An earthquake shakes the ground beneath me and I swim to consciousness, grasping for a handhold. Mom’s voice slithers into my dream state. “Alix? Honey?”
My eyelids flutter open to the faint light of dawn peeking through my window shade. “Alix?” she repeats.
I roll over and the clock comes into focus: 6:08. The alarm is set to go off in seven minutes. Why is she waking me?
A shadow looms in my doorway. Dad. Mom’s sitting on the bed beside me. I get this sense of unease and push myself up on my elbows. “What’s wrong?”
Mom takes my hand in both of hers. “There’s been an accident.” She glances over her shoulder at Dad. To me she goes, “A tragedy.”
My stomach drops. “Is it Ethan?”
“No. Ethan’s fine,” Mom says.
I expel a sigh of relief. Over Christmas, right after he turned five months old, he came down with whooping cough. It was serious enough that Mom checked him into the hospital for two nights.
Dad comes into my room and sits at the end of my bed, rubbing my exposed ankle. It’s weird. He rarely touches me.
“It’s Swanee,” Mom says. “She was out running this morning and collapsed. By the time anyone found her, she was gone.”
“Gone?” What does that mean?
“She had a sudden cardiac arrest,” Mom answers. “I’m so sorry.”
“No,” I say.
Mom presses my hand between hers. “There’s nothing anyone could’ve done.”
“I could’ve. I know CPR. You taught me.”
She shakes her head. “A friend of mine in med school died of the same thing. He was playing soccer, not even running, just standing there waiting for the ball when his heart gave out. He was given CPR on the spot, but it was already too late.”
“No.” I hear my disembodied voice. “No, no, no.”
Mom pulls me up and holds me, and then the screaming crescendos in my head: NO NO NO NO NO.
I have to see Swan. Get to her house and talk to her. I need to hold her, feel her lips on mine, her desire pulse through me.
Today’s the day I’m going to tell her that I’m ready. She’s been so patient with me while I’ve worked through my fear. It frustrated her. I know that. But now I’m ready to take our relationship to the next level. “No more waiting,” I’ll whisper in her ear as soon as I see her.
My head is clouded and my mouth feels stuffed with cotton balls. Mom and Dad are gone from my room, so I drag myself out of bed and stagger to the bathroom. Unexpectedly, I hurl. Nothing in my stomach. I dry heave three more times.
I feel so weak I can barely hold my toothbrush, but somehow I manage to brush my teeth and start the shower. Standing under the massaging spray, I feel better. More alert.
I dress in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt and then grab my bag and Dad’s car keys to drive to Swan’s house. Mom’s body barricades the door to the garage. “Where are you going?”
“To Swanee’s. We’re snowboarding at Keystone today. I told you.” I told her last weekend. It’s already February, and we’ve only been to the slopes three times this year. The first time during winter break, when Swanee and I met and officially became a couple.
“Honey, Swanee’s gone. And today is Sunday.”
Sunday? No, it’s Saturday. “I’m late. We wanted to get an early start so we could get there before the lift lines got too long. I’ll ask Jewell and Asher to follow me back to the house so I can drop off Dad’s car, since they’re coming, too—”
Mom clutches my arm. “Jewell and Asher need to make funeral arrangements. You can’t go over there.”
I push Mom away, hard. “Yes, I can.” She catches her foot on a mud rug and stumbles backward into the washing machine.
“Alixandra!” She chases me to the garage, favoring the ankle she twisted when she tripped. “You’re not going. They need to be with family now.”
“I am family!” I yell. A dizzy spell makes me brace myself against Dad’s Prius.
“You’re in no shape to drive,” Mom says. “Give me the keys.”
Then it dawns on me. “You drugged me.” I whirl on her and the vertigo makes my head spin. “You drugged me, didn’t you?”
“I gave you a mild sedative, yes.”
She drugged me because she knew what I was going to tell Swanee today. I don’t know how, but she knew.
“Swanee is dead.” Mom clutches both my arms. “She’s gone, Alix. She died yesterday morning.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Mom looks hurt. “I’d never lie to you.”
The statement makes me reel, considering all the lies I’ve told her lately.
My right hand is trembling, but I manage to get the key in the lock and open the door.
Mom blocks me from getting in.
“I have to go!” I shout at her. My voice lowers a notch. “I have to.”
She gazes into my eyes. “You can’t drive. You can hardly stand, and you don’t even have shoes on.”
I peer down and see she’s right.
“Do you have your cell?” Mom asks.
My cell? Why? Is she going to take it away? Last month I overspent my text minutes, but what did Mom and Dad expect? I have a girlfriend now. We need to communicate.
She holds out her hand and I dig around in my bag for the phone. She plucks it from my palm and dials a number, looking at me while she waits for an answer. My toes curl under on the cold concrete.
What’s the date? Swan’s first track meet isn’t until March, but she’s been preparing all year.
Run. She’s a runner. She’s tall and lean, not an ounce of body fat. I feel like a blob next to her. Swanee has a good chance of winning the 5A title again this year for Arvada. She has six offers on the table from the top track-and-field colleges. She doesn’t want to go out of state and leave me behind, but I told her she has to follow her dream. So she signed with Arizona State. It’s going to be hard carrying on a long-distance relationship for a whole year. We can do it, though. Until I get to Arizona, our love will see us through.
Mom’s talking to me.
“Give me the keys.”
I fist them behind my back.
She says, “Jewell wants to see you. But please, Alix, show respect. She has to make arrangements for Swanee.”
No. Jewell will greet me at the door like always. “Hi, Alix.” She’ll hold the door wide open for me. “Wassup, girlfriend?”
And I’ll tell her. She might make a cappuccino for me and sit at the kitchen table to shoot the breeze. She’s so great. Eventually, she’ll say, “Swan’s in her room. Go on in.” She’s fine with me being in Swanee’s room with the door closed. Swanee even said it’d be fine if I stayed over. My first thought was, How many girls have stayed over? But it was none of my business. I knew she wasn’t a virgin, like me.
My mom would never let Swanee spend the night. Horrors. We can’t even be in my room together with the door closed. My parents are such prudes.
Mom stands there with her palm open, waiting for me to give up the keys. It’s useless trying to hold my ground. I hand over the keys and she says, “Go put your boots on.”
In the mudroom, I slip my numb feet into my boots.
It’s snowing. When did it start to snow? Swanee hates it when the weather is crappy. It’s enough to compete, she says, without having to freeze your ass off in snow or rain or freezing drizzle.
I know the route to the Durbins’ by heart and direct Mom there.
In front of Swanee’s house and around the cul-de-sac, there are ten or twelve cars parked. Mom pulls in behind Derek’s van. Not Derek anymore. He wants to be known as Genjko. What a weirdo.
Mom says, “We’ll just stay long enough to pay our respects, and then leave.”
I race to the door. The thought of seeing Swan, of feeling the charge of electricity when our eyes meet and she smiles her love.
I ring the bell.
Swanee’s sister, Joss, answers. I take one look at her and my breath catches.
“Who is it?” Jewell wedges herself between Joss and the door. Her eyes are puffy and red. She looks from Mom to me, hiccups, and says, “Oh, Alix.” She covers her mouth and then smothers me in a hug.
It can’t be true. It can’t it can’t it can’t.
I cry into my pillow all night. I cry as hard as Ethan used to when he was a newborn. That hopeless, helpless wailing. My cell’s been ringing off and on, so finally I check the ID. It’s an unknown number. I can’t talk to anyone right now.
I don’t even bother getting up for school. Mom doesn’t make a big deal out of it, the way she usually does. She even asks if I want her to stay home with me. I tell her no. She has her job, her babies. She’s a doctor in the neonatal center at St. Anthony where she keeps preemies alive.
Why? I wonder. So they can live until they’re seventeen and then drop dead?
I cry. I must cry myself to sleep.
I’m awakened by a knock on my door. I roll over to see Mom stick her head in. “Joss is here to see you.”
I want to say, Tell her to go away. I want to say, Can she bring back Swanee?
I feel a tear trickle out of the corner of my eye. It’s 2:32. AM? PM? What day?
Joss plops on the edge of my bed. Her face is impassive, but I can tell she’s struggling to maintain control. She and Swanee are only two years apart, and they’re more like best friends than sisters.
A wave of resentment rises up inside me. All those years Joss had with Swanee, and I only got six weeks. Joss knows her better than I ever will. How fair is that?
She’s dressed in black. She always dresses in black. Joss is one of those invisible moles no one ever notices. So unlike Swanee, who is bright and fun and lively.
Is. Was. I’m stuck in present tense.
Joss asks, “Why?”
Like I have the answer.
I wish she’d go. I can’t engage with anyone right now, especially her.
“What are we going to do?” she says.
We? I know what I’m going to do. Lie here and die.
Swanee’s only been dead for three and a half days. She could still come back, right? People can be resuscitated. People’s hearts have stopped before, and doctors were able to restart them.
My mother could do it—if she wanted to.
Joss gets up, shuffles over to my dresser, and picks up my ski goggles.
GO! I want to shout. I want to push her out the door. I tuck my knees into my chest and turn over.
After about a year, she clues in. When she’s gone, I just start bawling.
We met on a ski trip the Wednesday after Christmas. My BFF Betheny and I were in ski club at the time and had planned to go to Winter Park, but Betheny called that morning with bad cramps. Even though we’d already bought the lift tickets, I considered not going, since I hate doing things alone. Ethan was home from the hospital, and I should’ve asked Mom and Dad if they needed me to stay and help out. With chores. Not with Ethan. He scares me. He seems so fragile I’m constantly afraid I’ll drop him or do something hideously wrong that’ll damage him forever.
In the end, selfish me decided she deserved a break from the crying and coughing and sleep deprivation.
The ski bus was packed by the time I boarded. There was only one empty row, so I snatched it up. Most people from ski club I knew enough to smile and say hi to, but I sort of rode on Betheny’s wings. She’d always been the popular one. She made the cheer squad this year, and even though we’d been friends since elementary, I sometimes felt totally outside her new flock of friends.
It wasn’t her fault. I’m just insecure, I guess.
As I was digging out my nano, I heard, “Is this seat taken?”
I looked up and saw Swanee. My stomach did a double flip. Of course I knew who she was. Superathlete. Most out lesbian in school. I think every other g*y and bi girl lusted after her from afar. At the beginning of the year she was with this girl Rachel Carter? Carver? Then I heard through the Gay/Straight Alliance grapevine that Rachel had moved. I didn’t know if they were still together or not.
“Hello?” Swanee said. “Sprekken zee Anglaise?”
“Huh? Oh, no. I mean, yes.” Shit, I thought. Could I sound more dense? I moved my pack off the empty seat.
“You’re Alix, right?”
She slid her pack under the seat in front of us while my mouth gaped open. “I’m Swanee,” she said.
She knew my name. It nearly took a force of nature for me to breathe out, “Hi.”
“A friend was going to come with me today, but she sprained her ankle,” Swanee said. “Did we meet at Rainbow Alley?”
Rainbow Alley is Denver’s LGBTQI Center. “I don’t think so. I haven’t been there in a while.”
“Me neither. Oh, I know.” She aimed an index finger at me. “You’re in the GSA at school.”
“Yeah.” Even though I hadn’t attended many meetings this year, since Betheny was always so busy and I still felt uncomfortable going alone.
“And you hang with the cheers.” She sort of wrinkled her nose.
“Just one,” I said. “Betheny. My best friend.”
Swanee’s eyebrows rose. “Is that all she is? Because everyone assumes…” The sentence dangled.
“What?” Everyone who?
I might’ve let out a snort. Like a boar. “Betheny’s not gay.”
“You sure of that?”