s seat, but the movement still hurt my head and stomach.

“Sorry,” Carson whispered. I opened my eyes and tried to get up too quickly, and Carson’s form swam in front of my eyes like a kaleidoscope. “Whoa there,” he said, reaching out a hand to help me out of the truck. Hayden came out behind me and circled an arm around my waist.

“Thanks,” I said to both of them, feeling like even more of a bother than before.

“No problem,” Hayden said, and then promptly swung me up in his arms again.

Carson shut the door and locked it, hurrying forwards to open the door to the hospital for. I tried to give him a reassuring smile, but I don’t think it came out right because his forehead creased in concern. “Geez, Lydia, you look really bad,” he told me as we went past him.

“What a charmer,” I croaked out hoarsely, somehow managing sarcasm.

“He means that you look very thoroughly beat up,” Hayden translated as we walked up to the attendant at the front desk. Her eyes widened in alarm as soon as she caught sight of us. “Yeah, hi, this is my friend Lydia,” he said without missing a beat. “She’s pretty badly injured and probably needs the emergency room, because she likely has a concussion and possible internal bleeding due to blood in her vomit.”

The nurse lady gaped at him in shock, and then glanced down at me. “What are her suspected injuries?” she asked after a short pause.

I pushed at Hayden’s arm, and he seemed to get the message, because he helped me down. I was still leaning pretty heavily into him, though, so he kept his arm around my waist and I left an arm over his shoulder, balancing my weight on my good leg. “Um, not counting the superficial lacerations and bruising, a concussion, a sprained wrist…” he trailed off, looking at me. “What else am I missing, Lyd?”

“Twisted kneecap, possibly bruised ribs and a very painful black eye,” I answered quietly. Some part of me managed to notice the nickname and like it a lot.

The nurse peered down at me. My vision focused for a second, and I caught the name Marnie on her nametag. “What’s your name, sweetheart?” she said softly, smiling gently at me.

“Lydia Marie Mason,” I rasped out. “I have my insurance information in my bag if you need it.” I always kept it with me for this reason, thank God. If nothing else could be said for my mother, at least she remembered to pay for our life insurance. I turned my neck to the side cautiously to look at Carson. “Could you get my bag from the truck please?”

He nodded and hurried out to grab it, Marnie the Nurse’s eyes following him out. “And what’s your name, sir?” she asked Hayden once the door had swung shut.

“Hayden Parker,” he answered, shifting uncomfortably on his feet a little bit.

Marnie’s eyes widened almost imperceptively. “Are you related to Johanna Parker?” she responded, her voice a little too high to pull off being casual.

Hayden studied his feet. “Uh, yeah,” he said awkwardly. “She’s my mom.”

Carson re-entered the lobby, panting, and placed my schoolbag onto the small counter in front of us. I carefully took my hand off Hayden’s shoulder—Carson hurried forwards to hover beside me just in case I keeled over—and rifled through my bag for my wallet. I finally found it hidden under my Geometry notebook, and took out my health card, insurance information and Consent to Treat form. “Here,” I told Marnie, handing it to her. When I stretched my arm, my muscles protested and I winced.

Marnie quickly reached forward to take the items from me, quickly looking them over before typing something out on the computer. “Everything seems in order,” she told us distractedly, pausing to hand me my information back. “Hopefully, the wait won’t be too long. In the meantime, could you three please wait in the waiting room?”

When we thanked Marnie and turned around to go to the waiting room, there was already a line three people long behind us. Hayden and Carson helped me hobble over to a seat in the waiting room, taking chairs on either side of me.

After a few minutes of silence, Carson started to fidget in his seat. “Hey, uh, I really hate to bring this up now, but I kinda have to get to my job,” he said awkwardly, looking embarrassed.

“Yeah, sure,” I told him, trying to smile. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

Hayden nodded from my other side. “No worries, man,” he added. “We’ve got it under control.”

Carson looked relieved. “Thanks, guys,” he said, standing up. He bent down to give me a hasty kiss on the cheek and then straightened up again to clap Hayden on the shoulder. “Feel better, Lyds.”

I nodded and watched him walked away. Once Carson was out of sight, Hayden turned to me. “Has this happened before?” he asked quietly, looking at me with the most serious look I’d ever seen on him—That Night and That Day included. “I mean, has it ever gotten this bad?”

I shook my head slightly, my brain swirling sickeningly. “No. This is a lot worse than usual. Usually, I just get bruises.”

Hayden pursed his lips. The fire had returned to his eyes, turning them a dark cobalt. “What was different this time?” he pushed

“Rebekah’s pride was wounded,” I answered bitterly, allowing my eyes to flutter closed. “She wanted me to stay away from you guys. I told her no.”

Hayden made an angry noise. When I opened my eyes to look at him, his blurry features seemed pinched. “I’d have preferred it if you’d said you’d stay away from me,” he said, rubbing his hands over his face and sighing. “Maybe then this wouldn’t have happened.”

I placed a shaking hand on his arm. “It’s not your fault,” I told him firmly as another wave of vertigo overtook me. “I could’ve agreed if I wanted to, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to let you guys go. You guys mean a lot to me. You’re—”

As if on the exactly wrong cue, a triage nurse appeared in front of us. “Lydia Mason?” she asked me sweetly, looking down at me with concern. I nodded and allowed Hayden to help me up, swallowing my disappointment. You’re the best thing that’s happened to me, Hayden was what I was going to say.

The nurse motioned for us to follow her through a labyrinth of rooms. Halfway there, I stumbled, and Hayden swung me up into his arms smoothly. He must have really great arm muscles or something, because I wasn’t exactly light. I mean, I wasn’t overweight by any stretch of the imagination, but I was pretty tall, and that made up for it.

Even with wonky sight, I could tell the moment when we entered the ER—the noise level increased exponentially. The nurse led us into an empty bed halfway through the massive room, but other than that, the place was packed.

Once I was set down onto the bed, the triage nurse asked Hayden to leave for a bit so I could get changed and tested. He left with a worried backwards glance, and the nurse handed me a hospital gown before going about setting up the curtains. I changed slowly and with difficulty; halfway through, the nurse ended up taking pity on me and helping.

Once that difficult task was over, she asked me what I thought was injured, and I rattled off the long list. “Have you lost consciousness, experienced memory loss or vomited after the injury?” she asked carefully, watching my face.

“Uh, no, no and yes.”

“Do you feel confused, sluggish, or dizzy?”

“Triple yes.”

“Is your vision blurry or do you have a headache?”

“Yes and yes.”

She moved on to my wrist, and once she’d moved it and I’d winced, deemed it sprained. The same thing happened for my knee.

“What about my eye?” I asked, watching as she bustled around me, checking various parts of my body.

“It’ll be fine in a bit,” she reassured me. “It’s just bruised.”

She examined my stomach, and when she found only a few light-colored bruises, said she thought internal bleeding wasn’t the problem and that it was probably just internal bruising that had already clotted off. But she said she’d get me in to the next open ultrasound room just in case.

She was paged around halfway through the exam, so she hurried off the minute that she’d finished with me, telling me she’d send Hayden in on her way out. He came in less than a minute later, still looking anxious. I assumed that she’d told him what she’d told me, because when he sat down on the edge of my bed and took my hand, he didn’t ask me anything.

I almost told him what I was going to earlier, but my head was throbbing and I couldn’t get enough courage up.  So instead, we just sat in silence.

 

-Δ-

 

About twenty minutes into my hospital stay, someone else came hurrying in my area of the Emergency Room. Careful to not move much, I opened one eye and turned my head cautiously to see Hayden’s mom standing near the foot of my bed, her face completely shocked.

I tried for a smile, but it only made me wince. “Hi, Johanna,” I rasped out weakly, knowing that if anything, I was making my injuries seem worse and not better.

“Oh my God,” Johanna finally said, covering her mouth. “Lydia, what happened to you?”

As much as I hated Rebekah and her posse, I didn’t want to get the police involved. It would just make everything even more complicated and messy. “It’s nothing,” I reassured her, trying for another smile. I didn’t wince this time, but the cut on my lip split open again. Hayden handed me a napkin and I tried to mop the blood up as inconspicuously as possible.

Johanna didn’t look convinced. “I worked as a nurse in Chicago long enough to be able to tell when someone’s been beat up,” she told me, pursing her lips. “Who did this to you?”

I pressed my lips together, unwilling to say anything. “Some girls from school,” Hayden answered for me. I turned my head and glared at him. He gave me an impatient look back. “What? You can’t let them do this to you anymore.”

I glanced nervously at Johanna, who was looking between us cautiously. “Don’t worry about it,” I hissed at him in a low voice. “It’s not a big deal.”

Hayden snorted darkly. “Not a big deal?” he repeated incredulously. “Lydia, you’ve got several bruised ribs, a sprained wrist, an injured knee, a concussion and internal bruising. I’d say it’s kind of a big deal.”

I chanced another look at Johanna, who was staring at me with wide eyes. “You mean this has happened before?” she asked in disbelief.

“Not to anywhere near this extent,” I answered quickly, looking down.

Johanna nearly pushed Hayden off of the bed and sat down in his place, immediately beginning to fuss over me. “I’ll try to get you into an ultrasound room,” she told me, her fingers smoothing over my hair like Hayden’s had. I was surprised that she cared so much; I’d met her a few times since That Day, but we weren’t, like, super close or anything. “We should check out that internal bruising just in case it hemorrhages or something. And get a doctor in here. You’ve only been seen by a nurse, right?”

I nodded, and after a few more moments of fussing over me, Johanna stood up. “I have to go sort some stuff out,” she told us. “I’ll try and see if I can do anything for Lydia.” And then she disappeared.

I closed my eyes again against the pressure of my headache. I didn’t deserve the gratitude of this family. I didn’t deserve it from Hayden, and I certainly didn’t deserve it from Johanna. I wasn’t anything special.

The thing was that I really, really liked Hayden. I still can’t explain why I froze That Day, why I never said that I liked him back. God, I didn’t say anything at all. Why didn’t I say anything? I should’ve said something, even if I wasn’t ready for a relationship yet. And honestly, I wasn’t ready. If I thought about it, that was my problem—I always wanted to rush into relationships regardless of how ready I was for them, and then when they fell apart, I’d wonder why. Love didn’t come easy to me; I’d spent so much time around my parents to trust in it. I just needed some time to figure things out.

I could only hope that Hayden would still be there when I was finally ready.

 

 

 

 

 

 

xii.

 

 

After I’d gotten an ultrasound and had been officially diagnosed with internal bruising, the hospital staff set me up in a bed in Trauma and told me I’d have to stay for the weekend so they could monitor me. I didn’t really mind; all my schoolbooks were with me and so was my phone and charger, and it wasn’t like there was a whole plethora of things to do at home anyway.

Hayden wanted to stay until I was released—like, at one point he was actually going to go and ask for permission to stay past visiting hours and everything—but I managed to convince him that he was being stupid and that he should go home for the night. I wanted to be alone for a while, anyways—I needed time to think, and even without my concussion, I didn’t think I could concentrate when Hayden was stroking my hair and fussing over me.

So I ingested my dinner of crappy Jell-O and meat loaf in silence that night, and then struggled through some Trig homework. I was glad for the curtains that surrounded my bed—I was almost scared to look at some of my temporary roommates.

 

-Δ-

 

The second day was proving to be not nearly as eventful as the previous one. Or at least it was until Lindsay Cabello showed up.

Hayden had come over pretty much the moment visiting hours had started, clad in sweatpants and sporting dark circles under his eyes. (What an idiot, I thought immediately. He’s losing sleep over a girl like me?)

After the obligatory hug and “how are you feeling” and “oh, just dandy, ’cept I’m in a hospital bed”, he told me that Carson said he would visit later and that his mom was going to drop in soon to check on me. I was starting to feel extremely unworthy of all the attention, and Hayden most likely realized that because he quickly changed the subject and brought out his math textbook.

When Carson visited around one, Hayden and I had just finished our homework. The first thing Carson said to me was, “wow, Lyds, your hair matches your bruises,” which of course made Hayden frown at him as I checked my reflection in the screen of my phone. Admittedly, I did look a sight—there was a huge bruise blossoming across my cheek, a puffy, red one under my eye and several more dotting my face and neck. The one on my cheek was a very blueish-green, so I laughed and told Carson that had been my plan all along.

Carson had long since left for work when Lindsay showed up and Hayden had gone to use the bathroom and get a coffee. I was resting in my hospital bed when I heard the curtain being drawn back, and, assuming it was Hayden, said, “so, does hospital coffee really taste as bad as it does in shows, or—” I cut myself off as soon as I opened my eyes, blinking rapidly. “Lindsay?

She nodded quickly, shuffling on her feet. “Yeah, it’s me,” she said in the quietest voice I’d ever heard her use.

I stared at her. “What’re you doing here?” I asked, not caring if I sounded rude or not. She deserved it, anyway. “Come to gloat or something?”

I watched with surprise as Lindsay dropped her gaze to the floor, something that looked a lot like shame burning in her eyes. “No,” she told the ground, hugging her elbows to her chest. “Not anything like that. I came to apologize.”

I was sure I was hallucinating, dreaming, something. I’d imagined her saying these words in one way or another for a year, and now here she was, standing at the foot of my hospital bed, saying she wanted to apologize. It couldn’t be real. Maybe the doctors had given me too much pain medication or something. “Hold up,” I finally said, choking out a humorless laugh. “You want to apologize?”

She nodded slightly, and I tried to inconspicuously pinch myself. I felt the pain, so it must’ve been real. Maybe it was upside-down day or something. That was the only reasonable explanation. “Fine,” I told her flatly after a few moments, returning my eyes to my bed sheets. “Let’s get this over with so I can go to sleep.”

She didn’t say anything for a long moment. When I got impatient and looked at her—really looked at her—something twisted in my chest. Suddenly, she looked washed out and plain. The rich dark chocolate of her hair, the color I’d always envied, suddenly looked mousy and lank. Without her makeup, her lips look pale and her green eyes looked almost translucent. Something about the way her shoulders and neck were rounded towards her feet made me remember how short she really was. Then it hit me: she looked like Lindsay, the old Lindsay. Not Lindsay Cabello, popular extraordinaire and regular party thrower, not Lindsay the Rebekah clone—just plain old Linds, my Linds, the one who watched episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender with me in my basement and loved mint chocolate chip ice cream.

“I’m sorry,” she started, and there was something like vulnerability in her voice that made me unable to look away. When she forced her eyes up to meet mine, I could see how scared she was. “I’m so, so, so sorry, Lydia. I never wanted any of this to happen, I swear. I never wanted you to get hurt.”

She took a deep breath, looking up at the ceiling. “Last year, my parents started fighting all the time. I never told you; I didn’t want your pity. But they fought and fought and fought, and I got so consumed by what was happening that my grades started to slip and suddenly I was failing most of my tests, especially in Math. I went from having an A average to a B- in a matter of weeks.” She let out a bitter, almost hysterical laugh. “My parents were so angry when they found out that their perfect daughter was almost failing half her classes. But at least then they were yelling at me, not at each other.”

I’d forgotten how smart Lindsay was, because once she’d started to hang around the populars, she’d maintained a steady B average at best. “So one day I saw a copy of the upcoming Math test on my teacher’s desk, and at lunch, when the classroom was empty, I went in and took pictures of it. And I got a perfect score.”

I continued to say nothing, watching as she started to wring her hands nervously, dropping her gaze back to the floor. “My Math teacher was ancient; she couldn’t tell the difference. She just thought that I was getting back to the old me. And she kept leaving the tests on her desk, so I kept cheating.”

She was wringing her hands almost violently now, her words coming out in an anxious frenzy. “Rebekah caught me around the fifth time. She’d hid her phone in one of the open cabinets and had recorded me taking pictures of the test. She said that if I didn’t stop hanging out with you, she’d take the video to the principal and have me expelled.”

Even at this angle, I could see the shame burning in her eyes. “I think you know which option I picked,” she whispered. “I was too scared of getting kicked out of school and disappointing my parents and making things worse that even though you were my best friend and I loved you, too, I chose them.

“In the beginning, I tried to get Rebekah to leave you alone, I really did. She’d just tell me to shut up if I didn’t want to get expelled, so I never did anything. And I stayed even after Rebekah stopped threatening me because a part of me had started to believe her. She has this way of making things so believable, so real. I believed her when she said that you’d slept with her boyfriend just to spite her. I believed her when she said you were a homewrecker. And I believed her when she showed me that photo of you cheating on Erik. God, I believed her over you—you, my first ever friend. Or maybe I just wanted to believe it, wanted to have something to justify my actions with so I could live with myself. But I can’t do that anymore.”

I was stunned. Every response I’d thought up in the months after, when I’d wanted Lindsay to crawl back to me in tears and beg for forgiveness, suddenly vaporized into thin air. “Why now?” I whispered, still staring at her. “God, Lindsay, you’ve had over a year to apologize. Why now?”

“Because I couldn’t live with myself anymore,” she whispered back, still not looking up. “Not now. Not when this happened. I’m so sorry, Lydia. I hate what I did. I wish I never went along with her.”

Lindsay kept standing there, arms crossed, face turned to the floor as she continued to say nothing. She looked kind of sad in a pitiful way, like a discarded shoe or a puppy that was being ignored. I opened my mouth to say something to her just as Hayden walked through the curtain, a cup of coffee in one hand and a soda can in the other. “I come bearing flavored sugar with carbonated water mixed—” he broke off as soon as he saw Lindsay, his smile instantly disappearing. “What the hell are you doing here?” he snarled at her, crossing over the floor to stand beside my bed. Lindsay caught her breath and backed up a step, looking scared.

“It’s okay,” I told him Hayden, reaching a hand up to touch his arm. He looked surprised, but relaxed a little. “She came to apologize.” This, of course, made him look even more surprised.

I turned away from him and back to Lindsay. For a few seconds, I just looked at her, studying her. Finally, I said, “on Monday, I’m going to McIntyre to tell him what happened.”

She nodded. “I’d expect you to,” she said softly, a small, sarcastic smile growing on her face despite herself. “I’ll go with you, if you want. I’ll tell him everything. It’s about time I faced the consequences.”

We weren’t going to be friends again, not this soon and maybe not ever. But this was a start. So I nodded, and with a small wave, Lindsay left.

Hayden stared at the place where she’d been standing, then turned to me with wide eyes. “So what exactly just happened?” he asked carefully, handing the soda can.

“She came into the room and asked to apologize,” I answered distractedly, trying to pop the tab off with only one working hand. Hayden chuckled and took pity on me, taking the can from me and flipping the tab open easily before handing it back. “So I let her.”

He just looked back at me for a while as if sizing me up. “Okay,” he finally said, coming over to sit on the edge of the bed beside me. “So you’re going to tell the principal?”

I nodded, smiling a little at the almost proud look in Hayden’s eyes. “Yeah, I guess I am,” I said. “I hadn’t even planned on it, really, but yeah, I guess I am.”

“Good for you,” he praised, squeezing my hand. His grin was wide enough that his dimples were on full display. (God. Dimples. I wanted to grab his face and pinch his cheeks and/or stick my fingers in his dimples so badly. This was totally the pain medication’s fault.) He literally looked like the sun was shining from behind his teeth, his smile was that blinding. I had to look away so I wouldn’t blush.

“Yeah, well, I decided that maybe being the quietly rebellious girl wasn’t enough,” I said quietly. “It’s about time to stir up some more trouble.”

“How punk rock of you,” he snorted, laughing when I swatted him in the arm. “Okay, okay, jeez. Don’t hit me. You’re injured.”

“You’ll be injured too if you keep at it,” I threatened under my breath, and then pouted when Hayden heard and laughed again.

 

-Δ-

 

As the day went on, I had another visitor: my mom. She came barreling through the curtains around five, completely disheveled and looking like she had just rolled out of bed (probably because she had). She didn’t even seem to notice Hayden, who’d moved to lean against the wall beside me some time before, as she rushed over to me.

“Lydia,” she breathed out, her eyes wide and surprisingly wet. “Oh, Lydia, baby, I’m so sorry I didn’t come sooner.”

Her hands fretted around me as she settled into the chair beside the bed, smoothing my bed sheets down, flicking through my hair, constantly in motion. I watched her curiously as she scooted her chair closer to me with a harsh squealing sound, her hand stroking my hair back from my face. “It’s okay,” I reassured her quietly, not quite sure what to say. She was acting more like a mom now than she had in years. “I’m okay, Mom, don’t worry about it.”

Her eyes filled with tears instantly and I winced, immediately regretting my words. “No, it’s not okay,” she said, her voice trembling. “I didn’t even know you were in the hospital until half an hour ago, baby. That’s not okay.”

On my other side, I saw Hayden tense up. “I’m, uh, gonna go ask for an update from the nurse,” he said awkwardly, detaching himself from the wall and starting towards the curtain.

My mom’s eyes instantly snapped up to him, and I watched, resigned, as her face hardened. “Who the hell are you?” she snarled, standing up with a sharp screech of chair legs against linoleum. Hayden froze in his tracks and turned to face her, his eyes widening. I should’ve known that this would happen eventually—my mom was (granted, reasonably) suspicious of men in general after my dad. Maybe it was the bipolar, but regardless, she thought they were all going to be just like dear old dad. This belief had gotten her fired from more jobs than I could count.

I grabbed my mom’s wrist, loosening my grip as soon as she flinched. “It’s okay, Mom,” I said carefully. “He’s my friend.” She doesn’t look convinced; if anything, she looked even more suspicious. “He’s the one who brought me to the hospital.”

It was like dancing around on eggshells with my mom; nothing I said made anything better, and it usually made things a whole lot worse. “And why is she here anyways?” she spat at him. The fear in her eyes could easily be mistaken for anger; Hayden was starting to look uneasy, his eyes shifting rapidly from her to the curtain.

“It’s not his fault,” I cut in sharply, tugging on my mom’s wrist to get her to look at me. “God, mom, it’s not his fault. He’s the one who found me and drove me to the hospital, not the one who beat me up. Not everyone’s going to be like dad.” She flinched when I said ‘dad’, and if I wasn’t so angry, I would’ve hated myself for it. Instead, I just lifted my gaze up to Hayden’s. “See you later.”

He understood my hidden plea for him to leave and quickly left after saying a hasty, “uh, nice to meet you, ma’am,” to my mother.

I sighed loudly as his footsteps trailed away. “So are you going to ask me why I’m sitting in a hospital bed and covered in bruises?” I asked my mother emotionlessly, keeping my eyes trained on my bedsheets.

I heard her sniffle. “I’m sorry,” she whimpered quietly, letting herself fall back into the armchair. I wasn’t sure what she was apologizing for—for being mean to Hayden or for everything. “What happened?”

“I was at school, and a group of girls dragged me into a stairwell and started beating me up,” I told her flatly, not looking up to see her wince. I left out the part about Hayden because it would only make her mistrust him more. “I have a sprained wrist, sprained knee, several bruised ribs, internal bruising, and several lacerations and surface bruises.”

My mom whimpered again and moved to hug me, but I pushed her back. “No,” I snapped, anger rising inside me. “I’m not done yet. Hayden and his friend Carson found me and told the girls to leave, and then they took me to the hospital.”

My mom put her face in her hands. “I’m sorry for overreacting,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean it, I swear.”

I didn’t say it was okay, because it wasn’t—it was anything but. “I’ve been in here for over twenty-four hours, mom,” I said instead, looking up at her.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, her voice wobbling.

“Stop saying sorry,” I hissed at her. “Stop it, okay? You need help. You need to get some fucking help, or else this sort of thing is going to happen again, and next time it could be a lot worse.”

“I—I’m fine, baby,” my mother told me, raising her head out of her hands. Her eyes were bloodshot.

“No,” I snapped back, “you’re not. I need you, Mom. I need a mom, not a ghost that’s only there a quarter of the time. You have bipolar disorder. You need help.”

She started shaking her head violently, hair whirl-pooling around her. “No, I don’t have bipolar, Lydia. That’s ridiculous. They’re just mood swings. I can handle them.”

“No, they’re not!” I said loudly, and then took a deep breath to try and keep my voice modulated. “God, Mom, I need you. I needed you five years ago when you made Dad leave and I needed you a year ago when I lost my virginity in the worst mistake I’ve ever made and I need you today when I’m lonely and pissed off and so, so confused. And where were you? In your bedroom, drowning in a bottle of vodka and not. There.

For a second I just stared at her, and then suddenly I was crying and she was crying too, and we were crying together in a tangled mess of limbs. “I’m sorry,” she choked out, balling her fists against my shoulder-blades. “I’m so sorry. I never knew.”

When she left, over half an hour later, I’d made her promise that she’d go into the doctor’s office and ask to be tested for bipolar. Hayden came in several minutes after she’d left, and upon seeing my red eyes, immediately asked what was wrong.

“Nothing’s wrong,” I told him, wiping a few stray tears away. When I smiled this time, it was real. “But I think something’s finally right.”


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xiii.

 

 

I was finally let out of the hospital on Sunday night, and the first thing my mom said to me when I got home was that she’d scheduled a doctor’s appointment for Wednesday. But despite the good news, I didn’t sleep well that night. I was too distracted by what I was going to do the next day.

Hayden came over early on Monday morning. Our plan was to get to school early so we could tell Mr. McIntyre before the day began. I still had Lindsay’s home number and I’d called her house once I’d gotten home from the hospital to tell her the plan. She agreed with more enthusiasm than I’d expected, and so there I was, walking to my own doom.

I was fine up until I saw the school. That was when all the doubts I’d imagined up the night before kicked in and I froze—literally. “Okay, I completely misjudged myself,” I told Hayden shakily, taking a few hurried steps backwards. “I can’t do this.”

Hayden grabbed ahold of my elbow, and I stopped reluctantly, training my gaze on a crack in the sidewalk. “Hey, what happened?” he asked quietly, using his finger to lift my chin up. “You were fine up until a minute ago. What changed?”

“I did,” I muttered, moving away from him. I couldn’t think straight when he was that close to me. “I did, okay? I can’t do it.”

Hayden didn’t move to stand in front of me again, probably sensing that I didn’t want him to, but put a hand on my shoulder gently. “You haven’t changed, Lydia. You’re still the same person you were a minute ago and an hour ago and a day ago. The only thing that’s changed is your perspective on things.”

“Well maybe the world’s changed,” I countered stubbornly, seeing one corner of Hayden’s mouth turn up.

“The world’s the same world you’re in today and have been in yesterday and a year ago and three years ago. The world has stayed virtually the same since you were born and probably since humans themselves were born,” he explained patiently. “What’s changed is your view of it.”

“But what if it just gets worse?” I asked quietly, exhaling sharply. Luckily, I’d never gotten addicted to smoking, and only ever did it when I was anxious or angry. But right now, I really, really needed a smoke. I could already feel my fingers twitching around an invisible cigarette.

Hayden grabbed my hand, smoothing his thumb over my knuckles. “It won’t,” he told me, so sincere that I almost believed him. “I promise.”

I shook my head, looking down again. “Don’t make me a promise you can’t keep.”

“I intend to keep that one,” he said. “Come on, Lyd. Where’d that badass girl go? Where’s the rebel girl I know so well?”

I would’ve laughed under any other circumstance. “There never was a rebel girl,” I admitted, sighing. “I made her up to keep them out. To keep me going.”

He shook his head, smiling softly. “That’s not true. You know it isn’t. Look, babe, get into the spirit! Your face is covered in bruises and you look like a really hot martyr.” I immediately blushed. “You’re wearing combat boots, and I know for a fact that they make you feel badass because you’ve said so yourself. You have blue hair, for God’s sake. You can’t really get more punk rock than that.”

I laughed, the anxiety retreating a little bit. “You forgot the extra piercings,” I retorted, lifting my hair away from my ear to show off my helix rings. “That gives me several extra points on the punk rock scale, in my opinion.”

Hayden chuckled. “That’s my girl,” he said, and as we started walking again, I had to look away to hide my blush.

 

-Δ-

 

The nerves returned as soon as I saw Lindsay waiting for us outside the principal’s office. I couldn’t say anything, so I just nodded at her in greeting as Hayden knocked on the principal’s door, sensing that I wasn’t going to do it.

“You’ll be fine,” he whispered in my ear once he’d stepped back, squeezing my hand briefly before letting go. “Don’t think. Just talk.”

The door opened, and with a deep breath, we all stepped through.

 

-Δ-

 

The three of us were dismissed five minutes before the bell, at which point the anxiety had pretty much disappeared. Hayden had been right—everything went smoothly. Lindsay had brought the video of me getting beaten up on Friday, and Hayden had brought a statement on my injuries from the triage nurse. Shocked beyond words, Principal McIntyre just listened to us as Lindsay explained why she hadn’t come forward earlier.

The principal was silent for a long time. Then, finally, he said he would most definitely look into expelling Rebekah—at which point I had to try really hard to not whoop loudly—and that because Lindsay came forwards and the cheating had happened a year ago, he’d just call her parents and suspend her for a week. Lindsay took the news pretty well, all things considered. She didn’t even protest, just nodded and excused herself once she was done.

The rest of the day went better than I’d imagined, too. It was pretty cool to see everyone look at me not because I was a pariah but because my face looked like someone had used it as a punching bag. I was in the gossip mill for an entirely different reason now, and it was a nice change. Apparently someone had spilled the beans on what had happened, though, because people didn’t seem surprised, just shocked.

But the best part by far was hearing, “could Rebekah Holt please gather her things and come to the main office? Rebekah Holt to the main office, please,” buzz through the intercom during second period. Even though it sucked that Hayden wasn’t there to celebrate with me, Carson was willing placebo, sending me a huge grin that I easily returned.

I ate lunch with Hayden and Carson in the courtyard after them noting that ‘wow, the whole freaking school is staring at Lydia’ (Carson) so ‘we should probably go somewhere else’ (Hayden), and the rest of the day flew by a lot quicker than normal. Even the first period after lunch, which I had alone, was bearable because far fewer people glared at me. The kids were being a lot nicer to me than before, and that was certainly something I could get used to.

The last period of the day, Math, was spent goofing off with Hayden. I barely paid attention to the lesson, I was laughing so much. I hadn’t laughed this much for a long time, but now I just wanted to keep laughing and laughing forever. There was a weird feeling inside me, bubbly and bright. Maybe it was happiness. I mean, Rebekah was gone, probably for good. People were starting to treat me like an actual human being. I had friends. And I had Hayden, who I knew liked me for me, not for what I could do for him. I had a lot to be happy about, if I thought about it.

Before I knew it, the bell was ringing. It was the part of spring where the snow to melted and turned to rain, and lo and behold, when Hayden and I grabbed our stuff and left school, it was raining. It was the bearable kind of rain, though, the kind that was more than misting but still less than pouring. I smiled as I pulled my hood over my head, and when I looked up at the sky, for once I didn’t care about the looks I was getting.

“You good?” Hayden asked me softly. When I turned to face him, grinning, he was smiling back just as brightly.

“Really good,” I said, and as we started walking together, I took his hand.

 

-Δ-

 

The rain started to come down heavier soon after that. Together, Hayden and I changed our gait into a run, racing past the other kids. We were both laughing now for some unknown but wonderful reason; nothing else mattered but the two of us and the feel of Hayden’s hand in mine.

By the time we turned onto our street, we were both breathless. The rain continued to pour down, but it had faded into background noise, barely noticeable. “Wanna come over?” Hayden asked as our houses came into view. I nodded and followed him up the driveway. Though I didn’t need Hayden’s house to escape mine anymore, I still wanted to be there.

Our clothes were completely soaked by now. By the time Hayden had unlocked the door, we were both completely soaked. Noticing, he quickly asked if I needed anything to change into as the door slammed shut behind us.

“Uh, yeah,” I said as I kicked off my boots, feeling the chill of the rain settling in. “That would probably be a good idea.”

Hayden laughed and started up the stairs, gesturing for me to follow him. “Come on,” he called over his shoulder. “I probably have something you can borrow.”

As I followed him up the staircase, my thoughts were somewhere else. Maybe it was the day I’d had or my mom actually saying that she’d try to get help or Rebekah getting her comeuppance or Hayden just being Hayden or maybe all of the above, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what Hayden had told me That Day. Then, I hadn’t been ready to say anything back. I was too afraid of it, of everything—afraid of falling in love, of getting hurt and of hurting Hayden—that I chickened out. I didn’t want to screw up again. But maybe now…

I was so preoccupied that I didn’t notice that we’d reached Hayden’s room until he stopped and started to rifle through his dresser.

“Here,” he said after a few moments, handing me a pair of sweatpants and a faded Pink Floyd t-shirt. “This should sort of fit.”

He grabbed a few other things, assumedly for himself, before closing the drawers. Once he’d moved a bit away from the dresser, I vaulted up onto it, perching myself onto the top. The dresser wasn’t too high—I was maybe only an inch or two taller than Hayden now—but I quite enjoyed being the taller one for once.

Hayden glanced up at me in surprise. “Uh, do you want me to leave or something?”

I shook my head and smiled nervously, tucking a flyaway bit of hair behind my ear. “Actually, uh, I wanted to tell you something,” I said quickly, biting my lip. Hayden nodded and tilted his head a little to show he was listening.

Panic welled up inside me suddenly. Every bone in my body wanted to flee, to get away from here. But I to say it—I had to. If not for him, for myself, so I could prove to myself that I could do something right. That finally I’d stopped being that scared little girl at the top of the stairs once and for all. This is your chance, Lydia, I thought, closing my eyes and taking a deep breath. This is your chance.

I reopened my eyes and forced myself to meet Hayden’s gaze. “So, uh, do you remember what you said to me that day?” I started nervously, swinging my legs back and forth anxiously.

Hayden’s eyes immediately widened. “Which day?” he asked carefully. That fucker. I could tell that he knew what I was getting at, but he was going to make me spell it out for him anyways. Ugh.

“I… you know. That day.”  Christ, I was completely embarrassing myself. “The one where you said you’d whatever I wanted you to be. I… well, um…” I gave up with a groan, covering my face with my hands and letting my head fall back against the wall.  “Oh my God, this is coming out all wrong and I’m screwing this up, and—”

Hayden grabbed ahold of my wrists and gently tugged my hands away from my face. Once I’d met his eyes, he let our joined hands rest on the tops of my knees. “Hey, hey,” he soothed, smiling at me. There was something mischievous in his eyes. “Just calm down. You’re not doing too bad of a job right now.”

I laughed despite myself. “You’re going to make me say it, aren’t you?” I sighed, shaking my head with more fondness than irritation.

Hayden’s grin widened. “Mm-hm.”

“Okay, so, uh, basically what I’m trying to say is that back then, I wasn’t emotionally ready for a relationship, like, at all, but now, that might have changed. I like you a lot, Hayden, probably way more than I should. I’m in really deep and it sucks so much because you’ve turned me into some lovesick teeny-bopper kid and God it’s so gross and—”

Hayden cut me off the cliché way—by slotting his body between my legs, placing his hands on my hips and kissing me. Every nerve in my body immediately came alive as I pulled him closer, feeling like a live wire.

Hayden eventually pulled away, but kept his face close to mine. “I like you too,” he whispered against my lips. As he moved to kiss me again, I could feel the curve of his grin against my own.

Maybe there was something to clichés, after all.

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