I’M SUPPOSED TO WONDER WHY Gregor Samsa is a cockroach. Not how. Why. That’s the way Mrs. Dodd says we need to think if we’re going to analyze The Metamorphosis. Otherwise, the how gets distracting. Apparently, Franz Kafka didn’t want us questioning how it’s possible that some guy could wake up one morning as a cockroach. We’re supposed to focus on why he would be a giant, hideous insect, to ask why it had to happen to him and nobody else, to wonder why his family doesn’t care.
It feels pretty familiar, actually: all those why questions, that whole family-not-caring thing. Except that my mom probably wouldn’t notice if I grew antennae and a couple of extra legs, let alone take notice enough to throw apples at me across the dining room table. As much as I want to listen to what Mrs. Dodd is saying about Gregor Samsa and cockroaches, all I can think about is how I wanted my junior year to feel different. Maybe more like it was happening to me and not someone else. Maybe just . . . quieter. Nell was always the outgoing one. I liked being the sister of someone who was popular. It came with fringe benefits. No one teased me if I sat in a corner at lunch with a book, rather than at a table with friends. After Nell went into the hospital, though, everything changed. All of her so-called friends treated her like a leper. And now, I’m someone to be feared by association.
“And what’s the significance of Grete, the sister? Anyone?”
In a way, it’s better. Even if someone tapped me on the shoulder—some bland-looking new girl who didn’t know anything about Nell, someone who didn’t know that my mom drinks like it’s her job, that I can’t talk to my dad about it because I don’t even know who he is and probably never will—and told me she wanted to be my best friend, what would I tell her? That I’m the girl whose sister heard whispers that weren’t quite words, and saw things so dark they took away her light? That she was really good at hiding it from everyone but me? That Nell cut herself and ran away from her institution with some orderly named Adam Newfeld, and that no one saw her again until her body was found in Jerome, Arizona? That the police haven’t found the orderly—who was probably the last one to see her alive—not that they’ve been trying very hard? That when I went to Jerome a week later to see where they found Nell’s body, I felt like I was being watched the whole time, and when I returned to my car, Nell’s journal was lying on the front seat?
“Why does Kafka pay so much attention to the father figure? Come on. Someone knows.”
Or best yet, would I tell this pretend friend of mine that I’m starting to hear things too, just like Nell did before she got worse? Would I tell her about the thing in the mirror from that night?
“Sophie? You look deep in thought. Why don’t you share what’s on your mind?”
“The voice,” I say.
I hear shuffling behind me. A chair creaks under shifting weight. Someone snickers. I swear I hear “freak” coughed. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“Hmm, can you expand on that a little?” Mrs. Dodd’s face is puckered with concern.
She thinks I’m getting at something and wants to get there with me. I swear Mrs. Dodd would take anything I said as gospel. She always gives me credit for understanding more than I do. Why she thinks I’ve got so much figured out is beyond me.
I take a stab at it. “Er, uh, the voice is important for explaining . . . his anger?” Gregor seems mad enough. I mean, if I woke up tomorrow and I was a giant insect, I’d be a little more than pissed.
Still, I wonder if it’s worse to wake up and realize that your sister’s dead, or that you’ll probably wind up just like her. I wonder if that’s not a hundred times worse.
“Okay . . . ” Mrs. Dodd seems to chew on my words for a minute, then she swallows. Inspiration arrives. “Yes. Okay, anger. Absolutely. And this is the root of Kafka’s imagery. Very good. Now, who can take it from here?”
Sure, why not? Anger’s at the root of a lot of things.
That’s when a memory grips me like a cramp, taking over my body and making me focus on that one singular pain. It’s in reaction to a word: “root.”
Every part of me remembers the tree roots bulging from the ground in Jerome. The roots of the tree that held Nell upside down amid its high, sprawling limbs until the elderly sheriff found her. She was in a position so unnatural that I still can’t fully believe the report. But what I remember most is the feeling of my foot curving over the root of that goddamned tree.
I shudder, knocking my copy of Franz Kafka’s Collected Works to the floor with a thud loud enough to attract the attention of the entire classroom. The snickering resumes. I look around, but nobody looks back. Like they’re afraid I’ll turn them to stone.
“Sorry,” I mutter to no one in particular and lean for the book, which is just out of my reach. Mrs. Dodd is talking about Gregor Samsa’s violin-playing sister, but all I hear is sister, sister, sister.
My head starts to swirl, and I’m so sure I’m going to throw up that I don’t even ask Mrs. Dodd for a hall pass. I don’t say a word. I just get up and charge to the front of the room.
“Sophie, are you—?”
I’m out the door before she can finish.
My cheeks are tingling by the time I enter the restroom. I push into the nearest stall (I don’t even scan to see if I’m alone. There’s no time) and promptly lose my breakfast: cottage cheese, cantaloupe, and half of a cinnamon-raisin bagel. I’m sure I’ll never eat any of those foods again for as long as I live.
“Oh God,” I mumble, shivering as I hear my words echo back to me in the dank bathroom.
I emerge from the stall and nearly jump right back into it when I see my reflection. I look like hell. In this light, my hair is less “chocolate auburn,” as the box suggested, and more purple. Which matches the circles under my eyes. My eyes are deep-set as it is, so it sort of looks like my skull has swallowed them. My face is thinner than it used to be. I haven’t had much of an appetite since Nell died.
Nell is dead.
My sister is dead.
There’s a faucet dripping. The rhythm is steady, and soon my heart begins to beat in time with it. Then there is nothing. It’s as if all sound is pulled from the bathroom with the intake of a breath.
After a moment, sound returns, focused in my right ear, like a hand cupping the air beside my head.
The sound is so close, yet I can’t make out the words. But it wants to be heard.
“Sophie, what is it? What’s the matter?”
Mrs. Dodd stands in the open doorway, her hay-colored hair swishing as the door clangs shut behind her. The murmuring is gone. The faucet is dripping again. A tiny spot on the mirror distorts my reflection—a tiny spot that wasn’t there a minute ago.
It happened again.
“It’s . . . ” I start to say.
If I was going to tell anyone, it would probably be Mrs. Dodd. She reads Poe and Tolstoy, and understands the poetry of Lord Byron and even Nietzsche. She once told us that when she reads Dostoevsky, she can almost hear the author breathing with her. She also gave me my very own copy of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land—my sister’s favorite—after Nell died.
“It’s nothing,” I say. “I-I’m sorry.” I start to leave, but she stops me.
“Easy. It’s fine. You know you can always talk to me, Sophie, if you need to.”
She’s trying to sound casual, but her face is scrunched up with worry.
“I’m fine.” My voice comes out a little too loud, echoing in the bathroom like a vocal pinball. “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be teaching?”
Her face finally relaxes when I say this. She’s the only teacher I feel comfortable talking to like she’s not a teacher. Maybe because she’s never treated me like just another student.
“I figured it wouldn’t take much to get you back in the classroom. I know how much you love Kafka,” she says as she pushes the door open for me.
I don’t have the heart to tell her I used to love him. Until he and every other author started making me think of Nell.
Back in the classroom, I return to my seat as quickly as possible and fail to block out the whispers coming from Nell’s former friends. I try to tell myself that the murmuring isn’t getting louder, more insistent. I tell myself it’s not happening more frequently.
And mostly, I tell myself that I didn’t see the mirror start to ripple where my face was, like something was behind the glass, trying to get out.
• • •
The final bell for fifth period is already ringing as I throw my nearly uneaten lunch away. Now that I just don’t give a shit, tardiness is a new habit I’ve developed. Besides, rushing anywhere in Phoenix’s autumn heat only makes you sweat more than usual. The Sweep Monitor will catch me today, like he has every other day since the start of the school year.
“Sophie D.,” says a deep voice from behind me. The Sweep Monitor.
Sweep is a holding tank of delinquency where the kids who aren’t responsible enough to get to class before the door shuts get sent. Only the unluckiest of teachers, usually the football coach, Mr. Tarza, is assigned to babysit the Sweep room. Usually one of his junior varsity players gets stuck playing glorified dogcatcher. This month it’s been Evan Gold, and he’s on me like a hawk. A cute hawk, but still.
“Hey, Sophie D.”
I don’t stop walking. I’m already headed for the Sweep room. I just wish I could get there without having to talk to anyone. It’s nothing against Evan. He’s a junior too, and he recently transferred here from a private school on the other side of Phoenix. He knows all about Nell, so I can forget about that whole mysterious-new-friend-giving-me-a-fresh-start fantasy. The football players date the popular girls—the girls who used to call themselves Nell’s friends—so of course they brought Evan up to speed pretty quickly. She died six months ago, but the rumors live on. They may not talk to me, but they don’t whisper very quietly, either.
Evan’s never said anything to me about Nell, even if his ear has been soaked with a mouthful of gossip. Instead, he says my name in a cool-cat kind of way, like he believes I might be just as cool as he is. He’s in for a world of hurt. I’m nothing like Nell used to be. Not in the ways he’d like.
“Hey, look, I’m not trying to give you a hard time,” he says apologetically. I turn around as he trots to catch up. He is easily a foot taller than me (which really isn’t saying much since I’m only five foot two). His curly black hair is always messy, and today is no exception. But I never realized until now how pretty his eyes are, some sort of super-light brown, like amber.
“Seriously, I’m . . . ” he stammers. Usually, Evan just escorts me to Sweep and makes inane chitchat about how lame school is or how Coach Tarza’s riding his ass like a jockey. I hardly know him, but for some reason I think he tries to sound like someone he’s not. Or maybe I’m just that desperate for someone to relate to. On this particular trip to Sweep, though, he doesn’t sound like he’s trying to be cool. His voice is deep, and even though I’m not cold, I have to brush the hairs down on my arms.
“Just doing your job?” I say jokingly, but it comes out angry. It seems like everything irritates me lately. I’m swearing more than I used to, which is quite an accomplishment considering I was already hitting the four-letter words pretty hard before all of this happened. My mom doesn’t notice like she used to, but it makes me sound like a shrew around everyone else. So when I see Evan’s face fall, I feel like a jerk.
“Nah, you get paid for a job. This is punishment for not making varsity,” he says in an easy, self-deprecating way, but something about his wrinkled brow tells me he’s actually embarrassed.
I’ve never seen someone popular look embarrassed. Nell never used to look embarrassed. She was into poetry, which should have exiled her to the Loners’ table at lunch with me, but she always just looked entitled. It went beyond confidence, yet somehow she dodged arrogance.
“Only seniors make varsity here,” I say, and he smiles a little. His face is long, and his jawbones stick out like he’s clamping his teeth together even when he’s not. I can’t help but smile back at him. It feels like the first time in six months I’ve moved my mouth that way, and it hurts.
“So what you’re saying is I can’t be the guy who scores the winning touchdown, gets the girl, and drives into the sunset in some kick-ass new car like in the movies?”
“I wouldn’t know,” I laugh. “I mostly stick to the scary stuff. I’m a sucker for horror films, old ones mostly.”
It’s not really worth mentioning that I’ve been staying away from that kind of stuff since Nell died. It’s only fun when it doesn’t feel so . . . real.
Evan’s walking next to me now, and it feels like we should be holding hands or something. All at once, I’m desperate to cross my arms over my chest. I’m the only one in the family with big boobs and hips. Nell used to joke that my straight hair was the only flat thing on me. Lately, though, everything is loose and saggy on me.
We reach the Sweep room, and I’m barely used to the feeling of Evan beside me before he’s trotting backward down the hallway.
“Try to stay out of trouble, Sophie D.”
Then he stumbles a little, catches himself, and practically sprints around the corner. I’m still smiling when I open the door.
“Truancy is nothing to smile about,” Coach Tarza says, barely looking up from his month-old Sports Illustrated.
I make a quick scan of the room before sitting at the desk closest to the door. It’s just me and the stoners today. The earthy smell of marijuana hangs in the air, and I can only hope for a contact high to dull my senses. There are thirty-five more minutes of skull-crushing silence before sixth period. We’re not allowed to do homework in Sweep, lest we try to turn our punishment into a study hall. So I’ll use this time to pick the split ends of my dyed hair.
When the bell finally jolts me back to consciousness, my heart skips heavily in my chest. I had traveled someplace with Evan Gold, and pretty much no one else for miles and miles. In my imagined existence, I discovered soft lips that traced mine and hands that cupped the small of my back and pulled my hips against his. I would have given anything to stay in that world just a little longer. If I knew what normal felt like, I bet that daydream would have been it.
My wrist doesn’t burn anymore. I remember feeling pain, then no pain at all, then pain again. The doctors stitched me up in a hurry, then gave me some time to get settled (that’s how they put it) before bringing in some shrink.
The shrink seems to be the top guy around here. He had a concerned look, as if he practiced furrowing his brow. Too small of a crease in his forehead implies he’s cold. Too much tells me how crazy I really am. But the right crease says it all: It’s not my fault.
Apparently there’s not much hope for me, but he’s going to give me a chance at getting back to normal. Only he doesn’t use the word “I.” He says “we.” We’re going to try this or that. We’re going to take this slowly.
I don’t remember what day that was. Yesterday maybe. They’re letting me keep a journal. I guess they figure it’s hard for someone to hurt themselves writing, assuming the pencil is dull enough.
I still hear the murmurs, but like always, I can’t make out what the voice is saying. I can’t tell if I’m supposed to. The pills don’t do much to stop it. None of it really matters though. The voice didn’t make me break the glass. The thing in the mirror did. And what’s worse is that the doctors and nurses here seem to believe me. Not a single person has denied that what I saw—that what I’ve been hearing—is real.