His head feels like it weighs a thousand pounds. His fingers feel like they weigh even more as he tries to bring his hand up to his face. A low guttural sound escapes his lips.
“Ash? Sweetie?” A reassuring voice sounds from beside him.
“Mom?” His voice is thick. His lips feel about the size of hot dogs. The big ones they sell at those roadside stations.
“Hey, honey.” He feels a cool cloth touching his face. His eyelids flutter as he slowly opens them. The light in the room is dim, but he can see his mother sitting beside his bed.
“Where am I?” He forces his tongue to form words.
“At home. You were in the hospital for a while, but they let us bring you home a couple days ago after you regained consciousness. Your injuries look bad but are mostly superficial. Except for that broken nose.”
“I was? I did?” He glances around, taking in the flowery décor of the spare bedroom. “My nose?”
A sigh rushes through her lips. It’s a sound of complete and utter relief. “You haven’t been very coherent, but you’ve been awake on and off the last couple days. The drugs have kept you pretty loopy.” She wets the cloth again from a bowl on the nightstand and begins loosening the scabs around his eye. “You really scared us, Ash. How could you do that? Right after what happened to Penelope.” Her voice catches, tears welling up in her eyes. “How could you put your father and I through that after we’d just lost your sister. To get that call, from the police. Again. In one day. Twice in one day to be notified that your child has been beaten almost to death. You can’t have any idea what that feels like Ash.”
“Mom.” He reaches for her hand. “I am so sorry. I didn’t mean for it to go this way. I don’t even really remember what happened. I just remember being so angry. I couldn’t just let him get away with it.” As the last vestiges of sleep-induced fog clear, Ash’s thoughts become clearer. “I can’t ever remember being that angry before.”
“How did you know? How could you have hid this from us for so long?”
“I don’t know, Mom. I just did. It’s a really long story. I didn’t know I was keeping anything from you. I thought she had ended things with him.”
“We’ll talk about it later, when you’re better.” She puts the cloth in the bowl. “And I will be angry, Ash. I’m just glad you’re okay. I’ll be back in a minute.” Standing, she leaves the room after kissing him lightly on the forehead.
Ash pushes himself up in the bed, his head falling back with an unexpected rush. “Yeah, not going anywhere.” He mutters to himself.
Ash looks towards the door, where his four friends stand huddled together. His face breaks into as much of a smile as it can. “Hey guys.” He mumbles.
They make their way into the room, Sullie propping herself up on the bed beside him. “Where’s Penelope?” He looks behind the others. Their silence triggers the memory his brain is trying to protect him from. “Never mind. I remember” His voice almost a whisper. He takes Sullie’s fingers in his, and smiles up at her. “Sorry about everything.” His voice is sheepish.
“You better be god damn sorry.” She pokes him in the chest. He winces as her finger connects with a knee shaped bruise. “I’m not sorry about that. Don’t you ever, ever scare me like that again!”
“I don’t really see this being an issue again.” His voice is sombre. “So what’s happened? The last thing I remember is Staal confessing just before I passed out.”
“We must have gotten to the house right after that happened. You were already unconscious.” Emmette leans against the wall across from the bed.
“Emmette and I made sure that he couldn’t hurt anyone else until the cops got there. Which took way longer than it should’ve.” Frasier adds.
“Yeah, that was my fault.” Rowena sheepishly leans on Emmette’s shoulder. “I called Officer Daniels, but I was having some kind of panic attack and I couldn’t get out the address. It took him a while to figure out what I was trying to tell him.”
“I don’t think anyone really blames you for the panic attack, Row.” Frasier smiles. Ash can feel the bond that’s developed between the four of them.
“How long was I out?”
Sullie’s voice in low and even. “A long and terrifying six days.”
“She’s not exaggerating, Ash.” Emmette’s voice mirrors Sullie’s. “This has been the worst week of my life. Of all our lives. We’ve been holding vigil at the hospital together since it happened. Then we moved here. I’ve seen these three more than my parents.”
“Did they get Staal?” Ash finally asks the only question he really wants to know the answer to.
“They’ve arrested him, but I don’t know if they’ve pressed charges yet. I’d guess so, since he’s been there for like four days. They found Penelope’s phone and purse in his house, and her car down the street. Sullie gave them all that information she collected. I don’t know if it’s enough though. They’ve been waiting to talk to you.” Emmette fills him in on the details.
Sullie plays her fingers through his hair gently. “Everyone’s kind of been waiting on you. The school’s been in turmoil. No one can believe what’s going on. None of us have been back.”
“What about the other girls? Will they report him?”
“I’ve been given very, very specific instructions not to speak to any of them.” She smiles. “I’ve been too worried to try.”
“Sullivan, this isn’t the time to hold out on me, okay?” Ash forces his arm through the painful motion required to brush her hair back behind her ear.
She just stares down at the bed. A tear falls from behind her hair onto the blanket. Ash looks from her to the others. He gestures towards the door with a nod of his head and Frasier and Emmette slip silently into the hallway, dragging Rowena with them.
“Sullie.” Ash’s voice is low, trying to keep her calm and relaxed. “Sweetie, can you please tell me what happened. Tell me what I need to do to help you through this.”
“Stop being so god damn pulled together.” Sullie’s voice is coloured with an animosity Ash doesn’t understand.
“You’re lying here in bed. Beaten almost to a pulp. Hell,” She throws up her arms and pushes herself off the bed, “not almost. You are a pulp. Look. This is what I see when I look at you.” She grabs the little vanity mirror from the dresser and holds it in front of him. Ash gasps when he seems his face. The skin around his eye looks like hamburger that’s been left on the counter for too long. The left side of his face is so bruised it’s almost black. A row of stitches stretch up his jawline. A plethora of scrapes and cuts cover his face.
“I look disgusting.” Gritting his teeth against the pain, he explores the side of his face with his fingers. “No wonder you won’t look at me. I understand if you want to reconsider your options.”
“Stop it! Just stop it!” Sullie shouts, putting the mirror away before coming back to the bed. “This is what I’m saying. Stop trying to make me feel better! Of course, I’m not going to leave you. I’m not that shallow.” A quick smile passes across her lips. “But I want you to understand what happened to you. To your sister. Stop trying to make me feel better and grasp that this is very real. You’re going to have to testify. You’re going to have to learn to be without Penelope. Your sister is dead.”
“Are you trying to depress me?” Ash cocks his head. “I don’t really understand where you’re going with this.”
“You’re a strong person, Ash. You’ve never pussyfooted around an issue to save someone’s feelings. So don’t do it on account of me. I’m not a weak person. If I was, you wouldn’t be with me.” Sullie’s posture slumps as she relaxes. “I don’t really know what I feel right now. I don’t know what I expect you to feel; I’m just so glad you’re back. That you’re finally awake. Do you understand? I thought I’d lost you, and we’d just found each other. I couldn’t lose my best friend and my boyfriend in the same day. And then I feel guilty for feeling bad when your parents have it so much worse. So when you don’t let yourself hurt and get angry so that I feel better, I feel even more guilty.”
“You’ve got to give me some time, okay?” Ash took a deep breath and closed his eyes against the pain. “I’ll grieve and get angry and all that stuff, but in my own time. Right now, I just need to… just let me do it at my own pace, alright?” He opened his eyes to find her staring at him.
“Now, apparently it’s been a week since I kissed you. So, come here.” He smiles at his girlfriend. Sullie leans forward, careful not to put any of her weight on him. Their lips meet in a soft, but hungry kiss.
“God, I’ve missed you.” Sullie’s breath is hot against his skin as she breaks the kiss but doesn’t move away.
“I’m glad we’re going to be okay. You really don’t know any more about what’s going on with Staal, do you?”
Sullie shakes her head. “I don’t. None of us do. They won’t tell us anything. Your parents probably know more, but we haven’t asked them.”
“Okay.” He nods. “Let the others back in.”
Sullie nods before walking to the door and opening it.
“What about…?” Ash stops, taking a deep breath. “What about the funeral?”
“Your parents have been waiting for you to wake up before they scheduled anything.”
“Good. I’m glad.” Closing his eyes, Ash leans back against the pillows, keeping Sullivan’s hand in his. Sliding back into sleep, he feels the weight of everything pressing into his chest and wonders how he is ever going to get through this.