The alarm goes off. Some song starts playing, but I don’t really pay attention to the words. Instead, I lay there, motionless. My eyes are fixed on the ceiling and I’m doing what I’ve been doing for the last month, getting lost in my thoughts, taking scenes from my memories and imagine them being projected onto the ceiling. This time, I’m remembering the time Zoey convinced Brittany and I that we should make chocolate chip cookies for our parents. We were nine and made a mess. I clearly see the images. Zoey covered head to toe in white flour after Brittany threw it at her, playing, laughing, spilling vanilla extract on the floor and wiping it clean with our socks.
“Honey, it’s time to get up,” my mom says.
I look to see her standing in my doorway. Looking at her is like looking at my future. She smiles at me, that sweet smile that she gives me when she knows I’m about to do something I don’t want to do like get a shot at the doctor’s office or something.
“I don’t wanna go. I feel sick. I just wanna lay here,” I say.
“It’s time,” my mom says.
She leaves my room. I let out a loud sigh as I sit up. It’s now October 5th, almost four weeks since the shooting at Bayat Hills High School. The school had been closed for renovations and we had a choice of whether or not to attend our school rival, Oakland Academy, or just do homeschooling. I did homeschooling.
I’ve barely left my home in four weeks. My days have been spent alternating between doing homework and watching my Friends DVDs over and over, hoping that one of those jokes, one of those story lines will do its magic but it never did. Phone calls were left unanswered, texts not responded too. I have barely been on Facebook, not responding to notifications. My thoughts focusing only on the shooting. My seventeenth birthday came and went, there was no reason to celebrate. Celebrating fills me with guilt. I get to celebrate being alive while others do not. That doesn’t seem fair.
Matt, as always, brought me back from disappearing into the darkness completely. Yesterday, explaining that school was starting again, something I knew, and he would be picking me up. I agreed. I had to go back. I had to walk onto that campus because as he kept telling me, we were seniors and it was the mature thing to do. Whatever. He was talking to me about maturity while watching a YouTube video staring some guy with his head wrapped in bubble wrap, getting hit over and over by his buddies.
My mother tells me she will take Adam to school and I sit on my porch, waiting for Matt. I stare at Jerrod’s house. Someone spraypainted “eat shit and die motherfuckers” across the rainbow-colored fence. It hasn’t been removed. They always seemed nice, the Rodgers’ Family. Weirdly, nice. All the cliches, everything that people say and have been saying. The media has finally left us alone. There was a former child star who got arrested for drunk driving and priorities shifted. Jennie knew him. That was interesting. She had to go to Los Angeles to take care of him. Jennie was even on some gossip website walking out of a restaurant with the actor. They were shielding their faces as questions were being shouted at them. I feel thankful for that actor. We are no longer front page news.
Matt pulls up to the curb and I get in on the passenger’s side. Matt is listening to some strange musician that I’ve never heard of. He’s strange like that, always listening to those independent artists that according to him have not been touched yet by corporate greed, although after college, he does dream of being the next Spielberg, making big budget movies. Normally, I would point out his hypocrisy, but I’m not in the mood today.
“I want this day to be over already,” I say. It’s not even eight a.m. and yet I want nothing more than to go back and sleep.
“Yeah, I hear ya,” Matt says as he turns the car around and drives toward Main Street. But before we get to Main Street, there’s that damn stop sign. Clementine Road. My heart drops and I feel that pain in my chest. I wonder when it will stop hurting when I breathe?
“Are you okay?” Matt asks.
I nod and wipe the tears away from my face. This is not going to be easy at all.
“It’s just…we should be picking her up. We should be turning on her street and picking her up. This is so not fair.”
“I broke my promise,” Matt says, remaining stopped at the sign. I look at him. He stares ahead, his hands gripping the wheel. Matt’s face tells stories. His mom once said that about him. You can tell in an instant what his mood is just by looking at his eyes. Today, sadness.
“What?” I ask.
“Remember when we were in ninth grade…well, right before ninth grade and I told you and Zoey that I would protect you. That you two would survive high school because I’d be there. I didn’t keep my promise. I am so sorry.”
“No. Never mind. We have to go pick up Brittany. We gotta go.”
Matt sniffles a little and shakes his head. He drives past the intersection toward Main Street and turns left, going toward Brittany’s house.
I hate how everything feels now. I feel heavy. My head hurts. I wonder if I’m getting a migraine. I’m not sure how we will be able to move forward. It seems impossible. My parents wanted my brother and I to see a therapist. I hated going. I don’t care how many times some professional tries to validate my feelings, they’ll never get it. They’ll never understand. They just won’t and it’s not their fault… I wish I didn’t get it either.
Brittany lives in one of the bigger homes in Bayat. A two-story brick one, with a circular driveway and a fountain in the middle. Zoey, Brit, and I used to spend hours throwing coins in there and making wishes when we were little. Matt pulls into the driveway and stops. I take a deep breath and look at him. I haven’t spoken to Britney since Zoey’s funeral. I haven’t spoken to anyone, really, except Matt and my family, but still.
“Do you think she’s forgiven me?” I ask.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Do you think she knew something?”
“I really don’t. It’s Brittany. She’s…she dreams of marrying Daniel Radcliffe.”
“No, not Daniel Radcliffe. Harry Potter. She wants to marry a wizard and go to Hogwarts.”
“Well, that makes more sense,” Matt says, the corners of his mouth turning upward.
I giggle a little as I open the car door and get out. That house is huge. I stop next to the fountain and stare at it. It’s a big, stone fountain thing. I reach into my pockets and find loose change. I close my eyes and toss a coin in there, wishing for normalcy, wishing for things to be okay, for that perfection I had so badly wanted before this all began. When I open my eyes, I notice “die bitch” has been written in small letters on the fountain. My heart sinks. I should have been there for Brittany. I walk to the door and take a deep breath, which I have to remind myself to stop doing. Every single time I take a deep breath, I feel like someone is stabbing me. I knock on the door, but I only need to knock once. Brittany opens it right away. She is so stunning, truly. She’s half Spanish, half Japanese, and has got the most amazing, most sick sense of humor, which I’ve missed so much. I’ve missed my friend. When she opens the door, she looks worried. I hug her tightly. We’re sobbing, I’m apologizing for not being there for her, and we’re sobbing more. It feels good to hug her again, to reconnect, but of course that moment is interrupted by Matt, honking away. Brittany grabs her backpack and closes the door. As we walk past the fountain, she stops and stares at the graffiti.
“Let’s go,” I say.
“No one believes me.”
“I believe you.”
Brittany flashes me a sad smile. Matt honks again so we both hop in. He’s clearly annoyed.
“Really, you want us to be late today of all days?”
“Blah, blah, blah, blah….” Brittany says.
“Yeah, Brit. Don’t mind Matt. You know how he gets about his Egg McMuffins.”
“Well, I don’t want them to run out,” Matt says.
I laugh as Matt starts the car and pulls out on to the street. He begins the drive to McDonalds as I stare out the window at the storefronts. In my head, I start naming them. Barnaby Pets and Grooming. Harley Car Repair. Kugel Petite Boutique. Roxy Salon. Happy Go Lucky Drug Store. Ralphs. I watch people as they walk down the street. It all seems so normal. So boring and normal. It’s strange how people move on. A month earlier, we were all clinging to each other but now it’s back to business.
“Oh, I love that song,” Brittany says.
I look at the radio and a grin spreads across my face. This was our song, mine, Brittany’s, and Zoey’s. It was a boy band that used to be popular years earlier but had vanished. The three of us had spent hours debating who would marry which member of the band, we made up dances, stalked them on the internet. We sent them so many comments on Twitter that we were convinced they would block us. We were fans.
“Yea,” I say.
Matt lets out a groan as Brittany and I sing along to the words we had at one point known by heart. The words that had made us smile.
I wonder if Zoey had something to do with this. Maybe she’s got some pull? It’s just weird. We’re in Matt’s car and what are the odds that a song I haven’t heard on the radio in at least seven years starts playing? Maybe Zoey has some strange other-worldly control and decided this song should be playing at that moment when both Brit and I are in the same car? Maybe she knows? I don’t know. I’m about to say something about this when Matt reaches down and changes the station.
“Why did you do that?” I ask.
“Because the song sucks. All that band was was a dime a dozen boy band whose only redeeming qualities were that they were abnormally pretty and could lip sync on cue.”
“I know, that’s why we need to listen to it. I love boys who are abnormally pretty,” Brittany says.
“You know, some might say I’m abnormally pretty,” Matt offered.
“Who would say that?” Brittany asks.
“I’ve never heard anyone say that.” I quickly change the station back and sing along with Brittany. I laugh as Matt lets out an anguished sigh. It lightens the mood. I silently send those pretty boy banders a thank you. Thank you for giving me something, a memory, a nice thought that I will forever hold on to every single time I sing along to the cheesy, repetitive chorus. It will always be my favorite song.
Those familiar golden arches, there’s no truer sign of normalcy then those big giant arches. We arrive, get our food, and join Lexie, Shane, Chris, Jennie, and Kelly. Our first breakfast in four weeks. It’s so obvious that someone is missing. We can’t really speak…all just silently picking at our food. Leave it to Rachel to break the silence as she saunters over to our table, with two of her friends behind her. I don’t know their names. Rachel seems to go through a lot of friends. Girls whose only job seems to be to follow Rachel around and agree with her. I miss Rachel sometimes, the Rachel I remember. The one who made a tie dyed shirt that looked poopy. The one that sat and watched cheesy movies from the eighties with me. The Rachel who was afraid of the dark until she was ten. That Rachel I miss. She stands in front of our table, her two friends standing behind her. It looks like a scene out of one of those teen movies. She lets out a snort as we exchange looks, wondering if we’re supposed to say anything.
“Yes, your highness?” Lexie asks.
“Yeah, why don’t you eat another Big Mac, fatty,” Rachel says.
“Oh, they don’t serve those until after eleven. If you’re gonna make a fat joke, then at least get your facts straight,” Lexie says.
“Whatever, you’re stupid,” Rachel says.
“Oh, good one. Preschool humor before nine a.m. Loving it,” Lexie says. It’s making me uncomfortable. A couple months ago, I would have laughed at Lexie’s remarks and rolled my eyes at Rachel, but it’s different now. It scares me.
“What do you want, Rachel?” I ask.
“Okay, well, I wanted to discuss the Homecoming Race with you. The dance is coming up,” Rachel says.
I raise an eyebrow at her and then look back at my friends. Is this actually happening? If this had been a typical school year, we’d be getting ready for Homecoming in three weeks. I hadn’t even thought about that. The Homecoming Race signified the end of Rachel and I’s friendship in ninth grade. She had challenged me to run against her, thinking no one would vote for me. The opposite happened: no one voted for her. I was looking forward to being Queen, to wearing a plastic tiara and dancing with Chris who was probably going to be the King, but after the shooting, I forgot all about the Homecoming Race.
“We haven’t been back to Bayat in four weeks,” I say.
“They’ll still be doing Homecoming,” Rachel says.
“Homecoming’s in three weeks. This is our first week back. There’s no way they’ll be doing Homecoming. After everything we’ve been through…not a chance,” I say.
“No, they’re doing Homecoming,” Kelly says.
“My mom is friends with a few of the administrators and apparently they want to slowly get back to normal and go how the school year is supposed to go,” Kelly says. “We’re even gonna play Oakland and Lex and Brit are going to do their annual halftime song and—”
“If we play Oakland, I swear to God, we’re gonna kill ‘em,” Chris says.
“Nice choice of words, dude,” Matt says.
“No, those Oakland kids are assholes. They called us the Killer School Kids. Fuck you,” Chris says.
I didn’t know this. I wish I hadn’t. My heart sinks hearing this. We’ve become that? Our school had been known as a tough school before the shooting. We had high test scores and thanks to Brit, Zoey, and Lexie, we have a great vocal trio. We’re also known as an unofficial performing arts school. In addition to Lex, Zoey, and Brit, we have Jen, who has been in movies and television shows. She was in a Lifetime movie a few years ago where she was a pregnant teen and had her baby in a bathroom. We were considered a pretty awesome school. But now we’re known for being the place where people die. I push my Egg McMuffin to the center of the table. I’m no longer hungry.
“Excuse me,” Rachel says, as if we were interrupting her in the middle of something, “Nicole, while it’s adorable that you have been in the Homecoming Court, I think with all the tragedy we’ve been through, it’s only fair that I am the Homecoming Queen in order to get our school through this horrific time.”
“Wow, I just threw up a little in my mouth right now,” Lexie muses.
“Yeah, that was just gross,” Brittany says.
“Yeah, almost as gross as hiring Jerrod Rodgers to kill off fourteen students and two teachers,” Rachel says.
“I didn’t hire anyone to—”
“Oh, Brit, hon, listen don’t play with pigs. You only get dirty and the pigs like it too much,” Lexie says, patting Brittany on the hand.
“Have you looked in the mirror, Lard Ass?” Rachel asks.
“Stop, please.” I can’t take this. “Fine, whatever, Rachel. Run. Wear the stupid tiara, I don’t care. Just leave me alone. Just leave.”
“No, no. If Nickie doesn’t run, I will,” Kelly says as she sits up a little straighter and moves closer to Chris. Chris actually looks a little nervous.
“You can’t run,” Rachel says.
“Why not? Do you think I’d win if I did?” Kelly asks.
“No. No…no…no . . . I—no. You are such a loser. You guys probably major in losers,” Rachel says.
“Wow, whoa….stop, that’s….wow,” Lexie says, giving Rachel a huge grin. Rachel just rolls her eyes and storms off, with her two friends whom I had completely forgotten about storming off behind her. I look back at my table. Chris now has his arm around Kelly.
“You are so running or I am,” Kelly says.
“Oooo, I love it when you’re jealous,” Chris says, kissing her on the head.
“I am not jealous,” Kelly argues. “It’s just….she just wants to run so she can dance with you, Chris, and I just think that’s rude because you dated in junior high and ninth grade and we’re dating now and—”
“You are so jealous,” Jennie says, shaking her head.
“I am not. You shut up,” Kelly says.
“She’s turning red,” Shane says.
“I’m sensing Fatal Attraction. Do we need to keep you away from the bunnies?” Matt asks.
Kelly crosses her arms and pretends to pout as Chris hugs her. I let out a laugh then take a sip of my coffee. The rest of the table continues to tease Kelly. Over the rim of my cup I look at Rachel, who is now sitting with those two nameless girls, talking. I think about Homecoming, about walking through those halls. I set down my coffee and hide my shaking hands in my lap.
Walking into Bayat is interesting, to say the least. The construction people or whoever was in charge of rebuilding did a great job. Gone are the smears of blood and shattered windows. The florescent lighting illuminates the halls, making it look almost sterile. The trophy case is filled with pictures of smiling athletes and excited cheerleaders. The inside gives the feeling of a random high school plopped down in the middle of Anytown, USA. Who would know what happened here? Except for one placard in the trophy case declaring that we will never forget, by the looks of the school they have forgotten or at least are trying to.
Before classes begin, there’s an assembly where Principal Stephens talks about what happened and we have a moment of silence for the victims. I look around the auditorium. Was someone in here when the shooting started? Did one of those victims die in here? Did they die sitting in the same red cushiony seat that I’m currently sitting in? The school seems smaller, we’ve lost students. Amy Martin gets up and suddenly runs out of the auditorium in tears. I see my brother sitting with Allie Bianco. Allie is crying. Adam looks at her. He picks up his hand and places it on top of her hand.
“The kid’s got moves,” Matt mutters. I place my hand on our shared armrest and turn my palm upward. Matt picks up his hand and slides it into mine. We interlock our fingers and hold tight.
There’s always an end. The end of a movie. The end of a television show. The end of a book. The end is supposed to be planned. Eight months from now. That was supposed to be our end. We would sit in rows on that stage in our caps and gowns. We’d count down and talk about how awesome high school had been. The ending isn’t supposed to come before the beginning. I sniffle a little, missing Zoey. Now Mrs. Ledower, the school psychologist, has taken the stage. She talks about feelings and other crap. She’s a tall woman with long black hair who tells us all that if we take yoga and meditate then our lives will be filled with happy thoughts. Her office often smells like incense. I had to go there when I was in tenth grade. She told me to center myself. I told her to go to hell. Needless to say, it didn’t work. I wonder if Jerrod went to Mrs. Ledower? If he did, why couldn’t she do something? Why didn’t she say something? She’s the school psychologist.
“We have to talk about Homecoming…and cheerleading. You’re still the captain,” Kelly says, poking me in the side. I raise an eyebrow and look at her.
“Homecoming. You have to run. You’ll totally beat Rachel. No contest and we have to set up a meeting for the squad to get together,” Kelly says.
I wonder if Kelly is still suffering from some sort of shock. Mrs. Ledower once said that people tend to black out trauma as a way of protection. Maybe Kelly is still in trauma?
My thoughts turn to that trophy case. The pictures of the excited cheerleaders. I’m one of them. I had wanted to be one for so long. I had a list, my high school bucket list. I laminated it. Everything I wanted to accomplish in high school:
1. Become Homecoming Queen
2. Become Head Cheerleader of the Varsity Squad
3. Take three AP courses my senior year (Math, English, History)
4. Get a boyfriend
5. Get into USC
Those were my five items, and under each one I had written how I would accomplish each one. I had put in the work and despite one little detour, I was well on my way to checking each one off. I am taking three AP courses in the subjects I like the most. I have a boyfriend. I’m the captain of the Varsity Squad, and the other two are also within my reach. Only, they don’t matter anymore. None of that matters anymore. Watching Zoey die was never on my list.
I go through the day in a bubble. The bell doesn’t ring, instead they have the secretary announce the ending of each period every forty minutes. I feel bad for her. She probably has more important things to do. I guess eventually we’ll get the bell back. Classes are pretty easy. Some of the teachers want to talk and have us express ourselves while others go right to work as if nothing had happened. I sit in my normal spots, I take my normal notes. I eat lunch with my normal friends outside on the normal basketball courts that look out onto the normal senior lot. There are a lot of empty spaces today, which isn’t normal. Some kids left Bayat altogether, while some…well, those kids aren’t using their spaces anymore because they’re dead.
I manage to avoid the equipment closet the entire day until right before math. I stand before it and look around, noticing no one is really paying attention to me. I put my hand on the silver metal handle and push it down and pull open the door. It’s tiny and dark. I imagine I am looking at all eight of us, squashed in there. I look to the spot where Zoey was sitting and kneel down. I touch the wall. It’s now a white wall, no traces of blood. Zoey had been shot and fell, her head hitting the wall. Matt had been right next to her. He had his arm around her. I try to remember if her blood had gotten on his face but my brain won’t let me recall it, like it’s a memory that’s locked away somewhere and is almost impossible to retrieve. I see the bin of basketballs that Shane had moved to block the door. Didn’t do much good, though. Guess he forgot the door opens out. I stand up, still staring into the darkness of this little space, feeling numb.
“Is that were Zoey died?” A girl’s voice asks..
I turn to see Julie Arlington standing there, her long brown hair falling down to her waist. Will was her little brother and staring at her it seems so strange to me how little I know her. Our brothers were best friends. Julie and Matt went to Hebrew School together. I’ve barely spoken four words to her in the entire time I’ve known her.
“Uh, yeah,” I say.
“Will died in the library.”
“I know…Adam was with him. How are you doing?”
I don’t know why I ask that. I despise that question now. The girl lost her brother, I lost my best friend, I think it’s safe to say we both feel like crap.
“It’s tough. My brother, Tyler, is taking it really hard. They were best friends and he….yeah, he’s upset. We all are.”
“I’m sorry too.”
I smile, not sure what else to say. I’m thrilled when I hear the secretary’s voice over the loudspeaker telling us we have exactly one minute to get to class. I simply nod at Julie and walk toward my math class. As I reach the door to the classroom, I hear Kelly calling my name. I let out a groan, roll my eyes, and look at her. We’re not in the same math class. I’m in AP Calculus, she’s in Trig Stats.
“What?” I ask.
“Okay, I want you to know that I signed you up for the Homecoming Race. And I’m running with you as a Senior Princess,” Kelly says.
“Why? I don’t—”
“You have to. And you’ll be the Cheerleading Captain. I’ll be your co as planned. We’re gonna have a meeting. Maybe tomorrow. I’ll send out emails. I’m thinking we meet at Mike’s and then walk over to the park together.”
“I don’t want to be involved. You do it if it means that much to you. You were Sophomore Princess. You beat me. So you do it.”
“No, you have to do it. You’ve basically run this school for the past four years. Okay, three and a half.”
“The only reason you want me to run at all is so that Rachel and Chris don’t dance together. You run then, it’ll make much more sense and it’ll be very cute. I don’t want to be part of this.”
“It’s on your list.”
“My list went out the window when my best friend got a bullet in her head.”
“We need to move on and be normal,” she says.
“Newsflash. None of this is normal. We lost a member of our squad. What about Riley?”
“We won’t replace her, but she’d want us to keep going.”
She’s pleading with me. I don’t want to do this. It all feels so fake. So horribly fake. My head is feeling light. I need to sit down and the only reason Kelly is pressuring me is because she doesn’t want Rachel near Chris. Rachel and Chris used to date from seventh until ninth grade and then after they broke up, Chris and Kelly began dating and Kelly has always been jealous when whenever Rachel has anything to do with Chris. She’s okay with me dancing with him, I guess, but not Rachel. I feel dizzy.
“I gotta go. Calculus with Mr. O’Connell. You have to go to Trig Stats with Mrs. Talon. This is the current normal,” I say.
“No, Mrs. Talon has yellow teeth and smokes in her classroom.”
“Exactly….then she sprays the room with Lysol to get rid of the smell. It’s gross. Anyway, this isn’t over.”
I shake my head and let out a snort. Kelly walks off down the hall. I watch as she disappears into her Trig Stats class. I open the door and look at Mr. O’Connell, a pale, redheaded teacher who recently came here from Scotland. He arrived here last summer and got a job teaching at Bayat. His first day at work in a new country and there’s the worst school shooting in history. I do have to give him a lot of credit for staying though. I would have gotten on the first plane back to Scotland.
I sit in between Matt and Brittany and take out my books. Math is about formulas. Everything goes in a certain order. English is about truth being uncovered between the lines of Shakespearean poetry or a Hemingway novel. History is about repetition. People get mad, they hurt each other and then they sign stuff saying they’ll never hurt each other again…well, until they all get mad at each other and then the pattern begins. I understand. I get it. It’s easy, but this….this isn’t easy. There’s no formula or movie version of the text I can watch. There’s just people walking around in this fog trying to figure out their next move without being able to see the answers in the back of the book.
Brittany looks bad. She had looked okay this morning but now, she looks tired, ragged, and she smells. I know that smell. It reeks. It’s a strong smell. She’s drinking. She’s drinking in school. My heart drops.
“Brit?” I tap her elbow as she turns to me with a grin. I give her a look.
“I’m fine,” she says.
I let out a sigh as I look down at my math book. Formulas. Step by step instructions on how to solve a complex problem. I need a formula. I need a list to get through this but I’m not sure where to start. Number one would be have Zoey not be dead.