Seeing Red

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic


My whole body was sticky with sweat as I walked under the glaring sun in the late afternoon. The sun was offensive even when it was hardly visible in Phoenix. I was used to the feeling of sweat dripping down my neck and back because I had lived in the Valley of the Sun my whole life and was too poor to get a car at sixteen years old. I walked miles in this heat every day. 

On this particular day, I had just gotten done with volleyball practice at my high school and was walking to a friend's house. My body was aching from a grueling practice. My knees were sore from throwing myself on the ground a dozen times to practice diving for the ball. My forearms were red and almost raw from the ball smacking into that area repeatedly. My thighs were wobbly and weak from all the suicide laps my coaches made us run. 

I carried a metallic purple gym bag on my shoulder that was digging into my skin and leaving red indents on my skin and banging against my weak thighs with every step I took. I kept switching it from one shoulder to the other because it was too uncomfortable to leave in one place for too long. The bag was actually filled with my textbooks as well as my street clothes that I had worn to school that day. I was usually uncomfortable walking around in my volleyball spandex, especially near the school, where all of my classmates would see me, but practice had ended a bit later than normal, which meant there weren't many people left on campus. I was chubbier than most of the other girls on the team, and my spandex tended to ride up in all the wrong places. I constantly had to tug my spandex down to the appropriate placement during games.

This was what I was experiencing as I walked to my friend's house. My spandex shorts were riding up and I was uncomfortable with the amount of skin I was showing. I decided I would change when I got there. Gabriella lived right across the street from school. Her backyard faced the school, so it was easy for her and her brother to hop their fence and dash across the street when they were running late in the mornings. I usually decided to take the traditional route of the crosswalk that connected the school to her neighborhood. This was the route I was taking today. 

I stood on the corner, just outside of the tall, black fence that surrounded my school's campus, waiting to see the little stick figure man pop up on the crosswalk box. I had just dropped my gym bag to the ground to relieve my shoulders as I waited. When it finally changed, I heaved the bag back onto my shoulder and began my walk, which would have been a lot quicker if I had not just overworked myself at practice. When I got to the other side, I saw a boy who looked to be about my age standing just around the bend of the road that turned onto Gabriella's street. 

The boy was wearing a bright red shirt that paired nicely with his light brown skin. He probably went to my school, I figured, although I didn’t recognize him. That was common as I attended a very large school in the middle of West of Phoenix. I continued my walk, turning down Gabriella's street. Immediately, I notice several other pops of red down the block. There were many other teenage-looking boys wearing red shirts loitering in front of houses, leaning on cars, or standing in the street. 

My high school wasn't in a very good area. The color red, along with a few other colors, was banned by the school's dress code. I knew what it meant to see a big group of people who were dressed in red shirts like this in my neighborhood. My already weak legs felt like they turned to Jell-o and my stomach squirmed. Although I had lived in the same place for 16 years, I had never experienced anything like this before. 

I kept my pace and continued on towards Gabriela's house, trying to pretend like nothing out of the ordinary was happening. I looked straight ahead, refusing to show them that they had made me nervous. I walked by one of the boys, who was leaning on a beat down, faded red, sedan. As I approached him, he stood up straight and looked at me, but I couldn't bear to make eye contact with him. I took another few steps past him, and felt something lightly hit my back. I turned around to see a square, gold-colored foil packet on the sidewalk. He had thrown a condom at me. 

The sick feeling in my gut deepened and I felt like I was going to vomit, but it came out like more of a dry heave. He heckled at me, kind of laughing in a sinister way, as if he thought his twisted joke was quite funny. I finally decided to quicken my pace. I didn’t care if they got a good laugh out of my terror. I just wanted to get as far away from them as possible. Gabriella lived at the end of the block, and I still had a ways to go before I got there. 

I was speed walking down the sidewalk, looking towards my goal at the end of the block, when I noticed another boy in red was crossing the street, heading in my direction. I started running. I ran as fast I could for a few seconds but stopped when I heard a deafening shot go off somewhere behind me. Growing up in my neighborhood made me very familiar with the sound of gunshots. I spent countless nights being woken up by those sounds in my twin bed that was placed right under the bedroom window. I immediately dropped my gym bag, dropped to the ground, and put my hands over my head, as if that would protect me from a bullet. I searched the area around me with frantic eyes and saw Gabriella, several feet in front of me waving at me to come to her. I book it, leaving my gym bag behind on the ground, and running in an awkward crouched pose, in case more gunshots were to come. I finally reach Gabriella, who threw an arm around me and sort of pushes me towards her lawn. Together, we ran inside, and she slammed the door behind us, locking it. Outside, we heard police sirens approaching.

We were curious enough to crawl onto her couch and look out the window, even during a potential shoot out. We stayed low, just peeking up enough to see what was happening outside. At the sound of the sirens, the boys had apparently chosen to scatter. Two of them were running by Gabriella's house, throwing white shirts over their red ones to hide them. One of them hopped the fence to the yard of the house directly in front of Gabriella's and sat on a patio chair in his new, white shirt, somehow managing to look relaxed. A police car turned down the street and drove right by him without ever turning back. 

I was distracted as I tried to complete my English homework that afternoon at Gabriella's house. I thought back to the conversation I had with my mother a few weeks ago. She thought it was time we left this neighborhood and moved in with her mother in Sun City, a retirement community. I knew the area wasn’t safe for me or my mother. I was tired of waking up to find my mom's car covered in graffiti. I was tired of seeing trees planted at my high school for all of my dead schoolmates. I was tired of being afraid to leave my house at night. The thing was, I also knew what it felt like to have no friends. I had gone the first several years of my life without any and I wasn't interested in moving to a new place where I would be back in that position. I was in 6th grade when I met Gabriella. She was the first real friend I ever made. Shortly after that, I met Estephania, who was already best friends with Rosa. The four of us had been an unbreakable group of friends since then. We were all shy and lonely girls. It was an easy thing for us to bond over. 

"Maddy," my mom had said, "we would be so much happier at Grandma's house." She told me that I would still be able to see my friends. 

“Mom, I don’t want to live with a bunch of old people,” I said bluntly, “and I’m going to graduate pretty soon anyway. Can’t we wait to move till then?” 

My mom was a passive woman, who tried to give me what I wanted, as long as it was reasonable. She knew how hard it was growing up without a dad and without friends. I remember the day she cried for me when no one showed up to my 10th birthday party. There were two girls from school who I thought for sure would show up, but they never did. If I knew that, I never would have even attempted a party. Instead, I spent the day playing board games with my mom. Although my latest request was pushing the boundaries of what was reasonable, she still conceded. She agreed that she wouldn’t move until after graduation. I would either move out of her house or move with her to Grandma’s at that time. 

I was sitting on the edge of Gabriella’s bed, staring at the pages of Gabriella's copy of Lord of the Flies when I heard a car honking outside. I scooted off the bed and peaked through her bedroom curtains. Mom was there to pick me up. I had thought about whether I would even tell her about what had happened that day and decided to leave her out of the loop considering she was already so close to making me move away. Gabriella’s mom didn’t speak English and my mom didn’t speak Spanish. There was no way my mom would get the news from her. I understood already that no matter how horrible a situation was in my neighborhood, it wouldn’t end up on the news. 

I hopped into my mom’s beat up Bronco and we drove down the deserted street that had been a scene of chaos earlier that day. I asked her to pull over when I saw my purple gym bag on the sidewalk. She was obviously confused about why it was so far away from Gabriella’s house, so I lied to her. “We were hanging out here with her neighbor earlier. I must have forgotten it.” I felt nervous when I stepped out of the car again and felt nauseated when I saw the condom on the sidewalk just a few feet away from my bag. There was no way I was telling my mom what happened. 

The rest of the day was uneventful. I spent most of the night talking to Estephania on the phone about special needs prom the next night. We were both volunteers in a club that worked with the special needs students on campus. Last semester, we worked on special needs Olympics. This semester was special needs prom. After setting up for the dance, we would each escort one of the students in the special needs program to the dance. My mom and I both chipped in with a little bit of cash so that I could buy a prom dress from a local swap meet. Estephania and I had gone together to pick them out after school at the beginning of the week. Mine was a black, glittery halter dress that flared out at my waist. Hers was a skintight, emerald green color that made her look like an exotic mermaid. We decided that we would walk to my house after setting up for the prom to get ready together and that she would drop her dress off the next morning before school. I didn’t mention anything about what Gabriella and I had experienced early that day because I was worried my mom would overhear.

Setting up the prom was much easier than volleyball practice ever was, so as we walked home the next evening, it felt really good to not be aching all over like I usually was on my walk home from school. We walked quickly passed the public park and the middle school that stood between my house and the high school, sweating all the way. Every time I walked by the public park, I wished I could cut across it, which would significantly shorten my walk, but that was strictly prohibited by the city. There were so many problems with high school students mixing with local adults for illicit activities inside the park, that it was shut down on weekdays after school. We had a lot of work to do before going back to the dance that night, so the longing to shorten my walk was stronger than normal. When we finally walked into the house, we were welcomed by cold air conditioning and a message on the answering machine. The message was from our friend Rosa, who told us that she was on her way over. Rosa was not involved with the special needs club, but she loved doing hair and makeup and was much better at it than either of us. She was by far the prettiest girl in our group. She had bright red, curly hair, with an olive-like, yet pale skin color. She had hazel green eyes and freckles on her cheeks. I didn’t understand why she was so good at makeup because in my opinion, she really didn’t need it. 

Rosa lived just a couple blocks away from me, across a rundown shopping center, so we knew she would be there soon. Estephania and I started getting ready while we waited for her. We took turns taking a shower in the single bathroom and then moved to my bedroom for hair and makeup. We had both gotten our hair dried and were trying to decide if we should move on to our makeup or continue waiting for Rosa. 

“Don’t you think she should have been here by now?” I asked Estephania. It shouldn’t have taken Rosa more than 15 minutes to walk from her house to mine, but it had been about 45 minutes since we got home. 

“Maybe she stopped somewhere on the way?” Estephania suggested. I wasn’t sure where she could be, but decided to call her house, just in case she answered. The phone rang and rang, and eventually went to voicemail. I hung up instead of leaving one.

“No answer,” I told Estephania.

Not knowing what to do next, we started on our makeup, but I felt more and more nervous as the time ticked by. I screwed the lid back onto the tube of my dollar store mascara and looked at Estephania, who was applying red lipstick. “She really should have been here by now.” 

Estephania paused, and asked, “Do you think we should go look for her?” Her red lips looked lovely as they pouted. She looked as concerned as I felt. It wasn’t quite dark out yet, but close enough that I was queasy at the idea of walking around outside. Estephania still didn’t know about yesterday’s incident, so she seemed a little more eager than me to go out looking for our friend. I called her again, hoping for an answer, but got none. 

Ultimately, I was concerned enough to go looking, but not concerned enough to call the police for our missing friend. We went out in our getting-ready clothes, which consisted of long, baggy basketball shorts and a t-shirt for me, and a spaghetti strap and capri pants for Estephania. I ignored the feeling in my gut that told me to stay inside and proceeded to walk down the street towards the rundown shopping center.

The block I lived on was completely deserted, which was normal for that time of day. We continued walking until we reached the alley that was behind the shopping center that separated my block from Rosa’s. My block led straight into the alley. It was a street I refused to walk down because it gave me the creeps.  Several houses backed up to the alley, their backyards often having gates that opened into the street. Some houses didn’t even have fences and the alley was essentially part of their backyard. I didn’t like the idea of walking through strangers’ backyards. Estephania made to turn down the alley and I grabbed her arm, stopping her. “Where are you going?” I asked her. 

“Towards Rosa’s house.”

“Not down the alley!” I whisper-shouted.

“Rosa always walks down this alley,” Estephania explained. 

I couldn’t understand why Rosa would choose to walk down the alley instead of going around the whole shopping center. Certainly, it was more convenient, but just as certain, it was sketchy and creepy.  I stood there frozen, trying to find the bravery I needed to walk down the alley. I thought about going home to call the police. If Rosa was missing, they couldn’t blame me for calling them. They might not take a teenage girl very seriously, but it was better than running down this alley with just Estephania as back up. 

I still hadn’t fully committed to running back home to call the police when the sounds of sirens approached in the distance. The sirens got louder and louder as they came nearer. I stood there frozen and looked at Estephania. She was looking around for the vehicle that was attached to the sound of sirens. Finally, I saw a police car, followed by an ambulance, barrel down the street, heading our direction. I jumped back out of the way, and Estephania stepped on my toes doing the same. The police car squeals to a stop, smoke dancing off the tires. The ambulance breaks and pulls over beside the police car. Several men throw themselves from their vehicles and dash down the alley. No car would fit down there. Even if there weren’t dumpsters and other junk lining the walls of the alley, it would be a tight squeeze. 

A week later, I went back to school for the first time since special needs prom night. I never made it to the dance and my mom had found me, standing with Estephania, in a crowd of people near the alley. The police asked us questions and we went home. My mom, like always, accepted a request she thought was reasonable and allowed me to stay home from school until I was ready. During that week at home, I had an open conversation with her. I told her the truth about what happened at Gabriella’s house and told her I wanted to go live with Grandma. She didn’t have to ask why and immediately called her mom after I asked her to go. 

The day I went back to school was my last day. They were planting another tree in the grassy knoll of the quad, where students ate lunch and lounged around during break periods. Estephania, who had known Rosa since preschool, said a few words during the ceremony. I couldn’t even pay attention to what she was saying. All I could think about was the moment that I saw a stretcher being carried out from the alley. I was haunted by the sight of Rosa’s bright red hair, matted with dark, almost black, red liquid. The short ceremony ended, and the crowd dispersed. The tree looked the same as all the other trees that were planted in the memory of dead teenagers.

 


Submitted: November 15, 2021

© Copyright 2021 voldybrenda. All rights reserved.

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