“Why are you here, Christian?” I ask, wondering how much I should read into his choice to come, maybe she cancelled on him.
“For you,” He answers, and I narrow my eyes suspiciously.
“So it’s over between you and Mrs. Lincoln? You ended it?”
His mouth tightens and I watch him inhale slowly and deeply as if he has to prepare himself for what he’s about to say.
“It’s over,” He says. “I’m out.”
“I thought you said you couldn’t leave her until the spring?”
“You said you wouldn’t wait,” He says. “I’m not going to watch you fall for Carter Reed.”
Oh shit, Carter.
“He’s still my boyfriend, Christian,” I say, automatically scanning the room for any sign of Carter, but I still don’t see him.
“It’s early,” He says defiantly. “And a much more even fight this way.”
He holds his hand out towards me, urging me, again, to take it.
“Dance with me, Ana,” He says and it sounds more like a command than a request.
I look around the crowded room for Kate returning from the bathroom. I’m still holding her drink and I still haven’t forgotten the last time I held a drink and Jose asked me to dance. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that humiliating moment toweling him off in the kitchen.
“I’m not much of a dancer,” I admit, turning my attention back to Christian. “We should go outside and talk.” He nods and motions for me to lead the way.
I feel his fingertips brush lightly across my lower back as we walk through the crowd and each touch sends an electric pulse through me. What am I doing? At any minute, my boyfriend could emerge through the crowd. I can’t be seen alone with Christian after my kiss confession, and I can’t allow his touch to have this effect on me anymore. We made rules. No kissing anyone but Carter Reed. I repeat the words over and over in my mind, hoping my resolution will strengthen with repetition.
“Ana!” I hear Kate yell through the crowd, and I turn to see her wading her way through the hoard towards me. She sees Christian and her expression changes with her surprise.
“Oh hi, Christian. I didn’t think you were coming,” She says, looking between the two of us. Her eyes stop as she sees his hand resting on my back and I watch the corner of her lips twitch.
“I just found Carter,” She continues. “He’s playing beer pong in the kitchen. He wanted me to ask you if you wanted to come be his partner.”
“Umm…” I stammer looking back at Christian whose eyes have gone cold at the mention of Carter. Oh great. What am I supposed to do now? I can’t exactly leave Christian, he doesn’t know anyone here. On the other hand, Carter is my boyfriend and it would be wrong, even cruel of me to choose another guy over him, especially in front of his friends. The whole situation just makes me want to leave the party and not deal with any of it. Hmm… maybe that’s not a bad idea, not choosing a side. It’s a neutral compromise. Besides, this party is a little too crowded for my liking anyway and I could use the extra sleep tonight since I’ll be studying for midterms all next week.
“I’m actually not feeling in the party mood tonight,” I tell Kate. “I think I’m gonna head home.”
“Are you sure?” she asks, looking suspiciously at Christian.
“Yeah, do you wanna go?”
Kate shakes her head.
“No, if you want to leave I’ll hang out and play beer pong with Carter. Can you get home okay by yourself?”
“I’ll take her,” Christian says, and again Kate’s eyes narrow. She reaches forward and pulls him close to whisper in his ear and I don’t know what she says but when she releases him, Christian rolls his eyes.
“Ana, can I talk to you alone for a sec?” Kate asks. I nod and turn to Christian, holding up a finger to let him know I’ll be ready to leave in a minute.
“What are you doing, Ana?” Kate asks when we’re out of earshot of Christian. “Your boyfriend is over there waiting for you and you’re going to leave the party with another guy?”
“We’re friends, Kate. That’s all. Nothing is going to happen. You’re welcome to come if you want and so is Carter.”
She looks worried and I think she might say something but she just nods.
“Be safe. Call me if you need me,” She says and I hug her.
“Have fun!” I say with a wave and then I disappear into the crowd of dancers behind me. Christian grasps my hand and leads me through the throng of people and I’m grateful for the cool, clean air that fills my lungs when we get outside. Frat houses smell like stale beer and pee.
I follow Christian down the stairs and up the street a little ways until he pulls out his keys and points the key fob at the car parked on the other side of the street. Christian gets into the car before I do and when I slide into the sleek leather interior, he turns on the car and I’m surrounded by a sound a lone woman singing in latin to a mournful orchestral piece. It’s beautiful but dark and I turn to look at Christian, curiously. Surely this is an odd choice of music for a 19 year old college student.
He reaches over to turn the stereo down just as he pulls out of his parking spot.
“That’s nice,” I say. “What is it?”
“Dvorak’s Requiem,” He says.
A requiem, that’s a little morbid for driving music, isn’t it? I look out the back window as we pull onto the street and notice a gym bag and a small carry on size suitcase in the back seat.
“You packed?” I ask him.
“Yes,” He responds quietly.
“You were going to go? You were going to meet her?” I accuse him, and he refuses to look at me.
“I thought I was,” He admits. “But I hadn’t even gotten off campus before I realized that I was driving to you.”
I look down at my hands, which are folded in my lap, and smile, pleased with the thought that Christian was driving to meet me. I immediately feel guilty however as I remember Carter back at the party playing beer pong with my best friend. Is Kate right? Is this wrong?
My worries are diverted by Christian’s ringtone and I watch him pull the phone out of his pocket, reject the call and set the phone in one of the cup holders in the center console. I’m wondering why this Mrs. Lincoln doesn’t seem to be able to take no for an answer when the phone buzzes again and I look at the notification on the screen which says: 19 New Voicemails.
“You didn’t tell her you weren’t coming?” I ask harshly. It’s not as if I pity her for sitting alone in a hotel room where she was waiting to prey on a man half her age, but why wouldn’t he tell her it was over between them? Is it so he can change his mind later?
“No I haven’t spoken to her,” Christian says. “It will be better, easier, to speak with her when she’s back in Seattle.”
“Easier? What are you going to break up with her over a text message?”
“No. But telling her in person right now will be counter productive. She isn’t going to be happy.”
“So? Breakups are hard and she’s a grown woman. What are you afraid she’s going to hit you or something?”
He doesn’t answer but I see a muscle in his jaw twitch and I feel as though a bucket of ice water has been poured over me.
“You’re afraid she’s going to hit you,” I say, and it’s an accusation rather than a question. Again, he doesn’t respond and his silence is all the affirmation I need.
“Oh my god,” I say. “Christian, if she’s abusing you, you need to talk to-.”
“It’s not like that,” He says sternly.
“What do you mean? What’s it like?” I ask but he shakes his head.
“I don’t want to talk about this with you, Anastasia,” He says firmly but I refuse to be dismissed.
“No, Christian, this isn’t okay and this isn’t like, gray area not okay. If she’s hurting you, she needs to be reported to the authorities.”
“It’s not like that,” He says again. “Just… trust me, okay? I don’t want to talk about it, but it’s not what you think it is.”
I frown, unconvinced by his reassurance. The image of him playing the piano in the main lobby of Gray’s hall all those weeks ago flashes across my mind. He had gone to see her that weekend, and when I saw him there, alone in the dark, his face had been red. I had wondered if he had been in a fight. Was that her?
I don’t know what to do. I feel like this is one of those situations that they tell you about when you’re a kid, like one of those bad after school specials. I’m supposed to tell someone… but Christian isn’t a kid and from what Elliot said he comes from a loving family, surely he knows what abuse is?
The memory of Elliot telling me about Christian’s past in the diner comes back to me. When they found Christian he was showing signs of neglect and physical abuse.
Oh no. No. No. No. I sit there feeling as though I’m drowning in helplessness as I really don’t know what to do. Who can I talk to? Kate will tell Elliot and Elliot will tell their mother and if it really is nothing, if I’m wrong it could be damaging to their family on a real level.
Christian’s phone rings again and I glare at the phone in the console, wanting desperately to answer it and give the bitch troll a piece of my mind. Bitch Troll? Hmm, I like it. I think it fits her nicely.
Christian reaches over and ignores the call again and I find that it makes me glad. I don’t want him to tell her it’s over in person. I don’t want him to speak to her at all. I want her to stay as far away from him as possible.
“What is it, Anastasia?”Christian asks, and I can hear irritation in his voice but I don’t know if it’s with me or with the buzzing sound of voicemail #20 coming through.
“You’re okay, right Christian? I mean, I’m not going to regret not telling anyone about…”
“It’s fine,” He says exasperatedly. “I’ve already told you, Anastasia, it’s not what you think. My relationship with Elena is complicated that’s all. There are just somethings that will be easier for us both to rationalize if I leave time for emotions to calm down.”
I nod uncertainly but decide if he’s ending it with Mrs. Lincoln, there really shouldn’t be any reason for me to be concerned.
He pulls into the parking lot outside of the dorms and as we get out of the car I can hear the phone ring again.
“Jesus, why don’t you just turn it off?” I snap.
“That’s you,” He says flatly, and I jump as I realize he’s right and begin frantically searching through my jacket pockets for my phone.
“Ana, where’d you go? Kate said you weren’t feeling good?” Carter asks concerned.
“Oh hey, no I’m fine. I’m just tired. How’s your game going?”
“Great. Kate’s got one hell of an arm on her.” I smile as I can almost hear him smiling through the phone.
“She’s had lots of practice,” I say with a laugh.
“We’re up again,” Carter says hurriedly. “If you’re alright then I’ll talk to you tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” I assure him. We say goodbye and I hang up the phone.
Christian doesn’t say anything but it’s as if his already bad mood has soured even further. He pulls out his bag and suitcase from the backseat of the Audi and we walk up the path to Grays.
“Do you want to have breakfast together in the morning?” He asks when we reach our respective rooms.
“Yeah, sure,” I say and he smiles and pulls me into a one armed hug. I breathe in his scent, the intoxicating mix of spicy body wash and Christian Grey and I feel a warm sense of comfort wash over me like coming home after a long, weary day.
“Goodnight, Anastasia,” He says, kissing the top of my hair.
“Goodnight, Christian,” I reply, and we leave the hall and close our doors behind us.
I spend the next day avoiding Kate as much as possible. When she got home after the party, I pretended to be asleep and then I left too early for my first class so that I could sneak out while she was at the gym the next morning. She texted me to meet her for lunch but I told her I had to meet a professor to discuss a paper I’d gotten back. In reality, I’m just not ready to face her questions about Christian yet.
When I leave my last class, I’m looking through my ipod for the perfect song to clear my head while I make the walk back to Gray’s. I’m surprised, however, to see Carter standing outside the class waiting for me.
“Hey, babe,” He says with a smile. I smile too as I pull my earbuds out.
“Hey, what a pleasant surprise. What’s up?”
“What are you doing right now?” He asks, and I look at him suspiciously.
“I was thinking about taking a nap,” I admit. “And then probably spending the rest of the night in the library studying.”
“Go without the nap,” He says. “Come on.”
He grabs my hand and pulls me down the hall of the English department after him and I giggle with anticipation. He leads me out to the parking lot where he takes my bag from me and places it in the backseat of his Mazda and then opens the passenger door for me.
“Where are we going?” I ask, and he looks at me deviously.
“It’s a surprise,” He says, and he motions for me to get into the car. He closes the door behind me and then climbs in the driver’s seat. An hour later, we pull up a dirt road into a farm with an apple orchard behind a scenic red barn. I smile as he climbs out of the car, takes my hand, and leads me to the farmhouse where he pays for a large wooden basket for us to collect apples in. We spend the afternoon walking through the fragrant trees, picking apples and talking.
I can hardly believe he thought of a date so perfect. When I was little, Ray used to drive me to an apple orchard outside of Montesano every fall and we’d pick apples to make into homemade applesauce that we’d can and have all winter. My mom hated being outside in the orchard climbing up and down ladders all day so it was always something that Ray and I did, just the two of us.
It’s been difficult, every time I’ve thought of Ray since he was deployed. I got a call from him just before he left the base in Texas but nothing, no phone calls or letters, since he’s left for Iraq. I try and write to him every chance I get even if it’s just to remind him how much I love him, but I’ve had no responses. I know he’s busy but I hate worrying about him. The distance is the hardest part of all and being here, smelling the apples in the sun of late autumn makes me feel closer to him than I have since I’ve been to school.
Carter is the perfect gentleman. He helps me up and down the ladders and carries the bucket as we walk from tree to tree. When we’ve picked all the apples our basket can hold, he takes my hand and we walk through the field of tall barley adjacent to the apple orchard. We talk about everything: our families, favorite childhood memories, and books. We have to agree to disagree on preferences between American and British Literature but after a long indepth discussion that gets rather heated at times, we both agree that Fitzgerald was without question one of the most transformative authors of the 19th century, and he picks me up and swings me around with joy at my admission. I giggle joyously as he sets me down in the long yellow stalks and he looks down at me adoringly. He hesitates for a moment and then leans in and kisses me. It takes me by surprise because the kiss is firm, yet soft. His tongue gently caresses my bottom lip and it sends a shiver of pleasure through me. When he stops the kiss, I’m left breathless and wondering where that came from.
Gently, he leans his forehead against mine and our noses touch.
“Better?” He asks quietly and I pull my head away, confused by his question. Oh no.. how does he know? Is he okay? Crap.
“Relax,” He says with a soft laugh. “Kate and I talked for a while last night and she told me…”
“Kate!” I hiss venomously. I’ll get her back for this.
“It’s okay, Ana,” He assures me. “But why didn’t you say anything?”
“I didn’t know how…” I admit bashfully.
“Look,” He says hesitantly. “I’m new at this. I’ve never actually had a girlfriend before and after talking with Kate maybe the kissing thing was why. I might not be good at this so I need you to be honest with me.”
“I’m new at this too,” I admit, and he smiles at me.
“Then we’ll learn together,” He wraps me in a hug again and then takes me by the hand and leads me back through the field.
“She didn’t like, kiss you right?” I ask, embarrassed. “To show you how to I mean…”
“No, I spent hours last night reading tips on the internet,” He admits with a laugh and as I too begin to laugh he pushes me playfully and then brings me under his arm, holding me close to him as we walk back to the car.
“Goodnight, baby.” He says softly once we’re standing outside of the main doors to Grays.
“Goodnight, Carter.” I say and he leans down, kissing me softly. I smile as our lips part, so happy we’ve made it over this hurdle. I watch him walk away and I feel like twirling I’m so giddy. It’s been a perfect afternoon. I was right to try with Carter.
I struggle to make it through the door as my apple basket is a little awkward but when I make it into the main lobby, I see Christian sitting at a table in the sitting room with Ros.
“Anastasia!” He calls out, getting up from the couch and walking over to where I’m waiting at the bottom of the stairs.
“Hey, Christian,” I say and he looks down at the basket in my hands curiously.
“What is that?” He asks.
“Fresh picked apples,” I say, reaching into the basket and pulling an apple out for him. “Want one?”
He takes it and smiles down at me. I’m happy to see him smile, he seems much happier today than I have seen him for awhile and I wonder what the reason behind the change is.
“Do you want to study for our British Literature midterm tomorrow night? 6 o’clock in the library?”
“Sure,” I say and then look over his shoulder. “Hi, Ros!”
“Hi, Ana!” She replies brightly with a wave. I smile at her and then turn my attention back to Christian.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” He affirms and he watches me as I climb the stairs.
“What are we supposed to do with all of these?” Kate asks as I put the basket of apples on top of the dresser.
“An apple a day…” I say brightly and she rolls her eyes.
“How was your date with Carter?” She asks, a little too smugly. My mood falters slightly as I remember the conversation Carter and I had on our walk.
“Why would you tell him what I told you about the kissing thing?” I demand.
“You weren’t going to say anything,” She says.
“Yeah, Kate!” I say, as if the reason I wasn’t going to and why she should have is something obvious that she’s just not seeing.
“I was nice!” Kate protests. “He was worried about you and Christian and frankly… so was I. I was just trying to help and he appreciated it.”
I want to argue but I guess she’s right. Carter didn’t seem angry or upset about it and it really did help.
“Just, in the future, don’t.” I say and she shrugs.
“What is going on between you and Christian anyway?” She asks. “And don’t give me that we’re just friends crap. I see the way he looks at you Ana.”
“It’s complicated,” I say, and she looks expectantly as if she’s waiting for an explanation.
“Oh, Kate. I don’t know what I want to do,” I say, feeling as though I’m finally able to vent my frustrations over Christian. “I really like Christian, more than I should I think, but Carter is wonderful too. We just had the most amazing time and he was so thoughtful and sweet. It’s easy with him and Christian is… difficult.”
“There’s just more that has to be worked out with Christian and he really doesn’t like Carter. It makes being friends challenging.”
“Just be careful,” She warns. “I don’t want to see you getting hurt.”
The next day, Carter texts me and asks if I want to meet him for lunch. I tell him Kate and I are having lunch in Annenberg and he should meet us there. When I get to the dining hall, I get a text from Kate telling me that she has to run back to our dorm before heading over for lunch so I find Carter and we fill our plates together and find a place to sit in the crowded hall. He tells me about the brutal lecture he just had and I sympathize with him as he tells me the struggles he’s having getting prepared for the midterm in his most difficult class.
“I might be MIA, a little.” He admits after telling me about all the extra studying he’s going to have to do.
“That’s fine, I’ll be busy. Just text me and let me know how you’re doing.”
“I will,” He says and then he looks up over my shoulder and nods. I turn and see Kate coming up the center aisle towards us.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” She says, sitting next to me. “I got the mail though and there was a letter for you from Ray, Ana.”
Kate reaches into her bag and pulls out a crinkled letter addressed to me in Ray’s handwriting. I take if from her excitedly and rip it open, happy for finally hear from him.
“Who’s Ray?” Carter asks as I begin reading through the letter.
“Her stepdad,” Kate answers through a mouthful of food. “He’s in Iraq.”
“Oh that’s right, I think she told me about him yesterday.” He says, though I can barely hear him. My hands start to shake as I read the words my father has written to me. A week ago, he and his squad were out on a patrol when the vehicle in front of them rolled over a buried IED. The vehicle was blasted into the air and rolled over seven times before finally coming to rest. Ray and the rest of his men dug through the burning wreckage for their fellow soldiers but none of them survived.
“Ana, what’s wrong?” Kate asks in a panic. My breathing has become shallow as terror grips me. I think I’m about to hyperventilate.
“The-There was an accident,” I say breathlessly.
“What!” Kate gasps in panic and I hold the letter out for her. “Oh my god, Ana!”
She wraps her arm around me as Carter takes the letter and reads through Ray’s description of what happened.
“Ana, baby. He’s fine,” Carter says, dismissively. I think he’s trying to play it off as not being a big deal to calm me down but his cavalier attitude deepens the ache in the pit of my stomach and I feel as though I’m about to burst into hysterics.
“Ana, he’s okay,” Carter says again, reaching over to rub my back. “He just had a scare but stuff like this happens all the time.”
Kate reaches out and pulls me into a hug and glares at Carter.
“Uh… I’ve got to get to class. Are you going to be okay, babe?”
I nod slowly as Kate releases me but to be honest I think I’m in shock. I watch Carter leave and then look down at my cell phone. I also need to get up and leave for British Literature.
“I’m going to be late,” I say softly and Kate looks at me, concerned.
“Are you sure, Ana.”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I say, fighting off tears. I pick up my bag and the letter and quickly get up from the table and rush out of the dining hall. The truth is, I’m not okay. Not by a long shot. I’m not going to make it to British Literature, I’m not even sure I’m going to make it back to my dorm. I rush as quickly as I can up the path to Grays and feel heavy, wet tears begin pouring down my face as I burst into my room and slam the door behind me. I collapse on my bed and cry into my pillow, sobbing so hard I have trouble breathing.
I don’t know how long I lay there crying but it doesn’t stop and eventually I hear a knock on the door.
“Anastasia?” Christian’s concerned voice comes through the door. I can’t respond to him. I can’t speak. All I can do is cry as anxiety and panic overrun me. I hear the creak of the door as it opens.
“Oh god, Anastasia.” Christian says, almost scared. I hear him shut the door and then the bed depresses with his weight as he sits next to me. He lifts me from my pillow and pulls me into his chest.
“What’s wrong?” He asks softly, brushing his fingers through my hair as I ruin his most likely expensive shirt with my tears. I can’t answer him so I just reach for the letter and hand it to him before collapsing into him again and bawling once more. He reads as I try and control myself.
“Oh my god, Ana!” He gasps horrified, setting the letter down and holding me tightly. I breathe in his scent deeply and it does seem to have a calming effect on me.
“He c-c-could h-a-ve been in the…” I try to say but my ragged breathing cuts off my words as I once again burst into tears.
“I know, baby,” He says gently. “But he wasn’t. He’s fine. He’s going to be okay.”
He adjusts me so that I’m laying down again and then he lies next to me, holding me while I cry. The endless tears are exhausting and I don’t know how long I lie there bawling in his arms before eventually I cry myself to sleep.