A TV, bolted high on the wall, buzzes in the background, the faint sound of the local news reporter’s voice robotically reciting the events of the evening. “One dead and another in critical condition … ”
The waiting room is empty of people. Plastic chairs line the walls. Magazines are strewn about. How did I get here?
The news reporter continues to speak. “What appears to be a suicide occurred tonight in the alley behind local watering hole, Wally’s Pub. Closed for a private party, owner Kate McCrimons had no comment on tonight’s event. Relatives of the victim, high school teacher Matteo Andreas, were not available for comment.”
It’s all coming back to me now. The party. The alley. Seeing Mr. Andreas with the gun in his mouth. Oh God.
“Hey, you’re awake.” Jay stands before me holding two coffee cups.
“Did you bring me here?” I rub my temples with the palm of my hand. My head is pounding.
“You don’t remember?” Jay’s eyes narrow and tiny creases indent his furrowed brow. He doesn’t look at all like his normal goofy self. His brown eyes are concerned and focused intently on me.
I close my eyes and hold my head in my hands. “I feel sick.”
“Kate is on her way,” Jay continues. He sits down next to me and sets the cups on the table. “Just a warning, she’s pretty freaked out.”
Tiny waves of nausea roll in my stomach. My mouth is dry and parched. “I’m gonna throw up.”
“Shit.” Jay jumps from the chair. I can hear him scrambling around the room. The noise is making me feel worse.
Something bangs into my legs. I open my eyes just a little to see a garbage can. Jay sits back down next to me and holds my hair back as the contents of my stomach empty. My stomach clenches as I grip the sides of the can. I hate throwing up. I hate the convulsions, the acid taste that fills my mouth, and the way a single strand of spittle dangles from my lip like I’m a drooling dog. Luckily, this is happening in front of Jay so it’s only moderately mortifying. Having known him all my life, he’s seen all sides of me: the good, the bad, and the worse.
“Here.” Jay slips a napkin into my hands. He rubs my back lightly. “Should I get a doctor?”
Jay kisses the top of my head and I flinch. My head snaps up too quickly and I stare at him while the room around me sways. “What are you doing?” I have to close my eyes again as another wave of sick crashes over me.
He takes his hands off me. “What?”
“Why’d you kiss me?” I peer at him sideways.
“I’m sorry.” He says it like a question, and then he looks at me like I’m nuts. “I was just trying to make you feel better, Ly.”
“Okay, but … ”
He called me Ly. As in Lyla. My best friend Lyla. “Why are you calling me Ly?” My pounding head cannot take this conversation.
“That’s what I always call you.” Jay shakes his head. His mop of curls swishes along his forehead. He brushes it out of his eyes by raking his hands through his hair. “How much did you drink tonight?”
I’m not quite sure.
The smell of my own sick is singeing my nostrils so even though it makes the room spin, I raise my head to look at him. A few strands of long, dark hair fall across my face. Hesitantly, I reach up and pull a clump around so I can see it better. My eyes cross as I stare at the nearly black hair. What the hell? Frantically, I pick at it, like an addict with a fixation.
“Lyla, what are you doing?” Jay asks.
I drop the pieces of hair and smooth them back. “Nothing.”
“You’re acting really weird.”
I’m acting weird? He’s the one who keeps calling me Lyla for God’s sake!
“Here you guys are!” Lyla’s older sister, Kate, speaks with an exasperated tone. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. There’s like sixty waiting rooms in this place.” She takes one look at the garbage in front of me and exhales, annoyed. Being a bar owner means Kate has plenty of experience with vomit.
Slowly, I nod as I slide the can away from me with my feet. She sits in a chair just across from us. “I brought you some clothes.” She holds out a brown paper bag to me and waits for me take it.
“Don’t give me any grief about what I picked. I was in a hurry.” Kate’s appearance is frazzled. Deep brown curls spill forth from the messy bun of hair piled on top of her head. Her feet jiggle up and down. Kate always fidgets when she’s nervous.
In the bag I find Lyla’s “Crazy for Cupcakes” tee, a pair of jeans, and some flip-flops. Why did Kate bring me Lyla’s clothes?
“Do we know anything?” Kate asks.
“No,” Jay tells her. “We’re still waiting for the doctor.”
“Is Eric here yet?” Kate asks about my dad.
“Not yet,” Jay answers.
My dad is on his way. Relief sinks in knowing that in a few minutes I’ll be able to hug him and he’ll make everything okay again.
“You want some coffee?” Jay reaches for the cup and holds it out to Kate. He gestures toward me as he says, “I got it for Ly, but I don’t think she wants it.”
I do not. I hate coffee.
“Sure.” Kate takes the cup and sips slowly. She gives me a reproachful look when she says, “You drink too much coffee as it is.”
I start to protest, to tell them both that it’s Lyla, not me, who insists on stopping every morning at Peet’s, but Kate quickly adds, “Well, go change. This isn’t exactly the place for heels and cleavage.”
Cleavage? I look down and see what she means. I’m busting out of the seams! This isn’t my dress. This is Lyla’s dress. I would never wear a dress like this. For one thing, it’s pink. And it looks like dip-dyed ace bandages wrapped around my body. I hold the bag close to my chest hoping to conceal my heaving flesh. Wait. I don’t have heaving flesh. And I don’t have raven hair. Something is very, very wrong.
“Okay.” As I stand to go, I teeter on Lyla’s five-inch stilettos. Jay catches my elbow and steadies me.
“You need some help?” he offers.
“I got it.” I think. I cannot get away from them fast enough.
Not only do I feel like I’m going to vomit again, but I also feel like I’m having a mental breakdown. My hair is a different color. My breasts are like cantaloupes. I’m not wearing my own clothes. I swallow hard to push down the panic and a touch of bile.
Kate eyes me suspiciously. “Do you want me to come with you, just in case? You don’t look so good.”
“I’ll be fine,” I say, hoping to reassure both her and myself. I don’t have much confidence that I can walk far in Lyla’s shoes. For a split second I think about going barefoot, but decide against it. Luckily, it turns out the bathroom is just across the hall.
Lyla’s dress clings to me like Saran Wrap. I must look like Bambi learning to walk as I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. The carpet of the waiting room isn’t that treacherous, but the slick, overly polished hallway isn’t as forgiving. My left ankle rolls and I stumble just as I reached the bathroom door. Damn!
The bathroom is dark. I flip the wall switch and the light flickers, groans, and burns nearly out, casting a ghoulish yellow glow of light over the room. “Great.”
I grope my way toward the sink. It is then that my eyes adjust to the dark, and for the first time I see my reflection. Only it isn’t my face peering back at me. It’s Lyla’s, my best friend since the third grade. Leaning in closer, I stare, mouth agape, into the mirror. Her blue eyes are rimmed with multiple coats of black eyeliner. The red of her lipstick is faded, leaving her lips with only a hint of berry stain. My hands explore, skimming the sides of her cheek, hoping, praying that at any second the illusion will shatter. Despite my desperate hopes, the reflection never morphs from Lyla’s into mine.
I rack my brain trying to piece together everything that happened tonight. It’s my birthday I suddenly remember. We were having a party at Kate’s bar. A party I didn’t want. Lyla had talked Gage into being my date. Well, more like forced. But we were having a good time. He’s really nice. I went outside; I remember that part. And my teacher was there, that letch Mr. Andreas, and he grabbed me. He kept saying all this weird stuff to me and I tried to get away and that’s when Gage came out and started yelling at him. Mr. Andreas had a gun. And he … and he …
I remember the sound of the gun going off, and the brief second of relief I felt when I realized he hadn’t shot Gage. But then I saw all the blood. There was so much blood.
I stagger backward knocking into the stall door. It swings open and I drop to my knees over the toilet. I heave and heave, but nothing comes up. I curl into a sitting position. My fingers knot into my hair.
When I finally stand up, I expect—okay hope—that everything will have returned to normal, that I’ll be me again, and that seeing Lyla was just some sort of weird post-traumatic stress thing. But when I look in the mirror, I don’t see me. I see her.
This isn’t possible. There’s no way. I must be dreaming.
That’s the only explanation. This is just a dream. A very strange, twisted dream.
But it isn’t a dream. I press my hand to the mirror. It’s solid. It’s real. This is really happening.
“Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!” I curse as the mother of all freak-outs rumbles inside me. What am I supposed to do now?