LIAM was such an actor. He was so fake, but was obviously so good at pretending that he had everyone fooled except for Jeremiah…and now Kaiya. It was bad enough that he had chosen Jonathan and the wrestling team over Jeremiah freshman year and became an obnoxiously stereotypical jock for no reason. Then to make matters worse, he started hanging out and going to parties with Jonathan’s older brother, Westley, who had understanding of the word subtle when it came to his obsession with the “thug life” and all things gangsta rap (even when he wore the occasional preppy outfit to ease the minds of their neighbors); a lot of people already knew Westley was dealing drugs on the university campus and around town.
Liam’s casual, “I just came by to drop off homework in hopes you knew where Kaiya was,” the day after raping her was the icing on the cake. What was wrong with him?
Jeremiah could not believe that Liam had the audacity to even show up to his house asking for Kaiya in light of what he had done to her—as if nothing had happened. It took every ounce of self-control to keep Jeremiah from rushing through his front door and tackling Liam on the front porch. He could imagine himself, having already the upper hand due to the element of surprise, taking a strong right hook to Liam’s face and punching until he saw blood.
He didn’t have a desire to kill Liam, but he was moving pretty close to that much anger. Fortunately, for Liam, all he did was show up with homework and a serving dish. Had Liam said or done something else, Jeremiah was sure his last nerve would have been non-existent and the line would have been crossed.
“Is he gone?”
Jeremiah looked up from the bowl and homework assignment in his hands and saw Kaiya peep her head around the edge of the archway that separated the foyer from the dining room where she hid when she heard the knock on the door. Both thought it was his mom’s detective friend coming to take her statement.
“It was just Liam.”
She froze again, staring wide-eyed at him. “You didn’t tell him I was here, right?”
Jeremiah walked past her down the hallway and into the kitchen and placed the items on the bar counter. “Of course I didn’t. I just took the stuff while trying to keep myself from strangling him.”
She reached over the counter and grabbed his hand. “Please don’t do that. Don’t do anything that’ll get you in trouble…especially not on my account. You’ve already done more than enough.”
Kaiya’s facial expression was the same as it was when she showed up on his doorstep: the edges of her mouth curved down, her eyelids were low over her eyes as if she was half asleep, and she kept her head down. His anger subsided, somewhat. He desperately wanted to help her, wanted to figure out a way to get her from being so afraid to press charges and make Liam own up to what he had done. Then he would remember that much of his frustration came from his own vengeful desire to expose Liam for who he truly was. He wasn’t going to push her anymore, especially not now, not after the information he now knew.
THAT morning, his mother woke him up from his cramped position on the floor wrapped in his comforter and leaning on the wall. He had been pushed away from the door to his mother’s room, which was wide open, and it was empty. There was a glimmer of something on the dresser that caught his attention: Kaiya’s abstinence ring lay shiny, the emerald stone glistening beautifully, and unworn.
Jeremiah’s mother told him that Kaiya was already awake and in the shower and that he should probably get ready too. She was on her way to meet with her friend, Detective Abraham, to get advice on what she should do with Kaiya in this situation and give him Kaiya’s clothes. The one thing she suggested was going with Kaiya to the church to get her things.
As he laced up his shoes, he saw Kaiya standing in his doorway with her arms at her side. She was dressed in a pair of oversized gray sweatpants, a plain white v-neck that from its shape clearly came from his mother’s dresser, his black baseball hoodie and the pair of denim sneakers she wore the day before. Her hair, though still a bit frizzy from yesterday’s rain, had been brushed back into a low bun and she wore a colorful fabric headband. She stuffed her hands in her pockets as she waited and stared at the floor.
Jeremiah moved from his bed and wrapped his arms around her. She didn’t move or make a sound.
“We should go get your stuff.”
When they pulled up to the church, Kaiya kept her focus straight ahead, looking through the rain-covered windshield. She never glanced to look at him or to nod hello to Deacon Allen who came to unlock the multipurpose building.
“I’m not going in.” It was the first thing she said all morning.
Jeremiah shut off the car before opening the door. “You don’t have to. I’ll just be a minute,” he reached out to touch her, but changed his mind. She continued to look forward down the street.
“Hey, Jeremiah. How are you doing this morning?” Deacon Allen asked as he shook Jeremiah’s hand. “How is Kaiya? Some of the kids told me she was sick.”
“I’m doing fine. And she’s…,” Jeremiah glanced behind him at his car, “she’s getting better.”
“That’s good,” Deacon Allen responded as he handed over Kaiya’s tote bag. “I was worried when she didn’t call for me to lock up. She’s not one to do that. I had to run home after I opened for her and when I came back, she was gone. I’m glad Liam was here when she did leave.”
Jeremiah shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, I guess that was a good thing. But you know it’s not like Kaiya to just leave things. I’m pretty sure she was extremely sick. Thank you for her stuff.”
Deacon Allen nodded his head and waved in Kaiya’s direction again. “Let her know I’m praying for her to get better.”
Jeremiah lifted up the bag and thanked Deacon Allen before climbing back in the car. He heard Kaiya sniff and watched as a tear slowly fell down her cheek. She wiped it away with the back of her hand.
He bit his lip before speaking. “How about we grab some breakfast?”
Jeremiah’s first idea, IHOP, was denied: Kaiya did not like the idea of being out in the open and around people. Also, she wasn’t quite ready to go home. So they went through the drive-thru at McDonald’s, ordered a sausage McGriddle and an egg white biscuit with tea and orange juice, then drove to Memorial Park where they parked in front of the duck pond and sat in the car as it began to sprinkle.
For a while, Jeremiah quietly ate his breakfast. He noticed her watching the raindrops out of the window while she massaged her leg, a constant, painful reminder. Her food was still in the bag, sitting on her lap untouched since he gave it to her.
“You really should try to eat something,” he whispered. No response. If she did not want to talk or eat, he wasn’t going to force her.
Then she began sobbing. Though he could’ve guessed it was coming, she was so quiet that this sudden outburst startled him. Her crying was so deep and hard that she almost hyperventilated. He had to pull her close to him for her to calm down enough for him to understand what she said.
“Why does this keep happening to me?”
He had no clue as to what she was talking about. He continued to hug her as her tears created a large wet spot on his shirt.
“Why? Why me?”
He didn’t know how to respond. He had the same question.
He sighed. “Kaiya, tell me what’s going on in your head.” He wiped the tears from her face. “I don’t know what you want me to say or what I can do.”
“I’m sorry,” she whimpered.
“Don’t apologize. Stop apologizing to me. You didn’t do anything. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
She held her hands over her face. “This isn’t the first time though,” she whispered.
“I don’t know what you mean, Kaiya.”
She looked in his eyes and took a deep breath. “I was molested when I was younger. A lot. By more than one person.” Jeremiah bit his bottom lip. He gently stroked her hands, contemplating what to say to her. “And no, I’ve never told my mom.”
“Why not?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. I felt dirty. I didn’t want anyone to know. And now this? Were my clothes too tight? Was my skirt too short? Did I give him the wrong impression? I mean, yeah, I liked him, but I never asked for this.”
Jeremiah, speechless, let her talk. Since they met, she was never one to really flirt, never wore skimpy outfits, and barely wore any makeup unless she was told to do so by her mother. She didn’t act any different around the guys she crushed on, especially during the times when she meant business.
She cared for everyone like a mother. She listened to people when they shared their problems with her, actually listened and kept things confidential. She watched out for people, especially the little ones. All the things she did for the church. Why would anyone want to rape her? Why would anyone even try to do it? Especially to her?
“Are you gonna tell me who did this to you?” Jeremiah finally spoke.
She looked down at her hands. “Only if you promise not to tell anyone.”
Jeremiah scoffed. “Why are you protecting this bastard? Why won’t you make him pay?”
“Because of who he is. It would involve too many people. Too many people would get hurt.”
“What about you getting hurt Kaiya? This guy raped you!”
“I know that! But…”
He calmed down, noticing that she was ready to burst into tears again. Reminding her of what happened was becoming too much for her. He softly took her hands in his.
“But what, Kaiya? What?”
She averted his eyes. “I-i-it,” she moved her body around in the seat, crossing and uncrossing her feet, “it was Liam.”
Jeremiah held his breath until he couldn’t hold it any longer. Liam? How could he? Why would he? What happened? What? Sure he was the jerk jock now, but this was just too far. All the girls that would have gladly opened their legs to him, in and out of the church without anyone telling, and he goes and forces himself on Kaiya? Jeremiah didn’t understand. Had Liam gone crazy?
Still in shock, Jeremiah just sat in the driver’s seat, watching the rainfall.
“I’LL be fine, Mom. Really,” Kaiya said.
She was finally able to reach her mother in Tokyo over Skype’s calling system. Her mother wasn’t in a place to video call, but after the message Jeremiah’s mother left the night before, her mother had called multiple times to get the details.
“No, you don’t have to fly back now. I don’t want you to miss out on your opportunity.” From the kitchen, he watched her pace the living room floor with the phone to her ear, smoothing her hair back with the other hand. Though he heard what she told her mother, he was still trying to process all the things she told him in the car and Liam coming by his house. “I’m being honest. Madrina already said I could stay here with her and Miah until you come back. Yes, she has me talking to a detective. I will, Mom. I won’t go anywhere alone, I promise. Okay. I love you, too. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“She said you could stay?”
Kaiya nodded with a roll of her eyes as she entered the kitchen. “As long as I talk to that detective guy and promise her that I won’t go anywhere by myself.”
Jeremiah opened the refrigerator for her. “It’s just precaution, Kaiya. If I were her, I’d be ready to come back, too. I’d be on the first plane smoking; forget about a job.”
She pulled out a large gallon of ginger ale and poured herself a glass. “I’ll get over this just like I got over everything else.”
Jeremiah looked at her with one eyebrow raised. “You still haven’t told her about the other times?”
Kaiya sipped from the glass. “I just want people to stop asking me about this. I don’t want to talk about this or anything else anymore. It’s over. It happened. There’s nothing anyone can do about it.”
“But there is, Kaiya. All you have to do is tell who—”
“I want it to be over,” she said slowly. “I don’t want to think about it. So just…please don’t tell anyone what I told you.”
“Kaiya, I can’t keep this a secret.”
“Please. I really just don’t want to think about it anymore.”

~ (&) ~

“Hurry up, Kaiya! I will eat this popcorn and start the movie without you,” Jeremiah hollered from the living room as he plopped down on the leather sectional directly in front of the television with a large bowl of popcorn in his lap. “I’m serious! How long does it take you to shower?”
It had been two weeks and a couple days since Kaiya basically moved in. Ms. Denise and Jeremiah’s mother thought it was their best option until Ms. Denise was able to return from Tokyo: an adult would be there to keep an eye on Kaiya and everyone knew for sure that Jeremiah would watch out for her at school and such, which he did as he said he would. He wouldn’t allow her to be alone unless she needed that privacy. From the night she showed up at his house soaking wet and hurt, he promised he would never leave her alone.
That also included the past three Sundays she pleaded with Jeremiah’s mother not to go to church. By the second Sunday, his mother figured it out that the person who violated Kaiya was there; but she was still unsure of whom it was. “Make sure you two get some scripture,” his mother would respond with saddened eyes focused on Kaiya, who would return a half smile. So they did read, Kaiya hoping that they would find the answers to her questions and Jeremiah pleading to God that they would.
“Girl, I’m giving you one minute!”
He heard the water from the shower in the upstairs bathroom between his and his mother’s room shut off. Kaiya surely hadn’t heard him call her if the water was on because that also meant she was playing music, something she had been doing since staying at his place. She told him it helped her think and somewhat deal with what happened.
Since the incident, Jeremiah figured if he never changed the way he treated Kaiya, it would help her work through her emotions. Or at least feel a little normal. She wouldn’t have to re-live the moment, wouldn’t have to talk about it, like she asked. And he didn’t have to watch his best friend wallow in sorrow. He thought that if they acted as if the situation never happened at home, she would be able to go to school without fearing the worst would come to her. He was grateful that the classes she did share with Liam she also shared with him. Jeremiah couldn’t say anything about the rape, but he sure as his name was Jeremiah could keep Liam from touching her again.
Before he could call for her again, the bathroom door opened. He glanced over his shoulder and saw a flash of Kaiya as she ran to his mother’s room, the room she had been sleeping in.
“Miah!” she hollered. “Could I borrow a shirt?”
He laughed to himself as he trotted up the stairs to his room, twisted the little knob of the floor lamp closest to the door and grabbed his oversized baseball camp tee from his drawer, one that she had borrowed before. He had mind to give it to her as a gift or have it ready whenever she had need of it at his place in the future. She wore it more times than he did.
He crossed the hallway in a hurry and knocked a little harshly on his mother’s door. “Hurry up, girl! I want to watch this movie before the sun comes up. I’ll leave the shirt on the knob.” She didn’t respond for a long time. “Did you hear me? I’m very serious about this movie.” He noticed the door was a bit open and still rushing, came into the room with one hand covering his eyes.
He heard Kaiya laugh. “I’m still wearing a towel.”
Jeremiah shook his head. With his eyes still covered, he tiptoed across the white carpet to the edge of the bed where he noticed the end of his mother’s orange duvet and placed the shirt on top of it.
“The shirt’s right here. I’ll let you get dressed, and please don’t take long.”
With caution he began to back out of the room but then saw her bare feet meet his. She was quiet. He felt her hand softly touch the one that was over his eyes and pull it down. His eyes met hers and all he could see was the perfect oval outline of her face, only covered partially by her black curls. His heart beat a bit faster in his chest and he felt heat spread around his face and neck. He swallowed. Her mahogany skin glistened under the light and from the lingering water drops on her body. All he could smell was the vanilla and brown sugar shower gel she must have used and lingering hint of cotton candy in her hair. She held up her towel with her right hand in the middle of her chest.
Everything seemed to move in slow motion. Kaiya stood on the tips of her toes and moved closer to his face with her eyes shut. He now had to look down at her and attempted to look away. He couldn’t see anything past her face. She was so beautiful without makeup. He didn’t blink. He watched her lips part slightly before they touched his.
His eyes closed as he kissed her back. His entire body felt electric. His arms wrapped around her out of instinct. With every second that passed, the kiss became more passionate.
Then, without warning, she stopped. He opened his eyes and saw her mouth drop open and her eyes grow large in horror as she put her hand over mouth.
“Oh my God. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she kept repeating as she turned away from him and walked across the room to the where the mirror hung above the potted plants and oak chest in the corner. “I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry. I-I-don’t know what I was thinking. I’m sorry.”
Jeremiah licked his lips before rubbing his forefinger across them, thinking. Then he moved behind her, keeping his eyes on her in the mirror. While looking down, she continued to hold on to the towel around her body that seemed to fall around her hips and bottom following the exact same curves. Her pear shape was more apparent to him from this angle. But it wasn’t like he hadn’t noticed her shape before; the weight loss only made it more prevalent.
He moved her hair from her shoulders. “Don’t apologize.” She turned to face him, still looking down at his feet. He caressed her face with both hands and made her focus on him. “I’ve wanted to kiss you for almost three years now.”
He brought his lips to hers again and gently pecked them continuously. As if following some sort of recipe to the art of kissing, he then parted her lips with his tongue and met hers. He felt her body grow heavy as he leaned against her and she rested on the end of the dresser. He then remembered where they were. If his mother caught them kissing, in her bedroom, with Kaiya only in a towel…she would have more than a fit. This was not at all what she had in mind when she agreed to keep an eye on Kaiya by allowing her to stay with them. Then again, it wasn’t until now that her decision might pose as a problem.
He stopped.
“Not here,” he whispered.
He took her hand then led her to his room. He could still hear the television on downstairs. For the first time in years, he was somewhat glad his mother worked nights at the hospital and Joey had gotten married and moved out.
The floor lamp in the space next to his door was still on from when he got the t-shirt—that was now left behind in his mother’s room—showing his unmade dark grey and green bedroom. It was never really neat, but never dirty, just somewhat unorganized—unlike how Joey kept his room when he lived here. There were a few unfolded clean clothes dropped at the opening of his closet and at the foot of his bed. Skyline photos of Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and Las Vegas hung on the dark green accent wall on the left side of his bed where the covers were already pulled back from that morning. All his shelves were stacked with books, photos of his mother, grandparents, baby photos of him and Joey. Some of his deejay equipment was sprawled over his L-shaped desk in the far right corner. His computer was on, his latest music project in colorful parts across the screen. It was a song he was working on with Kaiya. He had hopes the distraction would change her outlook on her situation.
“It’s nice to know you’re not as messy as you used to be.”
He smiled, still holding her hand and sat down on his bed. She stood over him and let go of the towel when he laced his fingers with hers. He watched it slowly unravel and reveal her naked body. It was just as he had imagined. She attempted to move her arms to cover herself and pick up the towel, but he kept her hands still. To him, even her light stretch marks were in the right place.
“You’re beautiful.” She glanced away. “I’m serious.”
This was way past the time for them to stop. Yet, he wanted to keep going. He wanted to do more, show her more of him.
He and Kaiya had all these talks about how good it was for them to wait until marriage, enjoy sex the right way, the way God wanted them to. He remembered once how in depth she had explained the science and psychology of it and how that clearly showed that God had created something to keep a husband and wife together, not only just to procreate. It was the highest level of intimacy that human beings could share on this earth, which was why the Bible used the word “know,” and only God could know every person in the world at a higher level. She said it was like a little piece of Him that He gave for husband and wife to share with one another and become one.
They even had a conversation, just after HGA watched a TEDx-like talk given by a former R&B singer about sex, about how explosive their first time with their respective spouses was meant to be. Similar to the speaker, they discussed all the built up energy they had, how they would remember their first nights forever, and how they would be recreating those feelings with their spouses over and over again, keeping them together. That was definitely her dream and she talked about it with such zeal that it helped him get past his fear of being ridiculed by his friends for being a virgin and actually wanting to wait until he found his wife.
Then Liam happened.
They hadn’t talked about anything Liam or sex since his mother dropped off her clothes at the police station and Kaiya met with his mother’s detective friend. She refused to say who had taken away her dream and begged Jeremiah not to tell. The whole situation had surely shattered her view of everything.
And now, all Jeremiah felt was the heat and the urge to touch Kaiya. He felt the desire to give to her what he knew she couldn’t give to him. He pulled down and she straddled his body, sitting in his lap. He began to plant kisses on her neck and chest and caress her in his arms. He heard her let out a small moan which only intensified his feelings. Slowly, she removed his glasses and placed them on the nightstand beside his bed. After they both removed his shirt and tossed it to the floor, he brought his kisses back to her lips.
It wasn’t long before he found himself on top of her, stripped down to only his boxers and between her propped up knees and thighs. She pushed herself up to kiss him again, but he paused.
“What?” she whispered.
He gave her a half-smile, taking in her entire body. He pulled her left wrist to his mouth and kissed down her arm before placing it around his neck.
“I wanna make you feel good. I want to replace every pain and hurt that he caused, that anyone caused you.” He focused directly into her eyes. “I love you, Kaiya. I do. And you know I mean every word.” He could see her thinking, a half smile forming on her lips as she caressed the back of his head and neck. “But I won’t…if you don’t want me to.”
Kaiya gave a small laugh, moving a little under him. “If I didn’t want you to, we wouldn’t have gotten this far.” She gave him a full smile and moved her hair from her face.
Without hurrying, he leaned over and pecked her forehead, the tip of her nose, and then her lips. He pulled her legs up around his waist and steadily slipped in, watching her face. She opened her mouth a bit as they both inhaled deeply. They exhaled simultaneously and she smiled again at him, biting her bottom lip and letting her eyes close.
He couldn’t help but smile back. He watched her grab hold of his sheets and felt her cross her ankles. He kept his focus on her the entire time, taking note of every sound, movement, blink, and breath she made. He kissed her neck and chest in between his movements and allowed her to grab his arms, hold on to his body and move freely with him. He was making her feel better, feel good. And even in his mind, he couldn’t describe what he was feeling.
All his reservations about where things were going between him and Kaiya were moved aside for the moment like the pile of his clothes and Kaiya’s towel made on the floor next to his bed. His brain made room for what was happening now as it was being etched into his memory. He was making love to Kaiya, in his room, on his bed. The dim lighting was just enough to enjoy his view of the beauty he had always noticed. The sounds and rhythm of their breathing and her voice repeating his name in his ear, heightening his sensitivity to everything—the warmth of Kaiya’s body as she pulled him closer to her and tightened her grip around his neck and waist, the sweat forming on his forehead, the texture of the wood on his headboard, the pillow soft feeling of her hair against his skin. He was giving himself to her and she was doing the same and that was all that mattered. He couldn’t stop.
Jeremiah had never noticed just how much he wanted to be with Kaiya. He had no clue as to what changed in her mind that made her desire him so strongly. He never imagined it would ever get this far, especially with being friend-zoned early in their relationship. Her affection always seemed to be captured by someone else. Most days, he found himself wondering if there was something wrong with him, which would give her the reason why he couldn’t be in the position of the other guys. Other days, he figured there would be a day when they were older, she would finally realize how much she loved him too and they’d end up married with a couple of kids living in some random suburb or college town—and all he had to do was wait for that day.
He questioned: was that day now? Had it really come to the point where he and Kaiya had mutual feelings? Everything felt so good and so perfect—he didn’t want it to stop. And since this was real, did it mean what he thought it meant?
When all had calmed down, Jeremiah finished the way he started: he kept his eyes on Kaiya, moving with care and watching for her reassurance that it was what she desired. Her eyes were closed, but her mouth curled up into a smile.
“How do you feel?” he whispered in her ear, still breathing heavily. She nodded “yes” in response, reaching for his hand as he brought the sheets over their bare bodies and lay between her and the wall. He turned her head to face him and planted another kiss on her lips. “I love you, Kaiya Marie Parker.”
She opened her eyes a little, still holding on to his hand. She turned her body away from him, brought his arm around her and curled into his form. She kissed his bicep as he held her closer to him.
He closed his eyes and his pecked her neck before drifting off to sleep inhaling her scent, feeling her heartbeat, and listening to her breathe. He had Kaiya wrapped in his arms and for now, that was enough.


LIAM | 5

IT was the blaring of his alarm clock that woke him from his deep slumber. The sounds of an emergency bullhorn filled the room in echoes that startled him awake.
He didn’t hear what was his daily early morning workout playlist, a mimic of what he assumed was on his favorite athlete’s, Jeremy Lin, workout playlist. Most of it was Lecrae’s Church Clothes. The tunes served a two-fold purpose: they were intense enough to wake him from an enjoyable night’s rest in order to prepare him for the day but weren’t so annoying that his parents would complain. Their knowledge of Lecrae’s walk with Christ, which was how they worded it to Liam, gave him permission to play it pretty much all the time. And it was good music to him too, so a win-win.
When his body jerked up, Liam slammed his fist down on the snooze button, his force almost cracking the hard plastic. No music meant his iPhone wasn’t on the charger. He groaned loudly as he opened his eyes to look around. Though the curtains were open, it was still pretty dark outside. The little light in the room was coming from the open door that led to the en suite bathroom. He caught sight of his blue and white Jordans neatly placed up against a door across from the bed, his black hoodie hanging from the knob. His body was halfway covered by what he recognized was his Nana’s self-knitted afghan though he was still wearing his gym pants and Columbia University t-shirt and one side of the bed covers were pulled back for him to sleep under. He was home.
The realization confused him. It was a few minutes after five am; that knowledge only came to mind because he only had one alarm set. But how in the world had he got home?
Groaning from the growing headache, he slid from his bed and slowly moved barefoot across his carpeted floor toward the bathroom. He squinted to allow his eyes time to adjust to the light but blindly reached for counter tops. He felt an overwhelming sensation of heat come over his body. At his sink, he turned on the faucet and splashed cold water on his face and neck before staring at himself in the mirror. His hazel brown eyes were no longer surrounded by white but a fire red color. It looked like someone had taken a blood colored crayon and colored the area. When he touched them they were tender and he could barely blink without feeling some kind of pain. What had he done to his body?
There was a whole sixteen hours or so he did not and could not remember. Yesterday, he got up at five as usual, brushed his teeth, ate a protein bar, and stretched in his room before changing. He ran a mile in a circle starting at his house and through his neighborhood as a warm up, only stopping for a moment to share a moving conversation with the only other person up and outside that early, Andrew Hastings, who had never given up on his Marine Corps routine though he was on permanent leave due to half his right leg being blown off during a mission. When he returned home, he lifted weights in the basement for forty-five minutes then took a shower and was out of the door for school at exactly seven thirty-five.
Nothing special had happened at school that day, either. He went to his classes, talked to his friends, hung out a bit with the wrestling team during lunch. After school, he decided against his better judgment to accept the invite to the Ashley brothers’ place. They were really good friends, since middle school, but Coach Mitchell treated him, and the rest of the team, as if they were professionals—they were always in conditioning mode. Coach Mitchell had no reserves about calling pop-practices and with his brother being a police officer there were no qualms that kept him from sobriety or drug tests at any moment. And at the time, Liam wasn’t exactly in the mood to drink, but he went anyway.
That was all he could remember for the time after school. Westley, being twenty-two years old, picked the Liam and Jonathan up and drove them by Harold’s Liquor and Convenience Store to pick up the drinks and some snacks. He remembered hanging out with them in their garage, with the door closed and music blasting, sharing a couple of beers, a bottle of Vodka and orange juice, and ended up trying some of Westley’s new stuff.
As was his custom, Liam didn’t ask when Westley brought something new and Westley didn’t tell. Nine times out of ten, it was better not to know what was in it, who made it, or from whom he bought it. Liam even stopped trying to figure out how Westley was getting his hands on this stuff on a college campus or was selling it himself out of his dorm room. To get them to stop pressuring him, Liam had come to conclusion that he would only try it once. It was only once.
But now, looking at himself in the mirror and knowing that that was all he could remember, he could only ask, what the heck had he smoked?
He figured after everything there was only one explanation for him being at home right now—he had passed out at the Ashleys’ and they drove him home. He could not have possibly been awake or coherent enough to get up the stairs to his room and his Nana’s afghan didn’t appear out of thin air and magically be placed over his body. Even his shoes and socks had been taken off. There was clearly a lot of stuff he missed. Whatever Westley had given him definitely did not agree with his body. He vowed to never smoke again and definitely to never take anything from Westley.
Now Liam really began to feel the pain of his headache. While rubbing his temples, he opened his medicine cabinet and swallowed two small pills of ibuprofen. He hoped it was enough pain medication to kick in quick. His muscles began to ache and spasm and it was hard for him to stand. His body felt as if it were overheating, though he wasn’t wearing any sleeves and the cold of the white tiles cooled his bare feet. Then suddenly, a chill shocked Liam’s body, his knees buckled, his eyes crossed, and his stomach gurgled. A salty, burning liquid pushed itself up in his throat before it quickly spilled out of his mouth. Weakness overcame him, but he was glad that he left the toilet seat up.
IT only took a few heaves of Liam’s stomach before everything that didn’t agree with his body was out. He had flushed the toilet, prematurely, about six times, but all sight of his nausea was down the drain. His body was hot again and he only had enough energy to get off the bathroom floor and lie atop of the covers of his bed on his back. The headache had subsided to just a little pinch over his left eye and even that was going away.
He turned his head to check the clock: five forty-eight. He blinked slowly and ran his hand over his face as he yawned. He was not about to even attempt any workout routine this morning. He was just hoping that he would feel good enough to go to school. Due to random injuries from wrestling and some from goofing around, he had missed enough school for the front office staff to believe that he was skipping class and lying to his parents about it to get them to sign the papers or forging excuses. His parents were already going to ask a million and one questions about why his sleeping habits had suddenly changed; he didn’t want any extra attention today.
As if trying to recall on something to make him feel better, an image of Kaiya flashed into Liam’s mind. Immediately, he remembered that he had a dream about her. A very steamy dream, if that was a good enough description of it.
The two of them were, oddly, at the church. Not in the sanctuary, though. In the multi-purpose building behind the sanctuary. He had walked in on her setting up for something and he helped her, meaning he ate the cake. After she scolded him, he questioned if she liked him or not. Even in the dream, he was unsure if he liked her because he had never had feelings for her before. She was just a cute, friendly girl who pretty much maintained everything HGA had to offer, and did a pretty good job at it. He mostly admired how she juggled school, HGA, and some sort of job at a museum in downtown. Truthfully, he didn’t know much about her except that she became Jeremiah’s close friend when he and Jeremiah had grown apart. They all had met in the eighth grade when she was a whole lot bigger than she was now, and though he thought she was cute in the face then, he had no real attraction to her.
But in this dream, there was so much sexual tension between them. He found himself thinking that Kaiya was actually sexy and had a desperate urge to undress her. When he got close enough to her, she smelled heavily of cotton candy—his favorite cheat snack. Her lips were soft and tasted of peppermints and strawberries. When she stopped him, he wasn’t ready.
She had given him some story about not doing anything in the church. It was obviously a dream, so there was no need for this talk or fear that someone was going to walk in. They were a lone and they weren’t really in church, they were in his head. He tried to kiss her again and then she said something about her waiting until marriage. She practically proposed to him before turning away. Then he took her elbow or tugged at her shirt—he couldn’t quite remember—pulled her back to him, and somehow ended up on the floor. All that talk didn’t really matter anymore, he desperately wanted to see her naked. He almost laughed even thinking about it now; it was so unrealistic.
However, that was the only part that seemed false. Even though he didn’t undress her, he had unzipped his pants with one hand and found his way into her under the skirt she wore. He couldn’t remember her make any sound that he could hear, yet their bodies moved in sync with one another. He felt everything; from her initial tightness to the very rhythm of his movements. She had given him complete control of her body.
A knock came at his door. “Liam, sweetie.” It was his mother.
He growled lowly, staring at the back of his door. This was the second time he would be taken away from the best dream he could remember.
“I’m up.”
She cracked the door and her petite frame cast a shadow that spread across the floor all the way to his windows. “Are you dressed? It’s almost time for school, honey.”
No he wasn’t dressed. At least not for school; he was still in yesterday’s clothes. He was so busy recounting the dream to himself that he forgot to check the time and actually move from his bed. If his mother was knocking on his door, he had surely missed the bus.
With one eye open and his arm over his face, he watched his mother emerge from the hallway and into his room. Her almost jet black waves were in a tight bun and she wore her fuzzy pink robe and matching slippers. She didn’t seem ready to leave the house either. She sat facing him on the edge of his bed and place the back of her hand on his forehead.
“Your fever’s gone. That’s good.” She kissed where her hand had been. “How are you feeling?”
He looked up at her. Her eyelids were low over her eyes and the outer corners had small wrinkles. She looked like she hadn’t gotten much sleep.
“I’m feeling much better. I think I can go to school today.”
“Are you sure?” She gently rubbed the line of his jaw and examining the rest of his body with her eyes. “You came home yesterday mumbling something none of us could understand then you came to your room and fell asleep.” He came home alone? Westley’s stuff was harder than he imagined. He imagined himself walking all the way from one side of mid-town home. “You were burning up all night and then I heard you this morning. You scared Leah…”
“I’m sorry. Whatever that was, it’s all out of my system now. I’m good.”
She gave him a huge smile and patted his chest. “Okay. But you know if you feel sick at all today, just call me on my cell or at work. Your dad will be at the hospital all day visiting, but I don’t have much to do at the office so I can pick you up,” she rambled on. His father was in “Pastor” Luke mode already and it wasn’t even eight o’clock in the morning.
“Mom, I’m fine. Really. I’ll just rush a shower and be ready for you to drop me off.”
She stood up to leave. “Okay, sweetie.”
He did exactly as promised. His shower didn’t take long and it was easy to slip on a pair of khaki pants because it was still chilly from yesterday’s rainfall, a rolled up grey chambray shirt, and pair of golden brown Sperry boat shoes. He got caught up for a moment searching for his backpack when he remembered that it was probably still in the back of Westley’s car. Instead he grabbed a notebook and pen from his desk, hoping that Jonathan would show up to school and bring his things.
FOR the entire car ride and most of the day at school, Liam could not get the dream of him and Kaiya having sex out of his mind. The only times he didn’t think about it was when he said goodbye to his mother and promised her that he would call if he felt sick again, to give the occasional head nod of a hello, and to confront Jonathan about his brother and retrieve his backpack.
He found himself wishing that it had happened. Every time he relived the dream in his head he couldn’t help but imagine that there was a sexual goddess yearning to break out of that virgin shell of hers. He wondered if she did like him and if they would ever get close enough for that type of experience. For the entirety of third period history he daydreamed of what it would be like to see Kaiya completely naked and ready for him.
When he got to fifth period calculus after lunch, he finally realized that neither Kaiya nor Jeremiah had shown up for school. He did not have class with them until after lunch, when the classes were set up based on math and science levels. And it was easy for him to miss them during lunch because they were always off campus. Yet he expected to see them in their calculus class.
He didn’t see the empty chair at the third row’s middle round table where Kaiya was supposed to sit until Mrs. Phillips called roll.
She was answered with silence. “Kaiya Parker,” she called again. Mrs. Phillips glanced up from her clipboard and over her thick-rimmed glasses. “Hmm.”
Another thing Liam knew about Kaiya: she was a stickler for being on time and had a perfect attendance record since the eighth grade that would win her a million dollars. She had to be terribly sick or something worse to keep her from showing up to school.
“She was supposed to work out the proof for the Pythagorean Theorem today,” Mrs. Phillips stated before she moved on with the roll only stopping for a quick second to mark Jeremiah Perez as absent also.
Liam looked behind him at Owen Colt, a tall and lanky red-headed basketball player with freckles whose family attended the church and sometimes hung out with Jeremiah and Kaiya. He mouthed the words, “Where are they?” Owen just shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
Now his mind was obsessed with the fact that neither one of them were at school. At the end of class he offered to take the homework to Jeremiah and Kaiya, so they wouldn’t be too far behind the next time they came to class. He rushed out of the classroom and caught Owen in the hallway at his locker.
“You know where they are?” Liam asked.
Owen’s eyebrows came together. “Uh, no. I’m guessing they’re at home,” he answered with a bit of sarcasm. He continued pulling books from the packed and junky locker and placing them in his backpack.
“Seriously, Owen. Kaiya’s never absent. Didn’t she show up to the study party last night?” Liam was shocked at his own urgency to gather information.
Owen’s shoulders came up and down as he chuckled. “Why are you all of a sudden interested in what Kaiya’s doing? If you were there last night, you would’ve known.”
He didn’t really attend anything HGA, except when his father strongly suggested he go. The only times he ever showed up was when he wasn’t at practice, wrestling, or able to use his tiredness as a way out. To be honest, sometimes he didn’t feel all that welcome.
“You hang out with them…” He was at a loss for an excuse that wouldn’t make him seem like a stalker. “I just want to know where to go to give them the homework, that’s all.”
Owen rolled his eyes. “I don’t know where they are exactly. All Jeremiah told me is that Kaiya’s not feeling well and he and his mom are taking care of her. I was going to text them the homework.”
Liam shook his head. “Nah, that’s okay. I’ll just go take it to them. I already told Mrs. Phillips I’d do it.”
LIAM called his mother as soon as he returned home and found himself in almost a panic as he rushed to the garage to get his bike and travel to Kaiya’s place. It was now that he wished he had his license and a car because one, it would be quicker and two, his permit was burning a whole in his wallet. Unfortunately, his father was clear and stubborn about the car; Liam would have to trade his diploma for the keys.
Just before he hung up the phone, his mother asked him for a favor.
“Liam, sweetie,” she called as he unlocked the side garage door. “Before you leave, would you go into the kitchen and take that plastic white mixing bowl that’s on the counter to Kaiya? It’s Sister Denise’s and I forgot to bring it to church on Sunday. Since you’re going over there-”
“Sure,” he said with an exasperated sigh.
“Thanks, sweetheart.”
After Liam hung up the phone, he jogged to the kitchen through the backdoor, snatched the bowl of the counter and put it inside his backpack on top of his history and math textbooks. It took him fifteen minutes of pumping his legs hard to get to Kaiya’s place.
When he arrived, he was sweaty but not smelly. He thanked God for that. He used the end of his shirt to dry himself as he power walked from the sidewalk concrete, where he dropped his bike into the freshly mowed grass of her front yard, and up the brick walkway to the green door of the grey, slim but tall and almost modern, two story townhouse. He rang the doorbell, ready to greet Kaiya with a smile and her homework. He knew she would be overjoyed to get the homework, especially since Jeremiah wasn’t there to get it for her.
No answer.
He rang again. He couldn’t see inside the small, black windows because of the closed blinds. He didn’t hear any movement, not even the slightest sound of the television or snoring. It was pretty dark inside, from what he could tell, considering the sun was still out. Maybe she was upstairs or in her room with the door closed? He rang once more. Still nothing.
He checked his cell. Maybe she was with Jeremiah? He rolled his eyes and balled up his fists before getting on his bike again. It would take him another twenty or so minutes to get to Jeremiah’s.
This time, Liam wasn’t going to be sweaty, so he peddled with less force. He saw Jeremiah’s old Jetta parked at an angle in the driveway, right next to a clean, white Nissan Altima. Rather than going to the backdoor he remembered was by the driveway, he continued on to the front. Jeremiah had lived at this address as long as they knew each other, yet the last time Liam was here, the two of them were still in middle school and hanging out together. That was almost four years ago. Liam didn’t want to cause any unnecessary awkwardness.
Jeremiah’s house was wide and seemed to be off-balance in how the two stories were built only on the left side of the house. He remembered that’s where most of the rooms were built after Jeremiah’s widower great aunt passed away and his mother bought the place to renovate after she was promoted at Augustine’s Memorial Hospital. Its tan and brown stone stretched across the foundation and then up the two stories, the chocolate brown siding and white trim covered everything else. The wooden shutters matched the heavy dark green door with the frosted window. Ivy was growing up the right edge of the house.
Liam used the large metal knocker instead of the doorbell and stepped back to wait. On the other side he heard Jeremiah holler to his mother, “Got it!” and to the door, “Coming!”
The door opened and with his hands stuff in his pockets, Liam carefully watched Jeremiah’s smile transform into a frown. An awkward silence passed between them.
“Hey, Jeremiah. I, um, brought you the homework from calculus today.” Liam pulled out from his backpack a half piece of typing paper with the assignment written on it in pencil. When he looked up, he saw Jeremiah tighten his jaw.
“Thanks. But I already asked Owen to get it for me.”
Liam held the paper out and was glad that Jeremiah took it. “I know, but I promised Mrs. Phillips that I’d bring it to you and Kaiya.” Jeremiah shifted his weight to stand equally on both feet, blocking the entrance. “Have you seen Kaiya today? I stopped by her place, but no one answered the door. I have something my mom told me to give to her mom and-”
“I’ll give it to her,” he said curtly.
Another awkward silence. Liam didn’t know how to respond. Liam was just trying to fulfill his promise and Jeremiah was acting like he was ready to fight. In silence, Liam handed over the mixing bowl then put his backpack on his back.
“Anything else?” Jeremiah started biting the inside of his left cheek. He only did that when he was furious or frustrated. What did Liam do to him?
Liam shook his head. “No. Just wanted to give you guys that stuff, that’s all.” He wanted to say more about Kaiya, but he didn’t know what. He wanted to know where she was and if she was doing okay, but feared that it might anger Jeremiah even more. Although they were both athletes in their own right, Liam didn’t want to fight Jeremiah.
Before he could say goodbye, Jeremiah had slammed the door in his face.



Jeremiah immediately went into hero mode.
“Can you walk?”
When Kaiya didn’t respond, he rushed barefoot into the rain and put her arm around his shoulder leaning most of her bodyweight on him. She felt heavier than normal, like deadweight wrapped in sopping wet clothes. “C’mon, Kaiya, we’re almost inside. Just a few more steps.” With the kick of his foot, Jeremiah shut out the cold before slowly sitting Kaiya at the end of the brown leather couch.
He snatched his cell phone from the coffee table and sat close beside her on the couch’s arm, quickly dialing 911. Before the first ring, he felt Kaiya’s hand grab his wrist.
“No,” she whispered. There were no tears, no sniffing. She just stared at him, slowly blinking her eyelids as if she was too tired to lift them.
“But you need…”
It was like that was the only word she could get out. Her voice was hoarse and faint. Her clothes were hanging off her—the button-down was missing half of its buttons, one suspender was no longer attached to the twisted skirt around her waist, and her black tights had so many holes in them that it was hard to imagine how they were still on her body. What had happened to her?
Against his better judgment, when the emergency operator answered, Jeremiah calmly explained to her that it was a false alarm and the person did not need medical attention any longer.
Still in panic, he dialed his mother’s cell number. “Well, will you at least let me call my mother?”
His mother was the night shift charge nurse in the emergency room at Augustine’s Memorial in downtown—a quick fifteen-minute drive. He could get her there in less time if they left immediately and she wouldn’t have to wait to be seen because his mother would be ready. His mother would know just how to help Kaiya with little to no information. And Kaiya would trust his mother if not anyone else.
“No!” she took the phone from his hand and pressed ‘end’ before another ring. “You can’t tell anyone.”
Jeremiah exhaled in frustration, harshly rubbed his hands over his face multiple times before settling them on his jeans. He cornered himself on the edge, his wet clothes making a faint squeak when he faced her. She just stared at him and without a word to say, watched a single tear run down her right cheek and settle on her chin. Even with her dense, dark curls falling all around her face, he could tell that she was not looking at him but past him. Her breathing was slow and deep, as if every inhale and exhale counted toward keeping her still and calm. She did not seem bothered by her drenched clothes or the water that made puddles on the hardwood floor and seeped into the area rug.
With a sigh, Jeremiah walked behind the couch toward the staircase to get her a towel and hopefully find some clothes she would be able to fit from his mother’s room.
“Don’t leave me.”
“I’m just going to find you some dry clothes. You can barely walk.”
She caught grip of the end of his graphic tee as he passed between the back of the couch and the bar seating that extended into the walkway from the kitchen.
“Just stay with me.”
He paused with his back turned to her, attempting again to figure out what she needed him to do even if it went against what she wanted of him. Would it be better to get the clothes and leave her psychologically damaged after a trauma or just stay with her until his mother made it home?
His mother would have a better chance cleaning her wounds, anyway.
Jeremiah climbed over the back of the couch and pulled her body closer to his. He wrapped her in the motorcycle jacket he was going to wear when he left to meet her at the church and allowed her to nestle her body between his arm and his chest. He held on tight.
The television was on, an old episode of Rocket Power motherentarily distracted both of them. But he began to get fidgety. There was no way he could just sit still when his best friend was clearly hurt and most likely needed medical attention.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Even if she had allowed him to call his mother, he would not be able to explain anything because he had no clue.
He felt her wipe away tears.
“There’s nothing you can do about it,” she shrugged her shoulders, “It’s already happened.”
He glanced down at her fiddling with the lone ring on the ring finger of her left hand. It was looked oddly shiny, an almost polished gold, with a single pear-shaped emerald sparkling at its center. It was the abstinence ring her mother gave her at her Sweet Sixteen birthday party; there was an entire wedding ceremony and all. That day she wore a lace ivory dress that was just enough of a party dress to satisfy her fashion taste yet had she worn a veil, it would have been mistaken for a beach wedding dress or baptism attire at the church. She was happy and excited to take that vow despite most of the church members’ assumptions that her mother coerced her into doing it. But that was Kaiya, always wanting to do the right thing. She told him earlier that week that she wanted to please God and she didn’t want to wait until she was old and worn out to do so.
He watched her slowly pull the ring off and hold it in the palm of her hand. She tightly closed her fist and crossed her arms around herself.
Jeremiah cleared his throat. “You didn’t want to.” He didn’t phrase it like a question or even state it as if he were surprised. He knew. He could clearly tell by the disarray of her clothes and hair, her demeanor. How she would not let him leave her alone even for a few minutes. He felt he had to say it to reassure her that he believed her, that there was no judgment coming from him.
She shook her head. Neither of them paid attention to Rocket Power any longer. It was background noise.
“You gonna tell me who?”
That was a dangerous question. Jeremiah had no plan now, but he was sure to think of something devious that would get him in to a lot of trouble but make sure this guy paid for every ounce of pain he put Kaiya through. He didn’t care. Whoever it was that hurt her was going to pay, if he had anything to do with it.
She curled deeper under his arm and buried her face in his chest. There wasn’t anymore cold air inside and their body heat combined made them more content to where they were on the leather. In their silence, he could hear the loud clap of thunder and heavy rainfall crash against the roof and windows. They weren’t going anywhere tonight.
He contemplated calling the church or someone who had RSVPed, but then that meant he would have to give them an explanation as to why he nor their host showed up to the party. Jeremiah simply left his phone on the end table next to them. They were smart people. They’d figure something out sooner or later.
BEFORE he knew it, both he and Kaiya had fallen asleep on the couch in damp clothes, his arm still tight around her body. He was beginning to sweat a little from their body heat and the leather. When he opened his eyes, his head was resting against the back of the couch and all he could see was the ceiling fan. Without moving his body his eyes roamed around the family room. All the lights in the room, the kitchen, and above the staircase were still on. His glasses were a bit blurry from the dried droplets of rain he never cleaned off after he brought Kaiya in. The television was still on, now playing a late night rerun of some show he knew he had seen before but couldn’t quite find the name in his mind.
He turned his head to his right and carefully reached for his cell phone on the end table next to Kaiya who was softly snoring with her head against his chest. He pressed the home button. Underneath the bright readout of 03:47AM, he saw the list of five voicemails, twelve missed calls, and eight text messages—all of which were from a few peeps in HGA, Deacon Allen, but mostly from his mother. He wasn’t even going to bother trying to call her back. She would be home soon enough.
He was tempted to kiss Kaiya’s forehead before going back to sleep, but decided against it. Just as he was about to make himself comfortable again, he heard keys jingling against the wooden door that led to the driveway where he found Kaiya.
As soon as his mother’s feet crossed the threshold, Jeremiah had a “shh” on his lips and slowly removed himself from under Kaiya, leaving her to lie on the couch.
“Jeremiah Nathan Rivera Perez.” His mother spoke quickly and in a tone that did not require her to be loud to know that she meant business. “I have called you at least six times. What is the use of you having a phone if you don’t ever answer it?”
“I’m sorry, Ma. I fell asleep.” He closed the door behind her and took the bags from work she carried on her arms and walked through the archway to place them on the kitchen counter. His mother followed and put her purse next to the bags.
“Who is that on the couch?” Kaiya moved as if summoned by the question but did not wake. “What is Kaiya doing here? I thought you two were supposed to go to that study party at the church?”
“We were,” Jeremiah took off his glasses and cleaned them with the end of his shirt, “but something happened.”
His mother only glanced at him as she put items from her bags away in the refrigerator behind her. With his back against the counter, Jeremiah rubbed his eyes underneath his glasses as if they were itching or trying to wake himself up from a dream. He hoped it was all just an extremely horrible nightmare that he would wake from and go on about his business.
He turned his head to his left through the archway, away from his mother and her preoccupation with the fridge, contemplating how he was supposed to break the news to his mother and not wake Kaiya.
“I think Kaiya was raped.”
His mother dropped the plastic bottle of water she had in her hand on the floor and simply looked at Jeremiah with one brown raised and her jaw tight. “And you called no one?”
“Ma, I tried, but she wouldn’t let me.”
He could tell his mother was badly attempting to contain her rising frustration. She stepped over the bottle without looking at him and held her hand up to quiet his speaking. “She wouldn’t let you? Miah, this is serious. You could’ve just called me.” He followed behind her thinking, I tried all of that, Ma. With his hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans, he stood silent in the empty space between the couch and the bar stools as his mother gently shook Kaiya’s shoulder. “Mi hija…wake up, sweetie.”
Kaiya seemed to wake up with such clarity, almost like she had never gone to sleep. She still didn’t speak and had a tough time walking. When she looked at him Jeremiah bit the inside of his cheek, hoping that she knew he didn’t leave her to call his mother. He swallowed hard.
Afraid that he would do something else that his mother didn’t approve, like lift Kaiya too fast or touch a tender limb—or one that had to be examined and his touch would contaminate whatever evidence they might still have, he carefully helped his mother lift Kaiya from the couch and lead her upstairs to his mother’s room.
With his mother home and taking care of all the medical procedures he could not do, taking control of the situation, the shock of finding his best friend collapsed outside his house in the rain began to wear off. Kaiya would get the help that she needed and he could stop worrying—at least for now. There was still the question of who had raped her and if she was going to press charges against him. If she wasn’t going to do anything about it, Jeremiah was sure he would handle it for her.
After he and his mother got Kaiya to his mother’s bedroom and on the neatly made bed, he was pushed out of the room and made to sit waiting at the top of the staircase. He rested his head against the railing and closed his eyes, his palms together and vertical in front of his face.
He opened his mouth to softly whisper to the only other person with him. “Lord, I know you’re here and that you hear me and that you know everything, but I really don’t understand what is happening or why you let this happen to her. I just ask, please…please make it better. Please help Kaiya.”
IT wasn’t long before Jeremiah’s mother, still dressed in her lavender scrubs and sneakers, exited her room and slipped beside Jeremiah on the top step. She placed her cold hand on top of his; she had washed them. He unfolded from his position of prayer and removed his glasses from his face.
“How is she doing?”
His mother exhaled before answering. “She should be fine…physically. She’s sore, but mostly scared and hurt. I’ll call Denise in the morning and see if I can get a hold of her in Tokyo.” His mother’s hand was on top of his head, smoothing down his short cut hair, a method of calming him since he was a baby with lots of trouble going to sleep. “You still should have called me as soon as she got here. But she’ll be fine.”
Jeremiah fiddled with the rim of his glasses and tried to focus his eyes on the door to the driveway. His vision blurred trying to see that far. “Can I stay home today?”
His mother continued to soothe his anxiety. “Sure.” He did not look up at her. “You did good. Now try to get some rest.” She softly planted a kiss on his cheek before making her way down the stairs and toward the back of the house where his brother’s, Joey, room lay empty. “Good night.”
Jeremiah had no idea if Kaiya was awake or not. He ran to his room and grabbed the red and navy blue patchwork duvet off his bed and a pillow. “I’m right here, Kaiya,” he said through the keyhole. After making a pallet on the carpeted floor, he laid his head on the pillow and wrapped himself in the duvet with his back against the bedroom door. He refused to leave her alone.



Procrastination was Kaiya’s best and worst frenemy. Though she was known to be one of the most organized teenagers—her 3.7 grade point average proved her success—she had a bad habit of leaving lots of things to the last minute. And if she had stuck to her timeline and checklist, she would not have to deal with the stress of actually putting the study party together to make sure that people didn’t see her as a flake or disorganized.

It was times like these that made Kaiya wish she had a license, a car, or that Coach Otero had not called Jeremiah in for emergency drills. It wasn’t even the season for baseball. So she had to walk the entire thirty minute distance from her house to the church’s multipurpose building, carrying bags of snacks and holding a large ‘Happy Birthday’ sheet cake for this month’s birthdays under a dark sky that was ready to burst at any moment. On top of that, because she did not ask anyone other than Jeremiah for help, she was stuck setting up all the tables, chairs, and board games Deacon Allen supposedly left out.

With only three hours until the study party began and people started showing up, Kaiya rushed to lock up her house and power walk down the block focused on only what was in front of her. She prayed Deacon Allen got her voicemail and text message and left either the key or the church open. She was so focused on getting in to the church and finishing the setup on time that she did not notice someone walk right behind her and reach his hands under the sheet cake as she tried to open the door.


It was Levi. He had a good grip on the cake so that when Kaiya threw her hands up in terror he caught it. “You scared the heck out of me!”

He flashed his signature smile, lifting up the left side of his lip, laughing. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. You looked like you needed some help.”

Kaiya put her hand over her chest and breathed slowly, giving him a half smile in return. “Thank you. Actually I did.” She watched him pull a key ring with a small set of keys on it out of his hoodie’s front pocket and open the glass warehouse doors to the multipurpose building. He held out one of his hands to show her the way in. “Where did you even come from?”

“I was hanging out with Westley and Jonathan in their garage when I saw you pass by,” he said. “I didn’t realize how close you lived to the church.”


The large open space was as empty as Kaiya expected it to be, with the tables and chairs stacked in straight lines up against the brick walls, outlining the shape of the room. Levi followed her inside the bare kitchen area where they laid out all the snacks Kaiya bought for everyone on the center island.

“I hope it doesn’t rain until everyone gets here,” she said as she pulled out a two-liter bottle of Sprite. “I don’t want anyone to be left out because of a little rain.”

Levi put down the sheet cake and pushed off his hood. “It’s amazing how the weather can change that quickly. Yesterday it was blazing hot.”

“Right. You can’t even trust the weathermen.”

Avoiding eye contact, Kaiya immersed herself in arranging the drinks in the fridge and decorating the island bar counter with different flavored Laffy Taffy candies, chocolate, popcorn bags, chips and dip. In the corner of her eye, she saw Levi move closer to her, dipping his hand in the open bags and popping chips in his mouth.

“You do know that’s for everybody, right?”

He chuckled and placed another handful in his mouth, walking past the center island toward her. When she turned around from the fridge he stood over her with a mouth full of chips and a side smile. She quickly averted her eyes and stepped around him.

“So…I heard you have a thing for me,” he said, leaning over the counter with his eyes still on her. She did not turn to look at him and shrugged her shoulders, fiddling with the positions of the dip containers. “Oh, come on.”

Kaiya left the kitchen without answering him and began to move the chairs from the wall. She heard the squeak of his tennis shoes follow closely behind her and caught a glimpse of Levi putting down the tables. Every time he came close to her, she moved further away.

“Who told you that?”

“So it’s not true?”

Kaiya paused for a moment, glanced in Levi’s direction and the clock high on the wall behind him, and then proceeded to fix the chairs around the tables.

“I mean, I like you, yeah. We’ve known each other for a while and have had meaningful conversations, I guess.”

Again, while Kaiya was distracted, Levi found his way in front of her, cornering her next to the exposed brick. This time he stood closer than before.

“You know that’s not what I mean,” he whispered.

His warm breath against her face made Kaiya almost hold her own. He brought his hand to her face and caressed it, his lips being not so far behind. She instantly melted. Once their lips touched, her immediate reaction was to kiss him back. It was all she wanted and imagined him doing for years and it had finally happened.

Kaiya’s own hands and arms moved without any hesitation as they wrapped around his torso and pulled his body closer to hers. He softly parted her lips with his tongue, joyously welcomed by the light moan that escaped her mouth. That must have excited Levi; Kaiya’s eyes opened once she felt his free hand roam down her back and squeeze her buttocks.

She pulled away. “Wait, stop. We can’t do this.”

“Yes we can,” he said. “No one’s here or will be here for a while.”

Levi moved in for another kiss, but she held him back with her hands on his chest. “No,” she said, “I like you, a lot. But no, we can’t and we shouldn’t. Especially not here.”

“No one’ll know.”

“I said, ‘no.’ And you shouldn’t want to either,” she responded, staring directly into his eyes. “At least not yet. We’ve got school, college…what about getting married? There’s one more year until we can do that legally or we could ask our parents.”

“Who said anything about marriage?” he laughed.

Kaiya scoffed and then looked at the floor. “Well, I want to wait until I’m married, okay? Sorry to disappoint.”

Levi stretched out his arm and placed his wide hand across the brick wall. Kaiya glanced at it then rolled her eyes with a slight shake of her head. He was acting so different. Nothing like she remembered him or even how she saw him just minutes beforehand. She regretted allowing him to kiss her.

When she moved to get away from him, he gripped her forearm.

“What are you doing? Let me go, please.”

He didn’t respond, only stared at her.

“Levi, let me go. I have to finish setting up.”

Before she could get another word out, he slammed her against the brick wall. She cried out, her eyes bulging. She could feel the sharp edges of the wall cut into the skin on her back. With one hand he kept her pinned to the wall; with the other, he pulled and tugged on her shirt, popping off buttons. She kicked upward; yet only reached a part of his thigh.

She tried to run but he still had a good grip on her top. The both of them fell to the floor—she hit it hard and he crashed on top of her.

“Levi, stop! Okay! Okay! I’ll do it! I’ll do it!”

She could not believe this was happening. She knew the more she tried to fight him off, the angrier he would get and the more it would hurt. Wrestling, along with everything else he did, made him so much stronger than she. So as he lifted the skirt part of her dress—the one time she decides to wear a dress in cool weather—she allowed her head to fall over to the side, staring out of the space at the entrance doors. She felt him rip her tights and lift up her right leg while he moved around, shimmying out of his own pants. She held her breath when he forced himself in and did not exhale until she could not hold it anymore.

Her mind was blank the entire time. She just stared out the door. No one came early. It did not start raining. Not one person even passed by the doors. Not even an animal scurrying down the sidewalk.

Once he was done, she felt him roll over and lie on his back. The tiled floor felt like freezer burn against her skin and she could barely move her legs without pain. For another moment she did not move until she heard Levi’s raucous snoring echo throughout the hall. She slowly glanced over to make sure he was asleep before she moved again.

A single tear fell from her eye when she lifted herself off the floor using a nearby chair. She did not look back once she got to the door. And she was not going back home. There was only one other place she could go.

Kaiya limped for at least two hours in the rain to get to Jeremiah’s house. She only hoped that he had not left home already for the study party. At his door, she rang the doorbell twice before her legs gave out and she collapsed on his welcome mat. Her hair fell around her face as she curled over herself. With one hand she attempted to beat on the door.

“Please be home,” she whimpered.

She heard the door open. “Kaiya? Kaiya! What happened?” He was home. She felt him left her head and try to help her up. “Kaiya. Kaiya, talk to me.”

“I’m sorry.”


/ˈsərfis/ adj.
1. Of, relating to, or occurring on the upper or outer part of something.
syn: superficial, external, exterior, outward, ostensible, apparent, cosmetic, skin deep.

When we can no longer breathe, we will rise to the surface.

1 | LIAM

If anyone could move from leading praise and worship to delivering a sermon in front of two hundred plus people sitting below on blue upholstered wooden pews without a hitch, it was Liam Steele. Resembling the spitting image of his father at seventeen he strummed the acoustic guitar and powerfully sang the closing lyrics to Starfield’s “The Kingdom” with the entirety of the congregation singing along, the movement of his arms careful not to wrinkle his denim shirt or play a wrong note. He held the guitar close as he leaned into the standing microphone smiling slightly at the satisfaction of seeing the church enjoy the song he chose and raise their hands at his voice. In the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of his father, Pastor Luke, to the right of him doing the same.

Rather perfectly, he hummed the melody while the rest of the praise team sustained the rhythm, handclaps, and stomps. He stepped up on the blue-carpeted elevated platform, past the hanging projection of the lyrics, where his father stood in front of long black and white cushioned pew with his hands clasped in prayer form. Once the music stopped, his father took a moment to pull him into a hug, almost covering him with the navy blazer he wore, and pat him on the back.

“Good job, son,” he whispered as he pushed Liam forward toward the oak pulpit at the edge of the platform. “Make me proud.”

Of course he would make his father proud. He had been taught by the best. Liam had come from a long line of pastors, missionaries, seminary professors, and Jewish and Early Christian historians. He could quote the most obscure of scriptures, things people once heard a long time ago in their childhoods but could never find without being told exactly where it was. He knew more about ancient Israel than he knew about early United States history. Public speaking was in his nature; it was like his father and grandfather trained him for opportunities like this.

And he had rehearsed this sermon at least twenty times in the past week, performing for his mother and baby sister for feedback and criticism, preparing himself to deliver his sermon directly to his peers. 1 Timothy 4:12 was something they all knew and heard and Liam was going to tell the leaders who were youth in the church the proper conduct.

Liam did this every fourth Sunday of the month; it was Youth Sunday. Though there were plenty of volunteers for ushers, greeters, and servers for the community lunch after service every time this Sunday rolled around in the month, no one ever stepped up for the sermon.

His sermon was actually supposed to be sermonettes – five exactly. Five different kids from LYL C (Live Your Life for Christ, the elementary and junior high kids) and HGA (His Glory Alone, the high schoolers and young adults) were supposed to give five-to-ten minute sermonettes. But every fourth Sunday, it was always Liam giving a full on forty-five minute sermon, like his father.

Now he really didn’t mind speaking in front of the sitting audience, watching the pens and Bible pages move frequently and hearing them give occasional “Amens.” It was the fact that he was always the one to speak. Wasn’t there at least one other person capable of giving a sermon? Were his peers so stupid that they didn’t see that the more who sign up, the less time they have to speak? Why didn’t his father just step in and choose someone? Or better yet, ask his mother, who was also an ordained pastor, to give a special sermon?

“And that’s why Paul tells Timothy to act in this way,” Liam said as he came to his conclusion, “As Timothy was like us, someone aged in the middle, we are to be examples not only for the little ones who look up to us but if we act according to God’s word, the older – excuse me, more seasoned – people would see what’s good to do also. Then the more seasoned people would not only forget about how old we are but also respect us as leaders. And as a leader, we definitely need respect. Follow God, you gain respect.”

Liam gently slapped the outside of the pulpit and ended to the applause and standing ovation of the entire congregation. His mother, in the handmade summer dress gifted to her by their sponsored Ugandan family, waved a colorful arm to him and gave him the thumbs up from the front row. For the umpteenth time, he would be the conversation starter over dinner tonight. He hoped his parents would focus more on Hannah’s first day of Kindergarten. Her first day of real school should be a lot more important than another rehearsed sermon given on another Sunday. There was nothing new about it.

Since he gave the sermon, he took his place beside his father at the open French double doors of the lobby, shaking hands and making small talk with the congregation. He never understood how his father could be so dedicated to this aspect of being a pastor; even if he didn’t preach or was terribly tired, his father still took the time to talk to each and every person who passed by.

“How are you doing, Sister Denise?” his father smiled, shaking both Sister Denise and her daughter’s, Kaiya’s, hands.

“Very good, actually. I got the design contract in Japan. So I’ll be gone for a couple of weeks,” she said and pushed Kaiya forward, “And I’ll be entrusting my honor student here with the house.”

“Congratulations to the both of you. I’m glad you two are doing well. And I can’t wait to hear what you have planned for HGA this week,” said Pastor Luke.

Kaiya giggled. “It’s going to be fun. Jeremiah’s the DJ and it’s going to be like a huge tutoring or study party. Like come and get tutored or take a short break.” She batted her eyelashes at Liam then looked away. “Maybe Liam can join us? I know all of HGA would want you to be there. And that was a really great sermon.”

Liam gave her a smirk back and fixed the collar on his shirt. Kaiya was kinda cute, especially when she smiled, her high cheekbones pushing the outer corners of her shimmer gold lined eyes higher up. “You know I’ll be there, if my dad says it’s okay.”

“Of course it’s okay. What kind of father would I be if I didn’t allow you out of the house with friends I know and people I trust,” Pastor Luke said as he slapped his hand on Liam’s back.

“And of course with the college HGAs and Deacons Allen and Mark, they should be well supervised,” Sister Denise said with a side eye to both her daughter and Liam.

Liam filled his cheeks with air and deflated them fast. Kaiya nodded her head, awkwardly smoothing down her black lace dress.

“That’s the plan.”

Pastor Luke’s laugh cleared the air. “Well our kids are good kids and I’m sure everything is going to run smoothly. Thanks for all of your hard work, Kaiya.”

With a grin, Kaiya ran her hand down Liam’s forearm as if she missed his handshake and said, “See you at school tomorrow.”

As she walked away with her mother, he kept watch on the movement of her hips. He could only guess that she was going extra hard on the slow walk down the concrete pathway to the parking lot in a pair of heels that made her only a few inches shorter than he. She may not have been the thinnest girl, but she knew how to dress herself to enhance the curves she had and the chubbiness she had gotten rid of last year.

She liked him.

At least two large groups of members crossed in front of him before snapped his fingers. “Liam? You okay, son?”

“Yeah,” he nodded while shaking Sister Lillian’s hand and playing with her toddler son. “Just a little hungry, I guess.”