Her face crumples, and for one awful moment I’m afraid she’s going to cry, but then she kisses me on the cheek and says, “Thank you,” in such a world-weary way that I almost want to cry myself, except that I’m feeling much too good for that.
Then she says, “Did you just call me ‘Mum’?”
I’m putting on my shoes at the very moment the sky opens up and it starts to pour. By the looks of it we’re talking cold, blinding sleet, so instead of going out for a run, I take a bath. I strip, climb in, water splashing onto the floor, leaving little pools that shake like beached fish. The whole operation doesn’t work well at first because I am twice as long as the bathtub, but the tub is full of water and I’ve come this far, and I have to see it through. My feet rest halfway up the tile of the wall as I go under, eyes open, staring up at the showerhead and the black curtain and plastic liner and the ceiling, and then I close my eyes and pretend I’m in a lake.
Water is peaceful. I am at rest. In the water, I am safe and pulled in where I can’t get out. Everything slows down—the noise and the racing of my thoughts. I wonder if I could sleep like this, here on the bottom of the bathtub, if I wanted to sleep, which I don’t. I let my mind drift. I hear words forming as if I’m sitting at the computer already.
In March of 1941, after three serious breakdowns, Virginia Woolf wrote a note to her husband and walked to a nearby river. She shoved heavy stones into her pocket and dove into the water. “Dearest,” the note began, “I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.… So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.”
How long has it been? Four minutes? Five? Longer? My lungs are starting to burn. Stay calm, I tell myself. Stay relaxed. The worst thing you can do is panic.
Six minutes? Seven? The longest I’ve held my breath is six and a half minutes. The world record is twenty-two minutes and twenty-two seconds, and this belongs to a German competitive breath holder. He says it’s all about control and endurance, but I suspect it has more to do with the fact that his lung capacity is 20 percent larger than the average person’s. I wonder if there’s something to this competitive breath holding, if there’s really a living to be made at it.
“You have been in every way all that anyone could be.… If anybody could have saved me it would have been you.”
I open my eyes and sit straight up, gasping, filling my lungs. I’m happy no one’s here to see me, because I’m sputtering and splashing and coughing up water. There’s no rush of having survived, only emptiness, and lungs that need air, and wet hair sticking to my face.
148 days till graduation
Thursday. U.S. Geography.
The Bartlett Dirt has named the top ten suicidal students in school, and my phone is buzzing because Theodore Finch is number one on the list. Jordan Gripenwaldt has covered the front page of the school paper with resources and information about teen suicide and what to do if you’re thinking of killing yourself, but no one is paying attention to this.
I turn off my phone and put it away. To distract myself and him, I ask Ryan about the “Wander Indiana” project. He is partners with Joe Wyatt. Their theme is baseball. They’re planning to visit the county baseball museum and the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame in Jasper.
“That sounds really great,” I say. He is playing with my hair, and to make him stop, I lean over and pretend to search for something in my bag.
For their wanderings, Amanda and Roamer are planning to focus on the James Whitcomb Riley Museum and our local farm and history museum, which is right here in Bartlett and features an actual Egyptian mummy. I can’t think of anything more depressing than to be an Egyptian high priest on display next to a set of vintage wagon wheels and a two-headed chicken.
Amanda examines the ends of her ponytail. She is the only person besides me who is ignoring her phone. “So how is it? Is it awful?” She stops examining long enough to look at me. “What?”
I shrug. “It’s okay.”
“Oh my God, you like him!”
“No I don’t.” But I can feel my face turning pink because everyone is looking at me. Amanda has such a loud mouth.
Thankfully, the bell rings, and Mr. Black wants eyes on him, people. At some point, Ryan slips me a note because my phone is off. I see it under his arm, waving at me, and I take it. Drive-in double feature Saturday night? Just you and me?
I write: Can I let you know?
I tap Ryan’s arm and hand him the note. Mr. Black walks to the chalkboard and writes POP QUIZ and then a list of questions. Everybody groans and there’s the sound of ripping paper.
Five minutes later, Finch breezes in, same black shirt, same black jeans, backpack over one shoulder, books and notebooks and thrashed leather jacket under his arm. Things are spilling everywhere, and he retrieves keys and pens and cigarettes before giving Mr. Black a little salute. I look at him and think: This is the person who knows your worst secret.
Finch pauses to read the board. “Pop quiz? Sorry, sir. Just a second.” He’s using his Australian accent. Before he takes his seat, he heads right for me. He sets something on my notebook.
He slaps Ryan on the back, drops an apple on the teacher’s desk with another apology to Mr. Black, and falls into his chair across the room. The thing he set in front of me is an ugly gray rock.
Ryan looks down at it and up at me, and then past me at Roamer, who narrows his eyes in Finch’s direction. “Freak,” he says loudly. He mimes hanging himself.
Amanda punches me a little too hard in the arm. “Let me see it.”
Mr. Black raps on the desk. “In five more seconds … I will give each and … every one of you an F … on this quiz.” He picks up the apple and looks as if he’s going to throw it.
We all go quiet. He sets the apple down. Ryan turns around and now I can see the freckles on the base of his neck. The quiz is made up of five easy questions. After Mr. Black collects the papers and starts to lecture, I pick up the rock and flip it over.
Your turn, it says.
After class, Finch is out the door before I can talk to him. I drop the rock into my bag. Ryan walks me to Spanish, and we don’t hold hands. “So what’s up with that? Why’s he giving you things? Is it, what, a thank-you for saving his life?”
“It’s a rock. If it was a thank-you for saving him, I’d hope for something a little better than that.”