“I don’t care what it is.”
“Don’t be that guy, Ryan.”
“What guy?” As we walk, he nods at people going by, everyone smiling and calling out, “Hey, Ryan,” “What’s up, Cross?” They do everything but bow and throw confetti. A few of them are good enough to call out to me too, now that I’m a hero.
“The guy who’s jealous of the guy his ex-girlfriend’s doing a project with.”
“I’m not jealous.” We stop outside my classroom. “I’m just crazy about you. And I think we should get back together.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready.”
“I’m going to keep asking.”
“I guess I can’t stop you.”
“If he gets out of line, let me know.”
The corner of his mouth goes up. When he smiles like that, there’s a single dimple. It was the thing that got me the very first time I saw him. Without thinking, I reach up and kiss the dimple when what I mean to do is kiss his cheek. I don’t know which of us is more surprised. I say, “You don’t need to worry. It’s only a project.”
At dinner that night, the thing I fear most happens. My mom turns to me and asks, “Were you in the bell tower of school last week?”
She and my dad are staring at me from opposite ends of the table. I immediately choke on my food, so noisily and violently that my mother gets up to pat me on the back.
My dad says, “Too spicy?”
“No, Dad, it’s great.” I barely get the words out because I’m still coughing. I cover my mouth with my napkin and cough and cough like some tubercular old uncle.
Mom pats me until I quiet down and then takes her seat again. “I got a call from a reporter at the local paper who wants to do a story on our heroic daughter. Why didn’t you tell us?”
“I don’t know. They’re making a bigger deal of it than it is. I’m not a hero. I just happened to be up there. I don’t think he really would have jumped.” I drink my entire glass of water because my mouth is suddenly dry.
“Who’s this boy you saved?” my dad wants to know.
“He’s just a boy I go to school with. He’s okay now.”
My mother and father glance at each other, and in that one shared look, I can see what they’re thinking: our daughter isn’t as hopelessly lost as we thought. They will start expecting things, beginning with a newer, braver Violet who isn’t afraid of her own shadow.
Mom picks up her fork again. “The reporter left her name and number and asked that you call her when you have a chance.”
“Great,” I say. “Thanks. I will.”
“By the way …” My mom’s voice turns casual, but there’s something in it that makes me want to hurry and finish so I can get out of there fast. “How does New York sound for spring break? We haven’t taken a family trip in a while.”
We haven’t taken one since before the accident. This would be our first trip without Eleanor, but then there have been lots of firsts—first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, first New Year’s Eve. This is the first calendar year of my life that she hasn’t been in.
“We can take in some shows, do a little shopping. We can always stop by NYU and see if there are any interesting lectures.” She smiles too brightly. Even worse, my dad is smiling too.
“It sounds great,” I say, but we all know I don’t mean it.
That night, I have the same nightmare I’ve been having for months—the one where someone comes at me from behind and tries to strangle me. I feel the hands on my throat, pressing tighter and tighter, but I can’t see who’s doing it. Sometimes the person doesn’t get as far as touching me, but I know he’s there. Other times, I can feel the breath going out of me. My head goes light, my body floats away, and I start to fall.
I wake up, and for a few seconds I don’t know where I am. I sit up and turn on a light and look around my room, as if the man might be lurking behind the desk or in the closet. I reach for my laptop. In the days Before, I would have written something—a short story or a blog post or just random thoughts. I would have written till it was out of me and on the page. But now I open a new document and stare at the screen. I write a couple words, erase them. Write, erase. I was the writer, not Eleanor, but there is something about the act of writing that makes me feel as if I’m cheating on her. Maybe because I’m here and she’s not, and the whole thing—every big or small moment I’ve lived since last April—feels like cheating in some way.
Finally, I sign onto Facebook. There’s a new message from Finch, 1:04 a.m. Did you know the world’s tallest woman and one of the world’s tallest men were from Indiana? What does that say about our state?
I check the current time: 1:44 a.m. I write, We have greater nutritional resources than other states?
I watch the page, the house quiet around me. I tell myself he’s probably asleep by now, that it’s just me who’s awake. I should read or turn out the light and try to get some rest before I have to get up for school.
Finch writes: Also the world’s largest man. I’m worried that our nutritional resources are actually damaged. Maybe this is one reason I’m so tall. What if I don’t stop growing? Will you want me just as much when I’m fifteen feet nine inches?
Me: How can I want you then when I don’t want you now?
Finch: Give it time. The thing I’m most concerned with is how I’m going to ride a bike. I don’t think they make them that big.
Me: Look on the bright side—your legs will be so long that one of your steps will be the same as thirty or forty of a regular person’s.
Finch: So you’re saying I can carry you when we wander.
Finch: After all, you’re famous.
Me: You’re the hero, not me.
Finch: Believe me, I’m no hero. What are you doing up, anyway?
Me: Bad dreams.
Finch: Regular occurrence?
Me: More than I’d like.
Finch: Since the accident or before?
Me: Since. You?
Finch: Too much to do and write and think. Besides, who would keep you company?
I want to say I’m sorry about the Bartlett Dirt—no one really believes the lies they print; it’ll all die down eventually—but then he writes: Meet me at the Quarry.
Me: I can’t.
Finch: Don’t keep me waiting. On second thought, I’ll meet you at your house.