"You’re right. I don’t. I know it’s there, but that’s not what I see."

"Well, then you’re not looking close enough."

"No, you’re wrong. I’m looking very closely. In fact, I’m looking past the burnout, past the party girl, past the appalling lack of self-esteem, past the bruises. And you know what I see?"

Sophia was almost afraid to ask. "What?"

"I see a beautiful person. Inside and out. I see one of the most breathtakingly beautiful girls I’ve ever had the good fortune to look at. I see a beautiful spirit. I see a very bright girl, funny, quick-witted-hell, you can keep up in a battle of wits with me, and I’m a genius." They both laughed-it was true, he was.

"I see all of those things. That is the Sophia Daniels I see. And she’s wonderful. The problem is…that she’s locked up. She’s locked in a cage. And she can’t get out."

They were in front of Sophia’s house. Sophia leaned against the chain-link face and stared off into space.

What had he said? Beautiful person, inside and out? Her? Why did he think this? What did he see? She couldn’t see it. She just couldn’t. He was nuts. Crazy. Deluded.

But, even if he was nuts, Sophia made a decision. She reached into her bookbag, grabbed a piece of paper and a pen, and scribbled her phone number on it. "Would you call me tonight, please?"

"Scott’s not gonna be around?"

"No. And I don’t care. I just think I need to talk to…to talk to a friend tonight. Would you do that for me?"

"Of course. Couple of hours OK? I need to study."

Sophia laughed-it felt good. "Of course you need to study, Prep Boy. A couple of hours is fine."


GOOD FRIENDS? (Chapter Three)

The phone calls started slowly. They quickly built up to where Sophia and Warren were spending a couple hours on the phone almost every weeknight. Even if they had worked together, Warren would get some studying done and give Sophia a call. At one point, Sophia realized that she talked to Warren more than she talked to her own boyfriend. She had never seen Scott much during the week-only on weekends-but she was talking to Warren every night, walking home with him three days a week, even occasionally sitting on her front porch and talking. It was strange. Sophia never thought of herself as much of a talker-except with Jessie, her best friend-but she could talk with Warren for hours. Truth to tell, she listened more than she talked. Warren was a first-class conversationalist.

The problem of her disastrous lifestyle and Warren’s "girl in a cage" observation had been left alone. Sophia would occasionally make a joke, which Warren just let go, but they hadn’t had many serious conversations. Just two friends, chatting. Until one Tuesday night in late February.

"So, did you have another Sophia weekend?" asked Warren.

"Actually, no. I stayed in this weekend. I had a little flu or something. Missed a big party."

"Awwwwww. Poor baby."

"This from a man who reads Shakespeare for kicks, right?"

"Actually, I was out all Saturday night. My friends up the street had one of their periodic get-togethers. We have them more often in the summer, because it’s better outside, but we all gathered in the house this time."

"And you got a keg and everyone got sloppy, right?"

"Surrrrre. No, my friends don’t have quite the same type of parties that yours do."

"No doubt."

"We played some music. Watched a movie. There’s a small group of us that play poker, so we did that. I made my world famous chip dip. Very mellow by your standards."

Sophia laughed. "Actually, it sounds cozy. Different from my usual, but cozy."

"Tuck the sarcasm back in, Wild Woman."

"Actually, I wasn’t being sarcastic. This was at your house?"

"Naah. Up the street. The Kenney’s house, that’s our usual neighborhood hangout. You know Mo Kenney?"

"Mo Kenney. Hmmm. No, I don’t think I know him."

"Her. Maureen Kenney."

"Oh! Yeah, I think I know who she is."

"Her house. That’s the neighborhood hangout. The whole gang was there, friends of the gang, Crash came down from Northwoods-I told you about Crash, he’s my best friend-about 20 of us."

"Crash Kowalski, right? Lives in Northwoods, goes to school with you?"

"That’s the one. We’ve hung out there for years, I’ve known Mo Kenney since we were four. She’s like my sister. Her sister and brother, Tina and Rick, are, too-and her mother is my second mother."

"Oh. Well it does sound nice, for a Prep Boy like you, anyhow." They both laughed. "Me, the one I missed was-what did you call it? Chemically-drenched bacchanalia?"

"You’re catching on."

"That’s what that one was. Scott was furious with me."

"For getting sick?"

Sophia didn’t say anything.

"He didn’t believe you, did he?"

Silence.

"He went into a jealousy fit and accused you of seeing someone else, right? Wouldn’t believe you had the flu? Got all pissed off because he wanted you under his thumb and you weren’t around, right?"

Sophia finally spoke up. "Fuck. Do you know everything?"

"No, I don’t. I do know what a contemptible abusive asshole is, however."

"That is my boyfriend you’re talking about."

"Don’t remind me."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"Why, Soph?"

"Why what?"

"Why him? Why do you stay with him? What is the attraction? He’s abusive. He’s got no respect for you, treats you like dirt. He wants to control you completely. Remember when I talked about the girl in the cage that can’t get out? Well, Scott is the one that locked the fucking door and threw away the key. I don’t get it. Why do you let this happen? Is the sex that good?"

"Actually, no. It’s not all that good. It’s pretty shitty. And, you’re right, you don’t get it. You can’t get it."

"Help me out here, then."

"Look, it all fits together. Shitty sex, shitty boyfriend, shitty home life, shitty school life, shitty habits, shitty friends…shitty Sophia. It all fits."

"Shitty friends? I think I’m offended."

Sophia giggled. "Well, maybe one non-shitty friend."

"Actually, you’ve spoken highly of Jessie, and some of your other friends. Are all your friends that bad?"

"I dunno. Maybe not."

"Then what…"

Sophia snapped, "But if I’ve got such wonderful Goddamn friends, than why doesn’t someone get me the fuck out of this? Shit. I’m drowning, here, someone throw me a fucking life jacket!"

Warren listened for a minute to the quiet sobs at the other end of the phone. And then he said, softly, "I am trying. I really am."

Sophia sat up on her bed-as she realized, he was trying. Maybe other people weren’t-and maybe they were and she just wasn’t seeing straight-but Warren without a doubt was trying. And that she could see.

"You’re right. You are."

Warren let out a sigh. "I gotta tell you, Sophia, sometimes it seems like I’m throwing the life jacket out, and you’re throwing the thing right back."

"It’s not that. It’s that you're throwing the life jacket, and because of some strange instinct I’m ducking.

Or I’m not ducking and it’s hitting me in the head. Or going right through my legs so I look like Jose freakin’ Offerman and his bad knee trying to scoop a grounder at second."

"Didn’t know you were a baseball fan."

"Big time. I bleed Red Sox red. Any guy I marry has to agree to name our first son Nomar."

Warren laughed out loud. "You can marry me, then, Soph. I’ll go right along with that one."

Sophie couldn’t help but giggle. "You’re on. Paint that life jacket red, would you?"

Warren sat for a minute. "OK, Soph. I’m trying to help. This is the first time I ever remember you asking for help. What do I do?"

Sophia thought about that one for a bit. "Warren, that’s a good question. I don’t know. You’re right, I’m not accustomed to asking for help. I really don’t know. Just be there, would you?"

"Already am."

"I know. It does help. Good friends are hard to come by."

"Listen, Soph. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: you need to dump Scott."

Sophia giggled. "What, and leave the field free for you, right? Scott doesn’t like Nomar, so I suppose I should."

"Sophia, I’m being serious."

"I know, I know. I’m scared. I’m scared to end it, I’m scared not to end it." She paused, and said in a small voice, "I don’t want to be alone."

"You’re not. You got me, remember?"

"Don’t get me wrong, Warren, because I’ve come to appreciate your friendship more than I can say, but I wasn’t talking about friendship. Scott loves me."

"Whatever you say."

"He does. He has trouble expressing it sometimes, and it comes out as anger, but he does."

"He tells you he loves you?"

"He’s not verbal in that way."

"He treats you like he loves you?"

"When he wants to."

"Oh."

"Listen, Warren, the problem is not Scott."

"You’re right. But he’s part of the problem. And when you figure out the main problem, you’ll realize that he’s useless."

"OK, Doctor Freud, what’s my main problem?"

"You said it yourself, earlier."

"What did I say?"

"You said-shitty boyfriend, shitty this, shitty that…shitty Sophia. Except you had it the other way around. Everything else is shitty because Sophia is shitty. The problem is, Sophia is not shitty. She just thinks she is."

Sophia thought about that for a couple of minutes. Then she spoke again: "Warren, can I ask you a question?"

"Sure."

"You ever been in love?"

"Are we including unrequited worship of girls who wouldn’t go out with me if their lives depended on it because I’m Prep Boy, or are we sticking to actual relationships?"

Sophia giggled. "The actual relationships one."

"No."

"Does that bother you?"

"To a point. But not a lot."

"To what point, and why not a lot?"

"Well, to the point that I get lonely too, you know? I also get tired of rejection. The not a lot part is because I figure it’ll happen sooner or later. No sense rushing it."

Sophia paused for a moment. "If you were in love, how would you treat her?"

"Well, Soph, how do I treat you?"

"Pretty much like a princess."

"Well, there’s your answer, then."

"But we’re just friends. You’re not in love with me or anything, are you?"

"Soph, if I’m in love with someone, wouldn’t you think I’d treat them at least as well as I treat my friends?"

"Not from my experience, no. Most guys I know always treat their friends better than their girlfriends.

You’re way too sweet."

Warren sighed in mock exasperation, "And I’m the one who can’t get a date! There’s no justice in this world, I tell ya."

Sophie laughed softly. "Sooner or later someone will appreciate you."

"Yeah. Hopefully before I’m dead."

"Trust me. Listen, I have to go. Talk to you tomorrow?"

"Sure. Oh, and your task for tonight is to repeat to yourself ‘Sophia is not shitty’ until you fall asleep, or start believing it, whichever comes first."

"Aye aye, sir. I’ll give it the ol’ college try."

"You do that."


THE FINAL STRAW (chapter 4)

That was the conversation Sophia kept replaying in her mind. They had more, over the next week and a half-their newly discovered mutual adoration of the Red Sox led to lots of free-agent-signing wishes and an entire evening waxing rhapsodic over the majesty that is Pedro Martinez-but that conversation was the one she kept thinking about.

He had held her up as an example of how he would treat someone he was in love with. She asked him point-blank if he was in love with her, and he avoided the question. He jokingly asked her to marry him-yeah, it was a joke, but with the rest of the conversation…and he told her that she wasn’t alone, because she had him.

It was inescapable. Coupled with the attention he showered on her, how he treated her, some of the things he said to her-it was inescapable. Warren Kelleher was in love with her, she realized one day.

The first question she asked herself was why? Why her? This was Warren, the Prep Boy scholarship genius, why the hell would he want to have any kind of anything with a lost cause like her?

Because he doesn’t think you’re a lost cause, she said to herself.

And as that one hung in her brain, the next question popped up-OK, Sophia, what do you do about it?

It almost didn’t seem fair. It didn’t seem fair that they had become such close friends-if Warren had fallen for her, he must be in a "so near but yet so far" loop all the time.

But he didn’t seem to mind.

Sophia sighed. This all could wait. It was the weekend, and there were parties to go to, and Scott.

And why did she not feel like going this weekend?

Monday arrived, and with it another afternoon shift at Dunkin’ Donuts. Warren had come to look forward to Mondays, because he got to see Sophia.

He walked into the back room, saw her standing there with her back to him, and walked up to her and touched her on the shoulder. And felt her flinch, hard.

"OH! Warren."

"What was that all about?"

"I’ll tell you later", and she turned around. And Warren looked into her face and saw someone who looked like they had just emerged from hell.

"Soph, you do not look good."

"Later, Warren. I promise. This is not the time or place."

"Whatever you say."

The shift passed with barely a word between them. At quitting time, Sophia walked up to Warren, and said, "Walk me home, please?"

They started walking. Warren was uncomfortable, because they were walking in silence, which never happened.

"What’s up, Sophia?"

"When we get to my house."

"Oh-kaaaay."

They got to her house. "Come on in. Nobody’s home. Mom is at work, and the kids are with their father."

Sophia had explained that her brother and sister had a different father-her Mom’s second husband-and that they often spent time with him. Sophia’s father had disappeared when she was three.

Warren had never actually been in Sophia’s house. She showed him in and led him to the living room, shedding her coat as she walked. She looked like she wanted to scream, and was holding it in. Something was seriously wrong, and Warren had no idea what.

"I need to show you something," Sophia said. And proceeded to take off her shirt. Warren was completely dumbstruck-until he saw the bandages. She peeled those off, and stood in front of him naked from the waist up.

If he hadn’t been in shock, Warren might have thought that he was seeing something he had dreamed about for two months. But this was no dream, this was a nightmare. Sophia’s entire left side was one big bruise. Her shoulder got the least of it-the side of her ribs and the left part of her back and her left breast were purple. It was horrific.

"Oh my God."

"Three of my ribs are broken. My shoulder and back are badly bruised. And there might be some kind of permanent damage to my left breast, they’re not sure yet."

"How did this happen?"

Sophia snorted. "I fell down the stairs, didn’t you know? Or, at least, that’s what we told the hospital. Scott said if I told them the truth, I’d get it worse. The last time he was upset because he had messed up my face, you see. This time he wanted to keep it less visible, but still make sure I could feel it. He did a wonderful fucking job, wouldn’t you say?"

"Soph, I don’t know what to say."

"I was kind of expecting ‘I told you so’".

"I’d never do that. What set him off?"

"I don’t know. It was a jealous rage from somewhere."