Ash walks swiftly past his teacher. “Follow me.” He mutters.
The soft pad of running shoes sounds against the floor. He takes the first set of doors he sees, leading out to a parking lot. The doors slide open automatically, the cool wind assailing his face. His feet pound against the pavement as he walks towards an empty circle of benches. Taking a deep breath, he slowly clenches and unclenches his hands at his sides.
“Ash.” Gil’s voice sounds from behind him. “I am so sorry about what happened to your sister.” Ash listens, but doesn’t turn around. “P means a lot to me.”
“You do not get to call her that!” Ash spins, unable to control himself. His fist flies through the air. A violent jerk runs through his arm as his knuckles come to a grinding halt against the flesh of Gilbert’s cheek. His teacher’s head snaps back and his knees give out under him. Ash shakes his fist. The knuckles throb in a not entirely unpleasant way. He stares down at the man below him. “You don’t have the right.” Before he knows what he’s doing, Ash has his knee on his teacher’s chest. His fist connecting time and again. His skin heats up as it breaks open across his knuckles. Ash swings forward again, but his fist is stopped by Gilbert’s. His hand engulfed by the larger hand of his teacher.
“Stop hitting me, damn it.” Gilbert pushes Ash off and rolls up to his knees. He throws his fist forward before Ash can get off the ground.
“Jesus, you two! What the hell are you doing?” Sullivan’s voice sounds from across the parking lot. The sound of her shoes slapping against the pavement draws their attention away from one another. Their fists remain cocked, ready. “Ash, what are you doing? Stop it.” She wraps her arms around him, holding his arms against his sides so he can’t lash out again. But he doesn’t fight. Instead, he slouches into her. His body losing all rigidity, giving in to the emotions he’s been pushing down all day. She feels him sobbing against her chest. Looking up at their teacher still kneeling in the grass a few feet away, she narrows her eyes. “You need to leave. You have no business here.”
Gilbert pushes his hands into his pockets. “I found her. I called the ambulance. I was giving my statement to the cops. I just want to make sure she’s okay. She’s my student, Sullivan. I’m concerned.”
“You found her?” Sullivan presses.
“When I was running this morning.”
“Didn’t you wonder why she wasn’t at your place when you woke up?” She asks sarcastically.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Sullivan.”
“Don’t bullshit me. We know.”
“Know what?” His voice is cautious.
Sullivan raises her eyebrows. “Don’t be dense.”
“You can’t tell me what to do.” His voice is almost petulant.
“Don’t push me, sir.” Her gaze is steady as she stares into his eyes. “Get lost. I don’t want to see you anywhere near my friends again.” She clutches Ash closer to her, his sobs collapse his chest in giant heaves. Her voice is low and steady.
“Listen, little girl.” Gil stands, his eyes blazing with anger. Sullivan gently releases Ash onto a nearby bench and stands to face her teacher. She steps away from her boyfriend, making Gil follow her until their out of earshot.
“No, you listen. I know an awful lot about you. A lot of things you won’t want the school board knowing.”
“And what exactly do you think you know?” He reaches out and grabs her arm. His fingers dig through the thin black fabric into her skin.
“Does it matter what I know? The cops will be interested in the theories one way or the other? Isn’t that what you taught us in class? To look for trends, extrapolate, investigate? Find old girlfriends that maybe resemble the current victim?”
His fingers squeeze harder. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Sullivan. This is none of your business.”
“I don’t care. If you show your face around here again, I’ll make sure the cops find out everything I know. Do you understand?” She looks back to where Ash is beginning to pull himself together. “Now, I need to go take care of my boyfriend. Get out of here.” She starts to walk away, and turns to see that he hasn’t moved. “Now!” She steps away, helps Ash up, and leads him towards the hospital. Glancing over her shoulder, she sees Gil heading towards the parking lot.
“What just happened?” Ash follows her gaze.
“Don’t worry about it. Let’s go see your sister.” She reaches for Ash’s hand. Hearing him wince at the contact, she looks down to see blood dripping from his fingers. “I guess we’re going get you stitched up before we do that. At least the day you decided to attack someone, you did it near a hospital.” Rounding the corner to the ICU, Ash sees his mother standing in the hallway, wringing her fingers.
“Ash, there you are.” She steps towards them. “Where were you?”
“He decided that beating the crap out of the hospital wall would be the most effective way to deal.” Sullie rolls her eyes and lifts his hand towards Mrs. Chisholm.
“Ash! What were you thinking?” Mrs. Chisholm takes her son’s hand in her own.
“I wasn’t.” He flashes Sullie a grateful look over his mother’s shoulder.
“Come on.” Mrs. Chisholm leads him to the nurses in the ICU to see where to get him patched up.
Sullivan flops down onto the seat beside Rowena. Her eyes drift to the blonde’s face. She’s never seen her friend with such a distant and pained expression. Rowena’s fingers curl around Emmette’s. Clinging for stability.
“Why don’t you guys head home? There’s no point in all of us hanging out here. Go get some sleep. I’m sure you’re as exhausted as I am.”
“What’s up with Ash?” Frasier nods towards their friend.
“He beat the crap out of Mr. Staal in the parking lot.” Sullie responds, too tired to come up with a lie.
“Shit. Why?” Both boys’ heads swing towards Sullie.
“I’ll explain when we’re not here. The story, if anyone should ask, is that he beat the crap out of a wall. Okay?” They both nod. Rowena hasn’t moved. She just sits, staring at the floor. “Emmette, what’s up with Row?”
“I have no idea. I thought she was dealing with it, but then she pulled out her phone to check the messages and this happened. She hasn’t spoken or anything since.”
“Take her home, or something. Try to get her to snap out of it, okay?” Sullie keeps her voice low. She feels her composure starting to slip. “I don’t know how much more I can take. I can’t take care of anyone else right now.” She fights to remain strong as she looks down the hall to see Ash heading back towards them.
“Hey guys.” He smiles at them when he arrives. “How are you doing?”
“Don’t even worry about us.” Frasier stands, pulling Ash into a tight hug. “How are you doing?”
Ash just shrugs. “I don’t know. As good as can be I suppose. I’m going to go in and see Penelope now.” His forehead crinkles.
“Good. You need to see her. I’m going to stay here with Sullie. Em is going to take Row home.”
“Fraise, you don’t have to stay. I’ll be fine.” Sullie looks up at her new friend.
“Meh, no big deal.” Frasier shrugs nonchalantly and turns back to Ash. “Now go see your sister so you can use that twinny magic and wake her up and we can all stop worrying.”
Ash nods, leaning down to kiss Sullivan. “I’ll be back soon.” He turns and walks back down the hall again.
“God, for a giant building, this place is damn claustrophobic.” Sullivan puts her elbows on her knees and sinks her forehead into her hands. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.
Frasier nods at Emmette. “Take her to your place, dude. Find a way to snap her out of this. And then, later, when it’s more appropriate, you can tell me how this came to be.” He waves his hand at the two of them and smiles for the first time since getting to the hospital.
“Yeah, it was unexpected.”
“That seems to be the catch phrase lately, doesn’t it?”
“You could say that.” Emmette pulls Rowena up off the bench. She barely seems to notice that she’s changed position. Emmette weaves an arm around her waist and pulls her into his side. His lips brush against her forehead in a comforting, almost instinctual, way.
“I’m walking them to the car. I’ll be right back.” Frasier pats Sullivan’s shoulder and walks down the hall with Emmette. “This doesn’t seem like you at all, man.” Frasier nods towards the full figured blonde under Emmette’s muscular arm. “She’s not exactly your type.” His voice is low, even though he’s not sure Rowena can even hear them from inside her stupor.
“I know. I’ve been thinking about it for like two straight weeks. Trying to figure out what the hell I was thinking. Trying to convince myself that I wasn’t attracted to her. Then I spent some time alone with her last night. And, it doesn’t matter. There’s something about her.”
“Did you?” Frasier bounces his eyebrows, trying to lighten the mood.
“Dude. I don’t kiss and tell.” Emmette feigns shock.
“Since when!” He punches his friend in the arm.
“Oh right. Oops. Whatever.” The laughter that bubbles past his lips is one of the best feelings he’s had all day. The weight of everything that’s happened seems to lift just enough to make breathing easier. Emmette looks down at the girl under his arm. His lips jerk uncontrollably into an upward direction. He touches her hair lightly. “Well, this time, you don’t get to hear about it. We haven’t done anything other than a little making out and a lot of talking.”
“Just… making… out? Dude, who are you?” Frasier shakes his head. They reach the outer doors of the hospital. “See if you can figure out a way to shake her out of this. Take my car. I’ll catch a ride home with Ash or I’ll call you to come get me.”
“Thanks, man. Call us if anything changes, ‘kay?”
“For sure. Good luck.” They exchange a brief one-armed hug before Emmette leads Rowena out into the parking lot. Helping her into the car, he hopes the change of scenery will break her out of her stupor. Worry simmers inside his chest. When they reach his house, he pulls the car to a stop, puts his hands on her face, and turns her to face him.
“Row?” He brushes his thumb along her cheekbone. “Rowena. Please snap out of it. Come on.” He tilts her face so he can look her in the eye. “Come on, come on. You’re scaring me.” He leans forward, his lips encompassing hers. “Please.” The word mouthed against her skin. Her eyes flicker for a second, then return to their blank stare. “Fuck.” He lets himself out of the car and goes around to help her out. Halfway up the step, his foot catches a gap in the stones. He jerks forward, stumbling to catch himself without letting go of Rowena.
“Emmette?” Her voice is quiet.
“Finally!” He pulls her into a tight hug and leads the way into the house. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah. I think so.” She follows him into the kitchen, leaning against the wall as he grabs things from the fridge. “It was so weird. It could hear everything that was going on. I knew you were worried, but I couldn’t seem to snap myself out of it. It was almost like being in a total body stone. I could not get my body to do what I wanted.” She follows him upstairs until he stops at a door near the end. It opens into an immaculately clean bedroom. “I wanted to tell you that I was okay, but I couldn’t. I guess cause I wasn’t.”
“You’re taking this so hard. I know she’s your best friend, but…”
“I don’t want to talk about it right now. Can we just think about something else?” Rowena wanders over to the tv at the end of his bed and scans the row of movies. “Really?” She pulls out a copy of Dirty Dancing, raising her eyebrows. Grinning, she slips it in the machine.
“It’s a guilty pleasure. Don’t tell anyone, ‘kay?” His voice is close as he wraps his arms around her waist. As images of the Catskills appear on the large screen, she turns to face him.
“Can we just not think about anything for a while?” Her lips press against his ear, her voice barely above a whisper. She doesn’t give him the chance to answer before she pushes him back onto his bed, climbing up onto the mattress, straddling his lap. Her fingers jam into his hair as she brings his face to hers, crushing their lips together almost violently.
“Row.” Emmette pulls back from her. “Are you sure…”
“Stop being such a girl and just go with it, alright? There’s no one here. We’re not in a hallway full of people. We don’t have to do it right now. But, I thought this was your thing. Or am I not your type enough? Still trying to talk yourself out of it?” Smiling, she finds the hem of his t-shirt and pulls it over his head.
“So you heard that, huh?”
“Like I said, I heard everything.” Her eyes take in the muscles of his stomach. Her fingers trace the ridges. “Thank you to whoever invented rugby.” She holds her hands together in a prayer motion.
“Well, technically, there wasn’t a single inventor. It was an evolution over time, but some people credit it to William W…”
“I don’t actually care.” Rowena pushes him back onto the bed, lowering her lips to his stomach.
“Suddenly, I don’t remember the answer anyway.” He inhales sharply as she starts to kiss the skin along the waist of his jeans.
“So, back to this I’m not your type issue.”
This time it’s Emmette that silences her. Sitting up, he presses his lips against hers. Catching her lower lip in his teeth, he releases it slowly, teasingly. “Like I said before, if I didn’t want to be with you, you wouldn’t be here. So stop worrying.” He pulls the snaps of her top open and slides the shirt off her shoulders before throwing it to the floor. Locking their arms around each other, they fall back onto the soft comforter on Emmette’s perfectly made bed.
Lying on her side, the warmth of Emmette’s body stretches the length of her own. Rowena takes his hand into hers, stretching his arm in front of her, she plays with his fingers. Her eyes prickle with tears. Her breath catches as they begin to trickle down her face into her hair.
“Hey.” Emmette feels her shaking. “Hey, babe. What? Was it something I did? Did I hurt you?” He twists her face towards his, wiping her tears away with his thumb. “Oh my god, were you bored?” He feigns shock.
“No. It’s not that. It’s definitely not that.” She turns her body into his, burying her face into his neck, chuckling. “You’re just not vanilla.”
“Vanilla?” He traces a finger down her arm. “Was my girl expecting me to not know what I was doing?”
She smiles against his skin. “It’s a bit of a personal joke between me and Penelope.” She remembers the events of earlier in the day. Hot tears fill her eyes again. “I feel so guilty.”
“Guilty?” Emmette’s forehead crinkles in confusion. He pulls the blanket up around their shoulders. “About being with me?”
“A little. We’re here, in your bed, thinking about ourselves, and my best friend is lying in a damn coma. And it’s probably my fault.”
“Your fault. How on earth could this be your fault? And why is Ash beating up our favourite teacher? What the hell is going on today?” Emmette pushes himself up on one elbow, looking down at her.
“Those questions are all kind of connected. You ready for the long story?”
He nods, tracing a finger along the silky white skin of her collarbone.
“Pay attention.” Rowena giggles, slapping his hand away. “So, a while back, the day Mr. Staal started at our school actually, Penelope met him while she was running. They kind of hit it off before he knew she was going to be his student.”
“Shush.” She puts a finger over his lips. “So, they met and decided that they liked each other and started secretly dating. You know, cause he’s a teacher and stuff, they couldn’t tell anyone.”
“Ash found out that night he walked home from Frasier’s place. He got super pissed and confronted Gil.”
“Gil? Were you seeing him, too?”
“Mr. Staal, whatever. Not important. Penelope decided to lie to Ash and tell him they’d broken up, but she was still seeing him.”
“How does any of this make what happened last night your fault?”
“Penelope would tell her parents that she was staying at my house, but she was really staying at Gil’s. We never actually had plans to get together and watch a documentary on running last night. Honestly, I can’t believe you guys fell for that. She was at his house. Then she got attacked. If I hadn’t lied, Ash probably would have told his parents, they would have told the school, and Penelope would have been with us last night.” She feels the tears coming again, “So, see, my fault.”
“Rowena.” His hand cups her face. “This wasn’t your fault!”
“How isn’t this my fault? How can I not feel guilty?” Rowena sits up, wrapping her arms around her knees. “Last night, while my best friend was being strangled, I was making out with you on a couch. Not thinking about her at all. Now today, while the same person is in a hospital bed, I’m in your bed. What’s wrong with me?” Flopping back onto the pillows, she throws her hands over her eyes.
“There’s nothing wrong with you.”
“Yes, there is. Cause even though I know we should go back to the hospital, or at least call for an update, I just don’t want to think about it. I’d rather be kissing you. Or touching you. Or having you do that thing you did with your fingers. You know the one I mean, right?” Her hands still over her eyes, she peeks through her fingers, seeing him grinning at her. Rowena’s voice fills with frustration as she grins back at him. “I am a bad, bad friend. A bad person. Damn it.” She stomps her feet into the mattress until she feels the weight of Emmette’s body shift on top of her.
“You are not a bad person. You just need something to distract you from how horrible this whole situation is.” He reaches over the side of the bed, “And I am totally okay with being that person.” He kisses her as he grabs his phone and quickly punches a number of keys. “Hey. It’s me.” He waits. “Yeah, she’s much better. Any news?” He pauses for a minute. “Thanks, I’ll tell Row.” He tosses the phone on the nightstand. “Nothing’s changed. We’re meeting at Frasier’s at 7:00 to talk about some stuff. Now, let’s talk about that finger thing you were mentioning.” He smiles and lowers his lips to the hollow at the base of Rowena’s neck.