I’m almost off school grounds when I hear someone running behind me. Unable to look, and still on the verge of tears, I inhale a deep breath and then expel it before reaching up to dab at my eyes.
“Hey,” Jackson says. “Oaklynn.”
“What?” I ask through a sniffle, refusing to turn and face him.
“I’m sorry you had to see that. I tried to warn you.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” I say, reaching up to press two fingers to the bridge of my nose. “It’s not your fault.”
“I know, but, still…” He sighs. “No one should have to see something like that.”
“Why are they after me all of a sudden?” I ask, spinning to face him just in time to see J’vonte running across the front lawn. “Is this because of the wolves? Because I got Easton Wells in trouble? Because Ashley Jones got disciplined for hitting me in the face?”
“Oaklynn!” J’vonte says, panting in obvious rage rather than physical discomfort. “I swear to God, if I find out who did that, I’m gonna—“
“We shouldn’t do anything,” I reply. “It’s only going to make it worse.”
“I was gonna say bust their nose in,” my friend replies, “but… damn. You’re probably right.”
I lower my eyes.
Jackson reaches out to set a hand on my shoulder. “Do you need anything from your locker?” he asks.
“No,” I reply. “I don’t.”
“Come on then. I’ll walk you home.”
“I’m sorry, Oaklynn,” J’vonte says. “We’ll get to the bottom of this. I swear it.”
“I know,” I say, half-heartedly at that. I know my best friend would die for me if she had to, but fact is: I don’t want her getting into a fight over me. There’s just no point in it.
With one last nod, J’vonte turns and begins to make her way toward the bus, leaving me and Jackson to walk down the old dirt road alone.
We walk in silence for several long minutes. During this time, I keep my head down and my arms across my chest, my hands along my ribcage. My heart continues to pound—thump thump, thump thump—and though I long to fight the monster that wishes to break free, I know I can’t afford to do it in front of Jackson.
Just stay calm, I think. Everything’s fine. You’re fine.
No. I’m not fine. I’m not okay. What they wrote on my locker… what they emblazoned upon it in red lipstick… was monstrous.
It’ll be all over social media by the time the day is up. And poor little me will be made to suffer for it all.
Jackson exhales—long, hard, and seemingly without awareness—before he says, “Do you want to talk?”
“About what happened?”
“There’s really nothing to talk about,” I reply. “Someone got jealous that I was talking to you. That’s all there is to it.”
“But was it before or after that girl flashed her tits at me?”
“I don’t know,” I say. I lift my eyes from the ground to look at Jackson, and force myself to hold my gaze with him rather than shy away. “Why do you ask that?”
“I saw one of the girls messing with her phone,” he replies. “It just… seemed weird, was all. That that would happen right after that did.”
“We’re too old for this bullshit,” I say. “We’re adults for God’s sake.”
“Some people never grow up,” Jackson offers.
“I guess not,” I say.
The frown painted on his face does little to console me.
“Either way,” I offer, turning my head back to the path we are on, “thank you for trying to warn me. I just wish someone had been decent enough to try and scrub it off rather than—“
“I do, too.”
There isn’t much more to say about the matter, and because of that, we fall back into silence as we make our way home.
Come time we reach the expanse of road between our homes, we can do little but say goodbye.
“See you tomorrow?” Jackson asks.
“Yeah,” I reply. “I… I guess.”
He offers a short but sad nod before turning and making his way into his home.
As I step onto my porch, and as I enter through and close my front door, I find myself collapsing back against it and sob.
This shouldn’t be happening to me. I’ve never been mean to anyone. I’ve never purposely gotten anyone into trouble. Done anything bad. I mean, hell—I’ve never even wished ill will on anyone, as much as I’ve wanted to. And yet… this is happening.
All because of Easton Wells and Ashley Jones.
“Why me?” I ask. “What’d I ever do to deserve this?”
The truth is: I can’t, and probably will never, know.
That alone is enough to spur me into my room, close the door, and plant myself in my bed.
There’s no denying what’s going on.
These antics—they’re going to go on for the rest of the year.
And it’s only September.
Don’t check your Social, J’vonte texts.
But it is impossible not to. Like a moth drawn to a flame, or a bee to its sweet nectar, I press my finger to the app and watch, in cruel awe and horrible fascination, as the tagged notifications continue to roll in.
Oaklynn? J’vonte’s text comes in. You didn’t check. Did you?
Except, there’s no way for me to respond, no way for me to articulate an answer. I’m just staring—and because of that, find myself trembling not in hurt, but rage.
“I swear,” I whisper to myself, “that if I find out who does this, I’m gonna—“
What, though? Just what would I do to someone whose cruel intentions are to hurt me? Pick a fight? Punch them out? Write cruel and slanderous things on their locker? Just why would I even begin to think that I would do something like that? I’m not that kind of person. I would never intentionally hurt someone.
“Not like this,” I whisper. “Not like…”
A friend request pops up in my feed.
“This,” I then mumble.
I’m almost too afraid to tap the icon. What if it’s one of the mean girls? Or a guy trying to harass me? What if—
I shake my head.
No. I can’t think that. And besides—it’s not like their message would come into my inbox anyway.
With that in mind, I move my finger over, then tap on, the icon.
Jackson Meadows’ face greets me.
I sigh. “Jackson,” I whisper.
I click ‘accept’ and am almost immediately receive a message.
Are you all right? it asks.
I frown as I consider the message.
Am I all right? I wonder.
The most obvious answer would be no, I’m not simply all right. To have most of the school post the picture, and comment and share it as a result, is downright baffling, if not horrifying. To think I would be fine would be preposterous. But to know that Jackson had seen, or at least heard, about the posting?
He’s been in school for two days, I think. How does he…
“J’von,” I mumble, and sigh.
I flick my hand over the text box and type I’m okay before lowering my phone to look outside my bedroom window.
Several long moments pass before another message comes in. This one simply asks: Do you want to talk?
Where? I reply.
I frown as I consider his most recent message.
What could it hurt? I think.
It’s not like my parents are home. And besides—I’m eighteen. That should be reason enough to know that I can handle myself around a boy. Guy. Man.
I swallow, but nod and say, Okay before rising and shrugging a jacket over my shoulders.
Within moments, I am stepping outside, and crossing the road to Jackson’s home.
I have just set foot on his front drive when the door opens and he walks out.
“Hey,” he says, offering the kindest smile he can probably muster considering the circumstance.
“Hey,” I reply.
Silence passes between us for a few more moments before he settles down on his porch and pats the space beside me.
As I come to sit beside him—staring first at my house across the way, then at the sunlight that is fading down the road to the west—I find myself wondering how practical it is to just be sitting here, with a guy I barely know, talking about something that I feel should be discussed between friends.
But isn’t he my friend? I think.
One would naturally assume so, given the circumstances. I mean, in the span of a few short days, he’s already done so much for me. He’s checked on me. Helped me. Walked me home after a devastating reveal. Looked out for me when he didn’t have to. I mean, him inviting me over here just goes to show how cautious he is with my person, let alone my heart and mind.
At the same time, though, it makes me wonder:
Does he want something from me?
If he did, I think, he probably would’ve already mentioned it.
And if he does, I then conclude, it’ll come out in time.
In the end, I don’t think enjoying a moment of solitude with someone who seems to care is such a bad thing.
With that in mind, I lean forward, lace my hands together, and lean my temple against them.
Jackson asks, “Are you all right?”
To which I reply with, “I really don’t know.”
There is another bridge of silence, during which time he sighs, laces his hands together, looks at his fingers, frowns. I feel he will never speak, and for that, don’t expect him to.
He doesn’t need to offer me anything, I think. That’s not his burden to bear.
But, still—surely he would have had something to say, given he’d invited me over here. Right?
I— I start to think, then stop as he clears his throat and mumbles something under his breath.
“What’d you say?” I ask, startled.
“I said: fuck ’em,” he replied.
“Your school. Your classmates. Whoever posted that picture on Social. Whoever wrote it on your locker. Just… fuck ’em.”
“I would like to think that I could do it so easily,” I offer, “but, honestly… this whole thing is just kicking up my nerves so much it’s just…” I exhale, and bow my head to my knees.
“You okay?” he asks.
“I’ve just struggling to keep it together since I got home,” I reply. “That’s all.”
“Can I do anything?”
“You’re distracting me.”
“That’s doing something,” I say, then clarify by adding: “It’s helping me.”
“Oh.” He nods. “I see.”
I lift my eyes to face him; and though it would have appeared that there was so little distance between us, the fact was: we couldn’t have been any different. Boy, girl; man, woman; person without anxiety, person with—he was the sun and I was the moon, and I was about to fall. And yet, somehow, he was able—and willing—to catch me.
That’s what friends are for, I think. That’s what they’re meant to do.
The smile that lights his face inspires one of my own.
“There you go,” he says, his eyes brightening, his disposition shifting. “You’re feeling a little bit better. Aren’t you?”
“I suppose so.” I lift my eyes as something shifts out my peripheral. “Jackson,” I then say. “Does your dad not…”
“What? Like you?” He frowns. “No. It’s… it’s not that.”
“Then what is it? He hasn’t even come out to say hi.”
“He’s…” Jackson turns his head toward the window. When the curtain stops shifting, and a few beats pass, he says, “He has MS.”
“Multiple sclerosis. It… it leaves him in an odd frame of mind most of the time.”
“I see,” I reply.
“It’s not you, Oaklynn. It’s not even him. It’s his illness that makes him like he is.”
“You don’t have to explain. I was just wondering.”
“He probably had better medical care back in Fredericksburg,” Jackson then says, “but he swore that he wanted to come back to Red Wolf.”
“Can you tell me why?”
“I—“ Jackson starts.
But when the curtain shifts again, he stops, then, and merely says, “I… I can’t. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I say, and stand. “I should go.”
“You don’t have to,” he says.
“It’s okay. Go see what your dad needs. I should probably be getting home anyway.”
“And Jackson?” I say, turning to face him as I walk backward toward my house. “Thank you. For everything.”
“You’re welcome,” the young man says.
I watch him slip into his old house with little more than a nod and a sigh.
I guess it makes sense, in a way, that he wouldn’t be able to talk about the reasons surrounding his return to Red Wolf.
The mystery is starting to get to me.
It’ll come out eventually, I think. It has to.