“I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!”
The look on his face is beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Hurt, sad, angry, broken. I can’t face it. I open my mouth as if to speak and he shakes his head.
The door slams in my face and I am shocked. Not shocked, really. I knew that it would happen, eventually.
But he’s gone.
I knot my hands in my hair and pull. I pull and pull and pull and pull until the pain becomes too much and I have to stop. I untangle my fingers from my hair and realize that I cannot feel anymore. I am numb. I turn on my heel and walk, quickly, quietly out of his building. Like they taught us in school. But this is worse than a fire drill. The fire has already started. And now, at this point, it can’t be stopped.
The silence is too much for me. It’s loud. Too loud. As I walk into the cafeteria, I hear nothing. But. Whispers. Whispers everywhere, behind me, in front of me, all around me. A group of cheerleaders catch sight of me and giggle. The sleek blond ponytails, the fake tan, the revealing gold and scarlet uniforms, the Crest-white smiles, the overly peppy, energetic attitude. I remember the first day of freshman year.
I saw them and rolled my eyes. They were disgusting. Totally fake. Fake noses, fake tan, fake nails, fake people. I heard a chuckle over my right shoulder and turned around.
“Gross, huh?” He said, voicing exactly what I was thinking. I chuckled.
“Yeah. I would never become one of them.”
“You’re funny. What’s your name?”
“Pleasure to meet you, Lily.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Will.”
I shook his hand nervously.
“Wanna sit?” He raised his eyebrows and looked over at a table in the back.
I followed him to the back of the cafeteria and sat down. We talked for the whole period, occasionally stopping to shovel food into our mouths. That was the beginning of it all.
I look back over at the cheerleaders. I shudder, but head over to my usual table, in the back-right corner. I drop my books onto the table before I remember that I can’t sit here. He sits across from me, his face set in a stony glare, jaw clenched to keep from releasing all his anger. He trembles a bit, and then I get the hint. I pick up my books again, and bite my lip so that I don’t cry. I feel hot tears welling up in my eyes, and I keep my head down as I hurry out of the cafeteria. I turn into the overly pink girls’ bathroom and shut myself into a foul-smelling stall. My fingers tremble as I close the latch and put down the toilet seat. I sit down on top of it and take out my squished peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then I count down until the bell for the end of the period.
Math class is a disaster. I do my best to ignore the judgemental stares, burning like laser beams, boring into the back of my head. My teacher drones on about exponential notation and variable uses, but I can’t concentrate, due to the seemingly endless amount of paper airplanes I receive. They all bear similar messages:
“I’d like to see things from your point of view but I can’t seem to get my head that far up my butt!” “What’s wrong with you?” “Even though you’re a trashy slut, guys still think you’re totally undesirable.” “Being a prostitute is like your ambition- but who would ever want to sleep with you!” “Geez, that’s gotta be a first- a tramp like you can’t even land a guy.”
I feel tears running down my cheeks. I put away my notebook and pencils and zip my bag closed. I nod goodbye to my math teacher, who looks confused.
“Bye, Mrs. Cosgrove.”
I can hear my voice trembling. That’s not good. I sling my bag over my back and run out of the classroom, crying openly now, and walk quickly and quietly past the security guard that’s standing in front of the main desk. I’m quaking with sobs, shaking. I push open the glass door covered in notices and announcements. I lose my footing on the step in front of the school and fall over flat on my face. I feel hot blood trickling down my mouth and raise my hand to wipe it away. When I bring my hand back from my face, my index finger is scarlet. I don’t care.
My feet pound the pavement and I’m not in front of my building, like I should be. I’m standing in front of my elementary school. It’s like I’m on autopilot. I’m being driven around. Then I remember.
I walk around the corner and stop in front of the big black gates that close in the playground. The padlock isn’t that secure, so I look for a little slack in the chain and duck under, into the empty playground. I climb to the top of the slide and look down. Rewind to last year. And action.
He took my hand and danced with me. He whispered secrets in my ear. He hummed sweet melodies. He told me stories, softly, so that no one else could hear, making them up as he went along. Then he pointed up towards the slide.
“Go up. Don’t worry, I’ll catch you.”
I climbed the ladder and sat down on the slide. It was the round kind, the one where you go around and around before you reach the bottom. When I was on the last turn, I caught a glimpse of him, a crooked smile playing at the corners of his lips, his arms stretched out wide. I flew into his arms, laughing giddily.
“See? I promised I’d catch you.”
The simpleness of these words was how he stole my heart.
There’s something oddly satisfying about sitting in an empty playground. The wind ruffles the pages of my book. When I exhale, I can see the cloud of breath leave my nose and mouth. I think about winter, how it’s almost here. The bitter cold, the biting wind, the sneezes and coughs and tissues, but the sparkly frost, the jingle bells, the sharp scent of pine and spice cookies. The happiness, the wrapping paper, the candles, the lights, the dark. New Year’s Eve to January 1st. Hugs, kisses, streamers, party hats, kazoos, forgiveness, clean slate. Regrets, guilt. Gone. What? How? People just forgive like that? Why? Don’t they feel anything?
It’s too cold to cry.
I stand up, abandon my bench, and duck under the padlock again. I rake my fingers through my hair and shiver. I pull off the sweatshirt I’m wearing, not caring that I’m already freezing. And I run.
I don’t feel the wind, I don’t look out for the traffic lights, I just run. I don’t see the cars, the people, the sidewalks. I’m a blur, flying a million miles an hour. I stop abruptly in front of my building. I go into the lobby and stare at myself in the mirror. Hair windswept and crazy, sticking up at a hundred different angles, eyes wild. I raise my eyebrows at myself, then walk into the waiting elevator.
The ride up is bumpy. The elevator rattles loudly, and I find myself sitting on the floor, stroking the ugly gray carpet. The elevator shudders to a stop at my floor, and I step out into the over-polished hallway. The heels of my shoes click and echo on the marble floor.
I walk into my apartment and sit down at my desk. Beside my pencil cup, there are a million Post-Its. To-do lists, doodles, messages. A blue one at the top of the pile catches my eye. Thomas called for Lily. I take it and rip it in half. Then I rip it in half again. And again and again until all the pieces fall to the floor. Then I pick them up and deposit them in the trash can. Calmly. Too calmly. But you know what they say about the silence before the storm. All of a sudden, I let out a bloodcurdling scream. I walk out of my room, my eyes alight with fury. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was smoke coming out of my ears. I ignore my mother as I pass her in the hallway. She probably knows, too. She knows.
“Don’t even look at me,” I tell Harry, my brother, who is sitting on the couch. He averts his eyes and refocuses on his video game. How does he know?
I go to the kitchen, and pull on one section of the cabinet attached to the others by piano hinges. It swings out and I unlock the door to the fire escape behind it. As I open the door, a wall of freezing cold air slams me in the face. I walk straight into it, and don’t even bother to close the door behind me. I hear Harry whining in protest, but he knows better. He should. I look down, nineteen stories separating me and the sidewalk.
And now that I think about it, I have terrible last words.
“Screw you all!” I scream.
I hear it echo in my ears. Then I say my real last words. That no one will ever know.
“I’m sorry, Will.”
Then I jump.
It was November first. Everyone’s Halloween decorations were still up, the jack-o-lanterns were beginning to rot, and there was still the sickly sweet smell of candy and chocolate in the air. The wind was making the leaves rustle on the ground, but they didn’t really move. It was cold. Will was out of school, sick, and I was heading over to his house to drop off the homework and some chicken soup that I had made for him. The soup was in a plastic Ziploc container, hot against my freezing hands. I could hear it sloshing around inside, and I hoped desperately that it wouldn’t spill. The homework was rolled up into a tube, and I was holding it in my other hand. Right as I arrived at his doorstep, my phone rang. I groaned, but my hands were full, so I didn’t reach to answer it. I rang his doorbell with my nose because my hands were occupied at the moment. Cold metal against cold skin. Pain.
His mom answered the door, unburdened me of the soup and homework, and thanked me. I heard video game noises blasting from inside the house.
“Die! Die! Die!” I heard Will screaming.
I smiled, knowing that he was well enough to be killing virtual people, or something. I hoped that he’d be back at school soon. I asked to come in and see Will, but she said that he was sleeping. It was obvious that she was lying, but I left anyway. I took out my phone to see who had called, but the battery was dead.
“Damn.” I shook my head but hurried home, so I could warm up a bit.
“Lily!” I heard someone call.
I turned around, to see someone jogging towards me. I couldn’t make out their face because they were too far away, but I could tell from the blurry figure that it was a boy. Teddy, from my pre-calc class? Or maybe it was Oliver, from the yearbook committee? As the boy advanced, I saw that it was actually Thomas, a very close family friend. He approached me carefully. He looked worried, sad.
He nodded. His face was contorted a bit, like he was about to cry.
“Hey, Lily. Uh, look, I don’t know how to say this.”
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Thomas, what? You’re really freaking me out!”
“Your mom called me because you didn’t pick up your phone, maybe ten minutes ago? She thought I might know where you were, because of that math group thing we used to do on Mondays…”
I chuckled nervously.
“Yeah, that was in like, what, seventh grade?”
“Yeah, anyway, she called me because she wanted to tell you that…” He took a deep breath. “That you’re dad’s in the hospital. He had a heart attack while he was at work. It was really major, he’s hooked up to all sorts of machines and things. Your mom’s there right now, but he’s barely breathing. Lily, I’m so sorry. He might not make it.”
I couldn’t breathe. Everything went fuzzy, and I couldn’t hear anything, like a blanket had been stuffed into my ears. I didn’t even cry. I was numb. What would happen? Who would take care of me? Would Mom fall apart? Would he die?
“What?” My voice trembled as was saying this. “What do you mean he might not make it?”
But I didn’t want to know the answer.
I turned on my heel and took off down the street going a million miles an hour. Fast fast fast fast fast fast fast. The buildings whizzed past me. I didn’t know where I was headed. Not the hospital. Anywhere but the hospital. I was too scared, too weak. I wanted to pretend everything was okay, just for a second. I ran until I reached my doorstep. I uncurled my frozen fingers from the fist I had unconsciously made and reach inside my pocket for my keys. I fumbled with them until I found the right one. My hands shook violently while I was unlocking my front door. My head was spinning, I was so shocked I couldn’t process what was happening. I hear the lock click and I stumbled into my empty, dark apartment. I didn’t even bother to turn on the light. I staggered blindly into my room and collapsed on my bed. For a while, I couldn’t cry. Then what had happened to my father dawned on me. I shook with heavy sobs for a while, and when I had cried all my tears out, I lay there. My head sunk into the soft pillows and I drifted off into a deep, deep sleep.
When I woke up, my mom was sitting on the edge of my bed, stroking my cheek. I saw dark circles under her eyes, and her age showed. Wisps of gray hair framed her angular face, and the worry lines on her forehead had deepened.
“Good morning, Lilybird.” She used the pet name from when I was little. I felt comfort in this.
“Hi, Mommy.” I said weakly.
She caressed my face with her hand and I felt a little better. Not much, but enough that I could give her half a smile. I was suddenly aware of a throbbing pain in my forehead. I reached up to touch it, but my mother pushed my hand down gently.
“It’s a bruise. Don’t touch.”
I lowered my hand obediently, feeling like a small child. I felt my eyelids drooping, and once again, I lapsed into a subterranean slumber.
When I awoke, my blinds were closed. I glanced at my alarm clock. A bright red five flashed on and off, but the clock gave no indication of whether it was morning or evening. I got out of bed and opened the blinds. The sun was rising slowly, a mix of blue, pink, purple, and orange. Morning. I stepped into my warm slippers that were waiting for me at the foot of my bed and crept into the hallway. I snuck out onto the fire escape, my back to the building, my face to the sun. I was cold, but it didn’t matter. It was beautiful.
Needless to say, I didn’t go to school that day. I was worried sick. I threw up twice, bit my nails down to the quick, and barely ate. At half past three, the telephone rang.
“Hello?” I said, my voice noticeably weak.
“Lily. It’s Mom.”
My heart lurched.
“Lily? Are you there?”
“Yeah. Hi, Mom.”
“I’m at the hospital. Do you want to see Dad?”
“Do I want to — of course I do!”
“Okay, Lily. I left money for a taxi under the picture frame on top of the piano. Ask Harry if he wants to come with you.”
“Okay,” I said feebly. “See you soon.”
“All right, Lily. See you soon.”
The line clicked and I hung up the phone.
I saw my dad that afternoon. He was sleeping. He was hooked up to about a million different wires and tubes and IV lines. My stomach churned. He didn’t look like himself. His cheeks were hollow, his skin sallow, his hand limp. I was so used to seeing my big, strong daddy, the one I could always count on for a hug, the one who would carry me on his shoulders, the one who never cried. I always relied on my parents to hold my strength. They were the ones who consoled me when I was sad or scared. But now they’re sad and scared. And I didn’t know what to do.
A knock on the door, then a lady came in. She was wearing a white coat.
“I’m afraid we have some bad news.”
My mom sunk down onto the bed, looking defeated.
“He’s not going to be able to leave. He’s on chronic life support. I hate to be the one to say this.”
I felt my heart pretzel itself into a knot. This is what I had always dreaded. Eventually, sometime in the near future, we would have to flip that switch. The one that kept him alive. I felt a crater forming in my heart, one that could never be filled. I don’t remember much about the rest of that day. I know I cried.
A week later, I saw Thomas. He, evidently, had heard the news. He folded me into a hug, and I started sobbing. Then he did something I will never forget. He swept me up in his arms and pressed my lips to his. I jumped back, startled. I thought about Will, about what he would think about this. I pushed the thought away. I didn’t care. Thomas moved closer and wiped away a tear that was trickling down my cheek. This time I kissed him, almost desperately.
All the agony I had felt over the past couple weeks, all the pain and loss, gone. His eyelashes fluttered against my temple, our fingers entwined.
I didn’t even hear the elevator open.
Out stepped Will, his nose red from cold, his cheeks flushed. He was holding a container of chicken soup and a bouquet of flowers. He spotted me at the far end of the hallway. Kissing Thomas. But he didn’t leave.
“Lily.” I recognized the voice.
I stopped. Thomas opened his eyes, startled. He turned around slowly, like a scared hiker caught in the path of a bear.
Will approached us. He stuck out his hand sarcastically to Thomas.
“Hi, I’m Will. Lily’s boyfriend.” His voice was still nasal from the virus he had two weeks ago.
“Thomas,” Thomas responded shakily. He shook Will’s hand while looking at me. His eyes were full of disbelief. That I’d betrayed him. It couldn’t possibly get any worse than this.
“Pleasure.” Will said sarcastically. He turned on his heel and walked out, casting me a look of pure disgust over his shoulder. No sympathy whatsoever. But it was my fault.
By the time the next week rolled around, the news of me cheating on Will was all over the school. I was so disappointed in myself. It spread like wildfire. And let’s just say that Will was not too happy to see me when I turned up at his front door to apologize. He couldn’t believe what I had done. Frankly, I couldn’t either. No one would look me in the eyes.
It’s like I’m standing on a one-way mirror. I can see them, but they can’t see me. They chatter wildly, all life restored to the once-dead school. It was only dead about a month after it happened. Now, everyone’s over the fake mourning, the ‘oh, yeah, I miss her too.’ thing. It’s like it never even happened. I didn’t do it for attention, you know. I don’t know why I did it. I felt like I had to, I guess. I felt like no one would ever forgive me. For what I did.
My eyes automatically drift over to the table I used to sit at. I scan the area for him, but I don’t see him. I go through every face individually. Then I spot him at what we used to call the Barbie Table. The table for the perfect plastic populars. His hair is spiked up with gel, he’s wearing skinny jeans, his braces are off, he looks different. It’s like he transformed into a new person. He has a perky blonde cheerleader next to him, and I’m assuming she’s his new girlfriend. New. I should be there with him, hanging off his arm, whispering into his ear, inhaling his delicate boyish scent, seeing the crooked smile spreading across his face. I should be the one standing up with him, holding his hand, exchanging winks and smiles across the room, talking to him.
Tears well up in my eyes, but I ignore them.
I keep watching the scene. I want to see how this plays out.
He takes her hand, his fingers knotting themselves into hers, and leads her from the cafeteria. My eyes follow them as they leave the room, leave the school, and walk over to the playground. He gestures to the slide, and she climbs up as he goes to the bottom. She sits down on the slide and pushes off, going a million miles an hour down down down down down into his arms. He holds her and kisses her. Passionately. I have to avert my eyes. When they break apart, after what seems like hours, the cheerleader says something, and his face lights up. He throws back his head as he laughs, his whole body shaking, a huge grin on his face. I feel a pang in my chest. I had never made him laugh like that. His eyes flicker up, like he knows I’m watching. Impossible.
He wouldn’t know.
He can’t see me.
I sit there, watching the playground, until the sun goes down. But there are a million flickering lights, on buildings, bridges, homes, windows. And they stay there.
Because, you know, the city never gets dark. The lights never go out. Not until you die, anyway. And even death, it’s like a slide. You can’t get back up. If you try to climb back up, you just fall flat on your face. You don’t know what’s on the bottom until you’re there. You can’t go back. You can’t apologize. You can’t fix your mistakes. You can’t.
Even if you wanted to.
Maya Osman-Krinsky, Age 13, Grade 8, MS 54 Booker T Washington, Gold Key