In the hallway between After and Before, there are exactly 82 steps.
“Thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight,” she whispered. It helped to say the numbers out loud, to visualize the march down that immortal hall. It helped. Since it was better to wake up drenched in sweat than not to fall asleep at all.
“They say sweat, t’s good to clean out though, so eff my body’s doin t on ts own, t’s a good thing, uh?” He had asked her. When it was May and he was 13.
“Who says,” she had asked him. “Did you tell the nurse?”
“Nah,” he said. His gaze broke free and wandered upwards, to the heavy blinds shading the classroom from the afternoon sun.
“Find my eyes, James,” she said. “Find my eyes and try that again.”
He blinked toward her face but couldn’t stay put. Something, a tentacle or a shooting star, waved him away again.
“No, Ms. Carson.”
“Any reason you get so hot when you sleep, James? Do you have nightmares? Are things happening when it’s nighttime?”
“Nah,” he said. His eyes flitted but landed on her shoulder for a solid second. “No. Just gets hot.”
“Do you get hot when you take the medicine, James?” Her face was level with his. He sat, squirming, at his desk. At the mention of the medicine, James grabbed a pencil in his right hand and her arm with his left. She bent the pencil toward the desk and removed her arm from his aim. “James, focus.”
No one had told her about the Aripiprazole at first. She had approached the school nurse on her lunch break after finding James less jittery, but at a complete loss with forming sentences. By April, he had seemed more aware again.
“Psh, I’m int takin’ that stuff,” he said.
“I int have it. Big James took it.”
“Your dad took it? Do you know why?”
“I unna know. He said he’s a use it.”
All packaged away at the front end of the hallway. Inside the classroom before she ever opened the door. Steps negative 12 to zero.
“…Fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four…” she continued. It helped. It wasn’t perfect, and the sweat had already beaded under the bottom of her hair, ran like a goblin along the waistline of her shorts. By morning she would be sunk in it, laid in her own, damp shadow as a liquid coffin. The opposite end of the hallway, tucked away in this room with no light and no shade.
And in between, those steps. Step 64 is where she had known something was wrong. The door to the library room was open too soon. The students were too quiet. If they weren’t in a line, they would generally be in a scatter, leaping, touching anything they could find. Instead, it was a crescent shape she found. A small moon curved around its stars. James. A thin line of blood streamed from the end of a pencil stuck into his left forearm. His right hand gripped the throat of the girl he loved. Her feet dangled an inch and a half above the ground, her head dimpled the bulletin board butcher paper.
Her gurgled gasps barely broke the surface. They made as much noise as her right, untied shoelace did as it tapped the ground. All those steps and all that time, and this last bit expanded to take up all the room.
One kid to the room across the hall. One kid to the principal’s office. One kid to stand beside her while she tried to pull him away.
“James,” she said quietly. “James find my eyes.”
But even as she said it she knew his eyes were gone. No longer hummingbirds to every object around, now they were locked in, focused in the way no one intended. The girl had turned him down. Said he smelled like piss and sweat. He stared down her insults, watched her eyes roll back.
“…Eighty, eighty-one, eighty-two,” she says, choking. She fills the space between the After and the Before with a pool of sweat every night. Every night hoping against what she knew, and reliving what died. An endless loop of echoes and steps.