Check out My Last Kiss, the debut YA novel from Bethany Neal, available June 10th from Farrar, Straus & Giroux!
Cassidy Haines remembers her first kiss vividly. It was on the old covered bridge the summer before her freshman year with her boyfriend of three years, Ethan Keys. But her last kiss—the one she shared with someone at her seventeenth birthday party the night she died—is a blur.
Now, Cassidy is trapped in the living world, not only mourning the loss of her human body, but left with the grim suspicion that her untimely death wasn’t a suicide as everyone assumes. She can’t remember anything from the weeks leading up to her birthday and she’s worried that she may have betrayed her boyfriend. If Cassidy is to uncover the truth about that fateful night and make amends with the only boy she’ll ever love, she must face her past and all the decisions she made—good and bad—that led to her last kiss.
It’s snowing or maybe it’s raining… no, it’s snowing. I can feel the wet flakes gathering in the corners of my eyes, melting down my cheeks like tears. The warmth from the sun I felt on my face only an instant before is gone. When I blink, the only things I see are blotchy white bits of trees and clouds and lights. Where are those lights coming from? I stumble onto my feet and my legs feel Jell-O-y, like I’ve been swimming for a really long time and now the ground feels too rigid.
I take one step and suddenly my whole body stings. I fall to my knees and clutch my middle. The worst pain I’ve ever felt invades my limbs, like when your foot falls asleep except it’s my entire body and it’s epically stronger. I’m screaming and gripping my sides, writhing in the fluffy white snow. And then the pain stops; as fast as it came, it stops. Filled with relief, I do a quick once-over of my body. I even pinch my arm to check if I’m dreaming. How dumb is that?
I manage to open my eyes enough to see a silhouette standing above the waterline among the trees in Dover Park. He—at least I think it’s a he—is staring at me, but not at me, me. He’s staring at the bloody, twisted mess of me on the rocks along the riverbank.
Why are there two of me?! And how did I get in the river?
I run toward my Other, mangled body. I must be having a nightmare—but it’s like there’s a force field around me. I sort of melt into the air, then get flung back. I land on my butt in a massive snowbank at the water’s edge, waiting to feel the cold from sitting in waist-deep snow.
A jagged chunk of ice floats by, sparkling in the early-morning moonlight.
I still haven’t felt the cold.
The silhouette is talking now. I hear him, but the words are muffled as if he’s talking underwater. I press my hands to the sides of my face and squeeze my eyes shut, concentrating. His voice comes clearer… He’s telling me he didn’t mean to.
Mean to what?
Now he’s telling me this isn’t how it was supposed to go. This is her fault.
Is “her” me?
I open my eyes to check if he’s talking to me, me. He’s not. I look at my Other body, broken and folded in ways a body should never bend over a mound of gray rocks. In one of my Other hands I’m holding something, maybe a piece of paper, but I can’t see it clearly. Snow piles high again around my eyes and my cheeks and now on my shoulders. It comes down, harder and harder, until I feel buried in it. I can’t even see it and I’m buried in it so deep that I can’t breathe.
Slowly a thought creeps in, settles in the front of my mind. It tugs at something I feel like I know but can’t quite remember. I open my mouth to speak it, but I don’t see my breath the way I should in early March. I glance up at the silhouette. He’s crying or maybe he’s yelling; either way, I can see his breath.
I’m not breathing. I don’t need to. The words float past my lips like a rehearsed chorus: “I’m dead.”
For four hours I’ve been trying to remember how I died. It’s not going very well. No matter how hard I think, I can’t bring a single memory of last night to mind. It doesn’t help that I’m standing next to the biggest distraction in the world: my body—my Other body. God, that’s weird to say. I want to scream or cry, but nothing feels real to me. I keep thinking if I can just get back inside my own flesh, all this will be over. I’ll wake up from this creeptastic dream and everything will go back to normal.
But I can’t.
The force-field thing is getting stronger. I don’t even melt into it anymore. I just smack against it. It’s like my own body is rejecting me. It makes me feel horribly unwelcome in this sterile dark room, but where else am I supposed to go?
Finally, a woman enters the room. She’s wearing a surgical mask and a long green medical coat over her matching scrubs.
“Excuse me, Doctor, can you help me? I—” She switches on a light above Other Me, and my words catch in my throat. Harsh fluorescents flicker, illuminating a room I’ve only seen in episodes of Buffy until now: the morgue. I stagger back away from the metal table I’ve been standing next to since 1 a.m. My eyes jump from trays full of glistening tools to industrial-looking scales and sinks to the tile floor with a wide drain in the center. I pull my arms in tight to my sides, terrified to accidentally touch anything in this place.
The woman starts examining all kinds of embarrassing, totally exposed body parts. I want to reach out and stop her, hit her hand away and scream that she has no right to touch me, but I’m paralyzed where I stand. She jots down a few notes, then pokes and prods at my right ankle, then pinches my knee.
“Careful, I—” I start to tell her about the tender bruise above my knee that I got during ballet practice last week, but by the time the words are out they don’t seem important anymore. Nothing does except getting my body back.
Another woman walks in. She has a clipboard. “What do we have today?” she asks.
I glare at her. It’s bad enough one person is violating my naked body. Plus, she asked her question like I’m the breakfast special on some morbid menu.
Coat Woman answers, “Miss Cassidy Haines joins us in her seventeenth year.”
“Only seventeen?” The woman tsks and sets her clipboard on a small table near one of the sinks.
“And for only three days. According to the report, she had a birthday on Thursday,” Coat Woman says.
It’s infuriating the way she says my name and talks about me. Especially since I can only see her dark-as-molasses brown eyes and wide, arching black eyebrows above her surgical mask while she sees all of me.
She continues. “Seems the darling couldn’t keep her head above water this early morning to bear another year.”
So that’s how I died; I drowned. The stillness in my chest is an eerie reminder that I have no memory of my lungs seizing and burning for oxygen.
“Do you know anything else?” I ask her, but it’s more out of blind habit than to get an answer since neither of them has acknowledged my presence. Still, without thinking, I step forward, anxious to hear even the smallest detail about what happened to me.
Coat Woman doesn’t answer. Instead she asks the other woman for a tool that looks disturbingly similar to the X-Acto knives Mr. Boyd lets us use in Art class and starts slicing into my body on the table.
I jump back and cry out, “No!” I instinctively clutch the spot above my breastbone where her blade cuts, anticipating pain and blood will burst across my chest, but not one drop of red beads up on me. Or on Other Me.
“Stop!” I shout at her. “This isn’t right—I’m not supposed to be here for this.” I wave my hands in front of her face and let out a scream that should shatter the lightbulbs.
She asks for a sharper blade.
Suddenly it dawns on me: No one can hear me. Or see me. I guess I expected they couldn’t—disembodied at the morgue and all—but there’s something about the casual, almost cheerful way Coat Woman asked for that knife that hits me hard with awareness of how unreal I truly am.
My floaty limbs feel heavy. The abrupt sense of loneliness is like nothing I’ve felt before. It runs through me like blood used to in my veins. I look down at my body, desperately hoping for some small spark of recognition, some link to click back into place connecting us.
As Coat Woman’s incision travels down to my navel and the phantom pain ebbs away, a slow realization spreads through me. That body—my body—doesn’t belong to me anymore. We aren’t connected. I’m alone in this sterile horror show. My hands fall and dangle loose at my sides.
When Coat Woman lifts her knife to make a second incision, a drip of some kind of terrible fluid splatters onto her latex glove, and it’s all I can take. I run out of the room.
The quiet of the hallway settles in around me. It feels right, how it should be. The hallway is empty, but, strangely, I don’t feel alone anymore—far from it. I can sense everything and everyone all around me. It’s like the whole town is in me. Like I could do that I Dream of Jeannie head-bob thing and magically appear anywhere in Crescent Valley.
I’m desperate enough that I try the head bob. When I look up and I’m not at my oldest best friend Aimée’s house—the last place I remember being alive—I start to hyperventilate. My chest heaves and I feel like I’m gasping even though I’m still not breathing. I clamp my mouth shut mid-inhale; it doesn’t affect me one bit except maybe to lessen how spastic I look. But what does it matter anymore what I look like? I wasn’t hyperventilating; I can’t.
But how can I still exist if I’m… dead? Because that’s what you are when you stop breathing, right? When you leave your body behind?
A tidal wave of emotions rises in me and crashes down against my insides. I don’t want to be disconnected from my body, my life. I want to live it, but I’m pretty sure I no longer have a choice.
What did I do to deserve this? Why is this happening to me?
No answers come, no spirit guides mystically appear, like in movies and in books, to help me understand how to deal with the part of dying where you, well, don’t.
What am I supposed to do now?
My skin feels like ice as the pain from before comes back in sharp jabs. I bend down and brace my hands on my knees, closing my eyes, wishing for the pain to stop, for this to start over, but with instructions this time.
Maybe I’m supposed to stay with my body. Maybe I did something wrong. I need to get back to her—to me.
I run for the room where Other Me is and throw open the double doors. The two women don’t turn from the large stainless basin they’re scrubbing their hands in, side by side. Other Me is still on the metal table, but I look different. I look like someone gave me reverse Botox, then stitched me up for Dr. Frankenstein to experiment on.
How long was I in that hallway?
I gaze at my lifeless, marked body for a long time. The longer I look, the more I think I might throw up. I cover my mouth to hold back vomit that never comes. Even though I’m horrified by the sight of my corpse—that’s the only word for it now—I can’t resist the urge to try one more time to make contact.
My toes bump against the force field as soon as I’m within reach. I push against the dense air as hard as I can, but the resistance increases the closer I get to my body. My hand snaps back, and I frown. I want her back—I want my body back! But all I can do is helplessly look on. As I do, the invisible barrier slowly materializes into a shiny film that’s bubbled around the table. My mind is numb, trying to process so many unbelievable bits of my new reality.
I spread my fingers wide, refusing to give up, and focus on reshaping and pulling apart the film. It’s no use. There’s no edge for me to grip or even any texture to let me know if I’m making progress. I gaze longingly at my layered auburn hair, splayed out on the table, wishing I could move a swath of curls that’s coiled around my left ear. They took out my rosebud earrings. The sight of my empty piercings burrows a woeful hole inside me. I’ve never felt so sad about something so small.
I position my left hand so it’s next to my lifeless hand resting on the table. Neither of them looks like it belongs to me.
When the women are done washing, they come back to the table and cover Other Me with a sheet. Panic hits me when they switch off the light and leave the room, because I can’t see my body anymore. Nothing is anchoring me to this world, this life. I’m just suspended in darkness. I spin around, calling for them to come back. The doors swing in their wake, jutting into my shoulder twice until the swing loses momentum. I realize then that when I burst into the room, I didn’t throw open the doors at all. I went through them.
Snow gathers around my eyes again, and I decide it must be tears since it’s impossible for it to be snowing inside. Although it’s also impossible that I’d be standing in a morgue staring at two sets of my hot-pink nails. I close my eyes and try to remember how I got here, how I got to the river, how I stepped out of myself and broke every rule that was supposed to be unbreakable.
My icy skin turns molten as the heat of last night returns to me. I can see faces: Madison and Ethan and Aimée. Someone else. It’s Saturday night and we’re in Aimée’s ginormous backyard standing in front of a roaring bonfire. My trio of junior girls is drinking vodka and Sprite with Jolly Ranchers—jolly vodies as Aimée calls them—that are turning our clear drinks fruity colors: cherry red, apple green, grape purple. The colors are so vivid it’s like I’m there, in that moment, HD instant-replay memory-style. I can smell the smoke and feel Ethan’s gentle arms as they wrap around me from behind.
He’s next to me the entire night. Then he’s not. Then I’m alone. Then I’m not. This part plays out in segmented bits, as if someone scratched the DVD of my life.
When I open my eyes, the lights are on again and the woman with the clipboard is back with an unfamiliar man in a dark blue uniform and someone else that I instantly recognize.
Oh no, Dad is here too.
He’s crying. I’ve never seen my dad cry before. I thought he was going to when my little sister, Joules, was born, but he didn’t. I want to hug him so badly. A surge of need and fear consumes me. I run to him. I run right through him! The prick of a thousand needles attacking me from the inside out nearly drops me to the floor.
“Cassidy, baby,” Dad says. His voice breaks my heart—even if I no longer have one, I feel it crack and crumble inside my chest.
Now I know I’m crying. I leave the room again. I can’t stay and grieve my own death with my dad, not when part of me still lives.
I pass by an old man coming in the front door as I run out into the blizzard that is swirling up snow in little tornadoes around the parking lot. I look down, half expecting to see the flakes breezing through me, but they’re glancing off my skin. I lift my arm to capture a handful, and for a fleeting second, I can see a million tiny rainbows dancing in each individual flake in my palm, and the hollow hum of the wind is the only thing I hear.
Then the world comes rushing back to me in dull grays, and I’m running again.
Before I know where I’m running to, I see the riverbank. My feet stomp slushy puddles and freezing water splashes my legs as I cross the park. Wait, it hasn’t rained in days and the snow on the ground is dry and frozen.
Then how did my legs get wet?
I swipe at the spray and come up with wet palms covered in leafy debris and bits of ice. It’s river water dripping from my fingers, as if they are fleshy faucets. As wetness seeps into me, spreading an eerie chill across my skin, I see Aimée’s tall white house through the trees on the other side of the covered bridge. The whitewashed planks that make up the bridge’s walls are fissured and shadowed. The threat of the wind rustling the gaunt branches seems to be enough to blow the bridge right over. It’s a vague remnant of the sanctuary it used to be for me. I stare across the partially frozen water, trying to remember what the bridge once was, but my vision starts to blur. I blink, bringing it back into focus for a brief moment.
The bridge isn’t sunny and bright the way it was that day with Ethan. Did I dream that? No. It was real—Ethan and me reflected beside each other that day.
This bridge is where I had my first kiss and… I’m pretty sure it’s where I had my last.
My Last Kiss © Bethany Neal, 2014