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The food comes at the same time the rest of the Reeses do, filling up the house with the smell of warm pizza and the riotous sound of the people who live here.
“So what happened?” Sean asks. His head is turned to see behind him as he carries a ridiculously high stack of pizza boxes into the dining room. Mr. and Mrs. Reese come in right behind Sean, followed by the two younger Reeses, and finally, Garrett appears. He shuts the front door, and I hear him kick his shoes into the family pile, before entering the dining room.
I search him, from head to toe, before his eyes have even had the chance to sift through the room and find me. His pant legs are muddy at the bottoms, his dark shirt is spattered with dirt, and his hair is glossy with sweat. Otherwise, he looks fine. His eyes find me, standing in the corner of his dining room, and he breaks into a smile that makes my cheeks warm enough that I need to look away. My insides are bouncing and at the same time, I’m suddenly embarrassed to be standing in Garrett’s kitchen, as if I’ve intruded on his family and his house without being invited. He’s obviously fine and I feel like a complete tube for having freaked out for no good reason.
“That was boring!” the youngest brother complains. The other brother, a sandy-haired kid that towers by a couple inches over his littler brother, gives him a you-win-some-you-lose-some shrug.
“Garrett almost caught up with him,” Mrs. Reese tells my mother as she pulls bottles of water and a pitcher of iced tea from the fridge. Garrett shakes his head at Sean.
“By ‘almost’, she means I lost him almost immediately and spent an hour backtracking to be sure of it.”
Sean dumps a stack of plastic cups and some paper plates on the table. “Hey, it happens.”
“Was it the same guy?” I ask, fighting down the urge to point out exactly how dangerous catching that guy would be.
“I’m pretty sure it was,” Garrett says. “But he was gone before I could even get a look at him.”
A shiver fuses itself to my spine. His dad just flips open the lids of the pizza boxes.
“Everybody dig in,” he says, clapping a hand on my mom’s shoulder. “Don’t worry over this, Evangeline. It’s been reported and everyone is on the look out.”
My mom nods with a nervous smile and the conversation is dropped immediately, as Garrett’s family jumps in to grab plates and slices and cups for their drinks.
I’m so used to my mom’s perpetual silence, as she transcribes ream after ream for our paper mausoleum, that at first it feels like my ears are being pushed backward by the Reeses’ constant roar of voices and boisterous laughter. I watch as my mom stands away from the table with a twitching smile, startled every time one of the boys grabs for another slice or someone breaks into a booming guffaw. But I want to be part of all this fun the Reeses seem to have together. When Garrett frisbees a plate to me from across the table, I catch it.
“Eat,” he mouths the word to me like he knows I won’t be able to hear him over his family anyway. He adds a grin that makes my stomach feel hollow and full all at the same time. I think I could survive for months, drinking nothing but the pure blue of his eyes.
I take a triangle, dripping with veggies instead of pepperoni, and a bottle of water. Garrett tips his head in the direction of the descending staircase across from the dining room. I nod and follow him, weaving through the chairs. I’d follow him anywhere he wanted.
“We’re going to eat downstairs,” he says to his dad on the way out. Mr. Reese nods his approval to Garrett and looks across the table to my mother. I don’t look back because I don’t even want to know if she doesn’t approve.
The downstairs is instantly quieter and the sage green carpeting along with the pair of thick, homey couches, relaxes me. Garrett flips a switch that ignites gas logs in the fireplace and the room grows as warm as a kangaroo pouch, as we sit at opposite ends of a couch eating our pizza. Even with a busted arm, I’m a pro at eating over my own lap. It makes me feel like I’m at home.
Garrett stretches out from the opposite end, so that his feet almost touch my arm. I think of the way he rubbed my hand at the track and I want him to touch me again, even if it’s only with the tips of his toes.
“How’s your arm doing?” he asks, one foot brushing my arm. I glance at his feet and then jump to his face, worried that I might have been thinking out loud.
“Oh, uh, good. Really good, actually. I don’t know what you did to it, but it doesn’t hurt at all. It doesn’t even feel broken.”
“Good,” he smiles, biting into his pizza. He dodges a glance to the stairs. “I figured you might like eating down here, away from all that noise upstairs. It’s got to sound like a never-ending fire drill to you. I know it’s a lot to take, since you’re not one of us.”
I put my pizza down. I was going to say how the noise makes me feel, like I’m finally alive, and how I want to join right in and be part of all their chaos and laughter. But now I can’t even swallow what is in my mouth. My throat closes on his distinction of us, which makes me a them. My heart misses three beats, as if a door has been slammed on it. Garrett pushes my elbow with the ball of his foot.
“Hey. You okay?”
“Oh yeah,” I say, hiding the burn in my cheeks by setting my plate on the floor. I clear my throat. “I was just wondering what happened after I lost you in the woods.”
His eyes look almost brown in the warm light. He chews the last bite of his pizza like he’s chewing over a bunch of different things he could tell me. I hope that whatever he picks is the truth. He swallows down his food and clears his throat with a drink before putting his plate on the floor too.
“You’re quite a runner,” he says.
“Back at you.”
“You should go out for track. The coach would...”
“Aren’t you going to tell me what happened with the guy?” I ask. We stare at each other. A muscle jumps in his jaw. “You aren’t going to say, are you?”
“What do you want to know?” he asks like he will tell me anything. Like he won’t keep secrets from me.
“What did you tell the cops?”
“Cops?” He seems surprised.
“The cops weren’t at the school?”
“Uh...no?” His eyebrows lift, snagging him in the lie. Or in someone’s lie. It might not even have started as his lie, but I can see in his face that he’s a poorly informed accomplice to it.
“Your brother called the cops. He told me they were sending a car to the school.”
“Oh.” Garrett winces.
“Oh?” I stand up from the couch and look down at him. His hair is touching the hollow of his cheek, exactly where my lips would fit. I try to remember that I’m about to start a fight with the most handsome, most popular boy in school. I’m about to completely snuff any chances I ever had with him, but I can’t let it go. I take another look at the tiny cave under his cheekbone, wondering how smooth his skin might feel against my own and then I say, “Why aren’t you telling me the truth, Garrett? What is going on with everybody?”
“Nothing’s going on. It’s just really...complicated.”
“You sound like my mom.” I look away, tears welling up that I don’t want him to see. I am so overwhelmed with no one telling me anything, with being a Maxwell instead of a Reese, with having a life that locks me away in a paper tower.
“You all right?” His voice is deep and gentle. But I’m not all right and him asking is only making it worse. I sink back onto the couch cushion and put my face in my hands, maneuvering the stupid cast like a wounded wing.
“I’m fine,” I lie between my fingers. Garrett kneels in front of me, pulling away my hands. His fingers are calloused, but his touch is so gentle that it breaks me open and my eyes begin to spill.
“Don’t cry, Nalena,” he says. “I know how it seems. I do.”
I want to tell him that the last thing I want is to be sitting on his couch sobbing, but my voice is trapped under the dead weight of my own defenses. He rubs a thumb over my cheek, spreading a tear that evaporates instantly from his heat. All I want to do is press my face into his palm, but I stay perfectly still, letting the wave of his electricity burn its way through my skin. His touch could set water on fire.
My eyes drift up and anchor in his. In the flickering light, his face is open and his eyes make me ache with want. He moves toward me, his fingers sliding over my jaw and threading into the hair at the nape of my neck. I want him to kiss me. I close my eyes. His breath fans over my cheek. Then his voice is deep in my ear, whispering, “Don’t cry. Please. Just trust me.”
I murmur that I do trust him and the whole time I am waiting for him to silence my confession with his lips. I wait with the ache deepening every second that the heat of his mouth scribbles across my cheek. I know that I will never forget this minute, for as long as I live, as the first kiss that could actually do damage.
My eyes are still closed and I part my lips, but instead of him bringing his mouth down on mine, I feel his hand sliding out of my hair. His heat pulls away and I open my eyes.
“I won’t let you down,” he says. His eyes are downcast as he clasps his lips. He moves to the opposite end of the couch.
I look everywhere, except at him, as I put the back of my hand to my mouth and try to blot away the warmth of his breath. My cheeks are boiling. He must’ve been mortified as I sat there with my eyes closed and head tilted and lips waiting and thinking up things that are impossible between Simon Valley’s All-Star Athlete and its Waste. I wish I could dissolve. Instead, I’m just left sitting in the rubble of a wall that he knocked down as if it was nothing at all.
Garrett sits back like nothing happened.
It seems like I’m the only one that noticed the chemical fire roaring between us.
I look around the room, at anything, besides him. I study the bookshelves on the far wall, stocked with hard covers. I don’t recognize even one title because I’m too busy leafing through a whole volume of What A Big Idiot I Am. I let my eyes wander over the family photos on the wall, but all I see in the frames are images of myself, as I lean toward Garrett with my big dumb eyes fluttering shut and my stupid lips parted, waiting for him not to kiss me. This will be a great story for him to tell at school.
“Nalena,” he says from behind me, but I won’t look at him. Instead, I flounder onto my feet from the spot where our first kiss never happened.
“I’m going to get something else to drink,” I say and I don’t ask him if he wants anything. I just leave. I go around the couch and up the short stairs.
The blast of the Reese household that greets me, as I enter the dining room, seems less exciting now. They, after all, are the us’s and my mom and I are obviously never going to be that.
My mom looks up as I come in and her face switches from laughter to concern on the spot. I’m sure my eyes are still puffy from crying and my mascara is probably welled below them. I drop my head to avoid anyone seeing anything else, but it is too late. My mom’s expression is passed around the table, smothering each voice in turn.
“What’s the matter? Is your arm hurting you?” My mom asks.
“No,” I say. “It’s fine. It doesn’t hurt at all.”
Mr. Reese glances toward the descending staircase and back at me.
“Is everything okay down there with Garrett?” His voice is all business.
“Everything’s great,” I say. I try to press out a convincing laugh, but it only fades as it hits the silence of the room. I keep my eyes on the floor as I work my way around everyone’s chairs to get to the kitchen. I should have escaped to the bathroom instead. Sean’s chair legs scrape as he scoots out of my way. Great. Now I’m a leper.
“I just came up to get some tea,” I say.
“You go right ahead, honey,” Mrs. Reese pipes up, all loud and upbeat. I can tell that she is trying to restore everyone to normal and stop them from looking at me. I’m grateful for that, even though it doesn’t work.
“Go on and help yourself to whatever you like,” she says, as I dive at the pitcher of tea. “Brandon, get her some ice out of the freezer.”
I’m about to say I don’t need any ice, but Brandon pops up in front of me. The Reese boys are like nesting dolls, definable by age, variations in hair color, and in this one’s case, overly dramatic manners. He bows. “One lump or two, ma’am? Or three?”
“Two is fine,” I say, and I have to wait as he fishes out the ice and dumps it in my plastic cup. It is a mistake not to let him pour for me too. I slosh the tea right over the rim of my cup, onto the counter. Ugh. I close my eyes and imagine squeezing my own head in my hands until it pops. When I open my eyes again, my mom is mopping up the counter in front of me.
Mrs. Reese announces that it’s been a long night and there’s school tomorrow, so everyone should get ready for bed. Despite the rebellion that rises up from the three youngest, Mrs. Reese insists and they give in. When the kitchen clears, Mrs. Reese focuses on my mom. “Coffee, Evangeline?”
“I’d love some,” my mom says. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”
I snap my head toward my mom and whisper hotly, “We’re staying?”
She drops the soggy pile of napkins into the Reeses’ trashcan and nods.
“For a little while,” she says. I jut out my jaw and give her the I don’t agree with this look, but my mom just gives me a tiny, shake-of-her-head response, It’s fine. I bug my eyes at her and she sighs. She turns and tells Mrs. Reese, “Nali and I are going to get some air, Miranda. If you’ll start the coffee, I’m sure we’ll be back before the pot is done.”
“Certainly,” Mrs. Reese says and my mom walks me out of the kitchen, through the Reeses’ living room, to a set of French doors. She flips the latch and we step out onto a polished, cobblestone patio.
My mom immediately lets out an ohhh, which is the same sound she makes when she eats New York style cheesecake with her eyes closed.
“This is gorgeous,” she says.
She’s right. The backyard is a mini park. Twelve-foot-tall bushes fence in the yard and blot out the neighborhood. There is a huge swimming pool with a wrap-around deck on the left, still closed for the winter, and in the back of the lot, there is a koi pond that stretches out from beneath a chocolate-colored gazebo.
I could be completely happy to be in Garrett’s back yard paradise, if I wasn’t so confused about what we are doing here and why we are staying. For the first time in maybe forever, all I want is to be back at our apartment, surrounded by my mom’s paper towers.
“I want to go home,” I tell her.
“What happened downstairs?”
“Nothing happened,” I say and I think of myself sitting on the couch downstairs, waiting for the kiss that never came. My insides simmer. “I just want to go home.”
“Sorry, kiddo. We need to stay so I can talk with Miranda and Basil.”
“About what?” I ask. “Why is everyone working so hard not to tell me anything?”
“No one’s doing that,” My mom says but she laughs, a fluttery, streamer of a laugh that doesn’t float with me. I give her my face that says Come. On. Mom.
“Okay, look,” she says. “I’m very concerned about running into the man that attacked you again. I’m afraid of what he might be capable of, so we’re going to stick around here for a little while longer, just to be safe.”
“How much longer? I’ve got homework to do and...”
“We’re staying the night,” she says. The words just staple themselves in the air between us. I make noises that don’t form solid sentences. I can’t have a sleep over at Garrett Reese’s house. He’ll be mortified. And if anyone else finds out, I’ll be dead before first bell tomorrow.
“What are you talking about?” I grasp my temples with my fingertips. “They’re strangers! We don’t even know them!”
My mom’s lips buckle in a frown. “They’re from Grandpa’s congregation, Nalena. Old friends…”
“Are you nuts?” I yelp. “You’ve never even mentioned them…ever! How can we live ten minutes away and all go to the same school and never visit…but now we’re just dropping in for a sleep over? If they’re old friends, how come you had to introduce yourself on their porch tonight?
“Lower your voice,” she snaps and I fire back at her, “Then be sane!”
She takes a deep breath. “Nalena, this is just very...”
I expect her to say complicated. That’s what she usually says. So complicated that I could never understand—and I swear to God, I’ll scream if she says it again now. Instead, she fidgets, rubbing her fingers, and says, “There’s some things you need to know.”
The way she says it flips my stomach like a hamburger. Suddenly, wanting to know feels like the worst idea in the world.
“It’s time I told you about Grandpa’s community,” she says. Her voice is quivery.
“His church,” I say, but she shakes her head.
“No, it wasn’t a church exactly.” A smile, almost apologetic, quivers on her lips. “I let you call it that, but it’s actually a community. It’s called the Ianua…and it wasn’t just Grandpa’s community. It’s ours too. Both of us. What we belong to is a sacred heritage, Nalena. I was never really joking when I said I was working for mankind.”
I cock my head back and raise a lip at her. “What are you talking about?”
“Hear me out, okay?” she says. She clears her throat and rivets her gaze in my eyes. “You should be proud, Nalena, because you come from an ancestry of very dedicated people. Who we are is defined by what we do. Our community, the Ianua, maintain a vital, spiritual connection that keeps the whole human race moving forward.” My mother takes a deep breath and reaches for my hand, while I just stare at her. My fingers are limp fish in her grasp. All I can do is stare at her. “We are direct descendants of ancient scribes, known as the Alo. We were here from the beginning of time.”
She pauses, her eyes scouring my face, as her eyebrows make the peak of a wobbly roof in the center of her forehead. I just nod and her face relaxes.
I think she might actually be crazy. The real kind of crazy. The kind Cora always thinks she is. My mom takes another breath and continues. “I know this is a lot to bite off all at once, but I want you to understand why I do what I do. You know how people say that a person never dies as long as his or her memory is kept alive?”
I don’t even bother to nod. I just stare at her and she keeps going.
“Well, there’s a lot of truth in that. The Alo are the community’s memory keepers.”
“And you’re one of them.” I pull my hand from hers with a rusty laugh, but she only gives me one serious nod. I squint at her. “Mom, what the heck are you talking about?”
“I keep the memories alive of those who have passed. That’s what I write.”
“Dead people?” I chuckle, expecting her to laugh with me. She doesn’t.
“Yes, mostly the deceased,” she says.
I lean away from her, waiting for her to bust out in giggles. I glance at the French doors, and the corners of the house, searching for a face that should be sniggering around the corner, or a camcorder lens. Nothing. I look back at my mother. Her face is sullen.
She must be exactly what I’ve been insisting she’s not. My mom is insane.
“Why are you talking like this?” I hiss. “Are you in on some joke they’re playing on me?”
“It’s not a joke.”
“Then you’re nuts.” My laugh sounds crazy, even to me. If Jen wants to pop up and start snapping pictures, this would be the time. Instead, my mom frowns.
“I didn’t want to explain any of this unless I had to, Nalena. Maybe I should have told you sooner, but it’s just so…complicated. Although I left the community, I still have my responsibilities. Writing these memories is important. It maintains the connection between Earth and the afterlife. Without it, the knowledge of those before us would just slip away. Without it, the human race would never move forward.”
I lift a corner of my mouth. “Don’t we have libraries for that?”
“What if the books were never written? Writing a memory for someone who’s passed is like putting a book of that person’s entire life experiences into a life catalogue. We may not all have it at our fingertips at every second, but we all have access. You know what they say: those who seek shall find,” she says. Her eyes are so soft, I really think she believes everything she’s saying. Something about her sincerity draws me in.
“You know this sounds totally cuckoo,” I tell her.
“Well?” My eyes swing back to the house, through the French doors and toward the illuminating light of the Reeses’ kitchen. “Why didn’t you just stay in the community if you had friends there?”
“I left after Grandpa was...” She presses a hooked index finger over her lips and her eyes well up. She hardly ever finishes the sentence when she tries to explain it to me. The first time was in elementary school when no one showed up for Grandparent’s Day. All I know is that Grandpa was murdered and the police never caught the man who did it. A folded newspaper clipping in her bureau drawer said that Grandpa’s murder was actually a robbery that had gone wrong. A random thing. The paper said my grandpa would be mourned widely, but it never mentioned anything about him being part of some ancient community that deals in dead people.
“Can we just go home and talk about this?” I finger my earlobe as I watch her. She wipes the corners of her eyes.
“Sorry, honey. Mr. Reese has already left to bring back some of our things.” She laughs weakly. “Just think of this as taking another one for mankind, okay?”
When I don’t laugh, my mom pats my shoulder like I just need to be a good sport. And for the first time in my life she turns away from me and just goes back into the house alone, leaving me out in the cold.
Knowing that Mr. Reese is at our apartment - trying to pick his way through the stacks of my mom’s insanity so he can retrieve my jammies - doesn’t make me feel like he’s family. It just adds to my list of reasons of why I want to evaporate, along with realizing that my mom has actually flipped her bolt.
Crazy or not, I’m angry at my mom for not giving me a vote in whether or not we stay. Since I have no choice, I sit on the Reeses’ living room couch, staring at the TV like I’m into the documentary Sean turns on, until Mr. Reese returns.
When the front door opens, Mr. Reese hauls in more than just one night’s worth of stuff. He’s got a gym bag full of my clothes and toiletries, my school backpack, both my pillow and blanket from my bed, and my Ipod. I don’t ask if my bras and underwear are in there. I know they are. I just take what he brings, as a dark blush saturates my face, and say thanks. He lugs in my mother’s things too and then, to my absolute horror, he brings in a stack of paper and a package of ink pens.
“If there is anything else you want me to get for you, just make a list and I’ll pick it up or I’ll have one of the boys stop in and get it for you,” Mr. Reese tells my mom. She thanks him until it’s embarrassing. He actually sounds grateful when he assures her over and over, “I am honored to be of service to you, Evangeline.”
I appreciate having my things, but for me, there won’t be any lists. No boys, young or old, should be bringing me my underwear in a gym bag. If I need something, anything, I’m going to go home and get it myself.
Still, I do feel better having my stuff with me. I drag out one of my school books and pull my comforter around me like a nest. Or a foxhole.
I figure Garrett’s got to be freaking out downstairs. I’m sure it was traumatizing enough for him that The Waste had actually contemplated a kiss, let alone having me become a squatter on his living room couch.
As I open up the history book, knowing already that there is no way I’m going to be able to concentrate, Garrett walks into the living room. I jam my ear buds in and crank my Ipod, so neither of us has to make conversation.
I open my notebook and my cushion rises with a puff, as he drops onto the one beside me. The smell of his cologne fills my nose. If confidence, strength, and wanting have a smell, Garrett’s got a bottle of it somewhere. I try to hold my breath. He reaches for the wires of my ear buds and pops them out of my ears.
“Hi.” He holds the blaring ends, swinging in his hand. I dial down the music.
“What’s up?” I ask without looking him in the face. I have no idea what expression would be the right one. Besides the fact that he didn’t want to kiss me, I am here, camping out on his couch because my mom’s gone hairball. And I’m still feeling smothered by how desperately I wanted that kiss to happen. Even worse, it’s impossible to appear laid-back with my comforter bunched up all around me. I look like I’m being eaten by a fluffy manatee.
“You didn’t come back downstairs,” he says.
I want to answer, no duh and you didn’t kiss me either, but instead I say, “I was talking with my mom.”
“Oh,” he says and his voice sounds tickled by the relief in his grin. I won’t look to be sure, because the last thing I need is to be captured in his smile and start believing again that I am the only girl in the world that he would ever want to talk to. At least I know better now. He would’ve kissed me if it was any other way. He chuckles, and even though the sound pulls at my eyes for attention, I don’t fall for that either.
“I was worried that I made you uncomfortable,” he says.
Despite my resistance, a jagged giggle rips out of me, and then I just go ahead and make it even worse by asking, “Why would you think that?”
He hesitates like he’s trying to put his hands on the right words. “You seem...uncomfortable.”
He sounds so painfully sincere that I make the mistake of looking up. The minute I do, I fall right into the wide open sky of Garrett’s eyes. I forget all about my mom. The surge of Garrett’s gaze hits me immediately, like plugging a kite into a charged cloud. Instead of fighting it, I try to hold onto it and trace it back. I want to know if he feels it too, but really, there is no way of knowing if I’m generating all of it or not.
“Are you?” he asks. His voice rubs my temples and I am aware of how close his arm is to mine. The air is magnetized, pulling me toward him, and I have to concentrate on keeping my hand in my lap instead of reaching for him. My voice feels too small when it finally works its way out of my throat.
“No,” I say. “I’m fine.”
“Good.” He smiles. “About school tomorrow...”
“I won’t say anything to anybody.” The words gush out of me, like the ready apology they are, and he laughs.
“You won’t? What aren’t you going to say anything about?”
“I...I don’t know. Anything.” There are a million things I think he probably doesn’t want anyone to know. Like why he’d bother to try and catch the guy that broke my arm. Like how the The Waste Family is having a sleepover at his house. Like how he totally lost his head and almost kissed me.
“What I was going to say is that it’d be a good idea for us to stay close for a while. Until we...I mean, until the cops find this guy that keeps following you around, I think we should stick together,” he says.
I light up inside and twirl.
“Okay,” I say. He smiles and all of a sudden, I can’t wait for school tomorrow.
I remember sitting with Garrett, and talking to him about music, and letting him quiz me, and then I’m totally embarrassed, because I don’t even remember falling asleep when I suddenly wake up the next morning to the smell of coffee. My mom is sleeping on the recliner across the room, snoring softly, and I want to put a pillow over her face so no one will hear it. Instead, I just get up and try not to trip over all of our bags as I go into the kitchen.
The minute I hit the doorway, I know it was a mistake to come into the fluorescent light. No one is in the kitchen except Garrett and he looks clean and perfect, ready to walk out the door to school, two hours before the first bell will ring. My hair might be plastered to my cheek.
He’s got one hip leaning against the counter, absorbed with reading one of my mom’s pages, so he doesn’t notice me right away. I think of backing away, but as I lift a foot to do it, the tiny movement catches Garrett’s attention.
His body instantly drops into a stance of attack. The sharpened, predatory look in his eyes stops me dead.
I see a Garrett I do not know. A cold vein of fear darts through my chest and the first mumble of a whir begins inside me. He blinks at me and with the second blink, the warrior in him vanishes, leaving the relaxed and grinning, familiar Garrett. The spinning in my chest jerks to a halt, like a rubber plug, wedged between whirling gears. Although I’m sure I look harmless, aside from a raging case of bed head, I stay rooted to my spot until Garrett speaks.
“Good morning,” he says and his chuckle unglues my feet.
“Good morning,” I say and then I’m not sure which apology to offer him first. For having startled him into looking murderous just now, for having fallen asleep on him last night, or for still being here at all this morning. And then there are the apologies for plugging up his living room with all of my and my mom’s junk, and for the brick of my mom’s writing, already spiraling in a pile on the Reese’s otherwise spotless kitchen counter.
Garrett makes my next move for me, by taking down a mug from one of the cupboards. I catch the tiniest scent of his cologne and it fills my head with all sorts of images that make me feel like I’m standing in front of him naked.
“I made coffee,” he says. His eyes linger a second on my cheeks and then he looks away and I have no idea if I’ve fooled him or not.
“I don’t drink coffee,” I say and add quickly, “But thanks.”
“Not a coffee girl, huh? We’ve got tea, if you want. Are you a tea girl?”
“Sure,” I say. I don’t drink tea either, but I’m not going to play guess-what-I’ll-drink with him in his own kitchen. Especially since I’m still wearing yesterday’s clothes and my mascara might be smeared on his couch.
Garrett microwaves the mug of water and pulls out five different boxes of tea for me to choose from. I put my finger on one, a green tea with a bear on the box, even though I have no idea if I will like it at all.
“My family’s into tea,” he says, taking out a bag for me. “If Sean was up, he’d rip open the tea bag when you were done and read your leaves for you.”
“Read...like as in fortune telling?”
“Yeah.” Garrett nods. “He’s pretty good, actually. He can tell me daily if I’ll want to eat in the cafeteria or if I’ll have to go out for lunch.”
“Wait. Does anyone ever want to eat in the cafeteria?”
“Who’s doubting my psychic ability?” Sean asks, as he walks into the kitchen. He drops a black messenger bag on a chair. He is clean and dressed and I wonder if the bathrooms here are so insulated that no one ever hears the pipes run or if I was so dead asleep that I missed it.
And I wonder if Garrett saw me sleeping. I say a quick prayer that I looked more movie-star-ish than me-ish if he saw me at all and, at the very least, that God would erase his memory if I was drooling or snoring. I peek at him, wondering this, and Garrett glances up with a grin as if he knows I’m thinking it too. His gaze makes me feel dizzy. I slide onto the bar stool across from him.
“What do you take in your tea?” Sean asks as he pulls out a mug for himself. I try to think of something to say off the top of my head and nothing comes, so I just say that.
“Ah, a purist.” Sean wiggles his eyebrows at me and I’m amazed again at how many facial similarities there are between he and Garrett. Except that when I look into Sean’s eyes, there is no wild static shooting through my veins. I think of how Jen would die if she could see me sitting in Garrett’s kitchen, with two of the Reese boys being so nice to me. I take a sip of my tea and bitter karma burns my tongue.
“So what’s on the agenda today?” Sean asks as he pulls out a toaster. Garrett pulls a dark loaf from the breadbox and hands it to his brother.
“Probably just more review for finals,” Garrett says.
“That shouldn’t be too tough,” Sean says, dumping bread in the slots and pushing them down. “Mr. Wizelli probably still has multiple choice, so if you get lost, just answer D. Wizelli always favored D.”
“That’s true,” Garrett says. The toast pops and both brothers grab for it. Sean shakes his head laughing as Garrett puts both pieces on a plate.
“One day I’ll be faster,” Sean assures him.
“Never.” Garrett winks. He puts the plate of toast in front of me.
“Always the gentleman,” Sean says, putting two more pieces in the toaster. I push the plate toward Sean.
“I’m not really hungry.”
“Oh no,” Sean says with a playful flourish. “I insist.”
Garrett gets out a jar of natural peanut butter, along with a knife.
“Gotta eat,” Garrett says, pushing the plate back in front of me. “Get the brain going so you don’t fall asleep in class. I’ll eat one if you do.”
“You see?” The toaster pops and Sean takes out the toast without interference this time. “That was probably his master plan from the beginning. Steal my toast, just so you’ll give it back to him.”
“Sure was,” Garrett chuckles, biting into one of the pieces.
Garrett drops in a second round of wheat bread as Sean glances at the clock.
“I got to get out of here. I’m going to be late,” he says, pushing away from the counter. He shoots a devilish grin at Garrett, motioning to the dirty plate and cup he’s left beside ours. “You’ll get these, won’t you, brother? Considering you made me late by stealing my breakfast in the first place.”
“I was just helping you with your manners,” Garrett says, shooting back the same grin. Then he nods to the dirty dishes and adds, “I’ll take care of it...but only if you read our tea before you go.”
“Not today, bro. I’m going to be seriously late. No joke.”
“C’mon. Nalena doesn’t believe you can do it.”
“I never said that!” I object. Sean laughs, picking his way around the dining room table.
“You guys just want to know the lunch menu anyway,” he says. He pulls his bag off the dining room chair and onto his shoulder.
“I’ll tell you what, you don’t even have to read mine,” Garrett bargains with him. I put down my empty mug and Garrett snatches it up, ripping open the tea bag and dumping the contents into the bottom. He does the same with his own and walks them over to Sean, handing mine out first.
“You can read mine if you can spare the twenty seconds after you’ve read Nalena’s,” Garrett says. Sean sighs, taking the mug from Garrett’s hand and peering down into the bottom.
“Huh. Very funny, Houdini,” he says, handing it back. “This is your mug. And I really have to get out of here.”
Garrett doesn’t take the mug from his brother.
“It’s not mine,” he says.
“Yeah, okay, Mr. Ladies-Go-First,” Sean says with a playful grimace. He sets the mug on the table and turns to leave. “Besides, I think you already know big things are going to happen in your life.”
“What are you talking about?” Garrett asks, picking up the mug. “It’s Nali’s mug!”
“Yeah right.” Sean laughs as he leaves, pulling the front door closed behind him. The house is silent and the fluorescent lights hum over my head. Garrett is still standing next to the dining room table with both mugs in his hands, looking down into the well of one and then the other, his head going between them like a slow motion tennis match.
“So, is it pizza day?” I ask, going over to him. I stand close enough that I can breathe in his cologne. I inhale, like the beginning of a yawn, so I can fill my lungs with the heavy smell of wanting.
“This is weird,” Garrett says, his eyes still moving between the cups. I put my head in closer to see, but it is hard at first, because the smell of him makes me light headed and all I want to do is breathe more deeply. When I finally give a concentrated glance into the bottom of my cup, the tea sludge looks pretty much like I thought it would anyway: like a wad of chewed up, spit out, tobacco. I try to find what is so interesting to Garrett about it, and after a moment of looking and blinking, I do.
The shape in the bottom of my mug looks like flowers made of gears. They have sharp petals. There are three flowers, but the top and bottom flowers are incomplete, as if they were on a sheet of paper that someone ripped, to fit in the cup. On the left side of the cup, some of the petals are pointed in the wrong direction, like they’ve been torn off and stuck back on the wrong way and at wrong intervals. When I squint and stare hard, I would swear there is a design on the petals, and the overlapping petals have a different pattern than the petals that look like they belong. It’s pretty interesting for a tea glop, but when I peer into Garrett’s cup, it blows my mind.
The grounds in the bottom of Garrett’s mug are formed like geared flowers too, except that the petals on the right side of his cup match the designs of the overlapping flowers in my cup. After doing the slow, tennis-match comparison between cups myself, I can see that if we were able to lift each tea glop out of the mugs in one piece, and stick them together, they would fit perfectly. The mismatched leaves wouldn’t be mismatched at all, but would be attached to the flower they belonged to. The two shapes, put together, would look like one perfect, spinning line of flower-gears.
Or maybe I’m just crazy.
“That is so bizarre,” I say. “They kind of look the same to me.”
“They do,” he agrees. His voice is confused or unhappy, I can’t tell which.
“It looks like they fit together,” I say.
I try to laugh. “That’s really wild, isn’t it?”
Garrett looks up at me, his blue eyes filtering his thoughts like a fog I can’t quite see through. His eyes are wide open, although they seem to be squinting at the same time, as if there is something in the back of my head that he’s trying to see.
“It is wild,” he finally says, as he puts the mugs on the counter instead of in the sink. He pushes them back against the wall, next to the cookie monster jar.
From upstairs Mrs. Reese calls down, “Garrett, show Nalena where the towels are in the bathroom so she can get ready for school!”
Aside from having to dangle my cast out of the shower while I wash, using a bathroom that is still humid from Garrett’s shower is the second best thing in the world. And the first best is sitting in the front seat of Garrett’s car on the drive to school. Everything is clean and polished and smells like him.
“This is pretty nice for an old car,” I say.
“You’ve been in it before.”
“I wasn’t really thinking about it then though.”
“Yeah, I guess it’s hard to enjoy a car ride when you’re trying to hold your arm together,” he says. “It was an early graduation gift from friends in the community.”
“Friends?” I say. “They must be really good friends to give you something like this. I’ll be lucky if I get a trip to the Lucky Buffet with my mom.”
Garrett just laughs like I’m joking.
“The older members get the new cars and keep them up so the cars can be handed down. It’s a little thriftier than buying brand new cars for everyone,” he explains. Garrett makes Brandon and Mark sit in the back and they fight over which radio station they want until we drop them off in front of the middle school.
“Don’t slam the door!” Garrett hollers as Mark does.
Brandon and Mark slink across the parking lot, still arguing. They’re oblivious to everyone around them, even though every girl they pass seems to suddenly stand a little straighter and smile wider. The interest, generated by the two boys as they make their way to the front doors of the school, is like watching a hair-flipping wave that rolls through the middle school sea of students.
“They should be cartoons,” Garrett says as we pull away from the curb.
Unfortunately, it’s only a five-minute drive from the middle school to the high school. It is exactly the amount of time it takes for my supply of happiness to run out. When we pull into the Senior parking lot, everyone seems to turn and look through the windows and over the dash of Garrett’s Riviera, and suddenly, I want to escape.
The minute Garrett cuts the engine, I hop out and shut the door. The least I can do is distance myself to save his reputation. There are kids all over the place, most of them sitting in their cars or on their cars or going between cars to talk to each other before the first bell draws us into school. I spot Jen, sitting on her hood with two other cheerleaders. I pull my backpack higher on my shoulder as Garrett comes around to my side of the car.
“Well, I’ll see you,” I grumble with a short wave. “Thanks for the ride.”
“Are you in a hurry?” he asks, and when I look at him, his face blots out the girls that are glaring at me three cars away.
“Not really,” I say with a shrug. Garrett smiles and taps the hood of his car.
“Sit with me?”
“Okay.” I drop my backpack on the ground and we lean against the grille, side by side. It is hard for me to tell if the heat running through me is coming from the cooling engine or the close proximity of Garrett’s body to mine.
“It’s fascinating, isn’t it?” Garrett says as he scans the parking lot.
“Seeing who might want to make a fool of themselves,” he says and he turns his head from me, just as Kris Lukevitch saunters across the parking lot toward us. Kris is the one who first tattooed my locker with The Waste and he is a tree stump of a guy; he walks with a broad swing to his arms, as though he’s carrying a cheerleader under each bicep. On his way over to us, he turns back once to wink at his girlfriend, Audrine, who is one of the girls giggling with Jen.
“Hey Gare,” Kris says. He stops right in front of the car and puts a fist on each hip. Like this, it’s not hard to imagine Kris in spandex tights and a cape, ready to blast off. I almost expect him to raise a fist to the sky and levitate.
“How’s it going?” Garrett asks like he doesn’t really care. Kris tips the brick of his forehead in my direction.
“See you’ve got a rider.”
“Do you mean Nalena?” Garrett asks. It all seems pleasant enough on the surface, except that Kris never looks at me once and Garrett’s body is almost too relaxed. Kris cups a hand at the back of his ear like he’s having trouble hearing.
“What’d you call it?” he grimaces. “Because everybody around here calls it The Waste.”
There is not even time to blink or turn my head before Garrett lunges. He grips the front of Kris’s shirt in his fist and with one turn, Garrett brings Kris’s body crashing across the hood.
I’m frozen, inches from them. The whir in my chest begins as I imagine one of Kris’s beefy fists swinging at Garrett. But, as big as Kris is, Garrett has him pinned without any trouble. Kris thrashes but Garrett anticipates every move, keeping Kris flat on the car. Twice, Kris pauses as if it is over, and then struggles in a furious burst of will, but Garrett keeps him restrained, as if it hardly takes any effort. Kris roars, but the only thing he can move is his head. He thrashes it against the metal hood, leaving a couple dents.
Garrett’s face is totally calm, as if Kris is just a tantruming little kid. But when Kris exhausts himself and lies still, panting on Garrett’s hood, the look on Garrett’s face changes. The furious predator I saw in the kitchen this morning reappears slowly, darkening Garrett’s eyes to the color of raging waves. He keeps his fist curled into Kris’s shirt but his voice lowers to a snarl that no one would’ve heard if the parking lot wasn’t so deathly silent.
“Don’t ever say that about her again,” Garrett growls. “I will crush you, Lukevitch. Got it?”
Kris is wide-eyed, like a bird flying into the wheels of a semi. He’s speechless until Garrett clenches his teeth and repeats, “GOT IT?”
“Yeah, Classic, got it. Fine. Bad joke,” Kris says. Garrett loosens his grip. The silence breaks and the murmurs around us rise up like frustrated bees, unsure of who to sting. A girl squeals to a friend, Did you see how fast Garrett can move? and some guy makes the same sound as air released from a tire. Kris gets back on his feet, straightening his shirt like he’s trying to straighten the new creases in his image.
Garrett stands in front of me, his arms dangling at his sides, as if nothing ever happened. Kris rolls his shoulders away from his neck.
“You got to relax, Reese,” he says with another twitchy roll.
“Apologize,” Garrett says.
“You heard me. Apologize. To her.”
One side of Kris’s mouth lifts in a chuckle that flattens quickly under his cheek. His face turns somber when Garrett doesn’t let up on his stare.
“You want me to say something? Like what? Like Sorry? That’s what you want?” Kris spits the words from the side of his mouth, never once looking at me. “Fine. Sorry. You know I’m only saying it ‘cause we were wrestling brothers. That’s it. Sorry. I can say it all day. It’s nothing. Sorry.”
Garrett steps forward. Even though Kris doesn’t back away, I see his small eyes flutter and he swallows hard. His Adam’s apple bobs like a tiny sinker caught in a heavy current.
“It is something,” Garrett says. His voice is so low that I doubt anyone else hears it, but Kris and me. The two of them are toe to toe in front of me.
“I’m ready for ya now, Reese. You wanna go?” Kris smirks.
It was a mistake. Garrett has a hold of him instantly, flipping Kris’s cinderblock torso onto the Riviera’s hood again. Kris comes down with a crash this time. The parking lot goes motionless and silent again.
“Do you want to go?” Garrett snarls. When the shock wears off, Kris looks Garrett right in the eye and slowly shakes his head.
Kris turns his face toward me, as best he can on the damaged car hood. His eyes find me for the first time, even though they stay anchored on my chest.
“Sorry, all right?” he says. “No offense.”
I just nod. Garrett lets go as the bell rings and Kris slumps away without looking back. The crowd releases all around us and I see Audrine and Jen, their eyes narrowed on me, as they slide off Jen’s car to follow Kris into the school.
Garrett leans down and picks up my backpack, slinging it over his shoulder. I am about to stuff my hands into my pockets but Garrett takes hold of one and extends his cool fingers between mine. My palms sweat until he smiles at me.
“I’ll walk you to class,” is all he says.
“So, did he say he’s your boyfriend now?” Cora asks. She’s passed me two notes with this same question in the hallway already and now she’s cornered me in the bathroom on my way to lunch. I’m looking at the points of her white Ked's, parked under the door of my bathroom stall. Unable to escape her, I just flush the toilet and slink out. Cora backs up with a pulled-taffy smile, tacked between her ears.
“Well?” she asks. “Did he?”
“It’s not like that,” I tell her. I don’t mention that I’m still wondering exactly how it is myself. All I know right now is that whatever is going on between Garrett and I, it feels really good and I can’t help thinking that, at any minute, my real life is going to come back into focus. Cora’s eager smile doesn’t let up.
“I saw you two holding hands and I know he’s walking you to all your classes. Is it because of Kris Lukevitch?” She yanks a shredded tissue from her sleeve and dabs her nose excitedly. “I heard Kris called you...you know...and then Garrett almost busted his face! Nikki said that it was Kris that tried to rape you in the woods...”
“What?” I spin around from the sink to face Cora. “What are you talking about? Nobody thinks anything like that and I wasn’t...nobody tried to rape me!”
Cora puts her hand on my cast and pats it.
“It’s okay,” she says softly. “You can trust me. I’m not going to tell anybody what happened.”
“Seriously, Cora! No one tried to rape me! And it definitely wasn’t Kris Lukevitch in the woods.”
“Then who was it?” She moves in like I’m going to whisper the answer to her. “What really happened?”
“I got hit with a shovel. That’s it. I never even saw the guy that did it. He had a ski mask on. But it wasn’t Kris Lukevitch. It was probably some homeless guy.”
“Why would a homeless guy put on a ski mask to hit you with a shovel?”
“I don’t know!” I throw my arms in the air, wanting to backhand the hungry expression off Cora’s face. She steps away from me, but her brow deepens with the pitiful compassion of a drug counselor, trying to convince a user of their denial. I can tell by the way things are going that Cora is going to do everything she can to make sure I stay a rape victim until I graduate. Ugh.
“Well, what are you doing for lunch? Are you going out with Garrett or are you guys staying here?” she asks.
“I’m staying here,” I say. “I don’t know what Garrett’s doing.”
My entire body sinks as I say it. Garrett has been walking me to my subjects, but he wasn’t waiting at the door of this last class. Now I’m on my way to lunch, alone and without anything to eat, because I wasn’t about to ask Mrs. Reese for a sandwich and I sure wasn’t going to ask my mom if she had any money in front of all the Reeses. I was thinking that I could make it on the glow that filled my stomach all morning, but when Garrett wasn’t outside the door at the last bell, the glow vanished and now my stomach is feeling really hollow.
Cora pushes her glob of tissue into the cuff over her wrist and I wonder why she never just throws them out. She sniffs and begins carefully, “Do you think...that maybe he’s following you around because you...you know...you did it with him?”
This sounds even dirtier coming out of Cora, with her snotty tissues stuffed up her sleeves.
“What?” I squint at her. “What are you talking about? Why would you even say that?”
“Well, that’s the other thing I heard,” she says. “Nikki said that Regina told her that Jen saw you and Garrett...you know, doing it...in the woods. Was it before the homeless guy hit you with the shovel?”
Whatever expression is on my face is enough to shut her up. She rubs her hands together, fingering the bulge in her sleeve.
“That’s just what I heard,” she adds quietly.
“And none of it is even true!” I bite the inside of my cheek to stop any tears from burning into my eyes. I think of how Cora could say the right things that could actually help stop the rumors, and how she won’t. Following rumors with the truth is like having a banana split for dinner and broccoli for dessert.
I turn and go back into the stall and slam the door shut. Instead of apologizing or trying to straighten anything out, the rubber soles of Cora’s white Ked's squeak on the bathroom tiles and I plug my ears so I don’t have to listen to her leave.
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I come out of the stall five minutes later and sit on the edge of the last bathroom sink, looking down onto the front lawn of the school. I watch Garrett leave in a hurry two minutes later and all the hope and happiness I’ve had this morning, sinks into my shoes. There’s no clock in here, so I start counting to 60 over and over again, trying to keep track of how many times I do it, so I can gauge when the next bell will ring, sending us all back to classes. I count to 60 only eight times since I spotted Garrett and it’s hard to stay focused, because I keep scanning the lawn for his return.
I’m on my tenth count when someone bangs on the bathroom door. It sounds like someone hammering the door with a fist as they pass, the way the jocks do, to show how tough they are. I ignore it, because it’s not like this is my house and I’m not obligated to answer the door or anything. I’m too miserable and hungry to worry about it anyway, counting and watching for Garrett.
But the second time someone bangs, I figure it can’t be coincidence and it’s probably Mrs. Rousch, the school janitor, so I shout, “It’s open!”
The door squeaks and I twist on the sink ledge to see who’s there. Jen is standing in the opening, with Regina right behind her. This isn’t good. I slide off the edge of the basin, landing on my feet.
“Hey,” Jen says, walking in. She’s wearing a pleated, white skirt just like her cheerleading uniform, a white eyelet blouse, and high, white, gladiator heels. She’s blinding against the dingy beige of the bathroom tiles.
Regina, however, is nearly camouflaged, if it wasn’t for her blotchy, red face. She sneers as she addresses me, “Waste.”
Jen laughs and Regina joins her, but I keep quiet, watching the door. They align themselves in front of me, blocking my exit. I feel the whir start in my chest. I am calmed by it, as if I have an ally in the bathroom now too.
“I thought you might want to apologize to me,” Jen says. Regina’s smile, over Jen’s shoulder, is sickening.
“I told you, didn’t I?” Regina asks, stepping so close to Jen that there isn’t even air between them. “I told you Jen was gonna get you.”
“For what?” I say.
“Really, Waste?” Jen tips her head to one side, like she’s got to dumb down whatever she’s going to say so I can grasp it. “You’re going to stand there, acting like you don’t know? You think that trying to steal Garrett isn’t going to make you any less of a total loser? No matter what you do, everybody in this school already knows that I’m the one dating Garrett Reese. And it’s going to stay that way.”
I should shut up, I know I should, but I can’t.
“Does he know?” I ask, tipping my head the same way Jen does. “Because he’s never mentioned you. Not once.”
You would think, wearing so much white, that the head cheerleader might try to talk or even yell her way out of something like this, but instead, Jen throws down her purse with a growl and lunges at me. The chaotic spinning inside me is immediate. The gears align and spring open. The protective bubble surrounds me before Jen can even get her fingers on me. Without consciously calculating it, my feet shuffle to the side and Jen shoots straight past me, stumbling in her gladiator heels and tumbling down onto her knees. The hem of her skirt rips. Jen shrieks at the sound and jumps back on her feet, her hem swaying over her kneecap like a slack jaw.
“You’re going to die!” Jen screams, and we're both surprised when my body jerks toward her, instinctively avoiding Regina as she hurls herself at me, from behind. Regina misses me completely and her angry growl sails alongside me. She fumbles and runs head-on into Jen. They knock each other off balance and land in a dirty heap on the even dirtier bathroom floor.
I should keep my mouth shut, I should.
But instead, I say, “Ewww.”
Both of them push themselves back onto their feet. The bathroom door is maybe five steps behind me, but I know better than to turn my back on them to run. I won’t make it. Instead, I stand there with my hands hanging loosely at my sides and thinking - as I pop out of myself and stand, looking at my own body - that I should probably stand more defensively, so I look like I know what I’m doing. It turns out that it doesn’t matter though, as Regina charges me like an angry Viking.
I can’t tell if she’s moving slowly or if my mind is just moving faster. There is no slow-mo vapor trail behind her; it’s just, somehow, incredibly easy for me to see where she’s aiming and to get out of her way. I want to reach out and tap her shoulder as she passes, just to tweak her, but I can’t move my arm. All I can do is get out of the way. But that, I do really well. Regina runs past me and goes head-long into the wall-mounted tampon dispenser.
“That bloody well hurt,” I quip in an English accent.
Jen shrieks and runs at me, her arms Frankenstein’ed in front of her. I watch her coming, thinking of how mortified she would be if she could see her own face. Again, my body adjusts on autopilot, moving a hair to the right. Jen crashes to the floor again, but this time, the heel of her shoe cracks off and skitters over the tile like an icicle.
“You bitch!” Regina turns away from the dispenser to face me, cupping her left cheek in her hand. I can already see the bruise curdling under her skin. Jen is hobbling to her feet, the foot in her broken gladiator twisting, as she struggles to stand without the spike of the heel. At first her face is contorted murderously, but then, the smile that blooms in its place is even more horrifying.
“She beat us up,” Jen tells Regina, her tone suddenly full of shock and innocence, as if she just realized it herself. “The Waste just beat us up.”
“Nobody beats us...” Regina begins, but Jen cuts her off with a wave of her hand.
“No, listen.” Jen’s smile curls like toxic fumes. “Look at us. And look at her. There’s not a scratch on her. We came in here separately and The Waste jumped us, right? She jumped us in a school that has a well-known, no-tolerance policy on fighting. Think about it.”
A bruised smile spreads across Regina’s face and she starts nodding, still cupping her cheek. Bile rises up and plugs my throat.
“That’s right,” Regina giggles. “No Tolerance. You’re getting suspended, Waste.”
“Oh no, it’s worse than that,” Jen laughs. “Way worse. You’re seventeen, aren’t you, Waste?”
I don’t answer. I’m trying to keep myself from throwing up on the floor in front of them.
“Oh yeah,” Regina laughs crazily beneath her hand. “Cops. You’re gonna go to jail.”
Jen bends over and scoops her purse off the floor.
“That’s right, Waste,” she says. “I’m pressing charges. C’mon Reggie.”
And Jen is suddenly steady, as she adjusts to walking on her toes, out the bathroom door.
My mouth fills with burning saliva after Jen and Regina leave, and I rush to pull open one of the stall doors, but it doesn’t budge. Desperate, I lift my foot and kick the handicap stall door as hard as I can. It flies open. Inside, hunched down on top of the horseshoe toilet seat, is Cora. I only get a glimpse of her wide eyes as she stands up, balancing on the seat. Before she can even hop down, I throw myself between her ankles, heaving into the porcelain bowl beneath her feet.
There is no place for her to go unless she vaults over me, and Cora is no vaulter, so she stands there talking while I hold onto her ankles and puke between her sneakers. Her voice falls down around me.
“Jeez, my legs were cramping up. I wasn’t really eavesdropping. I just stuck around because I thought you were having some secret rendezvous with Garrett,” she laughs. “But, wow. I can’t believe how awful Jen is! I mean, she was almost Home Coming Queen!”
Cora lifts one Ked onto the flushing lever and steps down on it, whooshing away what little actually came out of my stomach. The spray of the water on my face makes me retch again.
“Good thing I stuck around, though.” Cora sniffs twice overhead. “At least now you’ve got two witnesses. Me and whatever I got on my phone. I think I got all of it, though.”
I lift my head away from the toilet as Cora steps on the flushing lever again. This time, I push myself farther away and wipe my mouth on the back of my hand. Cora holds open her phone and pushes buttons as she hops down off the toilet seat.
“You recorded it?” My voice is hoarse.
“Yup,” Cora says. She stands in the door of the stall and holds her phone down in front of me. “See?”
On the itty bitty screen, there is a birds-eye view of the entire fight. Jen and Regina lunge at me, and on screen, I look like I’m just really skilled at stepping out of the way. Cora must’ve had her phone perched over the top of the stall the whole time. She jacks up the volume, so it sounds like we’re all talking in a soup can, but everything Jen said about getting me in trouble is there.
I should jump up and hug Cora, but the relief of it all squeezes my stomach again and I throw myself forward over the toilet bowl as the bell rings.
“I’m going to get the school nurse first,” Cora says behind me. “And then we can go show Principal VanWeider what really happened.”
I don’t want the school nurse, but Cora’s gone before I can object. I try to get to my feet and my head instantly spins, so I just sit back down on the floor and rest my shoulder blades against the cool metal wall beside the toilet. When the bathroom door opens again, I hear the rush of the crowded hallway outside, even though the stall door blocks my view.
“She’s in here,” I hear Cora saying. And then I want to throw up again, when I hear the wrong voice answer her.
“Where?” Garrett asks. I see his shoes before he pulls the door open and looks down at me, sitting on the bathroom floor. The worry, pulling at his brow, dissolves as he kneels down beside me. The calming blue of his eyes settles my stomach.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” he says. “Cora said Jen came after you. Are you okay?”
I only nod because the hot, awful taste is still on my tongue and clinging to my cheek. His eyes begin a thorough inspection of me anyway, studying my face as if he wants to be sure to catch even the slightest scratch. His gaze moves over me, as meticulous as a physician, but his hands are caught in the air around me as if he is afraid that his touch might hurt my skin. I feel the heat of his hands hovering inches over my body, as if they give off waves of energy that knit the air between us and tingle into my muscles. I close my eyes and let my body feel him, despite the lack of actual contact. The heat rolls beneath his palms, leaving me feeling sedated and fuzzy.
“She was throwing up,” I hear Cora say. I’d like her to go away.
“That true?” Garrett asks softly and he cups my cheek in his hand. My lips go numb, paralyzed with his touch. He grumbles, more to himself than to me, “I never should’ve left. What the hell is the matter with Jen anyway?”
I don’t speak. When Garrett finishes his assessment, he relaxes back on his heels and smirks at me. “And what’s this I hear about some ninja moves?”
I don’t even have to open my mouth. Cora pushes her phone screen into his face.
“Oh my God,” she gushes. “It’s like Nali’s some Judo master. Isn’t it Judo where you avoid getting hit? She just kept stepping out of the way, and Jen and Regina kept slamming into stuff. Nali didn’t even touch them.”
Garrett’s brow pulls together again as he reaches for the phone.
“Oh really?” he says and he watches the whole thing on the little screen as if he’s memorizing it for a test. The recording seems to go on forever, even though it is really only a couple of minutes, and Cora streams a one-sided conversation the entire time. I ignore Cora and just keep my eyes on Garrett’s face. As he watches, his eyes narrow and his brow arcs. When the recording is done, he hands the phone back to Cora.
“Can you stand up?” Garrett asks me. “I’m sure VanWeider is looking for you.”
I try to get up on my own because the last thing I want to do is to lean too close to Garrett while the bitter taste is still in my mouth. I wobble the second I’m on my feet and Garrett immediately ducks under my arm, wrapping his arm around my waist. His touch sends a heartbeat through my body like a defibrillator, but the smell of his cologne makes me even more unsteady.
“I’ve got you,” he says, but my limbs tremble against my will. Cora points at my quivering arms excitedly.
“That’s dehydration!” She sounds like she’s on a game show. “They talked about it in my first aid class! Throwing up dehydrates you and it can make you shake like that.”
As if my legs agree with her, they buckle under me. Garrett adjusts and holds me up effortlessly, as he pulls a bill from his pocket and hands it to Cora. “Could you go down to the cafeteria and get her some water and something to eat? We’ll meet you down at the office.”
“I’m on it!” Cora salutes him and speeds out of the bathroom as if getting me water is the most important thing she’s ever done. Garrett waits for the door to swing shut again.
“Ok, I’m right here. Just lean on me and I’ll get you there, okay?” he says. I nod, unwilling to open my mouth. We walk, but my whole body tremors out of my control as I lean on Garrett. He tells me over and over again in his honey-warm voice that I’m going to be okay. My feet feel like they are just brushing over the floor, but Garrett doesn’t complain. He hardly even seems to notice by the time we head down the now-empty hallway to the stairs that lead to the main floor. I wobble on the top step and gasp, but Garrett’s hands are there, holding me steady.
“I’m not letting go of you,” he assures me and I nod that I believe him. “We’ll just take it slow. One step at a time, all right?”
I nod. Three steps down, Garrett’s voice is warm in my ear again. “That was some impressive stuff you did with Jen.”
I think he feels my shrug against his chest when we pause on the next step, but I’m not sure, because the way my shoulders are shaking might feel like a thousand little shrugs. His arms stay steady around me.
“I mean it. It looked like you’re some cage fighter or something,” he chuckles. I just shake my head.
“You’re not going to talk to me because of throwing up, right?” he asks and I nod, blushing. Garrett just laughs.
“You don’t have to worry about it,” he says, but I just shake my head again.
“Have it your way, then.” His tone is apologetic. “You’ll just have to listen to me all the way down to the office.”
I shrug again and chuckle weakly behind closed lips. The shaking makes it sound like a giggle shaken up in can, but all I want to do is listen to him and even more, I want to do it while he’s holding me in the unwavering support of his arms.
My body is still quivering when we reach the office, and I am starting to wonder if it has anything to do with food or water after all.
I end up saying hardly anything at all in Principal VanWeider’s office. He knows me mostly from the destruction my nickname has done to his school. I’ve been in the Principal’s office several times, while he’s asked if I could identify who’s painted my nickname on the lockers or written things about me on the bathroom walls. I’ve never been able to help, but Principal VanWeider has always seemed genuinely upset that this is happening to me. The last time, when someone announced on the PA that there would be a paper drive and that the school could meet their goal with one stop at The Waste’s house, he even apologized for not being able to stop it himself.
I eat the whole sandwich and drink the water that Cora brings and the principal allows Garrett and Cora to explain most of what happened. Principal VanWeider listens without emotion and then he watches Cora’s recording from her cell phone, his eyebrows rising as he exhales, huh, a few different times.
“It certainly changes my opinion of the story I heard from Ms. Ballard and Ms. Runklan,” he says when he’s finished watching. “I’d like to keep your phone, Ms. Paguli, if that’s okay with you, so I can show it to the other parties involved, and their parents, if need be.”
“I’ll get it back, right?” Cora asks.
“Of course. I’ll be dealing with this matter immediately and I’ll have your phone back in your possession by lunch tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Cora says, but she keeps her arms folded tightly over her chest, rubbing her nose with two fingers, like she really wants her phone back now.
“Your sacrifice is noted and appreciated,” Principal VanWeider adds and Cora stops rubbing, straightening her shoulders with a grin. The principal leans back in his chair. “Part of the issue I have with this situation is that, while Simon Valley has a no-tolerance policy concerning actual fighting, I think that some of the students haven’t grasped that the policy extends to provocation of incidents as well.
“I must mention that I’m particularly proud of how you handled yourself in this situation, Ms. Maxwell. I’m very impressed with how you were able to defend yourself without ever touching the other students. Their injuries were created as a direct consequence of their own actions. That is quite an honorable and skilled form of defense that you displayed.
“Since the nature in which this was originally presented to me is completely opposite of what you’ve shown me on video, you can be certain that it will be dealt with in like fashion. Are you feeling any better now?”
“A little,” I say.
“Well, under these circumstances, I’m going to excuse you for the day. Do you have a way of getting home?”
“No,” I say.
“Sir,” Garrett says from behind me. “I’ve only got a Lit class and a study hall this afternoon and Ms. Kale can vouch for my being ahead in Lit. I could take Nalena home.”
I don’t bother to mention that my home has been temporarily relocated to Garrett’s house. Principal VanWeider leans back in his office chair and drums his fingers thoughtfully on the desk before he says, “I suppose I don’t have a problem with that. You’re both excused for the remainder of the day.”
Cora slumps in her chair and says, “I wish I had a car.”
Garrett walks me back to my locker and takes my backpack from me once it’s filled.
“Can you talk to me yet?” he asks.
“Maybe. A little,” I say, fighting back the giggle that spins around my heart.
“Good. I think I can work with ‘a little’.” He takes my hand again and laces his fingers through mine in a way that reminds me of the shapes in the bottom of our tea mugs this morning.
“I wonder what’s going to happen to Jen and Regina,” I say as we reach the front doors. Garrett holds the door open with one arm so I can walk through.
He quirks an eyebrow at me. “Yeah, about that…how did you move like that? Are you some secret lethal weapon or something?”
“Hardly,” I say but Garrett stops walking, pulling me to a stop with him.
“How did you do it?”
I’m not sure what to tell him. Do I mention the whir, the spinning rings that bust open, and the protection bubble? Like all of that wouldn’t send him screaming away? Or maybe I could get myself a whole new nickname by telling him how I pop out of my body when it happens. I decide to play dumb instead.
“I don’t know how I do it,” I tell him.
“You’ve done it before?”
I feel like I’m gouging a hole in myself as I lie to him. “Oh, no. I meant, how I did it in the bathroom. Just lucky, I guess.”
“Hmm,” he hums like he doesn’t believe me, and the gouge inside me aches, but he doesn’t drop my hand on the way to his car. He unlocks the passenger door and closes it once I’m in. I watch him walk around to his side and I notice the dents again that Kris left in his hood. By the time Garrett slides into his seat, I’m wondering why he’s going to all this trouble, fighting Kris, and messing up his car, and wrecking his reputation in school, over being seen with me. I can see how his reputation and his relationship to Kris might not mean so much, since graduation is right around the corner, but I can’t figure out why he’s not furious about his car. I’m still not sure why Garrett thinks of me as anything but The Waste. And why now. Even Cora has been careful, since I got my nickname, about how much she’s actually seen talking with me.
Garrett starts up the car and I ask, with as much indifference as I can, “Aren’t you hungry? Did you get lunch today?”
We pull out onto Main and he lets the steering wheel slide back from the turn before he answers. “I meant to apologize for not being there at lunch. I got a call from Sean and I had to go.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” I tell him, even though his wanting to apologize makes me happy. I know it’s none of my business why Sean called or why Garrett decided to meet him instead of having lunch with me. It’s also not my business why Garrett didn’t tell me he was leaving, even if he’d been waiting outside every class for me and holding my hand all day. My heart feels a little pinched, wanting to be the center of everything Garrett does, and knowing that I’m not. Maybe all this desperation I feel, to be considered central in his life, is because I can see how quickly he’s becoming the center of mine.
He steers the car down the street I usually take home from school, which is in the opposite direction of his house. All of my stuff is at the Reeses’, but maybe Garrett knows something I don’t. Maybe my mom has come to her senses and I’ll be back in my own bed tonight.
Traveling down the main road toward my house makes me feel lonely. I’m not sure if I’m dreading going home because I don’t want Garrett to see the mess of it in broad daylight or if it is because he’ll leave me there and go home to his wild, bright, chaotic house across town.
“Are you taking me home? Is my mom done freaking out?” I ask. He laughs.
“No, I don’t think so. I think the plan is for you two to stay with us for a few more days, but we’re supposed to pick up some paper.”
My throat cinches shut. No. It’s bad enough that my mom was up writing all night and that she left a stack of paper on the Reeses’ otherwise uncluttered counter. The idea of her dragging all of our mess out into the open like this, and making Garrett and his family deal with it, on top of taking us in as unexpected house guests, is mortifying.
“We really don’t have to pick up anything,” I tell him, but my voice is thin and shaky.
“It’s not a problem. She just wants a couple packs of paper.”
“We’ll be home in a day or two. She can live without it.” This is almost a lie. I know my mom is probably pacing the Reeses’ floor right now, waiting for it. She’s probably pushing back the side light curtain every few minutes, watching for Garrett’s car and assuring herself that the paper is coming. It will only be worse if she’s already run out. Then she’ll look insane as she paces, mumbling all the names and plot lines over and over, so they aren’t lost before she can write them down.
I wish I could not care, but I can’t seem to help it. I sit beside Garrett, defeated, as he pulls into the parking lot of the office supply.
“I’m happy to do it for her,” he says as he cuts the engine.
We go in the door and it is like going into any place that feels like home but isn’t. I tell Garrett not to trip on the rug, where it bunches up by the sliding door.
Some places smell homey with the aroma of food or sexy with people’s perfumes or even hopeful with a mall-mixture of all the smells, but the office supply store has always been different. It smells clean and impersonal and detached, which, depending on the day, can make me feel relieved or anxious, angry or comforted. Today, I walk in with Garrett, inhale the paper and plastic, and feel everything I’ve ever felt about this place all at once.
“Hey stranger.” Buzz is standing behind the counter, in his usual, red smock with his price gun dangling from a pocket. “The sunshine just hasn’t been the same without you.”
“Hi Buzz,” I say and then I blush with guilt because I’m wishing down deep that I didn’t know Buzz well enough to call him by his first name or to know I won't have to get the paper off the shelf because it will already be waiting at the counter. I know what a lousy human being I am when Buzz smiles and puts out his hand to Garrett.
“Any friend of Nalena’s is a friend of mine. You can call me Buzz. Office supply’s number one guy and avid admirer of Ms. Nalena, here,” He says. Garrett shakes Buzz’s hand.
“Garrett Reese,” Garrett says and then, out of nowhere, he adds, “Nalena’s boyfriend.”
I almost drop right then. I picture myself crashing through the glass counter, my face pierced with fancy pens and paper clips. Garrett said he was my boyfriend. He actually said it, out loud, to the guy that feeds my mom’s paper habit. My boyfriend. Garrett. So handsome that he makes my eyes hurt. The paper store is suddenly filled with the most amazing scent I’ve ever smelled in my entire life—like papery, plastic-y, pools of ink, happiness. Did he mean it the way I want to believe it? Or is he saying he’s my friend that is a boy. It sounded like boyfriend and not boy-that-is-a-friend...didn’t it? I leave my hand on the glass counter to steady myself.
“The usual,” Buzz says when he rings up the paper. He smiles at me widely. “Should I put it on your tab, mah lady?”
“No, I’ve got it,” Garrett says before I can answer. He opens his wallet and hands Buzz two bills. Buzz gives me an approving wink as he takes the money and he gives Garrett the receipt.
“It was a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Reese,” Buzz says as he hands Garrett the usual three stacks. “Take good care of my girl, now.”
“Definitely,” Garrett says and my heart bubbles up and spins, over and over again.
There is no one at Garrett’s house when we arrive.
“Where is everybody?” I ask, walking into the silent house behind him.
“My parents are working,” Garrett says, setting down our backpacks near the door. He carries the paper to the kitchen counter. “Iris is at daycare. Everybody else is at school. Maybe your mom’s running errands?”
I feel myself blush.
“Maybe,” I say. My mom only goes out when she has to, and if there are too many things to do in a day, she’ll either come and go in short trips all day long or she’ll find a way not to go at all. I remember once that she got stuck in the welfare office, waiting to sign us up for a bridge card. She was about to walk out when they finally called her name. If they hadn’t called her name right then, I know my mom would’ve walked away from the state aid even though we were getting pretty desperate. It didn’t matter that the trust fund her parents had set up for us was just about gone. It mattered more that she wasn't able to write.
“She probably left a note,” Garrett says, and I relax when he lifts an inked napkin off the counter, waving it in the air. “Yep, right here. She went out with my mom.”
“I thought your mom was at work.”
“I guess not.” He shrugs. “Maybe they went out to get their nails done.”
“Yeah right,” I say. I can just imagine my mom, her fingers stuck soaking while she tries to write her fragmented stories with her toes. That’s the only way my mom would ever tie up her own hands for that long, which is why I know that the nail boutique is the last place she’d ever be.
Garrett opens the fridge and pulls out two apples, some cheese sticks, and a couple bottles of water.
“Looks like you’ve got an hour alone with me before everybody gets back.” He wiggles his eyebrows. “Scared?”
“Of what?” I smirk when he hands me the water bottles.
“C’mon,” he says, looping my fingers with his. I follow him through the living room and past his couch that is still heaped with my comforter. The connection of our fingers sends sparks up my arm. We go out the French doors into the backyard. Garrett guides me across the lawn and up the steps of the gazebo. The koi pond has a tiny ledge waterfall on one side that streams beneath the gazebo’s wood floor, into another pool on the opposite side. We sit on the bench and I lean over, out of one opening, watching the orange and white fish swim among the rocks below.
The faint trickle of the pond weaves into our silence, as we eat the apples and cheese. Usually a silence like this would feel like a scratchy sock, but, with Garrett, it draws little of my attention. It feels like we are talking even though we aren’t, a communication traveling between us in soft, comfortable molecules. I let myself watch him when he looks away, tracing the shadow of his facial hair from the high edge of his jaw, below his cheekbones, until it parts around his mouth. I let my interest rest on his lips. I don’t know how long I am lost in studying them, their curve and color, but Garrett’s sudden grin throws my gaze up into his eyes and I turn what I assume is a purplish shade of humiliated.
“It’s good…when you look at me,” he says. My eyes still fall into my lap. Garrett leans forward with his elbows on his knees and I feel his heat shift beside me, as if a hot wind has settled there. He drops his head, his hair hiding his profile. He pushes his thumbs against the sides of the water bottle in his hands and the plastic snaps into dents. Suddenly, Garrett gets to his feet.
“Come with me,” he says. “I want to show you something.”
He puts out a hand to me and I take it. I let him lead me out of the gazebo and into the middle of the lawn.
“Do you think you can trust me yet?” he asks. I grin, looking around the yard for what he might want to show me.
“Sure,” I laugh, and Garrett lunges straight for my throat.