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catherine nicholas

New Fiction


by Catherine Nicholas

      "Fuck that, I'm going to France," Natasha announced after class. I thought she was kidding, but she really went. Paris materialized before my eyes on Facebook, Natasha's Hunter boots dangling over the Seine, framed with faux-burnt edges. Scanning her captions, "rainy day ...... but it's still Paris;)" a familiar warm stone of envy sank in my heart. He was right behind us, all of us but her. She didn't need this shit.
      I didn't post anything for the duration, just let my last status go rotten on the vine. Alice made her profile public and put up some fake clues, but I couldn't even start with that. And I certainly couldn't be honest. Rainy day, winky face ...... and I'm being hunted like an animal. Alarmed emoticon. Very alarmed emoticon. Pill emoji, beer emoji, fist emoji.

                                                                                                        * * *

      "Um so, do you have, like, a plan?" Lauren asked.
      "Not really," I said.
      "Yeah, me neither," she said. Her eyes drifted across the quad. A sweaty, loose-limbed gaggle of boys loped home from some intermediate sports practice. Ethan, owner of hands down the most perfect face in my major, was walking backwards in front them, gesturing excitedly. "I mean this whole thing is obviously fucked up."
      "No, it's insane," I said.
      "I'm not going to think about it." She snapped the front of her sports bra and pulled a pack of gum out of her Longchamps bag.
      "Lemme get some of that," I said.
      "You always take my gum."
      I hesitated. Ethan let a laugh out like a shot. We both jumped. The others were a second behind, all together screaming, "Ooooh!"
      We giggled and shook it off. "I don't care, take some," she said. "God, I'm tense."
      We both snapped a look over our shoulders. There was no one behind us. I took a piece of gum and popped it in my mouth.
      "He's winning already," I said. I smiled at her. What else was there to do?
      "So I guess this is the end of our lunches," she said, sticking out her lower lip in a grotesque mock pout.
      "Oh my God I know," I said, stretching out the last syllable like the real cunty girls do. "So sad."
      "Aw, I'm gonna miss it," she said, squeezing my upper arm. "So sad," she repeated. Her eyes flicked down to her phone. "I'm going to take a shower at Owen's. I'm so disgusting right now. Honestly, I'll probably have to basically go everywhere with Owen for now. Hahaha, so crazy."
      "Hahaha," I said back. Not a laugh, just the space where a laugh should be. She was already walking away.
      "Bye girlie," she said, half turned around.
      I didn't bother replying. She wasn't listening. And I had to hurry. She always made me late for Anglo-Saxon England. It was impossible to tell her that I how much hated being late. She had such perfect bangs and was the master of so many mysteries.

                                                                                                        * * *

      "Okay good class, good class," he said, clapping vigorously for himself. He had those meaty man hands that looked like they couldn't successfully grip a regulation-sized pen. I'm not being mean, I'm sure he can write. Besides, at this point, I feel like I can pretty much say what I want about him. And watching him use chopsticks would be a farce.
      "So here's the situation," he continued. He planted his feet wide and clasped his hands in front of him. "We've done what we can do in a classroom setting. But this has shit to do with the real world. I'm not one of those professors who's like, you've read these books, blah blah blah, good luck surviving. I don't play like that. I don't waste your time."
      We all kind of looked at each other. He was definitely not a professor, a of all. B of all, we hadn't read any books. This was a sexual assault prevention class. We'd maybe seen a pamphlet at most.
      "Over the next week, I'm going to be testing you. I am going to attack each one of you at a moment of my choosing. And we'll see what you've learned. How you react, that'll be your final grade."
      The room buzzed with sudden concern. He was unperturbed.
      "What the fuck is he talking about?" said Natasha. As irritating as she was, I was glad she was having such a clear reaction. She truly was a North Star of thoughtless self-interest. I shrugged. She knew as well as I did I wasn't going to protest. We were only standing together because she liked having a pushover as a sparring partner. She was so terrible at everything, I felt obligated to let her bend back a finger too far, or once, yank a tiny chunk of hair out of my scalp. She would laugh her twinkling rich girl laugh and let loose the only apology she knew: "Oh my God!" It was fine. Whatever. Lauren and I always rolled our eyes about it later.
      "Yeah, questions, okay shoot," said Sean. Matt's hand was in the air.
      "Even me?" asked Matt.
      "Hell yeah, even you," said Sean. "Hell yeah." He crossed his arms across his cartoonishly-muscled chest. His entire appearance sent a frisson of disgust through me. The ratty black sweatpants, so off-brand, so nubby. The "tribal" tattoo. The ribbed black wife-beater of the shiftless pervert. Despite these indicators, his instruction never bordered on the sexual. He grabbed us in class from time to time, the way an attacker supposedly would, and his voice never wavered, he never brushed a nipple or smelled our hair. He didn't seem lascivious even now, standing in front of the yoga mirrors telling us he was going to fake rape us before he decided whether we passed or failed his one-credit class.
      "What if we really hurt you?" Amy asked from the back.
      "I hope you do," he said, grinning. He had nice teeth. "That would be fantastic." He laughed and clapped his hands again, just once. The sound flew up into the rafters like a dove.
      We dispersed into the bright spring afternoon. Natasha didn't make her proclamation to anyone in particular, but we all heard it. Lauren didn't bother to comment as she caught up with me. I always started walking away like I didn't expect her to. I couldn't believe that didn't bother her, but it didn't.

                                                                                                        * * *

      It wasn't until that night when I was back in my apartment that I started to get nervous. I checked the front door lock like twenty times, but the entire place seemed porous. Why did we have so many windows? They practically beckoned the criminal element, whispering, "I'm sure you can find a way."
      My phone buzzed on the bed. It was Kelsey, thank God.
      Def, I wrote back. I mean I wasn't going to stay in and go crazy, obviously. I showered with the curtain open, alternately intrigued and repulsed by the reflection in the sink mirror until it fogged over into merciful obscurity. While I was getting dressed, I heard Jenny's boots loud on the stairs. A year ago, they had been the first thing I noticed about her. They were distinct in the college's blur of boat shoes and Tory Burches. Gray suede with a low, thick heel, they weren't riding boots or cowboy boots, so they were utterly unique, hers alone. I would have thought they were ugly had I seen them in the store or like, if my mother had given them to me. But on her they looked great. Like she knew what she was doing.
      Jenny had been the one who recommended the class to me in the first place, so I figured the final was no big deal. I was always reacting incorrectly to things. I mean, she would have warned me if she thought it was worth mentioning. We weren't exactly close at the moment, a dark gap having opened between us, oddly, when she picked up my favorite hobby: drinking to excess. More than that. It was like she had rolled in super glue and dived into a ball pit of vices, adopting whatever stuck. Each new one I discovered shocked me, not understanding, as I definitely did not, that some people could accept consequences I couldn't even conjure.
      Last semester things had been fine. I flinched at the good memories, now swept irrevocably into the past. Oh well, Jenny could cultivate her tortured bonsai garden of secrets. Sean was out there. My heart beat light and strong in my chest. A test, right? Okay fine. I test amazingly well.
      She was in her room by the time I left. In the mirror by the door, I pulled my hair back, clearing my peripheral vision. I stared at my reflection and felt cameras on my face, watching me snap the rubber band around my ponytail. At last instead of the mere unfolding terror of the world, I had an enemy, a real enemy, and if he wanted to come get me, I would welcome him. My breath was a smooth silver stream in my lungs and I cracked my knuckles as I stepped out into the darkness.
      On the cut-through to the main road, I froze at the sound of twigs snapping underfoot. Someone was coming. I shifted my weight and stood quivering as fear thrilled through my muscles. It seemed like a possibility that when he came at me I would find myself preternaturally strong. The crunching stopped for a moment, too, as I gathered a healthy ball of anger in my throat, the beginnings of a battle scream. Then it moved on up the hill and away into the night as I let go of a breath laden with wonder.
       By the time I got to Kelsey's, I was fierce-eyed and feral. I gulped my first beer and stomped the can before, for some reason, fastballing it into her microwave. I was talking too loud and shoved Alex into the street after he jokingly pushed me so my steps stuttered on the sidewalk. I got in his face when he pouted, close as a drill sergeant and twice as mean.
      The party was just how you would want it to be. We got there at le moment juste. The beer-sticky floors swelled to meet us. The music fizzed just beneath our skin. Dancing wildly in the dining room, Kelsey for once not bored or peeing every five minutes, I felt no uncertainty, no half-formed sense of future regret. I could feel myself giving off heat waves, light waves, something. I was the star even if no one else knew it. I was here dancing but elsewhere a giant pair of eyes were watching, watching, waiting for me, just for me.

                                                                                                        * * *

      "Yeah I punched that asshole." I heard Matt's voice booming down the hall. "Are you kidding? Yeah, ba-BAM, I was like, not in my house!" He mimed ripping off his shirt, like, I guess, a professional wrestler or something. That stuff always horrified me. Matt also basically horrified me in the interest of honesty.
      "Are you talking about Sean?" I said. Usually I hate inserting myself into conversations, but none of his friends were cute.
      He looked at me like he didn't know me for a second. Oh come on, I thought, for once I don't even care.
      "Yeah, Sean," he said. He wasn't about to break his stride to ignore me. Besides, I was vaguely allied with Lauren and Natasha, so I had some bleary suggested value to him.
      "Did you seriously?" I asked.
      "Yeah, yeah, he came into my brother's bar, you know, where my brother works, and I was there just like, no way. I was like, Jeremy, I know you're not gonna like this, but I have to fuck this guy up. Jeremy was like, I get it man. So I go over, and I'm like hey Sean. Hey Sean!" He aimed a slow motion punch at one of his friends, who couldn't figure out if he should flinch or not.
      "Wow," I said. I knew better than to try to say anything interesting in these situations.
      "So then I go, I go, you come at the king, you best not miss."
      "Omar!" chorused his bros.
      Matt put his arm around me. He smelled like cheap, flowerly laundry detergent and whatever bargain-bin shampoo it is college guys share in their moldering showers.
      "He comes at my girl here," he said, naturally, not to me, "he knows he's gonna get it again."
      I tried to look up at him, but couldn't move my head under the I-beam of his arm. I was not into Matt, not past the second-long crush I could get on anyone, but from here, the weird feeling that I could be his girlfriend washed over me. I didn't want to kiss Matt. The thought of his erection made my very soul wince. But suddenly, high on the whiff of his detergent, I pictured myself forgiving the round, white zits under his two-day beard, the wispy piles of body hair in his bathroom, the uncaring way he would look at me. I could know every little thing about him and be bored by all of it. I was leaning into his arm as he pulled away, not looking back as he strutted down the hall.

                                                                                                        * * *

      I drooled through Friday classes, speculating on the ages of my various TAs. So depressing. The decline comes so fast. A halo of stale smoke ringed my head. Only when my Shakespeare II discussion started gliding to a close did I realize I had no plan to get home.
      "Something the matter?" the TA asked from the front of the classroom. I had stopped dead beside my desk.
      Ugh, as though I would confide in a grad student. I mean, I considered it for a split second. He probably would walk me home. I got preemptively tired imagining the chirpy conversation I'd have to produce during the next twenty or so minutes. You had to maintain a precise and agonizing posture of openness, like the throat of a sword swallower. That's what guys would always say when I would say I can't chug beer (when they were even listening). Just open your throat. Relax your throat. It's not about relaxing at all. My head rang with a hangover. I couldn't do it.
      "No," I said, coldly. I swung my backpack over my shoulders and bounced out of the room. I stuck as closely as I could to the packs of students moving through the building, then scurried to pick up the tail of groups heading in the direction of my apartment. At the first major intersection they thinned out. Others stopped to wait at the bus stop a few yards up. I scurry skipped the entire way hope, fear nipping at my heels and running its cold fingers up and down my back.
      I waited outside my building, praying someone would come by so I could follow them up the stairwell. No one did. Only a fucking idiot has Friday classes. I couldn't see behind the stairs where all the discount pizza flyers and condom wrappers gathered. He could be down there. I had to chance it. I took the stairs as fast as I could, two or three at a time up both flights. When I got to my apartment, my heart leapt so hard I thought it would come out my mouth. The front door was wide open, wide open for the world to see.
      Calm down, I thought, as the blood ripped through my ears. Jenny did this all the time. I'd even gotten up one morning to pee and found her passed out on the floor not four feet from the door she hadn't been able to close whenever she'd staggered home. I hadn't been worried then, just amused. The idea of a stranger wandering in to hurt me hadn't even crossed my mind. Oh, days of innocence.
      I called Jenny, hoping I'd hear her voice echoing inside a millisecond later. Instead, I heard her ringtone and her phone buzzing its way across the kitchen counter. I scrolled through my contacts, looking for a solution. I was so scared I legit thought I might pee my pants. All I could do was stand like an idiot outside my own apartment, pressed up against the filthy stucco wall. Also I really, really had to pee, like, pee-in-a-frat-shower-because-the-line's-two-people-long had to pee. I hydrate when I'm nervous.
      I couldn't take it anymore. I threw my backpack in the door. I don't really know why. It slid across the laminate. Nothing moved, no sound. I stomped in, trying to sound like an ogre. Nothing was immediately obviously amiss. No one in Jenny's room, including Jenny. Dumb phone-leaving bitch. I kicked open the door to my room and scampered halfway back down the hall. No one. The shower curtain was pulled back, but I still checked under the sink cabinets as I peed for longer than anyone has ever peed before. I didn't flush before I went to slam the front door. I remembered how Kelsey's roommate's ex-boyfriend had once scaled their balcony and broken in their sliding glass door. I abandoned my post to check ours was locked. It wasn't. Fucking Jenny.
      After probably fifteen minutes of this, I slunk into Jenny's room and sat down at her desk. In the top right corner, she kept a little menagerie of pills. I convinced myself she wouldn't miss one of the three cute blue Xanaxes. I put my bet on it never coming up directly in conversation as I swallowed it. I also took a pull from her bottle of Stoli Orange, even though it was almost empty. I squirted some water in from the faucet. If she hadn't left the door open, I wouldn't have been in the situation to begin with. The thought rode in on the first wave of drugs, so it felt more meaningful than it would have otherwise. I could withstand anything now. I could close my eyes and not fight back and then what would he do. I felt voluptuous and correct in all things. I fell back onto the couch knowing I was right, willing Sean to come now, to come if he had to, to come get me.

                                                                                                        * * *

      I did not have a pleasant night. Jenny never showed up. I was supposed to call Emily to see what she was doing, but I couldn't find the right time. 9:00, too early. 10:00, not even sure I wanted to go. My fake ID was a real piece, and going to bars stressed me out. 11:00, I was irritably warm under my blanket on the sofa, but it felt too awkward to leave. I was sober again, itchy and awake.
      Sometimes when we were by ourselves, watching tv or whatever, Kelsey would look over at me and moan, "if we had boyfriends we could do this exact thing and it would be so much fun." I never knew what to say. Besides the blatant offensiveness of her statement, it killed me that she assumed her listless clicking from ABC to the CW to the Food Network would be of any interest whatsoever to any boy. Kelsey did have respectable breasts and the weird, buoyant confidence that she deserved what she wanted. But just like, who did she think she was? I hated finding out that what I felt with another girl, that we were allied against boredom together, that we were having fun we could at least semi-brag about later, was a lie. I already thought she was kind of pointless. It was a real dagger to the heart to hear she felt that way about me. I thought of Jenny and the nights we'd fallen down in the wet street almost throwing up with laughter. We were alchemists, creating in the close space between us something more valuable than gold. Or so I stupidly thought. Apparently I couldn't really see these things for what they were.
      I pushed the blanket off and thought bitterly of all I was surely missing out on. I scrolled through Facebook on my phone. That's when I saw Natasha's first pictures. A pain au chocolat and her chipless manicure. Gray buildings looking down at her. Her middle finger extended in front of the Eiffel Tower, her hip cocked backward. Fuck you, Sean. Fuck. You. I looked through them three times, knowing that the buzz of distraction would fade back to boredom and panic the moment I looked away.
      I took another dusty Xanax from Jenny's desk. Friday night, and I was alone in my apartment doing nothing. I mustered up some perverse pleasure as soon as the chemicals surged into my bloodstream. It wasn't so bad suddenly. I was in my foxhole, listening to the German guns. I propped a broom against the sliding glass doors so I'd have some warning if he did in fact haul himself up and over the black metal railing. He could do it in one smooth motion, I bet. He would be excited, feeling evil, trying to land softly in his gross sneakers thinking I wouldn't expect it. Lol dude. Just, lol. Something ancient in me would be looking out at him through my eyes.
      I did fall asleep eventually after setting a knife on my bedside table. Yeah, was I going to stab him? Great question, I doubt it. I thought I wouldn't sleep well, but I did. Deeply, dreamlessly, waking the next morning with a narrow-eyed sense of purpose. I was clean and focused.
      I once asked my brother, a gifted athlete, if he thought NBA players ever got bored while they were playing. I mean, they do it all the time, maybe it's just like, ugh this again. He looked at me with uncharacteristic seriousness. "Basketball is never boring," he said. This must be how they felt. Alert, their eyes almost buzzing out of their heads, no such thing as ennui, just a body ready to go, ready to fuck shit up.

                                                                                                        * * *

      "Hey," breathed Alice as she grabbed my elbow.
      "OH MY GOD!" I screamed.
      "I'm so sorry," she said, her hands flying up to her mouth in horror.
      "It's okay," I said. I was feeling magnanimous. Alice was one of those watery girls who wore weirdly outdated clothing for no discernible reason. Super light-wash jeans, a canvas belt with two rows of rivets.
      "So what have you heard?" She had probably been the most serious participant in the class. If I hadn't known better than to try in a visible way, I would have shared her desire for mastery. But I do know better.
      "Matt says Sean came after him, but he like, punched him or something."
      "Yeah, I heard about that."
      "Kind of crazy."
      Alice was nice but definitely not cool. It's alarming how readily girls like her will accept anything from me. Seriously anything. I had already lowered my eyelids a fraction and dropped into a slight swagger I acknowledged but couldn't snap out of. I'm queen of these girls, it's just my burden. Still, the back of my neck prickled. He could be out there, salivating over the two-for-one.
      "What about Lauren? Has she said anything? "
      I pulled out my phone like Lauren might have texted me. She had not, never did, never, in all likelihood, would. Our lunches existed on a separate plane, distinct from actual friendship. Alice probably figured we were in constant touch, two girls with bafflingly dark denim and mysterious, precious relationships with "our" spots in class (a random act of bitchery executed by Lauren but yoked to me forever).
      "No, nothing. Lauren's, like, hunkered down with her boyfriend. She is not excited about this situation."
      "So I figure he's going to go one by one. Could be alphabetical, since Matt's Matt Collins. I've been trying to find out if he came for Raquel, since she's Alvarez, but she's not on Facebook and I think she lives in the International House, but the one guy I knew there moved out."
      "Yeah, I've never been to the I-House," I said. In fact, I had purposefully avoided it for status reasons. They hosted a lot of dry parties, the kind loudly proclaimed on neon posters around grounds unlike any respectable party, the kind where you might get raped, which one could learn about exclusively via word of mouth.
      "I have," she instantly replied. Oh Alice, I know. "They're pretty fun."
      We had hit the main drag. We hadn't talked about where we were going, though we were moving at a brisk pace.
      "So after Matt, who's next?"
      "Erin and then you," she said. "That's why I wanted to talk to you. Because after you, it's me."
      A shiver of terror pulsed through me. I was an "M," how was there no one but tiny, hopeless Erin Fletcher between me and my reckoning? Oh God, she would get flattened like a pancake. He had probably already trampled over her. My scent was in his nostrils, and he was right on my trail.
      "I know," she said, watching my pupils constrict into pinpoints. "Think about it. He has access to our class schedules. It can't be that hard to find our addresses, I mean, they're on file with the school." My heart thumped so hard it hurt.
      "Oh my God," I said. It came out as a whisper.
      "And think about social media. I'm sure that's how he found Matt at that bar. Sara and Meredith both update constantly. Did that girl Natasha really go to Paris?"
      "Yeah," I said. I was scanning our surroundings. My head was swimming with stress hormones. A damp jungle was springing up around me, full of poisonous things and Burmese tiger traps.
      "I de-friended him but made my profile public so he can still see it. I put that I'm in the stacks."
      "Which stacks?"
      "Law library."
      "That's smart."
      "What are you going to do?"
      "I don't know. I don't know."
      I could pull one of the dads marching down the street on top of me like a blanket and wait it out here. I could throw myself in front of a car. They were going like 15, but the hospital would still have to admit me.
      "Do you want to get a drink?" I said. "I feel like I need to fucking pull it together for a second."
      "I'm not twenty-one."
      "I know somewhere that'll serve us."
      Had she been more experienced with the local bar scene, she would have known I was scraping the bottom of a truly disgusting barrel. I must have looked more intense than usual, because Patrick had no particular fondness for me sans Kelsey. But he slid me a Bud Light with minimal glowering, and he even neglected to mock Alice for ordering an orange juice which I only persuaded her to spike after basically demanding she do it as an act of loyalty to me.
      When I was getting to the end of my drink, Hot Ethan walked in. The perfect boy, the male ideal, normally I would have been mortified to be seen in such a location and in such company. But Alice and I were deep in it, backs pressed against the back corner booth, boring holes in the door. I looked at him and he felt completely irrelevant, a buzzing sound on a tapped phone line. What relief. Have I ever been less myself?
      Alice and I were growing together like ivy. Already our thighs were pressed together and we were passing a shiver of fear back and forth. We were planning. We were arming ourselves. If he'd bought a house in town, she could find it in the property records. We could really do this. We could really win. When a man in a black wife beater hulked past the warped bar windows, she grabbed my hand as she gasped. She really was almost beautiful. Dress her differently, get her to stop wearing Sketchers. She suited me better than my other friends, didn't she? I could picture the two of us, our faces smeared with mud, crouching in the nameless forest where we made our home.

                                                                                                        * * *

      Jenny came home around three on Monday. I would have missed her if I hadn't decided to forego my Mark Twain seminar. My teeth were practically chattering as I thought about my route there. Two empty bike paths and the weird parking lot outside the English building. Ha. No way.
      "Hey," she said, barely looking at me. I could tell she was trying to mask how completely fucked up she'd been since I'd last seen her.
      "Hey," I said, not returning her non-glance. I was making a grid of all the places Alice and I either had to or might want to be for the rest of the day through Thursday. Absolutely-nots were highlighted in red. Almost everything not labelled "apartment" was red. A page of bleeding stab wounds.
      "Shouldn't you be in class?" she called from her room. I ignored her tone for the moment. I would use the fact that she'd started aggressively skipping her classes weeks ago if she decided to bring up the missing pills.
      "Um so this is crazy," I called back, "but remember that sexual assault class you took last semester?"
      "Yeah," she said, sounding more annoyed than I thought reasonable. I got up and went to stand in her doorway.
      "So it ended last Thursday," I said, waiting for her to understand.
      "So like, until this Thursday, I'm being kind of careful."
      "What are you talking about?" She was trying to drag a brush through her hair. It wasn't going great. She looked like absolute hell. Giant pores, dirt under her fingernails, her jeans worn and almost damp.
      "You know," I said, half-smiling. "Sean's like, after us now."
      "Who's Sean?"
      "The teacher. Sean. The guy who does the class." I was half-smiling, waiting for her to join me.
      "Ours was a woman. Marisol. She used to be a cop." Her eyes slid over to the pills on her desk.
      "Oh. Well, Sean made the final this crazy thing. Like, you're not going to believe it. Maybe Marisol did the same thing, I don't know."
      "We didn't have a final since it's like a community ally class or whatever."
      "Oh, okay. Well so anyway, ours is that Sean, in the next week or whatever, is going to randomly attack all of us, and we have to fight him off." She gave me a look of extreme skepticism mixed with alarm. "No I know, it's like, insane."
      "Whoa," she said.
      "I know." I felt like I was on the verge of having her full attention.
      "So he really said that?" she asked. She had put the brush down and was working at the tangles with her fingers. "That's fucking insane."
      "No, I know," I said.
      She was laughing now. "Did you believe him?"
      "He was serious when he said it!"
      "Oh my God, I'm sorry," she said. She was really laughing. Tears came to her eyes. "That is just too crazy. You did not really buy that, did you?" She sat down on her bed and took a few sharp, high gasps for breath. "Oh my God."
      "He's such a weird guy though," I said. I was looking at her too intensely, but I couldn't pull back. She had to believe me.
      "No one would really do that," she said, rocking forward. "That's like, literally never going to happen, it's so illegal on so many levels. That's fucked up that he said that, but I cannot believe you believed him." She was getting it together now, making little noises as her breathing got back to normal.
      "He came after Matt Collins for real though. At the Green. Really. Matt punched him in the face."
      "Jeremy's brother? No he didn't."
      "Yes he did," I said. Now she was just being obnoxious.
      "Jeremy doesn't let his brother into the bar. Ever. He threw up into the ice bin like last October and he's not allowed back in."
      "Well apparently he did. Anyway, I'm not freaking out about it. I just thought it was funny."
      "It is hilarious that you believed that. Just like, what?" she said. She took a pornographic swig from the Vitamin Water next to her trash can.
      I pushed away from her doorway and went back into the living room. I shoved some notebooks into my backpack and opened the front door.
      "I'm going to the library." I tried to sound bitchily bored with her.
      "Don't let your teacher attack you!" she called, laughing. "He's gonna getcha!" I cut off her laughter by slamming the front door.
      The sidewalks were empty. It was class time, no one moving between buildings or toward home. I walked quickly, spurred by anger and shame. He had really said it, but why had I believed him. If he came roaring out of the bushes now, I wouldn't even fight him. I'd just let him do whatever to me. Let Jenny see my ripped jeans and torn up elbows and be surprised. I pictured her twisting the cap off her Vitamin Water, regarding me on the couch. "God well," she'd say. "Guess you weren't kidding." Then she'd drink. The thought made me sick.
      No, that's what Lauren would do. There was still a pillowy tenderness in Jenny just below the brittle crust of exhaustion and cruelty that had hardened over the past months. She had her reasons. I knew about them and hadn't been overly helpful. Not the way she would be to me. Jenny would give me her Vitamin Water. She would lick my wounds and believe me and tell other people without saying anything mean. She wouldn't try to make it funny. She would insist that they join her when she said, with a gravity I could never summon, "It's going to be fine, but she needs some time to heal, you know?" They would clutch their chai lattes and nod, mimicking her reverence.
      But that wasn't going to happen. Of course she was right. This was such fucking bullshit, obviously a joke. Only a child could believe something so preposterous. She had moved past from me in that way. A riptide of pain had carried her into adulthood. Here I was being stalked by no one, completely safe, while the water raged in her ears. Ugh, and that I had believed Matt Collins was an additional depressing reflection on my character. Matt Collins. My God.
      I stared at the ground as I paced toward the library. Every step carried me over drawings and initials hardened into the cement. So many people who for that moment weren't ashamed to be united. KW & NG. M & E surrounded by an sloppy heart. Dave all alone. '98 Tri Delts down on their knees together, rows of initials under three careful triangles. Were they still clinging together, across time and space? Maybe they had moved apart gracefully, leaving warm springtime air where they had once all stood. Maybe they had a whole cabal of boys and girls who would look them in the eye, with whom they had parted on good terms, who they would maybe, without regret, meet again.
      When I looked up, a figure in black was walking toward me. It had the muscular, semi-obscene walk of someone who spent an unconscionable amount of time in the gym. He wasn't hurrying. He wasn't trying to hide. I realized in a wave that transformed every cell in the earth around me that I had no idea what would happen next.

Catherine Nicholas is a writer living in Richmond, VA. Her work has appeared on The Hairpin, The Toast, and is upcoming elsewhere. She is currently working on a young adult novel. It's about witches.

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