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Ask the passengers, p.7
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       Ask the Passengers, p.7

           A. S. King
 
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  “Do we really need to string him along like this?” I ask. “I mean, I don’t mind being the bad guy and telling him to go away.”

  She’s touching up her eyeliner. “Claire will want to know why.”

  I sigh and think about it.

  “Anyway,” Kristina adds, “if you keep being cold, he’ll get the picture. He wants in your pants in a big way. Maybe you can tell him that you’re gonna wait until you’re married. That’ll probably scare him off.”

  “Oh, God. Imagine if Claire heard that,” I say. I look at myself in the mirror and adjust my hair to its perfect position across my forehead.

  “Are you sure you don’t have anything to tell me? Because I hear things, you know?”

  “What would I have to tell you?” I ask. “And who’s telling you things about me?” But I know I’m really bad at lying, which is why I’ve never really lied before.

  She shrugs and gives me a half-disappointed look and pushes the bathroom door open.

  I look into my eyes again in the mirror. I can see her there—the me who’s waiting to come out. The me who doesn’t have to send her love away. The me who loves Dee Roberts and isn’t afraid to say so. I stuff her back inside my Unity Valley suit and go back to the table.

  As I walk between the tables, I notice a toga at the counter, sitting on a stool. I should have never named him Frank. He was fine for 2,400 years as just Socrates without me conjuring him up to help me out of dumb messes like fake double dates with Jeff the leg jiggler.

  When I get back to the table, Justin has a look on his face that’s a mix of pain and laughter or maybe fear. Kristina leans over him and jiggles her boobs in front of his face and then plants a huge kiss on his lips. Then she whispers something to him, and he looks at me in that way—like he’s disappointed, too.

  I sheepishly slide in next to Jeff, who immediately puts his hand on my knee.

  “I was asking my man Justin where you guys are going tonight,” Jeff says, mouth half full of roast beef and mashed potatoes.

  “And I told him we go different places,” Justin says. He kicks Kristina so hard, the table wobbles.

  Kristina says, “Private party for a friend of mine who goes to Mount Pitts.”

  “And I can’t come?”

  Justin lets out a disappointed chuckle. “Not just you, bro. No guys allowed, apparently. I’m out, too.”

  “All you hot girls in one place?” Jeff says. “I wish I could crash that party.”

  Kristina and I look at each other. I have no idea what to say.

  “You’re just going to have to be a gentleman and wait your turn, dude. Plus, it’s a sober party… and in an hour, I’m hooking you up, right? So, that’s, like, two strikes against you.”

  “Yeah,” Jeff says. “I guess.” I can sense his skepticism. It’s a seed. But it’s there. I want to distract him before he waters it or lets in any sunlight, so I kiss him on the cheek.

  Outside, a half hour later, he has me pinned up against his car and is trying to get his tongue in my mouth, and I choose to nuzzle into his neck instead. I accidentally find the spot where he must have slopped on his nasty cologne, and my eyes water instantly. I have to keep myself from gagging.

  Kristina yells for me to hurry and I kiss him on the ear, say good-bye and squeeze out from under him right before he squishes me that tiny bit too hard. Which is creepy and makes me promise myself never to fake-date him again.

  17

  WE HEAR THINGS.

  “DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING you want to tell us?” Kristina asks from the front seat as we drive to Atlantis the long way because we have some time to kill.

  “No.”

  “We hear things,” Justin says.

  “Will you guys stop saying that? If we all believed what we hear, then you two would be screwing each other in the backseat right now. And there’d be barking. But that’s not true, is it?”

  “You seem so distracted lately,” Kristina says. “We just want to help.”

  I sigh. I’m sick of lying, so I pick something true to say. “I hate that I’m lying to Jeff like this. It feels wrong. I think Claire would be fine with you guys covering for me. You could tell her that you’re trying to find me a soul mate at the movies or something. It would totally work.”

  “We could do that,” Justin says. “But that’s not what we’re asking.”

  “Yeah. I’d be happy to do that. I mean, that’s what friends do, right? And we’re best friends,” Kristina says.

  “Which is why you should tell her,” Justin says.

  “Because something is up, and we know it,” Kristina says.

  Oh, God. I feel like this is the worst time ever to tell her anything. She’s been mad all week about it, and she doesn’t even know what it is yet.

  She turns around in the passenger seat, and she looks at me. I look at her. She isn’t smiling. “Dude. What the hell? You know everything about me! You’re my best friend,” she says. “Aren’t you?”

  I’m speechless, which makes me look more like something is up.

  “Seriously. What the hell is up?”

  “I—I can’t tell you.”

  She gets concerned. “Are you okay? Did something bad happen?”

  “God no. I’m just—oh, God. I don’t know. I’m—kinda seeing someone. So this whole Jeff thing isn’t going to work out.”

  She tilts her head. The look on her face is a mix of girlish excitement and some sort of pain. “Who is it? That guy from your humanities class? What’s his name? Kyle? Ken?”

  “Holy shit, no. Clay? Blerg. No. Not a guy. I mean—”

  “Not a guy?” she says. “Not a guy.” She stops and looks more pained than excited. “Not a guy?”

  “I don’t know,” I say. It’s only hitting me now how hurt she’s going to be about my keeping this a secret.

  “Dude—you don’t know who you’re going out with?” She hits me nicely on my arm. “Oh, my God, Astrid! Just tell us!”

  “I don’t know. I’m still not even sure, I don’t think. I mean, how do I know?”

  “It’s not a guy?”

  I shake my head.

  Justin hoots. “Dude! You’re one of us!”

  I keep shaking my head, and I add a shrug, but I’d be lying if I told you that his excitement and invitation into one of them isn’t making me cringe. Because I’m not in this to be a member of some club. I’m not going through this so I can lock myself in the one of them box.

  “So, you’re questioning?” she says.

  “I guess.”

  “If she has a girlfriend, she’s not questioning,” Justin says.

  “Shut up,” Kristina says. Then she turns back to me. “That’s completely normal. Especially with me and Justin around. Seriously. Totally normal.”

  That’s not what they’d say.

  They’d say: I think she likes girls.

  They’d say: I bet one night with me would make her change her mind.

  “So who is it?” I am so not ready to tell her this and I am so afraid she will be pissed if I don’t. But I can’t. She sees my pain and says, “No rush. These things take time.”

  Kristina is three beers into her night, and she says, “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me, dude.”

  I feel guilty and make a face to show it.

  “Were you scared?” Justin asks.

  Chad says, “I remember being scared.” This makes me smile at him.

  I pretend I want to dance to escape the conversation, but Kristina comes with me. Donna joins her and the two of them get all touchy-feely with each other and it makes me uncomfortable, so I dance my way over to the corner and then stand off to the edge and try not to watch them.

  When Kristina sees I’ve escaped, she dances toward me, Donna right behind her.

  “Why don’t you call your girlfriend?” Kristina yells. The music is really loud.

  “Nah,” I say.

  “Why not?”

  “Just because,” I say. God. Life was a lo
t simpler a few hours ago when she thought I was just an asexual sea sponge.

  “It’s me, isn’t it?” Kristina says in her nervous three-beers-in babbling. For all her pushy, ponytailed U. Valley girl confidence, she sure does have weak spots. “Why you won’t call her?” she says, pointing to her chest.

  “You’re drunk.”

  “No. Think about it, Astrid.”

  She’s right. It’s her. How can I be myself around Dee and Kristina in the same room? I’m not ready for that yet. I only just told Kristina tonight.

  I say, “What happened to ‘these things take time’?”

  She stops at that and nods. “Yeah, but you should tell me who it is.”

  “I’ll tell you later. It’s not the right time or place.”

  “Is she from school? Do I know her?”

  I give her an annoyed look.

  “Come on. Just a hint,” she says. I look at her again and roll my eyes. “Okay, I’ll just guess then. Is it Briana? Lisa? That chick who homeschools but plays in the band—what’s her name? Kelly something?”

  I cock my head and look even more annoyed than I looked a minute ago.

  “It’s a hockey player, isn’t it? That’s why you went to a few of Ellis’s hockey games this year,” she says. I stay poker-faced. “Is it Kira? Kelly? Michelle?” Multiple choice. Hmm. Maybe it’s not the worst way for this to come out. Not something Frank S. would be proud of me for, but it could work. “Am I getting warmer? Colder?” she asks.

  “No,” is all I say. “All you’re getting is annoying.”

  “Colder. I can read your mind. If it’s not one of our hockey players, then maybe…”

  My face twitches. Darn it.

  “Another school. Yes. How about—Dee Roberts?”

  Shit. I try to give her a shut-the-hell-up look.

  “Oh, my God! It’s Dee Roberts, isn’t it?”

  I say nothing and try to keep looking annoyed.

  “It is! Hah! No way!”

  “Stop. Let me just tell you when I’m ready.”

  “You don’t need to tell me. I already know. I totally should have figured that out. You’ve been working together for months. I’m slipping.”

  I sigh.

  “Oh, come on. It’s not a big deal that I know. Dee’s been out for years anyway. It’s not like you just outed her or anything.”

  “I didn’t tell you it was Dee Roberts.”

  “Yes, but you didn’t not tell me it was her, either,” she says. “You should call her and tell her to get her ass out here,” she says.

  “Why? So you can gloat about how you guessed?”

  “I don’t gloat.”

  “Anyway, you’d have never known if I didn’t tell you in the first place. You’d think I was still an androgynous bookworm.”

  “Hold on. You’re not an androgynous bookworm?” she asks, and pulls out her phone. “Shit. I need to update my files.”

  The drive to the Superfine parking lot is fun. We blast a few songs they play at Atlantis, and we sing along out of tune. I watch the scenery go by—the occasional farmhouse and the cornfields. Then the Legion diner, where I remember Jeff pressing me into his car too forcefully.

  When Donna and Chad exit the car, Justin says, “I’m so happy for you, Astrid. I wish I would have known before so I could have helped you.”

  “Me too,” Kristina says. Not completely convincingly. Almost like she might be a little mad or something.

  “I guess I had to find my own time. I dunno. I’m still not really sure, you know?”

  “That’ll change,” Kristina says. Which is warmer than the last thing she said.

  I don’t say anything else the whole way up Main Street, and when Justin stops in front of my house to let me out, I say good-bye and close the car door quietly. I walk in the front door, lock up, turn off the lights and then walk out the back door and lie on my table. I don’t have any thoughts, because I’m not sure what thoughts to have. I know I just changed things, but I’m not sure if the change is for better or worse. So, I just send my love up. Away from here because love shouldn’t hang around confusion like this. It deserves a full commitment.

  Then I wish it were as easy to send myself away from here as it is to send my love. I think I deserve a full commitment, too. From my family. From my friends. From my girlfriend. From myself. And for some reason, I think starting over somewhere else would be the best way to do it.

  So I send my love, and I ask the passengers: Where are you going? Can I come with you? Maybe where you’re going, I could finally feel at home.

  PASSENGER #338790

  BILL DERRINGER, SEAT 12F

  FLIGHT #795

  LOS ANGELES TO PHILADELPHIA

  BUSINESS CLASS UPGRADE

  Going home again isn’t something I thought I’d ever do. Not for their weddings or their babies or their graduations. Not even for their funerals. The idea was: Get out and never go back.

  But the idea changed when I heard Nuna got cancer.

  Cancer. My little sister. I hadn’t even met her husband yet, and they’re married seventeen years. Three kids. A little house by the river, right down the road from where we grew up. Right down the road from all those assholes who gossiped me out of town.

  I Googled them. Most of them still live there. Until cancer, I cared about this.

  Until cancer, you care about a lot of bullshit that doesn’t really matter.

  When I left, I called them cancer. I said their gossip was like cancer. I realized too late that gossip can’t kill you unless you let it. But cancer? Cancer doesn’t give a shit how much you want to live. If it wants to kill you, it will.

  Cancer killed my father. I didn’t come back for his funeral because I’d made my mind up to never go home again… and because he never understood my need to move away, and took it as a personal affront. Then I missed my mother’s funeral because I was on business in Japan, and I didn’t think she would want me there after the letter she sent after Dad’s funeral. She said I’d broken her heart. She said my alienating the family would one day seem foolish to me, as it did to her. She said: One day it will hit you.

  Last week. Last week it hit me. Cancer. Nuna. My final good-bye.

  Now she’s gone. And I’ve packed my black suit, and Anne will meet me for the funeral in two days so I have someone to hold my hand.

  I stare from seat 12F into the dark sky, and I see the moon. It’s not quite full, but it’s big. And then Nuna appears outside my window. She’s healthy. She has her hair. She has that smile. We stare at each other for a long time. She sends me this feeling—like she’s telling me she loves me. Like she’s telling me it’s okay that I left. Then she takes off and flies around the moon, and I get that feeling like I’ve just gone over one of those hills in a car, at just the right speed.

  I laugh at her and feel like I did when we were kids and she’d show off doing handsprings in the backyard. I keep my eye on her and she keeps flying around the moon and I keep laughing.

  This is how I want to remember her. Nuna flying around the moon, smiling.

  18

  THE BIG BANG.

  I CAN’T KEEP THIS SECRET from Dee, too. That’s the thing that hits me as I drive to work.

  So when Dee asks me a few times, “Why are you so tired on Sundays?” I tell her that I’ll tell her later, which isn’t lying, so that’s good.

  When we walk into the parking lot after work, I say, “What are you doing for the next hour?”

  She shrugs and shakes her head.

  I tell her to drive to Freedom Lake and that I’ll meet her there in ten minutes.

  I call Kristina on my way to the lake to make sure this will be okay with her. “First, I’m sorry again about not telling you sooner. Second, I want to tell Dee everything so she can come with us next weekend. Is that okay with you guys?”

  She pauses. I know she’s having the same conversation with herself that I’ve had with myself about how even one person might tell, and that wou
ld be just enough to ruin everything.

  “It’s fine,” she says finally, but I hear something in her voice that sounds like it might not actually be fine.

  “And asking her to come with us to Atlantis next Saturday. That’s cool, right?”

  “Oh, shit. Yeah. Next Saturday. Look—before we go out, I promised Jeff another date.”

  “Ughhhh. I told you I wouldn’t do this anymore.”

  “I know. But Justin and I will be there, and Jeff will cover for you again, and that’s good, right?”

  “You promised.”

  “I know, but the kid is lovesick, dude. Just once more? It’s the perfect cover. And Claire is buying it and everything.”

  “Ughhhh. Okay. Good-bye!”

  “Make Dee come with us next week!” she says before I hang up.

  It’s official.

  I am about to make two worlds collide.

  Dee is on the phone when I park and walk up to her driver’s side window with the picnic blanket draped over my arm. She gives me the wait finger, and I lean up against the back of the car until she’s done. She looks angry when she hangs up.

  “Whoa. Who was that?” I ask.

  “Jessie,” she says. Ellis’s teammate and running partner, and Dee’s old friend from hockey camp.

  “What’d she say that made you look like that?”

  “I’ll give you a hint,” she says. “Starts with a J and ends with eff?” I realize that Jessie heard that Jeff and I double-dated last night. “Now I understand why you’re so tired on Sunday mornings. Shit!”

  “Ughhhhh. This Jeff guy. Jesus!” I say.

  She perks up a little at seeing my genuine annoyance at the mere mention of his name.

  “Look. I have a shitload of stuff to tell you,” I say. “When we’re done, you’ll understand all of it. Even this stupid date.” I bring my fingers up to air-quote the word date, and the blanket slides down into the crack of my elbow. I start up the trail to the clearing, and she follows me. We’re both still in kitchen garb. I’m pretty sure I smell like shrimp veins.

 
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