Very slowly and very carefully, I closed the door to my bedroom and leaned with my back against it. Billy was half-sitting up in the bed, still smoking and still looking exactly like he’d looked when I’d left him to answer the door. He looked rugged and handsome and all kinds of good-looking.
He waved me over to the bed but I stayed where I was.
“You coming back to bed?” He asked me, the cigarette bouncing in his mouth. “What’s the matter with you?”
“I don’t want to go back to bed,” I said.
Billy did a double-take as if he couldn’t believe I’d said it.
Then he swung his legs out of the bed and hopped into his jeans, walking barefoot over to the door.
“Hey.” He came to a stop in front of me, a good deal taller so that I was forced to stare up at him. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I lied, dropping my eyes back down from his face. “I’m just not tired.”
“We weren’t going back to sleep,” Billy murmured, ducking his head under my chin and kissing me on the mouth. “Hmm? Come on, what’s the matter with you?”
“Would you ever hit me?” I asked him.
Billy stiffened up at the question, his hand at the side of my head on the door. He pushed himself back and stared at me, his eyebrows furrowed.
“The hell are you talking about?” He sounded offended. “The hell kinda question is that?”
“Would you?” I repeated, staring brazenly up at him. “Would you do it?”
“Don’t be so goddamn stupid.”
“Even if I made you mad?” I slipped past him and went and sat down on the bed, tightening the belt on my bathrobe. “Even if I’d slept with somebody else or trashed your car?”
“I still wouldn’t.” Billy was staring at me, still by the door. “Where’s this coming from? Why are you asking me this?”
“Because I need to know.”
“Because you need to know. Shouldn’t you know that already?”
“I don’t know you anymore.”
“You don’t know me anymore?” Billy pushed himself away from the door and took me by the shoulders, pulling me up to stand in front of him. “Diana, what’s going on here?”
“You hit Steve,” I managed to get out, struggling. “What’s to stop you from doing the same thing to me?”
Billy stared at me. “How’d you know about that? Who was at the door?”
“It doesn’t matter how I know-“ I shoved him back, away from me, stabbing a finger at the side of my head.
“You’ve flipped a switch!” I hissed at him. “What the hell is wrong with you? You could’ve killed him!”
“But I didn’t,” Billy said dryly. “Who told you about that?”
“You know what your problem is?” I dared myself to inch closer to him, standing toe to toe. “You’ve got such a God Complex, you know that? You walk around thinking you’re so superior- expecting everyone to bow and scrape and get down on their knees for you like they’re beneath you or something.”
Billy glowered down at me, standing so close we were almost touching.
“Well I’m not beneath you,” I said fiercely, jutting my chin up. “I’m not beneath you, Billy.”
His eyes flashed meanly. “Just last night, huh Diana?”
I stared at him. “You sick shit.”
“You weren’t at Heather Holloway’s last night, were you?” He asked.
“That’s irrelevant,” I snapped. “Your car didn’t really break down at the side of the road, did it? It was at the Byers’ house.”
For a second, Billy looked confused. “It wasn’t when I left.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re right,” Billy interrupted rudely. “It is irrelevant. Fact is, Harrington was being a creep and he had it coming.”
“How was he?”
“He had Max and all these kids there, Diana. Just him, alone in this stranger’s house with my thirteen-year-old sister. I mean, what the hell did you want me to think? They were having a tea party?”
“He was waiting for me-“ I burst out, not technically lying. “That’s why he was there.”
Billy flinched at my words. “And why was that?”
“Diana?” There was a cheerful knock on the door behind us. “I’m making pancakes,” my mom sang out.
“Just a minute!” I called back, without taking my eyes off Billy.
“Did he fuck you?”
My first reaction was to laugh, I don’t know why. It all just seemed too stupid and chaotic to be true.
“I’m only going to answer that question once,” I said, hurt. “Will you believe whatever answer I give you?”
Billy’s eyes twitched at me. “Yes.”
“He didn’t fuck me,” I said, wincing at the vulgarity of the word on my tongue. “But like hell, I wish he had, just to see the look on your face.”
My mom leaned over the table and piled the strawberries from her plate onto mine. She smiled at me and tapped the stack of pancakes with her fork.
“They taste a lot better when they’re hot,” she said brightly. “Billy, you’re almost finished. You want some more?”
“If you’ve got any going.”
Billy was sitting across from me with his elbows on the table. He’d finished one stack of pancakes already and was soon to start on another. He said he hadn’t eaten anything last night and that’s why he was so hungry.
I didn’t know how he could eat anything.
“You’re always eating,” Neil said snarkily behind his newspaper. “I don’t know how you never put any weight on.”
“He’s growing,” my mom said.
I didn’t know why she was trying to kiss both our asses all of a sudden.
“I’m going to give this Heather Holloway a call after breakfast,” Neil said, without looking at me. “Confirm your story.”
“You’re calling her now?” I asked.
Neil studied me over the paper. “Why? You got a problem with that, Diana?”
“No.” I bit down on a strawberry. “But it’s nine am on a Sunday.”
“You can call after lunch, can’t you darling?” My mom suggested, helpfully. “Diana, you’re not eating much.”
“I’m not hungry.” I pushed my plate away.
“Can I have it?” Billy stabbed at my pancake stack with his fork before I could give him my answer.
“Do what you want,” I snapped.
My mom and Neil stared at us.
“What’s going on with you two?”
“Nothing,” I said, glowering at the white tablecloth. “We’re just not talking, right Billy?”
“I guess you could say we’re not doing much of anything anymore,” Billy said coarsely. “Right, Diana?”
“Right,” I said.
Neil put down his newspaper and folded it up carefully, putting it down by his elbow next to his coffee and juice.
“Has my son done something to upset you, Diana?” He had the nerve to look concerned about it. “Because if he has, I want you to tell me.”
Our eyes met across the table and I could tell he had us both exactly where he wanted us.
He hadn’t even had to try.
“He didn’t do anything,” I said, looking away. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Will you talk to me about it?” My mom asked gently.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” I persisted, getting irritated. “We’re just not talking anymore and that’s it.”
There was a long wait as Neil stared at me. “Okay,” he said.
“I said, okay. It’s none of our business I guess. I was just being curious; thought maybe I could be a mediator.”
“We don’t need a mediator,” Billy scoffed, rolling his eyes at his father’s sarcasm. “Admit it. You love it.”
Neil stared at Billy over the rim of his coffee mug. “Love what?”
“That you’ve got her all to yourself.” Billy threw down his cutlery and pushed himself back from the table, done with his food. “You won, I guess. Well played.”
“Now you just wait a minute…” Neil jumped up from the table too, stalking out of the kitchen after his son.
I could hear them shouting in the next room and I rolled my eyes.
“I hope you don’t mind me saying…” My mom was blinking as if she hadn’t heard the conversation moments earlier. “But I’m glad you’re not on speaking terms.”
“Bite me, mother,” I snapped.
“I’m serious,” she went on, leaning into my side. “I think it’ll be good for you to have a break from it all. You’re always with him. It worries me.”
“It worries you?” I laughed at the hypocrisy of what she was saying. “God, give me a break.”
“I hated you with him,” my mom pressed on. “He’s not good for you, Diana and I’ve told you this before.”
“Then why are we talking about it again?”
“Because I worry.” My mom snatched at my hand on the table and gave it a squeeze. “I worry about what you do and where you go with him- whether you’re being safe-“
“-Being safe?” I snatched my hand away. “Mom, nobody says that anymore.”
“Well, are you?” She demanded. “Are you being safe with him?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I snapped, sick of the sight of the food and sick of the look in her eyes. “Because we’re finished, just like I said.”
My mom pushed my hair back, tucking a dark strand behind my ear. “You’ve changed so much,” she whispered. “Sometimes I look at you and you’ve grown so confident. Other times it’s like you go right in inside yourself.”
“That’s because he scares me,” I said.
I looked her dead in the eye. “Neil.”
My mom blinked at me as if she was wishing she could forget what she’d just heard. “You shouldn’t antagonise him. You know he gets upset easily.”
“My heart bleeds for him.’
“I don’t expect you to understand.” My mother rose up from the table too. “But that’s alright. When you’re older, you’ll understand that he’s just trying to look after us all.”
Maybe that’s what Neil told her.
I wondered if she lay in bed at night and repeated those things over and over to herself, and if she repeated them often enough she began to believe them.
The hand on my shoulder shook me awake.
“Diana, wake up, you’re dreaming.”
I shot up onto my elbows, sweating and gasping for air. Neil was sitting on the couch next to me, peering down worriedly into my face. His fingers smoothed at the blanket covering my legs and he smiled at me, his eyes creasing.
“You were dreaming,” he said, still looking at me even when I looked away. “I think you must have been having a nightmare.”
“I was?” It all seemed scarily hazy, actually.
I swept my hair back and pushed my forehead into my open palm, trying to steady my breathing. “I can’t remember.”
I glanced up and spotted Billy standing there by the TV, wearing shorts, sneakers and a plain white muscle-tee. He was smoking a cigarette and lifting his weights at the same time. He looked at me but he didn’t say anything.
“You shouldn’t nap in the daytime,” Neil went on. “They say it’s easier to get nightmares that way. Are you sure you can’t remember what it was about?”
I shook my head again, lying. “It’s gone.”
It had been about Bob, actually. But I couldn’t tell him that.
“Well, here.” Neil took the glass of water off the coffee table and pressed it into my hands. “This’ll make you feel better.”
I wasn’t sure why he was being nice to me.
The water tasted funny, the way it always did when you’d been sleeping.
“You’re driving me insane with those stupid weights,” Neil snapped suddenly, as I rose on the couch to a sitting position. “Billy, I’ve told you a thousand times that you’re supposed to lift your weights in your room or in the garage.”
Billy shot his father a look. “You’re telling me to leave?”
“I’m telling you to take your weights to the garage,” Neil ordered, rising up from the sofa and going over to the telephone. “I need to make a call now.”
Billy was trying his best to meet my eye but I wasn’t looking at him.
I propped my feet up onto the coffee table and kept on sipping my water.
“Fine,” he huffed, at last, and he may as well have said ‘fuck you.’ “I’ll go finish my workout in the garage then.”
Neil waited calmly until he had gone before he made the call.
I could hear the heavy-metal music booming from the garage outside.
“Hello, yes?” Neil lifted the receiver to his ear, motioning for me to stay put. “This is Diana’s father, may I speak to Heather Holloway please?”
There was a pause as he listened to whatever was being said to him on the other line. His eyes were on me the whole time.
“Heather,” he said briskly, toying with the wire. “I’m sorry to bother you like this on a Sunday of all days but I was wondering if you could confirm something for me, real quick?”
Heather said something to him and Neil laughed.
“That’s alright,” he went on. “But you and Diana went out yesterday, did you?”
Neil listened, nodding as if Heather could see him.
“To the movies,” he confirmed. “Yes, what’s that?”
Neil listened. As he listened, I saw his eyes smoulder and flicker quickly over my face and I began to feel uncomfortably sick, my stomach swilling with water.
“Thank you, Heather.” Neil put the phone down with a loud click.
“Did she confirm it?” I asked nervously, watching him cross the room towards me over the rim of my water glass. “I told you she would.”
“No doubt under your persuasion,” Neil said, and the way he said it wasn’t kind but it wasn’t unkind either. “No doubt about that at all.”
“Why do you bother looking for proof?” I asked him bravely. “If you don’t believe the proof when you get it?”
Neil swung his hand out and knocked at my legs on the coffee table, my feet hitting the floor, the water spilling over my hand and onto the floral rug.
“She said you were with her all night,” Neil said, shocking me with his brusqueness and his sudden violence.
He grabbed at my chin, jerking my head towards him so roughly that I thought my neck might snap. “But that’s not true, is it Diana? Because you were home at eleven o’clock.”
“Perhaps she misunderstood,” I tried.
“I don’t think so.” Neil backhanded me onto the sofa and my cheek burned from the sting of it. “Stop lying to me!”
“I’m not lying!” I pushed myself back up, springing to my feet to scream at him. “You make my life hell! I can’t stand being with you anymore-“
“Sit back down and listen to me-“
“No,” I cried, aware that I was near to crying and very embarrassed about it. “I’m so sick of all your stupid rules and your curfews and having to walk on eggshells just to make you happy…”
Neil swung his hand at me, to threaten me at first, to get me to stop talking.
When I didn’t quieten, he grabbed me and forced me back onto the couch. We struggled, rolling off, and the back of my head hit the floor, his hands pinning my wrists at my sides.
He was heavy.
I glared up, furiously into his face.
“There’s nobody in the house, Diana,” he warned, his breath warming my forehead. “Your mother’s gone for your sister and Billy’s not here. It’s just you and me. I could break you right now.”
“Do it,” I goaded beneath him, realising that was probably his plan all along. “Do it anyway. Do it.”
“Where were you last night?”
I didn’t say anything. Neil shook me until it hurt.
“Where were you last night?” He repeated, white specks of spit frothing on his lips. “Tell me the truth or I swear to God-“
I called out to him uselessly from the garage and Neil’s hand went and clamped down over my mouth, pushing the back of my head down into the floor until that hurt too and tears sprang to my eyes.
“Give it up for God’s sake,” he panted, his knee knocking against my knee. “I warned you this would happen if you didn’t behave and you never listen, do you? You just can’t help yourself.”
I made a noise against his hand.
“I shouldn’t have been so soft on you,” Neil said, batting my one free hand away. “I should have just done this to you last night, or the night before when I found out you were screwing my son.”
He lifted his hand from my mouth and I took in the lungful of air he’d been holding back from me, using what strength I had to push against him.
“Get off me!” I tried again, trying to free myself and roll out from under him.
I saw Neil’s hand go to the waistband of his jeans and I heard the clicking of his belt buckle as he started to pull the belt hurriedly through each denim loop.
“Just stay very still,” he said.
His weight above me shifted just enough for me to turn onto my stomach. I managed to elbow him once in the chest, winding him just a little before he grabbed me and shoved me with a grunt onto my back again.
I’d made him angry.
“Bitch,” he spat, both hands on my wrists, bending them back above my head. “I told you to stay still.”
He took my wrists in one hand and using the other, fed the rest of the belt out of his waistband. It was thick in his large hands and he brought it up to my face to show me, laughing when I flinched away.
“You’re a pretty girl,” he said, faking kind. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to touch your face this time.”
“Please don’t do this,” I pleaded with him, staring up at him through bleary, stinging eyes. “My mom’ll be back any minute, I know she will.”
“Don’t beg,” he said. “It’s not very becoming on you. I thought you had more about you than that.”
I decided that I didn’t, still straining against him anyway. “Please!”
He heard me, but he pretended not to.
“Just stay very still,” he said and the belt swung into my side, silencing me. “It’ll all be over in a minute or two.”
He was true to his word actually and I do think the punishment lasted no longer than a couple of minutes.
When he was finished or bored or both, Neil climbed off of me, out of breath and started to put his belt back on.
I’d been staring up at the stucco roses on the ceiling while it was happening and trying to stay very still like he’d told me to and not make any noise.
“You can get up now,” Neil said, peering down at me. “Did you hear what I said?”
I eased myself up into a sitting position, wincing at every movement. I managed to shuffle my way back to lean against the couch, shivering even though I wasn’t cold.
“God, Diana.” Neil dropped to one knee beside me, taking my face in his hands and kissing me on the forehead. “I hope you’ve learned your lesson now. I didn’t want to have to do that to you but you gave me no choice.”
“It hurts,” I said quietly into his shoulder.
“It will do.” Neil pulled back, holding me at arm’s length. “That’s what happens when you rush and you fall down the stairs.”
I blinked at him. “When I what?”
“When you fall down the stairs,” he told me again, wiping away the tears on my cheek. “That’s what happened, isn’t it?”
I thought about it. “It is?”
Neil nodded, helping me stand up and then easing me back onto the couch.
The music in the garage had stopped now and Billy would be coming back inside at any minute.
“I feel really sick,” I said, leaning forward with a grimace and trying to reach the glass of water on the coffee table.
Neil leaned over and fetched it for me, pressing the glass into my shaking hands. “Just take small sips,” he said gently. “Don’t gulp.”
He watched me as I sat beside him on the couch, taking quick, nervous sips just like he told me to. Then he pressed his lips against the side of my head and his mouth was firm but it didn’t hurt.
I savoured the feeling of it, leaning involuntarily into him.