Reprinted with permission from the author.
“My senior year in high school, the girls in my class gave me some spring-fever hazing in the parking lot behind the locker room. Kicked me, mostly. I’m pretty sure they cracked a rib. It hurt to breathe for a while.”
There he went with that beard again, rubbing and pulling at it as if it were a genie-filled lamp. “I can’t believe I don’t remember that.”
“I didn’t broadcast my condition.”
“What’d you tell Mom and Dad?”
“Nothing. They never asked.”
His leg went still, and he planted his hands on the faded denim on his thighs. Even his breathing went low, inaudible. “You mean nothing happened to them?”
She should’ve kept this to herself. “It was a long time ago.”
“There’s no statute of limitations on ‘what the f—s.’ ” His voice rose in both pitch and volume.
“Let’s just drop it.”
“You brought it up.”
She turned to him, her whole upper body wincing at the movement. “Drop. It.”
He screwed up his face like the seven-year-old he used to be, the one who ate those grilled cheese sandwiches and kept her perfect company during interminable high school afternoons. The way he’d eased the pain of being a social pariah made her soften to him now -- at least a little.
She said, “I didn’t mean that -- or at least the tone. I’m not mad at you, but I’ve got enough on my mind without that memory.” As if she hadn’t been thinking about it for days. He sat forward in the chair, but before he could say anything, she added, “Even though I brought it up.”
But Ethan wasn’t having any of it. “It’s not right, Maddy.”
“A lot of things aren’t right.” She’d had every intention of telling him about what her attacker had said -- a secret that ate away at her but also felt too privately horrible to share. But after this reaction, she buried it back down; she didn’t want to talk about it, and he had enough to handle already.
He slammed himself back in his seat, sending it squealing a couple inches across the linoleum. His sigh was rough, theatrical, and he forced a hand through his already disheveled hair. “Where’s your boyfriend, anyway? I expected him to be stapled to your side.”
Madeline rolled her eyes, a move that flirted with the boundary of her pain. “I don’t know what your beef is with Joe, but knock it off.”
“He’s like you but without the good parts. A little insipid. Offensively well-meaning.”
Why, today of all days, was Ethan not content to sit and be quiet with her? Still, in a small, hard scoop of her mind, she knew what he meant.
He went on. “At the hospital, on Saturday, he told me he loved you.”
“Well, I love him, too.”
“I think he meant, you know, looove.”
“You’re on crack. We’re business partners, and he’s the most professional person I know. And I’m gay. And I’m not even his type. He played it off well, but he was googly-eyed over Jane.”
Ethan laughed. “Who wasn’t?”
She glared at him.
His eyebrows went up, and his eyes got all innocent-wide. “I’m just saying. You’re the one who wanted the subject changed.”
“Not to one guaranteed to piss me off.”
“It’s better than the alternative.”
“And what’s that?”
“I don’t know. Talking about what really happened? Or about your complete disregard for the truth when it might actually matter?”
Though she’d been yearning for the comfortable appeasement she’d always gotten from Ethan, this needling animation and the antagonistic feeling it stirred in her weren’t entirely unpleasant. Even so, she dodged the sliver of truth in his words.
“Ethan, there’s a bigger picture here.”
“Is there? Is there, really? Because your withholding valuable information from the police is a pretty damn big picture to me.”
“You think you know something, but you don’t.”
“Have you thought about trying to explain instead of writing me off as a total idiot?”
“There’s nothing to explain!” She wrapped an arm around her chest to contain the pain her outburst caused and continued in a hoarse whisper. “When the police were questioning me, they kept pushing like they were looking to trip me up or something, like there were right and wrong things to say. And there were, clearly, but I was . . . I’d just been attacked. If they were like that about my saying the wrong thing because I was flustered, how do you think they’d take what I had to say once they knew how much I’d had to drink that night? Huh? You don’t know, Ethan. You just don’t. You live in this fantasy world where cops actually do something about attacks like this, where they find the guy, but I could lay the God’s honest truth at their feet, and nothing would be any different.”
Amanda Kabak is the author of Upended and The Mathematics of Change. She has been a recipient of the Al Simak Award for Fiction from Arcturus Review, the Betty Gabehart Prize from the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference, and the Lascaux Review Award for Fiction. A native of Chicago and former resident of Boston and St. Petersburg, FL, she now lives in Lakeland, Florida. For more information, visit www.AmandaKabak.com.