Niall wasn’t at school the next day.
It’s funny, but I could just tell by the atmosphere. The kind of charisma he had when he was alone with me was astounding in contrast to the angry, malevolent boy that had hated me for so long. Something I hadn’t noticed before — something that you could only pick out if you were paying attention.
I went through first period with ease. My schedule had gotten switched around due to teacher work hours changing, but my classes after lunch were basically the same. French, my first class, had always been natural for me, since I’d heard my parents speak a small amount over the phone on business calls and various work activities. They’d taught me some, and the knowledge came in handy. I had trigonometry next, another thing that came easy to me. It was one of the subjects I focused on when Niall and I were working together. Third period was filled by World History, something I didn’t care much for. Fourth had become my free period, right before lunch. I had found that going home and making lunch was nice, but for some reason I had brought it today.
I still sat in my car, like usual, but it didn’t feel like it always had. I didn’t feel ridiculed anymore, not cast out because of who I was. It felt almost normal — like this was the most normal thing that had happened to me in a while. My chest rose and fell in a breath of relief.
I finished my sandwich and crackers that I had brought. I hadn’t been too hungry lately. Checking the time, I realized that I had twenty minutes until sixth period started. Resting my lunch bag in the passenger’s seat, I closed my eyes and leaned my head back against the headrest. I rubbed my temples, feeling stressed without cause.
I was jolted out of silence by a knock on the passenger’s side window. I inhaled sharply, startled by the abrupt noise. My gaze flashed to the window and immediately my brow pulled together. Keaton was staring back at me, looking worried.
I rolled down the window without pause, which might have been stupid looking back on it. What if he just came to pick up where Niall had left off, since he wasn’t here today? But Keaton had never given me trouble before, and I didn’t feel like giving him a reason to joke about my cowardice.
“Keaton?” I asked warily, eyeing him.
“Samm,” he replied, resting his hand on the window frame. “I’m glad I caught you.”
“I’ve been here all day.” I shifted in my seat to face him, uncertain of his presence.
He huffed. “You know what I mean.” Keaton glanced around the parking lot for a second before tapping his foot and taking a deep breath. “Can I sit?”
I nodded, unlocking the car door for him. He opened the door and slid into the passenger’s seat, closing it after him. I had barely reached for the lever when Keaton began rolling up his window. He seemed a little nervous, but I didn’t know why.
“What’s going on?” I asked hesitantly, pulling my feet up to the seat and resting my knees against my chest.
Keaton chewed the inside of his cheek, watching my face as if debating saying anything. I suddenly felt self-conscious, curled up in the driver’s seat like a child would be sat. I put my legs down and set my hands in my lap.
“Niall doesn’t handle rejection well,” he started.
I blinked at him.
Keaton hissed a sigh and rubbed his forehead. “I know how that may sound to you.” I didn’t think he did. “Because I know how he treated you.”
My jaw clenched as my fists did. His eyes flashed to my hands and his expression faltered. I saw pity in his face, and I sighed visibly.
“But you have to understand that it isn’t entirely his fault,” Keaton continued, rubbing his head.
I almost scoffed. “Not his fault? He’s the only one that seems to treat me the way he does.”
Keaton winced. “There are things that effect the way he acts around everyone. You’re not the only one he’s thrown a fist at.” His voice faded off, as if he were afraid of hurting me. “Given, his response is horrendous, But he has a hard time controlling himself.” His foot began tapping, making his leg bob up and down. “Think about when your mind tells you to do something in the spur of the moment, right? Well, Niall’s head is as good as screaming at him.”
My brow pulled together at the analogy, but I nodded. What did that even mean? That Niall couldn’t find the resistance to ignore his impulses?
“And when he’s with you,” Keaton started again. “He has even less control.”
A warm feeling burned in my chest, but I didn’t know if it was good or bad. When even my toes curled in defense, I assumed it was bad.
“So what he does is my fault?” I spat, sounded a lot more bitter than I’d intended.
“No!” Keaton exclaimed, his expression shocked. “That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m just trying to get across that Niall’s emotions come and go stronger than yours or mine.”
“I don’t understand,” I shook my head and rubbed my temple. My hair fell around my face as I looked down at my feet, and I must’ve looked distraught because I felt Keaton put a hesitant hand on my arm.
My head lifted to look at him, and he pulled his hand away. “I think you should give him another chance.”
My teeth clenched. Though I knew I had feelings for Niall, I was so defensive. I was sure that he was trying to use it against me, and that’s what hurt. How many chances had I given Niall? How many had he completely blown?
“Why would you ask me to do that?” I studied his face. I took a deep breath and held out my arm, the one that held the fading bruises from Niall’s fingertips that I hadn’t bothered to cover today. “After all of this, why would you ask me to give him a chance?”
Keaton winced, and I knew I’d thrown up a good front. I had no obligation to allow Niall a reprieve. Keaton sucked in a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair. “Because I know that he feels something for you.”
The punch-in-the-gut feeling that I got told me I wasn’t expecting that one.
“And,” he continued, “I can tell that you might feel the same way about him.”
My eyes widened, then narrowed. “Why would you think that? How could you possibly pull that from me?” He was right, but I wasn’t about to give up my argument. I hadn’t had the opportunity to counter Niall — or even one of his friends.
“You wouldn’t have gone with him to accept his apology the other day,” he said. I nearly gasped in surprise. “Yes, I know about that. Niall tells me a lot of things.” Keaton glanced out the windshield at a couple of students walking out of the school entrance. “I know he tried to make a move on you and you ran.” My face grew warm and I hid behind my hair.
“Shouldn’t that be your hint that I don’t feel anything toward him?” I asked quietly. My mouth began to tingle and I bit my lower lip to try to stop the feeling.
“No,” he answered. “You wouldn’t be wearing the necklace he gave you if you didn’t think of him as more than a friend.”
My gaze flashed to him, my eyes wide. I reached up to touch my neck and a small curse left my throat as my hand touched a cold metal chain. I’d put it on last night and fallen asleep. I must’ve forgotten to take it off before I left for school. Keaton had thrown a good point, and I was embarrassed. I lifted another attempt at diverting the truth.
“He’s hardly my friend,” I muttered, almost incoherently.
I heard Keaton huff another sigh as my gaze dropped back to the floor. “Why can’t you just let him in?” His tone was exasperated, and along with his choice of words, I suddenly became aggravated again.
“Why can’t I let him in?” I said through gritted teeth. “Did you really ask me that question? You said you know how he treats me. I’m beginning to think that you don’t.” I lifted my head to meet his eyes, and he immediately looked away. He was embarrassed.
“I can bet that you don’t know,” I continued bitterly, “that every day I tutor him here, I walk out of those front doors in tears, hoping that no one will see me. You probably don’t know what words he’s used to beat me down, or even the physical ways he’s beaten me down. You probably don’t know that because of him, I hurt myself, because the only thing I can seem to control anymore is the pain I inflict upon myself. You don’t know how many times I’ve debated ending my life, or how many times Niall has encouraged me to do so — and the only thing that has kept me going is the hope that maybe, just maybe, Niall will turn around and be a normal human being. And I’m assuming that you also don’t know how many times I’ve had that very hope punched and taunted out of me.”
I didn’t notice that I was crying until a warm tear hit my hand. I looked down at it in shock, my fists clenched tightly in my lap. I felt so self conscious as I wiped my eyes, but at the same time I didn’t care. It felt like I’d just confessed everything I’d had held inside to a person that I didn’t even know well. What more did I have to lose? After what I’d just admitted, I realized how stupid I was for going through this for so long I was done being pushed around and told what to do.
“Get out of my car,” I muttered.
Keaton’s head lifted. “What?”
“Get out of my car,” I repeated flatly. I turned off the car and pulled the keys out of the ignition.
He looked confused as I packed up my lunch and gathered all of my notebooks together. I stuffed them into my bag and stepped out the car. When I saw Keaton hadn’t moved, I ducked down to look at him.
“Do I need to say it again?” I asked. He quickly shook his head.
I stood up as Keaton slid out of the car. We both slammed our doors and I locked it as I slung my bag around my shoulder. I stepped up onto the sidewalk and faced Keaton, having to look up at his face. He easily stood a head taller than me, but it didn’t intimidate me like Niall’s height had.
Sniffing quietly, I wiped under my eyes before opening my mouth. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to say. My mouth closed, but not before I let out a strangled noise. It sounded pathetic, and I was almost positive I looked the part just as well. I was about to turn away from him and head to class when he stepped toward me.
I sucked in a sharp breath as his arms wrapped around my shoulders. My body tensed as he pulled me into a hug. A pain went through my chest. I was still afraid of being touched. I still braced for pain when there was no danger. Niall had left me scarred in the way that I could never feel comfortable with anyone. The realization itself nearly destroyed me.
I relaxed and buried my head in Keaton’s shoulder. My hands rested at my sides, but even though I didn’t know him it felt nice to have a shoulder to cry on. And that’s exactly what I did.
• • •
We didn’t make it back into class. I tried to walk that way, but Keaton stopped me. He lead me back to his truck and we sat in there for the rest of the school day. We hid our faces as teachers walked by and shared a laugh when they didn’t notice us. I’d calmed down by the time sixth period was half way through, but Keaton and I just sat and talked about everything and about nothing.
It was nice talking to him, or to anyone at all for that matter. I realized that Keaton hadn’t hated me because of Niall, nor had anyone else. I’d seemed quiet and submissive to them, and they’d kept their distance just because they didn’t want to cross Niall’s path. Granted, I felt a little hurt, but at least I hadn’t been ignored for the reasons I’d thought.
“We all thought he hated you at first,” Keaton told me. I winced, and he gave a wry smile. “But recently I figured out that he was just isolating you in an attempt to get closer to you.”
“Some attempt,” I muttered under my breath,
Keaton shrugged. “He tries, but it doesn’t work out well.”
“No,” I said. “Not really.”
It was quiet for a long time. I stared out the windshield at a small tree they’d just planted to try to give the school a cleaner look. My breaths came slow and heavy, an example of the exhaustion I’d worked up from the stress I’d subjected myself to over the past few days.
“I can see why you like to eat out here,” Keaton spoke up. I glanced over at him and found that he was studying my face. I cocked my head at him and he smiled. “It’s a lot quieter. It’s nice.”
I gave a small smile. “Yeah, saves me a headache.”
He was quiet for a second. “How have you done it?” My eyebrows furrowed. “I mean go through all of this. Being either alone or being treated like crap by Niall.” I winced harshly. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I looked down at my lap. “It’s a good question.” I shifted in the passenger’s seat to face him. “I’m used to being alone, in the first place. My parents are always gone — they have been since I could take care of myself and get to school.” I bit my lip. “And the abuse thing? It’s really only a very small part of my life. It just happens that it’s the worst part of it too.”
Keaton shook his head. “I’ll tell you what; I couldn’t do it.”
A dry smile made it’s way onto my face. “You could. I do it almost daily.”
He didn’t answer, just turned to look out the windshield. I did the same, my focus coming and going on a section of sidewalk. We sat like this for a while, off in our own worlds.
I glanced at the time on the dashboard and sighed. “It’s half past four. I should head home.” Keaton’s eyes flashed over at me and he nodded. “Thanks,” I told him quietly. “For talking to me.”
“Not a problem,” he answered. “Maybe I’ll just come out and eat with you one of these days. I’m serious, it’s really nice to eat in the quiet.”
A warm feeling filled my chest. I’d made a friend — my first in a long time. “Sure.”
I opened the truck’s door and slid out, slamming it behind me. I stepped up onto the sidewalk as a few students passed me. Sighing heavily, I adjusted my hair and threw it over my shoulders.
“Hey,” I heard Keaton’s voice close behind me.
I jumped, not expecting it. He laughed as I turned, eyes wide. I settled as I saw his smiling face and returned the expression. I realized his arms were outstretched. My heart beat a little faster. It’s okay, I told myself. He’s not Niall. He won’t hurt you.
I smiled and stepped into his arms, wrapping mine around his torso. My face pressed into his shoulder. He smelled like pine needles — it was an odd smell for a guy, but it made me smile anyway. I liked pine trees, especially around Christmas.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Keaton muttered, resting his chin on top of my head.
“Yeah,” I said into his shoulder.
“And about Niall…” he trailed off, as if debating what to say.
“What?” I asked.
He hesitated for a second before saying anything. “I still think you should go and talk to him.” I immediately pulled back from him. His jaw was tight. “Just to make sure he isn’t out of his mind.”
I sighed, weighing my options. I didn’t have many.
“Okay,” I answered him quietly, the corners of my mouth tipped down.
“Hey,” he furrowed his eyebrows. “If he gives you any more trouble, just let me know.” He smiled. “I’ll watch out for you now.”
I smiled as my chest filled with another wave of warmth. “Thank you.”
“Anytime,” he said. He started to back away. “I’ve got to hit the road. My parents have a strict ‘go right back home after school’ policy that I’m pretty sure they think I’m breaking.”
I laughed as he opened his car door. “Bye,” I said.
“Bye,” he answered with a smile.
I turned away and started for my car. I thought about what Keaton had said about Niall — ‘just to make sure he isn’t out of his mind’. What did that mean?
I probably should’ve planned on driving out to Niall’s as I slid into the drivers seat of my car. But I didn’t feel like possibly offering myself up to anything Niall had to dish out. He was probably angry that I’d ran out on him. I’d give him time to cool off.
I started my car and headed for home. It didn’t matter that I felt something toward Niall, or even if I didn’t. There wasn’t I way I was going to talk to him right now — not yet.