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Excerpt: 'Touch'

Doctor Atwood says, "Maisie, do you think we could revisit the incident on the bus?"

"Revisit?" I say. "Revisit as in you want me to tell you the story that I've already told a million times because you don't believe me? I thought you were supposed to believe me. I thought that was part of your job."

"I'm not saying I don't believe you," says Doctor Atwood. "Because the fact is, Maisie, I think you believe what you're saying happened. But memory's a funny thing. It can distort things. People tell themselves a story about what happened, and they start to believe the story, and then they start thinking that the story is what actually happened. And it becomes the truth. Or a truth. Whether it happened exactly that way or not. The mind's a funny thing."

"Your mind, maybe," I say.

"Don't be like that," Doctor Atwood says. "I'm trying to help you."

It's something she says so often, I'm almost starting to believe it. "You want me to tell it again?"

Outside the window behind her chair, it's winter, winter, winter.

"Please," she says. "I think it could be really helpful at this point. It's been a while, after all."

"Okay," I say. "If that's what you want."

I'm so bored with the story. I've told it so many times. To Joan and to the principal, to the school administration, and to Cynthia, our lawyer. At first it was hard to tell. In the beginning, it was really embarrassing. But each time, it got easier. And eventually it got boring. Now I can basically tell it as if it had happened to someone else, to a girl named Maisie who had a bad experience on a school bus. Every time I mean a girl named Maisie, I just use the word I. I say, "Stop me if you've heard this before."

"Maisie, please."

"Okay. The older kids were away. Chris and Kevin sat near us. They started saying that Shakes told them I let him touch my boobs, and since we'd been such good friends, it didn't seem fair. I should let them do it, too."

"Why do you think they said that?" asks Doctor Atwood.

"I think they wanted to touch my boobs."

"You know it's more than that, Maisie. You know perfectly well that the boys didn't say that to make you feel comfortable or good. They didn't say that to make you think it was something you might enjoy, something that would feel good to you."

Well, obviously. I didn't think that. But it was better than thinking they wanted to hurt me and make me feel bad. Why would they want to do that? They blamed me for their growing up and for turning into a girl with breasts. Chris and Kevin blamed me for having chosen Shakes over them. And I still didn't know what Shakes blamed me for. Maybe for confusing him, for making him feel he had to choose between me and Kevin and Chris. But I wasn't the one who'd made him choose. Sometimes I wanted to corner him, and confront him, and ask how he could have done it. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. Maybe I was afraid that I'd get my heart broken all over again.

"What are you thinking right now?" asks Doctor Atwood.

"Nothing," I say. "My mind is a total blank."

"Never mind. Go ahead."

"There's nothing else to say. I told them I needed to think about it a minute. Then I said, 'No.'"

"You said no?" she repeats.

"Yes," I say. "I mean no. I said no."

"And then what happened?"

"They looked at each other again. They had it all planned out. Shakes grabbed my wrists and held them down in my lap. Kevin and Chris kind of pawed at my boobs."

"Simultaneously?" asks Doctor Atwood.

"No. First Kevin, then Chris. I think. Or maybe it was the other way around."

"And what were you thinking about while this was happening?"

"I was telling myself, 'It's just your breasts. It doesn't mean anything really. It's no different than if they were touching your arm. Go ahead, touch my arm if you want.'"

"You detached yourself from yourself ?"

"I guess you could say that."

"That couldn't have been pleasant."

"Duh," I say.

"And then?"

"Then they touched my breasts some more. They took turns."

"Were you scared?"

"Of what? We were on the bus! What else was going to happen? Mostly, I was pissed. And then, right in the middle of it, I got so pissed that I yelled really loud, in my nastiest, most sarcastic voice, 'Oh boy, oh boy, that feels really good.'"

"And then?"

"I looked up and saw Daria Wells looking straight at me, straight at us, at me and at the three guys. She was furious. She knew what we were doing. She hated me, and she blamed me. And I knew that she was going to tell."

"Which she did," says Doctor Atwood.

The clock ticks off a few minutes.

I say, "Okay. What part don't you believe?"

"I do believe you," she says. "But it just seems so. . . unlikely that your crippled friend would be the one to hold your wrists."

"His names is Shakes," I say. "And he's not crippled. He was the closest to me. It makes sense."

"But he's the weakest," she says. "He'd have the most trouble restraining you. You could have escaped."

"He's not that weak." Why am I still defending Shakes?

"And if Daria was Chris's girlfriend, why would she tell the school about something that would get Chris into so much trouble?"

Doesn't the so-called therapist know one single thing about human beings? "Maybe she was just mad. Or maybe for once in her life, she was doing the right thing. Anyway, she didn't say that Shakes was holding my wrists. She couldn't have seen it."

"I realize that," says the doctor. Why don't I think she believes me? Am I being paranoid, or is Doctor Atwood a double agent hired to wreck our case?

I say, "There's something else. The money part."

"What money part?"

I say, "Something that happened later."

"What?" asks Doctor Atwood.

'The hour's up," I say. I can hear Phlegm Man in the waiting room. Until now, I never appreciated what a hero the guy really is. I never knew that he could save me.

"Let's start with this the next time. To be continued," she says.

From Touch by Francine Prose. Copyright © 2009 by Francine Prose. Published by HarperTeen. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Francine Prose