Short story taken from « Broken Happy »

“Why did she get kicked out? She gets A’s.” 

“No, she doesn’t. She’s not as good as you think, Michael. Clearly.”

“You are a liar. What are you talking about, chump? I took classes with that girl. She’ a real nerd. Always first in everything.”

“Oh, yeah? My bad, you’re right. She was the first to get caught, her panties down to her ankles, getting banged by a grown cat in the girls’ bathroom.”

“That can’t be!”

On the phone, the assistant principal had asked her mother to come pick her up from her office where she’d been all morning. When she showed up, Jessica refused to get into the car. “And I thought you’d understood,” yelled her mom. “Girl, don’t you walk away from me.” Jessica walked home every day. Nothing would be different this day, except this time she would walk the few miles alone.

Other pupils, girls from the same neighborhood, also walked in small groups the few miles that took them home, chatting and carrying on as usual about the rumors at school. That day, Jessica was all everyone wanted to talk about. 

“Yo, dis girl’s a skank. Do anyone know the name of the man caught with her?” 

“No one saw his face. He was wearing some type of face mask and took off too quickly. People say he’ a mechanic. He had on a uniform. I guess the police be looking for his sorry ass.”

“That girl be in a lot of trouble, for sure.”

Jessica walked home alone. 

She rehashed the many warnings she’d received about staying away from boys. Yet she had fallen prey to sweet words of flattery and the insistent lust of a charming adult suitor. At home that evening, bracing for the worst, Jessica resigned herself to face the music, and the entire family assembled for the inauspicious occasion, to discuss her fate. She knew she was a disappointment, and kept her gaze down. She could smell the disappointment on them, and she wondered if they could smell the shame on her. No doubt, she reeked of it. 

Auntie Brenda, a secretary at one of the local churches, her least favorite relative, spoke first suggesting she be sent out of state to a boarding school. Jessica’s aunt had lost her only child, a toddler, in a moment of thoughtless inattention; and now Jessica suspected she resented her sister for holding on to her own. It would have been easier to feel sorry for another’s loss than for her own. 

The June heat had been suffocating that day, while her Auntie reeling from the warmth, felt a sudden compulsion to take a cold shower. So she had undressed and stepped into the half-empty tub, picked up her child and turned the faucet on. Minutes later, panicked, unable to hold on because of the effect of water on the soap, Auntie Brenda watched powerlessly, in slow motion agony, her slippery baby wriggle loose out of her grip and tumble to the bottom as his little head hit the tub with a thud. Jessica knew the incident had changed her aunt’s personality, making her disagreeable in the extreme.

Pete, Jessica’s uncle, the family disciplinarian, said reform school would be more appropriate. Her mother who’d been sobbing the whole time indicated she wanted to stop sending her to school altogether. Obviously, she wasn’t thinking straight, but no one said anything. Her heart could not bear further humiliation. The family resumed discussing Jessica as if she were not there; as if she were a thing to be tossed about and dismissed. No one agreed on anything. Jessica was only sixteen. With precociously heavy breasts, she could pass for a grown woman.

 “She is much too young and immature to stop school. How can she be expected to fend for herself without an education? No, no, there has to be another way!” Her youngest and favorite aunt, Mina, finally said. 

Jessica was thankful someone was finally on her side. She continued to stare at her feet and the ugly green carpet in her parent’s living room. She hated the world at that instant. Unfocused, yearning to be in her lover’s arms, she would’ve given anything to fly away and escape this torture. 

Jessica’s father who had not said a word, sullen, sitting alone away from the rest of the group, no longer a real part of the family, having moved out moons ago, had been invited more as a courtesy. No one was truly interested in anything he had to say. He was late with child support and kept staring at the girl who he was now of a mind to disown, looking for an excuse not to have to pay altogether; wondering what he had done to God to heap and deserve such dishonor. Pete, the maternal uncle, opened his mouth again and proclaimed that his niece’s behavior called for the severest of reprimands. 

“Now this, and then what?” 

Spare the rod, spoil the child type thing. As could be expected, he volunteered to chastise the wayward child. Corporal punishment used effectively does not have to amount to child abuse, he insisted. His own children had turned out alright. After all, neither Jessica’s mother nor her father had managed to put the fear of God in their child’s rebellious heart. He would be the one to do it. She surely had to be made to feel in the flesh, the deep concern, and care of those who loved her. It would only be for her own good.

Jessica winced hearing this. She could already feel her uncle’s belt on her back. Shivering, she started to hug herself and rock back and forth. Grandmother Anne who had remained quiet the whole time indicated her desire to talk by a slight inflection of the hand. “Let us not forget in all this excitement that the child was not alone in that bathroom. She did not fornicate by herself. There was a man involved. Someone much older, whom I strongly believe, should bear the brunt of our wrath and the responsibility for this unfortunate incident and our child’s expulsion from school. He preyed on the innocent and has wronged this family. What are you going to do about that man? And let us not forget, the child also has to be tested for pregnancy and diseases.” 

A few seconds felt like an eternity. No one talked for a while. Not of a mind to give Jessica a pass, or an easy way out. 

“We certainly will be filing a complaint for child sexual abuse. After all, he raped her,” Jessica’s father said. His voice was thick with emotion. “The bastard went to her school, walked into the girls’ bathroom with intent to harm, and assaulted Jessica, knowing full well she’s a minor!”

All agreed. Jessica opened her mouth. “That’s not true!”

“What’s wrong, dear?” said the grandmother. 

“He did not rape me.” 

“Hush child. You don’t know what you’re saying,” her mother said. “Do you have the hots for that disgrace of a man?” 

Jessica was adamant. “He’s my boyfriend.” 

“You don’t know the law, child. You don’t know anything. Hush.” Her mother rebuked. 

“I don’t care!” 

“Do you have no sense at all? His name, give us his name, right this instant!”

At the High School and the Middle School next door, Jessica is all anyone talked about all week: how a girl had been found engaged in intercourse with a mechanic twice her age in the old gym’s toilets. At the Middle School, the staff was in disbelief. Teachers there knew Jessica well. It could not be; it had to be a mistake!

She’d been an outstanding student, a caring, and considerate soul, not one of those good-for-nothings, you could already tell were going to throw their lives away. A star student, she had been their pride and joy, and teachers wanted to be of some support to the family in this time of difficulty.

Kirby, Jessica’s former math teacher, took the initiative to write and send a most gracious note joined to a card signed by all of her former Middle School teachers with statements of support. They would do anything to help the family. Anything!

Kirby made sure to mention an alternative public school located outside of town in a repurposed church compound where Jessica may be able to complete High School among girls who had strayed, and became mothers prematurely.

Usually cold and distant, that act of kindness was uncharacteristic of Kirby. He had a reputation for being stingy, with money, good grades, his time, compliments and praises. He never seemed to care all that much for people. On occasions, when out with co-workers, to be a good sport, when others ordered a beer, Kirby would order water with lemon to join them in the merrymaking and clinking of glasses. He nibbled on lettuce and free bread and then told anyone that wanted to hear it, he was on a diet. 

No one remembered ever seeing Kirby pay for anything other than an occasional cup of coffee. He’d refuse to pick up the tab for anything pricier, anyway. He looked dapper and was conscious of his flawless appearance—and most people dismissed him as ‘in the closet.’  Kirby was a likable bore. 

A polished and memorable fellow, he wore to great effect the fashionable multicolored clothes he bought in thrift stores in upscale neighborhoods. Paying more than ten dollars for a pair of slacks and last season’s fashion felt like an aberration. He’d remove the yellow from not-so-white-shirts with slight doses of bleach in the hot cycle of a machine wash. He’d never spend more than ten dollars for high-quality cotton shirts either. 

Numbers were his thing ever since Grandpa had sat him on his lap, dangerously close to his crotch, and let TV educate them both on the value of money and compound interest. Fascinated with money, everything in Kirby’s world revolved around it; the power it held over people’s lives, and what it made possible. 

An educator, Kirby saw numbers everywhere and knew the exact cost of the littlest indulgence. As a kid, insisting on candy meant there could not be extra coins for the collection plate on Sunday at church. Money held tremendous power on the mood of everyone in his household. 

When the government check arrived, arguments were put on hold, and Joy made a temporary comeback. Mom and dad sat down after payday, spent more happy time together and shared meals as normal people do. Payday held a magical spell. 

“Should I call and risk angering him?” 

Jessica wanted to talk to the ‘mechanic.’ She could no longer keep her pain to herself. A phone call might be too risky. Everyone was looking for him and probably spying on her every move. She had to be careful. If at home his wife overheard the conversation, it would be game over. Phone calls were easy to trace too. Records could be summoned in court. At the very least, there would be a bill with the details of whom called whom. 

No, she shouldn’t call. 

Instead, she would go to him and talk face to face. But how? He had been clear, and they were never to meet away from school. He also had to be the one who initiated contact. There was too much at stake. He’d refused to rely on the savvy of a sixteen-year-old. How could she possibly meet him now that she’d been expelled? However, he had to know!

She would not face this alone. Maybe he’d be able to tell her what to do! That’s it! She’d go to his car. She knew where to find it most times. She’d throw onlookers off by leaving a note under ten other car windshield wipers, including his, and then wait nearby. The note would have the secret code that identified her, xoxoxo, and a message: “I want to make a home with you. I’m pregnant.” 

No one could find out his secret. The old woman would be the only exception. He trusted her to keep quiet. He’d used her services before. He’d done nothing wrong.

Love is not a crime. 

He’d destroy anything and anyone that got in the way of his happiness. He removed the money from the pocket of his dirty uniform, and the old disheveled wiry hag, an Obeah woman, took it surreptitiously, without counting. 

She placed it in her apron, yawned, and then let out almost in a whisper, ‘morrow.’

The anguished wait would soon be over. She would hand over a miraculous bottle. The bush doctor looked like she consorted with the spirits of slaves. Her sullen demeanor gave off an otherworldly feel. She came from a different time; when being seen or heard spelled your doom, and invisibility was the best guarantor of survival in relative dignity.

Feared for what she knew and for whom she’d become, no one felt foolish enough to dare look her in the eyes. It was said, those eyes could stunt your brain and kill your spirit. Their intense focus pierced through insecurities. With a face sunken in gravity, burrowed by deep resilience, she had nursed many other people’s fears. The sullen woman wielded a power rooted in studied assurance; she slowly turned away as if to bid her farewell. 

Jessica wondered what secrets had the plants revealed to the old woman? Why did people believe that she held the key to their better tomorrow, that dry little mother of an unknowable and unassailable faith? 

Jessica pinched her nose and drank the potion as instructed, a mixture of wild pineapple and a weed called pompon boiled in pungent crimson wine. A glass a day, preferably on an empty stomach. How had the Obeah woman known the right dosage? 

After securely tucking away his borrowed mechanics’ uniform under the front passenger seat of the car, Kirby, Jessica’s boyfriend made his way home. He soon passed the threshold of the rental apartment where he lived with his younger brother’s wife, his younger brother freshly returned from Afghanistan, and their dog.

He’d allowed them to stay until he found a job and got back on his feet. They had fallen on hard times. He’d told them they could stay however long it took. The stench of fried food, the racket of loud conversations competing with an unwatched TV on at full blast and the unrelenting dog barks of a pit bull terrier assaulted his senses and disquieted his mind. He wanted to scream.

He wanted to process everything that had happened recently and decide on the way forward with Jessica. He needed to think; and felt an urge to bring order to the dysfunctional scene. His brother’s wife feared the worse. She quickly left the room, upon seeing his frown and disgruntled mug.

She remembered too well how volatile the two brothers could be. They insulted each other. The three-story complex was an outrage to urban architecture, but the rent remained affordable, so no one complained too vigorously. Tempers flared out of control, and the two men escalated the altercation by pushing and shoving, trying to provoke a full on fight. They almost came to blows. A neighbor’s warning of his call to the police quieted down the situation and caused the younger brother and his wife to take a long walk outside to cool it for the evening. It was either that or spending the night in jail. 

“I know you think you can handle your brother, but I can’t. I’ve had enough of him. I’ve had enough of this whole situation. Let’s go to my parents.’ We’ll make the best of it as long as we have each other.” 

After getting into it with his brother, he was now facing his wife’s anger. 

“Honey, I’m not gonna find a job in that small town. There’s nothing going on there. We need to be here, in the big city where everything happens. My big break’s gonna come from here. I’ve got a lead for a job in security. They’ll call soon.” 

“If this job doesn’t pan out, promise me, we’ll go.” 

“I can’t do that, hon’. We’ll just have to wait and see.” 

“I don’t like this!”

Feeling ignored by a man she thought was hers, that she suspected was putting more distance between them; cut off from her peers; stuck at home most of the time under her family’s watchful eyes; driven to madness by the scrutiny; tired of being given the run-around and of the nagging thought of having been a pawn in a grown man’s sick fantasy, a game she didn’t remember signing up for, Jessica decided to call. She had made up her mind and wanted his wife to find out about the affair, hoping she’d finally leave him, making room for her. 

“Why am I the only one to suffer? What did I ever do to you that was so wrong? Why are you joining forces with everyone in wanting to punish me? I read the card.”

Kirby’s brother was not supposed to hear the recorded messages. Too late! Sucked in, he allowed his curiosity to get the better of him, and listened in. The last message left on the answering machine shook him. 

“My periods have come back. They look strange, though. Lumpy and pungent. Something, I’m sure, must have flushed.” Jessica knew she wasn’t supposed to reach out to him at home; that doing so could compromise his home life, but she did it anyway. She was desperately expecting a response about them moving in together. “Apparently, the weird-looking medicine we bought worked, I think. When will I see you again, Kirby?”

Could it be? The unsteady voice was that of a child. The soldier felt his blood boil. Distraught and incredulous, he resolved to confront his brother that very evening.

Kirby told the police his brother had been swinging a knife in his face, and described an unprovoked attack followed by an accidental defensive stabbing. All he had wanted to do was to protect himself. He claimed to love his brother and have no malice toward him. He was willing to do anything to make things right.

 “I didn’t want to hurt him. He’s short-tempered and takes everything to the extreme.” 

“He’s been like that, intense and scary, since he returned from Afghanistan.” 

The brother’s wife said that she was climbing the stairs when she heard a commotion and rushed upstairs to see what the yelling was all about. It happened all the time. 

When she came into the room, she found her husband moaning convulsively in a thick pool of blood, drifting in and out of consciousness.

“Kirby was by his side crying inconsolably, like a child, next to a blood-soaked kitchen knife on the floor.”

She immediately left him to call 911. That night, from the living room, the police recovered two weapons, a Swiss army knife and a kitchen knife. An answering machine whose cord had been savagely pulled from its socket on the wall lied smashed on the floor. Kirby’s sister in law cursed the day she’d agreed to move into the apartment; she had sensed there would be trouble. There’d always been trouble between those two. Her husband didn’t make it. He died in the ambulance. Shortly afterward, the police booked Kirby for manslaughter. 

His secret was safe for now. He would be anything, except a pedophile. 

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I write in the margin. J'écris dans la marge.

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