William hummed in baritone, laying out the melody as the rest of us stood in a semi-circle around him, our voices coming together as one. William made a transition, his throat setting out a heavy steady beat mmbuhbuhbuhbuhmmmbuhbuh. The beat picked up pace, raising us out of our somber postures and expressions into something more fluid, alive and fun. Valeska was up next, soft and gorgeous, and she set her voice free, singing the first lines of our modern version of Ave Maria. The rest of us snapped our fingers in rhythm. William continued mmmbuhbuhbuhbuh. Valeska finished her part, then hummed with the rest of us as Courtney and Tonya repeated their verse, Ave Maria, Ave Maria.
Emma’s hazel eyes opened. Her voice pierced the room:
Ave Maria gratia plena
Maria gratia plena
Maria gratia plena
Ave ave dominus, dominus tecum.
Our song was in bloom. My acapella group lifted me. Empowered me. Cleansed me of my fear. I was ready to set my voice free, lose myself in the moment, forget the worry and fear that had been mine.
My lips parted. My voice released. I sang: We slumber safely till the morrow, Though we’ve –
I lurched over, possessed by a sudden coughing fit that curled me to my knees. I could barely breathe. Everyone surrounded me. Hands were placed on my back as they asked if I was okay. I was choking. Gagging. Tears of asphyxiation rimmed my eyes. Something was in my throat. I reached panicked fingers deep into my mouth and pinched at something near the back of my tongue. I began to draw it out. Strands extended out into the air. But the whole of it remained lodged in my throat. I tugged, wanting it out of me. I almost threw up with my fingers so deep, but the thing dislodged and fell from my open mouth. I stared at a sticky clump of hair on the floor. Everyone else stared too. I wanted to hide it, kick it away. But everyone had already seen, and the glob of hair seemed to be staring at us as much as we were staring at it.
“What the heck is that?” William pointed.
“Oh my god, is that hair?” Valeska.
“That is so gross!” Courtney.
Emma pinched at the wrenched-up hair like it was a gigantic spiders nest and flung it into a trashcan nearby where it thunked, then slipped to the bottom with a watery thump.
I wanted to run away. I wished I’d never gone to school that day, wished I’d never stayed for practice, wished nothing of this was happening to me. Everyone began asking questions I couldn’t answer. I just stood there, dumbfounded. Emma pulled me by the arm and led me into the bathroom. The door shut and Emma began dabbing at my mouth with a paper towel. Then she wiped away my tears.
Emma held me. “Why are you crying?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” I repeated sadly.
“You can tell me.”
“I don’t know if I can.” I couldn’t tell her about the woman. I just couldn’t.
“Why are you so upset?” she asked.
“Maybe it has something to do with that thing I just coughed up.” I laughed miserably through a spell of tears.
“Yeah, what was that?”
I almost told her, almost. But I could hear my bizarre explanation in my mind before saying it about how the woman had been haunting me and that it had been her hair in my throat. But that was the problem, it was too bizarre.
“Sarah? You can tell me.”
“I want to. But no. I can’t.”
“Are you sure?” She said tenderly, “I’m always gabbing along. But I promise, I can listen too.”
I laughed. “I know. I just don’t want to think about that thing right now. I just want to forget.”
“Are you sure?”
“But there seems to be something else.”
“Maybe it’s everything. School, acapella. That’s what my mom says.”
Emma laughed sympathetically. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll be fine. You’re amazing.”
Emma leaned away to hold my shoulders and look me in the eye. “You’re going to be fine. We graduate in a few months and all these crazy tests and assignments will be done and you won’t have to try so hard to be the smartest girl in the world. Not until college,” she teased with a wink. “You’ll be fine.”
It was strange, hearing that I’d be fine. It was what I wanted to believe more than anything. “How do you know?” I asked.
“Because I’m your friend, remember?”
I chuckled, wiping my eyes. “Oh, yeah.”
“This isn’t like you,” she said. “What’s going on, really? I mean, you’re not yourself. Is it boys, or nah?”
I laughed pathetically. “I wish it was boys. But really, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well, if you ever want to talk about it, I’m here, okay?”
“Okay.” I grinned weakly. Talking to her made me feel better. “Everyone’s going to know I was crying.” I turned towards the mirror. “Yep.” My eyes were bloodshot. Bags had formed beneath them from sleeplessness and crying.
“Crying wouldn’t be my first worry,” Emma said, eyeing the nearby trashcan as a reminder.
“You think they noticed?” I asked, trying to find some humor in it all.
“You mean that huge wad of hair you puked up? Nah.”
“Everyone is going to think I’m gross.”
I knew what was coming. I’d seen it before. Some boy gets so drunk he passes out while crashed out on a couch where he vomits throughout the night. A girl gets her period early, and of course she’s in class when it happens. A boy accidentally steps into the girl’s bathroom and gets branded a pervert for the remainder of high school. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me – but I knew it would be something close.
“Don’t worry about that. People are jerks anyway.” Emma hugged me one more time. “Are you ready to go back out, or nah?”
“You mean I can’t hide in here forever?”
Looking around at the counters and the mirrors and the faucets and the stalls, Emma said, “I guess we could. But it might get kind of boring.”
I let out a short laugh. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
We exited the bathroom together. We wore compulsory smiles, attempting to shrug it all away. Everyone had gone back to practicing, but their eyes jumped to me as the screeching door announced my return.
“Everything okay?” Ms. Milsom asked.
No one laughed. No one teased. They looked concerned more than anything. I was relieved.
“Yep, just a common hair ball. Happens to all of us, right?”
Each of them laughed, just to be nice. I could tell they were relieved I was okay, or at least acting okay. The leading role for the upcoming competition was still mine, and I think they wanted to forget the wooly mammoth-like ball that had been dislodged from my throat and focus on the competition, where we actually had a chance to impress. It was a big opportunity for all of us.
“Are you able to rejoin us and practice?” Ms. Milsom asked.
Emma announced for me, “Of course she is!”
“Good.” Ms. Milsom smiled. They all smiled.
We resumed rehearsal. But this time, when I sang, there was no sensation of freedom to reclaim, my voice was shackled once again by thoughts and fears. When practice was done, I could feel how disappointed everyone was with me.