Nikki Preston would have been 17 Monday. Instead, the Glen Burnie girl, who died from inhaling butane gas in search of a high, will be buried Monday in Loudon Park Cemetery.
Yesterday, her father, Burl, 49, pleaded for teen-agers to "break their code of silence" about sniffing butane gas and help each other.
"They call them friends but they let them die," he said, bursting into tears.
Mr. Preston joined County Councilman Edward C. Middlebrooks, whose daughter, Jennifer, was a friend of Nikki's, in urging Anne Arundel County police to investigate the extent of butane abuse among area teen-agers.
"I don't want to punish anyone," Mr. Preston said. "I only want to stop it, to save another kid's life."
Known to everyone as Nikki, Nichelle Nicole Preston was one of Glen Burnie High School's most popular students and had been named head cheerleader for her senior year.
She died of cardiac arrest early Thursday, after inhaling butane gas in a small, second-floor apartment of a house in the 1100 block of Cambria St. in Brooklyn. She was pronounced dead at Harbor Hospital Center, the hospital where she was born.
She had her mother's permission to spend the night with a friend, Theresa Smith, 18, who worked at a hearing aid center in Glen Burnie. Nikki was to have started work there Thursday.
Yesterday, Mr. Preston flipped through a small yellow pad, nearly filled with notes printed in block letters.
"Every time she went, she left me a note where she was going and when she'd be back," he said. "She always did it."
But Nikki kept a secret from her family.
"I have only learned about butane abuse since my daughter's death," said Mr. Preston. "I never heard of it before. Now I'm coming to find out she's been doing this for months."
Mr. Preston, his wife, Patricia, and Nikki's brother, DeWayne, 24, sat in the living room of their white-painted brick bungalow in Harundale yesterday and tried to understand the tragedy.
Not only were the family members unaware of butane abuse in general, they said they were shocked to learn that Nikki was doing it.
"She was the last person you'd expect to have a drug problem," DeWayne said. "She was so into health. I'm a body builder and she was always asking me about good diets and things because of her cheerleading.
"We had gotten very close in the last few weeks, but she never said anything to me about anything like this," he said. "She never showed any signs of using anything, no dark circles under her eyes or anything. She told me over and over again that she did not do drugs."
Since his sister's death, DeWayne said he has learned that "on Sundays around here people are hard-pressed to buy a can of butane for their lighters or grills because teen-agers have bought them all."
Dawn Jeffrey, 22, a young mother who has the first-floor apartment in the Cambria Street house, said she was watching television about 1 a.m. Thursday when she "heard something fall upstairs." A few minutes later, she said, Theresa Smith banged on the door, saying: " 'Nikki's passed out and I can't get her up.' I went up and found her lying on the floor. We called 911."
Mr. Preston said Ms. Smith telephoned him with condolences and told him Nikki had been sniffing butane for some time.
"She told me that every time Nikki did it, she blacked out," he said. "Theresa said she did it that night and came out of it fine, then Nikki did it and didn't come out of it. Theresa said the kids play games with each other, pretending to go deeper than they really are. But when Nikki didn't come out of it, she shook her and said: 'Nikki, you're scaring me.' By then it was too late."
Jennifer Middlebrooks, 15, a sophomore at Glen Burnie High, described Nikki as "lively, high-spirited, always willing to help people."
But Jennifer also knew the other Nikki, whom she had seen inhaling butane several times.
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at the Singleton Funeral Home, 1 Second Ave. SW, Glen Burnie. Burial will be in Loudon Park Cemetery. In addition to her parents and brother, Nikki is survived by a half-sister, Cassie Gibson of Glen Burnie.