Before I Fall
Lindsay’s right: Ms. Winters is definitely half greyhound.
“Next time,” Otto says.
“There must be two thousand cigarette butts out there,” Ms. Winters says. “You’d think with all the health videos we show them—”
“They’re teenagers. They do the opposite of what you say. That’s part of the deal. Pimples, pubic hair, and bad attitude.”
I almost lose it when Otto says pubic hair, and I think Ms. Winters will lecture him, but she only says, “Sometimes I don’t know why I bother.”
“It’s been one of those days, huh?” Otto says, and there’s the sound of someone bumping against a desk, and a book thudding to the ground. Ms. Winters actually giggles.
And then, I swear to God, I hear them kissing. Not little bird pecks either. Open-mouthed, slurpy, moaning kind of kissing.
Oh, shit. I literally have to bite my own hand to keep from screaming, or crying, or bursting out laughing, or getting sick—or all of the above. This. Cannot. Be. Happening. I’m desperate to take out my phone and text the girls, but I don’t want to move. Now I really don’t want to get caught, since Otto and the Nazi will think I’ve been spying on their little sex party. Barf.
Just when I feel like I can’t stand one more second squeezed up next to the sweaty jerseys, listening to Otto and Winters suck face like they’re in some bad porno, the second bell rings. I am now officially late to eighth period.
“Oh, God. I’m supposed to be meeting with Beanie,” Ms. Winters says. Beanie’s the students’ name for Mr. Beneter, the principal. Of all the shocking things that I’ve heard in the past two minutes, the most shocking is that she knows the nickname—and uses it.
“Get out of here,” Mr. Otto says, and then I swear—I swear—I hear him smack her butt.
Oh. My. God. This is better than the time Marcie Harris got caught masturbating in the science lab (with a test tube up her you-know-what, if you believe the rumors). This is better than the time Bryce Hanley got suspended for briefly running an online porn site. This is better than any scandal that’s hit Thomas Jefferson so far.
“Do you have class?” Ms. Winters says, practically cooing.
“I’m done for the day,” Otto says. My heart sinks—there’s no way I’ll be able to stay here for another forty-five minutes. Never mind the cramp snaking up my hamstrings and thighs: I’ve got amazing gossip to spread. “But I have to set up for soccer tryouts.”
“Okay, babe.” Babe? “I’ll see you tonight.”
I hear the door open and I know Ms. Winters has left. Thank God. From the way they were pillow talking I was worried I was about to be treated to the symphony of another make-out session. I’m not sure my hamstrings or my psyche could take it.
After a few seconds of moving around and tapping some things on the keyboard, I hear Otto go to the door. The room next to me goes dark. Then the door opens and closes, and I know I’m in the clear.
I say a silent hallelujah and stand up. The pins and needles in my legs are so bad I nearly topple over, but I toddle over to the door and lean into it. When I make it outside I stand there stamping my feet and taking long, deep breaths of clean air. Finally I let it out: I throw my head back and laugh hysterically, cackling and snorting and not even caring if I look deranged.
Ms. Winters and Mr.-effing-Otto. Who would have guessed it in a million, trillion years?
As I head up from the gym it strikes me how strange people are. You can see them every day—you can think you know them—and then you find out you hardly know them at all. I feel exhilarated, kind of like I’m being spun around a whirlpool, circling closer and closer around the same people and the same events but seeing things from different angles.
I’m still giggling when I get to Main, even though Mr. Kummer will freak that I’m late, and I still have to stop by my locker and pick up my Spanish textbook (he told us on the first day that we should treat our textbooks like children. Obviously, he doesn’t have any). I’m pressing Send on a text to Elody, Ally, and Lindsay—u ll nvr believe what jst happnd—when, bam! I run smack into Lauren Lornet.
Both of us stumble backward, and my phone flies out of my hand and skitters across the hall.
“Shit!” We collide so hard it takes me a second to recover my breath. “Watch where you’re going.”
I start toward my phone, wondering if I can ask her to pay if the screen’s cracked or something, when she grabs my arm. Hard. “What the…?”
“Tell them,” she says wildly, pushing her face up to mine. “You’ve got to tell them.”
“What are you talking about?” I try to pull away, but she grabs my other arm too, like she wants to shake me. Her face is red and splotchy and she has an all-over sticky look. It’s obvious she’s been crying.
“Tell them I didn’t do anything wrong.” She jerks her head back over her shoulder. We’re standing directly in front of the main office, and I see her in that moment the way she was yesterday, hair hanging over her face, tearing down the hall.
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, as gently as possible, because she’s freaking me out. She probably has biweekly visits with the school psychologist to control her paranoia, or OCD, or whatever her issue is.
She takes a deep breath. Her voice is shaky. “They think I cheated off you in chem. Beanie called me in…. But I didn’t. I swear to God I didn’t. I’ve been studying….”
I jerk back, but she keeps her grip on my arms. The feeling of being caught in a whirlpool returns, but this time it’s horrible: I’m being pulled down, down, down, like there’s a weight on me.
“You cheated off me?” My words feel like they’re coming from a distance. I don’t even sound like myself.
“I didn’t, I swear to God I—” Lauren gives a shuddering sob. “He’ll fail me. He said he would fail me if my grades didn’t get better, and I got a tutor and now they think I—he said he’d call Penn State. I’ll never go to college and I—you don’t understand. My dad will kill me. He’ll kill me.” She really does shake me then. Her eyes are full of panic. “You have to tell them.”
I finally manage to wrench away. I feel hot and sick. I don’t want to know this, don’t want to know any of it.
“I can’t help you,” I say, backing away, still feeling like I’m not actually saying the words, just hearing them spoken aloud from somewhere.
Lauren looks like I’ve just slapped her. “What? What do you mean you can’t help? Just tell them—”
My hands are shaking as I go to pick up my phone. It slips out of my grasp twice and lands back on the floor both times with a clatter. It’s not supposed to be like this. I feel like someone’s pressed the Reverse button on a vacuum cleaner and all of the junk I’ve done is spewing back onto the carpet for me to see.
“You’re lucky you didn’t break my phone,” I say, feeling numb. “This cost me two hundred dollars.”
“Were you even listening to me?” Lauren’s voice is rising hysterically. I can’t bring myself to meet her eyes. “I’m screwed, I’m finished—”
“I can’t help you,” I say again. It’s like I can’t remember any other words.
Lauren lets out something that’s halfway between a scream and a sob. “You said I shouldn’t be nice to you today. You know what? You were right. You’re awful, you’re a bitch, you’re—”
Suddenly it’s like she remembers where we are: who she is, and who I am. She claps her hand over her mouth so quickly it makes a hollow, echoing sound in the hallway.
“Oh, God.” Now her voice comes out as a whisper. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
I don’t even answer. Those words—you’re a bitch—make my whole body go cold.
“I’m sorry. I—please don’t be mad.”
I can’t stand it—can’t stand to hear her apologize to me. And before I know it I’m running—full-out running down the hall, my heart pounding, feeling like I need to scream or cry or smash my fist into something. She calls after me, but I don’t know what it is, I don’t care, I can’t know, and when I push into the girls’ bathroom, I throw my back against the door and sink down against it until my knees are pressed into my chest, my throat squeezed up so tight it hurts to breathe. My phone keeps buzzing, and once I’ve calmed down a bit, I flip it open and find texts from Lindsay, Ally, and Elody: What? Dish. Spill. Did u make up w Rob?
I throw my phone into my bag and rest my head in my hands, waiting for my pulse to return to normal. All of the happiness I felt earlier is gone. Even the Otto and Winters situation doesn’t seem funny anymore. Bridget and Alex and Anna and Sarah Grundel and her stupid parking space and Lauren Lornet and the chem test—it feels like I’ve been caught up in some enormous web and every way I turn I see that I’m stuck to someone else, all of us wriggling around in the same net. And I don’t want to know any of it. It’s not my problem. I don’t care.
You’re a bitch.
I don’t care. I have bigger things to worry about.
Finally I stand up. I’ve given up on going to Spanish. Instead I splash cold water on my face and then reapply my makeup. My face is so pale under the harsh fluorescent lights, I hardly recognize it.
ONLY THE DREAM
“Come on, cheer up.” Lindsay whacks me on the head with a pillow. We’re sitting on the couch in Ally’s den.
Elody pops the last spicy tuna roll into her mouth, which I’m not sure is such a great idea, as it’s now been perched on an ottoman for the past three hours. “Don’t worry, Sammy. Rob’ll get over it.”
All of them think Rob’s the reason I’m quiet. But of course, it isn’t. I’m quiet because as soon as the clock inched its way past twelve, the fear crept back in. It’s been filling me slowly, like sand running through an hourglass. With every second I’m getting closer and closer to the Moment. Ground zero. This morning I was certain that it was simple—that all I had to do was stay away from the party, stay away from the car. That time would lurch back on track. That I would be saved.
But now my heart feels like it’s being squashed between my ribs, and it gets harder and harder to breathe. I’m terrified that in one second—in the space between a breath—everything will evaporate into darkness, and I’ll once again find myself alone in my bedroom at home, waking up to the screaming of the alarm. I don’t know what I’ll do if that happens. I think my heart will break. I think my heart will stop.
Ally switches off the television and throws down the remote. “What should we do now?”
“Let me consult the spirits.” Elody slides off the couch and onto the floor, where earlier we’d set up a dusty Ouija board for old time’s sake. We tried to play, but everyone was obviously pushing, and the indicator kept zipping onto words like penis and choad, until Lindsay started screaming “Perv spirits! Child molesters!” into the air.