Accepted Forms of Ruin
In dark rooms filled with music or chatter, Julia would sink into a booth or couch and almost tell her story.
“When I was in high school,” she would say. “I—”
“Oh, we all did,” a friend would say, bangles clacking on her wrist, her drink slopping out of her over-sized glass. “Who manages to get out of high school a psychological virgin?”
“But it’s not like that,” Julia would start.
“I crashed my mother’s BMW,” another person would say, slurping down the last of a sweet alcoholic beverage, burping lighting, a fruity smell filling the space around them. “Then I went out for pizza.”
“I feel so bad.” But Julia didn’t feel bad; she felt dead in the place that held the truth. Toxic, shriveled, black, her deed hid in her belly like a forgotten organ.
“Go to church,” a guy would say, slouched in a chair, one lazy arm resting on the top, Don Draper style. “Get over it.”
“But what? But everyone, for God’s sake. Are you different? Drink.”
After her bar days ended, all of them graduating from college and turning toward work and some of them to family, Julia stopped trying to tell her story, listening instead to others’ tales. She let people imagine they had only a few hurdles before forgiveness, but that it was still possible. Four hundred Hail Mary’s and then salvation. Weekends in a soup kitchen before atonement, no matter the crime or misdemeanor:
Arrested in high school for carrying a dime bag of pot. Sleeping with the next-door neighbor, who was married or at least engaged. Or wild, one-time (or multiple times) sex with a cousin. A girl cousin. Or a boy, whichever seemed worse. Any kind of sexual or gender peccadillo. Drinking all the tequila in the cellar, one clear bottle at a time, the shelves cleared out before parents noticed. Garden and more esoteric jungle varieties of lying, cheating, and stealing. Larceny, mayhem, and chaos. Small acts of white-collar crime. Fist fights with friends, siblings, relatives. Beatings from relatives that spawned ongoing, massive, and violent retaliation. Running away and then coming back and attendant shame. Ritualized and systemic cutting of forearms, ankles, thighs. Shooting up heroin and other highly addictive and dangerous drugs. Sabotaging every- and anything: friends’ relationships, hopes, and dreams. Bursts of petty revenge. Hating someone so intently, the emotion glowed like a second heart, so bright it was visible from space.
Strung out, hitting bottom, passed out in her own vomit, everyone had a story of something. But nothing like Julia’s.
“What do you call it?” her third therapist asked her.
“What’s it?” Julia asked.
“The thing you did. The thing you won’t tell me about.” The therapist stared at Julia behind clunky black frames that seemed so heavy, Julia often waited for them to slip down the bridge of her small, well-adjusted nose. But despite the therapist’s prim surety, Julia had finally gotten to the point of telling her there was a thing, something that should be named.
“Guilt?” Julia said. “Shame?”
She saw these words and others in a row of insane Campbell’s soup cans lined up on a shelf. Line up Horror, Grief, Panic, Terror with the first two, add a can of water, and it was good to go.
“Which name would you pick?” the therapist asked. What had her name been? Julia couldn’t remember now.
“Both. All,” she said.
“All?” The therapist wrote something on her pad.
“There’s more than guilt and shame.”
“How do the names help you?”
Julia had shrugged. On the wall behind her therapist, a light flicked on the one that indicated the next patient was waiting in the small pod-like waiting area. The session was almost over, thank god.
“The names remind me it isn’t acceptable.”
“How do you know if you’ve never told anyone?”
“One person knows.”
Julia said nothing.
The therapist stared at her, the way the people in the bars had stared at her, the way she stared at herself every morning, forcing herself to see the person who had done the unspeakable thing. But then they both stood up. Julia walked out the door and never went back, at least not to that therapist.
Julia worked in banking, assistant to Deb, a wealth management executive, who was rarely in her office and whose work Julia did at one-eighteenth the pay. Every day, Julia arrived at the Palo Alto office at 6:45 and left at 7 pm, eating take out or crackers in her apartment at night, the television on behind her. After her meal eaten over her sink, she would sit at her computer until 11 answering emails and respond to Deb’s many queries, some involving dry cleaning, her 13-year-old daughter Portia, and the cupcake place downtown.
Chocolate, Deb would write. No vanilla. With the coconut frosting. And only one. No, two.
Midday, driving across town in Deb’s Mercedes SUV, Julia held the steering wheel at ten and two, trying to slide down to three and nine, which had been determined the safest position. She kept her eyes riveted on the road, braking slowly on the rain-slick streets, spotting crosswalks and errant pedestrians, electric bicycles, and even unicyclists before they even knew she was coming.
“And get yourself something,” Deb would say. “Whatever you want.”
If it was possible to get what she wanted, Julia thought, she would.
“I don’t want to be a bother,” her mother said on the phone late one night after Julia had eaten half a box of crackers and most of a pot of soft, spreadable cheese. In front of her, Deb’s open emails, all of which seemed to require responses.
“Mom,” Julia said. “You’re not a bother. What’s wrong?”
“Well, I went to the doctor last week. Things have been…Listen, it’s all about my stomach. I had a few tests.”
In that instant, Julia knew it was her fault. Because of her, her mother’s systems were shutting down. After all these years, the thing rotting inside Julia had finally spread into her mother. Moving to Manhattan for college hadn’t worked. Now it was clear Julia should have just stayed home and gone to Chico State to save money, helping her mother out with the house. Three thousand miles hadn’t been far enough; her mother had caught it anyway.
“What do you have?”
“Maybe, well. Maybe it’s cancer. It’s not—”
Julia stopped breathing, her mouth open, her eyes wide and staring at the brilliant computer screen and the list of emails.
Send follow up to Glen about the portfolio.
Four chocolate, two vanilla. Staff meeting.
Portia needs pickup 4.30 pm.
“What?” she began.
“Now, honey. Don’t cry. Listen, if it is what they think, I’m going to have surgery next week. I—okay. Stop. It’s going to be fine. I know you don’t like to be here, but I hope you can drive up for a day.”
But Julia was already typing her email to Deb, asking for two of the ten weeks of vacation she had never taken. And if Deb said no, she’d quit. She’d quit things before. People, too. In fact, she was good at it.
“Mom,” Julia said. “I’ll be there tomorrow.”
It had been raining since September. Now, in mid-February, the Central Valley was a marshy slog, roads, levees, and dams barely keeping the water from forming a great lake from Redding to Bakersfield. Lake Oroville was an official disaster, the broken spillway keeping people from their homes.
“Used to be like that every spring,” Julia’s co-worker Arturo had told her last week. He sat at the desk in front of hers, his computer screen open to constant, wedding pages of .xml files. Julia wasn’t sure what he did, exactly, but it involved all the division’s data. Plus, he liked to talk about virtual reality.
“It’s so much better than real life,” he always said.
Arturo was also a sixth generation Californian and knew stuff Julia never thought about.
“What used to be like what every spring?” Julia had asked.
Arturo turned around, flattening the spring of dark hair that shot upward from his scalp, no matter the amount of product. His wedge of hair was even more surprising because he shaved the sides and back of his head. Sometimes, his head and neck resembled a perfect circle of sod cut free of a lawn and tossed on a lamppost.
His eyes were shining black disks. With one hand, he quickly moved his mouse, a rain gauge showing up on his computer screen. “This year? Thirty-five inches already. But even when it wasn’t so much, the Sierra snowpack would melt and form a huge lake. You could take a boat from Rio Vista to Roseville.”
“People happened,” Arturo said. “As usual. Same old. Ruined everything. We built dams so we could water ski and plant kiwi fruit and watermelon in the desert. But Mother Nature is fighting back. Oroville and environs are doomed.”
To avoid the swelling lake in the middle of the state, Julia took a different route home. Instead of driving up Highway 99 through Yuba City, Palermo, and Oroville, Julia stayed on 5, turning off onto 45 after Arbuckle.
“Take my car,” Deb had said. “Seriously.”
“I can’t do that,” Julia said.
“I mean it!” Deb put the Mercedes keys in her palm. “Besides, you know I’ll be in Seattle.”
The weather was so bad, Julia was relieved that she wasn’t rattling around in her used Accord, one taillight sketchy, the back brakes worn to slim wafers.
The thick windshield wipers whooshed back and forth, back and forth, the rain spattered and slapped the windows. Wind buffeted the car. Julia clung on tight as she passed by sloshy rice fields and farmhouses, leaning a little forward, focusing on the road that glowed a speckled yellow in the headlights. She ignored her phone ringing in her purse. The ding, ding, ding of messages.
Deb, Deb, Deb. Maybe Arturo. Deb.
Her mother refused to text, so at least Julia didn’t have to worry about that.
Up front with her, Julia could almost see a figure next to her, an outline of fear and worry, who ignored her and looked out the window, face averted. Though of course, Julia knew who she was.
“I’m sorry,” Julia began the way she always did. “I didn’t know.”
The figure said nothing, as usual.
It had been years since Julia tried to explain to her about second grade, where it all started.
“You never listen,” Julia said.
A pickup truck roared past, spraying water. Julia slowed, though the Mercedes’ tires felt glued to the wet road. Hydroplaning occurred at speeds higher than thirty-five, and it was worse in the wind. But there was also low visibility, fog, and generally reduced traction to consider. Behind her, someone flashed his lights off and on, so she sped up to almost fifty, feeling the velocity in her jaw.
“I had a runny nose,” she said. “I was so embarrassed. Mrs. Franklin said we couldn’t get up from our desks because someone had stolen Laura’s pens. We had to wait until the person raised a hand, remember?”
The figure in the seat stayed silent.
“I had a runny nose and had to pee, and all I asked you for was a tissue. You had those nice ones in the packet on your desk. I just needed one.”
As she drove, Julia felt her six-year-old body clench, trying to hold in her bodily fluids, urine and mucous and tears. Knees pressed together, nose streaming, eyes full.
“All I wanted was one tissue,” Julia said. “And you ignored me.”
The figure hunched over into a knot of invisibility.
Before the worst happened that day in class, Michael Graff saw Julia’s streaming nose and started to laugh, snorting in his desk next to her. He was compact, smart, blue-eyed; he knew math and art, his drawn Australia the best, his clay platypus on display. He was the fastest of all the boys, his curly hair bouncing as he ran.
“Little snotty nerd face,” he whispered.
Mrs. Franklin strode in front of the class, her hands behind her back. “Everyone, arms on your desk, heads down. I’ll do it as well. Whoever stole the pens just needs to come up here and put them on my desk while our eyes are shut tight. One, two, three, now.”
The worst part was that Julia had stolen the pens, covering the sound of the scratchy felt. During recess, she’d slipped a careful hand into Laura’s desk, and right now, they were on her desk, under her binder. But now she had to pee so bad, she couldn’t walk up to the front of the room to return them even if she wanted to. She’d wiped snot on both hands and her face was red.
“Just a tissue,” she whispered before they all put their heads down.
“No,” Marie-Therese said.
“Please,” Julia whispered, but she felt her will stretch as thin as a Kleenex.
Marie Therese poked Michael Graff in the back, and he turned, both of them giggling, heads ducked down to avoid Mrs. Franklin’s gaze.
That’s when Julia peed. Slow, at first, but then the same way she would have on the toilet at home. A gush, and then the reek of urine.
“Mrs. Franklin! Julia’s peeing!” Michael Graff called out.
“Oh, my God!” Marie Therese cried, standing up and moving away from the puddle pooling under Julia’s desk. “What a gross pig. You’re disgusting!”
“Children!” Mrs. Franklin called, but there was a circling, a stampeding, a raucous calling out of names and wild hilarity. Someone pushed open the classroom door, and everyone spilled out onto the playground shrieking.
Mrs. Franklin walked over to Julia, two towels in her hands.
“Oh, dear,” she said. “Let me put these down.”
“I stole the pens,” Julia sobbed.
“I know,” Mrs. Franklin said. “Of course you did. Just stay here. I’ll get some soap and water. And I’ll get the office to call your mother.”
And then Julia was alone in the classroom.
She stole the pens and she peed herself. Of course.
“All you had to do was give me the tissue,” Julia said now, her voice a slim white against the pounding rain. “I could have made it. I would have been okay.”
But both Julia and the figure next to her knew she was wrong.
She reached her mother’s house before noon, walking up to the front porch and searching for her key, the same one her mother had given her in third grade, the year her father finally left for good and Connie had to go back to work at the library.
“You have a big responsibility now,” Connie had said, handing Julia the key on a leather keychain. “You have the keys to our only castle.”
The three-bedroom, the two-bath castle was the same but seemed smaller now, the door needing a coat of paint, the windows smudged from dogs’ noses. Even the doormat seemed small, a barely welcome rectangle. The rain had stopped, but the two huge California walnut trees in the front yard were sodden, the trunks slick and black, the branches bare but with the beginning of leaf buds. The lawn was the same lush swath of green from Julia’s childhood, thick Bermuda grass that withstood drought and the blazing summer Chico sun.
In the shrubberies, the whistles of blackbirds. Overhead, three crows swooping down and into the hedgerows, cawing. When Julia closed the front door, her mother appeared in the front hall, a dish towel in her hands. Her two golden retrievers Belle and Butch spun tawny circles around Julia and snuffled her hands.
“There you are! I’ve been trying to call you all morning! I was about to call the police.”
Julia dug in her purse and looked at her phone. Every single message was from her mother. Even one rare text. Deb and Arturo hadn’t made a peep, making Julia believe Deb’s concern had been real and not just because of her work trip.
She slid the phone back in her purse and hugged her mother, breathing in the smells of Palmolive dish soap and coffee. She allowed herself to relax, breathe in once, and then she stepped back before feeling filled her face.
“What’s wrong?” Julia pulled away, staring into her mother’s eyes.
Her mother put her hands on Julia’s shoulders, reaching up as she did. Julia had grown past her during high school, but now it seemed her mother had shrunk, slipped into her clothes and shoes, closer to the ground.
“Nothing’s wrong!” Connie said. “It’s better. I don’t have cancer at all. It’s an ulcer.”
“I know,” Connie said, leading Julia into the house and closing the front door behind them. Behind them, the dogs followed along, their collars jangling. “And now I’m on an antibiotic and an antacid before bed. One does, and I’m already feeling better.”
“Just like that?”
“I’m sorry, honey. I shouldn’t have dragged you into this. But they did one last scan yesterday, and well, this. Good news!”
Julia felt air and hope return to her body. She reached out for her mother’s hand, squeezing. “Mom, that’s great.”
“I agree. So in celebration, I made a lasagna. Let me take it out of the oven. It needs to rest a bit.”
Of course, it needed to rest as if Julia didn’t know the intimate details of her mother’s sort-of homemade lasagna (homemade unless you counted store-bought noodles and jarred sauce). It was a featured casserole in Julia’s childhood, the big pan her mother made on Friday and that they ate off of for days. With a salad. Cold. Reheated with garlic bread. Cold. Then it on to lentil soup, mac, and cheese, spaghetti with meatballs, ham with pineapple rings, roast chicken with pan-fried potatoes. Repeat.
No wonder her mother had an ulcer. Connie pulled open the oven and took out a lasagna, the room steaming with tomato and meat.
“I’m going to the bathroom. Clean up.”
“Take your time. This thing is still bubbling like witches’ brew.”
Julia headed out of the warm kitchen and into the hall. Outside, the sky was gray, nothing but a gloomy glow of white coming through the skylight. The bedroom doors closed, the hallway was a slim dark rectangle, a submerged submarine. Each carpeted step brought her back, dragged her down. How many times had she made this journey from kitchen to bathroom, kitchen to her bedroom, kitchen to her mother’s bedroom where she could curl up and finally sleep? Sure, she’d survived the peeing incident, and it helped that in third-grade, Chico Unified School District opened up another elementary school and half the kids that had been in her second-grade class were moved. She didn’t see them again until high school, and by then, they were mostly too polite to mention that terrible day in class. Michael Graff’s family had moved away, and by 11th grade, Julia had been able to let go of the clenched feeling in her trembling thighs, the horror of the smell wafting up from the wet floor, Mrs. Franklin’s urgent but kind voice. The inevitable returning of the pens to Laura. Then her mother’s murmuring that went on for years. “It was nothing. It happens to everyone.”
That was a lie. It never happened to anyone else. But as she headed into her senior year, the incident wore to almost invisible, a whisper, a ghost, except for that look in Marie Therese’s eyes, the same look that said, “You are not good enough for a tissue.”
Marie Therese had never said anything though, nothing mean or nice. She never noticed Julia because of Marie—as she was now called—was popular and beautiful, quiet and self-assured. Julia saw Marie’s confidence in the way she held her books, the smooth swirl of her hips as she walked, the way she flicked her long brown hair over her shoulders. She wore little makeup and clothes that were almost conservative, but her under her sweaters, t-shirts, jeans was a body Julia could only imagine having: long legs, small waist, big (but not too) breasts, graceful neck.
A top student, drama geek, cheerleader, scholar society, homecoming princess. Marie was someone everyone wanted to hate but couldn’t. Too quiet, too nice, too pretty, too perfect.
Ducking her head down, her eyes on the carpet, Julia passed by her mother’s rogue’s gallery of the past, the innumerable photos of Julia at various stages and ages. Celebrations, birthdays, graduations, all neatly framed. In the bathroom, she closed the door, leaving the light off, not wanting to see her face in this mirror. She peed, washed her hands, splashed water on her face, and then washed it, too, with a special cleanser her mother left for her use. The whole time, she kept her eyes shut, but the problem was, she could still see everything even with them closed.
After lunch, Julia helped her mother clean up the carnage of the lasagna plates and then headed downtown in the Mercedes for some supplies. By mutual decision, they decided a weekend would be the right length for a visit. Connie was going to go back to work on Monday, and there was no reason for Julia to use up her vacation time.
“Great,” Deb said in her voicemail. “I’ll be back Monday anyway. Oh, and fill it up.”
Watch out for floods, Arturo texted. Stay away from dams. Carry a life vest.
“Don’t worry. I’ll keep you posted,” Connie said. “I’ll be fine. You know me.”
It was true. Early motherhood, sudden divorce, tragedy, illness, chaos. Connie always bounced back, into her house, where she would whip up a meal. If Julia hadn’t been her daughter, Connie’s life would have been like an expensive cruise on a silent sea.
Now, Julia swooshed past Hooker Oak Park, headed toward the Safeway and some salad makings and quinoa. Chico seemed gray and flat, depressed by so much sky. The town had recently been ranked the worst to live in California, a big duh! to anyone who had grown up there.
Julia made a left on East Avenue, and in minutes, she was at the high school intersection, stopped at the red light. Avoiding her old school for years, she’d missed the five-year reunion and was currently ignoring invitations to sign up for the tenth next year. She’d seen no one from her class for years, except on Facebook. But as soon as possible, she hid anyone who reminded her of anything. And everyone reminded her of everything.
Her heart sped up, her palms sweating into the leather steering wheel cover. She looked over at the large lawn in front of the office, swearing she could hear kids laughing and the bouncing off heavy balls: basketball, soccer. But it was a wet Saturday, and the office, lot, and lawn were empty. No kids, no cars, no parents. Behind her, someone honked, and before she knew was she was doing, Julia turned left into the parking lot, headed toward the drop off site.
She pulled to a stop in the yellow pick-up zone—a place usually monitored by parents and school staff—and turned off the car. The Mercedes was protected from the outside, the interior muffled, Julia an astronaut with a view, floating outside and above the school looking down. There was the office. There was the cafeteria. There was the gymnasium, the place where all the dances were held, even the junior and senior balls.
Opening the door, she put out a hand, palm up. The rain had stopped, the sky curling into itself and lifting, a sudden warmth filling the space where the rain had been. The air smelled tiny, like ozone, the before or after of lightning, but nothing rumbled in the clouds. Julia got out, beeped the door locked, and walked up to the wide, long swath of pavement, all of it covered by an overhang.
Keeping her gaze in front of her, Julia walked past the office and then turned right, heading onto the campus. How many times had she done just that? Connie dropping her off, Julia running to find her friends. She’d had good friends back then, some of them who had even known her before the peeing incident. Desiree, Katy, Mara, and Sasha, the five of them on the phone at night, chatting all day. On the weekends, trips to the Chico Mall, the park, downtown. They gave each other sidelong glances in class, texted to each other under their desks, and walked as a pack through the halls.
During the long hot summers, they went to and then worked at the local pool, took trips to Tahoe and Stinson Beach, sat out on back decks, patios, and lawns and discussed their dreams. Later, there were parties with girls, and then real parties with boys, too.
Now, Julia felt them next to her, even all these years later. In a crowd of twenty-seven-year-old women, she could recognize them by the backs of their heads, their knees, their pinkie fingers, their laughter, whispers. All these years later, she could find them in a dark room by the smell of their favorite sodas.
After graduation, all of them had reached out to her. Calls, emails, texts. Katy even wrote a letter. Sasha came by with her mother. But Julia never spoke to any of them, not once, not since.
Somewhere, laughter, the sound echoing against the wet walls. A boy on a bike zipped past her, his tires whirring on the slick cement.
Julie kept walking, her legs moving automatically, taking her back, right there, the corner of the gymnasium. Where has she been standing? Here? No, here. Next, to the planter with the palm trees, all of them exactly the same but taller.
“Can you give me a ride home?” Marie had asked, surprising Julia who was waiting for Matthew, her date, who’d wandered off with two other boys to smoke some pot. Inside the gym, the last of music banged against the ceiling. Parents patrolled the wrong side of the gym, assuming kids would wander off into the parking lot for sex or drugs instead of hiding in the classroom hallways.
“What?” Julia flushed at the assault. This was what always happened when she saw Marie, which hadn’t been often this semester. Maybe she’d been studying abroad? Maybe she only had two classes and work study?
“A ride,” Marie whispered. “I need to get to the police.”
“Really? Aren’t you being a bit dramatic?”
Marie looked over her shoulder and then moved closer. “I need the police.”
“Just call your mom,” Julia said.
“I can’t.” Marie looked down, and Julia followed her gaze. Something was wrong, Marie’s dress pulled oddly across her body as if she’d put her arms around the neck or put it on backward. Or—or it was ripped, which it was, the red of the material shredded across the front.
“I don’t have my car,” Julia said, looking away, her throat tight. “I came with Matthew Denny.”
“Can he drive me?” Marie wouldn’t give up.
Julia turned to face her full-on, her hands on her hips. “No, he can’t drive you. It’s Senior Ball. Jesus. Where are all your special friends?” Where’s Jason? He can’t be hard to find. Probably in the middle of the dance floor right now with all his football pals.”
Marie shook her head. “Please.”
“Call 911 if it’s such an emergency.” Julia’s resolve tightened inside her like metal, her chest pulsing with twelve years of anger. Marie had let her sleep in her own pee. She’d let Julia’s nose run all over her face. Marie hadn’t helped her one bit, and now she wanted a ride home.
“I’m seriously surprised you’d ask me to all people,” Julia said. “I’m not going to help you with anything.”
“I’m sorry,” Marie said.
“It’s too late for that,” Julia said. “Go find someone else.”
Julia turned and walked up the hallway, finding Matthew by smell, the pot wafting enough to draw parents close. She took a hit, pulled him toward the parking lot, and they went home and had sex on her mother’s family room couch, quietly. Matthew snuck out Sunday morning but was back Sunday night for BBQ. All of Julia’s friends were there, Connie flushed with the pleasure of feeding so many. Everyone’s parents came later, too, for dessert and wine.
It wasn’t until Monday afternoon they heard Marie was missing, the school whirling with rumors: a runaway, an older boyfriend, Los Angeles, where she would be an actress.
Julia hung on to those stories, let them carry her through graduation and into the summer where they all prepared for college. She traveled with her friends, worked at the pool, hung out with Matthew, their connection beginning to fray in anticipation of their upcoming separation. But in July, two fishermen found Marie’s body in Lake Shasta, still wearing her prom dress or what was left of it. It wasn’t her date Jason who had done it. He thought Marie had stood him up. He’d been staged that night, dancing with everyone in a mosh pit and drinking a flask of whiskey and passing out at a friend’s. All corroborated.
No, it had been Marie’s mother’s boyfriend, a man who had lived with Marie since before second-grade, who’d been molesting her all along. That night, she’d finally tried to put a stop to it, but he’d followed her to the dance, attacking her in the parking lot. When she’d come across Julia, she was finally ready to tell someone.
And Julia said no. She’s said it more than once. And then she’d walked away.
Of course, he’d found Marie later, and rather than let her tell her story, he strangled her and tossed her body in the lake. He’d never been found, his last known whereabouts Bellingham, Washington. He was probably living in Alaska under an assumed name. A man no one would ever guess was a rapist pedophile murderer.
“Oh, Marie,” Julia said now. “I’m so sorry.”
But Marie was silent. Julia put a hand on the cool gymnasium wall and conjured Marie, beautiful even in her ripped dress, messed hair, and smeared makeup. Beautiful as she pleaded for help to a girl who hated her for a second-grade mistake, a childish, stupid thing.
“I’ll take you to the police station,” Julia said. “I’ll wait with you. I’ll listen to the whole story. I’ll protect you.”
She imagined turning to see that horrible man emerge from the gloom, a swamp beast, a mastodon. She would run at him with her fists, beating him away from the act that would ruin Marie’s life and her own. She wanted to scratch and hit and kick.
“Run!” she’d call to Marie. “Go!”
Dazed and smoky, Matthew would emerge from the hall. But he would get it, yanking Marie to safety. Parents guarding the wrong part of the school would come running, using their cell phones to call the right people.
Julia would tell them all what the man was doing, and a stronger bigger man would wrestle him to the ground. The darkness would flood with flashing blue and red lights and fill with sirens. The boyfriend would be arrested; Marie would be saved.
And then, Julia would never have to tell her mother. She wouldn’t have to see her mother’s face, the way it crumpled as they sat at the dining room table, the newspaper spread out in front of them with its awful news.
“Oh,” her mother had said, eyes and mouth in a shape of horror she didn’t express.
“I didn’t know,” Julia had told her, leaning over the newspaper and the story, Lake Shasta under one arm, Marie’s graduation photo under the other.
“Oh,” her mother repeated, reaching out a hand, placing it on Julia’s forearm but not squeezing. “Oh.”
“Marie,” Julia called out now. “Marie!”
The rain started up again, light-filled flecks of water dotted the sky. Julie turned around in the empty hallway. “Where are you?”
Even as she called, Julia knew exactly where Marie was: In the darkness of college bars, the spaces between Deb’s relentless emails, the airtight Mercedes, the boxes of crackers eaten over the white hole of the sink, the flooded middle of California. Marie was in every conversation with every therapist. She was the name unspoken in each sentence Julia said to her mother.
“Do you forgive me?” Julia cried out.
There was no response, not even here, back at the high school, the exact spot where things might have changed. Julia bent over, her hands on her knees, the same knees she’d clenched so tightly all those years ago, holding back what was coming, what was impossible to stop.
Jessica Barksdale’s fourteenth novel, The Burning Hour, was published by Urban Farmhouse Press in April 2016. Her novels include the best-selling Her Daughter’s Eyes, The Matter of Grace, and When You Believe. A Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in the Waccamaw Journal, Salt Hill Journal, Little Patuxent Review, Carve Magazine, Palaver, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches novel writing online for UCLA Extension. She holds an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the Rainier Writers Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.