Amazing Grace

A quote I’m particularly fond of is, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Life is filled with mystery and serendipity. It’s with that in mind that I offer you my first Young Adult paranormal story, Amazing Grace.

Amazing Grace

It’s the first week of school, and I am sitting in freshman math class at Oak Creek High. I glance around to make sure no one is watching—I’d totally die if anyone saw me—then sneak a tissue from my bra to wipe the sweat from my face, which makes my chest look, well—uneven.

I look over at Grace Blue across the aisle. I only know her name because it’s written on her notebook. I’ve never seen her talk to anyone, which I would think is kind of strange if I weren’t so shy myself.

But besides being quiet, Grace is nothing like me.She has black hair pulled back in a ponytail and pink cheeks, and she’s all perky-chested. I wonder how she manages to look as fresh as if she’d just stepped out of the shower. I’d give anything to be in your body right now, I think silently to her.

No, no you wouldn’t, she thinks back to me.

Huh? My eyebrows shoot up so high it feels like they’ve been swallowed by my bangs. My heart pounds. I’m freaking out. Maybe I just imagined that.

I take a risk and silently ask, Did you just think something to me? I stare down at my desk, afraid to look at her.

Mm-hmm, she thinks back. You wouldn’t want to be in this body, believe me.

Okay, I’m having a mental breakdown. So what do I do—do I raise my hand and say excuse me, I’m hallucinating here? Will they send me straight to the hospital, or will I be able to stop by the house and pick up some clean clothes? What about the math test tomorrow? Will I be allowed to take it in the hospital?

There’s nothing wrong with you, Grace thinks to me. We just don’t need words. This is pretty cool, really. Think about it. We can talk all through class without bothering anyone.

I look around. No one seems to have noticed we’re having a conversation. Okay, maybe I’m not crazy. I consider this for a moment. I don’t know how we’re doing this, but I begin to warm to the idea.

Is there anyone else in the room who can hear us? I shift my weight in my chair and lean so I can see her without appearing to be looking. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her turn her head very slowly to the right, then the left.

Nope, she thinks, just you and me.

“. . .be willing to write the equation on the board and solve for “x”?” Mr. Fogerty is saying—to me, apparently.

“Uh . . .” I stall for time. “I’m sorry, I uh, er, well . . .”

“Miss Byden,” Mr. Fogerty says, hands held out beseechingly, “Is there something wrong? You seem rather preoccupied.”

Well, geez, how do I answer that? On impulse, I grab my stomach, grimace, and say, “Cramps. Really bad cramps.” Oh no, what made me say that? I can feel heat creeping up my neck and face. I feel all sweaty.

Mr. Fogerty blanches, and says, “Perhaps you should go to the nurse’s office.” He turns back to the class and searches for another victim to complete the equation on the blackboard.

Nice one, Grace thinks to me as I pick up my backpack and, looking as mortified as I feel, slink out of the classroom.

Nurse Donnelley wears scrubs—matching pants and a loose top that are blue with white clouds on them—and she smells bad as she lifts her arm to stick the thermometer under my tongue. I thought nurses are supposed to be clean and smell like starch.

“Brandy, if you don’t have a fever, I’m guessing you may be about to start your period,” she says in a stage whisper, which is dumb since the door is closed and we are the only people in the room.

“You do know about menstruation, don’t you?” She nods her head as she asks the question, showing me what the right answer is. “And how to wear a pad?”

I grimace and say, “Yes, Nurse Donnelley. My mother showed me all that.”

“Well, I know your mother went through a real hard time after losing your father. Sometimes kids fall through the cracks, you know? And you were just at the age—well, I just want to make sure—”

“I really think I might have eaten something that doesn’t agree with me,” I interrupt her. “I’ll probably be okay to go back to my next class.”

I’m mortified. For years the teachers and the kids around town have been treating me like this weird thing—the girl who’s father may have killed himself.

“Here,” she says, handing me a wrapped object. “You keep this in your purse, just in case.”

I cram the pad into my purse as best I can, glance at the clock, and ask if I could just lay down for a few minutes—thirteen, to be exact—before going to my next class. She pats my hand and motions me to the cot.

When the bell rings, I bounce off the cot and shoot out the door and into the hallway teeming with students running to their lockers before their next class.

Although I don’t see her, Grace thinks to me, Meet me in the bathroom—now. Her thought sounds urgent. I have a couple of minutes, and the girls bathroom is just across the hall.

It appears empty when I step in. One of the stall doors is closed, but not locked and I peek under the stall to see if there are feet on the floor. Grace? I think.

I hear a moan, and a foot drops onto the floor. My heart is pounding in my chest, and I think of the anxiety attacks my mother used to have just after my dad died. I take a deep breath, walk over to the door that hangs slightly ajar, and give it a gentle push.

The door swings inward revealing Janice Petrollini, a popular senior, curled up on the toilet seat, cradling her arm that drips bright red blood down her knee, onto her thigh, and into the toilet. Her face looks white and pasty, and her eyes are dazed and unfocused.

“Janice, what the . . .” I sputter. A razor blade, edged with blood, drops to the floor. I scream, spin around and run down the hall to the nurses office.

The next thing I remember, Nurse Donnelly is sitting next to the cot where I am stretched out, patting my hand. Again. “What happened?” I ask. My head aches and I feel nauseous.

“Brandy, you may have saved Janice Petrollini’s life,” she says, smiling reassuringly at me. Apparently, I had walked in on Janice cutting her wrist down to the bone. I’d made it back to call for help before keeling over in a dead faint.

My stomach lurches and I turn on my side to keep from throwing up. A suicide attempt? Janice? But she’s popular.

“It was just plain lucky for her that you had a bladder call,” Nurse Donnelly says.

“But I didn’t . . .” I start to protest. I think back to the urgent message from Grace. I’m not the hero. Grace is. But how can I possibly explain why I’m the one who showed up?

“I’m sure her parents are very grateful for your intervention,” Nurse Donnelly says as she helps me sit up. I clamp my teeth to keep them from chattering. Janice could have died.

I’m remembering coming home from school when I was ten. My dad had just been found dead in his car. They were carrying his body on a stretcher down the driveway to the ambulance as I rode up to my house on my bike. My mother was hysterical. I can feel my body start to shake on the inside.

Nurse Donnelly doesn’t seem to notice. She’s smiling at me. I try to stand, but my legs wobble and I thud back down on the cot.

“Brandy, I don’t think anyone would mind if you took the rest of the afternoon off. Should I call your mother to come pick you up? Or,” she amends quickly, “maybe Coach Cochran can drive you home—I’m pretty sure he has a free period right now.”

“No, I can get home okay,” I say. “I just need a minute.”

“Well, if you’re sure, dear,” Nurse Donnelly says. She hesitates a moment and then hands me a dismissal slip for the office.

The halls are empty by the time I can get my legs working again. So what was that all about? I think to Grace as I leave the school. How did you know Janice was in trouble, and why did you send me?

Hey, we were cutting up frogs here. If I’d abandoned my lab partner, she’d have puked all over the counter and we’d have gotten an “F.” I knew you could handle it, Grace thinks to me.

Look, I don’t want to do this anymore, I think to her. I don’t like messing in other people’s lives.

It doesn’t work like that, Grace thinks to me. Brandy, you’ve got the gift—you have to use it. It’s not an option.

A chill passes through my body and I shiver at the thought. What do you mean, it’s not an option? I think to her. You can’t make me.

Look, Grace continues, I can’t do this whole school all by myself. I need your help.

I’m walking down the front steps now wondering what Grace means by doing the school all by herself. Before I can think that questions to her, I feel a sudden impact on my right shoulder. “Ouch!” I shout as I spin around to see Tanner Bucket running up the steps. He looks back over his shoulder at me.

Tanner is this Justin Bieber look-alike who sits in front of me in homeroom. I think he’s crushed out on Grace—he spends a lot of time staring across the aisle at her.

“Oh, Brandy, I’m sorry. I was trying to catch up with Josh. I wasn’t looking where I was going. Are you okay?” His honey-hazel eyes fix on mine with a look of concern and embarrassment. “I’m such an klutz,” he mutters.

“No, no I’m fine, really,” I reassure. He touches my arm lightly and smiles, and I feel a jolt of electricity zap me.

“See you tomorrow then ” he calls, and jogs on into the school

I expel a breath that I hadn’t realized had been caught in my chest. Whoa, maybe he’s into me, I think to myself—I mean, the way he looked at me, he knows my name, and he touched me.

Let it be, I hear almost instantly. Don’t get involved with Tanner, Grace admonishes from somewhere unseen.

Who are you to tell me who I should or shouldn’t like? You’re just jealous, I think to her. You don’t own him.

Really, Grace insists, back off. He’s no good for you.

Whatever, I hiss in my mind as I head down the sidewalk toward home. The fresh air makes me feel a little better. I really don’t want to be mad at Grace—she’s the only friend I have.

I walk into our living room and open the curtains to let some light in before going into the kitchen where I know my mother will be sitting, smoking and drinking coffee. She looks up at me, then over to the clock on the wall, then back at me, like she can’t quite figure out why I’m home—but she doesn’t ask.

“This girl in school tried to kill herself,” I say, hoping for some response. “I found her.”

Her lips part, but she says nothing.

“The nurse sent me home.”

She balances her cigarette in the ashtray, puts her head in her hands and stares at the table. “No one should have to . . .” her voice trails off. She leaves the room.

* * *

Friday mornings start with assembly in the auditorium. I think about stopping in the bathroom, but I’m a little gun shy after yesterday.

I swing by the office hoping to catch Nurse Donnelly and ask how Janice is doing. No one is in, so I head on to the assembly. We have to sit with our home room, otherwise I’d sit in the back and try to be invisible.

The principal, Miss Horton, taps on the mic and says, “testing, testing.” There’s a middle-aged woman sitting on stage in a faded dress and sandals. Her eyes are darting back and forth as if she’s looking for someone. She has hay-colored hair pulled back in a ponytail which doesn’t really work for someone that age. It’s like my mother and her bangs.

“Students,” Miss Horton says, “there’s someone I want you to meet.” The woman stands up and walks to the mic. She clears her throat and tugs at the collar of her dress.

“Hello,” she says in a quivery voice. “I’m Linda Petrollini, Janice’s mother—she’s a senior here. Some of you may know that yesterday my daughter tried to take her life.” She stops, takes a breath, and wipes her hand across her forehead. There are murmurs among the students. I try and swallow around a lump in my throat.

“Janice has been depressed for several years. Facing her last year at high school seems to have pushed her over the edge. If it weren’t for the quick actions of Brandy Byden, we may have lost her.”

I sink down farther in my seat and stare at the floor.

“Brandy, will you please come up here on stage?” Mrs. Petrollini peers out into the audience. I break out in a sweat as I pry myself out of my seat and with leaden legs drag myself up the steps to the stage.

“Brandy Byden,” she says as she launches herself toward me and pulls me into a suffocating embrace. “I am so grateful to you. You saved my daughter’s life,” she says above my head. Finally, she lets go.

“Uh, you’re welcome,” I say, noting the tears rolling down Mrs. Petrollini’s cheeks. The whole student body is staring at me. “How is she?” I manage to say.

Janice’s mother smiles through her tears. “She’s in the hospital, getting the help she needs, thanks to you.”

Miss Horton stands and takes the mic from Janice’s mother. “Your quick thinking saved a life, Brandy.” To my horror, Miss Horton and Mrs. Petrollini begin to clap, followed by everyone in the auditorium. My legs threaten to give way.

When the applause dies down, she continues. “And this situation has served as a reminder that students often have serious problems they’re not talking about. Our current school counselor is swamped with academic counseling, so we’re adding a second counselor to help students deal with the emotional challenges of being in high school,” she says.

“That’s great,” I say. Secretly, I already have this counselor taking over my job as the person Grace can lean on for future tragedies.

“In addition, Brandy, we’d like to present an award to you for responsible action,” she says smiling hugely as she hands me a trophy engraved with the words, “Right Action.”

“It wasn’t really me that—”

“Nonsense. I don’t want to hear any modesty. You deserve recognition,” she interrupts. “A student who can be counted on to do the right thing is a role model for us all.” She shakes my hand. Janice’s mother, looking weepy and grateful, grabs me for another quick hug, as the audience again breaks into applause. My head is spinning as I leave the stage. This can’t be happening to me.

Good job, I hear Grace think to me as I take my seat. Oh, by the way, on your way into math class, catch Cathy, okay?

Catch Cathy? I have no idea what that means. I am still sorting out my feelings about being an undeserving role model for the whole school.

After assembly, I head straight to math class. As I walk up the aisle to my seat, Cathy Kellogg bolts out of her seat and into the aisle in front of me. She stands for a second looking dazed and confused, then falls backwards into my arms and proceeds to have a full-on seizure.

My heart pounds in my chest, my ears ring. What am I supposed to do?

Take a breath, Grace instructs. Lower her to the floor. Turn her head to the side so she doesn’t choke, she thinks to me. Kids all around us are backing up like a bomb was about to go off or something. No need to panic. Remember your cousin Karla who had a seizure years ago? Everything’s going to be okay.

In less than a minute, Cathy stops convulsing, and her breathing comes back raggedy, but normal. I know she’ll be embarrassed having wet herself, so I point at the sweater on the back of her seat and say, “Toss it here.”

When she can sit up, I tie it around her waist, and Mr. Fogerty and I help her to the nurse’s office.

“Miss Byden, you remained cool and collected throughout that whole episode,” he says to me on our way back to the classroom. “You are really quite a remarkable young woman,” he smiles his appreciation. “It’s a bit uncanny how you seem to be at the right place at the right time,” he jokes, “but I’m glad you are.”

“Me too,” I hear myself say. What? This isn’t about me. And how did Grace know about Karla?

When we return to class, all the students begin clapping. I turn three shades of red as I slip back into my seat, secretly pleased.

Nice going, Wonder Woman, Grace thinks to me. I glance over to see if she is being sarcastic, but she has a genuine smile on her face. Maybe she really does need my help. We seem to make a pretty good team. She’s sort of like Headquarters, and I’m sort of like Dispatch.

During lunch I decide I’ve had enough people interaction for a while and find a shade tree away from the crowd. I am sitting there peeling an orange when Tanner plunks himself down beside me. It startles me so much, I drop my orange. It rolls off my lap and stops just at his knee.

Tanner picks up the orange, finishes peeling it, breaks it into segments, and puts a piece right up to my lips. I fight to unlock my teeth and accept the orange segment as if I were used to being fed oranges under shade trees on beautiful sunny days by gorgeous guys.

“So, I guess you’re something of a school hero,” he says, offering me a second orange segment which I take without breaking eye contact. If I can make my heart stop pounding in my chest, I might even appear relaxed.

“Oh, it was nothing, really,” I manage. “Right time, right place, you know.”

“I think it’s pretty sexy,” he says with a wicked smile that accelerates the rate my heart is pounding.

The third orange segment takes that opportunity to lodge in my throat sideways. Tears spring to my eyes, I gasp, choke, turn red, gesture wildly. Tanner moves behind me, surrounds me with his arms, and with a hefty squeeze just under my ribs, sends the errant segment flying out of my mouth.

I collapse backwards into his arms, too relieved to be humiliated.

“Thank you,” I say hoarsely, when my throat is working again.

“Aw, it was nothing, really. Right time, right place, you know,” he teases.

As I right myself and turn to face him he says, “Hey, do you happen to have a date for Homecoming?”

“Homecoming? I thought you and Grace—”

“Who? No. So what do you say? Be my date?”

Back away from the Bieber twin, I hear Grace think from afar.

Out of my head! I reply. Just because you don’t want him, doesn’t mean I don’t. “Well . . .okay,” I say to Tanner, and watch something in his eyes shift slightly.

* * *

Grace doesn’t think to me for the rest of the week, or the week that follows. Be that way, I think to myself, miffed. I don’t need her and all her drama anyway. And I sure don’t need any distractions as I prepare for the big Homecoming dance.

My mother is about as enthusiastic as a stuffed rag doll, but she does send me to the mall with fifty dollars to find the right dress, and makes an appointment for me at the hairdressers.

“Did you ever go to a Homecoming dance?” I ask her while she peels potatoes at the kitchen sink. I am sitting at the breakfast table doing my homework. The bright yellow-and-orange daisy pattern of the plastic tablecloth is giving me a headache.

She is quiet for a moment, then says, “In high school—But that was before I met your father . . .” All that follows is the mindless scrape, scrape, scrape of potato peels falling into the sink, signifying that nothing in her life mattered much before she met my father, and nothing much has mattered since he died. Sometimes I feel like one of those potato peels.

A shiver passes through me when I hear, You still mad at me?

“No,” I say aloud, taken aback by Grace’s presence right here in my own home. My mother turns from the sink, blinks at me, then turns back to the potatoes. No, I think to Grace. I just think you’re being lame about the dance. I’m going with Tanner and that’s that.

How are you getting there? Grace thinks to me.

His father is driving. Why? I wait, but there is no reply.

The next week goes by so slowly, I think the weekend will never arrive. It is as if the battery ran out on the clock that runs the universe. Grace ignores me. Tanner doesn’t speak to me, but does turn and wink at me in homeroom, so I guess everything is okay.

Friday morning, the day of the big game, I wake up feeling like my head is going to explode it hurts so bad. I slip my robe on, pad into the bathroom, and throw up—and throw up some more, until all I can do is curl up on the floor in front of the toilet, weak as a noodle, and cry. My skin is on fire, and my pajamas are soaked through with sweat.

This can’t be happening, I think—not on the day before my biggest date ever. Well, okay, my only date ever. I wonder if Grace has a hand in this.

“Do you want me to call Tanner for you,” my mother offers, “and tell him you have the flu?”

“No,” I gasp. “I’ll be fine by tomorrow. Really,” I say just before I grab the plastic wastebasket that doubles as a “sick pan,” and heave again.

This is really low, Grace, I think to her. You’re not going to stop me. How could she pull such a rotten trick?

Friday passes in a blur of bad daytime TV. By noon, I am able to keep a little 7-Up down, and a soda cracker. By mid-afternoon, my fever brakes. Good thing my mother made the hairdresser appointment for Saturday, because my hair is sweat-soaked and plastered, zombie-esque, to my scalp.

By evening, I walk all the way to the kitchen and have some chicken noodle soup. Yes, I am going to be just fine. I am absolutely going to the Homecoming dance. Got that?

* * *

By Saturday morning, I can stand for short periods of time without feeling dizzy. During one such period, I slip into my new dress—black, scoop-necked, fitted waist, with ruffles from the waist down, and gold one-inch heels, to carry off our school colors. I turn to check out the results in the mirror. I look like a molting crow.

Maybe I should just go back to bed. No, I can’t let her win. I’m counting on Gwen at Hair’s the Thing to work her magic and turn me into a black swan. I wonder what kind of corsage Tanner will get me—black and gold doesn’t lend itself to floral inspiration. What if he doesn’t get me a corsage?

Leaning back in the chair at Hair’s the Thing, I tune in and out as Gwen scrubs my scalp and chats over the spray of water that keeps plugging my ears. Catching snatches of her monolog, I gather I’m her sixth Homecoming “do” today, and that Marta Ray got extensions, and Julie Mason changed her hair color all together.

Upright again in her station chair with the towel draped around my neck, I bob my head to the right trying to get the water to drain from my ear. Gwen studies my reflection in the mirror. She grimaces at my limp, wet, mouse-brown hair as it hangs straight over my shoulders.

“Honey,” she says, as she pulls strands of hair to the side then lets them flop back against my neck, “I think it’s time to take a risk.” My eyebrows shoot up in response.

Two hours later, Gwen slowly turns my chair towards the mirror and I see someone I don’t recognize sitting in my seat. My dark auburn hair cascades in soft gentle curls to my shoulders. Selena Gomez I’m not, but still . . .I’m as pretty as Grace. “Wow,” I say to the person in the mirror who smiles back at me. “Tanner’s going to choke.”

I’m home by lunch time with six hours to fill until Tanner picks me up. “Chicken soup?” my mother asks as I enter the kitchen. “Hmm,” she says, noticing my new hair-do. She turns back to stir the pot on the stove. Hmm? This is a new low, even for her.

“Just ‘hmm’?” I ask.

“Pretty,” she replies. “You look real pretty. Wish your father could be here to see this. His little girl, all grown up and going to her first dance.” She wipes a tear from her eye and blows her nose loudly. I just sigh.

My father. My father was found dead in his car with the engine was running. That was pretty much the day my life changed. You’d think I had murdered him or something, the way kids avoided me after that.

* * *

Back up in my room, I pace the floor. It’s too early to get dressed; I’d get all wrinkled. I slip my gold heels on and practice a few dance moves. They pinch the bridges of my feet, but that’s the price of beauty.

I take off my jeans and shirt and step into my robe, the white silk one my mother gave me for my last birthday. It feels smooth and cool on my skin. I sit at my dressing table and scan the smattering of cosmetics I’ve collected this last year. Not much to work with, but it will have to do—it’s still too early to put it on.

I walk across the room, grab a People magazine, and sit on my bed, pulling the covers up to my knees. I yawn as I thumb through the photos of the stars at play and wonder idly if I’ll ever be rich enough or do anything important enough to be in a magazine. I wiggle down a little farther into my bed, careful not to mess up my hair.

A sharp rap on my bedroom door wakes me from a deep sleep. The light is dim as it filters through the window—the sun has set. What? I jump out of bed, catch my foot on the covers, tumble onto the floor and right myself all in one fluid move. I spring to the door and open it to find my mother smiling benignly. “He’s here,” she says.

“Here?” I gasp. “Tanner is here, already?”

“It’s six o’clock,” she says.

The blood drains from my head and I grab the door jamb to keep from falling over. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” I stage whisper, panic numbing my legs.

“I didn’t know you were asleep,” she says. “Just get ready and come on down. He can wait a few minutes.”

A few minutes? I slam the door, find my legs, force myself over to my closet, and yank out the black dress. I wiggle myself into it and zip it through a series of contortions as I shove my feet into my heels. I plunk myself down in front of the mirror.

“Oh my God!” I shout, as I notice one side of my hair has flattened itself during my five-hour nap of death. I fluff and spray, squeeze and mold, and spray some more until both sides look vaguely symmetrical. I run a wiggly line of black eye liner under each eye, wipe it off and try again. I dab on a puff of blush. My hand is shaking as I swipe my lips with Ruby Gloss before I dash down the stairs.

I stop at the first landing, catch my breath, and proceed with as much grace and dignity as the Roadrunner when he picks himself up after having just run into a cement wall.

Tanner, who has been talking with my mother for twenty minutes, stands as he sees me descend the stairs.

“Oh, wow,” he says. “Oh, wow,” he repeats. “Wow,” he adds for good measure. This strikes me as odd, but I overlook it in my embarrassment at being late.

“Sorry you had to wait,” I say.

“It was worth it,” Tanner says. A dopey smile rearranges his face. His dark-honey eyes look a little bleary, and there is definitely a scent of alcohol underneath his aftershave.

“This is for you,” he says, proffering a waxy moon-white gardenia, the petals edged in gold. He hiccups. “Here, let me pin it on your dress.” He stands for a moment, staring at my left breast, then begins to snicker.

By this time, my mother has retrieved her Canon zoom-lens camera, determined to capture for posterity her only child’s disastrous first date.

Tanner extracts the pin from the gardenia, slips his fingers beneath my neckline, and lifts the fabric of my dress. He breaks into a sweat and turns red as his knuckles graze my bra. Again, the snicker.

“Tanner,” I hiss as quietly as I can, “have you been drinking?” My nose is scrunched in consternation. At least he’s not driving, I try to console myself.

Click, goes the camera. I scowl at my mother.

“Here,” I say, grabbing the gardenia and pin from his hands, “let me do this.” Tanner turns toward my mother and mugs his disappointment.

“Have a good evening,” my mother says. She hands me my jacket as we head for the door. Surely she wouldn’t let me go with someone she thought was drunk? I mean, they had been talking together while I was rushing around upstairs like a nutcase. She would have noticed, right?

Maybe he’s just nervous. Maybe I’m making too much out of it because I’m wound so tight. Everything’s fine, I tell myself, as Tanner takes my arm and leads me towards his father’s Cadillac waiting curbside.

Tanner opens the back door for me. I slip in and slide across the seat. “Hello, Mr. Bucket,” I say. “Thank you for driving us this evening.”

“My pleasure, Ginny,” he says.

“Brandy,” Tanner corrects him.

“Oh, yeah . . .I knew it was some kind of liquor.” I notice the smell of alcohol I’d detected earlier on Tanner is amplified in the car.

“Care for a little drink to take the edge off the big night?” Mr. Bucket says, offering me a pint bottle. Tanner takes the bottle and twists off the cap as Mr. Bucket pulls away from the curb.

Tanner offers me the bottle. Too stunned to speak, I shake my head. He takes a swig and passes it back to his father who takes a swig before recapping it.

Mr. Bucket drives the two miles to the high school gym so slowly, we would have made better time walking. We ride in silence. What have I gotten myself into? I mentally kick myself in my black-ruffled butt.

Mr. Bucket pulls parallel to the curb in front of the gym and says, “I’ll be back by ten o’clock.” He turns off the ignition and leans his head back against the headrest. I hear him begin to snore as Tanner scoots across the seat to open the door. I follow with a glance back at his father who gives an open-mouthed, dribble-induced snort without ever opening his eyes.

“Is he going to be okay?” I ask Tanner.

“Oh, yeah. He’s fine,” Tanner says dismissively as he reaches back in the car and retrieves the bottle of bourbon from the front seat next to his father. He unscrews the cap, takes a couple of hefty swallows, tosses the pint back into the front seat, and closes the door.

“’s go party,” he slurs, taking my arm and stumbling over the curb. I brace myself and keep him upright until he regains his balance.

“I don’t think this is such a good idea,” I say to him. “Maybe I should just call my mother and have her pick me up.”

“Aw, you look so beautiful,” Tanner croons, “with your new dress, and your hair all done up—and those killer shoes.” He grins a sloppy grin. “You don’t want to miss your first Homecoming dance,” he wheedles. He’s right, I really don’t.

As we amble down the sidewalk towards the gym, we are passed by a group of boisterous kids shoving and laughing, and a few other couples walking hand-in-hand—the girls all have corsages. I look down at my gardenia. The cloying scent makes my nose prickle and I sniff loudly to avoid sneezing.

“Hey, don’t cry,” Tanner says. “It’s gonna be fun—you’ll see.” I guess there’s safety in numbers, I reassure myself.

Just before the entrance to the gym, the sidewalk splits off to the right and Tanner, with his arm around my waist, steers me that direction.

“Wait,” I cry out, “the dance is this way.” I point to the entrance. With a speed that surprises me, he propels me farther down the sidewalk to a smaller door at the end of the building.

“I want to show you something girls never get to see,” he whispers urgently. He shoves the door open and half drags me inside. We’re in a dimly lit hallway with another door straight ahead. I protest, but Tanner is driven. He pushes through the next door and flips on the overhead light. “Whatta ya think?” he says, grinning hugely.

“I think it’s the boys locker room,” I say, wondering why he thought this would be such a thrill. There’s a series of lockers and benches. It smells of funky socks.

“Yer right,” he says, and flips the overhead light off, leaving us in total darkness. My heart sinks. I have to pee, badly. My palms begin to sweat.

“Tanner, turn the light on, right now,” I order.

“I want you to have a night you’ll never forget,” he says, slamming me against a locker. Panic rises in my throat and I let out a scream. “No one can hear you in here,” he mumbles as he presses himself against me. His breath, smelling of bourbon, makes me nauseous.

At loss of what to do, I think, Help—Grace, I need you. Help! Tanner grabs the bottom of my ruffled skirt and yanks it up over my thighs. I shove him as hard as I can, but he grabs my arm and pins it against the locker.

I hear the sound of the door being shoved open, hard, and in another moment, a click. Light floods the room, and Grace, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, with a savage look on her face, storms across the floor grabs Tanner by the back of his collar, and throws him onto the floor. He blinks stupidly and mumbles something incoherent.

Lucky I was in the neighborhood, she thinks to me. She grabs me with one hand and my purse with the other, and hauls me down the hallway and out the door where I gasp a lungful of fresh night air. Humiliated, I begin to sob.

I’m sorry. You were right. I shouldn’t have come here tonight. As we walk back towards the gym entrance, she rifles through my purse and pulls out my cell phone.

Call your mother, she thinks, and stalks off, leaving me alone in my misery, but safe for the moment.

A couple minutes later my mother pulls up to the curb in front of the gym. “So what happened?” she asks as I climb into the car and lock the door.

The Cadillac is nowhere in sight. I shudder thinking of Mr. Bucket on the road. I shudder thinking of Tanner lying on the floor of the boys locker room looking stunned. My mother mistakenly assumes I’m cold turns the heater on full blast.

“Nothing,” I say quietly. “I just want to go home.”

“Well, it’s a shame you had to miss your first dance,” she commiserates. “At least we have pictures,” she say. I turn my head and look out the window so she won’t see the tears roll down my cheeks.

Later that night in bed, I think to Grace, Okay, so I owe you a big apology. No response. You there?

It’s late. Go to sleep, she thinks to me.

I smile. And I owe you an even bigger thank you for rescuing me tonight. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t found me. How did you get there so fast? Silence. I fall into a deep, dreamless sleep and don’t wake up until noon the next day.

My mother is in the kitchen drinking a cup of coffee and reading the Sunday paper. She looks up over the page and says, “Do you want to talk about last night?” Her face has that pinched look that says, ‘please say no.’

“No,” I say. What good would it have done?

* * *

Monday morning as I’m heading out the door for school, I’m hit by a wave of embarrassment so strong that my breakfast threatens to back up on me. How can I face Tanner after what happened? Will he even remember? How drunk was he anyway? And will Grace ever forgive me for not listening to her when she tried to warn me about Tanner? Man, I’ve screwed up hella-big here.

For a minute I consider turning around, going back inside, and claiming a relapse of the flu. No, I might as well just get it over with. I can’t stay gone for the rest of the year; it’s only September.

Will you stop already? Grace thinks to me. You have nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s Tanner that ought to be thinking about transferring schools—again.

Again? I think. Does this have anything to do with why he moved here from Texas? I think to Grace as I wait at the bus stop on the corner for the city bus that takes me practically to the front door of the school.

He’s actually from here—well, two towns over, she amends. He was in Texas at a rehab facility for teens. Money down the drain, apparently, she concludes.

How do you know this stuff? I think to her. The bus pulls up, I get on and pay my fare. As I weave my way to the back, I feel my face getting hot. How many student on the bus know what happened? Has Tanner told anyone? Do they think it’s my fault? I look out the window in panic. Maybe I can get off at the next stop and walk back home.

Get a grip, Grace snaps at me. I’d forgotten we were in the middle of a conversation. Why would Tanner tell anyone he lured you into the locker room, assaulted you, and you fought him off so hard he fell and got the wind knocked out of him? Grace thinks to me.

Wait—that’s not what happened, I think as the bus pulls up in front of the school. There’s a surge of students; I’m swept down the aisle and deposited in front of the school. There’s no turning back now.

I scan the grounds, but I don’t see Tanner. I take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and head for homeroom. I stand at the door dreading the first encounter. If he’s not there yet, I can get to my seat and avoid looking at him when he comes in. I peek into the classroom. No Tanner.

Whew. I bolt through the door, take my seat, and stare at the floor. I risk a furtive glance across the aisle for Grace. No Grace either. The room begins to fill up. I imagine people looking at me all judgmental-like.

Maybe if you weren’t acting so weird you wouldn’t have to worry about anyone looking at you, Grace thinks to me as she fits herself into her seat.

Miss Abernathy, our homeroom teacher—she’s so ancient, she could have been my mother’s teacher—taps her ruler on her desk to get our attention.

“I have a brief announcement to begin our day,” she says. She takes off her glasses, thick as bottle bottoms, and lays them on the desk. She peers out from under her droopy eyelids and says, “Tanner Bucket will not be continuing on with us this year.”

There are mumbles around the class and Miss Abernathy whacks her desk again with her ruler. “It seems his family has had a rather sudden transfer back to Texas.”

Grace snorts.

“We’ll miss him,” Miss Abernathy states flatly. She turns the public address system on so Principal Horton can make the morning announcements to all the classes.

Relief overwhelms me as I sink back in my seat. Then I feel tears stinging my eyes. It doesn’t make any sense, but I miss Tanner. Or maybe I miss what I wish Tanner could have been—my first boyfriend, instead of what he was—a disastrous memory of a completely botched first date with a kid so screwed up he has to live in a rehab facility.

I risk a look around the room. Life goes on as usual. If anyone has any opinions, they’re keeping them to themselves. My body begins to relax.

Principal Horton is congratulating the football team on their win last Friday night, and the student body on their exemplary behavior during the Homecoming dance. My stomach churns and my bottom lip quivers. I console myself knowing I still have three more years to get to the Homecoming dance.

Grace is strangely absent throughout the day, which after the fact I realize allows me to relax a little more. There’s a way in which her popping into my head keeps me on guard. It’s like being on IM—I feel like I have to respond, and sometimes I’m just not up to it.

That night, up in my room, I finish my homework and turn the TV on to Dancing With the Stars. I wouldn’t admit this to most people, but I have a secret dream of dancing like that someday. Suddenly, Grace thinks to me, Meet me at the school—now.

Are you nuts? It’s nine o’clock My mother isn’t going to let me wander off at this hour, I think back to her.

Meet me now; I’m waiting, she thinks back.

I sigh. I turn off the TV and tiptoe down the stairs. My mother is sitting in the recliner, eyes closed. I try the knob on the front door and cast another look over my shoulder. She’s snoring softly, so I slip out the door.

I figure I’ll make better time if I take the bike that’s in the carport, so I wheel it out, attach the flasher to the back, and turn the headlight on. What could be so all-fired important that I have to meet Grace at school, I wonder. Maybe she’s in trouble, I reason. If so, I owe her big. I pedal faster.

A half block from the school I smell wood burning from someone’s fireplace. It’s a cozy smell, one that goes with autumn. The moon casts enough light that navigating the streets is easy. I park my bike in a spill of shadow from an elm tree and look around for Grace.

A man with a baseball cap and a tan jacket comes running from the school right at me. I catch my breath, and step back deeper into the shadow. He has on maroon workout pants with a white stripe up each leg. He’s middle-aged and panting as he runs right by me.

My nerves are on edge and I startle when I hear a crackling sound coming from the nearest wing of the school. Grace? I think to her. No answer. I fish in my coat pocket to make sure I brought my cell phone with me. The smell of smoke is stronger here than it was down the block. There’s another crackle accompanied by a pop. I look again and I see flames behind one of the windows. Oh, my God, the school is on fire!

I remember that if you dial nine-one-one from a cell, you’re likely to get transferred to who-knows-where, so I dial “O”.

“Operator ” a female voice tones.

“Help! Help! The school’s on fire,” I yell.

“I’ll connect you with nine-one-one,” she says before I get a chance to say anything else. The flames are filling the room now and a sudden explosion of glass shatters the quiet. My heart is in my throat. Hurry, hurry, I plead silently.

“Nine-one-one,” a calm voice answers. “What is the nature of your emergency?”

“Fire! Oak Creek High School. Quick, send someone,” I shout.

“What is your name please?” she inquires, and I answer. “Are you calling from the school, and are you safe?” she asks.

“Yes, just send the fire department—please,” I beg.

“They’re on their way. Can you stay there safely until they arrive?”

“Yes,” I gasp. I look around wildly for Grace. What if she was in the school when it caught fire? I snap my cell shut cutting off my lifeline to help.

I hear sirens, and in minutes a fire truck and an ambulance arrive, their spinning lights making the whole scene surreal. A police car pulls up next and as the firemen tend to the school, an officer sees me huddling in the shadows and approaches.

“Are you Brandy Byden?” he inquires. “I’m Officer O’Day,” he introduces himself.

“Yes; I’m the one who called for help.”

“That was fast thinking. What were you doing here at this time of night?” the officer asks.

My mind freezes. Does he think I had something to do with the fire—like maybe I’m this weird fire-bug arsonist person? I’ve heard some arsonists hang around and watch the fire. I jerk my head toward the street. “That guy. Where is he?”

“Miss?” the officer says.

“Oh, sorry. I was just thinking about a man who ran from the school right past me just a few minutes ago, and wondering if he might still be around here somewhere.”

“A guy?” the officer says, seeming to have forgotten his question about why I was in the area. “Can you describe him?”

I give the officer a description and he relays it through his walkie-talkie. “He ran from the back of the school right past me,” I say. Then I remember my fear that Grace might be trapped inside the school.

“I was supposed to meet a friend here—she called me at home; it sounded urgent,” I say. “I’m afraid she might be trapped in the fire.”

The officer makes another report into his walkie-talkie. “Come with me,” he says, and leads me over to where the fire chief is barking orders over a loudspeaker.

The officer consults with the chief who turns to me and asks, “Who is your friend? How old is she? Do you know for a fact she was in the building?”

Too many questions, too much noise and flashing lights. I can’t think. I take a deep breath to calm myself, but choke on the smoky air. “Her name is Grace Blue,” I sputter. “I don’t know for sure that she was calling from the school; she just said to meet her here.”

A fireman walks from the school up to the chief. “All clear,” he says. “Fire is out; we did a sweep—no one on the premises.”

I heave a sigh of relief. Grace, where are you? I think wildly. No response.

I hear the tinny noise of the walkie-talkie squawking to life, and the officer steps back to deal with the incoming call. In a moment he returns and taps me on the shoulder.

“We’ve picked up a suspect that matches your description. Can you come down to the police station and identify him?”

“Right now?” I ask. “What about my bicycle?” I point to my bike leaning against the elm.

“This could be awfully important, miss,” he says. “We’ll take your bike with us and drive you home as soon as we’re finished.”

One of the firefighters walks over, retrieves my bike, and loads it into the squad car trunk. The officer opens the passenger door for me and I climb in. Don’t they usually put people in the back of a police car, I wonder to myself.

“It’s been quite a night for you,” he says with a reassuring smile. “You’re going to be okay.”

At the station I’m asked if I want to call my parents and let them know I’ll be home shortly. “No,” I say, “they’ll just worry if I call from the police station.” The overnight officer at the desk smiles and nods. He looks like he could be somebody’s father.

Through a one-way mirror I look at the man who ran passed me at the school. “Yes,” I say, “that’s definitely him.”

“That would make you something of a hero,” the officer says. “I probably shouldn’t share this with you, but we’ve been looking for this guy for fifteen years.” I raise my eyebrows. “He’s a known arsonist. Started a fire at a nursing home here in town where an elderly woman lost her life. We knew it was him, but we couldn’t find him.”

“That’s terrible,” I say and a shiver runs down my back.

“I’m wondering if your friend might be a relative of the woman—a granddaughter maybe?” the officer says.

“Why is that?” I ask.

“Her name was Mrs. Grace Blue. We never did locate any family members. The case has been on the back burner until now,” he shared. “Do you know how we can reach your friend?”

I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t have a phone number for her. I don’t know where she lives. I don’t know anything about her family. Some friend I am. I can’t very well tell the officer I just think to her. “She’s in my class at Oak Creek High,” I say. “She should be at school tomorrow.”

“Frank, can you take Miss Byden home please? Use the squad car with the bike in the trunk—it’s hers,” the officer says. He turns to me, thanks me, and says they’ll be in touch if anything else turns up.

Officer Frank drives into our driveway and parks the car. He gets out and retrieves my bicycle from the trunk. I close the door to the squad car as quietly as possible, thank Frank, and wheel my bike back to the carport as Frank drives away.

I’m pretty sure my mother is still passed out in front of the TV, but I’m extra quiet as I turn the doorknob and let myself in. Yup, as still as a rock, in the same position I left her. I fight the urge to wake her and help her up to bed, and instead I tiptoe up the stairs to my room and quietly close the door.

I slip into my pajamas, crawl into bed, and turn out the light. Grace, where are you? I fall asleep waiting for a reply.

The next morning, my mother is in the kitchen filling the Mr. Coffee with water. “You want a cup?” she asks as I rummage through the cabinet for some cereal.

“I don’t drink coffee,” I remind her. “I’m only fifteen.” I sigh and roll my eyes.

She blinks and says, “Oh, yeah. I forgot.”

You forgot? Nice to know I’m so high on your radar, I think. I’m waiting for back-up from Grace, some snappy comment that would make me feel less guilty for sniping at my mother first thing in the morning.

I feel out of sorts after last night and can’t wait to get to homeroom to talk with Grace since she doesn’t seem inclined to think to me. I pour myself some Trix, add some milk, chug it down, and head for the door. “Later,” I call over my shoulder.

I burst into the classroom five minutes early. There’s a redhead sitting in Tanner’s seat. She turns around and says, “Hi, I’m Aimee Arnold. Just moved here from Connecticut.” She holds out her hand and I shake it.

“Brandy Byden,” I say. “Welcome. Let me know if I can help you find your way around here.” Well, aren’t I just the little social butterfly. I smile to myself and look around the room to see if anyone noticed. The seat across from Aimee is still empty. “That’s where my friend Grace Blue sits,” I offer, pointing across the aisle. “She should be here any minute.”

Randy, who sits behind me, says, “What are you talking about? No one sits there.” He gives a chuckle like I’d just made a joke. “That seat’s been empty since school started.”

“What—” I begin, but am interrupted by Miss Abernathy.

“Miss Byden,” she calls out, “please go to the principal’s office right away.”

Uh oh. I didn’t do anything, I think to myself. I slip out of my seat and leave the room. Maybe this is about last night, I reason. The officer did say something about me being a hero. I wonder if Grace is in the office.

Yeah, that must be what this is all about. That’s why she isn’t in homeroom. I wonder if that really was her grandmother who burned in the fire all those years ago. What are the chances, I muse as I walk into the office.

Without a word, Principal Horton motions me around behind the counter and into her office where Officer O’Day is sitting. He stands as I enter. Miss Horton motions me to a chair and I sit.

“Brandy,” she begins, compassion oozes from her as she leans towards me, “we know you’ve been under considerable stress lately,” she lets the words hang in the air a moment. “And I understand you called in a fire last night which led to the capture of an arsonist who was responsible for a murder years ago. We are all so grateful.”

Although secretly pleased, I nod with humility and look down at my lap. This feels different than when Mrs. Petrollini grabbed me in a grateful embrace for saving her daughter.

“Dear, Officer O’Day said you mentioned that perhaps a relative of Mrs. Blue’s, a girl named Grace Blue, attends our school—actually, that she is a friend of yours here.” Miss Horton’s voice had a soft, dreamy quality about it as if she were being extra gentle like you are when you approach a wounded animal.

I nod again and say, “Yes, she’s in my homeroom, and she is a friend of mine.” I look from Miss Horton to Officer O’Day. “Is there a problem?”
“Brandy,” Miss Horton says, “there is no student by the name of Grace Blue here. Never has been.”

I feel a cracking sensation in my head as if my mind is shattering. The blood rushes from the whole top half of my body, and I topple forward in a dead faint.

* * *

This is my third day in the psychiatric unit of Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. My therapist, Barbara, leans forward and asks, “Brandy, are you still hearing voices?”

“I wasn’t ‘hearing voices,’” I say. “Not exactly,” I add. “I had a friend who . . .” I still haven’t found words to explain what I’ve been through. It sounds crazy even to me. “Well, I thought she was real, but maybe she wasn’t. She needed me to do something for her. I did, and now she’s gone.” I risk a look at Barbara expecting to see her rolling their eyes or something. She wasn’t. “I miss her,” I say quietly.

“You know what I think?” Barbara asks and then answers without missing a beat. “I think people come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime, and when our ‘contract’ with them is up, they—or we—move on.”

“She helped me be stronger,” I said as tears pooled in my eyes. “And whether or not Grace Blue was ‘real,’ if she came into my life so that Mrs. Blue’s murderer might be brought to justice, and her soul might rest in peace, I’m okay with that. I’d like to go home now.”