Wow, so your reviews for chapter one made me really happy. I'm glad that you like the idea as much as I do, because it's kind of out-there...I don't really remember how I thought of it or anything, only that I did and thought it would be cool. Ah, the Muse works in mysterious ways. Or something. So I'm leaving for college orientation in...roughly 3 hours, and it's 3 am, but I really wanted to get this up because I was so close to finishing it. I have quickly learned that chapters of EL are waaay hard to write. Because they take, you know, effort and such. Also, I've never really written first-person before, so I was having all kinds of trouble with past-tense and present-tense, and I'll say now that I admire people who write in first-person because it is exhausting. That's partially why this took so long to write, as well as the fact that I have another story to work on as well, where the chapters come more easily since I'm at, oh, chapter 11 now (and I can't believe it).
Also, I found out today that another one of my classmates died. I didn't really know her very well, but I remember meeting her several times and talking to her, because we had mutual friends. When I switched out of Econ 2nd semester, she was the girl who switched in, and I remember talking to her the last few days I was in there before I went to my other class. She was such a great person from what I could tell, and from what my friends who knew her told me. And she'd just graduated, too. She was going to GW...she and some of her family were in India when their bus crashed. Her, her brother, her father, and her grandmother all died. It's so sad. She has a little sister who was still in the US, with her mother. Yeah...
So, if I thought my writing was good enough to be a suitable dedication to someone, I would like to dedicate this story to her. And also if I thought it was good enough to dedicate, I'd share the dedication with the girl I'd known for almost ten years, my best friend in elementary school who died of brain cancer at the beginning of my junior year. This story's partially inspired by her anyway. So...to VJ & MV. You'll always be loved.
Um...back to the less depressing stuff. Well, I really hope this chapter is good, since I worked on it for a long while. And it's long. Not as long as some people's, but according to my standards...it's really long. And I changed the summary a heck of a lot...tell me what you think, or if you have any suggestions. Mr. Mysterious Boy in the summary isn't gone for good, but I took him out because he's still a mystery to me as well. For the most part. Hmm...
Thank you soooooo much for your wonderful reviews!!! Please keep reviewing!!!
I happened to have been blessed with the skill of organization. Some might call it OCD, but I don't think I was ever diagnosis-worthy, just a rabid perfectionist. In high school, Eva and I had those little poetry magnet things and we would write dirty messages in each other's lockers for a laugh between classes.
She always teased me because I got into the habit of arranging all the spare words underneath the completed sentences in alphabetical order. But, as soon as I had spread one locker's collection into meticulous grid-like rows, Eva would come along and deliberately mess it all up. I would open my locker to find my perfect order all skewed, sigh, and get to work fixing it up, all while Eva stood over my shoulder laughing. It was a vicious cycle, but it was high school. At least it gave us something to do.
Owing to my organizational instincts, my first move upon finding the list was to grab a calendar and plot out the dates of 'knowns'—the tasks with a set date and time. There were only two, so I silently thanked Eva for making her list so flexible. I still needed to get used to the fact that she was there to accept it.
I'm not saying that I didn't like having her with me like that, but I couldn't deny that it was strange. Extremely strange. Just imagine having your best friend die of cancer, and then come back to…coexist with you, I suppose, in your body until you complete ten certain tasks. I hope you don't fault me for being just a wee bit weirded out by the whole thing.
I circled the current date, June 20th as Day One of Operation: Help Eva Cross Over Into The After-Thing. I decided that After-thing was an appropriate word, since I really have no idea what it is she's crossing over into, only that it occurs 'after' now, and it's obviously a 'thing' of some sort. So Operation HECOITAT it is. It's kind of cool, and if anyone asks, I can say it's French. Okay, so it isn't a real word in French, but it sounds kind of French. I jotted down the title on the date.
Then I circled August 1st and labeled it Judgement Day, worrying for a second that it might have been too morbid until I heard a laugh escape my lips that wasn't from my own amusement. So I have until midnight on July 31st to complete all ten objectives. Shouldn't be too hard, right?
July 26th is the date of Eva's sister Caroline's recital, so I marked that down, and Eva's hand guided mine to write down "meteor shower—3:00 AM" in the little box marked July 17th. I paused. The handwriting on the paper was hers, even though she used my hand. I swallowed and tried to keep thinking of the tasks.
I took out another sheet of paper to write down some notes. I needed to: sign up for a cooking class, get a plane ticket to England, book a hotel in New York City, buy a pass to Birch Mountain, the nearby amusement park that housed the SS 5000, pay a trip to Blockbuster to rent all six Star Wars movies.
For the sake of simplicity, and because it pleased my organized nature, I decided to aim to do everything in order.
Then I had to think about that damn task number ten.
I had to fall in love.
Why did she write that down? I didn't have to think long about that because Eva answered for me. "Duh, because I was a teenage girl."
Eva was a typical teenage girl in that regard, if not above average in her obsession with boys. It was understandable, and a little romantic that she would want to fall in love before she died.
I, on the other hand, could hardly ever find a guy who suited my interest long enough to develop a crush, let alone love. I knew that stupid number ten would be the deciding factor.
It kept echoing in my thoughts. Number ten, number ten. Fall in love, fall in love. How the hell was I supposed to do that? I guess I had to, since if I failed any of this, I would never be able to forgive myself.
How was I going to force myself to fall in love? Wasn't that one of those things that you can't actively try to do, but just kind of happens to you? I can't fall in love on command, and first, I have to find a suitable guy. That alone might take six weeks. How was I going to find a guy, deem him fall-in-lovable, and then get to know him—and hopefully fall in love with him in the process? It's just mind-boggling.
Another note was added to my sheet of paper: find a guy as soon as possible. The sooner I find someone, the more time I have to fall in love. I think it's probably hoping too much that I'll just walk around one day and fall in "love at first sight" with somebody. That probably doesn't exist anyway.
Who's going to judge my love anyway? Is there some sort of love-detector that one of 'them' will sweep over my heart to confirm or deny said love feelings? Is there some weird radar 'they' will use? Can 'they' know exactly how I feel just through 'their' omniscience? Are 'they' mind readers?
Due to the fact that I got no answer and was thinking openly on purpose, I guess Eva doesn't know either. I guess that means I have to fall in love legitimately, so I can pass whatever test or detector 'they' are going to impose to find out whether I'm in love.
I wrote as a side-note: or multiple guys. Because if I surround myself with men and get to know all of them, there's a better chance of me falling in love with at least one, right? The list didn't specify how many people I had to fall in love with, only that I did the falling. At least the syntax was pretty clear, regardless of the requirements.
I don't even know how I would know I had fallen in love. Maybe when 'they' find out, they'll tell me, because I've never been in love before, so I wouldn't know how it felt. I could have been in love already for all I know. Except that I don't even have a crush on anyone currently. That would have been helpful, because at least I would have somewhere to start. As it is, I have to start from scratch with a stranger.
I sucked in a deep breath and blew it all out, my body crumpling into a deflated heap. My back was hunched over my desk, one little lamp illuminating the list and calendar in front of me. My blonde hair had fallen onto the paper, and it looked almost translucent, reflecting the yellow fluorescent light.
My right hand, holding a pen, was outstretched, straight forward, while my left arm was bent under my chin, my sweatshirt muffling my mouth. I sighed again, overwhelmed.
What have I gotten myself into exactly? Some supernatural mission impossible? Oh, whatever. There's no use in being discouraged, because I made a promise to Eva, and nothing in the world, including my own emotions, is going to stop me.
My gaze traveled to the May calendar. May 23rd in particular. I had made a note: Breakfast w/ Eva—6:15. On the days I had the car, I would visit the hospital before school to see her. But that morning, that morning I was fifteen minutes too late.
She died at 6:00 on the dot. Her heart had just stopped beating.
'They' are strange. But in a way, that appeals to the perfectionist in me. 'They' run an organized schedule, wherever 'they' are. It had been exactly four weeks from when Eva died to when I woke up this morning, and I had exactly six weeks to complete my tasks. I'll be waking up at six in the morning every morning until the end of the six weeks, which also happens to be exactly the time Eva died.
In an odd way, it's comforting to know that 'they' have an exact procedure for this sort of thing.
I tried to redirect my thoughts again, back to my tasks. I have to find a cooking class as soon as possible, and a plane ticket to England. Then, I can set up my week in New York around those things. Everything else is simple enough to do in one day, so I won't bother scheduling them.
There was a sudden growling from the vicinity of my stomach, and although it was a natural reaction to hunger, I couldn't help but to suspect Eva of trying to distract me from my planning. I suppose my intention to rearrange the tasks in alphabetical order was going a bit too far.
But, the call of nature must be heeded, so I set my papers aside and stood, mumbling moreso to Eva than myself, "alright, alright." I would get breakfast and then set a date for the amusement park. Actually…today is as good a day as any, so I might go about preparing to leave immediately. Birch Mountain is only a half-hour drive away, somewhere in Mid-Eastern Pennsylvania. I have enough money on me to buy a one-day pass and accomplish goal number one.
When I walked through the hallway, I realized that the dark grayness that had coated the world was lifted, suddenly, exultantly, and I could hardly remember the last few weeks, only that I had my best friend back. I didn't want to remember the pain anymore.
My mom was in the kitchen already when I got there. She sat at the table in the starkness of the stove lamp sipping coffee and reading the newspaper, the morning light from outside filtered to a dull ambience through thick curtains. She was still wearing slippers and a bathrobe, and looked up with a soft glance when I entered the room.
She always has the hint of a smile on her face. Her skin is pale, freckled, with thin strands of strawberry-blonde hair that wave outward into a bob that just touches her chin. She has the kind of plump figure gained by age and giving birth to two children, but is still a petite woman. We're very close, and she knew Eva almost as another daughter.
I assumed my brother was still asleep, home after a long night of bartending. He's twenty, and came home from college for the summer. During the day, he has an internship at an architectural firm, but he doesn't get paid, so at night he works at a nearby nightclub called Mercury. I always find it strange that you can bartend at eighteen, but you can only drink when you're twenty-one. Shouldn't you be able to try what you're serving? Oh well.
He, my mom, and I have been a family within ourselves since my dad left when I was eight. He lives in Albany, and I see him occasionally, but we talk like strangers. Even my mom speaks with him as though their thirteen-year marriage had never happened. He has a girlfriend, but they don't intend to get married or have any more children. I don't think of him often.
My mom was giving me the kind of look she had been giving me all month, a sympathetic consolation meant to keep me from thinking of anything that would set off my grief. I smiled at her and picked up a banana nut muffin, then a glass of orange juice. I sat down at the table across from her.
"Good morning, Mom."
I picked at my muffin in the precise way I always did (I have routines for eating just about any food, not that I'm Obsessive Compulsive or anything); first eating the circle of muffin that protruded over the edge of the paper, then turning the muffin over and eating the base of the muffin and the sides, then the top of the muffin, then the soft middle part. I tried to ignore the peculiar look my mom gave me.
"Can't you eat your food normally, Nicole?" She removed all emotion but gentleness from her voice, as though she were afraid she would upset me. It wasn't new for her to tease me about my habits, but she was aware that Eva always did as well. I think she was terrified of doing anything at all that would remind me of her, and from my own behavior since she had died, I didn't blame my mother for being cautious. Any other morning, I would have reacted with a far-off look and no answer. But things had changed overnight.
I grinned. "That would make too much sense," I said. I caught the subtle shock in her face. "By the way, I think I'm going to go to Birch Mountain today to ride a roller coaster or two. Kevin doesn't have to go to work on Tuesdays, right? Maybe I can take him with me." I finished my juice and looked at her.
"Yes, that would be fine. He should be waking up soon, so you can ask him."
"Great," I said. I threw away the paper from my muffin and put my glass in the sink. I noticed my mom watching me instead of reading the paper. "Is anything wrong, Mom?"
She shook her head briefly. "No, but are you all right, honey? You seem to be in a good mood this morning. You haven't eaten your muffin like that for…" exactly four weeks "a while."
I walked back to where she was sitting. "I'm fine. I just realized…that…" I searched for the right words, "Eva's still with us, you know? And she wouldn't want us to be sad. I shouldn't just sit around doing nothing forever, because she'd probably smack me if she could."
It seemed like the right thing to say, because my mom's eyes filled with tears and she stood up to hug me.
"Oh hun, I'm so glad that you're…feeling…better." I could tell that she was trying to find a way to put "moving on" as sensitively as possible. I hugged her back, and we stood together for a while. She patted my back and let me go. "She'll always be in our hearts, never forget that," she said.
I looked down with a secret smile. "Oh, I won't."
She looked at the clock on the microwave and began folding her newspaper. "I'd better get dressed and get to work then. I put new shampoo in the shower, so you won't have to scrape out of the old bottle." She shuffled up the stairs in her slippers and I followed, parting ways at the top when she went into the master bedroom and I went into the bathroom.
"Okay, Eva, here goes," I said out loud, and slipped the silver ring off my finger. Other than a sudden cold tingle in my stomach, nothing happened. I shrugged my clothes off, stepping into the shower. A few minutes later, my mom shouted a goodbye to me through the rush of steamy water, outside the opaque dark green plastic curtain, and I replied in kind.
Once I had finished getting dressed in a pair of jean shorts and a sky blue tank top, I returned the ring to my right index finger. I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, one that stretched from the counter to the ceiling, and I could see my entire outfit reflected back.
"Yeah, right," I heard myself say, and widened my eyes in alarm. What did Eva want now? Before I could blink, I was walking back to my room and rummaging through my dresser drawers. A minute later, another outfit lay complete on my bedspread: a baby pink tank with a racerback, a short slit down the middle in the front, and gold-colored studs trimming the neckline, and the shortest denim skirt I own. Together, they probably covered a square foot of skin.
Now, I'm not ashamed of my body, I might even venture to say I was happy with it, but that certainly didn't mean I was going to leave none of it to the imagination. I had that thought openly so Eva would know some of my concerns. She answered through my vocal cords again.
"You wanted to attract some boys, right? Get started on number ten? You have to look sexy, Nicki." But wearing a mini-skirt to an amusement park is just a horrendous accident waiting to happen. I mean, all the high speeds, loops, twist and turns, there is NO WAY I am wearing that.
"Fair enough. But at least change the top. This one is so cute, and it suits you so well. I remember when I made you buy it." I rolled my eyes, but removed the ring long enough to change it. The slit came down far enough to show a hint of cleavage, but didn't reveal anything too risqué. I hesitated to think Eva was right.
"Told you so." I laughed quietly, but froze when I heard another, deeper chuckle join me from behind.
"Talking to yourself, Nicki?" I whirled around to face Kevin, who was leaning against my door frame in a college t-shirt and sweatpants.
Kevin has a shock of dirty blonde hair that never hangs quite straight, and a young-looking face with soft lines and features. His eyes are a bright, clear blue as though his irises are made of fresh ice, or glass. He's rather skinny, as a runner rather than a weightlifter. He has muscles, but they aren't overly apparent.
"As a matter of fact…yes, yes I am," I said. Okay, so that wasn't a matter of fact, really, but so what? Actually, I wasn't even doing the talking.
Kevin looked at me as though he were appraising my mood. I had been used to those kinds of looks, the pitying "we know what you're going through" looks and sympathetic "I'm sorry, dearie" faces and reassuring "we're praying for her" glances.
From what I understand from Eva though, praying doesn't accomplish much anyway.
The look Kevin was giving me was more along the lines of "I'm trying to see if you're emotionally stable right now without actually asking because that would be insensitive." I felt like a lab rat being observed.
"Kevin, I'm okay. I…had a good night's sleep, and today will be a good day. Okay? You can stop staring now. You look like you're waiting for me to start crying." I smiled at him, and he blushed a little bit in embarrassment. He's definitely a blusher, while I tend to be the same shade of pale all the time. Unless I'm sunburned. He stood up straight.
"I'm just concerned about you, Nicki," he said. I changed my smile to a sad one. I could tell he was frustrated, and I stepped forward to give him a hug.
He really had looked out for me in the last few weeks, and I knew he considered Eva as a little sister as well. When she died, he had just finished his last final, and he came home straight away to comfort us, and to be there for the funeral. I know I hadn't really been in the right state of mind to be properly grateful for how good a brother he is.
"I know. But…Eva would want us to go on with our lives, right? I have to sooner or later." I pulled away from him. "You're the greatest big brother in the entire world. Do I tell you that enough? You were there for me, Kev. I appreciate it."
He stepped forward again to give me another bear hug, the kind that can only come from a big brother to a little sister. "That's what big brothers are for. I know how tough it's been, Nicki. I'll always be there for you when you need me, you know that." I tried to keep the tears from welling up, but I've been on such an emotional roller coaster ride recently that I could hardly do anything.
"I know." We stood there for a while, just feeling safe together, when I went back to my previous thought. Speaking of roller coaster rides…
"Hey, Kev?" I asked from the vicinity of his shoulder.
"Mmhm?" I extricated myself from his grip and stepped back.
"I'm going to Birch Mountain today, wanna come?" I asked, averting my eyes to appear as nonchalant as possible. I could hardly start explaining that it was a matter of…well, after-life or death. He seemed to take it as progress, though, which had been my intent, so he smiled and clapped his hands together.
"Oh yeah! That's a great idea, Nicki. Let me just go shower and change and I'll be right out," he said.
"Okay. I'll wait."
"There is always a smorgasbord of really hot guys at amusement parks. This should be fun."
Maybe I should mention the fact that my brother is gay. He came out in high school, and although he's had some problems with bullies and such, most people we know have been overwhelmingly accepting. Our mom has no problem with it, and although our dad doesn't approve, his viewpoint doesn't faze us as long as he keeps paying child support.
I've never thought twice about it. In fact, having a gay older brother is really awesome. I can chat with him about hot guys all the time, and I still get all the benefits of having a bodyguard, like with any older brother. He even knows tae-kwon do. He, Eva and I would spend endless nights staying up to watch chick flicks, listen to music, and discuss Eva's latest dating adventures. He was close enough to our age that we could talk about practically anything.
He's the kind of guy who you wouldn't really know was gay unless you asked him. He's just as masculine as any straight guy, only that he likes that in other guys too. Despite certain stereotypes, I could never, ever use the word 'flamboyant' to describe him. He just happens to go for dudes.
"That's what I'm counting on," I mumbled in reply to his 'smorgasbord' comment.
"What?" he shouted from his room. I decided to conceal the fact that my side-mission, other than riding the roller coaster, was to attract boys. He may be gay, but he's still a protective older brother.
"Nothing," I shouted back. Smiling, I went back to my room to put on some make-up. Picking up the pink gel-penned list, I folded it and tucked it into a front pocket of my too-small shorts. Tonight I can cross off number one, and with any luck, I'll find my Mr. Fall-in-lovable and have a head start on number ten.
I sighed. Yeah, right.