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My Dark Vanessa (Page 8)

“Vanessa, you must be better about showing your steps,” Mrs. Antonova says, smoothing the crumples out of my geometry homework for that week’s tutoring session. “Otherwise how will I understand how you arrived at the answer?”

I mumble something like why should it matter so long as the answers are right, and Mrs. Antonova gives me a long look over her glasses. I should know why it matters; she’s explained it many times.

“How do you feel about the test next Friday?” she asks.

“Same as I’ve felt about every other test.”

“Vanessa! What is this attitude? This isn’t you. Sit up straight, be respectful.” She reaches forward and raps her pencil against my notebook that I still haven’t opened. I sigh and push myself up out of my slouch, open the notebook.

“Should we go over the Pythagorean theorem again?” she asks.

“If you think I need it.”

She takes off her glasses and sticks them up in her spun-sugar hair. “These sessions should not be me telling you what to do. What you need, we cover, ok? But I need you to meet me . . .” She gestures with one hand, groping for the word. “Halfway.”

At the end of the session, I scramble to gather my things, wanting to get across campus to the humanities building so I can see Strane before his faculty meeting, but Mrs. Antonova stops me.

“Vanessa,” she says, “I wanted to ask you.”

I chew on the inside of my cheek while she collects her textbook, binder, tote bag.

“How are your other classes going?” she asks, pulling her pashmina off the back of the chair. She wraps it around her shoulders, combs the fringe with her fingers. It feels like she’s moving slowly on purpose.

“They’re fine.”

She holds the classroom door open for me and asks, “What about your English grade?”

I grip my textbook tighter. “It’s fine.”

As we walk down the hallway, I pretend not to notice how she watches me. “I ask because I hear you spend a lot of time in Mr. Strane’s room,” she says. “Is that right?”

I swallow hard, counting each footstep. “I guess.”

“You were in the creative writing club, but that meets only in the fall, yes? And English is a strength for you, so it can’t be that you need the extra help.”

I lift my shoulders, my best impression of nonchalance. “He and I are friends.”

Mrs. Antonova studies me, deep wrinkles forming between her drawn-on eyebrows. “Friends,” she repeats. “Does he tell you this? That you and him are friends?”

We round the corner, the double doors within sight now. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Antonova. I have a lot of homework,” I say, trotting down the hallway, opening one of the double doors, and skipping down the steps. Over my shoulder, I thank her for all her help.

 

I don’t tell Strane about Mrs. Antonova’s questions, because I worry if I do, he’ll say we need to be more careful and we already made plans for me to come over to his house on accepted student day, a Saturday of wide-eyed eighth graders and their parents wandering around campus in packs. Strane says it’s a good night to do something clandestine, that special events inevitably bring confusion and things can slip through the cracks more easily.

At ten, I do the same routine as last time: check in with Ms. Thompson for curfew and sneak out the back stairwell with the broken alarm. As I run across campus, I hear noises coming from the dining hall—delivery trucks, metal slamming shut, men’s voices through the dark. Strane’s station wagon waits again with the headlights off in the faculty lot by the humanities building. He seems vulnerable waiting for me in his car, trapped in a little box. When I tap on the window, he jumps and presses a hand to his chest, and for a moment I just stand there, watching him through the window and thinking, He could have a heart attack. He could die.

At his house, I sit at the kitchen counter, banging my heels against the chair legs while he makes scrambled eggs and toast. I’m pretty sure eggs are the only thing he knows how to cook.

“Do you think anyone suspects something’s going on with us?” I ask.

He gives me a surprised look. “Why do you ask?”

I shrug. “I dunno.”

The toaster dings; the toast pops up. The slices are too dark, practically burnt, but I don’t say anything. He spoons eggs on top of the toast and sets the plate in front of me.

“No, I don’t think anyone’s suspicious.” He takes a beer from the fridge and drinks while he watches me eat. “Do you want people to be suspicious?”

I take a big bite to buy time before answering. Some questions he asks me are normal and some are tests. This one sounds like a test. Swallowing, I say, “I want them to know I’m special to you.”

He smiles, reaches for my plate and picks up a piece of egg with his fingers, tosses it in his mouth. “Trust me,” he says, “they definitely know that.”

He surprises me with a movie for us to watch—Lolita, the old Kubrick one. It feels like his way of apologizing for saying I take the novel too literally. While we watch, he lets me drink a beer, and after, when we go to bed and I wear the strawberry pajamas again, I’m so floaty that when he asks me to get on my hands and knees so he can go down on me from behind, I don’t act embarrassed at all, I just do it. After the sex is finished, he goes into the living room and brings back the Polaroid camera.

“Don’t get dressed yet,” he says.

I hold my arms over my chest and shake my head, my eyes wide.

Smiling gently, he reassures me it’ll be for his eyes only. “I want to remember this moment,” he says. “The way you look right now.”

He takes the pictures. Afterward, I wrap myself in the comforter and Strane lays the photos across the mattress. Together we watch them develop, the bed and my body emerging from the dark. “My god, look at you,” Strane says, his eyes darting from one to the other. He’s entranced, transfixed.

I stare at the photos and try to see what he sees, but I look too weird in them—painfully pale against the unmade bed, my eyes unfocused, hair matted from sex. When he asks what I think, I say, “They remind me of that Fiona Apple music video.”

He doesn’t look up from the Polaroids. “Fiona who?”

“Apple. My favorite singer? Remember I had you listen to her once?” I also, a couple weeks ago, wrote some of her lyrics on a piece of notebook paper, folded it up, and left it on his desk on my way out of class. We were in the midst of a fight about me going away to college—I said I didn’t want to, he said I shouldn’t let myself be sidetracked, not by anyone or anything, including him, which made me cry, and then he said I was trying to manipulate him by crying. I thought the lyrics might help him understand how I felt, but he never said anything about it. I wonder if he even read them.

“Right, right.” He gathers up all the photos. “Better put these in a safe hiding place.”

He leaves the bedroom, goes downstairs, and I’m suddenly so annoyed I feel a burning in my chest, in my face and limbs. I pull the comforter over my head, breathe in the hot air, and remember how I said something about Britney Spears a few weeks ago and he had no idea who she was. “Is she some kind of pop act?” he asked. “I didn’t realize your taste skewed that way.” He made it seem like I was stupid when he’s the one who didn’t even know who Britney Spears was.

 

Over April break, I turn sixteen. Babe goes to the vet to get spayed and comes home dopey with a shaved, stitched-up belly. I show my parents the list of colleges Strane picked out for me and we drive down to southern Maine to visit a couple there. As we wander the campuses, my father stares dumbfounded at the buildings, while my mother reads off information she found online: 40 percent of Bowdoin students participate in study abroad; one in four students continue on to graduate school. “What’s the price tag for this place?” Dad asks. “Did you print off those figures?”

Halfway through the week, Strane comes to see me while my parents are at work, parking the station wagon in an overgrown boat access lane and hiking through the woods to our house. I wait in the living room, peeking around the doorway into the kitchen, waiting for him to appear in the window, and I let out a little shriek when he does, as though I’m scared, but I’m not really—how could I be? In his khaki jacket and clip-on sunglasses, he looks like someone’s dad, some nondescript middle-aged dork, mild as milk.

As he cups his hands and peers in through the window, I grab Babe by the collar and throw open the door. Once he steps inside, she slips out of my hands. He grimaces as Babe jumps on him, her pink tongue flopping out the side of her mouth. I tell him to say no and she’ll stop, but instead he shoves her too hard and she falls onto her back, the whites of her eyes flashing as she sulks away from him into her kennel. For a moment, I hate him.

He looks around the house, hands clasped behind his back like he’s scared to touch anything, and I suddenly see everything from his perspective, how the house isn’t clean like his, the layer of dog hair on the carpet, the old couch and its sagging cushions. Walking through the downstairs, he pauses at the little wooden houses balanced on the windowsills. Mom collects them; I give her one for Christmas every year. Strane stares at them and I imagine what he’s thinking—that they’re an ugly, stupid thing to collect. I think of the knickknacks on his bookcases, each one from a foreign country with a story behind it, and I think of what he said about my parents after their conference. Decent people, he called them. Salt-of-the-earth types. It reminds me of something I heard him say about another scholarship student, a senior in his AP class who was accepted to Wellesley but wasn’t going because it was too expensive. He felt awful for her, but what could you do? The poor girl doesn’t come from much, he said.

“It’s boring down here,” I say, grabbing his hand. “Let’s go upstairs.”

In my bedroom, he ducks as he steps through the doorway. He’s so big he dominates the whole room, his head brushing against the slanted ceiling, his eyes taking in the poster-covered walls, the unmade bed.

“Oh,” he breathes. “This is such a precious thing.”

Because of Browick, my room is frozen in time, more a representation of who I was at thirteen than who I am now. I worry it might seem too much like a little girl’s room, but that doesn’t seem to bother Strane. He studies the bookcase crammed full of middle-grade novels I’ve long outgrown, the dresser cluttered with dried-out bottles of nail polish, Beanie Babies covered in dust. Lifting the lid of my jewelry box, he grins when the ballerina pops up and begins to spin. He opens a drawstring bag and pours worry dolls made of brown paper and string into his palm. He treats everything so delicately.

Before we have sex, he has me pretend to be asleep so he can crawl into bed and touch me as I feign waking up. When he pushes inside me, he clamps a hand over my mouth and says, “We have to be quiet,” as though there were someone else in the house. While he pounds into me, so frantic and fast it feels like my brain rattles around in my skull, my limbs go limp and my mind slips out of me, retreats downstairs where Babe whines in her kennel, still wondering what she did wrong. After Strane finishes, he takes another Polaroid of me lying in bed, posing me first, arranging my hair over my breasts and opening the window shade so the light drapes across my body.

Later we go for a drive in his station wagon and cruise the highways that wind through the down east woods. His window is open; he lets his arm hang out. It’s warm for April, seventy degrees, buds on the trees, weeds starting to grow along the roadside.

“I’ll come see you during the summer just like this,” he says. “I’ll pick you up and we’ll go for drives.”

“Like Lolita and Humbert,” I say without thinking, and then wince as I wait for his annoyance at the comparison, but he only smiles.

“I suppose that’s fair.” He looks over at me, slides his hand up my thigh. “You like the idea of that, don’t you? Maybe one day I’ll just keep driving rather than bring you home. I’ll steal you away.”

The closer we get to the coast, the busier the roads become. Strane doesn’t seem afraid, though, so I’m not, either. We’re outlaws on the lam, a couple of brazen criminals driving all the way to the easternmost tip of the state, a fishing village of people who don’t bat an eye when we stop for sodas at the market and stroll down the pier discreetly hand in hand.

“Sixteen years old,” he marvels. “Practically a woman now.”

We set the self-timer on the Polaroid and balance it on the hood of the car. The photo comes out a little overexposed—Strane with his arm around me, the ocean a backdrop. It’s the only photo that exists of the two of us. I want to ask if I can have it but figure he’ll say no, so when he stops for gas I take it out of the glove compartment and slip it into my purse. I leave him the one of me on my bed. That’s the one he really cares about anyway.

On the way home, he says he wants to kiss me a little while longer, so he pulls off the highway onto a dirt logging road. The station wagon rocks over the gravel, mud splatters on the windshield. We drive a few miles through dense woods until the trees thin and then disappear altogether, revealing a rolling blueberry barren, a carpet of green dotted with white boulders. He parks, cuts the engine, and undoes his seat belt, reaches over and undoes mine.

“Get over here,” he says.

As I climb over the console to straddle him, my back presses against the steering wheel and hits the horn, sending a spray of crows into the sky at the far edge of the barren. He cups my butt, the skirt of my dress hiked up around my waist, and a buzzing hums through the air. Out the car window, I see an apiary swarming with bees a couple hundred feet away. We’re miles from anyone and anywhere, free to do whatever we want, our isolation as safe as it is dangerous. I don’t know how to feel one without the other anymore.

He pushes my underwear aside. Two fingers in me. I’m still all sticky from the sex in my bedroom, the insides of my thighs starting to rash. My forehead presses into the crook of his neck, hot breath against his collarbone as he tries to make me come. He says he can feel it when I do. Some women lie about it, he says, but what my body does can’t be faked. He says I get there fast. He can’t believe how fast. It makes him want to make me get there over and over, to see how many times in a row I can handle, but I don’t like that. It makes sex feel like some sort of game that only he’s allowed to play.

As soon as it happens, I tell him to stop. I only have to say it once and he takes his hands off me like I’m something on fire. I move away from him, back over the console to the passenger seat, legs slick and chest heaving. He lifts his hand, the one that was working at me, and holds it to his face, breathes me in. I wonder how many times he’s made me come. Congratulations, I want to say, you did it yet again. Tipping my head back, I watch the bees swarm and the tops of the far-off conifers sway.

“I don’t know how I’m going to handle being away from you this summer,” I say. I don’t even know if I mean it. During breaks I’ve been fine without him. He’s the one who says he can’t go a week without talking to me or seeing me. It’s just the sort of thing that slips out after sex, when I’m soft-belly vulnerable. But Strane takes it seriously. He’s sensitive to any indication that I’m too attached, that he’s affecting me in a way that might have long-term consequences.

“You’ll be seeing plenty of me,” he says. “You’ll be sick of me by July.”

When we’re back on the road, he says it again. “You’ll get sick of me.” Then he adds, “You’ll be the one to break my heart, you know. You’re holding me in your little hands.”

Break his heart? I try to imagine myself having that power, holding his heart, mine to abuse, but even when I picture it pulsing and pumping in my hands, it’s still the boss of me, leading me around, jerking me this way and that with me clinging and unable to let go.

“Maybe you’ll break me,” I say.

“Impossible.”

“Why impossible?”

“Because that isn’t how these stories end,” he says.

“Why does it have to end at all?”

He looks from the road to me, back to the road, his eyebrows cocked in alarm. “Vanessa, when we say goodbye, it won’t be painful for you. You’ll be ready to be rid of me. The rest of your life will stretch out ahead of you. It’ll be exciting for you to move on.”

I say nothing and stare out the windshield. I know that if I try to talk or move, I’ll start to cry.

“I see so much in store for you,” he says. “You’re going to do incredible things. You’ll write books, traipse around the world.”

He keeps prophesizing, says I will have had a dozen lovers by the time I’m twenty. When I’m twenty-five, I’ll be childless and still look like a girl, but at thirty, I’ll be a woman, no more baby cheeks, with fine lines around my eyes. And, he says, I’ll be married.

“I’m never getting married,” I say. “Same as you. Remember?”

“You don’t really want that.”

“Yes, I do.”

“You don’t,” he says flatly, his teacher voice taking over. “I’m no one to model yourself after.”

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

“Don’t be upset.”

“I’m not.”

“You are. Look at you. You’re crying.”

I hunch my shoulders away from him and press my forehead against the window.

“It’s just how it has to be,” he says. “We aren’t always going to fit together the way we do now.”

“Please stop talking.”

A mile goes by, the roar of eighteen-wheelers, the slow curve of an esker and the boggy lake below, a brown-black mass in the distance that could be a moose, could be nothing.

He says, “Vanessa, when you look back, you’ll remember me as someone who loved you, just one of many. I guarantee your life is going to be so much bigger than me.”

I let out a shaky breath. Maybe he’s right. Maybe there’s safety in what he says, a chance to walk away unscathed and unbound. Is it really impossible to imagine that I might emerge from this worldly and wise, a girl with a story to tell? Someday when people ask me, “Who was your first lover?” the truth will set me apart. Not some ordinary boy, but an older man: my teacher. He loved me so desperately I had to leave him behind. It was tragic, but I didn’t have a choice. That’s just how the world works.

Strane reaches for me as he drives, his fingers tracing my knee. He steals glances away from the road to check my face. He wants to make sure I like what he’s doing. Does that feel good? Does that make me happy? My eyelids flutter as his hand moves up my thigh. He lives to please me. Even if we end up apart, right now, he worships me—his dark Vanessa. That should be enough. I’m lucky to have this, to be so loved.

*  *  *

After April break, it’s all downhill momentum. Warm days bring classes held outside and weekend trips to Mount Blue. Daffodils bloom and the Norumbega River rushes high, flooding the downtown streets. Creative writing club starts up again when the new issues of the lit journal come back from the printers, and as Jesse and I are sorting through the boxes, deciding where to drop the copies, Strane calls me into the office and kisses me hard, his tongue filling my whole mouth. It’s reckless, bafflingly so; Jesse’s right there, the office door not even closed all the way. When I return to the classroom, lips stinging and cheeks flushed, Jesse pretends not to notice, but he doesn’t show for our next meeting.

“Where’s Jesse?” I ask.

“He quit,” Strane says. He smiles, seems pleased.

In English, we start a unit where we compare famous paintings to books we’ve read that year. Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party is The Great Gatsby, everyone lazy and drunk. Picasso’s Guernica is A Farewell to Arms, the disjointed horrors of war. When Strane shows us Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, the class agrees that it’s most like Ethan Frome with its stark loneliness, the looming house on the hill. After class, I tell Strane that I see Lolita in the Wyeth painting and try to explain why—because the woman looks so beaten down with her skinny ankles, because the impassable distance between her and the house reminds me of the description of Lo at the end, pale, pregnant, and destined to die. Strane shakes his head and says for the millionth time that I assign too much significance to that novel. “We need to get you a new favorite book,” he says.

He takes our class on a field trip to the town where Andrew Wyeth lived. We drive down the coast in a van so big that, sitting in the passenger seat beside him, the rest of the kids barely register. It’s thrilling to leave campus with him, even with the entire class behind us, oblivious captives. What if he and I decided to seize the moment and run away together? We could leave them stranded at a rest stop, Jenny’s hair whipping across her face as she watches us peel away.

But it’s a bad time for a field trip, because he and I are in the midst of a fight over the idea of me spending another night at his house before summer break. He says we should hold off, not press our luck, and that I’ll see him plenty over the summer, but when I ask for specific dates, he tells me I need to stop building my world around him. So on the drive, I give him the silent treatment and do things I know will annoy him—fiddle around with the radio, stick my feet up on the dash. He tries to ignore me, but I note his clenched jaw, how tight he grips the steering wheel. He says there’s no reasoning with me when I get like this, when I act like a child.

Once in the town of Cushing, we tour the Olson House, the farmhouse at the top of the hill in Christina’s World. The rooms are full of dusty, old-fashioned furniture and framed Wyeth paintings. But they aren’t real, the tour guide explains. They’re reproductions. They can’t hang real ones because the salt air is too harsh and would ruin the canvases.

It’s sixty-five degrees, warm and sunny enough to eat lunch outside. Strane lays out a blanket at the bottom of the hill, looking up at the farmhouse, the same perspective as Christina’s World. After we eat, we do freewriting as he circles around us, hands clasped behind his back. I’m still committed to my anger and refuse to play along, leave my notebook and pen untouched on the ground while I lie on my back and gaze up at the sky.

“Vanessa,” Strane says. “Sit up, get to work.”

It’s what he’d say to any other student acting out, but with me there’s a weakness in his voice, a pleading note that surely the others can hear. Vanessa, please don’t do this to me. I don’t move.

When everyone else gets in the van for the drive to Browick, he grabs my arm and leads me around the back. “You’ve got to cut this out,” he says.

“Let go.” I try to jerk away, but he’s holding me too tight.

“Acting like this isn’t how you get what you want.” He gives my arm a shake so rough it nearly knocks me over.

I glance up at the van’s back windows, feeling split in two, one part out here with him, the other inside with everyone else, clicking in my seat belt and shoving my bag under the seat. If any of them looked out the back window, they would see his fingers digging into the soft skin of my upper arm and it would be enough to make someone start to suspect—more than enough. A thought slaps me, stings my skin: maybe he wants someone to see. I’m starting to understand that the longer you get away with something, the more reckless you become, until it’s almost as if you want to get caught.

 

That night Jenny knocks on my door and asks if she can talk to me. From my bed, I watch her step inside and shut the door behind her. She takes in the mess of my room, the clothes strewn across the floor, the desk covered in loose papers and half-drunk mugs of tea blooming mold.

“Yes, I’m still disgusting,” I say.

She shakes her head. “I didn’t say that.”

“You were thinking it.”

“I wasn’t.” She pulls out my desk chair, but it’s covered with a pile of clean laundry from a week ago that I never put away. I tell her to push it off, and she tips the chair, spilling the clothes onto the floor.

“What I want to talk about is serious,” she says. “I just don’t want you to get mad at me.”

“Why would I get mad?”

“You’re always mad at me, and I really don’t understand what I did to deserve it.” She glances down at her hands, adds, “We used to be friends.”

I twist my face up, about to protest, but she takes a breath and says, “I saw Mr. Strane touch you on the field trip today.”

At first I don’t understand what she’s talking about. I saw Mr. Strane touch you. It sounds too sexual. Strane didn’t touch me on the field trip; we were mad at each other the whole time. But then I remember him grabbing my arm behind the van.

“Oh,” I say. “It wasn’t . . .”

She watches my face.

“It wasn’t anything.”

“Why did he do it?” she asks.

I shake my head. “I can’t remember.”

“Has he done it before?”

I don’t know how to answer because I don’t know what she’s really asking, if this means that she now believes the rumor about Strane and I having an affair. She makes a face like she’s dealing with someone helpless, the look she used to give me when she sensed I didn’t know something she did about music or movies or the general ways the world worked. “I had a feeling,” she says.

“You had a feeling what?”

“You don’t have to feel bad. It’s not your fault.”

“What isn’t my fault?”

“I know he’s abusing you,” she says.

My head jerks back. “Abusing me?”

“Vanessa—”

“Who told you that?”

“No one,” she says. “I mean, I heard that rumor about you having sex with him for an A on a paper, but I didn’t believe it. Even before I talked to you about it, I didn’t believe it. You’re not like that . . . you wouldn’t do that. But then I saw what he did to you today, grabbing you, and I realized what’s really going on.”

The whole time she talks, I shake my head. “You’re wrong.”

“Vanessa, listen,” she says. “He’s horrible. My sister used to tell me he was a creep, that he’d harass girls when they wore skirts, stuff like that, but I had no idea he was this bad.” She leans forward, her eyes hard. “We can get him fired. My dad is on the board of trustees this year. If I tell him about this, Strane is out.”

I blink through the shock of her words—fired, a creep, harassing girls. How horrible it is to hear her call him Strane. “Why would I want to get him fired?”

“Why wouldn’t you?” She seems genuinely confused. After a moment, her face turns gentle, pursed lips and upturned brows. “I know you’re probably scared,” she says, “but you don’t have to be. He won’t be able to hurt you anymore.”

She stares at me, her face brimming with pity, and I wonder how it’s possible that I once felt so much for her, yearned to be closer even as I slept beside her in the same small room, our bodies three feet apart. I think of her navy blue bathrobe hanging on the back of the door, the little boxes of raisins wrapped in cellophane that sat on the shelf above her desk, how she smeared lilac-scented lotion on her legs at night, the wet spots on her T-shirt from her freshly washed hair. Sometimes she binged on microwave pizzas, the shame pulsing out of her as she ate. I had noticed everything about her, every single thing she did, but why? What was it about her? She’s so ordinary to me now, with a mind too narrow to understand anything about me and Strane.

“Why do you care so much about this?” I ask. “It has nothing to do with you.”

“Of course it has to do with me,” she says. “He shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t be allowed near us. He’s a predator.”

I laugh out loud at the word predator. “Give me a break.”

“Look, I actually care about this school, ok? Don’t laugh at me for wanting to make it a better place.”

“So you’re saying I don’t care about Browick?”

She hesitates. “No, but . . . I mean, it’s not really the same with you. No one else in your family went here, you know? For you, it’s like you come here and graduate and then that’s it. You never think about it again. You never contribute.”

“Contribute? Like give money?”

“No,” she says quickly. “That is not what I said.”

I shake my head. “You are such a snob.”

She tries to backtrack, but I’m already putting my headphones on. They’re not plugged into anything, the cord hanging off the bed, but it makes her stop talking. I watch her as she stands to leave, scoops up the laundry, puts it back on the chair. It’s an act of kindness, but in the moment it enrages me, makes me tear off the headphones and ask, “So how’s it going with Hannah?”

She stops. “What do you mean?”

“Are you two, like, besties now?”

Jenny blinks. “You don’t have to be mean.”

“You’re the one who was always mean to her,” I say. “You used to make fun of her to her face.”

“Well, I was wrong,” she snaps. “Hannah is fine. You, however, need serious help.”

She goes to pull open the door and I add, “Nothing is going on with him and me. Anything you’ve heard is stupid gossip.”

“It’s not what I heard. I saw him touch you.”

“You didn’t see anything.”

She squints at me, wraps her hand around the doorknob. “Yes,” she says, “I did.”

 

Strane has me recount what Jenny said to me word for word, and when I get to the part where she called him a creep, his eyes bug out like he can’t believe anyone would ever accuse him of that. He calls her a “smug little bitch” and for a moment my body goes cold. I’ve never heard him use that word before.

“It’ll be fine,” he assures me. “So long as we both deny everything, everything will be perfectly fine. Rumors need proof to be taken seriously.”

I try to point out that it isn’t really a rumor, because Jenny saw him grab my arm. Strane only scoffs.

“Proves nothing,” he says.

The next day in English, he asks us a question about The Glass Menagerie and calls on Jenny even though she doesn’t raise her hand. Flustered, she looks down at her book. She wasn’t paying attention, probably didn’t even hear the question. She stammers out a few “ums,” but instead of calling on someone else, Strane sits back in his chair and folds his hands like he’s prepared to wait all day.

Tom starts to speak and Strane holds up his hand. “I’d like to hear from Jenny,” he says.

We sit through another agonizing ten seconds. Finally, in a small voice, Jenny says, “I don’t know,” and Strane lifts his eyebrows and nods. Like That’s what I thought.

At the end of class, I watch Jenny leave with Hannah, both of them whispering, Hannah throwing a glare over her shoulder at me. I approach Strane as he’s erasing the chalkboard and say, “You shouldn’t have done that to her.”

“I would have thought you’d enjoy it.”

“Embarrassing her will only make things worse.”

He blinks at me, registering the criticism. “Well, I’ve taught kids like her for the past thirteen years. I know how to handle them.” He drops the eraser on the chalk rail and wipes his hands. “And I’d really prefer if you didn’t critique my teaching.”

I apologize, but it’s disingenuous and he knows it. When I say I have to go, that I have homework to do, he doesn’t try to get me to stay.

Back in my room, I lie facedown on my bed and breathe into my pillow to calm myself out of hating him. Because in the moment, it does feel like that—like I hate him. Really, I just hate it when he gets angry at me, because that’s when I feel things that probably shouldn’t be there in the first place, shame and fear, a voice urging me to run.

 

It all falls apart over the course of one week. It starts on Wednesday, when I’m in French class and Strane opens the classroom door and asks Madame Laurent if he can borrow me. “Bring your backpack,” he whispers. As we walk across campus to the administration building, he explains what’s happening, but it’s already obvious. Jenny wasn’t in English class the past two days, and I’ve seen her around so I know she isn’t sick. The previous night at dinner, I watched her with Hannah, their heads ducked together. When they came up for air, both turned straight toward me.

Strane says Jenny’s father sent a letter to the school, but that it’s all hearsay, no proof. It won’t go anywhere. We just need to do exactly what we’ve talked about: deny everything. They can’t hurt us if we both deny. An ocean roars in my ears. The more he talks, the further away he sounds.

“I already told Mrs. Giles none of this is true, but it’s more important that you deny it.” He watches my face as we walk. “Are you going to be able to do that?”

I nod. There are fifty steps to go before we reach the front door of the building, maybe less.

“You’re very calm,” Strane says. He stares into me, searching for a crack, the same way he looked at me in his station wagon after we had sex for the first time. As he opens the door, he says, “We’ll get through this.”

Mrs. Giles says she wants to believe us rather than what’s in the letter—that’s literally what she says from behind her enormous desk as Strane and I sit in the wooden chairs, like two kids in trouble.

“Honestly, I have a hard time imagining how this could be true,” she says, picking up a piece of paper that I assume is the letter. Her eyes move over the lines. “‘Ongoing sexual affair.’ How could such a thing go on without anyone noticing?”

I don’t understand what she means. Clearly, people have noticed. That’s the whole reason Jenny’s dad wrote the letter—people noticed.

Beside me, Strane says, “It really is absurd.”

Mrs. Giles says she has a theory about what’s behind all this. Every once in a while a rumor like this will manifest, and students, parents, other teachers catch wind of it and immediately take it as truth, regardless of how unbelievable the rumor might be.

“Everyone loves a scandal,” she says, and then she and Strane exchange a knowing smile.

She says the rumors usually sprout from jealousy or a misinterpretation of innocent favoritism. That over the course of a career, teachers have many, many students, most of whom are, for lack of a better word, inconsequential. Students might be bright, accomplished individuals, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a teacher will have a special connection with them. Every once in a while, however, a teacher will come across a student with whom he or she feels especially close.

“Teachers are human, after all, same as you are,” Mrs. Giles says. “Tell me, you don’t like all your teachers equally, do you, Vanessa?” I shake my head no. “Of course you don’t. Some you prefer more than others. Teachers are the same with students. To a teacher, some students are just special.”

Mrs. Giles leans back in her chair, folds her hands across her chest. “What I suspect happened is Jenny Murphy became jealous of the special treatment you received from Mr. Strane.”

“One relevant point Vanessa shared with me,” Strane says, “is she and Jenny roomed together last year and they didn’t get along.” He looks at me. “Isn’t that right?”

Slowly, I nod.

Mrs. Giles throws up her hands. “Well, there you have it. Case closed.”

She hands me a piece of paper—the letter from Jenny’s father. “Now if you could read that over and then sign this.” She hands me a second paper with a single typed line of text: “The parties below deny any truth to the contents of the letter written by Patrick Murphy on May 2, 2001.” At the bottom are spaces for two signatures, mine and Strane’s. My eyes skim over the letter, unable to focus. I sign the paper and then hand it to Strane, who does the same. Case closed.

Mrs. Giles smiles. “That should do it. Best to resolve these things as quickly as possible.”

Shaky with relief, feeling like I might throw up, I stand and head toward the door, but Mrs. Giles stops me before I leave. “Vanessa, I’ll have to call your parents to let them know about this,” she says. “So make sure to call them this evening, ok?”

Bile rises in my throat. I hadn’t considered this before. Of course she has to call them. I wonder if she’ll call my house, leave a message on the answering machine, or if she’ll call one of them at work—Dad at the hospital, Mom in her office at the insurance company.

As I leave the room, I hear Mrs. Giles say to Strane, “I’ll let you know if I need anything else from you, but this should take care of it.”

 

When I call home that evening, I offer a flood of explanations and platitudes: everything’s fine, nothing’s going on, the whole thing is ridiculous, a stupid rumor, of course it’s not true. My parents are on different phones, both talking at once.

“You need to stop hanging out with these teachers, first of all,” Mom says.

Teachers? Has there been more than one? Then I remember the lie I told back at Thanksgiving, that it was my politics teacher who said my hair was the color of maple leaves.

Dad asks, “Do you want me to come get you?”

“I want to know exactly what’s been going on there,” Mom adds.

“No,” I say. “I’m fine. And nothing’s been going on. Everything’s fine.”

“You’d tell us if someone’s been hurting you,” Mom says. They both wait for me to confirm that, yes, I would tell them.

“Sure,” I say. “But that’s not what happened. Nothing’s happened. How would it happen? You know how much supervision there is here. It’s a lie Jenny Murphy came up with. Remember Jenny, how mean she was to me?”

“But why would she make something like this up? Get her father involved?” Mom asks.

Dad says, “This just doesn’t sound right.”

“She hates Mr. Strane, too. She has a vendetta against him. She’s one of those entitled people who think anyone who doesn’t suck up to her deserves to have his life ruined.”

“I don’t like this, Vanessa,” Dad says.

“It’s fine,” I say. “You know I would tell you if anything was wrong.”

He and I go quiet, wait for Mom.

“It’s almost the end of the year,” she says. “I guess it doesn’t make sense to pull you out. But, Vanessa, you stay away from that teacher, ok? If he tries to talk to you, tell the headmaster.”

“He’s my teacher. He has to be able to talk to me.”

“You know what I mean,” she says. “Go to class and then leave.”

“He’s not even the problem.”

“Vanessa,” Dad barks. “Listen to your mother.”

“I want you to call us every night,” Mom says. “At six thirty, I expect the phone to ring. Understood?”

Staring across the common room, the television showing MTV on mute, Carson Daly’s spiked hair and black nail polish, I mumble, “Yes, ma’am.” Mom sighs. She hates it when I call her that.

 

Strane says we need to back off for a while, be conscious of optics. No late afternoons in his office, long hours spent alone. “Even this is a risk,” he says, meaning my skipping lunch to spend the free period in his classroom with the door wide open. We need to be careful, at least for the time being, as much as it kills him to keep his distance from me.

He’s confident, though, that it’ll all blow over soon. He keeps using that phrase, “blow over,” like this is some bad weather. Summer will come and, with it, drives in his station wagon, open windows, and sea-salt air. He tells me to trust him, that by next fall, this will all be forgotten. I don’t know if I believe him. A couple days pass and things seem ok, but whenever I’m within eyesight of Jenny, she shoots me a look of raw resentment. Strane thinks she’s given up because she transferred out of his class, but I can tell she’s still mad.

 

The bulletin board goes up listing every senior’s plan for college the following year. I go to dinner and, while I’m waiting in line at the sandwich station, I notice Jenny and Hannah moving methodically around the dining hall. Jenny carries a pen and notebook, and as they approach each table, Hannah says something to the people sitting there, waits for a response, and then Jenny writes something down in the notebook. I notice, too, how many eyes turn toward me, then dart away, not wanting me to catch them staring.

I leave the line, and as I walk across the dining hall I hear Hannah ask, “Have any of you heard a rumor that Vanessa Wye and Mr. Strane are having an affair?”

It’s a table of seniors. Brandon McLean, whose name I saw listed next to Dartmouth on the bulletin board, asks, “Who’s Vanessa Wye?”

The girl sitting beside him—Alexis Cartwright, Williams College—points to me. “Isn’t that her?”

The whole table turns. Jenny and Hannah do, too. I catch a glimpse of Jenny’s notebook, a list of names, before she hides it against her chest.

 

Twenty-six. That’s how many names are on Jenny’s list. I sit across from Mrs. Giles, this time only her and me in the office, no secretary or Strane. Mrs. Giles hands me a copy of the list, and I read down the names, mostly sophomores, classmates, girls on my floor. No one I’ve ever talked to about Strane. Then I see the last name on the page—Jesse Ly.

“If you have anything you want to tell me,” Mrs. Giles says, “now is the time to do it.”

I’m not sure what she’s expecting from me, if she still believes the rumor isn’t true or if this list has changed her mind and now she’s angry that I lied. She’s angry about something.

I look up from the list. “I’m not sure what you want me to say.”

“I’d like you to be honest with me.”

I say nothing, not wanting to take a step in any direction.

“What if I tell you I’ve spoken with a student on this list who says you explicitly told them you were romantically involved with Mr. Strane?”

It takes me a moment to understand she doesn’t mean “explicit” in a sexual sense, but that I told this person directly. Again, I say nothing. I don’t know if she’s telling the truth. It seems like the sort of bluff cops on TV shows use when trying to wrangle a confession out of someone. The smart move is always to stay silent, wait for your lawyer—though I don’t know who the equivalent of a lawyer would be in my case. Strane? My parents?

Mrs. Giles takes a deep breath, touches her fingers to her temples. She doesn’t want to be dealing with this. I don’t want to deal with this, either. We should just forget it—that’s what I want to say. Let’s forget all about this. But I know we can’t, not with Jenny leading the charge, and because of who her father is. The structure of Browick suddenly seems obvious, a blatant system of power and worth in which some people matter more than others, something I’ve always felt but haven’t before been able to comprehend so plainly.

“We need to get to the bottom of this,” she says.

“We are at the bottom,” I say. “None of it is true. That’s the bottom.”

“So if I go get this student and bring them in here, will your story change?” she asks.

I blink as I realize she’s trying to call my bluff, not the other way around. “It’s not true,” I say again.

“Fine.” She gets up, leaves the office, the door still open.

The secretary pokes her head in, sees me and smiles. “Hang in there,” she says.

A lump rises in my throat from this small scrap of kindness. I wonder if she believes me, what she thought during the last meeting with Mrs. Giles and Strane, while she sat scribbling down everything we said on her yellow legal pad.

A few minutes pass and Mrs. Giles comes back into the office with Jesse Ly trailing behind her. He sits in the chair beside mine, but he doesn’t look at me. His face burns red, his neck, his ears. His chest heaves with each breath.

“Jesse,” Mrs. Giles says, “I’m going to ask you the same question you answered before. Did Vanessa tell you that she and Mr. Strane were having an affair?”

Jesse shakes his head. “No,” he says. “No, she never said that.” His voice is high, frantic, the kind of voice you use when you’re so desperate not to tell the truth, you don’t care how obvious it is that you’re lying.

Mrs. Giles again presses her fingertips to her temples. “That isn’t what you said five minutes ago.”

Jesse keeps shaking his head. No, no, no. He’s distraught, so much so that I’m gripped with an overwhelming pity for him. I imagine reaching over and placing my hand over his, saying, It’s ok, you can tell her the truth. But I only sit and watch, wondering if I’m ultimately to blame for him going through this moment of obvious pain, if it matters that I’m the one with more to lose.

“What did you tell her?” I ask quietly.

Jesse’s eyes jump over to me. Still shaking his head, he says, “I didn’t know this was going to happen. She just asked me—”

“Jesse,” Mrs. Giles says. “Has Vanessa ever told you that she and Mr. Strane are romantically involved?”

He looks back and forth, from her to me. When his eyes sink to the floor, I know what’s coming. I close my eyes and he says yes.

If I were weaker, this would be it. I’ve been trapped, confronted with my own inconsistency. The way Mrs. Giles stares me down, it’s obvious she thinks this is over, that I’m about to break. But there’s still a way out of this tunnel. I see the sliver of light. I just have to keep digging.

“I lied,” I say. “It was all lies. What I told Jesse about Strane”—I correct myself—“Mr. Strane, none of it was true.”

“You lied,” Mrs. Giles repeats. “And why would you do that?”

I look her straight in the eye as I explain my reasons: because I was bored and lonely, because I had a crush on a teacher, because I have an overactive imagination. The longer I talk, the more confident I become, blaming myself, absolving Strane. It’s such a good excuse, it explains away anything I said to Jesse, plus whatever rumors the twenty-five other names on the list heard. This should have been my story from the beginning.

“I know lying is a bad thing to do,” I say, looking from Jesse to Mrs. Giles, “and for that I’m sorry. But that’s the whole truth. There’s nothing else to it.”

It’s a dizzy pleasure, like filling my lungs with fresh air after pulling the blankets off my face. I am smart and I am strong—more than anyone understands.

 

I skip lunch and go straight to Strane’s classroom, knock on the door. He doesn’t answer even though I can see the lights are on through the textured glass window. I tell myself he’s just worried about the optics still, but during English, Mr. Noyes is there instead of Strane, and as soon as I step inside the classroom, he tells me I need to go to the administration building.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

He holds up his hands. “I’m only the messenger,” he says, but it’s clear in the wary way he looks at me, like he doesn’t want to be near me, that he knows something. I walk across campus, unsure if I should hurry or drag my feet, and when I reach the front steps of the admin building, looking up at the columns and the Browick seals on the double doors, Dad’s truck pulls into the main campus entrance. I hold my hand up to shield my eyes and see they’re both in there, Dad driving, Mom in the passenger seat with her hand clamped over her mouth. They turn into the parking lot, get out of the truck.

I hurry back down the steps and call, “What are you doing here?” At the sound of my voice, my mother’s head whips around and she points a finger down at her feet, the way she calls to Babe when she’s done something bad. Get over here. Just like the dog, I stop fifteen feet away and refuse to come any closer.

“Why are you here?” I ask again.

“Jesus, Vanessa, why do you think?” she snaps.

“Did Mrs. Giles call you? There’s no reason for you to be here.”

Dad is still in his work clothes, gray slacks and a blue pin-striped shirt with phil embroidered over the pocket. Despite everything else, embarrassment flares up in me. Couldn’t he have changed?

He slams the truck door and strides over to me. “You ok?”

“I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

He grabs my hand. “Tell me what happened.”

“Nothing happened.”

He stares straight into me, pleading, but I reveal nothing. My lower lip doesn’t even tremble.

“Phil,” Mom says. “Let’s go.”

I follow them into the building, up the stairs, and to the little room outside Mrs. Giles’s office with the now-familiar secretary. I look to her for another smile, but she ignores me as she waves us in. Strane is in the office with Mrs. Giles, standing beside her desk, hands in his pockets, shoulders back. My chest aches from wanting to burrow into him. If I could I’d press myself into him and let his body consume me whole.

Mrs. Giles holds out her hand for my parents to shake. Strane holds out his hand, too, which Dad takes, but Mom just sits down, ignores him like he isn’t even there.

“I think it’s best if Vanessa isn’t here for this,” Mrs. Giles says. She looks to Strane and he gives a quick nod. “You can head back into the waiting room.”

She gestures to the door, but I’m staring at Strane, noticing how his hair looks wet from the shower and that he’s wearing his tweed blazer and a tie. He’s going to tell them, I think. He’s turning himself in.

“Don’t,” I say, but it barely comes out.

“Vanessa,” Mom says. “Go.”

The meeting lasts a half hour. I know this because the secretary turns on the radio, probably to keep me from overhearing what’s being said in the office. “It’s your two thirty afternoon coffee break,” the DJ says, “a half hour of nonstop soft hits.” While the secretary hums along, I think about how I’ll always remember these songs because they were the ones playing when Strane confessed and sacrificed himself for me.

When it’s over, they all emerge at once. Mrs. Giles and my parents stop in the waiting room. Strane keeps walking. He leaves without giving me a glance. I see Mom’s flared nostrils and dilated eyes, Dad’s mouth set in a straight line, looking how he did when he had to tell me our old dog died overnight.

“Come on,” he says, taking my hand.

We sit on a bench outside, Mom staring at the ground, her arms crossed tight, while Dad does the talking. What he says is so far from what I expect, it takes me a while to swing back up and actually listen. He’s not saying, We know everything, it’s not your fault. He’s saying that there’s a code of ethics at Browick that students are held to, and I violated it by lying about a teacher and damaging his reputation.

“They take stuff like that pretty seriously here,” Dad says.

“So it’s not . . .” I look from one face to the other. “He didn’t . . .”

Mom’s head jerks up. “He didn’t what?”

I swallow hard, shake my head. “Nothing.”

Their explanation continues. I’m going to end the school year early. There are only a couple weeks left anyway. They’re spending the night at the inn downtown, and, in the morning, I’ll have to, as Dad puts it, “right my wrong.” Mrs. Giles wants me to tell all the people on Jenny Murphy’s list that the rumor about me and Mr. Strane is a lie and that I started the lie.

“Like, tell them one at a time?” I ask.

Dad shakes his head. “Sounds like everyone’s going to get together so you can do it in one go.”

“You don’t have to do it,” Mom says. “We can pack up your room and leave tonight.”

“If Mrs. Giles wants me to do it, I have to,” I say. “She’s the headmaster.”

Mom purses her lips, like she wants to say more.

“I’m still coming back next year, right?”

“Let’s take this one step at a time,” Dad says.

They take me out to dinner at the pizza place downtown. Between the three of us we can’t even finish a pie. We pick at our slices, Mom using napkin after napkin to soak up the grease. Neither of them will look at me.

They offer to drive me back to campus, but I say no, I want to walk. Look at what a nice night it is, I say, still warm at dusk.

“I could use a peaceful few minutes before I go back up there,” I say.

I expect them to refuse, but they seem too dazed to argue and let me go. They hug me goodbye outside the restaurant, Dad whispering, “I love you, Nessa,” in my ear. They turn left toward the inn and I go right toward campus and the public library, toward Strane’s house.

“I know this is stupid,” I say when he opens the door, “but I had to see you.”

He looks beyond me, to the street and sidewalk. “Vanessa, you can’t be here.”

“Let me come in. Five minutes.”

“You need to leave.”

I’m so frustrated, I scream and shove him with both hands, using all my weight, which doesn’t move him but rattles him enough to shut the door and usher me around the side of the house so we’re shielded from the street. As soon as we’re secluded, I throw my arms around him, press against him as hard as I can.

“They’re making me leave tomorrow,” I say.

He takes a step back, unwinds my arms, and says nothing. I wait for his face to show something—anger or panic or regret for having let the situation reach this point—but he’s completely blank. He shoves his hands in his pockets and looks over my shoulder, up at the house. He’s like a stranger standing before me.

“They want me to talk in front of a bunch of people,” I say. “I’m supposed to tell them I lied.”

“I know,” he says. He still won’t look at me, his face set in a deep frown.

“Well, I don’t know if I can do it.” At that, his eyes flick down at me, a tiny victory, so I push it further. “Maybe I should tell them the truth.”

He clears his throat but doesn’t flinch. “From what I understand, you’ve already come pretty close to doing that,” he says. “You told your mother about me. You told her I was your boyfriend.”

At first I don’t remember, then: the drive home from February break, after she heard me on the phone in the middle of the night. What’s his name? she asked, the snow-covered fields and skeleton trees flying past the car windows. I answered with the truth—Jacob. But that was just a word, a common first name, not the same as a confession. She hadn’t gleaned the truth from that one word. She couldn’t have. If she did, she wouldn’t have let Strane leave Mrs. Giles’s office or agreed to this idea of me apologizing to a roomful of people.

“If you’ve decided you want to ruin me,” Strane says, “I can’t stop you. But I hope you understand what will happen if you do.”

I try to say that I didn’t really mean it, that of course I’m not going to tell, but his voice drowns out mine.

“Your name and photo will be in the papers,” he says. “You’ll be all over the news.” He speaks slowly, carefully, like he wants to make sure I understand. “This will follow you around forever. You’ll be branded for life.”

I want to say, Too late. That I walk around every day feeling permanently marked by him, but maybe that’s unfair. Hasn’t he been trying hard to save me? Making me promise I’d move away for college, insisting that ultimately my life would be bigger than him. He wants more for me, an expanse of a future rather than a narrow road, but that can only happen if he remains a secret. Once the truth is out, he’ll come to define my entire life; nothing else about me will matter. I see a half memory, like something from a dream: a hybrid girl, part myself and part Ms. Thompson—or maybe I’m remembering a news clip of Monica Lewinsky?—a young woman with tears rolling down her cheeks, trying to hold her head high through question after humiliating question of what happened: Tell us exactly what he did to you. It’s easy to imagine how my life could become one long trail of wreckage leading directly back to my decision to tell.

“I’d rather end my life right now than go through that,” Strane says. He looks down at me, his hands still in his pant pockets. He’s casual even as he looks ruin in the eye. “But maybe you’re stronger than I am.”

At that, I start to cry, really cry, the kind I’ve never done in front of him before—hiccupping, awful, ugly crying with snot dripping from my nose. It comes on so fast, it knocks me over. I lean against the side of the house, brace my hands against my thighs, and try to breathe. The sobs won’t stop. I wrap my arms around my middle, crouch on the ground, and smack the back of my head against the cedar shingles, like I’m trying to whack them out of me. Strane kneels before me, holds his hands behind my head, between me and the house, until I stop struggling against him, open my eyes.

“There you are,” he says. He inhales, exhales, and my chest rises and falls along with him. His hands still cradle my head, his face close enough to kiss. Tears dry on my skin, tighten my cheeks, and his thumb strokes the soft spot behind my ear. He’s grateful, he says, for what I’ve done so far. It’s very brave to take responsibility and offer myself to the wolves. It’s evidence of love. I probably love him more than anyone else ever has.

“I’m not going to tell,” I say. “I don’t want to. I never will.”

“I know,” he says. “I know you won’t.”

We work out together what I’ll say in the meeting tomorrow, how I’ll blame myself for the rumors, apologize for lying, and make clear that he did nothing wrong. It isn’t fair, he says, that I’m being forced to do this, but clearing his name is the only way to get out of this alive. He kisses me on the forehead and the corners of my eyes the way he did when we kissed for the first time in his classroom, huddled behind his desk.

Before I leave, I glance over my shoulder and see him standing on the dark lawn, his silhouette illuminated by the light from the living room windows. Gratitude radiates out of him and into me, floods me with love. This, I think, is what it means to be selfless, to be good. How could I ever have thought of myself as helpless when I alone have the power to save him?

 

The next morning, the twenty-six people on Jenny’s list meet in Mr. Sheldon’s classroom. There aren’t enough desks for everyone, so some kids lean against the back wall. I can’t tell who’s there; I only see faces bobbing and swaying, an ocean of buoys. Mrs. Giles has me stand next to her at the front of the room while I read the statement Strane and I came up with the night before.

“Any inappropriate rumors you might have heard about Mr. Strane and me are not true. I spread lies about him, which he did not deserve. I’m sorry for being deceitful.”

The faces stare back at me, unconvinced.

“Does anyone have questions for Vanessa?” Mrs. Giles asks. One hand shoots up. Deanna Perkins.

“I just don’t get why you would lie about this,” Deanna says. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Um.” I look to Mrs. Giles, but she only stares back at me. Everyone is staring at me. “That isn’t really a question.”

Deanna rolls her eyes. “I’m just saying, why?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

Someone asks a question about why I’m in his room all the time. I say, “I’m never in his room,” a lie so glaring, a couple people laugh. Someone else asks if there’s something wrong with me “like, mentally,” and I say, “I don’t know, probably.” As the questions continue, I realize the obvious: that I can’t come back, not after this.

“Ok,” Mrs. Giles says, “that’s enough.”

Everyone is given a slip of paper with three questions. One, who did you hear this rumor from? Two, when did you hear it? Three, have you told your parents about it? When I leave, all twenty-six heads are bent, filling out the survey, except for Jenny’s. She sits with her arms crossed, staring at her desk.

I get back to Gould and find my parents packing up my room. The bed is stripped, the closet empty. Mom blindly dumps my stuff into a garbage bag—trash, papers, anything on the floor.

“How did it go?” Dad asks.

“It?”

“The, you know . . .” He trails off, unsure what to call it. “The meeting.”

I don’t answer. I don’t know how it went, can’t even process what really happened. Watching Mom, I say, “You’re throwing away important stuff.”

“It’s garbage,” she says.

“No, you’re putting school things in there, stuff I need.”

She stands back and lets me rifle through the garbage bag. I find an essay with Strane’s comments, a handout he gave us on Emily Dickinson. I clutch the papers to my chest, not wanting them to see what it is I’m saving.

Dad zips my big suitcase, stuffed with clothes. “I’ll start bringing stuff down,” he says, stepping out into the hallway.

“We’re leaving now?” I turn to Mom.

“Come on,” she says. “Help me clean this out.” She opens my bottom desk drawer and gasps. It’s full of trash: crumpled papers, food wrappers, used tissues, a blackened banana peel. I’d filled it in a panic a few weeks ago right before room inspections and forgotten to clean it out. “Vanessa, for god’s sake!”

“Just let me do it if you’re going to yell at me.” I grab the bag from her.

“Why won’t you just throw things away?” she asks. “I mean, Jesus, Vanessa, that’s trash. Garbage. What kind of person hoards garbage in a drawer?”

I focus on breathing as I empty the desk drawer into the trash bag.

“It’s not sanitary and it’s not normal. You scare me sometimes, you know that? These things you do, Vanessa, they don’t make sense.”

“There.” I shove the drawer back into the desk. “All clean.”

“We should disinfect it.”

“Mom, it’s fine.”

She looks around the room. It’s still a mess, though it’s hard to tell what mess is mine and what is from packing everything up.

“If we’re leaving now,” I say, “I need to go do something.”

“Where do you need to go?”

“Ten minutes.”

She shakes her head. “You’re not going anywhere. You’re staying here and helping us clean this room.”

“I have to say goodbye to people.”

“Who do you need to say goodbye to, Vanessa? It’s not like you have any goddamn friends.”

She watches as my eyes smart with tears but doesn’t look sorry. She looks like she’s waiting. That’s how everyone’s been looking at me this whole week—like they’re waiting for me to break. She turns back to the mess, yanking open the top dresser drawer and pulling out fistfuls of clothes. When she does, something falls, slides across the floor between us: the Polaroid of Strane and me on the village pier. For a moment, she and I stare down at it, equally stunned.

“What . . .” Mom crouches down, reaches for it. “Is that—”

I swoop down, grab the photo and press it facedown to my chest. “It’s nothing.”

“What is that?” she asks, reaching for me now. I back away.

“It’s nothing,” I say.

“Vanessa, give it to me.” She holds out her hand like there’s a chance I might give it up that easily, like I’m a child. I say again that it’s nothing. It’s nothing, ok? Over and over, my voice rising into a panic until it reaches a scream so forceful Mom steps away from me. The high note seems to linger, ringing through the half-emptied room.

“That was him,” she says. “You and him.”

Staring at the floor, shaken from the scream, I whisper, “It wasn’t.”

“Vanessa, I saw it.”

My fingers curl against the Polaroid. I imagine Strane here in the room, how he’d calm her down. It’s nothing, he’d say, his voice soothing as a balm. You didn’t see what you thought you did. He could convince her of anything, same as me. He’d guide her to the desk chair and make her a cup of tea. He’d slip the photo into his pocket, a movement so subtle and quick she wouldn’t even notice.

“Why are you protecting him?” Mom asks. She breathes hard, her eyes searching. It’s not a question of anger; she truly doesn’t understand. She’s baffled by me, by all of this. “He hurt you,” she says.

I shake my head; I tell her the truth. “He didn’t.”

Dad comes back then, his face sweaty. He hefts a duffel bag full of books over one shoulder and, as he’s looking for something else to carry, notices Mom and I in our standoff, my hand still pressing the Polaroid to my chest. To Mom, he says, “Everything ok here?”

There’s a beat of total silence, the dorm at midmorning empty except for us. Mom lets her eyes slide away from me. “Everything’s fine,” she says.

We pack up the rest of my room. It takes four trips to bring everything down. There’s a moment before I get in the truck when my feet burn to run—across campus, down the hill into downtown, to Strane’s house. I imagine breaking in, climbing into his bed, hiding beneath the covers. We could have run away. I said that to him last night before I left his house. “Let’s get in your car right now and drive off.” But he said no, that wouldn’t work. “The only way to get through this is to face the consequences and do our best to live through them.”

As Dad lifts the last garbage bag into the truck bed, Mom touches my shoulder. “We can still go tell them,” she says. “Right now, we can go in—”

Dad opens the door, hoists himself into the driver’s seat. “You ready?”

I jerk my shoulder out of Mom’s grasp and she watches me climb into the cab.

The whole drive home, I lie across the back bench seat. I watch the trees, the silvery underbellies of leaves, the power lines and signs for the interstate. In the truck bed, the tarp covering all my stuff flaps in the wind. My parents stare straight ahead, their anger and grief palpable enough to taste. I open my mouth to let it all in and swallow it whole, where deep in my belly it turns into blame.

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