Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: SLANDER (09/07/17)
By Jan Ackerson
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He also doesn’t mind looking at the young women, mostly students like himself from the nearby college.
One of them has caught his eye just now. He recognizes her from campus, but he doesn’t know her name. She’s sitting by herself on a striped beach towel, reading and sipping a soft drink. Hank looks back at her again and again, because she seems not only to be alone, but to be sitting inside an invisible tent of solitude. As he watches her, in fact, he sees two different groups of college girls walk past her. They’re fully aware of her, altering their paths to avoid walking into her—but they seem not to see her at all, even though she looks up from her book with a small smile, ready to meet their eyes.
Hank wonders what he’s missing—the woman doesn’t have an extra arm growing out of her forehead or anything else he can see that would make her a person to be shunned. He’s puzzling it out when Joe and Tim plop down next to him, scattering sand.
“Anything left in the cooler?” Tim asks, and Hank pushes it toward his friend.
“Checking out the scenery?” Joe nods at a pair of girls who are running, shrieking, into the water.
Hank shrugs. “Just that one.” He lifts his chin toward the solitary young woman, and Joe looks in that direction, shielding his eyes with one hand.
“Her?” Joe snorts, and Tim looks, too, then chokes a little and lowers his can.
“What?” says Hank, looking from Joe to Tim. “What’s the deal with her?”
“That’s Jennica Simcox,” says Joe. “You remember, last semester? It was all over campus. Jennica Simcox, the one who…you know.” He makes a significant gesture.
Hank remembers. A small college is a rumor mill, and the things he’d heard about Jennica Simcox had been truly shocking. She’d nearly been suspended, until it came out at her disciplinary hearing that none of it was true. There had been a dare involved, and the one who’d started the rumor had chosen the least likely student on campus as victim. In the end, it had been the other student who was suspended.
But it looks to Hank as if Jennica is still a pariah, if the other women’s reactions to her are any indication. He brushes some sand off his wave board. “But it wasn’t true, right?”
Tim shrugs. “Whatever. I’m going back out. You coming?”
“Nah, go without me.”
Joe stays, too, leaning back on his elbows and raising his face to the sky, eyes closed. “I thought sure she’d transfer,” he says. “I would’ve.”
Hank looks toward Jennica again, and sees that she’s been joined by a young woman who’s standing over her. He can see that they’re talking, but the newcomer has her back to them, blocking his view of Jennica. Hank can’t discern the tenor of their conversation, but he feels oddly protective, and wonders if he should get up and intervene.
“Who started the rumor?” Hank asks.
“Uh, Carly something. McMain? Something like that.”
Hank is startled; he remembers Carly McMann from his freshman Film Studies class. He recreates her image in his mind, then looks back toward Jennica. Sure enough, that’s Carly with her, and Hank watches intently, making up his mind to go rescue this woman he’s never met.
But Carly’s starting to sit down now, and Hank can see that Jennica is patting her beach towel and scooting over a bit to make room. She reaches into her tote, pulling out something in a plastic container that she hands to Carly. They’re too far away for Hank to make out any words, but as Carly opens the lid and pops something into her mouth, the sound of treble laughter drifts back to him on the lake air.
It wasn’t Jennica’s beauty that first drew Hank to watch her; it was her solitude. But it seems to him now, watching her head bend toward Carly as they share a snack, that she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.
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