Steven’s next few days were surreal. After his talk with Ruby, he had come to one simple conclusion, and not even the voice could return to tell him he was wrong:
Ruby wasn’t lying. She really does believe me!
By day he did his schoolwork, usually with Ruby chatting at his side. Not a word was spoken regarding their talk and the kiss on the forehead; all Steven knew was that since then, the voice had made fewer appearances.
Everyone in the class still seemed to think Ruby was crazy, or that Steven had done something to her, but as time went on, Steven found he noticed – and cared – less and less. He couldn’t explain it. He didn’t know whether it was because of Ruby, luck, or if maybe he had just finally gotten over everything that had happened.
All he knew was that the voice was dying, he had stopped caring what people thought of him, and in an small way, he was… happy. There was no other word for it. He was beginning to feel happy. He was smiling slightly, and was feeling less depressed.
But how could that happen? Surely he couldn’t recover because one person was speaking to him? Then again, he knew that if Robert hadn’t gone against him, he would have never fallen into a depression. He’d suspected that the fact that he was all alone was the main reason he fell so far. Maybe one person really couldmake a difference.
Having Ruby as a friend made him feel almost normal again. They didn’t fight, and Ruby didn’t stare at him with accusing eyes the way everyone else did. It was almost as if, in some way, the old Lindsay – the one he had known before they started bickering and she admitted to hearing the voice – had come back into his life. She’d never replace Lindsay, that was impossible, but for the first time in a very long time, he felt a glimmer of hope for the future.
* * *
Ruby was getting more and more happy with her success. What was the oxymoronic expression? Cautiously optimistic. Despite that someone couldn’t be both of those words, it seemed to fit, regardless of proper English. Steven was changing before her eyes; he was getting better. She noticed he was no longer resisted her attempts at conversation, but was engaging her. She even saw him smile. It was only once, but she could tell that there were more smiles aching to be set free. Her success with Steven bolstered her resolve and gave her the courage she needed to keep facing the stares of the other students at Twin Oaks High School.
She couldn’t rely on support from her peers. Although no one said anything directly to her, neither did anyone attempt to find out what was going on. They seemed content on thinking Steven had somehow brainwashed her. She just knewthat there was no animus or malice in Steven’s heart, she just wished the others knew what she knew.
She tried to speak to a few classmates, but they all changed the subject and tried to talk about their unreasonable teachers or the latest gossip on who was dating whom. Anything but Steven.
On several occasions, Ruby tried to talk to Robert again, but he seemed so focused on ignoring Ruby and Steven. Robert was so convinced of Steven’s guilt, he was completely denying that there was any chance of innocence. He seemed sure, too, that Ruby was a lost cause. It made Ruby wonder if she could ever get Robert to consider anything other than the lies he held as truth. But like so many things out there, it was easier to hate, than to admit that he was wrong.
* * *
After weeks of spending time with the chronically upbeat Ruby, Steven decided to try to reconcile with his oldest friend, but Robert ducked out of the classroom as soon as the bell rang. Steven was aware of movement from Ruby, and noticed that her eyes narrowed as they followed Robert out of the classroom. Ruby was upset with Robert. Steven was deciding if he should wait for her or leave when Leonard walked up to him.
Steven flinched, expecting an attack, even though that hadn’t happened for weeks. Instead, Leonard stood in front of him, rubbing the back of his neck as his cheeks flushed with embarrassment. Steven saw David run past, ignoring them, and he knew something was going on. David had never acted that way before.
Steven waited for what seemed like forever, before he finally said, “Do you want something?” Leonard seemed to struggle even more, and Steven had a feeling he knew what was coming, but didn’t want to believe it.
“Steven,” he said. “I-I just wanted to tell you…” Leonard paused again and Steven got sannoyed. Then Leonard dropped his hands and pulled himself up to his full height. “I wanted to say, I don’t think you killed Lindsay. Or had anything to do with it.”
Steven felt as if someone had slapped him. That wasn’t what he’d expected. There was silence between them for several minutes before Steven finally said, “You changed your mind?”
Leonard smiled and spread his hands. “I know it’s a surprise,” he replied, shaking his head slightly as if he, too, had no idea why he was saying those things. “It’s just that… I mean, if you really did it? Killed Lindsay? Then why… why would Ruby spend time with you? I mean, it’s crazy to think she would… you know.”
“Spend time with a monster?”
Leonard’s blush deepened and the tops of his ears shone scarlet. His gaze fell to the floor, as if it could divine the answers to life’s mysteries. He met Steven’s eyes. “I guess,” he finally said.
Steven sighed and considered his onetime friend… He wasn’t sure what to say or what to do, yet there was a feeling growing inside of him. He barely recognized it. It was warm and he felt slightly elated. Could it be? Was he… happy?
“So…” Leonard said, truncating Steven’s thoughts. “You… I mean, you wanna grab some food? I’m peckish.”
Ruby sidled up between them, linked her arms through each of theirs, and said, “That sounds great.” She smiled at Steven, who found himself returning the gesture. He was shocked by it, and his smile grew wider.
As the trio left the room, other students stared. Some looked disgusted, their eyes vociferous where their voices could not, but others looked confused. They all seemed to know that something important was happening, they just didn’t know what yet. As Steven walked out of the classroom, he glanced over at the teacher. The woman winked at Steven with a pleasant smile, and for the third time that day, Steven grinned. He felt so free – like a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.