Authors: Denise Grover Swank
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #Apocalyptic & Post-Apocalyptic, #Love & Romance, #On the Otherside Book One
I push to my feet and run as a slow drizzle falls from the sky. The pounding of my feet on the pavement fills my ears, fills my head until my heartbeat finds a rhythmic union. Tears blur my vision, but I know where I’m going. The only place where my world makes sense.
I run from the school, down the street a half-mile and turn the corner down the two-lane highway that edges town. I ignore the ache in my leg that creeps up my thigh. My hair grows slick and heavy from the rain. My thin long-sleeved t-shirt plasters to my body.
I push on despite the stitch in my side and the now-sharp pain in my leg. The gray stone church tucked into the edge of the woods comes into view. It’s my beacon, my anchor. Tears stream down my face and blend with the rain, which now falls at a steady rate. My breath comes in desperate pants, yet I refuse to slow down, refuse to stop until I’m
My feet crunch against the gravel of the church parking lot and my gait falters. A black wrought-iron fence lies ahead. My hands fumble with the latch of the gate until it opens. The hinges creak as I rush through, toward the back of the cemetery where the fence and trees are almost one. I run past the older headstones, past the newer compact markers until I drop. The soft ground absorbs the impact as my knees hit the earth. I fall face forward before Monica’s headstone.
It should’ve been me,” I cry, my hands grasping the edges of the cold, slick stone. Gut-wrenching sobs rack my body. The rain falls harder, pelting my back.
Warm hands wrap around my arms, pulling me off the ground. My body turns and my face presses into a firm, warm chest. I’m enveloped inside the opening of a warm coat. I sink into the warmth, my legs barely holding me upright. A voice whispers in my ear, “It’s okay, Julia. I’m here now. Everything’s going to be okay.”
A sharp pain stabs my neck and then there’s nothing.
I wake to a hand shaking my shoulder, rocking my face into something soft.
Julia.” My sister’s voice calls through the murkiness that clouds my head. She shakes harder. “Julia!”
Rolling over with a moan, I croak, “What?” My eyes squint open to see the ashen face of my eleven-year-old sister, Anna.
I thought you were dead,” she whispers, eyes wide. Her hand trembles as her nails bite into my shoulder through my damp shirt.
Looking around, I try to orient myself. I’m laying on the sofa in my living room wrapped in a blanket with no memory of how I got there. I sit up, swinging my legs over the edge trying to remember.
I kept shaking you and you didn’t move. I thought you were dead.”
No.” I pull her into a hug. “No, I’m not dead,” I say, amazed to discover for the first time since the accident that I don’t wish I was.
You’re hugging me,” she says in awe. “You haven’t hugged me since…”
She’s right. I haven’t hugged her for months. My heavy depression feels lighter and I struggle to understand why.
Why are you lying on the sofa all wet?”
I shake my head, as if the answer is stuck in my mind and I only need to lodge it into place. My last memory was lying in front of Monica’s grave then someone pulling me up. Did I black out? If I admit I don’t remember, Mom will freak out and make an emergency call to the psychologist. I stuff down my panic.
I got caught in the rain walking home from school.” My voice falters, but Anna doesn’t seem to notice.
Why didn’t you take the bus? Why didn’t you change clothes?”
“I missed the bus and I was really tired when I got home so I laid down to rest. I fell asleep.” I hate liars and now I am one.
I stand up, a wave of dizziness swamping my head. Tossing the ivory thermal blanket on the sofa, I wonder why I don’t remember getting it out of the hall closet. My bare toes wiggle against the coarse carpet pile. Hysteria builds. Where are my shoes? “But nothing. I’m going to take a shower.”
The fog in my head burns off as I walk to the bathroom. The last time I felt like this was when I took pain pills for my broken leg after the accident.
Did someone drug me?
I roll my eyes. Now I can add delusional to my list of mental peculiarities.
I turn on the shower, letting the steam fill the room as I strip off my wet, muddy clothes. How could I have been drugged? Who pulled me off the ground and whispered in my ear? Or have I imagined it all, like the dreams of Monica surviving the accident?
I step into the warm water and realize the heaviness that usually clings like an albatross has eased. The water washes over my head, running over my eyes and into my mouth. I spit it out, leaning my head back to revel in the sensation of
Is this what happens when you succumb to the blackness inside your soul?
Maybe I imagined the person in the cemetery, but I don’t think so. If Anna just came home from school, I wouldn’t have had time to walk home and fall asleep on the sofa. Someone had to have brought me home, but the question is who? And why.
I should be scared. I could have been kidnapped or murdered, but my only fear centers on the fact that I might be losing touch with reality. If my mind made up the person, I should tell Mom or the doctor, but I worry they’ll give me more drugs, or worse, have me committed. It’s a real possibility. I’ve already heard Mom talk to Dr. Weaver about it on the phone. Before, I never cared. Now, I suddenly do.
I finish washing my hair and wrap it up in a towel before slipping into my room to get dressed. A knock raps on the door as I pull a shirt over my head.
The door opens and my mother fills the gap, a surprised expression on her face. I realize I don’t answer any more. She usually knocks and just comes in.
Everything okay?” she asks in apprehension. Her shoulders are steeled.
I pick up the towel and rub my wet hair. “Yeah.”
Her fingers grip the edge of the door. “Anna said she found you passed out on the sofa and soaking wet when she got home from school.”
I missed the bus and was really tired when I got home. I sat down for a minute and fell asleep.”
She watches me, her eyes narrowing in her evaluation. “Maybe we should have your medication altered if you’re so exhausted that you’re falling asleep soaking wet.”
No. No meds,” I protest, dropping the towel. Neither she nor the doctor knows that I weaned myself off them a few months ago. “And thanks for letting me find out I might go to alternative school from Mrs. Hernandez.” My tone is hateful, but I don’t care.
I guess I’m supposed to be grateful that I get to be tutored like a baby first.”
Mom sinks into the doorframe and rests her head against the jamb. “I’m not the enemy here, Julia.”
I wish you had told me you’d been talking to her instead of going behind my back.”
She gnaws her bottom lip. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” She straightens. “You seem different.”
My eyes widen in panic. Does she think I’ve lost my mind? “How so?”
For one thing, you’re actually conversing with me. For another, Anna said you hugged her.”
Is it a crime to hug my sister?”
No, but it’s not normal for you…”
isn’t said but implied.
She said I scared her. I was trying to comfort her.” I bend down and pick up the wet towel, turning my back to her as I toss it into the hamper.
But Julia, that’s just it. You don’t comfort anyone any more.”
I whirl around, anger rising. After the months of icy nothingness, I find the contrast jolting. “You don’t like it when I’m depressed, but when I start to act normal, it freaks you out. Which is it, Mom? Which me do you want?”
She gasps. “I want you, any you I can get, but most importantly, I want you to be happy.”
Happy?” I take a step toward the door, clenching my hands into fists at my sides. “
” I shriek. “How in God’s name do you expect me to be happy? I killed Monica! I don’t deserve to be happy!”
It wasn’t your fault,” she protests, but as soon as the words leave her lips, regret fills her eyes.
Wasn’t my fault? Are you serious? Somehow the police disagreed when they charged me with reckless driving!”
But we don’t know that! You don’t remember what happened and there weren’t any witnesses.”
I sigh and sit on the edge of my bed. Weariness slips in and replaces my anger. “Mom, I know you’re only trying to make me feel better, but it doesn’t matter. Citation or not, I was driving. Monica died. It was my fault.”
We had this argument countless times the weeks following the accident, until finally I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed, let alone object to her denials. We agreed to disagree or more accurately, Mom would state her opinion and I listened in silence. My latest protest is one more sign that my normal has shifted.
Julia…” Mom takes a step into my room.
I look up, really seeing her for the first time in months. Gray streaks Mom’s dark hair. Worry lines etch her forehead and crinkle the corners of her eyes. My guilt is too heavy to bear. “I’m really tired and I don’t want to argue any more. I just want to lie down and take a nap.”
She hesitates in the doorway. I realize she is struggling with whether to call the doctor about my outburst.
Mrs. Hernandez told me she would have a tutor schedule for me tomorrow.” I offer. “I’m sure she’ll get things started right away.”
She leans against the door frame, giving away her indecision.
She told me I need to make more of an effort. I see how I’ve let you down and haven’t really thought about my future.” Lie number two. I ease my conscience by saying it’s just one more sin to add to the long and ever-growing list.
Mom rubs her face. I recognize the look of frustration while she wages her inner battle. “Yeah, you’re probably right,” she says, weariness in her voice.
I’ll make more of an effort. I promise.”
Her eyes lock with mine, my grim expression mirrored on her face.
If you don’t, you’re going to the other school, Julia..”
Dinner’s in half an hour.” She turns and walks out of my room.
When I wake in the morning, my thoughts are a little lighter than yesterday. I attribute it to the sun, which has finally made an appearance, the rain clouds rolling off to the east. But I can’t ignore that things have changed since I woke up on the sofa yesterday.
In fourth hour English Literature, I actually begin to take notes as the teacher discusses Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Did the narrator have sufficient motivation to kill the old man?” Mrs. Jacobs asks. She sits on the edge of her desk with an open book in one hand.
The class remains silent, heads bent over open literature books in an attempt to avoid eye contact.
Mark, what do you think?”
Mark, a beefy football player in the middle of the room, sits up straighter and clears his throat. “Uh… he said the old guy had a falcon eye that watched him.”
Close, a vulture-eye. Why would the eye bother him?”
He thought it was like… stalking him.”
Yes, that’s right.” Mrs. Jacobs gaze scans the room. “What do the rest of you think? Do you think the old man had a vulture eye that watched him?”
Silence fills the classroom.
Do I need to remind you that participation in discussions is part of your grade?”
Lindsey Thatcher, a cheerleader, raises her hand. “I think the young guy was crazy. Who spends an hour opening a door?”
You bring up a good point, Lindsey.” Mrs. Jacobs stands and puts the book down on her desk. “The narrator believes the fact that he spent so much time on the details proves that he was sane. What do you think?”
“He was a psycho,” Sarah says, leaning over her desk. “He saw and heard things that weren’t there. The police show up and he hears a heart beat when no one else does. The dude was crazy.” Sarah turns around to stare at me, her eyes full of menace. “But, what does Julia think?” She cocks an eyebrow with an evil grin.
All heads turn to look at me. I freeze, holding my breath as my face combusts. “Ah...” Sarah’s insinuation is clear. Julia’s crazy so she obviously knows. I wonder how far off she actually is.
Mrs. Jacobs looks confused, her eyes scanning the room. “I don’t think Julia wants to—”
That’s okay,” I say, softer than I intend. I raise my voice. “I’ll answer the question.”
All eyes are on me in rapt attention, waiting to hear what I have to say.
I scour my memory for what little I remember from reading the story a couple of years ago. “The narrator says his senses are better than everyone else’s, that he can see and hear what others can’t. He plots the old man’s death so he can find peace. The only way he knows how to do that is to kill him. He thinks his planning proves he’s sane.”
What about you, Julia?” Sarah asks, wide-eyed with feigned innocence. She cocks her head to one side as she waits for my response.
I narrow my gaze with a scowl. “What about me?”
Are you sane?”
Sarah!” Mrs. Jacobs exclaims.
Are you asking if I have the uncanny desire to smother you with a pillow and bury your heart in the floor?” I ask, my voice so sweet it could take the bite off bitter coffee. “It really hadn’t crossed my mind until you mentioned it.”
A collective gasp fills the room. Sarah’s mouth drops. Lindsey grabs Sarah’s arm in a protective gesture.
Did you hear that?” Sarah cries, swiveling to face Mrs. Jacobs. “Did you hear her threaten me? She’s crazy!”
Now, Sarah…” Mrs. Jacobs pats the air with her hands. “Everyone settle down. Julia was speaking figuratively, weren’t you, Julia?”
I lean back in my seat and cross my arms. Lifting my eyebrows, I tilt my head toward Sarah and plaster on a fake smile. “Of course.”
Sarah lets out a huff as the bell rings. Desks bang as students scramble to head out the door to lunch while casting frightened looks toward me as they go.
Mrs. Jacobs stands on tiptoe, searching for me over the tops of heads. “Julia, can I speak to you for a moment?”
Sarah shoots me a gloating smile of triumph before she and Lindsey leave the room. I pick up my backpack with a sigh and shuffle to the front.
The room has cleared out so it’s only Mrs. Jacobs and me. She studies me with such scrutiny that I cast my eyes to the floor.
We both know I can’t condone violence of any kind, even implied.” She stops while I prepare to be sent to the office. She lowers her voice. “But I think we both know that perhaps some things just need to be said.”
I look up, my mouth hanging open.
She straightens, resuming her stern demeanor. “We need to discuss your grade.”
I inhale a deep breath.
I’m worried you won’t be able to pass this class, even if you make up all the work you haven’t turned in.”
I nod, not surprised.
But I’m willing to let you try. I’ll give you until Thanksgiving to turn in all of your missing work.”
I nod again. “Thank you, Mrs. Jacobs.”
She purses her mouth. “Don’t be thanking me yet. I’m not sure you realize how far behind you actually are. I hear Mrs. Hernandez has lined up a tutor for you.”
I shuffle the backpack to my other shoulder. “She said she’d tell me my schedule today.”
You need to get started on your makeup assignments as soon as possible. If you or your tutor need anything from me, don’t hesitate to ask.”