MY FEET DRIFT absently closer to the edge. I think about Michael Holden. Mainly about how he’s secretly angry all the time. I think that a lot of people are secretly angry all the time.
I think about Lucas Ryan, and that makes me feel sadder. There is another tragedy in which I am not the rescuer.
I think about my ex-best friend, Becky Allen. I don’t think I know who she is. I think I knew before—before we grew up—but after that, she changed and I didn’t. I hope that I can understand why one day.
I think about my brother Charlie Spring and Nick Nelson. Sometimes paradise isn’t what people think it should be.
I think about Ben Hope.
Sometimes people hate themselves.
And while I think, Harvey Greene Grammar School dissolves. My feet peep slightly over the concrete roof. If I fall accidentally, the universe will be there to catch me.
Then there he is.
A lone dot in orange-tinted white.
He’s waving and screaming up.
Don’t, he says.
And there’s another figure running along. Taller, stouter. He clutches Charlie’s hand. Nick Nelson.
Then another. And another. Why? What’s wrong with people? Why do they never give you any peace?
There’s Lucas and Becky. Becky puts her hands on her mouth. Lucas puts his hands on his head. Charlie’s screaming in battle with the wind and flames. Screaming, whirling, burning.
This voice is closer and comes from above. I decide that it is probably God, because I think that this is probably how God works. He waits until your final moments and then he’ll step in and take you seriously. It’s like when you’re four years old and you tell your parents that you’re going to run away. And they say, “Okay, go right ahead.” Like they don’t care. And they only start caring when you actually walk out the door and down the road with your teddy bear under your arm and a packet of biscuits in your rucksack.
I turn around and look up.
At the top of the school building, above the window that I smashed, is Michael Holden, lying on his front over the roof so that only his head and shoulders are visible from below.
He holds out an arm to me. “Please!”
The mere sight of him makes me want to die even more. “The school’s burning down,” I say, turning back the other way. “You need to leave.”
“Turn around, Tori. Turn around, you absolute twat.”
Something wrenches me around. I take out my torch, wondering briefly why I haven’t used it until now, and I shine it upward. I see him then, properly. Hair all messed up and dusty. Patches of soot smothering his face. A burn mark on his outstretched arm.
“Do you want to kill yourself?” he asks, and the question sounds unreal because you never hear anyone ever asking that question in real life.
“I don’t want you to do that,” he says. “I can’t let you do that. You can’t leave me here alone.”
His voice breaks.
“You need to be here,” he says.
And then he does that thing that I do. His mouth sort of sucks itself in and turns down and his eyes and nose crinkle up and one tear creeps out of the corner of his blue eye and he raises his hands to cover up his face.
“I’m sorry,” I say, because his face, all scrunched up and melting, physically hurts me. I start to cry too. Against my will, I step away from the edge and closer to him and I hope that this makes him understand. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.”
“Shut up!” He’s smiling while crying, madly, throwing his hands from his face and raising both arms up. Then he punches the ground. “God, I’m stupid. I can’t believe I didn’t realize this any sooner. I can’t believe it.”
I’m pretty much directly under his face. His glasses begin to slide off his nose, and he swiftly pushes them back on.
“You know, the worst thing is that when I threw away that fire extinguisher you were holding, I wasn’t just thinking about saving you.” He chuckles sadly. “We all need saving, really.”
“Then why—” I pause. Suddenly understanding everything. This boy. This person. How has it taken me this long to understand? He needed me as much as I needed him, because he was angry, and he has always been angry.
“You wanted the school to burn.”
He chuckles again and rubs his eyes. “You do know me.”
And he’s right. I do know him. Just because someone smiles doesn’t mean that they’re happy.
“I’ve never been good enough,” he says. “I get so stressed out, I don’t make friends—God, I can’t make friends.” His eyes glaze over. “Sometimes I just wish I were a normal human being. But I can’t. I’m not. No matter how hard I try. And then the school was burning and I thought . . . something told me it might be a way out of all this. I thought it would make me feel better, and you feel better.”
He swivels into a sitting position, legs dangling over the edge mere centimeters from my head.
“I was wrong,” he says.
I look back out to the edge of the building. No one is happy. What is there in the future?
“Some people aren’t meant for school,” says Michael. “That doesn’t mean they aren’t meant for life.”
“I can’t,” I say. The edge is so close. “I can’t.”
“Let me help you.”
“Why would you do that?”
He jumps down to the roof I’m standing on and looks at me. Really looks. I’m reminded of the time I first saw myself in his oversized glasses.
The Tori looking back at me now seems different somehow.
“One person can change everything,” he says. “And you have changed everything for me.”
Behind him, a small fireball erupts out of a roof. It temporarily lights the tips of Michael’s hair, but he doesn’t even blink.
“You are my best friend,” he says.
A flush of red passes over him, and it makes me embarrassed to see him embarrassed. He awkwardly flattens his hair with one hand and wipes his eyes. “We’re all going to die. One day. So I want to get it right first time, you know? I don’t want to make any more mistakes. And I know that this is not a mistake.” He smiles. “You are not a mistake.”
He turns, abruptly, and gazes toward the burning school.
“Maybe we would have been able to stop it,” he says. “Maybe . . . maybe if, if I hadn’t—” His voice catches in his throat and he brings a hand up to his mouth, his eyes filling with tears again.
This is a new feeling. Or a very old one.
I do something that I don’t expect. I reach out. My arm lifts up and moves forward through the air toward him. I just want to make sure he’s there. To make sure I haven’t made him up.
My hand touches his sleeve.
“You shouldn’t hate yourself,” I say, because I know that he doesn’t just hate himself for letting the school burn. He hates himself for a whole lot of other reasons too. But he shouldn’t hate himself. He can’t. He makes me believe that there are good people in this world. I don’t know how this has happened, but what I do know is that this feeling has been there from the very start. When I met Michael Holden, I knew, deep down, that he was the best person you could possibly hope to be—so perfect that he was unreal. And it made me sort of hate him. However, rather than slowly learning more and more good things about him, I have come across flaw after flaw after flaw. And you know what? That’s what makes me like him now. That’s why he is a real perfect person. Because he is a real person.
I tell him all this.
“Anyway,” I say, unsure how to end this but knowing that I must make my conclusion, “I’ll never hate you. Maybe I can help you to understand why I will never hate you.”
A pause, the sound of burning, the smell of smoke. He looks at me like I’ve shot him.
And then we kiss.
Neither of us is really sure whether it is an appropriate moment, me having almost accidentally killed myself and all, and Michael hating himself so much, but it happens anyway, everything finally making sense, knowing that it would be apocalyptic for me not to be here with him, because right then—at that moment—it’s like—it’s like—actually—I really would die if I don’t—if I don’t hold him—
“I think I’ve loved you since I met you,” he says as we draw apart. “I just mistook it for curiosity.”
“Not only is that hideously untrue,” I say, feeling like I’m about to pass out, “but that is also the dumbest rom-com line I’ve ever had to endure. And I’ve endured many. What with me being such a fabulous guy magnet.”
He blinks. A grin creeps across his face and he laughs, throwing his head back.
“Oh my God, there you are, Tori,” he says, laughing hard, pulling me into another hug and practically lifting me off the ground. “Oh my God.”
Without warning, he retreats back and points outward and says, “What in the name of Guy Fawkes is going on?”
I turn, puzzled, toward the field.
The white is mostly gone. There are no longer only four dots, but at least a hundred. Dozens and dozens of teenagers. We hadn’t heard them, I guess because of the wind and the fire, but now that they’ve seen us turn around, they’ve begun to wave and shout. I cannot see the faces clearly, but each person is a whole person. A whole person with a whole life, who gets out of bed in the morning and goes to school and talks to friends and eats food and lives. They’re chanting our names and I don’t know most of them and most of them don’t know me. I don’t even know why they’re here, but still . . . still . . .
In the middle I can see Charlie being given a piggyback by Nick and Becky by Lucas. They’re waving and shouting.
“I don’t,” I say, my voice cracking, “understand. . . .”
Michael retrieves his phone from his pocket and loads up the Solitaire blog. There’s nothing new there. Then he loads up Facebook and scrolls down the feed.
“Well,” he says, and I look over his shoulder at the phone.
SOLITAIRE is burning down Higgs
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“Maybe . . . ,” says Michael. “Maybe he thought . . . the school burning . . . it was too amazing to let it go to waste.”
I look at him, and he looks at me.
“Don’t you think it’s kind of magnificent?” he says.
And it is. The school is burning. This doesn’t happen in real life.
“Lucas Ryan, you damn miraculous hipster,” says Michael, gazing down at the crowd. “You really did something beautiful.”
Something inside my heart makes me smile. A real smile.
And then things go blurry again, and I sort of start to laugh and cry at the same time, and I am unsure whether I am happy or entirely deranged. Because I’m sort of curled into myself, Michael has to lean over my head to properly hold me while I’m shaking, but he does it anyway. Snow falls. Behind us, the school crumbles and I can hear the fire engines making their way through the town.
“So,” he says, slyly raising his eyebrows in true Michael suavity. “You hate yourself. I hate myself. Common interests. We should get together.”
I don’t know why but I start to feel quite delirious. The sight of all those people down there. Some of them are jumping up and down and waving. Some of them are only there because they tagged along for an adventure, but for once I don’t think that any of them are conceited, or faking it. They’re all just being people.
I mean, I’m still not 100 percent sure that I really want to wake up tomorrow. I’m not fixed, just because Michael’s here. I still want to get into bed and lie there all day because it’s a very easy thing to do. But right now all I can see are all these kids prancing about in the snow and smiling and waving like they haven’t got exams and parents and university choices and career options and all the other stressful things to worry about. There’s a guy sitting next to me who noticed it all too. A guy who maybe I can help out, like he helped me out.
I can’t say that I feel happy. I’m not even sure if I would know if I was. But all those people down there look so funny and it makes me want to laugh and cry and dance and sing and not take a flying, dramatic, spectacular leap off this building. Really. It’s funny because it’s true.