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The gym’s bleachers reflect harsh lighting around the cavernous room. Everyone’s assembled in their respective social clumps, heads bent together to shun anyone else who tries to intrude. A lone girl stalks up a wobbly aisle of steps, her oversized UW Art Department shirt hanging like a smock over her purple leggings. Her legs are long and stick-thin, her feet magnified in clunky black boots. Twin pinpoints of hazel color land on me and her chapped lips stiffen in disappointed acknowledgement.
Naomi used to be my best friend. I used to be an art geek like her. Things change, I tried emailing her, almost apologetic. I don’t remember what she replied back with, but it probably wasn’t something I’d want to recount.
Aimee Adams taps me on the shoulder, her aura a cloud of bubblegum and strawberries. “You know what I think is funny?”
I shake my head slowly, glass-straight hair flopping over my shoulder. “What?”
She tips her chin towards the man in a blue police uniform, clutching a microphone. He probably prefers to be called “burly”, but it’s quite clear he’s long past his glory days. “That people care about Kramer now because he’s dead,” the school’s Queen Bee laughs into my ear.
It sends a chill down my spine, but I don’t let any of the shock at her awful comment show on the outside. I let my gaze slide over back to Naomi, where she sits next to some French exchange student and doodles in a leather sketchbook. I gave it to her two Christmases ago, before Aimee whisked me away to popularity.
Aimee leans back, tugging on her cardigan. “It wasn’t like he was cool gay, you know? Then it wouldn’t have been so gross.”
She’s careful to keep her voice hushed, but I’m still paranoid. The whole reason why the police officer is here centers on what my friends did to him day in and day out, even when the school doors closed. I’ve heard they could get in serious trouble if anyone told the cops that they had a role in Kramer’s death, even if they weren’t the ones that pulled the trigger.
“I never understood why you bothered him anyway…I mean, he was just some random loser,” I manage, careful in my word choice.
Aimee raises two perfectly plucked eyebrows in surprise. “He just wasn’t one of us. We had to remind him.”
My painted nails crumple the pamphlet we were forced to accept at the assembly and surreptitiously toss it into a nearby recycling bin while meandering through the halls with Aimee. Students part like the Red Sea for us, and shoot us inquiring glances. Everyone knows what we did to Kramer, they’re probably wondering if the truth will slip and one of us will get into trouble.
“My God, that d*** thing lasted forever.” Jules De Luca materializes out of the crowd and falls in step with us. Her glossy lips crack into a grin and she flips us her pamphlet. “Brady is so funny though.”
Aimee glances at the piece of paper, and laughs. From the corner of my eye, I can see the ink scratches resemble letters, and those letters resemble words like, “Huge H*m*.”
“Even dead he won’t leave us alone.”
Underneath the words is a little caricature of Kramer. I know it’s him because it’s got Coke-bottle glasses and a dress shirt. Sometimes he’d even wear a tie to school, and that tie has been distorted into a noose. His eyes are heartless “X”s.
“Oh my God,” Aimee guffaws breathily. “Brady’s hysterical.” Jules tucks the pamphlet into her acid-wash jeans (which ride low on her bony hips) and shoots me a smirk. Like everyone else in Aimee’s original inner circle, she doesn’t think much of me. Respectfully, I stare down at my black Converse. A smudge is all that remains of a smiley face on the white toe part, where Naomi drew it on with Sharpie.
Someone wraps an arm around my waist. The smell of Axe washes over me and I’m looking up into the face of my boyfriend, the school’s Golden Boy quarterback. Brady Posner.
“Hello ladies,” he nonchalantly muses, slipping effortlessly into our conversation. He shoots a sideways glance towards the burly police officer, who’s out in the hall conversing with teachers. “This whole investigation thing is bull, Xavier Kramer is dead and nobody cares.” Brady kisses the top of my head and squeezes me. The burning sensation of others watching me reminds me to put my own arm around him, despite the fact a bruise on my hip throbs painfully from the way he’s holding me.
Brady apologized and over and over, but there really was no point. I knew I was going back to him.
Aimee nods, wrinkling her nose disdainfully as we pass Naomi and the other art enthusiasts congregated at my former friend’s locker. “You look like a godd*** plum,” she calls out casually, and to any passing teacher the cute wink and playful grin would easily convince them that she and Naomi are friends.
Naomi frowns. Underneath my side-bangs, I swallow and try to communicate that I’m sorry. She sighs, her cocoa-colored forehead furrowing as she turns back towards Mimi Chan. I catch words like “Seattle Art Museum” and “Picasso”.
There’s an exhibit about Picasso making its rounds. I secretly want to see it, but not with Aimee. She’d snicker at his artwork and make fun of how the ladies’ boobs are all triangular.
“I never understood why you hung around people like her, Lainey,” Aimee sighs glibly.
Brady chuckles. Jules rolls her eyes in disgust. Jules and Brady dated last year, and when you date Jules it’s more than just hand-holding and kissing. De Luca knows that’s my status with Brady, and doesn’t understand why he won’t leave me.
I wonder if he ever hit her.
“What the h*** is this?” I demand, prodding the mass of green my older sister plunked down on my plate.
“Spinach,” Eve replies tartly as she sets the porcelain bowl on the table and slumps across from me. She glowers over her square, DKNY specs. “You should be thankful I’m making dinner.”
“Just stick some frozen stuff in the microwave, I’m not eating this.” I push my chair back from the table and grab my plate, making a beeline for the sink.
I can hear the angry clink as Eve stabs her overdone chicken. “You’re such a baby.”
I get nauseous at the thought of how many calories the chicken has. Maybe the spinach isn’t that bad after all. Oh well, I’ll just have a cup of yogurt. Yanking the fridge open aggressively, I push aside a jug of milk and some cream cheese noisily.
“What am I going to do with all this stuff I cooked?” Eve demands, frustration threatening to bubble over and implode like Mt. St. Helens.
I locate a yogurt and slam the fridge door shut. A few alphabet magnets peel off and land in a sad clutter at my feet. “Eat it yourself,” I grumble, plucking a spoon from a drawer and pounding up the stairs. The clock on my bedside glows green; 6:06. Aimee’s having a house party on account her parents are in Peru for business (they run an import/export company). Even though she’s grounded (“For, like, life”.) she’s invited well over half the school to the family’s estate. She thinks it’ll be a nice distraction from the general shock of Kramer’s death. A few beers can wash anything away she says.
I sneak out my bedroom window and slide down the gutter to freedom at around 9 o’clock. If Eve knew I was leaving for a party she’d shackle me to my bed and have a written police report stapled to my forehead for Mom and Dad to see, for when they come back from a Boston business trip.
Astoundingly, Eve has a few fashionable articles of clothing. The fishnet stockings are hers, as are the high-heeled boots. It’s a bit chilly to wear them, especially since I’m walking to Aimee’s without a coat. I cut across the neighbor’s blueberry bushes and stumble along a gravel path leading into the town’s high-end housing complex.
Aimee’s house is enormous and ostentatious compared to mine, with a gazebo and four-car garage. Some potheads lounge on the manicured front lawn, minds a smoky stupor. They offer me the bong; I wrinkle my nose and march towards the front door. Twisting the knob, I’m allowed entry.
The floor seems to vibrate, music pounding through every particle in my body. Girls are looped around the stair banister, clutching cups of frothy beer and exchanging sparkly, glossy secrets behind bejeweled fingers. Boys are sprawled out in the kitchen, playing Quarters or chugging down their own drinks. In the substantially-sized living room, the stereo trembles with music and people gyrate to the beat. I catch sight of streaky blond hair, Aimee’s. She’s not one for boyfriends, more like random hook-ups. The eleven notches in her bed headboard are one for each boy. Maybe it’ll be twelve by tonight.
My heels clicking against the linoleum, I wander lackadaisically into the kitchen. The shiny appliances sparkle in tastefully selected lighting, and I search for Brady’s familiar face. I spot him out on the gazebo, laughing with a few friends. Keith Wendell passes him a cigarette and my boyfriend wraps his lips around the stump of glowing orange. I always thought Brady was cute, but never to the point where I seriously considered dating him. It’s not that I don’t like him; I do. I know he loves me, no matter how hard he hits me. He always apologizes, gives me random acts of romance to make up for it. These reminded me of you, a bouquet of wildflowers from the side of the road. You look like a princess with this on, a sparkly, red feather hairpiece to hold my hair in place. Even these don’t taste as sweet as you, a small box of designer chocolates complete with a kiss.
I step out onto the backyard lawn. Don’t you ever listen? Screaming in my ear, ringing that won’t go away for hours. Shut up! Swollen lips, fear pounding in my chest. You cocktease, shame burning in my throat.
I’m not the only one he hit. I remember he punched Kramer in the stomach so hard the boy fell and wouldn’t get up, even after Brady and his friends ambled down the hall. I remember he slammed Kramer against a line-up of lockers so ferociously a small dent was left. I remember he said he’d rather be dead than be like Kramer.
“Hey, baby.” Brady wraps me up in his strong arms, muscled from football and wrestling.
“Hi,” I whisper, sinking into his lap. Wanting to drown out the memories in my head, I grab the neck of his Mike’s Hard Lemonade and take a generous gulp. It almost spurts back out of my mouth, but I force myself to swallow.
The party dies down, but a good amount of people remain as we approach midnight. I say I’d better go home, or else Eve will kill me. Brady tells me he’ll drive me home, Jules shoots me a venomous glare over his beefy shoulder.
Before we exit out the front door, Aimee stumbles up to me. Her low-rise pants and crop top show off the reason why she’s grounded, a small butterfly tattoo. Buzzed, she slurs hysterically, “This whole Kramer thing’ll blow over…no one even cares. We’re all having a great time anyway.” She giggles, before almost tipping over. Jaden Pratt catches her, and eases her upstairs. Another notch.
I shudder at her word choice as I climb into the passenger seat. Brady sees that and leans toward me, concerned. “Are you cold?” he asks, cupping my chin in his thumb and finger.
I shake my head. “No. But, I can’t believe how people still hate him. Even though he’s dead…it doesn’t stop does it?”
It’s a mistake. The warning sign flashes clear in my head but I still blaze on despite Brady leaning away and groaning, “Lainey…”
Our breaths are making the windows fog up. The injustice of everything bubbles up, and I blurt out, “He never did anything to us specifically. I mean…he was gay, so what? So he was a bit of a nerd, so what? Everything about him…you…we…everybody tore apart…”
Before I know it, there’s a loud cracking noise that I realize is the sound of Brady’s hand striking me across the face. My head snaps against my shoulder. I open my mouth to cry out, but Brady lunges across the gearshift and grabs me by the neck, slamming me against the foggy window. His whole bodyweight is on top of me, crushing me into the leather seat. I can’t breathe, and I helplessly claw at his wrists.
“Why are you feeling sorry for Kramer all of the sudden?” His gray eyes pin me as much as his hands and I stop struggling. “When we whaled on him, you never said anything before.” He loosens his grip, and I suck in a desperate gasp of air. “If you say anything to the police…Keith, Aimee, me, and Jules…all of us including you could get in trouble!” Brady gives me one last shake before letting go. I’m sobbing now, and fumble for the car door handle. I end up sprawling out on the driveway and scraping a hole into the fishnets, but it’s better than being stuck in that d***, constricting car.
“Where the h*** are you going?” Brady demands.
I’m crying so hard I can’t say anything, but even he knows I’m not riding home with him when I push myself to my feet and stumble off into the darkness.
I crawl in through the back door in the kitchen and fly up the stairs into the bathroom.
He’s never hit my face before. My lip is split, and I can tell there’ll be an enormous bruise on the left side of my face tomorrow morning. Make-up is smeared over the swollen skin. I look like a monster. I feel like a monster. It’s true; I never did anything to help Kramer when my “friends” whispered things behind his back. Or hurt him so bad he bled.
“Lainey?” Eve emerges in the doorway. Her hair is messy, and her eyes widen in shock. “Oh my God, Lainey what happened?”
I start sobbing again. Sinking onto the lip of the tub, I hold my head in my hands and try not to scream. “H-h-he…h-hit me...,” I manage, choking on the words.
“Brady?” she asks, kneeling in front of me.
I nod as a tear slides down my cheek and over my lips. It tastes salty, so salty. I tell her about Kramer, about wanting to do something when they did hurt him but not having the courage. Wanting to tell the police now, now that they pushed Kramer to the point of no return. I also tell Eve that I’m scared, of what people will think of me. What the police will do to me.
My sister was never one for heart-to-hearts. To my utmost shock, Eve reaches up and brushes a strand of hair from my face.
“Lainey? Do Kramer at least one good thing and tell the truth,” she whispers, holding my gaze without flinching.
I can sense the students staring at the purple splotch on my face. No matter how many packs of ice I pressed against it, it still decided to turn into the most atrocious shade of violet there is.
Naomi’s first period is history. I ignore the whispers raging through the classroom as I flop into the chair next to her and manage to articulate, “Hi,” despite the fact my cheek feels like it’s about to burst into flame with every syllable.
When she looks up I can see rage burning behind her eyes, but it melts into shock when she sees the bruise on my face. Her charcoal smeared fingertips fly to her mouth, and she whispers, “Oh my God.”
That wasn’t exactly the reaction I was pining after, but I guess it’s better than her telling me to go away. I shrug as I push a lock of hair behind my ear, then reach into my hoodie pocket and produce a pair of Seattle Art Museum tickets to the Picasso exhibit. Waving the pieces of valuable paper in front of Naomi, I ask shyly, “So, are you up for it?”
She sighs, twisting her leather cord necklace. “I heard about the police thing.” A sour taste fills my mouth, and I feel the need to fidget. “You did the right thing though, telling them. You’re not in trouble are you?”
I swallow and set the tickets on her desktop, flicking aside eraser crumbs. “No, thank God. I…I did feel better afterwards though. It felt like maybe Kramer could get some peace.”
Naomi nods, her eyebrows coming together. “So are Aimee and them in custody?”
“They were told it’s best if they stayed home from school.” I twist my beaded bracelet, digging the elastic string into the skin on my wrist. “I don’t how I’ll ever face them.”
Naomi (former best friend? current?) hugs me. “We’ll face them together,” she promises, and my heart dares to swells with hope.