Choose: Chapter 5

I can’t sleep. After the memorial, I lay in my bed. My bed feels like rocks, so I go to my computer and immediately go to Facebook. I knew Jerrod. Everyone had given up on me back then, everyone had run but for three months he had been my only friend. He had been so strange. His parents are hippies….all into that peace, love stuff. I write Jerrod’s name in the search box and his page pops up, clicking on it, I’m suddenly mesmerized. His page is public. He’s smiling in his profile picture, holding a fish, wearing an L.A. Kings hat. He’s on a boat, the blue sky and dark blue water behind him. He looks so normal. He’s wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt. I click on the pictures and go through them. There he is. There he is during the holidays. There he is at a birthday party. There he is. Smiling, laughing, playing. I keep scrolling down until I see one with a picture of someone familiar. Me. I click on it. We were fifteen. I remember this. Who had taken this? We were at the park. I am clutching to a bottle of Jack Daniels. He’s laughing, has his arm around me. I try so desperately to remember. Did we talk about things? Did he mention that in two years he was going to kill people? No. No. I know as well as he did that our conversations never revolved around him. They were about me. Every conversation about me. Maybe I should have asked him a few questions.
I stare at my phone as it suddenly lights up, with Brittany’s name flashing on the screen. I reach for it and stare at the text: “please come outside”. I walk toward my window and peer down to see Brittany standing below my window staring across the street at the Rodgers’ house. I walk out of my room.
Opening my front door, Brittany turns and looks at me. My stomach flips. She was a person of interest. That’s what they say. That’s what the reporters had said. She looks so sad, so depressed. I walk toward her as she turns back to stare at the Rodgers house. We sit side by side on the porch, not saying much, still watching their home. My eyes land on that stupid rainbow-colored fence.
“I didn’t do anything,” Brittany says.
“Where were you yesterday?”
“I don’t…I didn’t know anything. I didn’t do anything. I just saw them at dinner. Just…I didn’t….I ran. I didn’t do anything.”

Her voice is shaking as her eyes glisten even in the darkness. Brittany is stunning, one of those beautiful girls that guys want to be around and girls want to be her best friend. I always wanted to be her friend. Her eyes are the exact same shape as almonds and perfectly brown, her hair perfectly long and falls from her head like a silky black sheet. Up until twenty-four hours ago, Brittany seemed absolutely perfect.
“You know what someone said to me at the memorial tonight? Someone said, I thought you Asian chicks were supposed to be smart? I—I tried to say something but then they said, ‘I guess there’s a retard in every bunch.’”
“I didn’t know anything. I didn’t…I really didn’t do anything. I miss Zoey.”
“Me too.”
“I tried to watch Friends to cheer myself up,” Brittany says.
“And?” I ask, smiling a little. My first time smiling in a while.
“It failed. They hate me too.” We both suddenly clap that signature four clap that’s in the beginning of every episode. It’s a small moment, a moment where we actually laugh. We fall silent once again.
“What about you?” Brittany asks.
“What about me?”
“Do you hate me?”
“You don’t?”
I shake my head. I can’t hate her. I need her. I’m angry, mad, and I lost one best friend, I’m not ready to lose two.
She lets out a long pain-filled sigh. I slowly lift my arm and place it around her. She looks at me. She cocks her head to the side and reaches toward the necklace still hanging from around my neck. She looks at it, squinting.
“Best Friends Forever,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper, “or till death do us part?”
“I guess. We knew him, Brit.”
“We did.”
“He never said anything. Those three months we were friends. He never said anything.”
“Remember his birthday party in third grade? His mother served carob cake.”
“Yeah, that was gross,” I say.
“Completely…we were at his house. I still have the shirt I tie dyed at that party. Remember Rachel’s?” Brittany asks.
“Yeah, hers was the color of poop. She wanted it to be colorful but it looked like poop,” I say.
“That was funny. But…God, I had dinner with him. That’s all. I was looking forward to this year. Fuck you, Jerrod,” Brittany says. She begins to cry again as we continued sitting, side by side. We are silent, still staring at that house. The lights are still on. I see an older couple sitting at a table, the woman crying as the man seems to be holding her. Jerrod’s parents. What did they know? Why couldn’t they have stopped it?

I tried to go to sleep after Brit went home but instead I’m laying in my bed staring at the ceiling, imagining scenes from my childhood being projected there like some kind of movie Those old time projection kinds of movies. I can see them so clearly. They make me smile. Countless sleepovers, Halloweens, football games, birthday parties. Secrets that connected us, bonded us forever. Secrets now gone. I am remembering Zoey’s last birthday, we drove up to Los Angeles to see a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. We stayed at the house of one of Jennie’s actor friends. That was a wonderful night. We had a celebrity sighting. Some actor from some show. We each bet Zoey twenty bucks to go up to the guy and ask for a birthday kiss. She did it and he gave her a kiss. We never paid her. Maybe if we had paid her….

I jump when I feel the weight of my bed change. I look over and see Adam. He is sitting at the edge of my bed.
“I can’t sleep,” Adam says.
“Me neither.”
I hear him let out a sigh. He is picking at the loose threads on my bed.
“I think I want to transfer,” Adam says.
“I don’t want to go back. This is my first year of high school and now the next four years.… I lost my best friend.”
“Me, too.”
“Yeah, but you’re a senior. You’re almost done.”
“I have an entire year. I’m not almost done. You can’t transfer.”
“You didn’t even want me there in the first place.”
“I did…no, I did. I do. I need you there. I need…I need to laugh eventually and you seem to have a strange ability to do that and besides, I can’t protect you if you go somewhere else.”
“I don’t need your protection.”
“Yeah, you do.”
“You didn’t protect me yesterday.”
I close my eyes. The bluntness of those words cuts through me. I didn’t protect my baby brother. I didn’t keep him from harm.
“I’m sorry, Adam. I didn’t know…. I’m sorry,” I say.
“Me too. You know, I had a crush on Zoey.”
“I know. You weren’t subtle about it.”
“Well…she was hot.”
“I liked Will a lot. He was funny.”
“You wanna sleep in here tonight?”
I stare at Adam as he looks at me. He nods and gets up. He grabs a blanket from my chair and walks back to my bed and lies next to me. We are now both lying there in silence, but it feels a lot less cold and a lot less lonely.

When I had thought of the first ten days of my senior year, I had imagined basketball games, lunches off campus, cheerleading, people walking down the halls and knowing my name. I’m the popular girl. I worked hard for that title. Popular, shoo in for Homecoming Queen and on top of that, I’m taking three AP courses and am dating a guy I’ve known since birth. I had even secretly named this year ‘The Year of Nicole’. I had earned that. I had earned perfection. I was not supposed to be spending those first ten days going to funerals, attending sessions with grief counselors and talking about my feelings with therapists. This was not the plan. I plan everything. I laminate my plans. When they’re laminated, that means the same as it being written in stone. Funerals for my best friend are nowhere on any list I’ve made.

There were sixteen funerals in total. Sixteen lives completely lost. Every life filled with potential and gone way too soon. Everyone telling people that they’re sorry for their loss as if they did something. I hate when people apologize for losses, when people say their prayers are with you. It all seems so fake as if people are born with this internal list of things to say to someone while grieving and then they use that list to check off to make sure they’re saying the right things. “My condolences.” “My prayers are with you.” “Do you need anything?” Yeah, I do need something. I need my best friend to not be dead, think you can handle that one? Of course you can never say that, you have to smile and say nice things back because as Kelly says, ‘they mean well’.

I wear a black dress to Zoey’s funeral with a red rose barrette. Zoey had made that for me. She always said that if you’re going to wear full black, then you must put in a pop of color somewhere and red is the best pop of color you can have, which I think Zoey only said because red was her favorite color. Nonetheless, I purposely put little bits of red in my outfit. I wear a red cashmere cardigan, as well. I am standing in between Kelly and Matt. We each are wearing something red. Kelly, Jennie, Brittany, and Lexie are all wearing something red. Red shoes, red cardigans, red barrettes, red something. Matt, Chris, and Shane are all wearing red ties. Shane even has a red pocket square, which I love. Of course, Shane will go that extra mile with fashion. I adore Shane.
“What the hell do you have in your pocket?” Matt asks.
“A pocket square,” Shane says.
“Why not?”
“I love my boyfriend,” Lexie says.
“Your boyfriend is gay,” Chris says.
“I’d say think of a better insult, but I don’t want you to hurt your brain cell,” Shane says.
“Nice one, Bianco,” Matt says.
“Thought you’d enjoy it.”
“Oh, I enjoy it too….just like I enjoyed your mother,” Chris says.
“You need to go back to preschool and get some better material, man,” Matt says.

I take a deep breath. The boys bantering usually makes me so happy. They constantly pick on each other and it makes me smile but today, today it hurts. Each joke about Shane being gay or Chris being stupid or Matt being a nerd. None of which are true, but what if it’s too much? What if that comment pushes them over the edge and tomorrow they decide to pick up a gun and kill people? What if it’s not banter at all, but cruelty. What goes on in someone’s head? We never know. I mean, nine years ago I was eating a carob birthday cake and making tie dye shirts at the home of a kid who would later be the reason we’re now spending our first week of school attending funerals.
“Guys….not appropriate,” I say.
“No,” Kelly says, looking at me. “Let them. It’s normal and we need normal.”

Normal no longer exists in this world. Bantering can be seen as bullying. Violence is the new normal in my tiny bubble town. Could Shane or Chris or even Matt be capable of killing? I shake my head. The old normal was lost in a hail of bullets. Constantly questioning is the new normal.
Zoey’s parents talk about how spirited she was. They talk about how she was a force of nature. A beautiful, wonderful force. Zoey was that force of nature you read about. You loved her or you hated her. There was never any middle ground. Fortunately, everyone there was on the side of loving. Zoey’s sisters also speak. They talk about Zoey following them around the house when they were little. They called her “nuestro asediador pequeño” which means “our little stalker” in Spanish. I always wanted older sisters because I loved watching how Zoey was with her sisters.
They only wanted family to give speeches, which to be honest, I’m happy about. I don’t think I could’ve made a speech. What do you say? I don’t want to talk about how wonderful she was. I want to focus on how wonderful she is. I want to see her, hug her, graduate high school with her. I don’t want to talk about her spirit or the funny things she once did. I don’t want her to be past tense. I’m not ready for her to be past tense. I don’t want to think about how we were going to be bridesmaids at each others weddings. She is going to NYU and she’s going to be an artist and a drummer. She’s not past tense yet. I refuse to let her be. I keep staring at the casket, covered in red roses, and in my head I keep screaming for her to get up. I can hear my own voice trying desperately to get Zoey to wake up, to pop up out of the coffin, like this was all some sort of elaborate, sick joke. We will then laugh and shake our heads. I keep staring at that coffin, pretending I have some sort of magical laser vision that can bring someone back. My intense focus on the casket is interrupted by a guttural scream. It’s a scream I’ve heard at many of the funerals I’ve been to in the last ten days. It sounds more like a howl. It’s coming from Zoey’s dad. I watch him as he puts his head in his hands and sobs, his entire body shaking. Zoey’s mom holds him, she kisses his cheek. I feel both Matt and Kelly grab my hands. I close my eyes and sink back into my seat. I let the tears flow yet again, but I don’t wipe them away. I feel weak.

After the service, we walk toward the grave site. Zoey will be buried beside her grandmother. I wonder if they’re together right now, eating nachos and watching all of us be blubbering messes. I wonder if they are laughing at us? Zoey probably is. She’s probably thinking we’re trying too hard with the red and that we should be celebrating her, not mourning her. She probably wants us all to stop crying and head over to Mike’s and eat our weight in pizzas and nachos. She’d also want us to try and get beer. One time we all went there and tried to get beer. We all had fake IDs with us, but it was so stupid. Jake, who owns Mike’s, has known us all since birth. He just looked at our IDs, laughed, and walked away.

We stand huddled together while we watch as Zoey’s casket is being lowered into the ground. It disappears into the dirt and I start to cry again. We all are crying, and in my head I begin to say goodbye and thank Zoey for all she’s done. Did. My best friend is now past tense. The best friend who taught me to stand up for myself, the one who made me dance in the rain, and jump off the swing. The one that taught me to let go and move on, that friend will be missed.

I close my eyes and imagine Zoey standing there, waving goodbye to all of us. I wonder what memory my friends are thinking of, but then decide maybe I don’t want to know because I don’t want to tell them mine. The last of the dirt covers Zoey’s casket and the funeral has ended and there is nothing left to do but keep going and going until we can separate ourselves and let go, somehow.


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