Bob Henderson received the call on a Tuesday morning, in early September. He'd just watched his son, Timmy, get on the school bus, and he himself was about to leave for work. He was mentally debating whether to take the call or let the machine get it, when he noticed the caller ID said it was the hospice where his wife, Emily, was a patient. She'd been there for nearly a year, ever since the sudden and unexplained onset of catatonia. Bob and Timmy had gone to visit her as often as they could, over the past year, or at least as often as they could bear to. In the first few months, this meant several times a week, after they got home from work and school, respectively, and on weekends. They kept hoping that their presence might jar her out of her condition, but she remained unresponsive. Gradually, a sense of frustration, hopelessness, and depression began to set in, and their visits became less frequent. At this point, they only visited her a couple times a month, and that was largely out of a sense of guilt. The doctors still said Emily might recover at any time... or she might never recover. The Hendersons no longer dared to hope.
He answered the phone, and was informed that his wife had passed away sometime in the night. It had been a little over a week since he'd last seen her.
He called in to work to ask for the day off, and his manager immediately agreed, offering his condolences. Bob went to the hospice to talk with the attending physician, nurses, and anyone else who might have had contact with his wife. They all said they had seen no change in her condition last night, and she'd seemed normal- as normal as she ever got- when they put her to bed for the night. The doctor had examined her that morning, after the nurse found that she'd died in her sleep. He saw no clear indication of what had caused her death, but said an autopsy might reveal more. Bob saw no reason for that. He was sad, of course, but also relieved that Emily was finally at peace. The staff of the hospice would be able to make funeral arrangements, if he wished, and he thanked them for that.
He went home, and tried to think what to tell Timmy. He'd have a few hours to figure it out, while he waited for his son to return from school.
Emily sat in her wheelchair, gazing serenely at the brook, and smiled. There was a vague sadness to her smile, though her attendant didn't notice it, as he wasn't looking at her face. He'd been bringing her to this spot for the past three months, since it seemed to make her happy. He wasn't sure quite how he could tell that it did so, but it was a sense he got. "Better enjoy it while you can," he said. "Soon it'll be too cold for taking walks."
Suddenly he heard a crash nearby, a sound he recognized as a wheelchair turning over. It didn't happen very often, but the staff was very attentive to such things. He hurried off in the direction of the sound, to see if someone needed assistance. He didn't expect to leave Emily for more than a minute, and he was right. Another patient had fallen, but his own attendant had already picked him up by the time Jack got there.
Just as he was about to return to Emily, he thought he heard a little splash in the brook. When he got back, he asked her, "Did you hear a splash?" Emily, of course, said nothing. But for just a moment, Jack could have sworn he saw the slightest upward quirk to her lips.
Maria Jacobson was a magazine journalist, and she'd come to the hospice to do research for a story she was working on. This would be just one small part of her ongoing investigation into the state of the community's various health care services. The director of the hospice had approved her visit, believing that Ms. Jacobson would only find good things to say about the service they provided to their patients. During her visit, she spoke with several members of the staff, as well as many of the patients. She'd been concerned that the staff might not leave her unsupervised during her talks with the patients, and she was right. However, when they saw that she was clearly not the kind of journalist to harass their patients, but genuinely concerned about their well-being, they came to trust her. She asked if she might make a follow-up visit in a week or so, and they agreed.
The next time she came, she was allowed greater autonomy. As had been the case last time, some of the patients she talked with were bedridden, some were in a common lounge, and some were outside. The grounds of the hospice were quite lovely, in early June, with tables near the main building for dining al fresco, and a bit further on were areas set up for games like horseshoes and croquet. Beyond that there were trees, a small brook, and several winding, cobbled paths on which residents might go for walks or be pushed by attendants, if they were in wheelchairs. Maria wandered freely about the grounds, stopping now and then to talk to various patients, some of whom remembered her from her previous visit, and some who didn't. Finally, she came upon Emily Henderson, who was sitting in her wheelchair, attended by an orderly who obviously cared about all the residents. His name was Jack, and Maria had made sure to make a good impression on him, last time she was here.
"Hello, Jack," she said with a smile, as she approached him.
He smiled back. "Hello, Ms. Jacobson. Nice to see you again. How's the story coming? I look forward to reading it when it's published."
"Oh, don't worry, I'll be sure to let you know. Listen, I was wondering if I might take Mrs. Henderson for a little stroll?"
Jack seemed a bit apprehensive. "Well, it's just... I mean... it should be okay, but if something were to go wrong, I mean if she suddenly started acting strangely, or if she fell, or something... would you know what to do?"
"Didn't you tell me she'd been here for about nine months without ever saying or doing anything? Why should she suddenly start, now? And I'm sure she won't fall. But I promise, I won't take her too far. Certainly not out of shouting distance, so if anything goes wrong, I can call for you, and you can come help. But I think it might be nice for her to have a chance to visit with someone other than staff or fellow patients. Just us girls," she added with a wink.
"Well, okay. As long as you don't go far. But don't get your hopes up. She's never said a word to anyone here."
"Don't worry, I'm not expecting any miracles... though such things do happen, from time to time."
"Okay. Good luck."
"Thanks, Jack." She took the handlebars of the wheelchair from him, lowered her face to whisper conspiratorially in Emily's ear and said, "Shall we?" She looked up, flashed another smile at Jack, and began pushing Emily down the path.
When the path turned a short time later, taking them behind a small copse of trees, very near the peacefully babbling brook, Maria stopped, came around to the front of the wheelchair, and crouched down so that she was face to face with Emily. "Alone at last," she said. She paused, then, studying Emily's face, looking for any signs of comprehension, and finding none. Finally, she asked, "You don't remember me, do you?"
Emily looked at Maria, the same way she looked at anyone who spoke to her, since she'd come here. That is, with only the dimmest understanding that she was being spoken to. Her husband and son, of course, she recognized, but seeing them brought mixed emotions, and she couldn't bear to look at them for more than a few moments. She loved them very much, and knew that they loved her... but nine months ago, she had suddenly come to believe she didn't deserve their love. She didn't deserve anyone's love. And yet, she couldn't explain this to them. It was partly out of fear of explaining herself that she'd stopped speaking, though it wasn't entirely a choice she'd made. She simply no longer felt she had the emotional strength to speak, or walk, or do much of anything. Oh, she could feed herself, use the bathroom, little things like that. She didn't spend all her time in this wheelchair, but she couldn't find the willpower to get out of it for more than a few minutes at a time. Now that she looked at Maria, she did remember having seen her once before, several days ago. She'd seemed nice enough, just like everyone who worked at the hospice always seemed nice enough. But she couldn't manage to care about any of them, nor about this reporter. So her face conveyed no indication of recognition.
"To be clear," said Maria, "I don't mean from last week. I mean from fifteen years ago. We met, briefly, back then. It's no wonder if you don't remember meeting someone so briefly, so long ago. Especially since I've no doubt aged a bit. I was nearly 40, then, and people used to tell me I could pass for my late 20s. Now I'm flattered when people say I could pass for my mid-40s, which doesn't happen often. They do say I look good for 55, which I suppose they mean as a compliment. Of course, you've aged, too. You were, I think, 17 or 18, back then. I'm sorry to tell you this, but you don't exactly look good, for your age. But I suppose that's to be expected, given the circumstances."
Emily searched her memory, trying to think if she'd ever seen this woman before. Fifteen years, she said... Suddenly, Emily's eyes widened.
"Oh, so you do remember?" said Maria. "I talked to as many people as I could, in the days and weeks after my son's disappearance. Anyone I could determine had been at the party he'd gone to, that night, hoping one of them might have some idea what had happened to Jeremy. But none of them knew a thing. Or at least, none of them admitted to knowing anything. You certainly didn't. Eventually, I gave up, and did my best to move on with my life. But when you lose a child, without any idea what became of him, you can never completely give up. You can never really stop wondering.
"And then, many years later, I heard about you. Heard about the strange way you suddenly stopped talking, and how you were subsequently committed to this institution. No, sorry, that's not the right turn of phrase... but never mind. You were here, and I started thinking, what could cause such a thing? There was, so I heard, absolutely no indication of anything traumatic happening to you at the time, so I thought maybe something traumatic had happened to you sometime in the past. Maybe you'd suppressed the memory of it, and for some reason that memory had suddenly been triggered, putting you into a state of shock. So I thought I might try once again to ask you about Jeremy. Maybe you hadn't been lying, back then, but really hadn't remembered. Please, Mrs. Henderson... please tell me, do you have any idea what became of my son?"
Emily looked at Maria with a deeply sad and troubled expression... the first emotion she'd allowed her face to display for the past nine months. She wanted to speak, knew the woman deserved the truth, but after all these months of silence, she could scarcely find her voice. And in the mother's presence, her sense of depression was more crushing than it had been since the night she'd first remembered what had happened. She managed to croak out, "My fault. He... he died. My fault. I'm so sorry." And that was all she could say. She looked away, unable to continue to face Maria.
"I see. So, you're not going to say more, I take it. Perhaps that means I'll never know the whole truth. But at least I know now that he won't be coming back. I always wondered if he might have run away, or something. I know he'd thought of it often enough, and that always saddened me. His father and I loved him very much, and did all we could to make him happy, but there was nothing we could do. He had... so many issues, which we could never fully understand. We took him to a psychologist, for awhile, when he was younger, but it only seemed to make things worse, so we stopped. He'd never been good at making friends, because of his social anxiety, among other things. So we'd been surprised and... I wouldn't say 'overjoyed,' but at least optimistic, when he said he'd decided to go to a graduation party. He'd never liked parties, you see, not even small family gatherings. We'd even stopped throwing him birthday parties, several years earlier, once we finally accepted that they just triggered bouts of depression. But he said if he was going to be going off to college in the fall, he should start preparing himself to deal with uncomfortable social situations. And the party seemed like a good chance to do just that."
There were tears streaming down Emily's face, as she listened to Maria's story, though she made no sound.
Maria said, "I can see you feel bad about whatever part you played in his death. And if it hurt you so much that you ended up here... then perhaps you believe you deserve some kind of punishment. To be honest, I had no idea if you'd be willing or able to tell me anything, let alone whether you'd turn out to bear any responsibility for what happened. But I thought, just maybe... well, just maybe you would be responsible. That's when I came up with the idea for this multi-part article of mine. You should know it's not just a cover for my true motives. My editor actually likes the pages I've been turning in, and he's eager to start printing the story. He thinks it might win some awards. Maybe he's right. Time will tell. Meanwhile, this facility is very nice, and my article will reflect that. It should be good publicity for the hospice. But I'm afraid it's so nice, I can't really accept it as punishment for your role in my son's death. Can you?"
Emily didn't speak, but gave a weak little shake of her heard.
"I thought not." She withdrew a small vial from her pocket, showed it to Emily, and asked, "Do you think you could keep this hidden from the staff?"
"Good." She handled the vial to Emily, who reached out with a slightly trembling hand, and took it. "It contains an untraceable poison, something I learned about years ago, on another story I once worked on. What I'd like you to do is hide it, wait a few months or so- so no one will suspect I gave it to you- and then drink it. It won't take effect immediately, but probably a few hours after you drink it. If you can manage it, try to get rid of the bottle, somewhere it won't be found. When it comes, your death will be peaceful. Which is probably more than you deserve. Can you do that?"
Emily nodded, and slipped the vial into her own pocket.
Maria smiled. "Good. Then let's get you back to Jack, shall we?"
She pushed the wheelchair back along the path, and when Jack resumed custody of his charge, he asked, "Any luck?"
Maria sighed wistfully and said, "I'm afraid she didn't say a word."
Timmy- 'no, Tim,' Emily mentally corrected herself, knowing her son thought he was too old to be called 'Timmy' any longer- had just come home from his first school dance. He was 13, and shy, but was trying to overcome that shyness, now that he'd started high school. (There had been dances in middle school, but he'd always refused to attend them.) He'd only recently started taking an interest in girls, and was eager to appear more mature than he was. Personally, Emily thought he was remarkably mature, for a 13-year-old boy. The boys she'd known at that age had all been dreadfully immature, either acting far more childish or far more obnoxious than she'd ever seen Tim behave. She was concerned, however, that in his efforts to fit his peers' idea of maturity, he would begin to follow bad advice.
He'd been quiet, when he first came in the front door. And it was earlier than she'd expected; the dance was scheduled from 7 to 9pm, and it wasn't quite 8, yet. She asked if anything was the matter, and he'd stubbornly refused to talk, at first. But after a few minutes, he began crying. She knew he hated to cry, because he thought it was childish to do so, but she had often told him there's nothing wrong with crying, when one is sad. "Even your father cries, when he has a good reason," she would sometimes tell him, and Tim knew that was true, because he'd seen it himself.
Emily waited for him to finish crying, not wanting to pressure him into talking about what was bothering him until he was ready. Finally his tears subsided, and he told her, in a halting fashion, about the events of the evening. He hadn't been interesting in any particular girl, though there were a few he considered friends. Certainly he wouldn't have asked any classmate he barely knew to dance with him, it would have to be someone he already felt some degree of comfort with, someone he could maybe even laugh with about the awkwardness they both felt, and the absurdity of kids their age being rushed into things like this. But all his friends already had dance partners, so he just sat in a chair along one wall, drinking a styrofoam cup of punch, which wasn't particularly good. (Emily smiled when he added that detail, remembering her own school dances and the dreadful punch they'd usually served.) Finally, a girl he didn't know well had asked him to dance, and he imagined she was doing so out of pity, or perhaps on a dare, or as a joke. He found it hard to believe she genuinely wanted to dance with him, but even if she did, he wasn't comfortable with the idea. So he tried his best to politely decline, but this apparently made the girl angry. Some of the boys in his class had witnessed the incident, and they all pointed and laughed at Tim, calling him various names like "baby" and "mama's boy." So he'd run home, planning to never go back to school and face any of them again, though he knew he'd have to.
Emily felt bad for her son, and wanted to hug him, but was worried that doing any such thing would reinforce the idea of his being a mama's boy, so she refrained. Instead, she simply said, "It's okay, Tim. Different people just mat-" she stopped herself from saying 'mature'- "they just... find themselves ready for certain things at different times. There's nothing wrong with not being ready for this at the same time as the other kids. In fact I think it means you're more mature than they are, that you want to wait for the right girl, someone you really care about and feel comfortable... with...."
Just as she'd come to the end of her little speech of reassurance, she'd suddenly felt a rising wave of nausea, which she choked back in order to finish what she was saying. She didn't know, at first, what had caused this sensation, but she suddenly ran from the living room toward the bathroom, but realized she wouldn't make it, so stopped in the kitchen and threw up in the waste basket. Tim was concerned about her, and had risen from the couch to see what was the matter, though he didn't approach too closely, because he didn't want her vomiting to trigger a similar reaction in himself.
"Mom?" he asked, "Are you okay?"
In the midst of her vomiting, a rush of memories had begun to surface, something she hadn't thought about for fourteen years. It had been too chaotic in her mind for her to consciously grasp any of those memories, but she knew they were there, and they exacerbated her sickness. When she'd finished, she sat back on the floor, scurrying away from the waste basket, ending up with her back against the cabinet under the sink. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve and her one clear thought was Do we have any ginger ale in the house? but she didn't speak the thought aloud. It didn't matter, as Tim was already walking toward the pantry to find a can for her to drink. While Emily waited, she sat on the floor with her mind racing. The memories began to coalesce, and by the time Tim returned, she was screaming at the top of her lungs.
Bob returned just then, having been at a late business meeting, at work. He had been hoping he'd get out in time to see Tim when he returned from the dance, but hadn't been sure he would. Now all thoughts of that left his head. He knelt down in front of his wife, cupped her face in his hands and looked into her eyes. "Honey, what's wrong?"
She didn't respond. She stopped screaming, but started trembling all over. Bob looked at his son, standing nearby holding a can of soda. "Timmy, what happened?"
"I... I don't know, Dad. She just... suddenly freaked out. I don't know!"
The night of her high school graduation party, Emily had gotten drunker than she'd ever been before. Not that she'd ever gotten really drunk. After all, she was underage, and she knew she shouldn't be drinking at all. But of course all her friends drank, so she joined in to be sociable, but she was always more responsible in her drinking than any of them were. But at the party, she'd really cut loose. When she woke up the next morning, she couldn't remember anything from the night before. She just knew she felt sicker than any flu had ever made her feel. Still, her lack of memory worried her just a little. "I wonder if this is what they mean by blackout drinking?" she asked herself.
All through the summer, she felt a strange sense of unease. She had vowed never to drink again, or at least not nearly so much. She supposed she'd go back to social drinking, when she went to college. But for now, she remained sober. However, it wasn't her drunkenness or her lack of memory that troubled her, at least she didn't think that was it. Nor did she think it was the fact that Alex had started avoiding her, or the news of that loner guy who'd been in the news since he went missing, on graduation night. (The boy's mother had questioned her about that at one point, but Emily had had no answers for her.) She simply felt uncomfortable for a reason she couldn't put her finger on, and didn't feel up to seeing any of her friends, nor even spending much time with family. Certainly she didn't attend any parties. She spent more time sleeping than she ever had, and when she wasn't sleeping, she mostly either went for walks or read books. Mostly she liked to hole up in her room to read, though occasionally she took a book with her to read in the park. She just needed to distract herself from this inexplicable sense of unease, but rather uncharacteristically, for her, found herself put off by the idea of movies or music. She just wanted peace and quiet, and solitude.
That fall, she met Bob Henderson at college, and they immediately clicked. Before long, he'd helped her forget all about the mysterious unease she'd felt all summer. Bob wasn't at all the kind of guy she'd been into, in high school; he was more sensitive, even a little shy. But he was kind, and she felt safe with him. Most of the other college guys acted like they were still in high school, totally immature and pushy. She reminded herself that she actually used to like guys like that, as long as they weren't too pushy. But now, she just felt like taking things slow, and Bob was entirely willing to do just that. If anything, he was more hesitant than her about taking things to the next level. But before the first semester was over, they had gone to the next level. (Bob called it "the level after next," which Emily thought was cute.) Soon after Christmas break, she discovered she was pregnant. She and Bob got married during spring break, and Timmy was born near the end of summer break, before Bob and Emily started their second year of college. It was a challenge for both of them to take care of a baby and still attend classes, and it meant an end to any hope of a social life. But they didn't mind. Neither of them were very interested in parties, anyway, and together, they managed to handle everything. And they were truly happy together. They would be blissfully in love and happy for years to come.
Emily Kramer's friends liked her well enough, especially when they needed a designated driver. Still, they sometimes teased her for being too responsible. "I'm not sure that's really a thing," Emily would respond, though she'd laugh along with them. She knew they weren't really making fun of her, but she did have a sense of humor about herself. And she'd always wanted to be a bit less responsible than she normally was. Which may have been why she gravitated toward boys who weren't particularly responsible, themselves. Still, she'd never really had a boyfriend, and never let things go too far with the boys she did date. This tended to frustrate the boys, but they were all the types to know how much pressure would have been too much, and they all stopped short of that limit. Sometimes they got pretty damn close to the limit, and Emily enjoyed that... she wanted to push boundaries, she just didn't want to jump off any cliffs. ("Wait, that's a mixed metaphor, isn't it?" she often asked herself. But she didn't care.)
But after graduation, she decided she'd waited long enough. She suspected her friends had all exaggerated the stories of their, ahem, romantic escapades, but still she didn't really think any of them were virgins. And she doubted she'd meet many virgins in college. So, she was ready. Alex, the boy she'd been seeing casually (with no labels) for the last couple of months, was nice enough, though they certainly weren't in love. But it's not like she expected to have only one lover in her lifetime, so it didn't matter that they weren't going to be attending the same college. Heck, they'd be on opposite coasts, so they might never see each other again. But at least they could have the summer. So tonight at the party, she'd tell him she was ready.
But when she got to the party, she found him making out with another girl, who had a... reputation. Emily didn't know if her reputation was deserved- heck, her own friends might be just as deserving, in spite of the way they talked about this girl. But it didn't really matter. Emily was devastated... No, that's not the right word, she told herself, that's too harsh. It's not like we were in love, or anything. But she was definitely upset. She never did tell Alex what she'd been planning, but instead told him they were through. He felt kind of bad, but not too bad, because they'd never said they were exclusive, so he figured he hadn't done anything wrong. Meanwhile, Emily decided to get drunk.
When she was somewhat beyond drunk, she spotted a boy sitting in a corner, alone. She thought his name was Jeremy, but she didn't actually know him. As far as she knew, he didn't have any friends, and everyone thought he was kind of weird. Still... Maybe it's the beer goggles, she said to herself, but he's not bad-looking. At this point, she was more determined than ever to lose her virginity tonight, though in her drunken state she wasn't sure how much of this was because of her earlier reasoning, how much because she wanted revenge against Alex, or how much she just wanted an ego boost. She was sure Jeremy must be a virgin, and therefore probably a 'sure thing.' So she went over and sat down next to him. This seemed to make him nervous, which Emily found vaguely cute. She tried to make him more comfortable by putting her arm around him and saying, "Hey, there. No need to worry. I don't bite. Unless you want me to." She smiled and laughed at her own joke, but it only seemed to make Jeremy even more uncomfortable.
He didn't want to be anti-social. That's why he was here. He knew his parents were pleased he'd decided to attend the party, and while he didn't think they wanted or expected him to hook up with anyone, he at least wanted to be able to say he'd talked to someone. So he did. "Um, no thanks. No biting." He tried his best to ignore the girl's arm, which he really wished she'd remove, but he didn't say anything about it.
"You're name's Jeremy, right?"
"Yeah. You're... Emily?"
"That's right! Listen, Jeremy, I don't know if you can tell, but I'm a little bit drunk..." she paused, waiting for a response.
Jeremy thought she seemed more than a little drunk, but he didn't want to offend her, so he just said "I guess."
She laughed and asked, "What about you? You had anything to drink?"
"I had a beer. Awhile ago."
"One beer? That's not a party, you need more than that! You can't leave until you've had a sixer, for starters."
"No thanks, I'm really not... that interested."
She shrugged. "Well, if you're sure. But at least have one more."
"I guess I could," he said, hesitantly. He really didn't mind the idea of a second beer. It might at least make it easier to deal with being around so many people. Especially if they were going to act like this girl.
Emily got up, and soon returned with two beers: Jeremy's second, and her... she'd lost count.
"Thanks," said Jeremy, accepting the bottle. This time she didn't put her arm around him, for which he was relieved.
"So, Jeremy, you here alone?"
"Uh, yeah. You?"
"Well, I thought I was gonna be with Alex, but apparently not." She glanced in the direction of where she'd last seen him, planning to scowl at him, but he wasn't there anymore. Probably they found a bedroom, she thought, and took a lengthy swig of her beer.
Jeremy took a cautious drink of his own, and tried to think what to say. Nothing came to mind.
"So anyway," said Emily, "since we're both alone, maybe we can be alone together."
"I'm not sure that's how it works," said Jeremy. Emily laughed at this.
"Maybe not. Then let's be together, together."
"Look, I um... I'm not sure... what exactly your intentions are, but-"
"My intentions?" Her head was starting to swim, and she wasn't sure how she felt about that. It was getting harder to concentrate. Up until now, there had been a few times part of her brain was telling her to be offended by Jeremy's reticence while another part of her brain told her to be amused. So far, she'd chosen the latter. The alcohol in her system had made that easy. But suddenly, she was beginning to feel offended. The alcohol made that easy, too. "I'm just... trying to have a nice, friendly conversation. Don't you know how to be friendly?"
"I'm afraid I've never been very good at that. But I'm trying."
"Awww. Well try harder." Suddenly, she leaned in and kissed him, though she herself had no idea why. Even as she asked herself what had caused this impulse, she decided to ignore the question.
However, Jeremy quickly pulled away. "What are you doing?!" he demanded.
Emily giggled and said, "Being friendly. That's how it's done, by the way. Oh!" She suddenly thought this was why she'd done it: to teach him how.
"I'm sorry, but... I know I'm no expert in friendship, but I always thought it meant understanding and respecting each other's feelings. Maybe I haven't made it clear, but I'm not interested in... you know, kissing, or anything."
"What do you mean 'or anything'? What do you think, I'm trying to seduce you, or something? What kind of girl do you think I am?" Emily was more offended than ever, now, even while part of her brain was saying Uh, yeah, that's exactly what I was trying to do. She wondered if maybe she was offended because she was failing. So much for an ego boost.
"I... I don't mean to suggest..." Jeremy stammered. "I just... I'm sorry, I'm just not comfortable with any of this."
Emily finished off her beer, and looked at Jeremy, trying to focus on his face, which required considerable effort, as her head kept refusing to stay in one place. "Am I not good enough for you?"
"That's not what I'm saying at all." He tried desperately to think of something to add, but again, nothing came to mind. (He was very accustomed to that feeling.)
"Don't you think I'm pretty?"
"Sure. Yeah. But that's not really... important to me."
"Oh, am I not smart enough? Not nice enough? What's wrong with me? No! What's wrong with you? Don't all guys want what I'm offering?"
"I don't even know what you're offering. I thought you said-"
"Oh, shut up. I know what I said, and you know I didn't mean it." She was, in fact, sure of no such thing, but she didn't really care, at this point, whether her words or even her thoughts held any consistency.
"I just don't want to be with anyone I'm not in love with. And I think your stereotyping of all guys is offensive." He felt sure this would offend her, even though he now believed he was the only one with any right to be offended. So he didn't quite care if she was offended. He was just trying to stick up for himself.
"That's bullshit," said Emily. "There are lots of assholes in this world, guys who don't give a crap about whether a girl wants to or not. But I've never met any of them. I've only met nice guys, and I'm lucky like that. But even the nice guys want to. So either you're just pretending you don't want it, or else you must be, like, a retard or a fag or something." Emily's mind reeled when she heard herself say this, her brain screamed at her, Holy shit I've never used those words, I never would! What the fuck is wrong with me? But she only half cared. She was too deeply invested in being offended, and the alcohol continued to make that easy. Still, she tried to take it back. "No, no, I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. Unless you are- are you?"
"What, you mean gay? No. Developmentally challenged? I'm... I mean, not really."
"Then let me apologize properly. You... okay, you're shy. I get that. But that's because you don't know what you're missing. We don't have to go farther than you want. But you don't know how far that is if you don't at least try." Then she kissed him again, and turned to fully face him this time, swinging one leg over both of his, to sit in his lap.
Jeremy had no idea what to do. Instinctively, he threw her to the floor and shouted, "I said no!"
At this point, everyone at the party turned to look at them. People began whispering (loudly, over the music), asking if anyone had seen what happened. Some people said Jeremy had shoved Emily, and to those that had seen it, it had seemed more forceful than it had actually been. In fact, Jeremy himself was unsure how forcefully he had thrown her, though he couldn't believe there was any chance he'd actually hurt her.
The host of the party, a guy named Brad, quickly walked up to them and demanded to know what was going on. He told Jeremy, "I don't allow that kind of behavior in my place."
"I was just telling her... I mean, she was making unwanted advances. You people may not care who you make out with, or even who you fuck, but some people do care. I care. I don't want to be with someone unless I really care about her, unless we're totally comfortable with each other. There's nothing wrong with that, you know. And I don't even know this girl, let alone love her, or whatever. So I tried to ask her to leave me alone, politely, but she wouldn't stop. Anyway, I didn't hurt her, or anything. If there's any victim here, it's me."
"Bullshit," said Brad, a sentiment echoed by several members of the crowd, both male and female. "Emily's not that kind of girl, and even if she was, she wouldn't come on to a weirdo like you. Who even invited you?"
"I... there were flyers at schonol. The whole class was invited."
"Sorry, the flyers didn't say 'everyone but Jeremy.' Maybe you should have been clearer."
This seriously pissed Brad off; the alcohol made that easy. He grabbed Jeremy by the arm, pulled him up from the chair, and flung him violently across the room. "See how you like getting thrown around."
Jeremy picked himself up, and said, "Fine, I'll leave. I didn't want to come to your crappy party with your crappy music and crappy friends, anyway."
"Oh, but you don't mind drinking my crappy free beer, do you?"
Some of the people behind him snickered at Brad calling his own beer crappy, but he took their laughter to be at Jeremy's expense, and he joined in.
"I didn't have that much. And no, I didn't really want any." He turned and started toward the door. Under his breath, he muttered, "Fucking asshole."
"What was that?!" he heard Brad demand from behind him.
Before Jeremy could turn back around, a beer bottle was smashed over his head. His hair was now wet and sticky, and he wondered if it was all from beer, or if there was some blood. He raised a hand to his head, then looked at it. It wasn't very bright in the room, so it was hard to be sure, but it looked like there was blood on his fingers. He turned around and sneered at Brad. "I called you a fucking asshole. And you just proved me right." By this time, Emily had stood up, with some assistance from friends, and stood off to the side, watching the whole scene. Jeremy looked at her and said, "And she's a fucking asshole, too. You're all fucking assholes!"
At that, Brad threw a punch, which Jeremy managed to dodge. He'd never been in a fight and he wasn't at all athletic, but he had the advantage of being basically sober. But Brad didn't stop, and he was joined by a bunch of other guys, who surrounded Jeremy. Jeremy couldn't avoid them, and soon he was on the floor, being pummeled and kicked. Someone- probably Brad, though Jeremy couldn't tell for sure- said, "You want to be a victim, fine, be a fucking victim!"
Emily watched all this. Part of her brain was telling her she should put a stop to it, tell them Jeremy was telling the truth. But that part of her brain was nearly drowned, and the other part of her brain decided to put the first part of her brain out of its misery, complete the drowning. She opened another bottle of beer, and between gulps, she laughed. Later, as some of the guys dragged the body out of the house to dispose of it, Emily noticed tears streaming down her face. She idly wondered whether these were tears of laughter or of something else, but by now she couldn't even remember what there could be to cry about. Everyone had been laughing about something, so she supposed she must have just joined in. She realized she was about to pass out, and vaguely thought she heard someone saying "He's not dead, is he?" "Nah, they didn't beat him that badly. I dont think."
Her own last conscious thought was God, I hope I don't remember any of this in the morning, although she had no idea what she might have meant by that....