MATH CLASS: FURTHER LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY

Fourth period I have “life skills,” which is what they call gym when you’re old enough to be offended by forced physical activity (Elody thinks they should call it slavery instead, for accuracy). We’re studying CPR, which means we get to make out with life-sized dummies in front of Mr. Otto. More proof of his perviness.

Fifth period I have calc and the Cupids come early, just after class has started. One of them is wearing a shiny, red unitard and has devil’s horns; one of them looks like she might be dressed as the Playboy bunny, or maybe the Easter bunny in heels; one of them is dressed up like an angel. Their costumes don’t really make sense in the context of the holiday, but like I said, the whole point is to show off in front of the junior and senior boys. I don’t blame them. We did it too. Freshman year Ally dated Mike Harmon—a senior at the time—for two months after she delivered a Valogram to him and he said her butt looked cute in her tights. That’s a real love story right there.

The devil gives me three roses—one from Elody, one from Tara Flute, who’s kind of in our group but not really, and one from Rob. I make a big deal of unfolding the tiny card that’s looped around the rose stem and acting moved when I read the note, even though all he’s written is Happy Cupid Day. Luv ya and then in smaller letters near the bottom: Happy now?

“Luv ya” isn’t exactly “I love you”—which we’ve never said—but it’s getting close. I’m pretty sure he’s saving it for tonight, actually. Last week it was late and we were sitting on his couch and he was staring at me and I was sure—sure —he was going to say it—but instead he just said from a certain angle I looked like Scarlett Johansson.

At least my note is better than the one Ally got from Matt Wilde last year: Roses are red, violets are blue, if I get you in bed, it would be really cool . He was kidding, obviously, but still. Blue and cool don’t even rhyme.

I think that’s going to be all of my Valograms, but then the angel comes over to my desk and hands me another one. The roses are all different colors and this one’s pretty amazing: cream and pink swirled petals, like it’s made out of some kind of ice cream.

“It’s beautiful,” she breathes.

I look up. The angel is just standing there, staring at the rose lying on my desk. It’s pretty shocking for a lowerclassman to have the balls to speak to a senior, and it annoys me for a second. She doesn’t look like the average Cupid either. She has hair so pale blond it’s almost white, and I can see individual veins through her skin. She reminds me of someone, but I can’t remember who.

She catches me looking at her and gives me a quick, embarrassed smile. I’m happy to see some color rush into her face—at least it makes her look alive.

“Marian.”

She turns around when the devil girl calls to her. The devil makes an impatient gesture with the roses she’s still carrying, and the angel—Marian, I guess—quickly rejoins the other Cupids. All three of them leave.

I brush my finger over the rose petals—they’re as soft as anything, as air or a breath—and then instantly feel stupid. I open the note, expecting something from Ally or Lindsay (hers always say Love you to death, bitch ), but instead I see a cartoon drawing of a fat cupid accidentally shooting a bird out of a tree. The bird is labeled American Bald Eagle , and it looks like it’s about to fall directly on top of a couple sitting on a bench—Cupid’s original target, presumably. Cupid’s eyes are spirals and he has a stupid grin on his face.

Underneath the cartoon it says: Don’t drink and love.

It’s obviously from Kent McFuller—he draws cartoons for The Tribulation , the school humor paper—and I look up and glance in his direction. He always sits in the back left corner of the room. It’s one weird thing about him but definitely not the only one. Sure enough, he’s watching me. He gives me a quick smile and a wave, then makes a motion with his arms like he’s pulling back an arrow on a bowstring and shooting it at me. I make a point of frowning and deliberately take his note, fold it up quickly, and toss it in the bottom of my bag. He doesn’t seem to mind, though. It’s like I can feel his smile burning on me.

Mr. Daimler comes up and down the aisles, collecting homework, and he pauses at my desk. I have to admit it: he’s the reason I’m psyched to get four Valograms in calc. Mr. Daimler’s only twenty-five and he’s gorgeous. He’s assistant coach of the soccer team, and it’s pretty funny to see him standing next to Otto. They’re complete physical opposites. Mr. Daimler’s over six feet, always tan, and dresses like we do, in jeans and fleeces and New Balance sneakers. He graduated from Thomas Jefferson. We looked him up once in the old yearbooks in the library. He was prom king, and in one picture he’s wearing a tux and smiling with his arm around his prom date. You can just see a hemp necklace peeking out of his shirt collar. I love that picture. But you know what I love even more? He still wears that hemp necklace.

It’s so ironic that the hottest guy at Thomas Jefferson is on the faculty.

As usual, when he smiles my stomach does a little flip. He runs a hand through his messy brown hair, and I fantasize about doing the same thing.

“Nine roses already?” He raises his eyebrows, makes a big show of checking his watch. “And it’s only eleven fifteen. Well done.”

“What can I say?” I make my voice as smooth and flirtatious as possible. “The people love me.”

“I can see that,” he says, and winks at me.

I let him move a little farther down the aisle before I say, loudly, “I still haven’t gotten my rose from you, Mr. Daimler.”

He doesn’t turn around, but I can see the tips of his ears go red. There are giggles and snorts from the class. I get that rush that comes when you know you’re doing something wrong and are getting away with it, like stealing something from the school cafeteria or getting tipsy at a family holiday without anyone knowing.

Lindsay says Mr. Daimler’s going to sue me for harassment one day. I don’t think so. I think he secretly likes it.

Case in point: when he turns around to face the class, he’s smiling.

“After reviewing last week’s test results, I realize there’s still a lot of confusion about asymptotes and limits,” he begins, leaning against his desk and crossing his legs at the ankle. Nobody else could make calculus even remotely interesting, I’m sure of it.

For the rest of the class he barely looks at me, and even then only when I raise my hand. But I swear that when our eyes do meet, it makes my whole body feel like a giant shiver. And I swear he’s feeling it too.

After class Kent catches up with me.

“So?” he says. “What did you think?”

“Of what?” I say to irritate him. I know he’s talking about the cartoon and the rose.

Kent just smiles and changes the subject. “My parents are away this weekend.”

“Good for you.”

His smile doesn’t waver. “I’m having a party tonight. Are you coming?”

I look at him. I’ve never understood Kent. Or at least I haven’t understood him in years. We were super close when we were little—technically I suppose he was my best friend as well as my first kiss—but as soon as he hit middle school, he started getting weirder and weirder. Since freshman year he’s always worn a blazer to school, even though most of the ones he owns are ripped at the seams or have holes in the elbows. He wears the same scuffed-up black-and-white checkered sneakers every day and his hair is so long it’s like a curtain that swings down over his eyes every five seconds. But the real deal breaker is this: he actually wears a bowler hat. To school.

The worst thing is that he could be cute. He has the face and the body for it. He has a tiny heart-shaped mole under his left eye, no joke. But he has to screw it up by being such a freak.

“Not sure what my plans are yet,” I say. “If that’s where everyone ends up…” I let my voice trail off so he knows I’ll only show if there’s nothing better to do.

“It’s going to be great,” he says, still smiling. Another infuriating thing about Kent: he acts like the world is one big, shiny present he gets to unwrap every morning.

“We’ll see,” I say. Down the hall I see Rob ducking into the cafeteria and I start walking faster, hoping Kent will get the picture and back off. It’s pretty optimistic thinking on my part. Kent has had a crush on me for years. Possibly even since our kiss.

He stops walking entirely, maybe hoping I’ll stop too. But I don’t. For a second I feel bad, like I was too harsh, but then his voice rings out after me, and I can tell just by the sound of it that he’s still smiling.

“See you tonight,” he says. I hear the squeak of his sneakers on the linoleum, and I know he has turned around and started off in the opposite direction. He starts whistling. The sound of it carries back to me, getting fainter. It takes me a while to place the tune.

The sun’ll come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun. From Annie , the musical. My favorite song—when I was seven.

I know no one else in the hall will get it, but still I’m embarrassed and can feel heat creeping up my neck. He’s always doing things like that: acting like he knows me better than anyone else just because we used to play in the sandbox together a hundred years ago. Acting like nothing that’s happened in the past ten years has changed anything, even though it’s changed everything .

My phone’s buzzing in my back pocket and before I go in to lunch I snap it open. There’s one new text from Lindsay.

Party @ Kent McFreaky’s 2nite. In?

I pause for just a second, blowing out a long breath, before I text back.

Obv.

There are three acceptable things to eat in the Thomas Jefferson cafeteria:

 

  1. A bagel, plain or with cream cheese.
  2. French fries.
  3. A deli sandwich from the make-your-own sandwich bar. a. But only with turkey, ham, or chicken breast. Salami and bologna are obvious no-nos, and roast beef is questionable. Which is a shame, because roast beef is my favorite.

Rob is standing over by the cash register with a group of his friends. He’s holding an enormous tray of fries. He eats them every day. He catches my eye and gives me a nod. (He’s not the kind of guy who does so well with feelings, his or mine. Thus the “luv ya” on the note he sent me.)

It’s weird. Before we were going out, I liked him so much, and for so long, that every time he even looked in my direction I would get this bubbling, fizzing feeling so strong it would make me dizzy. No lie: sometimes I got light-headed thinking about him and had to sit down.

But now that we’re officially a couple, I sometimes have the strangest thoughts when I look at him, like I wonder if all those fries are clogging his arteries or whether he flosses or how long it’s been since he washed the Yankees hat he wears pretty much every day. Sometimes I’m worried there’s something wrong with me. Who wouldn’t want to go out with Rob Cokran?

It’s not that I’m not totally happy—I am—but it’s almost like sometimes I have to keep running over and over in my head why I liked him in the first place, like if I don’t I’ll somehow forget. Thankfully there are a million good reasons: the fact that he has black hair and a billion freckles but somehow they don’t look stupid on him; that he’s loud but in a funny way; that everyone knows him and likes him and probably half of the girls in the school have a crush on him; that he looks good in his lacrosse jersey; that when he’s really tired he lays his head on my shoulder and falls asleep. That’s my favorite thing about him. I like to lie next to him when it’s late, dark, and so quiet I can hear my own heartbeat. It’s times like that when I’m sure that I’m in love.

I ignore Rob as I get in line to pay for my bagel—I can play hard to get too—and then head for the senior section. The rest of the cafeteria is a rectangle. Special ed kids sit all the way down, at the table closest to the classrooms, and then there are the freshman tables, and then the sophomore tables, and then the junior tables. The senior section is at the very head of the cafeteria. It’s an octagon lined completely with windows. Okay, so it only looks out over the parking lot, but it’s still better than getting a straight view of the short-bus brigade dribbling their applesauce. No offense.

Ally’s already sitting at a small circular table right by the window: our favorite.

“Hey.” I put down my tray and my roses. Ally’s bouquet is sitting on the table and I do a quick count.

“Nine roses.” I gesture to hers and then give my bouquet a rattle. “Same as me.”

She makes a face. “One of mine doesn’t count. Ethan Shlosky sent one to me. Can you believe it? Stalker.”

“Yeah, well, I got one from Kent McFuller, so one of mine doesn’t count either.”

“He looves you,” she says, drawing out the o . “Did you get Lindsay’s text?”

I pick the mushy center out of my bagel and pop it in my mouth. “Are we really going to go to his party?”

Ally snorts. “Afraid he’ll date-rape you?”

“Very funny.”

“There’s gonna be a keg,” Ally says. She takes a tiny nibble of her turkey sandwich. “My house after school, okay?” She doesn’t really have to ask. It’s our tradition on Fridays. We order food, raid her closet, blast music, and dance around swapping eye shadows and lip glosses.

“Yeah, sure.”

I’ve been watching Rob come closer out of the corner of my eye, and suddenly he’s there, plopping into a chair next to me and leaning in until his mouth is touching my left ear. He smells like Total cologne. He always does. I think it smells a little like this tea my grandmother used to drink—lemon balm—but I haven’t told him that yet.

“Hey, Slammer.” He’s always making up names for me: Slammer, Samwich, Sammy Says. “Did you get my Valogram?”

“Did you get mine?” I say.

He swings his backpack off his shoulder and unzips it. There are a half dozen crumpled roses in the bottom of his bag—I’m assuming one of them is mine—and besides that, an empty pack of cigarettes, a pack of Trident gum, his cell phone, and a change of shirts. He’s not so much into studying.

“Who are the other roses from?” I say, teasing him.

“Your competition,” he says, arching his eyebrows.

“Very classy,” Ally says. “Are you going to Kent’s party tonight, Rob?”

“Probably.” Rob shrugs and suddenly looks bored.

Here’s a secret: one time when we were kissing, I opened my eyes and saw that his eyes were open. He wasn’t even looking at me. He was looking over my shoulder, watching the room.

“He’s getting a keg,” Ally says for the second time.

Everyone jokes that going to Jefferson prepares you for the total college experience: you learn to work, and you learn to drink. Two years ago the New York Times ranked us among the top ten booziest public schools in Connecticut.

It’s not like there’s anything else to do around here, though. We’ve got malls and basement parties. That’s it. Let’s face it: that’s how most of the country is. My dad always said that they should take down the Statue of Liberty and put up a big strip mall instead, or those golden McDonald’s arches. He said at least that way people would know what to expect.

“Ahem. Excuse me .”

Lindsay is standing behind Rob, clearing her throat. She has her arms folded and she’s tapping her foot.

“You’re in my seat, Cokran,” she says. She’s only pretending to be hard-core. Rob and Lindsay have always been friends. At least, they’ve always been in the same group, and by necessity have always had to be friends.

“My apologies, Edgecombe.” He gets up and makes a big flourish, like a bow, when she sits down.

“See you tonight, Rob,” Ally says, and adds, “bring your friends.”

“I’ll see you later.” Rob leans down and buries his face in my hair, making his voice deep and quiet. That voice used to make all of the nerves in my body light up like a firework explosion. Now, sometimes, I think it’s cheesy. “Don’t forget. It’s all about you and me tonight.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” I say, hoping my voice sounds sexy and not scared. My palms are sweating and I pray he doesn’t try to take my hand.

Thankfully, he doesn’t. Instead he bends down and presses his mouth into mine. We make out for a bit until Lindsay squeals, “Not while I’m eating,” and throws a fry in my direction. It hits me on my shoulder.

“Bye, ladies,” Rob says, and saunters off with his hat just tilted on an angle.

I wipe my mouth on a napkin when nobody’s looking, since the bottom half of my face is now coated with Rob’s saliva.

Here’s another secret about Rob: I hate the way he kisses.

Elody says all my stressing is just insecurity because Rob and I haven’t actually sealed the deal yet. Once we do, she’s positive I’ll feel better, and I’m sure she’s right. After all, she’s the expert.

Elody is the last to join us at lunch, and we all make a grab for her fries when she sets down her tray. She makes a halfhearted attempt to swat our hands away.

She slaps her bouquet of roses down next. She has twelve, and I feel a momentary twinge of jealousy.

I guess Ally feels it too because she says, “What did you have to do for those?”

Who did you have to do?” Lindsay corrects her.

Elody sticks her tongue out but seems pleased that we noticed.

All of a sudden, Ally looks at something over my shoulder and starts giggling. “Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est .”

We all turn around. Juliet Sykes, or Psycho, has just drifted into the senior section. That’s how she walks: like she’s drifting, being blown around by forces outside of her control. She’s carrying a brown paper bag in her long pale fingers. Her face is shielded behind a curtain of pale blond hair, shoulders hunched up around her ears.

For the most part, everyone in the cafeteria ignores her—she’s the definition of forgettable—but Lindsay, Ally, Elody, and I start making that screeching and stabbing motion from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho , which we all watched at a sleepover a couple of years ago. (Afterward we had to sleep with the lights on.)

I’m not sure if Juliet hears us. Lindsay always says she can’t hear at all because the voices in her head are too loud. Juliet keeps up that same slow pace across the room, eventually reaching the door that leads out into the parking lot. I’m not sure where she eats every day. I hardly ever see her in the cafeteria.

She has to shove her shoulder against the door a few times before it will open, like she’s too frail to make it work.

“Did she get our Valogram?” Lindsay says, licking salt off a fry before popping it in her mouth.

Ally nods. “In bio. I was sitting right behind her.”

“Did she say anything?”

“Does she ever say anything?” Ally puts one hand across her heart, pretending to be upset. “She threw the rose out as soon as class was over. Can you believe it? Right in front of me.”

Freshman year Lindsay somehow found out that Juliet hadn’t been sent a single Valogram. Not one. So Lindsay put a note on one of her roses and duct-taped it on Juliet’s locker. The note said: Maybe next year, but probably not.

Every year since then we’ve sent her a rose and the same note on Cupid Day. The only note she’s ever received from anyone, as far as I know. Maybe next year, but probably not.

Normally I would feel bad, but Juliet deserves her nickname. She’s a freak. Rumor has it that she was once found by her parents on Route 84, stark naked at three A.M., straddling the highway divider. Last year Lacey Kennedy said she saw Juliet in the bathroom by the science wing, stroking her hair over and over and staring at her reflection. And Juliet never says a word. Hasn’t for years, as far as I know.

Lindsay hates her. I think Lindsay and Juliet were in a couple of the same elementary school classes, and for all I know Lindsay has hated her since then. She makes the sign of the cross whenever Juliet’s around, like Juliet might somehow go vampire and make a lunge for Lindsay’s throat.

It was Lindsay who found out Juliet peed her sleeping bag during a Girl Scout camping trip in fifth grade, and Lindsay who gave her the nickname Mellow Yellow. People called Juliet that forever—until the end of freshman year, if you can believe it—and stayed away from her because they said she smelled like pee.

I’m looking out the window and I watch Juliet’s hair flash in the sunlight like it’s catching fire. There’s darkness on the horizon, a smudge where the storm is growing. It occurs to me for the first time that I’m not exactly sure why Lindsay started hating Juliet in the first place, or when. I open my mouth to ask her, but they’ve already moved on to other topics.

“—catfight,” Elody finishes, and Ally giggles.

“I’m terrified,” Lindsay says sarcastically. Clearly I’ve missed something.

“What’s going on?” I say.

Elody turns to me. “Sarah Grundel is going around saying Lindsay ruined her life.” I have to wait while Elody folds a fry expertly into her mouth. “She can’t swim in the quarter finals. And you know she lives for that shit. Remember when she forgot to take her goggles off after morning practice and she wore them until second period?”

“She probably keeps all of her blue ribbons on a wall in her room,” Ally says.

“Sam used to do that. Didn’t you, Sam? All those ribbons for playing with horsies.” Lindsay elbows me.

“Can we get back to the point?” I wave my hands, partly because I want to hear the story, partly to take the attention off me and the fact that I used to be a dork. When I was in fifth grade, I spent more time with horses than with members of my own species. “I still don’t get why Sarah’s pissed at Lindsay.”

Elody rolls her eyes at me like I belong at the special ed table. “Sarah got detention—she was late to homeroom for, like, the fifth time in two weeks.” I’m still not getting it and she heaves a sigh. “She was late to homeroom because she had to park in Upper Lot and haul ass—”

“.22 miles!”

We all bust it out at the same time and then start giggling like maniacs.

“Don’t worry, Lindz,” I say. “If you guys throw down I’m totally putting money on you.”

“Yeah, we’ve got your back,” Elody says.

“Isn’t it kind of weird how that stuff happens?” Ally says in this shy voice she gets when she’s trying to say something serious. “How everything spirals out from everything else? Like, if Lindsay hadn’t stolen that parking space…”

“I didn’t steal it. I got it fair and square,” Lindsay protests, bringing her hand down on the table for emphasis. Elody’s Diet Coke sloshes over the side of the can, soaking some fries. This makes us start laughing again.

“I’m serious!” Ally raises her voice to be heard over us. “It’s like a web, you know? Everything’s connected.”

“Have you been breaking into your dad’s stash again, Al?” Elody says.

This is all it takes to really get us going. This is a joke we’ve had with Ally for years because her dad works in the music industry. He’s a lawyer, not a producer or manager or musician or anything, and he wears a suit everywhere (even to the pool in the summer), but Lindsay claims he’s secretly a hippie stoner.

As we’re laughing, doubling over, Ally turns pink. “You guys never listen to me,” she says, but she’s fighting a smile. She takes a fry and throws it at Elody. “I read once that if a bunch of butterflies takes off from Thailand, it can cause a rainstorm in New York.”

“Yeah, well, one of your farts could cause a massive blackout in Portugal.” Elody giggles, throwing a fry back.

“Your morning breath could cause a stampede in Africa.” Ally leans forward. “And I do not fart.”

Lindsay and I are laughing, and Elody and Ally keep throwing fries back and forth. Lindsay tries to say they’re wasting perfectly good grease, but she’s snorting so hard she can barely get the words out.

Finally she sucks in a deep breath and chokes out, “You know what I heard? That if you sneeze enough you can cause a tornado in Iowa.”

Even Ally goes crazy at this, and suddenly we’re all trying it, laughing and sneezing and snorting at the same time. Everybody’s staring at us, but we don’t care.

After about a million sneezes, Lindsay leans back in her chair, clutching her stomach and gasping for breath.

“Thirty dead in Iowa tornadoes,” she gets out, “another fifty missing.”

This sets us off again.

Lindsay and I decide to cut seventh period and go to TCBY. Lindsay has French, which she can’t stand, and I have English. We cut seventh period a lot together. We’re second-semester seniors, so it’s like we’re expected not to go to class. Plus I hate my English teacher, Mrs. Harbor. She’s always going off on tangents. Sometimes I’ll zone out for a few minutes, and all of a sudden she’ll be talking about underwear in the eighteenth century or oppression in Africa or the way the sun looks rising over the Grand Canyon. Even though she’s probably only in her fifties, I’m pretty sure she’s losing it. That’s how it started with my grandmother: ideas swirling around and colliding with each other, causes coming after effects, and point A switched with point B. When my grandmother was still alive we would visit her, and even though I was no more than six, I remember thinking: I hope I die young.

There’s a definition of irony for you, Mrs. Harbor.

Or maybe foreshadowing?

Technically you need a special pass signed by your parents and the administration to leave campus during the school day. This wasn’t always true. For a long time one of the perks to being a senior was getting to leave campus whenever you wanted, as long as you had a free period. That was twenty years ago, though, a few years before Thomas Jefferson got the reputation for one of the highest teen suicide rates in the country. We looked up the article online once: the Connecticut Post called us Suicide High.

And then one day a bunch of kids left campus and drove off a bridge—a suicide pact, I guess. Anyway, after that the school forbade anyone from leaving school during the day without special permission. It’s kind of stupid if you think about it. That’s like finding out that kids are bringing vodka to school in water bottles and forbidding anyone to drink water.

Fortunately, there’s another way to get off campus: through a hole in the fence beyond the gym by the tennis court, which we call the Smokers’ Lounge, since that’s where all the smokers hang out. No one’s around, though, when Lindsay and I slip through the fence and get started across the woods. In a little while we’ll come on to Route 120. Everything is still and frozen. Twigs and black leaves crack under our shoes, and our breath rises in solid white puffs.

Thomas Jefferson is about three miles outside of downtown Ridgeview—or what you can call the downtown—but only about a half mile from a small strip of dingy stores we’ve named the Row. There’s a gas station, a TCBY, a Chinese restaurant that once made Elody sick for two days, and a random Hallmark store where you can buy pink glittery ballerina figurines and snow globes and crap like that. That’s where we head. I know we must look like total freaks, stomping along the road in our skirts and tights, our jackets flapping open to show off our fur-trimmed tank tops.

We pass Hunan Kitchen on our way to TCBY. Through the grime-coated windows we spot Alex Liment and Anna Cartullo bent over a bowl of something.

“Ooo, scandal,” Lindsay says, raising her eyebrows, although it’s really only a half scandal. Everyone knows that Alex has been cheating on Bridget McGuire with Anna for the past three months. Everyone except Bridget, obviously.

Bridget’s family is super-Catholic. She’s pretty and really clean-looking, like every time you see her she’s just scrubbed her face really hard. Apparently she’s saving herself for marriage. That’s what she says, anyway, although Elody thinks Bridget might be a closet lesbo. Anna Cartullo is only a junior, but if the rumors are true she’s already had sex with at least four people. She’s one of the few kids in Ridgeview who doesn’t come from any money. Her mom’s a hairdresser, and I don’t even know if she has a dad. She lives in one of the shitty rental condos right off the Row. I once heard Andrew Singer saying her bedroom always smelled like General Tso’s chicken.

“Let’s go in and say hi,” Lindsay says, reaching for my hand.

I hang back. “I’m going through sugar withdrawal.”

“Here. Take these.” She pulls a pack of SweeTarts from the waistband of her skirt. Lindsay always carries candy on her, 24/7, like she’s packing drugs. I guess she kind of is. “Just for a second, I promise.”

I let myself be dragged inside. A bell tinkles as we come through the door. There’s a woman flipping through Us Weekly behind the counter. She looks at us, then looks down again when she realizes we’re not going to order.

Lindsay slides right up to Alex and Anna’s booth, leaning against the table. She’s kinda, sorta friends with Alex. Alex is kinda, sorta friends with a lot of people, since he deals pot out of a shoe box in his bedroom. He and I have a head-nod friendship, since that’s pretty much the limit of our interaction. He’s actually in English with me, though he shows even less than I do. I guess the rest of the time he’s with Anna. Every so often he’ll say something like, “That essay assignment blows, huh?” but other than that we don’t talk.

“Hey, hey,” Lindsay says. “You going to Kent’s party tonight?”

Alex’s face is red and splotchy. At least he’s embarrassed to be caught out with Anna so blatantly. Or maybe he’s just having a reaction to the food. I wouldn’t be surprised.

“Um…I don’t know. Maybe. Gotta see….” He trails off.

“It’s gonna be super fun.” Lindsay makes her voice extra perky. “Are you going to bring Bridget? She’s such a sweetheart.”

Actually, we both think Bridget is annoying—she’s always really cheerful and she wears T-shirts with lame slogans like Unless You’re the Lead Dog the View Never Changes (no lie)—but Lindsay despises Anna and once wrote AC=WT all over the bathroom right across from the cafeteria—the one everyone uses. WT stands for white trash.

The situation is beyond awkward, so I blurt out, “Sesame chicken?” I point at the meat congealing in a grayish sauce in a bowl on the table, next to two fortune cookies and a sad-looking orange.

“Orange beef,” Alex says. He seems relieved by the change of topic.

Lindsay gives me a look, annoyed, but I keep rattling on. “You should be careful about eating here. The chicken once poisoned Elody. She threw up for, like, two days straight. If it was chicken. She swears she found a fur ball in it.”

As soon as I say this Anna picks up her chopsticks and takes an enormous bite, looking up and smiling at me as she chews so I can see the food in her mouth. I’m not sure whether she’s doing it deliberately to gross me out, but it seems like it.

“That’s nasty, Kingston,” Alex says, but he’s smiling now.

Lindsay rolls her eyes, like Alex and Anna are both a total waste of our time. “Come on, Sam.”

She pockets a fortune cookie and breaks it open when we get outside. “Happiness is found when one is not looking ,” she reads, and I crack up when she makes a face. She balls up the little slip of paper and lets it flutter to the ground. “Useless.”

I take a deep breath. “The smell in there always makes me sick.” It does, too: that smell of old meat and cheap oil and garlic. The clouds on the horizon are slowly taking over the sky, turning everything gray and blurry.

“Tell me about it.” Lindsay puts a hand on her stomach. “You know what I need?”

“A jumbo cup of The Country’s Best Yogurt!” I say, smiling. TCBY is another thing we can’t bring ourselves to abbreviate.

“Definitely a jumbo cup of The Country’s Best Yogurt,” Lindsay echoes.

Even though we’re both freezing, we order double-chocolate soft-serve with sprinkles and crushed peanut butter cups on top, which we eat on our way back to school, blowing on our fingers to keep them warm. Alex and Anna are gone from Hunan Kitchen when we pass, but we run into them again at the Smokers’ Lounge. We have exactly seven minutes left until the bell for eighth period, and Lindsay pulls me behind the tennis courts so she can have a cigarette without listening to Alex and Anna argue. That’s what it looks like they’re doing, anyway. Anna’s head is bent and Alex is grabbing her shoulders, whispering to her. The cigarette in his hand burns so close to her dull brown hair I’m positive it’s going to catch fire, and I picture her whole head just going up like that, like a match.

Lindsay finishes her smoke and we dump our yogurt cups right there, on top of the frozen black leaves and trampled cigarette packs and plastic bags half filled with rainwater. I’m feeling anxious about tonight—half dread and half excitement—like when you hear thunder and know that any second you’ll see lightning tearing across the sky, nipping at the clouds with its teeth. I shouldn’t have skipped out on English. It has given me too much time to think. And thinking never did anybody any good, no matter what your teachers and parents and the science-club freaks tell you.

We skirt the perimeter of the tennis courts and go up along Senior Alley. Alex and Anna are still standing half concealed behind the gym. Alex is on his second cigarette at least. Definitely an argument. I feel a momentary rush of satisfaction: Rob and I hardly ever fight, at least not about anything serious. That must mean something.

“Trouble in paradise,” I say.

“More like trouble in the trailer park,” Lindsay says.

We start cutting across the teachers’ lot when we see Ms. Winters, the vice principal, threading between cars, trying to rout out the smokers who don’t have time or are too lazy to walk all the way down to the Lounge and instead try to hide out between the teachers’ old Volvos and Chevrolets. Ms. Winters has some crazy vendetta against people who smoke. I heard that her mom died of lung cancer or emphysema or something. If you get caught smoking by Ms. Winters you get three Friday detentions, no questions asked.

Lindsay frantically rifles in her bag for her Trident and pops two pieces in her mouth. “Shit, shit.”

“You can’t get busted just for smelling like smoke,” I say, even though Lindsay knows this. She likes the drama, though. Funny how you can know your friends so well, but you still end up playing the same games with them.

She ignores me. “How’s my breath?” She breathes on me.

“Like a friggin’ menthol factory.”

Ms. Winters hasn’t spotted us yet. She’s making her way down the rows, sometimes stooping to peer underneath the cars as though someone might be sandwiched against the ground, trying to light up. There’s a reason everyone calls her the Nicotine Nazi behind her back.

I hesitate, looking back toward the gym. I don’t especially like Alex and I don’t like Anna, but anyone who’s ever been through high school understands you have to stick together against parents, teachers, and cops. It’s one of those invisible lines: us against them. You just know this, like you know where to sit and who to talk to and what to eat in the cafeteria, without even knowing how you know. If that makes sense.

“Should we go back and warn them?” I ask Lindsay, and she pauses too and squints at the sky like she’s thinking about it.

“Screw it,” she says finally. “They can take care of themselves.” As if to reinforce her point, the bell for final period rings and she gives me a shove. “Come on.”

She’s right, as usual. After all, it’s not like they’ve ever done anything for me.

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