Until It Fades(5)

By: K.A. Tucker

I swallow against the rising shame. “I do, but . . . I decided to take a year off.” I’d thought of lying about it on my résumé, but Misty warned me that Lou’d fire me for lying if she ever found out.

Plus, there’s no way Lou hasn’t heard about “the Philips mess,” as my mother likes to call it. Everyone around here knows about it. It’s been the talk of the local news since Scott was arrested nine months ago.

“People makin’ it hard on you, are they?” She poses it as a question, but I get the feeling she already knows the answer.

I nod.

“That whole business with that teacher is . . .” Lou purses her lips, and I grit my teeth, waiting for her to say something like “What kind of girl are you?” or give me a stern “You should be ashamed of yourself” frown. She would be far from the first. I’ve heard it plenty and from every direction, it seems, especially after I recanted my statement ten days later—after I learned that no DA would force a seventeen-year-old “victim” to testify—and the charges against him were dropped. At the store, where Scott’s family and friends have more than once passed by me, making comments about how I deserve to be punished for trying to ruin his reputation, how I should stick to boys my own age, how someone needs to teach me to close my legs. At school, where the many students who adore Scott trail after me in the halls, hissing “slut” and “skank” and “attention whore.” Walking down Main Street, where strangers point me out to their friends.

I’ve become a local celebrity, as ridiculous as that sounds.

“You and him . . . it’s over and done with, right?” Lou says instead.

I open my mouth to deny that it ever started, but her eyes narrow, as if calling me on the lie. And so I answer with a small nod instead, even as my throat tightens and the first prickles of tears touch my eyes. Great, I’m going to cry in my interview. I’m sure Lou will be chomping at the bit to hire me now.

But the whole ordeal still stings today, even more than it did the day Scott was let go on bail and wouldn’t answer my phone calls and texts. I convinced myself that he had no choice but to avoid me, that it must be a condition of his release.

And it was . . . partly.

The rumors began quickly and spread like a stomach virus at a day care, just as nasty. Whispers in art class—but not so quiet I couldn’t hear them—about how I had thrown myself at him and then accused him of rape; how he turned me down and I was so mad I decided to destroy his life; how I was a stalker who’d lingered around his house late at night, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. If anyone considered the alternative—that Scott and I had been together, that I’d been forced to give a statement—they kept it to themselves.

The charges were dropped and Scott’s job was reinstated, only he was no longer teaching my art class. He was no longer glancing my way as we passed in the halls.

It was as if what we’d had, had never happened.

As if I didn’t exist.

Lou clears her throat. “Well, that’s for the best. Nothing was ever going to come of that, anyway.”

“No, I guess not,” I agree softly. Too bad it took me so long to see.

A waitress strolls past with a plate of fried onions and my stomach does a full flip with the smell.

“You okay? You’re awful pale all of a sudden.”

“I’m fine.” I glance over at Misty, punching an order into the computer. She grins and gives me the thumbs-up. I wish I could be as confident as her.

A woman at the table two over from us is staring at me. That’s Dr. Ramona Perkins, my dentist. Or ex-dentist. In April, we got a phone call to tell us that her office was reducing its patient load and that she would no longer be able to accept my family for appointments. In a town of three thousand, Perkins Dentistry is the only office. Now my family has to drive almost thirty minutes away, to the far side of Belmont, to get their teeth looked after.

My mother was in shock at first, given she started with Ramona’s father, John Perkins, when she moved to Balsam twenty years ago. But after a few questions, she found out that Dr. Perkins is best friends with Scott’s mother, Melissa Philips.

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