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Everybody sees the ants, p.12
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.12

           A. S. King
 
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  REALITY ENCHILADAS

  1 cup of not really knowing if I can ever rescue Granddad

  ¼ cup of maybe Granny Janice was really high on morphine when she said that to me

  1 tablespoon of ground squid ’n’ turtle

  4 cups of my real life sucks

  2 cups of me not wanting to leave the jungle because I like myself there

  a dash of maybe that’s why I haven’t rescued Granddad yet

  Mix ingredients in bowl. Wrap in tortillas. Smile and swallow.

  OPERATION DON’T SMILE EVER—FRESHMAN YEAR

  We’d moved on from graphs and statistics in social studies class and had spent the last week studying the caste system of India. I still had a monthly meeting with the guidance department, and I still frowned the whole way through. I told no one about the questionnaires I kept finding in my locker, but I had a stack of about fifty now, which to me proved that I was not the only one in Freddy High who had explored the subject of suicide—making the guidance meetings more ironic.

  Confusing a lighthearted teenage joke survey about suicide with something so serious really bothered me. Depression, the real thing, is a serious disorder. Suicide is a real thing that happens all the time. Somewhere out there in Freddy High, some students were really depressed. Somewhere out there in Freddy High, someone really was thinking about ending it all because of the bullshit they had to endure every day. I had proof that this was true—only I couldn’t tell which completed questionnaires were serious and which weren’t.

  On a positive note, Nader was leaving me alone because he and his asshole posse were busy bugging other people, I guess. (Well, that and I’d pretty much learned how to completely avoid seeing him during the school day.) I heard they’d made sexually harassing Charlotte Dent into a sport. Rumor had it that a bunch of boys had rushed her during a postseason wrestling tournament and had a gang grope. There were other rumors, too—of worse things—but I didn’t know what to believe. Charlotte and I didn’t share any classes because she was a junior, but I saw her around the school and she looked fine to me. She smiled a lot.

  But occasionally her curlicue handwriting would show up on a questionnaire in my locker, and I was starting to believe she was serious.

  If you were going to commit suicide, what method would you choose? She answered: I’d slit my wrists, but only after duct-taping a garbage bag over Nader McMillan’s big, ugly head.

  We had rules now about this kind of thing. If anyone threatened to kill another student, we were supposed to report it, because these sorts of thoughts lead to school shootings. But Charlotte Dent put me in an impossible spot. First, I wasn’t supposed to ever mention my first social studies project again. Ever. It would only make things worse for me. Second, I had a hunch that Charlotte was only sharing this with me because she knew Nader had bullied me, too. So I was her one safe place to go, even if it was just through a slot in my locker. And third, I wanted to protect her. I didn’t want her bombarded with the same school-district bullshit I was going through.

  Something told me that whatever he was doing to her was probably just as hard to talk about as what I saw him do with the banana in the locker room.

  LUCKY LINDERMAN COULD BE STALKER MATERIAL

  I’m an obsessed moron. I look through as many of Jodi’s magazines as I can to find pictures of Ginny, and I stare at them. In one of them she’s holding hands with this model guy, and he’s all perfect-haired and stuff, and I feel jealous—even though I know he’s just some model and she’s not really holding his hand in real life.

  I look up the Clemenses’ number in the phone book, but it’s not there. I am so close to asking Jodi if she knows it—or if I can use her ancient computer to Google their address, or the shampoo company so I can see more pictures, or this vagina play that she’s doing—that I am starting to be scared that I’m stalker material. Seriously.

  I have to stop myself and turn on the TV for distraction. I watch six back-to-back episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants until Dave shows up and produces a DVD from his briefcase, claiming that every pair of bonding males should watch Caddyshack together just once.

  “If this doesn’t make you smile, I don’t know what will!” he says when he puts the DVD into the player. I feel instantly paranoid again that his interest in me is all a show. The ants say: Just shut up and enjoy Caddyshack.

  On Sunday, Mom and I wake up at the same time. It’s early—six thirty. Mom says she doesn’t want to go to church today, and I’m really wishy-washy because I know going to church will mean I can see Ginny again, so I say, “I think we should go. I mean, they just took us to the Grand Canyon, and we owe it to them, right?”

  Mom grunts.

  “Anyway, it’s not like Jodi is dragging us there to convert us. She doesn’t even say grace or anything religious.”

  Mom grunts again.

  “If you want, I can tell them that you’re not feeling good. You can skip it.”

  She turns onto her side and looks at me. “Are you okay?” she asks.

  “Yeah.”

  “Why the sudden interest in church?”

  “I was just trying to help you out. Forget it. I don’t have to go if you don’t want me to.”

  She lies on her back again and thinks for a while.

  “You’re right,” she says. “We owe them.”

  “And it’s only church,” I say.

  Dave lets me borrow his pants again, and we head off in Jodi’s SUV. The youth choir isn’t singing today, and Ginny is in the second pew with her parents. I stare at the back of her head for the entire service.

  When it’s over, Jodi grabs Dave’s hand and makes a beeline for them. As the congregation makes its way toward the front door, where the pastor is, she blocks the aisle and makes small talk.

  “We took our houseguests to the Grand Canyon this week.”

  Ginny’s mom says, “That’s nice. Did you enjoy it?” The question is aimed at Mom, but Mom is zoning out, looking at the stained glass, so I answer for her.

  “It was pretty amazing,” I say.

  “Dave and I had a nice romantic vacation,” Jodi says, squeezing Dave’s hand.

  “That’s great,” Ginny’s mom says. She has huge diamond rings and takes a second to look at them while Jodi talks about the view and the walking she did with Mom.

  I smile at Ginny and say hi. She shifts to her left and looks at me as if we’ve never met. As if she never made me say “vagina.” The ants ask: What’s her problem?

  “If you’ll excuse us,” Ginny’s dad says as he steps past Jodi and Dave and shimmies up the aisle. “We have quite a busy day planned.” I watch Ginny follow him, and as she walks by, she avoids eye contact completely.

  For lunch we go to Jodi’s favorite after-church diner, which is packed, and when we get home Dave asks me if I want to lift. I don’t feel like it, so I say no.

  “You’re not going to start slacking on me, are you?”

  “Just need a day off,” I say. “I ate too much.” I toss myself on the couch with Catch-22 and open it up. All I can do as I turn the pages is think about Ginny and why she gave me such a weird look.

  Jodi arrives on the opposite couch halfway through the afternoon, seeming bored. I glance up at her. She’s staring at me probingly again. “Wanna make dinner again tonight?” she asks.

  “I’m still stuffed from lunch,” I say.

  She sits and stares at me for another thirty seconds. “Wanna talk?”

  I do not want to talk. But talking to Dave hasn’t been so bad, and Jodi’s been relatively sane for the last few days, so I shrug and say, “Whatever. Sure.”

  “I think you’re a good kid,” she says. “But you don’t smile and you read too much.”

  Oh. She didn’t mean talk. She meant: Wanna hear me tell you what’s wrong with you?

  And what the hell? Who tells a kid that he reads too much?

  “I think your mom and dad wouldn’t fight so much if you stayed out of trouble.”
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  “I’m not in trouble,” I say.

  “That’s not what your mother tells me. She says you got in big trouble last year for some project you did. Said you wanted to kill yourself.”

  “That’s not what happened,” I say. Why would Mom think Aunt Jodi would ever understand?

  “Well, what did happen?”

  “I don’t really want to talk about it. But you have it wrong.”

  “So what happened to your face?”

  “Some kid beat me up. That’s all.” I open my book and look at the words to give her a hint.

  “So your parents sent you here.”

  “No,” I say. “You have that wrong, too.” I take a deep breath and exhale. “Look, they fight all the time. So she left because of him, not because of me.”

  “Maybe that’s how you see it, Lucky, but that’s not really what’s going on.”

  The ants are lying in prone position on the coffee table, shooting tiny M16s at Aunt Jodi.

  “Can we stop talking now?” I ask.

  “Sure. Just know that I’m always here for you, okay?”

  I skip dinner and go to bed early just to forget she ever said this to me. But I can’t. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I’m looking at it all wrong. Maybe it is my fault, even though I didn’t ask for any of this shit to happen. I didn’t ask for Nader to target me. I didn’t ask for the school district to save me. I surely didn’t ask for my parents to argue about the solutions. And yet it’s my problem. All mine. And maybe that’s why we’re here.

  As I fall asleep, I think about Ginny and the look she gave me at church, and it makes me feel that familiar sinking in my gut—the way I’ve felt every time I’ve seen Nader McMillan in the hall since I was seven. He didn’t even need to say anything to me. Just his existence would make me feel powerless and stupid.

  The difference, I guess, is that he gained his power by humiliating me. Turns out, when someone you actually give a shit about turns on you, it’s even more powerful.

  THE TENTH THING YOU NEED TO KNOW—THE PILLS ARE NOT WORKING

  I wake up to the noise of a vacuum cleaner again. Right outside our door. I hear the whir of it retreating, the whir of its attack, and then, bam, it hits the door. I am guessing Aunt Jodi took an aggressive vacuuming pill this morning. Mom sits on her bed, head in her hands, and mutters, “What was I thinking, bringing us here?”

  “One day we’ll laugh about this,” I say.

  “I don’t know.” She sighs. “I think it was a big mistake.”

  I sit up. “I don’t know. I think it’s been okay, mostly,” I say. This makes her smile.

  For breakfast Jodi has made a homemade crumb cake, which she claims was inspired by “Chef Lucky,” and she insists we all sit down together to eat it. She says, “Families who eat together are stronger.” Mom raises her eyebrows at me when Jodi isn’t looking.

  Then the phone rings. It’s Dad. I am reminded that we do not have a strong family, no matter how much we eat together. Maybe Jodi is right. Maybe Mom and Dad are really having bad marital problems. I realize how little I know about their world, even though I live inside of it.

  Jodi and Dave have cordless phones, but when Mom goes to talk to Dad privately in the guest room, Jodi says, “Lori, don’t go too far. I don’t want to be gossiped about in my own house.” She points to the living room, with a suggestive sit there hand. Mom pretends she hasn’t heard this and walks into the guest room and closes and locks the door firmly behind her.

  Until Jodi started to throw a fit, I thought she was just being paranoid. Now, since she’s thrown a spatula on the floor and stormed over to the guest room door and jostled the locked doorknob, I realize that things are getting out of hand. When I see her take a run at the door shoulder first, I reach out my hand to snap her out of it.

  “Aunt Jodi! Stop!”

  She runs for the door and tries to break it down like they do in detective shows. It bounces her back but doesn’t budge. She tries it a few more times and then gives up and sits at the dining room table next to me and rests her face in her hands.

  My mother quietly opens the door and looks over at me and then at Jodi.

  Jodi says, “I’m sorry. It’s my nerves. I’m all over the place today.” She gets up and goes to her bedroom and closes the door.

  I try to pass the time until Dave gets home by reading and doing a few laps in the pool between card games with Mom. Jodi has locked herself in her room, and Mom and I take turns listening at the door for sobs or footsteps, making sure she hasn’t overdosed.

  When Dave gets home, we go out to the garage to lift. After fifteen minutes of manly silence, he points out that my arms look more defined in just a week. “Another few weeks of working out and you’ll have guns like these.” He flexes and admires his biceps.

  “I think it’ll take more than a few weeks,” I say.

  “Well, you know, it’s not all about the muscles. It’s about the confidence, man.”

  “Yeah.”

  “Don’t you feel more confident already?”

  “Kinda.”

  “Kinda? Work with me here! You’re a cute kid with defined arms. The girls will faint over you. I’m serious.” I know he’s exaggerating, but the image of Freddy girls fainting over me makes me laugh. I think of Lara and how she’s probably forgotten all about me already and I’ve only been gone two weeks.

  He stops doing curls and looks at me. “Really—you don’t feel like you could kick that kid’s ass now? Or at least stand up to him while he kicks yours?”

  “Not really.”

  “Why not?”

  I sigh. “Because it’s not about kicking his ass. It’s about getting away from him. Getting away from all assholes. I don’t want to become one—I just want to escape them.”

  “Good luck with that. Escaping assholes is about as easy as escaping oxygen.”

  The door opens. It’s Aunt Jodi.

  “Dinner in five.”

  “ ’Kay.”

  “Don’t come in all sweaty.”

  “ ’Kay.”

  When she closes the door, we look at each other uncomfortably, towel off, and cool down with a few stretches. I think back to the last thing Dave said to me and try to imagine what escaping oxygen would look like. It looks a lot like drowning.

  An hour after dinner I claim time to myself to walk the development. Before the door shuts behind me, Jodi says, “Don’t get lost this time!” in a perky voice that makes me want to scream. Her moods are rubbing off on me. One minute I feel sorry for her, the next minute I want to tell her to go die. The ants toss tiny grenades at her before I close the door and duck and cover on the front stoop.

  Of course I walk to the playground. Of course it’s empty.

  Of course I sit there for nearly a whole hour, squinting into the darkness for Ginny. Of course she only shows up while I’m walking home.

  “Hey,” I say.

  “Hey. You ready to go?”

  I didn’t expect this after the whole church blow-off. I still feel that hole in the pit of my gut and a need to protect myself. “Can’t. Need to go home.”

  “Home? Like, Pennsylvania?”

  “No. Like, to my aunt’s house.”

  “Crazy Jodi?”

  I nod. I am simultaneously embarrassed for Jodi and relieved. I’m so glad other people know she’s crazy. Ginny pulls on my sleeve and gets me to walk with her toward the playground.

  “You know about that?” I ask.

  “About her being completely nuts?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Didn’t you see her in church with my parents? She’s a passive-aggressive bulldog.”

  “Yeah. I noticed that.”

  She twists her hair to the side to stop the wisps from blowing into her face in the evening breeze. “She freaked out two years ago during Sunday service. Stood up and said all sorts of crazy shit.”

  “Like what?”

  “Stuff about the people there. How everyone was just faking it.
How none of us practiced what we preached. We were all hypocrites. That kind of thing.”

  “During church?”

  “Yep. Right in the middle of the sermon. Just stood up and started yelling.”

  I take a minute to imagine this. Not hard to picture, since only this morning I watched Jodi run at a locked door in order to break it down. I have to say, when I picture her standing up and freaking out in church, I wish I’d been there. I might have applauded.

  “She’s on a lot of pills,” I say. “Too many.”

  “Is she? Huh.”

  “Like, way too many,” I say. “Kinda makes me want to get Dave to take her to a place to help her. She’s that bad.”

  “Dave?”

  “My uncle? I mean, you guys have treatment centers for stuff like that, right?”

  She looks at me and narrows her eyes.

  “What?”

  She looks at me again, this time shaking her head a little and raising her eyebrows.

  “What?” I ask again.

  “You know she’s probably like this because Dave fools around, right?”

  It’s as if she just kicked me in the nads. Sure, Jodi and Dave are not the warmest couple I’ve ever met, but they seem to have an okay marriage.

  “A lot, too,” she adds. “He has a bunch of girlfriends.”

  “No way,” I say. Because no way, right? No way the only guy who ever seemed normal to me is really a jerk who cheats on his wife, right?

  “Yeah way. Like—everyone knows this. News flash, dude.”

  “But—”

  “But what? He works hard? He’s extra sweet to her at home?”

  “I—”

  “You want to know how I know?”

  “You said everyone knows.”

  “Yeah, but do you want to know how I knew before they did?” she asks, climbing the fence into the pitch-dark playground and heading past the swings, toward the little bus shelter on the other side of the road.

 
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