I sat in the front seat of Mom’s car on our ride to school, but silence permeated the entire vehicle. Tension played off everyone’s raw nerves, daring the boldest of us to speak. No one did. Rolling past a large brick building, we pulled into a parking space at the far end of the school’s driveway. Julia stepped out from the back seat of our silver four-door sedan and snatched her lunch sack off the car’s floor. “I’ll see you around two-thirty,” she informed Mom. Turning to me, dismay filled her eyes. I nodded. Nothing needed to be said. I could see it in her eyes. I’m sorry. I wish I could make it better. This shouldn’t be happening to you. Be safe. Julia bit her lower lip and nodded back. Scurrying across the pavement, she met up with her classmates under the school’s portico and headed into an ordinary day at school. Lucky Jules!
I scanned the parking lot, eyeing a stream of cars dropping off children. “I don’t see Donald’s truck. Looks like we got here before he did,” I mused. I fidgeted in the front seat with the radio, static noise filling the air.
Mom reached over and twisted the power button to off. “Let’s just enjoy some silence.” She then turned and looked out her window at the side-view mirror. “Donald should be here any moment.”
I slouched against my seat and sighed. Any day now.
Minutes passed. No Donald. I glanced at my watch then at the students moseying toward the front door. Two minutes and the late bell would be ringing. Pulling my backpack from the back seat onto my lap, I prepared to exit the car. “I don’t want to be late.” Placing my hand on the door handle, I looked to Mom for permission to leave.
At that very moment, Mom spotted Donald approaching the back of our car. “You can go in just a minute.” She patted my knee. “Looks like Donald made it after all.”
I rolled my eyes and glanced in the rearview mirror. He doesn’t look happy. Hasty strides and a scowling face warned of someone on a warpath.
Mom sensed my nervousness. “He just wants to talk. Let’s hear him out.”
I placed my backpack on the car’s floorboard, slowly opened the door, then stepped outside. Mom followed suit, meeting me at the rear of the car. “Donald.” She addressed the forty-five-year-old construction foreman.
Donald’s wide chest inflated and deflated at a steady rate. His heavy breathing pronounced obvious irritation while two white-knuckled fists curled at his sides. Something is really wrong here, I deduced. This was a bad idea.
“I need to speak with Hope.” Donald glared at me, forcefully executing his words. His muscular body trembled as he spoke.
I took a step back. Mom placed a protective hand on my shoulder, confirming her presence and her closeness. “I’m not going anywhere,” she assured me, making Donald aware of her intentions.
Donald’s six-foot height, broad shoulders, and eyes of steel formed a barricade between me and the school. Inhaling sharply, his nostrils flared. “How dare you?” he spat. “I can’t believe I entrusted my daughter to you! You didn’t honestly think you’d get away with it, did you, you wretched lil’ pedophile?” His sharp glare blocked out everything and everyone but me.
I broke eye contact, glancing toward the school. Did anyone hear him? Is somebody going to think I’m a pedophile? With the exception of a few latecomers, the vicinity appeared to be devoid of bystanders. I don’t know what a pedophile is, but it can’t be good. It sounds criminal, and I am not a criminal.
Donald’s body continued to tremble, anxiety vibrating his fists. “How messed up do you have to be to sexually assault a child?” he thundered.
“But, I didn’t….” I stammered. Confusion puckered my forehead.
Sweat beaded above Donald’s brow. Rage poured from his soul. “Listen real close to what I’m about to say,” he cut me off. “Do you hear me? Real close!” I shied from his words, but tensed when his body grew rigid.
“Don’t you EVER, and I mean NEVER, come near Alicia or touch her again. DO. I. MAKE MYSELF. CLEAR?” Donald’s arms quivered with pent up anger. Veins pulsed in his neck.
I nodded, dumb-founded and overwhelmed by fear.
“If I ever catch you near Alicia again…,” he started.
“You’ll do what, Donald? What will you do?” Mom challenged, interrupting his threat. Physically asserting herself between Donald and me, she forced Donald to take a step back. “Hope, go get in the car. It’s obvious Donald is here under false pretenses. He has no intention of hearing your side of the story. Don’t say another word. Our attorney will speak for you.”
Attorney? Will speak for me? When did being someone’s friend become a crime? I fought with the absurd allegations, but quickly obeyed, returning to the safety of the front seat. Closing the door behind me, I burst into sobs, tears saturating my face. What did I do to deserve this? What am I being punished for?
It didn’t take long for the air in the car to grow stale. I watched through the tinted windows as heated words blared from Donald’s lips. He attacked Mom’s credibility for being a good parent. He defended Colleen’s actions from the prior day’s event, and he bulldozed every attempt Mom made to answer his assaults. Never once did Mom’s confidence wilt in his presence—nor did her self respect. I pressed my back against the seat and prayed. God, please protect her. Donald is so, so angry! Please don’t let him hurt her. Guilt shrouded my heart.
Finally, Donald had enough and stormed back to his truck. Mom returned to me. Opening the car door, she sank into the driver’s seat like a wounded soldier. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that,” she apologized. “I had no idea.” Tears moistened her eyes.
I reached across the console and squeezed Mom’s hand. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t know Donald was gonna be so mean.”
“Yeah, but still…. I should’ve known better. I should have never agreed to meet with him without your father being present. That was so stupid of me!” She shook her head, trying to rid herself of the craziness.
“Well, I don’t hate you,” I verified.
My words lifted the corners of Mom’s mouth into a partial smile. “You’re a good kid, Hope. I hope you know that. You make my heart proud.” She swiped at her eyes, smearing mascara across her cheekbones.
I nodded, pushing through a mixture of conflicting emotions. “I don’t want to be at school today. I’d like go home, but I don’t want to get behind on my class work.” I sulked over the dilemma.
“I don’t blame you.” Mom’s voice hinted of sarcasm. “I wouldn’t want to be here today, either. Don’t worry. I’m not going to make you stay. If you wanna come home, you’re more than welcome to be there.”
I thought for a moment then asked, “Would you mind if I go inside and get today’s assignments before we leave? I was thinking maybe I could work on it at home.”
“That’s a good idea,” Mom agreed. “You sure you want to go by yourself? I can come with you.” Pulling a tissue out of the glove box, she blotted dampness from her eyes.
“No. I’ll be fine. We just saw Donald leave. It’s not like he’s coming back,” I reasoned.
“You’ve got a good point.” Mom glanced in the rearview mirror and sighed at her splotchy-face reflection. “I look a mess anyway. Last thing we need is someone probing into our personal life.” She shrugged. “As long as you’re sure….”
I nodded. “I am.”
“OK, then. I’ll be right here waiting,” she promised. “Try not to take too long. I can feel a headache coming on, and I’d like to go home and get some meds in me before it becomes any worse.” She turned the key to the ignition and began circulating air throughout the car.
“I won’t be long.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Standing at the head of the classroom, her very presence commanded respect. Straight shoulders. Solid stance. An air of authority built itself around her. Her jaw jutted forward and her lips formed a perfect thin line. The Nazi. That’s how students referred to her under their breaths. The strictest teacher in junior high.
Ms. Hardwood gazed over the rows of desks in front of her then swiftly at her watch. I watched from the classroom door as confident strides carried her to the back of the room and to her desk. Needing to speak with her, I attempted to step around the crowd of seventh graders congregating near the entrance to the classroom. “Excuse me. Pardon me. I’m sorry. I need to get through.” I bumped and jostled my way to the other side of the pack until I finally reached Ms. Hardwood’s desk. Out of breath and low on patience, I struggled to show politeness. “May I please have my homework for today? I know I’m here right now, but I’m getting ready to leave.” I looked at Ms. Hardwood and forced a smile.
Ms. Hardwood looked up from sitting in her chair. Tilting her head, she tapped at her ear. “I’m sorry. I can’t hear you. What did you say?”
I raised my voice and stressed my temporary attendance. “I’m here for today’s assignments. I won’t be in class today.” The hum of multiple voices continued to squelch my words.
Ms. Hardwood stood and promptly demanded silence. “Class?” A sudden hush swept over the room, and students scurried to their seats. Reaching for her lesson plans, she then flipped open her book and returned her attention to me. “We’ll be watching a video in geography class today, and it appears there will be a worksheet for reading. It’s going to be a pretty light day, so if you have to miss school, this is a good day to do it.”
I forced another smile. “That’s good.”
“Of course, you’ll need to ask your other teachers for their assignments,” she reminded me. “Why don’t you visit their rooms first, and I’ll have your homeroom assignments ready when you get back.”
“Thank you,” I replied softly. Simple decision making had become a monumental task overnight, so it helped to be guided through the smallest expectations. Visiting the other three teachers in my seventh-grade rotation, I collected my work then returned to Ms. Hardwood’s desk.
When she saw me, Ms. Hardwood headed to her desk while continuing to instruct the class around her. “Please, continue reading the next page aloud,” she directed, motioning to Gabby in the front row. “Milo, be ready to follow. You can read next.” She located a couple sheets of paper next to her lesson plans and handed them to me. “That should be it. Those are all your assignments from me. Hope you feel better.” Her uncharacteristic show of sympathy surprised me.
“Thanks. Me, too.” Leaving the room, I wondered, Do I really look that bad?
Tired, numb, and dazed, I ambled through the building toward the front of the school and the glass doors leading onto the school’s front patio. Forging past late-coming students, miscellaneous visitors, and the front office, a mental fog descended over my senses.
As I passed the receptionist’s desk, my eyes opened and closed in what felt like slow motion. An internal commentary began to play. That looks like Colleen. No. It can’t be. Donald’s the one who brought Alicia to school today. What would Colleen be doing here? I shook my head to dispel the confusion. You’re becoming paranoid, Hope. Colleen has better things to do than to make your life a living hell. I half heartedly chuckled, second guessing what I had just seen.
“Hope? Hope, stop right now!” The familiar bark of Colleen’s voice echoed off the walls, causing the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end. I came to an abrupt halt. Those within earshot came to a sudden stop, as well. Turning, I watched in disbelief as Colleen came barreling out of the front office. “Where do you think you’re going?” she yelled, closing the distance between us. “Did you hear me? I asked you a question. Where are you going?”
Concerned glances passed between those standing in the hallway, yet nobody moved. Everyone just stood there, gawking in silence. Blood circulation decreased in my arm as Colleen’s fingers tightened in brazened boldness around my elbow. “What do you think you’re doing here?” she hissed in my ear, her breath hot and pungent. “You have no business showing your face in this building. Do you hear me? None!”
I gritted my teeth and pulled against Colleen’s weight. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I go to school here,” I retorted, wriggling to free myself. “Of course, I belong here. Let me go!” The harder I pulled, the more the friction under my feet gave way, and I slowly started skidding across the dark gray carpet toward my adversary. “Let. Me. Go!” I repeated through clenched teeth. “You’re hurting me.” I winced at the tightness cutting off the circulation in my arm. This would be a great time to intervene, I begged God. I can’t do this on my own.
Immediately, Colleen lost her grip, and I found myself stumbling backward, fighting against gravity. Somehow, I managed to steady myself and didn’t actually fall. Realizing my freedom, I dashed for the front door.
“Come back here you little tramp!” Colleen bellowed. “I’m not finished with you!” Thunderous footsteps and heavy panting followed closely at my heels. I plowed through the front door, never once looking back.
“You just wait…,” Colleen shouted after me. “When I get done with you, you’ll never be able to show your face at this school again!”
Anxiety spiked my fear. That’s what I’m afraid of. Sprinting to Mom’s car, I collapsed on the front seat then slammed the door shut behind me.
“Hope, you’re as white as a ghost!” Mom gasped. “Are you alright? You’re shaking like a leaf.”
I struggled to catch my breath, moving my head back and forth. “No. Please don’t make me talk about it. Let’s just go. Please. Now!”
Mom’s concern deepened as she shifted the car into drive. “Colleen? Was it Colleen?”
I nodded, my eyes threatening water works. Turning my head, I rested the side of my face against the headrest and tears streamed down my cheeks. Houses and trees blurred outside my window as I exhaled fear. If I wasn’t scared before, I am now.