Large Corporations - 1278 Words | Tiger & Bunny | Sangeet Samraat (Yuva)

Thirteen Reasons Why : chap 1

THE NEXT DAY

13 INSPIRATIONS

“Sir?” she repeats. “How soon do you want it to get there?”

I rub two fingers, hard, over my left eyebrow. The throbbing has become intense. “It doesn’t matter,” I say.

The clerk takes the package. The same shoebox that sat on my porch less than twenty-four hours ago; rewrapped in a brown paper bag, sealed with clear packing tape, exactly as I had received it. But now addressed with a new name. The next name on Hannah Baker’s list.

“Baker’s dozen,” I mumble. Then I feel disgusted for even noticing it.

“Excuse me?”

I shake my head. “How much is it?”

She places the box on a rubber pad, then punches a sequence on her keypad.

I set my cup of gas-station coffee on the counter and glance at the screen. I pull a few bills from my wallet, dig some coins out of my pocket, and place my money on the counter.

“I don’t think the coffee’s kicked in yet,” she says. “You’re missing a dollar.”

I hand over the extra dollar, then rub the sleep from my eyes. The coffee’s lukewarm when I take a sip, making it harder to gulp down. But I need to wake up somehow.

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s best to get through the day half-asleep. Maybe that’s the only way to get through today.

“It should arrive at this address tomorrow,” she says. “Maybe the day after tomorrow.” Then she drops the box into a cart behind her.

I should have waited till after school. I should have given Jenny one final day of peace.

Though she doesn’t deserve it.

When she gets home tomorrow, or the next day, she’ll find a package on her doorstep. Or if her mom or dad or someone else gets there first, maybe she’ll find it on her bed. And she’ll be excited. I was excited. A package with no return address? Did they forget, or was it intentional? Maybe from a secret admirer?

“Do you want your receipt?” the clerk asks.

I shake my head.

A small printer clicks one out anyway. I watch her tear the slip across the serrated plastic and drop it into a wastebasket.

There’s only one post office in town. I wonder if the same clerk helped the other people on the list, those who got this package before me. Did they keep their receipts as sick souvenirs? Tuck them in their underwear drawers? Pin them up on corkboards?

I almost ask for my receipt back. I almost say, “I’m sorry, can I have it after all?” As a reminder.

But if I wanted a reminder, I could’ve made copies of the tapes or saved the map. But I never want to hear those tapes again, though her voice will never leave my head. And the houses, the streets, and the high school will always be there to remind me.

It’s out of my control now. The package is on its way. I leave the post office without the receipt.

Deep behind my left eyebrow, my head is still pounding. Every swallow tastes sour, and the closer I get to school, the closer I come to collapsing.

I want to collapse. I want to fall on the sidewalk right there and drag myself into the ivy. Because just beyond the ivy the sidewalk curves, following the outside of the school parking lot. It cuts through the front lawn and into the main building. It leads through the front doors and turns into a hallway, which meanders between rows of lockers and classrooms on both sides, finally entering the always-open door to first period.

At the front of the room, facing the students, will be the desk of Mr. Porter. He’ll be the last to receive a package with no return address. And in the middle of the room, one desk to the left, will be the desk of Hannah Baker.

Empty.

YESTERDAY

ONE HOUR AFTER SCHOOL

A shoebox-sized package is propped against the front door at an angle. Our front door has a tiny slot to shove mail through, but anything thicker than a bar of soap gets left outside. A hurried scribble on the wrapping addresses the package to Clay Jensen, so I pick it up and head inside.

I take the package into the kitchen and set it on the counter. I slide open the junk drawer and pull out a pair of scissors. Then I run a scissor blade around the package and lift off its top. Inside the shoebox is a rolled-up tube of bubble-wrap. I unroll that and discover seven loose audiotapes.

Each tape has a dark blue number painted in the upper right-hand corner, possibly with nail polish. Each side has its own number. One and two on the first tape, three and four on the next, five and six, and so on. The last tape has a thirteen on one side, but nothing on the back.

Who would send me a shoebox full of audiotapes? No one listens to tapes anymore. Do I even have a way to play them?

The garage! The stereo on the workbench. My dad bought it at a yard sale for almost nothing. It’s old, so he doesn’t care if it gets coated with sawdust or splattered with paint. And best of all, it plays tapes.

I drag a stool in front of the workbench, drop my backpack to the floor, then sit down. I press Eject on the player. A plastic door eases open and I slide in the first tape.

CASSETTE 1: SIDE A

Hello, boys and girls. Hannah Baker here. Live and in stereo.

I don’t believe it.

No return engagements. No encore. And this time, absolutely no requests.

No, I can’t believe it. Hannah Baker killed herself.

I hope you’re ready, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.

What? No!

I’m not saying which tape brings you into the story. But fear not, if you received this lovely little box, your name will pop up…I promise.

Now, why would a dead girl lie?

Hey! That sounds like a joke. Why would a dead girl lie? Answer: Because she can’t stand up.

Is this some kind of twisted suicide note?

Go ahead. Laugh.

Oh well. I thought it was funny.

Before Hannah died, she recorded a bunch of tapes. Why?

The rules are pretty simple. There are only two. Rule number one: You listen. Number two: You pass it on. Hopefully, neither one will be easy for you.

“What’s that you’re playing?”

“Mom!”

I scramble for the stereo, hitting several buttons all at once.

“Mom, you scared me,” I say. “It’s nothing. A school project.”

My go-to answer for anything. Staying out late? School project. Need extra money? School project.

And now, the tapes of a girl. A girl who, two weeks ago, swallowed a handful of pills.

School project.

“Can I listen?” she asks.

“It’s not mine,” I say I scrape the toe of my shoe against the concrete floor. “I’m helping a friend. It’s for history. It’s boring.”

“Well, that’s nice of you,” she says. She leans over my shoulder and lifts a dusty rag, one of my old cloth diapers, to remove a tape measure hidden underneath. Then she kisses my forehead. “I’ll leave you in peace.”

I wait till the door clicks shut, then I place a finger over the Play button. My fingers, my hands, my arms, my neck, everything feels hollow. Not enough strength to press a single button on a stereo.

I pick up the cloth diaper and drape it over the shoebox to hide it from my eyes. I wish I’d never seen that box or the seven tapes inside it. Hitting Play that first time was easy. A piece of cake. I had no idea what I was about to hear.

But this time, it’s one of the most frightening things I’ve ever done.

I turn the volume down and press Play.

…one: You listen. Number two: You pass it on. Hopefully, neither one will be easy for you.

When you’re done listening to all thirteen sides—because there are thirteen sides to every story—rewind the tapes, put them back in the box, and pass them on to whoever follows your little tale. And you, lucky number thirteen, you can take the tapes straight to hell. Depending on your religion, maybe I’ll see you there.

In case you’re tempted to break the rules, understand that I did make a copy of these tapes. Those copies will be released in a very public manner if this package doesn’t make it through all of you.

This was not a spur-of-the-moment decision.

Do not take me for granted…again.

No. There’s no way she could think that.

You are being watched.

My stomach squeezes in on itself, ready to make me throw up if I let it. Nearby, a plastic bucket sits upside-down on a footstool. In two strides, if I need to, I can reach the handle and flip it over.

I hardly knew Hannah Baker. I mean, I wanted to. I wanted to know her more than I had the chance.

Over the summer, we worked together at the movie theater. And not long ago, at a party, we made out.

But we never had the chance to get closer. And not once did I take her for granted. Not once.

These tapes shouldn’t be here. Not with me. It has to be a mistake.

Or a terrible joke.

I pull the trash can across the floor. Although I checked it once already, I check the wrapping again. A return address has got to be here somewhere. Maybe I’m just overlooking it.

Hannah Baker’s suicide tapes are getting passed around. Someone made a copy and sent them to me as a joke. Tomorrow at school, someone will laugh when they see me, or they’ll smirk and look away. And then I’ll know.

And then? What will I do then?

I don’t know.

I almost forgot. If you’re on my list, you should’ve received a map.

I let the wrapping fall back in the trash.

I’m on the list.

A few weeks ago, just days before Hannah took the pills, someone slipped an envelope through the vent of my locker. The outside of the envelope said:SAVE THIS—YOU’LL NEED IT in red felt-tip marker.

Inside was a folded up map of the city. About a dozen red stars marked different areas around town.

In elementary school, we used those same chamber of commerce maps to learn about north, south, east, and west. Tiny blue numbers scattered around the map matched up with business names listed in the margins.

I kept Hannah’s map in my backpack. I meant to show it around school to see if anyone else got one.

To see if anyone knew what it meant. But over time, it slid beneath my textbooks and notebooks and I forgot all about it.

Till now.

Throughout the tapes, I’ll be mentioning several spots around our beloved city for you to visit. I can’t force you to go there, but if you’d like a little more insight, just head for the stars. Or, if you’d like, just throw the maps away and I’ll never know.

As Hannah speaks through the dusty speakers, I feel the weight of my backpack pressing against my leg. Inside, crushed somewhere at the bottom, is her map.

Or maybe I will. I’m not actually sure how this whole dead thing works. Who knows, maybe I’m standing behind you right now.

I lean forward, propping my elbows on the workbench. I let my face fall into my hands and I slide my fingers back into unexpectedly damp hair.

I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair.

Ready, Mr. Foley?

Justin Foley. A senior. He was Hannah’s first kiss.

But why do I know that?

Justin, honey, you were my very first kiss. My very first hand to hold. But you were nothing more than an average guy. And I don’t say that to be mean—I don’t. There was just something about you that made me need to be your girlfriend. To this day I don’t know exactly what that was. But it was there…and it was amazingly strong.

You don’t know this, but two years ago when I was a freshman and you were a sophomore, I used to follow you around. For sixth period, I worked in the attendance office, so I knew every one of your classes. I even photocopied your schedule, which I’m sure I still have here somewhere. And when they go through my belongings, they’ll probably toss it away thinking a freshman crush has no relevance. But does it?

For me, yes, it does. I went back as far as you to find an introduction to my story. And this really is where it begins.

So where am I on this list, among these stories? Second? Third? Does it get worse as it goes along? She said lucky number thirteen could take the tapes to hell.

When you reach the end of these tapes, Justin, I hope you’ll understand your role in all of this. Because it may seem like a small role now, but it matters. In the end, everything matters.

Betrayal. It’s one of the worst feelings.

I know you didn’t mean to let me down. In fact, most of you listening probably had no idea what you were doing—what you were truly doing.

What was I doing, Hannah? Because I honestly have no idea. That night, if it’s the night I’m thinking of, was just as strange for me as it was for you. Maybe more so, since I still have no idea what the hell happened.

Our first red star can be found at C-4. Take your finger over to C and drop it down to 4. That’s right, like Battleship. When you’re done with this tape, you should go there. We only lived in that house a short while, the summer before my freshman year, but it’s where we lived when we first came to town.

And it’s where I first saw you, Justin. Maybe you’ll remember. You were in love with my friend Kat.

School was still two months away, and Kat was the only person I knew because she lived right next door. She told me you were all over her the previous year. Not literally all over her—just staring and accidentally bumping into her in the halls.

I mean, those were accidents, right?

Kat told me that at the end-of-school dance, you finally found the nerve to do more than stare and bump into her. The two of you danced every slow song together. And soon, she told me, she was going to let you kiss her. The very first kiss of her life. What an honor!

The stories must be bad. Really bad. That’s the only reason the tapes are passing on from one person to the next. Out of fear.

Why would you want to mail out a bunch of tapes blaming you in a suicide? You wouldn’t. But Hannah wants us, those of us on the list, to hear what she has to say. And we’ll do what she says, passing the tapes on, if only to keep them away from people not on the list.

“The list.” It sounds like a secret club. An exclusive club.

And for some reason, I’m in it.

I wanted to see what you looked like, Justin, so we called you from my house and told you to come over. We called from my house because Kat didn’t want you to know where she lived…well, not yet…even though her house was right next door.

You were playing ball—I don’t know if it was basketball, baseball, or what—but you couldn’t come over until later. So we waited.

Basketball. A lot of us played that summer, hoping to make JV as freshmen. Justin, only a sophomore, had a spot waiting for him on varsity. So a lot of us played ball with him in hopes of picking up skills over

the summer. And some of us did.

While some of us, unfortunately, did not.

We sat in my front bay window, talking for hours, when all of a sudden you and one of your friends—hi, Zach!—came walking up the street.

Zach? Zach Dempsey? The only time I’ve seen Zach with Hannah, even momentarily, was the night I first met her.

Two streets meet in front of my old house like an upside-downT,so you were walking up the middle of the road toward us.

Wait. Wait. I need to think.

I pick at a speck of dry orange paint on the workbench. Why am I listening to this? I mean, why put myself through this? Why not just pop the tape out of the stereo and throw the entire box of them in the trash?

I swallow hard. Tears sting at the corners of my eyes.

Because it’s Hannah’s voice. A voice I thought I’d never hear again. I can’t throw that away.

And because of the rules. I look at the shoebox hidden beneath the cloth diaper. Hannah said she made a copy of each of these tapes. But what if she didn’t? Maybe if the tapes stop, if I don’t pass them on, that’s it. It’s over. Nothing happens.

But what if there’s something on these tapes that could hurt me? What if it’s not a trick? Then a second set of tapes will be released. That’s what she said. And everyone will hear what’s on them.

The spot of paint flakes off like a scab.

Who’s willing to test her bluff?

You stepped out of the gutter and planted one foot on the lawn. My dad had the sprinklers running all morning so the grass was wet and your foot slid forward, sending you into a split. Zach had been staring at the window, trying to get a better view of Kat’s new friend—yours truly—and he tripped over you, landing beside you on the curb.

You pushed him off and stood up. Then he stood up, and you both looked at each other, not sure of what to do. And your decision? You ran back down the street while Kat and I laughed like crazy in the Page 9

window.

I remember that. Kat thought it was so funny. She told me about it at her going-away party that summer.

The party where I first saw Hannah Baker.

God. I thought she was so pretty. And new to this town, that’s what really got me. Around the opposite sex, especially back then, my tongue twisted into knots even a Boy Scout would walk away from. But around her I could be the new and improved Clay Jensen, high school freshman.

Kat moved away before the start of school, and I fell in love with the boy she left behind. And it wasn’t long until that boy started showing an interest in me. Which might have had something to do with the fact that I seemed to always be around.

We didn’t share any classes, but our classrooms for periods one, four, and five were at least close to each other. Okay, so period five was a stretch, and sometimes I wouldn’t get there until after you’d left, but periods one and four were at least in the same hall.

At Kat’s party, everyone hung around the outside patio even though the temperature was freezing. It was probably the coldest night of the year. And I, of course, forgot my jacket at home.

After a while, I managed to say hello. And a little while later, you managed to say it back. Then, one day, I walked by you without saying a word. I knew you couldn’t handle that, and it led to our very first multiword conversation.

No, that’s not right. I left my jacket at home because I wanted everyone to see my new shirt.

What an idiot I was.

“Hey!” you said. “Aren’t you going to say hello?”

I smiled, took a breath, then turned around. “Why should I?”

“Because you always say hello.”

I asked why you thought you were such an expert on me. I said you probably didn’t know anything about me.

At Kat’s party, I bent down to tie my shoe during my first conversation with Hannah Baker. And I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tie my stupid shoelace because my fingers were too numb from the cold.

To Hannah’s credit, she offered to tie it for me. Of course, I wouldn’t let her. Instead, I waited till Zach inserted himself into our awkward conversation before sneaking inside to thaw my fingers beneath running water.

So embarrassing.

Earlier, when I asked my mom how to get a boy’s attention, she said, “Play hard to get.” So that’s what I was doing. And sure enough, it worked. You started hanging around my classes waiting for me.

It seemed like weeks went by before you finally asked for my number. But I knew you eventually would, Page 10

so I practiced saying it out loud. Real calm and confident like I didn’t really care. Like I gave it out a hundred times a day.

Yes, boys at my old school had asked for my number. But here, at my new school, you were the first.

No. That’s not true. But you were the first to actually get my number.

It’s not that I didn’t want to give it out before. I was just cautious. New town. New school. And this time, I was going to be in control of how people saw me. After all, how often do we get a second chance?

Before you, Justin, whenever anyone asked, I’d say all the right numbers up until the very last one. And then I’d get scared and mess up…sort of accidentally on purpose.

I heave my backpack onto my lap and unzip the largest pocket.

I was getting way too excited watching you write down my number. Luckily, you were way too nervous to notice. When I finally spat out that last number—the correct number!—I smiled so big.

Meanwhile, your hand was shaking so badly that I thought you were going to screw it up. And I was not going to let that happen.

I pull out her map and unfold it on the workbench.

I pointed at the number you were writing. “That should be a seven,” I said.

“It is a seven.”

I use a wooden ruler to smooth out the creases.

“Oh. Well, as long as you know it’s a seven.”

“I do,” you said. But you scratched it out anyway and made an even shakier seven.

I stretched the cuff of my sleeve into my palm and almost reached over to wipe the sweat from your forehead…something my mother would’ve done. But thankfully, I didn’t do that. You never would’ve asked another girl for her number again.

Through the side garage door, Mom calls my name. I lower the volume, ready to hit Stop if it opens.

“Yes?”

By the time I got home, you’d already called. Twice.

“I want you to keep working,” Mom says, “but I need to know if you’re having dinner with us.”

My mom asked who you were, and I said we had a class together. You were probably just calling with a homework question. And she said that’s exactly what you had told her.

I look down at the first red star. C-4. I know where that is. But should I go there?

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I couldn’t believe it.

Justin, you lied to my mom.

So why did that make me so happy?

“No,” I say. “I’m heading to a friend’s house. For his project.”

Because our lies matched. It was a sign.

“That’s fine,” Mom says. “I’ll keep some in the fridge and you can heat it up later.”

My mom asked what class we had and I said math, which wasn’t a total lie. We both had math. Just not together. And not the same type.

“Good,” Mom said. “That’s what he told me.”

I accused her of not trusting her own daughter, grabbed the slip of paper with your number from her hand, and ran upstairs.

I’ll go there. To the first star. But before that, when this side of the tape is over, I’ll go to Tony’s.

Tony never upgraded his car stereo so he still plays tapes. That way, he says, he’s in control of the music. If he gives someone a ride and they bring their own music, too bad. “The format’s not compatible,” he tells them.

When you answered the phone, I said, “Justin? It’s Hannah. My mom said you called with a math problem.”

Tony drives an old Mustang handed down from his brother, who got it from his dad, who probably got it from his dad. At school there are few loves that compare to the one between Tony and his car. More girls have dumped him out of car envy than my lips have even kissed.

You were confused, but eventually you remembered lying to my mom and, like a good boy, you apologized.

While Tony doesn’t classify as a close friend, we have worked on a couple of assignments together so I know where he lives. And most important of all, he owns an old Walkman that plays tapes. A yellow one with a skinny plastic headset that I’m sure he’ll let me borrow. I’ll take a few tapes with me and listen to them as I walk through Hannah’s old neighborhood, which is only a block or so from Tony’s.

“So, Justin, what’s the math problem?” I asked. You weren’t getting off that easy.

Or maybe I’ll take the tapes somewhere else. Somewhere private. Because I can’t listen here. Not that Mom or Dad will recognize the voice in the speakers, but I need room. Room to breathe.

And you didn’t miss a beat. You told me Train A was leaving your house at 3:45PM. Train B was leaving my house ten minutes later.

You couldn’t see this, Justin, but I actually raised my hand like I was in school rather than sitting on the edge of my bed. “Pick me, Mr. Foley. Pick me,” I said. “I know the answer.”

When you called my name, “Yes, Miss Baker?” I threw Mom’s hard-to-get rule right out the window. I Page 12

told you the two trains met at Eisenhower Park at the bottom of the rocket slide.

What did Hannah see in him? I never got that. Even she admits she was unable to put her finger on it.

But for an average-looking guy, so many girls are into Justin.

Sure, he is kind of tall. And maybe they find him intriguing. He’s always looking out windows, contemplating something.

A long pause at your end of the line, Justin. And I mean a looooooong pause. “So, when do the trains meet?” you asked.

“Fifteen minutes,” I said.

You said fifteen minutes seemed awfully slow for two trains going full speed.

Whoa. Slow down, Hannah.

I know what you’re all thinking. Hannah Baker is a slut.

Oops. Did you catch that? I said, “Hannah Bakeris.”Can’t say that anymore.

She stops talking.

I drag the stool closer to the workbench. The two spindles in the tape deck, hidden behind a smoky plastic window, pull the tape from one side to the other. A gentle hiss comes through the speaker. A soft static hum.

What is she thinking? At that moment, are her eyes shut? Is she crying? Is her finger on the Stop button, hoping for the strength to press it? What is she doing? I can’t hear!

Wrong.

Her voice is angry. Almost trembling.

Hannah Baker is not, and never was, a slut. Which begs the question, What have you heard?

I simply wanted a kiss. I was a freshman girl who had never been kissed. Never. But I liked a boy, he liked me, and I was going to kiss him. That’s the story—the whole story—right there.

What was the other story? Because I did hear something.

The few nights leading up to our meeting in the park, I’d had the same dream. Exactly the same. From beginning to end. And for your listening pleasure, here it is.

But first, a little background.

My old town had a park similar to Eisenhower Park in one way. They both had that rocket ship. I’m sure it was made by the same company because they looked identical. A red nose points to the sky.

Metal bars run from the nose all the way down to green fins holding the ship off the ground. Between the nose and the fins are three platforms, connected by three ladders. On the top level is a steering wheel.

On the mid level is a slide that leads down to the playground.

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On many nights leading up to my first day of school here, I’d climb to the top of that rocket and let my head fall back against the steering wheel. The night breeze blowing through the bars calmed me. I’d just close my eyes and think of home.

I climbed up there once, only once, when I was five. I screamed and cried my head off and would not come down for anything. But Dad was too big to fit through the holes. So he called the fire department, and they sent a female firefighter up to get me. They must’ve had a lot of those rescues because, a few weeks ago, the city announced plans to tear the rocket slide down.

I think that’s the reason, in my dreams, my first kiss took place at the rocket ship. It reminded me of innocence. And I wanted my first kiss to be just that. Innocent.

Maybe that’s why she didn’t red-star the park. The rocket might be gone before the tapes make it through the entire list.

So back to my dreams, which started the day you began waiting outside my classroom door. The day I knew you liked me.

Hannah took off her shirt and let Justin put his hands up her bra. That’s it. That’s what I heard happened in the park that night.

But wait. Why would she do that in the middle of a park?

The dream starts with me at the top of the rocket, holding on to the steering wheel. It’s still a playground rocket, not a real one, but every time I turn the wheel to the left, the trees in the park lift up their roots and sidestep it to the left. When I turn the wheel to the right, they sidestep it to the right.

Then I hear your voice calling up from the ground. “Hannah! Hannah! Stop playing with the trees and come see me.”

So I leave the steering wheel and climb through the hole in the top platform. But when I reach the next platform, my feet have grown so huge they won’t fit through the next hole.

Big feet? Seriously? I’m not into dream analysis, but maybe she was wondering if Justin had a big one.

I poke my head through the bars and shout, “My feet are too big. Do you still want me to come down?”

“I love big feet,” you shout back. “Come down the slide and see me. I’ll catch you.”

So I sit on the slide and push off. But the wind resistance on my feet makes me go so slow. In the time it takes me to reach the bottom of the slide, I’ve noticed that your feet are extremely small. Almost nonexistent.

I knew it!

You walk to the end of the slide with your arms out, ready to catch me. And wouldn’t you know it, when I jump off, my huge feet don’t step on your little feet.

“See? We were made for each other,” you say. Then you lean in to kiss me. Your lips getting closer…and closer…and…I wake up.

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Every night for a week I woke up in the exact same about-to-be-kissed spot. But now, Justin, I would finally be meeting you. At that park. At the bottom of that slide. And damn it, you were going to kiss the hell out of me whether you liked it or not.

Hannah, if you kissed back then like you kissed at the party, trust me, he liked it.

I told you to meet me there in fifteen minutes. Of course, I only said that to make sure I got there before you. By the time you walked into the park, I wanted to be inside that rocket and all the way up, just like in my dreams. And that’s how it happened…minus the dancing trees and funky feet.

From my viewpoint at the top of the rocket, I saw you come in at the far end of the park. You checked your watch every few steps and walked over to the slide, looking all around, but never up.

So I spun the steering wheel as hard as I could to make it rattle. You took a step back, looked up, and called my name. But don’t worry, even though I wanted to live out my dream, I didn’t expect you to know every single line and tell me to stop playing with the trees and come down.

“Be right down,” I said.

But you told me to stop. You’d climb up to where I was.

So I shouted back, “No! Let me take the slide.”

Then you repeated those magical, dreamlike words, “I’ll catch you.”

Definitely beats my first kiss. Seventh grade, Andrea Williams, behind the gym after school. She came over to my table at lunch, whispered the proposition in my ear, and I had a hard-on for the rest of the day.

When the kiss was over, three strawberry-lip-gloss seconds later, she turned and ran away. I peeked around the gym and watched two of her friends each hand her a five-dollar bill. I couldn’t believe it! My lips were a ten-dollar bet.

Was that good or bad? Probably bad, I decided.

But I’ve loved strawberry lip gloss ever since.

I couldn’t help smiling as I climbed down the top ladder. I sat myself on the slide—my heart racing. This was it. All my friends back home had their first kisses in middle school. Mine was waiting for me at the bottom of a slide, exactly as I wanted it. All I had to do was push off.

And I did.

I know it didn’t really happen like this, but when I look back, it all happens in slow motion. The push.

The slide. My hair flying behind me. You raising your arms to catch me. Me raising mine so you could.

So when did you decide to kiss me, Justin? Was it during your walk to the park? Or did it simply happen when I slid into your arms?

Okay, who out there wants to know my very first thought during my very first kiss? Here it is: Page 15

Somebody’s been eating chilidogs.

Nice one, Justin.

I’m sorry. It wasn’t that bad, but it was the first thing I thought.

I’ll take strawberry lip gloss any day.

I was so anxious about what kind of kiss it would be—because my friends back home described so many types—and it turned out to be the beautiful kind. You didn’t shove your tongue down my throat.

You didn’t grab my butt. We just held our lips together…and kissed.

And that’s it.

Wait. Stop. Don’t rewind. There’s no need to go back because you didn’t miss a thing. Let me repeat myself. That…is…all…that…happened.

Why, did you hear something else?

A shiver races up my spine.

Yes, I did. We all did.

Well, you’re right. Something did happen. Justin grabbed my hand, we walked over to the swings, and we swung. Then he kissed me again the very same way.

Then? And then, Hannah? What happened then?

Then…we left. He went one way. I went the other.

Oh. So sorry. You wanted something sexier, didn’t you? You wanted to hear how my itchy little fingers started playing with his zipper. You wanted to hear…

Well, what did you want to hear? Because I’ve heard so many stories that I don’t know which one is the most popular. But I do know which is the least popular.

The truth.

Now, the truth is the one you won’t forget.

I can still see Justin huddled among his friends at school. I remember Hannah walking by, and the whole group stopped talking. They averted their eyes. And when she passed, they started laughing.

But why do I remember this?

Because I wanted to talk to Hannah so many times after Kat’s going-away party, but I was too shy.

Too afraid. Watching Justin and his friends that day, I got the sense that there was more to her than I knew.

Then, later, I heard about her getting felt up at the rocket slide. And she was so new to school that the rumors overshadowed everything else I knew about her.

Page 16

Hannah was beyond me, I figured. Too experienced to even think about me.

So thank you, Justin. Sincerely. My very first kiss was wonderful. And for the month or so that we lasted, and everywhere that we went, the kisses were wonderful. You were wonderful.

But then you started bragging.

A week went by and I heard nothing. But eventually, as they always will, the rumors reached me. And everyone knows you can’t disprove a rumor.

I know. I know what you’re thinking. As I was telling the story, I was thinking the same thing myself. A kiss? A rumor based on a kiss made you do this to yourself?

No. A rumor based on a kiss ruined a memory that I hoped would be special. A rumor based on a kiss started a reputation that other people believed in and reacted to. And sometimes, a rumor based on a kiss has a snowball effect.

A rumor, based on a kiss, is just the beginning.

Turn the tape over for more.

I reach for the stereo, ready to press Stop.

And Justin, honey, stick around. You’re not going to believe where your name pops up next.

I hold my finger over the button, listening to the soft hum in the speakers, the faint squeak of the spindles winding the tape, waiting for her voice to return.

But it doesn’t. The story is over.

When I get to Tony’s, his Mustang is parked against the curb in front of his house. The hood is propped open, and he and his dad are leaning over the engine. Tony holds a small flashlight while his dad tightens something deep inside with a wrench.

“Did it break down,” I ask, “or is this just for fun?”

Tony glances over his shoulder and, when he sees me, drops the flashlight into the engine. “Damn.”

His dad stands up and wipes his oily hands across the front of his greased-up T-shirt. “Are you kidding?

It’s always fun.” He looks at Tony and winks. “It’s even more fun when it’s something serious.”

Scowling, Tony reaches in for the flashlight. “Dad, you remember Clay.”

“Sure,” his dad says. “Of course. Good to see you again.” He doesn’t reach forward to shake my hand.

And with the amount of grease smeared onto his shirt, I’m not offended.

But he’s faking it. He doesn’t remember me.

Page 17

“Oh, hey,” his dad says, “I do remember you. You stayed for dinner once, right? Big on the ‘please’ and

‘thank-yous’.”

I smile.

“After you left, Tony’s mom was after us for a week to be more polite.”

What can I say? Parents like me.

“Yeah, that’s him,” Tony says. He grabs a shop rag to clean his hands. “So what’s going on, Clay?”

I repeat his words in my head. What’s going on? What’s going on? Oh, well, since you asked, I got a bunch of tapes in the mail today from a girl who killed herself. Apparently, I had something to do with it.

I’m not sure what that is, so I was wondering if I could borrow your Walkman to find out.

“Not much,” I say.

His dad asks if I’d mind getting in the car and starting it for them. “The key’s in the ignition.”

I sling my backpack over to the passenger seat and slide in behind the wheel.

“Wait. Wait!” his dad yells. “Tony, shine it over here.”

Tony’s standing beside the car. Watching me. When our eyes meet, they lock and I can’t pull away.

Does he know? Does he know about the tapes?

“Tony,” his dad repeats. “The light.”

Tony breaks the stare and leans in with the flashlight. In the space between the dash and the hood, his gaze slips back and forth from me to the engine.

What if he’s on the tapes? What if his story is right before mine? Is he the one who sent them to me?

God, I am freaking out. Maybe he doesn’t know. Maybe I just look guilty of something and he’s picking up on that.

While I wait for the cue to start the car, I look around. Behind the passenger seat, on the floor, is the Walkman. It’s just sitting there. The headphones’ cord is wrapped tightly around the player. But what’s my excuse? Why do I need it?

“Tony, here, take the wrench and let me hold the flashlight,” his dad says. “You’re jiggling it too much.”

They swap flashlight for wrench and, at that moment, I grab for the Walkman. Just like that. Without thinking. The middle pocket of my backpack is open, so I stuff it in there and zip it shut.

“Okay, Clay,” his dad calls. “Turn it.”

I turn the key and the engine starts right up.

Through the gap above the dash, I watch his dad’s smile. Whatever he’s done, he’s satisfied. “A little fine-tuning to make her sing,” he says over the engine. “You can shut it off now, Clay.”

Page 18

Tony lowers the hood and clicks it shut. “I’ll see you inside, Dad.”

His dad nods, lifts a metal toolbox from the street, bundles up some greasy rags, then heads for the garage.

I pull my backpack over my shoulder and step out of the car.

“Thanks,” Tony says. “If you didn’t show up, we’d probably be out here all night.”

I slip my arm through the other strap and adjust the backpack. “I needed to get out of the house,” I say.

“My mom was getting on my nerves.”

Tony looks at the garage. “Tell me about it,” he says. “I need to start my homework and my dad wants to tinker under the hood some more.”

The streetlamp overhead flickers on.

“So, Clay,” he says, “what’d you come out here for?”

I feel the weight of the Walkman in my backpack.

“I was just walking by and saw you outside. Thought I’d say hi.”

His eyes stare a little too long, so I look over at his car.

“I’m heading to Rosie’s to see what’s up,” he says. “Can I give you a lift?”

“Thanks,” I say, “but I’m only walking a few blocks.”

He shoves his hands into his pockets. “Where you off to?”

God, I hope he’s not on the list. But what if he is? What if he already listened to the tapes and knows exactly what’s going on in my head? What if he knows exactly where I’m going? Or worse, what if he hasn’t received the tapes yet? What if they get sent to him further down the line?

If that’s the case, he’ll remember this moment. He’ll remember my stalling. My not wanting to tip him off

or warn him.

“Nowhere,” I say. I put my hands in my pockets, too. “So, you know, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He doesn’t say a word. Just watches me turn to leave. At any moment I expect him to yell, “Hey!

Where’s my Walkman?” But he doesn’t. It’s a clean getaway.

I take a right at the first corner and continue walking. I hear the car’s engine start and the crunch of gravel as the wheels of his Mustang roll forward. Then he steps on the gas, crosses the street behind me, and keeps going.

I slide my backpack off my shoulders and down to the sidewalk. I pull out the Walkman. I unwrap the cord and slip the yellow plastic headphones over my head, pushing the tiny speaker nubs into my ears.

Inside my backpack are the first four tapes, which are one or two more than I’ll probably have time to Page 19

listen to tonight. The rest I left at home.

I unzip the smallest pocket and remove the first tape. Then I slide it into the deck, B-side out, and shut the plastic door.

CASSETTE 1: SIDE B

Welcome back. And thanks for hanging out for part two.

I wiggle the Walkman into my jacket pocket and turn up the volume.

If you’re listening to this, one of two things has just happened. A: You’re Justin, and after hearing your little tale you want to hear who’s next. Or B: You’re someone else and you’re waiting to see if it’s you.

Well…

A line of hot sweat rises along my hairline.

Alex Standall, it’s your turn.

A single bead of sweat slides down my temple and I wipe it away.

I’m sure you have no idea why you’re on here, Alex. You probably think you did a good thing, right?

You voted me Best Ass in the Freshman Class. How could anyone be angry at that?

Listen.

I sit on the curb with my shoes in the gutter. Near my heel, a few blades of grass poke up through the cement. Though the sun has barely started dipping beneath the rooftops and trees, streetlamps are lit on both sides of the road.

First, Alex, if you think I’m being silly—if you think I’m some stupid little girl who gets her panties in a bunch over the tiniest things, taking everything way too seriously, no one’s making you listen. Sure, I am pressuring you with that second set of tapes, but who cares if people around town know what you think of my ass, right?

In the houses on this block, and in my house several blocks away, families are finishing up their dinners.

Or they’re loading dishwashers. Or starting their homework.

For those families, tonight, everything is normal.

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