"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.