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Ask the passengers, p.10
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       Ask the Passengers, p.10

           A. S. King
 
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  “Would you want her being like that about you?” I ask.

  “It’s her way of caring without leaving the house.” She rolls her eyes. “Which is more important than, you know, everything.”

  Ellis baits the hook, and I know she genuinely wants to talk, and she’s bummed, probably, that Mom can’t make time for her hockey games. But though she’s pissed off right now and needs me to save her from the flying monkeys, there’s the “Mommy and Me” Ellis. The one who might drink too much wine while wearing Mom’s fineries and spill out whatever I say.

  “Shit, man. I have to get this load of wash in, or I’ll have nothing to wear this week. You have any whites?” I ask. My brain says: Ellis, you’re a great kid, and at the moment you are perfect. Enjoy it while it lasts and know that I love you, even though you can’t be trusted. One day you will know the truth, and then we’ll talk.

  “Yeah. I have a few whites,” she says, and goes to her room to get them. She puts them in the basket, and we both go downstairs. I go to the laundry room and start the machine, and she flops herself on the couch and flips through the channels.

  I see Mom at the kitchen table, her empty lunch plate still in front of her, banging her phone keyboard with her thumbs. She giggles. She texts again. It makes me realize that maybe this is her back door to being accepted in Unity Valley. If she doesn’t leave the house, the gossips-in-charge won’t have anything to say about her. But she can still be involved somehow from her handy smartphone.

  I put on a sweatshirt and my coat and my gloves, a hat and a scarf, and I go to my table and lie down. The sky is biblical today—rays of sun forming straight lines from behind rounded, fluffy clouds. The planes shine like gold stars up high. I ask: If I unzip my Unity Valley suit and let my happy person out, will she still be happy?

  The back door slams, and I look and see it’s Ellis.

  “What do you do out here all the time?”

  “Just watch the sky, I guess. Think. Dream.”

  “Can I talk to you? About stuff?” she asks.

  “Sure.”

  “Why doesn’t Mom come to my hockey games? Or go anywhere, really?”

  I think about this. “She goes out with you all the time on your Mommy and Me trips, right?”

  She’s silent. Probably wasn’t a good time to say that. But I really don’t want to talk to perfect Ellis. She should be happy in her bubble. And let me be happy out here on my picnic table.

  “Mom says you lie here because it’s what you do to feel normal.”

  “What’s normal?” I ask.

  “I don’t know. Moms who watch their kids play hockey, for one thing.” She frowns in thought. “And I don’t think you’re that abnormal,” she says.

  “Thanks.”

  “So? What do you do when you lie here?”

  I sigh. “Nothing really. Just watch the sky, like I said.”

  “Huh,” she says. She looks at the sky for a minute and then goes back inside.

  23

  JEFF THE LEG JIGGLER TALKS, TOO.

  MONDAY MORNING SUCKS. I mean that specifically—not a general comment about how all Monday mornings suck. I’ve always been a fan of Mondays because Mondays get me out of the house and away from Claire. Claire-who-is-beginning-to-make-me-paranoid now that Ellis told me she talks to Jeff’s mom.

  The minute I see him, I ask Jeff what movie he told his mom he saw.

  “She didn’t ask,” he says.

  “Well, I told my mom your car broke down.”

  “Why?”

  “I don’t know. I panicked.”

  “But my car didn’t break down,” he says.

  “Yeah. I know. But if your mom talks to my mom, she might say something about it, and I wanted you to be prepared.”

  “Okay,” he says. He has a goofy look on his face—mixed with annoyance. Thank God. Maybe he wants out of this as much as I do.

  “I had a lot of fun on Saturday night,” he says. “Are we on again for next weekend? Midnight movies? For real this time?”

  “Can’t do it. Next weekend is out for me.” A sad smile forms across his lips. I feel instantly guilty. “But maybe the weekend after that?”

  He smiles. Why do I do this to him?

  It’s been two weeks since I dropped trig, and I’m still aware of it every minute of fourth-period study hall in the auditorium. I stare into space and picture those poor students still stuck up there in room 230, learning about triangles. I think about the theorems and the equations I will never have to do. I think about the way Mr. Trig’s ass looked in those plaid suit pants—how flat it was. How I used to picture it as some sort of foam insulation sprayed atop his blocky pelvis.

  Seriously. I think of all those things. And I smile and smile and smile.

  “You thinking about your boyfriend?” Stacy Koch asks.

  “What?”

  “I said are you thinking about your boyfriend? You look all happy and shit.”

  Stacy has never talked to me before, so I have no idea what to say. She and her twin sister, Karen, are grinning at me. They are cheerleader types. Not real cheerleaders, but close. I think Karen might twirl a baton.

  “Oh. No. I was, uh—” I can’t tell her I was thinking of Mr. Trig’s ass in plaid suit pants. “Yeah. I was. Can’t help it.”

  “He’s a catch,” she says. “Isn’t he, Karen?”

  Karen leans forward and nods. Stacy adds, “He’s like a little brother to us.”

  Before lunch, I hear two interesting tidbits.

  Astrid Jones is a prude. Jeff Garnet says she doesn’t even kiss yet.

  I hear one of the Koch twins has it bad for him, too.

  Life was so much easier being an honest nerd who didn’t do anything.

  On Tuesday I realize I am a horrible person. I am a horrible person for doing this to Jeff Garnet. And to whichever Koch twin is in love with him. I should set him free.

  But I don’t.

  I tell Kristina at lunch about how Ellis saw Jeff walking around Unity Valley on Saturday night, and she says, “So?”

  “So didn’t you make him promise not to blow the cover? Why are we using him if he’s just going to mess everything up?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Well, it was your plan,” I say.

  “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want, dude. You are the master of your own destiny and all that,” she says. She’s a little cold or something. I can’t put my finger on it.

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “I don’t know. Isn’t that what you learn in humanities?”

  I think about what Frank S. would say. But I say nothing.

  It’s Friday. I’m reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave during lunch.

  This week kinda sucked all the way through. From hearing rumors about prude Astrid Jones and being the only reader who showed up for lit mag on Wednesday and doing all the work myself to having to take a European history test yesterday that I forgot to study for. Plus, Kristina is still acting weird. So, now is not really the time for me to see Jeff Garnet.

  He sits across from me the minute I’m done with my Caesar salad. I made it four whole days avoiding him—taking different staircases, using different hallways, only going to my locker during lav breaks.

  “Are you avoiding me?” he asks.

  “No, why?” I ask, completely nonchalant, as if I wasn’t hiding in the girls’ room two periods ago, waiting for him to pass by.

  They say: I don’t know why she’s stringing him along. Maybe it’s a pity thing, like Tim Huber.

  “Astrid?”

  “What?”

  “Did you hear what I said?”

  “No. Sorry. I was spacing out. What did you say?”

  “Stacy told me that she heard you were avoiding me.”

  “Huh.” I shrug. “Well, she’s wrong. I’m not avoiding anyone,” I say.

  “Oh,” he says. “Okay. Uh. Still not free this weekend?”

  “Nah. I gotta
do some family stuff. Bleh, you know?”

  “Sure. So, how about you, uh—you know—just, uh—” he says as he awkwardly half stands so he can lean across the table to kiss me. As he’s doing this, I pretend I don’t see it, and I turn to my stack of books, pick them up and walk out of the cafeteria.

  When I get home, Mom is at the kitchen table. Never a good sign.

  “Astrid, I need to talk to you.”

  I sit down and pretend for a minute that she actually cares about me and is going to say something normal Unity Valley mothers say to their normal Unity Valley daughters.

  “Kristina told me that you and Jeff are having problems.”

  I think of all the things I could say to this. I say nothing.

  “Look. You can talk to me if you want. I can tell you what you need to know about—you know—sex, or whatever the problem is.”

  The problem is I’m dating a girl. I say nothing.

  “Hmm. Well, Kristina called me today and told me she wanted to take you out this weekend, but you said no, and really, Astrid, the time you need your friends is now. I mean, if you and Jeff are going to break up, you shouldn’t take it out on Kristina.”

  This is ridiculous. This is Kristina trying to get me to go out when she knows I don’t want to. My brain people remind me: This is also Kristina trying to help you stop jerking Jeff around. She’s lying to Claire to help you. I remind my brain people that this is also Kristina talking to my mom behind my back, which I don’t like. They reply: But it’s for your own good, and you know it.

  “Anyway, just know I’m here for you,” Mom says.

  “Okay.”

  “And those people calling you a prude were prudes once, too,” she adds.

  Great, I think. That’s just great. On the way up the steps, I tell my brain people they can just shut up now.

  24

  I AM A PUSHOVER. THAT’S WHY THIS SHIT HAPPENS TO ME.

  I’M TEN MINUTES LATE to work because I wanted to be. Last I heard from Dee was her abracadabra text message last Sunday, and I didn’t answer, because I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do now.

  Juan says, “Big day today. Same as last time, but even bigger.”

  “Grande!” Dee sings, high-pitched and with plenty of extra cartoonish vibrato. The guys laugh. I don’t even smile.

  Dee and I are awkward by ourselves. We don’t talk or joke while we work, and I ignore her when she asks, “So, are we on for tonight or what?”

  We don’t finish the dishes until four. I don’t punch out until 4:10. That’s a ten-hour workday. Juan tells us we don’t have to come in tomorrow, and Dee says, as we toss our aprons into the laundry box, “Come on. Let me make it up to you. You got my text, right?”

  “Yeah.”

  “You still mad?”

  “Yeah. I’m mad at all of you.”

  She laughs. “All of me?”

  “No,” I say, smiling a little. “All you people who think you can boss me around.”

  “You are a pushover. That’s a fact.” She starts dancing a little and smiles at me, and when we get to the parking lot, she says, “Come on. You know you want to. Let me make it up to you, and I promise, no stupid pushy shit.”

  I admit I could use a night out away from my house, and I wouldn’t mind a hard lemonade after the cruddy week I had. We get into her car and brainstorm my cover. We totally suck at brainstorming, so I call Kristina.

  “I’ll cover you for tonight,” she says. “Claire owes me one.”

  “I don’t even want to know what that means,” I say. “Text me with whatever I’m supposed to tell her.” Dee is dancing in place to imaginary music, making a bass sound deep in her throat. I admit I’m excited to go out to Atlantis again. An hour ago, I wasn’t going anywhere tonight. I think: Maybe it’s okay that people talk you into things. Maybe if they didn’t, you’d never go anywhere.

  Claire is locked in her office, talking on the phone with a client. You can tell she’s talking to a client because she puts on her New York City accent and talks about three decibels louder.

  I find Dad in the quiet room, dozing with a book on his chest. I dust quietly around him, and before I leave, he says, “How’s my favorite daughter?”

  “Dad,” I say in that exasperated way. “You can’t say stuff like that.”

  He sits up and blinks his eyes hard a few times and stretches. “You know what I miss? Making birdhouses. What are you doing now? We should go make one.”

  “I’m doing stuff,” I say. I wiggle the feather duster. “Waiting for her to get off the phone so I can sweep the upstairs.”

  “You going out tonight?”

  “I hope so.”

  “Ah.”

  “Yeah.”

  “This guy a serious thing? Shouldn’t you bring him here to meet me?”

  “Nah. Don’t tell Mom, though.”

  At seven thirty the doorbell rings.

  Claire fast-walks to the door to open it, and I stand up because I can hear Kristina giggling outside, and then Kristina and Donna drag me out the door.

  “Have fun, girls!” Mom says.

  They lead me down the walk and into a car. Kristina seems to be my best friend again. She even loops her arm through mine rather than Donna’s.

  “Where are we going?” I ask.

  “We’re heading to a clean, fun and safe college sorority party. Which is what I told Claire, and it’s actually true.” She deposits me into the backseat of Donna’s car and then gets into the passenger’s side.

  “Are you and Dee okay now?” she asks.

  “We’re fine,” I say.

  “I’m glad to hear that,” she says in the weirdest voice ever—like she’s not glad to hear it.

  “You okay?” I ask.

  “Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”

  “I don’t know. It’s been a weird week,” I say. “I’m just all over the place, I guess.”

  “Bummer,” she says. That’s it. Just “bummer.”

  For the rest of the drive, Kristina and Donna talk as if I’m not there, and I try not to feel like Kristina’s socially retarded dumbshit friend again.

  When we get there, a Lady Gaga song is playing so loud, it’s bouncing the road outside the house. Kristina has talked about spending more time at Donna’s dorm room, but her roommate is a douche, and if she knew Donna was gay, she’d probably freak out and call an exorcist. So Donna has joined a not-so-official sorority called Gamma Alpha Psi (ΓΑΨ), which is a GLBT hangout with an off-campus house. This is Kristina’s first time here, too.

  “We’ve got two hours before we leave. Have some fun. Mingle,” Kristina says as she disappears up the stairs with Donna.

  Mingle.

  I look around the room. This is not like Atlantis. Most of the people are keeping to themselves, and there are no leathery biker ladies with whistles who were sent from the gods to make me smile. There are just strangers. So I go out the back door past the two smokers, and what do you think is in the farthest and darkest part of the backyard?

  A picnic table.

  There are tall trees obstructing most of my view, but I can see the occasional plane, and I send it my love. Then I have a conversation with myself about Kristina.

  ME: You know, you’re going to have to say something to her about this up-and-down shit she’s been doing.

  ME: I know. But if I say something, she’ll just ignore it.

  ME: Doesn’t that make her a shitty friend?

  ME: Yes and no. Yes, she should listen to me and care how I think, and she doesn’t. No, she’s not a shitty friend, because she’s my only real friend in Unity Valley, so if I didn’t have her, I’d be on my own.

  ME: You’d have Dee. You’d have Ellis.

  ME: Ha-ha ha-ha ha-ha. Ellis. You’re hilarious.

  ME: She’s your sister. You have her whether you want her or not.

  ME: She may have me, but I sure don’t have her. Mom has her. You know it.

  ME: Well, then, you have Dee.

>   ME: Thank God.

  ME: You’re getting closer to answering all the questions, aren’t you?

  I sit up and look around. A few more women are outside smoking now. They are facing me but looking up to the stars. I look up too, and I get up to try and make conversation and not be an antisocial nerd. Plus, I have to pee.

  I walk past them and say, “Hi,” but all I get is a series of grunts in return. Inside, I smile at people and ask where the bathroom is, and when a woman tells me, she says, “I think it’s out of paper. You got a tissue?”

  I laugh at this, thinking it’s funny—whether it’s true or not.

  No one else laughs.

  Do I not show up on their gaydar? Or is this just how they are here at Gamma Alpha Psi? Either way, I don’t have a tissue, so I look around and go back to the kitchen, where the back door to the picnic table is, and there I find a napkin, so I grab it and put it in my pocket in case the woman is right about the paper.

  I go up the steps and pass a couple coming down the steps and say hi, and they half-smile. Everything feels territorial—like I’m trespassing.

  I pee, and there are several rolls of toilet paper on a holder right in front of the toilet. I use the napkin anyway because I feel an intense paranoia that if I use their toilet paper, they will be even more pissed off with me than they already seem to be.

  I look at myself in the mirror above the sink, and she is more visible here—the girl inside my Unity Valley suit. She’s telling me to go out there and be myself and talk to people. I hear my dad’s voice: You have to let people get to know you before you decide they don’t like you.

  I plaster a big fat smile across my face and go back downstairs. I say hi to a few people and then I find a girl who’s standing on her own reading the back of a CD cover and I say hi to her and she looks up and smiles at me.

  “Never saw you here before,” she says.

  “First time.”

  “Ah,” she says. “That explains it.”

  “You go to school here?” I ask.

  “Yeah. I’m a poli-sci major. Here to change the world,” she says. “You?”

 
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