Chapter 44 - Smoke Clears
“You’ll never be alone / Even when your world explodes / ’Cause after all the smoke clears / I will be right here” – Smoke Clears, Andy Grammer
James just holds me at the end of it. Never once interrupting me throughout the story. I didn’t tell James about Lexi, he doesn’t need to know about that. “I’m so sorry, Arya,” James says.
“It’s not your fault, James.” I say, “You have nothing to be sorry for. Henri is the one who is the jerk. Him and his father.”
“He forced you to stay quiet,” James says.
“This is why I couldn’t tell you, James,” I say, “This is the mess I was trying to keep you out of. I was supposed to keep a low profile, that was my plan. Survive the next three semesters and then it wouldn’t matter once I graduated. I didn’t account for one of your jealous admirers to expose me.”
“I will talk to Lisa.” James says, “I hated what she did to you, but I am no better by just abandoning you.”
“I already forgave you, James.” I say, “And now that you know everything, there is nothing else for one of your other admirers to expose.”
“You make it sound like there’s a lot,” James says.
“Have you seen you?” I say, looking straight at James and he just smiles at me. “Every girl at this school is jealous of me. I’m dating this super good-looking, soccer star that is smart, kind, and sometimes funny.”
“Well I think I’ve had more than my fair share of guys trying to get with you to last a lifetime,” James says.
I laugh at James and grab hold of his arm and lean against him again.
“Thank you, James,” I say, “but if Mr. Quirrel ever propositions me, you’ll have to just accept it.” And then I wink at him.
“I’ve had to hear girls fawning over him ever since Grade 9,” James says, “now you too?”
“Don’t worry, James,” I say, “he’s my unrealistic crush. You are my everything.” I stare at him. “I do have a question though. Why did you come up to Henri and me today?” I ask.
“Because I hate that guy.” James says, “He’s a jerk and I don’t trust him. When I saw him talking to you, I couldn’t help myself. Your story just makes him worse than I ever thought. What he did to your sister is unforgivable and I can’t forgive him for putting his hands on you.” James softly touches my throat where Henri’s hand once was.
“Mia is stronger than I could ever be.” I say, “She’s the one that wanted me to tell you everything. She was willing to have me expose what happened to her to you so that we could be together again. She said as happy as I seemed at West Side, I was never happier than when I was with you. I should have trusted you with everything.”
“No, Arya,” James says, “I should have known you wouldn’t have kept something from me if you didn’t have a reason.”
“We’ve only known each other for a couple of months, James,” I say, “It’s not unreasonable to have doubts.”
“But I feel like I have known you forever,” James says, “You were always meant to come into my life.”
“The one good thing that came out of this horrific mess is that I got to meet you,” I say.
“Arya,” James says, “if you don’t want to talk about it, I understand, but that day in the hallway…” James looks at me to see if he can continue and I just nod. “I had no idea, I only found out yesterday. I tried to get to you, I went to your house…”
“I know you didn’t know,” I say, “I didn’t want you to know.”
“I’m so sorry, Arya. If I hadn’t left you…”
“Don’t James,” I say, putting a hand to his chest. “Don’t you dare think that you are in any way responsible for what happened.”
“I’ll kill him, Arya,” James says.
“Please don’t,” I say, “I already have one rapist that hates me, I don’t need another.”
“Arya, he can’t get away with…”
“James,” I say, “can we please handle one thing at a time? Please?” Handle Henri first. He’s the most dangerous and now that he knows that James knows the truth about him, he could go crying to his dad about it. But I know he won’t. Henri was reluctant to expose me at West Side and he wasn’t the one to call his father. If anything, Henri prefers to deal with problems himself.
“Okay,” James says, “but I’m not forgetting it. He’s a scumbag.” James looks at me. I know he wants to ask about what happened. Not because he wants to know, but so he can direct his anger to the truth instead of what he thinks might have happened. He wants a clear picture so he can hate Eric even more, even if the picture will horrify him.
“Nothing happened, James,” I assure him.
“You don’t have to tell me anything,” James says. “Only if you think it will help.”
The first time telling someone about your assault is the worst. I’ve already told Diana. The truth is already out there. There is someone that already knows the truth about what happened in that bathroom. “He groped me in the hallway. He’s the type of guy that enjoys it if the girl doesn’t want it. Told me that no one would believe the girl who cried rape. That he saw it as an opportunity. I stepped on his foot, I kneed him between the legs and that’s when he pushed me in the bathroom.” I stop because this is where it gets hard, this is where he took it too far and people let him. I can’t look at James to say the rest.
“He pushed me against the wall, he grabbed my hair and then undid his pants. He forced me to kneel in front of him. He threatened to smash my head against the wall if I didn’t do it.” It’s like someone else is talking. I feel out of my body like it’s not me.
“He’s dead, Arya. I’m going to kill him.”
I turn to James. “That’s the scene the footballers walked in on. That’s as far as it went.”
James just holds me, saying nothing.
“The worst part,” I say, “is that those people in the hallway that saw him groping me, that saw him push me in there, they were just going to let it happen.”
“Did they think I deserved it? Did they think it’s not their problem or not their responsibility?” I say, “Were they scared? Scared of the repercussions? Did they just assume someone else would do something? Did they just look at each other like idiots, afraid to step in?”
“I don’t know, Arya,” James says, “but there is no excuse.”
“I was scared, James,” I say, “really scared. I didn’t know how it was going to end. I was going to let him smash my head against the wall. This is what it’s like, isn’t it? This is what so many girls and women have felt like. This is what my sister felt like. Powerless. Afraid. Humiliated. And I’m one of the lucky ones because someone stepped in! That doesn’t usually happen!”
“No one deserves this to happen to them,” James says. “I am so sorry that girls have to go through this. I mean, I know it’s not just girls, but they are usually the targets.”
“It’s the school, James,” I say, “they don’t teach us that it’s not okay to do this. They tell us not to do drugs and not to drink and drive, but they don’t talk about sex. They don’t talk about consent. James, if I’m getting sexually harassed and assaulted, if my sister has been raped, imagine what else has happened that we don’t know about. This whole idea of not talking about sex, of just talking about abstinence is bullshit and it’s hurting people.”
“I know,” he rubs my shoulder soothingly.
“And I’m a terrible person for thinking that it could never happen to me,” I say. “It can happen to anyone. And it’s not until it happens to you that you truly understand why people keep silent about this. It’s dehumanizing. It’s someone invading your soul. Taking a piece of it that you can never get back. And they expect you to talk about it, explain it in detail? All the while knowing that there is a boy that’s going to tell you he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. That you are ruining his life. That he doesn’t deserve this. A boy that will try and convince you that it’s you that has the problem.” I pause. “A boy that you have to see every day.”
“I will never truly understand what it’s like for you, Arya,” James says, “but I will do everything I can to make sure another girl doesn’t have to go through what you or your sister did.”
“Thanks, James. I think that’s enough for one day,” I say, leaning against him.
“Whatever you need, Arya. Whatever you want, I’ll give it to you,” he says.
“Just you, James,” I say. “Right now, I just want you.” He kisses me softly.
“Always, Arya,” and then James just looks out on the water.
“We’ve been here a while,” I say, “don’t you have work?”
James looks at his watch, “We’ve got a bit of time.”
“James,” I say, knowing he is lying.
“Okay, we have no time.” James says, “But I’m going to be late anyway so I might as well enjoy it.”
“Late again.” I hear my uncle’s voice as I walk into his home office. I was hoping that maybe he would be out on-site somewhere.
“Sorry, Uncle Terry,” I say, walking into the office.
“Let me guess.” Uncle Terry says, “Your soccer game ran late?”
“You could say that,” I say.
Uncle Terry stands up, coming up to me to stand in front of me. “You do remember when I said three strikes and you’re out? I don’t care if you’re my nephew, I can’t be seen making special privileges for you. That wouldn’t be fair to the other guys, right?”
“Right.” I agree. He looks into my eyes, searching for a truth he is not getting from me.
“You were with her, weren’t you?” Uncle Terry says.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” I say. I have never mentioned Arya to my uncle, knowing that he would just see her as a distraction, but I’d be stupid to think he didn’t figure out about her. Between my mom and my aunt, he must have found out.
“You know perfectly well what I’m talking about.” He says, “Don’t think I haven’t noticed you moping about here and on-site the past couple of weeks, making mistakes that I had to fix!”
“I’m sorry, Uncle Terry,” I say.
“So what is it?” he asks, “Did she bat her eyelashes at you and now you are back together?”
“No, it’s not like that…” I start, but he doesn’t let me explain.
“What happens when she hurts you again?” he says, “Are you going to be moping around again? Don’t you see she’s just a distraction?”
“She makes me happy,” I say.
“She’s not worth losing this job over.” Uncle Terry says.
“I was my best when we were together.” I say, “I’m a better person when I’m with her.”
“You are living in a fantasy, boy.” Uncle Terry says, “Hard work and dedication is how you are going to get out of this town. Not getting all cozy with some girl that’s just going to break your heart. It’s not worth it. She’s rich, James. She’s not from our world. She’ll turn her back on you as soon as something better comes along.” Uncle Terry speaks as if he’s experienced this in his life. Did he make sacrifices for a girl that ended up turning her back on him?
“I will do whatever work you ask of me.” I say, “I won’t be late again. I’ll do whatever you say.”
“But you won’t let her go?” Uncle Terry says and I just stare at him which only confirms his question. “Change into your construction gear. The boys are working late today on one of our sites, and you are going to help them.” I nod, already knowing that he has phoned ahead and told the boys to give me a hard time. I can do it. I can handle it. Uncle Terry can throw anything he wants at me. I’ll be his hardest worker. I’ll be a star student. But I will never let Arya get away from me ever again.
James came back that night after finishing work and rang the doorbell.
“I’ll get it,” I say, jumping off the couch, leaving Mia in front of the TV. When I open the door, he’s just standing there, hands in his pockets, looking at my mom’s flowers by the doorstep. “James?” I say and he looks up at me and smiles. “Shouldn’t you be at home?”
“I wanted to see you again,” James says. He looks tired like he’s had a rough night.
“Are you okay?” I ask him, reaching a hand to touch his cheek.
“I am now,” James says, holding onto my wrist. “Just a long night at work. I also wanted to see Mia.” I’m surprised, but I shouldn’t be. James of all people, with two younger sisters of his own, knows what it’s like to look after and protect them. And he must know the pain of watching them hurt. You do everything in your power to take the hurt from them, even if it means putting it on yourself. I let him in the house, and he walks into the living room where Mia is sitting on her own.
“I think this is the episode, Arya!” Mia says, looking at the TV and not realizing another person is in the room.
“Mia,” I say, and it grabs her attention and she sees that James is beside me.
“James!” Mia says happily, “What are you doing here?”
“I came to see you,” James says and he sits on the couch next to her and his eyes glance towards the TV. “Has he still not gotten rid of that Cassie girl?” James says and both Mia and I stare at him.
“You watch the Bachelor?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.
James coughs into this elbow and readjusts his seating. “My sister watches it.” James says, “Not me.”
“I’m sure,” I say, winking at him while he rolls his eyes.
“Anyway,” James says, turning to Mia, “I’m sure Arya already told you that she told me everything.” Mia nods, I told her as soon as I came home and while she felt terrible that I had to encounter Henri again, she was so happy that James and I were back together. “I’m sorry about what happened to you, Mia. It’s not your fault and no one deserves to go through that. It took a lot of courage to tell Arya what happened. There is no doubt that we both believe you and we will always be here to support you however you need.” He comes in closer to her and wraps an arm around her shoulders. She puts her head in the crook of his neck and I know she is holding back her tears. James wraps his other arm around her to hold her close. “You always have us, Mia.”
“Thanks, James,” I say out on the front porch, the porch light on in the darkness.
“Of course,” James says, “I feel responsible for her as well, she’s like one of my little sisters.”
“I don’t know how you do it,” I say, “I have both parents and just one sister and I couldn’t even protect her.”
“Hey,” James says, coming up close to me. “You are a great sister. Mia is lucky to have you. You can’t take responsibility for what happened with Henri. That’s all on him.”
“It hurts,” I say, “to see someone you love in pain and not know how you can fix it.”
“Believe me, Arya,” James says, “I know. Does she know about Eric?”
“Only from the gossip at school,” I say, “I downplayed it as much as I could. I didn’t want her to somehow feel responsible for what happened.”
I see the headlights of my dad’s vehicle turn into the driveway. “He’s probably not going to be very happy to see me here,” James says.
“He’s going to have to get over it,” I say.
“Does he still hold a grudge for me for staying over the one night?” James asks.
“I think he just sees you as the reason for me being miserable the past couple of weeks,” I say. “I let them believe that our break up was all that was wrong.”
“Geez, thanks, Arya,” James says sarcastically with a smile.
“He’ll come around,” I promise.
“Arya,” Dad says coming out of the garage door instead of going into the house. “I see you have some late-night company.”
“I was just leaving, Dr. Secord,” James says.
“Do you think you can just come here whenever you like?” Dad says.
“Dad, please,” I say.
“You try to sleep with my daughter, in my house I might add, then you break up with her, and now you think you can just come around here as if nothing has happened?” Dad says. Okay, so he still holds a grudge.
“Dad, it’s not like that,” I start.
“I gave you the benefit of the doubt, James,” Dad says, “I liked you, I trusted you, but you are no better than any other teenage boy at that school.”
“You are not good enough for my daughter, James,” Dad says seriously.
“No, Arya,” James says, looking at my dad, “he’s right. I’m not good enough for you. But Dr. Secord, I will spend the rest of my life trying to be. I care so much for your daughter, she means everything to me. I want to be the one to protect her. I have never felt this way about someone before.”
The two most important men in my life just stare at each other. James is trying to let my dad know that he is a good guy and that he would do anything to protect me. My dad is trying to figure out if it’s true. Then the front door opens.
“James, it’s good to see you again.” She says as if she didn’t already know he was out here. “A little chilly for a chat on the porch.”
“James was just leaving,” Dad says.
“He’s right,” James says, “I was just leaving. I’ll see you guys later.” He looks at me. This is where he would kiss me before he leaves but he’s not stupid enough to do that in front of my parents. “I’ll see you at school, Arya.”
And then he leaves, and we all go back inside.
“What was he doing here, Arya?” Dad says to me.
“He was checking in on me,” I say, “he was only here for like twenty minutes. Even ask Mom.”
Dad looks to Mom and she nods. “So after all these miserable weeks you just take him back? Arya, I can’t believe you are letting a boy have so much control over you.”
“He broke up with you and then you go into this depressive state,” Dad says, “and now you are going to turn all happy because you have him back? Arya, you are extremely smart and a great soccer player. I don’t want you to lose yourself to some boy. You are so much better than that.”
I can’t tell them the real reason I was upset these past couple of weeks. “I’m my best with James. I’m my happiest with James. He doesn’t pull me down, he brings me up. It’s okay if you don’t think he’s good enough for me because I know that he is more than good enough for me. And I’m going to continue dating him whether you like it or not.”
“Steve,” Mom puts a hand on Dad’s arm. “Your daughter really likes this boy and I can tell he likes her a lot too. Don’t ruin it.”
Dad looks at Mom. “I just want what’s best for her.”
“That’s James,” I say. “Dad please, James is one of the good guys. He cares for me and I care for him.”
Mom raises an eyebrow at Dad. While Dad is blinded to how much James cares for me because he sees him as just another teenage boy trying to get lucky with me, I know my mom sees it. She knows how much James cares for me and how he would do anything for me.
“If he ever causes you pain ever again,” Dad says, “that’ll be it.” I smile and then hug him. I know he just wants to protect me, I know he just wants the best for me. I just wish he would realize that it’s James. James is the one to protect me and he’s the best for me.
“Who would have thought that all you guys needed was to be sent to the principal’s office to finally get back together!” Diana says in our English study group during class, consisting of myself, Teddy, Diana, Lincoln, and George with all of our desks turned towards each other.
“Diana, can we please focus on the reading,” Lincoln says into his book.
“Lincoln, I know you didn’t do so well on the last test,” Diana says in mock humour, and I can sense Lincoln getting irritated beside me, “but it doesn’t mean you can spoil my time finding out about how the best catch in Grade 11 is now off the market again.”
“Hey!” both Teddy and George say at the same time.
“I love you guys,” Diana says, “but I know too much about you to even think of you in that category.”
“So what did he say, Arya?” Diana asks me across our desks, “What did he do? I heard he punched one of the guys on the West Side soccer team.”
“Diana, please,” Lincoln says, “we can have this conversation at lunch.”
Diana concedes and we go back to our readings. I talked with Mia the night before and we agreed on what to do for now. She and I both told our closest friends the entire story, which they all promised to keep to themselves while Mia and I figured out what we were going to do next. For now, James and I both have a soccer team that we need to get into the finals for the championships.