Bryan walked to school with another black eye. The cold air numbed the pain. He trudged through the snow, wishing he was somewhere else. This was his last year of school and it was just as lonely as the ones before. Nothing had changed, if anything his father had become more violent. After his accident things had only become more terrifying. There were times he would sneak out and not go home for days. He couldn’t take the screaming and beating anymore. He did everything he could to take the abuse for his mother. She didn’t deserve to be hurt. She was a woman, someone to be protected and loved. He never cried anymore, just stood there and took his punishment for being a good son.
He made it to school early and went to the gym. He had gym class first thing in the morning. He was glad, it was a way to work off all the anger he had towards his father. He sat down in the bleachers and waited. There were other students there and he could hear them whispering. He felt their eyes on him and became uncomfortable. He glanced at them and they looked away. He couldn’t stay here, didn’t want or need their pity. They didn’t care about him or his life. He stood and left the gym. He was going to the lake.
He went to the office and told one of the women that he had been throwing up and he was going home. The woman looked at him sadly, knowing it was a lie, but letting him leave anyway. He hurried out of the building and ran to the lake. He sat down and leaned his back against his favorite tree. The lake was iced over, smooth and shiny like glass. He closed his eyes, enjoying the eerie silence that winter brought. It was very calming. The sound of something sliding caught his attention and his eyes snapped open. He was afraid his father had come for him. Instead his eyes rested on a lone skater. She was moving gracefully across the ice. He could barely make out her face, but he was sure he had never seen her before. She spun in a circle, her laugh filling the silence and sending his heart into overdrive. She spotted him and waved. He blushed and got up, running quickly away.
He didn’t know where he was going to go. He didn’t want to go home, the lake was occupied, and he didn’t want to be at school where he was stared at like he was dying of some unknown disease. “What am I going to do now? Who was that?” He asked himself. He wanted to go back to the lake, but he didn’t want to talk to her.
He sighed and turned back around. He didn’t have anywhere else to go, at least nowhere he felt safe. She was still there when he arrived back at the lake. She was still skating, reminding him of an angel. He envied how happy and carefree she looked. She was wearing a bright pink sweater, her hair covered by an earthy brown beanie. She picked up speed and launched herself into the air, spinning in three circles. She landed easily on her feet and kept going. He liked watching her and wished he could ice skate. She skated backwards, making a figure eight before facing forward again. She picked up speed again and jumped into the air, but this time when she landed the ice broke apart beneath her and she fell into the icy water. He stared in disbelief for a moment, everything seeming to go in slow motion. Her head broke the surface of the water and she screamed. It snapped him into action. He threw off his backpack and ran onto the ice, slipping and falling.
Her head went back under, her arms flailing in the air, her hands trying to find purchase on the slippery ice. He moved as quickly as he could on his belly, making it to the hole as she went completely under. He reached into the water, feeling pain lance through the underside of his arm and side. He grabbed her wrist and pulled as hard as he could. She came up gasping and coughing. He pulled her out and away from the hole. She was shivering so he pulled off his sweater and wrapped it around her.
“Are you okay?” He asked, feeling himself shaking.
“That’s what I get for showing off.” She smiled and then laughed. “I’m fine thank you. Oh no, you’re bleeding.”
Blood was dripping off his elbow and soaking through his t-shirt. He had not even noticed because of the cold. “I’m alright, but we should get you somewhere warm.”
“Can you take me home please? My parents aren’t home right now, away until Spring so I can’t call them. Well I mean I could, but it wouldn’t do any good.”
“I guess I could do that.”
Bryan carried her down the sidewalk. She had sprained her ankle in the fall. She was watching him, making him feel a little uncomfortable. She held her skates and tennis shoes. Her ankle was a little swollen so she couldn’t wear them. “How did you get that shiner?” She asked and he tensed, frowning.
“I fell.” He lied.
“Into a fist?”
He looked down at her, at her concerned face and warm grey eyes and felt like crying. “Don’t worry about it, it’s just a bruise.” He took her clear to the other side of town and up the steps of a really beautiful three story plantation house. It looked expensive. She manged to get her keys out of her sweater and unlocked and opened the door. He carried her inside and kicked the door shut behind him.
“My room is on the second floor if you don’t mind carrying me up there.”
“I would be happy to.” His arm and side stung, but he ignored it for her. He carried her upstairs to the second room on the right. She directed him to the adjoining bathroom and he sat her gently down. She was still shivering, her teeth chattering. “Is there anything else you need?”
“Can you run me a bath please. I need to get warm oh and can you make me an ice pack?” She hoped she wasn’t being pushy.
“Yes, of course.” He switched the bath on and tested the water on his wrist before plugging the hole. He left without another word and went downstairs. The house was huge, but he managed to find the kitchen. He rifled through the drawers until he found the zip lock bags and filled one with ice. He found a wash rag and went back upstairs. Her bathroom door was closed so he tapped lightly.
“Come in.” He opened the door, keeping his eyes on his feet. “Don’t worry I have the curtain closed.” He looked up and could only see her face and shoulders.
“I’ve got your ice.”
“Could you put it on my ankle please?” He blushed and wrapped the bag in the rag then moved the curtain aside a little bit and sat the ice pack on her ankle which was propped on the edge of the tub. “Oh thank you so much. Just let me get warm and then I can take care of you.” She said with a warm smile.
“You don’t have to worry about me. I can clean up when I get home.” He replied as he sat down on the toilet seat.
“Nonsense, you helped me so I’m going to help you. It’s the least I can do for my hero.”
He wanted to laugh at that. He was no hero. He always went to that lake. It was just coincidence that she happened to be there too. He stayed there in case she needed him. He couldn’t bring himself to leave an injured person. She hummed softly and the warm water brought color back to her cheeks. She was so pretty and he felt so calm in her presence. It was an odd feeling, one he had never been used to. She drained the tub when the water started to get cold and he grabbed her a towel. He handed it to her and she put it over her then pulled back the curtain. “You’re going have to help me out of the tub.”
“I…I don’t know about that.” He said nervously.
“Don’t worry I know you’re not some weird pervert. Just lift me out and carry me to my room so I can get dressed.”
He picked her up, making sure he didn’t get any blood on her. He carried her into her room and sat her gently on the edge of her bed. “I’ll just be in the hall if you need me.”
He leaned against the hallway wall, his face hot from blushing so hard. He had never met a girl quite like this one. He felt embarrassed that he hadn’t even asked her her name. He may have saved her life, but he was also being rude. Her bedroom door opened and she came limping out. “Sorry it took me so long. It’s hard to get dressed with a injury.” She said warmly.
“Have you had many?” He asked.
“A few, let me show you.”
She lifted her shirt and pointed out a round scar on her abdomen. It looked like it had been painful. “What happened?”
“I was gored by an elephant when I was nine.”
“That sounds scary.”
“Extremely scary, but it was my fault. I got to close.” She tugged her shirt back down. “Now, lets get those cuts taken care of.” She held out her hand and he took it. She led him downstairs to the kitchen and told him to wait. She went into a utility closet and came back out with a first aid kit and a rag. She soaked the rag in warm water and sat it on the large island. “We need to get your shirt off.” She said and he shook his head.
“No, I can’t.” He replied, his voice shaking.
“I’m not going to hurt you, at least not on purpose. You have at least one cut on your side. I need to get to it.” He swallowed, feeling anxiety welling up in his body and mind. He kept shaking his head and found himself clenching his fists. “It’s alright, I promise.” She slowly grabbed the bottom of his shirt and lifted it. She pulled it up and over his head. She wiped at the dry blood that ran from the top of his ribs to the waist band of his jeans. She rinsed the rag out and then kept wiping. Her eyes widened at the old scars covering his skin. There were a lot of them. She didn’t say anything.
She opened the first aid kit and took out some gauze and iodine. She squirted some iodine on the gauze and wiped it over the cuts. They were small, but looked painful. She grabbed more gauze and held some over the cuts. She used medical tape to keep it in place. She did his arm next. “There, all better.” She brushed her fingers over his cheek and he flinched.
“Thank you. I should get home.” He said in a whisper.
“You don’t have a shirt or sweater. You’re staying until I can clean the blood out of them.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“I have issues. Bad issues that you shouldn’t be a part of.” She laughed and he looked at her confused.
“Dear lord, everyone has issues. Some bad, some not so bad. Please stay here with me.” She was very insistent.
“What if your parents call or come home early and they find out there’s a boy in their house?”
“My parents are very open. I’m seventeen, not a baby. As long as I use protection I can have as many boys here as I want. I haven’t had a lot of boys mind you, but you understand. This is a safe place without drugs or alcohol and lots of guns so they don’t tend to worry about me.”
He sighed, unable to deny her. It was better than going home. At least here he wasn’t getting slapped around or screamed at for no reason. He nodded and she clapped happily. She threw away the iodine soaked gauze and put the first aid kit away. She tossed the rag and his shirt in the laundry room and grabbed his hand, leading him into the living room. He sat with her on the couch and she turned on the TV, snuggling close so he had to rest his arm on her shoulders. “Sorry, I’m still cold. I’ve never fallen through ice before.”
“You don’t have to apologize. Would you like me to get you a blanket? You could lay down and prop your ankle up.” He said shyly.
“You’re such an angel. Yes that would be amazing. Upstairs, door at the end of the hall.” He got up and rushed upstairs, opening the door and pulling out the warmest blanket he could find. He went back down and sat next to her. She pillowed her head on his lap and he covered her with the blanket. “So, how did you get the scars?” She asked.
“Nowhere.” He answered.
“Same way you got the black eye? Did you fall?”
“You’re too curious.”
“I prefer extremely adventurous and incredibly nosey.” He smiled half heartedly down at her.
“What’s your name?”
“Bella, what about you?”
They watched TV and Bella didn’t ask him anything more about his scars. He really didn’t like being shirtless around her and wished he had a shirt. “Do you have something I can wear?” He asked.
“Sure, are you cold?” She sat up and got unsteadily to her feet.
She disappeared upstairs and then came quickly back down. She handed him a grey tank top and he quickly put it on. “You don’t like people seeing them do you?”
“I prefer to keep them hidden so no one will ask questions.”
“Well it’s to late for that. I saw them and I’ve been asking. They’re just scars.”
He shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. “No they’re not. They’re ugly marks that I will have for the rest of my life to serve as a reminder of my transgressions.”
“Scars are pretty sexy if you ask me. I mean you should see the way guys look at the one on my stomach when I’m in a bikini. They think I’m some amazingly hardcore daredevil when I’m just a girl who made a stupid mistake.” She grabbed his chin between her thumb and forefinger and turned his head to face her. “What happened to you?”
He felt his lip quiver and tears well up in his eyes. He didn’t want to cry in front of her. He was a man wasn’t he? He tried to look away, but she wouldn’t let him. She looked so concerned. It wasn’t pity he saw in her eyes, but compassion. He had always wanted someone to care, someone to listen and now that he had it he didn’t want to talk about what had happened to him.
“I don’t want to burden you.” He said and she slid her hand up to cup his cheek. He covered her hand with his, enjoying the warm tender touch.
“Tell me, I want to know.”
“Imagine yourself as a small child, five years old and just starting to develope memories. Now imagine those memories from then on of you being beaten every day for even looking at your father the wrong way. Broken ribs, scars, black eyes. As a child you think you deserve it, that you did something wrong, but when you get older you come to realize it was never really your fault.” He whispered.
“Why don’t you just leave?”
“Could you leave your mother? Could you leave her to his abuse, his anger? She may not help me, but I love her too much to let him hurt her.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and held him tightly against her. He allowed himself to sink into her warmth, to just be cared for for once. He found himself hugging her, his forehead resting against her shoulder. She stroked his hair and he could hear her crying. He wanted to stay with her like this forever, but even as the thought occured to him he became afraid. What if he hurt her? He pulled away and stood up. He couldn’t stay.
“I have to go home.” He said and grabbed his backpack.
“Please don’t leave, don’t go back there.” She begged and he faltered for a brief second. He shook his head.
“I have to, my mom will be worried. I have to leave.” He opened the front door and closed it to her protest. He ran faster than he ever had. He had to get away from her. He would hate himself if he laid his hands on her. He couldn’t allow himself to get close to her. He ran until he was home and hurried through the front door.
“Where have you been all day?” His mother asked, her eyes fearful.
“The school called your father. They told him you left.”
“Don’t worry about it mom and don’t try to stop him. Just go make dinner.”
“Honey I…” They heard the front door open and she hurried into the kitchen. Bryan sat his bag down and turned to face his father. He could see the rage and smell the booze. His father crossed the room and he braced himself. The back of his father’s right hand struck his right cheek. The blow spun him around and he fell on the floor. His dad gripped the back of his neck and pulled him to his feet, hitting him again and busting his lip.
“You go to school when you are damn well supposed to. I don’t buy you school supplies just so you can waste them.” His father snapped and threw him on the floor. “Do you understand me?”
“Yes sir, I understand.”
“Good, now get out of my sight.” Bryan picked himself up and grabbed his backpack. He went into his room, closing and locking the door. He pulled his glasses out of his bag and slipped them on. His lip was bleeding. He found a dirty shirt and wiped the blood away. He lay down, listening. He didn’t go out for dinner, he wasn’t hungry. He lay there staring at the ceiling until it was dark and he was sure both of his parents were asleep. He grabbed a sweater and pulled it on then snuck out his window.
He walked quietly to the lake, tears sliding down his cheeks and dripping off his chin. He sat under the tree where no snow had fallen and buried his face in his hands. “I thought you might be here.” The now familiar female voice said and he looked up. “Oh my god Bryan, what happened to your face?” She dropped to her knees next to him and ran her fingers gently over the right side of his face and down to his lower lip. “Did he do this?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m alright.” He choked out.
“No you’re not. Why would he do this?”
“Because I skipped school today. He said I was wasting his money by not going.”
“Come on, you’re staying with me tonight.”
“No, I can’t.”
“Yes you can.” She said firmer and he jumped. “It’s alright, but if you stay, I stay.”
“Okay, fine I’ll go.”
She smiled and helped him to his feet. She was still limping and he felt guilt slice through him. She had walked all the way to the lake for him. He lifted her off the ground and carried her. She shouldn’t be walking on a sprained ankle. It did more damage than good. “You don’t have to carry me. I walked after I was gored.”
“Yes I do. Besides I thought I was your hero and this is what heroes do.” She smiled and it helped push the shadows back. He could very easily fall in love with her. He mentally reprimanded himself. He had to keep his heart in a box under lock and key.
“I’m glad I met you.”
They made it to her house and he carried her upstairs to her bedroom. It was almost eleven and she looked tired. He put her on her bed and pulled her tennis shoes and socks off. Her ankle looked swollen and bruised. “You need to rest Bella and stop walking around on this thing. If you need anything just call me, I’ll be on the couch.” He said and brushed some hair off her forehead.
“You can have the guest room next door. It’s more comfortable.” She gave him her sweetest smile.
“Alright and I’m serious, just yell.” She nodded and he left her room. He went next door and took his own shoes off. He climbed into bed and felt exhaustion wash over him. He had not realized how sleepy he really was until then. He closed his eyes and fell immediately to sleep.
He was curled up in a ball, his father kicking and punching him. The old man was screaming, saying he was useless, that he meant nothing to anyone. No one loved him, no one cared. He cried and begged for his dad to stop. He apologized over and over again as he protected his head from the blows that rained down on him. He heard someone call his name, felt hands grip his shoulders and shake him. His eyes snapped open. He was drenched in sweat, his heart beating out a fearful rhythm. He looked up into the face above him, blinked to bring it into focus. It was just Bella, her beautiful grey eyes alight with concern. He sat up and looked around the room. There was no one there but them. He was safe.
“Are you okay?” She asked and his attention snapped back to her. “Bryan talk to me.”
He didn’t know what to say so he kissed her, his fingers tangling in her hair and tears sliding down his face. He was so scared he was shaking. He pulled back, leaving her breathless and flushed. “I’m sorry, I just…” She covered his mouth with her hand and smiled at him.
“It’s okay, I promise.”
“I was having a nightmare, I don’t know what came over me.” He lay back down and she climbed in next to him. She pulled him into her arms and he rested his head on her chest.
“What was it about?” She stroked his hair and kissed the top of his head.
“My father. I don’t want to go into detail.”
“You don’t have to say anything you don’t want to say. Just relax.”
“I’m sorry I woke you.”
“Don’t be. I want to get you out of there for good. I know you want to stay for your mom, but she’s not going to leave him. She’s hurting you by staying and that’s not right. She’s had years to keep you safe and she hasn’t.”
Bryan knew she was right. Him staying was not doing anything. He had always wanted freedom and Bella was offering it to him. She had thrown the door open and all he needed to do was walk through it. “Alright. Tomorrow I’ll pack my things and go wherever I need to go.”
“Good, I’m happy to hear it.”
They stayed awake all night talking about their hopes and dreams. He loved that she wanted to do everything he was afraid of. He wasn’t the adventurous type, but he was happy she was. She was able to joke about everything that had ever happened to her, even falling through ice and nearly drowning. It was like she didn’t know the meaning of fear. He wished he was more like her.
“If you could have anything in the world what would it be?” She asked.
“Happiness I guess. I’ve always wanted to be happy.” He answered and brushed his fingers over her arm.
“Don’t I make you happy?” He lifted his head to look at her. She did make him happy, she gave him peace and kindness. She didn’t pity him, but gave him strength and compassion. It was everything he had ever wished for.
“You make me very happy.”
“Do you want to be my boyfriend?”
He sat up and just stared at her. “Are you serious? You hardly even know me.”
“Anyone who would risk his safety to save me deserves a chance. Bad guys don’t save people.”
“I don’t want to hurt you Bella.” She sat up and laced her fingers behind his neck.
“Why would you think you’d hurt me?”
“My grandfather was abusive, my father is abusive, and now it’s my turn.” He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her up and against him.
“Do you have aunts or uncles?” She asked sweetly.
“Yeah, one of each.” He didn’t know where she was going with this.
“Are they abusive? Are their children abusive?”
“No, my dad is the only one.”
“You are nothing like him. You stick up for your mother, you take beatings for her and you’ve been so kind to me. I don’t believe for a second that you will hurt me.”
Her words were like a breath of fresh air. No one had ever said anything like that to him, that he was a good person. His fingers gripped her shirt and he kissed her. He loved how soft her lips were, how sweet they tasted. She pulled him back down and he shook his head, trying not to smile. “I can’t, not right now. I want to, but I can’t.” He said and cleared his throat. “I have to know this is going to last, that this is real and I’m not dreaming. Please understand.”
She smiled up at him and it warmed his heart. “It’s okay, you’re not ready to take such a big step.”
“I’ve never felt like this and it’s hard for me to trust my emotions. I’ve been so angry and so scared that my mental state is not quite a hundred percent.”
“It’s okay, I promise. This doesn’t change anything. I still want you as my boyfriend and I’ll take what I can get.”
“Thank you for understanding. You are so amazing.” He lay back down beside her and rested his head on her chest. This was his spot, listening to her heart beating so calmly. It lulled him to sleep and he took it with him into the darkest part of his mind. He held on to it, knowing she would be there to wake him if anything happened.
Bella shook him awake and he raised his head, fear quickening his heart. “Is something wrong?” He asked and looked around.
“We need to go get your things.” She answered and he felt a shiver of fear move up his spine. “It’s going to be alright.”
He wasn’t so sure about that. He didn’t want her going with him, he didn’t want her to see. “Why don’t you just wait for me here?”
“No, I’m going to help you. I’m not afraid.”
He wanted to tell her she should be, but he could tell it would do nothing to stop her. He sighed and got out of bed, pulling his clothes on from yesterday. She went to her room and changed into jeans and a t-shirt then came back. “You shouldn’t be walking on that ankle.”
“I don’t plan on it. I’m going to call a taxi then get boxes out of the shop.”
He found his glasses and put them on then followed her downstairs, not wanting to be alone. He would have to draw from her courage if he was going to do this. He paced while she called for a taxi and then helped her get boxes. The taxi showed up ten minutes later and they both got in. He gave the driver directions, feeling more and more terrified the closer they got to his house. The taxi slowed to a stop and Bella asked him to wait.
“I’m going to go in alone. Just stay on the porch and wait for me.” He said.
“Are you sure?” She asked.
“Yeah, just stay here.”
She nodded and he went inside with the boxes. His dad was sitting in the living room and stood when he came in. “What do you think you’re doing?” He asked angrily.
“I’m leaving, I’m moving out.” Bryan answered shakily.
“Honey, why?” His mom asked.
“Go back in the kitchen Debra, now.” His mother jumped and walked away. Bryan could see her peeking around the door frame. “You’ll leave when I say you can leave.”
“I’m not staying. I’m going to pack my things and go. I’m tired of being here, of taking your abuse.” His father crossed the room and hit him in the face, knocking him down.
“You will leave when I say.” The front door flew open and Bella came running in. “Who are you?”
“Get away from him you son of a bitch.” Bella ordered, her eyes filled to the brim with rage.
“Get out of my house.”
“No, you back off or my daddy will have you in prison so fast you’ll be someone’s bitch before you can even come to terms with it.” Bryan could tell his father was shocked. “Get up love and pack your things.” Bella said and Bryan hurried to his feet. He went quickly to his room, throwing things in boxes. He was scared and ashamed. He checked every drawer, every shelf, not wanting to leave anything behind that his father could destroy. He quickly took the boxes to the taxi. Bella was still standing there having a glaring match with his dad. He was shaking so hard he almost didn’t make it back into the house. He went to his mother and kissed her cheek.
“I’m sorry mom, but I can’t do it anymore. I love you so much.” He said, tears running down his face.
“It’s okay baby, it’s okay. I love you too. Just stay safe okay?” She was shaking too, afraid to be alone, but knowing he couldn’t stay or he might die.
“I promise to call.” He kissed her cheek again and hurried out of that house. Bella was behind him and they climbed into the taxi. The driver took them back to her house and she asked the driver if he would help carry the boxes since her ankle was bad. The man readily agreed. Bryan’s head was spinning when the driver left. He flopped down on the couch, unsure of how to feel. It was all he ever wanted, but the guilt of leaving his mother behind was eating at him. He knew Bella was right of course. His mother would never leave. She was loyal to a fault. She loved her husband.
“Are you alright?” Bella asked as she sat down next to him.
“Yes, I’m fine. Just a little overwhelmed.” He answered.
“It can only get better from here.”
“Do you mean that?”
“I promise it.” He smiled at her, looking for the first time like the eighteen year old he was.