I wasn’t expecting to save the world on a Thursday afternoon, with only a mason jar and a purple pen. It was eighth period, I was in Contemporary Literature. My teacher always takes her water in a mason jar with ice and a colorful straw, and though it was March, the day was unseasonably warm. She’d run out of water as soon as she began huffing about the classroom, explaining at hyperspeed how our recent novel connects with what we’d learned in Great Books, last semester.
“Dante!” She cried, perspiring aggressively. The window was open and the breeze was light and smelled of gentle lavender and cherry blossoms, which lined the road along our school. The gardener was mowing the lawn outside, and the gentle grumble made it seem like summer. I longed for the chlorine of the neighborhood pool, for the chime of the ice cream truck, the glowing-ember feeling of skin after a day in the sun where you get just a little bit burnt but not so much, and end up adopting a strange sort of reddish tan.
“How does Max’s journey to his boarding school represent a Katabasis!” She cried, calling on daydreaming students with reckless abandon. “Kyle! What are your thoughts?”
“Um.” Kyle began, then started tapping his pencil. He normally couldn’t get through a full sentence without fiddling. It was endearing. His hair stuck up in wild spurts of brown waves, probably from running his fingers through it.
Ms. Georgia continued to sputter on, fly about the room, gesticulate haphazardly, and terrorize the students. She went to take a sip from her mason jar, noticed it was empty, and hastily shoved it in my general direction.
“Will you fill this for me, Gillian?”
I feld the room, taking this opportunity to relax for a minute and catch my breath. The walls seemed dim and unreal after having stared longingly at the sunlight outside for so long. I leaned my hip against the water fountain button and stuck the mason jar under the stream of water. Of course, some asshole had turned the spout around so that instead of going into the drain, it sprayed all over my t-shirt. Lovely.
With a sigh I rounded the corner into the tiny bathroom and dabbed at the expanding wet spot. My phone vibrated in my back pocket. I picked it up and clenched it between my shoulder and head.
“Hello?” I said, brusquely. “I’m in school right now.” I picked the mason jar up, left the bathroom, and continued filling it at the water fountain.
“I’ve just called the school.” It was my mother’s voice. “I need you to come home right now.”
“Jeanette has run away.”
For me, the afterlife was always a place of darkness, and mist, and stars. It was purple and navy and deep olive, but never black — a bit like coloring. When shading a colored pencil drawing, the best advice I ever got was never to use black. Black ruins the colors themselves. It taints. That’s what my parents always thought of Jeanette. She was tainted. Not because she was african-american; my parents are staunch liberals and very white. No, it wasn’t a race issue. It was a brain issue. And it was a choice issue.
Jeanette’s everyday clothing was mostly black. Black jeans, black boots, black earrings, black nose piercing, black lipstick, thick eyeliner. She’d started her life out with wavy red hair; but she’d since dyed it black and straightened it. Perhaps she was a stereotype.
But it wasn’t just the clothes. It was the attitude. Here I was, a good student who — dare I say it — even enjoyed studying, organizing herself, and doing work. I planned to go into university, study in some field, probably physics; and become a teacher. Not even a professor, a high school teacher. I played cello, was on the field hockey team, and had a group of friends who I met with frequently on the weekend and occasionally stayed out late with. My parents could handle and even rejoice in what I threw at them.
Not so with Jeanette. She complained of being misunderstood. She wouldn’t speak at dinner and always seemed to be texting — but never hanging out with friends.
Who is Jeanette? She’d never tell anybody.
Jeanette wanted to climb mountains. She wanted to go skydiving. She wanted to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef and protest against war, she wanted to learn ballroom dancing and backpack across Europe. She was stuck in high school, in what she called Smalltown, Nowheresville. She wanted to Bucket List.
But she didn’t know what she wanted.
All of our grandparents are chemists. My mother is a biologist, my father started a pharmaceutical company. I was all set to continue the science trend… and everybody assumed Jeanette would, too.
Apparently, she wouldn’t.
I didn’t even go back to class for my backpack. If Jeanette had run away, then I knew where she’d be — and she wouldn’t be there long. The time on my watch said 2:38, which meant the train would leave in 7 minutes, assuming it would be on time.
The likelihood of that was probably around 34%, if I had to estimate.
45 seconds later my feet hit pavement, and I was running. I passed the cherry blossoms and didn’t even notice their scent. A dog barked at me from behind a fence; I barely heard him. The mason jar was growing clammy in my hand, and the purple pen I’d been using was shoved next to my phone in my back pocket. A little girl in a red raincoat and yellow bumble bee boots gawked at me from her driveway. A pigeon scuttled out from under a bush and squawked at me angrily. The world was flashes of color and clips of sound, the loudest was my heartbeat. A quick glance at my watch; 2:43. The blaring horn to announce the arrival of the train sounded; it was a cataclysmic whisper on a fragment of a breeze. The smells changed to petroleum and baked asphalt and tar and sun-warmed metal.
For once in its life, the train would be on time.
I reached the station and hopped the fence. The platform was taller than me, but I took a running leap. Adrenaline pulled me up onto the platform.
There she was. Clad in… pink pants and a green sweater, blue sunglasses atop her head and her hair in its natural curl. She was wearing red lipstick.
She look as beautiful as always.
“Jeanette!” I cried. And she turned. She turned, and the train stopped with an exhalation and a great screech.
“Gillian?” She asked; I couldn’t hear over the train but her mouth definitely moved.
Instead of answering, I tackled her in a hug.
“Now,” I panted. “Is not the time for escape.”
She took my hand. I saved the world.