Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone

I shouldn’t be reading the notes.

Hailey trims a rose and passes it to me. As I attach the note to the stem with sparkly pink ribbon, I read it. I can’t help it. This one’s a little over-the-top, but it’s still sweet. I give it to Olivia and she drops it in the classroom-specific bucket.

“No way! You guys…” Olivia snorts, laughing hard as she turns the card over in her hand. I guess she’s reading them, too. “I can’t tell who wrote this but…poor boy. This is so cheesy.”

Someone’s attempt at heartfelt poetry makes its way around the circle. Alexis falls back against my bed in hysterics. Kaitlyn and Hailey double over on my rug. Eventually, I join in.

“This is mean. Let’s not read them,” I say, hiding the rose in the middle of the bucket, wanting to protect this anonymous guy who put his heart on the line for some girl in his calculus class named Jessica.

Olivia grabs the stack of cards in front of me and starts thumbing through them. “God, who are these people and how do we not know any of them?”

“We’re not losers?” Alexis offers.

“It’s a big school,” Hailey counters.

“Okay, back to work. The flowers are wilting.” Kaitlyn’s still laughing as she snaps back to her role as the leader of our Valentine’s Day fundraiser. “Olivia, since you like the notes so much, switch places with Samantha.”

Olivia shakes her head, and her ponytail goes flying. “No way. I like my job.”

“I’ll switch. My hand’s getting tired anyway,” Hailey says, and the two of us trade spots.

I grab a rose out of the bucket and pick the scissors up off the floor. The instant I slide my fingers through the handles, this thought hits me out of nowhere, and before I have time to react I feel my brain sink its teeth in and latch on tight, already preparing to fight me for it. My hand starts trembling and my mouth goes dry.

It’s just a thought.

I let the scissors fall to the floor and I shake out my hands a few times, looking around the circle to be sure no one’s watching me.

I’m in control.

I try again. Rose in one hand, scissors in the other, I squeeze my fingers together, but my palms feel clammy and my fingers are tingling and I can’t get a solid grip. I look up at Kaitlyn, sitting directly across from me, watching her face twist and blur as a wave of nausea passes over me.

Breathe. Find a new thought.

If I cut it once, I’ll keep going. I know I will. I’ll move on to the next rose, and the next one, and I’ll keep cutting until there’s nothing left but a huge pile of stems, leaves, and petals.

After that, I’ll massacre those syrupy sweet, carefully written notes. Every single one of them.

God, that’s so twisted.

Then I’ll take the scissors to Olivia’s ponytail and cut right through that hair tie.

Shit. New thought. New thought.

“I need a glass of water,” I say, standing and hoping none of them notice the sweat beading up on my forehead.

“Now?” Kaitlyn asks. “Come on, Samantha, you’ll hold everything up.”

My legs are wobbly and I’m not sure I can trust them to get me downstairs, but somehow the scissors are gone and the banister is in my hand instead. I head straight into the kitchen and run my hands under the water.

The water is cold. Listen to the water.

“Are you okay?” Paige’s voice breaks through the chatter in my head. I hadn’t even seen my little sister sitting at the counter, doing her homework. That’s when I spot the knife block, full of knives. And a pair of scissors.

I could slice right through her hair.

I take big steps backward until I slam into the refrigerator. My knees give out and I slide down to the floor, gripping the sides of my head, burying my face in my hands to make it dark, repeating the mantras.

“Sam. Open your eyes.” Mom’s voice sounds far away, but I obey her words, and when I do, the two of us are nose to nose. “Talk to me. Now.”

I look over at the staircase, wide-eyed.

“Don’t worry,” she says. “They won’t find out. They’re upstairs.”

I hear Mom whispering to Paige, telling her to take a bag of chips up to my room and keep my friends distracted.

Then she grabs both of my hands so hard, her wedding ring digs into one of my knuckles. “They’re just thoughts,” she says calmly. “Say it, please.”

“They’re just thoughts.” I can echo her words but not the steadiness in her voice.

“Good. You’re in control.” When I look away from her she grips my arms harder.

“I’m in control.”

She’s wrong. I’m not.

“How many thoughts does the brain automatically deliver in a single day?” Mom moves on to facts to help me center myself.

“Seventy thousand,” I whisper as tears splash onto my jeans.

“That’s right. Do you act on seventy thousand thoughts a day?”

I shake my head.

“Of course you don’t. This thought was one in seventy thousand. It’s not special.”

“It’s not special.”

“Good.” Mom pinches my chin and lifts my head, forcing me to look at her again. “I love you, Sam.” She smells like her favorite lavender-scented lotion, and I inhale it, feeling a host of newer, prettier thoughts overpowering the darker, scarier ones. “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s okay. It doesn’t mean anything about you. Got it? Now tell me.”