BEFORE I WAKE

“So? You nervous?” Lindsay lifts one leg in the air and swivels it back and forth, admiring the shoes she’s just stolen from Ally’s closet.

Music thumps from the living room. Ally and Elody are out there singing their heads off to “Like a Prayer.” Ally’s not even close to on key. Lindsay and I are lying on our backs on Ally’s mongo bed. Everything in Ally’s house is 25 percent bigger than in a normal person’s: the fridge, the leather chairs, the televisions—even the magnums of champagne her dad keeps in the wine cellar (strictly hands-off). Lindsay once said it made her feel like Alice in Wonderland.

I settle my head against an enormous pillow that says THE BITCH IS IN. I’ve had four shots already, thinking it would calm me down, and above me the lights are winking and blurring. We’ve cracked all the windows open, but I’m still feeling feverish.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” Lindsay’s saying. “Don’t freak out if it hurts a little—especially at first. Don’t tense up. You’ll make it worse.”

I’m feeling pretty nauseous and Lindsay’s not making it better. I couldn’t eat all day, so by the time we got to Ally’s house, I was starving and scarfed about twenty-five of the toast-pesto-goat-cheese snacks that Ally whipped up. I’m not sure how well the goat cheese is mixing with the vodka. On top of it, Lindsay made me eat about seven Listerine breath strips because the pesto had garlic in it, and she said Rob would feel like he was losing his virginity to an Italian line cook.

I’m not even that nervous about Rob—I mean, I can’t focus on being nervous about him. The party, the drive, the possibility of what will happen there: that’s what’s really giving me stomach cramps. At least the vodka’s helped me breathe, and I’m not feeling shaky anymore.

Of course, I can’t tell Lindsay any of this, so instead I say, “I’m not going to freak. I mean, everybody does it, right? If Anna Cartullo can do it…”

Lindsay pulls a face. “Ew. Whatever you’re doing, it’s not what Anna Cartullo does. You and Rob are ‘making love.’” She puts quotes in the air with her fingers and giggles, but I can tell she means it.

“You think?”

“Of course.” She tilts her head to look at me. “You don’t?”

I want to ask, How do you know the difference?

In movies you can always tell when people are supposed to be together because music swells up behind them—dumb, but true. Lindsay’s always saying she couldn’t live without Patrick and I’m not sure if that’s how you’re supposed to feel or not.

Sometimes when I’m standing in the middle of a crowded place with Rob, and he puts his arm around my shoulders and pulls me close—like he doesn’t want me to get bumped or spilled on or whatever—I feel a kind of heat in my stomach like I’ve just had a glass of wine, and I’m completely happy, just for that second. I’m pretty sure that’s what love is.

So I say to Lindsay, “Of course I do.”

Lindsay giggles again and nudges me. “So? Did he bite the bullet and just say it?”

“Say what?”

She rolls her eyes. “That he loves you.”

I pause for just a second too long, thinking of his note: Luv ya. The kind of thing you pencil in somebody’s yearbook when you don’t know what else to say.

Lindsay rushes on. “He will. Guys are idiots. Bet you he says it tonight. Just after you…” She trails off and starts humping her hips up and down.

I smack her with a pillow. “You’re a dog, you know that?”

She growls at me and bares her teeth. We laugh and then lie in silence for a minute, listening to Elody’s and Ally’s howls from the other room. They’re on to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” now. It feels nice to be lying there: nice and normal. I think of all the times we must’ve laid in exactly this spot, waiting for Elody and Ally to finish getting ready, waiting to go out, waiting for something to happen—time ticking and then falling away, lost forever—and I suddenly wish I could remember each one singularly, like somehow if I could remember them all, I could have them back.

“Were you nervous? The first time, I mean.” I’m kind of embarrassed to ask so I say it quietly.

I think the question catches Lindsay off guard. She blushes and starts picking at the braiding on Ally’s bedspread, and for a moment there’s an awkward silence. I’m pretty sure I know what she’s thinking, though I would never say it out loud. Lindsay, Ally, Elody, and I are as close as you can be, but there are still some things we never talk about. For example, even though Lindsay says Patrick is her first and only, this isn’t technically true. Technically, her first was a guy she met at a party when she was visiting her stepbrother at NYU. They smoked pot, split a six-pack, and had sex, and he never knew she hadn’t done it before.

We don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about the fact that we can never hang out at Elody’s house after five o’clock because her mother will be home, and drunk. We don’t talk about the fact that Ally never eats more than a quarter of what’s on her plate, even though she’s obsessed with cooking and watches the Food Network for hours on end.

We don’t talk about the joke that for years trailed me down hallways, into classrooms, and on the bus, that wove its way into my dreams: “What’s red and white and weird all over? Sam Kingston!” And we definitely don’t talk about the fact that Lindsay was the one who made it up.

A good friend keeps your secrets for you. A best friend helps you keep your own secrets.

Lindsay rolls over on her side and props herself on one elbow. I wonder if she’s finally going to mention the guy at NYU. (I don’t even know his name, and the few times she’s ever made reference to him she called him the Unmentionable.)

“I wasn’t nervous,” she says quietly. Then she sucks in a deep breath and her face splits into a grin. “I was horny, baby. Randy. ” She says it in a fake British accent and then jumps on top of me and starts making a humping motion.

“You’re impossible,” I say, pushing her off me. She rolls all the way off the bed, cackling.

“You love me.” Lindsay gets up on her knees and blows the bangs out of her face. She leans forward and rests her elbows on the bed. She suddenly gets serious.

“Sam?” Her eyes are wide and she drops her voice. I have to sit up to hear her over the music. “Can I tell you a secret?”

“Of course.” My heart starts fluttering. She knows what’s happening to me. It’s happening to her, too.

“You have to promise not to tell. You have to swear not to freak out.”

She knows; she knows. It’s not just me. My head clears and everything sharpens around me. I feel totally sober. “I swear.” The words barely come out.

She leans forward until her mouth is only an inch from my ear. “I…”

Then she turns her head and burps, loudly, in my face.

“Jesus, Lindz!” I fan the air with my hand. She sinks onto her back again, kicking her legs into the air and laughing hysterically. “What is wrong with you?”

“You should have seen your face.”

“Are you ever serious?” I say it jokingly, but my whole body feels heavy with disappointment. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t understand. Whatever is happening, it’s happening only to me. A feeling of complete aloneness overwhelms me, like a fog.

Lindsay dabs the corners of her eyes with a thumb and jumps to her feet. “I’ll be serious when I’m dead.”

That word sends a shock straight through me. Dead. So final, so ugly, so short. The warm feeling I’ve had since taking the shots drains out of me, and I lean over to shut Ally’s window, shivering.

The black mouth of the woods, yawning open. Vicky Hallinan’s face…

I try to decide what will happen to me if it turns out I really have gone bat-shit insane. Just before eighth period I stood ten feet away from the main office—home to the principal, Ms. Winters, and the school psychiatrist—willing myself to go in and say the words: I think I’m going crazy. But then there was a bang and Lauren Lornet shot into the hall, sniffling, probably crying over some boy drama or fight with her parents or something normal . In that second all of the work I’d done to fit in vanished. Everything is different now. I’m different.

“So are we going or what?” Elody bursts into the room in front of Ally. They’re both breathless.

“Let’s do it.” Lindsay picks up her bag and swings it over one shoulder.

Ally starts to giggle. “It’s only nine thirty,” she says, “and Sam already looks like she could barf.”

I stand up and wait for a second while the ground steadies underneath me. “I’ll be fine. I’m fine.”

“Liar,” Lindsay says, and smiles.

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