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She Never Knew
Ellie Kennedy flopped down on her dorm-issued bed, covered with the cheap linens she had bought at Goodwill, in her cramped dorm room at Wintergreen University in Tennessee. She kicked off her beat up old black Converse tennis shoes and let out a sigh that blew her over-grown bangs from her face. Glancing around the room, she noted the drastic differences between her roommate’s side of the room and her own. Her roommate’s area was so overwhelmingly pink and screaming expensive that it almost hurt to look at, and her boring, monochromatic, bare-necessities side provided a dramatic contrast. Katherine was a nice girl, but just like the rest of “them,” blond, perfect body, and received a weekly allowance check from her parents for more money than Ellie had ever had in her whole life. Katherine was the typical Wintergreen student, most of whom were trust fund kids. Many went to college for the “experience” and would probably never really have to work a day in their lives. Unlike Katherine, Ellie did not fit in with the rest of the trust fund kids since her college tuition was being paid by her paternal grandparents. They felt she needed to live a more productive life than her paycheck-to-paycheck (or no paycheck at all) mother and stepfather could offer her. Ever since her dad died in a car accident seven years ago, when Ellie was twelve, her grandparents had been trying to intervene in an attempt to fix what her mom had done wrong. Prior to this, she hardly saw them. Ellie thought Wintergreen was a nice school and appreciated her grandparents’ generosity, but did not care at all about the prestige that went along with the private school that sounded more to Ellie like a type of gum than a college.
Knowing right away that she would not have the right clothes, name, or look to fit in, Ellie immediately searched for other students like her, the scholarship kids. These were the kids that cared enough to work hard to get into a good school, but also, ironically, knew how to party. They knew when all the good parties were and where a minor like Ellie could get alcohol without any I.D. or questions. Recognizing Ellie as one of their own, they accepted her into their circle right away, even though she was only a freshman. At first, it was just a party or two a week at a new frat house or empty house. Soon, Ellie was going to a party every night of the week. Katherine would complain when Ellie came in at late hours on “school nights,” but Ellie was usually too drunk to care and would just pass out and miss her classes.
It was not until mid-winter that Ellie’s destructive lifestyle began to catch up with her. Her grandparents, who had authorization to check Ellie’s grades via the school’s website, called her screaming one day in January that she needed to “get her act together” and that they did not send her to such an expensive school so she could “act like a silly high school kid.” Upset from the nasty phone call, Ellie decided she would call up one of her “friends” and ask them where the best party on campus was that night. After writing the address on her hand, she threw on a lime green halter top and short jean skirt, knowing this outfit would mean more alcohol that night, and headed out, desperate to have a good time. When she arrived, the party was already in full-swing, and the smell of alcohol and sweat overwhelmed the crowded house. Ellie wasted no time looking for her circle of friends and found the obviously alcohol-spiked punch bowl. After a few sips, she still was not satisfied and searched for something stronger to numb the scolding she had endured earlier that evening. Without much effort, she found a half full bottle of vodka and downed it in a matter of minutes. Finally, she felt what she had come for, absolute numbness of her entire body. Soon, Ellie began to feel strange as the room spun circles around her and sweaty drunken frat boys grabbed at her exposed flesh. She cringed away from their grimy, meaty fingers and stumbled into a hallway and sat down, trying to stop the room from spinning, until suddenly, everything went black.
When Ellie woke up, she was in a hospital bed and hooked up to so many tubes and wires she could only imagine what function each served. With little memory of what happened, she pressed the call button and waited until a heavy-set, over-worked nurse rushed into her room.
“Oh, lovely, Ellie, you’re awake. Now, if you’d like to call a family member or friend to pick you up,
you should feel well enough to be discharged in a few hours,” she explained routinely.
“But,” Ellie stuttered, “What happened?”
“Well, you had a nasty amount of alcohol in your system, dear. The police found you passed out in a hallway when they broke up the party after receiving reports of underage drinking,” she replied seriously.
Ellie was silent after that. She heard the nurse continue to ramble on about something about alcohol poisoning and date rape drugs in the punch, and “no evidence of rape” but didn’t pay much attention. Her biggest concern of the moment was who she would call to pick her up from the hospital. She knew calling her grandparents was out of the question, and there was no way she would ever even try calling her train-wreck mother and stepfather for help in a situation like this. Finally, she concluded she only had one option left: Katherine. Knowing her roommate had no reason to help her after the way she had treated her, she hoped the girl could find it in her heart to save Ellie just this once. Dialing the number she had stored in her phone when housing had assigned her a roommate, Ellie was surprised when Katherine agreed to pick her up. Ellie briefly, leaving out all the gory details, told Katherine what had happened the night before.
After Ellie said a quick good-bye to Katherine, the nurse appeared again, this time with a tray full of grotesque hospital food.
“You should eat before you leave, honey, you need your nutrients,” she responded to Ellie’s groan. “When you are ready, I will bring all of your personal belongings that were collected upon your admittance,” she called as she rushed out the door once again.
Ellie was pushing the food around on her tray in an attempt to make it look eaten, when the nurse returned with the largest Ziploc bag Ellie had ever seen filled with crumpled clothes.
“Here are the clothes you were admitted in,” the nurse said as she offered Ellie the massive baggie.
Ellie grimaced, noticing the sickening vomit stains all over her clothes from the dreadful night before.
“Do I have to wear these?” Ellie pleaded.
“No, I suppose you don’t,” the nurse said curiously, “but you’ll have to wear that gown home if not your clothes,” she explained carefully in a very preschool-teacher-like tone.
“Anything would be better than this,” Ellie said holding up the bag as if it were diseased.
“Alright,” the nurse laughed, “when your ride arrives, you can pick up your discharge papers at the front desk,” she continued, “Other than that, I can only wish you a happy life and advise you not to drink anymore strange punch,” she concluded in a maternal tone that was foreign to Ellie’s ears.
A few minutes later, Katherine’s blonde head appeared in the door.
“Hi,” she said cautiously, “how are you feeling?”
“Like I just got hit by a bus a million times,” Ellie groaned, “Let’s get out of here.”
Ellie signed a few times and filled out her grandparents’ insurance information on the discharge form all while attempting to hold her gown closed until Katherine fished a safety pin out of her immense Coach purse. The girls were silent for a long time until Katherine cleared her throat and broke the uncomfortable silence.
“So, don’t hate me, but I might have called your grandparents before I left to pick you up from the hospital,” Katherine mumbled.
“You did WHAT?!” Ellie exploded, shouting words at the poor girl that would give any truck driver a heart attack.
Trying to ignore Ellie’s outburst, Katherine continued, “They should already be back at our room when we get back to campus. Oh, and I already explained what happened, so don’t even think about trying to convince them they’re just here for a casual visit,” she concluded sternly.
The rest of the ride back to Wintergreen was tense and neither girl uttered a word until they met Ellie’s grandparents standing outside their dorm room. After a short burst of anxious greetings from her grandmother, the two got down to business.
“Katherine said you were in the hospital, sweetheart, and that you come home drunk most nights of the week, is that true?” Ellie’s grandmother said with a mixture of gentleness and anger.
Ellie scowled at Katherine, cursing her with her eyes, and shrugged. Tears welled in her grandmother’s eyes as she began explaining that she and Ellie’s grandfather had already called a very nice alcoholic rehabilitation center in Rochester, New York and arranged for her to spend the rest of the semester there. Ellie headed for the bathroom they shared, reluctantly packing a few changes of clothes for the plane, a toothbrush, and followed her grandparents to their car, taking time to scowl and give Katherine an obscene gesture on the way out the door.
An hour-long car ride did nothing to improve Ellie’s fury and betrayal over the entire situation. Without showing much emotion, Ellie allowed herself to be led to the ticket counter and then security by her capable grandparents. When Ellie finally snapped out of her zombie-like trance, she was boarding her flight with her one half-full carry-on bag. The rest of the flight went by in a blur. Ellie spent most of the flight drifting in and out of consciousness, awakened periodically by brutal turbulence. Just as Ellie had finally let herself fall asleep, the captain announced in a monotone voice over the loudspeaker that the plane would soon be landing in Rochester, New York.
Muttering complaints of lack of sleep to herself, Ellie was surprised to see that it was starting to get dark. She followed the bustling crowd of passengers exiting the plane. Ellie’s grandmother said the woman from the treatment center would meet her at the luggage claim carousel. So, even though Ellie already had her scarce luggage thrown over her shoulder, she followed the large signs pointing towards the luggage claim. Not seeing anyone holding any signs with her name, she sat down on the edge of the conveyor belt, dropped her bag on the floor between her feet, and thrust her head in her hands. She decided her time could best be used by making up some of the sleep she had lost on the plane. Suddenly, as she closed her eyes, thinking of where she was headed, she was no longer in the airport, but in her mom’s kitchen back in Tennessee seven years ago.
Sore, broken, and confused by the awful things she had just experienced, little twelve-year-old Ellie stumbled into the kitchen. She had no idea why her mommy’s new husband had told her to take her pajamas off, touched her like that, or why he had her touch him in places Ellie knew was not right. However, with no one to turn to, she found her mother, who had already passed out hours ago, face-down at the kitchen table with a bottle of whiskey in hand. Ellie, having seen how happy her mommy was when she drank the funny-smelling stuff, took the bottle from her mom’s hand and took a sip. It burned going down her throat, and she gagged. It tasted funny, but made her feel a little better despite the trauma she had just experienced. So she took another, and another, and another, until the bottle was empty. She wobbled drunkenly into her room, collapsed on her pink princess comforter and fell asleep. Ellie repeated this same ritual every night her stepfather made her do those icky things, until it became a natural part of her young life.
Ellie jolted awake, whipping her head up so quickly that it took a few seconds for her eyes to focus again. Sweating from her intense memory, she took a few deep breaths before she did something she had not done since that fateful night she took that first sip of her mom’s whiskey: she cried. It was not just some small tears, but a deep, chest-heaving, cry. In a matter of seconds, she made some very important conclusions. First, she realized just how much her stepfather’s behavior had influenced her life even if she did not live with her mom and stepfather anymore. Next, she began to grasp how much her grandparents must care for her if they had spent their money to send her to a place that would help her change her destructive ways. Finally, and most importantly, there was Katherine. Ellie felt unbearably guilty at how she had treated the sweet girl, both before the intervention by her grandparents and during the last twenty-four hours. She could see now that Katherine was her only real friend at Wintergreen. After all, it had not been one of her so-called friends that had picked her up from the hospital, but Katherine, the person to whom Ellie was the most inconsiderate and ungrateful.
Now that she had discovered all of these things, Ellie felt a new kind of empowerment that she had never before felt. She knew she could overcome this disease and not end up a jobless drunk like her mom. With complete confidence, head held high, Ellie marched over to the woman waving a sign bearing her name and took a step towards her new life.