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Ask the passengers, p.13
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       Ask the Passengers, p.13

           A. S. King
 
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  I turn to them both. “Can you stop?”

  “Why don’t you stop?”

  “You’re completely wrong, you know. You’re completely full of shit.”

  “That’s not what we heard.” They say that in unison, like the creepy girls in The Shining.

  They say: That’s not what we heard.

  The fog is so heavy by lunch, Kristina and I go outside—totally against the rules—and walk through the parking lot toward the football stadium and sit on the empty bleachers behind the press box.

  “Holy shit,” she says.

  “Yeah.”

  “So you know everyone thinks we’re a couple, right?”

  “Yeah.”

  “And they think we’ve been together since we were in grade school.”

  “Yeah.”

  “And I heard someone say Justin was offering favors for ten bucks a shot in the back room.”

  “Ugh.”

  “And I heard—”

  “Stop!” I say. “I can’t care about what the assholes in this stupid town say. I just can’t care.” I eat two more Rolaids. I’ve lost count today.

  She puts her hands up in a defensive way. “No problem. Just thought I could vent with my best friend about the weekend everyone found out we’re gay. Obviously not.”

  “Sorry. You can vent. I just don’t want to hear the rumors. So stupid,” I say.

  She sighs. “So how was yesterday? Did they freak out on you at home? Because they sure as shit freaked out on me.”

  “Claire held a mini-trial from the minute I got home until about four thirty. Even woke Ellis up for it,” I say.

  “Wow. At least mine waited until yesterday,” she says. “My mother seems to think I did it to kill her. How’d Claire and Gerry take it, though? Are they okay with the news?”

  I don’t say anything for a while. Then I say, “I didn’t tell them.”

  “But didn’t he pick you up?”

  “I mean I didn’t tell them that I’m gay,” I say.

  She looks at me sideways. “You mean they didn’t get the hint from the whole busted at a gay bar thing?”

  “I told them I was only there to have fun with my friends.”

  “And they bought it?” she says way too loudly. I nod. She bursts into overexaggerated laughter. Just like at the bar on Saturday night.

  I give her an annoyed look. “The Koch twins totally sucked in study hall.”

  Kristina pretends to fluff her hair. “The Koch twins are jealous.”

  I sit there silently for a minute.

  “What’s your problem?” she asks me. “You look like you’re gonna hurl.”

  “I got a text from Dee’s mom yesterday, and it said ‘Stay away from my daughter,’ and I’m really freaked out because what if I did this all for nothing? What if I can’t see Dee again, and I’m wrong about all of it?” I put my face in my hands.

  This is all slowly biting me in the ass, just like Dad said it would.

  I got caught in a gay bar. Dee’s mom hates me. I am about to lose my license. I will have to go before some judge and talk about this. Everyone thinks I’m gay.

  And I think I am gay.

  I think I’m gay, and my girlfriend’s mom wrote stay away from my daughter.

  “Have you talked to her?” she asks.

  I shake my head. “I’m too freaked. Her mom has her phone, anyway.”

  “You should call her. Her mom probably freaked out like all of our parents did, right? I mean, we did get totally busted at a bar, right?”

  “Yeah. I guess.”

  She looks at the time on her phone. “Almost time to go back.”

  “Did you get my message yesterday?”

  “Yeah.”

  “You didn’t call me back.”

  “I was in between lectures, cross-examination and screaming fits. First my mom, then my dad, and then my mom again. Oh, poor us! Our reputations are ruined forever! Are you sure you’re gay? How could you lie like that? Is Justin gay, too? How long has this been going on? How could you do this to us? Blah blah blah. And then they had a huge fight because Dad wanted to set me up with someone’s weirdo son to make things all better, and Mom said nothing would make it all better and that we are all basically screwed until the end of time. And then Dad packed a bag and drove off.” She shrugs.

  “Shit. That sucks,” I say.

  “As far as I know, he may never come back. He didn’t show up last night, anyway.”

  “Huh,” I offer. For all of Claire and Gerry’s fighting, I can’t imagine either of them leaving and not coming back. I don’t know what to say.

  “Justin, too,” she says, and hands me her phone with his texts on-screen. Back after shit blows over. Don’t worry about us.

  The bell rings for the end of sixth period and we start to get up and Kristina stops dead in her tracks. Her smile fades, and I can see the cockiness dissolve in waves. What’s left is the friend I met when I was ten. Nice, vulnerable and sincere. The kind of kid who helps you unpack your boxes and arrange your room even though she just met you.

  She starts to tear up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her cry about anything. “I can’t go back in there,” she says.

  “You’ve lived through the worst of it,” I say.

  “No. There’s a lot more. I can’t go back in.” She’s shaking her head, and her lip is sticking out.

  “You don’t have to, I guess,” I say. “You can just walk home. No one will stop you.”

  We look at each other. Kristina nods and starts walking toward the street entrance, and I run across the parking lot and in the side door by the industrial arts wing. We don’t say good-bye.

  I block out everything I hear in the hallways.

  They say: Blah blah blah Kristina Houck.

  They say: Blah blah blah Astrid Jones.

  They say: Blah blah blah Justin Lampley.

  European history is Kevin in the back row whispering “Hey, dyke! Yo, lezzer!” the whole time. “One night with me and my crew would cure that, you know!”

  I walk home by myself and I think about stopping at Kristina’s house, but I see her dad’s car in the driveway and I don’t want to make things more complicated for her. I always kinda wished Mom was more like Mrs. Houck—easygoing, not so obsessed with work, not so concerned with what people say about her. But I guess I was wrong. Maybe perfect people care more than us unique people do.

  When I walk in the front door at home, the first thing I notice is the silence. Then, as I walk up the stairs to my room, I hear muffled talking. I walk past Mom’s office, and it’s empty and all the lights are off. The red message light is blinking on her answering machine.

  The muffled talking is Mom and Ellis in Mom’s room. I don’t want to hear what they’re saying, so I go into my room and close the door. I bring up Dee’s number on my phone, and then I look at the text. Stay away from my daughter.

  Can I just say what the hell? Only two days ago, we were in Atlantis being so free and open and in love, and everything was perfect. Perfect. Abracadabra was on the horizon. I was sure of everything—not to say I’m not sure now, but how am I supposed to feel about stay away from my daughter? I feel scared. I feel as though it’s ruined. I feel like this was the final straw in a line of fails. The universe might be telling us we are not supposed to be together or something.

  I try to write her a letter, but I start three of them and then crumple them up and stick them in my backpack in case Mom reads my trash while I’m at school. In the end, I decide I’ll call her… tomorrow. I open a book and start doing homework.

  Only when I cross paths with Dad on my way to the bathroom do I see into their bedroom as he closes the door behind him and realize that Mom is still in bed.

  I’m shocked. I’ve seen Mom with pneumonia hacking up lungs while bent over that drawing table. Even that one time with that weird vertigo, she worked. She didn’t wear heels, but she worked.

  So maybe perfect people and unique people re
act similarly when their daughters get busted at a gay club.

  Ellis has gone to a friend’s house for dinner, which is about as weird as Mom still being in bed. Dad has brought home lukewarm Chinese food. I can tell he still likes me after Saturday night because he’s bought me crab Rangoon. Kinda soggy and cool crab Rangoon, but still. The thought counts. Mom and Ellis haven’t really talked to me in two days now, so having someone give a shit around here is good.

  While he changes out of his office clothes and into his Dude clothes, I crank the oven and put our Chinese food in to warm it a bit. I see Mom has ordered General Tso’s chicken. I decide that she should have hers lukewarm, and I do not add it to the oven tray. He takes it to her on the wooden tray Ellis and I use for Mother’s Day breakfast in bed.

  When he sits down at the kitchen table and starts attacking his chow mein, I say, “Don’t they feed you at work?”

  “I skipped lunch.”

  “Me too,” I say. “Thanks for the Rangoon.”

  “Sure, Strid.” He hasn’t called me Strid since I was in middle school.

  “You have a good day at the office?”

  “As good as can be expected. Still no stapler. You?”

  “No comment.”

  “Yeah. I heard.”

  I assume he means from Mom, who heard from Ellis and whoever else said whatever made her stay in bed today. I nod.

  I point to the ceiling. “Is she sick?”

  He shakes his head.

  “She’ll back to her normal General Tso self tomorrow?”

  “Maybe,” he says.

  “Huh.”

  “We don’t like that you’re lying to us.”

  I don’t answer.

  “We only want to know you’re okay, and if you’re lying to us, then we don’t know where you are.” He takes a bite of his chow mein and adds, mouth full and noodle hanging out one side, “Both geographically and metaphysically, you know?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Where are you, Strid?”

  Two uses of my childhood pet name. Crab Rangoon. The two of us sitting here eating dinner together. Ellis at a friend’s. Mom in bed. Only one explanation: He’s been sent by the General to interrogate me.

  “Geographically, I am at the dinner table, Dad. And metaphysically, I’m just fine. You know—just a rough day at school thanks to small-town living.”

  “It’s safe to tell us stuff, okay?”

  This means it’s not safe to tell them anything.

  “Sure, Dad,” I say as I take my plate to the sink.

  After dinner, I go out and lie on the table and send my love to the sky. I can’t see any planes, but I can hear them up there behind the clouds.

  Exhaustion sets in as I lie here. I think about school tomorrow. I think about staying in bed like Mom. Or running away like Justin and Chad and Kristina and Mr. Houck. But I really don’t feel like it. Plus tomorrow is the day I call Dee, and maybe everything will be all right.

  I hear another jet above the clouds, and I whisper to it. “I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.” My eyelids get heavy, and I feel an instant urge to make today disappear by falling asleep until it’s tomorrow. But I can’t move.

  I am strapped to the table. My table. I am strapped with warm bungee cords—like octopus tentacles. Like rubber. Around my ankles, my forearms, my hips and my forehead. The needle plunges into my belly button and sucks something out. I can see it coming out through the translucent tube. They are storing part of me in a space jar—like a test tube. It is labeled, but I can’t read the label.

  The big one says, “You sent for us.” I can’t say anything because I am entirely bungeed. Even my tongue. “How did you know we were there?”

  The little one says, “You are the only one who has ever found us.”

  The big one answers, “We love you too.”

  The back door slams as Dad makes his way to the garage. I lie here and ask myself, Just how many things do I have to invent in my head to survive this?

  I make Frank S. appear on his favorite bench by the back door. He answers, “As many as it takes.”

  I reach down to my belly button and make sure there’s no wound, even though I know that there’s no wound. “What are they extracting from me?” I ask, because even though these are my imaginary alien people, I have no idea what they are extracting.

  “I don’t know,” Frank answers. “Maybe they’re extracting the truth and saving it for later. Like you.”

  32

  IT ONLY GETS WORSE, YOU KNOW.

  ABOUT FIFTY-FOUR SECONDS before first period on Tuesday, I walk straight into Jeff Garnet and drop the books I’m carrying. He stops and looks at me, and his face is full of hurt and anger. Then he keeps walking, which makes me feel ten million times worse for everything I did to the kid. One of the people he’s walking with kicks my copy of The Republic way down the hall, where Mr. Trig picks it up and hands it back to me.

  “We miss you in trig,” he says.

  Which no doubt is weird but is meant as something positive, so I’ll take it. It almost makes me want to draw a pink triangle and then measure the angles and sides and figure out the functions.

  In humanities class, Ms. Steck concentrates on our previous discussion about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. She asks, “What do you think Plato meant to say when he talked about the freed people returning to the cave? Did he think they couldn’t handle the outside world? Did he feel they needed to be controlled? What does that compare to in our society? Do we have places like the cave?” She glances at me when she asks this, but she doesn’t call on me, and I send love to her for it. Ms. Steck, I know you sat in that faculty room and heard every stupid rumor. I love you because this discussion is exactly what I needed.

  I will not be like Kristina and go back into the cave.

  During the final five minutes of humanities, she says, “Only one week until Socrates week! Are you all ready?”

  Clay shouts, “Hell yeah!” like he’s at some basketball game or something, and it makes us all laugh.

  “I want all paradoxes on my desk by Friday,” Ms. Steck says. “If you want to change it, you’ll have until project day to do that. But I want something from all of you by Friday. Got it?”

  We all say, “Got it.”

  During fourth-period study hall, I sit in the back corner of the auditorium, as far away from the Koch twins as I can, and when the teacher calls roll, I say, “Here,” and no one makes me move. Students turn around and look at me. Some empathetically. Some meanly. Some just fly-catchingly, like codfish. I tell myself that the majority of people in study hall are fine people. The Koch twins are just lame. Kristina was right. They’re probably jealous because of Jeff.

  Speaking of Kristina, she’s not here today. Which means it’s just me against the world—all by myself.

  Before American lit, I see a sign outside Ms. Steck’s door. It reads: MS. STECK ’S PUSSY. Is it wrong for me to want to at least correct the misplaced apostrophe before I rip it off the wall and stuff it in my backpack?

  Mom is still in bed when I get home.

  They say: Did you hear Claire Jones is sick?

  They say: That kind of news could kill a person.

  I hear the low murmur of Mom talking to Ellis through the bedroom door again—the two of them giggling and chatting about something giggly and chatty, so I knock.

  I stand outside the door for a few minutes, and the two of them stay quiet. Then I slink to my room and close the door.

  I call Kristina, and she answers on the first ring.

  “Hey,” I say.

  “Hey.”

  “You ever coming back to school?”

  “Maybe Friday. The Houcks are taking a last-minute autumn vacation to see the glorious leaves of New England,” she says.

  “Aren’t the leaves all done already?”

  “I don’t know. It’s all bullshit because my mother is still freaking out. Jesus. You’d have thought I killed someone.”


  “Have you talked to Donna?” I ask.

  “We’re texting, mostly. I don’t want to piss off the parental units too much. But I told them that I love her, and I’m guessing it’ll sink in one day. Maybe the leaves of Vermont will help them not be amoral assholes.”

  “So it’s Astrid against the world this week, eh?” I ask.

  “I guess. Believe me, I’d be there if I could. Being stuck in a car with these two for a few days is probably worse.” I know it’s not really worse. Mrs. Houck will probably let her drink fancy coffee drinks and eat pastries to make everyone feel better about their ruined lives. “Anything else?” she asks.

  “Uh, no, I guess.”

  “I have to pack, you know?”

  “Yeah. Of course,” I say. “Have a nice trip.”

  She hangs up before she can even hear me say that.

  Dad and I eat alone again. Pizza this time. He takes half of it upstairs, where the exclusive Mommy and Me–type slumber party is going on without us. He’s too stoned to talk, and eats like a college student. I don’t see Ellis until we meet in the hall outside the bathroom on our way to wash up before bed.

  “You go,” she says quietly. “I can wait.”

  “So what’s with you?” I ask.

  She sighs and crosses her arms. “Look, just leave me alone, okay? And whatever you do, don’t talk to me in school. Let’s just pretend we’re not sisters for the rest of the year.”

  “Wow,” I say. “That’s shitty.”

  “You want to know what’s shitty? Everybody in my homeroom calling me a dyke!” She points to herself. “What’s shitty is having to explain to people that it was you, not me, who was caught in a seedy gay club. What’s shitty is what this whole thing has done to Mom. She can’t even get out of bed. She knows everyone is talking about her.”

  I so want to tell Ellis that Mom can get out of bed. She’s not paralyzed. She’s just using this as another way to pull Ellis closer to her and farther from me. But I don’t say that. Instead, I say, “She knows everyone is talking about her?”

 
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