*5ish Weeks Later*
Walking to my class from my car felt weird. There had been two full weeks of classes, but I still wasn’t used to living off campus. And I hated the way people looked at me. After what happened right before break, word spread quickly. Especially once people had moved back in.
Most people looked at me with sympathy. Some people avoided me. And a few blamed me. I’d heard all the rumors. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you looked at it, I had fiercely loyal friends/teammates that backed me up, but also informed me of what was being said.
The main few that blamed me were close friends and/or teammates of Luke’s. No one had said anything to my face. Yet.
While I was at the formal interview at the police station the day after the incident, my dad had used his power and prestige to call the higher ups at the University. The University was overly apologetic, in my opinion. Athletes were predominantly expected to reside in campus housing, except for extenuating circumstances. This qualified as one of those circumstances. Due to my full ride and not having to pay for anything, the school was actually providing me with an allowance towards off-campus housing. My roommates were being allowed the option of going with me or staying there, since they could’ve claimed discomfort of being in that apartment now, or lack of safety. Since I didn’t know Nellie well, I requested that she not be living in my new place, if she chose to not stay at the on-campus apartment. The school obliged and transferred her to a new housing situation. Sarah and Maddie chose to join me off-campus.
My dad had found a large, nice rental home in Lincoln, only a few miles from campus. It had 3 bedrooms, so was plenty large enough for the three of us. Although we had the allowance from the school, upon insistence from my parents of living somewhere safe and in a “nice location with a low crime rate,” the rent was high, but my parents were paying the overage of the rent that the allowance didn’t cover.
The walk to this class was now almost double what I had to walk before, and the weather had been so hit or miss, but today was cold. With flurries. It made my fingers numb. But, they only matched how I felt on the inside. I hadn’t cried since the night it happened. I refused to cry. I kept telling everyone I was okay. But when I told people that, I was really telling myself. I was really convincing myself. I told myself that if I acted normal and continued living my normal life, I would start feeling normal.
I didn’t, though.
I had gone to every single tennis practice. I forced a smile on my face at Christmas, and still insisted on going to the big family get together. When classes started, I was on time every day. I had my first tennis match of the season this past weekend, and I was there. I played horribly. Losing 10 pounds (on my body that didn’t need to lose any, nor could afford to) from not eating, and not sleeping at night will make a person weak, irritable, and not at the top of their game. I knew my parents, Sarah, and Maddie saw through it, but they let me get away with it. There was only one person who wasn’t letting me get away with it, and I was pushing him away.
There was no way Aaron could want me after what he saw. That’s what I now believed. He would eventually stop calling, texting, coming by to see me. Not yet, but he would. He saw me at my worst. At my weakest. He saw the tears and pain. He saw me frozen and numb, unable to function.
He was at my last match of the weekend, yesterday. After I lost, and the team was done, he insisted on taking me to dinner. I didn’t want to go. I wasn’t hungry. However, I was famished, but still not hungry. He just took me to a little hole-in-the-wall diner. He ordered for me, probably because I didn’t even pick up a menu, I just stared blankly at my hands.
“Aleah,” he began, and I knew this wasn’t going to be good. I looked up and he was looking at my earnestly. He was so devastatingly handsome, but now I felt dirty, and undeserving of him. “I’m saying this because I care about you.” He paused. “A lot.” He took a long drink of his chocolate milkshake. “I think you need to talk to someone. You just... you aren’t the same. And I don’t expect you to be. But, you aren’t eating...”
I tried jumping in, “Yes I am!”
He firmly cut me off. “No. No you aren’t. Your clothes are fitting loosely, and you just don’t look healthy. Anyway, you aren’t eating; you barely talk or even look at me. Your smile is fake, all the time.” His voice and eyes simultaneously softened. “I don’t blame you, at all. But I’m hoping and praying that you start getting back to you. That you grieve, heal, and actively work through this. For your sake.”
I felt the burn at the back of my eyes, and I blinked hard, refusing to give in. “What if this is who I am now?” I said it quietly, afraid of the answer. I hadn’t even meant to say that out loud. I had been asking myself that question for weeks. But I didn’t want the answer.
He cocked his head at me. He reached a hand across the table and grabbed mine, which were clasped tightly together. “Aleah, I know who you are. You are the girl that I saw strutting confidently through that club. You are the girl who was covered in gross trash, locked out of her apartment, but still appeased me by playing I Spy, and won. You’re the girl who will sit there and beat me at my own game of trash talking. You are the girl who is fiercely loyal to her friends and loved ones. You are the all-star athlete. You are the girl who, when you look me in my eyes, causes time to stop and makes me not want to be anywhere else but with her.” He squeezed my hands. “I’m not going anywhere.”
I couldn’t look him in the eyes. My insides felt like they were on fire, for the first time since the incident. I felt something. But I was terrified. What if I never got back to being that person that he so clearly adores? Would he leave, then? I don’t know that I could deal with anymore hurt. The fire inside dwindled away just as quickly as it had roared to life.
I felt like a robot. I mechanically looked at him, but still avoided his eyes. My voice was coming through as monotone when I said, “I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
I felt his hand flinch, but he didn’t move it from mine. “You don’t mean that,” he said gently.
And he was right. I didn’t. But I didn’t feel worthy of his affection right now. I was spiraling, and I didn’t want to drag him with me into my pit of despair.
I slowly pulled my hands from his grasp, and I got out of the booth. I walked to the bathroom, where I called Sarah and asked her to come get me. I stood in a stall with the door closed, until she came bounding in, asking me what happened and what was wrong. Aaron tried to check on me a couple of times before she got there, but I told him to go away and Sarah was coming to get me.
When I left the bathroom, he was gone. And so were any lingering feelings of hope.