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Every Last Word

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If you could read my mind, you wouldn't be smiling.

Samantha McAllister looks just like the rest of the popular girls in her junior class. But hidden beneath the straightened hair and expertly applied makeup is a secret that her friends would never understand: Sam has Purely-Obsessional OCD and is consumed by a stream of dark thoughts and worries that she can't turn off.

Second-guessing every move, thought, and word makes daily life a struggle, and it doesn't help that her lifelong friends will turn toxic at the first sign of a wrong outfit, wrong lunch, or wrong crush. Yet Sam knows she'd be truly crazy to leave the protection of the most popular girls in school. So when Sam meets Caroline, she has to keep her new friend with a refreshing sense of humor and no style a secret, right up there with Sam's weekly visits to her psychiatrist.

Caroline introduces Sam to Poet's Corner, a hidden room and a tight-knit group of misfits who have been ignored by the school at large. Sam is drawn to them immediately, especially a guitar-playing guy with a talent for verse, and starts to discover a whole new side of herself. Slowly, she begins to feel more "normal" than she ever has as part of the popular crowd . . . until she finds a new reason to question her sanity and all she holds dear.
Little Brown Books for Young Readers
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I was diagnosed with OCD as a young child and honestly this book helped me understand my own OCD and how to cope with it as well as understanding that life must go on even when it feels like the end of the world. This book is amazing and i definitely recommend.
01 April 2020 (04:07) 
10 January 2021 (05:01) 
What a beautiful book. . Definitely one of the best contemporary books I've read this year. Sam's story was so moving and my heart was honestly pounding towards the end. This book touches on some really serious topics like depression, anxiety, and mental disorders, but I thought that Tamara Ireland Stone did it beautifully. One of my favorite parts (which was a huge part) was the poetry in this book. This is the type of book that makes YOU want to write.. And it doesn't even have to be good. Just to express yourself and to try.. I feel like many people that have been through high school will relate to what Sam goes through.. The pressures from your peers, and sadly, your "friends". I loved Sam's character and was so, so pleased by her progress just like Sue throughout the story. This book made me laugh, cry, and really inspired me to write more. Thank you Tamara for this beautiful book!
28 March 2021 (13:48) 
This was such an amazing book …..
27 May 2021 (19:46) 
To me, you only need a few best friends with a similar interest and comfortable atmosphere, rather than a bunch of friends that can't always make yourself feel good. What's the point of having these friends when you can't even feel relax around them?
07 July 2021 (22:46) 

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Also by Tamara Ireland Stone

Time Between Us

Time After Time

Copyright © 2015 by Tamara Ireland Stone

Cover design by Whitney Manger

All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.

So Long Lazy Ray words and music by Joe Rut copyright ©

ISBN 978-1-4847-0627-5



Title Page

Also by Tamara Ireland Stone



Six Months Earlier


More Than Anything

Five of Us

Keep a Secret

In the Deep

By Your Side

An Overwhelming Urge

Let Me Hear

We Fixed Him

That Narrow Hallway

Can’t Move On

Three Steps Up

A Poet Wannabe

Let Everything Go

Out of Thoughts

An Excellent Question

This It Is

Melt with You

Three Little Chords

This White Rabbit

Grip the Bat

He Reaches Out

Safe with Them

Not a Date

The Bottom Rung

Here You Are

Whatever This Is

Your Best Friends

Write About Me

This Is Good

The Tenth Thing

This One Boy

Totally Different Person

All About Me

Recent and Raw

Kind of Twisted

Do Two Things

Lock Myself Inside

Pass It On

Way Too Much

Stitched into Me

That’s the Thing

The First Time

Got This One

Author’s Note


About the Author

For C. And all the other special minds

I shouldn’t be reading the notes.

Hailey trims a rose and passes it to me. As I attach the note to the stem with sparkly pink ribbon, I read it. I can’t help it. This one’s a little over-the-top, but it’s still sweet. I give it to Olivia and she drops it in the classroom-specific bucket.

“No way! You guys…” Olivia snorts, laughing hard as she turns the card over in her hand. I guess she’s reading them, too. “I can’t tell who wrote this but…poor boy. This is so cheesy.”

So; meone’s attempt at heartfelt poetry makes its way around the circle. Alexis falls back against my bed in hysterics. Kaitlyn and Hailey double over on my rug. Eventually, I join in.

“This is mean. Let’s not read them,” I say, hiding the rose in the middle of the bucket, wanting to protect this anonymous guy who put his heart on the line for some girl in his calculus class named Jessica.

Olivia grabs the stack of cards in front of me and starts thumbing through them. “God, who are these people and how do we not know any of them?”

“We’re not losers?” Alexis offers.

“It’s a big school,” Hailey counters.

“Okay, back to work. The flowers are wilting.” Kaitlyn’s still laughing as she snaps back to her role as the leader of our Valentine’s Day fundraiser. “Olivia, since you like the notes so much, switch places with Samantha.”

Olivia shakes her head, and her ponytail goes flying. “No way. I like my job.”

“I’ll switch. My hand’s getting tired anyway,” Hailey says, and the two of us trade spots.

I grab a rose out of the bucket and pick the scissors up off the floor. The instant I slide my fingers through the handles, this thought hits me out of nowhere, and before I have time to react I feel my brain sink its teeth in and latch on tight, already preparing to fight me for it. My hand starts trembling and my mouth goes dry.

It’s just a thought.

I let the scissors fall to the floor and I shake out my hands a few times, looking around the circle to be sure no one’s watching me.

I’m in control.

I try again. Rose in one hand, scissors in the other, I squeeze my fingers together, but my palms feel clammy and my fingers are tingling and I can’t get a solid grip. I look up at Kaitlyn, sitting directly across from me, watching her face twist and blur as a wave of nausea passes over me.

Breathe. Find a new thought.

If I cut it once, I’ll keep going. I know I will. I’ll move on to the next rose, and the next one, and I’ll keep cutting until there’s nothing left but a huge pile of stems, leaves, and petals.

After that, I’ll massacre those syrupy sweet, carefully written notes. Every single one of them.

God, that’s so twisted.

Then I’ll take the scissors to Olivia’s ponytail and cut right through that hair tie.

Shit. New thought. New thought.

“I need a glass of water,” I say, standing and hoping none of them notice the sweat beading up on my forehead.

“Now?” Kaitlyn asks. “Come on, Samantha, you’ll hold everything up.”

My legs are wobbly and I’m not sure I can trust them to get me downstairs, but somehow the scissors are gone and the banister is in my hand instead. I head straight into the kitchen and run my hands under the water.

The water is cold. Listen to the water.

“Are you okay?” Paige’s voice breaks through the chatter in my head. I hadn’t even seen my little sister sitting at the counter, doing her homework. That’s when I spot the knife block, full of knives. And a pair of scissors.

I could slice right through her hair.

I take big steps backward until I slam into the refrigerator. My knees give out and I slide down to the floor, gripping the sides of my head, burying my face in my hands to make it dark, repeating the mantras.

“Sam. Open your eyes.” Mom’s voice sounds far away, but I obey her words, and when I do, the two of us are nose to nose. “Talk to me. Now.”

I look over at the staircase, wide-eyed.

“Don’t worry,” she says. “They won’t find out. They’re upstairs.”

I hear Mom whispering to Paige, telling her to take a bag of chips up to my room and keep my friends distracted.

Then she grabs both of my hands so hard, her wedding ring digs into one of my knuckles. “They’re just thoughts,” she says calmly. “Say it, please.”

“They’re just thoughts.” I can echo her words but not the steadiness in her voice.

“Good. You’re in control.” When I look away from her she grips my arms harder.

“I’m in control.”

She’s wrong. I’m not.

“How many thoughts does the brain automatically deliver in a single day?” Mom moves on to facts to help me center myself.

“Seventy thousand,” I whisper as tears splash onto my jeans.

“That’s right. Do you act on seventy thousand thoughts a day?”

I shake my head.

“Of course you don’t. This thought was one in seventy thousand. It’s not special.”

“It’s not special.”

“Good.” Mom pinches my chin and lifts my head, forcing me to look at her again. “I love you, Sam.” She smells like her favorite lavender-scented lotion, and I inhale it, feeling a host of newer, prettier thoughts overpowering the darker, scarier ones. “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s okay. It doesn’t mean anything about you. Got it? Now tell me.”

The two of us have been here before. It hasn’t happened in a long time, not like this, but Mom slips right into her assigned role as if it’s second nature. She’s well trained.

“Scissors,” I whisper, dropping my head to my chest, feeling dirty and sick and humiliated. I hate telling her these awful thoughts, but I hate the thought spiral even more, and this is my ticket out. I’m well trained, too.

“The roses. Olivia’s hair and…Paige…” Mom doesn’t make me finish. She wraps her arms around me and I grab ahold of her T-shirt, sobbing into her shoulder, telling her I’m sorry.

“You have nothing to be sorry for.” She pulls away and kisses my forehead. “Now stay here. I’ll be right back.”

“Please don’t,” I beg, but I know she won’t listen. She’s doing what she has to do. I dig my fingernails into the back of my neck three times, over and over again until she returns. When I look up, she’s crouched down in front of me again, holding the scissors flat in her hand.

“Take them, please.”

I don’t want to touch them, but I don’t have a choice. My fingertip connects with the cold metal and I let it slide over the blade, lightly, slowly, just tickling the surface. When I feel the handle, I curl my fingers through the holes. Mom’s hair is dangling in my face.

I could cut it. But I would never do that.

“Good. It’s just a pair of scissors. They triggered a few scary thoughts, but you won’t act on them because you, Samantha McAllister, are a good person.” Her voice sounds closer now.

I drop the scissors on the floor and give them a hard push to get them as far away from me as possible. I throw my arms around Mom’s shoulders, hugging her hard, hoping this is the last time we go through this but knowing it isn’t. The anxiety attacks are like earthquakes. I’m always relieved when the ground stops shaking, but I know there will be another one eventually, and again, I’ll never see it coming.

“What am I going to tell them?”

My friends can’t know about my OCD or the debilitating, uncontrollable thoughts, because my friends are normal. And perfect. They pride themselves on normalcy and perfection, and they can’t ever find out how far I am from those two things.

“Paige is sitting in for you on rose duty. The girls think you’re helping me with something in the kitchen.” Mom hands me a dish towel so I can clean myself up. “Go back upstairs whenever you’re ready.”

I sit alone for a long time, taking deep breaths. I still can’t look at the scissors on the far end of the kitchen floor, and I’m pretty sure Mom will hide all the sharp objects for the next few days, but I’m okay now.

Still, I can hear this one thought hiding in the dark corners of my mind. It doesn’t attack like the others, but it’s frightening in a totally different way. Because it’s the one that never leaves. And it’s the one that scares me most.

What if I’m crazy?

Lane three. It’s always lane number three. My coaches think it’s funny. Quirky. A thing, like not washing your lucky socks or growing a rally beard. And that’s perfect. That’s all I want them to know.

I step up to the top of the block and twist at the waist, shaking out my arms and legs. Squeezing my toes tight around the edge, I look down at the water and run both thumbs over the block’s scratchy tape three times.

“Swimmers, take your marks.” Coach Kevin’s voice echoes off the clubhouse walls at the far end of the pool, and when he blows his whistle, my body’s response is purely Pavlovian. Palm over hand, my elbows lock as I press my arms into my ears and throw myself forward, stretching and reaching and holding the position until my fingertips slice through the surface.

And then, for ten blissful seconds, there’s no noise at all except the sound of water whooshing past my ears.

I kick hard and lock in my song. The first one that pops into my head is a happy tune with catchy lyrics, so I start my butterfly stroke, throwing both arms over my head in perfect synchronization with the beat. Kick, kick, throw. Kick, kick, throw. One, two, three.

Before I know it I’m touching the opposite end of the pool, doing a tight turn, and pushing hard off the wall. I don’t look up or left or right. As coach says, right now, at this moment in the race, no one matters but you.

My head leaves the water every few seconds, and when it does, I can hear the coaches screaming at us to get our chins down or our hips up, to straighten our legs or arch our backs. I don’t hear my name, but I check myself anyway. Today, everything feels right. I feel right. And fast. I increase the tempo of the song and kick it into gear for the last few strokes, and when my fingertips connect with the edge of the pool, I pop up and steal a glance at the clock. I shaved four-tenths of a second off my best time.

I’m breathing hard as Cassidy gives me a fist bump from lane four and says, “Damn…you’re gonna slaughter me at county this weekend.” She’s won the county championship three years in a row. I’ll never beat her, and I know she’s just being nice, but it feels good to hear her say it anyway.

The whistle blows again and someone dives off the block above me, signaling my turn to exit. I pull myself up out of the water, peeling off my swim cap as I head for my towel.

“Whoa! Where on earth did that come from?” When I look up, I’m eye to eye with Brandon. Or, more accurately, eye to chest with Brandon. I force myself to keep looking up, past his thin T-shirt and to his eyes, even though the temptation to check out the way his shorts hug his hips is almost more than I can resist.

During my first summer at the club, Brandon was just an older teammate with an insanely fast freestyle who always put up the most points in meets and taught the little kids to swim. But for the last two summers he’s returned from college as a junior coach—my coach—and that makes him strictly off-limits. And even hotter.

“Thanks.” I’m still trying to catch my breath. “I guess I just found a good rhythm.”

Brandon shows me his perfect teeth, and those crinkles next to his eyes are even more pronounced. “Would you do that again at county, please?”

I try to come up with a funny comeback, something that will keep him smiling at me like this, but instead my cheeks get hot while he stares at me, waiting for me to reply. I look at the ground, chastising myself for my lack of creativity while I watch the water drip from my suit, forming a puddle underneath my feet.

Brandon must follow my gaze because he suddenly gestures at the row of towels strewn across the wall behind him and says, “Stay there. Don’t move.”

A few seconds later he’s back. “Here.” He wraps a towel around my shoulders and slides it back and forth a few times, and I wait for him to drop the ends, but he doesn’t. I look up at his eyes and realize he’s staring at me. Like…maybe he wants to kiss me. And I know I’m looking at him like I want him to, because I do. It’s all I think about.

His eyes are still locked on mine, but I know he’ll never make the first move, so I take one brave step forward, then another, and without overthinking what I’m about to do, I press my dripping wet suit against his T-shirt, feeling the water soak it through to his skin.

He lets out a breath as he balls the ends of the towel in his fists and uses it to pull me even closer. My hands leave his hips and find his back, and I feel his muscles tense beneath my palms as he tips his head down and kisses me. Hard. And then he pulls on my towel again.

His mouth is warm and he parts his lips, and oh my God, this is finally happening, and even though there are people everywhere and I keep hearing the whistle blow and the coaches calling out behind me, I don’t care, because right now I just want to—

“Sam? You okay?” I blink fast and shake my head as Brandon releases the towel and I feel it fall slack at my sides. “Where’d you go, kid?”

He’s still standing two steps away and not even the slightest bit damp. And I’m not a kid. I’m sixteen. He’s only nineteen. It’s not that different. He adjusts his baseball cap and gives me that ridiculously adorable smile of his. “I thought I lost you for a second there.”

“No.” You did the exact opposite of losing me. My chest feels heavy as the fantasy floats up into the air and disappears from sight. “I was just thinking about something.”

“I bet I know.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. And you have nothing to worry about. Push yourself like that at county and keep swimming year-round, and you’ll have your choice of college scholarships.” He starts to say something else, but Coach Kevin yells for everyone to take a spot on the wall. Brandon gives me a chummy pat on the shoulder. A coachlike pat. “I know how badly you want this, Sam.”

“More than you could possibly understand.” He’s still two steps away. I wonder what would happen if I really opened up my towel and wrapped him up in it.

“Sam. Wall!” Coach Kevin yells. He points at the rest of the team, already gathered and staring at me. I squeeze in next to Cassidy, and when Coach is out of earshot, she elbows me and whispers, “Okay, that was cute. That thing with the towel.”

“Wasn’t it?” I shoot her a surprised look. At the beginning of the summer, Cassidy called him “Coach Crush,” but over the last few weeks she’s become increasingly irritated with me for not giving up.

“I said it was cute, not that it means anything.”

“Maybe it does.”

“Sam. Sweetie. Really. It doesn’t. He grabbed your towel and dried you off a bit. But that’s it. Because he has a girlfriend. In college.”

“So?” I lean forward, trying not to make it obvious that I’m looking for him. He’s over by the office, drinking a soda and talking with one of the lifeguards.

“So. He has a girlfriend. In college,” she repeats, stressing the last word. “He talks about her all the time, and it’s obvious to everyone except you that he’s totally in love with her.”


“Sorry. It had to be done.” Cassidy piles her long red hair on top of her head in a messy bun and then grips my arm with both hands. “I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.” She comes in closer. “Look around, Sam,” she says, gesturing to a long line of our teammates. “There are plenty of fish in the fancy-private-swim-club sea.”

I look around and see boys in tight Speedos with solid abs and muscular arms, their skin tanned by the Northern California sun, their bodies lean and solid after three months in the water, but none of them are anywhere near as flawless as Brandon. Even if I did find one of them remotely attractive, what’s the point now? Summer’s nearly over.

Cassidy tilts her head to one side, pouting dramatically. She brings her fingertip to my nose and sighs. “What am I going to do without you, Sam?”

My stomach clenches into a tight fist as she voices a thought that’s been haunting me since the first day of August. Like all my summer friends, Cassidy has never known me outside the pool. She has no idea who I am when I’m not here, so she doesn’t know how backward she has it.

“You’ll be fine,” I say, because it’s true. Me? I’m not so sure.

My psychiatrist nailed it back in June, when I practically floated into her office and announced that I’d taken my last final. She strode over to the minifridge, poured sparkling apple cider into two plastic champagne flutes, and said, “To the triumphant return of Summer Sam” as we clinked glasses.

But it’s coming to an end. In two weeks, I’ll be back in school, Cassidy will be in L.A., and Brandon will be at college. I’ll be missing them, along with my early morning dives into lane number three.

I’ll be Samantha again. And more than anything, I’ll be missing Sam.

“You look fantastic,” Mom says as I step into the kitchen.

I’d better. I spent the last hour putting myself together for the first day of school. I left my hair down and ironed it straight. I’m wearing a sheer top over a white camisole, skinny jeans, and the wedges I begged Mom to buy me. My eyes are lined, my lips defined, and my foundation is effectively masking the stress-induced breakout on my chin.

“Thank you.” I hug her tight, hoping she knows I’m not thanking her for the compliment alone. It’s for everything she’s done for me this summer. For coming to all my swim meets and cheering so loudly, she’s hoarse every Sunday night. It’s for all those late-night talks, especially over the last week when Cassidy left for L.A., Brandon went back to the East Coast, and the first day of school began to loom over me like an ominous storm cloud.

Mom’s wearing that encouraging smile she always plasters on when she knows I’m nervous. “Stop looking at me like that, please,” I say, fighting the urge to roll my eyes. “I’m fine. Really.”

My cell phone chirps and I pull it from my pocket to check the screen. “Alexis wants a ride to school today.”

“Why?” Mom asks as she fills a bowl with cereal for Paige. “She knows it’s against the law to drive with passengers in your first year.” Of course Alexis knows the law, she’s just surprised I’m following it since most people don’t.

I text her back, telling her I can’t give her a ride because if my parents found out, I’d lose my car. I hit SEND and flip the phone around so Mom can read the screen. She gives an approving nod.

I shove the phone back in my pocket and hitch my backpack over my shoulder. “Have a good day, sixth grader,” I say to Paige as she spoons a big bite of cereal into her mouth.

As I head for the garage, I’m still texting back and forth with Alexis, who’s begging me to change my mind. I finally drop the phone into the cup holder as I pull out of the driveway, ending the discussion without ever telling her the real reason I won’t pick her up today. Or any time in the near future.

Earlier this month, on my sixteenth birthday, Dad took me to the DMV to get my license, and when we got home a few hours later, there was a used Honda Civic parked in our garage. It was totally unexpected, and it meant so much more than regular transportation to me. It meant Mom, Dad, and my psychiatrist thought I could handle it.

I was dying to show off my new car, but Alexis, Kaitlyn, Olivia, and Hailey were all out of town on their respective family vacations, and Cassidy was grounded, so I just drove around by myself for the rest of the afternoon listening to music and enjoying how the steering wheel felt in my hands.

But every once in a while, I’d glance down at the odometer, fascinated by the way the numbers changed. I felt this strange charge whenever the last digit hit the number three.

When I finally pulled into the driveway that evening, the last digit was resting on a six, so I backed out again and drove around the block a few times until the odometer stopped where it belonged. And now I have to do that every time I park. I’m not about to let Alexis and the rest of my friends in on my secret, so I’m happy to have the law as an excuse to drive alone.

As I pull into the student lot, the odometer is on nine, so I have to drive all the way to the far end by the tennis courts before I can park on a three. As I cut the ignition, my stomach turns over violently and my mouth feels dry, so I sit there for a minute taking deep breaths.

It’s a new year. A fresh start.

The anxiety eases as I walk through campus. Avery Peterson squeals when she sees me. We hug and promise to catch up later, and then she returns to Dylan O’Keefe and grabs his hand.

He was my obsession for the first three months of freshman year, starting when he asked me to the homecoming dance and ending when Nick Adler kissed me at a New Year’s Eve party a few months later and promptly replaced him.

A few steps later, I spot Tyler Riola sitting with his lacrosse buddies at a table on the far end of the quad. He had my undivided attention for the first part of sophomore year, until I started dating Kurt Frasier, the only guy who wasn’t a one-sided fixation. I liked Kurt. A lot. And he actually liked me back, at least for a few months.

Kurt was hard for me to shake, but Brandon finally took center stage in my mind when summer started. I picture him in his Speedo and, as I turn the corner, I wonder what he’s doing right now.

I stop short. That can’t be my locker.

The door is wrapped in bright blue paper and there’s a giant silver bow tied around the middle. I run my hand across it. I can’t believe they did this.

I glance up just in time to see the crowd part for Alexis. As usual, she looks like she just stepped off the cover of Teen Vogue, with her long blond hair, striking green eyes, and perfect skin. I can hear her high heels tapping on the concrete as her designer sundress swings with each step. She’s holding a giant cupcake with purple and white frosting.

Kaitlyn is on her right, looking equally pretty but in a completely different way. She’s exotic-pretty. Sexy-pretty. She’s wearing a tight-fitting top with thin straps, and her dark wavy hair is cascading over her bare shoulders.

Hailey peels away from the pack and speeds toward me with her arms spread wide. She throws them around my neck and says, “God, you have no idea how much I missed you this summer!” I squeeze her tighter and tell her I missed her, too. She looks amazing, still tanned from her summer in Spain.

Olivia’s now within arm’s reach, so I grasp big chunks of her newly dyed jet-black hair with both hands. “Okay, this is totally working for you!” I tell her, and she pops her hip and says, “I know, right?”

As my friends close in, all the people around us stop what they’re doing to gather in a little tighter. Because that’s what happens when the Crazy Eights do anything. People watch.

We started calling ourselves that back in kindergarten, and it kind of stuck. There were eight of us until freshman year, when Ella’s family moved to San Diego and Hannah transferred to a private high school. Last year, Sarah landed the lead in the school play and started hanging out with her new drama club friends. And we were down to five.

That’s when I started to realize that friendships in odd numbers are complicated. Eight was good. Six was good. But five? Five was bad, because someone’s always the odd girl out. Often, that’s me.

“Happy birthday, gorgeous!” Alexis says, bouncing in place as she gives me the cupcake.

The smile on my face grows even wider. “My birthday was two weeks ago.”

“True, but we were all talking about how much it must suck to have a summer birthday. None of us even got to celebrate with you.” I’m surprised Alexis hasn’t mentioned this earlier. I saw her twice last week, and both times we talked about the spa day her mom is planning and the new convertible she’s getting for her birthday.

“This is so perfect, you guys,” I say, holding up the cupcake and then pointing to the bow on my locker. “Seriously. Thank you.”

There’s a chorus of You’re welcomes and We love yous. And then Alexis steps forward. “Hey,” she whispers. “Sorry about all the texts this morning, but I have to talk to you about something and I was hoping to do it in private.”

“What’s up?” I try to make my voice sound light, but the second she said the words “I have to talk to you,” my stomach twisted right back into that tight knot I’ve been trying to loosen since the parking lot. Those words are never good.

“We’ll talk about it at lunch,” she says. And just when I was starting to feel like this was the best first day of school ever, I’m now dreading lunch.

Kaitlyn steps in to hug me. “Are you shaking?” she asks.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

“Too much coffee this morning, I guess.” The warning bell rings and I turn to my locker and start dialing the combination with trembling fingers. “I’ll see you guys later.”

Once the Eights are gone, the rest of the crowd takes off to first period. I set the cupcake on the empty shelf and grab the door to steady myself.

Taped on the inside of my locker door, I see all the photos and mementos I’ve saved over the last two years. There are pictures of the five of us dressed up in the school colors for spirit week, and the four of us surrounding Kaitlyn when she won homecoming princess last year. There’s a copy of the noise ordinance we got when Alexis’s parents left town last Halloween and we threw this epic party people talked about for months afterward. Scattered around, covering any sliver of paint, are my ticket stubs. It’s an impressive, eclectic collection—ranging from bands no one’s ever heard of to names like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Justin Timberlake—thanks to Olivia’s dad, who owns an indie record label and always gets us seats in the VIP section.

I use the small mirror to check my makeup and whisper, “Don’t. Freak. Out.” Then I close the door and stare at the wrapping one more time, letting my fingertip trail across the surface, running my thumb across the silver bow.

“That was really nice.” The voice is so faint, at first I wonder if I’m hearing things. I turn to see who spoke, but her locker is blocking her face.

“Excuse me?” I hope she didn’t see me pathetically fondling the bow.

“You have really nice friends.” She swings the door closed and walks over to me, pointing at the wrapping paper. I almost reply “Not always,” but I catch myself. It’s a new year. A new start. And today, I do have really nice friends.

“How’d they get your locker open?”

“They all know the combo. It’s kind of a birthday tradition. We’ve been wrapping each other’s lockers since middle school. This is only the second time they’ve wrapped mine, but you know, those were big birthdays. Thirteen and now…” I reach for the silver bow again. “Sixteen.”

Why am I telling her this?

I look around, realizing that the corridors are now empty. “I’m sorry. Do I know you?”

“Apparently not.” She points to the end of the row. “My locker has been there since freshman year, but we haven’t formally met or anything. I’m Caroline Madsen.”

I take her in, starting with her feet. Brown hiking boots. Baggy, faded jeans. An unbuttoned flannel shirt that might be considered cool if it belonged to her boyfriend, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. Underneath it, her T-shirt reads, WHAT WOULD SCOOBY DOO? That makes me laugh to myself. I continue up to her face. Not a stitch of makeup. A purple-and-white-striped ski cap, even though it’s the end of August. In California.

“Samantha McAllister.” The final bell rings, signaling that we’re both officially tardy on the first day of school.

She tugs on her shirtsleeve, uncovering an old, beat-up watch. “We’d better get to class. It was nice to meet you, Sam.”


Last year, I asked the Eights to call me Sam. Kaitlyn laughed and said that’s her dog’s name, and Olivia said it’s a guy’s name, and Alexis declared that she would never, ever go by Alex.

I watch Caroline round the corner, and by then, it’s too late to correct her.

We’re eating lunch under our tree in the quad when Alexis takes a dramatic breath, places her palms flat on the ground, and leans into the circle. “I can’t stand this anymore. I have something to tell you guys.”

Kaitlyn rests a hand on Alexis’s back, like she’s offering silent reassurance. “It’s about my birthday this weekend,” Alexis says, and the rest of us squeeze in tight. “We’ve been planning to go to this amazing spa in Napa for months now, right? Well, I guess my mom should have scheduled the appointments earlier, because when she called two weeks ago, they told her there was a wedding this weekend and everything was booked solid.” She sighs dramatically. “She could only get three appointments.”

“Whatever. We’ll go to another spa,” Olivia says.

“That’s what I suggested. But my mom said she called all the high-end places, and none of them could accommodate all of us on such short notice. Besides, this is her favorite—she’s been going there on special occasions for years—and she’s always wanted to take me.”

“Can we go on Sunday instead? Or the following weekend?” I ask.

Alexis looks at me and her eyebrows knit together. “Saturday’s my birthday, Samantha.”

She takes a sharp inhale as she removes two envelopes from her bag. She hands one to Kaitlyn and the other to Olivia. “I’ve been thinking about this nonstop over the last week, and I finally decided it was only fair to pick the two people I’ve known the longest.”

“You’ve known all of us since kindergarten,” Hailey says, voicing what I’m pretty sure each one of us is thinking.

“True, but our moms,” she says, gesturing to Kaitlyn and Olivia, “knew each other when we were in preschool,” and the two of them nod like that explains everything. Then they actually have the audacity to start opening their envelopes in front of us.

Again, Hailey speaks on behalf of us losers. “Samantha has a car now. Maybe the two of us can drive up and meet you for lunch?”

Hailey’s pleading expression makes me actually consider it for a moment. But Mom and Dad would never agree. Even if they did, what would happen when we arrived at the restaurant? It might take me ten minutes to park correctly. What if there’s a valet?

I can’t drive.

“I thought about that,” Alexis says. “But she won’t drive with passengers. Right, Samantha?” My face gets hotter the longer they stare at me.

I shake my head. Alexis glances around the circle, shifting the blame to me, using nothing but her eyes.

The thoughts start gathering, butting up against the caution tape surrounding my brain, strategizing and preparing to rush in and take over. I hold them off, telling myself all the right things, repeating the mantras, taking deep breaths, counting slowly.

One. Breathe.

Two. Breathe.

Three. Breathe.

It’s not working. My face is getting hotter and my hands are clammy and my breathing feels shallow and I need to get out of here. Fast.

I pull my phone out of my pocket and pretend I just received a text. “I have to run. My new lab partner needs my notes from class.” I pack up my untouched sandwich, hoping no one asks about the lab partner I don’t actually have.

“You’re not upset, are you?” Alexis asks sweetly.

I bite the inside of my lower lip three times before I make eye contact. “Of course not. We get it, right?” I direct the question at Hailey, acknowledging the two of us as allies, stuck on the bottom rungs of Alexis’s social ladder.

And then I walk away as slowly as possible, ignoring the fact that every muscle in my body wants to run.

When I feel the first sign of a panic attack, I’m supposed to go to a quiet place with dim lighting, where I can be alone and get my thoughts under control. My psychiatrist has burned these instructions into my brain in a way that makes them second nature, but instead I duck around the corner out of sight and stand there, my back against the science building, my face pressed into my hands, like I can achieve the same effect if I can only block out the glare of the sun. Eventually, I start walking through campus and let the path take me wherever it leads.

It leads me to the theater.

I’ve been here before for the annual talent show, the band recital, school plays—basically, the slew of events we’re forced to attend because they take place in lieu of class. The five of us always ditch our assigned row and sit together in the back, snickering to ourselves and poking fun at the people on stage, until one of the teachers gets tired of shushing us and sends us all outside, as if that’s punishment. We sit on the grass, talking and laughing, until everyone who had to stay and watch the entire performance finally files out.

I hunker down in a seat in the center of the first row, because it’s actually darkest here, and I’m already feeling calmer, despite the fact that Alexis just force-ranked her best friends and put me on the bottom. On the bright side, I no longer have to waste so much time wondering where I fit.

The bell rings and I’m about to get up and head for class, when I hear voices. I crouch down lower, watching a group of people walk across the stage, talking to each other in hushed tones. A guy’s voice says, “See you Thursday.”

The last person emerges from behind the curtain. She’s about to disappear on the opposite side when she stops and takes a few deliberate steps backward. Resting her hands on her hips, she scans the theater and sees me in the front row.

“Hey.” She walks over and sits with her legs dangling over the edge of the stage.

I narrow my eyes to get a better look at her in the dark. “Caroline?” I ask.

“Wow. You remembered my name,” she says as she jumps down and collapses into the seat on my right. “I’m kind of surprised by that.”


“I don’t know. I guess I assumed you were the type of person I’d have to introduce myself to more than once before it would actually stick.”

“Caroline Madsen,” I say, proving that I even remembered her last name.

She looks a little impressed. “So did you see the rest of us?” she asks, pointing at the empty stage.

“I guess. I saw a bunch of people go by. Why?”

Her mouth turns down at the corners. “No reason. Just wondering.”

But now she has me curious. And besides, this is a great distraction. “Who were they? Where were you coming from?”

“Nowhere. We were just…looking around.” I start to press her for more details, but before I can say anything, she leans over, stopping a few inches short of my face. “Have you been crying?”

I sink down farther in my chair.

“Guy trouble?” she asks.


“Girl trouble?” She looks at me out of the corner of her eye.

“No. Not like that. But, well…actually yeah, sort of.”

“Let me guess.” She taps her finger against her temple. “Your locker-wrapping best friends are actually manipulative bitches?”

I look up at her from under my eyelashes. “Sometimes. Is it that obvious?”

“You can take in a lot of information from a few lockers away.” She scoots back into her chair and slides down, kicking her legs out in front of her and crossing them at the ankles, mirroring my posture exactly. “You know what you need?” I don’t answer her, and after a long pause she says, “Nicer friends.”

“Funny. My psychiatrist has been saying that for years.”

As soon as the words leave my mouth, I suck in a breath. No one outside my family knows about my psychiatrist. She’s not my biggest secret, but she’s right up there with the rest of them. I look over at Caroline for a reaction, expecting a biting comment or a condescending stare.

“Why do you see a psychiatrist?” she asks, like it’s no big deal.

Apparently I’m not keeping secrets from her, because words start spilling out on their own. “OCD. I’m more obsessive than compulsive, so most of the ‘disorder’ part takes place in my own head. That makes it pretty easy to hide. No one knows.”

I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud.

She’s looking at me like she’s actually interested, so I keep talking. “But I obsess about a lot of things, like guys and my friends and totally random stuff.…I sort of latch on to a thought and I can’t let it go. Sometimes the thoughts come rapid-fire and cause an anxiety attack. Oh, and I have this weird thing with the number three. I count a lot. I sort of have to do things in threes.”

“Why threes?”

I slowly shake my head. “I have no idea.”

“That sounds pretty horrible, Sam.”


Caroline’s looking at me as if this whole thing is completely fascinating. She leans forward, resting her elbows on her knees, exactly the way my psychiatrist does when she wants me to keep talking. So I do.

“I can’t turn my thoughts off, so I barely sleep. Without meds, I don’t get much more than three or four hours a night. It’s been that way since I was ten.” Now there’s a hint of sympathy in her eyes. I don’t want her to feel sorry for me. “It’s okay. I’m on antianxiety meds. And I know how to control the panic attacks.” At least, I think I do. It’s been a little harder since the bizarre impulse to slash the Valentine’s Day roses.

“I started seeing a psychiatrist when I was thirteen,” Caroline says matter-of-factly. After a long pause she adds, “Depression.”

“Really?” I ask, resting my elbow on the armrest between us.

“We’ve tried different antidepressants over the years, but…I don’t know…sometimes it feels like it’s getting worse, not better.”

“I was on antidepressants for a while, too.” It sounds so strange to hear myself admit all this. I’ve never talked with anyone my age about this stuff.

Caroline reclines into the chair and smiles. She looks pretty when she does. She’d be even prettier if she would just wear a little makeup.

I bet I could help her.

I no longer have plans to be at a fancy spa with my four best friends this weekend. I don’t have any plans at all. “Hey, what are you doing on Saturday night?”

She crinkles her nose. “I don’t know. Nothing. Why?”

“Want to come to my house? We can watch a movie or something.”

Maybe I could talk her into letting me give her a mini-makeover, too. A few highlights to give her hair a little dimension. Some concealer to hide the pockmarks and blemishes. Nothing dramatic, just a touch of color on her cheeks, eyes, lips.

Caroline pulls a pen out of the front pocket of her baggy jeans.

“I’ll text it to you,” I say, reaching for my phone.

She shakes her head. “Technology is a trap,” she says, waving her pen in the air. “Go.” I give her my house number and street, and she scribbles it on her palm and pockets the pen again. Then she bounces up from her chair so quickly, I jump in my seat. She backs toward the stage, places her hands on the surface, and with a little hop, she’s sitting on the edge again. She leans forward and checks the room. “I want to help you, Sam.”

Wait. What? She wants to help me? “What do you mean?”

“Can you keep a secret?”

I’m great at secrets. My friends tell me all their dirt, knowing I’ll never breathe a word of it to anyone. They have no idea I’ve been keeping a mental disorder from them for the last five years.

“Of course I can,” I say.

“Good. I want to show you something. But if I do, you can’t tell anyone. And I mean anyone. Not even your shrink.”

“But I tell her everything.”

“Not this.”

Caroline waves me over to her. “See that spot over there?” She points at the piano in the corner of the stage. “Come back here on Thursday, right after the lunch bell rings, and wait for me. Don’t say a word to anyone. Hide on this side of the curtain and don’t come out until I come get you.”


“Because.” She grabs me by the shoulders. “I’m going to show you something that will change your whole life.”

I roll my eyes. “Oh, please.”

“It might not.” Caroline moves her hands to my cheeks. “But if I’m right about you, it will.”

The elevator is already waiting. I press 7 and then, because I can’t help it, I press 7 two more times. As soon as I open the office door and step inside, Colleen’s head pops up from behind the counter and her whole face brightens. “Ah, it must be Wednesday!”

At first, I found her regular greeting mortifying, but then I realized there are never any other patients here, and even if there were, there’s no reason to hide. We’re all regulars.

“She’s running about five minutes late. Water?” she asks, and I nod.

I fish my phone out of my purse, pop in my earbuds, and put on my typical waiting room playlist, In the Deep, named for lyrics in a Florence + the Machine song. I think of my naming strategy as a hobby, even though my psychiatrist doesn’t see it that way. I don’t simply listen to music, I study the lyrics, and when I’m done making a playlist, I pick three words from one of the songs—three words that perfectly encapsulate the collection—and that becomes its title.

I let my head fall back against the wall and close my eyes, ignoring all the motivational posters hanging above me. I mentally transport myself back to the pool two weeks ago, to that moment when Brandon kissed me but didn’t, and I feel my face relax as I relive the fantasy again. His mouth was so warm. And he smelled good, like Sprite and coconut sunscreen.

“She’s ready for you,” Colleen says.

Sue’s office hasn’t changed in five years. The same books line the same shelves, and the same certificates hang from the walls covered in the same beige paint. The same photographs of the same children stand propped up on her desk, suspended in time like the office itself.

“Hey, Sam!” Sue crosses the room to greet me. She’s this tiny Japanese woman with thick black hair that hangs to her shoulders, and she’s always impeccably dressed. She looks like she’d be refined and soft-spoken until she opens her mouth.

I’d only been seeing her for a few months when I came up with the nickname “Shrink-Sue.” I never actually thought I’d call her that to her face, but one day, it slipped out. She asked me how I came up with it, and I told her it sounded like something badass you’d call out while throwing a judo chop.

Until that point, I hadn’t really stopped to question whether or not psychiatrists appreciated being called shrinks. I was only eleven years old. And I didn’t want to offend her, but once I’d said it, I couldn’t take it back.

But Sue said she liked the name. And she told me I could call her anything. I could even call her a bitch, to her face or behind her back, because there would certainly be times I’d want to. I liked her even more after that.

She sits in the chair across from me and hands me my “thinking putty.” It’s supposed to take my mind off the words I’m saying and give me something to do with my hands so I don’t spend the entire fifty-minute session scratching the back of my neck in threes.

“So,” she begins, opening the brown leather folio across her lap like she always does. “Where do you want to start today?”

Not with the Eights. Not with the spa.

“I don’t know.” I wish I could tell her about my secret meeting with Caroline tomorrow, because that’s pretty much all I’ve thought about over the last two days, but I can’t break my promise. Then I think about the rest of the conversation, the two of us bonding over medication and therapy sessions.

“Actually, I sort of…made a new friend this week.” The words sound so dorky coming out of my mouth, but apparently Shrink-Sue doesn’t hear them that way, because her eyes light up like this is the best news she’s heard in ages.

“Really? What’s she like?” she asks, and I feel myself mimicking her smile. I can’t help it. I think about the way Caroline put her hands on my face like an old friend. That look in her eyes when she said she wanted to help me. The whole thing caught me completely off guard.

“Well, she’s not like any of the Crazy Eights,” I say, picturing her long stringy hair and lack of makeup and those chunky hiking boots. “She’s kind of awkward, but she’s nice. I barely know her, but I already think she sort of…gets me.”

Sue opens her mouth, but I hold my finger up in the air between us before she can speak. “Please. Don’t say it.”

Her mouth snaps shut.

“This doesn’t mean I’m leaving the Eights. You always make it sound easy, Sue, but I can’t just ‘find new friends.’” I put air quotes on the last words. “They are my friends. These are the people that every girl in my class aspires to be friends with. Besides, it would kill them if I left. Especially Hailey.”

Sue shifts in her chair and crosses one leg over the other, taking an authoritative pose. “You have to make decisions that are best for you, Sam. Not for Hailey or anyone else,” she says in her straightforward way.

“Sarah made a decision that was best for her, and look what happened.”

I’m not about to be on the receiving end of what we all did to Sarah. Shooting her dirty looks as we passed her in the halls, talking about her from the other side of the cafeteria, leaving her out of our plans for the weekend. I’m not proud of myself, but when she dumped us for her drama club friends, we made it feel like an act of disloyalty on her part.

“She’s probably quite happy,” Sue says.

“I’m sure she is. But being part of the Eights makes me happy.”

Their friendship might require weekly therapy, but I have fun with them. And I’d be truly crazy to say good-bye to parties every weekend, cute guys crowded around us at lunch, and VIP tickets to every major concert that comes to town.

“Either way, this is a really positive step, Sam. I’m glad to see you making new friends.”

“Friend. Singular. One person.” I hold up a finger. “And no one can ever know about Caroline.”

“Why not?”

Before I even realize what’s happening, my chin begins to tremble. I take a deep breath to steady myself and stare at the carpet.

“Why can’t they know about her, Sam?” Sue repeats softly.

“Because.” The word comes out all wobbly. “If they kick me out—” I can’t finish my thought. I squeeze the back of my neck three times, as hard as I can, but it doesn’t help. “I don’t have anyplace else to go.”

The tears start to well up, but I fight them off, biting the inside of my lower lip, forcing my gaze toward the ceiling. Sue must be able to tell how uncomfortable I am, because she jumps in and says, “Hey, let’s change the subject.”

“Please,” I whisper.

“Did you have a chance to print out those pictures?”

“Yeah.” I blow out a breath and reach into my bag.

Dad took a bunch of photos during the county championship meet and sent them to me. Last week, I showed them to Sue. She spent twenty minutes sliding her fingertip across the screen of my phone, carefully taking in each photo. Then she asked me to pick my three favorites, print them out, and bring them with me today.

“These are great,” she says, taking her time to examine each one. “Tell me, why did you choose these three?”

“I don’t know,” I say with a shrug. “I guess because I look happy.”

Her expression tells me that wasn’t the answer she was looking for. “What word comes to mind when you see this?” she asks, holding one of the pictures up in front of me. “One word.”

Cassidy is squeezing me hard; her nose is all scrunched up and her mouth is open, like she’s screaming. Dad took it right after I beat her time by a tenth of a second, breaking her record in girls’ butterfly. I was afraid she’d be upset, but she wasn’t. “Friendship.”

She holds the next one up. My stomach feels all light and fluttery when I see Brandon resting one hand on my shoulder and pointing at the first-place medal around my neck with the other. He kept high-fiving me. And hugging me. All day.

Sue wouldn’t approve of the word “love,” even though it’s the first one that pops into my mind, so I fix my gaze on the medal, thinking about the way he made me push myself all summer, making me believe I could be faster, stronger. “Inspiration.”

I feel my face heat up and I’m relieved when Sue moves on to the next picture and says, “I was really hoping you’d print this one.”

Dad took it with a long lens and you can see every detail in my face. I’m standing on the block in my stance, seconds away from diving in, and even though my goggles are covering my eyes, you can see them clearly. I stare at the picture for a long time, trying to think of a single word to describe what I like so much about it. I look strong. Determined. Like a girl who speaks her mind, not someone who cowers in the dark every time she gets her feelings hurt.

“Confidence,” I finally say.

Sue’s nod is proud and purposeful, and I can tell my word was spot-on.

“Here’s what I’d like you to do. Bring these to school tomorrow and tape them on the inside of your locker door.” She taps the last one with her perfectly manicured fingernail. “Put this one right at eye level. Look at it off and on all day to remind you of your goal this year. Which is?” she prompts.

“I’m going to make swimming a priority, so I can get a scholarship and go to the college of my choice. Even if it’s far away.”

The “far away” part makes me start hyperventilating. I feel nauseous when I think about moving away from here, leaving my mom, leaving Sue. But I force myself to stare at the picture, locking in on that strong, determined expression.

A swim scholarship. Competing at a college level. A chance to reinvent myself.

This girl looks like someone who could do all those things.

“And don’t forget,” Sue says. “This isn’t Summer Sam, who shows up in June and disappears when school starts. This is you.”

“Is it?” I ask, staring at the photo. It was only two weeks ago, but I already feel like a completely different person.

Sue rests her elbows on her knees, forcing me to meet her eyes. “Yes, it is. And she’s in there all year long. I promise. You just have to find a way to pull her out.”

On Thursday morning after first bell, I linger, taking my time at my locker. I keep peering toward the end of the row, looking for Caroline, but she hasn’t shown up. I haven’t seen her once since we sat together in the theater on Monday. Finally, I give up and race to class.

The last few days have been brutal, with Caroline’s words running through my head in an endless loop. I can’t imagine what she wants to show me today or how it could possibly change my whole life. And if she’s right about me? What does that even mean?

Lunch can’t come soon enough. As soon as the fourth period bell sounds, I stand up and race past the rest of my U.S. History classmates, bolting for the door. Everyone heads for the cafeteria and the quad, but I take off in the opposite direction.

When I arrive at the double doors that lead into the theater, I take a quick look around. Then I slip inside and go straight to the piano, hiding from view like Caroline told me to.

I keep checking the time on my phone, and I’m starting to wonder if this is all a joke, when I hear voices, quiet but audible, coming toward me. I’m tempted to take a step forward so I can get a look at their faces, but I press my back flat against the curtain and tell myself not to move.

The voices fade away and Caroline pokes her head around the curtain, curls her finger toward herself, and whispers, “Follow me.”

“Where are we going?” I ask, and she brings her finger to her lips, shushing me. We disappear backstage, and about twenty feet away, I see a door closing. We wait for it to shut completely, and then we creep forward.

“Open it,” she says, and then adds the word “quietly.” She rests her hands on her hips and I read her T-shirt: EVERYONE HATES ME BECAUSE I’M PARANOID.

I turn the knob as gently as I can, and soon I’m staring at a steep, narrow staircase. My first instinct is to close the door and turn back the way we came. I shoot Caroline a questioning look and she gestures toward the stairs. “Go ahead. Go down.”


She raises an eyebrow. “Well they don’t go up, now do they?”

No. They don’t.

“Here,” she says. “I’ll go first.” And before I can say another word, she pushes past me and starts down the stairs, and because I can’t imagine doing anything else at this point, I close the door behind us and follow her.

The narrow hallway is painted dark gray, and I look up at the ceiling lights, wondering why they’re so dim. Caroline and I turn down another hallway just in time to see the door at the far end swinging shut. I stay on her heels until we’re standing in front of it.

This is beyond creepy. “What is this place?”

She ignores my question and points to the doorknob. “Okay, I’m going to be by your side the entire time, but this is all up to you from here. You have to do all the talking.”

“Talking? To whom? What do you mean, it’s up to me?”

“You’ll see.”

I don’t want to see. I want to leave. Now.

“This is bizarre, Caroline. There’s no one down here.” I try not to look like I’m rattled, but I am. And I can’t imagine how anything in a freaky basement underneath the school theater could possibly change my life. My mind’s operating on overload now, my thoughts racing, and I feel a panic attack coming on.

What was I thinking? I don’t even know her.

I turn away and start heading back the way I came.

“Sam,” she says, and I stop, just like that. Caroline grips my forearm and looks right into my eyes. “Please, check it out.”

There’s something about the look on her face that makes me want to trust her, like I’ve known her all my life. And as nervous as I am, I’m even more curious to see what’s on the other side of that door.

“Fine,” I say, clenching my teeth. I reach for the knob and turn.

The room on the other side is small and painted completely black. Black ceiling. Black floor. Metal shelving units stocked with cleaning supplies line three of the walls, and the other one is covered with hanging mops and brooms.

Caroline points to a section of mop heads gently swaying back and forth against the wall, as if they’d recently been touched. I pull them to one side, exposing a seam that runs all the way up the wall until it meets another one at the top. It’s a door. The hinges are painted black and so is the dead bolt, camouflaging everything perfectly.

“Knock,” Caroline commands from behind me. I do what I’m told without questioning or arguing or second-guessing.

First there’s a click, and then the door swings toward me and I see a pair of eyes in the narrow opening. “Who are you?” a girl’s voice whispers.

I glance over at Caroline, but she just gives me this Say something! look, so I return to the girl in the doorway.

“I’m Samantha.” I hold my hand up. “I mean, Sam.” Why not, I figure, as long as I’m making introductions and all. “I was hoping I could come in.”

She looks past me, over my shoulder, and Caroline whispers, “She’s with me.”

The girl makes a face but pushes the door open anyway, giving us enough room to step inside. Then she scans the janitor’s closet, like she’s checking to be sure the two of us are alone, and I hear the dead bolt snap closed again.

I don’t even have time to take in the surroundings because now there’s a guy standing in front of me. He’s tall and thin, with broad shoulders and a headful of sandy blond hair. He looks a little bit familiar, and I’m still trying to place him when he narrows his eyes at me and says, “What are you doing here?”

I look at Caroline for help again, but she runs her finger across her lips like she’s zipping them shut, and I kind of want to punch her right now.

“I’m Sam—” I begin, but he cuts me off.

“I know who you are, Samantha.” I study his face again. He knows my name. I don’t know his.

“I’m sorry.” I’m not really sure why I’m apologizing, but it seems like the right thing to do. I step backward toward the door, feeling for a knob, but there isn’t one.

The girl who let me in hands him a thick braided cord and he slips it over his head. A gold key bounces against his chest.

“How did you find this room?”

“My friend…” I say, gesturing toward Caroline. He glances over at her and she nods at him. He quickly returns his attention to me.

“Your friend what?”

Caroline’s made it pretty clear that she isn’t going to do anything to help me at this point, but that doesn’t mean her words can’t get me the rest of the way into the room. “I heard that this place might change my life, and, well…I guess my life could use some serious changing, so I thought…” I trail off, watching him, waiting for his face to relax, but it doesn’t.

He stares at me for what feels like a full minute. I stare back, refusing to give in. Caroline must be getting worried, because she wraps both hands around my arm and pulls herself in closer, showing him she’s on my side. He crosses his arms and never takes his eyes off me.

“Fine,” he says. “You can stay today, this one time, but that’s it. After this, you have to forget all about this place, got it? One time, Samantha.”

“Got it,” I say. Then I add, “And it’s Sam.”

His forehead creases. “Fine. But it’s not like this makes us friends or anything.”

Friends? My friends don’t call me Sam. “Why would I think we’re friends? I don’t even know you.”

He smiles, revealing a dimple on the left side of his mouth. “No,” he says, as if it’s funny. “Of course you don’t know me.” He walks away, shaking his head, leaving Caroline and me standing alone at the back of the room.

“What the hell was that?” I ask her. My voice is even more wobbly than it was a few minutes ago.

She gives me a supportive nudge with her elbow. “Don’t worry about it. You did great.”

Now that he’s no longer blocking my view, I can see where I am. The room is long and narrow and, like the janitor’s closet, painted entirely in black. But the ceilings are twice as high, and even though it’s dark, it’s not claustrophobic at all. At the front of the room, I see a low riser that appears to be a makeshift stage. Smack in the center, there’s a wooden stool.

I count five other people in the room. They’re sitting on small couches and oversize chairs facing the stage and set at a slight angle, each one covered in different material—blue crushed velvet, brown leather, red and gray checks—and completely unique. Low bookcases line the room, and small mismatched lamps are spaced evenly around the perimeter. I nervously wonder what would happen if the power went out.

Then I see the walls.

I spin a slow 360 in place, taking it all in. All four walls are covered with scraps of paper in different colors and shapes and textures, all jutting out at various angles. Lined paper ripped from spiral-bound notebooks. Plain paper, three-hole punched. Graph paper, torn at the edges. Pages that have yellowed with age, along with napkins and Post-its and brown paper lunch bags and even a few candy wrappers.

Caroline’s watching me, and I take a few cautious steps closer to get a better look. I reach for one of the pages, running the corner between my thumb and forefinger, and that’s when I notice handwriting on each one, as distinctive as the paper itself. Loopy, flowing cursive. Tight, angular letters. Precise, blocky printing.


I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this sensation outside the pool, but I feel it now, deep in my bones. My shoulders drop. My heart’s no longer racing. I can’t see a toxic, negative thought for miles.

“What is this place?” I whisper to Caroline, but before she can say anything, the girl I met at the door comes out of nowhere and grabs my arm. She has dark hair and a pixie cut, and now she’s bouncing in place like this is the most exciting thing that’s happened to her in a long time.

“Come sit with me. There’s an open spot on the couch in front.” She starts leading me toward this atrocious green-and-pink-plaid sofa in the first row. “How long have you been writing?”

For what feels like the one-hundredth time today, my head spins toward Caroline. She’s got a weird grin on her face. “Writing?”

“Don’t worry,” Pixie Cut says. She tightens her grip on my arm and pulls me closer. “I’m the newest one here and I totally remember my first time. Don’t be afraid. You’re only here to listen.”

She plops down on one end of the couch and pats the cushion on her right. “Sit.” I do as I’m told. “Well, you definitely picked a good day,” she says. “Sydney’s going first and AJ’s up after her.”

Caroline settles in on my other side. I look to her for clues, and again she gives me nothing.

Everyone gets quiet as a heavyset girl I assume to be Sydney climbs up to the stage and bumps the stool with her hip, scooting it to the side. Wait. I know her. She’s in my U.S. History class.

I’d never seen her before this week, but on the first day of school, she strolled into class wearing a black strappy dress with bright red cherries all over it. It looked vintage. But it wasn’t her outfit or her confidence that caught my attention. It was her hair. Long, thick, and bright red, like Cassidy’s. I’d already been thinking about her all day, wishing the two of us were at the pool instead, and seeing that hair made me miss her even more.

Sydney holds up the top of a Chicken McNuggets container. “I wrote this last night at…” She flips the paper around to show us the McDonald’s arches and bounces her hand up and down, nodding proudly. “The lid wasn’t as greasy this time, so I got an entire poem in,” she says, and everyone laughs at what I presume to be an inside joke.

“I call this one Neujay.” She turns the paper around again and runs her fingertip across the word “Nuggets,” and then clears her throat dramatically.


My teeth pierce your bumpy flesh.

Oil, sweet, slipping over my tongue

Sliding down my throat.


Barbecue or sweet and sour?

Mustard or honey?

I close my eyes

Let fate decide.

Tip, dip, lift



Golden. Shining under fluorescents.

Piled. Grazing each other’s edges.

Patient. Always patient.


Gold, pink.

Crispy, salty.

What the hell are you made of?

Everyone stands, clapping and cheering, and Sydney holds her skirt to one side and curtsies. Then she throws her arms up in the air and her head back and yells, “Yes! Stick me!”

Some guy on the other couch tosses a glue stick at her. She catches it in the air, removes the cap, and, using the stool as a table, runs the glue back and forth across the McDonald’s logo.

She steps off the stage and I think she’s walking toward me, but she passes our couch and stops at the wall. We all watch as she smacks what’s left of the Chicken McNuggets lid against it. Brushing her hands together, she settles into a spot on the couch behind me and our eyes meet. She smiles at me. I smile back. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her speak until now.

When I turn around again, the guy who let me inside is taking the stage. He perches himself on the stool and picks up the acoustic guitar that’s strapped over his shoulder.

How do I know him?

I follow the string around his neck, and picture that gold key hiding behind his guitar.

“I wrote this last weekend in my room. And, okay, I’m sayin’ it.” He pauses for dramatic effect. “This one sucks.”

He stands up, holds his hands in front of him, and lets the guitar fall slack so the strap catches it. He’s gesturing toward himself in this go-ahead-let-me-have-it kind of way, and everyone around me starts ripping papers out of notebooks, balling them up, and chucking them at him. He laughs and keeps gesturing with his hands, silently telling them to keep it coming.

I look over at Caroline. She won’t make eye contact with me, so I lightly elbow pixie-cut girl. “Why are they doing that?” I ask, and she comes in close to my ear. “It’s one of the rules. You can’t criticize anyone’s poetry, but especially not your own.”

He perches himself on the stool and picks up his guitar again, and the second he does, the paper stops flying. He starts plucking the strings, and this melody fills the room. He’s only playing a few notes, but they sound so pretty together this way, over and over again. And then he starts singing.

So long, Lazy Ray.

Were you a crack you’d be tempting to look through.

Were you my coat on a cold day,

You’d lose track of the ways you were worn.

And it’s true.

I haven’t got a clue.

How to love you.

He’s not looking at any of us. He’s just staring down at the guitar, picking at the strings. He sings two more verses, and his voice rises higher, louder when he reaches the chorus. After another verse, the tempo slows, and I can tell the song is winding down.

Like sunlight dancing on my skin,

You’ll still be in my mind.

So I’m only gonna say,

So long, Lazy Ray.

The last note lingers in the silence. Everyone remained quiet for a second or two, but now they’re on their feet, clapping and cheering and tossing more paper balls at his head as he swats them away. Then they start pelting him with glue sticks.

He manages to catch one as it bounces off the wall behind him, and then he does that musician thing, slipping his guitar around his back in one fluid motion. He’s shaking his head as if he’s embarrassed by the attention, and pulls a piece of paper out of the back pocket of his jeans. He unfolds it, flattens it against the stool, and rubs glue along the back before he steps down from the stage.

He walks to the other side of the room and, still clutching the paper, bows once. Then he reaches up high on the wall, smacking his words against it.

I’m trying to figure out if everyone else is as taken aback as I am, but they don’t seem to be. Didn’t anyone else think that was amazing? Because while all of them are clearly enjoying this moment, none of them look quite as surprised as I am, and I’m pretty sure their arms aren’t covered in goose bumps like mine are. They all look relatively unfazed.

Except Caroline.

She’s grinning ear to ear, and as we take our seats again, she threads her arm through mine and rests her chin on my shoulder. “I knew it,” she says. “I was right about you.”

As I scan the room, taking in the slips of paper scattered around me, I think I catch Caroline and pixie-cut girl look at each other. “What is this place?” I ask again, hearing the amazement in my own voice.

Pixie Cut answers me. “We call it Poet’s Corner.”

The next day, I see them in the places they must have been all along.

When I walk into U.S. History, Sydney spots me right away and the two of us exchange knowing glances. Later that day, as I’m heading to lunch, I pass Pixie Cut and overhear her friend call her Abigail. I recognize a girl in the student parking lot and another in the library. Each time I make eye contact with any of them, I get a hint of a smile, like we’re still separated by an invisible barrier, but now we have something in common: a secret. By the end of the day, I’ve seen all but one.

I’m heading to my car when I look up and finally see AJ heading straight for me, and I feel the corners of my mouth twitching into a nervous grin. I’m expecting the same reaction I got from the others. A sly wave. A chin tilt. But instead he passes right by me, his eyes fixed on the ground in front of him. When I’m a safe distance away, I stop and turn around, watching until he disappears from sight.

I’m trying to decide what to do when Alexis appears out of nowhere, her high heels tapping on the cement and her thumbs tapping on her cell phone.

“There you are!” She stuffs her phone in the back pocket of her jeans. “I was hoping to catch you. I just got the best news!” She pulls me close. “There was a cancellation at the spa. My mom was able to book another appointment.”

I look at her sideways.

“Don’t you get it?” The words squeak out and she does a little dance in place, shaking my arm around as she bounces and beams and watches me, like she’s expecting me to join in. “You can come.”

“What about Hailey?”

She purses her lips and looks around, checking to be sure we’re alone. “No…” she draws the single word out, like it’s a musical note. “Not Hailey. You.” She pokes my collarbone. And now I know precisely where I reside on her social ladder: second rung from the bottom. Hailey occupies the last one, and as soon as she learns I’m invited to Alexis’s birthday and she’s not, she’ll know it too.

“You have no idea how sad I’ve been, Samantha. I felt horrible not asking you. Even though our moms weren’t friends in preschool, you and I were best friends in kindergarten!” I take note of her word choice. I’m not her best friend now, but I was in kindergarten. “I’m glad you’re coming. Oh, and plan to spend the night, too.”

“Is Hailey spending the night?” I ask. The spa might not be able to accommodate all five of us, but Alexis’s enormous bedroom doesn’t have any space constraints.

“That would be awkward, don’t you think?” I think it would be better than nothing, but I don’t say so. “In fact, keep it to yourself, okay? I wouldn’t want to hurt Hailey’s feelings.”

No. Of course you wouldn’t.

I unwind my arm from her grasp. “I’ve got to get to swim practice,” I say.

Her face falls, but she quickly recovers, twisting her mouth into a fake grin, raising her voice a full octave. “Yeah, of course. Nine o’clock tomorrow. We’ll pick you up.”

She takes off in the opposite direction. Part of me still feels guilty about Hailey, but another part of me is excited to spend the day with my friends, getting pampered at a luxurious spa. It will be fun. And it’s nice to not be the fifth wheel for once.

I’m on the diving block, staring into lane three, running my thumb across the scratchy surface three times, waiting for the whistle to blow.

When it does, my body responds just like it’s supposed to. My knees bend and my arms stretch, and my fingers cut through the water’s surface in the seconds before I feel it drench my cheeks. Then the silence.

I kick hard underwater and try to lock in my song, but nothing comes. As I pop up and start the fly, my strokes feel sloppy, uneven, and by the time I turn and kick off the wall, I’m at least four strokes behind everyone else. I climb out of the pool and get in the back of the line.

Jackson Roth looks over his shoulder at me. “Coach is in a mood today, isn’t he?”

“I guess.”

We’re down to a small group of swimmers now that school’s started. The numbers will keep dwindling as fall’s extracurricular activities begin, homework picks up, and it becomes harder to squeeze in team workouts at the club. I’m looking forward to that. I prefer to come here at night, swimming under the stars with the adults. They keep to themselves.

I press my fingertips hard into my temples, ignoring everyone around me, while I breathe and try to focus my energy. When it’s my turn, I step onto the blocks again, slide my thumb along the surface three times, and dive in, waiting for a song—any song—to come.

And one finally does, but it’s not one I expect. Those notes AJ played the other day start running through my head, and as soon as I surface, I know what song will be taking me back and forth across the pool. I speed up the tempo, and my body follows suit until I’m flying through the lane, pushing hard off the wall, throwing my arms over my head, feeling that adrenaline surge every time I lift my chest out of the water.

The tune is clear in my head, but now I want to remember the lyrics and I can’t. Lazy ray…I think he was singing about the sun going down. There was a line about sunlight dancing on your skin and another about a crack in a fence or something.

What was that line?

I’m still trying to piece it together as I step into the shower to rinse off the chlorine. I’m alone in the locker room, so I start humming as I pull on my sweats and pile my hair into a messy bun. On the drive home, I leave the stereo off because I prefer his song over anything I have on a playlist. And I have to remember all the lyrics. It’s driving me nuts.

It’s easy to stay lost in my thoughts during dinner. Paige got sent to the principal’s office today for talking back to a teacher, so she has my parents’ undivided attention. My family is arguing over the distinction between “clarifying questions” and “back talk,” while I drift off to a better place.

I’m picturing that room and its walls, covered in torn notebook pages and ripped-up napkins, pieces of brown paper lunch sacks and fast-food wrappers, and how all that chaos and disorder gave me such a strange sort of peace. I can visualize the exact spot AJ slapped up those words. But that’s all I have. I can’t download the song and listen to it on repeat, looking up the lyrics online and deciphering them like I typically would.

I have to get back down to that room.

I’m starting to recognize this for the obsession that it is, but it doesn’t bother me. It’s innocent, like solving a puzzle. My mind has certainly come up with more dangerous fixations.

“Are you okay, Sam?” Mom asks.

Her voice snaps me back to reality, and when I look up from my plate, Mom, Dad, and Paige are all staring at me. Dad has a huge grin on his face.


“You were singing,” he says.

“And humming,” Mom adds.

I was?

“Earworm,” I say. “This song has been stuck in my head all day.”

“It was really pretty,” Paige says.

Under the table where no one can see me, I scratch my jeans three times. “Yes, it was.”

I’m about to pop a sleeping pill when completely different words start forming in my mind. I feel an overwhelming urge to write them down.

I haven’t thought about the notebooks in years, but they’re still on the top shelf of my bookcase, and I remember exactly what Shrink-Sue said when she gave them to me. I was to write every day, in the notebook that best matched how I was feeling: the yellow notebook was for happy thoughts. The red notebook was for when I was angry and needed to vent. The blue one was for when I was feeling good. Peaceful. Not happy, not angry. Neutral. Somewhere in the middle.

I open the blue notebook first and see handwriting that belonged to a much younger me. I’d clearly followed Sue’s advice for a while, but about a quarter of the way into the book, the entries end.

The red book is filled with thoughts written with a heavier hand. My penmanship is different, but I don’t know if that’s because I was older or angrier. I read a few lines but stop quickly. It’s depressing.

But not as depressing as seeing that the yellow notebook is completely empty.

Tossing the red and yellow ones on the floor, I crawl under the covers with the blue one. Pen in hand, I flip to the first blank page, but nothing’s happening.

I don’t know what to write about.

I could write about my OCD. Or the number three. Or uncontrollable thought spirals that come out of nowhere, demand my undivided attention, and scare me when they won’t stop. Or how I’m terrified about Alexis’s birthday tomorrow and it doesn’t seem right to be afraid to spend the day with your best friends.

Poets need words. Even when I have the right ones, I can never seem to spit them out. Words only seem to serve me when I’m in the pool.

The pool.

I put pen to paper, and off I go, writing about the one thing that makes me feel healthy and happy and…normal. Cutting through the surface. Hearing the whoosh and the silence. Pushing off that cement wall with both feet, feeling powerful and invincible. Loving how the water feels as it slips over my cheeks.

Two hours later, I’m still going, still writing fast, still turning pages. When I get to the end of the next page I check the clock and realize two things: it’s after midnight and I forgot to take my sleep meds.

Normally, that would worry me, but it doesn’t tonight. I’m too elated to sleep.

I return to writing, filling my blue notebook, until I finally drift off on my own, somewhere around three a.m.

We’re all singing along with the music as we pull into the spa entrance, but then Alexis’s mom turns the stereo off and we all fall silent, looking around, taking everything in.

The long driveway is lined with lush green trees and pale pink rosebushes, and as the car winds up a steep hill and past a vineyard, I roll down the window and breathe in the scents of freshly cut grass and sweet-smelling lavender.

“Wow,” Olivia says from the backseat.

“No kidding,” Kaitlyn adds.

“I told you,” Alexis says.

I turn to Mrs. Mazeur. “This is incredible. Thank you.”

“You’re going to love this,” she tells me.

Hailey would have loved this, too.

We pull up to a circular driveway with an enormous fountain in the center. It must have a gravitational pull because I start walking toward it, and then I stand there, staring at the water cascading over the edge, listening to the thick droplets land with soothing plinks into the pond below. I close my eyes and let my mouth turn up at the corners the way it wants to.

“Come here, girls!” Mrs. Mazeur is standing at the back of the car, and we all gather around her. “I have a surprise.” She pops the trunk, reaches inside, and pulls out a bright green terry cloth bag with Alexis’s name embroidered in white. “One for you, birthday girl.”

As she reaches into the trunk again, Alexis unzips the bag and sifts through the contents, pulling out body lotion and cuticle cream and facial scrub.

“And one for you,” she says, handing Olivia the same personalized bag in red, her favorite color. “Of course purple for you, Kaitlyn,” she says.

Mine will be blue.

She closes the trunk and wraps her arm around my shoulders. “I’m sorry, Samantha. I tried to order another one yesterday, but it was too late.”

“That’s okay.” I feel my lower lip start to quiver, so I bite it hard.

“But I have something extra special for you. I want you to pick out anything you want from the gift shop, okay? And I mean anything.”

She squeezes my shoulder and takes off, dramatically gesturing toward the entrance. “Okay, follow me, everyone.”

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Inside, the spa smells clean, like cucumbers and mint, and I’m relieved to see another fountain in the corner. I stand next to it and scratch the back of my neck three times, until a woman at the front desk calls us over, gives each of us a fluffy white robe, and assigns us a locker.

I change quickly, text Mom to tell her everything’s going well, and join everyone in the waiting area. We’re sipping cucumber water and whispering about how incredible this place is, when I hear my name.

Alexis waves at me. “Have fun.”

The aesthetician leads me to a room with peaceful, Zen-like music and reclines my chair. “I have you booked for our signature antiaging facial,” she says in a soft voice. “All you have to do is relax and close your eyes. Tell me if you need anything.”

I’m not sure how to tell her I’m sixteen and don’t need an antiaging facial, so I stay quiet, even when she starts chattering about the harmful effects of the sun. Eventually, I stop fixating on the mistake and let my thoughts drift back to one of the poems I wrote last night. I repeat it in my mind, over and over again, until my ninety minutes are up.

As we’re all dressing in the locker room, Alexis’s mom announces that we’re late for lunch and we need to hurry. A few minutes later, we’re in the car, winding back down the long driveway and heading into town.

The five of us troop single file along a narrow brick walkway and up a short staircase to the restaurant. “I knew this place was really popular, but this…” Mrs. Mazeur looks overwhelmed as she scans the packed café.

While we wait for her to get our table, Olivia reaches into her bag and removes her new lotion and passes it around so we can all try it. Alexis can’t stop buzzing about the new convertible she thinks will be waiting in the driveway when we get back to her house.

A few minutes later, the hostess tells us to follow her. She stops at a tiny table with three chairs squeezed around it.

“There are five of us,” Alexis’s mom says.

“The reservation is for two tables, ma’am.”

“And the person I spoke with yesterday assured me the tables would be together.” The hostess shifts the stack of menus from one arm to the other, and her eyes dart nervously around the room. “It’s okay,” Mrs. Mazeur says. “If you could add another chair to this table, I’ll sit alone at the other one.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I can’t do that. Fire code.”

No one says anything, but after a few uncomfortable seconds, I feel Mrs. Mazeur thread her arm through mine. “Want to keep me company?”

“Sure.” I bite the inside of my lip three times. Alexis doesn’t seem to know what to say.

“We’re ordering two desserts. Each,” she says to the group, and when the hostess steps in front of us, we follow her to the next table.

One. Breathe.

Two. Breathe.

Three. Breathe.

The two of us make small talk for the next twenty minutes while I try not to stare at my friends laughing and chatting and waving sympathetically at me from the other side of the room. When my salad arrives, I awkwardly pick at it. Finally, I excuse myself to go to the restroom and hide behind a potted plant out of view, holding back tears as I text Mom, telling her about my not-so-perfect spa day. She must sense the panic in my words, because after a bunch of texts telling me it’s not so bad, she says:

Come home.

Then she follows with back-to-back messages:

We’ll be out when you get here.

I love you.

You’re in control.

Take deep breaths.

I’m in control.

I take some deep breaths and return to my salad.

The car pulls into my driveway and I can’t get out fast enough.

She never wanted me to come.

Alexis tells me she hopes I feel better. Kaitlyn and Olivia echo her words, yelling out the window as they drive away.

“We’ll miss you tonight,” Kaitlyn says.

No you won’t.

“We love you,” Olivia adds.

No you don’t.

As soon as I close the front door behind me, the tears start falling and the thoughts flood in faster and faster, tumbling over each other, pushing themselves to the front, fighting for my attention.

I shouldn’t have gone.

The sun is setting and it’s dark and quiet in the entryway. I slide down to the floor and wrap my arms around my knees, letting myself cry, allowing the thoughts to come as fast as they want to. The surrender feels good in a weird way.

The knock on the door makes me jump.

“Just a minute,” I yell, dashing into the hall bathroom to check my face. The mascara I carefully applied at the spa is everywhere but my eyelashes, and my whole face is bright red and puffy. I clean up as fast as I can and look through the peephole.


“What are you doing here?” I ask as I open the door, and immediately regret my words.

Caroline’s face falls and she takes two steps backward. “You invited me over,” she says, flustered. “To watch a movie. Remember?”

Oh, no.

“It is Saturday night, isn’t it?” The lilt in her voice sounds a little forced. She gives her flannel shirtsleeve a tug and checks the time on that beat-up watch of hers. “You didn’t tell me when to come by, so I took a chance.” She narrows her eyes, studying my face. “Hey, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”

Now that I think about it, I am okay. The thoughts are actually gone, and as far as I can tell, they’re not quietly waiting in the wings, whispering and preparing to pounce again. They’re completely gone.

“Yeah.” I pull the door open so she has room to step inside, and I voice the only thought in my head. “I’m really glad you’re here.”

She obviously knows that I forgot all about our plans, but she doesn’t call me on it, so I don’t say anything either. To break the tension, I ask her if she wants some water, but she says she’s not thirsty. I ask her if she wants some ice cream, but she says she’s not hungry. It seems a little too early to start a movie, so I ask her if she wants to come upstairs to hang out in my room and listen to music. She doesn’t answer, but I start walking toward the stairs and she follows me.

My room’s a mess. I scurry around, scooping up piles of clothes and stuffing them into the laundry hamper.

“I thought people with OCD were supposed to be neat,” she says.

“Popular misconception,” I say as I kick all the textbooks strewn across the floor into a haphazard pile.

“You don’t have to clean up for me, you know. You should see my room. It’s a disaster. Stuff everywhere.” I ignore her and keep picking things up.

Caroline walks around my room, looking at the pictures on my walls. She stops in front of the collage I made in eighth grade. THE CRAZY 8S is written across the top in hot pink, bubbly letters, and pictures spanning more than a decade are clustered below.

“Wow. You’ve known your friends for a long time,” Caroline says as I’m docking my phone. I start my In the Deep playlist. My nerves are still a little rattled.

I walk over and join her. She gestures to the poster. “Do you want to tell me what happened today?” she says, as if she knows my red eyes and puffy face had something to do with my friends.

“How do you know something happened?”

“I have a knack for reading people,” she says casually. “Here, look into my eyes and think of a number. Not three.” I look at her funny but fix my eyes on hers and think about the number nine. Caroline stares back. And then a huge smile forms across her face. “I’m just messing with you. I was only two houses away when your friend’s mom pulled into your driveway.”

I feel like an idiot. Caroline laughs and takes a couple of steps backward until she reaches my bed. She drops back on my comforter and rests her weight on her hands, legs crossed in front of her. I read her T-shirt: FREE SHRUGS.

“So what happened today?”

She looks like she genuinely wants to hear the story. And I definitely want to talk about it. If Mom were here, we’d be downstairs on the couch eating ice cream straight out of the carton while I spilled every detail. I flop down on the opposite side of the bed, mimicking Caroline’s pose.

“Today was Alexis’s birthday.”

“Alexis? The little Barbie one? Wears high heels, like, every day?” I nod. It’s funny to hear how other people see her.

Then I fill her in on the details of the spa day I wasn’t originally invited to. I tell her about the drive and the sound of the fountain and the smell of flowers on the breeze, but when I get to the part about the personalized bags, my chest feels tight. I pull at a loose thread on the pant leg of my jeans.

“It’s dumb, right? I shouldn’t be upset. It was last minute…” I let my words hang in the air as I check Caroline’s reaction. She doesn’t say anything, but her face scrunches up and I can tell she doesn’t think I’m dumb at all.

“Her mom obviously felt bad,” I continue. “She said I could pick anything I wanted from the gift shop.”

“I hope you picked something ridiculously expensive.”

I shake my head. “After our appointments were finished, we were running late and she rushed us off to lunch.”

Caroline bites her lip.

“But, hey, on the bright side, look at my skin.” I lean in a little closer. “Don’t I look ten years younger?”

She leans in too. “You’re asking me if you look like you’re six?” I laugh, and Caroline joins in. “I hope lunch was better.”


She stops laughing. “How is that possible?”

“When her mom called the restaurant to change the reservation from four people to five, they told her we had to be at separate tables. I guess she assumed they’d push them together or something.”


“Yep. It was a French restaurant with these tiny café tables—”

“Wait, so you sat with your friend’s mom while everyone else sat together at another table?” I’m glad I didn’t have to say it out loud. I have a feeling it still wouldn’t be funny.

I cross my arms. I faked a headache to come home early, but now I feel a real one coming on with the retelling. “I’m overreacting, right?”

As I wait for her response, I study her eyes. They’re narrow and hooded, but I’m no longer trying to figure out how to apply eye shadow to open them up. They’re pretty the way they are. Her hair doesn’t seem so stringy either, and I’m not dying to cover up her blemishes. I’m just happy she’s here.

“You’re not overreacting,” she says.

“Are you sure? Because you can tell me if I am. I have a tendency to overthink things, especially when it comes to my friends, and I don’t know…I take things too personally. I mean, it isn’t always them. Sometimes it’s me. I just don’t always know when it’s them and when it’s me, you know?”

I’m not sure if that made sense, but Caroline’s looking at me like she understood it perfectly. It’s like I can read her mind right now. She doesn’t like that my friends hurt my feelings, intentionally or not. Whether it’s them or me, she doesn’t understand why I’d choose to hang around with people I’m constantly questioning. And she’s sad for me, because my closest friends don’t feel all that close anymore, not like they did when we were those kids on that poster hanging on my wall.

I picture the people I saw in Poet’s Corner that day. “You don’t ever wonder what your friends think about you, do you?”

Caroline doesn’t answer, but she doesn’t have to. I can tell I’m right by the look on her face.

“You’re lucky,” I say.

I stare down at my feet, thinking about how I spent last night tucked down in my bed with a flashlight, writing horrible poetry into the early morning hours, waking up feeling drained but euphoric at the same time. I’ve been thinking about those poems all day. I couldn’t wait to get home to write again.

When I look up, I find Caroline staring at me.

“What?” I ask.

A cautious smile spreads across her lips. “Let me hear one.”

I look at her like I have no idea what she’s talking about, but I’m pretty sure I do. “One what?” I can hear the anxiety in my own voice.

“A poem.”

How does she know I’ve been writing poetry?

“Read me something from the blue notebook.”

My head snaps up and my jaw drops.

How does she know about the colors?

She points over at my nightstand, and I twist in place, my eyes following the invisible line that leads from her fingertip to the stack of three notebooks—red, yellow, and blue—piled underneath the lamp.

“You’re writing, aren’t you?” she asks.

I don’t answer her directly, but I don’t have to. She can probably tell she’s right by the panicked look on my face. I can’t read my poetry to her. I can’t read it to anyone. Shrink-Sue told me I didn’t have to share anything I wrote in those books. I wouldn’t have written it if I thought otherwise.

“Is it really dark?” she continues. “It’s okay if it is. My stuff can get pretty dark, too.”

“No, it’s not dark; it’s…stupid.”

“My stuff can get pretty stupid, too. I won’t make fun of you, I promise.”

“I can’t.”

“Read me your favorite. Don’t think about it, just go. Read.”

I laugh. “You’re telling me to not think. All I do is think. All the time. I think so much, I’m on medication and I see a shrink every Wednesday. I can’t not think, Caroline.”




I have the perfect one in mind. It’s short. I can read it without throwing up. Besides, I kind of like it. And I don’t even need my blue notebook because these words have been stuck in my head all day, during my ridiculous facial and in the car after we left the spa and during lunch. They joined the mantras. They kept the destructive thoughts from invading.

I sit up again. My hands are shaking, so I tuck them under my legs as I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and say, “It’s called ‘The Drop.’”

Standing on the platform.

Sun sinking into my skin.

This water will cover me like a blanket.

And I’ll be safe again.

She doesn’t laugh, but the room is completely silent. I open my eyes and look at her, waiting for a reaction.

She hated it.

“We have to get you back downstairs,” Caroline finally says, and I can hear the sincerity in her voice, can see it in her face.

She liked it.

I stare at her, wondering if she’s too good to be true. Where did she come from? Why is she being so nice to me?

“That’ll never happen,” I tell her plainly. “That ‘keymaster’ guy hates me. He won’t even look at me.”

I picture him on that stool and his song starts playing in my head. I think about the words and where they live on that wall. If I could get back downstairs, I could find his lyrics. I’ll commit them to memory next time.

“That’s just AJ,” she says, giving a dismissive shake of her head. “And he doesn’t hate you. But you hurt him, and he doesn’t know how to handle that.”

“What?” My thoughts stop cold. “Hurt him? What are you talking about?”

She looks right at me but doesn’t say a word.

“Caroline. How did I hurt him? I don’t even know him.”

“Yes, you do.”

I remember how he stood in front of me, blocking my way into Poet’s Corner the other day. He looked familiar, but I’ve never known anyone named AJ, and he’s cute enough, especially with that dimple and that adorable guitar-playing thing of his, that I would have remembered him if we’d met before.

“Are you going to tell me?”

She shakes her head. “You’ll figure it out.”

I stare at her in disbelief. “I don’t want to figure it out, Caroline. I want you to tell me.” That might have sounded bitchy. I didn’t mean it to, but I can’t believe she’s holding out on me.

She checks her watch. “I have to go.” She hops off the bed and starts walking toward the door.

“What about the movie?”

“Maybe another time,” she says as she reaches for the doorknob.

My mind is leaping around from thought to thought, like it can’t settle on one.

I hurt him. And Caroline’s leaving. But she likes my poem. I like talking to her. I don’t want her to leave.

“It’s okay,” I say. “You don’t have to tell me. Please…stay.”

It’s killing me not to know what I did, but there are plenty of other things I want to talk to her about. I want to ask her about all the poets. I want to know about that room and how it got there and how it works, and I want her to read me some of her poems. I want to be her friend.

She turns around and looks at me. I hurry over to my nightstand, grab the blue notebook from the pile, and hold it up in the air. “I want to get back to Poet’s Corner, but I don’t know how to. Will you help me?”

Mom’s buttering toast for Paige, drinking her coffee, and replying to a message on her cell phone, when she says, “Do you want to talk about what happened yesterday?”

“Nah. I’m good.” I down my orange juice. “I talked to my friend Caroline last night.”

Mom’s typing again. “Who’s Caroline?” she asks without looking up.

“Just someone I met at school. She’s nice. She came over after I got home from the spa.”

Now I have her attention.

“Really?” Her eyes grow wide.

I try to act nonchalant about the whole thing, like this happens all the time, but then I picture Caroline sitting on the floor in my room, helping me with my poetry, and I feel a little bit giddy. “Yeah, I would have introduced you, but she had to leave before you guys got home.”

“Have you told Sue about her?”

“Yep.” I grab the toast with one hand and punch Paige lightly on the arm with the other. “I’m going to the pool.”

The next day, Olivia and I are walking to Trigonometry when I see AJ heading right for us. I almost didn’t notice him—I probably wouldn’t have if the dark ski hat hadn’t caught my eye—because he’s looking down at the ground and keeping pace with everyone else. He walks right by me.

Caroline’s words have haunted me since Saturday night: “He doesn’t hate you, but you hurt him.” I can’t figure out what I did, and somewhere around two thirty this morning, I decided I was going to find out the first chance I got.

“I left my trig book in my locker,” I say to Olivia. “I’ll meet you at class.”

She waves me off and I do a 180 and start following the ski cap heading in the opposite direction. AJ turns the corner and stops at a locker. Keeping my distance, I watch as he rests his backpack on one knee and swaps out his books.

When he sees me, he tilts his chin in my direction. “Hey.” No smile. No wave. Just the chin tilt. He swings his locker door closed.

“Hi.” I gesture toward the main corridor. “I saw you in the hall, but…I guess you didn’t see me.”

He shakes his head.

“I wanted to say hello.” I dig my fingernails into the back of my neck. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. “And, you know, say thank you…for letting me join you guys last week.”

AJ checks the area around us and steps in closer. He’s a full head taller than me, and when he tucks his chin to his chest and stares down at me, I feel guilty, even though I haven’t done anything wrong. His eyebrows lift accusingly. “You haven’t told anyone, have you?”

“Of course not. I wouldn’t do that.”

He’s still close. He’s still staring at me like he’s trying to decide if I’m telling the truth. I square my shoulders and straighten my spine. “I told you I wouldn’t, and I haven’t.”

“Good,” he says. Another long pause. “Don’t.”

“I won’t.”

He steps out of my personal space and I have a chance to look at him. Really look at him. His dark blond hair is poking out from under the cap, and his eyes are this interesting brownish-green that’s almost the same color as the T-shirt he’s wearing. He’s not clean-cut, like most of my guy friends. He’s scruffier, but in a sexy way. I try to read the expression on his face, but I can’t, and it bothers me because there’s something about the way he’s looking at me right now that makes me feel sorry for him. He looks sweet, maybe even shy, and nothing like the confident guy I watched perform on that stage last week.

The questions are spinning in my head, and I want to spit them out and get it over with. How do I know you? How did I hurt you? How do I tell you I’m sorry if I have no idea what I did? But I push the words down, searching for new, safer ones.

“I really loved your song. It’s kind of been stuck in my head.”

He takes another step back. “Thanks,” he says.

“I’ve been trying to remember all the lyrics, but…”

Invite me back. Please.

I look around again to be sure there’s no one within earshot. “That day downstairs, I guess it kind of inspired me. My poems aren’t very good or anything.” I pause for a moment, waiting for him to say something, but he doesn’t, so I keep blabbering.

“I barely slept last weekend.” Now he looks at me sideways like he’s trying to figure out why this is his problem. “I haven’t been…” I stop short, realizing I was about to admit that I haven’t been taking the prescription sleep meds I’ve popped every night for the last five years. I keep forgetting. Or maybe I don’t forget. Maybe I make a choice to keep writing despite how exhausted I’ll be the next day. “I haven’t been sleeping. Once I start writing, I kind of need to keep going.” I let a nervous laugh escape.

The corners of his mouth turn up slightly. Not much, but enough to expose that dimple and catch me off guard.

“You’re writing?”

I nod.

“You?” AJ crosses his arms like he doesn’t believe me, but at least now I can read the look on his face. He’s surprised. Maybe even intrigued. “You’re writing poetry, and not because you have to for a class?”

I shrug. I think he expects me to be offended, but I’m not. I get it. The whole poetry thing shocks me, too.

“Of course, it’s total crap,” I say, hoping more self-criticism will elicit some kind of reaction, like an invitation to come downstairs and say those words on stage so they can pelt me with paper and, later, glue sticks.

AJ uncrosses his arms and transfers his backpack from one shoulder to the other. “I bet your poems are better than you think they are.”

It’s not true, but it’s a nice thing to say and he looks like he means it. I start to reply, but then I look past him, over his right shoulder, and see Kaitlyn walking in our direction, taking measured steps, hanging back like she’s timing her arrival so she doesn’t interrupt the two of us.

Invite me back. I want to hear more poetry, more of your songs.

“I’ve got to get to class,” he says. “I’ll see ya later, okay?”

And with that, he takes off, leaving Kaitlyn the opening she was waiting for. She lengthens her stride and as soon as she’s close enough, she grabs me by the arm with both hands. “Holy shit, was that Andrew Olsen?” she asks.


She lets go of me so she can point at him, and together, we watch AJ open a classroom door and disappear from sight. “That was him! God, we were so brutal to that kid, weren’t we?” She shakes her head as I turn his name over in my mind. Andrew Olsen. Andrew Olsen.

“Who?” I ask again, and she slaps my arm with the back of her hand.

“Andrew Olsen. Remember? Fourth grade. Mrs. Collins’s class?” Kaitlyn must be able to tell by the look on my face that I’m not connecting the dots, because she breaks into this huge grin. She shakes her hips and sings, “A-A-A-Andrew…” to the tune of the Chia Pet jingle, and then she starts cracking up.

“How can you not remember Andrew? That kid stuttered so badly he couldn’t even say his name. We used to follow him around singing that song.…You have to remember this!”

Oh, God. I do. It’s all starting to come back to me, and when she sings that horrible song again, I can see Kaitlyn and me in our skirts and ponytails, trailing behind him on the playground while he covered his ears, tears streaming down his face, trying to run away from us. We never let him get far.

“Andrew?” That’s all I can get out. I want to throw up. Andrew. That’s what Caroline meant.

“Remember? We even made him cry