I PEELED AWAY THE CHEAP, GREENISH-GRAY paint on the wall of the third-floor girls' bathroom. Underneath the dull paint, the wall was a bright robin's-egg-blue. I'd started picking at the chipping paint in September, in the beginning ofjunior year, with the intention of peeling it all away and returning the wall to its original cheery color. Instead, I'd just made a mess. Story of my life.
"Paige, are you sure you won't get in trouble for ditching class?" my best friend, Dottie, asked. She stood awkwardly in front of the muddy-brown-painted bathroom stallsreally, whoever picked the colors for this bathroom was in dire need of a hug or some therapyand nervously pulled the sleeves of her baby-blue cardigan sweater over the heels of her hands.
"Don't stress it, Dots. It's fine," I reassured her as I peeled a satisfyingly large piece of paint off the wall. I tossed it in the wastepaper basket and brushed the chips off my hands. "It's just study hall on the last day of midterms. Tomorrow's Friday. I could flip off Vice Principal Miller and still avoid detention."
"Okay, then," Dottie said, smiling. I was pretty sure I wouldn't get into trouble, but I would happily have served my sentence in detention for some girl time with my best friend. I'd been busy studying for midterms, and I knew she had been lonely. I hopped up to sit on the radiator under the painted-shut window and leaned against the glass, shivering a bit as the cold January air seeped into the back of my uniform shirt.
"So, what are you doing to celebrate no more exams?" Dottie asked in a singsong voice, rocking back and forth on her heels and clasping her hands behind her back. "Thrill me with some exciting stories."
I snorted as I let my feet drum out a dull rhythm on the radiator's barely warm metal coils. "My dad got free tickets to some horrible play, and he's dragging me to it. He thinks it will make me 'cultured.'" I added finger quotes around the word. Saturday night would be spent at an interpretative dance version of Chicken Little called Poultry in Motion. Seriously. When I explained it to Dottie I thought she would never stop laughing.
"That sounds worse than when he got free tickets to see Cinderella as
what was it again?"
"A hippie," I reminded Dottie, chuckling as I unwrapped a Hershey's Kiss. "And instead of a glass slipper, the prince found a giant platform shoe and instead of the ball, she went to Woodstock."
"Why is that so funny, again?" she asked, her pale blond brows furrowed in confusion. I was halfway through an explanation when the bathroom door swung open.
"Having another one of your riveting conversations, Paige?" sneered Pepper Dennis. Oh, how I loved Pepper. The only thing I loved more than Pepper was sarcasm. Most of the students at Holy Assumption ignored me, writing me off as a weirdo and a freak. But much like her namesake, Pepper was irritating when she was in my face. Before I transferred in at the beginning of sophomore year, Pepper was at the top of the class, the student unanimously recognized as most likely to be valedictorian. But now she was number two, after yours truly. I thought number two suited herthe girl really was a little shit. And right now she was giving me a hard time. Again.
"It's better than talking to you, Paprika," I said, punctuating my words by popping the Hershey's Kiss into my mouth with a flourish. Dottie giggled.
"It's Pepper, and you know it," she grumbled, stopping in front of the mirror to expertly apply her eyeliner. Pepper had been dating Matt, universally considered the hottest guy in our class, since the dawn of time, to hear her tell it. In reality, it was since October. You always knew when they were going out after class, because Pepper was in the bathroom, applying flavored lip gloss with the artistic precision of Michelangelo.
"Well, paprika gives me a rash, so you can understand why I'd confuse you with it," I said matter-of-factly, giving Dottie another giggle fit. But her laughter stopped when the door swung open again, and Pepper's best friend, Andie Ward, walked in.
When Andie saw me, a repulsed look crossed her face. The bathroom door slammed shut behind her, and Andie audibly gasped at the idea of being in a room with me. Oh, the horror.
"Pepper," Andie whined, her hands fumbling behind her for the doorknob. "What are you doing in here with
her?" She looked at me like I'd just kicked a kitten. I rolled my eyes.
I'm pretty sure I managed to roll them a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees.
"She was talking to herself when I came in here, you know," Pepper said with a cackle, throwing her eyelash curler in her oversize, sparkly makeup bag. "She's such a freak."
"Psycho," Andie mouthed before stomping out of the bathroom, slamming the bathroom door behind her for emphasis.
I shrugged. This kind of reaction was to be expected when your best friend was a ghost.
I glanced over at Dottie, and she was slightly transparent, a sad look on her face as she started to shimmer away. Whenever she got upset, her ability to stay here faltered. It was annoying talking to a see-through Dottie; that's when I really felt crazy.
"Don't go," I whispered as quietly as I could to Dottie, but my hushed words echoed around the empty bathroom. Dottie gave me that tortured look again, nervously pulling on her sleeves to hide the ugly red scars on her wrists.
"What did you say to me?" Pepper sneered, taking out a tube of cherry lip gloss and pursing her lips.
"I didn't say anything," I snapped, and Dottie became a shade more transparent. I gave her an exasperated look as I toyed with my bracelet, spinning it on my wrist.
"You better not leave. I'm cutting class for you," I said through gritted teeth, pointing my finger at her for emphasis. I heard Pepper exhale loudly.
"I swear, Paige, I'm going to find out how you're cheating and getting straight A's, and then you're out of this school," Pepper vowed, and I rolled my eyes again. I'm a champion eye roller. I could go Olympic level with my talent.
Suddenly, Dottie was standing in front of me, in solid form, huffing indignantly. "She thinks she can threaten you? Well, why don't you ask Pepper about two weeks ago, when she made out with her ex-boyfriend? You know, the dreamboat senior?" Dottie asked, a devious smile playing on her baby-pink lips as she patted her blond hair.
A wicked, delighted smile spread across my face. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but I have a best friend who's a ghost and sees all. So, nyah-nyah-nyah. Suck on that spicy little number, Pepper.
"Hey, Pepperoni," I called, tryingand failingto keep the amusement out of my voice. "I'll tell you how I'm getting straight A's when you tell Matt that you hooked up with Diego."
Pepper blanched, and she dropped the wand into the sink, leaving a thick globby line of gloss on her chin.
"What are you talking about?" Pepper shot me her most menacing glare, but her shaking voice made her seem as threatening as a baby otter in a tutu.
"You know what I'm talking about," I replied, nearly howling with laughter as Dottie held her arms around an imaginary person, wiggling her tongue as she mimed, as she would say, a "hot 'n' heavy make-out session."
"There's no way you could know about that," Pepper swore, her eyes wide.
"So you admit there's something to know about?" I asked, and Pepper nervously ran her fingers through her short brown hair, making the carefully arranged layers fall askew.
"No one will believe you," Pepper vowed. "You're crazy, and everyone knows it."
Pepper grabbed her lip gloss out of the sink and angrily wiped her chin, smearing the bright red goop all over her skin.
"That's really not your color," I called, and she let a creative list of expletives flow before opening the bathroom door to storm out. But before she stomped away, Pepper stopped to glare at me.
"You think you're better than me, don't you? Well, I'm going to meet my boyfriend and go to my friend Andie's house to hang out with a bunch of friends," she said, stressing the words. "But you? Where are your friends, Paige? You're alone in the bathroom talking to yourself like a freak. Think about that when you're feeling so superior. You're a loser and the entire school knows it," she barked before stalking out, slamming the door behind her. I flinched at the loud smack of the wood reverberating around the bathroom, but recovered when I saw Dottie's mournful expression.
"Well, that was all kinds of dramatic," I scoffed, but Dot-tie just shook her head rapidly, almost making her hairdo movealmost. They used an impressive amount of hair spray in 1955, after all.
"I'm so sorry. It's because of me" she began, and I cut her off.
"Don't, Dots. It's okay," I promised her. "I've got a thick skin. Rhino thick. Chain-mail thick."
"But doesn't it ever bother you that she called you a loser?"
"She called me several things. Whatever," I replied, shrugging nonchalantly and doing my best to alleviate Dottie's guilt. It didn't work: she gave me a regretful smile, reaching out her hand to grasp mine, and her fingers passed through my skin, giving me an eerie chill. We both jumped back.
"Sorry!" she apologized, her pink lips twisted in a frown. "I forget sometimes that, you know."
"That I'm dead. Yeah. That," she interrupted me bluntly, looking down at her saddle shoes. "Eh, it happens."
"Does it ever freak you out that you talk to ghosts?" Dot-tie asked, her voice small. "You can tell me. I won't take it personally."
I smiled at her, shaking my head.
"I did the whole freak-out thing after the accident," I reminded her. "Been there, done that, have the souvenir T-shirt."
I'd told Dottie all about it: the accident sophomore year, when I'd pushed some little kid out of the way of a car and gotten hit instead. I'd told her about how I'd died. I only died a littlejust under a minutebut it was enough. I had a tendency to imagine the scene as if it came straight out of one of those medical dramas, where ridiculously attractive doctors with perfect touch-me hair and tortured love lives screamed, "Clear!" before shocking my still heart back to life.
But once I came back, things were
different. Not just physically, although I was pretty banged up after getting slammed by a car. And there was the little matter of me talking to people in the hospital that no one else could see. I went for brain scan after brain scan, tried little white pills, big blue pills, yellow pillsI tasted the rainbow when it came to pillsbut the doctors couldn't find anything medically wrong with me.
Since I'd lost so much time recovering from the accidentand, you know, was talking to invisible peoplemy parents and doctors thought it would be best if I transferred to anothereasierschool and repeated sophomore year. Everyone seemed to think that I had some kind of stress-related mental illnesseveryone, including me. So, I didn't put up much of a fight when Mom and Dad plucked me out of the competitive, college-prep Vincent Academy on Manhattan's posh Upper East Side, and sent me to Holy Assumption, across town on the Upper West. The schoolwork was less intense, but the blue plaid uniforms were uglier. And possibly made of low-grade steel wool.
I had been pretty quiet at firstmerely another nondescript girl in the back of the classroom, terrified of talking to anyone unless I had tangible proof that they were, in fact, tangible. I fulfilled the ultimate new-girl stereotype. I mean, I could have taught a class in it: Quiet Newbie 101. And then I met Dottie. It was October, the second month of my second sophomore year. I was in the crowded third-floor bathroom and noticed Dottie gazing forlornly through the few scratches in the painted-over window that gave a glimpse outside. She looked so sad, so lost. I couldn't ignore her.
"Are you okay?" I asked her gently, and she turned to face me, her brown eyes wide.
"You'reyou're talking to me?" she stammered, astonished. A timid smile spread across her face.
"Sure, why not?" I asked, glancing around the bathroom. One girl elbowed another and tilted her chin in my direction. Considering that everyone in the bathroom had ignored this girl, who stared dejectedly at whatever scraps of the outside world she could see from the bathroom window, I decided that Dottie must be the outcastjust like I had been at Vincent Academy after I talked to a figment of my imagination for twenty minutes on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That little display made me about as popular as an onion milkshake.
I wanted to reach out, be a friendbe the person no one at my old school had been to the girl who was a little messed up after a car accident. I mean, I did save a random child's life and all when he somehow got away from his mom and ended up in the middle of Tenth Avenue. Talk about a tough crowd.
"Yeah, sure, I'll talk to you," I said, hopping up on the radiator and holding out my hand.
"I'm Paige. Paige Kelly. I just transferred."
Dottie looked at my hand and hesitantly reached out to shake it, then pulled her hand back.
"Dottie Flanagan. I don't think I should try to shake your hand, sorry," she murmured, tugging at the sleeves of the blue cashmere cardigan she wore over her white uniform shirt. I caught a glimpse of angry red slashes on her wrists before she pulled the soft fabric over the heels of her hands.
"What is she doing?" one of the girls in the bathroom hissed to another. I realized that the once-noisy bathroom had gotten quieteerily quiet. You could hear every sharp intake of breath, every rustle of fabric as one student tugged on the arm of another. Ifjaws made noise when they dropped, we'd all have been struck deaf by the thundering sound.
"Why?" I asked, curious. "Are you sick? You don't look sick. I'll shake your hand."
"She's sick, all rightsick in the head," one of the girls snickered, and I whipped my head to stare coldly at her. It was obvious what had caused the scars on Dottie's wrists. I knew what it was like to be mocked, despairing, and so incredibly scared. I couldn't imagine what had brought Dottie to the point of attempting suicide, but whatever it was, the poor girl didn't need to be ridiculed for it.
"You should be embarrassed of yourself." I glared at the girl angrily.
"Me?" Her eyes fluttered in surprise. "You're the one who's embarrassing yourself."
"You should watch your mouth before I smack you in it." My voice was cold, threatening as I glared at the girlwhom I later learned was Pepper. She paled and shuffled back a few steps, intimidated by me. I exhaled in reliefI'd only ever been in one fight, and that was in fourth grade, but at least I talked a pretty good game.
When I turned to continue talking to my mystery friend, she was gone. The immediate area around me was emptynot a surprise, since I'd just threatened a student in defense of
thin air, apparently. My cheeks burned as if I'd lit them on fire. It'd happened again. Again! I'd made friends with some figment of my imagination. I grabbed my backpack and ran out of the bathroom, pushing my way through the girlssome stunned into silence, others taunting meand raced to the library to hide.