Third Place Winner of Voyage’s First Chapters Contest for Women Writers judged by NYT Bestselling Author J. Elle
Content warning: discussions and descriptions of sexual assault, victim shaming and blaming.
Once upon a time, there was a town.
It couldn’t be seen by everyone. It appeared in glimpses in the shadows, in flashes of lightning. When the sun shone, you could see green all around even on the harshest winter days.
But not everyone trusted the town. So one day, some boys got together and set it on fire. They said it wasn’t on purpose; a bunch of kids in the woods, a lit cigarette, a pile of tinder dried out from a summer without rain. Soon everything was ablaze—the trees, the small shacks housing the town’s most prominent residents, the schoolhouse, the hall where meetings were held. No bodies were found in the wreckage, and it was thought the residents had fled even though the fire appeared suddenly and swept through with brutal suddenness.
But there were whispers that the town was a phoenix. It would rise from the ashes if the time was right. And if the ones who needed it to rise sought it out.
# # #
I first started shaving my head three years ago in solidarity with my mother. She’d died of cancer last year, but I still ran an electric razor over my skull every morning. I liked being without hair, I’d realized. It was a kind of entanglement I didn’t want or need. There was something to be said, too, for the way people either whispered about you behind their hands or straight out ignored you, which pretty much was where I wanted to be that junior year.
I pull my boots over my leggings and yank a Lumpy Space Princess sweatshirt over my head. She might not turn to look at me in the courtroom, but if she did, I wanted her to see me wearing it. Lumpy Space Princess was a favorite, along with our half a dozen copies of lesbo-lit: The Girls In Apartment 3B, The Children’s Hour, The Haunting of Hill House. The last one wasn’t really classified as gay, but Eleanor and Theo? Come on. Theo was hot, and Eleanor was…kind of like Avery, only with more ‘tude. Thinking of Avery makes my hands go still, my body freezing as if the room’s gone suddenly cold. I shake it off and head downstairs.
# # #
Aunt Dana’s sitting at the breakfast table eating a piece of toast. She raises her brows as I slide in across from her and pour myself coffee. “You gonna paint your face blue in solidarity? Like in Braveheart?”
“That movie is totally inaccurate.” I help myself to a couple of thawed pancakes. “Forget the history part, which is nine-tenths bullshit—in science they told us he never could have yelled freedom right before they chopped his head off. When you eviscerate someone, you cut the diaphragm connection. He couldn’t have whispered it, for fuck’s sake.”
“Thank you for using the word eviscerate during breakfast. That’s just so great.” She grins at me. Then her smile fades. “You okay? You want me to come?”
“Nah. It’ll be fine.” It won’t be, but Aunt Dana’s presence won’t make it better. Not that she isn’t awesome, but I don’t want her sitting there and trying to comfort me when the only person who needs comfort is Avery. The thought of it makes my appetite go sour, and I push the pancakes away. “I’m going.”
She knows I’m skipping out of school, but she’s already arranged for a couple of doctors to write notes to clear me. Knows this is more important than sitting in history or chemistry or math and staring at Oliver Fordyce’s best friends as they laugh and joke and punch each other while I want nothing more than to see them writhing on the floor in their death throes.
“Okay. Why don’t you bring the coffee at least?”
“I’ll pick up some downtown.”
I go to toss out my plate, and she says, “Leave it.”
I kiss her cheek. She hugs me briefly, a strong hug that reminds me so much of my mother I feel my eyes start to fill. She smiles at me when she lets me go, a tremulous smile. “Text me if you need me.”
“I will.” Knowing I won’t, that any need I have won’t be satisfied even by Aunt Dana. It occurs to me as I leave that I don’t know what it will take, only that the anger feels sometimes like it won’t be satisfied except by something large. Explosion. Fire.
# # #
On the subway downtown a couple of women shoot me looks when they think I can’t see them. I stand leaning against the pole, focusing on the billboards overhead. Ads for plastic surgery and storage. Poetry in Motion, the poem by someone named Marie Howe.
Oh, the coming-out-of-nowhere moment
I recite the words to myself. The car goes silent, and I look around and see that a guy’s stepped on, his shriveled face and hands smeared with dirt. He limps down the length of the car, hand outstretched. “I’m hungry, I’ll take anything,” he says, his voice thick as if those are the only words he’s spoken aloud in days. I think of how that must be—to be so alone that when you speak it’s only to strangers and the only common thing you can come up with is need.
When he reaches me, I pass him a dollar. He mumbles god bless and he doesn’t pause to look at my shaved head and bright pink sweatshirt. He goes past me, leaving behind smells of sweat and urine, and then the train pulls into the Chambers Street station and I’m caught up with a surge of others, men, women, most of them in business suits and carrying briefcases or laptops, heading for the street.
# # #
When the trial started two weeks ago, they’d warned Avery it wouldn’t be easy. Your character will be on trial, they’d said. What you do on the weekends and at night, if you smoke or drink, if you have sexual relationships. If you dress a certain way.
“What is this? Nineteen fifty?” I’d asked her.
“It’s always nineteen fifty for some people,” she said. Her face drawn, eyes red-rimmed. How many times had she cried since the night of the party? How many times had I wanted to hold her and she’d pushed me away not because it’s you, she said, but because of them? I can’t touch anyone because it makes me think of them.
Nineteen fifty, nineteen sixty, nineteen seventy. Two thousand ten, two thousand nineteen. Why would anything change when the people in charge won’t let it? When it helps them to keep everything the same?
I can’t talk political shit right now, she said. I’m sorry.
I’d been the one who was sorry. For not knowing what to say. When to touch. How to heal.
And for being in the wrong place at the wrong time that night.
You were with the goddesses. I get it.
But she didn’t, because the goddesses (that’s what we called them—the Grant twins, aka the goddesses, mermaids, sirens, any mythical being that’s otherworldly perfect) could never be as important to me as Avery.
The question I’d asked myself over and over since that night. In Mali Connor’s Upper West Side brownstone that had more rooms than the two story house I shared with Aunt Dana and a couple of other tenants. Asked myself why, instead of hanging with Avery the way we always did at open parties, closed parties, wherever, I’d gone into a little room off the kitchen with the goddesses and listened to them talk about kid books while polishing off jello shots. Even now, heading up the stone steps to the courthouse, I can taste that fucking jello, its sickly fake raspberry sweetness that all the vodka in the world couldn’t mask.
I don’t blame you, you know.
Avery’s voice. My Aunt Dana’s voice. Never mine.
# # #
I push open the heavy wooden door and find a seat near the back. I wanted to be close to the front, but the prosecutor took one look at my shaved head and bizarre clothing choices (her words, not mine) and told me to stay in the back for Avery’s sake. Considering how I’d fucked up once before, I’d have done anything for Avery’s sake including to make myself as small as possible so no one could draw the wrong conclusions. Not that there were right conclusions where we were concerned. It was just Avery and me, and—before this all happened—her taste in my mouth, her skin warming mine, her laughter a sudden unexpected gift when we browsed for clothes at thriftshops and tried half a dozen outfits to look like different versions of ourselves.
In a way, it’s not bad to be in the back. It’s better to look at the backs of heads than to see him—Oliver Fordyce—at the front, dressed in a blue, or black, or gray suit, with his hair neatly slicked back and his lawyers flanking him on either side. His mother and father sat right behind him, never making eye contact with Avery or the prosecutor. They’d smile at the judge. They’d smile at the jury, even though they weren’t supposed to. But how could you stop them, the prosecutor said to me once when I’d asked. People do what they do. I’d asked her what would happen if I smiled at them. Don’t, she said.
Avery’s up at the front. If I crane my neck, I can just see her, her dark blonde hair pulled into a ballerina’s knot, the delicate line of her neck above the plain white collared shirt she wore. The prosecutor seemed to think that everyone going to private school should dress a certain way: blouse, skirt, tights, ballet flats. We’re not a parochial school, I’d said in those moments when Avery kept her head down and eyes closed, breathing in and out the way she did when a panic attack was right around the corner. I’d gotten good at talking her down, making her focus, but with the prosecutor staring at me, I was off my game. It was only when Avery staggered to her feet and went for the window in the prosecutor’s office and struggled to push it up, banging her head against the glass when it wouldn’t yield, that she realized something was wrong. And even I hadn’t been able to bring her down.
“Pretend they’re all Catholic here. Or religious. Some kind of religion.”
“Because that’s how they’ll act. They won’t remember being a teenager. They won’t remember things like impulse control and rebellion. Or they won’t want to.”
It was like that old movie my mother and I had watched together once. Twelve Angry Men, made back in the day before women could be on juries. There’d been the one guy who had it out for the defendant because his own son had disappointed him, or hurt him. That’s what she’s saying. And when I look over at the box—six men, six women, as if the lawyers had decided between themselves to pick equal sides—I think she must be right. They look angry, bored. Defeated. Except for the young girl at the far end, who keeps looking over at Oliver as if she’s trying to figure him out.
I could tell her there’s nothing to figure.
The judge comes in. A man, gray hair stiffly combed, glasses, black robe. All rise, the clerk says, and we do before sitting down and the lawyers begin.
# # #
When I’d first started coming to the trial I thought it would be like Law and Order: SVU. Sympathetic, passionate district attorneys, kindly cops, people who believed the victim no matter what. What I hadn’t expected? The prosecutor assigned to the case who acted as if this was just another case to get through, a defense attorney who managed to turn everything to Oliver’s advantage. I mean, Law and Order got that part right, it was just the rest I wasn’t expecting. The fact that the DA wanted Avery to dress a certain way, the way she shook her head when Avery told her about some of the things we’d done together, the way she’d looked at me. Like I was a liability.
They’ve called the policewoman to the stand to testify about what she saw that night. Her voice is steady, no emphasis on any one particular word. It’s not what I remember. I know fucking well it’s not what Avery remembers. I look down, wrap my hands hard around the wooden bench, feeling a dull pain work its way into my wrists.
# # #
Mali Connor’s open party.
“I don’t want to go,” Avery said to me while we were getting ready.
My room was a disaster, the way it always was when I had to pick out stuff to wear for a party—black and silver stuff everywhere, my colors of choice. I’d paused half in and out of my closet wearing only a pair of white cotton underpants and matching bra, hoping the bra’s lacy inserts made me look sexy. “Why not?”
“Because these things always suck. I drink too much, I feel sick, and the next thing I know I’m passed out somewhere with puke down my front that may or may not be mine.”
“What if it’s mine?”
“Hah. Your puke I can take. But what if…”
Yes. I knew. All about how Oliver Fordyce and his crew of cretins were making Avery’s life miserable. The thing was, it wasn’t just her—it was pretty much all the girls at Poole. Oliver ran a blog with ratings of the girls he considered fuckable, complete with top ten lists and pics. I’d been on it with the caption FUCKABLE GOTH. Which was a laugh, because I wasn’t goth or anything I wanted to put a label to—I was just the girl with the shaved head and fugly clothes.
But Avery was on there too, and even though I blew it off—Oliver and his crew were fucking assholes—I knew it wasn’t as easy for her. She liked to keep herself close, and knowing someone was out there thinking about her that way—as fuckable, with captions and a pic of her at some party, her arm draped around my shoulders, shot glass in hand—made her want to tear off her skin. That’s what she’d told me.
I sit down on the bed and put my arm around her. You want to stay here?
You’d be disappointed.
No. I wouldn’t be.
Except part of me would. Because—and this was something I hated admitting to myself, to her—of the goddesses. The Grant twins, the girls who moved through the halls with this air of invincibility, as if no one could or would touch them. They topped Oliver’s fuckable list, and probably the list of every other guy at the school, teachers included.
They would be there. And god, I hated admitting to myself that I had a crush on one of them. Unrequited, but who gave a shit? Just being able to be near them felt like enough, and I knew that a lot of other people heading to Mali’s for the party felt the same way. Trinity and Keely didn’t usually go to parties—their parents had this big place upstate, and they usually flew up there on weekends—but our other friend Sidney had been part of a Groupchat with the girls and confirmed they were coming. So, shit. I felt like I had to go…
But I didn’t want to hurt Avery, either by admitting my crush or by making her go to the party. So I said, “Fuck it. We’ll hang. We can watch Real Housewives of Wherever.”
“We’ve seen all of Atlanta.”
“Fine. Game of Thrones. You pick.”
She looked at me. Avery had awesome eyes, the irises shot through with all these different colors—brown, green, gold, blue. It said hazel on her non-driver’s ID, but fuck that. They were rainbow, water over stones, stained glass. “Screw that. Staying home to watch TV on a Friday?”
“So…we’ll go to the park.”
“No,” she said, looking away from me, taking a deep breath. “We’ll go to Mali’s.”
# # #
She hadn’t wanted to go. I made her go. I remember every fucking word from that night—the way I joked around with her on the subway ride into Manhattan, telling her she was too hot for any of those assholes. We read bits and pieces of Fifty Shades of Grey out loud to each other, laughing and falling into each other’s laps, making faces at the assholes on the subway who had nothing better to do than glare. We drunk from the bottle of vodka she snuck from her parents’ liquor cabinet until the world inside the subway car blurred like something out of a Gerhard Richter painting.
The last time I heard her laugh. I can divide our lives into before and after, with after easing its way around us at Mali’s brownstone and hitting us with the light of a new day the next morning, when I’d found her in the corner of one of the huge bathrooms with her underwear torn around her ankles and blood on her thighs, whimpering.
# # #
“There was blood on her legs,” the cop says now.
I focus on the words, on the flat way she says them. Why is it that to them Avery is only a body, someone who had things done to? Someone with bloody stains and torn clothes and consciousness barely breaking through what she’d drunk and swallowed and inhaled that night? Bits and pieces, parts. I lower my head into my hands, dig my fingers into my skull. Another advantage of no hair—I can feel myself much more easily.
The doors to the courtroom suddenly swing open. I hear a murmured convo, then someone slips onto the bench beside me, squeezing in close. I look up and see the silken silvery-blonde hair, the crystalline green eyes, the face that’s got everyone in the courtroom turning to look. My chest squeezes, my stomach feeling suddenly fluttery.
“Hey,” she whispers. Trinity Grant, secret crush and goddess, now sitting beside me and smelling of some kind of flowers. I nod as the court officer shoots a warning look our way and the cop steps off the stand, not looking at Avery or her parents, not looking at the jury or over at Oliver. Even though I can’t see Oliver’s parents I know they’re there, probably smiling determinedly at the cop even though she’s not looking their way. But then my attention shifts from Trinity, from the cop, to the front where the prosecutor’s resting her case. Because Oliver Fordyce’s defense attorney—a big blond guy in a charcoal gray suit wearing a class ring probably from some Ivy League university—is saying that his client wants to take the stand in his defense. The whole courtroom suddenly comes alive, whispers like leaves moving through the crowd, a couple of reporters making for the doors, and the judge bangs his gavel and demands quiet while Oliver adjusts his suit jacket and fixes his expression (I can’t see this where I am, but I know that’s what’s happening because I’ve known Oliver since we were in first grade and he’s always superconscious of appearances), and the judge states we’re all going to take a break, come back in fifteen minutes.
# # #
Trinity walks beside me as we leave the courtroom. I could have stayed—maybe I could have fought my way through the crowd up to Avery, touching her shoulder and telling her everything would be fine—but I knew that it wouldn’t be, and that the prosecutor didn’t want me anywhere near her. Which shouldn’t have stopped me, but it does—the jury is all hawk eyes and whispers, and while their judgment didn’t mean anything to me, it would to Avery. Especially since Oliver was going to testify, and he knew. Knew about me and Avery—the nights at the park, the drugs, the drinking, the sex. Half of what he knew was rumor, half truth, but there’s not much difference when you’re at the same school with the same people since first grade. It’s worse than a small town—everyone knows everything and nothing at the same time.
The hallway outside the courtroom is crowded, and I feel like Avery probably does during a panic attack—my chest feels like someone’s squeezing hard. I head for the bathroom, feeling numbness in my fingers and feet, wobbliness in my legs—the bathroom seems impossibly far away. I feel Trinity beside me, and when I stumble, she reaches out and catches my arm, holding me up. “You okay?”
“Yes. No.” I take a breath. “I just…don’t know.”
She leads me toward the bathroom, pushing the door open with her free hand. There’s a woman at one of the cracked mirrors doing her mascara—I see her eyes tracking us, especially Trinity. She guides me toward the back of the restroom, where there’s a window looking out onto Court Street. I hoist myself up on the sill and crack the window open, pulling a pack of cigarettes from my bag. “Want one?”
She sits on the floor beneath me. I take a deep breath. “There’s room up here. If you want to sit.”
The minute she’s beside me I know it’s a mistake. She’s so beautiful it’s impossible to look away. Those cheekbones, the delicate lines of her nose and mouth. Don’t get me wrong—what I feel for Trinity is the way I feel when I see something beautiful that makes my heart and head feel like it’s not part of my body. A painting, a sculpture, an image on film, a sunset. It’s not the way I feel about Avery. Love and worship are very different, and I only have to look at Trinity to know I’d never feel one and not the other. I light my cigarette and draw in a lungful of smoke, looking out the window. Cars, a food truck with a line of impatient-looking people stretching down the block.
“You ever think of getting a tat?”
Whatever I’d expected, it wasn’t that. “I have a couple already.”
I pop the cigarette between my lips and pull up my leggings: My mother’s name, along with the dates of her birth and death enclosed in a heart. I roll up the sleeve of my Lumpy Space Princess sweatshirt and show her the one on my bicep—a butterfly with the curved wings shaped to form the letters A and C.
“Pretty,” she says. Then, “I was sorry to hear about your mother.”
I hadn’t even realized she knew. Then again, school, small world, everyone in everyone else’s business. “Thanks.”
“It sucks to lose someone you love.” She leans forward, finger raised as if to touch the butterfly on my arm. I find I’m holding my breath, wanting her touch and not wanting it at the same time. She stays with her finger poised, not moving. “Are you afraid you’ll lose Avery? After this?”
“No.” But Jesus, yes—it’s what keeps me up at night, keeps me from focusing in class. It’s why Aunt Dana’s not only letting me come to the courthouse—she encourages it. “Why would I lose her?” I say, and there’s a challenge in my voice that’s meant to be there.
“I don’t know why. Hey, you don’t need to know something to fear it.” She crosses her arms and looks out the window. “When shit like this happens, people…change. They pull back from the ones they love, because they need to find their own space. Or they don’t want to put all of their pain on someone else.”
“Or they blame them.”
She glances at me, then away. “You think she blames you?”
I was with you and your sister that night when I should have been with her. It’s harder to take on two than one, and most of the guys at school act like they’re afraid of me. Maybe they’re really not—they have the strength in their numbers, their words, their way of making even the largest girl feel small—but I could have helped. She wouldn’t have ended up in a bathroom propped up against a gold-plated toilet with her eyes half-closed and bruises on her throat. They’d been there, along with the blood on her thighs.
But I hadn’t remembered them until now. The bruises.
“I blame me,” I say quietly. “I shouldn’t have been with…”
“With us?” She shrugs. “If you use that logic, it’s our fault too. We asked you to join our little circle.” She puts the last two words in air quotes. “Maybe we should have tried to find Avery too. But you said she’d gone off with some other girl.”
Sidney, our groupchat friend. I should have known Sid wasn’t safe—she was the type who’d be all over you in one minute, gone the next. “She did. But…”
“But. Life is full of buts.” She hesitates, then reaches for the hand holding the cigarette. For a second, I think it’s something more, that she wants to hold hands, but then I realize. I pass her the cigarette and she takes a drag before handing it back. I take it between my lips, trying to forget the fact that her mouth just touched it, that it’s like we’re sharing a remote kiss.
Cut that shit out.
The voice is hard. It’s the voice of the prosecutor. It’s not like she’s said anything like that to me before, but it’s her voice in my head.
“Look,” she finally says, “You may not want to hear this, but Avery’s going to need some time to get through this when it’s done. Meanwhile, there’s no reason you should have to be by yourself and feeling like shit. Why don’t you come to our place this weekend? We’re not going upstate for a change.”
“It might not be done by this weekend.”
She glances out the window again. I don’t know what she sees. “It’ll be over,” she finally says. “Once Fordyce testifies.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I know,” she says. “This is…the way it always goes.” The beautiful green eyes seem to darken. “You have to be ready.”
“I can’t…I don’t think I can.”
She slides off the windowsill, landing easily on the tiled floor, glances up at me. “Why do you think I came here?”
“I don’t know.”
She heads for the door. She’s wearing loose fitting khaki pants with a drawstring waist, and I notice for the first time that she’s wearing an anklet, a slim band of silver with a tiny green stone that catches the light. Anklets are hot—I’d gotten matching ones for me and Avery last year, not that either of us was so into jewelry. It was the secretive part of it we liked, that and the fact ankles are sexy, more sexy than breasts or asses. To me, anyway. Maybe to Avery.
Had I ever asked?
“We’re here to help you,” Trinity says when she reaches the door. She reaches for the handle, then turns around. “If you want, you could come over Saturday night. We’re at Eleven East Seventy-Fifth.”
Then she’s gone.
Don’t put it in your phone. Don’t.
But I do.
# # #
When I get back to the courtroom I see Trinity’s gone. I slide onto the bench in the second to last row and watch as Oliver Fordyce takes the stand. He does the whole raising his hand and swearing to tell the truth, which only tells me that courts are forums for liars. Because when he speaks—carefully guided by his lawyer—he talks about the community service work he does with kids on the spectrum. That part is true, and I know it is. The problem is, I know why he does it. Resume padding—he and his friends do all kinds of charitable shit so they can put it on their college apps and write essays about how working with kids on the autism spectrum or kids with Downs Syndrome or kids dying of cancer or animals stuck for years in shelters has made them better people. Because apparently that’s the purpose of being different—to make assholes like Oliver Fordyce and his friends look like better people so they can go to places like Harvard or Yale and graduate to shit on those very same people and animals.
So now we have to hear all about Oliver Fordyce and all the great things he’s done, to the point where the prosecutor finally gets up to object. “We don’t need to hear how he’s a choirboy,” she says.
The judge agrees. Tells the lawyer to get to the point. But he says it gently, as though the point is what a great guy Oliver really is, sitting there in his neat suit with his red-rimmed eyes telling about how he met—really met—Avery through the community service project.
# # #
“So you met Miss Silverman through Art Therapy, is that correct?”
“Yes. I mean, I’d known her before. We’ve been at the same school for years.”
“Since first grade, isn’t that right?”
“Yes. Our school goes through high school.”
“But you weren’t friends.”
“Not then. No.”
Not ever, I think. They were never friends. A long time ago, I’d been friends with Oliver, if you could call forced playdates the basis for a friendship.