BEFORE I WAKE

Kent catches up to me then. “Sam,” he says breathlessly, eyes searching my face. “Are you okay?”

“Lindsay,” I whisper. It’s the only thing that I can think to say. “Lindsay and Elody and Ally are in that car.”

He turns to the road. Black pillars of smoke are rising out of the woods. From where we’re standing we can just see the battered metal bumper, rising like a finger over the dip of the earth.

“Wait here,” he says. It’s a miracle, but he sounds calm. He runs into the road, whipping his phone out, and I hear him yelling directions to someone on the other end. There’s been an accident. Fire. Route nine, just past Devon Drive . He kneels by Juliet’s body. At least one person hurt.

Other cars are squealing to a halt now. People climb out of their cars uncertainly, everyone suddenly sober, everyone speaking in whispers, staring at the tiny crumpled body in the road, at the smoke and fire licking up from the woods. Emma McElroy pulls over and gets out with her hands cupped over her mouth, eyes bugging out of her head, leaving the door to her Mini hanging open and the radio blasting. Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” booms through the night, and the normalcy of it is the most horrible thing of all. Someone shrieks, “For God’s sake, Emma, shut that off.” Emma scrambles back to her car, and then there’s silence except for the pounding of the rain, and the sounds of someone sobbing loudly.

I feel like I’m in a dream. I keep trying to move, but I can’t. I don’t even feel the rain anymore. I don’t feel my body.

There’s only one thought revolving around and around and around in my head: the flash of white just before we pin-wheeled into the yawning mouth of the woods, Lindsay yelling something I couldn’t quite make out.

Not sit or shit or sight .

Sykes .

Then a long, piercing wail comes from the other side of the woods, and Lindsay stumbles up to the road, her mouth open and tears streaming down her face. Kent is there, supporting Ally, who’s limping and coughing but looks okay.

Lindsay’s screaming, “Help! Help! Elody’s still in there! Somebody help her! Please!” She’s so hysterical her words swell together, transforming into an animal howl. She sinks down on the pavement and sobs, her head in her hands. Then another wailing joins in: sirens in the distance.

Nobody moves. Everything starts happening in short, choppy bursts—at least, that’s what it seems like to me—like I’m watching a movie while a strobe light goes on and off. More and more students massing in the rain, standing as still and silent as statues. The police sirens turning, lighting the scene up red, then white, then red, then white. Figures in uniform—an ambulance—a stretcher—two stretchers. Juliet’s body laid out neatly, tiny and fragile, just like the bird all those years ago. Lindsay throwing up as the second stretcher bears a body up from the totaled car, and Kent rubbing her back. Ally sobbing with her mouth open, which is weird, because I don’t hear a sound. At some point I lift my eyes to the sky and see that the rain has transformed into snow—fat, white flakes swirling out of the darkness as if by magic. I have no idea how long I’ve been standing there. I’m surprised to see that when I look back at the road there’s hardly anyone left there at all, just a few stragglers and a solitary police car and Kent, jumping up and down to keep warm, talking to an officer. The ambulances are gone. Lindsay’s gone. Ally’s gone.

Then Kent’s standing in front of me though I didn’t see him move. How did you do that? I try to say, but nothing comes out.

“Sam.” Kent’s speaking to me, and I get the feeling he’s said my name more than once. I feel a squeezing sensation and it takes me a second to realize he has his hands on my arms. It takes me a second to realize I still have arms, and in that moment it’s like I slam back into my body, and the force of everything I’ve seen hits me and my legs buckle and I slump forward. Kent catches me, holds me up.

“What happened?” I whisper, dazed. “Is Elody…? Is Juliet…?”

“Shhh.” His lips are close to my ear. “You’re freezing.”

“I have to go find Lindsay.”

“You’ve been out here for over an hour. Your hands are like ice.” He shrugs out of the heavy sweater he’s wearing and drapes it over me. There are white snowflakes caught in his lashes. He places his hands gently under my elbows and steers me back toward the driveway. “Come on. Let’s get you warm.”

I don’t have the strength to argue. I let him lead me to the house. His hands never leave me, and even though he’s barely grazing my back, I feel like without him I would fall.

It seems like we’re back at Kent’s house without even moving. Then we’re in the kitchen, and he’s pulling out a chair and putting me in it. His lips are moving and his tone is comforting, but I can’t understand what he’s saying. Then there’s a thick blanket over my shoulders and a shooting pain in my fingers and toes as the feeling comes back to them, as though someone’s sticking hot, sharp needles in me. Still, I can’t stop shivering. My teeth are clacking together with a noise like dice rattling in a cup.

The kegs are still in the corner, and there are half-empty cups everywhere, and cigarette butts swimming in them, but the music’s off and the house feels totally different without any people in it. My mind is focusing on a bunch of tiny details, ricocheting from one to the other like a Ping-Pong ball: the embroidered sign above the sink that says MARTHA STEWART DOES NOT LIVE HERE; the snapshots posted on the refrigerator, of Kent and his family on the beach somewhere, of relatives I don’t know, of old postcards from Paris, Morocco, San Francisco; rows of mugs displayed behind the glass cabinets, with slogans on them like CAFFEINE OR BUST and IT’S TEA TIME.

“One marshmallow or two?” Kent is saying.

“What?” My voice comes out croaky and weird. All my other senses come online in a rush: I hear the hissing of milk heating in a pot; Kent’s face comes into focus, sweet and concerned, bits of snow melting out of his shaggy brown hair. The blanket around my shoulders smells like lavender.

“I’ll just put in a couple,” Kent says, turning back to the stove. In a minute there’s an oversized mug (This one says HOME IS WHERE THE CHOCOLATE IS) steaming in front of me, filled with foamy hot chocolate—the real kind, not the kind you get from a package—and big, bobbing marshmallows. I don’t know whether I’ve asked for this out loud or whether he’s just read my mind.

Kent sits across from me at the table and watches me take a sip. It’s delicious, just sweet enough and full of cinnamon and something else I can’t identify, and I put the mug down with slightly steadier hands.

“Where’s Lindsay?” I say as the scene comes back to me: Lindsay on her knees in front of everyone, throwing up. She must have been out of her mind—Lindsay would never do something like that in public. “Is she okay?”

Kent nods, his eyes fixed on my face. “Lindsay’s fine. She had to go to the hospital to be checked out for shock and stuff. But she’s going to be okay.”

“She—Juliet came so fast.” I close my eyes, envisioning the white blur, and when I open them, Kent looks like his insides are getting torn out. “Is she…I mean, is Juliet…?”

He shakes his head once. “There was nothing they could do,” he says, so quietly if I didn’t know what he was going to say I would never have heard him.

“I saw her…” I start to speak and find I can’t. “I could have grabbed her. She was so close.”

“It was an accident.” Kent looks down. I’m not sure whether he really believes it.

No, it wasn’t, I want to say. I think of her strange half smile as she said, Maybe next time, but probably not , and close my eyes, willing the memory away.

“What about Ally? Is she okay?”

“Ally’s fine. Not even a scratch.” Kent’s voice gets stronger, but there’s a pleading sound to it, and I understand he’s trying to get me to stop talking—he doesn’t want me to ask what I’m about to ask.

“Elody?” My voice comes out in a whisper.

Kent looks away. A muscle works in his jaw.

“She was sitting in the front seat,” he says finally, as though each and every word hurts, and I think of Elody leaning forward and whining, Why does Sam always get shotgun? “The passenger side took most of the impact.”

I wonder if that’s how they would have explained it to my parents at the hospital—collision, passenger side, impact. “Is she…?” I can’t say the word.

He looks at me like he’s about to cry. He looks older than I’ve ever seen him, his eyes dark and full and sad. “I’m so sorry, Sam,” he says quietly.

“What are you telling me?” I ball my fists up so tightly I can feel my nails dig into my skin. “Are you saying she’s—that she’s—” I break off, still unable to say it. Saying it will make it real.

Kent looks like each word is something sharp he has to bring up from his stomach. “It was—it would have been instant. Painless.”

“Painless?” I repeat, my voice shaking. “Painless? You don’t know that. You can’t know that.” There’s a fist in my throat. “Is that what they said? They said it was painless ? Like it was peaceful? Like it was okay ?”

Kent reaches for my hand across the table. “Sam…”

“No.” I scrape my chair back from the table and stand up. My whole body is vibrating with rage. “No. Don’t tell me it’s going to be okay. Don’t tell me it didn’t hurt her. You don’t know—you have no idea—none of you have any idea how much it hurts. It hurts—” I’m not even sure whether I’m talking about Elody or myself. Kent stands up and wraps his arms around me. I find myself with my head buried in his shoulder, sobbing. He keeps me pressed tightly to him, and he’s making little noises into my hair, and before I totally let go of everything and succumb to the blackness washing through me, I have the strangest, dumbest thought—that my head fits perfectly in Kent’s shoulder.

Then the thought of Elody and Juliet becomes too much, and a heavy veil drops down over my mind, and I cry. It’s the second night in a row I’ve totally lost it in front of Kent, though, of course, he couldn’t know that. I should be grateful he doesn’t remember that only last night we sat together in a dark room with our knees almost touching, but instead it makes me feel even more alone. I’m lost in a fog, in a mist, and at some point when I start to come back to myself I realize that Kent is literally holding me up. My feet are barely skimming the ground.

His mouth is buried in my hair and I feel his breath close to my ear. A zip of electricity goes through me, which makes me feel awful and more confused than ever. I pull away, putting a little bit of space between us. He keeps his arms on either side of mine, though, bracing me, and I’m glad. He’s solid and warm.

“You’re still freezing,” he says. He puts the back of his hand against my cheek for one millisecond, but when he pulls away I can feel the outline of his hand, like it’s scalded me. “Your clothes are soaking.”

“Underwear,” I blurt out.

He wrinkles his forehead. “What?”

“My…um, underwear. I mean, my pants and fleece and underwear…it’s all full of snow. Well, mostly melted water now. It’s really cold.” I’m too exhausted to care about being embarrassed. Kent just bites his lip and nods.

“Stay here,” he says. “And drink up.” He nods to the hot chocolate.

He guides me back into the chair and disappears. I’m still shivering, but at least I can hold the mug without slopping it all over the table. I don’t think about anything but the motion of the mug to my lips and the taste of the cocoa, the ticking of a cat-tailed clock, and the drifting white outside the windows. In a few seconds Kent’s back with an enormous fleece, faded sweatpants, and folded striped boxers.

“They’re mine,” he says, and then turns bright red. “I mean, not mine. I didn’t wear them yet or anything. My mom bought them for me—” He catches himself and swallows. “I mean, I bought them for myself, like, Tuesday. Tags still on and everything.”

“Kent?” I interrupt him.

He sucks in a breath. “Yeah?”

“I’m really sorry, but…do you mind being quiet?” I gesture to my head. “My brain is full of fuzz.”

“I’m sorry.” He exhales. “I don’t know what to do. I wish…I wish that there was more.”

“Thanks,” I say. I know he’s making an effort and I manage a weak smile.

He lays the clothes down on the table, along with a big, fluffy white towel. “I didn’t know…I thought if you were still cold you could take a shower.” He blushes at the word shower .

I shake my head. “I really just want to sleep.” I’ve forgotten about sleep, and I feel a huge lift when I say it: all I have to do is sleep.

As soon as I fall asleep this nightmare will be over.

Still, a twittering feeling of anxiety rises up inside me. What if the day doesn’t rewind this time? What if this is it? I think of Elody and feel the hot chocolate coming back up in my throat.

Kent must see the expression on my face because he crouches down so we’re at eye level. “Can I do anything? Can I get you anything?”

I shake my head, trying not to cry again. “I’ll be okay. It’s just…the shock.” I swallow hard. “I just want to…I want to rewind, you know?”

He nods once, and puts his hand over mine. I don’t pull it away. “If I could make it better I would,” he says.

In some ways it’s a stupid, obvious thing to say, but the way he says it, so honest and simple like it’s the truest thing there is, makes tears prick in my eyes. I take the clothes and the towel and go out into the hall to the bathroom we broke into to find Juliet. I go in and shut the door. The window’s still open and flurries of snow whirl in from outside. I shut the window. It makes me feel better already, like I’m already starting the process of erasing everything that’s happened tonight. Elody will be fine.

After all, I was the one who was supposed to be in the front seat.

I hang the hand towel Juliet left by the sink and strip out of my clothes, shaking. The shower is too hard to resist after all, and I turn the water on as high and as hot as it can go and get in. It’s one of those rain-forest showers where the water pours on you straight from above in a long, heavy stream. When it hits the marble tiles under my feet, it lets up big clouds of steam. I stay in the shower so long my skin gets pruny.

I put on Kent’s fleece, which is supersoft and smells like laundry detergent and, for some reason, freshly mowed grass. Then I snap the tags off the boxers and slip my legs into them. They’re too big on me, obviously, but I like how clean and crisp they feel on my skin. The only other boxers I’ve seen are Rob’s, usually crumpled up on his floor or shoved under his bed and stained with things I have no desire to identify. Last, I put on the sweatpants, which pool over my feet. Kent has given me socks, too, the big fluffy kind. I ball up all of my clothes and leave them just outside the bathroom door.

When I go back in the kitchen, Kent’s standing there, exactly as I left him. Something flickers in his eyes when I come in, but I’m not sure what it is.

“Your hair’s wet,” he says softly, but he says it like he’s actually saying something else.

I look down. “I showered, after all.”

Silence stretches between us for a few beats. Then he says, “You’re tired. I’ll drive you home.”

“No.” I say it more forcefully than I meant to, and Kent looks startled.

“No—I mean, I can’t. I don’t want to go home right now.”

“Your parents…” Kent trails off.

“Please.” I don’t know which would be worse: if my parents have already heard and are sitting there, waiting for me, waiting to grill me and ask me questions and talk about hospitals in the morning and therapists to help me deal—or if they haven’t heard yet and I come home to a dark house.

“There’s a guest room here,” Kent says. His hair is finally drying into little wisps and waves.

“No guest rooms.” I shake my head resolutely. “I want to be in a room room. A lived-in room.”

Kent stares at me for a second and then says, “Come with me.” He reaches for my hand as he passes and I let him take it. We go up the stairs and down the hall and to the bedroom with all the bumper stickers on it. I should have known it was his. He fiddles with the door—“It sticks,” he explains—and finally pops it open. I inhale sharply. The smell is just the same as it was last night when I was here with Rob, but everything is different—the darkness looks softer, somehow.

“Give me a second.” Kent squeezes my hand and pulls away. I hear the rustling of the curtains and I gasp: suddenly three enormous windows, stretching from floor to ceiling and taking up one entire wall, are revealed. He hasn’t turned on a light, but he may as well have. The moon is huge and luminous and bounces through all the dazzling white snow, growing brighter. The whole room is bathed in a beautiful, silver light.

“It’s amazing,” I say. I breathe out; I didn’t even realize I was holding my breath.

Kent smiles quickly. His face is silhouetted in moonlight. “It’s great at night. Not so great at sunrise, though.” He starts to draw the curtains closed.

“Leave them open,” I cry out, and then add, “please.” I suddenly feel shy.

Kent’s room is enormous, and smells like that same incredible mixture of Downy laundry detergent and grass shavings. It’s the freshest smell in the world, the smell of open windows and crisp sheets. Last night I couldn’t make out anything but the bed. Now I see the room is lined completely with bookshelves. There’s a desk in the corner, stacked with a computer and more books. There are pictures framed on the walls, blurred figures moving, but I can’t make out the details. A monster beanbag chair squats in one corner and Kent catches me staring at it.

“I’ve had it since seventh grade,” he says. He sounds embarrassed.

“I used to have one like that,” I say. I don’t add why I chucked it: because Lindsay said it looked like a lumpy boob. I can’t think about Lindsay now, or Ally. I definitely can’t think about Elody.

Kent draws the blankets down on his bed and then stands back, turning away so I have some privacy. I climb into the bed and lie down, my limbs heavy and achingly stiff, feeling a little self-conscious, but so numb with exhaustion I don’t care. There’s a curved wooden headboard and a matching footboard, and as soon as I’m stretched out, I’m reminded of being in a sleigh. I tilt my head so I can see the snow drifting down, and then close my eyes, imagining that I’m flying through a forest on my way to somewhere good: a trim little white house in the distance, candles burning in its windows.

“Good night,” Kent whispers. He’s so quiet I’d forgotten he was standing there.

I snap my eyes open and sit up on one elbow. “Kent?”

“Yeah?”

“Can you maybe stay with me a bit?”

He nods, and rolls the desk chair over to the side of the bed without speaking. He tucks his knees up to his chin and looks at me. The moonlight coming in through the windows turns his hair a soft silver.

“Kent?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you think it’s weird that I’m here with you?” I close my eyes when I say it so I don’t have to look at his face.

“I’m the editor in chief of the Tribulation ,” he says. “And I once went three hundred and sixty-five days wearing Crocs. I don’t think anything’s weird.”

“I forgot about the Crocs phase,” I say. I’m finally warm under the covers, and I feel sleep creeping up on me, like I’m standing on a hot beach with a gentle tide pulling at my toes. “Kent?”

“Yeah?”

“Why are you being so nice to me?”

There’s quiet for so long I begin to think he won’t answer. I imagine I can hear the snow drifting to earth, covering over the day, erasing it clean. I’m too frightened to open my eyes, terrified that I’ll break the spell, terrified he’ll look angry or hurt.

“Remember the time in second grade right after my grandfather died?” he says finally, speaking in a low, quiet voice. “I burst into tears in the lunchroom and Phil Howell called me a faggot. That only made me cry harder, even though I didn’t know what a faggot was.” He laughs softly.

I keep my eyes squeezed shut, coasting on his voice. Last year Phil Howell was found half naked with Sean Trebor in the back of his dad’s BMW. It’s funny how things turn out.

“Anyway, when I told him to leave me alone he smacked my tray, and food went flying everywhere. I’ll never forget: we were having mashed potatoes and turkey burgers. And you went up and scooped the potatoes off the floor with your hands and shoved them straight into Phil’s face. And then you picked up the turkey burger and crumbled it down Phil’s T-shirt. You said, You’re worse than the hot lunch .” He laughs again. “That was a big insult in second grade. And Sean was so surprised, and he looked so ridiculous standing there with mashed potato and chives smeared all over him, that I just started laughing and laughing, and it was the first time I’d laughed since I’d heard the news about—about my grandfather.” He pauses. “Do you remember what I said to you that day?”

The memory is there, a balloon swelling from somewhere so far inside me I thought it was lost, the whole scene clear and perfect now.

“You’re my hero,” we both say at the same time. I don’t hear Kent move, but all of a sudden his voice is closer, and he’s found my hands in the dark, and he’s cupping them in his.

“I vowed after that day that I would be your hero too, no matter how long it took,” he whispers.

We stay like that for what feels like hours, and all the time sleep is dragging at me, pulling me away from him, but my heart is fluttering like a moth, beating back the dreams and the darkness and the fog crowding my brain. Once I sleep, I lose him. I lose this moment forever.

“Kent?” I say, and my voice seems to have to rise from inside the fog, taking forever to get from my brain to my mouth.

“Yeah?”

“Promise you’ll stay here with me?” I say.

“I promise,” he whispers.

And then, just at that moment, when I’m no longer sure if I’m dreaming or awake or walking some valley in between where everything you wish for comes true, I feel the flutter of his lips on mine, but it’s too late, I’m slipping, I’m gone, he’s gone, and the moment curls away and back on itself like a flower folding up for the night.

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