Chapter 28

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Saturday, October 18th

The grocery sack of streamers and other decorations that I hold in my hand seems go be getting heavier with every piece of shiny paper that I tape onto the wall, and the chair that I'm standing on wobbles slightly.
I've been at the school auditorium since ten this morning, helping to get everything ready for later decorating and helping set up chairs and such, and it's almost one pm already.
"Are you excited?" Josh steadies me when the chair tips further, holding me in place with both of his hands on my waist.
I step down and blow my flyaway hairs out of my face. "Mostly just nervous."
"What is there to be nervous about?" He glances up briefly from the table he's attempting to pick up without pinching his fingers
"People." I carry the chair further down the room and climb back onto it to tape up another length of streamers. 
He follows me with his chore of setting up the admission table, keeping up the conversation. "You shouldn't be scared. I'll be up there with you."
"I know." I'm finally finished, after several hundred feet of annoyingly rip-prone paper ribbons, I can go home to get ready. "Well, I'll be back in a couple hours." I think for a second before looking at him again. "You should probably come with me, we need all the practice-"
He steps forward and covers my mouth. "Stop worrying."
I open my mouth to argue, but stop right before, frown, and then shrug. "What ever you say."
"Trust the day's worth of practice we've already had." He smiles. "I'm serious."
"You don't ever learn do you? We girls don't stop worrying, and we believe in more practice makes more perfect. What if there wasn't enough practice?" 
"Leah," he breathes, leaning closer so that his mouth is mere inches from mine.
"What?" I ask tersely.
"Shut up." He gives me a quick peck on the lips. "I've got to get home. Dad said he would be gone today, so I have to make sure the yearlings have feed."
"Okay." I have a rather strange feeling as I watch him walk away, something like regret, something like peace. I still have butterflies from his short kiss, as extremely brief as it was, it still gave me shivers. "I should get home." I mutter, slipping my hoodie over my head. Sometimes I wonder who is wrapped around who's finger. Sometimes I can feel his heart in my hand, other times the helpless terror of being emotionally, physically, and mentally vulnerable is so constrictive around my senses that I almost have a panic attack.
I slide into the little blue minivan and turn the keys in the ignition, chewing my lip while I continue to think.
I'm not sure what I'm thinking about, everything and nothing at the same time, so many different ideas float through my head that I can't keep it all straight. I suddenly find myself at home, sitting in the car with the motor idling, too caught up in my own tangled wits to have really noticed my own arrival.
Pulling the keys out and get out of the van, I begin to whistle the Andy Griffith show theme song, and slam the car door carelessly behind me.
I tiptoe across the porch and through the door, trying to be as quiet as possible.
"Leah?" I look up, and see Cora sitting on the couch with a book. She raises an eyebrow. "What are you doing?"
"Coming home to get ready," I reply carefully. "Speaking of getting ready, are you guys going?"
She nods slowly, setting the book down beside her. "Yeah, but we're only staying until you're done singing."
"Oh. Okay." I continue my walk to the bedroom and retrieve the dress out of my closet. I smile as I hang it up, and go to the bathroom to do my hair and makeup. Bailey already showed me how to do the makeup I'm wearing tonight, and I'm just going to curl my hair, so it's all simple enough for me, the failure of fashion, to handle.
Even with such easy preparations, it still takes me an hour and a half to get it all done. I unplug the curling iron and leave it on the counter, then I go to put on my dress.
As I have Cora zip the back, I rearrange the lace on the front, and then have her fix it ask on the back.
"I'm going to steal your dress." She mutters, surveying me with jealous eyes.
"You can have it once you're tall enough." I say, tidying my hair. "How does my hair look?"
"It looks good." She compliments honestly.
"Good." I hear a couple loud honks outside. "That'll be Joshua. See you in a bit." I say quickly, grab my boots, and race quietly to the front door.
His truck is there all right, and when he sees me, he honks again. I run to the passenger side, barefoot, and hop in.
"Stop honking! Grace, Jonah and Mom are taking a nap!" I pull on a pair of striped socks, and then my boots.
"Sorry." He replies sheepishly, picking up speed as we leave the driveway. "At least it's time for them to wake up, and it's not the middle of the night."
"I'm sure she understands completely."
He waves my sarcasm away and turns the stereo on. "We would practice."
I nod, and we start to sing, the bumpy road jarring our voices, but I don't pay attention to it.
*-*-*
I can hear the chatter of the people, and an occasional whoop of laughter coming from the auditorium, as I sit in the janitor's closet near the dressing room and collect myself before everything starts. I duck my head and a shuddering sigh escapes my lips. I'm ready, I tell myself, I'm ready.
"You ready?" Josh asks, slowly opening the door.
"Are we on already?" I stand up, straightening my dress.
He opens the door wider and leans against the doorway. "No, we're the last act, remember?
I rub my temples gently, blinking several times. "I did earlier."
He pulls me into his arms and holds me against his chest, careful not to mess up my hair. 
"I was stupid to volunteer us for this." I grumble into his shirt. 
"I agree." He says jokingly.
"You aren't supposed to agree with me."
"I was kidding." He chuckles deep in his throat, and I hear him sniffing. "What is that weird smell?"
I pull away. "Hairspray, probably." I crane my neck to listen over his shoulder. I can hear singing. "We might want to go."
"Yeah." He takes my hand and we walk to the waiting area, out of sight of the crowd, but able to see the stage perfectly.
We wait for nearly an hour of other people's solos and duets before Mr Kerr hurries to us, a clipboard in hand, and ushers us toward the stage. "You're on, and don't forget to smile!" He says quickly, and we mount the steps.
I stand on stage, frozen like a deer in headlights, blinking rapidly as the spotlight makes my eyes water. 
Josh takes my hand and leads me further away from the edge of the curtain, taking two microphones from the announcer. 
She gives the crowd a very sparkly smile. "I present to you, tonight, Agapé-Hart!"
He gives my hand a reassuring squeeze. "Compass, by Lady Antebellum." He says into the mic.
The music begins to play, and we wait for a while before starting to sing. 
"Yeah, it's been a bumpy road," we harmonize, "roller coasters high and low. Fill the tank and drive the car, pedal fast, pedal hard, you don't have to go that far." I finish on a high note, he finishes on a low one.
"You only give up 'cause it's dark." He purrs.
"We're really not that far apart." I counter.
The fast paced drum beat on the record begins, our cue. We belt out together even stronger than we started out earlier, and the sheer joy of music sends shivers up and down my backbone. I don't even think of the audience.
"So let your heart, sweet heart, be your compass when you're lost, and you should follow it wherever it may go. When it's all said and done, you can walk instead of run, 'cause no matter what you'll never be alone (never be alone) oh oh oh! Never be alone, oh oh oh!" 
I catch my breath, and emit a breathy laugh. He grins at me, bringing his microphone up once again, and I follow his lead.
"Forgot directions on your way, don't close your eyes don't be afraid. We might be crazy late at night, I can't wait til you arrive, follow stars you'll be alright."
"You wanna give up 'cause it's dark," I take a deep breath, and sing directly after his voice stops.
"We're really not that far apart,"
"So let your heart, sweet heart, be your compass when you're lost, and you should follow it wherever it may go. When it's all said and done, you can walk instead of run, 'cause no matter what you'll never be alone (never be alone) oh oh oh! Never be alone oh oh oh!"
"You wanna give up 'cause it's dark,"
"We're really not that far apart."
"So let your heart, sweet heart, be your compass when you're lost, and you should follow it wherever it may go. When it's all said and done, you can walk instead of run, 'cause no matter what you'll never be alone (never be alone) oh oh oh! Never be alone oh oh oh!"
"When it's all said and done, you can walk instead of run, 'cause no matter what you'll never be alone." I sing quietly.
He joins his voice with mine at the end, causing it to end on a gloriously full and rich note. As soon as the recorded music ends, people start to shout and clap. I blush, feeling my face heat up. 
The announcer smiles at us, clapping as well. 
He turns his deep brown eyes to mine, a faint and sweet smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Wanted, Hunter Hayes."
Wait-what?! He takes my microphone and hands it to the announcer, then cracks a very endearing grin. Sure enough, several seconds later, the music for 'Wanted'. 
" You know I'd fall apart without you," he begins softly, "I don't know how you do what you do. 'Cause everything that don't make sense about me, makes sense when I'm with you." He looks at me earnestly, and tears fill my eyes. 
"Like everything that's green, girl, I need you, but it's more than one and one makes two. Put aside the math and the logic of it, you gotta know you're wanted too."
He smiles, a gentle smile, a peaceful smile, but it makes my heart ache just the same. "'Cause I wanna wrap you up, wanna kiss your lips, I wanna make you feel wanted. And I wanna call you mine, wanna hold your hand forever, and never let you forget it. Yeah, I, I wanna make you feel wanted.
"Anyone can tell you you're pretty, yeah, and you get that all the time, I know you do. But your beauty's deeper than the make-up, and I wanna show you what I see tonight..." I'm bawling, I know that my mascara is running everywhere, and I can't stop.
"When I wrap you up, when I kiss your lips. I wanna make you feel wanted. And I wanna call you mine, wanna hold your hand forever, and never let you forget it. 'Cause, baby, I, I wanna make you feel wanted.
"As good as you make me feel, I wanna make you feel better. Better than your fairy tales, better than your best dreams. You're more than everything I need! You're all I ever wanted! All I ever wanted...
"And I just wanna wrap you up, wanna kiss your lips, I wanna make you feel wanted. And I wanna call you mine, wanna hold your hand forever, and never let you forget it. Yeah, I wanna make you feel wanted. Baby, I wanna make you feel wanted.
"You'll always be wanted." He pulls me to him, and I hold onto him tightly, sobbing.
"To all the people who came tonight, thank you for coming, and to Mr Kerr, for understanding it was her birthday and letting me sing by myself." He smiles out at the audience, stands, and hands his mic to the announcer girl.
He practically carries me off the stage, as I have no feeling of my feet touching the ground. I am completely and utterly happy, until I hear a voice that stops my heart. 
"Long time, no see, Leah."
My entire body goes cold, and I go rigid in Josh's arms. I reach for a reply, but it comes out in a weak, shaky, little whisper.
"Erik?"
I very slowly turn in the direction his voice came from, feeling all of the blood leave me face when his cold, gray-green eyes meet mine, and he sneers noxiously.
"You don't look very glad to see me."
How can he be here? His family moved to Kentucky-
"You didn't think I would stay away forever did you? It was only a year job. We were coming back."
I hold tightly, to Josh's arm, feeling very faint. He glares dangerously at Erik, and steps in front of me protectively.
"Touch her and I'll kill you."
"I'll beat you just like I beat her."
Joshua freezes, and turns slowly to me. "What?" 
Tears fill my eyes as I look up at him, ashamed that I'd kept it a secret. I've never told anyone, ever, all that he did to me and why. I only tell about the rumors, but there was more. He had been demanding, and bad, and a player. I had been naive, and innocent, and unwilling to comply beyond a kiss. So he beat me. And told the whole school something else. No one found out about the beating, but when his dad got a job in Kentucky, I'd been more than a little bit relieved. Now he is back, and judging from the look in his eyes, just as violent as he had been back then.
"Leah-" he begins, but grits his teeth and turns back to Erik. "You beat her?"
"I did. Taught her to refuse me." He smirks at me, causing me to break into a cold sweat.
"Let's settle this later." Josh growls through clenched teeth.
"My pleasure." 
Nothing more is said before we start to walk away, and meet with Mom, Cora, Grace, Jonah, and Dr Frank.
"You were amazing!" Mom says excitedly, "You too, Joshua! I'm impressed!"
He pastes on a smile that would look genuine to anyone except me, I know better. He's mad, no, infuriated. "Thank you, Mrs Dodson."
"Well, the kids are all hungry, so we're going home." She says, and glances at me questioningly. "You going to stay?"
I nod. "Yeah."
She gives me a quick hug. "Goodnight, sweetie. Have fun." She takes Jonah's hand and they walk away, leaving me with a very angry and hurt Joshua.
I glance nervously around for Erik, and feel relieved when I don't see him. Josh wraps his arm protectively around my waist, pulling me close against his side.
"You wanna dance?" I ask quietly.
The hardness of his jaw relaxes a tad. "Sure." He lets his grip on me slacken, and the music seems to soften the angry roughness of his touch. "Why didn't you tell me he'd been abusive?"
"I didn't think it was important, because I didn't think he would ever come back." I mumble into his shirt.
"How bad was it?"
"It doesn't matter now-" he doesn't need to know any more, I don't want him to go to jail for pounding Erik.
"It does matter. How bad was the beating?"
I flinch at the thought of it all. "My ribs were sore for a week, and I had bruises up and down my back. My wrist got sprained."
"And no one noticed."
"I didn't show anyone my naked back, so how could they?"
He tickles the back of my neck with his fingers. "I'll never let him touch you again."
I furrow my brow, and allow him to lead the dance, not really paying attention, letting my feet drag carelessly. "Don't do this."
He doesn't reply, and I don't push him any further.
An hour of dancing goes on like this, the strained silence filled with unspoken questions.
"I'm done." He says after even longer, and starts to walk away.
"Wait-where are you going?" I follow him, and have to walk very fast to keep up.
"I'm going home."
"You're taking me, right?"
"Stay here for a little while. I'll come back for you."
"Joshua-" I warn.
"Leah, relax. Stay here." He sits me down on a random chair pressed against the wall, out of the way of the dance floor.
I want to argue, but I won't. He'll be less suspicious of being followed if I don't argue, and I plan to follow him. I wait until he is out of sight before I dare to move from my place, but when I do, I stick to the shadows and avoid the other people, keeping my head down as I make my way to the door.
The cold air hits me like a frigid wave when I slip the door open and dart through it, keeping my eyes and ears alert for any signs of fighting.
I freeze against the cold brick wall when I here raised voices.
"You're a coward. Only a coward beats women." Josh says angrily.
I creep closer to where the noise is coming from, around the corner of the building.
"Only idiots pick fights with stronger people."
"Are you referring to your breath or your drugstore cologne?"
I hear a loud "Whack!!!" and some scuffling, and some words I wouldn't dare repeat, then followed by heavy breathing and footsteps. But the footsteps don't get closer or further away, they just move back and forth.
I hear another "Whack!" and another, and then a thud, followed by a short silence.
"Done yet?" I hear Josh say, and a loud groan comes in response.
I peer around the corner, and see Joshua standing over Erik, who lays dejectedly in the dust. 
He jumps back up quickly, fury and light from the streetlights burning in his eyes, and they circle each other again. I can tell from their posture that they are both tired, but unwilling to admit defeat.
My heart races as they begin to exchange punches again.
Suddenly, Josh seems to freeze, and Erik takes his chance. With a sickening 'thud', his first connects with the side of Joshua's head. I watch him collapse before I can react.
"NO!!! NO!!!" I scream as loud as I possibly can, and race for where he lays awkwardly in the dirt.
Erik looks down quickly, and without even glancing at me, takes off at a full run and jumps into a pickup at the end of the parking lot.
I reach Joshua's still form at the same time Erik's truck zooms away. "No, NO!!! NO, JOSHUA, DON'T DO THIS! PLEASE!" I cradle his head in my lap, and looking down, notice that my dress is stained red with blood. His blood. 
"Oh, God!!!" I scream, and out of habit try to find my phone in my pocket. But there is no pocket. I'm wearing a dress. 
His face is very pale, and his pulse is weak and irregular.  
"Somebody, help me!!!" I remember suddenly, and dig through his pockets for his phone. I find it and dial 911.   
"What is your emergency?" The woman's robotic voice chimes,
"Oh God, my boyfriend got in a fight. I think he's dying. I don't know what to do!" I am shaking violently, and my head feels extremely light. Oh, God, don't let me faint...
"We've traced your call, and an ambulance will be with you shortly."
The phone falls from my hands and I close my eyes, a weak attempt to calm myself. But the wet, crimson, warmth seeping through the turquoise lace of my dress reminds me that I might lose him, and I cannot let that happen.

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