THE AIR IN THE ROOM TASTES STERILE. THE LINGERING scent of bleach is mixing with the fresh white paint on the walls, and I wish my teacher would open the window to let in a breeze. But we’re on the third floor so the pane is sealed shut—just in case anyone gets the urge to jump.
I’m still staring at the paper on my desk when Kendra Phillips turns around in her seat, looking me over with her purple contacts. “You’re not done yet?”
I glance past her to make sure Mrs. Portman is distracted at the front of the room, and then I smile. “It’s far too early in the morning to properly psychoanalyze myself,” I whisper. “I’d almost rather learn about science.”
“Maybe a coffee spiked with QuikDeath would help you focus on the pain.”
My expression falters; just the mention of the poison enough to send my heart racing. I hold Kendra’s empty stare—a deadness behind it that even purple contacts can’t disguise. Her eyes are ringed with heavy circles from lack of sleep, and her face has thinned sharply. She’s exactly the kind of person who can get me in trouble, and yet I can’t look away.
I’ve known Kendra for years, but we’re not really friends, especially now. Not when she’s been acting depressed for close to a month. I try to avoid her, but today there’s something desperate about her that I can’t ignore. Something about the way her body seems to tremble even though she’s sitting still.
“God, don’t look so serious,” she says, lifting one bony shoulder. “I’m just kidding, Sloane. Oh, and hey,” she adds as if just remembering the real reason she turned to me in the first place. “Guess who I saw last night at the Wellness Center? Lacey Klamath.”
She leans forward as she tells me, but I’m struck silent. I had no idea that Lacey was back.
Just then the door opens with a loud click. I glance toward the front of the classroom and freeze, my breath catching in my throat. The day has just become significantly worse.
Two handlers with crisp white jackets and comb-smoothed hair stand in the doorway, their expressionless faces traveling over us as they seek someone out. When they start forward, I begin to wilt.
Kendra spins around in her seat, her back rigid and straight. “Not me,” she murmurs, her hands clasped tightly in front of her like she’s praying. “Please, not me.”
From her podium, Mrs. Portman begins her lesson as if there’s no interruption. As if people in white coats should be waltzing in during her speech on the kinetic theory of matter. It’s the second time the handlers have interrupted class this week.
The men separate to opposite sides of the classroom, their shoes tapping on the linoleum floor as they come closer. I look away, opting to watch the leaves fall from the trees outside the window instead. It’s October, but the summer has bled into fall, bathing us all in unexpected Oregon sunshine. I wish I could be anywhere else right now.
The footsteps stop, but I don’t acknowledge them. I can smell the handlers near me—antiseptic, like rubbing alcohol and Band-Aids. I don’t dare move.
“Kendra Phillips,” a voice says gently. “Can you please come with us?”
I hold back the sound that’s trying to escape from behind my lips, a combination of relief and sympathy. I refuse to look at Kendra, terrified that the handlers will notice me. Please don’t notice me.
“No,” Kendra says to them, her voice choked off. “I’m not sick.”
“Ms. Phillips,” the voice says again, and this time I have to look. The dark-haired handler leans to take Kendra by the elbow, guiding her from the chair. Kendra immediately lashes out, yanking her arm from his grasp as she tries to clamor over her desk.
Both men descend on her as Kendra thrashes and screams. She’s barely five feet, but she’s fighting hard—harder than the others. I feel the tension rolling off the rest of the class, all of us hoping for a quick resolution. Hoping that we’ll make it another day without getting flagged.
“I’m not sick!” Kendra yells, breaking from their hold once again.
Mrs. Portman finally stops her lesson as she looks on with a pained expression. The calm she tries to exude is fraying at the edges. Next to me a girl starts crying and I want to tell her to shut up, but I don’t want to attract attention. She’ll have to fend for herself.
The dark-haired handler wraps his arms around Kendra’s waist, lifting her off the floor as she kicks her legs out. A string of obscenities tears from her mouth as saliva leaks from the corners. Her face is red and wild, and all at once I think she’s sicker than we ever imagined. That the real Kendra is no longer in there, and maybe hasn’t been since her sister died.
My eyes well up at the thought, but I push it down. Down deep where I can keep all my feelings until later when there’s no one watching me.
The handler puts his palm over Kendra’s mouth, muffling her sounds as he whispers soothing things into her ear, continuing to work her bucking body toward the door. The other handler dashes ahead to hold it open.
Just then the man holding Kendra screams out and drops her, shaking his hand as if she bit him. Kendra jumps up to run and the handler lunges for her, his closed fist connecting with her face. The shot sends her into Mrs. Portman’s podium before knocking her to the ground. The teacher gasps as Kendra flops in front of her, but Mrs. Portman only backs away.
Kendra’s top lip is split wide open and leaking blood all over her gray sweater and the white floor. She barely has time to process what happened when the handler grabs her by the ankle and begins to drag her—caveman style—toward the exit. Kendra screams and begs. She tries to hold on to anything within her reach, but instead she’s leaving a trail of blood along the floor.
When they finally get to the doorway, she raises her purple eyes in my direction, reaching out a reddened hand to me. “Sloane!” she screams. And I stop breathing.
The handler pauses, glancing over his shoulder at me. I’ve never seen him here before today, but something about the way he’s watching me now makes my skin crawl, and I look down.
I don’t lift my head again until I hear the door shut. Kendra’s shouts are promptly cut off in the hallway, and I wonder momentarily if she was Tasered or injected with a sedative. Either way, I’m glad it’s over.
Around the room, there are several sniffles, but it’s mostly silent. Blood still covers the front of the room in streaks of crimson.
“Sloane?” the teacher asks, startling me. “I haven’t gotten your daily assessment yet.” Mrs. Portman starts toward the closet where she keeps the bucket and mop, and other than the high lilt of her voice, she has no noticeable reaction to Kendra being dragged from our class.
I swallow hard and apologize, moving to take my pencil from my backpack. As my teacher sloshes the bleach on the floor, choking us with the smell once again, I begin to shade in the appropriate ovals.
In the past day have you felt lonely or overwhelmed?
I stare down at the bright white paper, the same one that waits at our desk every morning. I want to crumple it into a ball and throw it across the room, scream for people to acknowledge what just happened to Kendra. Instead I take a deep breath and answer.
This isn’t true—we all feel lonely and overwhelmed. Sometimes I’m not sure there’s another way to feel. But I know the routine. I know what a wrong answer can do. Next question.
I fill in the rest of the ovals, pausing when I get to the last one, just like I do every time. Has anyone close to you ever committed suicide?
Marking that answer day after day nearly destroys me. But it’s the one question where I have to tell the truth. Because they already know the answer.
After signing my name at the bottom, I grab my paper with a shaky hand and walk up to Mrs. Portman’s desk, standing in the wet area where Kendra’s blood used to be. I try not to look down as I wait for my teacher to put away the cleaning products.
“Sorry,” I tell her again when she comes to take the sheet from me. I notice a small smudge of blood on her pale pink shirtsleeve, but don’t mention it.
She looks over my answers, and then nods, filing the paper in the attendance folder. I hurry back to my seat, listening to the tense silence. I wait for the sound of the door, the approaching footsteps. But after a long minute, my teacher clears her throat and goes back to her lesson on friction. Relieved, I close my eyes.
Teen suicide was declared a national epidemic—killing one in three teens—nearly four years ago. It always existed before that, but seemingly overnight handfuls of my peers were jumping off buildings, slitting their wrists—most without any known reason. Strangely enough, the rate of incidence among adults stayed about the same, adding to the mystery.
When the deaths first started increasing, there were all sorts of rumors. From defective childhood vaccines to pesticides in our food—people grasped for any excuse. The leading view says that the oversupply of antidepressants changed the chemical makeup of our generation, making us more susceptible to depression.
I don’t know what I believe anymore, and really, I try not to think about it. But the psychologists say that suicide is a behavioral contagion. It’s the old adage “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you, too?” Apparently the answer is yes.
To fight the outbreak, our school district implemented the pilot run of The Program—a new philosophy in prevention. Among the five schools, students are monitored for changes in mood or behavior, flagged if a threat is determined. Anyone exhibiting suicidal tendencies is no longer referred to a psychologist. Instead, the handlers are called.
And then they come and take you.
Kendra Phillips will be gone for at least six weeks—six weeks spent in a facility where The Program will mess with her mind, take her memories. She’ll be force-fed pills and therapy until she doesn’t even know who she is anymore. After that they’ll ship her off to a small private school until graduation. A school designated for other returners, other empty souls.
My phone vibrates in my pocket and I let out a held breath. I don’t have to check to know what it means—James wants to meet. It’s the push I need to get through the rest of the period, the fact that he’s waiting for me. The fact that he’s always waiting for me.
• • •
As we file out of the classroom forty minutes later, I notice the dark-haired handler in the hallway, watching us. He seems to take extra time on me, but I try hard not to notice. Instead I keep my head down and walk quickly toward the gymnasium to find James.
I check over my shoulder to make sure no one is following me before turning down the stark white corridor with the metal double doors. It’s nearly impossible to trust anyone not to report you for suspicious behavior. Not even our parents—especially not our parents.
It was Lacey’s father who called The Program to tell them that she was unwell. So now James, Miller, and I do everything we can to keep up the front at home. Smiles and small talk equal well-balanced and healthy. I wouldn’t dare show my parents anything else. Not now.
But once I turn eighteen, The Program loses its hold on me. I won’t be a minor so they can no longer force me into treatment. Although my risk doesn’t technically lower, The Program is bound to the laws of the land. I’ll be an adult, and as an adult it’s my God-given right to off myself if I so please.
Unless the epidemic gets worse. Then who knows what they’ll do.
When I get to the gymnasium doors, I push on the cold metal bar and slip inside. It’s been years since this part of the building was used. The Program cut athletics immediately after taking over, claiming it added too much competitive stress to our fragile student population. Now this space is used for storage—unused desks piled in the corner, stacks of unneeded textbooks.
“Anyone see you?”
I jump and look at James as he stands in the cramped space underneath the folded bleachers. Our space. The emotionless armor I’ve been wearing weakens.
“No,” I whisper. James holds out his hand to me and I meet him in the shadows, pressing myself close to him. “It’s not a good day,” I murmur against his mouth.
“It rarely is.”
James and I have been together for over two years—since I was fifteen. But I’ve known him my entire life. He’d been best friends with my brother, Brady, before he killed himself.
I choke on the memory, like I’m drowning in it. I pull from James and bang the back of my head on the corner of the wooden bleacher above us. Wincing, I touch my scalp, but don’t cry. I wouldn’t dare cry at school.
“Let me see,” James says, reaching to rub his fingers over the spot. “You were probably protected by all this hair.” He grins and lets his hand glide into my dark curls, resting it protectively on the back of my neck. When I don’t return his smile, he pulls me closer. “Come here,” he whispers, sounding exhausted as he puts his arms around me.
I hug him, letting the images of Brady fade from my head, along with the picture of Lacey being dragged from her house by handlers. I slide my hand under the sleeve of James’s T-shirt and onto his bicep where his tattoos are.
The Program makes us anonymous, strips us of our right to mourn—because if we do, we can get flagged for appearing depressed. So James has found another way. On his right arm he’s keeping a list in permanent ink of those we’ve lost. Starting with Brady.
“I’m having bad thoughts,” I tell him.
“Then stop thinking,” he says simply.
“They took Kendra last period. It was horrible. And Lacey—”