Maddie finally felt like she could breath. The words were out. She looked across from her at Howie, and he sat there, his face unmoving for a moment.
"I'm so sorry," he finally said, shaking his head. "I honestly don't have words."
She felt like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and she inhaled, taking another drink of water. "It hasn't been like this before," she said. "It hasn't. We've always fought but he just...he hit me, and that's different, right?"
"Yeah," he said softly. "It's very different."
"So what now?" She asked.
"I can go to the Title IX coordinator, and see what they decide to do," he said. "Or you and I can go to the police right now."
Her breath caught. She wanted this to end, she didn't want Doug to ever touch her again, but she still loved him. She couldn't do this. She couldn't ruin his life.
"No, no," she rushed to say. "One mistake shouldn't ruin his life. He wants to be a heart doctor, you know. He's going to save lives."
Howie bit his lip. "Maddie...if you tell the truth right now, it doesn't ruin his life. He ruined his life, when he decided to let anger overcome him, and when he hit you. All you are doing is telling people who he really is."
She had started to cry again, without even realizing it. "I don't want this to be a thing," she said. "I just want it to stop."
"This kind of stuff?" Howie said. "It doesn't stop. Abusers don't wake up and suddenly stop abusing overnight."
"He's not an abuser," she insisted, feeling the panic returning.
"Maddie, I-" Howie began, and then just paused. She pressed her eyes closed, trying to stop crying, and then suddenly she felt a gentle touch on her hands. She opened her eyes, and he was closer; he'd edged his chair against hers. "I don't want to make you feel like you have to do anything right now, but the fact is, we don't know what will happen when you return home today. We don't know that you'll be safe."
"That doesn't mean I can just report Doug," she said. "What if I leave? Is that enough?"
He sighed, and shook his head. "I doubt it," he said.
She scrambled for her phone, scrolling through contacts, feeling her heart sink. Josh had a tiny, tiny apartment that he shared with two guys. And every other person in there? Someone who was also good with Doug, who knew him well. She shook her head, realizing that there wasn't a single person in there that she really felt like she could trust, who wouldn't tell Doug where she was. She couldn't go back home; Pennsylvania was too far.
She frowned, looking at Henrietta Wilson's name. She was the only person besides Josh that Maddie would call a friend who didn't also know Doug. Sure, they didn't know each other that well, but…
"What are you thinking about?" Howie asked.
She came back to the moment, and stared at him.
His hands were still resting on hers, and he quickly pulled them away. "I'm sorry," he began, and she shook her head.
"Don't you have class?" She asked, looking at the clocktower that rested in the middle of the quad.
"It's a light day," he said. "Professor Nash will survive."
"Did you message him, at least?" She asked, feeling awful for messing up his job.
"I did," he said. "I told him I was having an emergency, and I'd give him more details when I could. He said to take the time I needed."
She was still holding her phone, and Howie noticed it.
"I think we have a friend in common," he began. "Hen Wilson." He pointed at her screen, and she flushed.
"I don't even know her, really," Maddie said, ducking her head. "But she's one of two people on my Contacts list that doesn't also know Doug. The other shares the tiniest apartment in California with two other guys, so that's not happening."
Howie smiled. "You should see the place I had when I was a student," he said. "It would give your other's friend's a run for its money, I'm sure."
She almost smiled, looking at the phone in her hand.
"Hen has a big heart," Howie said. "And without telling her story, I think you two might have more in common than you think. And I know that she has an open bedroom right now."
Maddie shook her head, but Howie plowed on.
"I can call her, talk to her," he said. "And then we can go to your apartment and get some things. Okay?"
She didn't know what to say. Maybe a cooling off period was just what she and Doug needed. If they spent time apart, he'd realize what had happened, and he'd fight to get her back.
"Can we hold off on talking to the Title IX coordinator?" She asked, and she saw the conflict in his face.
"I-only if you move out today," he said. "I'll wait until you're ready if you leave today."
She looked at Hen's name in her phone again, and she nodded. "Okay," she said. "Call her."
Hen barely needed convincing. "I knew there was something wrong with that boyfriend of hers," she said in a quite aside as Maddie and Howie walked into her apartment much later that day. Howie had called Hen, told her what was up, and Hen had said yes, no questions asked. "For now," she'd clarified. "But we can talk later, this is obviously time sensitive."
Howie had taken Maddie to her apartment, and she had made him wait at the door. "I don't need much, really," she said, and had come back out in thirty minutes with two bags.
He'd wanted to tell her to take more, that she might not ever be able to safely walk into that apartment again, but he held his tongue. She was already freaked out, and he could tell that this was her way of making it seem less real.
"You've got all of your electronics?" He simply asked. "Chargers, medications, anything that holds value to you?"
"I'm not taking all of my books," she said, fidgeting with the tie on her bag. "Should I?"
"I have room if you want to," he offered, and she looked torn. "Is there any book that you can't just buy another copy of? Like unless you signed editions, you should be fine."
"Yeah," she said, nodding. "Of course. They're just going to slow us down, I don't need them."
That had been the opposite of what he'd been trying to say, but he just nodded, and they left.
She'd been completely silent in the car, staring at her phone, and biting her fingernails.
And here they were, Hen showing Maddie the empty room. "We're about to move," she apologized. "Our lease is up in six weeks, and our other roommate moved out early so we didn't try to decorate. But I moved the futon in there, you won't be sleeping on the floor."
"Thank you," Maddie said. "Really. Thank you."
"Of course," Hen said. "Why don't you take a minute alone, and I'll just talk to Howie?"
Maddie nodded, and Hen stepped from the bedroom, closing the door behind her.
"So what's up?" She asked, walking back over to the couch. Howie sunk down on the opposite end, and gave her the bare bones story of that morning. Hen was shaking her head by the end of it. "God, I hate that," she said, voice low. "Maddie's such a great girl too, you know?"
"They always are," Howie said. "This isn't going to bring up any...memories for you, is it?"
She shook her head. "No. Well, I mean, yeah. But I can handle that. Memories are always there, you know?"
He nodded. "Just know that I'm here if you need me," he said. "And Karen too. Don't just suffer in silence like last time."
"You guys are never going to let me live that down," Hen deflected. "And yes, Howie. I will do better."
They'd had an early start, so it was four before the calls from Doug started. First texts. Where are you/I'm at school/What the fuck Maddie/Where are you
Then calls. Maddie was on the couch with Hen, clutching the phone, listening as it rang out every time.
"You'll feel better if you block him," Hen said. "You stopped sharing location already, right?"
"Yeah," Maddie whispered. "I never had it on, I always lied and said it wouldn't work on my phone since it only set him off."
Hen nodded. Howie had left about twenty minutes ago to meet with Professor Nash, and he'd told both of them to call him if something happened.
"I really didn't mean to blow up your life," Maddie said, watching as her phone rang again. "Like if you need to be studying right now, please do so."
Hen shrugged. "I'm okay for now," she said. "I've been through a similar situation, though, and I don't want to leave you alone."
"I'm sorry," Maddie said. "That's awful."
"Yeah, it was," Hen said. "So I'm here for you, seriously. Karen too."
"Does she mind me being here?" Maddie asked anxiously. "I really don't want to put either of you out."
"It's fine," Hen laughed. "We're all students, I'm sure we'll barely be at the apartment anyway. It is so rare that I'm home in the afternoon."
Maddie tried to not panic at that statement. Hen was already rearranging her schedule.
"Don't do that," Hen said, and Maddie's head jerked up. "You're overthinking what I said about not being here. You are welcome here, seriously. And I am choosing to be here with you this first night because it's where I want to be."
"Thank you," Maddie said, wilting. "I don't know what to say."
"Just say you won't pick up," Hen said. "No matter what he says in those voicemails or texts. Say that you won't go talk to him, or try to reason with him."
Maddie felt taken aback, and she looked down at her phone again.
"I know you don't want to think that this is who he is," Hen said. "And maybe it's not, I don't know. But what I can tell you is that if you go back tonight, if you give in tonight, if you let him think it's this easy...You will always regret it."
Maddie was scared by the intensity of Hen's voice, but she just nodded, trying to make the promise to herself...but she couldn't.