The Stillness Before the Start Page 1


Dylan Archer wants something from me.

I don't know what it is, and I’m not exactly thrilled to find out.

I’ve been going to school with essentially the same makeup of classmates since second grade. Over time, we all broke off into groups and remain stuck that way. People congregate by neighborhood, sports team, and extracurricular activities.

Dylan and I fit into exactly zero of those groups together.

It’s by accident I notice his interest in me—well, not me exactly, but his interest in wanting something from me.

Out of all the accidental eye catches and elbow grazes throughout the day, something is odd about the way Dylan’s gaze lingers across the cafeteria.

At first, I think he’s glaring at James, my best friend and his sworn enemy since fourth grade, who sits beside me. It regularly baffles me how they still have the energy to sneer at each other after all this time, but given that I have no publicly declared enemies, I can’t relate.

After the third time of being distracted from my history book by feeling his eyes on me, I huff and slam my textbook down on the table.

“Did you do something to Dylan?” I ask James, interrupting a particularly boring—to me, not to his friends on the track team—conversation about different brands of running shoes.

He glances across the room at the same time Dylan turns back to his own tablemates. “Not that I recall,” James answers dismissively. “But yesterday’s practice was pretty brutal, and I did beat his mile time once, so who knows?”

“Hmm,” I breathe.

In the next week, things progress as normal, but I start to become fixated on what he could possibly want.

I see him eyeing me all the time.

Walking the halls.

Sitting in the cafeteria.

Meeting Brandon, his best friend, outside the yearbook office.

Entering our English classroom like he owns it.

He kind of does, actually—his family is one of the founders of the school. Plus, his father is on the board, which is about the thousandth reminder I need that we are not in the same social circles, and I try to push the thought of him out of my brain completely.

It’s difficult, though, because once I uncover a problem, I need to solve it.

Or I, at least, need to obsess over it until I find something else to direct my neuroticism toward.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a planner,” I remind James as we walk from Calculus to our Independent Study period in the library.

“You’re right,” James says. “But you’re so far above being a planner that it’s not even the right word to use at this point.”

“How did we get on this topic?” I ask him.

“You were in the middle of lecturing me about needing to copy your Spanish homework. It’s not my fault that I was so exhausted after practice yesterday that I fell asleep and forgot about it.”

“It’s totally your fault,” I push back. “I mean, how difficult is it to look at your online calendar of classwork or, god forbid, keep track of it yourself?” I hold up my planner, which I consider to be my guidebook of existence, and trail off.

When he levels with me, I do concede his point.

“Fine, you can have it,” I tell him. “But don’t you need to make up that Psych test now?”

He curses under his breath as we enter the library. “Forgot,” he mumbles.

Of course he did.

“You can have my Spanish during lunch,” I say, and he brightens.

“You’re the best, Harper Reed. You know that?”

I do know this, but I don’t admit it out loud.

James heads to the counter to retrieve his makeup exam from the librarian, who is going to proctor it for him.

I mouth good luck before I sit down at our usual table in the back corner. As I get settled in, I notice how his face falls when he glances at the first page.

He’d definitely prefer to sit by my side distracting me or laughing at funny videos on his phone, but he has to do this exam because his mom pulled him out of school for some blood work and vitamin testing now that the track team has made it past the first few weeks of conditioning.

He’s regularly embarrassed by the helicopter nature of his parents, but if I were in his shoes, I’d use it to my advantage. A few extra precious days to study? I’d be all over that. But no matter how many times I reminded him to do so, he didn’t take advantage of it.

The other students continue their quiet chatter as the bell rings. I pick up murmurs of their worries about their social lives, but I tune it out to enjoy the quiet solitude of existentialism.

Just me, the endless churning of thoughts in my mind, and my planner.

I trace the soft leather cover and do my somewhat morbid but very practical mental exercise of thinking about the day I die. Every few months or so, I’ll sit alone and visualize it...James and me sitting on a porch, counting the stars, each of us with a cup of tea in our hands before we fall asleep listening to the quiet summer breeze. And we never wake up.

From there, my mind works backward.

There are many steps and years needed to get to that point. Retirement, children graduating from college, long days, sleepless nights, career goals, the birth of children, a home purchase, a wedding, college, high school graduation—all leading back to me sitting in the library at this very moment.

Of course, I have plans on top of plans and contingencies for as many different scenarios as I can conjure up.

Some girls get their confidence from their looks or strength. I find it in my ability to problem-solve and micromanage my own life—I’m exhilarated by the pressure.

My sister, Audrey, gets me a planner every year for Christmas.

I don’t remember exactly when she started the tradition, but this is by far the nicest one she has picked yet. It’s the perfect balance between an actual calendar, a notebook, and a task list.

On the first day of school, I uncapped my brand new extra fine rollerball pen—the only kind that makes my handwriting look somewhat legible—and marked each day accordingly. Each swerve of the black ink spurred my imagination further, picturing everything I planned to experience this year.

“You only get one senior year, Harper,” Audrey told me before she went back to college last August. “Try to take a break from the books and grades and live a little bit.”

I bit back a retort that it would require a lobotomy for me to do that.

“I’ll try,” I told her, the best promise I could make in the moment.

She went back to painting my nails a bright orange color that I would remove the minute she sped away in her red Mazda. She switched subjects and had me snort-laughing within seconds as she told me the story of how she puked up jungle juice on the shoes of a frat boy president on St. Patrick’s Day and got banned from their parties for life.

Audrey and I have such different personalities that if our physical features weren’t so similar, I’d insist we weren’t related.

When we were kids, I emulated her. I stole her make-up and clothes and followed her around whenever she’d let me. Eventually, the differences in our personalities became incredibly apparent. She morphed into the outgoing party girl who gave my parents regular coronaries, while I fell asleep most nights with my head in a book.

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