Bruises, everywhere. Black and purple and blue, colors so deep and dark they seem to draw all the pigment from what little patches of her skin remain unharmed. Bruises that snake from her wrist to her forearm and elbow, along her shoulders and down her back, across her collarbone. I see her shaking fingers and then, suddenly, it all comes together, an answer so obvious I can’t believe I didn’t realize it sooner. Unreasonably heavy makeup. Long-sleeved shirt in near 100 degree weather. Bruises that were never really explained. Fear of an overprotective father.
“Allie,” I say slowly, not wanting it to be true, but unable to think of any other explanation, “did your dad give those to you?”
She takes a shuddering breath; I can almost hear the air rattling around in her chest as she inhales. Her mouth opens like she’s about to speak, but then, quite abruptly—she starts crying. Her shoulders shake as she draws her knees to her chest and buries her face in her hands. The sound of her crying echoes around the room, but not loudly; it’s quiet, somehow, like she’s sitting behind me, whispering secrets in my ear; soft, heartbroken sobbing. But the quietness of the sound doesn’t dampen the blade-like pain that presses on my heart when I hear her crying like that. No one, least of all funny, kind, happy Allie, should ever have a reason to cry that way—or for that reason.
Silently, I wrap my arms around her, pulling her still-trembling body closer to mine. She doesn’t relinquish her curled-up position, but she does bury her face in my chest, just below my collarbone; her hands clench so tightly around the fabric of my shirt that I can feel her fingers shaking.
No words come. I don’t know what to say and, in any case, she probably doesn’t want to talk. I just let her cry, quietly, into my shirt, her breathing shuddering and rattling still. I can see the bruises on her back now; one of them is massive, stretching from shoulder to shoulder. The blade presses harder against my heart. I wish that somehow, I could make the bruises disappear forever, just by holding her like this. Just by looking at her, even.
But she continues to cry, and the bruises remain, no matter how hard I wish them away.
* * *
I don’t know how long she cries; I’m not watching the clock. All I know is suddenly, Allie sits up and looks at me with alarm bright in her watery, red-rimmed eyes. Her makeup has smeared and washed away, revealing the shadow-like bruise beneath her eye.
“T-t-there’s an-nother class i-in h-here at f-f-five,” she stutters, hiccuping with each word, hardly able to speak still. “I t-told M-Madame G-G-Garcia t-t-that I’d b-be g-gone by t-t-then.”
“I’ll drive you home,” I say.
Allie frowns, hiccuping again. “I c-can d-drive myself.” She goes to wipe a few stray tears from her splotchy cheeks, but her fingers are still shaking so badly that she can’t actually find the tears.
Slowly, gently, I pull her hand away from her face, wrapping my fingers around hers. With my other hand, I brush away the tears that she tried to get rid of.
“Let me drive you,” I say again.
She takes another one of those painful-sounding, rattling breaths. Allie’s fingers tighten around mine, a timid, scared sort of pressure.
“Okay,” she whispers.
Niall helps me stand up. I feel so stupid, mortified beyond belief that I’ve gone to pieces like this in front of him—but grateful, too, for his help, because if I’m being completely honest with myself, I shouldn’t be driving when I’m in this state. I don’t even think I have the strength to press the gas pedal.
I tighten my fingers around Niall’s as we walk towards the studio door, needing the pressure of his hand around mine to keep my legs steady. His grip is strong, much strong than mine, but somehow gentle, too. A steadying force, like the rudder of a ship.
I reach out to pick up my dance bag before we leave, but Niall grabs it before I can.
“Where did you park?” he asks before I can say anything.
I brush at my eyes again, feeling more tears leaking over my eyelids. “R-right o-out f-front.”
We take the stairs slowly; Niall seems determined to keep me from overworking myself again. It only adds to my embarrassment, but there’s little I can do to change it, not when I’m still clinging to his hand for dear life.
Only when I get to the bottom of the stairs do I realize what I’m wearing.
“Niall,” I say, “I n-need m-my shirt.”
He frowns. “You need to cool down,” he says. “You’re still warm.”
“I c-can’t walk out on the street l-like t-this.”
Even he can’t argue with that logic. Grudgingly, I can tell, he pulls my long-sleeved shirt from my dance bag and hands it to me. I extract my fingers from his just long enough to pull the shirt over my head once again. The fabric is still damp with sweat. I wipe some stray tears from my cheeks, hoping to make myself look at least somewhat normal before I walk outside, back into the strangely bright LA sunshine.
Niall and I are silent as we get in the truck, him in the driver’s seat, me in the passenger seat. He puts the keys in the ignition and pulls away from the curb and starts driving away. I wonder if I should explain it all to him—the bruises, my dad. But I don’t know what he’d do with that information. For all I know, it’d just scare him off, and after he drove me home, I’d never see him again. The thought of that makes my heart hurt, so I pull my knees up to my chest again and lean my head against the windowpane and keep my mouth firmly shut.
We pull up in front of my house half an hour later. The sun outside is still bright and it’s strange, the warmth and the light when I’m so tired.
I slowly get out of the truck, careful not to overextend my muscles. As I walk up the path to my front porch, I hear the sound of a car door slamming and then hurried footsteps behind me. I don’t have to look around to know it’s Niall. A small part of me wants to tell him to leave so I can deal with this alone the way I’ve always done. But the rest of me wants him here, a warm, comforting presence to keep me company until my dad comes home again. So I don’t argue when I unlock my front door and he follows me inside.
“I’m going upstairs,” I say as I hear the front door close and then the click of the lock. I’m not crying anymore, thank heavens, but my voice mimics the exhaustion my body feels.
There’s the sound of fast footsteps, and then Niall’s hand slides once more into mine, still warm, still strong and steady. I turn to look at him, one foot on the bottom stair. His eyes are searching, pleading, almost.
“Don’t shut me out,” he says, squeezing my hand. “Please.”
I look at him, at his bright blue eyes, which, unusually, are not smiling.
“I won’t,” I say. “I promise.”
She goes to the bathroom to change into her pajamas, leaving me standing alone in her bedroom. It’s a small room, with most of the space taken up by a queen-sized bed covered with a thick turquoise comforter and at least ten pillows. There’s a small closet to the right of the door, a small bookshelf beside the bed, and a CD player on the floor, along with the largest stack of CDs I’ve ever seen in my life. The floor is covered in clothes and books and all kinds of random things; it reminds me of how my room back home in Mullingar looked. The ceiling fan above her bed is whirring loudly and the window is open, but the room still feels stiflingly hot.
Because there aren’t any chairs in the room, I sit on the edge of the bed and look around the room, waiting for Allie to come back. There isn’t anything on the walls, not a single poster or a picture or anything. The top of her nightstand, though, has three simple picture frames on it. One is a picture of her with a girl with dark brown hair; Allie and the girl, who I would guess is Sam, are sticking their tongues out at the camera and making goofy faces. Another is a picture of Allie in a white tutu, surrounded by a bunch of other girls in the same costume; all of them wearing pink-ribboned pointe shoes. The final picture shows Allie when she’s much younger, maybe ten or eleven. She’s standing next to a woman who’s got her exact same golden blond hair and blue eyes, even the same wide smile. The woman has her arm around Allie’s shoulder.
“That’s my mom.”
I look up from the picture. Allie is standing the doorway, now wearing a pair of Adidas shorts and a loose-fitting t-shirt. She’s holding a pale blue shoe box in one hand and a tall glass of water in the other.
“You look just like her,” I say.
She nods once. “Yeah. Everyone said that.”
Still holding the box and the glass of water, Allie walks across the room and sits down on her bed; since it’s so hot, she doesn’t crawl under the covers, just sits on top of them. I see the way her whole body, every single muscle, loosens as she leans against the pillows and sinks into the soft mattress. I start to stand up, thinking she might want some space, but before I know it, I feel a hand on my arm.
“Stay,” she whispers.
I sit back down.
I watch as Allie carefully opens the shoe box and begins sifting through its contents. There’s a variety of things inside—Band-Aids, gauze and tape, an Ace bandage, a bottle of antiseptic, a washcloth, several of those snap-and-break ice packs. She pulls out a bottle of Advil, takes out two pills, and swallows them with a sip of water from the glass. She puts the glass on the nightstand, puts the Advil bottle back in the box, and takes out one of the ice packs. Her movements have a very practiced sort of feel to them. Like she’s done this a hundred times before and this is all very routine. Even just the fact that she’s got a box already stocked with all these items makes my stomach clench. How often has she had to do this, all by herself, with no one to help?
“Here,” I say, taking the ice pack from Allie’s hands. “Let me do that.”
I expected her to argue, but she doesn’t. She just sighs. “Okay.”
I crack the ice pack; the ice inside makes an odd splintering sound as it bends. “Where do you want this?”
I put the ice pack on the top of her should. .She shivers slightly when it first touches her skin, but then her body relaxes again.
“A little to the right,” she says; I move the ice pack accordingly. “Down a little—yeah, right there.”
We fall silent. As the minutes pass, Allie’s body sinks lower and lower into her mattress, steadily relaxing. Even though I can tell she’s starting to feel a bit better, I can still see the tear tracks streaking across her cheeks, and, of course, the violently purple bruises. It strikes me how very small she is. How breakable. Fragile.
“He didn’t always hit me, you know,” Allie says.
I look up at her. She’s staring at her feet, but even from the side I can tell that that transparent look, the one where the pain shines through her blue irises, is back, the way it was when we talked, briefly, about her mother’s car accident.
“He didn’t?” It’s hard to keep the skepticism out of my voice. Looking at the multitude of bruises covering Allie’s body, it’s difficult to believe that the man who hit her could have ever been someone kind.
Allie shakes her head. “No. He didn’t use to drink, either.”
She sounds bitter. I don’t know what to say.
“The car accident messed him up. He missed my mom too much, he couldn’t handle it…we don’t have a lot of family, so he didn’t have anyone to talk to except me, and who talks to a twelve-year-old about that kind of thing?” A couple of tears slide down her cheeks, but she quickly brushes them away. “He started staying at work late, going to the bars with his coworkers, staying out late…a few of months after my mom died, he came home dead-drunk, he could barely make it through the front door…he threw his beer bottle at me. That’s when it started.” She takes one of those air-rattling breaths, and I feel that blade pressing on my heart again. “I’ve still got the scars,” she says. “See?” She points to a series of short, straight, thick white scars on her thigh, just above her knee. A shiver runs up my spine. For the scars to be that obvious six years later, the glass would have had to cut very, very deep.
I take her hand again. “I’m sorry.”
Allie looks at me, her eyes still transparent with pain. “For what?”
I squeeze her fingers. “For not being here sooner.”
Bizarrely, a faint smile pulls at the corners of her mouth. “You were halfway around the world,” she says. “What could you have done?”
I look at the scars on her leg. “Something. Anything.”
She shakes her head. “There’s nothing anyone could have done.”
Silence falls between us again. The ice pack is starting to lose its coolness, becoming lukewarm in the stifling heat. I’m about to ask Allie if she wants me to get another ice pack for her when she yawns widely and loudly.
“Do you want to go to sleep?” I ask.
She hesitates, then nods. “Yeah.”
“Here.” I pull the ice pack from her shoulder and put it back in the shoe box. Before she can move, I take the shoe box and put it on her nightstand, between the water glass and the picture of her and her mother. “Lie down,” I tell her.
A thousand questions seem to swim in Allie’s eyes when she looks at me, but she doesn’t say anything as the lies down, curling up into a little ball and resting her head on the closest pillow.
“Are you cold?” I ask, seeing her curled-up limbs.
She shakes her head. “No, I’m just right.”
“Do you need anything?”
“Just—do you think you could turn on my CD player?”
“Sure.” I walk over to the CD player and press the power button. A quiet, rhythmic, slightly dissonant strumming of the guitar comes from the speakers.
“Come on, skinny love, just last the year, pour a little salt, we were never here….”
“Turn it down a little,” she says. “So my dad won’t hear it.”
I turn the volume dial a little, until the music is quiet enough that Allie can hear it, but her dad wouldn’t, unless he walked in the room.
I stand up again and walk back to her bed. She blinks once. The blue of her eyes seems extra bright. I wonder, if I turned off the lights, if they’d shine in the dark.
“My my my, my my my, my, my, staring at the sink of blood and crushed veneer….”
“I’ll call you in the morning,” I say, brushing her bangs out of her eyes.
“Okay.” Her voice is soft.
I bend over and press my lips to her forehead. My heart pounds so loud in my chest I wonder if Allie can hear it. She sighs, quietly.
“Sleep well,” I whisper.
“I tell my love to wreck it all, cut out all the ropes and let me fall….”
Just before I walk out the door, Allie says, “Niall?”
I turn around to look at her. “Yeah?”
Her eyes are still wide and bright. “Thank you.”
I nod, slowly, once. “You’re welcome.”
“My my my, my my my, my, my, right in this moment, the order’s tall….”
I close her bedroom door, walk quietly down the stairs and go outside. The sun is still shining; it is summer, after all, and the sun doesn’t set till late. I pull my cell phone out of my pocket and call for a cab, since I don’t have another way home.
It’s only as I’m giving the taxi company Allie’s address and they’ve told me they’ll probably be there around 6:30 that I realize I completely forgot to go to that radio performance at 5. Which is exactly the sort of thing Mr. Norris told me not to do.