CHAPTER EIGHTEEN. the box

Finals were a curse for everyone but me. I kept busy, studying with Kara and America in my room and at the library. When the schedules changed for tests, I only saw Travis in passing. I went home with America for winter break, thankful that Shepley had stayed with Travis so I wouldn’t suffer their constant displays of affection.

The last four days of break I caught a cold, giving me a good reason to stay in bed. Travis said he wanted to be friends, but he hadn’t called. It was a relief to have a few days to wallow in self-pity. I wanted to get it out of my system before returning to school.

The return trip to Eastern seemed to take years. I was eager to start the Spring semester, but I was far more eager to see Travis again. Although I noticed in the few times I’d seen him that he was impervious to the hoards of girls that approached him after news of our break up, he seemed content with our new friendship. We had spent almost a month apart, leaving me nervous and unsure about how to act around him.

The first day back, a fresh energy had swept over the campus along with a blanket of snow. New classes and new classmates meant new friends and a new beginning. I didn’t have a single class with Travis, Parker, Shepley or America, but Finch was in all but one of mine.

I anxiously waited for Travis at lunch, but when he came in he simply winked at me and then sat at the end of the table with the rest of his frat brothers. I tried to concentrate on America and Finch’s conversation about the last football game of the season, but Travis’ voice kept catching my attention. He was regaling tales of his adventures and brushes with the law he’d had over break, and news of Trenton’s new girlfriend they’d met one night while they were at The Red Door. I braced myself for mention of any girl he’d brought home or met, but if he had, he wasn’t sharing it with his friends.

Red and gold metallic balls still hung from the ceiling of the cafeteria, blowing with the current of the heaters. I pulled my cardigan around me, and Finch noticed, hugging me to him and rubbing my arm. I knew that I was paying far too much attention to Travis’ general direction, waiting for him to look up at me, but he seemed to have forgotten that I was sitting at the table.

Once he finished his lunch, my heart fluttered when he walked up behind me and rested his hands on my shoulders.

“How’s your classes, Shep?” he asked.

Shepley’s face pinched. “First day sucks. Hours of syllabi and class rules. I don’t even know why I show up the first week. How about you?”

“Eh…it’s all part of the game. How ‘bout you, Pidge?” he asked.

“The same,” I said, trying to keep my voice casual.

“Did you have a good break?” he asked, playfully swaying me from side to side.

“Pretty good,” I smiled.

“Sweet. I’ve got another class. Later.”

I watched him make a bee-line for the doors, shoving them both open, and then lighting a cigarette as he walked.

“Huh,” America said in a high-pitched tone. She watched Travis cut across the greens through the snow, and then shook her head.

“What, Baby?” Shepley asked.

America rested her chin on the heel of her hand, seeming vexed. “That was kind of weird, wasn’t it?”

“How so?” Shepley asked, flicking America’s blonde braid back to brush his lips across her neck.

America smiled and leaned into his kiss. “He’s almost normal…as normal as Trav can be. What’s up with him?”

Shepley shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s been that way for awhile.”

“How backwards is that, Abby? He’s fine and you’re miserable,” America said, unconcerned with listening ears.

“You’re miserable?” Shepley asked with a surprised expression.

My mouth fell open and my face flamed with instant embarrassment. “I am not!”

She pushed her salad around in the bowl. “Well, he’s damn near ecstatic.”

“Drop it, Mare,” I warned.

She shrugged and took another bite. “I think he’s faking it.”

Shepley nudged her. “America? You goin’ to the Valentine’s Day date party with me or what?”

“Can’t you ask me like a normal boyfriend? Nicely ?”

“I have asked you…repeatedly. You keep telling me to ask you later.”

She slumped in her chair, pouting. “I don’t wanna go without Abby.”

Shepley’s face screwed with frustration. “She was with Trav the whole time last time. You barely saw her.”

“Quit being a baby, Mare,” I said, throwing a stick of celery at her.

Finch elbowed me. “I’d take you, Cupcake, but I’m not into the frat boy thing, sorry.”

“That’s actually a damn good idea,” Shepley said, his eyes bright.

Finch grimaced at the thought. “I’m not Sig Tau, Shep. I’m not anything. Fraternity’s are against my religion.”

“Please, Finch?” America asked.

“Déjà vu,” I grumbled.

Finch looked at me from the corner of his eye and then sighed. “It’s nothing personal, Abby. I can’t say I’ve ever been on a date…with a girl.”

“I know.” I shook my head dismissively, waving away my deep embarrassment. “It’s fine. Really.”

“I need you there,” America said. “We made a pact, remember? No parties alone.”

“You’ll hardly be alone, Mare. Quit being so dramatic,” I said, already annoyed with the conversation.

“You want dramatic? I pulled a trash can beside your bed, held a box of Kleenex for you all night, and got up to get you cough medicine twice when you were sick over break! You owe me!”

I wrinkled my nose. “I have kept your hair vomit free so many times, America Mason!”

“You sneezed in my face !” she said, pointing to her nose.

I blew my bangs from my eyes. I could never argue with America when she was determined to get her way. “Fine ,” I said through my teeth.

“Finch?” I asked him with my best fake smile. “Will you go to the stupid Sig Tau Valentine’s Date Party with me?”

Finch hugged me to his side. “Yes. But only because you called it stupid.”

I walked with Finch to class after lunch, discussing the date party and how much we were both dreading it. We picked out a pair of desks in our Physiology class, and I shook my head when the professor began my fourth syllabi of the day. The snow began to fall again, drifting against the windows, politely begging entrance and then falling with disappointment to the ground.

After class dismissed, a boy I’d met only once at the Sig Tau house knocked on my desk as he walked by, winking. I offered a polite smile and then glanced over to Finch. He shot me a wry grin, and I gathered my book and laptop, shoving them into my backpack with little effort.

I lugged my bag over my shoulders, and trudged to Morgan along the salted sidewalk. A small group of students had started a snowball fight on the greens, and Finch shuddered at the sight of them, covered in colorless powder.

I wobbled my knee, keeping Finch company as he finished his cigarette. America scurried beside us, rubbing her bright green mittens together.

“Where’s Shep?” I asked.

“He went home. Travis needed help with something, I guess.”

“You didn’t go with him?”

“I don’t live there, Abby.”

“Only in theory,” Finch winked at her.

America rolled her eyes. “I enjoy spending time with my boyfriend, so sue me.”

Finch flicked his cigarette into the snow. “I’m heading out, ladies. I’ll see you at dinner?”

America and I nodded, smiling when Finch first kissed my cheek and then America’s. He stayed on the wet sidewalk, careful to stay in the middle so that he wouldn’t miss and step into the snow.

America shook her head at his efforts. “He is ridiculous.”

“He’s a Floridian, Mare. He’s not used to the snow.”

She giggled and pulled me toward the door.

“Abby!”

I turned to see Parker jogging past Finch. He stopped, catching his breath a moment before he spoke. His puffy grey coat heaved with each breath, and I chuckled at America’s curious stare as she watched him.

“I was…whew! I was going to ask you if you wanted to grab a bite to eat tonight.”

“Oh. I uh…I already told Finch I’d eat with him.”

“All right, it’s no big deal. I was just going to try that new burger place downtown. Everyone’s saying it’s really good.”

“Maybe next time,” I said, realizing my mistake. I hoped that he wouldn’t take my flippant reply as a postponement. He nodded and shoved his hands in his pockets, quickly walking back the way he came.

Kara was reading ahead in her brand-new books, grimacing at America and I when we walked in. Her demeanor hadn’t improved since we’d returned from break.

Before, I had spent so much at Travis’ that Kara’s insufferable comments and attitude were tolerable. Spending every evening and night with her during the two weeks before the semester ended, I was beginning to regret my decision not to room with America.

“Oh, Kara. How I’ve missed you,” America said.

“The feeling is mutual,” Kara grumbled, keeping her eyes on her book.

America chatted about her day and plans with Shepley for the weekend. We scoured the internet for funny videos, laughing so hard we were wiping away tears. Kara huffed a few times at our disruption, but we ignored her.

I was grateful for America’s visit. The hours passed so quickly that I didn’t spend a moment wondering if Travis had called until she decided to call it a night.

America yawned and looked at her watch. “I’m going to bed, Ab…aw, shit!” she said, snapping her fingers. “I left my make-up bag at Shep’s.”

“That’s not a tragedy, Mare,” I said, still giggling from the latest video we’d watched.

“It wouldn’t be if I didn’t have my birth control in there. C’mon. I have to go get it.”

“Can’t you just get Shepley to bring them?”

“Travis has his car. He’s at the Red with Trent.”

I felt sick. “Again? Why is he hanging out with Trent so much, anyway?”

America shrugged. “Does it matter? C’mon!”

“I don’t want to run into Travis. It’ll be weird.”

“Do you ever listen to me? He’s not there, he’s at the Red. Come on !” she whined, tugging on my arm.

I stood up with mild resistance as she pulled me from the room.

“Finally,” Kara said.

We pulled up to Travis’ apartment, and I noted that the Harley was parked under the stairs, and that Shepley’s Charger was missing. I breathed a sigh of relief, and followed America up the icy steps.

“Careful,” she warned.

If I’d known how unsettling it would be to step foot in the apartment again, I wouldn’t have let America talk me into going there. Toto scampered around the corner at full speed, crashing into my legs when his tiny paws failed to get traction on the entryway tile. I picked him up, letting him greet me with his baby kisses. At least he hadn’t forgotten me.

I carried him around the apartment, waiting while America searched for her bag.

“I know I left it here!” she said from the bathroom, stomping down the hall to Shepley’s room.

“Did you look in the cabinet under the sink?” Shepley asked.

I looked at my watch. “Hurry, Mare. We need to get going.”

America sighed in frustration from the bedroom.

I looked down at my watch again, and then jumped when the front door burst open behind me. Travis stumbled in, his arms wrapped around Megan, who was giggling against his mouth. A box in her hand caught my eye, and I felt sick when I realized what it was: condoms. Her other hand was on the back of his neck, and I couldn’t tell whose arms were tangled around who.

Travis did a double take when he saw me standing alone in the middle of the living room, and when he froze, Megan looked up with a residual smile still on her face.

“Pigeon,” Travis said, stunned.

“Found it!” America said, jogging out of Shepley’s room.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. The stench of whiskey blew in with the flurry of snowflakes, and my uncontrollable anger overcame any need to feign indifference.

“It’s good to see you’re feeling like your old self, Trav,” I said. The heat that radiated from my face burned my eyes and blurred my vision.

“We were just leaving,” America snarled, grabbing my hand as we slid passed Travis.

We flew down the steps toward her car, and I was thankful that it was just a few steps further, feeling the tears well up in my eyes. I almost fell backward when my coat snagged on something mid-step. America’s hand slipped from mine and she flipped around the same time I did.

Travis’ fist gripping my coat, and my ears caught fire, stinging in the cold night air. His lips and collar were a ridiculous shade of deep red.

“Where are you going?” he said, a half-drunk, half-confused look in his eyes.

“Home,” I snapped, straightening my coat when he released me.

“What are you doing here?”

I could hear the packed snow crunch under America’s feet as she walked up behind me, and Shepley flew down the stairs to stand behind Travis, his wary eyes fixed on his girlfriend.

“I’m sorry. If I’d know you were going to be here, I wouldn’t have come.”

He shoved his hands in his coat pockets. “You can come here anytime you want, Pidge. I never wanted you to stay away.”

I couldn’t manage the acidity in my voice. “I don’t want to interrupt.” I looked to the top of the stairs where Megan stood with a smug expression. “Enjoy your evening,” I said, turning away.

He grabbed my arm. “Wait. You’re mad ?”

I yanked my coat from his grip. “You know…I don’t even know why I’m surprised.”

His eyebrows pulled in. “I can’t win with you. I can’t win with you! You say you’re done…I’m fucking miserable over here! I had to break my phone into a million pieces to keep from calling you every minute of the damn day — I’ve had to play it off like everything is just fine at school so you can be happy…and you’re fucking mad at me? You broke my fuckin’ heart!” His last words echoed into the night.

“Travis, you’re drunk. Let Abby go home,” Shepley said.

Travis grabbed my shoulders and pulled me to him. “Do you want me, or not? You can’t keep doing this to me, Pidge!”

“I didn’t come here to see you.” I said, glaring up at him.

“I don’t want her,” he said, staring at my lips. “I’m just so fucking unhappy, Pigeon.” His eyes glossed over and he leaned in, tilting his head to kiss me.

I grabbed him by the chin, holding him back. “You’ve got her lipstick on your mouth, Travis,” I said, disgusted.

He took a step back and lifted his shirt, wiping his mouth. He stared at the red streaks on the white fabric and shook his head. “I just wanted to forget. Just for one fuckin’ night.”

I wiped an escaped tear. “Then don’t let me stop you.”

I tried to retreat to the Honda, but Travis grabbed my arm again. In the next moment, America was wildly hitting his arm with her fists. He looked at her, blinking for a moment in stunned disbelief. She balled up her fists and pounded them against his chest until he released me.

“Leave her alone, you bastard!”

Shepley grabbed her and she pushed him away, turning to slap Travis’ face. The sound of her hand against his cheek was quick and loud, and I flinched with the noise. Everyone froze for a moment, shocked at America’s sudden rage.

Travis frowned, but he didn’t defend himself. Shepley grabbed her again, holding her wrists and pulled her to her car while she thrashed about.

She fought him, her blonde hair whipping around with her attempts to get away. I was amazed at her determination to get at Travis. Pure hate glowed in her usually sweet, carefree eyes.

“How could you? She deserved better from you, Travis!”

“America, STOP!” Shepley yelled, louder than I’d ever heard him.

Her arms fell to her side as she glared at Shepley with incredulity. “You’re defending him?”

Although he seemed nervous, he stood his ground. “Abby broke up with him . He’s just trying to move on.”

Her eyes narrowed and she pulled her arm from his grip. “Well then why don’t you go find a random WHORE—,” she looked at Megan, “—from the Red and bring her home to fuck, and then let me know if it helps you get over me.”

“Mare,” Shepley grabbed for her but she evaded him, slamming the door as she sat behind the wheel. I sat beside her, trying not to look at Travis.

“Baby, don’t leave,” Shepley begged, leaning down into the window.

She started the car. “There is a right side and a wrong side here, Shep. And you are on the wrong side.”

“I’m on your side,” he said, his eyes desperate.

“Not anymore, you’re not,” she said, backing out.

“America? America!” Shepley called after her as she raced to the road, leaving him behind.

I sighed. “Mare, you can’t break up with him over this. He’s right.”

America put her hand on mine and squeezed. “No he’s not. Nothing about what just happened was right.”

When we pulled into the parking lot beside Morgan, America’s phone rang. She rolled her eyes as she answered. “I don’t want you calling me anymore. I mean it, Shep,” she said. “No you’re not…because I don’t want you to, that’s why. You can’t defend what he’s done, you can’t condone him hurting Abby like that and be with me…that’s exactly what I mean, Shepley! It doesn’t matter! You don’t see Abby screwing the first guy she sees! It’s not Travis that’s the problem, Shepley. He didn’t ask you to defend him! Ugh …I’m done talking about this. Don’t call me again. Goodbye.”

She shoved her way out of the car and stomped across the road and up the steps. I tried to keep in step with her, waiting to hear the other side of the conversation.

When her phone rang again, she turned it off. “Travis made Shep take Megan home. He wanted to come by on his way back.”

“You should let him, Mare.”

“No. You’re my best friend. I can’t stomach what I saw tonight, and I can’t be with someone that will defend it. End of conversation, Abby, I mean it.”

I nodded and she hugged my shoulders, pulling me against her side as we walked up the stairs to our rooms. Kara was already asleep, and I skipped the shower, crawling into bed fully dressed, coat and all. I couldn’t stop thinking about Travis stumbling in the door with Megan, or the red lipstick smeared across his face. I tried to block out the sickening images of what would have happened had I not been there, and I crossed over several emotions, settling on despair.

Shepley was right. I had no right to be angry, but it didn’t help to ignore the pain.

 

Finch shook his head when I sat in the desk beside him. I knew that I looked awful; I barely had the energy to change clothes and brush my teeth. I had only slept an hour the night before, unable to shake the sight of the red lipstick on Travis’ mouth or the guilt over Shepley and America’s break up.

America chose to stay in bed, knowing once the anger subsided, depression would set in. She loved Shepley, and although she was determined to end things because he had picked the wrong side, she was prepared to suffer the backlash of her decision.

After class, Finch walked with me to the cafeteria. As I had feared, Shepley was waiting at the door for America. When he saw me, he didn’t hesitate.

“Where’s Mare?”

“She didn’t go to class this morning.”

“She’s in her room?” he said, turning for Morgan.

“I’m sorry, Shepley,” I called after him.

He froze and wheeled around, with the face of a man that had reached his limit. “I wish you and Travis would just get your shit together! You’re a goddamn tornado! When you’re happy, it’s love and peace and butterflies. When you’re pissed, you take the whole fucking world down with you!”

He stomped away and I exhaled the breath I was holding. “That went well.”

Finch pulled me into the cafeteria. “The whole world. Wow. Think you could work your voodoo before the test on Friday?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Finch chose a different table, and I was more than happy to follow him there. Travis sat with his frat brothers, but he didn’t get a tray and he didn’t stay long. He noticed me just as he was leaving, but he didn’t stop.

“So America and Shepley broke up, too, huh?” Finch asked while he chewed.

“We were at Shep’s last night and Travis came home with Megan and…it was a mess. They took sides.”

“Ouch.”

“Exactly. I feel terrible.”

Finch patted my back. “You can’t control the decisions they make, Abby. So I guess this means we get to skip the Valentines thing at Sig Tau?”

“Looks that way.”

Finch smiled. “I’ll still take you out. I’ll take you and Mare both out. It’ll be fun.”

I leaned on his shoulder. “You’re the best, Finch.”

I hadn’t thought about Valentine’s, but I was glad I had plans. I couldn’t imagine how miserable I would feel spending it with America alone, hearing her rant about Shepley and Travis all night. She would still do that — she wouldn’t be America if she didn’t — but at least it would be a limited tirade if we were in public.

The weeks of January passed, and after a commendable but failed attempt by Shepley to get America back, I saw less and less of both him and Travis. By February, they stopped coming to the cafeteria all together, and I only saw Travis a handful of times on my way to class.

The weekend before Valentine’s Day, America and Finch talked me into going to the Red, and the entire drive to the club, I dreaded seeing Travis there. We walked in, and I sighed with relief to see no sign of him.

“First rounds on me,” Finch said, pointing out a table and sliding through the crowd to the bar.

We sat down and watched as the dance floor went from being empty to overflowing with drunken college students. After our fifth round, Finch pulled us to the dance floor, and I finally felt relaxed enough to have a good time. We giggled and bumped against each other, laughing hysterically when a man swung his dance partner around and she missed his hand, sliding across the floor on her side.

America raised her hands above her head, shaking her curls to the music. I laughed at her signature dance face and then stopped abruptly when I saw Shepley walk up behind her. He whispered something in her ear and she flipped around. They traded words and then America grabbed my hand, leading me to our table.

“Of course. The one night we go out, and he shows up,” she grumbled.

Finch brought us two more drinks, including a shot each. “I thought you might need them.”

“You thought right.” America tilted her head back before we could toast and I shook my head, clinking my glass to Finch’s. I tried to keep my eyes on my friends’ faces, worried that with Shepley being there, Travis wouldn’t be far behind.

Another song came over the speakers and America stood up. “Fuck it. I’m not sitting at this table the rest of the night.”

“Atta girl!” Finch smiled, following her to the dance floor.

I followed them, glancing around for Shepley. He had disappeared, and I relaxed again, trying to shake off the feeling that Travis would show up on the dance floor with Megan. A boy I’d seen around campus danced behind America, and she smiled, welcoming the distraction. I had a suspicion that she was making a show of enjoying herself, in hopes that Shepley would see. I looked away for a second, and when I looked back to America, her dance partner was gone. She shrugged, continuing to shake her hips to the beat.

The next song began to play and a different boy appeared behind America, his friend dancing next to me. After a few moments, my new dance partner maneuvered behind me, and I felt a bit unsure when I felt his hands on my hips. As if he’d read my mind, his hands left my waist. I looked behind me, and he was gone. I looked up to America, and the man behind her was gone as well.

Finch seemed a bit nervous, but when America raised an eyebrow at his expression, he shook his head and continued dancing.

By the third song, I was sweaty and tired. I retreated to our table, resting my heavy head on my hand, and laughed as I watched yet another hopeful ask America to dance. She winked at me from the dance floor, and then I stiffened when I saw him yanked backwards, disappearing through the crowd.

I stood up and walked around the dance floor, keeping my eye on the hole he was pulled through, and felt the adrenaline burn through the alcohol in my veins when I saw Shepley holding the surprised man by his collar. Travis was beside him, laughing hysterically until he looked up and saw me watching them. He hit Shepley’s arm, and when Shepley looked in my direction, he shoved his victim backward onto the floor.

It didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on: they had been yanking the guys that were dancing with us off the dance floor and threatening them to stay away from us.

I narrowed my eyes at them both and then made my way to America. The crowd was thick, and I had to shove a few people out of my way. Shepley grabbed my hand before I made it to the dance floor.

“Don’t tell her!” he said, trying to subdue his smile.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Shep?”

He shrugged, still proud of himself. “I love her. I can’t let other guys dance with her.”

“Then what’s your excuse for yanking the guy that was dancing with me?” I said, crossing my arms.

“That wasn’t me,” Shepley said, quickly glancing at Travis. “Sorry, Abby. We were just having fun.”

Not funny.”

“What’s not funny?” America said, glaring at Shepley.

He swallowed, shooting a pleading look in my direction. I owed him a favor, so I kept my mouth shut.

He sighed in relief when he realized I wouldn’t rat him out, and then he looked at America with sweet adoration. “Wanna dance?”

“No, I don’t wanna dance,” she said, walking back to the table. He followed her, leaving Travis and I standing together.

Travis shrugged. “Wanna dance?”

“What? Megan’s not here?”

He shook his head. “You used to be a sweet drunk.”

“Happy to disappoint you,” I said, turning toward the bar.

He followed, pulling two guys from their seats. I glared at him for a moment, but he ignored me, sitting down and then watching me with an expectant expression.

“Are you gonna sit? I’ll buy you a beer.”

“I thought you didn’t buy drinks for girls at the bar.”

He tilted his head in my direction with an impatient frown. “You’re different.”

“That’s what you keep telling me.”

“C’mon, Pidge. What happened to us being friends?”

“We can’t be friends, Travis. Obviously.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to watch you maul a different girl every night, and you won’t let anyone dance with me.”

He smiled. “I love you. I can’t let other guys dance with you.”

“Oh yeah? How much did you love me when you were buying that box of condoms?”

Travis winced and I stood up, making my way to the table. Shepley and America were in a tight embrace, and making a scene while they kissed passionately.

“I think we’re going to the Sig Tau date Valentine’s party again,” Finch said with a frown.

I sighed. “Shit.”

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