By Andrea J. Buchanan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2012 Andrea J. Buchanan
All rights reserved.
I found her in the bathroom of the 300 building. Slumped in the corner, pressed up against her own reflection in the mirrored wall, she could have been crying, or sleeping, or ignoring me. But I knew as soon as I saw her that something was seriously wrong.
'Vivi?' I knelt down next to her. I wanted to be reassuring or helpful but, truth be told, I didn't know her all that well. I didn't know why Mr. Terry had asked me to go find her. We didn't even sit next to each other in class, let alone hang out together. I could tell he'd been able to read the confusion on my face when he asked me to check up on her and find out what was taking so long. He'd handed me the long wooden block, smoothed and shaped and branded with the words HALL PASS by some other student years ago, back when the school still had a shop and woodworking course, and said, 'Just go check it out. You're the only one I trust to actually come back to class.' With a smile, as though we had some sort of understanding.
I understood nothing about Vivi, only that she sat in English class furiously drawing in a notebook and occasionally talking to herself. But she's the kind of girl that nobody notices unless they actually look at her closely, so her strangeness was unremarkable. She was simply lost among all the personalities in the room. Cheerleaders, student government leaders, goths, mathletes. And the other people, like me, who didn't seem to fit into any category. I suppose in this sense Mr. Terry was right; Vivi and I were of a sort, and maybe we should be friends. But she was intense. From the first day of my first year at Castle Creek High this past fall, I had been a little wary of her.
I'd checked the bathroom nearest English, but it was empty. In the 200 block, it was the smoky den of black-eyelinered, green-haired ditchers, seniors who laughed at my prissy sophomore cough upon entering, and at my hasty retreat.
I was going to go all the way up to the main buildings, where the faculty bathrooms are, but I decided to check into 300 before I went that far.
And there she was, on the floor. As oblivious to me as she was to everyone in class, where she would sit, head down, pen moving, until the bell rang.
'Vivi? Are you all right? Mr. Terry sent me to get you.'
She raised her head and it lolled back as though she were drunk, or a baby. Her eyes, when she opened them, were frighteningly blank-looking and filled with tears.
'He's not here,' she whispered.
'No—Mr. Terry isn't—'
'He's gone,' she said, and broke into a sob. Her right hand unclenched and a bottle of Advil PM rolled onto the floor. It sounded empty.
'Vivi, oh my God—' I grabbed her shoulders, shaking her a little as her eyes closed and her head rolled from side to side. I felt my own eyes flood, and my body prickled with adrenaline, the rush of not knowing what to do but having to do it anyway. 'How many of these did you take?'
'You don't understand,' she sobbed. 'It's the only way we can be together. I just have to sleep, and then—'
She stopped suddenly, focusing her heavy-lidded eyes on a space above my head.
'Patrick. You came back.'
A smile briefly transformed her face as she closed her eyes and slumped to the floor.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: 'Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'
We sat in English class, everyone trying to ignore the poem Mr. Terry had up on the board.
'So, 'Ozymandias.' Crumbled statue in the desert. Anyone care to interpret this for me? Explain it to me like I'm five? Don't all jump in at once,' Mr. Terry said to the utterly silent class.
There were no takers.
'Scott? Angela? Daisy?' Mr. Terry tried to make eye contact with me, but I pretended not to notice, suddenly very interested in the blank piece of paper on my desk. I had come to learn, after a few cluelessly enthusiastic responses in class, that answering Mr. Terry's questions impressed him but did nothing to increase my popularity among my classmates. I tried to sink lower into my desk, willing myself to be absorbed into the plastic, and turn completely invisible. I looked across the room where Vivi sat, as usual, her head down, her hand moving as her pen flew across the page, writing something unknowable.
'Vivi Reyes,' Mr. Terry said, like a command. 'We haven't heard from you in a while.'
The tension in the room spiked. Everyone could feel how audacious this was, to call on the girl who had tried to kill herself.
It was two weeks to the day since Mr. Terry had sent me to find her. Two weeks since I'd struggled with her and the empty pill bottle and the smooth wooden hall pass to get her to the nurse's office, and sat with her while she slept. The nurse had let me stay for a little while, but then she'd said I should go back to class, because she was having Vivi taken to the ER just to be on the safe side, because who knew how many pills Vivi had actually taken. I'd told her what Vivi had said, that she'd just wanted to sleep, but the nurse said better safe than sorry, and I knew it was going to be bad, because Vivi would have to have her stomach pumped. I squeezed her hand before I left. It was cold and limp. She didn't squeeze me back.
That day, after being ejected by the nurse, and realizing I'd missed all of History, I'd made my way to Chemistry, where Mrs. Crohn gave me a sour face and a late mark despite the note from the nurse explaining my tardiness.
The other kids in Chem who had observed the whole thing unfolding in English eyed me as though they were seeing me for the first time. What's up? Where's Vivi? Is it true she tried to kill herself? I thought about Vivi waking up in the hospital. Would she remember that I'd found her? Would she remember what she'd said to me? I felt oddly protective of her and whatever she was experiencing, and the sudden curiosity from my classmates felt opportunistic and wrong. I shook my head in the general direction of all the whispers as Mrs. Crohn ahem-ed everyone into silence and announced, 'Electron configurations, people!'
As I opened my book to the right section, a note slid onto my desk, pushing into my elbow from the desk behind me. The note had been folded our special way, so I knew it was from Danielle. I opened it up as stealthily as I could under Mrs. Crohn's all-seeing gaze and saw that it contained only two words: What, in block letters with 3D shading, and happened, in floating bubbles. I thought about how Vivi had looked up above me before she closed her eyes, as though she were willing herself to float away. I wrote back 'Tell you later' in my regular old handwriting and folded the paper in half, not even fancy note-passing style, pushing it back to Danielle's desk while Mrs. Crohn faced the board.
'I'm just saying,' Danielle said at lunch that day after I'd finished recounting what happened, 'it doesn't surprise me. I mean, it surprises me, but it doesn't surprise surprise me. I mean, she's kind of ... intense, right?'
'Yeah,' I'd said. I'd been trying to remember what I'd noticed about Vivi in class before our episode in the bathroom. 'And really good at drawing and stuff. And scary smart.'
'Well, duh, she's in all the honors classes,' Danielle said. 'But ... wow. I didn't even realize she had a boyfriend, let alone a whole dramatic breakup storyline going on. That's wild. But I still have one question.'
'What?' I'd asked, hoping Danielle had some insight. I'd been turning the event over and over in my mind, trying to figure it out. When I'd returned the hall pass after Chemistry, Mr. Terry had joked, I gave you a hall pass, not a get-your-friends-out-of-school pass before turning solemn and saying, I appreciate your helping Vivi today. I hadn't realized the situation was quite so serious. I didn't know how to talk to Mr. Terry when he wasn't joking, and my stomach felt suddenly twisted up inside, so I'd just nodded and then left before he could say anything else. But I couldn't stop wondering: Why had Mr. Terry sent me, of all people, to go after Vivi? Why had Vivi allowed me, of all people, to see even the tiniest piece of her sad story?
Did they both somehow know?
Danielle laughed. 'Who is this Patrick dude? I mean, seriously, he has got to be pret-ty hot to make a girl want to kill herself. And I haven't seen anyone that hot around here.' When Danielle laughs, her whole body laughs. She's tall, and her blond curls frizz out around her, and her arms and legs are long and awkward, and when she laughs they move around as though she has no control over them.
'Ha ha, very funny,' I'd said, but she was already scanning the lunchroom, looking for potential suicide-inducing hot guys, and I was pretty sure she wasn't listening.
When Vivi returned to school the Monday after I'd found her in the bathroom, I'd sought her out by the lockers before first period. She seemed suddenly fragile to me, and I resisted the impulse to stand in front of her like a human shield against the loud and indifferent locker traffic.
But before I could even ask how she was, she looked me straight in the eye, her face tense, her own almond-shaped eyes focused with an eerie intensity, and said, 'Let's not talk about it, okay?'
'I just wanted to make sure you were all right.'
'I am.' As breakable as she seemed, in some ways she struck me as being so much more mature than the rest of us. She dressed like she was going to a job interview, or had recently escaped from Catholic school, with carefully pleated skirts and crisp shirts that had buttons instead of cartoons or semi-ironic pop-culture references like the rest of us. Her dark-brown hair was always shiny, her skin unblemished; she had a purposeful gravity when she walked that seemed unnatural for someone who wasn't yet a grown-up. She seemed like the kind of person Mr. Terry called an old soul. Even though I was shorter than her, I felt lumbering and awkward in her presence. Fundamentally not cool.
'Okay,' I'd said.
'Okay,' she'd replied. And then she'd closed her locker and turned away, leaving for class without waiting for me.
I'd stood there for a few moments, buffeted by the waves of students heading to class, when suddenly she whirled around to face me again, her brown eyes trained on me with their vulnerable kind of intensity.
'We do have a connection, you know.' People streamed around her, but she was oblivious. I felt uncomfortable for her all of a sudden, so intense and so sure of herself that she didn't notice or adhere to regular-life rules about fashion or blurting out weird things like that. And yet I also felt envious: She was so directed, so focused, none of the stupid high-school stuff seemed to matter. She just stood there, in the middle of the hallway, looking calm, if slightly crazy, while everyone edged around her, backpacks nicking her as they pushed past.
'We are supposed to be connected in this life. But I don't know when and I don't know why, and Patrick said it's not quite time. So let's not make it complicated.'
'Um ... 'Patrick said?" I'd asked. 'Who's Patrick?'
'Yes,' she'd said, ignoring my question and cocking her head as if she were listening to something over the PA system. Then she looked at me again. 'So. Thank you for the other day. But let's not talk about it until it's time.'
And then she'd walked away, without me.
And she hadn't talked to me since.
She walked past me in the halls like I was a stranger—like all of us were strangers. And even though the rumors about what had happened had already begun to spread, giving her a kind of perverse celebrity, she didn't seem to notice. Not like she was ignoring us, or like she was the queen of everything, but as if we literally weren't there.As if she could see right through us. She smiled as though she had a secret the rest of us didn't, something that made her calm, able to ignore the whispers and speculation swirling around her as she walked the school halls.
Danielle couldn't understand why it bothered me. 'Let it go,' she'd said. 'So what? A weird thing happened and she doesn't want to talk about it. I probably wouldn't want to, either. What's the big deal? I know you're, like, special and all, but are you also now her guardian for life or something?'
I couldn't explain it to Danielle, or even to myself, really, but it just felt important.Something had happened when I'd found Vivi, and like it or not, we were, as she said, connected.
'Vivian?' Mr. Terry repeated, pulling me out of my reverie.
I felt connected to her now, as all eyes in the room looked to her, waiting to hear what the girl who had tried to kill herself might have to say.
She looked the way she always did: ethereal, fragile, haunted. I realized as I felt the suspense build that I didn't know if she could answer, if she could take the stress of answering. I almost butted in to save her, but she suddenly looked at me—almost as if she understood my impulse—and then she spoke.
'It's like the poem is about the remnants of something that used to be,' she said.
Mr. Terry nodded. 'Go on?'
'It's like,' she paused. 'Sometimes something monumental happens and it feels monumental to everyone. But sometimes a monumental thing only feels that big to the people experiencing it.'
As she spoke, I heard her voice crack with emotion. My heart started to race as I worried for her. Even from my seat I could see her eyes shining bright with tears she struggled to keep from spilling down her face. I had a feeling she wasn't just talking about the poem. She was talking about what had happened to her. About Patrick.
'And then it's nothing, it's just wreckage, just a broken statue in the desert.'
She looked angry now, and her face was flushed, like she was trying very hard to do something. Everyone seemed surprised by her sudden passion. Had she ever spoken this much in class before, about anything? I shivered; suddenly I was very cold, the air-conditioning in the room raising goose bumps on my forearms.
'But when it's all you have, does it matter?' she continued, agitated, her hands moving as she talked. 'Does it matter that it's just a shell of its former glory? At least it's something, it's a message, it's a fragment, but it's real, it really was something, even if it isn't anymore.'
Mr. Terry walked toward her and put his hand on her desk, effectively ending her soliloquy.
'An impassioned reading. Now, everyone: Write about it. Write an essay about the poem, a poem about the poem—write about what Vivi just said about the poem. I want your interpretation of what this all means. Twenty minutes. Go.'
I sat blankly at my desk, watching Vivi try to compose herself. She looked as though she might pass out. Mr. Terry came by and gently knocked on my head. 'You too, Daisy. Just because I know it's all in here doesn't mean I don't need it on the page.'
I turned away from Vivi, who sat at her desk with her eyes closed, and I began to write.
When the twenty minutes were up, Mr. Terry said, 'Everyone, hand your pages in to Daisy,' and I heard the grumbling around me begin: Ugh, who else, of course, teacher's pet.
'She is not my 'pet,' she is my minion,' said Mr. Terry, grinning. 'There's a difference. Look it up.' I could feel my entire face blushing from the negative attention as my classmates grudgingly passed their pages my way. 'Oh, come on, people, hasn't it dawned on you yet? You are all my minions. There will be plenty of time for each and every one of you to do my bidding.' (Continues...)
Excerpted from Gift by Andrea J. Buchanan. Copyright © 2012 Andrea J. Buchanan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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