The Upside of Falling Down
My composure cracks when I’m safely tucked in a stall in the bathroom. Everything shifts, my real need coming into focus, like a caged bird that knows it doesn’t want to live behind bars anymore.
I need to get out of here.
How can I see my dad and not love him? What is wrong with me? Everything I thought would happen hasn’t.
I press my sweaty head against the cool stall door. I wish I could be who Stephen wants me to be, a fearless girl willing to fight through this. More importantly, I wish I could be who my dad wants me to be. Clementine Haas. But I can’t. To go home with him like this would mean that every day he’ll wake up and want Clementine there, and instead, every day it will be me—whoever I am. We’ll both live in a constant state of disappointment.
I can save him from that.
I come out of the stall, focusing on myself in the mirror.
“Jane,” I say to my reflection. “I’m Jane.”
Stephen surely won’t help me get out of here. He wants to keep me safe in the hospital, which is still surrounded by camera crews and reporters. But there’s another way.
The hallway is clear of my dad and Stephen when I poke my head out from the bathroom. My heart races as I walk swiftly away from my room and toward the staircase at the other end of the hall. Once the door closes behind me, and I’m safely tucked out of sight in the stairwell, a moment of relief comes, but it’s brief.
The railing keeps me steady as I make my way down the steps and onto the first floor. My legs are weak, slow, but it’s not an option to stop at this point. Stop and I get caught. Move and I might find freedom.
In the courtyard, Kieran sits at the table where I left him, his feet up on the bench, a book in his hands. I check out the cover. It’s clearly a romance novel.
“You like romance novels, too,” I say. “We have something in common. Though I wouldn’t peg you as a romantic.”
“I’m full of surprises.” He squints in the sunlight. “I’ve never understood why guys go for fast cars and guns when these books have fast women and sex.”
“Honesty again. That’s a good thing.”
Kieran dog-ears the page he’s on and closes the book, setting it down on the table. “You ran away from the dare.”
“I didn’t run away.” I take back my seat. “I had to do something.”
“What was that?”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m ready now.”
“Are you sure, Jane?”
Kieran is just full of good questions, but debating the answer with myself would take too much time.
“Jane Middleton,” I say, holding out my hand. “That’s my last name.”
“Very royal sounding.” He places his warm hand in mine and says, “Kieran O’Connell. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Very Irish sounding, Kieran O’Connell.”
“Half-Irish, on my mother’s side.”
“And your dad?” I ask.
“Technically, he’s British, but he’s more asshole than anything.”
“Honesty again.” I reach for the last container of Jell-O on his tray. “I’m ready for my dare. Spoon, please.”
Kieran holds one up but doesn’t hand it over. “Are you sure you want to do this, Jane? It’s pig and cow parts.”
This is so much more than Jell-O. This is my life he’s holding in front of me.
“Where’s Waterville?” I ask, pointing to his hat.
“South of here a few hours.”
“Is it by Cork?” I ask, remembering the map and trying to sound like I know a thing or two.
“Not exactly. A bit more west.”
“Is that where you live?”
“For the summer months.”
I point to his T-shirt. “Then you go back to Trinity College?”
“And where is that?”
“It’s in Dublin.” Kieran looks at me oddly. “Have you not heard of Trinity College?”
“Of course, I have. I just forgot for a second. It’s in Dublin. Right.”
“What about you?” he asks. “Are you on break from college as well?”
The question throws me. I have no idea if Clementine is in college. But I’m also not sure it matters. The part of me that keeps searching for Clementine needs a break. Jane can be whoever she wants. “Yeah, sure,” I say.
“What are you studying?”
“Undecided,” I say quickly. “You?”
Kieran rolls his eyes. “Business.”
“You don’t sound happy about that.”
“Not everything in life can be happy, Jane.”
The spoon rests in Kieran’s hand. No, sometimes life beats you down. Sometimes life deserts you, and your only choice is to find another path. “Are you going to give me that spoon or what?”
“You know, you don’t have to do this,” he says. His blue eyes hold mine. He knows this is more than just Jell-O, too. That’s what a dare does. It taunts you to take a different direction, to do something you never thought you could do, to jump, knowing that a million consequences could be on the other side of that dare, but that if you don’t do it, you’ll always wonder. And sometimes wondering is worse than consequences.
“I’m doing it,” I say. And I shovel a spoonful of pig and cow parts into my mouth.
Kieran sits back, a broad grin growing on his face. When I’ve eaten the container clean, he claps.
“I wasn’t sure you had it in you.”
I have to choke down the last bits of Jell-O, then I put my empty container on the tray with his, only partly satisfied.
“Why are you here?” I ask. “It can’t possibly be for pig and cow parts.”
“I come up to volunteer. Help out my fellow man and all. The food is just an added bonus.”
“That’s nice of you.”
“People need help,” Kieran says coolly. “It’s the least I can do.”
“People do need help,” I agree. “And now it’s my turn.”
“Truth or dare?” I say.
A glimmer comes to Kieran’s eyes. “That’s my line of questioning.”
“It’s not fair that I answer the question and you don’t.”
“Life isn’t fair, Jane. It’s all Jell-O, remember.”
I lean across the table. “Are you chicken or something?”
My confidence is surprising. Kieran seems to bring out something natural in me, or maybe he brings out more faith that the girl I was is still with me, just waiting to come out. Our eyes are fixed on each other’s. Kieran crosses his arms over his chest.
The clucking starts first. Then I start to flap my arms like chicken wings. Kieran glances around at all the other tables, and then he starts to laugh.
“OK. OK.” He holds up his hands in surrender.
But as soon as the clucking stops, someone drops an entire tray of dishes onto the concrete sidewalk. They break with a loud crash. I startle, freezing in my seat. It chokes the breath right out of me. A head rush comes on so suddenly that I’m worried I’ll faint right in front of him. Blood sinks to my feet. My hands go clammy. I start to sweat.
“Are you OK, Jane?”
Kieran talks, but I can’t see him. My head rests in my hands. Sound reverberates through me, and an intense pain creeps up behind my eyes. For a second, I swear I feel someone grab my hand. I expect to see fingers intertwined with mine, but they’re gone, and I’m left with a horrible empty feeling inside my chest.
“Are you OK?” Kieran asks again.
“I’m fine.” If I faint, this is over. With ragged breath and shaking hands that he can’t see under the table, I say, “Truth or dare, Kieran?”
“We don’t have to do this.”
“Truth or dare?” I say again more forcefully.
Kieran shakes his head. “It’s a Catch-22. Neither is easy. They both have consequences.”
“Do I have to start clucking again?”
He pauses for too long, and then he says, “Fine. Dare.”
The blood returns to my hands and head. The sweat dries on my forehead. This time, my voice doesn’t shake as I speak.
“I dare you to get me the hell out of here.”