"You do realize class started ten minutes ago," my professor inquired of me as I sauntered into the lecture hall. I gave him a thumbs-up.
"What's your last name?" He reached over and snatched a pen off of his desk, surely getting ready to write my name down on a list of students to keep his eye on.
"Brinks," I told him proudly, heading towards my favorite section of any classroom: the far right corner. The other students seemed shocked by my blatant defiance towards the professor, but they would just have to get used to it. This was my blow-off class, and I had heard stories that it was an easy A+ for anyone.
The room seemed to be lopsided. As I had walked in, I noticed most students were sitting on the left side, while there was only one girl huddled at a left-handed desk in my corner, staring at the board. She seemed familiar. I pushed my way through the empty desks and plopped myself down beside her, scooting my desk across the tile floor so as to be almost uncomfortably close.
The professor gave me a look of exasperation and continued his explanation of our syllabus. I pulled out my notebook and folder, shuffling through my papers unnecessarily, and finally found the syllabus I had printed out minutes earlier. I leaned on my desk and glanced at the girl beside me.
My glance turned into a stare. I remembered her from last year. It would have been hard to forget her; she was the only girl I'd been able to spot all the way across campus. She hadn't been in any of my classes, but I always saw her sitting on the terraces for hours on end. Sometimes her nose was buried in a book, other times homework. I was finally sitting right next to her, seeing that long, red hair flowing over her shoulder in messy, beautiful ringlets, framing her heart-shaped, freckled face. Her hazel eyes were fixated on the professor as she pulled in her lower lip and chewed on it a bit. She was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, which I found odd since the temperature was almost in the triple digits, and a pair of knee-length exercise shorts. Once my eyes made their way back to her face, I was startled to realize she was staring back at me.
How long had she noticed me staring? I gave her a friendly smile. Her response: wrinkling her nose, crossing her legs, and refocusing her attention to the board for the rest of the class period.
After a forty-minute mental nap, the professor dismissed us from class. I swung my backpack over my shoulder as I stood up. The girl beside me was still packing up her homework, so I slowly wandered out of the room. Once outside, I scuffed my shoes on the tile and looked around a bit, waiting. She finally came out of the classroom, her eyes cast towards the floor. I spun around and began walking with her, shoulder to shoulder.
"I'm Arthur. And you are?" I tried to sound bubbly in hopes that she couldn't give the cold shoulder to someone so happy.
She slowed her step and looked at me. I thought I saw a moment of fear in her eyes, but it was fleeting.
"Uh, Jeanine." Her eyes flitted around as if she was searching for a way out of the conversation. But I wasn't going to go down that easily.
"That's a unique name. I like it," I responded after a few seconds. We were leaving the building now, and I figured she'd soon make an excuse to leave. That couldn't happen, this was finally my chance to get to know her. "So are you headed back to your dorm, or what?" I asked, putting my hands in my pockets.
"My boyfriend's house, actually." She began wringing her fingers.
"Oh," I responded. I felt my confidence slide a few notches.
"Well, I'm gonna go," she stated, glancing down at her watch.
As she turned away from me, I reached over and touched her shoulder. "Hold up, do-"
But I didn't finish my question. As soon as I touched her, she winced and shrunk away.
"I'm s-sorry," I said, "Did I hurt you?"
"No, just…I have to go," she whispered, shoving her hands deep into her hoodie pocket. She hurried off, and I knew I was meant not to follow.
I could feel Jeanine's tension when I sat beside her in class for the next few weeks. Every time I glanced at her, her body became rigid and her pencil scratched feverishly across the paper.
"Now," said the professor, kicking off our fourth week of class, "turn to the person beside you and introduce yourself if you haven't done so already." A small burst of chatter filled the room as the students shifted in their seats to talk to the person next to them. I looked at Jeanine, but she never took her eyes off the professor. "Congratulations, you've just met your new partner for our first paper. This paper is going to include your personal observations of how this person communicates nonverbally. Here, I'm passing around the handouts to give you a more in-depth explanation of your assignment. Make sure everyone gets a copy."
The papers began shuffling around the classroom slowly, and I turned to Jeanine only to see that she was already out the door, not having waited for an assignment sheet. I scrambled to gather my homework, stole the assignment description from someone's desk on my way out the door and rushed after her. I caught up with her outside the building.
"Partner," I said, trying to sound suave as I reached her side. She glanced at me and pushed the hair out of her face.
"Yeah, I need to talk to him about that. I already have a different person to write my paper on. Watson can find you another partner." That was the most I had ever heard Jeanine say, so I was slightly taken aback.
"Wait, why? Did I do something wrong here? Look, I'm sorry I was staring at you the first day, I just thought I recognized you from somewhere." I was confused. She shouldn't be mad at me for that. She should take my staring as a compliment.
"No, it's okay, I just can't be your partner. I'm not a-" She cut herself off and looked down at her shoes, scuffing them on the concrete.
"Not what? Allowed? Are you kidding me? What, so your mommy won't let you play with the other kids?" I knew I was acting like an ass, but she was frustrating me.
"It's not like that," she whispered. By this time, we were just standing on the sidewalk, facing each other. I folded my arms across my chest and scoffed.
"So, your crazy jealous boyfriend has the same rules?" I rolled my eyes.
Jeanine's eyes finally met mine for the first time during our conversation. The look was pleading and frightened.
"Well, he's just gonna have to deal with it. We're partners for this assignment, so let's find a time and place to meet so we can just do it and get it done." I tried to calm myself down.
Sighing, Jeanine shook her head. "Fine, whatever."
I dug into my pocket for the receipt from my dinner and a pen. I scribbled my phone number on the back of the receipt and handed it to her. She pushed back her long sleeves a bit and slowly reached for the paper, her hand shaking.
"Give me a text later tonight about when you want to work on it. I'll see you around." I shoved the paper into her hand, and walked towards the parking lot. I glanced behind me to see her folding the receipt up and sliding it into her pocket. She tucked her hair behind her ear and began walking slowly behind me. I reached my car and threw my backpack in the back seat. After starting my car, I cranked up the music and closed my eyes, leaning back against the headrest.
Two songs and a confusing jumble of feelings later, I pulled out of the parking lot and headed towards my apartment. I had been driving for a few minutes before I saw that long, red hair illuminated by a flickering lamppost. She was walking along the sidewalk slowly, her feet dragging along the concrete. I pulled up close to the curb and rolled down my window.
"You going back to your house? I could give you a ride," I offered. I felt bad about how I acted earlier and hoped she would accept this as an apology.
She kept walking as if she hadn't heard me. I honked my horn, and she jumped and looked my direction. I leaned across the center console and asked louder, "Do you want a ride?"
She shook her head and continued walking. I threw up my hands, shrugged my shoulders, and hit the gas.
The next day, I went to the coffee shop in the library before my morning class. There were usually very few students on campus, let alone in the library, before eight in the morning. A few of the comfortable couches were taken, so I decided to head upstairs with my coffee in search of a quiet place to sit. While scanning the next level for empty chairs, I saw Jeanine in the corner, her head lying down on a table with an open book a few inches away. Her face was tucked into the crook of her arm and those red ringlets were splayed across the table. I shuffled across the carpet and pulled a chair to her table. I reached over and touched her shoulder, hoping to gently wake her.
"Huh?" she started, rubbing her eyes. "Oh, it's you."
"Yeah. So that text last night…" I leaned back in my chair and stared at her.
She raised her eyebrow and blinked at me. "What text? I didn't text you."
"Exactly. I told you to text me about when we could get together. You know, for the paper?"
"I guess I lost your number. Sorry." As she gathered up her books and shoved them into her backpack, she sniffled. I could tell something was wrong; her eyes were puffy and red.
"Okay, seriously, what's going on?" I whispered across the table. She stood up and tried to walk away, but I jumped up and sidestepped into her path. "What did I do?"
She cast her gaze to the floor. I reached out and put my hand under her chin, lifting her face up so I could look her in the eyes. She recoiled, sharply sucking air in through her teeth.
"Don't." Her eyes filled with tears and her lower lip quivered.
I held my hands up in surrender. "I didn't…are you okay? Is that a bruise?" My heart was racing. This couldn't be what I thought it was. It just couldn't. I reached towards her and gently pushed aside the few strands of hair hiding her face.
"It's nothing," she said quickly, wiping the tears from her eyes and pushing her hair forward again to cover her cheek. The large purple bruise on her jaw line, however, had shown me enough.
"That's more than nothing. How can you even say that?" I was livid with whoever had done this to her; it was hard for me to keep my voice down.
"He didn't mean to. It's no big deal." She tried to push past me, but I put my hand on her arm, which caused her to wince again.
"There, too?! Is this why you never texted last night?"
She bowed her head and began silently crying, her face in her hands. I put my arm lightly around her waist and steered her towards one of the soundproof study rooms.
Once inside, she sobbed, "He found your number in my pocket last night when he got home from the bar. I explained that you're in my class and we are writing a paper about each other, but he didn't believe me. He was really mad."
I stormed around the room, resisting the urge to throw everything in sight. How could someone treat Jeanine like this? She was such a sweet, beautiful girl. The thought of her boyfriend doing this made my blood boil.
I rubbed my face and flailed my arms in the air with frustration. "He won't ever do this again. I won't let him touch you. You need to report this! I'LL report it if you won't!"
She glanced up suddenly and gave me a look of desperation. "No, you wouldn't…please, don't do that. He didn't mean it; I know he didn't. He's just watching out for me because he loves me…"
I stared at her in disbelief.
"Quit lying to yourself."
"I'm not ly-"
"Don't even try that with me," I interrupted. "I've seen this kind of thing happen before, I know what goes on."
Jeanine shifted her eyes to the floor and started intensely chewing at her lip.
I shuffled my feet on the carpet and lowered my voice. "My dad used to beat my mom when I was younger. Hell, he probably still would if I hadn't called the cops one night and gotten his ass arrested. Mom would always make stupid excuses, just like you are right now. 'He didn't mean it', 'He's just looking out for me', all that conjured up bullshit. Truth is, she was scared. She couldn't leave him." I had repressed these memories for many years, but as I remembered, my face became hot with anger. "I don't want to see anyone else go through what she went through. I know you're better than this."
"You don't know me at all," she whispered. A few seconds later, I heard the door creak open, and she left.
I sat a few rows forward in class the next time. The thought of sitting beside Jeanine, knowing her situation and not being able to help, was too painful for me. Ever since we had talked in the library, I'd been having flashbacks about my mom. Seeing her hide the bruises, hide her suffering. Long sleeve shirts were always in season for her. I was never strong enough to stop my dad, no matter how many times I had tried.
When I resurfaced from my memories, I realized the professor had just dismissed class. Jeanine must have left the room quickly, assumingly to avoid having anything to do with me, but I made an extra effort to pack my bag as slowly as possible and let her leave before me. I walked out to my car and waited ten minutes before I pulled out of the parking lot. I cautiously drove the same route as a few days before. I eventually spotted Jeanine walking down the sidewalk, just as I had last time. I whipped my car into the nearest driveway, threw it into park and waited for her to turn a corner.
She eventually turned left at the next block, so I backed out of the driveway and crept along the road until I reached that block. I waited a minute at the stop sign, and then turned left. Jeanine seemed absorbed in the music playing in her headphones and didn't notice my yellow truck with its headlights off following her home.
After following her for twenty minutes, Jeanine finally walked up the driveway of a small house with light blue, chipped paint. She didn't take the shortcut across the lawn like most people would do at their own house; she walked along the curvy sidewalk until she reached the front door. She put her ear to the door for a few seconds before she slid the key into the keyhole and carefully opened the door. I parked my car alongside the street a few houses down, leaned the seat back, rolled the windows down and waited.
I must have fallen asleep because I woke with a start to the sound of a crash. I jerked my seat into the upright position and saw that a car was now parked in the driveway of Jeanine's house. I climbed out of the car quickly, listening for more sounds signifying a fight. I ran across the lawn of the little blue house and put my ear to the front door. I heard whimpering and then the sharp sound of skin making contact with skin.
"Shut up, Jen, or I'll just hafta tie you up," a gruff voice said from inside the house.
That's when I snapped. I stepped backwards on the front porch and, with the power that came from my boiled up anger, I kicked the front door open. The scene before me was horrifying.
Jeanine was sprawled across the couch, the buttons ripped off of her blouse, her hair a mess. Tears were running down her face. I saw a suitcase lying open on the floor, clothes strewn across the living room. She glanced up with fright when she heard the door burst open, and upon seeing me, she grabbed a blanket off the back of the couch and covered herself with it.
The man standing over her was enormous. His arm muscles were thicker than my thigh and the rest of his body was proportionate to his arms. The anger was clear in his face, and even clearer when he growled, "Who're you? And what're you doing in my house?"
When I hadn't responded in a few seconds, he seemed to come to his senses. "Get the hell outta my house!" he grunted, coming towards me.
"Arthur, just go!" Jeanine shrieked from the couch. The boyfriend turned towards her.
"You know him? You know him?! Did you tell him to come here? You stupid whore, I could just…"
But he could not get the rest of his words out, for I had attacked him from behind. I leaped onto his back and wrapped my arm tightly around his neck, forcing him to fall backwards. My attempt to take him down backfired when he smashed down on top of me, knocking the air out of my lungs. I lay flat on the ground for a second, catching my breath. I could hear Jeanine screaming, "Stop, Derek, stop!" but my ears were ringing and everything was spinning. Suddenly, her screams stopped and I looked up, only to see her boyfriend's hands wrapped around her neck. She struggled to loosen his grip, but he was too strong for her.
"No!" I screamed, pushing myself off the floor. I stood up and swayed from side to side. Throwing myself at him, I punched him in the ribs as hard as I could. He let go of Jeanine and she fell into a heap on the couch, no longer struggling.
I was striking Derek with everything I had. I had to be strong enough, for Jeanine, for my mom. My nose was bleeding from the effort, but I just let the blood drip onto the floor. Derek threw a punch aimed towards my head, but I ducked and hit him in the ribs again. He doubled over and I took that chance to stumble over to the couch and check on Jeanine. I grabbed her, searching for a pulse. I couldn't feel anything. I was frantic; she could not be dead. I was there to stop this. I had to save her from this awful life. Two seconds later, I felt something strike me in the head and everything went dark.
I zoned out the whole time I limped from the parking lot to the communication building. My thoughts kept returning to the events from the night before last.
I came around that night, my head pounding, only to find myself strapped in the back of an ambulance. With all the effort I could muster, I lifted my head. I could see police lights flashing all along the street, bouncing off the white inside walls of the ambulance. Light was spilling out of a few windows down the street, silhouetting the nosy people inside, craning their necks to see what was going on. Three policemen came out of the house, dragging a reluctant oaf-like figure, which I assumed was Derek, out to their car. I watched the police as they struggled to force his large body into the back of their cruiser. I looked away just in time to see more policemen putting a stretcher with a long, black body bag into the back of a smaller van. I could no longer hold the weight of my head, and with a thud, I passed out again.
My feet had carried me outside the doors to my classroom, and my eyes filled with tears. I looked through the doorway and saw all the students in their seats. Upon entering the room, I felt like an outsider. I wandered my way to the back corner of the room, back to my original seat. This time, however, there was no beautiful redhead seated beside me. Seeing her empty chair made everything seem real.
The professor waltzed into the room and I laid my head down on my desk. I could hear him shuffling through his papers, and then he asked, "So, how's that first paper coming?"
Emily Dillner, a motivated writer from Winnebago, Illinois, is studying English with writing, Small Press Publishing, and French at Southeast Missouri State University. She is pursuing her passion for editing by working on the student-run Journey magazine. In her “spare time” of being a famous editor, she wants to be a free-lance writer.