I woke up with stinging eyes, my head heavy as lead and thrumming like a drunk metronome. I sat up in bed and put my forehead in my palms. What was I going to do? I definitely did not want to go to school today. I didn’t want to face him. I couldn’t. I had no idea how I might react if he tried to talk to me. I shouldn’t go today.
No, I couldn’t be a coward like this. I wasn’t the one who had done anything wrong—he did. And even if I didn’t face him today, I would have to go back to school eventually. Fine, I would go to school, but I wouldn’t talk to him or acknowledge him. I will never speak to him again! He is beyond forgiveness.
I got dressed and went into the kitchen to wait for Mom to get ready to go.
“How was the party last night?” Mom asked when she came into the living room.
“It was fine,” I lied. I had already decided that I wasn’t going to tell anyone about what happened. I just couldn’t talk about it. And besides, it was none of their damn business, anyway.
“Why do you look so…broody?” she asked, staring at my face. “Your eyes are all dark. You didn’t drink at that party, did you?”
“Of course I did, Mom. Everybody did.”
She frowned, then sighed. “Well, at least you’re honest about it.”
After she dropped me off, I went to the cafeteria. Predictably, I didn’t feel like going to marching practice. It seemed so completely unimportant right now, and I didn’t want any chance of Stephen finding me on the field. I sat at the table by myself and put my head down, hiding my face in the dark shell of my arms like a turtle.
I was able to have a half hour to myself before more students came. Amber and Reina were the first at my table. I heard their voices, but I didn’t look up.
“Hi, Crimson,” Amber sang. “So, spill it. How was the party?”
“Fine,” I answered without raising my head.
“What’s the matter?” Reina asked.
“Hangover?” Amber asked.
I nodded my head, grateful for Amber’s quick assumption.
More people came and sat at our table, but I kept my head down.
“Hey, what’s wrong with Crim?” Robert asked.
“Hangover,” Amber said.
“Oh,” he said. Then he started to talk about his trip to his grandmother’s house and how boring it was. I finally lifted my head and listened to Robert’s self-absorbed story; now that everyone’s attention was on him, I figured it was okay.
“Ooh, breakfast time,” Reina said as she and the others got up from the table. “Aren’t you coming?” she asked when I didn’t do the same.
“No, I’m not hungry,” I said.
“You should eat something,” she urged. “You don’t want to make yourself sick.”
I shook my head curtly.
She looked at me a moment and then finally went with the others.
After breakfast was over, I went to the band room for class, not wanting to go to my usual ditch spot or anywhere else that I might run into Stephen.
“Crimson! Why’d you miss marching practice this morning!?” Doyle demanded when I came in.
I sighed lengthily. “Look, we all know where this is going,” I droned, “so why don’t you just punish me and get it over with.”
The whole class gasped as her eyes seethed with their blistering venom.
“Fine,” she intoned. “Detention after school. Plus forty pushups at practice tonight.”
I shrugged as if it didn’t matter, and it didn’t because I wasn’t going to detention.
I spent the rest of my classes just sitting at my desk with my chin in my hand, watching dully and indifferently as the teacher paced at the front of the room and droned on and on about the same subject.
The bell for lunch made me more nervous as I realized my inevitable encounter with Stephen would immediately follow.
I went to the lunch spot on the back field and waited for my friends to come. After five minutes of solitude, they finally came to join me.
“Here she is,” Amber said.
“Why didn’t you eat?” Reina demanded as she occupied the grass in front of me.
My stomach lurched at the knowledge of my next destination.
“I’m not hungry,” I declared.
“Here, have some of my burger,” she said, offering it to me.
“Reina, I swear, if I eat even one bite, I am going to throw up!”
“Maybe you should go see the nurse,” she said.
No nurse could help me with this ailment.
I stayed with them as long as I could, not wanting to go through with this just yet. I wasn’t ready to see him. But it was going to happen whether I was ready for it or not.
“You ready to start walking to class?” Robert asked, checking his watch.
My stomach constricted into a tight knot, washing anxiety across my skin. I lingered for a moment longer, but he kept looking at me, waiting for me.
“If I have to,” I mumbled. I drudged up off the grass and reluctantly started walking to the 700 Hall with Robert.
Every step made me ever more anxious, ever more skittish. The fact that I was walking alongside Robert was the only thing keeping me from turning tail and running out the gate and down the road.
The bell rang just as we opened the Hall door. We were going to be late. Robert rushed me to the classroom at the end of the hall, but I froze right in front of the door.
“What are you doing?” he said. “We’re already late. Come on!” He grabbed my arm and pulled me inside.
I walked in and kept my eyes down on my feet; I didn’t want to accidentally meet Stephen’s gaze. But I had to look up, just for a second, to make sure he wasn’t sitting at our table, which had been his seat for the past month.
But he wasn’t there. Feeling slightly braver now, I looked around the room. He wasn’t at the jock table either. He wasn’t in this room at all. Maybe he ditched, not wanting to face me just as much as I didn’t want to face him.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Hmm, that’s weird,” Robert whispered under the teacher’s lecture. “I wonder where Stephen is.”
I shrugged, enjoying my moment, yet knowing that this was just postponing the eventual confrontation.
When the class ended and I made my way to Art class, I felt confident that he would not be there either. I went into the classroom, my heart still palpitating sporadically on the off chance that he might come.
He wasn’t there. I could breathe now.
“Hi, Reina,” I greeted as I sat.
She didn’t say hi back, which she always did.
I cocked my head to look at her.
She was slumped in her chair, her hand to her lips, her caramel face slightly red. In the light from overhead, I saw a shimmering tear rolling down her cheek. Why hadn’t I noticed this as soon as I came in? Why hadn’t I heard her sniffling?
“Reina, why are you crying?” I asked, concerned for my petite, frail bird of a friend.
She looked at me with her bloodshot eyes and she started to cry harder, streams of tears flooding her face.
I realized then that she wasn’t the only one crying. I followed the sound to the back of the room. Brianna was sobbing into her hands, Patty’s head on her shoulder.
“Reina?” I asked again.
She sniffed loudly and swallowed. Then she took a breath.
“Crimson…” she started to say. “Oh!” she started to cry more. Then she put her arms around me.
I looked around the room and all the faces were looking at me, whispering to each other. Finally Reina composed herself enough to speak. She put her hand on my shoulder.
“Crimson, this is going to be hard for you to hear,” she said slowly. “Stephen…Stephen is dead.”
It felt like all the blood in my body stopped flowing. My ears were humming with the viscous, inert liquid. I must have heard her wrong. That just couldn’t be what she really said.
I looked in her eyes, trying to find the real meaning there, hoping for some hint of a joke. But her eyes were dead serious.
I shook my head, and her pout deepened.
“How?” I whispered through my daze.
“Apparently, he was murdered in his home sometime last night.”
No. No, that couldn’t be. He was at the party last night. She must be misinformed. They all must be. It couldn’t be true, it just couldn’t. It wasn’t possible that Stephen could be…
Overwhelmed and impassioned, I jumped out of my chair and left the room before anyone could stop me. I went down the hall, out the door and went straight for the back gate. I broke into a run once I was a few yards outside the gate, going straight down the road and not stopping until I reached his street. I acknowledged no physical strain, didn’t respond to my body’s demand for air. I would not stop. I had to prove them wrong! I had to expose this lie!
I ran down his road, thinking only of his house.
My conviction wavered when I saw the two police cars outside his house. I ran up the sidewalk, and a group of police officers were talking on the front lawn, notepads in gloved hands. The front door was open and I could see the caution tape strapped around the living room.
“Where is he!?” I yelled at the police officers.
“Miss, you can’t be here,” one of them said.
“Where is Stephen!!” I yelled louder.
He lowered his head.
“Miss, I’m sorry to say, but Stephen Tucker is dead,” he said with irrelative compassion.
“No! No! He’s not dead!” I demanded. “He can’t be dead!”
I ran for the door, desperate to go inside and find him standing or sitting somewhere, wearing that same smile he always wore just for me. But the cops lunged after me, detaining me as I struggled to get in, clutching at either side of the doorframe.
“No! Let me go! Please, I just want to see him!” I cried. “Please!”
“Miss, please calm down,” one of them said.
I slowly gave up my struggling, my slaps on their restraining arms becoming mere taps. I fell limp and really started crying, and the officer held me up, letting me soak his blue shirt.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He guided me to his car and opened the passenger door so I could sit.
I cried more and more as the earth-shattering truth of it crushed me. Stephen really was dead. He was just in my arms not even twenty-four hours ago, and now he was gone. I would never see him again. I would never talk with him again, never study with him again, never go to games with him or hear him laugh or see him smile…I would never kiss him again…
Did it even matter that he had tried to rape me just last night? Did that change who he was? I loved him. I really did. He was the first boy I was ever close with, the first boy I invested in. He was the only boy in my world who even mattered to me, and he noticed me for some reason. He liked me and wanted to be around me, and he could have anyone. And now he was dead.
It was all my fault. If I had just let him have what he wanted, he would have stayed at the party and this wouldn’t have happened. Would it really have been so bad? I would have rather given up my body than give him up. If I had just given myself to him, than he would still be here. It was all my fault!
The police officer handed me a tissue.
“What is your name, Miss?” he asked, leaning against the open car door with his notepad in his hands.
“Crimson Wilkinson,” I sniffled.
“I know this is a difficult time for you, so I won’t ask very many questions, but how did you know the victim?”
“He was my…boyfriend…” And that’s what he’ll always be remembered as in my mind.
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“Last night, at his birthday party.”
“Do you know around what time he left the party?” he asked, scribbling into his pad.
I shook my head. “I left before he did.”
He nodded and wrote my answer onto the paper.
“Excuse me,” I stuttered softly. “But…could you tell me how he died?”
He looked at me for a moment. “Are you sure you want to know?”
“Yes,” I breathed. “I can handle it.”
“Well, we can’t say for sure just yet,” the officer said. “There are numerous wounds. Looks like someone broke in. But there was nothing stolen, according to his parents. Do you know if he might have had any enemies who would want to hurt him?”
I shook my head, evermore pained by this new information.
“Well, thank you for answering my questions,” he said. “I know how difficult this must be for you. Is there somewhere I can take you?”
There was nowhere I wanted to go. I didn’t want to go home. I felt dead inside, empty, yet the tears kept coming. If this were a normal day, I would be in Stephen’s car right now, on my way to my house so we could study and wait for practice. How was it that I was sitting outside the crime scene of his murder? The universe was off balance, a duller, less beautiful color, and it would never be as bright again.
“Miss, please, let me take you home,” he said.
I nodded limply. I told him my address and he took me home, giving me his card before I got out of the car.
Reina was there waiting for me, red-faced and pitying. We sat on the couch and cried together. She knew how sad I was, how much this hurt me, she with her great empathy. She was crying more for me than for Stephen.
She ended up camping in my living room and staying the night. When she fell asleep, I left the couch and went to my room to bundle up in my bed. I hugged my pillow close and cried into it, making sure to keep silent so that no one would hear me.
Oh Stephen! Why did this have to happen? How can you be gone? I’m sorry, so sorry! Please come back! I’ll do whatever you want, just come back! Stephen…