FIVE

You see, I was still looking for answers then. I still wanted to know why. As though somebody was going to answer that for me, as though any answer would be satisfying.

Not then, but afterward, I started to think about time, and how it keeps moving and draining and flowing forever forward, seconds into minutes into days into years, all of it leading to the same place, a current running forever in one direction. And we’re all going and swimming as fast as we can, helping it along.

My point is: maybe you can afford to wait. Maybe for you there’s a tomorrow. Maybe for you there’s one thousand tomorrows, or three thousand, or ten, so much time you can bathe in it, roll around in it, let it slide like coins through your fingers. So much time you can waste it.

But for some of us there’s only today. And the truth is, you never really know.

I wake up gasping, the alarm bringing me out of darkness, as if it has brought me up from the depths of a lake. It is the fifth time I’ve woken up on February 12, but today I’m relieved. I switch off the alarm and lie in bed, watching the milky white light steal slowly over the walls, waiting for my heartbeat to go back to normal. A swath of sunlight ticks upward over the collage Lindsay made for me. In the bottom she’s written in pink glittery ink, Love you 4ever . Today Lindsay and I are friends again. Today no one’s angry at me. Today I didn’t kiss Mr. Daimler or sit bawling my eyes out alone at a party.

Well, not totally alone. I imagine the sun filling Kent’s house slowly, frothing upward like champagne.

As I lie there I start making a mental list of all the things I’d like to do in my life, as though they’re still possible. Most of them are just plain crazy, but I don’t think about that, just go on listing and listing like it’s as easy as writing up what you need from the grocery store. Fly in a private jet. Eat a fresh-baked croissant from a bakery in Paris. Ride a horse all the way from Connecticut to California but stay in only the best hotel rooms along the way. Some of them are simpler: take Izzy to Goose Point, a place I discovered the first and only time I’d ever tried to run away. Order the Fat Feast at the diner—a bacon cheese-burger, a milk shake, and an entire plate of cheese fries—and eat it without stressing, like I used to do on my birthday every single year. Run around in the rain. Have scrambled eggs in bed.

By the time Izzy slinks into my room and hops up into bed with me, I’m actually feeling calm.

“Mommy says you have to go to school,” Izzy says, head-butting my shoulder.

“I’m not going to school.”

That’s it: that’s how it starts. One of the best—and worst—days of my life starts with those five words.

I grab Izzy’s stomach and tickle her. She still insists on wearing her old Dora the Explorer T-shirt, but it’s so small it leaves the big pink stripe of her belly—the only fat on her body—exposed. She squeals with laughter, rolling away from me.

“Stop it, Sam. I said, Stop it!

Izzy is shrieking and laughing and thrashing around when my mom comes to the door.

“It’s six forty-five.” She stands in the doorway, keeping both of her feet neatly aligned just behind the flaking red line from all those years ago. “Lindsay will be here any minute.”

Izzy slaps my hands away and sits up, her eyes shining. I’ve never noticed it before, but she really does look like my mom. It makes me sad for a minute. I wish she looked more like me. “Sam was tickling.”

“Sam’s going to be late. You too, Izzy.”

“Sam’s not going to school. And I’m not either.” Izzy puffs out her chest like she’s prepared to do battle over it. Maybe she’ll look like me when she’s older. Maybe when time starts marching forward again—even if I get swept out with it, like litter on a tide—her cheekbones will get high and she’ll have a growth spurt and her hair will turn darker. I like to think it’s true. I like to think that later on people will say, Izzy looks just like her sister, Sam.

They’ll say, You remember Sam? She was pretty. I’m not really sure what else they could say: She was nice. People liked her. She was missed . Maybe none of those things.

I push the thought out of my mind and return to my mental list. A kiss that makes my whole head feel like it’s exploding. A slow dance in the middle of an empty room to really great music. A swim in the ocean at midnight, with no clothes on.

My mom rubs her forehead. “Izzy, go get your breakfast. I’m sure it’s ready by now.”

Izzy scrambles over me. I squeeze the chub of her stomach and get one last squeal out of her before she jumps off the bed and dashes out the door. The one thing that can get Izzy moving that quickly is a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel with peanut butter, and I imagine being able to give her a cinnamon raisin bagel with peanut butter every single day for the rest of her life, filling a whole house with them.

When Izzy’s gone my mom looks at me, hard. “What’s this about, Sam? You feel sick?”

“Not exactly.” One thing that is not on my wish list is to spend even one second in a doctor’s office.

“What, then? There must be something. I thought Cupid Day was one of your favorites.”

“It is. Or, I mean, it was.” I sit up on my elbows. “I don’t know, it’s kind of stupid, if you think about it.”

She raises her eyebrows.

I start rattling on, not really thinking about what I want to say before I say it, but afterward I realize it’s true. “The whole point is just to show other people how many friends you have. But everybody knows how many friends everybody else has. And it’s not like you actually get more friends this way or, I don’t know, get closer to the friends you do have.”

My mom smiles a tiny bit, one side of her mouth cocking upward. “Well, you’re lucky to have very good friends, and to know it. I’m sure the roses are very meaningful to some people.”

“I’m just saying, the whole thing is kind of sleazy.”

“This doesn’t sound like the Samantha Kingston I know.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I’m changing.” I don’t mean those words either, until I hear them. Then I think that they might be true, and I feel a flicker of hope. Maybe there’s still a chance for me, after all. Maybe I have to change.

My mom stares at me with this expression on her face like I’m a recipe she can’t quite master. “Did something happen, Sam? Something with your friends?”

Today I’m not so annoyed at her for asking. Today it strikes me as kind of funny, actually. I so wish that the only thing bothering me was a fight with Lindsay, or something dumb Ally said.

“It’s not my friends.” I grasp for something that’ll make her cave. “It’s…it’s Rob.”

My mom wrinkles her brow. “Did you have a fight?”

I slump a little farther down into the bed, hoping it makes me look depressed. “He…he dumped me.” In some ways it’s not a lie. Not like he broke up with me, exactly, but like maybe we weren’t ever serious serious in the way I believed for so long. Is it even possible to go out with someone seriously who doesn’t really know you?

It works even better than I expected. My mom brings her hand up to her chest. “Oh, sweetie. What happened?”

“We just wanted different things, I guess.” I fiddle with the edge of my comforter, thinking of all those nights alone with him in the basement, bathed in blue light, feeling sheltered from the whole world. It’s not so much of a stretch to look upset when I think about that, and my bottom lip starts to tremble. “I don’t think he ever really liked me. Not really really .” This is the most honest thing I’ve said to my mother in years, and I suddenly feel very exposed. I have a flashback then of standing in front of her when I was five or six and having to strip naked while she checked me all over for deer ticks. I shove down farther into the covers, balling up my fists until my nails dig into my palms.

Then the craziest thing in the world happens. My mom steps straight over the flaking red line and strides over to the bed, like it’s no big deal. I’m so surprised I don’t even protest as she bends over me and plants a kiss on my forehead.

“I’m so sorry, Sam.” She smoothes my forehead with her thumb. “Of course you can stay home.”

I expected more of an argument and I’m left speechless.

“Do you want me to stay home with you?” she asks.

“No.” I try to give her a smile. “I’ll be fine. Really.”

“I want to stay home with Sam!” Izzy has come to the door again, this time halfway dressed for school. She’s in a yellow-and-pink phase—not a flattering combination, but it’s kind of hard to explain color palettes to an eight-year-old—and has pulled on a mustard yellow dress over a pair of pink tights. She’s also wearing big, scrunchie yellow socks. She looks like some kind of tropical flower. A part of me is tempted to freak out at my mom for letting Izzy wear whatever she wants. The other kids must make fun of her.

Then again, I guess Izzy doesn’t care. That’s another thing that strikes me as funny: that my eight-year-old sister is braver than I am. She’s probably braver than most of the people at Thomas Jefferson. I wonder if that will ever change, if it will get beaten out of her.

Izzy’s eyes are enormous and she clasps her hands together like she’s praying. “Please?”

My mom sighs, exasperated. “Absolutely not, Izzy. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“I’m feeling sick,” Izzy says. This is made slightly unbelievable by the fact that she’s hopping and pirouetting from foot to foot as she says it, but Izzy’s never been a great liar.

“Did you eat your breakfast yet?” My mom crosses her arms and makes her “strict parent” face.

Izzy bobs her head. “I think I have food poisoning.” She doubles over, grabs her stomach, then immediately straightens up and begins hopping again. I can’t help it; a little giggle escapes.

“Come on, Mom,” I say. “Let her stay home.”

“Sam, please don’t encourage her.” My mom turns to me, shaking her head, but I can tell she’s wavering.

“She’s in third grade,” I say. “It’s not like they actually learn anything.”

“Yes we do!” Izzy crows, then claps her hand over her mouth when I give her a look. My little sister: apparently not a champion negotiator, either. She shakes her head and quickly stutters. “I mean, we don’t do that much.”

My mom lowers her voice. “You know she’ll be bugging you all day, right? Wouldn’t you rather be alone?”

I know she’s expecting me to say yes. For years that’s been the buzzword of the house: Sam just wants to be left alone . Want some dinner? I’ll bring it up to my room. Where you headed? Just want to be alone. Can I come in? Just leave me alone. Stay out of my room. Don’t talk to me when I’m on the phone. Don’t talk to me when I’m listening to music. Alone, alone, alone.

Things change after you die, though—I guess because dying is about the loneliest thing you can do.

“I don’t mind,” I say, and I mean it. My mom throws up her hands and says, “Whatever,” but even before it’s out of her mouth, Izzy’s charging through my room and has belly flopped on top of me, throwing her arms around my neck and screeching, “Can we watch TV? Can we make mac and cheese?” She smells like coconut as usual, and I remember when she was so small we could fit her in the sink to give her a bath, and she would sit there laughing and smiling and splashing like the best place in the world to be was in a 12″ × 18″ square of porcelain, like the sink was the biggest ocean in the world.

My mom gives me a look that says, You asked for it .

I smile over Izzy’s shoulder and shrug.

And it’s as easy as that.

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