Out of the second floor window, Alex climbs barefoot down the drainpipe in a dark alleyway with the ends of her black dress flapping upward from the wind, revealing her soft bare skin underneath. She’s a beautiful and fragile creature, her feet delicately wrapped on both sides of the pipe as she steps, one foot at a time, down the brick wall in a smooth rhythm. There’s a noticeable calm in her shoulders and she moves in such perfect ease, as if this were the most natural way to leave someone’s house. Alex is unlike most girls at their small conservative college, she has always been possessed with defiance. She’d be just as confident if the alley was lined with a crowd of people bearing witness to her indecency. Around the corner, Derek watches her under the bright October moonlight as she lands on the cold pavement, littered with small pieces of broken bottles and old cigarette stubs. He has followed her slippery trail here, waiting down in the alley for hours as she made love and was forced to leave before sunrise. From here, Derek is close enough to see the messy half-bun of hair, the sweaty glow in her cheeks, and see beyond her lies. It is only a week from midterms, and she’s used up every last excuse to avoid Derek, especially since he confronted her about her affair with Professor Bratten (or Chris, as she calls him). Alex is walking his direction, but like any other day, she doesn’t see him.
“Nice night, eh?” Derek says in a low voice, just when she’s about to pass him by. Then he lights up a clove cigarette, her favorite.
“Oh god!” Alex says. “You scared the shit outta me. What are you doing here?”
She walks over to him and steals the cigarette, her fingers so close they brush his lips. It’s his last one, of course, but he smiles when she lingers playfully, and so it appears that their fight is long gone from her mind. Alex pushes the tip of his hat up with her index finger, looking into his dark gray eyes in curiosity.
“Seriously, what’s been going on with you? You’re different.” Alex gazes at him for a long time, studying his puzzle of an expression the same way she does when he’s being too quiet.
“Is that good or bad?”
“You tell me. You have something you wanna confess?” Alex crosses her arms.
“Me? Well sure, I’ve got lots. I’m not as innocent as I might look.” He steps away from the wall, brushing past her and widening the space between them. He kicks at the ground with the toe of his boot, not sure why he blurted it out so haphazardly.
“I’ll be the judge of that.” She turns around to catch a look, searching for signs of whether he’s telling the truth or spinning another lie. Derek takes a long pause to contemplate his next move—a bluff, of course. They’ve spent their lives on the same idyllic Pine Street in the sleepy town of Redmonton, Missouri, and she knows everything there is to know about him. All the years of sneaking into the corn fields across the street and smoking cigarettes, stealing red licorice from the gas station, shooting bottle rockets at the football field at school—it has always been Alex dragging him by the arm into the unknown. Whether it takes courage or cruelty to make the kind of mistakes worthy of regret, she knows he does not have it in him.
“There was that time I accidentally set my sister’s eyebrows on fire, junior year.”
“No, you didn’t,” she laughs with her whole body. “That was Ben’s doing. You can’t take credit for that, just because you happened to be there!”
“Okay…how about, I stole a comic book once?” He looks up, giving her a wry smile.
“Liar.” As soon as the cigarette reaches its end, her mood grows grave. “No, really. You’d tell me if it were something, right?” Alex reaches out for Derek, much to his surprise, leaning into him for comfort. The longing in his heart is heavy after years of watching her from a distance, and he gives into the embrace, realizing that tomorrow’s news could end it all.
The next day in their English 212 class, everything appears out of place. For the first time all semester, all 250 seats are filled in the lecture hall. The room is bustling with chatter at ten minutes after two o’clock, with Professor Bratten nowhere in sight. Derek slumps down in the aisle seat, tired after coming home late and alone with his contradicting thoughts of hope and remorse about Alex. While there had been a moment last night, his moment, he had missed it. He had been close enough to whisper his affections in her ear, and he held it all back as he has done since they were fourteen. And his secret is turning into a kind of lie, the longer he goes on not saying it aloud and playing the part of her friend and confidant, pretending like he isn’t just waiting for his selfish chance to take advantage.
“Where’s the professor?” several students ask one another, a single thought that ripples across the aisles and into every conversation. It is well past the five-minute rule, and by all rights, they can all walk out and enjoy the next free hour of time like the gift that it is. Derek searches the room for the only face he hopes to see, and he spots her doodling in a notebook down in the first row. By 2:30, the hall is emptying out. Alex hasn’t moved from her seat or started to pack up her things like everyone else, and Derek begins to fear she’s figured out what he has done.
Professor Bratten is at least ten or possibly fifteen years older, with his hair already showing salt and pepper shades and sporting a scruff of a beard. He easily plays up the image of a tortured and brilliant writer penning his great novel from the domestic cage, a real John Updike of the Midwest. Alex became his muse after the first week of class, following a heated class debate on whether the Wife of Bath was a whore. Derek watched her infatuation unfold until she became the secret that Bratten kept hidden away in the darkness, although she would insist she was the one using him. An entire semester, while Alex slips out his window into the dark alley without question, has been a slow burn inflaming Derek inside and out. The greatest pain living inside his skin is being on the scene of the crime, watching her crawl in and out of his bedroom at night, yet it is unavoidable. Derek needs to know she is safe, and that at the right moment, he’d be there to stand up to that bastard and make him aware that he doesn’t deserve her.
A few nights ago, Dr. Kelly, his advisor, sat across from him with a look of disappointment. “Derek, if there’s something going on, you should tell me.” The air was thin as they sat in the shoe box of an office, the door closed and no cold air to bring him back to a normal state. Derek was failing English 212, and there’d be so little time to recover his grades by December. Then, there was always that little incident when told his professor “to go to hell,” when prompted to share his thoughts about Brett Ashley and her sexual missteps in The Sun Also Rises.
And that’s when the lie came out. In his mind, it was intended to be a fraction, so insignificant that it would be forgotten when he stepped out of her office. A speculation, really nothing more, that his English professor was playing favorites with students and their grades. Then, a simple thought came into his mind. If the college found out about Professor Bratten’s affair with a student, they’d have to put a stop to it, and Derek would have his chance. The idea was genius. Outside of himself, he could see the conversation playing out different ways, all ending with the same inevitability that he would have Alex. But in the end when he finally spoke the words that had been circling his head, the lie became something much worse.
“We don’t take these situations lightly anymore,” Dr. Kelly said firmly, snapping him out of daydreaming. “If this is true about Professor Bratten, this is something I’ll have to look into.” She stood a pencil tall on the desk, crushing the tip under the pressure of her thumb. Then she took the silence in the room as confirmation of the truth, since he wasn’t taking back the accusations about his English professor.
The consequences don’t take long to unravel, and by the end of the week, every student on campus can’t hide from the story about Professor Bratten, the now notorious professor who raped a female student. He isn’t permitted to teach the rest of his classes while the investigation ensues full force, and it doesn’t take long for his wife and family to learn the news. Derek calls Alex’s cell phone every day after class, but she doesn’t answer. Finally, he chases her down outside the student union and grabs her arm from behind, making her pull back a little.
“Hey, I’ve been trying to call,” Derek speaks in a gentle way, but he can tell she is having difficulty talking to anyone at this point. It hits him in the chest at the moment she looks up at him, and he notices the gloominess in her face. She isn’t Alex, not the one he remembers, with a fire in her brown eyes that something exciting is about to happen. Her arm is so limp in his grasp, and she seems too weak to walk away from him, which is what her expression suggests.
“Oh. I haven’t been home lately,” she responds flatly. The life is drawn away from her, leaving a shell of a girl who once saw an adventure in everything, and now was stuck in her own sort of cage.
After sundown, Alex is drawn toward the same dirty alley, only this time she is the dark figure staring up at the window waiting for someone. There’s no light on upstairs. Derek stands at the corner watching her as she stands desperately on her toes between the dumpsters, the look of love written all over her face, the kind of love that makes her just as weak and helpless as he is.
Angie Walls is a short story writer, novelist, and screenwriter who grew up in Springfield, Missouri, near the Ozarks. Many of her stories explore contemporary themes of identity, isolation, and struggling relationships in the Midwest. She is the creator and director of “Redmonton,” an original web series inspired by her hometown, that offers new voices of a young generation struggling with identity and fading dreams in a post-recession world (which premieres this October. Further information about the show can be found at Redmonton.com). She is self-publishing a new book of short stories, “Anywhere But Here,” which will be available to the public in winter 2015.
© 2015, Angie Walls