Still a work in progress, p.9
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       Still a Work in Progress, p.9

           Jo Knowles
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  Everyone starts eating, and for a little while it’s quiet, except for when people say how good the food is. I guess most of it is OK. The Captain wanders in and squeezes between my and my dad’s chairs to find his usual spot under the table.

  I push the devil turkey across my plate and eat the stuffing and potatoes. Across the table, Emma looks very busy with her fork and knife, but neither leaves the four-inch zone above her plate.

  I catch my mom noticing the same thing. Emma sees, too, and then makes a big show of putting a small piece of potato in her mouth. It looks like it causes her physical pain. I stop watching and stuff my face.

  “Slow down, Noah. Jeez,” my dad jokes.

  “This really does taste just like turkey, Emma,” Mrs. Lamper tells her, holding a wrinkled piece of fake meat on her fork. “I’ll have to get the recipe from you.”

  “Thanks,” Emma says, moving her already-moved food again.

  My dad gets up for seconds and encourages everyone to follow him.

  My mom keeps looking at Emma’s plate and making a concerned face until Emma forces another bite down. Then another. While they do their stare-off, I sneak pieces of devil meat under the table and feed it to the dog, who licks my hand appreciatively. I feel like a rotten friend. Especially when, toward the end of dinner, there’s a strange sound that starts coming from under the table. It sounds like an old man groaning.

  My dad gives me a look. “Did you feed him something?”

  I don’t answer. Everyone stops eating to listen, which is probably a horrible idea.

  A quiet whistle sound comes from under the table, and starts to get louder and more high-pitched.

  “What is that?” Sara’s mom asks.

  My guess is they don’t have a dog.

  The whistle gets louder, then goes silent.

  I know we have about three seconds before the actual bomb hits.

  “Oh!” Emma says, covering her face.

  “That damn dog,” my mom says.

  “Get him out of here, Noah!” my dad yells.

  I push back my chair, and the Captain bolts out, knowing full well how ashamed he should be.

  “Seitan farts,” I say. “They are the worst.”

  “God, Noah!” Emma says.

  “Where did your manners go?” my mom says.

  My dad starts to laugh, but quickly closes his mouth because he probably doesn’t want to let the smell in. Either that or make my mom mad.

  People breathe into their napkins until it finally goes away, but my guess is, no one will be ready for dessert for a while.

  “I guess we should clear the table,” I say, which also doesn’t get any laughs.

  Sara, Emma, and I gather up everyone’s plates while my dad brings up football to try to change the subject. Only he doesn’t even know which teams are playing today.

  “For someone who insisted on being in charge of almost everything we had to eat, you didn’t eat much,” I tell Emma while we scrape plates in the kitchen.

  “Cooks never pig out on their own food,” she says matter-of-factly. “They prefer to watch others enjoy it.”

  I wonder who she thinks enjoyed it.

  She turns the hot water on and starts rinsing dishes, which she hands me to put in the dishwasher.

  “It’s not just today,” I say. “What’s going on?”

  She hands me a plate that still has water on it, and it splashes over my front.

  “Hey! Watch it!” I say.

  “Why are you paying so much attention to what I eat?”

  “Because you’ve been acting weird,” I say. Again, I don’t say.

  I glance over at Sara, who’s busy putting leftovers into plastic containers.

  “And I’m your brother,” I say quietly.

  Instead of smiling or punching me in her affectionate way, she turns and goes back to rinsing dishes. “Stop watching every little thing I do. It’s creepy.”

  I hate it when she gets like this. “Forget it,” I say, rubbing my shirt with a dish towel. “Sorry for caring.”

  “We’re all going for a walk!” my mom calls out from the dining room. “An old-fashioned constitutional before dessert.”

  “I love a Thanksgiving walk around the neighborhood,” my dad says, coming into the kitchen with more dishes.

  “I have to go to the bathroom first,” Emma says. “Be right back.”

  We get our coats on and wait for what seems like forever for Emma to come back down. While she’s gone, my mom gets more and more anxious and keeps whispering stuff to my dad, who pats her arm reassuringly like she’s a child.

  “It’s just the neighborhood — you didn’t have to primp,” my dad tries to joke when Emma finally returns.

  My mom goes over to Emma and says something, but I can’t hear what it is. Whatever she says, Emma doesn’t like it, because she hooks her mittened hand around Sara’s arm and guides her far ahead of the group. My mom turns and gives the rest of us a forced smile.

  “I love a Thanksgiving walk through the neighborhood,” my dad says again, as if he hasn’t already shared. He puts his arm around my mom and squeezes her close. We all follow them down the driveway. I click the Captain’s leash on, and he pulls me along.

  “Keep him downwind of us, Noah!” my dad says. He starts to hum a Christmas carol, and a few people join in. Some of our neighbors have Christmas lights up already, and it feels festive as we wander down the street, smelling the winter’s-coming air.

  Way up the road, Emma and Sara walk like a couple, heads together.

  Mrs. Lamper sidles up beside me and shows me a picture Ryan texted her of him eating a giant drumstick.

  “Maybe he’ll bring you some leftovers,” I say.

  “Maybe,” she says sadly.

  I’m shocked to find myself hooking my own mittened hand around her arm. “It’ll be OK,” I tell her.

  But as I feel her sadness like a shadow next to me and look up ahead at Emma hurrying away from all of us, I’m not so sure I believe it.

  “You have to see Lily Smith today,” Ryan tells me before I even open my locker. His breath smells like Oreos.

  “It’s seven fifty-five, and you’re already eating cookies?” I ask. “And welcome back, by the way. How was Thanksgiving?”

  “You have to see,” he says, instead of answering.

  I swivel my head around to find her.

  “No!” He grabs my arm and swings me back around to face him. “Don’t look!”

  “You just told me to.”

  “I mean look, but don’t look. Jeez. Don’t be obvious. Here she comes. Pretend to drop something and then look up.”

  I drop my backpack on Ryan’s foot.


  Lily pauses as she reaches us, just as I’m bending down to pick up my backpack.

  “Hey, Noah,” she says.

  “Hey,” I say. But I don’t say it to her face, because when I look up to where her head should be, her chest is sticking out so far that it’s blocking the view. I quickly look back down to hide what I’m sure is a stunned expression and hope my eyes weren’t bulging out of their sockets.

  Ryan nudges me to get up.

  “Uh, how’s it going?” I ask lamely.

  “Great!” she says, smiling in a kind of flirty way. She turns and walks down the hall confidently.

  “Whoa,” I say when she’s out of earshot.

  “What do you think she has in there?” Ryan asks.


  “Come on!” he says. “Sure, people have growth spurts, but no one has a concentrated growth spurt there. Not that fast, anyway. Unless she ate some magic turkey for Thanksgiving.”

  “Maybe she has a push-up bra,” I say.

  “What’s that?”

  I don’t actually know. I just overheard one of Emma’s friends tell her she should get one and Emma giving her a lecture about how breast size is unimportant and beauty is on the inside. Which is pretty ironic for Emma, given her own issues with body
image. What is it with people being so obsessed with their bodies? Never mind. I don’t want to go there.

  “I’m assuming it’s something that makes your boobs look bigger,” I say.

  “Brilliant,” Ryan says dreamily.

  We finish getting our stuff and go to our first class, which is French.

  “Bonjour, classe!” Madame Estelle says as we wander in. “À vos places, s’il vous plaît.”

  Once we’re all sitting, Madame motions for us to open our books. “Ouvrez vos livres à leçon quatre, s’il vous plaît.”

  “Is ‘quatre’ four?” Ryan whispers.

  “Oui,” I say. If he passes French, it will be a miracle.

  I open my book to lesson four. This section is about adjectives, which we’ve already studied.

  “Noah?” Madame Estelle asks. “Nommez quelque chose de petite.”

  I look around the room for something small. I’m pretty sure we used Curly the last time. “Une souris est petite,” I say.

  “What’s a souris?” someone asks.

  “En français!” Madame says.

  “It means mouse,” Molly whispers.

  Madame rolls her eyes and says, “En français!” again. “Ryan, nommez quelque chose de grande.”

  Ryan looks panicked. He always looks panicked when he gets called on.

  “Um . . .” he says, looking around the room for something large. His eyes stop at Lily’s chest.

  I nudge him.

  He covers his mouth to keep from laughing.

  Madame comes closer. “Ryan?”

  I cover my own mouth, but my body is shaking, I’m laughing so hard.

  “Noah, qu’est-ce que vous trouvez si amusant?”

  “Rien, Madame,” I answer.

  Ryan’s body is shaking now, too.

  “Quittez la classe jusqu’à ce que vous pouvez vous contrôler,” Madame says.

  I have no idea what that means.

  “Je m’excuse,” Ryan says, because he probably doesn’t, either.

  “Maintenant,” Madame says angrily.

  She glares at Ryan and me until the glare scares the laughs out of us. Finally, she asks Harper something about music. I think.

  I spend the rest of class trying not to make eye contact with Ryan or any part of Lily.

  At lunch we go to the Community Room to eat and play foosball. We all jut our heads in Lily’s direction when she’s not looking. Zach cups his hands in front of his chest and mouths, “Whoa!”

  “You guys are pathetic,” Belle tells us.

  I chew on my granola bar and keep sneaking glances at Lily’s chest anyway. How did they get so big so fast? And doesn’t she feel at all self-conscious? I know I would. Why would a girl want to have people staring at her chest all the time? I think about Emma again and what happened, and how what she did was kind of the opposite. Was she trying to disappear?

  Curly walks over and rubs against my leg. Today she’s wearing a puffy down vest. It’s purple. Sadie stole it from her little sister’s Teen-Me doll. I only know this because all the girls screeched, “Candy’s coat!” when Curly first strutted down the hall in it, and all the boys were like, “Who’s Candy?” so then we got a lesson on Teen-Me dolls, which are meant to look as realistic as possible and wear trendy clothes that cost about as much as real teen ones. I know this makes me sound sexist, but really all the girls knew, and none of the boys did — or at least admitted to.

  “Currrrrlllleeeeee!” Lily runs over and picks Curly up. We all stare where we shouldn’t. Even Curly looks uncomfortable, but she purrs anyway. She sounds like a squeaky motor.

  “Do you have Candy’s coat on today?” Lily asks in a baby voice.

  Curly sniffs Lily’s face.

  “What are you all looking at?” Lily asks, as if she doesn’t know.

  We all stop looking and stare at the table instead.

  “Aren’t you allergic?” Sam asks.

  Lily shrugs. “She just makes me a little sneezy — that’s all. Right, Curly?”

  Curly doesn’t answer.

  Lily carries Curly to the side of the table so they can watch our foosball game. I drop the little ball into the kickoff slot, and Ryan, Belle, Sam, and I grab the handles and start making our men kick their stuck-together feet at the ball. As the ball zips around the table, Curly’s head darts back and forth, watching excitedly. Then, just as the ball rolls over to one of my guys, Curly leaps out of Lily’s arms to make a grab for it. Only the claws on one of her back paws get stuck in Lily’s shirt, and instead of landing on the table, Curly kind of bounces back to Lily’s chest like a yo-yo. She dangles and squirms like a rabid animal while Lily tries to get ahold of her to untangle her claws, but all the time the front of Lily’s shirt is being pulled away from her chest and showing more and more skin.

  We all stand at the ends of the table, staring openmouthed as Lily struggles with Curly’s paw. None of us seems to be able to move. Even Belle. Finally, Lily breaks our trance by screaming, “Can I get some help here?”

  We all scramble over and try to remove Curly from Lily’s stretched-out shirt. Curly mews and Lily keeps screaming, “Someone get her off me!”

  Finally, Belle gets hold of Curly, who kicks her back paws frantically like a miniature kangaroo. The more she kicks, the more stretched Lily’s shirt is, until finally she completely freaks out and pulls so hard that Lily’s shirt drags down below her chest and her bra kind of pops out of the top, and that’s when we all see how much bra there is and how little of Lily. The pads inside are like balloons.

  Lily frantically pulls at her shirt one last time and manages to get Curly’s claws unhooked. Curly hops to the floor and shakes herself like a wet dog, the way she always does when she’s a little embarrassed. Then she races across the room and darts under one of the couches.

  Belle tries to straighten Lily’s shirt for her. “Maybe we should go to the girls’ room,” she suggests.

  Lily nods, and they hurry away.

  “Wow,” Sam says.

  “Told you,” Ryan says. “Fake.”

  We nod.

  “I never knew there was such a thing as a balloon bra,” Sam says. “How many girls wear those, do you think?”

  “What if they’re all fake?” Ryan asks. “All those fantasies. Meaningless.”

  “Yeah, well, that’s why they’re called fantasies in the first place,” I say.

  “It’s like we have to start all over again,” Ryan says. “My whole list could be a sham.”

  I’m afraid to ask, but I do anyway. “What list?”

  “Of who has the best ones.”

  “You have a list?” Sometimes my friends can still shock me. And what is it with people making really inappropriate lists, anyway? First Emma, and now my best friend.

  “Well, just in my head. But still. It may need some major editing.”

  “Who’s on it?” Sam asks.

  Ryan looks at me guiltily.

  “Emma better not be!” I say.

  “C’mon, Noah, you know she’s hot. Before she started wearing those baggy sweaters, anyway.” He gets a dreamy look on his face.

  “Whatever you’re imagining right now, you need to stop,” I tell him.

  “Oh, relax. It’s not like she’d give me the time of day. The only reason she even knows I exist is because I’m your best friend.”

  We throw our snack wrappers away and go to our next class. As we pass the yellow couch, Curly pokes her head out and meows.

  “Later, Curly,” Ryan says. “Thanks for stealing my innocence.”

  She ducks back under the couch.

  Our next class is science, which is my worst subject. We don’t have desks, but sit at a series of tables in the shape of a horseshoe. Our science teacher, Mrs. Phelps, likes to pace inside the horseshoe and then pounce on people unexpectedly by putting her hands on the table in front of them and leaning over to get in their faces.

  “Noah,” she’ll say, her stale coffee breath blasting in my fa
ce, “why is the oxygen atom attracted to the hydrogen atom?”

  And I’ll be so flustered by both her head two inches from my face and trying not to flinch from the vile smell coming out of her mouth that even if I know the answer, I can’t speak.

  I’m really not as dumb and useless as she seems to think I am. But I don’t perform well when I’m stressed-out — and Mrs. Phelps really stresses me out. Sam says I have a sensitivity to smells and that she doesn’t really have bad breath at all. But Sam can’t smell his own feet, which I can smell before he even enters a room sometimes, so either he has killed all of his smell sensors with his own stench, or he is right and I have an odd and unfortunately sensitive stench sensor.

  I’m pretty sure I’m not that sensitive, because Ryan says he sort of smells the breath, too, and definitely Sam’s feet. But Ryan wears this horrible cologne that he thinks cool guys who live in “the real world” wear, so I’m pretty sure he has killed all of his own smell sensors, too.

  Maybe I need to buy some cologne to mask everyone else’s stench. I don’t know. But whenever I get a cold and can’t smell and have to breathe through my mouth, it’s actually kind of a nice vacation. It’s like a smell-cation.

  When we get to the room, there’s a girl huddle at the end of one table. Miranda, Molly, and Lily are having a summit meeting and talking way too loudly to keep it secret.

  Ryan and Sam nudge me, and we go to the table at the opposite side of the room.

  “No one saw,” Miranda says reassuringly. “I’m telling you, Lil. Don’t worry!”

  “Zach saw!” Lily cries. “Did you hear what he said?”

  “Don’t listen to him. His mouth ruins everything,” Miranda says.

  Mrs. Phelps walks into class, and the girls break up.

  Sam elbows me. “Should we tell her we didn’t see anything?”

  “If we say that, she’ll know we did.”

  He thinks about this.

  “But if we don’t say anything, then she’ll definitely know we know,” Ryan says.

  Sam looks like he’s in pain, trying to figure out what to do.

  “Maybe we should pretend nothing happened. Or focus on some other part of the incident. Like ask if Curly scratched her.”

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