* * *
The following day, just like the previous, Steven stoically repeated his journey of a thousand stares, and sat next to the classroom door. Once again, the looming row of lockers was his silent companion while he waited for the instructor to arrive. He was determined not to talk to anyone.
Without preamble, Steven was struck from the side, and the force knocked him down to the smooth floor. He could feel the sting on his cheek, and knew his lip was split. He shook his head to steady his vision and looked up to see Leonard standing over him. Leonard’s face was pinched, and his neck was a flush crimson.
“Why’d you make her do it?” Leonard bellowed when Steven’s eyes met his. He kicked Steven in the ribs to emphasize his question.
Steven licked his split lip. The metallic ichor required him to prioritize the pain of his head with the pain in his ribs. If the backpack hadn’t absorbed Leonard’s kick, Steven might have had to deal with broken ribs.
“Well, asshole?” Leonard demanded.
“Make her do what?” Steven replied, still protecting his head from another onslaught.
“What else?” Leonard retorted through clenched teeth. “You made her kill herself!” He reared back to deliver another kick.
Steven curled into the fetal position and tried to protect as much of his exposed body as he could.
“The text she sent you!” Leonard cried his tears a mix of rage and sadness. “It said ‘he’ told her to do it. She did it for you, asshole! You made her kill herself!”
Steven tried to crawl away from the assault, but Leonard, in a moment of clarity, seized Steven’s backpack with both hands. Steven struggled in vain, but as long as Leonard held him down with both hands, he couldn’t strike Steven again. Steven watched blood and tears pool on the shiny floor under him.
Robert burst from the crowd and grappled with Leonard. “What the hell’re you doing?” he shouted as he tore Leonard away from Steven. Steven collapsed, and his injured face landed in the pool of blood-tinged tears.
“He killed her,” Leonard sobbed, still trying to extricate himself from Roberts grasp. “He made her do it!”
Robert pivoted on his heel and threw Leonard into the gathered students. “Get out of her, Leo,” Robert demanded.
Leonard took another look at Steven sprawled on the floor, punched one of the lockers, and melted into the crowd of onlookers.
“Get out of here, you vultures!” Robert yelled into the stunned silence. The crowd started to fade, and Robert helped his friend to his feet. Robert tugged his flannel loose from his backpack straps, and gingerly dabbed Steven’s split lip.
Robert was taken aback by Steven’s question. “’Why,’ what?”
“Why’d he attack me?”
Robert sighed. “Last night, on the news.” He helped Steven slide down the cinder block wall, and knelt beside his friend. “They showed the message Lindsay left for you. She said that he told her to kill herself, and that she’d done it for you.”
“I know what the message said,” Steven declared, his face clouding, “I was the one that got it.”
Robert plopped down next to Steven. “I dunno, man, it sounded like… It sounded like you made her do it.”
Steven clenched his jaw and winced at the pain from his split lip. “I. Did. Not.”
“Are you sure?” Robert asked quietly.
Steven’s eyes grew wide, and he stared at his friend.
“I don’t mean that you actually told her to do it,” Robert said quickly. “It’s just…”
“Just what?” demanded Steven.
“Did you, y’know, do anything? I mean did you guys fight or anything that might make her do it?”
Steven’s gaze bored into Robert’s. Robert was about to stand when Steven finally spoke. “We argued, like, all the time. It was over the stupidest stuff. Be for she… died, she told me that she heard voices. It told her to do things. I told her man, I told her that she could ignore it, and I’d help her through whatever she was going through.”
Robert sat in silence, rocking slightly back and forth. Steven wanted him to say something, anything to reassure him. To let him know that it wasn’t his fault, but Robert remained mute. After a long awkward silence, Robert said in a low voice, “Come on, we’re gonna be late.” He held his hand out to help Steven to his feet, but Steven ignored the offered hand and used the wall to steady his shaking legs, and reach his full height. Steven felt his eyes moisten, and the bright overhead lights seemed to grow tales like a comet.
* * *
Later in the day, David had also confronted Steven. Like Leonard, David believed that Steven had somehow forced Lindsay to kill herself. They weren’t the only ones. Everyone had seen the news. They talked about it in hushed voices that abruptly stopped when Steven walked into a classroom or passed them in the hallways. Accusing eyes flickered toward him in class. More than one of his classmates bandied about words like freak, sicko, or murderer. His shoulders hurt not only from the weight he carried but from fists as some lashed out at him though no one as bad as Leonard that morning. Many of the students at Twin Oaks High School claimed that Steven should be in jail for what he did to Lindsay. He would’ve needed to be a master in escapology to avoid their ire.
The gossip continued. It was almost tangible, like a glowing sound. The looks of disgust that started out veiled were now open and confrontational. Steven felt himself fall away. He was in a daze, and happiness was something now alien. Even if he wanted to smile, his split lip wouldn’t allow it. The pain was tangible, and it anchored him to the present. The only person that would even attempt to talk to him was Robert, but Steven could see the doubt in Robert’s eyes. After all, Lindsay had said she’s killed herself for Steven. What other conclusion could anyone draw? Lindsay hid her illness. All they wanted to remember was the elated persona she’d crafted and projected into the world. Don’t forget to check in, was the last thing Robert had said to him.
Steven was about to turn a corner in the hallway when he saw Robert’s denim jacket with a flaming dragon stitched to the back. Stylized calligraphic characters spelled out the 1980s-style metal band’s name, Holy Dragons, and the album title, Dragon Steel. Additional Cyrillic script adorned the jacket in the band’s native language. Robert’s backpack lay at his feet, and he was in a heated discussion with David. Steven lurked at the corner listening to the loud argument.
“Why’re you covering for him?” David demanded.
“Steven?” Robert asked in a halting voice.
“Who else? The creep that made Lindsay kill herself!”
“We don’t really know…” Robert tried.
“Of course, we do! He could’ve sent that text himself. His fingerprints were on her cellphone.”
Robert took a step back. “I don’t know, man! I’m just trying to support my best friend here.”
David sneered. “More like best fiend.”