The first not three but whopping five chapters of Resurgence are here!

A Resurgence Novel #1

By Johi Jenkins

Copyright © 2012 Johi Jenkins

All rights reserved: no part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission from the author.

This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.


Kenton LeMaire,
my complement

1.    Fire in the Hallway

As far as Brielle Marshall was concerned, this day was proving to be absolutely weird in every way. It was in fact the opposite of what should have been a normal spring day in her senior year, in one of the final weeks of high school. It was Tuesday after Memorial Day weekend; it had been hard enough to wake up and go to school after a long weekend.

“What’s wrong with you, Brie?” Her friend Melanie asked, probably more concerned with Brielle not paying attention to her than with the possibility of Brielle being distressed. It was almost the end of lunch period, and Brielle had clearly missed a vital name or circumstance in whatever story Melanie had been telling.

“Are you kidding me? Three-day weekend. I’m still half asleep,” Brielle offered, but that wasn’t it at all.

Brielle had slept in, way too long, having one of those really good dreams that she never wanted to wake from, and as a consequence she had been almost late for school. She had hurried to Lincoln Park High School, and gotten flushed with her quickened pace. She had been only half paying attention to the normal chatter of her friends, her thoughts unfocused as if searching for something, but she didn’t know what. That was so out of character. She had drifted this way all morning.

She had gotten away with it too, until now. Melanie had other things on her mind and had not noticed until that one inopportune moment when she had actually asked Brielle for her opinion.

“Yawn. Tell me about it. Here, take a sip,” Melanie said, and offered Brielle a small bottle. Energy drink.

Brielle took it warily. She hated energy drinks because she thought they tasted horrible and nothing that tasted that bad could be good for her. But she had to admit that she was seriously distracted, so she took a long sip.

Ergh. Disgusting.” Brielle said, making a face. She pushed the bottle back to its owner.

“I know, but nobody drinks it for the taste,” Melanie said, collecting the bottle from Brielle. She sounded like she was going to say more on the previous subject of Brielle not paying attention, but the bell rang. “Let’s go,” she said, resigned.

The drink didn’t help at all; Brielle still felt distracted during fifth period, History. She noticed that she was feeling a warmth, a tingling in her body that she couldn’t quite place. Worse, she realized that it had been going on for a while before she had finally noticed. Ugh. She thought that maybe she was going to come down with something, or be sick from that energy drink. Melanie! Brielle and Melanie didn’t have History together, so Brielle found no one to yell at.

There was nothing to do in class. Every teacher was going through final review and preparing the students for what to expect in the finals, which started the next day. But a review of History was sort of what the class was to begin with, and Brielle was bored out of her mind. That was normal enough.

To every student’s delight, there was a knock on the door. They all suddenly perked up. Mr. Hidalgo went to the door and talked briefly with another teacher. After a minute or so he turned to the class and announced that they were all to go to the auditorium for general assembly. All students cheered. Any break from History was salvation.

“What do you think this is about?” She heard Nathan ask beside her as they put their books away. His voice had a nervous edge to it. Nathan was her cousin and the most paranoid teenager she knew. He believed Judgment Day was coming. The Terminator version. Calculators freaked him out as a kid when they spelled “hell” upside down.

“I’m sure it’s nothing. I guess we’ll find out,” she answered. Then she thought about it. She didn’t want to sit next to him at the assembly, so she acted quickly to delay her fate. “I have to use the little girls’ room first. See you there.”

He gave her an odd look and left the opposite way.

She did stop by the restroom for a minute to fix her hair, not that she could do much about it. It was cut neck-short with longer blunt ends at the front that were hard to tuck in successfully behind her ears. Brielle gave up with a short exasperated sound and exited the restroom. Out in the hallway, she started walking down the high school’s main hallway along with the rest of the seniors, and apparently the juniors as well, towards the auditorium. But as she neared the old school wing where the auditorium was, she became more and more apprehensive.

This was not normal. Definitely not typical, unless someone had stolen something big from the principal’s office. She remembered perhaps twice in almost four years in this building being called this way to the conference hall, and when it had happened before it was because the school officials wanted to address a national concern. Positioned every thirty feet or so at the ends of the hallway were ominous-looking security guards. Someone definitely stole something. She was considering who could have been the perpetrator when something grabbed her hand from behind, stopping her in her tracks.

Oh! Brielle thought, before she even turned around. It was a hand that held her right one; the touch was warm but sent shivers up her arm.

She turned slowly, enjoying the shivers as they ran down her extremities. Finally she found herself looking at the most beautiful person she’d ever seen in her life. It was a boy of about her age, amazingly with her own hair color: a vivid metallic orange, a bright fire, shining copper blond in the artificial light of the school hallway. Long for a boy, it fell a little over his ears and forehead, perfectly all over the place. It was a version of her own, shorter and lighter. Something she’d never seen before except in the media… and her own reflection.

But the hair was just framing a face. When she finally was able to focus on that face, she first noticed his eyes were a strange color of blue: dark, but bright blue; and looking so intense and somehow anxious but full of wonder that she lost herself in them. She couldn’t look away. It looked like he was going to say something, but had stopped and was now looking closely at her face. She realized that they had been silent for too long. She must be staring at him like an idiot, possibly drooling. She needed to move, break the spell. Wipe her lip before he noticed the drool.

She straightened up as if to move away, though nothing really happened except a twitch of the fingers in the captive hand. This got him to finally speak.

“Wait. Look into my eyes. Do you know me?” His voice made her heart beat faster than she thought possible. There was something wrong with her breathing, too. Maybe she was suffering from a heart attack. But he was waiting for an answer.

What was the question? Did she know him? That was ridiculous. She had never seen this boy before. She would never forget this face even if she lived a thousand years and never saw it again. She couldn’t possibly know him.

She shook her head.

Brielle was aware that his hand, his left hand, had never released hers. They were face-to-face holding hands. She looked away, down at them, a little self-conscious, because his eyes were too beautiful. And without a warning he took his free hand and gently placed it on her neck, his thumb at her cheek, making her look up at his face again. Ah. Her skin dropped five degrees and her blood warmed up ten. He repeated, with a trace of despair, “Please, this is so important. I need you to think, to remember. Please. Do you think I look familiar at all?”

She had frozen when he had touched her face. The world had narrowed to this man and his impossible hair and his pleading eyes. His hair, his eyes. There was something about them. The hair was familiar alright, but that was probably because it was so much like hers. Yet the eyes—she didn’t know how could she possibly recognize them, but she thought she did. From a dream. From long ago. She couldn’t move an inch, but somehow she nodded.

His expression changed to something she couldn’t understand—something like relief, wonder, or affection—but she had no time to think about it, as he released her neck and turned around. Her skin tingled where the air reclaimed it, and the spot felt empty somehow. As if his hand belonged on her neck. She wasn’t thinking properly.

Still holding her hand, he guided her to the edge of the hallway, away from all the passing bodies. He stopped next to an open door and said in a low voice, “Listen well, okay? Your life and my life may depend on this. Please believe me—you can’t go to that conference. You need to get out of here. Can you find a way out?”

She couldn’t begin to understand the weight of the sentence. It sounded too epic. But she nodded again. She knew how to get out; she had done it before. And finally he let go of her hand—no, don’t, she wanted to say. She felt the same tingling and strange emptiness again, and she became… what? Sad? She wanted him to touch her, to hold her hand again. To her surprise, he reached up to hold her face with both of his hands, and leaned his face towards hers until their foreheads touched, and closed his eyes. She gasped softly. Her heart stopped.

He whispered, “I need to hear you say ‘yes.’”

So she took a deep breath, aware of how close he was to her, and forced herself out of her apparent paralysis. She said, “Yes, I can make it out.”

“Thank you,” he said, opening his eyes. There were a thousand more thanks in those deep blue hollows, and she was falling again, staring.

“Um…. Where should I go?” She asked him.

“Just go home. You’ll be safe there.” And with that, he let her go. “Goodbye,” he said, giving her a final, pained look. And then he walked away from her, towards the main office of the school. He disappeared in the sea of passing students.

Brielle had frozen at the goodbye, and remained immobile when he walked away, just staring at his back. When she couldn’t see him anymore, she snapped out of it. No. Without thinking, Brielle followed him. It couldn’t be over. She had to see him again. She looked around and kept searching for the fire that was his hair, but the boy was nowhere to be seen. She didn’t wonder if she’d imagined him, because perfection like that was beyond her imagination.

She gave up; he was gone. Clinging to the words he had said, she decided to do as he asked.

Away from his strange influence—the influence of the beautiful, she suspected—Brielle slowly regained control of her senses, and became aware of her surroundings. Other students were passing her, and she started walking forward with them again.

At the turn towards the auditorium there was another restroom, and she entered it swiftly. There was no one else in there. She went all the way to the opposite wall where there were the windows that she’d once in her freshman year proved her friends she could fit through. She threw her backpack first, and then slid though the panes, and landed on the concrete behind the school. The dust from the window clung to her jeans and her shirt, and she briskly patted most of it away.

Free, she ran parallel to the structure towards the back gate, staying close to the building. She jumped the fence that surrounded the parking lot, and found herself in the service alley in the back of the school lot. Her house was not too far away—about ten minutes walking—and she was early. She would have the house to herself for a short while. She was glad for the time, for she really needed to come up with a story to explain to her mother. She should try to make sense of what had just happened, of the supposed danger that she had apparently just evaded.

But no such thoughts came. Her mind would only allow one person.

2.    Guilty

Orange hair. It had looked so silky and inviting. Brielle ran her fingers through her own hair pretending that it was his, that it was ten minutes ago, and she wasn’t escaping from anyone. That made her pause for a second. She questioned her current actions.

She had exited the alley behind the school, crossed the main avenue that ran next to the school, and was now on the street that would take her home.

But why was she going home? Who was she running from? It should have been ridiculous, her mindless following of a total stranger’s orders. But she felt she could trust him, even if she couldn’t explain why. Yeah right, she thought as she actually snorted out loud. If she was being true to herself, the blind trust wasn’t any all-revealing power that let her know who was good and who was lying. She did exactly like he asked her to because she wanted to. She wanted to please him because she had been instantly attracted to him, no doubt about it. And that should’ve been bad because….

She jumped as her phone vibrated in her pocket.

“Oh, crap.”

The second the words left her mouth, Brielle felt ashamed of herself. Her phone was ringing, and it was Bruce. Never since they started dating had a call from her boyfriend been a reason to panic. Calls from Bruce were a source of instant joy. Are. Are a source. She sighed and answered up the call.

“Hey, Bruce.” Ugh. Whatever happened to “baby”? This was stupid. The clouds had to be radiating some weird mojo.

“Hey Brie, where are you? Where’d you go? You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine; I’m walking home,” she replied as lightly as ever, without a trace of unease. She was momentarily shocked at her seamless insincerity.

“But where are you? I don’t see you here at the conference, Nate says you were right behind him, but you went to the restroom, and you never showed up. And you haven’t replied to any of my texts.” His voice was a neutral tone that was probably the result of annoyance cancelling out concern.

“Conference? Hold on.” She looked at the screen. Indeed there were five new texts from him. Oops. She brought her phone to her ear again. “I guess I didn’t hear the buzz. Sorry. I left because I wasn’t feeling so well. I was going to call you when I got home,” she added. Which would have been true, when she eventually remembered him.

“But you said you’re fine? What’s wrong?”

“Headache. Killer,” she lied again. A mental image flashed of the last time she didn’t feel well. Bruce had visited at her house and had kissed her lightly, and she had kissed him back. She cringed involuntarily now, remembering. And cringed a second time, from embarrassment at cringing. What was wrong with her?

“Oh, baby, so sorry to hear that. Do you want me to go see you after dinner?” He sounded genuinely upset.

“No, no, you stay put. I’ll be fine. Gotta study for finals, remember?” Thank God for the excuse. As she spoke, she saw the boy in her mind, and felt his hand on hers again. A ripple of pleasure ran through her as she remembered his hand on her face. Um… what had she just said?

“Oh. Okay, but don’t sweat it. Tomorrow’s the easy ones,” Bruce said.

“Yeah, but I still have to study. Plus, that’s what I told Elena when she asked me to help her with school. She’s got math homework.” The words kept coming out of her mouth without her input. She was paying no attention to what she was saying.

“That’s okay, I guess. Call you tonight,” Bruce said, sweetly. “Hope you feel better.”

“Kay thanks bye.” She ended the call without flourish. Usually at “bye” there were at least an additional six lines before the call actually ended. But Brielle’s mind was demanding her attention and she couldn’t afford to waste more time. It was inventing scenes that never happened. The boy’s lips on her cheek….

Oh crap. Crap crap crap.

Brielle had a problem here, with Bruce specifically. She decided to think about it later. There were better things to think about. The memory of the strange encounter gnawed at her chest, waiting to be relived.

But as she decided to act on it, a faint sound interrupted her thoughts. What was that? It had sounded like a cat’s mew. That was another thing to add to the growing list of strange things about this otherwise random Tuesday. A cat, out on the streets? There were no stray cats in her neighborhood, Lincoln Park. She looked around, looking for the source of the sound, but she didn’t see anything. Nor she heard anything anymore.

She shrugged it off and kept walking down the street. A minute later she heard it again, a bit louder this time. It was definitely a cat. She stopped again and looked around.

A shadow flew over her. She looked up at once, and was surprised to see an enormous bird flying over the street. “Oh my God!” She cried impulsively. It was a sight to see: wings spread as it glided over Brielle, with its fanned-out tail feathers that made it look like a miniature airplane. It was majestic. She noticed that its tail was buff-orange, and the name red-tailed hawk came to mind.

A hawk! It was the first time she had spotted a hawk. As she watched, captivated, the bird flew upwards and doubled back, turning in a wide arc across the blue sky. And at that moment she heard the mew again—her head snapped down as she detected that it was coming from somewhere near her, in front of her.

Meow?” she called in her best high-pitched cat imitation voice. It was pretty good, in her opinion.

Meow! Apparently, the cat approved too, mewing back at her. Its voice was high like a kitten’s… and it sounded afraid. Brielle immediately saw why—the hawk was coming back now, and as it approached, it called out a menacing, shrilling kee-eeeee-arr. The cry lasted a few seconds and it sent chills up Brielle’s spine.

Holy hell. It was coming for the kitten! Brielle searched frantically in front of her, and mewed again to the cat. It responded, and at length she located the sound coming from a tree not too far from her. However, the hawk was probably closer. She ran towards the tree, waving her arms over her to shoo the bird away, but not too violently that she would scare the cat. As she neared the tree, she finally spotted it: a small, fluffy black and white kitten, perched on a branch of one of the trees that lined the street. And unluckily for the kitty, it had chosen to climb a younger tree with sparse foliage—the branch upon which it was perched must have been perfectly visible to the aerial hunter. The cat looked totally terrified. Whether of the hawk, or of the crazy human waving her arms maniacally, Brielle couldn’t tell for sure.

“Come here, kitty,” she called anxiously. She was afraid of the hawk—she didn’t know if it would fight Brielle for its dinner or if it would be intimidated by the larger animal, the human. What did she know about birds, anyway?

The cat responded with a frantic mew, but came closer as if curious about its would-be rescuer. Brielle looked up and saw the hawk descending. She extended her arms to the cat, and commanded again, “Dude! Come here,” as if it would just jump in her arms. Surprisingly, the little thing edged closer, making a show of pretending to measure the distance between the branch and Brielle; she couldn’t wait another second and snatched it, and immediately cowered down next to the tree, hiding the kitten with her body and lowering her head, hoping that the hawk would ignore her and not peck her eyes away.

She heard the angry, shrill cry again and looked up to see the hawk had flown over her. Without waiting to see if it would turn yet again, she started walking towards her house, briskly.

“What were you doing up in that tree?” She scolded the cat. “Huh? Have you been chasing squirrels? That was a bad idea. Have you even seen the squirrels around here? They’re so fat, they’re bigger than you. You’re coming with me….”

After a few minutes, not hearing the hawk again, she slowed down and looked at the kitty. It was looking at her curiously, definitely not afraid anymore. Arrgh. What a cute little thing. She inspected it for damage. It—he, Brielle noticed—looked healthy enough, except that his fur was a little matted. Nothing serious. He was mostly black except for a white chest, the tips of his front paws, and all of his hind paws, which made him look like he was wearing a tuxedo with white boots and individual gloves for his fingers. He was a gorgeous kitten. And sweet—this kitten had known love from a human, or else he wouldn’t just come to her like that, hawk or no hawk.

Brielle looked left and then right. “Assuming you live nearby, I guess I’ll have to alert your owners about their missing little tuxedo cat. Maybe I’ll put up a missing poster.” At that moment, the thing started purring. Brielle’s choice was made for her. “Or I could just take you home, and wait for them to put up missing posters.”

The day just kept getting weirder and weirder.

Her house was not too far down the street. She explained this to the cat. “I like to call it Marshall Manor, and it’s been my family’s home since I was eight years old and we moved to Chicago. Or was it nine years old? Don’t know. The house is pretty big, you’ll see, for the city. Or maybe you’ll disagree, since you probably were born in one of these other houses,” she said, apologetically to her companion.

Brielle had always liked her house, but it was nestled in a street with mansions that made it look like Marshall Cottage by comparison. That was not rare in this neighborhood. “But,” she added as she entered through the side porch and admired the trees in her backyard, “those mansions don’t necessarily have this huge private patio. Okay, maybe they do. Still, you’ll like it.”

The patio in her family’s property was surrounded by pine trees that were tightly packed and formed a sort of wall that guarded the patio from the world. And perhaps more importantly, kept her tree house from her neighbors’ view. In this city everything required permits, and she wasn’t sure the tree house was up to date with the Buildings Department. The tree house was probably her favorite place in the world. However, she didn’t spend too much time inside recently, what with being a senior and having to study most of last semester for the SATs and having a boyfriend. The last time she had been inside it was the previous summer, and she only went there was to clean it, spend a few hours with Melanie and company, and basically to keep her little sister Elena from thinking it was abandoned; otherwise she might want to take over it. And after all, it was Elena’s dad Reuben who had built it. But it had been for Brielle; Elena had been a baby when he built it.

“Let’s get you inside. I’ve got no kitty litter, but I’ll get you some later,” Brielle kept talking to the cat as she entered her house, as though they were old pals having a conversation. “Want some milk? Oops,” she said as she noticed that there was no such thing in the fridge. Elena didn’t like milk, so of course there was only soy milk. “Sorry. Hope you like this….”

Surprisingly, the cat lapped up the soy milk hungrily. Maybe he did only because he was hungry. “Okay, that’s kitty litter and cat food on the shopping list.”

After the cat drank, she bent to scoop him up; on her way back up something caught her reflection in the window glass pane, and her heart stopped for a second. No—she thought she had seen him, but it was only her own reflection. Her hair reminded Brielle of the boy’s hair, and all else was forgotten.

The cat, the hawk, the tree house, the neighbors, they were all shoved aside as the she remembered the scene in the hallway. The real protagonist in her head became Mr. Fire Hair. In her mind, he was touching her face again as she moved about the house without really seeing anything in front of her. In autopilot, holding the cat, she climbed the stairs and went up to her room.

It was around 2:00 pm; she had a bit more than an hour to bathe the cat, or study in silence in the empty house before her mother, Joy, would arrive with Elena, yet all she wanted was to lie on her bed and close her eyes. Because when she did, she saw him.


The sound of the front door closing and small footsteps running up the stairs announced the arrival of Joy and Elena. The cat was sleeping peacefully next to Brielle, while her imaginary new relationship was progressing quickly. She was upset to have been shaken from her reverie. She gave the boy one last kiss, picked up the sleeping kitten and went downstairs to meet her mother.

“Brie! What are you doing home?” Joy asked pleasantly surprised. Usually, Brielle lingered after school talking to her friends, and her walk was longer than Joy’s and Elena’s. As a consequence, Brielle usually made it home long after Joy and Elena were settled in. “And who is that? Oh my God, he’s adorable. She?”

Brielle smiled at her mother’s enthusiasm and gave her a quick kiss. “Hi. We had a surprise seminar in the afternoon, and they let us off when it ended.” Which was partially true. “Then on the way here, I found this little guy on a tree, and I swear a friggin’ hawk was trying to snatch him up! So I got him down, and didn’t know where to put him; I mean, had to keep him from the hawk, right? So I brought him here. I’ll check for posters and return him when someone asks. You can tell he’s somebody else’s,” she finished, a little sad. “He’s too friendly around people.”

“You saved a cat from a hawk. And you of all people—you’re going to return him?” Joy asked doubtfully. Brielle had a reputation for feeding squirrels to get them to stay as pets. Her mother knew that Brielle was bluffing. “Uh huh. ’Course you are. You probably already named him.”

Brielle smiled despite herself, and Joy’s suspicions were confirmed. She wiped the smile off her face. “No, of course not. And I will return him. If someone comes looking for him.” Brielle had already even shrugged off the possibility of looking for posters.

“C’mon, what’d you name him? Noir?”

Brielle scoffed. “Noir? What is he, a perfume? No….” And since she was totally busted already, she fessed up. “I was thinking… Fingers. Because look at this!” She thrust the kitty forward, showing Joy his paws. “Only his fingers are white!”

“I don’t think they’re called fingers in a cat.”

“So? Isn’t he the cutest little tuxedo cat?”

“He is,” Joy said, and it sounded like she was a goner, too. But she suddenly changed the subject. “So what was your seminar about?”

“Uh…” she started to say. But she was saved from answering by Elena running into the kitchen area like she always did, very loudly.

“Who’s the cutest tuxedo cat?” She asked as she came in, her eyes desperately searching the room as though she had heard that someone was giving away free diamonds. Then they zeroed in on Brielle’s hands, and she squealed. “Ahhh!” She ran towards Brielle.

“Jeez, Elena,” Brielle said, raising the kitten away from danger. “Or should I call you Elmyra?”

“Who’s Elmyra?” Elena was nine. Of course she didn’t get the Tiny Tunes reference.

“Never mind,” Brielle said. “Look, you woke him up! Why’d you have to scream like that?”

“Sorry, Brie. Please lemme see. I’ll promise I won’t hurt him!” Elena pleaded. She sounded hurt.

Brielle noticed that Joy made a face that she interpreted as, “If you’re not going to be nice to your sister, you’re not keeping the cat.

Not again. Brielle was tired of feeling guilty today. So she immediately softened, and handed the cat to Elena. “Okay. Here, but don’t squeeze him. He hasn’t gone to the bathroom yet.”

Joy said, “Brielle! What are you waiting for?”

“I put some newspaper in my room. It’ll do while Dad gets home.”

“Oh, so you spoke with your dad while he’s working, and he’s okay with you having a cat, and he’ll bring you some cat supplies?”

“No, not yet. But I was going to call him, and I know he’ll say yes.”

Brielle called her stepfather and was happy to leave a message with his secretary, Heather. Reuben Marshall was a family doctor, and on Tuesdays he only worked until 5:00 pm, so he should be able to bring the items before long. Or most likely, Heather would probably buy the items for him, and then he would get home directly.

“Brie,” Elena came into the living room where Brielle had gone to make the call. She held up the cat. “I named him Tux. For tuxedo. Isn’t that a nice name?”

Brielle’s jaw dropped. “I make one phone call…! And you already renamed my cat? What the hell, Elena?”

“What? The name Mom said you gave him is stupid, anyway,” her voice lowered towards the end.

Brielle felt bad for yelling at her sister. She sighed and forced a half smile. “Fine. Tux doesn’t sound so bad, anyway.”

Elena did a little twirl. “See? I told you she’d like it,” she told the cat. Tux, Brielle corrected herself. “Hey Brie, will you help me with algebra today?” She asked. She had a way of demanding everyone to cancel whatever they were doing to do as she asked. Brielle wasn’t going to give in.

“El, I got finals, remember?” she replied. “I have to call Mel first, anyway,” she added with a hint of annoyance, as Elena showed signs of protesting. Brielle was sure that Elena could figure out math problems by herself. She was smart and her dad was a doctor. That had to count for something. Brielle’s dad had been a simple professor. Elena clearly had the genetic advantage.

Brielle did call Melanie, but it turned out to be a very short conversation. Melanie explained the gist of the “seminar”: it was some college fellowship thing. And Melanie had not seen anything interesting, to Brielle’s disappointment.

Brielle had almost wanted Melanie to have seen him. For one, she knew Melanie wouldn’t believe her description of the boy, and one can’t brag to an unbelieving audience; but more importantly, during her daydreaming she had imagined a scenario where the boy had asked around for Brielle prior to their encounter, and one of his interviewees was Melanie, who had not only caught his name, but had by now spread the word that a super cute guy was looking for Brielle, and all other girls were jealous.

But now Brielle added to that string of thoughts that Bruce would have also heard about the encounter, thought back on her short replies during their phone call not too long ago this afternoon, put two and two together and realized that she had had a mini affair with a stranger. And disappointed in her, Bruce was going to break up with her in front of everyone at the plaza tomorrow!

She shoved all thoughts hastily aside and actually relaxed at Melanie’s lack of information, and decided to not even mention the boy. She told Melanie about Tux—and then had to explain her actions, because her friend immediately jumped to the conclusion that Brielle had stolen some poor girl’s kitty cat. No, she didn’t steal him. She saved him. What was with the guilt trips? They chatted for a bit until Melanie’s younger brother Joe—a boy version of Elena, it seemed sometimes—demanded her attention to order dinner.

She managed to study enough before dinner, and felt guilty about dissing her little sister earlier. She went to Elena’s room and asked if she still needed help. It turned out, by that time Elena had managed to figure it all out herself, as Brielle had known she would. Tux was sleeping—again—and Elena was now bored. So she got Brielle to stay for a game of chess instead. Brielle agreed half-heartedly, more out of lingering guilt, but couldn’t just refuse on grounds of wanting to be alone and daydream.

“Earth to Breeee,” said Elena sounding more like an annoyed little person than the nine-year-old girl she was. As far as Elena was concerned, this was her playtime with her big sister, and it was sacred. Brielle’s attention should be on the game before them. Specifically, on the queen that Elena had just moved to take Brielle’s eyes off the rook.

“Sorry, El,” Brielle offered lamely. “I’m dead tired; it’s the first day back after Memorial,” she said, using the same excuse she had used on Melanie earlier today. And it was just as untrue. There was more activity going on in her brain than there had been for a long while. Presently, she was remembering the way his hand had felt on her skin. She imagined it still tingling. And that was quite absurd.

She tried to focus on the game before her. Elena was amazing at chess for such a young person. Brielle never willingly lost to her little sister, but today she wanted to finish as quickly as possible because her room and its inviting privacy promised hours that she could devote to accurately reliving those five minutes. His name. Why didn’t he say his name? “The boy” would get old pretty soon.

She went for the obvious move, and let Elena have her rook.

Finally back in welcome solitude, she smiled. Despite all the pretending she had done tonight, her Bruce predicament and her lack of enthusiasm for family time, she could say that her day had been amazing because she had rescued a kitten from certain death and met the most gorgeous boy.

Brielle had never experienced such extreme highs as the happy times she was able to focus her energy on him. The minutes she spent thinking of him were almost pleasure. Thoughts of him touching her would put her in a state of happiness from which she didn’t want to escape.

Deep down she knew she should question the whole incident, but she couldn’t make herself care about the danger he had warned her of. She was simply dazzled by him.

3.    Finals

“I still can’t believe you ditched! But how’d you do it?” Melanie started harassing the next day as Brielle approached, before Brielle had even had the chance to say hello.

Melanie sat on a bench next to Bruce, who looked up. His short, wavy blond hair was a little disheveled; something Brielle used to think was attractive, but that morning she realized it actually bothered her. She also found that his pale blue eyes were quite uninteresting, as they looked at her questioningly. It had clearly just occurred to him to wonder the same thing that Melanie had asked.

Brielle said hello briefly, put her books down and sat next to Melanie automatically, to answer the question Melanie asked. That left Bruce all by himself to Melanie’s left. Well, he wasn’t by himself. He was next to a hot girl, Brielle told herself.

Brielle had always been the less-hot one of the two. Melanie was wearing a purple shade of lipstick that made her look quite interesting in Brielle’s opinion and to her slight mortification. Brielle’s orange-red hair would never allow for such a trend to look good on her. A lot of things didn’t go with her flames, actually. Oh, but other flames certainly matched. Ahh…. Her mind started to wander.

Snap out of it, she told herself. She realized her friends were waiting for an answer.

Excuse me,” she said dryly, leaning forward to make sure Bruce knew he was included in the scolding. But she addressed Melanie. “I didn’t ditch. I told you, just like I told BF here: I had a headache, so I went home.”

“Hey,” he protested, “that’s exactly what I told her, but Mel hears whatever she wants to hear.” He shoved Melanie, who shoved Brielle in turn, laughing.

“I do not. I just wanted to confirm her story with you, Bruce,” Melanie said, facing him and away from Brielle, “not that there’s anything wrong with ditching. I would’ve done it myself, but it didn’t occur to me. Plus, we couldn’t have! Those security guys were at the gates. How did you do it, Brie?” She turned back around to face Brielle.

“Um,” Brielle started to reply. Ever since the playful shoving, she had been imagining quite the scenario: the both of them falling in love with each other—no, hooking up at a party, while intoxicated—and Bruce’s subsequent tear-stained confession that it didn’t mean anything, that Brielle was the woman he would always love, the prettiest of the two, but he was weak; and Brielle would break up with him in front of everyone, and they would all admire her for being so strong and faithful. And then Mr. Fire Hair would appear with roses and jewelry to console her. “I went through the rear fence. I just didn’t feel like waiting for a pass.”

“Oh wow!” Melanie said with a little bit of admiration. She would never be able to do that because she was always in frilly lace or skirts. “Well, you’ve always kicked ass in all sports, ever since we were kids. I guess a little fence couldn’t stop you.”

“That’s right,” Bruce chimed in, uninvited.

Brielle mentally rolled her eyes, and immediately scolded herself. “Guys, do you want to start moving? I want to do a quick one-over before English.”

“Ugh. Okay,” Melanie said. “I can’t wait for this week to be over! Freaking finals… I’m soo ready for prom….”


Brielle had forgotten about prom for a whole day. Impossible. The big event was this Saturday night. Brielle had even gone shopping over the extended weekend and had found not one but two dresses.

The one she was likely to wear was a printed column gown with side cutouts and an extremely flowing skirt. It was ivory colored with a dark champagne floral print starting mid-skirt and increasing in density towards the hem, and vines and flowers embroidered along the vest along with fake jewels. It was mostly backless except for the two straps crossing at the back, embroidered with the same details as the front, forming an X. She had chosen it because her mom liked the color on her, and her mom was paying, so, there. Brielle was surprised that her mother had even approved of it. It was, after all, just a long skirt attached with a glorified bra at the front. But she had absolutely fallen in love with a metallic green dress in the trumpet style that made her look like a mermaid.

She had received a call from Bruce while he was at the tux rental place, asking her about her dress color because the lady at the store had said they needed to match. She had gone with the champagne and forsaken the green for a different time. Her mother, seeing her torn, had also gotten her the green one. Brielle had been so happy. There had been nothing else on her mind until one day ago.

And now she was contemplating in horror the coming event. While it was nice to dress up, and prom was usually something every girl with a beautiful dress looks forward to, Brielle was suddenly very interested in changing the topic.

It wasn’t happening.

Melanie was having a conversation with Bruce that apparently Brielle wasn’t a part of. “Nate wouldn’t mind,” Bruce was saying.

“I know, but I don’t want to go with him. I don’t mind being there with him. I need to show up single, to make sure guys know I’m single.”

“Guys, let’s go,” Brielle cut in.

Luckily the first bell rang, backing up her plea. They gathered their books and left for their first round of finals. Brielle was happy to focus on something else for a change.


That week was actually the last of school and tests for the seniors, which was unfortunate for Brielle because she was having a hard time concentrating on studying. Seniors would be taking tests Wednesday and Thursday, while the other grades had their finals the following week. Brielle tried really hard to study and forget the strange guy, but it was almost impossible.

Wednesday went by in a blur with finals. During breaks and lunch Brielle had to pretend to pay attention to Melanie, Bruce, their friends Darla, Kate, Nathan and Ryan, the tests, her routine. At night she used studying for Thursday finals as the best excuse to ignore her family and end calls with Bruce quickly without him suspecting anything, even though she did accept a call or two from Melanie because she felt any hard core studying session needed some form of healthy procrastination. Tux the kitty would sometimes come in and sit on Brielle’s books, and she would of course have to stop studying; she used the distraction to relive those five minutes from Tuesday over and over again, soaring on cloud nine. Then she would come crashing down the next minute as she remembered Bruce.

Bruce. Her first serious boyfriend, whom she had dated most of senior year. They weren’t a power couple by all means; they were more of the nerdy variety. In fact, they had been friends longer than they had dated, both taking AP classes and participating in Math Club during their junior year. They had a small circle of friends; Bruce’s best friend was Brielle’s cousin, Nathan. She liked Bruce, she… loved him, or so she had thought. At least she had said so to him, many times. She could remember saying it, she could remember believing it, but she couldn’t remember the feeling.

Brielle sighed miserably now as she considered what she might have to do. Bruce was a sweet guy, and she didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but she was going to have to do this. She called forth her feelings for the blond boy with pale blue eyes, but all that her heart delivered was guilt, pity and dread. She had no real motive to break up with him—that she would ever admit to anyone—but she was going to have to come up with something, because thinking of him had become a source of tension, and that was never a positive sign in a relationship.

But she needed to go back to studying. The first set of finals shamed her into studying more for the next day. Tired and irritated, she realized that she had spent most of her afternoon hiding in her room before and after dinner, taking breaks from studying every ten minutes to think of the boy and recreating their brief encounter a hundred times. Then she realized something changed.

She became increasingly mopey and couldn’t concentrate on studying. She sighed and closed the notes she was reading. She got up from her desk, lay down on her bed and closed her eyes.

It wasn’t just her one-way boyfriend troubles—those that plagued her mind and concerned her real boyfriend, Bruce, even though he wasn’t even aware of it. No, add now to the pile of worries her fake boyfriend. Her mental escapades would not progress endlessly as she would have liked—she was stuck in the same reveries over and over again, because her information on the mystery boy was limited. And moreover, it was hard to foresee a future with a boy that for all intents and purposes, she might never see again.

No. She wouldn’t believe that. She couldn’t—her mind refused to accept it. He had sought her out; he had spoken like a guy would speak to a girl he cared for…. But really, what did she know about his feelings? If he was so damn interested in her, where was he now? Gone. He came, gave her a warning, touched her face and shattered her universe, and now he was gone. Maybe the warning wasn’t even real. Or maybe it was real, and he was in trouble. He had said their lives had depended on her escaping.

She froze. She felt the change in her body as anxiety started to creep in. What if she had not succeeded? What if he was in trouble, caught by some authorities, deported somewhere? Dead? No no no. No way. He couldn’t be. He had to be alive, and he had to come back. But back from where? He didn’t live here. She was sure of this. If he lived anywhere near, she would have met him earlier, and she wouldn’t be dating Bruce.


Aaah. Her lungs seemed to reject the air that she was furiously pumping into them. She was suddenly annoyed at everyone and everything. Her finals, the boy leaving her, her lack of action against her relationship with Bruce, her stupid daydreams that were threatening to take over her every waking hour, and the possibility of being stuck in this limbo forever! No!

She could do something about one of her problems anyway.

“I. Don’t. Love. Bruce!” She yelled into her pillow, and immediately felt some relief. There!

Tux looked up from the window seat where he had escaped Elena’s room for the night. “Sorry you have to listen to this,” she told him. He narrowed his eyes sleepily and went back to whatever he was doing before.

She picked up her phone and called Bruce. He picked up right away.

“Hellooo, Brie,” he said in the singsong tone he reserved for her.

His greeting disarmed her. She couldn’t do it over the phone; it wouldn’t be fair for him.

“Hey Bruce, how are you?” She tried to sound normal.

“Good, baby-doll, how’re you doing?” His voice sounded a little distant, as if he were paying attention to something else.

“Um, not so good, actually. Things have been a little crazy recently. But I’m fine,” she added quickly, before he could ask about her troubles. “What are you doing?”

“Not much. Playing Gears of War with Nate and Ryan.” That explained the tone of his voice. Guys.

“What, are they there? Aren’t you supposed to be studying?” She was immediately glad that she didn’t break up with him over the phone.

“No, no—I totally finished studying. And no, they’re not here. We’re playing online. They say hi.”

“Bruce! I’m gonna hang up.”

“What? Why?” He dropped something. She heard the sound of things being moved about.

“You’re playing with the guys and they can hear you talking to me! I have to study anyways.”

“No! They can hear me, but not you. Right, guys? Hold on,” he said to either her or the guys. He was silent for a few seconds, and she could hear the noises coming from the TV. She hated war games. “Hey, can I call you back in a few? We’re in the middle of a mission and they’re bitching at me for not paying attention.”

“No, don’t worry. You play; I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Hey, can you make it a few minutes early?”

“If you call me and wake my ass up!”

“Sure, I can do that. Good night,” she said, embarrassed for asking him to get up early so that she would break his heart when there were fewer students around, so that less people might notice and think she was an evil bitch. Right in the middle of finals. And he had agreed so innocently.

“Night!” He actually sounded cheerful. Oh, Bruce.

After she hung up, the highly pleasant feeling of having accomplished something took over the guilt she should be feeling. She thought of tomorrow almost smiling in anticipation. In her vision, she argued with him the need to end their relationship so flawlessly that he had no choice but to nod and say, “Brie, of course—we need to break up.” Brielle shook the thought away. It was so unbelievable that it made her think of what would really happen the next day, which wouldn’t be so simple. She decided to think about something else.

Fire Hair guy, her mind suggested immediately. No. Enough was enough. She was partially convinced now that she had blown the whole thing out of proportion. Whoever he was and whatever his intentions were when he talked to her—intentions that might not involve her at all—he had only been helpful in allowing her to see that her relationship with Bruce was a mistake. But she would not let herself lose any more time thinking of him when it was harmful to her habits, and possibly useless. He was gone. She didn’t even know his name…. She sighed in dejection.

She immediately wanted to slap herself. This was why she needed to forget him. She went by Elena’s room. Elena always found something for them to do. Anything to keep Brielle from wallowing in self-pity. She could hear Elena singing a pop song, so she didn’t knock. Study guilt took over and she went back to her books, only to find Tux sitting on top of them again.

She sighed. “Okay, it’s just you and me, buddy.”

4.    One Down

Brielle rose earlier than usual on Thursday morning. She had had trouble sleeping because she kept going over her impending dreadful conversation with Bruce in her head, and when she finally fell asleep she had unpleasant dreams and kept waking up every few hours. Worst of all, she had one of her recurring nightmares.

One of her recurring nightmares was that she was taking a test and she spent most of the time allotted doing just the first problem, and then time ran out and she failed. Another one was that she was back in grade school and had to do everything all over again. And the worst one, which she had that morning, was the one in which she had killed someone by accident, and she spent the entire dream trying to revert the accident somehow, but the authorities were after her and she had to evade them, while proving that she didn’t mean to do it; and she always ended up dreaming in anxiety for what felt like hours.

Around 6:00 am, one hour earlier than her normal waking time, she couldn’t take it anymore and decided to start her day. Once ready she went to the kitchen to grab breakfast and ran into her stepfather.

“Hey Briella, what are you doing up so early? Can’t sleep over finals? They’ll be over today.” Reuben said, probably trying to cheer her up. He was the only one who called her Briella. He gave her a quick kiss on the top of her head. Her stepdad’s private practice was just outside the city, so he normally left early before everyone else in the house. She knew that he was about to leave any minute now but he didn’t show any signs of hurry; instead he looked like he was happy to cross paths with her. It made her feel much better. She really loved him like a father.

She decided to share her pain, without really making a conscious effort to do so. “Actually, it’s not about the finals, Dad. I’m going to school early to meet Bruce…. I don’t think it’s working out between us and I’m going to talk to him about it.” She looked down as she spoke, afraid of seeing judgment in Reuben’s eyes.

“Oh, honey….” His voice was kind and invited her to look up at him. He was smiling sympathetically. “Look, whatever is going on, you’re doing the right thing talking to him. It’s a sign of how brave you are. You’ve always been wise, and I know that no matter what happens today, your decision will be what’s best for both of you, in the long run.” He opened his arms to her.

“Dad,” she said full of gratitude, and hugged him, while her eyes threatened to fill with moisture. “Thank you… I’m just so nervous. I don’t want to hurt anybody.”

“Princess, I know you don’t, you’re a great person. But you’ve got to know: sometimes you have to hurt a little now to prevent a greater hurt later. Dialysis and chemo suck, but they’re necessary evils. For some people,” he added.

“So I’ve got to be chemo,” Brielle said, her spirits falling even further with the horrible comparison. She was a destroyer. She was evil.

“No, no! You could never be chemo. You’re more like a… like a flu shot,” he said with a half-smile.

“Thanks, Dad,” she said briefly, afraid she would start getting weepy and ruin her makeup.

“And remember: I always say it’s better to cut out a heart with a scalpel than it is to cut it out with a spoon. Good luck with finals.”



“Just spit it out, Brie,” Bruce said, his tone infused with worry now. It had clearly just occurred to him that what Brielle was going to say involved something that would hurt him. He had probably assumed that she wanted to talk about her own problems or finals when he first saw her worried face.

She took a deep breath and finally said, “Bruce, I don’t think this is working out.” She felt petty and spineless saying it this way. The truth was she didn’t want him anymore; she had lost her love for him practically overnight. She was flaky, her love was volatile and all her avowals of love had been meaningless.

Bruce was a little too romantic for his own good, but he wasn’t a fool. A few long seconds passed before he responded. “So you’re breaking up with me.” It didn’t sound like a question.

Like a Band-Aid, she thought. Make it quick, hurt him less. She waited a few seconds before answering as well, but she didn’t doubt her intention. She just didn’t want to come off as too eager to end it. It would be like pouring lemon juice over the paper cut. “Yes,” she finally said.

“Why?” He almost whispered, and his tone betrayed his cool manner. She could hear the hurt in this one word.

“To tell you the truth, I’m not sure I know myself. I meant everything that I’ve said to you until recently, I did….” She took a deep breath. “But now, I don’t see us working out in the future. I don’t see us happy together. There’s something missing.” Blame the relationship, not the one of its parts who was to blame. Coward.

He was silent for a while. She looked at him expectantly. She wanted to finish this. At length he said, “Look, it’s too early in the morning, and we have finals, for Christ’s sake. Can we talk about this later?”

No! This was her fault. She wasn’t taking responsibility. “Bruce, I’m so sorry to do this now. I really am. I don’t want to hurt you because I still love you, but I can’t change my mind, and you need to see that we’re not the right people for each other—” Her voice broke towards the end of her discourse, and she couldn’t finish. Her eyes slowly filled with tears.

Bruce was left speechless. He looked like he was going to say something, but no word came out of his mouth. Brielle stood up, put a hand on his shoulder as if to say farewell and close the argument, and then she walked away.

She was the first one to reach her classroom. She would be taking her Spanish final in the first period, and Melanie was in her Spanish class. She didn’t want Melanie to see her while her eyes were puffy, a clear sign of distress. Her red nose would still give her away, so she took a deep breath and tried to push the unpleasant talk out of her system. A few minutes later she was back to normal, and even had trouble figuring out the reason for her teary episode.

Why did she cry, anyway? Was it a regard for Bruce’s feelings? No. She felt sorry for him, yes, but more significantly, she felt embarrassed for herself—fearing his opinion of herself. What would he think of her if she broke up without a little display of feeling? Surely that she was a heartless, evil bitch. She cried to appear to have feelings, so that he didn’t hate her.

These tears were just a screen.

She was friendly on the outside; caring, sweet. But she was an evil bitch. And she didn’t want anyone to know, so she cried.


By the time Melanie arrived and the test had begun, she was seriously questioning her principles.


She had a free period before lunchtime, and decided to use it to review Physics, the one test in the afternoon that she actually feared. Stupid magnetic fields. She chose to study in the library because it was in the old school wing, where she thought she could escape her problems. She was wrong.

A shadow fell over her. She looked up to see Bruce, a cautious look on his face.

“How was the morning?” He asked casually.

“Wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. How was yours?”

“Not bad. I’m not sure I’m ready for Trig, though. I can’t get my mind to focus, Brie,” He said, and his tone changed to pleading. “Can we talk about this? If you say no I’m going to fail. Let’s just talk, whenever, it doesn’t have to be now. I know you’re stressed out about the tests.”

She groaned internally. She hated when he thought that she was being difficult and blamed it on her being stressed out. But she also didn’t want to ruin his memorization of the trigonometric identities, so she didn’t tell him what she really wanted to tell him.

“Okay, Bruce. Let’s talk after school.”

He sighed in relief. “Okay. But you’re killing me here, you know. Prom is tomorrow—”

Later, Bruce. Please,” she reminded him.

At lunchtime, they sat with their normal crowd and talked civilly, but in a formal enough tone that people noticed a change. Melanie was the only one that knew. Brielle had promptly informed her after the Spanish final that there was no more Brie-Bruce, and Melanie had taken the news well. No questioning Brielle’s motives; just siding with her best friend unquestionably. If Brielle broke up with Bruce, it was obvious that he must be an unworthy moron. Girls didn’t break up with perfectly good guys, did they?

Brielle had to admit that at that moment, she loved Melanie despite their character differences. They had been best friends since first grade, when fate had made them sit down next to each other. Even though their personalities had gone in opposite directions while growing up—Melanie being fun, bossy, and eventually slutty, while Brielle was a bit of a follower, staying back and letting others tell her what to do—they remained friends. Probably because it was too much of hassle to find a best friend when everyone else seemed paired off already. And they already knew so much about each other anyway.

It had worked out for them because Melanie liked attention and Brielle didn’t care to fight for it, letting Melanie always be the leader. And staying out of the spotlight had given Brielle the advantage of being a little bit more applied in school. Only a little.

After lunch, Brielle went on to Physics. It was bad but she hoped that she did okay. Whatever. It was her last test, and she was done. She had a full free period with nothing to do. She felt like bursting out running just for the sake of running. She felt a huge weight lifted off her shoulders… until she remembered Bruce. The weight crashed down upon her again and almost knocked her breath out.

She walked dutifully to the bench outside where she normally hung out with the small gang after school. The day was lovely. Too bad she couldn’t enjoy it. She dreaded this conversation. At length, Bruce appeared.

“Don’t do this, Brie,” he said, not beating around the bush.

“Bruce, there’s no other way.”

“Brie, Saturday’s senior prom, for Christ’s sake. What’re you gonna do? Is it…. Am I wrong in thinking that you’re not going with someone else? Is that it?”

It had not even occurred to Brielle to go with anyone else. That was the problem with fake boyfriends. They didn’t take you to prom.

“No,” she said quietly.

“What? I’m not wrong—so you are going with someone else?”

“What? No, I’m not going with anyone else. I didn’t exactly think this part through. I assumed that we’d still go together, as friends. But now it seems kinda unfair. It might not be too late; you could go with someone else.”

“I don’t want—no. I want to go with you. Even if as friends.”

Now she felt the sting of guilt. But it was for the best. It had to be. Ugh! How frustrating. How did people do this, break up? It seemed a very natural part of life; Brielle saw couples breaking up left and right. What did they say to each other? How did those conversations go down? How did they react?

“Bruce, I wish I could show you my thoughts.” No, she didn’t. “That way you could see what you are to me, why I don’t think we’re good for each other as a couple. But we’re so alike; I wish we could go back to being friends… real friends.”

He actually scoffed, but his tone wasn’t harsh. “Brielle, you don’t dump someone and expect them to remain your friend. I said I want us to go to prom as friends because we were already going, and you kinda sprung this one on me at the last minute. We can be friendly to each other, but we can’t—we shouldn’t—be friends. What kind of friend would I be, pining over you?”

Pining! “Don’t say that,” she said, hurt and guilt battling for the title of Prevailing Feeling of the Day.

“Look, Brie—you’ve obviously been thinking about this for a while. Me, I’ve only had today. I didn’t even think you were fully serious… but now I see you are. Maybe I’ll see what you see someday, but you gotta give me some time.”

“I’m sorry, Bruce,” Brielle said, and she was. For this conversation to have to happen in the first place.

“Me, too,” he said, and she couldn’t read the emotion on his face. He walked closer to her and grabbed her hands in his. “Do you want me to walk you home?”

His blue eyes were pleading, and they made Brielle feel uneasy.

“No, thanks. I think I need some time alone,” she said.

“I’m not gonna get a breakup kiss out of you, am I right?”

“Yes. No! Yes, you’re not going to.”

“Just checking,” he said. And with that, he left her to her musings.


It was finally all over.

Finals were over. Classes were over. Bruce was over.

He had actually been civil to Brielle. She was expecting him to be angry, or groveling, but he had surprised her. When Brielle got home, she updated her mother and sister of the change in her status quo. They were both supportive and secretly happy.

Elena had had a small crush on Bruce since she had met him, like every other nine-year-old feels when an older boy gives her the amount of attention appropriate for his girlfriend’s youngest family member; and therefore was a little too jubilant at his new single status.

Joy had been eighteen once and with a boyfriend, and she knew what boys and girls did at that age when they were alone—so no Bruce meant one less thing to worry about. Plus, it was no secret that Joy didn’t think too much of Bruce. But she wasn’t about to own up to that.

“So, Brie, what a day you had,” Joy said, almost sympathetically.

“Yep. All in all, a one hundred percent successful day,” Brielle replied enthusiastically.

“But Brielle, you broke up with Bruce.”

“All in all, a one hundred percent successful day,” Brielle countered in the exact same tone as before.

“Can you at least pretend to be heartbroken?” Her mother asked, trying to suppress a smile. “I’ll leave you to heal your little heart.”

The whirlwind of emotions had taken a toll on Brielle, so she excused herself from dinner and stayed in her bedroom. She was tired, but proud of herself for having had the courage to do it and not damaging Bruce beyond repair in the process—or so it seemed—and for being free. Free. It was such a relief. Yet there was something tugging at her, and while she couldn’t place what it was exactly, she could tell it was something gloomy.

She plopped on her bed. Tux came in after her—he seemed to follow her around, even though Elena had made a bed for him in her bedroom—and demanded attention. Brielle placed him on her stomach and petted him absentmindedly while he purred contentedly. She forced herself to be as happy as the kitten. She had achieved something good today, survived finals, and was for all intents and purposes done with high school classes. All that was left were leisurely strolls through the rest of the school year. She should focus on that. But the nagging feeling wouldn’t let go—she was fighting a heavy cloud of melancholy that threatened to consume her serenity.

Was it pain over Bruce? She tried to identify it. No, that had been the best thing about today. The melancholy felt simultaneously like a heaviness that weighed her down, and a hollow that left her feeling empty and adrift. She suspected it had something to do with the boy, the boy she had resolved not to think about anymore.

She decided against being alone with her cat—a cat lady’s beginning, one could say—and went to watch TV with her family. She kept it up until Joy sent Elena to bed, as it was a school night. Brielle called Melanie, and they talked about Bruce, about graduation, about dresses and pantyhose for an hour; but eventually Melanie also left her alone with her thoughts. Brielle gave up, and went to bed.


Brielle tossed and turned for hours. Sleep was nowhere in the horizon. She was all alone with her thoughts, and that was not good. She had intentionally avoided thinking about the boy for twenty-four hours. Her heart would race, and she would think about something else. It took a lot of effort to simply push him away. And that was unhealthy.

She tried to listen to music to drown her mental tirades in well-known lyrics, but she only felt his hand on her neck. With her eyes closed she would see him. With her eyes open and her mind fixed on the spot above her bed, that strange sorrow cloud crept closer and closer. She got up and did something she never did before: she paced her room. Like crazy people in movies. She was glad that Tux wasn’t around to judge her.

After pacing for ten seconds, she fell on her knees, clutched her head, closed her eyes. She tried to decipher her feelings. Her whole being was shaking with the swirling emotions, too strong and too numerous for her to describe a single one. There was a pressure behind the bridge of her nose, and as soon as she acknowledged it something snapped and she was crying; big fat tears spilling like torrents. And she still couldn’t name the reason.

She had brought this about by thinking of him, while trying to avoid thinking of him, and her mind had taken over like a rambling lunatic. It was him. Whatever was happening, it was because of him.

The nameless sorrow ebbed for a second, she realized, as she thought of the boy. So she allowed herself to think about him again, deliberately this time, focusing on everything that she could remember: his every word, the look in his eyes, his hair, and the feel of his hand when he had touched her…. And there it was again: a fire under her skin. And more tears came, this time with sobs.

Too much. She needed to get a grip and be analytical about it. She tried to describe her emotions, she asked out loud, barely above a whisper, “Why am I sad?”

Only then she realized that she was sad, but about what? Did he make her sad? No, not at all; she wanted to see him again, and she replayed the scene again in her head in fast-forward. She returned to her daydreams that had made her so happy before. She imagined that they had left together, and that once they were safe away from the school, they had sat in the park that was near her house, and that he had placed his hands on either side of her neck, tilted her head up, his face leaning down, and… whoa.

A current ran up her body, and she found herself smiling. She realized the ridiculous grief she had felt moments ago was the product of his absence—she missed him. She longed to see him, a boy she’d seen for five minutes. It was pure nonsense. But she could not deny that when she conjured his face, she felt like everything was how it was supposed to be.

What an easy recipe for happiness: she fell into the daydream again, concentrating in the most specific of details. She did not resurface, and finally, she slept.

5.    Prom and Other Disasters

Friday came and went. Seniors didn’t do anything but talk about prom, graduation, the upcoming senior trip and the fresh gossip provided by the breakup of the sweet couple Brielle and Bruce.

As she walked home after school, Brielle felt that happy sedated feeling of good things ahead, the anticipation of amusement and relaxation. She realized she should be thinking about the big event on Saturday night, but she couldn’t really care about it other than as a formal acknowledgment of her new single status. She was decidedly going to enjoy that part.

When she got home, she ran to her bedroom and dismissed her backpack in a corner as though she would never see it again. It was still early; the sun would not set for another four hours, and she was free; it felt like she was free forever. The day stretched before her with splendid possibilities.

Brielle felt happier than she had all week. The day before, she had refused to think about him, and it had only caused her pain. Now that she allowed herself to, she felt weightless. She could think of other things, pay attention to her friends, and not feel guilty about Bruce. It felt great to update her online status to “Brielle Marshall is single”—twenty-four likes, fifteen comments so far—and the myriad of possibilities that it provided. It was exciting to be free.

Melanie would come by on Saturday to get ready together for prom and the after-party at Ramos’ house. Ben Ramos was a Lincoln Park High School graduate who was now at DePaul University, which was nearby in the neighborhood. Ramos was the type that threw wild parties when his parents weren’t in town. Melanie and Brielle had gone to a party the previous year when he was a senior, and they had had a great time, so they were looking forward to this party.

However, this night, Brielle had nothing else to do. As she saw her reflection in the mirror, her bright copper hair reminded her of him. She brought her hand up to touch it, and imagined him. That was all it took—all her plans to enjoy the rest of the day vanished in an instant as she lost herself in the vision.


On Saturday night, Brielle and Melanie looked at themselves in the full-length mirror closet door. They were lovely.

Brielle was still a little upset about having to go with Bruce, but it’s not like she would be the only one not dating her date. Melanie had agreed to go with Nathan, just to have a date that she felt comfortable with. Darla was going with a guy from their class named George. The only real couple was Ryan and Kate, who had been dating since their junior year.

Bruce, Nathan, Ryan and George had rented a stretch limo. They were supposed to pick up Brielle and Melanie first at 6:30 pm, then Darla and Kate at Darla’s, and finally go uptown to the Marriott Hotel where the senior prom was being held. The guys had the tickets, since the girls had no room in their clutch purses for anything other than their phones and lipsticks.

Brielle hadn’t needed help with her hair—given her short length, a sweet, messy bun was the easiest thing to do. She had dressed up quickly in her ivory and champagne dress and matching shoes. She had chosen the pumps for their sturdy heels and strap around the ankles, which secured her feet and gave her considerable stability. Because the skirt material was so light and airy, she had decided to wear a pair of shaping shorts under her dress for protection from curious wind gusts.

After she was dressed, she had helped Melanie with her hair. Melanie wanted her long light brown hair in a formal updo that would normally not have matched the tone of her insouciant dress, but Brielle had a feeling that it would look great on her anyway. Melanie’s dress was awesome. It had a corset bodice lined with silver, yellow and purple beads over a lilac skirt. The skirt was short, made of ruffled tulle. The beads flowed from the corset down to the skirt in an unsymmetrical, graceful pattern that resembled the roots of a tree. The color combination brought out the hazel of Melanie’s eyes and made her look girly and innocent, while a sweetheart neckline in the corset made her look sultry and desirable. How anyone could pull that off other than Melanie, Brielle didn’t know.

They had raided their moms’ jewelry chests for accessories and were now both fabulous.

Bruce and Nathan appeared at the door downstairs and immediately dropped their jaws in a comical fashion when the girls appeared. They complimented Brielle and Melanie on how amazing they looked.

“Of course we do,” was Melanie’s humble reply.

Bruce took Brielle’s hand to help her in the limo. Right before he let go, he squeezed softly, and Brielle gagged internally.

After picking up the rest of the crew, they reached the ballroom at the hotel and all the girls shrieked in delight. Even Brielle had to admit she was impressed with the atmosphere, and the spirit of prom possessed her on the spot.

Brielle and Bruce stepped up to the line to get their photos taken. She regretted having Bruce in her picture, but there was nothing she could do about it now. As she smiled for the camera, she was thinking of excuses to tell her children: Your dad wasn’t around back then, so I went out with this old friend….

Then they all walked around, trying the special hors d’oeuvres and punch, hanging out with other friends, and gossiping about other couples. The girls danced away with their dates as well as with other guys who had failed to see how beautiful they were before, and now wanted to get a move in before it was too late. But for the most part everyone was just being silly and trying to have a good time. Brielle loved the freedom that her dress gave her to dance, twirl and sit down without feeling awkward or having to care about her posture. The almost-backless part was the only problem, as all guys—including Bruce—managed to find her skin as they danced. Ugh. Brielle had heard that all guys were horny at prom, and had thought that it was an exaggeration, but now she felt there was a bit of truth in it.

Someone in the prom committee must have thought it was a good idea to show a picture slideshow of some of the seniors and different school events. Although it was well-made and people laughed at the pictures, Brielle got bored rather quickly. She had been in Math Team competitions but somehow those never made it to the slideshow, and the people that were in the slideshow were not really of Brielle’s group, so nothing really caught her attention. It actually irked her that she started seeing the same people over and over again, and that whoever put the slideshow together had evidently thought that the scenes presented were something to write a book about. She could easily guess who the members of the prom committee were—the girls in the pictures. Whatever. Brielle wasn’t friends with them and had never wanted to be, anyway.

Brielle finished a dance with a guy named Matt, who had barely talked to her before and was generally considered one of the hottest guys in school. As he walked her away from the dance floor he was openly flirtatious with her, so she was feeling pretty good about herself. But then she saw Bruce approach her. She didn’t want to dance with him again, so she made her way to the refreshments table.

“Brielle, why are you dancing with all these dudes? Are you trying to make me jealous?”

“Bruce, I’m dancing with them because they asked me, just like you did, and I said yes. I have zero intention of making you jealous.”

“So am I right in thinking that there’s no one else?”

“No,” she said, annoyed.

“Then there is someone else!”

“Dude. Again? That was a flat no. I guess a yes to the actual question.”

“Which question? Is there someone else, or isn’t there, yes, or no?”


“No, there is, or no, there isn’t?”

“What the hell’s wrong with you? You can’t just say—just shut up!” She turned on the spot and marched away from him quickly, before she ruined his rental tux by throwing her cup of punch in his face.

But in the end, despite the stupid slideshow, the mild groping, her angst at being with her ex, and her apprehension at what others would think, she ended up having a good time. There was something about the night, feeling beautiful and wanted, dancing with guys, a few of them hot, and laughing with her girlfriends that made her feel elated and even lightheaded. She felt faint pulsations within her, probably from the lights, the music, and all the dancing. She had only danced once with Bruce, and while she had hated his fingers on her exposed back and his ridiculous questioning afterwards, she forgave him. She could tell he was hurting, and it was all her fault.

After a few hours, some of the group declared they were starving and that the food provided in the banquet in the next room was inadequate and besides, they were supposed to go out for dinner; that was a prom thing. So they wanted to take the limo out and have real food.

Brielle didn’t really want to go to dinner with them, but they were all in the same limo, and besides, Melanie was one of the ones up for leaving prom. If Melanie and the others left, Brielle would have no one to talk to. The novelty of being desirable was wearing off, and she was tired of all the unusual attention guys were giving her, a side effect of being openly single and prettier than they were used to seeing her. Plus, the weird throbbing feeling in the pit of her stomach from all the dancing didn’t go away after she stopped; in fact, it was intensifying by the minute. She decided that leaving the party, its loud music and horny guys, and getting some food in her would be for the best.


At the insistence of the guys, they went back to the North side, all the way to Wrigleyville where the bar scene was heavy on Saturday nights. It wasn’t that late, and the whole area was already full of drunken people. The drunks were mostly yuppies in their twenties who, correctly detecting that the group was comprised of high school kids at prom night based on the group’s youth, their fancy tuxes and gowns, and the totally not inconspicuous freaking limo in which they arrived, decided to yell colorful remarks about being in the wrong place with their barely legal female companions.

Brielle and her friends ignored the drunks and stepped inside a diner on Clark Street by Wrigley Field. They didn’t linger much, as the plan was to go to Ramos’ party; and the sooner they got there, the faster they could commence their underage drinking. Plus, it turned out that the so-called diner was really just a bar that served bar food and refused to sell them alcohol.

By the end of dinner, Brielle had all but forgotten her resolution to enjoy singledom. The second they stepped outside the restaurant on their way to the after-party at Ramos’, Brielle realized she had zero interest in going.

“But his parties are legendary!” Melanie said when Brielle voiced her intentions. “Last year’s was awesome. We had so much fun, don’t you remember? And now he’s in DePaul! There’s got to be tons of college guys there. I’m so tired of the same idiots in our school. C’mon Brie.”

“Mel, last year I saw all I’ll ever need to see of Ramos to last me a lifetime. The guy needs someone to tell him he’s not good-looking enough to take off his shirt in front of a crowd.”

“That was funny, though. But anyway, no one’s going for him, just for his house party. Plus, now he’ll have older college friends that can score alcohol easily enough.”

“Like alcohol shortage was a problem last year when he was still in high school.”

Melanie rolled her eyes exasperatedly. “Brie, I’m going for the boys. You should too. Don’t be lame! High school is almost over. And you’re single. You need to go out and enjoy it!” But what Melanie meant all along was, Don’t leave me by myself, I want to go.

“I can’t do a party after prom. My shoes are killing me. Plus,” she added in a low voice, seeing Bruce up ahead with the guys, “you heard Bruce; he said he’d be there, and he needs to enjoy being single, too. I don’t want to rub it in his face that I’m free and enjoying being free.”

Seeing that Melanie wasn’t about to let go, she added, “Darla’s going, and you know she’s not really into George. You two can hang out together. Pleeease. I really don’t feel so good.”

“You suck, Brielle,” said Melanie, slightly wounded but about ten seconds away from getting over it. This wouldn’t be the first time that Melanie had been left with their friend Darla because Brielle had ditched.

Darla’s usual partner in crime, Kate, was going to the party with her boyfriend Ryan. Melanie and Darla were often left together because their respective best friends, Brielle and Kate, were always hanging out with their boyfriends. Well, not all of us anymore, thought Brielle with an internal smirk.

After much more abuse from all of her friends, Brielle finally convinced them that she didn’t feel well and wanted to go home. The limo driver was going to take the rest of them to the party and was in the process of giving them a hard time about the extra stop when Brielle interrupted the argument by saying she would just catch a cab. So they left her there, trying to hail a cab on the busy Clark Street in front of the diner.

As the limo drove away, Brielle felt pleased with her choice. It was hard to pretend in front of them that she was sad about missing the party, and going home felt like a relief. But after a minute her elation sank as she found out how hard it was to get a cab. The yuppies were better at doing this that she was, and took all available cabs before she did. Apparently, the way to do it was to walk almost to the middle of the lane and wave drunkenly. Brielle wasn’t about to do that, and she was intimidated by other people in groups, so she watched as all the taxis that went by picked up everyone else but her.

As each taxi came and took someone else, she started becoming more and more apprehensive of her situation. There were too many drunk people left and right, some men yelling obscene things at her, and her wearing a formal dress with a provocative back. She kept telling herself that she was in no danger because the street was full; there were people everywhere. But she finally got tired of it, that little voice inside telling her that something wasn’t right, so she went back in the restaurant and called her mother. Joy became increasingly alarmed as Brielle explained her circumstances.

“Oh my God Brielle you should’ve called me before your friends left you there—such friends—I’m going to have to call Isabel. And Dr. Travers is certainly going to hear about this. What the hell were they thinking? Stay inside—don’t you dare go outside again—” Isabel Vega was Melanie’s mother, a strong-willed Hispanic woman who would lock her daughter in at the smallest sign of misbehaving. Brielle would never hear the end of it if she got Melanie in trouble with her mom. Dr. Travers was Bruce’s dad, but Brielle was sure there wouldn’t be a problem there, as Dr. Travers was never around anyway. Either way, anything Joy said would embarrass Brielle beyond repair when it got back to her friends.

“Mom, can you just come pick me up?”

“Of course, Brie—I’m grabbing my keys as we speak—I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Kids these days….”

Brielle hung up and tried to look as unobtrusive as possible inside the restaurant by the door. There were people in groups inside, which made her feel safe from danger on the one hand, but alone and ridiculously overdressed on the other. A seemingly mismatched trio of older girls—a blonde, an Asian and a Latina—were laughing at a story one of them was telling, and they stopped as they noticed Brielle and all three gave her a pitiful smile. Brielle hated them instantly. Three very loud guys who looked like they were in their mid-twenties were drinking at the bar, and were also staring but their smiles weren’t pitiful; they were plain rude. Everyone had apparently decided to gawk at the one poor, abandoned teenager by herself. She wanted to kick herself. She tried to ignore them, and for the most part, after a while everyone ignored her as well.

But every now and then the three guys would look her way and laugh at something one of them would say. Brielle wanted to turn her back to them, but then it would show them her exposed back—she hated her dress more and more by the hour—so she kept facing inside the restaurant, trying to look anywhere but straight at them. She could feel their gaze on her and hear their loutish laughs, and it made her very uncomfortable.

Finally, one of them, a bulky, dark blond guy with shaggy hair, left the group and headed for the exit. As he passed Brielle by the door he made a vulgar noise and said, “Hey, baby,” to which the other two by the bar replied by wolf-whistling and laughing. The loudest one was a tall blonde wearing a button-down shirt, and the other was dark-haired and looked shorter at the bar stool but still pretty big, wearing a Michigan shirt. They looked like they were both drunk.

After fifteen minutes had gone by since she had talked to Joy, Brielle couldn’t take it anymore and walked outside, to wait there for her mother. Joy should be there in a minute. But less than a minute was all it took for things to go crazy.

The remaining two of the obnoxious guys at the bar were immediately on Brielle as she stepped outside, next to a bus stop. Brielle’s heart went into panic mode. They walked up from behind her, one on each side, laughing at something, coming close enough on both sides to flank her. They were talking about having a good time together with her.

“C’mon, High School, we’re gonna show you how to have fun with real men,” the blond tall one said. He was taller than he had looked sitting down, and he reeked of alcohol.

“Leave me alone,” she said, looking in his direction but not facing him, trying to sound annoyed and brave, not weak and scared as she felt.

“Oh, she doesn’t like you, dude,” the second one jeered from behind her, presumably the dark-haired, Michigan shirt one.

“She’s just playing difficult, aren’t you, babe?” The blond guy said; his tone alone sounded offensive.

She kept telling herself that they couldn’t hurt her—they wouldn’t—but she still managed to feel terrified. She felt she couldn’t scream, that she shouldn’t have to, because they wouldn’t really try anything with her in the middle of crowded Clark Street, and screaming would only call more attention to her and that’s probably what they wanted, to laugh at her. So she decided to ignore them and look away, away from them….

That’s when she noticed the car parked on the side of the street, a little away from the entrance. The back door that faced the sidewalk was open, but there was nobody in the back. There was a guy in the front seat—and Brielle’s already panicked heart went impossibly faster as she recognized the shaggy hair—the third guy from the bar. He had left to get a car and was now waiting for her

And then Michigan guy’s hands went behind her, one on her bare back and one on her bottom. She didn’t realize she was holding a round post for stability—probably the bus stop sign—and before she even thought about the proper recourse in this case, judiciously considering the variables before her; before she could realize what her brain was about to command, her body reacted angrily at that beefy hand on her back. Her foot went up followed by a blur of ivory and champagne, higher than she would’ve thought possible—but then, she was four inches taller today—and her heel connected to the blond guy’s face with a sickening thud.

“Oh, fuck!” His hands went to his face, and he went down on one knee as blood appeared on his nose and ran down his cheek. He wailed in agony, yelling curses at her.

The dark-haired Michigan guy who had grabbed her ass had immediately let go off her when he heard his friend scream, to see past her at what had just happened. But Brielle, still holding the post as though it was the very thing that gave her strength, had rotated almost one-eighty as her leg came down from the kick that had quite possibly broken the blond guy’s face, and now kicked the second guy even harder than she had the first guy—this the main offender, who had dared to touch her—and the wooden heel landed on his left hip with all the force of her anger, somehow the foot also getting his lower stomach. Now, this one was pretty lousy as kicks went: she had aimed for the crotch, but had missed by a few inches. Still, it worked.

“Oh, fuck!” The second guy said, echoing the first guy in what would’ve been a comical fashion, had Brielle been able to think properly. He doubled back and grabbed his middle with both hands. He had not seen it coming. Neither of them had.

“I said leave me the fuck alone!” Brielle screamed, the adrenaline rushing through her for the first time in her life, wanting to kick them again, especially Michigan, whose face had been spared—she wanted to break his face open with her heel, cut out his cheek—

She sobered up momentarily as Michigan went down cursing just as the other guy did, but not before Brielle watched in horror as a dark stain appeared in his crotch area. She panicked thinking that she had opened a ghastly wound and that he would die and there would be consequences. But a second later she realized, as the stain increased faster than what she expected it to, that the guy had just peed on himself, probably because she had got him right on the bladder. She looked over at the blond one and he was now kneeling on the floor with his hands over his face yelling unintelligible things.

This had all happened in a few seconds.

In the meantime there was honking, more shouting, and people across the street had stopped to stare at the girl in a prom dress kicking dudes left and right. Dudes that were now yelling profanities at her.

A server from the restaurant had come out when he saw the drunk guys going after her, and now was yelling at them even though they looked more like the victims. Especially the blond one with the bloody face.

“What were you guys thinking? Huh? What were you trying to do with this girl?” The server shouted angrily.

The two guys stumbled over as fast as they could to their getaway car containing the shaggy blonde—that was the honking Brielle had heard—got in, and the car sped away. They apparently figured out that they had been doing something illegal, because they didn’t even stop to threaten Brielle to kill her and her family for what she had done, like real bad guys would’ve done, following bad guy code.

“Are you okay, honey?” The waiter asked Brielle kindly.

“I’m….” Brielle couldn’t truthfully say. Less than two minutes had passed since the Michigan shirt guy had grabbed her. Her heart was still hammering loudly in her ears and her thoughts were still dark and violent. “I’ll be okay.”

She could now hear people across the street yelling, “You go, girl!” and “Dude! Marry me!”

The waiter laughed. “You were awesome, dude. Do you know karate or something?”

“No, I… I guess I just reacted. I don’t know. I wasn’t really thinking.”

“Are you waiting for someone, I take it? I’m sorry about those guys—I should’ve asked the bartender to cut them off.”

“Cut them off?” In the rattle that was going on in her head, her brain didn’t translate the expression.

“Stop serving them alcohol, I mean. They were already pretty drunk. I watched them watching you while you stood by the door.”

“Nah, don’t worry,” Brielle said. She didn’t want to talk about them anymore. “My mom should be here any second. And a lot of people here look like they’re drunk—those guys were the only ones being jerks about it.”

“Do you want to come back in while you wait for your mom?”

“Yeah, but she should be here any second.” And indeed, Brielle was only inside for another minute or so when her mom pulled up in front of the restaurant and honked once, briefly.

Brielle thanked the waiter and went outside. Once inside her mother’s car, she felt safe again, and her heart calmed down.

“Are you okay, baby?” Joy began. “Thanks for waiting inside. This street is full of crazy people.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Brielle said.


As Joy and Brielle came in from the garage, Reuben announced from the family room that he had put on a movie and he could restart it to watch with the both of them. Elena was gone to a sleepover.

However, Brielle was in no mood to watch TV. Faithful Joy went straight to the family room couch and snuggled up to him. Luckily, he didn’t ask Brielle about her night—maybe he had forgotten prom was tonight. Joy had already asked the proper questions concerning prom and dinner on the way back after picking her up, so at least she wouldn’t bring the subject up. And Brielle wasn’t about to remind him by showing her face in the fancy dress, so she avoided the family room altogether as she removed her shoes by the kitchen.

She looked at her shoes adoringly as she picked them up. They had been killing her all night… and they had been killer as weapons against those guys. When she thought of her heel connecting with that idiot’s face, she no longer trembled; she smiled.

Brielle had told her mother that she had a great time but had not wanted to go to the after-party, which Joy seemed to thoroughly approve of. Brielle considered telling her mom about the scene at the bar but decided against it. As it was, Joy had been pretty upset that her friends left Brielle by herself in a street full of drunk older guys, and Brielle didn’t need the extra concern which would in turn bring about unnecessary restrictions.

So she gave them the same excuse she had given her friends—not feeling well!—ran to her room, shook her hair loose from the bun, and jumped on the bed. A bizarre excitement had gotten a hold of Brielle as her mother had turned the car onto the alley behind their house, from where they accessed the garage. She could now feel the smile spreading on her face. The bar brawling fright had left her, and now a strange elation had taken its place.

She was free from everything, everything else and now had time to think of him again. Of how proud he would have been if he had seen her tonight. His hands on her face, his voice telling her to be safe—because he cared for her. Because he loved her.

Yeah. So what? She shrugged to no one in particular. I can think whatever I want, she mused.

Brielle looked out the window into the night and wondered where he was. He existed; he had to be somewhere out there. Her tree house was a black silhouette against the dark alley lights behind her house. She remembered her sleepovers with Melanie, lying face-up trying to see the stars through the branches in the balcony portion and not seeing any due to city light pollution. It was so peaceful there. Then she thought of daydreaming not on her bed, but on her tree house balcony, the night sky enveloping her, and looking up at the stars she couldn’t see that would be surely looking down on him, and of the cool evening air on her face….

It would be perfect. She couldn’t believe she’d never thought of it before. She looked down at her dress impatiently. She wanted to get out now. The pull was so strong that she didn’t feel like changing into regular clothes or even go downstairs and out the door—her parents might ask questions. And she didn’t want to wait. It was much shorter this way… she grabbed her most comfortable sweater in one hand in case it got chilly outside, opened the window, pushed up the screen, and let herself out.

Ohmyg—Her skirt flew up to meet her arms outstretched to her sides the second her feet left the windowsill, and she felt her heart leave its place inside her chest, pulling up as it tried to resist gravity. Whatever gave her the idea that jumping down a story would be fine? She only had a second to panic, though, as she hit the ground almost instantly, absorbed most of the impact with her legs, staggered forward and fell on her hands. Ouch.

Her daydream peace was shattered enough to wonder what the hell had possessed her. But she wondered only briefly… she stood up, looked at the tree house and smiled again. She brushed off her hands, the hem of her dress and the sweater in her hand, which had gotten most of the dirt. Then she walked to the trunk of the huge tree that had won her stepfather over.

Reuben had settled in this house, which was much bigger than he cared for, because of the ample yard with trees. And this one in particular, which had the perfect size and shape to make a tree house for his stepdaughter.

As she climbed the ladder, thinking of the time it had been since she was up here, she was suddenly alert. What would she find up here? It was so open. Her hand froze on the last step. There could be someone here, someone waiting for her. Her heart started pounding with alarm. This could have been a bad idea. There was someone there, waiting for her, she was sure of it! She could feel someone. She couldn’t hear anything, but she could feel… a presence.

It didn’t feel wrong. But she was afraid of the feeling. Since when did she go around feeling presences? She unfroze, and found her foot. She took a deep breath, and changed her mind. She lowered herself down a step.

“Gabby, don’t go,” a voice pleaded.

Not a voice.

His voice.

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