Still a work in progress, p.4
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       Still a Work in Progress, p.4

           Jo Knowles
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  Sam hugs himself tighter. “Respect my personal space, please!”

  Sometimes Sam talks like he’s still in kindergarten.

  “I’m just messing with you. Don’t worry.” Ryan backs off. “Just summarize.”

  “She only says stuff like ‘See you tomorrow’ or whatever. It’s nothing lovey-dovey.”

  “Well, you have been dating less than a week,” I say. “Give her time.”

  “Do you know how to slow-dance, by the way?” Ryan asks. “Because if you’re going to the dance as a couple, you know that means you have to dance to every song together, right?”

  Sam looks up at the ceiling. “I know. It’s kind of why my hands are sweating right now.”

  “Gross! Don’t touch my comforter,” I say.

  He wipes his palms on his pants. “I’m the worst dancer in the world. Will you teach me?”

  “To slow-dance?” Ryan asks. “How are we supposed to teach you that?”

  “You could”— Sam looks around as if there could possibly be anyone else in the room —“show me. You know.” He blushes.

  “I think I do, but no.” Ryan gets up and crosses the room to the chair at my desk. The Captain waddles after him.

  “But you’re the only one who knows how!”

  “Hey!” I say. “Maybe I know how.”

  “Will you teach me, then?”

  “No. Sorry. Ryan should do it. He’s the emu.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?” Ryan asks.

  “Actually, I have no idea,” I tell him.

  “C’mon, you guys, please? I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”

  “No way,” I say. “I can just imagine someone posting a video of us dancing together online.”

  “Who would do that?” Sam asks.

  I look over at Ryan.

  “No trust,” he says. “You’re supposed to be my best friends.”

  Sam inches his butt to the edge of the bed and looks up at Ryan in his innocent way. “Best friends help each other.”

  “Just do it,” I tell Ryan. “I won’t tell anyone.”

  “Fine.” Ryan walks over to Sam and holds out his arms.

  “You’re a good friend,” I tell him.

  I don’t have any slow songs on my playlist, so they make me download “Stairway to Heaven.”

  “I’ll be the girl,” Ryan says as the music starts. He puts his hands on Sam’s shoulders.

  “What do I do?” Sam asks.

  “Put your hands on my waist. But don’t get too close. You have to let the girl be the one to move in.”

  “That’s sexist.”

  “Why?” I ask.

  “You are assigning male and female roles,” Sam explains.

  “Just trust me,” Ryan says. “You may think it’s sexist, but if you try to get too close, she might slap you.”

  They start to pivot awkwardly. I admit, I’m tempted to take a picture.

  “You have to sway, not just pick up your feet,” Ryan says. “Like this.” He moves his hips a little.

  Sam looks down between Ryan’s arms to watch his hips. “I can’t do that!”

  “Why not? It’s easy! Feel my hips. See how I move them to the beat?”

  Sam wiggles his butt, but he looks more like he’s belly dancing than moving to a slow song.

  Ryan starts to laugh.

  “What’s so funny?” Sam asks. He wiggles again, and Ryan lets go and falls on the floor in hysterics. The Captain bounds over to him and starts doing an embarrassing thing dogs do to people when they are lying on the floor sometimes.

  “Ack! Get off me!” Ryan yells, rolling over.

  The Captain barks excitedly.

  Sam watches himself wiggle his hips in the mirror. “What am I doing wrong?” he asks, all serious.

  I crack up, too.

  “It’s not funny!” he says. “This is serious! My first chance at a girlfriend, and I’m gonna screw it up!”

  “It’s not that dire,” I say when I finally stop laughing.

  “Easy for you to say.”


  “You’re not . . . me.”

  I don’t ask what that means, because I’m pretty sure I know. Sam is a little chunky. Definitely a former “husky” wearer. He’s also a little awkward and a little smelly. Sad as it is, sometimes those things get in the way of seeing how great a person really is.

  My bedroom door opens, and Emma steps in without knocking. The Captain leaves Ryan and trots over to her. She pats his head. “Why are you guys listening to ‘Stairway to Heaven’?” she asks.

  “Hey, Emma,” Ryan says, trying to act all cool.

  “Yeah, hey,” Sam says. “So, um. I need to learn how to slow-dance.” He looks down at the rug and rubs his foot back and forth nervously. He has a hole in his sock and his big toe sticks out a little. He doesn’t seem to notice.

  Emma studies him for a minute. “Why do you want to learn?”

  Sam digs his toe deeper into the carpet. “Well . . .”

  “He has a date,” I say.

  “That’s awesome!” She claps her hands. “Do you want me to help? But you have to pick a different song. I hate this one.”

  Sam glows. “Yes, please!”

  “Let me go get some music!” She runs to her room.

  Sam turns to both of us with his mouth wide open in a cross between a smile and a look of absolute shock. Kind of like what I imagine I would look like if I won the lottery.

  “Your sister is the best!” Sam says.

  I roll my eyes.

  Ryan flops on the bed. “Sam gets all the ladies.”

  “You both need to stop drooling over my sister,” I say. “And never refer to her as a lady. God.”

  “Everyone drools over her,” Ryan says. “It can’t be helped.”

  “You could’ve gone out with Molly, but you blew it,” Sam tells him.

  Ryan falls back on the bed as if he’s been shot.

  “You two are pathetic.” I flop onto the oversize beanbag chair Emma gave me for Christmas last year and listen to the Styrofoam beads inside settle under me.

  “I’m just a lonely emu,” Ryan says.

  Emma comes back and plugs her music into my stand.

  “What is it?” Sam asks.

  “Lynyrd Skynyrd,” Emma says.


  “You know. ‘Free Bird’? They always play this song at dances.”

  “I don’t think anyone gave that title to Lily.”

  Emma shrugs. “The Tank always makes the DJs play this song. Trust me.” She steps closer to Sam. “OK, Sammy. Come over here and let me show you how it’s done.”

  Sam hates that nickname with a passion. Unless, of course, it’s coming out of Emma’s mouth while she holds her arms open to him like she’s going to give him a big hug.

  “Put your hands on my hips,” Emma tells Sam, stepping closer and putting her hands on his shoulders.

  Sam looks like he’s about to faint.

  “You can’t be shy,” Emma says, reaching for his hands.

  She’s wearing her usual SpongeBob outfit of layers of sweaters and a pair of leggings.

  “Noah, hit play,” Emma tells me. She leans closer to Sam. “Just listen to the words and move to the story. Don’t think about the beat.” They start to sway really slowly.

  As I listen to the words, I get this sad feeling. The song is about having to leave someone you love because you know you can’t change. The singer tells the story in this really hopeless, final way. It seems like the last song you’d want to dance to with a girl you’re just starting to date.

  Emma closes her eyes and rests her head on Sam’s shoulder. Ryan shakes his head, like he cannot believe Sam’s luck. But Sam doesn’t actually look like he’s enjoying it all that much. He has this weird expression on his face, as if he’s trying not to step on glass.

  “C’mon, Sam. Hold me,” Emma says. She moves closer to him and makes him put his arms around her.

  If it
s possible to die of discomfort, Sam is in imminent danger.

  “Just sway a bit more, like this,” Emma tells him, swaying.

  Sam holds his arms stiffly and rocks back and forth like a zombie, without bending his legs.

  Then the music speeds up and Sam looks even more horrified than he did before. “What do we do now?” he asks in a panic. “I can’t fast-dance!”

  Emma laughs. “The trick is to pretend that the music is still slow. Everyone else might start dancing faster, but you just keep your date in your arms like this and move real slow, like you’re in your own world.”

  “But — isn’t that kind of weird?” Sam asks.

  Emma laughs again. “No. I promise. Your date will love it. She’ll think you are in some kind of love zone together.”

  “Love zone?”

  She steps away from him before the song is totally over and sings about the bird you can’t change as she walks out the door. As if she is the bird, and she cannot change.

  Sam drops on the bed next to Ryan. “Wow.”

  “Shut up,” Ryan says. “I don’t even want to hear about it.”

  I put my own music back on and try to ignore their lovestruck faces, but it gets to be a bit much, so I leave them to go get something for us to eat.

  In the kitchen, my dad is busy putting something together for dinner. I look in the cupboard where we keep bags of chips and stuff, but all I can find is a bag of Emma’s gross organic corn chips. Emma insists we buy organic everything. Her idea of a fun snack treat is dried-up vegetables made to look like french fries that taste like lightly salted air.

  “Don’t we have anything else?” I ask my dad. “I’m starving.”

  “You’re hungry, not starving,” my dad corrects. “Take the corn chips. They’re not that bad.”

  I grab the bag and groan when I see they’re unsalted on top of everything else.

  “Don’t start, Noah,” my dad warns. Rule of the house: Never complain about food. Don’t even talk about food. Just eat it.

  “Do we at least have some salsa?”

  “We might, but if we do, you’re not taking it to your room. It’s bad enough you eat chips up there.”

  I take the bag and go back upstairs. When I reach my room, I can hear Ryan and Sam talking inside.

  “I’m serious,” Sam says. “It was kind of creepy.”

  “You get to put your hands on Emma’s hips and all you can say is it was creepy?” Ryan asks. “She’s just a little thin, that’s all.”

  “What if she’s . . . you know. Sick again.”

  “She seems fine to me.”

  I make a point of crinkling the bag so they hear me before I join them.

  They both jump and look guilty, but I pretend not to notice and hold out the bag. The Captain whines at me for some.

  “They don’t even have salt,” I tell him. “Don’t waste your time.”

  Sam takes a nibble. “Kind of bland.”

  “Don’t start,” I warn him. Sam and Ryan know the rules, too. But it’s something they don’t talk about, either. At least not to my face.

  We pass the bag around and eat the whole thing, even though it tastes like wood shavings.

  “I really hope this dance isn’t lame,” Ryan says, brushing crumbs off his jeans onto the floor. The Captain immediately starts licking them up.

  “I heard there’s good food,” Sam says.

  “I just hope there’s no dubstep. I really hate that crap,” Ryan says.

  “Yeah, me too,” Sam agrees. “Who are you guys going to ask to dance?”

  Ryan smiles. “Like I’d tell.”

  “Like you would dare to ask anyone,” I say.

  “True enough.”

  Sam pats Ryan’s shoulder reassuringly, as if he’s suddenly the experienced one. “Don’t worry: I’m sure someone will ask you guys to dance.”

  “Don’t hold your breath.” I pick up the empty bag of chips and throw it into the trash basket under my desk.

  Ryan turns up the music and starts dancing around the room like a maniac, making the Captain bark and Sam howl with laughter. I sit at my desk and watch, trying to focus on my friends instead of worrying about what I heard them say about Emma.

  But it doesn’t really work. All I can think about is the “Free Bird” song and how Emma sang the words like they were written just for her. And what it means if she’s a bird we can’t change, no matter how hard we try.

  “You boys behave yourselves,” my dad tells us when he drops us off at the school. “And don’t forget your cans!”

  Ryan, Sam, and I grab the shopping bag full of canned vegetables my dad gathered for us. Instead of paying to get into the dance, we have to donate three cans each for the local food bank. Ryan hauls his bag over his shoulder.

  “Let’s get this over with,” he says, like we’re on some kind of mission.

  We start to cross the parking lot before we realize that Sam is still standing next to the car. We stop and turn back.

  “What?” Ryan asks.

  “I’m not sure I can do this.”

  “Oh, gimme a break. This isn’t your high-school prom. Get ahold of yourself.” Ryan grabs Sam’s arm and drags him forward.

  Molly is waiting for Sam at the steps outside. She smiles shyly.

  “Hi, Sam,” she says. She doesn’t say hi to me or Ryan.

  “Huh-hi,” Sam says. “You look . . . pretty.”

  She blushes. She’s wearing more makeup than usual, and her hair is curled in these long coil things instead of pulled back like usual. Ryan stares at her with his mouth open as if he’s never seen her before. I don’t usually like it when girls curl their hair like that, but I have to admit she does look nice. She’s also wearing a sparkly dress that I’m pretty sure you can’t get from an L.L.Bean catalog. Still, I think I prefer the original Molly.

  Lily, who was waiting with Molly, ignores us, craning her neck toward the parking lot to see if anyone better has arrived. Either that or she’s waiting for her own date. If she said yes to Zach, I’ll puke.

  Ryan and I leave them and go inside.

  The dance is in the Community Room. The couches have been moved along one wall, and there’s a sad excuse for a disco ball hanging from the middle of the ceiling. It looks like someone glued silver sequins to a big Styrofoam ball. On closer inspection, I see I’m right.

  A few eighth-graders sit behind a table in the corner with a laptop and some speakers. They’re the DJs, I guess. There’s another table loaded with bowls of chips and bottles of soda.

  “Well, this looks like fun,” Ryan says sarcastically. “Tell me why we’re here again?”

  I glance around the room and spot Zach, who is already dancing with the pole.

  “That?” I ask.

  “Let’s just get some food,” Ryan says, disappointed.

  As I pour myself some Mountain Dew, I notice Curly poking her head out from under one of the couches. She must wonder what we’re all doing back here, invading her usual quiet time. She doesn’t seem too happy about it.

  Ryan and I take our drinks and napkins piled with chips to an empty couch. As more people arrive, they stand around in clusters to talk. No one dances. Every so often a good part in the song comes on and people do a mini-move, halfheartedly, and then go back to talking.

  “What do you think of Sadie Darrow?” Ryan asks under his breath.

  We both look over at Sadie, standing with Lily, Belle, Molly, Sam (who looks like he is having the time of his life all of a sudden), and Tate Channing, a long-haired eighth-grader.

  “She’s cute,” I say. “But . . . is it just me, or does she kind of look like a guy?”

  “Because she has short hair? It’s called a pixie cut,” Ryan explains. “They’re popular in the real world.”

  Tate grabs Sadie and hugs her. Lily just stands there, still craning her neck around looking for cool people while Sam and Molly smile goofily at each other and hold hands.

  “I think Sadie looks li
ke a boy because of Tate,” I say as I watch them hugging.

  Ryan studies them. “Yeah, you’re right. When you can’t see their faces, you’d guess Sadie was the boy and Tate the girl. Man. We are such stereotypers.”

  Usually Tate wears his hair down his back in a braid, but tonight he’s wearing it loose and it’s all wavy and a little too perfect. I wonder if he curled it with the same kind of special curling iron Molly used.

  Some terrible country song comes on, and Tate drags Sadie onto the dance floor. Every so often, Tate flicks his head so his hair swishes over his shoulder and bounces. He looks like he’s auditioning for a shampoo commercial.

  “It’s nothing personal,” Ryan says. “I have nothing against guys who grow their hair out. Whatever. But I really can’t stand that guy’s hair.”

  “That’s because he’s dancing with Sadie,” I say.

  “He’s such a jerk.” Ryan imitates the hair flick. “Plus he has terrible taste in music. Please.”

  “Don’t be mean,” I say, silently thinking the same thing.

  As predicted, “Free Bird” eventually comes on, and Sam and Molly walk slowly to the dance floor. They’ve already slow-danced a few times to other songs, looking as awkward as we thought they would. But this time, Sam walks out on the floor holding Molly’s hand with a new air of confidence. Ryan notices, too, and we both sit up a little, curious to see what will happen. Sam glances over at us and nods, as if to say, “Watch this, emos.”

  Sam puts his hands on Molly’s hips. Unlike earlier in the night, when she kept a far distance with her hands on his shoulders, keeping her body an arm’s length apart, now she moves in closer and hugs him, so their bodies are pressed against each other. She rests her head on his shoulder.

  Next to them, Sadie and Tate are pressed together so tightly, they look like one person. Tate’s hair hangs over Sadie’s shoulder, and we get a glimpse of what Sadie would look like if she had long hair. It’s kind of disturbing, though, knowing it isn’t hers.

  Zach and Lily are dancing, too, but you can tell Lily has made it clear they will not be close-dancing. Zach looks bored, but at least he’s better off than me and Ryan.

  Belle and Miranda-with-the-Always-Stuffed-Up-Nose are dancing really close, too. I didn’t know either of them liked girls, but I guess so. I wonder how Belle can stand the constant sniffling, but it’s definitely not seeming to bother her now.

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