The Cheerleaders – Kara Thomas

This house was made for someone without a soul. So I guess it makes sense that my mother wanted it so badly. I can imagine how her eyes lit up when she walked through the five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath new construction. I’ll bet she thinks this house is the answer to what’s wrong with us. When Tom, my stepfather, showed me the bathroom attached to my room with its own Jacuzzi tub, he said, Bet you feel like Cinderella, because he’s an idiot. I should be happy for my mother and Tom, because the old house took so long to sell that it nearly destroyed their marriage. I should be thrilled I don’t have to hear the words terrible real estate market and bad location ever again. Neither they nor the listing agent had the balls to come out and say that no one wanted to buy a home on the street of horrors. The worst thing about the new house is that there’s no way to sneak into my room. The dining room is right off the front hall, so when I get home from dance team tryouts, I can see my mother at the table eating Chinese takeout with Tom and Petey, their “oops baby.” Petey is ten now. Mom married Tom when I was five. When I was a kid, I overheard her telling my grandmother that she and Tom both were done with children. Mom had Jen and me, and Tom had a college-aged daughter with his ex-wife. Four months later, Mom was pregnant with Petey.

So, totally an oops baby. “Monica,” my mother calls. “We’re eating dinner.” In other words, Don’t you try to disappear upstairs. I plod into the dining room, the smell of the takeout souring my stomach. Everything hurts: standing, walking, sitting. At the table, Petey is sucking up lo mein noodles. One slips from between his lips and falls on the screen of his iPad, because God forbid he perform a basic function such as eating without playing Clan Wars. “Petey,” Mom says, “please put the game down.” “But I have to harvest my crops.

” “Do you want the iPad to go in the garbage?” “You wouldn’t throw an iPad in the garbage.” “Peter.” Petey’s eyes go wide, because Mom only uses his full name when she’s really about to lose her shit. I almost want to tell the poor kid it’s not his fault that Mom is acting like a psycho. “Monica.” Tom looks up from his phone, finally noticing me. He takes off his reading glasses and breathes on the lenses. Wipes them on his shirt. “How were tryouts?” “Fine.” “The new Chinese place gave us extra fortune cookies!” Petey says, and I say, “Cool,” which pretty much sums up the depth of my interactions with my half brother.

Mom’s eyes are on me. I keep my own eyes on a carton of white rice. I grab a plate and spoon some onto it. “What’s wrong?” Petey asks. It takes a second for it to sink in that he’s speaking to me. Tom is watching me now too. My mother makes a face as if she just swallowed down vomit. “Can I go lie down?” I ask. “Go ahead,” she says. When I get to the hall, I hear Petey whine, “How come she gets to do what she wants?” I practically have to crawl up the stairs to my room.

The over-the-counter painkillers my mom picked up for me are seriously garbage. I would call Matt, my ex-boyfriend, because even though he denies it, he’s friends with people who can get the strong stuff. But Matt graduated and he’s not in Sunnybrook anymore and we haven’t spoken since July. My heating pad is still packed in one of the storage tubs Mom and I bought from Bed Bath & Beyond before the move. I dig it out, biting my lip. The nurse at Dr. Bob’s office said it would be like bad period cramps. But it hurts so much I want to die. I break into a sweat from plugging in the heating pad and flop onto my brand-new bed. King-sized, like my mom and Tom’s.

She insisted—a queen would have looked too small for the room. They say you’re not supposed to put the pad directly on your skin, but I do it anyway and curl up on my side. I’d gladly take my flesh melting off over the pain in my gut. A knock at the door. I grunt and Mom pushes her way in, holding a bottle of naproxen and a glass of water. “When was the last time you took painkillers?” “Lunch,” I lie. I popped four before tryouts. “You can have two more, then.” Mom perches at the edge of my bed. She might as well be a mile away.

It’s really obscene, how big the bed is. I groan and pull my legs up tight to my body, into the fetal position. “I told you that you should have stayed home today.” My mother taps the naproxen bottle to her palm, shakes two pills out. “Coach would have cut me from the team.” I accept the pills. Swallow them greedily. Mom is quiet. She drums her fingers—the nails rounded and coated with clear polish— on my comforter. Her anxious tic.

Finally: “Have you told Matt?” “No.” I can’t tell what she’s thinking—whether she actually wants me to call Matt at college and tell him. “He could support you,” Mom says, after a beat. “You don’t have to go through this alone.” “It wasn’t his anyway.” I stare straight ahead so I don’t have to see the look on her face. When she stands up, her profile comes into focus. She looks sad for a moment before she catches herself. “I hope you learn something from this pain.” My mother shuts the light off on her way out—or at least, she tries to.

She can’t find the switch at first, because it’s opposite where it used to be in my old room. Finally, she gives up, leaving me under the glow of the top-of-the-line energy-efficient LED bulbs. She’s wrong, I think. Pain isn’t supposed to teach you anything. It only exists to hurt you. And she should know that better than anyone. — I’m camped on the porch, rain plinking on the overhang, staring at the house across the street when Rachel pulls up in her cherry-red Volkswagen Beetle the next morning. No one lives there. The contractors had to abandon construction inside the house because the people who bought it ran out of money. Since we moved in, the empty house has been the subject of my mother’s bitching.

All the house is doing is existing, not bothering anyone. It’s exactly the type of thing that offends my mother. Rach and I have been best friends since we were kids. She turned seventeen in July, which means she got her license over six months before I will. Rachel had to repeat kindergarten, and kids used to make fun of her, because what kind of moron can’t pass kindergarten? Then in the eighth grade she got her braces taken off, discovered a hair straightener, and grew B-cups, and everyone shut up. Rachel lowers her sunglasses to look at me as I duck into the passenger seat. “Do you feel okay?” “I’m fine,” I lie. “I woke up too late to do my makeup.” “I hope the list is up,” Rach says, putting the car into reverse to back out of my driveway. She actually sounds nervous.

Of course we’ll be on the list. Rachel, our friend Alexa, and I were the only freshmen to make the dance team two years ago. Rach’s mom drove us all to school that morning so we could look at the list together. Arms linked, knees knocking under our new jean skirts for our first week of high school. Seeing our names on that list made us feel unstoppable. I was naïve and thought being one of the dance team girls meant I wouldn’t be known as the sister of one of the cheerleaders. But our particular tragedy isn’t the type people forget easily; being Jennifer Rayburn’s sister is like having an enormous scar I have to dress every morning to hide. A shot of nerves twists my stomach. Or maybe it’s the naproxen. My sloppy performance at tryouts yesterday is reason enough for our coach to drop me, if she felt like it.

Coach is not known for doling out second chances. Forget your dance shoes? Go home, and don’t bother coming to practice tomorrow. I wonder if I’ll even care if my name isn’t on that list. I tilt my head against the window. Rachel rolls to a stop at the sign at the end of my street. She looks both ways, counts silently to herself, ever the perfect, cautious driver, always looking twice at my house to see if Tom is watching. Tom is the sergeant of the local police department. Having him for a stepdad is a really easy way to figure out how many people you know have a deep-rooted fear of law enforcement. Rachel pulls into Alexa’s driveway, and of course she isn’t ready; she never is. I’m about to text her, ask why she has to make us late every damn morning.

But her front door swings open, and she flounces down the driveway, wearing her Sunnybrook Warriors hoodie with skinny jeans. Alexa pours herself into the backseat and immediately whips out her compact. She starts applying her Merlot-red lip stain. “Seat belt!” Rachel yells. I catch Alexa’s eyes in the side mirror. “What do you even do all morning,” I ask crabbily, “if you always have to do your lipstick in the car?” Alexa rakes a hand through her hair, shaking out her freshly ironed waves. “Well, Monica’s obviously getting her period.” I almost make Rachel pull over so I can walk. We get to school with a few minutes to spare before the first bell. The side doors by the gym are propped open and we step into the hall and right into chaos.

There are buckets scattered on the floor, catching steady drips of water leaking from the ceiling. A custodian is on a ladder, attempting to tape a trash bag over the hole. I hear him mutter something about all the goddamn rain this year so far. “This place is so ghetto,” Alexa announces, and I want to hit her, because she has no idea what the word actually means. Besides, we’re one of the wealthiest school districts in the county. A bunch of trophy cases outside the locker room have been moved into the center of the hall. We sidestep them, but not before I see her. My sister. She smiles at me from the largest photo in the biggest trophy case. She’s posing for the camera with four of her friends.

Their mouths are painted cherry; their cheer pleats are blue and yellow. The photo is from the first home game of the season, five years ago when there was still a cheerleading squad. A wave of nausea ripples through me. Every day after gym, after dance team practice, I go out of my way to avoid this picture. I knew all the girls in it, some of them better than others. Juliana Ruiz and Susan Berry were Jen’s best friends and fixtures in our house for as long as I could remember. When they made the cheerleading squad their freshman year, they became friends with two sophomores: Colleen Coughlin and Bethany Steiger. They all smile at me: Jen, Juliana, Susan, Colleen, and Bethany. It really is a beautiful picture. By the end of the season, everyone in it was dead.

A small crowd is gathered outside the main office, where Coach said she would post the list this morning. As we approach the bulletin board, a pack of freshman girls walk away, dejected. Next to me, Rach sucks in her breath. We step up to the bulletin board. I scan the candy-colored papers tacked to it—a list of people who got callbacks for the fall play, a flyer advertising the girls’ soccer team car wash, information for a weekend SAT prep course. “There’s nothing here,” Alexa says. “Yeah, there is.” A familiar voice. I turn around; the Kelseys are behind us, iced lattes from Dunkin’ Donuts in hand. Kelsey Butler rattles the ice in hers.

She points—her nails, painted apricot, popping against her dark skin. I look where Kelsey is pointing—a sheet of paper tacked to the bulletin board. On it, a single line: DANCE TEAM LIST WILL BE POSTED AT NOON Kelsey Butler’s best friend, Kelsey Gabriel, sidles up next to her to get a better look. Kelsey G’s usually fair hair is sun-streaked even lighter, and her skin is freckled. “Ew. Why?” “More people tried out this year,” Kelsey B says. “Maybe she needed more time to decide.” The Kelseys walk off together. They’ll be on the list; they’re seniors, and both of them were in classes with me at the Royal Hudson Dance Studio when we were younger. The Kelseys, with their inhumanly high leaps and whip-fast pirouettes, are the closest things Coach has to favorites.

My friends and I stay close together and head for the second floor—we’re Rayburn, Santiago, and Steiger, and homerooms are assigned in alphabetical order. As we file onto the stairs, I catch a glimpse of Rachel. She’s picking at the corner of her mouth, where her lipstick is flaking. “It’s fine,” I say, softly enough that only she can hear. “You’ve got this.” She’s no doubt thinking about what Kelsey B said. Rachel is haunted by the triple pirouette she hasn’t mastered—the one Coach threatened to put in our competition routine this year. Before I can find my seat in homeroom, my teacher says my name. “You’re wanted at guidance.” My stomach plummets to my feet.

“Why?” “Dunno. I’m not your secretary,” he drones. I take the slip from his grasp, eyeing my guidance counselor’s almost-illegible scrawl. I choose the longer route to the guidance office so I can pass a bathroom. I dig out the plastic baggie of naproxen my mother left on the counter next to my Tupperware of veggies and ranch this morning. She’s doling out the pills to me four at a time, as if they’re Oxys or something. I open the baggie and knock them back with a sip of water from my bottle. Mr. Demarco is sitting with his back to me when I rap on the doorframe of his office. He swivels around in his chair, his face brightening when he sees me.

He’s in an ice-blue polo that makes his matching eyes pop. Rachel and Alexa call him a silver fox. “There she is.” Mr. Demarco sets his Starbucks cup, marked PSL, on his desk. “Sit, sit.” He drags a chair next to his desk. He moves a box of pamphlets off his seat; I catch a glimpse of a campus quad, bright with fall foliage. I sit down, pressing my chem textbook into my abdomen. “So.

” Demarco smiles without showing any teeth. “How are you?” “Fine.” I grip the chem textbook. Press harder. Does he know? There’s no way he could have found out. Not unless my mother told him, and I made her swear, my nails digging half circles into her arm, that she wouldn’t even tell Tom. Demarco takes a sip of his coffee. “I’ll cut to the chase. Mrs. Coughlin is trying to put together a memorial ceremony, in the courtyard.

” Mrs. Coughlin, the health teacher. Colleen Coughlin’s mother. Mr. Demarco doesn’t give any further explanation; he doesn’t need to. Colleen Coughlin was in the passenger seat of Bethany Steiger’s car when she hydroplaned during a storm and drove into a tree. The car was so mangled that supposedly the coroner had trouble figuring out which girl was which. One of the paramedics at the scene vomited. The first two cheerleaders to be killed that year. “A memorial.

” I take off the ponytail holder on my wrist and wrap it around my fingers, cutting off the circulation in the tips. “Like a religious thing?” “No, not at all,” Demarco says. “Just a small ceremony in the courtyard. Mrs. Coughlin asked if you’d like to be a part of it.” At my stricken expression, Demarco picks up his empty cup, taps the base of it against his desk. “Obviously you don’t have to say yes. Mrs. Coughlin did pick out some poems she thinks would be nice for you to read.” He hands me a stack of paper held together by a butterfly clip.

I don’t look at it. “It’s just…,” I mumble. “It would feel weird. I didn’t even know Colleen and Bethany.” “Oh no, we’d honor all the girls at once. Everyone thought it would be best that way.” In other words, get the memorial out of the way before homecoming, because my sister’s two best friends died five years ago the night before their homecoming. It wouldn’t be very nice to remind the crowd about the horrific way Juliana Ruiz and Susan Berry were killed when everyone just wants to watch some football. “Wow. Okay.

Thanks. I actually think I have a quiz next period.” “Of course. I’ll write you a pass.” While Demarco fishes around in his drawer for his stack of passes, I let my eyes wander. There’s a Sunnybrook Warriors pennant over his desk, right next to a New York Giants calendar. Right above a framed photo of the Sunnybrook football team from six years ago, posing with the state championship trophy. We haven’t won it since. — If you look at pictures of my family, you might wonder whether my sister was adopted. Mom, Petey, and I all have shocks of brown-black hair and blue eyes.

Jennifer was blond, like our real father, and had his green eyes. I remember a time when she liked me. There’s proof: photographs of us trick-ortreating dressed as sister Disney princesses and videos of us putting on plays on the back patio, starring ourselves and Mango, our Jack Russell/rat terrier mix. But we were four years apart, and once Jen started middle school, it seemed like my very existence offended her. “That’s just how it is with sisters,” Mom would tell me when I was still small enough to climb onto her lap, face stiff with tears after a fight with Jen. Feel her fingers grazing over my ear as she played with my hair. “Aunt Ellen and I didn’t become friends until we were in college.” Before homecoming her sophomore year, I gave Jen strep throat. It wound up saving her life. For a little while, at least.

Susan’s parents were in Vermont for her cousin’s wedding the night before the game, and Juliana and Jen were going to stay at her house with her. Susan refused to miss homecoming, even for the wedding, and besides, someone needed to be at home with Beethoven, the Berrys’ beloved Saint Bernard. Mr. Ruiz was going to pick them up in the morning so they could grab breakfast at the diner before the homecoming game. It was a tradition Juliana had with her family— pancakes before she performed. It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal, a bunch of fifteen-year-old girls spending the night by themselves. Sunnybrook was one of the safest towns in the country, and on our street, everyone looked out for each other. But when Juliana’s father arrived to pick the girls up the next morning, both of them were dead. They’d been strangled. Juliana’s hands were sliced open, and one still held a shard from the broken mirror that hung in the foyer.

She had fought like hell. Susan hadn’t seen it coming. She was on her back at the top of the stairs, staring at the ceiling. Across the hall, the shower was still on. She must have run out when she heard Juliana’s screams. If my sister hadn’t been too sick to sleep over at Susan Berry’s house that night, Susan’s deranged neighbor would have murdered Jen too. Lucky, everyone called her. Blessed. In the end, though, it didn’t make a difference. Some people say a curse fell over our town five years ago.

What else could explain the tragic deaths of five girls, in three separate incidents, in less than two months? Some people think Jen’s death was the most tragic of all. Jen was in the top three in her class, beloved by everyone who was lucky enough to know her. She wanted to spend the summer before her junior year in South America, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. She was planning on going to veterinary school, because as much as she loved helping people, her heart belonged to animals—especially the horses she used to ride as a child. Jen wouldn’t have done it. That’s what they don’t understand. My sister, with her pages-long to-do list of everything she wanted to do in life, never would have killed herself. Maybe it makes sense to them that she would do it, once they put themselves in Jen’s shoes. Would living every day having to imagine what Jack Canning would have done to her if she’d been at that house be much of a life at all? Was life even worth living if all of her friends were dead? I don’t know if we’re cursed. All I know is that my sister wouldn’t have killed herself.

And if she did, why didn’t she leave a note explaining why?


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