Just a Joke

Kimberly Ackers

We sit around the makeshift bonfire behind Andrew’s rental home, warming our hands against the heat of the flames. Jordan is sitting to my right and Andrew is sitting directly across from him on my left. It had been my suggestion to start a fire. I needed some fresh air and with winter coming, I knew I wouldn’t be able to convince them to hang around outside with me for much longer. I’m surprised they even came out here with me in the first place. Andrew had only agreed because he said it was a good beer drinking atmosphere. He has a decent sized back yard on the edge of town lined with just enough trees to make us feel secluded. We each have PBR in one hand. Andrew has the case that he grabbed from his fridge sitting next to him. The guys already seem bored, but Jordan knows this is important for me, to feel my smallness in the light of the billions of stars above us. I love him for that. I love that he puts up with me.

Andrew pulls a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and offers us one. We both decline. We had agreed to quit together months ago. We had actually quit a few weeks ago. A year tends to turn I’s into We’s and I appreciated the support. Andrew says “suit yourself” and lights his cigarette against the trash-fueled flames.

“Too bad we don’t have the stuff to make s’mores. Those would be so good right now,” I say, staring up at the stars.

“Too bad we don’t have much for more than cereal and milk until I get paid,” Jordan says jokingly.

“Ha, no kidding. I haven’t got much more than these beers and some ramen for the next couple days,” Andrew adds.

It’s silent for a moment. There is nothing but the sweet sound of crickets and the pop of sap-filled wood bursting open in the fire. I breathe in the heat of the smoke. Andrew takes a swig from his beer and pipes up again.

“So, in my philosophy class, my professor went off on this tangent about morality and money. It was kind of funny, because nobody wanted to answer his questions.”

“What was it?” I ask, taking another sip from my beer.

“Would you kill someone for a million dollars if you never got caught?” Andrew asks before he takes another drag and taps the ash into one of the empty bottles on the ground beside him.

“Hm, that’s a lot of money… Would I get to pick who?” Jordan asks. I can see his brow furrow, like he’s working out the mathematics of it all on a blackboard in the back of his mind.

Andrew shrugs. “It’s just some girl. You wouldn’t know her. Does it matter?”

“Eh, then probably,” Jordan says like it’s no big deal, like he’s some uncaring badass.

For a moment, I try to picture him standing there above his victim. He has a gun. I can’t imagine him with anything like a bat or a knife. I wonder if he even knows how to fire a gun. I imagine him turning his head as he shoots.

Andrew chuckles loudly. “Yeah, I know. There are some people I wouldn’t mind killing. Heck, you guys are lucky you’re my friends, or I’d wanna kill you too!” He lifts his bottle to acknowledge us.

I roll my eyes at him, hoping he notices. “I’m not sure I’d be able to do it,” I say, seriously. “I mean, maybe if I knew they were already dying, or that no one would notice they’re gone.” I kick a rock towards the fire. “But I’ve never even seen a person die. I don’t know how I’d handle it.”

“True,” I hear Jordan say quietly next to me, as if he almost regrets his macho answer.

Andrew acts like he’s ignoring us. He leans back in his lawn chair, digging for another question. When he’s found one, he leans forward, his elbow on his knee and his fist under his chin as if his question will be something philosophical, something mind blowing. He doesn’t disappoint. “How about rape? That was the next question. Would you rape someone?”

I can feel an angry heat rising in my stomach. I look next to me quickly, begging him in my mind to say no, to say nothing at all. I beg him to remember.

~ ~ ~

Mark and I had been dating for two weeks before he graduated. I guess that would make it about a month before everything happened. It was a nice change of pace to date someone who wasn’t in the same grade as me. Mark seemed like a sweet guy. He had short blonde hair and the goofiest grin I had ever seen. We met each other in band. I was immediately attracted to his sense of humor and great group of friends. He was always bringing me along with him to hang out with his friends. I felt like he was showing me off, and it was so flattering at the time. I still see his friends from time to time. They’re as sweet to me as ever. I wonder if they know what happened that day.

The passenger seat rattled underneath me. Mark picked me up from my parents’ house to help him move his grandma into a new house. It had really just been an excuse to hang out with him. I hardly paid attention to where he was headed. I was too lost in pointless conversation and the ring of his laugh against the blurry background noise of the passing world. We just showed up to a house. I had figured it would be his Grandma’s house, but he told me it was his aunt’s. I guess he thought it would be nice if we hung out for a little before we got to work. His family was still at work, so we could wait there until they were ready to help. I had no idea what part of town we were in, though. Why hadn’t I paid attention?

~ ~ ~

“And I wouldn’t get caught?” I hear Jordan say.

I want to slap him. I want to scream and ask why that could possibly matter. Did it matter that Mark had gotten caught? Did it matter that he hadn’t gotten anything more than a restraining order? He can’t be drunk enough to have forgotten, can he? My pulse quickens, but I wait. I hope he’s just dragging our friend along for the fun of it. I try to look at face to see whether he’s just joking or not, but his curly black hair and the shadows of the fire make it hard for me to see.

“Nope. Same as before. Some random stranger. She wouldn’t even know who you were,” Andrew says nonchalantly. Jordan sits there quietly, like he’s mulling it over. I can’t believe Andrew even asked a question like that. He should know better, too.

~ ~ ~

I grabbed my clothes and ran to the bathroom, hoping Mark didn’t see me as I started crying. I remember closing the door slowly, deliberately, so that I wouldn’t slam it like I wanted to. I locked it and sat on the floor across from it, avoiding the mirror. I didn’t want to see the girl that could have gotten herself into that situation. I felt ashamed. I leaned against the white wall in the fetal position. The floor was freezing. I fumbled my phone from my jeans pocket and held it in my shaking hands.

I did something stupid. I sent the text to Andrew. I hadn’t known Jordan then. Andrew was my closest friend. My protector. I was lost. I held my phone to my forehead, waiting for a reply for what felt like hours.

What did you do? It was short, simple. I stifled a sob.

I went with Mark to help him but we were alone. I told him no, Andrew… But he raped me. I re-read the word. It felt like a word I had made up. I hit send.

Where are you?

I’m still here. He picked me up. Can you come get me?

I’ll be right there. What’s the address?

I don’t know. I didn’t see. I know we’re near the Shell on the North side of town.

I’ll head out there, just go outside and get the address. It’ll be okay.

~ ~ ~

Jordan is still sitting there next to me, thinking of something clever to say. He finally settles for, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe if it was for more money.” I watch him laugh. The light from the fire makes his mouth seems larger, the curve of his lips sinister, and I can’t stand it.

I blurt out, “Are you kidding me?” The harshness of the words ring out into the darkness around us.

He looks at me like he’s confused. I think he had forgotten I was there.

“What, babe? It’s just a game.” There is an uncomfortable silence. He tries to fill it by adding, “We’re just messing around.”

I stand up. My body is numb, shaking. “I’m not feeling so good,” I mumble to no one in particular. I’m about to get sick right here.

~ ~ ~

We sat close to each other on the couch while Mark played Call of Duty. He asked me if we should take turns, but I was fine with just curling up next to him while he played. Video games weren’t really my thing. I was content looking around the living room at his aunt’s knickknacks. I remember apples. She had a bowl full of plastic apples on the shelf above the TV, and I could see a large wood cut out of an apple hanging on the wall through the kitchen doorway. The whole house was filled with the light scent of them. It reminded me of when I had gone to the apple orchard with my parents as a little girl.

Then Mark paused his video game and looked over at me. He ran a hand slowly up my leg, letting it rest warm and heavy on my inner thigh. I felt myself tense up. He must have felt it too because he leaned closer and said softly, “It’s okay, 33 babe. Just relax.” The old couch groaned as he moved towards me.

He moved towards the button on my jeans and I put my hand on top of his to stop him. “Wait, please,” I said quietly. His hands were so much bigger than mine. He kept fumbling with my button, then my zipper. “I’m not ready, Mark. Not here.” My words kept getting faster, tumbling together into nonsense. I tried any excuse to get him to stop. “Won’t your aunt come home soon? Do you even have a condom? That sounded like someone in the driveway. Please, can we do something else? Anything?”

He grabbed my jeans by my hips and began tugging them down. The fabric of the couch was coarse against my bare skin. “Just calm down, babe. It’ll be fine. I promise,” he said as he worked my jeans off to the floor beside us.

~ ~ ~

I stumble over a stick as I rush towards the backdoor of Andrew’s apartment. Andrew calls my name and I can hear Jordan rise out of his chair to come after me. I am in the kitchen in the back of the house, hovering over the sink when Jordan comes up behind me to wrap his arm around my shoulder.

“Are you okay?” he asks the back of my head. He puts away his tough guy act. His voice is quiet and tender. He rests his hand on my shoulder and says, “Please, hun. Will you talk to me?”

I take a deep breath to keep my voice from shaking. “Why didn’t you just say no?” I whisper.

“Oh, sweetie, it was just a game,” He says as he pulls me gently by my shoulders up to face him. “You know that, right?”

“But you should know better, Jordan. Why would you guys even bring that up?”

“Babe, I’m sure he wasn’t thinking. Seriously.” He tilts my chin up to look at my face. “And I should have just stopped that conversation before it went anywhere.”

“No, you’re right. You should have. And what the hell is Andrew’s problem out there? You guys are being ass holes!” I hear my voice rising with every phrase, but I’m beyond caring at this point. I’m about to start crying.

Jordan steps back. “Babe, he’s just drunk. You’ve known him long enough to realize he doesn’t usually think before he talks, let alone when he’s drunk.”

“That’s no excuse! Who jokes about that shit? And you? You’re not that drunk. What about you? It’s not like you could have forgotten I still get fucking panic attacks every time I think I see his Jeep.” I feel a tear fall down my cheek.

“Oh, hun,” he reaches up and brushes the tear away with his thumb. I turn my eyes away from him, trying hard to keep myself from crying any more. “I’m sorry.” He pauses, and drops his soft brown eyes to the floor. “It was all a bad joke, okay? Really, I just wasn’t thinking. I’m so sorry.” He kisses my cheek gently and lingers there, stroking my hair as he says, “We don’t have to talk about it anymore if you don’t want to.”

“I don’t want to remember any of it.” I whisper. “I feel like I can’t go a day without being reminded of how weak I was.”

“Hey,” he looks me square in the eyes as he talks now. “You are the strongest girl I know.”

“Then why am I crying right now?” I say, sniffling.

“Because your boyfriend’s a jerk who doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.” An apologetic smile flashes across his face. “I should be the one making you feel safe, not making you cry like this.”

“I’ll be fine.” I say, only half believing it.

“Of course you will be. You know why? Because despite everything you’ve been through, you’re still the most amazing girl in the world. Don’t you ever forget that.”

We both stand there silently for a moment before I wrap my arms around Jordan’s body. He seems confused, but he holds me close to him.

“Don’t ever do anything like that again.” I say. My words are muffled by the fabric of his coat.

“I won’t,” he says into my hair. “I promise.”

~ ~ ~

I sat in the hall waiting for a trial I wanted no part of. My parents had convinced me to prosecute Mark after I had spent months hiding it from them, months trying to pretend it had never happened as I cried myself to sleep at night. I’m sure they realized something was wrong when Andrew’s sister dropped me off instead of Mark and I didn’t offer any explanation except that I didn’t feel comfortable with him. They hadn’t pressed the issue though and I tried my damnedest to pretend that I was just fine anyway. My parents sat on either side of me on the little wooden bench bolted to the cold brick of the courthouse wall. We felt crowded, but I didn’t mind. I needed them close to me. Mark sat with his parents on the opposite wall farther down the hall.

I wasn’t sure whether not looking at him was admitting I was weak or standing up to him in some way. I wanted his parents to see me, to see what their son had done. I mustered up the courage to look over at their family while my parents were talking above me about the trial, and I saw his parents laughing with him. They were laughing. Was this some joke to them? Did they think that I was lying, that he was in the clear? Or were they proud of him? I turned away quickly and buried my face in my mother’s coat, muffling my sobs.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” She asked, a hint of fear in her voice. They had never known how to handle me after they had found out. I felt like I was just one mess after another, and they were always left to pick up the pieces.

I pulled my face just far enough from her coat that my voice wouldn’t be lost in the fabric. “They’re laughing,” I whimpered, “They’re just sitting there laughing at me,” and I fell back into her.

My mom held my head tighter to her chest, saying oh hun, shush hun, it’s okay hun, over and over. I felt like a joke, a liar, like he had won. I felt like the smallest thing in the world as my dad took my hand in his.

~ ~ ~

I stand here in the middle of the kitchen, wrapped in Jordan’s arms. He had never answered the question though. Was a million dollars enough?

“Can I have a smile?” He asks, interrupting my thoughts. He looks worried. I’m not sure if it is because he thinks I am mad at him or still remembering what happened.

“There we go.” He smiles back. “That wasn’t too hard was it?”

I shake my head and wipe the tears from my cheeks.

“Good.” He seems relieved. “Let’s go back outside. I think we’ll all feel better if we just sit and enjoy the fresh air. I can bring my iPod out and we can listen to music. Would that be okay?”

I say, “Sure.” Jordan grabs his iPod from the counter next to the microwave, and as he leads me back outside, I imagine him where Mark was sitting on the couch, pulling me on top of him. I wonder if Jordan is capable of that. I wonder if twenty-one-year old me would do anything different from what sixteen-year old me had done. Could Jordan go through with destroying a girl for the chance to live comfortably? Would the girl blame herself for not stopping it?

We step outside into the chill of November. Jordan calls out to Andrew, “Hey, man, we’re back. She just wanted to listen to some music.” He waves his iPod up in the air as if to prove himself. We walk over to our lawn chairs and sit back down close to the fire. Jordan takes my hand in his and asks Andrew and I if there’s anything we want to listen to in particular. Andrew shrugs his shoulders. He’s slumped down in his chair with a new cigarette in hand, staring into the fire. He flicks his eyes in my direction for a split second with a look that says, I’m sorry. He seems ashamed. I just look at the ground.

Jordan looks at me and asks, “How about you? In the mood for anything?” “No, not really.” My head is too full of questions and nightmares. I sit there quiet as he puts on some Blink 182. I sit there, quiet, as I listen to him drown out the sound of the wind and the fire. I will never be able to just forget some things.

~ ~ ~

Andrew sat with me in the back of his sister’s truck. I hadn’t expected her of all people to be the one to come with Andrew to my rescue. I made some bullshit excuse for Mark. Something like, “I think I need some air.” I sent Andrew a text of the nearest street names. Then I stood there outside Mark’s aunt’s house until they came.

I was pressed against the driver’s side door so I wouldn’t have to see his sister or sit too close to him. I was sobbing quietly. Andrew kept staring at me not sure what to say. His sister was sitting in the front seat, cursing Mark, threatening to castrate him if she ever saw him again. When she finally relented, I looked at Andrew and said, “Please don’t tell anyone. Promise me?”

I must have sounded pitiful. He reached a hand out to place on my shoulder but quickly stopped himself. Instead, he said quietly, “Victoria, it’s going to be okay. We don’t have to do anything until you’re ready. I promise. I’ll help you through this.”