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Ask the passengers, p.15
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       Ask the Passengers, p.15

           A. S. King
 
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  “Me too. It feels like a year went by since—uh—Saturday.”

  “I am sooooo sorry about that message my mom sent,” she says. “It was so uncool. I nearly died when I saw it.”

  “It’s okay.” I am so relieved that I forget about Kristina the liar for a minute. And Claire the neglected mother who never gets to hear anything meaningful.

  “Seriously. I nearly killed her. I’m really sorry.”

  “Really. It’s fine.” I say. “I’m sorry I took you out to a bar that got busted. I feel like a tool.”

  “How would you know that was going to happen? And anyway, you didn’t take me. I drove there all on my own.”

  “Still. I had to say it,” I say.

  “You okay, Jones? I hear all kinds of shit. Even an entire school district away.”

  “That’s a really long line of whisper down the lane. I can only imagine the discrepancies.”

  We laugh. It’s nice.

  “Don’t believe what you hear,” I say. “Unless you hear that my mother and Ellis have disowned me, and my best friend is a lying bitch,” I say. “But I’m not going to jump off any cliffs, if that’s what you mean.”

  “I’m glad,” she says. “And, hey, admit it. It feels nice to be out, right? No more hiding. No more secrets?”

  “Uh.”

  “What?” she says.

  “Uh. I didn’t really tell anyone,” I say. “I mean, it’s been such a hectic week, and the only person I’ve really seen is my dad, and he’s just—uh—useless,” I say. I mean stoned. Useless and stoned.

  “Hold up. They don’t even know about you?”

  “Nope.”

  “But everyone knows!”

  “Not them. Not yet, at least.” I don’t mention that they don’t know because I haven’t told them I know, either.

  “What about me?” she asks.

  “What?”

  “Do they know about me?”

  “They don’t know about anything.”

  “Why?” she says. It’s slightly whiny.

  “I haven’t found the right time yet. That’s all.”

  “Dude, this weekend was the right time. Right? That’s when I told my mom.”

  “And she wrote me that text,” I say. Stay away from my daughter.

  “Again—sorry. She doesn’t want you to stay away. It was just her reaction. You know. She was being protective. My hockey scholarships. My reputation. I’m still freaked out about the hockey scholarships. I even talked to Coach about it, and she’s pissed at me.” She takes a deep breath. “I asked my mom to call you or text you back to apologize, but she was too embarrassed.”

  “Yeah,” I say. “Tell her not to be embarrassed.”

  “But you really should just come out, you know? Beats lying. And sneaking around. I’m not sure I can do that anymore.”

  Oh. She’s not sure she can do that anymore. Last week she was fine with it. I reach into my pocket and retrieve my list, and I add things to it.

  ME: Pre-sharpened pencils, halibut fillets, highlighter markers.

  ME: Stop blocking people out, Astrid.

  ME: Used tissues, superhero figurines, jewelry.

  ME: Come on. It’s Dee. You have to let your guard down somewhere, right?

  Awkward silence for what feels like twenty whole seconds while I talk to myself inside my head.

  ME: Why are you doing this to yourself?

  ME: It’s protection.

  ME: It’s only going to make you lonely.

  ME: And I’m not lonely already?

  “Astrid?” Dee asks. “We still good?”

  “As far as I know,” I say.

  35

  YOU CAN IRON THE CURTAINS STRAIGHT.

  MOM IS STILL IRONING when I get downstairs at 6:40 AM on Thursday. I can’t tell if she’s been here all night or if she got up early. I hear Ellis get into the shower and Dad flush the downstairs toilet soon after. This makes Ellis screech and Dad stand outside the main bathroom door and yell, “I’m sorry!”

  As I pour a bowl of corn flakes, I count how many times someone in this house apologized to me for flushing while I was in the shower. That would be zero times.

  Dad arrives and walks straight for the coffeemaker and makes a cup of very light, very sweet coffee and sits down at the table across from me. Mom continues to iron.

  “Any answers today for us, Strid?”

  “Huh?”

  “About our conversation last night. We just want answers.”

  “I thought I gave you answers,” I say.

  “Okay,” he says. Then he leans over the table and whispers, so his coffee/morning breath bowls me over. “Can’t you just make something up?” He moves his eyes to the sides of their sockets to draw my attention to my ironing mother.

  Poor guy. It must suck to get to thirty thousand feet and realize that your pilot is a control freak nutjob.

  When I look at her, I see our house as a mini cave, and her fire as a mini fire that casts mini shadows for us mini shackled prisoners. We are a cave within a cave within a cave. Our little house on Main Street (with the immaculately pressed curtains) is part of the Unity Valley cave, which has its Unity Valley fire that casts Unity Valley shadows. And Unity Valley is just a cave inside the big American cave that is a huge fire that casts the biggest shadows of all.

  “Strid?” Dad whispers again.

  “Stop calling me that,” I say. Then I get up and rinse out my bowl and put it into the dishwasher.

  When I get to my room and get dressed, I decide that I’m going to skip school for the first time ever.

  I walk up the road toward school and then I double back to my car, which has been sitting in the same space since Sunday’s trip to the diner. I hop in, start her up and drive to the lake because who’d go to the lake on a cold day like this?

  I park in the empty lot and lock my doors. I put my seat back and try to fall asleep, but I can’t get past the warning signals in my brain about some ex-convict finding me here and drowning me in the lake after doing unspeakable things. So I sit up and roll down my window.

  ME: Maybe you can call that Kim girl from the party that night and go hang out there today.

  ME: You’re a moron.

  ME: No, really. She seemed into you. And you don’t have anywhere else to go, right?

  I pull out my phone and scroll through the numbers until I get to Kim’s number, which I put into my phone under the name Pizza in case anyone found it. I look up into the clear sky over the lake, and I start to cry a little.

  ME: That’s good. Get it off your chest.

  ME: (sobs)

  ME: You’ll figure it all out, I promise.

  ME: What’s there to figure out? My best friend lied about me, and my girlfriend doesn’t like me anymore.

  ME: Dude, Dee loves you.

  ME: Dee has conditions. Kristina has conditions. Mom has conditions.

  ME: Everyone has conditions if you look at it that way.

  ME: No. Frank Socrates doesn’t have conditions, because he’s dead. He loves me unconditionally.

  ME: Stop being difficult.

  I get out of the car and go over to one of the five wooden tables in the grassy picnic area. Inferior-quality tables compared to mine and Dad’s. The wood is rotting in spots, not to mention covered in graffiti and gnawed away on the corners by forest animals. The surface needs a good sanding, and I don’t move much because I don’t feel like getting splinters in my ass. I think today is already sucky enough without splinters in my ass.

  This sending-love-to-the-passengers thing is getting old, somehow. I mean, I still have to do it the minute I see a plane—it’s a reflex, like covering my mouth when I cough—but I don’t want to send my love away forever. I want it to be safe here. I want my life to be easier than this. I mean, I know I’m not some starving kid who has to wash clothes in the Ganges for a nickel, but today just sucks. My guts are all twisted up over Kristina and her stupid lie, and Dee and her pressuring me, and Mom a
nd our lack of meaningful conversations.

  The sky is amazing at lakeside. It’s huge. And it’s quiet here. There’s no traffic. No bikers because it’s ten o’clock on a school day. All I hear are birds.

  When I see the first plane, I make a deal with its passengers. I say: Look, this is a loan. I don’t know if love is something I will run out of one day. I don’t know if I should be giving it all to you guys or not. Today, I feel like maybe I should have kept some for myself for days when no one else loves me. Not even my best friend.

  My eyes well up with tears again, and I feel stupid and dramatic.

  ME: You’re not being dramatic. This hurts.

  And then I send the love up. It’s as easy as it always is, and it’s hard, too, because I really don’t know the answer to this mystery. Is love something that will always be available? Will it always be confined and untrustworthy like it feels today? Is there enough to go around? Am I wasting mine on strangers?

  PASSENGER #980

  JAMEY WIEDNER, SEAT 27E

  FLIGHT #504

  PHILADELPHIA TO CHICAGO

  The problem with my job is that I fall in love too quickly. Men come to me for companionship. They pay me to be the good-looking young guy on their arm. They pay me for other stuff, too.

  They don’t fall in love like I do, though. They have parents and siblings and people who love them already. Some of them have partners. Wives and kids. It’s not my business to know, but they tell me anyway. Some guys have a lot of love, and it’s still not enough.

  But they don’t love me. They just use me and then put me on the next flight out.

  It’s lonely, but I’m okay. I just fall in love a lot, and I shouldn’t. And sometimes I end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. And sometimes I don’t get paid enough. Sometimes I dream that I’ll be rich one day and be able to go to college and get a job. Then I remember that it takes a lot of clients to get rich… unless one of them falls in love like I do.

  As we fly over the mountains, I get this feeling I’ve never felt before. I can’t explain why I feel it or how, but it’s a big feeling. Bigger than I can put into words. It’s all-encompassing, like all the love I’ve poured into all the someones I’ve loved is now coming back to me. Like someone is loving me back for the first time in my life. And I know that everything’s going to work out. Maybe someday, someone will fall in love with me. I’ll go to college. I’ll be rich. Or at least I can help people like me so they don’t have to do what I’ve done.

  I stare out the window and smile because just dreaming it is nice… even if it doesn’t happen. Just dreaming it is nice.

  I don’t have a lot of love to send right now. Or maybe I’m being stingy. My heart just isn’t in it, so I get up off the table and into my car and start driving toward the college town where Donna lives. I don’t remember how we got to the Gamma Alpha Psi house, but I’m sure if I drive around enough, I might find it.

  ME: And what will you do once you get there? Call Kim? Run off and get married? What are you doing?

  ME: Just driving. Leave me alone.

  By the time I get on and off the turnpike, I’m starving, so I go to a drive-thru and then cruise the fraternity and sorority houses looking for those familiar Greek letters. It’s about noon. The sidewalks are busy with students. I stop to eat my bacon double cheeseburger and watch them. I think: That will be me at this time next year.

  I’ve been so caught up in Dee and Kristina and our secrets and now this whole mess that I’ve forgotten my entire future. No Ellis. No Mom and Dude. No Kristina bossing me around. Not even Dee if I don’t want her in my life. I will hear scholarship news in the next few months. My grades rock. I should be concentrating on me.

  College kids look happy. And free. After I crumple the uneaten part of my burger in its wrapper and stuff it into the bag, I realize my future is only a few months away, and I will be one of the free, happy people. And then I start the car again and head for the turnpike. I turn up the music to block out the sound of my own thoughts. When I get to Unity Valley, I pull over into the Legion Diner parking lot and I text Kristina. You coming back any time this decade?

  She texts back. On our way now. Should be back by dinner.

  I park in the fairground parking lot hidden behind Kristina’s house and abandoned since the last fair of the season. I walk to Kristina’s back porch and sit on the swing, and I start thinking about what Kristina said. And I decide that I’m done being a pushover.

  “What a surprise!” Mrs. Houck says when she finds me sitting on her back porch. She’s got a suitcase in either hand, and after she says this, her face makes a frown. The kind of frown I’d have expected from a mother who thinks I corrupted her daughter. Then Kristina shows up as Mrs. Houck jiggles her key into the back door.

  “Dude. You can’t live here. I already told you that,” Kristina says. She’s joking, so I figure this must mean she doesn’t know how much I want to kill her right now.

  “We need to talk,” I say.

  She nods and goes back to the car to get more things. “Let me get the rest of my stuff,” she says. Her smile has disappeared. She must know why I’m here. I use my finger’s imaginary marker on her back as she walks up the path to the driveway. LIAR LIAR LIAR, I write down her back. When she gets back with her last bag and a pillow, she says, “I’ll be out in a minute.”

  I get up and pace. I see Mr. Houck is not in the car. Strange. I thought they went as a family. Then I hear Mrs. Houck whisper-yelling through the open door. I don’t hear what she says. I don’t care what she says. I trace the word LIARS onto the side of the house. I face out toward the big barn they have as a garage, and I write it in imaginary letters twenty feet high.

  “So?” Kristina says.

  “Wanna take a quick ride somewhere?” I ask.

  “Where?”

  “Anywhere but here, I guess.”

  “Do we have to?” she asks. “I have to unpack.”

  I have to pack. I have to unpack. These are things that never mattered to Kristina before Tuesday.

  I face her when we reach the driveway. “If you want, we can sit right here,” I say.

  She sits down on the ground. I sit down next to her.

  “So I heard the big lie you told about me, and I can’t understand why you’d do it.”

  She looks a mix of surprised and ashamed. “I—uh—I’m not sure what you mean,” she says.

  “You know exactly what I mean.”

  She sits silent for a while then says, “I didn’t tell any lie.”

  “Really?” I’m surprisingly calm. “You didn’t tell your mom a lie, which she then told the whole town? About me dragging you to Atlantis… almost against your will? That lie?”

  She acts surprised. “What? I never said that!”

  “Dude. You told my mom to her face. You said it. And I think you made it up because you can’t handle not being the perfect little Unity Valley Homecoming princess anymore.”

  She smirks at me.

  “Well?” I ask.

  “Well, what did you lose? Nothing. That’s what you lost.”

  “I lost my sister, my mother—who believes you and your mom and not me—and my father. And my best friend, who would rather lie about me to save her skin.”

  “You still didn’t lose nearly as much as me.”

  “What the hell are you talking about? What did you lose? You weren’t even in school this week to hear anything! And your little lie made you the victim of Astrid Jones’s evil gay plot to get you out to a bar, right? Isn’t that how you wanted it to play out?” I yell. “And it worked perfectly! Good job, Kristina Houck. Mission accomplished. You set up your best friend after she kept your secret for over two years, and then you lost her. Nice job.” I get up and dust off my butt.

  I start walking toward the fairgrounds to my car. “Wait!” she yells. She’s following me. “Wait!”

  “Did you lie about me or not, Kristina?”

  She stands there dumbfo
unded. I get in my car and drive away.

  I approach Dad after his evening toke.

  “I need a sick note for today,” I say. “I totally skipped school.”

  He looks at me and shakes his head and smiles. “It just keeps getting worse with you.”

  “Nah. Today was just the day off I should have had on Monday. I want to get back.”

  “Where’d you go?” he asks.

  “Nowhere special.”

  I hand him the blank absentee card, and he scribbles his signature on it, and I slip it into my backpack before I go to bed.

  When I walk through the kitchen to get to the stairs, I look into the living room and see that Mom is still ironing.

  36

  FRIDAY IS JUST GROSS.

  I WAKE UP LATE on Friday and rush to the bathroom to wet my hair and brush my teeth. In the hall, I meet Ellis wrapped in a towel. When she sees me, she grabs the front of the towel and pulls it up to her neck and scurries into her room quickly, as if I’ll become aroused at the sight of my own sister in a towel.

  I don’t have enough gross words in my gross vocabulary to describe how gross that gross thought is. Gross.

  While I’m brushing my teeth, I think about how our sisterhood deteriorated. I blame Mom. Of course. But as I look at myself in the mirror, I see some other stuff. My snubbing her when she decided to be a small-town girl. Me deciding she didn’t need me anymore when she got old enough to stop watching The Wizard of Oz. Me not inviting her when Dad and I would make stuff together. Me deciding that Mom would always like her more… and having it reflect on her instead of just on Mom.

  So maybe I helped it happen. Maybe we’d be closer. If I told her the truth, she’d probably accept me eventually, and we could just be sisters again.

  None of this changes the fact that what she just did was gross.

  The janitor took pity on me and cleaned off the wall above my locker, even though I can still see the flecks of red crayon embedded in the crannies of the painted cinder blocks. I know it makes me a horrible person, but after Ellis’s grossness this morning, I kinda wish it was still there.

 
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