“Us?” I squeaked.
“Yeah, we need to talk about what happened between us this morning,” he said. “Don’t think there is a chance in hell I’ve forgotten about that.”
Annoyed by the turn in conversation and, unfortunately, turned on by him, I dug deep, latching on to the irritation brimming in my veins. “Well, I have.”
“Oh.” Jensen laughed. “That’s doubtful.”
I gritted my teeth until my jaw ached. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
“There’s a lot to talk about,” he corrected, and then he smiled. “And we will talk.”
“We won’t be—”
Jensen hauled me against his chest and lowered his head until his lips weren’t even an inch from mine. He was so close I could feel the warmth of his breath and almost taste his kiss. My eyes drifted shut as a riot of sensation rocketed through me.
When he spoke, his lips brushed mine. “Exactly.”
My eyes popped open.
Jensen let go and winked. He caught the edge of the door, holding it open. “You better get inside or you’re going to be late.”
For a moment, all I could do was stare at him, and then I bounced out of it. “Jerk,” I said, storming past him.
He laughed, and while that sound was all kinds of lovely, I wanted to drop kick him in the back of the head. Instead, I shot him a dark look before swinging around a cluster of people near the entrance to the gymnasium. As close as I was, I could hear bits and pieces of their conversation.
“It had to be him,” a girl said. “He was dating her and no one knew?”
My spine stiffened.
A junior boy shrugged brawny shoulders. “Yeah, but come on. Gavin? I don’t think so.”
“Whatever. If you’re hiding a relationship, there’s a reason,” another girl argued. “Maybe she was pregnant and he killed her.”
Oh my God.
“But what about Monica? Or . . . or her.”
I pivoted around, pinning each of them with a look. “Gavin doesn’t have anything to do with what’s been happening.”
Not giving them a chance to respond, I turned on my heel and picked up my pace. By the time I got to first period, I was ready to karate chop anyone who looked at me a second longer than I felt was necessary. The whole school had heard about Gavin’s closet relationship with Vee.
God, that didn’t look good.
None of this did.
I slumped in my seat as my thoughts unraveled, wandering back to the morning conversation with Jensen.
We didn’t kill Penn.
He was right in the sense that we hadn’t physically done something to Penn, but that didn’t mean we were void of responsibility when it came to what had happened to him. We should’ve known better, but we had been selfish and so, so disloyal.
It happened in the fall before seventh grade, just when Jensen had started growing into his long arms and legs, and just when I started to really notice how he smiled, and how his eyes seemed to change color depending on his mood.
And I hadn’t been the only one to notice.
Girls like Wendy and Monica started coming around our lunch table and hanging around our little group when we headed outside. Gavin, Penn, and I knew they were there for Jensen, even though he seemed to be oblivious to it.
Maybe it was during those long afternoon breaks when I knew deep down that I would lose Jensen to the cooler and prettier girls. Maybe that was why it had been so easy for me to forget about someone who’d been a friend to me since I could remember.
But it had happened the fall after we’d played truth or dare in the tree house, when Jensen had kissed me and Penn had asked if we’d be friends forever.
It was two weeks before Halloween, and for the last week or so, Penn had been happy. His birthday was coming up and his parents were planning on combining Halloween with the event, and in spite of how the kids were treating him at school, he was excited.
Then Brock decided to have a party at his house the same day as Penn’s, and Jensen was invited. Looking back, I wondered if Brock had done it on purpose. It seemed childish, but from how others had treated Penn, to what Jensen and I had decided, I’d realized quickly that no matter how young people were, they were truly capable of anything.
Jensen had wanted to go to Brock’s party. After all, his brother and Brock’s were friends. But he hadn’t wanted to go alone, so he invited me. And I hadn’t wanted to let Jensen go to the party without me, not when Wendy and Monica would be there.
I don’t know why it was so important that we go to Brock’s party, other than us being stupid and young. But Jensen and I had planned on doing both—going to Brock’s and then Penn’s. When Gavin found out, he’d told us not to do it, that if Penn found out, he would be hurt, but we didn’t listen.
So on the day of Penn’s birthday party, Jensen and I went to Brock’s, fully intending to leave early, but that wasn’t what happened. Even though Jensen had stayed by my side the whole time, paying no attention to the other girls, we didn’t leave early. I couldn’t even remember why. We’d just lost track of time.
We’d missed Penn’s party.
And the next day during lunch, Penn had found out where we’d been when Brock oh so casually mentioned it as he passed our table. To this day, I’ll never forget how pale Penn got or how he kept saying it was okay when Jensen and I repeatedly apologized.
Penn had seemed fine, though. About two weeks passed and I’d all but forgotten about it, and then after school, I did what I always did. I slipped on my sneakers and went running. I was planning on meeting the boys at the tree house, so that’s where I’d headed, but I was early. We were supposed to meet at 4:30 p.m., and it was 4:14 when I checked my watch as the tree house came into view.
I remembered slowing down and shaking the burn out of my legs, time seeming to crawl as I dragged in deep gulps of the crisp autumn air. I’d started to climb the steps when something on the ground on the other side of the tree caught my attention, and I remember letting go of the wooden planks, of walking around the trunk.
I’d found Penn lying on the ground.
He’d been lying face up, his body sprawled out, one leg under the other. His neck hadn’t looked right. I’d never seen a dead person before that, but I knew he was dead. I knew that immediately.
There had been a belt around his neck.
A snapped rope on the ground.
The authorities said that he’d fashioned a noose out of a rope and belt, then hung himself from the tree. They said his weight had snapped the rope, but I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t picture Penn going up in the tree house alone or climbing out onto the limb. I couldn’t picture or understand why he would’ve done it that way, with a belt and a rope. That wasn’t like Penn.
That wasn’t him.
But then, like a nightmare unfolding, his parents found Penn’s suicide note in his bedroom two days after he’d died. Supposedly only one sentence had been written.
I can’t take it anymore.
An entire life summed up and ended in one sentence.
A lot of people had talked afterward. Why hadn’t anyone known Penn had been bullied so badly? Why hadn’t anyone seen the signs of depression? How could it have gotten to this point without anyone noticing?
None of those questions really mattered then, because I knew what had done it to him, what had pushed him over the edge.
We hadn’t killed Penn with our own hands, but we had aided and abetted. We’d known that he’d been having problems—his parents fighting a lot, the kids at school picking on him. We’d been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and there wasn’t a day that had gone by that I hadn’t wished we’d made a better decision.
That we’d chosen Penn.
JENSEN JOINED HEIDI and I at lunch, and by then my pissy attitude had faded into weariness. All morning everyone talked about Gavin. About Vee. And about Monica. In the eyes of our classmates, Gavin was a serial killer.
“I wish there was something we could do,” I said, staring down at my lasagna.
“About?” Jensen asked, and I realized that I’d assumed everyone knew what I was thinking.