I sit at my desk staring at the pile of college applications in front of me. Twelve schools, seven of them are on the West Coast. I had procrastinated filling them out, but I have to do it. My parents are nagging me about them. I had briefly played with the idea of maybe taking a year off but when I brought that up with my parents, they laughed and said that they thought it was really cute that I was holding on to this mistaken belief that college was merely an option for me and not a set in stone requirement. So, with that in mind, I guess now it’s time to plan my escape from the tiny bubble towns that have made up my existence for the past seventeen years.
I wonder what it will be like to be away from here. I wonder what people will say when they hear where I’m from? I wonder what I’ll respond? I know I’ll be starting college single. I’ll be losing Matt. He wants to go to Harvard and will probably get in. I want to go where there’s warm weather all year long. Los Angeles. That’s my dream. Ever since I was little, I’ve dreamt of living in Los Angeles and going to USC. I love how you can drive twenty minutes in any direction and feel like you’re in a whole new world. You can get completely lost in the sea of people. The culture and history and the Hollywood scene, everything that goes with living there. You’re in a different kind of bubble town. I’ll still miss Matt. He’s been my rock for so long. The last few months, especially. I’ve spent so long being with him that it’ll be strange to be without him. I thought it would be strange to be without Zoey but I guess I’m doing that too.
I go through each application and mail them out the day before they’re due, which is the day of the Winter Concert. Filling them out turns out to be a good distraction. For a whole three days, I don’t think about the Brittany thing every single second. I know more people are harassing Brittany. I know it’s more than Tyler. Rachel seems to be making it her mission to take potshots at her every chance she gets. Sitting in the auditorium, waiting for the show to begin, I hear her whispering to her friends of the moment about how it’s going to be a killer show because they have a murderer playing the piano. I keep turning back to glare at her but Matt stops me.
I let out a sigh as Matt places his arm around me. The lights dim and all the music begins. My mind wanders as I imagine my future. My perfect Los Angeles day. Driving down the PCH with the windows rolled down, my hair becoming sticky from the salty air as the smell of the ocean tickles my nose. I’m on the Santa Monica Pier, watching children eat cotton candy and listening to people chattering away around me. I can hear sea gulls flying out into the ocean. I ride the Ferris Wheel, looking at the city from way up high. I imagine myself riding in those Star Tour buses breathing in the exhaust fumes and driving past houses that I wish I could afford. I imagine eating chili dogs at Pink’s. Mexican food at El Coyote. French dip at Philippes, fried chicken at The Ivy while waving to the paparazzi who have no interest in me at all. I imagine walking down Olivera Street, Rodeo Drive, Melrose, the Hollywood Walk of Fame looking at the names of celebrities I’ve never heard of. I can see myself cheering for the Lakers, the Dodgers, the Kings, the USC Trojans. Yelling as I’m stuck in traffic on the 405. I am in a new world. Starting over with a new life. Everything feels fresh. Everything feels different in the future. I am ready to move past all this. The songs from the Winter Concert play like a soundtrack to my future. Each note getting me lost farther and farther in my own head. I am in a new bubble town. A big bubble town, the bubble town that every other town expect maybe New York wants to be. The Homecoming Queen of bubble towns.
When I hear Lexie start her solo, I open my eyes again, stunned as always by how beautiful she looks and sounds. She’s dressed in a long black gown, but it wouldn’t have mattered if she was in her pajamas, she’d still sound amazing. She’s doing a medley of Christmas-slash-Holiday songs. Some fast, some slow, each one sounding so unbelievable. Something about watching someone love what they do. You can feel that love in every bone in your body. I get that feeling when I watch Jen act or listen to Brit play the piano. The inspiration of watching someone so in love with what they’re doing inspires me. I hope one day I find something I love that much. Brittany can’t stop grinning as she plays the piano for Lexie. She looks so happy too, and beautiful, which isn’t hard for her. She’s wearing a one shoulder black gown, with her hair pulled back. She transitions between every song Lexie sings with ease. Every note so perfectly played and perfectly reached. They’re flawless, unstoppable, and it lifts me, and in the moment the choice is pretty clear. I’m choosing to be happy.
The reality of a finished concert makes me a little sad. It’s the last Winter concert we will ever attend as high schoolers. But that sadness is quickly overshadowed by the feeling of floating. I actually feel like I’m floating along. I’m surrounded by seven of my favorite people and we’re all just happy. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like this. Heart fluttering, calm and peaceful happiness. Brittany seems especially happy as we step outside onto the basketball courts and walk toward the chain link fence onto the senior lot where our cars are parked. She’s walking backwards, facing us and holding onto Lexie’s arm, talking rapidly about the concert. The perfect notes matched so flawlessly with Lexie’s spectacular singing voice. The music of the night has transformed us. It’s impossible to be sad while listening to holiday music. The uplifting melodies, the happy beats, the fact that it’s a reminder that the semester is finally over.
We’re completely oblivious to the crowd of people standing around Brittany’s car. As we get closer, we begin to get quiet as we hear people start whispering and I feel like someone has slapped me in the face. We push our way through the crowd and stop, staring at Brittany’s car. Someone has thrown rocks through the windshield, which is shattered, and spray painted “DIE BITCH” along the side of her car. I look up at the sky and then back at Brittany, who appears to have gone completely pale. She turns and runs off through the crowd of people and we follow her. Shane and Chris reach her first, running in front of her before she steps onto the basketball courts.
“Leave me alone, please,” Brittany says as she cries.
“No, come on. We’ll fix your car. It’ll be okay,” Chris says.
“No, it won’t Chris. It will never be okay again. My life is over.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. It’ll blow over,” Chris tries.
“It’s not going to blow over. It’s gonna get worse. There’s going to be a fucking movie about it starring Jennifer Woods.” Brittany says motioning towards Jennie.
“Hey, wait. That’s not fair,” Jennie argues.
“I bet that was a publicity stunt to promote your upcoming movie. The Slaughter at Bayat Hills High. Right, Jen?” Brittany asks, zeroing in on her.
“You need to stop.” Jennie’s voice sounds controlled and eerily calm.
“I will not stop. You’re profiting off of this and you know what? You don’t even live here. We’re just the place you live in so you can call yourself normal. This is all research to you. Isn’t it? My misery is going to be your research.”
“I think you should stop now,” Jennie repeats, her fists in tight balls.
“You know, I can go to my house really quick and get some adhesive out of the garage and fix it. It’s no problem,” I say, but no one is listening
“Jen, you have no clue. This isn’t your world. Living here is like an experiment to you so you can go back to your Hollywood life and film your stupid ass movies and laugh about those poor suckers in Bayat. This is my life. This is real life and not some craptastic movie you’re gonna star in.”
“You know, I’m gonna go home. That’s what I’m gonna do. Good luck, Brittany,” Jennie says, stepping back and turning to walk off.
“To where? Not here. You fake ass bitch,” Brittany says.
“Brittany, come on,” Kelly says.
“What? You can’t say anything unless someone writes it for you and you’re getting paid for it?” Brittany asks.
Jennie turns around. She marches towards Brittany, furious. She’s tiny, but in that moment she looks positively terrifying.
“You know what, no, you could have done something. You ran out of the goddamned school like a fucking coward. Did you call the police when you ran out? Did you stop him? He actually spoke to you. Why didn’t you tell him to put down the gun? Anything. I was locked up in a fucking closet with my best friend who was about to get her head blown off. You ran away.”
I’ve never seen Jennie this furious in real life. We’re all silent. I can feel tenseness wrap around my throat, practically strangling me. Jennie and Brittany are staring each other down as if they’re animals in a cage.
“Why didn’t you call any of us?” Kelly asks. “Why—you let us all wait twenty-four hours and you didn’t contact any of us. We all thought you might be dead.”
Kelly looks down at the ground and then back at Brittany, sounding rather nervous.
“I was busy being interrogated,” Brittany says.
“But you still could’ve said something, texted one of us to at least let us know you were alive,” Kelly says.
“You know, I’ve wondered that too,” Lexie says. “I think you’re amazing, you know that, but why didn’t you call the cops?”
My heart drops as Brittany glares at all of us. She steps back from us and turns without saying a word and begins walking off. We should stop her, run after her, but we all stay frozen. There are people still talking around us, walking towards their cars and seemingly oblivious to us. . We’re standing shoulder to shoulder, watching Brittany disappear into the darkness. That feeling of terror takes over me again. Everything feels darker. Everything seems to be falling apart. That bullet. That gun. Choosing to be happy. No, that’s impossible now. All of it is impossible.