Authors: Denise Grover Swank
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #Apocalyptic & Post-Apocalyptic, #Love & Romance, #On the Otherside Book One
Thank you.” I mumble as I leave the room and head to the cafeteria.
I walk into the noisy multipurpose room and head straight for the food line. After I pay for my salad and bottled water, I sit at a table alone, as usual. But today, heads turn and stare in curiosity. I knew it wouldn’t be long for word to spread about my threat to Sarah, I just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.
I keep my head bent as if I find my wilted lettuce and diluted ranch dressing fascinating. The buzz of whispers fills the room. I refuse to look up and acknowledge them as I try to swallow a mouthful of salad. What was I thinking? I had finally reached a status of obscurity, no more looks, no more whispers and within five minutes I’d destroyed two months’ worth of progress.
I should just ignore it. I’ve gotten so good at tuning everything out it shouldn’t be an issue, but something inside me changed yesterday. I suddenly have the urge to fight. Fight what, I don’t know, but which is better— the anger or the void?
I stand and look around the room. The voices hush and all eyes are on me. I lift my chin and carry my tray to the trash then leave the cafeteria, heading into the hallway. I planned to see Mrs. Hernandez later, but now is as good a time as any.
I’m ten feet from her office when the door opens. Evan emerges, coming down the hall toward me. My stride slows, matching his. I keep my eyes forward and try to act nonchalant, but my heart races as his eyes lock with mine.
Hello, Julia,” he says, the words warm and soft.
For a moment, I think I’m hallucinating when he pauses in front of me. His hand lifts as if he intends to reach for me, then it drops to his side.
I swallow, trying to find my voice. “Hi.” I croak. Brilliant.
Conflicting emotions flash in his eyes before his mouth lifts into a sad smile. “I’ll see you later.” He walks past me, moving toward the lunchroom. I glance over my shoulder, expecting him to turn around.
I shake my head. What am I doing? I’ve just reinforced my school pariah status with the incident in Literature and now I’m ogling one of the most popular guys in school. It’s obvious he hasn’t heard what I’ve just done, otherwise he wouldn’t be so friendly.
No one defies Sarah Chapman. Not if they know what’s best for them.
With a sigh, I walk to Mrs. Hernandez’s doorway. She sits at her desk and glances up, her eyes wide in surprise. “Julia.”
I stare at a worn spot on the carpet. “Mrs. Hernandez, sorry about yesterday.”
She stands and moves around her desk. “No, that’s quite all right. You’re entitled to some tears.” She lowers her head to look into my eyes. “Sometimes it actually helps.”
I nod. Maybe that explains why I feel different.
I’ve been working on lining up your tutors.” She walks back to the other side of her desk and opens a file. “You’re failing two classes and you have a D in Trigonometry and History. I had several possible tutors but organizing a schedule was a nightmare, as you can imagine. Thankfully, I have a volunteer to tutor you in three of your classes.”
A volunteer? I can’t imagine that anyone would volunteer. I look up in shock.
Evan Whittaker has offered to work with you on Trig, History and English.”
I sit down in the chair in shock. “Why?”
Why would he do such a thing?”
Despite what you think, Julia, the entire student body is not out to get you.”
After lunch, I’m no longer sure about that, but I keep my doubt to myself. “When do I start?”
She smiles. “This afternoon if it works for you. Evan said he could meet you in the library after school.”
Evan. I take a deep breath. Can I sit next to Evan and concentrate? Do I have a choice? “Who’s my other tutor?”
Maryann Sweeney. She’ll help you with Chemistry on Monday afternoons. You and Evan can work out your schedule for the other classes.”
Later, I’m anxious when I get to History, but Evan faces the front of the class, ignoring me like half the students. The other half cast snide looks in my direction. When class is over, Sarah pulls Evan into the hallway, nudging her head in my direction as I pass. Her mouth pulls into an exaggerated pout.
I hurry to my locker and remove several textbooks. They’re too heavy for my backpack so I balance them on my hip as I debate whether I should go to the library and wait for Evan. I have serious doubts he’ll show up after talking to Sarah, but I don’t want Mrs. Hernandez to say I bailed. I’ll go to the library and wait ten minutes then when he doesn’t show, I can at least say I’ve done my part.
The library is deserted with the exception of a couple of students sitting around a table working on a project in hushed tones. The librarian perches behind her desk, the tapping of her keys echo with a muffled sound. I sit at a wooden table that seats six and stack my books in a neat pile, lining the edges up. I glance at the clock. 3:10.
I pull out a notebook and doodle, not even thinking about what my hand is doing. If I think about drawing, my fingers tighten around the pen or pencil and the lines stiffen. But when I relax and let my hand go, intricate swirls and patterns fill the page.
Lost in my artwork, I check the clock, surprised to see it’s already 3:23. The ten minutes are up. I’ve even given him three extra minutes. I stand with a sigh, surprised by my disappointment. Did I really think he’d show?
Hauling my backpack onto the table, I unzip the bag and stuff my textbook inside.
I spin toward the voice behind me.
Evan stands with several textbooks in his arms, his eyebrows lifted.
I scrunch my mouth and shrug. “I didn’t think you were coming.”
He drops the books on the table, a loud thud filling the room. The librarian looks up as Evan slides into the chair next to me. “Why not? Didn’t Mrs. Hernandez tell you I was?”
Well… yes… but I waited and you didn’t show up.”
I had to go around and talk to your teachers. Find out what they wanted me to work on. As it was, I only got to two of them, but I figured that was enough for one day.” He rests his forearms on the table, lacing his fingers together in a casual pose, yet they tremble slightly. He looks nervous. His head leans forward and he turns to study me.
A blush creeps up my neck.
I think that’s the most I’ve heard you say,” he says, then looks flustered. “In ages,” he tacks on, like it’s an afterthought.
You missed my speech in English Lit earlier.” I immediately regret bringing it up. I’m not sure why Evan is sitting next to me, but I’m curious enough I don’t want him to run off yet.
He opens his history book. “So I heard…Sarah gave me quite an earful.”
Yet, you’re still here.”
His dark eyebrows rise. “Sure, why not?”
I shrug again. “Because of Sarah. You two have history.”
He looks confused. “Umm…”
You two decided you were king and queen of the fourth grade and have ruled with an iron fist ever since. Don’t you all have a pack mentality? Share a brain cell?”
Ha. Ha.” He grimaces. “Very funny.” But a genuine smile tugs on the corners of his lips.
Seriously.” I lower my voice. “Why are you tutoring me?”
Why not? What’s the big deal?”
The big deal is you barely acknowledged my existence before the accident, and let’s face it, no one acknowledges my existence since.”
He seems at a loss for words and taps his pencil on the open textbook. “Community service,” he finally says and shrugs. “I need it to graduate.”
So, I’d rather sit in a library tutoring you than working in a food pantry. Maybe that makes me an asshole, but so be it.”
I stare at a deep gouge on the table. I’m not sure what I expected him to say, but for some reason, that isn’t it.
History or English Lit?”
What do you want to work on, History or English Lit?”
My answer is neither, which doesn’t seem appropriate given the circumstances. “History, since you have the book already open.”
He pulls a note out of his textbook. I recognize Mr. Archer’s handwriting scribbled on one side. “Wow, you’re really behind,” Evan finally says. “What have you been doing the last month?”
Isn’t it obvious? Nothing.”
He sighs and runs a hand through his hair. The strands curl around his fingers and remain out of place even after his hand lowers. “It was kind of a rhetorical question.” His blue eyes look up into mine. “Honestly, Jules, I don’t know how we’re going to pull you out of this.”
I suck in my breath. “What did you call me?”
His mouth drops open as his eyes widen. “I… is it not okay to call you Jules?”
No one calls me that. Not anymore.”
He raises his hands up in surrender. His face droops in defeat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.” He leans forward, resting his elbows on the table. His face falls into his open hands as he groans. “I think we should call it a day.” He sits up straight, shutting the history book. “It’s obvious we’ve gotten started on the wrong foot. You need to read first anyway, which I’m presuming you haven’t done. You pretty much have total recall of everything you read and you don’t know any of this stuff. Read Chapter Seven, the one starting with the end of World War II and we’ll try again tomorrow.” He stands and picks up his books.
I stare up at him in disbelief as he turns and walks across the library without giving me a backward glance.
Releasing my breath, I try to figure out happened. No one has called me Jules in six months. And I have no idea why he thinks I have total recall. Even if I had it, he never spoke to me before today so how would he know?
I groan. He must think I’m a total freak.
I’m pissed that I even care.
Turning around, I half expect Evan to show up again, but the room is empty except for the librarian and the students working on their project, two tables down. As I pack up my belongings, I realize some of the old me returned today. Instead of slithering into a hole, I returned Sarah’s insult. I had a conversation with Evan— perhaps a stilted one, but it’s a start.
Yesterday. It all began changing yesterday. If only I could figure out what happened in the cemetery. Who showed up?
I shake my head. No one, that’s who.
Slinging my backpack over my shoulder, I head out of the school. The air is crisp. I gather my jacket into my fist to keep out the chill and look back before crossing the street toward home. Over in the student parking lot, Evan leans into a car window. He appears agitated as he swings an arm toward the football field where the team is practicing. It occurs to me that Evan is supposed to be with them, out on the field.
Why isn’t Evan at practice?
Curiosity gets the best of me and I walk down the sidewalk running parallel to the street, toward the car that has Evan so upset. About halfway there, I stop and lean my back against a tree, facing the street.
What am I doing? It’s no business of mine who Evan talks to or why. In fact, before yesterday I wouldn’t have even cared.
What is wrong with me?
I push away from the tree to cross the street and glance over my shoulder. My feet stick to the ground when Sarah gets out of the car. She’s shouting as she jabs a finger into Evan’s chest. “…you need to get your priorities straight.”
He backs up and throws his hands into the air, saying something unrecognizable as he walks to his car.
Sarah yells at Evan’s back. “What’s with your sudden fascination with her?”
She whirls to get into her car when her eyes find me. We stand frozen. The venom in her eyes is evident even from this far away. I shake myself from her stare and turn back to cross the street.
The cold wind seeps through my jacket as I walk the two miles home, but it’s Sarah Chapman’s hatred that makes my legs shake. Sarah is capable of making my already miserable life even worse.
I suppose I’ve brought this upon myself with my response to her in class. If I’d only kept my mouth shut. Yesterday, I would have stared out the window pretending I hadn’t heard her instead of letting her remark burrow beneath my skin.
By the time I get home, Anna’s already slouched on the sofa watching TV, her eyes glued to her recorded show. I slip into the kitchen and drop my backpack on the table then heat up some water for tea. I pull out my history book and turn to Chapter Seven—the Marshall Plan. When the tea’s ready, I sit down and read.
I think I’ve walked into a time warp.” My dad stares at me in disbelief, but a tiny smile shows his pleasure.
I haven’t seen my dad smile in months. When he’s not avoiding me, he’s arguing with my mother. Giving him my best smart-ass grin, I tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. “What? I can’t study?”
He kisses the top of my head, his lips lingering longer than necessary. “Oh, you’re perfectly capable of studying,” he says as he stands. “It’s the sudden motivation to do so that’s caught me by surprise.”
I shrug. “It’s study or change schools. Easy choice.”
Wise decision.” He sets his laptop bag on the table. “Does this mean we get to work together like old times?” Eagerness fills his eyes, then softens as he tries to hide it.
I tilt my head with a smile. “I’ve got a lot of work to make up, so why not?” But I secretly hope he will. I realize how much I’ve missed him. Ever since the accident he spends most of his time in his study.
He ruffles my hair like he used to when I was little. I loved it then, but the last couple of years I always complained. He hasn’t done that since Monica… My breath catches in my throat.
Suddenly, it’s all too much, too fast. From nearly despondent to returning sarcastic barbs with my dad, it’s overwhelming. As the panic attack begins, I catch the disappointment on Dad’s face. An invisible band constricts around my chest and my heart races. My head swims with terror, overcome with the feeling that I’m about to die.
My mother walks into the kitchen, still in her scrubs from her nursing shift at the hospital. Her eyes bulge. “John, why are you just standing there?” I hear her angry question through the thick haze in my head.
I wasn’t… I didn’t know what to do,” Dad stammers.
Maybe you would if you paid more attention to what goes on around here.”
From my peripheral vision, I see him turn and leave the room. The sting of his rejection and the guilt of causing this wedge in my parents’ relationship only intensifies the attack.
Is Julia dying?” Anna stands in the doorway, terror on her face.
No!” Mom shouts, then softens her voice. “No one is dying. She’s having a panic attack.”
My face tingles as I try to suck air past the tourniquet around my trachea. I look up into Mom’s face for reassurance.
She stokes my hair. “You’re okay, Julia. You’re okay, deep breaths.” Her words are soothing, as if she’s talking to a small child.
My eyes burn with tears as I hiccup tiny breaths into my lungs.
Thatta girl. You can do this.”
After several minutes, my heart slows and the tightening of my chest loosens. I lay my forehead down on the table, closing my eyes.
I find it ironic, when the nightmare of my attacks eases, that someone so ambivalent about living fights so hard to survive.