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I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and stared back at my reflection. My green eyes were dull, and the dark circles underneath them stood out against my pale skin. I moved my gaze down to my left cheekbone, where the bruise had formed. It was an ugly mixture of red and purple. I brought my hand up and gingerly touched the mark, wincing as I made contact. I sighed and reached for my makeup bag. I carefully brushed powder over the bruise, using a combination of multiple shades to cover up the mark. I was just blending in the final layer of concealer when the bathroom door burst open. I jumped, startled, and the brush I had been holding fell to the floor.

“Sorry, Ali,” my mom said. “I didn’t realize you were in here.”

“It’s okay,” I said, my heart pounding through my chest. My mom smoothed her hair back. She always did that when she was stressed.

“Remember to be home at 6:00 tonight. It’s your father’s first night back from his conference, and I want to have a nice family dinner,” my mom said.

Of course you do, I thought. I was dreading this dinner, mainly from the guilt and anger I felt towards my father. He had an affair with his secretary when I was ten, and our family was never the same. My mom tried too hard, my dad worked too late, and I was stuck somewhere in the middle. He promised it would never happen again, but last month I saw him at a coffee shop with a young blonde. He didn’t see me, and I never told my mom.

“Ali!” my mom said. “Answer me when I’m talking to you.”

“Okay.”

“I mean it Ali. 6 o’clock sharp. Don’t be late,” she said.

“I won’t,” I said. I could see my mom pause by the door through the reflection in the mirror, her eyes fixated on the spot I had worked so hard to cover up. Just then a car horn beeped outside. It was James. I sighed with relief and quickly brushed past my mother and grabbed my backpack. I couldn’t be late. James hated when I was late. I opened the door to James’s navy blue truck, anxious to see what kind of mood he would be in. He smiled.

“Morning, babe,” he said, leaning over to kiss me. I sighed with relief. I felt his gaze lower to my cheekbone.
“Ali, baby, I’m so sorry about yesterday. You know I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just got so jealous that Tyler was talking to you!” James said. I felt myself relax. Of course he didn’t mean to hurt me. He loves me! After all, it was my fault for talking to Tyler.
“I know,” I said. “I love you too.” James kissed me one last time before starting the car and heading off in the direction of school. While he focused on the road, I felt my gaze turn to him, studying his looks. James had long dark hair and olive skin, with piercing blue eyes. His eyes were one of the reasons I was first attracted to him. When you’re talking, they stare into your own eyes as if you’re the only person in the world. James can sometimes be stoic with his emotions, often clenching his jaw instead of telling me what he’s feeling, but his eyes always give it away. As if he could feel my eyes on him, James looked over at me.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said. He smirked and turned back to the road.
I fiddled with the radio, absentmindedly going over my schedule for the day. Before I could continue in my thoughts, James interrupted me.
“You don’t mind if we make a quick stop on the way home, do you?”
“What kind of stop?” I asked.
“I just need to drop some s*** off at Tony’s,” James said. I could see his hands clench on the steering wheel.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Don’t you think it’s a bad idea?”
“It’ll only take ten minutes, tops,” James said, trying to reassure me.
“James,” I said. “You promised you were done with this. The drugs and everything.”
“I am done. I’m dropping off the rest of my supply for Tony to deal with. You know that. Are you just trying to find an excuse to break up with me so you can be with someone else?” James shouted as he turned into the student parking lot.
I felt the tears sting my eyes before spilling over and down my cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean it like that. Of course I trust you. I’m just worried. All the drug stuff makes me really nervous,” I said through my tears. I could feel James soften. He hated seeing me cry.
“I’m done with it, Ali. I promise. Just this one last time, I swear.”
“Okay,” I said. We sat in the car for a few moments, not saying anything, until the bell rang, signaling that it was time for homeroom. I hurried into Mr. Seybolt’s classroom and tried to sneak past my best friend, but of course she noticed.
“Ali!” Taryn hissed. “Come sit over here!” I sighed and took the empty seat next to her. Tall, blonde, and outspoken, Taryn was the complete opposite of me.
“Hey, Taryn,” I said softly. “How’s it going?”
“Oh no,” she said. “You are so not getting off that easy. Where have you been? We never hang out anymore!” she accused.
“I know. I’m sorry, I’ve just been really busy lately and—”
“What’s that?” Taryn asked. I instinctively covered up my cheek with my hand, but her eyes were on the bruise on my bicep. Crap. I forgot about that.
“Oh, it’s nothing. I walked into a door,” I said. The sad smile Taryn gave me told me she wasn’t buying it.
“Well listen girl, come over after school today! We can do our nails and catch up on Gossip Girl, just like old times,” she said. For a second I started to smile. An afternoon at Taryn’s, just like old times. But then I remembered James.
“Today’s no good,” I said. As usual, Taryn wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Why?” she asked. “Is it because of him? Just cancel. You see him every day anyway,” she said with disgust.
I couldn’t cancel. James wouldn’t like that. He said it was important to always keep your prior commitments.
“No, my dad’s coming home. My mom has some stupid dinner planned.” That wasn’t a lie. Just not the whole truth. But it satisfied Taryn, and that’s all that matters.
“Okay, then tomorrow?”
“Sure,” I said. Taryn smiled, and then the bell rang.
The day passed by slowly. Finally, the last bell rang. I hurried to my locker from my honors Chemistry class, being careful to not take too long. That would make James mad. He was waiting for me when I got there, and together we made our way through the throngs of students out to his car.
James navigated the truck to the bad part of town, where he would be meeting Tony. I looked around at the neighborhood around me: boarded up windows, gang symbols spray-painted on what seemed like every flat surface, a pair of old sneakers proudly tossed over a telephone line. James parked the car near an alley at the end of the street. As I nervously got out of the car, he reached for a small plastic baggie from the glove compartment and put it in his jeans pocket. I pretended not to see.
As we walked over to a beat-up house, James told me the rules.
“Stay inside the house. Don’t answer the door. Don’t leave your seat. Don’t make any noise.”
James led me through overgrown grass, stepping over a rusted fence, into the backyard, where we entered the house through the back door. I took a seat on a putrid smelling couch.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” James said, before disappearing through the door to my right.
I took a deep breath and tried to relax, bringing out my iPhone to play a few games, and watched the minutes slowly tick by. 4:25. 5:15. 5:32.
The stench of stale beer and day-old vomit filled my nostrils and I felt my stomach lurch. The smell began to mix with the marijuana smoke filtering out from the closed door to my right. I took a deep breath through my mouth and tried to stay calm. The old, stain-covered couch squeaked as I tried to shift into a more comfortable position. The remnants of shattered bottles covered the bare floor by my feet, and I involuntarily shuddered as I watched flies buzz around the sticky substance that surrounded the cracked glass. I glanced out of the hole in the trash bag-covered window, and it was then that I saw the flashing blue lights pierce the otherwise black night sky. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. I started to get up, but then I remembered the rules. I sat back down.

The closed door to the other room burst open and James stumbled out. His eyes were red and watery, and the stench of marijuana grew stronger as he moved closer.

“Get up,” he said, his eyes darting wildly from side to side. I was frozen in fear. We could hear footsteps walking up the steps to the boarded up front door. He grabbed my arm. “Now!”

Sheering pain shot up my wrist as James forcefully pulled me off the couch, firmly clenching my arm with all of his strength. I tripped over my own feet as I struggled to keep up with him.

I followed James through the dark house and out the back door. I glanced down at my wrist. Red and purple bruises were already beginning to form. We quickly walked through the tall grass and stumbled through the neighboring backyards until we reached James’ car parked down the street. I took a deep breath and tried to find the courage to speak.

“You promised this was the last time,” I said softly.

“Shut up and get in the car,” James said. I bit my lip and got in the truck. James peeled away before my door was fully closed, the tires screeching as he sped down the street away from the house. I watched as the flashing blue lights faded in the distance.

My wrist throbbed as I held it, already thinking of the new excuse I would tell Taryn. James followed my eyes to where I was staring, as he too looked at the outlines of the marks that had already formed.

“I’m so sorry, Ali. I didn’t mean to do that. I just wanted to get you out of there so you could be safe. You know I love you,” he told me. I didn’t answer.

James pulled the truck in front of my house. I glanced at the clock on the dashboard: 6:23. I was late.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I love you.”

“I know,” I said. I got out of the car and walked up the steps and into the door. I could feel James watching me.

“You’re late,” my mom said as I walked into the house.

“I’m sorry,” I said. She sniffed the air, wrinkling her nose.

“What’s that smell?” she asked.

“Nothing.” My mother sighed, frowning. I waited. And waited. But the lecture didn’t come.

“Where’s Dad?” I watched as my mom stiffened.

“He had to go to the office. Something about working late,” she answered with pursed lips.
“What about dinner?” I asked. I regretted asking as soon as I saw the look of disappointment flash over my mother’s face.
“Another night,” she whispered.
“Mom,” I said.
“Leave it, Ali. There’s pasta on the stove if you want it. Just make sure you cleanup after yourself. I don’t want your father coming home to a mess.” I nodded and made my way into the kitchen, grateful that for some reason I had avoided the fight I thought was inevitable.
I helped myself to the delicious meal my mom had cooked; it looked like she had spent all afternoon marinating chicken, cooking penne, fixing a salad, and even making fresh rolls. I noticed that the dining room table was beautifully set, with a white linen tablecloth perfectly draped over the hardwood surface, with our family’s good china carefully laid out at each place setting. I couldn’t help but to feel sorry for my mom. Ever since she found out about the first affair, she went out of her way to make my father happy. Her intense drive for perfection affected me as well; she was always getting on my case to make good grades, keep the house neat, and basically do everything I could to somehow keep my dad from having another affair. As if it was my fault. Although honestly, I can’t say I blame her. I would do the same thing for James.
I reached for a bowl from the cupboard and felt a flash of pain in my wrist, instantly reminding me of the night’s events. I flashed back to the first time it happened. We had been dating for a month, and we went to see a scary movie.

“That was the scariest movie I’ve ever seen!” I said as James and I walked out of the theater. James laughed and wrapped his arms around me.

“Don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe,” he murmured. I felt my body flush with happiness. A popular guy like James was dating a quiet girl like me! It was almost too good to be true. As we made our way to his truck, I heard a familiar voice call my name. I turned around and saw Alex, my partner for the pas de deux in ballet class.

“Hey, Alex!” I walked over to where he was standing with some of our ballet friends. He gave me a quick hug.

“See you in class next week,” he said. “Hopefully Madame doesn’t yell at us for talking like she did last week,” he joked. I giggled at the memory before waving goodbye and making my way back to James. He was sitting in the truck, his jaw clenched.

“Sorry about that,” I said cheerfully. He didn’t answer. “James?”

“What the hell was that?” he finally asked.

“Oh, that was just Alex. We’re partnered together in ballet,” I said.

“I take you out to a nice dinner and a movie, and in return you’re all over some other guy like some slut?” I laughed nervously. This was a joke, right?

“James, he’s just my friend!”

“Shut up! Just shut the hell up, b****,” he shouted. My mouth fell open in shock.

“James—”

He cut me off and slapped me hard across the face. Tears instantly started pouring down my face, and my cheek stung. I went silent, too afraid to say anything else. James wordlessly started the car and began driving me home. I cried the entire way, staying as quiet as I could, because I had no idea what to expect next. How could he do this to me? I thought.

After a long, silent drive, James pulled into my driveway. He turned off the car and turned to face me.

“Ali,” he said. “Baby, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you; I just got so upset seeing you flirt with that guy.”

“You hit me,” was all I managed to say.

James reached out and softly touched my cheek, where an angry red handprint had formed.

“I’m sorry. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said. A tear rolled down his cheek. I started to cry again. “Please Ali, don’t cry,” he said. “It will never happen again, I promise.”

“Okay,” I said. I could tell he meant it. After all, he was crying, and I had never seen a guy cry before, except for my father when my mom found out about his affair.

“I love you, Ali,” James said. I smiled.

“Really?” I asked.

“Of course. I love you so much. I never want to lose you,” he said.

“I love you too, James,” I said.

The next day I quit ballet.
Back in the kitchen, I returned my thoughts to the present. I heard my phone ringing in my backpack, and I searched through it until I found it. 12 missed calls from James. 3 messages. James was going to be so mad. He hated it when I didn’t answer my phone. I started to dial the familiar numbers, but then I looked once more at the nice dinner my mom had prepared for my dad. Instead, I turned off my phone for the night.

The next morning I followed the same routine, carefully covering up every trace of bruising on my body before school started. The bruises on my wrist had grown dark and puffy, so I slathered concealer over them and put on a few bracelets.

Perfect. No one would notice. Outside, I heard the beep, my signal. I was afraid to see James. He was going to be so angry with me for not returning his phone calls. I regretted turning my phone off. I was a horrible girlfriend. I quickly smashed my iPhone on the ground, happy with myself for coming up with such a great idea. I grabbed the broken phone and hurried outside, where James was waiting in the car.

“You didn’t answer my calls,” he said as soon as I opened the door.

“My phone broke! I’m so stupid, it fell right out of my hands,” I said, grateful for the excuse. James softened.

“Oh,” he said. “Here, give it to me. I can have a buddy of mine fix it up for you.”

I handed it to my phone, happy to oblige. He was being nice, meaning he felt bad about yesterday. We headed off to school, with James stopping to buy me an iced vanilla latte from Starbucks, my favorite.

I hadn’t forgotten my promise to Taryn about catching up after school, so when James asked if I needed a ride home from school, I told him about our plans. He wasn’t happy, but he said he would let me go.

At the end of the day I went to Taryn’s house as I promised. It was great catching up with my best friend, until she brought up James.

“I just don’t think he’s good for you,” she said while painting a coat of Petal Pink on my toenails.

“You don’t know him like I do,” I insisted.

“Maybe not, but I know that I see the bruises you’re trying to cover up. He’s hurting you, Ali, and that’s not okay.”

“You don’t understand,” I tried to explain. “I deserve it. He loves me, that’s all.” Taryn shook her head sadly.

“That’s sick. That’s not love.”

I stood up, knocking over the open bottle of nail polish and spilling it all over the white carpet in Taryn’s room.

“If you invited me over to lecture me about my boyfriend, save it. I’m leaving.” I grabbed my stuff and walked out, as Taryn pleaded with me. I ignored her and continued walking, out the front door, down the street, an entire mile until I reached my house where James was waiting in his car.

“James? What are you doing here?” I asked. He shook his head, disgusted.

“I got your phone fixed,” he said. “Tyler’s been texting you. And a few other guys, too. I read your messages, so don’t bother thinking up some lie. God, you’re such a slut! When will you ever learn?”

“James! Tyler’s my lab partner, you know that! We just talk about homework,” I tried to reason. He grabbed a fistful of my hair and jerked it hard, so that my head fell onto the dashboard.

“Let go!” I cried. “James, let go! You’re hurting me!” He finally loosened his grasp, and I shakily grabbed my bag and hurried out if his car and into my house, ignoring the sound of him calling after me. I walked into the bathroom and took off my clothes, turning the water in the shower to scalding hot. I stood under the water and watched my pale skin turn red, finally allowing the tears to come.

I fell into a dreamless sleep soon after my shower, but was jolted awake in the middle of the night. Headlights shone through my white curtains, and I got out of bed and peered out the window. My father sat in the passenger seat of a gray Sedan, embraced in a passionate kiss with the woman from the coffee shop.

I picked up the phone and felt my hands dial the familiar numbers, as if I were in some kind of trance.

“Can you come get me?” I said to the voice on the other end.

“I’ll be right there,” I was promised. I slowly made my way out of my house. Away from my mother and the pressure to be perfect. Away from my cheating father. Away from my insecurities and doubts.

The car pulled up and I got in, feeling his arms circle around me.

“It’s just you and me babe,” James said.



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lauren17 said...
Dec. 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm
This is so good! I lovw it!
 
briannafsu This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Dec. 13, 2012 at 8:46 pm
thank you so much!
 
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