June 6, 2002

My mind was somewhere else completely during the entire high school graduation ceremony. I bet normal people were thinking of all the memories they had. I spent a moment going over the highlights: Ralphie on painkillers after he got his wisdom teeth removed falling asleep at Denny's, Wanda decorating Ralphie's head with her leftover salad, Keesha waking him up by laughing so hard she fell on the ground… among other things that had happened in the past month. Sure, it had been crazy in high school, and I knew that the "happiest years of my life" were supposed to be over now, but I couldn't help but think that the best was yet to come.

One day I'd have a car of my own, but my parents wanted me to graduate from college first. Making out in Phoebe's old Dodge Caravan - we'd affectionately named it the "Magical Toaster" – had lost its novelty. I looked around. I'd been separated from all of my friends, and was closest to Wanda, who somehow always looked ridiculous in whatever she didn't choose.

I looked down at the synthetic leather case I got. I was very under whelmed by all the pomp and circumstance (no terrible pun intended) involved in graduation from high school. I was convinced that a chimp could've done it.

At last we were moving our tassels and throwing our hats. Despite all the cheers and some crazy girls crying, I could hear Wanda swearing. I leaned over a folding chair to get closer to her, not caring if I got tazed (or whatever) for being "out of line."

"What happened?" I asked.

"A CORNER OF A HAT HIT ME IN THE EYE!"

I couldn't help but laugh. "Sorry, maybe you shouldn't have looked up then."

"I wanted to see – it's one of those Kodak moments that life isn't complete without," Wanda tried to explain.

"You were raised by TV," I laughed.

At last, we got to file out of the Walker Center, one of the last arenas in the state not named after some stupid company (although Wanda liked to try to make me imagine it being the Preparation-H Arena). I was glad to get out of my red robe – red being one of the least flattering colors on redheads – and back into something normal.

"Congratulations, Arnold!" My parents, who were waiting outside with half my extended family, ran up to me. "Wasn't Janet's speech great?"

Phoebe, who'd caught up with me, looked at me sternly. She knew I'd really wanted to develop narcolepsy to make the ceremony interesting. "Um, it was – stellar." I managed. We'd all gone out to dinner beforehand and planned on going to the Adventure Park lock-in the high school had managed. Usually classes went to some lame indoor thing, but DA was the Senior Class President and realized that she'd have seven ex-best friends if we were subjected to that kind of stupidity.

"Well, have fun!" My aunt Jean said, hugging Janet and beaming.

It took us almost an hour to drag Keesha away from her grandma, who was a surprisingly challenging lady – I mean, if each of the Catholics had an easy time escaping their clans (especially Phoebe – whose great-grandpa had actually led a clan in Scotland), why would it take Keesha so long to get away from one old lady? I mean, we all love Mrs. Franklin, but we wanted to get on with our lives. Fortunately, we had plenty of diversions – Janet wouldn't get within twenty feet of Dr. Tennelli, because earlier that year (before Keesha and Ralphie started dating), Ralphie had insinuated that his uncle Frankie had served some time in jail for dumping a guy in the bay.

"They found the body without its fingers –" Janet had sobbed to me, "and that's how he got his name in jail – no one would threaten Fingers Tennelli, and he's going to get out in a month!"

Even after I'd made Ralphie promise never to terrorize my cousin again, he'd drop hints every now and then that his mom went to med school at NYU – which is where, Janet was convinced, she started her organ trafficking ring. Of course this amused Ralphie and Carlos to no end. Carlos was still trying to get her to buy some story about his ancestors and the Alamo and other general banditry, but Janet deemed that "ridiculous." This is the same Janet that didn't hesitate to believe Tim when he claimed he was related to Thomas Jefferson, Harriet Tubman, and Louis Armstrong, the same Janet that made Phoebe say "she's a little gullible, isn't she?" PHOEBE. Fortunately, DA jumped in before Tim could finish outlining how he was "related" to Mr. T.

"Why can't we go to Disneyland? That would be SO much cooler," Carlos complained to DA.

"Do you want to drive four hours – without any traffic in LA – to Anaheim?" DA asked.

"I don't have to," Carlos folded his arms. "I'm okay with it – driving is Phoebe's problem."

"The toaster would overheat." Phoebe tried.

"I'm good with cars." Carlos argued.

"Stealing them doesn't count," Tim countered.

"Don't be a racist, Tim," Janet said.

"He's not being racist," Carlos replied. "He's volunteering to steal us a car. After all, he is better-suited for it."

"Carlos!" DA sighed.

"I could steal a car," Wanda started.

"If by that you mean 'make me some egg rolls,' then yes, you can." Carlos smirked.

"I DARE YOU TO SAY THAT AGAIN." Wanda fumed.

"You jumped into that race argument," Keesha shook her head. "Don't make me paint Phoebe's face so she can throw telephone poles at you to make it stop."

"They're called cabers," Phoebe corrected. Tim whispered something to her. "I'M NOT GOING TO SAY 'EH' AFTER MY SENTENCES, OKAY?"

"You kind of just did," Ralphie giggled.

"Well, you succeeded in kicking my sweet, never-hurt-anyone old granny out of the arena," Keesha said, acting disappointed and angry.

"Let's party!" Carlos cried. I swear, if Ralphie hadn't been there to distract Keesha, inadvertently protecting Carlos, we might've spent our grad night in the ER. Although Wanda gets the bad reputation for being the one who could and would beat someone to a pulp, I think Keesha could actually do it.

All nine of us (Janet was riding with us, to her dismay) piled into Phoebe's 1991 Dodge Caravan, complete with stylish wood paneling. There were two bench seats – the back could fit four and the front could fit three - plus the two bucket seats in front. Janet was looking at me pleadingly.

"SWEET, DA, LET'S GO IN THE BACKSEAT!" Carlos cried, dragging DA toward the door. Phoebe had already sat down in the driver's seat and turned around firmly.

"NO SEX." She insisted.

"I think that's the closest to swearing I've ever heard Phoebe…" Janet mused softly.

"It could be worse," Ralphie said. "She could put Tim between you. Tim is the anti-sex."

"Your parents would love me for it," Phoebe considered.

"I don't think the anti-sex bubble extends outside of my person," Tim added.

"Do we have to have a seating chart, Miss Terese?" Wanda whined. "I thought we were past this!"

"Me too, but Carlos' hormones are begging to differ," Phoebe said, still rather stern. She'd make an awesome teacher if she wasn't so hell-bent on archaeology. She thinks it's cute for both of us to play in the dirt all day.

"He'll be good." DA promised. "We'll sit in the middle seat."

"I'll sit with them," Tim volunteered. He'd either become very good at hiding his anger about our teasing him with his lack of luck in the girl department or become very laid-back about it. Either way, we were happy as long as he was.

"Thanks, Tim." Phoebe smiled sweetly. The other girls had always tried to set Phoebe and Tim up, and apparently Tim was a serious competitor for Phoebe, but they'd never really hit it off. Moments like this made me wonder a little, but not worry. I know they'd never do anything to hurt me, but part of me wonders what would've happened if they'd gone out.

"So I'll sit in the back and smack Ralphie and Keesha when they get too close?" Wanda asked, excitedly.

"Fine." Phoebe smiled.

"I don't know if that's a good idea…" Ralphie tried.

"Oh come on, Ralphie," Janet lectured, "you can keep your hands off your girlfriend for ten minutes, can't you?"

"I don't know…" Ralphie looked slyly at Keesha.

"I'm stunning, have you seen me?" Keesha exclaimed.

"Arnold, get in the car!" Tim urged. I was still standing outside with Janet.

"Aren't you going to take shotgun?" DA asked. Janet looked at me pleadingly.

"Are you going to leave me in the middle of all your weirdo friends?" She asked silently.

"I think I'm going to sit in the back to keep you all from scaring the shit out of my cousin." I sighed. Janet smacked me.

"Don't swear, Arnold!" She cried.

"I'M DRIVING THE RADIO!" Wanda exclaimed, climbing into the front seat before anyone could blink. "Where's that mix I made?"

It was going to be a long ride to Adventure Park, I could feel it.

"Right here," Phoebe handed her a burned CD from the case on the window visor. For such a crappy van, Phoebe had a nice stereo. I got in after Janet, who ended up sandwiched between Ralphie and me. I was smashed between Janet and the passenger side of the van, which was also the privileged spot of opening and closing the semi-functional old door.

"Everyone, keep your arms and legs inside the toaster," I grabbed the handle of the door and flung it forward with all my might, closing it successfully on the first try for the first time in weeks.

"IT'S PARTY TIME!" Wanda turned the stereo up to ear-bleeding levels. Janet hadn't thought to look for her seatbelt until Phoebe had taken off (fortunately Phoebe drove like a rational human being, despite the fact that a van full of teenagers listening to music at top volume would probably be driven more crazily – like if Wanda were driving).

I had known from the beginning that bringing Janet along was going to make things interesting – to say the least, but Janet seemed to have conveniently forgotten how our group felt about her antagonizing, which had only just begun in the third grade. It was only until the music became deafening and she was trapped in a van full of teenagers listening to "What's My Age Again?" that Janet remembered how much she hated most of my friends. To be fair, she didn't really hate any of the guys, but now that they all (except Tim) had girlfriends, she hated the girls even more. Her irritation mounted with every song. Apparently Wanda's mix could have been subtitled "Songs to Drive Janet Insane."

"Can we please not listen to this shit so loud?" Janet screamed, her hands over her ears.

"This isn't shit," Carlos corrected. "It's NIRVANA."

I imagined Janet demanding that Phoebe pull over so she could mope by the side of the road. Fortunately, we'd all grown up a little.

"COULD WE LISTEN TO SOMETHING THAT DOESN'T SUCK?" Janet screeched.

"We are!" Wanda exclaimed. "Everyone loves the Backstreet Boys!"

"OH GOD, NO!" Ralphie cried. Tim covered his ears. I lowered myself in my seat.

"Everyone loves watching you guys hate the Backstreet Boys," Keesha corrected. Janet slunk down in her seat, resting her chin on her hands in a gesture of futile helplessness.

Finally, we pulled into the parking lot of Adventure Park. Phoebe managed to find us a decent spot and we rushed to the ticket booth.

"So, Janet, why don't you have a car?" DA asked, semi-vindictively.

"Some of us don't have rich mommies and daddies who give us vehicles," Janet snapped back. "Some of us can't afford to crash cars into ditches whenever we feel like it."

"Lay off, Janet," Carlos said defensively. "It wasn't her fault!"

"Oh, the ditch just jumped out of nowhere?" Janet laughed. I had to admit, she did get kind of evil when the ball was in her court.

"Shut your face," Wanda threatened.

"Oh no, now Wanda's involved," Ralphie sighed.

"Damn right I am," Wanda added. "You leave my friend alone!"

"Arnold! Your tiny Chinese girlfriend is threatening me!" Janet whined.

"I'M NOT HIS GIRLFRIEND!" Wanda bellowed.

"I'm not Chinese," Phoebe mused.

"Oh, Phoebe doesn't even count; she's got a boyish figure." Janet said snidely.

"WHAT?!" Phoebe shrieked. "I haven't been anything but nice to you this whole time! Why did you-?"

"You can either shut up or walk home," Wanda said determinedly.

"Isn't it funny how Wanda's the man of the group?" Janet observed. "I mean, you guys are all standing around, just letting her prove that she's got more balls than all of you…"

She was interrupted by Phoebe hitting her across the face. It was more of a slap than a punch, but still somewhere in between. I could almost hear everyone's jaws drop. Janet wasn't hurt, but stunned, and Phoebe looked even more so.

"Stop making fun of my friends." Phoebe managed.

"Holy shit," Carlos exhaled. "Did Phoebe just hit someone before Wanda could get a chance?"

"I think we're in an alternate universe," Tim concurred.

"I think I'm going to kick Janet in the shins," Ralphie moved forward.

"Just wait 'til I tell Aunt Angela that your 'girlfriend' hit me!" Janet said triumphantly. "And I can tell her about the time you two were having sex and I walked in on you and –"

"DON'T. YOU. DARE." I said firmly. "Or I tell your mom about how you tripped Phoebe last year and just let her fall into the drinking fountain and break her nose."

"What was I supposed to do, catch her? And you can't prove that I broke her nose!" Janet cried. I was holding her shoulders firmly. We were all standing around, trying to figure out what to do. I took a deep breath. This couldn't escalate any further without someone being hurt.

"Look, Janet, can we act like civilized human beings?" I asked.

"It's hard for your friends because -" she started.

"CAN WE ALL ACT LIKE CIVILIZED HUMAN BEINGS?" I repeated.

"Just keep your mouth shut and we should all be fine." Keesha said coldly. "You don't even have to stick around us if you're too good for us." Janet opened her mouth to reply, but I glared at her. Apparently I glare really well.

"Why did you do that?" I asked Phoebe, pulling her aside once we got in the gate.

"I'm sorry," Phoebe replied.

"It's okay – I mean, it was pretty awesome, but – you know she's going to tell my parents and they're going to hate you now." I was trying to figure out how I felt about a Phoebe who'd stick up for herself. It was really cool, but not at all what I expected.

"And they'll tell you to date Wanda because she's less violent." Phoebe giggled.

"Stop making out, let's GO!" Tim called. I grabbed Phoebe's hand.

"It's going to take some time to get used to, this new confident thing," I said quietly.

"I think it was a one-time thing," Phoebe smiled. "But I guess I could be kind of tough sometimes, you know…"

We ran to catch up with the group, who went on a roller coaster first. We did all the standard Adventure Park stuff – the sky ride, the campy haunted house, all the roller coasters, the ripoff games – and still managed to make it over to the mini golf course. Janet had left us a while back without much of a scene. I think she was, despite what she would've admitted to, slightly afraid of Phoebe.

"Hey, I'm going to sit this one out," Wanda remarked, forced casually. It was odd, seeing as we were at the most exciting, terrifying, we-had-to-talk-Ralphie-into-it rollercoaster at the park.

"Why – oh!" Keesha pointed at a tall, handsome man by the concessions stand. Wanda swatted at her hand frantically.

"It's not nice to point!" Wanda hissed.

"Okay," DA tried to push the conversation along. "Just don't wander off too far."

"Use protection," Carlos warned.

"I have it covered," Wanda winked.

"Two forms!" Keesha called.

"I KNOW!" Wanda replied.

"NO DOUBLE-BAGGING!" Carlos added.

"THANKS FOR THE HINT," Wanda walked further away.

"I don't know if I want to go any more," Ralphie whimpered.

"Come on, it's just a ride," Keesha urged. "You've lived through worse,"

"Barely," Ralphie bargained.

"I think we're going to sit this one out too," Phoebe said, displaying more of her rare self-confidence. I was slightly irritated – I was usually the one "wearing the pants," and while I liked Phoebe to have her say, I didn't exactly like her having mine as well. I looked down at her and her eyes twinkled. It was fair this time, then.

As soon as our friends were out of sight, we dashed off to a corner of the park that few people frequented. I pressed my lips to hers and kissed her deeply. I could feel her melting in my arms. I held her tighter, and started to slide my hand up the back of her shirt.

"Arnold, I can't," Phoebe panted, breaking away from me.

"What? Why not?" I asked, concerned. Suddenly she looked very sad. "What's wrong?"

"I've – been trying to not let it bother me," she said quietly, "but I know that it should, but this is supposed to be a happy part of my life, and –"

"I'm sorry – but there's only so much I can say if I have no idea what you mean," I managed. What was it? Was she going to break up with me? Was she pregnant? Was she being deported?

"Well, you know how I've felt kind of sick lately?" She managed. I swallowed hard. She was pregnant. I knew it. We could always get married and put off college for a little while, or she could take classes online.

"Phoebe, I want you to know that no matter what, I'm not going to leave you," I assured. She looked confused. "And no matter what you decide to do, I'm behind you all the way." This wasn't helping. "You're – you're pregnant, aren't you?"

"No – not that I know of," Phoebe thought aloud. I'd obviously just worried her further. "No, I can't be, can I?"

"No," I answered, not entirely certain. "Sorry."

"Well, my brother, Danny – I don't think you've met him. He's a lot older than I am and –"

"Did he rape you?" I asked, incredulously.

"NO, ARNOLD," Phoebe nearly yelled. "He's dead." I didn't feel like I needed to prompt Phoebe any more to get any answers from her. "He – committed suicide last week. I didn't want to upset you or anyone, but – I can't keep it a secret any more. I just wanted you to know before I told the others. I really didn't want it to come out spontaneously, but – I guess it kind of did."

"Oh, Phoebe, I'm so sorry," I pulled her close and held her. I could feel her crying into my chest.

"He meant the world to me," she cried, "he was in high school by the time we really became friends, and he got in a lot of trouble and stuff, but he was always good to me. I wish I didn't just let people assume I'm an only child… I wish I would have…"

Her words became unintelligible. I felt frozen – there was nothing I could do but hug her and stroke her hair lightly. I eventually heard footsteps running toward us – it was Keesha. I looked above Phoebe's head. Keesha saw that something was wrong.

"You guys, something happened," Keesha said, concerned. She ran up to us. "Are you okay, Phoebe?"

"No," Phoebe said into my chest. Phoebe always said "yes" unless she thought she was going to die, as a general rule. She pulled away from me a little bit and looked at Keesha, along with the others who were gathering around. "My brother, Danny, who was finishing up in college committed suicide last week." She couldn't help choking up on nearly every word. The sentence didn't come out quickly at all, but as soon as it did, everyone was around her, trying to make her feel better somehow. "I don't want you guys to feel bad for me or anything – I wasn't trying to ruin graduation or – I just am so sad."

We stood there, trying to do something to comfort Phoebe (Ralphie offered her some Gatorade so she wouldn't get dehydrated and ended up getting some for nearly everyone), and it finally seemed to help.

"I think I'm going to get a pretzel." She said softly at last, clutching to the nearly empty bottle of Gatorade. "You're all the best."

"Only because we care," Wanda said. "Don't look at me like that, DA, I'm allowed to be nice every once in a while."

"I wasn't going to say anything!" DA protested. "It was Carlos!"

"Carlos, stop making DA look at me like I'm a moron!" Wanda argued.

"I can't help it if she can't resist my mind control!" Carlos grinned. The whole banter was uneasy. It felt unnatural to get back to normal.

"They're out," Phoebe scowled. "And I'm hungry."

"Do we have to stay here all night?" Tim asked, wearily.

"I don't know," DA managed. "Once we leave we can't come back, but I think we can go."

"Let's go." Carlos added.

"Let me call Janet and make sure she can find a ride." I said, reaching into my pocket for my cell phone.


Twenty minutes later, we were in a Wendy's drive-through.

"I'd like three cheeseburgers, two with no onions, one of those with extra pickles, one with mayo, and one has to be kosher." Phoebe said.

"What?" The cashier asked, drowsily.

"One has to have no other animal products on it, like mayo or cheese," Phoebe explained slowly.

"It's not that big of a deal," I whispered.

"That would be a hamburger, miss," the cashier said, irritated.

"Okay," Phoebe answered in her usual chipper tone. "And a Sprite, a Dr. Pepper, five Cokes, and a Diet Coke."

"Don't say a word," Carlos pointed threateningly at Tim, Ralphie, and me.

"I wasn't going to!" Ralphie argued. "I was just going to laugh."

"Okay, chicken sandwich for Keesha," I had the honored duty of passing out the food, being in the front seat, "and you got a Sprite?"

"Thanks, Arn!" Keesha said, grabbing her drink.

"Chicken sandwiches are for girls." Carlos sneered.

"Triple cheeseburger with no onions," I called out, re-wrapping the sandwich.

"I have the manwich!" Carlos reached greedily for his hamburger.

"Give that cheeseburger to DA – and these to Wanda," I said to Tim. "And here's your potato and chili. Okay, who had the Dr. Pepper? Give this to – you." I rolled my eyes. "Here's some cokes – and this salad is yours, Pheebs."

"Sorry," Phoebe took the salad back. "Ew, this coke is diet!"

"Carlos, your man beverage is ready!" I called, pulling Phoebe's straw out of the Diet Coke. I grabbed a fresh straw and handed it – along with the coke – to Carlos.

"It tastes better!" Carlos argued with DA, pre-emptively.

"I'm going to put you on a liver transplant list when we get home. You'll thank me later." DA replied.

"My liver isn't good enough for you?" Carlos retorted.

"Can we forgo the aspartame argument?" Phoebe cried. "Let's go!"