The day it begins, begins with a crisis. It’s 7:28 Monday morn- ing, and I’m in the living room waiting for Leanne. “Why are you still here?” my mother calls from the hallway. From my post by the window, I can see her checking her makeup in the bronze-framed mirror. She’s wearing that crimson lipstick, the one she says brings her luck. Big mistake. If she had a fan instead of a briefcase, she could pass for a geisha.
“Leanne’s picking me up,” I remind her. At least that’s the plan. Leanne Lerner, my remaining BFF, is now officially eight minutes late and I’m seriously getting nervous.
My mother marches into the living room, hands on hips, geisha lips pursed. “Cass,” she says, “you know how I feel.”
“Mom,” I say, “you’re being intensely irrational.”
“Are you sure? Not totally irrational or radically irrational?
What about profoundly irrational?”
“You forgot profoundly annoying,” I mutter.
She gives me a scary smile. “I’m showing that house on Baker Street. Why don’t I drop you off? It’s only a couple of miles out of my way.”
“Mom. Stop.” I speed-dial Leanne. It rings six times, then goes to voice-mail. “Leeny, where are you?” I scream into my cell. I consider calling her landline, but veto the idea. Her father’s a pilot. These days he flies the red-eye from Dubuque, or maybe it’s Dubrovnik, someplace with a D, and would be pretty pissed off if the phone woke him up.
“I’m just saying it’s dangerous out there. Remember that accident on Canton Hill Road? And what about drunk driv- ers? Children should not be permitted behind the wheel. You don’t have the skills to defend yourselves.”
I roll my eyes. We live in Amersham, Connecticut, not a war zone. “How many DUIs do you think will be out at seven- thirty in the morning? They’ll all be hungover, not drunk.”
She who is annoying fluffs up a pillow on the couch, stands back to look at it, then fluffs it again. “It’ll be fun,” she says, all cheery. “We can talk along the way.”
It’s not like I have options. The school bus will be at my corner in two nanoseconds, and I can’t be late. Promptly at eight, three charter coaches carrying the entire sophomore class will leave the parking lot and head for the state capital. “We wait for no one,” Mrs. Snyder warned. “A no-show means zero.” Translation: I flush ten percent of my social studies grade down the toilet and hit the fast lane to summer school. I follow my mother out to the car. After seven minutes and twenty-six seconds of excruciating conversation, totally one- sided since she’s the only one talking (“Did you bring water?” “Did you remember your hand wipes?” “Don’t go wandering off by yourself!”), she pulls into the school parking lot. “Wait!” she commands as I attempt my escape. “I made you lunch. We don’t know where you’ll be eating, and with all that E. coli going around, we can’t be too careful.”
The woman needs a hobby.
I grab the paper bag (she’s even drawn a smiley face on it) and wave her off. As soon as she’s out of sight, I toss it into the trash. I had wheat berries and carrot juice for breakfast. If I eat one more healthy food, I think I’ll be sick.
And then I see him.
Him meaning Zack Wasserman, a sophomore like me, my serious crush ever since he transferred here in September. More precisely, ever since he knocked into me on the school bus and my left Nike flew out of my backpack. At first I was so relieved it wasn’t my zit cream, or worse, my tampons, that I hardly noticed him. But then I looked up at his sun-kissed face and fell into the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. His hair was tumbling out from under his skull-and-bones cap, curling down his forehead in sand-colored S’s. Adorable, right? We both bent down to get my shoe and that’s when it happened. I noticed he was wearing two different-colored socks and I was his for the asking.
Now he drives to school in a beat-up old Ford and I leave my Nikes in my locker, but he still walks around in mismatched socks and I’m still waiting for him to ask. Though I never really believed he would, not once he got the scoop. Not that I’m a toad or anything. I might not be a head turner, but I have nice eyes, brown with gold specks a shade darker than my hair, and great cheekbones, too, if I do say so myself. And for the record, I’m petite, not short. The thing is, I make guys uncomfortable. Not that I blame them. It’s been two years since my last episode, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. If I were dating someone like me and suddenly my date conked out, I’d probably take it personally.
Except…he’s staring at me. Why is he staring at me?
I can’t let him think I’m this loser standing all alone by the trash doing nothing, so I make a big show of perusing my backpack. Meanwhile, I’m sneaking glances at him while simultaneously bargaining with the universe: Come over, come over, come over! I promise I’ll eat tofu for a whole week! I promise I’ll never eat another burger again! Please, just let him come over! Apparently the universe knows a good deal when it hears one, because the next thing I know, there he is, in the flesh, looking all rumpled like he just woke up. And is that an egg stain on his T-shirt? What can I say? He’s like a little boy, helplessly adorable.
“You alone?” he asks, and my body goes popping like the Fourth of July.
Is he asking if he can sit next to me on the bus? I don’t want to get my hopes up, but I heard he broke up with Nicole. Nicole Houston, who has so many dangling piercings that when she moves she jingles. Though why shouldn’t I get my hopes up? Why do people always say that? What’s wrong with hoping? I know we’re on the same bus—Mrs. Snyder posted who’s riding where, on Friday afternoon. Silently, I thank the universe that she didn’t assign seats.
Two solid hours of me and Zack. Together on the bus. All the way to Hartford. And if there really is a God, all the way back.
“Essentially we’re all alone,” I reply, and my face goes hot. I can’t believe I said that. What is the matter with me? What is the matter with my tongue, which suddenly feels too thick for my mouth? For instance, I could have said while gazing into his eyes, “It depends,” or even, “Not anymore.” Either response would have introduced the flirtation element while masking my desperation. Why is my mouth doing this to me? “I don’t see Leanne,” he says, looking around. Right. Leanne.
Leanne will understand if I sit with him instead of her, won’t she? If this trip included seniors, she’d be sitting with Josh, right? What if I do her homework for a year? No, forget that. She’s smarter than I am. What about her laundry? Name my first-born child after her?
I can’t just ditch her. If I did, it would make me no better than Amanda, our old BFF, who threw us away like used Kleenex when she started dating Brendan “PS” (P as in privi- leged, S as in stoned) Marsh. That’s Amanda Lockhart aka Best Friend Backstabber, who is currently watching me from across the lot, probably wondering why a hottie like Zack is talking to me in the first place. Like she’s such a prize? Does she not know that emulating a stick is passé? She looks so frail, I think. Frail and washed-out. You know how thin old ladies are always cold? It’s a million degrees outside and she’s wearing a sweater. Her eyes meet mine, and a wave of sadness comes over me. For a brief moment I’m tempted to go over there. But then I look away.
“She’s late,” I tell Zack. “I’m not even sure she’s coming.” On the other hand, Leanne has all that extra credit. What’s a mere ten percent? Is it so terrible to hope she’s stuck in traffic? His eyes go cold. “When you see her, tell her I have a mes- sage for her boyfriend.” He looks like he wants to say more, but then clamps his mouth shut.
I blink. Hard.
That’s it? What about Hartford? What about Baby Leanne (or Leroy)? I feel like there’s a wrench in my chest. And I feel like an idiot. He had no intention of sitting with me on the bus.
“No problem,” I say, smiling like a dork.
I’m considering starting my own losers club when along comes Stephanie, like a spider with radar. Teetering on nose- bleed heels, she’s in a skirt so short you can almost see Texas. It’s official. Zack is single again, and Stephanie Roster, voted Most Likely to Become a Stripper by Amersham High’s entire marching band, is spinning her web.
“Hi, Zack,” she says, all flirty. Twirling a strand of her fake red hair, she smiles up at him. “Heard you might be lonely. Want some company on the bus?”
He doesn’t answer. He’s looking toward the buses, where a long line has formed. Mrs. Snyder is standing in front, clipboard in hand, blowing a whistle. At the end of the line, Brendan and Amanda are arguing. Brendan grabs her arm, and she shoves him off.
Zack turns back to Stephanie. “Yeah, sure. Why not?”
And that’s that. I’ve just had the shortest fling in high school history. Dead before it even left the lot.
Leanne doesn’t show, and I’m the last to board the bus. The only vacant seats are the two behind the driver and the one across from them, next to Mrs. Snyder. No one likes sitting right behind the driver, but it’s not like I have a choice. I’m so not sitting next to a teacher.
Cora Wood sings from my backpack, and Mrs. Snyder throws me a look. Oops. No phones in school. Though tech- nically, we’re not in school, so what is her problem?
While pretending to fiddle with my seat belt, I pull out my cell, turn off the ringtone, then read:
omg worst allergy attack ever. crashed early last nite. just woke up. sorry!
I text back:
u still coming?
no way. feel like death. ask snyder about my grade. thx!
ok but dhyb. go back to zzz!
Mrs. Snyder stands and faces the back of the bus. “Okay, listen up,” she says, glancing down at her clipboard. “We’re still missing Leanne Lerner. Does anyone know if she’s coming?” My hand shoots up. “She can’t make it. She’s sick. She’s very, very sick. She wants to know how she can make up her grade.”
“There’s no making up,” Mrs. Snyder says, scribbling away on her clipboard.
“In that case,” I say, “is it okay if I call her? She still has time, if she leaves right away. It’s probably not one of those bird flus anyway.”
“Never mind,” Mrs. Snyder mumbles. “We’ll work some- thing out.”
Five minutes later, eight o’clock sharp, the bus pulls out of the lot. I look out the window as we pass the country club. I gaze at the scenery, thinking how pretty it is now that May is finally here. Except this hot weather is really freaky this time of year. Air is blowing in through the open window, but doesn’t offer much relief. When we pass the turnoff to the river, I look away. After all this time, it still scares me.
Suddenly I hear shouting at the back of the bus. It’s Amanda. She’s screaming at Brendan and everyone is staring. “Get a life!” she yells, and charges up the aisle.
“Sit down!” Mrs. Snyder barks, and Amanda drops down in the seat next to mine. Her long dark hair is drab and stringy, like she hasn’t brushed it in days. Then I notice her eyes. Her pupils are as large as pennies.
A little early, even for her.
Her phone vibrates in her leather backpack. She pulls it out, glares at the display. “Where does he come up with this stuff? Asshole,” she hisses, and twists her head to peer down the aisle.
Before I can reply, though I’m sure her question was rhe- torical, she starts babbling about something that might have meaning in another universe, but not to me. “Amanda, slow down,” I say. “I can’t understand you!”
She looks at me for a second, then jumps into the aisle. What she says next is loud and clear: “We have to stop! We have to pull over! Let me out of here!”
“Sit down this instant!” Mrs. Snyder commands, her voice a high-pitched shrill.
Amanda’s eyes go wild. Ignoring Mrs. Snyder, she lunges at the driver, grabs at the wheel. “You have to turn around! We have to go back!”
“Hey!” the driver shouts. He tries to shove her off with his shoulder, but she won’t let go. He brakes hard and the bus swings into a full one-eighty, veering across the line and back again. We’re facing the wrong way and we’re not moving, we’re just waiting like bowling pins, and coming straight at us like a whirling kaleidoscope is this ginormous truck, and then I hear screaming, everyone is screaming, and then there’s this crunch, this sickening crunch, and the next thing I know I’m in a strange place.
Yet somehow it’s familiar, as if I’ve been here before. They say death closes one door and opens another, not that
I intend to find out. Just like the last time, I’m not planning on staying.