Still a work in progress, p.14
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       Still a Work in Progress, p.14

           Jo Knowles
 
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  My parents look at me worriedly, like they are afraid whatever’s inside is going to make her cry even worse. I can’t really reassure them, but it bugs me that instead of even noticing all my hard work, they’re focused on Emma. I mean, of course they are. But . . . I wish for once, just once, instead of paying every last bit of attention to her, they could notice what I made, what I can do.

  “Careful,” I say, when Emma pulls the paper off the box and starts to open it. “It’s breakable.”

  She nods and removes the tissue I stuffed all around the present. Then she smiles and lifts out the piece I made for her.

  “The glaze came out a little too dark,” I say.

  “No, it’s perfect. I love it, Noah,” she says. “Look what Noah made, you guys.” She holds up my sculpture of the Captain to my parents. “Look how talented he is.”

  My parents smile and look a little surprised. “Wow, Noah!” my mom says. “That’s really stunning!”

  Emma hands it over so they can look more closely, then gets up to hug me. “Thank you, brother,” she says. “I’m sorry I’ve been such a jerk.”

  “Just get well,” I say.

  She lets go and sits back down. I wish she’d said, “OK.” Or hugged me harder. Or anything to make me believe she’ll try.

  When our time is up, the old lady comes to get Emma. When it’s my turn for a hug good-bye, she whispers in my ear again.

  “I’ll be OK. Promise.”

  But I don’t know if I believe her.

  The doctor we met at the hospital comes out next and takes my parents to her office, leaving me alone in the parlor. I listen hard for any sounds coming from the rest of the house, but it’s eerily silent, and I wonder what Emma’s doing now.

  She said she gets to watch a little TV but mostly reads and spends time in therapy. She has to do stuff like go to the bathroom with the door open so she can’t make herself throw up. My mom cringed when she told us. But Emma seemed to act like it was normal. Which only made it worse, I think.

  My dad gave my mom a funny look.

  “It’s OK, Dad,” Emma said. “It’s good. I have to be honest about this.”

  Sometimes the truth hurts even more than the lies.

  When my parents get back, they actually look a little more hopeful. They’re even holding hands. We say good-bye to the old lady and then get in the car to go home. I fall asleep before we even reach the highway. It’s the only way to survive being in the car with my parents again so soon.

  I wake up when my phone buzzes in my pocket. I have a text from Ryan saying he got in a huge fight with Sam and they aren’t speaking.

  I don’t reply.

  A few minutes later, I get a text from Sam saying the same thing.

  I don’t reply.

  My mom is knitting again.

  My dad is tapping the steering wheel anxiously.

  I text Emma, even though she isn’t allowed to have a phone there.

  It was good to see you, I write. Hope you can come home soon.

  But instead of hitting send, I delete it. It’s better than getting a bounce-back message saying DELIVERY FAILED.

  At home, we get out of the car, go inside, and ignore one another as usual. I go up to my room and get into bed. I let the Captain jump up and lie next to me. I don’t know why I’m so tired all the time, but all I want to do is sleep. All I want to do is drift off and not come back until I can wake up and have everything be back to normal. Instead, it seems like every time I wake up, things are worse.

  After ten minutes of lying there, someone knocks on my door. I don’t answer. It opens anyway.

  “Noah,” my dad says, “why are you in bed? It’s only seven o’clock. And why is the dog on the bed when you know that’s against the rules?”

  “I’m tired,” I say. “And it’s a dumb rule.”

  My dad sighs. “Get out of there and come down. Mom and I want to talk to you.”

  “But —”

  “Please.”

  “Give me five minutes.”

  “Fine.”

  I wait for him to leave, then roll over on my back and look up at my boring ceiling like always. Whatever they want, it can’t be good. They’re probably going to make me see a therapist to make sure Emma’s illness hasn’t affected me in some devastating way. Don’t worry, Mom and Dad, I still fit into my husky jeans just fine.

  I drag myself out of bed and go downstairs. The Captain doesn’t bother to leave his spot on the bed.

  At the last step, I stop. All the lights in the living room are off except for the lights on the tree.

  “Merry Christmas,” my dad says.

  Our stockings are draped on various chairs, just like they should have been two weeks ago.

  “Sorry it took so long,” my mom says.

  “Shouldn’t we wait for Emma?” I ask.

  My parents exchange a look.

  “She won’t be home for a while,” my dad says.

  “What do you mean? How long?”

  “They’ll reevaluate in a few weeks.

  “But — I thought she’d be home in a few weeks.”

  “We know,” my mom says. “It feels like forever. But we can visit every weekend. And this way, they can get her in a really stable, healthy place. That’s the best defense. She needs to be away from . . . her triggers . . . until she can get well. Really well.”

  “Triggers?”

  “The things that make her want to . . . that could cause a relapse.”

  “Well, what are they?”

  My mom and dad exchange looks again.

  “Us? Are we her triggers?” Am I?

  “It’s complicated, honey,” my mom says.

  “C’mon,” my dad says. “Open your stocking. Emma would want you to.”

  We go to our stockings and sit down. Emma’s stocking is still hanging on the hook at the mantel, empty. I wonder if they’ll stuff it before she comes home, or if they’ll forget. I tell myself I’ll do it. I’ll put all her favorite things in it. Warm socks, Chapstick, watermelon Jolly Ranchers . . .

  “You go first, Noah,” my mom says.

  I pull out a chocolate Santa. Then it’s my dad’s turn, and he does the same. Then my mom. Next I get a deck of cards. More chocolate. Gummy bears. Silly Putty. The same stuff they give me every year, no matter how old I get.

  When we finish our stockings, we start opening presents. My mom plays elf and selects gifts from under the tree. I didn’t notice until now, but there’s Christmas music playing quietly on the stereo. Every so often, my mom pushes a box aside into a growing pile for Emma.

  It’s quiet and sad, opening presents. We say thank you and act all grateful and a little surprised each time we open something, but without Emma, it feels wrong to be doing this.

  “Here,” my dad says, handing me another present. “Emma told me she didn’t want you to wait for her to come home before you open it.”

  “But —”

  “Open it, honey,” my mom says. “Emma asked to make sure you did.”

  It’s a huge box wrapped in the colored-paper cartoons that get printed only on Sundays. She must have saved them for a few weeks to have enough to cover the whole box.

  Inside the box are a bunch more boxes, all wrapped the same way.

  The first is really heavy, and inside is a bag of pottery clay. The other boxes each have a different sculpting tool. Most we have at school, but some I’ve never seen before. I wonder if Ms. Cliff told Emma about my art. How else would Emma know what I’ve been up to?

  The final box has a tiny vest in it that Emma crocheted for Curly. It’s soft and smells like Emma’s perfume. I picture her at the treatment center again, all alone, and Curly at the animal hospital, all confused and sick because of me.

  “Are you OK?” my dad asks. He reaches over and puts his hand on my knee.

  “Yeah,” I say. “I just wish she was here.”

  We finish opening our gifts and then separate all the paper and boxes for recycl
ing, and then my mom says she’s tired and can we get takeout for dinner. My dad says that’s a great idea, so that’s what we do, and then we watch A Christmas Story, which we always do on Christmas night. But it doesn’t feel the same without Emma snorting at all the punch lines. And because it’s not Christmas anymore. And because everything basically feels like a big lie.

  “We’ll take the tree down tomorrow,” my mom says before going upstairs to bed.

  I feel terrible for thinking it, but I really hope she doesn’t ask me to help.

  “Noah!” The Tank waves me over to his room on Monday morning. Inside, Curly is sitting on his desk wearing her old Santa suit. She chirps when she sees me.

  “Is she OK?” I ask.

  “Good as new. Though I don’t know if she’s wild about today’s outfit.”

  I slip my backpack off my shoulder and dig inside for Emma’s vest.

  I hand it to the Tank.

  “Aw, that’s nice,” he says. “So soft.”

  “Emma made it,” I say.

  He seems to catch his breath like he’s trying not to cry. “That’s real sweet,” he says. “You went to visit her this weekend, right? How’s she doing?”

  I shrug. “She’s OK, I guess.”

  He puts his giant hand on my shoulder and squeezes. It makes me need to cry, but I manage to hold it in.

  “Let’s switch her up,” he says, to change the subject.

  Curly looks relieved when he takes off the red-and-white suit and replaces it with Emma’s vest. She rubs her face against my hand and purrs.

  “I guess she forgives me,” I say.

  “Of course she does! It wasn’t your fault she did something stupid. She’s just not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Damn cat eats anything. No worries, all right?”

  “All right.”

  “Where’s Curly’s Santa suit?” Lily asks when she and the other students come to class. “She looked so cute!”

  “It was chafing,” the Tanks says, and winks at me. “Besides, it’s time to put that away until next year.”

  “That’s a cute vest. Is it new?”

  “Emma made it for her,” I say.

  “Oh.”

  She’s quiet for a minute. “I heard what happened, Noah. I’m really sorry.”

  “Thanks.”

  She hugs me awkwardly just as Sam and Ryan, who appear to have made up, walk in. Sam looks thrilled to see me in the arms of a girl, but Ryan looks like I just stabbed him in the back. What is with him?

  We all find our seats. Sam keeps elbowing me and grinning.

  “Really, no,” I say. But he keeps on about it, and honestly I just feel like punching him, because there is more to life than having a girlfriend and I can tell it’s driving Ryan crazy and I just want to go home and go to bed and not have to deal with anyone.

  Curly walks around our feet, purring happily.

  At lunch, I go to the Community Room, since it’s too cold to go outside. Sam and Molly squish together on one of the couches and attempt to eat one-handed so they can hold hands. Ryan keeps looking over at them and shaking his head in disgust.

  “What?” Sam finally says.

  “Huh?” Ryan acts like he doesn’t know what Sam means.

  “What’s your problem?” Sam asks.

  “Nothing.”

  “Then stop doing that.”

  “Doing what?” Ryan asks.

  “Looking at us and shaking your head!”

  “I wasn’t!”

  “Yes, you were!”

  Everyone else in the room stops talking.

  “Maybe if you weren’t so grumpy all the time, you could have a girlfriend, too!” Sam yells.

  Ryan’s face turns beet red. “Shut up, Sam.”

  “No!”

  So much for them making up.

  Molly slips her hand out of Sam’s.

  “All you do is mope around and make mean comments under your breath.”

  “Well, all you do is fall all over Molly every second. It’s embarrassing!”

  “For who?”

  “It should be for you!”

  “You’re just jealous.”

  “Right.”

  Molly makes this hurt expression and walks away. Sam gets up to go after her, then stops.

  “You’re a real jerk, you know that?”

  “I didn’t do anything,” Ryan says.

  I am so tired of the two of them fighting over stupid stuff.

  “Will you both just shut up?” I yell. I toss my lunch bag aside and stand up.

  Everyone looks at me, mouths dropped.

  “What the heck, Noah?” Ryan says.

  “I’m sick of this!” I shout in his face.

  “Me too,” Sam says.

  “I’m sick of you, too!” I bark at him. “You’re no better! All you two do is bicker about meaningless stuff. And Sam, you constantly have to rub it in Ryan’s face that you have a girlfriend!”

  I hear the words coming out and I don’t want to say them, but they keep spewing out of me anyway. It’s like suddenly I’m the one with a beast inside, and it is encouraging me to let all the horrible thoughts and feelings I’ve ever had rage out of me.

  “I’m so tired of you two! You don’t care about anything important! All you care about is your stupid, meaningless problems! There’s more to life, but you don’t even see it! You’re too busy being jerks to each other over nothing! Like who has a stupid girlfriend! It’s pathetic!”

  As if that’s not enough, I push Sam out of the way and he stumbles backward into Ryan. I can feel everyone’s eyes on me. Shocked eyes. This is not a Noah thing to do. Noah is quiet. Noah (mostly) follows the rules. Noah doesn’t make waves. Noah is never violent.

  Well, today, Noah feels like causing a tsunami. The beast is here.

  “I’m done with everyone!” I yell. The Suggestion Box catches my eye, and I walk over and push it to the floor. The top pops off and a few strips of paper fall out. “All your stupid complaints are ridiculous!” I yell. “Don’t you get that there are more important things happening in the world? All you care about is what the girls wear and whether Secret Santas are offensive. Who cares!”

  I stomp out of the room, then race down the hall and out the door. It’s freezing, of course. School won’t be out for another hour, and even as I’m rushing down the front steps, I know I’m going to be in serious trouble. I keep running anyway.

  Not far away, there’s an old general store, and I head for that. Maybe I can wander around in there to warm up and then somehow get my carpool ride without being seen in the school parking lot. I could come back and hide behind a car or something.

  Before I cross the street to the store, I turn back to see if anyone followed me. No one did. I admit, I’m a little disappointed that no one even tried.

  I walk more slowly to the store, just in case. But no one catches up.

  Inside, the store smells like pine needles. All touristy stores in Vermont seem to smell like this. I walk down an aisle of overpriced maple-syrup products.

  “Can I help you with anything, sweetie?” a lady asks. She’s using a feather duster to clean the jars on a shelf at the end of the aisle.

  “No, thanks, just looking,” I say. That probably sounds weird coming from someone like me. I don’t exactly look like a tourist shopping for maple products.

  “Shouldn’t you be in school?” she asks, checking her watch.

  I shrug and turn to go down the next aisle and almost run into the Tank. I guess someone followed me after all.

  “Noah,” he says, all out of breath. “You need to come back to school now.”

  “I don’t want to,” I say.

  He puts his hand on my shoulder in a firm way, but gentle, too. “That’s not really a good enough reason for me to let you stay here.”

  The woman peeks around the corner with her duster. “Everything OK?”

  The Tank nods at her. “Yeah, Shannon. No worries.”

  She smiles. “Nice to s
ee you,” she says. I think she’s blushing.

  “C’mon,” the Tank says. “Let’s get back.”

  “Do I really have to?”

  He studies me.

  “Why don’t you want to?”

  “I’m just . . . really tired.”

  “What, were you going to take a nap here or something? I don’t see what ‘tired’ has to do with you dashing out of school and coming to shop for souvenirs.”

  “I mean I’m tired of everyone. At school. I’m tired of how they all act.”

  “How do they act?”

  “Like nothing happened. Like nothing is happening. Like they don’t care.”

  “About Emma?”

  I don’t answer.

  “I know you’re going through a hard time, Noah. But running out of school is only going to make things worse. What you did with the Suggestion Box didn’t help, either.”

  “But that thing is so stupid!”

  “Why do you say that?”

  “No one puts anything serious in there. It’s a total joke.”

  “What would you put in there?” he asks.

  “I don’t know.” I picture myself swiping the box onto the floor and the looks everyone gave me.

  “Try. Give me a suggestion.”

  “I wish people would spend more energy on stuff that actually matters,” I say.

  “That’s a good one. I think I’ll suggest that. What kind of stuff do you think matters?”

  “I don’t know. Just . . . doing something instead of complaining all the time. I don’t get the point.” I think about Emma and how it seems like all the stuff in her life, everything she’s interested in, always has a purpose. Like her message-y music, and all her rules about what we could and couldn’t eat. Only now I realize maybe those things ended up having a bad purpose. Maybe they were all part of her terrible journey to Puker Prison.

 
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