JANUARY 4: COMPLAINT
Everything was fine.
Until it wasn’t.
Everything was great, actually, until Brandon had to go and ruin my life.
School was back in session from winter break, and I was ready to live it up in my final semester at Steelton High. I’d killed it as Katherine Minola in the Stackhouse Players’ winter production of Taming of the Shrew. (Everyone said so, including the reviewers in This Town: Steeltown and the Tribune Republican. And nothing usually impresses those people. Nothing.) The admissions department at Carnegie Mellon had caught wind of my performance and everyone said they’d be fighting NYU and even Juilliard for me, even if I hadn’t applied to Juilliard. My evenings were filled with talks with my best friend, Megan, about theater craft and Brandon and college and Brandon and method and Brandon. (Brandon and theater were kind of tied together for me, since he’d been the one to encourage me to audition for my first play in elementary school, way before we were even going out.) At the end of last year, I’d just been elected Drama Club president to replace Cate Berry, who got cast in a movie and moved to LA. I’d narrowly edged out the awful Claire Fowler by two votes. She’d been my chief rival since she won the lead at fifth-grade summer camp (and every blasted summer after that), but I’d finally triumphed over her. Life had hit perfection by New Year’s Eve, and it was only going to get better.
Or it would have, had it not all come crashing down because of dick Brandon.
I came back to school on day one of the new term ready to persuade Mr. Cooper that we should ditch Almost, Maine (which we had done for the spring production two years in a row) and perform Radium Girls instead. I had notes and a USB-saved PowerPoint. We had a full hour for clubs and sport meetings right after lunch, thank you, Football Boosters, so I planned to corner Mr. Cooper before he got an earful from Claire about Arsenic and Old Lace or, God help me, fucking Our Town.
I practiced my pitch on Megan between bites of my sandwich.
“Almost, Maine sucks!” said Megan. “Isn’t Arsenic and Old Lace done everywhere? We need something different.”
“Well, Radium Girls is super popular, too, but we’ve never done it here,” I said. “And I want it for my portfolio.”
“Yes. Heaven forbid we not have something in our portfolio,” said Megan.
(She might have been hearing about said portfolio since Claire first bested me at aforementioned camp.)
“You need to show diversity—”
Megan held up her hands. “Yes, yes. For Carnegie Mellon’s competitive drama department. I know, I know. You’ve convinced me. Down with John Cariani. Ring in the reign of D.W. Gregory to Steelton High’s spring production.”
“Yes,” I said, but I was pleased she had been listening to my presentation. The PowerPoint had crashed her laptop.
“Go get ’em, tiger,” said Megan as the bell rang.
I strode out of the cafeteria and down the hall with a purpose. This was my year. We were going to do the play I wanted, and everyone would thank me for it. Even Claire. I rounded the corner by the guidance office to hit up my locker before my date with Mr. Cooper. I practically exploded with joy to see Brandon standing there.
“Hey!” I said, rushing over to him. Before he could say anything, I threw my arms around him and pressed my mouth to his. That was not allowed in our sacred hallways of learning, but if you were fast the teachers didn’t say anything.
The asshole even kissed me back.
“I thought you were doing some fancy extra chem lab today?” I said.
“Oh yeah. Mr. Bower is out sick, and the sub didn’t want any active flames. Something bad happened in his past involving eyebrows. I don’t know. I’m going to stop in to Mock Trial. New session is upon us. We have so many members this year, we might have a whole crew dedicated to researching for the competition team.”
“Awesome,” I said.
I meant it. Brandon had wanted to be a lawyer ever since we started going out in eighth grade. He was the only kid I knew who read Supreme Court decisions for fun. His passion for law stuff kept me going in theater, even when I wanted to try something else like debate or Mock Trial myself. But Brandon said it was better to stick with one thing. He always said it’d distract him if I branched into his activities. I respected that. I could be incredibly distracting. Though I always thought I’d kill it up there in front of a real judge.
“I’m going to convince Mr. Cooper that we can’t have yet another year of Almost, Maine—”
“Listen, Raina?” he said, putting up his hands. “Can I just stop you right there? I actually need to talk to you.” He looked at the floor. He dug the toe of his loafer into a gray hole in the dirty hallway linoleum.
“Uh. Sure. You okay?” I said. Oh God, did his grandma die? She’d been sick since shortly after her ninetieth birthday party. Brandon’s mom was stressed about it every time I ate dinner over at his house. “Is it your grandma?”
“No, no. Nan is fine. It’s just … well, you know how I went to Model UN camp this last week?”
“Yes,” I said. He hadn’t been home for New Year’s Eve, but I’d made the best of it with Megan.
“Well, some stuff happened there I didn’t tell you about. Because I didn’t think it mattered and because of your Stackhouse show and everything. But now…” He trailed off.
Dig went his shoe. Dig, dig.
“Stuff? What stuff?”
“Ruby Carol and I hooked up.”
His dialogue came out all wrong. Rushed. Forced. No emotional connection at all. I didn’t believe it.
“Ruby Carol. From Model UN,” I said.
“You hooked up,” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
“But you were happy to see me. You were really happy to see me just this Sunday,” I said. I hadn’t been ready to sleep with him until this year. But once we got started, woooo boy. Brandon’s parents both worked late on Sundays, so we had his house to ourselves and believe me—I always got a great start to the week over there.
“We were safe. I would never…”
“You were safe?” I said. My voice bounced off the silver lockers and the diversity mural and the skylight outside the auditorium. “You had sex with her?”
“That’s what I said.” He glanced around. “Maybe you should lower your voice…”
“No, you … there are a lot of meanings to ‘hooked up.’ And you can shove my loud voice up your ass.” I stepped toward him, forcing him to back up against my locker. “Why are you telling me this shit in the hallway? Between classes? Before drama period?” I said.
“Apparently there are pictures of me and Ruby. My buddy Kyle—well, you know he’s an idiot—he posted them someplace. And I’m tired of it being a secret. She wants to go to Duquesne, too, so we wouldn’t have to break up in May, even. We’re together.”
His blocking was all off. The movements were slow. Labored. Rehearsed.
“But we’ve been together for five years. CMU and Duquesne are in the same city. What about last Sunday?” I gasped.
The bell rang. I could feel the staring eyes of the people who were trying to pretend they weren’t milling around in the hallway to watch the fight.
“Five years is a long time. We’re just not in the same place anymore,” he said. “We were both bored, Raina. Admit it.”
I would not. I could not honestly say that, ever. I loved Brandon. His blue eyes, his blond hair, his crooked nose, his round ears. And his brain. I loved his brain. He remembered everything, even stupid details like your favorite cartoon from when you were a kid or that you didn’t like coconut. He first asked me to the movies under the apple tree in Central Park on September 4. We had our first kiss on the day after Thanksgiving at the mall. We’d talked every day since then. He laughed at my jokes. He ran lines with inflection and improvised blocking. He said he believed in me and my talent.
“I’m not bored,” I said. “I love you.” I balled my hands into fists and willed myself to breathe slower, steady breaths. “You said you loved me, too. Every day. Until now,” I said.
“I did. I do. But it’s just not the same, Raina.” His eyes pleaded. For what? Forgiveness? Understanding?
“But…” I said. My nose was starting to burn and my eyes to throb. I was standing next to a “Six Foods Teen Bodies Need to Thrive” poster. And the love of my life was shitting all over my heart.
I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“I’m sorry,” Brandon said. How did he manage to sound like he actually meant it?
I stared into his crystal blue eyes, looking for the gag. The joke. The prank that this had to be. A tiny part of me grew pissed off that this asshole was ruining the color blue for me.
“If you see the pictures, I’m sorry.”
I just stared. Mouth open. Comic, exaggerated features. Jagged little shards of my heart poked against my chest.
Brandon edged his way to the side, until he slipped outside of my reach. He straightened his sweater and ran a hand through his hair. He walked away and didn’t look back.
I put one hand on the wall, another on the locker. Tears threatened. Tears of shock, rather than grief or sadness. I’d studied how my face felt when angry or sad or excited, so I could replicate the feelings needed in a given scene. But now—only shock.
Breathe in, breathe out, I told myself. From the diaphragm. Shallow breaths reduce vocal power. Brandon turned the corner. But I knew he heard my scream.
JANUARY 7: ANSWER AND NEW MATTER
I didn’t do much in the few days after Brandon stomped my heart into dust. Mom only let me stay home from school one day, saying that since life would continue on, I had to, too. Mom wasn’t a sit-at-home-and-cry type. She was a night nurse at a retirement community and took care of a lot of people whose minds and bodies no longer did what they were supposed to. It gave her too much perspective to be able to put up with much from me. And since Dad was away most of the year hauling dairy freight, it wasn’t like she had any backup in the daily-life department.
She patted me on the head before leaving for her shift. “There are plenty of other boys, Raina.”
“We were together for five years,” I said. He knew I collected teddy bears. He knew exactly when to put his arm around me at scary movies. I let him know everything about me, even things I wouldn’t admit to Megan. He was another part of my body. A limb. An internal organ you couldn’t just donate to some other girl without a thought.
“You are babies. You have nothing but time and chances. Use this in your art.”
“Are you kidding?” I said.
“No. I know it hurts. But there are worse things. Find a new boy,” she said. “Or a new whoever. Maybe we should get a pet. I’ve always thought having a cat would be nice.”
She’d never liked Brandon much. She said that he was too pretty and that the pretty ones take what they want and then leave when they want. I hated how she might have been right about that.
Mom left to go work a double, and I buried my face in the old, overstuffed fuzz of the couch.
Still mourning? Megan’s text buzzed my phone.
No one cares. No one understands, I texted back.
I care. I understand. Want company? she wrote.
Yes, I texted.
Megan brought chocolate-chip cookie dough ice cream and slightly more empathy than Mom.
“I saw them today,” I told her. “Making out by the gym. You’d think he’d have some respect for me, in our shared space.”
“Yes. Surely the dude who broke up with you for two weeks sophomore year so he was single for his spring-break trip to Cancún would have some consideration,” said Megan.
Megan didn’t like Brandon much, either.
“Was I this unsympathetic when you broke up with Todd? Or Kevin? Or Jack?”
“Jake. Most recent one was Jake,” she said. “And mostly. But I was only with them for about a month each.”
“I will never get over this,” I said. “I feel like I’m going to barf if I even hear his laugh.” I had, in fact, barfed twice just from hearing his laugh. I’d made it into the bathroom, but each time had been a close call. I didn’t even know what I had to throw up, since I’d barely eaten.
“You know what I think you need? Professional advice,” Megan said.
“Like a shrink?” I said.
“Oh, maybe. Your mom has health insurance, doesn’t she? She’s a nurse.”
“Yeah. But it’s super expensive. We have the probably-will-keep-you-from-dying plan. I don’t know if it’d cover much. Maybe I could go to the guidance counselor.”
“Oh. Maybe,” said Megan.
“What do you have against him?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing. He’s a nice guy. I went for my college-application stuff. It’s just…” She chewed on her thumbnail. “Ruby is a student volunteer in that office.”
I stared at her. “You aren’t serious.”
“I am. I saw her sitting at the desk, folding brochures.”
“Well, forget that,” I said. “I don’t want to go anywhere near her.”
“Yeah,” said Megan. “Well, how about here?” she said, digging through her backpack. She unearthed an Oprah magazine.
“You think I should call Oprah?” I said. “A shrink would probably be cheaper, even without insurance.”
“No! Well. I mean. If only. No—I think you should write for advice. They have life coaches in here. And money coaches and relationship people. You don’t have to do the Oprah staff. Write to that woman from the Tribune Republican who does the Two Hearts column. Bet she’d be all over this. She loves heartbreak.”
I glared at Megan.
“You know what I mean,” she said. “This is her job.”
“What are her qualifications?” I said. I sniffed back tears that always lurked anytime we started talking about Brandon the dick.
“You are worried about the newspaper lady’s credentials?” said Megan.
“I just don’t want someone who is going to mess me up more,” I said.
“Okay, okay, here,” she said, picking up my phone. “I’ll look at her blog online.” She tapped on the screen. “Here’s a good one. ‘Dear Hearts, I have been with my boyfriend for two-and-a-half years. Recently, I flew to France with him to meet his family. I thought it went well. His sister and I really hit it off, and his mother and father were so sweet and kind. When we flew home, we talked about shopping for an engagement ring! Everything seemed perfect. But then fast-forward to a few months later, and things seem to have fallen apart. He barely calls, cancels plans, and asked for my key to his apartment back because “repair people” will be doing work in his place soon. When I asked what is wrong, he says it’s “family stuff,” and nothing more. I don’t understand what is happening. Did I insult his parents? Am I missing signals I should understand? Help?! Sincerely, Confused Constance.’”
“Ouch,” I said. “What’s the answer?”
“‘Dear Constance,’” Megan read. “‘That sounds so hard. You think you are on one route, and then the plane turns in the middle of the sky and heads off into the clouds in another direction. I wouldn’t read into the family visit—it sounds like that went well. It might be related, but since the behavior is more recent, it might be tied to something else. Perhaps your boyfriend was caught up in the excitement of the visit when he started the marriage conversation and is now pulling back. I would encourage you to sit down and have an honest talk about where you both want your relationship to go and the pace at which you want to pursue that vision. Take heart, he could be acting this way for reasons completely separate from you. But the only way to find out is through open, honest communication. Readers—do you think the French family made her boyfriend want to say au revoir? Comment below!’”
“She didn’t tell her that the boyfriend was probably banging Ruby since sophomore year spring break,” I said. “So how could she help me?”
“Well, that wasn’t what the question was about. There are others that are more related to your situation. Read those.”
I flopped over onto her lap, knocking the phone out of her hand.
“Or you could continue to imitate a wounded orca,” she said.
“Why does no one feel my pain?” I said. “This is the worst feeling in the world.”
“I know,” said Megan. “It sucks. It really does. I hate Brandon. I want to cut off his balls.”
“Good,” I said from her lap.
She stroked my hair for a second. “But it’s still your senior year. You’ve lost the beginning of your last term to this dick. I don’t want you to lose spring theater auditions. Or Carnegie Mellon auditions. None of it. Say it with me. Not because of the dick! Not because of the dick!”
“Not because of the dick,” I mumbled.
“There you go. You are on your way toward healing. Which is good, because my mom is texting me to pick up groceries on the way home.”
“Mmph,” I said, rolling onto my furry throw pillows.
“Read the column, Raina. Write to this woman. It couldn’t hurt, right?”
I lifted my head. “I guess not.” I plopped back down onto the pillow.
Megan tried to give me a hug before she got up and went home, though I refused to stop lying prone on the bed.
I turned over and stared at the ceiling for a while. It was seven o’clock. Usually at seven, I’d text Brandon and he’d tell me all the latest gossip from Mock Trial, and I’d tell him what Claire had said that day, before our exchange devolved into eggplant and peach emojis.
I picked up my phone from the floor. The screen lit up with the Two Hearts column still open.
“‘Dear Hearts,’” I read out loud. “‘My fiancé of two years recently announced he no longer could live with my four cats…’”
They were all like that. Dudes changed their minds. Women got cold feet. Nonbinary partners decided that their person’s crippling debt was too much to take on. Two Hearts really brought home the reality that love sucked for everyone and forever was a lie.
Two Hearts just tells people to keep going and honestly communicate their feelings. If I communicate my feelings in the way I would like, I think I’ll be arrested, I texted Megan.
She didn’t text back. She was probably getting ready for bed. She had the annoying habit of getting up for swim practice at five a.m., so she was never awake much past nine.
I got up to pee. I wandered around the quiet, dark house. I kept picking up my phone, expecting Brandon to live-text some video games or MSNBC on a really wild night.
But nothing came.
Around midnight, I sat down at my computer. My screen flashed to life, a picture of Brandon and I last homecoming. I went into my settings and changed it to a plain blue purple screen. I opened up a Word doc.
“Dear Two Hearts,” I said, typing the letters.
What? I just turned eighteen and thought I’d marry the first boy I ever kissed? How pathetic that seemed. But it was true. I led with that.
I loved him, and he dumped me out of nowhere, I typed. No explanation, other than he had moved on before even breaking up with me in the first place. And now I’m alone and I don’t know what to do. I finished with a flourish. I didn’t reread it, I didn’t edit it, I just copied and pasted it and emailed the remaining slices of my pride to the email address on the bottom of the Two Hearts page. I closed my computer, fell into bed, and dreamed of Ruby and Claire chasing me with giant knives.
JANUARY 8: RELEVANT PARTIES AND ENTITIES
I barely woke up to my alarm. I stepped into the shower and leaned my head against the freezing morning tile. The water ran over me, pointing out that my body still had nerves that fired and my brain still registered touch. Stupid brain. I half-heartedly blotted my hair with my towel and pulled on old jeans and a hoodie. There was no one to look cute for at school anymore, so why bother?
Megan tried to poke me into action before school and at lunch, but what was the point of laughing? Before drama, Brandon and Ruby passed me in the hall. Neither of them paid attention to anything other than each other, hand in hand, laughing at some joke only they knew. That joke was probably me.
I reached the drama room where Mr. Cooper stood in the front, deep in conversation with Claire and two sophomores I didn’t know very well. They usually kept to the stage crew. I sat down in the front row of rickety chairs and folded my arms across my chest. Breathe, Raina. Diaphragm. In and out. I focused on the white board in front of me, the swaths of old marker arching like rainbows where an eraser just couldn’t rid it all.
“Raina?” said a voice. I looked up. Claire stood over me.
I didn’t answer.
“Did you hear us? Mr. Cooper called you.”
I looked over and nodded at him.
“Are you okay?” she said. “Do you need to go to the nurse? You don’t look so good.” She backed away from me, as if significant-other abandonment was contagious.
“Fine,” I mumbled. The story of Brandon dumping me by my locker was all over our small school within an hour. Claire had to know.
“Mr. Cooper asked you to come up to see him. Over there.” She pointed to his desk.
I got up and walked over.
“Raina, did you hear anything I just said to the group?”
Mr. Cooper had been talking? Drama had started? It probably wasn’t a great look that I hadn’t been paying attention.
“No,” I said. I tried to make eye contact with him. I’d blubbered in Mr. Cooper’s office about Brandon more than once in our three-plus years of knowing each other. Three of those times had been in the last week alone.
“It’s okay. Listen, we are voting on the spring production. Do you want to call people to order?” he said.
“Spring production?” I said. The words bounced around my head like a foreign language I used to understand. “Voting?”
“Yes, it’s today. We determined the three selections on Tuesday and so we are going to vote—”
Tuesday. The day I sat at home hiding under my pillows after dick Brandon …
“As president,” Mr. Cooper went on, interrupting my grief spiral, “it’s your privilege to lead the process. Are you … are you feeling up to it?”
I glanced at the board. Even though I’d been concentrating hard enough on it to crack it, I hadn’t notice the names of three plays written there: Almost, Maine; Twelve Angry Jurors; and fucking Our Town.
“Our Town?” I said. “These are our choices?” A small part of my brain registered Twelve Angry Jurors. I’d never been in that play, either. I’d seen a part of it at a festival once. That could be interesting.
“We had several members suggest that enthusiastically,” said Mr. Cooper.
“I thought Radium Girls…” I said softly. But on Monday after Brandon broke up with me, I’d cried in the bathroom until Megan found me and persuaded me to go home. I skipped Tuesday and just zoned out in drama Wednesday and Thursday, and Mr. Cooper kindly let me. I’d never even suggested Radium Girls to anyone.
“All of these are by men,” I said.
“So they are,” said Mr. Cooper. He clapped his hands. “Okay, everyone, listen up!”
The twenty or so people in the room filed over to the folding chairs. Curious eyes stared up at me.
Mr. Cooper handed me the chalk. “Ready?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. I just walked over to the board.
“All for Almost, Maine?” he said. One hand went up.
“Yeah, it was a good run while it lasted,” he said. “Twelve Angry Jurors?”
Claire’s hand rose. Mine went up, too.
“Two for number two,” said Mr. Cooper.
Claire and I exchanged a surprised glance. We never agreed on anything.
“So that leaves…” Mr. Cooper didn’t even get a chance to finish. Everyone’s hands shot up.
“Our Town?” Claire cried. “You can’t actually be serious.” She turned and glared at the group. “Everyone everywhere does this tired, old play. We should do something relevant. Something fresh.”
Twelve Angry Jurors was from the 1950s, but I didn’t have the energy to point that out. It was still more contemporary than something written in 1938.
“It’s what we want,” said Ben, a junior.
“It’s a classic. It’s time this department puts it on. Besides, maybe we can put our own spin on it,” said Jane, a freshman.
Heads nodded around her.
Claire turned back to me. “Excuse me, new Drama Club leader? Are you really going to let this stand?”
The eyes turned back toward me.
“We voted,” said a sophomore girl. “You could have said something before, but you didn’t. This is what we want.”
“Fair and square,” said someone else.
The group cheered as Claire scowled. I tried to pay attention to it all, because fucking Our Town, but I kept flashing back to the beginning of the week, when everything seemed set and perfect.
“All right, then,” said Mr. Cooper, clapping his hands and snapping me out of my daze. “I’ll order the scripts tonight!”
The bell rang as I placed the chalk on the grooves next to the board. Our Town. God. My chest twinged with a weird burning sensation. I was either having a heart attack or being assigned this production felt like Brandon dumping me for Ruby again.
I drifted into the hallway without saying goodbye to Mr. Cooper. I felt an arm on my shoulder. I turned to find Claire looking over me.
“What the hell was that?” said Claire. “You just caved to fucking Our Town. Do you know how many schools are going to put that on in the greater Steelton area this semester alone? Probably, like, six. We could have done anything. But you let that happen, Madam President.”
A familiar exercise-and-stress-induced asthmatic cough sounded next to Claire. Brandon, Ruby-free for a moment, stood next to her arm. A look of confusion crossed his face, as if his instincts were telling him he was meant to intervene with a sarcastic comment right at this very moment. But his dick brain also registered that I was no longer technically his concern.
“Uh. What? Hey,” he managed.
Claire turned toward him. “Oh, don’t think I don’t know that this is your fault, you unfaithful dirtbag. Everyone knows that. I swear to God you better leave this hallway right now, and never let me see your stupid pimple-free face for the rest of the year. Because of you I have to compete to be Emily Webb or some shit. Leave. Now.”
Because Claire was about two inches taller and a third more muscular than Brandon’s skinny five-foot-seven frame, he listened. I watched him retreat down the hall as fast as regulation permitted him. Claire tried looming over me, as well. But all the fight I once held had just run toward the science wing.
“Look, I’m sorry about the moron. But this is bigger than him. Bigger than both of us. This is Drama Club. Don’t you care?”
I nodded, but my face started the stupid burning thing. I closed my eyes, willing the tears to stay inside the ducts. Breathe. He wasn’t worth it. Breathe. Diaphragm. I gave Claire a small wave that I hoped she interpreted as “thank you for being mean to dick Brandon.” I headed to class. I didn’t want to flunk out, though I didn’t know if it mattered whether I did. It’s not like I could bring myself to audition for fucking Our Town. I could hear Carnegie Mellon laughing at the joke my chances had become all the way from Pittsburgh.
Drama was my life. But so was Brandon. Now it seemed like both had slipped through my fingers, and I hadn’t even realized I was losing my grasp.
JANUARY 11: MATERIAL WITNESSES
Today was the day.
I looked in the mirror for the twentieth time. I smoothed the deep ocher and sienna folds of my skirt. I bent down and straightened my new knee-high socks. My faux suede Mary Janes completed this look. So what if it was 11 degrees outside?
I was ready.
“Millie, hurry up already or I’m not driving you to school. You can walk.”
I couldn’t walk. It was four miles, a mile of it through woodlands with poorly maintained paths covered in snow to get to school. But Dad might make me take the bus, the experience of which was on par with wildlife and avalanches.
“Coming,” I yelled. One more look in the mirror. I turned and picked up my backpack next to my bathroom door and grabbed my coat hanging neatly on the hook just inside my room.
“Have a toaster pastry,” said Dad. He shoved a piece of toast in his mouth, narrowly avoiding sticking the sleeve of his suit coat in the butter dish.
“Dad, look out. You don’t have any other clean work clothes. Which reminds me, you need to go to the dry cleaner and pick up your work clothes.”
“Yes. Right. Where is the ticket?”
“In your briefcase, in the little pocket on the front. Where it was, oh, I don’t know, last week when we had this discussion.”
“Right, right. Thanks, baby. Are you ready?”
Oh heck yes, was I ever. I smiled to myself as we headed to the Jeep.
We drove down our driveway and the long, winding woodland access road in silence. Traditionally, Dad didn’t like conversation until we hit the highway. He needed to concentrate on not taking out a deer or raccoon or fox after hitting a patch of ice. Ever since Mom had left and then gotten remarried, the silence between him and me stretched the remaining miles and yards and feet until he stopped the car long enough for me to hop out in front of Steelton High.
I looked a lot like her, my mom. Same long dark hair, same dark eyes. I think that’s why Dad had a hard time with me. Maybe I should have gone to live with her in Ohio. She kept offering. But she had a new baby, and cute as he was, I hadn’t really felt like being live-in childcare or starting over in a new place my senior year of high school.
Besides, this was my year. Today I would gather my forces to make the most kick-butt Mock Trial team that Cambria County, the state of Pennsylvania, or our fine nation had ever seen. Mr. Darr, the Mock Trial teacher, had been at a conference last week when we got back from break, but now he had returned, and it was my time to take over. I didn’t know if many people would join up. Most of the old team had graduated or defected to Model UN, since the field trips were better. But Jeffrey would still be there, of course, and Brandon. I’d be the third lawyer, but we’d need to find witnesses. Last year we’d almost taken state, so maybe that would generate some interest. I’d heard rumblings before winter break that the boys had a plan to recruit members, but no one new had shown up to meetings yet.
New-term energy still buzzed around me as people danced like honeybees communicating the directions their new schedules had taken.
“Focus,” I said to myself. “Only you can manifest your inner power.” My affirmation app always seemed to know what to say.
Or at least what to tell me to repeat to myself.
“Millie, over here!” Claire called.
“Hey,” I said. The frenetic surge around me gave me life and made me nervous all at the same time.
“Look at you. You look hot,” she said, eyeing me up and down. “I don’t suppose…”
“Claire, we’d kill each other,” I said.
Claire legitimately pouted. “We’d be good together,” she said.
“No, you’d get sick of me in a week. Plus, as I have mentioned before about a hundred times when you bring this up, you like sex. A lot. You talk about that frequently. I do not. With anyone at all, maybe ever. It’s nothing personal,” I said.
“Yeah, yeah. I get it. Can’t blame someone for trying. I haven’t been on a date in a million years. And that really is an amazing skirt.”
I beamed. “Thanks! Mom sent it. Mom guilt is really helping my wardrobe. I asked if she wanted to FaceTime on the first day of my last term. She burst out crying and then the Zara box arrived five days later.”
“It sucks,” I said. “Kinda. But there are pros and cons to parents no matter where they are.”
“Tell me about it,” said Claire.
“What’s up for you today? Spring play discussions, right? You’ll be ruling VP style.”
Claire sighed. “Yeah, Raina didn’t choke on a strain of iambic pentameter in December, so I still have to deal with her. That girl has been bugging me in every play since The Food Pyramid almost a decade ago. She got to play the carrot, and I was stuck as the beet. And she was barely there last week so now I’m about to audition for fucking Our Town. Our. Town.”
“Yes, you mentioned that a few times over the weekend. I’m sure you’ll be great in it anyway. Break a leg!”
“I will be great in it,” Claire mumbled. She looked up at me. “Same to you? Do you need luck?”
“A little,” I said. “Let’s hope I don’t have to recruit people. I hate that.”
“I believe,” said Claire.
* * *
After lunch, I made my way down to Mr. Darr’s classroom.
“Hello, Millie! Have a good break?” he greeted me.
“Yes!” I said. I looked around the room. I counted the people slumping into desks and chairs. Jeffrey and Brandon nodded to me.
“Wow,” I said to Brandon. “Look at all these people. Who are these”—I strained my neck to look past him—“all these guys?”
“I emailed a few friends. So did Jeff. I knew we’d be short a few and didn’t want to put the burden on you to solve our witness problem.”
“Oh. Thanks!” I said encouragingly. Problem solved already. Perfect.
The bell rang, and Mr. Darr raised his hands to quiet us.
“Wow, there are a lot of you. How about we go around the room and introduce ourselves. I’ll start. I’m Mr. Darr.” All of us laughed.
“I’m Emilia,” I said. “You can call me Millie.”
They went around the room. I only really remembered Chad because he was the first. Or maybe that was Mike. I’d gotten them confused already. I made a mental note to study their faces.
Mr. Darr distributed the Mock Trial handbook, charter, and case materials for the district competition case. The papers burned fiery in my hands. This was the case that would send us to states in Harrisburg, and then the state case could send us to Pittsburgh for nationals. I’d committed 90 percent of my brain to knowing every inch of these documents (saving 10 percent for college applications, the rest of school, and talking Claire out of dating weird girls) since November. But this was the first time we would discuss it as a team, since the boys mostly kept to themselves or did other forensics competitions during the fall.
No one could want Mock Trial victories as much as I did.
None of the guys spoke or even looked up from their papers. I decided to take the lead. I stood and straightened my skirt. “Mr. Darr, if I may,” I said.
“In any given trial, there are at least six people. There are three witnesses and three lawyers. Others can be on the team for research and consultation. Or we can rotate people for various competitions until we make it to states. And we will make it to states. Any questions so far?”
They shook their heads.
“Mm-hmm,” murmured Jeffrey.
“Our season starts in about six weeks. We have one meet in February and one in March. Then districts are the week after that. Those are the three that we will focus on because we know for sure we’ll be competing. We win our district, we go to states. After states—nationals.”
“Thanks, Millie. Great summary. Everyone got it?”
Then Mr. Darr divided us into teams. Jeffrey, Brandon, two sophomores, and one freshman and I formed the first. There were two other teams of six as well.
“Three lawyers and three witnesses,” I said to Brandon. “This is great for the future of the program! We can rotate the sophomores and freshmen. And that one junior over there could be groomed for lawyer. Or, if you want to have a research team, those can be the guys who want lawyer next year.”
“Yeah,” said Brandon. He didn’t look up from doodling in his notebook.
His flippant attitude annoyed me. They supposedly led this team. I was just the secretary of the group. (I didn’t think the graduating seniors should have voted on the executive board officers of the club, since they wouldn’t even be here this year. Why did they get a say in secretary and treasurer, let alone president or vice president? But I didn’t have to be in charge. I’d learned freshman year that I could more effectively lead the team from behind the scenes, and Emilia Goodwin was nothing if not a team player.)
“Maybe we should swap out lawyers as well,” I said. “One per competition. Two of us with experience could be at each trial, right? We’d only miss one each. I think it’s important to get as many people participating as possible, because having this much interest in Mock Trial only bodes well for the future of government, don’t you—”
“Millie,” Jeffrey interrupted, “I’ve been meaning to address this issue.”
I blinked at him. Oh, had he now? He could have mentioned this months ago, when I’d first asked about recruitment. Or last week. But this is how Jeffrey operated.
Jeffrey cleared his throat. “Excuse me, everyone?” He stood up and clapped his hands. “I have an announcement.” Everyone turned to look at him. Mr. Darr glanced up from the papers he’d been grading.
“It’s amazing that there are so many of us on the team this year. But as you know, only six people can actually participate in a trial as a lawyer or a witness. So, we’ve decided to have a competition team, some understudies, and a research crew.”
“What?” I said. “Why can’t everyone get trial experience? We could make it work.”
“No, this is the way it should be. We are going to audition for spots on the trial team,” said Jeffrey.
“Audition?” Heat crept under my sweater and blouse to the buckles of the latest mom-guilt brand shoes. “How long did you know about this?” I looked up at Jeffrey, who was still standing over me.
He smiled. “We’ve been knocking around a few ideas.”
“And who is this ‘we,’ exactly? Last I knew, I was still the secretary and had a say in these kinds of things.”
“We didn’t want to stress you out,” said Brandon. “You have a lot going on.”
I did? All I had going on was Mock Trial. I barely even saw my best friend anymore, as she was busy trying to take over the Drama Club from the president.
A gross feeling clawed its way up from my stomach. I fought it down. This might not be the end of the world. It sucked for the freshmen who’d be saddled with research. I’d been in that position. But preparation never killed anyone.
“Fine,” I said. Best for a team player to keep the peace. “What are we having these guys do, exactly?”
“Oh. Well. We’ll all be auditioning. Each one of us. Only the best people should be on the team, don’t you agree?”
I frowned. Yes, I agreed. But I also knew that the chances of the Steelers winning the Super Bowl after an undefeated season were higher than Jeffrey’s definition of “best” matching mine.
“So, Mr. Darr has found a case for us to argue, with some witness statements to practice and such. We’ll audition Wednesday.”
“One day to prepare?” I said. “One. Day. What? Mr. Darr, you knew about this?”
“I’m sorry, Millie. I thought you had agreed to this,” he said. “I would say we could hold off a bit, but we really should have the team set. The first trial isn’t that far away.”
My mouth dropped open. Brandon didn’t look surprised. Most of the other guys in the room didn’t, either. Had they planned this? Why wouldn’t they include me? Especially Mr. Darr? I was the hardest worker on this team. I’d single-handedly brought down the toughest witness Fogton Creek had to offer last spring. Was this some sort of horrible joke?
“You can grab the audition materials on the way out,” said Brandon.
“Why don’t we just use the actual case?” I said.
“It’ll be fine,” said Jeffrey. “I’m sure everything will work out the way it is supposed to.”
The last time I’d heard that, Dad had been trying to talk us both into the fact that Mom didn’t really want the divorce, that she’d leave her new contractor boyfriend and come home within the month.
She married the contractor exactly seven months later.
After the bell rang, I gathered my stuff and ripped the stupid audition case file out of Brandon’s hand on my way out. I hoped I gave him a paper cut that would get infected and his arm would turn bright green or something. I glanced over the sheets.
“A death-penalty case? Are you serious? We would never see a death-penalty case in competition,” I said.
“Talking to yourself?” said a voice.
I realized I’d walked straight to Claire’s locker. “Get this. There was a boy coup d’état. I have to audition for the team.”
“Welcome to my world,” said Claire.
I glared at her.
“Sorry, sorry. It’s just that ridiculous Raina is a mess. She isn’t even trying at all.”
“It was probably Brandon’s fault. The Mock Trial VP. Apparently, he likes ruining things.”
“Yeah,” said Claire, unable to hide her disgust. “Clearly.”
“I can help you run lines?” I said. That usually made her feel better.
“I don’t know if I can bring myself to speak this shit out loud.” She shook her script at the sky.
“Well, then maybe you can help me. Do you happen to know anything about lethal injection?”
Claire threw me a blank look.
“Yeah. Me either.”
A stone sank from my brain to my throat and settled somewhere behind my appendix. Several more rolled out of my brain and wedged themselves around internal organs until I felt like they filled my body from head to toe. I barely managed to lift my feet to get in the car and go home.
“Good day, baby?” asked Dad.
“Yeah, Dad,” I said. “Great.”
“Mock Trial going well?” he said.
“It’s going,” I said.
I leaned against the cool glass as we bumped our way home. The silence filled the spaces between my stone insides, its heavy loneliness spilling out my ears and raining onto the floor until it filled up my room. I could drown in this, here at the bottom of a pool in my own head.
JANUARY 13: DISCOVERY CONTROL PLAN
“You’ve got this,” said Claire. “You live this.”
“Yeah.” I tried to say it confidently, but my voice cracked on even that one syllable word. Who could be ready in one freaking day? This was a set up for failure, and I didn’t understand. Claire’s face would have melted off if she’d had one day to rehearse a new play.
“These guys aren’t going to get to you. You studied. You looked stuff up online. I ran lines with you. This is a complete role reversal, and I still don’t know how I feel about it. But in my heart, I know you are going all the way to nationals. I believe in you.”
I looked over at her. The soft tendrils of hair that escaped her headband floated up in the cold wind.
“Thanks,” I said. “Wish me luck on the prosecution.”
“Break a leg,” she said, squeezing my arm.
All through morning classes, I kept going over anything I thought could help in my “audition.” This whole thing seemed off, like Brandon and Jeffrey had a plan I just wasn’t in on. I hadn’t even known that Pennsylvania had reinstated the death penalty in 1976 and that three people had been executed since then. I didn’t like what I’d learned. I always saw myself moving on to fight voter suppression or kids being taken away from their parents at the border or something.
At tryouts, I watched two freshmen mumble their way through their arguments. Mr. Darr made notes. So did Jeffrey. Would he get to decide the team? How would that be fair? I didn’t have too much time to ruminate because I heard my name.
“Millie,” said Mr. Darr, “you’re next.” He smiled warmly, but he could have ended this whole fiasco before it started. I didn’t know whose side he was on, but it didn’t feel like mine.
“Um,” I started. Dang. That was like rule one of public speaking. “Ever since the Supreme Court, uh.” Double darn. I looked down at my notecards. Poop, card two was on top. I slid the back card onto the top. No, that was card nine. Where was card one? Did I leave it in my backpack? I should just wing it. I’ve been in more dire circumstances than these. Oh no. Had I been silent this whole time? Had it just been seconds? A minute? The freshmen dudes weren’t this bad.
“Can I start again?” I said.
“Sure,” said Mr. Darr.
Jeffrey and Brandon glanced at each other.
Focus on who you are. You are the best version of yourself right now, I thought.
“In 1995, punishment, um, arrived for a nearly fifteen-year-old murder in the form of lethal injection. I plan to argue … comment on the issues surrounding this form of execution.”
I stumbled my way through the rest of the cards. It had to be the worst presentation I’d ever done in my life, including the time I’d accidentally lost Claire’s pet rabbit at my fifth-grade talent show during my magician phase. (The bunny had been fine. We found him an hour later enjoying radishes in the sustainability garden.)
“What did you end up arguing, exactly?” asked Claire before our English class at the end of the day.
“I don’t even remember.” I put my hands against her locker and leaned my face into them. “I entered a fugue state.”
“Surely it didn’t go that badly.”
“It did. It did, it did, it did.”
“Would mozzarella sticks help?”
“Maybe,” I said.
“And even if this bullshit was the worst ever, they’ll make you a lawyer. They have to. You are a senior who has put in three years, and now it will be four. You’ve worked your ass off in everything I’ve ever seen you do. Especially this. They owe you.”
“Okay,” I said. “You mentioned fried cheese?” The thought of Pappy’s restaurant, a mere two blocks away, made life feel a little more bearable.
“Yes, I did. I’ll drive you home after.”
“Thanks,” I said. I texted Dad that he could stay at work as late as he wanted and that I’d bring him leftovers. I knew he’d love that.
I could get through the rest of this day. I could get through tomorrow if necessary. Eventually I’d find out that I was a lawyer, that Jeffrey, Brandon, and I could somehow work together to train the next generation of Steelton Mock Trial participants, and we could forget this messing around and get back on the path to winning.
Yes. I was sure of it.
Though I kind of dreaded whatever might be coming next.
Copyright © 2020 by Adrienne Kisner