It took me a second. My heart was pounding so loud in my eardrums. The hallway, the crowd that had stopped to watch, they were starting to swim around me in circles. Faster and faster.
A hand grasped my arm and I heard a female voice, “Are you okay?”
I looked up. That wasn’t Siobhan. I was looking up, not down. It was Mia.
I had died. Only explanation for all this.
Mia was in my hell, and she was concerned. Then she shifted, looking at the guys. The second guy was Wyatt. No, wait. Maybe I wasn’t in hell. Maybe this was real, and then Lisa was there, too. She wasn’t turned toward me, but looking at the guy, instead, and she snarled. “I know Katja. She told me all about your dick. Stay away from our girl or I’ll put out a fucking announcement about how much you suck in bed.”
Lisa was defending me now?
No. I was wrong again. Hell had frozen over. We were all still alive, so that meant hell came up to us.
“Whatever. I just wanted to get Reeves’ autograph. That’s all.”
“By almost assaulting his woman? Great fucking idea. I’m sure he’d be happy about that.”
But the guy was leaving, along with his buddies.
Everyone turned to regard me then, and Lisa was first, still snarling. “Tell me that shit hasn’t been happening all morning?” She gestured down the hall. “I saw the guy recognize you and zero in. What a loser.”
Wyatt. Nacho. Mia. Lisa. They all came to my defense, and now they were all taking me in, then looking past my shoulder to Siobhan and Trent.
Wyatt put his hand out. “Hey. Wyatt. You’re friends with Dusty?”
A more tentative hand came from behind me, shaking Wyatt’s hand, and Trent’s voice matched, sounding shaky. “Uh. Yeah. We have class together.”
Lisa was nodding to Siobhan. “Dusty’s our housemate. We’ve gotten a little protective of her. Nice to meet you.”
Now that the coast was clear, Mia let go of my arm. She was back under Wyatt’s arm, his free hand hanging over her shoulder. And she wasn’t looking at me. Her nose and mouth were pinched, as if all of this was beneath her.
Lisa was the opposite. Her hands on her hips. Her eyes still flaring. “I’m fucking pissed! That phone was in your face. It almost hit you. I would’ve taken his balls if it were me. Is that how it was for you on Saturday? I can’t imagine Stone keeping his cool if it were.”
There were still people walking by. There were still people standing around, watching. The more they talked, the more I wanted to skip my last two classes and hide in Stone’s bed.
“I—” My voice cracked. “It wasn’t like that, but yeah. The guys got pissed Stone didn’t want to talk.”
“I can’t imagine. I’d be in jail by now if it were me.” Lisa grinned at Nacho, who put his arm around her shoulders. “Aggravated assault and battery. That’d be me.”
“Yeah.” He tapped her arm. “You don’t handle people being in your face that well.”
She waved her hand in the direction of where the guy went, a quick and almost savage motion. “I’d hospitalize the guy.”
Nacho said to me, “But you’re okay?”
Wyatt added, “Want us to call Stone?”
Jesus. They had his number. I wasn’t surprised. But I shook my head. “No, no. I’m good.”
“We got practice, but the girls could run you home if you needed?”
“Yeah.” First time Mia spoke, now looking at me again. “How’d you get to school today?”
More questions. More information. The crowd was still around them, but once they decided to stop dealing with them, it was like poof, they disappeared. But that wasn’t how it went, and there were still eyes, phones, and ears all around us.
But this was their world. I was just now a full-fledged member because of my association with Stone.
I said to Mia, “I’m good. I’ve got another class to head to.”
“You sure?” That was Nacho.
At my response, Mia’s face pinched up again and Wyatt nodded, an easy grin on his face. “Okay. We got lunch plans. You can join if you want?”
I knew where they had lunch. Varsity football members, their girlfriends, other friends, everyone knew they had lunch in the Quad at the main table. The truth was that this was a normal day to them. Getting this amount of attention, they were used to it. It was like breathing to them. I wondered what they’d think if suddenly no one noticed them, no one thought anything of them.
Because that’s how I preferred it, and looking at Siobhan and Trent, I knew from the aghast expressions on their faces, they were like me.
Stone dropped me off this morning. He gave me a number for a driver to come get me if I needed a ride, but I think in the back of my head I’d been hoping to talk to Siobhan. I wanted to make sure things were okay with her since she saw me Saturday mid-freak out. And I’d even hoped to maybe talk her into hanging out at the library.
Georgia texted saying they’d be flying in right before the game. They offered to meet me, but wouldn’t be able to pick me up, so I hadn’t really known how to plan for the day. Game started at seven. They wanted to meet at six thirty, head in for the seats. That was another name Stone gave me. I was supposed to go to door 8 and give my name. There were supposed to be tickets for everyone. But that was hours from now, and the small wish I had just to pretend to be normal today didn’t look like it was going to happen.
Everything had changed.
Siobhan knew. Trent knew. I knew other guys like phone guy would be in my face. My housemates didn’t understand what the word ‘discreet’ meant, so I had a couple choices to make. Either stay and deal, stay and hide in the library, or leave.
I chose door number two.
Right then and there, hiding in the library seemed the best option.
I shook my head at Wyatt. “I’m good. I’m, uh, I’m going to try to catch up before classes.”
“Okay. We’ll see you later, then.”
He and Mia headed off. Nacho started after them but stopped and looked back. Lisa was still in front of me. She was biting her lip. “We’re doing a party tonight to watch Stone’s game. Are you…” her eyes swept behind me. “Do your friends want to come?”
I heard a quiet squeak from Siobhan, but was already shaking my head. “I’m actually going to the game.”
“Oh!” Lisa’s head shot up. “Right.” Her face cleared up. “Duh. Of course, you are. It’s at home and Monday Night Football. Right on.” She punched my arm. “Have fun. I’m jealous.”
“Liss!” A shout from Mia.
“Right.” She began backing up, but grinning widely. “Have fun. Don’t forget the little people.” And with that, she turned, laughing at something Nacho said. He didn’t put his arm around her shoulder, but he did place it on the small of her back as both hurried to catch up.
Then it was the three of us.
I was ignoring a few onlookers still, trying to adopt my housemates’ ways.
Siobhan and Trent were both fixed on me, both pale. Trent kept blinking, chewing the inside of his mouth, and a whole look that he’d just tasted something he couldn’t identify kept shifting on his face. His nose was twitching.
Siobhan wouldn’t look at me. Her eyes were fixed steadfastly on my shoes.
A deep breath. “I—”
Her head jerked up, blanching. “I have to go!” She began backing away, and once she started, she picked up speed.
She couldn’t get away from me fast enough.
“Wha…oh. Okay. I should go, too.” Trent started, but he wasn’t fast enough.
Siobhan had a good grip on his shirt and she tugged him behind her.
They were almost sprinting away from me, almost as fast as my stomach was sinking to the ground.
That’d gone the worst way I could’ve imagined.
Then it was just me. Again, I was still ignoring any gawkers.
My phone beeped. I lifted it.
Stone: How’s the first day back?
Me: Totally fine. It’s nice to be back.
Talk to the professor. Reassure them I was okay. I could handle the classwork again.
Stop. Backtrack. Stop at the coffee hut.
Again, reassure the professor I’m good to go.
That was the rest of my afternoon, until it was three in the afternoon and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. Not wanting to make Stone’s driver come all the way to campus to take me back to Stone’s house, be there for maybe an hour and have to drive all the way to the other side of the city, I chose to walk to my house instead.
No one was there. This was one of my greatest mysteries, where were the housemates when they weren’t partying? I didn’t think Monday at three was party time, especially because they’d be partying in a few hours. That was it. They were probably getting ready for the party, but I had the house to myself. Heading downstairs, I tried to focus and study for the first hour.
I gave up.
I was distracted because in two-and-a-half hours, I’d see Jared again. I had so much guilt for not getting up there before now. An ache was digging in my chest, and lying on my bed, I rubbed that spot. Guilt and regret were going to eat a hole inside of me, literally.