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I HATE PAPER DAY. HATE. IT. But I still do it every week, sometimes twice a week, because my mom asks me to. I know I shouldn’t. I know it doesn’t help. But I do it because the only people in the world that we can count on is us. My dad’s just a frozen smile in a brushed-brass frame on our living room wall. And since he hasn’t jumped down to run to the office supply store for her in the last 17 years, it’s all on me.
I lug home three stacks of printer paper every week, even though it kills my arms. The office supply is on my way home from school and the store manager, Buzz, keeps it waiting for me by the register now. It’s 1,500 sheets of their cheapest paper, wrapped up in individual paper packages. Buzz used to ask me what we do with it all. I told him my mom was a writer, but I didn’t tell him about how all this paper ends up in storage garages, filled to the rafters. I don’t tell him that the reason I’m in this neighborhood, and at his particular store counter, is because our old house was so crammed with paper that we had to move. And I don’t tell him that my mom has never even finished one story.
But I think Buzz assumes my mom is a crappy writer anyway, because she has never published anything. It took a few weeks before he stopped making jokes about how we keep him in business, about how we buy enough paper to build a house out of it, and about how my mom sure must make a lot of typos. Now he just smiles and asks me how it’s going or we talk about things that don’t matter, like school or the weather.
Even with Buzz behind the counter, smiling and joking with me, I can’t stand handing over the money for three more stacks. The paper is why we don’t have a bank account. And it’s why two different shrinks have files documenting my mom as a compulsive paper hoarder and me as a captive enabler. The paper is why social services keeps threatening to have me removed due to the ‘hazardous conditions’.
My mom hates being labeled as a hoarder, she says it is grossly inaccurate, but it sounds a lot better than the label I have at school. A friend - it only took one, to show up at my house unexpectedly and to stare inside with a horrified face - started calling me The Waste. The name was all over school within a day. People were saying it to me casually in the halls. That’s what makes these stupid stacks of paper feel the heaviest. The Waste.
But I still stop on my way home.
And I still thank Buzz.
And I still fork over the money that could help pay some of our bills on time, because, you know, my mom says she needs this. Once, when I told her I wasn’t picking up paper for her anymore because it was too embarrassing, she almost broke down in tears. She told me that whether or not I helped, she would still get the paper and keep writing because it is important. When I said I didn’t care, she grabbed my hand and squeezed it and said, “Please Nali. I mean it. This is a huge responsibility. I have to do this. It’s for…all of us. It’s for mankind.”
There was something in her touch that tingled up my arm and into my brain. Like an adrenaline shot of belief. I know it sounds stupid. That’s why instead of telling my mom what I felt, I motioned to the stacks of paper that filled what was once our spare bathroom and made a joke about how much we do for mankind. After that, anytime there was something we didn’t want to do, we’d laugh and say, “Just do it for mankind.”
It’s a thirty minute walk home from the office supply on regular days, but it takes forty minutes on paper days because I have to stop and give my arms a rest. And today, my arms hurt so bad, I don’t feel like joking about mankind at all. I turn the corner of our street and see my mom waiting on the tiny slab of our front porch. Actually, she’s pacing. She does that when she needs her paper. Once she sees me, she meets me half way down the sidewalk and she takes two of the packages I’m carrying.
“I was getting worried about you. Everything okay?” she asks.
“I’ve got mid terms, you know.” I can’t help but snap at her. My shoulders are aching. I adjust the strap on my backpack to remind her of how full it is. “It stinks carrying all your paper home when I’ve got a big enough load already.”
“It is for mankind, after all,” she smiles. When I don’t, she winces. “Sorry.”
I sigh. I hate when she’s sorry for needing her paper.
“I know,” I tell her. "Just wish mankind weighed less."
“Hey,” she gives me another grin, “I’ve got cookies.”
I feel the hope nudge inside me. “Oh yeah? What kind?”
“Oh.” It’s stupid that I keep hoping my mom will surprise me with real cookies one of these times. The kind you make at home, with a wood spoon and a stove. It has never been possible, even after one of the more adept social workers made my mother remove a stuffed, cardboard file box from inside our oven. Once the social worker left, I could almost see the thought-balloon expanding over my mom’s head. She just disconnected the stove and filled it back up. She thought it was clever, since we only use the microwave anyway. I didn’t bother to mention that we only use the microwave because we can’t clear out enough paper to make real cooking safe.
My mom goes up the porch steps and holds the door open for me.
From the outside, our townhouse apartment looks normal. We live in a burnt-orange brick building, the middle black door in a row of five black doors. Every apartment looks exactly the same from the street. It is only by stepping inside that anyone can see how completely different we are.
I remember the first time I visited a friend’s house and realized that you are supposed to be able to walk into a house and cross the room and open a window, if you want. You should be able to see the living room furniture and be able to tell what color it is. It shouldn’t be a mystery, whether or not there is carpet under your feet or where the kitchen is or if there’s a staircase.
In our house, no one notices the tiny square of clean wood floor where we kick off our shoes. That little patch is lost in the blinding avalanche of white paper that hides the rest of the house. Heaps of it fill every inch of our living room, an efficient blizzard of orderly, white stacks. My mother’s teeny tiny scrawl covers every inch of every sheet, but when they are loaded into piles, all you see is the whiteness of it.
The living room is parted down the center, leaving a thin walkway that only allows one person through at a time. No one would ever guess that there is a dining room buried under the paper wall to the left and that the boxes that pour beyond it are really the edges of our foxhole kitchen. On the right side of the room, there are sharp, swirling pillars so high that they appear to be holding up the ceiling, but really, there is a staircase hiding behind them. Each step is flanked with loads of paper, leaving only enough room to maneuver up and down the stairs on tiptoe. Every once in a while, one of the stacks falls over and cascades down the steps, making what should be a simple walk up to my room as slippery and treacherous as scaling Mt. Olympus.
I drop my backpack on one of the two available couch cushions. There is enough room to seat my mom and me, but the end cushion is compressed beneath milk crates, filled with paper.
“So what’d you do today?” I ask.
“Write,” she says. It’s what she always says.
“Did you finish anything?”
“Not yet.” She looks away, hearing the insinuation in my voice. “But they’re all important, Nalena, remember that. Every single one of them.”
“I know,” I tell her, even though I don’t. My mom doesn’t write full poems or full stories or full novels or full anything. Instead, she fills pages with her miniscule print, listing shreds of plot ideas and characters. Her pages have stuff like: Christos DelMinos, 14, stabbed, instead of his 3 year old niece; Martin Fowler, 24, returned the money he’d stolen, but not all of it; Linda Hayes, 63, invited depressed neighbor in for long talk. Sometimes it even sounds sweet: Olga Zitov, doesn’t know her age, still believes in fairies. I probably started asking my Mom to finish a story when I was about 6 years old and I gave up begging when I turned 17, almost three months ago. The last time I asked her, I’d been specific.
“Could you finish this one?” I held up a piece of paper and pointed to one of the lines on the sheet. My mom leaned over my shoulder to read it.
“Grace, 1, saves us all,” she mumbled and then she smiled.
“This one’s not like the rest,” I pointed out. “This one sounds mysterious, you know? The rest of them sound like endings and this one sounds like it could be a great start. Saves us from what? What could the rest of the story be?”
My mom had just shrugged.
“I suppose that’s it,” she said wistfully.
“How could that be it? It’s only a sentence,” I argued. “Why don’t you make this one into something? It seems like it could really be interesting.”
“It already is something, Nali.” She tried to smooth my hair behind my ear but I moved away.
“I mean a whole story this time. Can you write this one? For me?”
“Sure,” she smiled the lie. “It will be a story. I promise. But it’s important that I write all of them in my head. I have to make sure I don’t forget anything.”
“Who cares about whatever else there is?” I’d said, grabbing a handful of sheets and holding it out to her. “What good will a million great ideas do if you never even finish one? If you’re not going to use any of these, why don’t you just let me throw some of this away?”
She shook her head and frowned.
“You can’t throw any of it away. Not one sheet, Nali. Promise me." She searched my face as if recognition just needed a minute more to surface. I dumped her paper back on the nearest pile.
“Oh, God bless it!”
“Exactly,” my mom chuckled, as she dropped a reassuring arm around my shoulders and gave me a tiny shake, like I’m a really good sport. “At some point, you’re going to understand your old mother. And why I do what I do. I promise you that.”
“What’s there to understand?” I’d grumbled, but I loved the warmth and strength I felt when she was near. I could never stay angry with her.
“Mankind,” she’d said and I had to nod and laugh.
She’s told me all my life that hoarding all this paper is important, but it wasn't ever my mom’s rationalizations that actually made things okay with me. It was what one cranky, overworked social worker who had once told me, as he looked through our thick file with a disapproving sigh, “I guess you can make ‘normal’ out of any old thing, if you’ve got enough of it.” At the time, I’d had a mental picture of my mom and me sewing our clothes, cooking our food and building a new house, all out of paper.
Although I get how McCranky really meant it, I still think he got it right. We spend a lot of time coming up with plans together to deflect visitors, so we don’t have to invite them into our paper cave. We compete in figuring out new ways to scrimp, so we can pay for storage units that handle the overflow. We laugh together when a pile of paper teeters over and crashes to the floor, reporting it to each other as ‘an upheaval of mankind’. We’ve gotten used to living in the tight spaces between all the paper stacks. This is who we are. And I get that it’s entirely possible that if my mom began finishing stories, it could change everything about us.
Understanding that is why, on the night I asked my mom to finish a story about the little girl, I also ended up vowing to myself that no matter how much I couldn’t stand our paper-stuffed life sometimes, I would never ask my mom to finish any of her stories ever, ever again.
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WE HAVE BOLOGNA SANDWICHES AND COOKIES, everything right out of the packages and eaten over our laps, for dinner. As usual, we eat in silence, because I don’t want to talk about how my day was at school. When all the stories were about how I found ‘The Waste’ written on my locker in permanent marker, in my textbooks, and even across the butt of my gym shorts, my mom threatened to go down to school and find these kids herself and have a word with them. That probably would’ve gotten me killed, so out of pure self preservation, I did the smart thing and just stopped telling.
When we first moved here, I begged her to let me be homeschooled to avoid this. Mom refused, saying I needed to be out in the real world away from her, to get more socialization. She’d be horrified if she knew that all my interactions consisted of stuff like walking into homeroom and finding THE WASTE gouged into my desk. When she used to ask about the friends I’d made, I just said I take after her. She hated that.
“Then don’t take after me, okay?” she’d say. It’d sound like a joke out of her mouth, but the little worried crinkle between her eyes would sink even deeper.
“Nope, I want to be just like you,” I’d say, but I’d always add what made her happiest to hear, “Minus about 50 tons of paper.”
Then she'd squeal, Perfect! and throw her arms around me. “Mankind’s already got enough writers.”
When I was in elementary school, she used to tell me she was sorry there was no place for friends to come over and play. In middle school, she tried to explain the importance of her writing, saying it was something bigger than just us, something that the world needed. But now that I’m finishing my Junior year in high school, I can’t help feeling like the world could do without another storage shed stacked with her story lines and that we could do without the bill. Still, when my mom talks about the importance of every character she writes down, her belief is so super charged that it’s easy to get lost in her fog. Whether or not I can see the real importance stops mattering, once her eyes get that clear and the worry line between her eyebrows vanishes. All I can see then is her belief in what she’s doing and I can almost forget the food stamps, and ‘The Waste’, and single-file paths through our apartment, right along with her.
“Are you going to go run the track tonight?” she asks when we are through eating. I run almost every night even though I’m not on the school team. I’m not looking to win any medals. I just do it to be out of the house. She slides the bologna back into its plastic bag.
“Library,” I say. She doesn’t ask if I’m meeting anyone, because we’re both painfully aware that I'm severely lacking in the friend department.
The only place in our house for me to study is on my bed and sitting there, slouching over my books, gives me a backache. I had a hand-me-down desk once, but when her paper stacks began seeping into my room, I was still too little to understand everything I was giving up when we got rid of it. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if she’s considered how much more space there would be if we could rig up our beds on the ceiling.
She kisses me on the forehead when I pick up my backpack. I can smell the lavender-vanilla soap that I buy her every Christmas.
“Have a good time,” she says.
“Yeah right,” I tell her.
“Well, we both have a lot to do tonight, I guess. Might as well get to it.” She pats my arm although her voice grows serious. “Just be careful out there. Take a flashlight and don’t talk to anyone you don’t know.”
She says this almost every time I leave the house. Like a mantra is as good as pepper spray. All I say is, “Uh huh.”
I don’t bother to use the flashlight, because most of the way to the library is lit at intervals by streetlights or houselights, and I don’t mind the dark parts anyway. I like the idea of passing through the shadows without anyone seeing me.
I cut through the cluster of apartment buildings behind us, across the gap of a strip mall and follow the sidewalk that goes into what I call the Old Sub. The houses in the Old Sub were built in the 1920’s and they fill up their yards with add-ons and wrap around porches. Every single one looks either sparklingly restored or totally haunted, but all of them reek of stability, unlike our apartment complex, which is as transient as a birdhouse. I miss our old house, the way it could’ve been, if it wasn’t jammed with my mom’s mounds of one-line novels. I wonder if any of the houses here are filled with useless, unfinished stories as I jigsaw my way through the entire subdivision.
There is a shortcut to the library through the backyard of the creepiest looking house in the Old Sub. The place sits at the very end of the last street. The windows are only covered with a film of milky dust and the porch is as rickety as an old man’s mouth. No one’s lived there as long as I’ve been passing by it. There is a florescent orange sticker on the door warning trespassers that they could fall through the floor inside. This is the house that the neighbors want torn down and that little kids come to when they have to prove to each other that they’re brave. The rest of the traffic back here is from people like me, who want to use the shortcut that runs along beside the place, ducking through the tree line in the backyard, to the rear parking lot of the library.
There’s about three yards of woods in between the house and the library. I should probably use my flashlight, but in the twilight, the woods are lit enough that I can make my way.
Tonight, I run all the way through the woods, across the parking lot, and up the front steps of the library, just because it feels good. I’m proud that I’m not even breathing hard when I dump my books on the table in my favorite back corner.
This spot should have my name engraved on the chair. I’m buried at the end of the Ancient Ruins aisle, where no one ever comes, unless they are lost or want to make out. I’m almost guaranteed to never be disturbed.
The library is dead tonight too, just the way I like it. There was no one at any of the tables up front when I came in. Ms. Fisk, the head librarian, was perched on a stool at the circulation desk, trying to shield the cover of her Fabio romance from me. The only other person I saw on the way to my hideout was Julienne, the assistant librarian. She is always stuck with the crap job of wheeling around the return cart and re-shelving the books. True to the librarian code of silence, neither woman ever says much to me except a smile on my way in and a “Find everything?” on my way out. It’s going to be a peaceful night.
I’m hunched over my history book, re-reading a paragraph that just won’t sink in, when something catches me from the corner of my eye. I glance up, figuring Julienne has come to replace a book, but instead, there is a boy with a backpack over one shoulder, walking right toward me, like he knows where he is going.
I’m a little confused. My oasis is the only thing at the end of the aisle and he seems to be on a collision course. A boy like this, tall and thin with perfectly messy, jet black hair, has got to be coming to rendezvous with his girlfriend. He’s probably going to ask me to leave so they can have their privacy. It’s not the first time someone’s asked. The closer he gets to me, the more I brace to defend my sanctuary.
When he reaches my table, he momentarily disarms me with a grin.
“Is it okay if I sit here?” he dumps his backpack on the table before I can say it isn’t and pulls out the chair that is diagonal from mine.
“I’m not leaving anytime soon,” I say. He smiles at me. His teeth aren’t perfect but the way his lips frame them, they are. His eyes are bright and amused, like he wants to hear something I didn’t even say. I push my books out an inch, making the circle a little wider around myself. I don’t care if he looks like a homecoming king plucked from the Varsity basketball team. If he thinks he’s charming me into moving, he’s wrong. But instead of looking annoyed, he lets an amused chuckle escape from behind another smile. I hate that he keeps doing that because it makes me want to keep looking at him.
“That’s fine,” he says and takes the seat.
“If you’re waiting for somebody,” I whisper over the table, “there’s not going to be room for her.”
“What makes you think I’m waiting for a her?” he whispers back.
Oh. He’s gay. My heart sinks and I wince inwardly. I was hoping he wasn’t waiting for a girl but I’m embarrassed that it ever occurred to me that his sitting here might somehow be connected to an interest in me. I hadn’t even thought beyond that.
“Whoever you’re waiting for,” I correct. “There isn’t going to be enough room for anyone else and like I said, I’m going to be here for a while.”
“Good.” He nods and unzips his backpack, like this is finished business. He fishes out a worn copy of Brave New World that looks soft and gray at the edges. He leans back in his chair, opens up the book and starts reading. There’s a whole library full of empty tables up front, but this boy, with hair that would probably feel like soft twine between my fingertips, has to sit here.
I try to find the passage in my history book that wasn’t making sense before, but I can’t even tell which paragraph it is now. Without meaning to do it, my eyes flick to his face. He’s concentrating on his book. I go back to mine, but all I can do is skim, and the sentences run through my head like annoying news feed at the bottom of a TV screen.
I blink and I’m looking at him again. I quickly pull my eyes down to the bottom of the page in front of me. His skin is smooth and tan, like maybe he’s outside a lot. Maybe he’s in Track. This image of the two of us warming up and running side by side, drifts into my brain. I shut down the thought immediately. He’s got to be popular and therefore, he’s got to know that I’m The Waste. I shove the fantasy out of my mind and stare hard at the words on the page in front of me.
Besides, he might be gay.
Or maybe that’s not what he meant at all. Maybe he’s sitting with me on a dare. Or maybe he thinks he can make me leave just by sitting here too.
I don’t know why he’s here, but I force myself to go over the sentences in front of me again. I still don’t register one lousy word. Four more times I try, but the only thing in my head is me, telling myself not to look up at him again.
I fight to keep my eyes glued on my history book until they feel dry. It’s the same kind of ache I get as when I’ve been smiling too long. This is stupid. He’s just a boy sitting across from me. I tell myself to forget that he’s even there. Ignore him. He’s nobody. I’m nobody to him. But the second I let myself relax, I do a quick glance up and my breath catches in my throat because our eyes meet.
His gaze is centered and lazy, like he’s been watching me for a while. His expression doesn’t change when our eyes lock, even though I can feel the muscles in my forehead suddenly hike toward my scalp. It’s like he’s been studying me and doesn’t care if I know it. My stomach flutters and I suck it in, trying to keep myself motionless. It would doom me worse than I’m already doomed if he’s a Varsity jock, detecting me - The Waste - being fluttery about him.
I force my eyes back down into the crease of my history book. As if he’ll believe that my looking at him was random. Like I was just looking around and happened to trip over him, staring at me with his liquid blue eyes. Like I couldn’t help but notice him only because he was taking up the space where I was going to look anyway. I hope I look more random and uninterested and convincing than I feel.
I hear him stretch his legs under the desk. I hear the soles of his shoes slide over the nubby carpet and I swear I can feel the heat of his leg stretched out beside my own. The chair next to me nudges my arm and I flinch. I look up and there he is again. Smiling.
“What are you studying?” he asks. I fight to calm the involuntary shaking going on in my core. I remind myself that this is just a simple question. Maybe he’s baiting me for a prank. There is no other reason for him to care.
“History,” I say.
“English.” He flops down his book on top of his backpack. “I was supposed to have this done last week.”
“I’ve never read that,” I tell him. That’s it. He must be scouting for some brainiac to do his term paper. Knowing that, it’s easier for me to look back at my own work now, but he keeps talking.
“You won’t have to, unless you get Kale for English. If you’re lucky, you’ll get Mr. Ergnon,” he says.
“That’s not until next year.”
“I know,” he says, glancing at my history book. “But I hope you get lucky.”
“Mmm hmm.” I nod, dropping my eyes away from him, begging him, inside my head, not to ask anything else. If he doesn’t know me, I never want him to. If he ends up asking one of his buddies who I am, they’ll laugh and show him my locker with it’s unmatched shade of paint that doesn’t really hide the name. His friends will tease him the rest of the school year. He’ll probably be so embarrassed that he ever considered me at all...who knows what he’ll think to do to me then. Something, I’m sure, to prove to everyone that I’m nothing to him.
“What’s your name?” he asks. The excited waves rippling through my stomach, die.
“I’ll tell you what,” I say, jumping to my feet. “You can have the table. I’ve got to get going anyway.”
“I don’t want the table.”
“It’s fine. Really.” I crush a folder into my backpack.
“Don’t go,” his voice is inviting and soft, but I’ve already got my backpack slung over my shoulder. Whatever I can’t cram in, is in my arms.
“Seriously,” I draw a line in the air between us with my open palm. “No problem. We’re good.”
I turn and leave as fast as I can without running, ducking out of the history aisle before he has a chance to ask my name again.
Something big happened.
I know it, because Cora is waiting for me on the school’s front steps. Cora is maybe the only friend I’ll ever have at Simon Valley High. She is the polar opposite of popular and she was one of the girls that used to follow me around, trying to worship me when I first came to the school. Now, the way things have worked out, she is a step above me on the popularity scale, because even though she’s awkward and a little repulsive in her habits, she’s not considered a freak. She’s been in the Simon Valley Public School System since kindergarten and due to the familiarity, she’s escaped their perpetual ridicule. Instead, our peers have granted her the privilege of being completely ignored. She doesn’t see it that way.
I think Cora was delighted when the popular crowd spit me out. It wasn’t exactly personal, but it meant that there were finally some shoulders for her to stand on, instead of being on the rock bottom of the social pyramid herself. Not wanting to jeopardize any upward mobility on the coolness meter, Cora distanced herself from me along with everyone else and our friendship was reduced to covert waves while passing in the halls.
What worries me now is that Cora only wants to talk to me publicly when there is something really big going on. The last time we talked was about three weeks ago, when she met me at my locker to say that there was a rumor going around that my mother went insane and got carted off to a mental institution over the weekend. She said she wanted to make sure it was really a rumor. As soon as I verified that it was, she went off with her mouth shut. It’s not like she’d go spreading around the truth. I’ve just come to accept that Cora is the closest thing I’m going to get, as far as having a friend, until I graduate.
I see her immediately as I climb the steps, sausaged into her usual white, button-down sweater, even though it is too warm for it. She pulls a tissue out of her sleeve and dabs her nose excitedly as I approach. Cora has post nasal drip that makes her a mouth breather. When she’s excited, the air she sucks in sounds too juicy.
She scurries down the steps to meet me and I hear her trying to breathe through her saliva. Whatever news she has must be really big to have her producing so much spit. My stomach fills up with an uncomfortable heat as I think about the boy at the library last night.
“Garrett Reese is asking around about you!” Cora bubbles. Literally. A bubble of spit sticks in the corner of her mouth and she wipes it away with an enthusiastic flick of her tongue. “How does he know about you? Were you really kissing in the library? That’s what Nikki Legarno said, but I told her that couldn’t be right.”
A wave of hot, rancid, stomach soup rolls through me. Garrett Reece. The boy has a name. And he is exactly the worst thing I expected him to be: popular. I put my hand over my eyes to shut Cora out. My brain curls into a knuckle. The boy, with eyes as clean as Jesus, is asking about me. So, today he’ll find out. His interest in me will end and what his curiosity will cost me will just begin to tabulate. I try to steady myself, to see the words scrawled across my locker again.
Cora taps my hand.
“Are you okay?” she asks, but she doesn’t wait for my answer. “You know who he is, don’t you? Oh my gawd, he’s got the most gorgeous blue eyes ever! I would die just to have him look at me! I mean, he’s not all muscley like Jake O’Keefe or Brent Goudreau, but he’s hot. It’s because he’s really, really good at sports. Did you know he’s like...all star everything? He won all kinds of medals for wrestling and track and I heard he could pitch a baseball through the side of an army tank. I think he’s super cute...even if he’s not all muscley.” She takes a big, spitty breath. “He’s super smart too. Oh! And he’s a Classic.”
I slide my hand up and grip my brow. “Classic?”
“Oh, you know! The Middleditch twins are too. They all drive the old clunkers. Well, not clunkers, really. They all have super old cars in mint condition. I think Garrett’s is the nicest, though. You had to’ve seen it before. It’s the burgundy Riviera...”
“Okay,” is all I can think to say, because I think I’m going to pass out. Or throw up. Or both. The other students are pushing past me, around me, knocking me out of their way to get to their first hour classes. I’m scared to death to just go inside and face my locker.
“Okay? What do you mean, okay?” Cora asks. “Give me the scoop. Why’s he asking about you? Did you know he was going to?”
“Really?” Cora dabs off her nose and swallows down another breath. She’s thoughtful for a minute, scanning the grounds and picking through the swarm of students, as if she hopes to find this boy. My stomach rocks. “What about the kiss?”
“There wasn’t any kiss. Last night’s the first time I ever met him,” I tell her. I don’t know why I’m telling her anything, except that I have to tell someone something. “I was at the library studying and he came and sat by me.”
“Sat by you? Did he say anything?”
“He didn’t say hi or anything? He must’ve said something.”
“We talked about finals.” I’m swaying, even though my feet are flat on the cement step beneath me.
“You don’t look good. Are you okay?” Cora asks.
“No,” I say. She steadies me by wrapping her hand, the one with the wet Kleenex, around my upper arm. And I’m grateful.
“Well, come on.” She gives me a reassuring tug toward the front doors. “I’ll walk you in, okay? Maybe we’ll see him.”
“I hope not,” I mumble.
“Is it because of your house?” Cora asks. I don’t even bother to answer her.
He’s not at my locker, thank God.
And there’s nothing written on it either. Yet.
Cora looks at the locker like she’s just as surprised, while I spin the combination. I open the door slowly, assuming something is going to fall out, like a wastebasket or an avalanche of crumpled paper.
Cora holds her breath too, until the door is safely open and then she shrugs, “It’s not like we’re in middle school.”
I gather up my courage, along with the books I need. It occurs to me that I should be finding out what Cora knows, instead of just answering her questions.
“Where did you hear that Garrett Reese was asking about me?”
“Felicia Dodd,” she says. “She heard it from Myra Lukevitch, who was eavesdropping on her brother.”
“Oh God,” I groan.
“I know,” Cora says primly. “Not good. Maybe Myra will say something to her brother this time. He doesn’t need to get detention again.”
The idea of Kris Lukevitch makes me shiver. He’s the one that spray painted the name on my locker last time. His girlfriend, Audrine, was one of the girls that helped to spread it all over school that my mom was insane. I’m not sure if it was one of them or someone else that said our house was filled with dead rats and rotting garbage that the neighbors could smell, but not see, under all the paper.
“Do you know what he asked Kris?” My voice is weak in my throat.
“Who? Garrett? I don’t think Garrett asked Kris anything. They’re not even friends anymore. Not after Audrine tried to ask Garrett to Sadie Hawkins last year.”
“Did he go?”
“No.” Cora grimaces like it would be ridiculous. “Kris and Audrine were still dating when it happened. I think Kris was mad because Audrine asked Garrett and then he was even more mad that Garrett turned her down. It was like saying Audrine wasn’t good enough or something.”
“I hope they’re all over that.”
“I don’t think so, but maybe Kris will be happy that Garrett’s asking you out. If Garrett’s just going for whatever’s easy, it doesn’t make Audrine look so bad.” Cora stops talking and sucks in her bottom lip. She puts her hand on my arm. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I know what you meant,” I assure her. I even work up a smile. I know she meant it exactly how she said it, but since she’s the only friend I’ve got, and since the line on that is pretty shaky, I’m not going to push it. Cora tugs down the edge of her sweater and tucks her soggy tissue back up her sleeve.
“I should get to class,” she says. “Let me know if he talks to you.”
“I will,” I lie.
I spend the rest of the day trying not to be seen. I take the back stairs to Algebra and I crouch at the furthest, corner table in the lunchroom. Cora walks by once and raises an eyebrow, but when I shake my head, she does a quick survey of the lunchroom herself, shrugs at me, and keeps walking. I make it to last hour, sliding into my seat with a sigh. It’s almost over. Sitting behind Gerald Harvard, being that he is roughly the size of a compact car, might be the safest place for me in the entire school.
The rest of the class finally filters in, and just as Ms. Nichols asks us to open our books, a girl shows up at the door with a note from the office. Ms. Nichols announces that she has some business to attend to and that we should use the period as a study hall. As soon as she’s gone, a couple stoners just get up and skulk out, the jocks pull their chairs together in the center of the room, and the volume starts to rise. Ms. Vanderbleath, who teaches French next door, ducks her head in once, just to tell us to shut up, and then never comes back. Thankfully, Gerald cracks open a notebook and settles in. I relax in the seat behind him.
Everything’s going great until Regina Cole, the skank of the cheerleading squad, twists around in her seat, one row over, beside Gerald’s desk.
“Waste,” she calls to me. Actually, it’s a summons. I don’t look up though. She says it again. When I don’t look up the third time, the girl beside me taps her fingertip on my desk. I look over at her and she points to Regina. I adjust my gaze on Regina, focusing on the strawberry splotch on her cheek, as if I didn’t hear a thing. Regina’s rosacea flares up and burns a blistering red when she’s angry. As I stare at her, the patch turns a dark crimson.
Regina’s mouth pulls at the edges with an irritated frown. “I’ve been talking to you.”
“I didn’t hear you.”
“I called you,” she insists. She sings again, “Waaaa...aaaste.”
“That’s not my name, Vagina,” I say. The girl beside me giggles and Regina kicks the girl’s desk to shut her up. The girl goes quiet and hunches over her books. Regina turns back to me, her lip pinched as if she smells bad meat.
“Why is Garrett Reese asking about you?” she asks.
“I have no idea.” Which is true. I don’t have a clue why he was at the library or why he’s asking enough people about me that even I know about it. I have no idea how he didn’t know that I’m the girl with the house in the first place. While I’ve been wondering about it all day, the only thing I can figure is that maybe he hasn’t heard about me simply because of who he is. I’m a Junior and a nobody and he’s in the upper echelon of the Senior hierarchy. Maybe the only things he hears about is the stuff that directly concerns him, like cheerleader breeding rituals or soccer stats.
“Do you even know who he is?” Regina persists.
“Then you know who he goes out with?”
“Jen Ballard,” she says. “You remember who she is, don’t you?”
Oh God. Of course I do. Jen was the friend. The friend who started the whole Waste thing. Jen was the first person to introduce herself to me at Simon Valley and, since she is a Senior and I am only a Junior, I was shocked she wanted anything to do with me anyway. She acted like I was her little sister, showing me around the school and introducing me to the other cheerleaders. Jen said she wanted to get me on the cheerleading squad and dance team with her. And she’d totally ditched her old bff, Regina, for me, for all of two weeks. Then she dropped by my house unexpectedly on a Sunday afternoon to ask if I wanted to go to the mall for a make-over.
One look around was all it took. Cheerleaders and Dance Team Captains can’t be friends with people who live in apartments like mine.
I’d watched her thumb dial her cell phone on the way down my sidewalk, throwing her head back and shaking it, as she reported everything she’d seen to the first in a domino line of popular girls.
“Sucks, doesn’t it, Waste?” Regina examines her nails.
“I didn’t ask him to talk to me.”
“It’s funny how being pretty made you so popular and now it’s just going to make you dead. I’d hire a bodyguard if I was you, because Jen is going to murder you.” She leans across the aisle and sticks her cherry bomb face in mine and whispers, “She’ll get you. For real.”
Regina’s threats on their own couldn’t scare me in a thousand years, but something happens as I listen to her voice, growling through her teeth. My fingers start quaking against the desk. Hard. Like I need a candy bar or like I’m going to be really sick, even though I feel okay inside. Then Regina goes into a blur of slow motion.
I squint, but instead of making Regina clearer, something else comes into focus. I blink again. I don’t know where they came from, but I’m inside a stack of spinning rings. Silver rings, almost too bright to look at.
I’m still squinting as the bottom ring near my feet, when it suddenly freezes and drops, like it’s made of iron. Then the one around my knees does the same thing, dropping on top of the one at my feet. I’m paralyzed. I should be screaming for help. I’m going to be trapped inside these things and I can’t even tell if anyone else sees them. The rings go translucent. My lungs are stretched tight, like the last breath I’m ever going to have is being squished right out of me.
Regina doesn’t seem to notice these things stacking up like swirling tires around me. The ring that is circling my thighs suddenly kerklunks into place on top of the other two. I watch as Regina draws her head away, oblivious, although her snarl is still snagged on her lips.
She plops back into her seat, but when she shoots me a you-better-keep-your-mouth-shut glare, my eyes lock on her. Another ring, around my waist, clanks into alignment. It’s not like I want to look at her, but more like my neck and head and eyelids are forcing me to do it. Regina’s eyes narrow to slits, challenging me to keep it up. My armpits break out in a panic that dribbles down my ribs, but I can’t make myself look away, no matter how hard I want to. No matter how much she snarls. This could get me killed.
I can see the hatred rolling off Regina, sparking in hot, orange clouds. Her angry cloud bounces off the exterior of my spinning tube. The ring around my chest bangs down against the others.
I am freaking out. I can see Regina’s anger. I must be dead or dying or stroking out, because I can’t pull my eyes off hers, no matter how hard I try. The last ring slams down around my head, so loud that I want to wince with my eyes shut, but I can’t even blink.
I can’t blink. Instead, I explode.
The rings blow off and a glistening, blue bubble blasts out all around me. It comes right off my skin, like pulling off a layer. But I’m not inside my skin anymore. I’m standing beside my body, watching my own face as I keep on staring Regina down, like nothing else is going on.
And just like the rings, Regina doesn’t seem to notice the reflective bubble swirling up between us, a half inch from her nose. But she sure notices that I’m not looking away and I can’t help but be fascinated that I’m standing beside myself, watching my own face harden like a gargoyle. My jaw is set and my eyes are drilling holes in her. I look…tough.
I can tell that Regina sees it too. She blinks. I know not to let up when she shuffles her feet.
I must be going insane. This thing around me feels real. The energy of it whispers on my skin and raises up the hair on my arms, but I feel perfectly at ease. It’s like watching a hurricane chew up an entire town, all from the safety of a recliner parked in front of a TV.
Regina’s calm cracks wide open the second that her gaze darts away. She wiggles behind her desk and then she shoots straight up, right out of her seat. Her chair skids back away from her legs and the room goes silent as everyone turns to see what the noise is all about.
Regina bends down and yanks her purse out from under the desk.
“I got better things to do,” she barks. Her voice is wavy, but no one else seems to notice. They all go back to talking. I watch Regina scoop up her books and folders and the bubble around me bursts, disappearing into thin air. At the same time, I’m smashed back into my body- shot in so fast that I rock back and my head feels spinny when I look up again. Regina ducks down near my temple, her gaze hovering carefully out of my range as she hisses in my ear, “Jen’s gonna kill you...and I can’t wait.”
The bubble is gone, but something down in the pit of me stirs and two words vibrate up through my soul, until my head rings with them. Bring it.