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Ask the passengers, p.14
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       Ask the Passengers, p.14

           A. S. King
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  “And me.”

  “And you,” I say. “About her and you?”

  “Yes, Astrid, I know the whole world is talking about you, too, but you are the one who chose to go out and shake your booty with your gays, you know?”

  I stare at her before I turn around to leave. Ellis, I love you even though you are a complete idiot. It doesn’t work. Ellis, I love you even though you are brainwashed. Nope. Still doesn’t work. Ellis, I’m sorry. I tried to love you, but right now I wish you weren’t my sister, either.



  WEDNESDAY. I avoid looking up at school anymore.

  People say: I think Astrid Jones is gonna commit suicide.

  They say: I hear Kristina Houck dumped her.

  They say: She should just kill herself now.

  As I walk down the halls, I see them shackled to the waxed tile floor, ankle cuffs digging into their skin. I see how many of them need to be in the cave. I see the ones who will never leave and the ones who have to return because they can’t handle what’s outside. Which is: nothing. Nothing is outside. Rumors don’t matter. Unity Valley reputations don’t matter. Whether I’m gay or not doesn’t really matter.

  This is an extremely freeing thought. I smile all the way to my homeroom wing only to find some idiot has drawn this in red crayon on the block wall above my locker:

  My God. Are people really that dumb? Why not Astrid and Kristina? Why not Dyke or Fag or some other acceptable U. Valley slur? But Astrid and her own sister?

  Seriously. The realm of belief around here is breeding morons.

  In humanities class, people are starting to freak out and second-guess their paradoxes. No one shares because we all think we have the most original idea, but usually there are no original ideas. Ms. Steck told us that weeks ago.

  I stare at the blinking cursor on the computer screen, and I type in my paradox and hit Send. Equality is obvious. I wonder what Frank Socrates would say about that.

  In study hall, I overhear people talking about Aimee Hall’s mom. Apparently she came in yesterday and freaked out because she heard that her daughter has to sit in classes with known homosexuals. I try not to break out into a sweat when I hear this. I look around and realize that everyone in this room is, right now, being forced to sit in a class with a known homosexual.

  Then the story gets worse.

  Last night, Mrs. Hall and one other parent showed up at the school board meeting and complained that the Unity Valley School District has a “homosexual agenda” and made calls for three teachers to resign.

  One of the teachers is Ms. Steck.

  They say: She’s not married. You know what that means.

  Another is Mr. Williams because he kicked some kid out of class for denying the Holocaust. How this fits into the “homosexual agenda” is beyond me.

  “That makes no sense,” Clay from humanities says.

  “Whatever,” the blond who’s telling the story says. “It’s about our freedom. To be who we are, whether we recognize gays or not.”

  Clay just looks at her. Then he scratches his head. Then he goes back to the novel he’s reading. I sit there and play a word game in my head. I replace the word gays from her sentence with these other words: blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, women, people of mixed race, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, Russians, Poles, Yugoslavians, Ukrainians, mentally and physically disabled.

  Frank says, “Bingo, Astrid Jones.”

  “Bingo? You say bingo?”

  “Isn’t it great what they teach you in school these days?” He pats my knee and adjusts his toga so it doesn’t reveal too much while he sits in the low auditorium seat.

  I’m so glad I have Frank. I kinda miss Kristina this week, but I also kinda don’t. Either way, Frank is filling the void. I mean, as much as he can, considering he’s dead and in my head.

  Ellis is waiting for me outside of my lit class. She’s sobbing.

  “Couldn’t you cover it up with something?” she screams. “Couldn’t you deny it or report it or do something normal?”

  “What are you talking about?” I ask.

  “That SHIT above your locker!” Next to her is Jessie, her running and hockey friend. Dee’s camp friend. I give her a weak wave.

  I realize I have no idea why I didn’t do anything about it. I guess I figured no one would care. “I’m really sorry, El.”

  “It’s not just your name up there, you know!” she says. This is like one million on the flying-monkey scale for her.

  “Yeah, totally. I know,” I say. “Look, I’ll go report it now. I figured it would be gone first thing, like any other graffiti, I guess. I really am sorry.”

  She just walks off with Jessie, who gives me an empathetic look.

  When I see Ellis at lunch, she’s sitting up near the salad bar with Aimee Hall and her band of merry rumor-makers. I’d be lying if I said the mere thought of what could be said at that table right now doesn’t make me feel sick.

  I sit by myself.

  I hear things.

  They say: Astrid Jones was the one who took them out to that place, you know. Must be those city roots.

  They say: If I was the Houcks, I’d rip her a new one.

  It really is amazing what some people will say. I can’t wait to tell Kristina this one when she gets back. We’ll laugh until we pee, I bet.

  Before seventh period, I drop in and tell Ms. Steck I’m skipping lit mag this week. She nods as if she already knew this.

  “Did you see those?” she asks, and points to the blackboard. There are two more signs like the one I pulled off the wall yesterday. One says DYKES NEED DICK! Same lettering as the sign in my backpack. “I’m starting a collection,” she says. “Kids can be so clever.”

  The other sign reads ADAM AND EVE, NOT ADAM AND STEVE, which is wholly unoriginal.

  “Yeah,” I say. “People here are really bright.”

  Ms. Steck says, “Just remember it’s a small minority.”

  I reach into my backpack and find the MS. STECK ’S PUSSY sign from yesterday, and I take it to the board and straighten it out. We tape it there together, and I draw an arrow in chalk to the apostrophe and write UNNECESSARY APOSTROPHE. FAIL.

  There are three afternoon announcements after the usual list of kids who need to report to the vice principal for disciplining. The first one is about a change in tomorrow’s lunch menu—not chicken patties but turkey cheesesteaks. The second one is about how Monday’s schedule will change because for third and fourth periods, the entire school will recognize a Day of Tolerance with an assembly and a “No Hate” pep rally. I don’t hear the third announcement because I’m too busy hearing the blood pulse through my ears and feeling like there is a hot direct spotlight on me.



  WHEN I GET HOME, Mom is sitting at the kitchen table waiting for me. With Dad. Ellis is upstairs playing her music too loudly. Something is really different, but I can’t figure out what it is.

  The letter from the district magistrate’s office is at my place setting, opened.

  “Hi, Mom,” I say. “Glad you’re feeling better.”

  I look past her into the living room. I make out three distinct shapes. The ironing board. The iron, on, with its little red light glowing. A pile of—what is that?

  “Ellis tells me that you’re having a hard time this week at school,” she says.

  “Actually, it’s not that bad.”

  “Hmm. Well, she’s having a bad time this week at school,” she says.

  Dad says, “And this Tolerance Day next week is something she can’t do. It’s too difficult for her after… this.”

  I shrug.

  She adds, “You know people are saying it about her now, too, right?”

  “Saying what?” I ask, even though I know exactly what she’s talking about. But if we’re all so New York City open-minded, then why are we making such a big effing deal out of this?

  “We want to know if
you’re gay,” Mom says. “We can’t really go any further with you until we know the truth.”

  “You can’t go further with me? What does that mean?” I ask. “As parents?”

  Dad says, “We’re doing the best we can, but with all your lying, we don’t think we can get you back on track until everything is out in the open.”

  Back on track. Can’t go any further. Sounds like they’ve been watching Dr. Phil or something. “I didn’t know I was off the track,” I say. I go to the cabinet and fetch a few Rolaids and chew on them.

  “You didn’t?” Dad says.

  “For Christ’s sake, Astrid, look at you!” Mom says over him.

  I look at myself. I look exactly the same as I did a week ago, before Atlantis got busted. I look exactly the same as I did five months ago, before I started kissing Dee in the walk-ins. “I don’t look any different than I did last week, do I?” Frank hops up onto the kitchen counter, crosses his arms and snickers.

  “I think your mother means your criminal record.”

  “And the lying!” she adds.

  “And the lying!” Frank says.

  “Oh,” I say. And then I notice what’s different: It’s the curtains. All the curtains are down. Even the privacy lace ones. That’s what’s in the pile next to the ironing board. Mom is washing and ironing all of the curtains.

  Which is why it’s so bright for a dreary November afternoon.

  “Well? Can you tell us the truth?” Dad asks.

  “How come you’re ironing the curtains?” I ask.


  “That must have taken you all day. Why didn’t you get them washed and pressed at the dry cleaner?”

  Dad leans forward. “Does this mean yes?”

  “Yes?” I ask. I already forgot the question.

  “Are you gay?” Mom asks.

  I sigh. “I have no idea,” I say. Frank sighs and rolls his eyes.

  Mom perks up. “So, we went from I’m not gay, I was just in a gay club to dance to I don’t know.”

  “Right,” I say.

  “So does this mean yes?” Dad asks again. I look at Frank Socrates, and he says, in my head, Settle for nothing less than the truth. Even if the answer is I don’t know.

  “No,” I say. “It means I don’t know. It’s really not as easy as you’re making it.”

  “Don’t give me that,” Mom says.


  “It’s not a choice. Either you’re born gay or you’re not born gay,” she says.

  “While I appreciate your strict categorization and policies of gayness, I can’t say that I know one way or the other. So, logic tells me that if I was born gay, then I should know that I am gay, which means, by your rules, no. I am not gay. Because I don’t know.” They stare at me. I start writing a list on a piece of notepaper as I talk. “But if it’s about love and attraction to people of the same gender and a possibility of maybe being in love with a girl, then the answer could be yes. But I wouldn’t call myself gay. It just wouldn’t seem right to real gay people. Especially if they were born knowing for sure, like you say they were.”

  “Jesus Christ! Can you just cut the sarcasm and answer the damn question?” Mom yells.

  “I just did answer the question,” I say, still writing without looking up.

  “You can’t give us a yes or a no?” Dad asks. I can tell he’s dying to get out to that garage as soon as humanly possible. He’s nearly drooling.

  “Not really,” I say. “Sorry.” However, I can give you a leave-me-the-hell-alone-why-does-it-matter-so-damn-much-and-it’s-none-of-your-goddamn-business. Love you. “It’s just not as simple as you’re making it out to be. I don’t think every gay person can be clearly defined and kept in a nifty little box, you know?”

  After a minute of silence, Dad says, “So you’re not going to tell us.”

  “I just told you.”

  Mom says, “Frankly, I’m even more disappointed than I was before we started.”

  I sigh. I’m exhausted by them. I’m exhausted by me. I’m exhausted by having to be me, with them.

  I finish my list. It reads: Here is a list of things you can put in a box: Puppies. Lipstick. Jump ropes. Jewelry. Card games. Hair accessories. Love letters. Spoons. Office supplies. Nail polish. Art projects. Leaves collected on an autumn walk. Cereal bowls. Popsicle sticks. Used staples. Books. Action figures. Weapons of mass destruction. Model cars. Pictures of loved ones. Thumbtacks. I put it in my pocket.

  Mom says, “Kristina’s mother says that going to that bar was your idea. We can’t figure out where you’d come up with that idea if you haven’t been lying to us. I’d like to know when you first went there, and I want to know how you got in and—”

  “Wait. What?” I look at her. “What did you just say?” This particular piece of bullshit was fine as a stupid high school rumor, but this is different.

  “I talked with Kristina, too. She told me you had to drag her there.”

  I stare at her. I become Very Serious Astrid. I sit up straight. I take a deep breath. “Kristina said that I dragged her to Atlantis?”

  “Yes. She said she’d never thought about it before because she and Justin were meeting their friends on those double dates they used to take.” She winces a bit with the term double dates.

  “That’s complete bullshit,” I say. “I can’t believe she said that.”

  Frank says, “Really? I can.”

  “I don’t have any reason to disbelieve her, do I?” Mom says.

  Mom sits there with her eyebrows up in a judgmental arch.

  “Like—only her entire freaking life was a lie, Mom. And all of you bought it! Only a few weeks ago you were asking me about her and Justin and Homecoming. How about that lie?” I yell.

  “Well.” She stops for a second as if she’s about to say something nice. “Until she and her mother come here and tell me they lied, I believe them. They’re good people.”

  “And I’m not?”

  “I didn’t say that,” she says.

  “She dragged me there after bugging me for months. She didn’t even know about—uh.” I stop.

  “About what?” Mom asks.

  “About any questions I might have about stuff like that.” I send love to myself for playing that so vague. Astrid, man, you’re smooth. I love the way you just made that completely obtuse. Nice save.

  “So you’re saying the exact opposite? That Kristina dragged you there?” Mom says.


  Dad sighs. “I don’t see why this even matters.”

  I say, “It matters to me because my best friend just screwed me over when it was all her idea. I’ll never trust her again. Maybe the only friend she has in this house is you now, Mom.”

  Dad looks concerned. Mom looks a mix of confused and smug. Frank S. looks hungry. He gets up and looks in the fridge.

  “I checked the story with the few people in town who I trust. They said that’s the version they heard, too.”

  I stare at her. “That’s because they’re repeating what they heard… from Mrs. Houck, probably.”

  “Either way, my daughter dragged a fifth of the town’s Homecoming Court to a gay bar and got them all arrested.”

  “That’s bullshit and technically, we didn’t get arrested.”

  “Oh, for Christ’s sake. I don’t know why I bother to try to get an honest answer out of you. You haven’t said anything… meaningful to me in years.” She goes into the living room and turns on a table lamp and begins to attack the curtains with the hot iron. I sit there and have thoughts about attacking her with a hot iron. Meaningful? As if she wasn’t too busy dressing Ellis up in diamonds and velvet to hear me if I ever did offer anything meaningful. As if she’d ever think anything I said was meaningful. Jesus.

  Dad gets up and goes out the back door toward the garage, and I almost want to follow him and ask him if I can have a toke off the pipe just so I can unhear what she just said.

  Instead, I go to my picnic tab
le. As I lie here, bundled in my winter coat and scarf, I can smell Dad’s wafting pot smoke, and I find three planes all flying in a row in the dusky sky. Once I let go of how mad I am at Mom, I realize that I’m steaming about Kristina. On fire. Smoldering. Exploding.

  I think of all the bossy moments and the perfect ponytail moments and the pressuring moments and what she made me do to Jeff Garnet. I’m too angry to lie here. I get up and walk to the edge of our yard and then back to the garage. Then I go past the side door and out onto the street and then over to Kristina’s house, where no lights are on and the minivan is still missing from the driveway. I sit on the back porch and swing on the swing.

  I look around for something to vandalize. Something to punch.

  I walk over to the back storm door and write LIAR on the glass with my finger, but it’s so clean, I don’t think anyone will see it. I write it again on the siding by the back door and the stone and the pear trees that line the back path. I write it on the garage door. Five times. LIAR LIAR LIAR LIAR LIAR.

  They say: Did you see Astrid Jones acting crazy over at the Houck place tonight?

  They say: I told you they broke up.

  Then, after one last LIAR on the black mailbox, I walk across the street to our house and get back on my table.

  I find airplanes in the sky. I watch them. I picture the passengers. But I can’t find any love at all to send to them. I try my mantra. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. It’s hollow and stupid.

  I don’t love anyone right now. Not even me.

  “This is the longest Wednesday in the history of man,” I say to Frank S., who is sitting in his favorite spot on the bench by the back patio door.

  “Try being on trial for impiety on a Wednesday. It’s far worse.”

  When my phone rings, I think it’s Kristina feeling all the bad vibes I’m sending out. But it’s Dee. The minute her number comes up, I hear it: Stay away from my daughter.

  “Hey! I was going to call you later.” I say.

  “I miss you so much!” she says back. It makes me grin a huge grin.

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