The dream starts with me at the top of the rocket, holding on to the steering wheel. It’s still a playground rocket, not a real one, but every time I turn the wheel to the left, the trees in the park lift up their roots and sidestep it to the left. When I turn the wheel to the right, they sidestep it to the right.
“So what’s going on, Clay?”
I repeat his words in my head. What’s going on? What’s going on? Oh, well, since you asked, I got a bunch of tapes in the mail today from a girl who killed herself. Apparently, I had something to do with it. I’m not sure what that is, so I was wondering if I could borrow your Walkman to find out.
“Not much,” I say.
I knocked his hand away with a quick backhand swipe that every girl should master. And that’s when Wally emerged from his shell. That’s when Wally made a sound. His mouth stayed shut, and it was nothing more than a quick click of the tongue, but that little noise took me by surprise. Inside, I knew, Wally was a ball of rage.
A brass bell jingles when I open the door. The same bell Hannah listened to whenever she came in for a candy fix. Instead of letting it swing shut behind me, I hold the edge of the door and slowly push it shut, watching it ring the bell again.
I’ve had my butt grabbed before—no big deal—but this time it was grabbed because someone else wrote my name on a list. And when this guy saw me upset, did he apologize? No. Instead, he got aggressive. Then, in the most condescending way, he told me to relax. Then he put his hand on my shoulder, as if by touching me he’d somehow comfort me.
For Jessica, it was easier to think of me as Bad Hannah than as the Hannah she got to know at Monet’s. It was easier to accept. Easier to understand.
For her, the rumors needed to be true.
I think I need to finish them, and finish them tonight.
But should I? In one night? Or should I find my story, listen to it, then just enough of the next tape to see who I’m supposed to pass them off to?
After your visits, I twisted my blinds shut every night. I locked out the stars and I never saw lightning again. Each night, I simply turned out the lights and went to bed.
“And you?” I ask. “What did you do?”
For a moment, his eyes stare through me. Then he blinks.
“Nothing. It’s ridiculous,” he says. “I don’t belong on those tapes. Hannah just wanted an excuse to kill herself.”
I let the rock drop onto the sidewalk. It was either that or smash it in his face right there.
Watching those guys pummel each other so no one would suspect them of being weak was too much for me. Their reputations were more important than their faces. And Courtney’s reputation was more important than my reputation.
If you ever caught me reading one of those teen magazines, I swear, it wasn’t for the makeup tips. It was for the surveys.
Because you never wore makeup, Hannah. You didn’t need it.
Fine, some of the hair and makeup tips were helpful.
You wore makeup?
Right then, in that office, with the realization that no one knew the truth about my life, my thoughts about the world were shaken.
Like driving along a bumpy road and losing control of the steering wheel, tossing you—just a tad—off the road. The wheels kick up some dirt, but you’re able to pull it back. Yet no matter how tightly you grip the wheel, no matter how hard you try to drive straight, something keeps jerking you to the side. You have so little control over anything anymore. And at some point, the struggle becomes too much—too tiring—and you consider letting go. Allowing tragedy… or whatever… to happen.
“Did you order yet?”
I swivel around. Mom sits on the stool next to me and pulls out a menu. Beside her, on the counter, is Hannah’s shoebox.
“Are you staying?” I ask.
If she stays, we can talk. I don’t mind. It would be nice to free my thoughts for a while. To take a break.
Maybe it didn’t seem like a big deal to you, Zach. But now, I hope you understand. My world was collapsing. I needed those notes. I needed any hope those notes might have offered.
And you? You took that hope away. You decided I didn’t deserve to have it.
If you hear a song that makes you cry and you don’t want to cry anymore, you don’t listen to that song anymore.
But you can’t get away from yourself. You can’t decide not to see yourself anymore. You can’t decide to turn off the noise in your head.
Why, whenever anyone saw us, did I pretend it meant nothing? We were working, that’s what I wanted them to believe. Not hanging out. Just working.
Because Hannah had a reputation. A reputation that scared me.
Two people—me and him—one house. Yet he drove away with no idea of his link to me, the girl on the sidewalk. And for some reason, at that moment, the air felt heavy. Filled with loneliness. And that loneliness stayed with me through the rest of the night.
Even the best moments of the night were affected by that one incident—by that nonincident—in front of my old house. His lack of interest in me was a reminder. Even though I had a history in that house, it didn’t matter. You can’t go back to how things were.
The only thing that’s not fair are these tapes, Hannah, because I was there for you. We were talking. You could have said anything. I would have listened to absolutely anything.
How many times had I let myself connect with someone only to have it thrown back in my face?
Everything seemed good, but I knew it had the potential to be awful. Much, much more painful than the others.
The bedroom door opened again. But again, you pulled it shut. And you tried to make a joke of it. “Trust me,” you said, “she won’t move. She’ll just lay there.”
And what was his response? What was it? What was his reasoning for you to step aside and let him in that room? Do you remember? Because I do.
It was the night shift.
He told you he was working the night shift and had to leave in a few minutes.
A few minutes, that’s all he needed with her. So just relax and step aside.
And that’s all it took for you to let him open the door.
“Honestly. Thank you,” I say. And when I say it, I mean it for more than just the ride. For everything. For how he reacted when I broke down and cried. For trying to make me laugh on the most horrible night of my life.
It feels good knowing someone understands what I’m listening to, what I’m going through. Somehow, it makes it not as scary to keep listening.
I want to look back. To look over my shoulder and see the Stop sign with huge reflective letters, pleading with Hannah. Stop!
But I keep facing forward, refusing to see it as more than it is. It’s a sign. A stop sign on a street corner. Nothing more.
Just two more to go. Don’t give up on me now.
I’m sorry. I guess that’s an odd thing to say. Because isn’t that what I’m doing? Giving up?
Yes. As a matter of fact, I am. And that, more than anything else, is what this all comes down to. Me… giving up… on me.
No matter what I’ve said so far, no matter who I’ve spoken of, it all comes back to—it all ends with—me.
I’m walking down the hall.
Her voice is clear. It’s louder.
His door is closed behind me. It’s staying closed.
He’s not coming.
I press my face hard against the bars. They feel like a vise tightening against my skull the further I push.
He’s letting me go.
A flood of emotion rushes into me. Pain and anger. Sadness and pity. But most surprising of all, hope.
I keep walking.
Skye’s footsteps are growing louder now. And the closer I get to her, the faster I walk, and the lighter I feel. My throat begins to relax.
Two steps behind her, I say her name.