Authors: Jill Hathaway
For J, S, and F—
the men in my life
he dream always goes like this:
I’m in the passenger seat of a car, racing down the interstate. The smell of gasoline stings my nostrils. My lips are moving, and sound is coming out, but my words don’t make any sense.
And I know what’s going to happen, but there’s nothing I can do about it.
The woman with white hair and death eyes is behind the wheel. She won’t stop laughing. When I try to tell her to stop the car, that she’s going to kill us all, my words are all backward and inside out and she just laughs and laughs. She turns her face toward me, and there are worms and spiders wriggling out of her mouth. I’m so distracted that I almost forget—
We’re going to die.
There’s a grinding noise, and we both look out the windshield at the same time. The road curves to the left, but we go straight, flying off the road, the headlights illuminating stalks of corn.
The tree comes out of nowhere.
The screams make my ears throb, but I can’t cover them with my hands because they’re holding the plastic container of gasoline.
An explosion of light and heat.
And then we are no more.
My limbs go rigid as I find myself awake. My mouth is open, but I’m unsure whether the screams stayed in the dream or followed me into my darkened bedroom. When the door pushes open and my sister, Mattie, pads inside, I know that I must have awakened her. My father, a pediatric surgeon with a huge surgery slated for tomorrow, must have his earplugs in. At least I didn’t wake
Mattie lifts the covers, and I scoot over to make room for her. “Was it the dream again?” she whispers, and I turn to look at the ceiling. Mattie knows I dream of Zane’s death, but she doesn’t know that in the dream it’s me dying. That I was actually with him when his psychotic mother crashed the car, killing them both instantly. That I was . . . inside him.
There is no technical term for what I am, what I can do. At least not that I know of. The moment Zane died, I was in his mind the way I’ve slid into the minds of so many others when I’ve touched something they’ve left an emotional imprint on. That night, I was purposely trying to get into Zane’s head to locate my missing sister, so I tapped into him using one of his beloved Fitzgerald novels. People can leave bits of themselves on all sorts of things—jewelry, clothing, furniture, money. It all depends on what they’re touching when they feel a surge of emotion.
I wasn’t always able to slide. In fact, I was pretty normal until I turned twelve. That’s when I started to slide. In one particularly upsetting episode, I was taking advantage of the fact that Billy Morgan was out of the classroom and hiding his Cubs pencil case behind the teacher’s desk, and the next I found myself using a urinal in the boys’ bathroom. It was pretty traumatic. Since then, I slide into others whenever I touch something with a strong emotional imprint. Sometimes I can stave it off by munching caffeine pills, trying to stay alert and focused, but most of the time I have no control. Only over the past year have I learned how to manage my power. There are still times, however, when I’m exhausted or distracted—and I just can’t help it.
But Mattie doesn’t know all this. All she knows is that my first love was killed in a horrific car accident six months ago and he keeps haunting my dreams. She reaches her arm across me and squeezes. She gets how dreams can seep out of your head into reality. She lost her two best friends around the same time that Zane died—one to murder and one to suicide. I imagine her dreams are as bloody as mine.
“It’s only three thirty,” I say, after peeking at my alarm clock. “Let’s just go back to sleep.”
Mattie nods, her eyelids already drooping. I watch her drift off, and then I roll over and stare out the window. Sometimes I can see my mother’s face in the shine of the moon, but not tonight. The clouds are too thick.
The smell of bacon pulls me from my restless sleep. My father must have gotten up extra early to make us breakfast before he leaves for the hospital. I glance at the alarm clock. Not even six yet. Mattie’s mouth is wide open, and she lets out these sporadic snores that sound like a little dog yipping. I roll out of bed without disturbing her and turn off my alarm clock.
Downstairs, my father stands at the kitchen counter with his back to me. His dark hair lifts in adorable little spikes. Though I know full well he’s made Denver omelets enough times to be able to recite the process backward and forward, he traces his finger gently over an orange cookbook lying open before him.
It was my mother’s.
I retreat into the front hallway and approach the kitchen again, shuffling my feet loudly so he can hear me coming. When I enter, I see that he’s closed the cookbook and returned it to its home between the extra virgin olive oil and canisters of exotic spices.
“Good morning,” he booms. “How did you sleep, Vee?”
I could tell him about my nightmare-riddled sleep, but I don’t want to worry him before he goes in for a big surgery. He needs his mind clear when he works on the babies. He has to be able to forget about everything, including his girls at home.
“Fine,” I say, plucking a piece of bacon that’s been cooling on a paper towel and popping it into my mouth. The crispy meat melts into salty deliciousness against my tongue. “Yum.” I grab another piece.
“Is Mattie awake yet?” he asks.
“Uh, no,” I say. “I’ll go get her.”
Upstairs in my bedroom, I stand for a moment, hesitating. Mattie could get another half hour of sleep if I leave her alone. From the dark circles that are permanently under her eyes, I know she’s been as sleepless as I have. Still, I’m sure she’ll want to see Dad before he leaves for work. I bend down and squeeze her shoulder.
“Mattie,” I say gently. “Breakfast. Dad made bacon.”
She doesn’t move.
I put my hand on her leg and shake. “Mattie!”
“What? What’s wrong?” She bolts upright, staring at me with wide eyes. I wonder if she was dreaming of Sophie, lying motionless in a puddle of blood on her bed. Or Amber, sprawled on the football field with a hole in her head. Mattie’s had horrifying luck with best friends lately. I don’t blame her for being jumpy.
“Nothing, Mattie.” I tousle her hair. “Breakfast.”
Mattie is still shaking when we sit down at the table. My father has set out three placemats, three plates, three glasses. It’s been a long time since there were four of us. It hardly even hurts anymore to look at the chair by the window, the one where she used to sit.
Under the table, I pull a tattered picture out of my pocket. My mother is young in the picture, smiling broadly at the camera, under the shadow of a sombrero. She and my father were on their honeymoon in Mexico when the picture was taken.
With my blond hair and blue eyes, everyone who knew her says I’m the spitting image of my mother. I push the photograph back into my pocket. I know it’s dumb to carry it around, but ever since the horror of last fall, it makes me feel like she’s with me. A little.
“So what are you doing today, Dad?” Mattie asks, grabbing a piece of toast and smearing some butter on it. I spear a forkful of eggs and lift them to my mouth.
“It’s a case of polydactyly,” he says. At our blank expressions, he goes on to explain, “The girl was born with an extra digit on her right hand. Today I’m going to remove it.”
I put down my fork.
“I tried to explain to the parents that it would be best to wait until she’s a little older,” he says. “But they aren’t comfortable living with the deformity. I can’t say I blame them, exactly. People can be cruel. . . .”
“The parents are willing to risk surgery just to get rid of an extra finger?” Mattie asks, voicing my own question. It seems wrong to cut a baby just to make her fit into a mold that society is more comfortable with. They’re uneasy with her appearance, so they’ll
her fit in. I wonder what would have happened if I’d been diagnosed with my sliding condition in the womb. Would my parents have thought I was a freak? If there were an operation to make me normal, would they have requested it? I suspect my mom wouldn’t have because I think she was able to slide, too. She regularly suffered fainting spells. I bet, just like me, she found herself sucked into other people’s heads, other people’s lives. Too bad she died before I was ever able to ask her. Now I’ll never know. Whenever I try to broach the subject with my father, he starts talking about something else.
My father doesn’t believe that I can slide. I tried to tell him when it started happening, but he sent me to a shrink who said I was just trying to get attention after my mother died. I’ve tried hard to forgive him for that, for thinking I was lying, for pushing me away when I needed him the most. But sometimes the anger creeps up inside me and I just have to get away from him.
“The parents want to take care of the problem before she’s old enough to remember it,” my father explains.
“I’m going to take a shower,” I say, pushing my chair back from the table. My father and sister watch me grab my plate and glass, which I rinse off and put into the dishwasher before trudging upstairs. My sleepless night has started to weigh on me, and I wish I could just crawl back into bed.
Rollins, my best friend, will be here in a half hour, and that lifts my spirits a bit. He always knows what to say to cheer me up.
“You look like hell,” Rollins says when I open the door of his old Nissan and slide in. He hands me a Styrofoam cup of coffee. “Decaf,” he says. “Just like you asked. I don’t know how you drink that shit.”
After taking a sip of the steaming liquid, I lift my middle finger. “Excuse me if I haven’t been sleeping well. I thought cutting the caffeine might help.”
His face goes serious. “The dreams again.”
Unlike Mattie, Rollins knows what really happens in my dreams. That I’m reliving the moment of Zane’s death. He knows what torture it is for me.
“Yup,” I say, taking another sip. “In full Technicolor.”
“Ugh, Vee. I’m sorry.”
At that moment, the back door swings open and Mattie throws herself inside. The whole car fills up with her too-sweet perfume, and I start to gag. “Jesus, Mattie. Did you empty the bottle?”
“Hey,” she snaps. “
hogged the shower, so I didn’t get a chance to wash my hair this morning. Do you have any idea who that might have been?”
I give her a sheepish look. I kind of fell asleep a little between washing my hair and putting in the conditioner. Mattie woke me up by pounding on the door and shrieking that she was going to pee her pants if I didn’t open up right away. The only way I was able to appease her was by letting her borrow my black scoop-neck sweater.
“Sorry,” I mutter.
Rollins shifts the car into reverse and backs out of the driveway.
I let my gaze flit from house to house, lawn to lawn, as he maneuvers through our neighborhood, toward the school. Gone are the leaves that littered the lawns months ago, when I was in love with Zane. Snow has been here and melted away, leaving the grass shyly green, the way it is in April, with flowers starting to push up toward the sun. I wonder if I’m taking too long to get over the hurt of Zane’s betrayal, the fact that he knew his mother wanted revenge on my family and let her move forward with her sick plan, even after he fell in love with me. Sometimes I wonder if he ever did really love me. Or if what I felt for him was true love. Because if it was, it just makes me really sad. I always thought that love was supposed to be this pure, renewing thing, but what Zane and I had turned out to be rotten on the inside.
Rollins’s voice slices through my thoughts, bringing me back to the moment. He’s got the White Stripes playing on the stereo, and the doors and floor of the car seem to vibrate with the sound.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“I’m sorry. What was it? Something about the radio?”
“I got the internship,” Rollins says excitedly. “At KRNK, the university station? They want me from ten to two on Tuesday and Thursday nights. It’s perfect because I’ll be able to—” He stops himself midsentence and glances at Mattie in the rearview mirror. I know what he’s worrying about: that he almost spilled his big secret, that he has to take care of his mother every night—make her food, give her baths, and even tuck her into bed. He needn’t have stressed, though. I peek in the backseat, and Mattie is thoroughly consumed with her cell phone, probably text-ing Regina, a freshman on the cheerleading squad who Mattie’s become close with in the last couple of months.
Rollins continues, “I’ll still be able to work at Eternally Vinyl on the weekends.”
“That’s great,” I say.
“Yeah. I’m starting tonight. You’ll listen, right?”
“Of course,” I say. “You need at least one listener for your big debut, right?”
Rollins reaches over and punches my shoulder playfully. I massage the place where he made contact and pout, pretending to be hurt. His eyes meet mine, and I hope he knows, despite my joking, that I would do anything for him. Ever since he pulled me out of a burning building last fall and confessed his feelings for me, there’s been this growing
between us. It’s like neither of us wants to explore it just in case it ruins our friendship. And, truthfully, after the way my relationship with Zane ended, I’m not sure I can handle another heartbreak.
We pull into the school parking lot, and Mattie leaps from the backseat the minute Rollins cuts the engine. She’s been hanging out with Rollins and me more since her best friends were killed, but when she’s at school, she’d much rather be with the rest of the girls on the Pom squad. They all banded together closely after losing two of their cheerleaders, almost as if they’re grasping for some sort of normalcy during such an insane year.
I hoist my backpack over my shoulder and follow Rollins across the parking lot. As soon as I step inside the school, I freeze. The place looks nothing like it did when I left yesterday. Pink and gold streamers are strewn everywhere. Across from the front entrance, there’s a long, rectangular folding table. It, too, has been decorated with gold paper and pink balloons. Above it all hangs a sign that says IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN! BUY YOUR PROM TICKETS HERE!