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Falling up to Heaven
Ashley and I made our way, giggling into the classroom. It was big and bright, full of sparkles and vivid colors. I was unable to focus on a word my mom was saying, my eyes glued to the hamster in the corner instead.
Finally, my mom hugged me goodbye, laughing to Ashley’s mom, and left. Almost immediately, the teacher in her fancy, no-stains, tightly-pressed, no-wrinkles suit called us over to the center of the room. She had gray-yellow hair pulled into a tight bun, and she sat on a chair while telling us to sit in a circle on the bright red rug. I flopped onto the carpet and dug my fingers into the not-too-soft-but-still-soft fabric. Ashley sat down next to me, her first-day-of-school light-brown braids swinging next to her face.
“Okay, class. Let’s play a game,” Teacher said.
Instantly, my attention was caught.
“We’re going to go around the circle and say our names and our favorite thing. Then, you have to remember the rest of the class’s name and favorite thing. For example, my name is Miss Charlotte, and my favorite thing is the ocean.” She pointed to the girl sitting next to her. “Then you will say your name and favorite thing, but you also have to remember mine.”
I was thrilled. This kind of thing was my favorite kind of game. I always won.
We slowly went around the circle. No one could remember anything, and Teacher didn’t seem that surprised, patiently helping when someone forgot. I couldn’t wait for my turn. I remembered everyone’s name so far.
It finally got to me, and I said, “My name is Isabelle, and I like soccer, and that’s Sophia,” and so on, me rattling off every name in the class, ending with Teacher’s real name and the ocean. Everyone stared at me while Ashley giggled silently.
“Very good, Isabelle,” said Teacher. “I’m very impressed.” She nodded at Ashley to go, who stumbled through the way everyone else had.
So far, my day had gone quite well.
I was the only one smart enough to win the game.
A boy with chocolate-brown hair and bright-green-as-grass eyes, sitting about five people down from me, said, “My name is Josh, and I like baseball, and that’s Kristen, and she likes horses, and that’s Michael, and he likes dogs, and that’s Bailey, and she likes rainbows, and that’s Ashley, and she likes soccer. That’s Isabelle, and she also likes soccer, and that’s Sophia,” and so on, until he had named every person in the class up until Teacher, who looked even more surprised than when I had done it the first time.
That boy had just won even more than I had! I thought I was the only one who could do that. Mom couldn’t, Daddy couldn’t, and my brothers couldn’t.
I decided I didn’t like him.
I was mad. It was the end of school field trip to the park, and it was raining. Everyone was crowded under the big, closed off benches where people would go during birthday parties to have cake. There was a metal roof about thirty feet up, and I could hear the sound of the water hitting the metal.
It was very crowded. Every single person was standing under the roof, while the teachers yelled for everyone to stop fighting.
I peered out into the heavy rain. I could just make out . . . a faint figure running around in the water.
I tugged on my teacher’s shirt. “Hey,” I said, “is someone out there?”
Mrs. Johnson squinted her eyes, then frowned. “Yes, there is. Thank you, Josh.” She stormed off. I watched, waiting to see who was dumb enough to run around in the middle of the freezing rain.
Soon, Mrs. Johnson appeared, soaked all the way through and dragging to girls behind her. The girl on the right had dark hair painted black from the rain, and the girl on the left had blond hair slightly brown from the rain. I recognized Isabelle and Ashley, two girls in my class.
After about five minutes of being yelled at, Mrs. Johnson finally let them go, leaving to call their parents, and the talking picked up again. To my surprise, Isabelle began to laugh almost immediately, although Ashley looked pretty shaken.
I wondered why she would be so quick to shake off the worst punishment I could think of : having your teachers call your parents. After about five minutes of thinking, I finally went up to her.
“Why did you go out there?” I asked.
I had always had the feeling that Isabelle didn’t like me that much. But now, when she looked me in the eyes with the bluest eyes I had ever seen, a huge smile lit up her face, like I had just given her the best news ever.
“Because,” she said, wringing out her hair. “I love the sound of the rain, and the smell of the rain, and the way if you look up there, it looks as if you’re the one falling, not the rain. My dad showed me, so he won’t be mad.”
It would have sounded dumb if it hadn’t been clear just how much she meant it.
She flashed me another huge smile, which, for whatever reason, made me stomach quiver like I ate to many hotdogs, and walked away to where Ashley was waiting.
When I got home that day, it was still raining. I went outside wrapped in a blanket and lay down in the cold grass. I stared up at the water falling from the sky and imagined I was falling up to meet the stars.
I wasn’t sure whether to be excited or horrified. I knew Ashley was excited, but she was a lot more girly than me.
I shifted my weight, trying to ignore the way my dress brushed my legs and sent shivers up my spine.
I could not believe that I had agreed to do cotillion. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t present at the discussion.
My hair was nice and straight, pulled away from my face with several bobby pins. My dress was a silver-gray that brought out the color in my eyes. My shoes were awful. They pinched my toes and made me think of handcuffs. They looked great, of course, with a little cloth flower pinned onto the toes. The worst were the gloves. A horrible invention in the first place, but why should I need them? I was sure I looked like I’m Cinderella or something. They were itchy, scratchy, too big, and too small all at the same time. I impatiently pulled at them again.
I turned at the sound of Ashley’s voice. She came up to me in a light green dress and matching shoes and gave me a huge hug.
“Omigod you look great!” she said into my shoulder.
“Thanks,” I growled. I pulled away, then stared. “Ash, are you wearing make-up?” I demanded.
“Only a little,” she said, grinning. I could detect a hint of nervousness under her brown eyeshadow.
I decided to ignore it. “Remind me again how you talked me into this,” I teased.
She laughed, and we went inside the building. It was actually a fancy hotel, complete with restaurant, ballroom, spa, and pool. We were to go to the ballroom, and we followed the signs that pointed the way.
We ended up in the large hallway outside the ballroom. Girls were slowly lining up on the right and boys were on the left, standing around awkwardly. No doubt they had been forced here by their moms.
We got in line behind the rest of the girls, and more began to come almost immediately. The boys were coming a little more slowly.
We talked for several minutes, each pretending the other wasn’t nervous. We’re weird that way.
A perky-looking blond woman in her late twenties came out in a business suit that made her look like a lawyer. She had a microphone and she said, “Hello everyone! Welcome to the twenty-second annual cotillion!” She reminded me of my second grade teacher, speaking to us like we were five. “You have formed lines for a reason! I’ll show you how to find your partner.” She took the first girl in line by the hand and tugged her over to the first boy in line. “You two are partners. I think you can all figure it out from there. Introduce yourself to your partner, and walk with the lady’s hand tucked into the elbow of the gentlemen. Introduce yourself like this.” One of her assistants came forward, and she tucked her hand into his elbow.They walked forward and she shook hands with a girl in line. “Hello, my name is Angelina Jolie, and this is my partner, Brad Pitt.”
Everyone laughed again.
“Alright! Find your partner!”
The lines crawled forward slowly. It was impossible to guess who my partner would be based off where they were standing. I slowly walked forward, staring mindlessly at the back of Ashley’s dress. It had a subtle pattern of flowers not entirely noticeable at first.
I startled when she shook hands with a boy. My partner was right behind him. I turned and looked into startling green eyes.
“Josh!” I said in surprise.
Grinning, he held out his hand, which I shook. “Hi, I’m Josh McCarthy.”
I smiled. “I’m Isabelle Steiner.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said, holding back laughter. We dropped our hands, and he held out his elbow. I took it shyly.
Where had the nervousness come from? I felt like I had swallowed a can of dancing jellybeans. I was glad I knew him, even slightly, so I had something to talk about.
“What did you get on the math test?” I asked.
“I got a 92.”
He fake-groaned in defeat, making me smile.
We went into the ballroom, where we learned how to dance the Foxtrot. Josh took my hand and I placed my other on his shoulder. The music started and we began to dance.
It was like we were in our own little bubble. Every little worry fell out of my head. It was just him and me, laughing when we tripped over our own feet and forgetting the next part of the dance.
I wanted to cry when the announcer said she hoped we liked our partner’s because they were going to be our partners for the rest of the time.
I swallowed down the nervousness in my stomach. Why was I worried? Why should I be worried? It was just a dance. When I asked her out to homecoming, I had not expected her to say yes. I had expected her to laugh, say, “Josh, you are the biggest idiot I know,” and I would laugh and say it was a dare.
I could not believe that I had asked Grace Freaking-Briggs to homecoming, the most popular freshman in school, soon to be homecoming princess, and she had said yes. I had had a crush on her for over a year, watching her perfect movements, her perfect hair, her perfect laughter at every opportunity. I had guessed that she would say no, but I hadn’t been able to rest until I tried. And she said yes.
I was riding some weird high, waiting outside her house with Mike, my best friend, and his date, Ashley, next to Mike’s mom’s car, and Mike’s mom, who had the camera ready. My suit, for whatever reason, felt tight and hot. I was surprised, because during cotillion this year and last, every time I danced with Isabelle, it hadn’t felt like this.
Isabelle. I had totally forgotten about her. For a moment, my image of Grace was replaced by a different one, a softer face, friendlier, with the bluest eyes I had ever seen and long, wavy brown hair and creamy, soft skin. Did she have a date to homecoming? Anger bloomed in my stomach towards the unknown guy. I fought it down. What was wrong with me? Ashley was her best friend, so I could ask her.
I opened my mouth, then closed it. I shouldn’t be thinking about Isabelle. I should be thinking about Grace. Thankfully, Grace chose that moment to open the door and walk over in a shiny black dress, skin-tight, of course. Her perfect cheekbones glinted in the fading sunlight, and her eyes were a pretty, ice-like blue. She was wearing heels and came up to about my chin. Her thick blond hair was curled, but almost naturally. She was so pretty it actually hurt to look at her. My heart jumped from my chest to my throat in an instant.
“You look amazing,” I said, taking her hand.
We piled into the car and Mike’s mom dropped us in the school parking lot, where the school was decorated with lightbulbs and plastic planets and moons, a path of glow-in-the-dark stars showing the way. This year’s theme was “Across the Universe.”
“Thanks for the ride, Mom,” Mike said. We got out and walked down the path. The sun was setting and everything looked peaceful and pretty. Two armed security guards stood in front of the doors to the cafeteria. I wondered how successful they would be in limiting the use of drugs.
We handed them our tickets and walked inside, with Grace immediately leaving to go find her friends.
It was completely crowded. In the courtyard, where the music was coming from, there was a big mob of bodies dancing. It was so crowded you couldn’t make out the individual faces or bodies. So much for the school’s latest attempt to ban “dirty dancing.” There was a line stretching all the way across the cafeteria to check coats. I saw a group of my friends hanging around by a table and I moved over to talk to them.
The hours began to blur past. Night fell, more people stuffed themselves into the courtyard, and the music grew louder. I stayed away from the drugs and alcohol so I could stay in shape for baseball. I had a practice tomorrow.
It was then that I realized that I had seen Grace maybe three times since we got here. I searched the crowd, finally spotting her chatting with her friend.
I went over to her and waited for her to notice me. When I had been waiting for over a minute, I finally cleared my throat. Grace turned around.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” she replied, her perfect voice sending shivers down my back.
“I was wondering if you wanted to dance.” Actually, that was not at all what I had been thinking, but that is what slipped out.
A strange look crossed her face, and she said, “Oh my gosh, I’m being so rude! Rachel this is Josh!”
They exchanged a knowing look, and Rachel immediately began to bombard me with questions about myself, what sport I played, what schools had I gone to, how many siblings did I have, what are my hobbies, etc. It must have gone on for twenty minutes. I finally backed away with my hands in the air while she rapidly asked me what plays I had seen. I turned to ask Grace if she still wanted to dance, when I found I was facing open air.
Rachel’s job had been a distraction. Where was Grace? She had already gotten her crown, so that was out.
I began to ask around with my friends, then her friends, each of whom tried to do the exact same thing Rachel had just done. I carefully extracted myself and went into the courtyard. I hugged the sides, ignoring the people who stepped on my feet while some Katy Perry song blasted my eardrums. I finally got to the corner of the courtyard where no one was dancing because of the huge doors and a tree. I leaned up against the door, thinking. I scanned the crowd, looking for Grace’s perfection and silver crown.
A couple stumbled past me, drunk enough that they didn’t notice me standing there, and shoved open the doors. I followed, not sure why.
The doors led to the band hall where couples were making out passionately under the radar of the security guards. It wasn’t like they were sitting next to each other, but rather that they were each in their own little corner, or between the rows of lockers, or under the piano.
I walked down the rows of lockers, and just looking, and there, in the very last row was a girl I had thought was perfect, and I guy I knew was a junior.
I froze for a moment. I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there while my date kissed some other guy.
Finally, she looked up. Saw me there. What might have been an apology crossed her face, then was gone. She didn’t even say anything.
I turned around and walked away. I felt like I was walking through cement, but each step got easier. When I reached the other doors out of the band hall, I was running.
I was a total idiot.
I didn’t know what I was doing.
All I knew was that by running, I could forget what I had just seen.
Running was my favorite part of soccer. The world blurred around me and I could pretend I was running through the stars. Now, my stars were gone. Replaced by hell.
The hell came from the fact that my boyfriend had just gotten drunk and put something in my drink. Luckily, he was so drunk, he had done it in front of me. I pretended to drink, and he set his down, turned his back, and I had switched mine with his. Ten minutes later, he dragged me to the band hall, tried to kiss me, then passed out.
I wasn’t an idiot. I knew what guys want. Except I was a total idiot for thinking that Alex was not the guy that would drug me for sex.
I didn’t know where I was running. I was just moving my feet. I had kicked off my shoes back in the band hall. Luckily, my dress was loose enough to run in. I was totally surprised when I found myself pushing open the doors to the gym. Months and months in here after school had put me on autopilot.
I stumbled up to the weight room, sat down on a bench press, and tried to hold back the tears. Didn’t work very well. I mentally thanked my rarely-lucky stars that I had put on waterproof makeup earlier.
How could I have been so stupid? Hadn’t my dad taught me anything about guys? My mom had gotten the divorce two years ago when she found out about his many affairs.
Guys are the worst thing that could happen to a girl. That is what I needed to understand, and I wouldn’t get stuck crying on a bench press ever again.
It was then that I realized that the weight room had been unlocked. I hadn’t heard the sounds of the other couples because of the chaos going on inside my head. I jumped up and ran out of the room, slamming the door behind me.
I looked for some place I could go to be alone. There was only the gym and that was it. No nooks, no crannies, no nothing. I heard running footsteps, and for a minute, Alex’s face came into my head. We had loved to run together.
The doors next to me from the hallway burst open and someone slammed into me. I yelled in shock as I flew ten feet and landed, hard, leaving sparkles everywhere from my dress. Someone landed next to me, half on me, half next to me. I heard the person moan in pain. I didn’t move. I had been hit a lot harder in soccer and gone a lot farther, but always with at least some padding on. Now, I was pretty sure my dress was more hurt than me. I tried to get to my feet, but the person was still lying across my legs.
My assailant finally got up, limping a little, and I saw it was a guy with chocolate brown hair and bright green eyes. I couldn’t see anything else through the curtain of hair. I spit it out of my mouth and stumbled to my feet, with I belatedly remembered were bare.
I flipped my hair out of my face and looked into the face of the guy.
It was Josh, and he looked as though someone had just run over his dog and best friend in one.
“Josh!” I said, surprised.
He looked shocked and guilty. “Isabelle! Are you okay? I’m so sorry!”
“No, it’s fine. It didn’t hurt.” My voice sounded awful, scratchy and thick, like I had a cold.
Josh noticed. “I’m serious. Are you okay?”
I had the feeling he wasn’t talking about knocking me over.
“Yeah,” I croaked. “I’m great.”
And then I burst into tears.
I had a vague memory of Josh leading me somewhere, and I found myself sitting down. I was in one of the gym teacher’s offices. I didn’t care whose.
When I finally calmed down, I noticed that Josh was sitting right in front of me, in a revolving chair, which was identical to the one I was in. My shoes were next to me on the floor.
“I’m sorry,” I said when I trusted myself to speak. I could not believe that I had done this. Cried in front of a boy.
To my surprise, Josh didn’t look embarrassed to be near me. He said, “Do you want to talk about it?”
Where was this coming from? Since when do boys talk about feelings?
I took a deep breath and told him everything. From Alex asking me out, to our first date, to our second date, to our third, to him asking me to homecoming, to my almost-rape.
I spoke the entire time to the floor, as though the floor was the most interesting thing in the world. When I finally looked up, I was taken aback to see the anger on his face.
“Josh?” I asked tentatively, hugging my knees to my chest, my dress tickling my toes.
And just like that, the anger was gone, replaced by pain. “I’m so sorry Isabelle. If you want, I can go beat him up for you.”
I felt a tired grin cross my face. “It’s fine. When he wakes up, he’ll probably start vomiting.”
We laughed quietly for a little while, then busted out laughing. We couldn’t stop, couldn’t breathe, and I was sure this was how we would die. It wasn’t even that funny.
When we finally stopped, I remembered the look on his face earlier.
“What about you? What’s wrong?”
He instantly stopped laughing. He leaned back in the chair and ran his hands through his hair. He sighed. “My date was Grace Briggs.”
My eyes widened.
“I know, I know. I didn’t think she’d say yes if I asked her.”
He began to talk for another five minutes about how much he’d liked her, and how at the dance, her friends had tried to distract him, and he had finally found her kissing some junior, and she hadn’t had the decency to even say, “Sorry!”
We were silent for a moment.
I finally said, “Great day for us, huh?”
I noticed a tear slowly leak out of his eye. Just a tiny tear.
I reached over and took his hand in mine like we had done a million times in cotillion, like we were about to dance the Foxtrot. My left in his right.
He didn’t look up at me, just squeezed my hand back.
We sat like that for a while.
Finally, he looked up at me.
“I want to say something.”
I kept the surprise off my face. “Shoot.”
He took a deep breath. “I just need to get this off my chest. Earlier today, I wondered if you had a date to homecoming. And I got angry at a guy I didn’t know. Just now, when you told me about Alex, I wanted to kill him. This,” he said, holding up our joined hands, “feels so much better than staring at Grace for an hour. I have liked you since the first day I met you, and you were upset that I could name everyone in the class in kindergarten. Every single day since then, I have been waiting for you, watching for you, waiting to see if you want to play some game, because only then will I want to play it. I didn’t realize that until now. I’m sorry it has taken me so long to tell you that.”
The whole time he was talking, his eyes never left mine. The perfect green eyes I have never been able to resist.
He was waiting for me to say something. I reached out and took his other hand in mine.
I opened my mouth and said, “I will always be there for you.”
A smile broke out across his face. It was ten times better than any other time I had seen him smile. Because now, it was mine.
He leaned across the space and cupped my cheek in his hand. His eyes were inches away from mine. I leaned forward the rest of the way and pressed my lips to his.
“I will always be there for you, too,” he whispered.
I rushed down the hallway as fast as I could. This was not happening. Isabelle would be fine.
She had had cancer for six months now. I had held her hand through it all, even when her hair fell out and she was stuck in the hospital for days on end. I had stuck with her when she had been told not to play soccer. I had told her I would always be there for her. And I would.
So when I got a call from the office that was more important than my math final, I was terrified. My mom drove me down to the hospital while explaining to me what was happening. Something about “too fast for the doctors” and “blood cells”. My mom had been so worried for me and Isabelle that she had forgotten I didn’t speak nurse.
Now, I came to the room and pushed open the door. I sat down in the chair I always did and took her hand.
“Hey, you,” she said, her voice like a rattle.
“Hey. Don’t talk if it’s too much work.”
She laughed a little, the harsh hospital lights glinting off her scalp. “No point,” she whispered. “I don’t have long, so I may as well say what I want.”
“Don’t!” I snapped, terror filling me like boiling water. “Don’t say you’re going to die! You will be fine, you hear me?”
She looked up in me, tears filling the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. “The doctors don’t think I can hear them. They whisper over there,” she said, pointing to the corner, “about the various treatments that they could use.” She sighed. “They haven’t said anything in a while now. And I’m not an idiot.”
I pressed my lips to her forehead. “Listen to me. You are going to live. You just have to keep fighting.” I smile a little, ignoring the lump in my throat. “Our one-year anniversary is in two days. You are going to see it with me.”
She didn’t hear me. “Do you remember when I said that when it rains, you fall up to heaven? That you fall, not the rain?”
Of course I remember. I think of it every time I see the rain.
“I’ve been falling for a long time now. I’m ready to stop.”
“No!” I hissed. “No!” Nothing else will come out. Just a denial of what the slowing heart monitor is confirming next to me.
She squeezes my hand. “I know I said I would always be there for you. I’m sorry, Josh.”
She takes a deep breath and says what I’ve been silently screaming as the heart monitor beeps slower and slower until it is almost one, solid line.
“I love you.”