Episode One: Newlyweds
:: Abby ::
Travis towered over the bed and our luggage, quietly separating our dirty laundry. He held my wedding dress in front of him, and after several seconds he lay it carefully on our comforter. The satin and tulle was a bit wrinkled and ruffled, in part from travel, but mostly from our wedding night. Travis had held me like I belonged to him; all of his doubt had finally melted away. Now, alone in our apartment, he was more relaxed than he'd been in the Las Vegas airport. We had returned to reality, still married, still together.
I held up my left hand, staring at my diamond ring the way Travis had revered my wedding dress just moments before. I wiggled my fingers, noticing Travis staring at me as he came intofocus just beyond my hand. One side of his mouth turned up into a half-smile, and he laughed once.
"Still okay?" he asked for the third time since we'd arrived home.
"Still Mrs. Maddox," I said, walking over to wrap my arms around his neck. I let him support all of my weight as I leaned in to him, closing my eyes as his soft lips skimmed mine. "I wish we had more time before classes resume."
"We can skip a few days," he whispered against my mouth.
He scanned my face with his warm, brown eyes, a day's worth of scruff on his jaw. He was still as breathtaking as the day I'd met him, his inked skin pulled tightly over his lean, cut muscles. The tattoos covering his arms varied from artistic to tribal, but none were as precious to him as my nickname scrolled in delicate cursive across his wrist, or the phrase in Hebrew along his rib cage, spanning from under his arm to the crest of his hip. It read, I belong to my beloved, and my beloved is mine--and I was. Officially. I had even gotten a new tattoo in Vegas: Mrs. Maddox. For someone who'd never considered getting a tattoo before, I couldn't stop staring at it ... or my new husband.
I released him and stood. "I have statistics this semester. Not a class I'd want to miss."
"You'll do fine," he said, turning to finish unpacking. "You solve problems the way I throw punches."
"No," I said. "Nothing is that beautiful."
He looked over his shoulder, staring at me with a dozen emotions scanning across his face, finally settling on adoration. "My wife is."
I took a look around the room and perched my hands on my hips, blowing an errant strand of hair from my face. Dirty clothes were wadded in four piles around the bedroom. I wondered how we'd managed to accrue so much in just a few days. Frames hung from the walls, holding black and white photographs of us from every stage of our relationship: friends, enemies, and lovers. In every shot, we were smiling, and Travis was touching me in some way. I'd missed our room, but the last time we were in it I was proposing to Travis while his face was still smeared with soot from the fire. A hint of smoke still hung in the air.
Shepley and America had left for Morgan Hall after taking us to Travis's dad's house to break the news to Jim that we'd eloped. America was going to pick up my things, giving Travis and me time alone to unpack and settle in. Even though the apartment was the same as when we'd left it, everything felt different. I gathered one of the piles into my arms and turned for the door, wondering if Travis felt as content and yet displaced as I did.
"Where you going?" Travis asked.
I motioned with a tiny twist of my upper body toward the hall. "Laundry." He made a face, and I laughed. "I'll be just down the hall, baby."
He nodded, but I could tell he was still worried about our marriage being erased somehow, as if it hadn't really happened, that the moment I was out of his sight he would wake up in bed alone.
I passed the doorway to the living room, stopping less than two feet later to push the folding door to the right, revealing the stacked washer and dryer. The unit was loud, yellow tinged, and older than I was, but it worked well enough. I only put in half the load I was holding, knowing the tiny drum couldn't handle more than that. Just after I poured in the detergent, twisted the knob, and closed the lid, someone knocked on the door.
I let the rest of the clothes fall to the floor and stepped over them to hurry across the living room. I peeked out of the peephole and swallowed, taking a moment to gather my thoughts before opening the door.
"Hi," I said, trying to seem surprised.
The police officers were in plain clothes--meaning they were detectives--and they didn't seem surprised to see me.
"Miss Abernathy?" the one on the left asked. He was round, his belly bulging over his belt buckle and his worn tweed blazer was a bit small.The badge just over his jacket pocket read Gable. His partner, Williams, was smartly dressed with a purple button-down and matching tie. He crossed his arms, his smooth, dark complexion opposite of Gable's rosy skin and freckles.
"Yes?" I said, knowing Gable was confirming, not asking.
"We're looking for Travis Maddox."
"He's here. He's in the bathroom," I said, hoping Travis couldn't hear us over the sound of the washer. It would be much easier to cover for him if he stayed hidden in the bedroom. I needed to prepare him. He wasn't as good of a liar as I was because he hadn't needed to be. I couldn't remember him ever telling a lie in the seven months since we'd met.
"Can we step in for a moment? We need to speak with him," Williams said.
"Is this about the fire?" I asked.
The detectives traded glances, already feeling like they were a step ahead. "Yes," Gable said. "What can you tell me about it?"
"I saw it on the news. As soon as we unpack, we're going to his fraternity house. He lost some of his brothers. He's heartbroken," I said, knowing that part wasn't a lie.
"You're his girlfriend?" Gable asked--again, not really asking.
"Wife," I corrected.
Another look between the men. Williams shifted his weight, looking down at his notes. "His wife?"
"Yes, we eloped this weekend. To Vegas. We came home early because of the fire."
Gable narrowed his eyes. "We have a few eye witnesses who said Travis was in the building at the time of the fire. They've made statements that he was a regular opponent in the, uh," he looked at his notepad, "floating fight ring." He enunciated each word as if he were speaking a foreign language.
"I mean ... I guess it's illegal to lie to you," I said, hanging on to the edge of the door. The men leaned in, eager to hear my confession. "We've been to a few. There's not a lot to do in Eakins." I snorted, and then pretended to be uncomfortable and awkward when they didn't find my joke funny.
Gable leaned over, noticing something behind me. "Mr. Maddox?"
I turned, seeing Travis frozen in the hallway.
"Hi, baby," I said. "These officers were told you were at the fight this weekend. They're asking questions."
"May we come in?" Williams asked.
"Sure," Travis said, stepping over the pile of clothes I'd left on the floor. He wiped his fingers on his pants and offered a firm handshake to Williams first, then Gable as they introduced themselves as detectives. "Travis Maddox."
"Nice to meet you, sir," Gable said, flicking his hand in reaction to the pressure Travis had used during their handshake. He stepped in, past me, noticeably wary of the man he was confronting.
"You've met my wife," Travis said as I closed the door behind the detectives.
The officers nodded. Williams sniffed. "Did you drive or fly to Vegas?"
"Fly," we said in unison, then smiled at each other. Travis took my hand and we sat on the couch.
Williams chose the recliner. Gable took up most of the loveseat.
"They're really saying he was there?" I asked.
"That you were both there, actually," Gable said, writing something down in his notebook. "Do you still have your boarding passes?"
"Yes," I said, standing. I made my way to the bedroom, digging into my purse for the passes and the hotel receipt. I wanted to keep them handy for when the investigators arrived to question Travis on his whereabouts. I grabbed my wedding dress on the way out. I didn't want to leave Travis alone with the detectives any longer than I needed to.
"That was quick," Williams said, suspicious.
"We just got back," I said. "It was all in my purse. Here," I said, handing him the passes and the hotel receipt.
"That's your, uh ..." Gable began, gesturing to my dress.
"Yes," I said, holding it up with a proud smile. "Oh!" I said, startling Travis. I hurried down the hall again, tossing my dress onto the bed and returning to the living room with a DVD case in my hand. "Would you like to see the ceremony?" Before either of them could answer, I popped it into the player and grabbed the remote.
I sat next to Travis, snuggling next to him while we watchedhim stand next to the officiant, fidgeting. I kissed his cheek, then he turned to me and pressed his lips against mine.
"Okay," Williams said, standing. His phone chimed, and he held it to his ear. "Williams. What? When? That's bullshit, and you know it."
Travis shot me a quick glance, but I squeezed his hand while keeping a smile on my face. I stared at the television. The recording made it easy to pretend I wasn't focused on Williams's every word.
Gable mouthed What? to his partner.
Williams shook his head. "Yes, sir. We're here now. I understand, sir. Yes, sir." He sighed and put his phone away, looking to Travis with an annoyed expression. "The Federal Bureau of Investigation is taking over the case. I'm sure they'll have more questions for you."
"The FBI?" Travis asked.
Williams frowned at his stunned partner. "Looks that way. Have a nice day, Mr. Maddox. And, congratulations."
Travis stood, bringing me with him. We watched the detectives leave, and then Travis paced.
"Trav," I said, reaching for him. He didn't stop to let me catch him. "Travis, stop. It's going to be okay. I promise."
He sat down on the couch, resting his elbows on his knees, and covering his nose and mouth with his hand. His knees were bouncing, and he was breathing hard. I was bracing myself for an outburst.
I sat next to him, touching his bulging shoulder. "We were in Vegas getting married. That's what happened, and that's what we'll keep saying. You didn't do anything wrong, Travis. It was an awful thing that happened, but I'm not going to let you go down for this."
"Abby," Travis said through his hands. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Did you know this was going to happen?"
I kissed his shoulder. "What do you mean?"
"That I'd need an alibi."
My heart began to thump in my chest, banging against my ribcage. "What are you talking about?"
He turned to me with subdued fear in his eyes, already regretting the question he was about to ask. "Tell me the truth."
I shrugged. "Okay ..."
"Did you marry me to keep me out of jail?"
I swallowed. For the first time, I was afraid my famous poker face couldn't save me. If I admitted to creating his alibi, he wouldn't believe me that I also married him because I loved him and wanted to be his wife. He wouldn't believe that the only reason I would agree to be his wife as a freshman in college--just nineteen--was because of that love. I couldn't tell him the truth, and I didn't want to start off our marriage with such an enormous lie.
I opened my mouth to speak, not knowing which I would choose until the words came out.
"Travis," I began, touching his knee. "I married you because I fell in love. "
"Is that the only reason?" he asked, bracing for whatever excruciating pain my answer would cause.
His chest heaved as if all the air had been knocked out of him. An hour before, he was just beginning to accept that our weekend wasn't just a dream. A month before he would have trashed the apartment. I could see him fightingthe urge to lash out, even under the immense pain he was feeling. Seeing that conflict in every tiny twitch of his expression made me love him even more.
Travis stared at the floor as he spoke, "Abby, when I say I love you ... I didn't know until this moment that I would want something more than for you to be my wife." His breath faltered, and he cleared the trembling from his voice. "I want you to be happy. You didn't have to do this."
"I am happy. Today, I'm the happiest I've ever been. Tomorrow, I'll be even happier. But, your happiness is just as important to me, Travis, and ..." I hesitated. No matter how many ways I tried to explain, Travis wouldn't understand. Eloping to Vegas to save him from prison meant more to me than deciding on a whim. Maybe it wasn't as romantic as the random, impulsive proposal Travis wanted it to be, but I had put action behind my feelings. To me, it was proof that my love for him transcended all else that was important to me, but Travis wouldn't see it that way. I could see it in his eyes.
"Just say it, Pidge. I need to hear you say it. I need to know the truth," he said, defeated.
I cupped his jaw in my hands and skimmed his ear with my lips. "I belong to you," I whispered. My eyebrows pulled in. "And you're mine."
He turned, touching my cheek with his fingertips, and watched my eyes for the tiniest hint that I wasn't being completely honest.
I offered a small smile, keeping my worries hidden deep inside. The words passing my lips were the truth, but I felt the need to protect them as if they were lies. Travis didn't need to know that I wanted to save him. He only needed to know why.
Henodded, exhaling as his muscles relaxed. "Have you ever wanted so much, something so out of reach, that once it happened you were almost too afraid to believe it?"
"Yes," I whispered, kissing his lips. "But I'm your wife. Nothing will ever change that."
"I don't know," he said, shaking his head. "A twenty-year prison sentence could change that."
"How can you think you have no control over what happens to us? You made me fall so hard that I proposed to you at nineteen."
He laughed once.
"Have you stopped to think that I might be the one afraid of losing you?" I asked.
"Where am I gonna go?" He asked, pulling me onto his lap. "You're my anchor. There's not a thing out there I would want if it takes me away from you." The corners of Travis's mouth curled up, but only for a second. "I'm being investigated by the FBI, Pidge. What if I get arrested? What if I'm gone for a long time?"
I shook my head. "Won't happen. You weren't there. We were in Vegas getting married." I held up my hand, wiggling my fingers so the light reflected off the facets of my diamond. His expression made my eyes gloss over, and I threw my arms around him, holding him tight, digging my chin in the crook of his neck. I didn't have to hide that I was afraid. "I won't let them take you from me."
"Someone's gotta pay for what happened."
My eyes danced around our apartment, at the tiny candles I'd bought from the tiny Eakin's Strip Mall, and the ash tray Travis kept by the door to grab before he went outside to smoke. I thought about his favorite spatula next to my favorite serving spoon in the kitchen drawer, his shot glasses next to my coffee mugs, his smelly gym socks mixed with my Victoria's secret. I thought about Eastern State's campus and feeling giddy when Travis somehow found me in a sea of twelve-thousand students, and the time half the cafeteria broke out into song just because he wanted to help take the attention off me. I had moved from Kansas to Illinois to escape my past, and landed face-first into the last person I'd wanted to get mixed up with--who happened to be the one person who would love me more intensely and unconditionally than anyone ever had. Travis Maddox made me smile, made me look forward to every day. There was no Abby without Travis.
"Not you. You didn't choose the building. You didn't hang the lanterns. The fire was an accident, Trav. An awful, terrible accident, but if it's anyone's fault, it's not yours."
"How am I supposed to explain this to Dad, Pidge? How do I tell my brothers that I had a part in it? Some of our fraternity brothers died in that fire. Fuck," he said, running his hand over his short hair. "Trenton almost died in that fire."
"But he didn't. Travis?" I shook my head. "You can't tell them. You can't tell Shep or Mare. You can't tell your dad. If we tell them and they don't turn you in, they'll be in trouble, too."
He thought about that for a moment, and then nodded. "But ... what if they arrest Adam?"
I looked down, unsure how I would handle that variable. Adam could agree to testify against Travis for less jail time. If even one more person admitted that Travis was in that basement during the fight, his alibi might not matter. I stared into his worried, russet irises. "We're going to take this one step at a time. The first step is our marriage. We come first, every time," I said, touching his chest with my finger. "It's us, then the family, then the world."
He nodded, grabbing my jaw and planting his lips on mine. "I fucking love you," he whispered.
The doorknob jiggled, and then Shepley and America burst through the door, both holding bulging brown sacks and chatting about jalapeno cilantro hummus. They stopped just behind the couch, staring at us while we were in a frozen embrace.
"The fuck, Shep? Knock!" Travis said.
Shepley shrugged, the sacks moving up, too. "I live here!"
"I'm married. You're a third wheel. Third wheels knock," Travis said.
America snatched the keys from Shepley's hand and held them up for Travis to see. "Not if the third wheel has a key," she snapped. "By the way, Shep got Brazil to lend us his truck to get Abby moved the rest of the way in. You're welcome."
She turned for the kitchen in a huff, signaling for Shepley to follow. She was still angry about our elopement, not understanding that sneaking away in the night without telling anyone was the only way it could be. They opened all the cabinets and began unloading the sacks, filling the nearly empty shelves with cans and bags and boxes.
"I'll help," I said, beginning to push off Travis's lap. He pulled me back down, nuzzling my neck.
"Oh, no," America snarled. "You're married now. Let the third wheels put away the two-hundred dollars in groceries they just bought."
"Whoa! Nice, Shep!" Travis said, turning to look into the kitchen long enough for Shepley to shoot him a wink.
"I buy, you cook. That hasn't changed, right, Trav?" Shepley said.
"Right," Travis said, lifting his thumb into the air.
"You're going to have to teach me," I said, sheepish.
"To cook?" Travis asked. I nodded. "But if I teach you, I won't get to cook for you as often."
"Exactly. I want to help."
He grinned, his dimple sinking into his cheek. "Then the answer is no."
I pinched an inch of skin just beneath his arm, giggling when he cried out. America passed by the couch to the loveseat where the remote was barely poking out between the cushions. I thought about warning her that the large detective had kept it warm like a hen sitting on her nest, but before I could, America tugged on the remote until it was finally free. She pointed it at the television, watching as the screen flashed on, instantly displaying the local news. They were still reporting on the fire, the reporter standing in front of Keaton, black stains above the windows while yellow words scrolled across the bottom of the screen.
I touched my throat and swallowed, remembering choking from the smoke, and how terrifying it was to see the flames coming closer. I was confused, lost, and terrified, feeling that death could come at any moment until I heard Travis's voice amid the screams and crying from main room.
America slowly sat down on the loveseat, letting her hands and the remote sag between her legs. "Emily Heathington died in that basement. She was in my water aerobics class," America said, laughing without humor. "She hated the water. She said the thought of going under and having anything between her and a deep breath made her feel claustrophobic. So she took the water aerobics class to try and face her fear. For her to die like that ... it's almost a sick joke."
"Mare," I warned, noticing Travis's expression.
"I'm so glad you weren't there," America said, wiping her cheek. "I don't know what we would have done if something had happened to either of you." She stood, tossing the remote to Travis. "Yes. Even you, asshole."
Travis caught the slender black triangle with one hand, turning back toward the kitchen. He couldn't see over the back couch cushion, but he directed his voice to his cousin, anyway. "Should we go to Sig Tau?"
"I just went," Shepley said. "It's pretty quiet over there. A lot of guys sitting around staring at the floor."
"They were talking about holding a fundraiser," America said.
Travis nodded. "Yes. We should definitely do that."
"Travis," Shepley said. "How are we going to pay the rent now? We're out what we're regularly paid for the summer. We have no more money coming in."
"We get a fuckin' job," Travis said, leaning back.
"Doing what? All you've ever done for money is throw punches. I made phone calls. Are we going to apply at Burger King?"
I frowned at America, but she just shrugged. "You'll figure out something," I said. "I saw an ad for a Calculus tutor on the cork board by the door in class before break. I'm going to look into that."
"Oh yeah," Shepley said with a sigh. "We're splitting rent and bills into thirds now. That'll be a lot easier."
"Your parents pay your bills," Travis grumbled. "Not sure what you're crying about."
"It was nice not to have to ask," Shepley said.
"Shep," Travis began. "I love you, cousin, but one of us is going to have to move out."
"What are you talking about?" Shepley said.
America picked up a throw pillow and tossed it at Shepley. "Quit it! Don't act like you didn't know this was coming the second you found out about their wedding!"
Shepley chuckled. "Sorry. I was going to milk that for as long as I could."
Two lines formed between Travis's brows. Shepley didn't know that Travis already felt bad enough, about a lot of things. Travis exhaled, shaking his head. "We won't find anything that pays that good, I guaranfuckingtee you that."
"Like you said," I said, rubbing his back, "we've got two incomes, now. It's okay that you'll make less. Even by half."
"I'm going to miss that money," Travis said, staring off. "I had a lot of plans for us."
"Like a car?" I asked.
He stifled a smile. "Don't you worry about that."
I playfully smacked him. "What do you mean?"
"I mean I've got that covered."
"Did you buy us a car?" I said, sitting up.
I'd never owned a car before. Travis's only mode of transportation was his Harley Night Rod, and although he looked incredibly sexy riding it, it was more than a bit drafty in the winter. We had been relying on Shepley to either give us a ride or let us borrow his car, but now that we were married, that would change. Everything would change. We were no longer college kids who could depend on others for a ride, we were a married couple and there was a certain expectation--mostly on ourselves--to be responsible and self-sufficient.
Marriage was so much more than a ceremony and promises. I had never thought twice about Travis having a roommate when I was just his girlfriend, but marriage made that feel different. Just like not having a vehicle was different, or jobs, or ... the reality of it all began to weigh on me, and I sunk back into the couch.
Travis frowned, concerned with my reaction. "What, baby?" he asked.
Shepley chuckled. "Now you really don't have any money left."
"Now we really don't need you to live here," Travis grumbled.
Shepley wrinkled his nose, looking like he suddenly smelled something revolting. "Well that's fuckin' rude."
Travis scrambled over the couch, tackling his cousin to the tile floor in the kitchen. Shepley grunted when his knee hit the lower cabinet door, and then he yelped as Travis grabbed for his crotch.
"Quit fighting dirty, sack jacker!" Shepley cried.
America lept back, narrowly missing Travis's quickly moving legs. I moved to stand next to her, hooking my arm around hers.
"Are you sure you know what you've gotten yourself into?" she asked. " You're in this, you know. This is yours."
"You're next," I said, tugging on her arm.
"Oh, no. Just because you got married as a freshman doesn't mean the rest of us are crazy." She looked at me, confused. "I still can't understand why you did it. Travis knew the biggest fight of the year was coming up, Adam somehow finds someone else to fight for Trav last minute, the fire breaks out, and you two just happened to decide to elope ..." Recognition flickered in her eyes.
Travis froze, and both boys looked at America, breathing hard.
"Abby," America began, suspicious.
"Mare, don't," I said. "Don't say it. Don't even think it."
"But, I'm right, aren't I?" she asked.
"No," I snapped. "We were on our way to Vegas when the fire broke out. What kind of people would we be if we did something like that?"
"Smart," Shepley said, standing. He brushed off his pants, still trying to catch his breath. His cheeks were flushed from unsuccessfully grappling with his much larger cousin.
Travis stood up, too, sliding his arm around my waist. The four of us traded glances, unsure of what to say next, but in that moment, I knew Travis had to know the truth.
Read Episode Two: Silver