I was at the back of the line for the vault when Milla Swanson went up to the front.
Milla was a thin girl with hair the color of mustard crusted to the lid of a jar. She approached the vault with uncertain little steps, head down as though she hoped the floor would swallow her before she got there. I was only half watching as she got to the old wooden springboard, but I saw her hesitate—instead of the step-bounce-leap they drilled into us, she seemed to wobble and then to almost trip as she jumped toward the vault, her hands scrambling on the old leather padding. That happened sometimes; kids hit the vault wrong and sort of slid or fell off the other side, usually standing up in hasty embarrassment with a bruise or friction mark to show for it.
But when Milla struck the vault, momentum carried her into the side, and the impact sent her flying backwards. She fell on her back, and I winced at the sound her shoulders made as they struck the springboard—that had to hurt—but then there was another thud and a reverberation I could feel through my feet on the hardwood gym floor, as her head bounced off the edge of the springboard.
The two girls at the front of the line jumped back with little shrieks, and then there was a second when no one at all moved as Milla rolled gently to a stop at the base of the springboard, her arms flopped out at her side.
Ms. Turnbull and Mr. C. came running, but I got to Milla first. I didn't even know I was moving until I was crouched by her side, reaching for her hand, but Ms. Turnbull slapped my hand out of the way.
"Don't touch!" she screamed, even though Mr. C crouched down and picked up the same hand I'd been reaching for.
I backed away, but I didn't want to. There was something inside me, some roiling force, that was making my fingers itch to touch Milla, that was sending the blood in my veins surging through my body with hot insistence. I wanted—no, I needed—to help, to put my hands on Milla, and even as I realized how bizarre my impulse was, I had to fight not to act on it.
I stepped back into the hushed crowd of kids making a circle around the vault. Ms. Turnbull and Mr. C talked in hushed voices, feeling for a pulse and waving their hands in front of Milla's eyes, which were open but unblinking. Ms. Turnbull put her face close to Milla's as though she was going to kiss her on the lips, but then she turned away.
"She's breathing," we all heard her say.
"She's unconscious," Mr. C said in a panicked voice. I saw the flyaway ends of the hair he combed over his freckled scalp trembling as he crab-walked away from Milla's body like she was on fire, and I realized he had no idea what to do, despite all the years he'd taught us basic CPR.
"I'm going to go call." Ms. Turnbull scrambled to her feet and sprinted toward the gym teachers' office.
In the seconds it took for me to break away from the crowd of kids and rush back to Milla, there was not a single sound in the gym. No one spoke, or coughed, or called my name. No one tried to stop me. But when I picked up Milla's cool, limp hand with its ragged fingernails and rough calluses, I stopped hearing anything else anyway.
At least, I heard nothing in the gym. Inside my head a strange whispered chorus started up, a murmured chant that made no sense.
A second later my vision went. I don't think I closed my eyes, but everything else disappeared and it was as though I was looking into time going forward and backwards at once, like I'd jumped off a cliff and hovered somewhere in black empty space.
"Milla," I whispered, and I felt my lips move so I was pretty sure I'd actually spoken, and then I had that same blood-rushing feeling again, like every bit of energy inside me was being rushed to my fingertips where it dissipated into Milla's body.
I let go of one of her hands and my fingers moved over her neck and face until they found her scalp, which was hot and damp, the hair plastered across a long bump that swelled under my touch. The rushing sensation intensified, and my own heart seemed to slow and falter, and I started to sway, but somehow I couldn't let go, couldn't stop touching Milla's injured body. Just when I felt like I had exhausted the last of my will, something shoved me hard and I fell onto my shoulder on the floor and my vision and hearing returned instantly.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Ms. Turnbull screamed, her face purple and her hand raised up high as though she was about to hit me, and maybe she would have except that Milla, lying at her feet, rolled over and threw up on the floor.
It turned out to be a good thing that she threw up, because Ms. Turnbull forgot all about me. Milla sat up, wiping her mouth against her sleeve, hiccupped a couple of times and looked like she was going to cry, but as Ms. Turnbull shouted questions at her she answered them, in a voice too low and mumbled for the rest of us to hear what she said.
I retreated back into the crowd of kids, and a couple of them started to ask me what had happened, but then the door to the gym burst open and Mr. Macklin, the vice-principal, came in and started yelling at all of us to go to the locker rooms and get dressed for next period, that everything was under control and none of our concern.
I went with the rest of them, but I couldn't help glancing back over my shoulder at Milla, who was trying to stand up even while Ms. Turnbull pushed her back down to the floor.
Milla was watching me. The look she gave me was hard to understand: fear battling contempt, with barely a trace of gratitude.
The only emotion completely absent from her face was surprise.
© Sophie Littlefield