It was like a fist, cold and strong as steel, took hold of my guts and squeezed them so hard it hurt. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think. I wanted to be absorbed into the very walls and never return.
“I’m so sorry, Rose!” Piper was saying in my ear. “I reported it, and it’s off now. But people are talking about it…I’m sorry.”
I swallowed. “Thank you.”
“I’m here for you,” she continued earnestly. “I’m so sorry for the way I handled the Kaius situation! I was stupid. Do you want me to come o—”
I hung up my phone and looked over to where Kaius lounged on the basement couch. He seemed relaxed, but I saw his eyes narrow into crevices at me.
“What happened?” he asked.
I swallowed again. “Nothing. You were right. It’s not worth it.”
Kyle Knudson was forthwith expelled from school, or so Principal Donaldson assured Paula on the phone first thing in the morning. Paula’s face went whiter and whiter as the conversation progressed, and after a few moments she hung up without a word.
I quickly averted my gaze from her. I know her eyes would undoubtedly be filled with tears, her lip would tremble, maybe her whole body would, too. Just like all those years ago, when she had first seen me in that hospital bed.
I couldn’t bear it then, and I really couldn’t bear it now. Once again, I envied the deadness of my surroundings. The wooden table I sat at, so useful and unfeeling. Everyone valued its purpose, but no one thought much of it.
Table, you are a lucky turd, I thought.
“Would one of you tell me what’s going on?” Kaius broke the silence from where he sat beside me. “Paula? Rose?”
“It’s better that we tell him Rose,” Paula murmured. “Or else he might hear another version from others.”
“Fine!” I burst out, flinging my arms int the air. “Kaius, three years ago, I had a crush on a man named Michael Wilson! Long-story short, he offered me a ride home and-and it wasn’t good! I was found a few hours later, and I barely made it out alive!”
“Where is he now?” Kaius asked, and though his voice was calm his face had paled.
“He’s serving a life-sentence without parole,” Paula answered for me.
Kaius considered that. Then, he parted his lips, his eyes gleaming oddly as if a very appealing idea had struck him.
“Do you want me to—”
I intended my command to be bold and loud, a sound that would command his attention. But the words came out of my mouth in a hysterical shriek, resounding off the very walls of the dining room. I stood from my chair so quickly it clattered to the floor.
“THAT GUY TOOK EVERYTHING FROM ME!” I roared, pounding the table with my fist. “I’VE ALREADY KILLED HIM IN MY HEAD SO MANY TIMES! BUT WHAT WOULD CHANGE IF I ACTUALLY DID IT? I WAS AN IDIOT, THAT’S ALL! AND THE ONLY THING I’VE EVER WANTED FROM THIS IS TO FORGET IT. SO, IF YOU WOULDN’T MIND, LEAVE IT THE HELL ALONE, KAIUS!”
Paula bowed her head, and I saw a couple tears fall. Kaius, however, didn’t seem remotely abashed. Without another word, he stood from his own chair and reached for me.
I recoiled. What the hell was he doing? I thought desperately.
“You weren’t an idiot, Rose,” Kaius murmured, taking another step towards me with his arms outstretched. “You were ignorant, maybe. Raw, inexperienced, and a victim he chose to harm.”
“Shut up!” I shouted, my voice constricting. “You don’t get it!”
“I do,” he said softly, and for the first time, I saw pain in his eyes. “From one victim to another, believe me, I know.”
Stunned, incredulous, why couldn’t I move? Why did he insist on walking towards me? Closer, too close! I could feel his breath on my face, see the grain of fabric on his shirt.
His arms, gentle, strong, wrapped around me, collecting me to him. Safe. So safe. Like I was a precious treasure locked in a vault. Treasure! Was that me? No, it was someone else. I wasn’t valuable. I was stupid, and not worth hugging. It was—
A wail of anguish bellowed from my mouth to the very rooftops of Paula’s house. Every wall I had built, every defense in my head that kept me safe, kept me from crying, kept me from thinking, now burst forth from my core in an explosion of misery that had been threatening my sanity for so long.
I clung to Kaius as I swayed under the break. I was sure I would fall over, face plant the floor. But Kaius proved to be a solid prop as I soaked his shirt with my tears.
This was insane! I thought. When did I ever lose it? And more importantly, when did people start caring about me?
Kaius held me gently, and the beat of his heart was soothing against my cheek. I heard his lungs fill and exhale deep, even breaths. He was so calm as he stroked my hair, so sure I wasn’t to blame. Did that mean I wasn’t? He was blunt, he’d tell me if I was.
Well, then. Maybe I wasn’t after all.