Claire jumped, almost hitting herself in the head with her history book when she heard her phone ring. It was late, she was supposed to be sleeping. If she didn't have her own line her parents would be screaming bloody murder that someone had dared call the house after nine o'clock. It was on a night when she'd received more than one call after the delegated time that her parents had broken down and gotten her a line of her own. She still wasn't expecting a call after midnight. She tossed the textbook to the other side of her bed and leaned over to pick up the phone.
"Is this Claire Standish?"
She frowned, glancing at the phone suspiciously. "Yes."
"This is Melinda Sanchez, I'm a nurse over at Shermer Memorial."
"I have a patient here asking for you. It's against policy since you're not a family member, but I don't think returning him to his family is in his best interest tonight."
"The patient's name is John Bender."
"John?" How had he known her phone number? Why was he at the hospital?
"Yes, I'm really going out on a limb here. If the attending found out I'd probably get fired."
"How bad is he?"
"I'll be there in about fifteen minutes."
"Okay. Ask for me. Melinda Sanchez. The other nurses won't know what you're talking about."
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
She hung up without saying anything else and flipped back the covers she had been comfortably sitting under while studying her history. She dressed quickly and grabbed her keys before she opened the French doors leading from her room to a second floor balcony.
She had done this once before, but had more time to think about what she was doing then. Now, she made the descent along the lattice quickly, her footing wasn't as sure this time and she slipped a few times. She caught her arms, legs and face on pieces of wood and sharp branches but she barely paid them any attention.
She realized once she was on the ground that while she'd thought to grab her keys she'd forgotten her purse. She ran her hand through her stylishly choppy hair. She eyed the lattice and her balcony, debating about going back to get it.
"Screw it," she said and made her way to the garage on the other side of the house. She keyed in the alarm code that opened her stall and within a matter of minutes was on her way to Shermer Memorial.
Here, alone in her car, she had time to think and to wonder. What had happened to him? Why had she been called? Was he in serious condition? Was he dying? She hadn't seen him since that wintry day they served detention together, but John was larger than life. She found it difficult to picture him any other way.
She parked near the emergency entrance and rushed inside, stopping at the nurse's desk. There were a few people in the waiting area, but it wasn't too busy. She couldn't remember ever being here. She'd lived an injury-free life. "Hi, I'm looking for Melinda Sanchez."
"Let me page her. Have a seat."
"Thanks." She turned and glanced at the chairs. They'd seen better days, better years probably. They looked filthy. She looked for the cleanest looking one and sat, all sorts of possibilities running through her mind.
"Yes," she said standing. It took over ten minutes for the nurse to respond to the page. Claire wasn't sure if that was a good sign.
"What's wrong with him?" she asked when they were alone in the hallway. "Is he going to be all right?"
"He's not supposed to be in this room, his chart and admittance papers have been misplaced," she explained once she'd stopped in front of a room. Her hand on the door handle, she regarded Claire. "He said you were pretty."
She smiled then. "He was right about that part, I hope he's right about the rest."
"The rest of what? You're not telling me anything. I don't even know why you called me. I haven't talked to or seen him in months."
She opened the door then, wordlessly inviting Claire to step in. She gasped when she did. Everywhere that she could see was battered and bruised. She covered her mouth with her hand, stifling the sob that rocked her. Her eyes flew to the nurse who was shutting the door with a sympathetic smile.
"I'll be back in a few minutes."
Somehow, she made it to the side of the bed. She wouldn't have thought it possible, but he looked worse from here. He had stitches on his face, the wounds deep and festering. There wasn't a spot on his face that didn't have a bruise.
"What happened to you?" She whispered the question, resisting the urge to brush the hair away from his face. She placed a hand gently over his. He flinched and she jerked her hand away. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay." He turned his head and grimaced, his breath coming in gasps even from such a little amount of exertion.
"No, don't move."
"I didn't have much choice."
"You're welcome. Why me?"
"No one else to call."
His eyes fell closed, but not before he shed a couple of tears. She knew then. The clenching of her gut was just icing on the cake. She found a chair and drew it up beside the bed. She wasn't sure what she was supposed to do.
"Water," he whispered.
She spotted a small plastic pitcher full of water and a Styrofoam cup. Filling the cup, she brought the straw to his lips letting him sip it. She withdrew the straw when he'd taken a couple of sips, letting him swallow those before giving him more.
"How bad is it?"
"See for yourself."
She lifted the sheet away, thankful he had a hospital gown on. His arms and legs were covered with bruises.
"There are more on my ribs."
"I'll take your word for it," she said, releasing the sheet immediately before he got any ideas of showing her those too.
"Are they going to take you away?"
"What do you mean they can't? John, you were beaten within an inch of your life. I've never."
"My mom," he said, cutting her off.
"You can't stay there forever and protect her."
He shot her a look that said "oh yes I can" loud and clear.
"What do you want me for if you're going to go back there?"
"I can't go home, not like this."
"I just need somewhere to go for the night. The nurse said she wouldn't let me leave unless she knew I had someone to take care of me."
"You can leave like this?"
"Have to. No insurance."
"And you thought I'd what?"
"You've got to have room in that big house of yours. I've seen it, it's huge and you're an only child."
"You want me to sneak you into my house?"
She rested her forehead against his hand. What had she done or said to make him think she'd do this? Of course, she would, it wasn't in her to turn her back on someone. Not after seeing him like this. She couldn't sneak him into her house. It was impossible. But there was an old carriage house in the back that her parents had at one time used for her nanny's family. Claire no longer needed a nanny, but the house was still there and furnished.
"Have you had time to talk?"
"And you can take him home?"
"I," Claire lifted her head and stood from the chair. "Why me? Why the secrecy?" And then it became clear to her. If there was record of his visit here, social services would be called, and then he would possibly be removed from the home leaving his mother alone.
"I'll take him home."
"Good. He said you were a nice girl. I'll get a wheelchair and be back to help him get dressed. The doctor wrote a prescription for painkillers, you'll want to get it filled. I'll detail the rest when I come back."
"Okay," she said, wondering what she had just committed herself to.
"Thank you," he said from the bed. He sounded so weak, helpless. Two things she never thought to associate with him. She had known, well suspected anyway, what his home life was like. Andy had thought it was part of his tough guy image. Claire didn't believe that. She left the high school that day confident that John was entitled to some of the bitterness he held onto so dearly.
"I didn't know. I should have known. I should have called you."
"No one knew the whole of it."
"Now I do."
"You were the last person I wanted to know."
"I know." She did know because he would be the last person she would want to know a secret like this about her. It was enough to change someone's opinion about a person.
Nurse Sanchez returned with the wheelchair and gave Claire a few directions. There were bandages she would need to change and the sutured wounds would need to be watched for infection. She gave her two prescriptions, one a painkiller and the other an antibiotic only if there were signs of infection.
Overwhelmed, Claire drove to a side entrance and helped John into her car. She stopped at an all-night drug store to fill the painkiller prescription, grateful she had a credit card for emergencies. She didn't know what qualified as one if this didn't.
He slept, or passed out, from the time they left the hospital until she got him home. No lights were on. That was good, it meant her parents didn't realize she wasn't home. She drove around the house to the back, along the smaller drive that led to the carriage house.
"John. We're here."
"Huh?" His head snapped up and he cursed. "Christ, that hurt."
She helped him out of the car and unlocked the door once they'd reached it. She'd had the key for years despite no longer needing it. As a little girl she had let herself in here often to visit her nanny. The door squeaked in the night and she winced, praying it wouldn't wake her parents.
She let him lean on her for support. Knowing the layout of the small house by heart she didn't need the lights so she guided him. Her mom kept the house furnished for guests like Claire's grandparents who might not want to stay in the house with them. So, the bed was still there and had a bedspread on it.
"I'll be right back," she said, leaving him sitting on the bed. She moved her car back to its stall in the garage before getting him a glass of water from the smaller house's kitchen. She let the faucet run for a bit so the water would be fresh before filling it and returning to the bedroom.
"You have to take this." She opened the bottle, tapping it until one pill fell into the palm of her hand.
"You say that now, but you're going to sleep and then you won't be so fine and it'll wake you up. I can't cut school."
"Wouldn't want that."
"You have to promise me that you're going to stay in here. There's a bathroom off the bedroom and you can move around in here without anyone from the house seeing you."
"I don't think I'm going to go for a jog or anything."
"No, but you could do something stupid just to be difficult."
"I wouldn't do that to you."
She touched his face then tenderly, her fingertips as gentle and light as a feather. With no light she couldn't see how bad he looked, but she remembered. The image would forever be etched in her mind. She swallowed hard once, twice and shut her eyes. She felt his mouth with her fingertips. He had full lips and was capable of verbally wounding someone so easily with them.
She skimmed over his cheekbones, her thumbs grazing the tip and sides of his nose. She found his eyes, which were open. He was watching her, not that he could see much. She leaned down then and kissed him. He hissed and she drew back a little, relieving some pressure. He kissed her back then, slowly, gently, like sipping from a cup. She had to fight the urge to crawl onto his lap, knowing he was in no condition for her to do that.
"I have to go to my room."
"Here? You want me to sleep here? There's only the one bed."
"It's not like I'm going to be able to do anything to you."
"You say that now."
"Princess, I assure you that kiss hurt me more than you will ever know."
"It did? I'm sorry."
"It was worth it, but I'm not going to jump your bones. I just." She saw him shrug those broad shoulders and she knew she'd do anything he asked just then. He seemed so lost.
"I'll stay. Won't he come looking for you?"
"No, he's sleeping it off I'm sure. Only consolation is he was so drunk he passed out in the middle."
"How did you get to the hospital?"
"The nurse is my mom's friend, she was going on-duty when my mom called her."
"I'm so sorry, John."
"Don't. I don't want your pity. Do you think I want that? Don't you know why I've avoided seeing you since that day?"
"Just this. That look in your eye when I first saw you at the hospital."
"Oh my God, you need someone, something good in your life. You don't think you deserve that?"
"You volunteering for the job?"
"Are you going to be an ass about it?"
He laughed then and hissed, clutching his side. "No laughing."
"I'll try to be more serious. John, you don't have to do this alone."
"I'm always alone."
"Well, you've dragged me into it now. I'm not going to go away. You had to know that."
"I suspected, yeah."
"Do you want me to go away?"
"Is that a trick question, Princess?"
"I had them call you, didn't I?"
It was the closest she was going to get to him admitting anything. She understood why he wouldn't be real forthcoming with his feelings or emotional displays. She could push him when he wasn't in a real good state of mind or let it rest.
"Come on lie down. I'll look in the closet for a blanket."
"You should go to your room."
"No, I'll stay. You said you wanted me to stay."
She shrugged. "Let me worry about them. My dad would take one look at you and know you can't hurt me."
"Not physically anyway."
She walked to the closet, felt on the shelf for a blanket. "Are you planning on hurting me, John? Did you call me to the hospital tonight just so that you could hurt me?"
"You never know. A guy like me."
"You're a regular guy. You're no different than anyone else."
"Other than being used as a human punching bag."
"Don't say that. Now lay down."
"You sure can be bossy."
"You called me, remember?"
"I remember. If I'd known it would be this easy to get you into bed."
"Shut up. You said you weren't going to be an ass."
"You don't have to stay. Your parents would freak if they found you in here with me."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. I'm just about out of it anyway."
"I'll have my mom call me in sick in the morning and come here as soon as they've both left for work."
"I didn't think mom's like yours worked."
"She didn't until I was older."
She spread the blanket over him, making sure he was as comfortable as he could get.
"The bathroom is through here," she said, turning on the bathroom light. "There's no phone here, so you'll have to make do until morning."
"I'll be fine."
"Okay. I'll stay for a little while, I'm awake anyway."
She couldn't remember him using her name before. It was always Princess or some variation of the jibe. "Yeah?"
"No sweat. I'm glad you called. It seems we can't hide from one another what we're really like. I can't think of very many people who would think I'd help them like this."
"It would seem so."
She leaned over and kissed him, placing her hand over his. "Get some rest, John. You need it."
"That bad, huh?"
She closed her eyes, fighting back the tears. She was okay as long as she didn't think about it too hard. What had been done to him. Who had done it.
"It's not so bad."
"Liar. I guess that means taking you to that club you like this weekend is out. You know, as a way to say thanks." His words were becoming more and more slurred. It was a good sign the painkiller was doing its job.
"I think that's out so you'll have to find another way to thank me."
"I'll think on that."
"You do that." She had no intention of returning to her room, not until she had to. She had to be sure he got the rest he needed. She imagined at some point tomorrow he'd want her to bring him home. She hated the idea of doing that, it didn't seem right. But she wondered if there wasn't anything she wouldn't do either to protect one of her parents.
His breathing grew slower and steadier. His grip on her hand loosened and eventually slid out of hers entirely. It was only then that she let go and cried. The tears had threatened to fall since she'd stepped into that hospital room but she'd managed to stop them not wanting to upset him more than he already was.
Two Weeks Later
It was now or never. Tomorrow was the last day of school and if he waited until then she'd probably tell him off. Not that he'd blame her. He hadn't gone out of his way to completely avoid her this time. They'd passed in the halls a couple of times, but he'd always kept on going. He hated the look in her eyes. Pity. He didn't want that from her. He'd decided last night that it wasn't pity that had made her take two days off of school to stay with him. At least he had to find out if it was or not.
Truth was, he didn't want to risk walking up to her and having her blow him off in front of everyone. He was slowly recovering from the latest beating he'd been on the receiving end of. There hadn't been any others recently. There never were when it was as bad as this one was. For another week or two he would stop drinking and he and his mother would be safe.
He wasn't sure he could take rejection from her right now. He was still too raw, too bruised on the inside as well as the outside from having to call her. He still wasn't sure why he'd done it. He'd carried her number around with him since that day, but had never used it. It was better that way, he'd convinced himself of that. She was out of his league, he'd do nothing but bring her down. Girls like her didn't go for a guy like him for the right reasons.
There'd been no status differences the couple of days they spent together. She snuck him into her house when her parents left for work and they'd watched TV, played cards and just hung out. It wasn't something he was used to doing, especially with a girl. It had seemed comfortable, though, and that bothered him most of all.
A year ago had he been in her house he would have cased it, and she probably would have known what he was doing. That didn't happen now, though. He had sensed no hesitation on her part to show him her house, how she lived. She trusted him. It had been like a kick to his already sore ribs when he'd realized that was the case. No one trusted him.
That was his own fault, he did it on purpose. The less people that knew about his home life the safer his mom was. He believed he was close to getting her to leave with him this time. He'd been bad off before now, but never this bad.
Pushing those thoughts from his mind he approached her locker. She was talking to someone on the other side of her locker he couldn't see. Everyone he passed was talking about the upcoming summer. Vacations, plans. Nothing he knew anything about.
"My parents want to take me to France for a couple of weeks as a graduation present. I just can't see spending two weeks with them, though."
It was then that he had second thoughts. Trips to France. Way out of his league. He was lucky if he could afford a trip to Great America.
He turned when he spotted her shutting her locker with a shake of his head. Who was he kidding? They had two good days together. That was all it was. He was an idiot for thinking they had anything in common. That she'd have anything to do with him normally.
He stopped and turned around. He knew what he looked like. The bruises on his face were healing but were still a nice assortment of colors making him look pretty freakish. His eyes met hers and he saw that she was happy to see him.
"Claire, hey. I was just."
"Yeah, I know what you were doing." She walked toward him. She reached up to touch his face, stopped herself and let her hand fall to her side. "How are you?"
She didn't seem to notice the others nearby watching them. He did, though, and it wasn't a stretch of his imagination to realize what they were probably thinking.
"I'm fine," she said with a casual shrug. He saw the hurt in her eyes, though.
"Listen, I just wanted to say thanks."
"Is he bugging you, Claire?"
"No, Jason, he's not."
"You come with bodyguards?"
"Oh, right, he was king to your prom queen. I missed the coronation, but I get it. Like I said, I just wanted to say thanks. Have a good summer, a good life I guess."
"Is that it?"
"What do you mean is that it?"
"I just want to make sure. Because, you know, the next time I get a call in the middle of the night I might just hang up."
"It won't happen again. I promise you that."
She raised a hand to her temple and rolled her eyes. "Why are you doing this?"
"Acting like an ass. You said you'd stop."
"I guess I don't know any other way to be."
"Whatever. If that's how you want it to be I'm not going to stop you."
"Yes, because God forbid the princess has to do any work."
People were watching now. It wasn't every day someone like him got into a deep conversation with someone like her in the halls. He saw the tears swimming in her eyes and had to force himself not to care.
"I know what you're doing."
"What am I doing? Enlighten me?"
"You're pushing me away. I saw something you would rather I didn't see so now you're doing this so I'll forget about it. About you."
"You'd forget about me anyway. I'm pretty certain of it. You'll go to college, join your sorority, meet some good looking frat guy who's studying to be an astrophysicist or something, you'll get pinned or whatever it is they do these days, get married, have your 2 kids, house in the suburbs with a dog and maybe a cat. And you'll forget all about the Bender's of the world."
"Oh my God, would you stop!"
He shook his head. "No. I just came to say thank you, to let you know I was okay. You're the one making a big deal out of it."
"I told you that you didn't deserve to go through this alone."
"I'm better off alone, Princess. You're too high maintenance for me anyway. Trips to France aren't in my future."
"You think I care about that?"
"I think you don't want to believe you do, but if you were to have a change in lifestyle. Yeah, I think you'd be pretty pissed."
"You think I'm that shallow? Out for myself?"
He didn't really, because if she was she wouldn't have come for him. Certainly, she wouldn't have brought him home with her. It was better this way. A clean break, no more dwelling on anything that could be. She belonged with the Jason's of the world, not the Bender's. He wasn't sure what, if anything, he deserved.
"If the shoe fits."
"You're an ass."
"So you keep saying. I thought you were smart enough to have figured out by now I really am."
He wasn't easily surprised, liked to think he'd seen most of everything there was to see. Claire Standish dropping her books, grabbing him by the front of his worn flannel shirt and kissing him in the middle of the high school's hallway managed to do just that. The bell rang, signaling that it was time to make their way to classes. He wanted to push her away, turn from her. No, that wasn't true. He didn't want to, but knew he should. He kissed her back, cursing himself all the while.
She drew away, just a little. He watched as she ran her tongue over her lips. He was sure she didn't mean it to look as alluring as it did. The lipstick she wore made her lips like ripe and plump cherries. They were mouthwateringly appealing and he wanted more.
"What was that?"
"A way to get you to shut up."
"That's one way to do it."
"And to prove to you I don't care."
He stooped to pick up her books, handing them to her before placing his hands on her arms.
"So, now that I've made a fool of myself in front of all of my friends."
"Why'd you do that?"
"Because this is just stupid. You had that nurse call me for a reason. Whatever the reason I don't know. But you brought me in to it. You did that, so you can't just kick me out because I don't know why. And then you show up at my locker today. And for what? To turn around and walk away? Who does that?"
"Guys like me."
"Well, stop it. If I was sure all those bruises were healed I'd hit you."
"Thank you for refraining."
"You owe me a night out. You said you'd do that."
"I vaguely remember something like that."
"I'm not letting you get out of it. Especially now."
"Why especially now?"
"I just kissed you in front of the whole school! Now you have to so that my reputation isn't ruined."
"Far be it from me to ruin a girl."
She kissed him again, briefly. They were both going to be late for class. "Meet me at my car after school?"