It was almost dark when Steve finally dropped me off outside my house at six o’clock. He parked up in front of the driveway and didn’t stay long after that.
He told me he’d promised Dustin almost three weeks ago that he’d give him a ride to the school dance and pick him up again.
I told him he should start charging and become a full-time chauffeur.
“That’ll be twenty bucks,” Steve demanded with a laugh and he held his hand out expectantly. Then he laughed again, started up the engine and said he’d see me later.
I watched, waiting until he’d driven away before I turned and made my way back up the driveway and up to the house. I noticed with a dull sense of appreciation that Neil’s pick-up truck wasn’t parked up under the window where it usually was. I thought maybe he and my mom had taken Max to the Snow Ball and then gone out for the night by themselves.
They did that sometimes.
“I’m home,” I sang anyway, when I went inside, wiping the soles of my shoes on the rug and pushing the door closed until I heard the catch click. “Billy?”
There was no answer.
None of the lights in the kitchen or any of the backrooms was on.
I noticed that there was a lamp on in the living room, but my mom had a habit of leaving at least one light on whenever we went out at night.
She thought it warded off burglars and thieves.
Neil had been telling her all Fall that she didn’t need to worry about that anymore. We weren’t in California now.
“Anybody home?” I asked again.
I slid my purse down onto the kitchen counter and made my way into the living room, slipping out of my mom’s shoes and kicking them to one side.
The toes and the heel of the black patent pumps were crusted with dirt and bits of grass from when it had been raining during the service.
I punched the red button on the TV remote and the screen flickered to life, some overly cheerful gameshow host smiling back out at me through the screen, his teeth stunningly white.
I sat down on the couch, tucking my legs up under me.
I didn’t really care much about what was on the TV; it was background noise really. I just hated sitting in a quiet house. I hated the noises a building made when it settled and the noises you noticed when you were alone.
When you thought you were alone.
I looked over at the living room door all of a sudden, my ears pricking up at a sound from the hallway. The doorway was dark and shadowy, quiet now.
“Billy?” I asked, my voice straining through the silence. “Is that you?”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Neil came out of the hallway and came to stand in front of the living room door. “It’s just me.”
He was smiling at me, the white light from the TV ghosting over his face.
He came further into the room and I sprang up quickly, dropping the remote onto the rug where it landed with a dull, hollow clatter.
“I didn’t know you were here,” I said quickly, almost like I was apologising for being in the room the same time as him. “I thought you’d taken Max to the Snow Ball or something.”
“Not me,” Neil said, coming over to the couch. “Just your mom.”
My eyes snapped to the dark hallway behind him.
“Is Billy here?” I asked.
“Billy?” He said his name like he’d never heard it, pausing for a millisecond and then shaking his head. “No. No, I don’t think so.”
“Then I’m going to go find him.” I tried to step forward but Neil caught me with his shoulder, jarring into me, blocking my way out.
“He’s not here,” he said abruptly, catching my wrist and passively forcing me back onto the couch. “Sit back down.”
“Where is he?” Neil’s fingers were beginning to hurt. I rotated my wrist slowly, trying to slip my hand out from under his grip. “I don’t believe you.”
“So call him,” Neil shrugged casually, looking around him at the empty living room. “See if he comes when you call him.”
“You’re lying,” I said and I winced when his hold on me tightened.
Neil had the nerve to look confused, his forehead furrowing so that all the creases appeared at once. “Now, why would I lie about a thing like that?”
He didn’t bother waiting for my answer.
“Your mom told me you had a fight with her this morning,” he said, and suddenly his voice was warm and sympathetic. “You want to tell me what happened? She was very upset.”
“She was?” A pang of guilt tore involuntarily at my stomach and I just hoped she hadn’t been crying. “It was stupid really. I don’t even remember how it all started now. I guess it doesn’t matter.”
Neil hummed. “Your mom thought it might have been because it was your first time. Your first time at a funeral.”
“Yeah,” I said listlessly. “Maybe.”
Neil let go of my wrist. There were tiny red marks where his fingers had been digging in, sore crescents from his nails. He reached up and pushed my bangs back gently from my face, the heel of his palm pressing into my forehead.
“You want to talk to me about it?”
I turned my face away, eyeing the wall beside the sofa. “I don’t know. It’s late.”
“Late?” Neil echoed and he laughed. “It’s not even seven. You can talk to me, can’t you? Come on…you know I was only twelve years old when I went to my first funeral? It was my mothers.”
Neil nodded. “Everybody said it was the stress of having all those babies, but I know she drank herself to death. She drank a lot back then and the drink killed her in the end. Sometimes I see her in Billy when he gets that way.”
“Drinking?” I asked.
“Drinking, attitude, meanness.” Neil narrowed his eyes at me coolly, making sure I was listening. “My old man was mean too but I don’t think he meant it. He just wanted us to respect him.”
I didn’t know why he was telling me all of this.
He’d sidled up closer to me on the couch as he’d been me telling his story, and now his knee was touching mine. I deftly moved my knee away.
“What was your mom like?” I asked him because I didn’t know what else to say.
For a second or two, Neil looked like he didn’t want to answer the question.
For a terrifying moment, I thought he was going to get mad.
“Oh, she was always crying about something,” he remembered at last, almost begrudgingly. “Always complaining and never happy about anything. She always made it very clear that she didn’t want any of us; never wanted any more kids after my eldest brother. ‘Cept my father kept giving us to her.”
“Did you love her?” I asked.
Neil’s eyes flashed indignantly at the question, settling on me instead.
“You’re still wearing it,” he said.
“The necklace I gave you,” Neil reached out and plucked at the necklace by my throat, nursing the stone in the cup of his palm. “You’re still wearing it.”
“Oh.” It was one of the only times I ever blushed for real, cheeks stinging and burning. “You said it was a birthday present.”
“You wanted me to say it was a birthday present.” He was peering at me, trying very hard to read my face. “You know, I’ve always wondered what it is that goes on in that head of yours.”
“How’d you mean?” I asked, mildly offended.
“Well, you just always seem to have this faraway look in your eyes.” Neil toyed with the gold chain, fingers brushing the collar of my jacket. “I wonder where you go when you get like that.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Away with the fairies,” Neil quoted, laughing. “Isn’t that what people say?”
“I guess they do, yeah.”
A terrible sinking feeling had settled in my stomach and I didn’t know what it was or where it had come from. It was melancholy and loneliness and an urge to get up and away from him all at once.
“What’s the matter?” Neil asked me, noticing the look on my face. “You look sad. Is it because of the funeral? I shouldn’t have made you talk about it if you didn’t want to. That wasn’t fair.”
“What are you doing?”
Neil had slipped his arm around me, my shoulder wedged under his armpit, his hand still fingering the gold chain around my neck.
I stared at the floor.
He kissed me once on the cheek, just beside my ear.
“Nothing,” he sighed, giving me another kiss. “Just making it better.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, face scrunching up automatically in disgust as he kissed me again, this time below my ear.
He caught hold of my face and made me look at him.
“Don’t,” I said, but I didn’t move.
“Come on, Diana,” Neil’s voice was soft and quiet, so quiet I could hardly hear him. It was coercive and gentle and trusting. His mouth brushed mine, tentatively, just testing. “I’m just being nice to you, aren’t I? See?”
He kissed me on the mouth again and this time I let him, my eyes pricking with tears. I thought I was going to be sick.
“That’s it,” Neil hummed, kissing me again. “Everything’s alright, isn’t it?”
“Don’t,” I repeated, and I didn’t understand why I was just sitting there. I was screaming at my legs to move but it was like they’d forgotten how to work.
“That’s it,” Neil said again.
It was all he said.
“Please.” I started to cry when his hand went to the back of my neck, trying to guide me down into the couch. I hated how small my voice sounded, how it cracked and got all choked up. I stiffened up and my voice seemed to get louder, breaking with anger and frustration. “I said, get off of me!”
I jerked away, my body moving on its own again, twisting and attempting to jump up from the couch. Neil caught me by the arm and we struggled, my elbow knocking him in the nose.
The sound it made was flat and heavy.
Neil swore, pushing me face down into the couch. I threw myself off sideways, landing on the rug and on top of the TV remote. Neil tackled me, grabbing hair.
“Bitch!” He spat and there was blood on his nose that dripped onto my forehead. “I don’t understand, Diana. I’ve tried to be nice to you, haven’t I? Haven’t I been trying to take care of you?”
It was difficult to breathe with his weight on me, difficult to kick at him with his legs on top of mine. I felt blindly for the TV remote, snatching for it and bringing it up to his face. Neil caught it before I could hit him, knocking it to one side.
He was furious, pulling sharply on my hair until it hurt.
“What, are you crazy?” He seethed, kneeling right down over me into my face. “Are you crazy, huh? What’s the matter with you?”
He shook me and the back of my head hit the floor.
“I’m sorry!” I choked out, though I wasn’t. I just wanted him to stop.
It felt like everything inside of me was going to come loose and spill out of me onto the rug. “I’m sorry, okay?”
“Disrespecting me?” Neil went on as if he hadn’t heard me. He knocked at my knee with his. “Thinking you can get away with hitting me? After everything I’ve done for you?”
“Get off me!” I screamed.
Neil punched at the cabinet by my head and everything inside the cabinet rattled and shook. I flinched away, eyes squeezed shut.
“That should have gone to you,” he breathed. “Nothing but a damn tease. Making me soft on you, smoking those cigarettes, makin’ your eyes all wide when you look at me. Wearing that shit all over your face.”
“You’re hurting me!”
“Then stay still.” He caught both of my wrists in his hands, bending them down and into my side. “That’s what you’re going to do, okay? Just stay still.”
I felt his knee knocking my knee again and this time I opened my mouth to scream, his hand clamping down over my face and muffling half of it. For some reason I kept on screaming anyway, angry and guttural against his hand, trying to strain and bite against him.
“What the hell are you doing?” I could hear someone else’s voice behind me and boots crashing across the floor. “Get the hell off of her!”
Suddenly, Neil wasn’t on top of me anymore. He was sprawling on the floor like somebody had shoved him back. Then he was on his feet, wiping at his bloody nose and breathing hard. It sounded like he was laughing, but he wasn’t.
It didn’t click in my head what had happened until I saw Billy standing there, one hand on his father’s chest as if he could hold him back that way.
I sat up quickly, dazed. “Billy!”
Billy turned and looked over his shoulder at me. The look on his face made me want to start crying. His face softened and he came over, crouching down in front of me. “Are you alright, Diana? Look at me, are you okay?”
I couldn’t say anything all of a sudden, words thick in my throat. “Oh, God…”
“You’re alright now.” He thumbed at the blood on my face. “Shit, your head.”
“It’s not mine,” I said, numbed.
Billy stood up again, turning back around to Neil. “The hell is wrong with you?”
Neil had caught his breath, straightening his clothes and mopping his nose up with tissue from his pocket. He waved the bloody tissue in the air like a flag.
“She hit me first,” he said, defensively. “I was just teaching her a lesson.”
“I know what you were doing,” Billy said slowly. “It’s sick.”
“Oh yeah?” Neil raised both of his eyebrows at him. “What’s that then?”
Billy didn’t say anything. He turned and made for the other side of the room, heading for the door. I panicked, thinking he was leaving me.
Billy raised the phone up from its cradle.
“What are you doing now?” Neil asked, laughing like it was all some big joke.
“I’m calling the police.”
“To tell them what?” Neil shot me a hot look from his side of the room. “That I tackled her in self-defence? You see any bruises on her? I haven’t hit her.”
Billy started dialling. “Diana, get over here.”
I stood up and went to him. And Billy tucked me underneath his arm, pressing me into his side. His leather jacket was wet with rain.
“You think anybody’s gonna believe you?” Neil cut in, watching us. “You think anybody’s gonna take your word over mine? I’m respected around here, people know me. I’m a good guy and you’re a doped up sack of shit screwing his slut of a step-sister.”
He jabbed a finger at us as if to prove his point. “And everybody knows it.”
Billy’s fingers tightened around my shoulder, the knuckles on his other hand going white as they gripped the phone. “It’s ringing,” he said stiffly.
“Nobody’s going to believe you.”
Billy glanced at me and I saw doubt creeping into his eyes.
I shook my head at him slowly, pleading with him not to give up like I’d given up. He needed to keep going. I was begging him to.
Billy kissed me quickly on the forehead.
“Put the phone down,” Neil said, stalking slowly across the room towards us. “Put it down and we’ll forget all about it.“
There was an excruciating, pregnant pause as I waited to see what Billy would do. I could hear the dial tone by his ear, the creaking of his jacket as he pressed me further into him. I swallowed thickly, not even breathing.
“Put it down!” Neil barked, his voice booming and making me jump. And just like that, Billy slammed the phone back down onto the stand.
“That’s better,” his father said, looking pleased. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
“I should beat the shit out of you,” Billy said bravely, letting go of me and going to stand in front of Neil. “I told you to leave her alone. I told you.”
Neil looked vaguely amused at the idea of Billy doing anything of the sort. “You don’t even have it in you,” he sneered. “A pussy. You’ve always been a pussy.”
“Billy…” I didn’t even know why was I saying anything.
I didn’t know what it would do.
“Come on then,” Neil goaded, pointing cockily to his jaw. “Come on then tough guy, how about you go ahead and do that, huh? I’ll give you the first punch. I’ll let you prove it to me. Prove to me and Diana how tough you really are.”
He was right up in Billy’s face, almost spitting on him. one hand on his belt as he stood there, waiting for him to make the first move.
“One punch,” Neil said again. “One swing and maybe you’ll impress me.”
I couldn’t see Billy’s face from where I was standing, and I was glad.
I knew he wasn’t going to do it.
Neil stepped back, rocking with a satisfied smile onto his heels. “That’s what I thought,” he sneered. “A gutless shit.”
I let out a long, shaky breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding. Had it been Nate, some biker from the Roadhouse, Buck with his long hair and donkey jacket; had it been any of them, Billy would have swung a punch their way no problem. He’d have mashed them beneath his fingers until their noses were bloody and their teeth were on the floor. You wouldn’t have been able to drag him off them, had it been anybody else but the one man Billy couldn’t hit.
Neil was right. He didn’t have it in him, but not for the reasons he said. Not because he was gutless or a coward. At this point it came down to basic biology; your body simply wouldn’t let you. It was the same reason I’d squeezed my eyes shut and let Neil kiss me, why my legs hadn’t seemed to work and why Billy had put the phone down.
It was submission in the name of self-preservation; the belief that if you didn’t do as you were told, something much worse was going to come along soon. And it didn’t matter how angry you were or how much you wanted to fight it, that response, or lack of a response, became a part of you, like your DNA.
“What’s everybody standing around here for?” My mom’s voice appeared in the doorway, surprising us all. She smiled brightly at us, completely oblivious, swinging a plastic carrier bag in her hand. “I stopped by at the video store. Anyone up for a movie?”
She turned to me and held the bag out to me like a peace offering. She must have seen the tear tracks on my cheeks because for a split second I saw the concern flash and flicker in her eyes, but then it was gone again.
“I’m tired,” I said simply, turning her down. “Sorry.”
“Well…maybe tomorrow night then?” My mom suggested hopefully, not hiding her disappointment very well. “They’re Christmas movies. Your favourite.”
I wasn’t in the mood for any kind of movie. I just stared at her, pleading at her with my eyes to ask me what was wrong. Maybe if she asked, I’d tell her.
“They’re probably a bit too old for Christmas movies now,” Neil cut in, and it was his way of telling us both to leave.
“Oh.” My mom gave a half-smile, blinking quickly and taking the bag back from my hands. “Yes, you’re probably right. You’re not kids anymore.”
Another second passed. Another opportunity for her to ask me went by.
I was beginning to think by now that she’d probably never ask.
(And maybe I was fine with that and maybe I wasn’t.)
“Come on,” I said, slipping my arm through Billy’s. “Let’s go.”
“Where are you going?” Neil asked quickly when we reached the door.
I turned to him, my face blank, my voice flat. “Nowhere,” I said.
I could hear Neil talking to my mom as we went to my room, his voice too cheerful and over-confident. I knew that we’d shaken him all the same, as much as he liked to pretend we hadn’t.
It gave me some pleasure in knowing that for just one second, when Billy had picked that phone up, he’d actually been as scared as we were.
In my room, I fell back against the closed door and let Billy kiss me, my arms going up around his neck and pulling him fiercely into me. He smelled clean and he was warm and safe and I buried my face into the side of his neck, the collar of his leather jacket rubbing against my cheek. I savoured safety.
“You’re alright now,” Billy kept assuring me, mumbling it against my mouth and into my hair. “I’ve got you, okay? Everything’s alright now.”
I tried to shrug him out of his leather jacket, slipping my hands into his open shirt. Billy caught my hands and held them tightly in his, squeezing my fingers.
“No,” he told me, holding me fast. “You don’t wanna do that now.”
I did. “I do,” I breathed, pulling him by the hands into me. “Please, Billy.”
I tried to put his hands on me.
“I’m serious, Diana.” Billy’s voice rapped out sharply and I stopped, startled.
“You don’t want me?” I asked him slowly. “Because of what happened?”
“Of course I want you.” Billy looked confused that I’d even think such a thing. “But not like this, okay? Not when you’re not thinking straight-”
“-I am thinking straight-”
“-No, you’re not.” Billy put both hands on the side of my head and my hands went up and grabbed at his wrists, just holding them. “Did he hurt you? Bad?”
“Not bad.” I couldn’t bring myself to say it either. “I thought he would.”
“I thought he had,” Billy admitted. “At first. When I heard you.”
“Where did you go?” I tried not to sound resentful for him not being there like he said he would be. I knew it wasn’t really his fault. “Where were you?”
“Tommy H’s,” Billy said, looking upset anyway. “I’m sorry.”
I turned my face to the side and pressed my lips against the heel of his palm, keeping them there for a long time.
“You didn’t call them,” I said into his wrist.
“Eighty-three,” Billy said.
“That’s how many times I’ve picked that phone up,” he confessed. “Eighty-three times and the closest I got to actually calling somebody was tonight.”
“Why didn’t you? Why didn’t you call them in the end?”
Billy thumbed softly at my cheek. “Because my mom called them once,” he said. “And you know what the cops told her?”
“What did they tell her?”
“They told her to stop wasting their time and to apologise for whatever it was she’d done to make my dad so mad.”
I stared at him, his words hitting home. It sounded like my mother.
“We’re never going to get out of here, are we?” I whispered, the bare-faced reality of it setting in. “We’re stuck here, aren’t we? We’re never leaving.”
“Don’t talk like that, alright?” Billy sounded deadly serious. “Diana, you’re tough, okay? Tougher than you think. I couldn’t hit him tonight but you could. And you did. You hurt him back.”
“It made him angry,” I worried.
“It made him scared.”
Then Billy kissed me, pulling me protectively into the front of him, my chin on his shoulder. “We don’t give up now, okay? We keep going.”
I thought I could do it if he could. If he stuck with me.
“And we never say die,” I said, half-smiling into his sleeve. “Right?”
“Right,” Billy said. “And we never say die.”