Tick, tick, tick. That's all I can hear. A clock ticking, quietly at first, then louder and louder . . . Tick tick tick . . So loud it seems to echo inside my head.
Then I see where the sound is coming from -- a giant clock. A clock as big as a house. I stare at it, confused. I blink and swallow hard. I'm all out of breath, but I don't know why. What time is it? I stare at the clock, but I can't read it. What do the dots mean? What do those long and short arms mean? I can't remember. . . .
The clock disappears, and I'm in a long white hallway lined with unmarked doors. It's so cold I can see my breath. . . . I walk down the hallway slowly. My feet feel like lead. Come on, move! I tell my feet. Time's running out! I've got to get there soon! Where? I don't know. But I know I have to hurry.
A bald man in a white suit approaches me and sticks his face right up into mine. All I can see are his lips, which move slowly, as if stuck together with gum. His low voice growls, "I hope you're prepared for your speech."
His breath is metallic and cold. I step away from him. He looks me up and down and stifles a laugh. Why is he looking at me that way? What's so funny?
"Weirdo," I say, and he vanishes.
I keep walking down the hall, looking at the rows and rows of doors. I need to open one of them, but which is the right one? I reach for a door on my left and turn the knob. Is this the way to the auditorium? I wonder. I open the door.
"Arf, arf, arf!" The room is endless, white, and full of barking, yapping dogs. I hate dogs! I slam the door shut. Not the right room.
I drag my weighted feet down the hall. A woman, also dressed in white with a helmet of stiff blond hair, appears out of nowhere.
"Looking forward to hearing your speech, Jane," she says.
I pull back from her. "It's a good speech," I say. "Really."
The woman's eyes travel from my head to my feet and back again. She laughs. Why? Why do people keep laughing at me?
Forget it. I've got to find the auditorium. That's the most important thing. I can't be late!
I open a door on the right. My twin sister, Roxy, stands there, waving at me. What is she doing there?
"Are you sure you haven't forgotten something?" Roxy asks. She giggles and slams the door shut.
Forgotten something? What is Roxy talking about?
I see a door at the end of the hallway. It glows with a supernatural light. That must be the door I need! At last I reach the glowing door and open it. My eyes are flooded with blinding light.
Where am I? Is this it?
I step forward, blinking. My hands grip a wooden podium. I stare into the light. I'm on a stage, a huge crowd in front of me. They're whispering, pointing at me, and laughing!
"What?" I shout. "What is it? What's wrong with everyone?"
Then I look down at myself, and I understand. Roxy was right--I did forget something. My clothes!
The laughter rings in my ears, loud and harsh. I try to cover myself with my arms. I open my mouth to scream--but instead of a scream, out comes a loud BUZZZZZZZZZ . . .
Jane Ryan's eyes snapped open as she sat up in bed, drenched in a cold sweat. The clock radio on the nightstand next to her was buzzing.
She felt for her glasses, put them on, and looked around. She was in bed in her neat pink room in her cozy house on Long Island, New York. She wasn't naked after all--she was wearing her well-starched blue cotton nightgown. There was no giant clock, no cold white hallway, no podium, no mocking audience. . . . She started to catch her breath.
"It's okay," she told herself. "It was just a dream. Just a really, really bad dream."
She slapped a button on the clock radio and the buzzing stopped. Then she picked up her alarm watch, which she wore every day. It was programmed to beep at certain times to remind her of important things she had to do. And today was full of important things. The most important of all -- she was a finalist for the McGill Fellowship. The finals would take place that afternoon at Columbia University. First prize was a four-year scholarship to Oxford University in England. Jane had dreamed of going to Oxford her whole life and had worked her butt off for the last three years preparing for this moment. This day. Her whole future hinged on how well she did on her speech that afternoon. No wonder she was having nightmares about it. As long as she nailed her speech, the rest of it was taken care of. She was a straight-A student, student body president, captain of the cheerleading squad, debate champion, and chairperson of the Young Republicans of South Side High School -- among many other honors and responsibilities. These activities weren't a chore for Jane. She enjoyed them -- and she reached for excellence in everything she did. Jane glanced at her watch. 7:01. Time to start her morning routine. She got out of bed and headed downstairs to the kitchen.
In the hallway she passed a row of family photos. She stopped to give them each a fond look. Jane and her twin sister, Roxy, age two, with their mother and father on Christmas. The twins at age four on a ski trip with their parents. Halloween, age seven--Roxy dressed as Catwoman and Jane as Tinkerbell. Jane smiled and touched the photo lightly. Their mom had made those costumes for them. Happy times. The next picture showed last Christmas, when Jane and Roxy were sixteen. They stood in front of the tree with their father, trying to smile. No Mom in sight. Jane sighed. It was the saddest Christmas she could remember.
Her mother had died two years ago. Jane still missed her every day. She'd kept herself busy with activities and schoolwork, which helped keep the sadness away, helped her not to think about Mom so much. She liked to have everything under control, and she took care of her father and sister the way her mom used to. Mom would have wanted that.
The last picture was a portrait of Mom. She was beautiful, blond and blue-eyed like Jane and Roxy, with creamy skin, a warm smile, and a twinkle in her eyes. Jane kissed the photo and said, "Morning, Mom," just as she always did. Then she went into the kitchen. The kitchen smelled of fresh-brewed coffee. Jane poured a cup from the automatic coffee maker and headed back up the stairs. She met her father, Dr. Andrew Ryan, an obstetrician, stumbling groggily down the hall. His clothes were rumpled and his thick brown hair tousled. Clearly, he had been up late the night before at the hospital.
"Morning, Dad," Jane said, handing him the coffee.
"Morning, Jane," her father said and gave her a kiss. "Thank you." On to Roxy's room. Jane opened the door and tiptoed in. It was dark, but Jane could hear Roxy breathing under the covers. Roxy's room was very different from Jane's. Where Jane's room was tidy and organized, Roxy's looked as if a tornado had passed through it. Ripped jeans, vintage T-shirts, and a flip-flops littered the floor. The walls, painted orange, were covered with rock-and-roll posters, and a five-piece drum kit was set up in one corner of the room.
Jane tiptoed to the bed and threw back the covers. Just as she thought. Roxy was sleeping like a baby, clutching a drumstick and wearing headphones. Every night she fell asleep with music blasting into her ears. Jane didn't know how her sister could do that. She walked over to the stereo and pressed Play. She watched Roxy to see if she woke up. Nothing. Roxy didn't move a muscle. Jane slowly turned the volume up, higher, higher . . . Nothing! Finally she cranked it as high as it would go. How could Roxy stand it?
Roxy still didn't open her eyes, but she muttered, "Okay, I'm up." Jane nodded and smiled. Mission accomplished. She crossed their shared bathroom back to her orderly pink room and opened her closet. Jackets, skirts, crisp shirts, and pants hung in color-coordinated rows. She skimmed through them, looking for the perfect outfit for her McGill Fellowship presentation. Something conservative, yet energetic . . .
She picked out a floral pink suit and white blouse--the same outfit she'd worn on the day she had convinced the South Side High principal that their school needed a Young Republicans club. Maybe it would bring her luck.
She had a few minutes left to practice her speech, so she sat at her vanity table and opened her day planner. Ah, her day planner. The most important thing she owned. It had her whole life in it: her money, her credit card, her Junior Honor Society membership card, her calendar and her to-do lists. And most important of all, it held a pile of color-coded note cards with the speech she'd prepared for the McGill Committee neatly outlined on them.
Jane sat up straight, looked at herself in the vanity mirror, and began to practice her speech. "Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Jane Ryan. . . ."
No, that wasn't quite right. She started over again. "My name is Jane Ryan." No, still not right. "My name is Jane Ryan and I'm here today as a finalist for the McGill Fellowship." Perfect. Her alarm watch beeped. Uh-oh. Time for her shower.
"Morning, schmorning," Roxy grumbled. She wasn't what you'd call a morning person. She was barely even an afternoon person. She dragged herself out of bed and put on a black Metallica T-shirt, jeans, and a studded leather wristband.
Her computer beeped, and she glanced at the screen. Cool, an E-mail from her friend Justin DeMarco. She sat down to read it.
Subject: LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE
Rox--Just got a tip. Simple Plan video shoot at noon. NYC--59th St. & 9th Ave.
Excellent, Roxy thought. I'm there. She loved the rock band Simple Plan, and she knew what Justin was thinking. Her band had just made a demo CD, and this was a great chance to pass it along to a record company executive. Maybe they'd even cast her as an extra in the video!
There was just one teensy-weensy little problem. It was a school day. They kind of expected Roxy to be there. Jane was excused because of her McGill Fellowship thing. Roxy would just have to find her own excuse. She clicked open a file on her computer. Ever since her mom died, school just didn't seem that important to Roxy. If people wanted to get all bent out of shape about it that was their problem.
Someone knocked at her bedroom door. "Entrare!" Roxy called, practicing her Italian.
Her dad stuck his head into her room. "Just wanted to make sure you're up," he said.
"I'm proofreading my English essay," Roxy lied with a slight pang of guilt. No need for Dad to get involved in this. What he didn't know wouldn't hurt him, and Roxy never wanted to hurt her dad.
"Good," he said. "I like what I'm seeing, Roxy. Three weeks into your senior year and you haven't cut school once. Keep it up and we won't have to send you to Sister Mary Margaret's convent school." He smiled and left, closing the door behind him.
Roxy shuddered. Convent school! What a nightmare!
She imagined herself in an itchy school uniform in a room full of supercheerful girls. No way. She'd never fit in at Sister Mary Margaret's. Of course, if she got caught skipping school just one more time, South Side was going to expel her -- kick her out on her butt. Then she'd have no choice but to go to the convent.
Well, that's just not going to happen, Roxy told herself. She had whole files of perfectly good excuses stored on her computer. She zipped through them: Illnesses, Family Emergencies, U.S. Holidays, Foreign Holidays, Religious Holidays, Female Problems. . . .
"What excuse should we use this time, Ringo?" Roxy asked. She glanced over at the cage where she kept Ringo, her beloved three-foot-long pet python.
Uh-oh. The cage was empty.
Roxy heard the shower running in the bathroom that connected her room to Jane's. A second later she heard a shriek.
Ringo, Roxy thought. Why does he love the shower so much?
The bathroom door jerked open. Jane's wet hands thrust into Roxy's room, holding Ringo by the neck.
"Sorry," Roxy said. She gently took Ringo out of Jane's hand. Jane slammed the bathroom door. What was Jane's problem? Ringo wouldn't hurt a fly. Well, actually, she'd seen him eat flies, but he'd never bother a person. . . .
"There you are," Roxy said, cuddling the python. "Aw, Ringo, you're shaking. Did Janey scare you? It's okay, Mommy's here." She draped Ringo around her neck and went back to her computer. Hmm . . . feels like a chicken pox day to me, she thought. She found her pre-written chickenpox excuse note and printed it out. "There, that's taken care of," she said. "Now it's time for a little practice on the old skins."
She sat at her drum kit and banged out some beats, her blond hair shaking wildly around her head. She loved playing the drums--it helped her release all her nervous energy. Cymbals, snare, high hat, bass-boom, boom, boom, bam! She jumped to her feet, raised her arms and shouted, "Thank you, New York!" Her stomach rumbled. "All right, time for breakfast," she said to herself, heading for the kitchen. "I could really use a Red Bull."
Jane, freshly showered, walked into the kitchen and set her day planner on the table. She glanced at the newspaper Roxy was reading. The headline read, MUSIC PIRATES STRIKE AGAIN. MILLIONS LOST ON COUNTERFEIT CDS.
"You know, the more these guys rip off the music business, the harder it's going to be for new bands like mine to break in," Roxy said.
"Maybe you should choose a more sensible profession," Jane suggested. "Something not so hard to get into."
"Like what?" Roxy asked.
Jane paused. To be honest, she couldn't imagine Roxy growing up to be anything but a rock drummer. "Never mind," she said. It didn't matter. The music pirates were not her problem. She had plenty of other things to worry about. She made a beeline for the fridge and opened it.
Let's see, Jane thought as she pulled what she needed from the fridge. Granola, fresh fruit, and yogurt for Dad . . . She quickly prepared Dad's breakfast and set it on the table. And Cocoa Puffs and Red Bull for Roxy. Jane clucked her tongue in disapproval. Roxy's breakfast was full of sugar, but there was no arguing with her. Jane gave her sister the breakfast she wanted.
"Thanks," Roxy said, digging in.
Then Jane made herself some plain oatmeal, sprinkled a few raisins on it, and sat down to eat.
"How's it going, guys?" Dr. Ryan asked as he walked in, tightening the knot on his tie.
Jane beamed at him. "Great, Dad. Breakfast is on the table." Roxy looked up from her cereal bowl and smiled at him too. As their dad sat down to his breakfast, Jane reached for her planner and opened it. Every minute of her day was carefully plotted out. She'd highlighted the most important moment: 3:00 PM MCGILL FELLOWSHIP PRESENTATION.
A scrap of yellow stuck out from the next page. What was that? Jane turned the page. A yellow Post-it note was stuck on the next day's To-Do list under floss teeth and rearrange sock drawer. It said, Remove stick from butt. Roxy, Jane fumed. What did she have against Jane's day planner? She was always making fun of it. "Never touch my day planner," Jane warned Roxy.
"You need to chill on the nerd book," Roxy shot back. Roxy didn't understand. Jane needed her planner. They all did. If Jane didn't keep them organized, the family might fall apart! Beep, beep! Dr. Ryan's beeper went off. He frowned, checked the number, and reached for the phone.
Jane sighed. She knew what was coming. Another patient was going into labor. Dad could be tied up for hours. He had promised to go up to Columbia to hear her McGill speech that afternoon. But what could he do? His patients needed him too.
"Hi, it's me," Dr. Ryan said into the phone. "How far apart are the contractions? All right, tell them to come to the hospital. I'll see them in an hour."
He hung up the phone and turned to Jane. "Honey, your speech," he said, a concerned look on his face.
Jane hid her disappointment. "Don't worry about it, Dad. It's fine."
"No, it's not fine," he said. "Today's your big day. I'm going to do my best to make it up to Columbia this afternoon. But I have to say it doesn't look good."
Jane hugged him. "I'll understand if you can't make it, Dad. You're the best."
"Hey, I don't mean to rain on this touching moment, Dad, but I need your signature on my permission slip," Roxy said. She held out a parental consent form on official South Side High School stationery. Typed into the blank was FIELD TRIP: SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK. Jane knew there was no field trip scheduled that day, but she wasn't going to tell on her sister -- if Roxy wanted to get kicked out of school, that was her business.
"Shakespeare in the Park?" Dr. Ryan said. "Which play?"
"It's the one with the . . . you know, the one with the guy in tights, and he likes the . . . the . . . girl," Roxy stammered. Jane rolled her eyes. Roxy had this down to a science. A very inexact science.
"Romeo and Juliet?" he said.
Roxy slapped him on the back. "Bingo, Dad."
Dr. Ryan signed the note. "Okay, I've got to run. Roxy, do you mind giving your sister a ride to the train station?"
Roxy sighed. "Fine."
She didn't have to act so put out, Jane thought. It wasn't as if she had to rush off to school or anything.
Dr. Ryan kissed Roxy on the cheek, then Jane. Then he grabbed an orange and headed out. "Love you guys!" he called.
"Love you too!" Jane and Roxy called back.
They sat and ate in silence until they heard his car pull away. Then Roxy pulled out her phony excuse form, lined it up under the consent form her dad had just signed, and traced his signature.
"Hope you don't get caught," Jane said. She couldn't keep a note of primness from her voice.
"I won't," Roxy said, mimicking Jane.
Roxy stuck the excuse letter into the countertop fax machine, dialed the school fax number, and pressed Send.
Jane shook her head. Enough of this nonsense. "Come on, let's go. I've got a train to catch."
"No problem." Roxy grabbed her car keys and they headed out to Roxy's ancient, beat-up Volkswagen Beetle with the license plate that read 2QL 4SQL.
Jane got in and leaned back against the headrest. Something got caught in her hair. She sat up straight. A Simple Plan sticker had peeled off the seat and stuck to her head. Ugh. She ripped it off and set it on the dashboard.
A ride in Roxy's car was not complete without sitting on trash, catching your clothes on something sharp, or pulling something sticky out of your hair.
Roxy started the car. It chugged and putted loudly.
"You might want to think about buying a new muffler," Jane shouted over the noise.
"And you might want to think about buying your own car," Roxy snapped back.
"I'm saving for college so Dad doesn't have to pay for all of it," Jane replied. "Of course, if I win the McGill Fellowship I won't have to worry about that. Mind putting on the radio?" It was more noise, but at least it would help drown out the engine.
"Sure thing." Roxy slammed her iPod into its cradle and a Simple Plan song blared through the speakers.
"Don't drive too fast!" Jane warned. Roxy slammed her foot on the gas pedal and floored it. They peeled out of the driveway. The Simple Plan sticker flew out the window before Jane could catch it.
Well, at least I won't miss my train, she thought, clutching the armrest for dear life.
Got it. A gray-faced middle-aged man sat in a big tank of a car outside the Ryans' house, snapping a picture of Roxy's VW. Time: 8:02 AM. Now let's see where she's off to this morning, he thought. Dollars to doughnuts it isn't South Side High School. The man's name was Max Lomax, and he was a truant officer. The best darn truant officer on Long Island. He did whatever it took to make sure kids went to school, and he always got his man--or his girl, as the case may be.
Roxanne Ryan was Lomax's public enemy number one. Lots of kids cut school, but she was the big fish. Lomax was determined to catch her. He started his car and followed her down the street. Something flew out of Roxy's window. Lomax stopped the car, opened the door, and leaned down to pick it up.
Aha! It was a sticker for a band called Simple Plan. This could be a clue, Lomax thought. He sped off after Roxy.
You won't get away this time, Roxy Ryan, he thought. Today you're going down. (Continues...)