High schools and small towns have a lot in common. Groups of people in their own separate tribes, forced together arbitrarily, made to coexist in order to achieve optimal pleasantness. Not everybody actually likes everyone else, but most days, that doesn’t matter. Most days, you might experience at worst a tightening smile, a twinge of annoyance when someone nudges your comfort zone, challenges you just enough to wake you up and make you notice.
Most people don’t like to be challenged. Most people like to be comfortable. But that moment of accidental discomfort is usually fleeting, it can be glossed over and forgotten so you can go on to have another peaceful day alongside people you don’t actually like, and another, and another after that.
Then there are the rarer times when something too eventful to ignore happens. The kind of thing we’re forced to notice; it energizes us, interrupting the comfort of our everyday monotony; it separates us, inevitably pitting some of us against others, and that’s when the ugliness comes seeping out of every previously unnoticed hole. Smiles are wiped from the faces of those who liked you well enough when you didn’t cause trouble, but like you a lot less once you open your mouth and say something they don’t like.
I am the thing that happened in this high school, in this small town. I am the person who made people uncomfortable. I am the catalyst that shook everyone’s fake friendliness and brought out their ugly, and what did I do? I dared to speak up for myself. I dared call out someone they liked more than me for doing something wrong. When people told me I was overreacting, when they told me to sit down and stop causing a scene, I ignored them. I didn’t shut my mouth until they were so desperate to shut me up, they finally imposed consequences for wrongdoing—like they should have done from the start.
It was not a popular thing to do, standing up for myself. That’s all right. I don’t need people to like me; I just need them to respect me as much as common decency warrants, and leave me alone the rest of the time.
The problem is, after I demanded justice and it was finally served, the harassment intensified. Knowing I was right to stand up for myself and other girls who might not want to endure this whole ordeal is one thing, but being treated like a pariah, stared at with open hostility in public, talked about when I’m in the same room, called names and ostracized at the school where I’m trying to focus on my studies during senior year… after a while, it starts to get to you.
Today has been an especially bad day. I arrived this morning to catcalls and a “Zoey the ho” chant that turned my cheeks pink with anger, then opened my locker to find lube oozing down the inside of the metal door. The book I left in my locker yesterday was ruined and I had to go through the incredibly embarrassing ordeal of going to the office and asking them to send the janitor to my locker to clean up KY jelly. Worse, the receptionist—whose son is on the football team—barely tried to stifle her smirk, apparently finding it funny that someone would squirt lube inside the vents of my locker and ruin my personal belongings.
Since dealing with all that this morning, I’ve been walking around in a tired state of paranoia, holding my breath before entering a new classroom, wondering what kind of fun the rest of the day has in store for me. I want to go home, but it’s only lunchtime. There’s no way in hell I’ll go to the cafeteria. I’m not sure where to hide, though. I don’t want to eat lunch in the bathroom again.
Is this what it’s going to be like for the rest of the school year?
Dread weighs down on me at the exhausting thought. I head back to my newly cleaned locker to get rid of my books and grab my sack of lunch. Holding up the paper bag, I eye it with distaste. Even though the locker was cleaned, it still smells faintly of lube. Do I really want to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that has been sitting in this locker all morning? It’s in a paper bag, and the sandwich itself is in a Ziploc bag inside, but still…
Sighing, I shut my locker and take my brown bag to the trash can down the hall. Maybe I’ll go to the vending machine and get myself a bag of chips or something instead. I don’t have cash on me, but I probably have enough change in my car for chips.
The halls are emptying out. I duck into the bathroom real quick to pee, figuring by the time I’m done everyone will be in the cafeteria and I can hit the vending machine without encountering anyone.
After I’ve dawdled as long as possible, washed my hands, and paused to listen for footsteps, I finally go outside and walk the empty halls toward the vending machines outside the cafeteria.
I don’t make it far before I hear someone call out behind me, “Hey, Ellis.”
The blood running through my veins surges with a spike of adrenaline at the sound of his voice. I turn around, the movement slow with dread. Three football players stand at the end of the hall. Shayne Sutton, Carter Mahoney, and Jake.
Jake is supposed to stay away from me. I even had to move out of the class we had together to enforce it, but right now, instead of staying back, they all start walking toward me.
Foreboding niggles at me. Logic tells me we’re at school and they can’t do anything to me here, but every instinct I have compels me to run. I turn back around, my steps slow and heavy at first, then I walk as fast as I can away from them without blatantly running. I don’t want them to think I’m afraid of them, even though I am. Three to one odds aren’t fair to begin with, but taking into account that I’m 120lbs soaking wet, and they’re three well-built jocks who have regular weight training sessions for football, I wouldn’t stand a chance fighting back against them.
My gaze darts around the hallway, but there’s nowhere to go that’s safe. Just empty classrooms—no students, no teachers.
“What’s wrong, Zoey?” Carter calls out, clearly amused. “Why are you running?”
I guess I wasn’t speed-walking subtly enough.
I want to believe they’re just taunting me, but I’ve seen the way Jake has looked at me since Coach told him he couldn’t play for the rest of the season. Hell, the way everyone has been looking at me—like I’m the bad guy.
You don’t fuck with the football players in a football town. That’s the number one rule, above absolutely everything else. They are gods here, and me, I’m no one. Who am I to police the behavior of deities?
I knew the risks when I reported Jake Parsons for harassing me; I just thought it was ass-backward bullshit. My mom begged me not to make a fuss, but I refused to be silenced.
Now I’m silenced by fear—paralyzing fear. I don’t know what happens if they catch up to me. Maybe nothing. Maybe they are just trying to scare me, but maybe they aren’t. I don’t want to find out.
“Ain’t so talkative now, are you, Zo?” Jake calls out, his voice closer.
Giving up any pretense that I’m not running from them, I sprint down the hall, my heart racing. They’re athletes, so they’re all in better shape, all faster than I am. I don’t know what to do, so I grab the door jam and hurl myself inside a darkened classroom, grabbing the door and flinging it shut. I reach to engage the lock so they can’t follow me inside my makeshift sanctuary, but my heart drops.
There isn’t one. There are no locks on the doors.
I turn around, grabbing a chair and preparing to try to jam it under the handle to block it, but before I can even try, the handle turns and the door opens.
Oh, no. I thought I could lock them out, but all I did was cage myself in.
Jake saunters in first, a smirk on his handsome face, his blue eyes already shining with arrogant amusement. I remember the last time he cornered me, when he was behind me and I tried to get away from him. The way he held me in place and pushed his hand inside my shirt, grabbing my breast. I told him to let me go, and he chuckled, told me we were just getting started.
Now I hold up the chair, backing away like a cornered animal. “You stay away from me,” I tell him, heart in my throat. “The principal said—”
“The principal?” he interrupts, stopping to cock an eyebrow. “Fuck the principal. You know what Coach said, Zoey?”
My face heats up at the reality of being confronted face-to-face like this. I was pleased that Coach imposed consequences and made Jake sit out the rest of the season. The coach has a daughter just a couple years younger than me, so he should take a stand against the willful sexual harassment his football players are guilty of. If he cares, if they suffer consequences for their misbehavior, then they’ll stop doing it.
Jake starts talking, walking closer. He’s trying to intimidate me, so his pace is slow and deliberately menacing. “Coach said because you’re a stupid fuckin’ tattletale whore, I’m suspended for the rest of the season. My senior year. I can’t play, Zoey. This goes on my record. Colleges, scholarships—you’re fuckin’ with my future. All because I grabbed your tit. Is your tit that special, Zoey?”
“I think we should take that shirt off her and see what’s so great about them,” Carter proposes.
Coming from someone I don’t even know, the taunt is jarring. My gaze slides to Carter Mahoney, easily the most popular and celebrated guy at this school. The guys love him because he’s a hell of a quarterback—and, to an extent, probably because the girls love him, too. He has dark hair they dream about running their fingers through, dark eyes they want to get lost in. Maybe it’s only because of my circumstances, because of what he just said, but looking at him now, I can’t help seeing a void in those dark eyes that I never noticed from a safe distance.
My grip on the chair tightens and fear travels down my spine. Shayne slides a different chair under the door handle like I considered doing. “Zoey the ho and her special tits,” he says, before snickering.
“Open that door right now,” I demand, my gaze jumping from guy to guy. I don’t know which one is the weakest link, which one I should appeal to. They all seem like assholes. “Y’all can’t corner me and treat me like this. We’re at school. You’ll all get suspended—not just from the team, but from school altogether. Think a football suspension will look bad to colleges? Imagine how that’s gonna look.”
“You think so?” Jake asks casually. He has the confidence of an asshole people like, and it frustrates me to no end. “See, I think what would happen in that scenario is someone would burn down your fuckin’ house with you inside. Imagine all three of us off the team,” he says, glancing back at his buddies with a little smile.
“What team?” Carter asks dryly. “Wouldn’t be anything left.”
“Exactly,” Jake says easily, taking a step toward me.
That’s true enough of Carter, at least. Considering how much shit I’ve had to deal with, it’s crazy to think I’m lucky Jake was the one I had to go after, but if it had been Carter Mahoney, my family would have had to move.
Despite the football-crazy town I live in, I don’t have much interest in the game, myself. Still, in my four years going to high school here, it has been impossible to miss the praise and wonder the mere mention of Carter evokes in people—the excitement in their voices and the stars in their eyes when they talk about the starting quarterback and his promising football career. Everyone says he has a golden arm, the form and instincts of a natural athlete. The whole team is built around him. We don’t win games because we have an amazing football team; we win because we have Carter Mahoney.
Personally, I would rather be able to sleep at night knowing the girls in town are safe from assholes forcing unwanted attention on them, but the most vocal people in this town seem to prefer winning football games.
I jab the chair at Jake as he moves closer to me. I don’t like violence, I have no desire to fight with any of them, but I’ll bash him right in the face with the chair legs if he tries to touch me again.
“Here’s what I think,” Jake says, reaching forward and grabbing the chair right out of my hand. It’s so easy for him to disarm me; clearly, I need to work on my upper body strength. I stumble forward trying to hold onto it, then lurch back quickly, trying to put more space between myself and them. “I think you’re gonna tell everyone you lied,” Jake states. “That you were pissed off at me and you overreacted.”
“I’m not going to do that,” I tell him. “I didn’t lie. You touched me, I asked you to stop, and you wouldn’t. You laughed. I was deeply uncomfortable, and you thought it was funny. You behaved like a douchebag, and you deserved to be punished.”
Irritation flashes in his turbulent blue eyes. “You act like I fuckin’ raped you, Ellis. All I did was feel you up.”
“I didn’t want you to. I said no, I told you to stop, and you didn’t listen,” I tell him, my eyes widening.
He tosses the chair aside and it skids across the dingy linoleum floor. “Yeah, well, I don’t think the punishment quite fit the crime. I think if you’re gonna ruin my motherfuckin’ life, I should get a little more out of it.”
With every step he takes forward, I’ve taken one back. Now I bump up against the window. There’s nowhere else to go, and he’s right on top of me. I look behind him at the other two guys, searching for some sign of uncertainty on either of their faces, some glint of guilt or sympathy, anything I can appeal to in order to maybe get some help.
There’s nothing. The guys stick together. In their delusional minds, I’ve betrayed them by speaking up for myself.
In the whole town’s eyes, I’m the asshole for not wanting Jake Parsons to touch me. For making a big deal about him ignoring my rejection and doing it anyway.
What a prude.
Suck it up, princess.
Jake Parsons wanted you? You should have been flattered.
Now Jake Parsons reaches out his hand, braces it on my chest, and shoves me back against the wall between the window panes. He makes sure to touch as much of my breast as he can while he does, then he fists his hand in my shirt and meets my gaze, a hint of challenge dancing in his eyes. I know he’s either going to tear my shirt or rip it off over my head, I just don’t know what he’s going to do after that.