The thing about Winter Break in a small town is that it’s one of the only times you can fade into the background. After that concert and after that fight, I barely speak to Brittany. I find out she got home safely only by checking her Facebook, but other than that, it’s been one unreturned call after the other and soon Christmas Eve comes and my family descends on my home from everywhere. There are ugly sweater contests and my gingerbread mansion, which I make every year. Something very therapeutic about working on it this year. I make a home. An edible home worthy of a spread in Architectural Digest home. A home that can fall apart.
My parents have an open door policy when it comes to the holidays. Everyone can come, and does, which usually makes Christmas Eve packed at our house. Matt’s family comes, and I’m excited to see Zoey’s family. Her mom hugging my mom and immediately asking if she needs help. I’m just amazed by Zoey’s mom, smiling, singing along to Christmas songs that are playing from the speakers on my dad’s IPOD.
I want to feel the holiday spirit, the happiness that comes with it, but it’s not there. Matt’s wearing a blue sweater with a duct tape menorah on it, which complements my red sweater with gifts Velcroed on to it. I find him stuffing his mouth with pigs in a blanket and immediately drag him to an empty spot on the couch, where we sit.
“Pigs in a blanket are friggin’ awesome,” Matt says, his mouth completely filled with food. “I mean, nothing against latkes ’cause those are awesome too but wow.”
“You’re gross,” I say.
“What? I’m just saying.”
“I love you but you’re gross.”
“You’re just jealous.”
“That I love these little hot dogs more than you. You know what, I’m marrying these little hot dogs. I think we would be very happy together.”
“Well, you’d make a lovely couple.” I look towards the door and watch as a few more people walk in. My dad walks over to them and hugs them, leading them into the house. They’re laughing but I’m too far away to hear what they’re laughing about. I keep staring at the door, watching it closely as the holiday music is mixed with the sounds of people talking about random things going on in their lives. I keep my eyes focused on the door. More and more people come in. People carrying trays of food, people wearing ugly holiday sweaters, people holding gifts and bottles of wine. Each person smiling, hugging whomever is greeting them. I keep staring. Waiting for one particular person to walk through that door. I suddenly see Matt’s hand wave in front of my eyes.
“Hey, where are you?”
“What’s going on?”
He raises an eyebrow and looks towards the door as Valerie Allerod, her husband and two small children walk in. Valerie is carrying a cake, her husband has a bottle of wine. My mom walks towards them, hugging Valerie. I watch as my mom says something and points off towards my brother playing video games with some cousins. The Allerod kids run off towards my brother as Valerie and her husband follow my mom into the kitchen. Matt clears his throat. I shake my head, forcing myself back into the present.
“I’m fine, Matt.”
“You’re thinking you want Zoey to walk through that door, aren’t you?” Matt asks.
I cock my head to the side and stare at him as he pops another hotdog into his mouth while giving me his signature goofy grin.
“How do you know these things?” I ask.
“I’m just that good.”
“It’s lame, right? I’m here with my family and friends and you and I love this. I do. I love the music and the smells and the food but I can’t….I feel incomplete. It just all feels so different.
“It is different.”
“I don’t want it to be.”
“But it is. Come on,” Matt says, standing up. I get up and follow him as we walk up the stairs towards my bedroom. We sit by my window which faces onto the street, staring directly at Jerrod’s house. I look down and see more people wandering into our home and then look back up across the street. The lights are on at the Rodgers’ home. It’s covered in Christmas lights. Even that stupid fence has colorful lights wrapped around the posts. I can see a decorated tree through the window and Jerrod’s mom and Bella sitting at a table, looking at something. Bella’s smiling. Not sure I’ve ever seen her smile. Jerrod’s dad walks into the room carrying a wreath. Soon I see the front door open and he hangs it on the door. I look over at Matt, who is staring at me.
“They seem happy,” I say.
“Do they deserve to be?”
I let that question roll around in my head. Do they deserve to be happy? There’s only one answer.
“No. No, I’m sorry, they don’t. I mean, this semester was supposed to be amazing but I lost my best friend and…and it’s their fault I lost my best friend. I lost so much. It was supposed to be my year. I worked hard. I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish and I know that in the big picture of life, none of this high school stuff matters and in five years, no one will even remember I was Homecoming Queen, but right now it matters and it matters to me and I hate that I don’t get the chance enjoy that. I’m sorry if I sound selfish and you can make fun of me all you want but I earned this year. I wanted this to be my year. So no, they don’t deserve to be happy when they raised a kid that made the rest of us miserable.”
Matt says nothing, just nods a little. I know he’s thinking about what I said, although I know he wants to make a joke. Make some comment about how I’m putting too much importance on superficial things, but he doesn’t and for that, I’m grateful.
I turn back to keep my eye on the Rodgers’ home. They’re so happy. Inside their home, they seem to be smiling and happy and normal. In my house, I hear laughter downstairs. I hear music, holiday music. The houses on my street are covered with so many colored lights and plastic snowmen. I wonder what music the Rodgers’ are listening to? I wonder what stories they’re talking about? I notice someone walk toward their door and grab the wreath off their door. I keep looking toward the window where Bella and her parents are smiling and happy. The wreath stealer runs off, tossing it in one of the recycle bins on the sidewalk and suddenly, I do feel something. Sadness—but not for me, I almost feel bad for the Rodgers’. It’s Christmas. I mean, people shouldn’t be mean to other people on Christmas, right?
I jump at the sound of someone saying my name behind me. Matt and I turn to see Julie Arlington standing in the doorway of my bedroom.
I shake my head as she walks in. I hadn’t even noticed her walking into my house. I look back out my window and see some people from my dad’s work walk in and turn back to look at Julie.
“Yeah, my parents really liked your pies and, well, we were gonna come by together to drop off a basket but when Tyler said you live across from the Rodgers’ house, my mom wouldn’t leave the house and my dad and brother were upset and—”
“Nice sweater,” Matt says.
She’s wearing a sweater with a picture of a tap dancing latke on it. Perfect fit for the sea of ugliest sweaters downstairs.
“Oh, thanks. I got it a few years ago. Will used to love your Christmas parties and he used to say the theme was the uglier the sweater the better, so I remembered I had this. My grandmother bought it for me.”
“Come on in,” I say.
“Thanks, yeah, your mom said you were probably up here.”
Julie walks toward my computer table and sits. It’s awkward as we sit, listening to the sound of music coming from downstairs. I hear my dad and uncle laughing loudly about something.
“I’m glad you came,” I finally say. It just seems like the thing to say.
“Me too.” Julie takes in my room, which is a complete mess. I have about six cousins crashing in my bedroom for the holidays. My mother hates the idea of having relatives stay in hotels while they’re visiting. So they all end up staying here, thus making for a very messy house.
Julie starts to say something a couple of times but doesn’t. Finally, “I know we’re at Christmas and all, but, well, I just want you to know I don’t think Brittany had anything to do with it. I don’t. I know you heard my brother. He’s angry.”
“A lot of people are.”
“I just…I never thought he’d do something like that,” Julie says.
“What?” I ask, a little confused. Is she talking about Tyler?
“I went out with him,” Julie says.
“Your brother?” Matt asks.
“No. Jerrod. In eleventh grade. We didn’t go out for long or anything. He seemed so sad all the time and I don’t like high school that much and so, I don’t know, we kind of connected, a little bit, I guess. I broke up with him because I guess I just wanted something else. He just, like, he kept saying stuff—but I always thought it was just stuff, I never thought he was serious. Tyler doesn’t know I dated Jerrod. He was in college or something. He didn’t know.”
I grab hold of the cushion. I’m happy I’m sitting, because this is crazy. She’s not telling us what I think she’s telling us. She can’t be.
“I miss those little hot dogs. Let’s go get them,” Matt says, getting up and walking towards the door. He puts his hand on the doorknob and shoots me a look. I remain frozen, staring at her.
Julie takes a deep breath as she pushes some of her hair behind her ear. Her other hand is fiddling with a pencil on my desk, twirling it between her fingers before turning back to me.
“It was around of the time of my sixteenth birthday. I didn’t really have anyone to celebrate with and Jerrod and I got to talking and we started to go out. I liked him. I know it’s horrible to say but I actually liked him. We dated for three months. I liked how much he listened to me. I never get that. I liked how he cared. He would say some stuff, some creepy stuff sometimes. I never thought it would get to this.”
I can almost hear my heart pounding in my ears. Matt is still standing by the door, gripping the knob.
“Little hot dogs.”
“Where were you?” I ask. “The day of the shooting, where were you?”
“I—well, the night before, he called me and it was strange because I hadn’t heard from him in a long time. He told me how he had come from a date with Brittany Kaneko.”
“It wasn’t a date,” I say.
“I know that now but he called it a date. He said he was ready to move on. I said okay and he asked if I was going to school the next day and I said, of course. He just said good and that he expected something big to happen but he wouldn’t tell me what. So that day, I went to school. I said goodbye to my brother when Adam ran up to Will. I don’t even know if Will even said goodbye to me. Adam was complaining about you and then Will said they could get revenge. They left and I stood there alone. I was walking to my locker when the shots began and I just knew. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. I ran into a closet and I hid, by myself. I just kept hearing those sounds and I wanted them to stop.”
I remember those sounds. Pop. Pop. Like some twisted music video where everything explodes or some action movie. I remember the darkness of the closet. The smells of unwashed jerseys and sports equipment poking me in the back. Matt had his arm around me, holding me tight, so tight. His fingers burying into my shoulders. Kelly’s body shaking next to me. We grabbed hands. Lexie was praying. Her voice softer, quieter than I had ever heard it. The boys held us. Their arms wrapped around us, tightening their grip with each pop, pop, pop. I felt Chris’ hand pressed against Kelly’s shoulder. Lex kept praying. Sneakers sliding outside. Together we sat. Shoulder to shoulder. Our breaths were short. I kept reminding myself to breathe. Shane’s phone lit up. We did not move. We watched the light of the phone. There was a text. Letters appearing. Then the light disappeared. Pop. Pop. Pop. Praying. Sneakers. Breathing. Screams outside. Jennie gasped.
And all Julie heard was the pop, pop, pop.
“Jerrod opened the door at some point and looked at me,” Julie says. “He held the gun to my head and then said that he wasn’t going to shoot me, only the people that other people would miss.”
My breath catches in my throat again. I feel nauseous. Julie dated Jerrod. She probably knew more than Brittany.
“What is wrong with you?” I ask.
“Nick…” Matt says.
“No, Matt. I get to say this. It’s my turn to speak. It’s Christmas Eve and my family is downstairs and you walk through my door, in my home, into my bedroom, to tell me that Jerrod called you the night before? Brittany is basically getting ripped to shreds for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why weren’t you interrogated by the police?”
“How do you know I wasn’t? And you were his friend. You were friends with him too.”
“He didn’t say anything to me.”
“He never said anything to me. Although, he did say you hurt him.”
“Get out of my house.”
Julie lets out sigh as she gets off my bed and walks to my door, glaring at me.
“Merry Christmas,” she says as she storms towards the door. Matt jumps out of the way as Julie slams the door shut behind her. I close my eyes and I see it again. The door being ripped open. The gun being pointed at us. That sound. Then the closing of the door and everything was just over.