I freeze when I see Tank standing there. My heart jumps to my throat. It’s clear to me now he wasn’t leaving.
No, he was making sure he was getting to my parents first. I tear up at the realization. This man really is my human shield. I know now that Tank will always be the first line of defense when it involves me. My heart has never been so full as it is in this moment.
I don’t know what I thought Erika’s parents would look like. I can’t say I was surprised to see two people marching down the hallway dressed up like the rich spectators who sit in the front row at matches, dripping in their diamonds and fur and looking at you like you’re the animal they hired to perform.
Her mom sizes me up with one look and discards me as unimportant. Her dad is glued to his phone. They have as much warmth as a polar ice cap and despite the narrow hall, there’s enough space between them to fit a small car.
Inwardly, I shudder at the kind of childhood Erika had with these two.
“Will you please move?” says the mother.
“You Erika’s parents?”
The dad’s head pops up at Treasure’s name. “Who are you?”
“Tank.” They don’t get my full name.
“Tank? What kind of name is that?” her father sneers.
“It’s what uncultured people name their children,” inserts Erika’s mom. “Child. Move out of the way. We are on our way to see our daughter. Besides, I’m certain this is a women’s only dorm, and unless you’re one of those people, you need to leave.”
“Dorm rules allow men to be here during the day,” a soft voice behind me says.
I crane my neck over my shoulder to see Erika creeping up behind me. Her small hand curls around a portion of my T-shirt as if it’s her lifeline.
“Erika? Come out from behind that Neanderthal. We need to talk,” her mom orders.
“Maybe we should go inside Erika’s room,” I suggest. The curious are poking their heads out of their own rooms and I can feel Erika shrinking against me. She hates attention, which is partly why she dances at night, by herself, where no one can watch.
“We will go inside Erika’s room, but you will stay out here,” the mom declares. She attempts to push me aside, but I’m big and she’s small like her daughter and so the shove doesn’t budge me. Flustered, the mom steps back. “Young man, if you don’t move, I will call the police.”
“We all go in or none of us go in.” I don’t want to have it out with her parents while half her dorm floor is watching, but I’m not letting Erika be alone with her parents. It’d be like taking my treasure to that frat house, shoving her inside and locking the door on my way out. I love her too much to subject her to that kind of abuse.
Mrs. Ainsworth grabs the phone from her husband’s hand and dials a number. The volume is loud enough for us all to hear “9-1-1. What is your emergency?”
“Mom!” Erika yelps. She flies forward and snatches the phone from her mom’s hand. “Wrong number. I’m sorry,” she cries into it.
“Erika Jordan Ainsworth, what do you think you’re doing?”
“What am I doing? The question is what are you doing?” Erika fires back. Her cheeks are flushed and her eyes sparkle. The fear she wore earlier has been burned away by some righteous anger. “You seriously aren’t calling 9-1-1 because you can’t get into my dorm room, are you? Because that’s crazy.”
“Don’t talk to your mother like that,” scolds her dad.
“Give me your phone, Jed,” Erika’s mom demands. “I refuse to have a discussion about private things out in the open like this. It’s intolerable.”
“The police aren’t going to do anything because Tank’s not doing anything wrong.” She spins and grabs my hand. “Come on, Tank. Let’s go get something to eat. I’m really hungry.”
“Don’t you dare move one inch.” The mom steps up, stopping only inches from Erika’s nose. It’s an intimidation tactic—one that weaker boxers use in hopes that their out-of-the-ring bravado can spark fear in their opponents. “You may be 21, but your bills are paid by us. The clothes that you’re wearing are ones we paid for. The food you put in your mouth is provided by your father and me. You wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for me. I made you. So you do not get to ignore me. You never get to ignore me.”
The words are low, almost whispered, but I hear them as if the mom shouted them in my ear.
Erika shudders, but my brave girl doesn’t back down. “I’m grateful for everything you’ve done for me. And I’ve tried my very best to be the person you wanted me to be, but, no matter how hard I try, I’ll always disappoint you. I didn’t want to accept that truth before, but I know it now. If I keep striving to make you happy, I’ll never find my own joy.” She pauses and takes a deep, heaving breath. I squeeze her shoulder to let her know she is not alone. She reaches up to squeeze my hand. “I’m not ignoring you, Mom, but I am putting myself first. If that means you don’t pay for college, then I’ll get a job, but I’d rather be poor, eating noodles and wearing clothes from Goodwill than have to answer to you for the rest of my life.”