SPECIAL [SPEH-SHUL]: distinguished by some unusual quality; being in some way superior.
Here’s what it really means: It means you’re the kid that nobody wanted to play jump rope with at recess because if you fell and scraped your knee, you’d have to miss three days of school. It means you’re the girl nobody wanted in the sixth-grade fashion show because your arms and legs were always covered with bruises. It means you’re that kid that the teachers gave a lecture about at the start of every school year, a boring and annoying lecture saying that you had to be treated like some kind of fragile glass figurine.
It means you’re the freak.
But nobody is allowed to say so. Nobody is allowed to make fun of you, or bully you, or write nasty notes about you. Because you’re special.
So instead they treat you like a pet or a mascot or something. You get invited to all the birthday parties. You get elected president of all the clubs. You always have a seat in the cafeteria. People like to be seen with you—it makes them feel all saintly and generous. Plus it gets them noticed by teachers and parents and potential make-out buddies. They must be good people if they’re nice to the Sick Girl, right?
“Shay! What is up, girlfriend?”
Shay McGuire slammed her journal closed. Case in point, she thought as she turned to Olivia. Olivia Willett was Shay’s best friend. In Shay’s head, the phrase always had quote marks around it. “Best friend.” The one you hung out with the most. The one who shared all your secrets and your dreams. The one who was there for you no matter what.
Shay gave a mental eye roll. Olivia didn’t really care about her. Olivia hadn’t listened to a word Shay had said since seventh grade. Sure, she thought she knew everything about Shay—and she did know all about the rare blood disorder Shay had been born with, the disease with a diagnosis that changed every time Shay saw a new specialist. As far as Olivia was concerned, that was what Shay was. Sick. Not creative or strong-willed or addicted to bad reality television. Just sick. As if the disease had robbed Shay of the kind of interior life that everybody else had. That Olivia had.
“I think the phrase what is up, girlfriend was officially retired fifteen years ago,” Shay told her, leaning back in the cafeteria chair. Around her, the place was emptying. The second bell would ring in two minutes, signaling the start of next period.
“I know.” Olivia shrugged, her perfect strawberry blond hair sliding along her perfect almost-too-skinny shoulder. “I’m being retro.”
Shay inched her arm over the journal, hoping Olivia wouldn’t think to ask what she’d been writing.
“You’re coming with me. I booked the big study room in the library for you and me and Kaz,” Olivia informed her.
Shay almost laughed at her own worry. As if Olivia would ask about the journal. As if it would even occur to her that Shay might have secrets of her own. “Sounds like a party,” she said dryly.
“Bonetto said we could skip class and spend the time helping you prep for the test on Friday,” Olivia explained. “Since you missed so many days this month.”
Translation: I want to spend the next hour with my boyfriend’s tongue down my throat, so I conned Mr. Bonetto into letting me and Kaz out of class under the pretense that we’re helping poor little you. Oh, and am I not the best person?
“Cool,” Shay answered. It’s not like she particularly wanted to listen to Mr. Bonetto ramble for an hour anyway. Bio was a joke, even AP Bio. She’d learned more about biology by the time she was ten than Bonetto knew even now. That’s what growing up in hospitals did for you.
Shay pushed a loose strand of her long dark hair out of her eyes, took a deep breath, and slowly stood up. She picked up her stack of books, wincing at the weight.
“You okay?” Olivia asked automatically.
“Yeah.” She wasn’t okay. She was as weak as an infant. But she didn’t want help. As soon as it got to the point when she needed help, it was only another few hours before the total collapse. Before the extended bed rest. Before the next transfusion. And it was only Wednesday. Usually she could make it through a week at school at least. When she was younger, it had been even longer, sometimes three weeks at a stretch.
But now …
I’m getting worse, a voice inside her whispered. She knew it was true. Nobody ever said it out loud. Her mother and her stepfather still acted as if the cure was only a few days from being found. But there was no cure. And she was getting worse.
Olivia led the way down the hall toward the library, running one perfectly manicured fingernail across the long mural showing the dark waters of the river that their town, Black River, Massachusetts, was named for. “Did you hear about Jacey?” Olivia asked.
Shay shook her head, sending a snowstorm of cold dizziness through her body.
“You won’t believe this. She let Brian use Saran Wrap for protection. And the girl is in the honor society. How stupid is that?” Olivia snorted.
“Pretty stupid,” Shay said. She had to concentrate to get the words out. Her brain felt like it had started to ice over.
“I know. So of course it came off. And now she’s in the bathroom between every class peeing on a stick,” Olivia yammered on. Her voice sounded far away, distorted by the rushing sound in Shay’s head. She stared down at the tile of the hallway, willing herself to put one foot forward. Then the other. No point in thinking about how far it was to the library.
“There’s my woman.” Kaz’s voice startled her. Shay jerked her head up, and the hall swam around her. Kaz and Olivia were kissing. It was a good excuse to stop walking.
By the time she caught her breath, they were done. Kaz was grinning at her. “Shay Stadium!” he crowed, holding up his hand for a high five.
“Moron, that nickname doesn’t even make any sense,” Olivia grumbled.
“I don’t mind.” Shay summoned all her strength and high-fived him. Her other arm buckled from bearing the entire weight of her books.
Kaz grabbed her Bio text before she dropped it, his dark eyes immediately serious. “You all right?”
“She needs to sit down,” Olivia said. “Let’s just get to the library.”
Without a word, Kaz took the other books from Shay. Olivia looped her arm through Shay’s and they kept walking. She couldn’t manage to keep up a conversation, but they didn’t seem to care. They were busy talking about Kaz’s birthday party that weekend. He was the first one of Shay’s friends to turn eighteen. She wanted to be there.
She would be there, she decided. The blood transfusion would wait. She didn’t need bed rest; she needed a party … and a beer … and a boy who wasn’t too afraid of her to kiss her. Maybe she could ask Kaz to invite some guys who didn’t go to Black River High.
I have to be strong. Shay shook off Olivia’s arm and stood on her own, letting the rush of students push past her in the hallway. She willed the dizziness to subside. Her stepfather, Martin, was always telling her that a positive attitude was the best medicine. And he should know, he had about six different medical degrees.
“Shay, what are you doing?” Olivia sounded annoyed.
“Sorry … I thought I heard my cell,”...