The alarm clock was always annoying. It didn’t matter how many different sounds Verizon put in the options, any noise that caused Athan to wake for school seemed strident. He hit the snooze button and drifted back to sleep. And there it was again. Did five minutes already pass? Really? And who decided five minutes was enough time to drift back into dreamland and recover from being awoken in the first place? That was all it took. One drifting thought and he couldn’t go back to sleep. His mind had always run this way. He’d think of something and be unable to let it go. At night when he tried to sleep, the day’s events would whirl in his head over and over again…What was it I was supposed to do for homework in English? Are ‘queen’ jokes really still funny? Did I hear dad come in this morning? Is he home? Is he awake? Questions filled his mind until it felt like his head would explode. Every. Day. Morning and night his thoughts turned his world inside out. Today was no different. Why is five minutes the allotted time for snooze?
The alarm sounded again, but this time hitting snooze did not turn it off. He reached for the phone to be sure he was pushing the right button and saw that it wasn’t the alarm. Elise was texting him. It was 5:30a and she was already up texting him.
“u rdy 4 this?” was all it said.
No. He wasn’t. He wanted to tell her that, to be honest, but he knew the decision they’d made together was the right one. He’d have to be ready, whether he really was or not. He text her back, “yeah. Meet 4 bfast?”
“Yep. c u soon :-).”
Athan drug out of bed and tiptoed out his bedroom door. He was careful to open and close it without making a sound. Once inside the bathroom, he locked the knob and prayed in a whisper, “Please just let him sleep.” Reaching slowly to turn on the shower knob, he cringed at every squeak looking back at the door. Nothing. His knotted stomach released and he stepped into the welcoming warm water, fears assuaged for now.
Just as he was reaching for the knob to sneak back into his bedroom a mighty fist pound on the door making him knock everything off the bathroom counter in a jangled mess.
“How long have you been in there?” his dad roared. “You don’t pay the damn bills around here and the water’s been runnin’ to damn long. Get out here.”
There was nowhere to go. No window to jump through, no door but the one in front of him. He slowly clicked the lock on the door and the world rushed in.
“Rough morning?” Elise asked when he stepped through the cafeteria doors. Athan had done his best to keep his bangs low over his left eye, but the evidence of the morning’s hot shower burned red on his face.
“Yeah. Trapped like a rat in a cage – the bathroom. You?
“Not today,” she lifted her long blonde hair, “but last night was no picnic.” A thumbprint bruise was working its way to the surface of her neck, just below the ear lobe. He didn’t want to know anymore and he knew she didn’t really want to tell him.
Athan and Elise went through the line and headed to a corner table to eat. Silence between them was a welcome comfort. They spoke not a word and while noise raged on in the dining hall around them, they continued to sit still and quiet in a world for just the two of them. It was Elise that finally broke the peace.
“Did you see him yesterday after school? I know you walked home the long way.” She was the only person he’d ever known that could ask a question like that without making a funny face. His choice never bothered her and he appreciated her ease with it all. Not many people in this one-light town were ready to accept anything outside of “one man, one woman, til’ death do us part.” It infuriated Athan if he thought about it too much. People riding their high horses of what’s right and what’s wrong. The prom queen and the football star, shacked up drunk all the time, a muffled prayer away from an abortion, and he was the one with a problem. The boy who’d never been in love, never been in a relationship, and certainly had never had sex. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to, even with the guy who caught his eye these days. They are all so stupid. Of course, most people didn’t know. They suspected, called him a queen, even nominated him to reign at the prom, but Elise kept their suspicions at bay. She was his proclaimed girlfriend.
He scanned the cafeteria, glancing over his shoulder before he answered her.
“I did, but he didn’t see me. It’s just as well right now, because after school today we’ll be the only thing this town is talking about.”
“I know!” She jumped up and hugged him tight, kissing his cheek. She picked up her books and headed off to class, waving to him one last time before she disappeared through the double doors.
Athan’s chair skipped forward a step and Aaron, asshole extraordinaire, stepped on his foot. “Oh, sorry Ashley – didn’t mean to ruin your nail polish,” and he laughed at his own clever use of names. His minions trailed behind him, giggling all the way. It amused Athan to watch this spectacle. He was used to the taunts and the comments, they really didn’t bother him from people like Aaron who will turn out to be nothing one day, who already were nothing. The funniest part of it all was, as much as they made fun of him, as much as they wanted to ruin him, he never walked with a group of guys giggling like a bunch of girls. He sighed and reminded himself you can’t fix stupid, grabbed his bag and headed to class. He heard Aaron’s last comment as he walked around the hallway corner, “I have no idea how he got a girl like Elise.”
“Because she could trust me not to touch her,” he said to no one but himself.
The day dripped along like cold honey. Senior English had to be the most boring class he’d ever taken and as the quiz over The Wife of Bath hit his desk, the question of what he was supposed to read last night was answered loud and clear. Shit. Elise sat across the room already working away. She never forgot to read an assignment. It amazed Athan how she kept her grades so high with what she had going on at home. She claimed it was her ticket out of this hellhole – that and him. She looked up at him and he rolled his eyes at her. She flipped him off casually, a scratch of the eye, but he could see her smile beneath the shadow of her hair, her smile and the fingertip bruises appearing on the other side of her neck. She was usually more careful about it, but today she didn’t seemed bothered by the imprints of home.
The neck bruises were minor in the grand scheme of things. Athan sat and recalled the bloody lip, the black eyes, the broken wrist, and once, a bulging bruise on the back of her right thigh. That one she would never talk about, but it made her limp for more than a week. He couldn’t believe someone in this world understood what he dealt with everyday, but when they met in Algebra I freshman year and he watched her tug the sleeve of her shirt down over her forearm when it was still 90 degrees outside, he knew their bond would be forever.
It seemed unfair that another man like his father existed in the world. And even more unfair that Elise’s dad seemed to actually be the evil twin. His dad had been rough on him since he was born. Called him names when he was a kid, told him to, “Stop acting like a little faggot,” when he caught him dancing in the mirror in middle school. His mother just looked the other way. She’d always known Athan was different, but she never protected him from his father, never stood in the way of all the anger that rained down on him. But Elise’s dad, he’d done more than just wail on her. He used her, abused her, and as a result she didn’t trust men. Her mother was long gone and Athan was really the only person she felt safe with. She knew he’d never harm her.
Two weeks ago, they’d both turned eighteen. Two weeks ago, the plan they’d talked about for three years came to life. Today after school, Athan and Elise would get married at the courthouse and there wasn’t a damn thing their parents could do about it. Today after school, they’d say, “I do” and run away together to start a life somewhere else. Somewhere they didn’t know anyone, somewhere people didn’t mind a little difference, and didn’t demand submission. Somewhere other than here.
The plan was complicated because it had to be done in front of their parents. Without witnesses, the entire thing would seem like a sham. They’d both saved their money over the last two years to buy Elise a simple engagement ring and to be able to afford rent on an apartment in the city for six-months until they both found jobs. Right now, that ring sat deep inside Athan’s backpack along with the lease papers they printed from the computer in the library. The deposit for their place had been paid online and because they’d had enough money for first and last month’s rent, a co-signer wasn’t even asked for. They had thought of everything.
The goal was to walk home to Elise’s house after school and propose to her right on the front steps in front of her dad. Athan was scared, but as long as Elise was there and they were outside, her dad would hold his temper. It’s not like the town didn’t know about what he did, who he was, but he liked to pretend he was a good father when the public was looking. Once he’d come to the school to sign some papers and made a huge spectacle of himself and Elise in the front office, hugging her and talking about her being “daddy’s little girl.” Athan thought Elise was going to puke, but she didn’t. He did.
After dealing with Elise’s dad, they would return to Athan’s house and announce the news to his parents. Bags already packed, they’d catch the bus to the city hall, make their peace with the judge, and head straight out of town. The only flaw in their plan was its destruction to their grades. They would be skipping out on the last two weeks of school and while it wouldn’t really mess up Elise’s chances of graduation, Athan’s success hung precariously in the balance. She had a 4.0 and with or without exams, would graduate with a passing average. He, on the other hand, barely pulled a “B” average. They’d done the math on it, well Elise did, and it seemed like he would survive, but just barely. All year they hadn’t been absent or failed a class. They watched their grades with intensity and Elise tutored Athan relentlessly in subjects he struggled with. Nothing would get in the way of their plan for escape.
The bell rang and they met at the schoolhouse doors. Words were not needed. Athan pulled her into a close embrace. Her hand slipped into his and they started the longest walk of their lives.
Standing in the courthouse with their parents watching their every move, Athan slipped a ring onto Elise’s delicate finger. She returned one to him and they said vows that while not traditional, held more meaning to one another than most couples truly in love. Athan’s mother cried, his father seethed. Elise’s dad slumped with his arms crossed tight around his chest, constantly checking behind him, looking out the window, or studying the judge. Courthouses made him nervous.
When the judge said, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” a smiled spread the width of both their faces. Hooking their arms together, everything they’d fought for and fought against in the last four years brought them to this moment. And it was everything they’d hoped it would be.
Leaving the room, Elise glanced back one last time at the man who ruined her life and then turned her gaze to Athan, the man that just saved her.
“Do you think we fooled them?” she asked, a Cheshire grin lurking behind her eyes.
“Yeah, them and everyone else. It isn’t hard to fool a fool.”