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Please ignore vera dietz, p.8
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       Please Ignore Vera Dietz, p.8

           A. S. King
 
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  “A little rich bitch like you? Don’t have a dollar?”

  “I’m not rich.”

  “Sure you are.”

  The bus driver put on the yellow flashers. Tim’s stop was fifty feet away.

  “You need to know this. I’m telling you,” he said, his hand out.

  I pulled my earphones out of my pocket and stuck them back in my ears.

  “He can’t be your boyfriend if he’s a fag, can he?”

  I pressed PLAY while he strutted off the bus, hitting a few younger kids on the back of the head. I comforted myself with the idea that any high school senior who still takes the bus home is a pathetic loser.

  That day was the first time Charlie couldn’t come out and play—like, the first time ever. Ever. I went to his front door, rang the doorbell, and waited on the bench on the porch until his mother came out.

  “Sorry, Vera. He can’t come out. He’s got diarrhea.”

  “He’s sick?”

  “It’s nothing serious, dear,” she said, her voice quavering a bit. “He’ll probably be in school by Wednesday.”

  But he wasn’t. He wasn’t in school Wednesday or Thursday. When he didn’t come on Friday, and I’d finally moved to the front seat of the bus so Tim Miller couldn’t get anywhere near me on the way home, I decided I’d call.

  Mrs. Kahn answered, and after much coaxing, she let me talk to him.

  “Veer?”

  “Wow, Charlie. You must be really sick.”

  “Veer—you have to score me some smokes, man. I’m dying here.”

  “I’m fourteen. I can’t buy cigarettes.”

  “Walk to the APlus. Tell Kevin they’re for me.”

  The APlus was two miles away. I was not allowed to walk that far. Plus, walking alone on Overlook Road gave me the willies.

  “I can’t. I’m sorry.”

  After a small chunk of silence, he sighed. “I know you would if you could. I’m just dying for a cigarette. It’s been like four days.”

  “Are you really sick?”

  “Nah.”

  “So what’s going on?”

  “My mom’s just being a worrywart.”

  Suddenly I realized what might be going on. I felt so stupid for not realizing it sooner. My heart broke.

  “Can you—uh—can you come to the tree house this weekend?” I asked.

  “I don’t know. We’ll see what she says.”

  “Get better soon, okay?”

  After I hung up, I went to Dad’s office and sat in the orange retro chair until he was off his business phone call. I couldn’t say anything at first, because the thought of Charlie getting beat up by his dad just made me want to cry.

  “Vera? You okay?”

  I looked at him and made that face that says “Not really.”

  “What’s up?”

  “You know how we’ve always ignored what goes on next door?”

  He stared at me over his reading glasses.

  “Would we still ignore it if Charlie started to get hurt, too?” A wave of tears came then, and sobs. Dad didn’t know what to do, so he handed me a tissue box and organized the paperwork on his desk.

  “You have to be sure of these things, Vera. You can’t just accuse people without proof.”

  “He was out of school all week,” I said.

  “A lot of kids get the flu this time of year, because the weather warms up.”

  “He doesn’t have the flu.”

  “It’s just not as easy as reporting it. There’s just so little we can do. The guy’s a jerk, and if we get involved, it’ll only make him worse.”

  Maybe the adults around me were too cynical and old to do anything to help innocent people like Mrs. Kahn or Charlie, or the black kids who were called nigger at school, or the girls Tim Miller groped on the bus. Maybe they were numb enough to blame the system for things they were too lazy to change. Not me. As I sat there watching Dad tidy his paperwork, empty his pencil sharpener, and blow the dust off his glass paperweights, I vowed never to become a heartless, blind-eye hypocrite like him.

  HISTORY—AGE FOURTEEN

  At the bus stop on Monday, Charlie opened a brand-new pack of Reds and smoked two, lighting the second off the first. He hadn’t come to the tree house on Saturday and I’d had to work on Sunday, cleaning up dishes after the church crowd at Mika’s, so it had been a whole week since I’d seen him.

  I looked for bruises. Anything out of the ordinary. But he was always disheveled and messy. I saw a small cut next to his lip, but it looked like a razor cut. I noted that his cheek and lip fuzz was missing and his eyebrows were now separated by a stark white space of skin rather than the unruly mess of hairs that had been there before.

  “What’re you looking at?”

  “Nothing,” I said.

  He paced.

  “I’m just glad you’re back.”

  He took a long drag of his cigarette. “Why?”

  “Tim Miller was bugging me last week on the bus home.” This was the fastest thing I could think of that didn’t reek of bullshit.

  “The senior?”

  “Yeah. He’s a creep.”

  “Huh,” he said, and inhaled the last of his cigarette deeply.

  The bus came and we went down the hill to Tim Miller’s house, where the Confederate flag flew on a pole in the backyard, but he didn’t get on.

  About a minute before the bus pulled up in front of the school, I decided to ask Charlie straight out about his health. If I wasn’t going to be a hypocrite, I would have to learn to ask hard questions, I figured, and this was as good a time as any. “So hey, how’d the—uh—doctor’s appointment work out?”

  “I have to take pills now.”

  “Last thing I knew, your mom thought you shit too much,” I said. “Did that turn out okay?”

  Charlie got visibly agitated. His muscles twitched under his skin. “Yeah, well, it’s none of her goddamned business. I know what I’m doing. It’s not illegal.”

  “What’s not?”

  He turned to me and crouched into the green vinyl seat.

  “Charlie? Is everything okay?”

  “Can you keep a secret?”

  “Of course.” I rolled my eyes.

  “Are you sure?”

  “We’ve only been best friends since we could walk.”

  “I know a way you can make thirty bucks a week.”

  I squinted at him. “How?”

  The bus pulled up to the curb outside school and Charlie told me how. He told me he was selling his used underwear to some rich guy who lived down in Mount Pitts. “I get five bucks for each pair. Double if I toss in my socks.”

  Before I could scrape my jaw off my lap, he was walking down the center aisle of the bus, laughing his ass off.

  A BRIEF WORD FROM THE PAGODA

  I know that guy. He drives up here all the time in his dirty white New Yorker and peeks into the steamed-up make-out cars. It wasn’t always this way, you know—a sleazy spot to get laid. Back when things were still civilized, the rich folks from town used to come up and stay their weekends in grand hotels, and ride on the gravity railroad. Ladies in long skirts, with parasols, and strong men in striped three-piece suits with gold pocket watches. When I was built, I was supposed to be a top-of-the-line resort, but the owners never secured a liquor license, so I became an instant disappointment. A shame. I would never be a temple, or a resort, or a hotel. I didn’t have a ballroom or billiards or a back room to gamble money away. I had no other use but to sit here and look pretty. I was almost demolished during World War II on account of my seeming Japanese. I was a restaurant for a while, but went bankrupt. I nearly burned down in 1969. But they keep saving me because they know I stand for something. They’re just not sure what yet.

  NEW YEAR’S DAY—AFTER WORK

  “You want anything?”

  We’re outside Fred’s Bar and James is asking me this. I can feel myself split in two. Part of me, the part who knows what’s good for me, wants to ask
him for a ginger ale. The other part of me, the one who’s been thinking of another drink since I woke up this morning, answers.

  “Some of those vodka coolers. The black ones.”

  James raises his eyebrows and disappears past the green door with the three diamond-shaped windows. As I sit waiting, the creepy vibes from Fred’s pinball room ooze out and surround me. I realize this is the first time I’ve been in a boy’s—uh—man’s car and been out of control of a situation. I guess, technically, this is the first time I’ve been on a real date, too. If that’s what this is.

  I wonder what might happen to me and give myself a good dose of the date rape heebie-jeebies before I stop and remember that James is a nice guy. I’ve known him from the very first day I started at Pagoda Pizza last summer.

  I was still seventeen and wasn’t allowed to do delivery yet, so I answered phones, mostly, and made pizzas. James worked the day shift full-time. In at ten, out at four, seven days a week, so on weekdays I’d only see him when he was leaving. Even then, he treated me like an equal and not some kid.

  Now, here I am, in his car, and we’re going to make out at the pagoda. (But I’m equally excited by the vodka.)

  He bursts out the door with a brown paper bag and a grin. He puts the booze in the trunk and hops into the driver’s seat. As we pass the lake and twist around the S curves that lead up the mountain, I push thoughts of Charlie out of my mind. Of course, this is impossible. Every square inch of this road, of that lake, of these woods, is Charlie. I ask James to go the long way to avoid Overlook Road. It takes us past the old tower and the view of the city.

  “Did you ever see what the lights spell?” James asks.

  “I grew up here, remember?”

  “Oh, yeah.”

  If you stop at the tower lookout spot at night, the lights of the city unintentionally spell ZERO.

  But as we pass by tonight, we see a cop car parked behind the little electric company shed, so instead of stopping to read the lights, James drives on and we act like innocent kids on their way to make out—which is easy, because we are.

  An hour later—around one o’clock—James and I are making out after a few drinks and I’m in Vera Heaven. I’m starting to think I love James. Already. I know this makes me stupid, but I don’t care. Every song he puts on is perfect. Everything he says is clever. Every place he touches me feels awesome. Not creepy. Not pushy. He does not try to touch any warning spots, and, as if we are all born rebels, because he is not touching them, I want him to. This makes no sense to me, because I have never gone this far with a guy before, so I really don’t know why my brain is telling me to want him to go further. But it is.

  After my third vodka cooler, I straddle his lap and drape my arms around his strong neck and whisper things in his ear that I shouldn’t be whispering. I say things I shouldn’t be saying. He puts his seat back and we make out some more. The windows are steamed, Led Zeppelin is in the stereo, and when I lift my head up to fling my hair away from my face, I open one eye and gasp.

  They are in the car—all thousand of them, stacked like paper. They are curved into the backseat, pressed up against the back window. Pressed against my back, my sides—staring at me. Today they’re wearing Charlie’s favorite blue-and-white-checked flannel shirt—the one with the tattered cuffs. His red bandanna—the one he wouldn’t take off during our last summer together. They have his combat hiking shorts on.

  James doesn’t know what’s happening and holds me at my waist, his eyes still closed. I struggle to breathe and can’t inhale at all, so I reach for the door handle.

  He opens his eyes when he feels me panicking. “Veer? You okay?”

  They are squeezing him from every angle, but he can’t see them. They are not sucking the air out of his lungs.

  I open the door and stumble out onto the gravel. In front of me is the red neon pagoda—a reminder of what happens when we act and don’t think. I breathe deeply and James arrives behind me, and wraps his arms around my shoulders.

  “Veer?”

  “I’m okay,” I say. I look back at the car. A thousand Charlies are drawing something in the steam on the window. They are drawing pictures. They are spelling something.

  A childish stick figure of a dead dog, legs up. A dead fish, floating. A dead rodent with a pointed nose and a long tail.

  The letters T-E-L-L.

  The dead rodent reminds me that it’s a school night and I should be home by now, sleeping in my vanilla rotten-corpse room.

  “Do you see that?” I ask, pointing at the pictures in the car window.

  James can’t see them. He’s looking at me, concerned. Great. Now I look like some immature drama queen. A few drinks and I’m seeing shit. He’s probably writing a mental restraining order right now.

  “You want to call it a night?” he asks.

  “Sure. I have a Vocab test in the morning and I didn’t learn any of the words over break,” I say. He helps me back into the car, now void of tissue-paper Charlies, and drives us back toward the store. When we pass by my house, I see the downstairs lights are still on and I realize I might be in trouble. Then, just after we pass by, the cop behind us puts on his lights and things get about twenty million times worse.

  A BRIEF WORD FROM THE DEAD KID

  I was an idiot. I was an idiot about Vera and about Jenny Flick. I don’t know what I was doing. I don’t know who I was trying to impress. I’ve asked myself for months now, and I can only tell you what I wasn’t doing.

  I wasn’t trying to hurt Vera.

  I wasn’t trying to impress the Detentionheads. I didn’t really even like them.

  And let me set the record straight—I did not kill those animals. That was Jenny.

  But I did send the cops.

  You’re surprised? You had a different idea of the afterlife? This goes against your religion? Well, what did you really know anyway? No one living understands dying, and no matter what they dream up—from harps and heaven to pickles in Big Macs—they can’t prove a thing until they’re on this side. Which, if you can, you want to avoid until it’s really your time to go. You might want to leave some time to fall in love and have a family. Stay healthy so you can meet your grandchildren one day. I can guarantee you this: you do not want to die by asphyxiating on your own puke and get kicked out of a car onto your front lawn.

  I spend most of my time watching my parents. You’d think I’d get as far away from them as I could now that I’m free, but seems I’m here to learn something. Not sure what. I never liked either of them. He’s just a bully, and she’s a doormat.

  I spend the rest of my time trying to communicate with Vera. I want her to know I’m sorry. I want her to find the box and clear my name. I want her to fall in love and have a nice life. In a way, I feel like I was the one standing in her way, so I’m glad I’m dead. I would have never made a good enough man for her. But she deserves better than a college dropout pizza delivery guy, too.

  So I sent the cops.

  No, I’m not omnipotent. Of course not. But I can make things appear to those who want to see them, and small-town cops are always looking for trouble, aren’t they?

  NEW YEAR’S DAY (NIGHT)

  “Step out of the car, please.”

  Oh shit. I can see the porch light go on at my house and the living room curtain move at the Kahns’ house. Can’t they turn off the flashing lights now that they’ve stopped us?

  James and I get out of the car. James hands them his paperwork when he gets out. I just stand there and try to disappear while chewing spearmint gum violently to get rid of my vodka breath.

  “I’ll need to see your license, too,” the fat cop says to me. I reach into the car for my purse and see the bottle caps on the floor of James’s car. Oh man. We are in big trouble.

  I hand him the license and my school ID in case he might take pity on the fact that I’m still in school.

  He looks at it, mumbles “4511 Overlook Road,” and looks down the street at my house. “Th
at your house?”

  “Yep.”

  “Well, let’s walk you home, then.”

  “Uh—I—uh—have to pick up my car.”

  He laughs. “You’re not picking up anything tonight, Miss Dietz. Except maybe your coat from the backseat there.”

  I look to James and he smiles, with confidence. I’m unsure why he’s so confident. He could lose his license. He could lose his job. He could go to jail for buying an underage high school senior vodka coolers, right?

  Before I know it, I’m walking to my house with the cop. A thousand Charlies are in the air, walking with us, reminding me that I could tell the cop everything I know. That I should. When we get to within view of the porch, I see Dad, arms crossed, his reading glasses shoved onto his forehead and his concerned face on.

  “Please don’t tell him I was drinking.”

  “I don’t think I need to tell him.”

  “Please don’t take my license. I need to keep my job.”

  He stops me at the end of the drive and turns me to look at him. “Look. Don’t screw your life up. There’s plenty of time to get drunk and hang out with boys. That guy’s too old for you.”

  “I need my job. It’s full-time. I can’t lose it.”

  He inspects me. “Tonight you get your one and only warning from the Mount Pitts police department. After this, you don’t get a break.”

  Then he waves to my dad from the end of the drive and turns back toward the car. Dad looks confused, but concentrates on me. I pray for his crappy sense of smell. I pray I’m walking straight.

  “What was that about? Where’s the car?”

  “It’s at the store. We can pick it up tomorrow.” I walk past him through the front door as if it’s not two in the morning on a school night.

  He catches my arm. “Vera? What’s going on?”

  “Can we talk about it in the morning?”

  “No,” he says, grabbing his coat from the hook and looking as if he’s going to ask the cops.

  He’s only bluffing and I know it. But I do have to tell him something. Something.

 
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