The sidewalk stretched out before her as the invisible walls were closing in around her. She cried as she walked, going nowhere in particular, just going. She was a two- time runaway, first from her parents and now from Him.

They’d given her an ultimatum when they showed up at His job where she was caught skipping school. “He doesn’t love you, Lauren.” they said. But her heart felt so empty and she’d chosen Him to fill it, and, being the hopeless romantic she was, she made a stand. She stood while they alleviated her of her coat, her keys and that beat up Nova they let her drive to school and they left.

And the whole time He never said a word. From the time they showed up until the time they left He’d busied himself with preparing to open the pizza franchise He managed. When He finally looked up and met her eyes the look on His face said it all. She had made a terrible, terrible mistake.

So she’d made her bed and was lying in it. She’d also taken up cooking and cleaning and bustling about in an effort to make Him happy. It was a big endeavor for a frightened fifteen year old girl. And it was all in vain. He was cruel. In ways she never imagined, He’d hurt her. She was far too naïve and sensitive for this world, let alone for someone as broken and damaged as He was. You see, she’d been taught meekness and how to be polite. She could conjugate verbs and recite The Gettysburg Address and the twenty-third Psalm, but there was never a course in how to love Lauren. So whilst she’d excelled in academics, gotten gold stars behind Episcopal walls and sat lead chair in the trumpet row, the classes in tough love were strictly enforced, but the teachers of self- love had failed to show up.

She was in the pit with the viper and was slowly giving up. This last verbal onslaught with Him had been brutal. He drank too much and was having an affair with thin white lines. He, too, was a teacher and she’d learned quickly that alcohol numbs pain. She was fuzzy with its influence as the sidewalk led to a store.

She’d set a goal for that night and she was desperate, despondent and nearly drunk enough to meet it. She just needed a few more cans of courage first. She was in the big city now and was pretty adept at procuring alcohol while underage, but still she was nervous. If she chickened out it was back to that shit and that hellhole and that pain she could no longer bear. She took a deep breath and walked in.

At first she didn’t see anyone. The shop looked empty including the space behind the counter. She walked casually over to the cooler that held the poison that would both numb her and fuel her resolve. As she opened the door she didn’t see the man behind the bottles until he spoke. “Hey there, I was just stocking up. It’s been a busy night.” “Great” she thought, “now he’s got all the time in the world to ask me for ID. Be cool. Act confident.” He was still stocking as he looked at her. His eyes were kind. Gentle. Easygoing. They matched his smile. He engaged her in small talk and before she knew it they were in an excited conversation about playing music. He was a musician, you see. Saxophone. They’d played some of the same pieces and shared stories of performing and how exhilarating it felt and she remembered how good it felt when she got lost in her music. She had lost all awareness of how awkward she usually felt around people. Of her intrinsic self-consciousness, of the way she absorbed all the energy around her, especially if it was dark…to be continued