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Everybody sees the ants, p.6
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.6

           A. S. King
 
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  I turned to Mr. Gunther, who offered without my having to ask. “August thirty-first.”

  “Lucky you,” I said. “Your number is two hundred seventy-five. Safe.”

  Mr. Potter looked impressed. Mom and Dad actually looked proud. This was just supposed to be a simple mix of skills for freshman social studies. Complete survey, make graphs, write paper, make speech. I could have easily counted the number of kids wearing blue one day, or the ratio of kids who ate French fries versus side salads at lunch. But I wanted mine to have an extra effect. I wanted to make people think.

  Not to say my first question didn’t make people think. It had. Totally.

  I knew this because completed questionnaires from my first social studies project had started to show up in my locker. Like—a bunch of them.

  Some were obvious jokes (two said they would masturbate themselves to death, one said he would opt for death by rabid livestock) and some weren’t. Some mentioned shooting themselves with a father’s gun or cutting to escape all the pain. Though our lockers at Freddy High weren’t personalized in any way from the outside, people somehow knew to stuff these papers into mine through the ventilation slots. I thought about tossing them, thinking this was Nader getting his friends to mock me, but instead I saved them in the back of my social studies folder.

  Then one day while I was roaming back to my classroom from a lav break, I saw someone standing next to my locker with a folded piece of paper in her hand. It was Charlotte Dent, a popular junior. (Popular in the infamous sense, not the cheerleader sense. If there was a bad rumor going around, there was a good chance it involved Charlotte.) The only true thing I knew about her was that she liked to push the boundaries of the Freddy High dress code by occasionally wearing too-short skirts, too-high heels and tank tops that were too tight. That day, she was wearing a pair of jeans and a Hooters softball T-shirt. I watched her insert the paper into my locker and walk away. I felt kind of honored that she even knew about me or my locker. Of course, I retrieved the questionnaire before I headed back to class.

  The question read: If you were going to commit suicide, what method would you choose? Written in curlicue handwriting in pink ink, the answer read: I’d shoot myself, but I’d shoot Nader McMillan first.

  LUCKY LINDERMAN CAN BENCH-PRESS FORTY-FIVE POUNDS

  I emerge from the guest bedroom with Catch-22 under my arm just as Uncle Dave gets home from work. “Leave the book and come with me,” he says.

  Uncle Dave has turned his side of the garage into a weight room. He has a big hanging canvas sheet that divides the garage in half because Aunt Jodi insists that her side of the garage is reserved for her car, which is what garages are for, and scoffs whenever she refers to Dave’s fitness regime.

  Dave shows me around his free weights. “You get that recently?” he asks, looking at Ohio.

  “Yesterday.”

  “Yesterday?”

  I nod.

  “Seriously?”

  I nod again. I can’t tell whether he knows that this is what my parents are fighting about or whether he’s just figuring out that it might have something to do with it.

  “Anyone particular do it, or just some random asshole?” he says, taking his place on the bench with a dumbbell in his right hand and curling it.

  “Big asshole. Been bugging me for years.”

  “Did you hit him back?”

  “Nah.”

  “Why not?”

  “He ambushed me.”

  “Bummer. Next time you should hit him back.”

  “You think?”

  He nods, counting his last ten curls internally.

  “I dunno. My dad always taught me that walking away is better,” I say.

  “Has it made the kid stop picking on you?”

  I shake my head. “Nope.”

  “Then I can’t see how it’s helping,” he says. “Can you?”

  “Not really.”

  I do a few curls and it feels good. Then he shows me how to do fly lifts for my triceps and deltoids. His dumbbells are way too heavy for fly lifts, so he retrieves a pink plastic pair.

  “Jodi’s,” he explains. “Not like she’ll ever use them.”

  He doesn’t seem to see how emasculating it is for me to use hot-pink dumbbells, but I get over it. I figure maybe after a few days of these, I can work my way up to his manly ones.

  After twelve reps twice, Dave invites me to lie on the bench, so I center myself and get ready. Free weights kind of scare me, since I’ve only ever lifted weights on the machine in the weight room in the Freddy High gym. He pulls a few weights off his bar so I can handle it. By the time he’s done, it resembles a little kid’s barbell, with only two smaller weights on each side. I think it’s forty-five pounds.

  We’re halfway through eight reps of benches when he asks, “Do you frown all the time or what?”

  “I guess,” I say.

  “Why?”

  “Why not?”

  “It’s a downer, for one thing. And how are you gonna attract girls by moping around all the time?”

  I laugh on an exhale. “Heh. Girls. Yeah, right.”

  “What? They don’t have girls in Pennsylvania?”

  “Not really.”

  “So, what? You don’t want a girlfriend?”

  “Nah.”

  “Why not?”

  “It’s complicated,” I say.

  “You watch. When you go back and they see that scar on your face? You’ll have to beat them off.”

  This is so funny I have to lock my arms and tell him to take the bar. “I can guarantee you the girls where I live will not want a piece of the boy who has Ohio permanently etched into his cheek.”

  “Ohio?”

  “Yeah,” I point. “Check it out. It’s the exact shape of Ohio.”

  He stares at it and marvels. “Wow. No kidding.”

  Two minutes later he’s helping me bench forty-five pounds three more times to “feel the burn,” when Aunt Jodi comes to the door. It squeaks as it opens.

  “Dinner in five.”

  “ ’Kay.”

  “Don’t come in all sweaty.”

  “ ’Kay.”

  The first time I see Aunt Jodi the next morning, she’s by the sink, downing a line of pills. I make a feeble wave in her direction and flop onto the couch with my book to wait for Mom to come in from her early-morning laps.

  “Vitamins,” Jodi says after washing the last one back and swallowing. “And for my back.”

  I nod and open my book.

  “Be thankful that you’re young. When you’re old like me, everything starts going downhill.”

  I know that Aunt Jodi isn’t even as old as Mom or Dad, but I just keep reading and hope she’ll stop talking to me.

  “Not just my body, either. My nerves are terrible. I never thought that would happen. Not after so many years of taking so much crap,” she says. “You know, you’re not the only kid who’s been bullied. Try being fat and pimply your whole life.”

  I can’t tell if she can see my face go red, but it does, and it makes my scab itch. I continue to pretend to read my book, which is impossible to do with the ants there, mocking Aunt Jodi. They say: Try being fat and pimply your whole life? How about she tries using that treadmill for once?

  She disappears for a while, and Mom comes in from her swim. After a shower she joins me on the couch. Jodi shows up soon after and flops onto the love seat.

  “How’s your book?” she asks.

  “Good so far. Weird.”

  “Why weird?” Mom asks.

  “Well, I’m only on the first chapter, but so far all I can understand is that there’s a bunch of soldiers in the hospital because they don’t want to fight, and then a guy from Texas comes in, and he’s so nice he makes all the other characters want to go back to fighting the war.”

  “Huh. Sounds funny.”

  “I guess so.” I move a pillow behind my head and close my book.

  “Sounds morbid,” Jodi says
.

  “Depends on how you look at it,” I say. “I call it history.”

  “I guess it is history,” she says. “And your family has had its share of that.”

  “That’s the truth,” Mom says.

  “It’s a shame,” Jodi says.

  “Why?” I ask.

  Jodi sticks out her lower lip as though she’s thinking really hard. “It’s a shame because of what it’s done to your family, for starters.”

  Mom picks up a random magazine from the coffee table and opens it to any page that isn’t about our family.

  “I like reading about it. It helps me understand everything a little better,” I say. What I don’t say: It makes me feel like someone in our family actually gives a shit about what happened to Granddad.

  “As long as it’s not making you depressed,” Jodi says.

  “He’s not depressed,” Mom says. She rolls her eyes at me.

  The phone rings and Jodi looks at the caller ID and says, “It’s Vic.”

  Mom says, “Tell him I’m not here,” and goes into the guest room and closes the door.

  Jodi lets the phone ring instead. “I don’t lie to people,” she says, giving me a look.

  Mom and I switch between napping and reading (and swimming, for her) all day until Dave comes home. We go to the garage.

  “Today is legs and back,” he says. “You sore from yesterday?”

  “Yep.”

  “Is it bad? I tried to keep it mellow.”

  “Nah. Not bad. Just a little stiff.”

  “How about Ohio?”

  I almost smile. Almost. I manage a smirk and say, “Itches like hell.”

  We lift for forty minutes, taking turns on the mat with ankle weights and doing squats with the bar. Jodi pokes her head through the door as we’re stretching out at the end.

  “Dinner in five.”

  “ ’Kay.”

  “Don’t come in all sweaty.”

  “ ’Kay.”

  After dinner (frozen chicken Kiev, microwaved baked potatoes and cold carrot sticks) Dave and I slouch on the couch and watch baseball. I can talk whenever I want, not just during commercials, or not at all.

  Aunt Jodi and Mom sit at the kitchen table, only feet behind us, and talk about stuff. Jodi mentions again that I could be “at risk” and that she knows a good local psychologist who might talk to me on short notice, and the ants jump up and down on the couch back screaming: He can hear you! He’s sitting right here!

  THE SIXTH THING YOU NEED TO KNOW—THE NINJA

  Aunt Jodi is vacuuming the living room for what seems like forever. Even after I emerge from the guest room and sit at the table, she vacuums. She keeps ramming it into the couch legs, which means she’s probably looking at me instead of what she’s supposed to be doing.

  Aunt Jodi has arranged the breakfast cereal boxes from large to small on the table. The ants are lined in front of them, in the same big-to-small order, arms crossed, looking tough. I look at them and they wave. Good morning, Lucky Linderman. How did you sleep? Still using those pink plastic weights?

  I wonder if the ants will ever go away. I remember wondering if my dreams would ever go away, too. Of course, they didn’t. Maybe the ants are the second step toward complete Linderman insanity.

  I pick out the Cheerios and pour them into the bowl at the only place setting left on the table. I fetch milk from the fridge, and on my way back I see Jodi just standing there watching me, with the vacuum on, but at a standstill, sucking the carpet right off the carpet.

  When I sit down, I notice the pill.

  The minute I notice it, I ignore it.

  The minute I ignore it, Jodi turns off the high-pitched whir of the vacuum.

  “How’d you sleep?” Jodi asks.

  I nod to acknowledge her question. “I expected more traffic,” I say, and cram some Cheerios into my mouth. Each bite makes my scab itch more. I chew in a way that makes me look crazy—moving my scabbed cheek in grandiose motions to scratch without scratching.

  “Yep. It’s quiet,” she says. “Safe, too. Dave and I sometimes take night walks and we never see any funny business.”

  Funny business. It’s like she wants to be old or something.

  “You should try it,” she says.

  I nod. “I’ll take one tonight—maybe Mom will come with me.”

  “I mean that,” she says, pointing to the pill.

  “I don’t take pills.”

  “Maybe it would help,” she says.

  I get up, take my cereal bowl to the sink and rinse it. “Maybe it wouldn’t.”

  As I move to put my bowl in the dishwasher, she stops me. “I’ll do that.”

  She opens the top rack, and I see that her dishes are also arranged in some sort of dishwasher feng shui.

  Swimming is the only way to cope with being outside during the day here, even though chlorine is only going to dry out my scab. Staying inside for Jodi’s morning TV routine is out of the question.

  The pool is short, and I can only get in about five strokes of freestyle before I have to turn. Towels are unnecessary because the sun bakes you dry in about fifteen seconds… and then you have to jump into the pool again so you don’t fry on the spot. How do people live like this?

  The pill is still at my plate during lunch, but this time Mom sees it first.

  “That’s Jodi’s seat, Luck,” she says, and motions for me to move over.

  “No. He’s right,” Jodi says as she walks from the kitchen, balancing an array of oven-warmed, odd-smelling food. She puts the greasy chicken nuggets in front of me proudly and adds, “What do you dip with?”

  I don’t eat chicken nuggets, but I know I can’t be rude. “I’ll take honey, please.”

  My mother is staring at the pill.

  “Honey? Ugh! All that sugar is bad for you!”

  I nod because I do not have the energy to educate Aunt Jodi on how if she’s feeding me chicken freaking nuggets, most likely made out of the disgusting sphincter parts of hormone-injected, badly treated factory chickens, then a few tablespoons of honey are the least of our worries.

  “What’s that?” Mom finally asks.

  I say, “A pill.”

  She gives me the look. The look says: I know it’s a pill, Lucky. I wasn’t asking you.

  Jodi throws of couple of sheets of fake-looking “roast beef” on a piece of bread with some kind of white cheese product on top and warms it in the microwave. She tops it with ready-made gravy straight from a jar. Just watching turns my guts.

  “Jodi?” Mom says, and Aunt Jodi looks up. “What’s that?” She’s pointing at the pill.

  “That?”

  Mom leans over, picks up the pill and holds it up between her index finger and thumb. “This.”

  “Just something to make him feel better.”

  “I feel fine,” I say.

  Mom is staring at Jodi, and Jodi is staring hard at the open-faced sandwich as she saws through it, puts half on a plate for Mom and sits down. She picks up her half, slops it through the blob of congealing gravy and shoves it into her mouth and takes a bite. While she’s chewing, she finally looks up and acknowledges Mom.

  “He’s fifteen,” Mom says, stone-faced. “Keep your pills away from him.”

  “I was only trying to help.” While Jodi’s talking, a bit of food escapes her mouth and lands on my plate, next to the lukewarm, nasty chicken nuggets that I am not eating. “It’s just Prozac.”

  “He doesn’t need Prozac.”

  Jodi puts her hand out toward Mom. “Give it here.” And when Mom does, Jodi pops it into her mouth and swallows it.

  Mom leaves her lunch on the table and goes back to her laps.

  A few minutes after she’s gone, Jodi says, “Does she always swim this much?”

  “Yeah. It’s her thing.”

  “Huh. You’d think she’d get sick of it.”

  “Not yet,” I say.

  “Weird,” she says, gobbling the last of her sandwich and washi
ng it down with a Diet Coke.

  “Not for our family,” I say. This makes Jodi laugh, and when she gets up to clear the rest of the table, she musses my hair a little with her free hand.

  At midafternoon I take a break from my book and go to the guest room to use the bathroom, and I find Mom on her bed, gorging on a bag of granola, and I’m starving, so I eat some, too.

  Between crunchy mouthfuls, Mom says, “I don’t think you need pills. I mean—I’m worried about you, but not that much.”

  “I know.”

  “It wasn’t her place to do that to you,” she says. “She just doesn’t think.”

  “Don’t worry. I wouldn’t have taken it.”

  “Good. But I want you to know I didn’t tell her to do that.”

  “Well, yeah.”

  “I mean—I’m worried about you, but not that worried.”

  “You just said that,” I say. The ants say: Hey! Don’t be a smart-ass.

  “I want you to get it. Do you get it?” she asks.

  “Yeah.”

  “Good.”

  Then she looks at me, her eyebrows raised. “You’re sure? I shouldn’t be worried worried, right?”

  “Right. Nothing to worry about. I’m fine.”

  Now. I’m fine now.

  When Dave gets home, I lift weights with him. We do different muscle groups again so I don’t hurt myself. When I sweat, it stings Ohio, but I don’t care.

  “You’re digging this, aren’t you?” Dave asks.

  “I am.”

  “Only three days and you’re already feeling great, am I right?”

  “Yep.”

  It feels really good to release the built-up bad energy from the last eight years of my life. And it feels really good to spend time with a cool guy. He’s not scared of what I might say. He’s not afraid to give me advice. Already I feel something good coming from this. I find myself wondering what it would be like if I could trade Dad for Dave.

  The ants say: Be careful what you wish for.

  About ten minutes before we’re done lifting, Dave goes over to the tool bench by the door and clicks off the radio. Then the door squeaks open, and Aunt Jodi pokes her head in.

  “Five minutes.”

 
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