* * *
The time had come for Steven to return to school. The trial was now more than two weeks behind him. The parade of therapists and councilors was infuriating. He wanted them to just leave him alone. He yearned for the glorious monotony of the classroom, and boring school instead of the constant hovering of the staff at the halfway house. Although he was emancipated, the state stepped in and somehow decided to retroactively make him a ward of the state. His eighteenth birthday was in the summer and was after the school year would end. He hated being on his own for so long, and then to suddenly have to answer to someone. Even if that someone practiced indifference.
His rent-controlled apartment wasn’t his anymore. The owner fixed it up like nothing had ever happened, and rented it out right away. He had stood outside of the door, yearning to see the spot that Lindsay had died, but Missus Nesbitt, his former neighbor, had threatened to call the police if he didn’t leave. His employer decided that the attention Steven was under was no good for her business, so she gave him a generous severance package, and sent him on his way. Homeless and jobless, Steven had to rely on the social programs in his city. Graduating high school was the latest stipulation his new overseers insisted on. They were fanatical in their insistence that they knew what was best for him.
People yelled unkind words at him when he walked down the street. Their frothy vehemence made it clear of what they thought of him. More than one person had mysteriously “stumbled” into him, and he found himself on his back looking up at the sneering face of his attacker. It was odd how clumsy the population had suddenly become. The example random people set on the streets bled into the classroom: his schoolmates were no longer interested in veiled insults or simply staring. They saw the aftermath of the courtroom riot in their homes as their brothers and fathers returned late or in some cases, the next day. They wanted their revenge for their neat little lives being disrupted in such a grand way.
Steven walked into his first classroom of the day. He intentionally got there early to avoid the slings and arrows of his classmates. David and Leonard waited for him in the otherwise empty classroom. Steven froze at the threshold and backed away slowly from a pair of crooked grins.
“Come on in, murderer,” Leonard sneered, giddy at the prospect of doling out what he thought was justice.
David pushed a chair out from the desk he was sitting on with his sneakered foot. “Have a seat. We want to welcome you back properly.” David looked at Leonard and snickered.
Steven took a step back and collided with another body. Leonard rolled his eyes and glanced at his companion. Robert stepped around Steven and dropped his backpack on the nearest desk. He glanced at David and Leonard before turning his attention to Steven.
“So,” Steven said after a long silence, Robert’s eyes locked with his and the duo watching from deeper in the classroom, “I’m innocent.”
The enchanting smile Steven was previously known for was long gone. When he saw himself in the mirror, he often wondered who the sad sack staring back was.
“I’m innocent,” he repeated when Robert didn’t respond. His voice wasn’t boasting; it was more of a begging tone. It was as if he wanted the statement to rally Robert to his side. Steven had watched his oldest and best friend go from defending him, to a standoffish behavior, and finally to ignoring him outright. Steven wanted his old friend back. He didn’t need him to be his champion, but at least to let him know that he still cared. He reached for Robert’s shoulder, and Robert stepped back. Steven stood there, mouth agape, arm outstretched. Robert’s eyes flickered from Steven to over Steven’s shoulder.
“Robert, please…” Steven whispered, clutching the proffered hand to his chest. His vision blurred at the edges, and he looked up to the ceiling to stop the tide.
“Steven,” Robert finally said, after staring with such intensity that Steven was forced to ignore the snickers and whispers from Leonard and David, and focus on Robert’s next words. “Steven,” he continued, “we’re not friends anymore.”
Steven felt as if he had swallowed a heavy stone. Even David and Leonard fell silent at Robert’s words.
“But,” Steven stuttered. “But, I didn’t…”
“Don’t,” Robert declared, and held up his hand to stop Steven from continuing. His eyes were glassy, and he too stared up at the ceiling before meeting Steven’s eyes. “Don’t make this more difficult than it has to be.” He paused and picked up his backpack. “I can’t…” Robert took a deep breath before continuing. “I don’t know what happened between you two. You guys didn’t make good choices. I’m not sure what to believe, but I can’t be your friend.”
Before Steven could reply, Robert hefted his backpack over one shoulder, walked past wide-eyed David and Leonard, and took a seat at the front of the classroom. Now, he didn’t hide his tears.
“Out of the way, psycho,” a voice sounded out behind Steven. He felt a shove, and another student brushed past him into the classroom. A steady flow of accusing eyes filed by and took up the empty seats, a wide buffer zone between them and their pariah. When the doorway and the hall were relatively free from interlopers, Steven staggered into the hallway and leaned his back against the row of lockers. He felt himself sag, and he slid down the metal, drawing his knees to his chest. Someone walked by and kicked his backpack out of his reach. He didn’t care. He wasn’t sure if his shaking hands could retrieve it even if he did care. No tears came this time. Steven was beyond crying. The numb feeling that had overwhelmed him was dissipating, and a new feeling was replacing it: hopelessness.
Steven accepted the overwhelming truth: He was now truly alone.