I wake with a start.
Janette is leaning through the slat of space in the closet roof, shaking my foot. “You have to get up,” she says. “You don’t have any more skip days left.”
I am still in the dank attic space. I wipe the sleep from my eyes and follow her down the three shelves to our room. I’m touched she knows I’m out of skip days, and that she cared enough to wake me up. I’m shaking when I reach the bathroom and turn on the shower. I haven’t shaken the dream. I can still see my reflection in the broken shards of her throne.
The fire swims in and out of my vision, waiting behind my eyelids every time I blink. If I concentrate, I can smell the ash above the body wash I’m using, above the sickeningly sweet shampoo I pour into my hand. I close my eyes and try to remember Silas’s words…You are warm and wet, and your body grips me like it doesn’t want me to leave.
Janette pounds on the door. “Late!” she yells.
I hurry to dress and we’re tumbling out the front door before I realize I don’t even know how Janette expects we’re getting to school today. I told Silas to pick me up yesterday.
“Amy should be here already,” Janette says. She folds her arms across her chest and peers down the street. It’s like she can’t even stand to look at me. I pull out my phone and text Silas to let him know not to pick me up. I also check to see if this Amy has texted me, right as a little silver Mercedes whips around the corner.
“Amy,” I say. I wonder if she’s one of the girls I sat with at lunch yesterday. I hardly noticed names and faces. The car pulls to the curb and we walk forward. Janette climbs into the backseat without a word, and after a few seconds of deliberation I open the front door. Amy is black. I stare at her in surprise for a minute before I climb in the car.
“Hey,” she says, without looking over. I’m grateful for her distraction because I have a moment to study her.
She’s pretty; her hair, which is lighter than her skin, is braided to her waist. She seems at ease with me—not to mention she’s giving my sour sister and me a ride to school. We must be good friends, I decide.
“Glad to see you’re feeling better. Did you figure out what you’re going to do about Silas?” she asks me.
“Uh huh,” she says. “That’s what I thought. You still don’t know. It’s a shame, too, because you guys can be really good together when you try.”
I sit in silence until we’ve almost reached the school, wondering what she means. “Amy,” I say. “How would you describe my relationship with Silas to someone who has never met us?”
“See, this is your problem,” she says. “You always want to play games.” She pulls up to the front of the school and Janette climbs out. It’s all like clockwork.
“Bye,” I call as the door closes.
“She’s so mean,” I say, facing forward again.
Amy pulls a face. “And you’re queen of nice? Seriously, I don’t know what’s come over you. You’re even more out of it than normal. ”
I chew on my lips as we pull into the high school parking lot. I open the door before the car has even stopped.
“What the hell, Charlie?”
I don’t wait to hear what else she has to say. I run for the school, my arms wrapped tightly around my torso. Did everyone hate me? I duck my head as I push through the doors. I need to find Silas. People are looking at me as I walk the hallway. I don’t look left or right, but I can feel their eyes. When I reach for my phone to text Silas, it’s gone. I ball up my fists. I had my phone when I texted and told him I didn’t need a ride. I must have left it in Amy’s car.
I’m on my way back toward the parking lot when someone calls my name.
I glance around to see who’s watching us as he jogs toward me. His eye still looks a little bruised from where I punched him. I like that.
“What?” I say.
“You hit me.” He stops a few feet away like he’s afraid I’m going to do it again. I suddenly feel guilty. I shouldn’t have done that. Whatever game I’d been playing with him before all of this happened wasn’t his fault.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I haven’t been myself lately. I shouldn’t have done that.”
It looks like I’ve told him exactly what he wants to hear. His face relaxes and he runs a hand along the back of his neck as he looks at me.
“Can we go somewhere more private to talk?”
I look around at the crowded hallway and shake my head. “No.”
“All right,” he says. “Then we can do this here.” I shift from one foot to another and look over my shoulder. Depending on how long he takes, I can still catch Amy and get the keys to her car and…
“It’s Silas or me.”
My head jerks back to look at him. “What?”
“I love you, Charlie.”
Oh, God. I feel itchy all over. I take a step back, looking around for someone to help me get out of this. “Now is a really bad time for me, Brian. I need to find Amy and—”
“I know you guys have history, but you’ve been unhappy for a long time. That guy’s a dick, Charlie. You saw what happened with the shrimp. I’m surprised—”
“What are you talking about?”
He looks put out that I’ve interrupted his speech.
“I’m talking about Silas and—”
“No, the shrimp thing.” People are stopping to watch us now. Clusters of nosiness form at lockers; eyes, eyes, eyes on my face. I’m so uncomfortable with this. I hate it.
“Her,” Brian jerks his head left just as a girl pushes through the doors and makes her way past us. When she sees me looking, her face turns a bright pink color, like a shrimp. I recognize her from my class yesterday. She was the one on the floor, picking up the books. She’s tiny. Her hair is an ugly shade of greenish brown, like she tried to dye it herself and it went terribly wrong. But even if she hadn’t dyed it, it looks…sad. Jagged, uneven bangs, oily and lank. She has a smattering of pimples across her forehead and a nose that’s pugged. My first thought is ugly. But it’s more of a fact than a judgment. She skitters away before I can blink, disappearing into a crowd of onlookers. I have a feeling she hasn’t left. She’s waiting right behind their backs—she wants to hear. I felt something…when I saw her face I felt something.
My head is swimming when Brian reaches for me. I let him grab me by the elbow and pull me toward his chest.
“It’s me or Silas,” he says again. He’s being bold since I already punched him for touching me. But I’m not thinking about him. I’m thinking about the girl, the shrimp, wondering if she’s back there, hiding behind everyone else. “I need an answer, Charlie.” He has me so close that when I look into his face I can see the freckles in his eyes. “Then my answer is Silas,” I say softly.
He freezes. I can feel the stiffening of his body.
“You gonna show up for practice today?” Landon asks. He’s already standing outside my door and I don’t even remember pulling into the parking lot of the school, much less turning off the car. I nod, but fail to make eye contact with him. I’d been so lost inside my own thoughts during the drive over, I didn’t even think to prod him for information.