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Ask the passengers, p.1
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       Ask the Passengers, p.1

           A. S. King
 
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Ask the Passengers


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  Table of Contents

  Copyright Page

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  FOR MY SISTERS,

  WHO SAVE ME FROM

  THE FLYING MONKEYS.

  Question everything.

  —EURIPIDES

  The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.

  —SOCRATES

  Know thyself.

  —ANCIENT GREEK APHORISM

  ASTRID JONES SENDS HER LOVE.

  EVERY AIRPLANE, no matter how far it is up there, I send love to it. I picture the people in their seats with their plastic cups of soda or orange juice or Scotch, and I love them. I really love them. I send a steady, visible stream of it—love—from me to them. From my chest to their chests. From my brain to their brains. It’s a game I play.

  It’s a good game because I can’t lose.

  I do it everywhere now. When I buy Rolaids at the drugstore, I love the lady who runs the place. I love the old man who’s stocking shelves. I even love the cashier with the insanely large hands who treats me like shit every other day. I don’t care if they don’t love me back.

  This isn’t reciprocal.

  It’s an outpouring.

  Because if I give it all away, then no one can control it.

  Because if I give it all away, I’ll be free.

  1

  YOU’D HATE IT HERE.

  MOTION IS IMPOSSIBLE. That’s what Zeno of Elea said. And though I’ve disagreed with the idea every day this week in humanities class, sometimes I think I know what he meant.

  It’s Wednesday, which is lit mag day. Justin and Kristina are ten minutes late. They are always ten minutes late. This doesn’t bug me. I’ve learned to expect it. And if I run out of submissions, I can always work on layout or advertising or just sit here and read a book. Justin and Kristina have all kinds of stuff to do after school. I just have lit mag.

  When the two of them finally arrive, they walk through the door holding hands and giggling. Justin has his SLR digital camera around his neck like always, and Kristina is in a pair of yoga pants and an oversize Yale sweatshirt. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail.

  “Sorry we’re late,” she says.

  Justin apologizes, too. “I had to take some candid shots of the usual suspects: Football practice. Cheerleading. Hockey team running their laps. Yearbook crap.”

  “I went with him to help,” Kristina says. “Could Aimee Hall be any more obvious?”

  Justin laughs. “She actually posed for me hugging her tennis racquet.”

  “It was gross,” Kristina says, adjusting her ponytail by grabbing two sides and yanking on them to center it on her perfect head.

  When the townies talk about her, they say: You know that’s her natural color?

  They say: I bet her and that Justin Lampley will have some damn pretty kids.

  They say: I can’t figure out why she hangs out with that weird neighbor girl.

  That’s me.

  “We’re going up to Sparky’s before they close for the season. You in?” Kristina knows the answer to this, but she asks it anyway. And she knows that I’d kill for a Sparky’s root beer float, too.

  “Can’t. School night. You know the deal.” Jones family small-town rules: no going out on school nights unless for clubs, sports or other school-related activities.

  “Maybe Friday, then? It’s their last night. It’ll be packed, but worth it,” she says.

  “Uh, Kris, we have a double date on Friday night,” Justin says.

  “Oh, shit. My bad. Can’t do Friday. Double date.”

  It’s so cute, isn’t it? It’s so 1950s. When I hear them talk like this, I close my eyes and picture Kristina in a blue chiffon dress that poufs out right below her knees, pearls and satin heels. I picture Justin in tightly tailored pegged pants. They are at a sock hop, jitterbugging.

  People say: Did you hear those two double-date every Friday night? Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

  Justin looks at his watch. “Are you done or what?”

  I show him the empty submission box, and he pulls out his phone and starts to wander toward the door.

  “You need a ride home?” I ask Kristina. She looks at Justin, who is already texting Chad. We know it’s Chad, because Justin gets this look on his face when he texts Chad.

  “Sure,” she says.

  Justin is laughing at whatever clever text he just received and doesn’t even hear us. By the time I turn off the lights in Ms. Steck’s room, we’ve managed to nudge him into the hall and lock up. When we say good-bye, he grunts, thumbs typing furiously on his little iPhone keypad. Kristina says she has to grab something from her locker before we go and she’ll meet me in the parking lot, so I stop at the bathroom and my locker, too.

  By the time I get outside, I see Justin and Kristina standing by Justin’s car in the parking lot, talking to a gaggle of their sporty and popular friends. Everyone is nice to Justin because if he likes you, there’s a better chance you’ll end up in the yearbook. If he doesn’t like you? Let’s just say Justin can make you look really good or really bad in a picture.

  Justin and Kristina have been doing this dating thing since mid-sophomore year, so the people-being-overly-nice-to-Justin thing extends to her. Sometimes, it even extends to me, too, if I show up at times like this when they are mobbed in the parking lot, but today I don’t feel like it. They’re all probably saying, “Hope you win Homecoming king and queen! You’ve got my vote!” and stuff like that. I decide to get in my car and wait for the activity buses to leave. I reach into the glove compartment for a bottle of Rolaids and shake out three to chew on.

  We say good-bye to Justin once the buses clear, and drive down Main Street of Kristina’s historic town. I don’t call it my town because I don’t think of it as my town. I still remember living in New York City, and loving the smell of the sweaty steam coming through the subway vents, and the vendor carts full of boiling hot dogs. That’s my town. Not Unity Valley.

  Unity Valley is Kristina’s town.

  Unity Valley is now my sister Ellis’s town, even though she was nine when we moved and totally remembers life in New York.

  Mom says: You two have a chance to really fit in here. Your father and I will always stick out because—well, you know—because of our education and our way of thinking. But you two can really be small-town girls.

  Ellis bought this. She’s living it. As far as I can tell, it’s working for her.

  Mom says: We have so much more space here! The supermarket is so big! The roads are safe! The air is clean! The schools are better! No crime! And the people here stop and say hello!

  Sure, Mom.

  They stop and say hello, and then once you pass, they talk the back off you like you were nothing. They assess your outfit, your hairstyle, and they garble what you say so it comes out ugly. If I don’t hear it firsthand, I hear it secondhand.

  About black kids: I hear that Kyle kid got himself a scholarship. Had to be black to get it. I can’t see how that’s fair. Jimmy Kyle got that scholarship to Villanova because he’s a straight-A student and wants to go to law school.

  About the two Latino freshman girls: The parents don’t even speak English. This is America, isn’t it? Franny Lopez is third-generation American, and her parents don’t even speak Spanish. Michelle Marquez’s mot
her has it bad enough without having to learn a second language. Mind your own business.

  About my family: Did you see they have birdhouses all over their yard? I don’t know about you, but that’s inviting bird shit, and who wants bird shit?

  They say: It’s just not natural that he makes his girl use a hammer.

  Maybe this sort of thing happens in your town, too.

  “Wish you could come to Sparky’s with us tonight,” Kristina says.

  “I’ll live without a root beer float until next summer,” I say.

  We’re a block from our houses, in the prettiest part of town. I used to think the two-hundred-year-old redbrick buildings were so cute, you know? I used to think the cobblestone town center was quaint. It was different and new. And kinda forced on me, but it was cool, too, once I got over the initial shock.

  “I can totally bring you a root beer float, you know. Not sure why that’s only occurring to me now,” she says. “What’s better than Sparky’s except Sparky’s room service?”

  “That would rock so much, I’d owe you something big. Like maybe an ear or a toe or something,” I say.

  She laughs. “You don’t have to give me your toe, dude.”

  “Oh. Good,” I say, pretending I’m relieved. “I was planning on using mine for stuff later today, like walking. And standing upright.”

  Kristina laughs again and even snorts a little. But then she gets that worried look on her face as we approach her house. “Do you think people know?” she asks. She’s so random.

  “No.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “I’m sure,” I say.

  “I wish I could be as sure.”

  “Don’t worry. No one knows.”

  “You’re not bullshitting?” she asks.

  “No bullshit. Promise. I am the ears of this town. No one knows.”

  2

  AUBERGINES, FOYERS, AND THE HORSE WHO LIVES UPSTAIRS.

  WHEN I GET HOME and put my backpack on the desk in the quiet room, I hear Mom’s rolling office chair carving tracks into the wood floor upstairs. She rolls to the east side of the office and then rolls back. Each push makes a series of loud clopping sounds, as if there’s a dancing horse upstairs.

  My mother wears expensive high heels all day while she works, even though she works at home. She wears full business attire, too, and makeup and earrings and has her hair perfectly styled, even though nobody ever sees her. When she breaks for lunch, she clip-clops downstairs to the kitchen and then clip-clops back upstairs—back straight, eyes focused just above the horizon, as if she’s still in New York City, walking down Park Avenue, being a big, important art director. When I hear her clip-clopping, I am immediately annoyed. At everything. At Unity Valley. At her. At this house and how I can hear her upstairs because the house is a million years old and there’s no insulation between ceilings and floors, unless you count centuries-old mouse nests.

  We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my grandmother dying. Mom’s mom. She used to tell Ellis and me stories about growing up where there were cornfields and hills to roll down. On our last visit to her Upper West Side apartment, Gram mentioned to Mom and Dad that the house Gram grew up in—one of the oldest on Main Street in Unity Valley—was up for sale.

  Even though Gram lived her whole adult life in New York City, she was buried back in Unity Valley, next to her mother, my great-grandmother. We drove by the house fifty times the week of her funeral, and one time we stopped the car and Mom got out and talked to a person walking down the sidewalk. The lady said, “They’ll never get what they’re asking. The place is too small, and the market is too slow.”

  That’s all it took for Mom to call the real estate agent.

  “It’s rightfully mine,” she’d said. “I remember visiting my grandmother in it when I was little, and always wishing I lived there,” she’d said. “We won’t move permanently, but we should buy it. It’s like an heirloom. I finally have a chance to buy it back into our family.”

  So she did. A year later, when I was ten and Ellis was nine, we moved. Now we’re small-town girls. Except that we aren’t. And Mom is a hometown girl. Except that she isn’t.

  Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop. She descends the steps, and I start to unpack my books onto the quiet-room desk to get ready for the trig homework I’ve been avoiding all day.

  “How was your day?” she asks Ellis, who’s been sitting in the kitchen this whole time but hasn’t said hello.

  “I’m starting against Wilson tomorrow,” she says.

  “I suppose that’s good, is it?” Mom never played sports. So, Ellis’s field hockey is her introduction to words like starting, varsity and shin splints.

  “It’s great,” Ellis answers.

  “How great? Will we see you on the front page of the sports section soon?”

  Ellis rolls her eyes. “It’s great for me. And the team. And maybe it means Coach Jane will start me more often.”

  “I can’t understand why she doesn’t make you the star of the team. This whole fairness-to-seniors idea is so silly. If they backed talent no matter what age, it would get them further.”

  I’m still in the quiet room playing invisible, but I want to explain to Mom that you can’t make a player star of the team by better advertising or better shelf placement, the way she does with her clients’ products.

  “I think it’s fair to let the seniors start,” Ellis says.

  “Well, it won’t help you get your name in the paper, so you’ll have to forgive me if I disagree,” Mom says. “Help me make dinner?”

  Ellis deflates and claims homework time in her bedroom. Mom goes into the kitchen to make dinner without asking me how my day was, even though she knows I’m here.

  The quiet room is technically the foyer. In our house, you pronounce that correctly.Foy-yay, not foy-er. We call it the quiet room because as long as the horse isn’t dancing upstairs and the door is closed, it is the quietest room in the house. It’s where my mother hopes to read classic novels again one day when she isn’t working nine days a week, and it’s where I do my homework because Ellis plays loud music when she works in her bedroom and I can’t concentrate. And I need to concentrate because trig is killing me.

  When I signed up for trig, I certainly thought it would be more exciting than the deep study of triangles. Seriously. Triangles. That’s all it’s about. When I realized this upon reading the basic definition in the front of the textbook on the first day of school, every cell in my body told me to go to Guidance and change my schedule. I don’t need trig to graduate. I’ve taken plenty of math, and I got good grades. I even got picked for AP humanities—the only class in Unity Valley High School that requires teacher references.

  I’m not sure if learning about ancient Greece and classical philosophy is going to get me anywhere, but it’s not like trig is going to get me anywhere, either. At least philosophy isn’t making me want to jump off the nearest bridge. Okay, well at the moment it kinda is, but that’s Zeno of Elea’s fault. And anyway, if what he said is true, that motion is impossible, then I wouldn’t really be able to jump off a bridge, would I?

  At five thirty, Dad parallel parks in the space in front of our house and goes into the backseat for his briefcase. When he gets to our front walk, he hits the lock button on the car, and it sounds a little honk. He stops to make sure our two front birdfeeders are filled. He checks the water level in the birdbath. Then he walks in the front door to find me pretending to poke my eye out with a protractor.

  “Trig?” he asks.

  I put my head down in response. I stick my tongue out and roll my eyes back like I’m dying.

  “Good luck with that,” he says as he heads upstairs.

  I can smell the pot on his breath.

  Mom brings the steaming casserole dish to the table and places it on a hot pad. “Aubergine casserole!” she announces. Yes, aubergine. That’s eggplant to us nonspecial, undereducated, small-town people.

  She serves it with a
cold salad and sprinkles walnuts on top of everything.

  Halfway through dinner, Ellis tells Dad about starting against Wilson tomorrow. As she tells him the details, he nods and chews. When he finally swallows, he says, “What time does it start?”

  “Four.”

  “I bet I can swing that,” he says. “Even if I’m a little late.”

  “That would be awesome,” she says.

  Mom says, “I can’t make it.” Even though she works upstairs. And she can. Totally. Make it. “But if you want, we can go shopping this weekend.”

  We all go back to eating aubergine casserole. For the record: The last time Mom took me shopping on a whim was never. And it’s not like Ellis has grown out of her clothes. The saddest part is that Ellis still pretends they have the perfect relationship Mom wants them to have. Because Ellis is her last chance, and they both know it.

  “It would be nice to see you in the paper,” Mom says. “They’re always concentrating on boys’ sports or the kids who get scholarships.”

  “I’m a midfielder,” Ellis says, which she knows Mom won’t understand, so I don’t know why she says it.

  “But you’re talented,” she says. “I’m going to get in touch with Mike at the paper and see what he can do. We do each other favors. He could get you in there,” she says, pointing with her fork.

  “I don’t really want to be in the paper,” Ellis says.

  “Everyone wants to be in the paper!” Mom says. “And it’s not like it’s the Times. No need to be modest.”

  I can’t figure out if that’s an insult or a compliment.

  When it’s my turn to talk about my day, I share lit mag news.

  “We got a few poems today that were half decent,” I say. “And there’s a kid in freshman AP English who writes these great fantasy short stories, and he submitted a few of them. I picked one of those, too.”

 
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