The Truth About Keeping Secrets(10)

Stares kept coming. But if I couldn’t see them, they maybe weren’t there, so I walked with my head down until the tiles beneath me were no longer tiles, but trampled grass and mulch and branches.

I’m hiking with Dad. At the River Styx.

It’s summer. I can’t see him, but I know he’s close, because I feel incomparably safe. A swampy gust of air rushes from ahead – it’s either just rained, or it’s about to – and I breathe the tendrils in through my nose and out through my mouth. Something above us chirps. Dad calls from behind me. ‘I used to be as quick as you, you know.’

‘Oh yeah?’ I ask. ‘What happened?’

‘I learned to slow down. Start taking it all in. It’s called mindfulness.’

‘How close is mindfulness to arthritis?’ And when I turn to smile at him, there’s a crunch beneath me. Maybe it’s a twig snapping, or a beetle’s back breaking, but once I feel the pop …

I looked up, and I found out Dad was never there at all.

It took until the moment I reached my locker to discover that I had forgotten my combination. I heard the universe laugh. One tragedy doesn’t disqualify you, it said. There’s still a lifetime of mild irritation to look forward to.

I entered every sequence of numbers that felt at all familiar to me. Two or twelve? Definitely twelve. Or twenty-one? My hands shook. Lockers were being shut, and each slam sent another jolt through my system. And then it was quiet, but I was still there, sweating on to the lock until the first-period bell rang. I gave the metal a solid kick to its jaw.

I could go home, I thought. What difference would it make? I had a tragic backstory and everything, so I practically had an excuse to drop out and become a hermit, if I wanted. What kind of monster would tell the girl with a dead dad no?

But I didn’t feel like turning on the waterworks today, so I trudged to homeroom.

I put a hand on the doorknob, twisted, pushed … but it didn’t budge, which ruined my plans of entering stealthily. I made out Mr Carlisle through the sliver of a window, scowling, but when his eyes met mine, they softened. The door opened with a click.

‘Sorry I’m late,’ I said, just to rub it in a little more.

Mr Carlisle shook his head like he’d just seen some particularly disturbing road kill. He might as well have; I didn’t feel too far removed from a flattened raccoon, brain splattered on to the tarmac. ‘Don’t you worry. Come on in.’

I did, and twenty heads all swivelled in unison to see the perpetrator. Hello, everyone, I wanted to say. Welcome to the freak show. I contemplated charging a dollar to anyone who wanted to get a good, uninterrupted look at me. Come and meet the unfortunate soul experiencing real, genu-ine grief!

But Bea, as always, was not looking.

Since freshman year, Bea and I had been playing this hilarious game where she pretended she couldn’t physically see me and I pretended I didn’t feel like offing myself every time I saw her, and then we’d go back and forth like that for a bit until I considered peeling off my own flesh. But today must have been different; she was so obviously avoiding me. Eyes fixed ahead, jaw clenched – I swore I heard her teeth grind when I walked past to take my seat.

The second half of The Royal Tenenbaums flashed from a projector on to the wall of the darkened room. I had already seen it, so during class, instead of reading the Wikipedia page for ‘rigor mortis’ like I’d planned, I kept my gaze firmly locked on Bea. She didn’t look too dissimilar from when I’d known her – band tee, sad eyes with sharp liner – but her hair was shorter now and pink at the bottom. Olive skin still clinging to some leftover summer tan.

When the bell rang, I waited around to see what she would do, let her walk ahead of me – and on the way out, she dropped a folder. I shot to pick it up.

‘Here,’ I said.

She didn’t even look at me, just took my offering as if it had levitated to her hand, and left.

I wasn’t going to mention it – certainly not to Olivia – but she’d noticed something similar.

‘Hey, did you see Bea today?’ she asked at lunch over the low chatter, peaks of laughter, and clattering of plastic trays. Miles seemed to be struggling to peel open his container of yogurt. ‘She was being so weird today in chem. She’s in my lab, and I was like, hey, Bea, can you grab me a flask? And, you know, she did, but she wouldn’t even look me in the eye. Like I was freaking Medusa or something. And, you know, it’s not like she’d ever been all that nice to me anyway, but it’s always been more indifference than active avoidance, you know?’

‘Yeah. She looked – I don’t know. Worried about something, almost.’

‘Have you even talked to her since – you know?’

I shook my head, picked at the crusts of my peanut-butter sandwich, and rolled the scraps between my fingers.

‘Livvycanyouopenmyyogurt?’ Miles said quietly, as if I wouldn’t hear, as if this yogurt lid was a tangible barrier between his internal self and the expression of his masculinity.

Olivia nodded, then continued her diatribe. ‘Well, I’ll tell you what: if she’s just feeling guilty all of a sudden, or whatever, she’s about three years too late.’ Olivia waited until the last word to rip off the yogurt lid for emphasis. It wasn’t particularly effective. ‘Yeesh. Imagine being her. I don’t know how someone can live like that, you know, be able to go to sleep at night, knowing you haven’t even apologized.’

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