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There’s an assembly in the gymnasium. Her picture is put up on a giant screen wheeled in for this special occasion. Balloons in gold and purple, our school colors, flank the sides of the podium and the aisles of black folding chairs set up in front of the bleachers.
Everyone is silent. To an outsider, it would appear as though the entire school is grieving. Girls in skirts who manage to escape dress code because of the circumstances wipe at their mascara. Boys in collared shirts and long pants clear their throats and remain silent when they’d usually be shouting and calling out to each other. But their tears aren’t real. They’re faking it. They didn’t really know her.
They didn’t know her like I did.
They thought they knew who she was. They thought she was a loser and a nerd and a loser all at the same time. They thought she only went out with the MPV of the basketball team to make his ex-girlfriend jealous, and possibly get a taste of what life was like at the Top. Top of the Jr. High Trophic Level Food Chain.
So when she dumped Cory Fitzgerald, the Top didn’t let her go so easily. They shoved ugly notes in her locker, they called her names to her face and whispered them behind her back whenever she walked down the hall, and they spread rumors so startling yet so juicy it raged through the student body like a forest fire.
My friends and I were Smoky the Bear, trying with little effect, to stifle it all.
The principal goes up to the podium. Adjusts the microphone. A horrible scream of feedback fills the gym. I reach up and cover my ears, feeling my strawberry stud earrings press into my palms.
He clears his throat. Blinks back shiny tears. “We all know why we’re here.” He gestures to the picture of her on the screen, taken last summer. “Because Willow Matsumoto isn’t.”
I can sense a few eyes bore into my back as I tenaciously stare ahead. I look through the mass of students, trying to find the others in our Group. I spot April’s messy blond hair, and sitting next to her with the vibrant pink streaks in her brown hair is Lori. Jane is sitting up front in one of the orange chairs, bent over with her painted nails in her boy-short hair. I swallow back a sob, shoving it back down into the black hole eating away at my insides.
Principal Underwood goes on, talking about how she was a straight-A-student, on varsity tennis and badminton, and loved by many. His voice echoes around the gym, I can feel the vibrations in my toes.
What’s his definition of many? The many that is glad to hear about her swallowing a bunch of pills? The many that hungrily devour the local newspaper to gather details about how her single father found her facedown in her bedroom? The many that give Mr. Matsumoto pitying looks but secretly relish his pain?
Or the many, the small many, of us that loved her as a friend?
He should’ve changed that, I catch myself thinking as I bite my tongue to keep the spasmodic gasps of sorrow quiet. Mr. Underwood should’ve said how she loved to play the piano. Or the violin. Or how she sang whatever was on the radio even though she couldn’t sing at all. Or that her favorite candy was caramel or how she loved math or how she loved…
I curl over, trembling. I won’t cry. I won’t cry. I won’t cry I won’t cry I won’t cry I won’t cry.
When the principal wraps up his speech, a single cry pierces the stuffy atmosphere. Heads turn in surprise to the source of the sound. Eyes widen and whispers start when they see the person being pulled away by the World History teacher is Cory.
His handsome features are screwed up into the blotchy, red expression of anguish. His floppy brown hair is messy, and he tugs at his tie as Ms. Carlson leads him away outside. Everyone is watching. Everyone is watching Mr. MVP-Future-Homecoming-King lose it.
Confusion swallows up my sadness, and I watch with dull interest. I didn’t really know Cory all that well, but I knew when Willow dumped him he was hit pretty hard by that. But he seemed to have gotten over it. Gotten over it enough to laugh whenever his jock buddies called her names when she walked by them.
He yells out something, but it gets all garbled and jumbled up in the enormous sobs wracking his lanky body. I bite my lower lip. Ms. Carlson is trying to reassure him everything is okay. To my surprise, Cory yanks his arm out of the teacher’s grip with such force it almost topples her. He whirls on her, his gray eyes narrowed so much they look like small nicks in his face.
“No! Nothing’s okay.” He gestures wildly to Willow’s image, but refuses to look at it. “Nothing is! Willow’s dead. Dead!” Another sob crumples what would’ve come out next, and angrily, he swipes the back of his hand across his face, but new tears just replace the old ones. “She’s never gonna walk down these halls. She’s never gonna eat lunch again. She’s never gonna play in the orchestra again. She’s never gonna do a thing because she’s gone!” His voice breaks on the last word.
“Cory!” A tall male teacher marches down the bleachers and quickly grabs him by the shoulders. He starts murmuring things to him; brief sharp things that make the boy wince and stiffen. They head out of the double-doors, and the thud of them shutting makes all of us jump.
I bite my knuckles, pretending the physical pain is what’s hurting me.
My eyes wander to Willow. She’s got a reluctant smile and a look in her eyes that make you think she doesn’t believe anything you’re saying. Her black hair swirls around her in messy strands, the picture was taken at the local carnival. Behind her is a mess of colors. Of spinning carousels and tilt-a-whirls and sweaty vendors making kettle corn and handing out cotton candy. Everything’s crazy and blurry and she’s the only thing in focus.
It started with Cory. But it wasn’t his fault. There were people who could’ve reached out to stop it, people who probably thought it was wrong to call her such names when they didn’t even know her but joined in because their friends were doing it. People who only did it because if they didn’t, they were afraid they’d end up in Willow’s place.
Willow isn’t ever coming back. They get to move on with their lives and go to college and have families and live long, happy lives while she’ll never make it past fourteen.
I think that’s why Cory feels so guilty. That he gets to live his life and make mistakes and get back up while Willow will never get a second chance.