Authors: Sarah Wylie
But Lauren’s in a world of her own. That first week after we found out about Jena, the phone rang incessantly—people we barely knew spewing
words of encouragement
and well wishes and ifthere’sanythingwecandos, until someone took the phone off the hook. Before that, though, Lauren called. It was uncharacteristic—she hardly ever calls me—and I braced myself for whatever profound but useless thing she was going to add to the many we’d heard. But she didn’t say anything. Not one word. We sat there in silence for five minutes, and then I said I had to go, and that was it. Those five minutes were all we’ve ever said about Jena.
These days, since I have less to say—and because she
—she greedily swallows all the empty silences, the commas, the periods, and the question marks. I guess she just has a lot to say. Or maybe she does it because she doesn’t like the way air swishes around in your eardrums when nobody says anything, and so she fills the silence with too many words.
“I just feel like I’m ready to make a big difference, you know?”
. Half an hour before Jena’s appointment.
“By the way, have you ever noticed that classrooms are practically a dictatorship? I hadn’t either, until I started talking to Rachel. I mean, I was skeptical at first, but think about it—we start class when the teacher gets there, we stop when he’s ready to stop, assessments are totally up to the teacher. They say we have a test on Monday, and we have to take a test on Monday. I say, Enough is enough.”
Before, when Lauren used to get all passionate like this, I would try to avoid her. There’s just something about her franticness that stresses people out. But now, her speech is calming. It plays like background music to my thoughts, something normal and familiar. My eyes float across the room to the table closest to the cafeteria line.
Ben Hershey, Khy, and Erin are sitting together again, and this time Ben has on his basketball uniform. I barely used to notice them last year, but now I’m constantly looking over, waiting for them to miss her.
Lauren doesn’t speak for a second, and when I look back at her, she’s staring at me, one eyebrow raised.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
“You should really consider what I’m saying,” Lauren says. “You’re complacent, too. I mean, what do you care about?”
“I don’t know,” I tell her, and swallow to make my throat less tight.
“Exactly. You should really figure it out, Dani. Or you’ll become just like everybody else.”
Right then, Erin turns and looks over her shoulder. For a split second, she looks annoyed, since I’m not trying to hide the fact that I’m staring. But then she turns back around and keeps on eating her lunch.
Lauren is still talking, because she gets to worry about that: being
, making a difference, and the politically correct term for hugging trees.
We’re so different, I don’t even know why we’re friends.
* * *
“Where have you been?” Mom corners me as soon as I step into the house. “It’s six-thirty.”
“I was at the public library,” I say, and it should be a lie, but it’s not. I took the bus there after school, found a quiet corner, and fell asleep reading a book ingeniously titled
Felines, Our Friends
. I didn’t want to be home alone if I got here before they did, and then I didn’t want to know if there was bad news. “I have this big math assignment.”
“That is unacceptable, Dani. Is it too much to ask that you tell people where you’re going?” Mom rants.
“Sorry.” Avoiding her eye, I ask, “How did the meeting go?”
Mom sighs, and I can hear the tiredness in her voice. “Well. Her blood work could have been better. He wasn’t thrilled with her white blood cell count.” She starts spewing numbers, and I wonder if now is a good time to tell her I’m this close to failing math. The bottom line is that we’re still waiting on a marrow match.
I leave Mom calling Dad to inform him that I’ve been found.
Jena’s not on the couch, not in the kitchen, not at the dining room table. I go upstairs to look for her, just to double-check that she still exists. I wait outside her room, my ear pressed against her door. If it’s something I don’t want to see, then I won’t go in. If it’s completely silent, then I haven’t decided what I’ll do yet.
I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I hear
, so I turn the handle and start to go in. I have to push the door open all the way before I see her, crouched down, on her knees in front of her closet.
“Are you praying?” I don’t mean to sound so incredulous; it’s just …
I take a couple steps forward. No, she’s not praying. There’s music playing in the background, something metallic and fraught with swear words, except it’s on so low, it might as well not be.
“What are you doing?”
“Turn it off,” Jena commands.
I don’t pretend not to know what she’s talking about. Instead, I cross the room, head toward the stereo, and press the “off” button. This is just like old times, her bossing me around and me doing it.
Loud, thick, and anxious breathing fills the room in place of the music, and I’m about to yell for whoever it is to stop, when I realize it’s me.
“My closet’s a mess,” Jena says after a second, holding up a pair of sweatpants. She sounds normal, and it’s true. Her closet is a mess. There are piles of clothes on the floor. Except the hangers are down with them, like someone pulled them down.
Angry music. A demolished closet.
Angry music, but soft. A demolished closet, but she’s cleaning it. Her movements are slow and floppy, and I can tell she’s exhausted.
“I’ll give you fifty bucks if you help me.”
“You don’t have fifty bucks.”
“I have twenty,” she says. “Dad gave it to me.”
“What for?” I ask. Because here I was under the impression that I was Dad’s new favorite, since Jena is Mom’s.
“I don’t know. It’s not like I don’t still spend money.”
She’s holding up a T-shirt that is too big for her. It always was, but it must have enlarged and stretched in the wash. Why else would it look so huge against her body?
Then she takes it and tucks the sleeves in, folds it down the middle and in half, the way Mom does.
“Why don’t you just leave it till later, if you’re tired? Or Mom could do it for you.” Really, I mean: if you went to all the trouble of pulling down all the hangers in your closet and kicking around your shoes and slamming your hand in the wall—I can’t find the dent, but I know it’s here somewhere—and playing your pretentious and angry underground-band music, why didn’t you do it properly? Why didn’t you leave it? Why are you Jena-halfway some of the time, and not my sister Jena all of the time?
“The mess was driving me insane.”
, I don’t say.
“So will you help me?” Jena asks.
I pick up a pair of shorts and start folding.
Of course I will help you. I will help you back down and cower and hide the fact that you’re secretly pissed about this whole being-sick thing, but not really sure how to show it. I will help you pack up the mess you made for what we both know is a false sense of accomplishment. That sense of “God, Jena, but you are such a badass. You made a little mess in the back of your closet where no one can see it? Bad. Ass.”
She’s wearing a multicolored beanie, the edges pulled down tight over her ears, because her ears are always cold, even inside.
I get on my knees and start folding. Beside me, Jena keeps moving slowly, breathing loud.
“I want that twenty,” I tell her as I stuff a folded shirt into the back of her closet.
While we’re cleaning up, one thought runs through my mind, makes me feel better. I can help her.
I’m still on number six.
Dad drops me off at school early on Thursday morning and, I have to admit, words cannot describe the satisfaction that arises from being the first person there. There’s something invigorating about being first at anything, especially if you take full advantage of it and sit at the entrance, staring down people like they’re late as they come inside.
There’s also the fact that I beat Lauren to math class, which is basically unheard of. Her lateness, however, gives me a chance to sit back, fold my arms across my chest, and admire the hotness that is Jack Penner. When he glances at me uncomfortably from the corner of his eyes, I even tell him so.
“Sorry,” I say, leaning forward in my chair. “I just forget everything when I look at you.”
He’s gotten pretty good at pretending not to have heard me, but the way his cheeks redden like overripe tomatoes always gives him away.
“I think we should meet at the library to work on our assignment next week,” Jack says, refusing to meet my eye. “We didn’t get very much done last time.”
“I know, it was really unfortunate,” I agree, even though I’m still harboring a lot of hurt over the fact that he rejected the ideas I presented. And almost let a bag of chips ruin what we have.
Halbrook announces that we’re watching a movie he hopes will inspire us for our assignments. And for a second, we are hopeful. Today’s class might not be a total bust.
Then, he brings out an ancient-looking video and VCR.
Many heads hit desks, and palms embrace cell phones.
I’m more open-minded, so I’m willing to give it a chance—that is, until black-and-white figures begin to scurry across the screen, robotic and scratchy-voiced. Then I’m done.
I notice that Rachel Talbot is sitting by herself in the row beside ours, unwrapping a Fruit Roll-Up beneath her desk, and I wonder aloud if Lauren is sick.
“Didn’t you get the e-mail?” Jack whispers back.
“E-mail?” I forgot I had that.
He nods. “About the walkout. Lauren’s staging a walkout for eight-forty.”
I glance at the clock. It’s eight thirty-five. “Why is everybody still here, then?”
Jack shrugs. “I guess they’re not going. It wasn’t really clear what exactly we were supposed to be protesting. Plus, it sounds like trouble.”
I think back to the conversation Lauren and I had yesterday. About her wanting to
. It really looks like she’s going to be the only one at her own walkout, and I can’t help but feel a little bad for her.
Just seeing an e-mail with sender “Lauren Friedman” would probably be enough to get half the student body to delete it. The other half might or might not read it, and those who do are hardly going to stick out their necks to support her political agenda. What I don’t understand, though, is why she’s not here, but Rachel Talbot is. I mean, isn’t Rachel supposed to be her mentor or something? Her new political adviser? The girl that is a cause before a person?
But here she sits, slumped in her chair, watching the grainy black-and-white video. She’s on to her second Fruit Roll-Up.
There’s something wrong with this picture.
“Are we supposed to be taking notes?” Lance Hutchinson, the only other kid watching apart from Rachel—even Jack is reading a book—asks, raising his head.
Of course Halbrook says, “Yes. All material presented in class is testable.”
And I want to pummel Lance because a) I’ve always had unhealthy aggression issues, and b) you should never give teachers the chance to say, “I told you it was testable.”
It doesn’t matter, though, because nobody moves to pull their notebooks out, and Halbrook himself is reading
magazine behind his desk.
I rest my head on my desk and determine that if I wasn’t so lazy, I’d probably join Lauren. The “academic discipline” our student handbook refers to has to beat watching this video.
* * *
Lauren is back by lunch, her lips forming one thin, angry line. She flops down across from me at a table in the cafeteria.
“I hate this school,” she announces.
“I know,” I say, determined to be understanding and supportive of her failed mission. “You were right. We’re all very complacent.”
“What?” she says, opening a container of blueberry yogurt. “Well, yes, you are. But what I mean is I hate this
. They are running a complete autocracy.” She dips her spoon into the yogurt and shakes her head. “Do you know that they tried to sabotage the walkout? I don’t know how they found out about it. Rachel thinks they probably hack into our e-mail.”
“Why was Rachel in class, by the way?” I ask. “During the walkout?”
“She couldn’t do it because she’s already on a tight rope. If she gets kicked out of Quentin, she’ll have to be homeschooled. And her parents are apparently really psycho and think the world is flat.”
It’s not? “Well, that sucks.”
Lauren nods. “Anyway, I have detention for skipping class.
” Something about her voice suggests she cares more than she’s letting on. Lauren Friedman doesn’t get detention. Ever. And although she’s trying to act like she’s forgotten who she is, she still remembers.
“I’m going to get my parents to call Principal Motley.”
Forgetting yourself is probably the hardest part of changing who you are. But if that’s true, then there’s something wrong with me. I remember specific things—what I wore when I auditioned for
two years ago; that I placed third in Quentin’s spelling bee in sixth grade—but I barely remember who I
, if I even existed, before.
On Saturday, the morning of my callback, I wake up early to the smell of vomit and bleach. From my position in bed, I hear the sound of footsteps, desperate and heavy on the other side of the door.
Next comes a loud silence in which I try to breathe quietly. All I hear is the sound of the tiny white fan in Mom and Dad’s room, the one reserved for sticky summers and heat waves, beating and swiping angrily at the air.
Are we all holding our breaths?
Then the sound of her retching. A violent, gurgling noise that seems to come from someplace deeper, more hollow than her stomach. I close my eyes so I don’t have to imagine it.