THE ROOT AND BUD

“Come on, Sam.” Lindsay’s looking up at Kent’s house greedily, like it’s made out of chocolate. “Your face looks fine.”

I’m checking my makeup for the fiftieth time in the flip-down mirror. I put a final slick of lip gloss on and fish a gummy piece of mascara from the corner of my eyelashes, practicing the speech I’ve rehearsed in my head. Listen, Kent, this may sound random, but I was wondering if you, you know, wanted to hang out sometime….

“I don’t get it.” Ally leans forward from the backseat, her Burberry puffy jacket crackling. “If you’re not going to do it with Rob, what are you freaking out about?”

“I’m not freaking out,” I say. Despite the fact that I’ve put on cream blush and moisturizer with a slight tint, I look vampire-pale.

“You’re freaking out,” Lindsay, Elody, and Ally say at the same time, and then start laughing.

“Sure you don’t want a shot?” Ally pokes my shoulder with the vodka bottle.

I shake my head. “I’m good.” I’m too nervous to drink, weirdly. Besides, this is the first day of my new beginning. From now on I’m going to do things right. I’m going to be a different person, a good person. I’m going to be the kind of person who would be remembered well, not just remembered. I’ve been repeating this over and over, and just the idea of it is giving me strength, something solid I can hold on to, a lifeline.

It’s helping me beat back the fear and the buzzing sense somewhere deep inside me that I’ve forgotten to do something, that something’s off.

Lindsay puts her arms around me and plants a kiss on my cheek. Her breath smells like vodka and Tic Tacs. “Our very own designated driver,” she says. “I feel like an after-school special.”

“You are an after-school special,” Elody says. “The warning kind.”

“You should talk, slutsky,” Lindsay says, turning around to peg Elody with a tube of lip gloss. Elody catches it and squeals triumphantly, then dabs some on her lips.

“Well, I’m the freezing kind,” Ally says. “Can we go in, please?”

“Madame?” Lindsay turns to me, flourishing her hand and bowing slightly.

“All right. Let’s do it.” I keep on running lines in my head: You know, catch a movie, or go get something to eat or whatever…I know it’s been a couple of years since we really talked….

The party is loud, a giant roar. Maybe it’s because I’m sober, but everyone looks ridiculously packed together, hot and uncomfortable, and for the first time in a long time, I feel shy walking in, like people are staring at me. I keep my mind on what I’m here to do: find Kent.

“Crazy.” Lindsay leans forward and circles her hand in the air, gesturing to all the people smashed together, moving an inch at a time, like they’re all connected by an invisible rope.

We push our way upstairs. Everyone’s eyes look bright, like dolls’ eyes, from alcohol and maybe other stuff. It’s kind of creepy, actually. Even though I’ve been in school with all these people forever, they look different, unfamiliar, and when they smile at me I just see teeth everywhere, like piranhas getting ready to eat something. I feel like a curtain has dropped away and I’m seeing people for who they really are, different and sharp and unknowable. For the first time in days, I think about the dream I was having for a while, where I’m walking through a party and everyone looks familiar except for one thing, something off. I wonder if the real point of that dream was not that other people were transforming, but that I was. Lindsay keeps one finger jabbed into the small of my back, encouraging me to keep moving, and I’m glad for it. That little point of connection gives me courage.

I push my way into the first room at the top of the stairs, one of the biggest, and my heart drops all the way into my stomach: Kent. He’s standing in the corner talking to Phoebe Rifer, and instantly my mind goes fuzzy, a big useless snowstorm. My mouth feels like it’s stuffed with cotton and I totally regret not taking at least one shot, just so I won’t be so aware of how weird and tall and awkward I feel, like I’m Alice in Wonderland and have gotten too big for the room.

I whirl around to say something to Lindsay—I don’t know what, but I need to be talking to someone, not just standing there gaping like some kind of overgrown vegetable—but she’s vanished. Of course. She must have gone to find Patrick. I ball my hands into fists and close my eyes. That means any second now, in three , two , one…

“Sam.” Rob doesn’t put his arms around me, and when I turn around, he’s looking down his nose at me like I smell. It’s insane, but I’ve actually forgotten he was going to be at the party. I haven’t been thinking about him at all. “I didn’t think you were going to show.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” I fold my arms across my chest after Rob flicks his eyes not so subtly down to my boobs.

“You were acting all crazy today.” There it is: the slur coming out. “So what? Are you going to apologize?” He grins, lazy and sloppy. “We can figure out a way for you to make it up to me.”

Anger bubbles up inside of me. He’s looking me up and down like his eyes are fingers and he’s trying to touch all of me at once. I can’t believe how many nights I spent on his basement couch, letting him slobber on me. Years and years of fantasy fall away in that one second.

“Oh, yeah?” I’m struggling to control my temper, but I can’t keep the edge out of my voice. Fortunately, Rob’s too drunk to notice. “I’d like that. To make it up to you, I mean.”

“Yeah?” Rob’s face lights up and he takes a step closer to me, wraps his arms around my waist. I shudder inwardly but force myself to stay put.

“Hmmm.” I dance my fingers up his chest, sneaking a glance at Kent, who’s still talking to Phoebe. I’m momentarily distracted—Phoebe has the personality of a freaking noodle, for God’s sake—but I snap my eyes back to Rob’s face and force myself to flirt. “I think we need a little one-on-one time, don’t you?”

“Definitely.” Rob lurches a little to one side. “What were you thinking?”

I reach up on my tiptoes so I’m whispering in his ear. “There’s a bedroom on this floor. Bumper stickers all over the door. Go inside and wait for me. Wait for me naked .” I pull away, giving him my sexiest smile. “And I promise to give you the best apology ever.”

Rob’s eyes are nearly bugging out of his head. “Now?”

“Now.”

He detaches himself from me and takes a stumbling step in the direction of the hallway, then something occurs to him and he spins around. “You’ll be there soon, right?”

This time there’s nothing forced about my smile. “Five minutes,” I say, holding up my right hand with my fingers splayed. “I promise.”

When I turn away from Rob it’s a struggle to keep from bursting out laughing, and all the nervousness I feel about talking to Kent dissipates. I’m ready to march right up to him and shove my tongue down his throat if I have to.

Except that he’s gone.

“Shit,” I mutter.

“That’s no way for a lady to talk.” Ally comes up behind me, raising her eyebrows as she takes a swig from the bottle. “What’s wrong with you? Attack of the Cokran Crisis?”

“Something like that.” I rub my forehead. “Have you, um, seen Kent McFuller?”

Ally squints at me. “Who?”

“Kent. McFuller,” I say a little louder, and two sophomores whip around and stare at me. I stare right back until they look away.

“The host with the most.” Ally raises her bottle. “Why, did you break something already? It’s a pretty good party, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, good party.” I try not to roll my eyes. She’s too tipsy to be useful. I gesture toward the back of the house. Lindsay and Elody should be in the back room, and Kent must be close. “Let’s circulate.”

Ally takes my arm. “Yes, ma’am.”

I spot Amy Weiss—probably the biggest gossip in the entire school—making out with Oren Talmadge in the doorway like she’s starving and his mouth is stuffed with Cheetos. I drag Ally toward them.

“You want to circulate with Amy Weiss ?” Ally hisses in my ear. Freshman year Amy spread the rumor that Ally let Fred Dannon and two other boys touch her boobs behind the gym in exchange for a month’s worth of math homework. I’ve never been sure whether the story was true or not—Ally swears it wasn’t, Fred swears it was, and Lindsay guesses that Ally only let them look, not touch—but in any case Ally and Amy have been unofficial archnemeses since then.

“Pit stop.” I tap Amy’s shoulder and she extricates herself from Oren’s mouth.

“Hey, Sam.” Her face lights up. She glances quickly at Ally, then back to me, snaking her arms around Oren’s neck. Oren looks extremely confused, probably wondering what happened to the suckfish on his face. “Sorry. Am I blocking the hallway?”

“Just your butt is,” Ally says cheerfully. I squeeze her arm and she yelps. The last thing I need is for Amy and Ally to get into it.

“You know there’s a much better spot,” I say, “if you and Oren want…you know, more privacy .”

“We want privacy,” Oren pipes up.

I smile at him. “Open bedroom. Bumper stickers on the door. Extra -soft bed.” I raise my fingers to my lips, blow a kiss to Amy. “Have fun.”

“What was that about?” Ally explodes as soon as we’re out of earshot. “Since when are you and Amy BFF?”

“Long story.” I’m feeling good, powerful, and in control. Things are turning out the way they should. I put my hand on the door to Kent’s room as I pass it. Sorry, Rob.

Ally and I weave through the hallway. I’m scanning the crowd for Kent, ducking into various side rooms, getting more and more frustrated when I don’t see him.

We hear someone scream and then there’s an explosion of laughter. For a moment my heart stops and I think, It can’t be, not tonight, not again, not Juliet, but then I hear Oren yell, “Dude, pull your pants up, for God’s sake.” Ally pokes her head out of the doorway of the room we’re in and looks back in the direction of Kent’s room. Her eyes get so big and round she looks like a cartoon character.

“Um, Sam? You might want to see this.”

I peek out into the hallway. Rob is booking it toward the stairs—or trying to, at least. It’s a little hard for him to move quickly since he’s (a) absolutely surrounded by people gaping at him and (b) more than a little unsteady on his feet—wearing nothing but his boxer shorts and his New Balance sneakers with mismatched socks. And his hat, of course. He’s clutching the rest of his clothes in front of his crotch and keeps barking at people, “What the hell are you looking at?”

I would feel bad for him if it weren’t for the sneakers. Like what, he couldn’t be bothered to take them off? He was too busy planning his method of attack on my bra or something? Plus, when he’s almost at the stairs, he lurches accidentally into a sophomore, but instead of pulling away he wraps her in a drunken hug. I can’t hear what he says, but when she untangles herself I can see she’s giggling, like getting mauled by a half-naked, sweaty senior who’s blitzed out of his mind is the best thing that’s happened to her all day.

“Yup,” I say to Ally. “We’re definitely broken up. It’s official.”

She’s looking at me strangely. “Kent.”

My heart flutters. “What?”

“It’s Kent.”

My brain taps out again. She knows. It’s obvious that I’ve been completely obsessing over him; maybe Lindsay said something after she found us together outside the cafeteria. “I—the Rob thing has nothing to do with—” Ally shakes her head, jabs a finger over my shoulder. “Kent. Behind you. Weren’t you looking for him earlier?”

Relief washes over me. She doesn’t know. Then a tiny twinge of disappointment too. She doesn’t know because there’s nothing to know. He doesn’t even know. I spin around and search the hall for him.

“In there.” Ally points to a door ten feet down the hall. From our angle it’s impossible to see more than a few feet into the room, which, from the huge desk blocking over half of the doorway, looks to be a storage space or a study. People are flowing in and out.

“Come on.” I haul Ally off again, but she breaks free.

“I’m going to go find Lindsay.” She’s clearly tired of whatever mission I’m on. I nod and she scoots off toward the back room, using the vodka bottle like a cattle prod, poking people out of her way. A hand clamps down on my arm and I jump.

I turn around: Bridget McGuire and Alex Liment.

“You have Mrs. Harbor for English, right?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer before launching into her spiel. “Do you know if she handed out the essay assignments for Macbeth ? Alex missed. Doctor’s appointment.”

Because I didn’t go with Lindsay for frozen yogurt after all—something was tugging at me, making me want to stay close to school, to the center of things—I’d almost forgotten about Bridget and Anna and Alex. And now the look on Alex’s face—the little, crooked smile that used to creep onto Rob’s face whenever he’d successfully gotten an extension from one of his teachers for some completely fabricated reason—makes me want to smack him. I think of Anna with her coal-black eye makeup and her improvised lunchroom on the floor of the abandoned bathroom. Even Bridget isn’t so bad. Annoying, yes, but pretty and nice and the type of person who probably spends her free time volunteering with sick children.

I can’t take it. I can’t let him get away with it.

Bridget’s still babbling about Alex’s mom being a health nut. I interrupt her. “Does anybody smell Chinese food?”

Bridget wrinkles her nose, clearly disappointed that I haven’t been listening. “Chinese food?”

I make a big show of sniffing. “Yeah. Like, like”—I stare directly at Alex—“like a big bowl of orange beef.”

His smile droops a little, but he shrugs and says, “I don’t smell anything.”

“Oh my God.” Bridget cups a hand in front of her mouth. “It’s not my breath, is it? I totally had Chinese food last night.”

I keep staring at Alex. “What’s wrong with you?” I ask, not even bothering to keep the edge out of my voice.

He blinks. “What?”

Bridget looks confused, and for a moment the three of us stand there, not saying anything. Alex and I have locked eyes, and Bridget is looking back and forth between us so rapidly I’m worried her neck’s going to snap off.

Then I smile. “You know, health -wise. Why did you have to go to the doctor?”

Alex relaxes visibly. “No big deal. My mom wanted me to get some weird shot. And you know, just a general checkup and stuff.”

Mmm-hmmm . I hope they were thorough.” I shoot a pointed glance at his crotch. Fortunately Bridget is staring at him, watching him turn red, and doesn’t see.

“Um. Y-yeah. Pretty much.” He squints at me like he’s just noticed me for the first time.

“I’ve been looking for a doctor,” I breeze on. I feel bad for Bridget, but at the same time, she deserves to know what her lame excuse for a boyfriend is up to. “It’s so hard to find a good one, you know? Especially one that doubles as a restaurant with a $4.99 lunch special. That’s rare.”

“What are you talking about?” Bridget’s voice is a squeak. She whips back to Alex. “What is she talking about?”

A muscle is ticking in Alex’s jaw. I can tell he wants to curse me out but knows that would make it worse, so he just stands there glaring.

I put my hand on Bridget’s arm. “I’m sorry, Bridget. But your boyfriend is really a slimeball.”

“What is she talking about?”

Bridget’s voice shoots up another octave, and as I walk away I hear Alex start trying to calm her down, no doubt feeding her lies as quickly as he can come up with them. I should feel good about what I’ve done—he deserves it, after all, and in a weird way I’m only setting things right—but as soon as I walk away I feel strangely deflated. The feeling of control vanishes and in its place comes a tingly feeling of anxiety. I flip back through the day’s events like I’m scrolling down a computer screen, trying to find some lapse, something I’ve forgotten to do or say. Maybe I should have gone to Juliet’s house earlier, to check up on her. Then again, I’m not really sure what I would have said. Hi. Can you verify for me that you’re not going to throw yourself in front of any cars tonight? That would be great. No explosives, either. This is my life you’re playing with.

The music’s so loud, the notes are hardly distinguishable from one another. I fantasize about taking Kent’s hand and pulling him away somewhere quiet and dark. The room downstairs, maybe, or the woods, or someplace farther. Maybe we’ll just get in the car and drive.

“Sam! Sam!”

I look up. In the back room Lindsay’s climbed onto one of the couches, waving at me over the tide of bobbing heads. Ally’s next to her, and several feet beyond them I see Elody whispering something to Steve Dough.

I hesitate, a sense of hopelessness washing over me. It’s ridiculous for me to talk to Kent. I have no words to describe how wrong I’ve been about him, about Rob, about everyone. I don’t think I can explain to him how I’ve been changing. And maybe it’s all a lie, anyway. Maybe it’s impossible to change.

In that moment, while I’m teetering between two doorways, the people around me get all quiet and hushed, faces growing slack. Up on the couch Lindsay falters, her hand flapping uselessly to her side. Next to her, Ally begins opening and shutting her mouth like a fish. The buzzing is all through my body now, like the hum of an electrical wire.

And there she is, marching down the hallway. After all that: Juliet Sykes on a mission.

In a second the despair, the hopelessness, the sense of forgetting things or missing the point somehow, all gets transformed into rage. When she sees Lindsay she stops and opens her mouth, going straight into her “you’re a bitch” routine, but I don’t even let the first word escape from her mouth before I’m charging forward, grabbing her arm, and half dragging her backward down the hallway. She’s too surprised to fight me.

I pull her into the nearest bathroom—“Out,” I order two girls who are primping in front of the mirror—and slam the door and lock it. When I turn around to face her she’s staring at me like I’m the psychopath.

“What are you doing?”

She must misunderstand my question. “It’s a party,” she says with soft insistence. When she’s not busy freaking out and calling me a bitch she has a nice voice, musical like Elody’s. “I’m allowed to be here like everybody else.”

“No.” I shake my head, pressing fingers to my temples to keep them from pounding. “I mean, what are you really doing? Why are you here?”

Her eyes flutter to the doorknob behind me. I move over so it’s wedged into my lower back. If she wants to get out, she’ll have to move me out of the way.

Apparently she doesn’t like her chances, because she takes a long, slow breath. “I came to tell you something. You, and Lindsay, and Elody, and Ally.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“You’re a bitch,” she says quietly, not like an accusation at all, more like something she’s sorry about.

At the same time she says it, I say it with her. “I’m a bitch.”

She stares at me.

“Listen, Juliet”—I rake my hands through my hair—“I know we haven’t always been nice to you or whatever. And I really feel bad about it—I do.” I try to gauge what she’s thinking, but it’s like something has shut down behind her eyes, a button switching off, and she just stands there staring at me dully. I rush on, “The thing is, we never really meant anything by it, you know? I don’t think I—we—really thought about it. It’s just the kind of thing that happens. People used to make fun of me all the time.” She’s making me nervous, just staring like that, and I lick my lips. “All the time. And, like, I don’t think it’s really because people are mean or bad or whatever. I just think…I just think…” I’m fighting to find the words. Memories are colliding in my head: the sound of people singing as I walked down the hall, the smell of ice cream on Lindsay’s breath the day we threw Beth’s tampons out the window, riding a horse through a blur of trees. “I just think that people don’t think. They don’t know. We—I —didn’t know.”

I feel pretty proud of myself for getting all of that out. But Juliet hasn’t moved or smiled or even freaked out. She’s so still she could be carved out of stone. Finally a little tremor goes through her, a personal earthquake, and her eyes seem to focus on me.

“You haven’t always been that nice to me?” she says dully, and my stomach sinks. She didn’t hear a word I said.

“I—yeah. And I’m sorry about that.”

Her eyelids flutter. “In seventh grade you and Lindsay stole all my clothes from the locker room so I had to walk around in my sweaty gym clothes for the rest of the day. Then you called me Stinky Sykes.”

“I—I’m sorry. I don’t remember that.” The way she’s staring at me is awful, like she’s seeing in and through and beyond me to some void.

“That was before you came up with Psycho, of course.” Juliet’s voice has lost its musical quality. It’s completely toneless. She raises her arm and mimes slashing a knife through the air, emitting a series of high-pitched shrieks that send chills up and down my arms, and for a moment I think maybe she is crazy. Then she drops her arm. “Real funny. Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est . Catchy.”

“People used to tell this really dumb joke about me. Kind of sing it when I walked by. What’s red and white and weird all over…” I’m hoping to make her laugh or twitch or something, but she just keeps staring at me with that dumb, animal look on her face, a blank.

“I never sang it,” she says, and then, like she’s forced to keep reciting everything we ever did, continues. “You took pictures of me when I was showering.”

“That was Lindsay,” I say automatically, getting more and more uncomfortable. If she would get angry, it would be one thing—but it’s like she’s not even seeing me, like she’s just reading off a list she’s looked at a million times.

“You posted the pictures all over the school. Where teachers could see.”

“We took them down in, like, an hour.” I’m ashamed as soon as I say the words. As though the fact that we took them down makes it better.

“You hacked into my Yahoo account. You published my—my private emails.”

“That wasn’t us,” I say quickly, feeling a rush of relief that this, at least, was not our fault. To this day I’m not sure who did hack her account, and circulate email exchanges between Juliet and some guy named Path2Pain118 she’d obviously met in a chat room. There were dozens of emails, all of them long rants about how much high school sucked and how awful everybody was. The hacker had forwarded the emails to almost everyone in school after giving them a new subject line: Future School Shooters of America. I shiver, thinking about how easy it is to be totally wrong about people—to see one tiny part of them and confuse it for the whole, to see the cause and think it’s the effect or vice versa. And though I’ve now been at Kent’s house five times in six days I feel disoriented, confused by the bright bathroom light and Juliet’s impassive face and the sounds of the party coming through the door.

Juliet keeps going on like I didn’t even speak. “You started the rumor that I lost my virginity for a pack of cigarettes.”

Ally. That was Ally. I can’t say it. It doesn’t matter, anyway. It was us. It was all of us. Everyone who repeated the story and whispered “slut” and made a smoker’s hacking cough whenever she walked by.

“I don’t even smoke.” She says this with a smile, like this is the funniest thing in the world. Like this, her whole life, is one big joke.

“Juliet—”

“My sister heard that rumor. She told my parents. I—” Finally she loses it a little, balling her hands into fists and squeezing them against her thighs. “I’ve never even kissed anyone.” This comes out as a fierce whisper—a confession—and the intensity of it, the sadness and regret, makes a black well of anger break somewhere inside of me.

“I know, okay? I know we did horrible things. I know we’ve been shitty and things are bad and—” I break off, the words getting tangled in my throat. I’m on the verge of tears, full of blind fury that hits me like a cloud, blots out everything but a single burning point of frustration: I can’t make her see, can’t make her see that I’m trying to make things right. I feel like I’m watching both of our lives swirl down the drain, mine and hers, wrapped around each other. “What I’m saying is, I want to make it up to you. I’m trying to apologize . Things—things are going to get better.”

She presses her lips together, staring at me mute and white-faced, and I have to tense every muscle in my arms to keep from reaching out and grabbing her shoulders, shaking her.

“I mean…” I’m going on blindly now, groping, grabbing at words and ideas as they come buzzing up to me through my anger, trying to get through to her. “You got those roses today, right? Like a whole bunch of them?”

An enormous shudder goes through her. And now a light snaps on in her eyes again, but instead of gratitude, there’s hatred burning there.

“I knew it. I knew it was you.” Her voice is so full of rage and pain I rear back like she’s hit me. “What was that? Another one of your little jokes?”

Her reaction is so unexpected it takes me a few seconds to think of a response. “What? No . That wasn’t—”

“Poor little Psycho.” Juliet narrows her eyes, almost hissing at me. “No friends. No roses. Let’s screw with her one more time.”

“I didn’t want to screw with you.” I have no idea what’s happening or how things have gone so badly wrong. “It was supposed to be nice.”

I don’t know that she even hears me. She leans closer. “So what was the plan? What were you going to do with that ‘secret admirer’ crap? Bribe one of your friends so he’d pretend to like me? Ask me out? Maybe even to go to prom? And then—what? On the night that we’re supposed to go, he just won’t show up? And it will be so goddamned funny if I freak out, if I go crazy, if I cry or break down in the hallways when I see him in school.” She jerks away. “Sorry to disappoint you, but you’re repeating yourselves. Been there, done that. Eighth grade. Spring Fling. Andrew Roberts.”

She slumps forward as though her speech has exhausted her, the anger and the burning light disappearing simultaneously, all the expression going out of her face, her hands uncurling.

“Or maybe you didn’t have a plan,” she says, this time quietly, almost sweetly. “Maybe there was no point to it at all. Maybe you just wanted to remind me that I have nobody, no friends, no secret admirers. ‘Maybe next year, but probably not,’ right?” She smiles at me again, and it’s much worse than her anger.

By this point I’m so frustrated and bewildered I have to fight back tears. “I swear, Juliet, that wasn’t the point. I just—I thought it would be nice. I thought it would make you feel better.”

“Make me feel better?” She repeats the words as though she’s never heard them before, and now her eyes have a dreamy, faraway look. Every trace of anger and emotion is gone. She looks peaceful, even, and I’m struck by how beautiful she is—up close, just like a supermodel, with that ghostly pale skin and those huge blue eyes, the color of the sky very early in the morning.

“You don’t know me,” she says in little more than a whisper. “You never knew me. And you can’t make me better. Nobody can make me better.”

This reminds me of what I said to Kent only two days ago—I don’t think I can be fixed —but now I know I was wrong. Everyone can be fixed; it has to be that way, it’s the only thing that makes sense. I’m trying to figure out a way to tell Juliet this, to convince her of it, but very calmly, and with that floating grace she’s always had, she puts her hand on one of my arms and moves me gently but firmly out of the way, and I find myself stepping aside and letting her reach for the door handle. The tears are pushing at the back of my throat, and I’m still struggling for words, and the whole time it’s like her face is growing paler and paler, glowing almost, like the sheer white point of a flame; and I have this idea that I’m already seeing her sputter out, her life flickering in front of me, a TV on static.

She pauses with her hand on the door, staring directly in front of her.

“You know, I used to be friends with Lindsay.” She’s still speaking in that horrible, calm voice, as though she’s talking from a distance of miles and miles. “When we were younger we did everything together. I still have a friendship necklace she gave me, one of those hearts split down the middle. When you put them together the necklace spelled ‘Best Friends Forever.’” I want to ask what happened, why they stopped being friends, but the words are stuck behind the lump in my throat. And I’m scared of interrupting. As long as Juliet’s talking to me, she’s safe.

“That was right before her parents got divorced.” Juliet shoots a quick glance in my direction, but her eyes seem to go directly over my face without actually registering it. “She was so sad all the time. I used to go to her house for sleepovers, and her parents would be arguing so badly we’d have to hide under her bed and stuff pillows everywhere to muffle the sound. She called it ‘building a fort.’ She was always like that, you know, always trying to make the best of things. But when she thought I was asleep, she would cry and cry and cry. She started having nightmares, too. Really bad ones. She’d wake up screaming in the middle of the night.”

Juliet’s staring at the door again, smiling a little. I wish I could walk back into her memories and see what she’s seeing, fix whatever is broken there. “She started to wet her bed again, you know? Because everything was so bad with her mom and dad. She was humiliated, of course. She swore me to secrecy—said she’d never speak to me again if I told anybody. We used to wake up in the morning and some of the pillows in the fort would be damp. I would pretend not to notice. One morning I came into the bathroom to brush my teeth, and she was sitting in the tub, scrubbing a pillow with so much bleach it made my eyes sting. She must have been scrubbing for half an hour. The pillow was all white-splotched and ruined, and her fingers were raw and red. They were burned, almost. But it’s like she couldn’t even see it. She just wanted it to be clean .”

I close my eyes, feeling the floor sway underneath me, remembering coming into the bathroom of Rosalita’s and seeing Lindsay on her knees, the chunks of food in the toilet. The mixture of shame and anger and defiance on her face.

“One time the fighting got so bad we even ran away from her house. We were only seven or eight, but we walked all the way to my house. It was March and pretty cold. The plan was for Lindsay to move into my room. I wasn’t going to tell anyone, just keep her safe and bring her food. Mostly she wanted gummy bears and Snickers bars. She loved chocolate then, and candy. Anything sweet, really.”

Without meaning to, I let out a little, strangled sound. I don’t know if I can listen anymore. I have the feeling that this is it: this bathroom, this story. That this is the root and bud of it all, the beginning and the end.

But Juliet keeps going in that strange, measured tone, as though we have all the time in the world. “Of course it didn’t work. We got upstairs and into the bedroom, but then we started arguing about who should sleep in the little trundle bed and who should get the big one, and my mom heard us. She was horrified that we’d walked all that way. She was screaming and crying that we could have been kidnapped or killed or whatever. I remember being really embarrassed.” Juliet turns her hands upward, stares at her palms. “It was nothing compared to Lindsay’s freak-out, though, when my mom said she had to go home. I’ve never heard anyone scream that loudly.”

She’s silent for so long I think she’s done. Her words keep buzzing in my head, flitting around and arranging themselves like clues in a crossword puzzle. She was always like that, you know, always trying to make the best of things…. She must have been scrubbing for half an hour…. Her fingers were raw and red. I feel like I’m on the verge of understanding something I’m not sure I want to know. The room feels tiny and stifling. There’s a crushing weight on my chest. I’m tempted to make a run for it, push past her into the party and go get a beer and forget about Juliet, forget about everything. But I’m rooted where I am. I can’t move. I keep seeing the endless darkness of my dream rising in front of me. I can’t go back to it.

“It’s funny when you think about it,” Juliet says. “We did everything together, Lindsay and me. We even joined Girl Scouts together. It was her idea. I didn’t want to do all that—cookies and campfires and stuff. We went away on a camping trip at the beginning of fifth grade. We slept in the same tent, of course.”

I watch Juliet’s hands. They’re trembling ever so slightly but so quickly you can barely see it, like the wings of a hummingbird. Out of the corner of her eye Juliet catches me looking, and she brings her hands down to her thighs, gracefully but with finality.

“You remember the name they gave me in fifth grade, right? The name Lindsay gave me? Mellow Yellow?” She shakes her head. “I used to dream that name, I heard it so often. Sometimes I forgot what my real name was.”

She turns to me and her face is radiant, almost glowing, gorgeous. “The funny thing is, it wasn’t even me. Lindsay was the one who wet her sleeping bag. In the morning the whole tent smelled. But when Ms. Bridges came in and asked what had happened Lindsay just pointed her finger at me and screamed, She did it . I’ll never forget her face when she screamed it—She did it! Terrified. Like I was a wild dog and I was going to bite her.”

I press back against the door, grateful for something to lean on. It makes perfect sense, of course. It all makes perfect sense now: Lindsay’s anger, the way she always held up her fingers in the shape of a cross to ward Juliet Sykes off. She doesn’t hate her. She’s afraid of her. Juliet Sykes, the keeper of Lindsay’s oldest, maybe her worst, secret.

And it all seems absurd now, the chance and randomness of it. One person shoots up and the other spirals downward—random and meaningless. As simple as being in the right place, or the wrong place, or however you want to look at it. As simple as getting a craving for Diet Pepsi one day at a pool party, and getting swept away; as simple as not saying no.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” I ask, even though I already know the answer. My voice comes out hoarse from the effort of swallowing back tears.

Juliet shrugs. “She was my best friend, you know? She was always so sad back then.” Juliet makes a noise that could be a laugh or a whimper. “Besides,” she says more quietly, “I thought it would pass.”

“Juliet—” I start to say.

She shakes her shoulders like she’s brushing off the weight of everything, the conversation, the past. “It doesn’t matter now,” she says quickly, and just like that she snaps the door open and slips out.

“Juliet!”

There’s a huge clot of people standing by the door, and when I come out I’m pressed backward momentarily as two juniors scuffle for the bathroom, both of them yelling, drunk. “I was here first!” “No, I was!” “You just got here!” A few people give me dirty looks, and then Bridget McGuire charges past all of them, face red and blotchy and tear-streaked. When she sees me she sobs out, “You—” but she doesn’t finish her sentence, just swoops around the juniors and locks herself in the bathroom.

“Jesus Christ, not again,” someone yells.

“I’m going to pee my pants,” one of the juniors moans, crossing her legs and hopping up and down.

Alex Liment is right behind Bridget. He pushes up to the bathroom door and begins rapping on it, calling for her to come out. I still haven’t moved. I’m pressed up against the wall, penned in by people, paralyzed by how wrong everything is. I remember a story I once heard about drowning: that when you fall into cold water it’s not that you drown right away but that the cold disorients you and makes you think that down is up and up is down, so you may be swimming, swimming, swimming for your life in the wrong direction, all the way toward the bottom until you sink. That’s how I feel, as though everything has been turned around.

“You’re really unbelievable.”

I’m suddenly aware that Alex is talking to me. His lips are curled back, showing all his teeth.

“You know what you are?” He puts one hand on either side of my head so he’s blocking me in. I can see sweat on his forehead and smell weed and beer on his breath. “You, Samantha Kingston, are a bitch.”

Hearing that jolts me, wakes me up. I have to focus. Juliet is off somewhere in the woods, in the cold. She’s probably making for the road. I can still find her, talk to her, get her to see .

I put both hands on Alex’s chest and shove him. He stumbles backward.

“I’ve heard it before,” I say. “Trust me.”

I force my way through the hallway and am halfway down the stairs when someone calls my name. I stop dead so that the people behind me bump each other like dominoes and start cursing at me.

“Jesus Christ, what ?” I whirl around and see Kent, who leapfrogs over the banister and swings down onto the stairs, nearly taking out Hanna Gordon.

“You came.” He lands two stairs above me, a little out of breath. His eyes are bright and happy. His hair is falling over his forehead, picking up light from the Christmas bulbs strung everywhere, bits of it the color of chocolate and some of it caramel. I have an almost uncontrollable urge to reach over and push it back behind his ears.

“I said I would, didn’t I?” There’s a dull pain unfurling in my stomach. All I wanted all night—all day—was to be standing this close to him. And now I have no time. “Listen, Kent—”

“I mean, I thought you were probably here when I saw Lindsay, et al. You guys usually travel in packs, you know? But then I was looking for you—” He stops himself, blushes. “I mean, not actively looking. Really just kind of perusing the crowd, you know, as I was walking around socializing. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you host. Socialize. So I was just keeping an eye out—”

“Kent.” My voice comes out sharp, mean, and I close my eyes just for a second, imagining what it felt like to lie with him in total darkness, imagining the touch of his hand on mine. It suddenly occurs to me how impossible all of this is—with me and him. When I open my eyes he’s just standing there, waiting, a little crease in his forehead: so adorable and normal, the kind of guy who deserves the kind of girl who wears cashmere sweaters and is really good at crossword puzzles, or plays the violin, or volunteers at soup kitchens. Someone nice and normal and honest. The pain in my stomach intensifies, as though something’s caught in there, snapping away at my insides. I could never be good enough for him. Even if I lived the same day into infinity, I could never be good enough.

“I’m sorry,” I force myself to say. “I—I can’t talk to you right now.”

“But—” He tucks his hands into the cuffs of his shirt, looking uncertain.

“I’m sorry.” It’s better, I almost say, but I figure there’s no point. I don’t look back, either, even though I can feel him watching me.

Outside I pull on my fleece, zipping it all the way up to my chin. The rain drives down my neck and spots my leggings immediately. At least tonight I’m wearing flats. I stick to the driveway. The pavement is icy and I have to reach out and brace myself against the cars as I pass. The cold tears at my lungs, and it’s so strange, but in the middle of all this I have the stupidest, simplest thought—I should really jog more —and as soon as I think it I almost come undone, torn with the dual desire to laugh and to cry. But the thought of Juliet crouching by Route 9, watching the cars whiz past, waiting for Lindsay, keeps me going.

Eventually the sounds of the party drop away, and then it’s silent except for the driving rain, like thousands of tiny shards of glass falling on the pavement, and my footsteps ringing out. It’s dark, too, and I have to slow down, moving from one car to the next with my hands, the metal so cold under my fingers it feels hot. When I find the Tank, hulking above all the others, I fish through my bag until my fingers close around cold metal and a rhinestone-encrusted key chain that reads BAD GIRL. Lindsay’s car keys. I blow air out of my cheeks. This, at least, is a good thing. There’s no way Lindsay can leave without me. Her car won’t be on the road tonight, no matter how long Juliet waits. Still, I lock and double-lock the doors.

Then the cars drop away, too, and I shuffle forward at a crawl, mentally cursing myself for not bringing a flashlight, cursing February 12, cursing Juliet Sykes. I see now that the roses were a stupid idea, an insult, even. I think of Juliet and Lindsay all those years ago in a tent, when Lindsay raised a finger and pointed, terrified, humiliated, and it all began. And for years Juliet kept Lindsay’s secret. I thought it would pass .

At the same time the more I think about it—the rain beating furiously—the angrier I get. This is my life : the whole big, sprawling mess of my life in all its possibilities—first kisses and last kisses and college and apartments and marriage and fights and apologies and happiness —brought to a point, a second, an edge of a second, razored off in that final moment by Juliet’s last act: her revenge against us, against me. The farther I get from the party, the more I think, No . It can’t happen this way. No matter what we did, it can’t happen this way.

Then the driveway opens up suddenly, and Route 9 is there, shining ahead of me like a river, liquid silver lit up by pools of light. I don’t even realize I’ve been holding my breath until I exhale and I’m gasping, grateful for the light.

I wipe the rain out of my eyes and turn left, scanning the edge of the woods for Juliet. A little part of me is hoping that talking to me did make her feel better—maybe she went home, after all, maybe it meant something. At the same time, the way that she spoke in that low, flat voice comes back to me, and I know that wherever she was in that bathroom, it wasn’t with me. She was lost somewhere, trapped in a fog, maybe of memories, maybe of all the things that could have happened differently.

A car roars behind me, making me jump. On the landing I lose my footing and go on hands and knees to the ice as the car speeds by, followed closely by a second car, its engine as loud as thunder. Then honking, waves of sound rolling toward me, getting louder and louder. I look up and see the headlights of a car bearing down on me. I try to move and can’t. I try to scream and can’t. I’m frozen, the headlights growing as big as moons, floating there. At the last second the car swerves a little, passing so close to me I can feel the heat of the engine and smell the exhaust and hear a line of music pumping from the radio. Light it, blaze it, tear it up . Then it’s gone, still honking, passing away into the night as the bass from the speakers grows dimmer and dimmer, a distant pulse.

My palms are cut up from the pavement, and my heart is pounding so quickly I’m pretty sure it’s going to leap out of my chest. Slowly, shaking, I stand up. Another car passes on the other side of the road, this one at a crawl, water from its tires pinwheeling in both directions.

And then, fifty feet ahead of me, I see a figure in white emerge from the woods, unfolding from a crouch like a long, pale flower. Juliet. I start going toward her, slowly now, trying to avoid the slick patches of dark ice. She stands there, perfectly still, like she doesn’t even feel the rain. At a certain point she even lifts up her arms, parallel to the ground, as though preparing to take a dive off the high board. There’s something beautiful and terrifying about seeing her in that position. It reminds me of when I was little and we would go to church on Christmas and Easter, and I was always afraid to look at the pulpit, where there was a wooden statue of Jesus mounted on the cross.

“Juliet!”

She doesn’t respond; I’m not sure if she doesn’t hear or is just ignoring me. I’m fifteen feet away, then ten. There’s a low rumbling behind me. I turn and see a big truck bearing down through the darkness. Again I have a random thought—he should totally have his license suspended, he’s going way too fast —and when I turn around again I see that Juliet is staring up the road, tensed, arms at her thighs, and she reminds me of something, but it takes me a second to realize what it is, just like it takes me a second to realize what’s going on—she looks like a dog about to go after a bird —and then everything clicks together, and as she begins to move, a white blur, I’m moving too, running as fast as I can and closing the distance between us as she’s sprinting out across the nearest lane. The truck blasts its horn, a sound so large it seems to fill the air with vibration, and then I slam into her with all my weight, and we roll, tumbling, backward into the woods. I’m screaming and she’s screaming and pain blooms in my shoulder. I roll over onto my back, the black branches overhead a thick net.

“What are you doing ?” Juliet’s yelling, and when I sit up her face has finally lost its composure and is twisted with anger. “What the hell are you doing?”

“What am I doing?” My anger flares up too. “What are you doing? Jumping in front of random trucks—I thought the whole point was to wait for Lindsay—”

“Lindsay? Lindsay Edgecombe?” Juliet’s anger drops away and she looks completely confused. She brings her hands up to her head, squeezing. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I’m suddenly uncertain. “I—I thought. You know, like this was your big revenge—” Juliet laughs, but there’s no humor in it. “Revenge?” She shakes her head, and again that veil seems to drop over her face. “Sorry, Sam. For once this isn’t about you.” She stands up, not bothering to wipe off the thick tracks of mud and leaves that are clinging to her. “Now please leave me alone.”

My head is spinning and I’m having trouble focusing on her, like we’re separated by miles instead of a few feet. The rain is coming down harder now, jagged pellets of it. Little snatches of things are whirling around in my head: Lindsay patting the hood of the Tank proudly, saying, “I could go head-to-head with an eighteen-wheeler and never feel it” the owner of Dunkin’ Donuts calling out, “That’s not a car, it’s a truck” the randomness of things, the way everything can change in a second; the right place at the right time, or at the wrong time; time; that enormous truck coming at us, its big metal grill shining like teeth, the impression of lights and hugeness. The only thing you can see: headlights, size, a sense of power. Not revenge. Chance. Stupid, dumb, blind chance. Just a part of the strange mechanism of the world, with its fits and coughs and starts and random collisions.

“But why…?” I struggle to my feet. “Why did you come here? What was the point?”

She doesn’t look at me, but she shrugs slightly. “There was no point, really. I just wanted to say it. I was always afraid to say it before—what I really thought of you. I’m not afraid anymore. Of you, of anybody, of anything. I’m not even afraid of—” She breaks off, but I know what she was going to say. Not even afraid of dying.

But I know what she’s saying isn’t totally true. Her decision to come to the party was more than that. Things are clicking into place, making a horrible kind of sense: she needed us here, needed that final push. I close my eyes against the memory of a wet and stumbling Juliet being shoved from person to person like a pinball. And tonight, I guess, she just needed to tell her story—needed to remember how bad things have been. I wonder if the day when we all slept over at Lindsay’s—the day that things ended differently for her, the day that they ended alone, with a gun—it took her longer to work up the courage. If she came to the party, unnoticed, ignored, and found she didn’t have the strength to go through with it. If later that night she sat and stared at the gun in her lap, and conjured up the faces of all the people who’d tormented her over the years.

Vicky Hallinan’s face hovers in the darkness suddenly, twisted into a grimace, and I snap my eyes open. Maybe before you die it’s your ghosts that you see.

“This isn’t the way,” I say weakly, feeling like the rain has seeped into my brain and made it soggy and useless. I can’t remember anything I was planning to say to her. I repeat it a little louder. “This isn’t the way.”

“Please,” Juliet says quietly. “I just want to be alone.”

“What about your family?” I say, my voice rising hysterically as I realize I’m losing her again, losing my chance. “What about your sister?”

She doesn’t answer me. She’s staring at the road, still. The rain has soaked her shirt so I can see her shoulder blades jutting out of her back like the wings of a baby bird, and I think of the moment when Ally’s mom came into the den and told us, “Juliet Sykes shot herself,” and I thought it was so wrong—that she, of all people, should have jumped or leaped or fallen through the sky. I again have the fantasy I did then, that she’ll suddenly sprout wings and go soaring up into the air, out of harm’s way.

The road has been unusually clear of traffic, but now from both directions I make out the growl of engines. Loud ones. Big ones.

“Juliet.” I take a step forward and grab her arm tightly. “I can’t let you do this.”

She turns to me, staring at me with eyes so empty it takes my breath away. They’re pools, liquid, nothing. Looking at her reminds me of that stitched-together mask with the holes cut away for eyes: monstrous, deformed, patched together, with eyes that look into and look out at nothing. I’m so startled I loosen my grip. There’s a roaring in my ears, and I dimly have a sense of cars, but I’m transfixed. I can’t stop staring at her.

“It’s too late,” she says, and in that second when I’m not holding on tightly enough she wrenches away from me and hurtles onto the road just as two vans converge, about to pass each other, and all I see is the shine of metal and something white suddenly launched into the air, and for a second I feel an overwhelming sense of joy, and I think she’s done it, she’s flying, and time seems to stop with her glittering in the air like a beautiful bird. But then time resumes, and the air doesn’t hold her, and as she drops there’s a piercing sound splitting the darkness and again it takes me a long time to realize it’s me, screaming.

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