ONLY THE DREAM

“Come on, cheer up.” Lindsay whacks me on the head with a pillow. We’re sitting on the couch in Ally’s den.

Elody pops the last spicy tuna roll into her mouth, which I’m not sure is such a great idea, as it’s now been perched on an ottoman for the past three hours. “Don’t worry, Sammy. Rob’ll get over it.”

All of them think Rob’s the reason I’m quiet. But of course, it isn’t. I’m quiet because as soon as the clock inched its way past twelve, the fear crept back in. It’s been filling me slowly, like sand running through an hourglass. With every second I’m getting closer and closer to the Moment. Ground zero. This morning I was certain that it was simple—that all I had to do was stay away from the party, stay away from the car. That time would lurch back on track. That I would be saved.

But now my heart feels like it’s being squashed between my ribs, and it gets harder and harder to breathe. I’m terrified that in one second—in the space between a breath—everything will evaporate into darkness, and I’ll once again find myself alone in my bedroom at home, waking up to the screaming of the alarm. I don’t know what I’ll do if that happens. I think my heart will break. I think my heart will stop.

Ally switches off the television and throws down the remote. “What should we do now?”

“Let me consult the spirits.” Elody slides off the couch and onto the floor, where earlier we’d set up a dusty Ouija board for old time’s sake. We tried to play, but everyone was obviously pushing, and the indicator kept zipping onto words like penis and choad , until Lindsay started screaming “Perv spirits! Child molesters!” into the air.

Elody shoves the indicator with two fingers. It spins once before settling over the word YES .

“Look, Ma.” She holds up her hands. “No hands.”

“It wasn’t a yes or no question, doofus.” Lindsay rolls her eyes and takes a big sip of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape we swiped from the wine cellar.

“This town sucks,” Ally says. “Nothing ever happens.”

Twelve thirty-three. Twelve thirty-four. I’ve never seen seconds and minutes rush by so fast, tumble over one another. Twelve thirty-five. Twelve thirty-six.

“We need music or something,” Lindsay says, jumping up. “We can’t just sit around here like bums.”

“Definitely music,” Elody says. She and Lindsay run into the next room, where the Bose sound dock is.

“No music.” I groan, but it’s too late. Beyoncé is already blasting. The vases begin to rattle on the bookshelves. My head feels like it’s going to explode, and chills are running up and down my body. Twelve thirty-seven. I nestle deeper into the couch, drawing a blanket up over my knees, and cover my ears.

Lindsay and Elody march back into the room. We’re all in old boxer shorts and tank tops. Lindsay’s obviously just raided Ally’s mudroom because she and Elody are now also decked out in ski goggles and fleece hats. Elody’s hobbling along with one foot jammed in a child’s snowshoe.

“Oh my God!” Ally screams. She holds her stomach and doubles over, laughing.

Lindsay gyrates with a ski pole between her legs, rocking back and forth. “Oh, Patrick! Patrick!”

The music is so loud I can barely hear her, even when I take my hands off my ears. Twelve thirty-eight. One minute.

“Come on!” Elody shouts, extending her hand to me. I’m so full of fear I can’t move, can’t even shake my head, and she leans forward and yells, “Live a little!”

So many thoughts and words are tumbling through my head. I want to yell, No, stop or Yes, live , but all I can do is squeeze my eyes shut and picture seconds running like water into an infinite pool, and I imagine all of us hurtling through time and I think, Now, now, it’s going to happen now And then everything goes silent.

I’m afraid to open my eyes. A deep emptiness opens up inside me. I feel nothing. This is what it’s like to be dead.

Then a voice: “Too loud. You’ll blow out your eardrums before you’re twenty.”

I snap open my eyes. Mrs. Harris, Ally’s mom, is standing in the doorway in a glistening raincoat, smoothing down her hair. And Lindsay’s standing there in her ski goggles and hat, and Elody’s awkwardly trying to pry her foot out of the snowshoe.

I made it. It worked. Relief and joy flood me with so much force I almost cry out.

But instead, I laugh. I burst out laughing in the silence, and Ally gives me a dirty look, like, Now you decide it’s funny?

“Are you girls drunk?” Ally’s mother stares at each of us in turn and then frowns at the nearly empty bottle of wine on the floor.

“Hardly.” Ally throws herself on the couch. “You killed the buzz.”

Lindsay flips the goggles onto her head. “We were having a dance party, Mrs. Harris,” she says brightly, as if dancing around half naked and decked out in winter sports equipment was a Girl Scouts–mandated activity.

Mrs. Harris sighs. “Not anymore. It’s been a long day. I’m going to bed.”

“Moooom,” Ally whines.

Mrs. Harris shoots her a look. “No more music.”

Elody finally wrenches her foot free and stumbles backward, collapsing against one of the bookshelves. Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook comes flying out and lands at her feet. “Oops.” She turns bright red and looks at Mrs. Harris like she expects to be spanked any minute.

I can’t help it. I start giggling again.

Mrs. Harris rolls her eyes to the ceiling and shakes her head. “Good night, girls.”

“Nice going.” Ally leans over and pinches my thigh.

“Retard.”

Elody starts giggling and imitates Lindsay’s voice. “We were having a dance party, Mrs. Harris.”

“At least I didn’t fall into a bookshelf.” Lindsay bends over and wiggles her butt at us. “Kiss it.”

“Maybe I will.” Elody dives for her, pretending like she’s going to. Lindsay shrieks and dodges her. Ally hisses, “Shhhh!” right as we hear Mrs. Harris yell, “Girls!” from upstairs. Pretty soon they’re all laughing. It feels great to laugh with them.

I’m back.

An hour later Lindsay, Elody, and I are settled on the L-shaped couch. Elody has the top bit, and Lindsay and I are lying end-to-end. My feet are pressed against Lindsay’s, and she keeps wiggling her toes to annoy me. But nothing can annoy me right now. Ally has dragged in her air mattress and her blankets from upstairs (she insists she can’t sleep without her Society comforter). It’s just like freshman year. We’ve put the television on low because Elody likes the sound, and in the dark room the glow of the screen reminds me of summers spent breaking into the pool club to go night-swimming, of the way the light shines up through all that black water, of stillness and feeling like you’re the only person alive in the whole world.

“You guys?” I whisper. I’m not sure who’s still awake.

“Mmmf,” Lindsay grunts.

I close my eyes, letting the feeling of peace sweep over me, fill me from head to toe. “If you had to relive one day over and over, which one would you pick?”

Nobody answers me, and in a little while I hear Ally start snoring into her pillow. They’re all asleep. I’m not tired yet. I’m still too exhilarated to be here, to be safe, to have broken out of whatever bubble of time and space has been confining me. But I close my eyes anyway and try to imagine what kind of day I would choose. Memories speed by—dozens and dozens of parties, shopping trips with Lindsay, pigging out at sleepovers and crying over The Notebook with Elody, and even before that, family vacations and my eighth birthday party and the first time I ever dove off the high board at the pool and the water fizzed up my nose and left me dizzy—but all of them seem imperfect somehow, spotted and shadowy.

On a perfect day there wouldn’t be any school, that’s for sure. And there would be pancakes for breakfast—my mom’s pancakes. And my dad would make his famous fried eggs, and Izzy would set the table like she sometimes does at holidays, with different mismatched plates and fruit and flowers that she gathers from around the house and dumps in the middle of the table and calls a “thenterpeeth.”

I close my eyes and feel myself letting go, like tipping over the edge of an abyss, darkness rising up to carry me away….

Bringbringbring.

I’m pulled back from the edge of sleep and for one horrible second I think: it’s my alarm, I’m home, it’s happening again . I strike out, a spasm, and Lindsay yelps, “Ow!”

The sound of that one word makes my heart go still and my breathing return to normal.

Bringbringbring. Now that I’m fully alert I realize it’s not my alarm. It’s the telephone, ringing shrilly in various rooms, creating a weird echo effect. I check the clock. One fifty-two.

Elody groans. Ally rolls over and murmurs, “Turn it off.” The telephone stops ringing and then starts again, and all of a sudden Ally sits up, straight as a rod, totally awake.

She says, “Shit. Shit. My mom’s gonna kill me.”

“Make it stop, Al,” Lindsay says, from underneath her pillow.

Ally tries to untangle herself from her sheets, still muttering, “Shit. Where’s the freaking phone ?” She trips and ends up stumbling out of bed and hitting the ground with her shoulder. Elody moans again, this time louder.

Lindsay says, “I’m trying to sleep, people.”

“I need the phone,” Ally hisses back.

It’s too late, anyway. I hear footsteps moving upstairs. Mrs. Harris has obviously woken up. A second later the phone stops ringing.

“Thank God.” Lindsay rustles around, burrowing farther under her covers.

“It’s almost two.” Ally stands up—I can see the vague outline of her form hobbling back over to the bed. “Who the hell calls at two in the morning?”

“Maybe it’s Matt Wilde, confessing his love,” Lindsay says.

“Very funny,” Ally says. She settles back in bed and we all get quiet. I can just hear the low murmur of Mrs. Harris’s voice above us, the creaking of her footsteps as she paces. Then I very distinctly hear her say: “Oh, no. Oh my God.”

“Ally—” I start.

But she’s heard it too. She gets up and turns on the light, then switches off the television, which is still on low. The sudden brightness makes me wince. Lindsay curses and pulls the covers over her head.

“Something’s wrong.” Ally hugs herself, blinking rapidly. Elody reaches for her glasses, then props herself up on two elbows. Eventually Lindsay realizes the light’s not going off and she emerges from under her cocoon.

“What’s the problem?” She balls her hands into fists, rubbing her eyes.

No one answers. We all have a growing sense of it now: something is very wrong. Ally’s just standing there in the middle of the room. In her oversized T-shirt and baggy shorts she looks much younger than she is.

At a certain point the voice upstairs stops, and the footsteps move diagonally across the floor, in the direction of the stairs. Ally moves back to the air mattress, folding her legs underneath her and biting her nails.

Mrs. Harris doesn’t seem surprised to find us sitting up, waiting for her. She’s wearing a long silk nightgown and has an eye mask perched on top of her head. I’ve never seen Mrs. Harris looking less than perfect and it makes fear yawn open in my stomach.

“What?” Ally’s voice is semihysterical. “What happened? Is it Dad?”

Mrs. Harris blinks and seems to focus on us like she’s just been called out of a dream. “No, no. It’s not your father.” She takes a breath, then blows it out loudly. “Listen, girls. What I’m about to tell you is very upsetting. I’m only telling you in the first place because you’ll find out soon enough.”

“Just tell us, Mom.”

Mrs. Harris nods slowly. “You all know Juliet Sykes.”

This is a shock: we all look at one another, completely bewildered. Of all the words that Mrs. Harris could have said at this moment, I’m pretty sure “You all know Juliet Sykes” ranks pretty high on our list of the unexpected.

“Yeah. So?” Ally shrugs.

“Well, she—” Mrs. Harris breaks off, smoothing down her nightgown with her hands, and starts again. “That was Mindy Sachs on the phone.”

Lindsay raises her eyebrows, and Ally gives a knowing sigh. We all know Mindy Sachs too. She’s fifty and divorced but still dresses and acts like a sophomore. She’s more gossip-obsessed than anybody at our school. Whenever I see Ms. Sachs I’m reminded of the game we used to play when we were kids, where one person whispers a secret and the next person repeats it and so on and so on, except in Ridgeview Ms. Sachs is the only one doing the whispering. She and Mrs. Harris sit on the school board together, so Mrs. Harris always knows about divorces and who just lost all their money and who’s having an affair.

“Mindy lives just next to the Sykes’,” Mrs. Harris continues. “Apparently their street has been swarming with ambulances for the past half hour.”

“I don’t get it,” Ally says, and maybe it’s the hour or the stress of the past few days, but I’m not getting it either.

Mrs. Harris has her arms folded across her chest and she hugs herself a little, like she’s cold. “Juliet Sykes is dead. She killed herself tonight.”

Silence. Total silence. Ally stops chewing on her nails, and Lindsay sits as still as I’ve ever seen her. I really think for several seconds my heart stops beating. I feel a strange tunneling sensation, like I’ve been parachuted out of my body and am now just looking at it from far away, like for a few moments we’re all just pictures of ourselves.

I’m suddenly reminded of a story my parents once told me: back when Thomas Jefferson was called Suicide High, some guy hanged himself inside his own closet, right there among the mothball-smelling sweaters and old sneakers and everything. He was a loser and played in the band and had bad skin and next to no friends. So nobody thought anything of it when he died. I mean, people were sad and everything, but they got it.

But the next year—the next year to the day—one of the most popular guys in school killed himself in the exact same way . Everything was the same: method, time, place. Except this guy was captain of the swim team and the soccer team, and apparently when the police went into the closet, there were so many old athletic trophies on the shelves it looked like he’d been entombed in a gold vault. He left only a one-line note: We are all Hangmen.

“How?” Elody asks, barely a whisper.

Mrs. Harris shakes her head, and for a second I think she might cry. “Mindy heard the gunshot. She thought it was a firecracker. She thought it was a prank.”

“She shot herself?” Ally says it quietly, almost reverentially, and I know we’re all thinking the same thing: that’s the worst way of any.

“How are they…” Elody adjusts her glasses and licks her lips. “Do they know why?”

“There was no note,” Mrs. Harris says, and I swear I can hear something go around the room: a tiny exhalation. A breath of relief. “I just thought you should know.” She goes to Ally and bends over, kissing her forehead. Ally pulls away, maybe in surprise. I’ve never seen Mrs. Harris kiss Ally before. I’ve never seen Mrs. Harris look so much like a mother before.

After Mrs. Harris leaves we all sit there while the silence stretches out and expands in huge rings around us. I feel like we’re all waiting for something, but I’m not sure what. Finally Elody speaks.

“Do you think…” Elody swallows, looking back and forth from one to the other of us. “Do you think it’s because of our rose?”

“Don’t be stupid,” Lindsay snaps. I can tell she’s upset, though. Her face is pale, and she twists and untwists the edge of her blanket. “It’s not like it was the first time.”

“That makes it even worse,” Ally says.

“At least we knew who she was.” Lindsay catches me staring at her hands, and she places them firmly in her lap. “Most people just acted like she was invisible.”

Ally bites her lip.

“Still, on her last day…” Elody trails off.

“She’s better off this way,” Lindsay says. This is low, even for her, and we all stare.

“What?” She lifts her chin and stares back at us defiantly. “You know you’re all thinking it. She was miserable. She escaped. Done.”

“But—I mean, things could have gotten better,” I say.

“They wouldn’t have,” Lindsay says.

Ally shakes her head and draws her knees to her chest. “God, Lindsay.”

I’m in shock. The weirdest part of it all is the gun. It seems so harsh, so loud, so physical a way to do it. Blood and brains and searing heat. If she had to do it—to die—she should have drowned, should have just walked into the water until it folded over her head. Or she should have jumped. I picture Juliet floating this way and that, like she’s being supported by currents of air. I can imagine her spreading her arms and leaping off a bridge or a canyon somewhere, but in my head she starts soaring upward on the wind as soon as her feet leave the ground.

Not a gun. Guns are for cop dramas and 7-Eleven holdups and crack addicts and gang fights. Not for Juliet Sykes.

“Maybe we should have been nicer to her,” Elody says. She looks down like she’s embarrassed to say it.

“Please.” Lindsay’s voice is loud and hard in comparison. “You can’t be mean to someone forever and then feel bad when she dies.”

Elody lifts her head and stares at Lindsay. “But I do feel bad.” Her voice is getting stronger.

“Then you’re a hypocrite,” Lindsay says. “And that’s worse than anything.”

She gets up and shuts off the light. I hear her climb back on the couch and rustle around in the blankets, settling in.

“If you’ll excuse me,” she says, “I have sleep to catch up on.”

There’s total silence for a while. I’m not sure if Ally’s lying down or not, but as my eyes adjust to the darkness I see that she isn’t: she’s still sitting there with her knees drawn up to her chest, staring straight ahead.

After a minute she says, “I’m going to sleep upstairs.” She gathers up her sheets and blankets, making extra noise, probably to get back at Lindsay.

A moment later Elody says, “I’m going with her. The couch is too lumpy.” She’s obviously upset too. We’ve been sleeping on this couch for years.

After she leaves I sit for a while listening to Lindsay breathe. I wonder if she’s sleeping. I don’t see how she could be. I feel as awake as I’ve ever been. Then again, Lindsay’s always been different from most people, less sensitive, more black-and-white. My team, your team. This side of the line, that side of the line. Fearless, and careless. I’ve always admired her for that—we all have.

I feel restless, like I need to know the answers to questions I’m not sure how to ask. I ease off the couch slowly, trying not to wake Lindsay, but it turns out she’s not sleeping after all. She rolls over, and in the dark I can just make out her pale skin and the deep hollows of her eyes.

“You’re not going upstairs, are you?” she whispers.

“Bathroom,” I whisper back.

I feel my way out into the hallway and pause there. Somewhere a clock is ticking, but other than that it’s totally silent. Everything is dark and the stone floor is cold under my feet. I run one hand along the wall to orient myself. The sound of the rain has stopped. When I look outside I see the rain has turned to snow, thousands of snowflakes melting down the latticed windows and making the moonlight that comes through the panes look watery and full of movement, shadows twisting and blurring on the floor, alive. There’s a bathroom here, but that’s not where I’m headed. I ease open the door that leads to Ally’s basement and grope my way down the stairs, holding on to both banisters.

As soon as my feet hit the carpet at the bottom of the stairs, I fumble on the wall to my left, eventually finding the light switch. The basement is suddenly revealed, big and stark and normal-looking: beige leather couches, an old Ping-Pong table, another flat-screen TV, and a circular area with a treadmill, an elliptical machine, and a three-sided mirror at its center. It’s cooler here and smells like chemicals and new paint.

Just beyond the exercise area is another door, which leads into the room we’ve always referred to as the Altar of Allison Harris. The room is papered with Ally’s old drawings, none of them good, most dating back to elementary school. The bookshelves are crowded with pictures of her: Ally dressed up like an octopus for Halloween in first grade, Ally wearing a green velvet dress and smiling in front of an enormous Christmas tree absolutely collapsing with ornaments, Ally squinting in a bikini, Ally laughing, Ally frowning, Ally looking pensive. And on the lowest shelf, every single one of Ally’s old yearbooks, from kindergarten on. Ally once showed us how Mrs. Harris had gone through all the books, one by one, placing colored sticky tabs on each one of Ally’s friends from year to year. (“So you can remember how popular you always were,” Mrs. Harris had told her.)

I drop to my knees. I’m not sure exactly what I’m looking for, but there’s an idea taking shape in my head, some old memory that disappears whenever I will it to take form, like those Magic Eye games where you can only see the hidden shape when your eyes aren’t in focus.

I start with the first-grade yearbook. I open it directly to Mr. Christensen’s class—just my luck—and there I am, standing a little ways apart from the group. The flash reflected in my glasses makes it impossible to see my eyes. My smile is closer to a wince, as though the effort hurts. I flip past the picture quickly. I hate looking through old yearbooks; they don’t exactly bring back a flood of positive memories. Mine are stashed somewhere in the attic, with all the other crap my mom insists I keep “because you might want it later,” like my old dolls and a ratty stuffed lamb I used to carry with me everywhere.

Two pages later I find what I’m looking for: Mrs. Novak’s first-grade class. And there Lindsay is, front and center as always, beaming a big smile at the camera. Next to her is a thin, pretty girl with a shy smile and hair so blond it could be white. She and Lindsay are standing so close together their arms are touching all the way from their elbows to their fingertips.

Juliet Sykes.

In the second-grade yearbook, Lindsay is kneeling in the front row of her class. Again, Juliet Sykes is next to her.

In the third-grade yearbook, Juliet and Lindsay are separated by several pages. Lindsay was in Ms. Derner’s class (with me—that was the year she invented the joke: “What’s red and white and weird all over?”). Juliet was in Dr. Kuzma’s class. Different pages, different classes, different poses—Lindsay has her hands clasped in front of her; Juliet is standing with her body angled slightly to the side—and yet they look exactly the same, wearing identical powder blue Petit Bateau T-shirts and matching white capri pants, which cut off just below the knee; their hair, blond and shining, parted neatly down the middle; the glint of a small silver chain around both of their necks. That was the year it was cool to dress up like your friends—your best friends.

I pick up the fourth-grade yearbook next, my fingers heavy and numb, cold running through me. There’s a big Technicolor portrait of the school on its cover, all neon pinks and reds, probably painted by an art teacher. It takes me a while to find Lindsay’s class, but as soon as I do my heart starts racing. There she is with that same huge smile, like she’s daring the camera to catch her looking less-than-perfect. And next to her is Juliet Sykes. Pretty, happy Juliet Sykes, smiling like she has a secret. I squint, focusing on a tiny blurred spot between them, and think I can just make out that their index fingers are linked together loosely.

Fifth grade. I find Lindsay easily, standing front and center in Mrs. Krakow’s classroom, smiling so widely it looks like she’s baring her teeth. It takes me longer to find Juliet. I go through all the photographs looking for her and have to start over from the beginning before I spot her, far up in the right-hand corner, sandwiched between Lauren Lornet and Eileen Cho, shrinking backward like she wants to suck herself out of the frame altogether. Her hair hangs in front of her face like a curtain. Next to her, both Lauren and Eileen are angled slightly away, as though they don’t want to be associated with her, as though she has some contagious disease.

Fifth grade: the year of the Girl Scout trip, when she peed in her sleeping bag and Lindsay nicknamed her Mellow Yellow.

I put the yearbooks back carefully, making sure to order them correctly. My heart is thumping wildly, an out-of-control drum rhythm. I suddenly want to get out of the basement as quickly as possible. I shut off the lights and feel my way up the stairs blindly. The darkness seems to swirl with shapes and shadows, and terror rises in my throat. I’m sure that if I turn around I’ll see her, all in white, stumbling with her hands outstretched, reaching for me, face bloody and broken apart.

And then I’m upstairs and there she is: a vision, a nightmare. Her face is completely in shadow—a hole—but I can tell she’s staring at me. The room tilts; I grab on to the wall to keep myself steady.

“What’s your problem?” Lindsay steps farther into the hall, the moonlight falling differently so that her features emerge. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Jesus.” I bring my hand to my chest, trying to press my heart back to its normal rhythm. “You scared me.”

“What were you doing down there?” Her hair is messed up, and in her white boxers and tank top she could be a ghost.

“You were friends with her,” I say. It pops out like an accusation. “You were friends with her for years.”

I’m not sure what answer I’m expecting, but she looks away and then looks back at me.

“It’s not our fault,” she says, like she’s daring me to contradict her. “She’s totally wacked. You know that.”

“I know,” I say. But I get the feeling she’s not even talking to me.

“And I heard her dad’s, like, an alcoholic,” Lindsay presses on, her voice suddenly quick, urgent. “Her whole family’s wacked.”

“Yeah,” I say. For a minute we just stand there in silence. My body feels heavy, useless, the way it sometimes does in nightmares when you have to run but you can’t. After a while something occurs to me and I say, “Was.”

Even though we’ve been standing in silence, Lindsay inhales sharply, as though I’ve interrupted her in the middle of a long speech. “What?”

“She was wacked,” I say. “She’s not anything anymore.”

Lindsay doesn’t respond. I go past her into the dark hallway and find my way to the couch. I settle in under the blankets, and a little while later she comes in and joins me.

Lying there, convinced I won’t be able to sleep, I remember the time in the middle of junior year when Lindsay and I snuck out on a random weeknight—a Tuesday or a Thursday—and drove around because there was nothing else to do. At some point she pulled over abruptly on Fallow Ridge Road and cut the headlights, waiting until another car began to squeeze its way toward us on the single-lane road. Then she roared the engine and blazed the lights to life and began careening straight toward it. I was screaming at the top of my lungs, the headlights growing huge as suns, certain we were going to die, and she was gripping the steering wheel and calling out over my screams, “Don’t worry—they always swerve first.” She was right, too. At the last second the other car jerked abruptly into the ditch.

That’s what I remember just before the dream pulls me under.

In my dream I am falling through darkness.

In my dream I fall forever.

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