Bolted to the back of each seat, behind a square sheet of Plexiglas, is a map of all the city's bus routes. From where I caught this one, the bus will drive by Dakota's house, turn left a block before Tyler's, then stop.
We parked two and a half blocks away, which was actually the closest spot we could get. I have one of those car stereos that continues playing even after I shut off the engine. It won't stop until someone opens a door. But that night, when I opened the door, the music didn't stop...it just sounded distant.
"Oh my God," you said. "I think that music's coming from the party!"
Did I mention we were two and a half blocks away? That's how loud it was. That party was absolutely begging for a police visit.
Which is why I don't go to many parties. I'm so close to being valedictorian. One mistake could mess it all up for me.
We took our place in the stream of students heading to the party--like joining a bunch of salmon heading upstream to mate. When we got there, two football players--never to be seen at a party without their jerseys--stood on opposite sides of the gate collecting beer money. So I reached into my pocket for some cash.
Over the loud music, you shouted to me, "Don't worry about it." We got to the gate and one of they guys said, "Two bucks a cup." Then he realized who he was talking to. "Oh. Hey, Dakota. Here you go." And he handed you a red plastic cup.
Two bucks? That's it? They must charge girls differently.
You nodded your head in my direction. The guy smiled, then handed me a cup. But when I grabbed for it, he didn't let go. He told me his replacement was coming any minute and that we should hang out. I smiled at him, but you grabbed me by the arm and pulled me through the gate.
"Don't," you said. "Trust me." I asked why, but you were scanning the crowd and didn't hear me.
I don't remember any stories of Dakota and any football players. Basketball players, yes. Many of them. But football? None.
Then you said we should split up. And do you want to know my first thought when you said that, Dakota? Gee, that sure didn't take long.
You said there were a few people you needed to see and that we should meet up later. I lied and said there were some people I needed to see, too.
Then you told me not to leave without you. "You're my ride, remember?" How could I forget, Dakota?
The bus turns onto Dakota's street, with For Sale signs posted in about a third of the yards. When we pass Dakota's house, I half expect to see a red star spray-painted on the front door. But the porch is buried in darkness. No porch light. No lights in any window at all.
But you smiled at me. And finally, you said the magic word. "Good-bye." And good-bye was exactly what you meant.
"Miss your stop, Josh?"
An icy chill shoots up my spine.
A voice. A girl's voice. But not from the headphones.
I press Pause.
Someone called my name. But from where? Across the aisle, the dark belt of windows acts like a mirror. I see the reflection of a girl sitting behind me. Maybe my age. But do I know her? I turn my body around and look over the backrest.
Jenna Rice. My eighth-grade crush. She smiles, or maybe it's more of a smirk, because she knows she startled the hell out of me.
Jenna's always been pretty, but she acts like the thought's never crossed her mind. Especially the past couple of years. She dresses in dull, loose clothing every day. Almost burying herself within them. Tonight, it's a bulky gray sweatshirt and matching pants.
I pull the headphones from my ears. "Hey, Jenna."
"Miss your house?" she asks. More words than she's spoken to me in a long time. More words than I've heard her speak to anyone in a long time. "He'll stop if you ask him to."
I shake my head. No. Not my house.
The bus takes a left at the next intersection and pulls up to the curb. The door slides open and the driver yells back, "Anyone?"
I look to the front of the bus, into the rearview mirror, and catch the driver's eye. Then I turn back to Jenna. "Where are you going?" I ask.
The smirk returns. Her eyes stay focused on mine. She's trying so hard to make me feel uncomfortable. And it's working.
"I'm not going anywhere," she finally says.
Why does she do this? What happened between eighth grade and now? Why does she insist on being an outcast? What changed? No one knows. One day, at least it seemed that fast, she just stopped wanting to be a part of anything.
But this is my stop and I should get off. It's halfway between two of the red stars: Tyler's house and Dakota's.
Or instead, I could stay and talk with Jenna. To be more exact, I could stay and try to talk with her. An almost guaranteed one-way conversation.
"See you tomorrow," she says.
And that's it. The conversation's over. Part of me, I admit, is relieved. "See you later," I say.
I lift my backpack over my shoulder and walk to the front of the bus. I thank the driver and return to the cold air outside. The door shuts behind me. The bus pulls away. Jenna's window passes with her head resting against the glass and her eyes shut.
I pull my backpack onto both shoulders and tighten the straps. Alone once again, I start walking. To Tyler's house.
Okay, but how will I know which one it is? This is the block, I know that, and it's this side of the block, but Hayley gave no address.
If his bedroom light's on, maybe I'll see the bamboo shutters. With each house I walk by, trying not to stare too long, I look for those shutters. Maybe I'll get lucky. Maybe there will be a sign posted in his yard. PEEPING TOM--COME INSIDE.
I can't stifle a laugh at my own lame joke. With Hayley's words ready at the push of a button, it feels wrong to smile like this. But it also feels nice. It feels like the first time I've smiled in months, though it's only been hours. Then, two houses away, I see it. I stop smiling.
The bedroom light is on and the bamboo shutters are down. A spiderweb of silver duct tape holds the fractured window together. Was it a rock? Did someone throw a rock at Tyler's window? Was it someone who knew? Someone from the list?
As I get closer I can almost picture her, Hayley, standing beside his window whispering into a recorder. Words too soft for me to hear at this distance. But in the end, the words reach me.
A square hedge divides Tyler's front yard from the next. I walk toward it to shield myself from view. Because he has to be watching. Looking out. Waiting for someone to bust his window wide open.
"You want to throw something?" The icy chill comes slicing back. I spin around, ready to hit someone and run.
"Hold it! It's me."
Marcus Cooley, from school.
I lean forward, resting my hands on my knees. Exhausted. "What are you doing here?" I ask.
Marcus holds a fist-sized rock just below my eyes. "Take it," he says.
I look up at him. "Why?"
"You'll feel better, Josh. Honest."
I look over at the window. At the duct tape. Then I look down and close my eyes, shaking my head. "Let me guess, Marcus. You're on the tapes."
He doesn't answer. He doesn't need to. When I look up, the corners of his eyes struggle to hold back a smile. And in that struggle, I can tell he's not ashamed.
I nod to Tyler's window. "Did you do that?"
He pushes the rock into my hand. "You'd be the first to say no, Josh."
My heart starts racing. Not from Marcus standing here, or Tyler standing somewhere inside, or the heavy rock in my hand, but from what he just told me.
"You're the third to come out here," he says. "Plus me."
I try to picture anyone other than Marcus, someone else on the list, throwing a rock at Tyler's window. But I can't. It doesn't make sense.
We're all on the list. All of us. We're all guilty of something. Why is Tyler any different than the rest of us?
I stare down at the rock in my hand. "Why are you doing this?" I ask.
He nods over his shoulder, down the block. "That's my house down there. With the light on. I've been watching Tyler's house to see who comes around."
I can't imagine what Tyler told his parents. Did he plead with them not to replace the window because more might be coming? And what did they say? Did they ask how he knew? Did they ask why?
"The first was Alex," Marcus says. He doesn't sound the least bit ashamed to be telling me this. "We were hanging out at my house when, out of nowhere, he wanted me to point out Tyler's house. I didn't know why, it's not like they were friends, but he really wanted to know."
"So, what, you just gave him a rock to throw at his window?"
"No. It was his idea. I didn't even know the tapes existed yet."
I toss the rock up a few inches then catch its weight in my other hand. Even before the previous rocks weakened it, the window would stand no chance against this. So why did Marcus choose this rock for me? He's heard the rest of the tapes, but he wants me to be the one to finish off the window. Why?
I toss the rock back to my other hand. Beyond his shoulder I can see the porch light at Marcus's house. I should make him tell me which window is his. I should tell him this rock is going through one of his house's windows, and he might as well tell me which one is his so I don't scare the hell out of his little sister.
I grip the rock hard. Harder. But there's no way to keep my voice from shaking. "You're a dick, Marcus."
"You're on the tapes, too," I say. "Right?"
"So are you, Josh."
My voice shakes from both rage and an attempt to hold back tears. "What makes us so different from him?"
"He's a Peeping Tom," Marcus says. "He's a freak. He looked in Hayley's window, so why not break his?"
"And you?" I ask. "What did you do?"
For a moment, his eyes stare through me. Then he blinks.
"Nothing. It's ridiculous," he says. "I don't belong on those tapes. Hayley just wanted an excuse to kill herself."
I let the rock drop onto the sidewalk. It was either that or smash it in his face right there.
"Get the hell away from me," I tell him.
"It's my street, Josh."
My fingers close and tighten into a fist. I look down at the rock, aching to pick it back up. But I turn away. Fast. I walk the full length of the sidewalk in front of Tyler's house without looking at the window. I can't let myself think. I pull the headphones from my neck and place them back in my ears.
I reach into my pocket and hit Play.