You find yourself a lonely island in a crowded room; the pulsing thumpa-thumpa of the music beats through the soles of your borrowed high-tops. The old sneakers you had worn apparently weren’t cute enough for the party.
Countless hours have crawled by in the forty-odd minutes your best friend has left you alone. She disappeared beyond the stench of hormones and beer with a new gentlemen friend, leaving you at the mercy of the party. All around you drunken faces smile to each other, but never to you and none of them seem even remotely familiar.
In one hand, you grip a can of soda as if it is warding off the judgmental stares of all the unnamed faces of older strangers. Your other arm is tucked behind your back, a barrier between yourself and the unnerving pulse in the wall. The sleeve of the latter tugs from the rest and you glance over to find one of the strangers offering you an interested smile from his seated position.
“Hi!” He nearly shouts over the noise of the lively gathering. “My name’s Chris!”
You wonder for a moment why anyone in this party would approach you. Everything you have known forces the idea that a terrible prank is about to follow, but the smile he wears curls from the corner of his lips and into his eyes so it causes you to second-guess. The wheel chair he sits in is sleek and narrow, easily maneuvered through tight spaces, and you chalk his friendliness up to the familiarity of living in Social Outland.
“Hey.” You speak too softly to be heard, but you can’t summon the courage to repeat yourself.
His curl widens and he takes the liberty of rolling closer to you. “You looked lonely too. Do you mind if I stay next to you? Pretend like we’re friends?” When he laughs, you get the sensation that he has learned to tease himself; a lesson you sometimes envy in the locker room.
The instant you nod in agreement, your death hold loosens and Mr. Pibb is allowed to live. Having someone next you sends a wave of comfort from your shoulders to the tips of your tightly curled toes. The borrowed high tops are a size and a half too small, but your sneakers weren’t cute enough for the party to accept.
“Do you like the music?” Chris attempts to continue his friendliness, but you get the impression that the party does not want people to talk.
You shake your head and shift your weight to the other foot. For the moment your voice is too unsure to challenge the encompassing beating of the party.
“I don’t either.” He speaks again, momentarily giving up the battle for your eye contact. “What music do you like?” This time he stares intently at you, hungry for every answer.
You take a moment to think, but the titles of every band you have ever listened to instantly scurry away from grasp. Taking your silence, the man next to you offers his own list of preferences. There are a few you have in common, and you find the courage in your voice. Carrying on a conversation in a crowded room is not something you have much practice with, but the more your exchange the easier it becomes.
A comfortable silence falls between you and your new acquaintance. You take a moment to look around at all the people again, and this time you don’t feel so at odds with them – you no longer feel alone. Your gaze darts back toward Chris for reassurance, but from the corner of your eye you see someone intruding into your comfort bubble. Chris notices your concerned expression and follows your uneasy stare, but when he sees who is to blame for your anxiousness, he laughs.
“This is my cousin, Darren.” As Chris speaks, the stranger rests a hand on the other man’s shoulder and smiles toward you.
His smile reminds you of your older brother flirting with girls; like he would steal a car to see you happy. It makes little butterflies burst in your stomach and your newly grained confidence run for cover. With a stocky build and dark eyes, he seems so mature next to you. You suddenly feel foolish in the outfit you were given to wear from the back of Becca’s closet. An old pair of sneakers would go a long way, but they weren’t cute enough for the party.
“Remember,” Becca told you before the party. “if anybody asks, we’re sixteen.”
Unsure what to do, you lower your head and let your hair fall in front of your eyes. A few strands rest perfectly over the mascara smudge when your new contacts were nearly too much to bare. Your throat is dry and uncooperative, but when you shake your crinkled can there isn’t a drop. Even if you wanted to speak, now there is no chance.
Your partner, sensing your discomfort, nudges the new arrival. “Hey Darren, would you mind getting us something to drink?” Chris glances toward his cousin before returning his smile to you.
Watching as Darren disappears beyond the crowd, you are able to relax again. Beside you, Chris continues to ask more questions of polite interest, and conversing with him feels more natural than before. In no time at all, his cousin returns to hand you a plastic cup. You had no intention of drinking when the night began, but the risk of losing your company was too great. Tentatively, you lift the cup to your lips and take a shy sip. The fruity, smoky taste of a Jack Daniel’s cooler slides over your tongue, and you’re relieved it isn’t something much stronger.
Comfortable with the beverage choice, you ease back into conversation taking gulps of the adult Kool-Aid periodically. Air fills your head and loosens your tongue; speaking to Chris and his mature cousin, Darren, is getting easier by the moment. When you survive the crowd, the hues of blue and pinks sway to the music and encourage you to follow along.
A tingling sensation tickles your scalp and your cheeks grow flush, hot. You heart beats in your ears in time with the music and you can’t hear anything else. Something begins tugging you downward, and when you look Chris is trying to say something but you can’t pick his voice out of the roar.
“Are you feeling dizzy?” The recognition of those words makes your stomach flip over.
A strong tide rolls in on your mind, covering any coherent thought before it glimpses the light of day, dragging it back out to sea. You try to call out to someone in the party; you need to find Becca so the two of you can leave. For the moment, this is the only thought you can hold onto so you push one foot in front of the other, fighting against the current. The step is awkward in the borrowed high tops and you tumble to the side. Your own sneakers weren’t cute enough for the party.
You brace yourself against the wall of someone’s body, and a possessive arm wraps around your waist. The tide tries to force your eyelids closed, but you open your eyes wider in defiance. All around you gyrating bodies move to the pulsing in your ears; none of them glance toward you. Only when you emerge on the other side of the congregation do you realize you had been guided through it. Someone else is pulling your reins.
The hallway you seem to be floating toward grows darker and darker. Your constant blinking does little to force away the ebb and flow slurring your thoughts, so all you can think about is the darkness. Strength of will depleting, your eye lids drift shut for only a moment.
When you are able to pry them open again, you find the darkness has been cracked by a sliver of brilliantly green light. Shadows play all around you; their motions are difficult to track. The tide has gotten stronger, but your gaze sweeps sluggishly about the room to find any sort of anchored thought to hold onto. Creeping up from the back of your mind, the realization that you are no longer standing up confuses your already taxed consciousness. You claw for the memory of moving from the hall to a bed, but it is lost in the darkening sea.
With great difficulty, you send a message to your arm to move. In the darkness it’s impossible to determine the appendage’s potion, but all the same it won’t respond. As if the whole limb were dead, the messages twitch along your muscles but ultimately die away before their destinations and your arm remains in place. Your other three limbs behave the same way, and a knot of fear lodges in your throat.
You try to speak, call for help, but a raspy clicking sound is all that comes out. The effort to speak drains your strength and the waves envelop you again. Your eyelids slide closed just as the shadows move in toward you. In the very back caverns of your mind, the sounds of harsh voices whispering at each other echo with the squeak of a wheel on hardwood.
The green light is all that breaks up the darkness of the room from the darkness of your own mind, so when you work your eyes open again your wavering gaze seeks out the source of the glow. Large numbers are displayed on a clock beside the bed and the bright light makes your eyes water. 12:42, an hour has passed since Becca left you alone with the party.
You try to call your best friend’s name, but when you move your lips something stops the sound of your voice. The foreign texture of cloth scours your tongue and you try to spit it out. Only slightly more corporative than you limbs, your tongue rolls and pushes at the fabric but is unable to eject the intruder from your mouth. A hard lump rises in your throat on another tidal wave of darkness. The lump breaks against your voice box and a muffled sob seeps out from behind the gag. When the wave washes over you again, the feeling of hot tears is the last thing you let go.
Your body is floating on midnight water, when violent thrash rips your mind from peace and into the room with a crack of green light. “Get up! We have to go!”
For a moment, your brain has trouble locating your lips. A few unsure sounds tumble from your mouth; they are clear but incoherent. More light trickles in from the half-open door, dispelling most of the shadows. Still, you search for the saving green light and find 1:14 am brightly displayed. When you lift your head to see who has roused you, the only familiar face of the night is glaring at you.
“I have been looking all over for you!” You attempt to sit up, but your dead limbs only slide across the tousled blankets. The ebb and flow begins to rise again and you want nothing more than to close your eyes and dream. The flood covering your thoughts is murky, making everything around you distorted and foggy. As you are forced closer and closer to the surface, a pain like tearing flesh throbs in the very core of your sex. For only a moment, a whisper of realization skitters across the water, but your mind refuses its message and so it sinks down below consciousness.
“We have to go!” Becca is pulling at your limp arm, compelling you from the bed.
When you sit up, the tide flows in again, covering all thought that had been exposed in the break. This flood brings whirling colors and sickening smells. At first, you feel as though an undertow has caught you, dragging you down where you can’t breathe and yet a rancid stench is what causes you to gag and sputter. Then, a current heaves you into clearer water, where the pungent smells can’t hurt you, but you lose the only life persevering thought you had to cling to. Things are suddenly too clear, you feel weightless – at the mercy of the waves swirling you round and round.
Another moment more and you wash up on some strange shore, the waves sending you tumbling to a running start. You become aware of solid pavement that doesn’t have a pulse beneath the sole of your borrowed high tops. One foot moves in front of, then behind, then on top of the other, and you wonder how you started moving in the first place.
The form beside you whispers your name sharply, and for a single moment in time you are aware that your best friend is holding your weight with her own. But, the ebb and flow take the realization out to sea. You hear your name again and you stare in, what you belief to be, the direction of the source.
“Okay, just like before, we have to get through the window.” Cool metal prickles your skin and you snatch at the feeling, clawing at it for the chance to gulp fresh air in the flood. “You first. Come on, just one foot…” She manipulates your leg up and through the open window. “Now grab the top… there… now the other…”
You slide to the steady floor, and with one concentrated burst in unison, you manage to propel your body away from the window ledge. This place is familiar, though you can’t remember why. A sense of safety wraps around you as the tide grows stronger. Unable to fight it anymore, the current takes you away.
As you float through the water, a giant, pulsing monster rises up from the darkness below. Its massive jaw snaps at you, intent to gobble you whole. Frantically, you swim away. You have no idea which way is the surface or if a surface even exists in this place, but you push your muscles as hard as you possibly can. The current around you shifts and the sensation of the monster at the nape of your neck makes you try to call out in terror, but the waves swallow your voice.
When you glance over your shoulder, the monster is gone but something is still after you – dancing shadows you can barely make out. No longer swimming, you look down in time to see one borrowed high top trip over the other and you fall through the earth. You want to scream, but there is no air 25 here. The ground rises to meet you and your stomach retreats to your throat. Just before impact, your eyes squeeze shut but simultaneously spring open.
The room around you is not what you expected to find, but after only a few moments, you remember you had stayed the night with Becca. When you sit up, damp strands of hair slide against your skin. You can’t remember taking a shower, and the confusion unsettles you. The soft sounds of sleep omit from the bed across the room, so you launch your pillow into the air. On mark, your missal thuds against Becca’s head and a disgruntled groan follows. Your best friend sits up, rubbing her eyes, but when she sees you’re awake her demeanor grows suddenly chilly.
“Hey.” Her voice is gentle, searching. “How’d you sleep?”
“Okay, I guess.” You shrug away the question because you aren’t really sure how to answer. “Why is my hair wet?”
“You had to take a shower before bed last night. You were pretty out of it so I had to help.” Becca’s cheeks get red and she avoids making eye contact. “Sorry…”
A few minutes pass in silence as you try to remember taking a shower or getting back home or anything about last night. The more you dig for some sort of clue, the more your stomach revolts against the idea. After a moment, the nauseous feeling in your stomach is all you can think about so you shake your head and give up for the time being.
“What… what happened last night?” Her voice was even softer now, almost cooing. T
he sick feeling intensifies, and you do all you can to not think about the question too carefully. “I don’t remember.” One thought is safe. One memory is clear. “You left me for your little boy toy and I felt like a totally idiot there by myself.” Anger, anger is safer to deal with in your current state. “I don’t really remember anything after that.”
Fuzzy pictures of plastic cups and shiny wheelchairs swirl around your mind’s eye, like you’re looking up from under water. With a shake of your head, you dispel the half-memories and look toward Becca again. She is looking everywhere but at you, her secret all but evident on her face. Whatever she is keeping from you, your instincts say you don’t want to hear it. The missing pieces appear to be more of a burden than the truth is worth.
As you move to stand, a series of sharp aches running through your body force you to stop. Your legs are heavy like their filled with sand, and your crotch aches like going over a curb on your bicycle without lifting from the seat. This new discovery only confuses you more, and you feel tears burning at the back of your throat. So many questions scream in your ear, but you shove them all back behind a door. You drop the key in the gutter and watch as the storm water washes it away.
Half the day is already over when you manage to sit at Becca’s kitchen table to eat. The bowl of dry Cheerios crinkle you nose, but you nibble at one or two. After your show of eating, you pack all your things up and change into your street clothes. When you lace up your perfectly good sneakers, the stiffness in your toes reminds you of the borrowed high tops.
~ ~ ~
A month of school has gone by, and your first year of high school is turning out to be a lot better than eighth grade. It’s a day like any other day after school: the house is empty, and will be until after five o’clock. So, you spend a little time playing tug-o-war with your dog. In an excited bound, the large canine heaves himself upward and throws his front paws against your chest.
The fall takes a lifetime: through the open door and down two flights of stars. When it’s over, you can’t breathe. The very last step lodges itself into yours shoulder blade and forces your torso into an odd angle. You gasp repeatedly, but your lungs refuse your advances. Finally, a greedy helping of air inflates your body too quickly and a searing pain shoots through both of the organs and into your stomach. All you can do is hug your knees and wait for the pain to subside.
After a few moments, your chest feels fine but your stomach is only getting worse. You sit up slowly, the twisting cramps causing you to cry out. When you look down, a dark stain is soaking through your jeans. Confusion and intense pain hit you all at once until you feel as though you may throw up.
Frantically you dig into your jeans and pull out your cell phone. The tears and cramping make it difficult to see, but you punch the familiar numbers and wait for the connection. Another stab of pain hits and your sobbing only worsens.
“Becca, there’s so much blood!” You voice explodes across the receiver. “I – I don’t know what to do. Please help me!”
~ ~ ~
A wave of icy water pours over you as you sit in the waiting room. Beside you, Becca’s older sister taps her car keys against the metal leg of her seat, but all you can hear is a pulsing beat. You don’t want to know the results of your blood tests or see what they found – or didn’t find – on the sonogram. The water swirls around you, sucking the air from the room, and you hop to your feet. When you’re swept out the door by the bone-chilling waves, the sunlight on your face is all you can grab to pull yourself from the current.
You push against the cracking door and shove the secrets back inside; you let the storm take the truth away. The spiraling wave slowly calms and you look down to make sure the ground is right where you left it. On your perfectly good sneakers, you spy a spot of splattered red that reminds you of roses. But, they are probably still not cute enough for the party.