* * *
When Ruby entered the classroom, everyone turned toward Steven. He was already in his corner and stiffened when he saw her. Was she going to repeat yesterday’s actions?
Ruby walked forward and, as she drew near Robert, he hopped up and pulled out the chair next to his. “Come sit at your regular computer, Ruby.” His cheerfulness was forced. Ruby smiled and waved him off. With all eyes watching, Ruby walked to Steven and sat next to him.
Steven stared as she began to talk to him. He couldn’t help but find the situation insane. Steven answered her queries through his shock. She seemed as if he was an old friend. Why was she doing this? Was it some sort of sick joke?
The more Steven considered the dilemma, the less he thought that that was the case. If it was a joke, why was everyone shocked at her actions? Surely, they couldn’t all be acting; could they?
They’re all acting, it’s all a little play. They’ll get you soon. Do it first!
Steven startled at the sound of the voice. It woke him up at the same time every night, but even after all this time, he still wasn’t used to it.
“Are you OK? You kind of jumped all of a sudden,” Ruby asked, compassion in her voice. Steven nodded without saying anything, unsure of her display of kindness.
I want to believe it’s a joke, he thought, but how can I with the way she is acting?
He tried to ignore her and concentrate on his work, but she made that difficult. She jabbered next to him like a typical teenage girl, sometimes laughing at her own jokes, other times poking him in the side with her elbow to get him to laugh too. A couple of times it almost worked, but it was difficult for him to forget the way she treated him after Robert told her what he’d been accused of, so he fell back into frowning silence every time.
* * *
At the end of the torturously long class, Steven rushed for the door. He seemed desperate to escape her and her friendliness. Ruby tried to give chase, but Robert caught up to her before she could.
“Do you know what people are saying?” he demanded, his eyes narrow slits and face red.
Ruby pulled back and crossed her arms over her chest. She scowled at him. “No, but you’re probably gonna tell me.”
“People are saying that you’re Steven’s accomplice. Like you had something to do with Lindsay’s death.”
Ruby opened her mouth to reply, but Robert stopped her. “Obviously, I know you didn’t, because you moved here afterward, but that’s what people are saying, and it gets worse!” he said, his red face somehow getting darker. “Some people are considering the possibility that Steven may be innocent!”
“And why is that so bad?” Ruby yelled. Several people nearby jumped in their chairs. Robert stepped back, his mouth agape. Ruby moved forward, her eyes flaring. “I don’t know what your problem is, and I don’t know why you’re unwilling to make up with your old friend. You used to be best friends with Steven, but now you hate him with a passion that I don’t understand. I’ve never seen anyone lose a friend and not live with regret about it, and it makes you look bad, not him. Keep your passive-aggressive help to yourself, and unless you’re willing to accept that Steven is innocent, then don’t speak to me!”
She sidestepped Robert and took off down the hallway. He stood motionless in shock as people stared. She slammed open the door and pounded the polished floor with her sneakers, desperate to get as far away from Robert and all the others as possible.
Ruby ran down the main steps and then down the street trying to hold back her tears. She only stopped when Steven finally caught up to her. “Steven? What are you doing?”
Steven was panting, doubled over, with his hands on his knees. He held up a finger, while taking in deep breaths. “I’ve been- I’ve been chasing you since you ran out of school.”
Ruby gawked at him.
“I hung back when Robert cornered you. I saw the fight.” Steven shoved his hands into his pockets and studied her face.
Ruby looked at the ground, not sure what to say.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked.
Ruby looked up at the brown-haired boy. “What do you mean?”
“You hated me when you first met me. You were just like everyone else. Now, suddenly, you’re speaking to me, and acting all nice.”
Ruby swallowed and rubbed tears from her cheeks and eyes. “You told me the truth. You told me what happened. I know that you’re innocent now, and I’m not going to stand by and watch you be completely ostracized for something you didn’t do.”
His eyes narrowed and he pressed his lips together, a grimace turned down in the corners. “Really? Did you really believe me? This is some kind of trick. Some sick prank to get at me, to get close then make me suffer even more.”
Ruby’s mouth dropped open, then slowly curled up into an accepting smile. She stepped forward. “That’s the conundrum, Steven, but I really do understand. After everything you’ve been through, it’s only natural for you to be suspicious. Someone might try to do something to you. But I promise you, Steven, I honestly am trying to be your friend.”
“But how can I know that?” Steven replied, in an unsure voice. “How can I know this isn’t some elaborate prank?”
Ruby had a few tears forming in her eyes, but she still simply smiled.
She took a few steps forward and lightly kissed Steven on the forehead. Steven’s mouth fell open and he stared at Ruby as she stepped back.
“I know what it’s like to be a pariah, Steven, and I guess you will just have to learn to trust me.” She smiled. Then, without another word, Ruby walked past Steven. She thought she had said all she needed to say for now. Hopefully he believed her.