By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Frank Owen
"He wanted to protect the President, of all things," muses his mother. "He'd say, "Aw Mama, I want to be in the military.' Or he'd want to be a lawyer, or a police officer, or a lieutenant commander and fly Air Force One for the President."
This year, as his ambitions became more and more militaristic, Nate started turning the corner into adulthood. A growth spurt transformed him from a chunky kid into a slender, five-foot-six adolescent. He kept a barbell under his bed to build muscles and impress the girls, who seemed to want only to be his friend anyway. Just recently he tore the childish Power Rangers poster off his wall and stuck a sticker on his door that felt more grown-up. It read: "Crime Scene: Do Not Enter."
When Nate decided, this spring, to kill himself, he chose an unorthodox method: death by Wrigley's.
Every day he'd come to school with packs of gum, quickly chew the pieces, and swallow them. The idea was that if he ate enough gum, it would mess up his stomach and he'd die. Nate told one of his best friends, Michelle Cordovez, that he wanted to off himself because his would-be sweetheart, pretty and bespectacled Dinora Rosales, liked another boy.
"It went on for a month or two," Michelle recalls. "He said he was going to commit suicide, and he would swallow whole packs of gum. I thought he was doing it in a joking kind of way, but I wasn't sure."
That was one of the things about Nate, says Michelle. He did a lot of funny things, and sometimes it was hard to tell if he was serious or what. He usually seemed happy and he had a silly side that craved the spotlight, like the time he cross-dressed for a mythology project in Grunow's class. Nate was Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, and he went all the way with it, wearing a short black skirt, high heels, a wig, and lipstick. He cracked up the whole school with his gender-bending performance.
"He looked like a real girl," recalls 12-year-old neighbor Cedrick Jenkins. "He looked like a trick or something."
But other times, Nate did weird things, like his strange habit of making his lower jaw and chin quiver. His teachers say he'd do this at odd times, in the middle of class, without rhyme or reason. It was hard to tell if he was trying to be funny or if it was some kind of nervous habit. He also swallowed the gum with a deadpan face, leaving his friends to wonder: Was Nate really suicidal or was he just making a joke? Nobody knew.
But his friends were certain about one thing: Nate liked Dinora, who sang in the chorus. It was obvious that he'd been infatuated with her for months. And there was no question that Nate was genuinely hurt by the rejection. Dinora remembers one particularly uncomfortable moment, when she and Nate sat together in the lunchroom.
"Will you go with me, Dinora?" Nate asked between sips of his favorite drink, Fruitopia.
Dinora gave it to him straight. "I'm sorry, but I don't like you like that," she told him. "I like you as a great friend, and I don't want to lose that."
It was the answer every suitor dreads hearing, but Dinora was always sweet to him, and they remained close friends. But Nate never gave up on winning her. A week before the end of school, the band and chorus went on a trip to Islands of Adventure at Universal Studios in Orlando, and Nate and Dinora spent most of the day together. "He was a nice guy," Dinora says. "He was funny."
Dinora wasn't the only one who thought highly of Nate. So did most of his teachers. He was the Student of the Month in December, quite a distinction at a school of 1600 students. Barry Grunow nominated Nate for the honor, as did Brett Packard, his geography teacher.
"He was a quirky kid," Packard says of Nate. "Nate was quiet in class, but still he would get your attention. Now I think about him all the time. Was this kid a great actor? I wonder if he was hiding this darker side all year long."
It wasn't always hidden. One day earlier this year, Nate and another student got into a squabble in Packard's class over a bottle of Fruitopia. Some of the purple stuff spilled on the floor. "So you think, What would King Solomon do?" Packard says. "I took it away from them altogether."
Nate stood up, glared into Packard's eyes. "Give me back my drink," he said.
"He said it again, only louder and in a real threatening tone: "Give me back my drink!'" Packard recalls. "And he kept saying it, "Give me back my drink,' and it was like he was demanding it back. I was wondering what he was going to do. It was like, And if I don't? What was he going to do?"
Later that day Nate returned to Packard's class and grabbed all the extra pens and pencils that Packard kept in a cup on his desk. "What are you doing?" Packard asked.