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Willow was walking to her last class of the day. It was Friday, and she was excited for a nice, calm weekend away from home. She walked past the glass walls of the main office and saw her mother standing inside. Willow cautiously walked into the office, wondering why her mother was there. She got pulled into the school’s Wellness Center and saw their therapist, Amanda. For twenty five long minutes, Willow sat there listening to her mother and Amanda tell her that her middle school choir teacher, Mr. Stevens, was charged with sexually harassing of one of his students 27 times, and the police called Willow into the station to talk about text messages he had sent to her. She didn’t believe a thing, but she couldn’t tell the police she wasn’t going to get questioned, so she went to the station. She had to know for herself.
Walking out to her mother’s car parked in front of the school, Willow had an entire movie production taking place in her head of the ways this meeting could go. She couldn’t bear to imagine the allegations being true, so she thought of the many ways it could be proven to be false. Thousands of scenarios played out in her head, all proving to be alright in the end, until the last one. Willow knew it would cross her mind at some point, but she was trying her hardest to push it into the farthest depths of her brain. The new scene began of her and her mother being interrogated by a detective, getting countless images shoved into her face of him hurting other girls, text messages he could’ve sent to them, and ones he sent to her being blown out of proportions. There was no way any of this could be true, Willow wouldn’t let herself think it was for even a second. It just couldn’t be true.
Willow’s mother, Amy, pulled up to the police station. Her mind was racing with the scenes her mind created trying to perform all at once. She followed behind her mother into the station and sat down, waiting to be called into an interrogation room. Each minute became an hour, every second an agonizing eternity.
Finally, it was time to get this entire thing over with. Willow once again followed her mother and the woman who called her name to an interrogation room. It was a lot smaller than she had imagined it would be, but she liked the size of it. It felt cozy to her. The smooth gray walls, what she could only assume was a steel table that was ice cold to the touch, nice leather chairs with deep green cushions. It was very monochromatic, minus the small forest on each chair. Willow chose the seat closest to the wall. Having the solid surface next to her comforted her for some reason. It was something to fall back on.
It felt like three lifetimes had passed by before two detectives entered the interrogation room Willow was in. One was a man with very basic characteristics. Brown hair, brown eyes, tall, muscular, very boxed out figure, broad shoulders. Your typical All-American Man. The other was a woman, whose name she would remember for a lifetime. Detective Lynn. She had beautiful chestnut hair that draped over her shoulders. Bright auburn eyes illuminated her pale skin, enhancing the freckles splayed across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. Willow analyzed every small detail of her, attempting to distract herself from what was about to happen.
The detectives sat across from Willow and her mother at the metal table. Everything felt colder. What on earth could they possibly have against Mr. Stevens? There was no way he could have done anything. No way.
“Willow, we need to talk to you about Mr. Stevens. He was taken out of school in September after being accused of 27 counts of rape and has been on house arrest ever since. We confiscated all of his electronics and searched all of them. We also searched his text records from his cell phone carrier, because we assumed things would be deleted,” the man didn’t pause. Willow became overwhelmed as he droned on.
“We were right. There were multiple things in his conversations with you that we need to ask you about and explain to you what the true nature of these messages were and what this all looks like to us. First, how did you acquire his phone number?” The male detective spewed his speech at Willow.
The words came as a jumbled blur to her, she didn’t fully understand what he said. Detective Lynn noticed her nervous expression and leaned up to her, telling her everything would be okay.
“You’re safe, I promise.”
“I got Mr. Stevens’ number in eighth grade. He gave it to all of us before our choir trip to King’s Dominion that year. It was so we could reach him in case something went wrong.” Willow assured the detectives that this was normal and he always did this.
Detective Lynn had papers in her hand, Mr. Stevens’ text records. She flipped to the second page, searching for the texts she wanted to ask Willow about. Lynn found and circled all of them so she wouldn’t lose track as she asked her about each one.
Carefully, Detective Lynn started, “Okay, first, I want to ask you about is this one. It’s from him to you, saying, ‘Let’s have a hug war. The first one to let go loses.’ which he followed up with, ‘And I don’t intend to lose.’ Do you remember those texts?”
Willow’s heart stopped. She started to get anxious. She knew then that this wasn’t a false accusation, but she wouldn’t let herself face the horror of knowing the best teacher she had ever had was keeping such a huge secret. Flashes of the day Mr. Stevens helped Willow prepare for her high school audition. She recalled the days she auditioned for solos, the way he marveled at her voice. She blocked the flashbacks from her mind and composed herself.
“Yes, I remember. I didn’t think anything of it. I thought it was just a joke. He said stuff like that all the time in class to me. Not much the other kids, but to me. It was just one of our jokes.” Willow stammered and stuttered as she tried to explain what he said and make the detectives realize this was all some of the random things Mr. Stevens would say. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, he was just messing around. It was completely harmless.
“Alright, well, it would be just a harmless game if it was one of your friends that said that to you, but it was a forty two year old man. You are a fourteen year old young woman. It is very inappropriate for him to say something like that to you. You can see why, can’t you?” Detective Lynn was a lot nicer than the male detective the whole time. Willow could tell he was angry about what Mr. Stevens had done and was trying to keep his composure.
She thought very carefully about what she was going to say. She knew she wanted to lie to them, protect Mr. Stevens. She wanted them to know how amazing he was and how great of a teacher and person he was. He couldn’t have hurt someone like this, it was impossible. Willow simply nodded in response. She couldn’t form the words for a response and wanted to keep from crying as much as possible.
“Ok, well, unfortunately, there’s a few other things I want to ask you about. The nickname ‘tree bark’ comes up a lot in this messages. Was that something he called you?” Detective Lynn spoke softly and cautiously, aware of the pain Willow must have felt.
“Yes, it was a play on my name. He did it with my older sister and was going to with my younger brother if he hadn’t gotten into a different school. We all thought it was funny.”
“I understand. Can you see how it’s odd for a teacher to create special nicknames for only certain students, though?”
Again, Willow only nodded in response, her eyes fixed on the cold metal table. The list of questions went on and on. The detectives asked Willow about her experience at her middle school and experience with Mr. Stevens. She began to cry, knowing that these questions only meant that there was something really wrong, and this wasn’t a game. This was serious, and the detectives obviously had enough against Mr. Stevens to charge him.
Willow knew she couldn’t keep this from them and that it was really important. “So, um.. There was a time that I had accidentally posted a picture of me in a bikini onto my Instagram. Within ten minutes, I took it down, knowing my mom would kill me if she saw it. The next day, right before I walked into class, Mr. Stevens pulled me aside and said.. He said he thought I looked really cute in my bikini. I thought it was really weird but I brushed it off and went about the rest of my day.”
Willow’s mother and the detectives’ faces turned white. They all knew what that meant, Willow did too, but she didn’t want to admit it to herself.
“Detective Lynn, how bad is this?” Willow’s mom broke the silence, stumbling through her words.
“It’s pretty bad.” Was all the detective could say.
“Is there any way this could be a huge misunderstanding?” Her mother was desperate.
“No..” Lynn’s voice trailed off as she kept herself from telling Willow’s mother too much.
Willow knew she was seconds from breaking down. This was all too much for her, she couldn’t take it. She just wanted to go to sleep and wake up, realizing it was all a crazy nightmare.
The detectives stood up and opened the door, signaling it was over. Willow mindlessly followed her mother out of the police station and back to the car.
As soon as both of them shut their doors, Willow shattered. She felt her whole world crumble in front of her eyes as she watched everyone else’s worlds continue to circle. Everyone’s lives continued as hers completely stopped. She couldn’t stop crying the entire way home and relived every single encounter she had with Mr. Stevens, trying to find hints or clues to the secrets he was keeping.
She replayed every class period, every choir field trip, every concert, desperately searching for something, anything, that would make the detectives realize it couldn’t be real. The allegations against the man she idolized as a teacher, a role model, a friend. It all spiraled through her brain like a tornado with no signs of stopping. She couldn’t slow it down or hide in the basement of her mind. Willow had to play Dorothy and sit in her bedroom, watching the winds scream as they moved towards her. There was no escape from this new demon crawling its way through the safe space that was once her thoughts.
Once finally home, Willow secluded herself to the confines of her room, not coming out for even the smallest of conversation. She felt nauseous, unable to move from a fetal position in her bed. She analyzed every text message, every word, every sound that escaped that man’s lips. Maybe thinking would cause the realization that she knew the whole time. No, of course not, that would make it too easy. She slept for hours upon hours, only waking up to the sound of her mother opening the bedroom door to make sure she was ok. Of course, Willow lied, saying she was alright and didn’t need anything. But, what else do you say in a moment like this? Everyone knows you aren’t actually fine, so how do you reply to a question someone already knows the answer to?
Willow slept for most of the weekend, trying to wrap her brain around the events of Friday. Sleep allowed for an easier analyzation of the trauma she would have never been ready to face. Thinking she was ok enough, Willow made the attempt of going to school Monday morning.
Panic attack upon panic attack swept over her as she heard his name over and over again. Mr. Stevens. She sat in her vocal class, watching everyone flashing the article with his mugshot on it, screaming his name and the information displayed on their phones. Willow ran to the bathroom, already on the phone with her mother.
Every day for the next two weeks, she would call her mother, barely even halfway through the day, panicked almost to the point of throwing up, begging to be put out of her misery and brought home. Every day for two weeks, she sat in her room crying to the point there was barely any fluids left in her body. It felt like she was shot in the head, the bullet containing every word that was spoken to or around her since Friday afternoon. The brass casing shattered through her mind, leaving traces of conversations dripping through her mind like water. Her thoughts swirled in the pool that became her mind. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t keep all of the water inside of the pool, always ending up with a river cascading through her mind.
The same number ran through her mind like a song stuck on repeat. 27. 27. Willow’s mind began to crumble as it created movies in her mind of what he must have done to her, over and over and over again. Mr. Stevens taking her into the office in the back of his bright yellow room and shutting the door, leaving her trapped inside of the charcoal walls, slowly becoming her prison. Mr. Stevens opening the silver filing cabinet that he strategically placed so that he knew if anyone tried to get in. The girl backing into a corner, trying desperately to get away from him as he creeped every so slowly towards her. Willow, unable to handle the images going through her mind, violently fell into numerous panic attacks. She began to shake uncontrollably as she tried to call her mother. No sound would come out of her mouth. She couldn’t will her body to move so she could find her.
Accepting defeat, Willow laid on her bed in agony, wondering if the pain would ever end.