UNFASHIONABLY LATE

I don’t even bother pulling into Kent’s driveway. I’m not planning on being here long, and I don’t want to get blocked in. Besides, something about tramping through the woods in the rain appeals to me. It’s a trial, another way I can sacrifice myself. And from my very limited memories of Sunday school (my mom gave up the fight after I threw a tremendous tantrum when I was seven and threatened to convert to voodoo, even though I wasn’t sure exactly what that was), I know that that’s how it works: you have to sacrifice something.

I pull over onto the shoulder of Route 9, grabbing Izzy’s sweatshirt again, which is now soaking wet. Still, it’s better than nothing. I drape it over my head and get out of the car, pausing for just a second. The road is empty, stretches of black interspersed with weak pools of yellow light from the streetlamps. I try to locate the exact spot where Lindsay’s car went spiraling off the road that first night, but it all looks the same. It could have been anywhere. I reach back once more for some memory of life beyond the collision, beyond the blackness, but I get nothing.

I grab a flashlight from the trunk and set off through the woods.

It’s a longer walk than I would have thought, and the ground alternates between a thin coat of hard ice and slurpy gloop that sucks at my purple New Balances like quicksand. After a few minutes I can hear the faint throb of music from the party, pulsing through the darkness like it belongs there, like its rhythm is part of the night. It’s another ten minutes before I see the faint twinkle of lights flashing sporadically beyond the trees—thank God, since I was beginning to think I was walking in circles—and another five before the woods thin out and I can see the house, a big pile of ice-cream cake sitting on that lawn, shimmering in and out as the rain bends and splits the lights from the porch. I’m totally freezing, and 100 percent regretting my decision to come on foot. That’s the whole problem with sacrifice. It’s a pain, literally.

As soon as I walk through the door, two girls giggle and a whole group of juniors goes totally gape-jawed. I don’t blame them. I know I must look like shit. Before leaving the house, I didn’t even bother to change out of my lounge pants—a pair of way oversized velour sweats my mom gave me back when they were still in.

I don’t waste any time on the juniors, though. I’m already worried I may have arrived too late.

Tara is coming down the stairs as I’m pushing my way up, and I grab her, leaning into her ear. “Juliet Sykes!” I have to yell it.

“What?” she yells back, smiling.

“Juliet Sykes! Is she here?”

Tara taps her ear to show she can’t hear me. “You’re looking for Lindsay?”

Courtney is behind Tara and leans forward, flopping her chin on Tara’s shoulder. “We found the secret stash—rum and stuff. Tara broke a vase.” She giggles. “You want some?”

I shake my head. I’ve never been this sober around people this wasted, and I say a brief prayer that I’m not half as annoying as they are when I’m drunk. I continue up the stairs as Tara yells, “Lindsay’s in the back.”

Before I’m totally out of earshot I hear Courtney shriek, “Did you see what she’s wearing?”

I take a deep breath and tell myself it doesn’t matter. What matters is finding Juliet. I can at least do that one thing.

But with every step I’m losing hope. The upstairs hallway is totally packed, and unless she hasn’t come to the party at all—which seems like too much to hope—it seems unlikely that she hasn’t already left.

Still, I push on, finally making it to the very back room. Lindsay catapults on me as soon as I get into the room—she actually leaps over five people—and for a second I’m so grateful to see her, happy and drunk and my best friend, and to get treated to one of her famous super-squish hugs, that I forget why I’m here.

“Bad girl.” She slaps my hand as she pulls away. “You cut school but come out to party? Naughty, naughty.”

“I’m looking for someone,” I say. I scan the room: Juliet’s not here. Not that I expected her to be, I don’t know, sitting on the couch and chatting it up with Jake Somers, but it’s instinct—and wishful thinking—to look.

“Rob’s downstairs.” Lindsay steps back and holds up her hand, framing me in the angle between her thumb and forefinger. “You look like the homeless man who stole Wal-Mart. Are you trying not to get laid or something?”

Irritation flares up again. Lindsay, who always has something to say.

“Have you seen Juliet Sykes?” I ask.

Lindsay stares at me for a split second and then bursts out laughing. “Are you serious?”

A feeling of enormous relief washes over me. Maybe she never showed. Maybe she had car trouble, or lost her nerve, or“She called me a bitch.” In that moment Lindsay shatters me. She did come. “Can you believe it?” Lindsay’s still cracking up. She loops one arm around my shoulder and calls out, “Elody! Ally! Sammy’s here! And she’s looking for her best friend, Juliet!”

Elody doesn’t even turn around; she’s too busy with Steve Dough. But Ally swings in my direction, smiles, yells, “Hi, sweetie!” and then holds up the empty bottle of vodka.

“If you see Juliet,” she calls out, “ask her what she did with the rest of my drink!” She and Lindsay think this is hilarious, and Lindsay calls back, “Psychotini!”

I am too late. The realization makes me feel sick, and my anger at Lindsay comes rushing back.

“My best friend?” I repeat. “That’s funny. I thought you were the one who was buddy-buddy with Juliet.”

“What are you talking about?” Lindsay’s face gets serious.

“Childhood friends. Best friends. Rug rats. Sand bunnies.” Lindsay looks like she’s about to say something again, but I cut her off. “I saw the pictures. So what happened? Did she catch you farting or something? See you blow a snot rocket? Discover that the famous Lindsay Edgecombe isn’t perfect after all? What did she do that was so bad?”

Lindsay opens her mouth and then closes it. “She’s a freak,” she whispers fiercely, but I see something in her eyes I’ve never seen before, an expression I can’t quite identify.

“Whatever.” I have to find Juliet Sykes.

I fight my way back downstairs, ignoring the people calling my name, tapping my shoulder, and whispering about the fact that I’ve shown up in public looking like I’m about to go to sleep—which is, of course, exactly what happened. I figure if I’m quick enough I can catch Juliet on the way out. She must have parked somewhere. She’s probably blocked in. It will take an hour to get people to move their cars (if she can even convince anybody to help at all, which is doubtful) and even longer if she decides to hoof it home.

Thankfully I make it downstairs without a run-in with Rob. The last thing I need is to explain myself to him. There’s a group of sophomores standing near the entryway, looking terrified and more or less sober, so I take my shot with them.

“Have you seen Juliet Sykes?”

They stare at me blankly.

I sigh, swallowing my frustration. “Blond hair, blue eyes, tall.” They’re still looking at me vacantly, and I realize I’m not exactly sure how to describe her. Loser , I almost say—I would have said three days ago. But now I can’t get it out. “Pretty,” I say, testing the word. When that doesn’t work I squeeze my fists into my palms. “Probably soaking wet.”

Finally the girls’ faces light up with recognition. “Bathroom,” one of them says, pointing to a little alcove just before the kitchen. There’s a line of people gathered in front of a closed door. One of them is crossing her legs and hopping up and down. One of them keeps rapping on the door. One of them points to her watch and says something I can’t hear, but she looks pissed.

“She’s been in there for, like, twenty minutes,” a sophomore says. My stomach drops to my feet and I almost get sick right there.

Bathrooms have pills. Bathrooms have razors. People lock themselves in bathrooms when they want to do bad things, like have sex or throw up. Or kill themselves.

It’s not supposed to go this way. I’m supposed to save you. I elbow over to the bathroom, shoving through the line of people crowded there.

“Move,” I say to Joanne Polerno, and she drops her hand immediately and steps aside.

I press my ear to the door, listening for sounds of crying or retching or anything. Nothing. My stomach does another dip. Then again, it’s almost impossible to hear, with the music pounding so loudly.

I knock softly and call out, “Juliet? Are you okay?”

“Maybe she’s sleeping,” Chrissy Walker says. I shoot her a look that I hope will communicate how stupidly unhelpful that comment is.

I knock again, mashing my face against the door. It’s hard to tell whether I hear a faint moan from inside—at that second the music shrieks even louder, drowning out everything else. But I can imagine her there, fading, just beyond the door, wrists hacked up and blood everywhere….

“Get Kent,” I say, sucking in a long breath.

“Who?” Joanne says.

“I have to pee,” Rachel says, hopping up and down.

“Kent McFuller. Now. Do it,” I bark at Joanne, and she looks startled but scurries off into the hallway. Every second feels like an eternity. It’s the first time I really understand what Einstein said about relativity, how time bends around and stretches out like a gummy bear.

“What do you care, anyway?” Rachel says, grumbling just loud enough so I can hear.

I don’t answer. The truth is I have no answer, really. I have to save Juliet—I feel that. It’s my good thing. I have to save myself .

I’m suddenly not sure if that makes me better or worse than someone who does nothing, so I push the thought out of my mind.

Joanne comes back with Kent in tow. He looks worried, his forehead crinkly underneath the shaggy brown hair that’s falling down over his eyes. My stomach does a flip. Yesterday we were in a dark room no more than two inches apart, so close I could feel the amazing heat of his skin.

“Sam,” he says, and leans forward to grab my wrist, staring deep in my eyes. “Are you okay?”

I’m so surprised by the sudden touch I pull away just a fraction, and Kent takes back his hand. I don’t know how to explain the way this makes my insides go hollow.

“I’m fine,” I say, totally aware in that moment of how ridiculous I must look to him: the messed up hair, the sweatpants. He, by comparison, looks actually kind of put together. There’s something scruffy-cute about his checkered sneakers and loose, low-belted khakis, and the sleeves of his oxford are rolled up, showing off a tan he got God-knows-where. Certainly not in Ridgeview in the past six months.

He looks confused. “Joanne said you needed me.”

“I do need you.” It comes out weird and intense-sounding, and I feel a furious fit of blushing coming on. “I mean, I don’t need you. I just need—” I take a deep breath. I think I see a momentary spark in Kent’s eyes and it distracts me. “I’m worried Juliet Sykes is locked in the bathroom.” Just after I say it, I wince. I sound ridiculous. He’ll probably tell me I’m being insane. After all, he doesn’t know what I know.

The spark dies and his face gets serious. He steps beyond me and tries the door, then he pauses for a second, thinking. He doesn’t tell me I’m crazy or paranoid or anything. He simply says, “There’s no key. I could try to pick the lock. We can always break it open if we have to.”

“I’m going to pee upstairs,” Rachel announces, then turns on her heel and wobbles off.

Kent reaches in his back pocket and pulls out a handful of safety pins. “Don’t ask,” he says when I raise my eyebrows. I hold up my hands and don’t push the issue. I’m grateful he’s taking charge without asking questions.

He squats down, bends the safety pin backward, and uses it to jimmy the lock. He’s keeping his ear pressed to the door like he’s listening for a click. Finally my curiosity gets the better of me.

“Do you have an after-school job robbing banks or something?”

He grimaces, tries the door, slips the safety pin back in his pocket, and selects a credit card from his wallet. “Hardly.” He wedges the credit card in the crevice between the frame and the door and wiggles. “My mom used to keep the junk food locked behind our pantry door.”

He straightens up and twists the handle. The door opens an inch, and my heart flies up into my throat. Part of me is hoping that Juliet’s face will appear, furious, or that the door will be slammed closed again from inside. That’s what I would do if someone tried to open the bathroom door when I was inside. That is, if I was still awake—alive—to close it.

But the door just sits there, open that little inch. Kent and I just look at each other at first. I think we’re both scared to open it any farther.

Then Kent nudges the door with his toe, calling “Juliet?” as the door swings open—again, time stretches; it seems to take forever—and in that second, or half second, I somehow have the time to conjure up every horrible possibility, to imagine her body crumpled on the ground.

And then the door finishes swinging, and the bathroom is there: perfectly clean, perfectly normal, and perfectly empty. The lights are on, and there’s a damp hand towel draped over the sink. The only thing slightly out of the ordinary is the window. It’s wide open, and rain has been battering in onto the tiles below.

“She went out the window,” Kent says at the same time I’m thinking it. I can’t quite place his tone. It’s half sad, half admiring.

“Shit.” Of course. After a humiliation like that, she would have looked for the easiest escape possible, the one that would attract the least attention. The window looks out onto a sloping side lawn and, of course, the woods. She must have made a dash for it, planning to loop around back toward the driveway.

I hurtle out of the bathroom. Kent calls, “Wait!” but I’m already down the hall and out the door, pushing onto the porch.

I grab my flashlight and the sweatshirt from behind a planter where I’d left them and head out across the lawn. The rain isn’t so bad just at the moment, more of a freezing mist falling in solid layers from above, but it’s the kind of cold that goes right through you. I keep my flashlight trained on the ground as I sweep around to the side of the house. I’m not exactly a master tracker, but I’ve read enough old mysteries to know that you should always look for footprints. Unfortunately, the mud is so gross and damp that everything looks churned up. Still, at the base of the bathroom I find a deep indent, where she must have landed, and a series of scuffly-looking marks going, as I suspected, straight to the woods.

I wrap my sweatshirt more tightly around me and plunge in after her. I can’t see anything but a few feet of light extending in a bouncing circle in front of me. I’ve never been scared of the dark exactly, but the endless scrapings and groanings of the trees and the constant patter of rain through the branches make it sound like the woods are alive and babbling away, like one of those crazy people you see in New York City who are always pushing grocery carts filled with empty bags.

There’s no point in trying to follow Juliet’s footprints. They’re totally invisible in the soggy paste of decaying leaves, mud, and rotting bark. Instead I strike out in what I hope is the general direction of the road, hoping to catch her on her walk home. I’m pretty sure this is what she intends to do. If you’re so desperate to ditch a party—and the people in it—that you climb out a window, it’s hardly likely that you’ll stroll back minutes later and ask people to move their Hondas.

The rain starts coming down harder, rattling through the icy branches, the sound of bone on bone. My chest aches from the cold, and even though I’m moving as fast as I can, my fingers feel numb and I’m having trouble holding on to the flashlight. I can’t wait to get to my car and turn the heat on full blast. Then I’ll drive the streets looking for her. If worse comes to worse I’ll intercept her at her house. If only I make it out of these freaking woods.

I push myself forward even faster, half jogging now, trying to stay warm. Every few moments I call out “Juliet!” but I don’t expect to get an answer. The patter of the rain is getting heavier and more constant, big fat drops of it splashing on the back of my neck and making me gasp.

“Juliet! Juliet!”

The patter turns into a rush. Daggers of icy water slice into me. I keep up the jog, the flashlight like lead in my hand. I can’t feel my toes anymore; I don’t even know if I’m going in the right direction. I could be running around in circles, for all I know.

“Juliet!”

I start to get scared. I turn a full circle, sweeping my flashlight through the darkness: nothing but dense trees pressing in on either side of me. It didn’t take me this long to walk through the woods on the way to Kent’s, I’m sure of it. My fingers feel like they’re twice the size they should be, and as I’m spinning, the flashlight flies out of my hand. There’s a crash and the sound of splintering. The light sputters and dies, and I’m left totally in darkness.

“Shit. Shit, shit, shit.” Cursing out loud makes me feel better.

I take a few hesitant steps in the direction of the flashlight, keeping my arms out in front of me so I don’t collide with anything. After a few shuffling steps I drop to my knees, instantly destroying my house pants as wetness seeps through the fabric. I rake my hands in the sludge in front of me, trying hard not to think too much about what I’m touching. Rain is driving into my eyes. My fleece is clinging to my skin, and it smells like wet dog. I’m shivering uncontrollably. This is what happens when you try to help people. You get screwed. I feel a lump building in my throat.

In order to keep from a total meltdown, I think about what Lindsay would say if she were stuck with me in the middle of the night in the middle of woods that extend who knows how many miles in the middle of a monsoon, if she saw me tearing at the ground like a deranged mole, completely covered in mud.

“Samantha Kingston,” she would say, smiling, “I always knew deep down you were a very dirty girl.”

The thought only cheers me up for a second. Lindsay’s not here with me. Lindsay’s probably making out with Patrick in a toasty warm and very dry room right now, or passing a joint back and forth and wondering out loud to Ally why I’ve been acting so freak-tastic. I’m completely lost, completely miserable, and completely alone. The ache in my throat intensifies until I feel like there’s an animal trying to claw its way out of my throat.

And I’m suddenly angry at Juliet—so angry I could punch her. I don’t see how she can be so selfish. No matter what—no matter how bad things are—she has a choice . Not all of us are so lucky.

That’s when I hear the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard in the entirety of my seventeen years of life (plus five days of life-after-death).

I hear honking.

The sound is far away, and it fades almost as soon as it begins—a low wail through the night as someone speeding by leans on the horn. I’m closer to the road than I thought.

I scramble to my feet and go as quickly as I can toward the source of the sound, keeping my arms outstretched like a mummy, slapping away branches and the slick touch of the evergreens. My heart is pounding with excitement, and I strain for a noise—any other noise—to guide me. After a minute or so I hear another honk, this one closer. I could sob with relief. Another minute and I hear the thudding bass of a stereo system, tuning in and then out again as a car speeds away. Another minute and I can see, faintly through the trees, the glimmer of the light from the streetlamps. I’ve found the road.

As the lights get closer and the trees thin, I can see a little better, and I start booking it. I’m so busy fantasizing about piles and piles of blankets—I’ll take every single one I can find in the house—and hot chocolate and warm slippers and showers that I don’t see Juliet Sykes until the last minute, when I nearly trip over her.

She’s huddled seven or eight feet from the road, her arms wrapped around her knees. Water has turned her white top totally transparent, and I can see her bra—striped—and all the bones of her spine. I’m so surprised to come across her like that, I forget, momentarily, that she’s the whole reason I’m out here in the first place.

“What are you doing?” I say, loudly over the rain.

She looks up at me. The streetlamps light up her face. Her eyes are dull. “What are you doing?” she parrots back at me.

“I’m, um, looking for you actually.” Her face doesn’t register any emotion—no surprise, no shock, no anger, nothing. It throws me. “Aren’t you cold?”

She shakes her head, just barely, and keeps staring at me with those dull, tired eyes. This isn’t nearly how I pictured it would be. I thought she would be happy that I’ve come to look for her—grateful, even. Or maybe she would be mad. In any case, I thought she would be something .

“Listen, Juliet—” I can hardly talk, my teeth are chattering so badly. “It’s, like, almost one o’clock in the morning, and it’s freezing out here. Do you maybe want to come over to my house for a bit? And talk? I know what happened in there”—I nod back in the direction of Kent’s house—“and I feel really bad about it.” I just want her to get in the damn car, but it’s true; I do feel bad.

Juliet stares at me for a long, hard second, the rain blurring the few feet between us. She starts to stand, and I feel sure that’s done it, but instead she turns away and takes several steps toward the road.

“Sorry,” she says. Her voice isn’t apologetic, though. It’s flat.

I reach out and grab her wrist. It feels impossibly tiny in my hand, like this one time I found a baby bird near Goose Point, and I picked it up and it died there, taking its final, gasping, fluttering breaths in my palm. Juliet doesn’t pull away, but she stares at my hand like it’s a snake about to bite her.

“Listen,” I try again. “Listen. I know this is going to sound crazy, but…” The wind rushes through the trees and releases a new volley of rain. “I have a feeling that we have something in common, you and me. If we could just go somewhere and talk about it…”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Juliet says. She stares out at the road, and I think I see a small, sad smile playing on her lips. Then it’s gone.

I’ve been outside too long. My mind is grinding to a halt. Nothing’s making sense anymore. Weird images keep flashing through my head, a bizarre fantasy reel of warm things. A pool filled with steaming hot chocolate. A stack of blankets piled all the way to the roof of my house. And part of me just thinks, Screw it . Let her do what she’s going to do. Tomorrow there will be a big rewind anyway.

But there’s a bigger part of me—my inner bull, my mom used to call it—that says she owes me this. I’m covered in mud; I’m absolutely freezing; and half the population of Thomas Jefferson thinks I’m a pajama-wearing freak.

“How about we go to your house?” I figure she’ll have to go back there eventually. She gives me a strange look, and for a second I feel like she’s staring straight through me.

“Why are you doing this?” she says.

I have to yell even louder than before. Cars are starting to pull out of Kent’s driveway, zooming by us on the wet road. “I—I want to help you.”

She shakes her head, an infinitesimal gesture. “You hate me.”

She’s edging closer and closer to the road, and it’s making me extremely nervous. A car roars by us, bass pumping. It glitters when it passes under the streetlamp, and I can just make out the silhouette of someone laughing. Somewhere to my right I think I hear my name, but it’s hard to tell over the pounding rain.

“I don’t hate you. I don’t know you. But I’d like to change that. Start over.” I’m almost screaming now. I’m not sure if she can still hear me.

She says something I don’t hear. Another car goes flashing by, a silver bullet.

“What?”

Juliet turns her head a fraction of an inch and says, louder, “You’re right. You don’t know me.”

Another car. Laughter rings out as it passes. Someone throws a beer bottle into the woods and it shatters. Then I’m sure I hear someone calling my name, though I can’t tell exactly which direction it comes from. The wind shrieks, and I suddenly realize that Juliet’s only a half inch from the road, teetering on the thin line where the pavement begins, like she’s balancing on a tightrope.

“Maybe you should come away from the road,” I say, but all the time in the back of my head, there’s an idea growing and swelling, a horrible, sickening realization, massing up and taking shape like clouds on the horizon. Someone calls my name again. And then, still in the distance, I hear the throaty wail of “Splinter” by Fallacy pumping from someone’s car.

“Sam! Sam!” I recognize it as Kent’s voice now.

Last night for the last time…you said you would be mine again…

Juliet turns to face me then. She’s smiling, but it’s the saddest smile I’ve ever seen.

“Maybe next time,” she says. “But probably not.”

“Juliet,” I try to say, but the name catches in my throat. I feel like fear has turned me to stone. I want to say something, to move, to reach out and grab her, but time goes so quickly, and then the realization bursts and explodes as the music from the speakers gets louder and a silver Range Rover rockets out of the darkness. Like a bird or an angel—like she’s throwing herself off a cliff—Juliet lifts her arms and hurtles onto the road, and there’s a scream piercing the air and a sickening crunch, and it’s not until Juliet’s body flies sideways off the hood of Lindsay’s car and lands crumpled facedown in the road, and the Range Rover sails into the woods and crashes, splintering, crumpling against a tree, and long ribbons of smoke and flame begin licking the air, that I realize I’m the one screaming.

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