Laughter sounded from the back door of the house and I nodded. Framed exactly within the center window, Kennedy danced with his arms around a girl dressed in a gauzy, low-cut white outfit, wings, and a halo. Perfect. Just perfect.
At some point during my battle with Buck, I’d lost the devil-horned headband Erin had stuffed onto my head while I sat on the bed whining that I didn’t want to go to a stupid costume party. Without the accessory, I was just a girl in a skimpy red-sequined dress that I’d refuse to be caught dead wearing otherwise.
The headlights illuminated Buck as we backed out of the parking spot. Throwing a hand in front of his eyes, he attempted to roll to a sitting position. I could see his split lip, misshapen nose and swollen eye, even from that distance.
It was just as well I wasn’t the one behind the wheel. I probably would have run him over.
I gave the name of my dorm when asked, and stared out the passenger window, unable to speak another word as we meandered across campus. With a straightjacket hug, I gripped myself, trying to conceal the shudders wracking through me every five seconds. I didn’t want him to see, but I couldn’t make them stop.
The dorm lot was nearly full; spots near the door were all taken. He angled the truck into a back space and hopped out, coming around to meet me as I slid from the passenger side of my own truck. Teetering on the edge of breaking down and losing it, I took the keys after he activated the door locks, and followed him to the building.
“Your ID?” he asked when we reached the door.
My hands shook as I unsnapped the front flap on my bag and withdrew the card. When he took it from my fingers, I noted the blood on his knuckles and gasped. “Oh, my God. You’re bleeding.”
He glanced at his hand and shook his head, once. “Nah. Mostly his blood.” His lips pressed flat and he turned away to swipe the card through the door access, and I wondered if he meant to follow me inside. I didn’t think I could hold myself together for much longer.
After opening the door, he handed me my ID card. In the light from the entry vestibule, I could see his eyes more clearly—they were a clear gray-blue under his lowered brows. “You sure you’re okay?” he asked for the second time, and I felt my face crumple.
Chin down, I shoved the card into my bag and nodded uselessly. “Yes. Fine,” I lied.
He huffed a disbelieving sigh, running a hand through his hair. “Can I call someone for you?”
I shook my head. I had to get to my room so I could fall apart. “Thank you, but no.” I slipped past him, careful not to brush against any part of him, and headed for the stairs.
“Jackie?” he called softly, unmoving from the doorway. I looked back, gripping the handrail, and our eyes met. “It wasn’t your fault.”
I bit my lip, hard, nodding once before I turned and ran up the stairs, my shoes rapping against the concrete steps. At the second floor landing, I stopped abruptly and turned to look back at the door. He was gone.
I didn’t know his name, and couldn’t remember ever seeing him before, let alone meeting him. I’d have remembered those unusually clear eyes. I had no idea who he was… and he’d just called me by name. Not the name on my ID—Jacqueline—but Jackie, the nickname I’d gone by ever since Kennedy renamed me, our junior year of high school.
Two weeks ago:
“Wanna come up? Or stay over? Erin is staying at Chaz’s this weekend…” My voice was playful, sing-songy. “His roommate’s out of town. Which means I’ll be all alone…”
Kennedy and I were a month from our three-year anniversary. There was no need to be coy. Erin had taken to calling us an old married couple lately. To which I’d reply, “Jealous.” And then she’d flip me off.
“Um, yeah. I’ll come up for a little while.” He kneaded the back of his neck as he pulled into the dorm parking lot and searched for a parking space, his expression inscrutable.
Prickles of apprehension arose in my chest, and I swallowed uneasily. “Are you all right?” The neck-rubbing was a known stress signal.
He flicked a glance in my direction. “Yeah. Sure.” He pulled into the first open spot, wedging his BMW between two pickups. He never, ever wedged his prized import into constricted spots. Door dings drove him insane. Something was up. I knew he was worried over upcoming midterms, especially pre-cal. His fraternity was hosting a mixer the next night, too, which was plain stupid the weekend before midterms.
I swiped us into the building and we entered the back stairwell that always creeped me out when I was alone. With Kennedy behind me, all I noticed was dingy, gum-adorned walls and the stale, almost sour smell. I jogged up the last flight and we emerged into the hallway.
Glancing back at him while unlocking my door, I shook my head over the charming portrayal of a penis someone had doodled onto the whiteboard Erin and I used for notes to each other and from our suitemates. Coed dorms were less mature than depicted on college websites. Sometimes it was like living with a bunch of twelve year olds.
“You could call in sick tomorrow night, you know.” I laid a palm on his arm. “Stay here with me—we’ll hide out and spend the weekend studying and ordering take-out… and other stress-reducing activities…” I grinned naughtily. He stared at his shoes.
My heart sped up and I suddenly felt warm all over. Something was definitely wrong. I wanted him to spit it out, whatever it was, because my mind was conjuring nothing but alarming possibilities. It had been so long since we’d had a problem or a real conflict that I felt blindsided.