Cameron texted me about Jake’s funeral. It was on Thursday, six days after the shooting, the same day I was supposed to get out of the hospital. I pushed my mom hard to let me go, even though she was worried I’d open my sutures or pass out or something.
I owed it to Jake. I’d survived, and he hadn’t. The least I could do was stand up for him, be there for him, the one last time I had the chance.
For once, my dad agreed with me. He’d told my mom, “He wants to tough it out. Pay his respects. He can handle it.” He’d given me a clap on the back like he was proud of me.
At the time, I’d been walking back from the bathroom in one of those stupid hospital gowns, wheeling an IV full of stuff that was supposed to keep me from being killed by the sewage that had spilled out of my bowels. Good times. My dad’s back slap echoed down my body and made my incision throb. I’d gritted my teeth into a smile.
My dad had been weird. He acted too jovial, all fake and hearty, like everything was A-okay. It was like he had no clue what I’d been through, how I’d nearly died. The doctor had to have told my parents how close it had been. Hell, they’d been standing in the room when the doctor had told me I was lucky to be alive.
But it wasn’t the time to bring it up, not when my dad was on my side about going to Jake’s funeral.
On Thursday morning, my mom helped me dress in a white shirt, navy blazer, and tie she’d brought to the hospital. I couldn’t wear regular pants yet, not with my sutures. They’d only removed the drain tube that morning, and everything was really sore down there. So I wore a pair of black sweatpants with an elastic waist that was the nicest pair my mom could find. And my dress shoes. Yeah, I was rocking the walking-wounded look.
We drove across town, and my parents dropped me off at the front door of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. They were going to park and attend the service too, but I’d insisted I go in by myself. I knew people from school would be there, and I needed to be able to hang with them without the ’rents breathing over my shoulder.
I’d watched news about the shooting on my phone. It was a huge story—CNN, MSNBC, even BBC carried it. I had to sneak views when my mom went down to the cafeteria or left for the night. She didn’t want me “getting myself upset.”
In the videos, I’d seen other students from The Wall grieving together. There’d been a huge lighted vigil outside the school, kids hugging and crying. I felt like I’d missed out not being a part of that. My hospital room filled up with cards, balloons, flowers, and shit I couldn’t eat. I’d had visits from my coach and even Principal Baylor, though my mom had kept out what she called “random well-wishers” and anyone from the news. That had been fine with me. I’d slept a lot.
But since the day of the shooting, I hadn’t been with anyone my age who really knew, no one who’d been where I’d been. I needed to be around people who understood, to talk about it, be angry together, grieve together. To howl at the fucking moon with my pack. Or as close to a pack as I had left.
After my dad dropped me off, I slowly made my way up the steps. People passed me by like I was some broken-down old vehicle in the slow lane. I recognized some faces but didn’t see anyone I knew well. Up ahead, a group of my teammates—Aaron, James, and Silas—went into the church, looking all somber in jackets and ties.
There were so many people there. It was like Easter Sunday, only everyone was wearing black and looked like they’d been kicked in the balls. There were news cameras in the street. They were interviewing people. God, that was the last thing I wanted. I’d probably lose it and humiliate myself on national television if someone stuck a mic in my face.
I made eye contact with a pretty, dark-haired girl from my American History class. Her face was puffy and red like she’d been crying for days. She gave me a wide-eyed look and a smile that seemed to say, Hey! I’m glad you’re okay. I gave her one back. Me too, you. My chest felt tight, and I had to look away.
Another step up. And another.
It was weird being outside. I felt exposed. There was so much space all around. The tall building across the street had so many windows, windows where someone could be watching, choosing a target. Maybe the slow guy with the limp.
Another step up. I tried to hurry, bit back the pain.
I stepped through the stone portal and into a tiled lobby. Colors from stained glass windows spilled across the white marble floor—gold, purple, red. I looked away from the colors quickly.
“Welcome, son.” A man in a black robe and purple stole handed me a flier. He had a sad smile and patted my elbow.
“Thanks,” I muttered.
It was crowded. The people in front of me shuffled forward, and I shuffled with them. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the flier was black-and-white. It had Jake’s photo on it. I clutched it, unable to look at it, not yet.
Sweat broke out on my neck and under my shirt. I’d only taken a quarter of a pain pill, not wanting to be too stoned to show up. But now my gut ached like a bitch. Maybe Mom had been right. Maybe it was too soon to do this. But, dammit, it was Jake, the guy with the weird addiction to Diet Coke, who dressed as Batman for Halloween when we were twelve, and who once shaved his ankles because he thought it would make him run faster. Jake. Neanderthal Man. My best friend.
I stepped into the first pew that was open, which was the second one from the back. I half sat, half fell onto the seat, bent my head, and looked down at my hands. They were fishy pale, glowing with sweat, and shaking. I’d gotten a glimpse of the front of the church, where a shiny black coffin was topped with flowers and a photo. But I couldn’t look at it again.
Get it together, man. Get it together.
I looked up to see Gordo and Cameron standing in the aisle. “Hey!” I said. It was good to see them.
I scooted down, and they moved sideways into the pew. There was an awkward attempt at a hug from both before they sat. They looked so strange in their jackets and ties. I’d never seen either one of them in anything but football uniforms, jeans, or sweats.
“Dude, heard you almost fucking bit it, huh?” Cameron nudged my shoulder. His eyes were troubled and his expression dark. He glanced up at the front of the church, toward the coffin. He chewed on his thumbnail. “Like Jake, man. Shit! I can’t believe this is for real. You know?”
“Jake,” Gordo agreed in a disbelieving tone.
“He was the best,” Cameron said. “It blows donkey ass.”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“I mean, where the fuck were you? I heard you were in the cafeteria?” Cameron asked.
I grunted. Yeah.
“Why the fuck were you there? Dude. You have B-block lunch.” Cameron was speaking too loud. Some older people in front of us turned to glare at his cursing, but Cameron ignored them.
“Decided to grab lunch early,” I said defensively.
“Bad move.” Gordo shook his head, like I’d been stupid. “Can’t believe you were actually shot.”
“And Jake. Fuckin’ Jake.” Cameron chewed his thumbnail some more.
“Why didn’t he stay in his classroom?” Gordo complained. “That’s what we’re s’posed to do. What the hell were they thinking?”
Well, he was probably thinking about escaping. He was probably thinking he could get out without being shot in the back. At least he died instantly. That’s what they said. No pain, Jake. No pain.
“He was just tryin’ to get out, man,” Cameron said in an impatient voice. “Shut up about that. Jesus. You act like it was his fault.”
“I didn’t say it was.”
Gordo was sitting on the other side of Cameron. I glanced at him and did a double-take.