It’s on a Tuesday, the tenth week of school, that I officially decide that I want to disappear. Mr. Alvarez is passing out the study guide for our first vocab test. The volume level is going up as students receive the stapled stack of papers and realize that we have more words to study for than they remembered. I don’t hear them, though. I just feel my phone vibrate in my pocket three times in a row, and I suddenly wish that I didn’t exist. Eloisa is sitting next to me but she doesn’t notice that I’m just staring at the paper and not doing anything.

She’s rambling on about something. “But then I asked him if he wanted to talk about it more, we could FaceTime, but then he got all weird and said he had to go to sleep, but then in the morning he texted me but I haven’t responded because I don’t wanna deal with that are you even listening to me Emma?”

I blinked and looked at her. “Yeah, Eloisa, why do you even talk to this guy?”

“You know it’s not that easy to stop talking to him,” Eloisa continued, lowering her voice so Mr. Alvarez wouldn’t notice.

That was enough to convince her I was listening and she plunged headfirst into a discussion on all the boys that were attracted to her and which ones she could and could not stop talking to. I made sure to nod every once in a while, just to have something else to do. My mind was doing all it could to keep me from pulling out my phone and reading the texts I’d received. But I couldn’t get my phone taken away from me.

Normal parents would be angry and would go get their child’s phone because it was really their phone and how could the school have the audacity to take their property? Not my Mom. Or at least, not anymore. Back three years ago, when Amanda went to Evergreen, Mom would come get her phone all the time. But then during Amanda’s senior year, when everything happened, Mom refused to get it anymore. One by one, Amanda got all of her friends to lend them her phones, and one by one, teachers would confiscate the phones. Mom called Amanda’s friends cowards because they couldn’t stand up to a five foot four and a half girl with just enough meat on her bones to keep her from being underweight.

But I knew what it really was to be under Amanda’s spell. When she wanted something, you couldn’t say no to her. She knew the right words to say to get you to do what she wanted. And none of it was inherently bad. It was just a bit inconveniencing, and besides, if you didn’t do what she asked, you felt like such a selfish, terrible person.

Maybe that was why I ended up hanging out with Eloisa. She and Amanda were so alike, it’s almost unbelievable. I mean, here I was, listening to a story about one of her many annoying guy friends and telling her all the things she wanted to hear, which is exactly what I used to do with Amanda.

Mr. Alvarez’s voice cut through the thoughts in my head. He was trying to get our attention to explain the study guide. Eloisa dropped her voice to a mumble and kept droning on and on. I tried not to listen to her. I didn’t want to get in trouble for talking with her again. One detention that I didn’t deserve was enough to know I never wanted to get one that I deserved, either.

“I want you to use the study guide,” Mr. Alvarez was saying, “because you guys have been doing pretty poorly on the quizzes. It’s almost like you’re not even looking at the words that I’m giving you each week.”

A couple of kids laughed knowingly. I scribbled my name on the top of my study guide. This is how it was going to go: I would do my study guide in the gaps between Mr. Alvarez’s sentences before class was over. Eloisa would ask me for help on every single word and basically copy me by getting me to give her all the answers. Then, I’d give the study guide to Alexander because he asked, and then he’d give it to David and then the day before it was due, it’d get back to me. I would be nervous the whole entire time because then I’d have to get it back from David and even though we talked a bit over the summer, he pretty much acts like he has no idea who I am. Eloisa thinks it’s because online, I look and act differently than in real life. I just don’t know if David is really smart enough to make that distinction.

“If you need any help with this assignment,” Mr. Alvarez continued, oblivious to the real conversation going on in my head, “I have a study club that meets here every Thursday during lunch.”

I’d heard about that club. Ethan used to go there. He would leave me every Thursday during lunch to go hang out with his friends over there. I don’t know why I never went with him. Maybe because I didn’t want to seem like an annoying fan girl who follows him around everywhere he went. I mean, what would that look like if I was always going wherever he went? We were friends, but we weren’t any more than that, even if everyone was always whispering stuff behind our backs.

Like when I first moved to Miami, Ethan had just moved there, too. We weren’t the only two new kids in all of our classes, but we gravitated toward each other. Maybe it was the fact that his parents used to take him to church and mine still did, so we understood what it was like to not be able to do everything that everyone else did.

Or maybe it was because he wasn’t particularly good looking compared to what everyone thought was good looking nowadays, and I can say with certainty that I wasn’t, either. In a school as shallow as Evergreen High, that was all that mattered. Honestly, I don’t even know why Eloisa still hangs around me. I mean, she’s probably the prettiest girl in our entire grade – that’s why she has all those guys texting her and confessing their undying love to her.

And that brings me back to the reason why I wanted to disappear. I had never done anything like that before, but I honestly had no other choice. I texted Ethan before school started, because I knew it would take him a long time to respond. He never checks his phone in morning because he’s too busy fixing his hair or whatever else he spends his time on. I know pretty much everything about him, but I don’t think I know why he doesn’t get to his text messages until we get to school. Unless it’s because I text him too much and he just doesn’t want to respond to my texts until a little later.

Next thing you know, my study guide is filling with answers, and I’m helping Eloisa by telling her all the answers. And then Alexander is hovering near and I know he wants my book because why would someone like him deign to talk to someone like me? I’m thinking about not giving him the answers, just because I feel tired of being the same way, of being bowled over and giving in just because he’s supposed to be cute and he’s an athlete and he flirts with all the girls.

But then I get the brilliant idea to ask to use the bathroom so I can check my phone. Mr. Alvarez suspects that I’m not going to the toilet because I never ask to use the bathroom. But he lets me go anyway, and I try to avoid Eloisa’s eyes because now she’s suspecting something too. I make my way down the hallway and duck into the nearest bathroom. I hope that no girls – or guys – are using it or selling drugs or whatever so I can have some privacy. I don’t feel good about what I’m doing, because I know that if Mom hears about this, then she’s going to say I’m being just like Amanda, and don’t I know what a terrible example Amanda is for her sisters anyway? I swallow that last moment of regret and hide in a stall and take out my phone.

I’m sorry.

We’re moving to Orlando.

Next week.

Three text messages in a row. If I wanted to disappear earlier, now I wish I didn’t exist. Ethan’s response was not what I expected. In fact, it was even worse. I hadn’t asked him anything much, just if he wanted to go hang out at my house and maybe play some games or something. I was never really the one to reach out and try to make plans, though, so maybe that’s why he responded like that. It was usually him who decided if we hung out after school or not. It was very rare, and we usually just played games online or did our homework together, but it was never really anything out in public or whatever.

So I guess when I asked him last night it kinda freaked him out. I don’t know. But his response was not what I expected, and it was worse than I wanted it to be. If he was really moving, then that what would that mean to us being friends? I mean, I had a few friends that I never met in real life. Until David transferred to this school in September, he had been one of those friends. So why did I think it would be different with Ethan?

So they gave your dad the job?

Ethan had art for first period, and Ms. Carter never cared whether they used their phones or not.

Yeah they told him this morning. We’ve already got our house and my dad’s going up to see it today.

I thought for a moment.

It’s so far away.

The three gray bubbles popped up, indicating that he was typing a response. Those bubbles were good to know he had read and was responding, but they were bad because you never knew if he was writing an essay or if the bubbles were going to disappear and he was going to leave you on “Read”.

I know, it sucks. But my dad has been trying to get this job all year, so he’s not gonna stay for me.

What about soccer? Aren’t you guys like about to finish the season?

He’s not gonna wait for me, remember?

I don’t respond immediately. I check the time. I’ve been in here for five minutes already, and Mr. Alvarez is going to know what’s up and he’s going to write me a second detention, this time one that I totally deserve. Orlando is really far away for your best friend to move from one week to the next.

And that’s when I get the bright idea to go visit him when our family goes to Disney for Thanksgiving. It won’t be that much of a big deal. I would just go for a few hours in the morning, and as long as I can pay for the Uber, my dad wouldn’t care. And then maybe this whole thing wouldn’t be as bad, since I can get to see him in about another two weeks.

I decide that I’m not going to say anything about it, so instead, I send a generic “man, that’s so messed up, but I gotta go to class” in response. I flush the toilet for the sake of the people listening, and I basically run back to Mr. Alvarez’s class.

He’s currently discussing Beowulf and the qualities of the epic hero. Eyes are glazing over as people drift into the realm of the unknown. We have block schedule, so that means four classes on A days, and four different ones on B days. It also means that we’re in the same class for an hour and a half each day, and our attention spans can’t last that long. I’m surprised that more kids don’t have their phones taken away, seeing as everyone says our generation is supposed to be addicted to our phones.

I don’t know about that. I mean, I use my phone pretty much every day, but I don’t think I need it. If the vice principal took my phone, I would totally be able to survive. I would just use my iPad instead. Besides, I know that social media is all fake and all the guys are creepy and always try to talk to you and ask you weird questions. I think I’m smart enough to avoid all that weirdness. I look around and there are only two kids trying to use their phones, but they’re so obvious that when Mr. Alvarez tells them to put it away, they have to give up and listen. Most of the kids fight teachers when they tell them to put the phones away, because they know that the teachers will take them and they’ll never see them again. It’s not that their parents are cool with the school taking the phone. It’s that the parents don’t really want to be bothered to come into the vice principal’s office to get the phone back.

Mr. Alvarez doesn’t really care like that, though, and usually gives them a chance, as long as they’re getting their work done and doing something productive. I just think that it’s kind of annoying, to be in a place, and then to have no one to talk to because they’re all on their phones. Like, I get when you’re there and there’s like a lull, or you want to look something up. But when we’re just sitting on Eloisa’s bed and she’s texting her dude and I’m just scrolling through Instagram, it can feel kind of sad, like we’re here but we can’t even talk to each other.

Sometimes I feel that way whenever I see Amanda’s stories on Instagram. I know that she’s all right, living life, doing whatever. I see her at work. I see her hanging out with her friends. I see her with her boyfriend, Rick or whatever his name is. I see her listening and dancing to music. I see her having fun all the time. But I feel like she’s so far away, even though I know where she works, who she hangs with and what she does for fun. I feel like I know everything about her life now that she’s not living with us, but then I feel like I have no idea who she is. She rarely ever shows her face in videos. It’s only in selfies or pictures that Rick takes for her. But whenever I see her eyes and I see her life, I know that there’s something else back there. There’s a sadness behind the eyes that I couldn’t describe if you asked me to write it down. But it’s there and it reminds me of how far we are from each other.

It starts with Eloisa and I sitting on the same bed but we can’t talk about how I think that she’s so much better than me and I can never be her. It continues with Ethan moving four hours away and me knowing that we can talk but we’ll never have what we had before. And it continues with David who I met over the summer and who was cool and funny and we really connected, but then once he saw me in real life, once he saw how I really was, he suddenly decided that he didn’t want anything to do with them and pretended like he didn’t know me. And then it continues with Amanda disappearing off the face of the earth and then suddenly reappearing but refusing to answer any of my texts or reply to me when I comment on her stories or anything like that. It finishes when I try to talk to mom about all of this, but she acts like she can’t hear me, or more likely doesn’t want to.

Class is over in what feels like a moment and then I have teacher’s aide, which is halfway across the building. It’s right next to the art wing, so if I hurry over there, then maybe I can see Ethan before he gets sent to his teacher for teacher’s aide. He works with the nurse teacher in the nursing wing, and I stay in the main office with the teacher who runs teacher’s aide. Eloisa is kinda absorbed in checking her phone in the minutes between this class and the next, so I say goodbye and make a mad dash across the school building. I try not to bump into anyone on purpose, and I try not to be offended when someone bumps into me. I used to think they were doing it on purpose, but then I realized that no one is really even noticing. That’s the thing you don’t really understand, or that you forget all the time – that no one actually cares about you.

I pushed through a crowd that decided to congregate at the bottom of the stairs. And then I could almost feel as though someone was watching me, even though I knew it wasn’t true. I’m in a crowd of at least five hundred people. How could anyone actually be looking at my specifically? But then again, you know when someone is staring at you, you can totally feel it, and their gaze pierces into your soul. I gave a quick glance over my shoulder, but there was no one. I guess I was just imagining it this time.

After a few more minutes, I wedged into the hallway in front of the teacher’s aide office. It was a mess. Students were leaning against the walls, standing in the middle of the walkway, shouting at the top of their lungs. Someone with a loud voice was trying to get our attention, but no one was listening to her. I found Ethan standing to the left and went over to him.

“Hey Emma,” he said, giving me a fist bump.

“What’s going on over here?”

He shook his head. “Mr. Brown’s not here today, so we’re all gonna just go to our teachers.”

“So why are they still here?”

“Because they haven’t figured it out yet.”

I looked at the gathering of students. Most of them were eleventh graders, and they were too preoccupied with their conversations to realize that they were about to be late to class.

“Why haven’t you left?” I asked Ethan.

He looked down the hallway. “Mrs. Russell isn’t here today either.”

“So what are you gonna do?”

“I was just going to sit in her classroom. Wanna come with me?”

I thought about it. Mr. Brown wasn’t here today, so that meant I technically had no teacher. All the other kids were starting to trickle to their other classes now that Loud Mouth had informed them of the situation. I could stay here and look like a dummy once everyone disappeared. Or I could go with Ethan to the nursing room now.

“Let’s go,” I said. We headed down the hallway toward Mrs. Russell’s room.

“They’re all out doing clinicals,” Ethan said, as we settled into her classroom. All of the lights were off and it took me a minute to find all of the light switches. I sat down toward the front of the class, away from all the vents. Ethan sat next to me and took out his sketch book.

“I low key wish I had been part of an academy,” I said. My family moved here during tenth grade, so I jumped right into the year and didn’t get a chance to join any of their actual academies. Instead, I floated somewhere between regular student and as many History AP classes as I could get.

Ethan held the pencil above the paper, lightly stroking back and forth, drawing the thin lines of a face. “Emma, I think you would’ve been good for hospitality,” he said, and then flinched because he knew I was going to swat at him.

“For the last time, I’m not going to be in Miami forever!” I said, hitting him on the back of his head. “As soon as I graduate, I’m going to move out and then I’ll be somewhere else and everything will be fine.”

As soon as I said it, I remembered this morning, and how he was moving away, and how everything was now most definitely not fine.

“Yeah, where are you gonna go?” Ethan tried to keep the conversation going, but I realized that I had hit a touchy spot.

“Ethan, why do you guys have to go?”

“I told you, my dad just got his job -”

“But can’t you stay with your aunt? Why do you have to go all the way to Orlando?”

“I asked them if I could stay with her, and they said that I’m too young. Can you believe that? I’m eighteen years old, and they say I’m too young to go live with my aunt!” Ethan’s strokes grew thicker. I took out a book I’d been reading, just to have something else to look at other than his art.

“So you guys leave next week? Next week when?”

“We leave on Saturday.”

“Ethan, that’s not next week! That’s in like five days.”

He frowned, “well, that’s what they said this morning, but then Dad changed his mind on the drive up. He doesn’t think we should wait too long so that we can get settled. He’s going to enroll me in this random school later today.”

I opened the book in front of me. “Maybe it won’t be so bad, Ethan. Is it a good school?”

“What does it matter what kind of school it is, Emma?” He set the pencil down. “Look, I don’t want to leave this place. I have too many friends here. It’s just not right. Why do we have to leave just because he can’t get a job down here?”

In that moment, I felt kinda bad for him. I mean, he didn’t want to leave his home, but he had to because of his dad. And I wasn’t making it any easier, because I was one of the friends he was afraid of losing.

I gave him a light pat on the shoulder. “Hey, Ethan, we can still try to be friends, like whenever you go off to your grandmother’s house for two months in the summer.”

“Yeah, but you know that’s never the same,” he said, looking over at me. “You can’t really be friends when you’re going to be four hours away from the other person. And he’s not even thinking that maybe I have some people who are better than just friends.”

We sat there in silence for about a minute and a half. Then, I opened the book I was reading. I felt kinda bad about it at first, but I think that doing something was better than just sitting there in silence moping about his situation. After another minute or so, he opened up his sketch book again and continued drawing the face. This time, his strokes were soft like earlier.

“What’s the book you’re reading again?” He asked after a few more silent minutes. I looked up briefly.

“It’s Nightfall, Isaac Asimov. Where they always have sunlight, and then one day in a thousand, the sun sets and everyone goes crazy.”  I was at the part where the stars come out and then everyone literally goes insane. It was actually a fun book to read, especially if you were kinda new into the whole science fiction genre.

“Yeah.”

“Sunset is something so normal though, for us, but when it happens to them, all of a sudden, it’s like the end of the world.”

“Like moving, or getting a new job is for my dad,” Ethan said matter-of-factly.

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

There was a thought in the air that both of us had, but neither of us were going to say. Or, at least, I wasn’t going to say it. I know that when I texted Ethan this morning, I wasn’t asking just as regular buddies if he wanted to hang out. But I also didn’t want to make the whole situation weird by asking him what he meant by “I’m sorry”. Was he sorry because he understood what I meant? And even if he did, would I want him to know about it, even though we’re going to be physically separated in a matter of five days? Also, would you want to ruin a friendship by trying to turn it into something that it isn’t, just as soon as it was about to die a natural death anyway? What was my deal? Why was I so caught up in this friendship that I was feeling terrible, even though life still moved on. I mean, he was just one friend that I had, a really good friend, but a friend none the less. Could I afford to lose it and all these terrible, embarrassing words that I’m writing right now? I think so.

I didn’t know what to do, or even what to say. So I put my head down on the desk and continued reading, hoping to get lost in the story of a world that’s literally collapsing, while mine did something similar at the same time. If and when Ethan decided he wanted to talk, then I guess we would talk. My guess it would be more like never.

 

School’s out forever. Nope, that’s just a song, that will literally never be true, not even when you’re an adult. I mean, yeah, sure, you can choose to literally never go again, and then it’ll be true. But if you’re trying to have a career, or be a good person in your job, then school can go on forever.

But for me, it was done for the day, and I gladly empty everything from my backpack into my locker. My locker was on the ground, so I had to crouch in order to let the guy who was using the locker above me get his stuff. He wasn’t here yet, which was a surprise. Usually, he was here before me and stayed here until after I’d gotten all of my stuff. I wondered for a brief moment where he was, then tried to chase the thought away. I didn’t really like that kid. He had a certain vibe to him that I didn’t think was very good. He gave me the actual creeps, and I tried to stay away from him as much as possible. Kinda hard to do when his locker is right above yours.

He wasn’t here today, though, so I would be able to get all of my stuff without any worries. The only worries are this absolute trash that I am writing. I gathered my things then booked it out of the nearest exit and into the bus line. Here, we waited for about two minutes for our bus to make its way down the line. I guess I had gotten out of my last class early because the buses were only now pulling up. I waited about a minute, and then I walked down the line to find my bus. 4201. That was the name of my bus. I inserted myself in the line for the bus, trying to ignore the shouting and the roughhousing. The students at Evergreen High were out of control today. There was bound to be at least one fight on the field today, so I tried to get on the bus as quickly as possible. I gave the bus driver a nod and made my way to the back of the bus. That was where you sat if you didn’t want to be part of any trouble. It doesn’t make sense, from a logical perspective, but the people on the back were there first, and that meant they weren’t still on the school grounds causing general mayhem.

I took my seat and then fished my headphones out of my pocket. They were a tangled mess, as always, so I worked to get them out while I waited to see James get on the bus. He was my little brother, which I only remembered existed at this very moment, and must be sure to include earlier when I give this a second go. Once I knew he was on the bus, then I could rest easy knowing Mom wouldn’t get mad at me for losing my brother. And then, of course, there was Mark, the only other kid on this bus that I could talk to without actually getting a heart attack and dying because of sheer idiocy. He was nice and he lived in our neighborhood. Mark usually sat next to me so that no random creep ever could, and he was always very nice about everything.

Neither of them had made it to the bus though, when I noticed a large crowd of students gathering in the middle of the field. I tried not to roll my eyes visibly. It was probably a fight. There was always a fight on the bus line every now and again. I didn’t find fights to be particularly interesting, only a little dangerous. Hopefully, James would stay far away from the fight.

I didn’t get to think about it for too long, when I noticed that Ethan was walking away from the fight, surrounded by a group of kids. They were from the study club he started going to last year. He’s mentioned them a few times, and I see them hanging out a lot on his Instagram stories. I’ve never really met them, though. Which I guess is weird since he and I are supposed to be close friends or whatever. I’ve never asked him about it, so maybe it’s on me. I don’t know.

I recognize a few of them only because I’ve been in this school for a while now, and I pretty much know everyone, even if they have no clue who I am. Which is cool, of course. Sally and Jim have been dating for an eternity, so it’s no wonder that if one is in the club, then they will both in the club. Rick is basically twenty-five, so I have no idea why he’s even in school still. It makes sense that he’d go to a study club, since he probably needs it more than anyone else.

But there’s one girl that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. She’s got short brown hair that’s pulled back from her face. Glasses are perched on her nose, but she keeps readjusting them, almost like they’re too big or too small – they’re kinda far, so I can’t tell which it is. She’s standing next to Rick, but I can tell by the way she’s moving that she’s trying to reposition herself to be next to Ethan.

I feel a breath catch in my chest as I realize what she’s doing. And then she’s next to him and they start talking. When they get close enough, I can see her eyes, and the catching breath turns into a sinking feeling inside my chest. From the way she’s looking at him, I can tell that she’s totally got a crush on him. And if I can read the look in her eyes right, she’s probably had this crush for a long time. In fact, she’s probably convinced herself that she’s in love with this guy.

It feels horrible to think these things. Especially since I know the end to whatever she’s feeling. She’ll learn soon enough that he’s going to be leaving, and as good as she thinks they have it, he’ll be gone and absolutely nothing will come of it. I’m not angry at her, or jealous, or anything like that, simply because I have no real claim on Ethan except that he’s my best friend. But seeing him walk and talk and joke around with her, I can tell that I’ve made a grave error in my thinking.

For some reason, I never really considered that maybe he’d have someone else as his best friend. Just because he was the only one I ever really talked to didn’t mean it was the same for him. And I realized that he had no idea that this girl felt any type of way, just like I quickly figured out that he didn’t know about how I felt – or rather, how I used to feel. Maybe it was for like a fleeting second, when I first met him. But then I realized that something like this didn’t have room for “feelings” or whatever else you want to call it. Or you can say that he just never saw it like that, so I moved on. Whatever you want to call it, we ended up being friends and that was all and that was enough.

The group passed in front of my bus and slowly began to splinter as people found their own buses. I wished I would’ve taken a picture of them. Then I could’ve shown it to him later and tried to figure out who the girl was. Or I could just ask Eloisa. I suddenly remembered that she was supposed to be my best friend, as the author has written herself into this tiny hole. But maybe she’s not my best friend. I don’t even know what that means anymore.

I opened Instagram just because there was nothing else to do. I wasn’t really going to post anything, and I don’t think anyone had posted anything new yet. People usually posted stuff throughout the day, even though we weren’t really supposed to have our phones out. People will always find a way, though. I clicked through a few of my friends’ stories. They were just silly little moments throughout the day, people making jokes in the hallways, making fun of teachers. Someone had recorded Mr. Alvarez as he was sitting at his desk and they made high-pitched noises every time he lifted a paper. It was a little funny, but not enough to laugh aloud to.

And then there was a story from David. I clicked into it last, only because I didn’t want it to be like I was just checking his stories all the time. He had posted a screen shot of the song he was listening to during lunch. It was a Taylor Swift song, although I didn’t recognize the title. I replied to his story: “You’re turning back into that little girl I met over the summer lol”

Even though David acted like he didn’t know me in school, he would always reply to my stories. He was just as fake as me, I guess. I saw that he was typing.

“Yeah, girl, I was just feeling it, you know?”

David isn’t the most eloquent, but he was fun to get to know. He is really interested in music, and to his credit, he’ll listen to anything, even if it’s not rap or pop or whatever everyone is listening to these days. I know a lot of people say that they listen to everything, but then you put on heavy metal, and they can’t stand it.

But not David. He’d go from pop to screamo to hip hop to country, all in the span of half an hour. Because of that, he and I were able to talk about all the music I listen to, except for the Christian music. I mean, he knew it existed, and he knew enough to know the ones that everyone knows, but that was about it. Although I don’t think Christian music is really a genre, because it’s made up of a bunch of different styles but whatever.

He started typing again… “Hey are you doing anything tonight? Wanna FaceTime later?”

Here we go again. David always liked to talk online but never in real life. Was it enough for me though? Was I going to be cool with this forever?

I decided that I was going to be cool with it for at least tonight.

“Sure thing bro” I said, then added “hey you wanna play call of duty too?”

It was actually kind of fun to play with David, and I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to hang out with Ethan tonight like I wanted.

I wasn’t sure if David was going to say yes, though, so I copied the text and sent it to Ethan as well.

He replied back quicker than David.

“Sorry Emma I’m gonna be packing tonight”

I looked back at the message with David, but he hadn’t replied yet. I clicked through my photos and found the one I’d been wanting to post this morning. It was a simple selfie, but Eloisa said it looked nice and that I should post it. I put it in my stories instead, and then said something generic about being happy school was over for the day or whatever.

I clicked on the explore page and tried to find a funny Star Wars meme. It was kinda hard to find anything funny, though, and I was starting to get bored. The bus was slowly filling up, and I had yet to see my brother James or even Mark. I checked my story to see if anyone had seen it yet. I know I posted it literally seconds ago, but I was curious.

I’m not an avid poster or anything like that, but I usually post about once every other day or so. Ever since they introduced stories, I don’t really post regular pictures or videos anymore. I saw that David had seen the picture. I clicked back into our message. He had also read the message, but still hadn’t responded to it.

Some random kid that I didn’t even know said something about me being pretty or something like that. I was kinda annoyed at him. He’d made some comments on previous pictures, but I didn’t even know him, so why was he making those comments? It’s not like I was encouraging it or whatever. I deleted the DM and blocked him because I was annoyed.

And then I noticed that the guy who has his locker above me had seen the picture. His name was Douglas – but they called him Dougie for short. I had heard some of his friends call his name as they passed him while we were using the lockers.

I don’t know why I suddenly felt creeped out. It’s not like he was a bad dude or anything. Actually, I have no idea what this guy is like, but I think I was bothered that he was even looking at my story in the first place.

But that’s the price of having a public profile, and I wasn’t really interested in the whole making it private and having to choose to follow people back, so instead, I just left it public and let the whole world see into my life. I mean, they weren’t really seeing much. And I wanted it to be open so that Amanda could check in on me every now and then without having to commit to following me.

She’s seen a few of my stories this way, and that’s probably why I keep posting on there, so that she can see my stuff. Or maybe it’s so that David could see it. I honestly don’t know. Ethan doesn’t use Instagram, so it’s not like it’s for him. And no, I’m not out here in love triangles or whatever. I don’t even like these guys like that or anything like that. Maybe I just like that they look at it, and maybe even leave a comment. I mean, in real life, people don’t really seem to even see me when I’m standing next to them. But when they look at my story, then it’s like they’re actually seeing me. If that makes any sense, and doesn’t make me sound like a whiny emo girl or whatever.

 

 

Chapter One

 

I waited until the clock read 4:37 before I got out of bed, careful not to trip over the boxes that crowded the room. I would have to make it through the hallway and down the stairs by memory alone. Any light would wake Dad up, even if that light was upstairs and around a corner.

The house was so loud, though, that I’m not sure Dad wasn’t already awake. The air conditioner and the refrigerator seemed to hum at the same frequency. The whir of the fan in my brother’s room waxed and waned with each turn, back and forth, louder and quieter. Then there were my footfalls and that annoying creak on the fourth step which I could never manage to avoid.

I reached the bottom of the stairs and a new sound joined the twilight din: Dad’s breathing. He lay on the futon, his new makeshift bed. The glow of the Internet box next to the couch gave off enough light for me to see his chest rise and fall with each loud breath. I watched him for a moment, slowing down my breathing to match his. Every once in a while his breath would catch and I could almost feel him wince in pain. I knew he wasn’t in any pain right now, though. Mom had given him more than enough drugs to knock him out and told us all to go upstairs and leave him alone.

He looked so peaceful while he slept. I don’t think I’d seen him like this for a while, without a constant furrow in his brow and his mouth a tight, straight line. I wished that he would go back to saying the worst dad jokes that made James and I cringe and flee from his presence in embarrassment.

I turned from him and went into the kitchen. I had come down here to get a bottle of water and three chocolate cookies. It had been a long time since dinner, and since I’d been awake staring at the ceiling for hours, my body decided that I was hungry enough to get something to eat. Of course, it did not call for real food, only the cookies Mom had made right before banishing us upstairs so we couldn’t eat them. I retrieved my bounty and returned to my bedroom. I shut the door behind me, and the world instantly grew quieter.

The clock read 4:40. I didn’t realize how long I’d been watching Dad. I wondered if I should go back down there. I wasn’t going to get any sleep up here anyway. Besides, watching Dad sleep like that reminded me of days gone by, when he was nice and peaceful and happy all the time. But is it getting back the glory days when it’s only happening in your mind? I didn’t want to just pretend that things were back to how they were – I wanted it to be real. Sitting and watching Dad sleep wasn’t going to make that happen, and if he suddenly woke up it would just make things weird again.

I ate through the cookies and gulped down the water bottle in all of two and a half minutes. I didn’t want to be awake anymore. The clock was drawing near 5AM. It was about to be the three week anniversary of the time I tried to make it so I didn’t wake up ever again. Knowing that Dad got injured because of that makes me wish it had actually worked. Does that make me a terrible person who is probably going to wake up in hell one day?

Yeah. I’m almost certain it does.

 

<!– I forced myself to get out of bed a few hours later. We still had another week or so of summer vacation when I was still allowed to wake up whenever I wanted. That was all going to change very soon, if Mom was to be believed. Forget the fact that I’m going to be a senior and James is in ninth grade now. She was going to lay down some laws so that she wouldn’t have the same problem she’d had with Amanda.

“No more staying out past ten,” she had said one day, unprovoked and with absolutely no context. “No more using phones in the room after eleven, either.”

“How are you gonna check that?” Dad had quietly asked. I could picture Mom standing just outside of our doors, looking for the soft blue light, trying to determine if it was the alarm clock, a phone, or the light from outside. She would be the one to bust open the door and catch you doing something wrong. If you were doing something wrong, of course. I tried to stay away from the kind of trouble you can get grounded for. I had grown up with Amanda, queen of rule breakers, and I had officially learned my lesson.

Yeah, the only trouble you get in now is the “ruin your family’s life” kind of trouble.

The thoughts in my head are more cruel to me than anyone else’s. What makes it worse is that the thoughts are always right.

I remembered the conversation about nightly routine enforcement that Mom was threatening. What I wanted to know more than anything else was how was she going to do said enforcement with her new job. I mean, Dad definitely wasn’t going to be enforcing anything outside the sound of his voice.

After a few more minutes, I went downstairs. Dad was seated upright, eating some oatmeal. There was the furrowed brow again. I didn’t say anything to him, but proceeded into the kitchen. James was there, serving himself some oatmeal as well. He held up the serving spoon.

“No thanks,” I said, taking a box of Life cereal from on top of the refrigerator. He nodded and then proceeded to put the serving spoon in his mouth.

“Is Mom gone?” I took a seat on the dining room table. We had only recently gotten a new table. This one was big enough for just the four of us. It’s weird going from being a family of five to being one of four. It was too early to think about these things, I told myself. Gotta try to think positively. That’s what everyone always says anyway.

James sat down across from me with his plate. “Yeah, she left about an hour ago I think.”

This was probably the most we had said to each other all summer. Which was just as good. James and I were on the verge of hating each other every other moment. I guess this was just one of those other moments.

I took out my phone. Even though I’d been awake all night, my mind was filled with replaying the accident over and over again, so I didn’t really look online or watch any videos like I usually did. I checked my subscriptions on YouTube and added a few interesting videos to my Watch Later playlist. James thinks all I ever watch are dumb vlogs. But he doesn’t understand just how entertaining it is to each other people’s highly polished, edited lives. Sometimes I think about making my own vlog, but I just don’t do enough interesting things.

“I’m going to hang out with Ethan today,” James said with his mouth full. I tried not to look interested.

“Oh, that sounds cool.”

He took another bite. “Yeah. I know that you two were like friends or whatever. You want to come with me? We’re just going to be playing some video games or whatever.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, it’s not like he invited me or anything like that.” It would be weird to go over your former best friend’s house with your little brother unless he’d invited you, too.

“I just thought you’d want to see him before he moves away forever.” James didn’t push it any further. He licked his plate while I tried no to gag, and then proceeded to disappear into his room. I heard Dad calling his name, but I’m sure James would pull the “I didn’t hear you” card which literally could not be disputed by a man who was confined to a couch and who’s voice didn’t project past the top step.

 

I wasn’t sure if I should go with James. He was right – Ethan hadn’t invited me. In fact, he hadn’t really talked to me since he told me that his family was moving to Brickell. They were just going to be an hour an a half away, and we were still supposed to be able to hang out and do whatever best friends do. Ethan said we could still play together online and we were always connected by text or the Internet in general.

 

My phone suddenly started buzzing on the table. Speak of the devil. It was Ethan, and he was trying to FaceTime me. I took another bite of cereal and then decided to pick it up.

“Hey!” I said, trying to sound happy and not at all nervous because we hadn’t really talked in a while.

“Morning.” He looked like he had just woken up. His eyes were puffy and his face was red. I was surprised he’d choose to FaceTime, especially with his acne flaring up like that. He was usually a little self-conscious about that.

“What’s up?” I continued eating because I was still hungry from this morning. Those three cookies did absolutely nothing other than leave a gross taste in my mouth when I woke up.

Ethan rubbed his eyes. “James just texted me. He’s a liar, you know, because I told him to tell you that we were going to hang out today.”

“Let me guess,” I interjected, “he told you that he had had told me so you didn’t mention it again.”

“And then he just texted me like ‘oh she’s probably gonna say no’ and I told him that I would just call you and ask for myself.”

“You’re right. He is a liar and he’s also a bum.” I glanced at my own face in the corner. I think my eyes were probably just as puffy, if no more so, than his. A whole night of lamenting your existence will do that to you. I know, I know – I’m too dramatic. That’s another thing my thoughts tell me that is totally true and impossible to do anything about.

“Listen, so do you want to come hang out with us?” Ethan continued. “We’re just going to be watching some movies, maybe play some games.”

“Your parents are cool with that? I mean, you guys are about to leave, right?”

He looked away. “Uh, yeah, but they said that I can still have people over as long as I’m packing. And besides,” he lowered his voice, “they’re literally beating themselves up over the fact that they’re moving my entire life just before it gets started. So they’re like bending over backward giving me things because they feel bad.”

I laughed. “Yeah, and you’re exactly the type to milk that until the actual cows come home.”

“What does that even mean?” He shook his head and ran his hands through his hair, making it messier, if that was even possible.

 

“I don’t know. I got it from that movie about the cows that had their brains taken out randomly.”

Ethan laughed, one of those laughs that sue the whole entire body and face and leave you looking like you are going to keel over and die. It was infectious. I started laughing, too, even though I didn’t really think it was funny. In fact, the movie was really about alien invasions and the idea that aliens could exist was terrifying to me.

“Come on, Ethan, it’s not that funny!” I shifted to pretending like I was annoyed by his laughter.

“Oh yes it is, Emma, especially since there’s no way that reference comes from that movie,” he said, shaking the laugh out of his throat. “But you’re right, that movie is definitely not a comedy.”

I looked at him. It was weird to stare at someone through a screen like that. I mean, in that instant, it was like we were together in the same room. But this time, there wasn’t anything else distracting you from our conversation. At least, there was nothing that you could see.

His face got a little serious. “You okay there?” He sat up in his bed. “All of a sudden you were just staring at me.”

I flipped the camera to the other side so that he wouldn’t see my face turning red. I had no acne to pretend like I wasn’t actually about to die of embarrassment. I tried to think about something else, and then I switched the camera back to my face.

“Sorry about that. I just…”

He sighed.” Yeah, I know what you mean.”

I thought about the man who had gone crazy once his mother died. They said that he went and killed two people in his town, although I don’t really think it was true. None of the evidence seemed to stack up when you read it all in the middle of the night. But there was one thing I would never forget from that story. He had been so torn up by his mother’s death that he couldn’t be consoled. And he thought it was his fault, even though it wasn’t.

I knew that Ethan’s moving away had absolutely nothing to do with me. I don’t even know his dad and I think I’ve seen his mom a total of three times in my life. But for some reason, every single time something seems to be going good in my life, whether that’s at school, home, or church, all of a sudden, it just turns into the worst thing ever. People move away or teachers suddenly decide they don’t like me. Parents get hurt and sisters run away. Sometimes I think that if I had never become Ethan’s friend, then none of those things would’ve happened to him.

So that’s why it kinda makes sense for me to think that maybe these things wouldn’t have happened to anyone else if I was either different or not here in the first place. But that’s not the way you’re supposed to think. That’s what they say in church. They say you’re supposed to believe in God or whatever, but what does that even mean in real life?

Now it’s Ethan’s turn to stare. “Why haven’t you talked to me in like three whole weeks?”

I didn’t look at him. I didn’t want to tell him the reason. Not that he wouldn’t understand. He would probably understand all too well, and he’d feel even more terrible now that he was leaving. When I said he was my former best friend is not that we’re not friends anymore. It’s that we can’t be best friends anymore now that he’s leaving. So why even continue being friends in the first place? That’s the first thought I had that I didn’t really want to follow.

“You think you want to run the study club when I’m gone?”

“That’s really what you’re worried about right now?” I shook my head. “I don’t think I will ever understand you, Ethan. Why do you even care about that club?”

He sighed again, this time trying hard not to roll his eyes. We had had this conversation several times in the past year since we’ve been friends. “I like that I get to help people in our school, especially since most people – including you – would rather they went somewhere else.” Ethan closed his eyes. “Why is it that I’m the only one in the whole school who doesn’t mind being there, and I’m the one who has to leave?”

“Is it because you’re leaving that girl?” It was a bad question, I know. But I figured this was probably the last time we would ever be able to have a decent conversation. Ethan has always been very forthcoming with things, so I knew he wouldn’t hide it.

“What girl?” He looked confused. I didn’t push it. This was the first time he had actually lied to me. I guess that said something. “But you’re talking to me about girls, what about you and David? What’s the whole deal with that?”

“What do you mean?” I said in a fake girly voice, twirling my hair in my hands. “We’re just talking right now, so it’s not like there’s anything special or whatever.”

“Nothing special my foot.”

I was suddenly aware of how quiet the room had gotten. That meant that Dad was somewhere in the living room listening to my conversation. Not that I was saying anything bad, but he and I didn’t really talk about those kinds of things. I wasn’t sure I wanted him to know.

But then again, there wasn’t really anything there to know. –>

 

 

By the time my body decided to fall asleep for real, it was already time to leave for school. James and I take a crowded bus down to Evergreen High, and if I missed it, Mom would be in a bad mood with me for an entire month. She would drive me there, of course, but then she’d be late to work, and it was her first week, and did I know what kind of impression that would leave with her new boss?

Of course, I was very rarely late, so I don’t know who she was telling this to. I found myself out of the door a full thirty seconds before James. He and I had a secret thing where we would try to be the first ones out the door. It was the only thing he and I did together anymore. And even that we did without talking to one another. James was just starting ninth grade, so we would be see more of each other now. I wondered if maybe that would mean we could go back to being rival siblings. We used to fight all the time about who got to sit shotgun, or who got the last Oreo, or who got to use the bathroom first. It was petty, sure, but it was something we did together.

Now, he’s just trailing behind me as I hurry to the bus stop. He and I won’t say another word to each other all day. Mom will be happy because then the house is quiet for Dad. I don’t think Dad will even notice.

I didn’t want to think about those things anymore, though. Today was a new day, and I had to do well in school because there wasn’t anything else. If I didn’t at least try to do well in school, there’d be one more thing I lost and I wanted to start having some wins.

The bus was even more crowded than I imagined. It nearly burst with the weight of Evergreen High students, half of them tired, half of them fully awake, all wishing they could stay home and not have to deal with school. I don’t think anyone liked school. You found ways to make it manageable. There were friends, of course. Occasionally, there might be a teacher you thought was funny or who you liked hanging around. It was very rare, but there might even be a subject that you enjoyed. But for the most part, you would rather be doing something else with your time.

I moved past the front of the bus where all of the sober minded people were, and looked for a seat in the back, with the sleepers. My plan was to put headphones in and drown out the world for the next half hour. Then I saw an empty seat next to Ethan.

As silly as it sounds, I felt something weird when I saw him. It wasn’t butterflies or anything silly like that. I think I’m past that stage in my life where guys can do that to me. I was definitely interested in him as a friend. Although I don’t think that his interest in me extended beyond that.

He was texting someone. The glow from the giant screen lit up his shirt.

“Hey, Ethan,” I said, announcing my presence. As expected, he clicked his phone shut and slid over closer to the window. Not that I would ever look at his texts, but he always seemed to be just finishing his conversations whenever I was around.

“Morning,” he mumbled. I’m pretty sure those were among the first words he had said all day. Ethan didn’t have any siblings, like me, and his dad would already be gone before he woke up. I think he said his dad was a construction worker or something like that. I couldn’t remember.

“Did you do your English homework?”

Of course he would ask that. I resisted the urge to tell him to ask his friends in the study club. Or to tell him that he should’ve just texted me yesterday afternoon when he realized that he needed help. But I know that Ethan would just say “yeah, you’re right”, and then totally forget to do it next time. He was probably my closest friend in this school, but he had the absolute worst memory of life.

I emailed him the essay questions that we were supposed to work on. I was a big believer in helping people, but never in letting them straight copy my stuff. Mr. Alvarez – especially – was smarter than that. I watched as Ethan downloaded the document and started answering the questions.

Should I tell him now? I wondered.

It was never the right time to tell him. How do you just tell your best friend that you tried to end your own life three weeks ago? How do you even explain it someone? Do you have to sit them down and make sure that they’re emotionally equipped to handle it? Of course, you could never prepare someone for something like that. Especially not someone who has been there for you on the darkest of days without even knowing it. How could you just let them down like that?

“You should totally come with me to the study club, Emma.” He had honestly invited me to the club at least three times a week since he joined last year. My mind was still on: How do I tell him? Should I even say anything?

Ethan must have noticed that I was so quiet. He nudged me with his elbow. “Earth to space cadet Emma.”

I smiled. “You’re so lame.”

“Yeah, but now you’re talking to me again,” Ethan laughed. His eyes fell back onto the phone, where he continued typing out his answers to last night’s homework. “So what’s the deal? Your sister just up and disappeared, so now you’re acting like you don’t remember any of your friends?”

“I don’t have any friends, first of all,” I corrected, making sure to lower my voice. “And secondly, yes my sister disappeared, but that’s not why I’ve been kinda distant.”

Now is the perfect time! I thought, but then realized that my thoughts were betraying me. You can’t tell him now! You’re sitting in the back of a smelly, crowded bus, with rude schoolmates who will overhear you and tell the whole world. Besides, what if it’s too loud and he can’t hear you and you have to repeat it again? You can’t tell him. You better not tell him.

So I didn’t tell him. I shrugged. “What about you? I haven’t heard from you either.”

It was Ethan’s turn to get quiet. For a moment, I thought he was going to actually start crying. “I didn’t want to tell you here,” he said after a few quiet seconds. “I wanted to tell you during lunch on the way to the study club.”

“Bro, did you actually think I was going to go?” I smirked. “I never go with you. I— ”

“Yeah, I know that you don’t like my other friends, but they’re actually not that bad, once you get to know them.”

Ethan and I had had this conversation several times before. I was just not interested in hanging out with random people who I didn’t know. Of course, Ethan would remind me that there was a time when I didn’t know him, but my reasons were illogical and would ignore all shred of logic even if it was staring at me in the face.

“But Emma, you’re gonna have to learn how to make new friends,” he started, and I suddenly had a sinking feeling that he was going to tell me that he didn’t want to be friends with me anymore. Or that he and that girl from the study club were actually going to start dating.

He didn’t say any of those things. In fact, he didn’t speak any more to me at all. Instead, he focused on finishing his assignment, and I stared at the back of the seat in front of me. Why couldn’t we talk to each other? We obviously had so many things to say, but why couldn’t we just come right out and say it? Why did we have to hold on to things that were better put out in the open, where we could actually deal with it?

The bus came to a full stop a lot sooner than I wanted it to. I was hoping to finish listening to at least two songs on my playlist, but alas. We were here, at school, in a land where phones were allowed at all times – except during class time. Of course, give kids that much freedom, and they’ll use their phones all the time anyway. I was just worried about listening to music and not being able to hear if someone was trying to talk to me. If I didn’t hear them, then they might think I was ignoring them, and that wouldn’t do any favors to how everyone already viewed me around here.

 

<!– I was still waiting for my dad to ask me why I had driven the car into the ditch. The official story that we told the insurance companies was that I hadn’t noticed an oncoming car and swerved into the ditch to avoid it. I called Dad and he came to my rescue like an actual madman, choosing to climb into a crushed vehicle instead of waiting for people with the proper tools to show up and do their job. Now, he had a broken back and I had to live with the fact that there was no oncoming car, and that this was not an accident at all. Since I hadn’t told my parents, though, they thought everything was fine, so there was really nothing I could do except keep going to school and pretending like everything was as fine as they thought. –>

 

<!– Our school wasn’t that bad when you compared it to other schools. I had been to more than enough schools to know. The people who went here hated it and thought it was the absolute worst, even though I had been to more than enough schools to know that Evergreen High was only mildly horrible. The worst part about the school was the people, even if everyone tried to complain about the rules or whatever. It felt horrible to think that, but it was true. –>

 

When you’re in a place for as long as I’ve been here, you can tell what people think about you. They try to act a certain way when they think you’re listening, but it’s when their back is turned and they think you’re not around that you find out the truth. Sometimes, it’s in their eyes, staring as you walk down the sidewalk and into the cafeteria.

Ethan walked next to me, but he was on his phone still, so I started to pick up my pace. I suddenly wanted to leave him behind and disappear into the crowd, just like my sister used to do to me during my freshman year. She had been gone for long enough that I didn’t even think about her as Amanda anymore. She’d been relegated to “my sister”. Someone else. An other. An outsider. I hated to think of her this way, but it’d been so long since I had seen her. Mom and Dad hadn’t forgotten her yet, though, so there was still hope.

I didn’t think that Ethan would notice, but he did and started speed walking to catch up. “Where’s the fire, Emma?” He asked. I tried not to laugh. I wasn’t in the mood for laughter, but the way he said it reminded me of whenever Mom was driving and someone was racing past her. She would lean out the window and yell “Where’s the fire?!” as though that was the most clever comeback in the history of the world.

But I honestly didn’t want to laugh or remember silly stories form the past. I just wanted to get inside the cafeteria, to get my food, and then eat in the hallway in front of History. I didn’t want to be in the cafeteria, or the adjacent outside pavilion where two thirds of the school congregated. I was already tired of this whole school thing, and we were only three weeks into the my final school year.

But, like everyone else in Evergreen High, what I was really tired of was the people here. Everyone here belonged somewhere. They all had groups and clubs and sports and friends. I was the only one who hadn’t found anything. I had been going to this school for three years now – this was my fourth and final year (thank God) – but I still hadn’t found that place. Sure, I had Ethan, but even he had found a place to belong. He was always with his precious study club with his friends that he always talked about and always had in stories like they were the most interesting people on the face of the earth.

Did I want to belong here, though? If I really asked myself, and if I was really honest, could I say that I had actually tried to belong? Or was I just waiting for someone to come to me, like Ethan had? Was I just expecting people to befriend me when I didn’t do anything that would make anyone want to be my friend?

The thoughts in my head were really questions that Amanda used to ask me, back when she and I used to stay up all night just talking. She and I had shared a room for our entire lives. Since she was so much older, she had all the wisdom, and since I was so young, I was the perfect student, ready to listen and learn from every word she said.

Amanda didn’t have any more words for me, though. Whenever I texted her or sent her a DM, she read it and completely ignored it. Scratch that – she completely ignored me.

I was feeling fed up with it all, and I hadn’t even gotten my breakfast yet. I stood on the line, staring ahead, my mind racing a million miles per hour. I wondered what Ethan would think if he could read my thoughts. What would he say about how quickly I change subjects from this school to Amanda, then to whatever else might have caught my attention and then back to Amanda. How could I help it, though? Aside from Ethan, Amanda had been my best friend.

He was standing behind me in line, his phone out in his hands again. I felt a slight vibration in my pocket. I checked my phone.

What’s wrong, Emma? He asked. I was not sure how to respond. I didn’t have to. He sent another message.

Can we talk outside once we get our breakfast?

I replied: sure

After I chose my free breakfast (box of Life cereal, Canadian bacon, scrambled eggs, milk), I made my way to the hallway in front of History. Ethan’s footsteps were not far behind. We sat down against the wall, not caring that the floors were probably still filthy from yesterdays shenanigans.

I took a bite of the Canadian bacon. Ethan drew in a breath. It seemed like he was debating whether or not he should start first. If he asked me what was wrong, I would have to tell him the truth. I just wasn’t sure if I was ready to tell him. Was sitting on the floor in the hallway eating crap food the best time to tell someone about your deep seated mental and emotional traumas?

But then he suddenly said:

“I’m moving next week.”

There’s no right way to respond to news like that. You’re not supposed to say “congratulations” because he hasn’t been planning a move. You’re also not supposed to say “no, please don’t leave” because you know it’s not their choice. So instead I swallowed my food.

“That’s crazy, man.” I wanted to follow it up with a “why didn’t you tell me until just now”, but it was like he read my mind.

“Emma, I wanted to tell you earlier, but it’s not easy finding the right time.”

“Is that why you haven’t been talking to me? How long have you known?”

“Since before school started.”

So we both had end of summer secrets. He had shared his. How on earth was I going to share mine? Especially not with a bombshell revelation like that.

“My dad got a job working for a different construction company,” Ethan started. “It’s based in the city of Miami, though, so that means we have to move closer.”

“Did he ask you?”

Ethan laughed. “Do your parents ask you before they do anything? We’re not really close like that. Besides,” he looked away, “it’s not like my dad would ever listen to anything I say.”

I knew that Ethan and his dad had their issues, but his father would never be as bad as his mom, who he wasn’t allowed to live with. I knew that I was sounding like a whiny brat. But at that moment, I realized that my only friend was going to physically slip away. Just like that, the number of friends I had in this world had dwindled down from one to zero. What was I supposed to say?

“Does this mean we can’t be friends anymore?” I was afraid to ask, but I knew that someone had to. Besides, I wanted to talk so my mind wouldn’t have a chance to run at a brisk pace of one hundred miles per hour.

“No, no, of course we can be friends,” Ethan said. “It’s only like an hour away from here, so we can still hang out on the weekends or whatever.”

“Ethan, neither of us have a car. And it’s not like we really hang out when we’re not in school anyway.”

“Well, we could play games online, then.”

“Dad says I can’t play in my room anymore, because James got caught doing stuff online so we can’t use the Internet in our rooms.”

I knew I was being difficult. I saw it on Ethan’s face.

“We can still FaceTime every now and then.”

I took another bite of the Canadian bacon. It did not taste so good anymore.

“It was good knowing you, Ethan,” I said, at probably the worst joke timing since the dawn of man.

“Emma…” He dragged out the syllables in my name so it sounded like a whine. I knew that I was the one being whiny, but I was literally the one who was about to lose the only friend they’d had in this place for years.

Now, there was no way on earth that I could tell him about the accident or why I had really done it.

 

Chapter Two

It was suddenly two hours later and I was standing in the middle of a moving bus wondering how I had gotten here. James had already found a seat in the front with one of his many fan girls. I can’t remember a time when girls didn’t fawn over my littler brother. He didn’t actually like any of them, though – he just liked the attention. Or at least, that’s what Amanda used to say.

I wished she were here. She and I would always sit together on the bus during the years we went to Evergreen High together. Amanda was one of those who knew everyone in the school and was friends with three fourths and enemies with the remainder. If ever she had a seat and I couldn’t find one, she would convince someone to scoot over and let me sit next to them. She had a charisma, a magnetism, that drew people to her every word. That’s why, even now, a few months since she had left, people still remembered her. It helped that she had a very active social media presence. But Amanda was gone, now, gone from our lives, so the only hope I had of acquiring a seat was to find someone who wouldn’t mind seating three to a seat.

I held onto the seat next to me as the bus lurched under my feet. My body swayed as it tried to keep balance all the while searching the dark bus for a place to sit. I scoured the tired eyes for a sympathetic face, but everyone kept their gaze forward, knowing that they couldn’t refuse if we made eye contact.

“Find a seat!” The bus driver suddenly yelled. The entire bus turned on me, and I felt overwhelmed by their dark stares. Even James turned around, which was dumb, because he already knew it was me. It was always me. Singled out. Alone.

I turned to the girl sitting down in the seat directly to my left. “Can I sit here?” I mumbled. She gave me an exasperated look and slid closer to the guy I had assumed was her boyfriend. Somehow, there was enough space for half of my bottom. I held on to the seat in front of me for dear life. There was a turn at the end of the turnpike that would require every single muscle in my body to keep me from falling onto the ground. With one hand, I plugged in my headphones and attempted to drown out the noises of the world.

It wasn’t like anyone was saying anything to me. They probably didn’t even know that I existed. The problem was that I was convinced they were watching my every move. I felt like they were analyzing every twitch, listening to every word, judging every single action. The truth was that they didn’t actually care enough to notice.

I opened Instagram with my free hand and clicked on Amanda’s story. I had already seen it twice, but it was more interesting than anything else on here, so I watched it again. She was just making jokes with her friends at the mall – nothing special – but it was another chance to see her having fun. Amanda hadn’t laughed this much in the last few months I had seen her. She and Dad were more alike than either of them wanted to admit.

The stories scrolled from one to another. Now I was watching David recording his dog, then his little brother. Next I watched Harry Harris and his band hide CDs throughout Memphis, Tennessee where they were having a show. Then I watched Alexa displaying the photos that she was going to enter into the Photography Exhibition in the Spring.

The bus hit a rough bump. My hand clicked off the stories by accident. I felt relieved. I had been sucked into a vortex of events and lives that seemed to be filled with so much happiness. Why was it always like that on Instagram? It was like no one ever had a bad day. Or it they did, they only posted about it after they had just gotten over it. Why wasn’t there an acceptable way to post about how horrible you felt without sounding like you were just trying to get attention?

That’s what they always say: “she’s just trying to get attention”. I always wanted to say back: “well, if you just gave me attention in the first place, then maybe this wouldn’t happen!” Instead, I just hang my head and feel that horrible pit in my throat as I hold back the tears. I save the crying for the middle of the night, now that Amanda’s not there to hear it.

The infamous end of turnpike turn was fast approaching. I put my phone in my pocket and held on to the back of the seat with both hands. The girl I was sitting next to shifted uncomfortably. I had probably gotten too close to her. At least I didn’t smell. I made sure that I was always clean and used the perfume that Aunt Mackenzie gave me for my birthday earlier this year. I had overheard some girls in the locker room in freshman year saying that guys liked when girls smelled good. It was a stretch to think it’d work, but I had worn some kind of perfume every day since then.

You wouldn’t have to guess hard to figure out that it hadn’t worked so far. I had never even gotten close enough to calling a guy a “friend”, much less a “boyfriend”. But that was okay. Amanda had had her share of boyfriends for the both of us. To hear her talk about guys, I don’t even know why you’d want to be in a relationship with one anyway.

Mom was happy about it. For now. She said I’d eventually have to grow out of my disinterest in guys, but she was cool with me not caring about that right now. The memory of Amanda and her endless trail of boys was still too raw, even if it had been several months. I wasn’t sure if she had a new boyfriend. She didn’t seem to have him in any stories, so it was safe to assume “he” didn’t exist.

My train of thought carried me through the rest of the bus ride and left me at the edge of the sidewalk with an impatient girl and her boyfriend behind me. I made a hard right to head to the cafeteria for the gross free lunch they provided here at Evergreen High. I wondered why I had bothered with that accident when I could’ve just kept eating the food here and died naturally.

It was a gross, morbid thought, I know. I just couldn’t seem to get it out of my mind. I kept telling myself that I didn’t want to die anymore. That was totally true. I had seen what happened when I took matters into my own hands. The problem was that I just didn’t really want to live, either. I was just thinking that I should probably ask Mom to take me to a therapist when someone stopped right in front of me.

“Hey, Emma!” It was Mark, from English. He had his hand up, waiting for a high-five. I obliged with a soft palm, and then I continued to the cafeteria. The back entrance was easiest to get to from the bus line. I tried not to think about how Mark never really even talked to me in English. I guess he just felt bad because he had asked me for help on his Beowulf assignment and afterward, he ended up with a really good grade. It made the whole high-five thing kind of weird. I’m actually kind of surprised that I gave him a high-five in return. I’m the kind of person who would just walk right past him because I didn’t like drawing attention to myself. If I didn’t give him the high-five, though, it would probably draw even more attention to myself because it was weird not to accept a high-five.

From his perspective, the high-five was just one random moment in his day and he probably hadn’t even thought about it again in the ten seconds since it happened. Here I was analyzing it to death. Again. My mind just wouldn’t take a break. I tried to get into the cafeteria without thinking about the dumb high-five anymore.

Evergreen High enrolled about 1500 students, but some days it felt like over 2000. I wasn’t sure how they managed to fill that many kids into the building, but they did it every day. The lunchrooms were always a bit crowded, and the hallways were a sea of bodies, but at the very least 1500 kids were educated each day. Let me rephrase. 1500 kids were attempted to be educated. I’d say that only about half of those actually learned something useful. Some learned how to smoke for the first time. If Ms. Georgia, the health teacher, were to be believed, about half of the school was learning what STDs were every month when they tested positive for them. The rest figured that you couldn’t listen to Ms. Georgia’s fear mongering and have fun, so they made their choice.

I tried to at least pay attention in class. Maybe I didn’t learn anything “useful” or anything that I’d remember once I graduated, but at least I knew enough to pass the weekly tests, which was more than a lot of people could say.

Amanda claimed it was this precise attitude that made it so difficult for me to make friends. “If you think you’re above everyone, then of course people aren’t going to like you.” She just didn’t understand, though. I didn’t think I was above everyone – I thought that everyone was better than me. That’s why it was so hard to talk to them. What if I said the wrong thing? They would tear me to shreds and I’d be right back where I started. I couldn’t deal with that sort of pressure, so I just stayed away from the world.

It was actually pretty easy to just blend into the crowd at a school like Evergreen. There were so many people that if you never opened your mouth, no one would even notice. In my sophomore year, a classmate had died, and no one even remembered his name a month later. I wondered if that would’ve happened to me, if when I drove my car into a ditch I had never made it out of them. Would they all have forgotten me in a month? Or would they have just remembered me as Amanda’s little sister? I wasn’t sure which was worse.

There were too many thoughts for this early in the morning. I wanted to get my breakfast and stop them from filling my mind. I couldn’t just leave my mind behind. Put it in my pocket with my phone and keep it there until school was over. Maybe once I got into class, I could stop thinking. Try to focus on European history and the crazy medieval knights. Maybe that would do the trick.

I stood awkwardly in the breakfast line. I felt like my clothes didn’t fit correctly. I hated the colors (navy blue and forest green – duh). I hated the way my shirt was loose against my body but constricted exclusively in the armpits. I hated how my pants were normal sized, but ran straight down instead of clinging a bit to the ankles like everyone else’s.

I especially hated my hair, which was tied up today in a messy bun that didn’t look anything like the “messy” buns that pretty girls had. I could never understand why supposedly attractive girls were allowed to wear bummy clothes and messy hair and everyone thought it was cute. But if I tried it, I felt like an actual slob. As I stood there on the line, inching forward every so often, I felt like the entire cafeteria was staring at me, whispering the same comments about my clothing that I was thinking to myself.

The sad part was that I knew it wasn’t true. My clothes probably looked fine. People weren’t even looking. I reminded myself that they didn’t even know that I was here. I desperately wanted to take my phone out and text Amanda. She would always let me text her whenever I felt uncomfortable, and she would respond with nice little comments ( “you have nothing to fear”, “you’re awesome”, or other things like that). Sometimes she would text me a hilarious GIF which would make me completely forget what I was bothered by.

But then I remembered that even if I texted her, she wouldn’t respond. I honestly think she blocked me, because none of my texts get through to her anymore. Either that, or she is completely ignoring my texts. I don’t know which option hurts more.

A boy standing in front of me turned around and was saying something to me. I looked at him.

“Is your hair like wet or something?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer him.

He glanced over at his friend, and the girl tried to hide a giggle. I could feel my face growing hot. The guy reached out and put his hand on my head. I was honestly so stunned, I didn’t know what to do. If Amanda were here, she would’ve turned around and pushed the guy away. Instead, I just stood there quietly, not moving, hoping he would stop.

“It is wet,” he said, pulling his hand away. I turned to see him, and he was giving the girl a nervous laugh. He didn’t make eye contact with me, so I just stepped forward in line. I was beyond embarrassed, but how did you say anything about that? How did you tell some random kid that you’ve never seen to never do that again? I could possibly go another four years in this place and I still would never see this guy again. Was there something about me made it seem like you could just come over and touch my head?

I was still wondering about this as I filled my plate with a box of Life cereal, a small bag with apple juice, and a mini sandwich with Canadian bacon. I scanned my ID card and then grabbed a carton of milk on the way out.

As I made my way out of the cafeteria and into the hallway, I heard someone call my name.

“Emma!” The female voice was loud, clear, and slightly familiar. I wasn’t used to hearing people call my name at school so I stopped and tried to locate the voice. It was coming from the left and it was getting closer.

“Hey, Emma,” the voice had officially turned a corner and it was Eloisa. I honestly had no idea how she had seen me from around the corner, but Eloisa is a special case. I had met her in Human Geography, and she was surprisingly interested in being my friend. She would always say hi to me when I walked in, and she would try to get me to help her whenever she could. But unlike everyone else who was just using me for my help, she would also try to talk to me, something that was totally different from normal.

I stopped and waited for her to officially turn the corner. She was walking alone with a tray in her hand. My guess was the she, too, didn’t want to sit around in a crowded cafeteria or try to find an available seat somewhere outside.

“Good morning, Emma,” she said, coming over to me and giving me one of those air kisses in greeting. I pointed up the stairs.

“I was just headed to sit near history,” I said. She nodded.

“Let’s go.”

We walked up the stairs. I was careful to keep a good balance of my food. It wouldn’t do to drop your tray in the school’s main stairway. That place was in prime position to be noticed and ridiculed about for the rest of the day. I didn’t need any more attention for at least an entire day.

We reached the top of the stairs without any such incidents and started down the hallway.

“What are you up to?”

I tried not to say the obvious “eating breakfast and trying to hide from the world”. So instead I shrugged.

“Nothing much. How about you?”

Eloisa let out a deep sigh like she’d been waiting for someone to ask her this all morning.

“Well, my boyfriend – I mean ex boyfriend – suddenly decided that he wanted to be a jerk, so now we’re not talking anymore. And then Ethan and I texted all last night, but I’m totally not even interested in him so I don’t know how to break it off. And now my life is ruined because I checked online and it looks like I failed my math test.”

There was so much information, I was just trying to process it all. I was still on the “texting Ethan all night” thing when she barreled on.

“My dad is getting remarried which I don’t understand because what woman would want to be with him? And he didn’t even invite me or my mom to go the wedding. That’s because he’s a jerk. My mom is so furious with him, but I know she wanted to go the wedding just to talk to his new wife and set the woman straight.”

As she spoke, I was making a beeline for the seats in front of history class. Eloisa didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t say much to respond to her. She was perfectly fine speaking as many words as possible without even taking a moment to breathe. I sat down on one of the seats and she followed suit. I wasn’t sure which of the four subjects she was going to rant about right now.

It looks like the ex boyfriend one won out.

“I just don’t understand Jorge, like why couldn’t he just tell me outright that was interested in someone else? I saw them together yesterday, so does that mean he’s been talking to her for a while, and now they just decided to make it public?” Eloisa took the briefest of moments to take a bite of her sandwich, and then she was back at it again.

I kinda lost track of her story right about there. She was very interested in talking about her own personal life and she never really asked me anything about mine. Which worked for me perfectly well. I didn’t need to say anything, and she didn’t have to stop and listen. I could understand why she kept me around, not that her friends Jasmine and Sara didn’t really want to hang out with her anymore.

Eloisa was an interesting character because she was one hundred percent genuine. What you saw when you looked at her is exactly what you got. There was nothing else going on behind the scenes, no grand plot to do anything more than next moment. If she was in a relationship, she cared about them in that moment. She tried not to worry about the future.

Believe me, I had tried to do the same. I tried to be a bit more carefree and not think about whatever was coming next. Maybe I should’ve been a time traveler because I could never sit still in the present. I always wished I could be in the future already – graduated from high school, working on my degree, getting a job, being in a relationship, maybe even getting married and having a kid. I wanted to move out already. That’s why I worked so hard to get my license. I just hadn’t expected them to take it away after the accident. They were right to think that I couldn’t be trusted with it. I just don’t think they realized the extent of how right they actually were.

I was always interested in the past, too, though. There were so many moments that I wished I could take back, the accident being one of them, of course. But there were others, moments in time that I wished I could undo. There were places I wished we could get back to, like when we used to live in Orlando. I would’ve liked to live there now. Or even times when our family was different – not perfect, but definitely different. When Dad wasn’t so stressed and Mom used to still talk to me. Back when James and I could barely stand each other and back when I used to always drive Amanda crazy. I wished she was here so I could bother her again.

I wondered if she would feel the same way. Did she think back to those times and miss them? Or was she so content with her life right now that she never even thought about us? I don’t think she ever thought about me anymore. I guess it was a little ironic, since she was practically in every other thought I had. Maybe I thought about what our relationship used to be enough for the both of us.

Eloisa was still talking and I was afraid she would catch wind that I hadn’t been listening to her this whole time. I don’t know why my mind liked to run away like that, almost as though I weren’t here trying to pay attention to the people in front of me.

I tried to find where she was in the conversation: “…I told him that we were only friends and it wasn’t right of him to try to change things on me so suddenly.”

Ah. She was talking about Ethan, the guy who had texted her last night. I remembered him. He used to be in my English class. During the last month of school his father had gotten a new job. They moved to Orlando sometime in the summer. I had talked to him a few times because of class assignments, but that was about it. I thought it was weird that he would try to talk to Eloisa of all people. She was probably the most beautiful girl in our entire grade. Most guys didn’t even try to talk to her unless they were absolutely certain that they had a chance. So why was this Ethan kid trying to talk to her?

“How should I tell him -”

“That you never want to speak to him ever again in your life?” I took a drink from my carton of milk. Eloisa must’ve found that very humorous because she burst into a fit of laughter.

“Yes, I’ll tell him that! It would be so perfect because it’s so unexpected.” And then she filled her mouth with food and didn’t talk again for another three minutes.

I was baffled by the silence. I mean, I was used to it coming from me. I had a reputation for never opening my mouth in class. One of my teachers always used to mark me absent because she could never hear me saying “present” whenever she called roll. But not Eloisa. She was about as loudmouth loquacious as you could get. I guess even a talkative girl like her had some kind of manners and wouldn’t talk and eat at the same time.

“Did you do your essay?” I asked, once I had finished eating my food. She nodded.

“Yeah. Surprisingly. It was right before Ethan started texting me.”

Again with the texting. I didn’t want to get her on that train of thought again, so I tried something else.

“Are you going to get a ring?”

“Of course!” Eloisa smiled a little. “Jasmine, Sara, and I were supposed to get our rings together, but now I’m not so sure.”

“What kind of ring were you guys going to get?”

Eloisa thought for a second. “It was emerald and it had flowers on it.” She looked down at her food. “I think Jasmine was just jealous because I had CCC and she didn’t have anyone. And then as soon as Jasmine was done with me, then Sara just followed her. I don’t think that Sara really has much brains left.”

“Isn’t she supposed to be like your friend?” I was nervous around people who talked about their friends like that behind their back. Not because I was concerned with them being good or bad friends. I was just terrified that they would do the same thing to me. What kind of mean things would they say once my back was turned from them if we weren’t even THROWAWAY friends?

“Yeah, that’s what I thought, too,” Eloisa said, lowering her voice. “If I found out that she was talking to CCC at any point during this time I would not be surprised in the slightest. That’s the kind of girl that she is.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear any more of this gossip. I didn’t really want to be that kind of girl, who would just listen to the gossip and not do anything about it. I just wished they wouldn’t tell me so I could say that I didn’t know. And besides, wasn’t gossip a sin or something? All the girls in youth group would talk about how they were struggling with gossip and they waned God to forgive them for it. But if that’s what all girls wanted to talk about, then could I just tell her no, I can’t listen to this because it’s a sin? Isn’t that kind of weird?

I sat there unsure of what to do for a total of thirty five seconds before the bell rung. Suddenly, there was a mad rush through the halls as everyone tried to get to their class on time. Thankfully, Eloisa and I were sitting right outside of history and there was no need for a rush. She and I picked up our trash. I reached out to take care of hers.

“Oh, thanks, Emma.” She finished off her juice. “You’re so nice.” Eloisa paused as I piled the trash into the trash can right next to us.

“Hey, do you want to sit next to me today?”

I knew what was going on. I knew that she was lonely because her friends weren’t talking to her, her boyfriend – sorry, ex boyfriend – had made up a bogus reason for why he left her. I knew she was upset because her dad was getting remarried and didn’t want any of his old life to be a part of it. I knew she was feeling a touch of pity because some guy she was uninterested in texted her all night and she probably felt bad that she had used him for company. I knew that she was just using me for company, too. But it didn’t bother me as much as it should have if I was a normal person with a normal amount of friends.

I said, “Sure.”

 

The rest of the day was completely uneventful. We had a pop quiz in history, then worked on a project. It was cool to sit next to Eloisa, but all she did was talk about drama. After a while, I started to find it tolerable, but then it was time to move on. I didn’t really have many people I talked to in any of the other classes. It was weird. I didn’t really do anything to make people dislike me like some of the other supposedly outcast kids, but I also didn’t do anything to attract people to me, if that made sense.

That was something about Amanda that I really admired. She was always able to get people to notice her when she walked into a room. Dad called it charisma, and he said that was what people like Hitler had and that’s why they got people to be okay with him running their country. I thought it was a bit harsh to compare Amanda to Hitler, but she was off being rebellious and leading all of her church friends into trouble.

I didn’t want to spend any more time thinking about Amanda. I saw her every where, in random hallways where I had a conversation with her. I saw her in the many kids who were always hanging out with her and were in her stories. I saw her in the textbooks that had been assigned to her last year that I now had in my possession.

How can you escape someone who is such an important part of your life? I wasn’t sure I knew how to do it. I had managed to resist the urge to check my phone all day in school. As soon as the ending bell rang, though, I found a corner and took it out. I had exactly zero new messages. I felt a little disappointed, although I shouldn’t have. Why would anyone have sent me a text message? Mom and Dad never had anything to say. James didn’t even like texting me when he needed any information. Amanda refused to answer my messages, even though I texted her good morning and good night every single day. Maybe that was a bit excessive, now that I thought about it.

The bus line was already starting to form. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. Here we were repeating yet another day of our lives. I had done the same thing for the past two and a half years of my life. Stood in this bus line. Got on my bus. Went home. Did my homework. Went to sleep. Woke up. Continued the cycle. There was nothing to change the monotony, even when Amanda was around. She was always off doing her own thing. It was just another thing in my daily routine. I just didn’t know exactly what crazy thing she was going to do – I just knew she was going to do something.

I picked my way through the crowd right outside of the school and found my way to my bus. It was early enough in the bus formation that no one had gotten on our bus yet. I hoped I would be one of the first. If you got there first, then you could sit in the back, far away from trouble. That didn’t make sense, for conventional wisdom, but there was a trick to it. If you were the first one there, you had your pick of the seats. Everyone knew the seats at the back were the best. But the troublemakers weren’t too keen on getting to the bus on time. They were too busy making trouble out there in the random world. By the time they got to the bus, it was about to pull out and the only seats available were in the front.

There were about five people on the bus by the time I managed to get inside. I picked a seat on the left, three rows from the back bench, and put my headphones in. I was hoping to get some good sleep on this bus. I didn’t want anyone to bother me, so I took off my jacket and draped it across my chest. I leaned against the window and closed my eyes. Hopefully, anyone trying to get a seat alone would choose to sit next to me and we could stay out of nonsense together.

I chose a song and let the music fill my mind. It had been running one hundred miles per hour, what with school and everything else going on in my mind, that it was good to let it relax for a moment.

My phone vibrated in my pocket. I was slightly annoyed. Here I was, trying to remain calm, and someone was texting me. Or sending me some kind of notification. As much as I wanted to hear from people, I honestly didn’t want to deal with that right now. In fact, I wasn’t sure if I was going to want to deal with it for the rest of today.

But what if it’s James or Mom or Dad? What if they need something? There was the sensible side of me.

What if it’s Amanda? What if she is finally replying back? There was the hopeful part of me.

The unknown was going to kill me. What if James was asking a question about something important? What if he needed me? Could I just let him down like that? But what if it was something else? What if it wasn’t important? And now here I was getting uncomfortable for something that didn’t even really matter.

After thinking about it for three whole minutes (the song finished playing and moved on to the next), I decided to check it.

It was Ethan – definitely not who I expected.

The bus suddenly filled up with a loud crowd and I put the phone away in my pocket. I was definitely not going to have this conversation here in the bus. I was intrigued, but I was also terrified. Wasn’t this the guy who had spent all of last night texting Eloisa? What if she found out? I know that she was claiming he was just a friend, but she had also just been talking to him. Would she feel some type of way toward me if she thought I was trying to swoop in like that? But I wasn’t even doing anything of the sort. I wasn’t doing any “swooping in” or anything like that. I used to tell Amanda all the time that I couldn’t talk to guys regularly, how could I convince them to go out with me?

But what if he was just trying to talk to me so that he could talk to Eloisa again? Did I want to be use as a pawn again? I was a pawn when it came to talking to Eloisa and even Amanda all the time. Did I want to be a pawn once again?

I skipped the next song and closed my eyes. There was no way I was going to fall asleep, not with this new development, but at least I could close my eyes. When I got home, I’d have to deal with that. For now, I was just going to try to control my rolling stomach.

 

Mom wasn’t home when James and I got there. She was in week one of her second job and was spending as much time as possible getting the hang of things. I wasn’t really sure what her job was, to be honest. All I knew was that she was a manager of something and it had to do with retail. Or it was a restaurant. I couldn’t remember. To be honest, I didn’t really want to know. Her normal job was as a phone salesperson and I knew that she hated it. I also knew that she hated her new job and tried not to talk or think about it as much as possible. I told her that I would give fifty percent of my income from my job at Publix, but she wasn’t interested. She thought that I should keep my money and let her figure it out on her own.

Dad was sprawled out on the couch as usual. He was asleep again, so we made sure not to make any noise. Or at least, I tried not to make noise. James didn’t seem to notice or care. He slammed the front door and threw his backpack on the floor by the shoe rack. I don’t think Dad could even hear it. That’s why I felt like mom was just stepping on fake eggshells around dad whenever she told us to be quiet and to keep our voices down.

Of course, they had all kinds of conversations that sounded loud but were indiscernible from upstairs. I’m sure something in there had to do with us being too loud for him. But he pretended that everything was okay when he was in front of us, so I didn’t mind. If he had a problem with it, he should tell us to our faces. That’s what I always believed, anyway.

I grabbed a water bottle and ran upstairs. I wanted to get back to the conversation on my phone. He had messaged me on Instagram, which made sense because I didn’t have his phone number. In fact, he and I weren’t even friends on Instagram. I guess it worked because I had a public profile.

The room was still full of boxes. They were stuffed with Amanda’s belongings. The day before my accident, Dad had come into my room and put everything in there. It had taken him three hours to tear down her bed and stack the boards in the hallway. He had folded every single article of clothing she left behind and put them in a box. He had taken all of her collectibles and cards and random little toys she had from childhood and shoved them into a bin. And then he had gone downstairs to eat dinner. It didn’t bother him that he was packing up the last reminders I had of Amanda away, never to be seen again.

Maybe he was ready to forget her, but I surely wasn’t. I still don’t even know why he came in and put all of her stuff away. It’s not like he was up here seeing it all the time. It’s not like it was in my way, either. He just packed her away like he was trying to move on, like he was trying to erase her existence from our family.

Of course, the next morning was the accident and then the injury, so he never had a chance to put everything away. I don’t know if he even remembered that everything was still up here. If he had, I wondered if he would have had James take it down and put it in the garage for him. Or maybe even drive it to the dump. But I guess we would have a few more weeks to find out, while his back healed.

I stepped around the boxes. One of the flaps was almost open and I resisted the urge to search through it. This wasn’t the time to go digging into the past. For once, I wanted to stay here in the present. I wanted to check my phone and figure out why Ethan had sent me a message. I threw myself onto my bed, still fully clothed in my school uniform. I did kick off my shoes, though – I’m not a total savage.

The message wasn’t very long (Hi Emma how’s it going?). I quickly typed back a simple response and waited. A few new images had been uploaded since I checked Instagram earlier this morning. I didn’t recognize the girl in the first photograph. I knew that she used to go to middle school with me, but I couldn’t remember her for the life of me. I don’t know if we had class together. I don’t remember if we were friends or if we knew someone who knew one of their friends. I just remember her name and I knew that we had gone to middle school together so I accepted her follow request.

The rest of the pictures were about as great as you could expect from annoying high school kids who didn’t really know how to use Instagram. Of course, the app had changed in the past few years since I had first started using it. This was back before stories made things so much easier to share stuff, since they disappeared after a few moments anyway. Back then, pictures were full of annoying filters, but at least people tried to take pictures that were pretentious and possibly good.

Now, it was all half blurring images that no one was posing for, and if they did pose, they either tried to hide their face and accentuate their body, or they hid their body and highlighted their face.

Or, they could be like me, who never posted a selfie or portrait or whatever you call a photograph of your regular self. If my Instagram profile was what you needed to find me in a crowd, you wouldn’t be able to tell. Sure, you’d know the things I was doing and my different hobbies, but you would have absolutely no idea what I looked like. It was the opposite of everyone else.

I knew it was impatient of me to expect him to have replied already, but this was Instagram we were talking about. I knew he had an iPhone from when I saw it fall out of his pocket during a test last year. He had no real reason for not replying back.

Unless, of course, he’s on the bus and now he’s waiting to get to house to keep talking.

Maybe. Sometimes, I didn’t believe the voice in my head. If I had said this to Amanda she would laugh and say that I needed to get myself checked out. I would agree with her sullenly, and then we would laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole thing.

I clicked through a few more silly, blurry stories. I wondered why people were almost unable to record a story steadily. Was that like the method for recording stories? Wild, crazy, and almost unwatchable? Why was I wasting my time actually formulating a good shot for mine when I could make more acceptable stories with almost half the amount of effort?

And then his reply came in. It was simple (Nothing much, I’m gonna do some hw later hbu?), but it was clearly the start of a conversation.

I decided that I was going to let Eloisa know right from the beginning. I wasn’t going to have her mad at me randomly over a guy that she didn’t even think was her friend, all because I didn’t tell her immediately.

If nothing else, she would find it funny.

When I sent her the screen shot of his message, she totally did.

hahahah this kid! He couldn’t get to me, so now he’s trying with you!

Should I talk to him?

Just know he’s gonna try to talk to you for a long time. If your cool with that…

Uh, I don’t know.

Eloisa was typing. I clicked into his message. He was also formulating a response to whatever I had said.

I clicked back into Eloisa’s message.

Hahahah you’ve probably never talked to anyone for more than a few minutes, right?

Hey! I’ve talked to you for a while before.

Yeah, you never reply fast enough for me, so I don’t try to have really long conversations with you too much. Sorry lol

I wasn’t offended. It was true. I usually didn’t have many conversations through text. If anyone needed anything from me, they asked, I answered. This little exchange between Eloisa and I was more than we had done for a really long time. In fact, I don’t think I had ever talked to anyone like this, except for maybe Amanda. If James and I were friends then maybe we would send each other funny memes or maybe just complain about whatever was going on in our family.

I just didn’t really know how to keep up a conversation, regardless of whether it was on a phone or if it was in person. I sent her a laughing face emoji and clicked back into Ethan’s message.

She was right. He was actually trying to talk. I had asked him about his new school.

It’s like an art school, he started saying and then continued for what felt like an eternity. I don’t even think he realized that he was talking to an actual person. I mean, I was responding back to him, but it wasn’t really about anything else other than him. I guess that’s what you’re supposed to do when you talk to someone. Supposedly, if you get them talking about themselves then they will be okay with your existence. Maybe they won’t want to be your best friend ever, but at least they’ll like talking to you. Because they will feel like you’re actually listening to them. Meanwhile, everyone is like them and just talks all the time and never stops to listen. When you come along and you don’t say much about yourself, you’re a rare breed. But if you keep it up, then you are an enigma wrapped in a mystery. And people don’t like enigmas for very long. After a while they get bored and move on to someone else who will lap up their every word, except this person gives them something to work with.

It was a never ending cycle of which I did not know how to break from. So I kept texting this kid about absolutely nothing of importance.

Every now and then, I’d send Eloisa a screen shot just so she could see the nonsense that he was saying. I didn’t really feel bad. It was honestly just entertaining. I didn’t really have very much homework to do, so it’s not like I was wasting useful time. I only worked on the weekends, so that was still a few days away. We were reading a book for English (Jane Eyre), but I read through the whole thing the first day that he gave us the book, so now I was just going at a snails pace with the packet, acting like I had no idea what was coming next. And besides, it was a good break to this monotonous week. It also felt nice to get to talk to Eloisa a little more. I knew that they were both using me to talk to someone because their friends wouldn’t talk to them anymore. I also knew that Eloisa was getting her fill of this kid without having to actually commit to talking to him. If that was something that worked for her, then I was all right with filing in that gap. It was just good to actually be talking to two people at the same time. I had actually seen a two hundred percent increase in my “friends” in the course of an hour and a half. I think that was the best improvement I’d had in at least the three years that I went to Evergreen High.

Hey do you want to FaceTime? He asked, suddenly breaking my train of thought.

Now this I wasn’t too sure about. The texting was perfectly fine, because it was low impact. I could think about whatever he was saying and then I could decide what was the best response. I could send Eloisa a recap of whatever he had just said, we could laugh about it, then I could send him another reply. But if we FaceTimed, then that meant that I would have to stop talking to Eloisa. It would bring my circle down one hundred percent. Actually, it would be by fifty percent, but my math skills were not the greatest during moments of stress.

I texted Eloisa, asking her what I should do.

Her reply was swift. Yes, girl. Talk to that kid. Who knows? You’ll have him wrapped around your finger by hour two.

Hour two?! How long you think I’ll be talking to him?

For at least twice that long. Girl, you never talked to someone on the phone before?

Uh no. Can’t you tell?

Stop talking to me!

I sent her a tongue sticking out emoji and then obliged her request. I didn’t even reply to Ethan. Instead, I just ran a hand through my hair and sat on my bed, propped up against the wall. Then, I hit the FaceTime button and all of a sudden, I was dialing him.

It was weird seeing his face. His forehead was red with acne, although he tried to cover it with hair pulled across his forehead. His eyes had darker circles around them than I remember. I don’t think anyone had ever said that he was handsome or anything like that. He wasn’t horrible to look at, though, but I didn’t think he was anything special. Maybe that’s a rude thought to have about someone when they’re asking you to talk on the phone. But those are the kinds of thoughts that run through my mind. If it’s a person of medium attractiveness, then I can talk to them without feeling any type of way. But if it’s someone who would be considered on a higher point of that scale, then all of a sudden I get nervous and I can’t think straight. It was one of those pathetic things that people like me experienced, whereas I’m sure that none of the people we feel that way towards think that about anyone. Except maybe movie stars or something like that. I don’t know.

“What’s up, Emma?”

“Uh, nothing much,” I said. It was a little nerve wracking once we actually started talking. I don’t think he and I ever had a real conversation when were in class together in real life. It felt kinda weird that he’d be talking to me now. I reminded myself that it was only because he was lonely and Eloisa didn’t want to talk to him anymore. I tried to remind myself that it wasn’t because there was anything special about me or anything like that. I didn’t want to start getting delusions of grandeur or anything like that. Eloisa said I’d have him wrapped around my finger before hour two. I was just terrified that if I wasn’t careful then it would be the other way around.

“Listen, I wanted to ask you about your friend, Eloisa.”

Here we were, literally three sentences into the conversation, and he already brought her up. “What about her?” I tried not to sound defensive or aggressive or whatever.

“I think she thinks that I like her or something but I totally don’t. Do you think you could let her know for me?”

I tried not to burst out into laughter. “Sure thing, man,” I said. I didn’t want to tell him that she totally did think that. I would have to wait for a while later to tell Eloisa, if her prediction was correct.

“So you were telling me about an art project that you had to do?” I may not have been good with face to face interactions in real life, but I was finding a bit of confidence because of this screen. If he was done talking, he could just accidentally hang up and then text me saying he had to go or whatever. In real life, if you didn’t want to talk to someone, you had to either physically get out of there, or you had to stand there awkwardly until they got the hint.

Ethan took the bait and ran with it. “Yes, it’s like about something important that has happened in your life. You’re supposed to represent a moment when you went from not knowing something to knowing it.”

“What are you making it about?”

“Honestly, I don’t really know.” He frowned and rubbed his eyes. “Other kids are making it about traumatic things, but I don’t really have anything like that.”

“Your life has been smooth sailing.”

He laughed. “Well, no, not exactly. But nothing big like everyone else, you know?”

Up until a few months ago, yeah, I had known exactly what he meant.

“Do you have any ideas for what you’re going to use for your project, though?”

“Oh, yeah, I got that,” he said. Ethan pulled himself up from the reclining position and went over to his desk. He turned the camera to a sketch he had been working on. It was in colored pencils, and half a page was colored in black and the other colored in white. “I thought it would be cool to go with the idea of going from darkness to light. Like, from having no knowledge, to having all of it.”

“Like Adam and Eve.”

“Yeah, like that.” He was quiet for a moment while he settled back onto his bed. “So you’re religious or something like that? I never knew.”

“I’m a Christian, if that’s what you mean by religious,” I said, “but it’s nothing crazy like those people you see in the news.”

“So you’re one of those ‘I love Jesus but not religion’ or something like that?”

I shrugged. “I guess. I mean, I’m not perfect or anything like that, but we go to church every Sunday. And there are a bunch of movies and stuff that I can’t watch because they’re bad.”

Ethan nodded. “Yeah, my parents used to take us to church sometimes, like maybe on holidays. My mom is very much into whatever her new boyfriend is into.”

“Your parents are divorced?” I asked. I didn’t realize that he only lived with his dad.

“No, actually, they’re not.” Ethan sighed. “Mom is just having a side hustle and dad is totally cool with it for some gross reason. They’re gonna get divorced very soon though.”

“I’m sorry.”

He laughed. “Don’t be sorry. They’re both totally gross to be honest and they know I think this. They make fun of me all the time because I say that I’m gonna be one of those guys who marries his high school sweet heart and stays with her for his entire life. They say it’s impossible and I should just not get married.”

I swallowed. I had heard that part about high school sweet heart. Is Ethan the kind of guy who would currently have a girlfriend and talk to someone else? I honestly couldn’t say. I didn’t really know much about him from the past, and from today, we had only really talked about his art. Which was totally cool. And not at all what I remembered about him. I didn’t think he was doing anything that you wouldn’t do with a friend.

So why did he talk to Eloisa for so many hours last night? And why was he still talking to me if he had a girlfriend? I was completely confused, but I was highly entertained, so I didn’t hang up the call.

We talked about things like that for a total of nine and a half hours until we both fell asleep sometime in the middle of the night. I think it was around hour five that it happened. Not that he had gotten wrapped around my finger, like Eloisa predicted. This time, it was the other way around. And as I drifted off to sleep, I had a feeling that I shouldn’t have let it get that far. I should have hung up at 8, when Mom called out that dinner was ready. I should’ve said good night when it hit 10. Instead, I kept it going until at least 1am. I knew that it wasn’t right, especially since we had literally never talked before this moment.

But, honestly, there was nothing I could do about it now. The last though I had before my mind fell to the blackness was whether or not he was having the same thoughts over on his side of the universe.

 

The next day was murderous. I don’t even know how I opened my eyes. My body felt achy from sitting/lying down for that long. Plus, I was super hungry since I had totally skipped dinner to talk to some kid. I felt slightly embarrassed, now that I thought about it. What kind of person was I turning into? I didn’t even know who this kid was. Had I really just spent that many hours talking? I checked the phone log for yesterday. Sure enough, there it was. Thankfully, we had an unlimited plan, otherwise my parents would have been furious. Especially dad. He hated the idea of me talking to anyone for that long, especially in the middle of the night. That was when Amanda used to talk to all of her boyfriends. He hated to know that she had been conferring with those lowlifes while she was under his roof. I wondered if Dad would consider Ethan a lowlife. I thought he was very nice and interesting. He was a high school kid with aspirations for the future. What more would Dad want?

I sent Eloisa a text. I knew she would be disappointed in me. I did not tell her what I had discovered. I decided that I would keep that to myself for at least another day or two. After that, if it was all still there, then I would reveal that to her.

As I was brushing my teeth, I saw that Ethan had said something. Even though my hands were wet, I tapped on the screen.

Sorry I fell asleep. Anyway, it was good talking to you, maybe we can talk later today?

I didn’t reply because I was sure that Eloisa would say it was bad form.

Instead, I finished brushing my teeth and getting ready for school. This whole thing was a good distraction from the Amanda thing. How long could you keep waiting for someone to come back? She was obviously gone, living her exciting life somewhere around here. I knew she was still in Miami, but I wasn’t sure exactly where she was living. Probably with her current boyfriend or maybe someone from her job. I thought it was best to do like Dad had tried to do. It was best to move on. If she didn’t want to be part of my life, why did I insist on trying to bring her into mine?

I didn’t send her a good morning text like usual. Instead, once I was standing outside, waiting for the bus, I replied to Ethan with a similar sentiment. I hoped that we wouldn’t talk for as long this time, as I didn’t want mom to get suspicious of me. That was the only thing that made me nervous. Why was I here trying to talk to some kid in a way that would totally get me in trouble? Was that good in any way?

I didn’t think so, but I was also kinda too deep into it to do anything about it. Besides, I was finally feeling okay with myself and the world. Why did I have to come in with logic and reason and morals and try to ruin it? My mind was always going against whatever was happening. If I was happy, it tried to make me sad. If I was certain, it tried to make me confuse. I couldn’t trust it.

I think it was then that I decided I wouldn’t go all crazy about the situation, but I would be open to it. How did I even know that he had a similar reaction? What if he just didn’t know how to hang up because he felt bad for me? I mean, I started talking to him because of that exact same reason. Who was to say that he hadn’t talked to me for the same reason?

All throughout the bus ride, I had the same thought. I was making a bigger deal out of it than it was. I should just chill out and not think about it anymore. My mind, on the other hand, could only think of one thing: we were going to Disney for Thanksgiving this year, which meant that we would be in Orlando. If I saved up enough money, I could actually call an Uber and hang out with him in person. Maybe that was a bit much for the first time you talked to someone. But it was the only thing I could think of. And any thoughts that kept me from thinking about Amanda and everything else that was going wrong in my life was a thought worth pursuing. Even if it was some random kid who wasn’t even my friend but was just interesting to talk to. What had I gotten myself into? How could I get out? Did I even want to get out? Why is this all just such lame trash? Maybe one day I can clean it up and it might sound decent. But there’s the initial meeting. Now we have to move on to the next problem.

I somehow made it through the rest of the day in one piece. Eloisa and I did not have any classes together on “B” days, which meant that I would have to text her all the developments. We couldn’t even see each other during lunch, which was the only time I could’ve talked to her. It was weird, because we were not even friends, and yet I was looking forward to talking to her about a guy later. What on earth had I turned into? If I thought about it for too long, I don’t think I would have recognized myself – this change will always happen, but it happens much sooner than others. Was I honestly turning into Amanda? I tried to go through the rest of the school day without thinking about her.