fiction for mojo 18

We Are the Bobcats — Jackie Mohan

It was all over Facebook. Peter’s profile had become a memorial of posts he would never read, more posts than he had ever gotten on any birthday. The messages were personal, emotional. We felt indecent reading some of them, as if a neighbor had forgotten to pull down curtains at night and we could see inside. We read every single one.

Before the accident, most of us didn’t know Peter Bishop beyond a name. He was quiet, overweight and pear-shaped with brown hair, brown eyes, just one more face filling the school hallways. But now he was dead. In the hallways outside classroom doors, we recalled our interactions with him in heartrending detail, from that conversation at Katie’s sweet sixteen to last year’s group project on photosynthesis. He became the kindest kid in school and a beacon of light in every class.

When his death was acknowledged in the morning announcements, the Monday after the accident, we held a long moment of silence. Most of us had already known from Facebook. We learned the details from the Sunday edition of The Spring Hill Journal, our town’s weekly newspaper. A car had struck him early Saturday morning as Peter headed to Boykin Pond with a fishing pole strapped to his bicycle. The accident was front page news.

A few days after Peter’s death, Hailey Matthews declared that she’d been in love with him since third grade. Hailey made constant bids for attention and had bleached her hair the year before, though her black roots always showed. In second grade, Hailey’s father died, and the town had showered her mother, tall and blonde, with casseroles and condolences. Too young for these Southern social graces, we gave Hailey space. Since dyeing her hair, Hailey liked to think of herself as popular. She followed Katie, who did not fancy herself popular and was always nice to everyone.

After Peter died, some of the art kids were asked to paint a mural in his memory on the side hallway to the gym, the one with the water fountains. Each of us began taking special routes to our next classes so that we could go down the hallway and see Georgia and Tucker, who had been excused from class, working on the mural. They were painting a fishing pole that pulled a deep blue fish out of a pond and into a radiating yellow sun. The thick smell of paint filled the hallway. Down the hall, we heard the drama kids rehearsing Romeo and Juliet.

On Wednesday, Hailey stood babbling to Katie, who watched Georgia and Tucker in quiet reverie with the rest of us. One girl started crying and her friend took her into the bathroom. Hailey pulled out her phone and shook her wrist, jangling the set of rhinestone bangles adorning her skinny, spray-tanned arm.

“I don’t know why she was crying,” Hailey said. “Not to be mean or whatever, but I’m the one who’s had a crush on him forever.”

This was unlikely since we all knew that Peter had asked Hailey to the Frosty Formal, the winter dance, the year before, and she’d gone with the soccer captain instead, but we didn’t say anything. We let Hailey love Peter, and when she began sniffling in the hallway, no fewer than four of us offered her a Kleenex. She accepted all of them with the watery, gracious thanks of one of the wronged women in our mothers’ soap operas.

Peter’s funeral was a Thursday morning. Students who wanted to attend were allowed to leave class early. That morning, we dressed in our Sunday best, climbed into our hand-me-down pick-up trucks or Toyota Camrys, and headed to school. As we walked to class, we avoided the freshmen, even the juniors and seniors. They were whole, intact. They had not known our grief.  We sat patiently through first period and half of second, waiting for our cue. When the principal dismissed us, we rose with the quiet dignity of the widowed, hiked our backpacks on our shoulders, and made sure to walk by Peter’s mural as we headed back to the parking lot under a rainy sky.

Some of us went to Spring Hill Baptist Church alongside Peter, and those who went elsewhere still knew how to behave at a funeral. We filed into the pews, lone islands with careful space between us, and examined our surroundings. The vague light of a rainy day deadened the tall stained-glass windows. Up front, Peter’s parents talked with the pastor, a man with thinning brown hair who was not as old as we thought he should be, and the church had an off-putting, musky smell. Peter’s mother wore a plain black dress, so well-worn that it was almost navy, and Peter’s father had his arm tight around her shoulders. It stayed there throughout the service, and when he released her afterward to shake hands with funeral attendees, the mark of his clenched fingers remained in the thin fabric of her dress.

When the pastor asked if anyone would like to come up and say a few words about Peter, most of us stayed seated. Peter’s father spoke a little and quickly sat down. His mother could not stand. One boy, Malachi, stood, but it took him a few moments to collect himself. Peter and Malachi had been friends as long as we could remember, and we had heard that he was supposed to go fishing with Peter that Saturday morning but had slept through his alarm.

“Peter was my best friend,” Malachi said, a crumpled piece of paper clutched in his hand. He tried to unfold it but gave up and ran a hand through his uncombed hair. Peter’s father stood and helped Malachi back to his seat. The pastor waited off to the side and when no one else came to the podium, we prepared to leave. Then Hailey stood.

Her black heels, too tall to be decent, squeaked as she walked to the front. She tugged at the hem of her short black dress, flipped her hair over her shoulder, and cleared her throat.

“Many of you know how important Peter was to me,” she said. “I met him in third grade.  Peter was the nicest, smartest, most special person I’ve ever known.” We shuffled our feet, cramped and pinched inside our tight church shoes. “I can feel him looking down on me today from Heaven, telling me that I can get through this. I don’t know if I can.” We did not care that her eyes were red and puffy. We cared that she dared to stand in front of us, in front of Peter’s parents, with plastic tortoiseshell sunglasses perched on her blond head.   

“I will miss him forever,” she continued.  “You have all been so supportive in my time of grief, and I can’t thank you enough.” Here, she turned her blue eyes upward and pointed a glittered nail to the high ceiling. We cringed. “We love you, Peter.” She looked forward, over our heads. “Thank you.”

She brought a wrinkled tissue to her eyes, rimmed with eyeliner, and walked back to her seat, her shoes squeaking.

Friday, we were all back in school. Hailey came in late, wearing black. She couldn’t wear her funeral dress again because it would violate the dress code, so instead she wore black lipstick.  “For Peter,” she said, not when asked, but when we all looked at her as she walked into Mr. Davenport’s English class, late.

Mr. Davenport asked us to write poems. We could use them to talk about Peter, to explore our grief if we wanted. The poems would not be graded. He gave us twenty minutes, during which time he walked around the room, giving sympathetic smiles. Most of us stuffed our poems down into the depths of our backpacks or folded and tucked them in the back pocket of our binders. Hailey raised her hand.

“Mr. Davenport, I’d like to share mine,” she said, lifting a piece of notebook paper filled with a rainbow of multi-colored gel pens. She stood without waiting permission and opened her mouth to speak.

Katie’s voice cut through the room. “Nobody wants to hear it!”

Hailey looked at Katie, who had buried her face in her hands. Hailey then looked around at the rest of us, and we looked down at our desks, studying them with the intensity of monks in prayer. Nobody did want to hear it, but we weren’t going to say so. It was better she heard it from her best friend, although we agreed that the timing may have been off.

“Thank you, Hailey, but I think these are best kept private,” Mr. Davenport said. “I think we’re all as overwhelmed by Peter’s death as you are.” He gave her one of his sympathetic smiles, the one he used when he wanted to make us feel like he understood us.

Hailey fell back into her seat as if she’d been struck. No one looked at her.

At lunch, she sniffled, and not one of us offered her a tissue from the plastic packs our mothers made us carry, worried about our dealing with tragedy so young. When Hailey sat by Katie in Biology, Katie got up to go to the bathroom, and when she returned, she sat at a different table. Before last period, as we made our quick trip to Peter’s mural, we crowded together and left Hailey to stand alone by herself. We each mourned and felt the weight of Peter in our chests. Hailey didn’t get to have a monopoly on grief.

Over the weekend, Malachi organized a vigil at Boykin Pond. Some of us came early and fished a little before the sun went down. Malachi was the only person who caught anything, one tiny fish thrashing its silver body against death. He threw it back. The rest of us arrived after sundown. Even with our small class, we filled the parking lot and lined the road beyond the trees.  The air rang with cicadas, the sound of a dying summer, and the humidity wrapped around us.  We stood along the edge of the pond holding a hodgepodge of whatever candles we could find: our older sisters’ Bath and Body Works candles in Pumpkin Spice, our mothers’ Fresh Linen from Yankee Candle, our grandma’s tall red and white tapers from dining rooms. Malachi passed out tea lights in Styrofoam cups to everyone else.

Hailey was not there, and when we asked Katie about it, she said, “I couldn’t give her a ride.” Her fingers worked to shred the edge of her cup, and the white particles floated down and stuck to her sweatshirt. We imagined Hailey at home, reapplying black lipstick, sore over missing an opportunity to claim Peter for herself.

Malachi had a photograph of himself and Peter, arms around each other and fishing poles high in the air, in a thin black picture frame. He also brought a small boat, the kind he might have built in woodshop or with his father as a boy, and he placed the picture on this. Kneeling by the pond, he pushed the boat out into the water. About twenty feet from shore, the picture slipped off the boat. We wanted to jump in, to pull Peter up, and a few of us even took a step forward as if to try. We wanted to save him, but instead we stayed rooted to the ground.

We stood side by side until the moon rose above the blackened trees and felt the loneliness of our grief fall away, like shedding a skin. It was a clear, perfect night, and we flinched at the sound of a lone car speeding down the nearby road, the site of the accident. We wanted to go on standing there forever, an unbreakable wall, but we were only teenagers, and reality called us home.

Hailey wasn’t in school Monday or Tuesday. We didn’t notice until Wednesday, when Mr. Davenport asked if anyone had talked to her. We hadn’t. Thursday, we sat in first period, and the morning announcements began, reminding us about the pep rally on Friday. There was no mention of the opening night of Romeo and Juliet despite the flyers that now wallpapered our lockers. We began pulling homework out of our bags, reading questions on The Scarlet Letter, calculus worksheets, biology notes on our dying fruit flies. Hushed conversations rose up as our teachers busied themselves writing the day’s agenda on their whiteboards.

The intercoms crackled to life again. “Bobcats, I’m sorry for the interruption. I’ve just received some tragic news.” Our hearts stopped. We could not breathe. “This week, we have lost another member of our family. I am sorry to tell you that Hailey Matthews passed away yesterday morning.” We looked at each other, bewildered. “For those wanting to talk, your guidance counselors are still available. Thank you.” There was no moment of silence.

Yesterday morning? We had seen nothing online. We pulled out our phones and began scouring social media for any mention of Hailey, but we found none.

“Phones away, everyone,” our teachers said. 

We could not remember one thing our teachers said in class. When we tried to listen, their words passed through our heads like shadows. Hailey was dead?  But we hated Hailey.  She couldn’t die. Most of our teachers tried to carry on as normally as possible. Mr. Davenport held his own moment of silence in his classroom before giving the class the rest of the period to study for a test.

Throughout the rest of the day and Friday, we monitored our phones for clues, but none came.  In third period, we asked Georgia and Tucker what Hailey’s mural would be. They said the administration hadn’t approached them about it.

Early Sunday morning, we surprised our parents by fetching the paper from the sidewalk before they were even awake. But The Spring Hill Journal held no answers, no article or obituary. No mention of a funeral.

We asked this semester’s student intern at the paper about it. “The editor told me that we don’t cover suicides,” she said. Suicide? We could not believe it. Hailey was not the type. She wore pink and glitter and had a laugh that grated in our ears. She was annoying. She was young, young like us. She couldn’t die. We couldn’t die. And yet, here we were, becoming a dying breed.

Katie was not in school Monday or Tuesday, and we worried. Wednesday, she returned, wearing no makeup and moving at a turtle’s pace through the hallways. We kept our distance when we got stuck behind her.

“Can you imagine?” we remarked as we stood outside our second period classes. We watched Katie, who dragged the weight of a failed best friendship behind her wherever she went.

At lunch, Georgia sat with Katie at a quiet corner table, their trays of pizza sticks untouched.  After third period, we gravitated toward Georgia’s locker.

 “Well?” we asked. “Well?”

Georgia had circles under her eyes. “She killed herself,” she said. We had already known this.

“How?” one of the younger girls asked. In bad taste, we thought.

Georgia fiddled with her lock, looping it around her finger like a shackle. “She hung herself,” Georgia said. “With her father’s red silk tie.”

We remembered the tall ceilings of the Matthews’ house from last year’s Halloween party, draped in orange streamers and cottony shreds of spider web. Hailey’s mother rolled her eyes and told us that Hailey had spent all day decorating. We recalled the way the skeletons were hung high on the walls, dancing, their toothy smiles grinning down at us. Most of us had skipped out of Hailey’s party early to meet at the Confederate cemetery, by far the oldest in town, where the real fun was found in the brown paper bags we’d smuggled under our costumes.

The first bell rang and we scattered to our classes.

After school, we found Tucker touching up some of the fish scales on Peter’s mural.

“What about Hailey’s?” we asked. He told us that he had gone to the front office during lunch to ask where the school would like Hailey’s mural painted. The principal told him that the nature of Hailey’s death would not permit a mural or memorial to be condoned.

“Suicide, you know,” he had told Tucker.

We knew. We knew from the missing moment of silence, from the lack of information in The Spring Hill Journal, from the mural Georgia and Tucker would never paint. We knew from the way we felt uneasy talking about Hailey, from the way our mothers began asking probing questions about our emotional states and the way our fathers refused any mention of “that Matthews girl.”

When we looked up Hailey on Facebook, the most recent post on her profile was her message to Peter. No one had posted on her profile since then. Her long message ended with a picture that Hailey’s mom must have snapped in elementary school. Hailey was sprawled on a purple rug, a pink dress splayed around her tiny body like a fan, coloring construction paper valentines for our class. The one between her hands was a red heart, slightly misshapen, with Peter’s name written on it in large purple letters.

At the end of the day, not yet ready to go home, we stood in front of Peter’s mural as the hallways fell quiet. The frigid air of the vents bore into our skin, and somewhere near the school, a tractor rumbled by. The mural was well done. The wood grain in the fishing pole was rendered in painstaking detail, and tiny, careful lines formed the ripples of the water, billowing outward.  Still, it somehow fell flat.  We looked at the mural and missed Peter, but there was nowhere to look for Hailey. We had nothing except the sound of Hailey’s heels squeaking in our heads.

Mr. Davenport came to stand beside us. Our backs stiffened. His white shirt was wrinkled, and his belt did not match his shoes.

“Where’s the mural for Hailey?” he asked, his hands in his pockets, jangling spare change.

“She doesn’t get one,” Tucker said.

He stopped jangling the coins in his pocket. “Do none of you feel badly?” Deep lines seemed to form on his fallen face.

We wished he would leave.

“We tried, but the principal said no,” Georgia said.

Mr. Davenport turned and looked at each of us, one by one. “Not about the mural,” he said.

We studied the painted fish scales, the peaks and valleys left by the brushstrokes. The space between us closed in as we contracted like a fist. He had no right. We were young and grieving, scarred, and he had no right after everything we had gone through.

“About what?” we said.

It was Friday and time for the pep rally. We turned our heads at the spontaneous Bobcats cheers in the hallways, didn’t enter the raffle for a Bobcats swag bag at lunch. When the bell rang for fourth period, we followed the rest of the school to the gym for the mandatory pep rally. We filed up into our seats in a silent procession as the other grades laughed and whooped. The cheerleaders streamed out from a side door, shaking their pompoms. One of them pulled at the hem of her skirt, and we thought of Hailey’s dress at Peter’s funeral.

The principal spoke of “our loss” and how this game was an opportunity to come together. He announced the basketball team as they came dribbling in. Only one sophomore was on the team and he moved with an appropriate amount of slowness. The players shot some baskets, tried some flashy slam dunks, and the rest of the classes cheered. The cheerleaders started a routine and the principal took charge.

“We are the Bobcats, the mighty, mighty Bobcats!” His voice boomed from the black megaphone. He pointed from section to section, freshmen to senior, conducting them in a chorus of C-A-T-S. We were A. Each time it was our turn, we managed a cheer so weak that it was as if we weren’t there at all.

Saturday night was the theater department’s opening night of Romeo and Juliet. The inside of the school felt eerie and out-of-bounds. We paid our five-dollar student tickets, and unenthused ushers handed us programs, which we folded and tucked into our pockets.

We entered the cold auditorium with its cheap red curtains draped along the walls. The drama kids’ parents and grandparents sat in the front and centermost seats. Their hushed murmurs rose as they looked around and saw the crowd. “It must really be great this semester!” they said to each other.  Then one mother, closer to us, whispered to an elderly woman beside her, “It’s because of Peter.” The grandmother didn’t hear her, but the woman continued. “Times like these make them come together and feel closer to their school.”

“What about that Matthews girl?” someone asked.

“Who?” the mother said. The lights went down.

At intermission, we stayed seated. The cheerleaders sold cupcakes in the lobby to fundraise for their upcoming competition. We let the mothers buy them and return with lipstick smudged by frosting. Finally, act five arrived. When Juliet killed herself, we clutched the ends of our armrests, our arms pressed together like magnets. Our faces stayed hidden by the darkness and by the closeness of so many bodies in one place, at one time, that we could not tell where one ended and the next began.