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Authors: Rachel Vail

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BOOK: Not That I Care
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Ned listened for another minute, then held the phone toward me.

I rolled my eyes and grunted, “Hello?”

“Maggie,” Dad said. “How’s my girl?”

“Fine,” I said.

“Listen, about the cleats,” he said. I knew already, by the way he said that, what his answer was. “Tough month here in Tinseltown. No work for studs like your old man.”

“OK,” I said, staring at the TV.

“Hey, but when I hit it big you’ll have all the shoes you want.”

“Fat lot of good that does me now,” I said. “’Bye.”

“Let me talk to your mother, hey, Duckie?”

I held the phone out to Mom without moving my eyes from the TV screen.

Mom grabbed the phone and stood up, knocking over the bowl of popcorn. She made an F sound with her mouth but stopped herself. She’d given me and Ned a whole speech earlier in the week about needing to clean up our mouths, all of us—decrease our vocabularies by a few four-letter words.

“Eddie?” she barked into the phone, and it sounded pretty much like the f-word she’d stopped herself from spitting out, the way she said it.

I pretended I was totally engrossed in the commercial on TV, lifting my legs lazily off the coffee table when Ned crawled under them to pick up popcorn kernels and slam them into the bowl.

“No,” Mom said, pacing barefoot in tight circles near the dining room table, her fist grasping a clump of her black curly hair. “No, Eddie, you listen to me! Where the . . . No! Where is the check?” Mom glanced over at me, her lips pressed tight against each other, her high cheekbones burning red. She stomped into her room and slammed the door.

“Don’t slam doors!” Ned whispered. We grinned briefly at each other. Then he shrugged. “He’s living with that girl, out there, you know. That ditz who dragged him out there.”

“No kidding,” I answered, totally shocked but trying not to show it.

“I wasn’t sure if you knew.”

“Of course I knew.” I could barely breathe.

“Isn’t it gross?” Ned whispered. “He met her at Mass?”

“I know it,” I managed to say. I knew he’d been going to seven o’clock Mass every morning, but I was nine, I didn’t think anything of it. I just thought, that’s what Daddy does. I thought he was holy.

Ned shook his head. “He’s such a zip.”

“He moved out there with her,” I added, not knowing if it were true or not.

“Obviously.”

I stared at the TV and said, “I wasn’t sure if you knew.”

Ned wedged the refilled popcorn bowl next to me on the couch. We used to be buddies, Ned and me, when we were kids—always played together, at least until he got all crazy in seventh grade. People used to say what a perfect family we were.

Ned went into his room and turned on his head-banger music. I turned down the TV volume, so I could eavesdrop on my mother.

I had my ear pressed against the wall when Mom screamed, “AGAIN?”

I slumped back down onto the couch. I knew this one by heart. No check again this month.

“Eddie, what am I supposed to do? You HAVE TO find the money, I don’t care if you . . . Too bad, your dream! You’re an adult, Eddie, and I bet your little girlfriend doesn’t have to . . . What? Do you think I give a rat’s . . . I work sixty hours a . . . What? Don’t tell me I’m hysterical, you sack of useless . . . What? Yeah? Well, then, get your head out of my teeth, you don’t want me biting it off. Yeah? Right back at you.”

I heard the phone slam into her door. It’s our fourth new phone in a year. I turned the TV volume back up loud, then flung the remote against the bookcase. The battery rolled under the couch. It’s our third remote.

I went into my room and closed the door softly, chose a sharp pencil, and took out the small, square, blank book I use as my journal. I wrote down everything that had happened that day, the first day of seventh grade. I wrote and wrote, until I got up to the part about Mom yelling at Dad, and finding out the truth of why Dad had left us. Then I started erasing, with the new gummy eraser. I didn’t like it, any of it.

I erased the whole day.

eighteen

T
he next day, CJ was giving me
the Silent Treatment more than the boys. I have no idea why. At our lockers before lunch, CJ even gave her new combination to Zoe instead of to me.

In case CJ gets sick or something, Zoe could unlock her locker and get her stuff for her, and bring it over to her house. I actually live closer to CJ than Zoe does. Last year when CJ got bronchitis, I brought her not just the homework, almost every day, but also, each time, a little thing—a paper-clip bracelet once and the next day a fortune-telling origami thing I spent the entire day making for her. Nothing big. Nothing great. I was the one who had her combination, then.

Zoe’s shiny blue eyes opened wide as she looked down at CJ’s new combination for a second before she folded it up and crammed it into her shorts pocket. She smiled her molar-exposing smile at me, almost like she was apologizing. Like I cared or something, that CJ gave her the combination and saved me all that work of making presents and bringing the homework if she gets sick this year.

Zoe could blurt it out to the boys, was the only thing. I wasn’t getting the impression she’d been one hundred percent successful at giving them the Silent Treatment, which we had all made a pact to do. CJ could end up with every boy in the school rummaging through her locker, trusting Zoe Grandon, the blabbermouth, with her combination. Zoe had already announced her own locker combination out loud: 7-14-2. Anyone with a locker near ours could steal her lunch or jacket any time. Zoe has no sense of privacy or secrecy.

If CJ hates me
, I remember thinking,
What will I do?
I tried to think how to win her back. “Well, my father is at it again,” I said.

CJ whispered, “Oh, no,” and gave me that head tilted, hand-up-by-her-neck imitation of her mother when she’s trying to be sympathetic. At least she still cared. I didn’t look away like I usually do when she acts all nice.

“What happened?” Zoe asked.

“You wouldn’t understand,” I explained to her. “You have the perfect family.” I wrote down my new combination and gave it to Olivia. I can give my combination to whoever I want, same as CJ, and Olivia is much more honest and moral than anybody else around; exactly the type of person you’d want to give your combination to. “Here’s my combination,” I told Olivia.

“Thanks,” Olivia said. She couldn’t give me her combination because she has a key lock. Everybody else has combinations. Last year I might have thought she was a loser for doing something different, but I am not such a conformist anymore. She can have a key lock if she wants. How generous of me. I watched her lock up, her long, skinny fingers carefully turning the key. She’s the least rough person I’ve ever noticed. Definitely a good person to trust with your combination.

CJ slammed her locker shut.

“My family is so far from perfect,” Zoe protested.

I leaned against Olivia’s locker and said, “The Grandons? You’re all so happy and friendly and cute, we could throw up.” In fact, I felt like throwing up.

“Mm-hmm,” CJ agreed. “Everybody thinks so.” Then she smiled at me.
Thank the Lord
, I thought.

Zoe tugged at her T-shirt and fidgeted around. “My family? Please.” She smiled big at CJ.

“Face it, Zoe,” I told her. “You have no problems.”

She had no answer for that, so she asked what my father had done.

“He called last night with this whole thing, there won’t be a check again this month, blah, blah, blah.”

Nobody said anything. We started walking to the cafeteria. I could just hear my mother saying,
You sure have a gift for killing a conversation, Morgan
. To lighten things up, I added, “You should’ve heard my mom. She went nuts. And she says I have a nasty mouth.”

CJ put her arm around me. I didn’t shrug it off; it felt good even though I had to hunch a little because I grew a few inches this summer.

We sat down at our lunch table. CJ and Olivia were both looking at me all sympathetic as we opened our lunches, so of course Zoe had to horn in on the attention. “My family isn’t so perfect,” she mumbled.

“Yeah, right,” I said.

She was still smiling like she always does, but I noticed for the first time that there was a tightness around her mouth and that her hands were fluttering up near her face nervously. “My sister Colette got her belly button pierced,” Zoe said in a quivering voice. “And my dad saw it.”

CJ turned away from me to look wide-eyed at Zoe. “Did he have a fit?”

“Oh, yeah,” Zoe answered with her mouth full. “When I was on the phone with you?” she said to CJ.

CJ nodded. So I guess they were on the phone together last night. I shoved my uneaten sandwich back into my lunch bag.

Zoe nodded, too, swallowing. “That was my father,” she said. “Screaming at Colette that she better have it out by today, and she’s screaming no way, it’s her body, he can’t make her, and he’s like, oh, yes, I can. CJ was on the phone with me the whole time.”

Hurray for you
, I thought.

“That’s true,” CJ whispered to me and Olivia. “I heard the whole thing.”

Olivia opened her pretzel sticks and told Zoe, “I agree with your sister. Even though, gross, still, it’s her body.” She held the box toward me.

I took a pretzel and, sucking on it, said, “Maybe.” They waited while I chewed. I don’t talk with my mouth full. “But your sister doesn’t have to make such a dramatic point about it.”

Zoe shrugged and said, “Well, anyway, my family is far from perfect.”

Tommy and Jonas were suddenly sitting down at our table. I hadn’t even seen them walk over. As they climbed onto the bench, CJ was telling Zoe, “You must be so upset.”

“Why?” Tommy asked. “What happened?” He pointed his chin at me, as if I would be the one to break our Silent Treatment and explain.

“Nothing,” I said.

CJ put her arm around Zoe. Jonas reached across me and grabbed a couple of Olivia’s pretzel sticks.
Excuse me, am I invisible?

“You could ask,” I told him.

He stopped chewing and lowered the uneaten halves of the pretzel sticks back into Olivia’s box. “Sorry,” he mumbled, and stood up.

“Later,” Tommy said as they walked away in their untied high-tops.

“Much,” Zoe said.

That made me laugh. She really is funny, I thought. So I asked her if her father is actually going to check her sister’s belly button. She nodded with a nauseated look on her face and said, “Tonight.” She tried to smile and added, “Should be a comedy.”

CJ, who knows nothing about families falling apart, told Zoe, “If you need to get away, you can call me and come over.”

“Or me,” I offered. “Anytime.”

CJ smiled at me.

Olivia told Zoe, “My house is closest. You can ride your bike over if you want.”

Zoe told the three of us that we’re the greatest. Then the Levit boys threw a bunch of minimarshmallows at us. We laughed and gobbled them up.

After school, I rode straight to Sundries instead of home. My money was in my pocket, and I plunked it on the counter as soon as I walked in and checked that nobody I knew was in the store.

“Wait a while,” said slow Mrs. Dodge, who owns the place. “Catch your breath.”

I hate when old people feel like they can tell kids what to do. I looked at the ceiling and waited, counting silently to ten. “May I please have the thing?”

“What thing?”

“That I put on hold,” I whispered. “The Barbie.”

“Ah,” she said in a voice so loud it echoed throughout the store. “The doll. Yes.” She bent down to retrieve it from under the counter. I prayed she’d hurry, because I could just imagine each person I knew strolling in right then—Zoe. Tommy. My brother.

Mrs. Dodge turned the Barbie box over and over in her hands.

“Ten ninety-eight,” I finally said, though I knew rushing her was totally counterproductive.

“Is it?” She studied the box. “Ah, there it is. Plus tax, of course. Funny, usually the younger girls go for these things. Don’t see the appeal, myself.”

I forced myself to stifle the comments and just subtly push the stack of carefully saved dollars across the counter, another inch closer to her. She rang up the sale on her cash register and slipped the box into a white paper bag. I grabbed the bag out of her hand and almost left without my change.

Instead of crushing Barbie in my rattrap, I rode home one-handed, peeking into the bag as I rode.
Mine
, I thought.
Finally
.

Mine didn’t come with a fancy outfit or even a decent pair of pumps, just a cheap-looking hot-pink minidress and matching hot-pink sneakers in a plastic bag taped inside the box. But the others, the Barbies in the better clothes, were twice as expensive, and it had taken so long to save up for this one I just couldn’t wait anymore. I was so excited, I could barely wait to get home and yank her out. She was tied to the box with a bunch of Baggie ties and a plastic tab anchored in her head. I used a scissors on that. It was quite a project, getting her free. Her hair was sewn to the box under a plastic piece. I was scared I might ruin her. I searched for Barbie removal instructions, but there weren’t any—just small print on the bottom back panel that said DOLLS CANNOT STAND ALONE.

Oh, well
, I thought.
I don’t care if she stands alone. She’ll be hiding under my bed her whole life anyway
. But only if I could get her hair off the box. How does anybody else know how to do it? Why in the world would they sew her hair between a plastic piece and the box? It seems so gruesome.

I guess a mother would normally handle the Barbie removal. A mother would know how, but mine wasn’t due home for a few hours and anyway she’d outlawed Barbies years before. I was on my own.

I closed my eyes and pulled. My jaw was gripped tight with all the force it took to tear that plastic thing away from the cardboard it was sewn to. When I opened my eyes, though, she was free. And only slightly mussed.

I didn’t care that she’d be a minor Barbie to anybody else. She’s my first one, my only one. Anyway I’m too old to play with Barbies. I smoothed her hair down and whispered, “Hi. I’m Morgan.”

BOOK: Not That I Care
9.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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