Authors: Rachel Vail
My cell phone buzzed in the pocket of my fleece.
, I thought.
Perfect timing and thank goodness, because I really need to talk to you.
She had sworn she’d never forgive me, even defriended me on Facebook, but I still maintained a tiny sliver of hope, and here she was....
I slipped my buzzing phone out of my pocket as casually as possible, because my mother doesn’t like phones at the table.
The text was from Kevin, who was hunched over his parfait, studying the bio homework, or seeming to.
The text said:
Ain’t breakfast swell?
I managed to not laugh. At least, not out loud.
“I gotta go,” I said, shoving my cell in my pocket and my chair away from the table.
“You have to eat breakfast,” Joe said.
I stopped but didn’t turn back to him. “No,” I said. “I don’t.”
On my way up the stairs, I typed fast with my thumbs:
Pretty slick texting there, bucko.
“You’ll be hungry,” Mom called after me, as if she had ever monitored my breakfast intake in the past three years.
“I’ll be fine!” I yelled back.
I ran up to my room, grabbed clothes, dumped them on the bathroom floor, and locked the door before I allowed myself to check and see if he had texted back yet. Yes:
Sorry, rbay? Uh, sorry, Kevin, never got that vocab word. Rbay?
I showered aggressively, shaving so fast I nicked each leg and had little rivulets of blood tracing streams down my legs after I shut off the water.
It was only as I combed through the tangles in my hair that I figured out
had to mean
right back at you.
Is that like a common acronym, or did he make that up on the spot? Just for me? Or does everybody use
? I yanked my clothes onto my still slightly damp body. Urgh. No time for much else, so I pulled my hair back into a ponytail and grabbed my bag with my books that nobody was quizzing me on, thanks, and scuffed down the steps.
Joe was supervising Samantha’s dishwashing while Mom sat at the table reading the paper. Kevin was at the door. My cell phone, in my pocket, buzzed again.
“Ready?” Kevin asked me out loud.
“Not even close,” I said.
“You better go anyway,” his father advised, pointing at the clock.
“Okay, Dad,” Kevin said in a deft imitation of his father’s serious Dad Voice.
We managed to not crack up until we had gotten to the street.
Side by side we walked, the laughter dying down as suddenly as it had bubbled up, and then silence settled between us. We got to the corner and waited for the bus, never making eye contact.
I SPENT THE
whole morning at school not thinking about Kevin. It took all my attention because he was in so many of my classes. I especially tried not to see him when he was walking between classes with Felicity, nodding at something she was saying to him. Felicity was my best friend until third grade. Now she is the center of the Pop-Tarts, who are Pop(ular) and Tart(y)—not really all that tarty, probably, but anyway, that is what me-and-Tess used to call them. They are actually very sweet and very pretty and very boring. Kevin seemed not to notice that last aspect.
But I was too busy smiling at other people and teachers, chatting with George, and pretending to be normal to be bothered by that. I was so distracted that in my planner, during science, I wrote down, “Think of.”
No idea what that even meant. Good luck with that homework.
Then I spent the next two periods wondering how awkward it would be if I asked Kevin for the homework, and whether I subconsciously for the first time ever just didn’t write down the assignment
I would have to ask him for it.
Excellent morning of education.
At lunch I considered going out to the bridge where the smokers and stoners hang, but I really didn’t have the courage or desire to be alone among a whole gang of kids I don’t know at my own school. So, since it was one of those rare late-March days that was both warm and clear and hinting that maybe spring actually would decide to come back to New England, I just went out to the courtyard to eat my lunch. I could listen to music with my new earbuds and watch Jennifer play basketball with George and Kevin and the other sporty kids, and then have somebody to walk in from lunch with.
Also, I was starving, due to the whole didn’t-eat-breakfast thing. It truly sucks when your mother is right. I plopped down on the steps and grabbed my sandwich out of my bag. I bit off a massive chunk of it and was just working out how to chew without gagging on such a ginormous quantity of cheese with pickles and mustard on whole wheat, when Tess plopped down beside me.
She hadn’t sat down next to me since Darlene’s horrible party. I didn’t know what to say to her. I had wished this moment into existence, and now I didn’t want to blow this chance. The blob of sandwich in my mouth began to swell. If Tess asked me a question or even just said hello, I was going to have to either spit out the blob or swallow it whole, like a boa constrictor with an ill-advisedly large rodent.
I was starting to drool.
Finally, Tess leaned back, her elbows on the step behind us. I dropped the unbitten part of my sandwich onto the brown bag in my lap, and then, with my body blocking her view, I gagged the continent-size hunk of soggy sandwich out of my mouth into my napkin. Retching only slightly, I crumpled it up into a ball and shoved it, along with the rest of the sandwich, into the brown bag, which I jammed between my feet.
I took a deep breath and pretended to be engrossed in watching the basketball game, hoping for the slim chance Tess hadn’t noticed the whole near-puking show.
After an awkward silence, she said, “Well, that was pretty.”
I smiled without turning my head. “There goes my future as a boa constrictor.”
“Doesn’t pay well anyway,” she said. “In this economy.”
I didn’t say,
are you my friend again?
I miss you!
If you forgive me for kissing Kevin and not telling you until I announced it to everybody, I will be the best friend ever from now on, I promise.
You weren’t always so nice to me, either, you know.
We just sat there, leaning back on our elbows, side by side. When the bell rang, we walked into school together. I had completely forgotten about waiting for Jen, and also about George, Kevin, my missing homework, and my hunger pangs. At my locker, Tess held out her pack of gum to me, and I took a piece just like nothing.
My stomach grumbled with hunger all the rest of the afternoon, or maybe from finally unclenching.
I WAS ON
my way through the lobby when George caught me by the shoulders and yanked me back toward him. “You’re in my clutches now!” he said, and kissed my hair.
He is such a nice guy. “Hi, George,” I said.
We chatted for a minute about whether the math homework was boring busywork or actually just hard. Then he had to run to band. I watched him go, knowing he would turn and smile at me before he rounded the corner. I waved. Then I turned around and walked home through the woods, looking at the new buds dotting the no-longer-completely-skeletal tree branches. Spring always comes, I was thinking, no matter how frigging unlikely it looks as the snow melts.
I think about the weather when I don’t want to think about other stuff, such as whether it is possible to be falling in love with two different guys.
Nobody was home, thankfully, when I got there, so I did my homework (the part I could decipher from my planner) in peace while eating pretty much everything in the fridge, and then went up to my room. I signed onto Facebook. Tess still hadn’t re-friended me. I posted on a bunch of people’s walls looking for someone who knew what we had to do for science, and then, since nobody had answered—just one superquiet kid I have never actually spoken to “liked” the fact that I had no clue what the homework was—I signed out.
How does a person figure out which boy she likes if she doesn’t have a best friend?
No texting Tess. Be cool. Wait
, I told myself.
Having nobody to text, I lay down on my bed, my cell phone still and cold as a dead turtle on my stomach as I drifted toward sleep.
I woke up completely discombobulated in the dark. I checked my phone. A message! But not from Tess. A number I didn’t recognize, asking me to come in on Wednesday afternoon.
I could hear people downstairs and wondered when, if ever, I would stop being surprised that Kevin Lazarus and his family were living in my house.
“Charlie!” my mother yelled up the stairs. “We’re waiting for you! Come on down for dinner!”
“Yeah,” I answered. “Right. Okay.” So I hadn’t slept through dinner. Good. I was starving. I jumped up out of bed and started the dash toward the dining room, but then went back to my room to grab my phone. That unfamiliar number, I realized, was probably Anya from Cuppa.
I texted back,
“Charlie!” Mom yelled again.
“We were waiting for you,” my mother growled when I got there. She never used to growl at me.
I decided not to look at her, either.
It was possible if things continued this way, I would never make eye contact with another living person the rest of my life.
Out of the blue, Joe chanted, “Too much noise! Too much noise!”
Samantha joined in, and Kevin may have, too, quietly: “Too much noise! Too much noise!” I looked at each of them, despite my recent vow not to, ever, but I mean, what the heck was happening?
My mother crinkled her nose and tilted her head, her code for
Her husband smiled gently at her, at Samantha, then back at Mom. “Old family joke,” he said, winking, and then asked Samantha, “Right?”
Mom smiled like,
, but I could tell she felt a little left out.
“It’s hard to be a new family when the old family has jokes some of us don’t get,” Joe said. “Sorry.” He kissed my mother, on the lips. In front of us.
It is hard to be a new family in so many ways, actually
, I was thinking, and then I started wondering when I could slip upstairs and hide in my room, since obviously nobody was about to kiss me and make it better. Hahahaha. As if kissing me ever made anything better.
“It’s from this time,” Joe started explaining, “when we were living in the city, and these people were marching past our building, protesting something, and we thought …”
“No,” Sam corrected. “That was ‘We want pastries! Pitzapoddle now!’ ‘Too much noise’ is a different story. Remember?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Kevin said.
“No, I thought, wasn’t that the time—”
“Dad,” Kevin interrupted. “Please.”
“I embarrass him,” Joe said to my mother. “Goofy Dad Syndrome.”
“Dad!” Kevin slammed his palm against the table, and we all jumped. “If you have to talk, at least SAY something. Don’t just spew randomly.”
“Touché,” Joe said. “So, um, well. Your mother called again today.”
“Why?” Samantha asked after a moment of heavy quiet.
“She wanted to tell me that she bought the tickets for you guys to come out to Idaho to visit her over spring break.”
They didn’t respond at all, just sat there. It was silent except for forks clicking on plates. The weird lack-of-talking lasted way longer than seemed at all normal, during which I had plenty of time to wonder what the hell was going on. Again. It was weirder than the Too Much Noise fiasco that had just passed.
Then, for the Grand Finale (I hoped) of Suppertime Oddness, Joe started quizzing Kevin and Samantha on what they had learned at school that day.
Seriously, my mother and I had passed entire meals, entire months without anything this peculiar going on. I tried to make eye contact with her to be like,
Aren’t we in a strange bit here together, you and I?
But she was staring pleasantly down at her plate.
“We have to come up with science fair projects,” Kevin was volunteering. “Everybody in ninth grade.”
, I thought
. Check. Okay. Thanks.
I hadn’t posted my question on his wall, of course. But there he was, giving me the answer to my
What was the science homework?
“Have you considered making a non-Newtonian fluid?” Joe asked me and Kevin.
“It’s all I’ve been thinking about,” I answered.
“Charlie,” Mom warned.
“Me too,” Kevin said, watching Sam. She was holding a string bean between her pointer and thumb, observing it. Then she let go.
“Sam,” Joe said. “Don’t.”
She slid off her chair to retrieve the string bean.
“Is that also called—goop?” my mother asked Joe.
“Yes! Don’t tell me you made goop for a science fair project, too?”