My eyes closed, and I cupped my forehead once again. I had so much on my plate right now with the Science Fair, cross country and K.C. Why was I even wasting my time having this conversation?
Exasperated, I waved my hand in the air and let it plop down to my lap. “Why do you care? You threatened to go talk to his mom when this started.” As far as I knew, my grandma wasn’t Jared’s biggest fan. While she always encouraged me to talk to him, she was also disgusted over his behavior. I’d stopped telling her and my dad every nasty detail of his treatment of me, because I didn’t want this resolved unless Jared initiated it. When that happened, I figured he’d seek me out. He never had.
“Because you’ve never been the same. And because when you do go off to college, I want your heart to be free.”
Free. What did that even feel like anymore?
“I’ve let it go. I am free.” I didn’t know what she wanted from me.
“Acting like you don’t care is not letting it go.” She pinned me with her challenging stare.
My body slumped. There wasn’t anything in my arsenal after that.
Feeling mentally and physically drained, I was pretty delighted when Grandma let me head up to bed without helping with the cleanup. Once in my bathroom, I stripped down and stepped into the warmth and quiet of my shower. This pulsating hideaway was the one place I could escape without leaving my house. I could think and just be quiet whenever I needed, and no one was the wiser, and no one disturbed me.
It was only six o’clock, and I had some chapters for Catcher in the Rye due tomorrow as well as some questions for Physics, but it was no use fighting the drowsiness. I set my alarm for four a.m., giving me enough time to get up and do my school work, and went to the French doors to draw the curtains.
I noticed the wind picking up and the sky overshadowed with ashen clouds. The neighborhood trees were still a vibrant green, and the voltage that suddenly coursed through the sky made a tiny, grateful smile flash across my face. Knowing a storm was on its way calmed me, so I left the doors open.
Stunned awake by a piercing crash, I sat up in bed trying to get my bearings. I wiped the grogginess from my eyes while yawning. Looking around the room, I noticed that the French doors were still open, and the rain was falling steadily outside. Glancing at my clock, I saw that I’d been asleep for about six hours.
Peeling off the covers and stepping out of bed, I went to the railing outside my French doors and took in the spectacle of thunder and lightning around the midnight sky. That must’ve been what had woken me. The chilly air gave me goose bumps, and droplets of rain fell on my skin. Thankfully, it wasn’t falling in buckets. Otherwise, my floor would’ve been soaked.
I studied the tree next to my doors, taking into consideration that the rain coming through the canopy of leaves was light. With my heartbeat surging through my chest, I grabbed onto the crown molding around my door, put my foot on the railing and hoisted myself up. I held one of the branches above my head and touched my foot to another branch jutting into the railing. Delicious fear heated up my muscles and reminded me that I’d been a lot braver as a child. I inched out until the branches got thicker and then teetered until I reached the trunk.
Sitting down in my old space, the familiar pitter-patter of raindrops hitting leaves welcomed me home. Propped with my back against the trunk and my legs resting on the thick branch from where I came, I glorified in how easy it was to reclaim this simple part of myself. I hadn’t been out here in years.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a light, possibly from the front porch, of Jared’s house pop on. Seconds later, a girl came running down the front pathway with a black sweatshirt over her head. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew who it was when I saw the car she was running towards.
At Jared’s house.
There was no sign of him, and the porch light flickered off as soon as she was in her car. The uncontrollable pounding in my chest started, so I closed my eyes for several minutes trying to get back the peace I was enjoying just a minute ago.
“Sitting in a tree during a thunderstorm? You’re some kind of genius.” The deep voice almost shocked me right out of the tree. My eyes popped open, and I twisted around to see Jared leaning out his window. He was clothed, at least. That made me feel better after seeing K.C. leave his house.
“I like to think so, yes,” I mumbled, turning back to the storm. My anger with Jared had lessened. Considerably. After my hateful words to him today, I just felt embarrassed and ashamed now.
“Tree? Lightning? Ring any bells?”
Of course I knew it was dangerous. That’s what made it so fun.
“It never mattered to you before,” I pointed out, keeping my eyes focused on the glistening road shining under the streetlights.
“What? You sitting in a tree during a storm?”
“No, me getting hurt.” The urge to look at him was strong. I wanted to see his eyes so badly that it felt like an invisible hand was forcing my face to turn to him. I wanted him to see me. I wanted him to see us.
There was no response for several seconds, but I knew he was still there. My body reacted to his presence, and I could feel his eyes on me.
“Tatum?” His voice sounded soft and gentle, and I instantly felt warm all over. But then he spoke again. “I wouldn’t care if you were alive or dead.”
All the air left my body, and I sat on the tree branch feeling completely defeated.
No more. I couldn’t do this anymore. There was no life in feeling like this. It was all a game to him, but I didn’t have the heart to play it anymore. I’m not strong. I’m not a bully. I’m not happy. I knew what I needed to do.
I’m letting you go.
“Jared?” I said, still staring out to the rain-soaked street. “I’m sorry about what I said to you today.”
I looked over to him, but he was gone.
“Hey, did you get my text?” Ben rested his hand on my shoulder as he came around to face me.
“Yeah.” I vaguely remembered some sweet words about being anxious to see me again. “But not until much later. I went to bed early.”
I’d finally fallen back asleep last night at about two o’clock and woke up at four with a stomach full of knots. After my disgusting behavior yesterday in class and the way I’d gotten sidetracked from my goals, I decided to give up the tough-girl act. His game was too hard, and I was turning into a person I didn’t like.
I needed to talk to K.C., but I wasn’t sure how to handle her. My temper still flared over the idea of her and Jared dating, but one thing she said made sense. This anger wasn’t getting me anywhere, and I wanted to move on. I just didn’t know if I could without holding a grudge.
“So would you like to go out this weekend? There’s a bonfire at Tyler Hitchen’s place on Friday night after the race.”
“I’d love to, but I’m so swamped right now. I’ll have to see how my week goes.” I closed the locker door and began inching away.
“Can I help with anything?” Ben’s knit his eyebrows together in concern. It was sweet and made me smile.
“Well, you can’t run my laps for me, or do my Math or Science, or take my tests, so you’re pretty useless.”
“Yes, yes, I am. I see you’ve been talking to my mom.” His eyes shined with amusement, and his grin was teasing. “Try to make yourself free. It’ll be fun.”
Hannah the Bitch walked by us with her crew, and they threw Ben some sultry looks of the you-don’t-even-need-to-buy-me-dinner variety. Their antics were so transparent. Flipping hair and biting your bottom lip? Really? Who does that? She slapped me with an “L” for loser, and I flipped her off behind Ben’s back as they walked past.
I guess I should be delighted that a guy like Ben wanted to date me. Hannah, and probably most of the other girls in this school, would be grateful to have his attention. He was attentive and behaved like a gentleman. I enjoyed spending time with him. It was just taking longer than I thought it would to develop a spark.
“Fine,” I answered. “I’ll try.”
He took my bag and walked me to Physics. “Meet you at lunch?” He looked at me expectantly.
“Sure. I’ll be sitting outside today.” His presence would be welcome. I might need a buffer between K.C. and myself if I lost my temper again.
“See you there.” His voice was low and warm. Arriving at class, he handed me my bag and backed away, heading off down the hall.
I wished I was more into Ben. Maybe I just needed to get to know him better.
The surprise Physics quiz burned panic right through my bones. Luckily, it was enough to take my mind off my personal life. I’d done the reading and completed the questions this morning in my haze, but I still felt unprepared.
The running we did in P.E. afterwards let off the steam of the morning. Even though Coach was testing us on our mile run time, and I completed that in six minutes flat, she let me keep running. The burn in my muscles singed off the frustration and hurt of Jared’s words last night that had been floating through my head all morning.
I wouldn’t care if you were alive or dead. My heels dug into the dirt as I envisioned digging his grave.
“Hey, you guys.” K.C. came up behind Ben and me where we sat at a picnic table outside, eating our lunch.
“Hi,” I said through a mouthful of pasta salad, unable to meet her eyes.
“So how are you doing, Ben? Ready for the game Friday?”
“I’m not as worried about the game as I am the race later that night. I’ve got some money riding on Wonderboy in there.” Her jerked his thumb towards to cafeteria, referring to Jared, I would assume.
“Oh, well he’s a safe bet.” She smirked and waved her hand in the air. “I’ll be at the race, too. Are you bringing Tate?” Her gaze slid to me.
“I didn’t think she’d enjoy the race, but I’m trying to get her to the bonfire afterwards.”
K.C. narrowed her eyes at me as she mixed a flavored powder into her water. “Tate knows a lot about cars. She would love it,” she pointed out.
“Guys, I’m sitting right here. Talk to me, morons.” I barked sarcastically at the both of them, feeling like they were the parents discussing what to do with the child.
Ben tucked my hair behind my ear, and I jerked a little with the intimate gesture.
“Sorry, Tate. As I was saying, you love cars. Did you know that, Ben?”
“I didn’t. Well, she has to come with me then.” He grinned while popping a Cheetoh in his mouth, and I felt squeezed like the cream in an Oreo cookie. They were pushing me.
Like every other time we’d been in a social setting in the past, Jared had done something to ruin it. Why bother?
Looking at K.C., I geared up for verbal sparring. “You expect me to come to the Loop and cheer for Jared?”
“No, but I’d love you to be there with me since I won’t know anyone. You can see the race, check out the cars, and explain to me the difference between a battery and an engine. I never understood that. If you have a battery, then why do you need an engine?”
Ben and I burst out laughing. She was being purposely dimwitted to get me to be agreeable. I wanted to go, but I knew K.C. would be all over Jared. If I wanted to spend time with her, then I’d have to be around him. I couldn’t hang pathetically on Ben all night.
“I told Ben I’d see how my week went. I have a lot to do right now.” While I was caught up on my homework, I wanted to get ahead on some reading and get to the library to research on the Science topics so I could make my final decision. Not to mention, I needed to be at school by seven on Saturday morning to catch the bus for a cross country meet in Farley. It’s not like I was trying to avoid Jared.