June 25th, 2016
“Do you want to know how you died?” Bret asks me as I sit on his couch in the late evening. I was supposed to be on the road, or back home by now. I just couldn’t make myself do it; I wasn’t satisfied just yet. I’m hoping Jamie won’t snitch, and she’s assured of my safety. Even she has to understand that things can’t just be suspended or cancelled; I’m here to finish whatever was started and close this chapter once and for all.
“Tanner shot me, Bret. I know this.”
“I know,” he mumbles. “But he wouldn’t have, if it wasn’t for me.”
I look at him quizzically. “How so?”
“I… I didn’t stop it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I could have stopped it from happening… I could have…” he still can’t finish his sentences, which is getting frustrating at this point.
“Bret, I’m right here,” I speak softly. “You have nothing to regret. I’m here, see?”
“I still let that happen to you. I let you die. I killed you.”
“Tanner shot me! Not you-”
“Oh, God,” he groans. He’s had a bit too much to drink, though not as much as on the first night. I’m scared he might throw up or something, by the look on his face. His beard has grown back and his hair is a dishevelled mess. I think my sudden appearance has created more chaos in his life; I need to leave soon, after tonight.
“I knew you were going to die,” he says. “I knew he was going to kill you, and to me, that is just as bad as pulling the trigger myself.”
“Why did the reports say the shooting was unmotivated, and random? Like something switched in his brain, or something? Didn’t he hate me?” I realise I’m asking like I’m not One, like I don’t know something she would have. He looks at me with bewilderment, as if I’ve forgotten something so transparent and obvious. There is something about Tanner that I’m missing. I think back to the diary entries, where One would mention him. I try thinking as hard as I could, and all I have floating in my head is an entry around two months before her death, where she recalled the group playing spin the bottle, and she had to kiss him. She talks about how it wasn’t bad, but he was a nuisance from thereon. An entitled, arrogant, gun-wielding nuisance. Of course she never mentioned the latter, because she never knew. But judging from her entries, they didn’t get along much towards the end. Surely that’s something the world would know, right? Unless it got covered up.
All Bret can do is look at me, because he’s facing the secret he hid for so long. You can’t keep secrets forever.
July 10th, 1999
[two days before the shooting]
Tanner and Rose sit opposite each other on the floor of his bedroom, playing a game of cards. They live closest to each other in the neighbourhood, even though everyone’s house is nothing more than a fifteen-minute walk away. When Rose made friendships within the group, she had gravitated toward Tanner quite quickly, and that was just due to him being closer in proximity and also his fervent interest in her. She didn’t mind it at first, and kind of gave her a big head. She thought he was cute at first; he was the second youngest in the group, being just eight months older than her. She liked his green eyes and his rough blonde hair, and his big clown-like grin. He was always the goofball of the group, Jonesy and him. They were a pair who you would never not see high out of their minds, or cracking jokes. The only difference was that Jonesy didn’t like Rose the way Tanner did. He always had, and it intensified when he finally got to kiss her, those few months back. It was nothing more than a game, but he enjoyed it. He had been waiting for the right moment to do it again, ever since. Or maybe even more. He was patient, and he was kind, and he was ready to try for something more.
The thing about Rose, is that she knows she is likeable. She likes to play humble, likes to play dumb. She likes to act like she’s never had most of Senior Year at her feet. She hasn’t been with many boys, and Tanner isn’t quite sure if she’s properly been with anyone. She came into the picture when Bret was already taken, but there’s been a sudden shift in atmosphere in the group – there’s some sort of distance between Rose and Bret, and he wonders why. He wonders if she almost sabotaged their relationship, like the rumours have told. He swats away the thought of Rose choosing Bret over him, even when he’s as single as single can be and Bret is with someone else. She knows that he likes her – she must.
Jonesy and Rose came around earlier, which wasn’t the normal order of things. The group hangouts would also include Bret and Naomi, who were nowhere to be found. The past week had been odd, and tensions that were hard to pinpoint had everyone being in different places at different times now. Once Jonesy left, Rose decided to stay and chill for a while, because she would only be a walk away from home. At this point, they’ve both had a bit too much to drink. They play sloppily, laughing at everything they do, even the unfunny things. They laugh at their inside jokes and poke fun at their absent friends. It’s been a while since it’s been this serene – most of the time, they’re having petty arguments or Rose gets easily annoyed with his wind-ups and his advances. Any moment tonight, I’ll have her in my arms, is all he can think of. He knows she sometimes likes to act like he’s a bother, but girls always play hard to get. That’s just their thing. Surely she doesn’t mean it, does she?
“I’ve liked you for a long time, you know.” Tanner blurts out at some point. Rose’s face drops, before she smiles bashfully. He can’t quite tell if it’s bashful, anyway. It could also be an awkward smile. A How-Do-I-let-him-down-easily smile.
“I kinda gathered that,” she chuckles. “I mean, I guess I like you too. I don’t know.”
He looks down to the ground, shuffling the cards aimlessly in his hand. “As a friend, or what?”
“Well, you know I don’t mean it that way.” He looks back up at her, trying to read her expression. She looks sympathetic, as if she feels sorry for him. Even if he’s reading it wrong, he can’t help but feel a tad bit foolish.
“Jeez, kid,” she sighs. “I know how you mean it. Just lean over and kiss me, then. I know you want to.” She smiles.
Slightly shocked, he hesitates at first. his eyes light up, and he leans over slowly, his lips meeting hers. He cups her face, kissing her for what feels like eternity. Rose doesn’t mind it, but hates the fact that his breath stinks of beer. She reminds herself that neither of them are sober, and that this isn’t really a good idea. The last time this happened, she ended up in trouble. And she knows that Tanner is single, but she also knows that he’ll go running his mouth. And everyone will just see her as a home-wrecking whore who went for two of his own friends. Only Bret can get away with that.
Rose gets up, feeling dizzy. She plops herself on his bed, looking out of the window. He joins her on the bed, going to kiss her again. She lets him, but not for long. Not when he tries to move his hands elsewhere, or lift up her shirt. “No. Not tonight,” she brushes him off, feeling weak. “I’m not up for it.”
“Why not?” he kisses her neck.
“No, stop. I just don’t feel like it.”
“Come on. Just tonight.” He keeps pushing, trying his luck. He uses a bit more force, pulling at her garments.
“Stop it!” she pushes him off, maybe with a bit too much force. Maybe not enough.
“Jesus Christ, Rose. You’re such a tease, aren’t you?” he’s drunk, and he sounds a bit aggressive. His grip on her arm is strong, and she’s starting to resent boys. She’s starting to resent their inability to accept the things they just can’t have. It frustrates her to the core.
“You’re such an idiot! What’s wrong with you? I told you, no. That isn’t teasing. That’s called rejection.” She pushes him away, but this only makes him angrier. He was raised to never be made a fool out of. He was never raised to be rejected. Especially by a girl like Rose.
He grabs her by the waist, thrusting her down onto the bed. She screams, her arms being held down like vices. She feels like she might die. The only thing she can think to do is spit in his face; a strong ball of saliva that she gathers at the back of her throat and catapult it into Tanner’s face. He yelps, releasing his grip and wiping his face. “You slut!” he yanks her hair back as she tries to rise from the bed and she cries in pain. “Look what you’ve made me do!”
She wonders why she let him kiss her, and it was only because she didn’t expect him to be the biggest tool going. She didn’t expect him to be somewhat of a monster with entitlement issues.
“I didn’t make you do anything, you jackass.” She kicks him in the groin with her left leg and stood up, breathing heavily. “I told you, no. You should have listened. I said kiss me, not try and rape me.”
“You’d rather have fun with Bret, wouldn’t you? You’d rather go there with him.”
“That’s not true! Those are just rumours, for Christ’s sake. I haven’t done anything. I don’t like him.” She’s semi telling the truth, semi lying. She really doesn’t like Bret in that way, and never has. Things just got out of control once, but she hates how she’s being painted as the girl hiding out in Bret’s room when Sofia came. That has nothing to do with her, but now the whole of Bluebeach thinks it is. She starts to cry, wiping her tears as they come.
“You’re lying. What is it about Bret that I don’t have? Charm? The looks? Am I too young?” he asks, with a hint of sarcasm in his voice, not to mention alcohol slowing his tongue.
“You guys are such idiots. Not everything is a competition. I don’t like either of you! No boundaries or respect for girls. Get a hold of yourself.”
“You’re lying, you like him!”
“Ok. I guess I’m talking to a brick wall. I’m out.” She swiftly runs out of the room, bolting down the stairs.
“Rose, wait.” Tanner follows.
“Fuck off,” she hollers. “Don’t speak to me again.”
Something clicks inside Tanner; something he can’t quite describe. It’s a funny type of anger. It’s not like a raging storm, or a red fire. It’s like a silent night. It’s like a calm sea. He’s ready to cause destruction, and to make Rose pay for her actions. He’s not sure how yet, but he knows she has to.
July 11th, 1999
[the night before the shooting]
Naomi runs to Bret’s father’s car, parked oddly on the front porch of Tanner’s house. She sees him slumped over, shocked as to how intoxicated he actually is.
“Bret, what’s going on?” she’s glad he took the initiative to call her, even in his state; there was absolutely no way he would be able to drive, not even ten feet, without crashing into a streetlight or a hedge. She opens the passenger door and kneels on the seat, staring at Bret. He has a large bruise on his cheek, and a few scratches and marks on his arms. He’s clutching onto his stomach like he’s either in agonising pain, or he’s close to vomiting. Or both. “Holy shit,” Naomi whispers. “What happened to you? What are you doing here?” she turns to look out at Tanner’s house.
“Nothing. Just take me home. Please.” He mumbles, eyes still closed, head on the steering wheel. Naomi and Bret had not spoken since the night Sofia came unexpectedly, until their most recent encounter last night. She was planning to avoid him for a long time into the future. But he called her for whatever reason, whilst he was blind drunk, spluttering incoherent nonsense down the line and she just managed to catch his location in his jumbled mess of words. She had to come and help her helpless friend.
“Tell me what happened. Did you get into a fight with Tanner?” Bret stays silent. “Over what?” still silent. It’s eleven o’ clock, and the last of the summer sun has dipped below the horizon. The sky is a dark purple and the inner city can be seen glinting from a distance. It’s Jennifer-Rose’s tennis match tomorrow; she made it to the girls’ singles against Bianca Simmons, one of the best in California. Naomi should be sleeping, or at least at home, so that she can be up in time to watch her friend play. But now she’s out in the neighbourhood, trying to make sense of whatever has just happened to Bret.
It’s hard to get him to cooperate, to get out of the car and move to the passenger seat. She has to muster as much energy as she can to help him up, and she wonders how the hell he managed to get into a fight if he can barely walk. Whatever has been happening, Naomi doesn’t even want to think about it anymore. She just wants to get Bret home, talk to Rose and then go to sleep.
She’s more than concerned, because she saw Rose earlier today, and it was the same kind of bizarre scenario as this one; she was hungover, trying to recover for practise in the afternoon. She had bruises on her wrists, and she refused to explain what they were from, or who did it to her. Something odd is going on between the Rich Kids, and she’s just not quite sure what it would be. Tensions have been high ever since the whole history textbook night, and it seems like the only people out of trouble are Jonesy and Sofia, besides Naomi. Something sinister is going on, or just something that nobody wishes to talk about. She thinks back to when the group could openly discuss anything; problems, gossip, anything. They were known for getting into arguments and sometimes fights, but it was always surface-level and shallow, sometimes attention-seeking. This is the first sign of conflict Naomi has noticed that has been somewhat secretive. She’s never felt a vibe like this before, and she can only hope that it blows over soon before something messed up happens. Corrupt friendships don’t last.
She steers Bret’s car out onto the road, driving him home. She’ll have to walk back to hers, but she doesn’t mind the walk. She’s used to walking home from Bret’s house at this point.
Bret’s mother is watching through the window when the car pulls up the house. She quickly arrives at the front door, standing with the light inside silhouetting her body.
“Hello, Ms Malone,” Naomi calls once she exits from the car. She was Mrs Walker when she was married, but changed back to her maiden name once she divorced. Even when she married again, she thought it would be something of an acting skit if she kept changing her name. “We have a bit of a situation, here.”
“Oh, Dear.” Ms Malone sighs. “I’ve been ringing Bret all evening. What’s happened?” she knows that his mother suspects Rose to have trashed Bret’s car and not her, hence why she isn’t hissing at Naomi when she approaches. She feels kind of bad about all the blame being put on Rose, but she’s not sure what to do about it.
Bret sobers up quite quickly upon hearing his mother’s voice, but not quickly enough. It’s still an effort to get to the front door, and he needs Naomi’s help.
“He was at a party,” Naomi lies. “He got too drunk so I picked him up and took him home.”
“Oh. OK.” She stands, defeated; she has nothing else to say, and she’s tired of scolding her child. She could never quite keep a hold of her only son. Her wild, affluent, chaotic son.
Bret stumbles into his house, and Naomi offers to take him to bed. His mother agrees, going back into the kitchen to finish off her wine. She noticed Bret’s injuries but didn’t make a fuss – this isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last. She has always been that background mother who just hovered around at a distance, juggling work and the time of whoever she had decided to marry. Naomi has only ever heard of Bret’s biological father, but ever since they were kids almost a decade ago, his mother has been married three other times. They were brief and reckless, spurred on by what Naomi could only guess as loneliness and desperation for her son to have a father figure in his life. His third stepfather is almost as invisible as the first one, but kinder than the second. It didn’t make a difference to Bret, though; nobody could influence his behaviour but himself. No mother, no father, no lover or friend. He was a car on auto-drive, heading straight for whatever crash site he was building.
“You need to stop this,” Naomi whispers to an unconscious Bret Walker as he lies stationary in his bed. “You need to stay out of trouble. I’ve learnt that I should too, and I’m trying. But whatever games you’re playing – whatever that has been going on between all of us – it needs to end.” She’s talking to herself more than him, she realises. “It’s Rose’s final game tomorrow. If you weren’t so smashed, you would have made it, but I know you’ll be hungover beyond words. If you weren’t such a fool, you wouldn’t have gotten yourself in this mess.” She sighs.
In his slumber, she decides to take a little tour of his room – another place she’s gotten used to. But she realises how she never really took the time to look around. She would stare at the ceiling from the bed, or at the bedside table or the window, but that was all. She avoided the photos at all costs - the frames ones of him and Sofia. She also never took the time to observe the ones that Bret spent all of his time taking of the group a while ago. So she decides to.
Opening a photobook, she sees a collection of disposables taken earlier in the year. She sees herself beaming into the flashing camera with her pearly whites, and another shot of Sofia bashfully covering her face to try and avoid the photo. She catches a photo of Rose, which looks less candid and more posed – almost as if she’s a model client and he’s a real photographer. Everything about it screams Vogue – her smoky blue eye makeup, and her golden sequin jacket hanging off her arms as she sits on the ground wearing a laced sky-blue bralet. The gold and blue colours contrast and bounce off each other, and Naomi can’t help but stare at the beauty of her forward gaze. It may be a bit too seductive for a sixteen-year-old, but there’s something timeless about it. It’s almost like a photo of Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn; like some sort of legacy to be left. The feeling in Naomi’s stomach doesn’t go away for a while after looking at it.
A storm is coming, she feels. And Jennifer-Rose Middleton is in the centre.