I remember that she formed her letters backwards with her right hand. I remember how she used to only brush her teeth with one foreign brand of toothpaste because she was convinced that all the other ones were laced with something. I remember the way she smelled of warm cinnamon with a hint of baby powder-scented deodorant. I remember how she used to carry a pocket dictionary because she thought that using short words was boring and unoriginal. I remember her frantic speech and stuttering voice. I remember how excited she’d get whenever a new book in her favorite series came out. I remember her dark eyes. I remember her pale skin. I remember walking in and seeing the gun in her hand before the bullet popped.
Every therapist in Denver has checked me out. Every psychiatrist has gazed at me from across an island of a wide desk with confused eyes. Still, I’ve received no formal diagnosis. My best friend shot herself during our freshman year, and after a proper time of mourning, I recovered. That’s something you rarely see these days – a kid recovering from a traumatic event. No one ever does. The majority of teenagers these days have some twisted mental issue, or a ton of skeletons spilling out of their closets. I am okay. That’s what people just don’t believe.
The party at Noah’s house starts in 15 minutes, so I pull myself out of bed and groggily go into my bathroom. Its once clear countertops are now cluttered with an open makeup palette and clumps of hair. It’s disgusting, but shedding is something girls do more often than people realize. I pick up my toothbrush but decide I’d rather have two minutes to apply eyeliner than cater to basic hygiene. After expertly smearing two soft streaks of black around my eyes to give me the angsty look I so desire, I grab my coat and head downstairs.
My parents still don’t think I’m mentally stable. They’re the mushy-gushy, overprotective type who wear matching sweaters and listen to Christmas carols in August. I love my parents, don’t get me wrong, but they need an upgrade in wardrobe and personality. Without even bothering to tell them where I’m going, I strut through the living room and waltz out the front door. I’ll text them later … if I remember.
Noah Armstrong has held a part of my heart (I refuse to give him all of it) for over a year. I wish I could tell you he’s super cool and is the star quarterback and has girls drooling over him left and right, but it’s quite the opposite. He’s the head of the rocketry club and still has a bottom sheathe of braces. Despite his soft lisp, his voice is strong and informed. Enough about him; he’s not that special.
I go to the “smart kid” school. You know the one. Kids joke that it’s where the stuck up kids go, the kids who consume ADHD pills like candy to study and pass tests. It’s not true, actually. We’re just a bunch of kids doing stupid things, like all teenagers. There’s nothing grand about us besides our test scores.
His house is quaint and small for this upscale section of Denver. When I walk through the doors, I’m greeted with warm smells of youthful happiness: soda-breath, deodorant-tinged sweat, and the machine oil of hormones dripping in the minds of about 30 teenagers. It’s a typical high school party, like the ones in the movies. Except we don’t have cheap, smuggled alcohol or people hooking up in every spare bedroom. We drink cola. We talk to each other. We play games. We occasionally make out. We leave before midnight.
My life sounds tame and boring, I’ll grant you that. But is it so bad that some kid would knowingly wedge a bullet into her brain? I don’t know. Everyone sees the world differently; maybe she just looked at it from behind darker glasses than the rest of us.
Noah comes jogging around the corner and pulls me in for a hug. I blush and soak in the feeling of his body against mine. I want to absorb him and hold on to the cocktail of warmth and electricity we are sharing.
“How’s it going, Sophie?” he asks sincerely with a furrowed brow, as if he is genuinely concerned. I don’t question the fact that someone could care about me. I accept it.
I sigh and look around for the table set up with a computer and some lousy speakers, landmarking my next destination. “It’s going Noah. It’s going.”
Noah follows me over and logs me into the shared family laptop, guiding my hard drive into its designated slot. I sort through digital album covers and select an old Tupac album. Some kids turn and nod their head in approval. They’re lined on the edges of the room or slouched over the couch in the center. Their mouths hint at smiles. It’s the start of a new school year. August brings new opportunities and allows the mistakes of last year to melt away into repressed memories. Most of us will be sophomores.
I go into the kitchen, searching for something to drink. Skimming through the ingredients of some soda bottles, I shake my head at the unpronounceable chemicals and settle on tap water. The first drop from the faucet hits the bottom of the cup and I imagine what she would’ve said. She would’ve leaned against the granite countertop next to me and whipped out her dictionary, searching for the right word to use.
The lonely drop falls quickly to be the first of his kind as he explodes when he hits the plastic surface at the bottom of the cup.
She would’ve laughed.
“Sophie, you okay?” Noah comes up behind me, staring at the overflowing cup in my wet hand. I shake my head, pulling myself out of the trance. I like the way he uses my name in every conversation. I’d pay him to say my name over and over again.
“Yeah, yeah. Just zoned out.” I laugh it off, but he doesn’t seem to entirely believe me. He brushes against my arm slightly as we walk back into the living room; goosebumps erupt along my spine. I gaze up at the shadow of his collarbone peeking out of his royal blue shirt. I notice the deep bags under his eyes for the first time. The lines drag from the inner corners of his coffee-colored eyes and stop just shy of his cheekbones. It looks like he shares my insomnia.
We sit behind the table and control the music for the night, hearing conversations blossom and wilt as the hours go on. The kids in the house cling to red Solo cups and cell phones, desperately trying to fit in and feel comfortable. It’s odd to watch, really. We turn into our primal forms and become hyper-aware of our surroundings. After a while, people start to warm up to each other – sometimes becoming too familiar – and the spirit of the party lifts. What’s even weirder is how tonight, people will act like lifelong best friends, but on Monday, no one will know each other. It always seems to be like that.
Noah takes this opportunity to do what he does best, entertain. He stands on the small table in the center of the room, and it wobbles under his tennis shoes.
“Everyone, everyone,” he calls as he taps his plastic cup with his pointer finger, trying to mimic a utensil on glass. The noise is pitifully quiet, yet all the heads turn and the room falls silent. “I’d like to raise a toast to the best behaved kids in Colorado! We are high on life and the crazy altitude. Am I right, Josh?”
Josh, another member of the rocketry club, stands up and whips his inhaler from his back pocket. Raising it to his mouth, he takes a puff and pretends to blow smoke. He pulls his eyelids back and begins to speak.
“So like listen, there is hair in my spaghetti and I really need to know RIGHT NOW which one of you girls shagged your greasy hair over my dinner.” The room erupts in laughter, and we all glance over at his microwavable meal. Our attention is drawn back to Noah.
“It’s story time,” Noah says and grins as everyone cheers him on. He makes eye contact with me from across the room and holds it for a while. I blush and turn away.
“Let’s set the scene. I was about eight years old, playing in my aunt’s backyard. Chicago in the middle of July, ugh. It was gross and humid, and I remember my Spiderman shirt sticking to my body. My cousin, a few years older than me, sat in the backyard mud with me. We fished through it and found so much amusement watching the liquid dirt drip though our fingertips ….”
Last summer, she walked around outside with me barefoot for hours. We’d wince at the burning cement as it sent wild sensations though our bodies. Once in awhile, we’d hold competitions to see who could stand on the sidewalk the longest. She always won. Suffering and about to give up, she’d start reciting something. This one time, she recited the whole Gettysburg Address in a minute, racing though the words as though they were etched into her eyes. I always loved how she obsessively memorized things, swearing they’d come in handy one day.
“Then … worms. I loved worms as a kid. I guess you could say my parents opened a can of worms when I was born!” He gestures with finger guns and a hearty smile. Everyone groans at the pun.
“Anywho, my cousin told me that if I ate a worm, I would be immortal. And to any eight-year-old obsessed with Percy Jackson, this seemed insanely appealing. All I had to do was eat a worm. Psh, that’s nothing. I would be a GOD. So, I grabbed the biggest worm I could find in that patch of dirt. And I mean, biggest. I am not a quitter, my friends. I used garden clippers to chop him up into three pieces soon to be devoured by my tiny, child teeth.”
Noah laughs gently and begins to melt his voice down to a consistency of softness and suspense as he finishes his story.
“If you know anything about worms, you know that they have multiple hearts. This tri-segmented worm was still moving in three separate parts. I tried to chew the first section, and when my mouth filled with weird worm fluids, I just tried to swallow the other two pieces whole. My task was successfully completed. It is said to this day that that same worm lurks in my stomach, waiting for an opportunity to strike. That worm – I named him Charles – will be the only thing that can end my streak of immortality. The end.”
Noah tells stories the way she used to, full of exaggerations and aggressively grotesque details. Even the voice changes and word choices are similar. He has the same dark hair and eyes. He is kind to me like she was.
I say I am okay, yet I cannot utter her name.
I say I am okay, because I’m in love with the idea of her living in Noah’s body, like Charles the worm.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.