IT WAS CLAIRE. HER RED HAIR SPILLED OVER MY shoulders where my brown hair should have been. Then her reflection bent, sinister in the glass. The room tilted, pitching me to the side. I bit my tongue, then braced my hands on the counter. When I looked up at the mirror, it was once again my face that stared back.
My heart pounded against my rib cage. It was nothing. Just like the classroom was nothing. I was okay. Nervous about my first day of school, maybe. My disastrous first day of school. But at least I was unsettled enough that my stomach forgot to churn at the sight of the drying blood on my skin.
I grabbed a handful of paper towels from the dispenser and wetted them. I brought them to my face to clean it up, but the pungent wet paper towel smell finally set my stomach roiling. I willed myself not to vomit.
I had the presence of mind to pull back my long hair from my face as I emptied the meager contents of my stomach into the sink. At that moment, I was glad that the universe had thwarted my attempts at breakfast.
When I finished dry heaving, I wiped my mouth, gargled some water, and spit it into the sink. A thin film of sweat covered my skin, which had that unmistakable just-puked pallor. A charming first impression, to be sure. At least my T-shirt had escaped my bodily fluids.
I leaned on the sink. If I skipped the rest of Algebra, the teacher would just rustle up a mathlete posse to find me and make sure I hadn’t died. So I bravely headed out into the relentless heat and made my way back. The classroom door was still open; I’d forgotten to close it after my unceremonious departure, and I heard the teacher droning on about an equation. I took a deep breath and carefully walked in.
In seconds, the teacher was at my side. His thick glasses gave his eyes an insectlike quality. Creepy.
“Oh, you look much better! Please, have a seat right here. I’m Mr. Walsh, by the way. I didn’t catch your name before?”
“It’s Mara. Mara Dyer,” I said thickly.
“Well, Ms. Dyer, you certainly know how to make an entrance.”
The class’s low chuckle hovered in the air.
“Yeah, um, just clumsy, I guess.” I sat down in the first row, where Mr. Walsh had indicated, in an empty desk parallel to the teacher’s and closest to the door. Every seat in the row was unoccupied, except mine.
For eight painful minutes and twenty-seven infinite seconds, I sat sweltering in the seventh circle of my own personal inferno, motionless at my desk. I listened to the sound of the teacher’s voice but heard nothing. Shame drowned him out, and every pore of my skin felt painfully naked, open for exploitation by the pillaging eyes of my classmates.
I tried not to focus on the assault of whispers that I could hear but not decipher. I patted the back of my tingling head, as if the heat of the anonymous stares managed to burn through my hair, exposing my scalp. I looked desperately at the door, wishing to escape this nightmare, but I knew that the whispers would only spread as soon as I was outside.
The bell rang, marking the end of my first class at Croyden. A resounding success indeed.
I hung back from the mass exodus toward the door, knowing I’d need a book and a briefing on where the class was in the syllabus. Mr. Walsh told me ever so politely that I was expected to take the trimester exam in three weeks like everyone else, then returned to his desk to shuffle papers, and left me to face the rest of my morning.
It was blissfully uneventful. When lunch rolled around, I gathered my book-laden messenger bag and heaved it over my shoulder. I decided to look around for a quiet, secluded place to sit and read the book I’d brought with me. My vomiting shenanigans had ruined my appetite.
I hopped down the stairs two at a time, walked to the edge of the grounds, and stopped at the fence that bordered a large plot of undeveloped land. Trees towered above the school, casting one building entirely in shadow. The eerie screech of a bird punctured the breezeless air. I was in some preppy Jurassic Park nightmare, definitely. I violently opened my book to where I’d left off, but found myself reading and rereading the same paragraph before I gave up. That lump rose in my throat again. I slumped against the chain-link fence, the metal scoring marks in my flesh through the thin fabric of my shirt, and closed my eyes in defeat.
Someone laughed behind me.
My head snapped up as my blood froze. It was Jude’s laugh. Jude’s voice. I stood slowly and faced the fence, the jungle, as I hooked my fingers in the metal and searched for the source.
Nothing but trees. Of course. Because Jude was dead. Like Claire. And Rachel. Which meant that I’d had three hallucinations in less than three hours. Which wasn’t good.
I turned back to the campus. It was empty. I glanced at my watch and panic set in; only a minute to spare before my next class. I swallowed hard, grabbed my bag and rushed to the nearest building, but as I rounded the corner, I stopped cold.
Jude stood about forty feet away. I knew he couldn’t be there, that he wasn’t there, but he was there, unfriendly and unsmiling beneath the brim of the Patriots baseball cap he never took off. Looking like he wanted to talk.
I turned away and picked up my pace. I walked away from him, slowly at first, then ran. I glanced over my shoulder once, just to see if he was still there.
And he was close.