It happens, right in the middle of AP Bio, with just two months left before the end of junior year and I am pretty sure it cinches the pariah status I have been trying to slip since eighth grade. You know, new school, new crowd, new start. At least that’s what they tell you and I’d swallowed it, hook, line and sinker. I wanted to believe, ever hopeful, eager for the change, a little scared too. I think we all yearned for the chance to stretch out of our skins and begin again with flashing eyes, hushed voices and hope locked away in our hearts.
High School with its new beginning…That’s what they’d promised, smiles stretching as they passed us our papers, handed down the gowns, and the magic of it was, none of us knew what the change might bring. That hope alone triggered glorious yearnings.
Then, at summer’s end, I was there, in the bigger place with the older kids, breath catching in a dizzying mix of fear and excitement. Eyes wide, longing to be someone I was not. But since most of my class made the shift with me, instead of history being expunged, it was only watered down. And nothing changed. Not the cold shoulders, the sideways glances, the knowing smiles half hidden behind hand-covered mouths, or worse, the hushed whispered bits that found their way to my ear…what a weirdo…her dad’s dead, I heard he was murdered…she has fits, something is wrong with her…you know her mother is a witch…
I fell back into the habit of hanging at the edge, watching from the shadows, all of my differences carefully hidden. But the sidelines do offer anonymity. After three years my oddity is mostly forgotten. Mostly. And I did change, stretching taller. Long, skinny legs arranged in awkward angles, pointed elbows and jutting collarbones all sharp beneath my skin. I became the quiet one, still on the fringe looking in.
Anyway, the day it happens is a day like any other, the usual schedule, with the usual participants interacting in their usual ways. I’m halfway through it, at my desk in A.P. Bio, wiggling pen pressed to paper even as my attention flitted upon other things.
“So yes, we have the meeting of two cells that quickly divide and depending on the strength of the traits they each carry—” Mr. Addison’s voice catches and I look up to see Evelynn Ford’s hand in the air, sun-browned arm stretching out to nothing, a brightly lacquer fingertip jabbing the air even as its twin taps out an impatient rhythm on her desk. Mr. Addison nods and the lecture grinds to a halt like so many times before. “Yes, Ms. Ford?” He is too kind but even he can’t help the dip in his usual buoyant tone.
“But Mr. Addison,” Evelynn begins what I’m sure is to be a long, babbling statement of preconceived notions mixed with bits of her family’s brand of brainwashing; her perfect ponytail bobbing in time to a voice that is always a little too loud. I blow out a long breath and tuck my chin. My hair spills forward to veil my face as yearning, in the guise of a barely-there sigh, escapes my mouth and I go back to the doodle, touching the pen down adding darkness to the edge.
It’s only when Mr. Addison’s voice rises that I drop back into the lecture. “Were it that simple.” He turns away and I think he is on the edge of a sigh, but then something I can’t see, something private that he keeps to himself, happens, and he reins his focus back to the subject. “Let’s put aside the why of it, shall we?” He sends a hopeful smile out over the room. “Simply consider the how. When you focus on how it happens, you will see that everything is, as it is, because of a reaction to a long sequence of variables.”
I blink and take it in. I like the way it sounds and I catch the phrase and look at the complexity of it, because it is that…but it is also so much more. I pull at its edges, tugging to unraveling the notion and find while the creation part might be, at its simplest-self, born of a chemical reaction, the reaction itself is born from a long line of choices, choices with the power to remake or unmake each of us…choices that reach back to the beginning of time...
I start at the sound of my name and jerk my eyes up to see Mr. Addison looking at me. My color rises hot. “Uh,” I stammer. “Could you repeat the question?”
Someone snorts. The sound is heavy with a mocking scorn. It sets me to bristle, and I turn narrowed eyes to catch Suzie Wilson as she snickers. My friend Patrick is quick to my rescue. “A recessive trait is a trait that must be carried by both parents in order for it to appear in the offspring,” he offers.
“Right as usually, Mr. King.”
Patrick shoots me a sideways glance, concern flashing over his features, but I’m shifting in my seat, turning away as Mr. Addison drones on about genetic combinations.
Embarrassment keeps me sharp. I scribble a few notes before time seems to slow and the classroom noise again filters. My shoes lie on the ground discarded. Bare toes press to the cool tile. Elbow on my desk, fist under my chin, as I gaze through the glass absently tracking a kid I don’t know make his way from the Science wing to the Art building. Mr. Addison’s voice is just a faint buzz over the rumble of the swamp cooler forcing damp-dust air through the room and my face is to the window and the yellow sun offering warmth where it touches. In the languid light I let my vision blur as a thought softly whispers across my mind, a secret wish released into the universe like bits of dandelion fluff floating up on the puff of a warm breath. Oh to be somewhere else…And then BAM! In the very next instant I am somewhere else entirely, looking into the eyes of a sparkling lady with a glowing corona of golden curls and skin so pale it seems made of light.
I blink hard but she won’t vanish. Instead her mouth lifts in a slight smile and the sweet scent of jasmine presses in as she leans closer. I am paralyzed as I gaze into eyes of an astonishing blue, the blue of oceans and the heavens above, the blue of magic and promises kept. Her eyes rob me of my thoughts as she whispers, “It is time.” And I am helpless but to watch as she lifts her open palm to her lips and she blows...
Tiny sparks of light fly by me like glowing glitter. In the blinking of an eye darkness descends and everything changes as the whole world becomes pure motion. I am plunged into a dark sea of nothingness. There is no light, no sound. Though I seem to be standing, there is nothing beneath my feet. I am engulfed in darkness and my heart reacts even if my head does not, leaping like a wild thing trying to free itself from the cage of my ribs. Yet even with the fluttering ache in my chest, my head remains calm watching, taking it all in, registering the fact that I am floating upright in a void of nothingness…
Is it nothing or just darkness? I look harder tilting my head but there is nothing to see. There are no stars, not even a sky, just me and the wind. Wind? The word tumbles through my brain and with it comes understanding, by the fluttering of my hair and the wind at my back, I am in motion streaking through the darkness. I’m in motion, but I’m not moving me. Something is propelling me, like the way gravity pulls you toward the earth when you fall, only I am not falling down, but falling through, plunging sideways through an endless darkness.
Questions ping through my thoughts as I gaze out at the void. What? How? Where am I? The questions spark confusion because I know with utmost certainty that I am in science class, or at least I was a second ago. The realization is a lightning bolt that transforms the confusion clouding my brain into bright fear. Not again! It morphs into bands of steal that clamp around my chest and squeeze but all I can do is close my eyes and whisper…stop. Please, stop!
When it seems that I can’t bear it another second, something shifts, a change that pokes at my awareness, nudging my consciousness to take notice. I let go of my fearful thoughts, and as my awareness unfurls, I realize what has changed. I’ve stopped. Or it has stopped…and all is still.
There is firmness under my feet. Just as I realize it, I lose my balance and have to pinwheel my arms to stay standing. My eyes fly open, but it is not Mr. Addison’s Bio class that meets my gaze but an outdoor place with an enormous night sky stretching endless above lit in a glorious vision with ten-trillion twinkling stars.
I fall to my knees and huddle, mouth open, eyes on a sky that is stunning in its clarity, how our night sky must have been long ago, before smog and city lights dimmed the view. How can this be?... I must be dreaming. Yes! That’s it. I’ve fallen asleep in class and now I’m dreaming.
I am still staring up at the stars when I witness a subtle change as a spot on the horizon begins to glow and I watch in frozen appreciation as a huge, shining moon rises to illuminate a nighttime world, and in its soft silver light, I become aware of other things: the gentle breeze stirring my hair, the press of sandy loam under my bare legs and feet, and the soft stirring sounds of water.
I push up from the ground and stand to take in the strange, new world. My eyes have adjusted enough to see that I am standing at the edge of a great expanse of dark water. A few steps to my right a dock rises to reach out across the lake, and as my eyes fall upon the wood structure, a subtle urge awakens at my center urging me toward it. I take a step forward thinking, how curious. With a fascinated gaze I trace the platform, and as my focus narrows upon the sturdy stairs, the compulsion silently beckons...Place thy foot upon the stair and climb…hearken the call given unto thee…
I take another step
… climb and go forth to where they wait….
I am about to completely give over to the impulse, when a crashing noise sounds behind me breaking the spell and I whirl around to face the black water. With a pounding heart, I sweep my eyes over the dark surface but there is nothing to see, just an unbroken plane of inky smoothness, a black mirror for the glowing moon. I hold my breath, waiting, watching. When another long moment passes with still nothing to see, the rational side of my brain finds its voice, Get a grip. This is just a dream...well maybe it’s a nightmare…but it is day, so does that make it a daymare? Weird. This is so very, very weird.
I am about to turn back to the dock when my ears catch a sound, a soft splash that sets goose bumps to prickle over my arms. Images of a large monster watching from just below the reflective surface fill my mind. Fear leaps up to flutter in my chest and I freeze as all of my senses shriek, Look! There! It’s right there in the water! And I do. I look hard, eyes fastened on the dark surface as it shimmers under the silver light of the moon. I hold my breath as my eyes do their searching but the water holds its secrets.
The night around me, however, is very alive. Peepers, toads and other things call in the darkness. Overhead small things that I think, that I hope, are bats swoop and glide low over the enormous lake’s surface. I draw a breath and let the tension held so hard slip. Perhaps it was only a fish leaping to catch its dinner? I exhale long and slow, muscles relaxing as I slide my eyes again to the dock.
The solid wood structure is still there, and as my eyes settle on it, the desire to climb it and walk out to its edge summons me. I am in the process of lifting my foot to set it on the first stair, when from the corner of my eye I catch the motion of something large rising from the lake. My heart lurches as the night fills with the sounds of rushing water. A chorus from inside me screams, Move now! Hurry! Leap up onto the platform! But my feet stick. I can only take a small step backward and turn to watch in frozen horror as a pair of glowing eyes, on the head of a giant monster, rises up from the water to shed their lids and fix on me. Then it is all blurred motion rushing toward me. I hurl myself backward. A falling tangle of thrashing arms and pumping legs as a scream bursts from my mouth and my mind fills with the image of a monster, jaws wide, teeth wanting me.
Then it’s just me and the darkness and my pounding heart as the night sky winks out and I am slipping through and in between the grains of sand, falling into darkness.
…I gasp and jerk my eyes wide open. White light blinds me. I squeeze my eyes closed against it and take another gulp of air. Fear must be giving me an adrenaline overload because it seriously feels like my heart is trying to leap out of my chest. I grip the hard surface in front of me and cautiously I open my eyes…to find that I am back in my seat in AP Biology; the hard wood of my desk a reassuring support.
I blow out a long breath and ease out of my white-knuckled grip in an attempt to appear normal. Oh my god, what just happened? flashes through my mind followed quickly by, Oh my god, did anyone notice? Shame flares red hot lighting up my face. I ignore my racing heart and dart my eyes to the students around me.
Only the kid next to me seems to have noticed anything and he just casts me a curious glance. I’m beginning to think I might be able to brush the whole weirdness into the cobwebs of memory. I start to narrow my eyes at him and mouth, “What?” when my treacherous body balks. It feels just like someone takes a marker and draws an icy line from my forehead down to my chin, and in that moment, I lose control as my whole world shifts to slow-motion and I am mortified as my hand crumples and falls to my side. Then the pencil I’m holding drops to the floor and the next thing I know, I am on the ground next to it, lying on my back, blinking at the lights. I am aware of the fact that while I can breathe, and I can see, and I can hear, I cannot move or speak.
A face hovers above me. I focus to find my friend, Patrick, peering down, concern pressing on his features. His lips are moving and I know he is calling my name but it sounds like he is far away as he asks, “Rachel, are you alright?”
I am gazing up at him through a membrane like ripping water… I just begin to wonder at it, when the pain hits, bright and crippling, the way it must feel to have an ice pick jabbed through your temple. My eyes clench closed, teeth pressing together hard. I am barely aware of the way my arms and legs start to twitch and tremble right before darkness takes me away to a peaceful place...
A voice, bright and male… and just under it something humming, a low buzzing drone, “I don’t know. She was just sitting there, frowning, and then she fell over and started twitching on the floor—” The voice belongs to the kid who sits next to me... Daniel. His name is Daniel and he’s in choir, or maybe it’s the yearbook staff…The image of him with a mitt solidifies and I am suddenly certain that he plays on the baseball team. Another voice rises over his, a lower, deeper voice vibrating with the resonance of authority… Mr. Addison’s… I’m grabbing at the facts as they come, piecing them together in my head, all the while the humming thing fills my ears.
Then the floor is there, hard under my back. My eyes flutter and there is light again, and with it, reality leaks back to sink sickly in my stomach. I try to move. Feel my fingers touch. The connections are slow but they are mine and now the twitches this time are me reconnecting.
A single tear leaks from my eye as I uncurl my fingers. There is pressure in my ears and that annoying hum, like the sound an old printer makes as it plots out a large, unending image. Another breath and I can move my hand, my foot, my leg. I turn my head and I am astounded to find Veronica Torres, one of the prettiest girls in school, kneeling beside me holding my hand.
She looks down at me, eyes holding mine while all around her pink energy glows. I blink but she remains at my side with her pink light cocoon and her liquid eyes, huge and dark. “Rachel can you hear me?” I can but the pressure in my ears is wrong, like I’ve just climbed too high and they need to pop. She shifts and her long hair spills around us in a flower-scented curtain. The scent is all around me wrapping tight. “Rachel?”
Someone, I think Melinda March or maybe Suzie Wilson, hoots, “Be careful Veronica, I hear you can catch nerdy.” A thunderous expression storms Veronica’s features as she glances up to shoot them the bird. Behind her I see Patrick, standing with his back to us. He looks strange too as he stands, hands on hips in a protective stance all the while a fiercely orange light flickers and shifts around him.
“Quiet class!” Mr. Addison orders. “Mr. King and Miss Torres, please return to your seats!”
Veronica ignores him. She has turned back to me. “Do you think you can sit up?”
I fix on her words as the noise of the class shifts and my plight loses its novelty. The other students turn back to take up other conversations. In the background I hear Mr. Addison warn, “Class, return to your seats immediately!” But my eyes are fixed on Veronica as I nod.
“Ms. Torres, it would be more prudent not to move her!”
We both ignore Mr. Addison as Veronica’s grip tightens. Her eyes never leave mine as our hands lock and then she’s pulling firm, tugging until I am sitting up. “Can you talk?”
My muscles are still uncoiling but I manage to croak, “Thank you.”
She shrugs. “It happens to my sister sometimes.”
I squeeze my eyes shut. Then Patrick is there. I open my eyes to see his orange light is gone and it’s just his familiar face looking down. “Want to sit back in your seat?” Before I can say anything, Patrick in true teen-boy fashion, picks me up roughly and deposits me in my chair.
“Mr. King, I said not to move her!”
“Mr. Addison, you should stop harassing her.” I slide my eyes to see Sean Waverly, the new kid in our class, a true California transplant with black hair spiked as usual, his lanky frame clad in a black t-shirt and skinny jeans. He leans against Michael Judson’s chair blocking the aisle, barring Mr. Addison’s way.
Michael turns to shoot me a glance. His once lackluster hair is now a gleaming platinum styled with liberal amounts of wax and hairspray like some character on the cover of a manga magazine. His polo shirt traded for a dark t-shirt like his friend’s. I fix on his metamorphosis, wondering at it because I remember, just last year, he’d been the nerdy one sitting alone in the back of the class, a book his only company.
Mr. Addison isn’t backing down. “Mr. Waverly take your seat. Ms. Sparrow, you must seek medical attention!”
My voice comes out rough, like I just swallowed a shovel of gravel, “I do not want to go the hospital.” I really, really don’t. Though it’s been over three years since my last episode, the memory is still bright of the awful week I’d spent being poked and prodded, glued with electrodes then having lights flashed in my face. Lastly they’d strapped me down and stuck me in a claustrophobic cylinder that clicked and ticked around me. When test after test came back normal, my doctor started referring to my seizure as ‘the event’ or my ‘episode’. He told me that not everyone is wired the same and then he agreed to let me go home.
Not everyone is wired the same, the doctor’s words echo through my memory dredging up the fear, anger and frustration I’d felt all those years ago. In that moment I resolve to do whatever it takes not to repeat that experience…ever!
Mr. Addison must see it on my face because his voice adopts a soothing tone when he replies, “And you do not have to, but as per policy, you must allow the EMTs to check you out. I’ve already placed the call. The ambulance is on its way. Either they evaluate you here and continue this disruption, or they evaluate you at the nurse’s office. It’s your call.”
Ambulance? I slump in my chair. Can’t we just let it end? But I can see by his posture that he too is resolute so I sigh and then spit out, “Fine.” I start to stand. Patrick rushes to my side and slips his arm through mine.
“Mr. King, please return to your seat.”
“Yes Sir, as soon as I walk Rachel to the nurse’s office,” he says in true Patrick fashion—ever courteous even while he is leading a rebellion.
He guides me out of class, into the hall but something is really wrong because the walls are moving. I blink but the walls keep shifting and sliding and slipping over themselves. The motion is dizzying. I grab Patrick’s arm and hang on, glad for the support. Then the door bumps open behind us, I am surprised to find Veronica with my things following us out into the hall. I don’t have a chance to ponder her kindness or even thank her because right beside us the ghostly form of a janitor steps out from where a closet used to be. I watch as he walks down to a trashcan and begins to empty it.
Like the doctor said, not everyone is wired the same, and while conversations with sparkling women and waking dreams of starry skies and moonlit lakes are strange to me, seeing the dead is not a new talent. I’ve had the ability to see and sometimes even communicate with those on the other side on and off since I was little. I say on and off because, well, it’s not the kind of thing I can just conjure up. No matter how much I work with it I still don’t know why some days I have the vision, right there in front of me, all bright and sparkly, and other days it’s more of a latent thing.
Right now, in this moment, there is nothing latent about it. It is on high. The shadowy form of the janitor is cast in clear details. I can see everything from the balding dome of his head to the sagging wrinkles of his face and smaller things too, like the pink frilly thing peaking from the top of the bag at his feet, and how the garbage liner he is trying to fix in the canister keeps wrinkling. I know without looking very closely that he is one of the desperate sorts working to keep something hidden from coming out into light. My head begins to ache with the way the wall behind him keeps melting and shifting, the nonexistent door disappearing and remaking. It’s bizarre like I’m seeing time overlaid on itself.
The specter freezes just as I realize I am openly watching him. I pull my eyes from him and look at the floor as his head snaps up sharply to look at me. From the corner of my eye I take in the way his features morph with anger, I can’t help but lean into Patrick and grip his arm tighter.
Patrick shoots me a worried glance as he pulls me on down the corridor. Behind me the janitor bellows and knocks the trashcan over. Other than to give a little hop, I don’t react. I know the ghost has a big secret he’s protecting. I can tell from the way he is still working so hard to cover it up. I also know I don’t want to find out what it is. I really don’t. I squeeze my eyes closed and fall back on my training. I pull my energy close and try to lock down my perceptions. I open my eyes and focus on the physical things fixing them hard on the pattern of the tile floor. I notice my breath. I follow the rise and fall of my chest. I feel Patrick’s solid flesh under my gripping palm.
Patrick’s pace quickens. As we near the corner I dart my eyes back to the ghostly janitor hoping he will be gone. No such luck. He is still there. He hasn’t faded a bit. Our eyes meet as I glance back. He howls. I jerk my head forward and squeeze my eyes closed. Then I try it again fumbling through the steps I’d learned. In end I just avert my attention and hold my eyes to floor.
Patrick pulls me down the corridor. We come to the foyer and I know something is amiss when across the room I spot a frightening mass wriggling in the corner. I don’t want to look, I really don’t but the odd way it’s moving mesmerizes me. My fingers bite harder into Patrick’s arm the moment I realize it’s a girl dressed in a stained and torn fifties-style poodle skirt.
Patrick glances down at me. “Almost there.”
I stiffen. I know his words are meant to be a comfort but the sound of his voice stirs the girl to her feet and I can’t help but watch as she stands. Her neck is bent at an awful angle. I swallow hard and watch with horrified fascination as she starts toward us in a frightening series of sharp, rickety movements more like a spider’s than the girl she once was. I cringe. Patrick notices and tucks his arm around my waist taking more of my weight. I am very happy for his support because it seems that this episode has supercharged my circuits leaving all of my senses stuck on high.