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Better Days
Topic Started: May 10 2011, 08:20 PM (1,101 Views)
MurderWeasel
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You've been counting stars, now you're counting on me
[ *  *  *  *  *  *  * ]
((Jennifer Perez continued from I Will Follow You into the Dark))

Jennifer was pretty sure she was going insane. Maybe not, though. Maybe she'd been insane for a long, long time, and was just now finding her way back to sanity. It hardly mattered. All she knew was that she was hurting, and she was laughing.

It was absurd. It was all just so wrong. The world had almost made sense a day ago. Jennifer had almost known what she was going to do with the rest of her life. She'd had friends. She'd had things to care about. She'd had at least a little hope for the future, hope, if not for herself, then for Melissa. Maybe she'd even had hope for Nick. It was hard to say. It was hard to recapture her state of mind from before. She felt like she'd been living in a dream, like she'd been a bad actress just pretending to be herself.

The truth was, Jennifer wasn't even sure what she'd become. Every epiphany, every moment of clarity she'd experienced on the island so far, every truth she'd discovered, now rang false.

She felt hollow. She'd had it all planned. It was simple.

Don't let the game change you.

How badly that had gone wrong. How quickly she had fallen into the tricks and traps of Survival of the Fittest.

What the fuck had gone wrong?

But no, she knew. Her first mistake had been living. To stay unchanged, unaffected in the face of atrocity on this scale, was impossible. The only way to remain completely pure was to be entirely uninvolved. The only way to do that was to die, to die as soon as possible, before anyone else could kill, before they could change. She'd considered it. She was pretty sure she had wanted to die, way back at the start of this. In the past, then, she'd been smarter. She'd instinctively grasped what survival meant, the sacrifices and pain it led to.

She'd still chosen to go on.

A day ago, she'd been unable to remember why. Now it was clear, though. It was her second mistake. She'd decided to live for her family, for her friends at home. It was selfless. It was idiotic fucking martyrdom. What was the point of enduring torture for people you'd never see again, especially when you couldn't even be sure you were doing the right thing? There was none. She'd probably burned all her bridges. If her family had watched, they'd seen her fumble aimlessly. They'd seen her falter when strength was called for, seen her take stands when it didn't matter. They'd seen everything awful inside of her. If they still loved her, if they still cared for her, well, fuck, that wouldn't have been changed had she drowned herself.

But there'd been another reason, one outside of mistakes and logic. She was terrified of dying. She wanted to go on. She wanted to exist. It had been easy to say otherwise, simple to accept her death as inevitable matter of course. The truth was different. The truth, which she'd been hiding from since her very first day on this island, was that Jennifer wasn't entirely fucked. She was in decent shape. She was uninjured. Through luck or skill, through chance or artifice, she had outlasted the majority of her classmates, had danced through the battlefield unfazed. Other people likely had too, but their luck wouldn't hold forever. Melissa's hadn't. Nick's and Maf's hadn't.

Don't think about that.

She blinked. Insanity was supposed to hide the pain, wasn't it? So maybe, just maybe, she was going sane after all.

She was still on the mountain. She hadn't run off in a straight line. That would have been too easy. The survivor, assuming there was one, might have been able to track her, to find her.

Jennifer did not want to be found.

She wanted out. Out of the game, but not just that. She wanted out of her spiral of obligation, out of her past, out of her body, out of her mind. She was pretty fucking sick of being Jennifer Perez, whoever that was now. She had, unfortunately, retained enough of herself that the same things that had always hurt her still did so. Conflict still caused her distress. The suffering of friends still brought her pain. The easiest thing, the safest thing, was to run away from it all, to run away and hide and just melt into nothingness. Nonexistence sounded great, except for the part where it was permanent.

For the first time since her arrival, Jennifer's fingers played over her collar. She had stopped laughing. She wasn't going to kill herself. She knew that. That ship had sailed over a week ago. For better or for worse, she was in this until the end. She'd do her best to stay alive. She wouldn't hurt anyone else. Those had been her principles, right? Those had been the rules she'd set out at the start of this. She'd assumed it wouldn't be so bad. She'd figured she wouldn't have to last too long. After all, how could you survive if you weren't willing to hurt others?

But of course, she had hurt others. She'd spread pain in her wake wherever she went, and nearly everyone she'd met had died.

She wondered if Bounce was still alive. She only knew the girl's nickname, so she'd had no way of tracking her progress in the game. She hadn't paid very much attention to the announcements anyways. Another defense mechanism. She'd skimmed for names she knew. That was it.

She'd been so fucking stupid. She realized that now. So fucking idiotic. She'd let the deaths of most everyone she'd known pass her by, and she hadn't even let herself feel them. She'd let the game turn everyone else into something other than humans. Yeah, fine, she hadn't hit the point where she could kill them. She hadn't hit the point where she was completely unaffected by death. That meant nothing. She was close enough. Too close for comfort. After all, what had she been telling herself for her whole stay? The bodies, they weren't people. They were ex-people. They were things, masses of bone and skin and muscle and organs, but that was all. Just things. Empty husks. The mind, the spirit, the only part worth thinking about had departed. So easy to believe. So easy to convince herself.

Melissa was not a thing. She deserved better, even now.

Don't think about that.

Jennifer was stumbling a little. She'd gone up the mountain, looped around, then started back down. She didn't have any idea which direction she was going. She just wanted to get away. Away from Nick, from Maf, from all of it. Something else. Anything else.

She focused on the crunch of gravel beneath her feet. It was so different. She had never taken walks outside the city. In all her treks around town, the closest things got to wild was crossing through one of the parks. She was a city girl through and through; asphalt and concrete were her domain. She liked it here, though. She liked the air, the plants, the breeze, the sky. If she had the opportunity to do it over again, perhaps she would have taken up hiking.

But hiking had its perils.

Jennifer was wearing her favorite sneakers. She'd had them for a year and a half now, since she'd worn her last pair through, and these, too, had seen better days. The treads had been in passable shape before the kidnapping. Now, after a week of near continuous use on rough terrain, she had very little traction left.

This is probably why, when some of the soil beneath her feet came loose, she wasn't able to recover smoothly. She didn't fall hard, but she did fall, for the second time that day. She fell and she slid. The incline was fairly steep here, and, from the brief glimpse she got as she tumbled, she could see what looked like a ledge below her. This was it. She was going to die falling off a fucking mountain. Even if she survived the impact, she was completely fucked if she broke her leg, unless, perhaps, she could drag herself back to that crutch she'd seen up in the tree.

But no.

That was painfully optimistic.

This mountain was steep.

There were sharp rocks all around.

Her arm whipped out.

She jolted to a halt.

Wrenched her shoulder.

In her hand was the icepick.

It took her a second to realize what had happened.

She'd used it to catch herself on a tree.

She'd aborted her fall.

Plenty of room to spare.

Her heart was racing.

Slowly, carefully, she regained her footing. Slowly, carefully, she edged down slope. She had to see. She had to know.

She stood on the ledge, and looked down at a three-foot drop. Completely harmless.

She didn't know why, but for some reason, she felt like crying again. For once, though, no tears came.

Tears.

Crying was the story of her time here, wasn't it? What else had she done? Nothing worthwhile, certainly. Nothing worth remembering. She was just another name, just another face lost to this atrocity. The only ones who would care about her fate would be those who had known her in the real world. Maybe some viewers watching the other people she'd traveled with would follow her a bit, just out of curiosity, but they'd probably give up before too long.

That was a comforting thought.

She sat down on the ledge, and looked out over the island. She was right. The view was much better up here than it had been on the roof of the groundskeeper's hut. Still, she wished she hadn't left their earlier hideout. She'd have traded the view for Melissa's life in an instant. She'd have traded anything for her friend.

But life didn't work that way.

Don't think about that.

But she was running out of things to think about instead.

So she turned to the past, and everything she'd lost, everything she'd always taken for granted.

It was silly, but then, it always was. What else could high school drama be? Jennifer held a secret smugness inside her, and it helped her keep going when her friends had their little spats. She knew she was above this. She was involved only because she cared, only because she wanted to help her friends. She could quit anytime. She could just walk away. Yeah, it hurt when they fought, but she would live. She knew she could quit, so she didn't have to actually do so. That was why she was sitting in the cafetorium, at a table with Lindsey and Meg and Lena, trying to figure out just what the fuck they were fighting about. It was a bit trying, because they kept talking over each other, but Jennifer was making a concentrated effort to parse the information and sort out a resolution.

It was about a boy named Sean, someone Jennifer only loosely knew of. He'd apparently liked Lena, according to Meg, but Lindsey had asked him out and he'd said yes. The problem was that Lena had just been waiting for him to ask her out, and was sure he'd have done so if Lindsey hadn't intervened.

They were all being snippy little bitches about it, and it was wearing Jennifer's patience very thin. She wanted to go for a walk. She wanted to comb the fabric stores and find a beautiful satin to make a skirt out of. She wanted to sit alone and enjoy the day.

Instead, she talked with them. She coaxed them into slowing down. She figured out that Meg was the inciter, having goaded Lena into a rage with suggestions and insinuations while at the same time upsetting Lindsey with sarcastic comments. Meg was always a troublemaker. Jennifer managed to get her distracted by sending her off on a wild goose chase looking for Sean to get his side of things, then tried to dish out some wisdom about love to her younger friends.

It didn't go so well. She was a junior and had never been on a date, let alone kissed. Her sophomore friends all had more experience than she did. Lena had apparently even gone to third base with some boy at a party.

In the end, Lindsey called Lena a slut, and Lena called Lindsey a jealous hag, and they both called Jennifer an old maid, and they all had a laugh about the whole thing and concluded that boys weren't worth the trouble, though Lindsey said she was keeping Sean.

Lena and Lindsey and Meg laughed and chatted all the way to class, and Jennifer just smiled and followed along and enjoyed the peace for a change. At least here she could fucking accomplish something. At least this wasn't like home.

Home fucking sucked. It had for a long time.

It was Jennifer's twelfth birthday, and she was crying in her room. Her face was buried in her pillow. She figured maybe if she screamed enough, she could drown out what she'd heard.

"....and today isn't your visitation day, so fuck you!"

It was strange, her mother's voice. Her mother always spoke so politely, so fluently, so carefully. Anita Perez had taken great pains to purge her speech of accent to as great a degree as possible. She was not a housewife by nature, and had returned to work as soon as Samuel was old enough to spend part of each day in school. She often lamented the culture of Saint Paul, accusing the other Hispanics of being gangsters and thugs. This was one of the many sources of conflict between her and Emilio, Jennifer's father.

Their relationship had been tumultuous for a long, long time. Jennifer had spent much of her free time doing homework and doodling in fashion magazines in the living room, just because they didn't shout when she was in sight. It didn't seem to matter that she could hear them from anywhere in the house; the ceasefire was only good if she was physically present.

That was all true until last week, when Emilio Perez, Jennifer's father, left the house and moved in with a cousin in Minneapolis. At first, the break had been nice. There was no shouting. The house was quiet.

Within two days, though, her mother was drinking more than usual, and crying over the phone to her own mother, Jennifer's grandmother. She was cursing more, regardless of if her children were around. It bothered Jennifer. She wanted to help, to fix things, somehow. Monica told her not to bother. Monica was fifteen, and wise in the ways of the world. She wore short skirts and chewed gum and told Jennifer secrets about boys and high school and the one time she'd smoked a real cigarette. Monica always had an answer for any question, but not necessarily one that actually made Jennifer feel any better. Samuel, of course, was only eight, and mostly didn't know what to make of things.

And even with that, it had all been fine, and then her mother had screamed at her father over the telephone on her birthday.

That wasn't right.

It was supposed to be a good day. It was supposed to be special, sacred somehow. On birthdays, nothing went wrong.

But it was so very wrong now. Jennifer just wanted to run outside. It was freezing cold, but fuck it. She knew that word, "fuck", and she used it in her head. It was a weapon, her mother's favorite verbal weapon, and it worked in any situation. It was the Swiss army knife of curses, and—though she had only spoken it for a day, until her mother heard her and threatened to send her to bed early if she ever heard Jennifer utter it again—she used it constantly in her mind to aim venom at things that upset her.

Fuck Mama.

Fuck Papa.

Fuck birthdays.

Fuck fighting.

There was a knock on the door, and Jennifer almost said "Fuck you," but she caught herself and instead just kept crying.

"Jenny?"

Her mother was the only one who ever called her Jenny. She hated being called Jenny. It made her sound like a little girl. She was twelve. Twelve was old enough to be a Jennifer, or maybe a Jen, though she liked that less, but her mother had told her she would always be little Jenny.

Fuck Jenny.

She sniffled.

Another knock. "Jenny? May I come in?"

She wanted to say no, but instead she just sobbed. The doorknob rattled. Her mother didn't like it very much when she locked the door. Monica didn't like it either, since they shared a room, but today both would tolerate it. Today was the twenty-eighth day of February, two thousand and two, Jennifer's twelfth birthday, and she had the right to a locked door or two.

"Jenny?"

She sighed and she got up and she walked to the door and she opened it even though she didn't want to and she just stood there sniffling until seeing her mother made her sad and she started crying again.

Her mother put her arm on Jennifer's shoulders and led her back to the bed and sat her down on it, and Jennifer just stared at the floor and cried. Her mother ran her hands through Jennifer's hair, combing it out, gathering it, taking the locks, which reached to her mid-back, and braiding them together. As she worked with Jennifer's hair, she alternated between humming and making a strange sound, like "sh-sh-sh". Jennifer didn't know what it was or what it meant, but soon enough she wasn't crying anymore, just leaning against her mother.

"Jenny, sometime adults get angry and say silly things," her mother said after a few minutes. "Sometimes they don't think about how things will make other people feel, and they make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Do you understand?"

Jennifer nodded, her face pressed against her mother's shoulder. Everyone made mistakes. Jennifer sure made a lot of mistakes.

"Your father and I made... more than our share of mistakes. We stayed together even when we didn't love each other anymore. We both love you, but we don't love each other. Do you understand?"

Jennifer shook her head. People married when they were in love. She didn't understand how that could change. Love was supposed to be forever. She didn't want to think that people could stop loving each other. She didn't want to think that she could stop loving her family or that they could stop loving her.

"Sometimes people just stop loving each other, and then they have to go be apart. And sometimes, they've been pretending that they love each other for too long, and when you pretend for too long, you get angry. Do you see?"

Jennifer saw. She pretended a lot, and she got angry a lot.

"But that doesn't mean it's okay for me to be mean to your father. We'll call him back, and we'll all have dinner, okay?"

Jennifer shook her head, and then, when her mother stiffened a little, Jennifer said quietly, "I can have dinner with him tomorrow. Then you don't have to have dinner with him when you don't want to, right?"

"Right." Her mother sounded surprised. Then she smiled. "Sometimes you sound like a mother, Jenny."

They both laughed.

And then her mother left the room, and was back on the phone, but talking quietly this time. Jennifer tried to spy, but Monica slipped into their room. She had Jennifer's second piece of cake, extra big. They weren't allowed to eat in their room, but Monica just winked. She was good at avoiding trouble. She handed Jennifer the cake, and she said, "So, what did she tell you?"

Monica had more of an accent than their mother did. She had more of an accent than Jennifer did. All of her friends at school had accents. They all hung around at the Promenade and talked about boys and wore lipstick and eye shadow. Sometimes, when Monica went out with them, Jennifer's mother would mutter "whores" under her breath if she didn't think anyone was listening. Jennifer didn't know what it meant, but she knew she didn't want to be a whore.

She explained to Monica what her mother had said, and Monica laughed and said, "Bullshit."

"Bullshit" was Monica's special word, just like "fuck" was Jennifer's. Monica was braver, though, and said it out loud a lot, only never when their mother or Samuel were listening. Samuel was very good at picking up words and repeating them, and he loved ratting his sisters out.

"Bullshit," Monica repeated. "Adults aren't different. They just like to say they are. No one ever gets any older after they turn thirteen, Jen. You've got a year left to change and become who you want to be, and then that's you for the rest of your life. Adults make mistakes just like kids, and they're mean just like kids, and they make mistakes because they're mean, I think."

She stole a big bite of Jennifer's cake, using her fingers.

"So just don't be mean, right? It's too late for Mama and Papa to learn that. They love you, but they're still mean to each other. But you don't have to be."

Coming from her sister, age fifteen, this was pretty much a divine proclamation. She knew the world, after all, and she didn't have to lie to protect Jennifer like their parents did. It also explained a lot of things that were wrong in the world. Of course Monica was right.

Jennifer didn't have to be mean, and she spent a good part of her next six nears making sure she wasn't.

So this, this need to not be mean, was why Jennifer was standing outside at fucking midnight, shivering and shaking in her fucking witch costume, wishing she'd worn leggings under her dress and just hating the world, but not screaming into her cell phone about what fucking idiots Lena and Sean were. It was why she was smiling and laughing even as she imagined them dying in a fucking hole for what they'd done to her.

They'd left her, abandoned her at fucking Katherine Daramour's lame fucking Halloween party. They'd gotten the time wrong, and hadn't bothered to warn her, so Jennifer had been there way too fucking early, and then they'd decided to go get some beer, and they'd left her out because they knew from that one time that Jennifer didn't like beer, and then they'd been too drunk to actually come to the party and instead had just hung out at Lena's place and fucked.

Jennifer had learned all of this in the past fifteen minutes, after finally prying herself out of the house.As it turned out, there hadn't been much of a party. There hadn't been much of anything, just Jennifer and Katherine and Carol Burke and Courtney Bradley and a handful of other people sitting around looking like fucking losers in their costumes and not doing anything for hours on end, and Lena not answering her phone when Jennifer called her while pretending to go to the restroom. When Jennifer finally got hold of her friends, she found out they were still too drunk to drive.

This meant Jennifer was now out a ride home.

But she was being very nice and polite about this total fucking disaster, because that was how friends treated each other, even if their friends had fucked up seriously and left them stranded in the middle of nowhere.

So she laughed and she smiled and eventually she got sick of hearing about the trouble they'd had with the condom and she said she was sorry but tomorrow was a school day after all, and she had some homework to do, so she'd better get heading home.

And then she'd had to call her mother.

The phone rang three times, then clicked on. A voice said hello.

"Um, hi, Mama," Jennifer said. "I'm sorry, b—"

"Jen," the voice said. "Hi. What are you doing calling so late? You get into some Halloween trouble?"

"Oh," Jennifer said. "Um, hi, Monica. I, um, I didn't know you were home tonight."

Monica lived in an apartment now, and didn't visit as much as her family would have preferred. It meant Jennifer had a room to herself most of the time, at least.

"Mama said you were out with friends. She said I should take a break and come have dinner. My first class is canceled tomorrow, so I did. She's in bed now, but I'm staying to give out candy. I was just about to head home. Samuel's asleep."

"Um, oh, sorry to bother you," Jennifer said. "I was... never mind. If they're asleep, um, if they ask about me tell them not to worry and I'll be home soon."

"Bullshit. What happened?"

So she told Monica everything, and Monica called her friends little punk fucks, and she came and picked Jennifer up and drove her home.

The ride home was quiet, for the most part. Monica ribbed Jennifer a bit about being stuck at a party, offered to buy her a pregnancy test, and then just gave up and dropped her off. As she drove away, though, Jennifer ran back to the old, battered car, leaned in the passenger's window, and said, "Hey, um, thanks."

"No problem, Jen. Anything to help my little sister."

Never mind that Jennifer was an inch taller than Monica.

She smiled and laughed a little.

It was earlier. Not a couple of days earlier, but years in the past. Jennifer was eight, and Monica was eleven, and they were sitting on a swing set while their parents entertained Samuel. Jennifer was in a questioning phase, curious about the world and the people she shared it with. Naturally, the brunt of this fell on her parents and Monica. Samuel, being younger, was boring; she could only ask him what it was like to be a boy, and he didn't have much to say except that you could pee standing up.

The biggest mystery in the world to Jennifer was what life had been like before she had existed. It was hard to imagine a world without her, since she had no frame of reference. She couldn't even really remember all that much of what the world had been like before Samuel, just that her mother had had a very big stomach, which she had sometimes used as a pillow.

So she harassed Monica every chance she got, peppering her with questions between bouts of teasing. The teasing was fairly frequent these days, of course; Jennifer called her sister "Lewinsky", a name she had heard tied to "Monica" a lot and which infuriated her sister completely, though Jennifer didn't have the slightest idea why.

"Hey, Monica?" she said, kicking to gain momentum on the swings. Her skirt billowed around her. Her mother made her wear shorts under her skirt when she swung, and Jennifer hated it. Shorts weren't comfortable at all. They were bulky and got bunched up and made her sweat.

"Yeah?"

"What was Mexico like?"

It was one of the big secrets in her life, this other world she was from. Jennifer felt like an alien sometimes. People always called her Mexican. She was grouped with other Mexicans. She didn't think of herself as a Mexican, though, besides looking like one. She imagined the country as some sort of enchanted land of adventure, some sort of mystical place where dreams could come true but great danger lurked. It was the old world. She figured she'd go back some day, just to see it. She had a passport that said she was Mexican, that said she could go back. She also had one that said she was American, so maybe she was half and half.

Monica and her parents were the keepers of the secrets. They did not have passports saying they were American. Her mother and father didn't like to talk about Mexico except to say that things were better here. They sometimes told her that the food she was eating was Mexican, but that didn't seem to mean anything. Their other language, Spanish, was the language they spoke in Mexico, but Jennifer was not very good at speaking Spanish. Her parents never used it at home unless they were on the telephone or friends were over, and they didn't make much of an effort to improve Jennifer's vocabulary. It was a little embarrassing when she played with the other Mexican kids. They all knew more Spanish than she did, and sometimes she thought they called her mean names in it.

Monica hadn't responded.

"Well?" Jennifer prompted.

"I don't know," she said. "Hot, I guess."

They kept swinging. Jennifer contemplated her sister's words.

By the time she reached high school, Jennifer was no longer so concerned with her racial identity. She'd brushed up her Spanish a little back in middle school, then given up practicing the language almost completely, using it only when she had to, and hesitantly and without fluency. Her paternal grandmother, who didn't speak English, had told her she sounded like a gringa, but only once.

At Bayview, race wasn't a huge deal, or so it seemed. The school was fairly well mixed, with a large population of foreigners far more exotic than Jennifer. She fell in with the younger students, regardless of race. They didn't look up to her, but they didn't patronize her, either. She was the group's elder, a source of inside information on later years in school, and a target for ribbing every time history was mentioned. By her senior year, she was in class with a good number of them, having failed her junior-level history course.

She was happy, for the most part. She was missing a few parts of the high school dream, sure. She had no boyfriend. This was something Monica seemed inordinately concerned about. Her friends just termed her their spinster, but Monica tried to set her up with people. It was one of the few times she had ever put her foot down when dealing with her sister, telling her to knock it off.

In fact, matters of romance seemed to be where Jennifer actually had a spine.

It was mid-freshman year when Jennifer first became aware of the unfortunate hand fate had dealt her when it came to classmates. She was walking through the halls, heading to the cafetorium for lunch, when she heard someone whistle. She ignored it entirely, kept walking. It had nothing to do with her. Boys mostly left her alone. She was just a freshman, and not, she thought, a particularly pretty one.

"Hey," a male voice called. "Hey. Jennifer?"

She turned. The boy was a junior.

"Um," she said. "Yes?"

He stepped closer to her. He seemed huge. A member of the football team, she thought, or maybe a wrestler. He was not attractive. He was terrifying.

"You Jennifer?" he said.

"Um, yes."

"What're you doing this weekend?"

"I, um, I don't, um, why?"

"I was wondering if you wanted to come over to my place, maybe, have a couple drinks. My folks are out of town. I'm gonna be having a party. It'll be fun."

"Who are you?" she said.

He looked at her a little more closely, as if she'd strayed off script. Jennifer shifted nervously, adjusting her skirt.

"Man," he said. "I heard you were always ready for a party. 'Jennifer Romita's the biggest party girl in school,' they said, 'except maybe that Fiametta chick.' Fucking crazy underclassmen. So, come on, you wanna come over?"

"Um," Jennifer said. "Perez. I'm, um, I'm Jennifer Perez. Not Romita."

"Oh," he said, turning a little red. "I didn't know... shit, I'm sorry. I didn't know there were two Jennifers."

The boy seemed a lot less scary all of a sudden. Jennifer scraped her shoes against the carpet.

"Uh, that's, um, that's alright. It's an... easy mistake."

After that, Jennifer made sure to find out who her duplicate was. She learned a bit about Jen Romita's reputation. It felt like her identity had been stolen and all her credit cards maxed out. She happened to share a name with one of the biggest sluts in school.

Just fucking perfect.

Of course, it was something of a wonder that she'd ever been mistaken for Romita, never mind that it happened with some degree of frequency. The two Jennifers looked almost nothing alike. Romita played up her sex appeal. Jennifer, on the other hand, made no moves to emphasize anything she had in that respect, instead opting for eccentricity. She wasn't much of a leader—was, if anything, a happy follower or friends and trends—but when it came to fashion, she was uncompromising. She defined her look early in freshman year, taking a fresh start after the tribulations of junior high.

Her mother had purchased a sewing machine some time ago, thinking, perhaps, that she would use it to save some money. In reality, she never had time for it, so it sat gathering dust until Jennifer took an interest one day. After a few weeks of messing around with the device, it became clear that this was more than a passing phase. Her mother and other relatives began to purchase fabric and patterns as gifts for her, and Jennifer made clothes for herself, and occasionally for the people she cared about.

For personal projects, she chose bright colors, flashy things that caught the eye, but always fairly conservative cuts. She no longer swung, so she no longer had to wear shorts under her skirts, but she was now quite cognizant of the rationale behind her mother's dictum. As such, the skirts she wore every day were long, sweeping, ankle-length for the most part, though she had some slightly longer and shorter for special occasions.

Her hair was a different matter. She found the style in a magazine at the hair salon one day while hanging out with Monica. Her sister had giggled over it, and—when Jennifer jokingly suggested that it might not be so bad—egged her on until she actually went through with it. In twenty minutes, Jennifer went from eighteen inches of hair to about two and a half. Her mother had been furious at first, but Jennifer had taken quite a liking to the style, working with it until it suited her, keeping her hair short from then on. She was probably one of the few girls in her grade to use hair gel on a semi-regular basis who was neither a punk nor a goth.

It had been a good life. A simple one. Yeah, sure, she'd been fucking coasting through it for the most part, pining for college or something, but it had been worthwhile. She had been, well, maybe she hadn't been happy all the time. Maybe she'd spent a lot of time avoiding things, wishing things were different, but there had been a few bright spots.

She hadn't even had any real fucking reason to be poking around the parking garage. She'd been on her way somewhere, taking a shortcut or something, and then she'd seen it. A group of boys. Down here, that never meant anything good. A fight, perhaps. A mugging. Gang activity. But she had recognized one of the guys. It was Maf, Maf from school. She didn't think he was a gangster.

It was fucking stupid. Jennifer was not a short girl, and she was not particularly physically weak, but she was dealing with several large guys. Granted, one was in a wheelchair, but the smart thing to do would still have been to walk away. Instead, she had stepped up. She had intervened, had, miraculously, caused them to leave, with only a bit of snippy exchange.

"Who's this, Tuigamala? Your girlfriend?"

"I'm not his girlfriend."

A stupid beginning to a friendship. A quick chat, full of awkwardness, a quick ride home. They'd sat together, had shared cheap Chinese takeout in his car. They'd seen a car crash. She'd asked that question, that painfully stupid question, and he'd shrugged it off. He'd shrugged off each of her mistakes, ignored all of her foibles. They'd talked, and they'd hit it off, and they'd laughed. Then they'd gone back to school, and the world hadn't changed one bit, only maybe, just maybe, she'd thought of him now and then, and maybe her view of the world had shifted ever-so-subtly, and maybe she'd thought that, well, fuck it, maybe there could be worthwhile things in high school, maybe you could like someone without it leading to disaster, maybe there were nice and sensitive guys who thought with their heads instead of their testosterone, and maybe she'd just been wasting her fucking time hanging out with the underclassmen when there were cool people like Maf around.

And still, nothing had changed, not until they were at Prom.

Prom. A magical night. A night of mystery and suspense and dreams and all those other fucking clichés, and Jennifer was there and none of her friends were because only losers went to their Junior Proms. It had been a whole lot of nothing, and then, out of nowhere, he had come up to her and started to hit on her.

She still didn't know his name. She had been awful, had been rude, had shut him down, because romance was the one place where she could stand up for herself, but also because she'd been rescued. Maf had arrived, and he had rescued her, and they had danced, and they had touched, and it had truly been magical.

It wasn't love. She'd always known that. She'd known that even as they ate Chinese again, this time in the cheap restaurant after leaving the dance early. She hadn't even known what she had wanted, whether she was looking for a boyfriend or just a friend. They had never kissed, had never snuggled up under the blankets to look at the stars or watch terrible movies on late night television. She could, perhaps, have imagined doing those things once, but they had not been the motivation behind her actions. They had not been the ultimate goal. She had found something, and she had taken it for what it was, and it just felt so fucking good to let go now and then, and whatever they were, there was no denying that they were good friends, and she had thought that, maybe, well, maybe someday if he kissed her, then perhaps it might not be so bad, even if nothing more ever came of it, even if they never became anything more than friends and it just lingered between them as a ghost of a possibility.

But for all of that, there was someone more important.

It was another stroke of luck, another little piece of random chance and fate, and it was, of course, something that happened while Jennifer was walking. She didn't know why she was downtown. She rarely knew the exact details behind the paths she wandered, simply that they let her move, let her free her mind through the use of her body. She had ended up, somehow, near the Sunset Cinema.

She'd never been much for movie theaters. They were loud, crowded, and expensive. For twenty dollars, Jennifer could get a ticket, a large popcorn, a soda, and some candy. On the other hands, she could rent a DVD and buy a couple yards of nice fabric for the same price. She ended up in cinemas more often than she liked, dragged along by her friends or, on occasion, her sister, though that was a less common occurrence now that Monica had an apartment and was spending so much of her time working or attending community college. Jennifer knew that much the same was in store for her. Her mother and father took great pride in their family, and had let it be known that, as first-generation college graduates, they fully intended all of their children to follow in their footsteps.

So she had been near the theater, and she had seen someone she recognized from school, and she had decided, just on a random whim, to go and talk to the girl, a pretty Asian girl, one who didn't seem immature or problematic or any of those things Jennifer had to put up with.

Maybe, on some level, she had recognized a kindred spirit. Perhaps she had been looking for a friend for a long time. This had, after all, been before she met Maf. Either way, she had spoken to the girl, one Melissa Li, and they had fallen into a casual conversation, just like old friends, joking about school and classmates and Jennifer's failing history grades and superheroes. China woman and...

Jennifer had never had a superhero identity, now that she thought about it. She wasn't a hero. She wasn't special, except maybe to her family and friends, but then, when it came down to it, everyone was special, weren't they?

She closed her eyes tightly against the setting sun.

Melissa had talked. Jennifer had talked with Melissa. They had... Melissa had given her her phone number, hadn't she? Yes. She couldn't quite remember it now, but she was sure she'd been given it, since they'd gotten in contact later. And... then Melissa had gotten a call. She'd gotten a call from her parents, and she'd been late. She'd been late, and Jennifer had never figured out what the problem was, had never really figured out too much about Melissa's home life. Her best friend, and she'd known so little, and now she never—

Don't think about that.

But it was too late, far too late, as the last words she'd spoken the first time she'd met Melissa came back, some sick sort of perfect recall.

"My...parents really want me to get home right now," Melissa said. "Sorry...Oh right, I should give you my cell phone number. It's 635-4772. Call me later, okay?"

"You can count on it," Jennifer said. "And I will make you something. And, I... I'm sorry if I got you in trouble."


And there was nothing left to hide behind.

I'm sorry, Melissa.

I'm so sorry.

I got you in trouble.

No. Stop hiding. Stop sugar coating this. Drop the fucking euphemisms. I got you killed, Melissa. You trusted me. you put your faith in me, and I trusted Nick, and now everyone's dead, dead or a killer, and...

It wasn't all Jennifer's fault. On an intellectual level, she knew this. Melissa would have been furious, would have told her to stop blaming herself for other people's actions. Melissa would have cracked a joke about China Woman and would have cheered Jennifer up, would have cooked some more bread on her fucking camping stove, because warm food was good for the heart or whatever. Melissa would have made her feel better, would have made things alright, but Melissa was dead.

Jennifer hoped Melissa's parents were okay. She hoped they weren't upset at their daughter. Almost more than that, she hoped that she herself was not the subject of their wrath and scorn. She hoped they weren't sitting at the television, watching with rapt attention, hoping for the witch, the evil monster who had led their daughter astray, to be killed in some truly gruesome and horrible fashion.

She wouldn't blame them if that was what they were doing, though. Not one bit.

The sun was almost entirely down. The world was dark. The stars were out. Jennifer thought of rotting Ben Powell again, now joined in decay by Melissa Li, and likely by Maf Tuigamala and Nick Reid. She wondered when she would find out how that ad ended. She would wait, and she would listen, though she wasn't expecting the mystery to be solved right away. The announcements seemed somewhat haphazard, somehow awkward. The announced death order was not necessarily right. Danya seemed to exult in sitting on information, releasing it in ways that twisted its meaning. She had seen enough, though. Dead or alive, she couldn't stay with Nick and Maf.

It was because she had liked them. She couldn't hide from it anymore. She had liked them, and she had cared for them, and, yes, maybe she had like-liked them, maybe both of them, maybe just a little bit, and what had it brought her, what had it bought her except pain and suffering and a dead best friend?

She stood, and nearly fell over again. She couldn't feel her legs. She had always had slightly low blood pressure—a side effect, perhaps, of her fairly quick metabolism. Neither condition was doing her any favors in this game. She was, in all likelihood, dying. Not incredibly quickly. Not in the fancy, flashy way many of her classmates had gone out. It was a quiet little death in progress. The current most likely cause was dehydration, unless she took action soon. She hadn't had water in quite some time, what with her bag staying behind with the mass of living and dead bodies, all her supplies abandoned along with everyone she'd cared about.

She wouldn't need them. Medical supplies were unimportant if she had no one to fix up, and she was by now nearly fucking convinced she was untouchable. A charmed life indeed.

The only remaining question was, what was she going to do with her time left?

She'd had a plan. She'd had an idea of what to do with the rest of her life. She hadn't really consciously acknowledged it, but it had been bubbling in the back of her mind, ever since she'd seen Melissa's throat blown out, ever since she'd watched the collar detonate. She knew, now, that bodies were important. She knew that they were more than just things, that they mattered. She wanted to scream, to force her past self to recognize it, to undo the disrespect she had shown. She'd thought that, just perhaps, there might be a way to fix things, a way to atone for her crimes, a way to make up for dragging Guthrie's corpse and ditching it in an undignified heap.

She'd been considering going back. Finding Melissa. Finding Maf or Nick or both of them. Finding them and burying them, laying them to rest. It seemed right, in some strange way.

The problem was, the mountain wasn't that conducive to burying people. It was rocky, the soil shallow. In all likelihood, she would be unable to make any headway with the ground. A pyre would be equally impossible. Those had to burn pretty fucking hot, right? No, burning a body would just be a defilement, would just leave a smoldering skeleton with muscle and flesh charred and fused to bone. That wasn't right. She could bury them under rocks. That would also be challenging, though. It would mean crushing them, cracking their bones under the weight.

She could think of nothing except the bodies now. She could imagine them, could see in her mind's eye insects moving into them, hollowing out holes in the flesh, carrying away small pieces of meat to eat. Jennifer couldn't cry anymore, but she wanted to. The thought of being eaten, of being consumed, was utterly terrifying to her. She wanted to avoid it. More than anything else in the world, she wanted to embalm herself, to preserve her corpse against nature.

She did not want to see what had become of the bodies. She did not want to know what lay in store for her.

That left one thing.

She returned to the small ledge, and began to gather stones.

Jennifer was building a cairn.

Not a marker for anything specific. Just a pile of stones, balanced and slotted together. It was hard at night, hard without her flashlight, hard with her aching body and her parched throat and dry lips, but she had to do it. She scoured the area, used her icepick to pry rocks from the ground.

And, in the end, it was worth it.

It wasn't majestic. It wasn't beautiful or special or anything like that. It was a pile of rocks, maybe three feet high, but it was a pile of rocks that was clearly human-made, a pile of rocks that could not have fallen by mistake. It was her pile of rocks, her silly little monument to herself and her friends, to everyone who had died here.

It was, for the time being, good enough.

She was tempted to leave something else. Her icepick, perhaps, or her bag full of clothing. In the end, though, both were too much parts of her to abandon. She sat and looked at her creation for some time, and then, when she grew tired of it, she started stumbling downhill, heading towards where she thought she could hear running water. She'd get a drink, and she'd pull herself together, and she'd push on, she'd just keep fucking living, and eventually she'd die, probably scared and lonely and alone, probably wishing things had been different, but it would all be worth it.

It would all be okay.

She still had things to live for.

Maybe not many.

Maybe not friends anymore.

Maybe herself for a change.

((Jennifer Perez continued in A way a lone a last))
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