Panic, Page 2Lauren Oliver
He wasn’t afraid. He just didn’t care.
And that was very, very different.
The sky was streaked with red and purple and orange. It reminded Dodge of an enormous bruise, or a picture taken of the inside of a body. It was still an hour or so before sunset and before the pot, and then the Jump, would be announced.
Dodge cracked a beer. His first and only. He didn’t want to be buzzed, and didn’t need to be either. But it had been a hot day, and he’d come straight from Home Depot, and he was thirsty.
The crowd had only just started to assemble. Periodically, Dodge heard the muffled slamming of a car door, a shout of greeting from the woods, the distant blare of music. Whippoorwill Road was a quarter mile away; kids were just starting to emerge from the path, fighting their way through the thick underbrush, swatting away hanging moss and creeper vines, carting coolers and blankets and bottles and iPod speakers, staking out patches of sand.
School was done—for good, forever. He took a deep breath. Of all the places he had lived—Chicago, DC, Dallas, Richmond, Ohio, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, New Orleans—New York smelled the best. Like growth and change, things turning over and becoming other things.
Ray Hanrahan and his friends had arrived first. That was unsurprising. Even though competitors weren’t officially announced until the moment of the Jump, Ray had been bragging for months that he was going to take home the pot, just like his brother had two years earlier.
Luke had won, just barely, in the last round of Panic. Luke had walked away with fifty grand. The other driver hadn’t walked away at all. If the doctors were right, she’d never walk again.
Dodge flipped a coin in his palm, made it disappear, then reappear easily between his fingers. In fourth grade, his mom’s boyfriend—he couldn’t remember which one—had bought him a book about magic tricks. They’d been living in Oklahoma that year, a shithole in a flat bowl in the middle of the country, where the sun singed the ground to dirt and the grass to gray, and he’d spent a whole summer teaching himself how to pull coins from someone’s ear and slip a card into his pocket so quickly, it was unnoticeable.
It had started as a way to pass the time but had become a kind of obsession. There was something elegant about it: how people saw without seeing, how the mind filled in what it expected, how the eyes betrayed you.
Panic, he knew, was one big magic trick. The judges were the magicians; the rest of them were just a dumb, gaping audience.
Mike Dickinson came next, along with two friends, all of them visibly drunk. The Dick’s hair had started to thin, and patches of his scalp were visible when he bent down to deposit his cooler on the beach. His friends were carrying a half-rotted lifeguard chair between them: the throne, where Diggin, the announcer, would sit during the event.
Dodge heard a high whine. He smacked unthinkingly, catching the mosquito just as it started to feed, smearing a bit of black on his bare calf. He hated mosquitoes. Spiders, too, although he liked other insects, found them fascinating. Like humans, in a way—stupid and sometimes vicious, blinded by need.
The sky was deepening; the light was fading and so were the colors, swirling away behind the line of trees beyond the ridge, as though someone had pulled the plug.
Heather Nill was next on the beach, followed by Nat Velez, and lastly, Bishop Marks, trotting happily after them like an overgrown sheepdog. Even from a distance, Dodge could tell both girls were on edge. Heather had done something with her hair. He wasn’t sure what, but it wasn’t wrestled into its usual ponytail, and it even looked like she might have straightened it. And he wasn’t sure, but he thought she might be wearing makeup.
He debated getting up and going over to say hi. Heather was cool. He liked how tall she was, how tough, too, in her own way. He liked her broad shoulders and the way she walked, straight-backed, even though he was sure she would have liked to be a few inches shorter—could tell from the way she wore only flats and sneakers with worn-down soles.
But if he got up, he’d have to talk to Natalie—and even looking at Nat from across the beach made his stomach seize up, like he’d been kicked. Nat wasn’t exactly mean to him—not like some of the other kids at school—but she wasn’t exactly nice, either, and that bothered him more than anything else. She usually smiled vaguely when she caught him talking to Heather, and as her eyes skated past him, through him, he knew that she would never, ever, actually look at him. Once, at the homecoming bonfire last year, she’d even called him Dave.
He’d gone just because he was hoping to see her. And then, in the crowd, he had spotted her; had moved toward her, buzzed from the noise and the heat and the shot of whiskey he’d taken in the parking lot, intending to talk to her, really talk to her, for the first time. Just as he was reaching out to touch her elbow, she had taken a step backward, onto his foot.
“Oops! Sorry, Dave,” she’d said, giggling. Her breath smelled like vanilla and vodka. And his stomach had opened up, and his guts went straight onto his shoes.
There were only 107 people in their graduating class, out of the 150 who’d started at Carp High freshman year. And she didn’t even know his name.
So he stayed where he was, working his toes into the ground, waiting for the dark, waiting for the whistle to blow and for the games to begin.
He was going to win Panic.
He was going to do it for Dayna.
He was going to do it for revenge.
“TESTING, TESTING. ONE, TWO, THREE. ” THAT WAS DIGGIN, testing the megaphone.
The old quarry off Whippoorwill Road, empty since the late 1800s, had been flooded in the fifties to make a swimming hole. On the south side was the beach: a narrow strip of sand and stone, supposedly off-limits after dark, but rarely used before then; a dump of cigarette butts, crushed beer cans, empty Baggies, and sometimes, disgustingly, condoms, scattered limply on the ground like tubular jellyfish. Tonight, it was crowded—packed with blankets and beach chairs, heavy with the smell of mosquito repellent and booze.
Heather closed her eyes and inhaled. This was the smell of Panic—the smell of summer. At the edge of the water, there was a sudden explosion of color and sound, shrieks of laughter. Firecrackers. In the quick glare of red and green light, Heather saw Kaitlin Frost and Shayna Lambert laughing, doubled over, while Patrick Culbert tried to get a few more flares to light.
It was weird. Graduation had been only yesterday—Heather had bailed on the ceremony, since Krista, her mom, wouldn’t show, and there was no point in pretending there was some big glory in floating through four years of mandated classes. But already she felt years and years away from high school, like it had all been one long, unmemorable dream. Maybe, she thought, it was because people didn’t change. All the days had simply blurred together and would now be suctioned away into the past.
Nothing ever happened in Carp. There were no surprises.
Diggin’s voice echoed over the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have an announcement: school’s out for summer. ”
Everyone cheered. There was another pop-pop-pop, a burst of firecrackers. They were in the middle of the woods, five miles from the nearest house. They could make all the noise they wanted. They could shout.
They could scream. No one would hear them.
Heather’s stomach seized up. It was starting. She knew Nat must be freaking out. She knew she should say something encouraging to her—Heather and Bishop were there for Natalie, to give her moral support. Bishop had even made a poster: Go Nat, he had written. Next to the words, he had drawn a huge stick figure—Natalie could tell it was supposed to be her, because the stick figure was wearing a pink sweatshirt—standing on a pile of money.
“How come Nat’s not wearing any pants?” Heather had asked.
“Maybe she lost them during the Jump,” Bishop said. He turned, grinning, to Nat. Whenever he smiled like that, his eyes went from syrup brown to honey colore
d. “Drawing was never my thing. ”
Heather didn’t like to talk about Matt in front of Bishop. She couldn’t stand the way he rolled his eyes when she brought him up, like she’d just switched the radio to a bad pop station. But finally she couldn’t help it. “He’s still not here. ” Heather spoke in a low voice, so only Nat would hear her. “Sorry, Nat. I know this isn’t the time—I mean, we came for you—”
“It’s okay. ” Nat reached out and squeezed Heather’s hand with both of her own. She pulled a weird face—like someone had just made her chug a limeade. “Look. Matt doesn’t deserve you. Okay? You can do better than Matt. ”
Heather half laughed. “You’re my best friend, Nat,” she said. “You aren’t supposed to lie to me. ”
Nat shook her head. “I’m sure he’ll be here soon. The game’s about to start. ”
Heather checked her phone again, for the millionth time. Nothing. She’d powered it down several times and rebooted it, just to make sure it was working.
Diggin’s voice boomed out again: “The rules of Panic are simple. Anyone can enter. But only one person will win. ”
Diggin made the announcement of the pot.
Heather felt as though she’d been punched in the stomach. $67,000. That had to be the biggest pot ever. The crowd began to buzz—the number ran through them like an electric current, jumping from lip to lip. Shit, man, you’d have to be crazy not to play. Nat looked as though she’d just taken a large spoonful of ice cream.
Diggin plunged on, ignoring the noise. He made the announcement of the rules—a half-dozen events, spaced throughout the summer, conducted under conditions of strictest privacy; eliminations after every round; individual challenges for each contestant who made it past the halfway mark—but nobody was listening. It was the same speech as always. Heather had been watching Panic since she was in eighth grade. She could have made the speech herself.
That number—67,000—wrapped itself around her heart and squeezed. Without meaning to, she thought of all she could do with the money; she thought of how far she could go, what she could buy, how long she could live. How many miles away from Carp she could get.
But no. She couldn’t leave Matt. Matt had said he loved her. He was her plan. The grip on her heart eased a little, and she found she could breathe again.
Next to Heather, Natalie shimmied out of her jean shorts and kicked off her shoes. “Can you believe it?” she said. She took off her shirt, shivering in the wind. Heather couldn’t believe she’d insisted on that ridiculous bikini, which would fly off as soon as she hit the water. Natalie had only laughed. Maybe, she’d joked, that would earn her extra points.
That was Natalie: stubborn. Vain, too. Heather still couldn’t understand why she’d even chosen to play. Nat was afraid of everything.
Someone—probably Billy Wallace—whistled. “Nice ass, Velez. ”
Nat ignored him, but Heather could tell she had heard and was pretending not to be pleased. Heather wondered what Billy Wallace would say if she tried to wear a scrap of fabric like that on her butt. Whoa. Look at the size of that thing! Do you need a permit to carry that thing around, Heather?