“This is how a horror movie starts,” Ally says. “Are you sure he’s number forty-two?”
“I’m sure.” My voice sounds like it’s coming from a distance. The huge crush of fear has returned. I can feel it pressing on me from all directions, squeezing the breath out of me.
“This better not screw with my paint job,” Lindsay says as a branch scrapes along the passenger door with the sound of a nail dragging against a chalkboard.
The woods fall away, and Kent’s house comes looming out of the darkness, white and sparkling, like it’s made of ice. The way it just emerges there, surrounded on all sides by black, reminds me of the scene in Titanic when the iceberg rises out of the water and guts the ship open. We’re all silent for a second. Tiny pellets of rain ping against the windshield and the roof, and Lindsay switches off her iPod. An old song pipes quietly from the radio. I can just make out the lyrics: Feel it now like you felt it then…. Touch me now and around again….
“It’s almost as big as your house, Al,” Lindsay says.
“Almost,” Ally says. I feel a tremendous wave of affection for her at that moment. Ally, who likes big houses and expensive cars and Tiffany jewelry and platform wedges and body glitter. Ally, who’s not that smart and knows it, and obsesses over boys who aren’t good enough for her. Ally, who’s secretly an amazing cook. I know her. I get her. I know all of them.
In the house Dujeous roars through the speakers: All MCs in the house tonight, if your lyrics sound tight then rock the mic. The stairs roll underneath me. When we get upstairs Lindsay takes the bottle of vodka away from me, laughing.
“Slow down, Slam-a-Lot. You’ve got business to take care of.”
“Business?” I start laughing a little, little gasps of it. It’s so smoky I can hardly breathe. “I thought it was making love.”
“The business of making love.” She leans in and her face swells like a moon. “No more vodka for a while, okay?”
I feel myself nodding and her face recedes. She scans the room. “I’ve gotta find Patrick. You gonna be okay?”
“Perfect,” I say, trying to smile. I can’t manage it: it’s like the muscles in my face won’t respond. She starts to turn away and I grab her wrist. “Lindz?”
“I’m gonna come with you, okay?”
She shrugs. “Yeah, sure. Whatever. He’s in the back somewhere—he just texted me.”
We start pushing past people. Lindsay yells back to me, “It’s like a maze up here.” Things are going past me in a blur—snippets of conversation and laughter, the feel of coats brushing against my skin, the smell of beer and perfume and shower gel and sweat—all of it whirling and spinning together.
Everyone looks the way they do in dreams, familiar but not too clear, like they could morph into someone else at any second. I’m dreaming , I think. This is all a dream: this whole day has been a dream, and when I wake up I’ll tell Lindsay how the dream felt real and hours long, and she’ll roll her eyes and tell me that dreams never last longer than thirty seconds.
It’s funny to think about telling Lindsay—who’s tugging on my hand and tossing her hair impatiently in front of me—that I’m only dreaming of her, that she’s not really here, and I giggle, starting to relax. It’s all a dream; I can do whatever I want. I can kiss anybody I want to, and as we walk past groups of guys I check them off in my head—Adam Marshall, Rassan Lucas, and Andrew Roberts—I could kiss each and every one if I wanted to. I see Kent standing in the corner talking to Phoebe Rifer and I think, I could walk up and kiss the heart-shaped mole under his eye, and it wouldn’t make a difference. I don’t know where the idea comes from. I would never kiss Kent, not even in a dream. But I could if I wanted to. Somewhere I’m lying stretched out under a warm blanket on a big bed surrounded by pillows, my hands folded under my head, sleeping.
I lean forward to tell Lindsay this—that I’m dreaming of yesterday and maybe yesterday was its own dream too—when I see Bridget McGuire standing in a corner with her arm around Alex Liment’s waist. She’s laughing and he’s bending down to nuzzle her neck. She looks up at that moment and sees me watching them. Then she takes his hand and drags him over to me, pushing other people out of the way.
“She’ll know,” she’s saying over her shoulder to him, and then she turns her smile on me. Her teeth are so white they’re glowing. “Did Mrs. Harbor give out the essay assignments today?”
“What?” I’m so confused it takes me a second to realize she’s talking about English class.
“The essay assignments. For Macbeth ?”
She nudges Alex and he says, “I missed seventh period.” He meets my eyes and then looks away, taking a swig of beer.
I don’t say anything. I don’t know what to say.
“So did she give them out?” Bridget looks like she always does: like a puppy just waiting for a treat. “Alex had to skip. Doctor’s appointment. His mom made him get some shot to, like, prevent meningitis. How lame is that? I mean, four people died of it last year. You have more of a chance of being hit by a car—”
“He should get a shot to prevent herpes,” Lindsay says, snickering, but so quietly I only hear because I’m standing right next to her. “It’s probably too late, though.”
“I don’t know,” I say to Bridget. “I cut.”
I’m staring at Alex, watching his reaction. I’m not sure whether he noticed Lindsay and me standing outside of Hunan Kitchen today, peering inside. It doesn’t seem like it.
He and Anna had been huddled over some grayish meat congealing in a plastic bowl, just like I’d expected them to be. Lindsay had wanted to go in and mess with them, but I’d threatened to puke on her new Steve Madden boots if we even caught a whiff of the nasty meat-and-onion smell inside.
By the time we left The Country’s Best Yogurt, they were gone, and we only saw them again briefly at the Smokers’ Lounge. They were leaving just as Lindsay was lighting up. Alex gave Anna a quick kiss on the cheek, and we saw them walk off in two different directions: Alex toward the cafeteria, Anna toward the arts building.
They were long gone by the time Lindsay and I passed the Nic Nazi on her daily patrol. They weren’t busted today.
And Bridget doesn’t know where he really was during seventh.
All of a sudden things start clicking into place—all the fears I’ve been holding back—one right after another like dominoes falling. I can’t deny it anymore. Sarah Grundel got the parking space because we were late. That’s why she’s still in the semifinals. Anna and Alex didn’t have a fight because I convinced Lindsay to keep walking. That’s why they weren’t caught out at the Smokers’ Lounge, and that’s why Bridget is hanging off Alex instead of crying in a bathroom.
This isn’t a dream. And it’s not déjà vu.
It’s really happening. It’s happening again .
It feels like my whole body goes to ice in that second. Bridget’s babbling about having never cut a class, and Lindsay’s nodding and looking bored, and Alex is drinking his beer, and then I really can’t breathe—fear is clamping down on me like a vise, and I feel like I might shatter into a million pieces right then and there. I want to sit down and put my head between my knees, but I’m worried that if I move, or close my eyes, or do anything, I’ll just start to unravel—head coming away from neck coming away from shoulder—all of me floating away into nothing.
The head bone disconnected from the neck bone, the neck bone disconnected from the backbone…
I feel arms wrap around me from behind and Rob’s mouth is on my neck. But even he can’t warm me up. I’m shivering uncontrollably.
“Sexy Sammy,” he singsongs, turning me around to him. “Where’ve you been all my life?”
“Rob.” I’m surprised I can still speak, surprised I can still think. “I really need to talk to you.”
“What’s up, babe?” His eyes are bleary and red. Maybe it’s because I’m terrified, but certain things seem sharper to me than they ever have, clearer. I notice for the first time that the crescent-shaped scar under his nose makes him look kind of like a bull.
“We can’t do it here. We need to…we need to go somewhere. A room or something. Somewhere private.”
He grins and leans into me, breathing alcohol on my face while he tries to kiss me. “I get it. It’s that kind of conversation.”
“I’m serious, Rob. I’m feeling—” I shake my head. “I’m not feeling right.”
“You’re never feeling right.” He pulls away, frowning at me. “There’s always something, you know?”
“What are you talking about?”
He sways a little bit on his feet and imitates. “I’m tired tonight. My parents are upstairs. Your parents will hear.” He shakes his head. “I’ve been waiting months for this, Sam.”
The tears are coming. My head throbs with the effort of keeping them back. “This has nothing to do with that. I swear, I—”
“Then what does it have to do with?” He crosses his arms.
“I just really need you right now.” I barely get the words out. I’m surprised he even hears me.
He sighs and rubs his forehead. “All right, all right. I’m sorry.” He puts one hand on the top of my head.
I nod. Tears start coming and he wipes two of them away with his thumb.
“Let’s talk, okay? We’ll go somewhere quiet.” He rattles his empty beer cup at me. “But can I at least get a topper first?”
“Yeah, sure,” I say, even though I want to beg him to stay with me, to put his arms around me and never let go.
“You’re the best,” he says, ducking down to kiss my cheek. “No crying—we’re at a party, remember? It’s supposed to be fun.” He starts backing away and holds up his hand, fingers extended. “Five minutes.”
I press myself against the wall and wait. I don’t know what else to do. People are going past me, and I keep my hair down and in my face so no one will be able to tell the tears are still coming. The party is loud, but somehow it seems remote. Words are distorted and music sounds the way it does at a carnival, like all the notes are off balance and just colliding with one another.
Five minutes pass, then seven. Ten minutes pass, and I tell myself I’ll wait five more minutes and then go look for him, even though the idea of moving seems impossible. After twelve minutes I text, Where r u? but then remember that yesterday he told me he’d set his phone down somewhere.
And this time, when I imagine myself lying somewhere, I’m not sleeping. This time I imagine myself stretched out on a cold stone slab, skin as white as milk, lips blue, and hands folded across my chest like they’ve been placed there….
I take a deep breath and force myself to focus on other things. I count the Christmas lights framing the E.T. movie poster over a couch, and then I count the bright red glowing cigarette butts weaving around through the half darkness like fireflies. I’m not a math geek or anything, but I’ve always liked numbers. I like how you can just keep stacking them up, one on top of the other, until they fill any space, any moment. I told my friends this one day, and Lindsay said I was going to be the kind of old woman who memorizes phone books and keeps flattened cereal boxes and newspapers piled from floor to ceiling in her house, looking for messages from space in the bar codes.
But a few months later I was sleeping over, and she confessed that sometimes when she’s upset about something she recites this Catholic bedtime prayer she memorized when she was little, even though she’s half Jewish and doesn’t even believe in God anyway.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.
She’d seen it embroidered on a pillow in her piano teacher’s house, and we laughed about how lame embroidered pillows were. But until I fell asleep that night I couldn’t get the prayer out of my head. That one line kept replaying over and over in my mind: If I should die before I wake.
I’m just about to force myself away from the wall when I hear Rob’s name. Two sophomores have stumbled into the room, giggling, and I strain to hear what they’re saying.
“…his second in two hours.”
“No, Matt Kessler did the first one.”
“They both did.”
“Did you see how Aaron Stern is, like, holding him above the keg? Completely upside down.”
“That’s what a keg stand is , duh.”
“Rob Cokran is so hot.”
“Shhh. Oh my God.”
One of the girls elbows the other one when she notices me. Her face goes white. She’s probably terrified: she’s been talking about my boyfriend (misdemeanor), but, more specifically, she’s been talking about how hot he is (felony). If Lindsay were here, she would freak out, call the girls whores, and get them booted from the party. If she were here she would expect me to freak out. Lindsay thinks that underclassmen—specifically sophomore girls—need to be put in their place. Otherwise they’ll overrun the universe like cockroaches, protected from nuclear attack by an armor of Tiffany jewelry and shiny lip-gloss shells.
I don’t have the energy to give these girls attitude, though, and I’m glad Lindsay’s not with me so she can’t give me crap about it. I should have known Rob wouldn’t come back. I think about today, when he told me to trust him, when he said that he’d never let me down. I should have told him he was full of it.
I need to get out. I need to be away from the smoke and the music. I need a place to think. I’m still freezing, and I’m sure I look awful, though I don’t feel like I’m going to cry anymore. We once watched this health video about the symptoms of shock, and I’m pretty much the poster child for all of them. Difficulty breathing. Cold, clammy hands. Dizziness. Knowing this makes me feel even worse.
Which just goes to show you should never pay attention in health class.
The line for both bathrooms is four deep and all of the rooms are packed. It’s eleven o’clock and everyone who has planned on showing is here. A couple of people say my name, and Tara Flute gets in my face and says, “Oh my God. I love your earrings. Did you get them at—”
“Not now.” I cut her off and keep going, desperate to find somewhere dark and quiet. To my left is a closed door, the one with all of the bumper stickers plastered to it. I grip the doorknob and shake it. It doesn’t open, of course.
“That’s the VIP room.”
I turn around and Kent is standing behind me, smiling.
“You’ve got to be on the list.” He leans against the wall. “Or slip the bouncer a twenty. Whichever.”
“I—I was looking for the bathroom.”
Kent tilts his head toward the other side of the hall, where Ronica Masters, obviously drunk, is hammering on a door with her fist.
“Come on, Kristen!” she’s yelling. “I really have to pee.”
Kent turns back to me and raises his eyebrows.
“My bad,” I say, and try to push past him.
“Are you okay?” Kent doesn’t exactly touch me, but he holds his hand up like he’s thinking about it. “You look—”
“I’m fine.” The last thing in the world I need right now is pity from Kent McFuller, and I shove back into the hallway.
I’ve just decided to go outside and call Lindsay from the porch—I’ll tell her I need to leave ASAP, I have to leave—when Elody barrels into the hall, throwing her arms around me.
“Where the hell have you been?” she screeches, kissing me. She’s sweating, and I think of Izzy climbing into my bed and putting her arms around me, tugging on my necklace. I should never have gotten out of bed today.
“Let me guess, let me guess.” Elody leaves her arms around me and starts bumping her hips like we’re grinding on a dance floor. She rolls her eyes to the ceiling and starts moaning, “Oh, Rob, oh, Rob. Yeah. Just like that.”
“You’re a pervert.” I push her off me. “You’re worse than Otto.”
She laughs and grabs my hand, starts dragging me toward the back room. “Come on. Everyone’s in here.”
“I have to go,” I say. The music back here is louder and I’m yelling. “I don’t feel good.”
“I don’t feel good!”
She points to her ear like, I can’t hear you . I’m not sure if it’s true or not. Her palms are wet and I try to pull away, but at that second Lindsay and Ally spot me, and they start squealing, jumping all over me.
“I was looking for you for ages,” Lindsay says, waving her cigarette.
“In Patrick’s mouth, maybe.” Ally snorts.
“She was with Rob.” Elody points at me, swaying on her feet. “Look at her. She looks guilty.”
“Hussy!” Lindsay screeches. Ally pipes in with, “Trollop!” and Elody yells out, “Harlot!” This is an old joke of ours: Lindsay decided slut was too boring last year.
“I’m going home,” I say. “You don’t have to drive me. I’ll figure it out.”
Lindsay must think I’m kidding. “Go home? We only got here, like, an hour ago.” She leans forward and whispers, “Besides, I thought you and Rob were going to…you know .” As though she didn’t just scream out in front of everybody that I already had.
“I changed my mind.” I do my best to sound like I don’t care, and the effort it takes is exhausting. I’m angry at Lindsay without knowing why—for not ditching the party with me, I guess. I’m angry at Elody for dragging me back here and at Ally for always being so clueless. I’m angry at Rob for not caring how upset I am, and I’m angry at Kent for caring. I’m angry at everyone and everything, and in that second I fantasize about the cigarette Lindsay’s waving catching on the curtains, about fire racing over the room and consuming everyone. Then, immediately, I feel guilty. The last thing I need is to morph into one of those people who’s always wearing black and doodling guns and bombs on her notebook.
Lindsay’s gaping at me like she can see what I’m thinking. Then I realize she’s looking over my shoulder. Elody turns pink. Ally’s mouth starts opening and closing like a fish’s. There’s a dip in the noise of the party, like someone has just hit pause on a soundtrack.
Juliet Sykes. I know it will be her before I turn around, but I’m still surprised when I see her, still struck with that same sense of wonder.
Today when I saw her drifting through the cafeteria she looked like she always did, hair hanging in her face, baggy clothing, shrunken into herself like she could be anyone, anywhere, a phantom or a shadow.
But now she’s standing straight and her hair is pulled back and her eyes are glittering.
She walks across the room toward us. My mouth goes dry. I want to say no, but she’s standing in front of Lindsay before I can get the word out. I see her mouth moving, but what she says takes a second to understand, like I’m hearing it from underwater.
“You’re a bitch.”
Everyone is whispering, staring at our little huddle: me, Lindsay, Elody, Ally, and Juliet Sykes. I feel my cheeks burning. The sound of voices begins to swell.
“What did you say?” Lindsay is gritting her teeth.
“A bitch. A mean girl. A bad person.” Juliet turns to Elody. “You’re a bitch.” To Ally. “You’re a bitch.” Finally her eyes click on mine. They’re exactly the color of sky.
“You’re a bitch.”
The voices are a roar now, people laughing and screaming out, “Psycho.”
“You don’t know me,” I croak out at last, finding my voice, but Lindsay has already stepped forward and drowns me out.
“I’d rather be a bitch than a psycho,” she snarls, and puts two hands on Juliet’s shoulders and shoves. Juliet stumbles backward, pinwheeling her arms, and it’s all so horrible and familiar. It’s happening again; it’s actually happening. I close my eyes. I want to pray, but all I can think is, Why, why, why, why.
When I open my eyes Juliet is coming toward me, drenched, arms outstretched. She looks up at me, and I swear to God it’s like she knows, like she can see straight into me, like this is somehow my fault. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach and the air goes out of me and I lunge at her without thinking, push her and send her backward. She collapses into a bookshelf and then spins off of it, grabbing the doorframe to steady herself. Then she ducks out into the hallway.
“Can you believe it?” someone is screeching behind me.
“Juliet Sykes is packing some cojones .”
“Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, man.”
People are laughing, and Lindsay leans over to Elody and says, “Freak.” The empty bottle of vodka is dangling from her hand. She must have dumped the rest on Juliet.
I start shoving my way out of the room. It seems as though even more people have come in and it’s almost impossible to move. I’m really pushing, using my elbows when I have to, and everyone’s giving me weird looks. I don’t care. I need out.
I finally make it to the door and there’s Kent, staring at me with his mouth set in a line. He shifts like he’s about to block me.
I hold up my hand. “Don’t even think about it.” The words come out as a growl.
Without a sound he moves so I can squeeze past him. When I’m halfway down the hall I hear him shout out, “Why?”
“Because,” I yell back. But really I’m thinking the same thing.
Why is this happening to me?
Why, why, why?
“How come Sam always gets shotgun?”
“Because you’re always too drunk to call it.”
“I can’t believe you bailed on Rob like that,” Ally says. She’s got her coat hunched up around her ears. Lindsay’s car is so cold our breaths are all solid white vapor. “You’re going to be in so much trouble tomorrow.”
If there is a tomorrow , I almost say. I left the party without saying good-bye to Rob, who was stretched out on a sofa, his eyes half shut. I’d been locked in an empty bathroom on the first floor for a half hour before that, sitting on the cold, hard rim of a bathtub, listening to the music pulsing through the walls and ceiling. Lindsay had insisted I wear bright red lipstick, and when I checked my face in the mirror, I saw that it had begun to bleed away from my lips, like a clown’s. I took it off slowly with balled-up tissues, which I left floating in the toilet bowl, little blooming flowers of pink.
At a certain point your brain stops trying to rationalize things. At a certain point it gives up, shuts off, shuts down. Still, as Lindsay turns the car around—driving up on Kent’s lawn to do it, tires spinning in the mud—I’m afraid.
Trees, as white and frail as bone, are dancing wildly in the wind. The rain is hammering the roof of the car, and sheets of water on the windows make the world look like it’s disintegrating. The clock on the dashboard is glowing: 12:38.
I’m gripping my seat as Lindsay speeds down the driveway, branches whipping past us on either side.
“What about the paint job?” I say, my heart hammering in my chest. I try to tell myself I’m okay, I’m fine, that nothing’s going to happen. But it doesn’t do any good.
“Screw it,” she says. “Car’s busted anyway. Have you seen the bumper?”
“Maybe if you stopped hitting parked cars,” Elody says with a snort.
“Maybe if you had a car.” Lindsay takes one hand off the wheel and leans over, reaching for her bag at my feet. As she tips she jerks the steering wheel, and the car runs up a little into the woods. Ally slides across the backseat and collapses into Elody, and they both start laughing.
I reach over and try to grab the wheel. “Jesus, Lindz.”
Lindsay straightens up and elbows me off. She shoots me a look and then starts fumbling with a pack of cigarettes. “What’s up with you?”
“Nothing. I—” I look out the window, biting back tears that are suddenly threatening to come. “I just want you to pay attention, that’s all.”
“Yeah? Well, I want you to keep off the wheel.”
“Come on, guys. No fighting,” Ally says.
“Give me a smoke, Lindz.” Elody’s half reclining on the backseat, and she flails her arm wildly.
“Only if you light one for me,” Lindsay says, tossing her pack into the backseat. Elody lights two cigarettes and passes one to Lindsay. Lindsay cracks a window and exhales a plume of smoke. Ally screeches.
“Please, please, no windows. I’m about to drop dead from pneumonia.”
“You’re about to drop dead when I kill you,” Elody says.
“If you were gonna die,” I blurt out, “how would you want it to be?”
“Never,” Lindsay says.
“I’m serious.” My palms are damp with sweat and I wipe them on the seat cushion.
“In my sleep,” Ally says.
“Eating my grandma’s lasagna,” Elody says, and then pauses and adds, “or having sex,” which makes Ally shriek with laughter.
“On an airplane,” Lindsay says. “If I’m going down, I want everyone to go down with me.” She makes a diving motion with her hand.
“Do you think you’ll know, though?” It’s suddenly important for me to talk about this. “I mean, do you think you’ll have an idea of it…like, before ?”
Ally straightens up and leans forward, hooking her arms over the back of our seats. “One day my grandfather woke up, and he swore he saw this guy all in black at the foot of his bed—big hood, no face. He was holding this sword or whatever that thingy is called. It was Death, you know? And then later that day he went to the doctor and they diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer. The same day .”
Elody rolls her eyes. “He didn’t die, though.”
“He could have died.”
“That story doesn’t make any sense.”
“Can we change the subject?” Lindsay brakes for just a second before yanking the car out onto the wet road. “This is so morbid.”
Ally giggles. “SAT word alert.”
Lindsay cranes her neck back and tries to blow smoke in Ally’s face. “Not all of us have the vocabulary of a twelve-year-old.”
Lindsay turns onto Route 9, which stretches in front of us, a giant silver tongue. A hummingbird is beating its wings in my chest—rising, rising, fluttering into my throat.
I want to go back to what I was saying—I want to say, You would know, right? You would know before it happened —but Elody bumps Ally out of the way and leans forward, the cigarette dangling from her mouth, trumpeting, “Music!” She grabs for the iPod.
“Are you wearing your seat belt?” I say. I can’t help it. The terror is everywhere now, pressing down on me, squeezing the breath from me, and I think: if you don’t breathe, you’ll die. The clock ticks forward. 12:39.
Elody doesn’t even answer, just starts scrolling through the iPod. She finds “Splinter,” and Ally slaps her and says it should be her turn to pick the music, anyway. Lindsay tells them to stop fighting, and she tries to grab the iPod from Elody, taking both hands off the wheel, steadying it with one knee. I grab for it again and she shouts, “Get off!” She’s laughing.
Elody knocks the cigarette out of Lindsay’s hand and it lands between Lindsay’s thighs. The tires slide a little on the wet road, and the car is full of the smell of burning.
If you don’t breathe…
Then all of a sudden there’s a flash of white in front of the car. Lindsay yells something—words I can’t make out, something like sit or shit or sight —and suddenlyWell.
You know what happens next.