Finch shook his head. “Okay, so you’re with Parker, or with Travis? I’m confused.”
“Parker’s not talking to me, so that’s sort of up in the air right now,” I said, bouncing to readjust my backpack.
He blew out a puff of smoke, and then picked a piece of tobacco from his tongue. “So are you with Travis?”
“We’re friends, Finch.”
“You realize everyone thinks you two are having some sort of freaky friends-with-benefits thing going on that you’re not admitting to, right?”
“I don’t care. They can think what they want.”
“Since when? What happened to the nervous, mysterious, guarded Abby I know and love?”
“She died from the stress of all the rumors and assumptions.”
“That’s too bad. I’m going to miss pointing and laughing at her.”
I smacked Finch’s arm, and he laughed. “Good. It’s about time you quit pretending,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Honey, you’re talking to someone’s who’s lived most of his life pretending. I spotted you a mile away.”
“What are you trying to say, Finch? That I’m closet lesbian?”
“No, that you’re hiding something. The cardigans, the demure sophisticate that goes to fancy restaurants with Parker Hayes…that’s not you. Either you were a small town stripper or you’ve been to rehab. The latter’s my guess.”
I laughed out loud. “You are a terrible guesser!”
“So what’s your secret?”
“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret, now would it?”
His features sharpened with an impish grin. “I’ve shown you mine, now show me yours.”
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your sexual orientation isn’t exactly a secret, Finch.”
“Fuck! And I thought I had the mysterious sex kitten thing going for me,” he said, taking another drag.
I cringed before I spoke. “Did you have a good home life, Finch?”
“My mom’s great…my dad and I had a lot of issues to work out, but we’re good, now.”
“I had Mick Abernathy for a father.”
I giggled. “See? It’s not a big deal if you don’t know who he is.”
“Who is he?”
“A mess. The gambling, the drinking, the bad temper…it’s hereditary in my family. America and I came here so I could start fresh, without the stigma of being the daughter of a drunken has-been.”
“A gambling has-been from Wichita?”
“I was born in Nevada. Everything Mick touched turned to gold back then. When I turned thirteen, his luck changed.”
“And he blamed you.”
“America gave up a lot to come here with me so I could get away, but I get here and walk face-first into Travis.”
“And when you look at Travis…,”
“It’s all too familiar.”
Finch nodded, flicking his cigarette to the ground. “Shit, Abby. That sucks.”
I narrowed my eyes. “If you tell anyone what I just told you, I’ll call The Mob. I know some of them, you know.”
I shrugged. “Believe what you want.”
Finch eyed me suspiciously, and then smiled. “You are officially the coolest person I know.”
“That’s sad, Finch. You should get out more,” I said, stopping at the cafeteria entrance.
He pulled my chin up. “It’ll all work out. I’m a firm believer in the whole things-happening-for-a-reason adage. You came here, America met Shep, you found your way to The Circle, something about you turned Travis Maddox’s world upside down. Think about it,” he said, planting a quick kiss on my lips.
“Hey now!” Travis said. He grabbed me by the waist, lifted me off my feet, returning me to the ground behind him. “You’re the last person I’d have to worry about that shit from, Finch! Throw me a bone, here!” he teased.
Finch leaned to the side of Travis and winked. “Later, Cookie.”
When Travis turned to face me, his smile faded. “What’s the frown for?”
I shook my head, trying to let the adrenaline run its course. “I just don’t like that nickname. It has some bad memories attached to it.”
“Term of endearment from the youth minister?”
“No,” I grumbled.
Travis punched his palm. “Do you want me to go beat the piss out of Finch? Teach him a lesson? I’ll take him out.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “If I wanted to take Finch out, I’d just tell him Prada went out of business, and he’d finish the job for me.”
Travis laughed, nudging toward the door. “Let’s go! I’m wasting away, here!”
We sat at the lunch table together picking on each other with pinches and elbows to the ribs. Travis’ mood was as optimistic as the night I lost the bet. Everyone at the table noticed, and when he instigated a mini-food fight with me, it garnered the attention of those sitting at the tables around us.
I rolled my eyes. “I feel like a zoo animal.”
Travis watched me for a moment, noted those staring, and then stood up. “I CAN’T!” he yelled. I stared in awe as the entire room jerked their heads in his direction. Travis bobbed his head a couple of times to a beat in his head.
Shepley closed his eyes. “Oh, no.”
Travis smiled. “get no….sa…tis…faction,” he sang, “I can’t get no….sat-is-fac-tion. ‘Cuz I’ve tried…and I’ve tried…and I’ve tried…and I’ve tried…,” he climbed onto the table as everyone stared, “I CAN’T GET NO!”
He pointed to the football players at the end of the table and they smiled, “I CAN’T GET NO!” they yelled in unison. The whole room clapped to the beat, then.
Travis’ sang into his fist, “When I’m drivin’ in my car, and a man comes on the…ra-di-o…he’s tellin’ me more and more…about some useless in-for-ma-tion! Supposed to fire my im-agin-a-tion! I CAN’T GET NO!
Uh no, no, no!” He danced past me, singing into his imaginary microphone.
The whole room chanted in harmony, “HEY, HEY, HEY!”
“That’s what I’ll say!” Travis sang.
Travis jerked his hips, and a few whistles and squeals from the girls in the room fired off. He walked by me again, singing the chorus to the other side of the room, the football players his backup singers.
“I’ll help you out!” A girl yelled from the back.
“…cuz I tried, and I tried, and I tried…,” he sang.
“I CAN’T GET NO! I CAN’T GET NO!” his backups chanted.
Travis stopped in front of me and bent down. “When I’m watchin’ my tv…and a…man comes on and tells me….how white my shirts can be! Well he can’t be a man, ‘cause he doesn’t smoke….the same cigarettes as me! I can’t…get no! Uh no, no, no!”
Everyone clapped to the beat and the football players sang, “HEY, HEY, HEY!”
“That’s what I say!” Travis sang, pointing to his clapping audience. Some people stood and danced with him, but most just watched with amused amazement.
He jumped to the adjacent table and America squealed and clapped, elbowing me. I shook my head; I had died and woken up in High School Musical.
The football players were humming the base line, “Na, na, nanana! Na, na, na! Na na, nanana!”
Travis held his fist-microphone high, “When I’m…ridin’ ‘round the world…and I’m doin’ this…and I’m signin’ that!!”
He jumped down, and then leaned across the table into my face, “And I’m tryin’ to make some girl….tell me, uh baby better come back, maybe next week, ‘cuz you see I’m. On. A losin’ streak! I CAN’T GET NO! Uh no, no, no!”
The room clapped to the beat, the football team yelled their part, “HEY, HEY, HEY!”
“I can’t get no! I can’t get no! Satis-faction!” he crooned to me, smiling and breathless.
The entire room exploded into applause, even a few whistles. I shook my after he kissed my forehead, and then stood up to take a bow. When he returned to his seat in front of me, he chuckled.
“They’re not looking at you, now, are they?” he panted.
“Thanks. You really shouldn’t have,” I smiled.
I looked up to see Parker standing at the end of the table. All eyes were on me once again.
“We need to talk,” Parker said, seeming nervous. I looked at America, Travis, and then to Parker. “Please?” he asked, shoving his hands in his pockets.
I nodded, following him outside. He walked past the windows to the privacy of the side of the building. “I didn’t mean to draw attention to you again. I know how you hate that.”
“Then you might have just called if you wanted to talk,” I said.
He nodded, looking to the ground. “It wasn’t my intention to find you in the cafeteria. I saw the commotion, and then you, and I just went in. I’m sorry.”
I waited, and he spoke again, “I don’t know what happened with you and Travis. It’s none of my business…you and I have only been on a handful of dates. I was upset at first, but then I realized that it wouldn’t have bothered me if I didn’t have feelings for you.”
“I didn’t sleep with him, Parker. He held my hair while I hurled a pint of Petron in his toilet. That’s as romantic as it got.”
He laughed once. “I don’t think we’ve really gotten a fair shot…not with you living with Travis. The truth is, Abby, I like you. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t seem to stop thinking about you.” I smiled and he took my hand, running his finger over my bracelet. “I probably scared you off with this ridiculous present, but I’ve never been in this situation before. I feel like I’m constantly competing with Travis for your attention.”
“You didn’t scare me off with the bracelet.”
He pressed his lips together. “I’d like to take you out again in a couple of weeks, after your month is up with Travis. Then we can concentrate on getting to know each other without the distraction.”
He leaned down and closed his eyes, pressing his lips against mine. “I’ll call you soon.”
I waved goodbye, and then returned to the cafeteria, passing Travis.
He grabbed me, pulling me onto his lap. “Breakin’ up is hard to do?”
“He wants to try again when I’m back at Morgan.”
“Shit, I’m going to have to think of another bet,” he said, pulling my plate in front of me.
The next two weeks flew by. Other than class, I spent every waking moment with Travis, and most of that time we spent alone. He took me to dinner, for drinks and dancing at the Red, bowling, and he was called out to two fights. When we weren’t laughing ourselves silly, we were play-wrestling, or snuggling on the couch with Toto, watching a movie. He made a point to ignore every girl that batted an eyelash at him, and everyone talked about the new Travis.
My last night in the apartment, America and Shepley were inexplicably absent, and Travis labored over a special Last Night dinner. He bought wine, set out napkins, and even brought home new silverware for the occasion. He sat our plates on the breakfast bar and pulled his stool to the other side to sit across from me. For the first time, I got the distinct feeling we were on a date.
“This is really good, Trav. You’ve been holding out on me,” I said as I chewed the Cajun Chicken Pasta he had prepared.
He forced a smile, and I could see he was working hard to keep the conversation light. “If I told you before, you would have expected it every night.” His smile faded, and his eyes fell to the table.
I rolled my food around on my plate. “I’m going to miss you, too, Trav.”
“You’re still gonna come over, right?”
“You know I will. And you’ll be at Morgan’s, helping me study just like you did before.”
“But it won’t be the same,” he sighed. “You’ll be dating Parker, we’re going to get busy…go in different directions.”
“It’s not going to change that much.”
He managed a single laugh. “Who would have thought from the first time we met that we’d be sitting here? You couldn’t have told me three months ago that I’d be this miserable over saying goodbye to a girl.”
My stomach sank. “I don’t want you to be miserable.”
“Then don’t go,” he said. His expression was so desperate that the guilt formed a lump in my throat.
“I can’t move in here, Travis. That’s crazy.”
“Says who? I just had the best two weeks of my life.”
“Then why do I feel like I’m never gonna see you again?”
I didn’t have a reply. His jaws tensed, but he wasn’t angry. The urge to go to him grew insistent, so I stood up and walked around the bar, sitting on his lap. He didn’t look at me, so I hugged his neck, pressing my cheek against his.
“You’re going to realize what a pain in the ass I was, and then you’ll forget all about missing me,” I said into his ear.
He puffed a breath of air as he rubbed my back. “Promise?”
I leaned back and looked into his eyes, touching each side of his face with my hands. I caressed his jaw with my thumb; his expression was heartbreaking. I closed my eyes and leaned down to kiss the corner of his mouth, but he turned so that I caught more of his lips than I’d intended.
Even though the kiss surprised me, I didn’t pull back right away.
Travis kept his lips on mine, but he didn’t take it any further.
I finally pulled away, playing it off with a smile. “I have a big day tomorrow. I’m going to clean up the kitchen, and then I’m going to head to bed.”
“I’ll help you,” he said.
We did the dishes together in silence, with Toto asleep at our feet. He dried the last dish and set it in the rack, and then led me down the hall, holding my hand a bit too tight. The distance from the mouth of the hallway to his bedroom door seemed to take twice as long. We both knew that goodbye was just a few hours away.
He didn’t even try to pretend not to watch this time as I changed into one of his t-shirts for bed. He stripped down to his boxers, and climbed under the blanket, waiting for me to join him.
One I did, Travis flipped off the lamp, and then pulled me against him without permission or apology. He tensed his arms and sighed, and I nestled my face into his neck. I shut my eyes tight, trying to savor the moment. I knew I would wish for that moment back every day of my life, so I lived it with everything I had.
He looked out the window. The trees cast a shadow across his face. Travis clenched his eyes shut, and a sinking feeling settled over me. It was agonizing seeing him suffer, knowing that not only was I the cause of it…I was the only one that could take it away.
“Trav? Are you okay?” I asked.
There was a long pause before he finally spoke. “I’ve never been less okay in my life.”
I pressed my forehead against his neck, and he squeezed me tighter. “This is silly,” I said. “We’re going to see each other every day.”
“You know that’s not true.”
The weight of the grief we both felt was crushing, and an irrepressible need came over me to save us both. I lifted my chin, but hesitated; what I was about to do would change everything. I reasoned that Travis didn’t see intimacy as anything but a way to pass the time, and I shut my eyes again and swallowed back my fears. I had to do something, knowing we would both lay awake, dreading every passing minute until morning.
My heart pounded as I touched his neck with my lips, and then tasted his flesh in a slow, tender kiss. He looked down with surprise, and then his eyes softened with the realization of what I wanted.
He leaned down, pressing his lips against mine with a delicate sweetness. The warmth from his lips traveled all the way to my toes, and I pulled him closer to me. Now that we had taken the first step, I had no intention of stopping there.
I parted my lips, letting Travis’ tongue find its way to mine. “I want you,” I said.
Suddenly, the kiss slowed, and he tried to pull away. Determined to finish what I had started, my mouth worked against his more anxiously. In reaction, Travis backed away until he was on his knees. I rose with him, keeping our mouths melded together.
He gripped each of my shoulders to hold me at bay. “Wait a sec,” he whispered with an amused smile, breathing hard. “You don’t have to do this, Pidge. This isn’t what tonight is about.”
He was holding back, but I could see it in his eyes that his self-control wouldn’t last long.
I leaned in again, and this time his arms gave way just enough for me to brush my lips against his. “Don’t make me beg,” I whispered against his mouth.
With those four words, his reservations vanished. He kissed me, hard and eager. My fingers ran down the length of his back and settled on the elastic of his boxers, nervously running along the gather of the fabric. His lips grew impatient, then, and I fell against the mattress when he crashed into me. His tongue found its way to mine once again, and when I gained the courage to slide my hand between his skin and the boxers, he groaned.
Travis yanked the t-shirt over my head, and then his hand impatiently traveled down my side, gripping my panties and slipping them down my legs with one hand. His mouth returned to mine once more as his hand slid up the inside of my thigh, and I let out a long, faltering breath when his fingers wandered where no man had touched me before. My knees arched and twitched with each movement of his hand, and when I dug my fingers into his flesh, he positioned himself above me.
“Pigeon,” he said, panting, “it doesn’t have to be tonight. I’ll wait until you’re ready.”
I looked above my head and reached for the top drawer of his night stand, pulling it open. Feeling the plastic between my fingers, I touched the corner to my mouth, tearing the package open with my teeth. His free hand left my back, and then pulled his boxers down, kicking them off as if he couldn’t stand them between us.
The package crackled in his fingertips, and after a few moments, I felt him between my thighs. I closed my eyes.
“Look at me, Pigeon.”
I peered up at him, and his eyes were intent and soft at the same time. He tilted his head, leaning down to kiss me tenderly, and then his body tensed, pushing himself inside of me in a small, slow movement. When he pulled back, I bit my lip with the discomfort; when he rocked into me again, I clenched my eyes shut with the pain. My thighs tightened around his hips, and he kissed me again.
“Look at me,” he whispered.
When I opened my eyes, he pressed inside me again, and I cried out with the wonderful burning it caused. Once I relaxed, the motion of his body against mine was more rhythmic. The nervousness I had felt in the beginning had disappeared, and Travis grabbed at my flesh as if he couldn’t get enough. I pulled him into me, and he moaned when the way it felt became too much.
“I’ve wanted you for so long, Abby. You’re all I want,” he breathed against my mouth.
He grabbed my thigh with one hand and propped himself up with his elbow, just inches above me. A thin sheet of sweat began to bead on our skin, and I arched my back as his lips traced my jaw and then followed a single line down my neck.
“Travis,” I sighed.
When I said his name, he pressed his cheek against mine, and his movements became more rigid. The noises from his throat grew louder, and he finally pressed inside me one last time, groaning and quivering above me.
After a few moments, he relaxed, and let his breathing slow.
“That was some first kiss,” I said with a tired, content expression.
He scanned my face and smiled. “Your last first kiss.”
I was too shocked to reply.
He collapsed beside me on his stomach, stretching one arm across my middle, and resting his forehead against my cheek. I ran my fingers along the bare skin of his back until I heard his breathing even out.
I lay awake for hours, listening to Travis’ deep breaths and the wind weave through the trees outside. America and Shepley came in the front door quietly, and I heard them tip toe down the hall, murmuring to each other.
We had packed my things earlier in the day, and I flinched at how uncomfortable the morning would be. I had thought once Travis slept with me his curiosity would be satiated, but instead he was talking about forever. My eyes snapped shut with the thought of his expression when he learned that what had happened between us wasn’t a beginning, it was closure. I couldn’t go down that road, and he would hate me when I told him.
I maneuvered out from under his arm and got dressed, carrying my shoes with me down the hall to Shepley’s room. America sat on the bed, and Shepley was pulling off his shirt in front of the closet.
“Everything okay, Abby?” Shepley asked.
“Mare?” I said, signaling for her to join me in the hall.
She nodded, watching me with cautious eyes. “What’s going on?”
“I need you to take me to Morgan now. I can’t wait ‘til tomorrow.”
One side of her mouth turned up with a knowing smile. “You never could handle goodbyes.”
Shepley and America helped me with my bags, and I stared out the window of America’s car on my journey back to Morgan Hall. When we set down the last of the bags in my room, America grabbed me.
“It’s going to be so different in the apartment, now.”
“Thanks for bringing me home. The sun will be up in a few hours. You better go,” I said, squeezing once before letting go.
America didn’t look back when she left my room, and I chewed my lip nervously, knowing how angry she would be when she realized what I’d done.
My shirt crackled as I pulled it over my head, the static in the air had intensified with the coming winter. Feeling a bit lost, I curled into a ball underneath my thick comforter, and inhaled through my nose; Travis’ scent still lingered on my skin.
The bed felt cold and foreign, a sharp contrast to the warmth of Travis’ mattress. I had spent thirty days in a cramped apartment with Eastern’s most infamous tramp, and after all the bickering and late-night houseguests, it was the only place I wanted to be.
The phone calls began at eight in the morning, and then every five minutes for an hour.
“Abby!” Kara groaned. “Answer your stupid phone!”
I reached over and turned it off. It wasn’t until I heard the banging on the door that I realized I wouldn’t be allowed to spend the day holed-up in my room as planned.
Kara yanked on the knob. “What ?”
America pushed past her, and stood beside my bed. “What in the hell is going on?” she yelled. Her eyes were red and puffy, and she was still in her pajamas.
I sat up. “What, Mare?”
“Travis is a fucking wreck! He won’t talk to us, he’s trashed the apartment, threw the stereo across the room…Shep can’t talk any sense into him!”
I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hand, and blinked. “I don’t know.”
“Bullshit! You’re going to tell me what in the hell is going on, and you’re going to tell me now !”
Kara grabbed her shower bag and fled. She slammed the door behind her, and I frowned, afraid she would tell the resident advisor, or worse, the Dean of Students.
“Keep it down, America, Jesus,” I whispered.
She clenched her teeth. “What did you do?”
I assumed he would be upset with me; I didn’t know he’d fly into a rage. “I…don’t know,” I swallowed.
“He took a swing at Shep when he found out we helped you leave. Abby! Please tell me!” she pleaded, her eyes glossing over. “It’s scaring me!”
The fear in her eyes forced only the partial truth. “I just couldn’t say goodbye. You know it’s hard for me.”
“It’s something else, Abby. He’s gone fucking nuts! I heard him call your name, and then he stomped all over the apartment looking for you. He barged into Shep’s room, demanding to know where you were. Then he tried to call you. Over, and over and over,” she sighed. “His face was…Jesus, Abby. I’ve never seen him like that.
“He ripped his sheets off the bed, and threw them away, threw his pillows away, shattered his mirror with his fist, kicked his door…broke it from the hinges! It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life!”
I closed my eyes, forcing the tears that pooled in my eyes down my cheeks.
America thrust her cell phone at me. “You have to call him. You have to at least tell him your okay.”
“Okay, I’ll call him.”
She shoved her phone at me again. “No, you’re calling him now.”
I took her phone in my hand and fingered the buttons, trying to imagine what I could possibly say to him. She snatched it out of my hand, dialed, and then handed it to me. I held the phone to my ear, and took a deep breath.
“Mare?” Travis answered, his voice thick with worry.
The line was quiet for several moments before he finally spoke. “What the fuck happened to you last night? I wake up this morning, and you’re gone and you…you just leave and don’t say goodbye? Why ?”
“I’m sorry. I—,”
“You’re sorry ? I’ve been going crazy! You don’t answer your phone, you sneak out and, wha—why ? I thought we finally had everything figured out!”
“I just needed some time to think.”
“About what ?” he paused.“Did I hurt you?”
“No! It’s nothing like that! I’m really…really sorry. I’m sure America told you. I don’t do goodbyes.”
“I need to see you,” he said, his voice desperate.
I sighed. “I have a lot to do today, Trav. I have to unpack and I have piles of laundry.”
“You regret it,” he said, his voice breaking.
“It’s not…that’s not what it is. We’re friends. That’s not going to change.”
“Friends ? Then what the fuck was last night?” he said, anger bleeding through his voice.
I closed my eyes tight. “I know what you want. I just can’t…do that right now.”
“So you just need some time?” he asked in a calmer voice. “You could have told me that. You didn’t have to run out on me.”
“It just seemed like the easiest way.”
“Easier for who ?”
“I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about what it would be like in the morning, loading Mare’s car and…I couldn’t do it, Trav,” I said.
“It’s bad enough that you aren’t going to be here anymore. You can’t just drop out of my life.”
I forced a smile. “I’ll see you tomorrow. I don’t want anything to be weird, okay? I just need to sort some stuff out. That’s all.”
“Okay,” he said. “I can do that.”
I hung up the phone, and America glared at me. “You SLEPT with him? You bitch! You weren’t even going to tell me?”
I rolled my eyes and fell against the pillow. “This isn’t about you, Mare. This has just become one convoluted clusterfuck.”
“What’s so difficult about it? You two should be deliriously happy, not breaking doors and hiding in your room!”
“I can’t be with him,” I whispered, keeping my eyes on the ceiling.
Her hand covered mine, and she spoke softly. “Travis needs work. Trust me, I understand any and all reservations you have about him, but look how much he’s already changed for you. Think about the last two weeks, Abby. He’s not Mick.”
“I’m Mick! I get involved with Travis and everything we’ve worked for…poof!” I snapped my fingers. “Just like that!”
“Travis wouldn’t let that happen.”
“It’s not up to him, now is it?”
“You’re going to break his heart, Abby. You’re going to break his heart! The one girl he trusts enough to fall for, and you’re going to nail him to the wall!”
I turned away from her, unable to see the expression that went with the pleading tone in her voice. “I need the happy ending. That’s why we came here.”
“You don’t have to do this. It could work.”
“Until my luck runs out.”
America threw up her hands, letting them fall into her lap. “Jesus, Abby, not this shit again. We talked about this.”
My phone rang, and I looked at the display. “It’s Parker.”
She shook her head. “We’re still talking.”
“Hello?” I answered, avoiding America’s glare.
“Abs! Day one of freedom! How does it feel?” he said.
“It feels…free,” I said, unable to muster up any enthusiasm.
“Dinner tomorrow night? I’ve missed you.”
“Yeah,” I wiped my nose with my sleeve. “Tomorrow’s great.”
After I hung up the phone, America frowned. “He’s going to ask me when I get back,” she said. “He’s going to want to know what we talked about. What am I supposed to tell him?”
“Tell him that I’ll keep my promise. By this time tomorrow, he won’t miss me.”