GHOSTS AND HEAVEN

An hour and a half later I’m parked in Lindsay’s driveway, and the two of us are watching the rain turn to snow, watching the world go quiet as, in a moment, thousands of raindrops seem to freeze in the air and come drifting silently to earth. I’ve already dropped off Elody and Ally. On the way home from the party nobody spoke. Elody leaned back against the seat, pretending to sleep, but at one point I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the glitter of her eyes, watching me.

“Jesus. What a night.” Lindsay leans her forehead on the window. “So crazy, you know? I never would have thought…I mean, she was obviously screwed up, but I didn’t ever think she would…” She shivers, shoots a look at me. “And you were there .”

When the police came, and the ambulances—followed by all the people at Kent’s party, drifting through the woods, quiet, suddenly sober, attracted by the sound of the sirens like moths to a flame—they found me standing by the side of the road, still staring. I’d even been interviewed by a female police officer with a big mole exactly at the point of her chin, which I had focused on like a single star in a dark sky, something to orient me.

Was she drunk?

No.

Was she on anything else? Don’t be afraid to tell me.

No. At least—I don’t think so.

Lindsay licks her lips, fidgets her hands in her lap. “And she didn’t…she didn’t, like, say anything? She didn’t explain?”

It’s the same thing the police officer asked me earlier: the final question, maybe the only one that matters. Did she say anything to you? Anything at all to give you a sense of how she was feeling, what she was thinking?

I don’t think she was feeling much of anything.

To Lindsay I say, “I’m not sure it’s the kind of thing you can explain.”

She keeps pressing it. “But I mean, she must have had problems, right? Stuff at home, right? People don’t just do that.”

I think of Juliet’s cold, dark house, the TV shadows climbing the walls, the unknown couple in the hard silver frame.

“I don’t know,” I say. I look at Lindsay, but she keeps her eyes averted. “I guess we’ll never know now.”

I feel a sense of emptiness so deep it stops feeling like emptiness and starts feeling like relief. I imagine this is what it would be like to get carried off on a wave. This is what it would feel like in the moment that the thin, dark edge of shore ducks its head beyond the horizon, when you roll over and see only stars and sky and water, folding in on you like an embrace. When you spread your arms and think, Okay .

“Thanks for dropping me off.” Lindsay puts her hand on the door handle, but makes no further motion to get out. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?”

“I’ll be okay.”

I watch patterns of snow coming down at an angle as though flowing, cresting, breaking on a massive current, a tide that leaves the world glittering. It’s beautiful. All I can think is that it’s the first of many things Juliet won’t see.

Lindsay is chewing on a nail, a habit she’s always claiming to have kicked in third grade. The automatic garage light has clicked on and her features are all dark.

“Lindsay?”

She jumps like we’ve been silent for hours and she’s shocked to see me still in the car. “What?”

“Remember that time in Rosalita’s? After you came back from New York? When I walked in on you in the bathroom?”

She turns to stare at me, not saying anything. Her eyes are a deeper dark than the rest of her face, two spots of total blackness.

“Was that really the only time?” I ask.

She hesitates for just a second. “Of course it was,” she says, but her voice is a whisper and I know she’s lying.

And now I realize Lindsay’s not fearless. She’s terrified. She’s terrified that people will find out she’s faking, bullshitting her way through life, pretending to have everything together when really she’s just floundering like the rest of us. Lindsay, who will bite at you if you even look in her direction the wrong way, like one of those tiny attack dogs that are always barking and snapping in the air before they’re jerked backward on the chains that keep them in one place.

Millions of individual snowflakes, spinning and twirling and looking, all together, like rolling waves of white. I wonder if it’s true that they’re all different. “Juliet told me.” I lean back against the headrest and squint so that everything disappears but the whiteness. “About the Girl Scout trip. When you were in fifth grade—when you were still friends.”

Lindsay’s still not saying anything, but I can feel her trembling a little next to me.

“She told me it was really you who—you know.”

“And you believed her?” Lindsay says quickly, but she does it automatically, dully, as though she doesn’t expect it to do any good.

I ignore her. “Remember how everybody used to call her Mellow Yellow after that?” I open my eyes and look at her. “Why did you tell everyone it was her? I mean, in the moment, okay, I get it, you were scared, you were embarrassed, but afterward…? Why did you tell everyone ? Why did you spread it?”

Lindsay’s shaking is getting worse now, and for a second I think she won’t answer, or she’ll lie. But her voice is steady when she speaks, steady and filled with something I don’t recognize. Regret, maybe.

“I always thought it wouldn’t last.” She sounds as if it still amazes her after all these years. “I thought eventually she’d tell everybody what really happened. That she would stick up for herself, you know?” Her voice breaks a little, a note of hysteria creeping in. “Why didn’t she ever stick up for herself? Not once. She just—she just took it. Why?”

I think of all the years that Lindsay’s been holding on to this secret knowledge, this secret self who cried every night and scrubbed pillows clean of pee—the scariest secret of all, the past we’re trying to forget.

And I think of all the times I sat in squirming silence, terrified I would say or do the wrong thing, terrified the dorky, lanky, horseback-riding loser inside me would rise up and swallow the new me, like a snake feasting on something. How I cleared the shelves of my trophies and dumped my beanbag chair and learned how to dress and never ate the hot lunch, and, above all, learned to stay away from the people who would drag me down, and carry me back to that place. People like Juliet Sykes. People like Kent.

Lindsay rouses herself and pops the door open. I cut the engine and get out of the car with her, throwing the keys over the roof. She catches them in one hand. Headlights flare to life, and I turn, squinting, holding up a hand in the general direction of the car idling behind me. I mouth, “Two minutes.”

Lindsay nods toward Kent, who is parked behind us, waiting to drive me home. “You’re sure you’re all good? To get home and everything, I mean.”

“I’m sure,” I say. Despite everything that has happened tonight, the thought of sitting next to Kent for a whole twelve minutes on the way to my house fills me with warmth. Even though I know it’s not right—even if I know, somewhere deep inside me, that it won’t work out, that it can’t work out for me with anyone anymore.

Lindsay opens her mouth and closes it. I can tell she wants to ask about Kent but thinks better of it. She starts to walk up toward the house, hesitates, and turns.

“Sam?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m really sorry. I’m really sorry about…everything.”

She wants me to tell her it’s okay. She needs me to tell her that. I can’t, though. Instead I say, quietly, “People would like you anyway, Lindz.” I don’t say, if you stopped pretending so much , but I know she understands. “We’d still love you no matter what.”

She balls up her fists and squeezes out, “Thanks.” Then she turns and heads up to the house. For a second the light falling on her face makes her skin look wet, but I’m not sure whether she’s crying or whether it’s the snow.

Kent leans over and opens the door for me and I slide in. We back away from Lindsay’s house and turn onto the main road in silence. He drives slowly, carefully, twin funnels of snow lit up by the headlights, both hands resting lightly on the steering wheel. There’s so much I want to say to him, but I can’t bring myself to speak. I’m tired and my head hurts, and I just want to enjoy the fact that there’s only a few inches separating our arms, the fact that his car smells like cinnamon, the fact that he has the heat on high for me. It makes me feel drowsy and heavy in my limbs, even as my insides are alive and fluttering and 100 percent aware of him, so close.

As we get near my house he slows down so we’re barely crawling, and I’m hoping it’s because he doesn’t want the drive to end either. This is the moment for time to stop, right here—for space to yawn open and fall away like it does at the lip of a black hole, so that time can do its endless loops and keep us forever going forward into the snow. But no matter how slowly Kent goes, the car moves forward.

Soon my street sign appears crookedly on the left, and then we’re passing the darkened houses of my neighbors, and then we’re at my house.

“Thanks for driving me home,” I say, turning to him as he turns to me and says, “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”

We both laugh nervously. Kent pushes his bangs away from his eyes, and they immediately flop back into place, making my stomach dip.

“No problem,” he says. “It was my pleasure.”

It was my pleasure. Only Kent could say it and make it not sound like something cheesy from an old movie, and my heart aches frantically for a second as I think of all the time I wasted, seconds and hours spun out of my fingertips forever like snow into the dark.

We sit for a minute. I’m desperate to say something, anything, so I don’t have to get out of the car, but the words don’t come and the seconds run by.

Finally I blurt out, “Everything tonight was awful except for this.”

“Except for what?”

I tick my index finger once between us. You and me. Everything was awful except for this.

A light comes on in his eyes. “Sam.” He says my name once, just breathes it, and I never knew that a single syllable could transform my whole body into a dancing, glowing thing. He reaches out suddenly and puts a warm hand on either side of my face, tracing my eyebrows, his thumb resting lightly for one single miraculous second on my bottom lip—I’m tasting cinnamon on his skin—and then he drops his hand and pulls away, looking embarrassed.

“Sorry,” he mumbles.

“No…it’s okay.” My body is humming. He must be able to hear it. At the same time it feels like my head is going to lift off from my shoulders.

“It’s just…God, it’s so awful.”

“What’s so awful?” My body abruptly stops humming and my stomach goes leaden. He’s going to tell me he doesn’t like me. He’s going to tell me he sees through me again.

“I mean, with everything that happened tonight…it’s not the right time…and you’re with Rob.”

“I’m not with Rob,” I say quickly. “Not anymore.”

“You’re not?” He’s staring at me so intensely I can see the stripes of gold alternating with the green in his eyes like spokes of a wheel.

I shake my head.

“That’s a good thing.” He’s still staring at me like that, like he’s the first and last person who will ever stare at me. “Because…” His voice trails off, and his eyes travel slowly down to my lips, and there’s so much heat roaring through my body I swear I’m going to pass out.

“Because?” I prompt him, surprised I can still speak.

“Because I’m sorry, but I can’t help it, and I really need to kiss you right now.”

He puts one hand behind my neck and pulls me toward him. And then we’re kissing. His lips are soft and leave mine tingling. I close my eyes, and in the darkness behind them I see beautiful blooming things, flowers spinning like snowflakes, and hummingbirds beating the same rhythm as my heart. I’m gone, lost, floating away into nothingness like I am in my dream, but this time it’s a good feeling—like soaring, like being totally free. His other hand pushes my hair from my face, and I can feel the impression of his fingers everywhere that they touch, and I think of stars streaking through the sky and leaving burning trails behind them, and in that moment—however long it lasts, seconds, minutes, days—while he’s saying my name into my mouth and I’m breathing into him, I realize this, right here, is the first and only time I’ve ever been kissed in my life.

He pulls away too soon, still cupping my face. “Wow,” he says, out of breath. “Sorry. But wow.”

“Yeah.” The word catches in my throat.

We stay there like that, staring at each other, and for once I’m not feeling anxious or worried about what he’s thinking. I’m just happy, held in his eyes, buoyed up in a warm, bright place.

“I really like you, Sam,” he says quietly. “I always have.”

“I like you too.” Don’t worry about tomorrow. Don’t even think about it. I shut my eyes briefly, pushing away everything but this moment, his warm hands, those delicious green eyes, the lips.

“Come on.” He leans forward and kisses my forehead once, gently. “You’re tired. You need to sleep.”

He gets out of the car and scoots around to the passenger side to open the door for me. The snow has begun to stick, a blanket over everything, blurring the edges of the world. Our footsteps are muffled as we make our way up the front path and onto the porch. My parents have left the porch light on, the only light in a dark house on a dark street—maybe the only light in the world. In its glow the snow looks like falling stars.

“You have snow in your eyelashes.” Kent traces a finger over my eyelids and over the bridge of my nose, making me shiver. “And in your hair.” A hand fluttering, the feel of fingertips, a cupped palm on my neck. Heaven.

“Kent.” I wrap my fingers around the collar of his shirt. No matter how close he’s standing, it isn’t close enough. “Are you ever afraid to go to sleep? Afraid of what comes next?”

He smiles a sad little smile and I swear it’s like he knows . “Sometimes I’m afraid of what I’m leaving behind,” he says.

Then we’re kissing again, our bodies and mouths moving together so seamlessly it’s like we’re not even kissing, just thinking about kissing, thinking about breathing, everything right and natural and unconscious and relaxed, a feeling not of trying but of complete abandonment, letting go, and right then and there the unthinkable and impossible happens: time does stand still after all. Time and space recede and blast away like a universe expanding forever outward, leaving only darkness and the two of us on its periphery, darkness and breathing and touch.

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