When Tony says Xander isn’t his son and starts yelling about how he doesn’t look like anyone on Tony’s side of the family, including Tony, Jessica's stomach starts to roil, and she starts to panic. It’s not fair, not when they finally have a chance to get somewhere, not when Xander — it’s just not fair. And anyway, Jessica doesn’t like to hear that kind of talk, doesn’t like to think about what Tony is saying and accusing her of, because little truths like that get in the way of people being happy and getting through life without too much upset. Besides, Tony is wrong about Xander. He has to be. She’s told herself for years that she can see Tony in the shape of Xander’s cheekbones and in the curve of his hairline. Jessica is certain that if she has enough time, she’ll be able to point to a dozen other points of similarity.
But she doesn’t have enough time, because Tony grabs her and sends her to her knees, asking if Xander looks like him. She says the first thing that comes to mind, which may not be the best thing, but denial is always her first and best defense. “What’s gotten into you? You’re talking crazy.”
“Oh, am I?”
He’s scaring her, and she wants it to stop, wants them to go back to how it was, with nothing much said about Xander. Tony isn’t having any of it, though, and when she tries to calm him down and ask what brought it on he keeps on with the crazy talk that Xander isn’t his, that he’s been sure of it since Xander was six. That’s when Jessica starts crying, because she can’t fight against something Tony’s believed for more than fifteen years. No one could fight that, and it’s even worse when he tells her he knows about the frat party she went to with Gina.
“He’s yours he’s yours he’s yours he’s yours…” Jessica mumbles, desperate to believe and convinced that if she says it enough times, it’s true.
“You sure?” Tony lets her go with a shove and looms over her while she’s on the ground. He’s staring at her, and she is ready to convince herself that the worst is over, but then Tony starts talking again. “Because you know what?” he asks. “I know he’s not. That boy is nothing like me or mine. How stupid do you think I am?”
“I don’t—” Jessica begins, thinking that maybe she still has a chance to save this, that maybe Tony won’t go where she thinks he’s going, that she just needs to say it enough times for everything to go back the way it was.
“DON’T LIE TO ME! NO MORE LYING!” Tony screams.
He goes crazy, and starts to kick out. She braces herself for pain, but he kicks a wastebasket instead and starts grabbing stuff and throwing it around the room. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be between them. Sure, Tony has always had a little bit of a temper, but he never scared her before. Not like this, anyway, and Jessica can’t leave, not with Tony between her and the door, so she scoots back until she hits a wall, and then she goes sideways until she hits a corner. It’s not much protection, but maybe it’s enough. She’s rocking a little when he finally stops throwing things, and when he disappears into the bathroom, she knows she should leave, but she can’t make herself stand up.
He comes back out, and then he drops to the floor in front of her, crawling the rest of the way. She flinches away from him, but he’s whispering something under his breath, and he’s touching the cloth to her forehead. It’s not much, but it’s enough to make her brave enough to try talking to him again. She’s prepared to lie, but what comes out instead is the truth.
“I thought he was yours,” Jessica whispers back. “I thought sure he was — I wanted — I needed him to be.” She starts crying again, only this time the tears come softly.
That night is always in the back of her mind, and it’s no effort to remember, to wish that she’d told Gina no instead of —
“Sure,” Jessica said quickly, anxious not to be alone that night. She was still smarting from the fact that Tony could go off “camping” (more like getting drunk at Dan’s cabin all weekend) with his friends like that only a week after they — after she — Her face heated up with a blush she was sure could be seen the next block over, because in the back of her mind, good girls didn’t do that kind of thing, not before they got married. But Tony had convinced Jessica that good girls could and did do that kind of thing before they got married, and the things they’d done that night, that he’d made her feel, still made her tingle from her head to her toes. He’d made her forget her promise to Grandma Flaherty that she would wait until she was married, and while she was pretty sure it had been worth it, she also worried. What if he decided he didn’t want to be around her now that she’d said yes? What if he did want to be around her, but didn’t want to get married, because he knew she’d have sex without a ring on her finger? What if — oh God — what if she should have made him wait until he had a condom instead of trusting him when he said she couldn’t get pregnant the first time?
She shook her head to clear it, because that didn’t bear thinking about. Instead, Jessica told herself over and over again that Tony loved her. Period. It didn’t matter that she’d had sex before they got married, because he would be there for her, and one day, they would get married, and they would have children. Not right away, because that would be stupid, but some day, when they had a house to call their own and Tony was making good money, they would start a family. Jessica wouldn’t have to work, and she could stay home and raise their children right. They’d have two, a boy and a girl. The boy would be on the football team, just like Tony, and the girl would be popular and pretty and smart, and she’d go to college and make something of herself, and she wouldn’t listen to handsome boys who told her sex outside of marriage was okay and that a girl couldn’t get pregnant the first time.
Jessica swallowed back the bile rising in her throat, and for a moment, she wasn’t sure if she would be able to make it to the toilet on time. But her stomach settled down, and she focused on the dresses in her closet. Dresses were simple, and she had enough of a choice that she didn’t think she’d shame herself in front of the fraternity boys. Sure, they were all rich and probably used to seeing girls wear more expensive clothes, but she’d been careful with her money during her senior year in high school, and combined with her graduation checks, she’d had enough to get some really nice things from the Spiegel catalog. It wasn’t much like what Nieman Marcus sold, but it was quality, and that’s what was important.
For a moment, she thought maybe she should wear a white dress, that it would make the boys think twice about hitting on her, but then she thought about Tony taking off without even asking her if it was okay, and she got mad at him all over again. It would serve him right if she met someone at the party, someone who was handsome and had a chance at a real future. The thought of being able to leave her hometown and live somewhere like Los Angeles or maybe even New York City made her breathless at the possibilities. They wouldn’t have two children, they’d have one, a girl, and Jessica’s daughter would go to the best finishing schools money could buy. She’d play with the children of important people, and she’d be someone when she got old enough. She’d be the kind of woman magazines featured for her fashion sense and good works. She’d be the kind of woman other women pointed at and wanted their own daughters to be. She’d be the kind of woman Jessica wasn’t and could never be, and Jessica would be glad of it, she thought, her heart pounding in excitement.
With that in mind, she pulled out the strapless dress. Her mother told her she looked like a slut in it, but Jessica had seen enough girls wearing the style that she thought her mother was overreacting. It was a pretty dress, and there was enough of a pattern to it that Jessica thought she could get away without wearing a bra. It was a nerve-wracking decision, because she hadn’t been without some kind of support since she was eleven, when she started wearing her first training bra. It was also the right decision, she thought, as she stared at herself in the mirror. She had a good body, and her breasts were just the right size to fill out the top without sagging and looking ugly. Jessica turned to look at herself from the side and felt a swell of excitement at just how good she looked, and she hadn’t even done her hair or makeup yet.
An hour later, her hair was curled and teased up to just the right size, and her makeup was perfect. Sure, the stripe of blush looked kind of silly, and her lipstick was darker than she would have liked, but Cosmopolitan was her guide, and if it said girls had to look like they’d painted on their makeup, then Jessica would paint on her makeup. It would be worth it once she found her husband-to-be, the man who would give her the perfect daughter, who would —
“Jessica! Gina is here. She said you’re going to a party?”
Safe behind the closed door of her bedroom, Jessica let out a heavy sigh. She didn’t know how many times she’d told her mother where she was going, yet she still pretended Jessica hadn’t said anything. It was enough to make her long for a drink. Not the rye that Tony liked so much, but maybe a nice gin and tonic with some lime juice. Yeah. That was the ticket. A gin and tonic would make her look mature, like she could fit in with those rich boys and their families.
“I’m on my way down,” she called, grabbing a black sweater and putting it on before she left her room. It didn’t matter that she was eighteen years and allowed to vote, because her mother wouldn’t let her leave if she thought Jessica looked like a hooker. She checked her purse and found the fake ID Tony gave her for her birthday along with her lipstick and a condom she’d swiped from her brother’s stash. It wasn’t that she planned to have sex that night, but who knew? If she met Mister Right, she wasn’t about to get cold feet over the lack of birth control, especially since it wouldn’t be her first time. On the other hand, if she met Mister Right, he might not be impressed by a girl who was ready to have sex at the drop of a hat. After a moment, she took the condom out and buried it in her bottom drawer. Just because she’d had sex once didn’t mean she should have it again so soon.
The party was stupid, and fraternity boys were about as far from the sophisticated men of Jessica’s imagination as Tony was. All any of them seemed to care about was how much beer he could drink in one, and she wanted to go home. The problem was that Gina wasn’t ready. She’d found a boy to talk to and dance with, and every time Jessica tried to give her a signal they should leave, Gina pretended she didn’t see it.
She wouldn’t cry, because Jessica didn’t do that in public, but it was a close thing. Nothing was going right, and she was sure it was Tony’s fault. If he hadn’t talked her into having sex, and if he hadn’t decided to go off just a week later, she never would have said yes to Gina. Instead, she’d be out with Tony or, at worst, she’d be home, watching CHiPs, and then The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. It wouldn’t be the most exciting Saturday night on record, but she’d be safe, and she wouldn’t be batting away hands that kept trying to pull the top of her dress down.
Jessica started at the voice to her left. “Um. Hey.”
“You look like you’re plotting your escape,” he said, sounding unexpectedly sober.
Jessica’s mouth went dry, because this was the kind of boy she’d thought she’d find at the party. His shirt was silk, she was positive of it, and his slacks were made of linen. His hair was trimmed short and didn’t look at all like Tony’s mop of hair. He didn’t have sideburns or a mustache, but Jessica was perfectly okay with that, because this boy looked like he was going places.
She stuttered, “It’s all a little — um —”
“A little much,” he said smoothly. “Don’t worry. I know exactly what my brothers are like, and I don’t blame you a bit. My name is Brady, by the way.”
“Well, Jessica, would you like to go somewhere quiet? Maybe catch your breath a little?”
“I’d love to,” she said in a rush, grateful that she didn’t sound nearly as nervous as she was.
He took her down to the basement, saying, “Only seniors are allowed down here.”
“Oh! You’re a senior?” It was all she could do not to visibly cringe at how stupid she sounded.
“I am,” he said, guiding her to the couch before going over to the bar.
While he was fixing a pitcher of drinks, three more couples came down the stairs, boys leading the girls. Gina was the last one to arrive, and she didn’t look all that happy to see Jessica already there, but she sat down next to her anyway and whispered, “Don’t even think about ruining this for me.”
That was so unfair, but the boy Gina had come down with pulled her off the couch to give her a drink. Jessica might have left right then, but Brady sat down next to her and handed her a drink of her own. It was pink and fizzy, and with Brady smiling at her, she took a sip.
“It’s sweet!” She took a longer sip.
“I could say it couldn’t possibly be as sweet as you, but I think you’d leave if I handed you a line as corny as that,” he said, his eyes intent on her as she drank.
“Maybe not,” she said, feeling more relaxed than she had in days. “Sometimes a girl likes it when a boy says something nice, even if it sounds kind of hokey.”
“In that case, Heaven must be missing an angel, because I’m looking at one right now.”
Jessica laughed and said, “On second thought, perhaps I should leave after all.” She could hardly believe her own daring, but she felt like a character in a movie, a girl who had enough confidence to be able to say she would leave when she didn’t want to do any such thing.
“Don’t do that,” he said softly, touching her cheek with the back of his hand.
It was romantic and perfect, and Jessica suddenly thought that her daydreams weren’t that far off after all. Brady was handsome and clean-cut, and he probably already had a job lined up for him when he graduated. He really was perfect, and she had no intention of letting this chance slip by. Jessica leaned into his touch, tilting her face down shyly, even as she glanced up at him to see the expression on his face.
“Finish your drink,” he told her, “and I’ll get you another one.”
She did as he asked, and when he stood up, she looked around. The other girls, including Gina, were all drinking the same thing, and they looked as relaxed as she felt. There was a warning bell going off in the back of her mind, something telling her this was wrong, that bad things were going to happen, but she couldn’t quite make herself care enough to stand up and leave. Gina’s boy stood up, then, and pulled something off the shelf over the loveseat where Gina sat. Jessica couldn’t tell what it was at first — a brown cone of something — but he set it in a dish then pulled out a lighter. As soon as he touched the flame to the tip of the cone, it started smoking, and the smell made Jessica feel a little sick. Incense, she thought, but not the same as the priest used in the church. The smell was off, sour almost, and she didn’t like it.
Gina’s boy helped her stand up and took her to another room, and again, Jessica thought that shouldn’t be happening, that she should call out and say something, but one of the other boys started chanting a song, and Brady and the last boy joined in. After a couple of minutes, Gina’s boy came back out to the sitting area without her, and Jessica was relieved. Maybe he’d just taken Gina to lie down, because he was singing, too, and it didn’t look like anything bad was going to happen to her.
Still singing along, Brady handed Jessica another drink, and she lifted it to her lips. She would have preferred water, because the incense was making her thirsty, but she was at the point where anything wet would work, even the pink fizzy drink. She didn’t like it very much and thought it was doing weird things to her eyes since nothing looked right anymore. Brady seemed to be wavering in front of her, and the walls were slipping and sliding along the floor and ceiling.
“I don’t — I don’t think —”
“Girls like you never do,” Brady said, his smile sharp and kind of mean. “You go to frat parties thinking you’ll find the right man and be on easy street. You never stop to think that you’re not good enough for men like me and never will be. You’re absolutely convinced you have what it takes to move in my circles, despite the fact that you’re all but illiterate and couldn’t begin to appreciate the finer things in life.”
“Brady?” She was so confused. Brady was kind, not mean, so it couldn’t possibly be him saying these things to her.
“Shh, Jessica. Just keep drinking and don’t worry your pretty little head about anything.”
While she didn’t drink more, Jessica did take Brady’s advice not to worry and closed her eyes to the sound of the chanting. At one point, she thought she heard screaming from the room where Gina had gone, but when she opened her eyes to look, Gina’s boy was escorting her from the room, and she seemed okay. Sort of dazed maybe, but okay. Jessica closed her eyes again, and she was sure it was only a moment later that Brady was lifting her up in his arms — “So strong,” she murmured — and carrying her into the room where Gina had gone earlier.
He put her on the bed and lifted the skirt of her dress up. She tried to push his hands away, because even though she’d slept with Tony, she really wasn’t that kind of girl, and she couldn’t understand why Brady thought she was. He persisted, though, and got her panties off without any trouble.
“What are you doing?” she asked, confused and upset.
“Trust me, Jessica. It’s going to be easier on you if you let me do this first,” he said, his hand stroking between her legs. “You’re a hot little thing, aren’t you? You’re all wet at the thought of being around rich men.”
Brady’s touch was different than Tony’s, better, she thought, but still — “I don’t know you. We just met.”
“That’s right, Jessica. We just met, and you’re already thinking about our wedding, aren’t you?”
His fingers brushed against that one spot — clit, Gina called it — and Jessica’s hips jerked up in response. It hadn’t felt nearly as good when Tony did it, and she thought maybe she should let Brady do what he wanted, because clearly, he knew what he was doing. Still — “We haven’t even —”
One finger dipped right into her, and she felt a warm rush of something happening between her legs, something that felt so good she could hardly think. She reached up to her top and pulled it down, freeing up one of her breasts, and she felt for her nipple, which was hard and sensitive to every little thing.
“Damn, Jessica,” Brady said. “If I hadn’t already promised you, I’d take you for a spin myself.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. Brady reached up and freed her other breast, and while it felt good, there was a part of Jessica shrieking that this was wrong, that it shouldn’t be happening.
He kept his one hand between her legs, rubbing that one part with his thumb, she thought, while two other fingers moved in and out in a steady rhythm. With his other hand, he played with one nipple and encouraged her to play with the other one. Obedient to his command, she did as he asked, and it felt good, so good. He stood up after a few moments and dropped a kiss on her forehead and tugged on her dress to get it off her completely.
“What are you doing?”
“Pretty thing like you shouldn’t be hidden by something as ugly as this dress,” he said, moving away from the bed.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Not far. You just keep playing with yourself, and it will be fine.”
Jessica did, even daring to reach between her legs, and then Brady was back, but this time he had on a weird-looking mask. He moved up onto the bed, nudging her legs apart, and she felt the tip of his penis brush against the inside of her thigh. It was wrong to let him do this, but she couldn’t seem to say no to him, and she really did feel good. He pushed into her, and for the first few strokes, it was okay. When it came to actual sex, Brady wasn’t good as Tony, but he was good enough to make her hips rise up.
The okay part didn’t last long before she started feeling worse and it started to feel uncomfortable. It almost felt like Brady’s penis was somehow shaped wrong and couldn’t fit her, which was crazy and stupid. After another few strokes, she cried out in pain, because it felt like Brady was shoving a knife inside her. She tried to get away, but he held down her shoulders and kept pushing inside her. Jessica lifted her hands to his face, thinking disjointedly that he would stop if she could just see him. And if she could see him, she could maybe scratch him and get him to understand what kind of pain she was feeling.
“Stop,” she said, her voice breathy and lacking any kind of force or conviction. “Please. It hurts. It hurts.”
Somehow, miraculously, it seemed to work, because he stopped, then he yanked himself out and pushed himself off her and off the bed, yelling something. Four boys crashed into the room, one of them Brady, and there Jessica was, naked on the bed with her legs wide open. She curled up as she tried to cover herself and tried to make sense of how it was that Brady had just come into the room when he was standing there in a mask, yelling at the others. It took another moment for her to realize that Brady wasn’t the man in the mask, that he’d left her for someone else to — to —
“The final vessel is already filled!”
“Please, Melthazar,” Brady said. “I had no idea. There are other girls upstairs. We can —”
“You can do nothing. Timing is everything, and it will be another hundred years before the stars are correctly aligned. I’m finished with you.”
“But the contract!” said one of the other boys.
“The contract is nothing. You failed.”
The boys kept begging, kept promising to do better, to make it right if only he’d let them leave, but the door slammed shut behind them, and Jessica, confused and frightened and in pain, didn’t even try to make sense of why everything in the room was being painted red as she watched. The screams seemed to go on forever, but finally, there was silence.
The man in the mask approached Jessica then, and said, “You’ll never have the joy of what’s inside you. It will curse you as long as it’s near.”
He left, then, though Jessica wasn’t sure how, because the room only had one door, and it was still shut. After another long while, the door opened, and Gina poked her head in, gagging a little at what she saw. She helped Jessica sit up and tried to find her dress, but —
“We couldn’t find my clothes, so we had to wrap me in a sheet, and we just ran. We could hear the screaming outside and this roaring sound and —” Jessica’s face crumbles into tears.
She hates being weak like this, because Tony doesn’t like tears, and he stands up to leave the room as soon as she starts crying. It’s only that she doesn’t like thinking about that night, about the red that was blood, about the way Brady tricked her. She’s crying harder now, but a miracle happens: Tony doesn’t leave. For the first time, Jessica thinks that maybe, just maybe, she can salvage her marriage and make it up to Tony, now he knows what really happened that night.
As for Xander — well. He hasn’t been around much anyway, and she’s pretty sure that he won’t care if they don’t stay in touch. With Xander out of sight, he’ll soon be out of mind, and then maybe she and Tony can finally be happy together, the way they should have been all along.