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Please ignore vera dietz, p.11
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.11

           A. S. King
 
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  When I step out of the bathroom, James is at the big sink, filling the bucket. “Jill already did the dishes, so all I have to do is mop. You want to take off early? I know you have school in the morning.”

  Why isn’t Dad here to hear this? He’d love James if only he gave him a chance. God. I mean, compared to some of the real creeps in school—the ones who cling to Jenny Flick as if she’s some sort of rock star because she gives out—James is an angel.

  SECOND MONDAY IN FEBRUARY—FIVE DAYS UNTIL PARTY NIGHT

  Sometimes just thinking about Jenny Flick draws her into my life, you know? Like that law-of-attraction stuff Dad’s always talking about. When I drive into the school parking lot this morning, she’s there, next to her car, putting lipstick on, waiting for the rest of her stupid little gang.

  She glares at me as I drive by. She thinks she’s intimidating me.

  When she glares at me like this, I wonder if she’s dreaming up new lies about me, even though Charlie isn’t here to hear them. I wonder if she’s inventing new ways to steal sympathy from her friends—new diseases to feign to make them more loyal. Maybe she’s trying to scare me into disappearing. Maybe she’s afraid I’ll tell the truth about the animals. Maybe she knew all along that even dead, Charlie would like me more.

  I hear giggling while I’m at my locker before my Modern Social Thought class. It’s Bill Corso. He’s whispering to some other Detentionheads and looking at me. Of course, Jenny Flick sent him. He’s like her horde of flying evil monkeys or something.

  I shrug it off. Today is table two’s day to read Lord of the Flies, and I’m looking forward to watching Bill Corso struggle through every word.

  Here’s me using indolent in a sentence.

  My MST classmates are so indolent, they wouldn’t read the book for homework, so the teacher is making us read it aloud to shame us.

  We get there, and the bell rings, and everyone gets out their paperback and Mr. Shunk says, “Page twenty-five,” and looks at his notebook. “You—in the black—read.”

  Mr. Shunk acts like a drill sergeant, but only because he has to. Dad knows him and says he’s not like this in real life.

  Gretchen, one of Jenny Flick’s best pals, starts reading from the book. We’re at the beginning, Chapter Two, where the kids are only just realizing that they’re going to have to fend for themselves. They are discussing how there are pigs on the island. How they will have to hunt and kill.

  “Next,” Mr. Shunk says, and the quiet kid next to Gretchen starts.

  While he reads the part where the little kid asks the bigger kids about the scary beastie in the woods, I daydream. I’ve read Lord of the Flies twice now. I know what’s going to happen. (**SPOILER ALERT**—Piggy dies.) But I forgot about the little kid and the snake in the woods. How they told him that he was making it up, and how being called a liar freaked him out because he wasn’t lying. I know that feeling.

  “Next.” The kid stops reading and Heather Wells starts. She’s a nervous reader and reads too quietly, mumbling into her neck.

  Bill Corso is sitting next to her and looks worried. He fidgets. Then, about a paragraph into Heather’s reading, he gets up and grabs a lav pass from Mr. Shunk’s desk. He sees me watching him and glares. When he’s directly behind Mr. Shunk, he makes a V with his two fingers and wiggles his tongue between them.

  Twenty minutes pass and Bill is still not back. The bell rings and we pack up for sixth period. I take my time because I have sixth-period lunch and I don’t feel like rushing. With only four of us left in the room, Bill returns and hands Mr. Shunk a note.

  “Sorry. Coach saw me and needed me to help him out down in the gym,” he says.

  “Put the pass back on my desk,” Mr. Shunk says, not looking up from his notebook.

  “ ’Kay, Teach.”

  “Tomorrow you’ll read us Chapter Three, Mr. Corso.”

  Bill nods as if that didn’t scare him, but I know it did.

  SECOND FRIDAY IN FEBRUARY—PARTY NIGHT

  Bill Corso skipped the rest of the week of school. I don’t know if Gretchen or any of the other Flickites are telling him this, but each day, Mr. Shunk says, “I guess I’ll have to wait another day to hear the dulcet tones of Mr. Corso reading Golding.”

  No one gets this but me, and I feel, even though Mr. Shunk doesn’t know it, that he and I are on the same team.

  Tonight is the Pagoda Pizza Christmas party over at Jackson Fire Company, which my dad says used to be the kind of place where you’d watch girls with tassels on their boobs dance. He told me Mom used to bust out laughing because there was always one girl who was new to it, and went off beat, like a washing machine with one lumpy towel. There are too many things wrong with this description for me to actually process it. I need to teach Dad the meaning of TMI.

  “So what makes you think I’m going to let you go?” he asks.

  “Because you trust me and you want me to have some fun in my life?”

  “Are you even allowed into that place? You’re underage.”

  “It’s a private party. Even Barry’s kid is going to be there. He’s, like, fifteen or something.”

  He doesn’t say anything.

  “I think they’re having a turkey dinner, too, so you won’t even have to feed me before I go,” I say.

  He nods and starts reading the paper.

  I have three hours to wait out at home before I leave, so I do some homework and clean my room. I’m on the deck, shaking out my throw rug, when I see movement in the trees. I stop. Stare. A blinding reflection, like a mirror makes in sunlight, is flashing at me. I know the thousand Charlies are there, calling me to the tree house. I can hear their faint whispering.

  So I hang my rug over the banister on the deck and walk a few steps toward the woods. It’s a quiet day. The road is through with school buses for the week and the rush home hasn’t started yet. The sun is low. There are no aliens. No accordion dolls coaxing me into the trees.

  I cup my hands around my mouth and yell, “Karma’s a bitch, eh, Charlie?” Then I pick up the broom and start beating the dust out of the rug.

  Dad stays in the den after his small dinner and doesn’t give me the lecture about responsibility that I’m expecting. He just says, “Be smart, Vera. Have a good time.”

  I drive to Jackson, where I find James already at the fire company bar, and he orders me a vodka cooler. Next to him are two people I don’t recognize at first. But then I realize the brown-haired woman is ex-cheerleader-turned-food-service-worker Jill (I’m just not used to seeing her without her uniform on), which means the tall guy in the black leather coat next to her is Mick, her skinhead Nazi boyfriend.

  HISTORY—AGE FIFTEEN

  Ninth grade was a blur. Charlie and I were separated by the plethora of new people we’d never met before who went to the other middle school. I was put in the advanced track and had some of my classes in the senior wing, which helped me achieve my main objective—getting through high school unnoticed by doing well enough to not draw attention, but not doing so well that I stuck out. I didn’t want to get to know anyone, because eventually they would ask me about my parents, and I had to keep Mom’s past a secret or I’d suffer the consequences. I liked pretending that I didn’t have a mother, and that my father simply caught me when the stork dropped me from his crisp white sling.

  Charlie and I still shared a seat on the bus. We’d press our earbuds into our ears and read or daydream or, in Charlie’s case, occasionally scribble things on tissues or napkins and then eat them. On weekends, we’d see each other sometimes, but Charlie was busy between hunting trips with his father and dates. Girls swarmed him that year, impressed by his windswept attitude, his over-the-eyes haircut, and his Goodwill dress sense. By the time summer came, I think he’d had about four different girlfriends, but he kept them totally secret, and if I asked, he would deny it, as if having girlfriends wasn’t cool.

  He moved into the tree house when school ended and spent a lot of his time leaf
ing through motorcycle magazines. We took an occasional hike on the blue trail and talked school gossip and career stuff (me = still vet or vet nurse, him = still forest ranger, but starting to lean toward more exotic things like roadie for a metal band or racing motorcycles). I thought about asking him to come with me to the licensing center when I finally got Dad to drive me there to pick up the rules-of-the-road study book, but he was keeping to himself a lot, and though we were still best friends, we were mature enough to give each other space. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t more cautious around him since he’d told me about John, his pervert underwear-buying friend. That year, I’d heard the car go up and down Overlook Road and turn into the gravel so much, I’d begun to recognize the sound of its sputtery engine from the bottom of the hill as it echoed off the Millers’ clapboard house. It was so obvious, I couldn’t believe Mr. and Mrs. Kahn hadn’t figured it out yet. A few times, the thought of what that guy could be doing with Charlie’s underwear crept up on me and made me want to tell Dad, but I didn’t.

  I volunteered Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at the adoption center that summer. It took two arguments with Dad to convince him that these volunteer hours would count for something if I was one day going to be a vet. He was still hell-bent on me working fast food for minimum wage, because he said saving tuition money was more important. In the end, I was saved by the crappy economy again. Most fast-food jobs were taken by college students—or more accurately, by college graduates.

  I slept late every day I wasn’t at the center. At first, Dad would make sure I was out of bed by noon, but then he stopped arguing with me and let me do what I wanted. So I started to sleep until one. Until two. Sometimes I slept until four, the whir of the central air under my window blocking out the sounds of the world.

  “Is everything okay, Vera?” he asked, around the end of July.

  “Yeah.”

  “You’re sleeping way too late.”

  “I think I’m growing a lot.” This was true. I’d grown two inches in only a few months.

  “So you’re not depressed or anything?”

  “No.”

  “Do you see Charlie much?”

  “Sure,” I said, sipping a glass of orange juice and wiping the sleep from my eye. “I think he has a girlfriend. I don’t want to be in the way.”

  “A girlfriend?”

  “I guess,” I said. “I mean, isn’t this when normal kids do things like that?”

  He squinted at me, concerned. “And what about you?”

  I laughed. “Not me. After what happened to you and Mom—uh, you know. No boyfriends for me.”

  He rested his chin in his hand. I could see the guilty thoughts tumbling down his wrinkled forehead. “Are you sure?”

  “I’m sure. Boys only want one thing, Dad. And that’s just boring.”

  “For now.”

  “What?”

  “It’s boring for now,” he said. “One day you’ll think it’s great, I promise you.”

  Who changed the channel? What was with this wishy-washy crap? Wasn’t this the same guy who’d been telling me to avoid my destiny my whole life?

  “Yeah, well, I can’t see that happening while I’m still in high school. All the boys there are dicks.”

  “Vera.”

  “Sorry. I meant jerks. All the boys there are jerks.”

  On Mondays at the adoption center, new animals arrived that the vet had spayed or neutered over the weekend, and it was my job to make sure that they recovered and to keep their paperwork up to date. On Fridays, we had to ready new animals for the procedure and get them organized for pick-up at five. In July, the day after my all-boys-are-dicks conversation with Dad, there was a long-haired Afghan hound who’d been found in the park, covered in dried mud/feces/who-knows-what. He was scheduled for surgery on Sunday. One of the younger volunteers washed him (twice) and then gave him to me to brush.

  It took over two hours to comb out the knots, little by little, without hurting him. He sat still and quiet for the most part, but yipped when I accidentally caught his skin with the metal teeth. I was instantly reminded of my mother, who would comb my hair every morning while staring into space, never stopping to apologize when she pulled too hard or made me cry. She did so many things with that vacant look on her face—as if she was daydreaming of living somewhere else.

  Most days I didn’t think about my mother. She’d been gone three years, and a large part of me was happy about that. The older I got, the more I realized she’d never really been all there to begin with. The older I got, the more I realized that my happy-Mom memories were often fabrications invented to make me feel better about her being chronically unhappy.

  Oddly, by midsummer, these sad realizations about my mother translated into a sort of talent. It started with a bet one day when a couple adopted a beagle I just knew they would return. Beagles are energetic, and these people looked like the type who liked constant calm.

  When they left, I turned to Mrs. Parker and said, “I give them two days, tops.” The next day, right before closing, they returned the dog and asked if we had anything older or more docile.

  From then on, when people came to adopt, Mrs. Parker would walk them through the paperwork and then she’d refer them to me.

  I liked this new interaction with people—asking seemingly innocent questions about how much they loved their furniture or wall-to-wall carpeting. I liked how Mrs. Parker trusted my judgment (she called me her secret weapon), and though it was sad to see an animal returned to us, I was elated when my few hunches turned out to be right.

  In late August, we got a box full of rescued Shih Tzu puppies. They were crawling with fleas and covered in scars and cuts and scrapes from being kept in a tiny gerbil cage. One of their siblings had died from being suffocated by the others, who were piled in on top of it. Though they smelled like death and were covered in matted, sometimes bloody fur, I fell completely in love with them.

  Mrs. Parker said they needed foster homes because they were too young to stay at the center on their own overnight. I volunteered to take one, even though I knew I shouldn’t. She found two other homes and then dropped me off at my house after work with a Ziploc bag of puppy food and the usual how-to sheet we give out to adoptive families.

  Dad was outraged. Seriously—a completely rational man turned to raging Hulk. Over a freaking puppy.

  “You know how I feel about them,” he said. Them. Like she was an it. Like she was a nothing.

  “It’s just for a few weeks,” I argued, holding her in my arms, now washed and fluffy and sweet-smelling.

  “No way, Vera. No way.”

  “I can keep her in the garage,” I said.

  He shook his head.

  “In the shed?” What else did we keep there but hoes and shovels and rakes?

  “No.”

  “Why not?” I finally asked.

  “You know why not.”

  “Because dogs cost too much? Because they shed?”

  “Actually, Vera, it’s simple. You can’t have the dog because I said you can’t.”

  “Oh wow. Great.” I rolled my eyes.

  “It’s my—”

  “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said, turning toward the hall and the front door. “I know. It’s your house. I get it. Whatever.” I went outside and sat on the front porch with the puppy in my lap for an hour. I figured the only way to keep her overnight was to pitch our old tent and sleep outside, which I did. It was one of the best nights of my life—cuddled close to the little thing, snuggling and listening to her snore. Even her meaty breath and the tiny pee she took on my sleeping bag were wonderful.

  I didn’t sleep much. I lay awake thinking about Dad and what it must be like to be a cold, heartless Vulcan. I wondered if he was like that before Mom left, or if that was what her leaving did to him. And if he was like that because she left, what did her leaving do to me? Was it possible that it turned him cold while simultaneously turning me warm? Beneath these thoughts I hid my biggest
question. Did Dad realize he was treating this innocent puppy the way Mom had treated me my whole life? Like an unwanted extra responsibility? A pain in the ass? A mistake?

  Around midnight, I heard the familiar car chugging up Overlook Road and pulling into the gravel. About fifteen minutes later, I heard footsteps outside the tent.

  “Veer?” he whispered.

  I unzipped and let Charlie in.

  “What’re you doing out here?” he asked. I showed him the puppy.

  I didn’t ask what he was doing out because we both knew what he was doing out.

  “Are you gonna keep it?”

  “I want to, but there’s no way,” I said.

  “Bummer.”

  “Yeah.”

  It was dark and Charlie accidentally brushed his hand against my hip, and it caused waves of butterflies. I giggled under my breath.

  “I guess I better get back to what I was doing,” he said.

  I nodded. “See you tomorrow.”

  The next morning, Dad drove me, the puppy, and the Ziploc of food to the adoption center and made me give her back. Mrs. Parker gave me a sympathetic look, and I felt the slap of irony hit—some secret weapon I turned out to be. I hadn’t even judged myself accurately. When we got home, Charlie came over and invited me up to the tree house for lunch.

  “I just got a fresh box of Noodle-o-Pak,” he said, smiling. “Spicy.”

  I stopped in at Dad’s office to tell him I was going. He was still in no-smiling mode from the whole puppy-hating Hulk thing.

  I hadn’t been to the tree house much that summer, and when I got up the ladder, I could tell Charlie had spent a lot of time working on it. He’d installed a pulley system to haul up a two-gallon water container he kept on the deck. There was a lot of new detail work. He’d started carving designs into the pine beams and had installed a homemade skylight in the roof, which was awesome.

  “Holy shit!” I said. “That’s so cool!”

  He shrugged. “It leaks.”

 
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