“The Darker the Secret, the Harder You Keep It”
It never made much sense to him why she had just left. He'd seen her through thick and thin, having grown up with her. They used to hide out in the park, waiting until the last possible moment to go home before getting into big trouble. Their spot moved further away from the park when he got his driver's license, having found a good spot not far from the make-out spot all the seniors frequented. The two of them were inseparable, always had been. And he knew her to be one of the strongest people he knew, handling anything that came her way with a sense of grace that most teenagers could never display.
Being that James had known her since they were two, he had a feeling there were certain things she didn't tell him. It hadn't always been like that. They used to go into in depth conversations about their significant others or stay up late and gossip about the people at school. As they grew up, these conversations ended up being complaints about their families and their teachers and the guy who cut them off on their way to work. To James, it seemed they were growing apart and he did his best to change that, but there was something about her that was different. And that different part of her didn't want much to do with people of her past.
He had tried for a short while after that to figure out what had changed in his best friend. It couldn't have been school because they had kept up their friendship all through freshman year despite being three states apart. It wasn't his parents' divorce, because she called him every night after she found out and let him break down when they saw each other at the beginning of the summer. James never understood what could have happened to her to change her so completely.
It took a few years for him to hear from her again. She asked to meet him at their spot. James arrived, holding two peach Snapples and a bag of pizza Combos, their usual snack. It almost surprised him how much he remembered from those days, the gold old days he never thought he’d talk about like that. She seemed surprised too.
“Hey,” she said, hands stuck in the back pockets of her jeans. Her face seemed paler to him, like she hadn’t been sleeping. Or spending much time outdoors.
James hugged her and it was as awkward as he’d prayed it wouldn’t be. They sat in his car and munched in silence. He felt like the filled pretzels were getting lodged in his throat and after a few minutes of no talking, he finally cleared his throat.
“What happened to us?”
She didn’t answer, staring out at the trees around them. He sighed and slouched a little in his seat. Things had changed and he hated that, hated not knowing what was going on with her, with them. Where was the girl he’d known all those years?
“I’m sorry.” Her voice was soft, quiet, as though she might break the moment, him, herself. James didn’t know. Reaching out, he touched her shoulder and she flinched.
“Maybe this was a bad idea,” he said, looking out the window.
They sat there for hours, minutes, days, who knows. All James could feel was the tension in the air and the pain rolling off his childhood best friend in waves. At one point, he heard her sniffle and he handed her a tissue from the small pack he kept in his cup holder, his head hitting the little yellow tree air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror.
“Thanks.” She blew her nose and wiped her eyes, turning to him. “What I meant to say was that I’m sorry I never told you, that I couldn’t tell you. I just had to...” Her voice trailed off and her eyes looked back out to the woods. “I had to deal with some things on my own. My family, they were there for me, tried to help me, but if they couldn’t, I didn’t think you could either.”
Turning as best he could without the steering wheel jabbing into his side, James looked at her, looking into her eyes and wondered when they’d gotten so dull. “Help you through what?” he asked softly, gently, approaching her the way he would approach a frightened child on the street.
“I made a mistake. I trusted someone I shouldn’t have and I made a mistake.” Her body seemed to deflate as she fell into his arms, crying against his shoulder. This was the closest they’d been in years, but James held her like he used to, hand rubbing her back, smoothing over her hair as she wept. He’d never liked seeing her like this, more so now because he didn’t know what was causing it.
When her body stopped shaking, she rested against him for a few long moments and he didn’t know if she was gathering strength or just didn’t want to talk anymore. Either way, he’d never been the kind to push her.
Pulling back, she wiped at his eyes. “I was dating that guy, remember when I told you about him?” Flipping back through memories, he tried to find the name of her boyfriend at the time, the last boyfriend he’d probably heard her talk about. “Pat.” James nodded. “Well, we were dating for about a month and one night we went to this party. He was planning on joining this fraternity. I was just trying to be supportive, but you know how I felt about greek life.” Her fingers made quotes in the air as she said the last two words. He remembered she hated the sorority girls; they reminded her too much of the cheerleaders in high school.
“I don’t know exactly how it happened, but we were upstairs in the hallway, just the two of us. I didn’t mind that we were making out or that there would be a few people who randomly walked back and forth. Pat was really sweet and I trusted him. I thought there might be a chance that he was falling for me. I knew I was just starting to fall for him. Everything felt so perfect.
“Next thing I know, one of the older guys in the frat came up to us and asked to talk to Pat for a minute. He kissed my cheek and told me he’d be right back. I waited in the hallway, smoothing out my clothes a little and trying to look like I hadn’t just been going at it with my boyfriend in the hallway.” She gave him the ghost of a smile and he thought he could see the girl he’d once known, despite the fact that he had a knot growing in his stomach at her words.
“I’m not sure how long he’d been gone, but at one point someone handed me something to drink. I know I’m not supposed to just take random drinks from people, so I held on to it, not wanting to be rude, but knowing that leaving it on the floor after the person left probably wouldn’t be sure a bad thing. Pat came back to me a few moments later and wrapped his arms around me. I asked him what was up and he just said pledge business, told me it wasn’t a big deal.
“That red cup was set on the floor next to me and we were back to the way we were before, making out, enjoying the fact that no one on that floor seemed to care very much. It didn’t take long for him to get a little more forceful, which, I’ll admit, was kind of thrilling.”
She looked up at his eyes, having told most of this story staring at the little monkey laying on his dashboard. James felt like he was going to be sick, seeing how much this hurt her, how long she’d been holding on to what she was telling him.
“But soon it wasn’t so much fun. His hands started to hurt and he was grabbing at me and pushing my skirt up. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but not there, not like that. So I stopped kissing him and told him to stop. Pat just tried to soothe me, but it wasn’t working and I stopped responding completely and told him to stop. He didn’t like that. ‘Come on, baby’ he’d said. ‘Don’t you love me? It’ll be fun.’” Her eyes went out to the woods again, causing her to miss James’ hand clenching, wanting to look up this Pat and give him a piece of his mind after giving him a piece of his fist.
“I... He get really forceful and I started to struggle. I told him to stop, to get off me, to leave me alone, thinking that if I made enough noise someone would come help me. When I looked up, there was no one around. The place felt deserted, the music from the party downstairs sounding more and more distant. I think I slapped him at one point, which he definitely didn’t like. Finally, I did the one thing I could think of: I shoved him off me.”
Her voice broke and a tear slid down her cheek. He let his hand rest on her shoulder and her own reached up towards it. “I think he must have tripped on something. For the longest time I thought it was my cup. But he stumbled a little and fell down the stairs. I screamed and ran down to him, but he wasn’t moving. The brothers came and looked at him, looked at me and someone called the cops.”
It was a few minutes before she could speak again. “His eyes were open and he was just looking at me like I’d betrayed him. And I had. I was the reason he fell down the stairs. The rest of the night was a blur, but the next morning, I was sitting at the police station when they told me he’d died on the operating table. He’d been paralyzed, but they were trying to relieve the pressure on his brain. My parents came to get me and eventually, they ruled it an accident, that he was trying to take advantage of me and I was trying to defend myself.”
He couldn’t believe that she’d kept that from him, that she had gone through that all by herself and hadn’t come to him. “I was so ashamed. I mean, I killed someone. It doesn’t matter what they say about it being an accident or self defense. I killed someone I cared about. My parents, they sent me some place to help me cope, because they saw they couldn’t do it at home. Every time I looked at them, I wondered if I was capable of hurting them too.”
James wiped at the tears on her cheeks and she looked up at him and for the first time he saw her. “James, I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t want to see the way you’d look at me. I didn’t want to hurt you too. When I was away, I realized that by not talking to you, I was hurting you too. And myself. It killed me to not talk to you.” She gave him that little half smile; that was his smile.
“I just didn’t know how to tell you.”
He pulled her close and held her tightly. “I am so sorry. I’m sorry for what happened, that you couldn’t tell me, that I wasn’t there for you through this. It wasn’t your fault.” James didn’t need to know anything else. He knew it wasn’t her fault. She never wanted something like this to happen. “Kate, it wasn’t your fault.”
Her face was buried in his shoulder. “I know that now. I do. Promise.” They sat like that for a while, not moving, just holding each other. The years that had passed meant nothing. James closed his eyes and squeezed her tightly until he heard her giggle.
“What?” he asked, pulling back a little to look at her, watching her laugh.
“You always do that. Squeeze when you think I need it and I end up not being able to breathe.”
He had to laugh at that. In that moment, he knew they’d be okay, that she would be okay. And that they could get their old times back. They sat there as the sun started to set, laughing and listening to the radio, just like old times.