"What the hell do you think you're doing, Annabel?" she said.
Two younger girls scurried past me, their eyes wide. I tightened my hand around the strap of my bag, swallowing again.
"Didn't you get enough that night? You need more or something?"
Somehow, I started to move forward again. Don't get sick, don't look back, don't do anything, I kept telling myself, but my throat felt raw, my head light.
"Don't you ignore me," Sophie was saying now. "Turn around, bitch!"
All I wanted—all I'd ever wanted—was just to get away. To be somewhere small where I could crowd in and feel safe, all four walls pressed around me, no one staring or pointing or yelling. But here I was in the wide open, in full view. I might have just given in, letting her do whatever she wanted, like I had for weeks now, but then something happened. She reached out and grabbed my shoulder.
And something snapped in me. Snapped hard, like a bone, or a branch, a clean break. Before I even knew what I was doing, I'd whirled around and was facing her, reaching up with hands that I wasn't even sure were mine to push her away, my palms hitting her chest, hard, and knocking her backwards, stumbling. It was primal and immediate and surprised both of us, but most of all, me.
She lost her footing, her eyes wide, but then caught herself quickly and started toward me again. She had on a black skirt and a bright yellow tank top, her arms tan and wiry beneath it, her hair spilling loose over her shoulders. "Oh my God," she said, her voice low, and I somehow moved backwards, my feet thick underneath me. "You better—"
The crowd around us was closing in now, bodies jostling. Above the movement, I could hear the whirring of the security guard approaching on his golf cart. "Break it up," he called out. "Move on to the parking lot or bus area."
Sophie stepped closer to me. "You're a whore," she said, her voice low, and I heard a hiss from somewhere, that low oooooh, followed by the guard's voice, second warning.
"Stay away from my boyfriend," she said, her voice low. "Do you hear me?"
I just stood there. I could still feel the pressure of her chest against my hands, how it felt to push her, something solid giving way. "Sophie…" I said.
She shook her head, then stepped forward, brushing past me. Her shoulder hit mine, hard, and I stumbled, bumping someone behind me before righting myself. Everyone was staring, a blur of faces fluctuating, shifting, as she moved through them, and then their eyes all turned to me.
I pushed through the bodies beside me, one hand over my mouth. I could hear people talking, laughing, as the crowd gave way, bit by bit, and I finally reached the outer edge. The main building was right in front of me, a row of tall bushes in front of it that led around its back side. I ran toward them, their prickly leaves scraping my hands as I pushed through. I didn't make it far, and could only hope I was out of sight as I bent over, one hand clutching my stomach, and got sick in the grass, coughing and spitting, the sound rough in my ears.
When I was finished, my skin felt clammy, and there were tears in my eyes. It was horrible and embarrassing, and one of those moments when you just want more than anything to be alone. Especially when you suddenly realize you're not.
I didn't hear the footsteps. Or see the shadow. Instead, from where I was crouched on the ground, the green of the grass filling my vision, the first thing I made out were hands, a flat silver ring on the middle finger of each. One was clutching my notes. The other was reaching out for me.
Owen Armstrong looked like a giant, his hand enormous as it stretched toward me. Somehow I found myself extending my own back to him, and then he was folding his fingers over mine, pulling me to my feet. I stood steady for about a second before my head went light and woozy and I stumbled.
"Whoa," he said, reaching out to steady me. "Hold on. You better sit down."
He eased me back two steps, and I felt the building behind me, the bricks cool against my back. I slid down the wall slowly, until I was on the grass. From this new vantage point, he seemed even bigger.
Suddenly, he dropped his bag off his shoulder. It hit the ground with a clank, and then he was crouching down beside it, reaching in and digging around. I heard objects bumping against each other as they were moved and redistributed, and it occurred to me that maybe I should be concerned about this. Finally, his hand stopped digging, and he sat back, slightly. I braced myself as he worked his hand out of the bag, bit by bit, and came up with… a pack of Kleenex. A small one, bent and wrinkled, and he pressed them against his chest—which was enormous, oh my God—smoothing them out, before pulling one free and handing it to me. I took it the same way I'd taken his hand—in disbelief, and very carefully.
"You can have the whole pack," he said. "If you want."
"That's okay." My voice sounded hoarse. "One is fine." I pressed it to my mouth, taking a breath through it. He put the pack by my foot anyway. "Thank you," I said.
He sat down on the grass beside his bag. Because I'd gone to that review session at lunch, I hadn't seen him all day, but he looked pretty much the same as always: jeans, T-shirt fraying at the hem, thick-soled black wingtips, earphones. Up close— or closer—I could also see he had a few freckles, and that his eyes were green, not brown. I could hear voices rising up from the courtyard; they sounded like they were floating over our heads.
"So, um," he said, "are you okay?"
I nodded, the response instant. "Yeah," I said. "I just felt sick all of a sudden, I don't know…"
"I saw what happened," he said.
"Oh," I said. I felt my face flush. So much for trying to save face. "Yeah. That was… pretty bad."
He shrugged. "Could have been worse."
"Sure." His voice was not rumbly like I would have guessed, but instead low and even. Almost soft. "You could have punched her."
I nodded. "Yeah," I said. "I guess you're right."
"It's good you didn't, though. Wouldn't have been worth it."
"No?" I said, even though, truthfully, I hadn't even considered this.
"No. Not even if it felt good at the time," he said. "Trust me."
The weirdest thing of all was that I did. Trust him, that is. I looked down at the pack of tissues he'd given me, picking them up and taking out another one. Just as I did, I heard a buzzing from my bag. My phone.