My eyelids closed as if they were being drawn down by sluggish, unhurried weights. When I forced them open after several seemingly endless moments, nothing had changed. I could still make out a blurry image of Josh standing nearby, Mr. Thompson's hands clenched firmly on Josh's shoulders from behind. There was a crowd, I think, and muffled voices. The steel school locker felt cold against my back and I recognized the familiar feeling that lately seemed to just dwell and ache in my bones. Fear, I think it was, mixed with just enough madness to keep the blood racing through my veins … fast. Too fast.
"Why did you do that, Andrea?" Josh shouted in my direction.
My eyes fell closed again. I don't remember what else he said. I just remember the feeling of each overly pronounced syllable piercing the air while he said it. I stared through the darkness that danced behind my heavy eyelids. What had I done?
I tried to pry open my hazy eyes to examine the faces of the expanding crowd as they stood, mouths agape. I only recognized a few. There were hardcover music books sprawled open on the tile floor at my feet. Confused, I looked to Josh, but the heavy silence of the room deafened any words he may have been saying. I gripped the ends of my soft, thin hair between my slender fingers and waited. Each thought sunk deeper than the last.
There was a poster taped sloppily against the locker behind me. I turned my head to face it and focused. The ends were curled up and there were ripples in the masking tape adorned to the edges. "Oakwood High School Invitational—TONIGHT" it read in handwritten purple block letters. There was a pixelated saxophone image pasted underneath the words, "Brought to you by Mr. Thompson and the Oakwood High Jazz Band." I brought my hand up to trace the edges. The poster board felt crisp and thick under my fingertips. I could smell the aftermath of the permanent marker. The loud reverberating voice behind me got softer until it resembled a deep echo I could easily ignore. I started to pick at the tape from the bottom left corner of the poster until I felt the sticky residue ball up underneath my fingernail.
Suddenly the life reentered my body in one abrupt breath when I felt a strong tug on my arm. I turned and saw Ethan Marks. Everyone else was gone. Had it been minutes this time? Hours?
"Andrea! Come on," he barked at me, interlacing my arm, tucking it quickly under his. He jerked me to a standing position and pulled me down the hall, speeding up his gate as I stumbled to catch up.
"Where's Josh?" I asked worriedly, but he didn't answer. We were silent as we walked through the empty hallway. I lifted my gaze, trying to catch Ethan's eye, trying to read his thoughts. His light blue eyes, usually sparkling with laughter, were steely and somber as he charged forward, dragging me with him, away from the wreckage I'd caused.
He stopped short and took a deep breath. His eyes were unyielding and dismal as they studied me, and slowly his frustration melted into a deep sadness.
"What happened, Andrea? What was that back there?"
"I don't know..." My voice began breaking. My thoughts were muddled beyond recognition and I couldn't form the right words, or any words, to explain.
Ethan wrapped himself around me in a gentle, firm embrace. It felt kind. And warm. And wonderfully different. My muscles unclenched for the first time in months, and I didn't know I was crying until I tasted the salt as it stained my face. I buried my head into Ethan's chest as he tightened his hold on me. I wanted him to say something, to tell me everything would be all right, but we both knew better. So we just stood there, Ethan supporting me as I clasped the back of his cotton t-shirt between my fingers.
After a few minutes, I fully returned to my body as my breathing calmed. I steadied my stance and took a step backward, shakily holding Ethan's forearms as I regained my balance. Wiping smudged mascara from my pale face, I met Ethan's eyes and quickly looked down, fixating on a crack in the tile below me.
"Hey," he started, "Andrea ... it's..."
"I'm okay. Ethan, I'm sorry. I'm sorry you had to ... I'm sorry I ... ugh your shirt." I motioned to the tear stains on his light green tee that crept from his chest to his shoulder.
"Oh God, don't worry about that. Andie, I just..."
"It's fine." I wiped my face and took a deep breath. "Thanks," I said, squeezing Ethan's hand and looking in his eyes sincerely, so he knew I meant it. "I should go. But thanks." I shook my head and turned around to walk back into the havoc and face what I had done. I felt Ethan staring at me as I left. He was just another person whose life would've been better if he hadn't met me. I swallowed, took a breath, and kept walking.
It was over for now, that latest incident, and there was no way to tell when there would be another one … but there would definitely be another one. I was too broken for it to be any other way.
After walking a short distance, I finally recognized Josh amidst dozens of hurried students and parents milling toward the cafeteria. I meekly smiled and gave a half wave, unsure of how he'd be feeling after what had just happened, unsure if he'd even want to see me. But I was drawn toward him like the strongest magnet, unable to stay away no matter how much I resisted or how much damage I'd caused.
"Come on, babe, we've only got an hour until we have to be back at the awards ceremony," Josh said, his dark brown eyes transfixed on me with concern. He didn't mention the incident. I didn't either.
Josh's words were soft, but I couldn't shake the horror from my body. How could he still love me after this? He deserved better. Everyone did.
Josh motioned for me to follow him outside the double doors that led to the parking lot. As the cold Michigan air hit my face, I went to grab Josh's hand. He quickly dropped it when he saw Harper and jogged to catch up with her. I tried to follow briskly but was still carefully avoiding the ice patches on the black asphalt as I heard a car start.
"Come on, slowpoke!" Harper teased from the driver's seat. I piled into the backseat of her 1980s white hatchback and had barely buckled my seatbelt before we started moving.