Author's note: Please pay CAREFUL attention to the dates (in bold)!
you will never know for sureChapter 5: you will never know for sure
Feburary 16th , 2005
NEXT MORNING. SCHOOL. Freezing air blasts snow through my thin shirt. There wasn’t money for a coat this year. Dusty and I shiver, waiting for the bus. There is something sacred about a winter morning – the air filters down through snow – dusted trees, pale sunlight striking treebark. The bus screeches to a stop in front of us, spraying slush. We climb on. Kids look up from their phones, snicker, whisper. My hands tingle with fear. My heart springs from my chest, kicking like a snared rabbit. I shrink into a seat, picking at the holes in its pleather cover nervously.
The kid in front of me does not look up when I pass by him, slump into a seat. He is fascinated by something playing on his iPhone. His thumbs flash across his keypad, the blips and bleeps echoing through the bus like electronic laughter. I feel the absence of a phone in my own hand. I look away until we have driven past my house, past the long rows of grimy apartment buildings smeared with graffiti, past the neighborhood of shacks whose rundown planks shake in the wind. My breath fogs the mirror until I can only see the pale outlines of house and field. The blond hairs rise on my arms. From cold, I first thought.
Next to me, Damiel gasps. He tugs my shirt.
“What?” I snap.
He points to the kid in front of us, still glued to something on its phone. His eyes grow round and large, smeared into spots of brown behind the lenses of his glasses. His body shrinks into itself, curling into a small hunched shape. He presses against me, his hand crushing my wrist. I lean forward and crane my neck, trying to see. I feel my mouth drop open and horror floods my body. Frozen, I cannot move.
It’s a video of me, changing, the long length of my naked pale legs, the white flash of my back and torso exposed to all. And it’s on YouTube. I’ve gone viral.
CAN’T TAKE IT anymore, have to tell someone. I fly throughout the crowd like a duck scared up by dogs and hunters, a fresh wave of tears coursing down my face with each jerking sob. People stare. Not all laugh, some look upset across the twisted, blurred line of their features, but no one does anything. I run past all, not caring. I imagine Ainsley, with a bolt of anger so strong that I stop in my tracks. If she saw me cry it would make her happy, no doubt. I see that slow, pink smile spreading, parting her lips to reveal perfect white sharp teeth. Why are they so cruel? Even revenge has a limit, but they have none.
The office is open. Secretaries flutter when they see me, hands twisting, painted nails glittering as they cluck and whisper to one another. “Principal Edwards will see you now,” they say, vapid blue eyes flashing to and from my face as if they are afraid to stare at me too long. They have the scared, excited look of people in a zoo jabbing at an exotic animal, which roars and beats at the big sticks they wield but can do nothing. No conservation laws that protect me yet – the rare Anna Marshowley, captured and stuffed in high school.
TWO PEOPLE FACE Principal Edwards. One is a boy – tall, broad – shouldered, handsome even in a uniform. The other is a girl, somehow like him, even though she is slim and jangly, the big gold bracelets that twine around her tanned arms clinking and clanking as she gestures. Her hands fly towards the light in the ceiling, like two scaly – winged insects soaring to meet their doom in the fluorescents. Their words are soft, secretive, turned towards the principal with an air of confidentiality. Edwards nods somberly, taking down notes, his hand smudged silver with pencil lead. The girl and the boy reach for each other, their hands touching -
I enter. Their heads turn in a perfectly syncopated movement, a brief flicker of surprise in the way their bodies tense and their fingernails dig into the desk. Their hands slide back to their sides, as if they’ve been caught doing something wrong. The girl’s nail polish flakes away, small shiny pieces glittering in the carpet. Ainsley and Luke. I do not know what exactly it is that they are doing here, only that it will harm me in some way.
Principal Edwards rises, his face hard to read. “Anna. Please sit down.”
I sink into a soft chair, not knowing what else to do. But I do not acknowledge him. I stare at Ainsley. She turns away, briefly, her eyes dropping and losing the luster of triumph.
“I’d like to discuss this..incident,” Edwards says. His feet shift, twitch uncomfortably. He coughs, a soft sound falling into silence.
“They - ” I begin. Ainsley’s eyes sting my skin. So I do what I always do, cowed as usual. I drop my head, let a curtain of hair fan around my face, and shut my mouth.
“Do you have any idea how much you have embarrassed this school?” Edwards demands. His voice cracks across my ears, but I have lost the meaning. What is happening?
“What – what do you mean?” I croak. My voice is thin and whispery, only a few words squeezing pass the lump in my throat. “How is any of this my fault? They, they, Ainsley did – Ainsley and Luke – they – Ainsley took a video - ”
“Please don’t take me for a fool, young lady. I am well aware of what young people nowadays do with their…partners.” His face has twisted, creases wrinkling his forehead as he spits nonsensical things at me.
“But – Ainsley took a video of me in the locker room and – somehow – Luke and - ” Tears well up again. I am useless, ugly, unloved, everything they have ever said about me. It’s my fault. I close my eyes against the tears and swing my eyes towards the ceiling, hoping the light will drive the cry back into the hollow parts of me.
“Ainsley and Luke have just informed me of your actions.” He rifles through the papers on his desk, a blur of flapping pages. He finds what he’s looking for and holds it up, one gnarled finger jabbing emphatically at the school handbook. It flips open. RULES.
“Do you KNOW what you have done? Are you aware of the embarrassment you have caused yourself and this school, a good, Catholic school? You do well here and have abided by our rules always before, and yet I have never seen a more horrific display of disrespect for this school and its rules! Anna, this is going to mean expulsion!” He is fuming, panting, his face red and snarling. Then suddenly, his voice becomes low and sad. “So much wasted…” He turns toward the window, the stripes on his shirt damp with sweat.
“Just tell me,” I plead. “What did I do?” I am past crying. There is a quality of unreality to this scene. A humming disbelief numbs my brain. I have imagined the reverse a thousand times. Me, with power over the kids I hated the most…How is this happening? What about justice? What about all those books about the mean kids who get their comeuppance, and the bullied kids who become super – successful and popular? I loved those books. I imagined that the same thing would one day happen to me.
“You know what you did. You – “ He continues talking, but it fades away into a thin string of words that have no meaning.
“What did I do?” I am screaming, on my feet, yelling at all three of them. It infuriates me that I am the one breaking down, that I know if Ainsley were put on trial a jury would decide in her favor, even though the pretty blond girl sitting in that chair, as smooth and composed as she has always been, is the devil himself. “What did I do, to deserve this? I yelled at you once, Ainsley – big deal! Why are you so cruel? Don’t you feel any remorse, any regret, at all? Do you realize what you are? You’re monsters. Good – looking, rich monsters. You are bad people. And this is a Catholic school, so I’m assuming you believe in God. And if you believe in God, then you two are going to spend a long time in that hot place underground. You won’t need a tanning bed there , Ainsley.”
I am shorter than both of them, but I have the sense of towering above them, of being a giant capable of squashing two insignificant bugs. This is what it must be like, being them – who wouldn’t want it? Power floods through me – the second time in my life I have felt it, this sense of exhilaration.
I HEAR THE soft murmur of phone talk, and hope that today is a good day for my mother. What if they find her out? I try to care, to protest, but I am drained. Luke and Ainsley are gone, and I am waiting for my private conference with Edwards. I am expelled. Expelled, unless I can convince him otherwise. I am expelled. No hope of scholarships, college, a job. I feel strangely tranquil about the whole thing. The halls are quiet now, the air tingling with the resonation of the late bell. People will be texting, news of the video bouncing from Twitter to Facebook and everything in between. It will never die, even when I do. It will live on, in the darkest recesses of social media. One of the kinder secretaries gave me an orange after my stomach started rumbling. I can still taste the sweetness of each piece, thin skin bursting and juices trickling down my throat. The long coil of peel lies next to me, brittle now, and breakable.
A secretary ushers me in to Edwards’s office, her long lined face somber and disapproving. I hate her, too, cast her on the burning pyre with Luke and Ainsley.
The door shuts with a soft creak, and I look up. Edward sits down at his desk, his mustache quivering indignantly. I can see the blue veins, twined around his wrists, popping out. His patience is brittle.
“Anna,” he says, exhaling. “Anna.”
Yes, I know my name.
“This morning, I was approached by Ainsley Peters and Luke O’Grady. They informed me that you had taken a video of yourself unclothed to give to your boyfriend. “
“What boyfriend?” I say. My teeth grind together, but I force a reasonable tone into my words. “I have never had a boyfriend. Did they give you any proof?”
“Yes, they did,” Edwards says. “They produced an empty chocolate box from Valentine’s Day that you had left in a classroom. The tag said To Anna, from George. Let’s try to get through this without another tantrum, Anna. Now. The two, Ainsley and Luke, said that your boyfriend, once he had received the video, uploaded it to that You - YouTube site you kids use. Ainsley said that you bragged about sending the video to your boyfriend in gym class. You also mentioned that your boyfriend often uses social media. Ainsley was concerned that your boyfriend had other intentions, so she went on MiBoob - ”
“YouTube,” I interrupt.
“– and, after discovering the video, brought the matter to myself and the other school officers.”
Ainsley had thought, after I saw her, that I would tell. She had recruited Luke – I didn’t know why – and they had gone to Principal Edwards and created a story. They had made sure I would not be believed. They had thought of everything, even the chocolate box. They were monsters. I close my eyes in despair.
“Do you have anything to say in your defense, Anna?” Edwards’s droning voice probes at me experimentally.
“It’s not true. None of it is.” I look straight at him. “These kids – they’ve tormented me for years. They’ve never let me have a normal life. Ainsley and Luke have always had it in for me. I saw Ainsley taking that video of me in the locker room. I don’t know why she would. She must have thought I would tell someone - ”
No, Ainsley had misjudged me. I would not tell anyone – ever - about my mother.
“ – so she made a story up to make sure I wouldn’t be believed.”
“Do you have proof?” Edwards’s flat, cold voice falls onto me.
“You could confiscate their cell phones,” I say desperately. “Ainsley might have the video - ” But I know it’s useless. Ainsley wouldn’t forget that. She must have have erased it, forever, its horrid contents now drifting in oblivion. I have nothing.
“Beyond the confiscation of their cell phones – which we’ll do - do you have any proof?” Edwards asks again.
“No,” I say.
WHEN I WAS little, a girl who had lived in our neighborhood disappeared. Her picture sprang up in the papers, day after day. She was blond. She had blue eyes. She was ten years old.
“Poor thing,” my parents said.
She was found dead in Angel’s Creek two days later.
They caught the man who did it – a local salesman, a grinning, evil man, who had snatched her away from her life with the promise of candy.
I never want to die like that, I said to my mother after the community had cried itself out.
You never will, she replied. What stranger could ever hurt you?
I retain a childlike fear of darkness – and therefore, death. I imagine death as nothingness – no color, no sound, no movement, no feeling, no sight, no nothing.
I do not want to live.
But I do not want to die, either.
The video is being watched, people laughing at me throughout the world– never knowing that I cry over it in a dark corner. Luke and Ainsley kissing, amid loving parents who will never know how much I hate their children. Maybe they never guessed how far I would go. My mother. My father.
Let him take care of himself for once.
INSTRUCTIONS TO MYSELF:
Walk into your house, through a yard bitten by the stakes of a decrepit picket fence. You are not a stranger – but somehow, the neighbors’ children still stare at you, then disappear, caught by the snap of the door. Boys look and leer, but you are not afraid. For once in your life, you are not afraid.
Cut your foot on an old beer can, its aluminum shards ripping through soft skin. Ignore the pain, the blood – keep walking. Something you couldn’t do.
Turn the door handle. Your mother dances noiselessly in the room, to the hypnotic hum of the TV. Her sweat hits you, spots the half - blue, half - green wall. Damiel is still not home. He bounces on the bus, quiet to the chatter of the other kids, thinking – about what? What does he want to do with his life? Ask him. You never asked him before, busy as you were with your own problems; conceited in your own misery.
Go upstairs. You stomp childishly. You like the sound of your thick heels on the wood.
There is a box hidden underneath your bed. Take it out. Take a minute to sift through its contents: the ribbons from old birthday presents, old art projects, grey with dust and shedding glue. Scattered bits of bad poetry. An old diary. You think about looking in it, reading up on old lives, but then you put it back.
At the bottom, you will find a black gun with a single bullet.
NIGHT AGAIN. MY mother dances downstairs, her arms and legs flailing without music. My father lies with another woman in another city. Damiel snores in the next room.
I wonder what he is dreaming.
I turn over the gun in my hands. Black and smooth, like a snake coiled comfortably around my fingers. I wonder what they will discover in Ainsley and Luke’s phones. Maybe I should wait until tomorrow, the 17th – But then I stop myself from hoping: Nothing, no doubt; and I will end up sitting here anyway.
I hear the smooth wood of the chair flowing beneath my thighs. I smell my mother’s heavy breathing clouding the rooms. I see the scent of cigarettes from the woman who lived here before us. I feel the bright glow of the supermarket blocking the stars.
So, what is it to be? Live, and go on enduring silence broken only by gossip? Die, and be forgotten beyond a newspaper article, my body decayed and broken into dust?