A couple days after Christmas, I’m shaking as I drive to Brittany’s house. I don’t call because I know she won’t answer. I pull into her driveway and knock on her door. I know she’s home and I’m right. She’s still in her pajamas but I make her change so we can go get something to eat. And talk. I’m still reeling from what happened with Julie, still thinking about that fight after the Winter Concert. I think of things to say, I’ve never been this scared to talk to Brittany.
I get a smile out of her when I pull into the Tortilla Jacks parking lot. We used to go here with Zoey when it was too late for brunch served at Griddle Cakes or we didn’t want to see everyone and their mother at Mike’s. It was also the site of my first official date with Matt.
We walk in and grab a table. The waitress walks over and we order our typical combo platters. Cheese enchilada and a chicken taco for me, a burrito and a taco for her. After the waitress leaves, we sit across from each other, poking at our food. Somehow it’s not so appetizing now that we’re sitting here. We both know I wasn’t just craving Mexican.
“I want to transfer,” Brittany says, breaking the silence.
“We have a semester left of school.”
“I can’t deal with this.”
“So you’re gonna run again?”
“Stop. Although, if Jen actually does a movie, my life will be over completely. All of America will hate me then. Can’t run from that.”
“First, a script needs to be written, so we don’t even know that’s gonna happen, and second, running is what got you in trouble. You know, you never answered Jennie’s question,” I say as I reach for my water glass, wishing for a brief moment that it was a margarita instead.
“Why did I run?”
“Couldn’t you have done something, like call the police or something?”
“You’re not asking anything I don’t ask myself. I replay that day over and over. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t call the police, I didn’t call any of you to let you know I was alive. I just ran and maybe I could’ve—or I should’ve—
“Julie Arlington used to date him.”
“Yeah, I know. Found that out during my Christmas party. She told me that she used to date him and…I don’t know, she’s weird.
“She probably wanted to just unload. She wanted to talk. I can relate to that.”
“At my family’s Christmas party? There had to have been a better time.”
“Maybe she thought that was the best time.”
“Look, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I did that day. I wish so badly that I could take it back, that I could change things. If I could go back from when I saw Jerrod in the parking lot that morning and—”
“Wait, what?” I ask. My head starts to get fuzzy, my hands shake. I start to feel hot. What did she just say?
“I heard the guns and—”
“I thought you didn’t see him until he was already shooting.”
Brittany looks off to the side and then back at me. I feel like throwing up again. I keep staring at her.
“I saw him in the parking lot. I did. When we got to campus after going for breakfast, I saw Jerrod by his car and his trunk was open. I saw a glimpse of something that I only realized later looked like a gun. Remember we were singing and laughing and stuff? I saw it but I didn’t really see it and I only put it together when I heard the gunshots and—”
“I have to go,” I say, getting up. I can’t be here. Everything is closing in. I feel like I’m in a box or something, I have to get out of here. I have to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.
“You drove me here.”
“Get a ride from someone else.” I grab my purse and run out the door to my car and take off. I feel like I’m back in that closet all over again, watching the door slam shut after my friend gets blown away.
Brittany tries to reach me on my cell but I don’t answer. I keep driving. The music blaring from my radio. I grip the steering wheel so tightly, my knuckles are turning white. People can just be so stupid sometimes. Common sense. How many more fucking clues do you need, people? How many more signs were needed that Jerrod was going to do something? I keep driving, faster and faster until I pull into the Woodley Park parking lot. I get out of my car and keep walking. There are people walking dogs, children playing, families having picnics. I keep walking, faster and faster, and soon that walking turns to running. I hear my own feet hit the ground. It’s almost a stomping sound. I keep running, racing really, getting deeper and deeper into the park.
I would have done something. Had I seen Jerrod in the parking lot, had I seen him in the halls, I would have done something. I know I would have. I wouldn’t have let my friends go twenty-four hours without knowing if I was dead or alive. I could have done something. I wish I had seen Jerrod that day, because I know I would have been able to stop it.
How could all these clues been ignored? There are always clues. Always signs. Nothing in life ever just comes out of the blue. There’s always something. I reach the duck pond and stop, I’m out of breath as I plop down on the ground, hearing the crunchy sounds of leaves beneath me. I feel my heart racing, my palms are sweaty. I can hear sound of ducks quacking in the pond. It’s windy out. I’m not cold though. I grip onto my keys. My heart rate slows down and the adrenaline lowers and I hear Bella’s voice in my head. “He considered you a friend.” I lower my head as I bring my knees to my chest. None of us did anything. We all ignored clues, ignored signs. If he considered me a friend, maybe I should have listened more. I shouldn’t have turned my back on him….
I should have asked questions. I should have…I…I should have. My heart rate slows as Brittany’s face appears in my head. I let out a sigh. I never thought of myself as the type to turn on people. I’m nice. I’ve always prided myself on that. I became popular by being nice, not by being the stereotypical mean girl. Not by being Rachel. Rachel turns her back on people. She’s mean. She drops people because they don’t do what she wants or she doesn’t get her way. She drops them when she’s done with them. I’m no better than she is. I turned my back on Jerrod. I turned my back on Julie….on Brittany. What if Jerrod wanted to reach out back then? What if I had just shut up about stupid things and listened? Zoey might be alive today. Riley. Will, they’d be alive. Will Arlington? Jerrod killed Julie’s brother. I am no better than Rachel. No, I’m worse than Rachel. I turn my back on people who might be reaching out to me. Rachel just uses people. I’m worse than those stereotypical mean girls. I’m worse than Rachel.
No, no. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered? Jerrod never told anyone his plans. He just said weird things and freaked people out. People say weird things that freak people out all the time. A lot of the times, it means nothing. It’s just talk. Just random chattery words that people say for shock or to just say something. Really, only one person picked up a gun that day. Only one person did all this damage. We were all just there, floating around Jerrod’s world. We each had interactions, moments that to us were nothing more than that. Moments. Meaningless moments that only seem meaningful when you look back at them. We didn’t do this. We were just there. Just going about our lives while he lived behind that stupid rainbow fence, smiling his even stupider eager-to-please grin. Listening to people who wanted to talk about themselves, who wanted to feel less lonely or just not go home quite yet. He just let everyone else talk while he was planning this. It was all in his world, planning chaos while the rest of us lived. He did this. We were all just there. He made the choice, not me or Julie or Matt or Brittany or Bella. One person and no one could stop it. You can’t stop madness.
Everything is so quiet out here. I feel chilly. My spine is tingly. I take another deep breath, although it no longer hurts when I do that. I keep waiting for Zoey. Waiting for her to come out of the water or give me a sign. Getting mad at Brittany or Julie or myself, but at the end of the day does it even matter? Does it make a difference? Zoey’s not going to be coming to anymore Christmas parties. She won’t be walking through the door anytime soon. That friendship ended the day Jerrod opened that closet door. It was him.
“There you are.”
I jump when I hear a voice behind me. I turn to see Adam standing there. I wonder how he found me. He walks over and sits next to me.
“How did you know I was here?”
“Just a wild guess. Kelly called. Her dad died. They found him in a mall parking lot in Idaho. He killed himself. So…we need to go back.”
I simply nod, not really bothering to press any further about how Adam found me. Although, I’m not sure how much I care. I let it sink in. I slowly get up and Adam walks with me. We begin walking back towards the parking lot in silence. We pass the playground, hearing children laughing and parents gossiping. I’m walking in a haze. I reach my car and get in, Adam sits in the seat next to me. Another funeral. Another goodbye. Another occasion to wear that black dress. I’m done. I’ve officially had enough.
I’m standing at another graveside, watching as dirt is being shoveled onto another casket. Mourners standing around, quietly swaying. Kelly’s stepdad is holding onto Kelly’s mom, who is gently dabbing away tears from her face. Her mom, the youngest of all the moms in our group. She had Kelly when she was in her late teens. I feel for her. Kelly stands by her mom who is holding her hand. Kelly is standing stoically. She wants to cry. She looks upset, angry almost. Not as sad as she did at Zoey’s funeral. There aren’t too many people here. More shoveling and silence. It’s warm, unseasonably warm for January. The sun is hitting my skin, making me feel hot. I’m imagining myself burning, standing there in the sun. Kelly’s dad left a suicide note. She had told me about it. He had tried to help Kelly.
Thud. The sounds of the dirt hitting the casket. Thud.
He had failed her.
He had wished he could have saved her from the monsters.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
He had not been a good dad.
Thud. Plop. Thud.
More dirt. More covering. I can’t breathe. I look down the line of us, standing shoulder to shoulder. Brittany’s missing again. This time she’s missing and it’s my fault. I rejected her. I rejected her the way Kelly’s dad rejected himself.
Zoey’s funeral. We couldn’t save her. My hands feel clammy. I’m sweating. It’s too hot. It’s January. It’s not supposed to be this hot in January. I have to go. Everything is closing in. I start imagining Brittany. I rejected her. We were all rejecting her. We were standing there at the Winter Concert, blaming her. Telling her what she should have done. It’s so easy. It’s easy to tell someone what they should have or could have done. I didn’t call the police either. We all hid that day. We were all hiding. We all ran somewhere, to escape, to avoid the acts of one person. We saved no one that day and here we are again. Mourning someone else who could not be saved. My mind keeps going back to Brittany. I can’t do this. I can’t go to another funeral. I can’t let someone else fade away. I hear Brittany’s piano playing in my head. Every note so perfect. I imagine her playing and then stopping. Vanishing. My heart drops. I’m sweating.
Why is it so hot?
“I have to go,” I whisper to Matt.
I don’t answer. I just keep stepping back, further and further. No more rejections. I have turned my back on so many people, ignored so many signs. No more. I need to get to Brittany. I turn and start walking out of the graveyard. I walk faster until I am running like I did in the park that day. I can’t stop. My feet hitting the pavement. Thud. Thud. Thud. My feet are hurting. I’m running in heels. I can’t stop to take them off. The pain in my feet is slowing me down, but I ignore the throbbing. I almost run into people. Narrowly avoid a stroller. People are staring at me. Glaring. They don’t know. I pass the stores and keep running. My feet feel like they’re swelling, like someone stabbing the bottom of my feet with a sharp knife. I keep running. Keep barreling through. With each stab, I grip tighter on my purse. Holding it like one of those marathon runners hold those batons. Thud. Stab. Grip. Thud. Stab. Grip. After what feels like a million miles, I finally reach Brittany’s street. I run up the circular driveway, looking at the fountain. I silently make a wish, having no time to throw coins in there. I run up to the door and begin pounding, banging my wrists against the wooden door as hard as I can. She can’t be next. I’ve already buried one best friend. I am not going to bury two.
Brittany opens the door, looking at me curiously. I know I look unhinged but I don’t care. Without thinking, I throw my arms around her, hugging her. I’ve spent so much time wanting Zoey back, wanting my best friend back. So much time blaming, looking, wanting answers. What if I lost another one? I can’t lose another friend. It just won’t happen. Brittany reaches up towards my arms and pushes back. My arms drop to my side. Is she rejecting me?
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I can’t lose another friend.”
Brittany nods and takes a deep breath. “You didn’t.”
This time she hugs me. We stand there in the doorway, hugging each other. My feet are no longer hurting. It’s going to be okay. It just will. I know that now.