INTRODUCTIONI am broken, bruised, shattered. My past is what drives me. This is where my need for control comes from. I’ve been dominated, destroyed, controlled more than I care to remember by those I’m supposed to be able to trust by birth. My sexuality is the only thing I know that makes me feel powerful. It’s intoxicating and habit forming: more than any type of alcohol I can drink or any pill I could take, more than any drug I could smoke. I never knew it would be like this. I never wanted it to be like this. That first taste of the high that was being wanted sent me careening over the edge. I thought I had control over it, but I couldn’t stop.
It’s only him that brings everything into focus for me. That gives me relief from my self-inflicted desires-that makes me feel something more than the numbness that spreads through me most days. He makes me feel alive! I blossom under his gaze, his words, his touch. Maybe he can guide me to be more than a shattered soul fumbling in the darkness toward a light I can never seem to find on my own. He can help me transcend my fucked up past and find a better future.
Sometimes, falling in love takes time, while other times, it comes at you like a freight train. Our love took time, years, but maybe it was denial that it wasn’t there all along. Maybe we didn’t see what was right in front of us, how we wasted so much time. Maybe we were too young to see it, until it was almost too late…I hate to think what would’ve happened if Matthew hadn’t come back into my life when he did…
CHAPTER 1Creak! Marissa Masterson pulled back from John Kramer’s embrace as one of their classmates from Chemistry gave them a nod before heading toward the vending machines in the back of the student lounge. Taking advantage of the interruption, she tried to turn their attention back to their homework. They’d been spending, at least, an hour after every Chemistry class in the small lounge beside the lab. The vending machines were the biggest draw of traffic to the room, but the study area and its couches under the soft fluorescent glow had been a second home to John and Marissa lately.
“So if you put a three in front of the H2, the equation is balanced. See?” Marissa leaned over the table, filling the three into the chemical equation.
“But how did you know that?” John asked, turning his body toward hers on the couch.
Click. They both heard the doors to the lounge close as the student walked out.
John lunged for Marissa. His lips on hers again, his hands in her copper hair, kissing her with every ounce of breath he seemed to have. Marissa returned his kisses, her fingers spread out on his neck.
Creak! They shot apart from each other again, as a new group of students walked in. This was becoming a pattern for the two of them, studying and making out in the student lounge, but she had no idea where it was all headed.
“How can you really not understand stoichiometry?” she asked him, smoothing down her hair as if the last three minutes hadn’t happened.
“Stoich-WHAT?” he laughed.
“It’s balancing chemical equations. Seriously, do you not pay any attention in class?”
“How can I? You’re sitting next to me,” he flirted.
“John, what are we doing?” Marissa looked into his deep blue eyes to show him she was serious. He took a deep breath and rolled his eyes.
“Studying chemistry. You are the chemistry major, shouldn’t you know what we are doing?” he asked, unable to keep the snark out of his voice. He was avoiding the subject at hand, again, and she wasn’t going to let him get out of it this time.
Marissa gave him a stern that’s-not-what-I-was-talking-about-and-you-know-it look.
John sighed, obviously resigned to finally talk about their weird trysts lately. “I don’t know. I mean, we’ve been friends for the better part of a decade, best friends, really, and now, it’s like if we are in a room by ourselves for longer than a minute, we’re like newlyweds,” he answered, his eyes closed. “It’s like we just noticed that we belong to opposite genders,” he chuckled.
“Not quite. We’re very PG-13. Maybe a couple of high school kids? But we aren’t in high school, anymore. Besides, you and I have always pushed the limits of friendship…”
John lunged for Marissa, again, but she put her hand out to stop him. He shot her an angry glance when her palm collided with his chest.
“I’m serious,” Marissa said.
“This didn’t matter that much last week, why do you want to know now?” John whined, yet sounded unexpectedly suspicious.
“I’m a girl. I want to know these things,” she tried to rationalize.
“No, something has changed. I know you, remember? Best friends?”
“First?” John let out a deep sigh, throwing his head back against the couch cushion in exasperation.
“First, yesterday, at the mall- When I picked out that skirt. You got really possessive and said you wouldn’t let me out in public in it, like it was your choice. Like I was yours.” Marissa said. Her baby blue eyes shifted from his down to her hands. John’s friendship had always been like her security blanket, but she didn’t want someone to treat her like she wasn’t in charge of the only parts of her life she did have control over.
“Okay? I’m not really understanding the issue here…and second?” John ran his fingers through his wavy brown hair.
“Matthew called,” Marissa said in a small voice and she felt John tense beside her.
“Oh. I see what this is now,” he replied, suddenly angry. Marissa cringed back and tried to resist cowering. Cowering at such a small sign of anger might bring about questions she wasn’t prepared to answer. She’d been hiding it her entire life, but now that she was over eighteen, she didn’t know why she was protecting him anymore.
“Do you? I’m asking if we are headed somewhere or are we just messing around?” she whispered.
John was silent, his head down in thought. Nervously, Marissa looked up from her hands to see his head shaking back and forth. Was he searching for the words?
“We’re just messing around, Marissa,” he said, resolved, but seemingly sad. “I mean, come on, you know I’m still in love with Ellen,” he cleared his throat, more calm than before. “I’m actually supposed to go and visit her in a couple of weeks,” he said so fast, she wasn’t sure she’d heard him right.
“Okay,” she breathed, not sure if she was hurt or relieved. Now was not the time to search for that kind of clarity. “He wanted me to come for a visit, but I didn’t want to pursue anything with him if this is something. He wants us to spend some time together before I leave for the military in May and he leaves for college next fall,” she paused to take in his shift in posture before continuing. “Last night, I don’t know, John, it was different. He played me this song that he said represented how he felt about how we left things last time…,” She paused again, and looked at John so that she could show him how torn she was about this decision, “I have had a blast with you these last few weeks, you know that, right?”
“I know, Marissa. I have, too. But this has always been just two friends helping each other out. No matter what, we’ll always be friends,” he said, earnestly, looking into her eyes again.
“O-kay,” Marissa conceded.
“What’s the song?” he seemed to be bracing himself for the worst.
“Speechless, by Fenix Tx. I’d never heard it before, but I couldn’t say no once he played it for me…”
“I haven’t heard it either,” he smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
“I’d never heard of the band, either, but I picked up their CD. I gotta say, even if he hadn’t said the song was us, I’m a fan now. They are pretty awesome. I’ll play it for you next time we hang out, but basically, he said there were things he should’ve said to me before, but didn’t. He wants to make it up to me,” Marissa shrugged.
“So when are you going? It’s been a year since you’ve seen Matthew, right?”
“Next weekend, I think. I want to go before Halloween-probably. I’m going to take the bus- maybe. I don’t think my parents would let me take my truck,” she slumped in the couch, picking at the burgundy threads on the cushions.
“It’s yours, isn’t it? And you are over eighteen, right? You weren’t some super genius that graduated high school at sixteen, right?” John laughed at her and what he thought was just about her overprotective parents.
“I’m eighteen,” she shoved him, acting out more than she should if she were trying to prove she was an adult, “but it’s the whole ‘our house, our rules’ crap,” Marissa sighed at the thought of what she could never tell him, then tried to smile, “You know how strict they are, it’s like I’m going to get pregnant from talking to a guy on the phone, seriously.”
“You mean you can’t get pregnant from talking on the phone? I’ve been trying it all wrong then” he tried to look shocked, but failed.
“Are you kidding? If that were actually possible, we’d have a litter by now, but apparently, that rule doesn’t apply to you with my parents. How do you appear so non-threatening to them?” She started to inspect him, tilting her head to one side, then the other, laughing.
“Like this,” he said, before finding her lips again. She leaned into his kiss, letting the familiar and safe feeling of it wash over her. It felt like it always did…nice.
“We really should get back to studying our chemistry.” Marissa pushed away.
“I thought we were?” John said, deviously, pulling him to her again.
“You realize you are never going to pass this class, right?” Marissa said before kissing him, not caring that someone had just walked into the lounge again. Rumors were already abound in their class that they were sleeping together, even if that wasn’t even close to being true. She’d left him stranded on second base more times than she was willing to admit.
“I know,” he answered, catching his breath. “Are you and Matthew getting back together, or is this just a visit?” he asked, serious again.
“Right now? It’s just a visit. I don’t know what he’s thinking about us. I’m sure there will be some kissing though. I mean, with only having another seven or eight months before I’m gone, I’m sure that’s part of why he wants to see me.”
“Do you think he’s still in love with you? More importantly, how do you feel about him?” John quizzed, finally getting to the questions she knew he’d been dying to ask since she’d brought up the topic.
“Why does this matter so much, suddenly? You knew we were sort of together off and on since last summer. And we don’t say I love you, you know that. I adore him and he adores me,” she said, holding up her left hand to wave the turquoise ring with a turtle on her middle finger. “I still wear the ring he gave me for our one week-iversary and it’s been nearly a year and a half.”
Click! John words turned more vicious the second the lounge was empty again.
“Is this because you are afraid to put yourself out there for someone closer? I mean, it’s easy to pretend to love someone who is too far away to be a real threat to your heart. Having a boyfriend that lives two hours away makes it okay to turn down people who are in danger of making you actually feel something more than your status quo,” John spat, then took a deep breath before changing course, “I mean, wouldn’t your parents be happy if you didn’t leave in May?”
“What the hell, John? I’m not afraid to date someone closer to me. I just don’t trust easily. I’ve put too much trust in some people and I’ve gotten burned. Plus, I think my parents are looking forward to me leaving as much as I’m looking forward to leaving.”
“You trust me, don’t you? What more do you need? Besides, although you don’t trust easily, you don’t seem to care who you give your body to. I mean, you may still, technically, be a virgin, but you are entirely too generous with your affection,” he sneered, implying what she already knew John’s friends thought of her. “Technically?! There is nothing technical about my virginity,” Marissa defended. “The aforementioned virginity shows that I’ve never given my body to anyone.”
“Beau? Or have you forgotten?” he sighed.
“I haven’t forgotten anything. That never happened.”
“Sure it didn’t, Marissa,” John rolled his eyes, not believing her protestations. It hurt that her best friend didn’t have faith in her, but expected her trust in return. The whole thing seemed a little lopsided.
“John,” she started, shifting so he had to look into her eyes, “have I ever let you touch me there?”
“No, but I just figured it was because you snapped your legs shut in response to the reputation that was created afterward,” he shrugged.
Marissa sighed, and put her forehead against his and placed her hands on either side of his face so he couldn’t escape the pain in her eyes, “I don’t let anyone touch me there, ever.”
John pulled away from her and started, “But Beau said-”
“I’m not going to sit here and listen to this much longer. You are supposed to be my friend here,” she pleaded. Creak. A small group of girls walked into the room loudly as John eyed Marissa warily.
“Fine. I’m just trying to help, but I see denial is where we are right now,” he sighed, not conceding her version of the events with Beau.
“I wouldn’t say that, but okay,” she said, accepting that maybe, this time, they needed to agree to disagree.
“You guys aren’t going to do the long-long distance thing, are you? After you leave?” John asked, apparently needing to get one last question in before letting the subject go.
“No,” she said, firmly, her blue eyes piercing daggers into his. “I adore Matthew, but we are both so young and we aren’t naïve to think this is it for either of us. We live without each other most of the time, so we know we could without it being too painful. We agreed that living two hours away was already hard enough and that once we left the state, regardless of what we might still feel for each other, we are free to see other people and get serious with them.”
“Are you free to do that now? Cause you’re still letting me kiss you?” John asked, finally, and thankfully changing the subject.
“I am until I see what this weekend has in store,” Marissa smiled, as John took the hint to move in again.
“You know that dad and I would prefer you to not go this weekend, right?” Marissa’s mom, Leandra, said, pulling her in for a hug.
“I know, mom, but I want to, I feel like I need to. I miss him,” Marissa swatted away her mom’s unruly curls of chocolate brown hair. “I mean, it’s been over a year since we’ve seen each other.”
“I know, and if you weren’t over eighteen, you wouldn’t be going. I’m afraid for you. I don’t want to see you give up your future, like I did. There is too much at stake,” Leandra pulled away from her daughter and looked at her warily with her green eyes. Aside from being similar in their medium height and hourglass build, Marissa and Leandra were as aesthetically different as mother and daughter could be. Where Leandra had shoulder blade length, curly black hair, an olive complexion and vibrant green eyes, Marissa’s natural hair color was a shoulder length dirty blonde that she dyed a brassy copper red that went perfectly with her lightly freckled pale skin and bright blue eyes.
“I’m not fifteen, mother,” Marissa spat at her mother, “I think I’ll be fine.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it.” The hurt in her mother’s eyes at her words was evident.
Marissa took a deep breath and went back to packing her bag for the weekend. “I’m not going to get pregnant,” she sighed, calling attention to the reason her mother was afraid in the first place.
“How do you know?” her mother hissed at her.
“Because we aren’t having sex, mother! You know I’m still a virgin and plan to stay that way for a little while longer.”
“Only a little while?” Leandra pried. “Why can’t you get together with John? Your dad loves him and they get along so well.”
“John and I are friends. I don’t get that warm and tingly feeling in my belly for him,” Marissa shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant about the lack of response her body had to romantic encounters with her best friend. “Sometimes that passion is overrated and can get you into trouble. Stability is more important than feelings, honey, remember that. Your dad and I, we had this unseen connection. I could feel his presence before I even knew we were in the same room together. We had this passion that flowed through us like lightning that sizzled and popped…now look at us.”
“MARISSA LYNN MASTERSON! GET YOUR ASS IN HERE RIGHT NOW!” They both jumped at her father’s voice from the living room. His demands would not be ignored when they came out at that volume. Leaving them to scramble out of the bedroom to see what he was upset about.
“Hey, dad,” Marissa tried to seem unaffected by the anger should could feel permeating the room as she made her way into the living room.
“You aren’t going to visit Matthew this weekend. That kitchen is disgusting and look at this floor!” he roared, pointing to the living room carpet.
“I’m not leaving for another couple of hours,” she tried to rationalize. “I planned to finish the kitchen before then, but the living room is Jared’s job,” she said, but even as the words left her mouth, she knew she’d made a mistake. Her eyes darted around the cavernous living room, taking a mental assessment of what needed to be cleaned because she knew it would fall on her shoulders for sure now that she’d tried to pass it off.
“I don’t care if it’s Jared’s job. It didn’t get done. You’re the oldest, so you need to make sure it gets done, even if you have to do it yourself!” the volume of her father’s voice grew louder with each word until it echoed through the house.
Marissa took a deep breath and tried to blink back the tears that were stinging her eyes. Tears were her power, and she didn’t want to cede control to him again. She was always too weak when it came time to stand up to him. Marissa tried to release the breath she’d been holding slowly so that could fight the tears, but it came out in an unintended huff.
“What was that?” her dad asked, now uncharacteristically calm.
“Nothing, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it, I promise” she tried to apologize quickly, but he was already in her face. He pushed her back against the wall in the hallway she’d unconsciously backed into, his hazel eyes burned red with his anger. Even though it all happened within seconds and before she could react, this always felt like it occurred in slow motion. It was even crueler that ways to stop him played in a continual loop in her head until his hands made contact with their target. This time, though, he decided to start with intimidation. And finally, because there was no escape, the tears she’d been holding back cascaded down her face.
“Don’t you dare pull that attitude with me, you aren’t too old for me to punish!” he reminded her as his sharp finger stabbed her at the top of her breast bone hard, making her wish it were possible to just disappear into the wall. She winced at the sharp pain on her sternum as he continued to push her harder, until her head bounced against the plastered wall behind her in emphasis of his words and threats. “Why do you have to be so stupid all the time, Marissa? What do I have to do to beat this lesson into you once and for all?” he asked, jamming two fingers against her forehead a final time.
“I know, dad, I’m sorry” she whimpered, trying to stop the tears from flowing, but only succeeding in making her words come out in gasps between sobs, “I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, I promise. I’ll get everything done before I go. It won’t happen again.” She held her arms up in submission. This was enough for him to back off, but as he walked away, but her pride wouldn’t let her forget to add: “But after the house is clean, I am going to go.” She heard him growl, but he didn’t look at her as he stalked to his chair and sat down. She stood a little bit taller that he hadn’t said no outright, wiped the tears from her face, and headed toward the kitchen.
“As long as it’s done,” he growled in agreement, “but you aren’t taking that truck. And you need to stop crying this instant, it’s ridiculous. You are going to visit your friend; you have no reason to cry. Crying is for the weak, Marissa.”
‘He just couldn’t resist one more jab to make sure I knew he was still in charge,’ she thought, swallowing the lump in her throat. Marissa wished more than anything that she made more than five dollars and fifty cents an hour at the ice cream parlor so she could move out, but her weekly paychecks only allowed her to pay for school and her truck. She felt helpless to get out of what she knew was a bad situation that was only getting worse as he felt his control over his daughter slipping away from him. She wished she could find just one thing in her life that she really had control over, something that wasn’t just an illusion.
An hour later, Marissa finally put the last dish in the dishwasher and started it up. She turned to take one last look at the now, spotless kitchen, before double checking that the living room was in order, too.
“Alright, mom, I’m off to the bus station!” she yelled as she grabbed her overnight bag from the foyer.
“Wait a minute, Marissa!” her mom said, scurrying from her bedroom and picking up her purse and keys. “Dad wants me to drop you off at the bus station so he knows you didn’t take your truck.”
“Really?! Like I have seventy dollars to waste on a bus ticket just to turn around and pay for gas in my truck?” Marissa growled but followed her mother to her car, grateful that her dad had left to go to the shooting range after his earlier tirade.
“I know, honey, but that’s just the way he is. You’d be much happier if you didn’t try to fight him and provoke him all the time,” her mom tried to soothe her with platitudes about how her dad loves her, but is just protective. Her mother’s words from earlier started swimming in her head:
‘Passion like lightning…’ Maybe she’d be able to gain her independence and control over her life if she never allowed herself to succumb to any sort of passion. Someone who might elicit that type of weak kneed response from her could only ever treat her the same way her father did. She didn’t trust herself to find someone who might have respect for her, because she wasn’t sure she was the type of girl a nice, normal guy could ever love. She was damaged, broken, afraid. She knew it, and she wanted more than anything to protect the last sliver of herself buried deep inside.
“I know how he is, mom, but I’m a legal adult and he still treats me like I’m in the sixth grade. And not in a ‘you’ll always be my little girl’ way,” Marissa choked back her tears as she thought about her new mantra: Love, but never fall in love. The bricks were already stacked around her heart, but she began to add steel and barbed wire so that she could keep everyone out. She knew keeping her heart protected was the only way to be more than just a scared housewife. Marissa didn’t want to be like her mother, too afraid to be her own person, too afraid to do anything but disappear into someone else’s shadow. After she finally made it out of her parents house in May, he’d never be able to touch her again, and then she could learn to be strong.
Her mom didn’t say anything when they pulled up outside of the bus station; instead she just looked at Marissa with a pained expression that she couldn’t place.
“Mom, you don’t need to worry, I’ll call you as soon as we get to Matthew’s house. I promise. I hope dad isn’t too hard on you this weekend, and I’m sorry if my leaving for forty-eight hours causes any problems,” Marissa reasoned, softly, feeling guilty for leaving her mom after her dad had been so angry over a few extra magazines on the coffee table that afternoon.
“Just be careful,” her mom looked down at her hands before turning to hug Marissa across the center console. “I will,” Marissa answered, breaking the hug and picking up her bag and tickets before leaving the car to catch her bus and a moment of freedom.
The dirty fall air assaulted Marissa as she stepped off the bus in Benson two and a half hours later. She scanned the parking lot, trying to spot him. Matthew’s spiked, bleach blonde hair stuck out from the crowd, as did his six foot stature. Relief flooded through her as she began to relax for the first time since she left her mom at the bus station.
“So this is downtown Benson?” Marissa asked, forcing herself to sound cheerful, when she felt anything but. “Looks a lot like downtown Apache Junction.”
“Blink and you’ll miss it!” he laughed, taking her bag and pulling her in for a hug.
“What’s the plan for this weekend?” Marissa pulled back from his embrace, finally feeling grateful to be here.
“To be spontaneous!” he answered, lacing his fingers through hers and pulling her towards his light brown Toyota hatchback.
“Okay, she said as he opened her door for her.
“First, we are headed to the cemetery,” he said, sliding into the drivers’ seat.
“Okay?” she replied, now confused about their destination. He was joking, wasn’t he?
“It’s the only place to kind of be alone with you, where I know we won’t run into Kristy,” he explained. “This is a very small town, after all.”
“Okay.” Marissa stiffened at the mention of Kristy’s name. She was the girl back home that Matthew was dating when they’d met the previous summer during a science program they’d attended.
“She really doesn’t want to kick your ass, I promise. She’s moved on. Finally!”
“Okay,” Marissa said, giving him a doubtful glance. Marissa was all bony arms and legs, with no muscle. Even though she was curvy, she had no power behind her frame. Kristy could take her, easily.
“Is that all you are going to say?” Matthew chuckled. “Maybe I should take advantage.”
“Okay!” Marissa joked, as Matthew turned into the cemetery. “So if she doesn’t want to kill me for my thievery, why do we need to hide with the dead?” she asked, changing the direction of the conversation back to Kristy.
“We don’t, but there is something I want to show you.”
Taking her hand, he led her up a hill to a Palo Verde tree in the middle of the cemetery.
“See?” He moved his hands as if they were at some sort of spectacular grand opening.
“Wow! It’s really beautiful,” she said, noting the silence before adding, “and peaceful.” She took in the view of the mountains in the distance, and the crystal clear blue sky above them. “I can see why people want to be buried here.”
As she looked around, in awe, she felt his arms circling around her waist and joining behind her back, pulling her focus back to look into his soft brown eyes. Slowly, his lips descended toward hers, and she met him in the middle. He kissed her softly on the lips, like he was afraid she might decide to push him away. Involuntarily, she let out a soft moan as her body shivered against his touch, causing her to deepen the kiss. Absently, she thought about how John’s kisses didn’t make her feel like this on her best day. She started to wonder why, but this kiss with Matthew wiped away everything that had happened before she got on that bus. Love, but never fall in love, Marissa repeated in her head, knowing it wasn’t necessary with Matthew, but it felt good, nonetheless.
“God, I missed you,” she pulled away, breathless, leaning her forehead against his.
“I adore you, Marissa,” he whispered back.
“Ditto,” Marissa smiled at their personal words of endearment.
“Alright,” he started, grabbing her hand. “Shall I give you a tour of this tiny town or should we just find the nearest bedroom?” he asked, sounding completely serious about the offer he’d just put on the table.
“How about a tour of your town? We’ve only just reconnected, let’s take things slow,” she said, looking down, shyly. “A tour, it is then!” he said, grabbing her hand and yanking her back to the car.
After their reunion, the rest of the weekend was a whirlwind of reconnecting and romance, unparalleled by Marissa up until this point. Sometimes, she thought she would wake up and it would’ve been a dream. Marissa didn’t want to think about what welcome she’d have to endure at the end of the weekend. She also knew wanted to be closer to Matthew, regardless of what she’d told her mother about waiting. They’d have to be careful though, because she absolutely didn’t want to end up like her mom, stuck in a relationship with someone like her dad because she got pregnant. The thought, alone, made her stomach twist in agony. Her future was dependent on getting out of her parents’ house, and being stupid with Matthew could ruin the freedom she had planned. A future outside of her family wasn’t something she was willing to risk. EVER.