Miss Me Not (Page 5)

I stood there, looking at his outstretched hand, not sure what to say or do. I didn't do touching, but for the first time in forever, I wanted to break my rules. My hesitation was blatant and after a moment he dropped his hand and stuffed it in the pocket of his low-cut jeans.

"So, am I forgiven?" he asked, grinning at me.

"Uh, sure. It's no big deal," I said, confused that he was still hanging around. Years ago, I would have given a limb to have someone like him pay attention to me, but now it seemed off. I couldn't help wondering if I really was being punked.

"Sweet. Okay, here's my plan. You're basically done with the study guide, so I figured we could go outside to study. You know, enjoy the weather now that the humidity won't suck the life force out of us," he said, still smiling.

He had a point. Living in Florida seemed appealing to Northerners, but in reality, eight months out of the year was spent combating the hot, sticky, tropical temperatures that made you wish for a freak snowstorm. The small window of cooler weather was pretty much a joke compared to what winters were like up north, but as Floridians, we really didn't know better. Thankfully, November was just a few days away and normally kicked off the "that's right, we don't live in hell" season, which usually started late November and lasted until February.

"I guess that works," I said hesitantly, not sure I wanted our private tutoring sessions to be on display. Thursdays were a popular day for extracurricular activities, especially now that the weather was cooler. Ordinarily, sitting outside was no big deal. No one paid attention to me anyway, but being with Mr. Popularity would change that. I could just imagine their scrutiny. The scandalous gossip I was sure they wouldn't be able to resist. Their golden boy being tainted by the "shadow" was sure to make several of them go scrambling for a paper bag to breathe into.

"Ready?" Dean asked, waiting expectantly for me to finish the inner dilemma going on in my head.

"I guess," I repeated a little more forcibly than I intended.

He looked at me questioningly, but I returned his stare indifferently. It wasn't my reputation on the line. I could handle the stares and snarky comments. The question is could he?

If Dean thought my behavior was odd, he didn't comment about it as we strolled down the hallway.

"Are you going to the memorial service tomorrow?" he asked out of the blue.

I shrugged my shoulders, focusing on the trophy case we were slowly passing. I was pretty sure our trophy case rivaled that of any other school, but I guess that was the point. "Go big or go home" seemed to be our school's motto. I didn't need to check the dates on the basketball trophies to know that Dean was responsible for two of them winding up behind the glass. I waited for him to admire and pimp his successes in front of me, but he didn't even give the case a second look. I was shocked. Acknowledging the glory case was the highlight of any student who graced its shelves. Most of the Jockheads would camp out there in front of the case between classes, flexing their muscles as they pointed to their accolades. It was disgusting. The fact Dean didn't even look did something odd to my stomach.

"Are you?" he repeated.

"Uh, yeah, I guess," I said, answering his question. "It beats finishing the day in study hall," I added. Principal Douche was giving the student body the option of attending the afternoon memorial service or spending the time in study hall. He had threatened detention to students who skipped both, which was laughable. It wasn't like they'd be able to do attendance, and I was quite confident half the student body would be starting their weekend early. I had planned on going anyway. I needed to see the closure to Mitch's actions. I had to make sure I'd made the right decision.

"You?" I asked as he led me past all the typical outdoor hangouts.

"Yeah, my folks feel it's important, but I would have gone anyways," he said surprising me.

I wanted to ask him why. Why would he trouble himself for someone who'd meant nothing to him? But I decided not to probe. What do I care if he goes or not?

We were on the far outskirts of the campus when Dean finally tossed his backpack on the grass beneath a magnificent oak tree that I never realized was there. It seemed out of place, surrounded by all the Florida sand pines and palm trees that littered the school grounds. The grass beneath it was lush and thick. It was unlike the patches of sparse grass that were beat down by countless sneakered feet taking shortcuts to classes.

I sank down on the ground and lay back against the cool grass, almost gasping in awe at the branches overhead. The sun was all but obstructed from view by the mighty branches covered in leaves the size of my hand. Shadows blended together, lurking beneath the branches that snaked out like long arms. I felt my heart swell slightly in my chest. This was my place. I had found a place where being a shadow didn't matter. I fought back sudden tears. Dean had somehow given me a gift I never even knew I yearned for.

"Pretty amazing, huh?" Dean asked, quietly lying next to me.

All I could do was nod, my heart and mind locked in a silent battle. I was afraid if I talked, my tears would spill over. Emotions I had long forgotten stirred inside me. I should leave. I didn't want to feel. Leaving would return me to the land of neutrality I had cloaked myself in the last four years. My head urged me to flee, to forget about this almost magical spot. To forget about the boy who had shared it with me. It was only a tree. My heart though, knew better. This tree was the home I never had. It was an escape from the world that had been pressing in on me for so long. I ached inside, knowing this haven had been right in front of me for the last four years and I was just now discovering it.

To anyone else, it was just a tree.

To me it was a sanctuary. A place where shadows no longer mattered as they all melded together.

Chapter Six

"How did you find it?" I asked after a few moments, trying to keep my voice sounding nonchalant. After all, just because this place felt like I'd stumbled into my own secret garden didn't mean it held the same appeal for everyone else.

He gave no indication that he thought my question was odd. "I found it freshman year. It's a great place to study and get away from it all. This week has been a rough one, so I've used it as a refuge more than a few times in the last few days."

I wonder what he could possibly want to get away from. What could have driven him to need a safe haven? He had it all, family, friends, grades, looks and popularity. Past sins didn't follow him like an unwanted cloak. Dean was my polar opposite. He was the sun, while I was the darkness.

"You don't hold the market on the need for solitude," he gently chided me, somehow knowing my silent questions. Once again, I felt unsettled that he kept finding cracks in my armor. "Everyone has their secrets and skeletons in their closets they'd like to hide," he added as his face clouded over.

"How do you do that?" I asked, trying to ignore the spasm of pain that had flitted across his face.

"Do what?" he asked, smiling at me to break up the sudden shift our conversation had taken.

I raised my eyebrow at him, making it clear I wasn't buying his innocent act.

"I hate to break it to you, but you're not that hard to read."

"I'm sure," I said sarcastically. "The question is, why bother? Did you take some bet from your Jockheads that you could score with the dark, brooding, ghost-like girl?" I sniped out.

"Get a grip. You're pricklier than a feral cat," he said, sitting up.

"Too bad for you, I'm not in heat," I said, calming down.

He laughed outright. "You say the funniest stuff sometimes."

"You don't get out much, do you?" I asked, unzipping my backpack to remove my crinkled study guide.

"Why don't you ever smile?" he asked, once again throwing me for a loop.

"What makes you think I don't?" I said, fighting the urge to bolt.

"I've watched you for the last few years, and you always have the same look on your face."

"How do you know I'm not like that actress they're always mocking, the one whose expressions they claim never change? What's her name? Kristen Stewart. Besides, what are you like some crazy stalker dude? Is this where you bind and gag me and drag me off to the woods to murder me?" I asked, indicating the woods that boarded the school property behind us.

"There you go again. Man, do you have an imagination. Let me ask you, would you be here if you thought I was crazy like that?" he asked with sudden seriousness.

"Probably," I answered, shrugging my shoulders. "Shouldn't we be studying?" I added, holding up the paper.

"Do you have some kind of death wish?" he asked, ignoring the study guide. "Or do you just like the attention?"

"God, you're an asshole," I said, scrambling to my feet as my anger boiled over. "Here's the deal, Jockstrap. Unlike you and your cronies, I don't feel the constant need for attention. If I did, you'd know it," I said, striding away. Who did he think he was? He didn't know me, and if he did, he wouldn't be so keen to spend time with me. The rumors that surrounded me were just the tip of the iceberg.

"Hey, wait," he said, jogging up behind me and snagging my wrist in his hand.

I stopped dead in my tracks at his touch. Panic clawed its way up through me as I looked down at his hand that encircled my slender wrist. Four years. It had been four years since anyone touched me. Gasping for air, I somehow forgot how to breathe. Darkness crept in slowly, obscuring my vision as I started to hyperventilate.

"Madison?" Dean said in a voice that sounded like it was traveling through a cave. I swayed as the darkness closed in, completely obscuring Dean's panicked expression from view. I felt his arms wrap around me as my legs liquefied beneath me. The irony of the situation wasn't lost on me. I'd gone from being touched for the first time in forever to being wrapped in someone's arms in the blink of an eye. The world faded away and I welcomed it. I'd broken my one rule.


I awakened slowly as my body swayed back and forth. "What are you doing?" I gasped, suddenly realizing where I was as Dean repositioned me in his arms.

"Carrying you to the nurse's office. In case you missed it, you passed out back there," he answered, looking at me like I had suddenly sprouted an extra head.

"Put me down," I demanded, squirming in his arms. "I don't need to go to the clinic. I just forgot to breathe. It's not the first time," I added, increasing my squirming until he was forced to set me down. Much to my dismay, he kept a hand firmly on my arm, making sure I had my footing.

"Does that happen often?" he asked, still looking stressed.

"No," I answered shortly, looking at his hand that still held me in place.

"Are you pregnant?"

"Pregnant? God no, that would require touching," I said pointedly, jerking my arm from his grasp. "I don't do touching," I said, turning away from him. My sudden movement made my already foggy head start spinning. I took a staggering step forward, trying to keep my balance.

Dean reached out and grasped my elbow to steady me.

"What part of 'I don't do touching' do you not understand?" I asked sarcastically, trying to regain a shred of my dignity.

He dropped his hand like it had been burned. "Sorry," he said, cramming the offender into his pocket. "Let me drive you home," he added.

"Don't worry about me, I'm good. I don't need you."

"Madison, please. I promise I won't touch you again. It's my fault you're not feeling good. It's the least I can do."

"It was bound to happen. You're off the hook. No harm, no foul, right?" I said, walking away. I was ready to put distance between us so I could process and categorize everything. Much to my dismay, Dean kept pace with me.

"Seriously, I'm good," I said, trying to get rid of him.

"Madison, come on," he pleaded.

"Fine," I caved, exasperated at his persistence.

I nearly groaned out loud when he smiled broadly at me. He looked like a puppy eagerly waiting for a treat.

The walk to the student parking lot was long, and although I wouldn't admit it to Dean, I was glad I'd accepted his offer. Passing out had made my head foggy, and left my legs shaky. It would have taken me forever to walk the two miles home.

Dean's jeep was parked next to an oversized muddy pickup truck with wheels twice as big as normal. I knew without even looking at the driver who the vehicle belonged to. Our school had no shortage of good old country boy, beer-guzzling, cow-tipping, loudmouthed rednecks. Needless to say, being a silent, pale-skinned, dark-haired freak made me stick out like a sore thumb.

I kept my eyes averted from the driver as he sneered down at me. "Dean? Dude, you slumming?" he asked, tossing an empty beer bottle into the bed of his truck. His drinking clarified my suspicions that half the student body would be starting their weekend early.

"Don't be a dick, Kirk," Dean said, climbing into his jeep.

I opened my door and climbed in too.

"I guess Dean doesn't mind sloppy seconds," I heard Kirk say snidely as I closed the door behind me.

I didn't need to look at Dean to know he'd heard the comment too. Neither of us acknowledged it as he threw the jeep in reverse and peeled out of the parking spot. I was thrown back against the seat as he gunned the engine and tore away. The speed was exhilarating. Donna was a speed limit queen, and most times went a couple miles below the limit just to be safe. I wouldn't have pegged Dean as a speed demon, but I wasn't arguing. When I was finally able to peel myself off the back of my seat, I glanced over at him. I expected to see an exhilarating smile on his face that matched the way I was feeling, but I was surprised to see that he gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles.

I pondered what had set him off, but realized he was most likely pissed that Kirk had seen us together. I'm sure being reminded I was a "slut" hadn't helped. I felt bad for him. He'd signed up to be a tutor, not to become a social leper.

"I'm pretty sure Kirk was halfway plastered," I reassured him. "Turn right, here," I added, directing him to my house. "He's an ass. By tomorrow he'll forget he even saw us together."

"You think I'm pissed because Kirk saw us together?" he asked incredulously, slamming on the brakes when I pointed out my house.

I jerked forward only to be thrown back by the tightening of the seatbelt as it held me in place.