I find my sister’s hand beneath the waves.
“I’m scared.” My voice is small, carried away by the water—and so am I.
The ocean tugs me farther. We’re too far.
But Alice reaches out to me.
“Take my hand,” she says. “We’re on an adventure.”
And because I’m six and she’s my much wiser and braver eight-year-old sister, I believe her. I let her convince me we’re deep-sea explorers, returning from an expedition. I let her lead me, even though salt water fills my mouth, my ears, my everything.
We fight against the waves, hand in hand.
And then I’m on the sand. Dad’s swearing. He’s pounding on my back. He’s yelling my name so loudly, it hurts my head.
Lily. Lily. Lily.
I’m choking, spitting out the ocean.
Dad falls to his knees, and he’s hugging us, so tight I almost pop, and we’re huddled on the beach, and he’s crying, and I think they’re happy tears, but it’s hard to tell.
“It’s okay, Dad,” I say, my voice stronger on land. “We were on an adventure! We were so brave!”
This only makes him cry harder, and Alice is crying, too, which makes no sense because she’s the bravest one of all.
Ten years later, I’m by the shore again. Alone this time.
No deep-sea expedition. No adventure.
Just the crash of the waves and a stopwatch and the thud-thud-thud of my feet on the pavement.
A text from Alice lights up my phone: Lily. Where are you?
I don’t answer. I’m in the zone, pushing a little faster.
A little farther.
A little better.
Until my muscles are spent, and I turn toward home.
I find her on the bathroom floor. She reaches out to me, razor loosely in hand, words repeating on her lips:
I stand, frozen, paralyzed by the sight of blood draining from her wrist, pooling on the tile.
Help me, she says.
In slow motion, I wipe her with a towel. Try to stop the blood. Find the source. But my shaking hands make it worse. Bright red on my skin. Smeared on the floor.
But I don’t know how. I barely know her, this lesser version of my brave big sister.
“Dad!” My voice echoes in the room, shrill and panicked and unfamiliar.
He finds us there, her head in my lap, her blood on my hands, waiting for someone who can fix this.
Dad scoops her up. Carries her, legs limp, blood dripping like a fairy-tale crumb trail down the stairs. He puts her in the car. Drives her away.
I clean my sister’s blood off the tile. Off the carpet. Off me.
In the sink, the red spirals away, but not the echo of her whispered help me. It fills my head, and I want to drown it out with screams. But I can’t. I need to be strong. For Alice. For Dad.
So because I can do nothing else, I make her bed
Until it’s perfect.
And when the sheets are straight, corners military tight and pillows fluffed, I rip it apart.
Just so I can put it back together.
Two months after the Night of the Bathroom Floor, it comes to my attention that I’m losing my shit at an alarming rate.
I use the term losing metaphorically, of course, because I’ve decided going insane is a process, and not a singular event, despite our eloquent idioms.
Off the deep end.
But there is no lightning bolt of insanity. It’s more like a drizzling leak you don’t even notice until you’re gasping for air, suddenly and irrevocably aware that you’ve drowned in your own thoughts.
I wonder sometimes if that’s how it felt for Alice. I haven’t had the chance to ask since Dad drove her away in the middle of the night and shipped her off to Fairview Treatment Center. Sure, I could send one of the ten billion emails I’ve started and deleted, or I could go with Dad and my little sister, Margot, to the weekly family visitation days, but that’s a big fat no.
It’s not like I don’t want to see her, but I definitely don’t want to see her like that, with all the other “troubled teens” at a place, according to the website, that promises to fix my big sister with horseback riding and trust exercises on the main lawn.
So until next month when Alice comes home from psych-ward sleepaway camp, I won’t know if we’re on the same slow train to locoville. All I know is that I, Lily Larkin, at the ripe old age of sixteen, am losing my freaking mind.
“Just relax.” Sam slings her violin case onto the desk next to mine, doling out the same advice she’s given me since we were freshmen. “That little vein on your forehead is getting angry.”
“Relaxation will not help me ace this,” I reply without looking up from my notecards, where I’ve written each line of my poem for today’s presentation.
Sam plucks the cards from my hand. “As your best friend, it is my sworn duty to save you from yourself.”
I swipe at them, but she karate chops my arm and sticks the cards into the back pocket of her jeans.
“It’s just one grade. So chill, Lil.”
“It’s never just one grade,” I say, rubbing my temple to momentarily release the tension wrapping my head. Note to self: I have got to get more sleep. “Not all of us can have your raw musical talent.”
Sam’s mouth falls open as she holds up her fingers, three of them wrapped in Band-Aids.
“Hello? First-chair bragging rights come with a price, too, you know.”
“So don’t tell me it’s just one grade or one solo or one anything. It’s a never-ending domino effect to success, and if one piece is off, only the slightest bit not perfect, the whole thing goes to hell.”
Sam frowns. “Depressing.”
It doesn’t help that we’re in the honors track, which means our dominos have to fall at a much faster rate. No breaks. No breathers. Just piece after piece, falling perfectly into place. Oh, and if you don’t “specialize” in something like violin or swim team by the end of elementary school, what are you even doing with your life?
“So maybe just take it down from hyperdrive,” Sam says. “Do you see anyone else freaking out?”
On cue, Kali plops down next to me, buried in her own notecards. Once upon a childhood, Kali was my go-to bestie, until it became clear in middle school that we were much better suited as frenemies. We’re both word nerds and we’re always pitted against each other in writing contests and class rankings, so now we’re still friends but more the keep-your-competition-close variety.
“You ready?” Kali asks without looking up.
As if I didn’t stay up until two a.m. writing these poems--and rewriting them. Every time I thought I was done, there was a smudge or weird spacing or a million other reasons to start again, over and over, until they were perfect.
“Oh, she’s ready,” Sam says. “She always brings her A-game.”
Sam gives my arm a squeeze as a group of students and a bearded teacher I don’t recognize file in, taking seats in the back row. The teacher waves them forward until they all move, groaning, to the front.
While Sam scrutinizes the intruders, I pull my cards out of her pocket. She throws her hands up in the air and gives me her most disappointed look while I scan one last time through the words I’m going to have to say in a few minutes in front of everyone. My stomach’s already tight at the thought. Although, if I’m being honest, my gut is always semi-clenched.
Mrs. Gifford claps to get our attention, her eyes and her frizzy red hair even more wild than usual. She introduces the new kids as the art class, and the bearded man as Mr. Friedman, the art teacher. No wonder I didn’t recognize him. I’ve never actually been in the art room because (1) I have approximately zero artistic ability, and (2) my honors classes and the track team keep my schedule packed, leaving no room for artsy extracurriculars.
Gifford tells us the art kids are here “for something very exciting” and gives us time to practice our poems, although I strongly suspect it’s because she’s still nursing her daily Diet Coke. She doesn’t even notice when Damon, late as always, slides into a seat behind me.
“Did you see him?” he says, leaning forward like we were midconversation.
“Who?” Kali asks, a singsongy lilt in her voice because OMG! It’s Damon! who she’s been in love with since fifth grade. She’s never forgiven me for the regrettable month freshman year when I dated him, mostly because I believed that beneath his assholery, there was a boy worth liking.
Spoiler: I was wrong.
Underneath, he’s still a colossal tool.
“The psycho,” he says in a creepy, horror-movie kind of way. He takes a long sip of an energy drink (the official last-period pick-me-up of the junior class) and nods to a boy who came in with the art kids, wearing neon yellow sunglasses to hold back a shock of black hair that sways with the rhythm of his hand moving rapidly on a pad of paper.
“I’m surprised they even let him in,” Kali says.
“Let who in?” I ask.
“Micah Mendez. Got expelled from his old school. I heard someone found him perched on Deadman’s Cliff, trying to, you know . . .” Damon makes a throat-slitting motion with his thumb.
Kali leans forward, whispering. “I read on the Underground,” she says, referring to the tell-all cesspool of an online gossip page where people post the Ridgeline High rumor du jour, “that he had a full-on meltdown at his last school. Like, a calling-the-cops freak-out.”
“I heard,” Damon says, shout-whispering just loud enough that I’m sure the kid with the sunglasses hears, “he’s certifiable. Been locked up in a nuthouse for the last year.”
My stomach clamps so tightly, I almost lurch out of my chair.
“They’re called treatment centers, you douche,” Sam says. She shoots me a knowing look, but I quickly glance away, afraid Damon will intercept our stealth communication. Sam is the only one who knows about Alice, and that’s how it has to stay. I don’t need my family’s dirty laundry coursing through the Ridgeline Underground rumor mill.
For all anyone knows, my big sister is still off at college, living in her dorm, staying out too late on weekends. I never mention that she came home a few weeks into freshman year, got into bed, and never got up again. That is, until the Night of the Bathroom floor.
Alice is doing great. Alice loves college. We’ll tell her you asked about her!
I’ve repeated the lie so much that sometimes I almost forget it’s not the truth.
How many treatment centers can there be around here?
Damon scoots his chair so close to me, I can feel his breath.
“Whatever. Bottom line, kid’s a psycho. You should put that in your Word of the Day, Lil,” he says, referring to my social media handle, LogoLily, where I geek out by making up new words. “P-S-Y--”
“I know how to spell, thank you very much.” I take another look at the boy in the corner.
What are the chances it’d be the same center?
His hand stops moving and he looks up. I snap my own eyes away.
“And he doesn’t appear particularly psychotic.” I’m not exactly sure what a true psycho would, in fact, look like. But I do not think this kid is it.
Damon laughs. “That’s the thing. You never know what’s going on in someone’s head.” He points to each of us. “Any one of us could be a secret psycho.”
His finger lands on me.
“Yeah, right,” Kali says. “Lily’s perfect.”
Damon leans toward her, whispering dramatically, “Exactly. It’s the perfect ones you have to be careful about. So tightly wound.
All the pent-up crazy just builds and builds until--” He slams his palm on his desk. “SNAP!”
He leans back, laughing when I jump, my nerves congregated in my gut, twisting together into a bigger-than-usual knot.
“You are such a dumbass,” I say, acting like I don’t care about Damon’s teasing or that this kid in the corner may know my family’s secret. Except now he’s staring at me. Like right at me. I meet the new kid’s eyes, and he smiles like he freaking knows me. He half waves with a small piece of black charcoal chalk between his fingers. I turn away abruptly, forcing my eyes to focus on my poems.
“Uh-oh.” Damon’s eyes flash back and forth between me and the new kid like he smells fresh meat. “The psycho’s digging our Lily.”
“I’m not your Lily.”
Even though we broke up years ago, Damon’s never fully gotten the memo that I’m not his to torment. The knot in my stomach expands, undulating out in all directions. When I look again, the boy with the sunglasses is still laser-beam focused on me.
“Oh, this is too perfect,” Damon continues. “You know what they say about freaks of a feather flocking to--”
“Seriously, Damon,” Sam interrupts. “Must you incessantly compensate for your micro-penis by being the biggest dick on the planet?”
Damon leers at her. “Yeah, I bet you’d like to see what I’m working with.”
“Keep it in your pants, Damon,” I say, trying my level best to act like I’m not bothered by the boy in the corner. But the knot has completely taken over my abdomen now and is radiating waves of panic toward my chest. Even if it was the same center, he wouldn’t say anything.
“Do you know him?” Sam whispers to me.
I shake my head.
“Are you sure?” Sam straightens up, talking to me out of the corner of her mouth now. “Because he’s coming over here. Right. Now.”
Go away. Just go. Away.
I stare holes into my notecards. I pretend not to see him coming. Pretend I don’t notice when he’s standing right next to me.
He puts out his hand for me to shake, his fingertips coated in black charcoal. I shake his hand, trying to ignore everyone staring, including Damon, mouth agape, obviously loving every second of this awkward encounter. I grip my pencil hard, trying to stall the dread that has moved from my abdomen to my throat.
Don’t mention Alice.
“I’m Micah. Your sister and I--”
“Worked together,” I say, making something up quickly. My words come out tight. “At the dog groomer last summer, right?”
He narrows his eyes at me, clearly confused about why I’m lying. His brown eyes hold mine for a second, questioning me, and I try to send the best please just play along look I can muster. He looks at Sam and Kali and then back to me.
“Sure. Sure. The dog groomer,” he says slowly, unconvincingly. “Can’t get enough of those little mutts.”
He stands there for an interminable few seconds, rocking back on his heels, drawing attention to the fact that he’s wearing neon green socks with monkeys on them, pulled almost all the way up to his shorts. Whoever this kid is, he’s definitely not concerned about standing out.
“Psycho!” Damon coughs into his hand.
The boy with the sunglasses stares at him. “What’d you say?”
“Hey, dude. Just calm down. I don’t want any trouble.” Damon puts his hands up as if he’s been challenged to a duel. “I was just saying those are some supercool socks.”
The boy in the socks mutters a word in Spanish that I know is one of the bad ones, and as he turns to leave, his fingertips brush against the energy drink on Damon’s desk, just hard enough to knock it over. The yellow liquid flows out across the desk onto Damon.
“What the hell, dude?” he yells, jumping up as a wet circle forms on his crotch. But the new kid is already walking away, hands raised like it’s out of his control.
“Sorry, dude,” he says with so much disdain, I can taste it. Damon rants about how the school shouldn’t let in “people like that,” while dabbing at the wet spot with the paper towel Kali hands him.
“What was that about?” she asks, looking at my white knuckles death-gripping my pencil like it could save my life.
I shrug, biting back the panic. “No idea,” I lie. “You heard Damon. The kid’s crazy.”
I’m pretty sure I know exactly what that was about, but I’m not about to spill my guts right here, with Damon just waiting for some juicy morsel of gossip. He’d just love to know where my sister’s been these last few months. The Germans have a word for it--schadenfreude--finding joy in the misery of others. And I’m not going to give all my über-competitive classmates the satisfaction.
I try to return to my poetry, but my mind is gone.
What if he knows about the Night of the Bathroom Floor?
What if he tells everyone about Alice?
The more I fight the what-ifs, the more they push back, edging me out until I feel the familiar sensation that I’m floating up and out of myself, watching my life through a spotless pane of glass.
I watch the scene like a movie reel: Gifford calling up the first row of students to read their poems. Sam gets up and reads hers, a rhyming, iambic-pentameter metaphor about violin strings stretched too thin.
By the time Gifford calls me up, I’ve left my body completely. I watch me stick my notecards and a pen into my 365-day planner, clutching everything to my chest like a security blanket as I walk zombie-like to the front of the room. I see everyone’s eyes on me, who is not really me because I am floating high and free above this Lily-not-Lily, who stands there, silently.
Copyright © 2022 by Erin Stewart. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.