Olive is crossing from the Sunshine Wing to the Redwood Wing, on her way to her third-period English class, when her dead mother appears for the first time. Weaving through the eddies of girls, twenty-six pounds of textbooks tugging at her shoulder, the blue skirt of her uniform clinging stubbornly to her thighs, Olive suddenly feels as if she might faint. She assumes at first that she is just overheating. Claremont Prep is housed in a rambling nineteenth-century Craftsman mansion that has been neglected in the name of “authenticity”--the knobs to the classrooms are all original cut crystal and spin uselessly when you turn them, and the windows don’t actually open because they’ve been lacquered over too many times, and Olive often has to take cold showers after badminton practice because the boiler can’t keep up with the demand of twelve girls simultaneously shaving their legs--and on rainy days, like this one, the overworked furnace fills the hallways with a moist fug of girl-scented heat.
Olive stops and presses her hand against the cool glass of a display case to stabilize herself. She digs in her backpack for a bottle of water and closes her eyes. She feels as if she is standing at the center of a turntable, the hallway whipping around her in dizzying circles. She catches an acrid whiff, as if something is burning.
When she opens her eyes again, she is somewhere else entirely. Or, rather, she is still in the main hall of Claremont Prep--she senses the thrum of bodies swinging past, the drumming of the rain against the stained-glass clerestory windows--but somehow she is also somewhere else entirely. A beach, to be exact.
The beach isn’t really there, of course it’s not, and yet . . . there it is: the overcast sky, the pebbly sand, the dunes lashed with sea grass, waves that are dark and hungry. She can almost feel her Converse sneakers shifting in the sand, the salty air sticking to her skin. This alternate world seems to exist as an overlay draped across her surroundings: Through the waves Olive is dimly aware of two other junior girls--Ming and Tracy--hanging up posters for the Fall Frolic; and just behind the ragged dunes is a line of lockers; and somewhere inside that thrashing surf is the double-doored entrance of the Redwood Wing. It is as if the two worlds exist simultaneously, each overlapping the other, a kind of waking dream.
She blinks. It doesn’t go away.
The time they gave her nitrous at the dentist’s office: That’s how she feels now, her brain opaque, diffuse, as if someone has reset its dial at half speed. Time seems to have stopped, or at least slowed. She senses her body tipping backward, the backpack full of books losing the battle against gravity. The third-period bell is ringing somewhere faintly in the distance.
That’s when she sees her mother.
Billie stands a few yards away, right where the sea meets the sand, the water slapping at her bare toes. It is as if she’s been standing there the whole time and Olive has only just grown aware of her.
Her mother’s hair is long and loose, the brown giving way to silver at the part. It flies in a wild halo around her face. She is wearing a gauzy white dress that whips around her bare legs as the wind blows off the sea, its hem dark with ocean spray. Her mom was never a wearer of dresses (she tended toward performance fleece), so this strikes Olive as slightly weird (as if nothing else happening here is weird?), but still. It’s her. Mom. Olive feels the word swell up inside her, painfully filling her lungs until it stops her breath entirely.
Despite her diaphanous appearance, Billie’s voice isn’t at all spectral; it’s strong and clear, as if right inside Olive’s brain, and loud enough to drown out the frothy shrieks of the girls down the hall. Olive opens her own mouth and gasps out the only word that she can muster: “Mom?”
“Olive,” Billie says, her voice lower now, almost chiding. “I miss you. Why aren’t you looking?”
“Looking for what?” She’s hallucinating, isn’t she? She isn’t really talking to her dead mom. She closes her eyes and opens them again.
Her mom is still there, looking amused. She smiles, revealing deep grooves in her sun-etched face, and she outstretches her hand as if to take Olive’s own. “Olive,” she says with a note of disappointment in her voice. “You aren’t trying hard enough.”
There’s a burning sensation in Olive’s chest that’s making it hard to breathe. “I’m trying as hard as I can, Mom,” Olive whispers, tears welling up in her eyes, but the weird thing is that she doesn’t feel sad, not at all. She feels almost . . . transcendent, as if she’s thisclose to getting the answer to some vital question that will make everything clear.
And then it comes to her, the answer she’s waiting for. It floods her with a giddy rush: Mom isn’t dead.
Olive lurches forward with the force of this epiphany. Where did it come from? She takes a step toward her mother, and then another as her mother’s figure starts to fade and recede before her; and then she starts to run, although it feels like she is running through wet cement. She feels the backpack slip off her shoulder and slam to the floor behind her. She understands that she needs to grab her mother’s outstretched hand, and that if she can somehow seize it, she will be able to drag her mother through that translucent overlay and back to her, back into Olive’s world, back to . . .
Wham. She runs straight into the wall.
Olive is momentarily blinded with pain--a goose egg will later rise on the spot where forehead connected with plaster--and when she can finally see again, her mother is gone.
The world comes collapsing back in around her: the rank locker smell of dirty gym clothes and spoiling bananas, the squeak of rubber soles on waxed oak, and the thrilled faces of the three gaping freshmen who have gathered around her, so close that she can feel the heat of their gummy breath.
“OhmyGodareyouOK,” says one freshman, an unfortunately pimpled blonde whom Olive has never spoken with before (Holly? Haley?). She leans in as if to touch the lump on Olive’s forehead, and Olive flinches.
“I’m fine, thanks for the concern, really, but it’s no big deal,” Olive says, smiling apologetically as she backs away. She clocks her backpack on the ground a few feet away and sidles toward it. Ming and Tracy, still on ladders at the end of the hall, have stopped what they are doing and are watching with overt fascination the tableau playing out before them. She waves at them. Tracy waves back with a silly little finger-wiggle, but Ming just stares at Olive, her brow puckering behind the severe curtain of her black bangs.
Meanwhile the three freshmen are following closely behind Olive, not ready to give up rubbernecking quite yet. “You just ran straight into the wall,” Haley/Holly says accusatorily. “It was kind of crazytown.”
Olive reaches down and grabs her backpack. Its weight in her hand grounds her, and she swings it over her shoulder, then tugs her skirt straight. The presence of the girls makes it hard to hang on to the answer that she just had in her grasp, and she desperately wants to escape so she can think all this over, figure it out. “Honestly, it’s nothing,” she says. The girls continue to peck around her, unsatisfied. Oh, please let me be alone, she thinks. “Just,” and her voice drops as if letting them in on a secret, “I’m a little hungover. You know?”
“Ohhhhh,” the girls say in low knowing voices that fail to conceal their utter unknowingness. Not that Olive knows much, either--she’s been hungover exactly once in her life, after a sleepover at Natalie’s house during which she polished off half of a leftover bottle of Christmas crème de menthe. But one thing she’s learned during her five-year career at Claremont Prep is that underclass girls believe there are secrets to a better life that will someday be unlocked, like the upper levels of a videogame, once they are able to drive a car or procure alcohol or get their braces off. She wishes she could tell these girls that things get easier, but in her experience they don’t. Not really. (With the possible exception of being able to drive yourself: That is pretty great.) You just discover that there are even bigger, more complicated problems that you have to solve.
In any case, with this small untruth, Olive is at last able to untangle herself. She continues to walk in the direction of the Redwood Wing, aware that the girls are whispering behind her. (She hears just a snippet: You know, the girl with the dead mom . . . ) And then, as the warning bell rings, she turns abruptly and exits to the courtyard.
The October air is sharp and wet against her face. She stands under the eaves, the rain splattering the rubber shells of her Converses, and tries to focus. Mom isn’t dead. She allows herself this thought again, gingerly, as if she’s metering out a particularly tasty piece of chocolate cake. The storm rushes through the oak trees, sending a shiver across them, and Olive realizes that she’s trembling.