Still a work in progress, p.3
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       Still a Work in Progress, p.3

           Jo Knowles
 
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  I let the meaning of that sink in for him.

  “Call me back when you’re done,” he says.

  “All right,” I say, and hang up.

  But by the time I finish, Emma and Sara’s vegan dinner is ready. It’s also disgusting, as predicted. Even Emma slips half her food to the Captain, who waits patiently under the table. Only, after dinner when we’re cleaning up and my mom finds the uneaten seitan on the floor, I get blamed. The Captain looks at me guiltily, but I really can’t fault him for coughing it out. Emma doesn’t confess her part in all this, and since I’m not a rat, I end up having to do extra cleanup as punishment.

  “Hey, thanks for not telling on me,” she says later, coming into my room to say good night. She’s always done this since we were little. We used to read together before bed, but now I’m too old for that.

  “I thought you loved seitan,” I tell her. “Why didn’t you eat it?”

  She gives me a strange look and shrugs. “I wasn’t hungry. Never mind. I just wanted to say thanks.”

  “Emma,” I say. “You’re OK, right? You really just weren’t hungry?”

  She makes a disgusted face. “Not you, too, Noah! Jeez. I wish everyone would get off my case.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Never mind!” She stomps off down the hall.

  “Emma?” I hear my mom call from her bedroom. “Is everything OK?”

  “Leave me alone!” she yells.

  The Captain, who has been sleeping on the floor next to my bed, gives me a worried look.

  “She’s just in a mood,” I say, trying to reassure him.

  But when I try to fall asleep, I think about the Thing We Don’t Talk About and wonder if it could be happening again. Emma sees a therapist once a week, and I try to convince myself that if something was wrong, her therapist would know and make everything better. But I’m not really sure it’s that simple. I mean, I know it’s not.

  When I finally do fall asleep, I get woken up about every hour by a horrible smell that only the Captain is capable of producing. I guess he managed to swallow some of the seitan after all and it did not agree with him. If Satan has a smell, I think this is it.

  “Did yesterday never happen?” I ask Ryan as we hide out in the bathroom again. “I thought we decided you were gonna be a man about this.”

  “You can leave if you want, but I’m not going out there.” He walks over to the mirror and squints. “Why is it so dark in here, anyway?”

  “So you won’t obsess over your face for five hours?”

  “Ha. We need to do something about this. Write a suggestion.”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “Listen. Tell me when lunch is over and the coast is clear so I can come out.”

  “That doesn’t even make sense. You’re in the same class after lunch.”

  “Molly’s not going to ask me to go out with her in class.”

  “She could pass you a note.”

  “Ugh! Do you think she would do that? Great. Now what am I going to do?”

  “Say no.”

  “But I’ll feel bad!”

  “Then say yes!”

  “But I don’t like her!”

  I slap my forehead. “I’m going out there before this smell starts to rub off on me. If she asks me where you are, I’m telling her you’re alone in here and she should come find you.”

  “You wouldn’t.”

  I stare.

  “You would?”

  “Just come on,” I say. “This place is foul.”

  “It wasn’t me!”

  “I don’t care who it was. I’m going to puke if we don’t get out of here.” I grab his arm and drag him out. The hall is empty because everyone’s still at lunch.

  “Let’s eat outside,” Ryan says.

  “It’s raining,” I remind him.

  “I know. That means she won’t be out there.”

  I roll my eyes but follow him anyway. It’s only drizzling, so we sit on the steps and eat our sandwiches. I can tell my butt is going to have a wet spot, but anything is better than that bathroom.

  After a few minutes, Sam joins us.

  “I wondered where you two went,” he says. “Why are you sitting in the rain?”

  “Molly,” I tell him.

  Sam shakes his head. “She’s going to track you down eventually, you know. You need to get it over with. Rip off the Band-Aid.”

  Ryan shrugs. “Ripping off the Band-Aid hurts.”

  “Yup, but the faster you do it, the faster it’s over,” Sam says.

  “I never rip off my Band-Aids. I wait until they get wet and lose their stick and fall off.”

  “That explains a lot about you,” I say.

  “Maybe I could do something really awful in front of her so she doesn’t like me.”

  “Such as?”

  “I don’t know. I could fart?”

  “Then you’d make everyone not like you,” I say.

  “Good point,” Ryan says. “Everyone hates the Fart Squad.”

  “This is no way to live,” Sam says, opening his lunch bag.

  As soon as he pulls out his sandwich, a horrible smell wafts over us. Ryan gags. I cough.

  “What. Is. THAT?” Ryan asks, sliding away from him.

  “Liverwurst and onions. And some mustard,” Sam says. “What’s wrong?”

  “Can’t you smell it?” I say, sliding the other way.

  “Yes. It smells great!” Sam says, sniffing.

  “What is liverwurst, anyway?” Ryan asks.

  “It’s a kind of sausage. You know. Made from liver.”

  “I think I just threw up in my mouth,” I say. “Who eats liver voluntarily?”

  “Most people?” Sam takes a massive bite.

  “You insist on nibbling your potato chips but you’ll stuff your face with liver product?”

  “It’s delicious! You should try it!”

  “I don’t think I could get my face close enough to that smell,” Ryan says.

  “You guys are missing out,” Sam says with his mouth full.

  “That must give you some seriously bad breath,” I tell him.

  “That’s what mints are for. My mom puts them in my lunch whenever she makes me something that will give me bad breath.”

  “I don’t think mints can hide that stench,” Ryan says. “No offense.”

  “Quick,” I say to Ryan. “Take a bite of Sam’s sandwich and then go breathe on Molly. All your problems will be solved.”

  “I’m trying to be a vegan!” Ryan yells.

  “Since when?”

  “Emma talked me into it last time I was at your house, remember?”

  I roll my eyes. “You’d do anything for her.”

  He doesn’t deny it.

  Sam holds out the sandwich for him. “I’m sure Emma would understand this one time.”

  Ryan takes the sandwich from Sam and lifts up the bread to inspect the meat. “What type of animal’s liver is it?”

  “I think it has ham and veal livers,” Sam says. He pushes his glasses up his nose the way he always does when he’s providing information about something.

  “Veal?” Ryan asks. “You mean, baby cow?”

  “It’s a delicacy,” Sam explains.

  “What would Emma say to that?” I ask, shaking my head.

  “You’re right,” Ryan says. “I can’t do it.”

  “I won’t tell,” Sam says.

  “Even so . . . it’s a baby cow!” Ryan says.

  “Just the liver,” Sam clarifies.

  Ryan looks at me for advice, but I don’t have any.

  He plugs his nose with his free hand. “Noah, do you have anything left in your water bottle?”

  I shake it. “A little.”

  “Be ready. I’m gonna need it.”

  I hug it to my chest. “No way are you putting your baby-cow-liver mouth on my water bottle!”

  “You two are totally overreacting. It’s delicious!” Sam says.

/>   “One . . . two . . .” Ryan is just about to take a bite when the door swings open and Molly steps out with Lily and Belle.

  “Hey, guys,” Molly says.

  Ryan quickly hands the sandwich back to Sam.

  “We’re putting together a playlist for the dance and wanted to get your requests,” Belle says. “Everyone is allowed to give three suggestions.”

  “What dance?” Sam asks.

  “It’s next Friday, remember?”

  “Oh. I forgot.” Sam takes another bite of his sandwich.

  “What’s that smell?” Belle asks.

  Sam and I look at Ryan. He could say it’s him and maybe gross Molly out. But instead he points to the sandwich like a traitor.

  “What?” Sam says. “I think it smells good.”

  “What kind of sandwich is that?” Lily asks, wrinkling her nose.

  Sam sighs. “Liverwurst and onions. With mustard.”

  “Gross,” Belle says. “No offense.”

  It seems like we all say “No offense” a lot around Sam.

  “My grandfather used to make those!” Molly leans forward and sniffs. “Can I have a bite?”

  Sam looks shocked. “Really? Yeah!” He hands it over and she takes a huge bite, nodding as she chews.

  “Oh, yeah,” she says through a mouthful. “Mmmm.” She smiles at Sam as if this is the first time she’s noticed him. “He made these for me whenever I visited him.”

  Molly hands what’s left of the sandwich back to Sam, who smiles at her dreamily.

  Ryan watches them in disbelief as they fall in love over a liverwurst sandwich.

  “Can we get back to the music requests?” Lily asks, ignoring them. She’s holding a notebook and pencil.

  “What do you have so far?” I ask.

  She shrugs. “The usual. Oh, and ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ The teachers make us play that last at every dance.”

  “That song goes on forever!” Ryan says.

  “It’s a tradition,” Lily says. “Do you have any requests or not? It’s cold out here. And smelly. No offense.”

  “No country,” Ryan says.

  “Or dubstep,” I add.

  “But a bunch of people have requested that already.”

  “If a bunch of people request not to have it, will that cancel it out?”

  “I don’t know,” Lily says.

  “I think it should,” Belle says. I think she smiles at me, but I’m not sure. Could Belle like me? She turns away before I can decide if it was a pity smile.

  “Fine. I’ll keep track,” Lily says.

  “Well, I’m with Noah, so that’s two against,” Ryan says.

  Sam stands up. “Me too.”

  Lily makes some marks in her notebook. “Got it.”

  Sam reaches in his lunch bag and pulls out a tin of mints. He takes one and offers the tin to Molly, who blushes.

  We all start to go inside, but Ryan stays back and grabs my arm before we go in.

  “Did you see that?” he asks excitedly. “I think I’m free!”

  “Yes,” I say. “Congratulations. Saved by liverwurst.”

  “And onions,” Ryan adds. “Can you believe it?”

  “Love at first bite,” I say. We both crack up.

  Ryan puts his arm over my shoulder. “C’mon,” he says happily. “Art’s next. I know that’s your favorite.”

  “You do?”

  “Sure. You’re, like, the best artist in the school.”

  “Really?” I never knew he even noticed my stuff.

  “Just don’t let it go to your head. No one likes a show-off.” He lets go of my shoulder and hurries ahead.

  This month we’ve been using clay in art. At first I didn’t like it. It smells funny and is kind of hard to work with. But then Ms. Cliff showed me this cool technique for wetting the clay just the right amount and using the ribbon tool to shave off extra clay to shape it smooth.

  One time when we were studying Michelangelo, we learned that when he worked with stone, he chipped it away to set the image free. It sort of feels like that when I’m using the ribbon. When I start with a chunk of clay, I’m not sure what I’m going to make. But as I play with it and begin to peel away the outside, an image forms. I’ve never told anyone this, but Ms. Cliff told me she thinks I have a real gift for sculpting. No one ever tells me I have a gift for anything. Most adults don’t even notice me. Emma’s the one with all the gifts. Only . . . when I’m working with the clay, I finally feel like there’s something I can do that she can’t. It’s like this secret no one else knows, except for Ms. Cliff. And now I guess maybe Ryan. I don’t know why, but it makes me feel good. When I’m working with clay and a shape starts to emerge, I feel like someone else. Not Emma’s little brother, or Ryan and Sam’s best friend. I’m just Noah. Maybe I don’t tell anyone about it because I’m not sure they’d understand what I mean. Or maybe I don’t tell them because I don’t want them to understand. I know that sounds sort of dumb, but it’s true. When I’m in the art room, smelling the clay, shaping something out of nothing, nothing else matters. I can forget everything else and just focus on creating something new.

  Ryan glances over at me as I start to use the ribbon. He holds up his sculpture, which looks like a misshapen bowl, and rolls his eyes. I smile and get back to my own work, shutting everything else out. For the rest of class, I am lost in the clay in my hands, far away from school and worrying about who has crushes on who and homework and the science test coming up, but most of all, I am far away from home and from worrying about the Thing That Happened and whether it could happen again.

  The day of the dance, everyone at school acts even more hyper than usual. During lunch, Zach Bray goes over to one of the structural poles in the Community Room and starts pole dancing like he’s at a strip club or something.

  Sasha, Belle, and Molly squeal and tell him he’s gross.

  Ryan claps and woots for more, then holds out a dollar for him.

  “You really shouldn’t encourage him,” Sam says, all serious.

  Zach ignores him and takes the dollar. He shoves it down his shirt as if he has a bra on under it.

  “You two are disgusting,” Belle says to them.

  Lily comes up next to her. “That is so degrading to women,” she says, crossing her arms at her chest.

  “You’re just jealous because you don’t have my moves,” Zach tells her.

  “Right,” Lily says.

  “Is that a challenge?” Zach steps away from the pole and gestures for her to take a turn.

  “In your dreams,” Lily says.

  “How’d you know?” Zach looks her up and down.

  “Belle’s right. You are disgusting.”

  Zach clutches his heart dramatically and falls on the floor. “You hurt me, Lily! You hurt me so bad!”

  Lily rolls her eyes and walks away.

  Zach reaches his hand out to Ryan, who pulls him up.

  “I’m totally asking Lily to the dance now,” Zach says.

  “Good idea.” Ryan smacks him on the back.

  “Seriously?” I ask.

  “She is so into me.”

  “OK,” I say doubtfully.

  “C’mon, you saw how she was looking at me.”

  “She kind of looked like she wanted to throw up,” Sam says.

  Zach ignores him and goes back to the pole, dancing again to some song in his head that clearly makes him feel like a dance god.

  Sam and Ryan come to my house after school so we can all go to the dance together. Even though Sam is “taking” Molly to the dance, it doesn’t mean they actually arrive together. It just means that they plan to be at the dance as a couple.

  Ryan keeps saying how relieved he is, but the more thrilled Sam acts, the less convincing Ryan seems, and I’m starting to wonder if he’s having second thoughts about Molly after all.

  “I think you need new pants,” Sam tells Ryan, who is standing in front of the mirror that hangs on the back of my bedroom door.
r />   The Captain keeps circling his legs, trying to herd him to the bed to sit down.

  “Why do I need new pants?” Ryan asks, twisting so he can see his butt.

  “They’re a little tight,” Sam says.

  “They’re supposed to look like this. It’s the style.”

  “Are you turning into an emu?” Sam asks.

  “A what?”

  “Emu. You know. A guy who wears eyeliner and tight pants and acts depressed.” Sam pushes his glasses up his nose.

  “I think you mean emo,” I say.

  Ryan cracks up.

  “Yes,” Sam says, not seeing what’s so funny.

  “Do I look emo? Am I wearing guyliner?”

  Sam frowns. “I don’t know. It’s kind of dark in here.”

  “You need overhead lights,” Ryan tells me. “Why don’t you have any lights in here?”

  I shrug. “I don’t need to stare at myself with the same intensity as you.”

  “Ha.”

  “I don’t really get what emo is,” I say. “You’re supposed to be serious all the time and not think anything is funny, right? Or . . . you’re only supposed to be friends with other guys who wear tight pants and eyeliner?”

  “This is the problem with living in a small town,” Ryan says. “We don’t know anything.”

  Sam holds out his phone with a Wikipedia entry for emo. “I guess you’re not really one. You’re not morose enough.”

  “You can call me emu, though,” Ryan says. “That’s a great nickname.”

  The Captain licks his hand. Ryan wipes the spit on his jeans, finishes adjusting his T-shirt over his hips just so, and flops down on my bed next to Sam.

  I go over to the mirror and take in my own jeans-and-T-shirt ensemble. I am on the short side and still can’t fit into guy sizes. It’s kind of mortifying because they don’t have any cool styles of jeans for “boys.” My choices are “husky” or “slim.” It’s ridiculous.

  “Does Molly send you texts?” Ryan asks, bouncing on the bed.

  Sam holds his phone to his chest.

  “Let me see-ee,” Ryan sings.

  “No, it’s private.”

  “We’re best friends! C’mon!” He grabs for the phone. The Captain barks.

  “I said it’s private!” Sam shoves the phone under his shirt.

  “You think I won’t reach under there?” Ryan asks, reaching.

 
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