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Everybody sees the ants, p.13
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.13

           A. S. King
 
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  We cross under the amber streetlights and she sits on the warm sidewalk rather than the bench in the bus shelter. I follow her lead because I figure she knows something I don’t know. She suddenly doesn’t seem at all like a girl I’m falling inexplicably in love with after knowing her for one night. She seems like an older sister or a Seeing Eye dog.

  She lights a cigarette. “I know because he used to screw my mom.”

  “Oh,” I say. “Wow.” I feel my chest tighten with this news. “That’s heavy.”

  “Not really, when it comes to my mom. She’s the exact opposite of everything she stands for.”

  “Oh.”

  “Huh. So you really didn’t know?”

  I shake my head.

  “Where’d you think he went all the time? Work?”

  I nod. I realize I got that idea from Mom when she told me that her brother was a workaholic, like Dad. Not quite, Mom.

  She says, “What I can’t figure out is which came first. I mean, did Jodi go crazy because Dave is like that, or is that why he started looking elsewhere? You know?”

  I have thought this a million times about my mother. Was she a squid when Dad married her, or has being married to a menu-obsessed turtle done this to her? Or was it the other way around? Did being married to a squid make my father into a workaholic turtle so he could avoid watching her go crazy, lap by lap?

  “And I don’t mean to be a bitch, but how Dave could ever go to bed with Jodi is beyond me,” she says.

  Fact is, I do not want to be picturing my aunt Jodi and uncle Dave having sex. I do not want to be drawing parallels to Mom and Dad. I do not want to think about any of it. Most kids my age are dying to be adults and do adult things, but not me. Not right now.

  “Mom says he’s great in bed,” she says. “I mean, she says that to her friends. Not me. She doesn’t know I know.”

  Seriously. I’d rather watch Barney & Friends with a sippy cup of juice and a plastic bowl of animal crackers.

  She drags the last pull on her cigarette. “I can see him as a great lover. He’s pretty hot.”

  “Okay, okay,” I say, my hand out. “I get it.”

  She laughs and squeezes my thigh. “Does it run in the family?”

  The bus comes to a stop in front of the bus shelter. I get up to walk toward the dark playground, and Ginny grabs my sleeve again, this time stretching it as she pulls me hard toward the bus. “I don’t have any money,” I say.

  She puts a few quarters into the machine in front of the driver and yanks me into the bus.

  “Where are we going?” I ask.

  She doesn’t answer.

  Ten minutes later she drags me off the bus the same way she dragged me on. The right sleeve of my shirt now looks three inches longer than the left.

  We get off at a stop that seems to be in the middle of nowhere. I hear highway traffic nearby, but there are no houses or businesses or anything. Just a bus stop and a skinny road with very few streetlights.

  “This way,” she says, walking toward the sound of traffic.

  We walk for a while. I want to ask her why she blew me off in church, but I can’t figure out how. I don’t want her to turn on me and leave me on a strange road by myself. And I just want to keep feeling this nice, warm sensation of friendship. I realize that I’ve never felt this before.

  The noise from the highway gets louder as we approach what looks like a knot of bridges—a mix of on and off ramps at different levels. The road we’re walking on now is a municipal access road that continues under the ramp.

  “Where are we going?” I ask.

  “Be patient.”

  “I am being patient.”

  “Well, then be more patient.”

  We get to a brightly lit area where we can see the highway traffic racing by us. We walk for about a half mile in the valley of brown grass next to the road so no one can see us, and then she leads me to the shoulder of the highway and tells me to close my eyes.

  I find I cannot do this.

  She could push me out into traffic. She could be a horrible, mean girl who just feels like fucking with me, the way everybody else in my life does.

  “Do it! Close them!”

  I pretend to close my eyes, but really I’m squinting. The ants on my shoulders say: We have your back, Linderman. We won’t let her do anything psycho. I squint anyway. She puts her hands on my shoulders and turns me around to face the opposite direction.

  “Open.”

  “Holy shit,” I say when I open my eyes.

  I see Ginny, twenty feet high by forty feet wide, on a billboard. Her hair is fantastic, and her smile is a little flirtatious. There’s no doubt grown men on their way to work are smiling because of this billboard. Even though they shouldn’t be looking like that at seventeen-year-old girls.

  She stands with her arms crossed, looking at it.

  “You’re famous,” I say.

  “I guess.”

  “What do you mean, you guess?” I point. “There you are. On a billboard. You’re famous.”

  “For my hair.”

  “And?”

  “And frankly, I’d rather be famous for something I did. Or my radical views on politics or my ability to sing high notes or understand physics homework.”

  “Huh.”

  “I know I should be happy,” she says. “It’s my first billboard. Fourteen cities, too.”

  “So why aren’t you?”

  “I don’t know.”

  We stare at it for a few more minutes and then walk back down the shoulder to the municipal access road and the bus stop, and as we near it the bus comes, and we have to run to catch it.

  “So?”

  “So what?” I ask.

  “So—uh—nothing, I guess.”

  She’s sitting on her hands and rocking a little, like a kid. I say, “Your parents must be totally proud of you. You’re a cover girl and have your face plastered twenty feet high on billboards and you sing solos in the choir and you do community theater. I mean, you’re—really awesome.”

  “They don’t know,” she says.

  “Oh,” I say. “Well, they’ll figure it out.”

  “No, they won’t. They don’t care about me, the person. Just me the money-making face they birthed.”

  “Really?”

  She turns to me in the seat and says, “Every single day of my life has been planned out from the minute I wake up. When I was a kid, it was dance lessons and pageant schedules and auditions. I was a Gerber baby food kid—did you know that?” I shake my head. “You know those sicko pageant parents who dress their kids up like grown-ups so they can win trophies for being pretty? That’s my mom. Well, it was until my dance teacher told her I sucked.”

  “Huh.” That’s all I can say.

  “Bitch told her I should take up another talent because my dancing was average. So the voice lessons started. And baton twirling and violin and flute and all the other shit I suck at.”

  “I heard you sing. You’re good.”

  “Yeah. I’m okay, but I’m not the best. And my mother thinks that I should only compete with what’s best. She took me out of the pageant circuit when I was ten. Since then she’s been getting me jobs in random ads until the Favors from Nature thing took off.”

  “Does it make you a lot of money? I mean—if you don’t mind me asking?”

  “You mean her. I don’t make anything. When we get checks, they are made out to her management company.”

  “Are they big?”

  “They’re okay, I think. She just bitches about how we’d make more money if I had a real talent. My dad is worse. He tried to send me to fat camp last year.”

  “What?”

  “Said I should keep the pounds down since all I have going for me is my modeling.”

  I am slowly realizing that Ginny’s parents are from the planet Wow, Really?

  The ants weigh in: I think you mean the planet Fucking Asshole.

  The bus drops us off, and we walk qui
etly and slowly as she smokes her cigarette.

  “So are you gonna tell me who did that to your face one day, too? I mean, now that you know my whole life fucking story?”

  “Maybe next time,” I say.

  “We have our last rehearsal on Wednesday, man. You want to come with us?”

  “I do.”

  “Meet me on the swings at ten.”

  “Okay,” I say. She reaches over to my shirt and gives it one last tug. This time she pulls me to her face and kisses me. It’s a sister kiss. Platonic. On the cheek. On my scab. And in my brain, the scab begins to heal instantly. I smile nonstop the whole way home.

  When I get to the house, the front door is unlocked, the lights are off and I am able to walk in and get into bed without anyone knowing or caring. Lying there, thinking about Ginny, I feel genuine joy—joy mixed with relief that she doesn’t hate me the way she seemed to in church.

  Then, just as I turn over to get some sleep, I realize I don’t live here. Ginny isn’t really my friend, and my real life sucks.

  RESCUE MISSION #109—OPERATION SNATCH BACK

  It’s me, Lara, Nader and Ronald—the guy with the red-tailed hawk tattoo—and we’re all in jungle camouflage with M16s and shiny new combat boots, walking the worn path as if we own the place.

  “Watch for booby traps,” I say, and Nader makes some joke about boobies because even in my dreams Nader is a fucking asshole.

  Lara puts her hand out—the signal for quiet. There are men ahead. They are walking our way, so we hide in the brush. As they get closer, we realize they’re speaking English. I peek from under my helmet and see three white men, and one of them is Granddad Harry. There is only one guard in back—not Frankie—some younger guy with a hand-rolled cigarette. I give the whistle command to start Operation Snatch Back.

  Nader grabs one guy, and Ronald grabs the other. Granddad Harry looks happy to see me and I push him to Lara as I wrestle the skinny young guard to the ground. He burns his face with the cigarette, and curses.

  “Go,” I say to the others.

  “I’m not leaving here without you, Linderman,” Ronald says.

  I look up. Lara is nodding. Granddad is staring at her, smiling.

  “Seriously. Go. I’ll catch up in a sec.”

  The guard under me is struggling to breathe. I forget that in my dreams I am twice my weight. I am twice my strength. One quick move and I might break his rib with my knee.

  The six of them are standing there waiting for me. I look into the eyes of the skinny guard. He’s scared. Only then do I realize I can’t kill him. I don’t even want to. So I roll him over, tie his hands and feet together and leave him on the jungle floor.

  I grab Granddad around the waist and help him run while Lara keeps a lookout behind us with her M16 at the ready. Ronald is up front carrying his guy over his left shoulder, strutting with his rifle in the other hand, scanning each inch of what’s ahead.

  We reach a clearing where there is a helicopter. We all hop in and take off. Nader is flying the chopper, and I am in the back making out with Lara.

  Granddad and the other two prisoners are slumped together in the back, drinking water from our canteens. At first when I see him, I hesitate to continue making out with Lara. Then he winks.

  “I know you think you belong here, but you don’t,” he says.

  “I was sent here,” I say.

  “Why? To rescue me? You think you can really do that?”

  I stare at him and his two buddies. Isn’t that what I just did? Why is he asking me if I can do something I already did?

  And then Nader steers the chopper directly toward a tree-covered mountain.

  He screams, “See what happens when you fuck with me, Linderman?”

  • • •

  When I wake up, it’s three in the morning, and I’m sitting up like when I was a kid, breathing heavily, crying a little and moaning. I’m still hugging my pillow-Lara.

  Mom snaps me out of it by leaning out of her bed and putting her hand on my arm. “It was just a dream, Luck. Just a bad dream. Go back to sleep.”

  RESCUE MISSION #110—OPERATION MASSACRE

  This time it’s only tattooed Ronald and me. Ronald is the perfect crazy Vietnam War character from any movie you’ve ever seen. In the dream, every time I look at him, he’s laughing, or eating a big bug, or smoking three cigarettes at once, or killing an animal, or drinking pee or a gallon of whiskey, or doing something that isn’t sane. Ronald is, without a doubt, the perfect person to take with me on Operation Massacre.

  Because when we arrive at the prison camp, he opens fire on everything that moves, and kills everyone. Even Granddad Harry. And I think, “Well, at least we know for sure now.”

  LUCKY LINDERMAN KNOWS MORE THAN HE LETS ON

  I can’t stop thinking about Uncle Dave. The truth about Uncle Dave. Uncle Dave, the town playboy. Uncle Dave, the guy who “knows women.” Ugh.

  I remember him telling me that he was a bully in high school, and I develop instant solidarity with Jodi. Yeah, she’s kind of a basket case, but she doesn’t deserve to be treated like this, either. Maybe we can be pen pals. I can send her recipes. I can love her. Anything to make up for what my uncle is doing.

  I decide to make a killer lunch for her. I defrost chicken breasts and slice them into burger-sized fillets, and I call Aunt Jodi on her cell phone.

  “Lucky?”

  “Are you still at the store?” I ask.

  “Yeah.”

  “Can you get me a chunk of brie and some cranberries?”

  I can hear Aunt Jodi processing my question.

  “Please?”

  “What’s brie?”

  “Just go to the cheese counter and ask someone to point you toward the brie. It’s soft cheese.”

  “And cranberries? Like—fresh ones?”

  “Frozen is cool. They have those,” I say. “Right next to the frozen peas.”

  I picture poor Aunt Jodi pushing her cart full of crappy frozen dinners to the gourmet cheese aisle and feeling all grossed out by the mold. But she succeeds. When she arrives home, it’s nearly lunchtime and Mom is sitting at the table, reading a magazine. I’ve got three perfectly seasoned, grilled breasts of chicken ready for the final steps of our lunch.

  “They smell good,” Jodi says.

  “This lunch is going to blow your mind,” I say, taking the groceries she puts on the counter and loading them into the fridge.

  “You thinking about being a chef like your dad?”

  I shake my head. “I never cook at home.”

  “What time did you get in last night?” she asks.

  “About midnight.” I continue to stock the fridge.

  She looks at Mom. “Did you know he was out so late?”

  Mom nods.

  I go back to hating Jodi for a minute, but then I remember that she probably asks Dave the same question every morning. What time did you get in last night?

  “Are you ready to eat soon?” I ask, whisking up a very basic cranberry sauce.

  “Sure. Give me ten minutes,” Jodi says, and then she gets a glass of water and disappears into her room.

  When she returns, I serve Mom and Jodi what I call a Lucky burger. Grilled, seasoned chicken breast smothered in melted brie with sweet cranberry crème sauce drizzled over it, topped with fresh lettuce, on a poppy-seed roll.

  Jodi leans her head back to say, mouth full, “You really should be a chef, Lucky.” When she says “should,” a piece of lettuce flies out. “This is really good!”

  Mom nods, and I think she simultaneously hopes I don’t become a chef and turn out like Dad. The ants say: Not all chefs have to be turtle chefs.

  Mom says, “So are you gonna tell us where you go at night, or what?”

  “I just go for walks.”

  “And?”

  “And that’s it.”

  “Did you fall asleep on the playground again?”

  “Sure. Yeah.”

  Aunt Jodi looks at
Mom. Jodi says, “We heard you were on a bus with Virginia Clemens. That you two looked like an item.”

  I laugh at the “item” part, and I look around, nervous that all those weirdos from Wednesday morning are about to jump out of the hall closet and start asking me more questions about my bowel movements.

  “We are so not an item,” I say, grinning at the thought of it.

  “But you were on a public bus with her?” Mom asks.

  “Yeah. She said she wanted to show me something, so we went into town for an hour and then we came back.”

  “You know if her parents knew about this, they’d kill you,” Aunt Jodi says. She adds, “And then they’d probably kill her, too.”

  “They sound like assholes,” I say, which earns me a disapproving look from both my mom and Aunt Jodi as they chew their Lucky burgers. “All we did was walk for an hour. I’m like a little brother to her. Believe me. I have no idea what to do with a beautiful girl like Ginny.”

  Jodi looks as if she might argue for a second, then takes another bite of the burger. Mom is grinning a bit.

  Jodi looks at Mom. “Do you mind if I ask him a personal question?”

  Mom shrugs. The ants say: Uh-oh.

  “Lucky,” Jodi says, staring at me in that adult-who-needs-to-know-the-truth way, “have you had a sexual experience yet?”

  I nearly spit out my mouthful of chicken. I chew and swallow and then wash it down with a sip of water. I don’t know what to say, so I say, “You mean—uh—with—a girl?”

  Jodi smiles uncomfortably. “Uh-huh. Yep.”

  “God, no. Like, at home I play cards with Lara at the pool and stuff, but I’ve never kissed her—or anybody, for that matter.”

  “You haven’t kissed a girl yet?” She rests her chin on her hand in that daytime TV kind of way, and I figure that she’s taken a Dr. Phil pill or something.

  I shake my head, kinda proud. “Nope.”

  “Why not?”

  I shrug and think about this for a minute. My scab reminds me it’s there by sending an intense itch signal to my brain. The loose edges tickle my face every time I move.

 
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