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Authors: Rachel Vail

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BOOK: Not That I Care
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I sort of liked Olivia today at lunch. Not as deadly wonkish as I had always figured. She had some funny things to say about girls like CJ who forget their friends as soon as a boy calls her on the phone. And, of course, there’s the pretzels.

Olivia walks up to the front of the class. Her coarse black pigtails don’t bounce, just jut adamantly out to the sides. She’s the smallest person in seventh grade by a lot, and also the smartest if you don’t count Ken Carpenter.

Olivia places her brown paper bag on Mrs. Shepard’s desk, turns to face the class, and says in her calm, steady monotone, “So. This is me.”

What am I going to do? I can’t present my items. My palms are starting to sweat on the brown paper of my Sack. This is me? No way I would ever get up and say This is me. Especially with this unexplainable stuff to explain.

Olivia pulls a charcoal pencil out of her paper bag, holds it up in front of her serious face, and announces, “Charcoal pencils, because I like to draw.” She places it on Mrs. Shepard’s desk blotter. Mrs. Shepard is nodding, over by the door. Teachers love Olivia; she does everything right. I didn’t know it was supposed to be like hobbies.

“A calculator,” Olivia says, lifting it. Her eyes focus above our heads on the back wall. “Because math is my favorite subject.” She sets it down.

I catch myself twirling the bottom of my black polo shirt and force myself to stop. My eyes, betraying me, glance over to my left. Next to me, CJ is sitting straight as a two-by-four on the edge of her chair, her head balanced gracefully on her long neck.

Olivia reaches into her Sack and pulls out a small box. I clamp my jaw shut and count. Sit up straight. My posture is just as good as CJ’s.

Olivia pulls a pair of earrings out of the box. I can’t stop blinking.

“These are soccer ball earrings, which represent me both because soccer is my favorite sport and also because I just got my ears pierced this summer.”

Olivia glances at Mrs. Shepard, who hasn’t budged. Ned told me that one time Mrs. Shepard told him, “Well said,” and the whole class practically fainted.

Olivia swallows hard. Poor Olivia. I wonder what she’s thinking. I don’t know her that well, yet, but I’m sure she’s off balance, not having the teacher nodding at her for once. If Olivia looks at me, I decide, I’ll smile encouragingly. It must be hard, sort of, to expect praise all the time. Not that I’d know; I’m just guessing.

I prepare to be supportive. Olivia doesn’t look at me. Which is fine. Whatever. She doesn’t look at anybody else, either, at least. Staring at the back wall, she pulls a thick paperback book out of her bag. “A dictionary, because I’m interested in etymology,” she says.

I have no idea what that means. Nothing in my bag can be explained in a sentence. I did the whole thing wrong. What am I going to do?

“A pool ball, because I like to shoot pool.”

Oh, shut up already, Olivia
, I almost say out loud. I open my crumpled brown bag just enough to peek inside. Wrong, wrong, wrong; no pool balls, no charcoal pencils. I have a broken thermometer. A Barbie head. A twig. Nothing I could possibly explain to these nineteen other seventh graders who’ve known me my whole life but have no clue. Not even CJ has a clue what’s in here, and I am not at all interested in confessing. Not even to CJ who was my best friend from the beginning of fourth grade until today.

I’m twirling the bottom of my shirt with my finger again. It shames me if my clothes are wrinkled, it looks like I’m poor. Stop it. Pay attention to Olivia. My best friend. I blow the long bangs out of my eyes. They drive me crazy, but at least they hide the pimples on my forehead, four of them and a fresh one coming. Don’t touch, the oil from fingers makes it worse. Think, think—what am I going to do? The backs of my thighs are sticking to the chair. Olivia is finishing, thank the Lord. I don’t know if we’re supposed to clap or what. I’m not going to be the first one. I wedge my hands under my thighs and blow at my bangs again.

I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s not like I’m so close with Mrs. Shepard I want her to be in on all my private business; in fact, I don’t really like her at all, the owl. I just got so involved, all weekend, choosing my ten items, I didn’t think of how they’d be presented. I guess I thought we’d just hand our Sacks in.

Olivia is heading back to her seat, the desk in front of mine. I make the mistake of glancing toward CJ again. She looks at me with a big sad apology all over her face.

Save it, pal. It’s not like I care or anything. I’m just trying to get through the day, and please, you are totally free to do whatever you want. It makes no difference, I’ve dealt with more than you’ll ever know, you pampered little prima donna. It would take a lot more than you to hurt me.

two

B
efore my father left, we were a
happy family. Or at least I think we were; I remember us always smiling and having lots of birthday parties. Actually, maybe I only remember what’s in the photo albums.

Maybe we weren’t that happy. I don’t know. I guess we were normal.

My parents were hoping for a girl when Mom was pregnant with me. On the way to the hospital, the day I was born, my mother saw a cherry tree in someone’s yard, all the cherries hanging down like ornaments, like jewelry, and she made my father promise that if she delivered a girl, he’d plant her a cherry tree like the one in that yard.

Shockingly enough, my father did as he promised, and when Mom came home from the hospital with me all in pink, Dad yanked us out back to see. Four-year-old Ned was standing out there all covered in dirt, proudly showing me and Mom the little sapling cherry tree he and my dad had planted. Mom cried. She used to cry pretty easily.

They took a picture of me lying on a baby blanket in front of the little tree. I was three days old, and I look like a wise but cranky little old man. They used the picture for my birth announcement. We proudly introduce our daughter, Morgan Amanda Miller . . .

Every year on my birthday, Dad used to sit me in front of the cherry tree in jeans and a white shirt and take a picture. We have them arranged in a special book, like time-lapse photography: me holding my toes at one, me cute and spunky with bobbed hair when I was five, me with a missing-tooth-space in my mouth when I was turning eight, long, dark hair covering most of my face on my tenth, right before Mom chopped bangs on me. And behind me in each picture, the tree grew bigger and flowered, until there was a lacy spread of pinkish-white branches behind me by the time I was six—but no cherries, not a single cherry hung down off those branches like a piece of gaudy jewelry, even as the tree towered above me. It became sort of a family joke, the cherry tree that grew no cherries.

I was best friends back then with a girl named Roxanne Luse, because she lives down the street and she’s my age. Roxanne made up silly words for everything from passing gas (
gweezing
) and what’s in your nose (
galloochi
) to ponytail holders (
zapoos
). She lost her first tooth in kindergarten and described to me in detail her late-night conversations with the tooth fairy, who paid her a crisp dollar for each tooth that fell out. No matter how much I wiggled my teeth and how much sugar I ate, everything in my mouth was anchored tight. My mother, annoyingly, told me my teeth were just healthy and strong.

Roxanne was very sympathetic. She told me she’d mentioned my name to TF, as she called the tooth fairy, and that TF had told her some people are just slow and that’s fine. I felt grossly babyish. Roxanne looked so much more grown up, even at six, with all those spaces in her mouth and that wild mess of hair she refused to brush. She outweighed me by half.

Roxanne invented complicated imaginative games with endless rules I could never remember, because there were always new ones. Our favorite game was Time Machine, which we played under my cherry tree. Roxanne was the pilot of our time shuttle (called a
maznoropa)
, so she got to say where we’d go—Colonial America, a prehistoric cave, Jupiter. Whatever the time period, she played my slave, and she told me exactly what I had to do. Then she’d make daring escapes or else die tragically. It was all a little scary to me, but there were no other kids my age around, and Ned was already too cool to let me play with him in the daytime.

Roxanne decided she should be called Rock, because of her name, and I should be called Tree, because of my cherry tree, which I had told her I owned. The tree evened things out in my mind: She got to make all the rules, but I owned something huge, living, and unmovable.

Roxanne swore we were part Native American, a fact provable because who else would have names like Rock and Tree? She also decided we were half cousins. I wasn’t sure how we could prove that, but I didn’t press. She said if the tree ever grew some cherries I could change my name to Cherry. I was psyched; Cherry seemed like a really beautiful name. Each time before we played Time Machine we’d check all the branches really carefully, and Roxanne would sympathetically announce, “No, your name is still Tree.” Then I’d crouch down in my passenger spot and wait to see what time period the
maznoropa
would bring us to.

three

“R
oxanne Luse,” Mrs. Shepard
says.

I look behind me to the right toward Roxanne. Her face is hidden in her hands, under her big tangle of black hair. Her green pants have writing all over them, and her T-shirt is on backward so the pocket is over her shoulder blade. She’s not answering.
Come on, Rock
, I think, though I never call her that anymore. I know she would have interesting stuff in her bag; weird, even.

“Roxanne Luse,” Mrs. Shepard says again.

“Unprepared,” Roxanne mumbles into her hands.

“Unprepared?” Mrs. Shepard asks, like the word tastes sour in her mouth.

Roxanne lifts her head and stares at Mrs. Shepard.

“Unprepared?” Mrs. Shepard asks again.

“Yeah,” Roxanne says and shrugs.

“That’s unacceptable,” says Mrs. Shepard.

Roxanne uncaps a Sharpie marker and starts to write on her pants.

“Gather your things,” Mrs. Shepard says, looking at her watch. “Go to the office.”

Roxanne fills in the shape she’s drawn, recaps the Sharpie, and throws it into her big book bag. She pulls the book bag up onto her lap and sweeps the notebook, pens, and crumpled paper off her desk, into the bag, then smooshes it down with the heel of her hand. Then she sighs and stands up, hoisting the big bag onto her shoulder. Down the aisle she trudges and out the door.

Mrs. Shepard closes it quietly but firmly behind her and looks suspiciously at the rest of us. “Is anyone else here unprepared?”

Nobody moves or even breathes. She waits. The clock ticks. I consider raising my hand for one demented second, picture myself gathering my things and running down the hall to meet Rock and maybe be best friends with her again, no matter how weird and unpopular she is; at least it would get me out of having to stand up there in front, soon, and present this Sack full of myself.

I don’t, of course. I sit very still.

“Let’s continue,” Mrs. Shepard says.

four

I
n the winter of second grade I
started taking ballet after school on Tuesdays. It was sort of boring, but I liked having a chance to do something apart from Roxanne and her complicated games. She’d wait for me in her green Snorkel and boots under my cherry tree on Tuesdays, but sometimes I’d tell her I had to go inside and practice ballet, so she should go home. The ballet teacher told my mother after class one day that she should really encourage my ballet training because I was blessed with perfect turn-out. I ran to the backyard to show Roxanne, who said she had a headache and couldn’t stay. At dinner Mom told Dad and Ned.

“Perfect turn-out?” asked Dad. “I’m ever so proud.”

They all laughed, which humiliated me. I ran to my room and slammed the door. I could hear them laughing straight through it. Our house is very small. Dad came in, still smiling. He looks like a movie star, everybody always says, and he’s originally from Ireland, so he’s got that whole accent thing going. Plus he’s six foot three, with high cheekbones, dark brown wavy hair, and little lines coming off his eyes that make him look like he’s hearing something funny. He sat beside me on the floor and said, “Gotta learn to take a joke, Maggie.” He calls me Maggie. His voice is sort of hoarse, always, like he’s been cheering too much.

“I can take a joke,” I assured him.

He winked at me. “That’s my girl.” I used to love when he said that. He whispered, “We have enough sensitive types in this house, hey?” and raised his eyebrows toward the living room where Ned and Mom were still eating.

“Right,” I whispered back.

“Well, then,” he said, pointing at my feet. “Let’s have a look.”

I stood up to show him my turn-out. My feet just naturally face opposite walls.

“And that’s good for ballet dancing, is it?”

I shrugged and made a face like, isn’t that the funniest? But it is good for ballet, and all the other girls had gathered around me to look at my feet at the end of dance class that afternoon. I waited for his opinion on my blessed feet.

“Just looks like a duck to me,” he said and smiled at me, though I saw a little questioning look in his eyes.

I forced my face into an imitation of a smile. “Quack,” I said.

He swooped me up in his arms and said, “Come eat your supper, Duckie.” I could tell he was proud I didn’t have such easily bruised feelings as Mom. If he’d told her she looked like a duck, there’d be broken dishes and tears, for sure.

A few weeks before my eighth birthday, a tooth wiggled. I worked on it endlessly and showed Roxanne its progress every morning on our way to school. It hung by a thread for about a week. Roxanne offered to yank it out, but I felt a little queasy about that.

Ned and I were watching a video on my parents’ bed one afternoon when they’d gone out to finish their fight. Mom was angry at Dad about something, he was being selfish again like always, she was being oversensitive, stuff was starting to be thrown, and they’d decided to take it outside.

BOOK: Not That I Care
13.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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