Olly grows still. His mom claps both hands over her mouth. My mom wraps an arm around my shoulder. I press my forehead to the glass and grip the windowsill. All of our eyes are on his dad. The moment stretches out. Every second he doesn’t move is a terrible relief.
His mom is the first to break. She hurries down the steps, crouches down next to him, runs her hand down his back. Olly gestures for her to get away, but she ignores him. She leans in closer just as his dad flips over onto his back. He snatches her wrist in his big, cruel hands. Face triumphant, he hoists her hand up in air like it’s a trophy that he’s won. He pulls himself to standing and drags her up with him.
Again, Olly rushes between them, but this time his dad is ready. Quicker than I’ve ever seen him move, he lets go of Olly’s mom, grabs the collar of Olly’s shirt, and punches him in the stomach.
His mom screams. Then I’m screaming, too. He punches him again.
I don’t see what happens next because I pull away from my mom and I’m running. I don’t think; I just move. I fly out of the room and down the hall. I’m through the air lock and out the door in no time at all.
I don’t know where I’m going, but I have to get to him.
I don’t know what I’m doing, but I have to protect him.
I sprint across our grass to the edge of the lawn closest to Olly’s house. His father is lunging for him again when I scream, “STOP!”
They both freeze momentarily in place and look at me, shocked. His dad’s drunkenness catches up to him. He stumbles back up the steps and into the house. His mom follows.
Olly bends over holding his stomach.
“Are you all right?” I ask.
He looks up at me, his face morphing from pain to confusion to fear.
“Go. Go back,” he says.
My mom grabs my arm and tries to pull me away. I’m vaguely aware that she’s hysterical. She’s stronger than I would’ve thought, but my need to see Olly is stronger.
“Are you all right?” I cry out again, unmoving.
He straightens up slowly, gingerly, like something hurts, but the pain doesn’t show on his face.
“Mads, I’m OK. Go back. Please.” The full weight of our feeling for each other hangs between us.
“I promise I’m OK,” he says again, and I let myself be pulled away.
We’re back in the air lock before I start to recognize what I’ve done. Did I really just go Outside? My mom’s hand is a vise on my upper arm. She forces me to face her.
“I don’t understand,” she says, her voice shrill and confused. “Why would you do that?”
“I’m OK,” I say, answering the question she doesn’t ask. “It was only a minute. Less than a minute.”
She relinquishes my arm and lifts my chin.
“Why would you risk your life for a total stranger?”
I’m not a skillful enough liar to hide my feelings from her. Olly’s in my skin.
She sees the truth. “He’s not a stranger, is he?”
“We’re just friends. Online friends,” I say. I pause. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I just wanted to make sure he was OK.”
I rub my hands down my forearms. My heart beats so fast it hurts. The enormity of what I’ve done overwhelms me and I’m trembling.
My sudden shaking derails my mom’s questioning and sends her into doctor mode. “Did you touch anything?” she asks, over and over again.
I tell her no, over and over again.
“I had to trash your clothes,” she says, after I’ve taken the shower that she insisted I take. She doesn’t look at me as she says it. “And we’re going to have to be extra careful for the next few days to make sure nothing’s—”
She breaks off, unable to say the words.
“It was less than a minute,” I say, for both our benefit.
“Sometimes a minute is all it takes.” Her voice is almost not there at all.
“Mom, I’m sorry—”
She holds up a hand and shakes her head. “How could you?” she asks, finally meeting my eyes.
I’m not sure if she’s asking about my going Outside or lying to her. I don’t have an answer for either question.
As soon as she leaves, I go to the window in search of Olly, but I don’t find him. He’s probably on the roof. I get into bed.
Was I really just Outside? What did the air smell like? Was there wind? Did my feet even touch the ground? I touch the skin on my arms, my face. Is it different? Am I?
My entire life I’ve dreamed about being in the world. And now that I have, I don’t remember any of it. Just the sight of Olly doubled over in pain. Just his voice telling me to go back.