Authors: Sarah Wylie
“Like the Garden of Eden.” Jack looks as surprised as I feel that he spoke up.
I nudge him with my shoulder. “
listened in Sunday school.”
He goes back to ignoring me. Presumably Jack Penner doesn’t enjoy being patronized.
“How did you do?” Lauren whispers, as Mr. Halbrook announces that we’ll be “exploring the relationship between the economy and math.” At least he’s making the effort to relate them today.
“Not very well,” I answer even though I haven’t actually looked at it. But looking is overrated, a waste of time.
“You know,” she whispers back, “with a little effort, I bet you could be smart again.”
I give her a grateful smile but don’t say anything.
Before I was This, I used to eat lunch with Lauren, Holly, and Renee. Preppy, clean-cut girls who cared about academics (Lauren), Jesus (Holly), and boys (Renee). My parents couldn’t have been prouder.
I cared that I had somewhere to sit at lunch, a safe and predictable haven, where we were all girls that were generally well-liked (Lauren didn’t count), had never been to a funeral (Holly didn’t count), and were destined to remain virgins till at least college (Renee didn’t count).
Occasionally I still eat with Lauren, but Holly and Renee never know what to do around me anymore, and it’s easier for all of us to avoid each other.
So I tend to float around these days, sharing my company with only the most deserving.
Today, I sit at the far end of the cafeteria in the spot usually reserved for the deadbeats/Goths, warily unwrapping the tofu sandwich Mom left on the counter for me this morning, when I hear a sigh followed by a tray slamming hard against the table.
“Great. You again.”
I glance up to see Candy Jansen and, I swear, my heart constricts a little for her. The girl is a whole different breed of Goth. But with a name like Candy, she was never going to make it anyway.
I beam at her. “Spencer invited me to eat with you guys any time I want.”
will probably be a while. The lunch line is super long.”
I stifle a laugh. “Is that mascara running down your face?” She looks like she’s been through a coal mine. Even gym class couldn’t do that to a person.
Candy narrows her eyes so they disappear completely. “Ha. Ha. Is that ‘Not Funny’ tattooed on your forehead?” She sits across from me.
I’m really not in the mood to exchange insults with Candy, but I don’t have anything better to do—plus tofu makes me barf—so I quip, “It’s possible. But I don’t know how you’d be able to tell with those caterpillar eyelashes. New look?”
Her nostrils flare as she tears open a packet of ketchup. “Bitch,” she hisses as Spencer puts his tray next to mine and sits down.
With a condescending smile, I whisper, “Tryhard,” which, by my standards, is infinitely worse. “Hey, Spencer,” I say. Two guys—one of whom I recognize from the bus—plop into seats beside him, and quickly become embroiled in some game on Electric Blue Mane’s laptop.
I assume Spencer can hear the claws retracting, because he’s smiling and shaking his head at me and Candy. As far as hardcore teenagers go, Spencer Lloyd is the real deal. With more tattoos than I can count all over his body, a smoke-spewing Harley, and a newly shaved head, he’s Quentin High’s resident bad boy. I’ve even heard rumors about juvie.
Then, there’s Candy. Candy’s jet-black hair, runny mascara, and ripped jeans are as translucently poserish as you can get. Up until a year ago, her locker was adorned with dog-eared horse posters. Like me, she hopes some of Spencer will rub off on her and make people take her more seriously. It’s probably why I hate her so much. I never like people like me.
“Spencer,” Candy whines, “don’t you feel like this whole damn town is dead? It’s so, like, quiet and
I take a sip of my juice. “Well, it
February. Don’t quote me on this, but I heard winter is typically the coldest time of year.”
Candy sends me a look that tells me she wasn’t talking to me and wouldn’t mind if I fell off the face of the Earth.
“There’s a party this weekend,” Spencer answers.
“Perfect.” Candy claps her hands. “When and where?”
“Seven on Saturday. My cousin’s place on the west side. I’ll text it to you later.”
I stare at my sandwich and contemplate taking a bite. Candy says something about being thirsty. I think she’s hoping Spencer will offer her some of his chocolate milk, but he doesn’t. I wonder if she pisses him off as much as she does me.
Candy stands and sighs. “I guess I’ll just go get myself a drink.” Spencer’s only response comes in the form of a slurp, and so she sulks off. My eyes wander across the cafeteria, taking in all the cliques. The dancers. The cheerleaders. The preps—my old friends. The jocks. Jena could have sat anywhere, but she usually sat over there with them. Lindsay, Khy, and Erin are laughing at something Ben Hershey is saying. There’s no sign that Jena ever went to school here, had friends and a lunch table, or went to Spring Fling with Ben last year.
“I’m guessing you have plans for Saturday,” Spencer whispers close to my ear. The hairs in my ear and on the back of my neck tickle, and I turn to face him. “With your busy schedule and everything.”
“Yeah. I’ll probably be trying to find a real party.”
He laughs. “Trust me, nobody does parties like Nelson.”
He shakes his head and goes back to eating.
Candy returns, bearing gifts. “Spence, I brought you another drink.” She slides a carton across to him. Evidently, where she comes from, flavored milk is the way to a man’s heart. Candy spends the rest of lunchtime flirting with him, which is fine because I’m not listening anyway.
As the bell rings, signaling the end of lunch, Spencer says, “Dani, you should at least check it out. Text me if you want the address.”
He winks at me before turning to go. “I’ll keep an eye out for you.”
I wish all days were extinct, but as of today, Wednesday tops my list.
Jena is in the second week of a two-week block of radiation treatments. Wednesdays are Jena’s “long” days, which just means her appointment starts and ends later. Before radiation, Jena used to spend weeks at a time in the hospital getting chemo. So, really, this new arrangement—chemo pills and one block of radiation—where she gets to come home every day, is like winning the cancer treatment lottery.
But this Wednesday afternoon finds me sitting on a cold hospital room floor pretending to do homework, as far from my sister’s bed as I can get without being absent altogether.
Mom had me take the bus here after school today, because my dad is taking me to an audition this afternoon and picking me up from the hospital, which is closer to his work than home would be. My mother also thought it would be good for me and Jena to “spend some time together.” But, as I sit here, I can’t help straining my ears and counting the number of times Jena breathes in and out.
. Maybe, if I listen hard enough, I’ll hear a secret code, a message that will prepare me for whatever comes next, but there’s only the whirring of machines and her inhaling and exhaling.
Mom has been gone for nearly half an hour. I imagine she’s off somewhere prodding Jena’s doctors and trying to force good news out of them.
I hear the shuffle of sneakers coming down the hall, followed by the rolling wheels of the cart he delivers pitchers of water on. And by “he,” I mean Rufus, the volunteer boy my sister is in love with. Rufus is seventeen, with shaggy brown hair that always needs a trim. He isn’t bad-looking, and I’m learning to look past the name, even though I will always consider Rufus to be a dog’s name. Wednesdays just happen to be his volunteer days.
Today, when he stops by her room, Jena puts her book down and says, “Are you, like, obsessed with water? I never see you without fifteen gallons of it.” Sadly, this is my sister’s best attempt at flirtation.
Instead of hightailing it out of here, Rufus laughs and injects a lame barb of his own.
I realize it must mean he’s in love with her, too. Oh, there have been signs all along. The way he used to call her “Viva La Jenavieva” until Jena told him to
That time he lent her one of his most-cherished Alice Cooper CDs.
. He has a thing for pasty sixteen-year-old girls in hospital beds. Why has it taken so long for me to figure this out?
They flirt—if you can call it that—for a couple of minutes before Rufus leaves. Jena goes back to reading, and the room goes back to being silent. But silence is the sound of her breathing and I can’t stand the way it pokes at my ribs and makes it hard for me to breathe, too. Especially when I’m already being manhandled by chem homework I can’t do. I also know that Jena isn’t really reading—only pretending to—and I want to fill her head with something else, something other than what the doctors might be telling Mom right now.
So I tell Jena about Rufus being in love with her. She tries to act dismissive, but I see her eyes light up just a little and I can’t hear her breathing, which is good. Then somehow I am ducking out of her room and chasing Rufus down the hall, while Jena calls me back and yells, “I’m never, ever going to forgive you if you say anything to him!”
I spot him near the end of the hallway, his cart rickety as he gets ready to turn the corner. And then, suddenly, he stops. When he turns to face me, we stare at each other for an awkward moment. Maybe two.
Then I stick out my hand. “I’m Dani, Jena’s sister.”
“Yeah, I know…” He looks at me, waiting. Right now, I should be noticing how Rufus’s hair hangs over the collar of his shirt, and the fact that it looks a little greasy up close. It should occur to me that Jena can do better. A lot better.
Instead, I am thinking about the fact that I just said I was Jena’s sister and that might not always be true. I am thinking of other things I could be instead—my mother’s daughter, my friend’s friend, my body’s inhabitant—and I can’t think of a single one that sounds okay. “Maybe you and Jena could go on a date sometime. She’d really like that,” I say.
His eyes do a weird little dance. Rounder—no, narrower—no. Scared?
He looks back at his cart. “I … Yeah, maybe,” and I can tell he is lying, and if he does think about it, she’ll just be the sick girl that flirts with him when he delivers water and I’ll just be her weird sister.
“Maybe?” I repeat, raising an eyebrow.
“Maybe,” he says again, and then pushes his cart around the corner before I can say anything else.
I stand there for a moment, hoping Mom will come so I won’t have to go back and tell Jena. Eventually, I drag my feet toward her room. Why did I ever think convincing her that a boy-who-wasn’t-good-enough-for-her liked her was better than hearing her breathe?
This is why it’s easier not to say anything to Jena. I always say the wrong thing. Now I am afraid she is going to cry.
But as soon as I walk into her room, she snaps her book shut, blinks away the hope in her eyes, and smirks. “Let me guess. He thinks I’m contagious?”
I bite the inside of my cheek. I want to tell her it’s because he hasn’t seen her play soccer or heard her laugh yet—her
laugh, not the one she reserves for hospitals. It isn’t breathy or forced or hard to listen to.
She shakes her head, smiles. “God. What a tool.” I want to remember this—the moment when, even though I’d been a complete fool, she wasn’t crying, she wasn’t breathing too loud, and I was still Jena’s sister. I am still Jena’s sister.
I sit back down in my corner right below the window of her room, both of us ignoring the fact that she is secretly disappointed.
“And I can’t
,” she says, “you tried to set me up with someone named Rufus. I hate you.”
And suddenly she is laughing, a loud, full sound that takes up the whole room, makes it feel like she’s right beside me. I want to bottle it up and save it for next time. I’ll play it over one of her hospital laughs, over the sound of her fighting to breathe.
* * *
Forty minutes later, while Jena is fast asleep, Mom walks in and says Dad is waiting for me outside the hospital.
She watches me, imparting all manner of “helpful” tips, while I close up my books and stuff them into my backpack. Mom’s particularly excited about this audition because the commercial is being directed by a former actor she used to work with, a Brody Richardson.
“He’s really a fan of the postmodern, so subtlety is key,” Mom says right before I head outside. I have no idea what she is talking about and leave her sitting in the chair beside Jena, flipping through one of the medical journals she subscribes to.
Three minutes later, I’m at the east entrance to the hospital atrium, and so is Dad.
We pull out of the parking lot and get on the highway from Quentin to Robindale. Now, all of a sudden, Dad looks worried. This is his first time taking me to an audition. “Are you ready? You don’t need your lines or makeup or something?”
In lieu of an answer, I say, “So, you’re just blowing off work to take me to some audition?”
“Now,” Dad says, “it’s not just
. You know how much this means to your mother. Besides, I’ve arranged for my work schedule to be a little more flexible for the next few months. To accommodate.”
My mother is determined to make sure that nothing else changes, but, in doing so, she’s implementing all sorts of changes. My father leaving work early? Taking me to auditions?
“Personally,” I say, “I think we should put the whole acting thing on the back burner for now.” For now. To accommodate. We speak in half-finished sentences because we’re terrified to know how they truly end. Maybe it’s not for now, but for ever. Maybe it’s not until. Or maybe it is.
Dad glances at me and pats my knee. “There’s no reason for that.” He does a shoulder check and changes lanes. “Actually, I’m glad we have some time to talk.”
I don’t want to know how this part ends either, so I lean against the window, duck my head, and pretend to sleep. Somewhere between Quentin and Robindale, it becomes real and I’m floating above myself, the car, everything, fast asleep, as my father’s voice reappears in interludes.