Collateral damage, p.3
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       Collateral Damage, p.3

           Katie Klein
 
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  "Maybe love drives people insane." My fiancée just started planning our wedding and I'm already going crazy.

  She scoffs. "What are you smoking? Because I can recommend an awesome twelve-step program."

  Ouch. That was below the belt.

  I'll give the girl credit. She's ruthless.

  Parker: Two.

  Jaden: Two.

  "Yeah, I'm aware of it. Thanks. I just don't understand why it's so hard to believe a person could love someone so much it would drive him insane."

  "Because. It's...it's not...normal."

  I laugh. "And Mr. Darcy is what you'd call normal?"

  "Mr. Darcy is a gentleman."

  "Mr. Darcy is a narcissist."

  Her eyes narrow, and I'm sure she's about to go another round with me, but then her expression softens, and she doesn't. She closes her eyes for a moment—a moment longer than she should, because I see her, in that moment. And even though she's kind of pretty when she's fired up, she's also kind of pretty when she's not.

  When she opens her eyes, I'm caught staring.

  "Look, as much as you'd love to, I'm not gonna sit here and argue with you all afternoon. Pick a book, and let's get out of here," she demands.

  Fine.

  I skim titles on the wrinkled paper. There's no way to know what she's read in relation to what I've read, and some of these books I've never even heard of. This has to be as fair as possible. "Okay. I'm going to pick one randomly."

  "Go for it."

  I close my eyes and run my finger up and down the page. Whatever I land on, if we haven't both read it, will be our book. I stop, open my eyes. "A Midsummer Night's Dream," I announce.

  "A Shakespearean Comedy," she replies.

  "Meaning you've read it."

  She tosses me a knowing smile.

  "All right. One more time." I close my eyes again, move my finger like before, but, when I open them...nothing. I'm not pointing at anything. I'm about to try again when...

  "Wait. What was that one?"

  "What?"

  "The book! You just picked one, and now you're going to pick another. That's not fair! I want to know what it was." Her eyebrows furrow, annoyed, like I'm keeping something from her. She probably thinks I hit Pride and Prejudice.

  "Actually...if you must know...I missed. I landed on blank, blue space," I explain. "No book. And that doesn't help us."

  "Fine."

  "Are you sure? I mean, do I have your permission to try again?"

  She rolls her eyes. "Just go."

  Okay. Last time.

  I close my eyes, skate my finger across the page, then open them. It's a hit. "Ethan Frome."

  "Ethan Frome," she repeats, leaning across the table, staring at the name above my finger.

  "You read it?"

  She shakes her head. "No. You?"

  "No."

  Jaden jumps from her seat and heads to the computer catalog. I watch her as she types. She's tall for a girl. She has sexy long legs—lithe and graceful. I guarantee she took ballet. Her dad probably golfs; her mom is a member of a garden club. If, you know, such things exist on this side of the interstate.

  She disappears between bookshelves, and, when she returns, she's holding two worn copies of Ethan Frome.

  "Here," she says, tossing one of the books. It lands with a dull thwack and slides across the table, stopping in front of me. I pick it up and flip it over to the description on the back.

  "'A novel of passion and unfulfilled longing,'" I read. "Wow, Jade, looks like you landed yourself a romance."

  Her head jerks up, surprised, confused; her eyes bore into me, assessing.

  "What?" I ask.

  "Nothing," she replies, slowly turning her attention back to the book.

  I know I should let it die, but curiosity overrules. "No. What is it?"

  She tucks her hair behind her ears. Again. Clearly a nervous habit. "Nothing. It's just that...you called me Jade. It was just...weird, that's all."

  I called her Jade? That's it? "If you prefer Jaden...."

  "No. It's fine. So anyway," she continues, "I wouldn't call this a romance. It says here: 'marked by tragedy.' That can't be good."

  "Now it's sounding better." It's not dicing people parts and burying them under floorboards or anything. Madness. I'll bet that guy loved someone.

  "Of course it would. Coming from someone who thinks love can actually drive people to commit heinous crimes."

  "It's a matter of semantics."

  She rises, exhaling what might be relief. "Great. We met. We picked out a book. Mission accomplished. Let's, um, just plan to read this and get together next week. Then we can divide up responsibilities and get this thing done." She pauses for a moment, thinking. "We have to do an oral report, you know."

  "So?"

  "I'm just saying."

  I stand, slinging my bag over my shoulder. "Don't worry. I'm sure with all that practice for your future Miss America pageants, you'll be a natural."

  "I wasn't concerned about me," she says, eyes narrowing.

  "Well don't worry on my account. It's insulting."

  I move to the librarian's desk, leaving Jaden cemented in place, mouth gaping. The librarian scans the barcode on the book and prints a receipt, then hands it back to me. She does this without uttering a word, even after I thank her.

  My lungs refuse to fill until I'm out of that room, away from those halls, crossing the nearly empty parking lot.

  I can't wait to get out of here.

  CHAPTER FIVE

  I take my lunch alone. I usually study, or get an early start on homework. I sit outside at the picnic tables so no one hassles me. So far, it's worked. Especially on days like today, when it's barely pushing forty degrees. I know something's changed, though, when Jaden McEntyre bursts through that cafeteria door and marches down the sidewalk, thrusting herself headfirst into my quiet little world.

  "I hate Zeena Frome," she announces, slamming her paper bag against my table.

  Whatever's inside is ruined. I'm sure of it. Flattened sandwich bread. Smashed banana.

  She scowls. Eyes on fire. Pissed. She flips up the collar of her jacket as a cold wind sweeps through.

  "Is this supposed to mean something to me?" I ask.

  I know she's serious about this intrusion when she picks up her leg, climbs over the bench, and sits down across from me. "Zeena Frome. Ethan's wife? I hate her."

  Ethan Frome? His wife? None of this wants to register. Nothing makes any sense at all.

  Why is she out here, sitting with me?

  "What? Why?"

  "Because she's such a faker! I mean, there is absolutely nothing wrong with her. You know that, right?"

  And then...a connection. Ethan Frome. Our book. She hates Zeena Frome. "Wait. You mean you're already finished?"

  "Yes."

  Great. I should've known she'd rush home and read it in a single night. It wasn't that long of a book, but still. Now I really do look like a slacker. "I know you're an assiduous intellectual and all, but I was under the impression I had a week to read it."

  Her eyes roll. "Look who's been studying Ms. Tugwell's SAT vocabulary lists."

  Amusing. Like I have a reason to study for the SAT.

  "Anyway, you won't need a week. Once I started I couldn't put it down. It was so addictive...like a train wreck."

  "A train wreck," I repeat, disbelieving.

  "You know—you don't really want to see blood and destruction and death because you know it'll haunt you forever, but at the same time you can't look away?"

  I know it. And believe me, no one wants to see blood and destruction and death in the real world. "You're comparing Ethan Frome to a train wreck?"

  "Yes!" In making her point, her hand hits the picnic table. She flinches. Her eyebrows pull together as she examines her middle finger and what I'm assuming is a splinter. "That's exactly what I'm comparing it to," she says, voice lower. "It's awful."

  She pinches her fingernai
ls together and, after a few failed attempts, plucks it out.

  I wonder what she'd do if I offered her a Band-Aid. I imagine her head exploding as I pull the tiny first aid kit out of my bag and hand her some Neosporin. Not only am I prepared…I'm prepared. She seems to be okay, though, so I keep the Band-Aids to myself.

  "A good awful, right?" I ask, still eyeing her finger.

  "A horrible awful. A tragic awful." Her attention shifts to a group of underclassmen coming from the parking lot. They move in a huddle, heading toward the building, giggling and whispering and staring. And it's not only these girls; it's everyone in that cafeteria—anyone watching us. There's not a soul within sight of us not talking about her right now.

  Jaden McEntyre, sitting outside with Parker Whalen.

  But Jade doesn't seem to care. Anyone else and they'd be shunned.

  What is it about this girl, and why do rules never seem to apply?

  "So, what happens?" I ask.

  At the sound of my voice, her eyes tear from the group of girls. She checks her finger one more time. "I can't tell you. You have to read it."

  "I'm going to read it. I just...you know...want to know what I'm in for."

  She shakes her head, serious. "It's awful. There are no words."

  Wow. Pile on the melodrama. "I get it. It's awful. Enough with the head bobbing. You can be more specific."

  She sits straighter, taller, like she's waited for this moment all day. Someone to talk to. Someone to tell. "There's this horrible accident. But it's not really an accident. See, Zeena and Ethan are married, right? Zeena brings in her cousin, Mattie, to help around the house because she's sick or something. Well, Ethan decides that he sorta has a thing for Mattie, but he doesn't know how to act on it."

  "I guess that's where the whole romance comes in."

  "That's just it," she continues, digging in her lunch bag. "There is no romance. Ethan and Mattie don't do anything. And Zeena, well, she's just awful, complaining and moaning about how sick she is. Get this: she goes to a doctor who says she shouldn't lift a finger anymore, and that she needs a 'hired girl' to come and take care of her."

  "I thought that's what Mattie was for," I say, highlighting a definition in my science book before I forget.

  "Yeah, well, not anymore. She realizes something is going on between Mattie and Ethan, and decides to kick her out."

  "Makes sense."

  Her eyes widen, stunned at this—these words, the horror in them. And I guess, to a true romantic, it's a terrible thing to say. Because yes, people should be allowed to love whoever they want. But it's never that easy. Not really. There are rules. Guidelines. Boundaries one shouldn't cross.

  "No! It doesn't!" she argues. "Ethan and Zeena are not in love."

  "So you're telling me the tragedy of this novel is a loveless marriage and a loser who can't act on his adulterous feelings."

  She winces, pulls back from the table. "God, you make it sound so awful. And no, that's not the tragedy. Not all of it, anyway. When Ethan is taking Mattie to the station they realize they can't live without each other, so they decide to kill themselves. They're sledding down a mountain, heading straight for this huge tree. They hit it, but it doesn't kill them. I mean, it screws them both up—Ethan has a limp, and Mattie, well, she becomes an invalid...all sick and ugly...and you know what Zeena does...."

  She trails off, leaving the rest unsaid, forgetting that some of us haven't read this book yet. We don't know how it ends. "Sorry. I don't."

  "She picks right up like there's nothing wrong with her in the world, and starts taking care of Mattie. I mean, really. She was practically on her deathbed, needing some poor hired girl to come in and take care of her, and all of a sudden she's well enough to care for herself and everyone else? It's tragic. That's all."

  My first thought, after hearing this, is that maybe I should've let her read Pride and Prejudice, anyway. All the love and longing and suicide attempts—it's a serious buzz kill. My next thought is about Jaden—how I can't believe she abandoned her lunch table—her friends—to sit outside in the cold to deliver this summary. How I can't believe she read the entire book in a single night. When I look closely, I can see the faintish purple bruising beneath her lashes expertly covered with make-up. And those green eyes are muted today. They're nothing like when she's with her friends—people she actually enjoys spending time with. They usually shine.

  This book destroyed her.

  In twenty-four hours, Ethan Frome and I destroyed Jaden McEntyre.

  She shifts in her seat, tucks her hair behind her ears. "Well?"

  I'm staring again.

  I avert my gaze, returning to science. Safety. At the same time, I try to weave the story together, piecing what little I know of love, suicide attempts, wanting to be with someone even when it's wrong.... "So you're saying Mattie and Ethan actually get what they want?"

  She scoffs, offended. "No! They wanted to be together. That was the whole point."

  My shoulders lift, shrugging. "They're together, right?"

  "Of course not!" But her irritation fades as connections are made. "Um, well.... Yeah, I guess Mattie and Ethan are together in the end, but not like they want to be. Can you imagine watching the girl you love suffer for the rest of her life because of something stupid you did?"

  "Don't know," I reply. "It's never happened. So I lack a certain degree of empathy."

  She unwraps her sandwich and takes a bite, and, when another cold breeze blows between us, glances around the courtyard. The weathered tables and dead grass. The empty trees. The gray sky casting shadows over us. And for a second it's so quiet and still I think that we're the only two people left in the entire universe. For a moment we are the last two humans on this earth. And, for that moment, I think that might not be such a bad thing.

  I flip to the next page in my book. "The story sounds good, anyway," I tell her, bringing her back to me. This table.

  She seems pleased to hear this. The wind tosses her hair around. She brushes the stray strands away with her fingers, running them down her cheek. They're flushed with cold. The tip of her nose is pink, too. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ruin it for you."

  "I asked." I return to my textbook. The definitions. There's a Chemistry quiz this afternoon, and I need to prepare. But the air, it doesn't feel quite as cold as it did a few minutes ago. And now there's sweat prickling on my back. And I can't focus. Words blur together and sentences become incomprehensible, entire pages disappearing. I can't concentrate with her here, sitting across from me, hair blowing in the wind, talking to me like I matter.

  "So, do you not eat?" she asks, picking at her sandwich.

  I shrug. "Depends on what kind of mood I'm in." I eat a pretty big breakfast after my morning workout, so I'm not exactly hungry this time of day.

  "Fair enough. Why do you sit out here by yourself?"

  "Because it's quiet," I answer.

  "And that doesn't get boring?"

  "Nope."

  She lets go of a sigh. "Am I bothering you?"

  If I counted, I've probably spent more than a hundred days at this table, alone. I survived the end of summer—some of the hottest days in late August—fall, and now winter. This is my space. My table. I sit out here by myself because I'm not at this school to make friends. I don't need what's behind those walls. I don't need this girl sitting across from me.

  But she isn't bothering me, even as she watches me expectantly, those eyes of hers piercing mine.

  "Nah," I reply, shrugging casually.

  She reaches inside her brown paper bag and removes a package of Sun Chips. The plastic wrinkles and squeaks between her fingers as it splits. She takes a chip, pops it into her mouth, and holds the bag out to me. I watch her for a moment, confused. Unsure. But then she jiggles it, and what she's saying without saying is: "Here. Take it. They're yours."

  And even though I'm not hungry, I take them. I take them because she offered, and because they don't look half bad, and because i
t's the first time anyone has made an effort to be nice to me since I showed up at this place.

  My fingers brush hers as the bag switches hands. Whether or not it was an accident is up for debate. But I know that she notices—that it does something—because when our eyes meet her cheeks flush. She clears her throat and lowers her gaze and I can't help but wonder what she's thinking.

  I pull out a chip and bite into it. It's crunchy, and salty, and just what I need to make it through the rest of this day. It's enough to elicit a smile, and, when she glances back at me, she's smiling, too.

  And that sparkle?

  Suddenly it's back.

  CHAPTER SIX

  "The roast beef was really good," Callie muses. "We should definitely do options at the reception. Maybe roast beef and chicken?"

  He had taken to the girl from the first day, when he had driven over to the Flats to meet her, and...

  "Chris? Are you listening?"

  "Mmm hmm," I reply. "Chicken and roast beef."

  ...and she had smiled...

  "Either one of those? Or both?"

  "Either one. Or both," I repeat.

  ...and she had smiled...

  "Well what did you think about the location? I know it was dark, but I thought the gazebo by the lake was beautiful. And you heard them say they can easily fit 300 people in the reception hall."

  I drop the copy of Ethan Frome to my lap, drag my hand across my mouth. I have to read this. I have to get this done. But there are too many distractions. As much as I enjoy sleeping in a real bed and having towels that match, I really just want to be back at my own place, lying on my couch. Reading. "I like whatever you like, Cal."

  She sits up, tucks her legs beneath her, and fixes the strap on her pink satin pajamas. "I don't want you to like whatever I like," she says. "This is our wedding. I want you to be part of it—the choices, the planning. This is your day as much as it is mine."

  I can't believe we're even discussing this. What groom has ever had a legitimate say in the wedding planning? "Everyone knows that weddings are for the bride," I argue. "Just tell me where to be and when to be there."

  She frowns, and I know I've offended her. "See? That's the attitude I'm talking about. If I'm going to become Mrs. Christopher Parker Whalen, I want Christopher Parker Whalen to be present during every aspect of this event, and that includes the planning."

 
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