Choose: Chapter 8


Halloween weekend. Zoey’s favorite holiday. It’s usually such a big deal in Bayat and every year we go to Amy Martin’s Halloween Bash. Amy is a tiny girl with long red hair. She had gone back and forth about having the party this year. During the shooting, she had been in the auditorium with her friends, Kristi and Mitch. When Jerrod ran in shooting, Mitch apparently shoved Kristi and Amy to the ground and covered them with his body. Jerrod killed Mitch with one shot and Kristi and Amy were saved. It was Kristi who had convinced Amy to hold her Halloween party because Mitch loved them. It would be to honor Mitch. We would go to honor Zoey.
I pull up to Kelly’s house and wave at her and Lexie sitting outside. They run down Kel’s long brick driveway and jump into my car. Kelly lives in one of those homes that looks like it could have been lifted right from the set of any of those eighties sitcoms they play on TV. There’s the white picket fence, the green shutters, the white wood panels. Every single time I pull up to her house, I imagine one of those panning camera shots that happens at the beginning of old sitcoms, then cue the music and someone kicking a soccer ball. She lives there with her mom, stepdad, and stepsisters. Her parents divorced when she was six. Something about her dad taking her to Disneyland in the middle of the night without telling her mom or something. She doesn’t like to talk about it.
“Let’s go find fancy Halloween costumes. I want to look like a huge slut,” Kelly says.
I laugh as she buckles her seatbelt. I pull away from the curb and start to drive down the street.
“I want to go as a chicken….or a banana. Oh…..maybe a duck,” Lexie says.
“Why? Why do that to yourself? You’re adorable looking. Show off your loveliness,” Kelly says.
“I don’t want to show off my loveliness. I want to look like a chicken. Or a cowboy. That would be super,” Lexie says.
“What…why…oh, God,” Kelly says.

I just shake my head and laugh. Kelly puts her head in her hands and lets out a loud sigh. Hearing Lex and Kelly banter makes me miss Zoey though. They’re as close as we were. In our group, we each used to have a partner in crime, someone we could lean on. Kelly and Lex have each other. I had Zoey.

“Personally, I don’t think one needs to dress like a slut on Halloween,” Lexie says.
“Dress up like Lady Gaga,” Kelly says.
Lexie makes a face.
“Come on,” Kelly whines.
“Stewie from Family Guy. I want a head like a football,” Lexie remarks.
“You are a football,” Kelly says.
“Did you just call me fat?”
“No. Come on, I’m asking you to dress up like a skanky slut. What kind of friend are you?”

The Halloween store is a giant thrift store/warehouse right by the mall. There’s a big orange and black sign that says “HALLOWEEN COSTUMES” and of course people walking in and out carrying large plastic bags containing whatever costume they feel they need. Zoey’s zombie costume was from there. It was a long black lacy dress and she had gotten a long black wig. She had so been looking forward to that.

I park the car and we make our way into the warehouse, where we start pulling costumes off racks left and right until our arms are totally weighed down by costumes. The three of us walk into one of the tiny dressing rooms and start modeling the costumes for each other, giving each other comments. Kelly desperately wants Lexie to dress skanky while Lexie desperately wants to dress up like a potato sack or perhaps just in her pajamas. This whole scene would be funny. It would be awesome if not for Britney Spears. Kelly is obsessed with Britney and every contact on her cell phone is assigned a different Britney song. When I call her, the ringtone is “Piece of Me.” Lexie’s ringtone is “Stronger” and Zoey’s ringtone was “Ooops, I Did it Again.” Not sure if Kelly’s changed it or even deleted Zoey from her phone yet. I know I haven’t. I just can’t do that yet. The ringtone that keeps playing, though, is Britney Spears’ song “Crazy.” That’s the one she has assigned for her dad. Rumor has it he really is crazy.

“Answer that. I love Britney, don’t get me wrong….but please,” Lexie says.
“It’s just my dad,” Kelly says.
“Answer it,” I say.
“If I do…then we need to go to his house,” Kelly says.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because…I know and I don’t want to. I don’t…ever since the shooting, he’s been calling and I don’t think…. I know this sounds awful but…I just…the shooting happened to me, not him,” Kelly says.
I cock my head to the side and look at her curiously. I’m not sure I understand what’s going on.
“There’s a voicemail,” Lexie says.
Lexie reaches for Kelly’s phone, grabbing it before Kelly can fend her off.

She presses the voicemail button and puts the phone to her ear. I watch her face and soon Lexie’s face grows pale. She stares at Kelly, who looks at the ground. When Lex is done listening, she hands the phone to me. I raise an eyebrow as I press play and listen to it. Suddenly, a throaty voice comes blaring through. It’s Kelly’s dad but it sounds like someone is strangling him. He is sobbing too much, I can’t understand what he saying. It sends chills down my spine.
“We should go to your dad’s,” I say.
Kelly rolls her eyes and shifts from one foot to the other. The perkiness is gone.
“I wish I had your dads,” Kelly says.
She grabs her purse, phone, and the black and red bustier from the floor, the one that she had been trying on about fifteen minutes earlier, and marches out of the dressing room. Lex and I exchange a look and follow her out.

Kelly’s dad lives in a split level house just outside of Bayat. Worlds different than the home Kelly lives in with her mom and stepdad. The brown paint is peeling off the front of the house. The lawn is overgrown with weeds. Mail is falling out of the rusted mailbox. When we get there, Kelly doesn’t go in, she just stares at the house.
“All I wanted was normal,” Kelly says.
“Oh, honey…if I’ve learned anything, ain’t nuttin’ in this world that’s normal,” Lexie says.
I smile as Lexie uses her thick Southern accent to its full capacity.
“Just….it’s…I’m the kid,” Kelly says.

Tears form in her eyes as she looks at us. She takes another deep breath and opens the door. Lexie and I follow her lead, slowly following her up the pathway to the wooden door. Kelly knocks on the door, which causes it to open into a dark hallway. Kelly turns to us, her face turning white.
“We’re here,” I say.
“Thanks,” Kelly says.
As the three of us step into the hallway, I am immediately hit by this horrible smell. Rotten eggs mixed with rotten fish, covered in rotten trash.
“This smell makes me miss my ranch in Texas,” Lexie says.
“Really?” I ask.
“You remember that smell,” Lexie says.
I do. Unfortunately.
“It was bad. Especially by that one horse’s stable,” I say.
“Oh, that’s Chandler. He has bladder problems,” Lexie says.
“Awww,” I say.
Lexie’s ranch in Texas is absolutely amazing. She’s even got horses, six of them. Each one of them named after a character on Friends. That’s how we became friends in the first place, by discovering our love of a show that was on the air when we were too young to watch it.
“My dad hasn’t cleaned. Fuck. How hard is it to get a paper towel and a bottle of Clorox, really?” Kelly says.
We walk down the hall and that smell becomes over powering. The hallway leads straight into a bedroom. To the left is the kitchen with a sink filled with dirty dishes. I can hear the sound of a television. We begin to walk toward the sound until we finally reach Kelly’s dad, Steven. He’s sitting in front of the television, staring. He looks like he hasn’t shaved or even bathed in weeks. There are takeout containers covering the coffee table. I notice a pot sitting on the table that looks like it has a ring of rice around the inside. I lean in to get a closer look when I notice the ring moving. It’s not rice, it’s maggots. I jump back.
“Oh, God,” I say.
“Daddy?” Kelly asks.
“Look how cute you were, Kell Belle,” Steven says.
He points to the television. I look. Kelly must have been five whenever that video was taken. She is tiny with long blonde pigtails, dimpled cheeks, and the same dark blue eyes. She is in a small dark room that looks unfamiliar to me. It may have been in Kelly’s old house when she lived in San Francisco. She is sitting at card table, talking into a paper towel roll. Her father who looks far better in the video than he does now, sitting next to her. She’s asking him questions in the video, apparently pretending she’s a talk show host. She’s asking him what his favorite color is.
“I couldn’t save you,” Steven says.
Lexie and I exchange looks. We look over at Kelly, who is breathing heavily now.
“It wasn’t your fault dad,” Kelly says.
“It was. I didn’t protect you. I should’ve protected you,” Steven says.
“From what?” Kelly asks.
“From the monsters that were at your school. I have nightmares about you sitting in that closet, watching your friend die in front of you.”
My breath stops in my throat. The blood. The gunshot piercing the quietness of that closet. Zoey, dying. Am I ever going to stop seeing that?
“Dad, have you even been to work?” Kelly asks.
“How could I possibly go to work after what you went through?” Steven says.
“I’ve been to school and I went through it. I went to Homecoming last week. I’m going to a Halloween party tonight. I’m getting back to my life. So are Lexie and Nick. We survived and are getting back to normal,” Kelly says.
“I see it all in my head. A father is supposed to protect his child and I couldn’t protect you. I blame myself,” Steven says.
“I am not a child and you can’t blame yourself. I am getting through it. It’s tough, believe me, but we’re doing it. College applications are due soon, my first choice is USC. Or one of the Claremont Colleges, I’ve heard those are good. I can’t wait until Thanksgiving and Christmas. I—I do miss Zoey every single day but….we have to move forward. There is nothing you could’ve done,” Kelly says.
“I failed you,” Steven says.
Kelly looks up and closes her eyes. Lexie and I move forward and each grab one of her hands, comforting her. What do you say, though? Kelly always wants stuff to be normal but for her, it never seems to get there.
Suddenly, the sound of Kelly’s five-year-old voice vanishes from the room. We look at the television, which is now a blank screen.

“Dad, why did your television turn off?” Kelly asks.
“It broke,” Steven says.

I let go of Kelly’s hand and walk toward the light switch. I look over at her, but she stands rooted to her spot. Lexie has her arm around Kelly. I flick the switch on and off. Nothing. I back up and walk toward where the kitchen is. I notice the faucet, which has become a brownish color. The stench is almost unbearable. I grab a towel from the counter and lean over the sink filled with dirty dishes and try to turn on the faucet. No water. I throw the towel on the floor and walk toward the kitchen table where there are piles of mail. I pick up a stack of mail and start opening it. Department of Water and Power. The phone company, both cell and land. The gas company. Internet and cable. Everything, it seems, has been disconnected. Kelly and Lexie appear in the doorway.

“Everything has been turned off, right?” Kelly asks.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“No…it’s normal. It’s all normal. Wait, what’s that one?” Kelly asks.
I look at the bill in my hand and open it.
“Car payment. Past due…really past due. It was due in July,” I say.
“That’s odd. I didn’t see a car outside,” Lexie says.
“Fuck,” Kelly says.
She turns and walks out of the kitchen. Lexie and I continue following her. I still hold onto the bill. Kelly opens the front door. The only car parked outside is mine. Kelly turns and slams the door shut. She walks back to the living room where her father is laying in the dark.
“Where’s your car?” Kelly asks.
“Someone took it,” Steven says.
“Was it stolen?” Kelly asks.
“No. Maybe. I don’t know.”
Kelly turns around and grabs the bill out of my hand. She turns and stares at him.

“Dad, your car was repossessed. You have to pay them. They like it when you do that. You have nothing. You have no power, no water, no gas. What are you doing? You’re going to lose your house. Have you paid mortgage or whatever you’re supposed to pay? No, don’t answer…..And this bill was due in July. The shooting happened in September so don’t you dare start using the shooting as the reason your life is falling apart. Don’t you fucking dare say you want to protect me. When the hell was the last time you paid child support? Why don’t you try supporting me that way,” Kelly says.
She’s crying. My heart starts beating fast. I’m scared for her. I’m scared for her dad.
“You know, we can clean—”
“With what? There’s no water, Lexie,” Kelly says.
“We need some rags and cleaning supplies,” Lexie says.
“Does this look like the home of a man who owns cleaning supplies?” Kelly asks.
“I failed you. I failed you so badly. I’m so sorry, Kelly. So very sorry,” Steven says.
Her dad still lay there, staring at the blank television screen. I’m not sure what to do next. Kelly shakes her head and lets out a snort. She turns and walks out of the room. Lexie and I continue following her. She walks out the door and to my car. I unlock it as she pulls open the passenger’s side door and sits. I get into the driver’s side and stare at her.
“Kel?” Lexie asks.
“What do you want to do?” I ask.
“I want normal,” Kelly says.

I pull away from the curb and just start driving. I’m not sure where I’m going, but I need to drive. No one says anything, no one asks where I’m going. I stop at a red light and that’s when I see her. She seems so much older now, but I recognize her instantly. Jerrod’s sister, Bella. She’s got long, bluntly cut black hair and pale white skin. I keep staring at her. She had joined us once, Jerrod and I. She was twelve and Jerrod and I were smoking pot in his backyard. She had sat with us, but she barely spoke. She just kept watching her brother. I remember how much she adored him. I wonder what she thinks of him now?
“Go, Nick.”
I look at Kelly, who’s motioning at the light. I look up and it’s green but I can’t go. I can’t move. I don’t want to move. I want to stay, go back and make it all normal.

After what happened with Kelly’s dad, none of us are in the mood to go to a party. So we decide to celebrate Halloween on our own. We text Matt, Shane, Brittany, Jennie and Chris and tell them our change of plans and they agree to meet us in the park. I bake lots of treats and we all walk to the playground dressed in costume, and sit next to a bench in a tight circle. I am dressed as a princess, Jennie is dressed as a tabloid, Lexie dresses like a cowgirl. Brittney dresses like Hermoine in Harry Potter. Kelly wears the bustier but with a jacket because it’s cold. Shane dresses as a cheerleader. Chris is a present. He has a card attached to himself that says, “To: Women From: God.” Funny. And Matt, well, Matt is the same thing he’s been for seventeen years. He’s Batman.
“You know, dude, give it up. You’re not Batman,” Shane says.
“I am too Batman,” Matt argues. “I’m Batman, bitches.”
“Dude, you’re weird,” Shane says.
“You need to learn to cross your legs better,” Matt says.

Shane immediately shifts a little as Lexie leans into kiss him. I rest my head on Matt’s shoulder. He wraps his arm around me. It’s starting to become a little chilly. I can feel a breeze blow against my back. I used to like Amy’s Halloween parties. I used to like Halloween. Zoey and I had plans for this Halloween, our last Halloween before we would be separated for college.

“Zoey and I were going to see the parade,” I say.

In Los Angeles, every year, they have a Halloween parade. People walk down the streets of West Hollywood in the craziest costumes. We’d thought that maybe we’d go to Amy’s party and then head out to L.A. to go see the parade.

“We could still head over there. I have a lot of friends there. There are tons of places we can crash,” Jennie says.
“No. I’m not really in the mood anymore. Maybe next year,” I say as Matt’s arm tightens around me. The night feels so dark as we fall silent again I listen as the wind rustles through the big oak trees that surround us.
“What happened with your dad?” Chris asks, looking at Kelly.
“My mom and stepdad went to get him and moved him into our guest room. I haven’t spoken to him. He’s gonna disappear soon anyway. He always does. Same thing every single time. Someone calls him up with some ridiculous offer that he buys into and then gets sucked dry. He’s one of those people that would actually send money to a prince in Nigeria. God, why couldn’t my stepdad be my real dad? And…you guys have awesome dads.”
“Excuse me, my dad fucked a hooker y’all while married to my mom and is now engaged to the hooker,” Lexie says.
“I thought it was his secretary?” Shane asks.
“Same thing,” Lexie says.
“You gonna write a song about it?” Shane asks.
“I’ve written five,” Lexie says.
“Do you think this is gonna get easier? All of this. I want Zoey back. I want to start my senior year over again,” I say.
“Chris is probably gonna do that,” Matt says.
“Football scholarship. Screw you, asshole,” Chris says.
“I don’t want to be sad now. I’m Hermoine. I want…you want to know what I did with my Hermoine magic?” Brittany asks.
She reaches into her backpack and pulls out a giant bottle of Jack Daniels. She grins. Matt takes off his Batman mask and leans in so he can get a closer look. He lets out a sigh.
“We’re not drinking at eight o’clock at night in the middle of a park on Halloween. We’re not heathens,” Matt says.
“No, but we’re a bunch of kids who’ve had their lives completely shattered and fucked over in the last month and a half. Hand Jack over,” I say.
Brittany hands the bottle over to me. I unscrew the top and grin. Matt is staring at me.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” Matt asks, raising an eyebrow at me.
“Yeah,” I say as I bring the bottle up to my lips. I’ve been good. I’ve been the designated driver, I have not had anything to drink since that night I ended up in the hospital. I bring the bottle to my lips as I can feel myself shake. I close my eyes and let the liquid flow down my throat, feeling the burn down the back of my throat. I let out a cough as I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. I stare at Brittany as she pulls bottle after bottle out of her backpack. We’re clearly going to get drunk tonight. I hand the bottle to Matt. He shakes his head.
“Drink Matt….when we get to Harvard next year, you’ll have to do it,” Brittany says.
“Oh, yeah. You and Brit will probably go to college together,” I say.
Matt lets out a snort as he puts the bottle to his lips and drinks. He passes the bottle to Lexie, who proudly declares, “Cheers, y’all,” and downs a large, impressive gulp of Jack. The bottles keep getting passed around and around. Tequila, vodka, whiskey, rum, the combination of these liquors will make us feel like death warmed over tomorrow, but it doesn’t matter now. In the darkness, we drink. We laugh, we talk, we sing theme songs and regular songs. I feel warm. Jennie begins to loudly declare her love of Taco Bell and the Burrito Supremes. We all laugh. Jennie must weigh no more than ninety pounds, yet I’ve never seen anyone put away as much food as she does except for maybe Matt. Matt yells at her and says Del Taco is better. Jennie calls him a fuck nut and Brittany, Lexie, and Kelly begin to chant, “fuck nut, fuck nut, fuck a nut,” which is followed by laughter. I fall back, laying in the grass. I stare at night sky. The stars twinkling. Everything seems so clear and bright even with my slightly blurred vision.

I feel like I’m in a bubble. I mentally play connect the dots with stars. Soon, the “fuck a nut” chant leads to Kelly, Lex, and Brit singing the theme song to Friends and Matt lays down next to me. He grabs my hand and squeezes it. With his free hand, he points to the sky.
“That’s the Milky Way,” Matt says.
“I prefer Snickers,” I say.
“It is the superior candy. How are we gonna get home?”
“I don’t know. I don’t care. Do you think she sees us? Do you think she’s mad at me?”
“Yeah, do you think she’s mad at me?” I ask as I turn to face Matt. He turns to face me, our faces are several inches apart. He looks worried.
“Why would she be mad at you?”
“I could have done something. Anything. I could have listened more instead of talking about me. I could’ve…I….”
Tears are falling down my face again as Matt leans into kiss me. I take a deep breath as I turn my face up to stare at the sky.
“If anything, she’s probably mad at me,” Matt whispered. “I could’ve tried harder.”
I turn to stare at him but he’s staring up at the sky. I want to say something else but suddenly I hear Brittany yelling.
“Let’s go, beaches. Let’s go.”
Matt and I sit up, both helping each other keep balance. Brittany looks a little unhinged.
“Beaches?” Lexie asks.
“I didn’t say beaches, I said bea-bi-bitches. I wanna do something…I wanna…let’s go.”
Brittany begins to stomp off. We all get up too, all of us holding onto each other for balance. We follow our leader, Brittany, none of us quite sure where she’s going. Shane and Lexie rush forward to help Brittany, who stumbles as she makes her way out of the park. We kept walking, marching almost, in our Halloween costumes. We pass our cars in the parking lot and keep walking.
The drunken haze starts to fade as we turn onto a street, my street. I know where Brittany is taking us. There are kids trick or treating as we continue toward my house. When we reach it, we turn toward that stupid rainbow fence.
“I hate you. Rot in hell,” she screams at Jerrod’s house. Tears are streaming down her face as she yells. Around us, parents are glaring as tiny kids dressed as ghosts and superheroes all stare in shocked amazement. Shane immediately grabs Brittany and hugs her. Matt and Chris also stumble toward Brittany to comfort her. I stand frozen, staring at Jerrod’s house. On the front step, I can see her. She is eerily illuminated by the porch light. She is dressed as a vampire. Her hair is cut in a blunt cut. I step off the sidewalk and walk toward his house, toward her. She is staring at me as I get closer.

“Get away from my house,” she says.
“Get away from my house.”
“Bella,” I say, but what can I say? It was her brother. Her brother made this happen. She shouldn’t be angry, we should be.
Her face looks frozen. Her brown eyes look hard. I want to say something, ask something. Couldn’t she have stopped it? What did she know? I open my mouth again to speak, but I can’t. My voice is stuck in my throat as I step back. I turn to look at my friends who are now all staring at me. I step off the sidewalk.
“He considered you a friend, you know,” Bella says.
I stop and let that sink in. I can’t speak. The alcohol has somehow impeded my ability to form thoughts as I keep walking. Those words cut deep. He had been, for a brief moment in time, a friend.
“What was that about?” Kelly asks when I return to my friends.
“Nothing,” I say.
“I didn’t do anything. I didn’t know, I didn’t,” Brittany says. Shane is still holding onto her.
“We should get something to eat,” I say as we all simply just nod at each other and walk down the street. We are nowhere near as drunk as we were earlier. Brittany is still crying and I still keep thinking of Bella. I always thought Bella looked like Wednesday Adams with her dyed black hair, the abnormally pale skin, and those big, dark, saucer-like eyes. She was supposed to be in my brother’s class this year. Where was she when the shooting began? Did she see him? What did she know?



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