The hospital smelled of bleach and sickness. To James, the stench of medicine hung heavy in the air like anvils. A news anchor with a bushy mustache spoke of something about politics in a fuzzy TV screen. Magazine stands reeked with weird smells that combined with the medicine. Almost like one of the nurses left out a day old cheese sandwich then tried to cover up the smell with a Pepto Bismol air freshener.
He sat in the waiting room with people just like him – waiting, chapped lips, pale skin streaked with red from tears, bags hanging under their eyes that made them look like raccoons. It wasn’t comforting to know that so many people that were in the waiting room looked like Mom and Marcus. Both were trying to keep a happy face. Both tried to cover up the wailing of one old woman with a new song Marcus had just downloaded. Both tried to force a smile on their face when James looked to them. And both tried to not jump in excitement when the nurse in the pale blue uniform came through the door.
“Leticia Omar?” She called. Her voice was soft, like cotton candy and it was sweet like honey. Calming. Reassuring. James could see Mom and Marcus both deflate. A dark skinned woman with raccoon eyes and a crutch limped over to where the nurse stood by the double doors. They swung closed with a click that echoed in the small room.
Eight tests. Eight. Loftin had recommended only three, but Marcus had wanted to be completely and utterly sure. He had scheduled them all by himself, money from his own pocket. James had gone through five. Now it was six today. Mom clutched his hand when a boy that looked not much older than him started to cough violently. He could see the fear flashing in her eyes as the boy wiped off his mouth with a tissue.
“It’s okay,” James whispered gently, laying his head on her shoulder. Her muscles tensed when he did.
“Mom, it’s okay.”
It seemed as if both of his parents – well, parent and money provider, seemed more nervous than he was. Anna was barely sixteen, how could she have some sort of STI at that age already? Then the thought of Zack came into his head. Zack had slept with more girls than James and Ori could with their fingers combined. And the talk with Zack was something he had stuck in his mind for the longest time. The fact that Zack was dating this girl – this thing that played him such as an object, was numbing to him. Zack slept with her. Zack touched her. Zack kissed her. He loved the girl that made James who he is now.
It was unbelievable.
“Are you okay?”
His Moms eyes peered into his. A strand of hair fell from her bun. Sweat had started to gather in between their clasped fingers. She squeezed his hand reassuringly. He nodded.
“Yeah, I’m okay. I should really be asking you that question.” He said to her. She smiled a smile that didn’t really look like a smile. Marcus pushed away that strand of hair from her other side.
“It doesn’t feel like he’s going to get a genital herpes exam.” He muttered, “I want it to feel as if we are just taking him to the doctor’s office for a yearly check-up.”
“You mean when he was littler?” Mom asked. James watched as the nurse came through the doors again with the limping man. He was now smiling and shaking hands with the nurse. Doors of Heaven.
“Yeah, don’t you remember? We would switch off every year or six months or whatever to bring him to the House Thingy Children’s Care Stuff. You know, the one with the giant teddy bears painted on the walls, building blocks that covered the floor.” He snapped his fingers, “they had really nice chairs.”
“You mean House on the Hill Children’s Care Center?”
“Yeah, that one.”
James bit back the sigh that almost escaped his mouth.
“That was over six years ago.” He stated. Marcus shrugged.
“I still remember it though. I miss taking you there.”
James was about to snap at him that it was his own fault he never got to take James to the Clinic after he abandoned them, but just then the Doors of Heaven opened and the blue nurse stuck her head out.
It was an order. Breathing in deeply James stood up from his place on the chair while Mom and Marcus followed behind him. The nurse furrowed her eyebrows but didn’t say anything, and she waited until they walked through the Doors to let it shut and click behind her.
On the other side, it wasn’t much different. The same news anchor was now talking about the environment and rain forests on a slightly nicer TV screen. More chairs. More tables. More magazine stands. But there were more nurses and doctors fumbling around. A receptionist sat at a wide white desk shaped like the letter C. She was eating a sandwich that dripped with mustard and typing on her computer at the same time. She didn’t even look up to talk to Mom and Marcus.
“Please fill out these forms over there.” Her voice was dull. The blue nurse tapped her long red finger nails on the desk.
“Susanna, they’re only here to make sure that we’re taking care of this boy. They’re the ones that made the request for the HSV-2 specific test, so give them the recommended health care forms to make sure that their insurance can cover it.” She turned to them, her eyes deceiving her smile, “we just need you to sit here for a few minutes while we run the blood test. We can send you the test results in one to three days maximum to your current home location. Is it still the same within your insurance or have you moved within the last time you visited your regular pediatrician?”
Marcus just nodded his head yes to her.
“Great.” She smiled, “follow me, please, James. I hope you aren’t scared of needles.”
She led him through throngs of people bustling in and out of the hallway area. It seemed so unreal and busy, James was almost worried he would end up lost when a murder of doctors came flocking through, squawking about words and things and needles and exams and big machines. He fought the reflex to clamp onto the nurses blue outfit, but instead balled his fists into little white clumps, and tracked her on her heels.
“In here.” She stopped by a big wooden door. Her hand gestured for him to go inside. He did. A thought flashed through his mind. Maybe she would lock him in here. There were no windows. Only one big florescent light that glared down on him like God. A big white cabinet that held bottles and jars of cotton balls, wooden sticks, ear thingies that they stuck in your head.
It didn’t look like a hospital room.
It looked like a room that was taken straight from the Children’s Care Center Marcus had longed for so much.
She didn’t leave him in there, fortunately. She instead followed him in, left the door open so he could hear and smell the doctors that rushed past with their flowing white capes. They were like superheroes. He wanted to believe they were superheroes. She pulled out some cotton balls and patted a spot on his arm. He refused to look when she put the needle in. It was just a sharp prick – maybe that was what Sleeping Beauty felt on the poisoned spindle. Just one sharp prick.
Except this prick went farther than just his arm.
His blood looked like it was leaking from his arm as she collected it. The room inside was quiet. The rooms outside were very, very loud. James found himself straining to hear the anchorman’s voice on the old TV screens.
“I haven’t had any symptoms.” He said. He said it without thinking. He couldn’t see the nurse’s reaction but her voice was somewhat softer than earlier before, if that was even possible.
“Most of the time there aren’t any symptoms. Your parents did ask for this one test since there hasn’t been any that you’ve reported to them.” Her forehead crinkled when she glanced at him, “have you noticed anything different since the last time you had sex?”
Sex. Consent. Voluntary. She said it as if it was just his mistake for not using a condom.
“No. I’ve had no symptoms.”
She nodded, and watched the blood draw.
Such a vampire.
“All the tests were negative.”
Chloe sipped on her lemonade, her knuckles white as the sugar drifting inside of it.
“That’s good,” she breathed, “that’s really good. That means she isn’t carrying any diseases.”
“Though I wouldn’t put it past her that she’ll end up getting one, the tramp.” Ori muttered from behind her milkshake. “I mean, she’s now dating Zack. Zack has screwed more girls in senior year than Barney Stinson. It’s insane.”
“No, what’s insane is that Zack has now committed to her. All year he has done nothing but party because back when we were fresh-faced teens, he wanted to do nothing but party, drink, and screw girls.” James growled as he dug his fingers into the wooden surface of the table. The glaze started to peel under his finger nails. Now he’s barely a year in and he’s already having dinner with her and her family.”
Ori smacked her palms down on the table, sending both James and Chloe back. A shard of table wood dug into James’ hand from his jolt.
“Fuck, what?” James cursed, examining the wood sticking from his pinking flesh.
“He’s having dinner with her? I had no idea, what the hell? He wouldn’t even go out on a burger run with me a few weeks ago because he had a date, but now he’s having dinner with some shit head?”
The table wobbled when she kicked her heel into its leg.
“That’s just fucked up.”
Chloe reached across James to grab a few napkins from the holder and started to pat down an area wet with lemonade.
“Ori, can’t you see that Zack is just in the infatuated stage of a relationship?” She asked, smearing sugar clumps across the surface. James sighed. A drop of whipped cream on the side of Ori’s glass slid down the frosty side of the cup. He held out his finger to catch it.
“Why did it have to be her? I mean, I would praise any other girl who could make him see that partying and dancing and drinking is a dumbass thing to do all the time, but why did it have to be that one girl? That one girl out of countless others. I don’t understand it.”
“Well, that ‘one girl’ is going to get what she deserves, though I don’t know how Zack is going to react.” Ori lapped up the remains of the whipped cream. James smushed a French fry between his fingers.
“Loftin called the house earlier today to confirm a statement from several other witnesses. He got a hold of Zack and Anna – which is the other reason why I know that Zack is having dinner with her is because Loftin went to go question her about it and saw him there.”
“How did Loftin recognize Zack?” Chloe asked.
“The name. I had mentioned Zack in the first report as someone who was at the party so he was initially used as a witness for me, but now…” He drifted off. Ori nudged him under the table with her foot.
“Now…now it seems like he’s on Anna’s side.”
The table went quiet. The sound of the diner bustled around them. James recognized the flowing white stained aprons of the waitresses and thought of the doctors back at the hospital. Superheroes.
Ori was staring into the now empty milkshake glass.
“Wait, whoa whoa whoa, what do you mean he’s on her side? I get that they are dating and all but why is he-“
“He doesn’t believe the story.” James interrupted her, “Loftin called me and told me everything. He said that both Anna and Zack had the same statement – Anna was with him on that night and they were drinking near the pool lounge with her friends. Loftin said that now Anna’s family is taking on a lawyer of their own.”
“But she wasn’t there, she wasn’t at the pool-“
“-I know, Ori-“
“No, Loftin has to do something. She wasn’t at the pool.” Ori’s cheeks were flushing and her eyes were growing hot. It wasn’t a good sign.
“Ori, calm down.” James tried, reaching across the table to cup her hands. Her palms were sticky with cream.
“The only thing Loftin can do right now is question the friends of Anna and whatever friends Zack happens to have besides you and me-“
“James! She’s lying to protect her own damn self! She wasn’t at the pool! She was in that damn room, fucking rap-“
“Speak of the devil.”
It was Chloe. Ori stopped midsentence to shoot her a glare, but Chloe wasn’t paying attention to them. She was looking towards the doorway of the diner. James followed her eyes.
It was Zack.
Zack locked eyes with him. They burned with anger.
“Smith!” He yelled, shoving past a waitress to head for the table. James felt a shiver go down his spine. That nickname. It wasn’t for fun anymore. Ori scurried out of her seat to stop Zack, but as soon as she approached him he shoved her away.
“What the hell?” She called from the dirty floor. James stood as Zack advanced on him. He didn’t know what to expect.
But he certainly didn’t expect for Zack to punch him. As soon as his fist made contact with his cheek James was sent to the floor of the diner. Zack was on top of him, pummeling him as he shouted, “You’re a fucking liar, Smith! A fucking liar!”
James had no choice but to swing his own fist into his best friend’s face. Zack was momentarily stunned, and James took it to advantage to flip him over onto his back. He could feel blood leaking from his nose, and the throbbing pain of his cheek where his fist had hit him. They knocked over a table, and James heard glass shatter.
“I’m not a liar!” He retorted, dodging another swing from Zack. They fumbled in a blur or punches, kicks, pinches, bites, whatever they could do to that would hurt. James could smell the sweat and taste the metallic sting when his lip busted open. He could hear someone – Chloe, Ori, another woman, screaming to call the police, call the police, call the damn police. Not the police. Someone was screaming. Zack cursed and spit on him, all the insults James had heard before were now directed at him.
“Fucking liar! Attention whore! You know she would never do that! Why the fuck are you lying?!”
“I’m not fucking lying, get off me!”
“Liar! Liar! You’re ruining her life!”
“She already ruined mine!”
Another hit to his nose. One to his rib. Nothing ached. Adrenaline pumped. It wasn’t Zack he was fighting. It was some stranger.
Before James could pummel Zack again some large clamped down under his armpits and swung him up into the air like a rag doll. He teetered slightly as he planted his feet back onto the ground. He watched as blurry figures wrestled with Zack as he tried to claw his way back over to where James was. James resisted the urge to pound him into the floor when two hands still held their iron grip to his arms.
Voices started to speak, and told them things he couldn’t understand, and he felt the arms shake him. They were lead outside. James could barely see, squinting at the sudden light. His hearing was dull, like he was underwater. He couldn’t see any sirens flash in the blurriness. Was there no police? Who had him?
He was lead into a car that smelled faintly of lemon air freshener. He was so tired. The adrenaline had wared off. Mostly. He arms were still itching to hit. His knuckles throbbed – well, everything throbbed. Everything hurt. When he felt the car lurch forward, he knew that whoever that person was that hit it, that made him bleed, it wasn’t Zack. That wasn’t Zack. That wasn’t his best friend. He didn’t know who that person was or where the real Zack had gone. He knew that Anna had also taken one more thing from him.
His best friend.
He lost Zack.
The apartment where the one witness that would probably turn everything around was the nastiest things Loftin had ever seen. The walls of the long hallway stank of beer, the air of weed, though he couldn’t tell which room it was coming from, and he heard vicious dogs barking behind the too-thin doors. He felt wary to be alone. Neither Soto nor Jacobs had come along with this one. They were busy with the other few witnesses. After both Anna and Zack had given their statements just barely a week ago they had done so much damn research into finishing the rest of the witnesses that were there.
Tracy was not happy when he brought back the statements. She was so sure James had started to make the claim up. It hurt to listen when she threatened to toss out the case.
“No evidence was collected. No sufficient evidence.” She had said, slamming the thin case file onto her desk. Loftin hated that she made the last few witness statements and the belt so irrelevant. He had told her so.
“A belt is not evidence enough, Loftin.” She had replied with a sneer, “it was washed, and the jury will take it as a possibility that maybe he had planted it or just knew where one of his friends had gone that night that was wearing the belt. It is not stable proof, and it is not something we can use in the court of law.”
She was so convinced. She was ready to give up on it. Loftin had begged her, pleaded with her. This case was more than just a case to him. It was something that was different; it was something that was rare. Why couldn’t she see that? Why couldn’t she understand that sometimes it was best to let the victim know that they trusted and believed in them. Tracy was not willing to do that. It made his blood boil.
He had finally convinced her to let him work the case for just a few more days. There were still five more witnesses left that they could turn to, to get statements they could use, and it was all the more reason to prove that James wasn’t lying.
“Five more witnesses. Please.” Loftin had said, his eyes trained on Tracy’s hair. She wasn’t facing him – instead, she glared at the case file. He could almost see it bursting into flames under her hateful stare.
“Why do you hate this kid so much? What has he ever done to you?”
“It’s not about that, it’s about the fact that there is nothing I can create a case from, Loftin. I don’t understand why you keep insisting that he is always right, that this really happened when there is nothing to back up his story.”
“So you’re saying that you don’t believe him unless you are able to have solid evidence you can work with?”
She hadn’t even tried to hide it. She hadn’t even tried to sugar coat it at all.
“Tracy, please, just wait to throw out the case until you know for certain that this is something that we can’t save.”
“How am I supposed to wait? Right now I believe that is the time to throw it out – why should I wait?”
“Because I have at least five more witnesses that can give me solid statements as to the rest of the story. Anna is obviously lying-“
“Yes, yes, I’ve heard the five more witnesses part. How do you know she’s obviously lying?” Tracy raised her voice. “How do you know that she is not telling the truth?”
“I just know-“
“That is not a solid reason, Loftin, you know that. This is why I wasn’t certain into giving you this case.”
“Whatever, I don’t give a damn, I am willing to stake my career on this case going through-“
“Don’t be so damn dramatic, Loftin! You don’t have to risk your own work on this just because someone decided to lie about an issue about this.”
“THEY. DIDN’T. LIE.”
“THEN BRING ME THE TRUTH.”
Silence had smothered them. It seemed as if it was the only thing they shared it common was the reward of utter silence.
And now he stood at the doorway of the apartment, his eyes flickering back and forth between the paper and the room number. He needed this to be the witness. He needed this to be the person that can make this case worth more to Tracy.
He held his breath, and knocked on the door.
A few minutes went by with not even a peep from the other side of the door. Loftin held his chest out, hoping for them to open it any second. He knocked again. Still nothing.
Tracy couldn’t be right. James couldn’t have made it up. He couldn’t have. Loftin couldn’t be representing a false case. Not again.
Then the door opened with a small creak. Through the tiny crack he could see a boy with ramen noodle hair glaring back at him, no older than eighteen.
“What the hell do you want?”
“Are you Riley Shepard?”
The boy nodded with suspicion.
“Yeah, what’s it to you?”
“I’m Detective Loftin, HTPD. I’m here to question you about a rape.”
The home inside was better than the outside. It smelled like a bakery, which in the kitchen it certainly looked like it. A woman with brown curls tied above her head worked with several batter mixtures, baking, cooking – “wow, are you running a restaurant in here?”
The woman didn’t even acknowledge him besides her reply.
“Riley, who is this?”
“Detective Loftin of the HTPD, here to question me.” Riley mimicked Loftin’s voice as he got a beer from the refrigerator. The woman grunted.
“About a rape,” Loftin stepped in. Now he had her attention.
“What?” She cried, turning around so sharply she knocked over a bowl of batter. It spilled onto the marble floor and she cursed violently, pushing her hand against her forehead as she surveyed the mess.
“Jesus, hell, what? Are you insisting we had something to do with this? How dare you come into our home and make us seem like hard crimi-“
“With all due respect,” Loftin intervened, taking a dish towel from the sink and stooping to help with the mess, “I am not insisting that you had anything to do with this, but I do need to ask Riley a few questions. He may be the key into helping us build a winning case against this rapist.”
The woman just sighed, nodding. When she pulled her hand back he could see it left a red mark against her skin.
“Sure, sure, go have a seat on the couch. I’ll clean this up. I’m sorry.”
Loftin handed her the towel and followed Riley into the living room. It smelled like vanilla, and when he sat down on the couch a nice layer of dust catapulted into the air. Riley let himself fall onto a chair just opposite from him and he saw the same effect in the sunlight from the windows. A little while later the woman from the kitchen joined them, holding a plate of fresh muffins. She set them on the coffee table before offering her hand to Loftin.
“I’m Diana, a friend of Riley. I help keep the apartment in check and make sure he’s not killing himself with beer and eating nothing but Oreo’s.” With that she snatched the beer bottle from Riley’s hand. He just sighed his protest and took a muffin.
“So, what is this all about? Why do you want to talk to me about a rape?” He asked. Loftin pulled his phone from his pocket.
“Do you mind if I record this?”
“Well, do you know someone by the name of Ori Ferriera?”
“Yeah. She’s a good friend, I guess.”
“Do you know who she hangs out with?”
“Some lanky kids, they look like twins – I think one of their names is James, though I can’t be sure.”
“Do you go to parties often?”
“No. Not unless some of my other friends want to go, but what does this have to do with anything?”
Loftin scratched his chin, tapping the laziness out of his phone.
“Do you remember a party that took place about four months ago, at a resort called Trace Ridge?”
Riley smiled for the first time, bobbing his head.
“Ah, hell yes, I remember that. It was the homecoming football game after party. Big title, bigger party. Drew Wilson invited practically the entire school. Everyone was there.”
“Did you see Ori there, along with James?”
“Yeah. Danced with her a couple of times. Didn’t have the dancing skill like everyone else but it was fun.”
“Were there any drinks there? Did you see James partake in any drinking games of any sort?”
“No, not really for the drinking games, but there was a ton of alcohol. Some kids even went as far to buy their own boxes of Bud Lite at the grocery store so they wouldn’t have to share. I remember seeing James’ twin with a box of the stuff and dancing with a girl. I remember that because she grabbed his beer bottle, took a swig, then threw up on his shoes.”
Diana gave him a look of disapproval.
“Do you remember what they looked like? The girl and James’ twin?”
“James’ twin looked like another version of James, but I’ll admit it was really dark and the only lights that were there were disco flashes.”
“Were you there with anyone else?”
“Yeah, I was hanging with about eleven other people, including Ori. We took a shit ton of videos that night about everything and uploaded it everywhere, though now I’m certain that most people had taken it down because job season is almost upon us and they want to get some reasonable work.”
“Do you recall seeing James at any point in the night with a girl?”
Riley quieted down on that one. His eyebrows were bunched and his forehead wrinkled as he looked to the rays of sunlight streaming in from the window. Diana fumbled with a muffin wrapper.
“Do you need me to repeat the question?” Loftin asked. Riley didn’t move.
“No. No, I remember,” his face contorted as if he was sucking on a lemon, “I think. It’s really fuzzy.”
“Just relay to me what you know.”
“Well, I remember when we were taking Snapchat videos to send to someone – I don’t know, still really fuzzy. The lot of us were taking shots at the bar. Vodka, I think-“
“The lot of you?”
“Yeah, it was Andrew, Chance…O-Ori, definitely, she didn’t like vodka so she got spiked pink lemonade…Roman, his girl Zoe, then I think Shelby but right now it’s just a big blur.”
“Sure, sure. Go on.”
“Anyways, we were taking Snapchat videos on…on someone’s phone. One of the groups, I know that, can’t remember which one though. It was dark so we had the flash on, and I remember taking a shot, then doing a video with Shelby and Ori, then someone called out “Heyyyy, Smith got a girl!” I don’t know who did, but I didn’t really turn to look. People yell shit like that all the time so I didn’t really bother with it.”
“Do you know where James was at that time, who was with?”
“I just told you, I didn’t care. Though when I was dancing with Ori I did see him and some girl grinding on each other on the dance floor. I thought it was his twin but his twin was on the other side of the room having a drinking contest with the college girls.”
Loftin sighed, reaching for his phone. He shut off the recording, standing up from the couch. This was not was he was expecting. This wasn’t the witness. He grabbed a muffin from the plate, thanking them both before walking towards the door.
“Wait,” Riley called. Loftin faced him.
“Who was it? Who was raped?”
Loftin bit his lip, debating against himself for a moment to tell this kid or not. But Riley looked genuinely concerned. He looked like he wanted to know for the sake of safety. But would those views change when he told him?
“James. James Smith was raped by Anna Padilla.” He said. He tried to say it with something like conviction, with certainty. Riley’s eyes widened and Loftin embraced himself for speckles of doubt and that one word he hated most of all.
“Oh.” He said it so quietly Loftin could barely hear him.
He didn’t have a comeback for that. The silence ate up this home too. Diana, who had been still so quiet before was still quiet now. She stood behind Riley, her hand softly stroking the outside of his hand. Loftin turned to leave again.
“Wait, Loftin.” He said. Loftin stopped again.
“If you want to build a case against her, then talk to Roman and Zoe. They took a shit ton of pictures from the party and Zoe is known to have a whole Instagram page filled with pictures like that. If it really did happen, then maybe something is on there?”
Loftin crushed the muffin in his hands.
“You aiming on being a detective or something?” Loftin asked him. Riley blushed slightly and shrugged.
“It’s the truth. They take more pictures than anybody about all that couple-y shit. If anyone looked like a couple, even if it was just two people dancing within five feet of each other, they took a picture. If James was really dancing with Anna or if they were flirting back and forth for a little bit between each other, then Zoe would have caught it. Trust me.”
Loftin gave a smile.
“Why are you trying to help now when you know the reason behind it? I didn’t exactly expect you to believe the story like so many others before you.”
He said it so casually. Tracy would want him to probably be fired since he was acting so unprofessional. But now, Riley just shrugged, and Loftin wanted to know why he wasn’t cursing at him, telling him that men can’t be raped, men can’t get hurt like he heard from countless other witnesses.
“I’ve had an experience like that before. I don’t know James, but if someone wanted to get attention, then why use a rape charge like that, especially against a sophomore. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Loftin nodded before tossing the muffin into his other hand and wiping off crumbs and smudges of chocolate from his palm onto his pant leg. When it was clean he pulled out his phone again.
“Can you say that again? This time into the microphone?”