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Ask the passengers, p.4
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       Ask the Passengers, p.4

           A. S. King
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  She said, “This will be a time of asking questions and not rushing to answer them. A time of poking holes in your own theories. A time of thinking and not knowing.”

  Perfect for me right about now. I am the not knowing queen.

  What I do know is that the original idea I had about philosophers is somewhat accurate. Women had it pretty bad in ancient Greece. Married off at puberty by their fathers. To older men. So they could bear sons. But Socrates thought women could be educated and should be included. While many of his peers owned slaves, Socrates said, “Slavery is a system of outrage and robbery.”

  But he didn’t have a job. He was poor. He didn’t even write down his own amazing ideas. All he cared about was truth and living a good life—while trying to define what a good life meant.

  So if we go by Mom’s standards, Socrates was the biggest loser of all time.

  I put my coat on and go out to my picnic table. The sky is lit up with streetlights, so I can’t see many stars, but I can still see the planes blinking overhead. I can hear the bar down by the fire company. I can hear the traffic on Route 733—the road that links this small town to the next, and the next, until it meets with a road that might lead somewhere bigger.

  I think about Kristina and how she’s at Atlantis—the only gay bar in the nearby city. I think about why I haven’t gone yet.

  I stare at the first plane that’s cutting the sky in two. I stare and I send my love. I send it to the woman in seat 5A who is worried about something. I send it to the man in first class who’s not feeling well. I focus on the stars, and I send love to the aliens flying millions of miles from me in outer space. My brain people like to think that one of these days, they’ll be coming for me.

  I concentrate back on the plane and gather more of my love. I send it to the pilot, who is tired and who misses his family. To the flight attendant and to the crying baby whose ears hurt. To the guy tapping away on his laptop computer.

  Am I asleep? Am I still outside? I can see blue. Blue like in the deep end of a swimming pool. Blue like if I lived in a bubble in the sky. I say to the approaching creature, “Thank you for coming to rescue me. I knew I didn’t belong here. Please take me to my real family.” Instead, it pulls out a long metal bar and sticks it into my belly button.

  I wake up to Ellis standing right above me, saying something. I jerk up and instinctively guard my abdomen. I nearly head-butt her in the process.

  “Jesus!” she says.


  “Out here long?”

  “I don’t know. What time is it?”

  “Eleven thirty.” I can smell wine on her breath.

  “She let you drink again?”

  “They didn’t card me.”

  “They don’t card people like you in fancy restaurants, Ellis.” I look at her. She’s wearing Mom’s prized jewelry—the diamond teardrop earrings and pendant. Stuff Mom saves for bigwig parties and award ceremonies in the city. Ellis is wearing a black velvet dress most people around here would wear to prom. But she looks sixteen. No doubt about that.

  “Wanna stay up and watch a movie or something? SNL is on in a minute,” she says.

  “I have to leave for work at five.”

  She lets out a judgmental chuckle through her nose.


  “You could have quit after summer.”

  “It gets me out of here, doesn’t it?”

  “Your loss.”

  I get up and hop off the table. “Well, we can’t all have Mommy and Me nights out at the club, you know.”

  She smacks my arm. “You have no idea what it’s like to get drunk with Mom and listen to her bitch the whole time,” she says.

  I want to ask her bitch about what? But I know what. There are always inside jokes during the week after a Mommy and Me episode. About Dad. About me. About girls on the hockey team. “You could always say no,” I say. “No one has a gun to your head.”

  “I couldn’t,” she says. “Then I’d be just like—uh.”

  “Just like me?” I say.

  “Yeah. I guess.”

  I feel bad for perfect Ellis. She thinks she has it all figured out inside her safe little bubble. She doesn’t realize yet that one day she’s going to fail at something, and our mother will be there to critique exactly how she failed, step-by-step.

  In the bathroom, I look at myself in the mirror for a long time. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I know I’m different. I brush my teeth. Wash my face. With my hair pulled back like this, I look again. And I can see it. Behind my eyes. Something is in there. Something Ellis doesn’t have. Something Mom and Dad don’t have.

  I close the door to my room and I turn off the light. I pretend I’m in an airplane. I pretend I’m drinking orange juice in seat 23A and I can feel a stream of love shooting right through the body of the plane from some lonely girl lying on a picnic table in a small town no one has ever heard of before. I send love back to her, but I’m not sure if she can get it.

  I think: If I’m on an airplane, then where am I going? I come up with answers. New York City. Los Angeles. Paris. Melbourne. Far enough away that this is okay. Far enough away that no one here will ever know.



  THE WALK-IN FREEZER DOOR sucks the frosty air out into the kitchen hall when it opens. Dee has her hair in braids today, with a bandanna on her head. She slept late. I can still see sleep lines on her beautiful brown face.

  “You hit snooze, didn’t you?” I ask after the door closes with a thud behind her.


  “How many times?”

  She holds up three fingers. I want to tell her that I never hit snooze.

  Dee’s main objective for the day seems to be making Juan laugh, which she achieves in less than two hours.

  “Hey, Juan! Knock knock!”

  He rolls his eyes. “Who’s there?”

  “The interrupting cow,” she says.

  He answers, “The inter—”


  He laughs genuinely, as if he never heard the interrupting cow joke before. Then I go back to deveining shrimp.

  It’s a short morning, and Dee and I are out by eleven. When we leave, we drive up to Freedom Lake and climb the hill path to our favorite spot.

  Before we can have any sort of conversation, which is what I’d really like to do, Dee leans over and kisses me. Then, as always, she goes too fast. I take her hand out of my shirt and place it on my hip. She says, “Jones?”


  “I think you’re scared of me.”

  “Who doesn’t know this?” I ask.


  I don’t know what to say. I want to tell her that she’s too pushy—like everyone else in my life. I want to tell her that I’m not ready for intimacy. I want to tell her to stop looking at me with those lovesick eyes. Instead, I do what any awkward geek who wants to avoid the topic of sex at all costs would do. I look at her and say, “So—uh—what do you know about Socrates?”

  “He was Greek, right?” she answers.


  She nods her head and puts her hand up my shirt and leans into my neck. “That’s what I know about Socrates,” she says.

  I want to remove her hand from my belly, but I know she’ll get mad again.

  “Did you ever hear of Zeno?” I ask.


  “He said motion was impossible.”

  She doesn’t say anything.

  “Like—moving. He said it was impossible to move because time stands still inside each little split second.”

  “That’s stupid,” she says. “Watch me now.” And then she slips her hand under my bra. “I’m moving.”

  “Too fast,” I say. “As usual.”

  She doesn’t stop, so I roll on my front. “Okay. Okay. I get it!” I say.

  She sighs and rolls onto her back. “So what’s the big deal about some philosopher who said motion was impossible? Phil
osophers said all sorts of crazy shit. Wasn’t that their job?”

  “Their job was to find truth.”

  “And did they?”

  I look at Dee and I think that Zeno was totally right, even though that’s not what he meant: For people, motion is sometimes impossible. For Dee. For my mom and Ellis. For nearly everyone.



  THE GIRLS WHO TALLY the Homecoming votes walked around with smirks on their faces all week. They got out of classes for half the day on Wednesday to count, and now it’s Friday morning and I bet they couldn’t sleep last night.

  Kristina isn’t even thinking about it. All she can talk about on the way to school is her double date tonight and how cute Donna is and how she thinks she might love her.

  “The real deal,” she says. “She gets me, you know?”

  “That’s awesome,” I say.

  I wish I could tell her about me. About Dee. I feel like every minute I spend with Kristina is a lie. I’ve been practicing a sentence in my head. Kristina, don’t kill me, but I’m gay. I think. I mean, I think I’m gay. I mean, I think I’m in love with a girl. I mean… The sentence isn’t quite worked out yet.

  Ever since European history last week and those damn pink triangles… it’s as if quitting trig opened up a channel of thinking I was pushing away. I freed myself of something I was faking, and now I want to free myself of all my faking.

  “You okay?” she asks.

  “Sure.” I’m not, though. I’m a little angry or sad or something. Impatient. I am sick of it not being Saturday. I want to fast-forward to tomorrow morning, please. While I’m at it, I want to fast-forward to next year. College. Leaving Unity Valley.

  “You don’t look it.”

  My eyes dart to the rearview, where I can see a pickup truck full of senior boys speeding toward me.

  “I always wonder if the people driving behind me are texting and are about to kill me. That’s all.”

  “They’ll outlaw it soon,” she says.

  “That never stopped anyone from driving drunk, did it?”

  I can tell Kristina is looking at me with that face. “What’s your damage?”

  I shrug. I pull over to the curb and let the truck pass me.

  “Come on. Don’t be pissed. It’s Homecoming Day! No matter how the day ends, I’ll be a princess or maybe even—could it be possible—your queen?” She forms her hands into a finger tiara and pretends to place it on her head and says, “What they don’t know will never hurt them, right?”

  My replacement for trig, fourth-period study hall, is pleasant. No one all that recognizable in here. Stacy and Karen Koch, twins, sit next to me and smile occasionally as if they know something I don’t. Probably Homecoming results. As if I care.

  I read a little bit of Plato’s Republic as well as the chapter in our textbook about the trial of Socrates.

  Can I admit I’m a little freaked out that Socrates only has one name? I know that’s how it was done in those days, but it bugs me. I can’t tell if it’s his last name or his first name or what. And it can’t be shortened—except to Sock, which is completely stupid. I want him to have a more familiar name—something laid back and modern, so I can relate to him better. So I stare at the picture in my book of the curly-bearded guy with the pug nose, and by the end of study hall, I name him Frank. Frank Socrates. Makes him more huggable.

  Makes his clothes easier to label for summer camp. F.S.

  After sixth-period lunch is over, the entire school population empties into the football stadium. The band plays soft numbers down in the band area.

  Without Kristina and Justin, I don’t have anyone to sit with. I know a few people from classes, but most of them play in the band. I’d rather sit by myself anyway. I pull out Plato’s Republic, but the minute I do, Jeff Garnet sits down next to me and stares, nervously, until I look up.

  I know he’s nervous because Jeff is always nervous. He’s a leg shaker—you know, the bouncy kind that rattles entire rooms and makes you want to toss up your lunch? I see his knee bouncy-bouncy-bouncing there until I close the book around my bookmark and look at him.

  “Do you know who won?” he asks.


  “Do you want to know?”

  “Not really,” I say. Jeff bounces his leg so much, I want to put my hand on it and make him stop. I want to tell him to relax.

  “I guess you’ll find out soon enough,” he says, acknowledging the band director giving the signal for the band to fade out.


  Jeff has been staring at me for two months. Every day in third-period AP lit, I feel it as sure as I feel him shaking the whole room with his leg, making the heating unit jangle.

  “Astrid?” he says.


  “You want to go out sometime? I mean, nothing big deal or anything, but you know—just you and me?”

  “I don’t know,” I say. “I mean, yeah, sure, maybe. I’m pretty busy at the moment, but I guess I’d like that.” I have no idea why I said that. I do not want to go out with Jeff. Not because of the leg thing, but because I’m—uh—taken already.

  “No pressure,” he says. “You can get back to me about it.”

  “Sure. I’ll get back to you,” I say.

  And hour later, all is right with the world—the football captain and cheer squad co-captain are crowned Homecoming king and queen. The cars drive the losers and winners out of the stadium while we applaud their collective greatness, and then we’re all sent back into school before final bell.

  Kristina calls me at seven because she already heard Jeff asked me out.

  They say: Why would she snub a nice boy like Jeff Garnet? It’s not like she has other options.

  They say: She’s just like her mother. Thinks she’s better than us.

  “Why didn’t you say yes?” she says. “You do want to get Claire off your case about dating, right?”

  “I didn’t not say yes. I said I’d get back to him. That I was—uh—busy for a while.”

  “Oh, sure. All that Plato and Aristotle.”

  “Seriously, Kristina. He’s not my type.”

  “You really should hook up with someone this year, Astrid. It’s depressing. Plus, I feel guilty. You spend so much time with me and Justin, I feel like it’s our fault.”

  “How’s it your fault?” I ask.

  “How can you date anyone if you’re so busy keeping our secrets?”

  She has a point. Except she’s missing the biggest piece of information in the equation. My secret is bigger than her secret, because nobody knows it yet.

  Not even me.

  At dinner, the subject comes up again. Me and Jeff Garnet—talk of the town.

  “I don’t know,” I say when Ellis asks me if I’m going to say yes.

  “I hear he’s a really sweet boy,” Mom says. “I hear he’s at the top of your class, too. Do you two share some classes?”

  “Just lit class. And lunch,” I say.

  Ellis says, “You know, if you don’t start dating again, people will think you’re still not over Huber. Or they’ll probably say you’re gay.”

  I smile at her and give her death-ray eyes. And anyway, I already had my gay rumor. Tenth grade, December. Right before Christmas vacation.

  I think if we kept a calendar of who gets called gay in high school, there would be a new person on every single day of the 180-day school year. Gay, dyke, fag, lesbo, homo, whatever. Every single one of us has heard it somewhere along the ride. It’s more common than the flu. More contagious, too. Nobody gossips about whether you have the flu or not.

  Then, as if on cue, Claire blurts out, “That reminds me. I was at the printer today, and Luanne said that there are only lesbians on the school hockey team, which I took to be an ignorant attempt to insult Ellis. What decade are these people living in? I mean, that might have been true back when I was in school, but in the twenty-first century, all kinds of girls play sports. Wh
y do these small-town people have to have such small minds?”

  Ellis looks at Mom as if she’s reading from the wrong script.

  “I knew plenty of girls who played sports when we went to school who weren’t lesbians, Claire,” Dad says. “My sister, for one. Hell, my mother played sports in the fifties. Last time I checked, she wasn’t a lesbian, either.”

  “Well, it’s no big deal to us, girls. Your father and I lived in New York for a long time. We knew plenty of gay people.” That’s Mom. Friend of the Gays. FOTG. Wait. Her FOTG badge is around here somewhere. Let me find it. “I just don’t understand why people here talk about it like it’s leprosy,” she says. “I hope you’re nice to them, Ellis.”

  Ellis gives her an insulted look. “Of course I am! Geez, Mom. Stop being so weird.”

  “Some people around here think you can catch it, you know.”

  All three of us look at her as if she has just landed from space.

  “Well, they do!” she insists. “I’ve heard them say you can catch gay off gays. Isn’t that ignorant?”

  We keep looking at her. She drinks more wine.

  I’m happy to see that Ellis is as annoyed as I am, but I’m working really hard not to get paranoid about why Ellis said anything about people thinking I’m gay in the first place.

  I look at her. “So you’d rather have me dating Tim Huber again than happily single?”

  “God!” she says. “No!” Then she chews and swallows. “Anyway, he doesn’t talk to you anymore, does he?”

  No. Tim Huber doesn’t talk to me anymore. Not since I completely fell for him and Ellis and Mom started bugging me to break up with him because he’s fat. Then, when I wouldn’t, somebody (most likely the somebody to my right, or to her right) started the rumor that broke us up.

  They said: She’s only dating him because he’s fat.

  They said: It’s a pity thing.

  “No,” I answer. “He doesn’t talk to me.”

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