Jamie was the youngest of us, but also the oldest. She had been born last, but with a soul that provided her with the wisdom and insight of several past incarnations. Her insight and intuition were so accurate it was scary. Even the teachers had been freaked out by her wisdom at times. She would have been downright scary, if she didn’t balance it out by being so kind and sweet to everyone. Everyone loved Jamie, and she loved everyone right back. She was the baby of our group, but she mothered the rest of us. She took care of us, and guided us through the dark, sometimes scary waters of adolescence. We deferred to her judgment, and listened to her advice. Mostly.

I was sixteen years old, and the last member of our group to arrive. The others had known each other since kindergarten, and from the stories they told, had been friends that whole time. They were a tight-knit group, inseparable except for that one Summer when Tommy and Kaitlyn had tried dating each other with predictable, but still devastating, results. They had thought their little group was over, but Jamie talked everyone through it, and they moved on. Then I showed up, and the dynamics changed just enough for everything to get back to normal, or mostly normal. At least that’s the way they told it to me.

I don’t know what prompted them to invite me into the group. I was the new kid in town, and I didn’t fit in anywhere else. They didn’t either, but they had each other. I didn’t really fit in with them, but I was lonely and needed some friends awfully bad. They were nice enough to take me in, and we clicked almost immediately. Jamie said it was like I was the final piece of the puzzle. They didn’t even know they were missing a piece until I got there. To this day, it’s still the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

Christian was a dreamer, and he always seemed to be lost in his own little world. He sat with us at lunch, and hung out with us after school, but he was never quite all there. His nose was always in a book, or in a notebook as he scribbled furiously. He wrote, and he drew pictures, and sometimes he would pop his head up to comment on the current conversation or crack a joke, but then he’d drop back into his world just as quickly. We never asked what he was writing, or paid any attention to his drawing, and he never volunteered any information. Nevertheless, he was an integral part of the group, as we all were. There’s no way to explain it, really. The group was five people, and it had to be the five of us. Even now, forty-plus years later, the only word I have for it is soulmates. We belonged to each other, and with each other. Deeper than most friends, deeper even than most families. Soulmates.

God, has it really been over forty years now? That doesn’t seem possible. I still remember every detail, every hateful second of that day. It’s burned into my memory, and I guess I’ll never get it out. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. We’ll burn that bridge when we get there.

Like I said at the beginning, Jamie was an old soul. Like most old souls, she was kind and gentle. She had an ethereal presence, kind of like a ghost, but more like a goddess of air and light. She didn’t just walk into a room, she flowed into a room. She moved through the world with a kindness and grace that made everyone feel warm and loved. Animals loved her. Little kids loved her. Adults loved her.

I loved her.

How could I not? She was beautiful, and kind, and smart, and funny, and…she was everything. But, she was fourteen, and I was sixteen, and that seemed like an insurmountable age difference back then. Plus, the group had already suffered through the Kaitlyn and Tommy thing, and I wasn’t about to drag them into a new thing with me and Jamie. Plus, well, it’s almost needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway: Jamie was out of my league. She was a goddess, and I was just the forgotten son of immigrant sharecroppers. Jamie was so far out of my league we weren’t even playing the same sport.

She knew. Of course she knew. She had to know. Girls always know, and Jamie could see more clearly than most girls. Of course she could see into my heart. She never let on that she knew, though. She was kind and gentle with my heart, like she was with everything and everyone else. She never led me on or gave me false hope, for which I was grateful. I was quite capable of doing that to myself.

-2-

It was the Summer before Christian and I started our Junior year. Tommy and Kaitlyn were moving up to tenth grade, and we were all excited because Jamie was going to “cross the yard,” meaning she was moving from the junior high school to the high school. During the previous school year, we saw her before school started, and when school let out, but not during the day except for a few minutes between the junior high lunch period and the senior high lunch period. We were all looking forward to being in her presence more often the next year.

But it was still Summer at that time, and the five of us were always together. We got restless one day, and drove out to a swimming hole a few towns over. It was Tommy’s car, but he let me do all the driving. He didn’t much care for it, and I loved it, so it worked out nicely. It was a big boat of a car, and it carried all five of us easily. I drove, Tommy rode shotgun, and Jamie sat in the backseat between Chris and Kait. A perfect set-up, if you had asked me, because Jamie and I could steal secret glances whenever I checked the rearview.

We spent the day swimming and splashing and laughing, and when we got tired of that, we shared a picnic under the shade of ancient oak trees. Looking back now, it was one of the most magical experiences of my life. It was memorable for one other reason, though. That’s the first time any of us ever considered the future, or the possibility that we might not all be together every day for the rest of our lives. We didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of the end. It’s like the mere act of questioning our future together brought it all crashing down.

“What’s gonna happen to us when you and Chris go off to college in a couple years, Pete?” Kaitlyn asked.

Kaitlyn knew…they all knew…that my name was Pedro. They also knew that it was a small town in the ass-crack of humanity, and so they called me Pete to help me fit in. It didn’t work, of course. My bronze skin, greasy black hair, and thick accent kept me from blending in. Just by looking at me, anyone could tell exactly who I was and where I came from. That same look usually told me they wished I’d hurry up and go back there.

Christian looked up from the book he was reading, and pushed his glasses back into place against his eyes. He blinked twice, like a gopher coming up from his hole in the ground, and the image made me chuckle. He gave me a confused look, which I waved off, and then he turned to Kaitlyn. “What makes you think we’re leaving, or that anything is gonna change, Kait?”

“I dunno. Just seems inevitable, that’s all,” she said. “You and Pete are gonna graduate, and you’re gonna move off and go to some college far away, leaving the rest of us here alone.”

“There’ll still be three of you here,” I said. “You’re hardly alone when there’s two other people around.”

“Shut up. You know what I meant,” she said, and threw a handful of grass at me.

I grinned, and pretended to dodge the grass, even though we both knew it wouldn’t make it the six or seven feet between us. Kaitlyn smiled. I might have been hopelessly in love with Jamie, but Kaitlyn lit up the whole world when she smiled.

“My senior year will be the worst time of my life,” Jaime said.

The uncharacteristic sadness in her voice left us all momentarily stunned. I looked over to where she was standing, and the tears in her eyes almost brought me to tears, too. I blinked and looked away, and Kaitlyn jumped up and scooped her up into a big hug.

“Im not ever going anywhere without you,” she told Jamie. In that moment, none of us thought we would ever go anywhere without Jamie. Even just thinking about it was too painful to consider.

-3-

The rest of the Summer passed uneventfully, and before we knew it, school was back in session. Tommy convinced me to try out for the football team with him. He made it, I didn’t. I was secretly happy when I got cut. I’m really not into sports, and I didn’t really want to spend a lot of time around guys who were.

Football made Tommy a star, though. In the first game of the season, he intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown, cementing his jock status instantly. The inevitable shift in our group dynamics was hard on all of us, but maybe hardest of all for Tommy. He was no longer a misfit like the rest of us, but he wasn’t immediately accepted by the popular kids, either. For a while, he tried to straddle the divide, splitting his time with us and his popular friends, but the rest of us watched helplessly as he moved into their world more and more fully. By Christmas break, he was a stranger to us.

Tommy’s departure brought the four of us even closer together, something we didn’t think was possible before. The loss of Tommy’s car was harder to deal with than the loss of Tommy himself, because it meant that we lost our time together coming to and from school. It seems shallow or materialistic to say it now, but at the time, it didn’t feel that way. Losing Tommy hurt, but losing his car was just damned inconvenient. Fortunately, it didn’t last too long. Kaitlyn turned 16 in March, and her daddy bought her a new jeep. We teased her about being a spoiled princess, but she took it in stride. Really, I think she secretly loved that she had rescued us from our carless situation.

Kait was rich, but I really think it caused her more harm than good. She lived in a nice house, but it wasn’t much of a home. Her mom was the breadwinner in that family, and she was always gone on a business trip for a week or ten days. Her dad worked from home, but nobody was sure what he did. He never seemed to accomplish much anyway, so I don’t guess it mattered. I had seen pictures of Kaitlyn’s older sister, but had never met her in person. She was off in Indiana or Illinois at college, and never seemed to make it back home. Maybe it was Iowa. Something with an I, anyway. Kaitlyn never really talked about her much.

Jamie turned 15, and like so many girls do at that age, she blossomed. Her body finally caught up with her mind, and she was suddenly an adult. Still fifteen years old, but an adult to anybody who didn’t know any better. Chris and I knew better, but still couldn’t help ourselves. She was a goddess. She had always had the strength of Artemis and the wisdom of Athena, but now she also had the sex appeal of Aphrodite. She was gorgeous. I remember one time, Kaitlyn looked at her and said, “It’s just not fair,” but as far as I know, that was the only hint of jealousy anyone harbored against Jamie. She was just too sweet.

Reading over this now, and looking back through forty years of experience, I realize that I’ve probably painted a picture of Jamie that’s just too good to be true. All I can say is, if she had flaws, I never noticed them. Maybe I was blinded by love, or maybe she really was a goddess. Probably a little of both.

-4-

Spring came after a long, cold Winter, and brought prom preparations with it. The entire school was buzzing with rumors about who would ask who, who would say yes, and who would get rejected. It affected everyone, even us misfits. Chris and I even had a secret “boys’ club” meeting to talk about it without Jamie and Kaitlyn. We met up in the boy’s bathroom after 3rd period. Chris looked around, making sure nobody else could hear him, and just blurted it out in one fast word:

“I’mgoingtoaskKaitlyntoprom,” he said.

“You are?” I asked. “I was kind of planning to ask her myself.”

“You were? I thought you’d ask Jamie.”

“Nah, man. I thought about it, but I really don’t think Jamie’s the type to go to prom. I mean, don’t you think all that stuff is a little beneath her? I can see her being a chaperone more than a guest, really.”

Chris shrugged, and changed the subject back to Kaitlyn. “ Well, I guess if you were gonna ask Kait…”

I interrupted him. “Nah, man. It’s cool. You take her. You’ll have fun together. I’m probably just gonna stay home anyway.”

“Well, if you’re sure…”

I was sure. I knew Chris had a crush on Kaitlyn, even if nobody else did. Who was I to get in the way of that? He clapped me on the shoulder, and practically bounced out of the bathroom. I grinned and finished washing my hands. Maybe I’d ask Jamie after all. I was reasonably sure she wouldn’t say no, and she’d probably say yes to me before anyone else. Sure. Why not? Even if we went just as friends, we would still have a great time together. Besides. It’d be another reason for the four of us to hang out together, and what could be better than that?

I wanted to ask her right then, but I was almost late for class as it was, and I didn’t want to make it worse. I already had two tardies, and a third meant mandatory detention, and that meant a date with my mama’s shoe and my daddy’s belt. I wasn’t so grown that I wasn’t scared silly by that thought, so I bypassed the hall leading to Jamie’s classroom, and made a beeline to mine.

I would later come to see that decision as the worst mistake of my life, and if I had a one-trip time machine, that’s what I’d change.

Anyway, lunch would be coming up after class, and I could ask her then. I managed to make it to class on time, but just barely. Mr. Collins gave me a disapproving look, but he didn’t say anything. I spent the next hour thinking of what I was gonna say, and watching the clock tick ever so slowly.

The bell rang, and I bolted. My plan was to catch her right as she was leaving class, because I wanted a chance to ask her without the others around. I ran down the hall until Ms. Garnier yelled at me to slow down, and then I continued at a very fast walk. I nearly knocked over Susan from Geometry (I never learned her last name), and earned myself a dirty look and a racial slur from her boyfriend. I didn’t care. I barreled past them, and skipped the stairs by jumping over the railing and landing below. There were only three steps, so it’s not as dramatic as it probably sounds. Anyway, a quick glance down the hall revealed a teacher-free stretch, so I sped into a half-jog. I made it to the last intersection, and then a sudden hand on my shoulder forced me to stop. Ir was our principal, Mr. Stone.

“What’s your hurry, Mr. Torres?”

“I need to talk to Jamie!”

“What you need is to slow down and walk through these halls with dignity and class, Mr. Torres. Count to twenty, then you may proceed. Slowly.”

I did as he asked, cursing him to a million different kinds of pain and suffering in my mind. I finished counting, and walked away from Mr. Stone as quickly as I felt was safe, which is to say it was as slow as Christmas. I turned the corner, and then I stopped dead in my tracks.

Jamie was talking to Tommy, and judging from the smile on her face and the look in her eyes, I knew she had just accepted his invitation to prom.

-5-

I stood there with my mouth hanging open and my heart ripped out of my chest, and she barely noticed. They passed right by me. Jamie gave me an excited, nervous, half-smile/half shrug, and Tommy shot me a look of smug satisfaction. Fucking asshole. I wanted to smash his face in, but I couldn’t move. He knew it, too. He knew he had just crushed my spirit, and he was proud of it.

I don’t remember the rest of that day, or the days that followed. Kaitlyn had agreed to go with Chris, and they were suddenly in their own little bubble. Apparently, the mere act of asking/accepting a prom invitation turned Jamie and Tommy into a couple instantly. They were inseparable, and they were the topic of conversation everywhere I turned. I couldn’t escape them. Even when I slept, I just kept seeing Tommy’s smug face again and again.

Right up until the day of the Prom, I had no intention of going. I spent ten days alternating between anger, self-pity, frustration, and denial. Mostly anger, though. I couldn’t believe Tommy asked her. He never showed any interest in her at all, and he knew how I felt about her. I was convinced that he only did it to hurt me, but why? It didn’t make any sense. To make matters worse, he started winking at me. Every time he saw me, he’d give me this smug half-smirk, and then he’d wink and smile. I wanted to kill him.

But then I’d start feeling sad, and I’d get some more clarity, and realize that everyone else probably loved Jamie for the same reasons I did. She was pretty, she was smart, and she was fun to hang around with. Of course other people would want to take her out and show her off. Of course other guys would want to ask her to prom. Then I’d get mad and upset all over again.

I knew I was being an idiot, but I couldn’t help it. I did everything I could to distract myself. I avoided Chris and both the girls. I avoided Tommy and Jamie as much as possible, but they were the new “it” couple, and they were hard to avoid. Even when I didn’t see them, people were always talking about them. Well, them and prom. Something seemed to be wrong with Jamie, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. She always seemed to be next to Tommy, and she always seemed happy, so I just thought I was being jealous.

I stayed hidden in the library or gym as much as possible. I read books, or at least I turned the pages of books. I couldn’t really concentrate, so I couldn’t really read. I tried playing my drums, but I punched a hole through my snare drum, and that was the end of that. I kicked a hole in my bass drum, and then I threw the whole set away. My parents weren’t happy about that, but I think they understood. I didn’t get punished for it, which was worse in a way, because then I felt even more guilty about it.

On the hateful day of prom, I decided to go at the last minute. My mother threw a fit like only Mexican mothers can throw, and my dad threatened to kill me for upsetting my mom like that. Nevertheless, they both got in the car, and drove me two towns over to see if we could get a tuxedo at the last minute. We could, but it was the most hideous thing I had ever seen, and I refused to be seen in it. That is, until my mother started up again and my dad actually took his belt off inside the store. He settled up at the register with the belt still in his hand.

I didn’t have a date, of course. It was far too late for that. My mom insisted on taking pictures anyway, and my father kept telling me that it was fine, that lots of kids went solo. Maybe in Mexico, I thought, but what did he know about Texas? I knew better than to say that out loud, though, so I just nodded in agreement. When it got time for me to leave, dad surprised the shit out of me by loaning me the car. That had never happened before, mostly because I had been too afraid to ask. I didn’t give him a chance to change his mind. I thanked them both, hugged and kissed them, and drove off into the night.

-6-

I don’t know what I expected to find that night, or what I expected to see, but I had convinced myself that I was okay with Jamie being with Tommy, and that I’d try to have a good time anyway. I could be the bigger man, and if Jamie was happy with Tommy, then I’d figure out a way to accept it. By the time I got to the prom, I wasn’t exactly happy about it, but I was resigned to it. Que sera, sera, as they say back home.

I walked up to the door, then turned around and got back in the car. I sat there for a few minutes, then got out again and walked up to the door again. This time, I made it inside. The music was playing, but only a few people were dancing. It was a slow song, so I guess all the forced coupling of the previous week hadn’t made people comfortable with each other yet. I can’t say I was disappointed by that. Chris and Kaitlyn were sitting by themselves at a table. Neither Tommy nor Jamie were anywhere in sight, so I wandered over to say hello.

“Well, well, well. Look what the cat dragged in, Kait,” said Chris.

“Oh, wow! Didn’t we used to know that guy?” she replied.

“Yeah, yeah. Get it all out now,” I said. “How’s it going?”

“It’s kinda lame,” said Chris. “Nobody is dancing, and it seems like no one is getting out of their normal groups at school. It’s like lunch, but with music.”

“Really? That sucks. Why aren’t you two dancing?”

“Oh, no,” said Kaitlyn. “We didn’t come to dance. We came to make fun of people dancing.”

“Yeah,” said Chris. “Dancing together? That would be weird.”

Something in the way he said it made me think that he didn’t consider it to be weird at all, but I let it slide. It felt really good just to be with them again, and I didn’t want to ruin it. I looked around a few times, checking out the crowd.

“She’s not here, Pete,” said Kaitlyn.

“She’s not?”

“No. They left right before you got here. Tommy’s having a party after the prom, and so they went to go get everything ready before anybody else got there,” she said.

It hit me right in the gut. I knew. In one split second, I knew. Everything made sense. The hateful looks Tommy had been giving me, the way Jamie hadn’t really seemed to fit in with his friends, her sudden withdrawal from the rest of us…it all punched me right in the gut. I knew what Tommy had been planning all along.

“Shit! We’ve got to go!” I yelled, and grabbed Christian by the shoulder of his tux. I pulled him out of his chair and turned to towards the door. “Come on!”

“Wait. What?” he asked, confused. I didn’t have time to answer him.

“Come on! Now! Both of you! We have got to go. Now!” I sprinted for the door. Mr. Stone tried to stop me by grabbing my arm, but I yanked it away from him. I heard him yelling, but I didn’t care. This was too important. I ran as hard as I could to the car. I was inside and turning the key when Chris got there. “Get in!” I yelled. Kaitlyn was a few steps behind him, but caught up as he was opening the door. They both got in and managed to close the door as the engine roared to life. I slammed it into drive, and peeled out, the tires screaming in protest.

“What the hell, Pete?” asked Chris. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

I was so mad, scared, and anxious all at the same time that I couldn’t even form a coherent sentence. “Hurt her!” I said. That was all I could manage to get out. My whole body was shaking. My vision was blurry. My hands were locked on the steering wheel in a death grip. I couldn’t see the road clearly, but I was speeding way beyond the point of control anyway.

“Hurt her?” Pete repeated, not understanding. “Hurt who? Jamie? You think Tommy’s gonna hurt Jamie?”

“Yes!” I said, my voice filled with equal parts dread and relief. Dread because I knew what was going to happen, relief because I didn’t have to say the words out loud.

“That’s crazy. Tommy would never do something like that,” said Chris.

“Changed,” was all I could manage to get out.

Kaitlyn was crying in the back seat. Full-on, makeup-ruining bawling. In between sobs, she said, “No….oh no. He’s right. I heard Tommy telling one of his friends this morning that he was was going to show her a good time. There was something in the way he said it. I should have listened. I should have listened!” Her voice broke completely, and she dissolved into her tears. I sped up.

I slid into Tommy’s driveway, knocking his mailbox over in the process. I slammed on the breaks, and we skidded to a stop right in front of his door. We got out of the car just in time to hear Jamie scream from the upstairs window. We ran up to the front porch, and crashed into the door. It was locked. I tried to break it in with my shoulder, but it wouldn’t budge. I bounced off of it once, then twice. Jamie screamed from upstairs again.

Chris stepped behind me, and crossed over to where the front porch swing rested peacefully. He raised it high over his head, and then swung it down hard, sending it crashing into the window behind it. The glass shattered. From upstairs, Jamie screamed again. Her words came in unmistakable pain and anguish. “Is somebody there? Please help me!”

I jumped through the broken window, and ran upstairs. I exploded through the bedroom door, and my worst fears were realized. Jamie was on the bed. Her clothes were ripped, her face was bloody, and she was crying. There was blood all over the bed, and all over her, too. Tommy was on top of her, his pants around his ankles, thrusting.

I leapt across the room, and yanked him off of her. I threw him against the wall, and jumped on top of him before he had a chance to register what was happening. My mind was gone. I couldn’t see. I just kept punching him, over and over. Behind me, I could hear Jamie crying. I just kept punching and punching and punching.

Chris and Kaitlyn got there. Chris pulled me off of Tommy, who was crumpled into an unconscious ball on the floor. Kaitlyn covered Jamie with a blanket, and held her as they both cried.

-7-

The cops showed up, parents were called, and the school was called. The whole fucking town was called, or so it seemed. There were parents, paramedics, teachers, counselors…hell, even a few reporters. It was a nightmare. The night ended with both me and Tommy at the juvenile detention center, in separate wards, of course. When it was all said and done, I got a year in juvie for assault, and Tommy got six months for aggravated assault. Bullshit, if you ask me. I hate lawyers.

Fair or not, he got out before I did. He transferred to a different school, got a scholarship to play football at UCLA, then went professional with the New England Patriots. Last I heard, he owned a used car dealership somewhere up near Dallas.

I hated lawyers so much I became one. I got out of the detention center, and started paying attention to my grades for the first time. I graduated high school with honors, and went on to college. I got my law degree, and opened up a practice right in our home town. Kaitlyn became a respected doctor and surgeon. She and I got married shortly after college. She’s my rock, my lover, my best friend, and my soft space to land all in one. God, I love that woman.

Chris drifted for a while, but never really settled down anywhere or with anyone. He worked odd jobs and lived in his van with a dog he rescued for a few years. One day, I guess it all got to be too much for him, because he put a gun in his mouth and ended it. That was twenty years ago now, I guess. I miss him. Every day, I miss him. I think about him, and I miss him.

Jamie never recovered. She came back to school, but she was never the same. Her light had been completely extinguished. She fell in with a bad crowd, and got into alcohol, and then drugs. We never really spoke to her again. We tried. God knows, we tried, but we just couldn’t reach her or help her. She drifted deeper and deeper into darkness as the years passed by, until there was nothing left of the beautiful soul she used to be.

We see her around sometimes, begging for money or digging through the dumpsters, but if she notices us, she doesn’t show it. Kaitlyn and I took over the mortgage on Jamie’s house for her a few years ago, and keep up with the taxes and yard care and so forth. We let her live there for free, so she won’t ever be homeless, but I don’t know if she knows about it or not, or even if it even crosses her mind. We try to keep her safe, but we don’t know if she knows, or cares. It’s the least we can do. We want to do so much more, but without having any communication with her, we’re limited as to what the law allows. We love her so much. We both do. We all did, once upon a time. She was the youngest of us, but also the oldest. She had been born last, but with a soul that provided her with the wisdom and insight of several past incarnations.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

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