Chapter 5

Karen and Zach didn't speak again until they met at the Teen Center years later. Zack avoided the entire perverted group for the rest of his high school career and his friendship with Miller pretty much ended that day too. Zack wanted to forget all of it and whenever he saw one of the others at school (especially the girls) he died from humiliation, embarrassment and bitterness all over again. He didn't care what any of them thought because in his mind the seven of them were sick fuckers and perverted degenerates.

Zack was ashamed and mortified about what he witnessed and experienced that day, certain that he was guilty by association. And yet he felt sadness and sorrow for Karen because, despite what she had done to him (and to the others), he strangely still liked in her in what could only be considered a very sick way.

There was no point in talking to Karen about what happened now that they were associates at The Teen Center. Zack sensed that Karen had moved on so why embarrass her by reminding her that she was a slutty tramp who performed teenaged sex on several different guys and got naked in front of everybody (including him), never mind violating him?

But Zack sensed that there was unfinished business between them because recently Karen started dropping hints that she wanted to say something to him. She'd mention high school from time to time, asking if he knew what became of a certain teacher or if he remembered a particular event. Zack gave superficial responses, uncomfortable with the prospect of returning to dangerous waters.

"Do you think we could go out sometime?" Karen finally asked point blank at the end of a work day. "To dinner, maybe? I need to tell you something."

Zack's stomach dropped but he knew he couldn't turn her down because if they didn't resolve whatever it was she wanted to say it would hang over their working relationship like a black cloud. So he agreed to meet her for dinner at Duffy's Tavern in Hillsboro on a Friday evening.

Karen arrived first. Zach spotted her sitting in a booth drinking a glass of iced tea. She looked quite lovely in a simple white dress. Zack joined her and they made small talk until their orders arrived, discussing work subjects and successes and how great Karen felt working at the Teen Center, loving her job. Zack was quite supportive and complimentary in his comments and responses but he knew this is not why she had asked him to dinner.

"I need to make formal amends to you," Karen announced once the waiter left having delivered their meals.

"You did the day of the interview,' he said.

"No, not really," she insisted. "What I did that day was inexcusable. I violated your space and I behaved horribly. I know what I did wasn't appropriate and I'm sorry I put you in such a vulnerable and uncomfortable situation."

"I accept your apology," Zack replied easily although she sensed he was uncomfortable with the conversation.

"I'm sorry for destroying the reputation of so many people that day - especially mine - and for the atrocious mistakes I made," Karen continued.

"I'm happy you're sober now and that you have your life back on track," Zack replied.

"I was a sexual deviant and you were my innocent victim," Karen sighed.

"I had a crush on you, you know." Zack finally dropped the bombshell he had been holding for years.

"Huh?" She asked with confusion.

"Before that day," he said with a blush. "Even after, really," he admitted. "I used to watch you around school. I thought you were pretty."

"Why didn't you ever say anything?" She asked. "Miller was your friend and I knew Miller."

"I wasn't ready," he admitted. "That's why that day was so traumatic. I tagged along because I wanted to be near you but I wasn't ready for any of that sexual stuff."

"I'm sorry,' she said.

"I came from a very religious and ethical family," he explained. "I was shy and unemotional. Inexperienced and naïve. Prudish and afraid."

"What I did was wrong," Karen said. "It was immature, disrespectful, mean, rude, and abusive. I was a sexual bully."

"You were a mixed up, confused, troubled kid," Zack told her. "That's why you're so good with the kids now."

"My father left when I was six," Karen sighed. "My mother had lots of boyfriends. More than I could count. More than I could keep track of. I was sexualized at an early age. I was miserable and I acted out, rebelling against my sucky life. What in the hell was I doing drinking vodka lemonade at fifteen?"

"You were hurting," Zack said.

"I wasted so much of my life," she groaned. "I barely remember those last two years of high school. I was drinking. Partying. Boyfriends. I barely graduated."

"You got married."

"To a drunk like me," she revealed. "To escape my mother, mostly. He was abusive. I was an alcoholic. I worked to get money to buy booze. That's all I cared about. We lived in a dump and we pissed away what little money we had."

"What was it?" Zack asked. "That turned your life around?"

"I'd like to think Divine Intervention," she smiled. "God smiling down on me, but in truth there was no Come to Jesus moment. I mean, I woke up half naked in the front yard one morning and there were plenty of times I was in blackouts and brown outs with no memory of what I had done but there was no one incident that got me sober." She thought about it for a moment. "I'd see classmates working professional jobs - nurses, dental assistants, accountants and there I was working shit jobs because I was an alcoholic addicted to booze. I couldn't function without it and unless I had a few drinks in me I just didn't feel normal or right. I was a mess."

"Not now."

"Now being sober is the new normal for me," she said contently. "I go to bed sober and I wake up sober. No hangover, no regrets, no fear about my drunken antics and no guilt about how my actions affect everyone around me."

"Good for you," Zack grinned.

"I'd much rather forget the ugly part of my life and the person I was before," Karen admitted. "I pretend that this is who I always was but you know different so I can't lie to you and that's why I wanted to truly and honestly and meaningfully apologize for that day. I was already a lost hopeless cause even then."

"You've done very well for yourself," Zack reminded her.

"I got sober, I got my degree and now thanks to you I have a job I love," she said happily. "I guess there must be some sort of poetic justice to that. How ironic that someone I hurt would turn out to be my hero rescuer."

"I didn't do anything," he assured her. "You're the one doing all the good and hard work."

"Do you think it might be possible for us to launch a new friendship?" Karen wondered. "On healthier terms? After all this time?"

"I do," Zack said warmly.

"Miracles come into my life every day that I stay sober one day at a time and the empathy of good people like you relieves me of my past without me even realizing it," Karen said. "It's been surreal, especially when I think about all the hurtful things I've done for so many years."

"Karen, me accepting your apology gives you the opportunity to end the guilt and shame of that day," Zack smiled. "You don't have to walk around with it anymore."

She nodded in agreement and relief. "Thanks, Zack," she said.

It was probably the most enlightening dinner of their lives.

"What about you?" Karen asked as they continued with the meal.

"Here I am," he smiled.

"Not married."

He shrugged. "In many ways, I'm still that shy insecure kid," he admitted.

"Because of me," she sighed.

"No, not just that," he assured her. "My mother was extremely over-protective. I lived a sheltered life. I was programmed in religion and ethics and values. Sex was a hang up and would have been even if I hadn't been traumatized that day."

"We gave you sex PTSD," Karen frowned. "We took away your innocence. A kid has a natural crush on a girl and I turned it perverted and ugly."

"What if I still had a crush on that girl?" Zack tested.

Karen's eyes watered up. "I've been waiting for the right guy my entire life, Zack," she said. "If only I had realized I had found him when I was fifteen I could have avoided my own downfall." She gave him a funny look. "Do you think you're my amends?"

"I'd like to hope so," he acknowledged with a contented grin.