Red and blue lights are flashing all around. Police officers are everywhere. I feel so detached from myself and what's happening around me. Hanna is crying next to me and I absently rub her arm here and there.
I pride myself in my "Hastings wit", yet when it comes to things like this, I'm at a loss for words. I'm not sure how to truly comfort someone, especially when Caleb might not make it. I wouldn't dare voice this aloud, but he didn't look good. I'm wavering back and forth between simply standing next to Hanna and leaning against her back. Aria was on the other side of her, also comforting as best she could. We're all trying to understand the situation.
I continue to glance back and forth between the ambulance and Emily speaking to some officers. She looks so out of it, and the blood smeared across her shirt is a terrifying reminder of what had just transpired in that lighthouse. Caleb is fighting for his life right now and there's a boy lying just beyond who is dead.
A boy who was a liar and a monster, but still just a boy. And he's now dead. I had just seen him not that long ago. I don't know what all happened yet since the police haven't given us a chance to talk to Emily and it's frustrating.
I briefly look at Paige who's also talking to an officer. She doesn't look as lost as Emily does, but she definitely doesn't look good either. I can't think about that right now and what her being here means.
I hate this feeling. It's so surreal. This isn't the first time we've dealt with police and it's certainly not the first murder in this town, but this is a whole other level. It doesn't feel real. I feel like an outsider just watching, like I'm not really here. Maybe that's how Emily feels right now. It's certainly how she looks.
She keeps looking at us and is becoming more and more anxious. It's making me feel anxious. I know she wants to come to us, but she can't. I want her here too. She's always the best at comforting people, especially Hanna. I want to know what happened. I mainly just can't stand looking at her like this anymore. Her face is killing me.
It must have been killing Paige too, because I see her rush to Emily's side and begin talking to the officers in her stead. Emily is running then. She comes rushing towards us and I can't even describe the energized relief I feel. She practically slams into Hanna with the force of her fierce hug. I don't even catch the words she says to the blonde who's crying against her.
As relieving as it is to have Emily close now, I can't find it in me to reach for her. I simply stand there stupidly staring at Hanna and Emily embrace, unsure of what to do. I vaguely notice Aria still holding Hanna's arm, not quite there. Now I feel like I'm imposing on something I shouldn't be, which is foolish considering the fact that I'm standing with my three best friends. I just feel like this is Hanna and Emily's moment.
Then I remember why it is they're able to have this moment and turn back to see the officers waking away from Paige. I hadn't really looked at her like anything yet as I couldn't bring myself to do so. I didn't want to think about her, but she's all I can think about now that I'm fully looking at her. She looks so small standing there alone in the middle of all this. She was looking our way and trying to control her breathing. Her makeup had run, making it clear she had probably been crying. Her skin shined in an almost sickly looking way from the light sheen of sweat in the harsh red and blue lights. I couldn't look away from her eyes, staring straight into mine. I never thought I'd see the Paige McCullers look so vulnerable.
And yet, she had never looked so strong.
I was so wrong about her. There were moments where I had a feeling that I was wrong, but I was too stubborn to admit it. I wanted to just end this already. This torture of the mysterious "A" never giving us a chance even to breathe. I can't stand it anymore. They just keep picking and picking at us and I feel like I'm on the verge of losing my mind. All the lies and murders and psychological warfare is wearing me thin. Is this what they did to Ali? Did "A" push her to her breaking point and then they killed her when the game wasn't fun anymore? It's a terrifying thought.
And I feel so ridiculous for thinking Paige could be capable of something like that. Yeah, she hated Alison, but so did most of Rosewood. And yeah, Paige could be pretty aggressive at times, but she had never been one for mind games. I remember that being something that both annoyed me and I admired back when we played field hockey together. I wasn't joking when I told Emily that we named a penalty after her, we really did. McBlooders we called it, yet it only happened the one time and the incident is what caused us to come up with the name.
It was another moment in which she looked both vulnerable and strong, though in a very different way.
We were playing against Courtland and tensions were high. I hated playing Courtland. A lot of their players liked to make sly comments to get their opponents riled up. It would make them emotional and throw them off their game. Their favorite to target when playing against Rosewood was McCullers. She could be such a hothead and it was bad because she was one of our best players. Once they got her worked up enough, we usually lost. Between all the errors and penalties, McCullers pretty much single-handedly ruined us. It'd make me so angry that it'd often result in a shouting match between the two of us after the game.
As rough as she was out on the field, McCullers had never hurt me no matter how hard I was on her. Though she looked close a few times. She'd maybe throw something or punch a locker, and sure it was pretty intimidating, but I somehow knew she wouldn't hurt me like that. Even though she was sometimes harder than necessary on me during practice. Whenever she was, she'd always reach her hand out to me with a, "Come on Hastings, shake it off. Your boney ass doesn't fool me. I know you're tougher than that." Her grip was always firm and warm. She had even brushed off my back on a few occasions, always ending with a light pat and an awkward grin.
McCullers was one of those kids that was mainly bark, though her bite was wild and fierce. She never really backed down when provoked, except with me. And that was only because I'd make her so angry and frustrated that she'd storm away because she'd be ready to explode, practically foaming at the mouth. I never really back down either and only win against her because I can keep my cool longer.
Then there were the rare moments in which she would genuinely let me win with a smile. It'd confuse and frustrate me so much any time it happened. It's like she was simply in a really good mood and didn't feel like arguing. As frustrating as it was to win that way, I liked when she was in a good mood. She actually looked really attractive when she smiled earnestly. She was more fun to be around too. She was more lighthearted and teasing, often times patting my head.
I had once admitted that being taller than most girls and some boys my age had made me feel a little insecure growing up. She had sympathized as she practically towered over a good number of our peers as a kid and doesn't seem to be done growing just yet. She's actually about an inch taller than I am which is why she picked up the habit of patting my head when she felt playful. It was like she was reminding me that I was smaller than her and needn't worry so much.
This is why I was so very angry that we were playing Courtland this day. McCullers had patted my head, even lightly ruffling up my hair in the locker room with a grin before the game. She hopped over the bench I was sitting on and turned to face me, snapping her fingers to point at me saying, "No slacking out there Hastings. I've got my eye on you." She was being silly and seemed really happy, meaning there was a good chance her father wouldn't be watching this game. Only her mother. I learned a lot of times her good moods before a game had something to do with her father's absence. That was another thing I could relate to with her. Our fathers drove that need to win at all costs into our heads and it put a lot of pressure on us when they were watching.
I noted that Nick McCullers was in fact absent when we went onto the field, though it didn't really matter as we were playing stupid Courtland. Her mood was going to be ruined and we were probably going to lose the game. I felt like I could scream.
I saw her slowly become more and more agitated throughout the game. The Courtland players said things to our whole team, but they singled out McCullers and were very persistent with her. She hadn't slipped up too badly, but I could tell she was getting close to her breaking point. I never expected that I'd have a part in it though.
They were actually messing with me, two players having a nasty conversation about me while I tried to keep them away from McCullers who had the ball and was trying to find an opening for a pass.
"Poor Hastings, the girl's got no chest to speak of. No feminine curves and all gangly. She might as well be a boy."
"Oh, Trish, have you seen the way she dresses? She probably wishes she was a boy. I bet she's a huge fag."
McCullers was close enough to hear and it's like it happened in slow motion. Her expression changed to as if she'd been sucker punched. It threw her off so badly that her feet caught over themselves right as one of the girls moved in to try and take the ball. It was a hard swing to shoot it across the field to an open teammate, though it never connected with the ball. The stick instead connected with Paige's face on the wild backswing as she went down. It startled the Courtland girl enough that her swing down quickly lost momentum as she turned to see what she had hit.
McCullers was crumpled up on the ground and I couldn't see her face. I didn't have a good view of where she was hit, but I had definitely heard it. I started shaking and felt cold all over. Goosebumps raised all down my arms and my stomach felt uneasy. She was holding her eye and even though she was turned away from me, I could see blood on her hand. The whistle blew somewhere, but I only vaguely acknowledged it. I heard yelling, but didn't really focus on any of the words. I was frozen in place staring at McCullers, willing her to get up and be okay. She could have just lost an eye and I was too terrified to move. All I could think of was her grinning at me just over half an hour ago in the locker room and the weight of her hand on top of my head.
The Courtland girls seemed unable to move as well, staring dumbly down at the bleeding girl. One of them stuttered out, "H-Hey, you okay?"
It was the girl that said I was probably a "fag". It must have stirred something in McCullers as she somehow moved over to the girl so fast I hardly knew what was going on. As McCullers came up off the ground on her knees, she grabbed a hold of the girl's shirt, dragging her down into the fist McCullers drove up. The combined momentum of McCullers flying up and the Courtland girl flying down to meet that fist caused her to collapse, gasping for air.
The whistle was blowing again, though more frantically this time. Even on her knees, McCullers seemed to tower over the girl on the ground. I still didn't see her face very well, but I could see blood smeared all over and dripping from her chin. The skin on a face is actually really thin and tends to bleed excessively, even if the injury itself isn't too horrible. But that fact didn't calm my nerves at all. The sight of so much blood actually scared me more, no matter how I tried to rationalize it to myself.
I noticed that McCullers was trembling and it was then that I saw how tight her fists were at her sides, covered in more blood. She had her shoulders drawn and looked ready to hit the Courtland girl again, but was trying to fight it. True fear gripped me then. Aggressive plays yeah, but I had never actually seen McCullers hit someone before now. She hit her hard too. And she seemed to be struggling with herself not to do it again. Was it because of what the girl said about me? Did it really bother McCullers that badly? Or was it just everything that's been said all piled up and the blow to the head left her temporarily insane?
I cautiously approached her and timidly asked, "McCullers?"
She whipped around, still on the offensive, until she saw it was me. The action startled me, making me flinch. Her expression immediately softened and I could be wrong, but it looked like there were tears in her eyes. She whispered, "I'm sorry," to me in the most broken and pleading way I had ever heard from her. I felt like my heart was being crushed. She looked so much worse when I got a full view of her face. I stepped closer and leaned over her, studying the actual wound. It wasn't as awful as I'd thought, but it would require stitches. I brought my hand up, just barely grazing her brow near the injury. She winced slightly and it caused me to look down and into her eyes.
People were surrounding us at this point, but I ignored them and didn't break eye contact. I whispered as soothingly as I could, "Let's get you cleaned up."
I'm once again unable to break eye contact with Paige as she looks so vulnerable. I better understand now why she reacted so badly to what that girl said. Alison had found out about Paige's sexuality and had made her hate herself for it. It had been a touchy subject for Paige for a long time. I wonder now if she was projecting her hatred of Alison on that girl or her hatred of herself. She may have even been standing up for me in a way no one had for her, not wanting me to feel the way she did if I was in fact gay.
I make a split decision, something I'm not known for, and grab hold of the police tape in front of me. I lift it as high as it'll allow and go under, making my way towards Paige. She looks confused and even nervous as I walk straight towards her, my eyes never leaving her face. I had accused her of some pretty horrible things recently, so she probably assumes I'm marching over to continue the war. I try to relax my face as not to seem so intimidating, I was staring pretty intently at her. I'm not good at this.
I release a shuddering breath and look down at my feet for a brief second once I'm standing in front of her. My head is still down, but I glance up and look into her eyes once more. I try my best to be as sincere as I can when I whisper to her, "I'm sorry."
Paige looks so overwhelmed with emotion that I can't even say what all I see in her eyes. She swallows thickly as tears begin to gather in her eyes which she tries to blink away. She dips her head, unable to look at me any longer and I see the tears drip and fall away. I raise a shaky hand and lightly run my fingertips across her brow, pausing at the scar there. I study it a moment, then feel a small twitch of my lips as a thought occurs to me. I gently whisper to her, "Let's get you cleaned up."