Dying really isn’t so bad after you’ve done it once.
And I have.
I’m not afraid of death anymore.
I’m afraid of everything else.
August in Florida means three things: heat, oppressive humidity, and school. School. I haven’t been to school in over two years. Not unless you count sitting at the kitchen table being homeschooled by your mom, and I don’t. It’s Friday. My senior year starts on Monday, but I haven’t registered. If I don’t go in today, I won’t have a schedule on Monday morning, and I’ll have to wait at the office for one. I think I’d rather skip the bad 1980s movie scene where I walk in late on the first day and everybody has to stop what they’re doing to stare at me, because while that wouldn’t be the worst thing that would ever happen to me, it would still suck.
My aunt pulls into the parking lot of Mill Creek Community High School with me in tow. It’s a cookie cutter high school. Except for the putrid color of the walls and the name on the sign, it’s an exact replica of the last one I attended. Margot—she made me drop the aunt part because it makes her feel old—turns down the radio she’s been blaring the entire way here. Thankfully it’s a short ride, because loud sounds make me edgy. It’s not the sound itself that bothers me; it’s just the fact that it’s loud. The loud sounds make it impossible to hear the soft ones, and the soft sounds are the ones you have to be afraid of. I can handle it now because we’re in a car, and I usually feel safe in cars. Outside is a different story. I never feel safe outside.
“Your mother expects a phone call when we’re done here,” Margot tells me. My mother expects a lot of things she’s never going to get. In the scheme of things, a phone call is not much to ask, but that doesn’t mean she’ll get one. “You could at least text her. Four words. Registered. All is well. If you’re feeling really generous, you could even throw one of those little happy faces on the end.”
I look sideways at her from the passenger seat. Margot is my mother’s younger sister by a good ten years. She is the opposite of my mother in almost every way. She doesn’t even look like her, which means that she doesn’t look like me either, because I am a carbon copy of my mother. Margot is dirty blond with blue eyes and a perpetual tan that she easily maintains by working nights and napping by the pool during the day, even though she’s a nurse and she should know better. I have pale white skin, dark brown eyes, and long, wavy, just-this-side-of-black hair. She looks like she belongs in a Coppertone ad. I look like I belong in a coffin. People would have to be stupid to believe we’re related, even if it is one of the only things about me that’s true.
She’s still got that cocky smile on her face, knowing that even if she hasn’t convinced me to placate my mother, then at least she’s planted a little guilt. It’s impossible to dislike Margot, even when you really, really try, which makes me hate her a little, because I’ll never be one of those people. She took me in, not because I don’t have anywhere else to go, but because I don’t have anywhere else I can stand to be. Luckily for her, she really only has to see me in passing, because once school starts, we’ll rarely ever be home at the same time.
Even so, I doubt taking in a sullen, bitter, teenage girl is at the center of the vision board for a single woman in her early thirties. I wouldn’t do it, but then I’m not a very good person. Maybe that’s why I ran like hell from the people who love me the most. If I could be alone, I would. Gratefully. I’d rather be alone than have to pretend I’m okay. But they won’t give me that option. So I’ll settle for being with someone who at least doesn’t love me as much. I’m thankful for Margot. Not that I tell her this. Not that I tell her anything. I don’t.
When I walk in, the main office is a mass of commotion. Phones ringing, copiers running, voices everywhere. There are three lines leading up to the front counter. I don’t know which one to get into, so I pick the one closest to the door and hope for the best. Margot sweeps in behind me and immediately pulls me around the side, past all of the lines, and up to the receptionist. She’s lucky I saw her coming, or the second her hand was on my arm, she would have found herself facedown on the ground with my knee in her back.
“We have an appointment with Mr. Armour, the principal,” she says authoritatively. Margot, the responsible adult. She’s playing my mom’s part today. This is a side of her I don’t usually see. She prefers the cool aunt role. She doesn’t have any kids of her own, so this is a little out of her depth. I didn’t even realize we had an appointment, but I see the sense in it now. The receptionist, a fiftyish, unpleasant-looking woman, motions us to a couple of chairs next to a closed, dark wood door.
We only have to wait a few minutes, and no one notices or acknowledges me at all. The anonymity is nice. I wonder how long it will last. I look down at myself. I didn’t get decked out for the visit today. I expected to come in, fill out some paperwork, hand over some immunization records, and be done with it. I wasn’t expecting the swarms of students crowding the office. I’m wearing jeans and a black V-neck T-shirt, both a little—okay, a lot—tighter than they need to be, but otherwise completely nondescript. The shoes are where I made the effort. Black stilettos. Four-and-a-half inches of insanity. I’m not using them so much for the height, even though I seriously need it, as for the effect. I wouldn’t have bothered with them today, except I needed the practice. My balance on them has gotten better, but I figured a dress rehearsal wouldn’t hurt. I’d prefer to avoid eating ass on my first day of school.
I look at the clock on the wall. The second hand is bouncing back and forth inside my head, even though I know I can’t possibly hear the ticking over everything else going on. I wish I could tune out the noise in this room. It’s disconcerting. There are too many sounds at once and my brain is trying to separate them, to sort them out into neat little piles, but it’s almost impossible with all of the machines and voices melting together. I open and close my hand in my lap and hope we get called in soon.
A few minutes that seem like an hour later, the heavy wooden door opens, and we’re ushered inside by a fortysomething man in an ill-fitting shirt and tie. He smiles warmly before sliding back behind his desk into an oversized leather chair. The desk is imposing. Too big for this office. Obviously the furniture is meant to intimidate, because the man does not. Even before he’s said much, I peg him as soft. I hope I’m right. I’m going to need him on this.
I settle back into one of two matching burgundy leather chairs opposite Mr. Armour’s desk. Margot sinks into the chair next to me and launches into her spiel. I listen for a few minutes as she explains my “unique situation” to him. Unique situation, indeed. As she goes into detail, I see him glance over at me. His eyes widen just slightly as he looks closer, and I catch the glimmer of recognition in them. Yes, that’s me. He remembers me. If I had gotten farther away, this might not even be necessary. The name wouldn’t mean much of anything. The face would mean even less. But I’m only two hours from ground zero, and if even one person puts it together, I’ll be right back where I was there. I can’t take the chance, so here we sit, in Mr. Armour’s office, three days before the start of my senior year. Nothing like last minute. Though this, at least, is not my fault. My parents fought the move until the end, but they finally relented. I may have Margot to thank for some of that. Though I think the fact that I broke my father’s heart helped the cause a little, too. And, probably, they were all just tired.
I’m completely zoned out on the conversation now and I’m busy checking out Armour’s office. There’s not much to distract; a couple of houseplants that look like they need to be watered, along with a few family pictures. The diploma on the wall is from the University of Michigan. His first name is Alvis. Huh. What kind of crap name is Alvis? I don’t even think it means anything, but I’ll definitely check later. I’m running through possible origins in my head when I see Margot pulling out a file and handing it to him.
Doctor’s notes. Lots of them.
As he looks over the paperwork, my eyes are drawn to the old-school metal hand-crank pencil sharpener on his desk. It strikes me as odd. The desk is a rich, fancy cherry number, nothing like the crap industrial ones teachers get. Why anyone would mount such an ancient pencil sharpener on it is beyond me. It’s a complete contradiction. I wish I could ask about it. Instead, I focus on the ring of adjustable pencil holes and wonder idly if my pinky finger would fit into any of them. I’m contemplating how much it would hurt to sharpen it, and how much blood there might be, when I hear Mr. Armour’s tone shift.
“Not at all?” He sounds nervous.
“Not at all,” Margot confirms. She’s got her put-on, no-nonsense demeanor in full swing.
“I see. Well, we’ll do what we can. I’ll make sure her teachers are informed before Monday. Has she filled in a class request form?” And like clockwork, we’ve gotten to the part where he’s started to talk about me like I’m not in the room. Margot hands him the form and he peruses it quickly. “I’ll get this to the guidance department so they can have a schedule drawn up by Monday morning. I can’t promise she’ll get these electives. Most classes are already full at this point.”
“We understand. I’m sure you’ll do whatever possible. We appreciate your cooperation and, of course, your discretion,” Margot adds. It’s a warning. Go, Margot. I think it’s kind of wasted on him, though. I do get the feeling he genuinely wants to help. Plus, I think I make him uncomfortable, which means he probably hopes to see as little of me as possible.
Mr. Armour walks us to the door, shaking Margot’s hand and nodding almost imperceptibly at me with a strained smile that I think might be pity, or possibly, disdain. Then, just as quickly, he looks away. He follows us back into the chaos of the front office and asks us to wait a moment while he heads down a hallway to the guidance office with my paperwork.
I look around and see that several of the same people I saw earlier are still waiting in line. I thank whatever god still believes in me for appointments. I’d rather clean the inside of a Port-O-Let with my tongue than spend another minute in this cacophony. We stand against the wall as far out of the way as we can get. There are no empty chairs now.
I glance to the front of the line where a dirty-blond Ken doll is tossing his most panty-dropping smile in the direction of Ms. Unpleasant on the other side of the counter. Ms. Unpleasant is now positively glowing in the aura of this boy’s flirtations. I don’t blame her. He’s the kind of good-looking that transforms once self-respecting females into useless puddles of dumbass. I struggle to separate out their conversation. Something about an office aide position. Aahh, lazy bastard. He cocks his head to the side and says something that makes Ms. Unpleasant laugh and shake her head in resignation. He’s won whatever it is he came here for. I watch the slight shift in his eyes. He knows it too. I’m almost impressed.
While he’s waiting, the door opens again and a psychotically cute girl walks in and scans the room until her eyes land on him.
“Drew!” she yells over the commotion and everyone turns. She seems oblivious to the attention. “I’m not going to sit in the car all day! Come on!” I check her out while she glowers at him. She’s blond, like him, though not exactly; her hair is lighter, like she spent the whole summer in the sun. She’s attractive in the most obvious way possible, wearing a pink, well-filled-out halter top and carrying an obsessively color-coordinated, pink Coach purse. He seems mildly amused by her displeasure. Must be his girlfriend. A matching set, I think. Panty-Combusting Ken comes complete with Piqued Princess Barbie: unachievable measurements, designer purse, and annoyed scowl included!
He holds up a finger to her to convey that he’ll just be a minute. If I were him, I’d choose a different finger. I smirk at the thought and glance up to see him smirking right back at me, his eyes alight with mischief.
Behind him, Ms. Unpleasant quickly scrawls something on his form and signs the bottom. She passes it back to him, but he’s still looking at me. I point to her and raise my eyebrows at him. Aren’t you going to get what you came for? He turns and takes the form from her hands, thanks her, and winks. He winks at the menopausal office lady. He’s so blatantly obvious, it’s almost inspired. Almost. She shakes her head again and shoos him toward the door. Well played, Ken, well played.
While I’ve been amusing myself with the office drama, Margot’s been whispering with a woman who I assume is the guidance counselor. Drew, who I desperately want to keep calling Ken, is still standing near the door, talking to a couple other guys who are waiting at the back of the line. I wonder if he’s purposely trying to piss off Barbie. It seems easily done.
“Let’s go.” Margot reemerges, ushering me toward the front doors.
“Excuse me!” a woman’s raised voice shrills, before we make it to the exit. Everyone in line turns in unison, watching the woman hold up a file folder in my direction. “How do you pronounce this name?”
“NAH-stee-ya,” Margot enunciates, and I inwardly cringe, acutely aware of the audience around us. “Nastya Kashnikov. It’s Russian.” She tosses the last two words off over her shoulder, obviously pleased with herself for some reason, before we head out the door with everyone’s eyes on our backs.
When we reach the car, she lets out a sigh and her demeanor noticeably shifts back to the Margot I know. “Well, that hurdle’s cleared. For now,” she adds. Then she smiles her dazzling, all-American-girl smile. “Ice cream?” she asks, sounding like she might need it more than me. I smile back, because even at ten thirty in the morning, there’s only one answer to that question.
Monday, 7:02 AM. Pointless. That’s what today is going to be, along with the 179 school days that come after it. I’d contemplate the waste of it all now if I had the time, but I don’t. I’m gonna be late as it is. I head to the laundry room and yank some clothes out of the still-running dryer. I forgot to turn it on last night, but I don’t have time to wait; so now I’m stuck pulling on a pair of damp jeans while I walk and trying not to trip over myself. Whatever. It’s not like I’m surprised.
I grab a coffee mug out of the cabinet and attempt to fill it without spilling it all over the counter and burning myself in the process. I put it on the kitchen table, next to a shoe box full of prescription bottles, in time to see my grandfather coming out of his room. His white hair is so disheveled that he momentarily reminds me of a mad scientist. He walks alarmingly slow, but I know better than to offer to help him. He hates that. He used to be so badass and now he’s not, and he feels every bit of that loss.
“Coffee’s on the table,” I say, grabbing my keys and heading for the door. “I laid out your pills and logged them already. Bill’s coming in an hour. You sure you’ll be okay until then?”
“I’m not an invalid, Josh,” he practically growls at me. I try not to smile. He’s pissed. Pissed is good. It makes things seem a little bit normal.
I’m in my truck and down the driveway in seconds, but I’m not sure it’ll be enough. I don’t live far from school, but the backup to get into the parking lot on the first day is always a bitch. Most teachers will look the other way today, but I wouldn’t have to worry about it anyway; no one’s going to give me a detention, late or not. I floor it, and a couple of minutes later I’m waiting to get into the lot. The line of cars snakes out onto the road, but at least it’s moving periodically.
I’m running on four hours of sleep and only one cup of coffee. I wish I had had time to grab another one for myself, but I didn’t, and it probably would have ended up in my lap by the time I got to school anyway.
I pull out my schedule while I’m idling and check it again. Shop isn’t until fourth period, but at least it’s not all the way at the end of the day. The rest of it I don’t give a shit about.
When I finally make it onto campus, Drew is out front with his usual followers, regaling them with any number of BS stories about his summer. I know they’re all BS because he spent most of the summer hanging out with me, and I know for a fact that we didn’t do crap. Apart from the time he spent disappearing with whatever girl he was hooking up with, he was on my couch.
Looking at him now, I don’t think there’s anyone happier to be back at school. I’d roll my eyes if it didn’t seem such a chick thing to do, so instead, I just stare blankly ahead and keep walking. He nods in my direction as I pass, and I return the gesture. I’ll talk to him later. He knows I won’t go near him when he’s surrounded. No one else acknowledges me, and I pass through the rest of the crowd into the main courtyard, just as the first bell rings.
My first three classes could all be the same. All I do is listen to rules, pick up syllabi, and try to stay awake. My grandfather was up five times last night, which means I was up five times last night, too. I really have to start getting more sleep. In a week you will, I think bitterly, but I won’t dwell on that now.
10:45 AM. First lunch. I’d rather just head straight to shop. Eating this early sucks. I make my way to the courtyard and park myself on the back of the bench farthest from the center, the same one I’ve sat at for the past two years. No one bothers me because it’s easier to pretend I don’t exist. I’d rather spend the half hour sweeping sawdust than sitting here, but there isn’t any sawdust to sweep yet. At least it’s early enough that the metal benches aren’t scorching under the sun. Now I just have to wait out the next thirty minutes, which will probably be the longest of the day.
Surviving. That’s what I’m doing now, and it hasn’t been quite as horrible as I expected. I get a lot of sideways looks, probably because of the way I’m dressed, but other than that no one really talks to me. Except for Drew, the Ken doll. I did run into him this morning, but mostly it was a nonevent. He talked. I walked. He gave up. I’ve made it to lunch and this is the test. No one’s really had much of an opportunity for socializing yet, so I’ve been able to skate below the surface, but lunch is just a highly unsupervised hell dimension. Avoidance seems the best option at first, but I have to face the looks and the comments at some point. Personally, I’d rather shove a cactus up my ass, but apparently that option isn’t on the table, so I might as well just rip the Band-Aid off now and get it over with. Then, I’ll find an empty restroom and check my hair and fix my lipstick, or as we cowards like to call it, hide.
I try to surreptitiously check out my clothes and make sure nothing’s where it shouldn’t be and that I’m not flashing more than I’d originally planned. I’ve got on the same stilettos as Friday, but this time I went with a low-cut black tank top and a nearly nonexistent skirt that my ass doesn’t look half bad in. I left my hair down so it falls past my shoulders and covers the scar on my forehead. My eyes are rimmed with thick black eyeliner. It’s slutty and probably only attractive to the basest of human creatures. Drew. I smile to myself as I recall him looking me up and down in the hallway this morning. Barbie would be pissed.
I don’t dress this way because I like it so much or because I want people to stare at me in general. But people are going to stare at me for the wrong reasons anyway, and if they are going to stare at me for the wrong reasons, then at least I should get to pick them. Plus, a little unwelcome staring is a small price to pay for scaring everyone off. I don’t think there’s a girl in this school who will want to talk to me, and any boy who’s interested probably won’t be much for conversation. And so what? If I’m going to get unwanted attention, better it be for my ass than for my psychosis and my effed-up hand.
Margot hadn’t gotten home by the time I left for school this morning or she might have tried to talk me out of it. I wouldn’t have blamed her. I think my first period teacher wanted to nail me on a dress code violation when I first walked in, but once he checked my name on his roster, he ushered me to a seat and didn’t look at me again for the rest of the class.
Three years ago, my mother would have had a fit, cried, lamented her shortcomings as a parent, or possibly just locked me in my room if she saw me at school like this. Today, she’d look disappointed but would ask if it made me happy and I’d nod my head and lie so we could pretend it wasn’t a problem. The clothes probably wouldn’t even be the biggest issue, because I’m not sure she would mind the streetwalker uniform nearly as much as the makeup.
My mother loves her face. It’s not out of arrogance or conceit; it’s out of respect. She’s grateful for what she was born with. She should be. It’s an awesome face, a perfect face, an ethereal face. The kind people write songs and poems and suicide notes about. It’s that exotic kind of beauty that men in romance novels obsess over, even if they have no idea who you are, because they must possess you. That kind of beauty. That’s my mom. I grew up wanting to look just like her. Some people tell me I do, and maybe it’s true, under there somewhere. If you scrape off the makeup and dress me to look like a girl as opposed to what I look like now—a profanity-spewing guttersnipe being dragged out of a crack house on Cops.
I imagine my mother shaking her head and giving me the disappointed look, but she chooses her battles these days and I’m not sure this one would make the cut. Mom’s beginning to believe I may be a lost cause and that’s a good thing, because I am, and I left her house so she could accept it. I was a lost cause a long time ago. That thought makes me sad for my mother, because she didn’t ask for any of this. She thought she’d gotten her miracle, and I was the only one who knew she hadn’t, no matter how much I wanted to give it to her. Maybe I was the one who took it away.
Which brings me back to the courtyard where I am still waiting on the outskirts like a guest on an episode of Extreme Avoidance: High School Edition. I planned to get here early enough to make it across before lunch was in full swing, but I got sidelined by my history teacher, and that three minutes meant the difference between a half-empty courtyard and the one teeming with students that I’m staring at right now. I’m focused, at the moment, on the brick pavers covering the entirety of said courtyard and seriously questioning the wisdom of my four-and-a-half-inch stilettos. I’m gauging my odds of making it across with both my ankles and my dignity intact when I hear a voice to my right call out.
I turn instinctively, but I know immediately that it’s the wrong thing to do. Sitting on a bench, a couple feet away, is the owner of that voice, and he’s looking right at me. He’s leaning back casually with his legs spread farther apart than they need to be in a blatant display of wishful thinking. He smiles, and I can’t deny that he knows he’s good-looking. If self-adoration were cologne, he would be the boy you couldn’t stand next to without choking. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Like me. We could be brother and sister or one of those really creepy couples who look like they should be brother and sister.
I’m pissed at myself for looking. Now, when I turn and ignore him to make my way across the battlefield, I can be certain that his eyes—as well as every other set of eyes on that bench with him—are going to be trained on my back. And when I say my back, I mean my ass.
I recontemplate the unstable surface of the pavers. No pressure or anything. I avert my eyes back to the task at hand in time to hear him add, “If you’re looking for someplace to sit, my lap is free.” And there it is. It’s not even clever or original, but his equally wit-free friends laugh anyway. There go my hopes for our bourgeoning sibling kinship. I step off the ledge and start walking, keeping my eyes trained straight ahead as if I have some purpose outside of simply surviving this walk.
I’m not even halfway through the day. I still have four of the seven classes left on the schedule that shit gave birth to.
I got to school early enough this morning to stop in the office and pick up my schedule. Of course, if I’d known at the time what I’d find on it, I might have put off the inevitable. It was crazy in there again, but Ms. Marsh, the guidance counselor, had given instructions for me to go to her office and pick up my schedule from her personally—just another one of the many perks of being me.
“Good morning, Nastya, Nastya,” she said, repeating my name with two different pronunciations and absentmindedly looking to me for confirmation, which I didn’t give her. She was far too cheery for the first day of school or for seven o’clock in the morning in general. It was definitely unnatural. There’s probably a class for guidance counselors only—How to Emit Inappropriate Joy in the Face of Adolescent Horror. I’m fairly certain they don’t make teachers take it, because they don’t even bother to pretend. Half of them are as miserable as I am.
She motioned for me to sit. I didn’t. My skirt was way too short for sitting in a chair that didn’t have a desk obscuring it. She handed me a map of campus and my schedule. I scanned it, mostly looking for the electives, because I knew what all the required courses were going to be. You’ve got to be kidding me. For a minute I was convinced that she must have handed me the wrong schedule, so I checked the top of the paper. No, that’s me. I wasn’t sure what the right reaction was in that situation. You know the one, where the universe decides to put its steel-toed boot up your ass yet again. Crying was out of the question and a screaming hissy-fit laced with maniacal laughter and profanity was, most definitely, off the table, which left me with my only other option: stunned silence.
Ms. Marsh must have caught the look on my face, and I’m betting it was pretty expressive, because she immediately launched into a detailed explanation involving graduation requirements and overfilled electives. She sounded almost like she was apologizing to me, and maybe she should have been, because it seriously sucked, but I almost wished I could have told her it was okay so she’d stop feeling bad. I’d survive it. It would take more than a few shitty classes to break me. I took my schedule, my map, and my abject horror and made my way to class, reading it again and again as I went. Unfortunately, it stayed the same every time.
At this point, I’ve made it almost to the halfway mark. It hasn’t been so bad, relatively speaking, and everything in my life is relative. My teachers aren’t horrible. My English teacher, Ms. McAllister, actually looks me in the eye like she’s daring me to expect her to treat me differently. I like her. But the worst is yet to come, so I won’t start pouring the champagne just yet.
Plus, I still have to navigate the trail of tears that is this courtyard. I’m nothing if not a coward, but I can’t put it off much longer. I’m about six feet in and not doing so badly. I’m focused on my goal—the beacon that is the double-door entrance to the English wing—on the opposite side of my brick-lined square nemesis.
I take in everything I can with my peripheral vision. It’s packed out here. And loud. So unbearably loud. I try to let all of the separate conversations and voices melt together into what I imagine is one continuous hum.
There are small groups around all of the benches, piled on top of them and standing next to them. Some students sit on the outer edges of the garden boxes that are placed incrementally throughout. Then there are the smart ones who sit on the ground in the shade of the walkway that runs around the perimeter. There aren’t enough places to sit, there’s barely any reprieve from the sun, and it’s hotter than hell out here. I can’t imagine the utter craphole the cafeteria must be that this many people would rather sweat their asses off out here to avoid it. My old high school was the same way, but I never had to deal with the lunch period madness or any of the decisions that came along with it, like where to sit and who to sit with. I spent every lunch period practicing in the music room and that was the only place I wanted to be.
By now, I’m almost there. So far I’ve only seen a few faces I recognize: a boy who was in my history class, sitting by himself reading a book, and a couple of girls from math, who are giggling with angry Barbie of front office tirade fame. I can feel some of the looks I’m getting, but other than the ego-addled asshole with the free lap seating, no one else has spoken to me.
There are two more benches I have to pass to get to the doors, and it’s the one on the left that catches my attention. It’s empty, save for one boy, sitting right in the middle. It might not seem strange except for the fact that every other bench in this place—in truth every other place where a person could justifiably put their ass—is filled. Yet there is no one sitting on that bench, except him. When I look more closely, there’s no one even hanging around in the immediate vicinity. It’s like there’s an invisible force field surrounding this space and he’s the only one inside it.
Curiosity claims me, and I momentarily forget my purpose. I can’t help but look at the boy. He’s perched on top of the backrest, his worn-out brown work boots planted firmly on the seat. He’s leaning over with his elbows resting on his knees in a pair of faded jeans. I can’t see his face very well. His light brown hair hangs tousled over his forehead, and his eyes are cast downward at his hands. He’s not eating; he’s not reading; he’s not looking at anyone. Until he is. And then he’s looking at me. Crap.
I turn away instantly, but it’s still too late. It wasn’t like I just glanced at him. I was at a dead stop, in the middle of the courtyard, full-on staring. I’m only steps away from the asylum beyond those double doors and I take the risk of quickening my walk as much as I can without drawing attention. I make it to the relative obscurity of the building’s overhang and reach for the door handle and pull. Nothing. It doesn’t give. And I repeat, crap. It’s locked. It’s the middle of the day. Why would they lock the doors from the outside?
“It’s locked,” a voice from below me says. No shit. I look down. I hadn’t even noticed the boy with the sketchbook, sitting on the ground right next to the doors. Where he’s positioned, he’s blocked by a large planter box, invisible from the main courtyard. Smart kid. His clothes are a mess, and his hair looks like it hasn’t seen a brush in a week. He’s sitting shoulder to shoulder with a brown-haired girl wearing sunglasses in the shade and holding a camera. She looks up at me briefly before turning her attention back to her camera. Other than the sunglasses, she’s entirely nondescript. I wonder if I should have gone that route, but it’s too late to second guess now.
“They don’t want anyone sneaking in to smoke in the bathrooms during lunch,” sketchbook boy with holes in his concert T-shirt tells me.
Oh. I wonder what happens if you’re late to class. I guess you’re just SOL. I glance across to the swarm of girls hovering around the courtyard restroom door. No thanks. I’m trying to figure out some other escape route, when I notice he’s still craning his neck up and looking at me. It’s a good thing I’m not a couple of steps closer or I’m quite sure he could see right up my almost imaginary skirt. At least I’m wearing cute underwear; they’re the only thing on me that isn’t black.
I glance at the sketchbook he’s holding. His arm is draped over the top so I can’t see what he’s drawing. I wonder if he’s any good. I can’t draw for crap. I nod my head in thanks to him and turn to see if I can find somewhere else to go. Before I can walk away, two girls come barreling out of the door, almost running me down and knocking me off my awesome shoes. They’re talking a mile a minute and don’t even notice me there, which is fine, because I’m able to slip through the doors just past them. I wander into the cool, empty reprieve of the English building and remember how to breathe.
Fourth hour can’t come soon enough. I’m sweating already from sitting out in the sun at lunch, but there won’t be much in the way of air-conditioning in the workshop. When I walk in, I immediately feel at home, even though the space looks entirely different than it did in June. There aren’t tools and pieces of lumber on every surface. No carpet of sawdust covering the floor. No machines running. It’s the quiet that’s initially unnerving. It’s not supposed to be quiet in here, and this is the only time of year when it is.
The first couple weeks are a rehash of rules for equipment usage and safety procedures that I could recite verbatim if anybody asked. Nobody asks. Everybody knows I know them. I could teach this class if I wanted to. I throw my books down on the far corner worktable where I sit every year, at least during the time we’re expected to sit. Before I can pull the stool out from under the table, Mr. Turner calls me over.
I like Mr. Turner, but he doesn’t care whether I like him or not. He wants my respect and he has that, too. What he tells me to do, I do. He’s one of the few people who don’t mind expecting things from me. At this point, I think I’ve learned as much from Mr. Turner as I did from my dad.
Mr. Turner’s been running this program for as long as anyone can remember, years before I got here, when it wasn’t anything more than a cop-out elective. Now it’s one of the premier programs in the state. He runs it like a business wrapped around a master class in craftsmanship. In the advanced classes, our work raises the money for the materials and the equipment. We take orders and fill them, and that money gets filtered back into the program.
You don’t get into the advanced classes without going through the introductory levels first, and even that isn’t a guarantee. Mr. Turner only takes the students who live up to his expectations in terms of work ethic and ability. That’s how he keeps the upper level classes so small. You need his approval to get in, and in a school with overflowing electives around every corner, he’s still able to get away with it because he’s that good.
When I get to his desk, he asks about my summer. He’s trying to be polite but he knows me well enough that he doesn’t have to bother. I’ve been in one of his classes every year since ninth grade. He knows my shit and he knows me. All I really want to do is build stuff and be left alone and he allows me both. I answer in as few words as possible and he nods, knowing we’re done with the pretense.
“Theater department wants shelving built in their prop storage room. Can you head over there, take the measurements, plan it out, and make a list of what we need? You don’t need to be here for all this.” He picks up a stack of papers, which I assume are handouts on rules and procedures, with a measured amount of boredom and resignation. He just wants to build, too. But he also doesn’t want someone losing a finger. “Bring me what you come up with at the end of class and I’ll get you what you need. You can probably have it finished up in a week or so.”
“No problem.” I hold back a smile. The preliminary crap is the only part of this class I don’t like and I’ve just been freed from it. I get to build, even if it is just shelves. And I get to do it away from everybody else.
I scrawl my signature across the bottom of the waivers and hand them back to him. Then I grab my books in time to see a couple other kids coming in. There shouldn’t be many—probably only about a dozen or so students—in this section. I know everybody who’s come in so far, except for one person; the girl from the courtyard, the one who was watching me. She can’t possibly be in this class. She must agree, judging by the look on her face as she scans the room, taking in everything from the high ceilings down to the industrial power tools. Her eyes narrow just slightly with curiosity, but that’s all I see of her because this time she turns and catches me looking.
I watch people a lot. Normally it’s not an issue because no one really looks at me, and if they do, I’m pretty adept at looking away fast. Very fast. But damn if that girl wasn’t faster. I know she’s new here. If not, she’s made some drastic, unfortunate transformation over the summer, because I’m more than aware of most of the people on this campus, and even if I wasn’t, I’d remember the girl who comes to school looking like an undead whore. Regardless, I’m out the door about ten seconds later and I’m pretty sure they’ll have worked out her schedule before I get back.
I hole up in the theater prop room for all of fourth period, measuring and drawing up plans and material lists for the shelving they need. There’s no clock in here and I’m not ready when the bell rings. I shove the legal pad with my notes on it into my backpack and head out toward the English wing. I get to Ms. McAllister’s room and walk past everyone still milling around in the hallway, eking out every last second to socialize before the bell rings. The door is propped open, and Ms. McAllister looks up when I walk in.
“Aah, Mr. Bennett. We meet again.” I had her last year. They must have moved her up from junior to senior English.
“Polite as always. How was your summer?”
“You’re the third person who’s asked.”
“Nonanswer. Try again.”
“Still loquacious.” She smiles.
“I suppose we are both nothing if not consistent.” She stands up and turns to pick up her roster, and three stacks of papers off the top of the file cabinet behind her.
“Can you bring that desk up to the front for me?” She points at a lopsided desk in the corner of the room. I drop my things on a desk in the back and walk over to pick up the broken one to move it to the front. “Just put it there.” She motions in front of the whiteboard. “I just need something to put all of this on so I can talk.” She drops the stacks of papers onto the desk as the warning bell rings.
“You need a podium.”
“Josh, I’m lucky to have a desk with a working drawer,” she notes with forced exasperation, walking over to the open classroom door without missing a beat. “You fools better get in here before that bell rings, because I do believe in giving detention on the first day of school and I give morning detention, not afternoon.” She singsongs the last couple of words as a mass of students barrels into the room just before the tardy bell goes off.
Ms. McAllister doesn’t do bullshit. She’s not intimidated by the popular kids or the ones with the rich parents, and she doesn’t want to be your friend. Last year, she managed to convince me that there was actually something here that might be worth learning without ever once making me talk in class.
Generally, I have two types of teachers. There are the ones who ignore me completely and pretend I don’t exist and there are the ones who call me out and force attention on me because they think it’s good for me—or maybe just because it gives them some sort of control-freakish thrill to know that they can. Ms. McAllister isn’t either of those. She leaves me alone without ignoring me, so as teachers go, she’s damn near perfect.
She pulls out the doorstop just as Drew slips through the opening.
“Hey, Ms. McAllister.” He smiles and winks because he has no shame.
“Immune to your charms, Mr. Leighton.”
“Someday, we’ll recite poetry to one another.” He slides into the only empty desk, right in the front of the room.
“That we will. But the poetry unit isn’t until next semester, so you’ll have to stow your sonnets until then.” She retreats to her desk and pulls a yellow slip of paper out of the drawer and walks back to him. “Don’t be too disappointed. We do have a date tomorrow morning. Six forty-five AM. In the media center.” She winks back at him as she lays the detention slip on his desk.
Fourth hour shop class wasn’t so horrible. Mr. Turner didn’t pay much attention to me at all, which in a class of fourteen is pretty hard to do. He did check my schedule right off the bat to make sure I was in the right place and then asked me why they put me there. I shrugged. He shrugged. Then he handed it back, telling me I wouldn’t be up to speed with everyone else, but if I really wanted to stay, he could let me be an assistant or something like that. It’s obvious he doesn’t really want me participating, but I think I’ll stay. It’s a small class where I can probably be left alone, which is as much as I’m prepared to ask on day one.
I make it all the way through to fifth period before being faced with one of those inane get-to-know-you games in my suckfest of a music class—a class which I will soon be clawing my way out of by any means necessary. The teacher, Miss Jennings, a cute, twentysomething woman with a blond bob, pale skin, and hatefully perfect piano-playing hands, makes us sit in a circle. An elementary school, duck-duck-goose-style circle. This affords each of us the best possible vantage point for studying, and subsequently, dissecting one another. Oh, and getting to know each other, of course. That too.
As get-to-know you games go, this isn’t the worst I’ve endured. Everyone has to say three things about themselves and one of those things has to be a lie. Then the class tries to figure out which one is the lie. It’s kind of sad that I’m not actually going to take part in the game, because if I was going to play, it would be fairly awesome. I’m pretty sure I would hand over large quantities of cash to listen to my classmates and the adorable blond pixie teacher debate the possible veracity of each of my responses:
My name is Nastya Kashnikov.
I was a piano-playing prodigy who doesn’t belong anywhere near an Intro to Music class.
I was murdered two and a half years ago.
Instead, when they get to me, I sit stone-faced and silent. Ms. Jennings looks at me expectantly. Check your roster. She’s still looking at me. I’m looking at her. We have a weird staring thing going on between us. Check your roster. I know they told you. I’m trying to will her telepathically now, but I am sadly lacking in the superpower department.
“Would you like to share three things about yourself?” she asks as if I am simply a moron with no clue what’s going on around me.
I finally throw her a bone and shake my head as slightly as I can. No.
“Come on. Don’t be shy. Everyone’s done it so far. It’s easy. You don’t have to reveal your darkest secrets or anything,” she says lightly.
That’s a good thing, because my darkest secrets would probably give her nightmares.
“Can you at least tell everyone your name?” she finally asks, obviously not one to engage in a battle of wills. Her patience is running low and she’s covering.
Again, I shake my head. I have not broken eye contact with her, and I think it’s starting to freak her out a little bit. I kind of feel sorry for her, but she should have read her paperwork before class. All the other teachers did.
“O-kaaay.” She drags the word out and her tone changes. She’s really starting to get annoyed now, but then, so am I. I check out the dark brown roots coming through in her hair because it gives me something to focus on while her head is down, scanning what I assume is the class roster on a clipboard in front of her. “We’ll use process of elimination. You must be”—she pauses, her smile wavers just a little, and I know this is where it clicks because she’s all sorts of aware when she looks back up at me and says—“I am so sorry. You must be Nastya.”
This time I nod.
“You don’t talk.”
The Sea of Tranquility
An ALA/YALSA Alex Award Winner
I live in a world without magic or miracles. A place where there are no clairvoyants or shapeshifters, no angels or superhuman boys to save you. A place where people die and music disintegrates and things suck. I am pressed so hard against the earth by the weight of reality that some days I wonder how I am still able to lift my feet to walk.
Two and a half years after an unspeakable tragedy left her a shadow of the girl she once was, Nastya Kashnikov moves to a new town determined to keep her dark past hidden and hold everyone at a distance. But her plans only last so long before she finds herself inexplicably drawn to the one person as isolated as herself: Josh Bennett.
Josh’s story is no secret. Every person he loves has been taken from his life until, at seventeen years old, there is no one left. When your name is synonymous with death, everyone tends to give you your space. Everyone except Nastya who won’t go away until she’s insinuated herself into every aspect of his life. But as the undeniable pull between them intensifies, he starts to wonder if he will ever learn the secrets she’s been hiding—or if he even wants to.
The Sea of Tranquility is a rich, intense, and brilliantly imagined story about a lonely boy, an emotionally fragile girl, and the miracle of second chances.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Various clues are presented to point to the fact that Nastya Kashnikov is not Emilia's real name. What are those clues? Did you pick up on them as you were reading?
2. At the beginning of the novel, Nastya has chosen to return to school. Considering how antisocial she is, why do you think she makes this choice?
3. As the book progresses, we learn how the injuries to Nastya’s hand result in the loss of her ability to play the piano. In what ways does this loss affect her? In what other ways do the injuries to her hand affect her?
4. The themes of art and creation come up in many ways throughout the novel. Which characters are artistic? What role do you think that ability plays in the formation of their identities?
5. At one point Nastya says that she does not want to be dead, she just feels like she should be. Why do you think she feels that way? Do you think her feelings are valid?
6. Nastya explains that she doesn’t dress the way she does because she particularly likes it. Why does she dress this way? What does she hope to accomplish? Is she successful? How do you feel about her decision?
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