I was shivering in the October wind when Brittany called out, “Hey, Laura! Wait up!”
Shove it, Brittany, I thought.
I’d just left the high school building (which wasn’t that far behind me) and planned to walk home along the usual route, downhill on a tree lined street. A few cars drove past. The wind blasted again, sending red and orange leaves flying and Brittany skidded up next to me, untangling one from her long hair. Despite her shout-out, we still weren’t speaking, not since last summer when we stopped being friends.
That was bad enough, but after that, something really terrible happened and when it did, I remembered something I’d almost forgotten that happened back in middle school. It was an ordinary afternoon and the dismissal bell had just rung. Mom had come to pick us up, so Brittany and I went outside and got in the car for the ride home. On the sidewalk next to the curb, a lot of kids were waiting for their rides, talking, laughing and fooling around. We weren’t paying much attention to them but apparently Mom was. “Geez Louise, that kid’s already a player,” she muttered.
She looked surprised to have said it and didn’t intend we hear, so of course it had the opposite effect. We sat up and shut up, spinning around, and there was Joey Cantello; Mr. Handsome and Popular; running around and swoop-hugging his favorite girls. I squirmed in my seat, not knowing exactly why I felt so uncomfortable, but I did, and later when I tried to talk about it with Brittany, she clammed up.
Eventually that would seem portentous, but Mom just drove out; single file with cars behind and in front of us; and I forgot about it until much later. By then, we were juniors in high school and Brittany, who’d always been an ordinary looking girl (and I still was), suddenly became gorgeous. Joey noticed and whisked her away to the top of the high school food chain. After that, she called me one last time, and this was what she said:
Her: I’ve moved on.
Her: We don’t have anything in common anymore.
Me: What do you mean?
Her: Honestly, I don’t think we ever did.
Me: How can you say that? We’ve known each other forever.
I started to cry then. I wished I hadn’t, but the truth was, I burst into tears. Not just the regular kind. The sobbing ones, because after my father left us for that woman with the tiny incisors, Brittany had been there for me and just like that she was gone.
Her: You’re so embarrassing.
Was she kidding? We lived down the street from each other. Our mothers were pregnant at the same time and from the moment we were born, a week apart, we spent every moment together. In school and out. Every summer on the beach. Every bit of everything, until she shot it to hell because she wanted to be with a guy even Mom knew was a player.
Me: But why? What did I do?
That’s when I realized she wasn’t alone. Joey was with her and they were enjoying my misery.
Me: Begging. What did I do? I’ll fix it.
Her: Nothing. You. Did. Nothing. You are nothing. I am me. Which is a real person. And you are nothing. That’s why we’re incompatible. So, stay. The fuck. Away. From me.
And then she hung up.
It got worse over the summer when I saw her at the mall and not thinking, called out. She looked at me, her face blank and then she spun away with Joey and one of her new friends, a girl named Elle. The two glanced back and snickered. My face heated bright red and I couldn’t move, as if I were a raccoon in the road that survived a near miss and couldn’t believe it was still alive.
My surroundings swirled. I felt like the whole world had witnessed my humiliation: the guy selling gold chains from a kiosk, a woman coming out of Abercrombie. I started backing up and smiling, moving in slow motion. It was nothing. No biggie. Inside I wanted to die. Good thing it was almost time to meet Mom. I whirled and raced down the corridor. When I got to her, I couldn’t hold it back anymore and started to cry.
“What happened?” she said, voice high and eyes round. Some pedophile flasher had just gotten arrested and I could tell she was thinking the worst.
“God! Why do you always have to be so dramatic?”
I charged past and ran out to the parking lot, tripping, practically blind with tears and bawling my brains out. It took Mom a few minutes to catch up. When she did, she got into the car next to me, panting, and after I calmed down enough to talk, I told her the whole thing. “Why is she being like this?”
“Sometimes people just need a little space. I get the feeling she’s not very happy right now.”
“Maybe I should give her a pass?”
“I think you should do what feels right to you.”
Mom was being appropriate on the outside but underneath I could tell she was angry with Brittany too. I wasn’t crying anymore, but I looked a wreck, face all blotchy and splotchy. She started the ignition, maneuvering out of the parking lot and into the McDonald’s drive-through. We ordered Cokes. The big ones, and I took a huge sip from my straw. It made me feel a little bit better.
After that, the summer went by the way it usually did and on a day near the end of August, I went to the beach with Olivia, who’d just moved in. That was a sucky thing for her, going into Senior year (which was due to start any minute), but we were already close friends. I was excited about going back but I still missed Brittany.
“She’s just not herself, lately,” I said, making excuses again.
Despite how rotten she’d been to me, I was still hoping for a miracle.
“No, she’s a dumb-ass-bitch-ho,” Olivia cracked, making faces and clowning around.
We fell over laughing. She always seemed to know what to say. Mom said that was because her mom died when she was little and she had to be “wiser than her years.” Her dad was awesome, but it wasn’t the same. That’s why we got along so well. If you put us on a scale we’d balance: She only had her dad. I only had Mom. She loved boys. I loved girls. I’m white, she’s black. She’s Christian. I’m Jewish. She just moved into our neighborhood, but I felt like I knew her forever.
That wasn’t because I “liked her-liked her”. For real, I was crushing on a girl who went to youth group at temple. It wasn’t that way with Brittany either and Hell to the no, I wasn’t jealous of Joey. I didn’t care if Brittany had a boyfriend. I only wanted my friend back, the way she was before she told me I was loser. Even though I knew that wasn’t true, it still hurt.
We leaned back on our towels and the tide began to come in. The waves lapped and gulls cawed. Behind us, voices approached and became louder. I recognized them and we sat up, turning to see Brittany with several others coming down the path, oblivious of the racket they were making.
Joey and another boy raced into the water; a couple started making out on a blanket; Elle dragged on a joint and passed it to Brittany. She took a hit and gave it to the make-out couple. The two of them wore matching bikinis, the kind with a triangle over each breast, navy blue with a pink heart over the nipple. After waiting to make sure everyone saw them, they waded into the water.
In my bag, my phone started blowing up so I got it out. My mouth opened and closed. A horrible video was being shared over and over. In it, Brittany lolled on the ground in the woods, skirt hiked up, legs at angles and panties dangling from one of her ankles. Joey was hunched over her motionless body, on all fours, his naked butt jerking up and down in a frenzy. A group of others, including Elle, stood in a circle around them. In a flash I felt dizzy and cold.
“Oh God, I’m nauseous,” I said, leaping up and running around, brain blank and flapping my arms like I was having a seizure. “Damn. I don’t believe this. It’s totally freaking me out. Shit. Holy Shit.”
My gut jumped and I gagged on the Chipotle we’d eaten earlier. Oh God. I was going to throw up in front of everybody. I looked around for an escape, but there wasn’t one, so I bolted to the dune and let it go in the tall sea grass, helpless and heaving on waves of half-digested burrito bowl. Olivia followed me, murmuring reassurances and rubbing my back.
“I got you, Girl. I got you,” she kept saying, while Brittany and Elle laughed. I knew it was them and when I straightened, they pointed.
“Shut the fuck up!” Olivia shouted, flipping them off as we went back to our
stuff and got ready to go.
“It’s not her fault,” I said.
“Are you kidding me right now? Who laughs at somebody who’s got food
“I don’t have food poisoning. I’m having a massive freak-out.”
“That’s a technicality.”
“Okay, but I meant what Joey did wasn’t Brittany’s fault.”
“True that. He’s the piece of shit that raped her. She should be telling the cops about it, not strutting around here with the people who did it to her.”
“Maybe she already did?”
“If that’s true, why is he here?”
“If he was black, he’d already be in jail. Maybe even dead.”
I inhaled not knowing what to say until I settled on the truth.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Olivia shrugged. “Maybe someday we can do something about it.”
We left the beach after that, crossing over the dune to walk back to my house and when we got to the road I said, “Could be he wasn’t arrested because they staged it. Faked the whole thing. Maybe it was a sick joke.”
“No way. She can be mean, but you never said she was stupid. Why would she humiliate herself?”
Olivia was right. She wouldn’t. And then I had another thought. “Is it possible she
“About the video?”
“No way. Even if her phone died, everybody else has one.”
“Okay,” I said, not wanting to believe it as we walked up the hill. “Assuming it’s real, is it possible she doesn’t know it happened because she passed out?”
Olivia snorted, eyebrows shooting up.
“Assuming it’s real?” she’d said, quoting my words back to me. “Forget it. Britanny still has his stuff inside her. It smells different. It feels different than her own. And she’s all torn up in there because she wasn’t ready. There’s no way she doesn’t know.”
I was a virgin and on top of that, I wasn’t planning on having sex with a man. Like ever, but I trusted Olivia because she had experience with “stuff”. Her father, the new principal of our school, had moved them out of Newark because he said her ex was a bad influence. Maybe he was right because the ex’s new girlfriend had gotten pregnant right after Olivia left.
“Let’s look at the video again,” I said.
We huddled in the street together, letting it play out and when it stopped, I realized it was too brutal and violent to be fake. There’s no way Brittany deserved that, but a lot of the other kids and even some parents were calling her a slut and a whore, sloppy-drunk and begging for it.
Anybody with two eyes can see he didn’t do anything wrong, someone said. Look at that skirt.
It’s her fault, said another. If she wasn’t there it wouldn’t have happened.
What’s wrong with her parents? They raised her like that.
She loved it. Looks like she’s had a lot of practice.
Boys’ll be boys, somebody chimed in. What was he supposed to do?
I squirmed at that, just like back in middle school and now I knew why. Joey felt entitled to do whatever he wanted. At thirteen that meant hugging girls. Ready or not, here I come! At eighteen, apparently, that meant raping them.
At the corner we turned into my yard and let ourselves into the house. It was cool inside, dim and quiet, a relief after the sun and heat. Going into the kitchen, I got us a couple of cold G2s and after bringing them back to the family room, I handed one to Olivia and we snuggled into the couch.
“Should I send it to Mom?” I asked her about the video.
Olivia thought for a moment and said, “Yeah. It’s pretty bad.”
Two seconds later I texted it and in another two seconds, Mom called back.
“What is this?” she said.
I told her everything I knew, which wasn’t much.
“Are you alright?” she said.
“Yes. Olivia is here.”
“Tell her I said, ‘hello’. She’s a good friend.”
“Mom says, ‘hello’ and you’re a good friend.”
“Hi, Mrs. Geldoff,” Olivia said. “And thank you.”
“She says, ‘thanks.’”
“You’re welcome,” Mom said and, “Stay put, Laura. I think I can leave early, and we’ll figure it out when I get there.”
At the time, I wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but after Olivia left, I showered and lay down on the couch, taking a nap until Mom got home. When she came in, I threw myself into her arms and lay with my head in her lap while she stroked my hair.
“It could be a joke, right?”
I was still trying to wish it away.
“No. It doesn’t look like it. God knows that would be bad enough, but this is awful. I can’t stand it. I held that child right after she was born.”
Hearing the catch in Mom’s voice I sat up. Why was I surprised she was sad about this too? It made me wonder how often she was unhappy and I never noticed. I threw my arms around her, hugging her hard and when we let go she said, “Give me a minute, I have to call her mother. If she doesn’t know, we’ve gotta tell her. They have to deal with this right away”
As I watched, she pushed a couple of buttons on her phone.
“Hi Barbara, it’s Patti. How are you?”
When Mrs. W. answered, she must have said something ordinary because Mom had said, “Oh, fine. We went to Lake Hopatcong for a couple of weeks. Olivia came with us, but Laura missed Brittany. It’s hard to believe the summer is almost over.”
Mom winced, the lines around her eyes crinkling. “You might already know, but if you don’t—” she kept going until there was nothing left to say. “—if the shoe were on the other foot, you’d be the first one to tell me. We just want Brittany to be okay.”
Mom was using her gentlest voice, the one she uses when I’m sick, but Mrs. W. was still completely freaked out because, A. she was clueless about Instagram and B. she was the same about Brittany. That wasn’t a good combination and by the time she’d hung up, her voice had risen so I’d heard it coming out of the phone and it sounded like sheer panic.
That was back in August. Now it was October, and Brittany was walking along beside me. It was like she assumed I’d take her back, no questions asked. That made me angry and I swallowed, not sure I wanted to talk so I ignored her and kept going, all the way down to Eternity, the crossing guard who gave us Mary Jane candies. She’d always done that, every afternoon since we were in Kindergarten and maybe even before that. As we approached, she took two out of her pocket and handed them over. I unwrapped mine and put it into my mouth, chewing until peanut butter stickiness wrapped itself around my teeth.
After a couple of seconds, the signal’s walking-man popped on and the traffic stopped. Eternity held up a red sign and herded us across the road. When we got there, I gave her a quick hug and smiled, adjusting my back-pack and switching my flute case to the other hand. My shoulders were aching and the hand holding my flute case was cold.
“Brittany.” I cleared my throat and corrected myself. “I mean, Britt.”
That’s what she went by lately. If you didn’t use it, she wouldn’t answer.
“What do you want?” I said.
“Just company. This stupid walk is too long sometimes.”
“What happened to Elle?”
“Home. Strep throat.”
A beat or two passed.
“You must think I’m stupid,” I said.
“I never said that.”
“Maybe not, but you said a lot of other things.”
“What do you want from me?”
“An apology would be nice and an explanation would be great.”
Now that I’d settled down, I found I knew exactly what I wanted to say. She didn’t
answer, so we kept going for a good half a block, in silence and with the wind rushing up from the water. When it suddenly dropped off, I almost fell over and seeing that, Brittany stifled a laugh.
“You’re such a bitch. A mean, horrible, fucking bitch!” I stopped mid-step, totally losing it. “For all I know, you have a gang waiting to ambush me!”
“You really think that?” she said with a break in her voice that sounded like remorse.
“If you were me, what would you think?”
“I’m sorry, okay? I really am.”
“Why should I believe you?”
She sighed and hung her head. “I don’t know,” and when she said it, her voice sounded strangled. I looked at her hard.
“Brittany, what’s wrong?”
“Yes, there is. Tell me,” but she wouldn’t and after that, I realized I wasn’t angry with her anymore.
We started to talk about regular things. Did I know how to make a fish-tail braid? No, did she? Sort of, but they always turned out looking weird. Had she heard the Albertsons had gotten a puppy? Yes. It was a Golden to replace Sunshine who’d gotten old and died. That was sad but the puppy was so sweet and tiny, all covered in baby fluff.
After several blocks, our neighborhood started up with old gabled houses lining both sides of the streets. A lot of them had pumpkins clustering on the steps or bunches of dried corn on the door. At the bottom of the hill was the bay and the New York City skyline was on the other side of it. The water was usually calm even in the winter, not like the open water of the ocean, but that day it was choppy with angry white waves.
O’Connor’s Woods was up ahead and my stomach squeezed. That’s where Brittany had been raped. I glanced at her, kicking an acorn while I shuffled through a pile of leaves. I’d only gone that way out of habit because Olivia lived across the street, but we could have gone another way. Brittany must have felt awful being so near to where it happened, but she didn’t say, and I didn’t bring it up.
We kept going. The woods were two blocks long and toward the end of the second, there was an old building tucked into them, facing the road. It was built of dark stone flecked with light pebbles and it had a front porch, high and wide, with a long matching staircase. A cracked concrete path, moss-covered and weed-riddled, led to a waist-height stone wall and into that was set a pair of decrepit wrought iron gates. These were held closed by a thick rusty chain, at the end of which was an aged padlock that hung open, green and smelling of metal. We stopped there, on the sidewalk next to it, the tree branches of the woods hanging over us like an umbrella and a bird calling, long and hollow.
“Do you think it was ever really a reform school?” Brittany asked.
“No. That’s just a ghost story. It was a pump house before there was city water.”
“Leave it to you to know that.”
I laughed. “For God’s sake, Brittany. It’s been all over the paper lately. Sea Hill just bought it. It’s a historic site.”
“Why don’t you come with me tonight,” she said.
“There’s a party in the house tonight. Troy, you know him? He pried the door open with a crow-bar.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said, exasperated and plopping my backpack on the sidewalk in front of me.
“Seriously, you should come. Why don’t you?”
“Because there’s ‘No Trespassing’ signs all over the place. It’s illegal and how do you know the floor won’t collapse?”
“How about the roof then?”
“It hasn’t so far,” she said.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Shut up. Joey’s gonna be in jail for a long time.”
Maybe. Joey’s father had gotten Larry Lamonico to defend him and he was famous for keeping rich boys out of jail. It could go either way and Mom said it probably would.
“I’m staying over at Elle’s tonight. As long as I answer Mom’s texts, she doesn’t ask any questions.”
“What about Elle’s parents,” I said.
“They don’t care.”
I figured that was true because I’d never even seen them at a school event and I’d known Elle since kindergarten. I picked up my backpack by one strap and Brittany, surprising me, took the other. A moment later, we got going again, carrying it down the road between us.
“It’s a bad idea,” I said.
“No, it’s not.”
“Because it’ll be fun.”
We were almost home. My house came first and hers was three doors down. I heaved my backpack over my shoulder. She waved and kept going. I went inside and turned on a bunch of lights. Mom was at work and she’d left a handwritten note on the kitchen table:
I hope you had a great day. There’s Chicken Cacciatore in the crock pot. You can eat whenever you’re hungry. Please unload the dishwasher and don’t forget I have to work late tonight so I won’t be back until 9. Do your homework and behave.
My stomach tweaked. Not at the homework part, but the behave part. She always said that, almost like a joke because I was probably the easiest teenager in the world. I grabbed a bag of chips, put on my headphones and unpacked my books. Calculus, English, an online Geography test. I tried to focus, but I kept thinking about Brittany and after a while, my phone buzzed with her text:
Her: You’re coming, right?”
Me: Bad idea.
Her: What are you afraid of? Joey can’t even come because he has a curfew. The cops call him every night to make sure he’s home.
Her: Come on. You can go and get back before your mom gets home.”
Me: How do you know?
Her: Mom told me she’s working late.
Brittany had no right to expect anything of me, but I knew a part of us would always be best friends. Loyalty like that doesn’t just go out the window. She was pretending there was nothing wrong, but if I went, maybe I could help her.
Her: Dark haired emoji, clapping its hands.
An hour or so later I left home, walking and bundled up against the howling wind. It was dark outside, but there was a full moon, so the woods, a few blocks distant, looked like a skeletal framework of bare and gnarled branches against the backdrop of the lighter sky. I walked fast, not loving being alone, knowing that was ironic as I went toward what I knew to be a greater danger. When I got there, the metal gates were open. I slipped between them, my body jittering with nerves as I walked up the broken path to the bottom of the steps.
I froze, breaking into a cold sweat as I looked up at the place, knowing I should leave, but I heard music, and looking both ways I climbed up the steps to the porch. The plywood over the door was propped open and I went toward it, hearing people laughing and talking inside. At least they were there and being obvious about it.
Nobody was going to jump out at me or leave me alone, locked in and panicking. In that way at least, I decided I was relatively safe, so I clicked on my phone-light and went inside, my eyes taking a second to adjust and when they did I saw I was in a big room, a great hall of sorts, the ceiling of which was being held up by hulking wood beams, so it looked like a hunting lodge.
“Laura,” Brittany called out, sounding strange and unlike herself. “I knew you would come. I’m over here.”
It took me a second to pick her out of the usual crowd. They were watching a guy I didn’t know, older than us and looking like a deranged bartender pour alcohol into a painters’ five-gallon bucket. With a flourish, he dumped the last of it in and threw the empty bottle over his shoulder, carelessness itself, and while it crashed somewhere behind him, he sprinkled a bag of pills over the top. Elle was standing by and when he finished, she stirred the whole thing up with a ladle probably stolen from her mother’s kitchen drawer.
“Laura, Laura bo baura,” Brittany called again. “I’m waitin’ fer ya.” She sounded even fuzzier that time. “Silly Laura bo baura. What’s takin’ ya so long?”
I went to her and she lurched into me, swaying and almost falling when I caught her. She smelled sour and her eyes were unfocused.
“Let’s go,” I whispered.
I kept talking, urging her to come with me and just as her feet started to move, the deranged bartender gave her a red party cup, the last thing I expected and when she took a sip I smashed it away. It was like watching it happen in slow motion, or to somebody else as the terrible blue liquid flew out and the half-empty cup bounced and skittered on the floor. Kids laughed and the bartender’s face flushed. His crotch was drenched— as if he’d peed himself, and when he looked up, he bared his teeth.
“Come on, Brittany,” I encouraged, knowing we had to get out of there and I wasn’t leaving without her. “We’re almost there, come on.” She felt heavy in my arms and it was hard to keep her upright and moving.
“Fuck you, Bitch!” the deranged bartender yelled at me, his chest puffed up. “Uh huh,” he kept saying. “Uh huh! You wanna try that again?”
He coiled his arms, threw me into the wall and I fell, losing my grip on Brittany in the process. She went down like a slinky and when her head hit the flagstone floor it sounded like a dropped cantaloupe. I scrabbled to her side.
“Brittany! Brittany!” I shouted.
She didn’t respond and then she started to vomit, her body heaving all the way from her toes to her chest. She was lying on her back and I knew that was bad. With a mighty heave, I rolled her onto her side.
“Fuck,” said the deranged bartender. “This shit again?”
There was no answer, and none was expected.
“Brittany!” I yelled like they taught us in life-guard training. “You okay?”
I laid my hand on her chest and though my heart was pounding, her breathing was shallow and her eyes were closed. I lifted one lid. Her pupils were huge. Kids were stepping over and around us to get out of the house, as orderly and silent as a fire drill. Elle was one of the last. I couldn’t believe she was leaving too, but she did and I dialed 911.
I wanted to freak out but I knew I couldn’t and when the operator picked up, I made myself tell her my name, where we were and what was going on with Brittany.
“Is there an adult nearby?” she asked.
Mr. Cameron, I thought, Olivia’s father. “Yes,” I told her. “I think so.”
I ran out and across the street to their house, up the porch steps and then I started ringing the bell, just ringing and ringing and when he opened the door; I babbled it out, begging for help and before I even finished, he threw on a thick jacket. When we got back to Brittany, she was still breathing, but barely.
Mr. Cameron put his face into hers, yelling her name. She didn’t answer, wasn’t moving. and her head was bleeding, making a shiny puddle under her hair. I sunk to my knees and held her hand.
On the phone, the 911 operator said, “Help is on the way. Start CPR if she stops breathing. Do you know how?”
We did, but I prayed we wouldn’t have to.
“You’re okay,” I said to Britanny, hoping she could hear me. “It’s okay. Help is coming.
It’s okay. You’re okay.”
I kept saying it over and over, almost singing, the words flowing together and mindless. It was the only thing I could do and like a miracle, Brittany kept breathing, even though she didn’t wake up. After what felt like forever, I heard sirens, far away but getting closer and then they were there, an ambulance, police car and fire engine, all noise and swirling light, from which a pair of EMTs emerged.
One of them eased me away from Brittany, taking my place at her side and the other replaced Mr. Cameron. I lost it then, crying hysterically, probably out of grief and terror and worry, but also because I didn’t have to keep it inside anymore. Mr. Cameron pulled me into his arms and as we watched, they shifted Brittany onto a backboard.
Everything went super-fast after that. They strapped her in, carried her out and put her into the ambulance. When it drove off, I saw an oxygen mask being fastened over her face and I made myself calm down. A couple of police officers asked me some questions and while I answered, Mr. Cameron never let go, protecting me as if he were my own father and after I told them everything I knew, he ushered me back to his house.
Olivia told me Mom was on her way to pick me up and I had mixed feelings about that. On one hand I dreaded it and on the other I couldn’t wait for her to get there. Either way, I had no choice but to wait, so Olivia and I went into the family room and burrowed into the couch.
A moment later, Mom rang the doorbell and Mr. Cameron let her in.
“Really! Are you kidding me?” she said when she came in and saw me. “What the hell were you doing over there? What in God’s name possessed you to do that?”
She was standing in the middle of the room, holding a crumpled Kleenex, her face tear-stained and puffy. “You scared the crap out of me,” she said as she crossed the room to sweep me into her arms. I was in big trouble and knew it, but somehow, it was a relief to hear her say so.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I told her, holding on as she squeezed me against her chest.
“I know, but there are consequence to things. What if something had happened to you? I wanna know the whole story. Right now. Everything, Laura.”
Without us noticing, Mr. Cameron had gone into the kitchen and come back with a bottle of water. He handed it to Mom and she opened it, sitting in the chair facing us and after he took the one next to hers, he nodded. That was my cue to start talking, so I did, telling the entire story from beginning to end, every detail; how I went to the party because I thought Brittany needed help; about the guy with the bucket; how he threw me against the wall; how I fell, holding Brittany in my arms; and after that, how everybody abandoned us, even Elle.
Mom’s eyes opened wide as she listened, alternately shaking her head and nodding. “Are you alright?” she asked. “That man assaulted you. Maybe we need to get you
to a doctor.”
I shrugged, “I’m okay. I didn’t land very hard. Brittany was just too out of it to catch herself.”
After that, Mr. Cameron added a few things, mainly talking about how I probably saved Brittany’s life and about what a good head I had on my shoulders. He was proud of me and he thought Mom should be too. We stayed for a few more minutes, the adults doing most of the talking, and when we got home, I went straight upstairs to take the hottest shower I could stand. When I finished, I put on my sweats and snuggled into bed. Mom sat on the edge and smoothed the covers around me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, breaking down. “I shouldn’t have gone.”
“I understand why you did, but next time somebody needs help, don’t try to do it yourself. You could have called me. Or the police. They were trespassing and it’s dangerous over there.”
“I guess I didn’t wanna rat Brittany out.”
“It’s not ratting when you think somebody’s in danger.”
I knew she was right and as we talked, Mom listened closely, asking a question or
two. I wasn’t sure when I fell asleep but I must have drifted off because I woke up in the morning at the usual time and went to school. I just couldn’t stand to stay home. Britanny wasn’t there because she was still in the hospital. Mom told me they pumped her stomach and put fifteen stitches put into the back of her head.
Physically, she was going to be fine, but emotionally she was a wreck and addicted to alcohol and pain killers. It was hard to believe that had happened so fast, in the matter of just a few months and because of it, when she left Riverview Memorial, she went straight into a rehab facility, the kind people live in, like boarding school. She stayed there for the rest of the school year, but Mr. Cameron set her up with on-line classes, so she graduated on time along with the rest of us. That was a few days earlier and Olivia and I were on our way to the beach when she texted.
Her: I saw you leaving. Can I come?
I showed it to Olivia and she grimaced, saying, “How do we know she’s not the same ho-ho-hodeley-ho-bag?”
“Do you want me to tell her no?”
“No, it’s only—the idea of her still makes me a little nervous.”
“Are you sure? She’ll understand.”
“No. She can come. Go ahead and text her back,” she said.
Me: Sure. We’ll w8 for you.
When we first heard Brittany was coming home, Olivia told me she was worried I’d friend-dump her. That made me feel awful and good, all at the same time because she cared so much and when she stopped talking, we were both crying so I just hugged her and blurted out I’d never do that. Not in a jillion-billion years and that’s what I said, how I’d never forget how she stuck by me and how her dad helped me that night. I just wished he’d marry Mom so we could be sisters, but they weren’t even dating.
We were still standing on the corner, waiting for Brittany when Mrs. Albertson came by walking Butter, the puppy. She’d gotten a lot bigger since the fall and when she saw us, she bounded over on her leash, wiggling, smiling and pulling Mrs. A. along behind her. “Training is slow-going because she’s so spoiled,” Mrs. A. said, shaking her head, but I could tell she really didn’t mind and that made us laugh.
“Stop by any time to visit her,” she told us, getting going again and waving as Brittany jogged up.
“Hey, Britt,” we said.
There was a beat of silence and her face turned pink. “Just Brittany,” she said. “Same as before. And I’m sorry. You too, Olivia. We never got to know each other because I was high all the time.”
“Laura told me you weren’t yourself back then,” she said.
“No, I totally wasn’t, and after the rape it only got worse. I was so scared and
humiliated. I just wanted it to go away.
My eyes filled with tears.
“I’m sorry, Brittany,” I said. “And it’s okay. I’m just glad you’re okay.”
“Me too,” Olivia added.
“Thanks, but did you hear what the lame-ass judge gave that piece a shit?”
It was announced on the news yesterday, not just local, but cable and everybody was outraged. Joey’s sentence for raping Brittany was a day and a half, of time served, with six months of community service. The judge had said he deserved leniency because he came from a good family and had a lot of potential.
“You know the worst part?” she said.
I shook my head.
“My therapist said it’s only a matter of time before he does it again. And I may not have been the first. Mine was just the one that went viral.”
“At least there was proof,” Olivia said. “That’s what got him convicted. That’s gotta be worth something.”
“I guess. For all the good it’s doing.”
“Of course, it is,” I said. “He was found guilty, Brittany. He has a record. Everybody knows he’s a criminal now.”
“That’s what I tell myself. And I’m glad to be home. With my family. And you guys. I missed you so much.”
I gathered her to me and held onto her hard, telling her I missed her too. After that she pushed me off with a grin, looking so much like her old self that the three of us started laughing and dancing, swirling each other around, feeling free and beautiful and proud. We kept going like that until we were dizzy and then we started walking again, holding each other up.
We went down the middle of the road, side by side, swinging our arms in time with our steps and that’s when I noticed Brittany had gotten a tattoo on the inside of her wrist.
“What’s that?” I said.
She stopped and extended her arm, letting us take a look. It was my name in blue script, just like I’d written it in ball-point pen. My eyes filled with tears as she explained.
“I had to pick something to remind me to stay sober, so I asked the tattoo artist to copy your signature from one of your letters. It’s perfect, don’t you think? When I feel like giving up on myself, I look at it and remember you never did.”
When she was in rehab, she wasn’t allowed to have a cell phone, so I’d taken a chance and written a letter. When she replied, I sent her another and we kept it up until she came home. Until now, I didn’t know how much that meant to her. Tears welled in my eyes and in hers too. We hugged one more time, Olivia joined in and after that we went up the path, over the dune and down to the beach, criss-crossing, yet always together.