The room was darker than it should’ve been this time of year. We had drawn the shutters when the hurricane started making its way up the Caribbean, but once it blew past the Florida coast, we didn’t think about taking them down. That was six weeks ago, before the accident.

5:32 AM. It was always this time. I turned away from the giant green numbers glowing from my desk. My eyes needed a moment to adjust. Then, it was downstairs for a glass of water, same as always.

The hallway turned into a staircase which turned into sixteen steps. I counted them in the dark, to make sure I hadn’t missed one. There’s nothing like missing that final step. You probably won’t trip or hit the floor, but you’ll feel your heart drop for a split second for fear of what could be. And then you’ll regain your footing and it’ll pass. But it was that one second – that one second of fear – that I was most afraid of.

I reached the bottom of the stairs without a problem. A shadow turned over on the couch. Or at least it tried to turn over. It was Dad. He thought it’d be better to sleep there than to try climbing the stairs every night.

“Kinda hard to do when your back is shot,” he joked, propping himself up with a cushion. The doctor said Dad only had a few more weeks to go before he should be all right. Every day, Dad was able to move a little more and he seemed to be making progress, but…

He stirred again. I sat on the ground next to the couch. The stove lamp was on, giving off just enough light from the next room. I could barely make the outline of his face, but it didn’t matter. I knew it well enough. Long, thin nose. Eyes set deep beneath his brow. That silly mustache.

I smiled. None of us could convince him that the facial hair didn’t look right on him. Dad had already convinced himself that it was the look he was born to wear. He had actually said that.

I watched him take a quick breath. I could tell that it hurt. The doctors weren’t worried about it. They’d prescribed some stronger medication to help him through the nights. Mom didn’t like all those pills lying around our house – “That’s an accident waiting to happen.” – and tried to get Dad to throw them away.

But he didn’t. Dad kept taking them so that way he could keep breathing.

I watched him breathe for a few minutes. His chest expanded with each breath, caught a little on the way down, held there for a second, and then started again. The doctors said he was going to be fine.

The glass of water didn’t wash down the lump stuck in my throat. I climbed up the stairs – one…seven, eight…thirteen…sixteen – and wrapped myself in the green light covering my bed.

5:47 AM. Same as always. I never timed it, but that was about as long as I could stand seeing him. It was bad enough to see your father laid out for weeks with a broken back. It was worse when the accident that put him there was all your fault.

 

James poked his head into my room at 8 o’clock.

“Mom says it’s time to wake up.”

I kept my eyes closed – I wasn’t asleep, I hadn’t been since earlier – but I didn’t want James to know.

“Come on, Emma,” he said. “We need to get ready before the movers get here.”

My breath remained steady while he stood in the doorway for a few more seconds. Once he thought it was long enough to tell Mom, “Well, I told her, but she didn’t get up,” James disappeared.

I stumbled down the stairs for the second time that morning and found the couch empty. Voices came from the kitchen and I followed the sounds to find Dad in his wheelchair at the table.

“Hey, Crash. You made it,” he said, reaching up for a hug.

That was the nickname he’d given me when I was a clumsy, accident-prone child, but it didn’t seem so appropriate now. I couldn’t tell him, of course. The accident was something that we didn’t talk about.

“How’d you sleep?” Dad asked. He poked at the eggs on his plate.

“Fine, I guess.” I never talked to him about waking up at five thirty every morning. It’d make him worry, and he didn’t need any more of those.

“Well, you should get something to eat. The movers will be here soon.”

I fished out a bowl from a box on the counter and poured Frosted Mini Wheats into it. Mom was standing at the stove, whisking eggs and staring at me.

“Excuse me,” I said, pointing to the plastic container holding utensils in front of her.

She stepped back without breaking her gaze.

“Good morning,” she said hurriedly, as though she wanted to chase the words from her tongue.

“Morning.”

I sat down at the table with my cereal.

“Do you remember what time the movers get here?” Mom called from the kitchen.

Dad swallowed a bite of eggs. “They’re supposed to be here at 9.”

“What about the beds?”

“What about them?”

“When are we going to bring them to your sister’s house?”

“Sometime today.”

“But we only have the movers until 12. James and I can’t move the beds by ourselves.”

“We’ll get the beds out before they leave.”

“Can we do them first? I just want to make sure that we get everything.”

“I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t we get everything? Isn’t that part of moving? We have to take everything from our house and put it into Mackenzie’s house.”

“That’s not fair, Carlos. I’m only asking because I want to be sure.”

“What do you mean it’s not fair? I’m only answering your questions. It’s always like this in this house. You can’t say anything without it -”

I couldn’t eat anymore. The smell of the eggs sizzling on the stove was stirring up my stomach. I cleaned my bowl and darted up the steps to my room.

A shadow pushed away from the wall. His face was lit from the cellphone he was tapping with his thumbs.

“Isn’t it a bit early for you to be texting her?”

“No, she’s awake, she’s with her grandmother.” James looked up. “Hey, you haven’t told them about her, have you, Emma?”

“I don’t care about your little girlfriends, James.” I pushed past him to my room. I tried to close the door, but he blocked me.

“Come on, just tell me, Emma.”

“Seriously, James, I don’t care enough to tell them.”

He didn’t look convinced.

“You know, when you see her in school next month, she’s going to hate you.” James smiled. “I’ve told her all the horrible things you say about her and she already thinks you’re -”

“I already told you, James, we’re not going to see each other. You’re a freshman. You won’t even be in the same building as me.”

He started to say something but stopped. He turned his head slightly – there were footsteps behind him.

“The movers are here,” Mom said, appearing suddenly. She looked at James. “I need you downstairs, now.” Mom paused, as though she were considering what to say to me. And then she was gone.

James looked at me. I shook my head.

She didn’t hear anything, I said with my eyes.

He nodded and then turned to follow her down the stairs.

My brother and I used to be able to do that, talk without saying anything. We were close like that. But then he became Mom’s messenger boy and now we only talked when she wanted something. That or to find out if I had revealed his secret girlfriend to our parents. I wondered if we’d ever get that back.

James didn’t have to worry about me telling them. He should’ve already known that. If they couldn’t see what was going on with their son on their own, there was no way I was going to show them. That was their responsibility – not mine.

About an hour later, the movers came into my room for my bed. I followed them downstairs with the box carrying all of my possessions.

The couch was already gone. There were a few boxes stacked against the wall where the TV used to be. I set my box down with the others and went to find Dad.

He had wheeled himself into the backyard. I sat on the high grass beside him.

“You all done helping out, Crash?”

“Have you seen the muscles on those guys, Dad? I don’t think I could really do much.”

He laughed. I could tell that it hurt. He took a sharp breath and then gripped the armrest. I pulled a weed from the ground and began folding it.

“Well, you could at least do a bit more than me.”

We sat there in silence for a few minutes. Voices carried with the wind – Mom yelling at James to get off his phone, the movers mumbling to each other in Spanish.

I tore the green weed into pieces. I wanted to talk about the accident, I wanted to tell Dad that I was sorry, that I hadn’t meant for him to get hurt. I wanted to tell him that I hadn’t meant for him to be stuck in this wheelchair, unable to help his family move into their new life.

He must’ve known what I was thinking because he reached down and tried to grab my hand. I pulled another weed out of the dirt.

“It’s okay, Emma,” he said.

But it wasn’t. He didn’t want to talk about it because he didn’t want to admit the truth, but the truth was that it was far from okay.

The truth was that it wasn’t an accident that I drove his car into the ditch when summer started. It wasn’t an accident that he had broken his back to save me from.

And as long as he didn’t let me apologize for it, as long as he didn’t let me make it up to him, as long as he kept saying he was okay, it was never going to be okay.

 

Aunt Mackenzie had always been my favorite aunt. Maybe it’s because she wasn’t as crazy as the rest of her family and I had never met any of Mom’s relatives. Either way, if I had to pick one person to move in with when Dad lost his job, it would be Aunt Mackenzie.

She was standing in her driveway with a big smile when we arrived. Mom wanted to discuss where the movers would park the truck, but Aunt Mackenzie wouldn’t talk until she’d given her a hug.

“Love first, business later,” she said, kissing Mom. Aunt Mackenzie practically lifted Dad onto the wheelchair herself. She ruffled James’ hair – “Is that a new hairstyle?” – and squeezed the air out of my lungs.

Why we even hired movers, I’ll never know. Aunt Mackenzie could’ve done it all herself!

It took a little directing from Dad and a little bit of shouting, but our entire life successfully moved into Aunt Mackenzie’s at a quarter to noon.

We sat around her dining room table, eating the pizza she’d ordered for lunch. I looked around the large house that I’d visited so many times growing up. It was weird to think about it as my home now – at least, until Dad figured out what he was going to do once he recovered.

“You’ve taken real good care of this place,” Dad said when he’d finished his third slice of pepperoni. “If I hadn’t grown up here, I couldn’t tell this place is ancient.”

“Well, you’re not the only one who inherited Dad’s gift for handiness.” Aunt Mackenzie turned to the end of the table where James and I sat.

“So, are you two ready for school?”

“Come on, Aunt Mackenzie, summer vacation just started!” James said, mouth full.

“We’re already halfway through August, James,” Mom said. “And don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Dad looked at her but didn’t say anything.

“What about you, Em?” Aunt Mackenzie didn’t seem to notice. She turned her gaze to me.

I shrugged. “Ready as ever, I guess.”

“But it’s your last year. Aren’t you a little bit excited to have it over and done with?”

I took a bite of pizza.

“What was it you said? ‘The only good thing about high school is that it ends.’”

“Wow, that sounds really cheesy when I hear you say it.”

Aunt Mackenzie laughed. “It sounds cheesy when we hear you say it, too, Em.”

The rest of the day passed without any issues. I think it was because of Aunt Mackenzie. Dad didn’t like arguing in front of her. He didn’t want her thinking he was a harsh father because they had both known what it was like to have one.

Of course, they hadn’t told me any of that. It was one of those things you pick up when they think you can’t hear them. When they lower their voices and go into the next room. But I had somehow managed to find out about Grandpa and then everything suddenly made sense.

The room that Aunt Mackenzie had given me used to be Dad’s room. It was small and close to the bathroom, so that was good enough for me. The window looked over the backyard, which was also nice. I sat inside Dad’s old room and wondered what it had been like to be him growing up.

Did he run into the closet and hide there when Grandpa was in one of his moods and wanted to teach him what it meant to be a man? Did he close the heavy door to block out the sounds of Grandpa yelling at Grandma? Or did he only come in here to sleep, the rest of the time spent as far away from this house as possible?

I went downstairs. This house had fourteen stairs between floors – a little less than I was used to, but after a while, I’d remember that there weren’t two more to go.

Dad was helping James unload a few boxes in the living room. I’m not sure where Mom was. I found Aunt Mackenzie putting away dishes in the kitchen.

She smiled when she noticed me.

“Hey, Em. You all settled in?”

“Getting there. Oh, and the room is perfect – not too big, not too small.”

“You know, that used to be your Dad’s room,” she said, opening a cabinet. “He and I used to play with LEGOs in the closet. I guess growing up in a house this big, you kinda crave the smaller places.”

“Is there anything I can help you with?”

Aunt Mackenzie looked at me. “No, I think I’m fine. You must be tired from working all day.”

“I didn’t really do too much,” I said.

“Your mom still not talking to you?”

I didn’t say anything.

“It’s not always going to be like this, Em,” she said. “Elizabeth – I mean, your mom – is just trying to get through this, same as you.”

“Aunt Mackenzie -” I wanted to tell her. I really did. I wanted to tell her that Mom and I weren’t trying to get through this the same. But I couldn’t.

It was like walking down the steps and then missing the last one. It was that split second of fear – would she hate me if she found out what I did? – that caused me to hold my tongue. Of course, she could understand, and she could forgive me, but it was the thought that she wouldn’t that terrified me.

What if she never forgave me for hurting her brother?

“You can’t keep going like this, Em,” Aunt Mackenzie said. “Have you talked to any of your friends from last year?”

I tried not to laugh. “There aren’t any to talk to.”

“Not even one? Not even anyone from Lighthouse Church?”

Especially not there. “I don’t need friends, Aunt Mackenzie. I’m doing fine. Besides, even if I did have friends, what are they going to do?”

“I don’t know, maybe help you get out of this, whatever it is that you’re in right now.” Aunt Mackenzie stopped putting away dishes and put her hand on mine. “You’re not yourself, Em, and I want to help get you back.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me, Aunt Mackenzie,” I said, “but thanks.” Whatever had been wrong with me was gone, crumpled up in my father’s car on the side of back road. I had already determined that I was going to be different, that I wasn’t going to go back to that dark place.

As much as I appreciated it, I didn’t need Aunt Mackenzie’s help.

 

The next few weeks passed slowly. Within the first week, all of our stuff had been unpacked and by the third week, it was as though we had lived in that house our entire lives.

I spent as much time in my room as possible. In a house that large, it was easy to remain hidden. James checked in a few times to make sure that his secret was safe and to say that Mom wanted me to finish the laundry.

Aunt Mackenzie and I hadn’t really talked that much, either. We watched a movie together every night after dinner, but once the movie was over, there wasn’t anything to say. Maybe things would change once school started again. Maybe by then we would’ve gotten over this awkwardness.

One day, about a week before school started, Dad decided that he wanted to go to Publix.

“Come on, Crash, we’re going to get some food.”

I had been sitting in the living room, trying to decide what I wanted to watch on Netflix. James was nowhere to be found.

“Dad, Mom’s not home and Aunt Mackenzie’s out. We can’t go anywhere.”

“Of course we can,” he said, wheeling himself in front of the TV. “We’ll walk. Or you’ll walk and I’ll roll.”

“Dad…”

And the next thing I knew, we were outside, moving down the sidewalk. I didn’t really want to walk, but it’d been at least a week since I had done any exercise other than climbing fourteen stairs down to the kitchen and then back up to my room, so I agreed.

Dad had figured out how to get around with the wheelchair the first day back from the hospital. He zoomed ahead of me, and I had to walk briskly just to keep up.

“School’s starting soon,” Dad called out. “Do you have everything you need?”

“I need another white shirt,” I said.

“Well, you can ask Mom to take you to K-Mart on Saturday.”

“She’s working on Saturday.”

“On Sunday, then.”

We didn’t talk for a few minutes.

“Does James need anything?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you ask him? If he needs anything, he can go with you and Mom on Sunday.”

“Okay.”

Dad went quiet. If Mom wasn’t talking to me, then Dad definitely wasn’t talking to James. For the life of me, though, I couldn’t figure out what it was. James was acting like just about every other teenager in the universe, but Dad seemed to be perplexed by his behavior.

“What do you want to get in the store?” I asked, trying to change the subject.

Dad took the bait. “Mackenzie’s all out of Cheerios. Doctor said if I don’t have Cheerios as a midnight snack, I might never recover.”

I laughed. Just like Dad to break up the mood like that.

 

Summer was over. The first day of school was upon me. I don’t think I’ve ever dreaded a day as much as I dreaded that day. It was my last year, it was supposed to be exciting. I was finally finishing high school and, in a few months,, I’d be off at college, starting my real life. I should be longing for this day. Instead, I didn’t want it to start.

5:32 AM. I found my way to Dad’s side for the last time. He was going to move into the room he shared with Mom tonight. I wanted to get one last look at him before he would be gone forever. It sounded so dramatic. But I needed to come down here. Some days I felt like if I didn’t come down here, then there wouldn’t be anyone to make sure he made it past 5:30 and into 6. It sounded silly, but it was the only thing I could think to do.

“I want to get a job,” I whispered to his sleeping figure. “I want to make some money to help you and Mom.”

But I already knew his answer. If I got a job, I’d have to find my own way there. Driving was out of the question. My parents would never trust me behind the wheel of their car ever again. And they were right to.

If I couldn’t drive, then I’d have to either take public transportation or get someone to take me, and that person would have to be someone who my father could trust. And if I was taking public transportation, I would have to be home by 9pm.

Right now, it just wouldn’t make any sense, Crash. That’s what Dad would say.

Dad murmured. I sat up straight. For a second, I thought he had said my name. If he noticed that I was here, he’d be completely freaked out.

I suddenly felt weird, like I was doing something wrong. I fled up the stairs.

5:39 AM. Earlier than I’d ever gotten back to my room. It was our last night together, and I hadn’t even noticed if he had felt any pain. Maybe that was just as well. I needed to worry about school starting in less than two hours. I didn’t need to worry about my father struggling to breathe. Dad was perfectly fine with the medication. The doctors said he wasn’t feeling any of it.

James and I walked out to the bus stop in front of Aunt Mackenzie’s development at 6. A few other kids stood around, eyes barely open, totally not ready for school to start.

Glad I’m not the only one.

On the other hand, James was ready. He didn’t want any of the other kids to know – he stared at his phone and scrolled through Instagram – but I could see him bursting. He was ready to see what this high school thing was all about.

The bus pulled up to the curb. I lined up behind a few other freshmen and waited to enter the bus. I recognized some faces from last year’s bus route – there must be some overlap between neighborhoods – and found a seat near a sleeping shadow.

I guess I’m drawn to those kinds of people – asleep and obscured by the night.

James disappeared in the arms of his girlfriend. I didn’t know she rode this bus, and I don’t think he knew it, either. I looked away. I didn’t want to know. When Dad eventually found out, I didn’t want to be an accessory to this.

The bus rumbled away from Aunt Mackenzie’s development and I settled into my seat.

So, this was it. The last first day of high school I would ever have. Even though I was dreading it, I had to admit I was a bit excited. I mean, this was my third year in this school, but it didn’t mean things couldn’t be different. I didn’t have to be the same as I’d always been. I could decide, like I had decided after the accident, that I wanted to be better.

As I sat there in the dark, I decided that this year would be different than the rest.

 

“All right, class, I’d like to get started.” Mr. Alvarez stood in the center of the room, hands on the wooden pulpit he’d purchased halfway through last year. I sat in the chair I’d sat in last time and waited for everyone to settled down.

I should’ve known better. I wasn’t the only one who’d taken Mr. Alvarez last year who was taking him for English 4. If they weren’t ready to sit down, it didn’t really matter what Mr. Alvarez had to say.

“I’m going to take roll and then I’m going to hand out your first assignment,” Mr. Alvarez said. I looked around. One girl I recognized, Caroline, was sitting on a desk with her back turned to him. She was talking to a group of friends about what happened on the last day of summer.

Super riveting stuff.

Across the room, near the swiveling bookshelf was another group of friends catching up from the summer. I didn’t understand why they hadn’t already texted each other this information. And didn’t they all have Instagram? Why didn’t they already know what their friends had done over the summer?

I had been so consumed with looking around the room that I almost didn’t hear Mr. Alvarez call my name for roll. When I raised my hand, he looked up and smiled. I had probably been the only student who acknowledged his presence that day.

When he finished roll call, Mr. Alvarez started handing out assignments. And then everything got quiet.

“I’m sure you all remember my policy from last year,” he said, weaving between the rows. “If you miss an assignment, if you fail a test, there is no second chance. There’s no such thing as extra credit in this class.”

That was it. His famous phrase. “There’s no such thing as extra credit in this class.” I had almost missed hearing him say it after hearing it a thousand times last year.

Students who had taken him before knew enough not to miss an assignment. This was our senior year – you couldn’t just fail English 4 without any real trouble next year.

I smiled a little when I watched everyone settle down. They thought they could disrespect Mr. Alvarez, but the truth was that he held all of the cards in this relationship. They had absolutely nothing on him, other than a few unruly minutes before he got started.

“Now that we’re all ready,” Mr. Alvarez began, “I’d like to tell you all about a club that I’m starting.”

Most of the students had already begun filling out the paper he’d given us. But I was interested, even if just to let Mr. Alvarez talk about his club.

“It’s a club for students that might need some extra help with their schoolwork.” He paused and looked around the room. “And if you think you can’t use any help, remember that I’m the one who graded your work last year. I know that each of you can use all of the help you can get.”

Mr. Alvarez wasn’t saying it to insult us. Coming from any another teacher, it might have been. But Mr. Alvarez always looked out for us.

“So, if any of you are interested in joining the club, please see me after class.”

The room was silent for five full seconds before Mr. Alvarez cleared his throat.

“Well, if you’ll take a look at the paper I handed you, we can get this year off to a nice start.”

Several hours later, I wandered into the large, very full cafeteria. I could feel my body tense up. This was usually the worst part of my day, but this time it was supposed to be different. After today, I would be one lunch period closer to finishing high school forever. It was that thought that pushed me onto the lunch line – not the hungry kids trying to get past me to the generic, terrible food they served here.

I grabbed a platter of an unappetizing orange mass and turned toward the lunch tables. Most of the students at Homestead High ate their lunch outside, but there were a good number of us who preferred to remain indoors. I found an empty table somewhere along the back wall and settled into it. A few other kids soon perched on the table, but I had never seen them before. Sitting by myself during lunch wasn’t the worst that could happen to me.

Somewhere across America, there was a kid being tortured by bullies. He was currently getting his underwear pulled over his head, his books were crashing onto the floor, and his lunch money was being stolen. He was the one who should’ve felt terrible today – not me. No one had done any of those things to me. In fact, no one did anything to me. No one said anything to me. By all accounts, I wasn’t even present in half of my classes. I guess I should’ve been grateful not to have the attention of kids with self-esteem issues that tried to alleviate their own feelings of powerlessness by making others feel powerless. That was what all the books I read about bullies made them out to be.

But as I sat there trying not to gag over the smell of the macaroni – as I had deduced the orange mass to be – I wondered if that was really what life was like. Or was it more like right now, when people just didn’t notice you. They didn’t go out of their way to make fun of you or to make your life hell. They didn’t think your existence was worth that much. Was life really sitting here wishing someone would say something to you, even if it was to hurt you, just to remind you that you were still here?

Stop it, Emma. That kind of thinking got you into this mess in the first place.

I pushed away the plate of food. I couldn’t do this anymore. Those dark thoughts, the ones where I questioned life and wanted pain if it meant I felt something – that’s not what I meant when I said I wanted this year to be different.

In the bottom of my backpack, I found a small slip of paper where I had scribbled information about the Study Club Mr. Alvarez was starting. I overheard one of the other students in English asking him about it and jotted it down before anyone else noticed. If I wasn’t going to eat lunch, I might as well do something productive with my time.

Study Club. Room 203. Lunch.

My handwriting had miraculously improved over the summer. Not sure how it happened, considering that I hadn’t picked up a pen in months. One of the grand mysteries of life, I guess.

The lunch hour had only just begun, so that meant I had at least forty-five minutes to spend in Mr. Alvarez’s Study Club. I hadn’t considered until I got to the door that I might be the only one who showed up. But when I peered into the small window on Mr. Alvarez’s classroom door, I was surprised. There were at least ten kids in there, all seated in little groups, huddled over notes and textbooks.

“So, are you gonna go in?”

I turned around to see a somewhat familiar face. He pointed to the door.

“Are you gonna open it, or are you one of those old-fashioned types that won’t go through a door unless a man holds it open?”

He was wearing the blue color scheme of our uniform – there are three schemes: blue, orange, and white (Go Broncos!) – and his hair was a mess.

“Or are you one of those feminist types that don’t want a guy doing anything for her?”

And then I remembered him. He was in English 4 this morning, and he had been in AP American History with me last year. I remember him getting into an argument with the self-proclaimed feminists in our class, arguing that maybe women’s suffrage wasn’t the right idea all along.

“You’re Ethan,” I said, suddenly recalling his name. I felt my face grow hot and hoped it wasn’t turning red. I’d never had the chance to study my face during embarrassing times, but I could hope, couldn’t I?

“And you can talk.” He smiled. “You know, I’ve been waiting three whole years to find out if you had a voice.”

I swallowed.

Ethan stepped around me to the door. “Well, if you’re not going to go in, then I’ll just have to say goodbye here.”

“I’m going in,” I said, following him through the open door. I was glad I had come in so soon behind him. The other students looked up when the door opened and started greeting Ethan. They hadn’t even noticed me slip into a seat in the back.

“So glad you could make it, Emma,” Mr. Alvarez said, suddenly appearing next to me. I smiled. I hadn’t noticed him through the window, but I should’ve expected to see him sooner or later.

“You know, you don’t really need any help, but you could be a great help to some of the kids in here.” He paused and looked around at them. “You never know how much you can learn when you’re teaching people.”

Mr. Alvarez smiled. “I’ve got a few things to do before the period ends, but you can sit tight for a bit. Michael’s about to get everyone up to speed.” He disappeared through the front door carrying a brown box.

I looked around the room, trying to figure out which one of them was Michael. There were about five boys and five girls in the room – I made six girls – but none of them seemed to be dominating any of the conversations. They all seemed to be sharing together in one fluid conversation. For a split second, I wondered what that was like, to not have to worry if you said the wrong thing, or if you talked for too long or didn’t talk long enough. There was no pressure in that conversation – it was just a simple conversation.

After a few minutes, I didn’t have to guess which one was Michael. He stood on a chair and waved his hands, motioning for everyone to get quiet.

“So glad you all could make it for another year of the Study Club.”

Someone started an applause and it circled the room for a full minute before dying down.

“I just want to thank anyone who joined us for the first time this year – now it won’t just be me, Ethan, and Mr. Alvarez in here. Now, we’ll have a bunch of other nerds who have nothing better to do with their lives to keep us company.”

He got a few laughs from that comment. I had to admit, he was pretty good. I mean, I didn’t think I was a nerd, but I could understand what he was doing from a humor perspective.

Most of the other kids seemed to enjoy it, too.

“I won’t scare any of you with an icebreaker, so we’ll just get right to work and if you have any questions, please don’t be afraid to ask.”

The room began to fill with conversation as students resumed work on their day one assignments. I pulled out my own work from my bookbag. It wasn’t like teachers in Homestead to go easy the first week. What was it Ms. Hartford said this morning?

“You had the whole summer to take it easy. Now, it’s time to work.”

Yeah, not many of us liked Ms. Hartford.

“So, you’re new here?” Michael had drifted over to my seat without my noticing. Ethan trailed behind him, looking thoroughly amused with himself. “Ethan said that you were a freshman in Mr. A’s English 1?”

“I’m in English 4,” I said, giving Ethan a confused look. “I’ve been in this school for three years now.”

Michael laughed. “Yeah, that’s Ethan for you. Don’t worry – you’ll like him once you get to know him.”

“That’s not fair, Michael. You’re making me look bad in front of Emma.”

I looked at him. How had he known my name?

“We’ve had a few classes together,” he said, as though he had heard my silent question. “I’m actually pretty good at names.”

“So, Emma, are you here because you need help with work,” Michael asked, “or because you didn’t have anything better to do at lunch?”

His conclusion took me by surprise. “Is it that obvious?”

“Not much different than the rest of us,” Michael said, “although none of us would readily admit it.”

“Hey, speak for yourself, Michael,” Ethan said. “I’ve got loads of friends putting up Missing Person posters around the lunchroom because they can’t find me today.” He sat down in the seat next to me. “But I thought I’d mingle with a different crowd this year. See if the grass is as green on this side as you say it is, Michael.”

“Well, I’ll leave you to pasture then,” Michael said. He reached out a hand to me. “So glad to have met you, Emma. Welcome to the Study Club.”

After Michael walked away, I tried working on my assignments. But I noticed that Ethan was still sitting there, looking at me. I suddenly felt self-conscious and looked up at him.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry. I’m not looking at you,” he said, his eyes shifting to meet mine. Ethan pointed to the giant wooden cabinet to the right of me. “I was just trying to figure out what is in that thing.”

I turned to look at it. Mr. Alvarez’s large wooden cabinet was a staple of this room. It held textbooks, student work, the answers to the midterm and final. I wasn’t sure why Ethan was so interested in it, but I didn’t ask. Instead, I returned to my work.

“So, is this how it’s gonna be?”

“Huh?”

Ethan crossed his arms. “You’re just going to ignore me like you ignore everyone else?”

“I ignore -”

“You can’t leave me here, Emma. We’re the same, you and I,” Ethan said, leaning closer. “We’re the only seniors in here, other than Michael, of course. We need to stick together if we’re going to survive this freshman hive.”

But I didn’t want to talk to him. I wanted to finish my homework before I got home so I could watch something on Netflix before going to bed.

It took a few moments, but Ethan eventually go the hint. He took out his own notebook and started working on his own assignments. I wasn’t sure why I acted like I did, but it came so naturally. When you spend as much time keeping your distance as I do, it just becomes a part of you.

But if I wanted things to change, if I wanted to get to a place where they could trust me with a car again, if I wanted to stay as far away from the darkness that had put Dad in a wheelchair, then I was going to have to change those parts of me. Those instincts were just gonna have to go.

 

The inevitable “so how was your first day of school” talk was going to come at dinner today. I just wasn’t sure if Aunt Mackenzie was going to start it, or if it would be Dad. But it was going to come. As the bus ride drew to its own inevitable end, I wondered what I would talk about. I knew that I had to get in first before James – he would probably end up saying something that was fishy or that resembled a lie, and the conversation would turn into an hour-long examination on the inner workings of his heart. If I answered first, I could excuse myself without many repercussions.

I decided that I was going to tell them about the Study Club. It seemed the neatest thing. Besides, it would satisfy all parties: Dad would be glad I was trying something new. Mom would think it was good for my studies. Aunt Mackenzie would be happy to see me trying to get better. And James would have something to make fun of me for.

It’s a win-win situation.

When the bus made it to Aunt Mackenzie’s development, I pushed my way through the aisle from the back of the bus. James had already disembarked. I could see his head through the window where he was blowing kisses at his girlfriend. Still hadn’t figured out her name.

As I was about to pass the first few rows, I recognized the back of someone’s head. I felt my stomach tighten. It was Ethan. What was he doing on my bus?

The first thought that came into my mind was that it was happening again. When I was in seventh grade, a classmate had taken to following me around. Was Ethan doing the same thing? Was he upset that I didn’t really talk to him much in the Study Club today? Was he going to follow me off the bus?

I felt myself slow down. I couldn’t just not get off the bus. I had no idea how to get to Aunt Mackenzie’s house from anywhere, so I couldn’t walk back.

There’s nothing you can do, Emma, I told myself. You’re just going to have to get off the bus.

I held my breath as I dashed down the aisle and out of the bus. I wanted to believe it was my imagination, but as I passed Ethan’s row, I could’ve sworn that someone reached out and touched my bookbag.

I ran down the sidewalk to Aunt Mackenzie’s house faster than the bus could roll away from the sidewalk.

This was not happening again. I had completely imagined it.

 

That night at dinner, it was Mom who asked the question. I knew she was addressing James, but I also knew that I had a plan. If I didn’t jump in now, a conversation was about to start that wouldn’t end until midnight.

“I joined a club today,” I said, swirling my fork in the spaghettis Aunt Mackenzie had made for dinner. “It’s a study club,” I continued hurriedly.

“That’s really cool, Em. You’re taking the first steps to changing your life.” Aunt Mackenzie reached over and touched my hand.

“It’s definitely something very different for you, Crash, but it’s great to be trying something new.” That was Dad. He didn’t like to eat spaghettis anymore, but he still hadn’t told Aunt Mackenzie. This was the third time she’d made spaghettis since we moved in. I guess his comment about trying something new was really extending to him.

“You know, it’ll help you keep your grades up,” Mom said. It was the most she had said to me in weeks.

James laughed. “Is it filled with a bunch of nerds like you?”

There it was. I had successfully predicted every single one’s reactions. Now, it was time to see if the other part of my prediction, the part where James launches us into an hour-long discussion, came to pass.

I didn’t have to wait long.

“Your behavior is unacceptable, James.” I wasn’t even sure who was saying it or what they were saying it about. But this whole thing was going down.

“What do you mean it’s not acceptable? I’m doing like you ask, I’m coming home before midnight. What more do you want from me?”

“Do not speak to me in that tone. You think you’re a man now? You think you can just talk to me however you want?”

This is the part where I tune out. I was never the troublemaking child, but I was always the one to hear it all. I had to sit around while James argued with Dad, while Mom begged James to do simple things like clean his room and not leave his stuff around the house. I had to listen as Dad pulled me aside and explained his side of the situation, as though telling me made it any more justified.

Right now, though, I didn’t want to hear any more of it. I had fulfilled my part of the evening – it was now time for me to go. Without asking to be excused, I cleared away my dishes and made the trip upstairs for the night. It wasn’t even eight o’clock yet, but I was done. I had a whole school day ahead of me to worry about.

School.

Just thinking about it reminded me of what happened on the bus. My heart started beating faster. I was almost sure that Ethan had grabbed my bookbag. But why would he have done that? Is it possible that I could’ve just felt it because I was expecting it?

I stretched out on my bed and closed my eyes. Even after all these years, I could still see the face of that boy from seventh grade. I could still feel the weight of his hands yanking on my bookbag. And that’s only where it started.

I hadn’t told anyone about what had happened back in seventh grade, but there was one thing I knew for sure: there was no way I was letting it happen again. With that thought, I drifted into a restless sleep, dreading the next morning’s bus ride, while simultaneously excited with the possibility that I could change this.

 

Aunt Mackenzie was waiting for me at the dining room table. I don’t think she had moved since the conversation over dinner that night. The table was cleared, but she was still in the same chair and she looked like she hadn’t slept.

“Morning, Em,” she said, giving me a kiss. “Did you sleep well?”

“Oh, yeah, I didn’t even wake up once.”

But Aunt Mackenzie didn’t believe me for a second.

“You know, I’m really proud of you, Em,” she said.

“Thanks.”

“I’m serious. I think you’re well on your way to getting better.”

So that means she knows, I thought to myself. We had kinda hinted that things weren’t right with me, and she seemed to know that I wasn’t feeling like myself since the accident. But I didn’t expect the proposal that came a few seconds later.

“Em, I want to do something for you, but I’ll need you to do something for me.”

I raised my eyebrows. What was she talking about? Were they going to send me away to some mental hospital? Is that what they thought I needed to get better? Did they even know what was so wrong with me that had led me to drive their car into the ditch?

“That sounds scary, Aunt Mackenzie.”

“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about.” She paused and set her hands on the table. “Em, I’ve talked with your parents and they say this is fine.”

I was intrigued.

“If you make one friend by graduation, I will buy you a car.”

Her words hung in the air for a second. It didn’t seem to make any sense. She would buy me a car if I made a friend? What kind of proposal was that?

Aunt Mackenzie leaned forward to explain. “Now, I’m not saying that you need a friend to fix you or that you’re not capable on your own. But sometimes we need to surround ourselves with peers and I think you could use that.”

“But…” I couldn’t continue. I thought back to my time at the Study Club this afternoon. I had barely made it out of there alive. Making friends was hard.

“You can take it slow,” Aunt Mackenzie said. “One day at a time until graduation.”

I closed my eyes and thought. This was exactly what I needed: a little incentive, and I would be well on my way to breaking out of this rut I was stuck in.

I stuck out my hand to Aunt Mackenzie.

“Deal.”

 

Ms. Hartford wasn’t happy with us.

“Did none of you complete the packets I handed out yesterday?”

The room was silent.

“We’re off to a bad start this year,” Ms. Hartford said, shaking her head. “If this is the attitude you guys want, then I’m afraid you’ll have a hard time passing this class this year.”

I had the packet in my bookbag, completed, but I couldn’t get up. Too much time had passed. If I got up now, then Ms. Hartford would wonder why I had taken so long. Everyone would see me and they would probably hate me for making them look lazy.

So, I didn’t say anything. I stayed in my seat and listened to Ms. Hartford ramble on and on about how all of the students in this school won’t amount to anything.

“It’s already the second month of school, and you can’t complete simple homework assignments.”

By the time lunch rolled around, I was starting to wonder about Aunt Mackenzie’s deal. I mean, I couldn’t even get up in front of class to hand in an assignment that would affect my grade. How was I going to make a friend?

“One day at a time until graduation.” Aunt Mackenzie’s words came back to me. She was right. It had been a couple of weeks since we made our deal. I only had to make a few moves at a time, a small smile here, a thank you there, and by the time graduation came around, I was sure to have at least one friend.

And then I would have a car and I could get a job and I could help get us back on our feet financially. Then, we wouldn’t have to live with Aunt Mackenzie. Not that I didn’t love her and appreciate everything she was doing for us.

Far from it. I loved Aunt Mackenzie but living in someone else’s house – even if that person was your favorite in the world and the house was as awesome as them – wasn’t the same as living in your own house. For one thing, the light switches felt weird, the floor was a little colder, and there were only fourteen steps instead of sixteen, giving you trust issues.

If I had a car, then I wouldn’t have to worry about getting a job. I would be able to help Mom save money so she wouldn’t have to work two jobs. And I would even offer to drive James to work somewhere if he felt like it.

And, most importantly, I didn’t have to wait for Mom and Dad to trust me behind the wheel again. I already knew that that was never going to happen. Aunt Mackenzie was paving the way for me – I just had to uphold my end of the bargain.

I didn’t even bother going into the lunchroom. It was straight to the Study Club for me. I didn’t have any classes with Mr. Alvarez today, so we hadn’t had a chance to talk about how it went, but I hoped to see him again today.

Even if none of the other kids took him seriously, I felt a connection with Mr. Alvarez. He had encouraged me last year when I failed the midterm. He hadn’t let me take it again, but he showed me how I could pull my overall grade from a ‘C’ to a ‘B’ in the two semesters we had left.

Unlike most of the teachers I had at Homestead, Mr. Alvarez actually seemed to care about us.

I worked my way up to his classroom. There were several students crowded around the doorway, but no one was going inside.

Ethan spotted me and waved. I looked away instinctively. He wasn’t on the bus in the mornings nor in the afternoons – I checked. Maybe I had made a mistake thinking it was him that day.

When I looked back, though, Ethan wasn’t smiling like he had been most of the time I’d seen him since the school year started. Something was different.

“Hey,” he said, making his way over to me.

“Hello.”

That was usually the extent of our conversations. But today he took it a step further.

“So, I guess you’ve heard, too,” he said. He sighed and leaned against the wall.

I was confused. “What have I heard?”

“You don’t know?” Ethan’s eyes went wide. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought that everyone already knew.” He paused and looked away. I could tell that something was wrong, but I wasn’t sure what it was.

Mr. Alvarez suddenly appeared in the middle of the hall. “All right, coming through.” He waded through the Study Club members and unlocked his door. Students spilled into the room like a glass of water falling to the floor. I tried to catch Ethan’s eye as we walked in together, but he wasn’t looking up.

“All right, everyone, settle down.” Mr. Alvarez had said the same words dozens of times in the year that I’d known him, but this time, everyone listened immediately. He stood at the pulpit and folded his hands.

“I’m sure you’ve all heard the news by now,” he began. “Early this morning the school was informed that Michael had committed suicide.

My heart dropped into my stomach. My head suddenly grew light.

Wait, what?

Did he just say what I thought he said?

I looked over at Ethan. He still had his eyes to the ground. He wasn’t blinking.

Are we talking about the same Michael? Like, the leader of the Study Club Michael? But why would he kill himself? What was so wrong that he decided he didn’t want to live anymore? He had friends. He had Ethan. He was well liked by mostly everyone who came in contact with him. What reason did he have to do something like this?

It’s funny how the first thing you want to know is the reason. If there was something wrong, if this made sense, then there wouldn’t be the wondering if you could’ve done anything. But did it make it hurt any less to know the reason? Could any reason justify it?

Ethan sat still in his chair.

Some of the students started talking, in low voices at first, but then the conversation grew louder.

I couldn’t think. I hadn’t even known Michael – I think I talked to him once since the school year started. I hadn’t even thought much about anything since that first day. I was just trying to finish my schoolwork and make it out of the day in one piece. Yeah, I had Aunt Mackenzie’s offer to think about, but just saying ‘Hello’ to Ethan a few minutes ago had drained the life out of me.

But I hadn’t even said something as simple as ‘Hello’ to Michael since that day. I remember him and Ethan coming up to me, welcoming me to the Study Club. It seemed like it had just happened.

And now he was gone.

I couldn’t explain the knot in my stomach right now. Maybe it was because I was remembering my own accident. I had tried to reason myself out of doing it, but when the time came, I didn’t need any reason. It was the only solution, and I drove the car into the ditch.

But Dad had found me. He had pulled me out of the crumpled car, and he had hurt himself in the process. Michael didn’t have that story. Michael had tried to kill himself and he had succeeded.

Mr. Alvarez had been looking through his phone, but now he looked up.

“If anyone wants the details for the funeral, you can come up and ask me.”

But no one else was really listening. The chatter was growing into full blown cafeteria noise. Not sure how ten kids could talk louder than an entire school. But I understood why they were trying. It was the same reason Dad never talked to me about the accident, and why Mom never talked to me at all. If you could ignore the pain, then maybe it’d just give up and go away.

Yeah, that never seems to work.

I watched Ethan staring at the floor in his chair a few seats ahead of me. I wanted to say something to him, but I didn’t know what to say. I mean, I hardly even knew him. We said hi a few times, but that was about it. Our conversations never lasted more than a few seconds. I couldn’t exactly reach over and comfort him. It just wouldn’t be right.

Mr. Alvarez seemed to have noticed Ethan, too. He stepped away from the pulpit and sat down in the seat next to Ethan.

“Are you all right, Ethan?” He asked.

Ethan blinked. “I just don’t understand why he did it. Everything was just fine last time I talked to him.”

“Sometimes we can’t see the pain of those around us, especially those who are closest to us.”

“But Michael and I practically grew up together. If something was wrong, shouldn’t I have known?”

Mr. Alvarez shook his head. “You can’t beat yourself up over what you didn’t do, Ethan. You have to think about what you’re going to do now.”

“Yeah, but I’m so angry right now. I’m angry and I’m confused, and I don’t know what to think about anything.” Ethan looked like he was about to burst into tears.

I felt bad watching this exchange from my seat. But I couldn’t get any closer. I wasn’t part of this. I had only just met Michael, and I didn’t know Ethan any better.

That feeling of helplessness, when you see that person hurting, and you just want to jump in there and get them out of there – that feeling was going to tear my stomach to pieces.

I needed to get out of there. Without saying anything to Mr. Alvarez, I bolted out of the room. I’d been tempted to look back at Ethan, but I couldn’t see him like this. That look on his face was enough to make me cry, and I wasn’t even involved.

 

“Do you want to talk about it, Em?”

Aunt Mackenzie and I sat in her driveway – not the best place to have a serious conversation, but it was the furthest I could get into the house that afternoon before breaking down. I hadn’t been able to get it out of my mind since the moment I heard it.

Michael was dead.

“A kid in the Study Club killed himself,” I said. I wanted to say it as quickly as possible. If I could get it out, then Aunt Mackenzie could make it better. She always did.

Instead, she stiffened. Those were keywords and they could potentially be triggers, and she was worried about me. All of that from a sharp intake of breath and a sudden lack of movement. I could be Sherlock Holmes with the way I could read her.

“How are you taking this?”

“Fine.”

Aunt Mackenzie wasn’t convinced. I don’t think I’d ever be able to lie to that woman. She could read me better than I could read her.

“Did you know him?” She asked.

I shrugged. “Not really. I mean, he was the leader, but I didn’t really talk to him. I didn’t really talk to anyone in the club, actually.” Exchanging a few hellos with Ethan didn’t count – at least, not right now.

“How does hearing about that make you feel?”

I took a deep breath. “Confused. Like, I know why I had my accident, I know why I did what I did, and I know how much I hurt everyone here. But I don’t know why Michael did it, and it’s driving me crazy.”

Aunt Mackenzie put her arm around me. “Yeah, I know the feeling.”

I tried not to let her feel me stiffen. I had never told her why I had tried to end my own life earlier this summer. I hadn’t told anyone. There were some suspicions, but none that were anywhere near accurate. But whatever reason I had wasn’t enough to compel me to try to finish the job. I just wanted to know what had driven Michael to that point. Maybe then I would be okay with it.

I don’t know when I started crying. Maybe when Aunt Mackenzie pulled my head into her chest, not caring if I spread tears and snot all over her shirt. But all I know is that once the crying started, there was nothing I could do to stop it.

Dad called me into his room before bed that night. He and Aunt Mackenzie had discussed what happened, and he wanted to see if I was okay.

“Crash, if you want to talk about anything, know that I’m here.” He smiled when he said it and I could tell that he was sincere. But he was wrong to think that talking would really do anything. I just needed to sleep, to get this out of my mind. The further away I got from the fact that Michael was dead – some guy I barely knew – the closer I’d be to beating this darkness.

 

The next few days at school were about as memorable as the two months prior. I completed assignments and took notes in class, but I didn’t remember one second of it. Everyone who knew Michael sat around in a daze like me, and those who didn’t know him overcompensated in the noise and disruption department.

Ethan was about somber as the rest of them. It was weird to see him like that, especially considering the fact that I didn’t even really know him, but I could tell that he was acting differently.

During Study Club one day, I decided that I was going to talk to him. A few of the other Study Club members had stopped showing up, so it was eight of us now. I sat down next to Ethan.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hello.” He looked up and gave me a sad smile. “That’s usually your line.”

“How are you feeling?”

He shrugged. “As good as I’ll ever be. Getting better. Maybe once the funeral…”

I nodded.

“Listen, if you need any help with that homework of yours, you just let me know.”

To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was serious, but the words kinda just came out of my mouth. Ethan smiled sadly again and nodded.

“Thanks,” he said, and then resumed staring at the floor.

Mr. Alvarez was even a bit more subdued. He spent most of the Study Club hour drawing absently on his paper gradebook. I think he was the only person in the world who still carried one of those.

The rest of the day passed by in slow motion. I was ready for all of this to end. I didn’t like feeling like this – all of this confusion and despair – this is what it had felt like for me at the beginning of summer. I wanted to change things, so I needed to get out of this. If not for me, then I had to do it for Ethan.

I tried to locate him on the bus that afternoon, but I had no luck. I don’t even think he rode our bus. I think that I had just imagined it. He hadn’t been on the bus and he hadn’t reached out and grabbed my bookbag. That had all been a trick of my imagination.

As the bus bumped along the road toward Aunt Mackenzie’s house, I closed my eyes and leaned against the window.

Was it possible that all of this was my imagination, too? Some kid that I barely knew wasn’t dead and taking up every inch of my brain. This was all just one big mistake. Michael’s going to walk into the Study Club tomorrow and he’s going to be the first person that I try to befriend in order to win this car from Aunt Mackenzie.

But even as I thought it, I knew that it was ridiculous. Michael was gone, and he was never coming back. I had been a few minutes from being in his position, but Dad had given me a second chance. Well, I wasn’t going to waste it. Whatever I did, I was going to make sure that even if Michael was gone, I wasn’t going to let his friends go through this alone.

Ethan, I thought to myself. Ethan will be my one friend.

 

Loud voices woke me up in the middle of the night. I looked over at the green glare of the alarm clock. 3:25am. I hadn’t woken up this early since the day of the move in the summer. I listened for a few minutes to try to figure out what was going on.

The noise was coming from downstairs. I walked through the dark hallway as quietly as possible. By the time I reached the staircase, I could hear everything clearly – James was at it again. It had taken a few days, but things were just going back to normal at school. For some reason, James decided that this was a perfect time to start up this nonsense again.

“Where were you, James?” I heard Dad saying, his voice carrying up the staircase. “I’m not going to ask you again.”

“It doesn’t matter where I was. You only said that I had to be home, so why do you care?”

“We want to make sure you’re safe, James. We don’t want anything to happen to you.” That was Mom.

“I’m not doing anything wrong, Mom. I’m fine. Why can’t you guys trust me?”

“Because you’re a kid, James! And if you keep acting like one, we’ll keep treating you like one!”

Dad was upset now. His voice had increased a few pitches and was getting louder.

“You know what it is? You’re selfish, James, and you don’t care about anyone. You’re living in rebellion – not against me, but against God.”

“I have nothing against God,” James said. “I’m not rebelling against him.”

That was about as much as I could stand. I hurried down the hallway to my room. James and Dad were going to be there for a while. If I was lucky, I might actually get some more sleep before school started in a couple of hours.

Who was I kidding?

 

Sitting in the club at lunch that day was awkward, to say the least. There weren’t that many students left – just Ethan and two other kids: the girl looked like a tenth grader, and the boy looked like he was nineteen. I sat down in my usual seat and Ethan wandered over to me.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hi.” We sat there in silence for a few minutes. That’s how every conversation with him started. I could tell that Michael was still on his mind. I wanted to talk to him about it, tell him about me and how I had come through a situation like that in one piece. But I wondered if that would discourage him.

“He was my best friend,” Ethan said. I was surprised. I hadn’t even asked him anything. I guess just sitting there quietly was enough for him to think he could say something. “I’m just confused, you know?”

I nodded. There wasn’t anything more that I could say. And I think that Ethan understood that.

When I had been in the darkness at the beginning of the summer, there wasn’t anything that anyone could say to make it better. Sometimes, there’s nothing you can say. Sometimes, you’ve just got to sit there in the silence and sometimes it hurts. But you need that time.

Mr. Alvarez suddenly appeared – as he always did – and seemed surprised to see all of us in his classroom.

“Good afternoon,” he said slowly. He kept glancing over in my direction, and I felt my face grow red. He knew that I didn’t really talk much to people. I don’t really know why my talking to Ethan made me feel embarrassed. But then Mr. Alvarez hurried out the door.

“What’s his deal?” Ethan said. I shrugged. But before I pulled out my work to get an early start, I noticed that Ethan had wiped his eyes. He tried to be discreet, but I’d seen it. Again, I wanted to tell him that it was okay, he should just let the tears out, but I couldn’t say that.

I didn’t even really know this guy. You can’t say things like that to people that you don’t know.

The rest of the day passed and then the next week. Life was moving so slowly. It wasn’t that I was mourning Michael – I think I was mourning the death of life as a concept. I was thinking about what I had tried doing to myself so many months ago. I was thinking how if it wasn’t for my Dad jumping in when he did, Michael wouldn’t be the only student from our graduating class not to make it. And that thought was starting to weigh me down.

 

I wasn’t sure if I had heard him correctly.

Mr. Alvarez was standing over my desk, stack of papers in his hands, big smile on his face.

“So, what do you think?” He didn’t seem to notice my hesitation. Maybe he took it for serious contemplation.

“Um, I’m sorry, Mr. Alvarez, but I don’t know.”

Not the answer he was looking for. Mr. Alvarez sat down in the seat beside me. “Listen, Emma, I think this is a great opportunity. And I can’t think of anyone better to do this than you.”

The rest of the class worked noisily on the group assignments he’d handed out this morning. I had been working by myself – as I usually did for group work – and Mr. Alvarez had caught me off guard.

“I just don’t think I can do something like that,” I said, not looking at him. If I looked into his eyes anymore – those begging, almost desperate eyes – there was no way I could say anything but “Of course, Mr. Alvarez. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do.” Well, not everything, of course.

“What if you just try it out?” He asked. “Come for a week and see if you like how it goes. If not, then you can back out and I won’t ask you again.”

I considered. He wanted me to take over leadership of the Study Club now that Michael was gone. But I couldn’t do anything like that. I mean, it took a lot of work for me to just show up to the Study Club every single day at lunch – I couldn’t even imagine how difficult it would be to lead it.

“Mr. Alvarez, I don’t think I can do this,” I said. “It’s just too much right now.” I didn’t have to explain. Things were starting to get back to normal, but for a few of us, it was taking a bit longer. Mr. Alvarez understood that.

He nodded and stood up from the seat. “You think about it, Emma. I’m sorry to put so much pressure on you right now. You can give me an answer when you’ve had some time to think it over.”

I wondered if I had made the right decision.

That day, I couldn’t eat lunch. As I wandered through the emptying hallways to Mr. Alvarez’s class, I wondered if I should at least give it a try. I mean, how hard could it really be? I had seen Michael lead the Study Club for a few months already. He didn’t really have to do much other than show up and be willing to help if someone needed it. How hard could that really be?

When I reached Mr. Alvarez’s class, he was standing outside with Ethan and two other students. He smiled when I walked up.

“Good afternoon, Emma,” he said. “We were just talking about you.”

Me? I wanted to ask. But instead I just waited for him to continue.

“The Study Club’s attendance has taken a serious hit,” he explained. “In the past week, we’ve gone from fifteen members to -” he pointed at the kids standing next to Ethan – “a total of four students, including you.”

“I don’t understand why they just disappeared,” Ethan said, crossing his arms. “They were all fine before Michael died, it’s like now that he’s gone, they don’t want anything to do with the place.”

“Well, you can’t blame them,” one of the other students standing there said. “Michael didn’t just die – he killed himself. That’s pretty dark, and I’m not sure those other kids have the strength to deal with it.”

“Your insight into people is just spot on, Karen, did you know that?” Ethan said, shaking his head.

But the silence that followed her statement seemed to confirm that we all thought it was true. Why else would everyone else suddenly disappear? If they were just coming for Michael, then they would’ve connected over his loss, not scattered like pieces of a shattered glass. They would have stuck together.

“I was just telling them what I told you this morning,” Mr. Alvarez said to me. “If you decide that you want to lead the Study Club, they’ve agreed that this is a good decision.”

Karen nodded. “I don’t think you’ve said two words since I’ve met you, but I have a feeling that you’ll do a good job helping us.”

Wait, what was this? Was he getting them to gang up on me to get me to change my mind? Is this what he meant by giving me time to think about it? I had half a mind to say no and walk away from this forever. The pressure that he was putting me under right now was ridiculous.

But what about Aunt Mackenzie? What about our deal? I couldn’t just walk away from an opportunity like this. This was the closest I’d gotten in the three years that I’d gone to this school. If I walked away from this, I might as well be walking away from the car, from a job, and from giving back to Dad the things that I had taken from him. I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t right to these other kids. It wasn’t right to Ethan, but it wasn’t right to Dad.

I couldn’t do that to him.

I swallowed and looked at Mr. Alvarez. “I’ll do it,” I said. “I’ll lead the Study Club.”

He smiled and the Ethan slapped me on my back. Karen nodded confidently and the other student – a guy that looked like he could be nineteen – congratulated me.

We walked into the classroom together – well, all except for Mr. Alvarez, who had other things to take care of.

As I sat in the front of the classroom, in the seat that had previously been reserved for Michael, I wondered what on earth I had gotten myself into.

 

“Do you remember learning any of this with Ms. Faraday last year?” The boy that I thought looked like he was nineteen – Seth, as I learned – was, indeed nineteen. He was in eleventh grade and for some reason, absolutely nothing he learned during the day seemed to stick in his brain.

“Well, it has been a while since I did any Algebra,” I admitted, “but let’s see what you’ve got so far.”

Elsewhere in Mr. Alvarez’s classroom, Ethan and Karen were arguing over the book that Ms. Hartford had assigned for them to read.

“You don’t understand, Karen, it’s not historical – it’s historical fiction; that’s a huge difference.”

“But it’s still based on reality, Ethan, so that means it still could’ve been real.”

“It could’ve been real, but the historical record clearly shows that it isn’t real.”

I tried not to laugh. They liked to get into things like this. But from the way that they talked comfortably outside of the argument showed that none of the animosity ran deep. The four of us got along pretty well. I mean, Ethan spent most of his time either pretending like he didn’t know what he was doing or arguing about the historical record – he and Karen got into this debate a lot.

Karen and Seth were either flirting with each other or trying to remember things that they learned just that day. It was a little frustrating, but it’d been about two weeks, and I hadn’t told Mr. Alvarez that I was stepping down. For better or for worse, I was now the leader of the Study Club.

 

After dinner, Aunt Mackenzie pulled me through the front door. My first thought was that this conversation was going to be about James.

The yelling was just starting to subside.

“Do you have anything you’d like to tell me?” Dad had said as we all sat around the dinner table. We were eating rice, beans and fried chicken today – a welcome change from the spaghettis Aunt Mackenzie had grown used to making every other night.

“There’s nothing,” James had said, digging into his food.

My father pulled out his phone and replayed a message he’d saved.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Alfaro. How are you? It’s been a while since we last spoke. I wanted to let you know that James didn’t show up to any of classes today. I saw his sister around lunchtime, so I was wondering if everything was okay. Let me know if I can do anything. Goodbye.”

The voice had been vaguely familiar – probably one of my teachers from a few years ago. That’s probably when the man had spoken to my father last.

James seemed to recognize it, too. He had stiffened and wasn’t eating anymore. He didn’t look up at anyone, and he didn’t seem to hear anything, either.

“Where were you, James?” Dad asked. That was always the question. And James never wanted to give it up.

But that wasn’t ultimately what Aunt Mackenzie had called me outside for.

“You still running that Study Club?” She asked. We sat on the driveway, backs to the house and the noise that was still audible albeit barely.

“Yep. I think it’s going well.”

A pause.

“What about the whole friend thing?”

“Uh, that’s going fine, I guess.”

Not the answer she was hoping for, I was sure. Aunt Mackenzie smiled. “Well, it’s not going to happen overnight, Em,” she said. “You’re taking steps, and that’s what counts.”

She grew silent again.

“What about…” I knew what she wanted to ask. I could almost hear it on her lips.

“Oh, I’m fine, really.” She wanted to ask about the darkness, she wanted to know if I was still thinking that driving into a ditch was my only option. “I think that this whole helping other people thing is paying off.”

“Well, you’re not finished yet,” Aunt Mackenzie said. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, but don’t go too fast, either.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve been spending a lot of time at that Study Club, with that boy – what was his name again? The one who was friends with the boy who killed himself?”

For some reason, it sounded so insensitive when Aunt Mackenzie talked about it. I wanted to say that his name was Ethan and the boy’s name was Michael. It’d been ages since I’d heard anyone talk about him, and I was starting to wonder if that was a good thing.

“Uh, I his name is Ethan,” I said finally.

“Ethan, huh?” Aunt Mackenzie leaned back on her palms. “Well, I had better not hear about you skipping the friend part and going straight to the boyfriend/girlfriend part.”

I looked at her, incredulous. “Never! It’s not like that, Aunt Mackenzie.” And that was true. It wasn’t like that. Sure, I could talk easily to Ethan – even if I never really said much – but there wasn’t anything like that. There wouldn’t ever be. I didn’t really have the time for something like that right now, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t emotionally ready to have a friend, much less a boyfriend.

“I was only kidding, Em,” Aunt Mackenzie said, laughing. “You’re getting all defensive and I’m just joking.”

“Yeah, sorry,” I said, laughing a little, too. When neither of said anything, the sound of another argument from within the house filled up the empty spaces.

“What do you think about all that?” I asked Aunt Mackenzie.

She sighed. “I wish it didn’t have to happen in my house,” she said. “But you’re father’s his own man. I can’t try to control him – I wouldn’t want to. James is doing what James has always done – it’s time your father gets a handle on it.”

I hadn’t heard anyone talk like this about James – except for me. Mom usually said to give the boy space, that he was trying to become a man, and he was just making mistakes. Dad usually said that he was taking advantage of their kindness and he was making them worry for nothing.

I just thought James was being James. He’d never really been that obedient as a kid and he was always pushing the boundaries. I remember when we were younger and we shared a room together. James was the one to ruin the room and I was the one to fix it up.

But despite all of that, I never had any anger toward my brother. It was annoying to have to hear all of this, but I had long since given up getting angry with his behavior. I guess now that his disrespect was spilling over onto my parents, things were starting to hype up.

“Things will get better here,” Aunt Mackenzie said. “Your dad is just having trouble because he can’t do what he’s used to doing.”

“Yeah.”

Aunt Mackenzie put her hand on my shoulder. It felt warm through the fabric of my shirt. “You can’t hold this on your own, Em. You may have started this, but you don’t have to be the one to end it.”

I didn’t say anything. What did Aunt Mackenzie know about any of this, anyway? What did she know of seeing your dad locked in a wheelchair, unable to get up and work with his hands like he had worked his entire life? He was in construction, and now he couldn’t even do that. His business was going out of it, and he wasn’t able to make any money. Not only did I start this, and not only would I end it, but with every moment that I sat here doing nothing, I was letting it continue.

I needed to make that one friend – I needed that car. And I would do whatever I had to do to get it. I felt bad for a single second – Aunt Mackenzie was doing this to help me, and I wasn’t doing it with the right motives. Could you still make a friend if you weren’t doing it for the right motives?

Aunt Mackenzie cleared her throat.

“I’m starting to serve with the nursery at church this week,” she said.

“Yeah?” This was the first I had heard of it. As far as I was concerned, I thought that all thirty-somethings who weren’t married couldn’t stand kids. But I guess not Aunt Mackenzie.

“I think it’d be good to try something different, get to know some more of the people at Lighthouse Church.”

I shrugged. I didn’t much care for the people at Aunt Mackenzie’s church. We had been going there ever since I started high school, but I still felt like I didn’t know anyone there. Which was weird because my Dad was like the director of the missions department. I should know at least someone.

“Anyway, I was hoping that you might consider serving somewhere.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t have to be the nursery – you could serve anywhere,” Aunt Mackenzie said, trying to speak quickly. “I think you’re experiencing something good at the Study Club, but I think if you serve at church, it’ll help you on the spiritual side.”

“I’m fine spiritually,” I said. “I am a Christian, I pray, I read the Bible. I don’t need to serve at Lighthouse for any of my spiritual growth.”

Aunt Mackenzie looked at me. “Well, then, you can serve there for community service hours. You still need them, don’t you?”

I didn’t answer her. She knew that I still had to complete them – a whole 100 hours, if I wanted to get the Florida Bright Futures scholarship. And I hadn’t done any community service in the past three years. If I didn’t start getting those hours soon, I would have to take that scholarship off the table.

“I’ll think about it,” I said to Aunt Mackenzie. She gave me a hug and we went back inside.

But as I started getting ready for bed, I knew that I had lied to her. I wasn’t going to think about it – I had already made up my mind. There was no way I was going to serve at Lighthouse Church. Absolutely no way.

 

Ethan found me in the lunchroom. He stood behind me in line and waited for me to finish collecting my food before he said anything.

“Are you coming to the Study Club today?” He asked.

“Not sure,” I said, taking a bite of the pizza they had served today instead of the usual secondary colored lumps.

“I can’t make it today,” he said, watching me eat. “I’m supposed to hang out with my brother today.”

“You have a brother?” I asked.

“Yeah, he thinks I’m really cool, so I can’t let him down, you know what I mean?”

“I have a brother, too,” I said, “but he doesn’t really hang around with me.”

Ethan sighed and shook his head. “If only I could be so lucky.” He suddenly sat up. “There he is,” Ethan said, pointing discreetly at a freshman making his way over to their table. “He’s a little squid, though, so be careful.”

“What’s a squid?” I asked, but I don’t think Ethan heard me. His brother had arrived.

“Hey, Ethan, thank you so much for hanging with me today I know how hard it is to get away from your friend and I know you spend all of lunch with them but thanks for hanging with me today.” The boy said it all in one long run-on sentence before taking a deep breath.

“Kyle, this is Emma. Emma, this is Kyle.” I waved to his brother.

“Emma’s the one who is currently saving your life, isn’t she?” Kyle asked, eyes widening as he looked at me.

“I’m not saving anyone’s life,” I said matter of factly. “I’m just facilitating the completion of homework on a daily basis.”

“In other words, yes,” Ethan said, looking at Kyle. “If Emma wasn’t helping me, I’d be just like Dad – uneducated, unemployed, undeveloped.”

That sounded a bit harsh. But I didn’t say anything. Family squabbles were always the worst to step into – they were especially worse when they didn’t have anything to do with your family.

But Kyle either didn’t notice or he didn’t care. “Look, Ethan, I’ll be right back I want to get something to eat so please don’t go anywhere!” Kyle blurted this out in another long sentence and then dashed to the food line.

Ethan and I watched him go.

“That kid is something else,” I said cautiously.

“Just wait until he gets back, and then you’ll really get to see how crazy he is.” Ethan smiled. “Kyle’s a good kid, though. I think that of all my siblings, I’m the most proud of him.”

“You have other siblings?” I asked.

“Mostly older ones. You know the kinds – the ones that you look up to like Kyle looks up to me. But they’re not cool like me. They’re just jerks.”

I didn’t know the kind, but I didn’t say that, of course. It was just me and James growing up – no one else. I couldn’t imagine if I had an older sibling, or even worse, a sibling even younger than James. What would have happened to them when Dad stopped working?

“Listen, I wanted to ask you something.”

“What, you didn’t just want me to meet your adorable brother?”

Ethan winced. “First of all, Kyle is not adorable, so please don’t ever say that again. And second, no, that’s not it at all. I wanted to ask you for a favor.”

“What is it?” I assumed it had something to do with the Study Club, so I was open to it.

“I need some help getting community service hours. Is there anything you can do to help me?”

Absolutely no way.

Something immediately came to mind, but I couldn’t say it. I mean, he wasn’t even a Christian. Why would he want to do his community service at a church – and Lighthouse Church, of all churches? That place wasn’t exactly the friendliest to non-believers. I mean, they were getting there, but they weren’t here yet. I wouldn’t want Ethan to be eaten alive by them. That just wouldn’t be fair.

But it seemed like God had heard me last night. He was currently in the process of calling my bluff. If it weren’t so annoying, I probably would’ve burst into laughter.

Instead, I swallowed the fear growing in my stomach and opened my mouth. “You can volunteer at my Aunt’s church on Sundays and Fridays,” I said. “They have a bunch of different areas to serve – I mean, volunteer – so it shouldn’t be too bad.”

Ethan nodded. “That sounds good. But I have one condition.”

“What’s that?” I asked. His brother, Kyle, was heading back to the table.

Ethan leaned over until his shoulder was nearly touching mine. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. This had happened before and it was happening again, and I had to get out of here before –

But nothing happened. Ethan just said: “I’ll only go if you go with me.”

That was it? That was his condition?

“Sure,” I said, without even thinking. I seemed to be doing a lot of that, lately.

 

I found Dad in the living room, watching TV. His leg was propped up and he was doing some exercises. The doctors seemed to think he was well on his way to recovery, and Dad seemed to believe them. He was committing to these exercises, which was good. I sat down on the couch next to him.

“You finally decided to keep your old man company, Crash?” He gently shoved me with his elbow. “How long has it been?”

I looked at him. “What do you mean?”

Dad sighed and leaned back against the couch. “You used to come downstairs every night, sometimes in the middle of the morning when you thought I was asleep.”

I stiffened. So, he knew about that, did he? “I can explain -” I started, but Dad put up a hand.

“I understood why you did it, Crash, and I wanted to give you some space. You felt responsible for what happened and staying up with me was a way to feel better about it.”

“It didn’t help,” I said quietly. “I still feel bad about what happened.”

“But that’s just the thing, Crash. You have nothing to feel bad about. I did what I was supposed to do. My daughter was in danger and I rescued her.” Dad smiled. “I don’t care what caused you to drive yourself into that ditch – even if I had to break my back to get you out of there, I would do it.”

I sat next to him in silence. That was just the thing, wasn’t it? Neither him nor Mom seemed to care about what had caused me to do what I did. We just never talked about. They didn’t try to get me a counselor at school. They didn’t check me into a hospital. They never did anything about it. To be honest, I don’t think they even realized that if I wasn’t careful, it could happen again.

“So, what was it that you wanted to tell me?”

“I can’t spend some time with my dad without wanting anything?” I swallowed. How had he known? How did he always know?

“Come on, Crash. I’ve lived with you for seventeen years. What is it that you need?”

“Well, one of the kids from the Study Club – Ethan – needs community service hours. I invited him to serve at Lighthouse on Sundays and Fridays.” I paused, trying to read Dad’s emotions, but he was doing a bang-up job of hiding them. His jaw had tightened, and he wasn’t looking at me. I continued. “I wouldn’t leave him alone, of course. I’d volunteer with him, so that there wouldn’t be any trouble.”

“And you’d get some hours for yourself, as well,” Dad finished. He nodded. “Sounds fine. Why did you want to tell me?”

“Well, just in case there were any things I hadn’t thought about, you’d tell me.”

“Like I said, it sounds fine. Just let the youth pastor know – he’ll figure out a good place for you two to serve.”

“The youth pastor?” I asked. “You mean they’re finally giving us one?”

Dad laughed. “You act like Jerry wasn’t a youth pastor.”

“He was nineteen, Dad. That guy was barely out of high school.” I looked away, thinking about him. “You know, I heard some of the girls say he tries flirting with them.”

“This new guy is a bit older, so you shouldn’t have that to worry about. Plus, he’s married and he has a kid, I think.” Dad crossed his arms. “Now, about this Ethan guy – is he a Christian?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “We never really talked about God.”

“You know that’s our mission, right?”

“Dad, just because you’re director of missions -”

“It’s not because of my job, Crash. It’s because as Christians we’re supposed to be discipling people and helping them grow in relationship with Christ.”

“Yes, I know that.” Of course I know that. I’d been hearing that my entire life. But I wasn’t there right now. I was just trying to keep afloat. The Study Club was helping a bit, but it was still there, the guilt. I traded one guilt for another, and it was going to kill me if I didn’t do something about it. God? He wasn’t doing anything. Maybe he’d do it for someone else, but he wasn’t doing anything for me.

How am I supposed to tell people about a God I’m not even sure I believe in?

But I couldn’t say that to Dad. I was supposed to be the good Christian girl, while James was the one who rebelled and turned his back on God. James was the prodigal son.

So, did that mean I was the older brother? The one who didn’t run away but who had a terrible attitude and was probably just as sinful as the one who ran away?

Right now, I wasn’t so sure.

 

When we pulled up to Lighthouse Church on Friday night, I saw that Ethan was already there. He was sitting in the driver’s seat of a red car, pounding at the steering wheel as he sang along to an inaudible song. When he noticed us get out of our car, he smiled and came out to join us.

“Good evening, Mr. Alfaro. My name is Ethan.”

Names were traded and hands were shaken. Well, except for Aunt Mackenzie – instead of a handshake, she gave Ethan one of her famous crushing hugs. After they had gone into the main sanctuary, I led Ethan to the back where the youth gathered.

He rubbed his shoulder. “That aunt of yours has a serious grip,” he said.

“And here I thought you were a tough guy.” I gestured to his arms. “I guess those muscles are just for show, then?”

Ethan covered his arms. “Hey, don’t judge my physical fitness. We’re in church aren’t we? I think I saw a sign in the parking lot saying, ‘No Judging Allowed.’”

I laughed. “You’re going to need that rule,” I said. “Once they find out the truth about you, they’ll be forced to keep you.”

Ethan looked at me curiously. “You know, I don’t think I’ve seen you laugh before.”

My face instantly turned red. Thankfully, night had already started to fall, so it wasn’t like anyone could see. Why did I react like this? Maybe it was because I didn’t like people pointing out things like that. It bothered me that I hadn’t laughed in someone’s presence before so they had to point it out.

“I laugh sometimes, you know,” I said, trying to cover my embarrassment.

Ethan shrugged. “I guess.”

A tall young man approached us from the darkness. “Welcome to Lighthouse,” he said, reaching out to give us both hugs. I stiffened when he put his arm around me. Old habit, I guess.

“They really need to fix those lights,” he said, shaking his head. “Oh! I never introduced myself. My name is Alex, and I’m going to be the new youth pastor here.”

“If you’re new, then that makes two of us.” Ethan pointed to me. “I’m only tagging along with Emma because she’s helping me get some community service hours.”

“Otherwise, you’d have nothing to do with church, yes, I understand.” Alex didn’t seem to notice Ethan’s squirm. “And you’re here because your dad is the missions director and he forces you to come to keep up appearances. Or is it you that’s keeping up appearances? I can’t tell.”

I didn’t reply. Who did this guy think he was? And why was he so infuriatingly correct in his analyses?

“Look, not trying to get off on the wrong foot, but I figure if you know that I know, then we can steamroll into the deep parts.” Alex pointed up the stairs. “You two want to come inside? I can tell you everything you need to know about me to break the ice, if you want.”

“You’re very good, you know,” Ethan said. “I suddenly feel like I can spill all of my dark secrets to you.”

Alex laughed. “If your sarcasm was a knife, it’d be cutting me right now.” He turned and headed up the stairs. “Ya’ll coming or not?”

Not sure that was really a question. So, we followed him up the stairs.

“Are all Christians like this?” Ethan asked.

“I don’t think this is a ‘Christian’ thing. I think Alex is unique.” I wondered what his wife was going to be like – either the complete opposite, or the spitting image. I wasn’t sure which one was more frightening.

The youth room was pretty empty, which was surprising.

“I’ve been getting a lot of calls from parents,” Alex said when they passed through the door. “They all want to meet with me this week to see if I’m going to be a good fit for their kids.” He led them to a round table in the center of the room.

“Where’s your brother?” He asked me.

I shrugged.

“Not your brother’s keeper, huh?” Alex turned to Ethan. “So, what about you? You ever thought about becoming a Christian?”

“Uh, no, I haven’t.” Ethan crossed his arms. “I’m just here to get some community service hours, remember?”

“Oh, we’ll get to that. Just have to go through these questions – obligations of working at a church, you know?”

The door opened and a young woman walked through the door. When she saw us, she smiled, and she looked like the female version of Alex.

“Hey,” she said, sitting down next to him.

“Beth, this is Emma and Ethan. Emma is Carlos’ daughter and Ethan’s a school friend trying to get some community service hours.”

“It’s nice to meet you both,” she said, giving us both hugs. This time, I was more prepared, so it wasn’t as uncomfortable. “You’re the first students we’ve actually met today, so that’s exciting. Are there usually more kids here?”

And that’s when I realized that Beth was exclusively addressing me. Ethan had no idea what the Friday group was usually like – he didn’t know what the Sunday group was like, either. This was something that only I knew, and they were waiting for my answer.

I felt the fear start to rise. This was the last step and I was about to miss it.

“Um, yes, there are more kids. But I don’t really…” My voice trailed off.

“How long have you been coming here?” Alex asked.

“A few years,” I said. “But I don’t really spend much time with the kids. They’re all a bit younger, and so it’s hard to, you know…” This was getting more uncomfortable by the minute. I was sure they’d figure out that I didn’t have a clue about any of these kids. And, if they kept digging, they would see that I secretly hated every last one of those kids.

“Well, that’s going to change soon,” Alex said. “We’re going to start putting the word out that there’s a new youth pastor, and all of the kids will be back.”

I shook my head.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Beth asked. Coming from anyone else, it would’ve seemed defensive, or even annoyed. But I could tell that Beth meant no harm. She just wanted to know. So, it was my obligation to tell her.

“You’ll be the fifth youth pastor in the three years I’ve been coming here,” I said, pointing to Alex. “The last guy they had here, Jerry, he kinda made sure that no one would ever give anyone else a chance.”

“He was that bad, huh.” Alex sighed. “I can’t compete against a ghost, so I won’t try. We’ll just have to show them that we’re different, right, Beth?”

I didn’t really hear much else of what Alex said that night. I was stuck on that one phrase: I can’t compete with a ghost, so I won’t try. There is always a ghost in your life – that one person who leaves but never really leaves your life.

I wondered about my ghost. I had already tried getting rid of it – that’s what the whole driving into the ditch thing had been about. But I couldn’t compete with it. So why was I continuing to try? Could I decide, like Alex, that I wasn’t going to try?

The night eventually drew to a close. Ethan filled out his community service forms and talked with Alex for most of the time. Beth sat with me and tried to pick my brain, but I was lost in thought, so I didn’t say much. I was thinking about my ghost and wondering if he was doing anything right now.

And even though it was highly unlikely, I wondered if maybe for a second, he was thinking about me.

 

I think it was a Wednesday. I hadn’t slept well that night – too much tossing and turning thinking about things – so I didn’t have enough time for breakfast before getting on the bus. When lunchtime eventually rolled around, I knew that I had to eat. The Study Club would have to wait. Besides, it’d be all right. There wasn’t really much for me to do, anyway, beside showing up. That seemed to do the trick. One day gone wouldn’t hurt.

But when I stepped into the cafeteria, I realized that I was wrong. The cafeteria was very crowded that day, and something about the amount of people brought back a terrible memory.

I was in seventh grade, and the final bell had just rung. Everyone was pushing out of the classroom door and someone had wormed their way behind me. I could feel them breathing behind me, and I knew that it was him, the ghost. But when I turned around, no one was there. He had come and gone.

When I stepped into the cafeteria that day, I could feel his breath – but then I turned around, and he wasn’t there. I didn’t eat anything that day. I didn’t show up to the Study Club. In fact, I didn’t show up to any of my other classes. I found a bathroom in a far-off hallway and hid in it until the final bell rang.

Funny how something that happened when you were in seventh grade could still terrify you now as much as it had all those years ago.

 

It wasn’t until a few days later – Saturday, actually – that Dad found out about my ditching classes. He called me into his room that morning after Mom had gone to work. I suspected what it was all about, but I had to act dumb. You’ve gotta let them think they have the first move, because then you won’t say anything you’re not supposed to say.

“Do you want to tell me what this is about, Crash?”

“What, can’t a father talk to his daughter without it being trouble?” I asked, repeating a sentiment he had shared with me earlier. But Dad wasn’t seeing the humor in it.

“Crash, can you just tell me what you did?”

“I’m not five anymore, Dad,” I said. “If I’m going to get in trouble, can you tell me?” It probably wasn’t nice, but I was getting tired of this.

“You didn’t show up to half of your classes yesterday.”

Hmm. Now how did he figure that one out?

“Who told you?” I actually didn’t care, but I wondered which of the teachers had chosen to snitch on me. When I found out, I wasn’t going to do their homework this weekend. It was the lousiest kind of revenge, because it wouldn’t touch them, but it’d hurt me. I guess that’s what all revenge is like, though, isn’t it?

“Your teacher Mr. Alvarez is the one who called me. He told me that he was the one who got you involved in the Study Club.”

And just like that, all of my anger was gone. Mr. Alvarez hadn’t meant any harm. He had probably just checked up with the other teachers to see if I was all right. He was the only one who actually seemed to care about any of us. If he had called Dad, then I didn’t care.

“Yeah, he is. Um, I didn’t go to class because I couldn’t.”

“That’s pretty vague, Crash.”

“Well, it had to do with…” I trailed off. I had the choice. I could lie right now or I could tell him the truth. Dad deserved to know, didn’t he? He was the one who had broken his back trying to save me. If I could just tell him why I had done it, then maybe things would get better around here.

But I couldn’t say it. Instead, I told him the first lie that came to mind.

“It was, uh, girl stuff,” I said slowly. I hoped that was enough to sway him. Turned out, it was.

“Oh,” he said. “Why didn’t you say so from the start?”

Dad smiled and shook his head. “Don’t go turning into that brother of yours,” he said. “That boy is going to give me a heart attack one of these days.”

“Starting to wonder why you even had kids, huh? Who knew they’d be such a safety hazard?”

“I’ve always known about you, Emma. You’ve always been Crash to me, even before you took your first step – or should I say, stumble.” He laughed and I laughed with him. It felt good to be laughing with him again.

 

I saw Ethan on Sunday. He was coming regularly now, to volunteer. Alex had put us with the five-year olds.

“I didn’t know I had signed up for torture,” Ethan said to me under his breath as we walked to the elementary school building.

“So not only do you want nothing to do with God, you also hate kids.” I raised my eyebrows. “I’m starting to think that bringing you here was a mistake.”

“Oh, there’s a lot more where that came from,” Ethan said. “What was it you said before? If they found out everything about me, they’d throw me out.”

“Yeah, I didn’t say that, but I think I agree.”

“Does your aunt work with the kids in that building?” He asked suddenly. I looked at him. Why did he want to know? Did he want another crushing hug?

“Look, I just want to ask her a question, that’s all,” he said quickly.

“That’s all, huh?” I said. Putting the pressure on him was fun.

“You got something to say? You’re lucky I’m not asking you about this week, and why you ditched us.”

I didn’t say anything. There was that word again, coming back to haunt me. An image of Dad’s mangled body flashed in my mind. They let me see him in the hospital, although now I think they shouldn’t have.

But I didn’t want to talk about this, especially not now. We were about to go help some little kids learn about Noah – I didn’t want to think about why I hadn’t shown up to the Study Club for the past few days.

“Don’t think I don’t appreciate you helping me out here,” Ethan continued, “but your duty is to the Study Club. You took an oath, Emma, and you’ve gotta uphold your end of the deal.”

“I didn’t make any oaths,” I said. “I told Mr. Alvarez I’d try it, and I’m trying it.”

“Yes, you’re trying it for several months,” Ethan said. “Well, you may have Mr. A fooled, but I’m not. You’re in this thing until it gets hard, and then you’re gone.”

I looked away from him. Why is it that everyone else seemed to know me and my motivations better than I knew them myself?

“I’m not going to just let you leave,” he said when we reached the children’s building. “You’re helping me now, so I’m going to help you in return. Whatever you need to keep showing up to the Study Club, I’ll make sure you have it.”

“Why?” I asked abruptly. It just didn’t make any sense. I mean, I didn’t even really spend much time with Ethan. Our conversations were so surface, they were practically a desert.

“Because I see Michael in you,” he said, lowering his voice. “And I made a mistake with Michael that I won’t make with you. Besides, that’s what friends are for, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t know we were friends,” I said.

Ethan grabbed the door of the children’s building and started banging his head against it.

 

It took all of my strength to wrestle a pair of scissors from Jimmy, this little five-year-old with all the energy of an over caffeinated teenager. Ethan was busy collecting up all the glue – Sophie had decided that she wanted to cover every inch of her skin with the white stuff.

“It’ll peel off when it’s dry!” She was showing the other kids the wonder of science and starting a movement.

“This is a madhouse,” I said when I caught Ethan’s eye. “Did you get all of the glue?”

He held up two boxes filled with bottles. “Noah’s gonna have to get on his boat without those animals,” Ethan said, pointing to the craft project we’d been working on. The kids had to cut out and glue three pairs of animals that they wanted to go on the boat.

“Whoever designed this lesson had never met Jimmy,” I said.

“Or Sophie,” Ethan said, setting the box of glue on a high shelf. “Now, you want to help me wrangle these kids, or is that gonna have to be my job?”

Alex wandered into the classroom as all of the kids were leaving. Ethan and I had already cleaned up the room – not one piece of evidence remained of Sophie’s scientific revolution.

“How’s it going, you two?” He asked, smiling at parents as they checked out their kids.

“We survived,” I said, “if that’s what you mean.”

“Just you wait,” Ethan said to Alex. “In a few years, Grace will be old enough to use glue and then the world will come to an end.”

I looked at Ethan. “Who is Grace?”

“Oh, Grace is my daughter,” Alex said. “She’s about a year and a half now.”

“You’ve never met the little one?” Ethan asked. “Oh, that’s right, I saw her when I went to talk to your aunt today.”

He had spoken to Aunt Mackenzie? I wondered what they could possibly have to talk about. I mean, they had only seen each other once.

But I didn’t really have to wonder for very long. Aunt Mackenzie came into my room that evening as I was preparing for school.

“Hey there, Em,” she said, throwing herself on my bed. “Did you have a nice weekend?”

“Well, if you call getting into a wrestling match with a five-year-old ‘nice’, then I guess so.”

“Things have kinda quieted down around here,” Aunt Mackenzie observed. “Your dad and James haven’t fought in, what, two whole hours?”

“Shocking, isn’t it?” I sat down on the bed next to her. “Do you think James is coming to his senses? Or is he just buying his time?”

“Staying out of the spotlight is definitely his best bet. You just be careful with that kid – he might just turn the spotlight off of himself by turning it to something else.”

“Something like me?” I asked.

Aunt Mackenzie didn’t answer. Instead, she changed the subject. “Your friend Ethan talked to me today.”

Now it was my turn not to answer.

“He told me that he was a bit concerned about you.”

“Concerned about me? Aunt Mackenzie, Ethan doesn’t know anything about me.”

“Ethan spoke to me about his friend, the one that killed himself -”

“Michael.”

“Yes, he spoke to me about Michael. And he told me that he was worried about you.” Aunt Mackenzie took a deep breath. “He thinks you might be depressed.”

“I’m not,” I said quickly.

“You know, when I found out about your accident, when I figured out that it wasn’t really an accident, I was supportive. I wanted to help you get back on your feet. But your parents insisted that nothing was wrong. They said they were praying for you, and that was enough.”

“Dad’s wrong, you know.”

“He’s not wrong that prayer is enough,” Aunt Mackenzie said, “but he was wrong when he said that there wasn’t anything wrong with you.”

I wouldn’t look at her. What was she doing to me? Was this her idea of an intervention? Is that what she and Ethan were playing at?

“Look, I know that you’ve changed, Em, and I know that things are looking up, but it’s not all gone. You can’t just move on from something like a suicide attempt without any lingering side effects.”

“I’m not depressed, Aunt Mackenzie. I might be a little lonely, but that’s nothing new. I’m not gonna try it again, if that’s what you think.”

“That’s not what this is about. This is about making sure that my niece is okay.”

“Well, you’ve made sure. I’m okay. And I’m making progress. Can’t that just be enough for you?”

I wished I hadn’t said it. But the look on Aunt Mackenzie’s face as she left my room said that she was hurt. In times like this, I wish I could cut out my own tongue – knowing me, though, I’d just figure out another way to ruin everything.

 

It seemed like my life was split into three parts: home, school, and church. I didn’t really do much else, but for now, that was okay. At school, I was spending more time with the Study Club.

Karen wasn’t very interested in schoolwork, but she showed up for Seth.

I don’t think he was very interested in her, though. Whenever she tried flirting with him, he seemed to be totally clueless. And then, he’d suddenly decide that he wanted to play around when she was least expecting it.

So, it was a little annoying, to say the least.

Ethan seemed to be doing all right. He never really needed my help with schoolwork – it was mostly the community service thing. And the fact that he seemed to have made me into a little project.

“Are you all right today?” He would ask when I saw him.

It would’ve been sweet if I hadn’t been so annoyed with it by now. Whatever Aunt Mackenzie had told him, he seemed to believe it. I think he genuinely thought I was in trouble and needed his help. So, I let him think that, but I knew it’d grow old fast. He’d forget, just like he had gotten over Michael, and things would go back to normal.

What was normal though? Not so sure I ever had a normal. Normal for me was spending lunch alone in a cafeteria, wishing some randoms would come over, and when they did, wishing that they would stay away.

Now, normal was helping people with their homework. It sounded incredibly mundane, and by rights, it was mundane. But it was what I needed. Every day, slowly by slowly, I could feel it slightly getting better.

With every movement that Dad regained back, with every step he was almost ready to take, I knew that things were changing for me. It would take a while, but things would get better. I knew they would.

 

I usually slept in on Saturdays, but this morning, Aunt Mackenzie opened my door at around 8:15 am.

“You have a call,” she said, “from Elizabeth.”

I covered my eyes to shield the light from the day. “Elizabeth?”

“You know, the youth pastor’s wife.”

Oh. Beth. I should’ve known her real name was Elizabeth.

I pushed back my blanket. “She doesn’t have my number yet,” I said. I hadn’t been in the habit of giving out my phone number, although I do remember her asking. I just hadn’t gotten around to it.

Aunt Mackenzie handed me her cell phone. “Bring it to the kitchen when you’re done,” she said, and then she left the room.

I put the phone to my ear. “Hello?”

“Good morning, Emma!” Yep. That was Beth. Way too cheerful for a Saturday morning.

“Hi,” I said again.

“Did I wake you? I’m sorry if I did, I didn’t have your number or I would’ve texted you.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. And you did wake me, but that’s fine.”

I waited for a second for her to start.

“Well, I was calling because I wanted to see if you wanted to come with me around town. I’m doing a few errands today while Alex watches Grace, and I thought I could use some company.”

Hmm, did that sound like something I wanted to do? I wasn’t even sure. I mean, Beth was fine, but if I went with her alone, then we’d have to talk, and that might get a little bit much after a while. But if it was just Beth, then I wouldn’t have to worry if I was making anyone else uncomfortable by not talking – Beth already knew and accepted my non-communicative ways.

“Yes,” I said before I could think better if it.

“I can get to your aunt’s house in ten minutes.”

Beth was there in five.

She drove a blue minivan, which I should have guessed. I’m not sure I’ve sat in the front of a minivan before.

“Hey, Emma,” she said when I climbed into the vehicle. “You ready to run some errands?”

“I guess.”

A pause.

“Can you drive?” Beth asked.

“Uh, yeah.”

So, no one had told her, I thought.

Beth did most of the talking at first.

“I need to go to the bank first and then to BJ’s to pick up a few things for Sunday.” She waved a passing car forward. “Then, we can go get something to eat, so think about what you want.”

Yep, that was Beth. She was about as guarded as her husband Alex, which meant not guarded at all.

“Okay,” I said. A comfortable silence fell over the car. It smelled of baby poop. I didn’t say it, though. From all the tree air fresheners open and hanging from the rearview mirror, I could tell that Beth had tried to cover it up.

“What are your plans for today?” Beth asked.

“Nothing much, I replied. “Maybe help Dad with some things around the house.”

“How’s it going with him?”

“Dad? Oh, he’s getting better.”

“What’s it like having him around all the time?”

“A little weird, to be honest. I think he’s getting cabin fever.”

Beth steered the car into the Chase parking lot.

“Actually, I’m gonna do the drive through, so we don’t have to get out.” Beth glanced at me.

“What about your brother James? We met him last Friday. How’s he doing?”

“Okay, I guess.” I didn’t really know how James was doing. He and I had as little conversations together possible. But I was sure he wasn’t okay.

“He’s staying out late,” I said. “I know he has a girlfriend, but my parents still don’t know.”

“When are you going to tell them?” Beth reached out of the window to work the ATM. When I didn’t answer, she said: “You are going to tell them, right?”

“I don’t know. James is a pain, but I’m not their messenger.” I swallowed. “If they haven’t found out by now, then I’m not gonna say anything.”

“Isn’t that wrong, Emma?” Beth had finished her transaction and was waiting for a receipt. I didn’t look at her, instead focusing on my hands. They wiggled, intertwined, then unfurled.

“You don’t understand,” I said, finally. “If they can’t see it then there’s no pointing it out.” Maybe it was a bad attitude and maybe it was a bit more about me and less about James. Was I still upset that they hadn’t figured out what was wrong with me when they were the ones who were supposed to care?

Beth didn’t say anything, so I didn’t either. We sat like that, choking on the sickly-sweet combination of lemon air freshener and the baby poop it was supposed to be covering. It wasn’t doing a good job.

“Right over there,” Beth said, pointing out the window. I looked to where she was indicating. We were on the highway now, and she was pointing to a string of houses along a small body of water.

“That’s where I used to live,” she said, turning back to the road. She sighed. “It just reminds me how fast time moves, you know?”

I didn’t respond.

“So, let me tell you why Alex and I took this job.”

When I didn’t protest, she continued.

“I don’t like teenagers,” Beth said matter of factly. “They’re very selfish, complain all the time, and they hate responsibility. At first, I used to think it was just them, but then I had a baby and I saw that Grace was just like them. And then I started hanging around adults my age and I noticed that a lot of them were like that, too.

“That’s when I realized, Emma, that it wasn’t teenagers that I hated – it was people. They were messy and irresponsible and they ruined everything they came in contact with.”

“But why would that make you want to work with them?” A realization like that would drive me about as far away as I already was.

“Well because then I saw that I was the same way. I only cared about myself and getting my own way. But God saved me.”

Oh. I’d almost forgotten she was telling me why Alex became a youth pastor. Of course God had saved her.

Beth must’ve noticed something because she looked at me. And then she summed up my life perfectly in one ominous sentence: “You say you’re a Christian, but God doesn’t have anything to do with your life, does he?”

I wanted to let silence take over – it was my normal defense mechanism – but Beth didn’t let me.

“Tell me the truth – you just show up because of your parents, but you don’t actually want to be here.”

“I don’t want to be here,” I said, “but I don’t come because they make me.”

“So why do you come then?” We were in the BJ’s parking lot now, but we weren’t getting out. Was now the time? I asked myself. Was Beth the person that I tell?

“The accident that put my Dad in that wheelchair was my fault,” I said. “I think that by coming to church, maybe I can get to know God and then maybe I can ask him to forgive me.”

Beth put her hand on my shoulder. “You don’t have to wait, you know,” she said. “You’ve heard all of this before: you can just ask God to forgive you now and he will.”

Of course she would say it. That’s what everyone would say. But that’s just not the way it worked. I had already asked God to forgive me – I’d asked him a billion times. But the guilt was still there, so I was sure it hadn’t worked.

But I would keep trying. I wouldn’t stop until I figured out a way to convince him that I had changed and that I was worth forgiving.

 

I tried avoiding Beth the next day, which was kinda hard considering her kid was staying in the nursery. That and the fact that she and her husband were the ones in charge of me and Ethan. But when I finally did managed to see her after dodging from the car to the building and then hiding whenever she came around, she wasn’t upset.

“Good morning, Emma,” said Beth, pulling me into a hug. She was doing that more often, and it was slowly starting to become a little less uncomfortable. I guess that’s what happens with exposure.

Ethan playfully pulled me away from her. “What’s this, Beth? Don’t I get a hug?”

“Not so fast, son,” Alex said, pulling Ethan away from his wife. “Only one man gets a hug from Beth – and that man is me.” He stepped into Beth’s arms and gave Ethan a pretend menacing look.

“You can’t have all the girls in here, Ethan,” he said.

“Man, you figured me out,” said Ethan. “Thanks for the help, but it’s time for me to get moving.”

“You came here to pick up girls?” Beth asked. “Couldn’t you do that at school? Or are there no good-looking girls at school?”

“Oh no, I’ve already picked up all the girls at school,” Ethan said, leaning against the wall. “I’ve decided that I needed to check out greener pastures.”

“Wow, Ethan, you’re so gross,” I said, trying to hold back a laugh.

“Yeah, you think so?” He gave me a light shove. “You think I don’t see the way you look at Seth? What is it about him that’s got you hooked? Is it his height? His dreamy eyes?”

“No, it’s definitely not any of those,” I said. “And I don’t have eyes for that guy. Karen has enough for the both of us.”

A wad of tissue flew through the hallway and hit me in the face.

“What on earth?”

I looked up – it was Jimmy, the boy who had been messing with the scissors a few weeks ago.

“I made a paper plane, Ms. Emma,” he said, picking up the tissue he’d launched at me. When I saw his bright smile of pride as he lifted the paper and held it up to my face, I couldn’t say what was on my mind: that thing was something, but it definitely wasn’t a paper plane.

But instead, I stooped down to his height and touched the airplane. “Man, Jimmy, that’s a really nice airplane. Can I look at it?”

He thrust it into my hands and smiled up at Ethan. “Did you see my plane, Mr. Ethan?”

“Oh, yeah, that plane is amazing. You are thinking of becoming a pilot when you get older?”

“A pilot?” Jimmy turned the question over in his mind about as many times as I turned the plane over in my hands before handing it back to him. “No, I think I want to be an astronaut.”

“Well, this plane is really top-notch stuff,” said Ethan. He turned to me. “What do you think, Ms. Emma? Do you think NASA will accept someone with this much talent?”

I stood up. “Definitely.” Jimmy smiled and hurried into the classroom, showing all the other kids – and anyone who would listen – that he was going to be an astronaut.

Later that afternoon, when I was waiting with Ethan for his mom to pick him up, I thanked him.

“You know, for what you said to Jimmy.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it.”

“No, I mean it. Jimmy hasn’t really listened to me much since the whole scissor incident. But today, thanks to you, he was the most attentive in that whole class.”

“Don’t sweat it,” said Ethan. “You know, when Kyle was little, he used to want to be a pilot. I thought that maybe Jimmy did, too.”

“Well, you were close. Unless, of course, NASA shuts down space travel before he gets through college.”

“Hey, I didn’t know you knew about conspiracy theories!”

“And I didn’t know that you believed them.”

“What’s the phrase? The world is going to hell in a handbasket. Why should I be surprised if the government is helping it along?”

I laughed.

“Anyway, I wanted to say thank you for helping me do these community service hours,” said Ethan. “If I hadn’t asked, then I probably wouldn’t have found another way to complete them. And then I wouldn’t have been able to get any scholarships for college.”

“Oh, I’m sure you would’ve been able to figure out some way.”

“So, what are you studying in college?”

“Not so sure,  to be honest. Actually, I don’t think much about college.”

“That’s not surprising. I don’t think anyone in this school will go to college. They’ll just end up going to Dade with all the rest of their friends.”

“What did you want to be, growing up?”

“Um, I’m not so sure, I said. I didn’t really spend too much time thinking about the future.”

“That’s cool, I guess. Not everyone has their lives planned out, but sometimes it’s nice to have an idea.”

“What about you, then? What are your plans for the future?”

“Well, I’d really like to be a studio musician. The whole touring thing is just not appealing to me.”

“I didn’t know you were an instrument.”

“Oh, I’m like a musical prodigy. O play almost every single instrument this school has.”

“When we come on Friday, you should bring one of your instruments. I’m sure Alex will be very pleased.”

“Yeah, that guy will be pleased with pretty much anything I do. I’ve got that guy wrapped around my finger.”

“Hey, Alex is actually a pretty nice guy.”

“You know, I was surprised, too.  I thought that all church people just wanted to judge me and try to fix my life. Turns out, there are at least three people who aren’t like that.”

“Let me guess – I’m not one of them.”

“You know yourself too well, Emma.”

 

Mr. Alvarez was in the room when I entered the Study Club one afternoon. I guess I was a bit early. He was fiddling with the lock on the wooden cabinet. I cleared my throat so he knew that I was inside.

“Oh!” He said, startled.

“I had hoped to avoid startling you, but it didn’t work,” I said.

“Well, you’re just here a little early. I was, uh, putting away some things,” he said. And then he started to dash off, but I stopped him.

“Mr. Alvarez, I just wanted to thank you.”

“Uh, thank me?”

“Yes, for inviting me to the Study Club. I’ve learned a lot so far, and I wanted to say thank you.”

“I’ve seen a change in you, Emma, and it’s a good change. If I helped that along one bit, you are most welcome.”

Ethan and Karen came in, and Mr. Alvarez made his escape.

“What’s his deal?” Ethan asked.

“Not so sure,” I said. “He was messing with the cabinet when I came in.”

“Why is he always working on that thing?” Karen asked. “And why does it have a lock? If it was so important, then why even keep it in this classroom?”

“Yeah, because Homestead High is full of criminals that’ll clean you of house and home if you let them.”

“Come on, Ethan, let’s see what’s inside.”

I took a seat. “Shouldn’t we be getting to work? Don’t you have a science project coming up, Karen?”

“Oh, schoolwork can wait until tonight,” Karen said, brushing my comment aside. She turned to Ethan. “Come on, Ethan, you know you want to find out what’s inside.”

“Of course I do, but we can’t just break into Mr. A’s cabinet. That’s not right.”

“What’s not right?” Seth said, entering the room.

Karen was instantly all over him. “Oh, you’re here Seth, you can help us. We want to find out what’s inside of that cabinet.”

“You want me to break into Alvarez’s cabinet.” Seth glanced at me. “What does Ms. Alfaro think?”

“We should leave him alone.”

“You heard the woman,” Seth said.

“But come on, Seth, don’t you want a challenge?” Karen touched his arm. “You said you were the best lock pick in this entire school. Why don’t you show me if you’re really any good.”

A fire seemed to light in Seth’s eyes. He immediately strode over to the cabinet and began examining the lock. He turned to them.

“This one will be no challenge,” he said. “Alvarez must’ve forgotten to lock the cabinet on his hurry out of here.”

Karen reached for the door.

Seth held up a hand. “I’ll only let you if you promise that whatever you find in there…” He lowered his voice and leaned close to her. “…promise me that whatever you see, you won’t scream.”

Ethan clapped his hands. “And the Oscar goes to…”

Karen didn’t need any other persuasion. She yanked the lock and pulled open the doors.

“That’s it?”

“It’s just got a bunch of junk in it.”

I looked up. The cabinet was filled with electronic parts. They seemed to be part of a larger device, though, because lights were blinking here and there. This wasn’t just a bunch of junk. But I couldn’t figure out what it was, either.

Ethan reached for something that looked vaguely like a remote.

“This thing was probably a remote for a drone,” he said.

“I didn’t know that Mr. Alvarez was an engineer,” I said, turning back to my work. I was desperately afraid that Mr. Alvarez would come into the room and he would see me looking in his cabinet and he’d be disappointed in me. I didn’t need anyone else disappointed in me.

But he didn’t come in. Karen eventually closed the cabinet and we all went back to our work. No one else thought of the cabinet again. But I wondered about what we had just seen. What if that device in Mr. Alvarez’s cabinet was dangerous? It was hiding there in plain sight, and no one would’ve known if he hadn’t made a small mistake.

It reminded me of me. I had been hiding the ghost for so long, and then I had made a mistake and it had gotten out. And then it had done some damage, damage that I couldn’t repair. Although, that wasn’t going to stop me from trying. I wanted to ask Mr. Alvarez about the device in his cabinet, but when he came back at the end of the Study Club, his eyes were red, like he’d been crying. He rushed to the cabinet and checked the lock – Seth had been smart enough to click the lock back into place and wipe it down before they had gone back to work.

Mr. Alvarez didn’t suspect a thing. He wouldn’t look at us but focused on his computer instead.

I didn’t like seeing him like that, so I left without saying a word.

 

The bus was crowded today, which was a surprise. Every single seat was taken and a few kids were sitting three to a seat. It was ridiculous.

“The bus to Naranja broke down in the parking lot,” I overheard someone say. “All those kids are gonna have to fit in here.”

“There’s no way I’m sitting three to a seat, though,” said a girl behind me. “They’re just gonna have to sit with someone else.”

I was sitting next to a sleeping figure. If the kids from the other bus tried to sit here, I’d just try to wake him up. If he didn’t wake – which I knew he wouldn’t – then the person would have to try to convince someone else to let them sit.

I know, I know. Terrible. But I didn’t really feel like having anyone sit next to me today.

After a few minutes of boarding, I noticed James get on the bus with a girl – a different girl. I wondered what happened to the other one. What was her name again? I don’t think I ever got it, now that I thought about it.

“Three to a seat!” The bus driver was yelling from the front. I was far back enough that people weren’t even trying to make me move over.

“Hey, Ms. Alfaro. I didn’t know you rode this bus.” It was Seth and his six foot something self toward over my chair.

“Hi,” I managed. I didn’t want anyone to see me talking to him – I had spent the last three years convincing my fellow bus passengers that I couldn’t speak. If Seth kept it up, my lie would be revealed.

“Can I sit here?” Seth asked.

I didn’t even ask the sleeping guy – I just slid over. The guy was either actually sleeping or he was a superb actor – he didn’t even stir.

Seth wedged half a leg onto the seat and put his arm on the seat to hold himself up.

“Your bus always this packed?” He asked. Most of the kids from his bus had found a seat. Those girls who said they wouldn’t let anyone sit with them had apparently forgotten their many friends from Naranja.

“So, your bus broke down?”

“No, our bus driver is just really dumb,” Seth said. “He just forgot to put gas and no one wants to help him out.”

The bus lurched forward. Seth gripped the seat in front of him and I fought to keep from flying out of the seat myself. The sleeping guy stirred and for a second, I thought he would wake up, but he went right on sleeping.

“Hey, listen, Ms. Alfaro, I think you helping Ethan is really cool. After the whole thing with Michael, Ethan hasn’t been himself. The stuff you’re doing with him at that church seems to be helping.”

“Have you known Ethan for a while?”

Seth nodded. “I’m a veteran in this school, remember. I know everyone and if they know what’s right for them, everyone knows me.”

“I’ve been in this school for three years,” I countered, “and I’ve never seen you once.”

“That’s because you fly under the radar, Ms. Alfaro. There are a few of you in that school – some good, some up to no good – that remain undetected.”

“I guess I have you to thank for putting me on the radar, then.”

“Blame Mr. A. He’s the one that got you to take over once Michael kicked the bucket.”

I felt my face go cold. It’s weird how your body reacts like that.

“Oh no I didn’t mean it in a bad way,” Seth said hurriedly. “That’s just me and my careless mouth. I’m real sorry that Michael died – I really am – and I wish I could’ve done something, you know?”

“Don’t we all,” I said. It was okay, I wanted to say. I know you weren’t trying to be insensitive.

Seth looked at me curiously. “Why did you say that?”

“Why did I say what?”

“You said: ‘Don’t we all’.”

“Is there something wrong with that?”

“No, it’s just…” Seth trailed off.

I tried to wrack my brain to see if I had ever heard anyone say that phrase but I came up blank.

“Oh yes, I remember.” Seth snapped his fingers. “I remember who I heard say it.”

I waited for him to tell me, but he didn’t. Instead, Seth gave me a weird look when he guessed what I was thinking.

“Oh, no,” he said, “it wasn’t anyone that you would know. One of those under the radar types.”

We rode the rest of the bus ride in silence. It wasn’t a bad silence, but it definitely wasn’t a comfortable one. It wasn’t anything on my end, though – Seth was lost in thought for what appeared to be the first time in his entire life.

The bus pulled up to a Naranja neighborhood. Seth stood up.

“Thanks for the seat, Ms. Alfaro,” he said, sliding his bookbag onto his back. “See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah.”

That night, I went to bed early. Our conversation on the bus was normal. We both talked and it wasn’t weird at all. But something about it hadn’t felt right.

As I turned the conversation over in my mind, I tried to figure out what it was. A cold feeling was settling in my stomach. The night was starting to spread in front of me, stretching on and on, never ending, mirroring the darkness filling my soul.

But why? It didn’t make any sense. There wasn’t anything wrong. I was doing well in school. The Study Club was going well. I was getting along pretty well with Ethan and Karen and now even Seth.

And that’s when I remembered.

“Don’t we all.” It was a saying I’d heard many times before, somewhere deep in my past. But the voice that I heard saying it was one that I’d never forgotten.

And to hear that it belonged to someone who haunted the outskirts of Homestead High didn’t surprise me.

After all, the voice belonged to my ghost. That’s why I was feeling this way. I subconsciously was reacting to the knowledge of his proximity.

I closed my eyes and tried to quiet my mind. I needed to go to sleep – stay asleep – I couldn’t think about this.

But even as I wished myself to sleep, it wouldn’t come. When I finally did drift off, it was to the sound of a ghost passing through my body, asking me if I had forgotten him already.

 

Loud voices broke through the darkness, same as they always did. Except this time, I didn’t wake up the same as usual. This time, I woke up with a dread I hadn’t felt in ages. It was the feeling of knowing something horrible was on its way, but not knowing what it was. The knowledge that the ghost was anywhere near me – that he was currently in my school – brought that fear right up to my throat.

The only thing that could chase it down were the words drifting up the stairs. I crept to the hallway to hear better, but I should’ve already known what was happening.

James had come in late again. I think that this was the last straw for Dad. The voices from the living room were taking over the house. And they weren’t the usual voices – these were angry and hurt and they were escalating quickly. I didn’t want anything to do with them. I fled to my room, but that wasn’t enough. A few minutes later, James was in my room, face red with anger.

“Isn’t it so ridiculous? Dad is bugging out.”

“Stop, James,” I said. “I don’t want to hear any of it.”

“Emma, I’m just trying to talk about this -”

“I don’t care what you do anymore, James. I don’t care that you keep staying out late or whatever it is that you’re doing all the time. You want to ruin your life, then ruin it.”

“Well, I’m not the one who didn’t want to live anymore,” James said. “It’s not my fault that Dad’s like this: it’s yours, Emma. At least I’m trying to do something about this nonsense – you were just too busy creating it.”

“Why do you think I drove off that night? Or can’t you remember?” I could feel the heat rising with my voice as I formulated a lie. “You and Dad were in the middle of a fight and I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

“What? I don’t remember -”

“I did it because of you, James. So, I don’t care right now, if you stay or if you leave. You’ve ruined my life once already, James. I’m not going to let you do it again.”

His face fell. Whatever anger he may have had toward Dad and this whole situation was gone – now he was just hurt and confused, and it was against me. I had turned this thing about me again, same as always. I tried to take it back.

“James, I’m sorry, that was wrong, I didn’t mean that -”

But James was gone. I felt the tears coming, but I held them back. I didn’t have a right to cry. If anyone did, it was James. I had said those things, but they weren’t true. He and Dad hadn’t gotten into an argument, but it had felt good to lie. I regretted it instantly, but it’s one of those things that you just can’t take back.

I went to his room to try to apologize again, but he was gone.

“James?” I called out as I ran down the stairs. I had barely made it to the bottom when I heard Dad’s voice from the living room.

“Don’t go, James,” he was saying. “You don’t have to do this. You can stay here. We can make this work.”

“I’m leaving,” James said, “and you can’t stop me.”

Dad froze. “James…”

“I told you, I’m leaving! I can’t stand it here. How am I supposed to live like this?”

“James, you’re just a kid -”

“You think that because I’m a kid then you can just treat me however you want, but that’s not true.” James put his hand on the door. “I’m leaving.”

“Please don’t leave, James.”

“I’ll never have peace if I stay here. I’m done with this place.”

And then, he was gone.