Gabriella Mallory, AP student and perfect-daughter-in-training, stands barefoot on a public toilet for three hours while her school is on lockdown. Someone has planted a bomb and she is hiding. The bomb is defused but the would-be-bomber is still at large. And everyone at Central High School is a suspect. The school starts a top-secret crisis help line and Gabi is invited to join. When she does, she is drawn into a suspenseful game of cat and mouse with the bomber, who has unfinished business. He leaves threatening notes on campus. He makes threatening calls to the help line. And then he begins targeting Gabi directly. Is it because her father is the lead police detective on the case? Is the bomber one of her new friends. Could it be her new boyfriend with his complicated past? As the story unfolds, Gabi knows she is somehow connected to the bomber. Even worse she is part of his plan. Can Gabi reach out and stop him? Or will she be too late?
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Barefoot, I step onto the cold toilet seat in the girls' bathroom and it doesn't even gross me out. I'd shoved my clunky sandals in my backpack an hour ago when this whole thing started. I knew I might have to hide. And if I had to hide, I couldn't make a sound. My life depended on it.
Somebody is coming.
I hold on to the side of the stall to brace myself and try not to breathe. Well, try not to breathe loudly. Don't panic, I tell myself. It's probably just a drill. Maybe the resource officer is running around checking that all the teachers locked their doors, according to protocol. Maybe Principal Bowen's voice will come back on the loudspeaker and tell us the lockdown has been lifted. That this was just a drill, and we all passed it with flying colors.
Even me. The idiot who picked the wrong time to pee. That's why I'm stuck in this bathroom instead of hiding under a desk like everyone else at Central High. I can still hear the echo of Principal Bowen's words, "Students, if you're not already in a classroom at this time, do not attempt to return to one. You will be putting yourself at risk of harm. Stay put and take cover." But exactly how do you take cover in a public bathroom?
Just a drill, just a drill, just a drill, I promise myself. But drills last fifteen minutes, max. They rush us through the protocol so that we can get back to the important business of solving quadratic equations and dissecting fetal pigs. It's been way more than fifteen minutes. I've been hiding in the girls' bathroom for over an hour.
I hear them again. Shushing footsteps against the concrete. Like someone's trying to sneak up on me. Since the whole world has been flipped to mute, the shushing seems loud. My heart beats in my ears. Pulsing, thudding, pumping ... echoing through my body. We used to make fun of my sister, Chloe, for saying strange things like that when she was little. "My elbow's hungry," she'd say. "My nose is afraid." "My pinky toe wants a turn."
Only now the thoughts of Chloe grip me and make the pulsing, thudding, pumping of my heart stop so suddenly that the blood pools in my veins. Because I know Chloe's stuck somewhere on campus right now too. Hiding.
If she's still alive.
I pee in my pants. Just a little. Not enough to soak through my jeans. But still. I haven't done that since elementary. The shushing footsteps pass me by, move on down the hall, and I relax for a moment. Big mistake. Because that's when I pee.
How ironic that here I am, standing in the girls' bathroom, hiding out, and here, of all places, I pee in my pants. I've been holding it since I got here. Because I got all freaked out about peeing. Like it'd make too much noise.
It's been boring. I won't lie. My legs ache and my mouth is desert dry. All I can do is think, so it's driving me crazy. Because I know how this plays out. I've watched the news. I've debated gun control laws in AP government. Some crazy kid with a revenge agenda plows down fifteen innocent students.
But I'm not supposed to be on this end of it. I've already sent in my early action application to my top-five colleges and everything. I'm the kind of kid that's supposed to be going somewhere in this world. Not the kind of kid to die in a bathroom stall.
Shushing steps. Many of them. They're in the bathroom now. I can hear them breathing. They can hear me breathing. It is then that I realize something that sucks more than anything has ever sucked in the history of my seventeen years of life. This is not a drill. And I'm gonna die. On a grimy public bathroom floor.
The door to the bathroom stall slams inward. If I had not been standing on the toilet seat, it probably would have broken my nose. I grip the walls, paralyzed, and stare at the three cops pointing guns in my face.
They haul me off the toilet and pat me down, but I think they can tell right away that I'm not who they're looking for. Maybe my tear-streaked face and blackout-worthy hyperventilation gives me away.
"Come with me," the bald-headed cop whispers, grabbing onto my arm. "Don't speak. Just walk quietly. We're still in a lockdown situation."
I walk with him because, come on, what am I going to do? Argue? He has my arm gripped so tightly that my fingers are losing circulation. He is ushering me toward an evacuation point and I think he's more nervous than I am. I wonder if he knows who my dad is. Most cops do.
This is the real deal. No drill for sure. The air feels thin, like we've somehow gained hundreds of feet in altitude and I can't get enough oxygen in my brain.
The bright Southern California sunlight blinds me with rays, and I squint. The campus is so quiet it has that eerie ghost-town feel. Maybe it's the stress, but the corners of the buildings blur as I pass them, as if they're all part of a painting and the artist is smearing the edges.
I hope I don't pass out.
We all gather on the far end of the football field. Clustering like frightened refugees, huddling together for warmth because even though this October day is seventy-five degrees and clear, my bones are cold.
My ears are malfunctioning. Everything I hear is blunted, far away. Like I'm underwater. Bomb found on campus after anonymous tip. Bomb has been disarmed successfully. Police will conduct a thorough investigation. Safety precaution. Everyone will be released to guardians. One by one. Procedure will take hours. Be patient. Stay calm.
Everyone is milling about, stunned. I've gone to school with some of these kids since elementary, but in this moment I only care about one. I scan the crowds, searching for the purple streak in my sister's thick, black hair. She's got the kind of hair that tangles easily, so she only brushes it when she first gets out of the shower and it's all conditioned up. She's been wanting to cut it for at least a year, but Mom says short hair will make her face look too full, so Chloe settled for dying it black. Mom was not happy.
Back before the hair dyeing, people used to call us Irish twins. Thick, wavy red hair, green eyes with hazel flecks. People call Chloe's natural color "strawberry," but that makes no sense if you really think about it. Strawberries are truly red. Her hair is more the color of freckles. So Mom got all pissy when she dyed it black. The purple streak was just icing on the cake. How so totally Chloe. Same as sticking out her tongue with a big fat "Screw You" pierced through it.
Chloe's shirt finds me before her face does. All black, but with little-kid rounded yellow letters. Pooh is my homeboy. As much as I'd tried to talk her out of it when I first saw her ordering that shirt on the Internet, for a moment I love Pooh. And Piglet and Tigger and everyone else in the Hundred Acre Wood.
Her face is red. That dark-dark mascara and eyeliner combo has smeared down into the hollows of her eyes, making her look like a Halloween character back from the dead. I run like I'm in a movie — all slow motion and hair flapping behind me — and bear-hug her, and she squeezes me back and buries her face in my neck.
"Gabi," she whispers, her breath smelling like red licorice, "I thought I'd never see you again."
I try not to cry and then I'm crying anyway, holding on to her like she might turn to sand and slip through my fingers.
And then it comes to me. I don't think we've hugged like this since we were little girls.
Mom's chin goes all taut when she's tense. She's thin anyway, but when she juts her chin forward, her skin has to stretch further and her whole face looks tight. Like an ad for plastic surgery gone wrong.
Chloe and I have parked ourselves at the kitchen table, eating grapes. "We're okay, Mom. Relax. It's over," Chloe tells her and pops a couple grapes in her mouth. She never washed off the black makeup, so I can't look straight into her eyes.
Mom sits perched on the edge of the kitchen chair, looking like a nervous little bluebird. "Dad won't be home until late tonight. They've called him out to the school to help with the investigation." She clasps her hands together and flexes and un-flexes her fingers. I'm tempted to reach over and place my hands on hers to make her stop, but I don't.
"Okay, so Dad might get blown to smithereens, but he's not around much anyway, so we won't really notice." Chloe gets this ridiculous half-smirk on her face like she thinks she's hilarious. I kick her under the table. Mom's hands flex. Un-flex.
"The whole thing's probably just a hoax, Mom. Some stupid freshman on a dare," I tell her, pulling a grape off the vine.
"Hey, hey!" Chloe complains. "Don't knock freshman. Frosh rock."
"Sorry. I forgot your boyfriend is a freshman," I tease.
She throws a grape at me. It bounces off my shoulder. Mom's not supposed to know Chloe has this thing for a little stoner boy ... He's actually her age but he got held back a grade. Quality dating material. She always picks winners.
"Oh. Uh, just kidding." I mouth "sorry" to her when Mom isn't looking.
Mom stands, her chin still stretched tight. "It's late. I guess you'd better get dressed for clinic, Gab." Flex. Un-flex.
Clinic. The low-fee medical clinic, my volunteer opportunity because it looks good for college apps. My stomach drops fast and hard. Don't I deserve the day off?
"Uh. I don't think my head's in the game today, Mom. I'd rather just stay home with you guys." Plus, I want to scream, I've already submitted my top-five early action apps. Mom wants me to get into Georgetown University in the worst way. She had a brief stint there herself, but she dropped out junior year to marry my dad. I have no idea why she didn't just finish her units in California when they moved here.
Not being conceited or anything, but my chances of getting in (to at least one of my top-five schools) are pretty high, what with my four AP classes, my rocking GPA and SAT scores, my place on the cross-country team, and my dizzying array of life-broadening volunteer experiences. Just saying.
Mom nods too fast, like she is disappointed but doesn't want me to know. "Oh. Okay. Can they manage without you?"
"Yeah," I say slowly, my stomach dropping again but knowing I will go. Because it's the "right thing" to do. Good little Gabi Mallory, always does the right thing. Dependable. Responsible. Disciplined. Boring, yes, and social life submerged in the toilet ... but destined for success, preferably at an elite East Coast school. Yuck.
Mom nods again, and I can see her breathe a tiny sigh of relief. She's seriously got this internal master plan for me, and if I don't follow the Perfect and Elite-University-Destined Daughter rule book to a T, she thinks the world will crumble into dust.
I look at Chloe and set my grapes on the table. The black mess under her eyes is ugly but intriguing. She looks like a model for some kind of creepy artistic magazine.
"Oh, stay home. Rebel a little!" Chloe advises, her smirk back full force. "It'll make your boobs grow."
I survive a four-hour shift at the clinic. Then I run on the treadmill (while listening to an audiotape of my AP government textbook) for fifty minutes. Good girl, Gabi.
I'm toweling my hair dry from my post-run shower when my cell vibrates on my dresser. I peek. Gabi, are you there? It's my bestie and study buddy extraordinaire, Beth.
Yea. Just got back from clinic.
Can you believe today?
Me neither. I'm not going to school tomorrow.
Seriously? You never miss school.
There's a first for everything. What's detective daddy say about all this?
Don't know. I think he just got home. I'll go eavesdrop.
I like the way you think.
I tiptoe over to the banister and lean against it. Little drips of water roll down my back from my still-wet hair.
My parents' voices are low, rumbling, like they don't want anyone to hear. Of course this makes me even more curious. "... clear message," Dad is saying, his voice tired and soft. "... professional job." Dad must be facing away from the stairs, because it's hard to make out his words. Or maybe he just doesn't want me or my sister to hear. "Took our best guys over an hour to ensure the bomb we found was disarmed."
"Do they think it was a staff member?" Mom's voice, somehow much clearer, and with a sharp edge. I can just imagine Mom facing him, arms crossed, demanding information.
"... not ruling it out ..."
"Who else could it be? Who would want to do such a thing?"
"... looking into it ... full investigation ... possibly ex-employees or ex-students ... could even be a current student, but the sophistication of the layout makes that unlikely ... You never know though. Some of these kids are really bright."
I creep down the top two stairs to hear better. I can see the light reflecting off Dad's bald head. He's still wearing his work clothes, which look a lot more like business clothes since he got promoted to lead detective.
Mom sighs and suddenly she sounds tired too. "Between this situation today, that note you found, and that poor girl who hanged herself after all that teasing, I'm beginning to think private school is a better option."
Note? What note?
Wait — private school? No way! My ankle cracks as I shift my position.
Dad pauses for a moment but doesn't turn. He's no longer whispering. "Listen, Susan, these things happen at many large high schools. Westmont High had a suicide last year and a big drunk-driving accident with all those cheerleaders. And Blackbury had that six-hour lockdown last semester when there was a domestic shooting in the neighborhood. When you've got two thousand people on the same campus, you get exposed to all walks of life. It happens everywhere."
"You're not comparing apples to apples, Al, and you know it." Mom's voice sharpens. "What happened today is of a whole different caliber. This wasn't just a bomb threat. There was an actual bomb on campus. We could've lost both our girls in one afternoon!"
I rest my head on the banister. My temples are starting to throb.
"Let's not overreact. I don't think this guy actually wanted to harm anyone."
"How the hell do you know?"
I need to take some aspirin. I rub my fingers against the sides of my head.
"This is what I do for a living, Suze. If this guy wanted to blow the place to smithereens, he would've. He chose not to. He carefully orchestrated the whole setup so that the bomb wouldn't go off. He wanted to send a message."
"Why do you keep saying 'he'?"
"Because nearly every perpetrator of school violence has been male. I study this crap, hon. I know what I'm doing."
"It's just ..."
Suddenly his voice softens. "I know you were scared today." I peek down and see him wrapping his arm around her shoulders. He's facing me now, and I shrink back against the banister. "I was too. But early tomorrow morning I'm going to meet with the assistant principals, and we've got some plans about how to proceed."
"What do you mean?"
"That part is highly confidential. But the school realizes they need to do some preventive outreach. The bomb threat and the note were warnings. We've got to catch this guy, and until we do, we have to hold him off by showing him his message was heard."
"How exactly do you plan to do that?"
"Since when has that stopped you?"
"There are ears everywhere." He dips his head to the right, toward where I am crouched, my hair dripping down and soaking into the carpet.
Damn. Sometimes I hate having a detective for a father.
First thing in the morning, the school sends an administrator to each homeroom. Mine is calculus. Goal — to calm everyone down. It does the opposite. Administrators don't come to hang out in math class unless the world is ending.
Dr. Paisley stands in front of my class and clears her throat. She wears a long braid down her back, with a loose, flowy top and peace-sign earrings. She looks like a hippie love child stuck in the wrong decade. Paisley smiles. "Okay, folks, why do you think I'm here to talk to you all?"
We all know why she's here. But there isn't anything she can say to make us forget about what happened. At least half the seats are empty today. I look around and wait for someone to answer. I feel a little nauseous.
Excerpted from "Are You Still There"
Copyright © 2015 Sarah Lynn Scheerger.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A bomb threat is one thing. An actual bomb planted in the middle of the school, sparking a general panic, is something else again. This suburban high school will never be the same. Neither will Gabi and her circle of friends if they can’t defuse the mystery. This young adult mystery is real, as real as fear. With impeccable structure, wit and style, it explores the timely theme of campus bullying in terms of the pressures and hard choices that face young people today. Even an old codger like me had to stay up til midnight to finish Are You Still There and find out the bomber’s identity. I haven’t done that in years!
It took me a long time to get into this book even though it’s been on my TBR for a while. I’m not even sure why. I enjoyed this book, but it would count as a onetime read for me. It just wasn’t my type of book. Are you There? is a young adult suspense thriller? It lives up to that description by starting off with the main character scared and shut up in a bathroom stall during a bomb threat. I was intrigued by the premise, but the first few lines hooked me into the story. It just seemed to stall a little in the middle and sway from its course. The romance that sprung up around the third chapter took prominence. The story focuses on Gabi and her relationships, and how everyone in intertwined. AYT is a 1st person point of view with each chapter starting with a stranger’s manifesto. This addition to each chapter gives an inside view to the antagonist of the story. There are a few things that don’t add up for me, which caused a star loss. In example, when the school locked down. When I was in high school, bomb threats meant the kids were moved out to an area away from the school. The locking down classrooms were more shooter scenario than bomb threat. It just threw off the scene a little. Although the intensity of the scene with Gabi is amazing and a good hook. I did like the hotline idea, but I was surprised by the lack of adult supervision. But in fiction land it gave good scenes for characters to interact. Gabi’s voice was strong and insightful at times. But the story seemed overran by the romance. Even at times, was Gabi’s personality seemed overran. But some high school girls get obsessed over their boys, but it didn’t fit with how I was reading Gabi. The other characters weren’t really as memorable as Gabi. I liked the thrill and suspense trickled throughout the book. Just some characterizations were lacking and didn’t do the story justice. I really liked the theme, and it was very consistent with the story. I just wasn’t impressed with how the premise was executed. The ending wrapped everything up. I give three out of 5 stars. It was a nice read, just not the type of young adult I like to read. I’m more character development verses romance. Unless its noted as a romance novel.
“Are You Still There” is not what I would call enjoyable, but it is definitely important and timely. It deals with bullying and school violence, so at its core is unsettling, but also a book that should be read. The story centers are Gabi and her family, all of whom have their strengths and weaknesses. At first, Gabi borders on the unlikable due to her judgmental nature and somewhat “holier-than-thou” attitude in regard to grades and volunteer work. It becomes clear rather quickly that she is simply clueless. She is eventually paired with a diverse group of students who expand each other’s self-awareness. All of the new friends she makes are interesting, go beyond their stereotypes, and add to the plot. I really liked the way Gabi grew, and helped others to grow, throughout the story. As mentioned in the introduction, the story centers around bullying and violence. It also raises awareness on how we perceive ourselves and others. The most important message to take away is “If you can do or say something to help, do it. Don’t ever just sit back and watch.” Gabi makes some mistakes, and the author does not shy away from pointing out the consequences of those mistakes. There are also things beyond her control, and those are also presented unflinchingly. Nothing in “Are You Still There” is sugar-coated, nor should it be. I highly recommend “Are You Still There” as a book that presents real issues to young adults without patronizing them. It would be a good book for parents to read and discuss with their child. Communication is so important, and I believe this book will present many opportunities for it. This review is based upon a complimentary copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.