If I Stay (If I Stay #1)(9)


by Gayle Forman

“It doesn’t work like that,” Gran snapped.

“Oh,” was all Gramps said. The inquiry was over.

After they left, I was thinking that one day maybe I’ll tell Gran that I never much bought into her theory that birds and such could be people’s guardian angels. And now I’m more sure than ever that there’s no such thing.

My parents aren’t here. They are not holding my hand, or cheering me on. I know them well enough to know that if they could, they would. Maybe not both of them. Maybe Mom would stay with Teddy while Dad watched over me. But neither of them is here.

And it’s while contemplating this that I think about what the nurse said. She’s running the show. And suddenly I understand what Gramps was really asking Gran. He had listened to that nurse, too. He got it before I did.

If I stay. If I live. It’s up to me.

All this business about medically induced comas is just doctor talk. It’s not up to the doctors. It’s not up to the absentee angels. It’s not even up to God who, if He exists, is nowhere around right now. It’s up to me.

How am I supposed to decide this? How can I possibly stay without Mom and Dad? How can I leave without Teddy? Or Adam? This is too much. I don’t even understand how it all works, why I’m here in the state that I’m in or how to get out of it if I wanted to. If I were to say, I want to wake up, would I wake up right now? I already tried snapping my heels to find Teddy and trying to beam myself to Hawaii, and that didn’t work. This seems a whole lot more complicated.

But in spite of that, I believe it’s true. I hear the nurse’s words again. I am running the show. Everyone is waiting on me.

I decide. I know this now.

And this terrifies me more than anything else that has happened today.

Where the hell is Adam?

A week before Halloween of my junior year, Adam showed up at my door triumphant. He was holding a dress bag and wearing a shit-eating grin.

“Prepare to writhe in jealousy. I just got the best costume,” he said. He unzipped the bag. Inside was a frilly white shirt, a pair of breeches, and a long wool coat with epaulets.

“You’re going to be Seinfeld with the puffy shirt?” I asked.

“Pff. Seinfeld. And you call yourself a classical musician. I’m going to be Mozart. Wait, you haven’t seen the shoes.” He reached into the bag and pulled out clunky black leather numbers with metal bars across the tops.

“Nice,” I said. “I think my mom has a pair like them.”

“You’re just jealous because you don’t have such a rockin’ costume. And I’ll be wearing tights, too. I’m just that secure in my manhood. Also, I have a wig.”

“Where’d you get all this?” I asked, fingering the wig. It felt like it was made of burlap.

“Online. Only a hundred bucks.”

“You spent a hundred dollars on a Halloween costume?”

At the mention of the world Halloween, Teddy zoomed down the stairs, ignoring me and yanking on Adam’s wallet chain. “Wait here!” he demanded, and then ran back upstairs and returned a few seconds later holding a bag. “Is this a good costume? Or will it make me look babyish?” Teddy asked, pulling out a pitchfork, a set of devil ears, a red tail, and a pair of red feetie pajamas.

“Ohh.” Adam stepped backward, his eyes wide. “That outfit scares the hell out of me and you aren’t even wearing it.”

“Really? You don’t think the pajamas make it look dumb. I don’t want anyone to laugh at me,” Teddy declared, his eyebrows furrowed in seriousness.

I grinned at Adam, who was trying to swallow his own smile. “Red pajamas plus pitchfork plus devil ears and pointy tail is so fully satanic no one would dare challenge you, lest they risk eternal damnation,” Adam assured him.

Teddy’s face broke into a wide grin, showing off the gap of his missing front tooth. “That’s kind of what Mom said, but I just wanted to make sure she wasn’t just telling me that so I wouldn’t bug her about the costume. You’re taking me trick-or-treating, right?” He looked at me now.

“Just like every year,” I answered. “How else am I gonna get candy?”

“You’re coming, too?” he asked Adam.

“I wouldn’t miss it.”

Teddy turned on his heel and whizzed back up the stairs. Adam turned to me. “That’s Teddy settled. What are you wearing?”

“Ahh, I’m not much of a costume girl.”

Adam rolled his eyes. “Well, become one. It’s Halloween, our first one together. Shooting Star has a big show that night. It’s a costume concert, and you promised to go.”

Inwardly, I groaned. After six months with Adam, I had just gotten used to us being the odd couple at school—people called us Groovy and the Geek. And I was starting to become more comfortable with Adam’s bandmates, and had even learned a few words of rock talk. I could hold my own now when Adam took me to the House of Rock, the rambling house near the college where the rest of the band all lived. I could even participate in the band’s punk-rock pot-luck parties when everyone invited had to bring something from their fridge that was on the verge of spoiling. We took all the ingredients and made something out of it. I was actually pretty good at finding ways to turn the vegetarian ground beef, beets, feta cheese, and apricots into something edible.

But I still hated the shows and hated myself for hating them. The clubs were smoky, which hurt my eyes and made my clothes stink. The speakers were always turned up so high that the music blared, causing my ears ring so loudly afterward that the high-pitched drone would actually keep me up. I’d lie in bed, replaying the awkward night and feeling shittier about it with each playback.

“Don’t tell me you’re gonna back out,” Adam said, looking equal parts hurt and irritated.

“What about Teddy? We promised we’d take him trick-or-treating—”

“Yeah, at five o’clock. We don’t have to be at the show until ten. I doubt even Master Ted could trick-or-treat for five solid hours. So you have no excuse. And you’d better get a good outfit together because I’m going to look hot, in an eighteenth-century kind of way.”

After Adam left to go to work delivering pizzas, I had a pit in my stomach. I went upstairs to practice the Dvořák piece Professor Christie had assigned me, and to work out what was bothering me. Why didn’t I like his shows? Was it because Shooting Star was getting popular and I was jealous? Did the ever-growing masses of girl groupies put me off? This seemed like a logical enough explanation, but it wasn’t it.

After I’d played for about ten minutes, it came to me: My aversion to Adam’s shows had nothing to do with music or groupies or envy. It had to with the doubts. The same niggling doubts I always had about not belonging. I didn’t feel like I belonged with my family, and now I didn’t feel like I belonged with Adam, except unlike my family, who was stuck with me, Adam had chosen me, and this I didn’t understand. Why had he fallen for me? It didn’t make sense. I knew it was music that brought us together in the first place, put us in the same space so we could even get to know each other. And I knew that Adam liked how into music I was. And that he dug my sense of humor, “so dark you almost miss it,” he said. And, speaking of dark, I knew he had a thing for dark-haired girls because all of his girlfriends had been brunettes. And I knew that when it was the two of us alone together, we could talk for hours, or sit reading side by side for hours, each one plugged into our own iPod, and still feel completely together. I understood all that in my head, but I still didn’t believe it in my heart. When I was with Adam, I felt picked, chosen, special, and that just made me wonder why me? even more.

And maybe this was why even though Adam willingly submitted to Schubert symphonies and attended any recital I gave, bringing me stargazer lilies, my favorite flower, I’d still rather have gone to the dentist than to one of his shows. Which was so churlish of me. I thought of what Mom sometimes said to me when I was feeling insecure: “Fake it till you make it.” By the time I finished playing the piece three times over, I decided that not only would I go to his show, but for once I’d make as much of an effort to understand his world as he did mine.

“I need your help,” I told Mom that night after dinner as we stood side by side doing dishes.

“I think we’ve established that I’m not very good at trigonometry. Maybe you can try the online-tutor thing,” Mom said.

“Not math help. Something else.”

“I’ll do my best. What do you need?’

“Advice. Who’s the coolest, toughest, hottest rocker girl you can think of?”

“Debbie Harry,” Mom said.

“Tha—”

“Not finished,” Mom interrupted. “You can’t ask me to pick only one. That’s so Sophie’s Choice. Kathleen Hannah. Patti Smith. Joan Jett. Courtney Love, in her demented destructionist way. Lucinda Williams, even though she’s country she’s tough as nails. Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth, pushing fifty and still at it. That Cat Power woman. Joan Armatrading. Why, is this some kind of social-studies project?”

“Kind of,” I answered, toweling off a chipped plate. “It’s for Halloween.”

Mom clapped her soapy hands together in delight. “You planning on impersonating one of us?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “Can you help me?”

Mom took off work early so we could trawl through vintage-clothing stores. She decided we should go for a pastiche of rocker looks, rather than trying to copy any one artist. We bought a pair of tight, lizard-skin pants. A blond bobbed wig with severe bangs, à la early-eighties Debbie Harry, which Mom streaked with purple Manic Panic. For accessories, we got a black leather band for one wrist and about two dozen silver bangles for the other. Mom fished out a her own vintage Sonic Youth T-shirt—warning me not to take it off lest someone grab it and sell it on eBay for a couple hundred bucks—and the pair of black, pointy-toed leather spiked boots that she’d worn to her wedding.

On Halloween, she did my makeup, thick streaks of black liquid eyeliner that made my eyes look dangerous. White powder that made my skin pale. Bloodred gashes on my lips. A stick-on nose ring. When I looked in the mirror, I saw Mom’s face peering back at me. Maybe it was the blond wig, but this was the first time I ever thought I actually looked like any of my immediate family.

My parents and Teddy waited downstairs for Adam while I stayed in my room. It felt like this was prom or something. Dad held the camera. Mom was practically dancing with excitement. When Adam came through door, showering Teddy with Skittles, Mom and Dad called me down.

I did a slinky walk as best as I could in the heels. I’d expected Adam to go crazy when he saw me, his jeans-and-sweaters girlfriend all glammed out. But he smiled his usual greeting, chuckling a bit. “Nice costume,” was all he said.

“Quid pro quo. Only fair,” I said, pointing to his Mozart ensemble.

“I think you look scary, but pretty,” Teddy said. “I’d say sexy, too, but I’m your brother, so that’s gross.”

“How do you even know what sexy means?” I asked. “You’re six.”

“Everyone knows what sexy means,” he said.

Everyone but me, I guess. But that night, I kind of learned. When we trick-or-treated with Teddy, my own neighbors who’d known me for years didn’t recognize me. Guys who’d never given me a second glance did a double take. And every time that happened, I felt a little bit more like the risky sexy chick I was pretending to be. Fake it till you make it actually worked.

The club where Shooting Star was playing was packed. Everyone was in costume, most of the girls in the kinds of racy getups—cleavage-baring French maids, whip-wielding dominatrixes, slutty Wizard of Oz Dorothys with skirts hiked up to show their ruby garters—that normally made me feel like a big oaf. I didn’t feel oafish at all that night, even if nobody seemed to recognize that I was wearing a costume.