The June bugs pelt the screen door as Rani and Hank sway on the porch swing to the sound of the crickets. Their lips are locked and their bodies are entwined in the pale yellow glow of the porch light. Summer has yet to reach its peak as far as heat goes, and the nights still carry the slightest chill. Rani pulls away, her lips swollen and red, drunk with lust and happiness. She's known Hank for as long as she can remember, but it wasn't until he asked her to prom this past spring that she ever considered him more than just her buddy. She likes the dazed look in his eyes after they've been making out. The way his hair sticks up in every which way after she's been running her hands through it makes her stomach hurt, in a good way. In the fall, they'll both be seniors and then they're planning to go to the same college. They've been planning to go to the same school since they were freshmen; back when they were just good buddies.
Rani nestles her head against Hank's chest and snuggles into the crook of his arm. She sighs with contentment as he places a sweet chaste kiss on top of her head just as the swing starts to vibrate. They both ignore her phone beckoning from the arm in favor of remaining embraced. Rani senses the shift in the atmosphere, though. Feeling the tension in Hank's previously relaxed frame, she takes a deep breath in an attempt to relieve her own uncomfortable awareness. They both know the phone's vibrations could indicate yet another message from him.
Conrad was not pleased when Rani ended their relationship; and he's devoted his life to making it very clear for the past eight months. His inability to accept this has plagued her relationship with Hank from the very beginning. Luckily, Hank is very understanding. Plus, he knew what he was getting himself into before he ever asked her out. He makes dealing with the constant calls and texts and random knocks at her door almost tolerable. She's changed her number three times, to no avail. They're in high school after all, if one person has somebody's phone number, anybody can get it. When she reaches her breaking point, Hank is always there to smooth her hair back and tell her he'll never let anybody hurt her. She believes him. She feels safest when he's near.
Rani didn't date Conrad very long. He took her to the Homecoming dance in the fall of their Junior year. She had always had a crush on him and was completely floored that he asked her out. Her mother took her shopping for a new dress and when he came to pick her up, he brought a pretty wrist corsage that matched perfectly. During the dance he came across as kind of odd, but she overlooked it. He was the hottest guy in school, and he wanted her. When he wouldn't let her leave his side to talk to her friends at the dance, she felt the slightest flutter of alarm, but pushed it away. She reasoned that he liked her so much he wanted her all to himself. She convinced herself that there was something kind of romantic about it and managed to have a great time. He called the next day and they ended up going on three more dates. Each time Rani picked up on something uncomfortably possessive about him. He criticized her clothing and hair. If she didn't answer her phone when he called he accused her of seeing someone else. The relationship ultimately ended when he confronted her at her locker for walking from class with Hank. He screamed in her face and chucked her Geometry book down the hallway. Suddenly, he was no longer the hottest guy in school. The thought of him made her stomach turn.
She soon learned that Conrad couldn't handle being dumped. The remainder of the fall, and throughout the winter, he lurked in her shadow. She never felt alone or at ease. She quit participating in extracurricular activities and stopped hanging out with her friends. His incessant text messages and phone calls ranged from overly sweet to threatening. She parked in the teacher's parking lot at school and went straight home as soon as the bell rang each afternoon. Once, for two weeks straight, she would find a bouquet of roses waiting for her. Her parents worried about her safety, but they also worried for her mental state. One day, they sat her down and told her living in fear was no way to live. They contacted the police, and the school, and Conrad's parents; but that seemed to only encourage him. He started waiting for her at her locker after each class and leaving notes with pencil drawings of her taped to it. In one of them she had a halo and angel wings. That one made her particularly uneasy. She eventually started carrying all of her books in her backpack in order to avoid her locker entirely. Finally, one day, she arrived home from school to find, not another bouquet of roses from Conrad; but Hank, sitting on the porch swing waiting for her. She let him in the house and as his cheeks turned flame red, he asked her to be his prom date. She couldn't seem to resist his cute lopsided grin, and accepted without hesitation.
Since that day, she's felt safe enveloped in Hank's embrace. At first she was afraid to be seen with him at school for fear that Conrad would retaliate, but he remained relatively silent for awhile. The phone calls and text messages almost stopped. The sickeningly sweet aroma of roses no longer met her as she walked up the steps to the porch...until a week ago. Something has triggered Conrad once again, and though she won't admit it aloud, she would prefer to be inside the house right now with the doors locked.
The phone quits vibrating, and Rani tries to resist the urge to check the missed call. She knows it is likely him, but it could also be her mom and dad. They are spending the night out of town for their anniversary and she doesn't want to worry them. She hesitantly reaches for the phone and Hank squeezes her hand reassuringly. He is so understanding, her big strong protector. Rani doesn't know if she could be as wonderful as he is if the tables were turned. She hits the button to check her missed calls and feels bad when she discovers the call was from them. She dials back immediately and assures her safety. She doesn't tell them that Hank plans to spend the night, as she can't bear the thought of staying alone; especially after promising her parents she was no longer afraid of Conrad. She feels guilty lying to them, but she knows they would never allow him to stay if she were to ask. To her surprise however, they are calling with a change of plans. They tell her that they have arranged for her to stay at Hank's house overnight in lieu of staying in the house alone. Thought, Rani suspects their intent was to arrange for parental supervision while they were out of town.
The knot in her stomach begins to ease as she bids "goodnight" to her mom and dad. She wishes them a happy anniversary and tells them she loves them. After relaying to Hank their new plans for he evening, he simply chuckles and fixes his face into an overdramatic pout. "They're never going to let us sleep in a bed together." Rani laughs and stands, pulling Hank to his feet with her. He wraps her in a big bear hug that makes her squeal. "Come on, we should pack my pajamas and lock up the house. If we don't get to your house soon, your parents will think we're having wild sex."
Their easy laughter rings through the dark and quiet night as they enter the house, the screen door slams with finality, and Rani instinctively locks it behind them. Inside the house is dark. Rani realizes that she and Hank have been outside on the swing since it was daylight and she never turned on the interior lights when darkness fell. Her stomach gives her a momentary warning flutter of panic, but she squelches it. She calmly turns on the lamp by the couch and flicks switches as she makes her way to the back of the house to check that she had, in fact, locked the back door that afternoon. She knows she did, and she knows she checked it about fifteen times before Hank came over. She's not sure where he went, though she's sure he is upstairs packing her overnight bag. She smiles at the thoughtfulness of her sweet boyfriend. She genuinely can't get enough of the guy. He's a dream come true. Her mother says it's just the way young love is and it doesn't always last, but Rani can tell her parents love him just as much as she does.
As she enters the kitchen and approaches the back door, that old familiar sense of dread creeps through her scalp. Like tiny little needle pricks all over her head. She tries to shake it off, especially after confirming the back door is closed and locked, just as she left it. As she turns to go find Hank, a breeze brushes over her arm, and she notices the small pane of glass missing from the door. It is big enough for someone to stick their hand through and turn the lock to enter. It is right then she knows he's in the house. She can feel him looking at her. Just as this realization hits, as if it were scripted, the house goes dark. A small sliver of light cuts through the carpet of the living room from the street light outside, but other than that, she can't see a thing. Her entire body goes cold as she suddenly remembers Hank. "Hank!" She is screaming and sprinting toward the stairs. She is almost there before she feels pain exploding through the back of her skull. She watches the carpet creeping closer and closer to her, as if in slow motion, before she lands face first on the floor, and everything goes black.
Rani wakes in her bedroom. Staring at the ceiling, she can smell the candle she keeps on her nightstand. Even when it's not lit the overpowering fragrance of lavender permeates the entire room. She can also smell Conrad's cologne. He's in the room with her, but she can't see him. The room is pitch dark, despite the dim glow of the bathroom light down the hall. As she attempts to sit up she finds that she's somehow bound to the bed. Pain shoots through her head and her stomach roils. She can't see anything and wonders where he is. She wonders where Hank is. "Oh God, please let him be okay." It comes out as a soft and pleading whisper. This plea is returned with a sinister chuckle from the corner of the room. She can't see his face, but she knows it's him. He's sitting in the white rocking chair her grandmother gave her for her tenth birthday. She imagines her beloved teddy bear, Oscar, being smushed under his weight. He wouldn't think to move him first. He would have just sat right down on top of him. Rani groans in pain as Conrad begins to speak, "Hank is no longer a problem, Rani. If you had just given me a chance. If you hadn't loved him more than me, maybe he'd still be alive."
Pain sears through her chest, and she knows it is her heart literally breaking in two. She resists the urge to cry out in agony, because she knows that is what he wants her to do. This is all her fault. He's gone because of her. It takes everything in her power to remain calm and fight through the tears burning like fire in her eyes. Part of her wants to give in and get it over with. There is no way Conrad will let her out of here alive anyway. Then there is the other part of her that is determined to live. She decides she won't just try; she will succeed, for Hank. If they weren't cloaked in darkness, Conrad would be able to see her boiling rage, and she wishes he could. Her heart pounds out of her chest, in unison with her throbbing head. Rani works to slow her breathing before she speaks; to suppress the sobs vibrating in her throat, begging to escape. "Please, Con, untie me. Let's talk about this. I am sorry I hurt you, but you were scaring me. Girls don't fall in love with boys when they scare them. Maybe we can talk about this and work something out."
He sneers back at her, "It's too late Rani. That big oaf in the hallway took you away. Did you think I wouldn't notice the way you look at him? He stole you away from me, and now that he's gone, you'll always love him. You'll never bring yourself to love me, because I'll always be the one who took him from you. How does it feel, Rani? How does it feel when someone takes away something you love?"
Rani fights back a wave of nausea. Hank had come upstairs to pack her bag for her. He was doing something sweet and thoughtful, and Conrad killed him in the hallway. She wonders how long he had been there in the house, waiting. He had to have been watching them on the front porch. Watching them kiss and snuggle. He probably saw them tense when the phone rang. As a shudder of revulsion goes through her body, she becomes even more determined to live through this. She tries to figure out a way to free herself. She casually runs her fingers along the sides of the bed and finds that he has bound her wrists and ankles with rope and tied each one to the bed posts. They are pulled taut but the rope around her right wrist feels looser than the other one. She begins to work her hand out of it without drawing attention to what she is doing. To distract her captor, she begins to speak. "You're never going to get away with this. You know that don't you?" She can feel her hand slipping from its bondage. The rope is rough and burning her hand, but she keeps her voice steady. "Everyone knows you're obsessed with me. They'll all know when they find both Hank and me dead that you are the one who did it." All but her knuckles and fingers are free. She says a little prayer that he doesn't notice. The room seems so dark, but she isn't sure how much of her is illuminated by the bathroom light. She wishes she could see his eyes.
The rocking chair creaks, and Rani freezes. She relaxes her right arm and holds her breath, but he never approaches her. The room is silent for what seems like an hour, but is likely only a minute or so; and then she hears it. He is crying. She can't bring herself to feel anything but disgust. "Conrad, you're sick. You need help. Please just let me go and we'll call the police. You won't go to jail. They'll send you to a hospital and make sure you get better." She is pleading with him now, pleading for her life. Her aim is to make him cry harder, so that he'll take his attention off of her long enough to make it possible for her to defend herself. She dares to lift her head and discovers that her eyes have adjusted to the dark, and she can see him quite well. No details, but the outline of his body sitting in her chair is very distinct. She sees that his head has lolled forward and his shoulders are heaving through the gurgling sobs. This is her chance. She has one shot, or she's dead. Working the rest of her hand out of the rope, she grabs the large fragrant candle from her nightstand and heaves the heavy jar in his direction. The pain shoots through her body but she ignores it as she aims right for his head. The sickening sound it makes when it hits him causes her heart to leap into her throat. She hears a thud, and prays it is his body hitting the floor. In survival mode, she begins to claw at her restraints. He was in a hurry when he bound her and the knots aren't tied properly. She is able to get her other wrist free rather quickly, and sets to work on her ankles. She doesn't hear any movement or noises coming from the direction of Conrad. He must be out cold. Her dark and fleeting hope is that she's killed him, but her guilt at that hope overrides, and she pushes the thought away as she begins working on untying the knots around her ankles.
Working as quickly as she is capable, Rani frees her feet just as she hears the front door crashing in. In her desperation, she didn't notice the flashing red and blue lights filling the dark house. It now looks like a rave is going on in the living room. Not caring how they've come to be there, Rani scrambles off the bed and rushes into the hallway screaming. "Help, Help Hank!!!" The police are rushing up the stairs when the leader of the pack looks at her expectantly. She simply points in the direction of her bedroom and watches them funnel into her prison. She spins around, searching for her boyfriend; but the hallway is empty. The only thing out of place is a dark stain on the creamy carpet. Panic, and then relief, flows through her; giving her a surge of adrenaline. He might still be alive. "Hank! We have to find Hank!" Rani grabs the arm of a police officer exiting her bedroom. He looks at her grimly and begins to speak, but she interrupts him. "We have to find Hank!" She screams in his face and he looks confused. He reaches out and places a hand on her back as he attempts to lead her toward the stairs. "Miss, you don't want to go in there." Rani doesn't understand and holds firm. They should have Conrad in handcuffs right now. She wants to see them lead him out of her home. She wants to be certain he is gone. "You don't understand. He killed Hank....well he said he killed Hank. He said he was in the hallway but he's not. We have to find him, he could still be alive!"
A fleeting look crosses the officer's face. Rani can't quite place it. Is it pity? "Where's Conrad? Ask him, he'll tell you. He sure seemed pretty proud of himself when he told me." The officer puts his arm around Rani's shoulders and continues leading her down the stairs. Once they are in the living room, he motions for her to sit down on the sofa. "Miss, a Mr. Hank Ford called and alerted us to the goings on here. His throat had been cut, but not deep enough to fully sever the artery." Hope soars through Rani, Hank is alive. He saved her life. "He's okay? Conrad didn't kill him? Is he outside?" The officer looks uncomfortable, as if he doesn't want to tell her something. "Unfortunately, he had also been stabbed multiple times. I'm sorry, but he didn't make it."
The elusive sobs which had been forced down during her altercation with Conrad finally break free with a guttural roar. The officer, visibly uncomfortable, pulls a hanky from his pocket and hands it to her. He pats her shoulder and lets her cry for awhile. She is grateful he doesn't try to ask her any questions; grateful she is being given a chance to mourn. Hank is dead because of her. The devastating reality of it hits her like a heavyweight champ. She knows she'll never forgive herself. She can't imagine this pain ever going away. After awhile, she realizes nobody has come down from upstairs. "What happened to Conrad?"
The officer swallows loudly. Rani feels bad for him. This is a quiet town. Something like this has never happened as long as she's been alive. "He, uh, didn't make it either."
She feels relief, and guilt for feeling relief. Then, something occurs to her. "Did I...kill him?"
The officer smiles as reassuringly as he seemingly can under the circumstances. He pats her hand, trying to be as comforting as he is allowed to be; but instead of comfort she feels numb and distant from her own body. "No, it appears he was already deceased before you, I'm assuming, threw the candle at his head. He slashed his own throat, and presumably bled out on the rocking chair before it ever made contact."
Rani feels sick. She realizes the crying she thought she heard was Conrad dying in her rocking chair sitting on top of her beloved teddy bear. The officer starts talking to her again, but she is having a hard time processing what he is saying. Something about her parents being on their way and Hank's parents being contacted. Her heart breaks once again for them. Like her, Hank was an only child, his parents will be devastated. She feels like a zombie as the officers lead her from the home she's always known; a place that will never again feel the same. She is in a state of numbness when her grandmother arrives. She wraps her arms around Rani and helps her into the car. She hears someone saying something about a hospital, and recalls she was hit in the head and should probably be checked out to make sure she doesn't have a concussion. Rani is in a daze, everything her grandmother says on the ride to the hospital goes in one ear and out the other. She feels cold and alone and empty. She wishes Hank hadn't been there. If she had been alone, Con would have killed her and Hank would be safe.
After being released from the emergency room with no discernible injuries, aside from a headache and a broken heart; the police inform her grandmother that their questions for Rani can wait for the following day. She'll spend the night at her grandmother's house, her home away from home for as long as she can remember. Tucked beneath the white quilt with little pink rosebuds scattered throughout, she wonders if she'll ever feel normal again. She certainly can't go home anytime soon, not that she would want to. The doctor gave her something to help her relax and sleep, and she prays that sleep comes without dreams. While she waits for the pills to do their job, she imagines Hank is beside her. She is wrapped safely in his big comforting arms and he is peppering her temple with tiny kisses. She was right to always feel safe with him. In the end, he saved her life, at the cost of his own.
Starting tomorrow she intends to never take another day for granted. She'll never let his sacrifice have been in vain. Before she drifts off to dreamland, she reaches up and switches on the bedside lamp, and then switches it off again, bathing the room in darkness. Closing her eyes, she decides she's also never going to take another night for granted.