Short story: High school graduation
Santa Barbara, California
June 26, 1987
It has been exactly a month since graduation. A whole 30 days since the seniors at Beltane High entered “the real world”. This milestone also happens to fall on the eve of the party of the year at Greg Darinson’s house. Everyone from the graduating class of 1987 is invited. Preston Palmer is Greg’s best friend, and yet he is sitting on his own front porch instead of helping Greg at his family’s cliff-top mansion, orchestrate the party festivities.
The sun is setting, casting an orange and red hue across the horizon, it’s intimidating as if daring anyone to try and overcome its colors. The heat from the day is beginning to recede giving way to a cool summer night, that everyone looks forward to after a scorching day. The air even tastes of summer, with the endless barbecuing going on around the block. The crickets are reciting their song taunting Preston, who is simply sitting there watching as the day gives way to night.
These bugs are daring him to speak of a story he swore he would never tell, one that is still too fresh in his memory to return to. Preston’s neighbor Mr. Bennett walks by with his beagle, Fred. He waves, but Preston doesn't even look up, a silent battle is raging beneath the surface. Mr. Bennett continues on up the street looking concerned. In the next moment, Preston knows. He needs to tell his story so it can be heard, even if it’s only the night that hears it.
May 27, 1987
“Can you believe that we’re graduating today man?” Greg asks.
“No, I can’t, we’re not kids anymore but it feels like yesterday we were making mud pies to throw at Kassie Kenbrooke’s pretty dresses.”
Preston reminisces on his childhood while throwing a small basketball into the hoop behind the bedroom door, from the king size four poster bed. A magazine cut out of Kim Basinger is taped to the backboard of the hoop and Preston, amused keeps landing the ball right between her breasts.
Meanwhile, Greg whirls around the room like a tornado picking up clothes and gathering supplies for the party tonight that he would store in his car until after graduation. The usual was being thrown into his red backpack, cigarettes, pot, condoms, a few lighters, and the obligatory clothes to cover all that shit. Last minute Greg tosses a bottle of his dad’s finest scotch into the bag.
“Whoa, hold up.” Preston protested. “You’re going to get us caught for sure if you bring that.”
Greg turned and smiled wickedly. “Don’t worry, I got it covered. I swiped one of the bottles he collects from his office and filled it with apple juice.” he winked. “It’s foolproof.”
Preston shrugged, accepting Greg’s excuse without complaint. It was what they always did. In almost 15 years their friendship dynamic hadn’t changed. Greg was the outgoing one who always had a plan, Preston was content to simply follow along. As the years went by the plans became more and more dangerous, they involved shoplifting, cliff diving drunk, even kidnapping a friend of theirs for fun one Friday night. It didn’t matter if Preston wasn’t always in agreement with the plans. Greg was his oldest and best friend what else could he do?
“Hey man, wanna take a hit?” Greg had lit one of his joints and was offering it to Preston.
“No, I’m good. My parents will definitely be able to tell that I’m high.”
“Ah, come on. Don’t sweat it, today’s graduation no one will care.
Preston could think of plenty of people, the principle, and the cops for one. He took a hit anyway. He didn’t even enjoy smoking weed it gave him headaches after the high subsided. He also had not planned on attending his own graduation ceremony inebriated but plans changed apparently…
Greg became jittery when he was high, as well as impatient. Unless, he was doing what he enjoyed, which was mostly causing mischief and partying. Greg wasn’t even that great of a friend come to think of it, but Preston enjoyed his company because it made him feel needed.
Preston falls back onto the bed letting the high take over. He feels like he’s floating through water when Greg suddenly flies into the room from the adjoining bathroom exasperated, “Well, are ya ready? We gotta go, graduation starts in like thirty minutes.” Preston nods and gets off Greg’s bed slowly. He’s high, his head feels like it’s bobbing like a buoy. He follows him through the vast empty house to the car, a silver Porsche 911 Targa, and away they drive through the streets of Santa Barbara towards Beltane High School where they would end their childhood and start living like adults.
Of course, everyone was there, parents, teachers, grandparents, and siblings. It was astounding that everyone could fit under the white tent that had been ordered. The day was like a dream, shining sun, soft breeze, perfect backdrop with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the mountains to the east. Principle Henderson and Samantha Cordal valedictorian spoke delicately thought out speeches that brought nearly everyone to tears. All 700 members of the class received their diplomas with the school crest of a lion and a heart etched upon them. Then all of the graduating seniors stood up and threw their blue and gold caps into the air. The crowd was cheering, students were smiling, hugging, and laughing. It was raining caps as kids began running to their families for pictures. Preston stood amidst the chaos watching the scene unfold. Greg came up behind him and clapped him on the back leaning in towards Preston’s ear, “This is gonna be a summer we never forget.” laughing he pulled away searching for his girlfriend Jamie in the sea of people. As everyone continued milling around him Preston couldn’t help but feel that Greg was right, and he was, this was a day that everyone would remember whether they wanted to or not.
May 27, 1987: Nightfall
The woods were dark and other than the faint glow of firelight in the distance you could see nothing around you, but Preston knew the woods by heart. The party was occurring in Beltain Forest set back from the coast, it was about five miles in diameter and had a lake in the center where kids from everywhere would go and have bonfires along the water. It was fair to say that the cops all knew about the parties but this was graduation and even the law didn’t want to spoil the fun. This was the first night of their freedom and what better way than a party to commemorate the end of their time spent in high school? Everyone was careening headlong into new lives in the fall and this was their way of postponing the inevitable; change.
Preston’s heart was thundering in his chest as he and Greg pulled into the dirt parking lot of the party. He had a strange feeling about tonight. The party felt like a bad omen and before he had even set foot outside the car he wanted to head home. It was as if the trees with their gnarled branches reaching at him, like hands were warning him to not attend. Greg had continually asked him what was wrong the whole way there. They had stopped at The Red Onion, a local Mexican restaurant that had the best fish tacos in Santa Barbara County. It was their usual dinner of choice before the parties in the woods. Everything had been normal from the five tacos they ordered at The Red Onion to the three obligatory party shots of Jameson that they took before leaving Preston’s house an hour earlier. The only strange occurrence was Greg stopping at a hardware store to buy 3ft of rope and a jug of gasoline. When Preston asked, Greg claimed it was for a home project him and his dad were working on. If Preston thought that was weird he showed no signs of it, and as usual, they arrived at the party fifteen minutes late with a very good buzz going.
Two hours later Preston dispelled the worries from his head, the party was a success, the warm glow of the fire was making everything seem more mysterious, and whether the lightheadedness was from the beers that Preston had been drinking or his own giddiness on what was happening, he didn’t care because for once he was relaxed. He was away from the stress of his parents, away from scrutinizing teachers at school, away from the intimidating glances from his brother and sister, it was just him, no rules, no restrictions. All he had to do was live in the moment. Grace Lorrey the most envied girl in their class was even flirting with him, giving him a chance that he never thought possible.
It was then that Greg came barreling out of the woods into the clearing on his right, enraged and ready to fight like a bull his eyes dark and intense, fists clenched so tightly they would later discover cuts in his palms. Preston stood up so quickly the world spun, Grace looked at him a question burning behind her eyes, but he left without giving her a chance to ask.
Greg was fuming when Preston reached him and before he could even ask Greg spit the words out at him like venom,
“Jamie’s cheating on me with Danny Glover! I saw them in the woods back there, they don’t know I saw them I came back here to get you to help me, we’re going to get back at her.”
“ I don’t know if that’s….” Preston began but then stopped with one look at Greg’s flared nostrils.
“That stupid whore! I swear to God I’m going to teach her a lesson.”
Preston walked a fuming Greg away from the fire towards the farther end of the lake where they began to scheme…together. The plan was just to scare Jamie and then make her admit what she did and embarrass her in front of everyone out at the bonfire. Greg was going to distract her by acting seemingly oblivious and kissing her against the tree while Preston stole her clothes. Then, they would drag her to the clearing in front of everyone and make her admit what she did. Apparently, that didn’t enthrall Greg enough and after waiting for Jamie for another hour and creeping up behind her in the silent forest, Preston became petrified when Greg grabbed her and put the knife to her throat.
His hand covered her mouth before she could scream. The knife’s cool blade pressed against her pulsing carotid artery. Preston was stunned into silence. Greg was whispering into Jamie’s ear, words only she could hear. Her brown eyes grew wider as he continued speaking and then became fearful. It was then that Greg made her look at Preston. Her eyes bore into Greg’s instead begging him to stop this. Preston stood rooted to the very spot his body like a statue. It was then that Preston knew with every fiber of his being that Greg was going to kill her. It happened faster than it would take someone to tie their shoes. Greg dropped the knife to the ground grabbed her shoulders in his hands and shoved her. Jamie’s head snapped back hard into the tree. A crack could be heard throughout the empty wood. The faint noises of the party were still audible, but no one could hear the death of a girl they all knew happening less than a mile into the black trees. Preston sank to his knees unable to watch, he placed his head in his hands and began sobbing silently. Greg shoved Jamie against the tree five more times, her body growing more limp with each blow. The final smash was deafening it rang in Preston’s ears. Greg released Jamie’s shoulders and she fell fast hitting her head on a nearby rock, her body twitched and crumpled to the forest floor. The light was gone from her eyes, they stared out at Preston seeing nothing. She was gone.
In that moment Preston’s body began to react. He started shaking uncontrollably and yelling at Greg, his voice echoing off every tree. Greg silenced him with a kick to the ribs that would leave him with a bruise for weeks. Preston hadn’t realized he had a backpack until he took the bottle of gasoline he had just purchased out of it and doused Jamie’s lifeless body with it. The match was lit with a flourish. The flames engulfing her body before Preston could react.
“Let’s go, man!” Greg yelled as he began running towards the clearing. Preston stared at Jamie’s body wanting to pull her from the flames and breathe life back into her but it was impossible. And now the fire was spreading and the flames were lapping at the tree bases, pulling them into this mess that the boys caused. Greg ran back towards the clearing yelling “Fire!” Chaos erupted everyone began to scream. Someone called ‘911’, Girls were crying while many boys started running with buckets of water towards the scene of the crime to contain the flames. Sirens could be heard in the distance, Greg blended in with the crowd staying far away from the fire. Preston wandered around aimlessly until Grace grabbed his arm.
“Are you alright? What the hell happened out there?” Preston started blankly at her. “Preston? Preston?” He staggered forward away from her and then all at once he blacked out.
June 26, 1987
Sitting on the porch it is now dark, lights are on in all of the houses along the street, and some kids are outside catching fireflies. Preston is sitting, knees drawn up to his chest, crying and letting the ghosts that he’s kept hidden for the past month find their way out. The fire was legendary; the channel 5 and 7 news teams showed full coverage of it. They believed that Jamie had tried to light her own fire after Danny had left. Then it appeared she had fallen asleep and neglected to dig a pit or put stones around the flames. The fire grew and got out of hand burning Jamie’s sleeping body and spreading to the trees. It took them quite a while to identify her body and even now people are still mourning her death. Greg put on a very convincing show breaking down at her funeral. Preston grew sick at the thought of him having the time of his life up at his party. He knew he had to confess, even if it would ruin his life forever because he had been the accomplice. It didn’t matter that Preston had no idea Greg would end up killing Jamie when they were out there. It happened and he had done absolutely nothing to stop it.
Preston stood up on surprisingly strong legs, got in his father’s station wagon and rode downtown to the police station. He poured everything out to a detective assigned to the case and together they went to Greg’s house and knocked on the door. Greg opened it. Seeing Preston he smiled. “Hey bud, where ya been? I thought I’d never see you again after that night. Come on in Garrett brought acid, it’s a fucking awesome party.” Preston simply shook his head. He backed down the steps as two armed police officers stepped into view from the side of the porch. “Gregory Darinson,” one officer said. “You are under arrest for the murder of Jamie Corren.”