Five months ago, Valerie Leftman's boyfriend, Nick, opened fire on their school cafeteria. Shot trying to stop him, Valerie inadvertently saved the life of a classmate, but was implicated in the shootings because of the list she helped create. A list of people and things she and Nick hated. The list he used to pick his targets.
Now, after a summer of seclusion, Val is forced to confront her guilt as she returns to school to complete her senior year. Haunted by the memory of the boyfriend she still loves and navigating rocky relationships with her family, former friends, and the girl whose life she saved, Val must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it, in order to make amends and move on with her life.
Jennifer Brown's critically acclaimed novel now includes the bonus novella Say Something, another arresting Hate List story.
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By Brown, Jennifer
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2010 Brown, Jennifer All right reserved.
[FROM THE GARVIN COUNTY SUN-TRIBUNE, MAY 3, 2008, REPORTER ANGELA DASH]
The scene in the Garvin High School cafeteria, known as the Commons, is being described as “grim” by investigators who are working to identify the victims of a shooting spree that erupted Friday morning.
“We have teams in there going over every detail,” says Sgt. Pam Marone. “We’re getting a pretty clear picture of what went on yesterday morning. It hasn’t been easy. Even some of our veteran officers got pretty shaken up when they walked in there. It’s such a tragedy.”
The shooting, which began just as students were preparing for their first class, left at least six students dead and countless others wounded.
Valerie Leftman, 16, was the last victim shot before Nick Levil, the alleged shooter, reportedly turned the gun on himself.
Hit in the thigh at close range, Leftman required extensive surgery to repair her wounds. Representatives at Garvin County General list her in “critical condition.”
“There was a lot of blood,” an EMT told reporters on the scene. “He must have hit her artery just right.”
“She’s very lucky,” the ER nurse on duty confirmed. “She’s got a good chance of surviving, but we’re being really careful. Especially since so many people want to talk to her.”
Reports by witnesses at the scene of the shooting vary, some claiming Leftman was a victim, others saying she was a hero, still others alleging she was involved in a plan with Levil to shoot and kill students whom they disliked.
According to Jane Keller, a student who witnessed the shooting, the shot to Leftman appeared to be accidental. “It looked like she tripped and fell into him or something, but I couldn’t tell for sure,” Keller told reporters at the scene. “All I know is it was all over real quick after that. And when she fell on him it gave some people a chance to run away.”
But police are questioning whether the shot that took down Leftman was an accident or a double suicide gone awry.
Early reports indicate that Leftman and Levil had discussed suicide in some detail, and some sources close to the couple suggest they talked about homicide as well, leaving police wondering if there is more to the Garvin High shooting than originally thought.
“They talked about death a lot,” says Mason Markum, a close friend of both Leftman and Levil. “Nick talked about it more than Valerie, but, yeah, Valerie talked about it too. We all thought they were just playing some game, but I guess it was for real. I can’t believe they were serious. I mean, I was just talking to Nick like three hours ago, and he never said anything. Not about this.”
Whether Leftman’s wounds were intentional or accidental, there is little doubt in the minds of the police that Nick Levil intended to commit suicide after massacring nearly half a dozen Garvin High students.
“Witnesses at the scene tell us that after he shot Leftman he pointed the gun to his own head and pulled the trigger,” says Marone. Levil was pronounced dead at the scene.
“It was a relief,” says Keller. “Some kids actually cheered, which I think is kind of wrong. But I guess I can understand why they did it. It was really scary.”
Leftman’s participation in the shooting is under investigation with Garvin County police. Leftman’s family could not be reached for comment, and police will only divulge that they’re “very interested” in speaking with her at this time.
After I ignored the third snooze alarm, my mom started pounding on my door, trying to get me out of bed. Just like any other morning. Only this morning wasn’t just any other morning. This was the morning I was supposed to pick myself up and get on with my life. But I guess with moms, old habits die hard—if the snooze alarm doesn’t do the trick, you start pounding and yelling, whatever kind of morning it is.
Instead of just yelling at me, though, she started getting that scared quavery sound in her voice that she’d had so often lately. The one that said she wasn’t sure if I was just being difficult or if she should be ready to call 911. “Valerie!” she kept pleading, “You have to get up now! The school is being very lenient letting you back in. Don’t blow it your first day back!”
Like I would be happy about going back to school. About stepping back into those haunted halls. Into the Commons, where the world as I knew it had crashed to an end last May. Like I hadn’t been having nightmares about that place every single night and waking up sweaty, crying, totally relieved to be in my room again where things were safe.
The school couldn’t decide if I was hero or villain, and I guess I couldn’t blame them. I was having a hard time deciding that myself. Was I the bad guy who set into motion the plan to mow down half my school, or the hero who sacrificed herself to end the killing? Some days I felt like both. Some days I felt like neither. It was all so complicated.
The school board did try to hold some ceremony for me early in the summer. Which was crazy. I didn’t mean to be a hero. I wasn’t even thinking when I jumped in between Nick and Jessica. It’s certainly not like I thought, “Here’s my chance to save the girl who used to laugh at me and call me Sister Death, and get myself shot in the process.” By all accounts it was a heroic thing to do, but in my case… well, nobody was really sure.
I refused to go to the ceremony. Told Mom my leg was hurting too much and I needed some sleep and besides, it was a stupid idea anyway. It was just like the school, I told her, to do something totally lame like that. I wouldn’t go to something so dumb if you paid me, I said.
But the truth was I was scared of going to the ceremony. I was scared of facing all those people. Afraid they’d all believed everything they’d read about me in the newspaper and seen about me on TV, that I’d been a murderer. That I’d see it in their eyes—You should’ve committed suicide just like him—even if they didn’t say it out loud. Or worse, that they’d make me out to be someone brave and selfless, which would only make me feel more awful than I already did, given that it was my boyfriend who killed all those kids and apparently I made him think I wanted them dead too. Not to mention I was the idiot who had no idea that the guy I loved was going to shoot up the school, even though he basically told me so, like, every day. But every time I opened my mouth to tell Mom those things, all that came out was It’s so lame. I wouldn’t go to something so dumb if you paid me. Guess old habits die hard for everyone.
Mr. Angerson, the principal, ended up coming to our house that night instead. He sat at my kitchen table and talked to my mom about… I don’t know—God, destiny, trauma, whatever. Waiting around, I’m sure, for me to come out of my room and smile and tell him how proud I was of my school and how I was more than happy to serve as a human sacrifice for Miss Perfect Jessica Campbell. Maybe he was waiting for me to apologize, too. Which I would do if I could figure out how. But so far I hadn’t come up with words big enough for something this hard.
When Mr. Angerson was in the kitchen waiting for me I turned up my music and crawled deeper in my sheets and let him sit there. I never came out, not even when my mom started pounding on the door, begging in “company-voice” for me to be polite and come downstairs.
“Valerie, please!” she hissed, opening the door a crack and poking her head into my room.
I didn’t answer. I pulled the sheets over my head instead. It’s not that I didn’t want to do it; it’s that I just couldn’t. But Mom would never understand that. The way she saw it, the more people who “forgave” me, the less I had to feel guilty about. The way I saw it… it was just the opposite.
After a while I saw headlights reflecting off my bedroom window. I sat up and looked into the driveway. Mr. Angerson was pulling away. A few minutes later, Mom knocked on my door again.
“What?” I said.
She opened the door and came in, looking all tentative like a baby deer or something. Her face was all red and splotchy and her nose was seriously plugged up. She was holding this dorky medal in her hand, along with a letter of “thanks” from the school district.
“They don’t blame you,” she said. “They want you to know that. They want you to come back. They’re very appreciative of what you did.” She shoved the medal and letter into my hands. I glanced at the letter and noticed that only about ten teachers had signed it. Noticed that, of course, Mr. Kline wasn’t one of them. For about the millionth time since the shooting, I felt an enormous pang of guilt: Kline was exactly the kind of teacher who would’ve signed that letter, but he couldn’t because he was dead.
We stared at each other for a minute. I knew my mom was looking for some sort of gratitude from me. Some sense that if the school was moving on, maybe I could, too. Maybe we all could.
“Um, yeah, Mom,” I said. I handed the medal and letter back to her. “That’s, um… great.” I tried to muster up a smile to reassure her, but found that I couldn’t do it. What if I didn’t want to move on just yet? What if that medal reminded me that the guy I’d trusted most in this world shot people, shot me, shot himself? Why couldn’t she see that accepting the school’s “thanks,” in that light, was painful to me? Like gratitude would be the only possible emotion I could feel now. Gratitude that I’d lived. Gratitude that I’d been forgiven. Gratitude that they recognized that I’d saved the lives of other Garvin students.
The truth was most days I couldn’t feel grateful no matter how hard I tried. Most days I couldn’t even pinpoint how I felt. Sometimes sad, sometimes relieved, sometimes confused, sometimes misunderstood. And a lot of times angry. And, what’s worse, I didn’t know who I was angry at the most: myself, Nick, my parents, the school, the whole world. And then there was the anger that felt the worst of all: anger at the students who died.
“Val,” she said, her eyes pleading.
“No, really,” I said, “It’s cool. I’m just really tired is all, Mom. Really. My leg…”
I pushed my head deeper into my pillow and folded myself into the blankets again.
Mom bowed her head and left the room, stooped. I knew she would try to get Dr. Hieler all worked up over “my reaction” at our next visit. I could imagine him sitting in his chair: “So, Val, we probably should talk about that medal…”
I know Mom later put the medal and letter away in a keepsake box with all the other kid junk she’d collected over the years. Kindergarten artwork, seventh grade report cards, a letter from the school thanking me for stopping a school shooting. To Mom, somehow all those things would fit together.
That’s Mom’s way of showing her stubborn hope. Her hope that someday I’ll be “fine” again, although she probably can’t remember the last time I was “fine.” Come to think of it, neither can I. Was it before the shooting? Before Jeremy walked into Nick’s life? Before Dad and Mom started hating each other and I started searching for someone, something to take me away from the unhappiness? Way back when I had braces and wore pastel-colored sweaters and listened to Top 40 and thought life would be easy?
The snooze alarm sounded again and I pawed at it, accidentally knocking the clock to the floor.
“Valerie, come on!” she yelled. I imagined she had the cordless in her hand by now, her finger poised over the 9. “School starts in an hour. Wake up!”
I curled up around my pillow and stared at the horses printed on my wallpaper. Ever since I was a little kid, every time I got into trouble, I’d lie on my bed and stare at those horses and imagine myself hopping on one of them and riding away. Just riding, riding, riding, my hair swimming out behind me, my horse never getting tired or hungry, never finding another soul on earth. Just open possibility ahead of me into eternity.
Now the horses just looked like crappy kids’ wallpaper art. They didn’t take me anywhere. They couldn’t. Now I knew they never could, which I thought was so sad. Like my whole life was all a big, dumb dream.
I heard clicking against the doorknob and groaned. Of course—the key. At some point, Dr. Hieler, usually totally on my side, gave my mom permission to use a key and come into my room whenever she pleased. Just in case, you know. As a precaution, you know. There was that whole suicide issue, you know. So now anytime I didn’t answer her knock she’d just come right in anyway, the cordless in her hand, just in case she walked in and I was lying in a pool of razor blades and blood on my daisy-shaped throw rug.
I watched as the doorknob turned. Nothing I could do about it but watch from my pillow. She crept in. I was right. The cordless was in her hand.
“Good, you’re awake,” she said. She smiled and bustled over to the window. She reached up and pulled the Venetian blinds open. I squinted against the early morning sunlight.
“You’re in a suit,” I said, shading my eyes with my forearm.
She reached down with her free hand and smoothed the camel-colored skirt around her thighs. It was tentative, like it was the first time she’d ever dressed up before. For a minute she looked as insecure as I was, which made me feel sad for her.
“Yeah,” she said, using the same hand to pat the back of her hair. “I figured since you were going back to school, I should, you know, start trying to get back full time at the office.”
I pulled myself to a sitting position. My head felt sort of flat in the back from lying down so long and my leg twinged a little. I absently rubbed the dent in my thigh under the sheets. “On my first day back?”
She stumbled over to me, high-stepping over a pile of dirty laundry in her camel-colored high heels. “Well… yeah. It’s been a few months. Dr. Hieler thinks it’s fine for me to go back. And I’ll be there to pick you up after school.” She sat on the side of my bed and stroked my hair. “You’ll be fine.”
“How can you be so sure?” I asked. “How do you know I’ll be all right? You can’t know. I wasn’t okay last May and you didn’t know that.” I pulled myself out of bed. My chest felt tight and I wasn’t sure I wasn’t going to cry.
She sat, gripping the cordless in front of her. “I just know, Valerie. That day won’t ever happen again, honey. Nick’s… he’s gone. Now try not to get all upset…”
Too late. I was already upset. The longer she sat on the side of my bed and stroked my hair the way she used to do when I was little and I smelled the perfume that I thought of as her “work perfume,” the more real it was. I was going back to school.
“We all agreed that this was best, Valerie, remember?” she said. “Sitting in Dr. Hieler’s office we decided that running away was not a good option for our family. You agreed. You said that you didn’t want Frankie to have to suffer because of what happened. And your dad has his firm… to leave that and start all over again would be so tough for us financially…” she shrugged, shaking her head.
“Mom,” I said, but I couldn’t think of a great argument. She was right. I’d been the one saying that Frankie shouldn’t have to leave his friends. That just because he was my little brother didn’t mean he should have to change towns, change schools. That Dad, whose jaw tightened angrily every time someone brought up the possibility of our family having to move to a new town, shouldn’t have to build a new law firm after working so hard to build his. That I shouldn’t have to be stuck in my house with a tutor or, worse, to switch to a new school my senior year. That I’d be damned if I’d slink away like a criminal when I’d done nothing wrong.
“It’s not like everybody in the whole world doesn’t know who I am anyway,” I’d said, running my fingertips along the arm of Dr. Hieler’s couch. “It’s not like I could find a school where nobody has heard of me. Can you imagine how much of an outcast I’d be at a new school? At least at Garvin I know what to expect. Plus if I ran away from Garvin, everyone there would be even more sure I was guilty.”
“It’ll be tough,” Dr. Hieler had warned. “You’re going to have to face a lot of dragons.”
I’d shrugged. “What else is new? I can handle them.”
“Are you sure?” Dr. Hieler had asked, his eyes narrowed at me skeptically.
I’d nodded. “It’s not fair that I should have to leave. I can do this. If it’s terrible I can always transfer at the end of the semester. But I’ll make it. I’m not afraid.”
But that was back when summer stretched in front of us, impossibly long. Back when “going back” was just an idea, not a reality. As an idea, I still believed in it. I wasn’t guilty of anything except loving Nick and hating the people who tormented us, and there was no way I’d slither away and hide from the people who believed I was guilty of something else. But now that it came down to putting my idea to practice, I wasn’t just afraid; I was terrified.
“You had all summer to change your mind,” Mom said, still sitting on my bed.
I snapped my mouth shut and turned toward my dresser. I grabbed a pair of clean underwear and a bra, then scavenged the floor for some jeans and a T-shirt. “Fine. I’ll get ready,” I said.
I can’t say that she smiled just then. She did something that was kind of like a smile, only it looked a little painful. She took a couple false starts toward the door and then apparently decided it was a good decision and headed for it completely, gripping the phone in both hands. I wondered if she’d accidentally take the phone to work with her, thumb still poised over the 9.
“Good. I’ll wait for you downstairs.”
I dressed, pulling on the wrinkled jeans and T-shirt haphazardly, not even caring what they looked like. It’s not like dressing well was going to make me feel any better or any less conspicuous. I hobbled into the bathroom and ran a brush through my hair, which hadn’t been washed in about four days. I didn’t bother with makeup, either. Didn’t really even know where it was. It’s not like I’d been to a lot of cotillions over the summer. For most of that time I couldn’t even walk.
I slipped on a pair of canvas shoes and grabbed my backpack—a new one that Mom had bought a few days ago and that had sat empty in the very place she’d left it until she finally came in and stuffed it with supplies herself. The old backpack—the bloody one… well, that probably ended up in the garbage, along with Nick’s Flogging Molly T-shirt, which she’d found in my closet and thrown away while I was stuck in the hospital. I’d cried and called her a bitch when I got home and saw that the shirt was missing. She totally didn’t get it—that shirt didn’t belong to Nick the Murderer. It belonged to Nick, the guy who surprised me with Flogging Molly tickets when they came to the Closet. Nick, the guy who let me climb up on his shoulders while they sang “Factory Girls.” Nick, the guy who had the idea that we would pool our money to buy one T-shirt and share it. Nick, the guy who wore the shirt home and then took it off and gave it to me and then never asked for it back.
She claimed that throwing the shirt away was advice from Dr. Hieler, too, but I didn’t believe it. Sometimes I had a feeling she just blamed all her ideas on him so I’d roll with it. Dr. Hieler would understand that Nick the Murderer didn’t own that shirt. I didn’t even know who Nick the Murderer was. Dr. Hieler understood that.
All dressed, I was struck with a sensation of being too nervous to go through with it. My legs felt almost too weak to take me out the door and a light coating of sweat covered the back of my neck. I couldn’t go. I couldn’t face those people, those places. I just wasn’t strong enough.
With shaky hands, I fumbled my cell phone out of my pocket and dialed Dr. Hieler’s cell phone number. He answered on the first ring.
“Sorry to bother you,” I said, sinking down onto my bed.
“No, I told you to call. Remember? I was waiting for it.”
“I don’t think I can do this,” I said. “I’m not ready. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready. I think it was a bad idea to—”
“Val, stop,” he interrupted. “You can do this. You’re ready. We’ve talked this through. It’s going to be tough, but you can handle it. You’ve handled a lot worse over the past several months, right? You’re very strong.”
Tears sprang to my eyes and I wiped them off with my thumb.
“Just concentrate on being in the moment,” he said. “Don’t read into things. See what’s really there, okay? When you get home this afternoon, call me. I’ll have Stephanie patch you through even if I’m in session, okay?”
“And if you need to talk during the day…”
“I know, I can call.”
“And remember what we said? Even if you make it through only half the day, it’s already a victory, right?”
“Mom’s going back to work. Full day.”
“That’s because she believes in you. But she’ll come home if you need her. My prediction is you won’t, though. And you know I’m always right.” There was a smile in his voice.
I chuckled, sniffed. Wiped my eyes again. “Right. Whatever. I’ve gotta go.”
“You’re going to do great.”
“I hope so.”
“I know so. And remember what we said: you can always transfer after this semester if it doesn’t work out. That’s, what? Seventy-five days or so?”
“Eighty-three,” I said.
“See? Piece of cake. You’ve got this. Call me later.”
I hung up and picked up my backpack. I started to walk out the door, but stopped. There was something missing. I reached under my top dresser drawer and fumbled around until I found it, tucked into the frame of the drawer, out of Mom’s investigative reach. I pulled it out and looked at it for about the millionth time.
It was a photo of Nick and me at Blue Lake on the last day of school, sophomore year. He was holding a beer and I was laughing so hard I swear you could see my tonsils in the picture, and we were sitting on a giant rock right next to the lake. I think it was Mason who took the picture. I couldn’t for the life of me remember what was so funny, no matter how many nights I stayed awake trying to drum it up.
We looked so happy. And we were. No matter what the e-mails and the suicide notes and the Hate List said. We were happy.
I touched the laughing still shot of Nick’s face with my finger. I could still hear his voice loud and clear. Still hear him asking me out in his serious Nick way, at once bold and angry and romantic and shy.
“Val,” he had said, pulling himself off the rock and bending to pick up his beer bottle. He picked up a flat rock with his free hand and took a few steps forward and skipped it across the lake. It skipped once, twice, three times before it dove into the water and stayed. Stacey laughed from somewhere nearby in the woods. Duce laughed just after her. It was getting on to nightfall and a frog started croaking somewhere to my left. “Do you ever think about just leaving it all behind?”
I pulled my heels up against the rock and grabbed my knees. I thought about Mom and Dad’s fight the night before. About Mom’s voice drifting up the stairs from the living room, the words unclear, but the tone venomous. About Dad leaving the house around midnight, the door shutting softly behind him. “You mean like run away? Definitely.”
Nick was silent for a long time. He picked up another rock and slung it across the lake. It skipped twice and fell. “Sure,” he said. “Or, you know, like driving off a cliff and never looking back.”
I stared at the setting sun and thought about it. “Yeah,” I said. “Everybody does. Totally Thelma and Louise.”
He turned and kind of laughed, then swigged the last of his beer and dropped the bottle to the ground. “Never saw it,” he said. Then, “Remember when we read Romeo and Juliet in freshman English last year?”
He leaned over me. “You think we could be like them?”
I crinkled my nose. “I don’t know. I guess. Sure.”
He turned again and stared out into the lake. “Yeah, we could. We really could. We think alike.”
I stood up and brushed the backs of my thighs, which felt dimply from the texture of the rock we’d been sitting on. “Are you asking me out?”
He turned, lurched toward me, and grabbed me around the waist. He picked me up until my feet were dangling above the ground and I couldn’t help it—I let out a squeal that turned into a giggle. He kissed me and my body felt so electric up against his even my toes tingled. It seemed like forever that I’d been waiting for him to do this. “Would you say no if I did?” he asked.
“Hell, no, Romeo,” I said. I kissed him back.
“Then I guess I am, Juliet,” he’d said, and I swear as I touched his face in the photo I could hear it again. Could feel him in the room with me. Even though in May he became a monster in the eyes of the world, in my eyes he was still that guy holding me above the ground, kissing me and calling me Juliet.
I stuffed the photo into my back pocket. “Eighty-three and counting,” I said aloud, taking a deep breath and heading downstairs.
MAY 2, 2008
“See you in the Commons?”
My cell phone chirped and I grabbed it before Mom or Frankie or, God forbid, Dad heard it. It was still early and dim outside. One of those tough mornings to wake up to. Summer break was right around the corner, which meant three months of sleeping in and not having to put up with Garvin High. Not that I hated school or anything, but Christy Bruter was, like always, giving me trouble on the bus and I had a D in Science because of a quiz I forgot to study for, and finals were going to be a killer this year.
Nick had been a little quiet lately. In fact, he hadn’t shown up at school for two days, and had texted me all day long, asking about “the shits in homeroom” or “the fat bitches in P. E.” or “that scab McNeal.”
He’d been hanging around with this guy, Jeremy, for the last month and every day he seemed to pull further and further away from me. I was afraid he was going to break up with me, so I just played along like it was no big deal that we hardly ever saw each other anymore. I didn’t want to push him—he’d been so volatile lately and I didn’t want to start a fight. I didn’t ask him what he was doing on those days he didn’t show up and instead just texted him back that “the shits in Bio need 2 B dunked in formaldehyde” and that “I h8 those bitches” and that “McNeal is lucky I don’t have a gun.” That last one would really come back to bite me later. Really, they all would. But that last one… that last one would make me vomit every time I thought about it for a long time. And it would inspire a three-hour conversation between me and Detective Panzella. And it would make my dad forever look at me differently, like I was some sort of monster deep down and he could see it.
Jeremy was this older guy—like twenty-one or something—who’d graduated from Garvin a few years ago. He didn’t go to college. He didn’t have a job. From what I could tell, all Jeremy did was beat up his girlfriend and sit around smoking pot and watching cartoons all day. Until he met Nick and then he stopped watching the cartoons and started smoking his dope with Nick and only beat up his girlfriend on nights when he wasn’t in Nick’s garage, playing drums, too stoned to remember she existed. On the rare occasions that I’d been over there when Jeremy was there, Nick was a totally different guy. Someone I didn’t even recognize, really.
For a long time I thought maybe I just never knew Nick at all. Maybe when Nick and I were watching TV in his basement or dunking each other at the pool and laughing, I was totally not seeing the real Nick. Like the real Nick was the one that showed up when Jeremy came over—that hard-eyed, selfish Nick.
I’d heard of women who were completely blind and ignored all these signs that their man was some sort of pervert or monster, but no way could you convince me I was one of them. When Jeremy wasn’t around… when it was just me and Nick and I looked in Nick’s eyes… I knew what I saw and it was good. He was good. He had a sick sense of humor sometimes—we all did—but no way did we mean it. So sometimes it makes sense to me that maybe it was Jeremy who put those ideas about shooting up the school in Nick’s head. Not me. Jeremy. He’s the bad guy. He’s the one.
I picked up the cell and fumbled it down under the covers where I had been slowly waking up to the idea that I had to get through another school day.
“Baby.” Nick’s voice was thin, almost wired-sounding, although at the time I just figured that was because it was so early and Nick hardly ever got up early anymore.
“Hey,” I whispered. “Going to school today for a change?”
He chuckled. Sounded really happy. “Yeah. Jeremy’s gonna drive me.”
I pulled myself to a sitting position. “Cool. Stacey was asking about you yesterday. Said she saw you and Jeremy driving out toward Blue Lake.” I let the unspoken question hang in the air.
“Yeah.” I heard the flick of his lighter and the crackle of a cigarette filter. He exhaled. “We had some stuff to do out there.”
He didn’t answer. Just the sound of the filter burning and his steady exhale.
Disappointment washed over me. He wasn’t going to tell me. I hated the way he was acting. He’d never kept secrets from me before. We’d always talked about everything, even the hard stuff like our parents’ marriages and the names kids called us at school and how sometimes we felt like nothing. Like less than nothing.
I almost pressed him, told him I wanted to know, I deserved to know, but decided to change the subject instead—if I was finally going to get to see him, I didn’t want to waste that time fighting with him. “Hey, I’ve got some names for the list,” I said.
I rubbed the corners of my eyes with my fingertips. “People who say ‘sorry’ after everything. Fast-food commercials. And Jessica Campbell.” Jeremy, I almost added, but thought better of it.
“That skinny blond chick that goes out with Jake Diehl?”
“Uh-huh, but Jake’s okay. I mean a little jockish, but he’s no way as annoying as her. Yesterday in health I was totally just spacing out and I guess I was looking in her direction. So all of a sudden she looks at me and goes, ‘What’re you looking at, Sister Death?’ and she had this scowl on her face and she rolled her eyes and goes, ‘Hell-o, mind your own business,’ and I was all, ‘Trust me, I don’t give a shit about what you were saying anyway,’ and she was like, ‘Don’t you have a funeral to go to?’ and then her stupid friends started laughing like she was some sort of stand-up comedian or something. She’s such a bitch.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” He coughed. I heard a rattle of papers being turned and could imagine Nick sitting on his mattress writing in the red spiral notebook we shared. “All those blond chicks should just disappear.”
At the time I’d laughed. It was funny. I agreed with him. At least I said I did. And, okay, I really thought I did. I didn’t feel like a horrible person, but I laughed because to me, they were the horrible people. They deserved it.
“Yeah, they should be run over by their parents’ Beemers,” I said.
“I put that Chelle girl on the list, too.”
“Good one. She won’t shut up about making varsity. I don’t know what her problem is.”
We sat in silence for a minute. I don’t know what Nick was thinking. At the time I took his silence to be some sort of unspoken agreement with me, like we were speaking at the same time in some wavelength that had no breath. But now I know that’s just one of those “inferences” Dr. Hieler was always telling me about. People do it all the time—assume that they “know” what’s going on in someone else’s head. That’s impossible. And to think it’s possible is a mistake. A really big mistake. A life-ruining one if you’re not careful.
I heard some mumbling in the background. “Gotta go,” Nick said. “We gotta take Jeremy’s kid to day care. His girlfriend’s being a pain in the ass about it. See you in the Commons?”
“Sure. I’ll have Stacey save us a seat.”
“You too, baby.”
I hung up, smiling. Maybe whatever was bugging him was resolved. Maybe he was getting sick of Jeremy and Jeremy’s kid and Jeremy’s cartoons and Jeremy’s pot. Maybe I could talk him into skipping lunch and walking with me across the highway to Casey’s for a sandwich. Just the two of us. Like old times. Us sitting on the concrete median, picking onions off our sandwiches and asking each other music trivia questions, our shoulders butted up against one another, our feet swinging.
I jumped in the shower without bothering to turn on the light and stood enveloped by the steam in the dark, hoping maybe Nick would bring me something special today. He was pretty good at that—showing up to school with a rose he’d picked up at the gas station or sliding a candy bar into my locker between classes, slipping a note into my notebook when I wasn’t looking. When he wanted to, Nick had a hell of a romantic side.
I got out of the shower and dried off. I took extra time on my hair and eyeliner and wore a torn black denim miniskirt with my favorite pair of striped black and white tights with the hole in the knee. I stuffed my feet into socks and a pair of canvas shoes and grabbed my backpack.
My little brother, Frankie, was eating cereal at the kitchen table. His hair was spiked and he looked like one of those kids in PopTart commercials: perfectly coiffed skater types. Frankie was fourteen and totally full of himself. He thought he was some sort of fashion guru and was always dressed so stylishly he looked like he’d just stepped out of a catalog. We were close, despite the fact that we tended to hang out with totally different crowds and we had completely different definitions of what was cool. He could be annoying at times, but most of the time he was a pretty good little brother.
He had his American history textbook open on the table next to him and was frantically scribbling on a piece of notebook paper, stopping only to shovel a bite of cereal into his mouth every so often.
“Shooting a hair gel commercial today?” I asked, bumping into his chair with my hip on the way past.
“What?” he said, running the palm of his hand over the spikes of his hair. “The ladies love it.”
I rolled my eyes, smiling. “I’ll bet. Dad leave yet?”
He took another bite of cereal and went back to writing. “Yeah,” he said around the food in his mouth. “He left a few minutes ago.”
I grabbed a waffle out of the freezer and popped it into the toaster. “I see you were too busy with the ladies to do your homework last night,” I teased, leaning over him to read what he was writing. “What did the women in the… Civil War era… think of excess hair gel, exactly?”
“Give me a break,” he said, bumping me with his elbow. “I was talking to Tina until midnight. I gotta get this done. Mom’ll freak if I get another C in history. She’ll take my cell phone away again.”
“Okay, okay,” I said. “I’ll leave you alone. Far be it from me to stand between you and Tina’s riveting phone romance.” The waffle popped up out of the toaster and I grabbed it. I took a bite of it, plain. “Speaking of Mom, is she driving you again today?”
He nodded. Mom drove Frankie to school every day, dropping him off on her way to work. It gave him a few extra minutes in the morning, which I guess would be nice. But since it would require me to sit within three feet of my mom and thus spend every morning hearing how my “hair looks atrocious” and my “skirt is too short” and “Why does a beautiful girl like you want to ruin her looks with all that makeup and hair dye?” I preferred to stand on the curb and wait for the bus full of jocks to come get me. And that’s saying something.
I looked at the clock on the stove. The bus would be coming any minute. I shouldered my backpack and took another bite out of my waffle.
“I’m outta here,” I said, heading for the door. “Good luck with your homework.”
“See ya,” he called to my back as I stepped out on the front porch, closing the door behind me.
The air felt crisper than usual—felt like winter was on the verge of rushing in on us rather than spring. Like right now the day was the warmest it was going to get.
Excerpted from Hate List by Brown, Jennifer Copyright © 2010 by Brown, Jennifer. Excerpted by permission.
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