Authors: Melissa Pearl
"What do you want?" Amber's expression told him he was a pathetic little bug and should scuttle away as fast as possible.
Dale wasn't perturbed and replied with a cordial smile before looking at me with a wicked grin. "Such nice friends you have. What a pleasure it is to finally meet them."
I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me as they looked from me to Dale.
"Thanks for returning my iPod." I tried to make it more than obvious that we were done here, but he just had to keep going.
"You're welcome. Hey maybe we can catch up after school tomorrow, listen to some music."
Amber and Penny both frowned. I had to do something. I didn't want them thinking I was into the guy. Penny, aka Twitter bug, because of her addiction to Twitter, could annihilate me in less than a minute. I had to end this.
And end it I did.
In the worst way I possibly could have.
I shrugged then said with a smirk, "Whatever, Scarface."
My friends snickered and Dale's expression dropped. All humor disappeared and I was faced with a look that I cannot get out of my brain.
You should know better.
I tried to apologize without actually saying it, but it was too late. The words were out, my friends thought I was a cool, mean bitch again and I was left feeling like the scum of the earth.
I glanced behind me once more as I walked away and Dale was pulling the shoulder-length curls he always tucked behind his ears, down over his face... a pathetic attempt to hide his scar.
Dale's brake lights appear as he pauses at the end of the street. The sudden urge to call out and wave for him to stop courses through me, but he pulls away before I can actually act on it. He wouldn't stop anyway. He hasn't looked at me once since I said it. It's been just over four months since I dubbed him Scarface. How was I supposed to know it would catch on and spread through the school like a virus? I swallow and cross my arms. Four months... and he hasn't looked at me once.
I catch the bus in the village and arrive at school an hour late. Thankfully no one spots me as I sneak into the back of the school and hightail it to my next class. The bell for second period must have rung a couple of minutes earlier because the door is wide open and I can hear my friends still in chatter mode.
I dump my bag on the desk and sit down next to them.
"Hey guys. You won't believe the morning I've had."
Amber is assessing her nails as Twitterbug finishes off a text then slams her phone down.
"So..." she gives Amber that
tell me everything
Amber blushes, then smirks. "It was good."
"What was good?" I lean forward.
..." Penny makes circles with her hand, begging Amber for more.
"Okay it was amazing. He's a really good kisser. I think I like him."
Penny lets out a little squeal. "I so hooked you up. Hashtag, Penny is awesome."
I try to hide my eye
roll. Twitterbug talks in hashtags.
Amber giggles. "Hash
tag, study group rocks."
And Amber has started doing it too. Just quietly, it's super annoying.
Wait, did she just say study group? Of course. We always have study group on a Tuesday. Whose place was it at last night? I'm too embarrassed to ask. They'll accuse me of drinking too much again.
"Aren't you glad I invited him?" Penny prods Amber's shoulder.
Amber rolls her eyes. "Okay, okay, don't make a big deal of it."
I can tell by the look on her face that she totally wants us to make a big deal of it.
"Who did you hook up with?" I hate that I can't remember what we did last night, but I have to know who Amber kissed. "So, what was his name again?"
Amber flicks her hair and sits up straight.
She looks away from me.
She sniffs and clears her throat.
"Okay, is this because I didn't call you this morning? Because, for your information, I can't find my phone."
Amber shakes her head and readjusts her long bangs.
I roll my eyes. This is so Amber. Whenever I piss her off, even by the teensiest little bit, she punishes me with her high fallooting air sniffs and throat clearing. She makes me work double time to figure out what the problem is as well. It is so completely irritating.
"Penny, help me out here. Did I do something last night? I don't remember doing anything wrong?" I hold back my
, 'actually I don't remember anything' comment.
Penny checks her
phone again then opens her textbook as the teacher walks in.
"She's got you in on this too? Give me a break, Penny. I can't fix this if I don't know what's wrong."
She scratches her nose then pulls out a pen, looking towards the front of class.
"Thanks, guys. Thanks a lot," I whisper before slumping back in my seat.
My mind races with all the things I could have done. Unfortunately my slate is hardly clean. Amber ignored me for three weeks once when I hooked up with the guy she was crushing on. I eventually got her to forgive me, but I've never told her we actually slept together. I'd rather die. Maybe she found out last night.
nibble my lip as another misdemeanor rushes through my brain. That time I totally dissed her outfit in front of everyone. I was just trying to get her back for borrowing my bracelet and promptly losing it. She actually looked pretty good, but I, of course, had to point out the fact that those particular pants made her mini love handles show. Kill me now. I can't believe I actually said that in front of all our friends. I mean her clothes are often too tight and I'd love to go all make over on her, but she'd be so offended if I ever suggested it. Besides, she got me back the next day by "accidentally" spilling cranberry juice all over my white shirt. The war could have gone on for months if Penny hadn't stepped in with a truce agreement.
I glance up at Mrs. Spencer as she begins her
tirade on the quality of our homework assignments. We are now juniors and there is no excuse for tardiness, sloppiness or incomplete work. The class lets out a collective groan when she threatens to make us repeat it. "All except Cassie Martin and Derek Li whose work is constantly of the highest standard."
I shoot Amber an eye roll, but she doesn't respond.
I tune out Mrs. Spencer and get back to my worrying.
What did I do last night? Who did she hook up with? I inwardly cringe as I imagine my-drunken-self making a play for Amber's love interest. How humiliating.
Surely I wouldn't have.
"Hey, was Trent at study group?" I whisper.
Amber is too busy listening to the teacher to acknowledge me.
He must have been. He's always there, because I'm always there... and if he was there, there's no way I would have been flirting with anybody else. At least I can cross that one off my list.
I look at Amber again. Things have not been the same since I started dating Trent. Amber's never actually said it, but I don't think she likes him. He can be a bit of a bad boy I guess, but he does have a really sweet side... sometimes. Maybe she just doesn't like
being with him. We haven't spent as much time together since Trent's been on the scene. I don't know, maybe I ignored her at study group. Knowing her, she would have wanted to show off Mr. Good Kisser. If I hadn't been paying attention, the chances of a panties-in-a-twist-party were pretty high.
Looks like my crappy day is just going to get crappier.
I tap my pen on my pad then make a quick decision. Standing from my seat, I gather my things and walk to the front of class.
"Mrs. Spencer, I'm not feeling very well. Can I go see the nurse please?"
She's so busy writing on the white board, she barely turns to acknowledge me. I take her minute hand wave as an okay and turn to leave, firing Amber a morose look as I walk out the door.
I want to throw something as I tap my way down the empty corridor. I hate this; why can't I remember anything?
My brain pulses against my skull as I turn towards the sick bay. Do I really want to go there?
I spin on my heel and head down the stairs. I'll wait in the changing rooms. Maybe by dance class the girls will have defrosted and I can find out what the hell is going on.
Voices drift up from the bottom of the stairs and I let out a sigh of relief.
Finally. I can get some answers.
I rush the last few steps and whip around the corner only to
freeze in my tracks.
Trent is leaning against the wall with a cute little brunette in front of him. Julie Peters. Well, well, well.
"I don't want to get caught," she whispers.
"We won't. No one comes around here during class time."
I cross my arms and slowly approach the couple. My footsteps are obviously too quiet to interrupt their interlude. I stop behind Trent and wait for him to notice me.
"You looked really hot last night. You know I wanted to leave with you instead."
Julie giggles, making me want to scratch her eyes out.
"You have a girlfriend, Trent."
"Yeah, yeah, I know, but... come on; you can't deny the chemistry between us."
My bottom lip falls to the floor.
"Well, maybe you should break up with her."
He shifts uncomfortably and lets out a soft chuckle.
"I want to, but you know what she can be like. I have to pick my time. I don't want things to be bad for you and if she thinks I dumped her so I can be with you, your life will suck."
Damn right it will.
I ease forward, ready to let rip.
"Thanks for looking out for me, Trent, but what if she finds out?"
"She won't. We'll just keep this really quiet. She'll be completely oblivious."
"Oh really?" I shout as Trent leans down to kiss her. I step forward and thump him on the shoulder.
My breath evaporates in one big whoosh.
I stumble back with bug eyes.
What just happened?
Trent shivers and rubs his shoulder. The shoulder I had just tried to hit.
The shoulder my hand had just passed straight through.
"Are you okay?" Julie touches his face.
"Yeah." He shivers again then smiles down at her. "Come on, let's get out of here."
He puts his hand on her lower back and leads her outside.
I stand in frozen shock as I listen to the door click closed behind them.
Breathing in through my nose, I approach the door with shaky steps. My arm is quivering as I reach for the door handle.
My fingers pass through the metal.
It feels weird. Like, beyond weird. Not hard like metal should be... or cold, it's just... nothing. I feel nothing.
A sharp pain shoots through my brain and I let out a cry. I clutch my head and drop to the floor, squeezing my eyes shut. The corridor begins to spin. I open my eyes as the walls rush towards me. My lungs fill with a scream of terror before everything goes black.
I don't want to open my eyes. Every fiber of my being pulses with pain. Where am I?
The first thing to register is the sound of birds whisking through the air above me.
They chirp and sing to each other.
What the hell are birds doing in a school corridor? My eyes pop open of their own accord.
Large trees loom above me. The smell of pine wafts up my nose.
Crap. Am I hallucinating?
Why am I in a forest?
I turn to take in my surroundings and feel a sharp pain sear down my neck.
It's like someone has mistaken my head for a nail. The hammer swings pound my brain in a steady, unrelenting rhythm.
squeeze my eyes shut. What is going on?
Okay, just stop and think. You were with Trent, the
scum bag who is cheating on you.
Man, that stings. It's totally not important to my situation right now, but it still stings... real bad. My boyfriend is cheating on me with Julie Peters. Images of his hands and lips on my skin massacre my brain. How many girls had I been sharing those lips with? I feel sick. Instant tears line my lashes. I shake my head to ward them off. Not the world's best idea.
The pain pulses with a vengeance, forcing me back to reality. At least I think it's reality.
With slow movements, I investigate the origin of my headache. There's a large lump on the back of my head. It's soft and mushy, making me grimace. Is my hair wet?
I pull my hand away and notice red liquid on my fingertips.
I jerk at the realization and scream.
The left side of my body feels as though it's been pounded with a ball pein hammer. I use my right hand to do a quick assessment. My arm is killing me. I don't want to touch it, but force myself to feel around the area. My elbow is swollen and throbbing. I try to move it again, but the pain is excruciating.
lie still as panicked breaths punch through my system. I am on the verge of an all out cry-fest. I can feel myself losing it. If I don't pull it together, panic is soon going to rob me of all common sense.
Who gives a shit about
common sense? I'm freaking out here!
The words wisp out through my parched lips. My brain is fighting for control, forcing my emotions to settle.
I repeat the word another ten times, until my breathing returns to a normal pattern.
"Now think." I can hear my father's voice in my head. Whenever I got angry as a kid, he would say, "Stop. Breathe. Think. Now what's the best way to handle this?"
It used to bug the hell out of me. He hadn't said it in a really long time. It's surprising how comforting the memory is.
"Stop." Done that.
"Breathe." Done that.
"Think." Okay, think.
How did I get here? How did this happen?
An image of me tumbling down an embankment sparks in my brain. I carefully turn my head to look up the steep slope.
I am surrounded by pine trees. Daylight struggles to reach me through the thick branches, but I am still lying on a bed of dappled light.
I'm afraid to move, but lift my head to get a better idea of what might be up the hill.
It achieves nothing but pain.
I can't see where I am. I have no idea what's up or down.
All I know is that I hurt.
I really, really hurt.
And is that puke I smell? I glance to my right and notice a patch of grossness near my head. Ewwww! Why was I puking? Did I get totally plastered and fall down this hill or something? Why didn't someone help me? Did my friends just laugh and walk away, leaving me completely alone?
I am totally alone.
Panic rises with cruel swiftness.
"No. Stop. Breathe. Think." I can hear the desperation in my voice and my next words can barely make it out past my tears. "What's the best way to handle this?"
The sobs make my belly quiver. I brush my tears away and yell, "I have no idea!! Help me!
Somebody help me!"
I scream until my voice is hoarse. The birds have gone quiet and now I'm left with nothing.
Hopelessness engulfs me, but my brain won't let it win. I can still hear Dad's words repeating over and over like a mantra.
I try once more.
Stop. Breathe. Think.
I want my mom.
No. Nicole! Stop! Breathe! Think!
I push my childish wishes aside and accept the fact I'm alone. The feeling's not new, but that doesn't stop my heart from burning.
Think. Think, Nicole.
I breathe in slowly through my nostrils and let the air whoosh free.
Okay, so my arm's screwed, but I can still use my right hand. Maybe I can drag myself up the hill and see if there is any civilization nearby.
I twist my body, ready to execute my brilliant plan when a pain fires up from my knee. It is so intense, stars appear in rapid succession, followed by a black haze. Before I know what's happening, I'm standing in my living room staring at that hideous pine tree.
"Yes, hi. It's Mrs. Tepper here, Nicole's mother."
I scoot around the couch and make a beeline for the kitchen, following her voice like a lifeline.
"Mom. Thank God."
She is looking at her feet as she circles the counter, nodding her head.
"Yes, but has she come into school today?"
"Mom." I stand in her way and wave my arms, but she can't see me.
"No? Okay, thank you."
Dammit! Am I a ghost? Have I died already?
No, I can't have. It was like this this morning. It all feels the same. Maybe my mind's left my body. Maybe I'm caught in this weird sub-reality,
A shiver races down my spine.
Half-dead... and probably not that far off fully dead unless I find help.
"Mom!" I wave my arms more frantically, but she just nods her head and looks through me.
"Yes, I understand, but can you please contact me if anyone sees her?"
Wow, she actually looks worried.
"Thank you." Mom hangs up the phone and fidgets with her earring. Her eyes have that glassy sheen to them as she stares at the counter. She's clearly in zombie mode and she only tends to do that when she's concentrating really hard or simply doesn't know what to do.
"Mom." I stand right next to her. Maybe if I'm super close she'll be able to hear me. "It's me. It's Nicole. I need your help. You have to find me. I'm hurt. I don't know where I am or what's happened to me, but I need you to keep trying. Please, call someone else."
I reach for the phone and my fingers pass straight through it.
So not loving the ghost thing.
"Mom, please." My voice quivers.
She snaps out of her reverie and walks to the coffee machine. Flipping up the lid, she lets out a sigh and dumps the dregs into the trashcan. Grabbing a fresh filter, she pops it in the top and reaches for the coffee.
The phone stops her. She forces a smile and presses the answer button, making sure it's on speaker phone so she can keep moving around the kitchen.
"Hey, where are you right now?"
"Dad! Can you hear me?" I know it's pointless, but yell it anyway.
Mom's filling up the glass jug with water, so calls over her shoulder. "I came home."
"I thought you didn't have a moment spare today?"
"I don't, thanks to Jackie A.! Man, that woman is so demanding... such a pain in the ass."
My father chuckles.
"Why are you home then?"
She empties the water into the top then slots the jug into the machine with force and presses the ON button.
"I just wanted to see if Nicky was here. I thought maybe she was playing hooky again and just waiting until I left before surfacing."
Mom knew I played hooky? Yikes, I didn't know that. Why has she never said anything? I feel my spirit deflate. I don't want to answer that question.
"Look, honey, I know you're worried, but I'm sure she's fine."
"She's not fine, Mitchell." Her fingers tap on the counter as she waits for her coffee to percolate. "I know she gets home at all hours, I know she probably gets up to mischief with her friends, I know she's dating some loser... what's his name, Brent or something? But she always comes home. She's always here in the morning."
How does she know all this stuff? I've never even introduced her to Trent?
Dad clears his throat. "Trudy, she's stayed out all night before."
"But not on a school night. I can't shake the feeling that something's not right."
"Have you called her?"
"It just goes straight to voicemail. There's no point leaving a message, she'd never call me back anyway."
"I'm sure she'll check in eventually. I don't think we should worry yet."
"But what if she finally did it?"
"I don't..." Dad sighs. "I don't want to think that way."
Mom's eyes fill with tears.
"Mom?" I reach out to touch her, but know I can't. "What do you think I did?"
"Let's explore all the options first, okay? I'll give the school a call."
"I already have."
"They don't think she's come in."
"Well, maybe it's worth actually going down there. One of her friends will definitely be able to tell us something. If she's run away, one of them will know."
"Run away? Wait a sec, you think I've run away? I haven't!" I wave my hand in front of Mom's face, but I'm nothing more than air. "Mom, I haven't run away. I need you guys to find me."
"Yeah." Mom sighs as she pulls out the jug and pours fresh coffee into her thermos mug. "I'll try and get over there sometime today."
"Try not to worry. She'll turn up."
"Yeah, I ju
st—" Mom's phone beeps. "Dammit. That's Jackie again. I better go."
"I'll see you at dinner. I'll try
to be home by six. If she hasn't surfaced by then, we can talk about what to do next."
"Yeah okay. Bye." She holds her breath before taking it off speaker and pasting on a smile.
"Jac-kie." Her voice is bright and breezy as she grabs her mug and walks out of the kitchen back towards her car.
I follow her with swift steps and make it out the door before she closes it on me. As soon as she opens the driver's door, I scramble inside. "Mom, I wish you could hear me. What can I do to make you hear me?"
I try whacking the dashboard and beeping the horn, but it's pointless. I'm made of freaking air. Besides, she's so immersed in her call with Jackie, she probably wouldn't even notice if I was actually here.
I slump into my seat with a curse.
The phone call lasts until just past Big Bear Village. Mom continues cruising towards the school, her fingers drumming... her mind a million miles away.
"Are you thinking about me? Wondering what I'm up to? You should go to the school. Don't wait, go there now."
I can see the turn off to school just up ahead. Mom slows the car and looks down Maple Lane.
"That's it. Turn right. You can do it."
Her phone starts ringing again. She looks at the screen and sighs before answering with that plastic sunshine of hers.
"Hello, Gordan... Uh-huh. Sure I'm free right now. I can meet you in ten minutes." Mom flicks on the wrong indicator and goes to do a U-turn.
"No! School! Find out where I was last night!"
brakes to let a couple of cars pass and I make a hasty decision.
"Fine. If you're not gonna go, I will."
I try to jump out the open window, but end up falling through the car door. I probably look like a total dork as I jump away from the car and hit the curb. I land in a heap as she pulls away from me.
I slowly brush myself
off, collect my bag, which seems to appear with me in spite of the fact I'm not really here, and turn towards school. I shouldn't expect Mom or Dad to be able to hear me... we're hardly close. Depression takes a seat on my shoulder and reminds me I'm not really close to anybody... ergo, no one will ever be able to hear me.
I try shaking it off as I put one foot in front of the other. The least I can do is find out what happened to me last night. I don't want to die completely clueless.
I don't actually want to die at all... I think.