Read Are You Still There Online

Authors: Sarah Lynn Scheerger

Are You Still There

Are You Still There

SARAH LYNN SCHEERGER

Albert Whitman & Company

Chicago, Illinois

For my parents, Nancy and Larry—

thank you for always being there.

Stranger's Manifesto

Entry 1

I am a speck of dust

Invisible to the naked eye—

Unless the sun glances against me just so

And you see for a moment

That I am one of many.

Flecks. Floaters. Dust parachutes.

Dirt in the air.

Do you know

That you are bumping into me?

That you are surrounded by me?

That you are breathing me?

And then you are contaminated.

Infected by what is me.

We are not so different,

You and I.

You just don't know it

Yet.

1

EARLY OCTOBER

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.

2

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.”

“Very funny.”

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?

Not really.

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.

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