I leave the Rose Room feeling keyed up and energetic, like I’ve just had three mocha lattes from Caffeine Rush in the mall. I replaced Juliet’s single rose with an enormous bouquet—I shelled out forty bucks for two dozen—and a note printed in block letters that says FROM YOUR SECRET ADMIRER. I only wish I could be around when she receives them. I’m positive it’s going to make her day. More than that: I’m positive it’s going to make things right. She’ll have even more roses than Lindsay Edgecombe. I start thinking about Lindsay’s eyes bugging out of her head when she sees that Juliet Sykes has beaten her for the title of Most Valograms this year, and I let out a huge snort of laughter right in the middle of AP American History. Everyone whips around and stares at me, but I don’t care. This must be what it’s like to do drugs: the feeling of coasting over everything, of everything looking new and fresh and lit up from inside. Except without the next-day guilt and the hangover. And possible prison sentence.
When Mr. Tierney distributes his pop quiz, I spend the whole twenty minutes drawing hearts and balloons around the questions, and when he comes around to collect the papers I give him a smile so bright he actually winces, like he’s not used to people looking happy.
Between classes I scour the hallways, looking for Kent. I’m not even sure what I’ll say to him when I see him. I can’t really say anything. He doesn’t know that we’ve spent the past two nights together, that both nights we were so close that if one of us had breathed we would have ended up kissing, that last night I think we might have. But I have this incredible urge just to be around him, to see him doing those familiar, Kent-like things: flipping his hair out of his eyes, smiling his lopsided smile, shuffling his ridiculous checkered sneakers, and tucking his hands into the over-long cuffs of his button-downs. My heart shoots into my throat every time I think I see his loping walk, or catch sight of some floppy brown hair on a boy—but it’s never him, and each time it isn’t, my heart does a reverse trajectory down into the very pit of my stomach.
I’m guaranteed to see him in calc, at least. After life skills, I stop in the bathroom, and spend the three minutes before bell primping in front of the mirror, ignoring the s’mores chattering on either side of me, and trying hard not to focus on the fact that I’ll come face-to-face with Mr. Daimler in less than five minutes. My stomach’s been performing its roller-coaster move so often—a combination of waiting for Juliet to get the roses, hoping to see Kent, and being disappointed—I’m not sure it can withstand forty-five minutes of having to watch Mr. Daimler smirk and wink and grin at the class. I will away the memory of his tongue inside my mouth, wet and sloppy.
“Such a slut.” One of the sophomores is coming out of a bathroom stall, shaking her head.
For one paranoid second I’m sure she’s talking about me—that somehow she has just read my mind—but then her friends explode with laughter, and one of them says, “I know. I hear she had sex with, like, three people on the basketball team,” and I realize they’re talking about Anna Cartullo. The stall door is swinging open and Lindsay’s scrawl is obvious. AC=WT . And underneath it: Go back to the trailer, ho.
“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear,” I blurt out, and all three girls instantly shut their mouths and stare at me.
“It’s true,” I say, feeling bolder now that I have such a captive audience. “You know how most rumors start?”
The girls shake their heads. They’re standing so close I think for a second their skulls are going to knock together.
“Because somebody feels like it.”
The bell rings then, and the sophomores scurry for the door like they’ve been let out of class. I stand there, willing my feet out the door and down the hall and down a flight of stairs and to the right and into calc, but nothing happens. Instead I’m fixated by the writing on the stall door, how Ally laughed and pointed to the copycat artists elsewhere. AC=WT. I’m pretty sure Lindsay wrote it on a whim—four measly letters, stupid, meaningless—probably to test out a new marker and see how much ink it had. It would have been better, almost, if she’d meant it. It would be better if she really hated Anna. Because it matters. It has mattered.
Without thinking about the fact that at this point I’m going to be late to calc, I dampen a strip of paper towel, just as an experiment, and begin scrubbing at the writing on the stall door. It doesn’t budge. But then, because I’ve started, I can’t stop. I look under the sink and find a dried-out Brillo pad and a can of Comet. I have to brace the door with one arm and lean hard with the other, scrubbing furiously, but after a little while the graffiti on the door has lightened, and after a little while longer you can hardly see the letters at all. I feel so good once I’ve gotten them off that first door, I go down the row and scrub the remaining two, even though my arm is aching and cramping and I’ve actually started to sweat a little bit in my tank top, mentally cursing Lindsay the whole time for her whims, for using permanent marker.
When all three stalls are finished I turn the doors out and look at their reflections in the mirror: blank, clean, featureless, the way stall doors should be. And for some reason it fills me with such pride and happiness I do a little dance right there, tapping my heels on the tile floor. It feels like I’ve reached back in time and corrected something. I haven’t felt so alive, so capable of doing things, in I don’t know how long.
By now I really have ruined my makeup. Little pricks of sweat are beading across my forehead and the bridge of my nose. I splash cold water on my face and dry off with a scratchy paper towel, starting all over again with the mascara and cream blush in Rose Petal that Lindsay and I both use religiously. My heart is looping crazily in my chest, partly from exhilaration, partly from nerves. Next period is lunch, and lunchtime is showtime.
“Will you stop doing that?” Elody leans forward and presses my fingers—which have been tapping—flat against the table. “You’re driving me crazy.”
“You’re not turning rexi, are you, Sam?” Lindsay gestures to my sandwich, which I’ve only nibbled around the edges. Rexi is her word for anorexic, although I’ve always thought it sounded like something you would name a dog.
“That’s what you get for ordering the mystery meat.” Ally makes a face at my roast beef, which I’ve ordered despite the fact that it’s borderline unacceptable. Things That Don’t Matter When You’ve Lived the Same Day Six Times and Died on at Least Two of Them: lunch meats and their relative coolness.
To my surprise Lindsay sticks up for me. “It’s all mystery meat, Al. The turkey tastes like shoe bottoms.”
“Nasty,” Elody agrees.
“I’ve always hated the turkey here,” Ally admits, and we all look at one another and burst out laughing.
It feels good to laugh, and the knot in my shoulders relaxes. Still, my fingers start up their involuntary drumming again, moving all on their own. I’m scanning every single person who enters the cafeteria, looking alternately for Kent—it’s like, what, he doesn’t eat now?—and Juliet’s shock of white blond hair. So far, nada.
I’ve been totally zoning out, thinking about Juliet, that for a second when I hear her name I think I’ve only imagined it—or worse, said it aloud myself. But then I see that Lindsay’s looking at Ally, a strange smile curling on her lips, and I know she must have just asked about whether Juliet got our rose. I totally forgot that Ally and Juliet have biology together, and I’m suddenly breathless. The room seems to tilt as I wait for Ally to respond. Oh my God, you guys, it was the weirdest thing…she got the biggest bouquet of flowers…she actually smiled.
Ally claps a hand over her mouth, her eyes bugging out. “Oh my God, you guys. I totally forgot to tell you—” Hands clamp down over my eyes and I’m so wound up I let out a little squeal. The hands smell like grease and—of course—lemon balm. Lindsay, Ally, and Elody crack up as Rob pulls his hands off my eyes. When I look up at him he’s smiling, but there’s a tightness around his eyes and I can tell he’s unhappy.
“You avoiding me now?” he says, snapping the strap of my tank top like he’s five.
“Not exactly,” I say, trying to sound pleasant. “What do you mean?”
He jerks his head back toward the soda machine. “I’ve been standing over there for, like, fifteen minutes.” His voice is low; he’s clearly not happy to be having this conversation in front of my friends. “You haven’t looked over or come over or anything.”
You made me wait longer than that, I want to say, but obviously he wouldn’t get it. Besides, as I watch him shuffling his scuffed-up New Balance sneakers, I realize he’s not really so horrible. Yeah, he’s selfish and not-so-smart and drinks too much and flirts with other girls and can’t take off a bra for the life of him, not to mention what comes afterward, but someday he’ll grow up a little and make a girl really happy.
“I’m not ignoring you, Rob, it’s just…” I blow air out of my cheeks, stalling. I’ve never broken up with anybody before, and all the clichés keep running through my head. It’s not you, it’s me . (No—it is him. And me.) We’re better off friends . (We were never friends.) “Things between us have been…”
He squints at me like he’s trying to read in a different language. “You got my rose, right? Fifth period? You read the note?”
Like this will make it better. “Actually,” I say, trying to keep the impatience out of my voice, “I didn’t get your rose. I cut fifth.”
“Miss Kingston.” Across the table, Elody puts her hand to her chest and pretends to be shocked. “I am very disappointed in you.” More giggling.
I shoot her a look and turn back to Rob. “But that’s not the point. The point is—”
“I didn’t get a rose from you,” Rob says, and I can see him very slowly starting to put it together: something is wrong. When Rob thinks, you can almost see gears shifting together in his brain.
This morning I made one other change in the Rose Room. I stopped by the C ’s and carefully rifled through Rob’s roses—skipping over the rose from Gabby Haynes, his ex-girlfriend, which said, When are we going to hang out like you promised, sexy? —and removed the one from me, with the little note I spent hours agonizing over.
Lindsay slaps at Rob’s arm, still thinking this is all a joke. “Be patient, Rob,” she says, winking at him. “Your rose is coming.”
“Patient?” Rob scowls as though the word tastes bad in his mouth. He crosses his arms and stares at me. “I get it. There is no rose, right? Did you forget or something?”
Something in his voice makes my friends finally get it. They go silent, staring back and forth from Rob to me, me to Rob.
Let me rephrase: someday he’ll make a sorority girl really happy, a blonde named Becky with D boobs who doesn’t mind getting man-handled like meat in a marinade.
“I didn’t forget —” I start to say, but he cuts me off.
His voice is calm, very low, but I can hear the anger running underneath it—hard and cold and cutting. “You make such a huge deal about Cupid Day. And then you don’t keep up your end of the bargain. Typical.”
Inside, my stomach is working like it’s trying to digest a whole cow, but I lift my chin, staring at him. “Typical? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I think you know.” Rob passes a hand over his eyes and looks suddenly mean, reminding me of this trick my dad used to do where he would bring his hand down over his face, changing all of his features from happy to sad, then from sad back to happy, in an instant. “You don’t exactly have a perfect history of keeping your promises—”
“Psycho alert,” Lindsay shouts out, probably hoping to diffuse the tension.
It works, kind of. I stand up so quickly I knock over my chair. Rob looks at me, disgusted, then taps the chair with his toe—not hard, but enough so that it’s loud—and says, “Find me later.”
He stalks off into the cafeteria, but I’m not watching him anymore. I’m watching Juliet float, drift, skim into the room. Like she’s already dead and we’re just seeing her flickering back to life in patches, imperfectly.
She’s not carrying anything, either, not a single stem, just a lumpy brown paper bag as always. My disappointment is so heavy and real I can taste it, a bitter lump in the back of my throat.
“…And then one of the Cupids came in, and I swear, she had, like, three dozen flowers, all for Juliet.”
I whip around. “What did you say?”
Ally frowns a little at my tone of voice, but she repeats, “She just got, like, this huge bouquet of roses delivered to her. I’ve never seen so many roses.” She starts to giggle. “Maybe Psycho has a stalker.”
“I just don’t understand what happened to our rose,” Lindsay says, pouting. “I specifically told them third period, bio.”
“What did she do with them?” I interject.
Ally, Elody, and Lindsay stare at me. “Do with what?” Ally says.
“The roses. Did she—did she throw them out?”
“Why do you care?” Lindsay wrinkles her nose.
“I just—I don’t care. It’s just…” They’re all staring at me blankly. Elody has her mouth open and I can see mushed-up french fries in it. “I think it’s nice, okay? If someone sent her all those roses…I don’t know. I just think it’s nice.”
“She probably sent them herself,” Elody says, starting to giggle again.
I finally lose my temper. “Why? Why would you say that?”
Elody jerks back like I’ve hit her. “I’m just—it’s Juliet .”
“Yeah, exactly. It’s Juliet . So what’s the point? Nobody gives a shit about her. Nobody pays any attention.” I lean forward, pressing both hands on the table, my head pounding from anger and frustration. “What’s. The. Point?”
Alley frowns at me. “Is this because you’re upset about Rob?”
“Yeah.” Lindsay folds her arms. “What’s up with that anyway? Are you guys okay?”
“This isn’t about Rob,” I say, squeezing the words out through gritted teeth.
Elody jumps in. “It was a joke, Sam. Yesterday you said you were scared Juliet would bite you if you went too close. You said she probably had rabies.”
That’s what really breaks me—right then, when Elody says that. Or rather, when she reminds me that I said that: yesterday, six days ago, a whole different world ago. How is it possible, I think, to change so much and not be able to change anything at all? That’s the very worst thing about all of this, a feeling of desperate hopelessness, and I realize my question to Elody is the question that’s been tearing me up all along. What’s the point? If I’m dead—if I can’t change anything, if I can’t fix it—what’s the point?
“Sam’s right.” Lindsay winks at me, still not getting it. “It’s Cupid Day, you know? A time of love and forgiveness, even for the psychos of the world.” She raises a rose like it’s a glass of champagne. “To Juliet.”
Ally and Elody lift their roses, giggling. “To Juliet,” they say in unison.
“Sam?” Lindsay raises an eyebrow. “Care to toast with us?”
I spin around and head to the back of the senior section, to the door that leads directly to the parking lot. Lindsay shouts something, and Ally calls, “She didn’t throw them out, okay?”
I keep going anyway, threading past tables piled with food and roses and bags, everyone talking and laughing, oblivious. I get a pang in my stomach that feels like regret. Everything looks so stupidly, happily normal: everyone just wasting time because they have so much of it to waste, minutes slipping by on who’s with who and did you hear .
On the horizon is the black line of clouds, just sitting there, a curtain about to be closed. I scan the parking lot, looking for Juliet, bouncing up and down on my toes to keep warm. Music blares from a car in Senior Alley and I recognize Krista Murphy’s silver Taurus gun up toward the exit. Otherwise the parking lot is still. Juliet has melted away somewhere into the landscape of metal and pavement.
I take a breath and exhale a cloud, enjoying the sharp sting of the air on my throat. I’m almost relieved that Juliet is gone. I’m not sure exactly what I would have said to her. And she didn’t throw out the flowers, after all. That’s a good sign. I stand there for a second more, bouncing on my toes, thinking, Tonight’s the night I’m going to get free of this thing . Thinking of all the things I’m going to do more of in my life. Go up to Goose Point with Izzy, until she’s too old to stand it. Hang out with Elody one-on-one. Drive into New York and go to a Yankees game with Lindsay, and stuff my face with hot dogs and catcall all the players.
Kiss Kent. Really kiss him, slow and long, somewhere outside—maybe while it’s snowing. Maybe standing in the woods. He’ll lean forward and he’ll have little snowflakes on his eyelashes again and he’ll brush the hair away from my face and put a warm hand behind my neck, so warm it’s almost burning“Hey, Sam.” Kent’s voice.
I spin around with a squeak, tripping on my own feet. Just like with Juliet Sykes, I’m so lost in fantasy about Kent that his actual appearance seems like a dream or wishful thinking. He’s wearing an old corduroy blazer with patches sewn onto the elbows like a deranged—and adorable—English teacher. The corduroy looks soft and I get the urge to reach out and touch it, an urge that has nothing to do with my general sense of today and the preciousness of things.
Kent’s hands are buried in his pockets, and his shoulders are shrugged toward his ears like he’s trying to stay warm. “No calculus today?”
“Um…no.” I’ve been waiting to run into him all day, but now my mind is a blank.
“That’s too bad.” Kent grins at me, jogging on his feet. “You missed some roses.” He whips his bag over one shoulder and unzips it, pulling out the cream-and-pink-swirled rose with a gold note card fluttering from one end. “A few of them went back to the office, I think. But I—uh, I wanted to bring this one to you myself. It’s a little crushed. Sorry.”
“It’s not crushed,” I say quickly. “It’s beautiful.”
He bites the edge of his lip—the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. I think he might be nervous. His eyes are flitting over my face and then away, and each time they land on me it feels like the world is falling away and it’s just the two of us in the middle of a bright, green field.
“You didn’t miss anything in math,” he says, and I recognize a Kent McFuller babble coming on. “I mean, we went over some of the stuff from Wednesday’s homework because some people were, like, freaking out about the quiz on Monday. But mostly everyone was a little bit antsy, I think because of Cupid Day, and Daimler didn’t really care that—”
He blinks and shuts up. “Yeah?”
“Did you send me this?” I hold up the rose. “I mean, is it from you?”
His smile gets so big it’s like a huge beam of sunshine. “I’ll never tell,” he says, winking.
I’ve unconsciously taken several steps toward him, so I can feel the heat coming off his body. I wonder what he would do if I pulled him to me right now, brushed my lips against his the way he did—the way I hope he did—last night. But even the idea sends a flurry of butterflies upward from my stomach, my whole body feeling quivery and uncertain.
At that moment I remember what Ally said to us on the first day, the day it all started: that if a group of butterflies takes off in Thailand it can cause rainstorms in New York. And I think of all the thousands of billions of steps and missteps and chances and coincidences that have brought me here, facing Kent, holding a pink-and-cream-swirled rose, and it feels like the biggest miracle in the world.
“Thank you,” I blurt out, and quickly add, “you know…for bringing me this.”
He ducks his head, looking pleased and embarrassed. “No problem.”
“I, um, hear you’re having a party tonight?” I’m mentally kicking myself for sounding so lame. In my head, this played out so much easier. In my head, he would lean down and do the thing with his lips again, the soft fluttery thing. I’m desperate to make it all go right again, desperate to get back to that feeling I had last night—we had last night, he must have felt it—but I’m afraid that anything I say could screw it up. A temporary sadness for what I’ve lost overwhelms me. Somewhere in the endless spinning of eternity that one, tiny, fraction of a second where our lips met is lost forever.
“Yeah.” His face lights up. “Parents out of town, you know. Are you coming?”
“Definitely,” I say, so forcefully he looks kind of startled. “I mean,” I continue at a normal volume, “it’s going to be the place to be, right?”
“Let’s hope so.” Kent’s voice is slow and warm, like syrup, and I wish I could close my eyes and just listen to it. “I got two kegs.” He twirls his finger in the air like, whoop-dee-doo .
“I would come anyway.” I mentally kick myself: what does that even mean ?
Kent looks like he gets it, though, because he blushes. “Thanks,” he says. “I was hoping you would. I mean, I figured you would because you’re always at parties, you know, out and stuff, but I didn’t know if there was another party or something, or maybe you and your friends do something different on Fridays—”
He does that adorable quick stop of his mouth. “Yeah?”
I lick my lips, unsure of how to say what I want to, squeezing my hands into fists.
“I—I have something to tell you.”
He puckers his forehead. Adorable—how did I not realize how adorable he is?—and not making it any easier.
Deep breaths, in and out. “It’s going to sound completely insane, but—”
“Yeah?” He leans even closer, until our lips are less than four inches apart. I can smell peppermint candy on his breath, and my head starts spinning wildly like it’s been turned into a gigantic merry-go-round.
“I, um, I—”
Kent and I both instinctively take one step back as Lindsay shoulders her way out of the cafeteria door, my messenger bag and hers slung over one arm. I’m actually grateful for the interruption, since I was either about to confess that I died a few days ago or that I was falling for him.
Lindsay lumbers over, being really melodramatic about the fact that she’s carrying two bags, like they’re both made out of iron. “So are we going?”
Her eyes flit momentarily over Kent, but other than that she doesn’t even acknowledge him. She plants herself almost directly in front of him like he’s not even there, like he’s not worth her time, and when Kent looks away and pretends not to notice I feel sick. I want to convey, somehow, that she isn’t me—that I know he’s worth my time. He’s better than my time.
“Are we going to The Country’s Best Yogurt or what?” She puts a hand on her stomach and makes a face. “I swear to God, those fries gave me bloat that can only be solved by chemical deliciousness.”
Kent gives me a quick nod and starts to walk away, no good-bye, no nothing, just trying to get out of there as fast as he can.
I duck around Lindsay and call out, “Bye, Kent! See you later!”
He turns around quickly, surprised, and gives me a huge smile. “Later, Sam.” He touches his head, a salute, like one of those guys in an old black-and-white movie, and then he lopes off back into Main.
Lindsay watches him for a minute, then looks at me and narrows her eyes. “What’s up with that? Kent stalk you into submission yet?”
“Maybe,” I say, because I don’t care what Lindsay thinks. I’m buzzing from his smile and being so close to him. I feel light and invincible, the best kind of tipsy.
She stares at me for one beat longer and then just shrugs. “Nothing says ‘I love you’ like a brick through the window.” Then she slips her arm through mine. “Yogurt?”
And that, for all her million and one faults, is why I love Lindsay Edgecombe.