Still a work in progress, p.18
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       Still a Work in Progress, p.18

           Jo Knowles
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  As we walk toward our lockers, we act like nothing is different. Like it used to be. Like there’s not this huge horrible thing happening to my sister. But now I feel less mad about it. Less guilty.

  When Curly sees me, she races over and rubs my legs, and I pick her up. She’s wearing her Teen-Me doll vest. She purrs like crazy when I hold her against my chest.

  “Crazy cat,” I say.

  She struggles to get down again, but then keeps circling my legs while I put stuff in my locker and get ready for class.

  Ryan goes over to Sasha at her locker, and they hold hands. Ryan glances over at me, and I give him a thumbs-up. He smiles and shakes his head. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him look so happy. So un-emu.

  I glance around for Sadie, just to see if maybe she’ll say hi to me or give me some sign that she really likes me. But when I find her, she’s with Zach Bray, and he’s doing some kind of dance around her, swinging his hips and singing while she laughs. I guess the window of opportunity just closed on my fingers.

  During lunch, the Tank comes to find me and asks to see me in his classroom. Instead of a regular lunch bag, he has a small cooler. He opens it and takes out a huge sandwich, a thermos, and a bag of veggie chips. Not a snack size, a full bag.

  “Hungry?” I ask.

  He pats his chest. “A body needs fuel. You guys wear me out.”

  I nod.

  Curly meanders around the room, sniffing at the heater along the wall.

  “Sniffing out mice,” the Tank says. “Good girl.”

  I take my peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of my lunch bag and start eating.

  The Tank slides his bag of chips over to me. I prefer kettle-cooked chips. Potato. Oily. “Veggie chips are so weird,” I tell him.

  “They grow on you,” the Tank says, as if he could read my thoughts.

  I take a bite of an orange one. “That’s what Emma says, but it hasn’t happened yet,” I say, making a face.

  He smiles and takes a handful.

  I’m not sure why he invited me here, but I figure he’ll tell me eventually. We eat quietly, watching Curly prowl around.

  The Tank hands me a cookie. “My wife made these. She made me promise to share with someone who seemed to need one.”

  “Is that why you asked me to eat lunch with you?”

  He nods.

  “Thanks,” I say.

  “You got it.”

  I take a bite. Chocolate chip and raisin. I could do without the raisins, but it’s still pretty good.

  “So, Noah,” he says, eating half his cookie in one bite, “how are you holding up?”

  I shrug. “I’m OK.”

  “Any news from Emma?”

  I guess this is going to be the question I have to figure out how to answer until Emma comes home, whenever that will be. When.

  I shrug again. “We see her on weekends. She’s getting better.”

  “That’s good to hear. You must be pretty worried about her.”


  I finish my cookie. It’s hard to swallow the last bite. The usual tightness in my stomach starts to grow and crawl up my throat.

  “I wish it wasn’t taking so long,” I tell him.

  He nods and glances toward the window. It’s a sunny winter day. The snow is bright and the sunlight sparkles off the snowbanks.

  “It’s a horrible thing,” he says. “Terrible.”

  “She’s still not really herself,” I say. “It’s like, in losing all that weight, she also lost who she really is. I feel like I don’t know her. Like Emma is gone, and there’s this stranger living in her body. It’s like . . .” I swallow the hurt rising up in my throat.

  “It’s like she died,” I say quietly. “Or at least part of her died.”

  The Tank reaches over and squeezes my shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” he says. “I’ve taught here a lotta years, and I’ve seen kids struggle with stuff like this over and over. Eating disorders. Cutting. Drugs, too. Sometimes when we teachers learn about it, we’re shocked. We had no idea the kid was feeling bad inside. Depression is a strange thing, and it manifests in all kinds of ways. We try to help, but sometimes kids need more than us. They need specialists who understand how these things work. It’s good your parents sent Emma to a place where people really understand what she’s going through.”

  “But she never seemed depressed,” I say. “Why did she get depressed?”

  “I don’t know, Noah. Sometimes there’s no logical reason. Sometimes it can be a chemical thing in the brain.”

  “Really?” I think about the BEAST note and wonder if that could be true. If she got sick because of something in her brain, or because she wanted to punish herself. I remember all the sad photos in that book. The ones without people in them. Only objects. And I just don’t know. I don’t know what to think anymore.

  “Emma is in a safe place,” the Tank says. “Knowing you support her and love her is the best thing you can do to help her. Send her letters. Let her know you’re thinking of her.”

  “I do.”

  “That’s real good.”

  We eat some more cookies, and the Tank goes over to his desk and opens a drawer.

  “Here,” he says. “I saved this for you. I had a feeling you might want it back.”

  He holds out the Emma sculpture. She’s distorted and misshapen, and the face is all smooth where Curly licked it blank.

  “Thanks,” I say. I take it and get my stuff.

  “You should finish that,” the Tank says. “Or make another.”

  “Yeah,” I say. “Maybe.” But part of me thinks it makes sense to leave her unfinished, blank face and all. Only Emma can reshape who she wants to be.

  I leave him and wander over to the art room. It’s still lunch period, so the halls are mostly empty, though I can hear laughter coming from the Community Room.

  I don’t bother to turn on the lights in the art room. There’s sunlight pouring through the windows, casting dusty beams across the clean work surfaces. I get one of the new sculptures I’ve been working on and bring it over to a table.

  “Hey! There you are!” Sam and Ryan come bounding into the room, followed by Sasha and Molly.

  “We were looking for you!” Sam says.

  “What are you doing in here?” Sasha asks, coming closer. “Oh! Is that your new sculpture project? Let’s see!”

  “I’m not finished,” I say.

  They all gather around to inspect.

  “Jeez, Noah. You really are a good artist,” Sam says. “What is it?”

  I shrug, embarrassed to tell them. I look down at the forms rising out of the clay. Four heads and necks, all touching and connected. My family. I’ve been working on it for a while now but can’t seem to figure out how to finish it.

  Molly puts her arm around Sam. They look natural together. Like they’ve been together forever. I think if a girl did that to me, I’d melt to the floor. I guess Sam isn’t as goofy as I thought.

  Ryan and Sasha are holding hands again. Ryan doesn’t look nearly as comfortable doing this as Sam does, which I plan to point out later, just to make sure he doesn’t get too full of himself. These two can’t let their relationship status go to their heads.

  “Noah, are you ever going to ask Sadie out?” Sasha asks. “I really think she likes you.”

  “Yeah, Noah! You have to ask her!” Sam says like an excited little kid. “Remember, you better seize the day, because she doesn’t like to be single.”

  “I’m not really ready for a committed relationship right now,” I say.

  Ryan rolls his eyes.

  “Plus, she was dancing with Zach earlier. I think they might be a thing.”

  “I told you not to wait!” Ryan slaps his forehead with his free hand. “At least she didn’t go for Max.”

  “What’s wrong with Max?” Molly asks.

  Ryan and I hold out our muscle-less arms at the same time and mimic how he moves.

  “What’s wrong with your
arms?” Sam asks.

  Ryan laughs.

  Then I laugh.

  Then we’re all laughing, even though I’m not sure anyone actually knows why. It’s a relief laugh. I can tell. We’re all relieved to be laughing together again. It doesn’t matter why.

  “I need to work on this,” I say. “But I’ll see you guys later.”

  “Yeah, sure,” Ryan says. “C’mon, guys, let’s leave the artist in peace.”

  They leave me alone again, but I don’t feel lonely.

  I reorganize Emma’s tools, then prep my sculpture, wetting the cracks and smoothing out the curves. I think about what kind of glaze I’ll use when I fire it. Or maybe I won’t use any glaze at all. I’m not sure.

  All I know is that when I’m done, I’m going to leave it on Emma’s desk in her room as a welcome-home gift. I think she’ll like that. I think she’ll like knowing that I was thinking of her while she was away, working on something special for her. And that I knew, that I really believed, that she’d get well again and come back home to receive it.

  But for now, it’s still a work in progress. Just like Emma. Just like me, I guess. Just like my family. And that’s all right. For the first time in a long time, I feel like everything really will be OK. Today is just another day. And it finally feels like a good one.

  Many people assume that writing a book is a solitary endeavor, but I’ve been extremely fortunate to have the company of Cindy Faughnan and Debbi Michiko Florence, my virtual office mates, since this journey began. Thank you, dear WWaWWas, for your love and support, and for your invaluable comments and suggestions. Thanks also to my agent, Barry Goldblatt, for your continued guidance, and to my husband, Peter Carini, for your honest feedback and encouragement. Extra special thanks to my editor, Joan Powers, who gives me the courage to dig a little deeper with every revision, and who always helps me have faith that the longer, harder road will be worth taking. Joan, I am so grateful to call you my editor. And finally, a huge thank-you to my son, Eli Carini, who shared many of the original Suggestion Box entries that found their way into this book as we carpooled home from school. Eli, thank you for sharing your input, your humor, and your heart. You inspire me every day.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or, if real, are used fictitiously.

  Copyright © 2016 by Jo Knowles

  Cover photographs: courtesy Getty Images (boy, backpack, cat); copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey Sylvester (cat sweater)

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in an information retrieval system in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, taping, and recording, without prior written permission from the publisher.

  First electronic edition 2016

  Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 2016938102

  Candlewick Press

  99 Dover Street

  Somerville, Massachusetts 02144

  visit us at



  Jo Knowles, Still a Work in Progress



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