LAWS OF MOTION
A body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will remain in motion with a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.
Force is equal to the change in momentum (mV) per change in time. For a constant mass, force equals mass times acceleration (F = ma).
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Laws of Motion
On the day Liz Emerson tries to die, they had reviewed Newton’s Laws of Motion in physics class. Then, after school, she put them into practice by running her Mercedes off the road.
As she lies on the grass with the shattered window tangled in her hair, her blood all around her, she looks up and sees the sky again. She begins to cry, because it’s so blue, the sky. So, so blue. It fills her with an odd sadness, because she had forgotten. She had forgotten how very blue it was, and now it is too late.
Inhaling is becoming an exceedingly difficult task. The rush of cars grows farther and farther away, the world blurs at the edges, and Liz is gripped by an inexplicable urge to get to her feet and chase the cars, redefine the world.
In this moment, she realizes what death really means. It means that she will never catch them.
Wait, she thinks. Not yet.
She still doesn’t understand them, Newton’s Three Laws of Motion. Inertia and force and mass and gravity and equal and opposite reactions still do not quite fit together in her head, but she is ready to let go. She is ready for it all to end.
It is then, when she releases her need to understand, that everything falls into place.
Things just aren’t that simple.
And suddenly it’s very clear to her that every action is an interaction, and everything she has ever done has led to something else, and to another something else, and all of that is ending here, at the bottom of the hill by Highway 34, and she is dying.
In that moment, everything clicks.
And Liz Emerson closes her eyes.
snapshot : sky
We lie on the red-checkered blanket with weeds and flowers all around us, caught in the fleece. Our breaths carry our dandelion wishes higher, higher, until they become the clouds we watch.
Sometimes we looked for animals or ice-cream cones or angels, but today we only lie there with our palms together and our fingers tangled, and we dream. We wonder what lies beyond.
One day, she will grow up and imagine death as an angel that will lend her wings, so she can find out.
Death, unfortunately, is not in the business of lending wings.
How to Save a Corpse
Iwatch the spinning lights close in, wrapping the scene in long lines of ambulances and yellow tape. Sirens wail and paramedics spill out, running and slipping down the great hill in their haste. They surround the Mercedes, crouch beside her, the glass crunching beneath their feet.
“No gag reflex. Get the tube ready, I need RSI intubation—”
“Can you start a line from there? Jaws of life . . . get the fire department!”
“—no, forget that, break the windshield—”
So they do. They remove the glass and carry her up the hill, and no one notices the boy standing near the mangled bits of her car, watching.
Her name is on his lips.
Then he is pushed back by a policeman, forced back to the crowd of people who have gotten out of their cars to catch a glimpse of the scene, the blood, the body. I look past the circle and see the traffic rapidly piling up in every direction, and right then, it’s very easy to imagine Liz somewhere in the long line of cars, sitting inside an intact Mercedes, her hand pressed to the horn, her swearing drowned out by the pounding bass of the radio.
It’s impossible. It’s impossible to imagine her as anything but alive.
The fact, however, is that the word alive no longer accurately describes Liz Emerson. She is being pushed into the back of an ambulance, and for her, the doors are closing.
“She’s tachycardic—and hypotensive, can you—”
“I need a splint, she’s got a complex fracture in the superior femur—”
“No, just get the blood stopped! She’s going into shock!”
As everyone moves and rushes around her, a musical of beeping machines and panic, I just watch her, her hands, her face. Her hair falling out of the hasty braid. The foundation across her cheeks, too thin to cover the graying skin.
When I look around, I can see her heart beating on three different monitors. I can see the steam her breath makes on the mask. But Liz Emerson is not alive.
So I lean forward. I place my lips beside her ear and whisper for her to stay, stay alive, over and over again. I whisper it as though she’ll hear me, like she used to. As though she’ll listen.
Monica Emerson is on a plane when the hospital calls. Her phone is turned off, and the call goes straight to voicemail.
An hour later, she turns on her phone and listens to her voicemails as she makes her way to baggage claim. The first is from the marketing division of her company—something about her next trip to Bangkok. The second is from the dry cleaners. The third has no message.
The fourth begins just as she spots her suitcase on the carousel, so the words “Your daughter was in a car accident” don’t register right away.
She makes herself listen to the entire thing one more time, breathe, and when it ends and the nightmare doesn’t, she turns and runs.
The suitcase takes another turn on the carousel.
Julia is almost halfway through her calculus homework when the phone in the hall rings.
It makes her jump, because no one ever calls her house. She has a cell and her father has three, and Julia has never understood why they needed a landline too.
Regardless, she goes into the hall to answer, because conic parametric equations are giving her a headache.
“Is this George De—”
“No,” she says. “This is Julia. His daughter?”
“Well, this is the emergency contact number we have for Elizabeth Emerson. Is it correct?”
“Liz?” She twirls the phone cord around her fingers and wishes, suddenly, that she had never let Liz put her dad down as an emergency contact. It wasn’t like he was ever around for emergencies. Stupid, she thought. “Yes, this is the right number. Is Liz—what’s going on?”
There’s a pause. “Is your father home?”
Julia pushes down her annoyance, chokes it, cinches the phone line tighter around her fingers and watches them turn purple. “No,” she says. “Is something wrong? Is Liz okay?”
“I’m not authorized to release the information to anyone except Mr. George Dev—”
“Did something happen to Liz?”
Another hesitation, and then a sigh. “Elizabeth was admitted to St. Bartholomew’s Memorial Hospital a little while ago. She was in a car accident—”
Julia drops the phone, grabs her car keys, and Googles directions to the hospital on the way to her car.
Kennie is on a bus with the rest of Meridian High’s dance team. At the moment the Mercedes flips over, she is leaning over the back of her seat, trying to grab Jenny Vickham’s bag of sour gummies while the bus driver yells at her to sit down. She is happy, because soon she’ll dance beneath spotlights as the only junior in the front row. Soon they’ll win the competition and come back laughing. Soon she’ll spin and leap and forget about the baby and the abortion and Kyle and Liz.
I’m happy, she tells herself. Be happy.
Both Monica Emerson and Julia are too busy unraveling to remember Kennie. They couldn’t have called anyway—Kennie has no phone service on the bus, and her phone isabout to die. As Monica and Julia rush for the hospital, Kennie is traveling in the opposite direction, blissfullyignorant of the fact that her best friend is dying.
She probably won’t know for a while. No, she’ll come home after winning the competition, cheeks sore from smiling so much, stomach cramped from laughing the whole ride back. She will take a shower and exchange her sparkles and spandex for a worn pair of pajamas. She will sit in the darkness of her room, her wet hair piled atop her head, and scroll through her Facebook feed. She will find it clogged with a story told through statuses, and it will take her breath away.
Liz had planned the crash with an uncharacteristic attention to detail, but not once did St. Bartholomew’s Memorial Hospital make an appearance in her plans, because she was supposed to die on impact.
She had been excessively careful in choosing the location, however. The highway, the hill, the icy turn, all nearly an hour from her house. She had even driven along the route once, swerved a little, chipped the paint on the Mercedes, for practice. But because she had chosen to crash her car so far away, no one is there to meet her when the ambulance pulls into St. Bartholomew’s. No one is there to hold her hand as the doctors wheel her to surgery.
There’s only me.
I can only watch.
I watch the doctors arrive. I watch the flashing scalpels, the eyebrows that curve downward. I watch the hands, the white latex splashed with red.
I watch, and I remember the time Liz fractured her shin in kindergarten playing soccer, already too in love with the sport and already too vain for shin guards, and how we went to Children’s Hospital instead of this one. That surgery room had a border of giraffes jumping rope, and Liz had held my hand until the anesthesia pulled her away. But there are no giraffes jumping rope here, and Liz’s hand is broken. This isn’t like that surgery, or any of the other ones—the one at St. Nicks’ when Liz tore her ACL during a powder puff game, or the one at the dentist’s when she’d had her wisdom teeth removed. During those, the doctors had been relaxed. There had been iPod docks in the corners, playing Beethoven or U2 or Maroon 5, and the doctors had seemed . . . well, human.
These surgeons are all hands and knives, cutting and peeling Liz apart, sewing and sewing her back together as though they can trap her soul and lock it away under her skin. I wonder how much of her will be left when they finish.
But she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t want to.
I try to remember the last time she was happy, her last good day, and it takes so long to sort through the other memories, the unhappy ones and the empty ones and theshattered ones, that it’s easy to understand why she closed her eyes and jerked her wheel to the side.
Because Liz Emerson held so much darkness within her that closing her eyes didn’t make much of a difference at all.
Five Months Before Liz Emerson Crashed Her Car
On the first Friday after the start of Liz’s junior year, only three topics were discussed at lunch: Ms. Harrison’s plus-size miniskirt and fishnet stockings, the sheer number of freshman skanks, and the enormous beach party Tyler Rainier was going to throw that night. Over her tray of healthy (by government standards) and inedible (by everyone else’s standards) lunch, Liz declared her intentions to go. Which meant, of course, that everyone else was going to go.
Everyone were the others sitting at the three tables reserved for Meridian High School’s elite: the petty, the vain, the jocks, the idiots, the beautiful, the rich, the accepted and admired sluts. In particular, her statement was directed at Kennie, who would immediately text Julia—who, due to a scheduling conflict resulting from an overload of AP classes, had a different lunch hour—with the plans.
Liz, Julia, Kennie. That was the way things were, and no one questioned it anymore.
After school, Liz drove home with the radio blasting.She was more lenient on the gas pedal than usual, because she knew she would return to an empty house. Her mom was either in Ohio or Bulgaria that weekend—she couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. There was always a business trip, and always another one.
Once upon a time, Liz had loved that her mother traveled. It was like magic, like a fairy tale, to have a mother who crossed oceans and knew the sky. Besides, when her mom wasn’t home, her dad let her eat on the couch, and he never nagged when we wanted to jump on the bed or skip brushing our teeth or play on the roof.
But then her dad died and she grew up and her mother still went on her trips, and Liz had learned to be lonely.
It wasn’t the aloneness that Liz minded. It was the silence. It echoed. It bounced off the walls of the Emerson’s oversized house. It filled the corners and the closets and the shadows. In reality, Liz’s mom wasn’t gone as often as it seemed to Liz, but the silence magnified everything.
It was her oldest fear, that silence. She had always hated when there was nothing to say, hated the minutes of darkness at sleepovers as everyone drifted but didn’t quite sleep, hated study hall, hated pauses in phone calls. Other little girls feared the dark, and they grew up and left their fears behind. Liz was afraid of silence, and she kept her fears clenched so tightly in her fists that they grew and grew and swallowed her whole.
For a while, she sat in the garage with the Mercedes still purring beneath her, the radio blasting line after line of rap she could barely understand. She wished that she’d asked Julia or Kennie to come over after school so she could put off the silence for a little longer. But she hadn’t, and she told herself that regret was stupid and she pulled her keys from the ignition. The silence hit her physically, surrounded her as she unlocked the back door, swallowed her as she went inside, strangled her as she slid out of her shoes and microwaved something called a Pizzarito (“a melting pot of flavor!”). Briefly, she thought about going for a run—open gym for soccer would start soon, and she was out of shape—but though the air was crisp and part of her wanted that escape through movement, a greater part was unwilling to go upstairs for her running shoes, come all the way back down, lace them up, dig her keys back out of her purse, lock the door. . . .
The microwave beeped, and Liz fetched the Pizzarito and flipped through channels until the boredom became intolerable.
Then, with the silence still pounding inside and outside of her, Liz went to the bathroom, slid her fingers down her throat, and carefully transferred the melting pot of flavor from her stomach to the toilet.
In her life, Liz had flirted with a number of dangerous things—drugs, bulimia, the pervert stoner who worked at RadioShack. Bulimia was the only one that stuck. She had broken the habit for a while—she’d started puking blood for a bit, which frightened her, because she hadn’t wanted to die. Not then. But she was going to be grinding in a swimsuit tonight, and she wanted to be happy. She wanted to be bright and laughing and thin.
She flushed the Pizzarito and brushed her teeth, but the taste was still there, so she went down to the basement and dug through her mother’s enormous wine cabinet and swiped a skinny bottle of—actually, she wasn’t really sure what it was, because the words weren’t in English, but it was alcoholic and smelled like berries, and the label was pretty—and uncorked it on her way back upstairs. She drank it in bursts, quick head-thrown-back shots, as she went to her room and opened her closet to consider her collection of swimsuits.
The yellow, frilly bikini made her look like a daffodil in the worst way, the red one was a bit too slutty even for her, and the white bottoms had faded and stretched so much that they now vaguely resembled granny panties. Liz finally settled on the striped maroonish one she’d found on sale at Victoria’s Secret a few months before, and she was scrutinizing her hips in the mirror when she caught sight of her fat, bald, hairy, leery, generally pedophilic neighbor standing on his lawn in his bathrobe, squinting at her window.
Liz flipped him off and went back down the hall.
Sometimes, she thought, this house really is depressing. But tonight was not going to be one of those nights. It might have started out as one, but the—wine? She thought it was some sort of wine—was taking care of that nicely.
She went back to the living room and turned all of the couch cushions over before she flopped down. The wine sloshed and spilled, and new lavender stains splattered across the older splotches. Once upon a time, she had worried that her mother would discover the mess. She knew better now. Monica was not the type to relax on her overpriced couch. Liz wished she were—she wished that her mother would dig for the remote just once and find the bottoms of the cushions splotched with alcohol, because Liz didn’t know how she would react. If she would be angry, if she would finally install a lock on the wine cabinet. If she would care.
Doesn’t matter, she thought as she tilted the bottle sharply. Doesn’t matter.
The liquid spilled over her chin and down her neck and shoulders, and she thought suddenly of the first party she ever went to, the summer before freshman year, and all that had changed since then. She’d had her first beer that night, and her second, her third. She had gotten drunk for the first time, so there wasn’t much that she still remembered,not much that she wanted to remember.
She thought of the lights, the bodies, the heavy and shatteringmusic. The air, hot with sweat, humid with guilt.
By eight, half the wine was gone. She could feel the alcohol in her blood, making the world oddly delicate, as though everything had turned brittle and was on the verge of falling apart, and Liz Emerson was the only substantial thing on the planet.
And it was nice, being invincible.
“My god,” Julia said as she slid into the passenger seat. “Are you drunk already?”
“Of course,” Liz said. She caught a corner of the mailbox as she backed wildly out of Julia’s driveway. Later she would find the scratch on the Mercedes, but she didn’t care right now.
There was something romantic about the idea of being young and tipsy and having somewhere to go on a Friday night. She handed the berry alcohol stuff to Julia. Julia unstopped the bottle and tilted it back, and though Liz knew that Julia kept her lips tightly closed, she said nothing.
It was easier to ignore it. Liz had her occasional trips to the bathroom after dinner, Julia had ziplock bags of illegal substances hidden around her room, and they had an unspoken contract to act as though their own secrets were still, in fact, secret.
“Kennie’s riding with Kyle, so you don’t need to pick her up,” said Julia, handing the bottle back.
Liz snorted. The car swerved as she took a swig, and she laughed as Julia yelped. “She’s riding on Kyle, you mean.”
“That too.” Julia paused for a moment to tighten her seatbelt and then said, quieter, “I can’t believe she didn’t break up with him.”
Liz said nothing. Kennie, of course, was covered by the contract too, and this fell under the list of things Liz didn’t want to talk about, things she especially didn’t want to talk about tonight.
Stupid, she thought. Four words, four for Kyle to convince her: But I love you. And of course they worked, because Kennie would do anything for love.
Stupid, stupid Kennie.
But now Julia was quiet too, remembering that when it came to staying with cheating boyfriends, Liz had very little to preach about.
Liz pressed down on the gas pedal, then took a hairpin turn that threw a screaming Julia into the door, because tonight, they were unbreakable.
They arrived at the party nearly an hour late, and by then the bonfire was huge and the crowd could be heard from ten blocks away. People were already leaving, because a party of this size, with this much beer, would surely draw as many police officers as a donut buffet. Tyler Rainier was an idiot to throw such a party on a public beach, but Liz didn’t care. She took another swig as she got out of the car to make sure she didn’t.
Smoke was everywhere, a haze of bonfire and marijuana. There were strobe lights and colored spotlights, and it seemed as though the sky had descended and turned them all to hazy stars. The music made Liz’s brain tremble. It was only a matter of time before everyone scattered, but it
didn’t matter. Not tonight.
Liz glanced at Julia, who was observing the entire thing with an expression that could almost be called disdainful. People called Julia stuck-up because she was quiet and rich and chic and had the posture of a ballerina and was something of a killjoy at parties. Julia was destined for a world of charity balls and pearls. She was a little too smart, a little too graceful, a little too conscientious for this hammered crowd.
And sometimes it made Liz jealous, but tonight was not one of those nights. Tonight, she looked over at Julia and had to fight down the urge to hug her, because Julia wasuncomfortable and beautiful and hers.
“C’mon, killjoy,” Liz said cheerfully. Julia followed after a moment, and the lights swallowed them together.
“Liz!” Liz almost fell over as Kennie bowled into her. The bottle flew out of her hand and spilled all over Julia.
“Dammit.” Julia sighed, looking down at her soaked cover-up. Kennie giggled and licked a drop off her shoulder,ducking away as Julia slapped at her head.
“Get off, lesbo,” said Julia, but she was laughing too.
“It’s good,” Kennie said, picking up the bottle off the sand. She squinted at it. “Oh, my god. I’m not that drunk already, am I? Why can’t I read this?”
“Because it’s not in English, stupid,” said Liz, and Kennie laughed and threw back the rest of the wine. Her hair tumbled down her back, then fanned away as she tossedthe bottle at Liz.
“Come on!” Kennie said, grabbing their hands and dragging them into the smoke. The heat was unbelievable; it made Liz’s throat itch, and she lifted the bottle again, butit was empty. She dropped it into the sand.
“Careful,” she shouted to Julia over the noise. “Don’t get too close to the fire! That much alcohol on you—”
“Bitch,” Julia called back, shrugging off her soaked clothes. “God, I smell like—”
“Like a Russian!” Liz hollered. She slung an arm around Julia. “Like you’re sexy!” She didn’t know exactly what she was saying anymore, but who cared? She didn’t. She also didn’t care about whatever Kennie was babbling about—either Kellie Jensen’s outrageous flab or Kyle Jordan’s outrageous abs—or about the s’mores and beer that she was trying to pull them toward, so Liz broke away and let the crowd surround her.
Jake Derrick, Liz’s official on-again-off-again, was out of state for the weekend at some football camp, most likely hooking up with whichever cheerleader had the biggest boobs, but she didn’t care. She grabbed the nearest boy by the belt and he took her hips. It was too smoky and he was too tall for her to make out much of his face, and she didn’t try very hard to get a good look. She wasn’t here to make memories. She was here for the flashing lights and the sweat and the smoke and the feel of someone else’s skin against hers. They were interchangeable, these boys. They didn’t matter. They didn’t matter at all.
While she was with Boy Number Four, Liz’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She pulled it out to see a text from Julia, saying that she and Jem Hayden, her potentially gay boyfriend, were leaving to check out some indie bookstore. She hadn’t seen Kennie for a while, but no doubt she was grinding with Kyle somewhere in the mob.
Doesn’t matter. There was too much marijuana in the air, and it was making Liz dizzy. Nothing mattered, not even the way Boy Number Four kept trying to kiss her. Why should it matter? Tomorrow she would wake up and this party would be a haze of lights. She wouldn’t remember any of it. So she finally turned her face and let Boy Number Four press his pot-flavored lips to hers, and he wasn’t bad.
They hadn’t been on the beach for long—half an hour, maybe, and Liz knew this because she had grinded with seven boys so far, one for each song—when they heard the sirens over the music, and then, of course, it was over. As the crowd scattered and someone desperately tried to bury the last keg in the sand, Liz ran. Secretly, she loved when parties were busted. The night wasn’t complete without a climax. The sirens, the swirl of red and blue lights—now that was a climax.
So, with a rush of adrenaline, Liz ran, slipping in and out of the crowd. Maybe, in a distant part of her mind, she remembered the games we played together when we were little, pretending to be spies and heroes, always escaping, always invincible.
She jumped into her car and shoved the keys into the ignition, and backed out of the sand so quickly that she nearly flattened a police officer. She heard him shouting for her to stop, but she didn’t listen, and he didn’t chase her. Her heart was racing and she was laughing, and she rolleddown the windows as she zoomed away so that the night could rush into her car and surround her.
Liz briefly considered going home, but she missed the turn and it was too late to swerve, so she kept going. She pressed down on the gas and soon found herself on the interstate, takingan exit she hadn’t taken in a decade. She drove along the beach until the trees grew taller and the night grew darker, and she turned in to the entrance of the state park. She parked messily by the ranger station, right next to the sign that said PARK CLOSED. VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.
She laughed to herself, thinking of seventh grade, when she, Kennie, and Julia had taken over a janitor’s closet and claimed it for themselves. They had made signs like that, VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED. Or at least, she and Julia had. Kennie’s had read PROSECUTORS WILL BE VIOLATED. After thoroughly teasing her for the mistake, they had made that their new motto.
Liz turned off the car and was surprised by the silence. It always surprised her, somehow. She grabbed her iPod and turned it on, breaking the night wide open with shouting and drums, something angry—and then she changed the song, because she was alone, and she didn’t have to listen to what other people liked when she was alone.
She forgot, sometimes, that she could make her own choices.
Liz walked into the trees, knowing that she was probably being an idiot and she should at least turn on her flashlight app, but not caring, not caring about anything at all. She hadn’t been here since they moved, but her feet still seemed to know the way. She wasn’t entirely sure why she’d come at all, now that she thought about it, but that didn’t stop her. Liz was beginning to realize that she was drunker than she wanted to admit—enough to be wobbly and careless, and content with being stupid.
She walked in time to some indie singer, who called her beautiful and stronger, stronger, stronger. Liz liked hearing it. She tried to remember the last time she’d heard something like that in real life, and she couldn’t. People didn’t talk like that anymore, did they?
Liz walked for so long that she was almost entirely certain that she had taken a wrong turn somewhere in the dark, that a bear would be along momentarily to maul her to pieces, eat her left hand, and leave her to bleed to death on the grass just off the trail where no one would find her until she was nothing but a skeleton, which they would ultimately hang up in the science room so that the human anatomy and physiology classes could study her—when, suddenly the trees ended and she saw the tower.
It wasn’t as tall as she remembered.
When she was younger, her father would bring her here on the first Wednesday of each month. Her father didn’t work on Wednesdays and she didn’t have preschool on Wednesdays. Wednesdays were important to them, Wednesdays were theirs. They came to make wishes on whatever was around—dandelions in the summer, red and falling leaves in autumn, snowflakes in the winter, sunshine in the spring. Sure, she had been a short four-year-old, but now, staring up at the tower that had once seemed to reach heaven, she finally began to understand how much had changed.
Still, she climbed it. The stairs were steep and creaking. She didn’t run up like she used to, because there was no one to race her.
She was more wobbly than ever by the time she got to the top, but she told herself that it was the adrenaline and the height making her sway. When she threw her head back, she could see the sky bending away from her, and it seemed closer than usual. As though if she tried, she could
snag a star on her fingernail, but she didn’t move.
It hurt, hurt to hold still, so she leaned against the railing with the metal pushing against her lungs, and she closed her eyes.
“Well, hello, darling with the ocean eyes,
How many secrets keep us apart?
A sea of poems, a field of sighs,
Can I cross and return to the start?”
Liz turned off the music. Breathed, and looked up again to face the silence, but it wasn’t there. Not the kind she was running from. It was quiet, deeply so, but it was the kind of quiet that lived and moved and changed, filled to the brim with crickets and wings and the sounds of late summer.
Later, she lay on her back, staring at the curving sky and the stars, swallowed by the darkness so that she felt very small indeed. She wondered what was between the stars, if it was dead and empty space, or something else. That’s why there are so many constellations, she thought, remembering the ones from her fourth-grade science class—Leo, Cassiopeia, Orion. Maybe everyone just wanted to connect those pinpricks of brightness and ignore the mysteries in between.
Once upon a time, Liz was happy to TP a house with Julia and Kennie, to be invited to the best parties. Once upon a time, it made her happy to look down the social tower and see everyone below her. Once upon a time, it made happy her to stand here and see the entire sky above her.
And tonight—tonight, that was what she wished for. She wished to be happy, and fell asleep with an entire sky above her.