I drew in a deep breath as I took another step back, close to the open door. Screw getting my stuff. I didn’t want to be in the room with him a second longer. “I’ll just come back another—”
Erik shot forward so fast I didn’t see him move. One second he was standing by Deb’s bed and the next he was in front of me. A scream built in my throat, but it never escaped. He was on me before I could make a sound.
Smacking his hand down on my mouth, he twisted his arm, spinning me back from the door. A metallic taste filled my mouth as my lips smashed into my teeth. Off balance, my right leg gave out as he slammed his hand in the center of my back. I went down on my left side, catching myself with my hands at the same point I heard the door slam shut and lock.
I was stunned for a moment as I slowly lifted my head up. Strands of hair fell forward, obscuring my vision. The inside of my lips burned, and my brain had a hard time catching up with what just happened, but when it did, fear roared through me, coating my skin in ice and freezing my breath.
He wrapped his fingers around my ponytail, wrenching my head back. I yelped as heat spiked down my spine. “It was your fault.”
I grasped his hand, trying to leverage my weight as fire spread across my scalp. “What are—?”
“Don’t act like you have no idea.” He dragged me until I was perched on my knees. I shifted my weight onto my left, but the position hurt. “Debbie’s dead because of you.”
“You’re crazy.” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop myself. “You’re f**king crazy. You killed—”
Erik let go of me so quickly that I fell back. His hand snaked out, striking me across the face and spinning my thoughts. I fell to the side, jaw stinging, and the room seemed to shift floor to ceiling. Tears of pain filled my eyes as I dragged in air. A burn raced across my face as I slowly opened my jaw. My brain couldn’t process any of this. How did I go from taking finals to this?
This couldn’t be real—could not be happening.
Every part of me froze up. It was too familiar. The way my lip ached, how numb my skin felt, the buzzing inside my head. I’d been here before, on the floor, head spinning from a hit I hadn’t seen coming.
Suddenly, it was like being sixteen all over again, cowering on the floor as Jeremy went into one of his rages over something so simple, so stupid. Helpless. Scared. Confused. Body and hands shaking.
“I’m not crazy, and it’s not my fault that Deb died.” Anger edged his voice, making it razor-sharp. “If you hadn’t said anything to her and minded your own goddamn business, she wouldn’t have broken up with me.”
“What?” Blood leaked out of the corner of my mouth. I wiped it away with a trembling hand and found myself staring at the horrifying smear of red.
“When you asked her about the bruises! And then that f**king Sunday. You had to get involved.” He started toward me. “You just had to be standing there and get hurt. Like it was my f**king fault. It wasn’t! It was yours!”
Fury snapped at the heels of the rising fear, and I did something I’d never done with Jeremy, no matter how bad it got.
I wasn’t a victim anymore. I would never be the victim again.
“So typical.” I spat the words out. “You hit someone and it’s always their fault. Never yours.”
“Oh, shut up, you stupid gimpy bitch.”
Planting my hands on the floor, I ignored the dizziness that assaulted me. “I guess your fists just slip and fall on people’s faces?”
“Only those who deserve it.”
“Did Debbie deserve it?”
He cursed. “Don’t you dare talk about her. You don’t know shit.”
I lurched to my feet and staggered back, bumping into the bed. Lifting my head, I saw Erik advance through a haze of tears. I spun, reaching for the closest weapon. I grabbed the bedside lamp, ripping it from its plug, more than prepared to knock him upside the head so hard that it kicked him into the next dorm.
He swung at me, and I jumped back. The momentary loss of balance gave him a second to gain the upper hand. He snatched the lamp from my hand and tossed it across the room. It hit my clothes and then thudded off the wall. My heart stopped, and then I whirled toward the door.
Pain exploded along the back of my head, doubling me over. The walls tilted again, and I blinked to clear my vision, but it felt like it took hours to reopen my eyes. The next thing I knew I was on the floor, on my back in between the beds, staring dumbly at the ceiling.
Erik was pacing, his sneakers crunching over my hair. How had my hair come loose? My entire body throbbed like I was giant bruise. I drew in a deep breath, and it hurt my ribs and back.
“You’re awake.” He stood over me, sneering. “I didn’t even hit you that hard.”
My head was full of cobwebs. I must’ve fallen and passed out, which meant I probably had a concussion.
And concussions were bad news, right?
Feeling like I’d been abruptly woken up, I slowly rose onto my elbows. For a second, I felt like I was swimming through mud.
“I wasted so much time. I should’ve . . .” He stopped, pressing his palms against his temples and then he started pacing again. “I didn’t mean to do it.”
What was he talking about? Forcing myself into a sitting position, I leaned against the bed, winded. He didn’t mean to do what?
“It just . . . it just happened. I came over to talk to her, to prove to her that she made a mistake and that we needed to get back together, but she told me to leave.” His hands dropped to his sides, closing into sizable fists.
I winced as I pushed back against the bed, trying to gather my spinning thoughts.
“She wouldn’t listen to me. All she needed to do was listen to me!” His voice rose and then dropped. “She made me mad and I—and I pushed her. It was an accident.”
Erik dropped down suddenly and gripped my chin. I cried out as his fingers dug into my chin, bruising. “It was an accident! She fell backward, and I don’t even understand how it happened. Her neck hit the corner of the bed and I heard the snap. Oh God . . .” He pushed away from me, wrenching my head to the side as he stood. Clutching his hair, he backed up. “Her neck just snapped.”
I squeezed my eyes shut against the images pouring in.
“I knew no one would believe it was an accident. They’d blame me when it wasn’t my fault! Debbie just—” He cut himself off as he sat on the edge of her bed. “She just wouldn’t listen.”
Horror seized me. I’d suspected the truth all along, but to hear him put it out there sickened and shocked me. “You killed her.” My jaw and mouth ached—it hurt to talk.
“It was an accident.” He stood again, walking the length of the small room. “It wouldn’t have happened if you had just kept your mouth shut. It’s your fault.”
Erik had deep psychological problems. That much was official.
As he made another pass around the room, my head began to clear, but a low-level pounding ache throbbed along the back of my head. I turned, wincing as pain shot down my neck. My face felt swollen and my ribs bruised, but I knew the longer I was in here with him, the worse these injuries would get, if not—I cut off that line of thought. No need to feed anxiety.
“This is on your conscience. It’s your fault. Debbie would still be here if you hadn’t said anything, if you hadn’t gotten in the way,” he ranted, hands clenching and unclenching, and I knew he wanted to put those hands on me, and not in a happy way. “You’ve ruined everything.”
I heard my cell phone go off in the next room and hope surged. Had an hour passed already? Maybe—just maybe—Cam was out of his final early. Or Jase had decided to go ahead and come over. Oh, please God, let it be one of them.
Erik didn’t seem to notice. He continued to pace the small room, grabbing fistfuls of hair. He stopped by the foot of Debbie’s bed and pounded his fists off the sides of his head. “You’ve ruined everything, and now look what’s happened. I have no choice.”
My cell went off again.
Please. Please. Please.
Drawing my legs to my chest, my muscles tensed in anticipation of bum-rushing the door. “You won’t get away with this.”
He lowered his hands, piercing me with a crazed glare. “Get away with what?”
“This.” I placed my palms on the carpet, ready. “Whatever this is, you won’t get away with it.”
Once more, my cell phone went off, and this time, he noticed. Erik glanced at the door, brows furrowing. “I’m not planning to get away with anything.”
I let out a breath. Maybe he wasn’t completely crazy. I’d be happy with just half crazy. “You’re not? Because we can forget this ever happened.” That was such a lie, because I was totally not forgetting that this happened. “We can walk out of here—”
He shook his head. “I’m not planning to get away,” he said casually, like we were talking about finals. “I’m not planning to walk away from this.”
Whatever tiny smidgen of relief that had blossomed from his statement crashed and burned in a race car kind of crash. Not planning to walk away from this. “You sound like you’re never leaving this room.”
“I’m not.” He barked out a laugh as he turned to me. “Not unless it’s in a body bag.”
Horror exploded in my gut like a buckshot. Fuck the waiting for a good moment to go for the door. Instinct kicked back in and I lumbered to my feet, cursing my bad leg as I pushed off. I used to be light on my feet and fast. Not anymore.
He crashed into me, knocking me to the floor and pushing a scream out of my throat. Out in the suite, something smashed off the wall as Erik’s fingers dug into my shoulders, flipping me onto my back roughly.
As my wide eyes stared into Erik’s, time seemed to stop for a second. A horrible sinking feeling tried to drag me down through the carpet with the truth of what he was about to do.
Erik’s head jerked at the sound of someone banging on the bedroom door, and a wild look filled his eyes. Taking advantage of the momentary distraction, I swung my arm off the floor. My fist connected with the corner of his mouth, snapping his head to the side.
He reared back, grunting as blood and spit flew from his busted lip. He grip loosened on my arms, and I twisted to my side and opened my mouth to call out.
“Fucking bitch,” he ground out, slamming his fist into my lower back. A perfect kidney punch that immobilized me.
Jase—it was Jase!
The door groaned as he beat it. “Are you in there? Are you okay?”
I reached out toward the door, my fingers digging into the carpet. “Jase—” His name ended in a grunt.
Erik rolled me over, and I was suddenly staring into the eyes of someone who’d come unhinged. Eyes that I was sure Debbie had stared into countless times and were quite possibly the last thing she’d seen.
Terror caught me in an unbreakable grip and a scream tore through me, piercing the air and then cutting off abruptly as Erik’s hand circled around my neck, closing in.
The door rattled on its hinges. “Tess! What the fuck? Tess!
Panic dug in deep with its sharp, icy claws. His grip was bruising, cutting into my windpipe. I opened my mouth to scream again, but there was no sound—no air! Heart pounding, I slapped him and then caught his chin with my fist. He yelped, but his hold remained.
“Tess!” called Jase. The door rocked, sounding like he’d rammed it with his shoulder. “Goddamnit!”
Stars burst behind my eyes, and I couldn’t—I couldn’t drag in enough air. I clawed at Erik’s hands, feeling his skin tear under my nails. The door shuddered again, but it wasn’t going to give in time.
“Stop it!” Erik lifted me up and then slammed my head back down. “Just stop!”
Darkness crept upon the corners of my vision, crowding my sight. A fiery burn flamed deep in my chest, spreading rapidly into my throat. I needed to breathe!
“Teresa! Baby,” shouted Jase, and the sound of his voice shot a bolt of desperate strength through me. The door shook and groaned. “Come on . . .”
Using everything in me, I beat on Erik’s chest—his face and shoulders. I rolled my hips, trying to throw him, but he pushed down and down, and it felt like I was floating through the floor, slowly disappearing into the waiting abyss. I knew I shouldn’t let go, that I must not, but my hands slipped down, arms falling to my sides.
In the background, something shattered. Maybe it was the last of my oxygen-deprived cells. I didn’t know what, but Erik’s dark eyes latched onto mine, and I was sure that this was it. My lashes drifted shut. He was going to be the last thing I saw, just like Debbie. And it wasn’t fair. I hadn’t even begun to live life, to embrace this new future or to get Jase, because if I’d survived this, I wouldn’t let him walk away. Not anymore. But . . . but it didn’t matter now. My hearing dwindled until there was only a fine point, a roaring of blood.
Suddenly the unbearable pressure was off my throat and air rushed in as a pained grunt filled the room. Something broke—snapped like old, dry twigs and it sounded far away, like it was outside.
Hands pressed against my cheeks and then arms lifted me. My head felt too heavy, floppy. Like there was something wrong with my neck. “Oh God, open your eyes. Come on baby, open your eyes.” There was a pause, and his large body shuddered. “I’m sorry. Fuck. Open your eyes. Please.”