Still a work in progress, p.13
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       Still a Work in Progress, p.13

           Jo Knowles
 
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  “All right. I’ll see you there.”

  I wait for her to disappear down the hall, then close my locker and press my forehead against the cold metal. I don’t want to go to Community Meeting. I don’t want to walk in late and have everyone look at me and feel sorry for me or wonder how my family could have been so stupid not to see how sick Emma was. I don’t want them to wonder how we could have let things get so bad. I’m sure that’s what they’re all thinking. I would.

  There’s a faint clicking sound as Curly walks down the hall. She stops to sniff my leg, then keeps going.

  I decide to go to the art room and wait for the stupid meeting to be over and hope Ms. Cliff doesn’t come find me and ask why I never showed up.

  The art room smells like turpentine and paper and eraser. I find some of the projects I left to be fired over vacation. There’s the bowl I made, and some things I meant to be Christmas presents but didn’t finish in time. The shiny blue glaze for the bowl came out just right. Inside, there’s a note from Ms. Cliff that says, “Beautiful, Noah! A+.” I don’t feel like giving it to my parents anymore, so I leave it on Ms. Cliff’s table and write “Thank you” on the note, hoping that’s enough to let her know I want her to have it.

  I find the bag of clay and take a chunk out, then pour some water in a paper cup. Curly peeks her head around the corner.

  “I thought you were going to Community Meeting,” I say.

  She slinks around the room, rubbing against the legs of the tables.

  I start to shape my clay, wetting it with water from my cup. I don’t really think about what I’m making; I just start to shape it, letting my hands move over the clay and push and form it. There’s a head, I think. And a body. But I try not to label the shapes as they form. I keep working, not paying attention to Curly as she hops up on the table and sniffs the clay.

  I find my clay shaper and begin to make lines. A face. Hair. Arms. Legs.

  And wings.

  As I carve and scrape away, the figure gets smaller and smaller.

  A loud noise outside startles me. Meeting is over. A herd of people pass by the partly open door. I quickly cover my figure with a damp cloth and rush to class to avoid being late and having to walk in on everyone. But I spend the whole day wanting to sneak out of class and go back to the art room. Back to my figure. Back to shaping and sculpting and not having to think about anything else. Back to just being alone.

  “Did you hear Curly’s sick?” Sam asks when I get to school the next morning.

  “What do you mean?”

  “I don’t know. The Tank had to take her to the vet last night.”

  “Maybe she got rabies from a mouse after all,” Ryan says.

  “That’s not funny,” I say.

  “I wasn’t trying to be funny.”

  The Tank walks toward us. “Noah? Can I talk to you?”

  I follow the Tank to his classroom. Why do all the teachers want to talk to me? I’m not the one in the hospital.

  “Were you working in the art room yesterday?” he asks once we’re alone.

  “Yes.”

  “Did you put your project away properly?”

  I try to remember. “I — I think so. I put cloth over my project so it wouldn’t dry out.”

  “Did you put it on the storage rack where Curly couldn’t reach it?”

  My heart sinks. I shake my head.

  “Do you remember the rule about that?”

  My throat feels like it has a giant piece of food stuck in it.

  “We can’t leave anything out that Curly might get into. Anything she might think is food.”

  Something shifts in my gut.

  “Did —? Is she —?”

  “She had to stay at the vet’s overnight for observation. I’m not sure how she’ll be yet.” He walks over to his desk and opens a drawer. He pulls out something wrapped in the same cloth I used in the art room yesterday. Carefully, he starts to unwrap it, then holds the clay object out to me. It’s my figure. But the face has been smoothed out and the details erased where Curly must have licked it.

  The figure is small but powerful. It has long, strong arms and legs, and a round, full belly. And bird wings. The Tank looks more concerned about the shape of what I was making than he is about anything else.

  “Did you make this?” he asks.

  I blink several times, but my eyes still water.

  I nod.

  “It’s beautiful, you know,” he says. “Is it supposed to be anyone in particular?” But he knows the answer. I’m sure he does. And I feel ashamed that he saw this, because I don’t know if he’ll understand what I was trying to do. I don’t even know if I understand. But I was thinking about Emma, and this is the shape that emerged. The shape I wish she could be in real life. A bird that I could change.

  Tears slip down both sides of my face, gathering along my jaw. I quickly wipe them away.

  “I don’t know,” I lie.

  He sets the sculpture gently on his desk and wraps it up again.

  “Noah, did you talk to Ms. Cliff about what happened over vacation? To Emma?”

  “Not really.”

  “Why not?”

  “I didn’t know what to say.”

  “Do you want to talk to me instead?”

  I wipe my face again. I think of Curly in some cage at the vet’s. I think of Emma in some cage near Boston. Why couldn’t I be more careful? Why couldn’t I pay more attention?

  “It’s my fault,” I say. “Everything’s my fault.”

  “We all make mistakes,” the Tank says. “Curly’s tough. I’m sure she’ll be all right in a day or so.”

  My nose starts to run.

  “Why don’t you sit down,” he says.

  “I ruin everything,” I say, pacing instead of sitting. “I should have confronted Emma better. I should have forced her to admit what was going on. Or stopped her somehow. Told my parents. I mean, not that they didn’t already know. Why are we all so useless? Why couldn’t we help her?”

  The door opens, and the Tank waves his hand at whoever started to come inside to go away.

  He walks over to me and puts his hands on my shoulders so we’re face-to-face. “You know, Noah, you’re only responsible for one person in this world.”

  I shake my head. “No. I could have helped her.”

  “I’m serious. We can work to be kind. We can work to be generous. We can be fair and responsible. But in the end, we can’t prevent people — or animals — from making their own choices, and their own mistakes, like Curly, if they’re determined.”

  “But I could have — I should have.”

  He squeezes my shoulders tight with his huge, strong hands. “You can’t change what happened. No one could. Only Emma. She has a disease, Noah. A really complicated one. What happened isn’t your fault. But it’s what you do now that counts.”

  “But there’s nothing I can do. That’s the problem!”

  “You can let Emma know that you love her. You can let her know how much she matters to you.” He lets go of me and gets a tissue from his desk.

  “Here,” he says, handing it to me. “Do you want to go hang out in Ms. Cliff’s office for a while?”

  I wipe my face off with the tissue. “Not really.”

  “Yeah.” He grins. “I don’t blame you.”

  He takes my soggy tissue and throws it away.

  “I’ll let you know as soon as I hear from the vet. OK? Curly — she’ll be OK. And I bet Emma will be, too.”

  I nod, wanting to believe him.

  He hands me the clay figure, but I push it back.

  “I don’t want it,” I say.

  “But Noah, it’s really good. I mean, you’re really talented. You know that, right?”

  “It doesn’t matter.”

  “Sure it does. Why would you say that?”

  “There are just — more important things. Art’s a waste of time.”

  He looks disappointed to hear me say that. “Someday
you’ll know that’s not true.”

  He puts the figure back in a drawer in his desk.

  “You ready to start class?”

  “I guess.”

  I go over to my seat and he opens the door. Students file in quietly and seem to avoid looking at me. I don’t know if it’s because they feel sorry for me because of Emma or hate me because I might have killed Curly.

  The Tank starts class, but I don’t really hear what he says. I just watch him pace around in front of the room, and I tune out. I think again about Emma and Curly in their unfamiliar cages, wondering what they’re thinking right now. If they’re scared. If they’re in pain. But mostly if they’ll be OK, like the Tank said.

  After class, I try to become part of the herd, moving from one subject to another. None of the teachers call on me, and no one really talks to me. At lunch, I go outside and sit on the steps, even though it’s freezing out and I don’t have a lunch, because I was used to that being Emma’s job and forgot I had to make my own now. Ryan finds me within a few minutes. He hands me my coat. Sam follows and hands me a bag of trail mix. They sit on either side of me and eat their lunches. I eat the trail mix one piece at a time. Peanut. Raisin. M&M. Sunflower seed. The cold air swirls around us, stinging our faces. My fingers start to feel numb, but I keep eating. Peanut. Raisin. M&M. Sunflower seed.

  “Molly and I got to second base during vacation,” Sam says when I’m about halfway through the bag.

  I stop eating.

  “Wow, Sam. I’m sure Noah was dying to hear that,” Ryan says.

  “Well, I just thought he should know.”

  “Why?”

  “Because we tell each other everything! Or we’re supposed to.”

  Ryan crumples up his paper lunch bag into a ball.

  “What part of second base?” I ask, just to keep Ryan from losing his temper.

  “Kissing,” Sam says.

  “Kissing is first base,” Ryan says. “And we already know you’ve kissed. We’ve seen you!”

  “With tongues!” Sam says. “And I thought holding hands was first base.”

  “No, holding hands is like . . . stepping up to the plate. It doesn’t really count as a base.”

  “Oh. Well, then, I got to first base,” Sam says.

  “And how was it?” Ryan asks sarcastically.

  “Pretty amazing, actually. Even when she stuck her tongue in my mouth.”

  Ryan squeezes his lunch bag into a smaller ball. “I don’t believe it.”

  “It’s true!”

  “No, I believe it happened. I just can’t believe it happened to you first!”

  “Why not?” Sam asks, all offended.

  “You and Molly are, like, the two biggest Goody Two-Shoes in school, and now she’s slipping you the tongue!”

  “Don’t say it like that! You make it sound so cheap.”

  “Cheap?” Ryan laughs.

  “Leave him alone,” I say. “I’m happy for you, Sam.”

  “Thank you, Noah. At least you still know how to be a good friend.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?” Ryan asks.

  “What do you think? You’re always so mean to me. It’s a little tiring. It’s like your main goal in life is to yuck my yummies.”

  Ryan stands up. “‘Yuck my yummies’? Are you kidding me?”

  “Guys,” I say. “Stop fighting.”

  “It’s a saying,” Sam says. “And you do it. All the time.”

  “Well, excuse me for trying to help you!”

  “Help me what?”

  “Be a little less”— Ryan struggles with how to answer —“Sam-like!”

  “What the heck is that supposed to mean!”

  “Never mind!” Ryan stomps up the stairs and goes inside.

  “Hey!” Sam says. He goes after Ryan, leaving me on the icy steps.

  I finish my trail mix with frozen fingers — peanut, raisin, M&M, sunflower seed — feeling more alone than I’ve ever felt in my life.

  After school, I see Mrs. Lewis waiting in the parking lot as soon as I step outside. Harper is already bounding down the steps to claim shotgun. Like I care.

  “Hey, Noah,” Mrs. Lewis says when I climb into the backseat. “School OK?”

  “Yeah,” I say.

  Harper turns up the radio, and we drive to the high school for Stu. I wonder if she came for us first this time to rescue me as quickly as possible. I wonder if she knew I needed it.

  When we pull into the high-school pickup area, I automatically look for Emma, and then remember she’s not here. I watch as her friends filter outside, laughing and talking, hugging one another good-bye. No one seems to notice Emma isn’t there. They don’t act like something bad has happened. Like Emma is missing. Someone comes up behind Stu as he’s walking out and jumps on his back for a piggyback ride. They sway and topple over, laughing. Stu is still chuckling when he gets to the car and finds Harper in the front seat.

  “Out,” he says through the window.

  Harper locks the door and grins.

  Stu pounds on the glass, and Mrs. Lewis yells at him to just get in the back.

  When he sits next to me, he stops grinning. “Oh, hi, Noah. Any news about Emma?”

  “No,” I say. And if there was, I wouldn’t tell him. I wouldn’t tell any of these jerks.

  I am 99 percent sure Stu was on Emma’s Lord of the Flies list as one who would follow the beast. I’d add Harper, too. Jerks.

  Stu puts his earbuds in and taps his thighs to the music no one else can hear. Harper stares out the window, bored. Mrs. Lewis sighs about one hundred and thirty times. I want to tell her to turn on the radio to end the silence, but I don’t. I just sigh, too, and stare out the window like Harper, wishing this stupid car could go faster.

  “Remember, try to be cheerful,” my mom says for the third time since we got in the car. “The doctor says it’s important for Emma to see that we’re doing OK. We need to show Emma we’re still carrying on and that we can’t wait until she gets home. But not to make her feel guilty about being away. So . . . we have to be cheerful,” she says again.

  My dad taps the steering wheel in his nervous, anxious way.

  I glance over at the small pile of presents we took from under the tree. The rest are still there, unopened. No one remembered to water the tree, so a whole pile of needles slid off onto the packages when my mom reached under to get some for Emma. We were going to keep the tree up until Emma got home, but now it turns out we don’t know exactly when that will be. Every so often an ornament drops off one of the sagging branches and rattles onto the floor, but no one bothers to pick those up, either. So the presents under the tree are covered in needles and ornaments and lost hope. And everyone pretends not to notice.

  I pull out my copy of A Separate Peace and try not to get even more depressed, but it’s hard. The last thing I want to read about right now is messed-up friendships, especially with Ryan and Sam fighting so much. At least I don’t think it’s so bad that one of them would push the other out of a tree . . . yet. I try reading for a while but it makes me carsick, so I drop the book on the seat and close my eyes and listen to the click, click, click of my mom’s knitting needles coming from the front seat. She’s working on a scarf for Emma, even though she probably won’t be able to leave it there, which my dad points out just before we arrive.

  “I know that,” my mom says resentfully. “It’s for when she comes home.”

  “I was just saying,” my dad says, just as resentfully.

  The building we arrive at is like an old house. Not at all what I was expecting. I thought it would look more like a hospital. Or a prison.

  Instead, it’s one of those tall Victorian houses I’ve really only seen on TV. We find a place to park along the street and go inside. The hallway has a black-and-white checked floor, and there’s a big wooden desk with an old lady sitting at it.

  “Good morning!” she says loudly.

  We all force ourselves to smile at her, even th
ough it hurts.

  “We’re here to see our daughter, Emma,” my mom explains.

  “What a sweet girl,” the lady says, smiling.

  My mom nods and starts to cry.

  It’s weird to think that this stranger knows my sister. Knows her enough to know she is a sweet girl.

  The lady gets up and hands my mom a tissue. She pats her arm and says, “There, there.” I didn’t know people really still said that.

  She leads us to a parlor and explains that this is where we get to visit. Then she tells us to wait there while she goes and gets Emma.

  My dad paces around the room in his nervous way while my mom sits in an armchair and wipes her face.

  “Get it together,” my dad tells her. “We’re supposed to be cheerful, remember? Positive? She can’t see you like this.”

  But just as he’s saying that, Emma walks in.

  Since no one else seems to know what to do, I get up and hug her. I expect her to give me her usual punch first, but she squeezes me tight.

  “How’s Puker Prison?” I whisper in her ear.

  “I miss you,” she whispers back, instead of answering.

  I’m afraid to look at her. To hug back too much, because I don’t want to feel how small she is.

  When I let go and we face each other again, though, I think she actually looks OK. She smiles, and it’s a real smile, not forced-seeming. I guess for some reason I was expecting her to be wearing her hospital clothes, but she’s wearing normal ones. Not her SpongeBob ensemble, just regular jeans and a normal sweater. One, not three.

  Our hug seemed to break my parents’ frozen stance, and they come over and hug her at the same time. Then we all sit down.

  “You can stop looking at me like I’m dying,” Emma says. “I’m OK.”

  “We just miss you —” my mom starts, then cries, forgetting all the rules.

  “I’m sorry,” Emma says.

  “We just want you to get well,” my dad says. “Whatever it takes.” He gives my mom a look like, Nice play. She ignores him.

  Emma tells us about her daily routine and how strict they are about things, but how everyone is pretty nice. She feels almost too positive about the place, and I get this uneasy feeling, like she’s really not being herself after all. I think about the pep talk in the car and wonder if Emma’s the one acting all cheerful and positive for us. I wish I could be alone with her so I could ask her what the real deal is, but obviously my parents aren’t going to give up a second of their time with her, and we only have thirty minutes. So instead, Emma opens her Christmas presents and everyone tries to make chitchat, but it’s totally awkward and uncomfortable. When Emma gets to my present, she takes a really long time to carefully remove the tape from the wrapping because I used paper I drew pictures on. The entire wrapping paper is little drawings I made of the Captain in different poses. As she picks back the tape with her chewed-to-the-nub fingernails, Emma starts to cry.

 
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