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It had been approximately two days, thirteen hours, and twenty-eight minutes since her kiss with Dina at the school dance had happened. She would know, because she kept track.

Ellie’s mind wandered all over during her classes – she never found school very interesting. In fact, nothing about school interested her. Except Dina.

Dina was Ellie’s best friend. She was confident, collected, and inevitably, she was hot as all hell. She was “a player”, a popular girl; she hung out with the big jocks and the snotty girls who worried too much about how they looked rather than how they treated others. But in the end, she always came back to Ellie. Dina’s façade never lasted very long with her.

She was beautiful, Ellie would think to herself nearly every day she saw her. Long black hair tucked back into a bun, her face dusted with freckles and birth marks, her glazed lips with perfect teeth. Her body was agonizingly attractive – those thin arms tucked away under thin uniform cloth, breasts cupped through the buttoned shirt, small waist pressed, delicious legs clad in a navy-blue skirt that rode down to the knees, leaving much to the imagination.

Truthfully, she had absolutely no idea why Dina kissed her. Dina was flirtatious by nature, enticing by design. She would lead on guy after guy, sometimes even girls. Although, there had been no count of Dina dating any girls, she just acted as a tease to anything and everything that breathed. She loved the attention, Ellie concluded, but it was clear she was never obviously into anyone. So why she kissed Ellie in front of everyone, she didn’t understand.

They hadn’t even talked about it, either. She hadn’t seen Dina since the night of the dance. The weekend following the dance, Dina would be away, giving Ellie no chance to talk to her. As she sat in the desk that morning, she knew she would have to see her, and she dreaded every second of it.

Class with Dina started around 10:30am, where they had the same math period. Due to the dance, they hadn’t had any homework, and the probability of starting a new lesson was highly likely. Meaning, she wouldn’t have to talk to Dina.

Ellie was one of the last people walking into class. When she stopped at the front to take in the sight of the classroom for just a moment, she briefly made eye contact with Dina, who was sitting lazily in a desk with her knee bent, right beside two bigger jocks and a girl she was friends with. Dina smiled sweetly at Ellie, and continued to chat along with the students. Ellie didn’t miss Dina’s eyes trailing up and down her body for a second before she looked away.

Composing herself, she sat down in a desk beside the window, four down in the column all the way on the opposite side of the classroom. Dina was only a few seats over, up one desk and three to the right. As soon as she sat down, she could just feel those dark eyes beaming into her from a few rows over, clawing at her for answers.

It took all the willpower in the world not to stare back. She knew if he dared turn her head, she would be met with piercing, intoxicating eyes that she would be immediately drawn to. It didn’t take much for Dina to have complete control over her.

The second bell rang, and the teacher who had been previously holding the door for the incoming students walked in. Setting her things down on the table, she turned to the class with a smile, adjusting her glasses gently and beginning her lesson.

Ellie was, as usual, barely paying attention. Her mind was off in wonderland, a wonderland full of school dances, autumn nights, full of Dina. The memory of their passionate string of kisses replayed in her mind constantly, like a steel vinyl record spinning against a needle. She just couldn’t stop it.

Her dreams were filled with Dina – Dina’s touch, her smell, her taste. Those lips could rest forever against hers and never would she complain. The rush of her heart and the adrenaline surfaced in her veins at just the memory of her. When Dina’s hand had found its way against the side of her neck, Ellie just knew she would be in complete control. She never thought her unrelenting crush on her best friend could get any worse, until she kissed her.

She was in a complete trance all period – she didn’t catch a word of the lesson the teacher had been giving. All she could picture was Dina. And knowing that her eyes were glued to her for most of the period brought chills down her spine.

Despite their passionate kiss and the way Dina looked at her and everything she said to her that night, Ellie still felt that terrible dread in her stomach, the doubt that her best friend didn’t feel the same as she did. It was something that she tried her best to store in the farthest depths of her mind. Every part of her tried refusing that reality, tried invalidating its existence. But the logical side of her knew the truth – it would never happen. Dina was popular and social and bright and charming, and she just wasn’t. She was a loner; she preferred spending her time writing and playing guitar. She kept to herself, and Dina didn’t. That’s just the way it was.

Time went by like flying birds outside the window beside her. She barely even noticed the class going by until she saw the whiteboard full of notes the teacher wrote in front of her. Scribbling the notes down quickly in a messy chicken scratch, it didn’t take very long for her to fix her eyes to the blue sky and let her mind travel her deepest thoughts again.

Mindlessly, she reached into her bag to pull out her notebook, where she found herself yearning to count for all of these thoughts going through her head by writing them down.

And that was when she found the first note.

There, stuck to the dark blue and white notebook hard cover, was a yellow sticky note, crumpled and worn at the edges, one of the corners bent. And on the sticky note read a foul word that filled her with disgust, with dread, with every negative emotion in the dictionary. The word was written in a dry, messy handwriting, the ink bleeding into the paper. It said “faggot” across it.

Ellie was no stranger to these things. She endured relentless teasing and bullying throughout her many years of school. There wasn’t ever a year where she could confidently say she had been tease-free. Dina was good with that, though. She never knew the extent of how much she dealt with, but whenever she was around, it was like Ellie was safe. No one ever bothered her, no one ever made fun of her. Sure, she was given the weird looks and glares from her peers, but she felt safe.

She crumpled the note forcefully, and tossed it onto her desk with an aggravated sigh. She didn’t catch the attention of anyone but Dina, who turned over to her in curiosity. Sitting back, she crossed her arms and glared at the front board, staring off in thought.

The bell rang minutes later, and dumping all of her stuff into her bag, including the note which she shoved into her binder, she rapidly made for the door, rushing by the rows of desks where the boys, girls, and Dina sat. She felt the same burning eyes trailing her on the way out.

The hallway flooded in seconds, and as she was making her way past students, she heard a call of her name in a terribly familiar voice.

“Ellie!” The rushed voice of Dina emerged through the crowd. “Wait!”

Despite the dread that filled her body, and circulated through her veins, she turned to face that terribly familiar voice. She forced a slight grin to appear as she was met with the face of Dina, who quickly grabbed her wrist and pulled her aside, against the wall of lockers and out of the way of the busy hallway.

“Hey,” Dina sighed the word, a smile forming across her lips. Her shoulder rested against the blue lockers, her hands holding Ellie’s wrists.

“Hi,” Ellie replied awkwardly, what felt like volts of electricity flying up her arms, starting from the heat against her wrists. She couldn’t bring herself to say anything else – all of the words were stuck in her throat.

“How are you?” With a tilt of her head, Dina’s eyes burned into hers.

“I’m alright,” Her answer was shy, insecure. She had never felt this kind of hopelessness with Dina before. Sure, there were plenty of times where she was flustered and bashful at Dina’s flirtatious nature, but never had it been this prominent or obvious. The hustle and bustle around them faded out, the chatting and yelling just becoming familiar white noise that they heard every day. “How was your weekend?”

Ellie didn’t know what else to do but create the best conversation that she could, even if it was cripplingly awkward.

Dina’s eyes brightened then. “Oh, it was fantastic!” she exclaimed excitedly. “Yellowstone was quite possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.” Pulling out a folder from her backpack, Ellie read the label: “Yellowstone National Park”. She handed it to Ellie with a smile. Inside was a large pile of pictures, all of gorgeous nature – mountains, trees, lakes, geysers. Dina posing in front of Old Faithful, arms outstretched, sunglasses on, a perfect smile on her face.

“These are insane,” Ellie marveled at the professional-grade pictures at all angles of the nature. “Did you take these?” Her eyes found their way back to hers.

“Most of them, yeah,” Dina took a handful of printed pictures out of the stack Ellie cycled through. “I gotta say, I did a pretty damn good job.” She admired her work proudly. “I used that new camera I got last year. It’s, like, the first time I used it.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” Ellie reached the last of the pictures and gingerly handed it to the shorter girl. Smiling as she took it, Dina placed them all back in the folder, storing it away neatly in her bag.

“Sorry to keep you,” Dina chuckled out a gentle apology. “I have gym this period, so I don’t really care if I’m late. I’m not… making you late for anything, am I?” She asked with hesitance, her eyes narrowing.

“Oh,” She stumbled. “No, no. I have lunch this period anyways.” The nervousness was evident in her shaky, off-balanced voice.

Dina took a quick look around them, realizing they were nearly alone, only a few bodies filtering in and out of rooms in the distant hallway. Her hands made their way to Ellie’s wrists again, and suddenly, she had a complete hold of her. Ellie was entirely under the control of those dark, incapsulating eyes.

“I don’t want to just ignore it,” The girl confessed suddenly with a sigh, facing back to Ellie, who was clearly taken aback. She didn’t even have to see her own face to know what kind of stupid expression she would find there. “You know?”

Obviously, Dina meant the kiss. She didn’t really have to say it outright – it was written all over that perfect face. Ellie was frozen against those warm palms.

“Yeah,” she said calmly, trying to maintain her composure.

Dina’s eyes flitted downward, toward the ground, then to where her hands connected to Ellie’s skin. It was silent then, and her eyes crawled back up to Ellie’s, grazing over her shirt and up her neck. Everything was numb – nothing else around them mattered. Ellie was at her mercy in that moment.

“Did you mean it?” Dina’s whisper could’ve knocked her off her feet if she hadn’t been holding her wrists. The way she looked into her eyes as she said that – it was thrilling, it set Ellie’s skin aflame. “When you kissed back? You meant it?”

The breath stuttered in the back of her throat. She felt winded.

“Yes.”

The shorter girl’s lips were parted, those eyes wandering an expanse of skin on her face, her neck, eyeing the ridges and folds in Ellie’s clothing. But they were just glued to hers now, watching the forest green with such an intensity. It was then that her eyes flickered down just below their eyeline, a familiar look she’d experienced just days before on the dancefloor of their gymnasium.

Ellie could’ve sworn Dina’s face had been growing closer to hers, but when the second bell rang, both girls jumped back, the grip on Ellie breaking then. Dina’s hands hung in the air, as if she had been shocked in place, gripping an invisible pair of wrists that had once been there, but were immobile at Ellie’s sides now.

“I should probably get to class,” Dina muttered then, her face reading bewilderment and surprise at the sudden break away from the taller girl in front of her. She quickly secured the backpack around her arms, and straightened out her button-down and skirt.

“Y-Yeah, me, too…” Ellie followed suit, her hands grabbing at her black pants with nervousness.

As Ellie turned to leave, she felt that familiar heat radiating through the stitching of her cuffs of her own button-down, as Dina grabbed it to keep her from going another step. Surprised at the pull, she found herself turning to face Dina, who was looking right through her with those piercing eyes.

“Can we meet?” Dina asked, her voice barely above a whisper. “After school, maybe? In the corner of the parking lot by the back door?”

Stunned, Ellie’s eyes widened as she nodded, almost involuntarily. “Sure.”

They parted then, Dina quickly hurrying off in the opposite direction, releasing her cuff with a force that had her taking a step back to affirm her feet to the ground. She watched the girl rush off, and as that beautiful girl turned the corner and disappeared, Ellie found herself entranced.

It took her a moment to recuperate – Dina always had that effect on her. Taking a moment to compose herself, she started off to get her lunch out of her locker. It was only a few rows down from where they had been standing.

That’s when she saw three of the same sticky notes, with the same handwriting, and the same slurs written across them.

•••

Getting through the day had to have been the most painful part of it all. Not only could she just hear the snickers and laughs following her everywhere she went, she found countless little sticky notes all over. On her desks, in her books, and more and more would fill the front of her locker every time she removed them. It was all just so rotten.

She hardly paid any attention to it, though. Her mind was completely fixated on her upcoming “meeting” with Dina afterschool in the secluded corner of the parking lot, where the lot turned to sidewalk, where there was a tree with a bench and a bike rack underneath, where there was a small path that led from the lot to the back door of the building and stretched out into further pavement that surrounded the building. She had been picturing the spot for hours without a break, playing out different scenarios in her head, different conversations. She found herself utterly obsessed with the idea of alone time with Dina.

There were about eight minutes left in the school day, and Ellie’s eyes were wired to the clock from the moment the last period began. Her leg bounced relentlessly underneath the wood of her desk, and the pen twirling between her fingers only increased in speed as the minutes ticked by.

When that dismissal bell finally did ring, Ellie’s body darted up in her desk, she threw the backpack over one shoulder, and raced out the door at a record time.

It didn’t take her long to reach her destination. Heaving air as she arrived, she leaned on the wall after setting her backpack down against the bike rack. The tree sitting overheard swayed in the light afternoon breeze. Orange and yellow leaves were littered sparsely across the ground around her, having fallen from the trees surrounding the school, ones that were double the size of the small one she sat under.

When the sound of the big iron doors opening emerged from her left, her head whipped in its direction. What she had expected to see was Dina, beautiful and slim waisted, with that addicting smile on her face as she saw Ellie come into view. Just as she’d seen her before.

Instead, a big, rough boy appeared, fitted into a varsity jacket. Hair neat and gaze cold and mean, backpack slung around one shoulder. What she had hoped would be a decent smile of a beautiful girl was a devilish smirk with the worst intentions hidden behind pretty eyes.

Her blood ran cold, her whole body froze, and she found herself involuntarily rising to her feet, slowly. Those eyes were digging into her skin, her muscle, cracking her bones. There was no question – he was heading right for her. He hadn’t been before, but when he noticed her, sitting there, as he came through the door, his attention quickly turned to her.

“Hey, there,” he sneered, the mocking tone sharp and painful. “How we doing, dyke?”

Ellie just glared at him, fists at her sides. Her teeth were clenched tighter than they’d ever been, and it took so much strength to keep herself from shaking. He was just feet away from her now, tossing his bag down beside the grass.

“You like being a dyke?” He repeated, the word coming out far more refined than the first time. He slowly began to step closer to the smaller girl. “Did it feel good?” he asked in the most ridiculing way possible. “Did it feel good kissing her?” He whipped his jacket off and threw it with a slam. “Did it feel good, fag?” He was shouting then, but Ellie wasn’t backing away. White formed at her knuckles, the fists clenching tighter and tighter around nothing.

“Did it feel good to touch her?” He was at her face now, hovering a few good inches above her, but their eye contact never broke. She was staring just as challengingly back at him, his attempts of intimidation slowly drowning under a sea of hate and anger that surfaced within Ellie upon seeing that wicked smirk. “You like touching on her, don’t you, fucking pervert?” He continued to press and press and Ellie’s self-control drained rapidly by the second, a dangerously fast rate.

“She isn’t actually into you, you know,” he snarled, his breath so close she could feel it against her face. It was harsh and full. “She only kissed you for the publicity.” He chuckled maniacally. “But I saw it, everyone saw that look on your face. You think of her at night, don’t you?” His voice dropped suddenly, softened almost.

Suddenly, he reached down to graze his fingers along her thigh. “You think of touching her like this, don’t you?”

It was in that moment that every bit of control within her snapped. Her tight fist landed square on his jaw, sending him flying backward, completely stunned. It didn’t take him very long to overcome the shock, and in seconds, he was charging for her. A large hand found its way around her neck, and suddenly she was in the air. Planting her foot into his ribs, he doubled back, grabbing his side with a cry of pain. He geared his fist back and it struck her right across the face, right on her cheek bone.

Ellie turned from frail prey to an equal predator, a challenger, throwing and dodging punches just as well as he was. He landed a few good punches across her nose, ribs, and torso, but she landed them right back. One particularly strong punch to his nose had him reeling with a howl, the blood slipping through his fingers as it poured out. After that, he grabbed her by the shirt, lifting her again, and that’s when the slam of the iron door sounded loudly.

“What the–” The familiar voice wasn’t enough to cut through their fighting. “What the hell?!”

Ellie’s head turned to the quick footsteps of Dina rushing toward them, astonished, and suddenly the drive to fight skidded to a halt in the clenches of the boy in front of her. Dina’s interruption wasn’t enough to get him to stop, though, as another hard blow landed across her cheek.

“Jason!” Dina screamed, grabbing his arm and trying to keep him back. She was successful after another two blows to her face. Dina’s force stopped him from continuing, and eventually he let go suddenly, dropping her onto the pavement.

“Jason, what the fuck are you doing?!” She demanded, her voice cracking with confoundment. She shoved him away from Ellie, who was attempting to sit up, but struggled as the world spun around her.

“You’re really gonna stop me?” He asked through pants, as if he were surprised Dina stopped him. “How can you defend that?” He motioned his hand disrespectfully in the direction of the dazed girl. He was still holding his nose, which was leaking blood. His eye was bloody and purple, blood formed at his mouth, and he was hunched over to his left.

“Why the fuck wouldn’t I?” Dina challenged, sending him for another shove, which inevitably had him wincing. “Why would you do that?”

Jason didn’t even bother answering, he just turned and sped away. Dina called after him in a rage, but he kept on walking off. Her attention quickly turned to Ellie, who was crouched on the floor, arm wrapped around her abdomen.

“My God…” Dina whispered in breathy disbelief. She immediately squatted down, helping Ellie sit up. “God, Ellie, I’m so sorry. What happened?”

As Ellie began to talk, she reached into her bag to get her bottle of cold water to press against her battered face.

“He just fucking came out of nowhere,” she muttered. “He started calling me all kinds of names and he touched me and said I think of touching you that way instead.” Dina’s face fell more and more as she continued to talk. “He said I’m a pervert and that I liked touching you, even though it was clear you were just kissing me to get people to look.”

Shaking her head and growling with frustration and rage, it didn’t take long for her voice to turn reassuring and sweet. “None of that is true, Ellie,” she promised, her breath tickling her face as she concentrated on applying the cold to her cuts and bruises, one by one. “You know that, right?”

Ellie remained silent. Truthfully, she didn’t know.

Dina sighed with remorse, sitting back on her legs to look Ellie in the eyes with care. She readjusted herself to watch her honestly. Taking the injured girl’s hand on hers, she took a deep breath.

“I meant everything I said,” she confessed. “All of it. The thing about how the boys should be terrified of you? I meant that, too. I never meant to kiss anyone more in my entire life.” Ellie just watched her in disbelief as she continued to pour her guts out, holding the bottle up to her cheek. “Boys like Jason and all of the other guys that hit on me constantly should be terrified, yeah.” She nodded, words coming out in a chuckle.

“Then why would he say that?” Ellie asked in disbelief after a moment of silence. “He’s your friend, isn’t he?”

“Was,” Dina scoffed. “Ellie, you’re my best friend. I would choose you over that jealous douchebag any day of the week.” Her heart broke at the honesty radiating through her voice. “And, yeah, maybe I kissed you to drop a hint into that thick skull of yours.”

Ellie’s laugh came out in a breath. Dina couldn’t help but smile at the girl as she looked away from her. Dina’s hand found its way gently on her injured cheek as Ellie removed the bottle.

“Maybe I kissed you because I want you more than I want an asshole like Jason.”

Ellie’s heart soared at the implication. As she turned back to the girl crouching beside her, she found nothing but sincerity behind those dark eyes. Her reassuring smile winded her. She wanted to kiss her, then, carelessly and passionately. She wanted to show Dina she wanted it, too. By the look of it, it seemed that Dina was about to move in again, much like she had in the hallway earlier, and like she had on the dancefloor that Friday night.

But before Dina could move an inch closer, Ellie took the plunge. She landed her lips right against hers, shyly, at first, with an edge of confidence. It took Dina mere milliseconds to kiss back, her other hand finding its way into her hair. Ellie dropped the bottle and let her hands sit above her hips and on her waist.

Time seemed to pass them by as they got lost in each other’s lips. Thankfully, they were in the back corner where no one could see them. They kissed like an entire dancefloor of people could see them, without a care in the world.

***

Having to walk all the way home to her house, beaten and battered, knowing the impending doom she faced walking into a house with Joel in it had to be the most nerve wracking feeling in her entire life. She knew the second that she walked in that door and Joel saw the condition of her face, he would lose his shit. Regardless of all the bullying, she never once came home looking the way she did then.

It was inevitable, though. She had to go in there.

The house approached in the row, a small white home with blue shutters and a small stairway leading up to the big porch out front. The door was just pulling her in like wave, sucking her further out into the ocean where she knew she would drown.

The house was still as she walked in. The familiar smell overwhelmed her, though, and despite the nervousness she felt, she was also filled with an overpowering feeling of security and warmth. There was nowhere else she felt safer than right there.

“Hey, El,” Joel’s voice called from the kitchen.

“Hey.”

She set her bag down by the coatrack beside the door, taking her shoes off right next to it. She removed her light flannel, hung it up, and sighed with relief as she stretched out her back.

“You’re back a little late, huh?” Joel pointed out, much to Ellie’s disappointment. “Everything okay, kiddo?”

“All good,” Ellie called back.

“Oh, hey, can you do me a favor?” He asked suddenly. “We ran outta paper, and I needed some earlier today. Could you leave your binder up on the counter for me so I can steal a few pieces?”

Ellie started back for her backpack. “How many do you need?”

“I’m not sure. Just leave the thing on the counter, I’ll figure it out once I open that bad boy up.”

She dreaded going into that kitchen. Binder in hand, she peeked around the corner of the doorway. Much to her luck, she saw Joel facing the complete opposite direction, concentrating on food cooking in a pan on the stove. While he was hard at work, she quickly dropped the binder onto the counter and turned out the door and into the hallway before he could turn and see her gruesome face.

“Oh, I reckon you might wanna wash up,” he suggested. “Dinner should be ready in a few minutes.”

Wanting to put off the explosion as far as she could, she quickly ran to the bathroom and closed the door. Leaning back against it with a sigh of anxiety, she took a second to prepare herself for the mess that was about to unfold at the table.

Looking in the mirror located above the sink, she couldn’t believe the face that stared back at her. Her eye was swollen and rapidly turning purple, her cheek bone on the same side practically green with bruising. Her lip was cut open on the one side, the one area dried over with blood, and a small gash on her opposing cheek. She washed her face gently before reluctantly stepping out of the bathroom and walking slowly to the kitchen.

When she returned to the kitchen, she stood in the doorway, watching curiously as Joel held something small in his hands above the open binder, staring at it with intensity and what appeared to be distress. She didn’t realize what it was in his hands until she looked at the area around him.

The counter was covered in crumpled yellow sticky notes.

“What the hell is this?” He demanded, turning fiercely to the frame where she stood. His face dropped then. “What the hell?” Hardening again, he scowled as he stepped forward at a worried pace, heading right for her. “What the hell happened to you?”

Quickly taking her face in his hands, his face read distress. He examined her injuries thoroughly. Glaring at her, he sighed with exasperation.

“Start talkin’,” he ordered. “What’s with the notes? And why are you walkin’ in here like you just got fucking jumped by three guys?” His questions drilled further. “And why are they callin’ you all these names? Fag? Dyke? What the hell is that about?”

Ellie knew he was only just protective. With a hefty sigh, she started talking.

“This bigass jock dude named Jason jumped me in the parking lot,” she admitted. “I’ve been getting teased like that all day, and he just wanted to make me pay a little extra, I guess.” She wasn’t being totally honest, but the idea of this being the way she came out to Joel terrified her.

What if he wasn’t supporting of it? Ellie knew Joel loved her. Loved her like his own daughter. But what if his Texan beliefs contradicted his love for her? What if, if she told him about her kiss with Dina, he never let her over again? There was too much at risk for her. So, she kept her lips sealed.

“Why are these morons callin’ you a dyke?” He pressed. “Why would they call you that?”

Ellie shook her head softly. She just shrugged. Her words stayed glued to the back of her throat. Those beating eyes blared into her own, making it nearly impossible to keep a secret. She was an open book under Joel’s gaze.

“Ellie, lemme ask you something,” Joel rubbed the back of his head, struggling on words himself. “Did something happen? With a girl? That they’re calling you this?”

She continued to remain silent.

“Ellie, could you just talk to me?” His voice strained then, as if he were desperately trying to reach his daughter. “Are you not into guys?”

Her lips twitched, but she still kept her mouth shut. She looked away, and that’s the only answer Joel needed.

“Sweetheart,” he sighed. His large hands reached down to grab ahold of hers. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this was goin’ on? I coulda helped you through it.”

“I didn’t know how you were gonna react, okay?” Ellie blurted out. Tears threatened to break past her lids. “I had no idea if you were gonna be grossed out by it, hate me for it, fucking disown me or something–” Joel sighed heavily with disbelief, “–I didn’t know!”

“I love you, Ellie,” his words cracked slightly under the intense emotion sweeping him. Despite his stoic outward appearance, he could see the gears turning behind his eyes. “Why would you ever think I would hate you for that?”

“I don’ know…” Ellie admitted with a heave of her breath.

Joel kneeled down to get more eye-level with her. “Don’t think I didn’t have an idea…” he let the statement sit heavily in the air. “Does all this have something to do with Dina?”

It was the nail on the head. How he was able to guess it so easily, Ellie would never know. All she could do was look away again, and Joel was given another answer.

“You like her, don’t you?”

She turned to him in shock at the way he said it so casually. Eyes wide, she felt the first tear fall. “How did you know?”

“You think I can’t tell, Ellie?” Joel scoffed through a chuckle. “You have that girl over all the time. When you’re not here, you’re out doin’ God knows what with her. You’re always so happy and giddy when she leaves, and every time she’s on her way, you wait by the damn window like a dog.” He squeezed her hands. “It’s not that hard to tell, y’know.”

Ellie sighed in defeat.

“She kissed me at the dance,” all of her walls started to come down. “In front of everybody. They haven’t left me alone since.”

Joel was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry, baby.” The sincerity in his voice was heartbreaking. “I just wish you woulda told me sooner. I coulda helped you through all of it.” When more tears shed from her eyes, he wiped them gently with one hand. “You don’t have to run and hide from everything. You don’t always have to be alone, El. You know I’m here for you, all the time, whenever you need anything.”

“I know.”

“Here,” he stood up, still holding her hands. “Let’s go get you patched up, okay? And then over dinner, you can tell me all about this kiss of yours.” He smiled at her in the most devastating way. Ellie felt so safe. “Sound like a deal?”

Ellie felt her heart breaking with happiness behind her bruised ribs.

“Sounds like a deal.”

“Oh, and next time, you better point this Jason out for me,” Joel said in that sarcastically protecting way that he did. “I just wanna talk.”