Every morning, I walk by Mrs. Hansel’s house and plan my break-in.
Today I think about kicking down doors, shattering windows. I have a one-second flash of myself climbing down the chimney. Which just shows how far gone I am lately.
I stop at the foot of the driveway and squint at the two lines of concrete that lead back to the unattached garage. A realtor was out here not too long ago, mowing the stubble of grass that runs down the center, clipping the bushes, yanking dead flowers out of the flowerbeds. I wonder if she forgot to lock up.
The house has a basement with an outside entrance. It’s where Mrs. Hansel kept her hedge trimmers. I’m thinking maybe I can sneak inside there, slip down the stairs before anyone sees me. Once, my brother and I broke into our own house that way. His idea. No way am I going to stand out here in the cold, he said. Dad’ll get over it. Big grin and he was already stomping his boot against the latch.
Before I can lose my nerve, I sprint toward the backyard, keeping in the shadows along the side of the house. The basement doors jut out from the ground like a storm cellar. When I give them a tug, they don’t budge. Without thinking, I kick the metal handles.
Shit! I have to grit my teeth to keep from yelling. I hop around on one foot, holding the throbbing one in my hands. I can’t deal with another injury right now. Shattered leg. Split forehead and chin. Bashed up nose. I’ve had enough battered body parts. But I instantly regret the thought. I’m the one left alive. Who the hell am I to feel sorry for myself? Anyway, my stupid foot isn’t broken.
The school bus rumbles around the corner and I hobble back up the driveway, and then half stagger down the street toward my stop. Big shocker, Lindsay and Heather are standing there yakking it up. “Hey, Marsh,” they drone in the same nasally tone.
I ignore them and tramp up the grooved bus steps, slick and cold under my bare feet. I plunk down in my usual seat, one foot still pulsing from that kick at the door handle.
Why am I such an idiot?
The bus jerks forward and we’re almost past Mrs. Hansel’s. I blink at the for sale sign in the front yard and wonder when they’ll be holding another open house.
They had one a few weeks ago, and I marched up the walk like I knew what I was doing—didn’t even ring the doorbell. You don’t have to during an open house. I strode right into the front room and made it halfway across, halfway toward the place where the hospice people had set up the bed.
The floor slants in that house, sloping down from the entryway over to the fireplace. I raised my bare foot, thinking that the floor slanted right where I wanted to go, like the house was leading me to the spot. For just a second, the bed was there again, the white blankets spilling over, Mrs. Hansel propped up, her thin body sinking into the pillows. I could see her bony finger shaking. I can make a thin space, she said. You’ll see. There’s going to be a thin space right here in this room.
But just as I was about to put my foot down, the realtor came around the corner from the dining room. I must’ve been grinning like a doofball because I could picture it, being whisked away. One second swaying on the tilted floorboards, the next second gone. Well, that would scare the living crap out of the realtor, to see me sucked out of the room.
Now, just thinking about how I blew my chance ticks me off all over again. I should’ve shoved past that lady and kept going, stepped in, pressed down—
The bus jolts to a stop in front of the school and I have to brace myself to face another day here. Remind myself why I’m doing it. What the point is.
This morning, it’s searching the gym. I’m covering the place diagonally today because it hits me that the up and down pattern I’ve been doing might’ve led me to miss some spots.
As far as thin spaces go, the gym has strong possibilities. You hear about it on the news: Kid passes out after a basketball game. A hidden heart problem. Never heard of it happening at Andover High, but hey, it could’ve. The school is old. My grandparents went here. Mrs. Hansel did too, now that I think about it. Occasionally women have strolled around here pregnant—which is the key detail and the thing that makes finding a thin space so freaking hard.
When Mrs. Hansel first told us about it, my brother and me, that was the sticking point. Or really, that was the part my brother kept circling back to. Last spring when Mrs. Hansel was just the weird old lady who lived down the street. We were only helping her to get our school-required service hours. Mow her lawn. Lug boxes out of the attic. And the whole time she was blathering about thin spaces.
They’re like doorways, according to Google, places where the wall between this world and the next one is thinner. Where the dead can come back. And where living people can enter the world of the dead.
But here’s the thing you can’t google: How to make a thin space. Mrs. Hansel told us it all came down to your soul leaving your body in the same spot it came through. That’s what makes a place thinner. She had it stuck in her head that her point of entry was the front room of her house, so that’s where she planned to die.
My brother had jumped all over that. You were born in this room? he’d asked. But Mrs. Hansel had just smiled. No. She wasn’t talking about birth. She was talking about souls. “Quickening” they used to call it, when a pregnant woman first feels a child move in her body. Then she and my brother went off onto some ethical tangent about when life begins, and I quit listening.
Which is too bad. Because now it’d be nice to know a few more details.
I’m finished with my slide through the gym. The diagonal method, big surprise, got me nowhere. Slim-to-none chance that a soul came through in the boys’ locker room, but I weave my way around the whole place just in case. I head into the shower area where my feet slap tiles, still wet from morning showers. The football team must’ve just finished their AM workouts.
Last year around this time my brother and I were down here every morning. We had to ride our bikes to school in the dark. I always griped about it, but he’d just laugh at me, tell me to quit whining, and call me “little brother,” our private joke, since he was really only three minutes older.
But I don’t want to think about last year. I push out of the gym and trudge down the hall, walking the wall’s edge. Apparently, no one ever left the world leaning against a school wall. No one ever died standing in front of my locker either, but for the hell of it, I open the door and stick my foot inside. Even as my skin hits the metal bottom, I think, Jeez, is it possible that someone could die inside a locker? I whirl my head around, considering. If there’s even a small chance, I’m in trouble. I’ll have to poke my foot into, what? Eighteen hundred lockers? Not counting the half-size ones in the gym.
I almost laugh. Even if someone did die in a locker, no way that same soul came into the world there. I can’t imagine a pregnant woman, even the rare pregnant girl around here, stuffing her stomach into a locker.
I pull my foot out and shuffle to class.
Morning’s a haze, and then somehow, it’s lunchtime. Of course I’ve already slid my feet all over the cafeteria. The food’s so crappy that I’d been hoping someone over the years would’ve succumbed to it. Choked on it. Been poisoned by it.
No such luck.
Whatever. I plunk down at the end of the theater-people table and dump out the contents of my lunch bag. Well-balanced as always, thanks Mom! PB and J on whole wheat. An apple. Bag of baked chips. While I eat, I rub my feet back and forth across the grimy floor squares.
Because here’s what I’m thinking: Let’s say someone, a pregnant school secretary hypothetically speaking, once walked through this cafeteria. Crossed the floor, rubbing her stomach, eyeing the snack machine, and then she feels it: a twitch, the first kick of her baby. Flash forward sixteen years to that same kid. A theater buff, we’ll call him. The kid sitting right now at the other end of the table, about to crunch into a Cheeto. So here’s my twisted thought: maybe he has a fatal allergic reaction to overly processed food. He flings himself backward right there, right on that exact spot where his mother, the school secretary, once stood.
I bite into my apple, eyeing the Cheeto kid, who, although kind of pale in his black turtleneck, doesn’t seem to be on the verge of leaving our world any time soon. Plus, now that I think about it, he’s not from here. He’s one of the few people who moved to Andover later. Third grade was when that guy first showed up in our perfect town.
Wishful thinking, I tell myself. There’s no thin space in the cafeteria. There’s no thin space in the whole damn school. It’s in Mrs. Hansel’s house, and I’m going to have to get back in there if—
I snap my head up and squint, confused for a second by the hulking guy swaying over me. Chuck Gardner. Long-lost football buddy. Old sparring partner on the field.
“Hey, you can hardly see that scar on your face anymore,” he says. “Uh, so, uh, I was wondering if you wanted to—well, some of us are going out after the game tonight and . . . ”
He plows on, not looking at me, his eyes fixed somewhere over my head. A part of me wants to help him, throw him a bone for making the effort. Not many people bother anymore.
“Nothing big. Just some of the guys, like before when we . . . ”
But another part of me wonders if I should stop him, point out the obvious: Look, Chuck, our friendship, like everything else these days, is over.
He glances over his shoulder and I can’t help it. I follow that glance, all the way over to the snack machine, where the football players sprawl out watching this potentially dramatic scene. Without planning to, I scan the football groupie table where the girls I used to know (Kate, Logan, I refuse to acknowledge you) are pretending not to stare.
I seem to catch every eye as I pivot my head. Even the damn theater people have stopped talking. Pale, turtleneck, Cheeto guy doesn’t even bother to pretend. He’s blatantly gaping at me.
I imagine him clutching his head, gasping for air. One of those ticking time bombs you hear about, walking around with a brain aneurysm and one day the vein or artery or whatever bursts right here in the cafeteria. In the same place where his pregnant mother once walked.
And sick as it is, all I can think about is how freaking awesome that would be. If there were a thin space right here, and I dropped my foot down and got pulled into it, like a vortex, jerking me out of my seat. Leaving behind my nutritious lunch scraps and the staring people and the—
I blink at Chuck, who I’m surprised to note is still swaying over me. My hand is gripped around my apple so tightly that my knuckles are white. For a wild moment I consider throwing it at him, imagine the fruit bouncing off his forehead. It might wake him up. Get him to really look at me.
I shake my head a few seconds before opening my mouth. “I’m busy tonight,” I say. And I’m a little surprised at how my voice sounds as I croak out the words.
“Busy,” Chuck repeats.
I nod. That’s right. I’m busy looking for a way out of this world, okay, buddy?
But I don’t say that, of course, and then, thank God, the bell rings. I stand up, hurl my apple in the trashcan, and push past Chuck, sliding my feet the whole way along the dirty floor until I’m out of there.