When I was in the seventh grade, I thought I could control dice with my mind. My middle school drama class was on a bus driving south from Tampa, on our way home from the Florida State Junior Thespian Competition. At a store near the convention center, my friend Vanessa had bought something called The Psychic Abilities Exercise Kit. It contained little more than a pair of dice, a deck of cards, a small hourglass, and a booklet of instructions for strengthening the sixth sense—exercises for learning to focus psychic will, a step-by-step on hypnosis, and guidelines for successful telepathy sessions.
“Let’s start with the dice. That sounds simple enough,” she said. We tossed the dice into the kit’s box top for more than an hour, gambling against the Law of Probability as though we weren’t subject to it. The manual said those who possess extreme control of their mind’s eye could make the dice land double-six in one or two throws, but beginners should try one at a time until they have rolled six on each, then work up from there.
“What are you guys doing?” Aimee. Beautiful, uncomplicated Aimee. Her head stuck out from the seat in front of me, the pink amulet she’d bought the day before swinging from her ivory neck. I looked at her and tried to make her smile with my mind.
“Hey, doofus, I’m talking to you!” She laughed at her own joke. There was a scar below her bottom lip that took the shape of a frown whenever she smiled.
“Practicing our psychic power,” Vanessa answered finally. “It’s fun. You wanna try?”
“Hey, Paulette!” Aimee disappeared behind her seat, reappearing moments later with Paulette beside her. “Take those things off,” she demanded playfully, slapping Paulette’s arm.
Paulette let her headphones drop to her shoulders.
“Vanessa and Andrew are trying to control dice with their minds.” Aimee laughed.
When I was in fifth grade, Sarah Peterson lived seven houses down the block from me. We’d hang out sometimes and wash our parents’ cars, play Sega, watch Freddy Kruger flicks. She, at thirteen, was two years older than I was—so naturally there was a power dynamic at play that I was not completely aware of.
“Tell anyone we’re friends and I’ll deny it. Then I’ll kick your ass.”
Our friendship started through her kid brother, Eddie, who I hung out with because he had a Sega Game Gear—and who she hung out with because she was grounded the whole summer. Eddie was a year younger than me and, as Sarah told me one day, so immature he didn’t know the difference between “horny” and “corny.”
“Baby Got Back” was big on the radio at that time, and Eddie demonstrated his ignorance by rapping along that a big round butt made him so corny. She laughed at him—and I did too, despite not knowing what either word meant.
On July Fourth, I was babysitting my brother and sisters while my parents were at a party. Around midnight, there was a knock at the door. It was Sarah. She said she’d gotten in a fight with her mom.
Sarah let herself in and sat down on the wicker-armed loveseat. “I love her, but she’s such a bitch sometimes.” She took a deep breath. “Well, you know,” she said, waiving her hand dismissively. “You’ve got a mother.”
I barely spoke to my mother, and she seemed to prefer it that way.
Sarah explained that her mom made her break up with her boyfriend because he was sixteen and in high school.
“I was so upset I just started cussing,” she said. “She treats me like I’m a criminal.” I poured some apple juice and brought it to her from the kitchen. She stared silently at the TV as she drank. I had been rewatching the series finale of Cheers.
“I thought this show was over.”
“Oh, it is,” I said. “I taped it.”
I shrugged. I had never really been a fan, but I was fascinated by the ends of things. I also had the final episodes of The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls, All in the Family, and Good Times. I noticed how Sarah’s moist eyes glowed in the dim light. When the tape hit a commercial break, she looked over at me. Her eyes were like headlights.
“Hey,” she whispered. It was that dry-throated, casual, melodious way a girl’s voice can sound when she’s feeling exhausted or turned on.
Sarah leaned in and kissed me. It wasn’t my first kiss, but it was the first that made me feel different. Like something had come down over me—something hot and nasty, but not unpleasant. Like standing in front of a bonfire on a cold night. It felt as though I was getting away with something, and I didn’t know what exactly, but I knew that I liked it. Then a bottle rocket went off in the yard next door, and I jumped.
Sarah pulled me back toward her, placing my hand on the bare skin of her waist.
“Does that make you horny?” she asked.
I remember after sunset, somewhere south of Orlando, seeing stars hop through an open field. Aimee was writing in a pewter-bound diary. Paulette and Vanessa were whispering in low tones in front of us. The Fugee’s cover of “Killing Me Softly” was playing on the bus’s radio, and I had spent the better part of the last hour trying to will Aimee to rest up against my side. Or make the bus swerve just enough to knock her into me. Anything to bring us closer.
“Hey, Aimee, do you see that?” I whispered. “There are stars in that field over there.”
“Right over there,” I pointed. “They’re hopping.”
“I don’t see anything. It’s probably just the city lights.” Her shirt rose as she leaned across me, revealing a sliver of skin as she stretched to see out the window. I felt the shape of her breasts on my right thigh and rationalized using my psychic will to inch her shirt up further.
“You’ve been playing that dice game too much.” She sat back in her seat. “Maybe you should just go to sleep.”
“What’s happening?” Vanessa’s face appeared in the space between the seats.
“Andrew is seeing things.” Aimee rolled her eyes.
“Stars,” I said. “Hopping through that field.” I looked back again, but they were gone.
Vanessa peered out over the darkness. “Hopping?”
“Like rabbits. Or something. But I don’t see them anymore.”
“Well, then we should hurry.”
“For what?” Aimee was shocked that Vanessa was taking me seriously. I, too, was beginning to wonder if I hadn’t imagined the whole thing.
“For the telepathy to work best.”
“The what?” I asked
“Mental telepathy,” she said.
“That’s how you pronounce it?” I said.
Vanessa stood up. “Here, Aimee—trade seats.”
“Why?” Aimee protested, but did so anyway.
“The fact that you can see those stars means you’ve got something special. It also means that your psychic power is working at a higher potential right now, and it’s trying to tell you something. Come on, get up.”
She situated herself where I had been sitting, against the window and facing the aisle. She told me to lie down on my back with my head on her lap. Massaging my temples, she instructed me to close my eyes, completely clear my mind, and count down backward from ten with her. Her thighs were surprisingly soft against the back of my head. I could smell her perfume—heavy, like flowers.
She began a detailed narrative in which I was walking down a long, dirt road. She told me to visualize coming upon an old, Victorian house, and then describe it to her.
“Okay,” she said. “Now go inside.” After describing the basic layout of the house, she told me to go wherever I felt drawn. Everywhere I went, she asked me to describe, in detail, what things looked like and what was happening.
“This is silly,” Aimee said from over the back of her seat.
“Shhh!” Vanessa insisted, “You’ll mess with his trance.”
I didn’t disagree with Aimee. Was I just supposed to describe, unfiltered, whatever popped into my head? I wasn’t even sure which thoughts were mine and which were images Vanessa was placing there. It seemed a little unfair that I hadn’t been able to set the scene myself.
Vanessa massaged a little harder on my temples. “Stay with me,” she said. “What do you see?”
I described climbing a long staircase. To my right were photographs of blonde girls in succession along the wall of the stairwell. The girl in each picture was older than the girl in the last and they all looked like they could be Aimee’s sisters.
“Okay, so do you think they’re all each other’s sisters?”
“What age do the oldest and youngest look?”
“The youngest looks about nine or ten. And the oldest looks, I dunno, like an older teenager. And there’s more picture frames than there are pictures. The last half are empty.”
I then described walking down a long hallway. There were many doors on either side; all of them were closed. Vanessa told me to pick one and open it.
“There’s an old man with a beard, and a cane. He’s in old-fashioned pajamas—you know, the robe thing with the little Santa cap. He’s crying and trying to say something, but I can’t really make out what.”
“This is really ridiculous,” I heard Aimee say.
“Try really hard and listen to him,” Vanessa said.
“He’s saying, S… something with an S.”
“I think you should stop it, guys.” Aimee started to sound upset.
“S…sorry?” I tried; I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. “I think he’s trying to say that he’s sorry.”
“Really, that’s enough, Vanessa.” Aimee’s voice quivered.
I wanted to stop for Aimee, but Vanessa kept asking more questions.
“He’s holding out his hands to me like he’s pleading.”
“Andrew, stop!” Aimee demanded.
“His face is all contorted and red and he’s crying hysterically.”
She pleaded now, “Stop him, Vanessa!” But Vanessa made me keep going. Something in me agreed with Aimee; this wasn’t right for me. My responses became more frantic.
“I think he’s trying to say he’s sorry, but he’s too hysterical. That’s all! Really.”
“What’s his name, Andrew? Ask him if his name starts with an S.”
“I said stop it!”
I shot up in my seat and looked at Aimee. She was glaring hard at Vanessa, close to tears. Some classmates nearby had woken up and were staring. I figured Paulette must be asleep.By this point, the driver had turned the bus’s radio off, and I could hear the sound of Nirvana’s “Lithium” bleating from her headphones.
“Why’d you do that?” Vanessa asked Aimee.
“You know why.”
Aimee quietly slid down in her seat, and Vanessa made no move to console her. What had Aimee meant?
“I think you’ve got something special,” Vanessa whispered to me, “and I think it has something to do with Aimee.”
“Well, not all of it, but I think you might be a sort of channel for something important from her past. But that’s not all, because people who are channels also have a bit of their own agenda in everything they channel, too.”
I suffered the sinister thrill of the thought that my love was requited followed by the agony of realizing maybe it wasn’t. If Aimee liked me too, Vanessa would surely know it; and if what Vanessa said about channels was true, then she might reveal it to me through the telepathy. The fact that Aimee stopped it could mean she had feelings for me just as easily as not. Did she fear the special connection because she felt it or because she didn’t?
Vanessa continued. “Is the letter S of any significance to you? You should try and think back to anything of importance in your life related to the letter S and see what that’s trying to tell you. It could be important.”
She then asked me to trade seats with Aimee so the two of them could talk. I did as I was told, and, as I slid next to her, Paulette mumbled something in her sleep, shifted in her seat, and leaned against me.I looked at her and wondered if everything Vanessa had told me meant that I was cursed or I was blessed. I wondered if I’d be able to tell.
Out the window there was only black, punctuated by the occasional red blinking light of a radio tower. I tried to intuit what Aimee and Vanessa were talking about. They communicated through notes whenever they wanted to talk privately in a public place. Often, they would do this during lunch period—laughing across the table at some shared secret. It drove me crazy. I figured they were doing this now, but then I heard Aimee’s voice.
“I told you that last night in confidence.”
“I know. I didn’t tell anyone.”
“The whole bus almost found out!”
“You should be excited. Andrew is special. I think he’s channeling some shared anguish from both your pasts.”
“Excited? What the hell is wrong with you?”
“This could be your chance to confront your uncle.”
Here, though her voice got very quiet, her tone remained pointed. “Vanessa, I don’t want anything to do with him. This psychic crap is turning you into a bad person.”
This was the first I’d heard about Aimee’s uncle. I began to wonder if I really did have psychic powers—and if I did, what kind of responsibility they would now require of me. Was I obligated to protect Aimee for the rest of her life? Could I cheat on tests?
I had been reluctant to say anything when I’d first seen the stars. But then I thought it might bring Aimee and me closer: something just between the two of us—like the notes she and Vanessa passed at lunch. I had fantasized about how, years later, recounting the story of our love, Aimee’s face would light up with laughter. Well, on this bus trip in middle school, Andrew said he saw these stars hopping through a field! At first I thought he was being ridiculous, but then we had such a good time imagining all sorts of things they could be—that’s when I realized we were soulmates.
The fantasy seemed naïve now. But also, still possible. I thought of the dice game. Maybe there was some kind of special connection between myself and Aimee. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on clearing my mind of all outcomes except the one in which Aimee forgave Vanessa and fell in love with me.
Years later, when I was a junior in high school, I read in the newspaper that Sarah and her mother were in a fatal car crash early one morning on I-95. The authorities determined she’d fallen asleep at the wheel while entering an on-ramp, causing the car to flip the guardrail and fall thirty feet to the pavement below.
The last time I had seen Sarah wasHalloween when I was in seventh grade. We’d run into each other while trick-or-treating; I was a ghost, and she was wearing a black shirt onto which she’d written with orange puff paint, “This IS My Halloween Costume!” She asked if I wanted to do the rest of the neighborhood together.
“All my friends are out TPing houses,” she said. “Where are your friends?”
“They all live in different neighborhoods.”
“Oh, right. You go to that special school for smart kids.”
“Well, it’s for acting and music and art.”
A cop car turned the corner, slowing as it approached us. Sarah stared down the officer in the passenger seat as it drove by.
“It would be so cool to be a cop,” she said. “You could get away with murder.”
“My grandfather was a detective, and that’s not how being a cop works,” I said.
She looked at me sideways. “I was just being funny. Jeez.”
We made our way to the last house in the neighborhood; the widower who lived there gave out king-sized Milky Ways. It was dusk by the time we got to the old man’s door.
“You’re the fifth ghost I’ve seen tonight!” he said to me. “That’s very clever,” he said of Sarah’s shirt, and chuckled. She curtsied, which was an odd thing for her to do. Then he told us there was only one candy bar left. I watched silently as he gave it to Sarah, sure that she’d split it with me later. As we walked back toward our street, she opened it and took a huge bite.
“Man, I lucked out there, huh.” She smiled nougat.
“Yeah, Milky Ways are my favorite.”
“Uh-huh, they’re awesome—especially when they’re king-sized. Sucks for you, huh?”
She had eaten the whole thing, without once offering me a single bite.
I kept it hidden, but it made me feel unimportant. Collectable. Like an inanimate object on a dusty shelf, among others just like me.
“So my friend is throwing a Halloween party tonight,” she said. “But I put raw eggs in my brother’s Air Jordans, and when he put them on—” She clapped her hands together and made a squishy sound with her mouth. “So now I’m grounded. Apparently, I’m the only one in the family who got a sense of humor.”
“Hey,” I said. “My parents are going to a party later. Why don’t you come over?”
“Yeah, sure. I can bring some horror movies.” She poked me in the ribs. “But no funny business this time, you hear?”
Sarah showed up around eleven. In her hands were a deck of cards, her sack of candy, and some videotapes.
She waved the tapes in front of my face. “Horror movies!”
“Cool. But we already have, like, twelve decks of cards,” I said.
“Yeah, okay. But do you have Evil Dead 2?”
I told her that, not having even heard of Evil Dead1, I most certainly didn’t have Evil Dead 2.
“Are you shitting me? It’s only the best horror movie ever.” She went over to the TV unit and turned on the VCR.
“Don’t I have to watch the first one first?”
“Nah—there’s dead stuff; it’s evil. You get the picture.” She ejected what was currently in the VCR—my tape of final episodes, onto the label of which I’d written “FINALES.”
“I like to watch the series finales of famous TV shows.” I felt embarrassed, like I’d been caught watching my father’s porn.
“Like, just the last episodes—but not the rest?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
I shrugged. “I thought about taping the first-ever episodes, too, but for some reason they’re a lot harder to find.”
“You’re so weird.” She shook her head and pushed Evil Dead 2into the VCR.
“I’m weird? You’reweird. You’re grounded, like, seventy-five percent of your life.”
She stared at me for a moment, eyes narrowed. Then her look softened, and she shrugged. “I guess you’re right. Maybe that’s why we get along so good.”
She put the movie on and sat next to me on the floor. “Wanna play a card game?” she asked.
“What about the movie?”
“There’s not much of a plot. We’ll just watch the really gory parts.” She pulled out the deck from the back pocket of her cut-offs. “Okay, it’s called Suck-and-Blow.”
I raised an eyebrow. I didn’t know the game, but it sounded nerve-wracking.
“Haha, just kidding. You can’t play that with only two people. But I bet you’d like to, you horny little devil.” She laughed. “The game’s Indian Poker.”
“Jeez, don’t you know anything? I thought you were cool.”
“I’m in middle school.”
“Ha! Good point. Okay, well it’s pretty easy. We each draw one card and hold it face-out against our foreheads. Then you bet based on if you think you’ve got a higher card.”
“Oh, yeah! That’s called High/Low.”
“Yeah, sure, whatever. I guess you need poker chips, though.”
“We don’t have those. But we can use our candy.”
“I like your thinking, Andy. Prepare to lose all your candy.” She cackled. “Hey, look at that—Andy Candy! I bet that’s what the middle school girls call you because you’re so sweet.”
“Nobody calls me that.”
“Yeah…it is pretty lame.”
At first, Sarah and I won pretty evenly, but it wasn’t long before her tells—making a joke when I had a low card, turning to the movie when I had a high card—became obvious, and my candy pile grew to more than twice the size of hers.
“Jeez, Andy, you’re pretty good at this. It’s like you can read my mind or something. I gotta stop thinking so hard.”
“I don’t think that’s your problem,” I said.
“Oh, yeah?” She lunged at me, aiming straight for my armpits.
“No! Stop! I’m very ticklish!”
But she didn’t stop. I was forced to fight back. She tickled my armpits, so I tickled her armpits; she tickled my legs, so I tickled her legs. Before I knew it, my hands were on her breasts, then they were in her shorts—but each for only seconds at a time before she’d tickle me, and I’d jerk away in defense.
Then, like a parent who doesn’t knock, the sound of the phone ringing stopped us cold. We remained motionless, listening. After what felt like an eternity—in which we lay tangled together, gripping tight to one another’s arms, each of us holding our breath—the machine finally picked up.
“Andrew? Hello! Andrew, are you there? Is everything all right?” I could hear the riff from “Werewolves of London” looping obnoxiously in the background. “Jim, he’s not picking up,” my mother said drunkenly.
“I hate that song,” I said, and got up to answer the phone.
“Are you awake?” Aimee asked, peaking her head over the bus seat.
“Yeah.” I’d been reading Steven King’s Four Seasonsand listening to The Doors.
“I wanted to wait until Vanessa was asleep because this is really important.”
I got goosebumps. “Okay,” I said.
She moved to an empty seat directly across the aisle from mine. “Okay. So I’m just gonna come right out and say it.”
This is it, I thought.This is where you tell me you like me.
“Vanessa told me you have a crush on someone, but she wouldn’t tell me who.”
I waited, in a quivering gap of anticipation, for her to continue. But she didn’t.
“Okay,” I said. “Why did she tell you that?”
“I dunno. I guess it’s because she thought I could help.”
“Well, like—you, I guess.”
I was more than a little confused. This was a strange way to tell someone you like them.
She laughed, playfully hitting my arm. “Who is it, dummy?”
“Paulette,” I lied.
“Really? But she has a boyfriend.”
I shrugged. “Tell that to my heart.”
She pouted sympathetically. “Well, then listen. I know you’re really good at this psychic stuff or whatever, but you have to stop leading Vanessa on.”
Now she looked confused, too. “Vanessa. She likesyou.” Aimee laughed. “You can’t tell me you don’t see it.”
I was highly skeptical of this claim. Although, it would explain some things—jealousy, rather than genuine concern, would have driven Vanessa to make me keep pressing the old man in my vision when it was clearly hurting Aimee.
“I mean, she told me once a long time ago that she thought I was cute when we first met. But now that we’re friends, she’s over it.”
“Oh my god, Andrew. You don’t understand girls at all. I thought you were supposed to be psychic?”
“I dunno. To be honest, I’m not even sure I believe that stuff is real.”
“What?” she said dreadfully.
“I mean, don’t tell Vanessa.” I looked back to check that she was still asleep.
“Then what was all that crap about the jumping stars?”
I shrugged. “I mean, I did see them. But maybe they were fireflies, I dunno. I thought it would be fun to imagine that maybe they were stars.”
“So the old man crying and saying sorry was just a joke? You’re an asshole.”
“What? No, Aimee—” I didn’t want her to be mad at me, but I didn’t want to have to lie again, either. “I just described the first thing that came into my mind. Really. It could’ve been anything. I think maybe I saw something like it on Are You Afraid of the Dark?or something.”
“What about the S-name thing?”
I shrugged. “Just a coincidence.”
“What do you mean, coincidence?”
I sighed. “I lied to you before. When I said my crush was on Paulette. There’s this girl, who lives down the block from me. Her name is Sarah.”
“Whoa. I really believed you when you said it was Paulette!”
“Oh my god, Aimee, you don’t understand guys at all.”
She laughed. “Shut up. You’re such a dummy.”
I shrugged. “Takes one to know one.”
She got quiet, and settled down into her seat. “I guess you want to know my S-name story.”
“Nah, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want.”
She looked at her hands and picked at her fingernails. “The thing is, I do want to tell you. But just not right now. Not yet, anyway.”
She smiled. “You’re a great guy. Even if you don’t have psychic powers.”
“How do you know I don’t? Maybe I already know who your S-name person is.”
“Shut up,” she said. But this time she didn’t laugh, and she didn’t call me a dummy. “I wish stupid Paulette wasn’t sleeping so I could sit next to you.”
“I mean, I could wake her up. You want me to wake her up?”
“Nah.” Aimee yawned.Tell me about Sarah.”
The article on Sarah’s death contained few details about her life. She worked nights for her mother’s cleaning company, and they were returning from a job at an office building downtown when she died. Apparently, she had been accepted to FSU’s Criminal Justice program the following fall, and she was on her school’s debate team. I had a hard time reconciling these facts with my memories of the girl who spent most of her early teens grounded.
Only one photograph accompanied the article. It wasn’t of Sarah or her mother; it was of the car. The front end was almost completely unrecognizable. The axle was missing and the windshield had been completely shattered, but one thing stood out to me—hanging from the rearview mirror was a pair of fuzzy dice.
As I looked at the photo, I was reminded of the bus ride from Tampa, and that conversation with Aimee. Wanting to seem sensitive but cool, I had told her the truth about everything that happened that Halloween, but exaggerated how I felt about it. I hoped it was working because it was past 11pm by that point, and I was losing interest in keeping up the charade that I wanted a relationship with Sarah.
It’s you, I wanted to tell her. I have a crush on you, dummy. It was caught in my throat like a spell had trapped it. Except I felt trapped by it, too—unable to set myself free until I’d proven myself worthy. But worthy of what? I wondered. Is that even how spells work?
“I know who your S-name person is,” I admitted. “I heard you and Vanessa talking.”
She turned toward me. Her face was red and her arms were folded tight against her chest. “I know,” she said.
“I can read your mind.” Tears started to well up in her eyes. She wiped them away and forced a laugh. “No, I just saw your tiny ear perk up through the space between the seats. If you’re going to spy, be better at it, you dummy.”
I looked past Aimee and out a nearby window. Dark fields and farmland, punctuated every-so-often by brightly-lit gas stations, had given way to the dense suburbs surrounding the inner-city where we went to school. Yellow light from the streetlamps filtered through the bus, causing some of our classmates to wake up.
I told her about how, after checking on my siblings and assuring my mother they were all sleeping safe-and-sound, I had hung up the phone and went back into the living room, where I expected Sarah to be hiding—crouched behind the couch, ready to attack the moment I reentered the room. But instead, I found her kneeling in front of the TV. She had put on my finales tape, and was watching the last episode of All in the Family, in which Archie gets angry with Edith for not telling him she has Phlebitis, and she very nearly dies.
I sat next to Sarah on the floor. There were tears running down her cheeks.
“I don’t understand why you like this shit,” she said. “Endings are so sad.” She looked so tired, and when I put my hand on her back, she turned and put her head in my lap. “You’re a pretty fucked up guy, you know that?”
“Yeah, I guess I am,” I said. But I didn’t know why.