I had been living with my aunts and my cousin Oswald for three months when Terra Nowak died. That was most of a semester at the high school my cousin attended. The school we both attended, I guess. Terra was in my fourth period, but it’s not like we were friends or anything; she just worked on a poster project with me once and died of the same plague my parents did, that’s all.
My social feed alerted me, but Aunt Skye came into the kitchen to tell me before I left for school, just in case, not wanting me to find out in public and possibly lose it all over everybody. Everyone else estimates the likelihood of me losing it way higher than I do. They have this great “Andrea is a ticking time bomb” theory. It’s impervious to facts.
“I heard,” I said. “Hey, I put orange juice on the list because we’re low, but I think there’s still enough if you want some before I put it back in the fridge.”
I really think they would like it if I actually did explode. They act like they would. “Okay, honey,” said Aunt Skye after a long moment of looking at me with concern. “I’m here if you need anything.”
“Just o.j.,” I said.
At school, at least, my cousin Oswald was the only one of my fellow students who knew what killed my parents, and he wasn’t going around telling people. Mostly that meant I got ignored—which is good, because there were literally hundreds of other teenagers looking for attention. Hundreds. Loudly. There was sobbing. There were at least three people just in the front commons telling stories at the top of their lungs about “this one time Terra and me.” There was. . . look, it was a mess, all right? And I kept hearing raccoon-eyed seniors sniffling in their bravest voices that “tragedies like this bring us all together.”
Here’s the thing about tragedies that bring us all together: by the time people start saying that about the real tragedies, they’re already over. Mostly when they say it about things that aren’t real, full-scale tragedies, they’re using it to define “us.” If you aren’t feeling brought together, well, you’re not really part of “us,” are you, loser? Leave the rest of the real community with their grief and just go away.
I really did feel bad for Terra’s parents and the people who were her actual friends. But sorting them out from the rest of the crowd was a trick I didn’t really feel up for. I pushed my way quietly through to my first period class, which was calculus. Good old calculus. You can rely on it to never, ever be about current events.
In this case, what you couldn’t rely on was that anybody would settle down within ten minutes of the bell ringing. I’d say I was the only one who cared how to take the derivative of a trigonometric function, but honestly, I didn’t really care either. I just didn’t want to talk about dead people.
Is that so wrong?
Apparently it was. After the third person broke down wailing about what a beautiful soul Terra was, Ms. Yates gave up on lecture completely and asked that we work on our assignment in silence.
My next class wasn’t like that, because my geography teacher, Mr. Mizuno, wanted to talk about the spread of fungal plagues worldwide. He had all sorts of slides to put on the screen, different colors for deadly and less deadly variants of the same fungus. It was fascinating. It was horrible. He refused to send anybody to the grief counselors.
“This is one way to process your grief,” he kept saying. “Learn the facts. Know them. Figure out how much you’re actually at risk and what you need to do about it.”
I knew there was a reason I liked Mr. Mizuno.
“Isn’t that, like, science?” said Casey Salazar. “Shouldn’t that be a different class?”
“Geography is a science,” said Mr. Mizuno impatiently. “If you want me to stop teaching you about mountain ranges because it involves plate tectonics, or river deltas because it involves erosion, you are out of luck. Now. Who can tell me when we saw the first outbreak of mucormycosis presto?”
I could, because it’s what killed my parents. Did I want to volunteer that for class? Hell, no, I did not.
“Andrea?” said Mr. Mizuno.
“August, two years ago,” I said automatically. “In Connecticut, immediately spreading all over the New England and Maritimes area.”
“That’s right,” said Mr. Mizuno, looking surprised. He had called on me at random. He didn’t know. I was the random bored-looking kid. He didn’t know. Nobody knew. Nobody knew.
I kept repeating that to myself as he went over the spread, the strain that got to Michigan over the summer. Nobody was staring at me. Nobody knew.
And as long as I kept up the protocols, it would stay that way. Minimize contact. Keep everything friendly, but arm’s length. Never do a group project with the same person twice unless the teacher assigns it. Always accept social media connections at the shallowest level, but never let it go deeper. At lunch, sit with the same people each week but different people each day, so you’re not the weird loner, but you’re still not someone who gets asked personal questions.
The protocols: you have to trust them. They’re science.
Mr. Mizuno gave us each a map of North America to fill in on our handhelds with the different colors for the different strains of mucormycosis presto, which has all sorts of nicknames, most of which are disgusting. I did it really fast. He looked at me sharply when I hit submit before anyone else, but it’s not hard to remember the clusters, especially when they hit Tornado Alley.
Maybe I’m the tiniest bit extra-motivated.
When I got out of class, my cousin Oswald was listening to Cait, the straggle-haired girl he was trying to date, complaining to him in the hall outside about how insensitive Mizuno was to make us do the assignment. “And we had to do all kinds of clot cough maps on our handhelds,” she said. “And it was awful, just awful, with poor Terra, he’s a ghoul, isn’t he, Andrea?”
“I have to get to Chinese,” I said.
Oswald gave me a sympathetic grimace, but Cait wasn’t going to let it go. “I guess you didn’t really have time to get to know Terra, but trust me, if you knew what it was like to lose someone, you would have found that class period really hard to take.”
“She would know,” said Oswald, “because it’s how her parents died too.”
“Oh. Oh,” said Cait. “I am so sorry.”
“Don’t even worry about it,” I mumbled.
“I had no idea.”
“Of course you didn’t. Because—” I lifted my head and glared at Oswald. “I didn’t go around telling people.”
“Today must be so hard for you,” said Cait.
“I’m just trying to get through it,” I said.
Oswald looked from me to Cait and back again. I jerked my head at her, tight-lipped, and he nodded jerkily. “Hey, Caitie, baby, if you could, um. . . if you could not mention? About Andrea’s parents? It’ll be so much easier for her. For all of us.”
“Sure, of course. I, like. Had no idea.” Cait looked up at him through lashes clumped with bright green mascara. “Were you close with your aunt and uncle, Os?”
I rolled my eyes and left him to it. If he finally got his act together with this girl, more power to him, although I couldn’t entirely see why he wanted to.
I’m biding my time at that school. So’s everyone else. I don’t know why they don’t realize it. No one will be at high school forever. No one will be at high school for very long. So—don’t stick your neck out, don’t get too involved. Do the stuff you have to do to move on down the road. Remember the decontamination protocols.
They actually teach you the physical ones. The emotional ones you have to work out for yourself, and you don’t find out until later if you were right or if you got infected. Me, I’ve spent the whole time in an airlock, more or less. There are people I have lunch with, people I nod to in the hall. But I’m in a hazmat suit in my mind.
I don’t tell anybody that. They’d make me talk to more people.
On my way to lunch, I accidentally scattered a clump of freshman and discovered that they were mobbed around the guidance counselor, Ms. Kalliopoulos, one of the very few other people who knew about my parents. I looked at Ms. K. She had dark circles under her eyes and looked like she needed a tall coffee and a place to sit down with no kids. She’s pretty good for a school guidance counselor, means well, doesn’t waste too much time on stupid stuff. “How you holding up, Ms. K.?”
She looked startled and then weirdly pleased. “Oh, you know. Tired. Doing all right. How are you, Andrea?”
“People expect a lot out of counselors at times like this,” I went on, as if she hadn’t asked. “Even when you’re trained for it, it gets to be—like you said. Tiring.”
“Was it like that when your folks died?” she said softly.
I thought about skipping the question again, because seriously, my folks were none of her business. But counselors are extroverts mostly, and extroverts are like house plants, they get all shriveled and sad if you don’t talk to them. Water them. Whatever. “Yeah,” I said. “Not so much at school, but the church people, the hired consultants. Pretty much everybody who was paid to help us cope. Helping people cope is hard work.”
“It is,” she said. “Thank you. A lot of people your age don’t realize that. Thank you. Are you considering going into one of the helping professions, Andrea?”
“Didn’t you hear me? That’s hard work. I’m going to do something much easier, like mycogenetics.”
It was supposed to be a joke, although I really was thinking of following Mom and Dad into mycogenetics. But people freak out when they hear that. It’s like I’m supposed to go into the fetal position and twitch and occasionally whimper, “A fungus killed my parents. I’ll never forgive those dirty spores.”
I mean, I do make sure to devour every mushroom on a pizza, just on principle. Take that, fungi. But Mom and Dad used to talk mycogenetics with me. It was cool. Better than Aunt Sarah’s endless stream of sick babies or Aunt Skye’s constant calls to get rich people to give a tiny percentage of their wealth so we can keep having a symphony.
Ms. K. gave me one of those guidance counselor looks, and I think she decided that I should go on the priority list for another day. “You just let me know if you need anything, okay, Andrea?”
“Ditto,” I said.
“I will,” she said, and I actually believed her a little. Mostly adults don’t let you help, even when you know more than they do. Mostly adults don’t admit that you know more than they do.
I couldn’t deal with the lunchroom. I grabbed a bag of whatever, not even checking which sandwich option it was, just paying and heading out the back to get some relief from the boo-hoo and the poor-me. There were a few kids vaping out the back with the old-fashioned vapers they’d banned ten years ago when they discovered they harbored fungal spores. Everything harbors fungal spores. They still thought they could slow it down, maybe even stop it, back then. I mean, I guess they did. I was a little kid. Everyone seemed worried, but not. . . .
Not usefully worried.
Not with protocols.
Not like now.
I walked down the loading dock, past where I could plausibly argue I’d “just stepped out for a minute to clear my head.” I didn’t really want to think about it, but with the tragic loss of a classmate and all, they weren’t likely to be hardasses about a minute or two out in the sun, taking deep breaths and breathing air that some idiot wasn’t vaping in. That some idiot wasn’t yammering in. Just. . . breathing.
The worst of the contaminants were for farmers and gardeners, and the school garden was entirely greenhouse contained. No one was allowed in that today, pretty sure. They’d know that Terra hadn’t gotten sick from there, or else there’d be dozens of dead teenagers instead of just one, but this is always the sort of thing the adults get weird and twitchy about. Counterproductive. They jump at shadows.
I just needed a minute.
Okay, maybe more than a minute.
I just needed to take deep breaths and not deal with all the weeping, whining, clinging people. For just a little, tiny bit.
I’d done this before, but never so far. Never for more than a few minutes between classes. When I finally came back towards the school, I knew I had missed a period of class and would be in for it. Probably I wouldn’t be in trouble. Worse. They’d want me to talk about my feelings.
Like that’s such a great idea.
I came in the back door, head down, ready to be sarcastic and deflect anything that came my way.
And there was Cait, yelling at Rennie Babineaux.
I didn’t know Rennie much. He was a big bruiser of a guy, messy-haired and broad-shouldered, and he was just taking whatever she cared to scream at him. Just taking it. He just stared at her shoes and waited. And everyone else slipped around them like they were rocks in a river. No one wanted to see.
“Hey, what’s this?” I said.
“I cannot believe this asshole,” said Cait.
“Just go on ahead, Andrea,” said Rennie, his voice a gravelly mumble. “I got this.”
“Got what?” I said.
Cait tossed her hair, freshly done, and cut her eyes at him. “This is Terra’s boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend. And the rest of us can barely hold it together, and here he is like it’s any day of his life. He didn’t even love her a little,” said Cait. “Look at him. Look at him.”
Rennie snapped his teeth at her, and she jumped back.
“Jesus, what is wrong with you?”
“I’m a callous jerk, apparently.”
“Leave him alone,” I said. “You’re not going to get anything out of talking to him anyway. He’s not going to help you get through your grief.”
Those were magic words, I guess—everything is about everybody getting through their own grief. Cait smiled at me, a sad pretty smile that my cousin Os probably would have gone all mushy over. “You’re so right, Andrea,” she said. “I guess it’s your experience with this stuff. Thank you. I won’t throw away my time and energy on someone who won’t appreciate it.”
“Yeah, take care of yourself, Cait,” I said, but she didn’t hear the snide little twist I couldn’t help but put into it. Just as well. Did not want Oswald to hate me.
She repeated, “Thanks, Andrea,” and stomped off to class, or her locker, or somewhere, I didn’t even care.
And left me and Rennie standing there staring at the floor between each other’s feet.
“Don’t worry about her grief,” he mumbled. “She’ll be fine. She and Terra barely talked after third grade.”
“Yeah, I got that. How about you, though?”
He didn’t say anything, and I couldn’t stand seeing somebody who was actually hurting, surrounded by all the fakers. I had to say something.
“Yeah. Look, people are going to be idiots like that.”
He actually raised his head and looked at me.
“My—” My voice stuck in my throat. I was going to have to actually say it to someone voluntarily. This was a total violation of decontamination protocols. But he was standing there with one shoulder higher than the other, looking like he wanted to punch the next person who asked him his favorite beautiful memory of a beautiful young girl like beautiful Terra.
It hadn’t brought him together with anybody.
I had not planned to be anybody.
“My parents,” I said.
He looked really confused.
“I live with my aunts now, and my stupid cousin Oswald, who is okay mostly, except he wants to get in that stupid Cait’s pants. Stupid,” I repeated, just because there were not enough stupids in that sentence to express my feelings on the subject.
His jaw worked like he was starting to see where this was going.
“After my parents, after, after,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
He wasn’t going to make me say it out loud, so I was able to go on in a rush. “People are really dumb. They want to check off all the boxes for what they want you to do, so that they can say, oh, yes, that’s how it is.”
“So, like, for you, screaming her name in front of her locker, probably. Falling to your knees, asking at the top of your lungs why you ever broke up with her.”
He snorted out a laugh, and then it turned into crying, that weird snotty kind where you only let out three tears and a bunch of phlegm. A couple of freshmen giggled at him as they walked by. I turned and grated at them, “You, go to class, and you, go tell Ms. K. we’re busy here and need to be excused, or I will shove spores in your nose myself. I’m going to be a mycologist, I can do it.”
“I don’t even know your name!” protested the kid, backing up until she ran into the wall with a thump.
“Andrea. She’ll know. Go on.”
She went. I looked around. The hall cleared out. It was just us.
Rennie had gotten himself back under control. Probably it helped not to have a stinking audience. “So when your parents.”
“Yeah. There’s this set of breathing exercises you can do when you think you might have to slap somebody.”
He laughed again, the same snorty laugh, and this time it didn’t turn into crying. “Okay, that’s good.”
“I’ll send you the link. And also, like, if you start to get really, um. . . .”
He was watching me. “Go on.”
“If you start to get really scared all the time. If you don’t want to unseal the house.”
“Then it helps to learn a lot about the different spores, where they are, what they’re doing.”
“You meant it,” he said. “What you said to that kid about becoming a mycologist. You meant that.”
“Do you have spores in your house?”
“No. It’s my aunts’ house. Right now I’m more of a theoretician.”
He laughed without any noise. “You’re. . . not really as okay as you want people to think, are you?”
“I’m more okay than they think I am. I really am a theoretician.”
“I know. I know, I can tell by how you talk about it.” His face changed, closed off suddenly. “We’re fine here!” he said loudly. “Just leave us alone.”
“What?” I said, feeling stupid.
“Are you fine, Andrea?” said Ms. K.’s voice behind me.
“I didn’t do anything to her, and I don’t need counseling!” he blazed.
“Well, that’s probably not true,” I said, and he glared at me. “But not, like, on someone else’s schedule, right? Not here in the middle of the hallway.”
“We didn’t think you did anything to her, Rennie,” said Ms. K. “One of the freshmen said there was a girl named Andrea making threats about spores and asking for me. I convinced Mr. Wiggins not to call out the hazmat response until I could see what was going on.”
“Oh Lord,” I groaned. Mr. Wiggins was the vice-principal, lacquer-blond and full of regulations. “We’re both all right, Ms. K. We really are. We just—Rennie was Terra’s boyfriend. They had broken up. But he was pretty bummed, and I thought he shouldn’t have to go to class, so I sent some dumb freshman to get us an excuse from you. I think the kid misunderstood what I was saying.”
“I think that there are better ways to deal with your grief than insulting your fellow students,” said Ms. K., on guidance counselor auto-pilot I guess. “So we can reassure Mr. Wiggins that you’re not planning a mycological attack on the school? We have to take threats seriously.”
“It wasn’t a threat, Ms. K., I promise. It was a stupid joke,” I said. Some protocols are more annoying than others, but I guess when you’re the one who knows what the risks are, you get to draw some of the lines.
“Well, don’t make that kind of joke again. It’s not funny, and the consequences for all of us if we had to go on decontamination lockdown would be even less funny.”
“I know. I’m sorry. You can stand down. I promise, I won’t—I’ll watch what I say.”
“And you, Rennie?”
“I just want—” He started to cry then. Guys my age usually suck at crying. “Everyone assumes I’m some gorilla. Like, how could anyone dump Saint Terra if they weren’t a heartless brute? I just want to be somewhere quiet. Nobody wants to let me be anywhere quiet. Is that too much to ask? Everybody wants to talk and talk and talk about Terra and this time in the fifth grade when they were in the same tent at Girl Scouts or whatever, and she was my girlfriend last month, y’know? I just need some quiet.”
Ms. K. sighed. She reached out to put a hand on his arm and then thought better of it from the glare we both gave her. “I think the two of you should come to my office. You’re not going to get much out of the rest of the school day anyway. We’ll make sure Mr. Wiggins knows it was a false alarm—”
“Oh, honestly, what a—” I stopped before saying “paranoid pinhead.” Not a joke. Right, got it. “What a hassle,” I muttered.
“—and just let you rest a little bit. You should probably message your par—your families, though.”
Sitting in Ms. K’s office, I realized it would probably be all over school the next day that I was the one who’d cried with Rennie Babineaux in the hall in front of God and everybody. I was screwed if I wanted to keep the news about my parents quiet—at least not without making people think that I was his secret girlfriend.
I pulled out my handheld and risked a glance at my social media. The “secret girlfriend” theory had already been proposed, but worse, Oswald had spilled the beans about my folks. I shoved it back in my bag like it was contaminated. Rennie put a reassuring hand on my shoulder. He was still crying, in a choked snotty way. “Hey,” he said. “They’re assholes. You’ll get through it.”
“Like you’re getting through it?” I said.
“Pretty much exactly like I’m getting through it, yeah.”
I thought about it, and there was a major difference. He’d just lost Terra. I had months of coping and knew a little bit of how it went. I took a deep breath and looked up Terra’s parents’ addresses on the page the school had provided. There were some resources I wanted them to have. But mostly I wanted them to know that there was someone who actually did know what it was like, the way everyone else was claiming to.