“Dr. Baxter, I don’t think she’s breathing!”
The twenty AP Biology students gathered in a circle, peering down at the unconscious girl lying on the cold black and white tiled floor. Whispers about what caused her to faint in the middle of their first exam passed through the crowd, ranging from the sensible ( “Maybe she has low blood sugar. She could be diabetic. Check her bag for an EpiPen,” suggested Will, the resident nerd of the senior class who had more knowledge in his head than an entire library) to the ridiculous (“She’s just faking to get out of the test. Someone kick her to wake her up,” said Claire Hilton, co-captain of the cheerleading squad and a self-proclaimed Queen Bee, snapping her gum loudly while poking the girl’s stomach with the heel of her expensive boot). Hilton’s rude remark earned her a hard smack on the shoulder from her best friend Elena Hastings, a literal Miss Perfect with long blonde curls and a laugh that sounded like it belonged to a Disney princess.
No matter how much someone wanted to hate Elena, whether it was for being the daughter of the one of the richest man in the town of Belmont Falls or the most popular girl in school, it proved impossible since despite having all the makings of a mean girl, she was the complete opposite. Elena was known for being quite smart herself and volunteering at animal shelters and soup kitchens on the weekends. The fact that she was such good friends with a literal harpy like Hilton was one of the town’s greatest mysteries. She treated everyone the same, even those who were the lowest of the low in the school’s social order like me, the girl who only got attention when she was passed out in the back of a classroom.
“Sir, should I call for an ambulance?” asked Will, concerned.
A handsome man in his late thirties pushed through the crowd of students. Looking more like a model in a magazine than an actual teacher, he was what girls and some boys fantasized about when imagining themselves with a teacher. Kids at this school could deny it a thousand times but it was a well-known fact that many purposely got themselves in trouble for a chance to be alone with Dr. Baxter for detention. I personally never saw the appeal to him, thinking he was more of a pretentious snob. From the first day he arrived in my freshman year, he flaunted his PhD by insisting that every student call him Dr. Baxter but it was soon obvious that Will was better suited to teach the class. His lessons tended to involve watching sci-fi movies and online videos instead of learning actual science. Even their first exam of the year was a multiple choice test that could be passed by an eleven year old with ease. In my head, I often imagined that he received his PhD by paying an obscene amount of money to some 1-800 number.
Though he was inept at his job, it was rumored that the only reason he was not fired was because of his charm and the fact that Hilton’s mother, an older version of her daughter who was rarely seen out of his company, was the principal of the school.
Dr. Baxter lightly smacked my cheek.
“Laura, can you hear me?”
“Not Laura but I’m guessing you mean me. Yes, I’m awake and smacking me around isn’t going to help. We’ve been through this how many times, doctor? Can you please just call my mother?”
“It’s Tessa, sir,” corrected Will.
“Thanks, Will. Maybe they’ll get it right by graduation. Probably not. I should start practicing standing up when they call me some other random name.”
“I’m going to get the nurse. Keep an eye on her until I get back.”
“You know, Dr. Baxter, I took CPR last year. I could try that,” I heard.
I buried my head in my hands. “Oh, please no. Anyone but him. I’ll even take Hilton. For once, someone see through this
Peeking through my fingers, my eyes flickered to a dark-haired boy who stepped out of the tight circle. His well-coiffed hair was contrasted by his distressed leather jacket and combat boots. Dr. Baxter gave him a curt nod and left the classroom.
“I’m not sure that she needs CPR. She’s still breathing, Fin,” said Will, the only one with brains.
The boy scoffed. “I think I know better than you, Nerd King. It was part of my lifeguard training.”
“Okay, let’s not pretend that you didn’t only get that job to pick up girls in bikinis, Belmont,” I countered, knowing that he was not concerned about my health.
Fin Belmont was the golden boy of Belmont High. His family were the descendants of the founders of the town, having three times the wealth of every other family combined and putting their names on every important building. He was the star player of the football, soccer, and baseball teams and loved to show off his athletic skill to any pretty girl within his line of sight. It was typical to find girls gathered around the fields to watch his practices and cheer for the tiniest thing. All that attention fed his already enormous ego but instead of dressing in a preppy style like the rest of his family, he claimed to be the ‘rebel’. He was always the one to do something forbidden, whether it was having his first beer at the age of ten or driving around in his father’s expensive sports car on the day of middle school graduation. Since fourth grade, he made it a habit to carry around a lighter, flicking it on and off during classes. While he was the typical womanizer, never staying attached to one girl for longer than a month, he did fail in one area and that was his grades. He often skipped classes, confident that the school would never attempt to fail him unless they wanted to lose his family’s funding.
I grimaced as Fin placed his lips on mine, though I was thankful that he was not my first kiss. Passing out in the middle of a lesson was a common occurrence for me, beginning when I was seven years old. The first time it happened, everyone went into a panic, thinking that I was dead. After the first fifteen times, the fear wore off and it turned into their source of entertainment. I had gotten used to the jokes at my expense, the kids pretending to faint as they passed by my locker, and in eighth grade, Hilton began to post videos of the incidents on her MyLife channel, gaining her millions of views. As I got older, no longer the fainting seven year old girl, the boys took advantage of my unconscious state though they were unaware that I felt their wandering hands on my skin.
Fin was not performing anything remotely close to CPR though no one noticed that or his hand sliding under my hoodie. I tensed up, feeling his cold touch against my ribcage. His fingers crept closer and closer to the bottom edge of my bra and to make matters worse, I could hear his friends sniggering quietly. I nearly gagged at the taste of cigarettes and whiskey in my mouth.
“Ugh, Fin, you’ll get her loser germs. Stop,” said Hilton, disgusted.
When he finally stopped, pretending that his expert CPR had failed, I sighed with relief. “Hey, I tried. You’d think a kiss from me would wake up any girl.”
I rolled my eyes at the same time as Elena’s. “Jenna’s unconscious and you’re making stupid jokes?” said Amy, one of
Hilton’s less stuck-up minions.
“It’s Tessa!” I shouted in frustration.
“This always happens. What are you getting all worked up about, Banks?”
“Because all it takes is one time for it to be something serious. She might not wake up.”
“Like that would be a tragedy,” muttered Hilton.
Dr. Baxter eventually returned with Nurse Simpson, a kind-faced, middle-aged woman who spent several minutes checking my pulse.
“Wow. Thank goodness for that nursing degree or you’d never figure that out” I said when she assured my peers that I had a steady pulse.
I followed them down the hallway as he carried me to the nurse’s office. He laid my unconscious body down on a cot.
“Her mother’s on her way,” said Nurse Simpson.
“This is the fifth time just this month. Don’t they take her to a doctor? There must be something wrong with her.”
“Genius deduction. You should be a detective,” I replied, sarcastically.
“I’ve spoken to them plenty of times. Her mother says that the doctors haven’t found a cause for it. Did you notice anything strange before she collapsed?”
“No. The students were taking a test and the next thing I knew, she was on the floor. She’s a bit thin. Maybe she hasn’t been
“Oh, because all thin girls must be starving themselves, doctor?” I said, sitting on the edge of the cot.
Their conversation was interrupted by a dark-haired woman in her late thirties rushing into the room. Her hands were stained with dried paint. Panting heavily, she clutched her side.
“I came as soon as you called, Alice. How is she feeling?”
“She hasn’t woken up yet. Besides that, nothing to worry about...but I was hoping—”
“I rushed to get Nurse Simpson as soon as it happened. I wouldn’t want your daughter in any danger, Mrs. Byrne,” said Dr. Baxter, making no attempt to keep his eyes on her face.
“Is it possible to vomit in your sleep?” I asked, repulsed.
My mother smiled. “Thank you very much, Dr. Baxter. I know it must not be easy to deal with Tessa’s…incidents.”
“It’s no trouble at all and please, call me Brendon.”
Nurse Simpson received a call about a sophomore girl puking in the second floor chemistry lab after breaking a flask. I had no doubt that she wanted to avoid the awkward tension in the room. Unfortunately for me, I was always forced to watch my own teacher’s pathetics attempts at flirting with my married mother. He conveniently forgot that my father was still around, not the deadbeat that he imagined in his mind.
“I heard your husband left town again. His work must keep him busy.”
“Well, he loves it and far be it from me to keep him away from a dig site.”
“I bet it gets lonely in that house all by yourself.”
“Not at all. Tessa and Ryan make sure I never get a moment’s rest,” she replied, brushing a strand of hair off my face.
“All that time spent taking care of others…makes me wonder who takes care of you. I uh saw your piece at the gallery this weekend. I think it was your best yet.”
“Thank you. My husband thought so too.”
“Do you ever give lessons?”
“Yes, I teach children at the recreation center every Saturday.”
“I was thinking of taking a few lessons. I’m no da Vinci but I’m not completely hopeless. The classes at the gallery are a little
too expensive. Maybe I could take lessons with you instead, Kala. That’s a very pretty name. Is it Brazilian?”
I scrunched my nose in disgust. “Mom, can you please give this moron a black eye already?”
My mother turned towards him with a feigned smile. It was evident by the fire burning behind her dark eyes that she was getting irritated by his advances.
Behind her back, she poured a cup of brownish-yellow liquid into my mouth. “Indian actually and I think that you might stick out among the children.”
“A private lesson, then. ”
As the herbal extract flowed through my body, my eyes fluttered open. I sat up, feeling lightheaded, and clutched the edge of the cot.
My mother embraced me, cradling the back of my head. “You fainted again, little bird. Brendon, could I have a moment alone with my daughter?”
“Of course. La—Tessa, class is almost over by now so the exam will be rescheduled for tomorrow. I’m sure Principal Hilton wouldn’t mind if you skipped the rest of the day.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Once he disappeared down the hallway, my mother lifted up my hoodie. She checked for any signs of an injury.
“No stab wounds this time. That’s a good sign.”
“I think it was a drug overdose. Could’ve been worse. Remember in seventh grade when it was a gun shot through my stomach? That took forever to explain to the nurse. Are you sure there’s no way to skip the fainting part?”
“It’s part of what we are, little bird.”
“I don’t mind the rest. It’s just the constantly fainting in front of everyone that’s annoying.”
“Don’t fret. Soon, you won’t ever have to deal with it again. Your grandmother and I went through the same thing. It’s never
easy. Those boys didn’t get handsy again, did they?”
“Of course they did. This time, it was Fin Belmont.”
Putting her hand to her heart, she gasped. “A Belmont? How lucky. Did he taste like money?”
I shot her a playful glare. “You’re hilarious. I’m the one who’s scarred for life.”
“Why don’t you get your things and I’ll take you home? I’ll be waiting outside.”
Leaving the nurse’s office, I headed down to my locker. I hoped that everyone else would be sitting in the cafeteria for lunch but with my luck, they all decided to enjoy the sunny weather and eat out in the courtyard. Whispers followed me down the hallway. After all these years, I learned to tune them out but sometimes, one or two whispers caught my attention. In a way, my fainting incidents did make me popular. I was known as ‘that fainting girl’. Kids would stare at me as if I was a deer on its last legs, about to collapse any minute. Opening my locker, I grabbed my books and placed them in my tattered backpack.
“Just ignore these idiots. By the end of lunch, they’ll find something else to talk about,” she heard.
Elena was leaning against the locker beside her. “I don’t care if they talk about me.”
“Oh, look at me. I’m Miss Cool.”
A small smile tugged at my lips. “I’m just used to it by now, I guess. It’s like my mom said before. Soon, the fainting will stop…but I might prefer that to what has to happen next.”
“Maybe you won’t have to do it because he’s not here. I’m sure they can make an exception for someone as adorable as you.
Just bat those big doe eyes at them…maybe flash a little cleavage.”
“I’d sooner become Claire Hilton’s best friend,” I remarked, making her laugh.
I jumped at the sound of a loud banging noise. The senior football players were gathered around one of their lockers, laughing obnoxiously. Fin repeatedly threw a basketball against the lockers. My nails dug into my locker when Parker, one of his more vulgar friends, talked about the incident in AP Biology.
“Fin can cross it off his bucket list now. He got to second base with a sickie. You could’ve gotten ten more points if you managed to unhook her bra.”
Elena gripped my shoulder. “Ignore him. He’s an ass.”
For a split second, as Fin caught the basketball, he made eye contact with me. It felt as though my entire body shut down and my feet were glued to the floor. Panicking on the inside, I quickly turned my head and grabbed my biology notebook. I sensed someone standing on the other side of the locker.
“I see you’re awake. Be honest. Did you fake that to get out of the test? I mean, I wouldn’t blame you. Tests are lame.”
“Well, you should thank me, Laura. I think my CPR helped you out a little.”
“It’s Tessa,” I muttered.
“Just throw his basketball down the hall so he’ll go away,” said Elena, annoyed.
“I uh wanted to give you this.”
He handed me a check for five thousand dollars. I glanced up at him, unsure why he was giving me money. My confusion soon switched into anger as he explained that it was for my operation.
“Five thousand is like small change for my family. I just figured it would help. Claire said you’re one of those make a wish kids.”
“I’m not,” I said, gritting my teeth.
“Oh. Well, maybe the five thousand will get you on the list or whatever they do. I mean, you do pass out a lot. That can’t be normal. Maybe they can fix you.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me and I’m not some broken toy.”
Ripping up the check, I threw the torn up pieces at his face. “Just leave me alone and tell your jock buddies that if you keep playing that little game with me, I’ll tell the cops.”
“You could feel that? If you want, I can remember that for next time and move my hand a little lower. You should know what that’s like before you go to college. Not that I’m assuming you’ve never…it’s just that you don’t leave your house.”
I slammed my locker shut and stormed out of the school. My mother was waiting by her minivan, the back doors decorated with childish scribbles. She immediately recognized that I was in a foul mood. Joining me in the backseat, Elena explained what had happened with Fin.
“Everyone probably thinks the same thing…that I’m like one of those dying kids on TV.”
“Tessa, it doesn’t matter what they think. They wish they could be as gifted as you. I’m not surprised that the Belmont boy was that clueless. No one in his family is known for their intelligence. If he says something that vulgar to you again, I want you to tell me. I’ll teach him some manners.”
She parked in the driveway of a two story house, blue with white shutters. Upon entering the house, I was tackled by a tiny blur. A young boy around five had his arms wrapped around my waist. I smiled, ruffling his mop of dark hair.
“Did you miss me, little bear?”
“Mommy said you fainted at school. Did it hurt?”
“No. It was like falling asleep.”
“Is Ellie with you?”
“Right here,” she said, tapping the top of his head.
Ryan chased her around the house, waving his hands wildly in front of him. Stifling a laugh, I followed my mother into the kitchen to help her with making dinner. As I diced the tomatoes, she sifted through the spice cabinet in search of the paprika.
“This is your father’s doing. I put these spices in alphabetical order and then he messes it up when he’s making his midnight snacks. I think he enjoys throwing me into this chaos.”
“It’s probably in the back, next to the cayenne pepper. He likes to hide the spices that he thinks are gross,” I said, secretly
tasting a strand of spaghetti.
“Honestly, sometimes I wonder if he’s a child stuck in an adult’s body. Tessa? What’s wrong?”
My mother’s head had popped up from the cabinet at the sound of breaking glass. Shattered glass and diced tomatoes scattered the floor. I did not even notice the pieces of glass stuck in my own hand, too distracted by the girl standing by the refrigerator. The girl was not much older than me, maybe a junior in college. She wore a preppy style similar to Elena’s, with the peter pan collared blouse, white belted cardigan, white and blue plaid skirt, knee high socks, and ballet flats. Her pin straight blonde hair, adorned with a blue headband, was wet and straggly and her eyeliner was smudged, running halfway down her cheeks. She looked around the messy kitchen, puzzled.
“Tessa, is that the girl?” asked my mother, watching the girl shiver and hug her cardigan close to her body.
I nodded. “She wasn’t wet before. They must’ve put her in the shower to try to wake her up. Casey?”
The girl snapped her head towards me. “H—how do you know my name? How did I get here? I was…the last thing I remember was going to the bathroom.”
“To get your caffeine pills so you could keep studying for your organic chemistry test. You thought it wouldn’t hurt if you took a few more…but a few became half the bottle. It wasn’t your fault. You were just worried that if you didn’t keep studying, you’d get a B on the test and for you, a B is like failing.”
“That doesn’t explain how I ended up here. This isn’t a hospital. If I passed out…”
“You did. Your roommates found you and called an ambulance. They tried to wake you up in the shower but you weren’t even breathing. The doctor called the time as soon as you arrived at the hospital. There was nothing he could do.”
Her eyes widened. “A—Am I…t—then how are you…but you can see me. I can’t be…I’m still here.”
I shook my head, holding back tears. If fainting on a regular basis was the worst part, then the impending conversation with people like Casey was a close second. After ten years of giving the same speech, it never got any easier, especially when the other person was not expecting it or too young to understand its meaning. I looked at my mother, hoping that she would take the burden from me at least once but she simply gave me a reassuring nod, one that said This is your duty.
“I’m the only one that can see you. Well, my mom can too but I’m the one that has to talk to you.”
“What you can do next. The choice is always up to you. I can’t force you to do anything that you don’t want, Casey. You can choose to pass on and let fate decide where you go. You seem like a nice person so I’m sure you’d end up somewhere nice. Your second choice is to…stay behind. Most kids your age choose that because they’re not ready to leave. If you decide to stay, it comes with a price. You can still see the people you care about and interact with things in this world but you’ll be invisible and once you make that choice, you can’t ever pass on. You’d be stuck in between the two worlds.”
“I—I have to choose now?”
“No. I can give you a couple minutes but the longer you wait, then it’ll be harder to leave here, no matter what you decide.”
Casey paced around the kitchen, whispering to herself. With each passing minute, she was slowly descending into madness, afraid that either choice could be a mistake. I listened to her worry about how her overdose would reflect on her family’s pristine reputation, showing little concern for herself.
“I think I know what I want. I want to…what did you call it? Pass on?”
“Not 100% but if I choose to stay, I might never see my family again. You’re not alone when you pass on, right?”
“No. You’d never be alone. I promise that it’s quick.”
I reached out for her hands. The raven-shaped birthmark on my wrist turned solid black and seconds later, a faint golden glow radiated from her body. Her hands slowly dissolved into mine. Seeing the terrified gleam in her eyes, I swore to her that she was safe. Piece by piece, she began to disappear, becoming one with me. For a moment, as her face faded into mine, I thought that I saw a dark shadow clinging to her back. Flashes of Casey’s life, from her birth to the minutes before her overdose, passed through my mind.
“We’ll need to chop up more tomatoes. Though I don’t doubt your brother wouldn’t mind eating the ones on the floor, I don’t want any of you getting sick. I’ll clean up this mess.”
“How do you do it?”
My mother grabbed a rag from the counter. “Do what, sweetheart?”
“You act like that was nothing. I’ve been doing this since I was seven and I still—it doesn’t even faze you. Someone’s dead.”
“People die every day, Tessa. You know that…you feel it. It’s our duty to guide them when their life is at an end. When you’re
my age, this will all feel normal to you.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever feel normal.”
“Don’t see it as a burden. It’s a gift.”
Dicing another batch of tomatoes, my mind was cluttered with the memories of Casey’s past and the fleeting image of a shadow on her back. I had helped others pass on thousands of times but no one ever carried a shadow with them. Passing it off as a figment of my imagination, I focused on helping my mother with dinner then working on my pile of homework, including a six page essay for AP U.S. History, ten questions for AP Calculus (though each question had five parts), and reviewing my biology notes.
Elena sat beside me on my bed. “Why are you studying for Baxter’s test? A monkey could ace it.”
“I want to keep myself busy,” I replied, my eyes on the alarm clock, the screen flashing 1:00 AM.
“Don’t want to think about overdose girl?”
“Her name was Casey. She didn’t do it on purpose…or maybe she did. She was under a lot of pressure from her parents. They freaked out if she got less than 100 on anything since she was in kindergarten. I could see why she would do it. She didn’t want the pressure anymore.”
“Have you ever thought of…”
“Maybe once or twice. It’d be nice to just escape and not have to deal with constantly fainting and being mocked by everyone who thinks I’m some loser or a girl on her deathbed.”
She rested her head on my shoulder. “I don’t think you’re a loser. You’re—”
Her words were drowned out by a sharp pain in my head. I winced, clutching my bird patterned blanket. My eyes squeezed together tightly to block out the pain but it only seemed to get worse as my head was flooded with brief images. Elena guided my hands in front of me carefully and I felt a pen and sketchpad between my fingers. My eyes still shut, I moved my right hand at a rapid pace until the pain and images ceased simultaneously. I glanced at the sketchpad, which now bore a drawing of a wooden bridge near the titular Belmont Falls. The Falls were the most famous thing about the town, tourists flocking to the site to see the water that glistened as if mixed with diamonds and crystals. It was particularly beautiful in the winter. For the teenagers in Belmont Falls, it was a popular hangout for parties, hook ups, and the occasional dare to jump off the bridge. In the drawing, a beer bottle and varsity jacket were floating in the lake, surrounded by a pool of blood.
“Whose jacket is that?” asked Elena, peering over her shoulder at the drawing.
“I didn’t get a good look but it happens at night. I saw someone, definitely a guy…he was standing on the bridge.”
“Probably some drunken idiot. You’ll know at school tomorrow.”
“It doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, I get a feeling but other times, I don’t know find out until it’s already happened.”
“Fin is having a party this weekend there. Maybe it happens then. Should we tell your mom?”
“No. She’ll just tell me to be ready for them. If it does happen at the party, at least I won’t have to worry about fainting in the middle of Biology again.”
I heard a faint knock on my door. “Tessa, I know you’re awake. It’s one in the morning. Time for bed.”
Tossing the sketchpad under my bed, I clicked off the lamp and laid my head down on the pillow. Elena snuggled up beside me. I drifted off to sleep, feeling her arm around my waist.