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fiction by Abbey McLaughlin

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That Night

by Abbey McLaughlin

 

 

“Delinquent beyond a reasonable doubt. He’ll be put away for at least two years. The other, for one.”

The judge gathered up his paperwork and stepped out from behind his desk, and the room erupted in emotional preparation for departure. One of the boys started crying—bawling long, heavy, ugly sobs. His family as well as his lawyer were equally tearful, all hands placed on shoulders as though forming a prayer. My mom cleared her throat.

“Should we go?” she asked.

She was standing behind me. When I turned my head to face her, I caught sight of the other one. He was crying—I could tell by the way his chest rose and fell—but he was trying not to and he was angry. They were angry tears. His dad squeezed his shoulder. His mom was crying desperately.

“Honey,” I heard my mother nudge.

I gathered up my things, hands still sweaty and shaking, and adjusted my blazer. As soon as the doors of that Ohio courtroom swung on their hinges, blinding flashes of thunderous crowds fought each other to ask me a question. My dad pushed them away and my mom held me close, pulling me down the endless corridors. I didn’t realize I too had begun to cry until we fell into the car and I could breathe again. I should be happy. I should be relieved.

 

When we finally made it home, all three of us were exhausted. I kissed both my parents good night and went to brush my teeth, tilting my head to the side, fixated on the scar on my forehead. I found my mom meandering around aimlessly in the kitchen, banging dishes and shutting cupboards. “Do I notice the scar so much because I know it’s there or because it’s noticeable?” I asked her. She shrugged and told me that no one would notice. My dad was on the phone in the bedroom down the hall, talking to someone about me. Since all this had begun, he had developed—perfected—a phlegmatic, quiet voice used exclusively when referring to “the Incident,” as he called it. I called it rape.

 

My alarm rang rather unceremoniously six hours later. I opened my eyes. I felt as though I had only just shut them. I returned to the bathroom, reexamining the scar, pasting concealer over it without much success. My morning routine felt more soporific than before—brushing my teeth again, straightening my hair, choosing clothes, packing my lunch—all of it seemed to drain energy reserves. The house was still dark, all the lights still off. I didn’t like being the first one up again. For the remainder of the morning, I prepared for school in somewhat of a daze, hardly able to remember where I was getting ready to go, or if I’d added sugar to the coffee in my thermos before I climbed into my car. After almost three months of slow days spent with my parents and my lawyer, my stomach fluttered at the sight of our big, glass high school entrance. I sat in my car for a moment longer, surveying the campus from my safe enclosure. No reporters or cameras caught my attention. The coast was clear—I had to go in. As I was stepping out of my car, my phone vibrated in my pocket. Thank God—Kristin had received my texts, and would wait by my locker for me.

 

When I first joined the moving traffic of the north hallway, no one seemed to notice. I blended in well enough and avoided awkward encounters with those who had made guest appearances in the courtroom, careful not to cross paths with the football players in particular. As she’d promised, Kristin was leaning against the lockers near mine. I smiled at her, tugging my earbuds out of my ears. I realized I’d forgotten my locker combination, but Kristin knew it by heart, and told me the numbers. The act of opening my locker seemed to set off an alarm to the school. Like a swarm of wasps, heads turned. Kristin and I both sensed the changed decibel levels of interrupted conversations. I pretended not to notice and hoped Kristin would too. I dumped all my textbooks back into my locker save my chemistry book and followed my friend up the stairs. We didn’t say much on our way to our classes. She departed with a half-hearted, “see you at lunch,” and turned for the room down the hall from mine.

 

“Welcome back,” Mrs. Freed, my chemistry teacher, said as I sat down. The few who had also arrived already stared unapologetically. This was somehow worse than the reporters. I watched Henry, my lab partner, walk into the room. I greeted him as he took his seat next to me, but he just nodded. He’d been at the party.

“Let’s jump right back in with some nomenclature practice,” she continued, passing out sheets of paper. Henry handed me my copy of the activity carefully.

“Thanks,” I mumbled. We’d actually made great lab partners last semester. He was better with the information; I was better with the actual handling of chemicals. I’d been looking forward to seeing him, but, like most of my reunions at that point, tension was almost tangible. “Can I borrow your notes tonight?”

Henry scratched his forehead and arranged his papers as though this took too much mental attention to answer my questions.

“Henry?”

“I don’t have them,” he lied. I told him that it was okay, and leaned back against my orange plastic chair. When class had been dismissed, I approached Mrs. Freed and quietly asked if she had a note packet or something that I could use to catch up.

Mrs. Freed looked up at the remaining students packing their backpacks. “Can someone loan her their notes from the last unit?” she said loudly, pointing a crooked, hot pink fingernail at me. An intransigent silence ensued. Eventually, Macy surrendered her notebook and asked me to have it back to her by tomorrow.

 

I mean, it’s not like I expected a “welcome back” party. No one was spitting in my face or adorning me with a scarlet letter A, but it seemed that nobody was talking to me at all. Maybe they all just felt too awkward. If I’m being honest with myself, probably more than half the school saw the pictures that circulated that October. I know that I wasn’t exactly making good decisions, but nobody was. Of all the awful choices made that night, were they really going to condemn mine?

 

Mr. Samuels and Mrs. Freed occupied the hallways as we all rushed to our second period classes. Typically, the principal would assume this role, but Kristin had informed me that he and the football coach had been suspended. During the investigation, police discovered that both of them had kept the situation quiet until I’d started pressing charges. My lawyer, Mr. White, promised me that they were his next item on his agenda. I had told him that it was okay, that our trial was good enough, that I was ready to move on.

 

By lunchtime, I was under the impression that the school had followed an entirely different court case—one in which I had murdered two football players and framed the remaining members of the team. Since my entrance into the building, I’d become painfully aware of my role in the newfound shitty reputation of our school. I sat at the table my friends and I had claimed our freshman year, and waited for Eliza and Kristin to show up.

When there was only fifteen minutes left of our lunch break, I moved tables and tried to eat my sandwich with a few girls from my cross country team, who seemed sympathetic but less-than-thrilled by my presence.

None of them did more than smile in my direction, so I decided to initiate the greeting: “Hey guys, how’s it going?”

Lexi gave a half-hearted “fine,” and Miranda gave a shrug.

They sat right near the vending machines. I kept thinking students were coming to see me as so many family members had done throughout the past month or two, but they were just grabbing sodas. Many avoided eye contact with me in obvious, almost comical manners. One guy stared sideways all the way there, grabbed his drink while looking the other way, and then turning to stare in the same direction on his way back to his table. I tried engaging in conversations, desperate for normalcy, but they weren’t interested. I saw two football players come my way. With waves of panic churning up the sandwich I’d just eaten, I left for class early with a muttered “good-bye” to the girls. I didn’t feel like confronting the accomplices.

 

“How was school?” my mother asked when I walked through the door. I couldn’t give her an answer as I dropped by backpack and slid my shoes off. “Honey?” my mother repeated. She wanted a real answer, but if I opened my mouth, I would cry. I sighed.

“It’ll get better,” she said. I nodded, collapsing into our sofa. Mom was watching CNN while she prepared dinner. I closed my eyes, praying my tears would slide back into my head. I was tired of crying.

Sally, I can’t imagine, having heard the judge give sentences for these two star football players—how emotional that must have been in the courtroom.

I opened my eyes.

Yes, I’ve never experienced anything like it, Debra. It was incredibly emotional—incredibly difficult, especially for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men, who had such promising futures—strong football players, very good students. I literally watched as they saw their lives fall apart. When one of the boys, Alex Stevens, heard the judge, he collapsed. He collapsed in tears in the arms of his attorney. I heard him say, “My life is over; no one is going to want me now.” Both were charged with very serious crimes, Debra, found guilty of raping this sixteen-year-old girl at a party back in October—an alcohol-fueled party; alcohol playing a huge part in all of this. The other boy, Jacob Matthews, was charged with a second account of felony illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material, because he took a photograph of—

The screen went blank. I turned around and my dad was holding the remote with a trembling hand, his face red. Mom had stopped cutting tomatoes, and was looking at me too.

“That’s how school was, mom,” I said flatly.

Apart from their actual crimes, those two had unknowingly cost my family months of misery. I felt inescapably burdensome to my poor parents. They bore just as much pain from the trial as I did. Work was taken off, attorney bills were paid, tears were shed, sleepless nights were suffered, and public analysis under a microscope was endured. I hoped the boys were thinking about that now, but I doubted it.

 

The three following days were slight improvements. People readjusted to me and I readjusted to them. The cross country team talked to me if no one else was around. My teachers gave me grace on many incomplete assignments. Kristin continued to wait for me by my locker in the morning, but that was all I saw of her. I hadn’t seen Eliza once.

 

We had a mandatory school assembly that Friday. I was rather confused—they’d called my parents to request permission to talk about everything back in November. I remember shrugging—assuming that everyone already had more information than the staff of the high school would ever learn. Through strategic eavesdropping, I discovered that this assembly was directed more about the “change of administration” that had ensued in the last week and a half.

At 2:15, the school flooded the halls, and we all sauntered down to the gymnasium. Everyone was talking about their classes and sports and college applications around me. I stood at the bottom of the bleachers, searching desperately for Eliza and Kristin. They weren’t sitting in our usual spot for pep rallies and student council announcements. I spotted them sitting toward the middle, talking close to each other with their heads bent down, hidden under baseball caps. If I hadn’t been there when we’d all purchased those hats in Siesta Key, I would never have been able to find them. I broke into the mess of people, expecting to get pushed and shoved, but the effort was not necessary. Everyone made sure not to touch me. When I reached their row, I saw the color drain from Eliza’s face. Kristin became way too interested in her phone as I climbed over seated students to where they were. People scooched to the side to make room for me, turning away from me as obviously as my vending machine encounters.

“Hi,” I said to my friends. They looked up at me.

“Hey,” both cooed. “How are you?”

“I’m okay,” I smiled, putting my backpack between my legs.

“Hanging in there?” Eliza said. I nodded, annoyed with her transparent discomfort. She once came over to my house when I had lice and pinkeye without so much as flinching.

“We…We missed you,” Eliza added. “It’s good to have you back.”

“I’m excited to just get things back to normal,” I said, surveying the gymnasium. It felt so different, like they’d all been at the party. Kristin and Eliza looked around too, but their faces told me they had other worries on their minds.

 

Kristin and Eliza had reached out to me when word first spread. They were with me when the text message of which I was the subject finally reached their cell phones. “Ew!” they’d both gasped at first. I had craned my head over their shoulders to see what was so captivating, but they’d just received the follow-up text captioning the photo and had pivoted away from me. “Oh, my God,” I remember Kristin saying.

“Holy shit,” Eliza had said after a minute. Both shoved their phones deep into their back pockets.

“What is it?” I’d asked stupidly.

I hadn’t told anyone about the party at that point. I’d picked myself up from the woods behind the house and drove home. I’d showered, mostly just preoccupied with my terrible headache. It was in the shower that I noticed the blood staining the porcelain floor. I was under the impression I’d just started my period. But then the water began to sting, and it hurt to wash myself. I felt sore everywhere, and I began to count several bruises and scratches. Nothing came back to me—I had no memories to sort through. I stifled a scream, whimpering as the water erased the most damning evidence. Later, in the hospital, the nurse assigned to assess “the damage” had asked about my sexual history. I’d told her—believing myself to be speaking honestly—that I was a virgin. Then she got quiet and walked out for a minute.

That circulated picture proved far more than how much I’d been drinking that night. Without it, I had nothing with which to accuse anyone. Though quite a challenge when forming my case with Mr. White, I was rather glad that I didn’t have any recollection of what must have happened. I didn’t walk in fear of men the way other victims do. I walked with shock that my peers had such power to destroy someone’s life. Then again, they probably thought the same of me when they received their first paperwork about the trial.

Kristin and Eliza had spent that night with me, holding me while I cried. Neither had been at the party—they didn’t like to party. I’d attended it with some cross country friends, but, apparently, had become sidetracked. No one wanted to admit they’d been at the party, and all my information about the night came primarily from rumors Kristin and Eliza had heard.

After that first, terrible night, Kristin or Eliza came over to my house every day, and they sat beside me when I finally told my parents what was going on. They showed my parents and Mr. White the pictures and texts. They sat in the audience for the trial the first two days, but then their parents said that they needed to be in school. I told them I understood. The whole thing ended up taking another two months, and neither them nor I had made much effort to keep in touch.

When everything had leaked into local news, administrative staff that did not work in the high school, including our superintendent, had expressed sincere embarrassment and dismay. My teachers, the vice principal, even my cross country coach, had all remained rather uninvolved, mainly sending me updates on what I was missing and needed to make up. My teammates sent me some cookies and a card, but no one texted in the group chat we’d arranged for the past two years or contacted me personally.

I tried to keep running, but I hardly ever felt like I had enough energy for it. When I emailed my coach to say that I wouldn’t be participating on the track team that spring, I’d received a brief response:

That’s fine. You are not eligible for sports teams at this time. 

My coach didn’t have the guts to say it, but I assumed I’d been kicked off the team for breaking rules regarding underage drinking. I still wondered why none of my other cohorts had been removed, as they were at the party as well.

 

After five more vexatious minutes of small talk with Eliza and Kristin, our vice principal emerged, walking up to the podium arranged in the center. He was wearing an expensive suit, the same one he’d worn in court, and he was holding a crinkled piece of paper.

“Hello students of Creston High,” he began, his mouth way too close to the microphone. The mic echoed his words a little, and the volume had to be adjusted as we were all in danger of going deaf. Once someone gave him a thumbs up, he reluctantly continued. “Thank you for coming today. We need to talk about something serious—something that is long overdue.”

My stomach dropped.

“I understand that there have been several parties over the last few months. I’m sure you are all aware of the particularly tragic events of last October. After some exhaustive administrative changes and meetings, we would like to formally address the school’s current state.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have lost two important members of our school—”

Principal Shaffer and Coach Whitman, I thought, filling in the sentences in my head to avoid noticing the student body reactions.

“—Jacob Matthews and Alex Stephens are no longer attending Creston, and they will no longer be participating on our football team, along with several others. We are working hard to ensure that we bring justice to the matter while respecting the privacy of everyone. Many of you knew these boys. We kindly request that you would not spread rumors about such circumstances.

“We are also reviewing a few positions of administration,” he said, licking his lips. “We ask that you respect privacy in this process as well. Hopefully, we will not need to make any changes and Principal Shaffer, among others, will be back in no time at all.”

A few people clapped, and the football team all seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The vice principal continued,

“This incident—” he cleared his throat— “this um, chain of events, that has caused all of this confusion and exhaustive investigation, has brought to our attention the serious issue of underage drinking. Students, the legal drinking age is 21 years of age, and none of you meet that requirement. Therefore, none of you should be consuming alcohol, period. The problems we are currently facing are directly related to irresponsible drinking.”

Don’t cry; don’t cry; don’t cry.

I wanted to leave. I considered attempting a second exit. I squirmed. Kristin took my hand.

The vice principal looked visibly uncomfortable by this point. He was reciting a thoroughly-rehearsed speech, but his body language suggested this was perhaps his first experience with public speaking.

“Irresponsible drinking leads to unsafe operation of vehicles, unplanned sexual activity, health problems, and even death. For more information on these very serious effects of underage alcohol drinking, we will be hosting a free seminar on the dangers of it. Our health teacher, Mrs. Fitzgibbon, will be in charge of that. Please be responsible—”

When had I stood up? What was I doing? Heads snapped between the vice principal and I, staring us down like a tennis match. I should sit down, I thought. I should definitely sit down. I had silenced the vice principal though, and everyone was waiting for me.

I took a breath. The gym was still quiet. I expected the vice principal to dismiss me, to tell me to sit down, to say something, but he just stared at me along with the rest of the gym.

I could yell at all of them—tell them that the assembly needed was not about underage drinking, but of sexual assault. I could spell it out for them, how they’ve missed the point. I could yell at myself—apologize to everyone for disturbing the peace. In that moment, though, I realized that none of it mattered. Nothing I could say would make them understand, would make them forgive me, would give me back what I had lost that night.

I thought about the statistics Mr. White had presented to the court—that one in five women are raped in their lifetime and almost none are reported. I looked at the student body and a wave of pity jabbed me. There were others in this room who knew far more about sexual assault than I that also felt silenced. I thought about when my mother had cried, in deep pain, still thanking me for reporting it, for letting them love me. They never blamed me for drinking that night. Why did everyone else?

1,400 sets of eyeballs blinked at me expectantly, but I fell mute and sat back down.

 

 

BIO

Abbey is a senior English and Creative Writing major for a B.A. degree at Indiana Wesleyan University. She has poetry published in her school’s literary magazine, Caesura, but this is her first short story to be published in a recognized literary journal. She is currently an editorial assistant for a small academic publishing company and hopes to eventually edit works of fiction and creative nonfiction. She believes fiction can be a powerful source of social commentary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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