Authors: Danielle Vega
I SCREAM FOR SO LONG MY THROAT BURNS. THE RAT
drops Julie's finger and scurries deeper into the dark.
“Julie?” I whisper, hoarse.
Julie doesn't move. Blood coats her arms and neck and forms a black pool beneath her head. Another rat creeps from the shadows and laps at the pool of blood.
I cringe and look away. Something glistening spills from the hole in Julie's stomach.
. They slither toward me, twitching. They splatter my face with something hot and sticky.
I scream. My phone slips from my sweat-slicked fingers and clatters to the ground. The screen blinks off.
Panicked horror claws at my chest. I'm alone. In the dark.
“Julie,” I call, my voice stronger now. I hold my breath, waiting, but there's only silence. The tunnel stretches and collapses around me. I dig my fingers into the spaces between the bricks on the wall and fight the queasiness rising in my throat. “Julie,
I hear something in the darkness. A footstep.
Nerves prick my neck. I picture the ragged hole in Julie's chest. Bones poking through skin. Shredded flesh. Hot, sticky pools of blood.
Someone made that hole. Bile rises in my throat. Someone cut into my friend's body, and they didn't stop when her eyes went still. The carved out her insides like she was an animal. They gutted her.
Another footstep, closer this time.
My knees tremble, but I push myself to my feet and start to run. My shoes slap against the damp floor. Tears blur my eyes and roll down my cheeks. Pain stabs through my bad knee. I keeping running, pushing myself to move faster. Faster. My foot slams into the concrete and my knee twists beneath me. I hit the ground palms-first.
For a second I lie there, frozen. I feel Julie's blood drying on my face. The sharp, metallic scent clouds my head, making me dizzy. I hear footsteps below the sound of my breathing, getting closer.
I grit my teeth together and push myself back to my feet. I picture the joints in my bad knee like tissues, the fibers slowly separating every time my foot slams into the ground.
The party glows in the distance. People writhe and dance. Music rumbles toward me and vibrates through the tunnel. Neon pink and orange lights flicker in and out of the darkness.
I hobble closer, but the party drifts deeper into the tunnel, like a mirage. Cramps knit my side, and a dull ache pounds through my knee. I wrap my arms around myself and breathe, deep.
“Help,” I gasp. The throbbing music swallows my voice. I try to call out again, but the word bubbles up in my throat. I double over against the side of the tunnel, gasping for breath.
, my brain screams. But my muscles burn, and my knees shake so badly I can barely hold myself upright. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to focus on breathing.
Marijuana smoke hangs heavy in the air around me. I inhale and feel a gurgling deep in my belly, like everything I've ever eaten is rolling around with all the Coke I drank and whatever terrible drug Shana slipped me. Spots flash before my eyes, so I squeeze them closed. The room spins.
And somewhere in the darkness behind me: footsteps getting closer, closer.
I push myself away from the wall and try to run. My knee gives out after two shaky steps, and my hands and knees slam into the concrete. Pain shudders through my body. I try to stand, but I stumble again, banging my bad knee against a train track. Pain blossoms in my leg. Acid gurgles in my belly and climbs up my throat.
I double over, heaving, and vomit up everything in my stomach.
Sweat lines the back of my neck. My throat feels raw, and my chest burns. I spit the last of the vomit from my mouth and straighten, smoothing the hair back from my face. Everything looks a bit clearer now. The party is closer than I realized. There are more people nearby.
I'm crouched in a narrow tunnel separated from the rest of the party by thick concrete pillars. A dingy tile wall stretches behind me. Blue mosaic tiles spell out the words
A girl weaves around a pillar and stumbles past me, sloshing beer onto the train tracks. Party sounds echo through the tunnel. People dance and laugh and cheer.
I wipe my mouth with my palm and cringe. My stomach feels like someone hollowed it out with an ice cream scooper. I listen for the footsteps, but I only hear the steady bass thudding through the music.
I breathe in, deep, and stare back down the tunnel I just raced out of. Thick red rails disappear into the darkness. Candlelight makes the shadows dance. I crouch down and peel a candle off the floor.
My heart thuds against my ribs. I hold the candle in front of me, illuminating the moldy brick walls and dirt-covered concrete.
Something cracks, like a twig breaking.
I freeze. Every nerve in my body screams.
“Julie?” I whisper.
Then someone grabs my shoulders.
HANDS CLAMP DOWN ON MY SHOULDERS. I THRUST
my elbow behind me on instinct, making contact with the soft, fleshy area right below my attacker's ribs. The candle slips from my hands and smacks onto the damp floor, flickering out.
Behind me, a groan. “Casey?”
?” I whirl around, searching the darkness for Sam's face. The strobe lights at the end of the tunnel flicker on and off, illuminating the tips of his hair and the hard edges of his jaw. “Oh my God!”
“It's okay.” Sam straightens, still rubbing the spot where I hit him. “Who did you think I was? The bogeyman?”
My throat closes up. I think of the footsteps I heard echoing through the dark. The rat's gleaming eyes. Julie's pale, lifeless body.
“Julie.” My voice cracks. I still feel her blood clinging to my skin. I swipe at my cheeks but my hands come away clean.
“What are you doing?” Sam grabs my wrist but I jerk away.
“I have to get it off,” I hiss.
“Get what off?” Sam grabs me and holds me still. I try to pull away but his fingers tighten around my arms. “Casey,
. There's nothing on your face.”
“The blood.” I gasp. “I feel it.”
“There's no blood!”
Sam pulls his phone out of his back pocket and switches on the camera. My face reflects back at me from the screen. Yellow paint streaks across my forehead, and there's a smudge of dirt at my chin. But no blood.
“No,” I murmur. I touch the phone with a shaking finger. “I
the blood. I saw it!”
“Julie's!” I pull away from Sam and stumble toward the tunnel. “She's down there. She's hurt. I think she'sÂ .Â .Â . dead.”
Sam narrows his eyes. “CaseyÂ .Â .Â .”
“You have to believe me!” I hear the twinge of hysteria in my voice and slow down, letting my heartbeat steady. “She's down there. We have to help.”
I peer into the darkness, trying to separate the walls and floor from the oily black. I take a tentative step forward.
Sam touches my shoulder. I flinch.
“Here.” He holds out his cell phone, sending a dim beam of light over the curved tunnel walls and metal train tracks.
“We'll look together, okay?” Sam nudges me with his shoulder. I swallow, and creep down the tunnel, feeling along the wall to find my way. Sam keeps his hand on my arm. Heat radiates off his body, reminding me I'm not alone.
The cell phone light bounces ahead, illuminating empty beer cans and the rotten wooden slabs beneath the subway rails. Water stains trace grimy lines down the brick. Someone has spray-painted neon yellow
s along the wall.
I stare into the darkness just beyond the dim light, listening. I hear my own feet shuffling down the tunnel and the heavier sound of Sam's sneakers beside me. Nothing else. Goose bumps climb up my arms. I can't shake the feeling that someone's hiding in the shadows. I keep expecting Sam's cell phone light to illuminate a face.
“I don't know,” I say after a few minutes. “Maybe this isn't the same tunnel. Julie was rightâ”
I kick something, and it skitters across the ground. Sam hands me his phone. I crouch down, aiming the beam of light at the floor.
My cell phone lies on the ground next to the curved brick wall. A thin crack spreads along the plastic case, cutting across the Sharpie kitten Shana had drawn on it.
I stand up, turning the phone over in my hand. “Someone could have moved her,” I say.
“There would've been blood,” Sam points out.
I aim my phone over the ground. The packed dirt looks damp, but that could be from beer or urine. “It could've seeped into the ground,” I say, halfheartedly. “It could'veÂ .Â .Â .”
“Casey,” Sam says. Hearing my name dislodges something in my chest. I release a choked sob.
“It wasn't her,” I whisper. Relief bubbles up in my throat. It wasn't real. Julie's okay. Julie's alive. That's all that matters.
“Of course it wasn't her,” Sam says, his voice oddly flat. “You're high, Casey.”
I frown up at him. “No. It's not like that.”
Frown lines wrinkle Sam's forehead. “So you're saying you didn't take anything tonight?”
I stiffen. “Nothing,” I say, too quickly.
“A few seconds ago you were convinced you saw one of your best friends lying dead in a tunnel.”
Shame warms my face. I always blush when I'm lying, which Sam knows better than anyone.
didn't take anything,” I say carefully. I stare down at my shoes because I'm too embarrassed to look Sam in the face. I swore to myself I'd never lie to him again and here I am, falling right back into old habits. It's like nothing changed.
I swallow, and force the next words out of my mouth. “But I think Shana slipped something in my drink. I don't know what it was.”
Sam shakes his head. “Bullshit.”
“It's the truth,” I say, meeting his eyes.
“How can I believe that?” Sam shakes his head. “I can't even count how many times you lied when we were together.”
“I know.” My voice cracks. I don't know how much I lied to Sam, either. At the time it seemed easier than telling the truth. Sam never understood why anyone would be curious about drugs. He had seen them ruin his brother's life, and he was convinced they'd do the same to me.
But things are different now.
“I'm not the same person,” I explain. “RehabÂ .Â .Â .”
the same person!” Sam stares at me, his jaw clenched. “You're still hanging out with the same people. You're still doing the same things.”
“It's different now. I swearâ”
“And what's with the Tylenol?” Sam reaches into my purse and grabs the bottle. “I'm not blind. I saw Shana hide it.”
“That's what you're pissed about? It's Tylenol!” I take the bottle from him and flip the cap off, dumping half the pills onto the ground. They ping against the train tracks and scatter over the dirt. “There. Gone. Happy now?”
Sam stares down at the tracks. His shoulders slump.
“I just want you to take this seriously,” he says. “You're acting like you don't remember what happened.”
“Of course I remember.” I bite my lip, hoping it's not a lie. There's a lot I don't remember, in truth, but I couldn't forget the day Sam broke up with me if I tried.
He came over first thing in the morning, before I was even really awake. I'd gone to this terrible party with Shana the night before, and my head throbbed. I asked Sam to wait for me outside, and then I dug an oxycodone out of the aspirin bottle where I kept them hidden. I didn't want to get high or anything; I just wanted to take the edge off my hangover.
“Do you know what happened last night?” Sam asked when I joined him on our porch swing. I frowned, trying to sort through my fuzzy memories of the night before. I remembered Shana ditching me at a party. And something about a fight?
“Whatever happened, it's over now,” I said, leaning into Sam for a kiss. He pulled away.
“I can't do this,” he said. He couldn't even meet my eyes. “I think you need help, Case.”
“Help?” I blinked at him, confused.
“I watched the same thing happen with my brother,” he said. “I'm worried about you.”
“What are you talking about?” I was nothing like James. James was a junkie. He dropped out of school and disappeared. He didn't even talk to his family anymore. I told Sam that he was being paranoid. Because of his brother, he was seeing addiction everywhere.
“Then tell me the truth,” Sam had said. He finally looked up at me, sorrow crinkling the corners of his eyes. “Are you on anything right now?”
I stared at him, trying to decide if I should lie. But when I didn't answer, Sam shook his head and left.
I replay that moment in my head, blinking furiously to keep from crying. I've gone over it a million times, wondering if I could have said or done something differently.
“I'd do anything to change what happened,” I tell him.
Sam studies me, his eyes narrowed. “That's why I can't figure this out.”
I frown, feeling like I missed something. “Figure what out?”
“Why you're still hanging with Shana.”
For a second I don't know what to say. Shana didn't have anything to do with our breakup. She wasn't even there. He must be talking about the night before rehab, the one I don't remember. I roll my lower lip between my teeth, trying to think of what to say.
“Look, I know she makes mistakes sometimes, but Shana's been a good friend to meâ”
“She makes mistakes?” Sam interrupts. “Casey, you just told me she
“I know.” My voice catches in my throat. I don't know how to explain to Sam that I can hate Shana and love her at the same time.
“Look, I don't expect you to understand,” I say finally. “She practically saved my life after I screwed up my leg.”
“That's bullshit,” Sam says. “If it weren't for her you never would have gotten addicted to your painkillers in the first place.”
Heat climbs my neck and spreads across my cheeks.
“Maybe,” I admit. I think back to the Scrabble game where Shana first took some of my oxycodone. Before that it had never occurred to me to take them just for the thrill of it, even when I wasn't in pain. “But she's been there for me, too, and she's the only one in my life who isn't treating me like a freak right now.” Shana's words echo through my head:
You're nothing like those girls
. “She knows I'm not a junkie,” I say.
Sam frowns. “Is that what she's telling you? That you don't have a problem? That everything's okay? Because that's a lie, Casey. You're a completely different person when you hang out with her.”
A tear forms at the corner of my eye. “That was harsh,” I say.
I turn and start back down the tunnel without waiting for his response. I can't do this anymore. Every word out of Sam's mouth feels like a slap. The tear rolls down my cheek and I brush it away, angry with myself for caring so much.
“Wait,” Sam calls after me. He takes my arm and turns me around so I'm facing him again. “I just want to make sure you're okay. Things were bad for a while there. You weren't
anymore. The girl I fell in love with was gone.”
“I'm right here,” I whisper. Silence stretches between us. Sam takes a step toward me and clears his throat.
“I know,” he says.
I open my mouth, then close it again. “Sam,” I start, my mind whirring with all the things I want to say. “I know things got out of control. I'm soÂ .Â .Â .”
“You don't have to do that,” Sam says, shaking his head. “I made mistakes, too. If I could do it over again, I'd do things different.”
I hold my breath. “Different how?”
Sam brushes the tears from my cheeks with his thumb, sending a trail of fire across my skin. His cell phone light blinks off, leaving us alone in the dark.
“I want to trust you again.” His voice sounds husky, like there's something caught in his throat.
“You can,” I say. “I missed you.”
Sam leans in closer. “I missed you, too,” he whispers.