WHERE IT BEGINS

Lindsay, Elody, and Ally must head upstairs as soon as they arrive—considering they’re packing their own vodka, it’s a safe bet—because I don’t see them again until an hour or so later. I’ve had three shots of rum and it all hits me at once: the room is a spinning, blurring world of color and sound. Courtney has just finished off the bottle of rum so I get a beer. I have to concentrate on every step, and when I get to the keg I stand there for a second, forgetting what I’ve come for.

“Beer?” Matt Dorfman fills a cup and holds it out to me.

“Beer,” I say, pleased the word comes out so clear, pleased that I remembered that this is what I wanted.

I make my way upstairs. Things register in short bursts, a movie reel that’s been chopped up: the feel of the rough wood banister; Emma McElroy leaning back against a wall, her mouth open and gasping—maybe laughing?—like a fish on a hook; Christmas lights winking, blurred light. I’m not sure where I’m going or who I’m looking for, but all of a sudden there’s Lindsay across the room and I realize I’ve made it all the way to the back of the house, the cigarette room. Lindsay and I look at each other for a second and I’m hoping she’ll smile at me, but she just looks away. Ally’s standing next to her. She bends forward and whispers something to Lindsay, then makes her way over to me.

“Hey, Sam.”

“Did you have to ask permission to talk to me?” These words don’t come out so clearly.

“Don’t be a bitch.” Ally rolls her eyes. “Lindsay’s really upset about what you said.”

“Is Elody mad?” Elody’s in the corner with Steve Dough, swaying against him while he talks to Liz Hummer like she’s not even there. I want to go over and hug her.

Ally hesitates, looks at me from under the fringe of her bangs. “She’s not mad. You know Elody.”

I can tell Ally’s lying, but I’m too drunk to pursue it.

“You didn’t call me today.” I hate that I’ve said it. It makes me feel like an outsider again, like someone trying to break into the group. It’s only been a day, but I miss them: my only real friends.

Ally takes a sip of the vodka she’s holding, then winces. “Lindsay was freaking out. I told you, she was really upset.”

“It’s true though, isn’t it? What I said.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s true.” Ally shakes her head at me. “She’s Lindsay. She’s ours. We’re each other’s, you know?”

I’ve never really thought of Ally as smart, but this is probably the smartest thing I’ve heard in a long time.

“You should say you’re sorry,” Ally says.

“But I’m not sorry.” I’m definitely slurring now. My tongue is thick and weighty in my mouth. I can’t make it do what I want it to. I want to tell Ally everything—about Mr. Daimler and Anna Cartullo and Ms. Winters and the Pugs—but I can’t even think of the words.

“Just say it, Sam.” Ally’s eyes have started to roam around the party. Then suddenly she takes a quick step backward. Her mouth goes slack and she brings a hand to her mouth.

“Oh my God,” she says, staring over my shoulder. Her mouth’s curving up into a smile. “I don’t believe it.”

It feels like time freezes as I turn around. I read once that at the edge of a black hole, time stops completely, so if you ever sailed into it, you’d just be stuck there at the lip forever, forever being torn apart, forever dying. That’s what it feels like in that second. The crush of people circled around me, an endless lip, more and more people.

And there she is standing in the doorway. Juliet Sykes. Juliet Sykes—who yesterday blew her brains out with her parents’ handgun.

Her hair is tied up in a ponytail and I can’t help it; I picture it knotted and clotted with blood, a big gaping hole directly underneath her little flip of hair. I’m terrified of her: a ghost in the door, the kind of stuff you have nightmares about when you’re a kid, the kind of thing they make horror movies about.

A phrase comes back from a news show I had to watch about the convicts on death row for my ethics and issues elective: dead man walking. I thought it was awful when I first heard it, but now I really understand it. Juliet Sykes is a dead man walking. I guess I am too, in a way.

“No,” I say, without meaning to say it out loud. I take a step backward, and Harlowe Rosen squeals and says, “That’s my foot .”

“I don’t believe it,” Ally says again, but it sounds far away. She’s already turning away from me, calling out to Lindsay over the music. “Lindsay, did you see who it is?”

Juliet sways in the doorway. She looks calm, but her hands are balled into fists.

I throw myself forward, but everyone chooses that moment to press even closer around me. I can’t watch it again. I don’t want to see what happens next. I’m not very steady on my feet, and I keep getting knocked back and forth, rocketing between people like a pinball, trying desperately to get out of the room. I know I’m stepping on people and throwing elbows in their backs, but I don’t care. I need out.

Finally I break through the knot of people. Juliet is blocking the doorway. She’s not even looking at me. She’s standing as still as a statue, her eyes locked some distance over my shoulder. She’s looking at Lindsay. I understand then that it’s Lindsay she really wants—it’s Lindsay she hates the most—but it doesn’t make me feel any better.

Just as I’m about to push past her, a tremor runs through her body and she locks eyes with me.

“Wait,” she says to me, and puts a hand on my wrist. It’s as cold as ice.

“No.” I pull away from her and keep going, stumbling forward, nearly choking on my fear. Jumbled images of Juliet keep flashing in my mind: Juliet doubled over, hands outstretched, drenched in beer and stumbling; Juliet lying on a cold floor in a pool of blood. I’m not thinking clearly, and in my head the two images merge and I see her roving around the room while everyone laughs, her hair soaked, dripping, drenched in blood.

I’m so distracted I don’t see Rob in the hallway until I’ve run straight into him.

“Hey.” Rob is drunk now. He has an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. “Hey, you.”

“Rob…” I press myself against him. The world is spinning. “Let’s get out of here, okay? We’ll go to your house. I’m ready now, just me and you.”

“Whoa, cowgirl.” One half of Rob’s mouth ticks slowly upward, but the other doesn’t quite manage to join it. “After the cigarette.” He starts moving toward the back of the house. “Then we’ll go.”

“No!” I nearly scream it.

He turns back to me, swaying, and before he can react, I’ve already plucked the cigarette out of his mouth and I’m kissing him, my hands cupped on either side of his face, shoving my body into his. It takes him a second to realize what’s happening, but then he starts pawing me over my dress, rolling his tongue around in circles, groaning a little bit.

We’re both staggering back and forth in the hallway, almost like we’re dancing. I feel the floor buckle and roll, and Rob accidentally pushes me hard against the wall and I gasp.

“Sorry, babe.” His eyes cross, uncross.

“We need a room.” From the back of the house I can just hear the chanting starting. Psycho, Psycho . “We need a room now .”

I take Rob’s hand and we stumble down the hall, forcing our way against the tide of people moving in the other direction. They’re all going to see what the noise is about.

“In here.” Rob slams as hard as he can against the first closed door he comes to, the one with all the bumper stickers. There’s a popping sound and we both tumble inside. I kiss him again and try to lose myself in the feeling of the closeness of our bodies and his warmth, try to block out the rising howls of laughter from the back room. I pretend I’m just a body with a mind as blank and fuzzy as a TV full of snow. I try to shrink myself down, center myself in my skin, like the only feeling that exists is in Rob’s fingers.

Once the door is shut it’s pitch-black. The darkness around us hasn’t let up at all—either there are no windows here or they’re curtained off. It’s so dark it’s almost heavy -looking, and I get a sudden hysterical fear that we’re stuck in a box. Rob’s lurching on his feet so much by this point, his arms locked around me, it makes me dizzy. I feel a wave of nausea, and I push him backward until we encounter something soft: a bed. He tips over and I climb on top of him.

“Wait,” he mumbles.

“Isn’t this what you wanted?” I whisper. Even now I can hear the sounds of laughter and the screaming—Psycho, Psycho —piping thinly over the music. I kiss Rob harder and he wrestles with the zipper of my dress. I hear fabric ripping but I don’t care. I slide the dress down to my waist, and Rob starts his attack on my bra.

“Are you shure about this?” Rob slurs in my ear.

“Just kiss me.” Psycho, Psycho . The voices are echoing down the hall. I slide my hands under Rob’s fleece and wrestle it over his head, then start kissing his neck and underneath the collar of his polo shirt. His skin tastes like sweat and salt and cigarettes, but I keep kissing while his hands move over my back and down toward my butt. An image of Mr. Daimler on top of me—and the speckled ceiling—rises out of the darkness, but I push it away.

I take Rob’s shirt off so now we’re pressed chest-to-chest. Our skin keeps making these weird, slurpy, suctiony sounds as our stomachs come together and then pop apart. At a certain point his hands fall away. I’m still kissing him, moving down his chest, feeling the fuzz of hair scattered there. Chest hair has always grossed me out; it’s another thing I don’t think about tonight.

Rob’s gotten quiet. He’s probably shocked. I’ve never even done this much with him before. Normally when we hook up he’s the one who takes charge. I’ve always been afraid I’ll do something wrong. It feels so awkward to act like you know what you’re doing. I’ve never even been totally naked with him.

“Rob?” I whisper, and he moans quietly. My arms are shaking from holding my weight up for so long so I stand up. “Do you want me to take my dress off?”

Silence. My heart is beating fast, and even though the room is cold, sweat is tickling my underarms. “Rob?” I repeat.

All of a sudden he lets out an enormous, honking snore and rolls over. The snores continue, long waves of them.

For a while I just stand there and listen to it. When Rob snores it’s always reminded me of when I was little and used to sit on the front porch and watch my dad make narrow circles on the back of his six-year-old Sears ride-on mower, which growled so badly I had to cover my ears. I never went inside, though. I loved to watch the neat little compact tracks of green my dad left in his wake, hundreds of tiny blades of grass spinning through the air like ballerinas.

It’s so dark in the room it takes me forever to find my bra and stupid fur thing; I have to grope on my hands and knees for them. I’m not upset. I’m not feeling much of anything, not really thinking, just ticking off things I have to do. Find the bra. Hitch up the dress. Get out the door.

I slip into the hallway. The music’s pumping at a normal volume, and people are flowing in and out of the back room. Juliet Sykes is gone.

A couple of people give me weird looks. I’m sure I’m a mess but don’t have the energy to care. It’s amazing how well I’m holding it together, actually, and even though my brain is foggy I think that very clearly: It’s amazing how well you’re holding it together . I think, Lindsay would be proud.

“Your dress isn’t zipped.” Carly Jablonski giggles at me.

Behind her someone says, “What were you doing in there?”

I ignore them. I just keep moving—floating, really, without really knowing where I’m headed—drifting down the stairs and out onto the wraparound porch and, when the cold hits me like a punch, back into the house and into the kitchen. Suddenly the idea of the dark, quiet house lying peacefully beyond the DO NOT ENTER sign, full of moonlit squares and the quiet tickings of old clocks, seems appealing. So I go that way, beyond the door, through the dining room, through the alcove where Tara spilled the vase, my boots crunching on the glass, into the living room.

One wall is almost all windows. It faces out onto the front lawn. Outside, the night looks silvery and frosted, all the trees wrapped in a shroud of ice, like they’ve been built out of plaster. I begin to wonder if everything in this world, the world I’m stuck in, is just a replica, a cheap imitation of the real thing. Then I sit down on the carpet—in the exact center of a perfect square of moonlight—and I begin to cry. The first sob is almost a scream.

I don’t know how long I’m there—at least fifteen minutes, since I manage to pretty much cry myself out. In the process I snot all over myself and completely ruin my fur shrug with mascara and face gunk. But at a certain point I become aware that there’s someone else in the room.

I get very still. Parts of the room are lost in shadow, but I can sense something moving at its periphery. A checkered sneaker flickers in and out of view.

“How long have you been standing there?” I ask, wiping my nose for the fortieth time on the back of my arm.

“Not long.” Kent’s voice is very quiet. I can tell he’s lying, but I don’t mind. It actually makes me feel better to know I wasn’t alone this whole time.

“Are you okay?” He takes a few steps into the room so the moonlight hits him and turns him silver. “I mean, you’re obviously not okay, but I just wanted to know if, you know, there’s anything I could do or something you want to talk about or—”

“Kent?” I interrupt him. He always did have a habit of launching into tangents, even when we were little.

He stops. “Yeah?”

“Do you—could I maybe have a glass of water?”

“Yeah. Give me a sec.” He sounds relieved to do something, and I hear the whisper of his sneakers on the carpet. He’s back in under a minute with a tall glass of water. It has just the right amount of ice cubes.

After I take a few long gulps I say, “Sorry for being back here. The sign and everything.”

“That’s okay.” Kent sits cross-legged on the carpet next to me, not so close that we’re touching but close enough that I can feel him sitting there. “I mean, the sign was pretty much for other people. You know, to keep people from breaking my parents’ shit or whatever. I’ve never really had a party before.”

“Why did you have one now?” I say, just to keep him talking.

He gives a half laugh. “I thought if I had a party, you would come.”

I feel a rush of embarrassment, heat spreading up from my toes. His comment is so unexpected I don’t know what to say. He doesn’t seem embarrassed though. He just sits there looking at me. So typical Kent. He never understood that you can’t just say something like that.

The silence has lasted a couple beats too long. I grasp for something to say. “This room must get a lot of light during the day.”

Kent laughs. “It’s like being in the middle of the sun.”

Silence again. We can still hear the music, but it’s muffled, like it has to travel miles before it reaches us. I like that.

“Listen.” Just trying to say what I want to say makes a lump swell up in my throat. “I’m sorry about earlier. I really—thanks for making me feel better. I’m sorry I’ve always been…” At the last second I can’t say it after all. I’m sorry I’ve always been awful. I’m sorry there’s something wrong with me.

“I meant what I said earlier,” Kent says quietly. “About your hair.”

He shifts slightly—a fraction of an inch, moving closer—and it hits me then that I’m sitting in the middle of a moonlit room with Kent McFuller.

“I should go.” I stand up. I’m still not very steady on my feet, and the room tilts with me.

“Whoa.” Kent gets up, reaching out a hand to steady me. “You sure you’re okay?”

“I—” It occurs to me I don’t know where to go and I have no body to get me there, anyway. I can’t stand the thought of Tara grinning at me, and Lindsay’s obviously out. At this point it’s so awful it’s funny, and I let out a short laugh. “I don’t want to go home.”

Kent doesn’t ask why. I’m grateful for that. He just shoves his hands in his pockets. The outlines of his face are touched with light, like he’s glowing.

“You could…” He swallows. “You could always stay here.”

I stare at him. Thank God it’s dark. I have no idea what my face looks like.

He quickly stutters, “Not, like, stay with me. Obviously not. I just meant—well, we have a couple guest rooms, with sheets already on the beds and stuff. Clean sheets, obviously, it’s not like we leave them on after people—”

“Okay.”

“—use them, that would be gross. We actually have a housekeeper who comes twice a week and—”

“Kent? I said okay. I mean, I’d like to stay. If you don’t mind.”

He stands there for a second with his mouth hanging open as though he’s sure he’s misheard me. Then he takes his hands out of his pockets, curls them and uncurls them, lifts them and drops them against his thighs. “Sure, yeah, no, that’s fine.”

But for another minute he doesn’t move. He just stares at me. The hotness returns, only this time it’s moving into my head, making everything seem cloudy and remote. My eyes are suddenly heavy.

“You’re tired,” he says, and his voice is soft again.

“It’s been a long day,” I say.

“Come on.” He reaches out his hand and without thinking I take it. It’s warm and dry, and as he leads me deeper into the house, away from the music, into the shadows, I close my eyes and remember how he used to slip his hand in mine and whisper, Don’t listen to them. Just keep walking. Keep your head up. It almost feels like no time has passed. It doesn’t feel crazy that I’m holding hands with Kent McFuller and I’m letting him lead me somewhere—it feels normal.

The music fades away altogether. Everything is so quiet. Our feet barely make a sound on the carpets, and each room is a web of shadow and moonlight. The house smells like polished wood and rain and just a little bit like chimney smoke, like someone’s recently had a fire. I think, This would be a perfect house to get snowed into.

“This way,” Kent says. He pushes open a door—it creaks on its hinges—and I hear him fumbling for a light switch on the wall.

“No,” I say.

He hesitates. “No light?”

“No light.”

Very slowly he guides me inside the room. Here it’s almost completely dark. I can barely make out the outline of his shoulders.

“The bed’s over here.”

I let him pull me over to him. We’re only inches away, and it’s like I can feel his impression in the darkness, like it’s taking on a form around him. We’re still holding hands, but now we’re face-to-face. I never realized how tall he was: at least four inches taller than I am. There’s the strangest amount of warmth coming off him. It’s everywhere, radiating outward, making my fingers tingle.

“Your skin,” I say, barely a whisper. “It’s hot.”

“It’s always this way,” he says. Something rustles in the dark and I know he has moved his arm. His fingers hover half an inch from my face, and it’s like I can see them, burning hot and white. He drops his arm, taking the warmth with him.

And it’s the weirdest thing, but standing there with Kent McFuller in a room so pitch-black it could be buried somewhere, I feel the tiniest of tiny things spark inside me, a little flame at the very bottom of my stomach that makes me unafraid.

“There are extra blankets in the closet,” he says. His lips are right by my cheek.

“Thank you,” I whisper back.

He stays until I’ve gotten into bed, and then he draws up the blankets around my shoulders like it’s normal, like he’s been putting me to bed every night of my whole life. Typical Kent McFuller.

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