“How’d the dead kid die?”
I stop eating lunch, look at the new kid. He seems weirded out. Maybe because he has the dead kid’s locker and someone told him D.J. died in it. But if he’s asking, he’s heard the other versions, too. Probably wondering which is true.
Everyone at the table eyes me like I’m some fucking expert. I toss a new rumor into the mill. “OD’d on oxy. Dead Kid liked to party. Why? You find some pills?”
“He didn’t drown?” what’s-his-name–Aaron? Eric?–asks.
That one’s not mine; it’s too close to the truth. I shift in my seat. “Why you asking me?”
“You’re Jonah, right?”
New kid slides a sand dollar –back side up– on the table and walks away. It’s inscribed. I toss it at the trash, try to forget. But its message is etched on my brain: Ask Jonah.
Dinner is a disaster. My parents somehow heard the nasty rumor that D.J. strangled himself watching porn and are freaked. Mom’s all, Why would someone say that? What if Helen–D.J.’s mom–hears? Dad keeps saying how there are a lot of sick people out there. I don’t tell them the sicko’s eating with them. Or the one about the pedo and the van.
“Why’d you cook shrimp?” I say to shut them up, and my mother goes green. I shove my plate towards her, fried commas toppling over its edges.
Dad takes her side. “It’s been almost a year, Jonah. You can’t expect us to walk around on eggshells forever.” Shells. I think of the new kid’s gift. “David would want–”
“Forget it,” I say and go to my room.
I cut gym, break into the new kid’s locker; school never bothered to change the combination, so it’s easy. A slew of sand dollars fall at my feet, break into bits. I see my name lurking among them–and D.J.’s. The reek of salt and fish turns my stomach, and I slam the empty locker shut. The shattered shells I leave in the hall. Why not? It’s not the first mess I’ve walked away from.
I find sand dollars in my locker, nestled atop my notebooks. Like sick little love notes. I know how I got the new kid’s numbers, but how the fuck does he have mine?
I throw them all away.
When Matt asks if it’s true the dead kid once sucked off the principal, I punch him and get suspended. My parents pretend to be understanding, but I can tell they’re pretty pissed at me.
Join the fucking club.
First day back, I discover stacks of sand dollars stuffing my locker and follow the new kid into the bathroom. Creepy, yeah, but I don’t want to pull an audience for this argument.
He sees me and we square off. My hands form fists. I should’ve hit him instead of Matt. I still might. “What’s your deal?”
“My deal? Why don’t you tell your boy to back off?”
“You back off.” I hurl a handful of flat, white disks at him. They crash to the tiled floor and break like chalk, dust and all. I’m breathing hard, two shakes from spastic. The new kid gives me a pity look.
“Do you even read them?” He’s calm, confident.
“Just stop it, Aaron, okay? Leave me the fuck alone.” I’m fizzing out like soda about to go flat, so I take a step back, retreat.
“It’s Aram.” He reaches into his backpack. I hear the tinkling of shells and freeze. Think, Are you fucking kidding me? and How many of those things can he have?
He holds up a sand dollar, but keeps his distance. These letters are in dark seaweed green and easy to read. They spell: Show Jonah. The bell rings, but here inside the boy’s room, it tolls. Aram says, “I want to show you something.”
For some reason–curiosity, guilt, apathy, despair, fun party mix of them, whatever–I let him lead me to his locker. Something bangs from inside. I move to open it–thinking the sick fuck’s stuffed someone in there–but Aram pulls me back. “Wait,” he whispers.
The banging grows louder, then stops. Sea water explodes from the locker’s vents, wets our sneakers. I startle, dance back, and Aram grabs hold of my arm. “Every morning and every afternoon,” he says and drags me towards the locker, opens it. The funk of low tide blankets us. Aram rips away strands of wet seaweed to reveal sand dollars piled high on the tiny shelf. All etched with my name–messages from D.J.
Aram shakes me. “Did you drown him? Did you kill D.J.?”
Yeah, I killed him. I didn’t drown D.J., but I’m the reason he’s dead. Everyone says it’s not my fault, but it is. They know it, I know it. Hell, D.J. knows it. At the funeral, his mom said she didn’t blame me, but c’mon, late at night when she’s crying her eyes out because her only child is dead, who do you think she’s cursing? Fate? God? Or Jonah Shipley? Ding, ding. It’s me.
Fuck, it was so stupid.
D.J. was allergic to shellfish. And I dared him to eat shrimp. “C’mon. I got your EpiPen right here. You start to swell, I’ll stab you. Call 911.”
We didn’t actually think anything would happen. Katie–the smartest kid in our grade–said every seven to ten years, you become a different person–because that’s how long it takes every cell in your body to replace itself. Turns out, that isn’t true.
He ate two shrimp. Said, “You’re right, these are awesome.” Then went into anaphylactic shock. And even though the directions are right on the stupid thing, even though I read them a hundred times and D.J.’s mother had drilled me on how to use it, even though I’d practiced with the training injector, I panicked. Fumbled the pen and somehow plunged the epinephrine into my thumb instead of D.J.’s thigh.
I dialed 9-1-1. I called his mom. My mom. I told him to hang on. I cried, said I was sorry.
He died anyway.
“Yes,” I tell Aram and it feels so good to say out loud. “I killed him.”
Aram shakes his head. “You’re such a fucking liar. Read the goddamn things and end this.” He walks away, down the hall and around the corner. I eye the locker.
“D.J.?” I say, then feel stupid talking to a metal box. Maybe not for talking to it. Day after the school cleaned out 7C, gave his personal things to his mom, I sat across from the locker and talked to him some. Made a makeshift memorial to D.J. inside it–like the way people leave gifts or flowers at the side of the road when someone dies in a car crash (which I always thought was lame but suddenly got why.) A red Power Ranger, the graphic novel we made when we were eight, a toy surfboard for the spring break trip we’d never take, and my Little League t-shirt from the year we were the Pirates and went undefeated. I guess I would’ve stuck them in his coffin if he had one, but he was cremated. His mom was going to spread his ashes at some beach in Florida they used to visit. Not sure she did, though–the urn she picked out was shaped like a treasure chest, so I can’t see her letting go of it–or him. I closed the locker and thought it’d stay that way till the rest of us graduated. Next day, I started telling stories about the dead kid. Eleven months later, some fucking new kid shows up and D.J. doesn’t even have a locker anymore. So maybe I feel funny now because I expect him to say something back.
I stare at the shells and think about reading them; I do. But I close the door and walk away empty-handed.
Aram keeps piling shells in my locker, and I keep throwing them out. I can do this shit all year long.
Then one afternoon I open my locker and, instead of sea tokens, I have books, binders, and an extra backpack that stinks like beach. I should feel like I won, but I don’t. I go home and toss my baseball trophy in the trash. Heave my Pirates uniform out, too. Doesn’t help.
I think of confronting Aram. Ask him where my shells are.
Did they stop?
Then why is he using my locker?
On the anniversary of my best friend’s death, I hang outside until the first bell rings. Wait for the halls to clear, then beeline to D.J.’s locker. I check my phone; watch minutes tick by as I wait for the banging to start. Aram said it happened twice a day, so I downloaded a surf widget that tells me when the tide changes. Trouble is, I’m not sure which tidal station to use–or if D.J.’s using tides at all.
I’m about to give up and head to class when I hear a rumble. Followed by a knock. I spin the dial left,–bang–right,–bang–left–bang! Hitch open the door…
…and get clobbered by a wave. The water is salty. I wipe my face with my hands and see a shadowy shape emerge from the locker. It’s D.J.–and it isn’t. Like an octopus, he slithers into the hall, tentacles unfurling, suckers squelching and all.
He’s dressed like a pirate and, under a tricorn hat made of fish bones, has reddish seaweed for hair. His purplish skin pulsates, stretches like an inflatable raft, then contracts swiftly. Sand dollars tumble from pockets like coins–plink, plink, plink.
I smile, stand up. Say, “Hey, D.J.”
D.J. grins at me with razor sharp teeth, and I wonder if after we talk, he plans to drag me down into the depths of his locker.