Choose: Chapter 9

I wake up with a pounding headache. I have not felt this pain in a while, that pain of someone drilling into my head, the wave of nauseousness that grips my throat and makes it difficult to utter much more than a groaning sound. I look around and notice Lexie, Kelly, Jennie, and Brittany sleeping around me. I recall the events of the previous night. After we had walked back to my house, we had walked to the In ‘n Out for burgers. Jennie and Matt had had an argument over Dell Taco versus Taco Bell and somehow decided the In ‘n Out would be the most logical compromise. After we ate, we separated. Chris, Matt, and Shane walked off toward Matt’s house and us girls headed here and . . . maybe that was it? I think.
The one thing I do remember crystal clear is Bella. Brittany screaming at their house and her words to me: “He considered you a friend.” He considered me a friend. I’m not sure what I considered him. He was just the boy next door. Convenient. He was just there. I was lonely, tired, sick. I was spiraling. Drinking so much it eventually landed me in the hospital. He had helped me sneak back into my room after I had been out all night at some party in San Diego. That was the beginning of our friendship, if that’s what it could be called. He was just there.
The memories in my head play out on the ceiling again. This time those memories are of Jerrod. I remember him holding the ladder for me once as I snuck back into my bedroom after being out until four am. Still not sure why he had been up that early anyway, never asked, I was just grateful someone was there. Watching the sunrise from my porch as we sipped wine in coffee mugs. Sitting there in his backyard, drinking from a bottle of tequila, smoking pot, talking. He never spoke. I spoke. Long, wordy monologues about how no one understood me and how my life was over because everyone hated me. When he did speak, the questions were short but strangely deep. He told me once I was trying too hard. He told me that I was trying to be something I wasn’t. He’d ask me if I was happy. He’d ask what I wanted to be. I’d talk and talk until my throat hurt, until I was worn out. I’d stumble back across the street and sneak into my room. On the rare occasions I didn’t get caught, I’d sit at my window and stare at the Rodgers’ house wondering what he was doing. It was during one of those moments of solitude when I drank enough to land myself in the hospital. I woke up to see the terrified looks of my friends and family and decided at that moment to stop. I call that moment the moment I chose to be happy again. Chose life and not melodrama. It was the time I chose clarity. Jerrod was right. I was trying too hard to be something or someone I clearly wasn’t. So I stopped. That was the end of it. I never told Jerrod that. I never told him I didn’t want to be his friend. Never explained my moment of clarity. I just stopped.“I want waffles.”

“I want waffles.”
I look over at Brittany lying next to me, curled up in the fetal position, staring at me. I smile at her. Waffles would be good. Maybe over waffles, things will become clearer.

About an hour or so later after we retrieve our cars, we’re sitting at a booth at Griddle Cakes. Brittany, Lexie, and Kelly on one side, Jennie and I on the other. We order all the stuff that is known to cure hangovers. It’s funny, my parents didn’t say a word about how we were all drunk last night. Ever since tenth grade, they’ve been on me if I even stand next to a bottle of wine. Maybe they thought we needed this? Maybe they didn’t want to push? Not sure, but I feel like the inside of my head is filled with bees. We all sit quietly though, not really talking, just engrossed in our breakfasts.

“Um, can I talk to you guys?” Jennie begins as she stares at her chocolate chip pancakes. She takes her fork and smashes the chocolate chips into the pancake and spreads it, turning the surface of her pancake into a large chocolate disk. “Um…so I may be going to Los Angeles for a couple months to film a movie.”

Strange that she’s uncomfortable about telling us this. Jennie goes back and forth between Bayat and L.A. all the time.

“I’m….they wanna do a movie about the shooting and they want me to be in it. They want a survivor’s story and—”
We all stare at her. A movie? It never occurred to me that Hollywood would want to do a movie about this. A movie about our pain? Our lives? My heart drops. I imagine our lives being played out on the big screen. I imagine watching Zoey die again.
“It could be really therapeutic, you know, and it could do some good, for gun control arguments and stuff—”
“You can’t do a movie about Bayat,” Lexie says.
“I haven’t signed anything but—”
“You can’t do a movie about Bayat,” Lexie repeats.
“How am I gonna be portrayed?” Brittany asks, looking up from her fried egg sandwich.
“What do you mean?”
“If there’s gonna be a movie, how….what are gonna do with my part of the story?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t even read the script yet. It’s an idea and—and look at it this way, we can get out story out there. We can—”
“I don’t want to get our story out there,” Lexie says.
“Lex, it is out there. It is out there forever and it doesn’t matter if ten years from now I win an Oscar or you win a Grammy, the reporters will go, ‘congratulations on your achievement. Do you think Bayat will be proud?’ It will always be there, holding onto us and never letting go. We will never be able leave high school. This is it, no matter what we do, and anytime there’s another school shooting they’re gonna drag us out in front of the cameras and ask us what we’re feeling and if it brings back memories. It’s our legacy, but maybe with this movie, we can have control. Maybe?”

Our legacy? The metaphorical bees in my head are making it hard to think clearly. There might be movie? I imagine those moments again. The popping sounds and sliding sneaker sounds. I imagine music videos and movie shots and people making money off what we went through. Jennie getting paid to relive everything. The shattered glass and the bloody bodies slumped against beige metal lockers. I feel sick. I think of Bella again. How will Jerrod be portrayed? I jump at the sound of buzzing and look across the table at Kelly. She picks up her phone and stares at it before looking back at us.

“My dad left this morning. Apparently, he wants to drive to New York to open a restaurant. He feels that’s how he can make it up to me. I don’t think he’s cooked a thing in his life, but that’s how he’s going to make it up to me. Not by paying child support or, you know, being there…he’s going to drive across the country on money that I’m assuming my mother gave him to open a restaurant. Hmmmm, can’t wait to see that in your movie.”
Jennie lets out a sigh. “Kelly, listen to me. Maybe this will be a good thing and—”
“Excuse me. Brittany?”
We look up to see a small, bald man standing in front of us. I recognize him as the owner of Griddle Cakes. He always wears round glasses and a Padres baseball cap backwards and he always has a clipboard, which he is constantly writing things on. I never remember his name.
“Yes, Randy.”
“Okay, Brit. You know I love you doll, but I gotta ask you to leave.”
“I know you had nothing to do with the shooting but we got some people saying they’re not gonna stay if you’re here. You gotta leave, darling.”
“I’ve been coming here forever. You know me, I didn’t do anything,” Brittany says.
“I know. Just until this blows over,” Randy says, giving Brittany a sympathetic look. “This meal is on me, alright ladies?”

Tears fill Brittany’s eyes as we all stare at each other and slowly get out of our booth. People are staring at us. I hear people snickering, people pointing, whispering. What did she know? What could she have done? I’ve never been asked to leave anyplace, not even on that field trip to Disneyland in eighth grade when Shane and Matt tried to get some of the gold coins from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. I am mortified. Our legacy. Those words in my head again. No matter where we go, we will always be here. We will always be connected. I look at Brittany, who is crying, and suddenly those bees that had been in my head seem to go away. My headache fades and I see her. Brittany had done nothing. She had really done nothing. The control Jennie had mentioned, regaining control. Brittany had given up that control when she had really done nothing.

After the shortened breakfast, I text Matt and tell him to meet me at the duck pond later. I need him. I need to talk with him, hear his voice. I drop off Brittany, Lexie, Kelly, and Jennie in what was the quietest car ride ever. No one spoke. The silence only broken by random music coming from the radio. Everyone seemed to be in their own world and I just kept focusing on the road. As soon as I get home, I change into my favorite exercise pants that always make my butt look small and throw on a white shirt and beige hoodie before walking over to Woodley Park. As you get deeper into the park, the more woodsey it gets. It feels like you’re suddenly dropped off in some random area with duck ponds and large leafy trees. Matt and I had discovered it two years ago when we were talking about getting back together. That duck pond was where we had decided to give our relationship one more try, a decision I have never regretted.

As I reach the duck pond, I see him already there. He is sitting and staring at his phone. I know immediately what he’s wearing, even without him turned toward me. He’s wearing his L.A. Kings shirt. His favorite shirt and the only one he wears when he has to do any sort of physical activity. He wore it the time he made that winning shot during the Seniors versus Freshman basketball game and has since called it his lucky shirt. He wore it during the Homecoming Game and we won. I walk over and sit down next to him.
“They’re doing a movie?”
“What?” I ask as Matt gives me his phone. He’s on The Chatter, a Hollywood gossip website. There is an article talking about a movie being in the works. It makes me wonder how long Jennie had known this. I nod and hand the phone back to him, he stuffs it back into his pocket.
“Yeah, Jen told us this morning. She said we’re never gonna leave high school. She said it’s our legacy. Are we ever gonna be able to leave this behind?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like it.”
“Did your parents say anything about last night?”
“No. Which is strange, because I would’ve thought that would be the perfect opportunity for a lecture,” Matt says. Matt’s parents are psychologists that love lectures and having him get in touch with his feelings. If he does something wrong they never ground him, instead they ask him to look deep within himself to explore why he did what he did.
“My parents didn’t get mad either.”
“Not even your dad?” Matt asks.
“No, not even my dad. I kinda wish they had. It would have felt like…well, felt—”
“My parents didn’t even ask me to get in touch with my feelings or to explore the deeper meaning of my actions. In fact, my parents bought Shane, Chris, and I McDonalds for breakfast and we spent the morning eating and playing Call of Duty.”
“I thought so. I kicked Shane’s ass…..and Chris’. You know, for two jocks, they suck balls at video games.”
“We got kicked out of Griddle Cakes.”
“Randy kicked us out.”
“I keep saying that man has way too much power. They’re just pancakes,” Matt says, shaking his head.
“Apparently, people were complaining about Brittany. She didn’t do anything but, see, the problem is…I keep wondering…if she saw him…did she…when she ran…why didn’t she call someone? Did she… You know, ever since we were little, I thought Brittany and Zoey were like the coolest people. Now, Zoey’s dead and Brittany’s….Brittany’s a—I don’t—it’s—”
“I know.”
“But then maybe I’m even worse than Brittany. I was friends with Jerrod. I sat in his backyard and….last night, Bella said that Jerrod considered me a friend. I was a crappy friend. I was—why didn’t I ask?”
“Well, then maybe it’s my fault too?”
“In junior high, my parents thought I should be nice to him. So I invited him over to watch movies. He was creepy. He kept saying weird stuff, like during Clockwork Orange he said he thought it would be cool to perform human experiments and I didn’t think he was kidding so the next time my parents said I should invite him over, I said no. I even said I would give up my allowance for a month just so I wouldn’t have to hang out with him. That was the end of that. Maybe I should have asked more questions?”

I didn’t know this. How did I not know this? I guess it must have freaked Matt out so much that he never wanted to mention it again. God, everything about that shooting keeps replaying over and over. Jerrod wasn’t isolated in this town. He had people. He talked to people. Then why didn’t anyone know?

“How did Jerrod plan this? How—when did he even decide to do this? If we all had these connections to him then how could we have not have known?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I thought about that too. How much do you really know anyone?”
“I know you.”
“You didn’t know that I hung out with Jerrod once.”
“Alright, one thing . . . but everything else. . . . Is there anything we don’t know about each other?”
“What am I thinking right now?”
“That you’re hungry and that you really think that if you ever met Mila Kunis, she would totally go out with you if you asked nicely.”
“Yes, but those are things I think most days,” Matt says, grinning at me. I laugh as I lean against him, staring at the pond in front of me. That shotgun blast. How could we have stopped that? Maybe when Matt and Jerrod watched Clockwork Orange, Matt should have dug deeper? Or maybe there was a reason Matt’s parents wanted him to be friends with Jerrod? Maybe no one really knows anyone? What if I had been there that night at Mike’s? If I had seen Jerrod, maybe I would have asked questions. Maybe not. Maybe I wouldn’t have spoken to him at all.

It’s starting to get chilly now. Halloween is over and the holidays are fast approaching. I usually get so happy this time of year. I start to try new recipes, see if I can find those giant antler things you can attach to your car to make it look like a reindeer. Now it feels too strange to celebrate. The whole point of the holidays is to be with the ones you love, but even when looking at the ones you love, do you ever really know what any of them are capable of? Could you stop it if you knew?

“Let’s walk,” Matt says as he gets up and reaches for my hand. He pulls me up and we walk. He drapes his arm around my shoulders and I wrap my arm around his waist. It occurs to me that soon I’ll be losing him, too. No matter what, we will be going to separate colleges on the advice his parents and mine, who really want us to grow up away from each other for a bit. I had not thought about the goodbyes that come with being a senior. I put them off but now they just all seem to be coming, nonstop.

I get back to my house later that afternoon. As I pull onto my street, I stop right by the Rodgers’ house. I stare at it. I wish I knew what went on in that home, what conversations were being had. I think about Bella. I keep staring when someone in a dark hoodie walks toward the Rodgers’ home carrying a bag. They set it down on the front porch and reach into their pocket. I squint my eyes as they light the bag on fire, ring their doorbell, and race off. I don’t see the person but I keep my eye on the door. It opens and Bella stands there. She looks at the bag burning in front of her and without flinching reaches off to the side and pulls out a fire extinguisher, extinguishing the flames. I guess this isn’t the first time something has been lit on fire on their porch. I guess this is their new reality. I should feel bad, but I don’t. They did this. They made my friend run away and hide. They made my other friend die. They raised a killer. I turn into my driveway and park. Peering in my rear view mirror, I see Bella staring at my car. If she’s wondering why I didn’t keep the guy from putting what I can only assume was a burning bag of crap on her porch, well, she didn’t stop her brother from killing people. It makes sense to me.


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