HURRICANE JOSEPHINE IS ALMOST HERE.
The storm is coming faster than they said it would, and Carly and I are alone. The rain is so heavy, so constant, that we don’t even hear it anymore, and the house phone has been dead for hours. My parents are grounded at Uncle Charlie’s house in New Orleans with no way to get home until after the storm has blown over. Carly’s mom is trapped downtown at the hospital where she works. It’s painful, listening to Carly talk to her. They’re both yelling to hear over the storm, and the electricity is out, and I’m pretty sure the cell is almost out of juice.
“We’ll be fine, Mama,” Carly says, her voice firm and certain.
“But, baby. The storm.” Her mom’s voice through the speakerphone is the opposite, flighty and anxious and unsure. “When I think of you and Dovey alone . . .”
“We’re sixteen, Mama. We’ve lived in Savannah all our lives. We know how to handle a storm. Besides, they said it’s coming too fast, and trees are all over the road. You’re safer where you are.” Carly looks at me, rolling her eyes and shaking her head at how ridiculous parents can be. Thunder booms, rocking the small house, and I gasp. She shakes her head harder, warning me not to scare her mama.
“I should have come home hours ago, but Mr. Lee’s respirator died, and we have to keep pumping him, and everybody else was gone, and I just couldn’t leave him. . . . Oh, sugar. I’m so sorry. Y’all get in the downstairs bathroom—”
The sound cuts off, and Carly stares at the dead phone like she wants to crush it in her fist. Thunder shakes the house again, and a flash of lightning illuminates the shabby living room. Suddenly everything seems very still. The wind goes silent. Our eyes meet in the dim light. We both know, deep down in our bones, that the storm is at its most deadly right when things get quiet.
“Come on,” she says, grabbing the flashlight and pulling my hand. Despite how steady she sounded with her mom on the phone, her palm is clammy with fear. I can see the whites of her eyes, all around, too bright against her dark skin.
Carly drags me down the hall to the bathroom, and we step into the bathtub. We’re both barefoot, and the puddled water from the drippy faucet is slick and cold. No matter what Carly told her mom, neither of us really knows what else to do, so we just stand there dumbly in our too-short shorts, listening hard in the darkness. Up until just now the air was heavy, too hot and thick for November. They were calling it an Indian summer, a freak occurrence.
That’s what they’re calling Josephine, too.
I look at my best friend, and I’m afraid to speak; it’s as if the storm would be able to hear me, would be able to find us hiding here. Carly’s arms wrap around me, and the corduroy on her favorite orange jacket scratches my bare shoulders. We both started out in tank tops, but as soon as the clouds got dark, she went for her jacket.
“Storm keeps up like this, maybe you’ll finally get to see an albino alligator,” she says, voice shaking. “Gigi says floods bring ’em up from the sewer.”
I shudder at the mention of my own personal boogeyman. “Don’t try to spook me, girl. Storm keeps up like this, I’m moving to California. Earthquakes are quicker. And dryer.”
A quick smile. “If we get through this, I’ll go with you.” She trembles against me, tosses her head. The pink beads at the end of her braids clatter against the shower tiles.
A rumble builds outside, louder and louder. The sound is strange and unnatural and rushing, and then the wall shudders and I hear the splash of water lapping at the house. The Savannah River must have flooded, just like they said it might.
There’s a long creaking outside, followed by a loud crack. The window glass explodes, half of an oak tree slamming through the tiny bathroom. We both crouch and scream as glass, branches, leaves, and broken tiles rain down. Carly grabs my hand and drags me out of the tub, the glass and splinters barely registering as we leave bloody footprints on our way into the hall.
Something crashes in the kitchen, and I realize we’re trapped. Every direction screams danger. The front door slams open, water gushing over the scuffed wood floors. Carly starts panting and shaking her head, her eyes squeezed shut. She can’t swim, and she hates dark water. I look up and grab the ragged string to her attic, pull down the stairs. There’s an angry creak and a burst of hot trapped air.
“Not supposed to go upstairs in a storm,” she whispers.
Before I can answer, dirty water sloshes into the hall from the kitchen, rushing cold over our feet. When I start up the rickety steps, she pauses for just a moment before following me, the old wood of the stairs complaining under our weight.
Carly’s attic is the same jumble of crap as everyone else’s, and the first thing I do is bang my shin on something. The flashlight is gone—I must have dropped it in the tub. There’s a little bit of light coming from the place where the tree slammed through the house, a ragged hole showing the dead purple-green sky outside.
I maneuver around the boxes and broken furniture to the corner of the attic opposite the fallen tree, and I can hear Carly crawling behind me. The attic is unfinished, and we pick our way carefully across rotting plywood and empty places filled with musty insulation.
“Y’all should have finished this rat hole,” I say, and Carly snorts.
“You got two good parents, and your attic’s worse.”
I smile to myself, glad she can talk again. If she’s sassing me, she’s still okay.
We find enough space to fit both of us and sit together, knees drawn up, hands clasped. The noises outside are loud and confusing and terrifying, all rushing water and cracks and crashing.
She leans against me. “Remember when we said we were running away, and we only got as far as Baker’s house before it started raining?”
“Freaking downpour. He found us hiding under his trampoline with a backpack full of wet peanut butter crackers. Brought us an umbrella and tried to convince us to come inside and play Tomb Raider. You wouldn’t do it, though.”
Carly chuckles. “I was mad. Didn’t want to eat my damn collards, no matter what my mama said.”
“You always were stubborn. But I like that about you.”
She slings an arm around my shoulders. “You just got to learn to stand up for yourself, Dovey. You’re stronger than you look. You’ve just got to own it.”
“I’ll get right on that, once this storm’s over.”
I know she’s talking to make me feel better, and it was working at first. But things have gotten louder and more frantic outside, and I can’t feel my feet anymore.
The roof explodes over our heads, a thick branch slamming into Carly. I scramble up, but the tree is heavy and tearing down through the attic. As I back away, I try to pull Carly with me as the rain pounds down on our heads. Half the attic rips away, and the wind and rain lash us from every direction. I can barely tell which way is up. And Carly won’t budge. Her hand slips from mine, and I push things out of the way, making a path for her to follow as I scramble toward the attic stairs.
“Come on! We have to get out of here!”
“Daddy?” Carly says, her voice all wrong. Instead of moving away from the tree, from the hole in the attic, from a furious sky vomiting rain and lightning, she moves toward it. I step closer and see blood trickling from a big gash on her head.
“Carly! Let’s go!”
But she doesn’t hear me. The branch must have hit her pretty hard. I pick my way over the jagged timbers and weak spots of insulation, but she’s almost to the edge of the hole. A board snaps under my foot, and I lurch sideways, almost fall through the ceiling. She sets a bare, bleeding foot onto the tree trunk.
“You can’t go outside, fool,” I say. “Come back in. It’ll be over soon. We’ll get you to the hospital.”
“Daddy’s outside, Dovey,” she says in a weird, childlike voice. “Daddy, and your nana. Waiting.”
“It’s a goddamn storm, girl. Snap out of it!”
I grab her hand and yank, but her skin is wet with sweat and blood and the rain that won’t stop pounding down on us through the place where the roof used to be. She slips out of my grasp and sits on the ragged tree trunk like it’s a slide. I grab for her again, but she pushes off, letting herself fall. I reach for her hand, but she’s gone. The last thing I see of my best friend is her dark skin and bright pink fingernails swallowed up by the swollen river running down the street we grew up on. The water is up to the window below, churning grayish brown. I scream and search for Carly. Swirling along with the water, I see cars, bikes, children’s toys, tree branches, bloated hairy things. But no Carly.
I stand there so long that I can’t feel my hands. I stand there, looking for my best friend—first for her alive and swimming, and then dead and floating. At some point I drag myself deeper into the attic and hide under an old rug that smells like cat piss. I stay there, shivering and crying, until the storm is over and I hear Carly’s mom calling her name.
I AM NINE DAYS AND a Thousand Years Older, and I am numb.
I sit, feeling nothing. I stare without taking anything in. It’s just like it was in the attic, watching Carly fall. But instead of rain on my face, it’s tears. And instead of being alone, I’m surrounded by people dressed in black. This is the third service today, and mourners are still walking across the hall from the last one, a junior I didn’t know. The preacher is hoarse, and the funeral home’s potpourri can’t quite cover up the stench of death and rot. I don’t understand why the casket is open. I don’t understand it at all.
“You okay, Dovey?”
I don’t know how long Baker has been sitting next to me while I’ve been watching people sift in and out of the room like shadows. His knee jumps up and down beside mine, his hand twitching against his pant leg like he’s playing one of his video games. My head swivels slowly toward him. I’ve known him almost as long as I’ve known Carly, but right now he looks like a stranger, one of the few white faces in a sea of tan and brown. He gulps and takes off his glasses, cleans them on his dad’s tie like he needs an excuse not to look at me. I can always tell when he’s been crying; the redness of his eyes today makes the blue stand out like the overbright skies we’ve had since Hurricane Josephine ended. His dark hair looks like he tried to slick it down and failed. I have no idea what my hair is doing, and one hand goes up to find it pulled back tightly into a bun, where it can’t embarrass anyone.
A loud sob grabs my attention, and I realize that it’s Carly’s mom. Miz Ray is huddled over the coffin, her long nails freshly painted and digging into the velvet. My mom’s arm is around her shoulders as she wails, and my dad stands beside them, looking lost. My mom searches the sea of cheap black dresses and white folding chairs, and her gaze settles on me. Her brows draw down, and she jerks her head at me. I rise, too numb to rebel.
“What are you doing?” Baker asks.
“Paying my respects,” I mumble.
He follows me, scooting past countless knees. I slip past people without offering the usual polite apologies, surprised at how many strangers are in the crowd. Their faces carry an unsettling reverence, and I feel relief as I escape them, pushing past the chairs and down front to where my best friend—our best friend—lies in a shiny white coffin surrounded by flowers.
People speak to me, but I don’t hear words, don’t recognize faces. My arms are by my sides, my feet still sore in my mom’s old heels. I vaguely recall someone picking glass out from between my toes with tweezers, but my memories are fuzzy.
“Hey, man,” Baker says. He has stopped to talk to someone else and is no longer close behind me. I hear a stranger’s low voice, and Baker answers, “Yeah, that’s Billie Dove Greenwood,” and the stranger says, “They were best friends, weren’t they?” I turn to look and vaguely recognize a senior, his dark eyes urgent and distraught as he stares at me. I turn away. I can’t take his pity.
Sucking in a deep, desperate breath, I step close to the coffin, close enough to smell the stale cigarette smoke that clings to Carly’s mom and everything in their house—or did before the flood. My stomach wrenches.
“My baby, my baby girl,” Miz Ray croons in between sobs. “I should never have left you alone. I should have been there. I could have stopped it.”
“Hush now.” Carly’s ancient grandmother, Gigi, puts a wrinkled hand on Miz Ray’s shoulder. Her voice is an echo of Carly’s, firm and sure. “Can’t nobody stop such things, sugar.”
My parents move around to my other side as Carly’s mama dissolves into sobs between me and Gigi. Everyone’s touching, hands on shoulders and arms and fingers dark against the white coffin’s edge.
I put a hand on Carly’s mama’s shoulder, and she turns to me, her eyes a fathomless pool of pain the same muddy brown as the water that swallowed her daughter. I can tell what she’s thinking—that it should have been me. That it’s unfair. That my golden skin is smooth and tan and unbroken, while Carly’s dark skin is held together with tape and glue and mismatched makeup that can’t quite cover up all the damage that the swollen river did to her for the week that she was lost. That I’ve always been luckier than Carly in every way. And that Carly was stronger than I can ever be.
“I’m sorry,” I say, and the words die in my throat.
“They sure made her up pretty, didn’t they, Dovey?” The words are oddly, fiercely proud.
I step closer and look inside, my hands on the edge next to Miz Ray’s, the mascara-stained tissue twisted in her fingers brushing the back of my wrist.
And then I start screaming.
I HAVE BEEN NUMB EVERY day for the past Year.
I’m pretty sure it’s because of the meds, and that’s why I’m in the kitchen holding today’s dose on my palm, while my mom is still asleep. The pill looks so innocent and perfect that I almost hate to crush it. Round and smooth and unmarked, as pure and white as a blanket of snow. Or what I imagine a blanket of snow would look like, since I’ve never actually seen more than a few dingy flakes. Carly and I tried to catch some on our tongues when we were seven, but Savannah’s stingy excuse for snowflakes melted before we could taste them. I was so disappointed that she bought me an Icee after church with her last dollar from the tooth fairy.
I felt like a fool then, and I feel like a fool now. But I’ve thought it over, I’ve made a plan, and for the first time in a long time, I’m following through with it. I can’t just throw my meds in the trash or spit them down the disposal, like I did yesterday’s pill. It has to be final. And it has to leave no evidence.
I tuck the tablet into a sandwich bag with the rest of the bottle’s contents. Dozens and dozens of pretty white pills. I pause to listen for noises down the hall. My mom’s awake now. Drawers open and close like usual, and the shower makes trickling noises in the new pipes. I have at least ten minutes before she comes into the kitchen to check on me. Time to hurry.
I have to hunt for the rolling pin. It used to nestle comfortably in the mess of the bottom drawer, the deepest one. But after the kitchen flooded during Josephine, that drawer of old junk and phone books got ripped out along with everything else, was replaced with new cabinets that are all the same and still squeaky. It’s in the middle drawer now, nice and neat.
I take the rolling pin and pills to my bathroom and twist the door’s sticky old lock. Cautiously, quietly, I roll the baggie up in a towel and crush the pills to powder. It looks like a baggie of cocaine from a TV crime drama. I dump it all down the toilet and flush. “Cheers, Carly,” I say as the dust swirls into the water and disappears forever into the Savannah sewers.
The rolling pin goes right back into its drawer, the Ziploc baggie gets rinsed out and buried in the trash. And the brown glass bottle of pills goes back to its place in the kitchen cabinet, right where my mother expects it to be. Except now it holds sixty-three white aspirin. I even counted them out, just to make sure no one would suspect anything.
When I decided to dump my meds, I did some Internet research on the effects of quitting antipsychotics. Everything I read said it would be better if I took an entire month to wean myself off the pills, gradually lowering the dose and paying careful attention to my symptoms. But I don’t want to wait that long. I’m sick of the side effects. Sick of the headaches and holes in my memory. Sick of the sucky sleep and weird dreams. But most of all I’m sick of feeling comatose, like I’m walking through a fog. A numb fuzz. I need to be sharp again, because I saw something last week that changed everything.
I saw Carly.
And I know it’s impossible, because she’s dead. I watched her get sucked down by the floodwaters, stood over her body in the coffin. When I looked up from my book in the Paper Moon Coffee Shop last Thursday and saw her standing there, silhouetted in the back door of our favorite study spot, my first thought was that I might be crazy.
But I can’t be crazy. Because of the meds. When you’re on antipsychotics, you can’t be psychotic, right? And that’s why I had to destroy the pills. Because I need to know the truth.
When I hear my mom’s footsteps in the hall, I open the cabinet and take down the brown bottle of pills as if for the first time today. My daily dose has to be taken at the same time every morning in front of one of my parents, usually my mom. When she walks into the room, I show her the pill and gulp it down with a glass of orange juice.
The orange juice and aspirin are bitter in my mouth. I give her a dull smile, thinking that if she has to ask, she isn’t looking hard enough.
I’ve been on antipsychotics, Mama. How do you think I feel?
But I just say, “I’m fine,” because that’s what she expects.
“How’s school?” she asks.
“How are rehearsals for the play going?”
Jesus, it’s like she’s reading off a script. She moves to stand behind me, and I stiffen.
“Good,” I say. “Today’s the first dress rehearsal at the Liberty downtown.”
“That’ll be nice,” she says. “You’ve always loved that old theater.”
Her hand sweeps my messy hair to the side and lands on my shoulder in a cloud of her perfume. It’s one of my constants, that smell, one of the things that still find a response in me, even through the numbness. After all that’s happened, she still wears the same perfume. She even wore it at Carly’s funeral. My stomach twists at the memory, and I feel the orange juice rise in my throat. I swallow it back down, but I can still taste the tiny grains of aspirin powder on my tongue.
It’s amazing how different I feel, just twenty-four hours after my first missed dose.
For the first time in a long time, the fog breaks wide and memories rush in. I smell brackish water and rotting wood and the pushy reek of death that clung to the neighborhood, to my house, for months after the flooding. With the downstairs renovation came new smells, new everything. Except for that perfume.
They put me on antipsychotics to keep the past at bay. They wanted me to forget Hurricane Josephine, and what came after. Forgetting was better than the panic attacks. I welcomed the numbness like a cozy blanket to keep out the cold and bad dreams.
And I did forget. Mostly.
My mom’s hand leaves my shoulder, and she gets one of the weight loss shakes she doesn’t actually need out of the fridge, popping the top carefully so she won’t ruin her nails. I turn to watch her drink it in her power suit and walking shoes, her hair pulled back tightly into a puff that resembles a bun. I wish my hair were as wild as hers, instead of a frizzy, tan hybrid of her black curls and dad’s white-blond wisps. She catches me watching, and her eyes narrow.
“You sure you’re okay, Dovey?”
I sigh and nod dully. I have to act like I’m still sleepwalking. But really I’m waking up.
“You’ll drive straight home after play rehearsal, right?”
“That’s my girl. Have a good day. And be careful.”
Reciting the words to our script makes it easier to lie to her. She’ll never know it, since she doesn’t leave her attorney’s office until six on the nose, but I have somewhere to go after rehearsal today.
I have a date with the Paper Moon Coffee Shop.
When I saw Carly there last week, I was daydreaming, lost in the numb fog and staring into space. It was her, my best friend, exactly as she’d looked the day she’d died, hair in beaded braids, pockets poking out the bottom of her jean shorts, and orange corduroy jacket slung over her tank top. I don’t even know why I looked up, but I did, and there she was. Just standing there, frozen. And I jumped up, my chair slamming to the ground behind me.
She turned and ran through the back door into the alley behind the Paper Moon Coffee Shop. I crashed through the door after her, my heart beating, pounding, screaming for the first time in months. But my body couldn’t catch up, and Carly disappeared into the darkness of the back alleys of Savannah before I could stop her, before I could even touch her.
I stood there, stupid and confused. When I moved again, my foot slipped on something. I reached down, expecting a piece of gravel or alley trash. But it was a plastic bead. Pink, the same shade as the ones Carly wore in her hair. It’s in my pocket now, and I roll it between my fingers as I step onto the sidewalk.
Either she’s still alive or I’m so crazy that even antipsychotics can’t touch me.
I won’t quit looking for her until I know the truth.
SCHOOL IS SCHOOL. IT’S A numb fuzz with or without pills. Moving from one class to another like a robot. Taking notes. Staring at the blackboard. The teachers mostly ignore me, thanks to a few choice panic attacks last year, after Carly died and before the pills kicked in. I remember it—just a little. Mainly me freaking out and people carrying me out of the room. Now the teachers know it’s better to just skip me when polling for answers. My grades went from As and Bs to Fs after the hurricane, but the meds have kept me hovering in the middle Cs. Just good enough to get by.
The fuzz lifts, bit by bit. I start to take an interest in things, look at people again, notice how many kids are missing, compared to before Josephine. At lunch I’m standing in line for pizza, pretty much daydreaming. As Mrs. Lowery puts the plasticky slice on my tray with a spatula, something catches my eye. She’s been behind the counter of the caf since my freshman year, and most days I don’t even see her. But today something ripples across my field of vision. Something under her apron.
I stop to stare. It’s like she has something wiggly hidden in her bra, and I can’t figure out what it could possibly be. Is she smuggling a kitten? I can’t concentrate enough to make sense of it.
“Is there a problem, Miss Greenwood?” she growls.
“No, ma’am,” I say, looking up. She’s glaring at me, her eyes dark and angry, and I suddenly want nothing more than to be out of the cramped lunch line and away from her. I push my tray along so fast that I forget to get a drink. As I choke down the thick, doughy pizza, I keep thinking about that movie where the aliens explode out of peoples’ chests. By the time the bell rings for my next class, I can’t remember what upset me so much.
In seventh-period English the fog lifts again. We’re talking about Heart of Darkness, and I remember watching the movie with my dad a long time ago, some guy’s face in the dark talking about the horror. My desk is suddenly unbearable, cold and constricting. I put on my jacket and rock back and forth, trying to wake up my butt. I don’t notice Baker until he leans over to talk to me. I’d completely forgotten that I sit next to him.
“Yo, Dovey. Can I hitch a ride to rehearsal?”
I blink to focus, and for just a second I see a younger version of Baker instead of a high school junior. This high school boy is no longer the pudgy, pale kid in glasses with a hopeful smile and striped shirt, forever following Carly and me all over the neighborhood. At first we put up NO BOYS ALLOWED signs and refused to answer the door no matter how long he knocked, but then he brought us Fudgsicles, a book of knock, knock jokes, and one of his cat’s kittens, and we were all best friends from then on. So much about him is the same—unruly dark hair, pale skin, blue eyes. But now he’s got contacts, he’s taller, and he has traded his stripes for non-ironic plaid. After Carly’s funeral we stayed unofficial buds, but in a drifting, foggy way. Like two rowboats lost on the same lake, occasionally bumping into each other.
“I have to do something afterward,” I whisper.
“Cool. I’ll come with.”
Mild irritation edges into the numb fuzz, raises my voice.
“That’s not what—”
“Did you want to read, Billie Dove?”
My head jerks up. Mr. Christopher is staring at me with a mixture of annoyance and pity. I guess it’s easier to ignore me when I’m not shouting.
“We’re on page one fifteen,” he says. “If you’re ready to join us.”
I look at my closed book. It’s new, since most of our books were water damaged. I haven’t even cracked the spine. I’ll read it, eventually.
“I’ll do it, Mr. Christopher,” Baker says, and he begins reading loudly and with unnecessary intensity, as if the entire book were written with the caps lock on. He reads like he’s fighting the book and thrashing around in the words. But he’s smirking.
Luckily, the bell rings just then, and his personal assault on Joseph Conrad cuts off midsentence. He follows me to my locker, and it’s like one of those cheesy movie scenes where everyone is moving really fast except for the main characters. Like Baker and I are walking underwater while the other people buzz around us like hummingbirds. There are a few other kids like us, kids who have lost best friends or siblings. We’re the ones who move slowly, heavily. But we try not to look at each other, our eyes sliding away, afraid of small talk that will bring back unwelcome memories. We’re a family of strangers in pain.
I open my locker, and it’s plastered with pictures of me and Carly. A photo of us riding bikes, another one we took at a slumber party with Tamika and Nikki, a few with our arms wrapped around Baker’s shoulders, all of us laughing. I unstick an old one and pull it out to look more closely. It’s Carly and me standing together in church dresses with our grandmothers on either side of us. Nana and Gigi look more alike than Carly and me, but you can see the pride in both of their smiles. That was the day Carly won a good citizen award in second grade for saving a cat that had fallen down the storm drain. I helped a little, but it had been her idea to put a branch down there as a ladder, and she had been the one who’d carried the exhausted, dripping cat back to the address on his tag.
The family had offered her a reward, but in typical Carly fashion she’d just put a hand on her hip and told them to spend it on tuna and a trip to the vet, because the poor cat was half chewed-up and skinnier than he should have been. I catch myself smiling in my locker mirror. God, that girl had a sassy mouth.
I trade my books, load up my backpack, and fight the hall traffic to the student parking lot. I’m lucky to have a car at all, even if it’s my dead grandmother’s 1997 Buick Skylark. One look at the cars around it tells you plainly that we don’t live in those fancy row houses and historic mansions you see in the movies. There’s not a car here fewer than ten years old, and that includes the teachers’. That’s the thing about Savannah. What the tourists see? What they show in the movie theater? None of that is real.
The natives use different roads to avoid tourists in minivans with out-of-town plates. We take a lonely expressway to tired neighborhoods the vacationers will never see. Everything here is broken down a little, languishing in age with less grandeur than the charmingly crooked porches that get photographed on the horse-drawn carriage tours. The city cleaned those areas up fast after Josephine, to get the tourists back. They’re pretty again, and retirees can buy their taffy and take their ghost tours and stand in line for overpriced fried chicken.
What most people know of Savannah is a dream. But this is real life.
I find my car and open the door, pulling up with the little hitch that keeps it from squeaking too badly. I slide in, the seat creaking underneath me on bad springs, and lean over to open the passenger door for Baker.
“You ready for dress rehearsal?” I ask.
“Course I am,” he answers with a lopsided grin. “I’m freaking Caliban. This part was made for me. Are you ready?”
“Course I am,” I say. “I’ve barely got any lines.”
There’s an awkward pause. Meds or no meds, the bitterness is sharp in my voice.
He looks out the window, his fingers tapping patterns on the faded dash. I know him well enough to know it’s probably some complex cheat code for Xbox.
“Do you miss being the lead?” he asks.
I start the car with a roar and back out too fast, nearly plowing into some kid I don’t even know. He calls me a bitch and slams his fist down on my trunk. The punch probably hurt him more than it hurt my old Buick. I give him the finger.
I ease into the line and glance at Baker sideways as the car rumbles out of the lot. He just broke our unspoken rule, the one where we never, ever talk about the past. But something has changed for me. Maybe it’s that nagging, desperate hope that Carly’s out there somewhere. Maybe it’s a tiny chemical jolt from my second day off the meds. But I answer his question.
“I miss it,” I admit. “A little.”
And it’s definitely true. This time last year I would have had my pick of the lead roles in The Tempest. I probably would have gone for Ariel, or maybe Miranda. I would have done a better job in that white-and-gold toga than Jasmine Pettigo, that’s for sure. Now I’m just another sprite, one of several made-up parts Mrs. Rosewater created by divvying up some of Ariel’s less important lines. With my emotions blunted and my mind dull, it was the best I could do. I have one scene with Baker, as Caliban, and then the whole play is a bunch of flitting around in a leotard and tutu.
“You would have made a great Miranda,” he says, fingers still tapping as he says exactly what I was thinking. “You think you’ll ever . . . you know, get back into it?”
I snort. He could mean competitive acting. Or he could mean life.
“One day,” I say.
Normally the play is the most important thing I have, but right now all I can think about is getting out of rehearsal and going to Paper Moon to look for Carly. The rest of the drive is silent, but I can tell he wants to say more.
We roll into downtown, and I’m struck, as ever, at the change that has taken place. For a city that survived the Civil War, Savannah got a raw deal with Josephine. It’s like the winds came with chisels and the water brought a jackhammer to the streets. Bits of buildings are broken off, and half of the beautiful green oaks are gone, leaving holes in the canopy, where sun shines through cruelly, when it does shine. Thick swaths of Spanish moss drape from the swaybacked branches of the trees that survived, framing each street with lank, gray rags. Except for the tourist areas, everything is spooky, malevolent, just a little too dark, as if one more raindrop could shatter it all.
Parking is always sketchy, but I manage to squeeze into a space in a back alley. My school puts on two plays a year, and since we don’t have a stage, we take over the old Liberty Theater downtown for a week of dress rehearsals and a weekend of shows. It’s pretty broken down, which is why they let a bunch of high school kids invade it with paint and makeup and glue guns. And the owner is this seriously grouchy old guy named Murph who is always yelling at us in the girls’ dressing room, trying to catch a peek during costume changes.
Baker trips on a chunk of concrete as we pass the creepy antiques shop next door to the Liberty, and the old lady inside frowns at us from the window, where she’s dusting a hideous painting of a monkey in a hat. This is my third year doing plays here, and I’ve never seen a single person in the shop besides her. It doesn’t even have a name, and the junk in the dull windows never seems to change. Sometimes I wonder if maybe the doors are locked from the inside, if she’s just trying to keep all of her oddities and antiquities to herself. We hurry past and cross in front of Savannah’s oldest theater.
The Liberty looks dilapidated and sad, even though Josephine left it miraculously undamaged. The front windows are all pasted over with moldering posters from past plays, some so ancient that they’re still in black and white. The whitewash over the bricks has seen better days, and the awning hangs in flaps like it was raked by giant claws. Most of the lightbulbs around the marquee are broken. Still, it’s better than performing Shakespeare in our school’s cafeteria, which smells like burned beef sticks and swamp farts. The four front doors to the Liberty are always chained, except on opening night. As we pass, I reach out to touch the rusted links held together with a shiny new lock. Someone has jammed gum into the keyhole.
“People are monsters,” Baker says with mock sadness and a hand over his heart.
The street is almost empty. The tourist crowds will pick up closer to Christmas, but for now, in that dead space between Halloween and Thanksgiving, Savannah looks her age, possibly older. Faded flags and swags of moss flap in the breeze, and I hug myself and wish I’d brought a heavier coat. Hard to believe we were having a freak heat wave before Josephine, and almost exactly one year later it smells like snow that will never fall.
I open the theater’s side door, and Baker follows me into the darkened hallway. I stop, caught in a wave of memories. The first time Carly and I burst through that door, we were giggling, freaking out over our first speaking parts in our freshman show. Joining drama club had been her idea, but it became my passion. We were here after school, painting sets on the weekend, running lines back and forth with our backs against the bricks. We hugged our parents in this hallway, our makeup and glitter rubbing off on their Sunday suits, bouquets from the Piggly Wiggly in each hand. A senior once gave Carly a carnation after a show, right here where I’m standing, and she blushed so brightly that I could see the pink, even through her blue-black skin. They went on one date, and when he tried to feel her up, she kneed him in the nuts, and he was out of school for a week.
This is the first time I’ve been here since the flood, smelling the wet-rot of the water overlaying the centuries of cigarette smoke and wood.
“You okay?” Baker asks.
I reach for the wall, one hand to my head. It’s starting to ache, and I hear a weird hum right on the edge of my consciousness.
“I’m fine,” I say, focusing on the peeling green paint under my hand. “Just a headache.”
Honestly, I didn’t think I would feel any effects this quickly from dropping the meds. The pills arrive in an unmarked bottle of old-fashioned glass, and the white tablets aren’t stamped. I couldn’t pinpoint the formulation online, so I don’t know exactly what I’m up against, withdrawal-wise. Still, it seems like it should take more than a day and a half for me to be feeling things again, remembering things. If I had given it more thought, and maybe if I hadn’t been so desperate to find Carly, I wouldn’t have quit my mystery meds cold turkey right now. The first stage rehearsal at the Liberty is the wrong time to go crazy. I need this play, need this normalcy.
I fight my way past the memories and walk down the musty hallway with its off-kilter wood floors and buzzing lights. People laugh and talk beyond two open doors, and Baker salutes me before he disappears into the boys’ dressing room. I take a deep breath, put on a smile, and push into the girls’ room.
When I walk in the door, everyone looks up, but no one waves or says hi. Whoever or whatever I was to them before, they don’t run squealing to embrace me anymore and include me in their gossip. I almost wonder if they think of me like a pet or a piece of furniture. Have I really been that out of it? I haven’t actually thought about anyone else’s feelings or perceptions in a long, long time.
I lean against the counter next to Tamika, who used to be part of our circle. She sat with Carly and Baker and me at lunch and invited us all over for pool parties. We even played Bloody Mary at a sleepover at her house once, and she screamed like she was being stabbed to death and wouldn’t tell us what she saw in the mirror. When we lost Carly, I consoled myself by going crazy. Tamika consoled herself by going to lots of parties and drinking. Even if we haven’t talked in a year, we’ve been friends since kindergarten, and I know she’s a basically nice person.
“Hey, Tamika. What’s up?” I say.
“Oh! Dovey?” She’s so surprised, she drops her curling iron. It skids down her toga, and she jumps back, hissing and cussing. We both reach for it, and we smack heads. I see stars. It’s about the worst thing possible for my headache.
“Sorry,” I say.
“Don’t be.” She takes the curling iron back with the wide, toothy smile I remember. “It’s fine. It’s just that you haven’t spoken to me in a year. You surprised me, is all.”
“Was I that bad?” I say.
The look of pity on her face is answer enough. She sets down the curling iron and hugs me tightly, just like I remember. She was always huggy, always the one who got the Band-Aids when someone skinned a knee. I’m amazed at how easy it is to hug her back. She’s gotten thinner since the last time we hugged.
“You were pretty out of it,” she says. “But it had to be easier than . . .”
She trails off. We stare at each other. I take a deep breath.
“Than when I went crazy,” I fill in. “It’s okay. You can say it.” She smiles, and I smile back and start to feel like myself again.
“You seem different. Did they change your . . . I mean, did your therapist . . .”
Poor Tamika looks totally lost. She always hated to hurt anyone’s feelings. And because we’ve been friends for so long, and because I want to feel like a friend again, I decide to tell her my secret. Or at least part of it.
“Look, don’t tell anyone, but I’m going off my meds. I think I can handle it.”
She gasps and shakes her head like she’s seen a dead rat.
“Uh-uh. Dovey, no. You can’t. You don’t remember what it was like.” She says it quietly, avoiding my eyes and focusing on the curling iron instead. She clamps it down on her weave and carefully lays a fat sausage curl over her shoulder. “No way you remember, or you wouldn’t even try to quit. Are you sure it’s going to be okay? You did talk to your therapist first, right? I read somewhere that coming off those meds can be the roughness. And you were really bad, for a while there.”
“Like when?” I ask.
There are holes in my memories, which bothers me. I remember freaking out in school a few times, although I can’t remember why. I remember with heartbreaking clarity the moment I lost Carly, when the tree crashed into her roof and she was sucked down the swollen river raging in the street. But from then to when I woke up in a blue gown in a hospital and was given a jar of pills, I just have a few vague impressions. None of them are comforting.
“Like the time you threatened Mrs. Lowery with her own pizza cutter in the cafeteria,” Tamika says, laying another curl over her shoulder. “Or when everybody said you went running down the street in your pajamas, screaming that the devil was outside your window. Or at Carly’s funeral. That was the worst of all.”
“What happened?” I ask.
She pauses before clamping down the next ribbon of hair. Her eyes meet mine in the mirror, and I have to look away. She looks like she’s seen a ghost.
“I can’t believe you don’t remember,” she says. “You were standing by the casket with Carly’s mama, and then you just started screaming for no reason. And when Gigi tried to calm you down, you grabbed Miz Ray by the arm and yelled ‘It’s not her, it’s not her,’ over and over again until they dragged you off. And we didn’t see you again for a month, and then you were on meds and just . . .” She shrugs. “Gone.”
My head is pounding now, and my mouth is terribly, horribly dry.
It’s not her, it’s not her.
I don’t remember saying it, but goose bumps ripple over my skin with recognition. If it wasn’t Carly in the casket, then maybe I really did see her last week. Maybe I can find her again. I reach into my pocket and roll the pink bead back and forth, reassuring myself that it’s real.
Deep inside, the memory unfurls, just a little. Just enough to remember the black linen of Carly’s mama’s suit, her tissue brushing my hand as we stood together by the gleaming white casket.
But for the life of me, I can’t remember what I saw inside.
“DOVEY? DID I FREAK YOU out?”
Tamika drops the curling iron and pulls me into another hug. I can smell the iron singeing her bedsheet toga, but I can’t remember the last time someone hugged me before today, so I just stand there stupidly, shivering. She hugged me like this once when I fell out of a tree and broke my arm. I didn’t have the words to thank her then, and I don’t have them now. Finally the other girls start screaming and swatting at Tamika’s toga and whispering about how ruined her costume is, and right before our first dress rehearsal.
“It’s okay,” she says, pulling back from the hug and patting me. “Right, Dovey?”
The other girls gather around us in their togas and fairy costumes, cooing over me like I’m a three-legged dog.
“The mute speaks,” Jasmine says.
The other girls move aside, and she steps into the open space like it’s a spotlight. She was always a bitch, and I know she’s been perfectly happy to see me out of the running for lead roles. She’s gorgeous as Prospero’s sister Antonia, but I can certainly understand why he would want to drown her.
“She wasn’t a mute,” Tamika says, stepping in front of me. Good old Tamika. “She went through a lot.”
“We all did,” Jasmine says with an elegantly lifted shoulder. “My dog ran away.”
Rage bubbles up in my chest, a sensation now so unfamiliar that I cough and clear my throat. Luckily, just before the anger makes it to my head and pushes me into doing something regrettable to cement my reputation as the school crazy, the door opens.
“I tole you girls not to use them curlers in here,” Old Murph says, elbowing through our circle to grab the curling iron, which is burning a hole in the cheap carpet.
Everyone steps back as he unplugs it, his old hands so calloused, they look like they’re made of nothing but fingernail. He leaves a trail of stink behind, and I recognize the smoky smell from the hallway overlaid with old-man BO. He shakes the hot curling iron in Jasmine’s face, and she recoils.
“That ain’t mine. These curls are real, old man,” she says, wagging her head.
“I seen things that would really curl your hair, girly,” he says, shoving right up into her face, even though she’s at least half a foot taller than him.
Most girls would back away that close to a face like Old Murph’s. Maybe even I would. But Jasmine leans over, looming, her forehead almost touching his.
“I. Seen. Worse,” she says, and he stares at her for another second before bursting into laughter.
“You keep foolin’ yourself, sugar,” he says, snapping his suspenders as he waddles back out the door. “Just don’t burn my theater down doing it.”
“Oh my God, he’s so creepy,” Tamika says. She picks the curling iron up, plugs it in, and goes back to making perfect curls. The other girls return to their primping.
“Thanks, Tamika,” I mutter.
She gives me a warmer smile than I deserve or expect.
“I’m just glad you’re talking again,” she says. “I hope what you’re doing works. I really missed you, Dovey.”
The corners of my mouth twitch and turn up slowly, like the muscles have forgotten how to work, and I return her smile. I’m not ready for further revelations, so I pull my costume out of my backpack and head for the painted Japanese screen in the corner. It’s old and rickety and doesn’t hide much, but it’s better than changing in front of everyone.
I slip out of my clothes and slither into my tights and leotard as quickly as I can. When I emerge from behind the screen, I’m hunched over, with my arms crossed over my chest. I haven’t worn the leotard in two years, and needless to say, it no longer fits. I uncross my arms and look down. Sometime in the last year, without noticing, I grew boobs.
“Whoa, girl!” Tamika says appreciatively. “You’re busting out all over!”
“I think I need a new costume,” I say.
And Jasmine mutters, “Or maybe two.”
I grab my hoodie from behind the screen and put it on over the stretched-out leotard, hoping Mrs. Rosewater won’t hassle me about it too much. After all, this is exactly why we have dress rehearsals. I have plenty of time to get a new leotard. Tamika hands me a tutu, and I step into it gratefully.
The stage manager opens the door and yells, “Curtain in five!”
“Hey, Dovey,” someone says, putting a hand on my shoulder. I startle and jerk back, but it’s just Nikki, another girl I used to be friends with. “I’m all done. Want me to do your makeup?”
Her smile is genuine, and I have to smile back. It’s weird, like I’m learning the social dance again. They smile, I smile back, we talk. Maybe one day soon I’ll be a real girl again.
“Thanks,” I say. “That would be great.”
Once my face is painted with swirls and glitter, we’ve only got a minute before the curtain goes up. We trip through the door in a clot of cloth and spangles and surge down the hall to where the boys are already waiting. They don’t even hide their ogling. Everyone is in costume for the first time, and it’s almost too much to take in. The fairies, the togas, the glitter, the teased hair, the guy in a jester suit. It doesn’t really make sense, doing The Tempest in Grecian outfits, but Mrs. Rosewater says it came to her in a dream, so we’re stuck with it. Everyone is hugging and laughing and flirting, and their emotions fill the air, infecting me, too. The little hall is filled to bursting with electricity and excitement and magic, and the only thing missing is Carly.
A hand lands on my arm, and I’m amazed to find Baker attached to it, transformed into a wild half monster as Caliban. His dark hair is tangled with twigs and vines, and his face is rendered ferocious by eyeliner and blush. His eyes, lined with black, are startling, the color of blueberries. I guess I haven’t really looked at him, at anyone, for a year. Just as my old leotard seems suddenly smaller, Baker seems larger and more real. But his mischievous grin is the same. Puck would have been the perfect part for him, but Caliban will do.
“Your makeup’s great,” he says. “Are you the hoodie fairy?”
“My old leotard’s too small,” I say, holding my chin up and daring him to laugh.
He looks down, chokes a little, coughs, and opens his mouth to say something.
“Places, y’all!” It’s Mrs. Rosewater, her voice harsh and already frustrated.
Half stammering, Baker and I dance around each other and separate. I step into line with Ariel’s other fairies, ready for the goofy dance our drama teacher has slapped on the front of one of Shakespeare’s most magical plays. We’re supposed to look like the storm that wrecks the ship, but I guess Mrs. Rosewater didn’t want to evoke the actual fear and fury of Josephine in her twisted little homage. Leaping around on the familiar stage to the plucked strings of a guitar, joining hands with Nikki and Jade and Ella and fluttering my piece of blue gauze like a gust of wind, I start to feel alive. I had forgotten how hotly the lights shine onstage, the thrill of performing. Even if there’s no one in the audience, I take joy in bursting through the air and galloping around. I wonder if anyone around me notices the difference. When I was on the meds, did I shuffle around like a zombie? I don’t remember feeling this sort of energy.
The song ends, and we flit to our hiding places. Mine is behind a ridiculous red-and-white plywood mushroom. I curl my fingers around the wood and peek back and forth, giggling on cue with Nikki, who’s behind a fake boulder.
There’s a long interlude where I’m supposed to pop in and out around my mushroom, rolling my eyes and making silly faces. I take the chance to look past the stage and into the audience of empty chairs. Their red velvet is faded and patched, and lots of the footlights are out or winking like peculiar constellations in the darkness of the theater. Mrs. Rosewater stands in the orchestra pit, furiously scribbling notes to herself or growling at her assistant.
I find the seats where my parents sit for every performance. Right there, stage left. Up close, so my nearsighted dad can see, and by the aisle so my ultra-busy mom can leave if she gets an urgent call. Carly’s mom used to sit with them. Now that she has moved away and Carly is gone, I wonder who they’ll joke with, who will go outside to smoke with my mom during intermission and complain about the casting. And I wonder who sat in those spots last spring, for the last play, which I missed completely. They said the seats were still damp from the flooding, but the show had to go on. They handed out garbage bags with the programs.
Something in the back of the house catches my eye, and I lean around the other side of my mushroom. Shielding my eyes with my hand, I strain to see past the white-hot lights and into the back left corner of the balcony. We rarely fill the theater, and that section is usually closed. It’s so dark up there that teachers have to monitor it during performances to keep kids from sneaking up and making out. But there’s something moving in the shadows where something definitely shouldn’t be, not with the theater closed for rehearsal.
It moves again, and I see the barest outline of a body. Smallish, folded over another lump. Another person? Two kids about to get it on? But the thing on the bottom isn’t moving. And the one on top is jerky, intent, and shaped wrong.
I swear it’s a person with fox ears. She leans forward, just barely out of the shadow, and I see a slim girl wearing an orange knitted hat shaped like a fox head, with black-tipped orange ears and long ties that hang down. Her mouth is drawn back in a snarl with red smears over pale skin and sharp teeth. All the hairs rise up on my arms, and I suddenly know how a rabbit feels seconds before claws settle into the skin of its neck. I gulp, my throat dry. I try to look away, but I can’t. She stands and takes a step into the aisle. There’s a flash, something shiny in her hand, winking in the houselights. I lean out a little farther from behind the mushroom, trying to make it out. Then the kid playing Stephano walks right into me, and we fall over in a tangle.
“Cut!” Mrs. Rosewater yells. “Dovey, what happened?”
“Sorry,” I say. “But there’s someone watching us. Isn’t this a closed rehearsal?”
Mrs. Rosewater follows my pointing finger, squinting into the corner of the balcony with her hands on her hips. The only thing that makes her angrier than a mess onstage is people breaking her rules offstage.
“Who’s up there? Come down here immediately!” she yells.
We wait, but nothing happens. The girl in the fox hat doesn’t appear. I manage to disentangle my sandals from Stephano’s toga and stand, shielding my eyes. Mrs. Rosewater shoves her assistant toward the stairs, and the girl jogs up them, around the pit, and up the house stairs and disappears. She shows up on the balcony and ducks behind the seats. My heart seizes as I wonder what sort of lunatic I’ve just sent her to find. I can’t forget the wink of metal, the slash of blood, that feeling of being hunted.
“There’s no one here,” the girl says, emerging from the shadows with a shrug.
“I saw her,” I say, my voice firm. “I’m sure of it. A girl in a fox hat.”
Cocking her head at me, Mrs. Rosewater sighs and heaves herself up the pit stairs. She walks to where I’m standing onstage and puts a meaty arm around my shoulders. Contrary to her name, she smells like chalk, not roses.
“Dovey, have you been taking your medicine?” she says, so low that I can barely hear her. “Maybe you need to go home and rest.”
I jerk out from under her arm and storm off the stage without a word. Along with my feelings, my pride is back, big-time. I may have been crazy, I may have been drugged, but I’ve never been a liar.
Well, until this morning.
I duck through the wings. I can feel everyone’s eyes on me, and I know what they must be thinking. The crazy girl is losing it again. But I don’t have the tools to deal with it, don’t know how to tell them I’m fine, without sounding even crazier. I feel like I’ve just woken up, like the sleep’s still in my eyes. Maybe I shouldn’t have quit the meds cold turkey. Maybe I should have tapered off, should have given myself more time to return to normal.
Too late now.
At least skipping out on rehearsal means I can start looking for Carly earlier.
I kick over a prop chair, and it’s exhilarating. I feel like me again. My current rage, my rush of fear, my wounded pride—they feel good. I fling open the door to the hall and almost run into Old Murph when I turn the corner.
“Watch it, girly,” he says gruffly.
“Was there a girl here?” I ask, moving to block him as he tries to edge around me.
“Lots of girls here,” he says, but he looks cagey, his rheumy eyes narrowing at me.
“In the balcony. Up in the corner. In a fox hat.”
“What kind of girl would wear a fox hat?” he grumbles.
“Anyone with ten dollars,” I shoot back. “Who was she?”
“You need to let sleeping dogs lie, girl. You look into the shadows long enough, something’s gonna start looking back.” He shifts from foot to foot and won’t meet my eyes.
“Was there someone there or not?”
“Theater’s closed. Doors are chained. If something else gets in, ain’t my fault.”
I block his path again. “What do you mean, ‘if something else gets in’?”
The old man looks at me, and a creepy smile spreads across his face, making waves in the wrinkles. He leans up against the peeling wall, and it’s hard to tell whether he’s holding it up or it’s holding him up.
“Wait,” he says with a chuckle. “You’re the crazy girl, ain’t you? I heard about you.”
“I’m not crazy,” I snap.
“Excuse me?” I draw up to my full height and channel my mother’s aggressive lawyer anger.
“I remember your best little girlfriend. Carly.” At the sound of her name, I can no longer breathe. “When she passed on, you went plum crazy. Pulled a knife on somebody, I heard. And they locked you away for a while.” He looks me up and down with a lazy grin. “Looks like they let you out too soon. You give me any trouble, they’ll send you back where you came from.”
I draw a shaky breath.
“I didn’t pull a knife on anyone,” I say, but my voice wavers and kind of turns the words into a question. There are holes in my memory, but that’s a big piece to forget. Surely I would remember something like that. No one would let me back in school if I had done that. Right?
Old Murph pushes away from the wall and winks at me.
“You just watch yourself, sugar,” he says as he shuffles down the hall. I’ve never noticed before, but his back is hunched, and he has a slight limp. I guess I’ve never really looked at him; I just have this mental image of a creepy old guy. But there’s something about him that bothers me. Do I imagine that his hair is moving, the greasy gray strands waving like feelers?
Shuddering, I slip into the girls’ dressing room and lock the door behind me. My headache still hasn’t gone away, and I’m starting to regret flushing my pills. I’m seeing things that aren’t there, and Tamika said I went psycho at Carly’s funeral, and now the old man says I pulled a knife on somebody. Maybe I was crazy.
Maybe I am crazy.
And maybe I’ll go home and confess to my mom and ask her to buy a new bottle of pills. Maybe it’s better to be fuzzy and numb than to see things that aren’t there. Scary things that I’d rather not see. But the whole reason I got out of the fog was to go back to the Paper Moon Coffee Shop and look for signs of Carly. When I saw her last week, I was on my pills.
Without them what will I see tonight?