Still a work in progress, p.17
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       Still a Work in Progress, p.17

           Jo Knowles
 
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  “I’m not hungry, either,” I say.

  “You will both sit down and eat what’s on your plates. Now.”

  My dad slowly sits back down.

  “I can’t eat it,” I say. Already the food that formed into a ball feels like it’s winding up again and getting ready to shoot out my throat and across the table.

  “I said eat,” my mom says.

  You wouldn’t say that to Emma, I think.

  My dad and I stare at our plates, not eating.

  “I’m sorry,” my mom says more calmly.

  “It’s all right,” my dad says.

  I look up at both of them. At their tired, worn-out faces. So much sadness and disappointment has settled over their eyes, they look like they’ve aged five years since Christmas.

  “It’s not all right,” I say. “It never will be. Not until Emma comes home.”

  My mom starts to cry. A tear slips off her chin and lands on her plate, just missing what’s left of her calzone. She wipes her face with the cuff of her sweater. It reminds me of something Emma would do.

  “What’s wrong with you?” my dad asks me. “You could see she was getting upset. Why did you have to make it worse?”

  “I’m not the one making things worse! Emma is!”

  “It’s not Emma — it’s the disease.”

  “But how did she get it? Did we make her sick? What did we do?”

  My dad pushes his plate away. “I don’t know, Noah. I don’t seem to have any answers these days.”

  My mom cries harder.

  Suddenly all the food looks disgusting. I want to shove it off the table.

  My mom reaches over and touches my arm. “None of this is your fault, honey,” she says. “And you didn’t make me cry.”

  “Yes, I did,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

  “I need to go lie down,” she says, which means she needs to go cry harder and she doesn’t want me to see.

  After she leaves, my dad gets up and hugs me from behind. It feels awkward. “I’m sorry I snapped at you, Noah. I know how hard this is, and I know you need us. I’m sorry if we do a crappy job sometimes.”

  “It’s OK,” I say, even though I don’t really think it is.

  “I’m going to go check on your mom.”

  The table’s a mess, so I take everything into the kitchen, scraping the food into the trash. The Captain wanders in innocently and looks confused when he sees the food in the trash and not in his bowl.

  “It’s not good for you,” I tell him.

  I load the dishwasher and wash the other dishes in the sink. Then I go back and wipe the table until everything is clean and perfect. Only it isn’t.

  I go upstairs and find my letters from Emma. All the lies about wanting to come home and see me soon and all the other fake things she said to make me feel better. I want to rip them up. I want to take a marker and scribble out all her stupid cartoons. Instead, I run down the hall and into her room and start tearing it apart.

  I open drawers in her bureau and go through her stupid clothes, looking for food she might have hidden. That’s what all the pamphlets on eating disorders say. How sometimes people hoard food. How they eat it in private and then make themselves throw up. I imagine Emma stuffing her face in here. Did she cry while she did it? Did she laugh, thinking how stupid we were because she was fooling us all?

  I look under the bed and find a bunch of shoe boxes, but they’re all filled with letters and old papers, not snacks. I’m surprised when I find a box that says noah on the top and am scared to open it, but of course I do anyway. Inside, there are all the homemade cards and drawings I’ve made for her since I was little and learned to hold a crayon. Every single one. It makes my heart hurt so much, it’s hard to breathe.

  I put the boxes away and then keep looking. I don’t even know what I’m looking for, but it doesn’t matter. I search her closet, but it’s just stuffed with clothes all hanging neatly on hangers. I check hoodie pockets, but there’s nothing there.

  I check under her mattress. Nothing.

  I try everyplace I can think of, even though I don’t even know why I’m looking anymore or what I’ll do if I find something.

  Finally, I sit on her bed, exhausted.

  Emma’s room is so much neater than mine, even after my rampage through her stuff. Everything is orderly. Even her posters seem unmarred, where mine have little tears at the corners. She uses that sticky stuff that’s like Silly Putty to make them stick to the wall so she doesn’t have to use thumbtacks. My walls are covered with thumbtack holes from various posters I’ve had over the years. Hers are totally perfect. Everything about Emma, as usual, is perfect.

  Except for the one thing.

  Why can’t she be perfect at staying healthy?

  Why can’t she be perfect at that?

  Next to her bed, she has a little nightstand where she keeps her favorite books, including photo books she’s made of her friends. But there’s also one I don’t remember. It says My Life on the spine. I pull it out and flip through the pages. Some of the photos I recognize, but a lot I don’t remember. She must have gotten them from my mom’s computer.

  I don’t know why she never showed it to me. She’s made a bunch of cute captions to go with each spread. There are photos of her trying to teach me how to walk. Feeding me from a bottle. Drawing with me at the kitchen table. Posed photos of us sitting in front of the Christmas tree for our family holiday card.

  But as we get older, there are a lot of photos I didn’t even realize she had taken. Me, Sam, and Ryan sitting out back in the grass, talking. She must have taken it from her bedroom window. There’s a shot of me in the Lewises’ carpool, looking miserable. She must have taken it with her phone when I wasn’t paying attention. There’s a photo of my dad busy cooking in the kitchen, the Captain standing behind him hopefully. There’s one of my mom asleep on the couch with an open book resting on her chest. Something called This Dark Road to Mercy. I wonder if Emma took the photo because of the book’s title or because of my mom.

  The next spread shows my bedroom on one side and Emma’s on the other. On the next spread, there’s a photo of my parents’ dresser top covered with framed photos, some that are in this book. I keep flipping, feeling lonelier with each page. The photos went from such happy times to such lonely ones. Photos of objects and rooms, not people, but where people should be. Like the dining-room table, set for dinner but with no one sitting there. Or the living-room couch with a magazine tossed on a cushion.

  There’s a photo of a box of Christmas ornaments, as if they’re waiting to be hung but no one’s around to do it.

  There’s a photo of the outside of our house. The driveway. The car. Our old swing set.

  If I were a stranger looking at this book, I would see how the pictures went from warm and filled with love to cold and sad, as if all that filled it up at the beginning had disappeared.

  A sad coldness envelops me as I finish the final pages. The last photo is of Emma’s closed bedroom door. I turn the page as if I’m opening the door, and I find one more picture, along with a piece of old paper folded small, taped inside the back cover. The photo is of a locker door at school with THE REAL BEAST written on it in thick black letters. I know right away this is Emma’s locker and that someone did this to her. Someone wanted to make her feel bad about her list. I slip the folded paper from the tape and slowly unfold it. THE REAL BEAST, it says, as if whoever wrote on her locker left her a note, too. Only it’s not the same writing style from the picture. After reading so many of Emma’s letters lately, I know it’s her own handwriting. Whoever left the first note convinced her it was true.

  I shut the book as my already aching heart squeezes itself into something that hurts so much I have to sit and squeeze my eyes shut just as tightly and wait for the pain to go away.

  How long ago did Emma make this book? How did she pay for it? She would have had to ask for my mom’s credit card. My mom probably thought it was another friend photo bo
ok. But if she saw this, if she saw that closed door, if she saw the note, what would she think?

  I wonder if she would feel like I do now. Like the sad cold has made its way inside me, and I’ll never feel warm or happy again.

  “You’re not a beast,” I whisper to the empty room. “You never were.”

  I put the book back on the shelf and get up to leave, making sure I return everything to the way it was. It feels so quiet and still and empty in here. As if Emma’s been gone for months. As if she’s never coming back.

  Instead of closing her door when I leave, I prop it open with the biggest book I can find, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It’s the last book we read together. I decide in my next letter I’ll ask her if we can read it again when she comes home.

  When, or if?

  When. It has to be when.

  I’m trying really hard.

  That’s what she wrote. She’s trying. As long as she’s trying, she’ll be OK. As long as she doesn’t give up.

  I step out into the hall and listen for noises downstairs, but the house is quiet. Even the Captain seems to be in hiding.

  I’m sure my parents expect me to do my homework and go to bed. When we were little, they would take turns reading to us at bedtime. Emma would come sit on my bed with me, and we’d listen to a few chapters from a book we both agreed on. I always felt like the lucky one because I was snug in my bed and Emma had to get up and go back to hers. She’d wrap herself up in a fuzzy green bathrobe and slippers and bring her pillow in and lie down next to me. Sometimes she fell asleep and stayed with me through the night. But that was when I was really young.

  I remember how I loved feeling her warmth next to me. Her quiet, steady breathing made me feel safe.

  Now my parents never read to us. They say good night and expect us to go up and take care of ourselves. I don’t remember when that started — if one day they simply said, “That’s the end of that. You’re too old for reading stories to.” But I do remember sometimes when Emma was reading a book she really loved, she’d come to my room and ask if she could read to me because she couldn’t keep it to herself. She’d read a few pages and stop and want to talk about what was happening. We’d stay up late and argue. One summer we reread the entire Harry Potter series that way, looking for all the clues we’d missed the first time we’d had it read to us by our parents. I bet if I read it now, I’d hear Emma’s voice in my head. Her botched attempts at accents. Her cracked voice during the sad parts.

  I pick my backpack up off the floor and start to pull out my homework. I have no idea what I have due tomorrow, and I don’t think I care. What does it matter?

  As I pull out my stuff, my phone slips onto the bed. I don’t even know why I bother with it now that no one talks to me. I turn it on anyway and wait to see if I have any messages. I don’t, of course. I scan through the photos of Sam and Ryan and me, just to torture myself, I guess. Most of the photos are ridiculous. Ryan peeking over the bathroom stall. Sam making stupid faces at me.

  I find a few I didn’t know were there. Probably because Ryan took my phone and added a bunch. He thinks that’s the funniest thing on earth. There’s one of Lily walking away (probably supposed to be her butt). One of Sam’s sandwich (a close-up of the meat). One of the inside of Sam’s mouth filled with chewed-up food.

  A few weeks ago, I would have thought that was gross but funny. Now it just makes me feel sad.

  Before I think too much about it, I press call on Ryan’s name. Then I hang up.

  About four seconds later, my phone buzzes.

  “Hi,” I say.

  “Did you butt-dial me or something?” he asks.

  “No.”

  “So you were just calling and hanging up?”

  “I don’t know. I guess I changed my mind. Sorry.”

  He’s quiet a minute. “So . . . do you want to talk to me or not?”

  “I . . . yes.”

  “OK. What’s up?”

  “Not much.”

  The Captain wanders into my room and sniffs the air in a judgey-looking way. As if he should talk. I pat my thigh, and he comes over and licks my hand reassuringly, then lies down at my feet.

  “Have you heard from Emma?” Ryan asks.

  “Yeah. She’s not coming home for a while.”

  “Oh. I’m really sorry she’s sick. I . . . Sam and I. We wondered if she was OK — before — but didn’t know how to tell you. We noticed she seemed really thin, but . . . we didn’t think . . .”

  “It’s all right,” I say.

  “She’s going to be OK, though. Right?”

  “Yeah. I think so. But it’s not safe for her to come home yet, so . . .”

  “What do you mean?”

  I look at my messy posters and the holes in my wall.

  “She’s still . . . struggling.”

  “I’m sorry, Noah.”

  “Thanks.”

  There’s an awkward silence. It feels weird talking again. It’s like we lost our rhythm and don’t know how to get it back. Like how it feels after being away at summer camp for two weeks and it seems as if so much has changed, even though back home nothing has.

  “Are you and Sam still in a fight?” I ask.

  “Nah. We made up. He’s just annoying, you know? Sometimes his annoying-ness builds up too high, and I have to blow up at him so it can go back to zero again.”

  I laugh a little. “Yeah.”

  “So,” he says, a little quietly, “I’m kind of dating someone.”

  “What?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Who?”

  “Sasha Finnegan.”

  “No way!”

  “Yeah. I like older women.”

  I laugh again, this time for real.

  “She’s actually the one who asked me out. Can you believe that?”

  “Wow.”

  “I know. All the eighth-grade boys hate me now. It’s kind of awesome.”

  “Does this mean you have to stop being an emu?”

  “Emo. And yeah. It didn’t really suit me, anyway. Acting moody all the time is kind of exhausting.”

  He fills me in on all the details, and I listen and care. It feels so good to be talking about something positive for a change. Something that’s good and new and hopeful.

  “I also happen to know that Sadie truly does like you. You know. Because she’s friends with Sasha. So. There’s that. If you ever want to be normal again and stop being such a loner.”

  I don’t answer.

  “You should probably ask her out. She doesn’t like to be single, so I don’t think your window of opportunity is going to be open very long.”

  I take a deep breath and lean back on my bed and look up at the ceiling.

  “How do I ask her out?” I ask. “Tell me what to do.”

  “Well, first you have to have the guts to walk up to her,” he starts. Then he lists all the tips he knows, which is surprisingly a lot, given that he has only had one girlfriend and only for a few days. Then I promise I’ll do it. And just like that, we’re friends again.

  When we get off the phone, things feel a little more right and a lot less lonely. The coldness I felt earlier doesn’t feel so strong. I go to bed without doing my homework. Instead, I go to sleep thinking about how I’m going to ask Sadie Darrow out. For the first time in forever, I sleep straight through the night. I don’t dream about Emma calling out and no one hearing. I don’t dream about locked bathroom doors and trying to break them down. I don’t dream at all. I just sleep. I wake up extra early, but I feel more rested than I have in weeks. I feel ready to go back to school. I feel ready to be me again. And I almost think I know what that means.

  Because it’s so early, the house is still quiet. I get up and go back to Emma’s room. I find the note inside her book and take it back to my room. I begin to re-create the happy images from the book by sketching them, then coloring them in. I add other happy-memory images, like of Emma reading to me, and of Emma holding the Capt
ain as a puppy. And Emma leaning into my bedroom doorway to say good night. Then I carefully cross out THE REAL and write YOU ARE NOT A before the word BEAST. I fold it back up and put it in an envelope. I write down her temporary address on it and stick it in my backpack. She’s not a beast. No one is. We’re all just human, trying to live another day. Just another day.

  “I heard you’re talking to us again,” Sam says. He and Ryan are waiting for me outside on the steps. Sam reaches out his hand to shake.

  I smack it aside. “Yeah, you dope. But I’m not shaking your hand.”

  He shoves it into his pocket, all self-conscious.

  Ryan nudges him.

  “I was just trying to be friendly,” Sam says. “What’s so wrong with that?”

  “Nothing,” I say.

  “We’re just looking out for you, Sam,” Ryan adds. “People don’t shake hands like that. You’re not thirty-five, and this isn’t some business meeting.”

  “Oh.”

  “Don’t worry about it,” I say.

  Sam shrugs. “Well, I’m glad we’re friends again.”

  “Me too,” I say. “Sorry for being a jerk.”

  “It’s understandable,” Sam says. “Given the circumstances.” He pauses. “Ryan told me you’re going to ask Sadie out.”

  “Yup!” Ryan agrees. “Time to seize the day, Noah!”

  “That’s great advice,” Sam says. “I’m gonna put that in the box.”

  “But it’s not a complaint,” I say.

  “Well, it’s a pretty good suggestion, don’t you think?”

  I can’t argue.

  “Here,” I say, handing Ryan a folded-up piece of paper.

  “What’s this?”

  “Something I promised you a long time ago.”

  He unfolds the paper carefully and then smiles when he sees my drawing. I used the photo from Emma’s book to draw the picture of the three of us talking in the grass.

  “This is great,” Ryan says. “Told you you were a real artist.”

  “Anyway,” I say, letting myself smile a little and turning to Sam, “how are things with Molly? Are you back together?”

  “Oh, yeah. That was just a little argument. Things are amazing.”

  Ryan rolls his eyes, and we all go inside before Sam can say, “What’s wrong with things being amazing?”

 
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