YOU CAN’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS STEEL-TOED COMBAT BOOTS

When I march into the cafeteria ten minutes late, our usual table is empty, and I know that I have been officially and deliberately ditched.

For a fraction of a second I can feel everyone’s eyes lift in my direction, staring. I bring my hand up to my face without meaning to, suddenly terrified that everyone will see the rawness on my chin and know what I’ve been doing.

I duck out into the hall again. I need to be alone, need to pull it together. I head for the bathrooms, but as I get close, two sophomores (Lindsay calls them s’mores because they’re always stuck together and more than two will get you sick) come bursting out of the door, giggling, arm-in-arm. Lunch is prime bathroom traffic time—everyone needs to reapply lip gloss, complain about feeling fat, threaten to upchuck in one of the stalls—and the last thing I need right now is a steady stream of stupid.

I head to the old bathroom at the far end of the science wing. Hardly anyone uses it since a newer bathroom—with toilets that don’t clog 24/7—was installed last year between the labs. The farther I get from the cafeteria, the more the roar of voices drops away, until they sound just like the ocean from far away. I get calmer with every step. My heels beat a steady rhythm on the tile floor.

The science wing is empty, as expected, and smells, as always, like chemical cleaners and sulfur. Today there’s something else, though: the smell of smoke and something earthier, more pungent. I push against the bathroom door and for a second nothing happens. I push harder and there’s a grating sound; I jam my shoulder against the door, and finally it swings open, carrying me inside with it. Instantly I hit my knee on a chair that has been propped up against the doorknob and pain shoots up my leg. The smell in the bathroom is much stronger.

I drop my bag and lean over, clutching my knee. “Shit.”

“What the hell?”

The voice makes me jump. I didn’t realize there was anyone else in the bathroom. I look up and Anna Cartullo’s standing there, holding a cigarette in one hand.

“Jesus,” I say. “You scared me.”

I scared you ?” She leans up against the counter and taps her ashes in the sink. “You, like, forced your way in. Don’t you know how to knock?” Like I’ve just broken into her house.

“Sorry I ruined your party.” I make a halfhearted move for the door.

“Wait.” She holds up a hand, looking nervous. “Are you going to tell?”

“Tell what?”

“About this.” She inhales and blows a cloud of smoke. The cigarette she’s smoking is extra thin and it looks like she rolled it herself. Then it hits me: it’s a joint. The weed must be mixed with a lot of tobacco because I didn’t recognize the smell immediately, and I come home with my clothes reeking of it after every party. Elody once said it was lucky my mom never came into my room, or she would think I was dealing pot out of my dirty laundry hamper.

“So what? You just come in here and smoke your lunch?” I’m not saying it to be mean, but it comes out that way. Her eyes dart to the floor for a second, and then I notice an empty sandwich bag and a half-eaten bag of chips sitting on the tiles. It occurs to me I’ve never once seen her in the cafeteria. She must eat her lunch here every day.

“Yeah. I like the décor.” She sees me looking at the sandwich bag, stubs out the joint, and crosses her arms. “What are you doing here, anyway? Don’t you have…?” She stops herself, but I know what she’s about to say. Don’t you have friends?

“I had to pee,” I say. This is obviously a lie since I’ve made zero effort to use the toilet, but I’m too tired to come up with a different excuse, and she doesn’t ask me for one.

We stand there in awkward silence for a bit. I’ve never spoken a word to Anna Cartullo in my life, at least in the life I had before the car crash—beyond one time when I said, “Don’t call her an evil wench,” after she called Lindsay an evil wench. But I’d rather stay here with her than go out into the hall. Finally I think, Screw it , and I sit down in the chair and prop my leg up on one of the sinks. Anna’s eyes are slightly unfocused now, and she’s more relaxed, slouching up against one of the walls. She nods at my knee. “Looks swollen.”

“Yeah, well, somebody stuck a chair right inside the door.”

She starts giggling. She’s definitely stoned. “Nice shoes.” She raises her eyebrows at my feet, which are dangling over one of the circular sinks. I can’t tell if she’s being sarcastic. “Hard to walk in, huh?”

“I can walk,” I say, too quickly. Then I shrug. “Short distances, anyway.”

She snorts and then covers her mouth.

“I bought them as a joke.” I don’t know why I feel the need to defend myself to Anna Cartullo, but I guess nothing is the way it’s supposed to be today. All the rules have pretty much gone out the window. Anna’s relaxing, too. She acts like it’s not weird that we’re hanging out in a bathroom the size of a prison cell when we should be at lunch.

She hops up on the counter and wiggles her feet in my direction. Unsurprisingly, she’s not wearing anything Cupid Day–related. She has on a couple of layered black tank tops and an open hoodie. Her jeans are fraying at the hem and have a safety pin through the fly where they’re missing a button. She’s wearing enormous wedge round-toe boots that kind of look like Doc Martens on crack.

“You need a pair of these.” She clicks her heels together, a punked-out Dorothy trying to get home from Oz. “Most comfortable shoes I ever owned.”

I look at her like, Yeah, right. She shrugs. “Don’t knock ’em till you try ’em.”

“Okay, then, pass them over.”

Anna looks at me for a long second, like she’s not sure if I’m serious.

“Look.” I kick my shoes off. They hit the ground with a clatter. “We’ll trade.”

Anna bends over wordlessly, unzips her boots, and wiggles out of them. Her socks are rainbow-striped, which surprises me. I would have expected skulls or something. She peels these off next and balls them up in one hand, starting to pass them to me.

“Ew.” I wrinkle my nose. “No, thank you. I’d rather go commando.”

She shrugs, laughing. “Whatever.”

When I zip into her boots I realize she’s right. They are super comfortable, even without socks. The leather is cool and very soft. I admire them on my feet.

“I feel like I should be terrorizing children.” I knock the bulging steel-tipped toes together, which make a satisfying clicking sound.

“I feel like I should be turning tricks.” Anna has maneuvered her way into my heels and is now teetering experimentally around the bathroom, arms out like she’s on a tightrope.

“Same size feet,” I point out, though it’s obvious.

“Eight and a half. Pretty common.” She glances over her shoulder at me, like she’s considering saying something else, then reaches under the sink and pulls out her bag, a beat-up patchwork hobo thing that looks like she made it herself. She extracts a small Altoids tin. Inside there’s a dime bag of weed—I guess Alex Liment is good for something—rolling papers, and a few cigarettes.

She starts rolling another spliff, carefully balancing her life studies packet on her lap to use as a tray. (Side note: so far I’ve seen the life studies packet used as (1) an umbrella, (2) a makeshift towel, (3) a pillow, and now this. I have never actually seen anyone study with it, which either means that everyone who graduates from Thomas Jefferson will be totally unprepared for life or that certain things can’t be learned in bullet-point format.) Her fingers are thin and move quickly.

She’s obviously had practice. I wonder if that’s what she and Alex do together after they’ve had sex, just lie there side by side, smoking. I wonder if she ever thinks about Bridget when they’re doing it. I’m tempted to ask.

“Stop staring at me,” she says without looking up.

“I’m not.” I tilt my head back and stare at the vomit-colored ceiling, am reminded of Mr. Daimler, and look back at her. “There aren’t too many other options.”

“No one asked you to come in here.” Some of the edge returns to her voice.

“Public property.” There’s a split second when her face goes dark and I’m sure she’s going to freak out and this will be the end of our shiny, happy time together. I rush on, “It’s seriously not that bad in here. For a bathroom, you know.”

She looks at me suspiciously, like she’s sure I’m only baiting her so I can make fun of her afterward.

“You could get some pillows for the floor.” I look around. “Decorate a bit or something.”

She ducks her head, concentrating on her fingers. “There’s this artist I’ve always liked—the guy who does all the stairs going up and down at the same time—”

“M. C. Escher?”

She glances up, obviously surprised I know who she’s talking about. “Yeah, him.” A smile flits across her face. “I was thinking of, I don’t know, hanging one of his prints in here. Just taping it up, you know, for something to look at.”

“I have, like, ten of his books in my house,” I blurt out, glad she’s not going to stay mad and kick me out of the bathroom. “My dad’s an architect. He’s into that stuff.”

Anna rolls up the joint, licks the seam, and finishes it off with a few twists of her fingers. She nods at the chair. “If you’re going to sit in that you can at least block the door. That way it’s private property.”

The chair grates against the tile floor as I scoot backward against the door, and both of us wince, catch ourselves wincing, and laugh. Anna pulls out a purple lighter with flowers on it—not the lighter I expected of her—and tries to spark the joint. The lighter sputters a few times and she throws it down, cursing. The next time she rummages through her bag she pulls out a lighter in the shape of a naked female torso. She presses on the head and little blue flames come shooting out the nipples. Now that is the kind of lighter I would expect Anna Cartullo to have.

Anna’s face gets serious, and she takes a long pull of the joint, then stares at me through the cloud of blue smoke.

“So,” she says, “why do you guys hate me?”

Of all the things I expect her to say, it’s not this. Even more unexpected, she holds the spliff out in my direction, offering me some.

I hesitate for only a second. Hey, just because I’m dead doesn’t mean I’m a saint.

“We don’t hate you.” It doesn’t come out convincingly. The truth is I’m not sure. I don’t hate Anna, really; Lindsay’s always said she does, but it’s hard to know what Lindsay’s reasons are for anything. I take a hit off the joint. I’ve only smoked weed once before, but I’ve seen it done a hundred times. I inhale and my lungs are full of smoke: a heavy taste like chewing on moss. I try to hold my breath, the way you’re supposed to, but the smoke tickles the back of my throat. I start coughing and hand the joint back.

“Then what’s the reason?” She doesn’t say, For all the shitty things you’ve done . For the bathroom graffiti. For the fake email blast sophomore year: Anna Cartullo has chlamydia. She doesn’t have to. She passes the joint back to me.

I take another hit. Already things are warping, certain objects blurring and others sharpening, like someone’s messing with the focus on a camera. No wonder people still talk to Alex, even though he’s a douche. He deals good stuff. “I don’t know.” Because it’s easy. “I guess you need to take things out on somebody.”

The words are out of my mouth before I realize they’re true. I take another hit and pass the joint back to Anna. I feel like everything’s been amplified, like I can feel the heaviness of my arms and legs and hear my heart pumping and blood tumbling through my veins. And at the end of the day it will all be silenced, at least until time skips back on its wheel and starts again.

The bell rings. Lunch is over. Anna says, “Shit, shit, I have to be somewhere,” and begins trying to gather up her stuff. She accidentally knocks over the Altoids tin. The bag of weed goes flying under the sink, and the papers flit and flutter everywhere. “Shit.”

“I’ll help,” I say. We both get down on our hands and knees. My fingers feel numb and bloated, and I’m having trouble peeling the papers off the ground. This strikes me as hilarious, and Anna and I both start laughing, leaning on each other, gasping for breath. She keeps saying “Shit” at intervals.

“Better hurry,” I say. All of the anger and pain from the past few days is lifting, leaving me feeling free and careless and happy. “Alex will be pissed.”

She freezes. Our foreheads are so close we’re almost touching.

“How did you know I was meeting Alex?” she says. Her voice is clear and low.

I realize too late that I’ve screwed up. “Seen you sneaking back through Smokers’ Lounge after seventh once or twice,” I say vaguely, and she relaxes.

“You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?” she asks, biting her lower lip. “I wouldn’t want—” She stops herself and I wonder if she’s going to say something about Bridget. But she just shakes her head and continues gathering up the papers, working quickly now.

The idea of telling on Anna Cartullo for sleeping with Alex after what I’ve just done—after Mr. Daimler—is hilarious. I’ve got no right to say anything to anybody. I’m smoking weed in a bathroom, I have no friends, my math teacher stuck his tongue down my throat, my boyfriend hates me because I won’t sleep with him. I’m dead, but I can’t stop living. The absurdity of everything really hits me in that second and I start laughing again. Anna’s gotten serious. Her eyes are big bright marbles.

“What?” she says. “Are you laughing at me?”

I shake my head, but I can’t respond right away. I’m laughing too hard to breathe. I’ve been kind of squatting next to her, but I’m shaking so hard, the laughter heaving through me, that I tumble backward, landing on my butt with a loud thump. Anna cracks a smile again.

“You’re crazy,” she says, giggling.

I take a few gasping breaths. “Least I don’t barricade myself in bathrooms.”

“Least I don’t get stoned off half a joint.”

“Least I don’t sleep with Alex Liment.”

“Least I don’t have bitchy friends.”

“Least I have friends.”

We’re going back and forth, laughing harder and harder. Anna cracks up so hard she bends to the side and supports herself on one elbow. Then she rolls over all the way so she’s just lying there on the bathroom floor making these hilarious yelping noises that remind me of a poodle. Every so often she snorts, which just makes me go off again.

“Let me tell you something,” I say, as soon as I can get the words out.

“Hear, hear.” Anna pretends to pound a gavel and then snorts into her palm.

I love the feeling of thickness around me. I’m swimming in murk. The green walls are water. “I kissed Mr. Daimler.” As soon as I say it I die laughing again. Those must be the four most ridiculous words in the English language.

Anna heaves herself up on one elbow. “You did what ?”

“Shhhh.” I bob my head up and down. “We kissed. He put his hand up my shirt. He put his hand…” I gesture between my legs.

She shakes her head from side to side. Her hair whips around her face, reminding me of a tornado. “No way. No way. No way.”

“I swear to God.”

She leans forward, so close I can smell her breath on my face. She’s been sucking on an Altoid. “That is sick. You know that, right?”

“I know.”

“Sick, sick, sick. He went to high school here, like, ten years ago.”

“Eight. We checked.”

She lets out a loud howl of laughter, and for a second she lays her head down on my shoulder. “They’re all perverts,” she says, the words quiet and directed straight into my ear. Then she pulls away and says, “Shit! I’m so dead.”

She stands up, steadying herself with one hand on the wall. She teeters for a moment as she stands in front of the mirror, smoothing down her hair. She takes a small bottle from her back pocket and squeezes a couple of drops into each eye. I’m still on the floor, staring up at her from below. She seems to be miles and miles away.

I blurt out, “You’re too good for Alex.”

She’s already stepped over me on her way to the door. I see her back stiffen and I think she’s going to be angry. She pauses, one hand resting on the chair.

But when she turns around she’s smiling. “You’re too good for Mr. Daimler,” she says, and we both crack up again. Then she shoves the chair out of the way and tugs the door open, slipping into the hall.

After she’s gone I sit with my head back, enjoying the way the room feels like it’s doing loops. This is what it’s like to be the sun, I think, and then I think how stoned I am, and then I think how funny it is to know that you’re stoned but not be able to stop thinking stoned thoughts.

I see something white peeking out from underneath the sink: a cigarette. I lean down and find another one. Anna forgot to pick them up. Just then there’s a sharp knock on the door, and I snatch both cigarettes up and get to my feet. As soon as I stand the circling and the feeling of being underwater gets worse. It seems to take me forever to push the chair out of the way. Everything is so heavy.

“You forgot these,” I say, holding the cigarettes up between two fingers as I open the door.

It’s not Anna, though. It’s Ms. Winters, standing in the hallway with her arms crossed and her face pinched up so tightly it looks like her nose is a black hole and the rest of her face is getting slowly sucked into it.

“Smoking on school property is forbidden,” she says, pronouncing each word carefully. Then she smiles, showing all of her teeth.

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