Still a work in progress, p.2
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       Still a Work in Progress, p.2

           Jo Knowles
 
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  “Thanks,” he says. “Nice, um, sweaters.”

  “Thanks.”

  Emma is always cold, so she wears lots of layers. Sometimes she’ll wear a V-neck sweater over a crew-neck sweater and then sometimes even a cardigan sweater over that, all buttoned up. Then she makes these little slits in the cuffs so she can pull them down over her hands and she sticks her thumbs out through the holes so they’re like a sweater/fingerless-glove combo. For pants, she wears leggings in different colors. All those bulky sweaters make her legs look extra skinny. She’s like SpongeBob SquarePants, only she’s SpongeEmma SquareSweater. But I don’t tell her that. Even though she pretends not to care what people think, I know she does. Too much. My parents know this, too, but they are great at pretending it’s not true.

  Stu finally shows up and pushes his way into the backseat so that Emma is squished between us. As soon as we hit the road, Stu and Harper start arguing about who’s going to make it to the Superbowl this year. I wish my mom would turn up the radio, but she loves to listen to carpool talk. She says it’s the only way she gets any information. Emma pops her earbuds in and moves her head slightly to the music. It sounds like some kind of reggae stuff, which I can’t stand. She doesn’t offer to share a bud, which is fine with me. I don’t know which is worse: her music, or Harper’s whining about the Patriots and the New York Giants. You’d think we were talking about some upcoming war, the way he talks.

  Must be nice to have your biggest worry be about whether your favorite football team makes it to the Superbowl. But I wouldn’t know about that.

  “Here’s what you need to know when a girl sits next to you,” Ryan tells me and Sam while we eat lunch a few days later. “The first time, it was probably a mistake.”

  We’re sitting outside on the steps, just the three of us. It’s cold, but sometimes you need some fresh air. The locker-juice smell still lingers in the hall, even though it’s been three days since the incident.

  “What if a girl sits next to you twice?” Sam asks. He takes a small bite of a potato chip. Sam is a dainty eater. He’s the only person I know who bites his chips instead of popping them in his mouth whole.

  “Two times means she feels sorry for you,” Ryan explains. “Probably just trying to be nice. It’s a pity sit.”

  I pick at the Tofurky sandwich my sister made. Emma is in charge of school lunches. I’m in charge of breakfasts. I would switch if I wasn’t so lazy. Emma became a vegan two years ago and refuses to make non-vegan lunches for me. She says it’s against her principles to handle meat and dairy products.

  “What if a girl sits with you three times?” I ask.

  Ryan takes a drink from his water bottle. “Then you’re in business.”

  I don’t know where Ryan gets his information, but for the most part, he seems to know what he’s talking about.

  “So, how many times has Molly sat next to you?” I ask.

  “Four,” Ryan says, shaking his head.

  “She must be really into you,” Sam says. He takes another tiny bite of his chip.

  Ryan sighs and glances up at the sky. “But . . . why?” he asks it.

  “Are you fishing for compliments?”

  He shoves me. “No. I just don’t get it. I’m not her type, anyway.”

  “How do you know?” Sam asks seriously.

  “Look at her. I mean . . . she’s kind of . . . L.L.Bean catalog.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “You know, perfectly ironed, matching clothes. Conservative. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just not my style.”

  “What catalog are you?” I ask.

  “There is no catalog for me,” he says proudly.

  “You think you’re so special,” Sam says.

  “No, I don’t. I just . . . don’t want to be that predictable, you know?”

  Sam finally finishes his chip and takes a sip from his milk carton. “Not really.”

  “Figures a girl finally likes me and it has to be someone like Molly,” he says sadly.

  “I think she’s nice,” Sam says.

  Ryan looks miserable as we follow Sam back inside after lunch. Curly is waiting in the hallway and mews at us to give her our leftovers. Cheese is her favorite. It’s kind of a miracle that she’s not obese.

  “All I have is fake turkey,” I tell her. “It would probably make you sick.”

  “Don’t encourage her, Noah. She should only eat cat food,” Sam says.

  “I wasn’t encouraging. I was explaining.”

  “Curly, you shouldn’t eat food from other people’s lunch,” Sam tells her seriously. “You don’t know who touched it or where it came from or how unhealthy it could be for you.”

  Curly stares up at Sam and mews sadly.

  “You’re bumming her out,” Ryan tells him. He bends down and holds out his hand. She licks his thumb.

  “That is so unsanitary,” Sam says.

  Curly ignores him and keeps licking until Ryan takes his hand away.

  “What’s wrong with it?” Ryan asks.

  “Are you going to wash your hand now?”

  “No.”

  We throw our lunch bags into our lockers and go to class. Curly follows.

  “Now she’s going to want to lick everyone,” Sam says. “I can’t believe you.”

  “What’s wrong with licking everyone?” I ask. “Dogs do it.”

  “She’s not a dog. She’s more like . . . a wingless bat.”

  Curly tilts her pointy head up at us. It’s hard to picture a bat wearing a hot-pink sweater-vest like the one she has on today. Of course, it should be hard to picture a naked cat wearing a hot-pink sweater-vest, too.

  “Guess I know what’s going in the Suggestion Box next,” Sam says. “‘No licking.’”

  “You need to lighten up,” Ryan tells him. “And you might want to be a little more specific if you put that note in the box.”

  “Why?” Sam asks.

  But Ryan doesn’t have the patience to explain.

  Sam is an odd duck. My dad says he “lacks a filter.” He says whatever pops into his head. Sometimes it’s something brilliant, and other times it’s just too much information. Sometimes we learn interesting stuff, like about the possibility of life on Mars, especially since Mrs. Phelps keeps telling us that global warming is happening faster than anyone predicted and in the next few decades the planet could get so hot and the storms so severe that no one will survive. But then other times we learn stuff we wish we could unlearn, like the details of Sam’s poop — how often he goes, what color it is, what size it is, what texture it is, and what it smells like. Sam is the king of oversharing.

  Ryan and I follow Sam into our language arts class and sit at the big circular table Mr. Marshall set up so the students can see one another during discussions. Today we’re talking about the first half of Lord of the Flies. So far, this book is creepy and disturbing.

  Emma says the book is going to steal away my innocence like it did hers, and that they should stop teaching it. She had to read it in middle school, too. She got in big trouble because she made a list of which of her classmates would go crazy and turn into savages if they got trapped on an island, the way most of the boys in the book do, and which wouldn’t. Unfortunately, Ms. Cliff saw the list and felt the need to discuss it “anonymously” at Community Meeting. It didn’t take long for everyone to figure out who she was talking about, and for a while, Emma was the most popular girl in school, not because she was the prettiest and smartest but because everyone wanted to find out if she thought they’d be a savage or a Ralph. Ralph’s the main character and the only one who doesn’t either die or turn into a beast follower, which is what happens to all the boys who become savages. Pretty soon, it didn’t matter who she labeled what, because the whole school was fighting about it and calling one another savages and it was all Emma’s fault. And just like in the book, they turned on her. Emma, who everyone loved and adored, suddenly became the outcast. I’m pretty sure
she started out convinced she was a Ralph, but in the end she came to believe she was the beast after all. The entire incident changed her in a big way. It was like she’d seen how she was capable of being a terrible person without even being stranded on an island. Even though eventually people forgot about it and moved on and forgave her, Emma couldn’t. She started trying to be more perfect and more adored than she was before, but to do that, she was secretly punishing herself. It’s not a time we like to talk about.

  Emma used to want to be a psychologist someday. I think she liked to study people to find out if they had a dark side. Sometimes when I had friends over, she’d ask them weird questions, like if they killed insects quickly or tortured them first. I’m glad no one admitted to doing anything worse than squishing a spider with a shoe (Sam) and swatting flies with one of those flyswatter guns you get from the dollar store (Ryan). Sometimes I’d catch her watching me, like she was trying to figure out if I’d grow up to be a serial killer.

  But that all stopped after the Lord of the Flies incident. It’s really too bad, because as mean as it was to make that list, I bet she was right about a lot of people.

  “Noah, what was the beast?” Mr. Marshall asks me. “Why do you think the boys all believe in its presence?”

  Mr. Marshall never starts class in the usual way, like by saying hello to everyone or telling us what we’re going to do that day. He just launches into a discussion as if we never stopped talking from the day before.

  I think a minute before I answer. Unlike Mrs. Phelps, who gets closer and closer to your face until you answer, Mr. Marshall seems to put the whole room on pause to wait.

  I think of the boys on the beach and how they all act kind of scary. Even Ralph, the one who’s supposed to be the good guy.

  “I think the beast is the thing inside you that makes you tempted to do bad things,” I say. “It’s . . . something some people have and some don’t. Or maybe we all have it. When we’re put into a bad situation, like being stranded on an island, the beast inside wakes up, looking for who will follow him. The boys believed in the beast because they could feel it waking up inside themselves.”

  “Fascinating,” Mr. Marshall says. “Sadie, what do you think of that?”

  Sadie looks at me and smiles shyly. “I agree with Noah.”

  Ryan nudges me under the table. I nudge back.

  “Care to explain?” Mr. Marshall asks.

  Her face turns bright red. “No,” she says quietly. “Noah said it really well.”

  “Did you read the assignment?” he asks her.

  “Yes.”

  “And you don’t have any thoughts of your own to add?”

  She shakes her head. She looks like she wants to crawl under the table.

  “What about you, Lily?” Mr. Marshall asks hopefully.

  Lily starts talking, but I don’t really listen because Ryan slides a slip of paper over to me: S likes u.

  I roll my eyes.

  Ryan crosses out the words and draws a heart with my and Sadie’s initials in it. Sometimes I think he forgets we’re not in third grade anymore.

  “Ryan? You seem busy over there. Do you agree with Lily?”

  “Huh? Um. Sorry?”

  “What do you think of the beast?”

  Ryan takes his time, then finally answers. “I think we’re all beasts. This book is insane. I don’t know who I’m supposed to like.”

  “Why do you think you’re supposed to like someone?”

  “Isn’t that the point of books? To care about the main character so you want to keep reading?”

  “Is it?”

  Ryan sighs. “Who’s to say?” he asks. This is the old answering-a-question-with-a-question trick. Who’s to say? is a good way to reply to a question which you sort-of know the answer to but are not willing to expand on. Mrs. Phelps always used to answer questions with “What do you think?” which is honestly one of the most annoying replies ever, when you just want to know something. Then Ryan figured out to answer that question with “Who’s to say?” which we then all began doing, and now she never does that anymore.

  “Well, I’d like you to say,” Mr. Marshall says.

  He got him there, I guess.

  “Do you want to finish the book or not?” Mr. Marshall asks.

  “Only to find out if anyone is left standing.”

  “Then I guess the author did his job, even if you don’t like any of the characters.”

  Mr. Marshall walks back to his desk and grabs a stack of papers. “Your next assignment is to write an expanded paragraph on the beast. Details are on the handout, but if you have any questions, ask. Due next Friday.”

  He hands out the papers and then starts reading from the book. It’s hard to listen. We’re at the part where things are going downhill fast. I’m sure if anyone is going to die, it will be Piggy, who kind of reminds me of Sam because he’s so innocent and loyal. This makes me sad. Why is the trusty sidekick always the one to bite the dust?

  That afternoon, Harper and Stu don’t need a ride, so Emma’s friend Sara gets in the car before my mom even says she can come over. It doesn’t matter. It’s always OK. My mom always seems so relieved when we have friends over, like she’s worried we’ve become outcasts if we don’t. The Lord of the Flies incident with Emma really put her on high alert.

  “Do you have any dietary restrictions?” she asks Sara. My mom actually uses phrases like that.

  “She’s vegan, like me,” Emma tells her. “But we’ll cook dinner.”

  Great. Whenever Emma cooks dinner, we end up having to try all of her disgusting “healthy” meat alternatives.

  “No seitan,” I tell her. “That stuff is disgusting.”

  “Satan?” Sara asks.

  “Not like Satan, the devil. Seitan. It’s a meat substitute,” Emma tells her. “But if you’ve had meat recently, you might not think it’s very good. It’s an acquired taste.”

  I will never acquire a taste for that stuff. Satan is definitely a more accurate way to describe it.

  “Sara is new to veganism,” Emma explains.

  “Is your family vegan, too?” my mom asks.

  “No, just me. My parents are all stressed-out about it. They think I’m going to become anemic or something.”

  Emma sighs dramatically, as if to say, So typical.

  My mom clears her throat uncomfortably. “We were worried about Emma, too. But she’s very aware of her dietary needs. Right, Emma?”

  “Kind of hard not to be with you and Dad obsessing about everything I eat,” Emma says sarcastically.

  My mom doesn’t answer, just grips the steering wheel tighter. Sara shifts in her seat awkwardly, probably remembering the time a few years ago that no one talks about. Even though she and Emma weren’t good friends then, everyone knows about the Thing That Happened.

  When we get home, Emma takes Sara straight to her room and shuts the door. I go to my own room and figure out the minimum amount of work I have to do to get credit for it. Our dog, the Captain, carries his ratty tennis ball to me and drops it at my feet. He doesn’t really like to fetch; it’s just his way of letting me know he needs some love. Even though he’s Emma’s dog, he seems to love me best. He probably resents her for giving him a stupid name. We got him right after she’d seen this old movie called Dead Poets Society about an English teacher who tries to save a bunch of kids from boredom, and they all say to him “O Captain! My Captain!” when he gets fired, which is a reference to some poem, and I guess she found it really moving, so she named our dog Captain. Only somehow we all got to referring to him as the Captain because he’s so special. And by “special” I mean no one smells like the Captain, no one snores like the Captain, and definitely no one farts like the Captain.

  I kick the ball gently for him, and it rolls across the room. He looks up at me with his “Is that really all you’ve got?” look of disappointment.

  “Sorry,” I say. “Too much work to do.” But before I can start, I get a text from
Ryan asking what I’m doing. I tell him homework. A few minutes later, he calls.

  “Are you done with homework yet?” he asks.

  “It’s been three minutes,” I say.

  “So, are you?”

  “No?”

  “I’ve been thinking about Molly Lo.”

  “Not this again.”

  “I decided I really don’t want to go out with her.”

  “I already knew that,” I remind him.

  “I’m just not that into her,” he says, ignoring me.

  “I know. Too L.L.Bean.”

  He’s quiet for a minute. “I’m just . . . not attracted. In any way.”

  “Are you basing this just on looks and how she dresses?”

  Another pause. “No?”

  I shake my head, even though he can’t see me. “You really are shallow.”

  “I can’t help it. There’s no chemistry.”

  “There’s one-way chemistry.”

  “You can’t have a chemical reaction if there’s nothing to charge with.”

  “Love isn’t scientific,” I tell him.

  He ignores this. “Can you just tell her I’m seeing someone else?”

  “No.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because it’s not true.”

  “You wouldn’t lie for me?” He sounds genuinely shocked.

  “Not really.”

  “Fine. I’ll get Sam to do it. Jeez, you’re really disappointing, Noah.”

  “I bet you ten bucks Sam won’t do it either.”

  “Why not?

  “Because it’s wrong.”

  “Why?”

  “Listen,” I say. “Think. This is middle school. Saying no if a girl asks you out is not earth-shattering. Get a grip and just be honest with her.”

  “I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

  “No offense, but you’re not that amazing. She isn’t going to jump off a cliff if you say no.”

  He sighs heavily. “Fine, then.”

  “Does that mean you’re not going to try to avoid her anymore? You’re going to be normal from now on?”

  “I guess.”

  “Good. I have to do my homework now.”

  “But you never want to do your homework.”

 
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