I never meant for anything bad to happen to Penny Kwan. I really didn’t even know her. My family moved to Nebraska last year, and starting eighth grade here was my first time at a new school. I guess it wasn’t different from my last school, but it felt like it. I was so used to knowing everyone back in Arizona, so it was really weird to walk through the school and not know who anyone was. Still, you can tell who the popular kids are. I sat behind the most popular girl in school in English. Sarah Bennett. She pretty much ruled the place, you know? So when she said my pencil bag was super cute one day, I felt…honored, I guess. I wanted her to like me.
Penny Kwan was on the opposite end of the spectrum. I guess she’d been there for a long time before I saw her. She was tall, especially for a Korean girl, with frizzy hair and glasses. She looked like a baby horse zapped by lightning. People were mean to her and she always just took it. One day in September, someone pushed her while she was walking down the hall and she fell and her books and papers and pencils went everywhere and her glasses flew off and I saw Sarah standing there. She didn’t push her, but Sarah laughed and started clapping. People around her started clapping and our eyes met and I know it’s wrong, but I started clapping too. Sarah talked to me again later that day about how disgusting Penny’s hair was. I played along and said it was the worst thing I’d ever seen and before I knew it I was sitting with Sarah at lunch, not even talking about Penny, but about what cars we wanted when we were sixteen and how it wasn’t fair our parents wouldn’t let us wear mascara.
I found a friend. A group of us, really. We all sort of flocked around Sarah. Sarah wasn’t the meanest, not even close. That was Vanessa. She’s the one that swiped Penny’s glasses from her locker during gym and broke them and put them back. But we all made fun of her for having broken glasses for a month. It’s not like tormenting Penny was what we focused on, or anything. It was just something we did. We talked about boys and how ballet was stupid and how you could tell if you were about to start your period. Just normal middle school girl stuff. And Penny wasn’t even totally hated. She had a few friends, and one day in December, she was actually popular.
We had cultural presentations in history class. Every week some kid would teach us something about their culture, usually German or Latino or Dutch. When it was Penny’s turn, she showed us how to fold thin strips of paper into stars. You squeezed around the edges so they looked cute and puffy. She told us how, in Korean culture, you made a wish when you finished the star. Everyone loved it and everyone flocked around her all day asking for tips on how to get the stars to look as puffy and cute as hers did. She was so happy, I could tell, and I was happy for her. But it didn’t last. By the next day, people were back to being mean to her. I made sure to hide the paper stars I’d folded in my locker. One for a car when I turned sixteen, one for a puppy, one for good boobs when I got older, one for a new season of my favorite show.
We forgot about her when we went on winter break. I talked to Sarah and the girls a few times, but really I just spent the holiday with my family doing all the wonderful stuff we normally did. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Then came our first day back at school. After first period we were all herded into the gym for the principal to make a special announcement. I sat in that stuffy old sardine can while the principal told us that Penny was no longer with us, that she’d been ‘taken from us’ by her father, and that she will forever be in our hearts. Then came the speech about how we needed to notify a teacher or another adult if we felt we were being abused at home. Then came a list of phone numbers we could call. The whole school shifted into a vague, black and white sort of state. No one cried, but no one smiled. No one talked about Penny, but no one talked about anything else. Until lunch period.
I sat with Sarah and the girls, none of us really hungry for our fish sticks. Then Vanessa leaned in and whispered that she’d heard a rumor that Penny had been beaten to death with a chair. She said that we should cut our last two periods of class and go check out the house she lived in, and that it was only a few blocks away. I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t want to sound like a chicken, and I’m sure the other girls felt the same. I said I’d go.
We met up outside the school, our boots crunching through the snow so loudly I thought we’d be caught any second, but we weren’t. We walked towards the ‘old’ side of town. The old side of town was just as old as the rest of the town, except the houses had never been torn down and replaced. Vanessa lead us to a tiny brick place that looked about a hundred years old. It had police tape all around it, but when she and Sarah and another girl ducked under, I followed without even thinking. The kitchen was awful. Dirty dishes filled the sink and covered the counter and there were dead bugs and cigarette ash everywhere. The couch had mold on it. Beer cans covered much of the floor. None of us spoke a word as we moved through the house. When we went downstairs we found Penny’s room.
There wasn’t an actual bed, just a mattress on the floor, no sheets. Just a bunch of blankets that smelled like pee. Some school books were stacked near a wall, and an old teddy bear lay in the middle of the floor. I don’t know why I looked towards her closet. I was just exploring. You could tell it was the kind of basement closet that runs under the stairs, ending in a little wedge. I opened it.
You couldn’t see where the closet ended, there were too many. I couldn’t even set foot inside without crushing them. Thousands of them. Thousands and thousands of paper stars.