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Imagine four years.
Four years, two suicides, one death, one rape, two pregnancies (one abortion), three overdoses, countless drunken antics, pantsings, spilled food, theft, fights, broken limbs, turf wars--every day, a turf war--six months until graduation and no one gets a medal when they get out. But everything you do here counts.
"No, seriously Jules, just feel around in there and tell me if you have one--"
"Fuck off, Chris--"
"And tell me where it is, the exact location."
He reaches out and grabs me by the shoulder. I shrug, shrug, shrug it off.
"Fuck off, Chris."
He's been on about the G-spot for like, a week.
"Don't fail me now, Parker. Where is it?"
"Cosmo, December '94. The Sex Issue. Came with a map and everything."
"Hell yes! I knew I could count on you." He points at me, grinning, and then the grin falters and he says, "Wait. You bullshitting me?"
I make him wait for the answer because I'm bullshitting him.
"Chris, I respect you too much to do that."
"That's so sweet. You look good today, Parker."
"You bullshitting me?"
"I respect you too much to do that."
I look like shit today for a variety of reasons, but let's start with the muddy running shoes on my feet. Running shoes are expressly forbidden to wear with the school uniform, but damned if I know where my dress shoes disappeared to between now and yesterday. And then there's my uniform skirt, which has a mustard stain on the front of it because I can't do something simple like make a sandwich for lunch without screwing it up. I plucked my rumpled polo shirt from my bedroom floor and I guess I could've brushed my hair if I'd wanted to forego the bus ride and walk all ten miles to school, but supposedly if I miss anymore classes, I could maybe not graduate and if I have to spend another year in this concrete block--
I probably shouldn't finish that thought.
Principal Henley's got her arms crossed and her eyebrow up. I bring my hands together like I'm appealing to God. I might as well be.
"One day only, Mrs. Henley. See, I got up really late and I couldn't find my dress shoes and I was so worried about getting here on time--"
"And the hair--"
"Can be brushed," I say, smoothing my hand over the tangles.
"You're due at the guidance office in five minutes."
"Oh joy," I say. Her eyes flash and I smile. "No, really."
Her eyebrow goes down. It's good, but not as good as when I got away with everything. I elbow my way through a mass of people to get to my locker because there's something immensely satisfying about the toughest part of my arm connecting with the softest part of everyone else.
A shapely embodiment of a female Satan appears on the horizon, flipping her long blonde hair over her shoulder as she commands the attention of her many underlings. My former underlings.
"--I just bluffed my way through it," she's saying as I pass. "Hey, Parker?"
I half-turn. "What?"
"Did you get that essay finished for Lerner?"
"That was due today?"
Becky stares at me.
"You only had the whole weekend."
"Why do you sound so surprised?" I open my locker. "I'll figure something out."
"Bet you fifty bucks you're fucked."
"You're on," I say. "I can do a lot with fifty bucks."
She laughs and heads wherever she's heading. Cheerleading practice, maybe. No. It's too early, and anyway, I don't care.
I grab my English binder and flip through it until I find the page with FRIDAY and HOMEWORK scrawled messily at the top, but nothing underneath. Great. The bell rings. Guidance office.
I grab my brush, slam my locker shut and race against the flow of students heading to their respective homerooms. I reach the office while the bell's still ringing. I take a minute to catch my breath, stalling, because Ms. Grey would cream herself if she thought I actually made the effort to be on time and I don't like giving people false hope. I count to ten and run a brush through my hair. One. Two. Three. Ten. Again. A few minutes go by. A few more.
When I finally decide to enter the office, I'm still brushing my hair.
It's not meant to be insolent--it's not insolent--but the things is, I can't stop. My hair looks fine but I just stand there brushing it in front of Grey, who sits at her desk looking all devastated, like I'm mocking her somehow.
Sorry, I can't stop, I want to say, but I don't. I don't think I'm really sorry about it either, but she should know this isn't some kind of slam at her for making my life a little more inconvenient than it already is. If it was, I'd be a lot more creative about it.
I sit down across from her and run the brush through my hair a few more times.
"You're late," she finally manages.
My hand relaxes. I lower the brush and rest it in my lap. Grey looks like a bird, a dead-eyed sparrow, and if I had her job, I'd want to kill myself. It's not like well-adjusted people ever come into the guidance office. You either get the crazy underachievers or the crazy overachievers and both come with their own depressing set of problems.
I don't know. I'd just want to kill myself if I was her, that's all.
"Yeah," I say. "So we'd better get on with it, huh?"
"Right." She clasps her hands together. "You already know this, Parker, but I think it bears repeating: no cutting, no missed days, no exceptions. You will complete your homework and you will hand it in when it's due. Off-school lunch privileges are suspended until you can prove to us that you're trustworthy again and--"
"But what if I wake up one morning and I'm vomiting uncontrollably, or I'm hemorrhaging or something? Do I still have to go to school?"
She blinks. "What?"
"What if I'm sick? Like, really sick? What do I do then?"
"A parent would have to call in for you. Otherwise you'll receive a warning--"
"Right." I nod and start chewing my thumbnail. "Okay."
She clears her throat.
"On Friday, you'll meet me here and we'll talk about any troubles you might have had throughout the week, the progress you've made both in and out of school and--"
"But what if I miss some assignments, though? I've gone so long just not doing them, I think it's kind of unfair to expect me to get back on the ball right away. You know what I think, Ms. Grey? I think I should get a grace period."
She leans across the desk, her dead eyes showing a rare sign of life. It freaks me out so much I have to look away.
"This is your grace period, Parker."
Then I have to run all the way to homeroom. Mr. Bradley makes a point to glare at me when he marks down my attendance because they all must have gotten the Tough Love memo over the weekend. I pause at Chris's desk and tap my fingers along the wood until he looks up from the math homework he's scrambling to finish.
"Becky knows where it is."
He laughs. "Becky? You're talking to her now?"
"Yeah. About G-spots. At length. She's an expert."
"Okay." His pale blue eyes twinkle. "Send her up."
I wink at him and head to the desk at the back of the room, where Becky's alternately painting her nails and the cover of her binder with sparkly red polish. A nail here, a red heart there.
I slide in the seat next to hers and I don't waste time.
"Chris wants you."
Her head whips up.
"Chris wants me?"
"Yeah. Go see."
She looks from me to him to me again, to him, to me and she grins. Chris is popular, cute, all dimples. He wears his uniform shirt a size too small because it makes his muscles look bigger than they actually are and he's never wanted Becky before.
"Thanks," she whispers, standing.
She squares her shoulders and walks up the aisle as sexily she can, which is not very sexy at all. As soon as her back is to me, I grab her binder and flip through it, carefully avoiding the drying polish decorating the front. It's so beautifully organized, I find Lerner's essay before Becky even gets to Chris.
We were supposed to write about patriarchy and Beowulf. I had no idea we even read Beowulf, but I'm resigned to the fact I can't bullshit my way through this essay as effortlessly as Becky probably has, and since I'm pretty confidant she can do it just as effortlessly again, I rip it from her binder.
It's my essay now.
"He's disgusting," Becky says when she comes back.
The funny thing is, she won't even notice the essay's missing until Lerner's class and even then, she won't suspect me because I may have done a lot of stupid things in the last year, but that doesn't mean I'm an essay thief. People are kind of stupid like that, when they think you're tragic. You get away with a lot even after you're caught.
"You obviously like disgusting," I tell her.
She smiles this big, blonde smile.
"He asked me out, but I wanted to make sure it's okay with you first."
"Screw him, Becky. I don't care."
"Becky, really, I don't care and I don't want to hear it. You're dull."
She rolls her eyes. "For five seconds you almost seemed human."
"Five whole seconds, huh? That's an improvement. Tell Grey, would you? She'll love that."
The bell rings and Becky lunges out of her seat. Chris waits for no one.
"Becky," I call after her. She turns. "I hope you have that fifty on you. I'll need it for after school."
I copy her essay during history, unnecessarily exerting myself with a little creative rewriting so it sounds authentically Parker.
After history, I run into The New Kid.
The bell has rung, the halls are filtering out and when I spot him, this New Kid, he's doing that confused stumble around the halls that makes it painfully obvious he has no idea where he is. He's got brown hair that sort of hangs into his brown eyes and I stare at him when I pass, because New Kids generally can't handle eye contact and I find that amusing. He looks about 18 and I bet his parents are real assholes, to do whatever it is they did that he had to transfer in the middle of senior year.
I turn slowly, debating. Do I make this easy on him, or do I make it hard? A good person would make it easy.
I decide to start with mocking and work my way up.
"Hey--hey, you--New Kid!"
He takes it well.
"Uh, yeah. Hi," he says. "Maybe you could help me?"
"I'm late for class."
"That makes two of us." He smiles. "Of course, you have an advantage in that you probably know where class is. Could you direct me to Mr. Norton's room?"
"Sorry, New Kid. I'm late."
"Oh, come on. You have time to tell me where--"
"No. I have no time."
Pause, pause, pause. We stare at each other for a good minute.
"You're just standing there," he finally splutters. "How can you have time to stand there and not enough time to tell me how to get to Mr. Norton's room?"
I give him my most winning smile, shrug and resume the walk to my next class.
"Are they all like you here?"
I wave over my shoulder but I don't stop.
Norton says he's going to tell on me for being late. Henley and Grey will get the notice and I'll have to discuss it on Friday. Why were you late, Parker? What did you think that would accomplish, Parker? And then the tough questions. What destructive behaviors were you engaging in for the five minutes you weren't in class, Parker?
I'm going to tell them I'm on the rag.
Anyway, I have two classes a day with Chris and this is one of them. We sit next to each other because his last name starts with E and mine starts with F. Ellory and Fadley, Winter Ball King and Queen three years running.
I can't stand being around him, to be honest, but I fake it pretty well.
"You're late," Chris says. We're working with charcoal today. He passes me a pencil and a sheet of paper. "Where were you?"
"If I told you, I'd only disappoint you."
I start working on a charcoal blob. Abstract charcoal. Whatever. The black flakes off the pencil tip, making a nice mess of my fingers pretty quickly. Then I smudge until my masterpiece is ruined. I bet Norton will report that too, like I didn't try, even though it's art, where no one should be able to tell if you're trying or not.
The stupid thing is, I like art. I mean, it's okay.
"Oh, Jesus yourself and take a joke," I tell him. "There's a new kid. He asked me directions. It took a couple minutes."
"Oh." He sounds vaguely relieved. "Hey, your hair looks nice all brushed like that."
"Took you long enough to notice. It was brushed in homeroom."
"I've got a date with Becky for Friday."
"Chris and Becky," I say thoughtfully. I try it again in Movie Announcer Voice: "Chris and Becky. Presenting Chris and Becky..."
He stares. "What?"
"It doesn't sound right," I declare. "There's no ring to it."
"Yeah, well, you broke up with me."
"I know, I was there. And that has nothing to do with how stupid your names sound together," I say. I try it again: "Chris, Becky, Becky, Chris..."
He stares some more.
"Seriously, there's a new kid? You're not drunk?"
"No, I'm on the rag."
Enter New Kid. The door swings open and he's flushed and out of breath like he ran all the way here. Everyone gets quiet--fresh meat--and Norton harrumphs.
"Better late than never. Gardner, I presume?"
"Yes sir," Gardner mumbles. "I got lost."
Gardner looks like he can't believe it. "I'm new."
"Thank you for that contribution, Gardner. Take a seat over there, help yourself to some charcoal and paper and get to work." Norton's such a hard ass. He reminds me of George C. Scott sometimes. "I expect you to be on time tomorrow."
"That's not the guy you gave directions to, is it?" Chris asks.
"I didn't say I gave him directions, I said he asked me directions."
"Christ, Parker, you're a real bitch sometimes."
Gardner skulks over to the table next to ours, sets up and starts drawing. I stare at him until he feels it and looks my way.
His eyes widen and he points his charcoal pencil at me accusingly.
"You," he says. "You're in this class?"
I smile. "Hi. I'm Parker Fadley."
Chris reaches past me, extending his hand.
"Ignore her. I'm Chris Ellory. Welcome to St. Peter's."
"Thanks," Gardner says, looking relieved they're not all like me around here. He and Chris shake hands. "Jake Gardner. Nice to meet you."
Now that I've heard his name, I'm doomed to remember it. Just more useless information taking up brain space that could be better served for more important things like--stuff. Jake and Chris talk through art and discover they have so much in common it's amazing. Like, They Could Be Boyfriends If They Didn't Like Vaginas So Much Amazing.
By the time the period is over, my charcoal blob has eaten all the white space but for one solitary speck to the lower left side of my paper. When Norton does his rounds, he leans over my shoulder and, in his best George C. Scott, says, "I like it." Then he glances at Chris's half-hearted elm and goes, "It's always trees with you! How many times do I have to tell you to think outside the tree, Ellory?" And I laugh so hard I cry a little.
Then the bell goes off again. The bell goes off too much.
We eke our way out of the room and Chris turns to Jake and says, "We're gonna check out the fast food strip for lunch. Wanna come?"
"Sure," Jake says.
"How about it, Parker?" Chris asks me. Then he brings his hands to his mouth in mock-horror. "Oops, I forgot. You're not allowed off grounds for lunch anymore! Oh, snap."
I roll my eyes. "That wasn't a snap."
He says something else, but I don't hear it because I'm gone. I drop my things at my locker and search out a spot in school that isn't around people, but there are none and that's when I notice that the halls are way too crowded.
Like, there are bodies everywhere.
At first I do okay. I hover by the drinking fountain and try to look like I've got somewhere to be. Then I start hearing this sound, like this sighing, no--not sighing, breathing. Everyone breathing. I can hear the people around me sucking up all the fresh air in unison, leaving nothing for me.
My chest tightens and I can't breathe.
"I can't breathe."
I scare the hell out of the school nurse. He darts up from his chair and makes a big fuss while I try to explain the problem.
"I can't breathe. The air in here is too stale.... no, my chest feels fine. Yes, I can feel my left arm.... make them open some windows, they're using up all the air..."
He doesn't get it but he directs me to a cot at the back of the room anyway. No one else is sick today, so I get a little peace and quiet. I lie on my back and scan the shelves across the room for a bottle of Ipecac, but no such luck.
I close my eyes.
When I open them again, it's last period and I'm in English and Becky is freaking out and flipping through her binder while Lerner looks on. I don't know what she's so worried about, she's golden. She never misses an essay and Lerner likes her.
He's even saying, "No worries, Halprin, just get it to me by the end of the week..."
"But you don't understand, sir, I did the essay! I had it! It was here!"
"I'm sure it will turn up," he tells her in a soothing voice. "Just make sure you hand it in by Friday..."
Becky looks like she's going to cry. Lerner moves on to me.
"I don't even have to ask, do I, Fadley?"
Lerner likes me too. Not as much as he used to. And what I like best about Lerner is he's been teaching so long, he doesn't waste time. He readjusted his expectations of me immediately after the first time I got wasted and fell out of my chair in class.
"I think you should," I say, smiling. "Go on, ask."
His mustache twitches. "Well, I'm afraid to now."
Becky's mouth drops open when I make a show of taking the essay from my binder and handing it to Lerner. He stares at it and then me, and for a second I wonder if he knows it's Becky's. But then he tucks it away with the other papers he's collected and it's good. Only I hope he doesn't do any expectation readjustment after this because then I'll have to disappoint him.
Becky gapes at me, still teary-eyed.
"When the fuck did you do that essay?"
"History, lunch. I'll take my fifty dollars now, please."
"I was joking, Parker. The bet was a joke."
But I won't let it be a joke, so when the last bell, finally, mercifully rings, I chase after her down the hall, screaming her name.
"Becky! Hey, Becky! BECKY HALPRIN!"
She pauses, stuck. At one end of the hall, her posse--my former posse--and at the other end, me. She thinks about it for a minute, sighs and heads in my direction.
"What time's your date with Chris on Friday?"
"He's picking me up at six."
"Do you still have that pink sweater? The one that makes your boobs look huge? You should wear that, he'd like it." She looks all disgusted with me because she's too stupid to realize I'm helping her out. "And if you make out with him, keep in mind he's got really sensitive ears..."
"Uh." She blinks and shakes her head. "Okay. Thanks. I think."
"No problem." I pause. "Hey, if you'd won the bet, would it still have been a joke?"
"Becky, come on," someone whines behind us. I glance down the hall. Sandra Morrison is tapping her foot impatiently and giving me a look of utter disdain, which is pretty amazing considering she wouldn't have dared to do it when I was the one leading her around by the nose. Becky sighs again and briefly closes her eyes before reaching into her book bag, finding her wallet and pulling out a few crispy looking bills.
"Thanks," I tell her as she hands them to me. "I hope your essay turns up."
She looks touched, like I mean it.
"I do too. You know, Tori quit the squad. There's a position available."
I snort. "Like I'd ever let you captain me."
Her mouth drops open, but I don't want to give her the chance to say anything back. I walk away, get my things out of my locker and head home. I'm tired of being around people my age so I skip my bus, make the short walk to the city's main street and hail a cab.
I can afford it now.
HIT 'EM LOW AND HIT 'EM HIGH!
LET'S GO JACKALS! WIN OR DIE!
Grey says I'm not allowed to spend lunch period in the nurse's office anymore because no one will take me seriously should the time ever come that I actually can't breathe, so I go to the gym and sit in on cheerleading practice instead. It's a pretty low-key affair. The squad takes up the far side of the court and Chris, his buddies and his new puppy, Jake, play a game of 21 on the opposite end.
It's sort of like old times, except I'm not on top of the pyramid anymore.
It was a relief for everyone the day I quit the squad. Jessie had been gone for quite a while. On a number of occasions I had miscalculated how many shots of vodka you could down without going to class completely wasted, and, anyway, I hadn't been showing up for practice for ages and seeing as I was captain and everything...
Becky made herself cry so it looked like she actually cared about my well-being and was only taking over captaining duties super reluctantly, but because her mascara wasn't waterproof, she wound up looking so ridiculous I laughed in her face in front of the whole squad. What was supposed to be a superficially touching moment for the girls and me didn't end very well.
In fact, they hate me now.
I broke up with Chris pretty shortly after that.
Chris emerges champion of 21 and the boys start an impromptu mini-game, except for Jake, who doesn't know I know he's been watching me every chance he gets--these 'subtle' glances out the corner of his eye. He casually removes himself from the rest and makes his way up the bleachers. Our impending encounter has already left me exhausted, but at least I look better today than I did Monday. Dress shoes on feet (they were under the bed), clean skirt and shirt. My hair's brushed and in a tight ponytail at the back of my head. And I slept well last night.
He sits down beside me. "We got off on the wrong foot."
"Did we?" I inhale. "I hope you're going to shower before class. Basketball doesn't smell so good on you."
"... Or maybe there is no right foot with you."
Silence. Jake shifts, laughs nervously and runs a hand through his hair. People always get uncomfortable when I decide to shut up. You'd think it'd be the opposite, but no. After a couple of minutes, he bravely soldiers on:
"Chris told me I had better things to do than talk to you, but I'm oddly compelled to do just that. Talk to you, I mean."
Oh, Chris. I owe him a thousand apologies but I don't have the time and he doesn't want to hear them. Also, I'm not sorry.
"He said that because he's not over me," I explain.
"Oh." Jake nods. After a beat, his eyes get comically wide. "Oh."
I stand and stretch and he does the same, shifting some more. I focus my attention on the cheerleaders. Becky is in her element now that she's captain. She wants to coach professionally someday and the reality is she could do far worse and not much better. She shouts the girls into a ragged formation. We're not going to win any awards this year; I'm gone, Tori's gone and Jessie won't be back for who knows how long.
"Anyway," Jake says and I turn back to him. "I just wanted to start over. Get on the right foot with you, that's all."
I have to put this poor guy out of his misery.
"Look, Jake, I'm not in the market for--" I almost say boyfriend, which is true, but this is even truer: "People."
"The--that's very presumptuous of you," he stutters, because he hears the boyfriend of it anyway, like I knew he would. "I--I'm not--"
"Aren't you?" I tilt my head and study him. I'm really not that presumptuous, but I need to kill this conversation. "Why else would you want to talk to me?"
"I was giving you a chance to redeem yourself for being such a bitch on Monday," he says, turning red all over. What a saint. "I thought I'd be nice to you--"
"And get into my pants in the process, right?"
"HIT 'EM LOW AND HIT 'EM HIGH!"
He's completely gobsmacked. Maybe they don't talk so forward wherever he came from. I have no doubt he's probably a nice guy who poses no immediate threat to my hymen-- if I still had one--but I meant what I said. I'm not in the market for people.
I want to be alone.
So I leave Jake on the bleachers.
After math, I'm due at the guidance office for my first of many sessions where I talk about my adventures on the straight and narrow and how I feel about it. Grey's in a cheerful mood when I sit across from her. Cheerful for Grey, anyway.
"I'm glad you showed up," she says. "Principal Henley and I had a bet on whether or not you'd skip and now I'm twenty dollars richer."
"She underestimates how much I want to graduate," I say.
"Well, I didn't." Grey smiles. "Let's get started. I want you to be open with me, Parker."
I take a deep breath. It smells suspiciously like bullshit in here.
"Open?" I repeat.
"Open. This is your space. Feel free to tell me anything. You have my word it won't leave the room. I want you to trust me. In learning to trust me, I learn to trust you, and from that trust we go forward. You get your life back and you graduate a person everyone can be proud of."
She looks over a piece of paper in front of her. I'm betting it's some kind of Parker Tally Sheet.
"You did well this week, mostly," she says.
It's funny--I think I'd actually rather be learning right now.
"You've done most of your homework. Good. Next week you can try for all of it, okay? Mrs. Jones informed me she's willing to be lenient about math since you've managed to get behind an entire unit, but that's not indefinite. I thought that was very generous of her."
"Oh yes." I nod. "Very."
We get quiet. Grey's office is such a pit. There are no windows in here and some dumbass thought fluorescent lights would be a great way to compensate. If anyone comes in here ready to die, they probably leave feeling that way too.
"What are you thinking about, Parker?"
I'm thinking about Becky and Chris and how they've been making eyes at each other all day, and how in third period, I realized by this time tomorrow both of our mouths will have been on his and how if they fall for each other, that means I'm replaceable. If I'm replaceable, if I step back and put something in the space where I was, I can probably get to be alone faster than I already am. Like, Becky and Chris get together and some new girl joins the squad and they forget about me. Next, I find someone who fucked up worse than I did, like some student prostitute who cuts herself, and that takes care of Henley and Grey and then--maybe I can convince my parents they need a puppy.
"I'm not thinking about anything."
"Fine." She purses her lips. "Let's get back to the week. There were a few glitches, like the nurse's office. I don't know what that was about. And you were late for Mr. Norton's class on Monday. Would you mind telling me why?"
"I ran into the new kid--Jake something? He needed directions."
"Oh." She seems relieved. "So you weren't--"
"Don't worry, Ms. Grey. I wasn't drinking, smoking, toking or snorting in school. I'll keep the recreational drug use at home where it belongs."
"Parker," she warns.
I lean back and stare at the ceiling. The first time I was in this office was the last time I was drunk at school. I was slumped over in the very chair I'm sitting in now and Henley and Grey discussed my "situation" right in front of me, like there was no way I could follow what they were saying or remember any of it in the morning, but I did.
This is sad, this is so sad...
"So," she says.
She's super ineffectual. I don't see the point of being a guidance counselor in high school if you can't have a gun. If you want a teenager to be open and especially if you want them to be honest, a revolver to their head's probably the best bet. It doesn't matter, anyway. I decide to mess with her.
"Actually, I kind of liked getting back into the swing of things. Becky offered me a position on the squad and that was so nice. And like, handing in my homework and talking to that Jake guy, it almost felt..." I insert a carefully calculated pause here. "Never mind, it's stupid."
"No, no." She leans forward eagerly. "You can trust me, Parker."
I stare at my hands.
"It almost felt like... before."
Grey loves it. She almost falls out of her chair, that's how convincing I am.
That's great, Parker, that's wonderful! See? We'll get you back yet! And then I clam up, no, it's stupid. You're wrong. It's stupid. Never mind.
Because there's no qualifying exam to be a high school guidance counselor. All you have to do is watch a bunch of cheesy movies about troubled teens and take notes. This is how Grey expects the meeting to go down and I'm giving it to her because it might get me out of here faster or at the very least, end this discussion.
"No, it's stupid," I repeat robotically.
"No, it isn't. It's not stupid. Never think it is."
I offer a cautious smile. "Thanks."
She creams herself.
The bell rings. I make a beeline for the door.
I don't turn, just wait.
"That was really good," she says. "I'm proud of you. You know, I think there's a lot more hope for you than you think there is."
I roll my eyes.
"Thanks, Ms. G."
Becky accosts me as soon as I step into the hall and waves a sheet of paper in my face.
"Here," she says, as I take it. "I copied down homework for you. Lerner had a headache so he told us to read The Yellow Wallpaper again--"
"We read it before?"
"Yeah, in ninth grade. Anyway, he wants us to write a thousand words on how we relate to the story now, as seniors, compared to how we related to it as freshmen. It's pretty half-assed, but like I said, he had a headache."
"The Yellow Wallpaper is the one where the chick goes insane and starts humping the wall at the end, right?"
She stares. "You might wanna re-read it again to be safe."
Pfft. "We'll see. Ready for your date tonight?"
"Yeah, got my pink sweater dry-cleaned and everything," she says vaguely, and then she puts on her fake-interested face. "So, how'd your meeting with Grey go?"
"It's six o'clock, right? The date?" I ask. She nods. "Look, I've got to go. I don't want to miss the bus."
On the ride home, I pass the time imagining their date. Chris will take Becky somewhere predictable and nice, even though he could take her dumpster diving and she'd be happy because she's wanted him so long. He'll spend the whole time trying desperately hard not to stare at her breasts because that G-spot stuff is all bravado, but by the end of the night he'll be feeling her up, telling her she's pretty, the prettiest, and she'll blush and say oh, Chris, and they'll make another date and they'll fall in love and she'll be a cheerleading coach and he'll be an heir and they'll have two-point-five kids and, and, and...
"I think we should get a dog."
It's one of my better entrances. Dad lowers the paper and Mom drops the potato she's peeling over the sink and they look at me like I'm certifiable, but I'd rather be certifiable than perpetually boring, which is my parents in a nutshell. If I had to own up to resembling either one of them, it'd be my Dad. We both have brown hair and sharp features. Mom's less sharp, more Pillsbury.
"A dog?" Mom says, retrieving the potato. "You think we should get a dog?"
"That's what I said."
Dad returns to the paper. "I've always wanted a dog."
"Well, a puppy actually," I say.
"I've always wanted a puppy," he amends. "They turn into dogs."
"What?" Mom demands, turning to him. "What's that supposed to mean? We're getting a puppy, just like that?"
"No, not just like that. We'd have to talk about it more. Figure out the logistics." He glances at Mom. "It wouldn't be so terrible, would it? Having a dog?"
She turns to me.
"Where did this come from, Parker? You don't want a dog."
"Yes, I do! Ms. Grey said it would be good for me to--to..." I chew my lip and start making faces that so obviously indicate I'm in the process of lying, but my parents hate believing I do that. Lie, I mean. "She said it would be a good learning experience for me to be responsible, like, learning to nurture a puppy into a healthy dog so I could... in turn... learn to nurture... myself! Something about my actions having consequences. And I did all my homework this week, so I'd say I've earned it."
"You couldn't start out with a goldfish?"
"Goldfish die at the drop of a hat, Mom. It could die of completely natural causes after two weeks and I might think it was something I did and I wouldn't be able to live with myself. Puppies are much harder to kill and more challenging to take care of and I'm pretty sure that's the point..."
Mom and Dad exchange a lo-ng look.
"We'll have to talk about it," Dad says, which means we're getting a dog.
"Great. You two do that and call me when dinner's ready. I'll be in my room."
"But don't you want to tell us about the rest of your--"
I'm a bad daughter. I don't go to my room at first; I hang back in the hall and listen. Mom and Dad are quiet for a little bit and then Mom goes, "Did you find that as... strangely encouraging as I did?"
And Dad goes, "Yeah. We haven't really talked in a long time."
"You think her guidance counselor really thinks she should get a dog?"
"It could be a lie."
"And if it is?"
"We can check. Look, if she is lying it's because she wants a dog. It's not like she's lying about where she's been and who she's been with..."
"And that makes it okay?"
"No, but maybe a dog would foster some kind of... sense of responsibility..."
"So we should get a dog? That's what you're saying?"
"Who knows? It could help. We haven't really talked in ages--she talked to us, Lara, she asked us for something we can give her."
"It would be nice to feel like we were doing something." Mom clears her throat. "Now come over here and taste this and tell me if it's awful..."
I check out at dinner time. I mean, I'm there and I'm eating but I spend the meal staring into space, nodding my head every time it's clear my parents are talking to me and sometimes when it isn't. When our plates are empty and we fall into that awkward silence that happens between digesting and clearing the table, I come back to myself.
"May I please go for a walk?"
It's a big question because I have a curfew now, but my parent's spines are so pliable I don't think it'll be a problem. Mom and Dad exchange a nervous glance and have a telepathic conversation about it. I hear every word.
Do we let her out? It's past curfew.
True, but look at that--at least she asked!
I know! I can hardly believe it!
She could have just sneaked out, but she asked!
I know! We're good parents!
"What time will you be back?" Dad asks.
"What time is it now?"
"Within the hour, I guess."
"Where are you going?"
"It's just a walk." I look them both in the eyes. "That's it."
"Sure..." Mom says slowly, staring at Dad, who nods slightly. "That would be fine. Thank you for asking, Parker."
I'm out of the house quick, in case they change their minds. It's dark out, but I have a mini-maglite attached to my key ring so I'm not worried. It feels nice having the streets to myself. Every so often I hear the sound of cars in the distance navigating some far off road.
Chris lives two blocks from me, in the loveliest house on the loveliest piece of property in all of Corby, Connecticut, and I'm sure he's still out with Becky and no doubt his parents are at the country club. When his house comes into view, I walk up the gravel driveway casually, so if any of the neighbors happen to look out their windows, I'm only here for a visit. Nothing unusual.
I bypass the front door and edge my way around the house, maneuvering past shriveled flowerbeds and tacky lawn ornaments until I find myself in the backyard, facing the woods behind the house.
These woods never change. The pine trees stand tall and separate, illuminated by the light of some far off source. When I come here, it always takes me a minute, longer than a minute, to get my bearings, but I can't afford to do that tonight because I promised my parents I'd be home within the hour and I'm not wearing a watch.
I trudge into the trees and pull out my mini-maglite. One step, two steps, 10 steps, 20, 25 steps. I turn the flashlight on.
A feeble, yellow light reveals a small strip of ground laden with pine needles.
It was around here...
And then, without fail, I hear the music from that night, like I always do when I come out here. A heavy bass line and an ear-splitting drum beat winds its way into the woods from Chris's open bedroom window, where he likes to mount the speakers of his sound system for optimal noise blaring into the neighborhood. And then there's splashing sounds coming from the pool and everyone's laughing and talking and shrieking and having a good time.
His parties are the best.
I stick the flashlight in my mouth, get down on my hands and knees and start pushing aside pine needles. Five minutes later, my throat hitches. I rip the flashlight from my mouth, scramble backwards and throw up.
I wipe my mouth, force myself to my feet, move past my puddle of vomit and get back to work. I don't know what I think I'll find out here, but I stay on the ground for a while anyway, searching, until I know the hour's gone and I'm late and I better go because I don't want Chris to come back and see me here and ask me what I'm doing.Finding the bracelet that time was just a fluke, Parker, you idiot.