Girl on Point
Copyright © 2017 by Cheryl Guerriero All rights reserved.
First Epub Edition: April 2017
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Red Adept Publishing, LLC
104 Bugenfield Court
Garner, NC 27529
Cover and Formatting: Streetlight Graphics
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
For Mom & Dad
And in loving memory of Janice…
I remember standing in a checkout line at ShopRite when I was fifteen years old. I’d run in, exhausted from a full day of school plus two hours of basketball practice, to grab some milk and eggs for my mother while she waited in the car. In front of me in the self-service line was an older woman, maybe in her thirties or forties. She had shiny black hair and smelled of perfume. Clutched in her manicured hand was a fistful of coupons and ShopRite’s yellow plastic basket piled with cosmetics and shampoo.
I sighed. I still had hours of homework to get through, a book report due at the end of the week, and apparently, I had pissed off my best friend, Lea, by not inviting her to a party I had no control over. I didn’t; even want to go that stupid party.
The woman must have felt my frustration or heard my heavy sigh because she gave me a great big smile. We ended up talking, and I’ll never forget how the conversation ended. I asked her if life gets easier as you get older.
The woman looked at me with a kind smile. “Actually honey, it gets a bit harder.” She walked up to the available kiosk.
I stared after her. Please tell me you’re lying.
That was two years ago.
Tonight, my thick brown hair is tied back in a ponytail. My arms are slick with sweat as my polyester shirt clings to my over-heated body. My legs are exhausted, yet they keep moving. I glance up for a second, and I’m met with a gymnasium full of screaming faces. The crowd, mostly black teens and some rowdy adults, cheer as the girl I’m guarding bullies her way into the key. I’m our team’s power forward, and at five-foot-five, I’m small for my position, especially compared to my opponent. She has tree trunks for legs, muscular UFC arms, and is at least two inches taller than me. I block a pass to her, and for that, I get an elbow in my rib cage. I hit the floor, and the foul goes uncalled.
“Call the foul, Ref! Call the foul!” Coach Prudenti yells, his size-thirteen dress shoes wearing out the sidelines.
I’ve been taking a beating all game. The referee doesn’t seem to care or notice. We were supposed to get blown away in this game, but we are winning by one. I rise from the floor, and the bully shoots and misses. Sounds of disappointment echo. It’s deafening in this small, sweltering gym. Lea, tall and beefy—she would kill me if she heard me say that—and having a remarkably solid game, bravely jumps into the fray as their Amazon center captures the ball like it’s a small animal and easily lobs in a two-pointer.
The metal bleachers hum as a cluster of teens in baggy jeans and knit caps stomp their enthusiasm. Their rubber-soled sneakers pound the metal seats in sync. It’s an impressive sound, a sound you won’t find in our white, middle-class, suburban gym. This is Cantor High School East’s home court, all black, except for the white, six-foot-two Amazon at center. They’re ranked third in the state and usually our toughest game of the year. Tonight is especially difficult.
Our point guard fires the ball to me, and the bully claws her hand in for a steal. Her jagged nail catches the skin on my forearm. I ignore the pain and bring the ball in close. This girl is suffocating. I feel her hot breath on the back of my neck as I pivot to escape. She holds onto me, locking her arm into mine. I wait for a foul to be called. Again, the whistle is silent. What’s this referee’s problem?
Finally, I pull free, and the bully comes at me again from behind. The anger inside me boils, and without even thinking, I reel back with my elbow and connect hard with her nose. A whistle immediately sounds, and play is halted. The gymnasium erupts in noise. I ignore the shouts from the fans and watch as the stunned bully throws a hand to her nose. Drops of red fall through the cracks of her meaty fingers, sprinkling her jersey. I notice a small splatter of blood hitting the top of her white Nikes. Her teammates hold her still while a towel is rushed to her nose. Eventually, the bully is escorted off-court, and blood is wiped from the lacquered wood floor.
The referee points to me. “Number 15! Unsportsmanlike conduct! Two shots!”
Coach Prudenti calls a time-out, and the crowd boos me as I walk off-court. It’s not the first time I’ve been booed, but it’s the first time I’ve been booed for making someone eat my elbow. Honestly, I don’t feel bad for what I did. She played dirty the entire game. She elbowed me at least three times in the ribs, not to mention grabbing my shirt every chance she got. I had enough. If the ref wasn’t going to protect me, I was going to end her.
“We don’t play to their level! You got that, Alex?” Coach lays into me.
“Yes, sir.” I bow my head and slouch my shoulders like a scolded child. Everyone knows I have a temper. Coach has been saying for years one day it’s going to get me in trouble, but I don’t think it’s today, or rather tonight, because he keeps me in the game and takes out Amber.
“Jenny, you’re in!” He points to my sister.
I throw my arm around my sister as she jumps into the pile. I love when Jenny comes off the bench, not just because she’s my little sister and I want her to do well, but because she’s hungry, dependable, and quick.
Coach draws a diagram. “Jenny, I want you to drive the girl to her weak hand. Lea, once she does, step up and double-team. We want her to pass. Alex, give your girl some room. Down below, keep on ‘em tight! Got it? Twenty seconds! You can do this!” We all nod, pumped and excited. “Hands in! Hands in!”
We pile our hands on top of one another and scream, “DE-FENSE!”
Our team waits while their point guard takes her first of two free throws, compliments of my bad temper. She bounces the ball once, twice… then throws up a brick. Disappointment echoes. She makes her second shot, and the gymnasium explodes. They’re winning by a point.
Seconds later, the ball is back in play. Jenny does exactly what Coach told her to do and forces the point guard to go weak. The girl dribbles like a caged squirrel, looking to waste the twenty seconds left on the clock. Lea helps out on a double team, and I ease off my girl in hopes of intercepting a bad pass. I see my two other teammates glued to their opponents. I’m jacked up on adrenaline as the clock ticks down from nineteen seconds… eighteen seconds… fifteen seconds… My heart is pounding. We need the ball! Just then, Jenny dives in for a steal like a little monkey. Her nubby fingers tip the leather and send the ball spiraling free.
Lea turns blindly and accidently blocks the point guard from recovering the ball. It bounces toward the sideline, and I sprint toward it. There is something about a loose ball that I absolutely love. At the very last moment, I pluck the ball from the sideline’s edge and head down court. Jenny races to catch up. I hear Lea cheering me on. “You got this, Campbell!” The point guard is hot on my back, fueling me to go faster.
I have seven seconds to get down court. Seven seconds to hit the baseline and go in for a layup. I know the second I do, this chick is going to clobber me, so I go up strong, really strong. And she does exactly what I expect. She follows me in the air, her body pinned alongside mine, her sweat getting on my arms and shirt. I focus above her head and above her flailing arms. I zero in on a spot outlined in red and tucked in the upper right corner. I’ve done this a million times. The adrenaline is such a rush. It’s such a high. I release the ball off my rolling fingers. It hits the spot and bounces back down—sinking the winning point!
My teammates’ screaming, smiling, sweaty faces bombard me. Lea is so big she practically knocks me over. I grab Jenny and slap a wet kiss on her face. She hates when I do that but not tonight. Tonight, she is happy. Tonight, she screams so loudly my ears ring. Coach Prudenti and Coach Sheehan, a tall, good-looking dude barely out of college, meet us on the court, proud. Our excitement slowly dies. I wish it would never end.
“A’right girls, line up. Shake their hands,” Coach tells us before he and Coach Sheehan walk off to do the same with the opposing coaches.
I watch as the crowd exits the bleachers in a hum of activity. Their team may have lost tonight, but we gave them a great show. As we line up to shake hands with the opposing team, the player whose nose I bloodied refuses to shake mine.
“Bitch! I’m gonna kick your ass!”
Fortunately, her coach reels her in and makes certain she keeps her hands to herself. I head off to the locker room with my teammates, thinking I’m going to get jumped, but nothing happens.
Our euphoric mood continues in the locker room, and I’m all hyped up.
“Making friends again, huh, Captain Campbell?” one girl says.
“What are you laughing at? She was picking on me all game.”
“Oh, my poor big sister,” Jenny teases, hanging on me. “Wait till John finds out.” She mocks Dad’s voice.
“Hey—winning basket. Don’t get all jelly and jam on me.”
Jenny shoves me. “You’re such an idiot.”
“I’m just glad I didn’t have to play against her,” Lea says. “Jesus.”
“I’m jus’ stoked your cute little badonkadonk blocked that girl from gettin’ the ball.” I slap Lea’s bare butt.
“Yeah, you’re all welcome.” Lea wiggles her butt before walking off to go put on clothes.
I pull off my uniform and step into a shower stall. Most of the girls don’t shower after games, and I’m usually one of them, especially in this place. It’s crawling with crud, but I have a date with Jay, so I quickly rinse off. When I step out, Jenny is waiting for me, rocking out to a song on her iPhone. She’s such a dork but a fun dork. She always looks happy. I envy how comfortable Jenny is in her own skin. I’ve never felt comfortable in mine. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s my anger.
“Hurry up, ya big ho!” she yells at me.
“Hey, go get me a Dr. Pepper from that store.” I dry off with a towel.
“What store?” She pulls the buds out of her ears.
“The one across from the school. When we pulled in. Amber just left with Cait. You can catch up to them.”
“Go get it yourself, Miss Five-Finger-Discount.” She side-eyes me.
“Hey!” I look around to make sure no one heard. “I haven’t done that in a while.”
“It’s true. C’mon… do it for your big sis? Pleasssse? I’d do it for you.”
“Pfft. You would not.”
“I would too. Here. You can get something for yourself.” I bait her with a ten-dollar bill that I wave in front of her face. “C’mon, lil’ squirrel… lil’ squirrely rabbit. You can keep the change.”
Jenny snatches the dough from my hand. “Fine! You’re so slow!” She throws her ear buds into place and screams at me. “Take my bag!”
Her #2 sports bag rests at my feet. “Yeah, I got it. Now go!” I wave her away. She blasts the iPod and takes off. It sounds like Katy Perry.
“You two are so weird.” Lea appears behind me. “Hey, have you seen my lucky hair band? I can’t find it.”
After a five-minute search for Lea’s lucky hair band and then discovering it in her hand, we exit the locker room together. I’m in jeans and a sweater under my favorite puffy blue winter jacket. My hair is still wet, and I’m lugging both Jenny’s #2 sports bag and my own as I listen to Lea yap about how Amber gets on her nerves.
By the time we enter the gymnasium, it’s devoid of both people and noise. The emptiness and silence of this old, stale gym leaves me feeling like a scared, lost five-year-old girl. Even with Lea yapping at my side, it’s as if I’m all by myself. It’s a lonely, familiar feeling and one I hate. It usually gets triggered at the end of the summer when the weather changes, it gets darker earlier, and the “back to school” campaigns are all around. But every once in a while, like now, it hits me in the gut and has me vibrating with a terror that I am unloved, unwanted, and alone in this world.
We hear voices. Apparently, we’re not alone because tucked in the corner of the bleachers is a group of teenagers hanging out. The white Amazon center is one of them. She’s still in her uniform and is smiling as if she doesn’t have a care in the world. She notices us, and her smile seems to grow.
“Hey, 15! Number 15!” a very dark-skinned teenage boy says, speaking to me. “My boy wants to know if you’d go out with him!”
“Yeah, Number 15! That shit was cool!” The boy stands up in excitement and imitates my elbow smashing backward. He’s razor thin and not very attractive. His hair is wild and curly, and he looks like he’s only five feet three. “I like how you play, girl!” He falls off the bleachers and struggles to stand, clearly wasted. His friends laugh. Lea stares at them as if they are circus freaks. She picks up her pace as we near the exit. I stare back at the center, wondering why she’s still smiling.
We step into the cold night air, and a vicious wind slaps our faces. I pull my jacket close and lower my chin into it.
“Christ! It’s freezing!” Lea clenches her teeth.
We hurry along the graffiti-tagged building. It’s creepy and dark, and I don’t exactly feel safe. A few students linger by their cars, but most are gone. It’s too cold to stand outside. We fight our way against the wind and cold. I peek up from my jacket and see our bus. It’s parked along the curb, less than fifty feet away, but in this weather, it feels like a million miles. From behind, I hear heavy bass. I turn and see a tricked-out car slowing down as it approaches. From inside, a group of male faces stare out at us, their heads covered by knit caps. My shoulders relax when the car speeds out of the parking lot. Another car chases after it. Each step toward our bus seems to take forever. I should’ve worn a hat.
A few feet ahead, a Honda with a dented bumper and a thick cloud of exhaust spewing from its tailpipe crawls to a stop in front of us. It takes me a moment before I realize the girl in the backseat is the bully whose nose I bloodied. And that’s when the passenger door pops open, and a girl who looks exactly like the bully, but shorter, steps out. A second girl exits from the driver’s side. They follow after us. Or rather, me.
“Hey, bitch! Where you going?”
I look toward our bus, hoping Coach will see us, but his back is facing us as he talks to someone I can’t completely make out. Lea quickens her pace. She’s never walked so fast in her life. If I’m scared, Lea’s petrified.
The bully’s sister catches up to me, and my heart begins to race.
“Gonna throw an elbow? Throw it now, bitch!”
She walks right alongside me, eyeballing me closely and waiting for me to do something. I fear any second, she is going to punch me in the face. But I keep walking, hiding my fear and trying to pretend this brute is not beside me.
“We don’t want any trouble,” Lea says, barely audible.
The ugly sister and her friend laugh.
“Hey, ladies!” a male voice calls. I look back and see Coach Sheehan running toward us.
“Thank God,” Lea says.
Coach Sheehan is at our side within seconds. “Let it go, girls,” he says to the bully’s sister and her friend. “Game’s over.”
The bully’s sister responds with a middle finger. “Fuck you!”
“Another time, a’right?” He places his arms around Lea and me and escorts us safely toward the bus.
The window of the car rolls down, and the bully, who no longer holds a towel to her nose, yells, “Bitch! Next time you’re dead!”
My heart is still racing when we reach the bus.
“Thank God,” Lea says. A burst of fog rolls out of her open mouth, and she thrusts down the zipper of her heavy coat. I know she secretly loved Coach Sheehan coming to our rescue. She is constantly telling me she thinks he’s hot. Coach Prudenti, seeing what just happened, eyes the bully’s departing car with concern as it vanishes down the road, leaving a wake of burning rubber.
“Everything okay?” Coach Prudenti asks.
“Yeah, it’s fine,” Sheehan says.
Coach turns to us. “Good game tonight, girls.”
“Thanks.” Lea happily boards the bus.
Coach puts a hand on my shoulder. “Watch those elbows. Okay, Alex?”
“Yes, sir.” I look him straight in the eye this time. Then I enter the bus, grateful to be welcomed in by its warmth and loudness.
The lights are off, shrouding my rowdy teammates in shadows. I scan the seats for Jenny and sigh heavily when I can’t find her. I’m jonesing for my Dr. Pepper. “Jenny!” I think I see her head in the back when Lea pulls me into a seat next to her. The windows are fogged from all the breathing. I drop Jenny’s bag and zip out of my heavy jacket.
“Oh my God. We almost got killed!” Lea says, being her overly dramatic self.
“¡Eres una reina del drama!” I say.
“What? English, por favor.”
“I said you’re such a drama queen. ¡Ay, Dios mío!” I throw my head back and place a hand over my heart.
“Well, I do like telenovelas.” She blows a super large bubble in my face, and I pop it with my finger. “Hey!” She sucks it off her lips.
I laugh and glance around the bus for Jenny. She’s certainly taking her time.
Amber sits across the aisle, eating pretzels. “Awesome playing tonight.”
“You too,” I say, lying. It wasn’t one of her best games. “Hey, do you know where Jenny is?”
Amber points to the rear of the bus, where the noise is even louder. “I think she’s back there.”
I look, but I still don’t see Jenny. Instead, my eyes land on a few sophomores who sit in the middle seats sharing potato chips and drinking sodas. I get lost watching them. This will be the last year I ride in this crazy, fun-filled bus. Don’t get sad, I tell myself. A loud pop grabs my attention. It sounds like fireworks.
“Was that a gun shot?” someone asks.
All eyes turn toward the fogged windows. I wipe at the glass and see a shadow of a car speed away from the store. I wonder why its headlights are off.
“Quiet!” Coach Prudenti yells as he also looks out the window.
Lea asks me a question.
I don’t hear her. I move into the aisle. “Where’s Jenny?”
The bus driver enters from the outside. He exchanges a few words with Coach Sheehan. Again, my eyes frantically search the bus.
Lea watches me. “What’s wrong?”
“Jenny… she’s not on the bus.” My hand pinches the leather seat, and with each face I look at that is not Jenny’s, the air becomes harder and harder to breathe. I start to panic. “Has anyone seen my sister?”
I spin around, push to the front of the bus, and Coach Prudenti stops me from exiting. “Let go of me!” I fight like an animal until finally I’m able to break free of his grasp. I run out of the bus and sprint across the street, insane with fear. The store is a small brick building with a dirt parking lot.
“Alex! Alex!” Coach Prudenti chases after me.
I don’t slow down. I burst open the heavy glass door. Please, God! Please! Let Jenny be okay! I scream inside my head. A male body, in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, is face down on the floor, arms spread to the sides, a pool of blood spreading out from underneath his cocked head. Coach Prudenti enters behind me.
“Call 9-1-1!” I yell.
He tries to hold onto me. “Alex!”
I throw his hand aside. Cigarettes and candy litter the floor. I race down an aisle. “Jenny!” I scream. Boxes of household items surround and suffocate me. I beg Jenny to answer. Please, God! Please!
I turn the corner, and my heart stops. Jenny lies on the ground, looking right at me with a petrified stare. And that’s when I see it—a blossoming circle of red on the front of her white jacket. I bolt toward her.
“I’m here! I got you!” I kneel down beside Jenny. She grips my arm, and her hands are covered in blood. “It’s okay! I got you!” I gently remove the plugs of her iPod, which are still trapped in her ears. I hear Coach on his phone, yelling out our location. “Hurry!” I scream. Jenny’s skin is pale and cold. She is clearly in shock. Coach hangs up the call and carefully opens Jenny’s jacket. Her game shirt is drenched in blood.
“An ambulance is on the way. You’re gonna be okay,” he says in a shaky voice. He pulls off his sweatshirt and holds it over her wound. Jenny screams in pain and cries as Coach tries to keep the blood from escaping.
I hold her hands. “You’re gonna be fine!” I promise her. But Jenny’s frightened eyes make me doubt my words. She looks so small and scared.
“You’re doing great, baby. Hang in there,” Coach says.
Please, God. Help my sister!
“Alex…” she whispers, fighting to breathe.
I hold her eyes. “I’m here. You’re gonna be okay. I promise.” I force my lips into a smile and choke back my tears, trying to keep the fear from registering on my face. I start to babble, hoping it will keep Jenny calm. “You played so great tonight. We wouldn’t have won if it weren’t for you. It wasn’t Lea’s big ass that made me get that ball. It was you.”
She almost laughs, and I see the faintest smile emerge on her lips.
“One of your best games. And next year… next year you’re a starter… no doubt.”
On the ground is a Dr. Pepper bottle, and I hate myself for it.
“You’re doing great, Jenny,” Coach repeats.
But she isn’t. She looks like chalk. Like a ghost. Her clothes are covered in blood. I wonder where the hell the ambulance is. What is taking so long? But only a minute or two has passed. I kiss Jenny’s head. “I love you.”
Then Jenny shivers in pain and struggles to breathe. Her gaze holds onto mine.
I cry. “Jenny, you fight! You fight!”
She grips my hands, desperate. Her eyes beg me to do something, but there is nothing I can do. I feel so helpless. So fucking helpless!
“Jenny, please don’t leave me! You fight… hang on.” I cradle her in my arms like I did when she was two and I was four, pretending she was my own child. I kiss her cheek. “Love you, mean it…” I say those words over and over. “Love you, mean it…”
Tears drip from my eyes. Chin. Mouth. They drown me. I shake my head no. I pretend this is not happening. But Jenny’s body remains still, and for what seems like forever, I stare into my sister’s beautiful blue eyes. I feel Coach’s hand on my back. A strangled cry rises from my throat. I scream a horrific “No!”
There will not be a next year.
My iPhone alarm goes off, and I open my eyes, already dreading the day. I try to ignore the endlessly chirpy sound until, a minute later, I surrender and sit up in bed. I silence the alarm with a swipe of my finger. I hate mornings. Mornings are the absolute worst. I think mornings are the worst for anyone, but add a dead sister, and they become ruthlessly unbearable.
I squirm to the edge of my bed, and as soon as my bare feet touch the hardwood floor, I’m paralyzed. A tingle of icy air blows onto my unpolished toes from an open vent a few feet away. Whether it’s fatigue or depression, I’m tired, so I take a moment to rest. I’m surrounded by purple, a color I regretted picking out as soon as the paint hit the walls. Above my head is a fish net. Other than that, my room is pretty bare. I stare at a photo of Jenny and me on a dresser. She’s smiling as if to say, “You idiot.” I sigh and remain in place until the thoughts in my head get so punishing that the only way to escape them is to move.
I push off the bed and get moving, but it does little to help me escape the feelings buried inside me: pain and sadness—two unwanted guests that follow me everywhere I go. To the bathroom. To school. To where I’m crowded by others. Or when I’m alone. They never leave, and I desperately want them to leave. I desperately want Jenny to be alive. But she is gone. And I am here. And here hurts.
It’s been six months since Jenny died. She was shot with a .22 caliber gun. The store clerk was killed with a different gun. His name was Jose Gutierrez, and he was married and had two small children. Their deaths were ruled homicides during a robbery.
I grab a bottle of Zoloft off a dresser and pop open the lid. I’ve missed most of the second half of the school year and have been on antidepressants since Jenny’s death. I swallow one of the little blue pills without water. I don’t think these antidepressants help because each step I take feels like a thousand pounds.
I walk past my parents’ closed bedroom door and step into the bathroom. Things are so much different than they used to be. Before, when I woke up, Jenny would already be in the shower, door locked, music blasting. I’d have to pound on the door for what felt like forever before she’d open up to let me in to pee. Our mother, who probably won’t get out of bed any earlier than noon today, would’ve already had coffee with my dad, sent him off to catch his train into the city, and made our lunches for the day. Then ten minutes before Jenny and I needed to leave for school, Mom would start yelling up to us from the kitchen that we were going to be late. Now the house is painfully quiet without even the smell of coffee to keep me company.
I wash my face, brush my teeth, and in less than five minutes, I’m wearing my usual school uniform—jeans and a white tee. I head straight from my bedroom, down the stairs, and out the front door. It isn’t until I’m driving away in my Jeep Wrangler that I realize I’m wearing two different Converse sneakers.
I arrive in the school’s parking lot, and every spot is taken, except for a narrow one at the very end of the first row, facing the football field. It’s too tight for anyone, except if you drive a Jeep, so I wheel over the curb and park halfway in the spot. I grab my backpack and head toward the entrance door closest to my first-period class.
Another kid running late tosses open the glass door, and I trail in behind him. I pass rows of lockers. Hanging above my head is a huge white banner with orange lettering, which reads Congratulations, Seniors—You’ve Made It! I turn the corner, and a herd of faces rushes past me. I’m surrounded by voices and laughter. A gym teacher smiles and asks me how I am.
My token answer is always “good.” I am anything but good.
A bell rings, and I’m seated in my Advanced Spanish class. The teachers have been taking it easy on me since Jenny’s death. Sometimes I complete my homework, and sometimes I don’t. They politely ask me to finish. But I never do, and they never ask again.
I pay mild attention as our Spanish teacher, Mr. Reddick, scribbles a bunch of numbers and words onto the blackboard in perfect alignment. He wears a bright-red button-down shirt with a tie and shiny loafers. Finished, he places the chalk on his desk and addresses the class. It’s a semi-privileged bunch of seniors. Most own iPhones, iPads, and expensive handbags and drive cars that their parents paid for. Some have jobs, others don’t, but everyone, with the exception of maybe me, is going away to college.
Jay is in this class with me. He’s a big guy with broad shoulders, and he used to bargain shop at T.J.Maxx. It closed, and now he shops at Marshalls. He hates to pay full price, but mostly it’s because, unlike every other spoiled kid in this class, Jay’s parents don’t pay for anything—car, phone, nothing. The poor guy even has to fork over his own dough to buy himself lunch. He rubs his kneecap and stretches out his ginormous leg. Jay was the starting shortstop of our high school baseball team until he tore his ACL. I see him watching me. He knows I’m depressed and wants to help. But he can’t save me. No one can.
Mr. Reddick tells the class that the final exam will be in two weeks. “Chapters Eleven through Fifteen and everything from the first half of the year,” he says in Spanish. Moans follow.
Tyler O’Connor, a ridiculously smart stoner with tats, speaks up from the back row in English. “Aw, come on, can’t you give us a break?”
Mr. Reddick smiles. “No one’s going to give you a break in college, now are they, Mr. O’Connor?”
Tyler responds with a roll of his eyes. You’d never know it by looking at Tyler, but he got into Yale.
Forty-five minutes later, the bell rings. The class rises and hurries to exit. I’m still sitting at my desk, slowly gathering my books. Jay waits for me by the door.
“Jay, you coming or what?” His best friend, Reed, a guy he’s known since he was eight years old, yells at him.
I take my time, grateful when I see Jay follow Reed. Moments later, I walk out of the classroom and into a less-crowded hallway. Carly Williams, one of the more popular band geeks, hammers away on her iPhone, head down, while others I don’t recognize scroll through Instagram and Twitter. The thought of going on either one makes my stomach turn.
I keep walking, and the hallway empties. A few pounding feet carry students into classrooms. I approach the room I’m supposed to be in—Advanced Chem. My teacher, Mrs. Cohen, stands outside the door. “How are you, Alex?”
“Good.” I walk past her and take my seat.
I ditch school an hour early and speed out of the parking lot, dreading what awaits me at home. My mother has gotten drunk every day since Jenny’s death. Her drinking was never unusual, but it was reserved for weekends. Now, I can’t remember the last time my mother took a sober breath.
I drive down Monmouth Road, a pretty, tree-lined street, passing modest homes, a few white-steeple churches, and a quaint little post office. Middletown isn’t a wealthy town, but it’s a respectable place to live. My favorite part about it is that the nearest beach is only fifteen minutes away, and it only takes an hour to get into New York City by train. My mother used to say it’s a place where you can leave your doors unlocked at night, even though we never did.
Most of the time growing up, I found Middletown boring. I suffered from what I like to call “anywhere but here” syndrome. I often fantasized about escaping Middletown by flying away on my bicycle and traveling through the clouds and landing somewhere exciting like the mountains of Alaska or on a horse ranch in Montana, someplace vastly different from this ordinary suburban town—unless, of course, I was playing sports. I never wanted to escape then, maybe because sports occupied my mind so well or maybe because they made me feel good about myself. Either way, if I really think about it, I’m not too sure Middletown was ever the problem.
I turn off Monmouth and onto Harmony Road. Soon, I am driving down our street. I’m grateful none of our neighbors are outside their homes as I pull into our driveway and park directly in front of the basketball pole. My dad put it up when I was in the sixth grade and Jenny was in fourth. It reminds me of Jenny, but then again, everything reminds me of her.
Our house is like all the others on our block: double-storied with three pillars. However, unlike most of our neighbors, we have an in-ground pool in the backyard, and our lawn is immaculate. There is not a weed to be found or a shrub untrimmed. My father is relentless in the yard. I think it’s his way of escaping—to keep moving, to keep fixing things. The roof. The hedges. The lawn. The pool. Anything that keeps his mind occupied.
I enter the house and drop my keys in a ceramic bowl. Above the bowl are little wooden signs that read Welcome and Home is Where the Heart Is.
My mother likes country prints and potpourri in the bathrooms, everything I hate. My mother and I couldn’t be more opposite in our tastes. She conceded to my father, Jenny, and me and allowed a large plasma screen TV in the living room. She called it her reading room. However, three against one won out, and the den became her reading room. As I pass through the living room, I try not to look at the walls covered with family photos.
I escape into the kitchen and pour myself a glass of tap water. Our kitchen is spacious and gets lots of sunlight. It’s painted pale yellow and filled with gaudy country knickknacks. A large island takes up the center. It’s cluttered with unopened mail and small prescription bottles—a mixture of painkillers, sleeping pills, and antidepressants—all labeled with my mother’s name: Mary Campbell. My mother never so much as took three Advil in a day. Now, she is a middle-class suburban junkie.
As I drink the water, I wander toward the refrigerator. It’s covered in papers, reminder notes, magnets, and more family photos. One of Jenny and me holds my attention, taken from last Halloween. We’re dressed as pregnant nuns. Jenny wears a goofy smile, pretending to be drunk, while I hold a large makeshift joint in my hand and pretend to be stoned. I try not to slide deeper into depression as I stare at the picture. But it swallows me. The depression, the sadness, they drown me. My eyes land on a basketball schedule. Ws are marked all throughout. And one L. We lost against Manalapan High School. I was sick that day. There are check marks along the games we played. Toward the bottom, I see “Cantor High School East—Away.” It is unmarked.
I want to rip the schedule off the refrigerator and tear it into a million pieces, but I don’t dare. My mother would explode in a fit of rage. Nothing has been touched since Jenny’s death. I hear the jingle of metal tags and see Duke heading my way. He must’ve been sleeping upstairs.
His big, handsome German-shepherd face makes me smile. I drop to the ground. “Hey, buddy. Hey, handsome.” He mopes over to me, tail wagging. “How are you, my beautiful, handsome boy?” I cuddle up into his strong furry body and smother his snout with kisses. We got him at the pound when he was a little over a year old. How anyone could have abandoned him, I’ll never know. He’s the sweetest dog. “You’re so handsome. Yes, you are.” He plops down on the floor, his big paws sprawled across my legs. I run my hand across his soft, furry head. God, I love this dog.
For weeks after Jenny’s death, Duke wandered aimlessly in and out of her bedroom. I felt so sad for him. How do you explain to a dog someone he loved died? He used to sleep in Jenny’s bedroom, but after growing tired of searching for her, he started sleeping in mine. Last night, he was suspiciously missing. I think my mother forgot to let him back in after she let him out to pee.
“You wanna treat?” I move his big paws aside and stand up. I open a pantry closet, which seems very empty compared to how it once looked. The shelves used to be stocked with cans of green beans, corn, peas, tomato paste, tomato soup. You name the can, we had it. My mother, much like Jay, was a bargain shopper, and every time ShopRite had a “can-can” sale I had to go with her to lug several cases of cans into the back of her Lexus SUV. But now, the empty closet seems as hollow I am.
I grab a box of large Milk-Bones and walk back to Duke, who sits up. He knows the drill. “A’right, big dog… top dog. Gimme a paw.” Duke obeys by throwing his massive paw into the palm of my hand. “Good boy, Duke!” I place two large milk-bones into his open mouth and quickly pull away my hand. He chomps down like Jaws, his tartar-stained teeth sending bits and pieces of Milk-Bones flying.
I walk over to the back door to see if his bowls are full. There’s not a drop of water or a scrap of food in either bowl. I grab one off the floor and fill it to slopping over with water. I shut off the stainless steel faucet and hear another pair of footsteps in the kitchen. Before I even turn around, I feel my mother’s intense energy behind me. I can also tell she’s been drinking, or rather, I can smell she’s been drinking. I turn and face her.
“Where’s your father?” my mother asks without even a hello.
I shrug. “I don’t know. I just got home.”
“He was supposed to be home early.”
“Yeah, well, you know Dad.”
I place Duke’s water bowl on the floor, and I notice mud caked onto the sides of my mother’s white socks. I don’t even want to know how that mud got there.
I stand back up and wonder if my mother’s showered today. I doubt it. She’s wearing the same clothes she had on last night. And her hair, which never before had a single strand out of place, is greasy and unkempt. The roots on her otherwise blond, highlighted head are an inch deep, begging to be touched up. My mother used to look young for forty-six, but since Jenny’s death, she looks remarkably older. The wrinkles around her mouth and eyes seem to have increased.
Duke licks a few remaining Milk-Bone crumbs off the floor and descends on the water, lapping it up with his big tongue and creating a small puddle on the floor.
“He needs a bath,” my mother says and walks out.
I stand there, feeling even more alone and depressed.
An hour later, I’m slumped into the living room couch watching some mind-numbing TV show with Duke sprawled beside me, his big paws hanging over the edge. That’s usually a no-no with my mother, but I doubt she’ll even care or notice, unless of course, she’s looking to take her anger out on me. I hear my father’s Audi pull into the driveway, and so does Duke. His ears perk up, and he jumps off the couch to greet him at the door.
A moment later, my father walks into the living room. Duke is at his hip, tail thrashing. “You ain’t so tough.” My father roughhouses with Duke, who barks relentlessly. He gives Duke a solid pat on his back, letting the dog know the game’s over. He tosses his briefcase down on the table in front of me.
“Hey, kiddo.” He kisses the top of my head. “How was school?”
“Yeah. So did work.”
“John, I thought you were getting home early?” My mother appears from upstairs. Her hair is no longer greasy, and the dark roots are less noticeable. She wears a navy-blue blouse and jeans. In her hand is her Coach purse.
“I got tied up,” he says.
“We’re late. Let’s go. Please.”
My father is barely allowed a visit to the bathroom before we are rushed out the door. I dread where we’re going.
We load into the Audi, and Dad clicks on the radio, setting the volume at a level just high enough to fill the silence. Twenty minutes into our ride, we arrive at the New Jersey Turnpike entrance and head south toward Cantor. My stomach drops like a barbell hitting the floor as the small white E-ZPass device that is stuck to the Audi’s windshield is read, and an electronic sign flashes “Go!”
I stare out the window. If only I had gotten my own damn soda. I feel tears coming on. I force them back and beg God to take away my pain. But nothing happens. I’m convinced God has me on mute.
Almost two hours later, my parents and I sit on hard padded chairs in a cramped office. We’re surrounded by cinder block walls as fading sunlight drifts into the room through dirty vinyl blinds. I look across at my mother. Her blue eyes are dull, drugged, and filled with tremendous pain. My heart hurts, knowing I caused this pain. We didn’t always see eye to eye, my mother and I. In fact, most days, we didn’t get along. Most days, we fought. Jenny was the one who made her smile. Jenny was her baby. My mother, I’m convinced, barely even liked me.
Initially, the girl whose nose I bloodied was suspected in the shootings. But aside from threatening me, she didn’t kill anyone. Less than a mile from the high school, her sister’s friend was stopped and ticketed for speeding. I know this because of Detective Thoms, a white middle-aged man with short black hair peppered with gray and arms much bigger than belong on his five-foot-eight frame. We’re sitting in his small cluttered office. Trapped beneath his meaty fingers is my sister’s case file, a thick, unbound manila folder, filled with pages of notes and photographs. I stare at the folder, desperately wanting to examine it myself.
We’ve visited Detective Thoms twice before, and upon my mother’s insistence, we’re here again. She wants the detective to see us. She wants Detective Thoms to know the pain and torture this causes our family, the injustice we suffer while those who are responsible for my sister’s death are free and living. We’re living, but we’re not free.
Those who are responsible—or so we are told by Detective Thoms—are members of a local street gang, all female, and for fear of us or the store clerk’s family going to the media, or evidence being tainted or someone taking justice into their own hands—something I’ve often fantasized about—he is unable or unwilling to disclose the gang’s name. There are several gangs in the Cantor area, but one in particular that Detective Thoms suspects murdered my sister. He has arrested these girls before for loitering, breaking and entering, vandalism, possession of drugs with intent to sell, and assault and battery. Because of their ages, they were sent to juvy. Now, they’re older. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, except for the youngest who’s seventeen. Detective Thoms believes this gang committed the crime, and there’s evidence to back him up, but mostly, it’s his gut, and his gut can’t arrest these girls.
Detective Thoms was hoping the store’s security tape would be recovered. It hasn’t been, and he repeats what he’s already told us. “Without the store tape, there’s no solid evidence.”
I see the veins in my mother’s neck bulge. She raises her voice. “I don’t understand. You have tire prints from a car. You said there was gun residue on a girl’s hand. You should be able to do something!”
Before Thoms can answer, another plainclothes officer pokes his head into the room. His head is shaved bald, and his arms are covered in ink. He apologizes for interrupting and tells Thoms he needs to see him. Thoms nods. “Give me ten, Rawlings.”
Rawlings disappears, and I can’t help thinking this interruption was planned.
Thoms returns his attention to my mother. He looks at her, sympathetic. “Mrs. Campbell—”
“Mary. Not Mrs. Campbell.”
Detective Thoms nods. She’s done this to him before. He goes on to tell my mother what she already knows, what we already know. And that is on the evening of the murder, a police officer acted prematurely when he brought one of the girls in for questioning. A swab residue test was administered on the girl’s hands and clothes, but no warrant was ever obtained to perform the test. The officer didn’t even read the girl her rights, making whatever results found from the test inadmissible in court. What hurts the most is that trace amounts of primer were found on the palm of the girl’s left hand, indicating a gun had been fired. But when they searched her home, no gun was ever found.
My father remains silent, and I wonder what he is thinking as Detective Thoms explains, as he did on our last visit, that without the murder weapon and admissible gun-residue evidence, a defense attorney could easily create reasonable doubt. He also reminds us—not that he needs to—two guns were used in the shootings. The autopsy report showed the caliber bullet found in Jenny’s body was different from the three slugs pulled from Mr. Gutierrez’s body, indicating there were two shooters.
“What about the second gun?” my mother asks.
Detective Thoms sighs, and it’s hard to tell if it’s from his own frustration or lack of patience in dealing with my mother. “Mrs… Mary. Neither gun has been recovered, and unless prints or DNA were on the weapon, it wouldn’t be convicting evidence that this particular girl shot your daughter.”
“Murder,” my mother corrects him. He nods, and she continues her interrogation. “But you know it’s this gang?”
“I’m confident. Yes. The car helps, but still we can’t arrest these girls. At least not yet.”
As for the car, Detective Thoms doesn’t need to retell its story. I know that inside that manila folder is a photograph of a charred 2009 Thunderbird. The screeching I heard and the tire tracks left on the roadway were from this type of automobile. Thoms knew by heart that the leader of this female gang drove a 2009 Thunderbird. Unlike the other police officer, Thoms did obtain a search warrant and went to her house. Unfortunately, nothing of substance was found, particularly not the gun used in Jenny’s shooting. When Thoms brought the girl in for questioning, she claimed her car was stolen two days prior to the robbery. Yet she never reported it. Weeks later, it was found in Philadelphia. It had been stripped and set ablaze.
“We’re keeping a close eye on these girls, and most likely, we’ll be able to bring them in on some other charge.”
My mother’s eyes grow wide with rage. “I don’t want them brought in on some other charge. I want them arrested for killing my daughter!”
Detective Thoms’s hands move off the folder. “We’re doing all we can.”
I see a coffee stain on the folder, which contains the details of my sister’s death. She was shot and killed. She was only fifteen. The folder has not even been kept clean. It was used as a coaster.
My mother stands to leave. She hurls obscenities laced with “incompetence” and “civil law suits.” She is hysterical. She searches for her purse. It is right in front of her, but she doesn’t see it. My father awkwardly hands it to her, and she leaves without us. An uncomfortable silence is left in her wake.
Detective Thoms barely flinches. He looks across his desk at my father. “I’m sorry. I can assure you, Mr. Campbell, these girls are being watched closely. Justice will be served.”
I don’t believe him. I picture Detective Thoms reclined in his chair, drinking his morning coffee. It hurts to see that stain on my sister’s folder. I wonder if it was an accident, callousness, or slobbery. Whatever the cause, it’s there. It makes me want to scream and punch my fists through the wall.
Detective Thoms stands to walk my father and me out the door. I take my time, stopping to tie my sneaker, and my backpack falls off my shoulder. I hear Detective Thoms’s voice drift away as he and my father leave the room. Seconds later, I stand inches from Thoms’s cluttered desk. I look down and see my sister’s name on the folder’s tab: Jenny Campbell.
I know inside that folder are the names and addresses of those responsible for my sister’s death. My heart begins to race, and before I can think twice, I grab the manila folder off his desk and stuff it in my backpack.
My mother doesn’t say a word as my father and I join her in the car. She sits in the passenger seat, staring out the window, her eyes red and swollen. I’m grateful she is silent. I click on my seat belt and rest my head on the leather, relieved to be out of that police station and tucked safely in the back of my dad’s car.
“We’ll get through this, Mary. We’ll be okay.” My father turns on the engine and looks at my mother.
I think he says it more to convince himself. The truth is, we won’t be okay. We will never be the same.
We drive off, and the police station grows small in the distance. I wonder if Detective Thoms has noticed the folder is gone. And if he does, does he suspect I took it? I don’t care if he does. How would he prove I took it? There weren’t any cameras in his office, and he didn’t see me take the folder, just like he didn’t see those girls shoot and kill my sister. But he knows one of them did.
As we head toward the New Jersey Turnpike and back to our home, I stare out the window as a parade of poverty flashes before my eyes. Cantor is just one big cesspool, a suburban ghetto. The sidewalks are littered with trash. The stores are dirty, run-down, and tagged with graffiti. The skyline is a landscape of dilapidated and abandoned warehouses. There are homeless men and women on just about every corner, pushing shopping carts, riffling through garbage, or simply taking up residency along the buildings. I watch as one woman practically buries herself in filth searching for a can to add to her collection.
We turn onto another street, and suddenly, we are in a more residential area. But these homes look nothing like the ones in Middletown. They are two-story brick buildings, surrounded by chain-link fences and rotted brown lawns. Farther ahead, I see a tall stack of ugly apartment buildings clustered together. I notice at least two girls, no older than me, holding small children. Nobody appears to have a job.
Cantor, as I have discovered, thanks to Google, has one of the highest crime rates in the country and is one of the poorest cities. I stare angrily out the window. This is where people get by on food stamps and welfare checks. This is where statistics on single teenage mothers soar. This is where one out of every two adults is functionally illiterate. And this is where those responsible for killing my sister reside, in this neglected shit hole, centered in the good old Garden State.
Almost two hours later, my parents and I are in a different world. It’s dark when we pull into our driveway and empty out of the car. Each of us is silent, lost in his or her own depression and grief. My mother looks like a zombie as she leads the way to the front door.
“You okay?” Dad moves alongside me and places a hand on my back.
“Yeah,” I lie as we enter the house together.
I escape into my bedroom with Duke and lock the door behind me. Downstairs, I hear ice cubes hitting glass as my mother fixes herself a drink. Down the hall, Dad has retreated into his bedroom to change out of his suit and tie and probably wish this day were over. I wonder what he’s thinking. Unlike my mother, he keeps his emotions a secret.
I zip open my backpack and yank out the folder. Colored photographs fall to the floor, some matte, some glossy. They’re pictures of what I assume used to be a 2009 Thunderbird. The only thing that remains is a blackened frame and four knobs of burnt rubber. I come across photos of the convenience store and quickly put them aside. I don’t have the stomach to look at those.
I rifle through the contents and pull out a mug shot of a girl whose hair is pulled back tight against her head. Her eyebrows are pencil thin, and she looks anything but friendly. Her eyes are cold, vacant, and accented with layers of dark makeup. She looks as if she is staring right at me. A cold shiver crawls up my spine. On the back of the photo, scribbled in pen, is her name.
Lori Silva. 22 Oak Street, Cantor, New Jersey. Gang affiliation: Black Diamonds. Age: 20.
A report stapled to the photograph lets me know that she’s the owner of the Thunderbird and also the leader of the Black Diamonds.
There are several pages of notes from different detectives, and what I read doesn’t exactly surprise me. It’s a criminal resume, heavy on violence. Lori Silva’s first arrest was at the age of eleven when she stabbed a boy, almost fatally, with a pair of scissors. There are hints of abuse and neglect in her upbringing with no mention of a father and numerous stints in juvy. From there, it lists her association with the other Black Diamond members: Cynthia “Cracker” Down, Ronnie Rodriguez, Natice Gentry. Various male names are also listed: Vince Martinez, Tray Brown, George Lutz. Gang bangers probably. Drug dealers. My stomach grows nauseated as I read.
I move on and pull another stapled photograph from the folder. It’s of an extremely beautiful black girl. Her nose is thin, and her cheekbones are high and defined, almost like a model’s. She looks pissed off at having her picture taken. I flip up the photograph and read the name on the report paper: Natice Gentry. It lists several arrests for shoplifting and breaking and entering and one for an assault on a high school teacher.
I find a packet of information on Cynthia Down. She’s the youngest of the group and apparently a high school dropout. Her skin is pasty white and speckled with dark freckles. Her hair is frizzy and an ugly bright red. She has thin lips and an elfish nose. Her narrowed green eyes smirk, as if to say, “Fuck you.” I flip through the pages that follow, and I’m met with a long list of criminal activities.
There are no photographs of Ronnie Rodriguez, although her name is listed in a police report as being a member of the gang. I read the handwritten notes scrawled throughout the pages.
Lori Silva—at home from 7:45PM ‘til midnight. Mother incarcerated at the time—prostitution, narcotics. Mark Silva—ordered pizza at 8PM. Large pie. Confirmed with shop. Lori Silva—claimed car was stolen two days prior—at home during time of shooting. Passed polygraph. Mark Silva—confirms Lori Silva’s car missing. Stated Lori was at home residence, 22 Oak Street. Time coincides with time of shooting.
Gun residue—Down girl acted suspicious when officer stopped and questioned her. Interrogation—confirmed watching Game of Thrones at residence of Lori Silva. Officer acted premature in polyvinyl-alcohol (PVAL) collection of gun residue. Results: Positive. Trace amounts of primer found on left hand.
I feel as if I’m going to vomit. I take a moment before I read my account of what happened. I remember when they took it I was in a state of shock. I was covered in Jenny’s blood.
Alexandra Campbell. Age: 17. Could not identify make or model of automobile. No identification of driver. No determination of male or female. No determination of number of occupants in car.
I remember trying. It was all a blur of darkness. I had no idea. I wasn’t paying attention. I hate myself for it. I hate myself for not getting my own fucking soda!
The phone next to me rings. It’s a plastic Wonder Woman phone. The receiver is cradled in her gold lasso. It’s connected to our house landline. It was a gift from my parents when I turned thirteen. In Jenny’s room is a Princess phone. She got it when she turned eleven. Wonder Woman rings a second and third time then goes silent.
When I finally emerge from my cave and head to the bathroom, my mother paces back and forth in front of her bed as my father tries to calm her down. Apparently, she’s drunk and is going off about the police being overworked and understaffed and incompetent and that our governor is going to hear from her. But I can tell something else is bothering her.
She catches my eye.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Nothing.” My father clearly does not want to get me involved.
“Detective Thoms thinks you stole the case folder.” My mother holds my stare. “That was him on the phone.”
I feel my face grow red and think for sure my mother knows it’s true. Duke wanders into the hall, and I stop him from walking past and pet his head. The truth is, I’ve stolen a lot of things. And my mother knows this. It started out innocently enough. When I was in fifth grade, we were shopping in Target, and I picked out a pair of earrings that I liked. I shoved them in my pocket only because I was too lazy to carry them. When we got to the checkout counter, I totally forgot to give them to my mother. Later, she found them in my jeans. “I could’ve been arrested,” she said. “Next time, give them to me to hold.”
Later, when I got into middle school, my mother would sometimes find bottles of nail polish and brand-new lipsticks hidden in my room. She knew neither she nor I had paid for them, and I’d get grounded for a week. Sometimes, though, I’d feel so guilty on my own, I’d return the items to the store within a day. It was more for sport anyway. I never even used the nail polish. I gave those bottles to Jenny.
It was when I stole the soccer ball that Jenny caught on to my little klepto habit. It was stupidity, really. It had another girl’s name written on it. I hadn’t planned on keeping the ball. I simply wanted to borrow it for the long holiday weekend, but my mother found it and made me return the ball without ever saying I took it. My father, of course, wanted me to return it with an apology. But my mother overruled him. “What’ll the girl’s parents think of us?”
From that day on, every new item that came into my possession was thoroughly questioned and scrutinized. If I had to think about it, I’d say my stealing was the only time my mother paid any attention to me.
But this time, for whatever reason, my mother doesn’t accuse me of stealing. Maybe it’s because she so desperately wants to put the blame on Detective Thoms for failing to arrest those girls. Or perhaps it’s just her level of denial. Whatever the reason, my mother doesn’t wait for a response from me. She threatens to sue Detective Thoms and the rest of those “fucking assholes!”
My mother never used to curse.
“He’s an idiot,” I chime in, kicking at a piece of dust circling the hardwood floor.
My father watches me, and I wonder if he suspects it’s true. He puts a hand on my shoulder and tells me to get some sleep. When I return to my bedroom with Duke, I hide the case folder between my mattress and box spring.
That night, not unlike many other nights since Jenny’s death, I’m unable to sleep. Around three in the morning, I hear my mother visit Jenny’s bedroom.
Why did Jenny have to die? And why do I have to be here without her?
Before Jenny’s death, I never understood suicide or why people attempted it. It’s the pain. The reason for the pain doesn’t really matter. You just want the pain to end so badly that you’re willing to die.
I meet with Dr. Evans once a week. I truly love Dr. Evans, and the only relief I ever feel is when I’m sitting in his office. He’s the most popular counselor and one of only three black people in our high school. It was recommended I go to a grievance group after Jenny’s death. I refused. So here I am, sitting with Dr. Evans. The first couple of times I visited with him, I said nothing. So he told me stories about himself.
When Dr. Evans was eighteen years old, he was driving back from a Bruce Springsteen concert at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, the home of the New York Giants. He said he was with a group of friends, and his younger brother was in the backseat. His brother had wanted to get home an hour earlier, but Dr. Evans had stopped to chat up a girl in the parking lot. He said it took him thirty minutes before the girl finally wrote her phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to him.
“Back then we didn’t have cell phones.”
He said they were a mile from their house when a drunk driver slammed into his car. His brother was killed instantly. Dr. Evans told me he wished he had gone straight home after the concert. He shared his guilt and the hatred he had for himself and for the drunk driver. He said every day he plotted to kill the guy and probably would have if the court had released him from jail. It was his fourth DUI in a year. Eventually, the man was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Dr. Evans said when he returned to school, a teacher had told him, “Things happen for a reason.” He told me he punched the teacher in the face and had to be pulled off him. For months after, he said, he was filled with hate and rage. He wanted to kill everyone, including himself.
That was how Dr. Evans got me to open up. We talk about my recent visit to the police station, minus my stealing the case folder. I voice my guilt, and Dr. Evans tells me, as he has a million times before, “It wasn’t your fault, Alex.”
I say nothing. I can’t stop thinking that if I had not asked Jenny to go to the store, she’d still be alive.
“How would you treat Duke if he had sent Jenny into that store?”
“Yup. It’s Duke, right?”
“Would you not feed him for weeks? Never give him water? Yell at him every day? Beat him with a leash?”
I know exactly where Dr. Evans is heading with this. “I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do. I want you to think about this as if it were Duke who sent Jenny into that store to grab him… say, Milk-Bones.”
I crack a smile. This is ridiculous.
Dr. Evans stares at me hard, waiting for me to answer. “I’m not letting you out of this, Campbell. I want an answer. Would you hug him? Love him? Forgive him? Or would you regularly beat the shit out of him? Because that’s what you’re doing to yourself.”
I sigh. “It’s easy to love Duke. He’s sweet.”
“No, I’m not. Ask my mom.”
“I’m not asking your mom. I’m asking you. You gotta put down that bat, slugger. Be kind. Be loving. I want you to treat you, Alex Campbell, just how you would treat Duke. Can you do that for me?”
I exhale a long breath. “I’ll try.”
“Pretend it’s a sport, and the goal is to not beat yourself up every day. Okay?”
I nod my head. “Yeah.”
We move on from my guilt, and Dr. Evans asks me if I’ll be attending the University of Virginia in the fall. A few months before Jenny’s death, I got an acceptance letter in the mail with a partial athletic scholarship. I was planning to attend, but I changed my mind. Dr. Evans hoped I’d reconsider. I haven’t.
“Your dad thought maybe you’d still go to basketball camp this summer.” Dr. Evans speaks to my dad regularly. Dad’s worried about me. He’s got one daughter dead and me, who’s alive but no longer living. “What do you think?”
“You can’t, or you won’t?”
“So how are you sleeping?”
“Yeah? Why don’t you tell me how you’re really sleeping?”
I’ve been having nightmares ever since Jenny’s death. Most of my nightmares are filled with blood, and I wake up screaming. But this most recent dream was much different. It happened the night after our last visit to the police station. I dreamt I was at the convenience store in Cantor, looking in through a cracked glass window. I saw a group of girls taunting the store clerk. I couldn’t make out their faces, but they wore knit caps, jeans, and big winter coats. I entered the store, and when I looked down at my hand, I was holding a gun. The next thing I remember from my dream is waking up next to a ringing phone. I heard my mother’s voice as she answered the line from her bedroom. It was Detective Thoms calling to apologize. He said he wouldn’t be able to arrest the girls on some other charge. He said they had been murdered.
“In my dream, I shot and killed those girls from Cantor.”
“How did that make you feel?”
Our time expires, but I don’t want to leave. The truth is, I never want to leave Dr. Evans’s office. But I force myself to stand, and as I get to the doorway, Dr. Evans says, “Alex, you still have my number?”
“You ever need to talk—middle of the night, early in the morning—you use it.”
Dr. Evans is afraid I’m going to kill myself. The truth is, I would kill myself if I knew it wouldn’t cause my parents further pain. Or destroy Duke. I would take a bottle of sleeping pills and never wake up.
Later, I head to my Jeep with Lea. She’s frenetic, talking nonstop. She tells me her latest Amber-hating story, which has to do with Amber not paying her back for booze Lea bought. “The ho drank most of it.” Lea rolls her eyes. I half listen, and when Lea finally stops flapping her gums, I ask her why she even hangs out with Amber if Amber annoys her so much. Her response is classic Lea. “Because we’re friends. Duh.”
We pass a group of girls, and Lea yells out to them to see if they’re going to some party that week. The girls holler back that they’ll be there. “Hell, yeah. For sure,” one of them says, her perfect white smile glaring at us. They all look the same to me. They all have long, straight hair, and they all wear tiny shorts and sleeveless tops from stores like Forever 21 and American Eagle. They’re the nonathletes Lea and I are friends with, and overall, they’re okay. Lea often dragged me out to party with them. But I’m so disconnected from everyone today. I can’t imagine ever hanging out with those girls again.
As we walk to my Jeep, I think about where we’re going. Not only didn’t I tell Dr. Evans that I jacked the case folder, but I also didn’t tell him that I know where the Cantor girls live, and today, I’m doing a drive-by of Lori Silva’s house. I made the mistake of telling Lea, and she blackmailed me into taking her. She said if I didn’t, she’d tell my dad. I didn’t want to take the chance that she’d actually do it. So I agreed.
We climb into my Jeep, and Lea asks me whether I think Reed likes her or not.
“Sure, he’ll like you for a night.”
She shoves me. “Thanks!”
I smile, and this causes Lea to do a double take. I don’t smile much these days. We shut the doors to my Jeep, and suddenly, she’s conscious of what we’re about to do.
“You sure you want to do this?” Lea asks.
“I’ll take you home if you don’t want to go.”
“No. I want to go.”
I hang on Lea’s last word. It reminds me of what I said to Jenny right before she left that locker room. It reminds me of what I wish I hadn’t done.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this.” Lea stares at me as if we’re both nuts.
Before I can chicken out or change my mind, I program the GPS on my iPhone to 22 Oak Street, Cantor.
“Aren’t you afraid?” Lea holds onto the strap of her seat belt and shivers, despite the warmth.
“No.” I don’t care if I live or die. I really don’t. I turn the ignition and head out of our high school’s parking lot. The female voice on the GPS directs me to the New Jersey Turnpike entrance, even though I know how to get there by heart, and in less than fifteen minutes, we are en route to Lori Silva’s house.
Lea’s lips haven’t stopped moving the entire ride. She’s no longer scared and is now worried she’s getting fat. I refrain from commenting. Lea’s a binge eater, perhaps even bulimic. I brought it up to her once before, and she didn’t speak to me for a week. She goes on to tell me how lucky I am that I can eat anything I want, and I don’t get fat. I wish I’d never agreed to take her. She’s exhausting and self-absorbed. If I were a lucky person, my sister wouldn’t be dead.
The female voice on the GPS is mostly silent until over an hour later when we arrive at the Cantor exit. I pay the six-dollar toll with cash, and the female voice directs me to “turn right” and then “turn left” as we journey back into this armpit of a town. Poverty, filth, and desperation linger on every corner. Lea grows nervous and promptly locks her door. I don’t think it will do much good if someone really wants into this Jeep.
We stop at a traffic light, and I notice a group of teenagers hanging out on the corner. The guys wear baseball caps and low-hanging jeans. The girls are in microskirts and tops that show off their stomachs. I hear words spoken in a mixture of Spanish and English. One girl playfully pushes her friend as another guy laughs. Then they spot us, and one thing is for certain—two white girls in a blue Jeep Wrangler don’t belong in this neighborhood.
“Baby, you lost? I think you lost,” one guy yells out with a thick accent.
The girl who pushed her friend focuses on Lea. “What you lookin’ at, Snow White?” She laughs.
Lea turns to me. “Alex, I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“It’s fine. It’s daylight,” I say, even though I know it doesn’t matter in this ‘hood.
Another guy yells something at us in Spanish. I’m not quite sure what he said, but I stare at him, feeling nothing. No fear. No panic. Nothing. The light changes, and I drive off. In the rearview mirror, I see the guy face his friends. I turn off the main road and onto a less-populated street. We pass a car propped up on cinder blocks in a front yard. One more turn, and halfway down the block, the female voice says, “You’ve arrived at your destination.”
I drive past a numberless house and park on the opposite side of the street. I keep the engine running as Lea and I stare at Lori Silva’s house.
“Okay, we saw it. Let’s go,” Lea says, as if expecting us to be shot.
I keep staring at the house. Tall, mangy bushes obscure the first-floor windows. Patches of shingles are missing from the roof—a few lie on the weeded front lawn—and paint peels from all sides of the house. I notice a small backyard surrounded by a chain-link fence, and leading up to a warped wooden garage door is an empty, potholed driveway. The house looks abandoned.
It feels weird and slightly frightening to sit in front of Lori Silva’s house, knowing that she had something to do with my sister’s murder. I picture her inside, watching some crappy TV and laughing with her criminal friends. I think about Jenny being dead and her being alive, and I grow angry. I think if I owned a gun, I would walk up to that house right now. I would knock on that front door, and when Lori Silva answered, I’d kill her. I’d shoot her a hundred times over. And then I’d go to Cynthia Down’s house and each one of these Black Diamond girls’ homes, and I’d kill them. Just like Charles Bronson. Just like Angelina Jolie. Just like every other vigilante in any movie I have ever seen.
I think about all this, and for the first time in what feels like forever, I’m not sad or lonely or depressed. I have a reason to live.
Lea’s voice wakes me from my rage-induced stupor. “Alex, can we please go home now?”
Almost two hours later, I drop Lea off at her house. She exits, thanking God. I say goodbye, and a short time later, I pull into my driveway. My father is already home. I know this because I can see his Audi parked inside our open garage.
I enter the house and go straight to the kitchen. Duke’s face stares at me from outside the screen door, begging to be let in the house. I pop open the door, and he heads for his water dish. I hear my mother’s shrill voice upstairs, and I know something is wrong.
I walk up the stairs, and as I approach my sister’s bedroom, I see my mother inside. She is still in her pajamas and is manically pulling clothes from Jenny’s closet and shoving them into a large plastic garbage bag. My father stands in his suit, helplessly watching.
The rest of Jenny’s room is exactly how she left it. Her bed is unmade. Stuffed animals are tossed all about, along with some clothes, a hairbrush, several pink ribbons, and a bra. My sister was girly, but she was also a slob. Tacked to the walls are Polaroid photographs of her friends, posters of her latest boy obsessions, and pictures of a few favorite NBA players. Her desk is cluttered with more photographs, the Polaroid camera, and a Mac computer. On a nightstand is her Princess phone.
“Mary, let’s go downstairs,” my father pleads.
“No! Let’s forget we had a daughter!”
“That’s not what I meant. I just want us to try to move on with our lives.”
“You move on with your life! Move out! That’s what you want!”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“At the police station! You said nothing!”
“What could I have said, Mary? Tell me!”
“Nothing, like you always do. Just say nothing. Just fucking sit there!”
My mother turns and sees me standing in the doorway. Her face burns hot red. The whites of her eyes are doubled in size, full of rage and deep in wrinkles. She clenches her teeth, and every muscle in her face looks ready to explode. “Why did you have to send her in there? You’re so fucking selfish!”
My father grabs my mother’s wrist, and for a moment, I think he’s going to hit her. His face is red. His eyes bulge. He shakes my mother violently. “Enough! Do you hear me? Enough!”
My mother pulls free and crumbles to the floor. A horrific sound emerges from her lungs. She weeps openly on the floor, and it’s unbearable to witness. My father stands above her with tears in his eyes. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what to say.
I stand frozen in the doorway, thinking I caused all of this. I have to leave. I have to get out of this house. Tears blind me as I race down the stairs. I bolt out the front door, escape into my Jeep, and drive away.
I speed through our beautiful neighborhood and down Monmouth Road. I focus on a tree, a car, a telephone pole—anything that will put an end to this pain. I want to crash head on into all of it. Up ahead, a traffic light changes from yellow to red. I think about not stopping and flooring the gas pedal, but a hint of sanity returns, and I slam on my brakes. My Jeep burns to a screeching halt. My seat belt slaps me back into the leather and back into a reality I desperately want to escape. The smell of burned rubber fills my nostrils. I sit there, wishing I were dead. And when the light changes to green, I am still sitting there.
Horns sound behind me. Cars drive past. Dirty looks are thrown my way. I do not move, and I do not care. The driver trapped behind me angrily blasts his horn. I hold his stare in my rearview mirror. Give me a reason to hurt you, and I will. Give me a reason to step out of this car and kill you, and I will. If only I had a gun.
Suddenly, my cell phone rings. It’s Lea. But for a second, when I looked, I wished it were Jenny. I have wished it a million times before. The phone rings, and I check the screen, hoping to see my sister’s smiling face. But her face no longer appears. It never will.
There is a loud knock on my window. It’s the driver of the car trapped behind me. His eyebrows are furrowed in anger. He’s about to yell at me when he sees my face. It’s pained and streaked with tears. His eyes soften. “Are you okay?”
I pull away and drive around aimlessly for hours. My father calls several times, but I ignore the phone.
When I finally pick up, it’s after nine o’clock at night, and my father immediately apologizes for my mother. “Honey, she didn’t mean what she said. Your mother isn’t well.”
My father tells me that they’re at Monmouth Medical Center, where my mother has been admitted to the psychiatric ward. He says that she won’t be home for a while.
When I finally visit my mother in the hospital, she is barely conscious of the fact that I am even there. I hardly recognize her as the woman who raised me. She peers at me through lithium-fueled eyes. “My beautiful baby is in heaven. I’m going to write to the governor’s office. Every day. I’ll make sure he gets involved in your sister’s case. That son of a bitch is going to do something! I refuse…” Every word that spews from my mother’s angry lips has me drowning in sorrow. I listen, nod, and silently pray that she will stop talking. My own rage bubbles up inside me like bile rising in my throat. I want to scream, “Will you please stop talking!” But I remain quiet.
By the time I leave the hospital, I just want to fall asleep and never wake up. I pull into our driveway and shut off my Jeep. I have no idea how I even got home.
Lying in bed, I can’t stop thinking about those girls who murdered my sister. My brain won’t quit. “Lori Silva’s car was set on fire…” Evidence. “She was at home watching TV.” Evidence. “The gun was not located.” Evidence. “The store tape has not been found.” Evidence. “Her brother, Mark Silva…” Evidence. “Gun residue…” Evidence. “Some other charge…” Evidence. I can’t help thinking about something my mother said. We rarely share the same opinion, but I don’t want these girls arrested on some other charge. I want them in prison for killing my sister. Or I want them dead.
I reach under my mattress and pull out the case folder. I flip it open, and staring right at me is Lori Silva’s mug shot. I don’t have to find Cracker’s or Natice Gentry’s picture to be reminded of what they look like. Their faces are etched in my memory. I know exactly what these girls look like, and I know exactly where they live, including Ronnie Rodriguez. I wonder what they do during the day and how they spend their nights.
I grab my laptop, open it up, and do something I haven’t been able to since Jenny’s funeral. I click onto Facebook.
I type in “Lori Silva” and hit return.
It doesn’t take me long to discover the Lori Silva I want dead has an account. It’s marked private, but I’m at least able to view her profile picture. She looks just as mean as her mug shot, except in this photo, she’s blowing a kiss to the camera while hugging on some extremely unattractive dude. I check to see who liked her picture and discover two out of the twenty-one people who liked it are Cracker—literally it’s Cracker, not Cynthia Down—and Ronnie Rodriguez.
I click onto Cracker’s profile pic, and it’s a selfie of her flipping off the camera. Her account is also set to private, but I’m able to see a few cover photos. One that was updated right before last Thanksgiving is of her and a bunch of busted-looking guys who all look wasted. There’s another one from three years ago that shows her lying on the ground surrounded by trash. Someone holds a sign above her head that reads, “White.”
Ronnie Rodriguez’s profile picture is of a cute baby girl, maybe a year old, wearing a polka-dot dress and a big, happy, toothless smile. I click on the photo, expecting Ronnie’s page to also be private, but it’s not. It’s public! My heart races, and I go nuts stalking her page. I check out her most recent posts and find one or two photos with likes from Mark Silva. I click on his profile picture. It’s a photo of a red Mustang. But sadly, his page is private.
I troll her page, extra careful not to accidently like any of Ronnie’s photos or send her a friend request, something I did once while I was stalking one of Jay’s ex-girlfriends.
In the last month, Ronnie’s checked herself into a McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Popeyes, and a pizzeria. I click on a photo that I assume is of Ronnie, her arm slung around Cracker. Ronnie is a goofy-looking girl but strangely cute. She has a big smile, long curly hair, a round, full face, and towers over Cracker. Another pic shows her at a party, bent over laughing with Lori and Natice. It was posted only a week ago.
I keep scrolling back in time, expecting to see pictures of guns or violence. But I don’t. I see a picture of what I suspect are Ronnie’s parents and a younger brother and sister, along with the baby girl and a caption that reads Keisha’s 1st b-day! The photo is liked by Lori and Cracker and over fifty other people. She’s also checked herself into “Vince’s Pad” and posted a photo of herself, alongside Lori, Cracker, Natice, and some very high-looking dudes. The only photo that reminds me these girls are criminals is one of Lori Silva holding her hand as if it were a gun. I screenshot it, zoom in close, and see a small black diamond tattoo by her thumb. Then I find a post—G-O-T got game, by’atches! It was posted the day after Jenny died.
It’s three a.m. when my battery finally dies, and my computer goes dark. I close the lid, and the very first thought that enters my mind is one that has visited me a million times before, except this time there’s a slight revision. Can I really do it? I ask myself before finally falling asleep.
For weeks, Lea has been bugging me to go out with her. I finally agree, and Saturday night, I pick her up in my Jeep, and we head over to a party at one of the baseball players’ homes. It’s one of the nicer houses in Middletown. I think his dad works for Goldman Sachs, and there’s always tons of booze and pre-bought food from Chili’s and usually cheesy pop music playing from built-in speakers throughout the house. I see a closed bathroom door. It opens, and a group of kids walk out, high from doing Molly. It’s obvious to me with their stretched-out smiles and ginormous pupils. You wouldn’t expect it in Middletown, but heroin and Molly run rampant. Both are cheap and easily accessible.
Lea and I share a look.
“Could her eyeballs be any bigger?” Lea says. She ditches me to go flirt with Reed, who’s tapping a new keg.
I’m standing by myself, feeling completely out of place and wishing I hadn’t agreed to come with her, when a girl from my chemistry class walks over to me.
“Hey, Alex! I’m so happy to see you!” Her words are slurred, and she tilts unsteadily on a pair of high heels, grabbing onto my arm to keep from wobbling over.
I smile and feel even more uncomfortable. “Good seeing you too,” I lie.
“Sooo… you excited for summer? Got any fun plans?”
My sister was murdered. How excited could I be? What fun plans could I possibly have? “Yeah, I don’t know.” I spot Jay from across the room. He waves a red plastic cup in the air, motioning for me to join him. “I gotta go say hi to someone.”
“Sure, sure! Go!”
Her last word is like a sledgehammer to my gut. I want to leave the party right then, but instead, I walk over to Jay, and he greets me with a warm smile and an enormous hug. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
His huge arms surround my body, and just like old times, I melt into his chest. I breathe in the Tide from his shirt, and we stay like that for a while. And for a moment, everything disappears, including my pain. When I finally emerge from his biceps, I smell of his cologne. “Yeah, Lea dragged me out of my cave.”
“I’m glad she did.” His head bobs then stops, and his expression changes. “Hey, how’s your mom by the way? I hope she’s okay.”
“Yeah, thanks. The same.”
Word got around fast that my mother is in a loony bin, thanks to having Lea as a best friend. She has the biggest mouth in Middletown, next to Amber, who also loves to spread gossip. This is probably why Amber gets on Lea’s nerves so much. “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is a part of yourself. What isn’t a part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.” Hermann Hesse. The only thing I paid attention to in English Lit this year.
“You’re not drinking?” Jay asks.
“Hey, I know you’re going to say no, but I’m having my graduation party in July. I really want you to come.”
“I’m sure it’ll be epic.” I say, avoiding having to say no.
“You know my parties. Hopefully, Reed won’t piss in the kitchen sink this time. Dude, he’s such a tool sometimes.”
“Dude, I know.” I raise both eyebrows. Then I notice Jay’s shirt. It’s collared and not faded like all his other T-shirts. This one is actually nice. “New shirt?”
“Yup. Got it at Kohl’s.”
“Kohl’s? Wow, steppin’ up your game, player.”
“Not really. My dad bought it for me. Graduation present.”
At least his father bought him something. He’s forgotten Jay’s last two birthdays. And Jay’s such a good guy. I don’t think he has ever given either of his parents five minutes of trouble in his entire life. His father left Jay’s mother for some woman he met in Alcoholics Anonymous. Now, he’s a deadbeat dad who doesn’t pay child support but spends loads of cash on his trampy girlfriend. “I’m sure it was expensive.”
“Nah, probably on sale. Ya know my dad.”
It was probably a re-gift, knowing his father. But I remain silent.
Jay brings the red plastic cup to his lips and pounds the beer. After that, we stand, eyeing the crowd without anything further to say to one another. It makes me wish Jenny were here. If she were alive, she’d be standing right next to us, probably teasing Jay for his fancy new shirt. The three of us used to hang out a lot, especially at parties. Jenny loved Jay. And it was mutual. Jay would always tell me to take it easy on her whenever I gave her too much shit about something, usually about basketball practice if I thought she wasn’t playing hard enough or not giving one hundred percent. Maybe that’s why I have such a difficult time being around Jay. He reminds me of Jenny.
I see Max Hemberger, a cute boy with curly blond hair. I hadn’t noticed him until now. Jenny had a huge crush on Max, and for a while, they were best buds. He also holds a red plastic cup in his hand and is surrounded by Amber and a few girls from his sophomore class. I hear his cackling laugh even above the music. It’s the thing Jenny liked the most about him—his laugh. He smiles and catches me staring at him. For a second, his smile fades, and he looks at me with what feels like enormous pity. He tosses a nod my way then returns his attention to the girls. And in an instant, I’m hit with the heartache of Jenny being dead.
I feel the tears coming. “I have to go, sorry.”
He nods, his face turning serious. “I miss you, Alex. I really miss you.”
I hold his stare and can’t help feeling the same. I miss me too. I walk away with Jay staring after me, hurrying to find the front door, worried I’ll burst into tears any second. I rush past faces that smile at me. I knew coming to this party was a bad idea.
“Alex! Hey!” Amber yells as I push behind Max without a hello.
Lea notices me leaving. “Alex, where you going?”
I race out of the house in tears.
I hop in my Jeep and drive away, crying. I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle being around normal happy people feeling the way I do. I don’t give a shit about parties or college or who’s screwing who or Facebook or Instagram or Twitter—things I used to take pleasure in. I grab onto the steering wheel as tight as I can, white-knuckling it, wanting so desperately for things to be the way the used to be, wishing Jenny were alive and beside me. I punch the dashboard. “Shit! Shit! Shit!” I hit it harder and harder and harder until my fist is bleeding and throbbing.
I think about Jenny being dead and those girls from Cantor being alive. I think about my mother spending another night in a mental ward and my father being home alone. I think about Duke, his metal tags jingling, endlessly searching for someone who will never reappear. I think about my friends and wonder what we ever had in common. They’re like strangers.
Then it hits me—the thought from the other night—the crazy idea that had me asking myself, Can I really do it? I’m filled with hate when I answer: Yes. What more do I have to lose? Nothing.
While my former classmates are out partying and hitting the beach, I study for the first time that year. I research hotels in the Cantor area. I research used car dealerships and trade-in values. I Google anything and everything that has to do with Cantor and street gangs. I learn things that I would never before have wanted to know. I can easily identify a .22 caliber gun, a Ruger 9mm semiautomatic, and a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver.
“What are you doing, Alex?” I say to my computer screen. Duke’s ears perk up, and his big brown eyes shift to me without him ever taking his heavy head off his paws. I hold his stare until his eyes close then turn back to my computer. On the screen is a photograph of a gun collected at a drug bust in Chicago. The same type of gun that was used to kill my sister. The sad, ironic thing is I always said if anyone ever harmed my sister, bullied or beat up Jenny in school, I’d kill them.
I let out a miserable low laugh and continue studying, fully aware that what I’m doing is crazy. But my obsession for revenge is like some sick, twisted addiction that I can’t quit or control. Nor do I want to.
I go onto Facebook and block Lori Silva, Cracker, Ronnie Rodriguez, and Mark Silva from my account. I also block a few Natice Gentry profiles, even though I don’t think Natice has a Facebook page, since she’s never liked or commented on anything on Ronnie’s page, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. I leave my profile picture and cover photo, since neither show my face. Later, I’ll deactivate my account, but for now, I leave it up for stalking purposes only.
I go onto Instagram, get rid of my account, and set up a new one. My new name: Ally Walker. I do a Google search and turn into a beast following all things Seattle: Pike Place Coffee, Adams Junior High, Highland Park High School, Seattle Seahawks—even though I hate the Seahawks—a few badass bands, an Amy Winehouse fan page, not because she ever had anything to do with Seattle, but because I still dig her voice and that style. I follow whoever will take me and post random shit: Nike Sneakers, McDonald’s French fries, Seahawks Stadium, a thorny rose, photos of guys I think are hot. I hit +Follow on kids whose names I’ve ripped off websites of sports teams, bands, clubs, whatever I can find.
It’s amazing how many teenagers will just accept you as a follower without even knowing you. By the time I’m done, I’m following close to three hundred people, I have twenty posts, and almost a hundred people are following me. It’s a start.
I take a break and go down into the kitchen to get something to eat. Duke trails behind me, and I toss him the last rawhide bone from what used to be a full bag. He plops to the floor with it, trapping the bone between his paws and drilling down on it with his teeth. It hurts my heart, knowing I’ll be leaving him. I try not to think about it.
My iPhone rings, and it’s Lea. I hesitate in answering then pick it up on the fourth ring.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” I say and grab a very brown banana off the counter.
“I haven’t heard from you. I’m worried.”
“I call bullshit, but whatever. Me, Amber, and a few girls from the team are going to the beach tomorrow. Why don’t you come?”
“Nah, I can’t.”
“What do you do all day?” Lea asks.
I research gangs, pretend to be someone I’m not on-line. “I watch TV.”
“You need to get out of that house. Come to the beach. You can pick me up, and we’ll take the top off.”
For a moment, I wonder if Lea only called me because she wants me to drive her. “I can’t. I have to help my dad with the pool. He wants to uncover it.”
“Bullshit again. And even if you did, that wouldn’t take all day.” Lea is persistent when she wants something.
“I just don’t want to go, Lea, okay? I’m sorry.”
“Fine! I’m just trying to help. I’m worried about you. I miss you. We all miss you.”
I feel the tears coming. “Lea, I gotta go. But thanks for calling.”
“Call me tomorrow.”
“Okay. I will.” I know I won’t.
I hang up and toss the banana in the garbage, no longer hungry.
Minutes later, I hear my father’s car pull into the driveway. It reminds me of what I still need to do, or rather what I need to ask. I bite down on my already gnawed thumbnail. My stomach churns, and my legs turn restless, like every time I ever wanted to go into the city to see a band I liked—back when those things mattered to me—and worried he’d say no. But right now, I’m more afraid of him saying yes because once he does, there is nothing else stopping me from leaving home, other than my fear, of course. I release my thumb and look down at Duke, weighing my decision.
“Hey, kiddo.” My father walks into the kitchen, fresh from a workout. Duke doesn’t bother to look up. He never does when a bone is involved.
“How was the gym?”
Dad pours himself a glass of water, and neither of us mentions my mother. Instead, we make small talk about his workout, and then I get to it. “So, Dad, I was thinking about going away to basketball camp. What do you think?”
He stops the glass from meeting his lips. “Really? You want to go camp?”
“Yeah, I do. There’s one in July at the University of Delaware that I can still get into. I called, and they have room.”
He takes a sip of water. A huge smile forms on my father’s face, and for the first time in a very long time, he actually looks happy. “I think it’s a great idea, honey. I think it’ll do you some good.”
“Me too. But it’s a sleep-away camp. So I’d be gone for a few weeks.”
He shakes his head as if it’s not a problem. “Alex, if you want to go, you should go.”
“I do. Thanks, Dad.” I give him a big hug.
That evening, my father happily hands me a deposit check, and I now have a legitimate excuse to leave home.
As soon as school lets out for the year, I make a point of saying goodbye to Dr. Evans. In our previous session, he had asked me if I was going to walk at graduation. I told him I hadn’t decided yet. Both he and Dad thought I should. Prior to Jenny’s death, my mother never would’ve allowed me to miss it, and I wouldn’t have wanted to, but when my cap and gown arrived in the principal’s office, I never bothered to pick them up. I think they’re still there.
I pop my head into Dr. Evans’s office and knock on his open door. He looks up, surprised to see me. “Hey, Alex, what’s going on?” He puts aside his work, and I take a seat across from him. “You look happy.”
He smiles. “Yes, you do.”
I’m not sure I agree, but I nod. “I decided to go to basketball camp. I signed up for one at the University of Delaware.”
“That’s great! I’m glad to hear that.” His excitement fills the room. He leans back in his chair, throws his arms behind his head, and stares intently at me. “So what made you change your mind?”
I think about telling Dr. Evans the truth, and in a way, I do. “I need a change of scenery.”
“Well, you’re going to love Delaware. They run a good camp there. I know one of the coaches. She’s been doing it for years. You need anything, you call me.” He looks at me sternly. He knows how I am. “I mean that. Anything.”
I smile. “Yeah. No worries.”
He rises from his desk, and I hug him. I have never hugged Dr. Evans before. Maybe I hug him now because I worry I may never see him again. Or maybe I just need a hug.
“See ya, Dr. Evans.”
I stop and look back at him.
“I’m proud of you.”
I nod and walk out.
On my drive home, I call the University of Delaware’s Basketball Camp Director to let him know I won’t be attending the session I had enrolled in just weeks earlier. “I’ve got strep throat,” I say, trying to sound like I actually do.
The camp director tells me he’s sorry to hear that and apologizes for not being able to return my deposit money. “I’m sorry, but due to the late notice…”
“That’s okay.” I’m grateful. The last thing I want is my father receiving his deposit check back from a basketball camp I’m supposed to be attending. The director wishes me a fast recovery, and we hang up.
As far as my father knows, the session I enrolled in starts the second week in July. But camps run all summer long. If I wanted to, I could literally spend my entire summer attending sports camps. It’s insane, and most players don’t, but it isn’t completely unheard of. And depending on what happens, I may need the extra time.
My mother is in good spirits, thanks to whatever drugs the hospital gave her two days ago when they released her. I stand next to her in the driveway, watching my father load my duffel bag into the back of my Jeep. He’s wearing his weekend clothes: khaki shorts, faded college T-shirt, and cross-training sneakers. He slams the door closed and walks toward me to say goodbye. Much like Dr. Evans, Dad looks proud. My going away to summer camp means I’m ready to start living again. But I am not. I just can’t live at home anymore.
“Love ya, kiddo.” My dad hugs me tightly.
“Love you, too, Dad.” I mean it.
Saying goodbye to my mother is a lot more difficult. I can’t remember the last time my mother hugged me or even told me she loved me. We had been fighting pretty bad right up to Jenny’s death.
“Love ya, Mom,” I say, noticing how much weight she has lost. I can feel the bones in her back when I hug her.
“Call us when you get there,” my mother says matter-of-factly.
I look back at Duke, who runs around the front lawn like a nut, chomping at the air, most likely chasing a bug or a fly. “Duke!” I yell. He halts in mid-gallop and races over to me. I bend to the ground and get slobbered by his big wet tongue. “I love ya, buddy. I’m gonna miss you.” I kiss his dopey, handsome face and hug him for dear life, almost crying.
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of him,” Dad says.
I give Duke one more kiss and a great big hug, then I let go. He runs off to hunt the bug. I climb into my Jeep, and a pang of guilt hits me for leaving Duke.
My father puts his arm around my mother’s waist. He smiles and waves. For a moment, they look like a normal, happy couple. I drive away with that image in my head.
By the time I arrive at the Turnpike entrance, what I’m about to do becomes very real. I start taking in long, deep breaths. I suffered a panic attack—or what I thought was a panic attack—when I was in third grade. My mother had left Jenny and me in the car while she went into an Applebee’s to grab dinner to take home. She was in there so long I thought she had been kidnapped or, worse, had left us. By the time she returned to the car I had both Jenny and me in hysterics. My mother saw our faces and worried something tragic had happened.
“I thought you’d left us,” I said, crying.
My mother looked so sad for us. “No, of course not. It took forever. There was a long line inside,” She rubbed my back until I calmed down. I remember Mom was especially sweet. She even popped open one of the Styrofoam containers and let us eat chicken wings in the car, something she never allowed. As we drove home she said, “Don’t worry, girls. If anyone ever kidnapped your mother, they’d toss me back so fast you and your dad would never miss me.”
I take in another deep breath. It’s not too late to turn back and go home. But instead, I pay the toll, press down on the gas pedal, and keep heading south toward Cantor.
After an hour of driving, I exit the Turnpike and follow the directions on my GPS until I arrive at Tom’s Used Car Lot. It looks exactly like it does online: small, with American flags flapping in the wind and a row of used cars facing the highway. A sign reads Trade-Ins Welcome! A pit forms in my stomach as I shut off my Jeep and step out onto the lot. I haven’t even closed the door when Tom, an older man in a suit and tie, approaches me with a smile. I know it’s Tom because of the dorky photos he posts of himself on his website.
“Hi. How can I help you?” His huge smile glares at me.
“I want to sell my Jeep.” My voice cracks.
“Do you have the title and paperwork for it?”
“Yeah. I own it.”
Tom examines my Jeep, and the pit in my stomach grows larger. A wave of memories hits me as I remember how much Jenny loved riding around in my Jeep, especially in the summer months when we would head to Sandy Hook Beach with the top down and the music blasting.
“It’s in good shape. Are you looking for a trade-in? Or cash?”
“Both, but I want something older. Not as nice.”
“Let me show you some of our cars, and what’s your name?”
I stare at Tom, suddenly not wanting to follow. “Hold on. I’ll be right back, I need to check something.” I walk away and take out my iPhone, pretending to be texting someone when really, I’m trying to decide if I can go through with this. I don’t think I can. Another overwhelming bout of anxiety bubbles up. This time, it’s much worse, like I drank a whole case of Coca-Cola at the same time the oxygen decided to leave earth. Can I really do this? Should I really do this? Then finally, after leaving Tom standing alone for several minutes, I make a deal with myself. If I can’t go through with my plan, I’ll simply come back here, buy back my Jeep, and go home. But what if Blue Beauty isn’t here? I try not to think of that as I walk back to Tom to sell what used to be my most prized possession.
Thirty minutes later, I’m sitting inside Tom’s office watching him print out a bill of sale from an archaic computer. “Do you want the check written out to Alex or Alexandra?” Tom asks.
“You got it.” He finishes writing out the check and neatly tucks the bill of sale along with a stack of paperwork into an envelope. He scribbles “Alexandra Campbell” on the front and hands both the check and envelope to me. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” I feel nauseous about the transaction.
“Come on.” Tom rises from his desk. He grabs a set of keys off the wall, and I follow him out the door.
The trade-in car is something an old person would drive.
“It’s a gas guzzler, but it flies.” Tom stops in front of a dark-blue Oldsmobile four-door sedan.
I open the heavy door and move behind the wheel. Unlike my Jeep where I used to sit up high, the cloth seats are much lower to the ground. There’s a long scratch along the dash, and the carpeting is faded, but other than that, whoever owned this car kept it in pretty good shape. It has a standard AM/FM stereo system with a CD player. There’s no built-in GPS system or Bluetooth. The only fancy thing about this car is its pop-out plastic cup holders.
I insert the key, turn the ignition, and the engine roars to life.
“You take care,” Tom tells me.
I barely touch the gas pedal, and the car explodes forward. Driving away, I already miss my Jeep. But I am grateful for one thing: the Oldsmobile is fast, much faster than my Jeep.
I make one more stop before I get back on the Turnpike. It’s a check-cashing store, and after a woman with long acrylic fingernails matches the signature on my driver’s license to that on the back of the check I received for my Jeep, I walk out with almost four thousand dollars in cash.
Finally, after an exhausting drive, I reach the Cantor City exit on the Turnpike. That sinking feeling in my stomach returns, and I know what I’m doing is nuts and that I should turn around right now and go back home. But I don’t. I take a breath, hand my ticket and money to the toll agent, and keep moving forward. Again, I tell myself, if I can’t do this, I’ll simply head home.
The motel I selected is less than ten minutes from Lori Silva’s house. It’s an efficiency motel on the edge of a highway that mostly serves welfare recipients. It’s run-down and has maybe fifteen rooms. On the opposite side of the street are a twenty-four-hour Laundromat, a Burger King, and a liquor store. There’s a liquor store on just about every corner in Cantor.
I park right in front of the office, next to one other car that occupies the motel’s parking lot. The car is filthy and looks abandoned, with papers and trash piled high in the windows.
I enter the office, and a fan blows warm air in my face. An older man with sagging skin and tattooed arms sits on a stool watching TV. He brings a nub of a cigarette to his cracked lips. His face is lined with wrinkles, reddened around the cheeks, and slightly bloated. He laughs at