Still a work in progress, p.15
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       Still a Work in Progress, p.15

           Jo Knowles
 
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  “The Complaint Box is mostly just for fun,” the Tank says. “To give us something to talk about, and maybe laugh about, during Community Meeting. But if you think we should take it more seriously, we can try.”

  “It doesn’t matter,” I say. “Just forget it.”

  He picks up a little pine-scented pillow and sniffs it, then puts it down again.

  “It sucks when you’re hurting and life just keeps going on around you. I get that. But there needs to be room for fun, too. What’s the point of life if you can’t enjoy it?”

  I shrug.

  “C’mon,” he says. “Let’s get you back to school.”

  “Do I really have to go back? No one will even notice I’m missing.”

  “Trust me, people will notice. With that exit of yours, I’m pretty sure everyone is wondering where you went.”

  “Maybe they wonder, but they don’t care.”

  “I care. Why do you think I’m here?”

  I shrug again. “Because it’s your job?”

  He gets an annoyed look on his face. “You really believe that? Fine. Suit yourself. Stay here if you want.”

  He turns around and walks down the aisle without me.

  He should be dragging me back. He should be slinging me over his shoulder and carrying me. He should be asking me, “What’s wrong, Noah? What’s really wrong?” But instead, he walks away.

  The bell above the door tinkles when he opens it and lets it swing shut. Then the store is quiet.

  The woman with the feather duster peeks around the corner again but lets me be.

  For the next hour, I walk aimlessly up and down the aisles, reading the prices on different-shaped maple-sugar candy and pine-scented pillows. My chest feels heavy and empty at the same time, and I realize this is what true loneliness feels like. Like you’re full of hurt but completely hollowed out all at once. I wonder if this is how Emma feels, away from everyone she knows. Or if she felt this way before she left. I wonder if this is how Ryan feels, and why he acts like such a jerk sometimes. All I know is that it feels awful. And the worst part is, I can’t really imagine this feeling ever going away.

  I slip into Mrs. Lewis’s car as soon as she pulls into the parking lot and before anyone can see where I’ve been hiding, crouched behind the Tank’s truck.

  “Noah! Where did you come from?”

  I don’t tell her.

  “You should sit up front! You finally beat Harper!”

  “That’s OK,” I say, buckling myself into the backseat and slouching low so no one will see me.

  The car is toasty warm. I lean back and let my frozen hands start to defrost. They sting and ache as they warm up.

  “Where’ve you been?” Harper asks when he gets in the front.

  I blow on my hands instead of answering.

  When he turns back to demand an answer, I scowl at him.

  “You’re so weird,” he says.

  “Harper! Don’t be rude!” Mrs. Lewis looks horrified.

  “Whatever.” He starts drumming his fingers on the dashboard. “If anyone else skipped out of school, they’d get in trouble,” he says in a whiny voice. “But just because your sister —”

  “Harper!” his mom yells again. “What is wrong with you?” She looks at me in the rearview mirror. “Noah, are you OK?” she asks.

  I nod like any liar would.

  “Sorry,” Harper says. But I can tell he’s not.

  “You sure you’re OK?” his mom asks.

  I nod again and lean my head against the window so I’m out of her view in the mirror.

  “I know you have a lot going on at home. Let us know if there’s anything we can do, all right?”

  I keep my eyes closed but murmur, “Thanks.” I really don’t know what she thinks she can do. She must know there’s nothing anyone can do. There never is. Unless you tie someone down and force-feed them, what can you do? Pray therapy works? Pray for a miracle? But who are we supposed to pray to? That’s what I want to know. God doesn’t answer prayers. God lets bad things happen. Why hasn’t everyone figured that out yet?

  As soon as we pull into the pickup area at the high school, Sara runs over to our car and knocks on my window. I roll it down a little.

  “Hey, Noah,” she says. “Can you get this to Emma? All my texts are bouncing.” She slides a letter through the slit in the window.

  “Sure,” I say.

  “Have you talked to her recently?”

  I can tell everyone in the car is listening by how quiet it got.

  “Yeah,” I say.

  “Is she coming home soon?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Well, tell her I said hi. OK?”

  “Sure.”

  She looks sad as she steps back from the car, but someone comes up behind her and hugs her and she turns around and laughs, and they practically skip toward the waiting area. What a fake.

  Stu finally comes out and gets in the car, and no one talks all the way to my house as usual.

  “Bye, Noah,” Mrs. Lewis says when I unbuckle my seat belt. Her voice is full of concern and kindness.

  “Thanks for the ride,” I say, because that’s what we all say when we get out of the carpool car. Thanks for the ride. And thanks for not asking me any more questions. And thanks for not acting like nothing terrible has happened. Even though the ride was awkward, it felt like the first time I wasn’t the only one who felt the missing piece.

  As they drive off, I imagine what happens next. Mrs. Lewis will ask Harper what happened today and why I wasn’t in school. But that will last two minutes before she asks them both how much homework they have. Then they’ll go home and she’ll make them dinner, which they will all scarf down and keep down. They’ll probably sit around and laugh about something stupid and unimportant, and no one will give Emma or me another thought. Because for everyone else, life goes on. Nothing has changed for them, so why should they act any different?

  I go inside and find my dad vacuuming the living room. He turns the machine off when he sees me.

  “Hey, Noah!” he calls, all cheery. “How was your day?”

  I shrug.

  “We heard from Emma’s doctor today, and she’s doing really well! If she stays on track, she’ll come home by February break.”

  “I thought she’d be home sooner than that,” I say.

  He stops smiling as his enthusiasm drains out of him. “Try to be positive, Noah. It’s good news. I promise.”

  “It doesn’t sound like good news.”

  “Some kids have to stay there for two months or even longer.”

  “Oh.”

  His smile comes back. “So, see? This is good!”

  “Why are you home?” I ask.

  “I couldn’t concentrate at work. I thought I’d come home and clean this place up. We’ve really let things go.”

  I look around and notice just how dirty and dusty everything has gotten. How it smells stale and not like our house anymore. The sun shines through the window, but it doesn’t feel sunny. It feels sad.

  The Captain wanders into the room and wags his tail at me. He stretches his head out for a pat and licks my hand.

  “Don’t you go shedding all over my clean rug, stinkpot,” my dad says.

  The Captain wags his tail harder when anyone talks to him, so he starts wagging like nuts, and you can actually see strands of fur launching off his body and dancing through the air.

  “Put him outside, would you, Noah? And then why don’t you grab a rag and help with some dusting.”

  That was always Emma’s job. I mop the kitchen and bathroom; Dad vacuums the rugs; Emma dusts.

  “I have a ton of homework,” I say. “Couldn’t I just take the Captain up with me?”

  The lie makes my chest hurt.

  “Oh. Sure. You should do that, then.” The last of his enthusiasm and hope drain back out of his face, and I feel terrible and satisfied at the same time.

  We have to live like this until Februar
y break, and he’s happy? What if I can’t last that long? What if the thought of getting in the carpool without Emma one more day makes me want to run away for good?

  Why doesn’t anyone understand how hard it is?

  I leave my dad standing in the living room, looking lost and confused. It seems I leave everyone looking like that lately.

  “C’mon, stinky,” I say to the Captain.

  In my room, I kick off my shoes and drop my backpack on the floor. Then I crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head. My sheets smell gross. I don’t know how long it’s been since they’ve been washed, but definitely too long. Laundry is just another thing that stopped when Emma left.

  I close my eyes and try not to think about how she looked when we saw her. Scared and small. But of course when I think of her, that’s what I see. That and all the other things I don’t want to remember. My parents pounding on the bathroom door. The worried look on my dad’s face when Emma pushed her food around on her plate. My mom nervously pacing when Emma would disappear in the bathroom for a minute too long. Sam and Ryan whispering about how tiny she felt when Sam danced with her but that he didn’t have the guts to tell me.

  We all knew, didn’t we?

  We all knew something was wrong again.

  So why didn’t we try harder to stop it?

  I know it’s not really our fault. That we can’t force Emma to eat. My parents can make her see the therapist more, but what else? I don’t know. She can’t stay at the treatment center forever. And that’s why it’s so scary.

  I sink deeper down into my bed and put my pillow over my head. I feel my eyes wanting to cry, but nothing comes out. The vacuum comes back on downstairs. The Captain jumps onto my bed and walks in a circle before collapsing on my feet. He lets out a quiet whistler. I shove him a little, but he just thumps his tail, the stinker. I wonder if he knew, too. I wonder if he sensed something was wrong.

  I breathe in my stale sheets and listen to the steady hum of the vacuum until the sound puts me to sleep.

  I wake to a hand shaking me.

  “Noah, Noah,” my mom says gently. I must have slept for a while if my mom is home from work.

  “It’s time for dinner. Are you OK?” She pulls the blankets off my head, and I squint up at her. She looks pale and tired. She puts her hand on my forehead.

  “You don’t feel feverish.”

  “I’m just tired,” I say.

  She sits on my bed and stares at the floor.

  “Ms. Cliff called, honey. She told me about what happened today.”

  “Oh.”

  “Do you want to tell me your version?”

  “Not really.”

  I roll over under the covers again. It feels weird to be in bed with my clothes on. It’s hot, and hard to move.

  “I know this is hard,” my mom says. “Being worried about Emma all the time and not knowing when she’s coming home —”

  “Dad said she might come home in February.”

  “Well, that’s what they said today. As long as she stays on track.”

  I’m beginning to really hate that phrase. On track. It’s like we’re all supposed to stay on some boring path toward a goal someone else made for us. I’m sure that’s how Emma feels. But in her case, I’m glad she’s being forced to stay on it. I wish her own path wasn’t so messed up and dangerous.

  “What if she doesn’t?” I ask. I think of the words to “Free Bird” again and how Emma sang it, like it was her own personal anthem. What if she can’t change?

  “Doesn’t what?” my mom asks.

  “You know. Stay on track?”

  I turn my head back so I can see her face when she answers.

  “She has to,” my mom says. Her bottom lip quivers. She pats my legs. “Scoot these up, would you?”

  I bend my knees, and she slides herself across the bed so she can lean against the wall. She reaches for my legs over the covers and squeezes. The Captain makes a noise from the floor. He must have jumped down when I was sleeping.

  “Don’t even think about it,” my mom says to him. “I can see you’ve already been up here, you bad dog.”

  “It’s not his fault. I let him.”

  “I wish you wouldn’t. Your comforter needs to get washed now.”

  “Sorry.”

  She squeezes my legs tighter.

  “I wish I understood why she does it,” I say.

  “Me too, honey.”

  She closes her eyes and takes a long, slow breath. This is her method for keeping from crying.

  “You can’t run away from school again, Noah.”

  “I know.”

  “It’s not fair for me to say this, but I’m going to anyway. I can’t be worried about you on top of everything going on with Emma. I just don’t know if this heart of mine can take any more worry.”

  “I’m sorry,” I say.

  “I know it’s hard for you to be at school. But you’ve gotta go. It’s just the way it is.”

  “I hate it there.”

  A tear escapes her no-cry method, and she quickly wipes it away. “I’m sorry.”

  “Everyone acts like nothing’s wrong. Like the biggest problem in the world is what’s in their lunch bag. I can’t stand it. No one cares about Emma. Or me. Or what’s happening.”

  “Of course they care.”

  “Well, they don’t act like it — that’s for sure.”

  “Life goes on, I guess, when you’re not directly affected.”

  “It’s hard to watch — that’s all. It’s hard to listen to them. Every time someone complains about something stupid, I want to say, ‘At least your sister isn’t so sick she’s in some hospital being force-fed!’ I’m so tired of their stupid problems.”

  My mom sighs and pats my leg again. “I know, honey. It’s the same for me at work. I hate going in. I hate the sympathetic looks that have stopped seeming sincere. I want this to be over and have Emma back as much as you do, believe me.”

  “Do you ever want to yell at them? Your co-workers?”

  “Sure. All the time. When I overhear someone complaining about their kids doing some mundane thing, I want to say the same things you do. But I don’t, Noah. Because it’s not their fault. They’re behaving like normal people. It’s just that our life right now isn’t in sync with anyone else’s. But sometimes, yeah. I want to scream at them and tell them I’d give my right hand to have the worst thing wrong with my kid be that she doesn’t make her bed in the morning.”

  We hear my dad coming up the stairs, and my mom sighs again, like she’s really tired.

  “Hey, guys,” he says when he steps through the doorway. “Any room on there for me?”

  My mom pats the bed beside her, and I curl up in a smaller ball.

  “Dinner’s ready when you are,” he says. But none of us get up. For a long time, we don’t even say anything. We just sit on my bed, like it’s a tiny island or a boat. It feels sad but good at the same time. Good to have them here with me. Recognizing that I’m here and hurting, too. I feel like my bed-boat is completely out to sea and we don’t have a paddle. We’re just drifting silently. And maybe it’s OK. Maybe it’s Emma we’re waiting for, to rescue us. She’s supposed to be the strong one. She’s always been the true captain of our ship. I understand now why we all seem so lost without her, besides the obvious part of being worried about her. We’ve always relied on her. She’s the one who calls the shots in this family. She’s the one who gets us all to go to the movies or for a lame family walk or to try making new meals for dinner or to change the color of the walls in the living room. She’s the one who’s full of life, pulling us along after her. Without Emma, we’re lost. Alone. And maybe that’s our fault. Maybe we depended on her too much.

  I force myself to sit up. When I pull the covers off, I feel cold and exposed but more awake.

  “We should eat,” I say.

  My parents look at me like they’ve never heard my voice before. But really it’s just that they’ve never
heard me take charge before.

  I get out of bed and pull my covers up in a halfhearted attempt to make it. My mom smiles appreciatively, and I know she’s probably thinking about her co-worker’s daughter.

  I reach for her hand and pull her up. Then we all go downstairs, the Captain following behind.

  Dinner is pizza delivered from our old favorite place before Emma went vegan and there wasn’t anything on the menu she would eat. I help my mom set the table, and my dad pours us all soda, which we rarely have, and certainly not without a comment from Emma telling us how much sugar and other bad ingredients it has.

  We eat slowly. The tomato sauce and cheese taste stronger than I remember. Sweet and salty. The root beer bubbles sting my tongue. Everything tastes different, and I savor it. The forbidden, greasy cheese. The second glass of root beer. My parents eating food they’ve probably been craving just as much as I have but were always too afraid to eat in front of Emma in case it made her lose her appetite, which is the excuse she always gave.

  Every so often, I look at Emma’s empty place and feel guilty. But at the same time, it feels so good to fill my body up with food. To eat until I’m full. I try to imagine Emma enjoying this feeling. I make a silent wish that someday she will. Someday she’ll want to pig out with me and not want to make herself sick after. Someday, she’ll be normal again. Please let her just be normal again. I’ll make her bed for the rest of her life if she’ll just come home and be OK.

  But I have this horrible feeling that things will never be normal. As my parents and I eat pizza as if it’s the last time we’ll have a meal like this, I start to feel sick to my stomach. All the salty greasy cheese that tasted so good five minutes ago suddenly feels like it’s choking me.

  “Do you want another slice, Noah?” my dad asks. “There’s still plenty more.”

  The way he looks at me, like he is begging me to eat and enjoy it, makes me force myself to take another slice. I force myself to smile as I chew what now tastes disgusting to me. I do it for them, because I can tell watching me eat this forbidden food is making them feel something they need to feel, even if I don’t know what that is.

 
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