“Two weeks, Kaya. Enjoy.”
I nod. “Got it. Thanks.” I take the book from the librarian.
Someone pushes me gently. “Hi Loner.”
I don’t have to look to know it’s Arden. Because she’s my only friend. “Hi Social Butterfly.” I turn to her. “What gives me the privilege of your company today?” We head towards the doors.
“My birthday, idiot. It’s this Friday.” She elbows me. “Halloween, too, but we all know my birthday’s more important.” She gives me a sly smile.
“Can I be a roly poly?”
“And hide at the house? Dream on.” She nudges me. “See you there?”
“I have to ask my parents.”
“What, do they control your life?”
“Well, no, I mean—”
“Kaya.” Arden drags me to a couch. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure.” I tug at my jacket sleeves.
“Why do you study so hard?”
I shrug. “My parents say GPA is everything.”
Arden grins. “More than me?”
Arden stands up briskly. “That’s what I thought.” She waves cheerily. “See you on Saturday!”
I didn’t expect anything else. My parents won’t let me.
“You need to study.”
“My exams will be over my then.” I sigh. “And she’s basically my only friend.”
“Because we’re your parents, and we said so.”
“That’s stupid. You need to have a reason.”
“No. We said so, and you need to listen.”
“That’s completely illogical.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
Choking down my frustration, I head for my room. I stare at my homework. What would happen if I didn’t do my homework one night? Or if I loosened up a little? Got a B on a test?
I push the thoughts away. No, I need to study. I need to get good grades, I need to… I pull out my pencil case and get to work. I need to get good grades, I need to get good grades, I need to…
Arden catches me in science. She winks. “So? Birthday?”
“I…” At that moment, Zach Williams brushes by. He puts his arm around Arden.
I break away and head to Spanish. Quiz about Frida Kahlo. She married Diego Rivera, the two had a rocky relationship, she mostly drew self portraits…
What political party was Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in?
I freeze. What political party… Drawing a blank. I’m drawing a blank. Sweat beads on my palms. What political party… Socialism? Communism? I can hear my heart in my ears. Socialism? Communism? Socialism, communism, socialism, communism…
I finally circle socialism.
“Thank you,” Señora Garcia says when I turn my quiz in. “Are we all finished?”
The sea of faces nods.
“Great, let’s go over it.” As she goes down the questions, a sickening feeling twists my stomach.
“Number 25,” Señora Garcia says. “Last question. Communism.” I missed one. What is that? 96? I can’t get that. Can’t get that. Can’t. I hold back the burning in my eyes. I should have studied more! I should have known that! Stupid. Stupid.
At home, I lay my head down on my desk. And I let the tears flow.
Afterschool the next day, Zach stops me. “Hey, Kaya.”
“Hey.” I continue walking.
“Wait.” He steps in front of me. “You don’t look too happy.”
“Maybe it’s you,” I snap. “Move.” I try to sidestep him, but his arm is in the way.
“Wait.” He rummages in his backpack. “I know something that helps.” He hands me a bag of white powder. “Take some. I promise you’ll feel good right away.”
I freeze. “What is that?”
“I small doozy will make you feel like heaven.” He grins. “It’ll erase that frown.”
“You mean drugs?”
“Same difference. Clears your head.”
“Clears my head?”
“Happy, happy, happy,” he sings softly. “Let your imagination fly…”
I remember what my parents said. You have to study. We said so. That doesn’t matter. No.
I snatch the bag and shove it into my pocket.
“You’ll thank me!” Zach calls after me.
“In your dreams,” I shout. Why did I do that? Because he said happy, he said my imagination could fly. Maybe I can forget my horrible grades. Maybe.
I step into the car and it only takes two seconds for the yelling to begin.
“I saw your grades! 96? Quizzes are supposed to be review. That should’ve been an automatic 100. Didn’t I tell you GPA comes first? You wanted a reason why you can’t go to that girl’s party? Because of your grades. Ask after your grades are good, and then we might consider it. But not when your grades are down the drain! At this rate, you’ll end up at the community college. Do you want that?”
Somewhere in there, I space out. Her words bounce around, hitting my ears, but I’m not listening.
When I retreat to my room, I hug my pillow to my chest and let the tears come again. So close. So close to a 100. I had a 50/50 chance, and I guessed wrong. Idiot. Stupid. Stupid.
I dig into my pocket and stare at the Ziploc bag. Happy, he said. Happy. But what if I die? From overdose?
It doesn’t matter.
Frantically, I open it and dump it into my mouth. Happy, happy, happy. Make me happy. Please.
And it does. Everything seems to crystallize, so clear. My grades are just a tiny black splotch at the edge of my vision. That’s all.
“I can do it,” I say. I start on my homework eagerly. And for once, everything is smooth. Easy. So crystal clear.
I can even go to bed early today. I bury myself in the blankets and curl up. The black splotch is growing, but it’s not too big yet. Not too big. I’ll think about it later. First, sleep.
The next morning, the black is back. Shrouding my vision. I stare dolefully at the few bits of powder left in the bag. I could take some. And everything would be good.
No. No, that’s getting close to addiction. I shove the bag under a few binders and head for school.
In math, I get back a 99 on a test. I grit my teeth to hold back a moan of frustration. I missed the bonus. One freaking question, and I could’ve had a 104. The kid next to me got a 109. Why couldn’t I get a 109? Because I’m stupid, stupid, stupid.
This time, I find Zach outside. I pull him aside. “Do you have more?”
He grins. “Crack feel good, don’t it?” He winks and hands me another baggie. “You’re hot. Let’s do it someday.”
“Aren’t you with Arden?” I ask sharply. He shrugs.
“It’s not official. So it’s not cheating.”
“Kaya Stafford!” A voice shouts. I wince.
“Sorry, my mom’s here. Bye.”
I shove the bag in my pocket and get in the car. This time, the shouting begins milliseconds after the door closes.
“Kaya! Why are you with a boy? You don’t have time for those things. I thought you were smart enough to know that. Your GPA comes first.”
She continues talking, but I shut her out. I put my hand in my pocket and run my fingers over the grainy surface of the Ziploc bag.
The moment I make it to my room, I shut the door and pull out the bag. A second later, the white powder clogs my mouth. I swallow it eagerly. Then I take a deep breath.
Yes, the test will be okay. Don’t worry about it. Not a big deal. I finish my homework like lightning again and sit back in my chair, a smile on my lips. Finally at peace. Finally, everything seems to make sense.
I glance at my planner. Right, a test tomorrow. But I can handle it. I can do it. Not a big deal. I start shivering. My fingers twitch by themselves. I watch, entranced by the convulsions. My arm moves by itself. Intriguing.
I flip my laptop open and find a movie online. Maybe slightly illegal, but it’s okay. I plug in my earphones and sit back. It’s okay. I’m happy.
I crawl out of bed the next day feeling a little hazy. My vision is covered in a black shade. And it seems to rotate, shift, morph into figures. I shake my head. But they keep moving, changing, swirling in my eyes. I do my best to ignore them.
The test is horrible. All the way through, I shout at myself in my head. I can hear the words in my mother’s voice. Idiot! Stupid! You should have studied! Happiness doesn’t matter, GPA comes first! GPA comes first! GPA comes first!
And that continues in my head. GPA comes first! After I turn in my test. GPA comes first! After I leave class, after I go to the library. GPA comes first! GPA comes first!
Someone touches my shoulder. I jerk back violently. The hand disappears. GPA comes first.
“Kaya!” Someone steps in front of me. Hazy. The black shadows peel away from the figure. Golden strings spill from the head. No, not strings. Hair.
“Arden,” I realize.
“You okay?” She reaches for me, but I pull away.
“I’m fine. Don’t worry.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m fine!” I hiss.
“Oh, okay.” She smiles. “My birthday party’s tonight. I wanted to know if you were coming.”
“Can’t.” GPA comes first.
“Aw, why not?” She makes a pleading face. “Just to have some fun?” She puts a hand on my arm. “What would you want to do? I’ll make it happen.”
I shake my head. “I can’t.” GPA comes first.
“I can’t!” I exclaim. My voice rings in the quiet air. Several students give me odd looks. Arden steps backward.
“I’m sorry,” she says quickly. “I didn’t mean to be pushy.”
I walk away. “GPA comes first,” I whisper.
Afterschool, I grab three bags from Zach and hurry away.
“Hey, Kaya, wait up!”
“No!” I shout. “Leave me alone!”
I slip into the car and sit back, letting the shouts rattle around. Every once in a while, a snippet gets into my head. Should have. Idiot. What’s wrong with you? Stupid. GPA comes first. I rub my hand over the Ziploc bags. Slowly, round and round. Over the bumps. Next to the bumps.
As soon as we pull into the garage, I take off. I run to my room.
“Stop running!” My mom shouts. I race into my room and slam the door. I exhale when the lock is in place. Then I grab the powder and dump them into my mouth. First, second, and third bag. The door is rumbling.
“Open the door!” My mom screams.
“Leave me alone,” I choke out. Leave me alone. My heart thuds through my body. I can feel each pulse in my fingertips. I start shivering. I can’t control it. Shivering wildly. I can’t stop. My legs give way and I hit the floor. Pain lances through me. The shadows. They’re getting closer. They’re crawling on my walls, they have claws.
The door is rattling. A murderer is trying to get in. There’s thunder in my ears. Drums. Drums, deep in my ears. The drums are roaring. The murderer is roaring. The murderer is speaking. GPA comes first.
The door crashes open. The shadows are grabbing at me, pulling at my feet, my arms, my hair. Get up! They’re telling me. Stop pretending! But what am I pretending about? Do your homework! Didn’t I do it yesterday? And the day before? And the day before that?
The drums. So many drums, coursing through my limbs. Boom. So many. Boom Boom. So many shadows, sliding through my skin. Boom. Boom. Boom. So many.
Happy, happy, happy, I can hear him singing. Happy, happy, happy. Let your imagination fly.
Everything is okay. It’s not my imagination anymore. It really is over.
So loud. So many.
I let out a shuddering breath. It’s okay.