“I don’t understand,” she says, her voice shrill and confused. “Why would you do that?”

“I’m OK,” I say, answering the question she doesn’t ask. “It was only a minute. Less than a minute.”

She relinquishes my arm and lifts my chin.

“Why would you risk your life for a total stranger?”

I’m not a skillful enough liar to hide my feelings from her. Olly’s in my skin.

She sees the truth. “He’s not a stranger, is he?”

“We’re just friends. Online friends,” I say. I pause. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I just wanted to make sure he was OK.”

I rub my hands down my forearms. My heart beats so fast it hurts. The enormity of what I’ve done overwhelms me and I’m trembling.

My sudden shaking derails my mom’s questioning and sends her into doctor mode. “Did you touch anything?” she asks, over and over again.

I tell her no, over and over again.

“I had to trash your clothes,” she says, after I’ve taken the shower that she insisted I take. She doesn’t look at me as she says it. “And we’re going to have to be extra careful for the next few days to make sure nothing’s—”

She breaks off, unable to say the words.

“It was less than a minute,” I say, for both our benefit.

“Sometimes a minute is all it takes.” Her voice is almost not there at all.

“Mom, I’m sorry—”

She holds up a hand and shakes her head. “How could you?” she asks, finally meeting my eyes.

I’m not sure if she’s asking about my going Outside or lying to her. I don’t have an answer for either question.

As soon as she leaves, I go to the window in search of Olly, but I don’t find him. He’s probably on the roof. I get into bed.

Was I really just Outside? What did the air smell like? Was there wind? Did my feet even touch the ground? I touch the skin on my arms, my face. Is it different? Am I?

My entire life I’ve dreamed about being in the world. And now that I have, I don’t remember any of it. Just the sight of Olly doubled over in pain. Just his voice telling me to go back.

The Third Maddy

I’m almost asleep that night when my door opens. My mom hovers in the doorway and I keep my eyes closed, pretending to be asleep. Still, she comes in and sits on the bed next to me.

For a long time she doesn’t move. Then she leans over and I’m sure she’s going to kiss my forehead like she used to when I was a little girl, but I roll away from her, still feigning sleep.

I don’t know why I do it. Who is this new Maddy that is cruel for no reason? She gets up, and I wait to hear the door close before opening my eyes.

A single black rubber band sits on my nightstand.

She knows.

Life is a Gift

The next morning I wake to yelling. At first I think it’s Olly’s family again, but the sound is too close. It’s my mom. I’ve never heard her voice raised before.

“How could you do this? How could you let a stranger in here?”

I can’t hear Carla’s response. I open the bedroom door quietly and tiptoe out onto the landing. Carla’s standing at the foot of the stairs. My mom is smaller than her in every way, but you wouldn’t know it from the way Carla’s shrinking away from her.

I can’t let Carla get blamed for this. I fly down the stairs.

“Did something happen? Is she sick?” Carla catches my arm, pats my face, her eyes scanning my body for signs of trouble.

“She went outside. Because of him. Because of you.” She turns to face me. “She put her life at risk and she’s been lying to me for weeks.”

She turns back to Carla. “You’re fired.”

“No, please, Mom. It wasn’t her fault.”

She cuts me off with a hand. “Not only her fault, you mean. It was your fault, too.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, but it has no effect on her.

“So am I. Carla, pack your things and go.”

I’m desperate now. I can’t imagine my life without Carla in it. “Please, Mom, please. It won’t happen again.”

“Of course it won’t.” She says it with absolute certainty.

Carla starts up the stairs without a word.

Mom and I spend the next half hour watching Carla pack. She has reading glasses and pens and clipboards in almost every room.

I don’t bother to wipe away my tears because they just keep coming. Mom holds herself more rigid than I’ve ever seen her. When we finally get to my room I give Carla my copy of Flowers for Algernon. She looks at me and smiles.

“Isn’t this book going to make me cry?” she asks.

“Probably.”

She pulls the book close to her bosom and holds it there and doesn’t take her eyes off me.

“You be brave now, Madeline.” I run into her arms. She drops her medical bag and the book and holds me tight.

“I’m so sorry,” I whisper.

She squeezes me even tighter. “It’s not your fault. Life is a gift. Don’t forget to live it.” Her voice is fierce.

“That’s enough now,” my mom snaps from the doorway. Her patience has run out. “I know this is very sad for you both. Believe it or not, it’s sad for me as well. But it’s time for you to go. Now.”

Carla lets me go. “Be brave. Remember, life is a gift.” She picks up her medical case.

***

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