:: Travis ::
Abby's hand felt small but relaxed in mine as we walked down the wet sidewalk past the yellow tape surrounding Keaton Hall. The building and the muddy ground bordering the four corners of brick and stone were now a crime scene. The cops--and now the FBI--were investigating the death of thirty seven college students, most of them not old enough to buy a beer. I'd been wondering for three days when I should tell Dad, how he would take the news that his youngest son had been involved in the most tragic event in Eastern State's history, and what he would say. I imagined the disappointment in his eyes, the worry and stress that would plague him, even after the police carted me off to prison.
The bricks over each window of the building where Adam had staged my last fight was stained black from smoke. The screams from just a few nights before still rang in my ears, and I recalled the terror I felt when I was desperately looking in the basement through the dark maze of halls for Abby. The overwhelming fear that came over me when I realized Trenton wasn't outside with the rest of the survivors was still fresh. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end just thinking about it. Still, none of that touched the heartbreak so many parents had been feeling since the story of the fire had broke on the news. Even though Abby never missed an opportunity to say that what happened wasn't my fault, I still felt responsible.
I paused in front of a makeshift memorial for the victims: a pile of notes, ribbons, flowers, and stuffed animals. Abby tugged on my head, pulling me forward without saying a word. She knew I was beating myself up about it, but she didn't know I was struggling with the urge to turn myself in. The only thing that was stopping me was thinking about leaving my new wife alone.
I walked her to the building where she had her first class, and after kissing her in a way that would let anyone who saw know she was my wife, I watched her walk up the stairs and disappear behind the double glass doors.
Shepley slapped me on the shoulder. "They grow up so fast."
I shrugged away from his grip. "Fuck off, penis breath."
Shepley chuckled. "One of the sisters from Sig Cap already asked America if the rumor was true."
I could feel my eyebrows slowly pull in. "What rumor?"
Shepley stared at me as if I were an imbecile. "The rumor that you married Abby."
I adjusted my backpack and began to walk under the gray sky, feeling the morning air infiltrate my long-sleeved T-shirt. Shepley struggled to match my pace, ever so often breaking into a short jog. We didn't speak until we reached the liberal arts building, where we both had class. I took two steps at a time, finally prompting Shepley to complain.
"For fuck's sake, Trav. Where's the fire?"
I stop and turned to face my cousin, clenching my teeth. "What is wrong with you?"
Shepley paled. "Sorry, man. Poor choice of words. We're not late. We've still got ten minutes before class. Why are you rushing?"
"I've got a lot on my mind," I said, yanking open the door.
The hall was flooded with students coming and going, flowing past one another until they parted long enough to bypass an obstacle in the center of the walkway: a glass box sitting on top of a podium. Encased inside was a bust of Gerald P. Stymie, the former president of Eastern State, and former member of Sig Tau. Mr. Stymie rushed Sig Tau with my dad and Uncle Jack, and I remembered him dropping by our house often during my formative years. He attended our holiday parties, and my mother's funeral. He died four years after he retired, which was six years before my freshman year of college. I wondered if he would be more disappointed that I had helped orchestrate Eastern's most tragic event, or that I wasn't owning up to my involvement.
The energy was so different from the week before spring break when everyone was smiling and walked with a bounce in their step. Now the halls were quiet, the air heavy and somber. The girls were wiping away tears, and the guys were holding the girls close, all recognizing their own mortality--some for the first time.
"A lot on your mind?" Shepley asked, slipping inside the building behind me. "Like what? Oh. You mean the thing I don't know about? Or did you just realize marriage is forever?" I grabbed Shepley's collar in both fists, shoving him against the nearest wall. The breath was knocked out of him, and he stared at me, wide-eyed, with his hands up. "Hey!" he said through his teeth. "I'm on your side!"
I slowly loosened my grip, aware of the curious eyes of passersby. I patted Shepley's shoulder to apologize, and then took a deep breath. "This isn't funny, Shepley. Any of it."
Shepley took a quick glance around, and then leaned in, keeping his voice low. "You're right. I'm sorry. Just trying to lighten your mood. But, you need to keep a low profile, Travis. Now is not the time to draw attention to yourself."
I looked over my shoulder at fellow students, kids, young and stupid like me but without a wife or bills or detectives knocking on their door. Their biggest worries were grades and explaining the credit card bill to their parents. Abby and I had those silly worries just a few days ago. The wedding had helped me pretend the fire hadn't happened, but now the aftermath was staring me in the face. The worries of losing Abby to Parker seemed like a different lifetime. Now, I could lose her for real ... forever.
"You're right," I said. I smoothed his shirt, and then patted his cheek, forcing a smile. "You're right, buddy, I'm sorry."
"Get to class, dick head," Shepley said, readjusting his backpack before turning the corner to climb the stairs.
I walked to the end of the hall and ducked into class, nodding to my humanities professor before taking a seat. A couple of students from the previous class were still hanging around his desk, asking questions about the mid-term. I glanced at my watch, and then pulled out my phone, smiling when the display lit up. Abby's gorgeous smile graced the screen, laughing in a simpler time.
I smiled, tapping out a reply. WTF. How can I miss you already?
Three dots appeared--the manifestation of anticipation. Same.
I chuckled to myself. Abby was an enigma. I knew she loved me--hell, she was my wife--but her short answers and refusal to get too emotional other than express frustration or anger had me guessing most of the time. I loved that about her. I loved how stubborn and even how petty she was. I loved how insane she made me feel, how unsure, how afraid. Surely that wasn't healthy, but I didn't fucking care. No one had dared make me feel those things before--at least, not on purpose.
I just wrote Abby Maddox on my notebook. With hearts. How lame am I?
A huge grin spread across my face. Was that weird?
Nope. Gotta go. <3 You.
Professor Halsey stood from his seat and walked around to the front of his desk, leaning his ass against the wooden edge. He was a gangly thing, all arms and legs and nose, his black, greasy hair styled over to one side to poorly hide the bald spot on the crown of his head. He fanned out his fingers and pressed the tips together, touching his pointers to his lips.
"As I'm sure you're all aware, the school has suffered a terrible tragedy this past weekend."
An uncomfortable silence filled the room, and students shifted in their seats. I sunk into my desk, chewing on the end of my pen.
Halsey continued. "We've been instructed to inform you about the on-campus, free counseling services provided by Eastern State. Based on the numbers, I'm sure we have at least one person in this very classroom who knew someone who was injured, survived, or became a victim in the basement of Keaton. This can be a frightening, overwhelming time for anyone, whether you were close with one of the victims or not, so please ... don't ignore any feelings you're having trouble processing. We're here to help." He paused just long enough to let his words sink in, and then he continued with the lesson. A girl or two sniffled a few times, but other than that, we proceeded as normal, taking notes and asking questions.
The moment he dismissed class, I bolted for the door, jogging down the hall and out the door, running all the way to where Abby would be leaving class. She'd just stepped out of the doors, stopping when she saw me. I crashed into her, and she hooked her arm around my middle, guiding me down the steps and around the side of the building.
"What happened?" she said, keeping her voice quiet and calm.
My chest heaved as I gasped for breath. I shook my head, unable to answer.
"Travis, look at me," she said, grabbing my jaw and lifting my head until my gaze met hers. "Talk to me."
"They're all dead. So many people are walking around without their friends, roommates ... family members." I pointed at my chest. "I did that."
"No. You didn't." She peeked over her shoulder, and then back at me. "You need to get it together, Maddox. If people see you like this and tell the cops?"
"Maybe they should. Maybe I should turn myself in," I said. No breath I took was deep enough. The more air I pulled in, the less satisfying it felt.
"What the hell are you talking about?" she said. For the first time, she was struggling to retain her famous poker face. "Travis, you better listen to me," she gripped my shirt. "You're not going to leave me."
"You think I want to?" I spat, flustered.
"They died, yes, and it is awful, yes, but you don't get to leave me. You're going to pick me over everything else; over your guilt, over your god damn morals, even over the right thing to do! If that makes me selfish or a bad person, I accept that. But they won't understand that you didn't mean for any of it to happen. They won't care that you didn't choose the building or put up the lanterns. They'll arrest you, Trav. They'll arrest you, and cuff you, and ... take you away from me, and ..."
I pulled her into my chest, holding her as she trembled in my arms. "Baby," I said, surprised. I'd never seen her so rattled.
She pushed me away, keeping hold of my T-shirt in her fist. "Don't do anything stupid, Travis. Don't you fucking dare." Frustrated, she tightened her free hand into a fist and hit my chest with the side--just hard enough to make a point. Her eyes glossed over. "You're the only family I've got."
"Okay," I said, blinking. I pulled her in again, swaying a bit, trying to comfort her the best I could. I kissed her temple, cursing myself. I knew I couldn't leave her, even if it was to do the right thing. I'd just wanted her to tell me not to. Unloaded something on her that I knew wasn't going to happen was a dick thing to do. "You're right. I wasn't ... I don't want to get arrested. I just needed to hear you say it, I guess."
"You want me to talk you out of it? So later you can tell yourself it was me?" she asked, narrowing her eyes.
"No, baby. For fuck's sake."
She lifted her chin. "Because that's fine. I'll take the blame. Whatever it takes, Travis. Whatever I have to do."
I choked down my emotions, clenching my teeth. She loved me as much as I loved her. I didn't know that was possible. "Abby..."
She pressed her forehead against my chest, took in a deep breath, and then nodded. She took a moment to gather herself, looking at the ground as she made the choice to trust me not to ruin her plans. She wiped her eyes, turned on her heels, and walked away in the direction of her next class. The smell of smoke still lingered in the air as she walked out of sight, leaving the ashes of my conscience in her wake.