I wish I had a boyfriend. I wish he lived in the wardrobe on a coat hanger. Whenever I wanted, I could get him out and he’d look at me the way boys do in films, as if I’m beautiful. He wouldn’t speak much, but he’d be breathing hard as he took off his leather jacket and unbuckled his jeans. He’d wear white pants and he’d be so gorgeous I’d almost faint. He’d take my clothes off too. He’d whisper, ‘Tessa, I love you. I really bloody love you. You’re beautiful’ – exactly those words – as he undressed me.
I sit up and switch on the bedside light. There’s a pen, but no paper, so on the wall behind me I write, I want to feel the weight of a boy on top of me. Then I lie back down and look out at the sky. It’s gone a funny colour – red and charcoal all at once, like the day is bleeding out.
I can smell sausages. Saturday night is always sausages. There’ll be mash and cabbage and onion gravy too. Dad’ll have the lottery ticket and Cal will have chosen the numbers and they’ll sit in front of the TV and eat dinner from trays on their laps. They’ll watch The X Factor, then they’ll watch Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? After that, Cal will have a bath and go to bed and Dad’ll drink beer and smoke until it’s late enough for him to sleep.
He came up to see me earlier. He walked over to the window and opened the curtains. ‘Look at that!’ he said as light flooded the room. There was the afternoon, the tops of the trees, the sky. He stood silhouetted against the window, his hands on his hips. He looked like a Power Ranger.
‘If you won’t talk about it, how can I help you?’ he said, and he came over and sat on the edge of my bed. I held my breath. If you do it for long enough, white lights dance in front of your eyes. He reached over and stroked my head, his fingers gently massaging my scalp.
‘Breathe, Tessa,’ he whispered.
Instead, I grabbed my hat from the bedside table and yanked it on right over my eyes. He went away then.
Now he’s downstairs frying sausages. I can hear the fat spitting, the slosh of gravy in the pan. I’m not sure I should be able to hear that from all the way upstairs, but nothing surprises me any more. I can hear Cal unzipping his coat now, back from buying mustard. Ten minutes ago he was given a pound and told, ‘Don’t talk to anyone weird.’ While he was gone, Dad stood on the back step and smoked a fag. I could hear the whisper of leaves hitting the grass at his feet. Autumn invading.
‘Hang your coat up and go and see if Tess wants anything,’ Dad says. ‘There’s plenty of blackberries. Make them sound interesting.’
Cal has his trainers on; the air in the soles sighs as he leaps up the stairs and through my bedroom door. I pretend to be asleep, which doesn’t stop him. He leans right over and whispers, ‘I don’t care even if you never speak to me again.’ I open one eye and find two blue ones. ‘Knew you were faking,’ he says, and he grins wide and lovely. ‘Dad says, do you want blackberries?’
‘What shall I tell him?’
‘Tell him I want a baby elephant.’
He laughs. ‘I’m gonna miss you,’ he says, and he leaves me with an open door and the draught from the stairs.
Zoey doesn’t even knock, just comes in and plonks herself down on the end of the bed. She looks at me strangely, as if she hadn’t expected to find me here.
‘What’re you doing?’ she says.
‘Don’t you go downstairs any more?’
‘Did my dad phone you up?’
‘Are you in pain?’
She gives me a suspicious look, then stands up and takes off her coat. She’s wearing a very short red dress. It matches the handbag she’s dumped on my floor.
‘Are you going out?’ I ask her. ‘Have you got a date?’
She shrugs, goes over to the window and looks down at the garden. She circles a finger on the glass, then she says, ‘Maybe you should try and believe in God.’
‘Yeah, maybe we all should. The whole human race.’
‘I don’t think so. I think he might be dead.’
She turns round to look at me. Her face is pale, like winter. Behind her shoulder, an aeroplane winks its way across the sky.
She says, ‘What’s that you’ve written on the wall?’
I don’t know why I let her read it. I guess I want something to happen. It’s in black ink. With Zoey looking, all the words writhe like spiders. She reads it over and over. I hate it how sorry she can be for me.
She speaks very softly. ‘It’s not exactly Disneyland, is it?’
‘Did I say it was?’
‘I thought that was the idea.’
‘I think your dad’s expecting you to ask for a pony, not a boyfriend.’
It’s amazing, the sound of us laughing. Even though it hurts, I love it. Laughing with Zoey is absolutely one of my favourite things, because I know we’ve both got the same stupid pictures in our heads. She only has to say, ‘Maybe a stud farm might be the answer,’ and we’re both in hysterics.
Zoey says, ‘Are you crying?’
I’m not sure. I think I am. I sound like those women on the telly when their entire family gets wiped out. I sound like an animal gnawing its own foot off. Everything just floods in all at once – like how my fingers are just bones and my skin is practically see-through. Inside my left lung I can feel cells multiplying, stacking up, like ash slowly filling a vase. Soon I won’t be able to breathe.
‘It’s OK if you’re afraid,’ Zoey says.
‘Of course it is. Whatever you feel is fine.’
‘Imagine it, Zoey – being terrified all the time.’
But she can’t. How can she possibly, when she has her whole life left? I hide under my hat again, just for a bit, because I’m going to miss breathing. And talking. And windows. I’m going to miss cake. And fish. I like fish. I like their little mouths going, open, shut, open.
And where I’m going, you can’t take anything with you.
Zoey watches me wipe my eyes with the corner of the duvet.
‘Do it with me,’ I say.
She looks startled. ‘Do what?’
‘It’s on bits of paper everywhere. I’ll write it out properly and you can make me do it.’
‘Make you do what? The thing you wrote on the wall?’
‘Other stuff too, but the boy thing first. You’ve had sex loads of times, Zoey, and I’ve never even been kissed.’
I watch my words fall into her. They land somewhere very deep.
‘Not loads of times,’ she says eventually.
‘Please, Zoey. Even if I beg you not to, even if I’m horrible to you, you must make me do it. I’ve got a whole long list of things I want to do.’
When she says, ‘OK,’ she makes it sound easy, as if I only asked her to visit me more often.
‘You mean it?’
‘I said so, didn’t I?’
I wonder if she knows what she’s letting herself in for.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Before I Die by Jenny Downham. Copyright © 2007 by Jenny Downham. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.