America hadn’t been back to Morgan since her reunion with Shepley. She was consistently absent at lunch, and her phone calls were few and far between. I didn’t begrudge them the time to make-up for the time they’d spent apart. Truthfully, I was happy that America was too busy to call me from Shepley and Travis’ apartment. It was awkward hearing Travis in the background, and I felt a little jealous that she was spending time with him and I wasn’t.
Finch and I were seeing more of each other, and I was selfishly thankful that he was just as alone as I was. We went to class, ate together, studied together, and even Kara grew accustomed to having him around.
My fingers were beginning to numb from the frigid air as I stood outside Morgan while he smoked.
“Would you consider quitting before I get hypothermia from standing here for moral support?” I asked.
Finch laughed. “I love you, Abby. I really do, but no. Not quitting.”
I turned to see Parker walking down the sidewalk with his hands shoved in his pockets. His full lips were dry under his red nose, and I laughed when he put an imaginary cigarette to his mouth and blew out a puff of misty air.
“You could save a lot of money this way, Finch,” he smiled.
“Why is everyone trashing on my smoking habit today?” he asked, annoyed.
“What’s up, Parker?” I asked.
He fished two tickets from his pocket. “That new Vietnam movie is out. You said you wanted to see it the other day, so I thought I would grab us some tickets for tonight.”
“No pressure,” Finch said.
“I can go with Brad if you have plans,” he said with a shrug.
“So it’s not a date?” I asked.
“Nope, just friends.”
“And we’ve seen how that works out for you,” Finch teased.
“Shut up!” I giggled. “That sounds fun, Parker, thanks.”
His eyes brightened. “Would you like to get some pizza or something before? I’m not a big fan of theater food, myself.”
“Pizza’s great,” I nodded.
“That’s uh…that’s good, then. The movie’s at nine, so I’ll pick you up at six thirty or so?”
I nodded again and Parker waved goodbye.
“Oh, Jesus,” Finch said. “You’re a glutton, Abby. You know that’s not going to fly with Travis when he gets wind of it.”
“You heard him. It’s not a date. And I can’t make plans based on what Travis is okay with. He didn’t clear it with me before he brought Megan home.”
“You’re never going to let that go, are you?”
“Probably not, no.”
We sat in a corner booth, and I rubbed my mittens together, trying to get warm. I couldn’t help but notice we were in the same booth Travis and I sat in when we first met, and I smiled at the memory of that day.
“What’s funny?” Parker asked.
“I just like this place. Good times.”
“I noticed the bracelet,” he said.
I looked down at the sparkling diamonds on my wrist. “I told you I liked it.”
The waitress handed us menus and took our drink orders. Parker updated me on his Spring schedule, and talked about the progress in his studies for the MCAT. By the time the waitress served our beers, Parker had barely taken a breath. He seemed nervous, and I wondered if he wasn’t under the impression that we were on a date, regardless of what he’d said.
He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. I think I’ve monopolized the conversation long enough.” He tipped his beer bottle and shook his head. “I just haven’t talked to you for any length of time in so long, that I suppose I had a lot to say.”
“It’s fine. It has been a long time.”
Just then, the door chimed. I turned to see Travis and Shepley walk in. It took Travis less than a second to meet my stare, but he didn’t look surprised.
“Jesus,” I muttered under my breath.
“What?” Parker asked, turning to see them sit in a booth across the room.
“There’s burger place down the street we can go to,” Parker said in a hushed voice. As nervous as he was before, it had been taken to a whole new level.
“I think it would be more awkward to leave at this point,” I grumbled.
His face fell, defeated. “You’re probably right.”
We tried to continue our conversation, but it was noticeably forced and uncomfortable. The waitress spent an extended period of time at Travis’ table, raking her fingers through her hair and shifting her weight from one foot to the other. She finally remembered to take our order when Travis answered his cell phone.
“I’ll have the tortellini,” Parker said, looking to me.
“And I’ll have….” I trailed off. I was distracted when Travis and Shepley stood up.
Travis followed Shepley to the door, but he hesitated, stopped, and turned around. When he saw me watching him, he walked straight across the room. The waitress had an expectant smile, as if she thought he had come to say goodbye. She was quickly disappointed when he stood beside me without so much as blinking in her direction.
“I’ve got a fight in fourty-five minutes, Pidge. I want you there,”
His face was stoic, but I could see the tension around his eyes. I wasn’t sure if he didn’t want to leave my dinner with Parker to fate, or if he truly wanted me there with him, but I had made my decision the second he’d asked.
“I need you there. It’s a rematch with Brady Peterson, the guy from State. It’s a big crowd, lots of money floating around…and Adam says Brady’s been training.”
“You’ve fought him before, Travis, you know it’s an easy win.”
“Abby,” Parker said quietly.
“I need you there,” Travis said, his confidence fading.
I looked at Parker with an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you serious ?” he said, his eyebrows shooting up. “You’re just going to leave in the middle of dinner?”
“You can still call Brad, right?” I asked, standing up.
The corners of Travis’ mouth turned up infinitesimally as he tossed a twenty on the table. “That should cover it.”
“I don’t care about the money…Abby….”
I shrugged. “He’s my best friend, Parker. If he needs me there, I have to go.”
I felt Travis’ hand encapsulate mine as he led me away. Parker watched with a stunned look on his face. Shepley was already on the phone in the Charger, spreading the word. Travis sat in the back with me, keeping my hand firmly in his.
“I just got off the phone with Adam, Trav. He said the State guys all showed up drunk and padded with cash. They’re already riled up, so you might wanna keep Abby out of the way.”
Travis nodded. “You can keep an eye on her.”
“Where’s America?” I asked.
“Studying for her Physics test.”
“That’s a nice lab,” Travis said. I laughed once and then looked to Travis who had a small grin on his face.
“When did you see the lab? You haven’t had Physics,” Shepley said.
Travis chuckled and I elbowed him. He pressed his lips together until the urge to laugh subsided and then he winked at me, squeezing my hand once again. His fingers intertwined in mine, and I heard a small sigh escape his lips. I knew what he was thinking because I felt the same. In that sliver of time, it was as if nothing had changed.
We pulled into a dark patch of the parking lot, and Travis refused to let go of my hand until we crawled into the window of the basement of the Hellerton Science Building. It had just been built the year before, so it didn’t suffer from stagnate air and dust like the other basements we’d snuck into.
Just as we entered the hallway, the roar of the crowd reached our ears. I poked my head out to see an ocean of faces, many of them unfamiliar. Everyone had bottles of beer in their hands, but the State College students were easy to pick out of the crowd. They were the ones that swayed with their eyes half-closed.
“Stay close to Shepley, Pigeon. It’s going to get crazy in here,” he said from behind me. He scanned the crowd, shaking his head at the sheer numbers.
Hellerton’s basement was the most spacious on campus, so Adam liked to schedule fights there when he expected a larger crowd. Even with the addition of space, people were being rubbed against the walls and shoving one another to get a good spot.
Adam rounded the corner and didn’t try to hide his dissatisfaction of my presence. “I thought I told you that you couldn’t bring your girl to the fights, anymore, Travis.”
Travis shrugged. “She’s not my girl, anymore.”
I kept my features smooth, but he had said the words so matter-of-factly, it caused a stabbing sensation in my chest.
Adam looked down at our intertwined fingers and then up at Travis. “I’m never gonna figure you two out.” He shook his head and then glanced to the mob. People were still streaming in from the stairs, and those on the floor were already packed together. “We’ve got an insane pot tonight, Travis, so no fuckin’ off, okay?”
“I’ll make sure it’s entertaining, Adam.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about. Brady’s been training.”
“So have I.”
“Bullshit,” Shepley laughed.
Travis shrugged. “I got in a fight with Trent last weekend. That little shit is fast.”
I chuckled and Adam glared at me. “You better take this seriously, Travis,” he said, staring into his eyes. “I have a lot of money riding on this fight.”
“And I don’t?” Travis said, irritated with Adam’s lecture.
Adam turned, holding the bull horn to his lips as he stood up on a chair above the multitude of drunken spectators. Travis pulled me against his side as Adam greeted the crowd and then went over the rules.
“Good luck,” I said, touching his chest. I hadn’t felt nervous to watch him fight since the one he’d had with Brady, but I couldn’t shake the ominous feeling I’d had since we stepped foot in Hellerton. Something was off, and Travis felt it, too.
Travis grabbed my shoulders and planted a kiss on my lips. He pulled away quickly, nodding once. “That’s all the luck I need.”
I was still stunned from the warmth of Travis’ lips when Shepley pulled my arm to the wall beside Adam. I was bumped and elbowed, reminding me of the first night I watched Travis fight, but the crowd was less focused, and some of the State students were getting hostile. Easterners cheered and whistled for Travis when he broke into The Circle, and State’s crowd alternated between booing Travis and cheering for Brady.
I was in prime position to see Brady tower over Travis, twitching impatiently for the bullhorn to sound. As usual, Travis had a slight grin on his face, unaffected by the madness around him. When Adam began the fight, Travis intentionally let Brady get in the first punch. I was surprised when his face jerked hard to the side with the blow. Brady had been training.
Travis smiled, his teeth a bright red, and then he focused matching every punch Brady dealt.
“Why is he letting him hit him so much?” I asked Shepley.
“I don’t think he’s letting him, anymore,” Shepley said, shaking his head. “Don’t worry, Abby. He’s getting ready to take it up a notch.
After ten minutes Brady was winded, but he was still landing solid blows into Travis’ sides and jaw. Travis caught Brady’s shoe when he tried to kick him, and held his leg high with one hand, punching him in the nose with incredible force and then lifting Brady’s leg higher, causing him to lose his balance. The crowd exploded when Brady fell, but he wasn’t on the floor long. He stood, but with the addition of two lines of dark red streaming from his nose. In the next moment, he landed two more punches to Travis’ face. Blood rose from a cut on Travis’ eyebrow and dripped down his cheek.
I closed my eyes and turned away hoping Travis would end the fight soon. The small shift of my body caught me in the current of onlookers, and before I could right myself, I was several feet from a preoccupied Shepley. I fought against the crowd futility, until I could feel the back wall behind me.
The nearest door was on the other side of the room, an equal distance to the door we’d come in. My back slammed against the concrete wall, knocking the wind out of me.
“Shep!” I yelled, waving my hand above me to get his attention. The fight was at its peak. No one could hear me.
A man lost his footing and used my shirt to right himself, spilling his beer down my front. I was soaked from neck to waist, reeking with the bitter stench of cheap beer. The man still had my shirt bunched in his fist as he tried to pull himself from the floor, and I ripped his fingers open two at time until he released me. He didn’t look twice at me, pushing his way forward through the crowd.
“Hey! I know you!” A man yelled into my ear.
I leaned away, recognizing him right away. It was Ethan, the man Travis threatened at the bar — the man that had somehow escaped sexual assault charges.
“Yeah,” I said, looking for a hole in the crowd as I straightened my shirt.
“That’s a nice bracelet,” he said, running his hand down my arm and grabbing my wrist.
“Hey,” I warned, pulling my hand away.
He rubbed my arm, swaying and grinning. “We were rudely interrupted last time I tried to talk to you.”
I stood on my tip toes, seeing Travis land two blows into Brady’s face, and scanning the crowd between each one. He was looking for me instead of focusing on the fight. I had to get back to my spot before he was too distracted.
I had barely made headway into the crowd when Ethan’s fingers dug into the back of my jeans. My back slammed into the wall once more.
“I wasn’t finished talking to you,” Ethan said, scanning my wet shirt with lewd intent.
I pulled his hand from the back of my jeans, digging in my nails. “Let go!” I yelled when he resisted.
He laughed, and I scanned the crowd for a familiar face when he pulled me against him. “I don’t wanna let go.”
I tried to push Ethan away, but his arms were heavy and his grip tight. In a panic, I couldn’t distinguish State students from Easterners. No one seemed to notice my scuffle with Ethan, and it was so loud, no one could hear me protest, either. He leaned in, reaching his hand around to my backside and squeezing.
“I always thought you’d be a nice piece of ass,” he said, breathing stale beer in my face.
“Get OFF!” I screamed, pushing him.
I looked for Shepley, and saw that Travis had finally picked me out of the crowd. He instantly pushed against the packed bodies surrounding him.
“Travis!” I screamed, but it was muffled against the cheering. I pushed Ethan with one hand and reached for Travis with the other.
Travis made little progress before being shoved back into the Circle. Brady took advantage of Travis’ distraction and rammed an elbow in the side of his head.
The crowd quieted down a bit when Travis punched someone in the crowd, trying once again to get to me.
“Get the fuck off her!” Travis yelled.
In a line between where I stood and Travis’ desperate attempt to reach me, heads turned in my direction. Ethan was oblivious, trying to keep me still long enough to kiss me. He ran his nose across my cheek bone and then down my neck.
“You smell really good,” he slurred.
I pushed his face away, but he grabbed my wrist, unfazed.
Wide-eyed, I searched for Travis again. He desperately pointed me out to Shepley. “Get her! Shep! Get Abby!” he said, still trying to push through the crowd. Brady pulled him back into the circle and punched him again.
“You’re fucking hot, you know that?” Ethan said.
I closed my eyes when I felt his mouth on my neck. Anger welled up within me and I pushed him again. “I said get OFF!” I yelled, ramming my knee into his groin.
He doubled over, one hand automatically flying to the source of the pain, the other still gripping my shirt, refusing to let go.
“You bitch!” he cried.
In the next moment, I was free. Shepley’s eyes were wild, staring into Ethan’s as he gripped him by the collar of his shirt. He held Ethan against the wall while he nailed him with his fist repeatedly in the face, stopping only when the blood poured from Ethan’s mouth and nose.
Shepley pulled me to the stairs, shoving anyone who stood in his path. He helped me through an open window, and then down a fire escape, catching me when I leaped the few feet to the ground.
“You okay, Abby? Did he hurt you?” Shepley asked.
One sleeve of my white sweater was hanging by threads, otherwise I had escaped unscathed. I shook my head, still stunned.
Shepley gently took my cheeks in his hands, looking into my eyes. “Abby, answer me. Are you all right?”
I nodded. As the adrenaline absorbed into my blood stream, the tears began to flow. “I’m okay.”
He hugged me, pressing his cheek against my forehead, and then stiffened. “Over here, Trav!”
Travis ran at us full speed, slowing only when had me in his arms. He was covered in blood, his eye dripping and his mouth spattered with red.
“Jesus Christ…is she hurt?” he asked.
Shepley’s hand was still on my back. “She said she’s okay.”
Travis held me at arm’s length by my shoulders and frowned. “Are you hurt, Pidge?”
Just as I shook my head, I saw the first of the mob from the basement trickling down from the fire escape. Travis kept me tight in his arms, silently scanning the faces. A short, squat man hopped down from the ladder and froze when he noticed us standing on the sidewalk.
“You,” Travis snarled.
He let me go, running across the grass, tackling the man to the ground.
I looked to Shepley, confused and horrified.
“That’s the guy that kept shoving Travis back in the circle,” Shepley said.
A small crowd gathered around them as they scuffled on the ground. Travis pounded his fist into the man’s face over and over. Shepley pulled me into his chest, still panting. The man stopped fighting back, and Travis left him on the ground in a bloody heap. Those gathered around him fanned out, giving Travis a wide birth, seeing the rage in his eyes.
“Travis!” Shepley yelled, pointing to the other side of the building.
Ethan hobbled in the shadows, using the brick wall of Hellerton to hold himself up. When he heard Shepley yell for Travis, he turned just in time to see his assailant charge. Ethan limped across the lawn, throwing down the beer bottle in his hands and moving as fast as his legs could carry him to the street. Just as he reached his car, Travis grabbed him and slammed him against it.
Ethan pleaded with Travis, even as Travis gripped his shirt and rammed his head into the car door. The begging was cut off with the loud thud of his skull against the windshield, and then Travis pulled him to the front of the car and shattered the headlight with Ethan’s face. Travis launched him onto the hood, pressing his face into the metal while shouting obscenities.
“Shit,” Shepley said. I turned to see Hellerton glow blue and red from the lights of a quickly approaching police cruiser. Droves of people jumped from the landing, forming a human waterfall down the fire escape, and a flurry of running students burst into every direction.
“Travis!” I screamed.
Travis left Ethan’s limp body on the hood of the car to sprint towards us. Shepley pulled me to the parking lot, ripping open his door. I jumped into the back seat, anxiously waiting for them both to get in. Cars were flying from their spots and out of the drive way, screeching to a halt when a second police car blocked the drive.
Travis and Shepley jumped into their seats, and Shepley cursed when he saw the trapped cars backing from the only exit. He slammed the car into drive, and the Charger bounced as it jumped the curb. He spun out over the grass, and we flew between two buildings, bouncing again when he hit the road behind the school.
The tires squealed and the engine snarled when Shepley slammed his foot on the accelerator. I slid across the seat into the wall of the cab when we took a turn, bumping my already sore elbow. The street lights were streaks across the window as we raced to the apartment, but it seemed like an hour had passed by the time we pulled into the parking lot.
Shepley threw the Charger into park and turned off the ignition. The boys opened their doors in silence, and Travis reached into the back seat, lifting me into his arms.
“What happened ? Holy shit, Trav, what happened to your face ?” America said, running down the stairs.
“I’ll tell you inside,” Shepley said, guiding her to the door.
Travis carried me up the stairs, through the living and down the hall without a word, setting me on his bed. Toto pawed at my legs, jumping onto the bed to lick my face.
“Not now, buddy,” Travis said in a hushed voice, taking the puppy to the hall and shutting the door.
He kneeled in front of me, touching the frayed edges of my sleeve. His eye was in the beginning stages of a bruise, red and swollen. The angry skin above it was cut and wet with blood. His lips were smeared with scarlet, and the hide was ripped away from some of his knuckles. His once white t-shirt was now soiled with a combination of blood, grass and dirt.
I touched his eye and he winced, pulling away from my hand. “I’m so sorry, Pigeon. I tried to get to you. I tried….” He cleared his throat of the anger and worry that choked him. “I couldn’t get to you.”
“Will you ask America to take me back to Morgan?” I said.
“You can’t go back there tonight. The place is crawling with cops. Just stay here. I’ll sleep on the couch.”
I sucked in a faltering breath, trying to ward off any more tears. He felt bad enough.
Travis stood up and opened the door.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I’ve gotta get a shower. I’ll be right back.”
America shoved past him, sitting beside me on the bed, pulling me into her chest. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there!” she cried.
“I’m fine,” I said, wiping my tear stained face.
Shepley knocked on the door as he entered, bringing me a short glass half-full of whiskey.
“Here,” he said, handing it to America. She cupped my hands around it and nudged me.
I tipped back my head, letting the liquid flow down my throat. My face compressed as the whiskey burned its way to my stomach. “Thanks,” I said, handing the glass back to Shepley.
“I should have gotten to her sooner. I didn’t even realize she was gone. I’m sorry, Abby. I should’ve….”
“It’s not your fault, Shep. It’s not anyone’s fault.”
“It’s Ethan’s fault,” he seethed. “That sick bastard was dry fucking her against the wall.”
“Baby!” America said, pulling me to her side.
“I need another drink,” I said, shoving my empty glass at Shepley.
“Me, too,” Shepley said, returning to the kitchen.
Travis walked in with a towel around his waist, holding a cold can of beer against his eye. America left the room without a word as Travis slipped on his boxers, and then he grabbed his pillow. Shepley brought four glasses this time, all full to the brim with amber liquor. We all knocked back the whiskey without hesitation.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” America said, kissing my cheek.
Travis took my glass, sitting it on the night stand. He watched me for a moment and then walked over to his closet, pulling a t-shirt off the hanger and tossing it to the bed.
“I’m sorry I’m such a fuck up,” he said, holding the beer to his eye.
“You look awful. You’re going to feel like shit tomorrow.”
He shook his head, disgusted. “Abby, you were attacked tonight. Don’t worry about me.”
“It’s hard not to when your eye is swelling shut,” I said, situating his shirt on my lap.
His jaw tensed. “It wouldn’t’ve happened if I’d just let you stay with Parker. But I knew if I asked you, you’d come. I wanted to show him that you were still mine, and then you get hurt.”
The words took me off-guard, as if I hadn’t heard him right. “That’s why you ask me to come tonight? To prove a point to Parker ?”
“It was part of it,” he said, ashamed.
The blood drained from my face. For the first time since we’d met, Travis had fooled me. I had gone to Hellerton with him thinking he needed me, thinking that despite everything, we were back to where we were before. I was nothing more than a water hydrant; he had marked his territory, and I had allowed him to do it.
My eyes filled with tears. “Get out.”
“Pigeon,” he said, taking a step toward me.
“Get OUT!” I said, grabbing the glass from the night stand and throwing it at him. He ducked, and it shattered against the wall in hundreds of tiny, glistening shards. “I hate you!”
Travis heaved as if the air had been knocked out of him, and with a pained expression, he left me alone.
I yanked off my clothes and pulled the t-shirt on. The noise that burst from my throat surprised me. It had been a long time since I had sobbed uncontrollably. Within moments, America rushed into the room.
She crawled into the bed and wrapped her arms around me. She didn’t ask me questions or try to console me, she only held me as I let the tears drench the pillow case.