Authors: Melissa Pearl
"My head!" I grab at it and crumple to the floor as the tiles go blurry and start rushing towards me.
"Nicole?" Dale reaches out for me.
t hurts. I'm going back. I can't. It hurts."
"Nicole, stay calm, it's going to be okay."
"What if I don't come back?"
His face takes on a look of fear before fading into darkness. I hear one last Nicole shouted from the bathroom before I open my eyes to the forest around me.
I slow my breathing. Dale told me to stay calm. I can do that. With very slow movements, I look around me. Pain pulses from my head to my toes and I have to stop in order to ward off the stars in my vision. I want to get back to Dale, but I also need to assess the situation.
Taking my time, I gently re-examine my injuries. My head has stopped bleeding and I now just feel dry crusts in my hair. So gross! With a wince, I try to look at my elbow, but it hurts to turn my head and my hair catches on a twig. I move to free it, which only causes more pain.
Breathing in through my nose, I force my mind to tick off the list Dale gave me.
Jacket. I need to put my jacket over me.
Trying not to move my head, I scan the area and notice my
bag just inches from my fingertips. I stretch towards it. Pain slice through me. I start breathing like a pregnant woman in labor and thrust my right hand towards the strap. I miss. Squeezing my eyes shut, I mutter a curse then try again. It hurts like hell, but this time I manage to wrap my fingers around the leather.
A triumphant smile flutters over my lips as I drag the bag towards me, but it soon disappears. The bag jerks to a stop and refuses to come any closer. I raise my head to get a better look and see it's caught on a
low lying branch.
My head drops back with a thud and fresh stars scatter in front of me.
I breathe in again
— a long, slow one, hold it for a moment and let it out.
Forcing myself to remain calm, I grab the bag again. It's fully stuck. I yank at it and watch it jiggle against the branch. The leaves rustle beneath it as if they are laughing.
I tug and wrench the strap. "Come here, you stubborn, piece of—"
As the bag breaks free it brings a pile of leaves and bracken towards me. I cover my face with my good arm and shift my body away. This just makes everything worse. Pain bolts up my leg. I move to try and ease it, which causes my body to slip to the side. I didn't realize I had been balanced so precariously and before I can stop myself, I'm sliding down the embankment.
My body tumbles over in a circle and images flash through my mind.
The last thought screams through my brain as I lurch to a stop.
I'm out of my body again. Dale is beside me, looking
worried and distracted as he taps his pen on the open textbook in front of him. Damn it! My jacket. Stupid fall, I wanted to assess my situation better. Where am I now? How far down did I fall? And what was with those yellow circles?
I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to make sense of the image. It doesn't work. My eyes pop back open and I silently curse. I want to get back there. I mean, I don't want to be in pain again, but I would like to see where I am now and I really want to be able to te
ll Dale I've covered my flimsy shirt with a jacket.
Oh what's the point! I have absolutely no control over this stupid situation.
Opening my mouth, I'm about to admit defeat and tell Dale I'm back when the desk starts rushing towards me again. My eyes grow wide as the room spins. I squeeze them shut then feel the pain searing my system again.
I'm back in the forest. How the hell did that happen? And what am I lying in?
I spit the debris from my mouth and reach for my throbbing elbow. I'm now in a pile of dead pine needles, the brown sharp ones that prick your skin. I brush the points away from my neck and pull a few from my ratty hair. My elbow is pulsing like a strobe light. Each beat sends a spike of pain from my fingertips to my shoulder. A low moan passes through my lips and a sob climbs up my throat.
Okay, so I'm a total idiot for wanting to get back here. Who cares about a jacket? This hurts too much!
I try to shift my knee to a more comfortable position, but the fire that sears up my leg is too much to bear. I let out a loud cry and stop moving.
Closing my eyes, I try to ward off the tears and think.
My bag. Did it fall with me?
I peer around my body and am surprised to see it resting against my right knee. My fingers scramble down my thigh and manage to grasp the leather strap. I heave it towards me then have to stop and take a few breaths. My head is starting to spin.
I shakily unzip my bag and pull out my jacket. It takes forever and the small task is exhausting. I clasp the jacket to my chest and lay my head back on the pine needles. My brain feels swollen and mushy and despair is only a heartbeat away.
Dale's writing swirls in front of me telling me to put my jacket on. I look at the letters, scribbled quickly in blue ink and make my mind repeat them. It takes about four tries, but eventually my right hand capitulates and starts shaking my jacket to open it wide.
Trying to stretch it over me is freaking hard work, but I manage to cover my shoulders and tuck it under my chin... sort of.
My teeth chatter as I turn to see how far I rolled. I think I see the spot I was before. Gazing up the hill, I replay the tumble in my head. Yellow circles flash in front of me. Two of them, next to each other.
I frown and close my eyes again.
Circles... swerving towards me.
I open my eyes.
"Yellow circles?" I whisper.
"NICKY!" A young girl screams my name and I wince.
"No." I blink at tears. "Circles."
I force myself to repeat the word, hoping it will eradicate the sound of a child's scream. "Bright circles." I watch them swerve in my mind's eye, over the road then straight towards me. "Headlights!" I gasp.
Those two yellow circles were headlights.
I was hit by a car
For some reason, the thought is liberating. I finally know what happened to me.
I try to dredge up further memories. Forcing the headlights to come swerving towards me over and over again. I can't glean any more information and after a few minutes I'm spent.
I need to get back to Dale. I need to tell him what I know.
Scrunching up my face, I try to will myself to his side, but it doesn't work.
"Come on!" Desperation taints my voice as I squeeze my eyes closed again. "Arghhhh!" I let out a scream and hit the dirt. "Please! I need to go back!"
A thought skirts through the back of my brain. It's not a pleasant one, but the idea that I have no other choice makes me entertain it. Pulling in two quick breaths, I hold the third one and force my leg to bend.
My scream is lost as I black out.
I practically appear on Dale's lap. Flinching, I jump back from him and take a seat on the empty stool beside him. Mr. Moffat is droning on in his monotone voice about some equation
involving a ton of letters and numbers. There's a diagram on the board beneath the title Kinetic Energy.
My nose wrinkles and I look at Dale. His mouth is turned down at the sides. I look at the scar marring his features and think it's beautiful.
I shake my head. What is wrong with me?
Yes, I am very happy to be sitting next to him right now, but Dale Finnigan? Beautiful?
Running my hand over my face, I smooth down my eyebrows and shake my head.
Pull yourself together, Nicole.
I study him for a moment longer. He's not listening to a word Mr. Moffat is saying. His eyes are a million miles away and if I could wipe that worry from his face right now, I would.
Leaning towards him, I whisper as softly as I can, "Hey, Dale."
He flinches and lets out a gasp.
"Mr. Finnigan?" The physics teacher stops and gives him a stern look. "I'm not waking you, am I?"
"Sorry, sir." Dale sits up straight and gives him an attentive look.
Mr. Moffat's glare lasts a beat longer then his bland expression returns along with his monotone explanation.
Scrambling for his pen, Dale turns over a fresh piece of paper and writes...
Are you OK?!?!?!?
I smile. "Yes. I'
m fine...well not totally fine, obviously. I had a fall and now I'm even further down the bank."
"Nothing new. I think my head's stopped bleeding, but my knee is pretty bad and my elbow is killing me. I managed to cover myself with my jacket."
I don't suppose you suddenly discovered you're wearing
thermal underwear, did you?
He looks at me hopefully.
I suppress a chuckle and reply, "The only thing I have under my shirt is a bra and your dog tags."
His head jerks towards me, his eyes wide.
"What? You gave them to me to wear, didn't you? What's the matter?"
He shakes his head and writes...
It's nothing. Keep them on.
I want to ask more, but can't delay my answer to his next question.
Remember anything else?
So you were on the road?
"Uh-huh. I must have made it to the road and started walking home."
Left hand side?
"Yeah." I nod. "No wait. I was on the right. I was walking with the traffic."
You know you're actually supposed to walk against it on a road like that.
"Thank you, but that tip is hardly helpful now."
I know, it's just easier to spot cars and they can see you.
"Well, this one didn't."
You think you were hit by a car?!?!?
"Yeah. It was swerving all over the road."
Like a drunk driver or something?
I don't know."
And it hit you?
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure it did. I don't remember exactly, but how else could I be where I am with the injuries I have. I remember falling and—" the word NICKY screams through my head and my air supply is cut off.
I bite my lips together.
"That's all I remember."
Okay, so all we have to do now is find the driver of the car.
"Yeah, because it's that simple. It could have been anyone... most likely some tourist who's now skipped town."
Dale drops the pen and rubs his right earlobe.
Hopelessness pounds against my shoulders. I could so easily give into its relentless rhythm. I can feel myself caving as I take in Dale's sad expression.
"I'm not going to make it, am I?"
Dale lets out a short breath and grabs his pen.
I am going to find you! Just STAY ALIVE!
He underlines the last two words multiple times and the hopeless waves that keep pounding me, ease off just a little. I smile and mouth the words, thank you. I know he can't see me and I'm glad for it. The emotions massacring my system are not ones I'm ready to share.
The bell rings moments later and the
students hurry to pack up their things. Mr. Moffat is stuffing papers into his bag as he walks out the door with everybody else. I guess students aren't the only ones who are desperate to leave at the end of the day.
Dale takes his time collecting his stuff, no doubt waiting for the class to empty so he can talk to me without looking like a total
My phone chirps as the last senior saunters out the door.
Dale gives a disgusted snort and slaps it down on the table.
"Your friends suck."
"Why? What are they saying?" I reach for the phone, forgetting my fingers will pass straight through it. I let out a sigh and step back. "Can you read it for me, please."
"No." Dale grabs the phone and pops it in his pocket.
"Hey, that's my phone! Now read me the tweet."
"Dale." I cross my arms and fo
rce my voice to remain calm. "I—"
"I'm not reading you the tweet, Nicole."
"Let's just say the hashtag's changed."
Dale sighs and looks to the floor. "You don't want to know, okay?"
My forehead crinkles and I swallow down the hurt. It must be bad if Dale's not willing to show me. I hate that I'm so desperate to see it even though it will probably hurt like hell.
"Tell me. I need to know."
"I'm not doing it." Dale goes to stride past me and I stand in his way. He walks straight through me and we both shudder. He spins around with a gasp. "DON'T do that to me again. Ever."
He let's out his
breath and rubs his forehead.
"Tell me what it says or I'll do it to you for the rest of the day."
He groans and throws his hands in the air. "None of these people you hang out with care about you. You're obviously missing and all they've done is started a twitter frenzy about what might have happened to you!" He pulls out my phone. "Some of these tweets are foul, Nicky. How can you be friends with these people?"
His sweet desperation at my plight pulls on
heart strings I never knew I had. My eyes burn as I snap back, "Because they don't care about me."
Dale's shoulders drop and he stares at me in confusion.
I swallow and continue like an idiot. "They're too shallow to dig any deeper than the clothes I'm wearing, or the shoes I have on... or what party I'm going to... or who I'm sleeping with. They don't care about what makes me tick... and they don't want to know anything about who I really am. They'll never know and that's just the way I want it."
"Never know what?"
"Nothing." I swallow. "I meant they'll never really know me." My cover is so pathetic, but Dale mercifully lets it slide.
"You know that's messed up, right?" The smile that follows his sweet statement is too cute.
I bite my lips together and nod.
I clear my throat in reply to Dale's quiet words.
"Come on let's go drive around the national park for a while."
I cross my arms and follow him.
"I just have to stop at my locker first."
His pace is still quite fast, but I manage to keep up with him as I follow him to his locker. We pass Sophie on the way, she gives him a shy smile and he nods back.
I want to tease him again, but force myself to come up with something else. I need him on my side, not telling me to shut my mouth again.
"What's youth group?"
He turns to look at Sophie then back at me with a suspicious glare.
"I'm just asking what it is." I raise my hands.
Stopping at his locker, he dials the combination and looks to make sure no one is nearby. "It's just a bunch of kids from my church. We get together every Friday night and hang out."
"And do what? Read your bibles?"
His eyebrows bunch together as he tries to hide his grin. "Sometimes. Not always. We usually just get together to have some fun."
"What kind of fun?"
"Games, paint ball, movies... last Friday we handed out glowsticks, turned out all the lights and danced our asses off."
I laugh. "To hymns?"
"Okay, your misconceptions are frightening." He closes his locker and zips up his bag.
"Well excuse me, but I've never been to church before."
"Maybe you should come check it out."
"No thank you." I frown.
He looks a little insulted, but that half smile works its way through and pops his scar to the side. "You think the only way to have fun is to get drunk, buy clothes, date losers and say bitchy things about people?"
I take a step away from him. Although they were said with light humor, I knew he meant every word.
"Wow." I swallow. "You really don't like me, do you?"
His eyes wash with quick regret as he hitches his bag onto his shoulder. "I let you keep the dog tags, didn't I?"
I watch him walk away from me, not sure whether to be insulted or touched. Hanging out with him is the most confusing thing I've ever done. I stand there like an idiot, not sure what to feel.
My ghostly body takes charge and runs after him before I can stop myself.
I catch up and we walk side-by-side. He clears his throat and sniffs then glances over his right shoulder.
"I'm on your left."
His smile appears as he glances down at me. How can someone look so sure of
themselves and so awkward at the same time?
"I can't imagine you dancing." The words tumble out before I can stop them.
Dale chuckles and whispers, "Believe me, if glow sticks hadn't been the only form of lighting, you couldn't have dragged me from a chair."
I grin. "Did you go all Footloose on their butts?"
"You better believe it, baby."
Laughter rings out of me. It's such a surprising sound I actually stop walking. It is almost foreign to my ears... I haven't laughed like that since...
I swallow and frown.
No one can make me laugh anymore,
at least not the genuine kind that's bubbling in my belly right now. How did Dale manage to do it?
Images of him Gleeking-it-up on the dance floor bring on a fresh wave of giggles. I swallow them back and chase after him.
Dale is standing at the school exit chatting to Adam Hutton. The guy is like Thor next to Dale. His broad frame takes up most of the doorway. I shuffle up beside them as they walk out the door.
I can sense Dale listening out for me, so I give him a heads up.
"Behind your left shoulder."
He nods then tunes back into Adam's conversation.
"... wants me to apply to all the big east coast colleges. Where do you think you'll go next year?"
Dale shrugs. "
I haven't started checking out course guides or anything yet. It's only September, I don't want to get caught up with the whole college thing until I absolutely have to."
"Yeah." Adam forces out an awkward chuckle.
What's he got to worry about? He's going to be valedictorian for sure. The guy works harder than any other student at this school, not to mention the fact he's a star athlete and on the student council. The guy's so golden he's practically a statue.
I wonder how he came to be friends with Dale?
"Are you okay, man? You look kinda tired." Dale slaps him on the shoulder.
Who am I kidding?
Dale is so nice to everybody, who wouldn't want to be friends with him.
Adam runs his hand through his shaggy blond hair. "I didn't sleep well last night. I worked late on an assignment then couldn't switch off." He shrugs and shoots Dale a nervous smile. "I'm my own worst enemy."
Dale grins and fishes in his pocket for his keys.
"Catch you later, man." Adam gives him a wave and saunters towards the bus stop.
"Hey, you want a ride?"
Adam's square face brightens with a smile. "You sure? That'd be awesome, thanks."
"What? Why?" I frown. I don't want to share the car with anyone else. I want to talk to Dale uninterrupted. "Do we really have time for this? Don't we have some pre-dark searching to do?"
Dale shoots a stern look in my direction. "He's on the way," he whispers.
Adam lopes over to the car and opens the passenger door.
Dale opens his door and pretends to fluff around with his bag, giving me time to jump in the back.
"Thanks," I whisper, still a little sulky.
He throws his bag in the back with a wink. I can't help smiling.
I shuffle back in the seat as Adam starts talking again.
"My mom stole my car."
Dale laughs. "What?"
"Yeah, hers is in the shop getting fixed and she took off with mine for the day. She didn't even offer to swing by and collect me after school. Man, I hate catching the bus. You saved me, bro."
"Not a problem."
The car revs to life and Dale swings out of the parking lot.
I really don't like Dale's car. It's an old Toyota Corolla. A mustard yellow hunk of junk. Adam rolls down the window and we all wince at the high-pitched screech.
"Sorry, man." Dale grins. "Had to save for this baby on my own, so it's... an inbetweener."
"Nah, it's cool."
Adam is being very polite. He owns a gorgeous midnight blue mustang that guys drool over and girls want rides in. He got it for his 16th birthday. It was a gift from his rich uncle and apparently his Dad (Sheriff Hutton) totally flipped out. After an epic battle
with Adam's uncle, the sheriff allowed his son to keep the car, but I think the rules are pretty strict. If he ever gets in trouble — which he never does — but if he ever did, the car would be the first thing to go.
Adam is a really nice guy, but man, he struts like a peacock when he's walking into school each morning.
I roll my eyes as we bump our way to the Hutton home.
My phone chirps again and Dale reaches for it.
"You know it's really dangerous to read and drive."
He glances in the rearview mirror and shoots me a dry look. I grin.
Clearing his throat, Dale drops the phone in his lap and looks at Adam.
"You voted in the Nicole Poll today?"
"Nah, man. I'm not into that stuff." Adam looks out the window and clears his throat.
"Do you know her very well?"
"What are you doing?" I lean forward.
Adam shrugs. "Yeah, sort of. We used to hang out a little when we were kids."
"So, what's up with her?
"What'd you mean?"
"Come on." Dale smiles. "Was she always like this?"
"Always like what?"
"You know, outspoken, irritating..."
I punch Dale as hard as I can. My fist goes straight through his shoulder, but at least I see him shiver.
Adam's still looking out the window, but gives a hearty laugh. I throw him the evils.
"No way." Adam shakes his head and turns back to face his friend. "She used to be awesome. We hung out all the time in middle school. There was this massive group of us and we used to do everything together. Nicole was always really organized and she'd come up with this whacky stuff for us to do."
I notice Dale's head tip to the side and his eyes narrow slightly. "What happened?"
"It's none of your business," I whisper sharply.
Adam glances at Dale. "You don't know this story?"
Dale shakes his head.
"Jody was Nicole's little sister. She was this cute little blonde kid with a constant smile. Pure sunshine, you know?"
My heart begins to pound so hard I think it might burst out of my chest. I push my fingers into the middle of my ribcage.
"Nicole adored her. One day she..." Adam clears his throat.
Don't say it. Don't tell him, Adam. I want to scream the words aloud, but I know it won't do any good.
"She fell out of a tree, broke her neck and died."
My ears start ringing as I slump back into my seat.
"She was only nine," Adam ended softly.
"Whoa." Dale's knuckles are white as they grip the wheel. "That explains a lot."
"Nicole was the one who found her."
Dale's head jerks to the side. The surprise on his face is unmissable, swiftly followed by sadness. I turn away from it. There's nothing I can say to stop this.
"She's never been the same since. She went into hiding over the summer and then when she got to high school she started hanging out with..."