Chapter 3: Darkness On The Edge Of Town
The sun shone in through the worn curtains, filling the room with warmth. John woke and it took him a moment to realise he wasn't still dreaming. He was laying on his back, naked, with an equally naked Jessica tucked into his side, her head resting on his chest. He stroked her hair and kissed her head gently, wanting to savour this moment before she woke up and told him it had all been a big mistake.
But the moment was interrupted by a loud banging on the front door. Jessica woke up with a jolt and met John's gaze with a look of panic. There was another loud thump on the door and then they listened as John's mom opened it.
"Where is he? The little shit!" A deep voice rang out.
"That's my dad." Jessica whispered. John put his finger on his lips to tell her to be quiet and he pulled her in closer.
"What's going on? Who on Earth are you?" John's mom could be heard to say, but there was also a slamming of the front door against the wall as he barged through and the stomping of heavy feet as he stormed up the stairs.
Jessica stared at John in panic. He leapt up and grabbed her clothes tossing them under the bed and holding the rumpled sheets aside so she could hide under too. As she disappeared, he snatched up his clothes and had just enough time to pull his boxers and jeans on before the door was slammed open so hard that the knob put a hole in the drywall. John froze, his jeans hanging off his slim hips, in the process of doing up his belt, and was met by the angry red face of Jessica's father.
Brad Matherson was a burly man who ran the lumber yard on the outskirts of town. He was muscular, with the broad chest and meaty hands of a man who'd once been used to lugging heavy logs all day. He was tall, but even at fifteen John was a couple of inches taller. The slight teen knew that his height wouldn't be enough to help him here though, the fact that Matherson was having to look up at him was just making the man angrier.
"Where is she?" The man snarled, reaching out and grabbing John around the neck, managing to lift John up so he was on tiptoe, scrabbling for purchase.
"I don't know!" John gasped out. The man's hand was tight around his neck and squeezing enough to cut off the air supply. "I haven't seen her since school!"
John's mum appeared in the doorway, a horrified expression on her face. "Get off him!" She screamed and lunged forward. She grabbed his arm and tried to pull him off. Jessica's dad grabbed the petite woman and swung a punch, catching her in the eye and causing her to stagger back against the doorframe.
At the sight of his mother being punched, John saw red. He swung his fist but the man's face was just out of reach, so he kicked him instead, aiming for his knee and causing it to give way. Matherson flung John down onto his bed with a snarl and threw a punch at his face. John twisted and ducked out of the way, but Matherson snatched him up and slammed him face first into the wooden headboard. The edge of the wood caught John's eyebrow and split the skin, causing a rush of blood down his face.
Matherson had him pinned to the bed and was drawing back his fist for another hit when Jessica scrambled out from under the bed, fully clothed and yelled, "Daddy stop!"
"You little whore!" The man accused nastily. He lunged for her but John grabbed him and held him back. He received a sharp elbow to the face but refused to release his grip.
"Get out of my house!" Maggie Feris' voice was cold and it made everyone freeze and look at her. She'd run from the room and now she was back, holding one of John's dad's old revolvers. John had never even seen it before, but as she pulled the hammer back, her hand didn't even shake.
Matherson glared at her but obviously knew when to concede defeat. He stood up and John released his grip on him. "Come on Jess, lets go!" He ordered.
Jessica moved meekly to go with him but Maggie shook her head. "No, she's welcome here as long as she likes. And I'm not letting her go with you until I know you've calmed down."
Jessica glanced at John and he grabbed her hand, giving her the strength to stay. When she stood her ground, her father huffed and then walked out. Maggie followed him down the stairs, still pointing the gun at him, to ensure he didn't change his mind. John and Jessica stayed frozen, holding hands until they heard the door slam and then his truck start up and pull away.
They both let out a breath they didn't know they'd been holding, and John pulled Jessica into a hug. John's mum then came back up the stairs and John snaked an arm out and wrapped her into a hug too. All three of them stood together trembling with fear and anger and adrenaline, while they calmed their racing hearts.
"I'm so sorry." Jessica said shakily.
"Are you okay Mom?" John asked inspecting the darkening bruise round her left eye.
"I'll be fine." She assured. "But John, you're a mess. Come on, let's get you cleaned up." She took her son by the hand and started to lead him down to the kitchen. When she noticed Jessica stayed still she turned to her and smiled, "Jessica is it? Come on, let me get John fixed up and I'll make us some breakfast."
Maggie sat them both down at the kitchen table and chatted away as though nothing had happened. John watched his mom in quiet awe as she talked to Jessica as though John had brought her over for dinner, making the frightened and embarrassed girl feel at ease. All the while she went about getting the first aid kit out and cleaning the blood from John's face and chest. She finished her ministrations with an old trick that Conor had picked up in the army, superglue. She had John hold the cut on his brow shut while she applied a thin layer of the viscous liquid and waited as it set. It wasn't the first time she'd had to piece her son back together, there had been numerous accidents and fights over the years and the glue was a lot cheaper than stitches at the hospital. John was used to her patching him up, but he'd never thought he'd see her aim a gun and stare down a huge rage-filled man.
"Your mom is amazing." Jessica whispered across the table, as the woman tidied away the kit and set about making pancakes.
John just smiled at her back and nodded. His face and neck throbbed and were starting to swell, and yet he felt luckier than he'd ever felt in his life.
By the time Monday came, the whole town knew what had happened with Billy, but they assumed that the cut to John's eye and the obvious purple handprint around his neck had been Aaron's doing. John tried to ignore the stares he got, especially when Jessica came up to him in the halls and kissed him on the cheek. They'd spent all weekend together but as Sunday rolled around, she'd gone back home. John hadn't slept all night because he'd been worried about her, but she seemed to be fine. John had thought it best to stay away from Jessica for her sake, after all people were already gossiping about her involvement in Friday's tragedy, but she obviously thought differently and used every opportunity to be with him. As much as he hated being the centre of attention, he found he was enjoying this.
But while they spent all their available time together at school, Jessica was determined not to cause further trouble at home, so she would go straight back every evening. This put a damper on this blossoming romance for John, but as much as it frustrated him, he understood why she did it.
However when his birthday came, the same as it did every year, with just his mom presenting him his cake at an otherwise empty dining room table, he couldn't help but be a little stung by it. His mom did her best to make it an enjoyable evening, but had been unable to lift his spirits. It had been over a week but they were both still bruised from their encounter with Brad Matherson. In the end she just smiled at him and said, "Even if it doesn't work out, you did the right thing by protecting her. And I'm sure she's grateful."
John went to bed early but couldn't sleep. Instead he put his headphones on and listened to music in the dark, staring at his ceiling. He must have drifted off though eventually, because he was woken by a noise at his window. Suddenly the curtain was pulled back from the outside and Jessica slid into his room, having climbed up from the outside. She stood in his room, dressed in a simple jeans and sweater, her blonde hair glinting in the moonlight as she tucked it back behind her ear.
John sat up, instantly worried, "What's wrong?" He asked, thinking of the last time she came to his house in the middle of the night, but she smiled at him and he relaxed back against the headboard.
"Nothing's wrong. I'm just bringing you your birthday present." She smiled as she pulled her sweater and shirt off, dropping them to the floor as she crawled onto his bed and caught him in a kiss.
"Did you have a good birthday?" Jessica smiled, hours later as they lay tucked against each other on his narrow bed.
John grinned and kissed her again. "The best."
"What did you get from your mom?" She asked.
John almost told her excitedly but remembered the original plan at the last minute and smirked at her, "Something good. Meet me after school on October 19th and you'll get to find out."
Jessica climbed back out of his room in the early hours of the morning, both of them buoyed up with a renewed excitement about their relationship and the impending surprise that John had for her. John stumbled to the shower, absolutely exhausted but needing to get ready for his paper round. It was going to be a long day, on no sleep, with basketball practice after school too, but he wouldn't complain, every second of sleeplessness had been worth it.
On Friday 19th October, John was even more distracted in class than usual. He had his birthday present in his pocket and it felt like it was burning a hole. He'd checked at least a dozen times that it was still there, but refused to tell Jessica where they were going. He'd put on his best jeans, a red checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up and had washed his white high tops to try to improve the look of his scuffed sneakers. Jessica had worn a short red skirt and a white blouse with her favourite pair of tan cowboy boots with her denim jacket over the top. She looked casual yet breathtakingly beautiful to him.
The day seemed go really slowly, but eventually the bell rang and John leapt up from his seat. His last class had been Math, a subject which Jessica was in an AP class for, so he'd arranged to meet her at her locker. He dumped his book bag in his own locker and then waited next to hers, leaning against them trying to hide his eager impatience.
The hall was packed with students, all rowdy and enthusiastic about the weekend. But despite the chaos, John noticed the noise of someone slamming back against a metal locker accompanied by a slight whimper. John pushed his way through the crowds until he found the source of the noise. A group of seniors were crowded around a smaller boy who had been smashed against the locker. The smaller boy was smartly dressed in chinos and a button down shirt, his thick glasses had slipped down his face and his hand shook as he pushed them back up his nose.
"Get away from him." John growled.
"You think I'm going to intimidated by a Sophomore?" One of the older boys sneered.
"Maybe not, but at least it will give you the chance to pick on someone your own size." John growled.
"You just love a beat down, don't you Feris?" A tall, heavyset boy sneered back. "Why is that? You miss your daddy? Did he used to beat you too?"
John snarled with rage as he threw the first punch. It landed hard on the older boy's cheek and snapped his head to the side. The boy roared as he grabbed John's shirt with both fists and flung him. John got his hands out to break his fall, but he still landed on the tiled hallway floor hard. A crowd had gathered now to watch the fight and he heard a girlish yelp from the audience at the violence. He knew from that that Jessica had to be watching.
The last thing he wanted was for Jessica to watch him get his ass kicked for the second time, and it gave him a surge of extra strength as he kicked out and sent the young thug crashing to the ground. He noticed with satisfaction that the small, mousy boy had been released as the group came to the defence of their friend, and that he'd managed to skitter away, flinging John a guilty look as he abandoned him to his fate.
John was vastly outnumbered, but determined not to take it lying down. However, as he tried to get up, one of the bullies landed a punch to his face and then a kick to his ribs, causing John to flip and land on his back. From there, he was vulnerable, and the punches and blows rained down on him. He tried to get up, but those tormenting fists were relentless and all he could do was curl into a ball to protect himself and try his best to ignore the pain.
A shout from a teacher caused the whole thing to stop. The boys froze, and then scrambled back, leaving John wheezing on the floor, legs drawn up and arms wrapped protectively round his ribs. Jessica pushed through the crowd and crouched down beside him. He allowed her to help him sit up and he looked up at the fuming face of his gym teacher.
"All of you are suspended." He ordered coldly. "I will be calling your parents and you can attend a meeting with the principal on Monday with them to discuss why you think it's appropriate to turn school halls into a boxing ring. Now get out of here!"
John shrugged off Jessica's attempts to help, determined to get to his feet by himself and thus avoid further humiliation. He was already in trouble, and the adrenaline was pumping so he thought nothing of looking his teacher in the eye and saying, "if this was a boxing ring, I'd be assured a fair fight."
"Feris, why is it whenever there's trouble, you're slap bang in the middle of it? Now get out of here before your list of indiscretions gets any longer."
He was furious, determined to defend himself against his teacher too, his hands curling into fists with the desire to hit him as well. But Jessica laid a hand on his arm and he allowed himself to be lead away.
They left the school and walked down the road a way to the bus stop before sitting side by side on a low wall, both of them needing a minute to calm down. John spat a mouthful of blood on the floor and looked up at her apologetically. "I'm sorry, that's not the way tonight was supposed to start." He looked at himself, his fresh pressed shirt was now crumpled and some of the stitching had come loose on the shoulder.
"I thought it was brave." She nudged his shoulder with her own, gently, but it still caused a sharp intake of breath. His ribs hurt and he knew they were likely to be badly bruised. He wasn't sure, but he thought he'd heard one crack.
"Oh my god, I'm so sorry." Jessica leapt up and went to lift the hem of his shirt up to see. He caught her hand and stopped her, refusing to let her know just how badly he was hurt. "We need to get you home."
John shook his head. "We're not going home, we still have my birthday present." He smiled as the bus to neighbouring Tacoma pulled up. He grabbed her hand and lead her onto the bus. He paid their fare and then they went to sit at the back.
Once seated he reached into his pocket and pulled out what he'd been guarding all day. They were a little screwed up now, although until fight they'd been perfectly pristine, but Jessica's face still lit up as he handed them over, two tickets to Bruce Springsteen for that night at the Tacoma Dome. Jessica let out a squeal and threw her arms around his neck. It hurt, but John didn't care, he was convinced he'd never be happier.