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No one kills me on the way home. In fact, I make it home in record time because it’s not paper day. My mom is on the front steps, with paper on her lap, like usual, and a pen in her hand.
“Hi,” I say when I am close enough. Her lips are moving, speaking the names and reciting the plots, before she puts them down. She says it is to make sure she has them right. I’m not sure who would think she got it wrong. She looks up at me and her quiet recitation stops.
“It’s beautiful out today,” she says.
I look around, noticing the sun and the breeze for the first time. The only thing I’ve been thinking about has been making it home without running into Jen. Or whoever would be coming to deliver the consequence of my being noticed by Garrett Reese.
“Yeah, it’s nice,” I tell my mom. She studies me.
“Lot on your mind?”
“Would it have anything to do with a boy?” she asks with a grin. She scoots over and pats the cement beside her. I take my backpack off my shoulder to sit.
“It’s not good,” I say. My mom’s grin flat lines. “Something happened. Something really, really weird.”
“Okay.” My mom puts down her pen and her face lifts with a confusing look of hope.
“A boy at school was asking about me.” I decide to skip the part about Garrett being at the library.
“Oh,” she says. Her body relaxes like a spreading puddle and she giggles. “Well, that doesn’t seem bad, does it?”
I frown at her because she should know better. She knows what happens. “This time, it’s really bad, because the guy that was asking about me is dating Jen Ballard.”
“The cheerleader girl?”
“I guess Jen wants to kill me.”
“How do you know that? Did she say that to you?”
“No. Regina...a girl in my English class told me,” I say, wondering if I should even tell her the next part. She might freak out and drag me to the doctor. Maybe she should. When I look at her, she’s got her mom-face on again, all serious and interested. Right now, it is exactly what I need. Someone on my side that will help me sort this out. “And something else happened today too. Something weird.”
“Weird how?” My mom’s back goes straight again, a soldier at attention. As if something weird is such a bizarre happening for me.
“Regina was saying how Jen is going to kill me and something happened.” I glance at my mom to see if she’s going to question this, but she’s sitting like a statue, so I continue. “I got really...calm. I think I might’ve had a heart attack or something. My fingers got all flinchy and then I felt really creepy...like I was outside of myself or something.”
My mother’s brow knits in the middle of her forehead and I stop talking.
“Did everything go black? Could you hear people talking to you?” she asks.
I shake my head. “No. Nothing went black. We were in study hall and the room was full of kids, but I don’t remember anyone talking to me besides Regina. The girl sitting next to me might’ve said something. I don’t remember.”
My mom sighs, almost as if she’s disappointed that I didn’t stroke out. She slides an open hand to my forehead and rests it there.
“Are you feeling okay now?”
“Yeah. What do you think it was?”
“I don't know. Probably nothing,” she says. “You feel normal. It was probably just hormones.”
We sit a minute, connected by her touch. I close my eyes. The warmth of her skin makes me feel like no matter what is wrong with me, I will be okay.
“Probably,” I agree when she drops her hand. I don’t tell her anything else. Whatever happened to me, I am fine now. And I’m even starting to wonder if I just imagined it all anyway.
“More studying?” My mom asks when I pick up my backpack off the couch.
“I’ve got a lot to do. I need to spread out,” I say on my way out the door.
“Be careful out there and don’t forget to take your flashlight, okay? Don’t talk with anyone you don’t know.”
“I never do,” I say as I close the door behind me.
The whole way to the library, I stick to the shadows, busy with listing off all the reasons why I need to go there and study. Most of them are real, but every part of me knows I’m really going because I’d like to see Garrett Reese come down the aisle again with that smile that says he wants to listen to me. I want to know if he really does. Even if, or maybe especially if, his girlfriend wants to nail me to a tree and leave me to rot.
I get to the old house and walk beside the place on the worn, dirt path. It’s only 8:00 and although the street is bathed in a faint glow from the other house lights, once I reach the tree line, it is pitch black. The moon isn’t out tonight, so I can’t see my own hand in front of my face. I pull out the flashlight and flick it on, following the beam along the ground. With all the fluttery chaos in my stomach, the darkness isn’t scary at all.
Inside the library, a half dozen people look up from their books when I come in. With finals coming, most of the people are students that appear either desperate for, or terrified by, the distraction. Only one is an older guy whose mouth is open over his book. He glances up and yawns, covering his mouth with long fingers before he goes back to reading. Ms. Fisk nods to me from the circulation desk as I pass. Julienne doesn’t look up from the open atlas in front of her.
Everything I feel about running into Garrett Reese again is a mix of gasoline and lighter fluid in my stomach. I weave through the shelves and reach the aisle. I turn toward my table and follow the carpet like Braille, keeping my eyes on the floor the whole time, as if I’m not expecting anyone to be there. My legs are tingling and rubbery.
Garrett Reese is at my table, leaning back in the same chair he was in last night. He is holding up the same novel in front of him and he’s resting the index finger of his opposite hand over his lip.
I want a longer minute, so I can memorize the way his hair touches his face, the color of his jeans, the way one of his ankles latches over the top of the other. I wonder if he ever gives any of it any thought at all. I want to remember the creases in his shirt, the heavy black watch on his wrist and the ridges of veins in his arms...everything...before he tells me what he’s heard about who I am.
I am five steps from the table when he lifts his eyes from his book and turns them to me. My legs buckle and surge at the same time. I’m going to crumple in a heap, then explode like a flare and hit the ceiling. It doesn’t make sense that he is here after having been at school all day. He must’ve heard everything about me by now.
I expect shock or dull recognition or maybe even a thinly veiled disgust on his face, although I’m hoping he’ll give me that smile, like he did before. What I get instead is a distant expression, like he’s concentrating on something another world away.
“Hi,” he says.
“Hi,” I reply, trying to make my voice sound as distant as his expression. If he thinks that blasting me with rumors will scare me off my library real estate, he’s going to find out something else about me too. I motion to my usual seat. “Is someone going to be sitting here?”
“Just you,” he says. My heart pirouettes against my will.
I drop onto the seat with a thud. I’m glad to get off my feet, before I fall off them, but I make a point of not looking at him even once. I pull my books out of my backpack and get right down to trying to convince Garrett that I don’t care if he’s sitting across from me.
It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever tried to do. My fingers are stiff and my handwriting looks like it belongs to someone else. My back starts aching and my eyes go dry, as if I’m not blinking enough. I make useless notes to distract myself from the insanely handsome boy sitting across from me.
“Can I talk to you?” he whispers. Oh God. Here we go. I pause, my pen over the top of my notebook.
“Sure. What do you need?” I sound like a lawyer. He chuckles, laying down his book. “I don’t want to disrupt you or anything.”
“You know we’re in a library, right?”
His laugh is a cradle that bundles up my nerves and tries to rock them to sleep. I lay my pen down and push back my shoulders, knowing what is coming next. We might as well just get this over with.
“What do you want to know?” I ask.
“Know?” he asks, amused. “You mean I get to ask anything I want?”
My face, my voice, my heart, goes flat.
“Sure,” I say.
“Ok.” He runs his hand through his hair. “What’s your favorite food?”
He must be dense. Or he thinks I am. I’m under his spotlight and he’s going to make me squirm. Got it. There’s a million twists on how this usually goes, but it always ends the same way. He’ll confirm all the rumors he heard at school and he’ll want me to say they’re not true. When I tell him it’s all true, he’ll ask the questions. They never change. Why does your mom do that? Why don’t you ask her to stop? Is your couch really the only place to sit? Why doesn’t your dad do something? When the inquisition is done, if he’s really into gory details, he might even ask to see the inside of my house. Of course, I’ll say no. And then, tomorrow or the day after, I’ll get the punishment, written across my locker or shouted at me in the hallways.
“I’ve got a thing for Mexican,” he says when I don’t answer him.
“Look,” I give him a bitter laugh. “Just ask me what you really want to know, okay? I’ll tell you everything, it’s fine. Whatever you heard today...what everyone says? It’s mostly true. My mom’s a hoarder. Our house is stuffed to the ceiling with paper. Paper, not rats. Not old garbage. Just enormous stacks, all the way up to the ceiling, of paper. I’m not overjoyed with it either, but that’s where I live. And my mom's not insane. But she is my mom and I love her, so you better watch it, if you’re going to say something about her.”
Garrett listens. When I take a breath, his blue eyes start swimming in my vision. I bite the inside of my cheek to stop it. He waits for my eyes to clear, tips his head to one side and grins the way my mother would after I survived a vaccination needle.
“What happens if I ask your favorite color?”
“I guess I didn’t understand the question,” I stammer. My face feels sunburned. His eyes are as vast and blue as if I am looking at the earth’s oceans from the moon. “Fajitas are good.”
“Just so you know,” he whispers, as he leans across the table toward me, “I know. I know and I get it. I understand.”
“Okay,” I breathe. I drop back, my spine melting against my chair.
I shouldn’t feel like this. It’s dangerous. I know better than to believe what he’s saying. But knowing better does not feel nearly as strong as the wanting that pounds me with a runaway heartbeat. Looking into his eyes doesn’t help. I need to take a moment - to know what I know and to distance myself from what I want - so that I can make the right decision about what to do next.
The silence grows so loud between us that it is disturbing.
“You okay?” he asks. It is the perfect escape.
“I need to use the restroom,” I say, standing up and pushing my chair back with my legs. “I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll be here,” he says, as I escape down the aisle.
I splash water on my face. Why people do that, I don’t know. Now I’m confused and wet. I’d have to submerge my entire head in a bucket of ice to get anywhere close to the clarity I need right now. I pace the bathroom until it seems unreasonable to hide any longer.
He says he gets it.
What does any of that mean? Does it mean he really doesn’t care or that he’s willing to tolerate everything until he gets what he wants from me? That idea makes me want to gag. And he said he understands. How can he? Does he live in a dumpster too? Or is that him trying to be a hero? As in, Just remember, I’m better than you, so I’ll overlook this.
Any of my theories could fit, if his tone had even a tiny hint of sarcasm. But nothing about him felt unreal. I saw nothing in his eyes but my reflection. There’s no reason to doubt what he says...or maybe, it’s just that there is no way for me to want to. If I’m going to make a mistake, at least I’m going to do it with a boy who looks like a magazine ad. My stomach flips at the possibility.
I open the bathroom door and criss-cross my way back. I get one aisle away and hear it. There is a heated conversation going on at my table, loud enough for me to hear, but not loud enough to bring Ms. Fisk shushing from the front desk. One voice is Garrett’s, still smooth, but stronger now, a silk sheet stretched over a hammer.
The second voice is easy to recognize when she hisses, “I can’t believe you’d do this to me. You know what she is!”
“What she is?” I am elated to hear the resentment in Garrett’s voice. “What exactly do you think she is, Jen?”
“She’s disgusting!” Jen explodes. “She lives in a rat trap with her crazy mother. Do you know what people are going to say if you go out with her?”
There is a smirk in his tone when he says, “They’re going to say, I wish I’d asked her out first.”
Oh my God oh my God oh my God. He’s talking about me.
Jen snorts. “No they’re not. They’re going to say you’re nuts too.”
“I don’t have a problem with that,” he says. “But I can see why you do. If you hadn’t spread it around that we were dating, you wouldn’t even be here right now.”
“I never told anyone we were dating,” she insists.
I am in love with how lame she sounds. I fight down a giggle.
“Yes you did.” His tone is softer and kinder than I would’ve been. “And I’m flattered, but I think we both know we’re not right for each other.”
“Oh, I can see that,” she huffs. “I understand why you and I aren’t right for each other. I do. It’s because you’re into slumming it.”
“We can stay friends, if you watch what you say right now.”
“Friends?” Her laugh is bitter. “No, we can’t just be friends. Where is she anyway? I have a few things to say to Little Miss Waste myself.”
I hear Jen take a couple steps down the aisle and I stumble backward, away from the shelf that hides me from the two of them. I’ve seen how brutal she can be. She’s going to try to drag me back and humiliate me in front of him. I have to get out of here.
I backtrack to the bathroom, but instead of going in, I stick to the outer edge of the library’s maze. I slip past the circulation desk and go out the front doors without looking back.
When I hit the fresh air, I sprint through the parking lot to the tree line. Jen wins. I’m running away. I’d rather look like a coward than have her shred me in front of Garrett.
Once I hit the tree line, there is a bigger problem with my escape plan. Besides having left behind all of my books and homework, it is moonless and black in the woods and next to impossible to navigate the path. Especially without my flashlight.
I can’t stand around outside, or keep creeping along the tree line, waiting for Jen to leave. I’d look even stupider if she caught me out here. And the worst would be if Garrett came out and saw me hovering among the trees like a complete loser. I have to go. Standing here can only make a bad thing worse. I take a deep breath and move into the trees.
The path is obscured within less than a second. I try to feel my way from tree to tree, shuffling my feet over the ground, but I trip over tree roots and stumble on uneven patches. It only takes me a couple of minutes of fumbling to realize I need to go back. There’s no way I can do this without a flashlight.
I turn around, and I’m lost.
I muddle back the few feet where the entrance to the path should be, but there is no opening. No light. I spin in a dizzying circle trying to locate any dim glow breaking through the trees, without luck. The trees close in on me and my heart accelerates.
I reach out with one hand and touch bark.
“I’m okay,” I whisper to myself. I feel better with my hand on something solid.
I reach out my other hand, swatting gently at the darkness for another trunk. My skin meets something nubby and soft instead. It has an undercurrent of warmth. I slide my fingertips slowly over the material, trying to place the texture. There is a hole. Before I can pull my hand away, I touch something soft and moist. Something that opens and exhales a hot, stale breath.
“Finally,” says the gravelly voice of an unfamiliar man. His tone is as shallow as a grave. He locks a hand on my wrist. “I’m real sorry, baby. But I’ll make it quick if you just keep still.”
An adrenaline bomb explodes inside me. I fall back from the man, my feet pushing away instinctively against the ground. My wrist is wrenched from his grip, as I stumble and land hard on my back. The ground pounds the air out of me. The tapping in my chest: long, short, long, short, long...speeds to a whir. My breath returns in one quick gasp and I’m on my feet again.
I feel the man’s rough skin as he grabs for me and misses. I’m close enough to smell him. It’s the stink of wet ground, rotting in the shade. He swings his arm, another miss, but it throws me off balance. I fall to the ground again, scuttling backward like a crab.
“Come ‘ere.” His voice is a rough whisper. “It won’t last long, I promise. It’ll be over before it hurts...”
Something pops inside me and my ears thrum with the sound of a vicious ocean swell. I am outside myself, and calm, just like I was with Regina. I still can’t see the man’s face, but I can make out the hole he leaves in the darkness. He lunges at me and I duck away as if I’m a ninja. He swipes with an arm, but I weave out of the way with amazing ease.
“Don’t make this thing any harder than it already is...” he grunts. I hear a thin scrape along the ground, the drag of metal against dirt. “Nobody’s gotta remember any of this.”
A thick sound cuts through the air, coming toward me. My eyes adjust to a blunt shadow overhead. I know I have to move and my body is trying to spring, but I hold it down, scared to do the wrong thing. Jumping might be the wrong move. If I...
It’s the split second that gets me hit. I throw my left arm up over my head in defense. Whatever is tearing through the air comes down on me, solid as the hull of a ship. The sickening crunch knocks me off my feet.
My arm is a thousand points of pain, all of them igniting as I hit the ground. A moan breaks free from my throat. The sound turns the man’s footsteps in my direction. He is coming for me, his metal weapon scraping over the raw ground behind him. I struggle to push myself onto my feet, but my arm explodes in white hot needles.
“Oh God,” I drop back down in the dirt.
“Nalena!” Garrett’s voice spears through the dark like an arrow. The man’s footsteps halt.
“Here!” I croak.
And I pass out.
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A bump jolts me awake with a groan on the front seat of Garrett’s car. I’m strapped in beside him and we’re tearing down Main. He takes a right at my street.
“Hey,” Garrett says, glancing at me. “How are you doing?”
“Where are you going?” My arm is full of white hot pain and I try not to moan.
“Don’t worry. I’m just picking up your mom and we’re going to the hospital,” he says.
“No,” I have to say it through clenched teeth. “Not home. Just take me to the hospital, okay?”
But it is too late. Garrett slows the car to a gentle halt in front of my apartment complex.
“I’ll be right back,” he says.
“Wait,” I say, but he’s out of the car and jogging up my front steps, banging on the middle black door, as if he’s been to my house a thousand times before. I move my good hand away from my jagged arm and shriek with pain before I can even reach for the door handle. I’m stuck.
I drop my forehead on Garrett’s side window with a thud. I wish I could pass out, but instead I have to watch my life being pulled wide open from his front seat.
The light from our apartment spills from the doorframe and over Garrett’s body, making him a silhouette against my mother’s glowing figure. His hand goes to his forehead like he’s rubbing his temple. They only talk for a second before my mom darts away, leaving the door wide open. The blinding avalanche inside enhances the light that flows onto the porch. It’s not like I can’t imagine what he is thinking, standing on the threshold of all that paper.
The car window gets slippery under my cheek as I watch Garrett step one foot into my house. He can’t go any further. He stands on the tiny patch of clear space where we kick off our shoes. His head does a slow arc of surveillance and his hand stays on the doorknob. My mother appears again with her purse, shooting past him, down the steps. Garrett twists the lock on the door and pulls it closed behind him.
My mom is so busy hyperventilating on the way to the hospital that Garrett spends most of the time trying to calm her down. I watch his smooth profile as he speaks to her, which helps to keep my thoughts from tumbling back to the man in the woods. The smell of the man is still in my nose. I concentrate on Garrett’s voice, controlled and deep, in order to shoo the other voice from my head. My arm has gone mercifully numb, except when Garrett brakes at a light. The forward lurch, before the car completely stops, makes it feel like my entire limb is being pulled off.
“Tell me again how this happened,” my mom prods from the back seat. She is leaning forward, with her torso nearly wedged between us, her fingers rubbing light circles on my good shoulder.
“She was in the woods...” Garrett begins for me. My mother sucks in a frantic breath, turning her head in my direction.
“What woods? Why were you in the woods?”
“There’s a shortcut to the library...” I say, and Garrett mercifully chimes in, “She was going home...”
My mother turns back to him. “You were with her?”
“Uh...” Garrett hits the brakes so we don’t run through an amber light and the car rocks forward slightly. The momentum is excruciating, even though I’m holding my arm against me. I grit my teeth and groan.
“Are you alright?” The two of them ask at once. I nod.
“We’re almost there,” Garrett says. I’m not sure if he’s assuring me or my mom or himself. He probably just wants to dump us both and run. I figure he’s kicking himself right now, for ever having sat down at my library table at all. The light turns green and he accelerates, slow and steady, glancing over to gauge how I’m doing. I try to look like I’m in control. Strong. But I keep thinking of Garrett scaring off the shadowed man and my head fills with the man’s husky voice. I try to shift my focus to my mom’s interrogation instead.
“How did your arm get hurt?” My mom swallows. I can tell she doesn’t want to say broken. She’s trying to hold it together for my sake and it is barely working.
“There was a man in the woods,” I say. “I think he hit me with a shovel.”
“A man!” she shrieks in my ear. “You think he had a shovel? You didn’t see it? What did he look like?”
“I couldn’t see anything, Mom. It was pitch black.” A sour knot boils in my stomach as I add, “I touched his face. I think he was wearing a ski mask.”
“Didn’t you have your flashlight?”
When Garrett hits the brakes to turn into the hospital’s emergency entrance, I am grateful to let out another groan instead of an answer. It is enough to shut my mother up. I don’t want to lay out the entire story of how I was eavesdropping on Garrett and Jen’s conversation, and how I ran away from Jen, ditching my backpack to get away. I can feel my face flush with heat in the dark as I wonder again about how I got from the woods to Garrett’s car, until my mom starts squawking that she wants us dropped at the Emergency entrance.
“No, I’m not getting wheeled in.” I glare at her. “I can walk just fine, Mom.”
“You shouldn’t be moving that arm any more than you have to.” she insists.
I look past her to give Garrett my best pleading glance and he winks at me, but then he pulls up in front of the emergency doors. He smiles with an apologetic shrug as a guy in scrubs appears beside the car door with a wheelchair.
“I don’t want you passing out when you get on your feet again,” Garrett says, reaching over me to unlock the door.
Garrett stays in the waiting room, while my mom and I are escorted into one of the curtained pods inside the emergency room. I am sure he will not be there when we come out. Whether or not all that stuff he said about knowing or understanding still applies, he’s also had to drag me out of the woods, and drive me and my hysterical mother to the hospital. And none of that even takes into consideration that he’s had a glimpse inside our house.
The doctor comes in and takes a look at my arm. He’s short and smells like garlic, and he excuses himself after he asks how this happened and I tell him about the man in the woods.
When I come back from being x-rayed, there is a cop waiting with my mom in the pod. He’s got a notepad and wants to know how much pain medication I’ve had.
“None.” I shake my head. “I can’t feel it. Everything’s just numb.”
“I’m going to need to ask you some questions then,” The cop says. His upper body is as broad as he is tall and wherever he stands in the pod, it feels like he’s hovering over me.
“She was attacked in the woods behind the library off Main Street,” my mom blurts and that’s where it begins. He asks a zillion questions about how I got in the woods, how long I was there, how I met Garrett, how long we’ve known each other, and when did Garrett get into the woods. Then he asks me a million more times to describe the man, but I can never do any better than saying he was a big shadow in a ski mask.
“Why do you think it was a shovel that he struck you with?” he asks.
“It sure felt like one,” I say. It was a lame attempt at humor. The cop dodges a glance from his pad to me and doesn’t crack a smile. I frown and clarify, “It sounded like he was dragging a shovel on the ground.”
“Did the man say anything to you?”
“Yes. He said he wanted me to stand still...and he told me it would be over before it hurt. And he said I was making it harder than it had to be.” I get a shiver down my spine that explodes like needles inside my arm. I wince.
“Did he attempt to touch you?” the officer asks. He lowers his pad and stares at me straight. “In a sexual way?”
I glance at my mother, who is biting her lip so she won’t cry. I hadn’t thought of it that way and now it feels extra creepy to have to think of all the possibilities under fluorescent lights. Especially since I’m being asked by a complete stranger in front of my mother.
“No. He was grabbing at me like he wanted to catch me,” I say. “But I couldn’t really see him in the dark.”
“Is there anything else you remember? Anything at all?”
Remember. The word tickles my brain.
“Yes,” I say. “He told me no one has to remember any of it...or anything...no one has to remember anything. Something like that.”
My mother gasps. The officer turns to her.
“Does that mean something to you, Mrs. Maxwell?” he asks. She bites her lip again.
“No. No, it doesn’t.” She straightens herself up in the seat. “But do you think this man was trying to...” Her sentence fades and she puts a finger over her mouth.
“We won’t know anything until he is apprehended and we have a chance to talk with him,” the officer says. He looks at his pad and taps it with his pen before looking back at me. “However, I would suggest that you choose better routes to the library than through unlit woods. You said your friend Garrett found you. Is he still here?”
“He’s in the waiting room,” my mom says. “He’s a nice kid. He’s waiting to drive us home.”
“I’m going to go have a word with him,” the officer says. “I’ll be contacting you if I have any more questions.”
“Great,” I mutter as he leaves.
An officer talking to Garrett is just what I need. They might as well just wheel me down to the morgue right now. I don’t know how I’m ever going to talk to Garrett again, much less, ever go back to school with the rumors that Jen is probably constructing at this very second. Especially if she saw what happened.
“You told him everything you could,” my mom grumbles more to herself than to me. She smoothes my hair at my temple and I relax to her touch. I am suddenly exhausted and want to fall asleep beneath her palm. “You can’t tell him what you don’t know.”
“What don’t I know?” I murmur.
The curtain pulls back and the doctor walks in with the gray sheets of my x-rays
“Today’s your lucky day,” his voice booms and I’m wide awake again. “You’ve got a clean break and there isn’t much swelling, so we’ll be able to cast it for you and get you out of here.”
My mother whispers, “Thank you, God.”
My mom reluctantly agrees to letting me have the pain meds after the doctor said that without them, setting my bone would be excruciating and verging on child abuse. I don’t think the meds kick in right away because it is still excruciating, but I’m woozy by the time we’re back in Garrett’s car. Or maybe it is because it is two in the morning and he’s driving us home. I’m curled up in his backseat with my head in my mom’s lap, fighting the blur, because I want to remember what it is like to be in Garrett’s car.
“Thank you for everything today,” my mom tells him over the seat.
“It’s no problem.” Garrett’s voice is milk. Warm milk that makes the woozy even woozier. Garrett’s got the heat on full blast and the rumble of the engine is soothing. My arm is asleep in its cast and my mind goes hazy around the edges. I try to listen to them talk, I’d like to hear every word that Garrett says, but my thoughts drift like feathers in a fan.
“I deeply appreciate the extension of help. Even if she isn’t Alo,” my mom says. Extension? My mind scrambles up an extension ladder and at the top rung, looks around and can’t place what it’s doing there. Uh low…did she mispronounce a plant name? The ladder disappears in a poof, replaced by healing plants. I am rooted to the seat. My mind connects seat to feet and then I’m off again, thinking of whether or not I’m wearing shoes because I can’t feel them.
“It’s no problem,” Garrett assures my mom again. I close my eyes and dream of milk. Enough of it to fill an ocean.
I sleep all the way through school the next day and wake up about a half hour after the final bell would have sounded. Thank you, God.
The cast is heavy. My bones are telegraphing a constant throb from inside the plaster and my fingers, poking out the bottom, are chubby and purple. My mom calls the hospital twice to ask if it’s normal, her voice high and argumentative. They tell her pain and swelling and bruising is all normal and suggest, both times, that she fill the prescription for pain medication. My mom thanks them for the advice, but I sit on the couch with a bag of frozen peas on my fingers instead.
“Sorry, this is the best we can do,” my mom says.
I know I’m going to have to grit through the pain, because she won’t fill the prescription no matter how bad this gets. She’s preached to me, since I was a little kid, about how medicine just masks symptoms and disrupts the body’s natural defenses. She’s got all sorts of hippy beliefs about how important it is to keep energy rhythms unaltered so that the body can do what it needs to. However, believing that has never stopped her from hovering over me with a scrunched up brow, looking scared out of her mind that maybe, this time, she could be wrong. So, what I rely on now, is not my mom’s speeches, but the fact that I’ve always pulled through before. I’ve got good odds.
“Do you remember anything else about yesterday?” she asks after she’s microwaved soup for me. That’s her answer for the flu and colds and broken bones. Chicken noodle from a can.
“Not really,” I say. She trades me a big mug for the bag of peas and sits on the cushion beside me, watching me drink down the soup. She’s got dark circles under her eyes from staying up all night, writing. My broken arm probably put her back another fifty pages. She doesn’t complain about it, but says she can’t sleep unless she’s written everything on her mind. I worry about how crazy that seems when she’s draining herself to do it.
“So, are you going to tell me about Garrett?” she asks.
“Garrett?” I smile saying his name. “I don’t know what you want to hear. He’s a guy from school.”
“Who likes you,” she adds. I can’t help but smile again.
“Do you think so?”
“Seems like it to me.” she says. “Doesn’t it to you?”
“I...well, I want him to.” My relentless grin feels goofy. My mom grins back. “I just met him for the first time a couple days ago. He showed up at my table in the library. He was the one who was asking about me at school. I figured once he heard all the rumors, he’d be toast, but he came back again last night.”
“I’m glad he did,” my mom says. She lifts a lock of my hair away from my temple and pushes it behind my ear. “But I wanted to talk to you about him. I don’t want you to get very attached to this young man.”
“What? Why?” I pull away from her touch. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing.” She pauses, dropping her hand in her lap to twist the skin of her ringless fingers. “He’s just not like us, that’s all.”
“Like us?” I balk. “Mom, there’s no one like us. If I have to wait around to find someone like us, I’d have to join the circus.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“What do you mean then? He’s too popular? He’s got more money? What? How does he need to be like us to make you okay with him?”
“It’s not that he couldn’t be a great friend, Nali. I think you could be very good friends and I think he already seems almost protective of you, but there are limits. His family is, well, it’s just that...”
“He’s out of my league?” I finish for her. She frowns.
“In a different way than you think,” she says.
I am off the couch then, yelling at her. “You think he’s out of my league?”
I feel my eyes bulging. My mother, who is supposed to love me more than anybody, thinks I’m not good enough for a boy like Garrett.
My legs are trembling. I would pace, if there were room to do it, but there isn’t. The energy hammers inside my legs, run, run, run, but I stay put, because I want to scream at my mother. I want her to take it back. Now.
“You’re not understanding me,” she says. She twists her finger harder.
“What’s there to understand?” I shriek. “That you think I’m not good enough for some guy I just met?”
“Honey, you’re better than any boy you’ll ever meet.” She looks up at me with a somber face. She’s right. I don’t understand. Not at all. “We’re in a different world. No, that’s not what I’m trying to say. We’re just different people, that’s all. His family and ours, it’s just...different. How can I say it?”
She throws up her hands in the air, as if she’s tried to explain this to me a thousand times and I’m still too dumb to get it.
“Different,” she says again. “I can’t explain any better than that. Just different. That’s it. That’s all I can tell you. It won’t work because we’re always going to be different.”
“I’m getting out of here,” I say. I work my way upstairs and she doesn’t follow. I get into my running clothes, shoving my cast into my jacket sleeve so hard that it looks like the seams will pop. When I come back downstairs, she’s still sitting on the couch, staring at a stack of paper on the floor at her feet.
“You’re going running?” she asks when I pass the couch, following the trail through her piles of garbage, to the front door. “How are you going to run with a cast on your arm?”
“I’ll figure it out,” I growl at her. “Just don’t worry about it. You wouldn’t understand.”
I go out, slamming the door behind me.
There are no cars in the school parking lot when I get there. The place is deserted, which has never bothered me before, but as I cut around the back of the gym, I spot the tree line at the far end of the track and think of the woods, and the man with the shovel, and the hair at the back of my neck prickles. The weird thing is that the hair isn’t rising out of fear. My body is so juiced with adrenaline that when I think of the man, the feeling at the back of my neck is more like the hackles of a vicious dog. I almost want to see him, to dig my fingernails into his face and beat him with my cast. The way I feel at this moment, I think I could kill him.
But there is no one here and the track is empty. I don’t care. If the school’s entire sports roster of teams decided to have a field day all together right this minute, I would still run. My legs are surging like I’ve got a direct line into an electrical outlet and all I want to do is disconnect.
I peel off my jacket and dump it on the ground, dropping into quick stretches that I don’t hold long enough to do much good. The air is damp and cool, like it could melt off my cast, but I don’t care about that either. All I can think of is the energy, rolling over me in hot, angry currents. I’m going to explode.
The first two miles I take at a sprint. The cast makes pumping my arm clumsy and awkward and the bones inside ache like their own explosion, but I’m so charged, it doesn’t slow me down. Every time my feet hit the track, another burst of frantic energy pounds through me. By the third mile, all the jarring has probably given me nerve damage, because I can’t feel my arm anymore, but I’m minutely calmer and more aware of how alone I am, the echo of my feet soaked up by the surrounding trees. I fall into a rhythm of both pace and breathing that is as numbing and spiritual as a chant.
I guess that’s why I don’t notice him at the top of the bleachers, until I’m circling back toward them, in the middle of my fourth mile. He’s in running gear too, dark pants and a white tee shirt that distracts my eyes from his inky hair. The cotton shirt clings to his chest. He’s got a body that makes the entire female population at Simon Valley feel hollow and wanting. And it makes me think of how my mom says I’ll never have him.
Garrett trots down from the top of the stands, the way I never do. I always over-think it and end up wobbling between each riser, but Garrett’s steps are solid and sure, as if he knows he won’t slip and bust an ankle or knock out all his teeth. By the time I have rounded to the bleachers, he is at the bottom of them, jumping down onto the track. He falls into pace easily beside me.
“Hey, are you allowed to run with a cast?” he asks with a smirk.
“I’m doing it,” I tell him. “So that must mean I’m allowed.”
“Rebel,” he laughs. “Have you heard anything from the cops?”
“No.” I shake my head. Now that I’m a little more mellow from the run, I don’t want to start talking about what happened. I’ve run the man from the woods out of my head. I need to switch the subject, which is super easy to do the second that I connect with the blue calm of Garrett’s eyes.
“How long have you been sitting in the bleachers?” I ask.
He shrugs like he’s been up there for years, waiting for me to come stretch and sprint—watching me circle the track over and over, to relieve the pressure. Which is, kind of, his fault.
We run two laps in silence. Our shoes fall on the black top in unison. Our breathing aligns and we sound like one runner instead of two.
On the next lap, my arm begins to throb so bad that I think the cast is going to blow off. As I slow down, Garrett’s steps remain in time with mine, as if he is anticipating what I’m thinking. We both drop off to a walk.
“Arm bothering you?” he asks, eyeing my swollen, purple fingers with a sympathetic wince.
“Yeah,” I say.
My bones feel like they are trying to jack hammer their way out of my cast, but what I would really like to say is that there is a lot more bothering me than just my arm. I want to ask him if everyone at school knows about what happened, and I want to ask why he was up in the bleachers watching me run. I want to find out why he is still bothering to talk to me at all, since he’s seen my house. And I want to know if he thinks he’s too good for me. Instead, I just flex my fingers and rub my aching arm above the cast as we walk.
“You know,” Garrett says, stepping in front of me. I jerk to a halt so I don’t slam into him. “I might be able to make that feel better. I’ve been told I’ve got the touch.” He wiggles his eyebrows at me. “I’m a healer.”
I laugh at him as he reaches for my hand. I flinch before he even touches my fingers. And then I feel it.
His touch is a color.
It is more gentle than the fluid sky of his eyes and warmer than the midnight ink of his hair. The jack hammer in my bones instantly stalls. He spreads his thumbs over the top ridge of my palm, kneading his color beneath the cast. Suddenly, all I want to do is close my eyes. When I see that he is completely focused on my hand, I do.
Beneath my eyelids, I am melting. He smoothes his fingers over my skin, penetrating the muscles with heat instead of pressure. His touch transfers the warmth through my skin and it rises up my arms like spreading Fahrenheit. The heat drains every last ember of adrenaline from my body and leaves me paralyzed with comfort. A satisfied moan blooms in my throat before I can stop it. The sound escapes in a hum over my tongue, startling my eyes open.
Garrett isn’t staring at my hand anymore. His eyes are on mine. His gaze is as penetrating as his touch.
“Feel better?” His voice is thick. The lazy grin on his face doesn’t mask anything.
I look down at my fingers protruding from the end of the cast. They just look like my fingers. They’re not bruised sausages anymore. I wiggle them carefully, but the throbbing doesn’t return. I want to say something smooth, or even just ask how he did that, but my voice is trapped, or maybe just held down, by absolute amazement. My entire arm, from fingertips to elbow, just feels like my arm now, wrapped in a heavy, awkward tube. Garrett gently replaces my arm to my side before he steps away. I feel drugged and soft at my edges, like I did in the hospital. He smiles like he understands.
“Come on,” he says, tipping his head toward the bleachers. “I brought your backpack.”
We turn toward the stands, walking silently beside one another, his hand brushing so close to mine that I want to reach out and take it. I try to will him into awareness, as if I could telekinetically weave his fingers into mine, but he seems more interested in scanning the arc of the track than looking at me. Four steps before we reach the bottom step of the risers, he stops dead and turns back toward the tree line at the opposite end.
I follow his gaze and in a split second, maybe less than that, my eyes catch on the leaves of a branch. I don’t know how I can make it out from this distance, but my vision narrows in on the limb with its leaves mashed unnaturally around a dark entrance to the woods. I blink and focus on the shadow and realize I’m not looking at an emptiness among the trees but a very full man, dressed all in black, swaddled among the branches. His face is completely shrouded, pushed deep in a dark hood.
“Who...” The whisper of the word is still on my lips as Garrett tears away from me, in a lightening sprint, toward the trees.
I see the tree branches shake a trail of the man’s retreat as he escapes back into the woods. Garrett reaches the tree line only seconds later. I don’t know how he got from me, to the tree line, which is across half a football field, but he did. My chest begins whirring and I shoot off after him, like a runner out of the blocks. I don’t think to do it, I just do. My breath flows through me, easy and deep, and my protective bubble blows out around me like a snow globe. I am in and out of myself at once, watching as I cover the ground as silent as a rabbit, but a hundred times faster. I don’t question how the ground passes beneath me in a dirty blur or of how weightless I feel.
I just focus on following Garrett.
He crashes through the shroud of branches and the limbs are still quivering as I tear through, about twenty feet behind him. I follow his trail as best I can, the leaves whipping back and stinging my face. The man is so fast, I lose sight of him immediately. I put up my cast to shield my face and glimpse Garrett dodging to the right. Although my body automatically shifts in the same direction, I falter with the thought that maybe it would be smarter for me to take a different path. Circle around. What if I’m the one to actually catch the man? The thoughts multiply and the fear of touching the man’s ski mask again, or smelling his rotted breath, seeps into me.
Like a vacuum that has suddenly sucked me up, I am jerked back inside myself. The rhythm that had made my speed effortless, collapses under me. My feet stumble, as if I’ve miscalculated the number of steps in a staircase, and fall down the last. I pitch forward, hitting the ground hard and rolling as I try to keep my cast pulled into my chest. The momentum finally throws me down, flat, onto my stomach, both arms sprawling at my sides. I would groan or scream or both, if the air wasn’t completely kicked out of my lungs. It takes a minute before I can even pull in a dusty breath.
I lay there, panting against the ground, listening as the sound of Garrett’s chase growing more and more faint. After a few moments of not being able to hear the footsteps any longer, I push myself onto my feet, checking to see if anything is broken or re-broken. Nothing is. My arm isn’t even aching.
I retrace my path out of the woods, half walking and half running and fully expecting to find Garrett along the way. Every time I think I’ve found the exit to the track, there is no exit, but more trees. It didn’t seem like I ran into the woods nearly this far, but I follow the prints all the way back to the exact bush that Garrett annihilated when he barreled into the woods. I scour the ground at the opening and find both mine and Garrett’s prints along with the rippled print of a workman’s boots.
My ears feel like they are working on bat sonar. I twist, searching for sound or movement, but the only snapping or rustling I hear is what I am doing myself.
I scuttle out of the woods, trying to will Garrett to come darting through the trees. I run to get my jacket, still heaped on the track, and my backpack from the bleachers. I don’t know what I should do next. I pace in front of the bleachers, wringing my hands in front of me, while I keep my eyes on the trees. I don’t want to leave, in case Garrett returns or in case I hear him calling to me, and I don’t want to stay, because Garrett might need help and I keep hearing things behind me and beside me and in front of me that aren’t there.
I finally turn and sprint home.
“You need to slow down,” my mom tells me after I burst in the door, shrieking that we need to call the police.
“Garrett’s gone!” I howl. My mom grabs my good arm and her voice stands on tiptoes.
“Gone where?” she asks. “Where did he go?”
“The woods! The man...the man with the shovel was in the woods. Garrett went in after him...”
My mom lets go of my arm and whispers into her palm, “Oh God.” Then her face morphs from worry to determination. “Where, Nalena? At the school? Were you at the track?”
I nod, gulping air.
“Come on.” She grabs my good arm again and tows me roughly to the door. She heaves her purse off the floor and stuffs her feet into shoes.
“Where are we going?” My own voice is stringy and high. “We have to call the police.”
“We’re going to Garrett’s house,” my mom says and I stumble out the door behind her.
I am g-forced to the passenger’s seat as my mother navigates down side streets. She weaves us out of our neighborhood as though she knows exactly where she is going. She does rolling yields and blows through stop signs like there is no one else on the road. When a car intersects us, she honks and flashes her lights and screams at them to get out of our way.
“I don’t even know where Garrett lives!” I tell her. “We need to get the police!”
“Shh!” The angry hiss rushes through my mom’s teeth as she takes another turn. She steers us past the old, historic sub and past the trailer park, into one of the better parts of town. It’s not the best, but it is way better than ours. The subdivisions are clustered together with signs that distinguish them from one another at the entrances. We pass Ash Brook, Oak Meadows, Pine Haven, Maple Rivers. Just when I think we’re running out of trees, my mom turns into Woodfield.
It’s an older sub, with wide shady streets, created by the old trees that interlock their branches overhead. The houses are a mixture of huge colonials and enormous split levels with chalk drawings in almost every driveway and bikes and skateboards scattered like lawn ornaments.
My mom parks at the curb of a beige quad that has cream, criss-cross designs decorating every window. The house is on the corner of a street that twists away from the main one, so the lot is a pie wedge and the front yard, a trapezoid.
“How do you know this is Garrett’s house?” I ask.
She throws open her door. “Just trust me, okay?”
She’s on her way up the front walk before I can ask anything else. I jump out and follow her, sure she has this all wrong. There is no way my mom would have a clue where the most popular boy in school lives. She can’t even find the post office, and she’s been there a dozen times.
“Why do you think he lives here?” I ask when we reach the front door. She ignores me and rings the bell.
I would keep on her, except that the sound coming from inside the house wells up as though it could come smashing through the front door and crush us into the lawn. Even though the door is closed, the sound of hooting and hollering and uncontrolled chaos leaps inside. My mom rings the bell twice more. We hear wild, shrieking laughter, thumping and bumping, and twice, I think footsteps are coming to answer the door, but they don’t. My mom finally lays on the bell. She doesn’t let up until we hear someone inside screaming that there is someone at the door and then someone else screaming that someone should get it. It is like a chain of alarms that no one does anything about. Finally, a little face appears, pushing aside the curtained side light to stare at us.
The little girl has a round face and a plume of black hair, ponytailed at the bulls-eye top of her head. It looks like a thin fountain and it flutters in the air like a bouquet of feathers when she moves. She is only in the side window for a second and then she drops the curtain and we hear her shouting that there are two ladies on the front porch.
Finally, a heavy gait rumbles to the door and swings it open. I expect a man, but see a tall woman instead, with a happy apple of a face. She is thin and firm and curvy all at once. Her muddy blond hair throws me off, but her eyes are unmistakable. They are the sky without clouds, a well of Caribbean water without the sandy bottom. Those are Garrett’s eyes. My mom has somehow found the right house.
“Mrs. Reese?” My mom puts her left hand to her temple, rubbing, as if her head is aching so bad it will split apart. She is still clutching her purse, like a bloated dachshund, in the crook of her other arm. We look pathetic.
The woman tracks my mom’s hand with a confused brow, as if my mom might be nuts. I cower on the Reeses’ front porch, embarrassed that we are here, instead of at the police station. The woman nods for my mother to continue as the little girl from the side light steps forward and grips her mother’s leg.
“I am Alo Evangeline Maxwell,” my mom says. My ears snag on the word: uh LOW, a weird title my mom has never used, but a word I swear I’ve heard before. But I don’t dwell on it because I am annoyed by the useless introductions. The only thing we should be doing right now is getting people into the woods to look for Garrett.
“Garrett ran into the woods behind the school track!” I squeal from behind my mother. The replicas of Garrett’s eyes, set above his mother’s round cheeks, flick to me. I spill the facts, flagging my cast in the air to further illustrate what I’m jabbering at break neck speed. “The man that hit me with a shovel was watching us while we were running the track and Garrett went after him!”
I expect this woman to gasp, to step away from the door or to slam it on us, to run to her phone and dial the cops. But she doesn’t do any of this. The little girl, who is still clinging to her mother’s leg, looks up with her baby-soft mouth dragging open, waiting for her mother’s next reaction. Mrs. Reese’s eyes flip back to my mother as she steps aside from her own threshold.
“Come in, come in,” she motions and insists with a hurried tone. Despite the sound of a basketball game being played off the walls in another room, my mother goes in and I follow, a panic bubbling inside me because no one is doing what they should. Mrs. Reese does a quick scan of her front lawn before she closes the door, as if she doesn’t want her neighbors to see how she lets in all the crazies that happen to appear on her doorstep.
Once we are inside, the little girl unglues herself from her mother’s leg and goes running down the short staircase that leads into the lower level, shrieking, “There’s ladies here! Sean, Brandon, Maaaaaarkyyyyy! Garrett’s in the woods!”
Mrs. Reese turns and steps back two feet, calling up the ascending staircase, “Basil! Basil, come down! Garrett needs help!”
“Help with what?” A man that must be Mr. Reese comes out from one of the rooms and down the stairs, slipping off reading glasses. He’s as tall as his wife and equally athletic. He is dark and handsomely Latino, and definitely responsible for having given Garrett everything from the midnight-colored hair to the underwear-model good looks. My mom sucks in a breath beside me and I nudge her hard with my elbow. I am nearly jumping out of my skin while she checks out Garrett’s dad, holding myself back from screaming, Do something!
“Who’s it, Mom?” A carbon copy of Garrett emerges from the lower level stairs. At first I am startled, thinking it is Garrett, but the boy from downstairs has a completely different gait, slightly bowlegged. As he comes up through the shadows of the lower level, I can see that he is also slightly older and a little shorter, but otherwise would be as close as Garrett could get to having a twin.
All at once, the foyer floods with the entire Reese family. The carbon copy, along with two younger boys, comes in with the little girl in tow. I can’t stand it any longer.
“SOMEBODY HAS TO CALL THE COPS!” I shriek.
The whole foyer goes silent. Mr. Reese raises his hand and pats the air down so calmly, that I think my head might blow off.
“Okay, okay...we’ll get to that,” he says. He turns to his wife and asks, “What’s this about Garrett?”
I don’t wait for her to explain. I start speeding through the story again, wagging my cast to get the point across that Garrett’s in danger. Mr. Reese squints, like he is concentrating on what I’m saying, until I get to the part about Garrett still being in the woods. I’m still talking as he motions to his wife and the two younger boys.
“Let’s go,” he says. His voice is anchored, like concrete.
The relief that Mr. Reese is going to finally do something is a frozen peppermint melting in my stomach. The house erupts into movement again. The youngest Reese boys pull on shoes as Mrs. Reese grabs flashlights and jackets from the coat closet near the door.
“Someone has to call the cops,” I say, but the closet assembly line doesn’t slow down.
Mr. Reese just gives my mom a brief nod and tells her, “Stay put, okay?” He glances at me and says, “We’ll put out the call.”
Then the four Reeses’ stream out the door, slamming it behind them. My mom and I are left standing in their foyer with the Carbon Copy and the little girl and I can’t even be excited about seeing the inside of Garrett Reese’s house this way.
“I’m Iris. I’m six.” The little girl has a wet lisp that I would giggle at and compliment, if Garrett was standing in the foyer introducing us. But he’s not. So, instead of thinking how adorable his little sister is, all I want to do is grab her by her wispy black ponytail and interrogate her, until she spits out why everyone is acting as if this is all totally normal. Maybe she can clue me in as to why I’m the only one who seems panicked about her family running off to find a missing sibling that was last seen chasing a shovel-wielding psycho in the woods.
My mom bends down to the little girl’s level and says, “Hi Iris. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Evangeline. And I’m a little older than six.”
I watch, crossing my arms over my chest awkwardly and rolling my tongue in my mouth, holding back another plea for someone to do something useful. For someone, besides me, to see how frightening this is. Or maybe just for someone else to lose their cool so I can take a break from losing mine.
I catch the Carbon Copy eyeing me. He’s dressed like a serious book worm, in a clean polo and pressed khakis. He looks like he should be wearing loafers, but he’s in bare feet. Even though he looks polar opposite of the kind that goes tromping around in mucky woods, it still seems weird to me that he’s the one staying back to babysit while his parents take Garrett’s two youngest brothers with them. I shiver, pushing away the thought of those boys reaching out in the dark woods and touching the man’s ski mask.
What annoys me even more than the stare is that the Carbon Copy’s lips have the tickle of a patient grin, the kind you’d use when teaching a child how to play a new and complicated game. It is not an arrogant grin, but it still makes me feel like he knows all the moves and is just too polite to point out that I don’t know any.
“Shouldn’t we call the police too?” I aim the question at my mom this time, like a spear that should pierce her subconscious, but the Carbon Copy answers for her.
“I’m positive my parents have already called.” he assures me. “They said they would and they have their cell phones with them.”
Instead of being comforted, I feel helpless. My mom, however, moves to stand beside the Copy as if he’s not a complete stranger and as if this isn’t some stranger’s house.
“I’m sure we’ll hear something very soon, Nali. Let’s not worry unless we need to.”
“Not worry?” I try not to choke.
“She’s right,” the Carbon Copy adds. He pauses to smooth out his serious brow and let it wiggle instead. “My brother’s got...skills. Mad skills. He can hold his own.”
“Against a guy with a shovel?”
“Against Furries even!” Iris interjects with a happy squeal. She squashes up her face and growls as she scratches the air with mock bear claws. My mom and the Carbon Copy giggle at Iris’s cuteness. I just grit my teeth and press my toes into the soles of my shoes to keep myself from screaming at the three of them.
“Does anyone get that the guy Garrett’s chasing is nuts? That I think it’s the same guy that broke my arm?” I raise my cast in the air like a plaster exclamation point. The three of them, even Iris, regard me dully, like I’m just trying to get attention.
“You know what? Nalena’s right.” The Copy rubs his neck as if he’s massaging a thought to the surface. “Come on in while I call down to the police station too. It can’t hurt to make sure they know what’s going on.”
“Good idea,” my mom agrees.
“But Garrett can...” Iris starts as the Copy swoops down with a laugh and scoops her up in his arms. He tumbles her onto his shoulders and she grabs fistfuls of his oil-black hair and squeals, “Giddy Up, Seany! Giddy up!” He gallops three steps down the hall and takes a right into what I assume is the Reeses’ kitchen.
My mom follows them and I follow her, tugging at her shirt until she slows up.
“What’s Alo?” I whisper in her ear. She clears her throat.
“Oh...it’s like a title. From the church I grew up in. It identifies me as part of a deacon’s family.”
I’ve never heard the name Alo, although I’ve heard stories about my grandfather’s dedication to his church community a few hundred times. My mom and Grandpa belonged to some church my mom never names, although she likes to tell me how much everyone loved my grandfather. She always says that the kids thought of my grandfather as theirs too, because he’d slip polished quarters into their pockets whenever he saw them. The way my mom tells it, she and Grandpa were an island, as far as blood relatives go, so they considered the community their family. But after my grandfather was murdered in a robbery that went bad, I guess my mom was too scared to stay, being on her own and pregnant with me, so she moved us away.
I’ve asked why we don’t go back to her old community now, because it sure seems like it would be nice to have people around who are like family, but my mom has always given me cornball answers like, we go there in our hearts and we’re there all the time, in spirit. When I really keep up with the questions, she just sighs and says, “It’s complicated, Nali. It’s very, very complicated.”
I don’t push it anymore because I don’t really want to end up crammed into some pew, belting out ancient karaoke to musty organ music every Sunday. That’s been enough to keep me from asking until now, but the Reeses’ connection makes me rethink how much I might enjoy sitting for hours on a hard wood bench, listening to heated Bible stories, beside Garrett.
“I thought we didn’t live near any of them,” I say. “How did you know Garrett’s family is part of Grandpa’s church? It’s not like we ever go.”
“In our hearts, we do,” my mom says, like usual. “I’ve always known the Reeses were part of Grandpa’s church. I just hadn’t met them formally.”
My mom says this last part out loud, as we step into the Reeses’ dining room. It is a long, wide, rectangle, filled almost to the edges with a huge, oval table and oak chairs. My mom smiles at Iris and The Copy as we scoot around the table and she stands at the end of the kitchen counter that is lined with barstools.
I move off to the side, feeling heavy and hidden in the corner, at the opposite end of the counter. Garrett is a part of a church, a family, that my mom never bothered to connect with. She never even mentioned it after she met him. We’ve lived in the same area, and I’ve been alienated in the same school, where I might have started out with at least one family friend to lean on. Anyone would’ve been better than Jen. Or, maybe it is the same problem as always: the paper. My mom probably stays away, trying to hide the hoarding from them like she does from everybody, or maybe they already know and have decided not to mingle with people who stuff their house full of combustive kindling.
The Copy, or Sean, if his little sister is correct, is in the enormous kitchen, already on a wall phone that he has wedged between his cheek and shoulder. He comes back around to our side of the counter, stretching the mile long cord, so he can plop Iris onto a stool. He reaches toward me, opening a cookie jar shaped like the Sesame Street Monster, and retrieves a chocolate chip for his sister. It’s the real kind, I think, too dark and misshapen to be made by machine.
“Yes, I wanted to report an incident,” he says into the phone. He smiles briefly in my direction and then his eyes find something distant through the door that leads off to the living room. He walks out of the kitchen, around the corner and his voice drops to a muted rumble.
I lean a shoulder on Garrett’s kitchen wall, taking in the place where he has probably stood in pajama bottoms, rustling through cabinets for a box of cereal. The kitchen is the size of our entire living room at the apartment, with a wrap-around counter. The only things on the counter are a bowl of fruit, a roll-top bread box, and four decorative jars nestled together. No stacks of paper. The cabinets are dark wood, the appliances are almond color, and there’s a wooden spoon cradled in a spoon rest on top of the stove. They don’t store cardboard boxes full of paper in their oven.
The fridge is taped with Iris’s drawings of her family playing soccer together and another of their crayoned bodies running together under a yellow muffin cup sun and a cotton ball cloud. The rest of the gleaming surface is papered with announcements for upcoming marathons and swim competitions, rosters for whirly ball leagues, baseball teams, and soccer clinics.
The only thing that isn’t a notice of some athletic event, besides Iris’s artwork, is a college course schedule. It sticks out like a tongue from a magnetic clip and it has Sean’s name on it. I scan the list of eclectic courses: Advanced Philosophy, Religion in Literature, Criminal Psychology, Human Anatomy, and World Politics. There’s not a blow off class in the bunch. No wonder he looks so serious.
“How did you know they’re part of Grandpa’s church?” I whisper to my mom. Sean’s still mumbling far off in the living room and Iris is too busy working over her cookie to care about us. “You never told me you knew them.”
“Ugh, Nali. I can’t tell you every single little thing I know...” My mom smiles at Iris and reaches over to tap the Cookie Monster’s head. “Do you think we could have some?”
Iris nods and my mom gets out three cookies, slipping another to the little girl.
“Just for being so generous,” my mom tells her. Iris nods again, her hair floating over her head. My mom winks at her and hands me a cookie, but I shake my head at it.
“I don’t get why no one else seems...” I begin, but Sean interrupts by walking back into the kitchen and tossing the receiver onto the cradle.
“They’re going to send a car over to the school,” he announces.
“Good,” my mom says and she winks again at Iris, who takes another bite of her cookie and giggles as she tries to make her own right eye wink back. I can see that Iris is already in love with my mom. Sean leans on the counter with one arm, looking at me.
“I’m Sean, by the way,” he says. “Garrett’s older brother.”
“What are all of your ages?” my mom asks. It’s a goofy question to start with, and the way she says ‘ages’, it’s like the Reeses’ individual birthdates are something exotic and intriguing. As if she wants to recount the years we’ve lost together.
“I’m twenty three. Just in college,” he says, like it’s an apology. It’s probably pity, assuming that people like us could never get to college. Garrett must have told him about our house and how one stray match spark would terrify us. My mom seems perfectly at ease.
“Nothing wrong with that. We all have to find our way up the ladder.” Her voice is all cheery and encouraging as if we’re not standing on the very bottom rung ourselves. She tips her head at me. “Nali is probably going to start off at community college in a couple years.”
“I thought I didn’t have a choice,” I say. My mom just chuckles and starts in on the second cookie that would’ve been mine.
Iris coughs, and when she has all of our attention, she announces, “Brandon and Mark got impreshdun’d...”
But the little girl stops abruptly when my mom leans over, with the same grin she used to give me when I spilled my milk, and places the tip of her index finger over the center of the little girl’s lip. My mom leaves it there for a split second before brushing off whatever crumb she’d seen. Iris blushes and ducks her head, wiping her own mouth with the back of her hand. Sean fills up the silence with a laugh as he pulls Iris’s stool away from the counter.
“Iris, here, just turned six last month. And that’s enough cookies for you, munchkin.” He tickles her as he puts her down on her feet. “Those Legos you left all over your room aren’t going to build themselves into a princess castle.”
“Aww...” Iris moans, but slouches off with less of a fight than I would’ve given. Sean replaces the stool beneath the lip of the counter when she’s gone.
“Mark’s 13, Brandon is 14, and Garrett is 18,” he says to my mom, like there was never a lapse in their conversation.
“Oh? When did he turn 18?” my mom asks. I would tell her not to be so nosy, except that I want to know too.
“December 3rd, officially,” Sean says. I make a mental note that Garrett is about nine months older than me and a tingle explodes inside me like a tiny firecracker. I am jerked back to attention when the phone rings. Sean lifts the receiver and drops it to his shoulder with a cheerful, “Yello?”
We stay silent. Sean stares at the floor as he listens and then adds a couple ‘uh huhs’ and ‘oh reallys’ and then he looks up at my mom and says into the receiver, “Yeah, they’re still here.”
Then he switches to me and his eyes sink into mine as he says, “Sure, I’ll tell them.” He replaces the phone on the wall cradle.
“They found him?” my mom asks.
“Garrett. They found Garrett,” Sean clarifies. “They didn’t catch up with the guy though. My mom asked if you wanted to stick around for a while.”
“Of course,” my mom says and I want to fall over. She is being all nonchalant, like waiting around and taking hours off from her writing is no big deal. This never happens. Not for birthdays or Christmas, teacher conferences or recitals. She always jokes that it’s a good thing that I’m a low maintenance kid, because she never takes time off. Even when other people want to talk to my mom, they have to come to our house and stand on the front steps, because she doesn’t have time for long conversations and there is no place to sit inside. She even pulled an all-nighter that had slopped over into most of today, to catch up on whatever she hadn’t finished while she had to wait for my cast to be put on.
“What did the police say?” I ask. Sean glances from me to my mom and back to me again.
“Oh, uh...” he says with a shrug. “My mom didn’t say.”
“Well, thank God that Garrett is fine,” my mom says. “That’s all that matters.”
As if it smoothes everything over, Sean pulls a pizza ad from a kitchen drawer.
“I’ll order pizza, since you’re staying,” he says.
I wait for my mom to say we won’t be staying that long, but instead, she puts her thumb to her mouth and just nibbles at the edge of her nail, the way she does when she gets antsy about not being able to write. I decide right then to just shut up and stop asking questions, because as much as I want to know why we’re here, I still want to be here when Garrett comes home.