Before I Fall

Page 23


Fifth grade. I find Lindsay easily, standing front and center in Mrs. Krakow’s classroom, smiling so widely it looks like she’s baring her teeth. It takes me longer to find Juliet. I go through all the photographs looking for her and have to start over from the beginning before I spot her, far up in the right-hand corner, sandwiched between Lauren Lornet and Eileen Cho, shrinking backward like she wants to suck herself out of the frame altogether. Her hair hangs in front of her face like a curtain. Next to her, both Lauren and Eileen are angled slightly away, as though they don’t want to be associated with her, as though she has some contagious disease.
Fifth grade: the year of the Girl Scout trip, when she peed in her sleeping bag and Lindsay nicknamed her Mellow Yellow.
I put the yearbooks back carefully, making sure to order them correctly. My heart is thumping wildly, an out-of-control drum rhythm. I suddenly want to get out of the basement as quickly as possible. I shut off the lights and feel my way up the stairs blindly. The darkness seems to swirl with shapes and shadows, and terror rises in my throat. I’m sure that if I turn around I’ll see her, all in white, stumbling with her hands outstretched, reaching for me, face bloody and broken apart.
And then I’m upstairs and there she is: a vision, a nightmare. Her face is completely in shadow—a hole—but I can tell she’s staring at me. The room tilts; I grab on to the wall to keep myself steady.
“What’s your problem?” Lindsay steps farther into the hall, the moonlight falling differently so that her features emerge. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Jesus.” I bring my hand to my chest, trying to press my heart back to its normal rhythm. “You scared me.”
“What were you doing down there?” Her hair is messed up, and in her white boxers and tank top she could be a ghost.
“You were friends with her,” I say. It pops out like an accusation. “You were friends with her for years.”
I’m not sure what answer I’m expecting, but she looks away and then looks back at me.
“It’s not our fault,” she says, like she’s daring me to contradict her. “She’s totally wacked. You know that.”
“I know,” I say. But I get the feeling she’s not even talking to me.
“And I heard her dad’s, like, an alcoholic,” Lindsay presses on, her voice suddenly quick, urgent. “Her whole family’s wacked.”
“Yeah,” I say. For a minute we just stand there in silence. My body feels heavy, useless, the way it sometimes does in nightmares when you have to run but you can’t. After a while something occurs to me and I say, “Was.”
Even though we’ve been standing in silence, Lindsay inhales sharply, as though I’ve interrupted her in the middle of a long speech. “What?”
“She was wacked,” I say. “She’s not anything anymore.”
Lindsay doesn’t respond. I go past her into the dark hallway and find my way to the couch. I settle in under the blankets, and a little while later she comes in and joins me.
Lying there, convinced I won’t be able to sleep, I remember the time in the middle of junior year when Lindsay and I snuck out on a random weeknight—a Tuesday or a Thursday—and drove around because there was nothing else to do. At some point she pulled over abruptly on Fallow Ridge Road and cut the headlights, waiting until another car began to squeeze its way toward us on the single-lane road. Then she roared the engine and blazed the lights to life and began careening straight toward it. I was screaming at the top of my lungs, the headlights growing huge as suns, certain we were going to die, and she was gripping the steering wheel and calling out over my screams, “Don’t worry—they always swerve first.” She was right, too. At the last second the other car jerked abruptly into the ditch.
That’s what I remember just before the dream pulls me under.
In my dream I am falling through darkness.
In my dream I fall forever.
Even before I’m awake, the alarm clock is in my hand, and I break from sleep completely at the same moment I hurl the clock against the wall. It lets out a final wail before shattering.
“Whoa,” Lindsay says, when I slide into the car fifteen minutes later. “Is there a job opening in the red-light district I don’t know about?”
“Just drive.” I can barely look at her. Anger is seething through me like liquid. She’s a fraud: the whole world is a fraud, one bright, shiny scam. And somehow I’m the one paying for it. I’m the one who died. I’m the one who’s trapped.
Here’s the thing: it shouldn’t be me. Lindsay’s the one who drives like she’s in the real-life version of Grand Theft Auto. Lindsay’s the one who’s always thinking of ways to punk people or humiliate them, who’s always criticizing everybody. Lindsay’s the one who lied about being friends with Juliet Sykes and then tortured her all those years. I didn’t do anything; I just followed along.
“You’re gonna freeze, you know.” Lindsay chucks her cigarette and rolls up the window.
“Thanks, Mom.” I flip down the mirror to make sure that my lipstick hasn’t smeared. I’ve folded my skirt over a couple of times so it barely covers my ass when I sit down, and I’m wearing five-inch platforms that I bought with Ally as a joke at a store that we’re pretty sure only caters to strippers. I’ve kept the fur-trimmed tank top, but I’ve added a rhinestone necklace, again purchased as a joke one Halloween when we all dressed up as Naughty Nurses. It says SLUT in big, sparkly script.
I don’t care. I’m in the mood to get looked at. I feel like I could do anything right now: punch somebody in the face, rob a bank, get drunk and do something stupid. That’s the only benefit to being dead. No consequences.
Lindsay misses my sarcasm, or ignores it. “I’m surprised your parents even let you out of the house like that.”
“They didn’t.” Another thing making my mood foul is the ten-minute screaming match I had with my mother before storming out of the house. Even when Izzy went to hide in her room and my father threatened to ground me for life (Ha!), the words kept coming. It felt so good to scream, like when you pick a scab and the blood starts flowing again.
You are not walking out that door unless you go upstairs and put on some more clothing. That’s what my mom said. You’ll catch pneumonia. More important, I don’t want people in school getting the wrong impression about you.
And suddenly it had all snapped inside of me, broken and snapped. “You care now?” She jerked back at the sound of my voice like I’d reached out and slapped her. “You want to help now? You want to protect me now?”
What I really wanted to say was, Where were you four days ago? Where were you when my car was spinning off the edge of a road in the middle of the night? Why weren’t you thinking of me? Why weren’t you there? I hate both of my parents right now: for sitting quietly in our house, while out in the darkness my heart was beating away all of the seconds of my life, ticking them off one by one until my time was up; for letting the thread between us stretch so far and so thin that the moment it was severed for good they didn’t even feel it.
At the same time I know that it’s not really their fault, at least not completely. I did my part too. I did it on a hundred different days and in a thousand different ways, and I know it. But this makes the anger worse, not better.
Your parents are supposed to keep you safe.
“Jesus, what’s your problem?” Lindsay looks at me hard for a second. “You wake up on the wrong side of the bed or something?”
“For a few days now, yeah.”
I’m getting really sick of this low half-light, the sky a pale and sickly blue—not even a real blue—and the sun a wet mess on the horizon. I read once that starving people start fantasizing about food, just lying there dreaming for hours about hot mashed potatoes and creamy blobs of butter and steak running red blood over their plates. Now I get it. I’m starved for different light, a different sun, different sky. I’ve never really thought about it before, but it’s a miracle how many kinds of light there are in the world, how many skies: the pale brightness of spring, when it feels like the whole world is blushing; the lush, bright boldness of a July noon; purple storm skies and a green queasiness just before lightning strikes and crazy multicolored sunsets that look like someone’s acid trip.
I should have enjoyed them more, should have memorized them all. I should have died on a day with a beautiful sunset. I should have died on summer vacation or winter break. I should have died on any other day. Leaning my forehead against the window, I fantasize about sending my fist up through the glass, all the way into the sky, and watching it shatter like a mirror.
I think about what I’ll do to survive all of the millions and millions of days that will be exactly like this one, two face-to-face mirrors multiplying a reflection into infinity. I start formulating a plan: I’ll stop coming to school, and I’ll jack somebody’s car and drive as far as I can in a different direction every day. East, west, north, south. I allow myself to fantasize about going so far and so fast that I lift off like an airplane, zooming straight up and out to a place where time falls away like sand being blown off a surface by the wind.
Remember what I said about hope?
“Happy Cupid Day!” Elody singsongs when she gets into the Tank.
Lindsay stares from Elody back to me. “What is this? Some kind of competition for Least Dressed?”
“If you got it, flaunt it.” Elody eyes my skirt as she leans forward to grab her coffee. “Forget your pants, Sam?”
Lindsay snickers. I say, “Jealous much?” without turning away from the window.
“What’s wrong with her?” Elody leans back.
“Someone forgot to take her happy pills this morning.”
Out of the corner of my eye I see Lindsay look back at Elody and make a face like, Leave it. Like I’m a kid who needs to be handled. I think of those old photos where she’s standing pressed arm-to-arm with Juliet Sykes, and then I think of Juliet’s head blown open and splattered on some basement wall. Again the fury returns, and it’s all I can do to keep from turning to her and screaming that she’s a fake, a liar, that I can see right through her.
I see right through you…. My heart flips when I remember Kent’s words.
“I know something that’ll cheer you up.” Elody starts rummaging around in her bag, looking pleased with herself.
“I swear to God, Elody, if you’re about to give me a condom right now…” I press my fingers to my temples.
Elody freezes and frowns, holding up a condom between two fingers. “But…it’s your present.” She looks at Lindsay for support.
Lindsay shrugs. “Up to you,” she says. She’s not looking at me, but I can tell my attitude is really starting to piss her off, and to be honest, I’m happy about it. “If you want to be a walking STD farm.”
“You would know all about that.” I don’t even mean for it to slip out; it just does.