There was a kind of conscious ignorance about the way she thrust her face into the autumn sunlight, willing her mouth to spread wide and grim, smiling, denying, revealing two perfect rows of determinedly straight and shiny teeth. She knew. She had to know. We all observed her with a helpless rage, a fervor of prejudice rare in these such civilized times. She defied our sensibilities and continued to live on when we could not. I look back on how we treated her, and the blindness with which we saw her, with shame and regret, but also incredulity. The evil that exists in the most mundane of hiding places, shimmying into the darkest corners of every place of privilege, will never cease to bewilder me. The suburbs had become our own personal Salem witch trial, a reminder of the insidious violence which exists in all adolescent hearts.
Her name was Karen Schumacher. She was nothing. In the hallways of Stromberg High, she represented the forgotten niche, the outcast, the sub defective, but mostly the rotting wallflower. She was not a slut, or a punk, or a Goth, or a jock, or any other neat little label that we could identify and ignore. We were far too sophisticated to actively harass her; too moral and high-minded. It was what we didn’t do-we refused to acknowledge or sympathize with her in any way. She roamed around as if in a trance, greasy blonde hair combed neatly down the center and pulled into an unassuming ponytail at the nape of her neck. Her shapeless turtlenecks and obviously homemade sweaters allowed us to forget her gender; the shabby khakis she always wore blotted her out yet more. She didn’t dare approach us or make eye contact, and for that we granted her a modicum of peace. Then she made a mistake.
On a muggy Thursday afternoon, Karen was just leaving the Seven-Eleven across from the school. She’d made a nifty slush cocktail of the cherry Coke and blue raspberry flavors, and was just about to take her first glorious sip when she heard an ominous howl coming from behind the store. A chill ran down from her tongue to her toes. She needed to get home, fast. Her feet started shuffling hesitantly forward when a tall figure blocked the light from the pavement she’d been gazing at so intently. She looked up and saw Vincent, her lab partner. His sympathetic green eyes shifted nervously around the empty parking lot. He was one of the crossover acts, the not-quite-so-populars who could still fraternize easily with the gleeful plastic enemy. He took pity on her, and even complimented her a few times a month. Her heartbeat fluttered faster, but this time out of a different, sweeter tasting fear.
“What you doing, Karen?
“Just going home.”
“Oh yeah? Lemme give you a ride. I know it’s far.”
He smiled and she lost logic.
“Really? Thanks Vincent, really.” Smiling awkwardly, disbelieving.
They made their way across the painted blacktop, turning at the corner of the building to go behind to where the Dumpster was kept, putrid fumes rising hellishly into the afternoon light. Vincent opened the passenger door for her and then hopped agilely into the driver’s seat. Too scared to speak, afraid of humiliating herself, Karen perched quietly at the edge of her seat, staring at her savagely bitten fingernails. When she remembered to look up, they were pulling into a construction site near the business section of town. Surprised, she dared to stare imploringly into his soft eyes, and for a moment thought she saw romance and hope and all the necessary ingredients to redeem her torture chamber of a life. Then his pupils narrowed and the doors clicked into locked position.
Later she would tell her steady string of therapists that this moment was blurred in her memory, too awful to remain in sharp focus. But that was a lie. Never would she escape the sound his fingernails made ripping into her ratty cardigan, or the static growl of the fly of his jeans unzipping. The smell of his choke-inducing cologne, the sensation of being trapped and betrayed, the indescribable pain of losing her innocence and her illusions about humanity all in one angry, forceful shove. They could tell her to forgive herself all they wanted. She knew in her head that it hadn’t been her fault, and that nothing anyone else did could make her a bad person. But in her heart-that was entirely different. This one act defined every moment of the rest of her life; it tinted the view from her eyes with a black veil of mistrust. How had she been so stupid as to think he actually liked her? This indulgence had cost her everything.
I can’t tell you what we did to her. It’s not too late for the authorities to dig up old ghosts and punish us for our misdeeds. But when it reached the ears of the rest of us what had happened that afternoon, a queer alteration took place in our hearts. We saw this crime as being singularly hers. I think I can speak for us all when I say that, at least for a moment, we felt a certain degree of sympathy. But almost immediately, this mercy was replaced by contempt. It’s remarkable how twisted the mind of a high school student can become in the face of an event that stands in opposition to their established universe. It wasn’t that we didn’t believe her. We all knew Vincent wasn’t above putting it in anything on two legs. We just couldn’t excuse her ungrateful reaction to the matter. Karen had never learned her proper place. But I think she did that year.