* * *
Leonard stepped forward and was the first to speak. “Why are you chasing us?”
David caught his breath and straightened. It was now David, Steven noticed, who looked extremely awkward; he was shuffling his feet and seemed unsure of what to say. Steven could guess what was coming. “Steven…” David began, but Steven surprised everyone, including himself by holding up his hand with his palm facing the newcomer.
“It’s okay, David.” David’s eyes were wide with shock; Leonard and Ruby watched Steven very closely. “I know you’re sorry. It’s all right. I just want us to be friends again.” David’s eyes widened. Steven felt a tightness swell in his throat. What was he doing? he thought.
David smiled. “Well, that was easier than I thought!”
Steven laughed. “Makes you wonder why you didn’t do it before, right?” he asked. He couldn’t help but smile. Having his friends back, even if only a few, was too good to ruin with past feelings. If they could let the past be the past, so could he.
* * *
Robert watched the group step onto the bus together from the window of the now vacant classroom. He watched helpless as the door closed behind them. He swore, the volume of his outburst echoing off the high ceiling. He felt anger boil up inside of him and he bit his tongue. He tasted blood, then turned around and stormed to his desk and slammed his fists on it. What was happening? he thought, a morose wave of emotion flowed over him. Why was everyone turning back to being friends with Steven? Why were they forgiving him for what he did to Lindsay?
A little voice he barely recognized from before Lindsay’s death whispered in his head that maybe Steven didn’t do it, that maybe he was innocent. He couldn’t be; it wasn’t possible. Robert looked up with tears forming in his eyes. Shouldn’t he patch things up with Steven? Surely he should be friends with him again? Robert threw a chair aside, its clattering the next sound that echoed in the vacant space. Why was this happening?
Make Steven pay for what he has done, said another voice, one he had never heard before.
Robert spun around at the voice. “Hello?” he said, looking around, but no one was there. Had someone been watching him? But he hadn’t actually spoken, so how could they know what he had been thinking about? He glanced around the room and gathered his things, Robert left the empty classroom feeling disoriented.
* * *
Steven and Ruby got off at the same stop and waved to Leonard and David as the bus pulled away. They walked down the street in companionable silence. Neither said anything but each one would glance at the other now and again. Steven wanted to say something to her, but all he could do was keep walking.
Spending time alone with Ruby outside of school was a lot different than sitting next to her in class or hanging out with her in a group. She was quieter and more thoughtful and authentic when she wasn’t performing for all the eyes on her, and when she let her guard down, she was so beautiful it made his stomach lurch with somersaults.
Eventually, they came to a roundabout and Ruby said, “Well, I head off here.”
Steven gazed at her. “OK, well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.” Ruby waited a moment, watching him, as if waiting for him to say something again, before she nodded and began to walk away. Steven watched her walk down the street several steps, then suddenly, she stopped and turned around.
“You know, if you’re… you know, not busy or anything on Friday. It’s a half-day. Would you want to, I don’t know, go somewhere?” He hadn’t heard her so nervous since the day they had their big talk, and the way she stammered her words was endearing.
When what she said finally pierced the layer of admiration coating his brain, he gawked. “What, go out? Together?”
Flushing, Ruby quickly said, “What? Can’t two friends head out together for a day?” She wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“Oh. Yeah, sure, why not.”
Smiling, Ruby said, “Alright. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She turned on the heel of one perfect shoe and walked down the street away from him.
Steven watched her until she stopped, waved, and walked into a house on the left side of the street. He felt as if the weight on his shoulders evaporated. His steps away from their encounter were light and bouncy, and he felt a smile spread across his face. He had just been asked out for the first time in way too long.
* * *
Steven arrived home and threw himself onto his bed, his eyes wide with disbelief. That afternoon had been fun. He had actually had fun! He had laughed, he had smiled. David and Leonard had treated him like they had been friends this whole time. Now, apparently, they were going out the next day after school again. Their beneficence was a relief after so long being isolated.
And Ruby! She acted like they were old friends, too, but more than that. As he thought about it, he could picture the few times he glanced over and caught her looking his way, and how she blushed and looked away too late to avoid his gaze. He thought about all the times he made a joke and she leaned over, laughing, and gave his arm a squeeze.
Steven sat up and went deep in thought about the last few weeks. So much had changed since Ruby had begun spending time with him. For the first time in forever, Steven felt hope. It was small hope, a fool’s hope that, perhaps, he would be okay. It was a small hope – but it was there, and it made all the difference.
But, a nagging notion played in the back of his mind, could he be with someone so soon after what had happened to Lindsay?
Yes, he decided, and for once the voice that had been his nemesis for so long failed to contradict him.