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Everybody sees the ants, p.15
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.15

           A. S. King
 
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  The answers were consistent—pills, car fumes, pills, drug overdose, gun to the head, pills, self-drowning. (Which is one I just don’t get. It seems too difficult to actually work.)

  I was pulling a 102 percent in social studies class, and Mr. Potter and I were bonding in that student-teacher way in which he almost treated me like an adult.

  One day after class I told him about the questionnaires.

  “I know I wasn’t supposed to continue collecting the data, but it’s out of my control.”

  “Have you saved them?”

  “Some.”

  I played down the seriousness of it. “I mean—these are probably pranks. I got a bunch about jerking off to death and stuff like that. I don’t think anyone is serious.”

  He nodded, and I instantly regretted telling him. If he told Fish about this, I’d be in huge trouble all over again.

  “You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?”

  “Not unless you think I should.”

  “Nah. I think it’s just people trying to yank my chain.”

  A week later, Charlotte’s handwriting appeared again. If you were going to commit suicide, what method would you choose? She answered: I’d hang myself. Probably next week.

  I didn’t sleep that night.

  RESCUE MISSION #82—CHARLOTTE’S NOOSES

  In front of Granddad’s camp, there was a plywood structure, kind of like department-store dressing rooms. In each area there was a noose. Like gallows with privacy walls. We were hanging, but our hands were under our chins, so we weren’t dying. In fact, we were talking to each other.

  CHARLOTTE: I can’t believe I’m going to die.

  ME: You don’t have to. You can pull your head out and jump down if you want.

  CHARLOTTE: I brought this on myself.

  ME: No, you didn’t.

  CHARLOTTE: I told my mom what happened. She told my dad. He said I shouldn’t wear short skirts.

  ME: That’s stupid.

  CHARLOTTE: But he had a point. He said, “You think a jury who hears that you dress like a slut will think different?”

  ME: People are assholes.

  CHARLOTTE: Yeah.

  Granddad approached us then. He looked at the plywood gallows and climbed into the next stall, placed his head in the noose and his hands under his chin, to hang on.

  GRANDDAD: What the hell is this about?

  ME: I don’t know. I think it’s about the questionnaires I’ve been getting.

  GRANDDAD: You thinking about killing yourself, son?

  ME: No. But I think Charlotte is.

  CHARLOTTE: Nah. I’m fine. Everyone thinks about this shit, don’t they?

  GRANDDAD: I have.

  ME: Me too.

  CHARLOTTE: But I’d never do it.

  We all climbed down from our nooses. Granddad found a folding chair for Charlotte and handed her a glass of water. Then we went to the back of the plywood structure, and we pushed it down on its back. Granddad collected the nooses, and they hung over his arm the way an ironed shirt might.

  “What are you going to do with those?” I asked.

  “I’m going to rescue myself,” he answered, and handed one to me.

  “Oh, good,” Charlotte said. “That’s the best way to do it.”

  • • •

  The last thing I wanted Mom and Dad to find under my bed after all the school-district bullshit was a noose, so I took it to school in a plastic shopping bag the next day to get rid of it. I was sitting on the bus in the morning trying to figure out the best trash can to stick it into, when Danny sat down next to me. Since the banana incident, Danny stayed in the back of the bus with the other cool people who hung out with Nader, so this was surprising.

  “Nader’s not done with you.”

  I ignored him.

  “Did you hear me?”

  “What’s your fucking problem, Danny? It wasn’t that big a deal.”

  “It got him in trouble.”

  “Yeah, well, it got me in fucking trouble, too, and if he doesn’t watch himself, he’s going to be in more trouble. Those rumors about him rushing girls are going to land him in jail if he’s not careful.”

  He laughed. “It’s not illegal. The only reason girls have tits is so we can grab ’em, right?”

  What do you say to this? What do you say to an idiot who’d repeat anything Nader told him?

  I said nothing.

  That day was my monthly guidance meeting, and it took everything I had to not tell the guidance counselor about Charlotte’s completed questionnaires. I did mention the groping rumors, though.

  “Does it bother you?” the counselor asked.

  “It bothers me that no one is doing anything about it,” I said.

  “Believe me, if we acted on every rumor that went around this place, we’d never have time to do our jobs.”

  LUCKY LINDERMAN DOESN’T USE THE STUPID SHAMPOO

  We’re all stuffed in the car again, on our way back to the playground. The girls are totally stoked after a great rehearsal. The ants are standing on the dashboard in vagina formation. ({})

  “The only thing left to solve is getting my ass out of the house on Friday for the show,” Ginny says.

  “I say you walk out in defiant protest of how lame your parents are,” Maya says.

  Ginny laughs. Karen, who’s driving, says, “Leave a runaway note that says you ran off with your forty-year-old boyfriend who knocked you up.”

  They’re all laughing now. Except me. I say, “Hold up. Your boyfriend is forty?”

  Ginny smacks my arm. “No, stupid. She was kidding.”

  But it’s too late. I can hear them all realizing it at the same time. I have totally busted myself.

  “Jesus, Lucky. If I’d known you were so possessive, I never would have let you practice on me,” Ginny says.

  My heart breaks a little, and I can’t talk while it does that.

  “You let him practice?” one says.

  “Ginny, you hussy!” another says.

  “Did he fall in love?” another says, and everything blurs into an embarrassing thumping in my ears as the car erupts with laughter again. The ants march out the windows and jump to the roadside with their thumbs up. Even my scab wants to jump off my face and abandon me.

  When I finally look away from the street, I face Ginny, who is twiddling her hair in her fingers and smiling at me. She winks and kisses the air. The streetlights reflect off her hair, and I remember who I’m looking at. The Favors from Nature girl. The “It’s Only Natural” girl. Her confidence is lifelong and enormous, the way my lack of confidence is lifelong and enormous. I look at the other girls—they all have it. I am the only one who can’t laugh at funny jokes about myself. I am the only one who can’t face the truth about myself. I am the only one pretending.

  And pretending leads here. It guarantees nervous sweating anytime anyone talks honestly and the unreasonable fear that someone will say something that’s true. It guarantees that I won’t be able to handle it. Even if it’s supposed to be funny.

  Ginny lowers her head and joke-pouts to get me to lighten up. Then her eyes go wide and she sits forward. “I’ve got it!” she says. “I’ve got it!”

  The car goes quiet because we think she’s going to say something else, but she doesn’t.

  Shannon says, “And?”

  She’s breathless. “I know how to get out.”

  “And?” the girls ask in unison.

  Ginny mentally walks through her plan in silence.

  “Come on! Dish!”

  “It will ruin the surprise,” she says.

  “Lame,” Karen says.

  “Yeah, lame,” Annie says. “How will we ever know if you did it? I mean—whatever it is.”

  “Oh, you’ll know,” Ginny says.

  “Write it down and leave it in the car or something, and then we’ll know.”

  “Nope.”

  “How about you tell the boy?” Karen suggests.

  “Y
ou won’t need the boy to tell you what I’ve done. It will be more than obvious.”

  Karen parks the car in the playground lot, and Ginny and I get out of the backseat.

  When they’re gone, Ginny lights a cigarette and plays with the flame on the match for a second before blowing it out.

  “How do you sneak in at night?” I ask. “I mean—if your parents are so strict?”

  “I have magical ways.”

  “No. Seriously.”

  “Seriously? I rely on the sleeping pills they’re hooked on. By ten they are so far gone I could march the Frontier High marching band right through their bedroom playing ‘On Broadway’ and they wouldn’t wake up.”

  “Wow.”

  “Yeah. I’m fortunate,” she says. “How do you manage to get away from Crazy Jodi?”

  “I’m not sure. She stopped caring after last week. Something my mom said to her, I think.” I pause. “Or she could be waiting for me tonight with the SWAT team. You never can tell with Aunt Jodi.”

  She nods and smokes.

  “So what’s the big plan for Friday?” I ask.

  She smiles. “Oh, it’s genius,” she says.

  “Are you going to tell me?”

  “Are you going to come to the show?”

  “I hope so. I mean, I have to ask my mom. We’re leaving that night.”

  “So why should I tell you, then?”

  We walk in silence for about a minute. I send the ants on a special assignment into her brain to press the blurt it out button.

  “I’m going to shave my head,” she says.

  I make an audible gasp. “No!”

  She stops and stares at me. “What do you mean, no?”

  “You can’t!”

  “Why the hell not?” She’s too loud for me to feel comfortable. It’s one in the morning, and we are mere feet from a house.

  “Because you can’t! It’s—it’s…”

  “It’s what? Too beautiful?”

  “Yes!”

  “Too important?” she asks.

  “Yes!”

  “Is it? Is it really that important? It’s just fucking hair!”

  I nod. I am trying to picture Ginny with no hair. A hairless ninja. No more swaying in the choir.

  She throws up her hands. “Haven’t you learned anything? There are women going through hell, and you’re concerned about my hair? I am not my hair!”

  “But the money you make,” I say, trying to save face. “You can donate it to the cause or something, right?” I look around for the ants. Surely they want to tell me how stupid I am for saying that.

  “I told you I don’t get the money. Anyway—you’re missing the point,” she says flatly. “You’re forgetting that, above all, this will piss off my parents. And that is what I need to do to get my freedom. They control me with my hair. They confine me to that billboard, as if I have no other potential,” she explains. “I thought you’d understand, you know? After a life of dealing with a squid and a turtle. After a whole life being bullied by some gorilla with no brain. You understand freedom, don’t you?”

  I squint at Ginny and picture her with no hair. She would still be beautiful. Her nose would still be perky with freckles, and her eyes would still be intensely green. She would still be awesome. She would still be smart. She just wouldn’t have much hair.

  “You’re right,” I say. “I think you’re completely right.”

  “You do?”

  “I really do.”

  “Why?”

  “Because you’re not your hair. You’re amazing, Ginny. You’re a one hundred percent amazing person.” She looks down at her feet and I grab her hands. “The world should pay you just for being alive.”

  She laughs.

  “I’m serious. People like you should be in charge. Of everything. You should be worshipped.”

  “Well, I am kinda worshipped, you know. Billboards and all that,” she jokes.

  “True.”

  We walk for a minute, and she reaches down to hold my hand. “You know those commercials? The ones where the models say, ‘I deserve it’?”

  “Yeah.”

  “The day we taped them”—her voice wobbles—“I had to say it over and over until they got enough tape. I deserve it. I deserve it. I deserve it. I feel like I’m selling my soul, you know? I have a great life and get pampered and spoiled because I happen to have beautiful hair, while people suffer everywhere.”

  “But—” I try to say something, but she’s crying now, and she puts her hand out to stop my talking.

  “You know the me on those billboards? The shampoo-me? The magazine-me? She has no soul.”

  “Stop it. She has a soul,” I say.

  “Maybe she has a soul, but it’s so controlled by other people she can’t see it in there anymore.”

  “It’s in there.”

  “But it’s dirty. They ruined it.”

  I stop her and hold her by the shoulders. “Listen to me. They may control what you do, but no one can pee on your soul without your permission.”

  She nods as if she knows exactly what I’m talking about and, wiping her eyes, adds, “And anyway, I don’t even use the stupid shampoo.”

  I think that’s the perfect way to explain how I feel about everything in the world. I don’t even use the stupid shampoo.

  I have spent a lifetime chasing an old man abandoned by people who didn’t think he deserved to come home. I have spent my whole life living with a man who didn’t think he deserved a father, and a woman who thought she didn’t deserve a say in her own life. It’s all trickled down to me.

  I’ve spent a lifetime being pushed around by Nader McMillan because I didn’t think I deserved any better. Because I thought someone else should do something to make it stop. But that will never happen, because everyone who could have stopped it uses the shampoo.

  I hug Ginny.

  I get that feeling back again—that love feeling—but it’s more intense this time because she’s still crying a little.

  “As far as I’m concerned,” she says, “I’m done being the cover girl for bullshit.”

  “Yeah,” I say.

  “As of Friday my life will be mine and not the man’s,” she says, and then she kisses me again, and I swear I see stars. Or ants dressed like stars. Or whatever the visual equivalent of love I can’t have is.

  I smile the goofiest smile my mouth has ever formed.

  “You know, Lucky, you’re a really cute kid when you smile.”

  “Yeah, I know.”

  The ants nod and make goofy smiles, and that makes me smile more.

  “I think you should keep it up, man.”

  “Thanks, I will.” I can barely pronounce the “w” because my grin is so tight.

  We walk to the place where we split. She says, “Show’s at seven on Friday. I can sneak you in the backstage door if you want.”

  “I hope I can make it,” I say.

  “You should at least come and say good-bye,” she adds, and then puts up her hood and disappears into the backyards of Tempe.

  I walk to Jodi and Dave’s house, still smiling. The door is unlocked, and no one is waiting up, so I lock it behind me and tiptoe into the guest room, where I slip into bed and think about The Vagina Monologues, and I feel that roller coaster of reality again. I think of all the reality I’m about to face. Two days until I fly back to Pennsylvania, where my father lives. Where Nader McMillan lives. Remarkably, this doesn’t kill my smile.

  RESCUE MISSION #111—BANANAS

  Nader McMillan is sitting in the corner, weeping. He rocks back and forth, barely hanging on to sanity. Good. I’m glad.

  The small hut is filled with bananas. Heaps of them. Frankie, Granddad’s guard, and his two young guard friends are sitting at a table smoking cigars and playing poker. Every time Frankie loses, which is every game because Frankie plays shitty poker, the two young guys get to do whatever they want to Nader McMillan.

  Outside it rains frogs. Big, bouncy fro
gs that hit the thatched roof with such speed and force I am sure the hut will topple in another hour if the rain doesn’t slow down. I am sure we will be up to our pits in frogs.

  “Lucky,” Nader whispers.

  I ignore him.

  “Lucky,” he whispers again, this time sobbing after he says it.

  I look at him. He mouths, “Help me.” I look away.

  I am crazy with hatred for him. I know this. I am okay with it.

  I point to the scab on my cheek. Before I had that scab, there was no scar from the banana incident. The only scar was on my brain. Now I have something I can point to. I have something that can be photographed. Teams of psychologists can line up the pictures and say, “Lucky Linderman’s gone insane after receiving a blow to the cheek in the shape of Ohio/West Virginia/Michigan/Iowa.” I point to the scab, but really Nader knows what I’m pointing at. The scar that will never heal. The scar shaped like Florida or California. My banana-shaped scar.

  I mouth back, “Fuck you.”

  The ants march single file to his face and spell it out right on his greasy forehead: FUCK. YOU.

  Granddad is on his mat, meditating.

  He says, “You have to live in the present, Lucky.”

  “But it’s impossible to forget.”

  “I didn’t say you had to forget it. Never forget it. But stop living there. Live here, in the present. Think forward to your future.”

  “My future is three more years of Nader McMillan.”

  “Yes, but from now on you’re the one in control.”

  When Frankie loses the hand and it’s time to torture one of the prisoners, the young guards point to Granddad. Frankie points to Nader. “Young!” he says. “Brave!”

  But they want Granddad.

  I look away. Granddad doesn’t even make a noise. He is happy to eat the banana after the ordeal is over.

  Nader McMillan screams. The hut is awash in frogs. The door is forced open, and they rush in and begin to drown us.

 
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