The Lighter Side of Life and Death | Chapter One

There are certain things you know you'll always remember. Like the way Miracle stares at me when we hear the gunshot. Our eyes lock fast. Hers shine with resignation, pain and the kind of love I can only begin to understand. Suddenly I can't catch my breath. I'm beyond anything I ever wanted to feel. It's low and high, intertwined like a double helix, and I mumble to Monica G as I rush offstage, my body racked with dread.

But this isn't the end. Not yet. I stumble back under the lights, bury my head in Miracle's chest and try to speak. Don't, she says. She has the last lines. There's nothing else for me to remember, nothing to do but watch her and let the final moments roll over me. My eyes burn as I look and listen but I don't fight it. I want to be fearless like Miracle. I want it to hurt so everyone can see.

Then there's just silence stretched out in front of us in the darkness. I wipe my face as we scramble offstage, and Miracle grabs my sleeve and whispers something I can't quite hear. I nod anyway, feeling wounded and amazed. It's like we're all incredible—me, Miracle, Monica G, Charlie Kady, Y and Z, Jamie and everyone else who made this happen. We're even better than last night and the night before that. It makes me wonder just how good we could be if there was a next time.

Everyone claps for us. Not just polite applause but like they really got it. On stage we hold hands and bow, and the feeling just keeps growing. We did good; we did awesome. I love these people next to me, Miracle channeling Meryl Streep and Monica G squeezing my hand and Jamie pulling strings in the background and Y and Z looking deep in love with each other, beaming with pride. I tell you, if you could bottle what I'm feeling right now, you'd be a billionaire. My cells are singing an anthem.

They're still singing when I stride out to the lobby afterwards. I'm swarmed by people clapping me on the shoulder and hurling praise in my direction. Then it's Dad's turn and he grins at Nina like he's showing me off for the first time. "Mason, you were fabulous," she says with a smile. "You should be so proud."

Nina's the only one of Dad's girlfriends that I've ever spent more than thirty minutes with, and I thank her and shift my focus to Brianna, next to her. Brianna happens to be the only one of us who isn't smiling. She's a thirteen-year-old tragedy-in-waiting, that kid. The face of gloom. As far as I can see, it doesn't have much to do with Dad and Nina's engagement either. She's been like that ever since we met.

"Your dad tells me you're off to celebrate now," Nina says with a cheerful nod. "Don't let us keep you."

I smile wider because Nina's got my number. Yolanda Solomon's extremely cool parents have handed over their house until one-thirty. There's not a second to lose. "Say hi to Burke for me, okay?" I tell her. Burke is Brianna's six-and-a-half-year-old brother. He's so normal that you'd never guess they share DNA.

"Will do," Nina replies. "I'll see you at the engagement shower."

The engagement shower's doubling as a housewarming party. Everything but the wedding has been pushed forward on account of Nina's landlord selling their condo—they weren't supposed to move in with us until the end of September. Not that I mind. I only have a year and a half before I go away to university, and Nina's okay.

"Do you need any cash?" Dad asks. He was here on opening night too but he wanted to come back with Nina.

"Well, I won't turn it down." My jaw aches from smiling so hard. It's impossible to stop.

Dad pulls out his wallet and hands me forty bucks, and then I'm edging my way through the crowd towards Jamie. "You guys got a ride?" Yolanda asks, tapping me on the shoulder. "Miracle still has a couple spots in the van."

"We're cool," Jamie says, charging towards us. "We're going with Charlie and Chris." I never have a clue what's going on. Jamie always handles the logistics.

"Perfect," Y says, scanning the lobby for Zoe. "See you at my place."

"Have you seen Kat?" I ask, turning towards Jamie. Kat Medina was Jamie's discovery when her family moved to Glenashton from Kitchener three years ago. She's about five feet tall with this cute little Filipino accent and curves like Jennifer Lopez. I think Jamie meant to keep her for himself, but that didn't work out; Jamie can never hide anything from me. Besides, Jamie isn't Kat's type. Lucky for him, I'm not either, which means we all evolved into close friends instead.

I can't count the number of nights the three of us have hung out in Kat's backyard along with her girls, Michelle Suazo and Sondra, barbecuing ribs and eating her mom's pancit noodles. Used to be that nearly every time a bunch of us would watch slasher movies together, I'd get a late-night call from Kat, scared to shut her eyes. I'd camp out on the phone with her talking about the funniest, most nonthreatening things I could imagine until she was too dog-tired to be freaked out anymore. Those movies don't spook her as much now but we still do the late-night conversations when one of us can't sleep.

"I think she already left with Hugo," Jamie says. Hugo's this half Asian, half black senior from the track team—the flawless-specimen-of-the-human-race type that Kat always falls for. They've been together two months.

"Okay," I tell him. "Let's roll."

And we're off. Charlie cranks M.I.A. on the stereo and in no time we're pulling into Yolanda's drive, helping her and Zoe set up the coolers and munchies. "Can someone call for pizza?" Z asks, looking right at Jamie. If you want something done right, he's your man. He's always one of the most responsible people in a room, even when he's partying. Two months ago I saw him steal this guy Anthony's jacket (with his car keys inside) at the end of a party to stop him from driving drunk. He was scared Anthony would pound him into the carpet so wouldn't admit to taking it at the time, but what counts is that he stopped Anthony from climbing behind the wheel. In the end someone else might've too, but Jamie's usually the first one to think of these things.

"I'll start the pizza fund," I volunteer, fumbling around for one of Dad's twenties. People are already sauntering through the front door, grabbing beer, and I point them in the direction of the pizza fund and talk to Charlie Kady and Dustin over the sound of the music. None of us have come down from our performance high yet and we don't intend to. The music gets louder and the beer chills and before you know it everybody's there and it's happening just like Y and Z planned—the perfect party.

The cast and crew buzz around each other, dancing and laughing and knocking back beer, and no one cares that there's no drugs because this party isn't about that; this party's about us. Kat and her girls, Michelle and Sondra, slide in and out of the scene too, shaking their asses like they're in an old Destiny's Child video, and they look really sexy doing it and they know it too but they're only having fun. And all of a sudden someone gets smart and throws on Lose My Breath and then we're all dancing like Destiny's Child and it's funnier than ever but it's good too. Dustin, the terminally shy techie guy that never says two words to anyone outside the play, sings along and swivels his hips, his hair flying in a hundred directions. He's Dustin the Diva and I edge closer to him, just to catch some of the fallout vibes. It's the most fantastic party I've ever been to and it hasn't reached its zenith yet.

I grab another slice of double-cheese pizza from the kitchen because suddenly I'm ravenous and if I wait much longer there won't be any left. Charlie comes in after me and palms a pepperoni for himself. Jamie's next, and the three of us get to talking so deep that no one can bear to leave the room. Charlie says he doesn't know what he wants to do now that the play's finished. Like all of a sudden he won't know where to focus his energy and he'll have to join Greenpeace or something and save the polar bears.

Jamie says that's a good idea and that we should all go save polar bears and that'd be better than any play, and of course he's right but we have to debate it anyway because I know the play was as important to him as it was to me. Charlie tries to debate too but he hasn't decided which side he's on, and somewhere in the middle of it Miracle appears and announces that she's leaving and does anyone need a ride?

"But the party's just getting started," I say.

"Yeah, well, I'm tired," Miracle complains, conjuring a yawn. "I guess all those weeks of rehearsals have caught up with me."

It's not that at all. Miracle doesn't know how to cut loose unless she's in front of an audience. In real life she's as serious as they come.

"You stopped dancing. That's the problem." I grab her hand and guide her back out to where the music's playing. When I spin to look at her she's frowning, but she humors me and starts dancing just the same. "You were amazing tonight," I tell her. "That look." I shake my head in admiration. "I don't know how you do it."

Y and Z are dancing next to us and soon Charlie, Christopher Cipolla and Dustin are there too and everyone's smiling and having such a good time that I think I just might have convinced Miracle to stay. It's one of those moments that you wish you could slow down and savor but even now Jamie's pulling me out of it from across the room, giving me this anxious look, like the sky's falling. Kat's standing next to him in her poncho and suede hat, agitated as hell.

I don't want to stop dancing but of course I do. Jamie's eyes are pulling me towards them like a tractor beam and I stride across the room and say, "Hey, what's going on?"

Kat turns her head, leaving the answer to Jamie. "She wants to go," he replies awkwardly. "Have you seen her purse around?"

First off, why does she want to go? Secondly, all purses look the same to me. I wouldn't recognize Kat's if Jamie was balancing it on his head. "Sorry," I say, shaking my head at them both. "But why are you going now? It's not even close to one yet."

One a.m. is Kat's party curfew. Her older brother, Eric, has a sworn duty to pick her up then, whatever the variables. No one else even offers to drive her home anymore. We all know the drill.

Kat runs a hand restlessly through her wavy black hair as she glares at me. "Please, just help him find it, Mason." Her bottom lip starts to quiver and I instinctively reach for her arm.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah, yeah," she says, blinking quickly. "I'm fine." She folds her arms under her poncho and looks away.

I toss Jamie a puzzled look. Could someone please tell me what's going on here? "Is her brother coming to get her?" I ask. "Where's Hugo?"

Kat strides away, five feet of tension heading towards the door. I follow her out into cold April air, Jamie a step behind me. "I'll find your purse," Jamie tells her. "Stay here with Mason." His face is flushed when he turns to look at me, and I watch him head back inside and shut the door behind him.

"I feel like throwing up," Kat confides, her cheeks in her hands as she sits on the front stoop. "I walked in on Hugo and Monica G in the upstairs bathroom." She stares dejectedly at the suburban street laid out neatly in front of us, a minivan in every second driveway. "They didn't even lock the door."

I drop my head in disgust and make a clucking noise, but Monica G's behavior doesn't throw me a bit. Monica and Kat are more acquaintances than friends; I bet it wouldn't have even occurred to her that she should keep her hands off Hugo. Sometimes it seems almost like she can't help herself. She was totally sexed up the last time we rehearsed alone at my place. Okay, maybe I didn't start discouraging her until a little late in the game, but you'd understand if you saw Monica Gregory. She's the second most popular Monica in my nearly three years at Glenashton Secondary and happens to be even hotter than her predecessor, Monica Trivino. She's also a half-decent actress and ultra-skanky. It's a combo that works for a lot of GS guys, at least in the short term.

Hugo's a different story. Risking his entire relationship with Kat for a few minutes with Monica G is utter insanity. I can't understand why he's not out here right now, down on his knees, begging for forgiveness.

"You're not surprised?" Kat pulls her hands back under her poncho and faces me.

"I'm completely surprised," I tell her. "I don't know what to say."

"He's been trying to get me to sleep with him for weeks." Her chin droops. "He made it sound like he was so into me. That it'd be this special thing between us." She leans down and rests her head on her knees. "I think I'm drunk."

I'm half-drunk myself. I don't have a clue what to say to her. "He's crazy," I mutter. "Did he even see you? I mean, what happened when you opened the door?"

Kat presses her eyelids shut. "I just want to get out of here." Her hands dart out from under her poncho as she stands. "You want to come?" She takes a step away from the house and then swings abruptly around. "I'm sorry…God…this is your cast party and everything. I'm not thinking." She tucks her ears into her hat and tries to smile. "You were great, by the way. It's like you were totally someone else up there." She said the exact same thing at the start of the party, but I'm fine with hearing it again. "It was almost eerie."

A grin escapes before I can catch it. "You want me to get Sondra or Michelle for you?" They'd know the right things to say. They definitely wouldn't break into smiles.

"No," Kat says decisively. "I'm going to phone my brother and hide out here until he comes." She wrinkles her eyebrows. "Seriously. I'm not even that upset. The whole thing's just gross, you know?"

"Yeah." I tilt my head and look into her eyes. With her body hidden she looks super-young, practically the same as when we first met. "You want me to walk you home?" I'm not in a hurry to leave the party but it seems like the thing to say. Kat doesn't like the cold but the last of the winter snow melted weeks ago; we really could make it to her place no problem.

"I'm not sure I even want to go home. Just…" She shakes her head in aggravation. "Go back in and help Jamie. I'll wait out here for my brother." Her brother, Eric, has no life. I'm sure he'd be here in no time but her suggestion doesn't sit right. Her eyes are miserable, and like a complete asshole Hugo has neglected to even show up on the doorstep. Somebody has to do something.

"We can go someplace else," I offer. "We don't have to go to your house." Kat wants to argue with me. I can see it in her face. "Don't worry," I say. "Just tell me where you want to go, Kat." I rock back and forth on my heels as I stare at her. Truthfully, I'm still half thinking about the party happening behind us. I don't know that I want to go. Maybe I'm channeling Chris Keller, my role in the play, trying to be a better person. Maybe everyone you play rubs off on you a little like that.

"I don't know," she admits wearily. "Let's just walk."

So we start heading south, against the wind, only she won't say a word so I have to do all the talking. It's giving me a dry mouth, and I'm thinking how nice another beer would go down when she stops, hunches over and says, "All this walking is making me dizzy. Can we stop?"

At this point we're, like, twelve minutes away from Yolanda's and maybe ten minutes from my house and I say, "We'll head over to my place, okay? It's not far."

"Seriously, Mason." Her face is turning shades of green and she's forcing her eyes open wide as she stares at a fixed point in the distance, probably in an attempt to stop the spins. "I'm not going to make it."

The girl barely drinks. She had to go and pick tonight to booze it up and make herself sick. "Alright, climb on my back." I crouch down and lock my arms around her legs as she hops on. By now I'm starting to get kinda pissed off with the way this is turning out. On any other night I'd be happy to help her out but I'm missing my cast party, the last chance to celebrate the shit out of what we accomplished with All My Sons, for someone who could be unconscious in two minutes. Plus, I don't know that I can carry her very far. There's a good chance that I'll be phoning her brother myself in about five minutes' time, trying to explain that Kat's passed-out presence on a generic scrap of lawn has nothing to do with me, despite appearances.

"I wish we brought some pizza with us," Kat mumbles near my ear.

"You don't need to be any heavier," I say irritably. Generally, this isn't a good thing to say to anyone. If I'm lucky she won't remember.

"I'm not that heavy," she protests, releasing her grip on me and jumping down. "Your muscles are underdeveloped." She starts shuffling along next to me and we manage to make it all the way to my house in twice the amount of time it would normally take. The lights are off and the driveway's empty, meaning Dad's still at Nina's.

I fish my key out of my wallet and unlock the front door. Kat brushes past me, kicking off her shoes and collapsing onto the living room couch. "I love your house," she announces. "It feels so lived in." The Medina house is covered in plastic wrap and constantly hosed down with multiple layers of Lysol and Mr. Clean. You could perform surgery in any room.

"You mean messy," I say, smiling as I sit down next to her. Now that we're here I'm back to feeling friendly. There'll be other parties. I did the right thing. "Maybe Nina will fix that." I nudge her arm. "You feeling better? You want some water or something?"

"No, I'm okay. Just don't ask me to walk anywhere else." Kat rubs her eyes and looks thoughtful, her face back to its normal color. "That's going to be really weird with Nina and her kids, isn't it? Having other people in your house, acting like it's theirs."

"I guess." I've been trying not to think of it that way. "Everything's going to change after graduation anyway."

"Yeah, but that's still over a year away."

"It'll go fast," I say, making Kat frown.

"I don't want it to go fast." Kat pulls off her hat and wrestles with her poncho. She drapes it over the arm of the couch and turns back to face me. "All that stuff that happens after is serious. Important life and career decisions."

"You're already worrying about those things," I remind her. She's had this career path conflict going on since at least summer. Her parents are really into the idea of her becoming a pharmacist. Kat's half into the idea herself but she's also hyper-interested in designing jewelry. Personally, I think she's kidding herself with the pharmacy thing. Not that she's not smart enough. I just can't see her in a lab coat counting pills for a living. She needs more than that.

"I know." She pouts a bit when she says that. It's the cutest thing and now's probably a good time for me to admit that I never entirely got over my crush on Kat Medina. Sometimes I almost forget about it. It's like a photocopy of a photocopy of an original that you packed away in an unmarked cardboard box in your attic. The point is, it still exists.

"I can't believe Hugo," she says with a snort. "I can't believe he pulled that bullshit after everything he said to me. The worst part is that he sounded so sincere. He kept talking about how the whole sex issue was a matter of trust between us and that he wanted to do whatever he could to make me feel okay with it." Kat grimaces and goes quiet, and I know she's embarrassed, and it embarrasses me too because we've never really talked about sex. I know she's a virgin but that's about all I know, and she knows even less about me.

"It sounds so stupid now," she adds, her voice hushed.

"He's an asshole," I tell her. "An asshole in disguise."

"Disguised as what?"

Isn't it obvious? Come on, Kat. Work with me here. "You always go for that same type of guy. Somebody who looks like Hugo. Somebody who's all about themselves."

"He didn't seem like that." She pulls at her earlobe, plays with her dangly silver earring. "He was always really sweet."

"Except for the last few weeks when he was trying to get you into bed," I point out. And thirty minutes ago when he was giving it to Monica G in Yolanda's upstairs bathroom.

"Even the past few weeks," Kat says. "Especially the last few weeks." She strokes her cheek with one hand and taps my leg with the other. "How come you never told me that you don't like him?"

All this weird tension's building in the silence, making the living room shine in a way that you don't need eyes to see, and I stare at her hand, which is now resting on my thigh, and shrug. She's not getting me on this. I'm not admitting a thing. "It's not that I don't like him. I'm just telling it how it is."

Kat looks me square in the eye. There's something so naked about her stare that my hands tremble. I'd swear she's reading my mind, that she knows exactly how hot she's making me, and maybe, just maybe, that's the point. So I reach out and touch her face with my fingertips. Then we're gazing into each other's eyes, on edge, breathing hard and waiting for the next leap.

I kiss her first. Our tongues push together and I can't get enough. We stretch out on the couch and get serious. She's reaching into my jeans and I'm dipping into hers and it's so out of control that I can't believe it. She's making a quiet moaning noise and looking up at me with hazy, happy eyes and I'm so caught up in it that there's no room for anything else, like thinking.

"What if your dad comes back?" Kat whispers in her tiny Filipino accent.

"You're right." I sit up on the couch. "We should go to my room." This can't be over yet. Neither of us is ready for that.

So we relocate upstairs and I watch her pull her top over her head. Her black bra's next and she looks at me while she's unhooking it, like she's proud of what's underneath. The sight of her bare skin makes my face burn. I kiss her breasts and slip her pants down and she looks so gorgeous on my bed like that, her hair tousled and this sexy-dirty expression on her face, that I have to stop and stare at her for a bit, just to remind myself this is real.

I've spent so many hours imagining different versions of this moment over the years that my brain overheats and melts down to nothing as I watch her. When Kat opens her mouth again, her words are so husky they make my heart stop. "Do you have condoms?"

I almost have a coronary. You'd think it was obvious where this was heading, but this is Kat's virginity we're talking about. I'm stunned.

The thing is, I'm also a pretty good actor. I pull a package of Trojans confidently out of my dresser and rip one open. I want to tell her this is crazy and that we're both drunk and maybe she'll regret this, but on the other hand, that's not what I want to do at all.

I roll the condom on and go back to the bed without a word. Kat's staring at me with wide eyes and I guess it should feel awkward, because before tonight we'd never even kissed, but the truth is it feels fine. I slide in easy, like we've done it a hundred times, like this is just the latest in a long line of perfect physical encounters. She comes first. I feel it. I mean, I really feel it, and I'm thinking, no way on earth this is actually happening. This must be some amazing dream. Vivid as hell, beautiful as fuck, but not real. It can't be. It's too good, too natural to be anyone's first time, let alone two people's first time.

Because, yeah, it's my first time too.

Kat Medina is my first time.