“Sarah. Sarah. Sarah.”
I looked up to see Ms. Bradstreet, my art teacher, going from table to table gathering used paintbrushes into a wooden crate she carried like a picnic basket.
“Yes, sorry, Ms. Bradstreet. What was that?” I had been staring at a corner, making sure the coat hanging there was only a coat.
“Sarah, class is over,” she stated.
There were no other students in the room.
“Oh, yeah. Right.” I gathered up my own things and accidentally knocked some paint to the floor. When I reached down to begin cleaning it, Ms. Bradstreet touched my arm. I flinched away. “Sarah, don’t worry, I’ll get it.” Her eyes had sympathy for me. “Are you okay, Sarah?”
“Yeah. I’m just tired.”
“You don’t look well,” she agreed.
“I’ve been sick,” I explained.
My explanation seemed to make her feel better. “I’m sorry to hear that. But you’ve been like this for weeks now. Has your mother taken you to see anyone?”
“Yeah,” I lied. “The doctor said it’s just a long case of the flu.”
“You should get rest. Stay home a few days to sleep.”
“Yeah,” I said. Sleep was the last thing I wanted, even though it was the only thing I absolutely craved. “But you know, classes.”
She smiled. “Yes, classes.” Then she said, “I heard you missed the acapella competition.”
“Yeah.” My head sunk.
“I know how much that meant to you.”
I had missed the competition because I couldn’t bear to stand on stage, fearful that when my song was done, children would be waiting for me, a long hallway, a red exit sign. I had locked myself away, ignoring my mother’s pleas to open the door and go to the competition. I said, “I know, but I was too sick. It was probably better that way. If I had tried to sing, I probably would have messed it up. I had no voice.” I was skating along the truth. Nothing was a lie, but nothing was honest either.
“Well, you can’t help it if you’re sick,” she said, collecting the last of the paint supplies. “It sounds like you did what was best.”
“But I’m sure I disappointed everyone,” I admitted, hoping everyone didn’t hate me.
“Well, high school isn’t forever,” Ms. Bradstreet stated.
“Yeah.” I didn’t know what else to say. Exhaustion made every effort hurt. Even small conversations drained me of the little energy I had.
The bell rang.
“If you need to talk to someone, let me know,” Ms. Bradstreet offered.
“Thanks, I will.”
I stumbled my way to lunch. Before I knew what I was doing, I had flopped down next to Sam out of habit, like my body was running on an out-of-date auto-pilot setting. I wanted to fold my arms over the filthy table and lay my head down to sleep. I was so tired. It was all I could think of. My bloodshot eyes blinked constantly. My legs tingled. My mind felt like it was operating on low-battery mode, prone to shutting off in an instant. That morning, tests had been returned in Calculus. I had gotten a D. I couldn’t remember ever getting a D before in my life. I thought about that. Then I realized I didn’t really care.
There was a droning sound. Sam was talking to me. He was still talking. Did he always talk so much? Did he not see how detached I was from anything he was saying?
“What?” I asked. I would have gotten up and gone somewhere else, but I didn’t feel like moving. I laid my head back down.
“Are you hung over?” he asked with a smirk.
“Are you sure?” he asked as if I wouldn’t know but he would.
“No – I mean, yes – yes, I’m sure. I’ve never even gotten drunk.” I burrowed my head between my arms.
“Then why are you acting so weird?”
When I wouldn’t respond to any of his ongoing attempts to lure me out of my self-made cave, Sam stated with disapproval, “I can’t believe you didn’t even go to the acapella competition.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You didn’t even go to watch them.”
“I said, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“They did great, just so you know.”
“I don’t want to talk about it!” I yelled into my forearm.
“Look at me,” Sam said. I did. Sam began circling his face in front of mine for inspection, as though counting my freckles. The fluorescent lights stung my eyes. “You really are sick, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. Super sick.”
“Are you upset about not going to the competition?”
“Of course I am.”
“Well, you can’t let it get you down, right?” he said, trying to cheer me up or something.
“Sure. Couldn’t do a thing like that.”
“And you can’t let being sick ruin senior year. You’re sick like all the time now.”
“Couldn’t do a thing like that either.”
“I mean, YOLO.”
“What?” I shook my head miserably. “Did you say ‘YOLO’?”
“Yeah, so what if I did?”
“No one even says YOLO anymore.”
“I know that. I was saying it to be funny.”
I corrected his recollection, “You used to say it all the time. Like, all the time,” I said again.
“Yeah, when it was cool.”
“It was never cool.”
“Yeah it was.”
“Whatever.” I shook my head.
“You used to laugh when I’d say it.”
“Just so you wouldn’t feel bad about yourself.”
“Feel bad about what?”
“Your life.” I chuckled darkly. This wasn’t like me. It felt kind of good.
“Whatever. More like your life.” He rolled his eyes.
“What’s your deal anyway? Like for real? You’re not yourself anymore.”
“I’m just tired.”
After taking a bite off the corner of his rectangular pizza, he offered, “Then you should probably try and get some sleep.”
“Thanks. I wasn’t sure what the answer was until now.”
He ignored my sarcasm, then went on to instruct further, “At our age, we need close to 12 hours of sleep each night.”
“I’m just trying to help.”
Then Sam did something I hadn’t seen him do in a long time – he leaned closer to me, and in his eyes, I saw subtle hints of concern and care, maybe even affection. His cologne, which he must have been applying in heavy doses, wrapped the two of us into a potent cloud. He asked, “What’s wrong, Sarah? You keep saying you’re sick, but it’s something else.”
I wanted to tell him. I wanted to tell anyone. Being exhausted meant I had very little will left to stay composed and controlled. Before I knew it, I said, “There’s a woman.”
“What? You’re talking too quiet. I can barely hear you.”
“There’s a woman. In my window.”
Sam touched my hand unexpectedly. I flinched away so hard, I almost fell out of my chair. Sam chuckled, fist to his mouth like he didn’t want to laugh, and I shouted, “When did you become such a jerk?”
The cafeteria fell silent.
Wanting a few laughs from everyone watching, Sam turned the volume up and asked like a jerk, “There’s a woman in your window?”
It felt like everything inside of me was trying to find a place to hide. My face flushed with embarrassment. Whispered comments and sniggers rose all around. I wanted to disappear.
“Where are you going?” Sam asked.
I scurried between the tables to get away. I sat in my next class, sitting there alone, wishing there was some place to go.
Twirling into the classroom, Emma called out, “There you are!”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Here I am.”
“Why are you sitting alone?”
“Just because.” I didn’t want to ruin her happiness by bringing up what had just happened. Emma was Sam’s worst enemy – even if he didn’t know it – and I didn’t want to spoil her joy.
Emma spun a chair around to face me. With her arms on my desk, she leaned in and asked, “Did you hear?”
“I did.” I smiled a little. “You won.”
“No! We won!” She was positively beaming.
“And you sang my part,” I said. I was happier for her than she knew, and a part of me was glad she got to sing the part and not me.
“I sang it, sure. But you would have sung it like way better.”
“I doubt that.”
“Oh, stop it! You would have! But it wasn’t just me, Sarah! Everyone did great!” Emma then asked, “Do you mind at all that it was me who sang your part, or nah?”
“Definitely nah.” I smiled again. “You’re the one I would have wanted to sing it.”
Emma said, almost whispering, “Your mom called my mom and told her you were sick and that’s why you couldn’t go.”
“Yeah.” It was all I could say.
“Is that what it was? Or was it that?” she asked, making reference to the woman in the window in her own way.
“No, no,” I assured her. “I was just sick.”
Emma took a deep breath. “I’m so glad. I didn’t want to ask, but I knew I should, wanted to, that sort of thing, you know or whatever.”
“I know,” I said.
“So, that is like, gone, or whatever?”
“Yep.” There was no way I was going to steal Emma’s excitement.
“How?” she asked in amazement.
“I don’t know. She just stopped,” I said as convincingly as I could by sprinkling in a little false relief.
“That’s is so good. I’m happy for you!”
“Yeah. I would have been there to cheer you on but I was super sick all weekend. I’m so happy you won.”
Emma touched my face with both of her hands. “Not me. And not us. We won, Sarah. You’re a part of that too.”
“I wasn’t there.”
“But you’re still a part of the group. Everyone thinks so.”
“They weren’t too upset?”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course they were disappointed! But they weren’t upset. We would have wanted you there with us, but we understood.”
A few students began drifting in. One pointed at me and chuckled. Emma turned to glance at the clock. “Well, got to scoot. The bell is about to ring.”
“See you later,” I said.
“Later, Sarah gator!” Emma offered as she waved and twirled her way back out into the hall. I was glad to have smiled with her, share in her happiness.
Sam was at the door. Emma didn’t notice him and she bumped right into him during mid-spin. She didn’t even apologize, just gave Sam a push, declared, “You’re in the way!” and resumed her twirling.
Sam came in. He didn’t sit, just stood nearby. “I can’t stay long because class is going to start, but I just wanted to say, you know, I’m sorry, for how I talked to you in the cafeteria.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m sorry too.”
“What’s with what you said though? About a woman or something?”
The bell rang. More students came in.
“Nothing. It’s nothing.”
Sam looked again like he cared. I missed that look. It was endearing, comforting. His eyes weren’t looking around for who he might impress. “What is it?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”
I wanted to tell him. I wanted to spend time with him like we used to. “There’s a woman. She’s been in my dreams.”
“Like a recurring nightmare?”
“Yeah, well, sort of. Only, I think she’s real.”
Mark came in and yelled, “Sam, what are you doing in here? This isn’t your class.” He sauntered over with a cocky smile. “Hey, Sarah.” Then he coughed. Hard. Like he had a hairball in his throat, and he elbowed Sam to join in on the joke.
Sam said, “Dude, don’t.”
“I was just coughing,” Mark said.
“Sarah,” Sam tried.
“It’s okay,” I said. “You should go to class.”
“Nightmares. They’ll go away eventually. See you later.”
“See you later,” I said.
Mark gave Sam a slap on the shoulder and bellowed, “Later, homie!” Sam regained the new person he was becoming and strutted away.