The only thing worse than breaking up with my boyfriend was the whispers that followed me as I walked by. I had known he was trouble, but how much trouble? I needed to hear the rumors, for myself. I wanted to scream at people, but couldn’t make a scene. My ears hummed with the rhythm of the soft voices. They strained to grasp any word, and only caught the most familiar; MY name. Penny, they whispered, eyes alarmed when they felt my ice-cold chill as I walked by. Penny, the mean store owner said with near sympathy. Penny, whispered the aging baker. Penny, one name, left on the tips of everyone’s tongue. Penny, followed by a series of solemn faces, or worse, ones gleaming for a juicy story. They knew nothing. They came up with every sort of story. She must have done something to deserve it, the photographer blabbed. She must have known something, said the trader. He could have been such a nice young man. She ruined him. She was the bad influence. So many stories, but they weren’t able to get the truth from anyone. Least of all, me. My boyfriend had left town; my mother to stay with her parents, my sister to go back to work.
I had been a model student before I met him. Spotless grades, president of the Voices From Students committee, a regular volunteer at the nursing home, the animal shelter, and the soup kitchen. I had organized more charity events than most of the billionaires around. I read to poor kids in broken houses; I had been there before the women I considered to be my real mother took me in. I spoke at big events; talking about being charitable and hoping to get donations from those of the upper class. I had been nominated Our Model Student; a tradition for my high school in which the students and teachers all voted for one person they thought contributed best to our school. I was a professional cellist and was going to play at Carnegie Hall, before him. I babysat for almost every young family in our town. People called me a great example, a role model for their kids, and the best kind of teenager. And then I met him. I was the happiest person alive, so excited to serve, to learn, to grow. And then I met him. The first time he hit me, I told myself I deserved it. I had been given too much, and here was my punishment. Obviously, I needed to go through something harder than sitting in that foster home, waiting for someone to offer to take me in. For so long, no one did. When my mother, not my birth mother, but my mother, took me into her home, I was broken. She fixed me right up. From then on, my every desire had been fulfilled. I took a lot of things for granted. I needed some sort of a trial. It was a learning experience; the abuse I suffered. That’s what I told myself. That’s what I almost tricked myself into believing.
I met him when I was reading to one of my favorite kids to read to; Calypso. She had big, green eyes and long, red hair. She was older than the usual age group I read to; I had celebrated her 14th birthday with her. One day, while we were reading one of our favorite stories, Rip Van Winkle, he walked in. I had never believed in love at first sight, and he was stoned and had yet to take a shower. But somehow, probably the universe’s doing, I fell in love with him. He would stand in the hall while I read Calypso stories, softly chuckling at my strange impersonations. Oh, was he gorgeous. I really had no chance; his reddish-blonde hair, his bright blue eyes, his strongly built figure. He was only missing Calypso’s freckles, a quality which I had added to my list of must-have qualities for a significant other.
The first word he spoke to me was, “Why?” I had no idea what he was talking about, and so we got to talking. He said, “Why? Why do you spend the time that you could be hanging out at your friend’s yacht or something, why do you spend it with her?”
My answer was simple. “I like spending time with her.”
“Like you like spending time with all the other kids you read to? Like you like spending time with the ladies in the old folks’ home? Like you like spending time with the teachers you suck up to? Trust me, Calypso does not need you to swoop into her life just so you can beef up your college application. In fact, you would do more good to leave us alone and find another charity case.”
I still remember how much his words stung. I had slowly nodded my head and walked out the door. He seemed to know so much about me, and I still didn’t know his name. Calypso would have told him. They had this inseparable bond, one that I envied. I had never been all that close with my older sister; I guess we were just too different. She had only come to town on that day, and by that time I wasn’t even there.
Hardly one hour later, Calypso’s older brother had thrown pebbles at my window. Actually, they weren’t pebbles. They would be more accurately described as boulders. One shattered the window frame that had been Mom’s wedding gift. The other broke our air vent. My eyes were still puffy from his words, more cataclysmic than his boulders.
Since I didn’t want to die, I went out to meet him. I can still conjure the look on his face. He had tears in his eyes, and they slowly rolled down his face. Not being able to resist the impulse, I brushed them off his face. Our eyes locked. And yeah, after that we were a couple.
I was the little things in our relationship that destroyed me. The time he took up, not that I didn’t enjoy it, but I was busy. My grades started slipping. I had so many other things to do. I was kicked off of the Voices From Students committee; something that I had created and loved so much. Through my many daydreams of a romantic, considerate relationship, I had never considered how much time it would take up. However, I didn’t want to end it, or even spend less time with him. I honestly believed that we were in love, and that I could still make it work. I kept up my volunteering hours because that was something that I really loved doing, and sometimes my new boyfriend came too.
Then, I got a letter from my favorite teachers. She was young, and seemed to understand us all. In her letter, she explained her concern for my slipping grades and effort decrease. She threatened to revoke her letter of recommendation if I did not show my previous self sometime soon. I tried to explain this to him. That was the first time he hit me.
I realize now that he was toxic, that he wanted me all to himself, and that it was something I could not do for him. I hope that he has changed his ways, that the next girl who dates him will not be abused like I was.
Or, murdered, like I was.
Because the rumor making its way down the grapevine was this:
Sweet Penny is dead.
And it was not just a rumor.
It was true.