Steven hadn’t killed Lindsay.
Ruby grabbed her backpack and ran out of the room. Her last glimpse of Steven was of him at his desk in front of his computer with his face in his hands, crying uncontrollably. Ruby didn’t stop running until she was at the bus station. She boarded the bus, dropped into an open seat, and tried to rub the tears from her puffy, red eyes.
She was no longer crying because she was scared. She wasn’t crying because she was upset at Steven yelling, nor was she crying because she regretted speaking to him. She was now crying because she knew the truth, he truth no one else realized or bothered to take the time to find out. The truth that made her ashamed of her past actions and thoughts. The absolute and undeniable truth hit her hard and with a massive finality.
* * *
The next day, Ruby’s head was still spinning. She struggled to concentrate on her computer screen. Thoughts stacked inside her head like hundreds of cars caught in the most disorganized intersection ever built.
The thought that Steven was innocent had seemed crazy days ago, but once she had heard the truth of what really happened, Ruby knew Steven had nothing to do with Ruby’s death. He was innocent.
A larger problem loomed. How was she going to tell everyone else? Even looking around the classroom now, she could tell it was going to be difficult. Everyone still threw shade at Steven from time to time, and she could tell that many wanted to do more.
Ruby watched Robert. Although he didn’t look at Steven, his silence since the brown-haired boy’s arrival confirmed Ruby’s suspicions. Even he would be exceedingly difficult to convince, maybe the hardest of them all. She wondered how he had become so adamant in Steven’s guilt when the two of them had been friends until the days after Lindsay’s death. He told her that he saw the truth, that his friends helped him see Steven for what he was, but it sounded a lot like an excuse made by a boy who was easily led. She should know; he had been easy enough for her to play dress-up with.
Ruby glanced at Steven typing away at his computer. The only other person who seemed to have taken an interest in Steven’s actions was the teacher, who seemed happier since Steven started doing his school work again. But did the woman really believe in Steven’s innocence, or was she simply content to have a violence-free classroom again? It was a sad reality that an orderly classroom was all that the teacher really wanted. Was it any wonder that the class reacted to Steven the way that they did?
Ruby sighed heavily and turned back to her computer screen. She knew what she had to do, and it would be difficult, but she had to try. It was the right thing to do. In a world of selfishness, being selfless became a call to arms.
Robert gathered his backpack, and walked out of the classroom but stopped when he realized Ruby wasn’t with him. His eyes focused on where he and Ruby normally sat, then roamed the classroom. His gaze settled on his former friend, who had gathered his things in preparation to depart. Robert made his way to Steven’s desk. Neither spoke.
Steven shifted slightly, his eyes everywhere but on Robert as Robert’s chill expression slowly turned into the familiar mask of hatred. Robert looked as if he wanted to say something, but instead settled for shoving past Steven to his seat next to Ruby. Ruby watched as Steven winced but took the abuse from his former friend like a true pacifist. She wondered how anyone could think that he was capable of something as cruel and destructive as the death of his girlfriend.
Robert walked across to Ruby and quickly engaged a conversation with her. Ruby aimed a sympathetic look at Steven before focusing on Robert’s blathering. Steven shrugged, surveyed the upturned faces of his classmates, and walked out of the classroom.
* * *
Steven hadn’t spoken to Ruby since that afternoon that ended in a weepy mess, but she did meet his eyes fleetingly. He could feel her attention on him, and when he would meet her gaze, she would look away. These constant encounters annoyed Steven, but they were fine, compared to the glares he got regularly. The only other person in the school who seemed to have changed their mind about him was the instructor.
Steven contemplated his decision to return to school for the hundredth time that day. The voice was relegated to a background buzz as he focused on his studies. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps the Ruby and the instructor would just be the first to soften to his presence. He did have seven other classes during the school day. As Steven leaned against a row of lockers thinking about it, the instructor materialized in a doorway. Her eyes scanned the hallway, locked with Steven’s, and she approached him.
“Hello, Steven,” she offered.
She wants to kill you.
Steven ignored the voice and responded with a greeting of his own. She shuffled from foot to foot for a moment. She seemed preoccupied, but finally spoke. “Steven, I just wanted to say something to you.” She took a breath, and squared her shoulders before she continued. “I want to apologize for how I treated you the last few months. I’m not saying I don’t think you might have contributed to Lindsay’s actions, but you’ve shown a resilience that I can’t ignore, and with your renewed interest in graduating, I can’t stand by without helping you to succeed. I don’t know what happened between you and Lindsay, but that isn’t for me to judge or punish. I’m your teacher, and I’m going to start acting like one again.” She hesitated for a moment, and then placed her hand of Steven’s shoulder. She gave it a squeeze, clasped her hands together in front of her, turned, and vanished through the doorway of the classroom.
Steven stared at the door to the classroom, mouth slightly agape. He didn’t even have a chance to thank her for her kindness. Two down, how many to go? He thought, feeling a little better about himself and his situation. He turned and began the slow walk to his next class. Now, if he could only convince Robert…
She said she still thinks you did it; she still hates you. Do what must be done!
Steven froze. The voice thundered in his ears. It was right. Steven hung his head and felt his happiness fade as quickly as it had arrived. His fleeting happiness subsumed back to the reality that he now existed in. He was still the most hated person at school, and most although the media circus had died down, he wondered if he were the most hated person in the entire country. The only person who now knew the truth wasn’t speaking up at all. Steven resumed his trudging, the weight of his returned depression heavy on his mind.
* * *
“What exactly are you trying to tell me?” Robert canted and glared at Ruby.
She fidgeted. She knew talking to Robert about Steven would be difficult, but she hadn’t realized it would be this bad.
Robert dropped his arms and softened his voice. “Come on, Ruby. What were you saying about Steven?”
“Well…” Ruby took a deep breath and replied, “well, I was just wondering if… if you thought there w-was any… possibility, that maybe S-Steven was… innocent?”
The look on Robert’s face gave Ruby all the answers she needed. He met her gaze, the steel in his eyes teetering of anger. “What do you mean ‘innocent’?”
“W-Well, you know…” Ruby shook slightly at Robert’s squared jaw and narrowed eyes. “It’s just… I spoke to him and…”
“YOU WHAT?” Robert roared, and Ruby stumbled back. Tears flowed into her eyes and she struggled to hold them back.
Robert advanced on her and she tried to stand her ground, but her entire body quaked. Robert was face to face with her. If either of them leaned forward, their noses would’ve touched. “I told you to stay away from him,” he shouted. “He’s a murderer; he’s scum! How could you even look at him?” He leaned back and crossed his arms. “ANSWER ME!”
Tears streamed down Ruby’s cheeks, and she returned Robert’s wrath. “He’s innocent! He told me what really happened! He didn’t kill her!”
“Bullshit!” Robert yelled, throwing his arms into the air. He grabbed Ruby by the shoulders and forced her into a chair. “Now, you listen here!” He he shook a finger in her face. “Steven killed Lindsay! He did it! He had to! Never speak to him again! NEVER AGAIN!” Tears pooled at the edges of his eyes. He squeezed his eyes shut, and singular rivulets ran down the contours of his cheeks. Ruby sobbed. She covered her face with her hands and allowed their shared catharsis to overwhelm the pair.
It took a few minutes for her crying to subside. She rubbed her eyes and met Robert’s equally puffy eyes. Robert’s stoicism faded, and was replaced with horror. He knelt in front of Ruby and pulled her into a hug. She relished the contact, and for a moment was satisfied that they were not fighting. But then Robert lifted her chin, and their lips made contact.
It felt wrong. Her head was swimming, and she couldn’t quite place the feeling of dread she felt deep in her stomach. She tried to pull away, but Robert seized the back of her head and continued. She struggled, but her arms were pinned between them. He was in a frenzy. It was as if he needed that kiss to place an exclamation point on their argument.
When Ruby’s leg connected with his groin, a yelp escaped his lips and he fell to the floor, rolling in pain and clutching between his legs. Ruby wiped her lips on the back of her hand, and felt bile rise in the back of her throat. She forced a swallow, and stared down the angry figure on the floor. “You’re wrong. Steven is innocent ; I know it, and nothing can change that!” She leaned down when Robert met her eyes. “And when a girl doesn’t want to be kissed, you better remember what just happened.”
Ruby stormed out of the room, her eyes overflowing, tears streaming down her face. “Ruby… wait!” Robert gasped, trying to stand but failing to find purchase on the floor. Ruby started to run away from Robert. She ran down the steps of Twin Oaks High School and kept running. No one would believe the new girl, she knew that she had to somehow prove Steven’s innocence. She knew that she had to spend time with Steven, to show everyone that he wasn’t a monster, but the same boy they had all been attending school with all those years. She had to prove his innocence by being his friend.
* * *
Steven picked up his drink and looked around the kitchen. He sighed heavily and made his way to his room. He had done quite a bit of work at home to catch up on the schoolwork he missed.
They want you to leave, they want you gone!
Steven stopped and stood, listening to the voice’s taunts. It had happened again a day or two before, and Steven had almost taken his life again. Held the knife, considered really ending it all, but again he had refused to give up. He denied the voice what it wanted.
Steven wondered again why he denied the voice. What was his goal? Sure, he was going to classes again, and the teacher seemed to have come around. Even the new girl was at least seemed conflicted. But was it worth it? Everyone still hated him with a passion. The voice was right when it said they wanted him dead. Steven sighed heavily and kept walking. He didn’t know how much longer he would be able to hold on.