Wow. It sure feels weird realizing there's only one more chapter to go. Exciting, but, a bit sad.
I did not include any descriptions in this chapter that would change the rating to M. I know some people hoped I would, but I never intended to do so from the start. It doesn't suit Rob's character, and I frankly don't enjoy writing smut.
Of course, I couldn't exactly stay there forever. Time wasn't going to stop just for the sake of my romantic angst, and I had other responsibilities to take care of. Still, I stood there in silence for at least fifteen minutes, barely breathing, trying my hardest not to think.
Then I took a deep breath, stood up straight, and turned on the sink. I splashed water on my face a few times, and wiped myself dry with a stray cloth. If I'd been alone at home, I would have then spent the rest of the night working on the Harley awaiting my attention, but there was still Hannah and Gwen to deal with. I hadn't heard them leave, and hopefully at this point they'd stopped crying – it had been almost an hour since Gwen had arrived, after all. I knew from experience that Hannah had some pretty impressive tear ducts, but they had to run out at some point.
Even so, I was cautious entering the house, listening hard for any stray sniffling. All was quiet, though, and in fact Gwen was alone when I entered the living room. I experienced a brief moment of panic – Hannah was gone – but Gwen looked far too calm for that, so I relaxed and sat down where she was patting the couch next to her.
Gwen nodded her head at the ceiling. "Hannah's packing," she said quietly.
I sort of chuckled and sighed at the same time. "I told her to do that last night… But then, I don't think she's been listening to me much." This seemed as good a moment as any, and after a momentary pause, I said, "I'm so sorry for everything that's happened. I – I let your daughter get into this sort of mess, and I can't ever apologize enough."
To be perfectly honest, I half-expected Gwen to smack me or something at this point. We'd hated each-other at first, and although that had been because of Hannah's lies, Gwen's next impression of me had been that awful phone call in which I told her that her daughter had gone missing and I couldn't find her. There had been a lot of screaming, and some pretty impressive threats. So, even though we'd started to work together after a few days, and I'm sure she was glad I'd helped find Hannah in the end, I wasn't exactly expecting any friendly overtures from Gwen. This was a shame, as she was actually a pretty cool person, but I thought it was just something I was going to have to deal with.
In point of fact, it was not. Gwen didn't hit me, or yell, or even glare. Instead, she smiled warmly and even patted my hand.
"It's not your fault, Rob," she said in a quiet voice, "so don't blame yourself. If anything, I failed as a mother, being too caught-up in my love life to realize the kind of danger my girl was getting into." Her eyes welled up, and she snatched another tissue from the box on the coffee table in front of her. About twenty crumpled ones already littered the table.
I waited awkwardly while she blew her nose, dabbed at her eyes, and tossed the tissue on the table with the rest. When she finished this routine, Gwen looked back at me. This time there was no trace of a smile on her face, only a cold, steely expression. "But I'm not going to make that mistake again. As soon as Hannah finishes packing, we're going to go down to the station, and do out part to help put that jerk away for the rest of his life."
The word she used was not actually 'jerk'.
I nodded, and told her I'd do all I could to help. What this ended up amounting to wasn't actually all that much – I put Hannah's bags in the car for her, and then followed along to the police station on my motorcycle.
Once we had arrived, I went through the familiar process of waiting, waiting, waiting, answering a lot of repetitive questions, waiting some more, writing down my statement and signing it, waiting again, then being dismissed and going out to pace in the front room and wait a lot longer for my companions to finish their much lengthier testimonies.
Not for the first time, I found myself kind of missing Johnson. He would have annoyed me, but it was kind of amusing to see him get more and more irritated as I continued to answer his questions without giving him the answers he wanted. It was almost a game between us for a while, in which he would try to get me to admit to blowing up his car (I think at this point it was more out of stubbornness than any real attachment to the vehicle), and I would 'innocently' evade his queries. Of course, I actually was innocent of that particular crime, but Johnson was determined not to believe that.
To this day, on the Christmas card I got from the Special Agents each year, while Special Agent Smith's note would be along the lines of 'happy holidays' or 'hope you're doing well', Johnson always wrote something like 'confession is good for the soul' or 'stay on the straight & narrow'. In return, the one I sent him usually had, instead of a Christmas-related image, a picture of a car on the front. Just to mess with him.
He would be a pleasant distraction right now. As it was, the best I could do was pace quickly back and forth, and concentrate on waiting for Hannah to finish telling her side of the story. Otherwise I stood a very good chance of sinking back into the deep melancholy my conversation – argument – with Jess had created.
Luckily I was by this point very practiced in pacing and waiting, so the next million hours or so I spent in the police station weren't too much of a challenge. And in the end, the wait actually paid off – which wasn't something I was used to. Of course, in the long run, I expected a big payoff from this – Randy Whitehead was going to suffer from Hannah's testimony, and anything that would put him in jail a bit longer was something I was willing to support. I was even thinking of paying my dad a visit to let him know the particulars of Randy's reason to be there. Not that a guy like Randy would do well in prison anyway, but he'd messed with my little sister. I had no mercy for him.
I hadn't expected any immediate benefits to come from just sitting around in the police station like always, though. But I got one – a pretty significant one, a benefit that went a long way toward making me feel better about… well, about what a mess I'd made of everything.
After she'd finished talking to the police, Hannah came out to the waiting room, and immediately launched herself into my arms in a tight hug. Baffled at the sudden change in attitude, but more than willing to accept it, I hugged her back.
"Rob," she said after pulling away, already starting to sniffle. "I… I'm so sorry! I should've listened to you, but – I'm so stupid!"
She launched forward into another hug, this one serving the dual purpose of allowing her to convey to me just how guilty she felt, and also letting her discreetly wipe her drippy nose on my shirt. I winced, but didn't pull away.
For a long time we just stood there, hugging each other. Finally, we stepped back at the same time. Hannah tried to apologize again, but I just smiled at her. "I think we both did some pretty stupid things. But it's okay now. Maybe we should just… leave it at that."
Hannah seemed very touched by this statement. "Y-yeah," she mumbled, voice wavering, and blew her nose honkingly into a tissue she produced out of her pocket. I wondered where that had been when she'd been wiping snot on my shirt just a minute ago. "Crap!" she mumbled, "I'm so sick of crying!"
"Me too," I replied honestly, and she rolled her eyes. I grinned a little at that, and she grinned back, and for a moment it was like the whole Randy business had never happened and we were sitting on my living room floor eating chips and rereading all my old Spiderman comics. Like we were just… having fun, brother and sister.
Then Gwen cleared her throat, and we both jumped back into the present, belatedly realizing that we'd played that whole little interaction out in front of a rather bemused officer at the desk.
Gwen and Hannah left pretty quick after that, to be honest. We actually parted ways in the police station parking lot; they were pretty eager to get back home, I guess. But that was okay. Gwen didn't hate me, Hannah didn't hate me and actually had promised to call me every couple of days to talk, starting tomorrow. And of course, Randy Whitehead Junior was going to be spending a lot of time behind bars.
All in all, things were looking pretty good – or, well, they would have been, if it weren't for Jess. Not that I'm blaming her, exactly. Just like I'd said to Hannah – both of us had made mistakes.
But the problem with Jess was, unlike Hannah, she didn't exactly care to mend her relationship with me. She probably didn't know what she wanted right now… but after the episode in the barn, I had a sinking surety that whatever it was no longer involved me. After all, her reaction to my – I guess you could call it a proposal, though it was equally an argument – was anything but pleased. More like horrified.
Thoughts like these quickly brought back my bad mood, and I tried my best to shove them away by returning to the barn and working on the Harley waiting there. It helped a little, but not much.
I eventually quit trying when I caught myself staring vacantly at the barn doors for the fifth time in as many minutes, as though hoping Jess would waltz right back in and declare her undying love for me (yeah, right). In the state I was in, I wasn't getting much done, and I knew it.
But I didn't stop trying to distract myself. Okay, so work wasn't cutting it – next I tried schoolwork. Unfortunately, as the fall semester hadn't started yet, that particular attempt didn't last much longer than me checking once again to see if the course books had been announced, seeing that they had not, and giving up. Fine. Next I turned to literature and TV.
But I'd already read all of the old spy books in the house, and while normally I didn't mind rereading them, today I couldn't focus my attention at all. That went for television as well. I didn't want to just sit around and mope, honestly I didn't. Stuff like that is pretty repugnant to me, actually. It's just that… I couldn't focus on much of anything else than the sound of Jess's feet, walking permanently out of my life.
Finally I gave up, and just went out for a drive on my Indian. Whizzing along the concrete, wind rushing loudly past my helmet, I was actually able to let go of my melancholy thoughts. For a short while, anyway, but it was better than nothing; and I stayed out driving until after the sun had set.
After arriving home, I ate dinner, and headed off to the shower, intending to go straight to bed. To be honest, I also really wanted a drink (or lots of drinks), but somehow alcohol didn't seem like the most responsible answer right now. Also, I didn't have any in the house (not when Hannah was visiting, and I never had much more than a few beers in the fridge anyway), and I definitely was not in the mood to head down to Chick's and deal with his prying. Even if it was more likely to be about Gwen's availability than about Jess and I, based on his behavior earlier today.
So I intended just to go to sleep. Maybe then I'd be able to just stop thinking about Jess, just for a couple of hours. But halfway through washing my hair, I was struck with a sudden, horrified thought – the ring.
The engagement ring. My grandmother's ring. The ring my mom had entrusted to me to keep safe. The ring I had thrown at Jess in a fit of pique earlier, which I had just left lying there for hours afterward.
Quickly, I finished my shower and threw on a t-shirt and some jeans, then rushed down to the garage to look for it. And look for it. And look for it. And kick the wall in frustration, and then look some more, because I couldn't find it anywhere.
Seriously. It just wasn't there. I searched every single corner of that damn place. I turned on every light, and even got out a flashlight to shine into every tiny little crack that a ring might possibly fit into. Heck, I even double-checked all the motorcycles, to see if the ring had somehow gotten caught on one somehow. I was on the verge of checking the drain for the sink, despite there being no possible way the ring could have ended up there, given the direction I'd thrown it.
Because really, the direction I'd thrown it was at Jess. Behind her was just a lot of floor, which meant that if it wasn't sitting on the floor – if it hadn't been kicked to the side or under a bike or something, which I now knew it definitely had not – then there was only one place the ring could be.
Jess had it.
I had no clue why. None. I hadn't even known that Jess had caught the ring when I'd thrown it at her, but she obviously must have. Still, her good reflexes might explain her catching the ring, but not keeping it. Why hadn't she just left if behind? I couldn't think of a good reason why she'd held on to it.
No, all I could think – in a terrifying, disbelieving daze – was that maybe she had kept it because she still felt –
I couldn't put words to it. Not even in my own mind. I think doing so would have felt like giving up on all my restraint and putting all my hope into believing such a crazy idea, even though I was convinced logically that there was no way that was the real reason. After all, just a few hours ago, Jess had quite clearly shown that she never wanted anything of the sort from me ever again.
But, logically, there was also no other reason for her to keep the ring. It didn't make any sense – and yeah, Jess rarely if ever made sense to me, but even so, I couldn't just explain away the ring's disappearance to myself that easily. I couldn't explain it away at all.
After doing this for some time, pacing violently about the barn, I was driving myself insane. I couldn't just stand around trying to think something like this out – that was impossible, given the warring hope and depression in my head.
And… well, it was an engagement ring after all. A family heirloom, to boot. Such an expensive, important thing – I was hardly out of my rights to attempt to discover what had happened to it, right? And to, maybe, finally just get a straight answer out of Jess, a flat-out rejection that could finally crush that last painful bit of hope I still harbored. Or maybe, rather than crushing that hope, she would prove it true…
I was hopeless.
So hopeless, I couldn't even wait until morning. I just hopped on my Indian and drove right to her house. Standing in the yard, throwing pebbles up at Jess's window, I felt several years younger all of a sudden, disconcertingly so. Hopefully she would wake up before anyone else did.
I grabbed up a second handful of stones, and was just about to toss them up at Jess's window again, when it opened and she popped her head out. "Hold on," she hissed down at me. "I'll be right down."
Then she disappeared from sight and the window closed again. I walked around to the front porch in a sort of daze. Even though I knew, I knew I couldn't possibly be right about why she'd kept the ring, I couldn't help but hope. I also couldn't seem to breathe right, and my heart was running a million miles an hour by the time she finally slipped outside and closed the door behind her.
Jess seemed to have been sleeping – no surprise considering it was after one in the morning – and was dressed in a simple robe over what looked like a shirt and some boxers. The clothing was quintessentially her, and I swallowed a lump in my throat.
"Hey," I said, unable to erase the question from my voice. What I really meant was more along the lines of hey, don't you have any idea of what you're doing to me?
Jess didn't seem to notice, too busy being quietly indignant. "They have this new invention now. It's called cell phones. You can call people now in the middle of the night, if you need to, instead of throwing rocks at their windows."
It had never even occurred to me to call Jess. But, even if it had… "You never gave me your phone number."
"Oh," Jess said, face reddening slightly. Then, a moment later, it began to grow very pale, and she shifted in place a little bit, before continuing, "Are you missing something? Something else, besides your sister, I mean? Is that why you're here?"
She definitely had the ring. She definitely had it, and the little corner of my brain that was afraid it had gotten permanently lost somehow finally relaxed. But at the same time, the rest of me went on hyper-alert. I felt almost dizzy with the rush of expectant adrenaline.
But when I spoke, my voice was steady. "My sister left this afternoon. With her mother. After stopping off at the police station for about a trillion hours. Hannah's not what I'm missing."
Jess didn't look surprised in the least. She lifted up her left arm – and there it was, sparkling on her finger. On the ring finger, even. I sucked in a sharp breath at the sight.
"You have it?" I asked through lips that felt numb. "God, I thought I was going crazy. I was looking everywhere."
"You couldn't wait until morning?" Jess asked me. "You had to come get it now, in the middle of the night?"
Words couldn't possibly describe just how much the answer to that question was yes, I did have to come get it now, how much I couldn't possibly wait for morning; so I didn't try.
Instead I said, "I didn't realize you must have taken it until a little while ago. And then I –"
I stopped. I couldn't say anything more. Jess was just standing there in her pajamas and cotton robe, staring at me, still holding up her left hand which bore the engagement ring I'd flung at her earlier. God. How could she possibly not realize what she was doing to me?
"You what?" she asked, proving that somehow, she really was just that oblivious to the effect she had on me. I shrugged.
"I had to know if you took it. Well, not so much if. More like… why."
Jess took a step closer to me, and tilted her chin up to meet my eyes – as much as she would've been able to in the shadows of the porch, anyway. The moon was lighting her face up as brightly as if it had been daytime, and the expression she wore nearly undid me right there.
"I don't know what to think," I said, with the air of a man who is about to put it all on the line because he has nothing left to loose, even though he knows he's losing his marbles. "The whole way here, I was thinking I was crazy. I mean, why would you take it? Unless…"
As if magnetized to her, I couldn't help but take a step closer to Jess. She was so close to me now. Just a few more steps away, with her eyes and the diamond ring glittering in the moonlight. If I was wrong about this… there would no recovery.
"Jess," I said cautiously. "What are you doing? Seriously."
"Seriously?" Jess repeated. She shook her head. "I really don't know. But you're like the hundredth person to ask me that today. Do you want it back?"
I couldn't think at all. Jess had finally managed to break my brain. "If you're not gonna marry me," I said, too out of it to even care that I was proposing again, and just as badly as the first time earlier today, "then, yeah, I want it back."
Jess's voice was tight and strange when she next spoke. "What if I am?"
"Am what?" I asked. But I knew what she was getting back. How could I not? I knew exactly what Jess meant, and yet at the same time I didn't understand at all.
I took another step forward, fully into the moonlight, and struggled for several seconds to speak. "Jess," I said warningly, and thought, don't do this. I couldn't stand it if you did this only to leave.
My warning didn't mean anything to her, of course. When had my warnings ever? Instead of heed my tone of voice, Jess just took a deep, deep breath.
Then she reached out, grabbed my shirt, and yanked me forward two stumbling steps, until we were right in front of each other. I could feel her body heat in the chilly night air. Her face was mere inches under my own.
Her lips were moving. "Rob," Jess said. "Will you marry me?"
I don't know how to say this – the world whited out. It all just cut off, everything, in a sudden jolt that left me incredulous and reeling and unable to think, breathe, move.
"You are insane," I told Jess, quite simply.
"I mean it," she insisted, still clinging to my shirt. She seemed… almost out of control, in a crazy, relieved sort of way. As if she couldn't believe the words that had just come out of her mouth and yet, knew they were all the absolute truth. "I've been an idiot. I had a lot of crap to deal with. And I think I'm done dealing with it now. Almost all of it, anyway. Obviously I still have to finish school – and so do you – and all of that. But when we're done with school, I think we should do it."
Jess probably didn't notice, but she was talking as though our relationship resuming was completely natural and inevitable. And I really wished it was; but in the numb daze that had descended over me, I found myself suddenly thinking of problem after problem that could get in the way.
I wanted this. I wanted it more than anything, so much so that I could scarcely believe I hadn't agreed yet. But there was something holding me back – from smiling, from agreeing, from reaching out and pulling her to me and kissing her until the rest of the world dropped away – and that was fear. I was afraid that if I agreed now, and anything happened later, anything, that could take this away… Well, I was afraid I'd just shatter completely.
I wouldn't be able to take Jess leaving me another time. I'd been such a mess the first time around, and now the stakes were so much higher. I just couldn't risk it.
So I kept my face very serious, and my voice calm, and I didn't do any of the things I wanted so desperately to do. I said, "What about your mom?"
"In case you haven't noticed," Jess pointed out, "I'm over eighteen. Besides, she'll come around. So, are you in?"
That was what did it for me, in the end. Only Jess would ever say that. Only Jess would ever propose to her ex-boyfriend after a year spent apart, by stealing his grandmother's engagement ring and standing on her front porch in the moonlight and saying, 'are you in?'
I found myself saying, "I'm in," before I could even think. All doubt had evaporated in that moment. All doubt, and all my other negative emotions too; everything had vanished totally, but for the sheer explosion of Jess – she just leapt at me, flinging her arms around my neck and kissing me, and the world was just completely blotted out.
But then she grabbed onto my shirt again and moved backward, tugging me after. I moved with her, grinning widely. I couldn't contain my grin at all, no more than I could think straight. "Jess," I asked, on the verge of laughing hysterically with pure joy. "What are you doing?"
"Shhhh," Jess hissed, and tugged again. She was grinning too. "Follow me. And be quiet or you'll wake them."
I let her drag me in as far as the entryway before I dug in my heels, though not with a great deal of force, I'll admit. "Jess," I whispered, as she shut the front door behind us with a quiet click and Chigger came over from the couch to give me a few brief licks in greeting. "Come on. This isn't right."
I doubt my words held much weight, given how I hardly even cared about them myself, and was probably still grinning, and just wanted to be holding Jess again – and probably they didn't.
Because Jess just said, "No one'll ever know," and came forward to hold my hand and tug me towards the stairs. "You can sneak out before they wake up. Besides, it's all right." She pulled forward, and I followed all too willingly, my entire being alight at the next words out of her mouth: "We're engaged."
Jess pulled me all the way upstairs, and into her room. It was the first time I'd ever been there, but I didn't take much time to look around, not when I could instead shut the door with a foot and hold her in my arms and kiss her and –
Well. The rest is really none of your business.