Author's note: Still in progress, but feel free to read and critique as I write!
Caleb"Sorry, excuse me, I'm sorry," I mumbled and apologized my way through the crowd of people. The mosh pit of a concert is not exactly the safest place to be, especially when the band is not exactly the cleanest band, either. The huge concert hall was disgusting--paint peeling off the walls, food and unidentified substances covered the floors--and completely slammed with people of the punk-rock variety. Black clothes, black hair, heavy eyeliner, girls in what could barely be called dresses. I felt like a whore in my tight, red bandage-style dress, but my friend Diana swore I looked fine. At least I looked more conservative than her spidery black minidress, all slashed up the back and down the one long sleeve. She had begged and pleaded for almost a week for me to go see Eternal Darkness, or whatever their name was. Now she was drunk out of her mind and had tottered into the restroom, but not before asking me to find her Jimmy Choos she'd left near the front. I seriously doubted they'd be there, but I went to check. I had walked with her out toward the doors of the Tabernacle, the sketchiest event hall in Atlanta. I wasn't one to drink, but apparently I was the only one. People were passed out everywhere, or very obviously underage but still brandishing beer bottles. And now I had to go back in. Alone. I wished I had a boyfriend that I could talk into going for me. Or at least with me. I could barely hear from the awful screaming through the microphone, barely see through the thick, black smoke that I'm sure came from more than ordinary cigarettes.
"Hey, you goin' in or not?"
I realized I was blocking the doorway, and a teenage guy and his girlfriend didn't like it. Her heavily made-up eyes looked like slits, and I noticed his bicuspids had been filed to points like a vampires. I quicly ducked into the doorway and back against the wall. I tried not to look around as I squeezed my way up front. Punk-screamo-heavy-death-metal is not exactly my type. But Diana loves it. Actually, I've never heard her listen to that type of music, but I know she has a thing for black hair and guyliner. I tried to slither through the crowd, but there were so many people. I had no idea where I was supposed to find missing shoes, and quite frankly I didn't see anyone I wanted to ask. Finally, I saw a guy that looked decent--at least, his clothes didn't look like an oil spill. I tapped his shoulder, and when he turned around I shouted, "Have you seen some red shoes up here?" Apparently the nicer clothes were just a disguise; he glared at me and said something to his girlfriend. She looked me up and down, her eyes boring into me. I could tell she was enraged at something, but I had no idea what it could be. Suddenly, she slapped me hard across the face. I just stood there, utterly shocked. I assumed the man told her I had hit on him. Eyes burning and cheek stinging, I turned on my heel and ran, desperate to get away. I knew I could probably get her arrested, considering I was pretty sure she had had much beyond the legal alcohol limit, but I didn't need a whole crowd of people wanting to hit me. I located Diana's red shoes kicked under the stage steps, dodged a fat man smelling suspiciously of marijuana, and was shoved hard in the back by several people trying to get the crowd jumping.
"Whoa, you okay?" Someone's voice was loud in my ear, and strong arms caught me around my waist before I hit the floor. I stood shakily, wanting nothing more than to get out of this place. Where was Diana? I reluctantly looked up, afraid to see bloodshot eyes and snakebites. I was almost shocked to see a fairly normal-looking young man. Blue, unlined eyes, normal Levi jeans, and a normal Mumford and Sons v-neck t-shirt under a somewhat-normal unzipped black hoodie. He smiled, and I froze. He still hadn't let go of my waist. He said something, but it was so loud I couldn't hear. I gestured at my ear and he gently pulled on my waist, drawing me against him. His mouth was right next to my ear, but this time he didn't yell. "I said you don't look like you want to be here either." I just shook my head. He had no idea. But then he stopped me. I watched his eyes travel from my eyes to my cheek, which still stung like a million needles had pricked the skin. And I watched his eyes changed from relief at finding another normal human being, to confusion as to why I had a red handprint painted on my face, to horror at the realization that something had happened. He didn't say anything, just took my hand and led me toward the door. I think he was planning to go outside, but I remember how decent the other guy looked and was still suspicious. I pulled away as we reached the atrium, far enough away from the noise that I could hear him, but still not quite outside.
"What happened? Are you okay?" He was still almost yelling, this time out of rage rather than background noise. I bit my lip, willing the tears to stop. I almost succeeded, but one tell-tale drop traced down my bruised cheek. I looked at the ground, but he had already seen. I felt his muscular arms around me again, and I leaned into his shoulder and wept. My face hurt; I didn't want to be there; I didn't like the music; the smoke and alcohol was giving me a headache; this whole crowd was so rude and cruel. I could be home, reading a novel and drinking hot tea. Listening to real music. Wearing comfortable clothes. After a couple of minutes I calmed myself down and looked up, wiping the mascara from under my eyes. I could be home, not wearing pounds of makeup.
"Now can you tell me what happened?" I could tell he was genuinely concerned; he really didn't want to be there, either. Everything tumbled out at once.
"I'm Ashley, I'm seventeen, my friend Diana--not friend, aquaintence--begged me to come, only she drove me here so I can't leave, and she's drunk in the bathroom," I looked toward the restroom, only to find Diana in a corner about three feet from the door, making out with a guy I'd never seen. "Lie, she's the girl right there in the black dress. Barefoot. These are her shoes, she asked me to go find them by the stage, and I asked a guy if he'd seen them, and his girlfriend slapped me because she thought I was hitting on him, and then I found them, and these people started jumping, and someone hit me..." I trailed off, and the blue-eyed stranger put his arm around me.
"She slapped you?!" He exclaimed. "So not cool, you know she can get arrested for that!"
"I know, I know. I just wanted to get out of there. Getting one person arrested isn't worth getting slapped three more times. But hey, I still don't know your name."
"Caleb," he answered absently. He placed his hand on my other cheek and pulled my face toward him. For half a second I was afraid he wa trying to kiss me, but he didn't seem like that kind of guy. And he wasn't; he wanted a closer look at the bruise. "I'm Caleb, eighteen, and I prefer alternative rock to this stuff. You need to ice that; it looks nasty. I'm going to get some from the bar, do you want to wait here?"
I shook my head again, I didn't want to be alone more than I didn't want to go near that bar. I took the hand he offered me and followed him.
"Heyy, Caleb's got a girl!" A rowdy teenage boy yelled as we walked up. Three or four more raised their beer bottles and let out booty calls. I let go of Caleb's hand, but he grabbed it again and hissed in my ear. "Don't say anything!" He ignored the boys and asked the bartender for two water bottles and a cup of ice.
"Water?" The first boy slurred. "Ha! He means a Bud! Tryin' to impress your lady friend?" He smiled creepily at me, and I stared at the floor. Another boy took a drag of a handmade roll and blew it in Caleb's face. The third one just stared at me. Diana had said I looked good, but I didn't want to look good to the likes of him!
"Guys, lay off. Please," Caleb looked at all of them in turn. The first boy, who had normal clothes but wore guyliner and a jet-black mullet, put on his poker face--for about two seconds. Then he slapped the bar, laughing as hard as he could. "Aww, Caleb's all grown up, y'all. C'mon, man, we know your act! I can tell you've already shoved your tongue down her throat. And by the looks of her, you got her roped in for a nice party back at your place tonight, huh?"
Party? Shoved his tongue down my throat? Was there another girl here, somewhere, that Caleb had ben with earlier? But I took one glance at Caleb and knew he was who I thought he was. Caleb's jaw tightened, and I felt his hand clench in mine. I knew if I let go, he'd probably punch the guy. Not that I would have minded that, but if the other boys fought, too, I'd have to deal with blood. And I definitely couldn't handle that tonight. Taking a deep breath and a huge step out of my comfort zone, I stood up straighter and did my best Diana impression. "Hm? That sounds nice..." I winked and turned toward him, snaking my hand up his chest to the back of his neck. "Want to go now?" I saw Caleb's eyes darken, and I looked back over my shoulder at his buddies. The eyes of the one who had done the most harrassing were quite literally popping out of his head. Two of the others were spilling beer down the front of their shirts, not noticing that the bottle had never made it to their lips. And one was staring at my butt, but that doesn't really count. I knew the sexy dress was paying off, as much as I hated it. But I knew I'd never be able to wear it again without thinking of these creeps. Finally, one of them just said "Dude." I cocked my eyebrows and took Caleb's hand. I snatched the cup of ice from the bar and he grabbed the two water bottles, and we left as fast as we could.
"Um, I wasn't, I mean--" Caleb was stammering as soon as we got back to the atrium. I dropped his hand and took a water bottle, holding the ice cup to my now-swelling face.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean a word of that. I hope I didn't lead you on, but I knew you were going to fight and I really don't want to deal with blood tonight..."
Caleb looked more relieved than I felt when he caught me half an hour earlier. "No, no, it just caught me off-guard. And like I said, that wasn't what I was going for at all..."
"What did they mean by that party that we're supposedly going to?" I asked quietly.
Caleb let out a deep breath. "I didn't plan on running into those guys; I thought they were all out in the mosh pit." He stopped suddenly. "Let's go outside, it's really smokey in here." I couldn't argue, so I followed him out to the steps.
"So where do you go to school?" He seemed desperate to change the subject.
"Oh, Northview, I'll be a senior."
"Cool, I just graduated from Chattahoochee. I'm going to Georgia in the fall."
Great, I know absolutely nothing about college! How am I supposed to carry on the conversation? "Um, have you had orientation yet?"
"Nope, it's next week. I'm excited; I'm hoping to make some...friends." I wondered what the hesitation was for, but I wasn't going to press him.
"Oh, don't worry, you seem like a nice guy! You'll make tons of friends!"
He had been pacing back and forth in front of me as I sat on a handrail, but now he stopped and faced me. His eyes looked even more pained than when he'd noticed my cheek earlier. "That's not the issue. I have trouble making the friends I want."
"I don't understand..."
He looked at the sky, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world and I just wasn't getting it. "That's me back there, okay! Those are my friends. Those are the guys I've hung out with since middle school. Jake, Carl, Sammy, and Lukas. They know I've gone through the whole drugs and alcohol thing. They know they can hold that over my head and keep me from telling their secrets. I've been through hazing like you wouldn't believe to be a part of their gang, and once you're in they don't let you out easily. I was their leader for years. The guy that did all the harrassing, I hazed most of them, I was stupid. But about six months ago ...something. Something happened. I don't want to talk about it... but I've been trying to get out of that group. I lost my status as a leader, but they keep my past hanging over my head. And I can't let it get out. But no one else wants anything to do with me." He stopped as suddenly as he had started, and a tear rolled down his face. He swiped at it and looked up. His eyes were so dark they didn't even look like his. I slid off the handrail and sat on the steps, patting the spot next to me. He smiled faintly and sat down. I guessed the hesitation meant "real" friends.
I gently brushed his shaggy hair away from his eyes. "You know I don't see you like that."
"They called me Cutter... still do, when they want to get to me." He rolled up his left sleeve to reveal a single scar on his forearm. "I only cut once. And it hurt; I realized how stupid it was and swore I'd never do it again. And they said I was a pussy for not being able to handle a little blood." He glared at the scar, as if it was the source of every one of his problems. "I don't expect you to have a shred of respect for me, after knowing all this..."
"No, don't say that! You don't even act like those guys. To me you're just Caleb who loves Mumford and Sons and acts like a gentleman around ladies and is smart enough to get into UGA. Those guys are selfish pricks who can't find anything better to do than bully other people."
"But I told you, that was my life for years!"
"Shh, I know," I hugged his arm and he leaned his head on my shoulder. "I knew when I saw you--eyes betray more than you think. But I'm still talking to you."
He took a deep breath. "Then do you know what happened six months ago?"
Then I couldn't look at him. Not because I hated him, but I knew, and I knew he was ashamed of it. But I couldn't lie and pretend I didn't, either. "You... the 'party' we're supposed to be at has happened before. Am I right?"
He stared at the ground, and I thought he was going to start crying again. "Was it what the guys said to me? I didn't know they knew."
"Not exactly. I don't think they knew anything. They were trying to annoy you by annoying me, and one of them just happened to hit the nail on the head. I knew when you caught me after someone in the mosh pit knocked me down, and I first saw your face. But by the time you were looking at where the girl slapped me, I knew you didn't want to be like that, you really wanted to be someone girls respected. And at the bar, you told me I was right about your past, and you wanted to earn a girl's respect; you don't want easy girls. And the girl six months ago wasn't easy, and when you finally got her you thought you had it all. And you... made a mistake, but then swore you'd never treat a girl like that again. Am I right?" I didn't tell him exactly what I'd noticed--the lust in his eyes when he first caught me, but only for half a second, and the way his hands on my waist traveled half an inch toward my butt before quickly returning to a most appropriate place. Enough to make me cautious but not enough to make me run. The way he hesitantly ran his thumb over my cheek to see how bruised it was, and watched my shoulder for the slightest jump that would betray that he was hurting me. And the way he didn't try to look down my dress. The anger and pain darkening his eyes at the bar as he remembered the last time a girl ran her hand up his chest--something I hadn't meant to make him remember.
He sat back up and stared at me. "Are you related to the psychic on the corner or something...?"
I laughed and shook my head. "No, I told you, eyes betray more than you think. But I'll tell you, what I've seen from you in one night shows so much more character than a lot of guys I've known for years."
He smiled faintly and stood up, offering me his hand again. I checked my phone. "Gosh, it's almost 11:30! I have to be off the road at midnight, curfew laws..."
"Oh! Can I drive you home, then?" He asked, pulling me up.
"Well, Diana's my ride... or rather, I'm her ride now, but it's her car." We went back in the atrium to find her still wrapped around a figure that looked more ghost than human. I didn't really have a problem interrupting her makeout sessions anymore. "Hey, Diana!" I tapped her on the shoulder and she looked up, trailing spit into the guy's mouth. Gross. "We need to go, are you coming?" She looked anxiously at her temporary boyfriend, who turned to see who was butting in on his weird fantasy.
"Oh, hey Brian!" Caleb gave an awkward half-wave. Then he leaned over and whispered to me, "Brian's my awkward older brother."
Brian glared at us, then looked at Diana. "I can take you home after," he slurred.
She glanced at me, and I shrugged. "Whatever, but I'm waiting right here while you call your parents and ask if it's okay. And I'll still need your keys." She quickly called her parents, who, naturally, were fine with it. She tucked her phone back in her pocket, tossed me her keys, and lodged her tongue back in Brian's mouth in one smooth motion.
I asked Caleb to walk me to Diana's car; I didn't want to know who was out drunk in a parking lot at 11:30 in Atlanta. We happily chatted about real music until we found the car. Finally, I leaned against the car, needing to say goodbye and half-hoping for a goodnight kiss. I could tell Caleb was thinking about it, too--I could see it in his eyes.
"Well, you've got to go if you're going to get home before curfew. Text me next time you go to a Mumford and Sons concert; I'll come find you!"
"You need my number for that, silly." Tone it down, Ashley. He doesn't want an easy girl, remember?
He took my phone and put his number in, and made me promise to text him in the morning so he would have mine. His phone had died earlier that night. He put his hands on my waist, and I started to lean in. "Wait," he whispered. Suddenly feeling awkward, I stood back up. "I'm sorry... As much as I want to kiss you right now, is it okay if I don't? Just to prove to myself that I don't have to kiss every girl I meet?"
As much as I wanted to kiss him back, that was probably the most admirable thing I'd ever heard, especially coming from a guy with his background. I nodded. "But can I at least give you a hug, to thank you for everything tonight?" He nodded back, and it was the warmest hug I'd felt in a long time.