Missed Signals

Part one: Eight years before1

Before the party2

Lena Dempsey was excited at first when Jessie Phillips invited her to her eleventh birthday party. It didn't matter to her that every other girl in their fifth grade classroom, plus a few extra, had received the invitation as well; it didn't matter to her that Jessie and she weren't exactly what could be called friends, since Jessie never spoke to her outside the classroom. Lena wasn't invited to parties too often, and the prospect of going to one- especially one that was also a sleepover- was an experience she looked forward to with eager anticipation.3

It took several minutes for it to dawn on her that if all the other girls in the class were invited- and they were, Lena was watching as Jessie handed out the invitations- then that meant that Sasha Caldwell was invited too…4

At that realization, which had come upon her the moment she saw Jessie give Sasha her invitation, Lena's excitement had quickly shifted into something closer to wariness, an anxiety gnawing inside her. She wasn't so sure that she could go to a sleepover that Sasha Caldwell also went to and still manage to enjoy herself…5

It wasn't that Lena hated Sasha, or even disliked her, really. They'd never been truly friends, in the real sense of the word, nor had they ever really fought, either verbally or physically. Lena could neither describe or explain why it was exactly that Sasha made her feel so uncomfortable sometimes. It was the strangest feeling… for it seemed that every time Sasha turned her solemn, intense dark eyes in Lena'a direction, Lena was filled with thoughts and feelings that didn't seem to go together. She was disturbed and bothered by Sasha and her actions, exasperated and sometimes repulsed by the things the other ten-year-old said and did. She did not understand Sasha, could not predict what the other girl might do, and so in a way she was intimidated by her. Even a year after she first met her Lena could not explain Sasha, except to say that she was "weird…"6

And yet even now, even after having made it clear both in words and actions to her peers that Sasha Caldwell was not her friend, Lena could not help but continued to be fascinated by her, drawn to her… and whatever she might say, she knew she always had been.7

When Sasha had first moved to Lena's town last year, Lena had known immediately that she wanted her as a friend. Sasha was different from all the other girls, different from Lena herself. She was what Lena, at the time, thought of as cool… and what older, less innocent eyes might have regarded as sexy, in a way that was unusual and disturbing at such a young age. Sasha seemed older than the other girls her age in every aspect, more knowing and mature. Her movements and demeanor, her attitude, the serious, dark look that was often settled in her eyes… all were things Lena was quite unaccustomed to observing in a nine-or-ten-year-old girl. 8

Even Sasha's body was more mature than the other girls'; where Lena was still small and flat-chested, even more so than was average for her age, Sasha already wore and needed a bra. Where Lena was red-headed and freckled, of average appearance, Sasha's hair, skin, and eyes were dark and attractive in a brooding sort of way. At ten years old, she already wore makeup most of the time. Her clothes too were not those of a girl her age, but rather an older teenager or young woman. She had even been sent to the principal before for dressing inappropriately. As shocked as Lena had been by this, she had also been somewhat awed. SHE couldn't have been sent home for inappropriate attire unless she came to school in her underwear, given the wardrobe and the body SHE had to work with.9

All in all, Sasha had given off the impression from the start of having been everywhere and seen everything, and being a girl who was unable to be shocked by much. With any other girl Lena would have dismissed it as bragging, lies…but with Sasha, she believed it. Where the other little girls were put off by Sasha's attitude, Lena was enthralled by it. She wanted to impress Sasha, to win her approval… she wanted to be her friend.10

She had started trying actively to do so from Sasha's second day in her fourth-grade classroom last year. She had seen the Spice Girl magazine Sasha had put in her desk, and struck up a conversation with her based on this. Lena, as most girls her age did, also loved the Spice Girls. Although she fumbled around while talking to Sasha that first time, she thought that by the end of the conversation she saw a skeptical yet near-approving interest in her eyes, a scrutiny that seemed oddly defensive rather than critical. Whatever it was, Lena was encouraged and continued in her endeavors to befriend Sasha.11

She began to spend as much time with and around Sasha as possible, planning out ways to get close to her, to talk to and even touch her. She tried, both consciously in some ways and subconsciously in others, to imitate Sasha's attitude, to dress and behave and hold herself in ways that would seem closer to Sasha's, that might win her approval. Sasha let her… and though at first she seemed wary, even amused by Lena, before very long Lena was certain she had accepted her. She and Sasha were Best Friends…12

It was about then that Lena realized that Sasha was "weird," for her lack of knowing a better word. It seemed that every day, sometimes every ten minutes, Sasha was shifting how she behaved and reacted to things, her entire personality changing. Lena never knew what to expect from her, what Sasha might say or do next.13

Sometimes Sasha was very quiet, very solemn and serious, seeming unable and unwilling to smile or speak… sometimes she was easily angered, almost violent, likely to scream at you and destroy things in a sudden outburst. Sometimes she said horribly mean things, while other times she was perfectly sweet and friendly, even thoughtful. Sometimes she was very loud and nearly hyperactive, touching people too much and too often, seeming almost frantic to have attention, while other times she flinched and cringed if someone brushed against her. Sometimes she did nothing but brag, or so it seemed to Lena, while other times she seemed cynical, bored of everything and everyone. Sometimes Sasha seemed to feel no emotion whatsoever, or at least let none show on her face- but sometimes she burst into tears for seemingly no reason…14

Lena was utterly confused and often exasperated by her. But if Sasha's mood swings were strange to her, her actions at times were even more so. 15

Sometimes Sasha would look at Lena softly, and she would hug her or take her hand as she told her she was her best friend. She sometimes drew paper dolls for her and made Lena feel as if she were the most important thing in her life. And yet sometimes she would completely ignore her, or snap at her- and then later act as though nothing had happened.16

Often Sasha would talk to Lena about boys and sexual matters in such explicit detail that Lena would go red and beg her, shocked and embarrassed, to stop. Other times she acted like she hated all boys and men and wished they'd all go away. Sasha often passed her notes, but sometimes they were cruel, calling Lena names like 'stupid' or 'baby'. Then, when Lena got upset, Sasha would deny straight-faced that the handwriting was hers.17

As the year passed, Sasha's behavior had only gotten stranger, her actions more unpredictable and needy for attention. She completely scandalized Lena, along with the other children in their class, when she pretended to faint one day during class. As if that wasn't enough, this feigned fainting just happened to coincide with the day that Sasha had come to school in a short skirt. When she fell deliberately from her desk, she revealed to all near her that she was not wearing panties. Sasha sometimes refused to do her work, or deliberately did such a poor job that the teacher was driven to exasperation with her. Lena had seen her several times look their teacher in the eye and tell her a bold-faced lie- a lie that everyone around her KNEW to be a lie- and yet seem genuinely upset when she was not believed.18

There was one incident in particular that stuck with Lena, something that nearly a year later she was still unable to forget or forgive. When Sasha had come home with her after school one day, Lena had shown her a shaggy stuffed sheepdog her father had surprised her with the day before. Sasha had acted disinterested, even disdainful of Lena's new possession… but when Lena's mother called her away briefly, and Lena returned to her room no more than five minutes later, she was stunned and infuriated to find Sasha cutting off the dog's hair with scissors.19

When Lena sputtered angrily, grabbing both dog and scissors from Sasha's hands, Sasha had looked at her with sneering condescension. And yet, when she replied, her voice was flat, nearly dead.20

"YOUR daddy will buy you another one…"21

All in all, it wasn't very long after Sasha Caldwell arrived at Lena's school that her identity as the strange, "bad" girl, the girl who was half crazy, was firmly and irreversibly established. Any interest others might have had in her initially was quickly diluted by her behavior. No one like Sasha, not even their teacher- no one but Lena. All the others either actively mocked her, or else avoided her- and because Lena spent so much time with her, as a result, they also mocked and avoided Lena.22

At first, even if it did make her feel hurt and angry, Lena thought this was okay. She was fascinated enough by Sasha that she didn't feel she needed anyone else or their approval at first. She was loyal first and foremost to Sasha.23

But as time passed, and Sasha continued in her unpredictability, Lena began to wish that she could go back to what she'd had. She had never been what one could call popular, but she had been liked well enough, accepted- and now because of Sasha, she wasn't.24

This was what ultimately caused Lena to begin to distance herself from Sasha. There was no real one cause, no huge fight or blow up between them. Lena could not even pinpoint when it was that she first began to think she wanted to pull away, or if she even realized it at all until she had already severed their odd friendship completely. Her actions were not motivated by anger, but by fear… fear, and a gradual growing need to regain the other children's approval. She still wished to have Sasha's as well, but now this desire was weakened.25

She didn't care so much what each individual child thought about her; had she been asked if she'd rather have Sasha as a friend, or any of the particular others, she would have easily chosen Sasha. But now, to have every child against her, and only Sasha intermittently at her side… it was beginning to be more than she could stand.26

And so slowly but surely she began to pull away from Sasha, to return herself to the others' good graces… and before she could quite comprehend it, they had once more accepted her back into their fold, their defined status of being "normal" children, children who were not Sasha. And Sasha was now alone.27

She never confronted Lena over what she had done, never seemed to care, or even to notice. When she looked at Lena, there was a calculated blankness about her eyes, as if she could not quite remember Lena's identity. As easy as Sasha's reaction made it for Lena to pretend that their friendship, her pursuit of Sasha, had never happened, she still looked at her sometimes and felt guilty for having in essence abandoned Sasha. Sometimes Lena looked at Sasha and missed her so much it made her chest ache in a way she couldn't explain. Sometimes she wanted to tell her that she was sorry, to take her back as her friend, her near idol.28

But she didn't, and she couldn't. She just couldn't.29

And now there was this situation with Jessie Phillps's birthday party. Lena knew Jessie hadn't wanted to invite Sasha; the look of distaste on her face as she paused before Sasha's desk, and the way she had hesitated with clear reluctance before dropping the invitation on her desk, rather than handing it to her, had made this clear to all present. Her mother had probably made her invite all the girls in the class, and that included Sasha.30

Lena hoped that Sasha just wouldn't come. After all, Jessie didn't' want her to, she had made that clear enough… no one really liked Sasha, and Sasha had said often enough that she didn't like any of them either.31

But somehow Lena doubted this would make a difference. Somehow she knew Sasha was going to come.. and that somehow excited, disappointed, and scared her all at once. A sleepover with Sasha AND all the other fifth grade girls in their class… there was no way to predict what might happen.32

***************************************************
Lena showed up half an hour early for Jessie's party, hoping that if Sasha did show up, she would already be there when she did. She couldn't explain why, but she didn't want Sasha to arrive before she did. Lena supposed that a small part of her felt that if she were watching her, she might be able to stop Sasha from doing something ridiculous.33

Lena was embarrassed when her mother insisted on walking her to the door of Jessie's house to meet her mother; all protests that she'd be fine, that her mother didn't' need to do that, were ignored. She could feel her face burning as her mother rang the doorbell; Jessie, she knew, was going to think she was a baby. 34

Jessie answered the door with a wide, perky smile aimed at first Mrs. Dempsey, then Lena- a much wider smile than she'd ever given Lena in school. 35

"Hello, Lena! And you must be Mrs. Dempsey," she said cheerfully. 36

"Hello, honey," Mrs. Dempsey smiled back, "you must be Jessie. Happy birthday! Lena has been so excited to come to your party."37

Hearing her mother say that, Lena reddened even further. Why was she so set on making her sound like a huge dork?38

"If I could just speak with your mother for a minute, Jessie…"39

"Sure, I'll go get her," Jessie replied perkily, giving another big smile. "Why don't you come in. Lena, you can go set your present for me over there." She pointed to the living room coffee table before disappearing down a hallway to retrieve her mother.40

Lena looked around the room furtively; she had known from the outside of the house that Jessie was richer than she was. She was almost intimidated to come in, afraid that she might get things dirty, or break something. 41

Jessie returned a few moments later with her mother; as the two women smiled and introduced themselves, Jessie took hold of Lena's arm and led her upstairs to her room. Lena felt her stomach flutter with surprised delight at Jessie's touch; there was a time last year when she would never have got close to Lena to touch her, let alone actually done so.42

"Stephanie and Heather and Lee are here too," she told Lena in a way that seemed almost confidential.43

"Sasha's not here yet?" Lena asked before she could censor herself. "Do you know if she's coming?"44

Jessie glanced at her sharply, as if trying to see exactly what Lena felt about what she was saying; as Lena tried to rearrange her features into an expression Jessie would approve of, she exhaled with obvious disgust, making a face.45

"No, I don't know, I hope she doesn't. She's so weird. My mom made me invite her. She said I couldn't invite all the other girls in the class and not her too. I don't know why, she doesn't like any of us anyway."46

"Yeah," Lena muttered… and yet she felt a stirring of guilt at her own words.47

Inside Jessie's room, Lena was greeted by the other little girls much in the enthusiastic way Jessie had, and they settled her in among them right away, chattering animatedly about movies, boys they liked, and the magazine pictures of men Jessie had taped up on her walls. For a little while Lena felt her anxiety fade. She felt included, mature, as if she did have friends and was thought well of.48

That is, until the time the doorbell rang and Jessie brought back with her into the room not another of 'them,' but Sasha. As Sasha stood there stone-faced, in a tight black dress and carrying a small purse, the other girls halted their conversation. The anger, irritation, and disgusted disappointment on Jessie's face as she stood a good two feet apart from her quickly spread itself to the other girls' expressions as well; none of them greeted Sasha. 49

For the third time Lena felt her face grow hot, and she had to look away. She didn't know what to do, what to say. She didn't want the other girls to think she liked Sasha or felt sorry for her… but she also didn't want Sasha to think badly about her, even now. She still felt guilty. This just wasn't' fair. She'd been looking forward to this… why had Sasha had to come?50

For a little while it seemed like maybe everything would naturally resolve itself. The girls had started to talk again, nearly ignoring Sasha, except to glance at her once in a while. Sasha sat apart from them, her face expressionless, dark eyes clouded. She didn't seem to be paying attention to what they were saying. Lena thought to herself that maybe Sasha would make this easier than she'd originally thought. Maybe she was in one of her quiet, broody moods today.51

But no… for when the conversation turned back to the pictures on Jessie's wall again, Sasha looked over at them, speaking in a voice that seemed to carry no one emotion.52

"I have pictures in my purse," she said neutrally. "Want to see?"53

When the other girls looked over at her in surprise, not answering, Sasha moved closer to them, opening her purse and removing two photographs. She handed them to Jessie, and Lena and the other girls crowded around her to look.54

The photos were of a young girl with dark hair and a developing woman's body, lying naked on top of a bed. Her face was averted to the side, but it wasn't necessary to see her face to know that the girl was Sasha.55

For a few seconds Lena could only stare, stunned, horrified. Being an only child and rather sheltered in many ways, Lena had never seen a naked woman before, and she had certainly never seen a girl her own age naked. And yet here was Sasha, casually handing over naked pictures of herself for all to see, at a birthday party no less. Not of herself as a baby, although even that would have been weird- but herself NOW- from this year.56

Lena's mind seemed half frozen; she didn't' know what to think, how to feel anything but shock. Jessie and the other little girls, however, didn't seem to have that problem. After their initial gasping, eye-bulging reaction, they turned their heads, staring at Sasha with angry disbelief.57

"GOD, Sasha, why are you showing us that?!" Jessie almost shrieked, flinging the photos back at her as if she couldn't bear to keep holding them. "That's so disgusting!"58

"Why are you NAKED?! Who took pictures of you NAKED?! That's so gross, Sasha!" Stephanie added, curling her lip in disgust.59

"Yeah, you're NASTY!" Heather added.60

Sasha didn't seem upset by their reactions; in fact, she smiled slowly, slyly, though Lena didn't think that she really looked happy.61

"I was sleeping," she said in a tone Lena couldn't identify. "My mom took the pictures."62

Lena only glanced at her briefly, more embarrassed and uncomfortable than ever, but not wanting to meet Sasha's eyes. She didn't know how, but somehow she knew Sasha had been lying. She didn't think Sasha had been sleeping; even if she was, it hadn't been her mother had who taken pictures. But why would Sasha lie about it? Then again, Sasha lied about a lot of stupid stuff. The real question was why would she SHOW everyone the pictures. Was she just trying to get attention again?63

Well if that was the case, she'd succeeded. Jessie and the other girls were still glaring at her, repulsed.64

"Why are you sleeping NAKED?" Jessie demanded. "That's nasty!"65

"Because," was Sasha's only reply, her face averted as she very slowly put her pictures back into her purse. Lena was glad… she had felt like someone had torn a painful hole in her when she saw those pictures. They had frightened her in some way she couldn't' explain. But even with them gone, as she glanced at Sasha again, the awful feeling remained.66

The girls made a few more withering comments to Sasha before once more ignoring her. Sasha went silent again, her expression unreadable. Lena too was quiet, and though she deliberately avoided looking at Sasha, she was all too aware of her presence.67

Jessie's mother called them down to eat pizza, cake, and ice cream soon afterward, and Sasha seemed to be behaving herself. She did not sing happy birthday to Jessie with the others, Lena noticed, but she doubted anyone else had. Lena started to relax again as she ate, once more beginning to talk and laugh with the other girls. Sasha sat at one end of the table, slightly apart from them, near Jessie's dad and brother.68

When it was time for Jessie to open her gifts, Lena glanced around for Sasha, wondering what she had got her. But to her surprise and confusion, she couldn't find Sasha anywhere. She kept looking for her furtively as Jessie opened all her gifts, barely noticing what she was receiving, but Sasha never showed back up. It wasn't until Jessie had opened all gifts and toted them all upstairs that Sasha appeared suddenly behind them.69

"Where were you?" Lee asked her rather rudely, echoing Sasha's thoughts.70

"What do you mean?" Sasha asked in over-done innocence, blinking. "I was right there the whole time."71

"Liar, you were not!" Lee insisted, narrowing her eyes indignantly. "You disappeared, where did you go off to?"72

"No, I was right there," Sasha insisted. "But even if I wasn't… why do you care? YOU don't like me."73

Her voice was not angry, but rather matter-of-fact. That only seemed to annoy Lee further.74

"No, I don't," she snapped back. "I don't care either. You want to leave, that's fine with me. That's fine with all of us."75

She turned her back on Sasha, deliberately excluding her as she began to talk animatedly and with exaggerated enthusiasm to the others. Lena couldn't listen; without wanting or meaning to, she found herself continually glancing Sasha's way, her stomach knotting guiltily.76

Before long the girls were running through suggestions of what to do. Once again, Sasha startled them by piping up with an idea of her own.77

"Why don't we play Spin the Bottle?" she asked in a deceptively bland tone. "I bet most of you have never played, right?"78

Once again Sasha was met with eye-widening, jaw-dropping disbelief. She looked back at the other girls with clearly deliberate innocence, shrugging. 79

"What? It wouldn't be boring anyway. All you've been doing is sitting around TALKING about kissing… why not get in a little action while we're at it, so you can actually know what it's like?"80

"That is so DISGUSTING, Sasha!" Jessie sputtered, and the other girls began to pipe up as well.81

"That's sick!"82

"You want to KISS us? Are you GAY?"83

"Ew, don't kiss ME, Sasha Caldwell!"84

They made a show of making disgusted faces and moving even further away from her; Sasha watched them without showing any hurt or anger, or even disappointment in their reaction. Maybe she had expected it, even wanted it in a way. Maybe she hadn't been serious, but had just wanted to shock them, to get attention. It was hard to tell with Sasha.85

Lena had made sickened faces along with the others, and she too had inched away from her, closer to the other girls. But she felt the guilt knotting even tighter in her stomach as she did so, the shame… not only for how she was treating Sasha, but also for what she herself was feeling. For when Sasha had suggested Spin the Bottle, her heart had lurched with excitement… she had wondered not only what it would be like to kiss, but also what it would be like to kiss one of the other girls… to kiss Sasha. Even as she verbally agreed with the other girls that Sasha and her suggestion were nasty, she wanted to do it… did that make her nasty too? Was SHE gay?86

The girls ended up deciding to play truth or dare. Usually with fifth graders this game was more silly than anything; stuffing balloons down shirts, saying if they had ever kissed anyone, singing a song. Nothing too risqué, or even interesting.87

Not the case with Sasha Caldwell playing. Every time she was asked to do a truth or dare, she refused to pick truth, choosing and carrying out the dare given to her and scoffing at its tameness. When she asked another girl, regardless of whether they chose truth or dare, it was bound to be refused, because of its sexual nature or cruelty. She asked girls sexual and personal questions that made them both cringe and yell at her; her proposed dares included stripping naked, going downstairs before Jessie's father and brother in only underwear, licking another girl's tongue, and having a wet T-shirt contest.88

After she explained what a wet t-shirt contest was with a marked expression of amusement, the game ended abruptly. Every one of Sasha's truths and dares had been refused, and now all the other girls were more disgusted, angered, and frustrated by her than ever. They went back to excluding her in their discussion, hair-fixing, and fingernail-painting, as Sasha sat with a strange, tight little smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.89

Eventually the girls decided to watch a DVD; they settled on Gremlins, an old silly movie about cute furry creatures turning into monsters. As soon as the movie was turned on, Sasha's silent stillness was gone. She started fidgeting and wiggling around on her sleeping bag, jumping up to pace the room, and making loud and frequent comments about the movie. It was as if she suddenly had energy she just couldn't contain, or like she was a toddler putting out a huge burst of activity and brattiness to keep from going to sleep. Or maybe she just wanted to annoy and anger the other girls as much as possible. 90

If that was her intention, it was definitely working. The other girls glared at her, yelled at her, demanded for her to sit down and shut up. Stephanie and Lee tried to pull her down to a sitting position, and Jessie threatened to tell her mother to call Sasha's parents to get her. Nothing seemed to shake Sasha, and by the movie's end, the other girls were furious. They announced to her that they were going to bed, and she better go to bed too, or else go downstairs to watch TV. If she did that, however, Jessie threatened, they would lock her out, and she'd have to sleep on the couch.91

"Whatever," Sasha had shrugged, raising an eyebrow scornfully. "You think I care if I sleep on your couch? Oooh, I'm sooo scared."92

But despite her own words, she stayed in the room with the other girls, also changing into her sleeping clothes. And when the other girls lay out there sleeping bags and climbed inside them, Sasha did too, seeming to have sobered in her attitude slightly. She didn't speak anymore, but Lena, who had somehow ended up in the sleeping bag next to her, could hear her shifting and moving around inside her bag. When Sasha didn't settle down after a few minutes, Lena began to get annoyed, sure she was making noise on purpose.93

"Will you STOP it?" she hissed. "I'm trying to go to sleep. Why don't you just go downstairs if you don't want to so all the rest of us can?"94

She hadn't quite planned on saying what she'd said; the words had left her mouth before she could quite realize they were so close to the surface. Still, she felt a measure of satisfaction, even though mingled with guilt, when Sasha answered in a strangely small voice, "Sorry, Lena," and went still.95

Even after Sasha lay motionless, however, Lena couldn't get to sleep. She just couldn't seem to slow down her thoughts, to make herself even a little bit tired. She listened to the others gradually drifting off, their breathing deepening, some snoring lightly, and she just couldn't get herself relaxed enough to join them.96

She knew, though she did not look over at her, and Sasha did not speak again, that Sasha was still awake too. She could hear it in the steady, yet rapid sound of the other girl's respiration, could sense it somehow, could somehow know without looking that Sasha's eyes were open, staring into the darkness.97

Somehow, irrationally, instead of being glad that she wasn't the only one who was still awake, Lena was irritated; she almost felt as if Sasha were doing something to her to keep her awake. She shifted over in her sleeping bag, trying and failing to grow more comfortable.98

As Lena lay there, she could hear Sasha's breathing changing; but rather than slowing, as if she were about to go to sleep, it was growing faster, almost painful sounding, as if she were having a hard time drawing in breath at all. It was a few more minutes before the increasingly choked, strange quality of Sasha's breathing made Lena realize that she was crying.99

For another minute or two Lena lay there, not knowing what to do, what to think. Why was Sasha crying? Did she know that Lena could hear- did she even know that anyone else was awake? 100

What was she supposed to do? She couldn't just lay there and pretend she'd never heard, could she? Didn't' she have to say something? But what? And did she really have to? Sasha wasn't really her friend, and she didn't really want any of the other girls to think she was. And what if Sasha didn't' want her to say anything?101

But what if she did? What if she did, if something was wrong, and Lena ignored her?102

Feeling the twinge of guilt poking at her stomach, Lena rolled over to face Sasha, speaking to her hesitantly in a loud whisper.103

"Sasha… Sasha, are you okay?"104

She heard Sasha snuffle, seeming surprised, a little upset to hear her, and Lena cringed inwardly, wishing she'd just kept her mouth shut.105

"N-no…" Sasha replied finally, her voice trembling, hardly more than a whisper. She didn't elaborate any further; Lena could hear her breath hitching, making shuddering, gasping noises, and her heart twisted with discomfort and a hesitant sympathy.106

"Sasha…" she began hesitantly, wanting to touch her, but afraid to. "Sasha, what's wrong?"107

There was a long pause, and for a while Lena thought Sasha wasn't going to answer her. She could still hear her muffled attempts to quiet her crying and thought that Sasha must be covering her face with her hands, or else mashing her face into her pillow. Lena waited, more torn than ever.108

Finally Sasha spoke again, her voice choked, much higher than normal, though she was still whispering.109

"My brother… my brother, he died last year, he d-drowned. And I keep seeing him… he's looking at me right now, h-he's on the ceiling, and I j-just want him to go away…"110

Her words were cut off as her crying intensified, not growing much louder, just more continual and rhythmic in an erratic, pained way. The sound was still muffled, but regardless, every noise Sasha made seemed to pierce Lena through her chest and temples in a way that was maddeningly insistent and infuriating to her.111

Lena felt all sympathy and worry for Sasha, all uncertainty, slip away quickly as she thought over her words, listened to her cry. Instead she felt a slow anger come over her, staring in her middle and spreading out until every limb tensed, her face heated. All she could think of was that Sasha was lying to her- laying there and crying, trying to get her attention and sympathy, trying to keep her from going to sleep- and she was LYING to her!112

Did Sasha really think she was that stupid, that Lena would believe whatever she told her?! For one thing, there was obviously nothing on the ceiling- and Lena had checked initially, just to make sure. For another, Sasha was an only child. Lena KNEW she didn't have a brother- and if she had a dead brother, this was the first she'd hear about it.113

No, Sasha was lying, all right. That's all there was to it.114

Before she could think about it, Lena found herself bursting out again in the same manner that she ahd earlier- only this time her words were much harsher.115

"Oh, shut up, Sasha!" she almost spat, her words a fierce whisper. "Will you STOP it already? You're just trying to get attention again, and I'm sick of it! It's not funny, it's not funny to lie like that, especially about someone being DEAD! You don't even HAVE a brother, and if you did, he wouldn't be hanging out on the ceiling staring at you! Just shut up and go to sleep!"116

Lena rolled over again, deliberately turning her back to Sasha as she put her pillow over her head, still fuming… and still she faintly heard Sasha's faint pained sounds as she tried to stop, or at least muffle her crying. All Lena felt towards her was anger.117

She saw Sasha many times after that night, had classes with her up until Sasha moved away in the eighth grade… but somehow that seemed to Lena later to be the last and clearest memory of Sasha she had. The memory of a ten-year-old girl huddled in her sleeping bag, crying, as all the other girls slept… and Lena, rebuking her and turning away… 118

She could never forget that in later years, nor could she quite forgive herself.119

Present day- eight years later120

Lena didn't know what it was that had suddenly made her remember Sasha, but she was all too aware of what had made her forget. Years of practice… years of deliberately pushing Sasha's memory further and further into the back of her mind, forcing herself to think less and less often of the little girl who had once been the center of her childhood, if not her life, so many years ago. Years of denying that she had not only known Sasha, but been fascinated with her, admired and loved her as much as was possible in her childish, selfish way at the time. Yes, Lena had a lot of practice in forgetting Sasha once she moved away, and with enough effort, both conscious and not, she very nearly succeeded in doing so.121

Until one day eight years later… eight years, a short enough time period, yet long enough for a lifetime of change.122

Lena was sitting in her college World Religions class, her mind wandering, when abruptly her thoughts of Sasha flashed into her mind. It was not memories, so much as visualizations of Sasha's childhood face, and a sudden remembrance of her existence.123

Rather than being upset or discomfited, however, or trying to push the thoughts away as she might have in the years earlier, Lena was somewhat intrigued by the seemingly random memory of the other girl popping into her mind. She found herself, throughout the rest of the class, unable to stop thinking about Sasha, remembering her, and yet somehow it didn't bother her as it would have before. At least, it didn't bother her in the way that it would have before…124

The more Lena thought about Sasha and the strange, unpredictable things she had said and done, the more some of it began to make sense to her as a more mature and knowledgeable young adult. Lena was a college freshman, but already she was taking classes required by her declared major, psychology. She had read and heard lectures on physically, emotionally, and sexually abused children, even at this early stage of her college education, to in hindsight recognize those symptoms in the childhood Sasha. And there was so many of them…125

The more Lena thought about it, remembered, the more her stomach sank with guilt and sadness. The sexual precocity and explicit talk and actions at such a young age… the wild behavioral shifts, from hyperactive to withdrawn. The sudden fits of crying or anger. The need for attention even as she deliberately pushed people away. The outrageous lying, the apathy in regard to schoolwork… the fear that had sometimes shone in her eyes when someone touched her…126

Those pictures… god, those awful pictures Sasha had shown them at Jessie Phillips's birthday party. How could Lena not have known- why had it taken her so long to see? Why hadn't any adults at the time seen? Or had they, and then turned away, pretending not to understand, denying Sasha the help she had been asking for in probably the only way she could? 127

Lena could barely hear her professor's words; all she could think of was how, as a child, she had not understood. Her heart twisted painfully as she remembered how she had treated Sasha, how she had been sharp with her, even mocked and yelled at her. She had ABANDONED her… she had only helped to make Sasha's life that much worse for her. Sasha had needed her, and she had failed her. 128

True, Lena had been a child, she had not understood- she could not have, given her innocence to such atrocities at the time, and her lack of knowledge in the human psyche and defenses. But even though Lena understood this mentally, she could not help but feel emotionally that she still somehow SHOULD have known- she SHOULD have done something… and she certainly shouldn't have treated Sasha as she had.129

She found herself wondering who it was that had abused Sasha. Her father was the obvious choice… but Sasha hadn't seen her father much, had she? Her parents were divorced… but how often had she seen her father? Did they have joint custody of her? Lena had never met him, and that bothered her now. The more she tried to recall about Sasha's home life, past, and family, the more it dismayed her to realize she hardly knew anything. She had never been really interested, until now.130

Where was Sasha now? She'd be eighteen, maybe nineteen years old. What had she become… what was she doing with her life?131

Lena almost dreaded what the answer might be; at the same time, she needed now to know. If she could find her through Facebook or Myspace maybe, maybe she could contact her, even call her or see her again. Maybe she could apologize, let her know she was sorry for failing her. Something…132

She had to find her. As soon as class was over, as soon as she got to her dorm, she was going to do all she could to locate Sasha Caldwell once more.133

Lena stared with an uncomprehending blankness at the article on her computer screen. As many times as she read it, as much as she tried to understand, she just couldn't make sense of it, the words would not register as reality in her mind.134

If this article was right- if this had really happened- then Sasha was dead. Sasha, the little girl Lena had never understood, no longer existed. She would never be able to talk to her or see her again, never make better what she had done to her as a child. Sasha was gone… not just physically, but GONE, forever, and Lena could not understand this.135

According to the article, it had been a car crash… and Sasha had been pregnant, an eighteen-year-old girl on her way back from her job as an exotic dancer. And this too Lena could not accept, could not understand.136

There were quotes from both parents, speaking of the shock, their love and grief for their daughter. Lena's eyes skipped past Sasha's father's words almost frantically; if he was the monster she now suspected he was she had no interest in reading anything he might say, whether sincere or not. But it was the mother's words that seemed a direct stab in her heart… for in the mother's words, she mentioned how much more horrible it was to cope with Sasha's death when they had already lost a child before… a son.137

Lena could barely breathe as her mind struggled to take in this new and horrifying realization. A son… the Caldwells had also lost a son. Her mind flashed back to Sasha, weeping as she whispered about her brother on the ceiling, and she remembered her own harsh response, her accusation of Sasha's lies, and she wanted to vomit. How had she not known?138

As Lena sat there, motionless, the words on the screen blurred before her eyes. Her throat choked, but she could not cry. There was nothing she could do… she had erred long ago, she had missed too many signals, too many signs and now nothing could make her mistakes right again.139

For now all she could do was grieve, grieve and cope not only for her loss, but for Sasha's. Sasha had never truly had a chance, even down to her life's end… and part of this, Lena knew, was her own fault. There would be time later for moving on, for learning, for making sure she never let such signals slip past her again. But now… she could only regret, regret without the relieving release of tears.140

The end