Carry On, My Wayward Son
I push through the swinging double doors to the library. It’s the homecoming pep rally.
If I had any balls at all, I’d be sitting in the bleachers, cheering on my friends and teammates. But I can’t bring myself to. It’s a kick to the stomach every time.
I slip between the shelves, getting lost among the stacks. I know my way around a library. I know where to find some comfort.
My eyes dart from spine to spine, along rows and down columns, searching for Maya Angelou. The shelf ends, and I turn the corner to pick up where it left off. I spot Ms. Barnes standing in the aisle, clutching two books to her chest. Her blond hair is pulled back into a severe bun. She’s scanning the shelves when she notices me.
“Hello, Stephanie,” she murmurs. You’d think an English teacher would know better than to talk in a library. The nerve.
I nod in greeting, continue eyeing the shelves.
“What are you looking for?” she asks.
I glance at her from the corner of my eye.
“Oh, you know...just...” I pull out a book at random. It’s an R.L. Stine novel. “‘Who Killed The Homecoming Queen’. Nothing like a...good teen slasher to get you into Spirit Week.” I sigh. It’s not convincing. Silences falls. I pretend to study the cover, my eyes glazing over with sadness and thoughts. Sometimes my thoughts are so loud, I can’t hear what’s going on around me.
“May I...May I make a suggestion?” Ms. Barnes asks, breaking through my molasses-like thoughts.
“Try this.” She hands me one of the books she’s been holding. “I think you might like it.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
“It was one of my favorites when I was in high school,” she says, smiling a little. “I think you might relate to it.”
“Thanks,” I say. “I’ll go...read this now.” I scuttle off to the hidden corner, where a stuffed armchair rests in a crevice between two perpendicular shelves. This is all I can do now...read, and homework. Eat and sleep. Attend school and go home. If it weren’t for books, I’d probably be dead.
That’s not an exaggeration.
I take the bus home. It’s buzzing with gossip about tonight’s homecoming game and dance right after. Girls are describing their dresses to one another. Guys are talking about our shot at winning the game against the Allentown Cougars. They say we won’t, especially since I’m not playing anymore. I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse.
I slump in my seat, put my headphones on, pull my sweatshirt hood over my head, and watch the world blur past my window. The tunes of Weezer, Green Day, and Third Eye Blind soothe my weary soul.
When I get off the bus at my stop, a light drizzle falls from the gray sky. Cold wetness pitter-patters on my hood, sleeves, jeans. I duck my head and jog for home. When I get up the stairs and inside, I throw my backpack on the floor and dive into bed.
I no longer have a bedroom door. I lost that, too, in The Great Grounding. I have no right to privacy anymore; I proved that I couldn’t be trusted.
I stare at the ceiling, yawn, read, check the clock, and repeat. The game starts at five. I’ll be the only one not going, and it’s my senior year. Let that sink in for a minute.
I try to distract myself by going to sleep, but I just end up laying in bed, staring at the wall until I hear my Mom singing to herself up the steps. She’s home early.
The door creaks open, slams shut, and she stops in front of my room. She’s wearing a long, thin, canvas-looking coat and a scarf.
“Hey, kiddo,” she murmurs. “How was your day?”
“Fine,” I grunt, still staring at the wall.
“You hungry? I could order us some pineapple pizza, your favorite,” she entices in a sing-song voice.
“No, thanks. Not hungry,” I pout.
“Leave me alone,” I say tiredly. I roll onto my stomach and put my pillow over my head.
"Oka-ay.” I hear her muffled footsteps walk away. When I hear the bathroom door close and the water running in the shower, I let myself cry. It’s a quick spiral into self-pity from here.
There’s a whole bunch of scuttling out there. My brothers. They’ve been in their room all afternoon, door closed, probably building Lego sets or something.
The water turns off. Mom is still humming. She’s got ABBA songs stuck in her head. Earlier, it was “Dancing Queen”. Now it’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme a Man After Midnight”. I’ll bet they remind her of her high school days, back when she was homecoming queen and danced the night away at her senior homecoming dance.
There’s a knock on a door.
“Mom?” It’s Axel.
She opens the door, shutting off the blow-dryer.
“We wanted you to read this.”
“What is it?”
“Just read it.”
“We think you should take it easy on her,” Bowie says after a few minutes. “She’s been through a lot this year.”
“Oh, my God.” Her voice catches. “Are you serious? You two better not be joking around.”
“Honest,” Axel says.
“Stephanie!” Hard, clomping bare footsteps down the hall to my door. Mom appears in the doorway, shiny skin, wet hair, and pink bathrobe. “Did Justin Brinkman molest you?”
“I don’t know,” I say, my words garbled through the pillow.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Her voice is rising. It sounds angry.
“I’m sorry,” I choke. “I didn’t mean for it to happen.” I feel the corner of my mattress sag. She’s sitting by my feet. “I shoulda known better. I coulda got out earlier, but I didn’t. I was...s-s-so...s-s-stupid.”
“Honey!” she exclaims, placing a gentle hand on my back. “It’s not your fault!” She rubs my back, trying to soothe me. “My God, if I’d have known this happened, I’d have knocked his lights out!”
She says it with such force that the thought of my dainty, passive mother punching anyone, combined with her tone, actually makes me laugh. I’m laughing and crying at the same time.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” she asks, still caressing my back.
“I don’t know,” I say. It’s a lie. I didn’t tell because I was too ashamed. I was ashamed that it happened, I was ashamed that I let it happen, I was ashamed that I put myself in that position in the first place.
“It’s not your fault,” she repeats, as if reading my mind. “Stephanie...I was raped when I was in high school.”
I sit up immediately, yanking the pillow off my head.
“No way.” I stare at her, my eyes like full moons. “What did you do?” I wrap her into a hug, finally sympathizing with my pretty little mother who seemed to get everything a girl could want. She nuzzles her face into my mane.
“I didn’t do anything. I walked home, went to bed, and never said anything about it. It was the guy I was dating at the time - the cool football captain, everyone’s hero. Same as Justin.”
“Didn’t it affect you?” I plead, hoping that I’m not alone in this.
“Hell, yeah it did. I felt disgusting. I couldn’t be around him without getting physically sick. My life spiraled out of control...I started forcing myself to throw up after meals to lose weight...I lived really recklessly, experimenting with drugs and drinking and sleeping around...My God, if I had known I could go to my mom, if I had been told it wasn’t my fault and gotten help...” She clutches me tighter. “I am so, so sorry this happened to you,” she whispers into my ear. “I wish no girl ever had to go through the pain you and I have been through.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I whisper, my voice thick with emotion. Tears are welling again.
“We’re gonna get you some help,” she says. “I don’t know what yet. But I’ll find something. Whatever you need, we’ll get it.”
“I’m okay now, Mom,” I say. “That was over a year ago. I’m over it.”
“Still,” she says. “We’ll figure this thing out. We’ll work together.” She pulls back, wipes her eyes. “We can press charges. I have no problem sending that little pervert to jail.”
I chuckle. Her feistiness amuses me.
“Honestly, Mom, don’t. It’s already taken care of.” I half-smile. “Trust me.”
She looks at me skeptically.
“Okay, if you say so...” She looks at my alarm clock. “Tell you what. I’m gonna get dressed and finish drying my hair. And if, while I’m in my room, you happen to disappear off to a football game somewhere, I won’t hunt you down. Zennen should be home from the bar at ten, so try to be back before then.”
My jaw drops. Overcome with joy, I beam so hard my cheeks hurt.
“Really?! You’re letting me - ”
“Just this once,” she says, holding a finger to her lips. “Now get out of here before I change my mind.” She stands up and turns, about to head to her room.
“Mom?” I ask. She stops, looks back at me.
“How did you get over it?” I ask.
She scrunches her mouth.
“Time,” she says finally. “And your father’s love.”