The girl in the picture doesn’t look any different. Things you see: brown eyes. Honey hair to the shoulders. Natural eyeliner. Things you don’t: stitches. A neck brace. The sleep rings hidden beneath her makeup. I lower my new student ID card. My throat is tight with all the changes I carry, but don’t find there. Still, I’m grateful not to wear them like a flag on my forehead: Ask me about my tragedy!
There’s talk enough without advertising. Even as I stow the card and cross the cafeteria, I catch two girls sneaking glances at me from a nearby table.
Girl #1: “Do you think she saw it happen?”
Girl #2: “Uh, yeah? She was there.”
Girl #1: “No, I mean —" (She lowers her voice.) “The moment when Camil—" That’s when Girl #2 knocks 1 in the ribs and 1 sees me watching, and both shut up and look quickly away, in opposite directions.
I scrunch Camilla’s bag closer. It still smells faintly of her dark vanilla rose spray. I haven’t used it all summer because I’ve wanted to preserve it, to keep its last little proofs of her intact, but today I had a feeling I would need it.
It’s hard to keep close a person everyone keeps telling you is gone.
Whispers follow until I duck into an alcove beside the stairs. At last alone at a tucked-away table, I cross “I.D. Card” off my Back-to-School Orientation Checklist and resume doodling at the edges. Normally I’d have bounced from this fun house by now, but alas — today Dad had Plans. These involve me “hanging out” with my peers before class starts tomorrow, which is why he left me here to die/socialize while he ran errands.
Great Plan, Dad.
I finish a garden of curls and accents around my name, and have just paused to add tallies to
PEOPLE CAUGHT STARING
llll llll llll llll lll
when a backpack crashes down into the chair across from me.
“Oh!” The redhead it belongs to startles when she sees me.
“I — I didn’t think anyone else would be here. Sorry.” Fumbling, she yanks it up again to leave.
Is there someone here more flustered than I am?
“Wait! You don’t have to — Kody?”
There are only so many people at this school with long red waves.
Called by name, she freezes and slowly faces me. “Hi, Juniper.”
Kody Hotchkiss. Now there’s a girl who looks different. “Kody, you look — wow.”
Kody smiles — modest, but clearly pleased. “Thanks. I... switched to contacts and started running this summer.”
“It shows. I mean, not that you didn’t look awesome before; you’re lovely, you’ve always been —”
I stop before I can embarrass myself. Kody grins at my ineptness.
Maybe Dad had a point about that social practice. “Seat’s open if you want it.” I gesture at the chair and Kody, still smiling, indulges me. I can’t get over the change in her. Forget glasses or contacts; this Kody carries herself. Confident.
“So,” I prompt when she looks comfortable, “what brings you to my hiding place?”
Her smile falters. “Morgan.”
I don’t have to ask if she means Morgan Malloy: the school bus bully who turned “Hotchkiss” into “Hershey’s Kiss” in middle school. There’s no way she’d miss her old mark’s transformation.
My eyes widen. “Did she . . . ?”
“No, it’s just —” Kody closes a fist. “She was ahead of me in the picture line. I thought, if I hung out for a while —”
“Less chance of running into her at IDs?”
“Well, you’re welcome to lie low here with me.”
A sigh. “Thanks.”
Then: “Who’re you hiding from?”
“You said ‘hiding place.’ Who’re you hiding from?”
Everyone. But mostly —
“Lauren.” Lauren is my real fear today: that the one person I actually want to talk to doesn’t want to talk to me. Maybe what I’m really hiding from is finding out. “You haven’t seen her, have you?”
I shouldn’t hold my breath; Lauren has a history of avoiding awkward situations. The last time she was dodging someone — a guy she only dated for a month because she didn’t know how to break up with him — we spent weeks taking different routes around school and carrying scarves and sunglasses in our backpacks for instant disguises.
It had actually been kind of fun then.
“No. But I’ll help you keep an eye out.”
This time, our smiles are sly. Conspiratorial.
Hiders in crime.
“So how long does it take our IDs to print, anyway?” She leans back, but her eyes flick to the table. “You look like you’ve been here a while.”
I follow her gaze to the doodles on my Orientation Checklist.
“Oh — not that long. I already got mine. I’ve just been killing time until my ride gets here.”
“Cool designs.” She leans closer, inspecting something. “What are all these little notes in between?”
“Nothing,” I say too quickly. I pull back the sheet before she can read Number of times I’ve heard Camilla’s name: 21. Number of times I’ve heard mine: 17.
People who have offered condolences: 0.
“Oh,” I cover, gathering my things, “I think I just felt my phone buzz. That’s probably my dad. Do you mind?”
“Sure. I mean —” Kody composes herself. “I’ll be fine. Don’t let me keep you.”
“I’ll see you around. You really do look great,” I add.
Even as I pass her, I feel terrible. Kody did nothing wrong.
It’s hard to keep close a person everyone
keeps telling you is gone
I walk toward a row of vending machines, for once today not counting the stares. Would Camilla coming up be such a bad thing? Surely everyone won’t just shut down on me like Lauren has.
When I reach the Diet Coke machine, the least popular in the strip, I have no interest in actually buying a bottle—but I figure I should at least look like I’m considering something, so I get out my wallet and some bills, anyway.
“Could I trade you some change for —”
The voice beside me breaks off. I know before I turn that it belongs to —
We both go cardboard. Lauren sees Camilla’s purse on my shoulder and I see that she’s holding her phone: not about to answer the text I sent her this morning, or one of the dozens I sent all summer for that matter, but playing Candy Crush.
Even Lauren — the friend who held my hand when I got my ears pierced, who took the fall for me when I dropped her sister’s snow globe, who’s surprised me with Juniper- and Lemon-flavored candies ever since Morgan called me Cough Drop in fourth grade — doesn’t know how to talk to me anymore.
For several long, terrible moments nothing happens; we both just stand there looking at each other. Then a really weird thing happens.
“Heeey.” Lauren shuffles the last two steps over and hugs me hello.
Oh god. This is worse than I imagined.
“How’s it going, Juniper?”
How’s it going?
How’s it GOING?
“Good,” I answer automatically. “You?”
A breathless nod. “Good.”
We stare at each other. Time stretches painfully between us, a gulf of the dozen things we must both be thinking, but leave unsaid. Once it looks as though Lauren might say something, but then she presses her lips together so hard, I think she’s cut off her air supply. Oh my god, is she actually turning blue?
AWKWARDNESS AT CRITICAL LEVELS
Employ emergency exit strategies
I open my mouth to say something — “Better grab a free lan-yard,” “I have to use the bathroom,” “YOU KNOW WHAT, I THINK I LEFT THE STOVE ON”— but before I can fake a fire or an aneurysm, an actual miracle occurs:
My phone rings.
“That’ll be my dad,” I gush, gratefully pawing through my bag. “I should—”
Lauren nods. “Of course.”
We stare a moment longer.
“I guess I’ll... see you tomorrow,” I finish lamely.
An overwarm smile. “Tomorrow.”
I lift a hand goodbye. Lauren does the same, and after more impossibly long fake smiles I turn in mortification. Conversations ended gracefully today: two for two.
When I find my phone, I see the dollars I’m still holding and wince before answering.
“There you are,” says his voice in my ear. “I was beginning to think you might actually be having fun in there.”
“I’m right out front, Juni. Can’t miss me.”
“Okay. See you in a minute.”
I stash my phone in my jeans and put the money away. But this time, when I drop my wallet back, something crackles in the bottom of the bag. I pry it open to see what.
Curious, I pull it out. Then I nearly drop it, too, because when I turn it over, there are three things that I know in a heartbeat:
1. I didn’t put this in the bag.
2. I am holding a letter.
3. I recognize the writing on the front, but not because it’s mine.
Because it’s hers.
More about the author
It's hard to keep close a person everyone keeps telling you is gone.
It's been sixty-five days since the accident that ripped Juniper's world apart. Life without her kind, beautiful, vibrant big sister Camilla is a colder, darker place.
Until she discovers the letter. The letter Camie wrote, but never got to send. It's mysteriously addressed to 'You' and dated July 4th - the day of the accident. Desperate to learn the identity of Camie's secret love, Juniper starts to investigate.
But then she loses something herself. A card from her daily ritual, The Happiness Index: little notecards on which she rates the day. The Index has been holding Juniper together since Camie's death - but without this card, there's a hole. And this particular card contains Juniper's own secret: a memory she can't let anyone else find out.
An unforgettable story of love, loss, mistakes and memories.