"Hello, this is Candace Lindstrom, calling from Perez College for Miss Astrid Hofferson!"
It was enough to make her puke. The same obviously scripted lines from all over the country. She dropped her phone into her wastebasket, knowing she'd end up digging it out later. The over-caffinated admission rep's voice echoed in the tin shell, and Astrid huffed at it. A strand of her long blond hair drifted out of her ponytail, and she made a swipe at it. Then, giving up, the girl slid her finger through her hairband and yanked at it. Everything came flopping onto her fingers, tangles and all. There was no glamour in lacrosse, but judging from the looks the football team gave her when their practice times matched up, she still retained a certain appeal.
That was nice to know. Unfortunately, every guy at their school seemed all too eager to let her know.
In moments like these, Astrid hated it all. The exhaustion kicked down some mental barrier and let everything flood her brain. She was tired of the college calls and the doting texts and the trophies. She joined lacrosse in middle school so she could forget it all. On the field, there were you and your team and the ball and the net. Nothing else mattered. Thinking about anything else was pointless. She couldn't solve all her problems on the field; she could only run from them. In the end, Astrid preferred that.
Then all the drama came along. The lean grace that came with exercise made boys stumble over their own drool. The winning games that came with good goals made colleges chase after her. The announcement of yet another win for high school girls' varsity volleyball boxed her in with the jocks. So what if she liked books, and Star Trek, and screamo, and video games? She had to be a jock. No other group would allow her.
Astrid rolled onto her bed and stared at her ceiling fan. The cleaning lady had visited today, so it was blowing the chemical smell out the window. She rubbed her arms at the chill. She couldn't turn it off. A suffocating blanket of hopelessness fell on her. She couldn't stop anything. She couldn't turn anything off.
In that moment, a rock sailed through her open window.
"Holy-! I thought it was closed!"
Reflexes propelled Astrid to her feet in a milisecond. "Hello?"
"A-Astrid?" The voice cracked like a broken music note.
Her toes curled in as she inched toward the window. Obviously it was a guy from her school. Maybe he was a theater kid - opting for the "romantic" approach of throwing a stone at a window. Most of the jocks wouldn't be that stupid, because they knew if they threw a rock, they'd have a broken window rather than a girlfriend. It could be a shy nerd who watched some movies to figure out how to ask a girl out. The voice didn't match anyone she knew, but it did seem slightly familiar.
Astrid squinted through the darkness outdoors to the figure standing just outside her window. She would need more light to see him any better. Sprinting to her closet, she snatched her camping flashlight from a hook on the door. Thank God for an organized room. Even as she rushed back to the window, her fingers had found the switch. Astrid swung the beam of light across her forested backyard. After a few moments, the light found a face.
"Gah! My eyes!" The boy's arms flailed wildly before hovering in front of his eyes. "Nice to see you too, Astrid."
She didn't know him. This lanky guy in an "Imagine Dragons" t-shirt and jeans was completely strange to her. So how did he know her name.
Summoning up her famous steely voice, she questioned, "Do I know you?"
The boy lowered his arms, presumably to give her a better view of his face. His eyes were squinted tightly shut from the light. If Astrid squinted, she could see his feathery brown hair brushing his freckled nose. It could be dirt, or pimples, though. No - freckles. That detail surprised her. She didn't know this guy but she knew he had freckles?
"I'm going to ask again. Do I know you?"
He mumbled something. As low as it was, she could tell his voice had spiked again.
"Can't hear you," she growled, blue eyes flipping to the stars before settling back on him.
His voice quirked up at the end, making his sentence seem like requests to continue existing. "Hamish?"
Hamish. Good God, Hamish.
The flashlight slipped from her suddenly sweaty palm. She snatched it before it could fall to the grass below. "Hamish!"
"No! I mean-" she struggled for words, for comprehension. The last time Astrid had seen Hamish Haddock, he had been shoving her towards the exit of the building, screaming like a maniac for her to run. The fire behind him had roared. She had been fourteen, and too stupid to wonder why he wasn't following her - why his face was masked with pain, why his leg didn't look like a leg anymore. "You- you're supposed to be dead!"
There was a silence marked only by the screeches of crickets. Before she could stop herself, her fingers angled the flashlight at his left leg. The jeans covered most of it up. Astrid's mouth caught in her throat as the light hit the small metal peg jutting out of his jeans.
Her eyes adjusted to the dark now, she looked up into Hamish's face. His eyes were incomprable. She felt her jaw lower.
"I'm dead?" She knew it was stupid, but she had to ask.
Hamish's lips quirked up in a crooked fashion. "No, according to you, I'm dead."
Astrid remembered his biting humor now. It came to her like a heat wave - before the bullying at school started, he was funny. She had been a serious little priss in middle school, but even she had to slap her hands over her mouth when he cracked a joke in study hall. Even now, her mouth was twitching up to match his. She tried to scowl.
"Would you like to go on a date with a dead guy?"
Her spine stiffened. Hamish's eyes were wide now, no doubt realizing how far from suave he had been.
"I- what?" She choked on her own words.
"Well, you think I'm dead, right?" he sputtered out, trying to recover. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go on a date with a dead guy."
Later Astrid would wonder why she reacted the way she did. She could - should - have fumbled for the yellow pages to find Mayor Haddock's number, to spew out the news that his son had never died in that fire. She could have screamed bloody murder, or rubbed her eyes, or backed away, or called the police, or run and hide. She could have even used that rock as a weapon.
Maybe, though, she missed the bliss of being with someone who didn't know her enough to judge her. Maybe she owed something to that boy in the factory who had saved her life. Maybe she wanted the feeling of forgetting the pressures and expectations and normalcy that lacrosse had failed to give her.
Who knows? All Astrid knew for certain was the word tumbling out of her mouth, the one she'd never regret.