The Bully and the Brain. Chapter 9

Mom: "Marcus!... Marcus, come down for dinner!"

I checked my phone again, but there was no text from Ashton. I had been texting him for the last week or so since we got back from our camping trip, and I'm not sure what had happened, but he had started blowing me off. When he did text me back, the answers were extremely cryptic or he didn't text back at all.

I hated to even admit it to myself, but I was crushed. After having such a great time on our trip, I thought that we were golden. Apparently I was mistaken though. I thought that Ashton had had a great time, but somewhere along the way, I must have done something to upset him. I racked my brain over and over again, but throughout everything that had happened, I couldn't pinpoint anything that would have put him in such a way.

I held my phone in my hand a minute longer, hoping that it would light up and tell me that he had text me back. The disappointment I felt cut like a knife and I tossed my phone on my bed and went downstairs for dinner. I tried to keep my feelings in check, but I could tell that my parents were picking up on the energy I was putting out. I tried my best to put on a good front, but my mood was spiraling to shit.

Mom: "You okay, honey?"

"Yeah. I'm fine, Mom. Thanks."

Mom: "It's like we haven't even seen you since your trip. How was it?"

"It was great. Uh, we had a great time. A lot of fun."

I looked up long enough to see my parents exchange worried glances and it made me feel all the worse. I hated to worry my parents, especially after everything that had happened with Nala and then the subsequent dark period shortly after, but I couldn't help how I was feeling. I didn't suffer from chronic depression or anything like that, but ever since I had lost Nala and then Nathaniel, I sometimes just got to feeling like I was losing everything all over again. I had been to therapy a few times, and had even been prescribed some medication before, but usually the sensation would pass after a while.

If only I could figure out what I had done wrong. Ashton had seemed really withdrawn for the last day we were at the cabin and on the drive back, he talked to Lee or Daniel, or he didn't talk at all. I had tried to strike up conversation with him, but when I saw that he wasn't feeling it, I just let it go. I hated the fact that I was so torn up about this, but not knowing was killing me.

Dad: "Marcus! Snap out of it."

My eyes flashed up to meet my parents and their concern was evident. I wanted to put on a brave face. Hell, I would have done anything just to get them to stop looking at me like that. I wanted to reassure them. I wanted to quell all of their fears, but truth be told, I had no words. I felt like everything was coming apart in front of me.

Mom: "I'm going to call Dr. Aledyne. I'll see if we can get you an appointment for tomorrow."

"No! Mom. Dad. I'm fine really. I just have a lot on my mind right now. I don't need to go back to therapy."

Mom: "Marcus, ever since you got back from your trip, you've been moving on auto-pilot. I haven't seen you eat much. You're always locked away in your room. I haven't seen Lee or Daniel. Even, Ashton hasn't been..."

At the sound of his name, I gasped as hurt blossomed in my heart. It felt like someone had taken out my heart and fileted it. I fought back tears as I refocused on my parents. Any hopes of not going to therapy had just floated down the river, and I resigned myself to my fate.

"Can I be excused?"

My parents glanced at each other again and then my mom nodded for me to leave. I could tell she was worried about me, but when I looked at my dad, I couldn't tell what was going through his head. We had always been super close, but over the last year or so, we had been butting heads regularly. I knew that going to therapy wasn't his idea of "helping" either, but he would advise me to do what needed to be done. I locked eyes with him for just a moment, but the way he looked at me, the intensity in the way he looked at me was too much and I left the table.

I thought about going for a drive, but instead, I went back up to my room. I immediately checked my phone to see if anything had come through, but I was disappointed yet again. I couldn't help it this time and a few tears escaped before I mentally smacked myself and powered off my phone. I wasn't going to continue to torture myself when it was clear that Ashton had no desire to talk to me.

Instead of focusing on him, I set about doing my homework for the week. I had gotten slammed in all of my classes and in order to get it all done, I was going to have to buckle down. I knew my parents were downstairs talking about what had been going on the last few days, deciding if I really needed to go back to therapy, but I tried not to focus on that either. I turned on some music and just let my mind get absorbed into my work.


Stroke after stroke brought me to the end I was looking for. I dipped my brush into more paint and brought it down across the canvas. I had on my headphones and music was playing softly, but my mind was completely absorbed in what I was doing and though I had a ton of homework that should be getting done, this is what I needed right now. Things had just been so scary the last few days that I just needed a moment to relax and get lost in my art.

As I took the brush away from the painting I was working on and closed my eyes, I visualized what I was trying to create. As awkward as things had been since getting back, something I was extremely regretful of, I had had an amazing time when we went camping. It was the most fun I could actually remember having, ever. To that end, it would be something I would take with me always.

On the other hand, Marcus was heavy in my thoughts. If I could take him out of my head for just a moment, maybe I could start thinking straight again. Ever since he had come into my world, things had been turned upside down. I was grateful of course, but now, it seemed like another turn was just around the bend. I had no idea what to expect from Marcus anymore. He used to just be someone that I could count on as a friend. He was someone that I knew would be there for me, battling through my bullshit for the sake of friendship. I had depended on that.

Now though, I had no idea what the fuck was going on. I had tried to forget so many times what it felt like to be pressed into him like I had been. I felt secure and loved and special. Who didn't want that? Who didn't want to feel like the world had just gone still for those few perfect moments?

I opened my eyes and refocused on my painting as a single tear escaped my eye. Being at that cabin was the most special I had ever felt. It was like someone took me out of my own reality and plopped me into the life of someone who had it all. It hurt to think that as much as I hungered for something beautiful like that, it would always be out of reach.

It was only in my dreams that I felt like something with Marcus could happen. He was a kid who had it all and I was a boy who had nothing. Even if the universe worked it's magic, what did I have to offer him? What could I bring to the table, but hurt, and scars, and pain, and a past that had almost destroyed my family? Why would I want to bring him into that darkness when he lived in a world of light? It would be selfish and it would only ruin everything in the end.

I tried to focus. I tried to contain it, but I couldn't. I pushed back from my easel and cried. Huge, body-wracking sobs that seemed to leave me breathless filled the room as I released my frustration into the ether. My mom was working the graveyard shift luckily, so she wouldn't have to worry about me, but I felt like I was falling apart. I felt like it was all falling apart.

Mr. Brockman: "Remember everyone, your project is due on Thursday at the end of class. We'll start presentations Friday and carry over to next week until we finish. Clear?"

Everyone responded in unison and then filed out of the classroom as the bell wrung. History was my least favorite class, but I had worked really hard on my project and it was already completed. I didn't want to be that kid and bring it in early, but at least I didn't have to worry about it in the next few days.

It was almost time for Lunch and then that meant Mrs. Elcide's class. I wasn't excited at all. I had seen Marcus this morning and while I was grabbing my books out of my locker, he walked by me like I wasn't even there. It felt like a slap in the face and I all but buried my head in my locker to keep anyone from seeing how that tore me up. I couldn't blame him though. I had gone completely silent on him and I couldn't be mad at him if he was angry with me.

I stopped at my locker long enough to switch out my books and grab my sketchbook as well. I told Lee that I would bring it in and show him some of my work, but now I thought I might be skipping lunch, so I was just going to drop it off to him. Ever since the trip, we had started talking regularly and had even exchanged numbers to text. I was pretty shy about showing my work, my sketchbook especially, but it was rare when someone was actually interested in something I did and I wanted to share while I could.

I made the quick walk to the Lunchroom and over to the table we usually sat at. It was occupied with the usual grouping of: Lee, Daniel, Rowan, who I had started building a friendship with, then Marcus. When I saw him my stomach turned to knots, but I kept my face as neutral as possible. As I approached the table, he looked up, but once he noticed it was me, he went back to playing with his food. Everyone could tell that something was up, but thankfully no one said anything to either of us. I was tempted to take my seat and just tough it out, but having Marcus upset with me was more than I could stand.

I made conversation for a moment, but as Marcus continued to sit there, ignoring me, I had had enough. I reached into my bag for my sketchbook and after giving it to Lee, I bid my farewell.

Marcus: "You're leaving?"

"Uh, yeah... I just want to soak up some sun, ya' know?"

I was spouting out complete bullshit, because I was definitely going to the Library, but now that I was being put on the spot, I couldn't very well say that.

Marcus: "I'll come with you."

I wanted to protest as he was the main reason why I wanted to leave, but I didn't say anything as he said "bye" to everyone, trashed his lunch and came back over to me. His mood was completely unreadable, but I wouldn't have known what to say anyway. I looked back long enough to see everyone hovered over my sketchbook and I almost ran back to save it, but we had reached the cafeteria doors and in another second we were outside.

Nothing was said between us as we slowly walked towards the football field. I peeked over at him a few times and I could definitely tell that something was off with him. Even at lunch before I had interrupted, he looked more subdued than I had ever seen him. Now, walking beside him, it was like I was walking next to someone who had been attacked by body snatchers. I wanted to help in some way, but I couldn't even fix my own problems.

We finally made it to the bleachers on the football field and we went up to the highest seats before sitting down. There were a few other kids around as well, probably needing to get out of that building as much as we did. Marcus still hadn't said anything and I was starting to get worried. I felt like shit for ignoring his messages lately, but if I responded, I didn't know what my heart would say before my head stepped in.

For a while, we just sat there. It was a beautiful day outside for this time of year and soon enough it was going to start getting a lot colder. I didn't mind sitting here quietly, but I couldn't let it go that something was eating at Marcus.

"Are you okay?"

He didn't respond for a moment, instead opting to look me into my eyes like he was searching my soul.

Marcus: "I'm fine. One-hundred percent."

I looked away from him as his sarcasm rode away on the wind. If he was baiting me, it had damned near worked, but I kept my snarky response to myself.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Marcus: "With you? Naw, I'm good."

That hurt and I'm sure my face didn't hide any of it. I didn't know what had happened, but we were sure as fuck backsliding into dangerous territory.

Marcus: "Hey. Look, I'm sorry. That was fucked up. I'm just... My head's not in the right place right now. I'm just dealing with some things and it's gotten pretty stressful lately."

I knew that feeling, but I was still hurt that he felt like he couldn't talk to me about his problems. Marcus wasn't a person to share much about himself and I had been noticing that a lot lately. He would ask me about my problems and do his best to fix what he could, but he'd never let me anywhere near his demons.

"I'm here if you need to talk, Marcus. I'm your friend and I can help."

It didn't go unnoticed when he flinched at the word "friend," but I didn't know what to make of that, so I didn't mention it. I wanted to reach out and rattle him, get him to react or do something, but he just sat there.

Marcus: "My mom is..., uh, she's thinking about sending me back to therapy. I have an appointment today after school. I'm not looking forward to it."


Marcus: "Uh, yeah. I usually end up going a few times a year. Ever since Nala passed away, sometimes I just lose myself. It's scary. Therapy doesn't work, but if it helps my mom, who am I to say no, right?"

I couldn't help staring at him. I had never known that Marcus needed therapy before and the revelation now had my mind spinning in circles.

Marcus: "Stop looking at me like that! I'm not crazy. I just get really down sometimes. Okay?"

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it. I just never knew that you had needed to go..."

Silence enveloped us again. I saw Marcus check his watch, but since he relaxed, I assumed we still had a while before lunch was over. I had no idea how to even start talking to him again. I didn't want to further upset him, but I had so many questions.

Marcus: "The first time I went, it was just a few weeks after Nala passed away. My mom was really worried about me. I had stopped eating. I had stopped doing my homework. Nathaniel wasn't coming around, not that she knew why, and even Lee and Daniel had stopped coming over. I had pushed everyone away and I was suffocating in my loneliness. She thought that I might try and hurt myself, so she put me in therapy.
For a while, I just went there and fucked around. I'd bring my PSP or a magazine and just bullshit the hour away. Sometimes my doctor would give me assignments and I would do them because it was better than having to talk to her and tell some stranger my problems.
After a while though, she had enough of it. She said that either I was just wasting her time, or I was scared. 'I'm inclined to believe the second,' she said. Every attempt she had made to reach out to me had fallen on deaf ears, but when she said that, something in my snapped. I went crazy. I was scared, but I didn't know how to feel that. So instead, I got pissed..."

I could see the fear in his eyes even now. I'm sure if he could have disappeared on the spot he would have.

"What'd you do?"

Marcus: "Nothing too bad. I fucked up some of the knick knacks she had in her office. I think I might have smashed one of her pictures or something, but even that just broke me down even further. By the end of it all, I was huddled into a ball on the floor, crying my eyes out while she consoled me.

After that, we started to make some progress. I still was pretty isolated from my friends and that actually lasted up and through the summer. That was the longest stretch of time that I had been going, but sometimes, if something happens that I can't deal with, it's like I'm back in that same hole, fighting to get out."

"Is that how you feel now?"

Marcus: "Yes."


I wanted to reach out to him and pull him into my arms. I knew what it felt like to drown in your pain. I knew what it felt like to wish that for a second things would just cease to be. I watched his eyes, searching for something other than hurt and fear, but like me, he was drowning.

Marcus: "Is it okay if we change the subject? Please?"

I didn't want to upset him any further and I was starting to get the sinking suspicion that I had everything to do with why he was in a funk. I knew that I had been giving him the cold shoulder, but I hoped he would understand that it had nothing to do with him and everything to do with me. I wanted to keep him as far away from my baggage as possible.

"Sure. Of course we can."

Marcus: "Good."

By the end of Mrs. Elcide's class, things were still awkward between us. We were coming towards the middle of the year, so she was making sure we focused on all our projects, not just our final. With that being said, most of the class had decided to do the project with whoever they were working with for the final anyway, so I was still sitting with Marcus for the entire class.

When we were on the bleachers, after he ended our conversation about therapy, we had spent the rest of our lunch in awkward silence. I was contemplating everything he had told me and I'm not sure what was going through his thoughts, but every now and then I would catch him looking at me, hurt in his eyes. I didn't know what I was doing wrong, but how could I if he wouldn't talk to me about it?

More than that though, it was time for Marcus to understand a bit more about why I acted the way that I did. I never wanted him to feel like he wasn't important to me, but there were things that as of right now, he just didn't understand.


Marcus: "What's up?"

We had been sitting there quietly for a few minutes, both of us waiting for the bell to ring. Things hadn't been this awkward since we had first got assigned the project together and a ball of apprehension tightened my gut.

"My mom's working a double tomorrow. Uh, we've still got a lot to cover with our final project and I was wondering if you wanted to come over tomorrow and work on it?"

I could see excitement fire up in his eyes, but a second later, the tide had pulled him back out and he shrugged his acceptance. I was hoping for a little bit more, but after getting him to actually confirm that was a "yes," the bell wrung and we exited the class.

I didn't see him for the rest of the day, but I was really worried about him. Knowing now that he had needed therapy in the past and had at one point been depressed enough to be on suicide watch, painted things in a very different light. I knew how hard that was and it made me feel that much more for him. I was in a good place right now, but I could vividly remember the times when I wasn't.

After school, I went about my day normally. I worked three to close at Fromran's and then it was back home to do homework. My mom was off all day, so I talked to her for a bit, but I had more than a little homework to attend to. I focused for as long as possible, but at eleven o'clock, I stashed my homework away and sat down in front of my easel.

Not only did I want to finish the painting I had started for Marcus, a completely abstract piece, but I also wanted to finish the painting of the image I took of Marcus, Lee, and Daniel when we were camping. It was one of the pictures I was most proud of and it inspired me to duplicate it on canvas in my own special way. I had it almost completed, but I would wait until tomorrow to apply the finishing touches.

I thought about calling Marcus before I turned in. Besides the fact that I wanted to hear his voice, I also wanted to just make sure that he was okay. I knew that I was probably the last person that he wanted to hear from, but I dialed his number anyway. I waited with baited breath as it rang and rang, but when he didn't pick up, I was crushed. I thought about calling him again, but I didn't want to feel any worse than I already did. Instead, I turned off my lights, put on some soothing music and laid down. It didn't take very long for sleep to find me and for that I was grateful.

The next day at school came and went in a blur. Marcus and I had barely seen each other, but that was okay by me. In order to go through with my plans for the day, I needed to make sure my nerves were under control. Now I was waiting next to his car, mentally preparing myself for the conversation we were about to have.

It didn't take too much longer for Marcus to come out, Lee and Daniel on either side of him. They were talking animatedly, trying to engage Marcus in conversation, but he remained relatively quiet from what I could tell. I started to second guess what I was doing as they stopped in front of the car, but this conversation would have to happen at some point anyway. I could see they were equally concerned with Marcus's behavior, but as we talked, we kept the conversation from steering in that direction.

After a few minutes, Lee and Daniel said their farewells and Marcus and I climbed into his car. He had taken to letting me drive whenever it was just the two of us and today was no different. After I put on my seatbelt and made sure everything was in order, I pulled out of his parking spot and made the drive to my house.

I was grateful that my mom would be working all day as it afforded Marcus and myself some much needed privacy. It's not like she would be a distraction or anything, but my mom was just as sensitive about our past as I was. She had already told Marcus how she felt about this project as a whole, but I didn't want her to cause me to change my mind either.

We got into the house and after offering Marcus a drink, we climbed the stairs to my room. He made a quick pitstop in the bathroom to change out of his school clothes and into some basketball shorts and a t-shirt, then he made his way into my room. My nerves were definitely getting the best of me, but this was something I needed to do. I watched Marcus as he did his usual walk around my room, seeing if there were any new pieces hanging about. I let him look for a while, but when he started moving towards the painting I was working on for him, I jumped up in a panic.

"No! It's not done."

I stepped in front of him to stop him from looking and I couldn't help but think about how close he was. I was foolish to think that there was energy passing between us at a time like this, but I could swear it was there. I was drawn to him in ways that I had never been drawn to anyone and as he slowly backed away from me and the painting, I imagined that maybe he was feeling it too.

Marcus: "Okay. I guess."

"I want it to be perfect before you see it."

Marcus: "Is this the painting you're working on for me?"

"Yeah. But, it's not done though. So, you can't see it yet."

Marcus: "Not even a peek?"

As we settled back into the banter I had grown so comfortable with, my resolve started to falter. I knew that once Marcus took one look at the full extent of the damage on my back, he would run for the hills. I was counting on it. Marcus deserved the world. He deserved to be happy and not have the weight of my bullshit on his shoulders.

In my head, preparing to show him my scars was simply for the project. In my heart, if Marcus did like me, this was his release. This was his opportunity to walk away and not feel bad about anything. I'd be understanding. It would hurt. It would feel like my heart was being ripped in two, but it would be what was best for him.

"Close your eyes."

Marcus: "Excuse me?"

"Please? Just close your eyes."

I could see that he was struggling. My request was definitely a strange one, but I needed to do this on my terms. For a few moments he stood there looking at me, studying me, and then finally he gave in and scrunched his eyes up tight.

My heart was beating a mile a minute as I thought about what I was doing. First, I took off my shirt, letting it slowly slip out of my hands. If this was the last chance I had to see his beautiful face, at peace with the friendship we had built, I was going to make it last. From here on, I'd be a victim. A freak. I knew that and I accepted it as just something that would happen.

My shoes, socks, and pants came off next. My shoes were easy enough to kick off, but when I started tugging at my belt, I could see Marcus' eyebrows lift up, his eyes straining to remain closed. I couldn't get it out of my head that I was stripping off my clothes in front of Marcus again. Under normal circumstances, this would have been a dream come true, but right now, my heart was in my stomach.

For a while I just stood there, making sure that this is what I wanted to do. Marcus was still standing there, slowly getting impatient, but I needed a moment to get my thoughts together. This was something I never thought I would be doing with anyone, especially not with Marcus. It was going to change everything.

I slowly walked over to my bed and sat down, which is when Marcus finally opened his eyes. I didn't exactly know how to initiate this conversation or even tell him what I had been thinking, but it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out. I absentmindedly tried to cover the mark on my shoulder, but that was the least of what he was about to see.

Marcus: "What are you doing?"

"Uh... I think... I mean, I know you saw before..."

Marcus: "Your scars?"

"Yeah. I just... It's time."

Marcus: "Ashton, you don't have to..."

"I want to. You deserve... I want you to know."

He looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here. I didn't blame him. I think we all told ourselves we were tolerant of what we thought we understood. I think we all made ourselves feel better at night about the things we would hope to do in a situation like this. But, I didn't begrudge Marcus his discomfort.

Marcus: "Okay."


I waited a second as he placed his phone and keys on the desk beside him. I could tell that he was just as nervous as I was and I wondered what thoughts were going through his head. I wished I could hear him. I wished I could hear inside of his thoughts and see exactly what he felt right now. This one time, it would have been nice to know exactly what was going through that beautiful mind of his.

Marcus: "How do you want to do this?"

"Uh... I'll lay down, maybe. I mean, you just have to lift my beater."

Marcus: "Okay... Uh, sure."

I took a deep breath and then laid down on my bed. I tried my best to get comfortable, but there was really no way to do this easily. I opted to bury my head in the crease of my arms and I just waited for him to get started.

The hardest part was hearing him walking towards me. I didn't know how he was going to position himself, but he straddled my legs and placed his hands on either side of me. For a moment I panicked. I felt trapped and though I knew Marcus wouldn't hurt me, the urge to buck him off and flee from the room was all I could think about. It was only through telling myself over and over again that this was Marcus, my friend, that I was able to calm my nerves.

I waited with bated breath for what seemed like hours, but was probably only minutes. Marcus's weight on me was comfortable and when his hands moved to rest at my waist, I sucked in a sharp breath. From this moment, there would be no going back. I wouldn't be able to take this moment away and act like it never happened.

As his fingers slowly lifted my shirt up, I silently wept. I kept my eyes shut tight, hoping to stop the tears from staining my pillow, but they found a way. This was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. It was worse than enduring everything I had been through as a child. It was worse than watching my grandparents walk out of my life. In this moment, the boy I truly believed that I loved was going to make a choice and I had no options but to accept whatever he decided. The hardest part of all of this was the fact that I didn't have a say in how he would react.

His fingers lightly traced the lines on my back. Some were just small marks, but others were long and jagged; scars that had taken rows of stitches and several months to fully heal. I tried to close off my mind to the memories, but it was like I was right back in that moment, almost ten years ago. As his fingers moved from point to point on my back, it was as if I was feeling that pain all over again.

We sat like that for what seemed like forever. It's as if time wasn't moving at all. As his hands softly traced the lines of abuse on my back, I felt the first of his tears fall. I didn't know how to react as I felt tear after tear slap into my skin and it wasn't until he was outright sobbing that I maneuvered onto my back and took him into my arms, telling him the whole time that, "it would be alright," and that "it's in the past."

How I had come to consoling him, I didn't understand, but this wasn't the reaction I had expected. I thought he would run screaming from the room. I thought that I would hear sounds of disgust. I thought. I thought. I thought.

I held him to my chest as his hands clung to my back, his fingers digging into my skin. It's like he was afraid to let me go. Maybe afraid that I might disappear.

We sat like that a while. The tears came. Then they went. And for a while, they came back. The whole time, I held him in my arms. It wasn't romantic in any way. It was just me holding him to me, keeping him from falling apart. I knew what he was going through. I knew how hard it was to take it all in.

The first time I saw the damage done to my body, I cried until I couldn't cry any more. I cried until I was too exhausted to keep my eyes open and my throat was too sore to speak. When I woke up the next morning, I cried again until sleep took me once more. My mom held me the whole time. Not once did she move as I cried into her, and when I fell asleep, she wrapped her body around me, protecting me from the world outside.

I tried to be there like that for Marcus. I tried to give him strength and keep him grounded and I tried to tell him all would be well. I wanted to believe it myself and part of me was maybe putting those words into the air for both of us. I wanted it to be my reality.

I had just finished putting my wife-beater back on when Marcus came back into the room. His eyes were still swollen and red, but after putting some water on his face, he looked a little better. I hid behind my glass of water as he approached the bed, trying my best to keep my eyes on his face.

He took a seat on the bed next to me and for a second I was lost in the aroma I associated with Marcus. It was like the smell of summer after a good rain. Like fall when you caught a hint of something wonderful in the air. It was perfect and I lost myself in it.

He was a lot closer than I would have expected, but I didn't mind. He was warm and strong and being shoulder to shoulder with him made me feel safe and protected. I leaned into him and when he didn't move away, another of my fears fell away. I thought that I would have alienated him or weirded him out, but it didn't seem the case at all.

Marcus: "I don't see how someone could do that to you. I don't see how someone could want to hurt you like that."

I looked up at him long enough to see a trail of tears rolling down his cheeks, but it didn't seem like he was going to break down again. How I could have doubted him or how he felt about me as a friend made me feel like shit. He had proved himself. Over and over and over again. When was I going to trust in that? What would it take for me to finally get over myself and truly believe that?

"I used to ask myself that all the time. I never understood why something like this happened to me. It could have been anyone, but for some reason, it happened to me."

Marcus: "I'm sorry, Ashton. I'm so sorry."

I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything. I welcomed the silence that followed. It gave me time to think and I'm sure it gave Marcus time to think. He had seen everything. He could see what I had endured and most of what it cost me.

Marcus: "What happened?"

I had already expected him to ask, but I still struggled with an answer. I didn't know how to explain to him what had happened to me over the two years that my mom had dated Devon, the guy who came after my father. The day they met was the day that my life had changed forever and I didn't even know it.

Part of me had never trusted my mom's boyfriend, but I was a child and what did I know? I had always just felt uneasy around him and that only intensified after he moved in with my mom and I. She had barely turned eighteen when we moved away from my grandparent's home and we really hadn't been in Arizona that long before she met him. We had only moved there because my mom had a little bit of family in the area and she was trying to get as far away from memories of my father as possible.

My mom always blamed herself for the things that happened to us, but I hated that she felt that way. My mom was just as innocent in everything that happened to us as I was. She thought she knew him better than she did and he had done things to both of us that were unforgivable.

"My mom's boyfriend. Uh, she came home early one night and saw that he had attacked me. She tried her best to fight him off, but he was so much bigger than her. He was hurting her so bad, and I tried to help, but there wasn't much that we could do between the two of us."

Marcus: "How did you guys get away?"

"My mom finally got the better of him. She hit him with a metal bat. Uh, twice."

Marcus: "Good. She should have killed him."

The darkness that crept into his voice scared me, but on more than one occasion, I had said the same exact thing. I had wanted him to die more than I wanted to live, just so he couldn't hurt anyone else like he hurt me.

I hated that now my thoughts were in such a dark place. Whenever I would see myself in the mirror or touch on one of my scars as I was showering, I would go right back to that night. I had almost died and I had watched my mother almost die. She was so young and she was just as scared as I was. She fought for me though. She didn't think about herself once as she went for him time and time again.

My train of thought derailed as Marcus's leg brushed up against mine. Just like that, fire was racing through my mind, igniting every nerve ending in my body. It was like I was being burned up in the best possible way. If I went, just like that, I'd have been happy.

Marcus: "Ashton..."


Before he even said it, I knew exactly what was going to come out of his mouth.

Marcus: "I, uh... I'd like to see again."

I sat under him nervously as he thumbed the length of the scar that started at the top of my back and stopped about half way down. It had taken a row of stitches to close it, but it was a faint line in comparison to some.

Marcus: "This one?"

"Book shelf. I think."

His hands traveled across my skin again and settled on one of the smaller marks, picking one of the many that decorated my back.

Marcus: "These?"

"Glass table."

His hands moved again, but this time he stopped at the waistband to my underwear. I felt him finger the line there for a second and then there was the press of cold air as he moved my underwear down a little bit. I felt completely exposed as he fingered the line that started at my lower back and traveled down the side of my butt and ended on my upper thigh. His fingers were light as a feather and it didn't escape me that he was touching such a personal area of mine.

It felt like my body was smoldering as he rested his hand there, his fingers sending electricity to dance across my skin. I shut my eyes as my body responded to him. That small touch sending my thoughts into a wild frenzy.

Marcus: "Here?"

"Uh, CD case. You don't really realize how sharp those things can be until you're getting your ass beat on them."

I tried to make a joke of it, but his hands shifted and my voice faltered. His voice had come out thick and choppy, so I thought to lighten the mood, but now I wasn't sure what he had been feeling.

Marcus: "Do they hurt?"

"Not physically. Uh, sometimes if I think about it... It feels like it's happening all over again. But, uh, I try not to let myself go there."

I breathed a sigh of relief when a few moments later, he pushed himself off of the bed and stood up beside me. I caught my breath a second before sitting up and pulling a pillow into my lap. I couldn't make eye contact with Marcus as he stood over me and I hoped that I wasn't blushed scarlet. I had no idea what had come over me and I had no idea what to say.

Marcus gave me a minute before he said anything, while also opting to sit down on the edge of the bed. I watched him carefully, but there was no animosity coming from. If anything, there was a curiosity that I hadn't seen before. I had just shared a huge part of my past with Marcus and now I didn't know what was going through his head and it was killing me.

Marcus: "I just want to say thank you, Ashton. I know that couldn't have been easy for you. I just... Thank you for trusting me like that."

"Of course."

We sat like that for a while. I was starting to feel a little underdressed in just my underwear, but I didn't move to grab any of my clothes. I couldn't help but look at my arms and legs while I sat there. There were a few smaller marks decorating my arms, chest, and legs. Most of the damage had been done to my back though.

I remember when my mom and I showed up at the hospital that night. She had barely been able to drive us. It didn't help that she had to drive three towns over, just to put some space between us and Devon. She had been terrified that he would find us again, so she drove as far away as she could. I had been in and out of consciousness during the ride, but I remember how panicked my mom was.

It was several weeks before we were able to leave the hospital and in that time, I don't ever remember my mom not being by my side. She had to be strong enough for the both of us, but even then, I could see she was just managing to hold herself together.

Marcus: "Earth to Ashton..."

His voice pulled me out of my thoughts and I just tried to clear my mind.


Marcus: "Don't be. I'm sure your thoughts are all over the place right now."

"Yeah, they are. Sometimes it's hard to keep those memories at bay."

Marcus: "I get it. Trust me."

He got up long enough to reach for my camera before coming to sit back on the bed. I didn't react as he snapped a picture of me, though I couldn't think of much with him looking at me the way he was. I wanted to take the camera from him, but I let him have his fun as he played photographer. If he was trying to make me feel better, it had worked and I appreciated it.

Marcus: "Hey. I'm pretty hungry. Pizza?"

"Sounds awesome."


I set my phone down on the dresser after ordering two large pizzas and I made myself comfortable on Ashton's bed, one of his sketchbooks in my hands. He was so talented. A true artist in every way. How someone could do such horrible things to him, I would never understand. How I had been able to do the things I had to him, I couldn't understand.

As I traced the lines of his drawings with my fingers, it reminded me so vividly of a few moments ago, when I was going over the scars on Ashton's back. How he had been able to endure so much pain was beyond me. That he was able to keep going, day in and day out, with the memory of such a traumatic thing happening to him was something to be marveled. I didn't know if I would have had the strength.

More than that, the softness of his skin was what had stayed with me the most. His scars had seemingly faded away as I held him. The only thing I noticed was the narrowing of his waist and the way his back arched up to meet me and the way his body felt so close to mine. When I had fingered his underwear down and out of the way, his scars were far from the most important thoughts in my head. He was sexy and shapely and I wanted all of him.

I mentally kicked myself as Ashton came back in the room, his wife-beater back on. He didn't say anything as he dragged his easel closer to the bed, my painting still entirely covered. I couldn't help but smile at the grin on his face, even when all I wanted to do was... All I could think about was...

If only I was able to say the things that I wanted to him and get him to understand. It made me feel like I was a total creep for looking at him the way I had been, but I couldn't help it. When I should have been focused on his scars and the conversation we were having, I could only think about how our first time would be. Or how soft his lips would feel...

Ashton: "I'll show you. But, it's not done, so no judging."

"It's perfect. I can already tell."

He hesitated a moment before pulling the cover off of his painting and yet again, I sat on his bed, dumbfounded. How he was able to do the things he could with a brush and paint was beyond me. But, he was a true talent.

I knew that I was looking at a painting of myself, but when he had taken the picture, I had no idea. Looking now, I was able to understand the things that Ashton would never be able to say to me. In his painting, I could understand his fear and his happiness and his doubts. It's as if he was painting his unsaid words into a masterpiece only I could understand.

He was waiting for me to say something, I could see that. But there weren't words for what I was feeling. Nothing I said would come out in the perfect way. Nothing I said would be able to sum up how amazing I thought he was. Words wouldn't convey how talented I thought he was, or how special.

Ashton: "So, what do you think?"

"I... It's perfect. Really."

Ashton: "Yeah, right."

"I'm serious, Ashton. You're amazing. I don't get how you don't see that by now."

I wanted to take it back, just so I wouldn't have to see that sadness in his eyes. But a moment later, he was smiling and setting his easel back in it's proper place.

Ashton: "Alright. Well, when it's finished, you'll really love it."

After the pizza came, we focused on actually getting some homework done. We had a bunch of last minute projects to finish before Thanksgiving break, and it was much better working with two brains than one. Now that Ashton had taken the step of showing me his scars, it seemed like a huge weight was lifted off of his shoulders.

I knew that it would always be something that he struggled with. Despite that though, he was a beautiful person inside and out and I was a fool for having taken so long to see it. I was happy now though. We were growing closer in our friendship, and if things went my way, things would move even past that.


I don't know when or how time got away from us, but when I woke up and looked at my bedside clock, it was 4:36am. In a few hours I would have to get up and start getting ready for school, but that was the least of my concerns right now. I vaguely remembered my mom knocking on the door and peeking in on us, but sleep took hold of me again. Now, I tried my best not to move at all.

I couldn't remember the last time I had slept so peacefully and maybe that had something to do with the fact that Marcus was still in bed with me, his arm tight around my waist and my back pressed to him. For a brief second, I almost lost my shit. If I got up before he noticed, I would avoid an awkward situation, but my body wouldn't move.

He was a head taller than me and I could feel the wind tickling my ear as his breathing came and went, the smell of mint washing over me. I don't know how many minutes I stayed like that, enjoying the way our bodies intertwined. I didn't think we would fall asleep, so I never got around to changing into my night clothes and the fact that my bare skin was touching his was not lost upon me. I would have loved to stay there like that, but my fears got the better of me.

I focused on moving as softly and quietly as possible, but when I went to sit up, Marcus's arm tightened around my waist for just a second before he moved it away entirely. I about panicked, but he didn't seem to notice as he let out a mighty yawn and rolled onto his back. I hoped that my cheeks weren't red as I turned on my bedside light, but again looking at Marcus, he wouldn't have noticed anyway.

His eyes were closed and I thought that he had gone back to sleep, but I could see him drumming his fingers in the air. I knew that I hadn't put his arm over me, but now with the quiet becoming so apparent, I was starting to feel guilty like I had.

I started to speak, but when his gaze met mine, sleepy eyes weren't looking back at me. My mind started to race, but I kept my face as neutral as I could.

"How long have you been up?"

Marcus: "A few minutes."

"Why did... Why didn't you wake me up?"

Marcus: "Because I didn't want to. For once you finally looked like you were having a good night's sleep."

It didn't surprise me that Marcus knew that I had trouble sleeping. I had fallen asleep on him while we were hanging out more than a few times. I would wake up in my bed, a blanket over me, and a text from him saying that he had made it home safely.

"Thanks. I appreciate that... It's just I don't want you to be uncomfortable."

Marcus: "I'm not."

I watched him as he maneuvered around me and stood up. I couldn't meet his eyes though. It was starting to dawn on me that when it came to Marcus, I might have been wrong about a lot of things. I wanted to ask him to explain himself and why he was doing the things that he was, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. Instead, I sat against my bed and watched him gather his things.

Part of me wanted to ask him to stay. He wasn't wrong when he said that I was sleeping peacefully. It was another of the effects of having Marcus in my life. Of the few times I had fallen asleep at his house, or fallen asleep with him here, it was like he would turn off the switch on my bad dreams.

Marcus: "I guess I better get out of here. Unless you want to come over and ride into school with me."

"Uh, it's okay. I'm fine walking."

Marcus: "Alright."

It looked like he was hoping for another answer and honestly, I would have loved to give him one. I wanted to get my thoughts together though. I knew that things were changing between Marcus and I, but I wasn't sure I was ready for that.

I walked quietly behind him as he made his way downstairs and outside. It was pretty cold out and the fact that I was wearing only a wife-beater and underwear wasn't helping, but that wasn't my focus. I wanted to ask him to stay. I didn't want to have to watch him walk away, again, but I kept my mouth shut. This thing with Marcus... I just needed to know that it wasn't just me. I needed to know that I wasn't tricking myself into seeing things that weren't there.

Marcus: "See you at school."

"Right. School... See you there."