I found out where Charlie and Hadley would be eating for dinner and Blake and I went to the other cafeteria. I’d only known him for three days and this was what he was calling our first “official date”, I didn’t want to risk having to share him with my friends. Blake secured the most secluded spot he could find, a two-person table that was on the second level of the cafeteria. It was essentially deserted aside from the occasional other couple in search of the same isolation. Blake grabbed a hamburger and a large plate of fries while I stuck with a salad. I mostly picked at my food while he devoured his.
“How was your week?” He asked.
“It was fine,” I explained, “I’m still getting used to my roommate and living here.”
He pointed a French fry in my direction as he asked, “What’s her name again?”
“Hadley,” He said slowly, “Where have I heard that name before?”
I shrugged, “She keeps to herself mostly. Maybe you’ve had her in a class with you?”
He smiled, unconcerned, “Maybe.”
“Who is your roommate?”
“A guy named Mike.”
I laughed, “Very descriptive. I’ve had classes with like three Mike’s.”
Blake shook his head, “He’s a pretty bland guy, not even worth the mention.”
I sighed and asked, “So how was your week?”
“I feel like it flew by.” Blake explained, “I’ve been really busy, I joined the orchestra and we’ve had meetings every day this week for different stuff.”
“I’ve been emailing back and forth with the head of the orchestra about being the pianist. He wants me to audition later on in the semester. He said that my parts would be simpler so there’s no rush.”
He waved me off, “The first performance isn’t even until October. We’ve got plenty of time.”
I slid my half-eaten salad away from me and leaned forward with my chin in my hand, “So tell me about your family. You told me that your dad went here, what about your mom?”
He shrugged, “It’s pretty cut and dry really. My mom is a nurse. My dad commutes back and forth to Disney to do soundtracks when needed, other than that he teaches lessons. I’ve got two older brothers, Barton and Bennett, and a younger sister named, Bethany.”
“All ‘B’ names?” I said amused.
“All ‘B’ names,” He concurred. “My parents have absolutely no imagination.”
“I think it’s cute.”
“I hated it growing up, but I don’t mind it so much now.”
Before he could ask, I offered up the information, “I have two younger siblings. A sister, Crissy, and a brother named Jordan.”
“Do any of your siblings play music?”
I shook my head, “No. Just me.”
“My sister plays the Cello, but that’s it for my family’s musical talents aside from dad.”
My phone buzzed with a text from Hadley, she wanted to know when I’d be back to the room. I smiled at Blake, “It’s just my roommate.”
He raised a hand, “No worries.”
I texted her back telling her that I’d be heading that way soon and set my phone facedown on the table. “I should be getting back to my dorm soon, Hadley’s waiting on me.”
“Okay.” He fiddled with the wrapper to his straw for a long moment before he said, “So what happened with your dad. You said a car accident, right?”
I stiffened at the sudden change in conversation, “I was a kid, I don’t really remember it.”
He eyed me evenly as he said, “But you remember him, right?”
I bit my bottom lip, “No. I don’t.”
“Oh, gosh. That must suck. Did he play the piano too?”
I nodded, unable to speak for fear I might start crying if I did. He had played the piano, but it hadn’t been his emphasis, acting had. I might have followed him in that choice if I’d felt I could actually have a future in it. Either way, I wasn’t about to explain any of that to Blake. My dad was a touchy subject and always had been. It wasn’t that I didn’t absolutely love my step-dad because I did and he’d always treated me like his own, but there was always a part of me that wanted to have known my father. Instead, I was left with a ton of questions, questions I’d never had the guts to ask, and a deep desire to prove to myself that I was similar to the man I’d seen pictured in photos.
“Well, I’m sure you’d have made him proud.”
My chest hurt. “I’d like to hope so.”
“Are there any videos of him playing?”
I closed my eyes as the ache in my chest intensified. “I should go now.” I stood and grabbed my plate.
Blake stood too, his hand wrapping around my forearm as he said, “Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I didn’t know it’d bother you.”
I straightened and forced my eyes opened, “I’m not upset, Blake.”
“Well, you look upset.”
The smile I plastered on my face was as fragile as my heart felt, “I’m fine really. Hadley just texted me, she’s waiting. I should be going. It’s not a big deal.”
“Well, let me walk you back to your room.” Together we took out dirty plates to the conveyer belt that would transport them back into the kitchen.
It wasn’t until we were almost halfway to my dorm when he finally spoke again. “I’m sorry if I hurt you.”
He had hurt me. I swallowed and shrugged, “It’s fine, really.”
He sounded genuinely curious as he asked, “Why does it upset you so much if you don’t remember your dad?”
I shrugged, “I don’t know. I guess I just hate the feeling of not knowing. I don’t know anything about him, not really. Just that he went to school here and that he loved the theater. I just feel like I know him when I’m involved in those things too.”
Blake’s fingers found mine and he took a tight hold on my hand, “That really sucks.”
I nodded and tried to steady my breathing as the same sharp pain in my chest struck me again. “It’s not a big deal,” I lied.
“Even so, I can’t image not knowing my dad. He’s such a big part of my life.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what I could say.
Blake didn’t seem to notice my quiet dismay, he kept talking, “I mean, you’ve got your step dad so you’ve sort of got a replacement.”
Replacement. That word hit me with a dread that I hadn’t felt since I was a child. I’d barely understood anything that was happening when my mother had met and married Jackson. I remember being about four years old and my mom sitting me down on the edge of her bed, putting her hands on my shoulders and telling me that Jackson wasn’t meant to be a replacement for my dad.
“He’s just going to love you and take care of you since your daddy couldn’t anymore.” She’d told me, “He can’t be here, but Jackson can. You’ve got double the love, Gemmy. That’s all. I don’t want you to ever think that Jackson is a replacement.”
And I’d never seen him as one. Those two men were completely separate in my mind. I loved my birth father, maybe more than was actually warranted. I knew that. I knew that I’d always glorified who I imagined him to be since I’d been left to fill in most of the blanks for myself. I’d made my birth father into someone who he probably wasn’t. And I adored that image of him. That didn’t mean that I loved Jackson any less. In fact, I loved him as much – because he was himself. He’d taken me to piano practices before I could drive myself. He’d be the one to pick me up from sleepovers at three in the morning when I’d had a nightmare and couldn’t sleep. He was the person who showed up at all of my recitals, plays, performances and awards ceremonies. But he never filled the hole left by my father and I’d never expected him to. My heart had just expanded to create a Jackson sized space.
So I wasn’t sure why I reacted the way I did when Blake mentioned my stepfather as a replacement. I started to cry. It was dark and I was a quiet crier, so I’m not sure he even noticed. He kept right on talking, “Were you treated differently than your younger siblings? You know since they’ve got their real father and you don’t. I’d imagine it’d be kind of hard not to play favorites when it comes to your own kids verses another guy’s.” He nudged my shoulder playfully and said, “He didn’t lock you in the attic and make you a maid like Cinderella, did he?”
“No.” It was all I could manage in my current state. I was seconds from sobbing and I was determined not to do it in front of anyone. I pulled my hand out of his grasp and picked up speed. We were only a few feet from my dorm and I wanted to say goodnight and get inside before I really lost it.
He hurried to catch up with me, “Gemma? Is everything alright?”
I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. I was reminded of my middle school piano recital when I’d had such an episode that I passed out and had to be taken to the hospital. I’d just had an intense case of stage fright then, not that it mattered. I didn’t handle high-stress situations well. I tended to shut down or overthink and hyperventilate. My fingers were shaking as I dug into my pocket for my ID to get myself into the building.
Blake was next to me in seconds, his hands moving up to cup my shoulders. He turned me away from the door and towards him gently. “Hey, Hey,” He whispered, “It’s alright. You kept saying it wasn’t a big deal.”
“I-I should g-go.” I stuttered as my breathing hitched and wheezed as I fought to speak.
“Calm down, you look like you’re going to pass out.” He took a step closer to me. Instinctively I tried to step away but there was no space. He’d positioned my hips against the brick façade of my building and I was trapped between his body and the wall. His hands grabbed my upper arms and pinned them to my sides, his grip so hard it brought frightened tears to my eyes.
I placed my hands on his chest and pushed, “Please?” I didn’t sound certain or strong as I said it, but I used every bit of strength I had to shove him away from me. He stepped backward as I pushed him, but as soon as I relaxed my arms he was back, his chest pressed against mine.
His hands moved up to cup my face and for a second I thought he might try to kiss me. He tilted his head and leaned in towards my lips. I froze, panic and shock making every muscle in my body tense as Blake took a deep breath, his lungs expanding with air at the exact instant mine seemed to seize up. His hands on either side of my face tightened their grip until he was holding me still, my head braced against the hard brick wall. My heart felt like it was exploding. Thousands of tiny shards of pain overwhelmed my chest until I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t cry or beg or even move for the sheer intensity of it.
A high-pitched voice broke through the white noise, “Gemma?” I cut my eyes towards the entrance to my dorm to see a girl’s form silhouetted against the bright light from inside.
Blake turned towards the girl who’d called my name, but he didn’t back away from me. His mouth stayed hovering centimeters from mine.
“Gemma, is that you?” As she spoke she stepped forward, the silhouette morphing into my roommate. Hadley’s expression was one of deep concentration. She barely looked at me; all of her attention was locked on Blake. “Back up.”
As if in pure defiance to her words, Blake took a step closer to me. I dug my fingers into the cotton of his t-shirt and tried to push him away but he was strong, much stronger than his skinny frame had led me to believe.
Hadley inched closer to us, her eyes never leaving Blake as she did. “Let her go. She isn’t weak enough and you know it.” Her words were strange, not at all the screaming for help or begging for my release that I felt should have been happening. She was trying to reason with Blake, her body language seeming to scream I come in peace. “Let her go and try to find someone else while you still have the chance.”
Blake remained where he was, his hands holding my head against the rough texture of the brick wall behind me. There was a flicker in his eyes as he made a choice and then he was leaning towards me again. This time his mouth didn’t just hover over mine – this time he kissed me. He yanked at my hair as he forced my mouth open with his. I screamed, but no sound came out. He swallowed the noise, the air I tried to breathe, the oxygen from my lungs and my blood stream until I felt something seem to give way inside of me. My vision wavered and I felt my knees give out. My mind was caught between pure terror and the desire to stay exactly where I was. This was good. I wasn’t sad anymore. The emotions that I’d been feeling, the hurt and loneliness that Blake had reminded me of, where becoming memories as a welcome blankness overcame me. I felt nothing.
I heard Hadley curse and before I could register what was happening, Blake was stumbling away from me. He crouched slightly in pain, his hand pressed to the side of his face. She’d hit him. Blake spit blood on the ground and straightened, moving towards me again. Hadley grabbed my arm and hauled me towards the door. I didn’t feel my legs move, but I was walking. She kept herself between Blake and me, her grip on my arm only loosening once she’d pushed me inside our dorm. I slumped against the wall next to the stairs and held onto the wooden railing for dear life. Hadley seemed to struggle with the choice of whether she should confront Blake again. Her facial expression was still stony, but her eyes looked frightened. After a split second, the time it took for Blake to move towards us, Hadley yanked the large glass door shut, effectively locking him out.
Blake didn’t leave; he just braced his hands against the glass and leaned forward, his gaze still locked on me. Hadley’s fingers trembled as she dug into her pocket for her cell phone. She hastily dialed a number and held the phone to her ear. She began pacing back and forth in the tiny entryway, “Come on – come on – come on.” She hissed, bringing the phone down to view the screen. She’d been sent to voicemail.
“Damn it. Where the hell are you, Charlie?” She dialed again. Voicemail again. “Charlie, pick up your phone. Now. It’s an emergency.”
Blake began tapping a little rhythm against the glass. He hadn’t stopped leering at me. I wanted to stand up, to turn away from him, to cry – but I couldn’t do any of that. I could barely stay standing. “Hadley?” I didn’t recognize my own voice as I spoke. I sounded older. “H-Hadley, y-you…you hit him.” I couldn’t steady myself enough to keep from stuttering. I dug my nails into my arm and tried to regain control, I felt shaken to my very core. “Y-you h-hit him. You hit B-Blake.”
It was such a stupid thing to say, such a stupid little detail to be fixated on, but it was the only thing that seemed halfway reasonable about this entire thing. My roommate didn’t even glance in my direction; she was too fixated on her cell phone. She left a second voicemail, “Charlie, please call me back. Please,” and then dialed him again. When he didn’t pick up this time, she pocketed her phone. She turned to look at me for the first time, her mouth pressed into a thin line and her eyes the size of saucers, telling me just how afraid she really was. “Gemma, can you make it up the stairs?” She asked.
My sweaty palms slipped against the railing and my legs were shaking uncontrollably, but I nodded anyway. If she wanted me to walk up the stairs, I’d do it. I’d do anything to get away from Blake’s hungry looking eyes. She walked to where I stood and grabbed my elbow trying to steady me as I began moving towards the first landing. Just as I’d taken my second step, Hadley’s phone rang. She let go of me and I let myself fall to a seated position on the stairs. I was thoroughly exhausted and, without her coaxing and supporting me, I couldn’t climb the steps alone.
“Charlie!” Hadley cried, holding the phone to her ear and walking a few steps away from me. “Where the hell are you?” I could here the murmur of a faint response but Hadley cut him off, not caring what he had to say, “You need to come to my dorm now.” Her eyes shot to me as Charlie asked her a question, she answered, “There’s someone at the back door.” She paused and then said, “He was with Gemma. I don’t know where she met him. Probably here – Yes, she’s fine. I promise. I’m with her.” Charlie said something and Hadley shook her head, “I won’t. You can’t force me into it.” She shut her eyes tightly and spun so that her back was to me and she was facing the wall, “Shut up, Charlie,” Her voice was raised like she was trying to speak over him, “don’t say that. I can’t. Just please hurry and get here.”
She hung up with him and when she turned back to face me she had tears in her eyes. I swallowed and asked, “W-What’s happening?”
She didn’t exactly answer me, instead, she just said, “Charlie’s on his way. It shouldn’t take him more than a few minutes; he was at the Student Center.”
I closed my eyes and tried to block out Blake’s persistent tapping. “I don’t understand what’s happening,” I whispered. “Everything was fine ten minutes ago.”
Hadley walked to me and grabbed my arm, “We need to go upstairs. I’ll come back down to let Charlie in when it’s finished.” She pulled me to my feet and began leading me back up the stairs. This time I didn’t go with her.
“Hadley, tell me what’s going on.”
She swallowed, “Let’s just go up to our room first.”
I shook my head and pointed to Blake, “H-He tried t-to…” I trailed off as I realized I didn’t know what Blake had been trying to do. Kiss me? No, it was more than that. “Hadley,” I turned my gaze up to meet her worried eyes, “Please…P-Please tell me, tell me what’s h-happening.”
She opened her mouth to say something to me, maybe to lie to me or to tell the truth but was cut off by an angry cry from someone outside. My eyes left my roommates and searched for the source of the noise. Charlie had arrived outside our dorm and he’d wasted no time in dealing with Blake. He’d grabbed him by the front of his shirt and propelled him backward and away from the glass door. The scream we’d heard had been the result of Blake’s head hitting the wall behind him. Blake, dazed by Charlie’s initial attack, shoved away from the wall and threw a punch. Charlie ducked and Blake’s fist collided with his collarbone.
The boy stumbled for a moment, lost for breath. Blake took advantage of Charlie’s momentary lapse in focus to punch him again, this time in the face, hitting his intended target. Hadley cried out, the noise more anger than fear. Charlie didn’t wait for Blake to strike again; he lunged and grabbed hold of Blake’s head, bringing his knee up to strike the boy’s stomach as he did. He repeated the motioned three more times before he released Blake’s head and scurried away from him. Blake swayed a bit but didn’t fall. I thought for a second that Charlie would send him on his way. That Charlie would feel like he’d taught Blake a lesson for…well, whatever it was that he’d tried to do, and he might let him go. But that idea was shattered as Blake was tackled and shoved directly into the door, his head smacking the glass with such a force that it was a miracle it didn’t break.
I screamed as Charlie shoved his body hard against Blake’s causing the other body’s head to hit the glass one more time before it slumped forward. Charlie met Hadley’s gaze from over Blake’s shoulder and they exchanged a silent understanding. Hadley didn’t say anything, just grabbed my shoulders and spun me abruptly so that I was facing away from the door and could no longer see what Charlie was doing. I tried to turn back around but Hadley held me still, “Listen to me,” She said sharply, “You are going to walk up these stairs and go to our room. You aren’t going to talk to anyone, text anyone, call anyone. If someone speaks to you, smile and keep walking. Do you understand me, Gemma?”
I swallowed and fought her grip on me, “I d-don’t understand what’s-”
She interrupted me; “I’ll explain everything in a few minutes. Go upstairs and lock yourself in our room. I’ll let myself in. I’ve got my key. You don’t speak to anyone or let anyone in the room – got it?”
“Do you understand me, Gemma?” She demanded.
I nodded and she let go of my shoulders. I hurried up the stairs, moving as quickly as possible. As I reached the first landing I turned to look, pausing just long enough to see Charlie place a bloody hand on the glass door as he stepped away from Blake. I scurried up the other flight of stairs but just before the entry way disappeared from sight I could have sworn that I saw a knife in Charlie’s hand. Despite every instinct in my body, I did what Hadley had told me to do. I walked into my dorm room and locked the door.