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     I got kicked out of school in the middle of ninth grade, after a long drawn-out game of being given “last chances” to behave. I skipped my classes almost every day and had quit making up stories or pretending to be ill. When I was at school my time was spent in the principal’s office, waiting to be given punishment for being wasted on school grounds, for getting into fights, for stealing money and cigarettes from lockers, or for whatever else I had done the last time I’d been in school. The principal, Mr. McKinnsey, was running out of ways to punish me. I didn’t show up for detention and suspending me just gave me a legitimate reason not to go to school.
     Mr. McKinnsey, my teachers, and my parents decided I would be put on a zero tolerance policy, another “last chance.”  But this time Mr. McKinnsey led me into his office and ordered me to sit down.  I sat in front of his long metal desk that was covered with papers and yellow post-it notes. Sprawling my legs straight out in front of me, I crossed my arms and rested my head on the back of the chair.
     He looked directly into my eyes. “Heather, this is it. We’ve done everything we can think of to try to keep you in school and nothing seems to work.  You just don’t seem to care.” He paused, keeping his eyes on me. “I’ve decided, along with the school board and your parents, to give you one final chance to stay in school.”
     “What if I don’t wanna stay?” I challenged, cocking my head to the side.
     “Well, then I guess that is a choice you will make, because frankly we don’t care anymore. This is a sad situation. See, there’s some kids that you know are gonna struggle to get through school and some of them you know probably won’t make it. They struggle their way from kindergarten on. You’ve never been one of those kids, Heather. You’re smart, creative, a natural athlete, and you excel at everything you try.” I’d never heard him speak so softly. “The only reason that you’re still here is because we all crossed our fingers and hoped one day you’d snap out of this and realize how badly you’re screwing up your life. But I’m gonna be real straight with you. No one believes that’s going to happen.”
     He paused again, letting his words sink in. I shifted my gaze to a brown stain on the gray carpet as a lump lodged itself in my throat.  I refused to meet his eyes.
     “Here’s the deal, it’s real simple. You’re on a zero tolerance policy, which means you screw up once and you’re out. No questions asked.” He picked up a piece of paper from his desk and handed it to me. “This is your list of rules. All of your teachers have the same list. You break one of these rules and you’re gone. For good.”
     I took the paper and skimmed the words without reading what they said. Why do I feel like crying?
     He leaned back in his chair. “Got any questions?”
     I shook my head. I couldn’t speak around the lump in my throat. I just wanted to get out of there.
     “All right, then. Get out of here.” He picked up his phone and punched in a number.
     The policy stated that I had to be in class on time every day. Once I was in class, I couldn’t leave for any reason, not even to go to the bathroom. I wasn’t to cause any disruptions. I couldn’t get caught smoking on school grounds, be under the influence of any drugs, or have any drugs on me.  Last of all, I couldn’t talk to any of my teachers outside of the classroom without Mr. McKinnsey being present.
     It dawned on me as I walked into school the following Monday that I didn’t know what I’d do if I got kicked out of school.  I was only 14. I was supposed to be playing varsity basketball, going to school dances and football games, writing papers, taking tests, and making my girlfriends laugh at lunch. Instead, I was failing all of my classes, not playing any sports, not involved with any school activities, and none of my girlfriends even spoke to me. How had I gotten here?
     I shook my head, trying to clear it of serious thoughts. Relax Heather; just follow their silly rules for a while.  They’ll relax, and then you can do what you want to again.
     The first day of the policy, I made it to all of my classes on time and didn’t leave. I got through by laying my head on the desk and going to sleep. By the time my last period came, I felt rested and pretty proud of myself for having made it through the day.
     My last class of the day was English. The teacher, Mr. Cameron, was my favorite teacher to harass.  He was such an easy target, a first-year teacher who wore brown polyester pants that hung on his hips and dragged on the floor. He also wore a white shirt with brown vertical stripes that he tucked into his pants. I don’t know if he never washed his clothes or if he had ten identical outfits, but every time I saw him he was dressed the same.  His short, squatty body carried a small neck and a big head. He wore thick glasses that made his already large eyes look even larger. He looked like a turtle that was in the process of evolving into a human, but hadn’t quite made it there.
     Halfway through his class, I started to get bored. I ripped pieces of paper out of my notebook and folded them into tight triangles. I had a small pile on my lap. I waited until Mr. Cameron turned around to write on the blackboard and then threw one at his back. It connected. His hand stopped writing, and then he continued. “When you conjugate a . . . ” Another one of my triangles hit his leg. The class started to snicker as he turned around.
     “Who did that?” he demanded, hands on his hips. This only brought more laughter. “Quit it. Quit laughing.” He sounded like a whiny young boy begging his older brother to leave him alone.  He waited until the laughter subsided. I decided not to push my luck.
     At the end of class, he wrote the homework assignment on the board and turned to look at me. “Heather, I need to see you after class.”
     “Is Mr. McKinnsey gonna be here?”
     “No.” The bell rang and everyone grabbed their books, jumped up, and headed out the door. He walked over and stood directly in front of my desk, crossed his arms on his chest, and peered down at me through his thick glasses. I stood up and stepped around him.         He grabbed my arm, demanding, “Where are you going? I said I wanted to talk to you.” 
     I declared, walking toward the door, “Look, Shit Pants, Mr. McKinnsey isn’t here. You know the rules.”
     “I don’t care,” he retorted, keeping his hold on my arm and matching my stride.
     “Well, you’re just gonna have to wait.” I pulled my arm away and walked faster towards the door.
     Mr. Cameron moved in front of me again. “No.” The tips of his ears turned red. “You sit down now!”
     I stepped around him. “Why don’t you sit down, Shit Pants?  I’m leaving!”
     He hurried to block the doorway with his body. “You insubordinate little brat!”
     I pushed him aside and stepped into a hallway filled with students slamming their lockers and hurrying out of the school.
     “See ya!” I smiled, looking over my shoulder. I started pushing my way through the other students. He came up behind me and grabbed my arm. I jerked away and continued walking. He grabbed me again and pulled me backwards.
     My head started to implode, as if it were a balloon being stretched to the limits.  It was my signal to fight or run. I turned around to face him. Through gritted teeth, I spat, “Get your fuckin’ hands off me!”
     I started walking, moving faster, but I heard his footsteps behind me. Suddenly, he grabbed me again and shoved me up against a row of lockers.
     A female voice yelled, “Get Mr. McKinnsey!”
     Mr. Cameron held me against the locker, the red from his ears moving into his face. I shoved him and he flew backwards into a student. But he lunged back at me and before I knew it, he’d grabbed me again. He wrestled me to the other side of the hallway, threw me into the Science room, and shut the door behind us. I broke free and ran to the teacher’s desk at the front of the room, grabbed the electric pencil sharpener and threw it at his head. He ducked and it smashed into the wall.
     The air in my head threatened to explode. “Fuck you!” I yelled.
     He moved towards me through the rows of desks, yelling, “No, fuck you!”
     I stood at the front of the room, at the first row of chairs. Picking one of them up by the metal legs, I brought it over my head and threw it in his direction. I picked another one up and did the same. The chairs toppled on their sides and upside down. He shoved the chairs out of the way and kept strutting towards me. Suddenly, Mr. Dixon, the 300-pound Science teacher, burst through the door, ran up behind Mr. Cameron, and held him in a tight bear hug.
     “Knock it off!” he ordered. “You need to settle down!” Mr. Cameron jerked forward and shook his head back and forth before going limp in Mr. Dixon’s arms. He breathed in and out rapidly, as if he had just finished running a marathon.
     “Looks like you’re not so tough now,” I laughed, giving him the finger and holding back the urge to spit in his face. He sprung back to life, kicking and wiggling to free himself from Mr. Dixon’s hold.
      “Heather, get the hell out of here!” Mr. Dixon ordered without releasing his hold. “Go!”
     I turned and stormed back into the hallway.  It was filled with students and teachers who had gathered to watch. When I caught their eyes, they looked away. They moved to the side as I marched through the stony hallway.  I looked down at the floor, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I was officially one of the kids that other kids were scared of, but it didn’t feel like I’d always thought it would.  I’d thought that being the one who was angry and the one to inflict pain meant being in control, but instead I felt completely out of control. People’s eyes bored into my back, questioning what the hell was wrong with me in the same way I questioned my dad’s anger.
     I shoved open the heavy doors and walked into the parking lot.  Quickly spotting Keith waiting for me in his truck, I hurried over, opened the door and slid in.
     “What took you so long?” he asked, giving me quick peck on the cheek.
     I tried to shut off the leftover anger pounding in my head. “You don’t even want to know. I don’t think I’ll be going back to school.”
     By the end of the week, a school board meeting was held.  I was expelled and Mr. Cameron lost his job.  With my expulsion, any semblance of a normal teenage life disappeared.  My emergence into the adult world of drugs and desperation was complete.
     Keith was happy I was done with school. He saw it as an opportunity to spend more time with me. But I was growing more and more tired of his possessive demands for my constant presence and attention. I no longer found his relentless questioning about my whereabouts flattering.  All we did was argue about where I’d been when I wasn’t with him, who I’d been with, and what I’d done. Our arguing always ended in fights that were growing increasingly more violent.
     I started spending less and less time with Keith and more and more time with Strom, the drug dealer Keith had introduced me to a few months earlier. I became a frequent visitor at the trailer in the country between two cornfields. I didn’t know who owned the trailer, but Strom spent a lot of time there, along with the toothless fat lady who turned out to be his sister.
     Keith’s connection for pot was slowly becoming my own. Strom was beginning to trust me. Before long, he started carefully schooling me in the mathematics of splitting up large quantities of pot into smaller amounts for selling. Pot was scattered all over the house.  It was on every table, counter, and the bathroom sink. He even fed the dog green buds for doing tricks. I was in awe. He was a great teacher and I was an even better student, eager and willing to learn everything he had to teach me. His school replaced high school but now I showed up everyday on time. The only reason Strom trusted me was because I was Keith’s girlfriend, but the title only got me limited access into his world and I wanted complete access to everything that went on in the trailer. 
     Strom and I would sit on the plastic chairs around the white table in the kitchen, with pot and booze spread out in front of us. Throughout the day people would knock at
the door and Strom would peek through the faded yellow curtains before he hollered for whoever it was to come in. If the person was uninvited or unknown, we sat in silence until they were gone.
     Most of the time, people walked in and pulled up a chair next to us. Strom would take their money and give them what they came for. If anyone ever questioned his dealing, they were cut off.
     One afternoon after an exchange had been made, a guy with a pair of khaki pants and a tucked-in white shirt asked Strom,  “Do you have a scale?”
     Strom snorted and grabbed back the bag he had just handed the man. “It’s a fuckin’ half. Don’t you trust me?” Strom opened his eyes huge, moving his jaw quickly.
     “No . . . I mean . . . yes . . . I just . . . ” The man was flustered.  “It’s just ya know, sometimes people . . . ”
       “I’m not one of those people.” Strom dug into the pocket of his blue jeans and pulled out the wad of bills the man had given him. He tossed them in his direction.
       “Man, shit, I didn’t mean nothing. I still want it. I trust ya.” I noticed a bead of sweat forming on his forehead.
     Strom ordered, “Get the fuck outta here, dude.” His low voice made grown men act like dogs tucking their tails between their legs. It was direct and cold, with every syllable enunciated perfectly; in such a way that no one questioned his authority.
      The man stood up, took his money from the table, and let himself out without saying another word.
     I saw how Strom treated people, saw how people treated him, and stored what I saw in my memory. I wanted to be one of the people he trusted and respected.  I watched everything going on to determine how I needed to act and talk in order to be that person.
      Other times when people came, Strom would immediately stand up when they reached the kitchen. These people were different from the potheads. They were usually skinny men with long hair and eyes that darted around the room.
       “Answer my phone if it rings,” Strom would instruct as he turned to walk down the hallway with the others following. I’d hear the click of the door as they shut it behind them and strain my ears, but I could only hear muffled whispers and occasional outbursts of laughter.  I’d sit at the table, anxiously chewing my fingernails and chain-smoking. They’d never stay in the back bedroom long. When they returned, they were animated and lively, talking so fast that I couldn’t follow their conversations. Their pupils became large black circles. I’d seen enough movies and been around drugs long enough to know that they were on some kind of speed. I’d watch them through eyes that were covered with a blanket of stoned numbness. They seemed so energized and full of life.  I wanted to feel like they felt.
     I never said anything, never asked to come along, or what they did behind the door. You needed an invitation and I knew better than to ask for one. But I knew there was an entire world of drugs to use. Pot and booze had become old and boring. There was
no excitement in them any longer. Smoking and drinking were just habitual routines that I performed over and over again, like brushing my teeth.
      Keith was holding me back from getting what I wanted. I was his girlfriend, so I was associated with how he was known to be: erratic and unpredictable. You never knew when he was going to get angry and just start destroying things. Since I was his girlfriend, it was assumed that I was the same. I didn’t want to be known as Keith’s girlfriend anymore. I wanted my own identity and my own place in Strom’s world.
      I began to plan how I’d break up with Keith with the least amount of difficulty. I’d try to make it seem like the breakup was entirely about me, focusing on the fact that I was young and stressing that it had nothing to do with him. If I made any references about him being at fault, I knew he’d promise to change. Each time I tried, he either cried like a baby, begging me to stay, or else got so mad that he hit me. It became harder and harder for me to get the words out.  I started trying to avoid him, but that was impossible.  He’d call constantly until I answered my phone, or simply show up uninvited wherever I happened to be. 
     Strom and I didn’t talk about my relationship with Keith. He wasn’t the type to delve into anyone’s personal life. But one day he brought it up while we were parked on the street outside his parents’ house in his beat-up Chrysler LeBaron. I was smoking my Marlboro Reds, blowing the smoke through the window crack. The driver’s seat was moved back as far as it would go, but even so his big belly still pushed against the steering wheel when he moved. I didn’t understand how his stomach could be so big while his arms looked like the muscles I’d seen on bodybuilders on TV.
       “Where are ya headed to now?” he asked, giving me a bag.
       “I’m supposed to go to Tara’s. She’s having people over, but Keith doesn’t want me to go.” Tara was a friend I’d met at a party a few weeks before and we’d been spending a lot of time together.
       “Keith doesn’t want me to go,” Strom mimicked in a little girl voice, rocking his head back and forth.
       “Shut up!” I said, punching him in the arm as he laughed. I loved his laugh because it came up from his belly and shook his entire body.
       “Christ, it’s like he’s your dad. Don’t you ever get sick of it?”
       “Fuck, yes!” I replied hurriedly. “You don’t even know how tired of it I get. I’m gonna break up with him.”
       “Yeah, right!” Strom snorted. “I’ve heard that one too many times before.”
      He was right. I was always announcing I was breaking up with Keith, but a few days later I’d admit we were still together.
      “I mean it. This time it’s for real. I don’t care what he does to me.” I took my pinchie and loaded it with pot.
       “What do you mean, you don’t care what he does to you?” Strom jerked his head up from the pot he was sorting on his belly.
       “Never mind.” I looked out the window at the empty baseball diamond across the street and started smoking my purple one-hitter.
      “Listen kid, I kinda like you. I don’t like too many people but I take care of the ones that I do. I’m gonna ask ya a question and I want ya to tell me the truth. Does he hit you?”
       “Yes.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I wanted to take them back.  I looked at girls who let men hit them as being weak and pathetic. I didn’t want to admit that I was one of those girls, and I certainly didn’t want Strom to think of me as one of them.
       “If that motherfucker ever lays a hand on you again, you come to me. I’ll take care of his stupid ass. After I’m through with him, he’ll be too scared to come near you again. Seriously. Fuck him!” He punched the steering wheel. “You got that?”
      Startled by his reaction, I nodded my head quickly.  I’d heard a rumor that Strom had killed a man and I didn’t doubt it. For the first time in a long while, I felt powerful. I had Strom on my side.  I could do it. I could get rid of Keith. I didn’t need or want him anymore because as long as I had Strom, I had power.
      I opened the door. “I’ve gotta go.”
       “Are ya gonna go to Tara’s?”
       “Well, her and Troy are supposed to pick me up at the park at 9:00,” I added with determination. “I’m gonna stop at Keith’s and dump his ass before I go out there.”       “Alright.” He started up the car. “Ya know where to find me.”
      I got out and shut the door behind me, waving to Strom as he drove off. It was only a few blocks to Keith’s and I rehearsed what I would say as I walked.
     First, I’ll tell him I only have a minute ‘cause I’m supposed to be meeting Troy and Tara. I’ll tell him I love him but I can’t be with him right now. I’ll tell him I’m too young to be in a serious relationship. It’s not a lie. I’m telling the truth. I don’t wanna feel like I’m married at 14. I need to be free. That’s all I’ll say. Then I’ll just say that I’ve got to go. He’ll probably think I don’t mean it. But this time I do. I do.
      As I strutted up Keith’s driveway, I saw him sitting on the front steps with a bottle between his legs. I hoped he hadn’t been drinking all day. My heart started to beat faster.
      Just stick to the plan. Just stick to the plan. I slowed at the sidewalk.  His eyes bore into me, the pupils dilated with anger already. Don’t be scared. You can do this.
       “Hey,” I said, looking down at my feet and taking a deep breath.
       “Where ya been?” he asked, swaying to the left as he stood up.
       “I drove around for awhile with Strom.” I took my cigarettes from my pocket.
       “God, I wish I’d never introduced you to him. He’s nothing but trouble.” Keith took a swig from his Captain Morgan.
      I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to get into this argument we’d already had many times before. I just wanted to say what I had to say and go meet Tara and Troy.
       “I’ve got to tell you something.”
       “What? Are you cheatin’ on me?” He stood up and put his hands on his hips.
       “No, I . . .”
       “You are, aren’t you? You little slut, I knew it!” He ground his teeth together.
      See, you’re doing the right thing, Heather.
      “Keith, listen. Just sit down and mellow out.” I chose my words carefully because I knew how easily he could be set off. “I am not cheating on you. I just want to tell you something.”
       “What?” He stepped directly in front of me and peered into my eyes with his teeth clenched tightly together.
      You can do this. You can do this. I lit my cigarette and took a long drag before speaking out loud. I spoke the words as fast as I could, without giving him a chance to interrupt. “Okay, this is it. I love you, Keith. I really do. Don’t get me wrong. This has nothing to do with love. But I’m young. And I wanna do lots with my life. I don’t wanna be tied down. You’re ready to be so serious. I’m not. Not that I never will be. But right now, I just can’t. I don’t wanna have to worry about hurting you all the time and I always seem to hurt you. I don’t wanna do that. So, please don’t hate me, but I’m breaking up with you.  I don’t wanna be with you anymore.”
     I turned around and started down the sidewalk, holding back an urge to sprint. I didn’t want to give him an opportunity to somehow change my mind, like he’d done so many times before. I needed to stay calm and focused.
      He yanked my arm from behind. “Where do you think you’re going?”
      Without turning around to face him, I said,  “I’m leaving.  It’s over and I don’t wanna talk about it anymore. I’m going. I’ve gotta be somewhere.”
      He snorted. “You don’t get to just break up with me without me saying a word. You really think you can get away from me that easy?”
       “Keith, please!” I whined. “Let go of me. I have to go. People are waiting for me. I don’t want to talk about this. I’m done.”
      I took a step forward. He grabbed me again and jerked me around to face him.
       “You’re not going anywhere. Not until we talk.” His nostrils flared in and out as if he were a bull waiting to be released from the pen. His breath smelled like rotten cheese, the way it often did after he’d been drinking for days. I held back the urge to gag.
       “There’s nothing to talk about. I’ve made up my mind.”  It wasn’t until I tried to turn around to leave that I realized he was gripping both of my arms tightly. I’d been so focused on saying what I needed to say and not being affected by his words that I’d forgotten he’d use his physical strength to control me when his words couldn’t.
     Here we go again. I tried to free my arms.  I can’t believe I thought I could do this so easily. I can’t go back on my words. I have to stay strong this time.
      He said flatly, “Don’t . . . fight . . . me, Heather.”
      As my head filled with pressure, I forced myself to look him in the eye. “Listen, if you let go of me, we can talk.  Just let go of me so that we can talk about this, okay?”
       “Promise?” he bargained, cocking his head, his dirty blond bangs falling over his right eye.
       “Yes.”
       “Okay.” He slowly released my arms.
      I stood there for a second then turned on my heels and ran. I only made it a few strides before he tackled me and threw me onto the concrete.
     He jumped on top of me screaming, “You bitch!” Then he sat on my stomach, pinning my arms down. The faces of my dad and my brother crossed his face, contorting into a three-headed monster as the pressure exploded in my head with a violent rush. I arched my back, brought my knees up and smashed them into his back with as much force as I had.
     He cried out, releasing his hold on my arms.  I sat up and shoved him off me, scrambling to my feet, but not fast enough. He quickly shoved me back to the ground. I fell on my hands and knees. He brought his foot up and slammed his steel boots onto my small hands.
      I screamed, “Get off me! Leave me alone!”
      He reached down and grabbed a handful of my long hair with his hands. His pull made my head snap back. I was afraid he’d tear the hair right out of my head.
      Like an army general, he ordered, “Get up!”
      I stood slowly, trying to keep my head steady. He dragged me by my hair to his steps, pinned me against the side of the house and looked into my eyes.
     He’s crazy. He’s out of his mind. I closed my eyes, wishing him to disappear.
       “Nobody loves you like I do. Nobody will ever be able to put up with your shit like I do. You’re a no-good junkie.” He narrowed his eyes to slits.
       “Fuck you!” I snapped back. “You’re crazy!”
      Suddenly the door opened. Donna, his mom, peeked her head outside. “What’s going on?” she asked meekly.
      Without turning around, Keith ordered, “Mom, go back in the house. Don’t come out again.”           
      “Help me!” I cried, turning to look at Donna. She looked away, refusing to meet my eyes.
       “GET IN THE HOUSE!” Keith yelled, raising his fist up toward my face.
       “I’m sorry, Heather,” Donna said softly, turning back into the house. She began to cry as she shut the door.
       “Please Keith, just let me go,” I begged.  “I love you. I do. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Really, I didn’t.”
      The tension in his face eased slightly. “If you are fuckin’ with me this time, I swear to God, you’ll regret it.”
       “I’m not.”
       “I’m warning you, you better not be.” He searched my eyes.
       “I love you. I don’t know what I was thinking. Just let me go. You’re hurting me. I’ll stay. I will. I promise.”
      He eased his hold slightly and moved back a step away from me. “I mean it, Heather. You don’t understand how much I love you. If you leave me, nobody loves you.  I’m all you’ve got. Think about that.”
       “I know. I know, Keith,” I pleaded, keeping my voice steady even as my heart pounded in short, quick spasms. “We can work this out.”
     He let go of my hair and took another step backwards. I smashed his chest with both hands. Then I swung at him with my fists, connecting with his face and continuing to punch any part of him that I could. I kicked at his knees and ankles. I heard the sound of my voice screaming but couldn’t understand my words. I flailed my arms and legs against him in a fury, as he became every man who had ever touched me in a way that they shouldn’t.
He grabbed me by my hair again, jerked my head back, and slammed it against the stucco siding on his house.  A loud crack resonated though my head, as if it had split in half. Blackness covered my eyes.
I came to sitting on the steps, holding my pounding head in my hands. I brought my fingers away from my head and saw that they were covered with a sticky substance.
      My head is bleeding. What is happening? What just happened?
            I winced in pain as I turned my head to find Keith sitting next to me. His arm was around my shoulder.  His own shoulders shook with sobs that wracked his whole body. He peered at me with tears streaming down his face and snot running from his nose into his mouth.
      He whimpered like a small child in pain. “I’m sorry, baby. God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just love you so much that I lose control. I can’t help it. You don’t know what you do to me. I can’t live without you.  I’m sorry.”
      What . . . Where . . . my God . . . I . . .” My thoughts wouldn’t come together. Leave. Just leave. Go.
     I stood up, swaying to the side and trying to regain some sort of balance. I took a step forward as if I was in a trance.  Keith grabbed me and pulled me back down to the steps. I cried out because the sudden movements made my head feel as if it was being split all over again. He brought his fingers to my neck and wrapped them tightly around it.
       “I’m sorry, baby. I’m sorry, baby,” he cried, beginning to squeeze my neck. “I didn’t want to hurt you. I love you.”
      His grip tightened, shutting off air. I kicked my feet and waved my arms in one final attempt to fight back before I just let my body go limp. I felt like I’d been shoved underwater and was drowning. My head swirled as I looked up at him from someplace warm and fluid in my mind, watching the vein on his forehead pulsing while he squeezed.
      He’s finally going to kill me. Then darkness again.
      When I came to, I was sitting on the front steps of Keith’s house and I heard yelling.  The voices came from the yard and one of them was Keith’s. I turned my aching head to the side to see Keith pinned to the ground by a man who held him down in the same manner that Keith had held me down so many times.  Keith kicked and struggled to get up. I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned the other way to see Tara sitting beside me.
      Her blue eyes filled with the concern of a mother, she asked,  “Can you get up? Caleb is gonna take care of Keith.”
      “I think so.” It hurt to talk. I barely knew Caleb, a friend of Tara’s, but he had just saved my life. My head was filled with a thick blanket of fog. Tara stood and offered her hand. I grabbed it and she pulled me to my feet.  She brought her arm around me and
leaning against her, I took a few steps. I felt disconnected, like my head wasn’t part of the body that was beginning to walk across the yard.
       “C’mon. Troy is parked around the corner.” She turned me towards the street on the side of the house.
      I looked behind me to see Caleb still sitting on top of Keith. We walked slowly and silently to the car where Troy, Tara’s best friend, waited in the driver’s seat with the car still running.  Tara opened the front passenger door for me and I slid in, leaning my head back against the seat.
       “You okay?” Troy asked, turning to look at me.
      I felt like I was in the middle of a dream, trying to force myself to wake up. “Yeah . . . What the hell happened?”
      Tara leaned forward in the back seat. “Well, we waited and waited for you but you didn’t come.  I knew you probably stopped at Keith’s so I thought we’d come get you ‘cause I know how hard it is for you to get away from him.”
      My laugh came out like a dry, raspy cough. “Obviously.”
      Caleb came running to the car and jumped in the back seat.
       “Let’s get the hell out of here!” he called to Troy, who quickly put the car in drive and headed down the block.
       “He won’t bother you again, Heather,” Caleb said, patting my shoulder from behind.
       “Thanks.”
       “Heather, your head is bleeding,” Tara remarked. “We should probably take you to the hospital.”
       “I’m fine,” I snapped. “Did you guys get my bottle?”
       “Are you serious?” Tara asked.
       “Yeah, did you get it?” I grabbed Troy’s cigarette that was burning in the ashtray and brought it to my lips.
      Caleb reached into a bag and grabbed my bottle.
       “Don’t let her drink. That’s like bad when your head is all fucked up,” Tara exclaimed, stopping Caleb’s arm.
       “Don’t worry about it, Tara.” Caleb pushed her arm away and handed me my bottle. “She needs a drink.”
       “Hell, yes!” Troy interjected.
      I took the bottle from Caleb as Tara sat back in her seat and let out a huff. I unscrewed the top and brought it to my lips, taking a huge pull. I drank from it as if I hadn’t had a drink in weeks. Nobody spoke.  No one knew what to say. Keith had almost killed me and I knew it was over.  This time it was really over. I was no longer his girlfriend.
      I yelled out coarsely, breaking the awkward silence, “Let’s party!”
      Caleb raised his bottle into the air. “I’ll drink to that!”

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Excerpt from Outlet