Chapter 7: Choose

I am the Homecoming Queen. I won. I should be happy. I can cross it off my list. The big game is eleven days before Halloween. The storefronts are covered in fake spiderwebs. They’re getting in the Halloween spirit. I love holidays. We don’t really have seasons here, but there is a change in the air. A coolness that drifts over us as we start bundling up in warmer clothes. Zoey loved Halloween. She loved dressing up. She’d plan her outfits months in advance. This year, she was supposed to be a Zombie Bride. She wanted to look dead. Brittany and I kept yelling at her telling her she was being morbid, but she was determined. In English once, we did a whole unit on irony. My heart tightens when I think about that costume. She had already bought the make up and even bought a wedding dress from a thrift shop. She had so been looking forward to Halloween. I don’t know what I’m going to be. I don’t know how much I want to celebrate.
I am the Homecoming Queen. I keep saying it over and over. I want to care. I want to care that the bleachers are filled with people ready to watch Bayat play Oakland. We have more people on our side, more than we’ve ever had. There’s a camera crew. I guess that actor that’s Jennie’s friend is still in rehab or something so they have some downtime and the media is back. They’re lining the football field. I stand in front of the bleachers, wearing my green and white uniform. People are holding signs. The lights are on as I scan the field. The sun is setting in the distance giving the sky a fiery color. I grip my poms poms as I keep looking around and around when I feel Kelly’s arms wrap around me in a side hug. I stiffen.

“Aren’t you glad I convinced you to do this?” Kelly asks. I look at her with her hair in pig-tails with green and white ribbons streaming out of each pigtail.
“I…I don’t know. How are you so cheerful?” I ask.
“Why wouldn’t I be? It’s the Homecoming Game.”
“Yeah but….”
“Look how many people are here. It’s like they’re all here to help us. Isn’t it fantastic?”

I look up into the stands. People are squished together in a mashed-up sea of green and white. Matt is sitting with Adam and Allie. Adam is staring at his phone with Matt and Allie leaning in looking at whatever is on the phone. They’re laughing. I take another breath. Kelly runs off and yells for all the other cheerleaders to get ready. The game is going to start. I’m frozen.

“You know what I do?”

Jennie is standing beside me, wearing her uniform. I was happy when she said she could cheer in the game. She had really wanted to and for a brief second, I was thrilled. Jennie’s our inconsistent cheerleader. She cheers in games when she’s not off shooting something.

“What?” I ask.
“I try harder. When I feel bad. When I have to act happy and don’t want to. When life sucks but I’m being paid to pretend to be happy. I try harder. I guess you gotta try harder.”
“I guess.”

Jennie smiles as she takes her place. My voice gets caught in my throat. Everyone is staring at me. I see a flash of black hair in the audience and for a brief second, I think it’s Zoey. I look towards Matt. He nods and without looking away punches my brother in the arm. Adam looks confused and retaliates by punching Matt back. I laugh. Matt can be so random. I clear my throat and give my cue. I’m cheering. Going through those motions and trying harder. I look off to the side and see those video cameras and reporters. My heart pounds as I dance around, jumping, cartwheeling, flipping. Maybe Jennie was right, all I really needed to do was try harder.

The cheering becomes easier as I watch the boys play. Bayat has not won a single Homecoming Game since 1975 but tonight, something is happening. Maybe it’s the bright lights or the reporters standing on the sidelines…or maybe it’s that we have something to prove, maybe we aren’t the “Killer School” that Oakland Academy wants to call us now. We’re not. We’re Bayat Hills High. Go, Buffaloes!

Our boys are doing awesome. I love watching them play. They’re taking it so seriously, running and tackling each other, that I have trouble determining who’s who. It’s just a sea of boys in white spandex and green jerseys mashed with the boys on the opposite side with their white spandex pants and maroon jerseys.

Oakland isn’t giving us a pity win though, that’s for sure. They’re mean and so are the cheerleaders for Oakland, who seem to be yelling things that feel more like bullying than just some school rivalry. One of their more popular cheers goes like this:
“Go Oakland! O-A-K-L-A-N-D! Put Killer School to death you see! B-A-Y-A-T! Bring nothing but misery!”

This infuriates me. How dare they? They have no clue. What angers me more is that no one is stopping them from bullying us. Quite the opposite: the adults seem to be encouraging this. When those cheers come, I think again of Jerrod. I think of Mrs. Ledower and I wonder where the adults were? Why didn’t they know or what did they know? Was Mrs. Ledower too busy trying to get Jerrod to center himself in some ridiculous doggie lotus style pose that she ignored asking questions like, “Are you stockpiling arsenals in your bedroom?” Where were the people in charge? They could have prevented this but I see the cheerleading coach for Oakland laughing. The cameras focus on them, I can hear a reporter talking about “Bullying at Bayat.” We’ve become a cliche. We’re no longer a school, we’re a movie of the week headline. This is not fair. Our boys are out there fighting for a win. We’re fighting, everyone is fighting to move forward and no one is letting us. What if someone had listened to Jerrod? What if I had listened to Jerrod? No, this is our school. This is our home. Oakland doesn’t belong here. Those cameras don’t belong here. We belong here. I stand and look at my fellow cheerleaders.

“What cheer are we doing?” Kelly asks.
“A cheer I just made up. Repeat what I say, copy my moves. Come on.” I give some instructions, tell them the cheer I have in mind, and soon we are all standing in our positions. I yell at everyone to get ready. The energy rushes through me. I start us off and am soon joined by the rest of them and by the end, I feel renewed as I start cheering and am soon joined in by the other cheerleaders.

“Green and white. Green and white. Bayat Buffaloes are coming back tonight. Oakland’s loud. Oakland’s mean. They don’t stand a chance against the winning team. Go Buffaloes!”

The crowds are screaming and my heart is pounding. I love this school. I love this town. I love our postcard perfect little bubble town smack dab between San Diego and L.A. The reporters, the people from Oakland, they don’t know us. They don’t know what we’re like. To the reporters, we’re those poor, little victims. To the students of Oakland, we’re killers. They’re intruding. They’re making normal hard.

Soon it’s halftime and Bayat is winning twenty to twelve. I look over at Brittany and Lexie, who run off toward the center of the field to get ready for their performance. They are dressed in tiny green and white jerseys and skinny jeans. They have roses on their shirts and a
“Z” painted on their cheeks to remember Zoey. They even move Zoey’s drum set to the center of the field with her jersey over it. I look at Kelly, who is grinning, and it’s time for me to take my slow ride around the track.

I sit on the back of the convertible, Chris sitting next to me. He’s the Homecoming King. I am wearing my sash and fake plastic tiara and Chris is wearing a crown that looks like the crown that the Burger King wears in those commercials. I stare at the back of Kelly’s head sitting in the back of another convertible in front of me.
“You ready, queen?” Chris asks.
“I guess. You know, you guys are doing really well tonight,” I say.
“Oh, they’re going down. We’ll live up to our Killer School nickname.”
“Too soon?”
“A little.”
“I want to win this thing more than any other game I’ve played since, I don’t know…Little League. I—I guess—I just…I need to win this. They don’t get it and…I got…we have to win.”

I smile. He looks at me with this look of intense seriousness. His fists are clenched into tight balls as the cars start to go. He’s angry, I can feel it and I know without a doubt we’ll win. Chris will make sure that happens. It’s kind of inspiring. Chris and I are supposed to be running this school, right? I’m the queen, he’s the king. So let’s run it. Let’s bring it back. I’ve got the spirit and he’s got the winning ball.
“We’ve got a chance,” I say.
“We do….Now, let’s wave to our kingdom. Bow to us, bitches,” Chris says.

I laugh. Loud. It’s one of those laughs that starts from your belly, reaches to your nose and throat and comes out. I’ve always had a tendency to laugh loudly. Not sure where it comes from. Zoey and Matt used to say you could hear my laugh across a crowded restaurant. My laugh has been known to stop people in their tracks as they wonder how such a loud sound can come out of someone so tiny and then they often start to laugh as well, usually at the sound coming out of me. Chris looks at me and smiles.
“I miss that sound. One of my favorite sounds,” Chris says.
“Haven’t had a lot to laugh about recently.”
“I hear you there.”
It’s then that we hear music beginning to blare from loud speakers and Lexie and Brit begin to sing the lyrics to Life is a Highway.“Life’s like a road that you travel on. When there’s one day here and the next day gone ….”

The music begins to pulsate through me as the cars move slowly around the track. I feel lighter than I have in months. Chris and I are waving to crowds of people. I’m smiling so wide, my jaw hurts. This is good. It is good. It’s our school and we’re taking it back. I mean, after all, I am the Homecoming Queen. That should give me some ruler points somewhere. Right? We deserve to have a good night. We’ve been through hell and we need this. Chris is right. We need to win. We’ve earned this win.

“Hello?” I ask.
The ringing of the phone wakes me up. It’s early, but I don’t mind. I need to get up anyway. I’m meeting Lexie, Brittany, Jennie, and Kelly at Griddle Cakes to continue the pre-dance tradition that started in ninth grade when we’d get breakfast before a day of pampering and getting ready. After the game last night, I’m feeling up to it. I’m ready. Last night was amazing. When Chris made that winning touchdown, I’ve never seen him that happy and I’ve known him since nursery school. He won and all of our players raced to him, hugging him. Shane hugged Chris so hard that he tackled him to the ground. It was our night and now, we’re celebrating with our dance. My dance. I’m going to be happy. Jerrod is not going to ruin this for me.
“It’s Brit.”
“Hey…what’s up?”
“Can you come down to Bayat? I need help.”
“Why are you at school?”
“Can you come?”
The tone in her voice sounds worried. I hang up and throw on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt before heading over there. Brittany hadn’t joined us for the victory party at Mike’s last night. She had texted us and said she didn’t feel well. I had a feeling. A horrible feeling as I replayed her performance in my head. Lexie had even said Brit was off a little. Something is going on. Brit’s never been a drinker but something has changed within her.

I drive into the senior lot and park next to Brittany’s car. I get out and walk toward the passenger’s side. I peer in and see her. I notice something red out of the corner of my eye but don’t pay much attention. It’s not until Brittany lets me in where I clearly notice what the red is. Someone had scrawled the word “KILLER” on the windshield of her car.
“Oh my God,” I say.
Brittany is still staring ahead. She hands me a letter folded up in her hand. I open it and read:
“Dear Brittany,
You are a fucking coward. You really should have died that day. When will you come forward and admit you know something, you selfish, hateful bitch. And by the way, no one wants to hear you sing. They only want to hear Lexie. You’re just a vile speck of nothing. Do the world a favor and kill yourself.”
“No believes me.”
“Is this the first letter?”
“No. I’ve been getting them for awhile.”
“You have to report these.”
“It’s just…it’s not important. Just someone letting off steam.

Brittany begins to cry as she continues to stare at the letters written on her windshield. So much for spending the day not feeling all dead inside. I think of the graffiti that was scrawled on Brittany’s fountain. I wonder if it’s by the same person? Jerrod was bullied. He was made fun of, hurt. He told me that once and then a few days later I dumped him as my friend. I can’t dump Brittany. I can’t make the same mistake twice. Maybe if I had kept up my friendship with Jerrod, he would never gone on that rampage. If I had been nicer to him even after I turned my life back then Brittany wouldn’t be getting tormented and I’d still have my best friend.
“I have a power washer in the back of my car,” I say.
“It’s why I called you.”

I smile. I’m a bit obsessed when it comes to my car. I have tried to install a no eating, no drinking policy in my car but no one ever follows it. Zoey used to purposely eat In ‘n Out in my car, getting a Double Double and then wiping her hands on my seat when I would complain. I want In ‘n Out now. Maybe I’ll buy one, eat in my car and wipe my hands on the seat. Maybe that will reverse everything.

Brittany reaches across me toward the glove compartment and opens it. She pulls out one of those tiny bottles of Jack Daniels and opens it. She downs it and makes a face, cringing slightly at the taste. I look at her. What is she doing? Brittany looks at me and wipes off her mouth.
“What? Isn’t this how you got through tenth grade?” Brittany asks.
I cock my head to the side and let out a snort. She has a lot of nerve. She did call me, right? I get she’s upset but I didn’t write anything on her car.
“Excuse me?”
“I’m sorry.”

I bite my lip. I won’t say a word. It’s hard to get mad at your best friend when you are sitting in her car with the word KILLER written on her windshield. But her attitude does make me wonder. Brittany’s smart. She’s really super smart. She’s the second smartest kid in our class. Matt’s the smartest. Both of them will probably end up at Harvard next year. Now, I believe that Jerrod never flat out told Brittany they were going to kill people. But….
“What did you know?” I ask.
“What?” Brittany asks.
“What happened that night?”
“I told you. I was done working and Jerrod was wearing a shirt with some band that I liked and we talked and—”
“You’re not an idiot.”
“He never said he was going to kill people.”
“Did he say he was gonna bring a gun to school?”
“Then what happened?”
Brittany takes a deep breath. She keeps staring straight ahead as she takes another swig of her Jack Daniels.
“I was working at Mike’s. My parents were out to dinner. My sisters had already left for college. I wasn’t really ready to go home to an empty house. I saw Jerrod there and he’d been in my section pretty much all night, working on stuff. He looked so busy and he was wearing a shirt for this band called Mercury. It’s this indie band and I was shocked he knew it. The lead singer dated my sister, Ellie, a few years ago. I walked over to him and mentioned it and…and…sat with him. Then he pushed these papers out of the way and I noticed weird drawings on some of them before he pulled them away. I asked about it. It was a guy shooting at people. He said it was a cartoon he was working on. I said it wasn’t a funny cartoon. He said no, it was a social commentary. I sat with him for awhile. We ordered pizza. Talked about Mercury. He made jokes and before I left he asked if I was planning on going to school the next day. I said of course. He asked if I was ever scared of anything happening.”
“Like a shooting?”
“I didn’t ask. I said no and he laughed. I thought he was weird. I thought he was just doing weird cartoons. Remember in eleventh grade when he sent that cartoon in to The Buffalo, and it was super violent. Maybe that was a sign. Maybe there were signs that night but I didn’t want to see them. Who wants to see stuff like that? And then when the guns went off….crap.”
“Did you see him? Did you tell him where we were?”
“I didn’t tell him where you were.”
“But you saw him?” I ask.
“Yes. We didn’t have a long conversation. I just asked what the hell he thought he was doing and he told me to run.”
“So you ran.”
She didn’t answer me. She just turned the bottle of Jack Daniels around in her hands. Around and around.
“Yes, I ran, okay? I ran out the door to the senior lot and then I remembered Shane drove me and I didn’t have my car so I just kept running. God, Nicole, I kept running. Remember when you, Zoe, and I were like ten and we wanted to see if we could walk from one end of town to the other. I ran all the way to the end of town. My parents kept calling my cell phone and then when I finally answered, like, an hour later or something, they told me the police were looking for me. I sat there for hours being interrogated. Apparently someone had seen us eating together at Mike’s. A customer. I think back to that night every single day. I could’ve done something. I could’ve looked deeper. I could’ve not run. I could’ve called for help. But I didn’t….and even when I saw him…what was I gonna do? I didn’t wanna die and he was shooting and I ran.”
“I thought he told you to run.”
“If I hadn’t….maybe he would’ve killed me too? I was scared and then when I found out they killed Zoey…. Why? What….”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you hate me?”

I let that question sink in. She had asked me that same question when she sat on my porch after the memorial service. My answer then had been no and maybe it still is. I buy Brit’s story. She doesn’t just like music, she loves it. She spends hours looking up bands, finding music, reading lyrics. And so she did see a cartoon but what did that mean, really? I don’t think I would make a jump like that either. I remember that cartoon in The Buffalo. It was a boy shooting another boy in the head. But that’s just a drawing. How do you go from seeing someone’s violent cartoons to guessing they’re going to shoot up the school? If you don’t want to see violence, if you aren’t a violent person by nature, is it possible to just not see it?
“No….I don’t hate you,” I say.
“Someone does. This whole thing is fucked up.”
“I agree.”
“When you and Jerrod were friends, did he seem violent? What did you two talk about?”
“Me. We talked about me. We talked about how Matt broke up with me because I drank too much or how you, Zoey, Lexie, Kelly, Jen, Rachel, and I got into a fight on Lexie’s ranch. We just discussed me. We never talked about his issues. He just listened. I don’t even know if it was a friendship. Maybe that’s why it was so easy to dump him? He was just there to help me to not feel so lonely.”
“How did this happen? How did this become our reality. My reality.”
”I don’t know. Let’s just…let’s clean your windshield.”

Brittany finishes her bottle and puts it back in the glove compartment. I get out of my car and grab my power washer. We start washing the windshield, which takes several hours. I watch as the water pounds the glass, washing away the letters. I can’t stop thinking about Jerrod. I can’t stop thinking about the run-ins, the conversations we had. He had asked me once what I had wanted out of life. What was the one thing I wanted, the key to making me happy? Matt. Shane. Chris. Zoey. Brittany. Lexie. Kelly. Jennie. Those eight names. They made me happy. Jerrod had asked if he made me happy. I said he did, but I knew those eight were it. Those eight names kept me alive. I had told him that I wished I could add Rachel back to that list, that I missed her but I’d lost that friendship, Rachel’s name was no longer on that list and it made me sad. Jerrod took Zoey’s name off that list too and now he’s slowly destroying another one.
I make it home and change back into my pajamas. I immediately pop in a Friends DVD, lie back on the couch, and place a blanket over me. Lola jumps on the couch and rests up against my stomach. I hold her as I watch. Tears start to fall as the familiar music plays. I’m not really listening to the jokes, although I don’t have too, I know them all by heart. Every motion is the same, every plot line, everything going according to a script and that script made everyone smile. I want happy back. I want the feeling I had last night. I want happy. I want all eight of those names back. They were mine and Jerrod did not have my permission to destroy them.

I have to go to this stupid dance. I have to go because I’m the Homecoming Queen. I don’t want to. This whole day has been awful. Nothing went according to the original plan. We girls didn’t even get to go to our our traditional breakfast. I had been looking forward to the final one because we decided we would actually eat breakfast this year instead of the other years where we ordered fruit and picked at it, praying we didn’t suddenly balloon to eight hundred pounds. Last year, we had all decided that senior year we would order pancakes and French toast and waffles and lots of bacon. Then we’d get our hair and nails done like always. We would have a fantastic day. Instead, my morning was spent power washing the word KILLER off Brittany’s car and I did my own nails and my own hair.

My homecoming dress is a pink cocktail dress with spaghetti straps. I loved this dress when I saw it during the summer. I bought it with the knowledge that I was going to become the Homecoming Queen. I hate this dress now. My blonde hair falls in soft curls, framing my face. I try to cover up any evidence that I’ve spent the whole day crying and watching reruns of Friends. I will have fun. That’s what I keep telling myself and if I tell myself that enough, it will eventually be true. It has to be.

Matt picks me up at around six. When he appears in my doorway, I am struck by how cute he looks. He smiles at me with that goofy, closed-mouth grin of his that I always think makes him look like he has no teeth. Matt and I have gone to every school dance together since the sixth-grade graduation dance. He was so short then. I towered over him. We danced about six inches apart, our hands on each others shoulders. He was so nervous, he kept staring at his feet and then mine and kept apologizing for his dancing skills. He’s grown so much. He’s now got about eight inches on me and he’s gone from goofy little kid to an almost full grown goofy man. He’s wearing a suit and pink tie to match my dress and even combed his hair.
“You look beautiful,” Matt says.
“Thank you. You cleaned up nicely as well.”
“I tried.”
“You combed your hair.”
“You know I do that for special occasions.”

I let out a laugh as he hugs me. I take in his smell. He’s wearing a cologne that makes him smell a bit like he was eating an orange in the woods. Which is a little funny considering Matt’s hatred of hiking, or camping, for that matter, although he does like oranges. We stop hugging and look at my parents, I give them each a hug before following Matt out the door. It’s starting to get cold now as it is officially fall. Matt opens the passenger side door to his car and I get in. He runs around to his side, gets in and starts the car. I stare straight ahead. Sitting there in silence brings back thoughts of what happened with Brittany….what’s been happening with everything. Matt pulls out of my driveway and begins to drive down the street. I am silent until we reach the stop sign at the intersection between my house and Zoey’s. Matt stops. I wonder when stopping here will ever stop hurting.
“Turn left,” I say.
“But I’m supposed to go straight.”
“Go left.”

Matt nods and turns onto Zoey’s street. As Matt gets closer to her house, I make him stop. It’s a two-story wood house with a knee-high stone wall surrounding it. There’s a long driveway and steps that lead up to the front porch, with a porch swing where Zoey and I spent hours sitting, swinging and talking about random stuff. I stare up at that house. Her room faces the street. I remember I would look up toward her window and yell her name until she looked out.
“You want to know how many times I would race up those steps and just pound on the door in the last seventeen years? Usually it wasn’t for anything important. I want to knock on the door now. I want her to answer the damn door,” I say.
“I know. Me too. You know, that porch brings back a lot of memories,” Matt says.
“Yeah…well…I can’t tell you this,” Matt says.
“Yeah you can…besides, I know you want to….and I know all about the girls you’ve dated when we’ve broken up,” I say.
“All of them? There were two and Zoe and I went out before you and I ever decided to date.”
“Alright…now tell me. What memories does that porch bring back?”
“I kissed Zoey on that porch. Our first kiss. We were in seventh grade and our date was right at the corner, at McDonalds.”
“Romantic,” I say.

I can remember that phone call in my head. Zoey calling me up, screaming at me that her first date was going to be at McDonalds and how she was going to kill Matt. I remember agreeing with her. I mean, nothing wrong with McDonalds. But for a first date? On my first date with Matt, he had wised up and we went for Mexican food at Tortilla Jacks.
“I thought so…even though I know Zoey hated it. Anyway, we walked back after the date. We stood on the porch. She looked at me and went, ‘so you gonna kiss me or not?’”
“Sounds like her.”
“So with an invitation like that, I kissed her. It was a very nice kiss. We also broke up on that porch. She dumped me.”
“I don’t think either of you ever told me why you broke up.”
“I was falling for someone else and she knew it,” Matt says. turning a slight reddish color.
That makes me smile. When Zoey and Matt had their brief relationship, Zoey had confided in me that he had talked about me so much that it annoyed her. I thought it was funny, but in retrospect….it was because he was starting to like me.
. “She loosened you up. You used to….you always play by the rules and are brilliant, but she taught you—”
“To not take life so seriously,” Matt says.
“Yeah. God, I want her come out of that damn house. I want…I mean, us girls…we didn’t even go to breakfast this morning and we have before every dance. We’re not even meeting everyone for dinner and we used to do that. I just…I want to stop crying,” I say.
“We don’t have to go to this dance.”
“No, we do. I’m the fucking Homecoming Queen.”
“Well, I never told you to run for that.”
“Shut up,” I say.
“Look, let’s go to the dance and we’ll have a good time. The game was good last night, we won and we have to just move forward.”
“Let’s go.”

Matt does a three point turn and drives down the street. He turns left again and then right on to the main road where he continues to drive. It’s amazing how such a small town can carry so many big moments in both my life and Matt’s. It’s held some of the best and some of the absolute worst and soon we will leave it all behind. I’m looking forward to it.
“You know, Brit isn’t coming tonight,” I say.
“She isn’t?”
“I saw her this morning. Someone wrote the word killer on her car and left her a note harassing her.”
“Well, people think she had something to do with it.”
“Do you?”
“No…no, I don’t think she had anything to do with it.”
“Well….the more I think about it. I don’t think she picked up a gun but…”
“She didn’t want to see it. She had dinner with him and said he was drawing violent stuff but he never said he was going to kill anyone. She wasn’t close to him. But then…on the day of the shooting, she saw him and he told her to run. She said she didn’t tell him where we were hiding and—”
“She ran?”
“We were in that closet and she ran away? Wow.”
“But it’s not her fault.”
“Did she call the cops or just run?”
“She just ran.”
“She could’ve called the police. We were in that closet for a long time before Zoey—”
“Matt, it’s not her fault. I can’t…I mean, yeah, no she should’ve said something but hey wait, Zoey was sitting next to you. You could have saved her. Who knows how long it would’ve taken even if Brit had called the cops? Maybe someone had called them already and they were on their way? She wasn’t the killer. She shouldn’t have that written on her car.”
Matt lets out a pained sigh as he keeps driving. I try to collect myself. My lists. I think of my laminated lists. I crossed “Homecoming Queen” off my list. Lists are nothing more than plans. It gives a reason for everything. Where is the reason? Was Jerrod mad at me? Was that why he killed people? Killed Zoey? Sat at Brittany’s table that night? Did he have lists of his own? What did his lists say?

Soon Matt pulls into the parking lot of The Oaks Inn, which is about fifteen minutes or so outside of town. It’s where Bayat holds all its big dances. Kelly’s mom runs it. It’s this old looking hotel that looks like it belongs in a 1940’s Hollywood movie. The two of us walk together into the hotel and toward the room where the dance is being held. The theme is old Hollywood. So there’s a red carpet and pictures of celebrities from the forties. The more I think about it, the more I wish they had canceled Homecoming this year. I really do. I’m not in the mood…especially after what happened this morning. I start to wish that maybe I should have just let Rachel win or even Kelly.
“This is all so stupid,” I say.
“I’ve been telling you this for years,” Matt says.
“Why the hell are we having a dance? Can you imagine? So what did you do after some crazy guy went through your school and killed sixteen people? We had a party. It was awesome. I mean, they’re ignoring what happened. We’re partying while Brit is getting harassed and…and oh my God….are they really playing Sarah McLaughlin’s Angel? First, that song is like a million years old, and second, why? Do you think when she wrote that song, she was hoping it’d be the song people played anytime someone dies or a dog gets kicked in the nuts?”

Matt looks at me and gives me a smirk. My breath shortens. This is ridiculous.
“Are you done?” Matt asks.
“Give me a minute.”

I’m starting to feel angry again. Looking around the room just makes me feel angrier, standing there, it just all seems to come flooding back and that damn song isn’t doing much good. Sorry, Sarah McLaughlin, but your song is pissing me off right now. As the song ends, I feel Matt slide his hand into mine and pull me onto the dance floor. He wraps his arms around my waist and pulls me into him. I wrap my arms around him and place my head on his shoulders, breathing in that camping in the woods while eating an orange smell. I feel safe. Ever since that day of nursery school when he gave me his Batman doll to comfort me after I had a nightmare during nap-time, I’ve always felt safe being in his arms. Even in that closet, with his arm around me, I knew somehow I’d get out of it. I don’t know what I’ll do when he goes away next year. Everything I’ve ever considered to be safe is leaving.

A new song begins. It’s yet another old one. I can hear the chords of The Pretenders song I’ll Stand By You begin and I just shake my head. I want to track down whoever is in charge of tonight’s playlist and smack them. It makes me miss Brittany, though. Brit would never have allowed such music. She loves to make playlists and I bet she would have done a much better job.

I look at Matt, who is smiling at me. I kiss him and place my head back on his shoulder as the words play and then that chorus, the one that always makes me cry. “I’ll stand by you, I’ll stand by you. Won’t let nobody hurt you. I’ll stand by you…” I can feel Matt’s arms tighten. I close my eyes and pretend we’re alone, lying in the grass in my backyard staring up at the stars. He is pointing out the constellations. He points out the Milky Way; I tell him I prefer Snickers. He groans and I laugh at the exact same exchange we’ve been having for seventeen years. We are just together, Nickie and Matt, Matt and Nickie. We’ve spent so long being extensions of one another. We can read each other so clearly. Our fights have been epic, our happy times have been extraordinary, and we always manage to have more fun than anyone. It’s been intense but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. He’s one of my best friends.

After dancing comes my big moment where I’m supposed to be announced as the Homecoming Queen again. They call up each member of the court, one by one. The Freshman Princess is a girl named Taryn. She has long dark curly hair and bright blue eyes. She’s wearing a navy blue dress and maroon heels. Taryn is friends with Allie Bianco. Apparently, when the shooting started, Allie and Taryn were at their lockers.

The Sophomore Princess is a girl named Courtney, a thin African American girl wearing a cranberry gown, her face framed by chocolate brown curls. Courtney had been in the girl’s bathroom. She had woken up late and was applying make-up when the chaos began. We had discussed this prior to the game last night. Having been in the Homecoming Court twice as a princess and now as the queen, normally we girls coordinate outfits and talk about the boys in the court. Last night, the conversation centered around one topic: “where were you when…?”

Lauren Cornworth, the Junior Princess, is the next to be called to the stage. She’s tall, almost six feet, and wearing a long black dress. She’s got white blonde hair that falls down to her waist and bright green eyes. She looks sad as she walks onto the stage. Riley was actually was supposed to be the Junior Princess. She was planning on running and she’d been the freshmen and sophomore princess. There really isn’t a lot of variety when it comes to the Homecoming Race. Lauren smiles as she waves to some of her friends in the crowd. Lauren and Riley were best friends and I know this must be hard for her. I think she was forced to run in memory of Riley.
Next up is the Senior Princess, Kelly. Kelly looks beautiful as well in an emerald green gown. She always looks pretty though, and happy, always looks happy. Then they announce the Homecoming King and Chris walks up onto the stage. Chris is really cute, tall, lanky, nice to look at. In junior high, I was writing my name with his in my notebooks but something happened as we got into high school. I got to know him and we became friends. Rachel had made him choose between being with her or being friends with Shane and Matt and the rest of us. He chose us, which I thought was pretty awesome.
After Chris’ moment comes mine and part of me wishes they’d just skip over me or let someone else have a moment. Maybe Chris could choose his own queen because the current one really does not want to deal with any of this. Principal Stephens walks up to the microphone carrying the sash and plastic tiara I had yesterday.
“Oh, it’s your moment,” Matt says.
He’s mocking me, I know.
“You wanna be the queen instead?” I ask.
“No, you’re hotter than me.”
“That is true.”
“Be happy.”
I give him a curious look.
“I thought you hated all this?”
“I do. But you wanted this and got it…you earned it. So enjoy it. I’m taking a night off. I will mock you tomorrow, don’t worry. We’ll do it over breakfast….and lunch…and dinner…and quite possibly a midday snack. I have a lot to say.”
I smile and kiss him just as I hear Principal Stephens call my name to run up to the stage.
I walk onto the stage and Principal Stephens puts on my white sash that says in big black letters, “HOMECOMING QUEEN.” I step back and stand with Chris and my fellow princesses. I scan the crowd, looking for familiar faces. I spot Allie and Adam, who aren’t even looking at me; instead they are sitting at a table making what appears to be a house out of sugar cubes. I spot Shane and Lexie, they’re making their way towards Matt. I look back and see Kelly, who is grinning happily. It’s not really how I dreamt of this moment. I want Rachel to be there, foaming from the mouth that I beat her. I want Brittany and Zoey to be standing next to her, whispering things to Rachel that will purposely piss her off even more. I want to be really thrilled about this but instead I’m standing with a fake smile and wishing I were back home. It’s too soon for this.
“Ready to dance,” Chris says.
He takes my hand and we get ready for the obligatory dance of the king and queen. A sappy Mariah Carey song from the nineties begins to play in the background. Chris and I begin to slow dance. In seventh grade, I would’ve loved to have slow danced with Chris. I would’ve spent weeks talking about it and even practicing in my bedroom. Funny how things change…
“You think this is dumb too?” Chris asks.
“Yeah. Wait, you think this is whole thing is dumb? I would’ve thought you would’ve loved this.”
“I would’ve….but I think…I think it’s too soon. The game was one thing…but this, yeah, too weird.”
“Hmmm, well, Christopher Clayton…I think that’s the smartest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
I use a British accent when I say that. I don’t know why.
“Thanks. Don’t tell Matt, though.”
“I wouldn’t dare.”
I breathe a huge sigh of relief that Chris actually agrees with me. Chris has always been what Matt refers to as the stereotypical jock that you see in the movies. He’s not the brightest guy out there and plays lots of sports really well. But I’ve often thought of Chris as misunderstood. He’s got a good heart and gets a lot more than he lets on. He may not get an A every test or even a C on every test, but put him in any social situation and he’s as brilliant as Matt is at school. That’s why he’s the king.

After our little dance, we join the rest of our friends at one of the tables. Kelly, Shane, Matt, and Lexie are sitting together. Shane and Matt look like they’re in an intense conversation while Lexie and Kelly are just staring at them like they’d both lost their minds.
“No, no, no. What the hell is wrong with you?” Matt asks.
Chris and I sit down to join them.
“What is going on?” Chris asks.
“Matt’s an idiot,” Shane says.
“Well, yeah…” Chris says.
“Chris, pirates or ninjas?” Matt asks.
“Are we starting this conversation again?” Lexie asks.
“Pirates,” Chris says.
“I’m surrounded by idiots,” Matt says.
“Pirates get to sit on a boat, steal stuff, and drink. Plus they get hooks for hands. Awesome,” Chris says.
“That’s what I’m saying….and what was that movie about with Johnny Depp? The one that made like a gazillion dollars? What was it called?” Shane asks.
Shane grins as Matt starts to look uncomfortable. They’ve been having this argument for years and ever since Pirates of the Caribbean came out, Shane uses that as the reason why pirates are forever better than ninjas.
“You are both just morons. I’d be shocked if either one of you got into college,” Matt says.
“Well, they aren’t going to go college on a Pirates versus Ninjas Scholarship,” Lexie says.
“They should have those,” Chris says.
“Hey, guys….do you wanna go somewhere else?” I ask.
I’ve had enough of Homecoming. I need to get away from all of this fake school happiness.
“Sure, you’re the queen,” Lexie says.
“Where do you want to go?” Matt asks.
“I wanna go get Brittany…and Jennie….where is Jen?” I ask.
“She has an audition next week. She decided to stay home,” Lexie says.
“Alright then,” I declare, “let’s pick her and Brit up and head to In and Out and eat burgers.”
The rest of them agree with me as we get up and walk out without even looking back at the fake happiness we’re leaving behind.

About an hour later, we sit squeezed in a booth eating double doubles in our fanciest attire. We had even told Jennie and Brittany to dress up so they would fit in with us and they did. I still have on my tiara and sash. I am the queen after all.

I take a mental image of us sitting together. Shane, Chris, and Matt have moved on from their Pirates versus Ninjas fight and are now angrily debating which is better, cake or pie. I laugh as Matt runs his fingers through his hair and argues that pie is not dessert because it has fruit and that desserts should not have fruit. Shane calls him an idiot and Chris thinks they’re both stupid and cookies take the cake. His words. I make a silent prayer to myself that they never stop having those arguments.
My mind wanders as I think back to that list of names and that conversation with Jerrod. Who completed me? Who made my life? I want everyone back. I want to feel whole again. I even miss Rachel. We all seem so far apart, drifting, and those names are getting farther and farther away and I want them back. I want normal back.


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