13 Reasons Why Cassette 4 Side A
A few doors down from Rosie’s Diner, I stop running. I lean my back against a pet store window, trying to catch my breath. Then I lean forward, hands on my knees, hoping to slow everything down before she arrives.
Impossible. Because even though my legs stopped running, my mind keeps going. I let myself slide down against the cold glass, knees bent, trying so hard to hold back tears.
But time’s running out. She’ll be here soon.
Drawing in a full breath, I push myself up, walk over to Rosie’s, and pull open the door.
Warm air rushes out, smelling like a mixture of hamburger grease and sugar. Inside, three of the five booths along the wall are taken. One with a boy and a girl drinking milkshakes and munching popcorn from the Crestmont. The other two are filled with students studying. Textbooks cover the tabletops, leaving just enough room for drinks and a couple of baskets of fries. Thankfully, the booth farthest back is occupied. It’s not a question I need to consider, whether to sit there or not.
Taped to one of the pinball machines is a hand-scribbled Out of Order sign. A senior I sort of recognize stands in front of the other machine, banging away.
As Hayley suggested, I sit at the empty counter. Behind the counter, a man in a white apron sorts silverware into two plastic tubs. He gives me a nod. “Whenever you’re ready.”
I slide a menu out from between two silver napkin holders. The front of the menu tells a lengthy story about Rosie’s, with black-and-white photos spanning the last four decades. I flip it over, but nothing on the menu looks good to me. Not now.
Fifteen minutes. That’s how long Hayley said to wait. Fifteen minutes and then I should order. Something was wrong when Mom called. Something was wrong with me, and I know she heard it in my voice. But on her way over, will she listen to the tapes to find out why? I am such an idiot. I should have told her I would go get them. But I didn’t do that, so now I have to wait and find out.
The boy who was eating popcorn asks for a key to the bathroom. The man behind the counter points to the wall. Two keys hang from brass hooks. One key has a blue plastic dog attached to it. The other, a pink elephant. He grabs the blue dog and heads down the hall.
After storing the plastic tubs beneath the counter, the man unscrews the tops to a dozen salt and pepper shakers, paying no attention to me. And that’s fine.
“Did you order yet?”
I swivel around. Mom sits on the stool next to me and pulls out a menu. Beside her, on the counter, is Hayley’s shoebox.
“Are you staying?” I ask.
If she stays, we can talk. I don’t mind. It would be nice to free my thoughts for a while. To take a break. She looks me in the eyes and smiles. Then she places a hand over her stomach and forces her smile into a frown. “That’s a bad idea, I think.”
“You’re not fat, Mom.”
“Well Izzy also needs help on some math homework. God forbid John trying to help her.”
She slides the box of tapes over to me. “Where’s your friend? Weren’t you working with someone?”
Right. A school project. “He had to, you know, he’s in the bathroom.”
Her eyes look past me, over my shoulder, for just a second. And I might be wrong, but I think she checked to see if both keys were hanging on the wall. Thank God they weren’t.
“Did you bring enough money?” she asks.
“For something to eat.” She replaces her menu then taps a fingernail against my menu. “The chocolate malteds are to die for.”
“You’ve eaten here?” I’m a little surprised. I’ve never seen adults in Rosie’s before.
Mom laughs. She places a hand on top of my head and uses her thumb to smooth out the wrinkles on my forehead. “Don’t look so amazed, Josh. This place has been around forever.” She pulls out a ten-dollar bill and lays it on top of the shoebox. “Have what you want, but have a malted shake for me.”
When she stands, the bathroom door squeaks open. I turn my head and watch the guy rehang the blue dog key. He apologizes to his girlfriend for taking so long and kisses her on the forehead before sitting down.
“Josh?” Mom says.
Before turning back around, I shut my eyes for just a moment, and breathe. “Yes?”
She forces a smile. “Don’t be out long.” But it’s a hurt smile.
Four tapes remain. Seven stories. And still, where is my name?
I look into her eyes. “It might be a while.” Then I look down. At the menu. “It’s a school project.”
She says nothing, but from the corner of my eye I can see her standing there. She lifts a hand. I close my eyes and feel her fingers touch the top of my head then slide down to the back of my neck.
“Be careful,” she says.
I nod. And she leaves.
I take the top off the shoebox and unroll the bubble-wrap. The tapes haven’t been touched.
I press Play.
Everyone’s favorite class…okay, everyone’s favorite required class…is Peer Communications. It’s kind of the nonelective elective. Everyone would take it even if it wasn’t required because it’s such an easy A.
And most of the time, it’s fun. I’d take it just for that.
There’s very little homework, and don’t forget the bonus points for class participation. I mean, they encourage you to yell out in class. What’s not to like?
Reaching down, I grab my backpack and lift it onto the stool where Mom sat only moments ago.
After feeling more and more like an outcast, Peer Communications was my safe haven at school. Whenever I walked into that room, I felt like throwing open my arms and shouting, “Olly-olly-oxen-free!”
I roll the three tapes I’ve already heard into the bubble-wrap and place them back in the shoebox. Finished. Done.
For one period each day, you were not allowed to touch me or snicker behind my back no matter what the latest rumor. Mrs. Bradley did not appreciate people who snickered.
I unzip the largest pocket of my backpack and stow Hayley’s shoebox inside it.
That was rule number one, day number one. If anyone snickered at what anyone else said, they owed Mrs. Bradley a Snickers bar. And if it was an extremely rude snicker, you owed her a King Size.
On the counter, sitting beside the Walkman and a chocolate malted shake in honor of Mom, are the next three tapes.
And everyone paid up without argument. That’s the kind of respect people had for Mrs. Bradley. No one accused her of picking on them, because she never did. If she said you snickered, you did. And you knew it. The next day, there would be a Snickers bar waiting on her desk. And if there wasn’t? I don’t know. There always was.
I gather the next two tapes, blue nail polish labeling them nine and ten, eleven and twelve, and hide them in my inside jacket pocket.
Mrs. Bradley said Peer Communications was her favorite class to teach–or moderate, as she called it. Each day, we had a brief reading assignment full of statistics and real-world examples. Then, we discussed.
The last tape, the seventh tape, has a thirteen on one side but nothing on the reverse. I slip this tape into the back pocket of my jeans.
Bullies. Drugs. Self-image. Relationships. Everything was fair game in Peer Communications. Which, of course, made a lot of other teachers upset. It was a waste of time, they said. They wanted to teach us cold hard facts. They understood cold hard facts.
Headlights flash across Rosie’s front window and I squint while they pass.
They wanted to teach us the meaning of x in relation to pi, as opposed to helping us better understand ourselves and each other. They wanted us to know when the Magna Carta was signed–never mind what it was–as opposed to discussing birth control.
We have Sex Ed., but that’s a joke.
Which meant that each year, during budget meetings, Peer Communications was on the chopping block. And each year, Mrs. Bradley and the other teachers brought a bunch of students to the school board with examples of how we benefited from the class. Okay, I could go on like this forever, defending Mrs. Bradley. But something happened in that class, didn’t it? Otherwise, why would you be listening to me talk about it?
Next year, after my little incident, I hope Peer Communications continues. I know, I know. You thought I was going to say something else, didn’t you? You thought I was going to say that if the class played a part in my decision, it should be cut. But it shouldn’t. No one at school knows what I’m about to tell you. And it wasn’t really the class itself that played a part. Even if I never took Peer Communications, the outcome may very well have been the same. Or not.
I guess that’s the point of it all. No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push it just the same.
Mom was right. The shake is amazing. A perfect blend of ice cream and chocolate malt. And I’m a jerk for sitting here, enjoying it.
At the back of Mrs. Bradley’s room stood a wire bookrack. The kind you spin. The kind that holds paperback novels in the supermarket. But this rack never held any books. Instead, at the beginning of the year, each student received a paper lunch bag to decorate with crayons and stickers and stamps. Then we opened our bags and hung them to the rack with a couple of pieces of tape.
Mrs. Bradley knew people had a difficult time saying nice things to each other, so she devised a way for us to anonymously say what we felt. Did you admire the way so-and-so talked openly about his family? Drop a note in his bag and tell him. Do you understand so-and-so’s concern about not passing history? Drop her a note. Tell her you’ll think about her as you study for the upcoming test. Did you like his performance in the school play? Do you like her new haircut? Or do you like her new hair color?
She dyed her hair. In the photo at Monet’s, Hayley’s hair was ruby red. That’s how I always picture it. Even now. But that’s not how it was at the end.
If you can, tell them to their face. But if you can’t, drop them a note and they’ll feel it just the same. And as far as I know, no one ever left a mean or sarcastic note in anyone’s bag. We had too much respect for Mrs. Bradley to do that. So, Zac Farro, what’s your excuse?
The tapes stop.
What? What happened? Oh God. I look up to find Jeremy standing beside me, his finger on the Pause button.
“Is this my Walkman?”
I don’t say anything, because I can’t read his expression. It’s not anger, even though I did steal his Walkman. Confusion? Maybe. But if it is, it’s more than that. It’s the same look he gave when I helped him with his car. When he was watching me instead of shining the flashlight for his dad. Worry. Concern.
I pull the headphones from my ears and slip them around my neck. The Walkman. Right, he asked about the Walkman. “It is. It was in your car. I saw it when I was helping you. Earlier today. I think I asked if I could borrow it.”
I’m such an idiot.
He rests a hand on top of the counter and sits on the stool next to me. “I’m sorry, Josh,” he says. He looks into my eyes. Can he tell I’m a horrible liar? “I get so frustrated around my dad sometimes. I’m sure you asked and I just forgot.”
His gaze falls to the yellow headphones around my neck, then follows the long cord to the tape deck on the counter. I pray that he doesn’t ask what I’m listening to. Between Jeremy and my mom, I’m doing a lot of lying today. And if he does ask, I’ll need to do it again.
“Just return it when you’re done,” he says. He stands and places a hand on my shoulder. “Keep it as long as you need.”
“No need to rush,” he says. He grabs a menu from between the napkin holders, walks to an empty booth behind me, and sits down.
I press Play.
Don’t worry, Zac. You never left anything mean in my bag. I know that. But what you did do, was worse.
It takes me a second to realize this. Zac has heard the tapes. He was before me- he’s already heard them.
And now I’m going to find out how he played a role in Hayley’s death.
Zac Farro, my own brother. I guess we’re a lot more like than we thought.
But first, let’s go back a few weeks. Let’s go back…to Rosie’s.
My stomach pulls in tight, like working through a final sit-up. I close my eyes and concentrate on bringing myself back to normal. But I haven’t felt normal in hours. Even the lids of my eyes feel warm. Like my whole body is fighting a sickness.
I just sat there, in the booth where Marcus left me, staring into an empty milkshake glass. His side of the bench was probably still warm because he’d left only a minute ago. When up walked Zac. And down he sat.
I could see him doing that, Zac being the outgoing guy he was.
I open my eyes to the row of empty stools on this side of the counter. On one of these stools, maybe this one, Hayley sat when she first arrived. By herself. But then Marcus arrived and took her to a booth.
My gaze follows the counter down to the pinball machines at the far end of the diner, then over to their booth. Empty.
I pretended not to notice him. Not because I had anything against him, but because my heart and my trust were in the process of collapsing. And that collapse created a vacuum in my chest. Like every nerve in my body was withering in, pulling away from my fingers and toes. Pulling back and disappearing.
My eyes burn. I reach forward and slide a hand down the frosted milkshake glass. Ice-cold droplets cling to my skin and I run my wet fingers across my eyelids.
I sat. And I thought. And the more I thought, connecting the events in my life, the more my heart collapsed. Zac was sweet. He went on letting me ignore him until it became almost comical. I knew he was there, of course. He was practically staring at me. And eventually, melodramatically, he cleared his throat.
I lifted my hand onto the table and touched the base of my glass. That was the only sign he was going to get that I was listening.
I pull my glass closer and turn the spoon inside it in slow circles, softening whatever remains at the bottom.
He asked if I was all right, and I forced myself to nod. But my eyes kept staring at the glass–through the glass–at the spoon. And I kept thinking, over and over, Is this what it feels like to go insane?
“I’m sorry,” he said. “For whatever happened just now.” I felt my head continue to nod as if it was attached to heavy springs, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I appreciated his words.
He offered to buy me another milkshake, but I gave no response. Was I unable to talk? Or did I just not want to talk? I don’t know. Part of me thought he was hitting on me–ready to use the fact that I was now alone to ask me out. And it’s not that I completely believed that, but why should I trust him?
The waitress dropped off my bill and took the empty glass away. Soon, getting nothing out of me, Zac left a few bucks on the table and returned to his friends.
I keep stirring my malted. There’s hardly any left, but I don’t want the glass taken away. It gives me a reason to sit here. To stay here.
My eyes began tearing up, but I could not break my stare from the small wet circle where the glass had been. If I even tried to utter a single word, I would have lost it. Or had I already lost it?
I keep stirring.
I can tell you this, at that table, the worst thoughts in the world first came into my head. It’s there that I first started to consider…to consider…a word that I still cannot say. I know you tried coming to my rescue, Zac. But we all know that’s not why you’re on this tape. So I’ve got one question before we continue. When you try rescuing someone and discover they can’t be reached, why would you ever throw that back in their face?
For the past several days or weeks or however long it took you to get these tapes, Zac, you probably thought no one would find out.
I lower my face into my hands. How many secrets can there be at one school?
You probably got sick to your stomach when you heard what I did. But the more time that went by, the better you felt. Because the more time that went by, the more likely your secret died with me. No one knew. No one would ever find out.