“Wait. Did you just say you don’t want to go to prom with me? You’re taking back your invitation?” A hole opens in my stomach, a giant, gaping abyss.
Malcolm’s eyes don’t meet my shocked stare. All I see are the hoods of his lids as he searches the ground, as if the excuse is lying there, waiting to be picked up and hurled like a stone. He finds it.
“It’s really my mom,” he mumbles. “She says it’s for the best, you know, with everything happening and…” His voice trails off into the air.
“Prom is in two weeks. I’ve already bought my dress, my shoes. How could you do this to me?” My voice quavers.
“I’m sorry, Jade.” He turns and flees as if he can’t wait to get away from me. Which, of course, he can’t.
The backs of my eyes smart. I don’t want to cry but I’m going to. I look around to see who witnessed this small scene of my greatest humiliation. A couple of girls nearby toss their hair and wheel their backs to me in a clucking circle of shields.
News of the co-captain of the hockey team refusing to go to prom with me will be all over the senior class by lunchtime. Malcolm and I aren’t together or anything, but when he asked me to go to prom with him, it was a big deal. Plus, I figured it might even lead to the proverbial “summer romance” that everybody seems to have—except me.
I press the heels of my hands into my eyes to erase the evidence of escaping tears. I press so hard colored spots swirl in the darkness. When I open them, people are glaring at me with Arctic ice stares. I know what these looks are about; I know why Malcolm dumped me. There’s only one difference between today and the day before yesterday when I was last at school. It’s that I told the truth.
You’re taught from the time you can talk that telling the truth is the right thing to do. You’re not supposed to get punished for telling the truth.
That’s a lie.
The bell rings. The students mingling in the courtyard roll into the building like a tide rolling into the shore, but my feet are immovable concrete slabs. Kids shove past me, knocking into my backpack, chattering over me, around me. I can’t do it. I can’t face the day now. I’m about to turn and run away when I hear my name.
“Jade Morano! I’m ready with the tardies.” Mr. Rittenhouse, my hard-ass chemistry teacher from junior year, stands on the steps in front of the double-door entrance. He wags his pad at me.
I join the stoners, who have emerged from the fringe of the woods surrounding the school already reeking of pot and cigarettes, as they straggle in. Justin Chiu zooms by in his motorized wheelchair, cutting me off as he hangs a right up the disabled ramp. “Sorry!” he yells over his shoulder.
I don’t have time to make a pitstop at my locker. I shuffle straight to homeroom where fifty-six eyes laser into me as I enter. Fifty-eight, counting Ms. Alvarez. I hand her my mom’s letter stating why I was absent the previous two days: “Jade had to give testimony at a criminal trial.” I feel heat ballooning inside me as Ms. Alvarez scans it. Criminal. Couldn’t Mom have just written “at a trial”? Ms. Alvarez scribbles her initials on it, records it on the roll and hands it back without a word.
My seat is in the second to last row. I walk down the aisle, keeping my gaze directed at the red dot of Berlin on the map of Europe that covers the back wall bulletin board, ignoring the creaking chairs and murmurs behind me. We stand for the pledge of allegiance, then take our seats as the PA squawks with the daily string of announcements.
Bethany Frankel twists in her seat to face me. “How could you have left that girl? That was so cruel,” she whispers.
Her words feel like a slap to the face. My cheeks actually burn. Then, Brian Stavros leans over and delivers the gut punch, “You left her to be raped. What kind of person are you?”
I say nothing. I have no answers to these questions. I realize they’re just voicing everyone’s thoughts about me. Including my own. Anything I could possible say would sound like a lame excuse anyways. All I know is that I just went through the worst day of my life on the witness stand in a courtroom, and everyone—the assistant prosecutor, my mom and dad, the therapist they sent me to—promised it would now all be behind me, but they were obviously completely wrong.
It’s just starting.
The bell rings for first period. I have U.S. History. I hang back until everyone files out ahead of me then beeline to my locker for my textbook. I slow when I turn the corner as something catches my eye. I can see the big, red, spray-painted capital letters from a distance. F O R down the locker door. Holy shit. Is that my locker? Please, tell me it isn’t.
I speed walk closer. It is my locker. There’s more. My throat clutches.
In smaller letters beside the capitals, it spells out what they stand for: Friend of Rapist.
All the air is sucked out of me. I gulp, trying to breathe but the air has solidified in my throat. I can’t seem to get it down.
“Ignore it, Jade.” It’s my friend Chloe, who works for the local weekly newspaper. “It’s just stupid stuff.”
It occurs to me that basically my infamy is the fault of the media. At the trial, I recognized the woman with the curly red hair scribbling incessantly in a notebook–Chloe’s boss, the editor of the Indian Valley Weekly News. She’d introduced me to her one time when I went by the newspaper.
“What do you want, Chloe? An exclusive interview or something?” I fling open my locker and rummage for my book.
She recoils. “No, of course not. I just wanted to help.”
I find “History of the Americans” and slam the door. “Yeah, you’ve already been such a help.” I launch into a sprint down the emptying hall to beat the bell.
I can’t concentrate on Mr. Belsky’s lecture on taxation in the colonies. Several kids throw me sidelong glances as if they’re seeing me for the first time. One of the cheerleaders whispers to another, who turns and looks at me. I slump in my chair and throw my hoodie over my head.
I sneak my phone into my lap and pull up the website, so I can see what was written about me, but the page won’t load.
As Mr. Belsky drones on, my anger bubbles to a boil: at my parents, at the prosecutor who said I was doing the right thing. The right thing for who? I should never have listened to them. I should never have said anything. The fact is I could have gotten away with not being involved since Caitlin remembered my name wrong.
Now, for some inane, unfathomable reason, I’m being blamed for the sexual assault, instead of the guy on trial. What about him? The actual person who did it. Shouldn’t everyone be mad at him?
Why didn’t I go home with Morgan that night at the carnival? The “incident,” which is what Mom and Dad call it, happened last June, after school let out. When I went to the police and reported what I saw and heard that night, the detectives told me not to talk about it, so I didn’t. People, including my friends, didn’t really know my exact role in the whole thing. By the time school started, the sexual assault at the Reserve had all but been forgotten in the competition for “best summer ever!” stories.
It had all gone away until the trial popped up, like the sun reappearing from behind a cloud, to cast a spotlight on My Great Mistake, My Lapse in Judgment. They couldn’t have waited until school let out. No, they had to do the trial not only while school was still in session but right before prom.
I check my phone again. The article has finally loaded.
“Jade, are you with us?” Mr. Belsky calls. I startle. People swivel in their chairs to look at me.
“Yes,” I croak, dropping the phone between my thighs and propping myself up.
“Top of page 279, first paragraph.”
I scramble through the textbook to the page and stare blankly at it, not sure what I’m supposed to do. “Read it, please, out loud.” I hear a smattering of snickers. I suddenly hate everyone with such an intensity it scares me, but somehow, I manage to read the words. I don’t comprehend a single one of them. Luckily, Belsky picks on someone else to explain what the paragraph means.
After history class, I run into the girls’ room and lock myself in a stall to read the article. All the stuff I did and didn’t do is there in black and white. My knees quake so badly I lean on the wall for support. The bell rings. I’m now tardy for Econ.
I make it through the rest of my classes with the help of my hoodie. I can’t wait to get to lunch to see Morgan and Clarissa. I rush in and sit at our usual table to wait for them to return from the cafeteria line. I spot Morgan emerging from the cashier and wave.
“You’re not eating?” She slides her tray holding a chicken wrap and fruit cup onto the table and sits.
I shake my head. I have a big lump in my stomach. “Not really hungry.”
Clarissa’s right behind her, with the exact same meal. On a normal day, I’d be behind Clarissa, also with the exact same meal.
I notice Clark Washington, the varsity football team quarterback, looking at me with a snide smile. He’s sitting with a bunch of jocks, including Malcolm, at a nearby table with three milk cartons apiece on their trays. They make a big deal out of drinking milk every day, like it makes them superior healthy beings. Then Clark whispers something to Malcolm, the traitor, obviously about me. Malcolm glances up at me. I want to walk over, scream at them, sink my nails into their faces, pour their precious milk into their laps, something.
But I do nothing. Because that’s obviously what I always do—nothing.
“Take no notice of them.” Clarissa unwraps her wrap. “I guess the trial went badly yesterday? Is that why you sent me a sad face emoji?”
“You can read about it in the Weekly News. Everybody else has,” I say. She and Morgan exchange a glance, which tells me they’ve read it. “Malcolm did. He uninvited me to prom this morning.”
They exchange another uncomfortable glance. I’m feeling more and more on the outside. “We heard,” Morgan says.
“But we didn’t know if it was true,” Clarissa rushes to add. “The trial is all everybody’s been talking about these past couple days.”
“You never told us the details of what happened that night,” Morgan says. Is she accusing me? “Like that you heard her scream and the sound of her being slapped.”
“I couldn’t. The cops told me not to.” I’m wondering where this is leading, but I have an inkling it’s not going to be good.
“Can we ask you a question?” Morgan says. My stomach seizes. “What if it’d been me or Clarissa or Chloe? Would you have gone back to help if it had been one of us?”
“Or at least called 911 when you got a signal back on the road?” Clarissa adds.
They study me as if I’m a painting in a museum. I go for the easy answer, the one they want to hear. “Of course.”
Clarissa scrunches up her face. “So, you didn’t help that girl because you weren’t really friends with her?” She’s trying to make sense of what I did, which I can’t even make sense of. I’ve fallen into a trap.
“It’s not that simple. When I left, they were making out. The other guy was passed out, so I left. I didn’t know the dude was going to… to do that to her. I just wanted to go home. I was drunk. I was cold. I was tired. I regretted even going with them.”
“But you said you heard her yell ‘get off me’ and the sound of slaps,” Morgan says.
“Yeah, but I was halfway down the mountain already. It was total darkness. I only had the light on my phone to see. I really wasn’t sure what was going on. I was wasted, falling all over the place.”
“But if you’d gone back or called for help, even just yelled to let the guy know someone else was there,” Clarissa says.
“Or reported it right away to the police,” Morgan says.
The vise of their judgment is squeezing me. “Can we talk about something else?”
“It just seems kind of crappy, you know?” Clarissa says in a small voice
I feel a swell of anger. “You weren’t there. I don’t know why I did what I did, I just did it, okay? Nobody’s perfect. I did go to the cops, I did make a statement, I did testify at the trial. Nobody seems to recognize how hard all that was. Instead, for some reason, I’m getting blamed. What about the guy who did it?”
Silence lands with a clumsy thud.
Clarissa breaks it. “You can return the prom dress, at least.”
Her lame comment annoys me. Shouldn’t she be saying something like ‘you’ll find someone else to go to with,’ or ‘I’ll help you find someone to go with,’ or maybe even ‘you can go with Claudio and me’ ”? Then I get it. She thinks I deserved to be dumped.
“I took the tags off already,” I say.
“They might take it back anyway,” Morgan says. “My mom has returned things without tags before.”
I grab Clarissa’s plastic wrap off her tray and pull it to shreds. I study my fingers. They seem to be detached digits, working on their own like a machine. I sense my friends raising their eyebrows at each other, wondering how to handle their suddenly very flawed and unpopular bestie. I make it easy on them and myself. I scrape back my chair.
“I have to go see Lenny about cleaning my locker door. Someone spray-painted ‘Friend of Rapist’ on it. So, I’ll leave you free to talk about me since I know that’s what you want to do.”
They show no surprise about the graffiti, which means they’ve already seen it, nor do they try to make me stay. Instead, they offer lukewarm “laters.”
I walk out of the noisy cafeteria. I don’t go find the janitor. I stroll by the library and decide to go in. It’s calm and quiet, occupied only by the kids who nobody wants to hang with at lunch, the exile territory of high school.
I flop into a chair at an empty table and lay my forehead on my folded arms. I don’t ever want to come back to Indian Valley High School after today. I could go to Florida and stay with Grandma for the summer, find a job there. In the fall, I’ll be off to college in Washington D.C. But I still have to make it to the end of the school year. Maybe I could do independent study to finish up, make up some excuse that my mom has cancer and I have to be at home to take care of her. My parents would probably have to sign off on it, though.
I hear a whirr beside me. “Sorry about Malcolm.” I look up. Justin Chiu has pulled up beside me in his wheelchair.
“You know?” The gossip really has made the rounds.
“Yeah, even me. Everybody ignores me, so I hear a lot. It’s like I’m invisible. Comes in handy from time to time. And sometimes not.” He jerks his head to swing the shock of bleached blond hair out of his eyes. The rest of his shaggy hair is black, matching the black denim jacket with the sleeves cut off and fingerless gloves. He tries too hard to be cool.
“For the record, Malcolm Crespo’s an idiot,” he continues. “He does whatever Clark Washington tells him to do. I bet Clark put him up to the prom-dump.”
Prom-dump. “What? There’s a word for it, now?” My voice comes out louder than I intended it.
People’s heads perk. “Keep it down,” Mrs. Whittaker, the librarian, warns.
Why is Justin, of all people, talking to me about this? I just want him to go away. “For the record, you have a zit ready to explode on your forehead,” I blurt.
My nastiness takes him aback for a moment, then he recovers. “Just thought you’d like to know. I better go take care of my zit,” he says in a voice washed with sarcasm. He pivots his wheelchair and buzzes back to his table.
I need to get out of there. I get to my feet and sling my backpack over my shoulder, but I stand there like an idiot as I realize I have no place to go. The bell rings, relieving me of my dilemma. I slink off to pre-calculus.
I put myself on auto-pilot, ignore everybody, and make it through the afternoon. I’m so looking forward to going home, but when I get there, I see my princess prom gown, pale pink, strapless with a full skirt of blousy chiffon, hanging on the outside of my closet door. Once a trophy, it’s now a mocking symbol of my failed life. I rip it down, march to the garbage cans outside the back door, and shove it among the stinking bags of rubbish.
I check my phone. Usually by now, I have a couple group texts from Morgan, Clarissa or Chloe, exchanging the gossip of the day but today there’s nothing. That’s because I am the gossip of the day. I crack open “Macbeth” and try to make sense of Shakespeare.
The next day, I drag myself into school and find the graffiti on my locker has been scrubbed off. There’s a telltale patch of raw metal, but it’s better than the words. I feel a faint ray of hope. Today will be better.
During homeroom announcements, we’re informed that we have an assembly first period. That puts everyone in a good mood, myself included.
We file into the auditorium. The hum dies down when the principal, Ms. Berteau, takes the stage. “Good morning, everyone. I decided to hold this assembly today to discuss ‘Doing the Right Thing’.” I freeze. “We have a special guest who’s going to talk to us about how important it is to speak up when we witness wrongdoing and how to avoid situations where we may get into trouble.”
A police officer emerges from the curtains at the side of the stage. I recognize her. She was the one I gave my statement to when I went into the police station. This is all about me. It is not blowing over. I suddenly burn with heat. I’m going to suffocate if I stay a second longer in this auditorium. I stand and shove past everyone’s knees along the row. I don’t care about the toes I’m treading on, the “ow’s” and “watch it’s.” I have to get out.
“Don’t you think you should stay for this?” The familiar voice stops me. It’s Morgan, sitting in the row behind mine. Clarissa, sitting next to her, jabs her with her elbow. I break free of the last pair of knees and run out of the auditorium and into the first girls’ room I see. My stomach is churning. The whole school is turning against me now. Why? I did the right thing, I did.
I stay in the bathroom until I hear the bell for second period and the crescendo of chatter and footsteps. I wait for it to get loud then sidle out and merge into the crowd.
At lunch, there’s no way I’m going to show my face in the cafeteria. I go straight to the library. Justin’s there. A physics textbook is lying open on the table, but he’s absorbed in a game on his phone. I feel a pang of remorse at my crappy treatment of him yesterday. He was trying to be nice in his own weird way. I go over.
He looks up and does that shaggy-dog shake with his hair. “Hey.”
“I just want to apologize for yesterday. It wasn’t exactly the best day of my life. I was kind of all over the place. I’m sorry for the way I acted.”
“ S’all right. I saw you leave the assembly. You okay?”
“Basically…well, not really.”
“I know the feeling.” There’s a pause. “I did take care of the zit though, so thanks.” He smiles, and I smile back.
“You want to get out of here, take a walk or something?” As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I realize my mistake. “Sorry, I mean…”
He shuts his book with a thud. “I’m used to it. I’ll take you for a ride.”
“Yeah, you’ll see.”
We head out of the library, down the hall and out the side exit where a long asphalt path slopes down to the football field. He halts.
He pats his lap. I look at him uncertainly. “Don’t worry. My legs don’t feel anything. And I won’t do anything creepy, promise.”
“Okay.” I perch myself on his thighs.
“Hang on.” I grab the back of the chair as he pushes the little joystick on the chair arm. The wheelchair accelerates, and we rumble down the path. We hit the hill, gather speed. Then we’re flying.
Justin yells. He’s leaning forward and squinting into the wind. It blows his hair straight back. I laugh like crazy and yell along with him.
It’s over too soon. The bleachers are coming up fast. “Justiiiinnnnn!” I shriek.
“Hold on.” He snaps the chair to the right, and we stop dead at the back of the bleachers.
I look at him in newfound admiration. “That was awesome! Better than any rollercoaster.”
“Come on. Let’s do a lap around the track. We have time.”
“Sure.” I settle back on his lap, and he scoots us forward.
“You could be a wheelchair stuntman, if there’s such a thing,” I say as we buzz around the empty lanes.
“I’d probably starve. There aren’t many people in wheelchairs in movies. I’ll stick with engineering and save the stunts to impress girls,” he says.
“So, you give a lot of girls rides?”
“Only girls I like.”
I snorted. “Even ones who don’t stop rapes?”
“I don’t judge because I know what it’s like. People judge me all the time because I’m in a wheelchair. Even you.”
His words take me aback because I know they’re true. “Yeah, I did judge you. I’m sorry.”
We come full circle to the bleachers. “If you don’t mind walking,” he says. “It’ll be too much weight for the chair to handle uphill.”
I hop off and we trundle back. “I’m really not supposed to give rides, you know,” he says.
“Well, thanks for breaking the rules. It’s the best thing that’s happened to me all week.”
“Me, too,” he says.
An awkward moment follows. I break it by asking a feeble question about what classes he has in the afternoon. “AP Physics and AP Economics,” he says.
“How many AP classes are you taking?”
“You must be super, super smart.”
“I’d trade some of my ‘smart’ for other things I don’t have,” he says quietly.
“You have a lot of things,” I say automatically.
My brain stumbles to think of something, then it just comes out. “A great personality, sense of humor, daredevil attitude. You’re like a punk rocker on wheels. And you’re kinda cute.”
“Don’t push it.” I laugh.
“Okay, I’ll take kinda. And the ‘punk rocker on wheels.’ I like that.”
The bell rings. We hurry inside and peel off in opposite directions to our classes. I feel a whole lot lighter.
I’m putting books in my locker after last period. Justin pulls up beside me. I close my locker. “Hey.”
“Hey. So, I don’t know if this is a good time to ask but I was thinking… I wasn’t planning on going to prom, but since you’re free now, maybe we could go together.”
I really didn’t expect this. I mean, I like Justin, but I’m not sure I want to go to prom with him. I’d be going from the popular jock to the outcast. Everyone would stare and titter; it’s not like I need more of that.
He keeps talking. “I know this isn’t much of a promposal but since it’s coming up soon and…”
My mouth twists. “Justin, I don’t…”
He cuts me off. “Forget it. Forget I even asked.” He zips off.
But he’s barreling down the hall, weaving through the crowd. Just as well. What was I going to say anyway? Make up some excuse? I mope along to the student parking lot. I can’t seem to do anything right. Ever.
I’m getting into my car when my phone rings. The caller’s not in my contact list, but I answer.
“Jade, it’s Caitlin.” My heart booms. The girl from the trial. The victim. “I just wanted to thank you for testifying. It really helped the case. Without you, it was his word against mine.”
“Oh.” I have no idea what to say. It hadn’t occurred to me that the trial was even still going on; that it had consequences beyond my own life. I fold myself into the driver’s seat and close the door.
“No one called you, did they? The jury found him guilty. So, thanks.”
I swallow. “But I’m the one who left you there. I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry.” Tears choke my words. “I don’t know how to tell you how sorry I am.”
“Tell the truth, I was mad at you for a while. But you came through, and then my mom told me how you held up against that asshole defense attorney. So, I couldn’t hold anything against you, just like I couldn’t blame myself either. It wasn’t either of our faults. This has been a nightmare for months, but it’s almost over. We just have the sentencing now. I gotta go. Maybe we can get together when this is done.”
I hang up and sit there in the parking lot trying to process what she said. She didn’t hold anything against me. She said it wasn’t my fault.
I’d caught a glimpse of her when I walked out of the courtroom. She was waiting in the hallway to go in to testify. I hadn’t seen her since that night when our lives unknowingly intertwined forever on the Rock. She looked different–thinner and meeker–than when I met her at the carnival; she had been full of confidence and light that day, taking shot at the plastic ducks in one of the carnival games. Now, her eyes looked so sad. Despite what she said, I know we won’t see each other again. Neither of us wants to be reminded of that night.
Something inside me softens, unfurls, and then just dissolves. I suddenly don’t care anymore about what people say. The only person who was affected by my decisions during that night and in the subsequent trial was Caitlin and she’s forgiven me. That’s really all that matters.
I spot a hunched figure hurtling across the far end of the parking lot like a thrown ball. I know what I want to do next; how I want to live my life from this moment forward. I bound out of the car.
“Justin!” I wave my arms. “Justin, stop!”
He slows, then speeds on when he sees me. I run to catch up with him and grab hold of the back of his wheelchair. It’s still moving, and my legs give out under me. I tip forward and bang my chin on the chair. He halts and turns, looking a little shocked. “What are you doing?”
Gasping, I pull myself up, feeling slightly idiotic. “Yes, my answer is yes.”
He pauses. I can see he’s trying to figure me out. “Who says the offer is still open?” he says at last.
“You never gave me the chance to answer you. If you asked me a question, I at least deserve a chance to answer.”
He narrows his eyes at me. “So, is ‘yes’ a basically-not-really answer or an answer-answer?”
“It’s an answer-answer. I want to go to prom with you. It’ll be fun.”
A smile creases his lips, and he nods. “Hey, want a ride back to your car?”
“Sure.” I climb onto his lap.
After dropping me off at my car, we talk for a little while as I sit in the driver’s seat and he sits in his chair, outside my window. We’re the same height now, I realize.
When I get home, I grab a granola bar from the pantry. Then I remember. My mouth stops mid chew. I fling the granola bar onto the counter and run outside. I lift up the lid on the garbage can that I stuffed the prom dress into. It’s empty. My gut plummets. I check the second. Empty. I’m too late.
I drag myself back into the kitchen and collapse into a chair at the table. What am I going to tell Justin? He’ll never believe that I threw away my dress. He’ll think it’s an excuse for not wanting to go with him. I can’t tell Mom what happened, either. It was an expensive gown. She’ll be furious. Do I have enough money to buy a new dress? Maybe I could tell her I exchanged it.
The garage door buzzes. Mom’s home. A minute later, the back door opens. She enters with a rustle.
“I’m assuming something happened, but if you don’t want this, we’ll give it to charity. No need to throw it away.” She holds up my prom dress encased in dry cleaning plastic. “I got a rush job on the dry clean with a coupon.”
I run and hug her.
Justin picks me up for prom in a limo and hands me a corsage of white roses that he pins to my dress. It matches the boutonniere on his tux. Mom and Dad take so many pictures that I have to cut them off or we’ll be late.
We enter the banquet room holding hands. Everybody stares, but I don’t care. We pass the jock’s table where Malcolm and Clark are sitting, the table where Morgan, Clarissa and Chloe are clustered together. I wave at them and head to our own table way at the back. I don’t care what they think of me. Who are they to judge? They don’t know what they would’ve done in the same situation. No one does. We all make mistakes. The important thing is to learn from them.
When the music starts, Justin and I hit the dance floor. Meeting Justin was the best thing that came out of this whole thing. Little did I know he was way cooler than anyone else, but I’m really glad I found out. I sit on his lap and make a necklace around him with my arms, leaning my head on his as he rocks the wheelchair from side to side. And I know everything’s going to be all right.