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The Time of Us

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© 2015 Ajay Joseph. All rights reserved.

ISBN 978-1-329-53382-0

For Crystal

The Time of Us

AJAY JOSEPH

PROLOGUE[+:+]

THE

PARTY

Roberto

Everyone always tells you that you’re not supposed to drink and drive. It’s something they tell you about in fifth grade and you wonder why anyone would be stupid enough to do something like that. You make posters about how drugs and alcohol are bad for you and you even sign a contract saying how you won’t ever do drugs or drink. Especially when driving.

Fast forward almost eight years, and that’s exactly what we were doing that night.

The party was supposed to be about that. It was the second month of our senior year and we were celebrating being seniors, being older, and being alive. Some of us, a little too much.

Things happened at that party that none of us could have kept secret. Even the five of us learned things that we didn’t even know about.

But there was one incident that got out that everyone knew about.

One life changing moment that took place that will be with all of us forever.

And it took place when I was driving us back home.

Chapter 1

Daisy

OCTOBER 18, 2015

6:00 P.M.

I’m a simple girl. At least I think I am. Ask my friends and they’ll tell you a completely different story. But deep down, I’m not as hostile as I may appear.

See? Just one paragraph into this book and I already told you something personal about me. That’s how you know this story will have a lot of emotion.

But we’ll save my emotions for another time.

So like I said before, I’m a simple girl. Maybe a little misunderstood, though. The thing is – and you’ll see more of this later – I can be pretty hostile. What I mean is that whenever someone threatens me, or my closest friends, I get super defensive it’s not even funny. And the reason for it is because I’ve had my heart broken. More than once. So I know the value of friendship and would hate to be left alone.

Which is why I loved Squad. Yeah that’s what we call ourselves. It’s me, Roberto, Beatriz, Miguel, Nancy, Joey, Alex, and Michael. I love the group because we all value friendship.

Anyway, I know what you’re interested in. How I got my heart broken all those times.

Basically, guys are jerks. (I know all the ladies reading this can agree with me.) But not all are. I mean, Roberto, Miguel, Alex, and Michel are by far the greatest guys I know. I’m talking about the kinds of guys who don’t treat girls right. Who disrespect them and talk down to them. Those guys are the worst.

And for the longest time, I went after them because that was the only kind of attention I got so I was used to it. Guys like that are the worst because either they lead you on, or cheat on you. It took me a long time to realize they were no good. I have to thank Michael for that.

I just hate how I wasted my time chasing those guys, knowing it would lead to destruction. When I started my senior year, I won’t forget what Michael told me.

Don’t chase after someone who isn’t willing to meet you halfway.”

It meant a lot to me because I thought about it like a bridge. You can go both ways on a bridge and that is how, I feel, a relationship should be. Both people are able to give and take.

Even though it’s only been about a month into the school year, I won’t ever forget Michael, or his words.

Chapter 2

Alex

OCTOBER 18, 2015

6:30 P.M.

I’m not really into parties. I guess it’s my presuppositions on parties, but I don’t drink or do weed or anything like that. And I felt like that was what was going to happen at Marvin’s party tonight.

But who knows, there might not be any of that.

Personally, I was stressed because of school. People tell you that your senior year is going to be super chill and everything, and you walk into school thinking that, but it turns out to be your hardest year. This might just be my personal opinion, but it’s true. It’s partially my fault though. I decided to not take any regular courses this year. Besides like gym or general music. I have three AP classes and the rest are all honors.

But the best part about senior year has to be Squad. Our Squad is probably the best one out there. We’ve got a lot of personalities who all know the value and depth of friendships. Not only are that, but the memories we’ve had together are priceless.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a rough day and just a conversation with my friends made it better. And it wasn’t just with me. If anyone was having a bad day, we’d stop whatever we’re doing and talk to them. And if that didn’t work, then we planned a day when we would take them out, get food, and do something fun.

The biggest thing they did for me was when this girl rejected me. As most stories go, I liked her, but she was already interested in someone else. So what they did for me was take me out one Friday night, we went to see a movie, got pizza, walked around to different stores in the mall, and they custom made a t shirt with all of our names on it. I got the first one, but soon after, everyone else wanted one so they bought shirts for themselves.

I still have that t shirt and I love it because of what it means to me. And I won’t forget what Michael told me that day either.

“Don’t feel alone; we’re here.”

I knew that Michael was here with me. With all of us.

Chapter 3

Roberto

OCTOBER 18, 2015

7:00 P.M.

When we got to Marvin’s house, I parked and we walked into the house. I didn’t say anything, but I knew I was the designated driver. I knew that someone in the group was going to drink even though I personally feel like it’s wrong. But I can’t change that.

There was music playing and people were dancing. The lights were dimmed and people were walking around holding those red plastic cups. I couldn’t tell if soda or beer was in them.

“Hey, Nancy!” Marvin’s voice called out among the other noise.

“Marvin,” Nancy greeted. The two hugged and then went off together somewhere. I just hoped Nancy would be okay.

“Ooo! Daisy!” someone called out.

“Hey, girl!” Daisy said, hugging another girl walking over to us.

“This party isn’t so dead after all.”

“Oh, really? I thought it would suck.”

“I mean for Marvin, it’s not bad. Anyway, I wanted you to meet someone.”

The girl took Daisy’s hand and led her away.

Beatriz, Alex, Joey, Michael and I were left and we decided to walk around the house and see who was at the party. We saw a lot of our friends from classes, and some people I didn’t even know existed.

Marvin told us that there were drinks in the fridge and sure enough, there were bottles of water. Michael, Joey, and I took one, Alex found a can of soda, but Beatriz took a red plastic cup and poured a little bit of beer into it.

“What?” she asked. “I’m not going to get drunk.”

When we got to the basement, it actually looked a lot of fun. There was an air hockey table and two people were playing. But I started to smell something.

“Weed,” Joey said.

I looked over to where the couches were and saw people slouching on them. I already started to feel uncomfortable. This is not the scene where you’d find me at.

“You want to play?” I asked Michael.

“Sure,” he said.

After the two other guys finished, it was time for Michael and I to play.

“Just so you know, Roberto,” Michael said. “I’m a professional air hockey player.”

“Oh you are? So that’s the only thing you can be professional at.”

“Pretty much.”

We smirked at each other for a second and then started to laugh.

See the thing about our relationship is this: we’re like brothers. Which means we can tease each other as much as we want, but if someone starts saying bad things about Michael behind his back, I will defend him.

Joey likes the term bromance. And I mean, Michael is my brother. I had just wished I’d known what that really meant on the night of the party.

Chapter 4

Beatriz

OCTOBER 18, 2015

8:30 P.M.

I knew that drinking that cup of beer was a bad idea. I felt like lead was being poured into my brain. I was sitting on a couch, either in the basement or upstairs – I didn’t know where – trying to focus and not vomit. I felt exhausted for the longest time but I couldn’t fall asleep. I was at a party and people could draw on me for all I know.

Or worse.

I felt something swirl in my stomach and I felt like I had to go to the bathroom.

“Betty! There you are!”

I turned to the sound of my name and saw Daisy coming to sit next to me.

“I’ve been looking for you guys,” she said. “Where have you been?”

I honestly had no idea what she was saying, so I started laughing.

Daisy looked at me, confusion on her face. “What?”

I started laughing harder.

“Betty … are you …?”

“Oh my gosh, Daisy, I’m drunk,” I slurred.

Daisy started laughing. “Betty, you of all people?”

“Where were you?” I asked.

Daisy didn’t say anything. Her smile went away and she looked away.

“Nowhere,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing, Betty. Are you okay? You need to go to the bathroom or something?”

I started laughing again, but Daisy wasn’t laughing with me. I couldn’t understand what was going on. So I just leaned my head against her shoulder and laughed.

Chapter 5

Nancy

OCTOBER 18, 2015

8:30 P.M.

“Everybody! Shots!”

This was probably not the best decision. I already had three cups to drink and now they wanted to do shots.

“Come on, Nancy!” Marvin said, taking my hand. “Bet you can’t do more than three.”

I looked at him challengingly. “Bet.”

Everyone started cheering and made room on the table. I sat at one end and Marvin at the other. I was already drunk and I was about to get smashed.

“You first,” I told Marvin.

Marvin shrugged and took the first shot. People started cheering. The glass was full again and I took one.

It went like that for about five more times and by now, I was gone.

“Nancy! You need to stop! You’ve had like seven!” someone said.

“Huh? No, I’m fine,” I said. Actually, that’s what I think I said.

“Oh my gosh, she’s going to kill herself.”

Marvin was already on the floor, knocked out. But I felt like I was okay to take a few more shots. I was about to do number seven when I literally felt myself collapse.

And that’s when I realized that drinking two cups and six shots wasn’t a good idea.

Chapter 6

Roberto

OCTOBER 18, 2015

8:30 P.M.

“This is all Roberto does,” Alex said as Michael, and I were in the backyard playing beer pong.

Before you get any ideas, there hardly was any beer in the cups. And we sucked at it anyway so no one was getting any ping pong balls in any cups.

“All right, Alex,” I said, pointing at me. “Watch this.” I tossed the ping pong ball but it hit the lid of the cup and fell onto the patio. Michael and I began clapping.

“Bro, you suck at this,” Michael said.

“This is my first time playing so don’t judge me.”

“You’re our designated driver so if you’re drunk, that’s not good news for us.”

I waved my hand in the air. “I’ll be fine. That is if Mitchell can get a ball in my cup.”

“Right here,” Mitchell said. “This one’s going in.” He made a show of rubbing the ball in his hands and blowing in it. Then he tossed it and it landed in one of my cups.

“Aye!” Mitchell cheered. “Drink it up, Roberto!”

I smirked and took the ball out of the cup and downed the beer. It tasted beyond gross. I can’t believe people actually liked this kind of stuff.

Little did I know, I just made the biggest mistake of my life.

Chapter 7

Daisy

OCTOBER 18, 2015

9:00 P.M.

“You know you’re gorgeous, right?” he said.

“Oh, thank you.”

“No seriously. I’m not just saying that.”

“Uh huh, thank you.”

This guy literally wouldn’t leave me alone the whole night. Right when I walked into the house, Selena introduced me to him. Raul.

We were sitting on the couch. Betty was still knocked out and I was just waiting for her to either wake up or until we left. I had my legs crossed and my arms folded across my stomach. Raul killed my whole night.

“So you got a boyfriend?” Raul asked.

“No. I’m not looking to be in a relationship.”

“Why not? That’s boring.”

I scoffed. “Well it looks like I’m boring then.”

Remember what Michael said, I reminded myself. You used to fall for guys easily like this. Don’t do this now. He won’t build a bridge with you.

Suddenly, I felt a hand on my knee and it was Raul’s. I smacked it away. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“What are you talking about?” he asked. “I was just playing.”

“‘Just playing’? So I’m your toy?”

“Huh? No.”

I felt Betty’s head lift up off my shoulder. She was awake.

“Ugh … what just happened?” she said groggily.

“Nothing. Come on, Betty, we’re leaving.” I took her hands and helped her up.

“You’re leaving? It’s not even late!” Raul said.

Shut up, I thought.

“Let’s go find the others,” I said.

“Alright, fine,” Raul said. “Go on, girl. Leave.”

I wanted to turn around and smack him across the face. I was not going to be talked to like that. But I didn’t want any drama to start. So I just turned around and firmly said, “Do not talk to me.”

And with that, Betty and I walked to the kitchen where I gave her a cup of water.

“How long was I passed out?” Betty asked.

“Maybe an hour,” I guessed. I was still reeling from what just happened with Raul. “Betty, I want to leave.”

She rubbed her forehead and her eyes. “Where’s Roberto?”

“I don’t know. He could be anywhere.”

“Call him. I want to get some fresh air. Let’s wait at the car.”

I called him and he answered.

“Hello?”

“Roberto?” I asked.

“Yeah … what’s up?”

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m great. What’s up?”

“I kinda want to leave now. Me and Betty are going to wait at the car.”

Roberto didn’t answer right away. “Yeah, yeah, okay … we’ll be there.”

“Okay.”

I hung up and then Betty and I walked outside.

“Betty, why do guys talk to me like that?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Guys only look at me from the outside. It makes me uncomfortable.”

“Daisy, one day a guy out there is going to come into your world and love you for all that you are. Maybe it’s not your time right now.”

I sighed. Sometimes it felt like it was never going to be my time. I’m glad to have my group of friends with me. But sometimes, you want someone to love you in that way.

“It’s okay, girl,” Betty said, putting her arm around me. “Go home, put some sweatpants on, tie your hair up, get a tub of ice cream, and eat it while you watch movies.”

This is why I love Betty.

Chapter 8

OCTOBER 18, 2015

9:30 P.M.

Miguel

So we ended up getting together at Roberto’s car at 9:30 and it’s safe to say that most of us were pretty wasted. Nancy and Betty were trying to recover. Daisy was quiet and had her arms folded across her stomach. Roberto, Alex, and Michael looked a little dazed. The only normal looking ones were Joey and I.

“Are you okay, Roberto?” I asked. “You look tired.”

“No, I’m all right,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “I just want to get home.”

“You want me to drive?” I offered.

Roberto shook his head. “It’s okay. I’m okay.”

“My head freaking hurts,” Nancy said, hanging onto Joey like a life saver.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have had all those beers,” Alex said.

Nancy waved her hand in the air. “I don’t care. I had a good time.”

“All right, it’s time to go,” Roberto said, clicking the button on his keys and unlocking the doors.

Once everybody got into the car, Roberto started driving.

“I’m hungry,” Nancy said about a minute into the car ride. “Can we stop somewhere and eat?”

“I’m hungry too,” Betty said. “I want … wings.”

“Ooo! Wings! Wait no, I want a tortilla.”

“Oh yes! Or burritos!”

“This may seem strange, but I actually know a gas station that sells burritos and they’re really good,” I said. “I think it’s on Belmont near the highway.”

“Oh I know where that is,” Roberto said a little slurred. “You guys wanna go there?”

“Yes!” Betty and Nancy cried.

“All right then.”

Roberto took a left on Belmont and started driving down the street. We were approaching a stop sign when he didn’t slow down. Another car was coming and their tires screeched to a stop.

“Oh my gosh!” Joey gasped.

“Roberto, you just ran a stop sign!” Alex said.

“Wait, I did?” Roberto asked.

“Yeah, dude,” I said.

“Oh …” He blinked several times and sniffed. Something was wrong with him. I assumed he must have had something to drink. I suddenly started to feel very uncomfortable with him behind the wheel.

Chapter 9

OCTOBER 18, 2015

10:00 P.M.

Joey

We got to the gas station and Roberto parked in front of a pump.

“This is good because I need to fill up gas anyway,” he said, putting the nozzle into the gas tank.

“Where are the burritos?” Nancy said. She was still pretty drunk and couldn’t think, talk, or walk straight. I felt like she and Betty should have stayed in the car just in case any police officers were here. And I was not trying to be put in a cell right now.

“They’re inside, Nancy,” Miguel said. “We have to go and get them.”

Nancy got out of the car first and she immediately took a few steps to get her balance. Once she did, she stood up straight as if everything was normal.

Miguel started laughing. “Nancy can’t hang!”

“Shut up,” Nancy said. “You of all people can’t hang.”

“What do you think I’m doing right now then?”

Nancy opened her mouth to say something but then closed it.

“Uh huh, all right then.”

We went inside the convenience store and sure enough there were burritos in a little heater thingy so they would be nice and hot once we got them.

“Are you sure these are any good?” I asked Miguel.

“Yeah,” Miguel said. “I mean I like the way my mom makes them, but these are my second favorite.”

We bought six in total, two for Nancy, two for Betty and one for me and one for Miguel. He was right, these were great. But still, I prefer how my mom would make them.

“Hey, Joey,” Miguel said once Nancy and Betty were able to find their way back to the car. “I think Roberto’s a little tipsy.”

“I thought so too,” I said. “I mean he clearly ran that stop sign.”

“Yeah I know. I’m going to get him some water, maybe that’ll help.”

“Okay.”

I went back to the car and saw Roberto leaning his head on the top of the car with Daisy standing next to him.

“Where’s Miguel?” Daisy asked.

“He’s getting water for Roberto,” I told her.

“I told him I’m fine,” Roberto said harshly.

Just then, Miguel came back with a bottle of water in his hand. “Here, Roberto. Drink this.”

“Miguel, I’m fine.”

“Dude, just take a sip.”

Roberto snatched the bottle, unscrewed the cap and took a sip. Then he closed it. “Okay, let’s go.”

Chapter 10

OCTOBER 18, 2015

10:15 P.M.

Daisy

You ever heard of the term ‘unreliable narrator?’ I know I heard it in my English class this year. Basically it means what it sounds like: you can’t trust the narrator. And in the case of this book, you can’t trust any of the seven telling the story.

Because there were eight in the car that night. So why isn’t Michael narrating?

I can’t fully recount the events leading up to it because I tried so hard to forget them all.

But here’s what I remember.

We were driving down a very quiet side street after coming back from the gas station. We were in a neighborhood called Sauganash Park which was a suburb, which meant that there were no street lights, which meant that it was dark.

“I’m wondering how a rich neighborhood like this can’t have any street lights,” Alex wondered out loud.

“It’s because all old people live here and the light shines in their houses when they’re all trying to sleep,” Joey explained.

I can’t remember if there was another conversation going on, but that’s when Nancy started throwing up.

“Oh gosh, Nancy!” Alex cried.

Nancy was doubled over, vomiting right there in the car. Joey was next to her and she pulled her hair back.

“Dang it, Nancy!” Roberto barked, turning around and looking at her.

Roberto should never have turned around. Because as he did, he lost control of the wheel.

“Roberto! Watch out!” Michael cried.

Roberto jerked back around, but it was already too late.

There was another car driving across the street and we collided with it. We were all thrown forward. My head hit the back of Roberto’s seat and I saw stars. After the movement stopped, I blinked several times to get my vision clear. I rubbed my head and everything came back into focus.

After a few seconds of confusion, Roberto yelled, “Is everyone okay?”

“I’m good,” Betty said.

“I’m all right,” Nancy said.

“Good,” Alex said. “Beatriz your forehead is bleeding.”

Beatriz touched her forehead and looked at her hand. She then pressed her sleeve to her head to stop the blood.

“I’m fine,” I said. But I felt my nose starting to bleed.

“I’m okay,” Joey said.

“Yeah we’re okay,” Miguel said.

Silence from Michael.

“Michael?” Roberto asked. “Michael? I need you to tell me that you’re okay.”

Roberto touched Michael’s shoulder, but he didn’t move. From the back seat, I saw him hunched over. I saw blood on the glove compartment.

“Michael!” Robert yelled frantically. “Oh God, Michael!” He started shaking his shoulder, but he still wouldn’t move. “MICHAEL!” I saw Roberto put two fingers on Michael’s neck. Then he slowly pulled them away.

It was at that moment that all of us knew what that meant. We all knew what just happened.

Suddenly the world outside was a much quieter place.

Chapter 11

Roberto

It’s my fault.

That’s all that I was thinking ever since the accident. I crashed into that stop sign. I lost control.

I killed Michael.

How was I supposed to live with myself? How was I supposed to go to sleep every night knowing that I was responsible? How could I?

The hardest part was breaking the news to our parents. Especially Michael’s. How was I supposed to tell his mother that I got into a car crash and her son is dead?

After the crash, I very carefully drove out of that neighborhood and went to another, more secluded place. There we all got out of the car. Miguel and Alex had their hands on their heads and were walking around with no direction. Betty and Nancy were holding onto each other. Daisy had her arms folded. And Joey was standing there, running her hands through her hair.

And inside my car was Michael.

Once we were a safe distance away, I called 911. An ambulance came and took Michael away. They allowed me to follow them.

Once we got to the hospital, they rolled him into the ER, only to have a doctor come out to us in ten minutes shaking his head.

“We did all that we could,” the doctor said. “But there was too much damage done for it to be repaired. His aorta, which is the main tube that pumps blood to the arteries was ruptured, or it might have been torn from his heart. He died on the site of the car crash. I’m very sorry.”

Each word the doctor spoke was like a punch in the gut. My best friend was dead. And I killed him. I hadn’t been watching the road. And it was because of that stupid drink I had during beer pong. And looking back to see Nancy vomiting all over my car floor.

Stupid.

We were all stupid.

Eventually, Michael’s parents came to the hospital and her mother looked me straight in the eye. How was I going to face her?

I started to cry. I felt pathetic. Crying my eyes out in the waiting room of a hospital. Daisy sat down next to me in the chair and put her arm around me. I buried my face in my hands and cried.

“Roberto?”

I looked up and saw a woman standing before me. It was Michael’s mom. I couldn’t look at her.

“Tell me what happened.”

She was stern faced. Her jaw was set.

My breath came in hiccups. “I was driving … and I lost control of the car … and I crashed into another car … oh my God, Ms. Lopez, I am so sorry!” And then I started to cry again.

But Ms. Lopez didn’t break down like how I did. Instead, she turned and walked away. I knew she hated me. She could never forgive me. I couldn’t even forgive myself.

The seven of us were able to see our friend one last time before we were left. Michael was in a hospital bed. His eyes were closed. His features were relaxed.

Look at what you’ve done.

This time, I wasn’t the only one crying. All of us, we just joined hands around Michael. I reached to take Michael’s hand. It was cold. Nancy took Michael’s opposite hand and we just stood there for a while in silence.

He was dead but he just looked like he was sleeping.

It’s okay, I thought. He’s just sleeping and he’ll wake up and everything will be fine.

I looked at his face. His features looked so relaxed.

Wake up, Michael, I thought. Come on, wake up. Stop messing around.

But Michael didn’t wake up. And he wouldn’t wake up. And that’s when I started to cry all over again.

So I guess it looks like you’re not going to wake up.

“Michael, I’m sorry,” I struggled to say.

I’m sorry …

Chapter 12

Daisy

The funereal was set for November 1.

Word got out about Michael. They had an announcement in homeroom and a moment of silence. The principal didn’t give any details about how Michael died by our request. Only she knew about what really happened.

It sucks when someone dies. It hurt even more when you know the person. Michael meant something to all of us. I know especially to Roberto. The two were like brothers.

Things were quiet for Squad for the next few weeks. We still sat together at lunch. We still talked. But that was it. Each of us was grieving in our own way.

Now all of us are friends with each other and we can tell each other anything, but Roberto and I were really close. Closer than anyone else.

“I’m invited to the funeral,” Roberto told me one day at lunch when everyone else left.

“Are you gonna go?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I really want to. But imagine how awkward it’s going to be. I’m the one who was driving that night and he died because of me. And now I’m going to go see all of his family. How can I do that?”

“Roberto, you start by doing the hardest thing: forgiving yourself.”

Roberto shook his head. “I can’t, you see? I can’t forgive myself. How could I?”

I didn’t say anything because I understood what he was talking about. If it was me who was driving the car, I know I couldn’t live with myself.

“Roberto it’s okay to mourn,” I told him. “I actually think it’s good to mourn. But you have get over it. Get yourself busy. Don’t just sit at home and do nothing.”

“It’s just at the party he told me not to drink anything,” Roberto continued. “And then Nancy started throwing up and I turned around and ran that stop sign. It’s so stupid. We were all so stupid. We should never have gone to that party. I just feel so … I feel so angry …”

“You know nothing good ever comes from being angry.”

“Maybe not. But if I have to hurt anyone else it might as well be me.”

“You’re getting angry at yourself? Is that okay?”

He didn’t answer. It was a good question. Personally, I think that there is a time for everything. Even a time to get angry. But there is also a time to be happy.

I just hoped that Roberto would one day learn to forgive himself for what he feels like was his fault.

Chapter 13

Nancy

The worst kind of crying is the kind late at night when everyone else is asleep and you can feel it rising in your chest and throat. You try to hold it in. But what you really want to do is cry and scream.

That’s how I was feeling the night of Michael’s funeral. No I wasn’t invited but I knew that the ceremony was during the day.

And the worst kind of pain is when you can literally feel it in your chest. The pain is so real and so raw that you can’t help but lie there on your bed and allow the crushing weight of loneliness press down on you.

I didn’t eat anything that whole day. I tried singing songs, but my voice failed as I tried to sing. I tried screaming and once I did, tears came out of my eyes.

“Do you know what it feels like? To want everything to stop?”

I was just talking to myself. Thankfully no one was at home to see me break down.

I was a hot mess because not only did one of my closest friends die, but I found out my boyfriend was cheating on me – with one of my friends I introduced him to.

If you looked up the word “sorrow” in the dictionary, you’d see a picture of me hugging my legs, and me burying my face in my knees.

But the pain of loss was unbearable. It wasn’t like I would see Michael in school on Monday. He was gone. He was gone forever.

I can’t forget what Michael said about pain.

“Pain is lonely. And like all lonely people, they want to be noticed. So pain is always searching for someone. He finds those who are hurting and spends time with them. And that’s when we like his company because we’re lonely ourselves and second because at least we’re feeling something. But then after a while, the pain gets too bothersome and it’s our choice to either kill it, or let it take over you.”

Michael always gave great advice. He could literally look at any situation from any perspective and tell you this thoughts. And right now, I desperately needed someone like him to talk to.

Have you ever been that desperate that you needed someone to talk to? Because that’s how I was feeling.

I felt completely helpless. The situation I was in was totally out of my control. I couldn’t do anything about it.

Pain, take me over, I thought.

It’s just like Michael said: it’s funny how after a while you start to enjoy the pain because at least you’re feeling something.

Chapter 14

Joey

Okay let me get one thing straight.

Joey isn’t my real name. It’s my nickname. My real name is Annaiee but my middle name is Jhovey. So, naturally, everyone calls me Joey.

And you thought I was a guy this whole time.

But anyway, here’s the thing. Even though I really didn’t know Michael, it was still hard to deal with the pain of someone dying. And I know it was way worse for the others since they all knew Michael longer than I had.

I wasn’t even supposed to go to the party. But Betty dragged me along.

Beatriz and I are like sisters. In fact, we are sisters. I don’t care what anyone has to say. If I’m going out with a bunch of friends that my parents don’t know, I tell them that I’m going with Betty and they’re okay with it. It’s the same deal with her parents.

Had we been blood sisters, our mom would’ve gone insane a long time ago.

I don’t think anyone was expecting us to be victims of a car crash. I know I wasn’t.

I knew that as Betty’s closest friend, I needed to make time for her in her time of mourning. Even if I didn’t feel the pain of Michael’s loss as much as she, or the others, did, it was still my responsibility as her friend to be there for her.

That’s what sisters are for.

Chapter 15

Beatriz

Maintaining the number 10 position in your class rank is not so easy. If I mess up just a little bit, I’m out of the list. If I were like number seven or something and I mess up, number eight still is great.

So I was pretty burdened with school work. It wasn’t anything new, really. I had been in the top ten since freshman year, but now it’s a lot worse. People tell you that your senior year is super chill, I would like to disagree and say that it’s probably the hardest year. I suppose I can’t blame anyone. I do have six AP classes.

But what made things worse is how Michael was gone.

I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t accept this. I’m the kind of girl who needs closure; I can’t let things go unsaid. But this time I had to. Michael was never coming back and I had to accept this harsh reality.

And Nancy.

I love everyone in Squad equally, but Nancy holds a special place in my heart. Maybe it’s because she was my first friend at Monroe High School. Maybe it’s because we’re different enough to still have some similarities. Either way, Nancy will always have a special place in my heart.

And to see her after her boyfriend dumped her was terrible. Because not only was she dealing with the loss of Issac, but Michael too.

“I hate how I saw this coming,” Nancy told me one day when we were at lunch. “I hate how we walk past each other like we’re strangers. I hate how he was such a big part of my life and now he’s just gone.”

“Nancy, don’t worry about him anymore,” I said. “He’s an idiot. If he can’t see how great you are then he’s not worth your time.”

“But that’s the thing, you see? You know how much it hurts when you put so much faith into one person, only to have them throw it away? Let me tell you, the pain is too real.”

“You really liked this guy, didn’t you?”

She nodded. “And I changed a lot too. I thought that we would be able to grow together, learn from each other. And for a little while, we did. But then he pushed me away.”

“Well if you learned something, then that’s good isn’t it?”

“Yeah but like, I just didn’t want to learn through pain.”

“It’s necessary to go through pain in order to grow,” Miguel chimed in. “I think Maslow said that.”

“Who the heck is Maslow?” Nancy asked.

“This philosopher guy.”

“Well whoever he is,” I said, “he’s right.”

“Just don’t worry about it, Nancy.” Miguel said. “I mean the way I see it, what’s the purpose of dating?”

“I feel like the purpose is to marry them,” Nancy said.

“Exactly. See, I’ve learned to ask myself whenever I start to like someone if this is someone I am willing to marry.”

“Wow, Miguel,” I said. “That was deep.”

He shrugged. “I learned a lot over the years.”

“If there’s one thing I learned from Issac,” Nancy said, “it’s to never trust anyone so easily.”

“I mean I guess that’s good,” Miguel said. “It’s okay to be skeptical, but you should never stay that way. It’s okay to be friends with everyone, but you should only have a few close friends that you get close with.”

Nancy nodded. “Yeah I guess you’re right. And you guys are my close friends.”

I love deep talks with Squad. Seriously, whenever anyone of us is having a bad day, talking with them can make things so much better. Sometimes the only therapy you need is a talk with your best friends.

Chapter 16

Roberto

I walked into my AP Calculus room and took my seat in the fifth seat in the first row. The reason I chose this seat was because I could lean against the wall when Mr. Turtle droned on and on about who knows what.

I didn’t do any of my homework for this class and I was nervous that he’d grade it and my grade in the class would drop, but someone was looking out for me because we had a substitute teacher.

“Okay everyone,” Mr. James – as he called himself – said. “Mr. Turtle left a worksheet for you guys to do. You all can talk with each other but don’t let it get too loud.”

“Can we listen to music?” someone asked.

“Yes, but make sure nobody else can hear it.”

I got the worksheet and immediately checked if there was a backside. And there was. I knew that I wasn’t going to do this at home so I might as well finish it now.

Normally whenever there was a sub, the people I sat around and I always talked. Nothing changed, except that I felt so alone.

“Hey, Roberto?” Vanessa asked.

I looked up. “Yeah?”

“Some of us are planning on going to the movies this Saturday. Think you can make it?”

“This Saturday?”

She nodded.

“Yeah, dude, you should totally come,” this guy in class named Mohamed said. “It’ll be great.”

“I don’t know, maybe …”

Another guy sitting near us – Zach – said, “Roberto can come and all, but just don’t let him drive!” He sat back and smiled, pleased with himself; as if he said the funniest thing in the world.

I didn’t look at him. It felt like I had just ran face first into a brick wall. I looked down at the worksheet. Suddenly, calculus looked so much more interesting. I couldn’t help but remember how much Michael used to come to me for help with math. I found it easy. And I would always try to simplify it for him.

Not anymore.

“Zach!” Vanessa said in shock. “What is wrong with you? Why’d you say that?”

Zach put his hands out. “What are you talking about? It was no big deal.”

“No big deal?!”

“Vanessa, it’s okay,” I said quietly so only she could hear. “Just forget him.”

I had just gotten hurt and I had to pretend like it was no big deal. I had gotten pretty good at it lately.

Chapter 17

Joey

Betty and I went out for lunch after school the day before Thanksgiving break. There was this small Chinese restaurant that had good food and cheap prices, so we decided to go there.

“How are you feeling? With … you know …” I asked once we got our food.

Betty shook her head. “I’m not doing so good.”

“Why?”

She sighed. “It’s just, I can’t accept the fact that Michael is gone. He was such a big part of our lives and now he’s just gone. I can’t accept that. I can’t let things go unsaid. I need closure. Everything just doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Well how can you expect to get closure?”

She shrugged. “I can’t, that’s the thing. I can’t just dial his number and tell him what’s on my mind. But honesty, Joey, what I’m worried about is how Roberto is doing.”

“He thinks it’s his fault,” she continued. “How am I supposed to tell him that it’s not?”

I sighed, not knowing what to say. “I mean, I don’t think there’s anything any of us can do. We all have different ways of being sad and we all get over it different ways at different times. For Roberto, this was a really shocking event. And it might take him one week to move on, or three years. We don’t know. The only thing we can do is just be there for him and make sure he doesn’t do anything he’ll regret.”

At that second, something popped into my mind. Betty’s “squad” was her, Roberto, Daisy, Nancy, Miguel, Alex, and Michael. But now, it felt like I was a part of their group. It felt like I had taken Michael’s place.

I pushed that thought away. I had no business thinking like that.

“You’re right,” Betty said. “It’s just that I can’t believe all of this is happening. I’m just glad you’re here.”

“Yeah …” I said, nodding, realizing that now I was a part of the Squad. “Of course.”

Then Betty started laughing.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“It’s just, we just jumped right into this deep conversation.”

“Of course, that’s what best friends do! We’re not all like ‘hi, how are you? How was your day?’ No! We start the deep conversations right away!”

Betty started laughing again and it felt good to make her laugh. For at least a few seconds, she wasn’t sad.

It felt good to be a good friend.

Chapter 18

Daisy

It’s one thing to get lied to. But it’s another thing when you lie to yourself.

And that’s what I felt I was doing.

I’ve built up walls for myself. I’ve shut a lot of people out. The only ones that know me are in Squad. Otherwise, I never let myself be open to anyone.

But every once in a while, I can go back to my old ways and I feel like I betrayed myself. Betraying yourself is worse because yes I trust my friends, but deep, deep, deep down, the only person I really trust, is myself.

So when I found out I was allowing myself to fall for this guy named Isayah, I knew that things were not okay.

It was now December. The snow was starting to fall, Christmas music was playing on the radio and in the malls, and I loved it. There’s something about the Christmas season that gets me so happy.

“Hey, girl,” Isayah said once I got to the mall, taking me into his arms. “You took your time.”

“Sorry,” I said. “The bus was slow.”

“Uh huh …”

We walked into the mall and we first got hot chocolate. I wasn’t technically expecting Isayah to pay so I bought it myself. I mean, we could go on and on debating on who should pay when on a date.

Did I just call this outing a date?

Anyway, we went to a store called Our Future, which is where I love to shop. Most guys think that girls only wear one pair of leggings, but have you looked inside my drawers?

“Why do girls like to wear leggings so much?” Isayah asked.

“Because leggings are life,” I said.

“But don’t they get uncomfortable?”

“No. Jeans are uncomfortable.”

Isayah shrugged. “I’ll never understand.”

I giggled and picked up a size small pair of leggings and went over to a rack with open front cardigans. Isayah hung back and was starting at his phone, typing away.

After I paid for my leggings, we went out of the store and went to a show store where he started looking at brand name basketball shoes.

“Oh man!” he exclaimed. “These are the Pro Gird Air MXVs’!” I wasn’t even sure how to describe these shoes. They didn’t even look like shoes. They looked like boxes. They were high tops, I guess. They were white and had hints of blue and orange on them. I don’t even know what I’m saying. In my opinion, they were ugly.

“These things are brand new,” Isayah said, holding onto the display shoe like it was the Holy Grail.

“How much are they?” I asked out of curiosity.

“225 dollars.”

My jaw dropped. “That much?! That’s crazy!”

Isayah shook his head and made I face like I just said the dumbest thing ever. “Do you not know how amazing these shoes are? Of course I’d spend that kind of money on them.”

I didn’t say anything and looked away, starting to boil inside. Who does he think he’s talking to like that?

Isayah didn’t buy those Pro Air things he called shoes. But I certainly didn’t like the way he was talking to me.

For example …

“What do you think about this?” I asked him holding up a gray thermal.

He looked up from his phone. “That’s nice.”

“You think so? I feel like it’s kind of boring. But if I were to wear it with like Converse or something …?” I looked at him again, waiting to hear his thoughts, but he was busy on his phone.

“What?” he asked.

“Never mind,” I said. “I’ll get it some other time.”

I wonder … I thought. Since I’m Daisy and am hilarious, I decided to be funny right now.

Even though it’s winter, this store still had out some summer clothes. Why? I don’t know. But I walked over, Isayah trailing somewhere behind me, and looked for the skimpiest crop top I could find.

“Ooo!” I said in mock enthusiasm. “Look at this! You like this, Isayah?”

He lifted his head and nodded. “Yeah, that’ll look great on you.”

Okay, that’s a big no-no, I thought. Never in my entire life would I have word that kind of crop top and to hear him say that it would look great on me was a huge mistake. I put the crop top back on the rack and offered to leave the store.

Did I mention that Isayah was the one who planned this whole outing?

“So what are we doing next?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s whatever you want to do.”

This always gets me mad. I am a firm believer in if the guy is planning the outing, then you need to have the outing planned out! Don’t just be like ‘oh I don’t care, it’s whatever you want to do.’ That’s like rule number one if you’re trying to get a girlfriend.

Come on, guys! Step it up!

“Okay, how about a movie?” I suggested. I knew I shouldn’t have, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

“There are no good movies out, though,” he said.

Boy, you are really starting to irritate me, I thought. I could literally feel the irritation on my skin.

“Are you hungry? Wanna eat something?”

Isayah shook his head. “Nah, I’m good.”

Are you going to ask me if I’m hungry?

We stood there for a good five seconds awkwardly staring at each other. I heard Isayah’s phone buzz and he checked it and started laughing.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Huh?” he asked.

Don’t you hate it when you couldn’t be clearer and the other person is still like “huh?”

“Who are you talking to?” I asked again, trying to keep my cool.

“Oh, no one.”

“It’s obviously someone.”

He shrugged. “It’s my friend Amanda.”

“Oh, okay,” I said, again, trying to play it off, hoping he’d catch on how he was pretty much ignoring me.

You want to know what happened next?

We sat down on one of the benches in the middle of the mall and were on our phones. It’s one thing if I was doing it because I didn’t check it all day. But Isayah was on it since we walked into the mall.

“Communication is key,” Miguel would always say. But should I really have to be the one to initiate ant sort of conversation?

No, I shouldn’t.

“Hey, I have to leave now,” I said, wondering if he heard me.

Silence. What was I really expecting? A simple “bye?”

“Oh,” he said. “Okay, I guess we can go now.”

I said I have to leave. You don’t have to come with me.

We walked outside and then he waited for the bus with me. Once it came, we hugged for like two seconds and then I got on it. I honestly like bus rides because I’m able to listen to music while looking out the window and just think.

My problem was falling for guys like Isayah. I knew they were playing hard to get, which is why girls like to go after them because they feel like they need to get approval or attention from them. I should know because I was like that once upon a time. But the scary thing is that maybe I still am like that. I knew what kind of guy Isayah was like and yet I still allowed myself to spend a day with him. Didn’t I learn my lesson? My heart had been broken many times in the past and still I never learned.

I suppose it was time to build up my walls again and enclose myself in them. It was a tedious routine, but how sad is it to say that I’ve gotten my heart broken so many times that I’ve gotten used to it?

Chapter 19

Nancy

I think that taking the bus during the winter months is the worst possible time in the year for public transportation. A lot of people are trying to get out of the cold which makes the bus packed. Plus the bus I take goes right in front of school so everyone going south gets on it.

Miraculously, I got a seat next to the window. I was listening to music, trying to drown out all of the conversations around me, when I felt my phone vibrate. I checked and saw that it was Maria, my ex’s new girlfriend.

Maria and I were friends, so of course I had her number. But it wasn’t until recently I found out that she and Issac were a thing. And honestly, I don’t care about either of them anymore. I had no feelings for Issac anymore, and Maria and I no longer talked.

But these last two weeks, she’s been constantly texting and messaging me talking a whole lot about how she’s perfect for Issac.

Like I care?

I checked the message, and it was a looong message this time. I almost smiled. As if I cared what she thought about me.

Nancy, I’m not holding anything back now. You’re not pretty. You don’t have a good personality. You’re not polite. You are a mess.

I’m so glad that Issac saw that I am SO much better for him than you. See, I know that he’s my man and I’m going to stick with him and please him. Something you never knew how to do.

What does it feel like to be unwanted? How does it feel to be a disappointment?

I’m laughing so hard right now. Why was I ever friends with you?

Okay, a couple of things:

#
p<>{color:#000;}. I couldn’t care less about what you have to say, Maria

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Stop talking to me

#
p<>{color:#000;}. I don’t care about you

I am not necessarily the nicest person. But that’s because I have trust issues. I mean, once you’ve gotten your heart broken as many times as I have, the best way to protect it is to pretend you don’t have one.

Maybe I should confront Maria about this. Just end this once and for all because she was getting pretty annoying now.

And this isn’t the first message she’s sent me.

They normally went along the lines of:

Nancy, you’re ugly.

Nancy, you’re worthless.

You’re never going to be loved.

You’re a failure, a disappointment, and a mistake.

You know the quote “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me”? Words can definitely hurt. Words also have the power to heal. It’s amazing how much power the tongue has.

And I figured I was going to use some of that power tomorrow.

Chapter 20

Beatriz

Here’s the texting-conversation Nancy I had that evening about the situation she was in:

Nancy: I’m just wondering why she’s talking to me

Beatriz: She’s just trying to get under your skin, Nancy. Don’t listen to her

Nancy: Yeah but like, it’s annoying and I want her to stop

Beatriz: I think you should confront her and talk to her

Nancy: Honestly I just hope she won’t insult me or anything

Beatriz: Don’t listen to them

Nancy: Yeah but honestly they kind of hurt 

Beatriz: I know, Nancy, but trust me, once you talk to her and get this sorted out, you’ll feel so much better

Nancy: I guess you’re right

Beatriz: When are you going to do it?

Nancy: Hopefully during lunch tomorrow

Beatriz: Okay, and you’ve got all of us supporting you just in case so don’t worry 

Nancy: Thanks, Betty <3

Chapter 21

Nancy

I tried not to be nervous about talking to Maria. It wasn’t so much having a conversation that scared me, it was what she was going to say. Because I certainly could be rude to her, but then I’d be giving her what she wanted. Instead I had to be kind and humble and show her wrong.

“I am fat,” Miguel said. “I haven’t worked out ever since soccer ended.”

“Wasn’t that like two months ago?” Daisy asked.

“Yeah, but I haven’t seriously done anything since then and I feel terrible.”

“Cheerleading is still going on so I have to go to practice all the time.”

“Cheerleading isn’t a sport, Daisy,” Alex teased.

Daisy’s jaw dropped, but I knew she was smiling. They have had this argument several times. “How do you sound? Cheerleading is a sport. Oh my gosh, have you not seen what we have to do?”

Alex started laughing. “Anybody can do cheerleading.”

“Let’s see you do back flips off of human pyramids, then.”

“I’d love to, but I already do a sport.”

“Track isn’t a sport, Alex. It’s just running.”

Alex looked at Daisy seriously. “Race me, then.”

Then the two started laughing. That’s what I needed right now: comfort. Because I was so anxious all throughout the day about confronting Maria.

“Nancy, are you going to talk to Maria?” Beatriz asked.

I looked around and saw her walking back to her table. Ugh, ever since she started going out with Issac, I’ve literally seen a change in her appearance. She had this scowl on her face that was never there before. She had double cat eyed makeup on instead of the standard one.

It’s now or never, Nancy.

I got up and walked so that I was blocking Maria from getting to her table.

Once she saw me, she raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms.

This should be good, I thought.

“Maria,” I said.

She didn’t say anything, just stood there, looking at me, maybe judging me. I quickly glanced at her outfit: leggings, a white button down shirt, a maroon scarf around her neck and tan ankle boots. I, on the other hand, had jeans, sneakers, and a sweatshirt on.

I suddenly felt very small.

“Why are you constantly texting me?”

Maria scoffed. “I bet that I’m the only one.”

I brushed it off. “Can you please answer the question? Why can’t your relationship with Issac be just that? You and him.”

“Because I can’t believe how selfish you were. Issac deserved better than you and I just want it to be clear. And I won.”

“Won what? Won Issac? Won the satisfaction of harassing me? You’re perfect for Issac. Okay. Great. But just leave me alone because there’s no reason why you should be trying to demean me.”

“If you keep talking, you actually might say something intelligent.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but I closed it. I was clearly getting nowhere with this girl. Maybe I should just ignore her from now on.

“Okay, but can you just stop texting me and –”

And that is when I felt her fist collide with my jaw.

It took me a second for my mind to process what just happened. I just got punched.

All right, no regrets, I thought.

I reached out for her and pulled her hair. She grabbed onto my forearms and pushed them away. She threw another punch aimed at my nose, but I blocked it just in time and shoved her away from me. She recoiled like a spring and I felt another punch in my gut. I doubled over, gasping for air when I forced myself to suck in air and stand straight up. I had to act fast. I reached out my hand and smacked her across her right cheek.

I lunged towards her, letting my emotions guide my actions. But that’s when I felt arms wrap around my stomach and pull me away. Someone came and pulled Maria away from me. I turned around and saw Miguel behind me. Maria was struggling against Issac.

That’s when the security guards came and Maria slowly settled down. There was silence in the entire lunchroom. I suddenly felt my face get very hot. I knew my cheeks were flaring up. I felt hot tears in my eyes and there was nothing more I wanted to do then cry.

Michael! Where are you?

I need you here.

Chapter 22

Nancy

Things got pretty messy after the fight.

Maria and I had to go to Mr. Warren’s office. He was the Dean and wanted each of us to tell our side of the story.

“Well Nancy here decided to come up to me and threatened to fight me if I didn’t stop talking to her ex,” she lied.

“What?! NO!” I cried. “That is not what happened!”

“Nancy, calm down,” Mr. Warren said. “Continue, Maria.”

“Like I was saying … yeah so as it turns out, she decided to fight me right then and there.”

Mr. Warren nodded and then turned to me. “And what is your story?”

“Okay, first of all,” I began, “I didn’t threaten anyone. Yes, Issac and I broke up and now he’s with Maria. But Maria’s been texting me a whole lot of hate these past two weeks and I wanted it to end so I told her that. And then she was the first one to punch me.”

“All right,” Mr. Warren said. “I’ve heard both of your stories. Mr. Lopez says that he saw Maria punch Nancy. Because of this, Maria, you are going to have to serve four detentions.

“As for you Nancy, I agree that you were defending yourself, but you approached Maria.”

“Did I approach her knowing she was going to punch me?” I challenged. And then I realized that I wasn’t in a good position to be challenging anyone.

“Regardless, you will serve two detentions.” He paused. “And to ensure that this will never happen again … your parents will have to pick you up from the police station.”

Both of our jaws dropped.

“You’re going to arrest us?” Maria asked.

“It’s a learning experience so neither of you will do something like this to each other, or anyone else for that matter, ever again.”

“That’s crazy! I can’t believe you’re going to do this, Mr. Warren!”

“Maria, you are going to calm down right now or I can enforce a suspension on the grounds of cyber bullying.”

Maria shut up instantly.

The police man who is on duty at school had to give us both a pat down. They put my against a wall, spread my legs, and found out that I wasn’t in possession of any weapon. Then, he handcuffed me and led me outside to his police car where I was then driven to the police station and put into a holding cell until my parents came and picked me up.

The whole time I was silent. I think I was reading somewhere about a sheep being silent before its shearer. I don’t know why I was thinking of that metaphor right now. And then it hit me.

Michael.

He said that once you’ve been served injustice, all you can do is be silent and accept it, like how a sheep is before all of its wool is shaved off.

In this case, the injustice was everything Maria did to me. And there was nothing I could do but accept what was happening and go through it.

I was just afraid what would happen once my parents found out.

Chapter 23

Nancy

I have a little sister who’s eight and I love her dearly. But once I saw her walking into the police station with my mom, I hated how she would always have this image of me: sitting in a holding cell. I don’t think she knows what a holding cell is yet, so I bet she was thinking that her older sister was in jail.

My mom signed whatever documents needed to be signed and then they let me go. I knew that she had work and she had to take time out of her day to not only pick up Esmeralda, but me too. And the police station is not close to her job.

Just one look and I knew I had messed up. Big time.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

All my mom did was nod. “What were you thinking? Getting into a fight at school?! This shouldn’t have happened, Nancy. This was easily preventable.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “You have to get home by yourself now, Nancy. Take Esmeralda.” I took my little sister’s hand and held onto it a little tighter than normal.

I fought back the tears that were coming. “Mama … I’m sorry …” I tried as hard as I could, but tears came out of my eyes. My mom looked away and nodded.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. Allowing myself to cry now.

“It’s okay, baby,” my mom said. I felt her arms around me and Esmeralda’s skinny arms around my waist. The three of us were hugging each other in front of the police station, crying. And it was okay.

“Just don’t do it again, okay?” she said.

I nodded and wiped my tears away. I had been crying a lot recently.

My mom went back to work, and Esmeralda and I took the bus back home. By the time we got back, it was four thirty and I was late for my job.

I quickly heated some left over pizza for Esmeralda and splashed some water on my face. Once I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw a different girl. Her hair was messy, her eyes were red and puffy, and there were bags under them. Her cheeks were losing color.

Come on, girl, I told myself. You gotta go out there. You gotta fake a smile and pretend it’s all okay.

But I couldn’t just pretend my life was okay. Maybe I was going to be okay. But I don’t see anything changing for me anytime soon.

Most girls my age want new clothes, or a new phone, or to eat and not gain weight. But I just wanted to be happy.

Chapter 24

Beatriz

“I can’t believe that happened,” I said when I visited Nancy at work. She had an hour long break and she asked me to visit her.

I knew she was exhausted. Not only did she have an eventful day – with Maria and getting dragged to the police station – but she was emotionally distraught. It’s one thing to say you’re over somebody, but it’s a totally different thing to actually be over them.

“I just don’t know anymore, Betty,” Nancy said, sounding very tired. “I don’t feel like I can do any of this anymore. I mean … Michael is gone. He died. I never experienced someone as close to me die.”

I sighed. “I know what it’s like.”

“You do?”

I nodded. “My grandmother. She died of a heart attack. No one saw it coming. She was just going about her day, cooking, dusting the shelves, making her bed, when all of a sudden, it happened.”

“Oh I’m so sorry Betty.”

“It’s okay. It happened a while ago. I just didn’t want to tell anybody about it.”

I noticed how red and puffy Nancy’s eyes were. I knew those eyes. She had been crying. I wondered if my eyes looked like that. I’ve had my share of grief in the past month or so.

“It’s not only Michael or Issac,” Nancy continued. “It’s my family. I mean I have to work this job, I have school, I have to take care of Esmeralda because my step father certainly isn’t going to, and my mom works in downtown and gets home late at night and has to leave early in the morning. I mean, what kind of life is this? Why am I supposed to live like this?”

“I don’t know, Nancy,” I said truthfully. “It’s just the way things are. Sometimes you can’t control the situation so you’re forced to go through it.”

“But how long will it have to be like this? I have had enough pain. I want to finally be happy.”

“I know. We all do. We all deserve to be happy.”

There was a moment’s silence after that. I started to think about pain and what it can do to you. There’s so many pieces to pain: sadness, anger, confusion, hopelessness. I could go on and on. But it’s kind of funny. Even though you’re going through pain, you kind of like it because at least you’re feeling something. Michael taught us that.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” Nancy said.

“What?” I asked.

“How one thing can be so devastating.”

Memories flashed through my mind and I smiled a sad smile. “Yeah … you’re right.”

Something I thought that was interesting which I experienced recently was how we don’t know anyone’s story when we first meet them. They could be hiding a world of sorrow that only they know about. Or they could be wearing a mask. Either way, I know that for me and squad, our lives were a world of pain.

But being alive is well worth the pain.

Chapter 25

Roberto

Christmas was on the way and so was winter break. All of us needed a break from school. I say school but what I really mean is: homework, tests, pressure, tension, anxiety, stress and all of the other emotions associated with going to school.

I know for me, things weren’t going okay. I just couldn’t find a way to not blame myself for what happened. It’s been nearly two months and I still can’t forget it.

I can’t forgive myself. Not after what happened. Not after what I did.

The thing all of us needed was to be together. We were so busy with our lives that we haven’t seen each other in a long time in a non-school setting. So we decided to go ice skating.

“Ooo! We gone!” Miguel said after letting go of Daisy’s hands.

“There you go! You got it!” Daisy said. Miguel was skating on his own for about five seconds when he lost balance and fell down. Daisy stood there and laughed at him.

“Man, I hate this,” he said, taking Daisy’s hands and helping him up. “Why are you so good at this, Daisy?”

“’Cause I’ve been ice skating since I was like eight.”

Miguel groaned and held onto the wall and pulled himself along.

“You can’t do that, Miguel.” Nancy said, skating past him. “That’s cheating!”

“Either I hold onto the wall or I’m going to fall.”

“I agree with Miguel,” Betty said from behind him. “I am not letting go of this wall.”

“Come on, Nancy,” Daisy said.

The two of them skated off as if they were Olympic skaters. The rest of us, on the other hand, looked so sad.

“I think I’m getting the hang of this,” Alex said, nearly squatting and going less than half a mile an hour.

“Nice job, Alex!” Joey congratulated.

“Hold on wait, don’t leave me behind!” I called out. Like Miguel and Betty, I wasn’t letting go of the wall.

“You guys look terrible,” Nancy said, coming up next to us. She turned around and was skating backwards. She took out her phone. “Look here!”

I was focused on not falling, so I couldn’t look at the camera. Suddenly, I heard a scream and then Miguel’s laughter. I looked and saw the Betty had fallen and was sitting there on the ice like her life was over.

“Whose idea was it to go ice skating?” she said while Miguel helped her up.

After ice skating, we went to a place called Sweets Café where we all got hot chocolate and sat around the lounge area where the couches were.

“Have I told you the story about the Bush Fairy?” Miguel asked.

“The what?” Daisy asked.

“Oh man this is a good story.” All of us got comfier in our seats and began to listen to Miguel’s story.

“Okay so this happened this past summer when I was in Wisconsin. So my cousin and I decided to go get pizza at like ten at night, right? So we get out bikes and we go down the path to the town to the pizza shop.”

“Wait, why’d you decide to go get pizza at ten o’ clock?” Joey asked.

“Because we were hungry,” Miguel said. “Anyway, we get one box of pizza and we’re riding back to his house. I’m eating the pizza as we’re biking because I was extra hungry. Now remember, this is farmland so there are no street lights so I can barely see where my cousin is leading me.

“Anyway, I call out to tell him that I was going to stop on the side of the road and finish the pizza. Now I don’t think he heard me because he kept on riding. But I knew the way to his house so I was okay. So he keeps riding away. Oh by the way, only my cousin had the phone.

“How do only one of you have a phone?” Daisy asked.

“I don’t know,” Miguel said, laughing.

“Goofy,” Betty said.

Miguel waved his hand in the air and continued with the story. “Okay so my cousin keeps on riding to his house but he feels like someone is watching him. And you have to cross by this river to get to his house which he was by and then ee saw someone jump into the bushes by the river.

“So my cousin, he’s so stupid, he goes down there to see what was happening. He goes up to the bush and is like ‘okay Miguel, I know it’s you, stop messing around.’ But then, this guy pops his head out of the bush and goes ‘boo! I’m the Bush Fairy!’”

He pauses as all of us start laughing.

“And this guy jumps out of the bush and the only thing he’s wearing is like a … what’s it called? Like thick plaid?”

“Flannel?” Nancy suggested.

“Yeah, like this flannel shirt around his waist. Anyway, the Bush Fairy, or whatever, says something like ‘come to my secret lair!’ And my cousin is like ‘uhh, no thanks.’ So then my cousin runs away and calls the police.

“Now, all of this is happening while I’m eating my pizza. So when I get done I keep on riding up to his house but then all I see is this bike by the side of the road and I recognize it’s my cousins so I start freaking out, thinking something happened to him.

“So I like go down by the river but then I see a whole bunch of police cars by there. And I literally felt like I was going to have a heart attack because I’m thinking maybe my cousin drowned or something.

“So I go up to one of the policemen and say, ‘this may sound really dumb, but do you have a phone I could borrow to call my cousin?’ And apparently, I looked a lot like the guy they were trying to catch so they put me in the police car and I was so confused.

“But then, I see another policeman walking towards the car with the Bush Fairy. Then the first police guy I talked to let me out and put the Bush Fairy in the car. And I ask the policeman who he is and he tells me that this guy was like the most wanted in the whole county because he was on a lot of drugs.

“And then I met up again with my cousin and we went back home.”

Nancy, Daisy, and Alex were laughing. Betty was shaking her head with a smile on her face. And Joey was smiling. This is what we missed. This is what all of us needed. To be together when all of us were feeling our worst.

And for a moment, all of the pain seemed to disappear. For a moment, we were all right. Because all of us were together. Even after what we have been through, we were still friends.

Chapter 26

Joey

Here’s the thing: I hate feeling left out. I’m sure that many of you reading this know what it feels like. And that’s how I felt when the Squad was out ice skating.

I mean it wasn’t like they totally ignored me. They’re all such nice people, but I didn’t know any of them like how I knew Betty.

“I mean I consider you a part of us now,” Betty told me when we were texting one night during winter break.

Here’s another confession: I have had groups of friends each year. Like there was a group of friends that hung out a lot during freshman year that fell off once sophomore year started. But this Squad has been together for at least a year now. And to say that I’m a part of it felt like an honor, to be extreme.

It felt good to finally belong to a group of people. There wasn’t anything wrong with wanting to fit in. It’s in our human nature to want to. And now that I was a part of Squad, it was good to be alive.

Chapter 27

Daisy

Isayah and I were together after school the second week we got back from break. We went out to eat and were sitting in the restaurant just talking. We had been talking all throughout winter break but we hadn’t seen each other face to face. And I guess he learned a few communication skills since our last meeting.

“Did that really happen?” he asked.

“Yes!” I said, nodding. “Can you believe that?”

He shook his head and chuckled. “That’s how you’re not supposed to get a girl’s attention.”

I was telling him the story of Raul, the guy at the party, and how we was trying to get at me. “I know, right? Ugh, he was a jerk.”

“So, um, how about your friend. Michael?”

I nodded, my face getting tight. “Yeah, we were all pretty down. I mean, he was close to all of us and now he’s just gone.”

“Right. I get you. He’s just a memory you’re trying to forget.”

“Not a memory. But yeah, you can’t linger on the past. You gotta keep moving forward, you know?”

Wait. A. Minute.

Why did he just refer to Michael as ‘just a memory.’ Michael is more than just a memory. He is alive in us.

“Actually, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you, Daisy,” Isayah said.

I listened carefully.

“I was just wondering what we are exactly, you know? Like is there something happening between us?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Oh, I mean because, no offense to you or anything, but I don’t want to be wasting my time trying to find something that isn’t there.”

“Oh believe me. I don’t have time worth wasting.”

“So … is that a yes?”

I smiled. “Yes.”

He waited for the bus with me and then hugged me before I got on. Most girls who would be in my situation would be happy. But I wasn’t happy. I was angry. I was angry because I let this happen to myself again. Isayah wasn’t the right guy for me, but here I was allowing myself to be with him. I didn’t even put my defenses up. I just let him in. And the way he referred to Michael as just a memory. He wasn’t a memory. He was alive. He was alive through our memories. And there was nothing insignificant about it. But there was just something about Isayah that caught my attention. I don’t even know what it was.

As much as I trust Squad – and don’t get me wrong, I do – if there’s one person that I truly, honestly, genuinely trust is myself.

The worst part? I knew I just jumped in with both feet into something that will eventually break my heart.

Chapter 28

Daisy

If there’s someone in our group that thinks with their heart, it’s Alex. That’s why I thought he was the best person to talk to about me and Isayah.

“I mean do you like him?” he asked.

“Yeah, kinda,” I said. “I mean we’re just starting to get to know each other.”

“See I’m not so sure if I like that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Yeah I understand that you get to know the other person on a different level when you’re in a relationship, but I feel like you need to get to know them before you’re in a relationship with them. You know what I mean?”

I shook my head. “Not really.”

“Okay, what’s his taste in music?”

I stayed quiet for a few seconds. “Well, I’m pretty sure he likes rap or hip-hop. What does music have to do with this?”

Alex ignored me. “What’s his favorite food?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“What’s does he like to do in his free time?”

I started to realize where he was going with this.

“Okay, I understand. We really don’t know anything about each other.”

“And yeah you can learn everything about each other when you’re together, but still, at least for me, I want to get to know the person that I’m going to be in a relationship with first before putting myself in that situation.”

“I talked to him about Michael,” I told him.

“You did?” I nodded. “I mean, Michael is a touchy subject even for us. But we all trust each other. Do you trust him enough to talk to him about Micahel?”

“See that’s the thing. I trust you and everyone else with my life. That’s no question. But I don’t trust people easily. You have to earn my trust. It’s not because I’m arrogant or anything, it’s just that I have had my heart broken and played with and I don’t want to put myself though that again. But once I decide to put my trust in you, I am fiercely loyal and will do anything to keep you.”

“I know that’s what you’re like with us,” Alex said. “But do you trust Isayah like how you trust us? Are you fiercely loyal to him?”

I was about to say “yes” when I caught myself. Maybe I didn’t. Isayah and I didn’t have the best communication.

“I don’t know, Alex,” I confessed. It was time for me to display my emotions. Something I never do unless it’s with someone from our group. “The thing is, I never seem to learn from my past. Every time I like a guy, he turns out to be some inconsiderate jerk who plays with my heart and then throws me away and picks up another girl. That’s what I feel like is going to happen again.”

“You should stop your heart from getting so attached before you start to get too attached. I always say feelings must die, you’ve heard me say it before. But that’s because I’m like you, I don’t want to get my heart broken again.”

“You’ve gotten your heart broken before?”

“Yes. I have. I’ve never been in a relationship, but I’ve always liked girls who either already have a boyfriend or they like someone else.”

“Oh I see.”

“But this is about you right now. I’d say if you honestly think you see a future with this guy, then you need to give him a reason to want to be with you. Show him that you’re not like the rest of these girls.”

“Alex that’s really good advice,” I said truthfully. “See? This is why I like talking to you about these things.”

“I’m telling you, I’m the feelings master.”

“But if I can be honest, I don’t know why I’m in this relationship. I mean I took the first opportunity that I had for someone to pay attention to me without thinking it through.”

“That’s understandable,” Alex said, nodding. “We all want to be liked. But if you think that this isn’t going to work out, I’d say end it before it really begins.”

“You really think I should do that?”

He nodded. “Absolutely. You need to do whatever you need to do so you don’t get your heart broken.”

“Thanks, Alex,” I said, now knowing what I had to do.

“Of course,” he said. “I mean, what are friends for?”

I giggled. “Yeah you’re right.” I sighed. “I hate high school.”

“Why? All this high school drama?”

“All this pointless drama, honestly.”

“Well, college isn’t too far away …”

“I cannot wait till I go to college.”

Alex smiled. “Yeah, college does sound good right now.”

“Plus I’m so ready to meet new people.”

“But you’re never going to forget Squad, are you?”

I shook my head. “Absolutely not. How could I possibly forget you guys?” It was true. I never could. Not after what we’ve been through.

Chapter 29

Daisy

“I think I’m really starting to like him,” I told Roberto when we were waiting for the bus together after school.

“Isayah?” he asked. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah.”

Roberto didn’t say anything.

“What is it?”

“It’s just that … Isayah thinks he’s all that. He tries so hard to fit in but just fails miserably.”

“Yeah I get you, but I don’t think he’s like that. I think you’re misunderstanding him.”

“So you’re telling me that he actually listens to you and cares for you?”

“Yeah!” I said a little too quickly and defensively. I mean, he was, right? After all he’s invited me to the mall before. Of course he was on his phone the whole time.

“Daisy, we both know where this road might lead you,” Roberto continued. “I don’t want to bring it up again, but remember Ivan?”

Ivan was my ex. And my goodness did we have one heck of a relationship.

I literally saw him kissing another girl and I still chased after him. While he was a cheat. But I still chased after Ivan. Roberto kept on telling me to end it with him, but I couldn’t.

Eventually, he broke up with me but I couldn’t believe that it happened. I was still so attached to him because we had been together for nearly six months. And the more I tried to figure out why he didn’t like me anymore, the more attached I got to him.

It was a horrible experience. It took a long time for me to heal after that, but when I did, I learned to never fall in love again; I was scared of getting hurt again.

“But Isayah isn’t a cheat,” I pointed out.

“It doesn’t matter,” Roberto said. “Isayah and Ivan are similar. Similar in the way they dress, the way they talk and act.”

I loved Roberto and everything, but he honestly didn’t know Isayah. He just knew him through face value.

“I don’t think you should be judging Isayah,” I said.

“I know I shouldn’t but I’m just looking out for you.”

“Yeah and I really appreciate that. But I think you should at least try to get to know him before you say those kinds of things about him.”

“I said the exact same thing about Ivan, remember? I said that I don’t think he’s the loyal type and look what happened. And I just don’t think Isayah is all that different.”

“Oh it’s that simple, right? It’s that simple to just point out all the wrong things in the guys that I like.”

“What?”

“Forget it,” I said. I could feel my temper rising.

“No really. What is it?”

I sighed in frustration and confusion. “It’s just that why do I always pick these kinds of guys?”

“I don’t think the problem is just with you, Daisy. It’s with almost all of the girls I know. They don’t pick the nice guys because they’re not used to guys who always call them beautiful, or the guys who show them off to their friends. No, they’re used to guys who ignore them and break their hearts. To them, that’s the only kind of love they ever experienced so they think when it happens, its love when it actually isn’t.

“And eventually when he’s had enough, he’ll forget you and you’re going to think you weren’t good enough for him and you’re going to try and figure out why he left you and the deeper you get yourself into that, the more attached you’re going to get to him and it just ends up as one big mess.”

That was exactly what happened with Ivan. I knew Roberto was right. But deep, deep down inside, the reason I was putting myself through this was because I missed having someone pay attention to me in that way. I missed affection. Ivan and mine’s first three months were amazing. And then the rest was all downhill.

I didn’t want to be alone anymore.

“Roberto,” I said, “I know you’re right. I honestly do.”

“Then what’s stopping you from ending this before it gets out of hand?” he asked.

I sighed. “Myself.”

“Oh, I see. Getting over yourself is the hardest battle to win.”

“But is it wrong of me to want to be loved?”

Roberto shook his head. “No it’s perfectly normal. We’re human. We all want to fit in. We all want to be liked.”

We stayed quiet for a little bit after that, just thinking. Maybe I should end it with Isayah before I got too attached and get my heart broken again. But then again, maybe he could turn out to be a nice guy and treat me right.

“You know he asked me about Michael,” I said slowly. I knew I was treading on dangerous territory here.

Roberto’s face tightened. “Really?”

“Yeah. He asked how I was feeling after what happened.”

“And what’d you say?”

“I basically said that I needed to get over it. And he said that Michael was just a memory now.”

“He’s not just a memory,” Roberto said firmly.

“I know! That’s what I was thinking too.”

Roberto exhaled sharply. “You know what happened today? Someone called me out on getting in that car crash.”

My jaw dropped. “Are you serious? What happened?”

Roberto nodded. “Well basically I was sitting in AP Physics and, you know Jackson?” I nodded. “Well we’re talking about Newton’s Laws of Motion and his first one is that an object in motion tends to stay in motion until an outside force acts on it.

“So this guy Jackson brings up an example of how I was driving, so I was in motion, and I crashed into the other car, which is the second part of the law.”

I didn’t understand physics to save my life, but somewhere in my brain, Newton’s Laws of Motion popped up. “He used the crash as an example to explain something in class? That’s so petty.”

“Yeah it was,” Roberto said, looking down. “I still can’t believe it happened. It happened once before too.”

“Roberto, we all feel the loss, but you need to move past this.”

“How can I move past it when everywhere I go and everything I do reminds me of him? If I’m with you and the others, it’s a reminder that Michael isn’t there. He’s no longer at school. He’s no longer in his room at home. He’s just gone.”

“I know he’s gone, but that’s why we need to put this in the past, where it belongs.”

Roberto and I have been friends since our freshman year. So I could tell when he was getting angry. And he was now.

“I’m tired of everyone saying that I should just get over it. This isn’t something that you can just get over. It’s going to take a long time.”

“Yeah I understand. But you have to start somewhere.”

“You don’t understand, Daisy,” Roberto said. “You’ll never understand.”

“Maybe I won’t, but at least I’m making an effort to heal.”

“Maybe I don’t want to heal.”

“Then that’s just stupid. Why would you want to stay in your misery?”

“Don’t say it’s stupid if you don’t understand what I’m feeling.”

I knew that his emotions were all running askew inside of him and he just needed time to sort through them. “Roberto, I know that you’re going through a lot right now. But please listen to me. It’s not good for you to keep blaming yourself for what happened. Because if you keep blaming yourself … I mean, it’s just not healthy for you.”

“But it is my fault, don’t you see?”

“If you keep saying that, then people are actually going to start accusing you of it.”

He pursed his lips and looked away. I saw that the bus was just about two blocks away. We needed to end his conversation on a good note.

“Promise me you’ll try to forget all of this,” I said.

Roberto just nodded.

“Michael would want you to.”

He nodded again.

“You know what, Roberto? All of us are trying to help you here and if you’re not going to actually listen to what we’re saying and make an effort to heal, then I’m sorry but maybe it really was your fault for what happened.”

The second I said those words, I instantly regretted it. That isn’t how I meant for it to come out.

He turned to look at me. The look in his eyes killed me. It was a look of betrayal and sadness. Of confusion. Of anger.

Of loneliness.

“Roberto …” I said. “That’s not what I mean. I’m sorry.”

The bus pulled up to a stop by us. We got on, paid our fair and sat in silence for the whole ride until I got off and he stayed on. I looked at him through the window as the bus drove away. He did too, but he turned his face away.

And I was ashamed of what I’ve done.

Chapter 30

Daisy

I got home and changed into sweatpants and a sweatshirt. I tied my hair up into a messy bun. I put my book bag down. I wasn’t going to do homework any time soon. I needed to heal and process my emotions first.

I heated some left over Chinese food and sat down in front of the TV and started to eat it. The whole time, I was in shock because of what I said to Roberto. I just confirmed what I was trying to help him forget.

And not only that, but my situation with Isayah. Was he worth my time? Or should I just get over it while I have a chance of not breaking my heart?

I suddenly missed Michael a lot more.

Words have the power of life and death,” Michael said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean that saying the wrong thing can end someone’s life. And saying the right thing can save them from taking their own life.”

“So you’re saying that because of what I said to Selena, she’s going to commit suicide?”

Selena was the girl who Ivan was cheating on me with. I told her that Ivan and I were dating and she should back off.

Michael shook his head. “No, but just remember that the things you say to someone can have a lasting impact on them.”

I knew that I hurt Roberto. Even if what I was saying was right, I still shouldn’t have gone and accused him. Not when I didn’t fully understand what he was going through.

After remembering that conversation with Michael, I started to get restless. I felt a lump in my throat. I felt a knot form in the pit of my stomach. It felt like I couldn’t breathe. I quickly got off the couch and stood up, breathing heavily.

Anxiety can kill.

I reached for my phone and called Roberto. I needed to tell him that I was sorry. But I went straight to voicemail. I dialed again. And when to voicemail again.

“Roberto, please answer,” I said, as I dialed his number again. “Please answer. I need to tell you how sorry I am.”

Voicemail.

I rubbed my forehead. “Roberto …”

I couldn’t bear to lose another friend.

Chapter 31

Roberto

In the last few weeks, I had devoted much of my free time to thinking about death.

No I wasn’t contemplating suicide, but I wondered about what dying would feel like. Is it like falling asleep? Do you feel yourself starting to separate from your body?

Every time the thought entered my mind, I tried pushing it away. But I could never really do it. Death was just as much of a part to life as Life.

I remember hearing a story when I was little about Death.

Death and Life have been in love since the beginning of time. Life’s beauty was radiant. She was ethereal. Death always had a cloud of darkness surrounding him. And the two loved each other.

One day, Life wanted Death to see the sun. He arose from the ground where his realm is, and went to the surface of the earth. But Death didn’t see any sun. For when he rose from the ground, the whole sky turned black and all of the living creatures that roamed the planet had suddenly died.

As an attempt to apologize, Death offered to bring Life into Hades to see the moon. But when Life reached the center of the earth, her light shined bright amidst the darkness. And all of the souls that Death had collected were instantly restored to their bodies.

Death knew that if he was to see Life, he would bring death with him. So it was then that Life and Death realized that they could never see each other. But their love prevailed. And so to this day, both Death and Life are separated.

The closest Life and Death can get, is seeing each other from their realms, separated by a gorge as deep as the earth; waiting until the time when they can be together forever.

It was just some folktale I heard a while ago that I remembered since I was thinking about death. It was a harrowing thought. And you can’t prevent it. It’s going to happen. You can’t do anything to stop it. That’s the worst part about it, honestly. Anxiety can kill just as easy as a knife can.

Suddenly, I felt a knot forming in my chest. It was getting tighter and tighter each second. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t even suck in air. My head started to feel hollow and empty.

I didn’t know it then, but I was having a panic attack.

Chapter 32

Roberto

It wasn’t a happy experience.

I woke up my parents in the middle of the night and they took me to the hospital. They put me in a bed, but I still felt my heart beating so fast that it felt like it would explode. They gave me sedatives and that helped, but when I woke up the next morning, I still felt it.

I wasn’t even sure what time it was when I opened my eyes. A nurse was already in the room, writing something on her clipboard.

“Hey, you’re awake,” she said, setting her clipboard aside. “How are you feeling?” She took the device that measures blood pressure.

“I don’t know,” I said, sounding and feeling beat up. “What … what exactly happened?”

“You had a minor panic attack,” she said. “We can be thankful that it wasn’t a heart attack or anything drastically serious. Why do you think you had a panic attack? Got a lot on your mind?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I bet. Your mother was telling me how one of your friends died in a car crash?”

I closed my eyes tightly and nodded. “Yes.”

“I know there are a million more things on your mind, but what’s going to be helpful is if you just try not to think about any of it.”

All I did was nod and let her check my blood pressure. I must have heard the numbers but I just didn’t remember them. I just looked out the window. I was in the same position Michael was in not too long ago. Except, I made it. He didn’t.

I closed my eyes again and tried to fall asleep and not think about anything.

Chapter 33

Daisy

I was restless all through the night. I couldn’t stop scenarios from playing in my mind. What if Roberto never healed? What if he kept blaming himself for what happened to Michael forever? All because of what I said?

Eventually I went to sleep. And when I woke up, I was so excited to go to school. Not because I was ready to learn and take notes. Ugh. No, I needed to tell Roberto that I was sorry.

I quickly got ready, inhaled a granola bar for breakfast on the way to the bus stop, got on it, got to school, went to my locker to get my stuff and then hurried to Roberto’s locker. He wasn’t there.

“Nancy!” I called out. Her locker was next to Roberto’s.

“Hi, Daisy,” she said, taking out one of her binders from her bag.

“Do you know where Roberto is?”

“Uhh, I don’t. Why?”

“I need to tell him something.”

“Is everything okay?”

“Yeah … Kinda … No, not really.”

“Why?”

“I said some things to Roberto yesterday that I need to say I’m sorry for.”

“What’d you say?”

“I basically blamed him for what happened to Michael.”

Nancy’s eyes widened. “You shouldn’t have done that. Especially when he feels responsible for it.”

“I know! That’s why I need to tell him I’m sorry.”

“I don’t know where he is though. I think he has physics first, though.”

“What room is that?”

“I don’t know. Here let me text him.”

Nancy reached her arm into her locker and texted Roberto. He responded in a few seconds. Nancy slowly looked up at me.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Daisy … Roberto’s in the hospital.”

Chapter 34

Daisy

“What?”

Nancy nodded. “I didn’t even … I mean … what’s he doing in the hospital?! What happened?!”

Immediately, Nancy called him.

“Roberto?” Nancy asked. She put the phone on speaker.

“Hey, Nancy, what’s up?” he said on the other end of the phone.

“What happened? Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I’m fine. I just had a panic attack.”

“A panic attack?”

“Roberto? It’s Daisy,” I said.

“Hey, Daisy. Aren’t you guys in school?”

“We are but first period hasn’t started,” Nancy said. “Roberto, which hospital are you in? We’ll come visit you.”

“I’m at St. Peter’s.”

“Okay, we’ll come after school.”

“Alright, see you then.”

Nancy hung up and looked at me, concern written all over her face.

“I’m worried,” I said. “He and I kinda got into a fight yesterday.”

“And what happened?”

“I mean I didn’t mean for it to happen, but it just sort of came out. He says that he blames himself for Michael’s death and I basically told him that it was his fault.”

“Daisy …”

“I know!!! I just got mad. I didn’t mean it. That’s why I wanted to see him today and say that I’m sorry.”

“Well, let’s tell the others. They need to know.”

For the rest of the day, I was so scared for Roberto. This was my fault and I blamed myself for it.

“Are you okay, Daisy?” a guy in my Humanities class named Steve asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, my defenses coming up.

“You don’t look fine. Want to talk about it?”

“No. Please just leave me alone.”

“Daisy, that’s your problem: you never let anyone in. You’re always building these walls for yourself.”

“Okay, great.”

“Talking will make you feel better.”

Now I was fed up.

“I don’t want to talk about it, okay? Do you understand?”

The bell rang a little while later where I had Alex in my next class.

“Hey, I got your text about Roberto,” he said, meeting me in front of the room and giving me a hug. “Are you okay?”

I shook my head. “No, I’m not.”

“We have a sub today anyway. Sit with me and tell me what’s on your mind.”

You can’t get me to share my feelings that easily. You’re going to have to be pretty dang special for me to open myself up to you.

Chapter 35

Joey

All six of us got into Betty’s car and drove to St. Peter’s Hospital. We didn’t say anything on the way. I’m pretty sure all of us were really shaken up at this news. I know I was.

The woman at the front desk told us that Roberto was in room 534 and we took the elevator up to see him. We bought him some ‘get well soon’ balloons and Nancy made a card that all of us signed.

Once we walked into his room, he was lying there, looking exhausted. And once he saw us, a smiled formed on his face and he sat up straight.

“Hey, everyone’s here,” he said. He sounded weak.

“Hey, Roberto,” Betty said, coming around the bed to give him a hug. One by one, we all hugged him.

“How are you feeling, bro?” Miguel asked.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. It just felt like my chest was getting really tight last night. I couldn’t breathe.”

“Well you’re fine now,” I said.

“How long are you going to be here?” Alex asked.

“I don’t know. The doctor wants me to stay tonight just to make sure my heart and everything is okay. I mean I feel okay and everything.”

“You are okay, Roberto,” Betty said. “We love you.”

He smiled. “I love you guys too. Thank you for coming. I really needed to see you guys right now.”

We didn’t stay too long after that. We wanted him to rest. There wasn’t much of a conversation either. Just about the hospital food.

“They serve great food here,” Roberto said. “Like I had a sandwich for lunch and it was so delicious.”

“For real, hospital food really is amazing,” Miguel agreed.

“Have they given you apple juice?” Alex asked.

“Ew no,” Roberto said disgusted.

“Alex not everyone is obsessed with apple juice like you are,” Daisy said.

“Sorry but apple juice is the best thing ever made.”

“When you know the addiction is real,” I said, laughing.

“It’s not an addiction! I can stop any time I want.”

Beatriz laughed. “I remember one time when we were away at an over night college visit last year and Alex drank apple juice and he’s like ‘okay that’s enough for this trip.’ Nope! Drank like three more bottles of it”

Alex was laughing and pretty soon all of us were.

About ten minutes later, we all decided to leave.

“You guys can go,” Daisy said. “I’ll take the bus home.”

“Are you sure?” Betty asked. “I mean I have the car.”

“Yeah, I know. But I can take the bus home. It’s okay.”

I got the feeling that she wanted to talk to Roberto alone. I understood. They were closer with each other than the rest.

“I mean, okay then,” Betty said.

Daisy gave hugs all around and then we left.

Chapter 36

Daisy

I pulled the chair closer to Roberto’s bed. I knew that right now, we weren’t on the best terms so I had to be careful.

“So how are you feeling?” I asked gently.

He sighed. “Not good. I started thinking about death last night.”

I felt my jaw tighten. “Death? What do you mean?”

“It wasn’t suicide. I was just thinking about how one day, everything will be over. It got me really nervous for some reason.”

I knew that I had to be serious in this conversation. Seeing Roberto in the hospital really snapped everything into perspective about what he was going through.

“Roberto, I know you must hate me, but just listen. I didn’t mean to blame you for what happened to Michael. I don’t know what I was thinking when I said that yesterday. Don’t think that I blame you for what happened, Roberto. I’m sorry.”

Roberto looked outside. He rested his chin on his fist. I noticed his eyes. They looked tired but there was still a trace of sadness in them. And then I noticed the tears. He wasn’t allowing them to come out because he stopped blinking.

“It’s okay,” I said quietly.

He blinked and a tear fell from his left eye. He blinked again and a few more came out. “Can I get a hug?”

I got out of the seat and put my arms around him. And we didn’t let go. And that was how we made amends. Right there in a hospital room.

When we finally let go, Roberto sniffed. There was a tissue box on the table next to his bed and he took one to wipe his eyes.

“This is a great day isn’t it?” Roberto said, smiling weakly. I knew he was trying to lighten the mood.

“It’s okay to cry,” I said. “Roberto I really am sorry.”

He nodded. “I know. I’m sorry too. I guess I was too stubborn to listen to you. But I want you to know that I will try to forgive myself.”

I smiled. “That’s really brave, Roberto. Forgiving yourself is one of the hardest things to do. Just know that I’m here if you need anything.”

He smiled. “Thanks Daisy, you’re a great friend.”

We hugged again and I left the room. It felt good to say sorry. Most people have too much pride to apologize. I think that’s why so many relationships are ruined. Humility and humbleness are necessary to save friendships.

As for me, I was just glad to have my friend back.

Chapter 37

Roberto

I hate how everything hits you at night.

That’s what happened to me. I thought that after realizing that it was okay to put Michael in my past, I would move on. But it was just like a wave of memories crashed over me.

I was lying there in my bed in the hospital, it was almost midnight and I was trying to sort out the emotions inside of me.

How art thou, Brother Roberto?”

“Swell, Brother Michael,” I said, as we grabbed each other’s forearms. That had become our thing when we saw each other in the hallway at school.

“Indeed,” Michael said, with one nod of his head. “Oh by the way, we need to have a conversation.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said. “You coming to lunch?”

“Yeah, you?”

“Yeah.”

“All right, I shall see you there.”

“Farewell, Brother Roberto.”

I can’t tell you how many times we did that. It was just something we did. Something I looked forward to during the day when I felt burdened by school. It was stupid, but I liked it.

I’ve had a long day, Roberto,” Michael said.

“Yeah, what’s up?” I asked.

He sighed. “It’s just that, well, we’re seniors now. Isn’t it sad that I can barely remember eighth grade?”

“I don’t think so. Memories fade with time.”

“But the vibrant ones stay.”

“That’s right.”

“And that’s the thing, this year, I want to remember what it’s like to be a senior when I am about to graduate college. I want to remember.”

I nodded and smiled. “I know what you mean. You want to make the most of this year.”

“Yeah. This is our last year. Maybe our last year together. I just don’t want us parting ways saying ‘I wish we did that.’ Instead, we should be laughing and say ‘remember when?’”

“I get you. Then that’s what we’re going to do. No regrets. Try new things. Meet new people. Explore new places.”

“No, Roberto. I’m being serious about this.” He looked me straight in the eyes and I knew he was. “Tomorrow could be one day too late. I don’t want to waste this year. You and I have become great friends and so have we with Squad. That’s a gift I do not want to throw away.”

“I understand. Friendship is the greatest gift there is.”

“Promise me, that. Promise me that we would still be friends. Even if we part ways at the end of this year, that we’re not going to forget each other. Even though we’re going to get caught up with our lives, promise me that we’re going to keep this friendship alive.”

“Okay,” I said. “I promise.”

I remember that conversation so clearly. It was two days before the first day of school. Michael and I went to the park and we sat down on a bench and we had that conversation.

Tears flooded my eyes. Michael wanted this year to be his most memorable and now he was dead. He never got to live out all that he said he wanted to.

And it was my fault.

“It’s your fault,” I said out loud. “It’s your fault, it’s your fault.” I kept repeating that over and over, each time my voice was failing me. I kept the tears in until they demanded to pour out.

How was I supposed to live with this hanging over me? This “thing” being guilt, regret, and the loss of a friend due to my carelessness.

I had made Michael a promise. A promise that even when things start to get hard, we would still be friends; that we’d keep the friendship alive.

I kept playing that scene in my head over and over, again and again until I fell on my bed and just lay there, crying. I was ashamed of myself. How could I look at myself in the mirror? How could I sleep at night, knowing that I killed my best friend?

“Stop crying.”

The tears and the shaking didn’t end for a long time. Pain is an attention seeking parasite; it latches onto anyone who is vulnerable, demands their presence to be known, and won’t leave.

Leave me alone, I thought. I want to feel better.

The time on my phone read 2:12 and my eyes were tired from the tears. There wasn’t much more I could have done at that time. So I just laid there, allowing the pain to consume me from the inside out, suffering from my demons.

Chapter 38

Roberto

It felt weird being back at school. I had missed two days and people were asking where I had been. I told them that I had a panic attack and spent two nights in a hospital. I mean, how else was I supposed to say it?

Here’s the thing, though. Michael and I had AP Lit together. The Monday after he died, it was hard having to walk into the classroom and see his empty desk. The worst part about it was that news about him didn’t spread right away, and almost immediately someone else took his seat.

Anyway, after being away for two days in the hospital, when I got to AP Lit, all I could do was sit and look at the desk in front of me. Michael sat in front of me and I would playfully bully him. Like if he had a hoodie on, I’d randomly put the hood over his head. Or when we were passing papers up, I’d put them in his hood and say, “Delivery for Michael.”

Stupid, I know. But it was those little things that I’d miss.

“Are you okay?” Nancy asked, walking into the classroom and taking her seat behind me.

I shook my head. I really wasn’t.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, taking her seat behind me. I turned around to face her.

“I broke down last night,” I told her. “I couldn’t stop blaming myself for what happened to Michael.”

“Don’t blame yourself,” she said. “It’s not your fault.”

“But that’s the thing. It is my fault. I was driving and I didn’t see that other car coming and Michael died. I mean, what does that make me?”

“What does it make you?”

“I makes me not able to live with myself.”

“Roberto … Michael always told us to appreciate life, no matter what happens. We only have one to live and we better make it the best we can.”

“But now he will never get to experience any of that. Last night, I remembered a conversation we had about how we were going to make this year our best year ever. How we were going to cherish our friendships, go out to new places and explore. Now we’re never going to get a chance to do any of that.”

Nancy sighed. “Believe me, I feel the pain of loss like everyone else. I know for you it hurts more because you and Michael were like brothers. But guess what? Michael is alive. He is alive in you. He is alive in me. And in all of us. It is up to us to continue being friends because that’s what Michael would’ve wanted, and it’s the right thing to do. It’s how we keep him alive. Through each other. And our memories of him.”

I sighed “I’ve never been with anyone for so long before. And I’m afraid that once we leave … all of this, all of what we’ve been through, is just going to fade with time.”

“I highly doubt that,” Nancy said, laughing a little. “We’re never really going to forget this. See, here’s the thing Roberto: when someone we love is gone, that love never really goes away.”

The bell rang. “All right, everyone, sit down,” Ms. Tinley said.

I sat there and soaked in all that Nancy said. She was right. Of course I would feel an emptiness inside of me, but that didn’t matter. I had to keep Michael alive through everyone else. But most importantly, I had to keep him alive. Because I am alive.

Chapter 39

Daisy

It was one of those nights.

I had an essay for English due the next day, math homework, a section to read for in Humanities and questions to answer, and I had to finish a drawing for art.

I had my night’s work cut out for me.

I finished my essay and math homework and was in the middle of reading the section in Humanities when I felt so winded. I decided to take a break from homework. I went to the kitchen and opened the fridge and looked around. Now Isayah and I are together and everything, but my relationship with food is on a whole different level.

I found a left over burrito that I heated up and sat down and began to eat. I felt kinda lonely so I decided to text Isayah.

For a second it felt like I would be bothering him, but I got over it. I think the whole thing about not texting first because you feel like you’re bothering them is childish.

After I finished my burrito, I was back in my room about to finish the rest of my homework. It was 8:45 and Isayah still hadn’t texted me back.

I finished reading the last page in my Humanities textbook and began to answer the three questions. Ugh, why can’t these philosophers just straight up say what they’re talking about? Why does Plato have to talk about the allegory of the cave like this?

When I finished Humanities, it was 9:10. I checked my phone and there was no text from Isayah. This is when I started to get a little suspicious. If Isayah is constantly on his phone whenever we’re out together, why isn’t he texting me back?

Anyway, I finished my art project and it was 10:30 now. My English teacher decided that we start reading Hamlet so I had to finish reading one of the acts. I didn’t really understand anything that was going on, but that was okay.

When I finished the act, it was 11:15 and I figured it was time for me to go to sleep. But I never fall asleep right away. I start thinking about everything before I go to sleep. I put my headphones in my ears and tried to figure out why Isayah didn’t text me back. Was it because I bored him? Was I not interesting enough for him?

Screw him, I thought. He doesn’t want to talk to me, fine. It’s his loss anyway.

Want to hear the best part about this whole thing? He texted me back the next morning and said “Sorry, I was busy.”

Chapter 40

Daisy

It was now Valentine’s Day and with it, came the expectation that I would get something from Isayah.

Ha.

I didn’t get a single thing from him. Not one rose. Not one teddy bear. Not even a stupid little heart shaped piece of candy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not the kind of girl who needs presents when in a relationship. I need time, love, patience, and care. I would have been perfectly fine if I didn’t get anything. But I didn’t even get any attention from him.

Here’s what I mean.

We were at lunch and I went to go over and sit with him just for a little bit.

“Hey,” I said.

“Oh, hey,” he said. Guess what he was doing? He was on his phone.

“So … how was your day?”

He shrugged. “It was okay.”

How was your day, Daisy? Fine, thank you for asking.

“Well, Happy Valentine’s Day,” I said with zero emotion.

“Oh, right, that’s today. I was going to get you something, but I didn’t have any money.”

“Oh, you didn’t have to. Why are you broke all of a sudden?”

“I had to get the Pro Gird Air MXVs.”

I had no idea what he was talking about at first. But then I remembered how he was showing me those ugly basketball shoes from our day at the mall. The ones for two hundred and twenty five dollars.

And he didn’t have any money for me.

Because he spent them all on shoes.

I hoped he steps in slush and gets those shoes dirty and they tear and he can never wear them again. I felt like I had to say something.

“Wait, I just need to understand something,” I began. “Okay, you spent over two hundred dollars on shoes, but didn’t think about me. That’s fine. But how about how you haven’t shown me any sort of attention at all today?”

“You need attention?”

“No! Not like that! I couldn’t care less about attention. I’m talking about how I didn’t get any attention from you!”

He shrugged. “Sorry.”

Daisy, you need to stop chasing after this guy. He is obviously not interested in you. Just forget him. Move on.

“Okay, fine, whatever,” I said. “Valentine’s Day is just a fake holiday created for big companies to make money anyway. But can we go do something sometime soon?”

“Like you want to hang out or something?”

I almost punched myself in the face.

“Yes. Let’s go hang out together somewhere.”

“Sure. Okay. Just let me know when.”

I closed my eyes, inhaled and exhaled. “Isayah, you were the one to ask me what we were. Now that we’re together, you’re just not going to put an effort into the relationship?”

“What are you talking about? I am putting an effort.”

“Oh, you are? Tell me one time where you have.”

He was at a loss for words. “Well, tell me one time when you made an effort.”

“Isayah, I’m here talking to you trying to fix things. I have been trying to communicate with you for the longest time but all you can do is sit there on your phone.”

“Listen, if you’re not willing to be in this relationship, then I don’t need to waste my time here.”

I was getting real fed up with his attitude. The worst part is that I really wanted to get out of this relationship from the start. I knew what I was getting myself into but I was hoping that it would be different. I finally learned my lesson and I was so ready to get rid of Isayah.

“You know what, Isayah? You’re right. I don’t need to waste my time. I’ve got better things to do anyway. So, I’m done.”

“Yeah, go hang out with your stupid friends. I’m your loss.”

“Did you just call my friends stupid?”

He looked at me challengingly.

“Don’t you ever say anything against my friends. Because if you do, seven against one aren’t good odds for you.”

And with that, I turned around and walked back to my table with all of the others. In those few seconds, I felt free. I no longer needed anyone to make me feel complete. I had these friends. And that’s all I needed.

I learned my lesson. Guys are a dime a dozen. It sounds a little strange, but it’s true. In a school full of guys who dress the same, talk the same, act the same, and try to impress each other, there are the select few who stand out. Those guys are worth your time.

“Guys, I have something to say,” I said once I sat down. All eyes and ears were turned towards me. “I just broke up with Isayah.”

All of them showed some signs of happiness. Miguel cheered. Betty and Nancy clapped. Alex said, “Good! Isayah is a jerk.” And Joey said, “That’s great, Daisy. I’m happy for you.” Roberto looked me in the eyes, smiled and nodded.

“Daisy, it’s like I said from the beginning,” Alex said, “guys are jerks.”

I laughed and nodded. “Yeah, they are. Except for you guys. You guys are okay.”

“I mean Roberto is questionable,” Miguel teased.

“What did you say before you walked away?” Miguel asked.

“Well he called you guys stupid, so I told him to not call you stupid because then we’ll show him what’s up.”

“What?” Roberto asked. “You told him that we were going to fight him?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It was on impulse.”

“We are lovers, not fighters,” Betty said.

“No, all Daisy does it talk. She won’t actually do anything.” Roberto smirked.

I gave him my best stank face but eventually couldn’t help but laugh. I was happy. I was free. I had good friends. And I was alive.

What more could I ask for?

Chapter 41

Nancy

I got home from school on the last Wednesday in February. It was really cold outside and the snow wasn’t going to melt any time soon. The house was cold too. I guess we didn’t pay the gas bill.

Notice how I said we?

“Hi, Ray,” I said. He was slouching on the living room couch, his arm behind his head, the remote in his hand, and his feet up on the coffee table. He’s my step dad, but I was never going to call him “dad.” I established that from the moment he stepped into the house.

“You may be living with us, and you may be my step dad, but you will never be my father.”

I was nine at the time and I’m pretty sure Ray thought I was being a cute little kid because of the way he smiled at me. But I wasn’t kidding. I never once called him “pa” before. My mom didn’t say anything about it.

Esmeralda went straight to her room, put her bag down, came back into the kitchen and waited for me to get her something to eat.

I was looking through the cabinets but didn’t find any canned food. I looked in the fridge but I couldn’t find anything Esmeralda would like.

“Nancy, I’m hungry,” she said.

“I know, I know baby,” I said. “Just hang on.” I didn’t even know what I was going to serve the kid. We had no food in the house.

“Ray, did you go grocery shopping?” I called out from the kitchen.

“No, I didn’t,” he said.

“Are you going to?”

“I’ll let your mama do it. She knows what to get.”

I walked out of the kitchen to look at Ray. “My mom won’t come home till ten o’ clock tonight. She doesn’t have time to do grocery shopping. She told me that she left money for you to go today.”

I looked to the side of the couch at a six pack he had his arm on. He spent his money on beer rather than food for us.

“You bought beer?” I asked.

He held up the bottle in his hand. “Yep.”

“Is there any money left over?” I asked.

“Why should I give it to you?”

“Because I am trying to get food for Esmeralda! And all you could do is sit here on this couch.”

“Do not talk to me like that.”

“Okay, I’m sorry,” I said to hurry along this conversation. “But can I seriously have the left over money to get food?”

Ray reached into the pockets of the sweatpants and tossed a few crumpled bills onto the coffee table. I went over and picked them up. Twenty dollars.

“Esmeralda, I’m going to run to the store and get you something, okay?” I said.

Although she was eight years old, she had been through a lot. Which meant that she understood more than other kids her age did. She understood that Ray wasn’t her birth father and right now, she understood that we had no food in the house and it was up to me to get some.

Esmeralda wrapped her skinny arms around my neck and I hugged her back. She kissed me on my cheek and I tried to hold back the tears.

“Thank you,” she said.

I quickly left the house and went back outside. The cold air dug into my face like daggers. I dug my hands deeper into my already thin jacket pockets.

I checked the time. 3:26. My shift started at 4 and it took my forty five minutes to get to the place. I needed to hurry.

I got to the grocery store and picked up a few cans of ravioli, some frozen pizzas, fruit, chicken, bread, sandwhich meat, and milk and checked out. I had all of 30 cents left over.

I made it back to the house with all of those groceries and had to put them away. I heated a can of ravioli for Esmeralda and poured it into a bowl for her. She confessed to me that she doesn’t like Ray, which is why she always eats in her room. I don’t blame her.

By the time I took care of things at home, it was 3:56.

I hoped I didn’t get fired.

I gave a quick kiss on the head to Esmeralda and told Ray I was leaving. On my way to the bus stop, I called my manager.

“Nancy, where are you? Your shift has already started,” she said over the phone.

“I know, I know,” I said. “I’m sorry but I had to take care of some things at home. Can someone please cover for me? I’ll stay later if I need to.”

I work at a restaurant and I have to say I really like it. My job is fairly simple: answer the phone, make reservations, and when necessary, cashier duty or waitressing. My manager, Sandra, is really cool. She is only twenty six, so it helps having someone who isn’t very old and has no idea what it’s like to grow up in this generation.

Aside from anyone in Squad, Sandra is the one who I talk to the most about my problems. She knows my situation at home with Ray and Esmeralda and having to balance that kind of life with school and she tries to help out as much as she can. Whether that is covering for me, or giving me a free meal, or just having someone to talk to.

“Of course, Nancy,” she said. “Is everything okay?”

“They’re never okay, but today was a little worse.”

“Aww, I see.”

“I’ll be there in 45 minutes. And I’ll stay late if necessary.” I sniffed. It was pretty cold today.

“Okay, Nancy, just be safe.”

I hung up and shoved my phone back into my pocket. I was exhausted. There was a lot on my mind. There always is but on some days, you feel it more than others.

What I really wanted to do now more than ever was go to sleep. For a little bit, all my problems seemed to fade away. That was bliss. That sounded heavenly right now.

But sadly, reality hit when the bus rolled to a stop before me. I got in, paid my fair, and took a seat.

I sighed.

One day, all of this will be over. And on that day, it will all be worth it.

Chapter 42

Alex

There’s no other way to say this: I am a very emotional person. So when I fall, I fall fast and I fall hard.

That was the case with this girl named Melissa. She was a simple girl. Not simple in a boring way. But there was a certain simplicity about her that made her beautiful. She didn’t say much in class. But when she did, it was something full of wisdom. She didn’t dress like other girls; with the yoga pants or leggings or flats or anything immodest. But she wore jeans, t shirts, and sneakers.

She had brown eyes, which are my weakness. I love peoples’ eyes. It’s interesting because if you look deep into someone’s eyes, and they’re looking back in yours, both of your universes are trying to be a part of each other’s. The best part is that you don’t know it’s happening. The beauty and mystery of silence is the only communication necessary.

As you can tell, this Melissa meant a whole lot to me. And I also happen to be a hopeless romantic. Emphasis on the hopeless.

And like always, I knew how it would end up. One of two things could happen:

#
p<>{color:#000;}. She has a boyfriend

#
p<>{color:#000;}. She likes someone else

I have gone through rejection plenty of times so I know the drill. If one of these two things happen, then you go home and torture yourself with music and junk food. At least if you’re like me you do. The worst part about this whole thing is that I don’t even think she knows my name.

“She knows your name, Alex,” Roberto said.

“But I want her to notice me,” I said.

“Then make her notice you. Talk to her. Show her your face. Let her know that you care about her.”

“It’s easier said than done.”

“Wait who are we talking about here?” Beatriz asked.

“This girl named Melissa Alex is in love with,” Roberto said.

“I’m not in love with her,” I defended.

“But you like her?” she asked.

I nodded. “Yeah.”

“Aww, Alex! That’s so cute!”

I smiled. “Yeah, but this whole thing is so complicated.”

“What’s complicated?”

“Like getting her to notice me.”

“It’s not hard. Just start off by being her friend.”

“Yeah, Betty’s right,” Roberto said. “Just be her friend. And if things happen, great. But if they don’t, then don’t take it too hard.”

I nodded, taking in what I already knew but never came to mind when I was in the situation. It gets kind of lonely when everyone around you is with someone or has had that experience; you start to feel left out.

But if you remember from a few chapters ago, I told Daisy that I always say that feelings must die. I don’t really know where that mentality came from, to be honest. It’s just once you’ve gone through rejection as many times as I have, you don’t want to experience it anymore. Which is why when you start to like someone one, the only “logical” thing to do is numb yourself from those feelings so you don’t get hurt again.

Yes my mind is an enigma but the point is, I liked Melissa and I hoped that she would be willing to give us a shot.

Chapter 43

Alex

The next day, I walked into forensics and took my seat at my table. Melissa was my lab partner in the beginning of the year and that’s really how we started talking.

“Hey, Melissa,” I said, once she came into the room and sat next to me.

“Hey,” she said. Granted, it was the last class of the day so we all sounded dead and monotonous.

“Wow I am so tired.”

“Ugh, I know me too.”

“What time did you go to bed last night?”

“I don’t know. Maybe like twelve.”

“Lucky. I slept at like one thirty.”

“Why so late?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I can’t sleep at night.”

“Well you need to go home and sleep.”

“For real, I do. I am powered by naps.”

Melissa giggled and took out her notebook because today was a lecture day in class. That meant no interaction between anyone for the day. I would rather have us to a lab because that way I would be able to talk with Melissa, but it is what it is.

Chapter 44

Beatriz

“Are you guys going to prom?” I asked one day at lunch.

“I don’t know,” Miguel said. “Maybe.”

“I’m not sure yet,” Daisy said. “The theme sounds really lame.”

“What’s the theme?” Nancy asked.

“It’s like a downtown theme, right?” Miguel asked.

“That sounds really bad,” Nancy said.

“Guys! It’s prom! You all have to go.”

“Here’s my logic about prom,” Roberto said.

“Oh great,” Daisy said, rolling her eyes.

“Why would I spend one hundred dollars to spend my night with people I don’t even like, when instead, I could spend twelve dollars and go laser tagging with people that I do like?”

“I mean I understand it’s a part of your high school experience and everything,” Daisy said, “but I don’t know.”

“Well I’m going and you all better be going,” I said firmly.

“We could always do our own prom if we don’t decide to go,” Miguel said.

“Yeah!” Roberto said. “I’ve got a pretty big backyard. We could hang up lights. Have speakers. And pizza.”

“Roberto, you don’t eat pizza at prom,” Alex said. “But there can be apple juice.”

“It’s our prom so we can eat whatever we want to do.”

“That actually sounds like a lot of fun,” I said, imaging how it would all go down. “But let’s do that sometime before or after prom because I am not missing that.”

“I kinda want to ask Melissa to prom,” Alex said quietly.

“Do it!” I said.

“Yeah, bro, go for it,” Miguel said.

“No, I don’t want to.”

“Ugh, stop being a little pansy and ask her!” Daisy barked.

“It’s just that I’m afraid of rejection,” Alex said.

“Aww, Alex, it’s okay if she says no,” I said.

“Don’t say that, Betty!” Miguel said. “Think positive.”

“I’m just being realistic here,” Alex said. “I don’t know. I might ask her.”

“If you do, you have to do a super cute prom-posal,” Daisy advised.

“I don’t think she’s the kind of girl to want a big prom-posal,” Alex said.

“Oh come on. Deep down, every girl wants a prom-posal. They would love to have someone go to that kind of extreme for them.”

“True!” Nancy exclaimed.

“We’ll help you, bro, don’t worry about it,” Miguel reassured.

“Yeah,” I said. “This is Squad. We’re always here for each other.”

“Squad is family, bro,” Miguel said.

“It’s just that I don’t want to keep liking her and end up getting hurt,” Alex said.

“So what if you like her?” Joey said. “The more you pretend you don’t, the more you are going to like her. Just enjoy the experience. So what if you like her? Enjoy the butterflies you get when you think of her. Stop trying to drown her out.”

“Joey … that was beautiful,” Alex said slowly.

Joey looked pleased with herself.

“Okay now that you said it, I’m going to do it!”

Chapter 45

Alex

Melissa and I had three classes together and we sat next to each other in all of them. I guess that’s how we started talking and, at least for me, that’s how my feelings for her started to grow.

I don’t even remember how it happened. I was just going about my life as usual until she came around and changed everything.

I’ll confess something: I have a weakness for brown eyes. Melissa had dark brown eyes and every time I looked into them, I caved. It was like her eyes held a piece of the universe in them and once you looked into them, you got lost. But the thing was, you didn’t want to find your way home because you felt right at home when you were with her.

I was thinking about what we were talking about at lunch – how I should ask her to prom. The thing is, I’m not so scared about asking her. I was scared of rejection.

What if she liked someone else and was waiting for someone better to ask her?

What if she already had a prom date?

What if I never ask her and I spend forever wondering what might have happened?

That last one did it for me.

So on May 8, I asked her.

Chapter 46

Alex

“Guys,” I said at lunch. “I’m going to ask Melissa to prom.”

“Are you serious?!” Beatriz asked.

I nodded. “I’m going to ask her after lunch.”

“Are you doing a big prom-posal like I told you?” Daisy asked.

“No. I can tell she doesn’t want anything like that.”

“What?! Come on, Alex you should’ve planned a prom-posal!”

“Okay here’s the thing. If she says yes when I ask her, then I’ll ask her if she wants a prom-posal. If she says no, then oh well.”

“I mean I guess,” Daisy said.

“Are you nervous?” Nancy asked.

“I actually am very nervous,” I confessed. “I am suffering from nervosity.”

“Nervosity? That’s not even a word.”

“Well it is now,” I said, folding my hands and putting them on the table. My leg was bouncing up and down at world record speed.

“Aw, Alex don’t be nervous,” Joey reassured. “You’ll be fine.”

“I’m just nervous if she’ll reject me because then I’m going to be sad forever and –”

As if on cue, the bell rang. Which meant the end of lunch. Which meant I had to ask her.

It was now or never.

“Go, Alex!” Beatriz said.

“Okay, okay,” I said quickly. My nervosity was getting intense.

Everyone hurried and left the table and I was all alone. Thanks guys. Love the support.

I saw Melissa walking out of the lunchroom and I knew that I wasn’t going to get another opportunity. I took a deep breath and followed her out.

She was going to her locker and I slowly approached her. My heart seemed to beat faster the closer I got to her. Any faster and I might have a heart attack. It was like I was walking into an energy field or something like that. The closer I got, the more electricity was between us.

Before I knew it, I was three feet away.

“Hey, Melissa,” I said.

She turned her head to me and said, “Oh, hey.”

Just say it!

“So listen, I have a question for you. I was wondering if you had a date for prom.”

She stopped putting her binders into her bag and stood still for a few seconds, staring into her locker. I couldn’t read her expression.

“No, I don’t,” she said.

“Oh, well I was wondering if you wanted to go with me.”

I held my breath, waiting for the collision.

“Um … yeah, I’d love to.”

I screamed on the inside.

“Okay, great,” I said. I couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Um, do you already have your dress?”

“Yeah, I do. I’ll send you a picture of it tonight.”

“Cool. ’Cause then I can go get the tux and match your dress and everything.”

“Alright.” She put her bag on her back and closed the locker. She turned to look at me and she smiled. Wow, how I loved that smile.

She pulled me into a hug, our arms around each other’s necks. When we let go, she said, “Which way are you walking?”

“I’m going to my locker on the second floor,” I said.

“I’ll go with you.”

And so we walked together down the hallway and down the stairs to my locker. Squad always kind of met up by Roberto and Nancy’s locker, and that’s where all of them were. I made quick eye contact with some of them and they all smiled.

We got to my locker and I opened it.

“You’re locker is so clean,” she said looking inside.

“My locker partner doesn’t use it so it’s really all mine,” I said.

“Mine is messy.”

“Who’s your partner?”

“Amanda? You know her?”

“Uh, yeah I think so.”

“Really short, white.”

“Okay, yup I know who we’re talking about.”

“Who’s yours?”

“Sam? Sam Brown?”

Melissa shook her head. “No I don’t know him.”

“He’s really quiet.”

Melissa nodded. I began putting binders away and taking whatever I need to take home.

“Ugh, Melissa, what do I have for homework?” I said, mostly to myself, trying to remember.

“You have English …”

“No nothing for English.”

“Math, science … we have Sociology homework.”

“Oh true story.” I found my Sociology binder and put it in my bag. I also remembered I had College Algebra to do.

“Oh my gosh, Alex hurry up,” Melissa said. “You’re like a girl.”

“What? That I take forever”

“Yes! You’re taking longer than I did.”

Honestly, I wasn’t stalling because I wanted to spend time with Melissa. I really do take long at my locker.

“Oh my goodness fine I’ll hurry up.”

I zipped up my bag, put on my jacket, and closed the locker.

“Which bus do you take?” I asked.

“I take the 85 towards Lincoln Park,” she said.

“I’ll wait with you.”

We walked outside to the bus stop, but the sad thing? The bus was already waiting there.

“Ah! It’s the bus!” Melissa said. She gave me another quick hug – “bye!” – and ran across the street to get on it.

I smiled again. Melissa and I were going to prom together.

I hoped this could be the start to something.

Chapter 47

Daisy

I don’t think prom should exist. It’s such a commercialized event for high school that people go to the extremes for it.

Remember, I’m a simple girl. So I wasn’t prepared to spend like four hundred dollars on a dress for one night. Plus you can’t rent a dress like how guys rent tuxedos.

And after all of my drama with boys, I certainly didn’t want to go with somebody. The only problem was, all of my friends would have dates and I don’t even know what number wheel that would make me.

Again, I was okay being alone. But I have been brain washed by the idea of prom and wanted somebody to get my corsage and have someone to match with and dance with and all that.

Either way, I just wanted to have a good time with my friends.

All seven of us were going together, plus all of their dates. That was thirteen people. So I would be the fourteenth wheel, I guess. Being alone wasn’t so bad. It made the hassle of dress shopping a lot easier.

Chapter 48

Alex

Today was the big day.

It was prom.

Betty was in charge of the limo and everything and she wanted to meet up in front of a fountain where we would get picked up. All of us were done up and we looked great.

And then Melissa came.

Her hair was curled to the side. She was already beautiful by nature, but her make up made her look stunning. Her eyes looked more striking than usual. Her dress was black and was silver across her chest. I had the matching silver vest and bow tie.

And wow did she looked so beautiful.

“Hey, you,” she said, giving me a side hug.

“Hey,” I said, still mesmerized by how amazing she looked. “You look very beautiful.”

She giggled. “Thank you.”

Then we started taking pictures. All of our parents and other family members were there so they were each taking pictures of their kids.

“Yo! We need a Squad picture!” Miguel announced.

All seven of us lined up together in front of the fountain and all the parents started taking pictures. Then all of our dates got in the picture too.

“Okay hold on!” Daisy said. She got in front of the line, squatted a little bit, and put both hands underneath her chin. We all started laughing because that was a picture perfect moment.

“Team Forever Alone,” she said after the picture.

The limo came and we all piled in.

A little while into the drive I started to realize something: Melissa and I weren’t talking.

Hmm, I thought.

“I hope they have good food there,” Nancy said.

“I heard that it is good,” Miguel’s date, Ava, said.

“Madison is in student council,” Roberto said, turning to his date. “Is it going to be good?”

She shrugged. “We weren’t allowed to know anything about the food so I don’t know.”

“The food better be good because if it isn’t, it gives me more of a reason to hate prom,” Daisy said.

“Oh come on Daisy, cheer up,” I said.

“For real,” Betty said. “You’re going to have a great time.”

“I’m surprised that I even came,” Roberto said.

“Even I’m surprised,” Madison said.

We eventually convinced Robert to come to prom. After several weeks of it, he finally bought his ticket. “Just so you guys can stop bugging me about it,” he said.

I decided to give Melissa some context. “Roberto here wasn’t going to go to prom.”

“Why?”

“I will tell you why!” Roberto said. “Why should I spend so much money on one night with people who I don’t like, when instead, I can spend twelve dollars and go laser tagging with people I do like?”

“Aw, so you don’t like us?” Madison challenged.

“No, I like all of you guys. It’s just everyone else who’s going to be there.”

“I mean I kinda agree. I hate wearing dresses,” Melissa said. “I prefer sweatpants and t shirts.”

“Melissa, you are correct,” Daisy said, pointing her finger at her.

I smiled because if there’s one person who’s hard to impress, it’s Daisy. And my girl Melissa here just got her approval.

I just hoped we would talk more once we got to prom.

Chapter 49

Alex

Once we got to prom, we all showed them our tickets, and walked into the ballroom. Then we were faced with a problem: there were only seven to a table.

So that’s when we had to split up. At least for dinner.

Roberto, Madison, Betty and her date, Tyler, Daisy, and Melissa and I all got a table. And the others got the table right next to us.

“I think I should be D.J.,” I said, mostly to Madison.

“You?” she asked. “Why so we can listen to screamo music?”

“It’s not screamo,” I said for the thousandth time. “It’s rock.”

“All they do is scream, though.”

“Well it’s better than listening to rap and hip-hop.”

“Hey, lookie here, boy, I listen to all kinds of music.”

“Apparently except rock.”

“Yes, except your scary screamo type.”

“Okay, you know what? One day after tonight when we’re hanging out, we’re just going to spend the day listening to music. That way you can annoy me with your hip hop, and I can annoy you with my rock music. Deal?”

“Sure thing.”

If I can be honest for a second, I wouldn’t want my girlfriend to have the same music taste as me. That way, we can bother each other with the music we like and love every second of it.

Was I already thinking of Melissa as my girlfriend? I needed to slow down.

Dinner started to be served. It was first an appetizer of some sort of vegetable soup.

“Do you eat soup or do you drink it?” Roberto asked, unfolding his napkin and putting it on his lap.

“I think you sip it,” Betty said.

“I wonder who invented soup,” I asked. “Like who’d idea was it to cut up vegetables and meat and put it in water and call it food.”

“You guys know how the sand which was invented?” Tyler asked.

We shook our heads.

“How?” Betty asked.

“There was a king who got hungry late one night, and apparently they had no food, except for bread and meat. So the king put the meat between the two slices of bread and ate it and they named it after him.”

“What?” Betty asked. “No way.”

“No I’m being completely serious. I heard that from my fourth grade teacher.”

“And you remembered it?”

“You just don’t forget something like that.”

Melissa giggled.

Whoa, wait.

I’m perfectly okay with her laughing, but for a split second, I was jealous of Tyler. I wanted to make Melissa laugh.

The rest of dinner wasn’t with much conversation. For any of us. I wasn’t necessarily okay with that.

When the waiters took our plates away, I kind of knew what was going to happen next.

But to save us from it, I am going to summarize what happened in the next few hours.

Chapter 50

Alex

Here’s the thing: I listen to rock music. And that is pretty much all that I listen to. I am not so familiar with this hip-hop, pop stuff that was playing at prom. But for this one night, I was prepared to enjoy the music and dance and look like an idiot. Because I wanted it to be a memorable night with Melissa.

You know how much it sucks when you put so much faith into someone and have them throw it away? Let me tell you it sucks. (Yes I quoted Nancy here.)

“Come on, Melissa!” I said. “Let’s dance.”

She shook her head. “I don’t dance to this music.”

Okay then, I thought.

To keep things moving alone, watching Melissa dance with another guy really solidified how much it hurt.

Seeing her spend the night with her friends instead of me made me feel lonely.

Not getting a strip of pictures from the photo booth with her and I just made things worse.

“Dude, she is completely ignoring me,” I told Roberto.

He shrugged. “Bro, I am so sorry. Just keep trying to talk to her?”

I shook my head. “She made it pretty clear that she doesn’t want to be anywhere near me.”

“Then why did she even agree to go to prom with you if she’s not spending her time with you?”

“That’s the thing,” I said, feeling the sound of my voice getting weaker.

“Well you can spend your time with us, if you want,” Madison offered. “Forget her.”

“The thing is … I really like her.”

Madison made an “o” with her mouth. “That’s gotta hurt. I’m so sorry, Alex. Just try not to let it get to you, okay?”

I nodded.

Well what more is there to tell after that?

I was third wheeling with Roberto and Madison and felt horrible for the whole night. Melissa wasn’t dancing anymore. Her and her friends were just sitting at the table.

Do it, I thought. I wanted to request a slow song for Melissa and I to dance to. Do it. This is your last chance.

I swallowed a lump in my throat and slowly approached the DJ when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and was looking at the most beautiful girl in the world.

“I have to go,” she said.

“Right now?” I asked.

She nodded. “Yeah. My parents are waiting outside.”

“Oh, okay then …”

We hugged and then she left. I watched her walk out of the ballroom, wishing for so many things.

You’d think that after that, I’d break down. But it just didn’t make any sense.

If you agreed to go to prom with me, and just ignore me for the whole night … that just doesn’t make sense to me. There was nothing going on between Roberto and Madison. But they were still spending their time together.

I just can’t believe that this was my prom experience.

Chapter 51

Alex

I had a rough Saturday.

I must have punched the wall four times. I ignored the pain in my knuckles after the second time. I couldn’t eat anything. I tried sleeping. I couldn’t even sleep. I had to suffer because pain demands attention.

I completely broke down.

In the past whenever I a girl told me that she liked me just as a friend, I went home and listened to music and in about a week or two, I got over it. And what Michael said was true. Pain does start to feel good after a while because at least you’re feeling something.

But right now, I didn’t want to feel pain. I didn’t even want to feel happy. The only thing I wanted to do was forget. The worst part was that this was my prom experience. It wasn’t like I could go back to prom next Friday and re-do my experience.

This was it and I had to live with it.

Whenever someone would ask me what prom was like, I would remember how much I was looking forward to spending the night with Melissa only to have her throw away all of the faith I had in her. I should’ve convinced her to dance with me. I should’ve requested that song to play for us to dance to.

I should’ve, I should’ve, I should’ve …

What I wasn’t expecting was for Joey to text me.

Joey: Hey, what happened to you after prom? We were looking for you. All of us went to eat afterwards

I honestly didn’t want to talk to anyone. I just wanted to be alone. But someone was reaching out to me. Loneliness is one of the worst serial killers.

Me: Joey … I had a rough prom night. Melissa didn’t want anything to do with me.

Joey: Oh no! Alex! I’m so sorry about that. Are you okay?

Me: I’m not, honestly. I put so much faith into her and she just threw it away

Joey: Aw, Alex. Don’t worry about her. She obviously wasn’t worth it

Me: Joey, I’m not trying to sound rude, but I just really want to be alone right now. Could I text you back if I need someone to talk to?

Joey: Of course, Alex. I’ll be here. Just don’t do anything stupid, okay?

Me: Okay

After that, I had a hard time trying to deal with myself. I tried telling myself that I was being childish and overly dramatic, but I thought that it was okay to break down. This was a time to be sad.

And I thought about Michael.

Not about how he wasn’t with us anymore, but of what he told me one day.

“You know it’s real when after everything they put you thorough, you still care for them.”

Maybe I still cared for Melissa. Cared enough to even text her asking her if she had a good time.

She said, Yeah I guess

You could’ve had the time of your life, I thought. But now both of our chances were gone. She posted a picture of her and her friends together and that’s when I knew that she was okay without me.

And that’s what really hurt me.

Chapter 52

Daisy

Once prom was over, things got pretty real after that. Real in the sense that graduation was right around the corner.

So to save you from basically reading the same pages over and over again, here’s the short version:

We had graduation practice every day for a week, which meant that we got out of school at around eleven or twelve. Every single day that week, the seven of us went out and did something. Either we ate and went to the park. Or we went to the beach or the movies.

Regardless it was probably the best week of our lives.

Except for Alex.

We all knew that he was broken and it was really bad seeing him like this.

“Is it possible for it to hurt so much that you can actually feel it?” he asked one day.

“Yes,” Nancy and I said at the same time.

“That’s how I felt when Issac and I broke up,” Nancy said. “I could literally feel the pain in my chest.”

“The thing is, you really liked her,” I said. “That’s what makes this so much harder to get over.”

Alex sighed. “Yeah.”

“Alex, you’re a great guy,” Betty said. “It’s not your loss, it’s hers.”

“I mean why did you like her?” I asked. “Like what about her caught your interest?”

“It was the brown eyes,” Roberto said, trying to lighten the mood.

Alex chuckled. “Yeah it was the brown eyes.”

“Alex has a weakness for brown eyes.”

“But no seriously,” Alex said, “I don’t even know. I mean I just thought she was cool and all, you know?”

“I feel you, bro,” Miguel said. “You fell in love with her personality and everything about her became beautiful.”

“But still, she shouldn’t have just left you alone for the night,” I continued. I was really starting to get passionate about his situation. You just don’t go to prom with someone and then completely blow them off.

Ugh, prom.

“I do not like this girl,” I said. Now it was serious because I didn’t like her. “Alex if I was you, I would not hesitate to go up to her and be like ‘lookie here, girl …’”

Alex sadly smiled.

“You want me to talk to her? Because I will. I’ve got some things I would like to say to her.”

Alex shook his head. “No, please don’t say anything, Daisy. Because if you go and talk to her then something is going to go down.”

“Alex remember, all Daisy does it just talk,” Roberto said. “She’s not going to do anything. But Nancy …”

All eyes turned to Nancy.

“What?” she asked.

“You wanna go teepee Melissa’s house?” Roberto suggested.

“We can’t only teepee her house. We have to egg it too. Pull out all the flowers. Throw rocks at her window.”

“Nancy you’re a criminal,” Miguel said.

She shrugged. “I mean if you really want to do it, I’m up for it. She was mean to you.”

Alex shook his head and smiled. “You guys are something else, you know that? But even though I still have these feelings for her, the best thing to do is put her where she belongs – which is in my past.”

“That’s the toughest part, honestly,” Joey said. “I mean after everything that’s happened, you still care for the person even when they put your through hell.”

“Yeah I know. But I don’t want to feel like this tomorrow. I need to feel better. So, I mean, this is going to take a really long time, but I’m going to try and put her in my past.”

“Good,” Betty said. “And remember, it’s her loss.”

“Right. Exactly. I mean, she clearly has her other friends to hang out with anyway. But she could’ve had the best with us, is all I’m saying.”

“Very true,” Betty said. “She’s missing out.”

“It’s not my fault if she doesn’t know a good thing,” Alex said, trying to sound confident.

“Exactly!” I said.

“That’s from a song I dedicated to Melissa.”

“Don’t say her name,” Joey advised. “Saying her name brings back all the memories and feelings you had. Try not to say her name.”

“So you’re not going to talk to her about what happened?” I asked.

“I really want to,” Alex said. “But I don’t think she would even care.”

“And here I thought she was a total sweetheart.”

“I think you should talk to her about it,” Roberto said. “Just be like what do you did was really rude.”

“Right,” I said. “Just don’t say it was rude. Say something else.”

Alex stayed quiet and nodded. He was looking intently at nothing and I knew that he was in thought. “You know what? I am going to talk to her.”

“Good!” I said immediately. “Let her know how you felt.”

“But don’t like, put the blame on her,” Miguel cautioned. “Then she’ll hate you forever.”

“True story,” Alex said, nodding. “Thanks, you guys. Where would I be without you?”

Chapter 53

Alex

“Hey Melissa, can I talk to you?”

She looked confused at first but then nodded and the two of us went to sit on a bench in the school’s courtyard. This was after the last day of graduation practice and I knew I wasn’t going to get another chance.

“What is it?” she asked.

I exhaled sharply. “It’s about what happened at prom.” She nodded so I continued. “I’m not trying to blame you or anything, but it felt like you were ignoring me the whole night – you were pushing me away. You spent it with your friends. And I saw you dancing with that other guy.

“What I’m trying to say is this: it really hurt me. It really did because I wanted that night to be memorable. And not like how it turned out to be. Because here’s the thing, Melissa. I really like you. And I know that it probably doesn’t mean anything anymore because after tomorrow, we’re most likely not going to see each other for the rest of our lives but I couldn’t have just let this go unsaid because regret can last a lifetime.

“What I’m hoping is if there’s a way we can be friends. And let’s not just say we’re friends as a cover up. Let’s actually be friends. Let’s hang out, let’s talk … like actual friends.”

I said what I needed to say. It felt like a weight had been lifted off of my chest. I just hoped she wouldn’t break my heart – again. Love is dangerous. You’re literally giving someone else the power to break your heart but trusting them not to.

“Well, I’m sorry if I made you feel that way,” she said. “But I don’t think you can just be friends with someone who will remind you of prom night, and the feelings you had. You’ll never move on.”

“Believe me, I can. One of my best friends in the whole world died in a car crash last October. It took me a while, but I got over it. Yes he’s still a part of my life, but there’s no use lingering on the past.”

Melissa slowly nodded. “Yeah, I know.” There was silence between us for a long time. “Listen Alex, you’re a really great guy. Any girl will be lucky to have you, I’m just not the one. So if you think there’s a way we can be friends, even after everything that happened, then I’m okay with that.”

I smiled and said that I would love that. Then we hugged. Then she walked away and I met up with Squad.

“What happened?” Daisy asked even before I joined the circle.

I looked down and smiled. “It’s okay.” I looked up at her. “We’re friends.”

Daisy smiled and all of them cheered for me. Miguel rubbed my shoulders. Roberto slapped me on the back and the girls all hugged me.

“I think this calls for a celebration,” Miguel said.

We all went to a greasiest restaurant around our school and ordered burgers, hot dogs, chicken tenders, heaping plates of fries, and large ice cold sodas. The seven of us dominated the little place and I loved it.

It was in that moment when I realized that we were more than just a group of friends. We were a family. With everything that we had been through in the past, collectively and individually, we were still together. We all lost friends along our four year journey, we fought amongst ourselves, but we never lost each other. I mean, families fight. But we’re still a family.

Chapter 54

Roberto

I was lying awake in my bed staring up at the ceiling with my headphones in my ears.

I was going to graduate high school tomorrow. I had come a long way. And to be honest, everything was just starting.

Now you’ve heard a lot about Michael giving us great advice on all of our problems, and trust me, there have been times when we have given him advice.

During our junior year, he was dating a girl named Clara. And for about five months, things were going great for the two. And then their relationship took a complete one eighty. She said that he never made time for her because he spent a lot of time with Squad. She told him that he was going to have to choose between his friends or her.

I could go into detail about what happened after, but during month seven, they broke up. And for the longest time, Michael had a hard time getting over her. He told me how he’d ask her friends how she was doing; just silently watching over her, making sure she was safe.

When the year was over, I won’t forget this conversation.

“You know I still have a strip of pictures from a photo booth at the mall of Clara and I,” Michael said.

“Why do you still have that? Shouldn’t you throw it away?”

“Oh my gosh no. I could never do that. But I’m going to take one last look, and then put her where she belongs.”

I looked at him expectantly.

“In my past.”

And that’s what I was doing. I was taking one last look at Michael, and then putting him in my past. No I didn’t have little trinkets to remind me of him, but I did have my memories.

No this wasn’t the last night I would think about him. I’m sure I will in the future. But at least for what it’s worth, I am coming to terms with my past. And then in the morning, I will wake up and in the morning I will put Michael in my past, and in the morning, all my sorrow will be gone.

It does take everything I have to not try and bring him back to life, but it’s true: Michael was a big part of my life and now he was just a memory to put in my past.

He was alive in me. He was alive in Daisy, Beatriz, Alex, Nancy, Miguel, and Joey.

I almost lost myself this year. I was almost dead inside. But now, I realized that the world was mine for the taking. It was Squad and I against the world.

It was good to be alive.

Chapter 55

Daisy

Graduation.

After four years of high school, it was all over on that evening in that church’s auditorium.

We walked into the sanctuary, took our seats, listened to the speeches, then homeroom by homeroom, we went up and walked the stage. Then the principal gave the final address, and we turned our tassels from right to left. And it was all over.

All the narrators of the story explained almost every emotion possible, but I don’t think any of us have the right words to talk about graduation.

If you’re a high school graduate, then you already understand. If you’re not, then you’ll understand soon enough.

The whole graduating class then took so many pictures after the ceremony. Each of the seven took pictures with some of their other friends, but once we all got together, we took a picture together that was going to last a lifetime. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In our case, it’s worth a whole book’s worth.

“Are you guys ready?” Roberto asked.

“Yeah,” Nancy said. “Let’s go.”

“Be safe,” Roberto’s mom said. “And come back home safely.”

“I know,” Roberto said, giving her a hug.

“Roberto?” a woman said.

I almost froze. It was Michael’s mom.

Roberto opened his mouth to say something but she cut him off.

“No, there’s something I need to say first,” she said. “Roberto, I forgive you for what happened in October. And I’m sorry for just walking away from you that night in the hospital. I know that you must have had a rough time afterwards. So did I and our family too. But I just want to tell you that we don’t blame you for what happened.”

I wish I had a picture to show you Roberto’s expression. It was sincere contentment. I think after hearing that, Roberto was officially able to put Michael in the past.

“Thank you,” Roberto said, tears forming in his eyes. The two of them hugged and the six of us kind of hung back until they were finished.

Once they let go, Roberto came up to us. “Come on, guys. It’s time.”

Chapter 56

Daisy

The seven of us piled into Roberto’s car and we started to drive until we got to our destination.

“Are you the Squad?” the man who controlled the gate asked.

“Yes we are,” Roberto answered.

“All right, he’s in section nineteen, row eight.”

“Thank you.”

The gatekeeper opened up the gates to Williams Cemetery and Roberto drove in. We found a parking spot and all got out.

“I’m still wondering how seven of us are able to fit in here,” Alex said, stretching his legs.

“It’s cause we’re Hispanic,” Miguel said.

“Well … we’re Hispanic,” Nancy said.

“Lookie here, Indian people aren’t that different from Hispanic people, okay?” Alex explained. “We do the exact same things you guys do.”

“Or it could be that my car seats eight people,” Roberto suggested. “Just saying.”

We found section nineteen and walked to row eight. And once we found the tombstone, we formed a semicircle around it, looking down at Michael in silence.

Right after graduation we decided to go see him because that was the right thing to do. We left our phones in the car. They were blowing up with notifications of pictures people were tagging us in. But we didn’t want any distractions.

“Listen guys,” Roberto said. “None of us went to Michael’s funeral so we didn’t get to say any words. So that’s what we’re going to do right now. I’ll go last.”

No one said anything first. I think we were all trying to grasp the concept that Michael was just six feet below us. This is the closest any of us had been since the day of the accident.

“I just wanted to say,” Joey began, “I didn’t know Michael very well. To be honest, I didn’t know most of you. Betty just dragged me to the party and I decided to go. But even if I didn’t know Michael, it was still hard to believe that he was gone. And it was harder to see all of you in so much pain. But, Michael, you are alive with us.”

“Michael always knew what to say,” Nancy said. “He never left anyone alone when they needed help. I know he helped me through so many rough times with my step dad and break ups. I just wished you were here, Michael.”

“I think the others pretty much summed it up,” Miguel said. “Michael, you were a great friend. Oh sorry. You are a good friend. Your existence will never be forgotten.”

“It was hard to believe that you were gone, Michael,” Alex said. “I know none of us could really understand what that meant. But it’s like Nancy said a while ago: a piece of you lives in all of us. And until the day we die, you’re spirit will stay alive with us.”

I never realized how pretty cemeteries can be. Although there was a busy street behind us, the cemetery looked so calm and peaceful. The trees swayed gently in the wind. The sky was turning orange from the setting sun. I suppose that’s the purpose of cemeteries: make their final resting place a peaceful one.

“I’m not sure if there’s anything more to say that’s already been said,” I said. “But I think that through this experience, all of us were able to get closer together. We all went through a lot this year. I don’t think anyone else has gone through the amount that we have gone through, guys. It’s us against them. And Michael went through it with us too. Never for one second did we ever stop missing you. We never stopped thinking about you. Even when we leave this cemetery, you will always be in our hearts.”

We all turned to Roberto, expecting him to say something incredible. But to our surprise, he didn’t say anything. He just smiled. But then, he started to talk.

“I could certainly talk about all that Michael meant to us and how I miss him, but I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to talk about us.

“We’re Squad. We’re family. I honestly haven’t loved anyone as much as I love you all. And now, we’ve graduated high school. Just think about all of the things you’ve been through in these last four years. It’s a lot, isn’t it? And look to the people standing next to you. Although we all met our junior year, each of us had someone with them along the way that is standing here today.

“For me, it was Daisy and Michael. And it’s like all of us said, Michael will forever remain a part of us. A part of Squad.”

We didn’t clap. We didn’t cheer. We didn’t do anything. We just smiled and looked at each other. The seven of us stood there for a long time. We were standing together in our graduation gowns in a cemetery because these were the people we loved most in the world.

I looked up to the sky and smiled. And then one by one, everyone else looked up. You can hardly see starts in the city. You’re lucky if you can see a few. But tonight, there was only one star that we saw in the whole sky. And I knew that somewhere, Michael was looking down on us, smiling.

I closed my eyes once I felt a breeze blow through the cemetery. Yes we graduated, but what comes next? When we all go to college and separate? How there will come a time when we will all have to say goodbye to each other.

But we’re not saying goodbye right now. Although this moment will become a memory one day, right now, it wasn’t a memory; it was real. It was happening. And I was standing there with the people I loved most in this world looking up into the sky at the beauty and mystery of it all.

And that’s when I knew that now was our time. We are awake and alive. And it was time.

The time of us.

EPILOGUE:

MICHAEL

Chapter 57

Michael

OCTOBER 18, 2015

10:15 P.M.

Despite senior year just starting and knowing that there were going to be good and bad times ahead, I didn’t think of any of that. I didn’t think about the stress of school or the pressure of getting into a college and the reality of studying for an actual career.

I thought about how I was in the car with seven of the people I cared most about in this world. I thought about how I wouldn’t do anything to trade these friends. I mean, family is important. Don’t get me wrong. But I’ve seen these friends five days a week for nearly eight hours. I’ve told them some of my deepest secrets. They are my best friends and I loved them.

This is what it meant to be alive. To truly be alive. To be with the people you love most in the world and know that you wouldn’t know how to survive without them. These were the nights that we would look back on and say “remember when?” or “that wasn’t a good idea, but remember how much fun we had?”

I looked at the road ahead. The world was ours for the taking. It was a beautiful night and it was good to be alive. I was looking forward to spending many more nights like this with everyone.

“Oh gosh, Nancy!” Alex cried.

“Dang it, Nancy!” Roberto barked, turning around and looking at her.

And then, I felt the car collide with another. I was jerked forward and everything went black.

About the Author:

AJAY JOSEPH started writing stories when he was six years old. His passion for books and reading continued well into this high school days when we wrote Once A Stranger, It Will Be All Right, and If I Left. A reoccurring theme in his books is a message of faith, hope and love. This is because Ajay personally believes that these three things are strong enough to overcome doubt, fear, and hate. He tries to write books that serve as a message of hope.

He lives in Chicago.


The Time of Us

Imagine your whole life turning upside down in one second. For Roberto, Daisy, Nancy, Miguel, Beatriz, Alex, and Joey, their lives will never be the same after a fatal car crash. A part of them can't let go even as their lives carry on. And another part wants to forget. As these seven friends go through their senior year together, they will realize the value and importance of friendship. Written by AJAY JOSEPH, The Time of Us is a story that explores the tragedy and beauty of being awake and alive.

  • Author: Ajay Joseph
  • Published: 2015-09-11 18:50:20
  • Words: 30128
The Time of Us The Time of Us