A SHADOW WORLD

I read once that you get déjà vu when the two halves of your brain process things at different speeds: the right half a few seconds before the left, or vice versa. Science is probably my worst subject, so I didn’t understand the whole article, but that would explain the weird double feeling that it leaves you with, like the world is splitting in half—or you are.

That’s the way I feel, at least: like there’s a real me and a reflection of me, and I have no way of telling which is which.

The thing about déjà vu is that it has always passed really quickly—thirty seconds, a minute at most.

But this doesn’t pass.

Everything is the same: Eileen Cho squealing over her roses in first period and Samara Phillips leaning over and crooning, “He must really love you.” I pass the same people in the halls at the same time. Aaron Stern spills his coffee all over the hallway again, and Carol Lin starts screaming at him again.

Even her words are the same. “Were you dropped on your head one too many times or something?” I have to admit it’s pretty funny, even the second time around. Even when I feel like I’m crazy; even when I feel like I could scream.

But even weirder are the little blips and wrinkles, the things that have shifted around. Sarah Grundel, for example. On my way to second period I see her standing against a bank of lockers, twirling her goggles around her index finger and talking to Hillary Hale. As I walk by I catch just a bit of their conversation.

“…so excited. I mean, Coach says my time could still go down by a half second—”

“We have two weeks before the semis. You can totally do it.”

I stop dead when I hear this. Sarah sees me staring at her and gets really uncomfortable. She smoothes her hair and tugs on her skirt, which is riding up on her waist.

Then she waves.

“Hey, Sam,” she says. She pulls on her skirt again.

“Were you—” I take a deep breath to keep from stuttering like an idiot. “Were you just talking about semifinals? For swim team?”

“Yeah.” Sarah’s face lights up. “Are you going to come?”

Even though I’m freaking out, it still occurs to me that this is a really stupid question. I’ve never gone to a swim meet in my life, and the idea of sitting on a slimy tile floor and watching Sarah Grundel splash around in a bathing suit is about as appealing as the chow mein from Hunan Kitchen. To be honest, the only sporting event I ever go to is homecoming, and after four years I still don’t understand any of the rules. Lindsay usually brings a flask of something for the four of us to share, so that could have something to do with it.

“I thought you weren’t competing.” I try hard to act casual. “I heard some rumor…like maybe you were late and the coach freaked out….”

“You heard a rumor? About me?” Sarah’s eyes go wide and she looks like I just handed her a winning lotto ticket. I guess she’s of the “no press is bad press” philosophy.

“I guess I was wrong.” I think of seeing her car in the third-to-last spot and feel heat flood my face. Of course she wasn’t late today. Of course she’s still competing. She didn’t have to walk from Upper Lot today. She was late yesterday .

My head starts pounding and suddenly I just want to get out of there.

Hillary’s looking at me strangely. “Are you okay? You look really pale.”

“Yeah. Fine. Bad sushi last night.” I put one hand on the lockers to steady myself. Sarah starts babbling about the time she got food poisoning from the mall, but I’m already walking away, feeling like the hallway is rolling and buckling underneath me.

Déjà vu. It’s the only explanation.

If you repeat something enough, you can almost make yourself believe it.

I’m feeling so shaken up I almost forget that Ally’s waiting for me in the bathroom by the science wing. I go into the stall and flip the lid of a toilet down and just sit there, only half listening while she babbles. I remember something Mrs. Harbor once said on one of her crazy tangents in English: that Plato believed that the whole world—everything we can see—was just like shadows on a cave wall. We can’t actually see the real thing, the thing that’s casting the shadow in the first place. I have that feeling now, of being surrounded by shadows, like I’m seeing the impression of the thing before the thing itself.

“Hello? Are you even listening to me?”

Ally rattles the door and I look up, startled. I notice AC=WT scrawled on the inside of the door. Below it a smaller note reads: Go back to the trailer, ho.

“You said pretty soon you’d have to shop for bras in the maternity section,” I say automatically. Of course I wasn’t really listening. Not this time, anyway.

I’m wondering, vaguely, why Lindsay came all the way down here to write on the bathroom wall—why it was important to her, I mean. She’d already written it a dozen times in the stalls across from the cafeteria, and that’s the bathroom everyone uses. I’m not even sure why she dislikes Anna, and it reminds me that I still don’t know when she started hating Juliet Sykes so much either. It’s weird how much you can know about someone without knowing everything. You’d think someday you’d come to the end of it.

I stand up and swing the door open, pointing to the graffiti. “When did Lindsay do this?”

Ally rolls her eyes. “She didn’t. Copycat artist.”

“Really?”

“Uh-huh. There’s one in the girls’ locker room too. Copycat.” She whips her hair into a ponytail and starts pinching her lips to make them swell up. “It’s so lame. We can’t do anything in this school without everyone doing the same thing.”

“Lame.” I run my fingers over the words. They’re thick and black, like worms, drawn in permanent marker. I wonder, briefly, whether Anna uses this bathroom.

“We should sue for copyright infringement. Can you imagine? Twenty bucks for every time somebody bites our style. We’d be rolling in it.” She giggles. “Mint?”

Ally holds out an Altoids tin. Even though she’s still a virgin—and will be, for the foreseeable future (or at least until she goes to college), since she’s completely obsessed with Matt Wilde—she insists on taking birth control pills, which she keeps crumpled up in their foil pack right there alongside her mints. She claims it’s so her dad won’t find them, but everyone knows she likes to flash them during class so that people will think she’s having sex. Not that anybody’s fooled. Thomas Jefferson is small: you know these things.

One time Elody told Ally she had “pregnancy breath” and we all died over it. It was junior year in May and we were all lying out on Ally’s trampoline. It was the Saturday morning after she’d had one of her best parties yet. We were all just a little hungover, our brains fuzzy, stuffed on all the pancakes and bacon we’d put down at the diner, totally happy. I lay there while the trampoline dipped and swayed, closing my eyes against the sun, wishing that the day would never end.

The bell rings and Ally squeals, “Ooh! We’re gonna be late.”

Again that pit opens in my stomach. A part of me is tempted to hide all day in the bathroom, but I can’t.

I know you know what happens next. That I get to chem late. That I take the last seat next to Lauren Lornet. That Mr. Tierney passes out a quiz with three questions on it.

The worst part of it? I’ve seen the quiz before and I still don’t know the answers.

I ask to borrow a pen. Lauren starts whispering to me; she wants to know if it’s working okay. Mr. Tierney’s book comes down with a bang.

Everyone jumps but me.

Class. Bell. Class. Bell.

Crazy. I’m going crazy.

By the time the roses get delivered in math class my hands are shaking. I take a deep breath before I open the little laminated card attached to the rose Rob sent me. I imagine it will say something incredible, something surprising, something that will make everything better.

You’re beautiful, Sam.

I’m so happy to be with you.

Sam, I love you.

I lift the corner of the card gently and peek inside.

Luv y I close the card quickly and put it in my bag.

“Wow. It’s beautiful.”

I look up. The girl dressed like an angel is standing there, staring at the rose she’s just laid on my desk: pink and cream petals swirled together like ice cream. She still has her hand outstretched and tiny blue veins crisscross her skin like a web.

“Take a picture. It’ll last longer,” I snap at her. She blushes as red as the roses she’s holding and stammers out an apology.

I don’t bother reading the note that’s attached to this one, and for the rest of class I keep my eyes glued to the blackboard to avoid any sign from Kent. I’m concentrating so hard on not looking at him I almost miss it when Mr. Daimler winks at me and smiles.

Almost.

After class Kent catches up with me, holding the pink-and-cream rose, which I’d deliberately left on my desk.

“You forgot this,” he says. As always his hair is flopping over one eye. “It’s okay, you can say it: I’m amazing.”

“I didn’t forget it.” I’m struggling not to look at him. “I didn’t want it.”

I sneak a glance at him and see his smile fade for a second. Then it’s back on full-force, like a friggin’ laser beam.

“What do you mean?” He tries to pass it to me. “Didn’t anybody ever tell you that the more roses you get on Cupid Day, the more popular you are?”

“I don’t think I need any help in that department. Especially from you.”

His smile definitely drops then. Part of me hates what I’m doing, but all I can think of is the memory—or dream—or whatever it is—when he leans in and I think he’s going to kiss me, I’m sure of it, but instead he whispers, I see right through you.

You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me.

Thank God.

I dig my nails into my palms.

“I never said the rose was from me,” he says. His voice is so low and serious it startles me. I meet his eyes; they’re bright green. I remember when I was little my mom used to say that God mixed the grass and Kent’s eyes from the same color.

“Yeah, well. It’s pretty obvious.” I just want him to stop looking at me like that.

He takes a deep breath. “Look. I’m having a party tonight—” That’s when I see Rob loping into the cafeteria. Normally I would wait for him to notice me, but today I can’t.

“Rob!” I yell out.

He turns and sees me, gives me half a wave, and starts to turn around again.

“Rob! Wait!” I take off down the hallway. I’m not exactly running—Lindsay, Ally, Elody, and I made a pact years ago never to run on school grounds, not even in gym class (let’s face it: sweating and huffing aren’t exactly attractive)—but it’s a close call.

“Whoa, Slamster. Where’s the fire?”

Rob puts his arms around me and I bury my nose in his fleece. It smells a little like old pizza—not the best smell, especially when it’s mixed with lemon balm—but I don’t care. My legs are shaking so badly I’m afraid they’ll give out. I just want to stand there forever, holding on to him.

“I missed you,” I say into his chest.

For a second his arms tense around me. But when he tilts my face up toward his, he’s smiling.

“Did you get my Valogram?” he asks.

I nod. “Thanks.” My throat is tight and I’m worried I’ll start to cry. It feels so good to have his arms around me, like he’s the only thing holding me up. “Listen, Rob. About tonight—” I’m not even sure what I’m going to say, but he cuts me off.

“Okay. What is it now?”

I pull back just a little bit so I can look at him. “I—I want to…I’m just—things are all crazy today. I think I might be sick or—or something else.”

He laughs and pinches my nose with two fingers. “Oh, no. You’re not getting out of this one.” He puts his forehead to mine and whispers, “I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”

“I know, me too….” I’ve imagined it so many times: the way the moon will be dipping past the trees and coming through the windows and lighting up triangles and squares on the walls; the way his fleece blanket will feel against my bare skin when I take my clothes off.

And then I’ve imagined the moment afterward, after Rob has kissed me and told me he loved me and fallen asleep with his mouth just parted and I sneak off to the bathroom and text Elody and Lindsay and Ally.

I did it.

It’s the middle part that’s harder to picture.

I feel my phone buzz in my back pocket: a new text. My stomach flips. I already know what it will say.

“You’re right,” I say to Rob, squeezing my arms around him. “Maybe I should come over right after school. We can hang out all afternoon, all night.”

“You’re cute.” Rob pulls away, adjusts his hat and his backpack. “My parents don’t clear out until dinnertime, though.”

“I don’t care. We can watch a movie or someth—”

“Besides.” Rob’s looking over my shoulder now. “I heard about some party at what’s-his-name’s—dude with the bowler hat. Ken?”

“Kent,” I say automatically. Rob knows his name, obviously—everyone knows everyone here—but it’s a power thing. I remember telling Kent, I shouldn’t even know your name, and feel queasy. Voices are swelling through the hall, and people start passing Rob and me. I can feel them staring. They’re probably hoping for a fight.

“Yeah, Kent. I might stop by for a while. We can meet up there?”

“You really want to go?” I’m trying to squash the panic welling up inside me. I lower my head and look up at him the way I’ve seen Lindsay do with Patrick when she’s really desperate for something. “It’ll just mean less time with me.”

“We’ll have plenty of time.” Rob kisses his fingers and taps them, twice, against my cheek. “Trust me. Have I ever let you down?”

You’ll let me down tonight. The thought comes to me before I can stop it.

“No,” I say too loudly. Rob’s not listening, though. Adam Marshall and Jeremy Forker have just joined us, and they’re all doing the greeting thing where they jump on one another and wrestle. Sometimes I think Lindsay’s right and guys are just like animals.

I pull out my phone to check my text, though I don’t really need to.

Party @ Kent McFreaky’s 2nite. In?

My fingers are numb as I text back, Obv . Then I go into lunch, feeling like the sound of three hundred voices has weight, like it’s a solid wind that will carry me up, up, and away.

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