My laminated list of things I’m thankful for. I write one every year. I write things like my friends, my family, Matt, my puppy Lola, things that make me smile and laugh. I sit down to write this year and I have writer’s block. I didn’t even know you could get writer’s block from just writing a list of things you should be thankful for but the only thing that appears on my list is that I’m thankful I’m not dead but that just seems so awful because others are. In my last year’s list of things I was thankful for, I had named each person, each friend and family member that had made me so happy to just be on this Earth. I write Zoey’s name on this year’s list but can I be thankful for her? I write Brittany’s name and then cross it off. It’s hard to think of things this year. It’s hard when things are starting to take a bad turn in this town. People are getting meaner. Brittany’s breaking. That stupid rainbow fence that surrounds the Rodgers’ keeps getting spraypainted on. Jennie’s seriously contemplating doing that movie. Apparently, she has meetings in Los Angeles. It’s where she’s spending Thanksgiving. I’m spending mine in Oklahoma with my Uncle Brandon, Aunt Molly and the rest of my family.
Laney Brook, Oklahoma. Population: insanely small. It makes Bayat look and feel like a big city. It’s truly in the middle of nowhere. Another bubble town hidden in a cluster of giant oak trees that change color with season. Something rare here in California. The sky is crystal clear, the clouds look like someone stuck cotton balls in the sky. It’s such a perfect little haven and I can’t wait to leave even for a few days. I want to leave Bayat, trade one bubble town for another.
But first, I need to deliver pies. It’s my mother’s idea. “It will make them feel better.” Feel better? How? She didn’t give me an answer, but apparently pies are the magical thing that will make people feel better about losing children and now I am standing on Zoey’s front porch with Adam standing next to me. I have a basket filled with chocolate pies and I feel like an idiot. My brother rings the bell and knocks and soon a small, Hispanic woman stands before us with a big smile. She has short darkish hair and wrinkles in the corners of her eyes. Zoey’s mom. I love Zoey’s mom. She radiates sunshine even in the darkest moments. She immediately takes the basket from my hands and hugs me and Adam. She seems so happy to see us, so excited, and I begin to feel guilty about having not stopped by sooner.
“Oh, Nickie. Thank you. Thank you for stopping by. I’m sorry Zoey’s dad is at work and her sisters aren’t supposed to be home until tomorrow.”
Zoey’s dad and sisters? My heart drops again as my breath catches in my throat. I want to cry, but I can’t. I can’t cry in front of Zoey’s mom who is still smiling at me. She places the basket on the coffee table and quickly grabs my hand, pulling me toward her.
“Come, I want to show you something,” Zoey’s mom says as she leads me to the stairs. Those carpeted stairs that I ran up and slid down so many times. I imagine memories again. Sliding down the stairs on yoga mats, laughing, feeding her dog ice cream, sharing secrets. I see her cat sitting at the top of the stairs. He glares at me and I grin. That cat has hated me ever since I threw him down the stairs—accidentally, I swear. Zoey and I were playing tag in the house. We must’ve been eight. The cat was resting at the top of the banister and as I tried to reach for Zoey, my arm somehow bumped the cat and the cat jumped and fell down the stairs. I’ve been trying for years to get that damn cat to like me again, treats, toys, but nothing has worked. Zoey used to say that the cat has the memory of an elephant, which I always found to be a funny comparison.
I know where her mom is taking us. We stop at the door which has “ZOEY” painted in black on a piece of wood. I look over at Adam, who has not said one word since we got here. Her mom opens the door and I catch my breath. It looks like her parents have not touched her room since that September day. Each wall of her room is painted a different color. Matt used to say that her bedroom looks like a paint store got wasted one night and vomited. Her room is painted red, neon pink, navy blue and emerald green. Her bed is unmade and her desk is a mess. She has her class schedule posted up on a cork board. I smile as I notice that in small writing she had written which one of us were going to be in each one of her classes. We all did that, every single year. Me, Brit, Lex, Zoey, Jen, and Kelly would all go to Mike’s and go over our schedules, writing notes about who was in which one of our classes. We called it our pre-school business meeting. I laminated mine. We had had that meeting on September 8th. Brittany was dressed in her Mike’s uniform of a red polo shirt and khakis. We were eating pizza, drinking sodas and discussing our schedules. God, I bet Zoey’s pissed about that. I mean, had she known September 8th would be her last full day on Earth, I bet she wouldn’t have wanted to spend it discussing who would be in her history class. I wish I’d taken pictures of that moment because other than schedules, I don’t remember what else we talked about.
Her calendar is still on September. I look as I notice she had circled Chris’, Matt’s, Shane’s, and my birthdays. For Chris’, she had written “DISNEYLAND” in big letters. That was going to be so much fun. We had planned our day down to the minute. We determined who would drive, what rides we’d go on and who would sit with whom. We would drink lemon slushies and eat Monte Cristo sandwiches. We’d take pictures, buy hats and sweatshirts. We were going to stay from the moment the park opened to the moment it closed. I had even laminated our Disneyland Schedule although I knew it we wouldn’t end up following it anyway. I didn’t care, though. Laminated schedule or not, I knew it was going to be an amazing day. I wish I could go there now.
My heart drops when I notice what she has written for the first day of school: “Doom begins. School starts. Hope I survive.” I bite my lip while in my head I think, She won’t. On her desk are pictures. I pick up one of her, Brit, and me. It was last summer at Veronica’s birthday party. Zoey had made a frame for it out of wood. Each side had one of our names and on the bottom she’d written, “Miles may one day separate us, but memories will keep us forever connected.” I wipe tears from my eyes.
“You can keep that,” Zoey’s mom says.
“It’s okay,” I say.
“No, you can. I want you to have it.”
I hold on to the frame and look around the room. I smile when I notice a pink, rose-colored shirt thrown onto a chair. I walk to it and pick it up. It’s my shirt. I’d been bugging her for months about that shirt and that I wanted it back. She kept telling me she’d give it back. I toss the shirt back onto the chair. She can have it now. I don’t want it back. I look back up at her mom and Adam. I must look sad because Zoey’s mom hugs me again, enveloping me in her arms.
“It’ll be okay.”
I cock my head to the side and stare and her, confused. How can any of this possibly be okay? It will never be okay. Nothing will be the same and it’s our fault. My fault. Brittany’s fault. Matt’s fault. We didn’t do enough. We didn’t ask the questions. Zoey’s mom gives me a warm smile.
“In life we have choices. We can choose to remember the good and feel blessed for the memories you have or you can choose to be angry at the person who took it away. Angry at the moments you’ll never be able to have. Life’s too short to be angry. Choose to be happy.”
I keep staring at her mom. I see sadness in her eyes that contrasts with the smile still on her face. Choose to be happy. It’s like what Kelly does when her life is falling apart, when her dad disappears. She chooses to be happy. Not sure if I know how to do that.
I separate from Zoey’s mom and stare back at that picture in my hand. We had laughed so much that day. I remember it was uncomfortably hot, yet that didn’t bother us. We ran around, pretending like we were five. Everything was so wonderful about that day, so fleeting. I look around Zoey’s room and silently say goodbye. It’s time to leave. Time to go, move on, let go. After all, I do have another basket of pies to drop off.
I leave Zoey’s house in a haze. I’m not even sure I remember driving away but soon I’m in front of the Arlington home. I look over at Adam. His face becomes pale as he keeps staring at that house. I’ve only been to the Arlington home about five times. Julie Arlington is in my class but I never really talked to her. She’s so quiet. Zoey once said that Julie was the kind of girl that, ten years from now, you’d have no recollection of who she was. I never really gave her much thought. Sure, sometimes I saw her at parties walking around but never speaking and always apologizing for interrupting. She was always so strange, so odd. I always found it weird that Will was related to her. Will was the polar opposite.
Adam and I just sit there for a minute, parked in front of the white, split level house.
“How do we choose to be happy about any of this?” I finally ask.
“I don’t know,” Adam says.
We sit there another minute. Then he reaches for the door handle.
“You’re coming with me, right?” he asks.
We walk up the driveway toward the house with the basket of pies. We don’t wait long before Julie answers my knock. Her hair is long, waist length, and hangs around her like a sheet. She wears no make up and an oversized sweatshirt and jeans. She looks like one of those poor, neglected children you see in those commercials where you can feed and love them for only a dollar a day.
“Hi,” Julie says.
“My mom thought…with Thanksgiving coming up and…” It just sounds so stupid.
“Your mom is sweet. If you want, you can come inside?”
I almost let out a snort when she asks that. If I want? No, I don’t want to come in. No, I want to leave and get on a plane. I want to go to Laney Brook, Oklahoma, and sit on my aunt and uncle’s couch and watch the Friends Thanksgiving episodes in chronological order. That is what I want to do, but I can’t because my mother is making me drop off pies. We follow Julie inside and I’m taken aback by the shrine to Will that is everywhere in that house. I’m also a little thrown off by all the flowers and lace. Their living room looks like a Laura Ashley nightmare.
Julie walks to the couch with her shoulders slumped forward, then kind of just drops into it, her sad eyes asking me why in the world I’d bring pies. I have no answer for that and look over at Adam, who is examining a picture of Will in one of the many display cases.
“So. . . . What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” Julie asks.
“Going to Oklahoma. I have family there.”
“Oh. You looked really pretty at Homecoming. I liked your dress.”
Rachel used to label girls like Julie as pathetic losers. She used to say that certain girls seem to make it their mission to bathe themselves in an overwhelming scent of desperation. Julie is that girl. I feel so uncomfortable sitting there with her staring at me, looking so eager.
“So what are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Everything has gotten so strange here. My mom won’t leave her room. My dad keeps leaving and my older brother, Tyler, just seems angry.”
I mean that. I think of Zoey’s house with her mom still smiling, still trying her best to be welcoming. The vibe here is depressing. The Laura Ashley flowers are not doing their job to cheer up the environment. I’m about to say something else when suddenly the door opens then slams shut and in walks some guy who Julie introduces as her older brother, Tyler. Tyler has a raggedy beard that looks like it has bits of food in it and his hands are completely covered in red paint.
“Tyler, why are your hands red?” Julie asks.
“Screw you,” he says and then storms towards a swinging door, pushes it open and storms into another room.
I look at Adam, who immediately shoots me a look from his spot by the display case. He takes deep breath and bites his bottom lip as Julie gets off the couch and walks into the other room.
“Did you leave Jerrod’s family alone?” I hear her ask, her voice a mad whisper.
I raise an eyebrow, still staring at Adam as he walks across the room towards me with a sense of urgency I’m not sure I’ve ever seen.
“We need to go,” Adam whispers but I’m rooted to my spot on the ugly flower-bombed couch. The graffiti on that fugly rainbow fence that surrounds the Rodgers’ home. Those horrible words telling them to die. My heart starts racing, I feel myself starting to shake.
“Yeah, whatever. But they should not be in this town. They’re murderers,” Tyler says. He doesn’t bother to whisper.
“I wanna go. Let’s go. Mom made us a pie too,” Adam says, nodding. I’m not even listening to him, I’m just staring at the door. I squint at it, wishing I could make it open with my mind or make it fall down or something. I imagine Julie and Tyler going back and forth, arguing. I hear Julie’s angry whisper through the door.
“They didn’t kill anyone.”
“Where do you think he learned the behavior? God, this town needs to rid itself of its scum. I will not rest until they leave Bayat and that stupid Brittany bitch admits to knowing about the killings. Innocent people don’t run. God, what a piece of shit she is. She needs to die. Take a gun to her head and just pull the trigger.”
A chill goes down my spine. My breath shortens as I tighten my fists into balls. I bite my lip, trying to stop myself from storming in there and punching him. I look at Adam, who is practically pleading with me to leave.
“Can we leave now.”
It’s not a question, it’s a statement. He gives me a look that’s identical to the one our dad gets when he’s mad. Stone face, short breaths through the nose and an angry glare in his eye that makes everything in the world stop. Adam grabs my arm, still staring at me.
“Please, Nick, please.”
I stand up and Adam grabs my arm, pulling me out of the flower-infested living room towards the door. I can still hear the loud whisperings but I’m no longer really paying attention to the words. Adam is still pulling me, he opens the front door and we walk out, slamming it shut. The loud slam makes me jump. Getting in the car, Adam looks on the verge of tears as he turns to look back at the house. I hit my palms against the steering wheel and rest my head against the head rest.
“You know, Will liked our family better.”
I look over at Adam, still staring at the house. He won’t look at me.
“He thought Dad was funny and Mom was nice and liked that whenever he came over, she made all this food and then complained that she had to make all this food even though no one asked her to make anything.”
“That’s Mom,” I remark, laughing a little and at that moment wanting nothing more than to be near her. Maybe she’d know what to do to make everything right. Know what I’m supposed to do next. Moms always seem to know that.
“He didn’t like his family. Tyler was always upset about something and Julie was always sad about something and . . . I want pie. Can we just go home?”
I start the car, pulling away from the Arlington home towards ours. Walking through our door, we are greeted instantly by the smells of food, recipes my mother is trying before our trip to Oklahoma. Lola rushes up to us, running back and forth between Adam and I, too excited to figure out which one of us she wants to pick her up. Adam decides he’ll do it. Holding Lola close to him, he walks up the stairs to his room and slams the door shut behind him. I walk towards the kitchen, smiling at my mom, making some sort of casserole.
“Why are you cooking? You’re gonna have to do everything again when we get to Laney Brook,” I say.
“It’s a trial run and we’ll have snacks on the plane.”
I laugh a little as I let out a sigh and plop down in a chair. I keep thinking of what happened at the Arlington home. It was cold there, so weird. Homes always come with smells, almost unintended smells that let outsiders know what kind of home they’re walking into. Will loved our home. So did Zoe. I try to remember the smells of Jerrod’s home but I can’t. Zoey’s felt warm and somehow always smelled of cookies even when no one was baking. The Arlington home felt cold. I sat up straighter there. I felt lost, sad, out of control there. My mom slides a big coffee mug filled with coffee in front of me with a plate of a sweet potato pie from a new recipe she just tried. I smile at her as she sits next to me, wrapping her arm around me, kissing me on the head. I can feel myself starting to cry again. I need a break. I need this all to stop.
The entire plane ride, my mind is consumed with Brit as we fly to my other bubble town in Laney Brook. I think of Tyler and the hushed angry words I heard through that door. Brittany ran. My mind keeps stopping on that one fact. That one thing that seems to prevent me from moving on.
God, I hate even thinking it, but I do: sometimes I even think, Innocent people don’t run. I think of every Law and Order I’ve ever seen, every SVU, every CSI, every 48 Hours, every Dateline Special, and they always say the same thing. Innocent people don’t run. Why didn’t she hide in that closet with us? Couldn’t she have stopped this? Maybe they talked about music, but what else?
I need to not think about this, I need to get my thoughts off the fact that Brittany may or may not have known something. She was telling me the truth. She wouldn’t lie. I watch the Friends Thanksgiving episodes in chronological order, trying to get my mind off of those thoughts but you never know. You never know anyone. Even the characters on your favorite show, they’re actors. What goes on behind the scenes? Were the actors fighting that week? Was one of them sick? Did they laugh about something before the director yelled action. You’re only presented with the best. The thing that’s going to make you look good and maybe what you’re presenting isn’t necessarily the truth. Even to an outsider, a home may not present the reality. They don’t show cracks, only the happy moments. The warm friendly moments and it’s not until something breaks when we look at the home and realize the cracks were there all along but we didn’t see it because we were too consumed by the appearance. The perfection.
I land in Laney Brook late Wednesday night and am immediately surrounded by family, by people wanting to know how Adam and I are feeling. Some cousins want to know details of the shooting. Did we see the gun? What did it sound like? They ask questions like they’re asking me for the plot of a horror movie. It makes me think about Jennie’s movie again. I wonder what the questions will be when that comes out. The adults try to steer the conversations away from the shooting. They try to keep things lively. We watch Thanksgiving-themed movies, talk about playing football the next day, and, of course, watch all the Friends Thanksgiving episodes. I try. I try so hard. I don’t remember a time I tried so hard. I don’t want to discuss any of this, yet it’s the only thing anyone wants to discuss.
Matt calls me in the middle of the night—not that I’m sleeping. I grab the phone and quietly make my way outside to the porch swing that looks out onto the big yard and the woods that line the property. The stars are so bright, they actually do look like diamonds.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” I say when I finally make myself comfortable. “I see the Milky Way, but you know I prefer Snickers.”
“Ahhhh, I’m in New York. I see tall buildings and—and what appears to be a homeless man peeing on the sidewalk.”
“Whoa, that’s a long stream. Hey, if you pee in freezing weather, do you think it comes out as like ice? I mean, if I’m going to school in Boston next year, these are things I should probably know.”
I move my phone away from my ear and look at it. Is this actually happening?
“Are you actually calling me at two a.m. to talk about this?”
“It’s three a.m. here.”
“Oh, well then…that makes it normal. Why are you calling?
“I can’t sleep.”
“So you wanna talk about peeing?”
“Among other things.”
A breeze rustles the leaves on the bush next to me. I settle deeper into the swing as I stare out at that pitch black yard. I wonder about the woods. When I was little, my cousins and I would run out into the woods and explore. I imagine now animals creeping around, going about their business. I hear a coyote howling way off in the distance. It’s truly nothing but woods and nature out here. .
“I dropped pies off at Will and Zoey’s houses yesterday,” I say.
“My mom thinks grieving people like pie.”
“Cake. When will people understand? It’s cake over pie.”
I want to laugh. I want to. I can’t.
“Julie’s other brother Tyler was there. He’s…he said stuff, like, he said innocent people don’t run. He was talking about Brittany and I just keep thinking and I want to believe her, Matt, I do, but—”
“I saw her run.”
I stare at the phone, momentarily distracted by the loud winds through the trees and a coyote howling again. Nature is loud, but I keep staring.
“It happened so fast and I’ve been remembering things. The gun went off, Shane was saying it was paintball, Jennie was saying it wasn’t and then Chris pointed at the equipment closet and said we should get in there….”
“You told us girls to get in first.”
“That stupid basketball bin was in the way but we got you in. We got you, Lex, Jennie, Zoey, and Kelly all in there, all safe. And then I turned for a last look and that’s when I saw her. I saw Brittany racing down the hall. Maybe I should’ve run after her, I don’t know, but then Shane yelled at me to get in the closet and I did and then Shane moved the basketball bin and then got in the closet before putting the bin in front and closed the door. We were all so smushed in there. It hurt and I didn’t think about Brittany. I think….we could have all done something to stop this.”
“How did—wow…you saw her?”
“Yeah. For some reason, I’ve had such a hard time remembering stuff from that day. It’s like my brain won’t let me remember and when you told me at Homecoming that she ran, I remembered that…I remembered I saw her and I didn’t want to say anything. I just don’t want to think…I don’t wanna think about that day, period. I want that to just disappear and I hope Jennie doesn’t do a movie about it and—I can’t wait to be across the country next year. I mean, I’ll miss you, but I can’t wait to leave. I’m here in New York and I’m the happiest I’ve been in two months.”
It’s too late or too early in the morning for this. My mind is still whirly and fuzzy. I can hear Matt’s voice sounding groggy and tired, but I do understand what he means. It’s not me that’s making him unhappy, it’s the situation.
“Zoey’s mom said that we could choose to be happy. How does she do that? The woman lost a child and she’s talking about how we can choose to be happy.”
“Zoey’s mom was always like that. Seriously, it was obnoxious.”
“I guess, but Kelly’s like that too. Choosing to be happy. I wish I could do that. I wish I could choose to be happy. But I can’t. Every time I close my eyes, I think about what I’m gonna miss. Remember when you and I got pretend married in sixth grade?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah…during lunch time by the jungle gym. Why did you force me to do that again?”
“You lost a bet, remember? USC won and UCLA lost and I said if USC won, you had to marry me and if UCLA won then I had to eat a bug.”
“Well, during that wedding, Zoey was my maid of honor and it kills me that the only time she will get to be my maid of honor is at a pretend wedding that Shane officiated while dressed up in his Eagles jersey. She’s never gonna get to go to the real one. Zoey’s mom and dad are never going to walk her down the aisle and there’s going to be a movie and we’re talking about whether or not Brittany knows more than she’s telling and how can we choose to be happy?”
There was silence again on the other line. I stumped him, which normally would make me happy but this time it doesn’t. He lets out a sigh. I don’t know what else to say to him and I have a feeling he doesn’t know either. Something in the sky catches my eye. A star falling? It’s probably just a plane but I close my eyes anyway and make a wish. A wish for things to be easier. A wish that things will turn out better. A wish that I—that we all can figure out a way to choose to be happy.