The first few days following our break up were the worst. Emily stepped up as stage manager for the play, saving me the pain of having to work with him for hours every day. However, I couldn't escape his pained gaze and distraught glances completely. English became my own form of personal hell. What had once been a place of warmth and enjoyment, a place where I could stare openly at him and converse freely about our shared love of literature, had become a prison. I was the last to arrive and the first to leave each day. My hand was never raised. My papers never went above the bare minimum needed to scrape by. My eyes never lifted from my desk unless it was absolutely necessary. All in all it was just an existence-nothing more, nothing less.
Spencer, Emily, and Hanna were supportive, although I was fairly certain deep down they thought I'd made a mistake. And perhaps in some ways I had. What-ifs plagued me; what if I'd let him have a say, what if I'd over reacted? The thing about what-ifs though, is that there's never an answer. So, I shuttered my doubts beneath a guise of cheerfulness, throwing myself full time into schoolwork and my family.
And amazingly enough as the weeks passed it began to work. English was still hell. Every time Ezra would walk past my desk, or hand back a paper I'd forget how to breathe. Then there were the times when he'd force me to talk to him, asking me a direct question or requesting that I stay after class. But I didn't stay—I couldn't, for I knew if I did the wall I was carefully crafting to keep him out would come crumbling down. But for the most part I was healing. My smiles became genuine again. Life, after English class, was easy and for the most part carefree. "A" had even stopped harassing me, a blessing which unfortunately she hadn't bestowed upon the other girls.
By the time opening night of The Bad Seed rolled aroundI was so confident in my ability to control the constant ache in my heart that I agreed not only to attend the performance, but also to partake in the celebratory opening night party afterwards. Along with the rest of Rosewood, I dressed for the occasion. Straying from my usual black lace and tulle, I opted for a crimson number with a criss-crossed front and lightly flaring skirt. The hue of the dress was striking, but didn't stand out amongst the colorful crowd.
The play was marvelous and went off without any errors, save a microphone glitch in the middle of act two. Spencer was perfect and as terrible as it sounded, Hanna was born for the role of drunken mother. And although Emily wasn't on stage, the easy flow of the scenes could only be accredited to her flawless organization.
When the final bows were over and the curtain dropped, I was on my feet applauding as loudly as the rest of Rosewood. It truly had been wonderful. And then, just out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed Ezra coming down the side staircase of the stage and my heart plummeted. Suddenly the after party didn't seem like such a great idea. I tore my eyes away from him and followed the rest of the audience out of the theatre and into the cafeteria where the party was being held.
I'd managed to shake my gloomy attitude by the time Spencer and the others arrived, fresh off the stage with the costumes still on.
"Spencer, I must say that the grandma thing is a good look for you." She laughed and took off the apron she was wearing.
"Yeah, well you're not looking too bad yourself."
I did a little twirl. "Do you guys really like it? I know it's not my usual but-"
"Aria you look fantastic…" Hanna paused mid-sentence and glanced over my shoulder. "And someone else seems to think so to."
I shouldn't have looked, but I did. Ezra was standing just a few feet away talking to Spencer's father, yet he was staring at me. Our gazes met for just the briefest of moments and my stomach twisted into painful knots. Why was this so hard?
Suddenly the room was too hot. There were too many people. There was him. I needed to get away and get away fast. Tearing my gaze from him, I turned back to Emily who was muttering something about needing to get her camera out of the drama room.
"I'll be right back guys, I just need to get my camera. Can you…"
I cut her off. "I'll get it. I need to get some fresh air anyway. It's really hot in here."
The three of them looked at me skeptically. "It's freezing in here, Aria. What are you talking about?"
Spencer shot Hanna her classic you need to back off glare. "It's on the desk near the window. We'll be right here when you get back."
I fled the room, trying my best to ignore the way Ezra's eyes followed my every movement. The classroom was dark and empty, with no sign of the lively place it'd been just hours before the performance. The blackness seemed fitting to my mood though, and with a heavy sigh I sank into one of the chairs.
Why did everything have to be so hard? Why couldn't this breakup be like every other one I'd ever had—the kind where there's the awkward stage and then the eventual return to tentative friendship? Somehow I knew Ezra and I would never have that—we couldn't have that.
But I wanted it. I wanted it more than anything. Honesty had never been a strong suit of mine, but at this point I had to admit to myself that what I missed most, what I needed most was him. The old saying "you never know how good you have it until it's gone" seemed to be the perfect summary for how I felt. I hadn't just lost a lover when I ended things; I'd lost my best friend. And the knowledge that I'd been the one to get myself in this situation stung more than anything else.
I slumped farther into the chair and brushed a few tears from my eyes, doing my best to keep my mascara from smearing. Coming tonight had been a mistake—ignoring him was impossible. Outside, the moon was full and high, its eerie glow casting garish shadows upon the walls of the classroom. I shivered involuntarily and stood from the chair. I couldn't help but flashback to the night of homecoming and the terrible events that had occurred when Emily had wandered off from the rest of us.
I was just reaching for her camera when the sound of heavy footsteps entering the room caught my attention. I whirled towards the noise, my heart thundering wildly and my breath catching in my throat. Much to my relief—for the immediate moment anyway—it was only Ezra. The rapid beat of my heart subsided slowly, though my pulse was still racing.
"You scared me."
His warm gaze met mine for a brief instant before he turned and shut the door to the classroom. "I'm sorry."
It was a loaded statement and I instinctively knew he was referring to far more than his arrival.
I nodded in acknowledgement of his apology and shifted uncomfortably, rocking back and forth on my heels. "I should—I should get back to the party, Emily's going to wonder where her camera is." Taking the camera in hand, I started towards the door; my path arcing wide to avoid him.
I sighed heavily and my hand fell from the doorknob.
"Can we just talk? It won't take long, I promise."
My eyes flickered closed for the briefest of moments, the note of desperation in his voice piercing my heart. "Sure." I set the camera down on the nearest desk before turning to face him.
He crossed the room to stand before me, pausing only a few feet away.
I wrapped my arms tightly around my middle, mostly out of habit, but also because I felt like I needed to hold myself together—both literally and mentally.
"Are you cold? Here, take my jacket…"
"I'm not-" But it was too late, he'd already shrugged the suit coat off and draped it around my shoulders. The smell of his cologne enveloped me, both comforting and arousing at the same time. The fabric was warm, and I sighed softly. "Thank you."
He gave a half smile—tentative, and so unlike his usual grin. Until that moment I don't think I'd fully realized how deeply I'd hurt him. For weeks Emily, Spencer, and Hanna had made remarks about how distant he'd seemed, how his gaze would fall on me in class and there'd be an expression of absolute despair on his face. I'd brushed them off—I hadn't noticed- but then again, I hadn't really been looking.
"The play was fantastic." It was the best I could come up with, and it seemed safe enough territory that I'd be able to keep myself in check.
"It was wasn't it? Spencer was phenomenal."
I nodded. "She was. Mona surprised me too." I smiled gently and gave a little giggle. "I didn't know she had it in her."
There it was again—that partial smile. "She was pretty good, wasn't she?"
He took a few steps towards me, his mouth set in a sad, thin line. "Aria, I didn't come to talk about the play."
I bit my lip nervously and glanced away from him. "I know."
"I miss you."
"No, you got to talk last time. It's my turn." I'd never really heard him angry—upset yes- but never angry. "I miss you, Aria—so much. So much that I can't think of anything else. And it doesn't matter what I do or where I go—you're there. In the classroom, at my apartment—everything reminds me of you."
"Let me finish."
I nodded slid my arms into the coat.
"Don't you see that this is hurting both of us? I'm miserable, you're miserable—nothing good has come of this. This charade we're playing at is foolish—I think we both know that. And I was an idiot for saying what I did. There's no future if we're not together, Aria. There's not." He sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "So can we just—can we give us another shot?"
I'd listen to his speech in silence, tears welling in my eyes as he spoke. We had both been fools—great fools-I, for thinking that ending things would solve our problems, and he for constantly trying to talk himself out of the relationship.
"Please, Aria." He opened his arms and I flew into them with a sob, his name a broken whisper on my lips.
"I'm so sorry, Ezra. I thought if we…"
"But…" He kissed me then, his lips closing over mine roughly. I gasped into the kiss, my fingers threading through his hair, tugging him closer to me.
"I love you, Aria." He swept a curly lock of hair from my shoulder and rested his forehead against mine gently.
"I love you too, Ezra." My arms wrapped snuggly around his middle and my head rested just above his heart.
"Can you come over tonight?"
I pulled away from him and nodded. "Ummm—sure. I rode with Hanna so I'll..."
"You can ride with me."
My eyes widened. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "Probably not, but we're pretty good at being sneaky." Finally, the grin I'd missed so dearly curved on his lips.
"We are, aren't we? Alright, well I need to take the camera to Emily first, and tell Hanna I found another way home."
He nodded and opened the door for me. "See you in ten minutes?"
I smiled and stepped out into the darkened hallway.
He chuckled lightly and tucked a wayward curl behind my ear. "You probably shouldn't wear my jacket back out there."
"Right, I'm sorry. Here…" I slid it off my shoulders and handed it back to him. "Ten minutes."
He smiled warmly. "Ten minutes."
I turned to go, but he caught my hand again.
"You look beautiful tonight."
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I blushed and smiled shyly before heading down the hallway again, the click of my heels on the cold tile the only sound in the still night.