by Eli Dupree
by Eli Dupree
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"Let's hide under the bleachers," I say.
"What?" says Rose.
"Where's the fun in watching the game the way everyone else watches it?" I say. I pull at her arm.
"Alright," she says.
Our middle school is right next to the high school, so we usually go to watch the games when there's one at the high school right after we get out. They have this great big field with free-standing bleachers all along both sides. Sometimes it's fun to come out here when nothing's happening and run along the long metal seats to hear the weird warbling noises they make.
Today there are so many people looking for seats that it's easy for us to slip off unnoticed. It must be a big game or something. I don't really care. Mom and Dad always say, "Chloe, it's kids just like you who are playing in the games," but what do THEY know, anyway? But Rose likes to watch the games and Rose is my best friend, and has been my best friend since second grade, so I usually come and watch them with her.
The back side of the bleachers is just completely open. Rose and I are on the side of the field that faces the woods, so nobody will see us from behind either. We walk in and peer through the cracks between the seats.
"This isn't a very good view," says Rose.
"You can get a better view if you do this," I say. I go belly-down on the ground and wriggle under so that I'm looking right out from under the first row of seats. I twist back and call for Rose to join me. It's noisy enough up there that no one will hear our voices anyway.
"But it's dirty!" says Rose. I hadn't thought about that. She is wearing that white dress that she really likes, and even I would be kind of sad to see it get covered in dirt. Plus, she's a year older and a lot bigger than I am, so I'm not sure if she'd fit down here anymore anyway.
"Just pull up your skirt and crouch down next to me. You can probably get an okay view from three or four rows up."
"The dirt'll brush off just fine later. It's not mud season yet!"
I feel her kneel down like I suggested.
"Shh!" I say. "Just look! The game's starting."
I can mostly keep up with what's going on in the game. I know how soccer works, basically, but in the high school games there are a bunch of weird extra rules that aren't like the way we play it in Gym class, and there are referees who go around and call out that someone has done something wrong that I don't understand. In general, it looks like one of the teams is winning way too much and everybody is kind of frustrated because it's supposed to be a challenge, but now it's not.
My neck gets kind of stiff from watching this way, but it's a lot more fun than just doing things the way you're supposed to. Plus, I get to have Rose all for myself for an hour or so. I love Rose. She's a really great friend. She always goes along with my crazy ideas instead of just looking at me funny or ignoring me like most people do. And also she knows all kinds of stuff that my other friends don't because she's older. She was the one who helped me when I had my first period and was panicking because I didn't want to go to my parents about it. And she also told me how to do kissing properly, and more importantly, how to avoid being kissed by people when you think it's really kind of yucky. And also she gets good grades in school, although I really don't care that much about that sort of thing, although I guess I'm a little jealous.
The game finally comes to an end. I crawl out from under the seats and join Rose again.
"That was kind of fun," she says. Then she looks down at my chest. I look too.
There's a layer of dirt covering my entire front. I grin. Rose is sort of smiling too. I start wildly brushing it off with my hands. Thirty seconds later, my shirt is still stained, but at least I won't be dropping clods of dirt on everything. I start to walk out to the street.
"There's some on your back too!" says Rose.
"I don't care," I say. "Phbbbbbt!" I run away and Rose chases me, laughing. Normally she's faster than me, but this time I have to slow down and let her catch up because I'm in jeans and she's in a long skirt, and she's hanging back because she doesn't want me to fling dirt all over her.
I'm hot and sticky. The heating system for this room is messed up and Miss Williams won't let us open a window, so the classroom is boiling. I'd love to sneak out, but we're supposed to get our report cards today and it would be really awkward to miss that.
Miss Williams is my homeroom teacher and she's really strict. Most everyone in her homeroom has gotten a detention from her at some point, ESPECIALLY me. Everyone's in their seats already, but there's no way Miss Williams is going to show anyone their report cards until the first bell, so all the other kids are idling around and gossiping about whatever it is they gossip about. I'm just sitting still and trying not to melt into a gooey mush in the heat. I don't really care what the other kids say so-and-so did with so-and-so else, which maybe means that deep down I'm really just a goody two shoes.
Out of nowhere I hear one of their voices say, "Rose said THAT?" I look around to figure out who said it. There's a couple of girls sitting to my right. Right now they're doubled over with laughter. I recognize one of them. Her name is Janet and she tends to ask annoying questions in class.
"Haha," Janet is saying, "She is so stuck-up."
I jump up from my seat. "Rose is NOT stuck-up," I say loudly. The whole class turns to look at us.
"I didn't mean it that way," says Janet hastily.
"Chloe, sit in your seat," says Miss Williams.
"I just mean she's not always that fun to be around," Janet continues. Her face is getting redder by the second.
"Don't say that about my friend, you big jerk!"
"Chloe, am I going to have to call the office?"
I sit down quickly. "I'm sorry, Miss Williams." Then the bell rings. Everyone gets quiet. Janet glares at me in silence.
"Now class," says Miss Williams, "I'm going to hand out your report cards now, and I want you to..." and I tune her out. Obviously she's just saying the same things she said the last two times she handed our our report cards, like "make sure your parents sign them and bring them back before next week" or maybe "make sure your dog doesn't eat it because if it does then you'll be in detention every day until you get your dog to barf it up and bring it back to us." My grades are as bad as anyone else's but I'm not really worried about my parents seeing them. After all, it's not like they'll be worse than they were last time. Maybe Mom will give her little "I think you should be trying to get a better grade than a D+ in History" speech but then she'll forget about it after a couple of days anyway.
Miss Williams hands me my report card with the tight-lipped expression she usually uses for me in general. "You're biting your nails again," she scolds.
I'd hardly noticed I was doing it. I pull my hand out of my mouth. "Sorry, Miss," I say.
I rip the report card open and glance over the usual litany of "Teacher's Comments", like "Further effort necessary to succeed" and "Would benefit from regular attendance". And then I look at the other side and see my grades for this quarter. I'm failing history. "History .... F .... Needs Improvement ..... Needs Improvement ..... Would benefit from regular attendance." I feel sick. I quickly fold the card and look left and right to make sure nobody saw it.
After the second bell, I'm barely out of the classroom when I hear someone call, "Chloe! Chloe, wait up!" I'm still a little jittery, so I jump and spook the small girl who called, who's practically right behind me. I don't know her name, but she's one of the other kids in my homeroom. She blushes when I look at her. I think she's pretty shy.
"I'm Maureen," she says. "You're really brave!"
I figure she must be talking about what I said to Janet, but I don't think that was really that brave. I just don't like it when people say bad things about Rose. And I'm not sure it really counts as bravery to stand up to someone who's as silly as Janet, anyway.
"Are you a friend of Rose?" Maureen asks excitedly. "I want to meet all Rose's friends." She's looking up at me, which feels weird because it basically never happens, because I'm kind of short AND I hardly ever stand up straight. I can already feel myself slouching a bit more to make it less weird. And it also feels weird that she's getting excited about me, because I'm not really that good at anything. But anyway, I let her tag along with me, because what else am I supposed to do?
Later that day, I run into Leah. Leah's one of Rose's friends in eighth grade. She's almost as tall as Rose, and a bunch fatter. I've met her a few times before. Rose says she's really cool.
"I heard about what you did this morning," Leah says. "It was really brave of you to stick up for Rose."
"I'm not THAT brave," I say. I hope I don't get more people telling me that. It could get really irritating. "It's just that Janet is such a jerk!"
"Hey, now, Janet's not that bad. She's only being an ass because Rose won 'Best Role Model' and she didn't."
"Oh," I say. "Wait, are you a friend of Janet's too?" Leah nods. "Then why are you being nice to me when I just called her a jerk in front of everybody?"
She puts up a hand. "I'm Rose's friend, too," she says. "Rose is a really nice, really good person. It makes me really sad when other nice people like Janet have trouble seeing that. Janet's usually nice," she says. I hadn't thought about it that way. I think people are usually either nice to everyone or jerks to everyone. It seems weird for a someone to be nice to most people and then randomly be a jerk to some other perfectly good people for no real reason.
I'm in front of Rose's house, shivering a little, a couple days later. The wind is cold. Mr. Garibaldi kept us late after school today, so I didn't catch up with Rose before she got home, so now I have to wait for someone to answer the doorbell. Rose made sure to tell me to be on my best behavior around her parents, especially her mom.
I haven't been to Rose's house before because her parents didn't let her have guests over. But she had really good grades, all As and B plusses, on the report card that just went out, so they decided to let her invite people over, as a reward. I still haven't shown mine to my parents. I wish I had ANY As or B plusses. Then I wouldn't be putting it off so much.
The door opens at last. I flinch a little when I see a middle-aged woman standing above me in the doorway. It's almost certainly Rose's mom. I try to stand up straight and put my hands where she can't see them, but it's no good. Right away she sees my dirty jeans and all the tangles I didn't bother to brush out of my hair this morning.
"You are Chloe?" she says stiffly.
"A guest of Rose's, then."
I step in the door and then bend over to untie my shoes. I can feel her eyes on my back. I hope I've won some points with her for knowing take off my shoes for myself.
"Thank heavens you have the sense not to track mud on my poor carpets," she says. Since the walk going up to Rose's door is paved, there obviously isn't any mud on my sneakers anyway. I decide it probably wouldn't be a good idea to tell that to Rose's mom.
"Rose is in the living room," she says, pointing through a door.
I don't really need her directions because I can hear the sound of Rose's voice. The house looks really nice though. Everything looks shiny and clean and textured. Except the carpets, which aren't shiny. Rose's mom follows me down the hallway and, again, pointlessly shows me the open door to the living room. I step in and see a wide room with plate glass windows on one wall and a really shiny wood table in the middle surrounded by couches and plush chairs. I don't see Rose at first, because she's lying on one of the couches. There's another girl who I don't recognize lying across from her.
"And how do we greet our guests?" says Rose's mom.
Rose strains to sit up on the couch. She's obviously exhausted. "Good afternoon, Chloe," she says stiffly, and suddenly I see the family resemblance. I've never seen Rose look so completely boring. I wish her mom would go away.
"Have Katherine and Chloe been introduced to each other?"
Rose hauls herself to her feet. The other girl, who must be Katherine, sits up too. Katherine looks pretty tired too, but not as much as Rose does.
"Chloe, this is Katherine Halley. She's in my Physical Education class. Katherine, this is Chloe Martin. She's a... friend of mine. She's in seventh grade."
"Enjoy yourselves, girls," says Rose's mom, and she disappears into the hallway. We all relax. Rose and Katherine flop back down on the couches. I get one of the other chairs and drag it over to face both of them.
"Oh, dang it," says Katherine. She's reaching for a water bottle that's on the floor, but she can't quite reach without getting up from where she's lying. "I should have put my water bottle where I could reach it before lying down in this absolutely luxurious couch you seem to have here." Rose and I giggle, then Rose drags herself up again, leans over, and picks up the water bottle and hands it to Katherine. "Thanks, Rose, you're great," says Katherine. Rose stumbles back to the other couch and collapses again.
P.E. is Rose's last class of the day on most days. "Hard gym class?" I ask.
"It's not the gym class that was bad. It's... well, first Mr. Bantley made me take something to the office near the end of my last class, and then it took me almost ten minutes to find who I was supposed to give it to at the office, and then I had to go all the way to the other end of the building to get to gym, and then Ms. Jarvis made me run an extra lap around the gym for being late, and then I twisted my ankle while doing jumping jacks, and then the entire building exploded, and then... okay, I made that last one up," says Rose. She's hilarious when she's tired. "And I stayed up really late with Leah last night, too."
Rose once told me that she gets sick and nervous if she stays up too late. "I thought you didn't like staying up late," I say.
"Leah was having fun. I thought she'd be mad if I just left. It wasn't that bad," she says. She puts one hand to her face. "What's the point of even having us change into gym clothes and then back to normal clothes afterwards? I still feel disgusting."
"Don't you have a swimming pool in your back yard?" I ask.
Katherine perks up. "That would be a great way to relax," she says.
Rose gets up again and goes to look for old swimsuits for us to wear, which gives me a chance to look around the room. It is definitely a really nice room. Behind where Rose was sitting, there's a fireplace filled with some pretty convincing fake logs. On the shelf above the fireplace there's a bunch of little pots and sculptures that Rose made in art class. I've seen some of them before because Rose showed them to me. They look like the kind of thing that everybody else says is really good but isn't actually that good. They're okay, I guess. One time when I told her that, Rose said she's glad I tell her what I actually think instead of just saying that everything she does is really good.
Rose is still away, so I spend the time by asking Katherine how she knows Rose. It turns out she isn't THAT close a friend of Rose's after all. They're friends because of P.E. since the beginning of this year, but not much before that.
"Janet's throwing one of her parties tonight, and I usually go to them," says Katherine. "I'm not really up to dealing with her crowd today, so I needed an excuse not to come. So I said I was with Rose."
"What?" I say sarcastically. "Is there some kind of game going on here? Team Rose versus Team Janet?"
Katherine laughs. "Chloe, is it? I heard you scored a buttload of points for Team Rose this Monday."
I roll my eyes. "Is there anyone who hasn't heard about that? Don't tell me I'm brave!"
"Alright, I won't. You're an unspeakable coward, and also a ninny!" I'm starting to really like Katherine. Especially when she uses fancy words like unspeakable.
Rose comes back carrying three swimming suits and lays them out on the living room table. There's one with pastel-colored flowery patterns that I remember Rose wearing a few years ago, which is obviously for me because it's much smaller than the others. Then there's an orange one and a black one. Katherine looks disappointed. Probably she isn't sure whether they'll fit her, since she's a bit bigger and heavier than Rose is.
"Take the orange one," says Rose. "It's a bit bigger. It'll stretch, anyway."
Rose has us change one at a time in the bathroom. I don't see why we waste the time, really. It's not like anyone's looking. When my turn comes I'm happy to fling my day clothes on the bathroom floor. Rose's old swimsuit feels a little funny because it's a one-piece and I'm used to wearing bikinis, and also because I think flower patterns are kind of silly, but it fits just fine. Rose goes last and she comes out of the bathroom a little nervously, but she looks great. The shapes of her bare legs and arms stand out really clearly next to the black fabric of the swimsuit, and her hair falls really nicely over her shoulders. I can't wait to see how she looks once she's in the water.
"Okay," says Rose. "Let's go. Just don't splash too much." She leads us to the back door and we step out onto a porch that looks over the back yard. Her backyard is really nice. There must be a fence back there somewhere, but you can't see it through the trees. The pool is out in front of us. It's crystal clear and it must be about fifty feet long. I can see the reflections of the trees in the surface of the water. The grass is bright green and flat, and it's all framed really beautifully through the posts that hold up the porch's overhanging roof.
Right away, Katherine leaps down the porch steps and runs and jumps into the water. She and her orange swimsuit make a big splash. Rose and I follow more slowly. Katherine gives a whoop and waves for us to hurry up.
Rose and I sit down together on the concrete edge of the pool. I dip my legs in and then slowly slide my whole body down into the pool. The warm water feels wonderful as it slips over my skin, and it makes me feel nearly weightless. I let the ends of my hair drag in the water while my chin rests just above the surface. My arms and legs float lazily, without me trying to move them. It probably feels even better for Katherine, because she's just had that exhausting gym class. Katherine's floating on her back now, with a really contented look on her face. I wish I was good enough at swimming to do that.
Rose is being weird though. She's still just sitting up on the edge of the pool and shivering a little. She has her bare legs folded up in front of her. I wave to try to get her attention.
"This is a great pool," I say. "My house doesn't have a pool like this."
"It's not as nice as the one Leah has," says Rose. She has her arms crossed over her knees. She idly pokes at the water with one bare foot.
I pull one of my hands out of the water and splash some of it at her.
"You're not supposed to splash water out of the pool," she says.
Just then, Katherine swims up and splashes Rose with a LOT of water. I can hear her chuckling over my shoulder. Rose is soaked. "Now you'll have to get in or you'll be freezing," says Katherine.
I take one of Rose's legs and she lets me pull her into the water. Her body slides down next to mine, so close that I can feel the underwater waves her body produces roll against my skin. I splash at her playfully a couple of times. I wish she'd splash back. I would love it for Rose to get me soaking wet. But she just leans up against the side of the pool and exhales. She doesn't look so great now. She looks really stiff and not lively at all, and her hair just looks kind of matted now that the water is all over it. I let myself float away from her a little and watch as she breathes heavily.
"Chloe?" Mom's voice comes down the basement stairs. The basement is my space because the door to the basement can be locked from the inside. I love my brothers, but when they were at home, sometimes I just wanted to punch them. Sometimes I actually did punch them, but that's not the point. The point is that I just like to be away from them sometimes, and that's why the basement belongs to me. We used to fight over it all the time because the TV was down there, but eventually our parents got fed up and bought a nicer TV and put it upstairs in our living room, which meant that they could stay up there and me stay down here most of the time.
"Chloe, your father and I want to talk to you."
I sigh and throw down my copy of The Golden Compass, which I'm re-reading for the fifth time. It's probably about my grades. I left my report card on my dad's desk yesterday. I know I should have just given it to them, but that would be so uncomfortable, even with Dad. No, especially with Dad. He'd take it, then look at it, then LOOK at me. And then say "I need to talk to your mother about this."
"And put a shirt on," Mom continues. "This is important."
I bend over to get one of my shirts that I've strewn on the floor. It's a white T-shirt with green and black splotches from where I spilled paint on it earlier this week in Art class. I never really want to wear any clothing ever, except when it's really cold out, but for some reason, Mom and Dad complain if I'm not wearing at least a bra and panties when I walk around the house. I don't really mind getting dressed when they ask me to, but it just seems completely pointless.
I trudge up the stairs and find them waiting in the dining room. They're sitting next to each other at the big table, and they've already pulled out a third chair for me to sit in, so I flop down in it right away.
"Don't slouch," says Mom. I sit up. Mom looks over at Dad, which means she wants him to start the conversation. Dad looks back, which means he doesn't want to. Finally they look at me.
"We're concerned about your performance in school," says Dad.
"You mean my bad grades?" I say. I can see my report card sitting between them on the table.
Dad looks at Mom.
"It's more than bad grades," says Mom. "Your teachers tell me you've been skipping class."
"I don't skip class THAT often," I say.
"Exactly how often do you skip class?"
"I only skip class when it's totally BORING."
"Honey, last week you said that school is always totally boring."
"I did NOT," I say. "I like Art class. Look, I'm getting a B in Art."
She looks. "That's a B minus."
"It's still a B," I say. I lean back in the chair, and it shifts under me. "When are you going to fix this chair? It's wobbly."
"You're changing the subject," says Dad.
"Honey," Mom begins. I don't like it when she calls me that. "We were willing to overlook your behavior when you were passing your classes."
"I'm still passing most of them!"
"Chloe," Dad interrupts, "This isn't a joke. Listen to your mother."
Mom says, "Your father and I have agreed that if we don't start seeing some improvement, you may have to start losing some privileges around this house."
I stare at her.
"Do you understand that?"
"Yes," I say thickly.
"And you'll try to do better."
Mom and Dad look at each other again. Mom is giving her little I-guess-that'll-have-to-do frown. She takes a pen, quietly signs her name at the bottom of the report card, and hands it to me. I fold it up without looking at it and walk away.
I turn the corner to get to the top of the basement stairs, then I have an idea. I step up and down on the top stair so it sounds like I'm going down, but instead, I listen hard to what Mom and Dad are saying back in the dining room.
"Peter and Geoffrey never had trouble in school," Mom is saying. "I just don't know what the problem is."
"It's normal for children to be rebellious at this age," says Dad. "I'm sure she'll grow out of it."
"But what if she doesn't? She's always been different from the other girls. What if..."
"Love, relax. I'm sure she'll be fine."
I close the door quietly behind me and tiptoe down the stairs. I sit back down on the couch and pick up The Golden Compass, but I only end up staring blankly at the pages. The conversation plays back in my head. "She's not like her brothers. She's got a problem. What if she doesn't grow out of it? She's different."
I feel like I'm going to cry. I hate crying. It makes me feel like such a wimp. And anyway, Rose doesn't cry, so why should I?
I scurry over to the light switch and flip it off so that the only light comes from the TV screen and the little window near the ceiling. We're at my house, in the basement, watching movies in our underwear. We've had a bit of a tradition of doing this since a long time ago. I like it because I get to hang out with Rose, and Rose likes it because she always has to wear clothing when she's at her own house. I wish there was a place that was as nice as Rose's house but didn't have Rose's mom living in it.
"Chloe, don't do that," says Rose.
Don't do what? I wonder. I look down.
We're on one of those couches with the backs that can tilt back, and we have it tilted all the way back, with our feet facing the TV. It fits well for Rose, but my feet don't quite reach the footrest if I lie with my back the way I like it best, so I usually just let my feet hang down between the seat and the footrest while Rose lies there the way you're supposed to. This time I also have my right hand up at my mouth and I'm biting my nails. "Sorry," I say. I've been trying to shake the habit, but it's not working and I'm not really trying very hard at it anyway. I should try harder. I really want Rose to like me.
"You were being noisy about it," says Rose. "Make sure you don't do that at my house."
"Sorry," I say again. I shove my hands under my butt to keep myself from doing it more. Rose turns back to keep watching the movie.
Rose has a really nice way of lying there. She always has good posture. I usually slouch all the time, or sort of curl up sideways whenever I sit in a nice comfortable chair, although obviously I can't do that right now because I'm lying all the way back and sitting on both my hands. Rose's body is straightened out, though, and her shoulders are nice and even. I also can't help but notice that her breasts have come out a lot more than mine have, and I'm a little jealous, but I guess I should expect that because she's a year older than me anyway. Her hair is pulled back in a really neat and practical way, and I really want to just reach over and mess it up, but I can't do that because I'm sitting on my hands. So I turn back to the screen instead.
In the movie, the male lead actor is being sent on some sort of a wild goose chase by someone's friends to make sure he doesn't find about about something that some other person is hiding from someone else. Rose picked the movie this time. I feel like I've seen it before, but I can't really remember it that well. There's a male lead and a female lead who are falling in love with each other and have all kinds of misadventures on the way. I don't recognize the actors though.
Near the end of the movie, when they're finally getting together and the male lead bends down to kiss the female lead, I half-roll over on top of Rose and kiss her.
"Girls can't kiss girls," she says. The movie continues playing behind me.
Her deep blue eyes are right in front of mine. "But I like you," I say.
"You're supposed to kiss boys you like, not girls," she says. "It's different."
"Oh," I say. I roll back and just lie next to her instead. Maybe I shouldn't have kissed her in the first place. I don't know. I hadn't done it before, but it just felt right this time for some reason. Now I don't feel so good. I still like her though. I lay my arm alongside her arm and intertwine my fingers with hers, and we lie like that while the movie plays out the rest of the way. The trouble is that I keep catching myself biting my nails on the hand that's not holding hers.
The credits come up, finally. I go and turn the lights on again. While I'm walking back, I notice The Golden Compass on the table. I finished it a couple of days ago, and I've been meaning to take it back to the library and check out the sequel, but I just haven't gotten around to it. But it reminds me of what Mom said the other day.
"Rose," I say quickly, before I can think better of it, "How do you get such good grades?"
Rose looks up. "I didn't think you cared about grades."
I don't know what to tell her. I thought I didn't care about grades, too. I don't want to tell her what my parents said because it doesn't sound that bad. It really isn't that bad. I don't know why I've been feeling so upset about it.
"Chloe? Is something the matter?"
"Uh," I say. I notice I've just been standing there with my mouth open. I feel stupid. "I'm failing History," I say.
"Oh." says Rose. I guess I said the right thing. Rose goes on, "I don't really know how I get good grades. I just do. I mean, I do the work for the classes, and I guess I'm good at it. It's mostly about doing the work."
I frown a bit. Even when I DO do the work, the teachers sometimes mark it wrong even though I think what I wrote makes sense. But I need to get better grades, so I guess I have to listen to what Rose is saying.
"I think you could get good grades if you worked harder at it," she says.
That evening, after Rose goes home, I sit down and try to get some work done. I have a worksheet for History. It's a list of ten words from the reading, and I'm supposed to write at least two complete sentences to define each of the words. I get my textbook and start finding the words and writing down what the book says about them, but it's ridiculously boring. By the time I finish the third definition, I'm bored out of my mind, so I throw the book across the room and it lands on its edge and the cheap front cover folds in half. I hate doing homework.
"Hey, can you grab me an eraser?" says Leah to me. Leah and I are lying on the floor of Rose's living room. Books and papers are strewn across the carpet as we work.
It's been a few weeks since Mom and Dad told me I needed to start improving my grades. I haven't been having much luck. Rose invited me to come and study with her other friends. They're mostly eighth graders, so they don't have the same work, but they're helping me out. And I also just love being at Rose's house. It would be such a nice house if her parents didn't live there.
"Thanks," says Leah as I hand her the eraser. "Hey Rose, wasn't Katherine supposed to be coming?"
Just then, the doorbell rings. Rose steps out of the room and comes back a minute later with Katherine. Katherine looks funny. Her face is a little red and puffy.
"Wow, are you okay?" says Leah.
"Not really," says Katherine irritably. "You don't have to ask about it. I'm here for the study party, not the pity party."
Katherine dumps her stuff on the table and starts getting out her books. I look back at my own work. I'm still having a little trouble getting into it. I don't CARE what a monocot or a dicot is. When am I ever going to need to know the difference between a monocot and a dicot? I flip through my Science textbook and circle a few boxes. I don't know if they're the right answers. Maybe dicots really are the ones with three-part flowers. I don't care.
"AAARRRRRRRGGGHHHHH!" Katherine yells. I hear a thunk as she flops facedown on the table.
Rose helps her up.
"I thought I'd be able to concentrate on the work," says Katherine miserably.
Rose's dad appears in the doorway. "Is everything all right?" he says crisply.
Rose answers, "Yes, Dad. Katherine is only stressed. She's dealing with a difficult family situation."
Rose's dad shifts a little. "Well, tell me if you need anything. And try not to yell. You scared me." Then he goes away again.
"I should just leave," mumbles Katherine.
"It's not a problem," says Rose hastily.
"We care about you," says Leah.
I don't get it. What's the big thing they're all talking about?
"Well, if that's how it's going, I might as well call Janet too," says Katherine. "She lives near here anyway."
Katherine takes out a cell phone. I'm kind of jealous. Mom and Dad say they won't let me have a cell phone until I'm in high school. On the other hand, I'm glad for the excuse to stop working on this stupid Science.
"Why's she calling Janet?" I whisper to Rose.
"She's gotten really close to Janet recently..." she whispers back.
Katherine finishes the call and leans back. "I hate how trite it sounds," she says. "'Katherine is stressed.' 'Katherine is dealing with a difficult family situation.' Katherine is dealing with her mom shouting at her dad all afternoon. Let's just make sure we never say what we mean!"
Well, that doesn't seem SO bad. My mom and dad shout at each other sometimes. It'd be nicer if they didn't, but I wouldn't really make a big deal about it.
"Isn't she moving out sometime?" says Rose.
"Yeah, THAT's something to look forward to!" says Katherine loudly.
"I'm so sorry, I didn't mean–"
"No, you're right. It'll be easier afterwards. But that's not for almost a month."
When the doorbell rings again, Rose and Leah are still in the middle of talking to Katherine about that, so I go to answer the door for them. I don't know what I think about Katherine's mom, anyway. I wouldn't want MY mom to move out. I mean, I don't like it when she goes all "I am disappointed that you are not succeeding in school" on me, and she does that all the time, but I wouldn't want her to leave or anything. I think it's weird that Katherine's mom is moving out. I'm glad I have NORMAL parents, not like Katherine's or Rose's.
I open the door.
"Oh," says Janet. "It's you."
"Come on in," I say.
"I'm sorry about what I said about Rose," she says. "I was just mad that day. It doesn't mean anything."
"It's okay," I say. "I know you're really a nice person."
I lead Janet in to the room where the others are waiting. When she sees Katherine, she runs and hugs her. It ends up being really awkward because Katherine was sitting on the couch and didn't manage to get up before Janet crashed into her, but they both smile about it right afterwards.
"How bad was it?" says Janet. She curls up next to Katherine, and Katherine puts an arm around her.
"It wasn't the worst. I just had to ask my mom for something while she was in the middle of... you know," says Katherine. "She kind of jumped on me. Sometimes I just need to get out of my house. I'm glad we were having this study group."
Leah looks up. "If you ever need a place to chill, you can come to my house. My parents are hardly ever home," she says. "Here, I'll give you my number."
"Thanks," says Katherine. She heaves a sigh and rolls her eyes while she's entering Leah's number into her phone. "I hope you don't mind if I actually take you up on that offer sometime..."
At school, Maureen is starting to show up everywhere I go. Obviously, she's in all my core classes because she's in the same homeroom, but it turns out she's in almost all my classes, period. And when we're not in classes, she tags along with me when I go to my locker or go to lunch.
"Can you help me with this?" she asks one math class.
"I doubt it," I say. "I'm getting a C- in this class."
"You'd be getting an A+ if Mr. Fantoni didn't make you lose all those points for being late!"
"No, really," I say, but Maureen doesn't seem to buy it. I guess I'll help her with the work after all.
We're both doing a worksheet where you multiply and add fractions with each other. I look at Maureen's work. She's written down a bunch of stuff and erased a lot of it. I haven't written anything down because I don't really care. I only really have to do enough of the work to pass the class.
"Alright," I say. "Here, look. In this first one, you just have to multiply the two fractions. And that just means multiplying the top numbers together and the bottom numbers together..." I demonstrate on my own sheet with some lines and arrows and a little calculation when I have to multiply 13 by 8.
"Wow, you're really good!" says Maureen.
The class goes on for a while like that. I actually end up doing most of my worksheet, and so does she. I think it seems kind of silly for her to be telling me that I'm great at this when I'm clearly only decent at best, but by the end of the class, I actually kind of feel like I know what I'm doing. It feels a little weird being the one who knows what she's doing, since I usually hang out with Rose and Rose is better than me at just about everything, but it feels nice, and I kind of like having Maureen following me around after all.
Later that day, she sneaks out of gym class with me.
"Hey, you don't have to sneak out just because I do," I say. "You could get in trouble."
"I'll only get in the same trouble you get in!" she says. I don't think I'm really worth getting that excited over, but it's cute.
I check that no one's coming and then slip out a side door with Maureen. We sit on a big rock outside the back of the school. Then I dig in my backpack and pull out Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I also had The Tombs of Atuan in there but I think it's not quite Maureen's style.
Maureen grins. "Will you read it out loud to me?" she says.
I grin back, then I open to my bookmark and begin to read. We spend the whole afternoon reading. It's much more fun than going to class. The funny thing is that I'm actually doing better at all my classes with Maureen around. I seem to understand things much better when I explain them to her than when I actually do them myself, and I do a lot of work that I wouldn't have done if she didn't ask me to help me with it.
In the morning a couple days later I'm chasing a laughing Marueen through the halls. Someone yells at us not to run in the halls, but they must be stupid because it's not like they can do anything about it if they're not going to run and catch us.
Then Maureen trips and falls. I tumble over her. She screams.
I get up and help her up. "Are you okay?" I say. "That sounded really bad."
"My leg hurts," she says. I can tell. She's standing funny. I wince at the thought. I wish she hadn't gotten hurt.
"Do you want to go to the nurse?" I say. Then I notice the time. It's almost time for Miss Williams's class, and she usually gives me a detention when I'm late to class. We have English with Miss Williams in the middle of the day, which is horrible because it means we have to see her at the beginning of the day, the end of the day, AND the middle of the day. I don't think anyone likes having class with Miss Williams.
"Um," I say. I don't want to get a detention. But I can't just leave Maureen here with her leg hurting so much either. So I walk with her to the nurse.
The nurse looks at Maureen's leg and asks a few questions, and eventually says it's only a bruise, but it hurts a lot because it's her knee. The nurse makes a bag full of ice and water and gives it to Maureen to hold on her knee for a while. I'm not sure it's just a bruise. Maureen is limping pretty badly on our way back to class.
I try to slip into the overheated classroom after Maureen, hoping Miss Williams won't notice me.
"Chloe, Maureen, you're late."
"We were at the nurse," I say. "Maureen hurt her leg." But I can tell it's no better than the excuses I usually make up when I'm late to class, and she doesn't believe it. "Look, we have a pass." I show her the hall pass the nurse gave us. She takes it and looks at it.
"Chloe, see me after class," she says.
"What?" I say. "I have a pass! Look, it has my name on it and everything!"
"You will sit down now, and see me after class."
"Fine," I say.
"Yes, Miss Williams," I say. I go quietly to my chair and sit down. I'm already sweating from the heat. Maureen sits down and tries to find a way to hold the ice and pay attention at the same time. She has trouble finding a good position.
"Maureen, stop shifting in your chair," says Miss Williams.
"But my leg hurts," says Maureen.
"Do you want to go to the nurse?"
She's so stupid. We obviously JUST came from the nurse's office. And Maureen's obviously shifting around because she needs to rest her hand from holding the ice. And the ice isn't even helping that much. Can't teachers ever understand anything? Maureen tells Miss Williams that she'll try, just to get Miss Williams to back off, but she can't sit still. I can't stand hearing them fight. I try not to pay any attention.
Another few minutes pass like this. Miss Williams says, "Maureen, you're distracting the class."
The heat is making me crazy. Maureen's leg is killing her and the ice isn't helping and Miss Williams is trying to make it even worse. I try to look away and not think about them, but when I look out the window the sun glares in my face and when I look in the classroom the electric lights are too bright and when I close my eyes their voices grate on my ears. Maureen is hurting and no one is helping her. I open my mouth to yell.
"NO!" I yell. "YOU'RE distracting the class by lecturing her!"
The expected response comes back. "Chloe, be quiet. This doesn't concern you."
"Why should I be quiet?" I demand. "You're not being quiet!"
"Chloe, I'm not going to argue with you. Don't put yourself in more trouble than you're in already."
I jump up out of my chair. My desk falls over with a crash, and I don't even care. "If you're not going to ARGUE with ME then stop TORTURING MAUREEN!"
Miss Williams is at the room phone already.
"Hello ... I have a student who has flipped over a desk ... Yes ... Thank you."
One of the Assistant Principals comes and they make me take my stuff and leave the room and go sit on the bench in the front office. Then they go into another room and leave me sitting with just the secretary. The front office is really boring. There's nothing interesting in it. There used to be a nice secretary who would chat with me when I was there for detentions or whatever, but the new secretary doesn't like me. The only thing in the room that isn't boring and businesslike is the bench, which is where they make you stay when you're in detention. They've repainted the bench a couple of times, but you can still see where people have carved swear words and penises and stuff into it. It's nice for the variety, but really, drawing penises on things is just as boring as making them look nice and clean.
Eventually somebody comes out.
"Chloe?" he says.
"Your dad is coming to take you home. You can get your bags from your locker now."
I go to my locker, open it, grab my stuff, and slam the door with a bang. I'm sick of running around the school and doing what they tell me to. Maybe I should go the other way instead and sneak out one of the exit doors. But then Dad would show up and I wouldn't be there.
I punch the locker door a few more times. Bang. Bang. Bang. I end up scraping my hand a little.
"Excuse me, miss?" One of the other teachers has poked his head out the door of his classroom. "Where are you supposed to be?"
"I'm getting my stuff and going to the front office."
"Well, do that, then. Don't make such a racket." He ducks back into the classroom. I make a delicious racket by pounding on the locker door for a couple of seconds and then run back towards the front office. It's not like I can get in trouble for it when he didn't even know my name.
Dad isn't smiling on the car ride home. He usually smiles when he's with me. I don't like it when he doesn't.
"I wasn't at home when the school called," Dad says. "They had to call your mother at work. She is coming home early to deal with this."
I don't see why Mom has to come home early from work if Dad is the one picking me up. "What's the big deal?" I say.
"Chloe, you know perfectly well what it is."
"No, I don't," I say. "Do you mean me getting in trouble? I've gotten in lots of trouble before and you haven't made a big deal about it."
Dad sighs and keeps paying attention to the road. Sometimes I wish he would just say what he means.
Eventually we get home and pull into the garage. I climb out of the car and head for the basement. Dad follows me.
"Chloe, go to your room," he says.
I smile. "Dad, the basement IS my room."
"You know what room I mean." Dad still isn't smiling. "I want you to stay there until your mother and I can talk about this."
"Fine," I say. I go upstairs to my bedroom. My bedroom is stupid. Sometimes I don't even sleep there. The couches in the basement are just as comfortable as my bed is. And my bedroom has these big windows, and I like it much better when I'm in a place where I can just turn off the lights and make sure it stays dark. The windows don't even have a good view out them, anyway. I hate just being left in places and told to wait until other people come and get me. I want to sneak back and listen to whatever Mom and Dad are talking about, but the stairs up to my room are creaky and I don't think they'd like it if they caught me.
After a long time, they call me back down. I sit down facing them at the table. I stare at them. They stare at me. Then I burst into tears.
"Just tell me what kind of trouble I'm in," I sob.
"We're not going to punish you," says Mom.
I didn't expect that. I look at Mom suspiciously. I know she sometimes says she's not going to do something and then does it anyway.
"Your father and I have agreed that the way we've been handling these situations hasn't been productive. We want to be able to help you," says Mom.
"What kind of help is it this time?" I say sourly. Last time Mom wanted to help me, she signed me up for a summer program that I didn't even like. I don't understand why adults think they know what's good for me when they mostly just end up wasting my time.
"We are going to make an appointment for you to see a psychiatrist," says Mom.
I stare at her.
"Please understand. We just want you to be able to see someone who can help you."
"I don't need help," I say angrily. "There's nothing wrong with me." I'm crying again and I hate it. Crying in front of my parents makes me feel like such a weakling.
"Honey, we don't think there's anything wrong with you," says Mom. "But Peter and Geoffrey never had this kind of trouble in school..."
"Geoff broke another kid's chin with a baseball bat," I say sourly.
"That's different," says Dad.
"How's it different? Is it because he's a boy? It's okay for boys to break things?"
"That isn't the issue," says Dad.
"Geoff never skipped class," says Mom.
"So this is about me skipping class now?" I yell. "If I had skipped class, I wouldn't have gotten in trouble!"
"Chloe, settle down," says Mom.
"No, YOU settle down!"
Mom turns to Dad. "I think Chloe should spend some time in her room to calm down."
"Mom, I'm RIGHT HERE!"
"Chloe," says Mom warningly.
"Chloe," says Dad sternly.
"FINE," I say. I run up the stairs to my room and slam the door and kick my shoes off and dive face-down on my bed. I grab my pillow and pretend as if I'm strangling it to death. I don't want to talk to Mom and Dad, anyway, I want Rose. I don't want to calm down. I don't want to see a psychiatrist. I hate being here.
It's another few days before I get a chance to see Rose outside of school again. It's already more than halfway through the fourth quarter, on a Saturday afternoon. Rose is kind of busy with school but she found some time to hang out with me today. We're in the basement now, relaxing a bit. The couch here is nothing like the couches Rose has at her house, but it's much nicer not having Rose's parents around.
We've just watched a movie about a young couple who almost fall apart because of a long series of hilarious misunderstandings. They get back together at the end, though, and everyone is happy. Rose and I are snuggling together on the couch now that it's over.
"Rose, you're the best ever," I say. "I wish I was like you."
"Oh, come off it," she says. "I'm not all that. I'd rather be like you."
"But everyone says you're a great person," I say. "They even gave you that Best Role Model award."
"It's mostly just because I get good grades and volunteer for the Special Olympics."
I didn't know she did that. "Wait," I say, "Doesn't that actually mean you're a good person? I mean, if you volunteer?"
She laughs nastily. "My mom signed me up for it. Do you expect me to stop?"
"Well, you COULD have stopped," I say, "But if you stuck with it, y—"
Rose puts a hand over my mouth. It sends a thrill through me. I press closer to her.
"Chloe, you're supposed to be the person who doesn't say that! I can get anyone else to tell me that I'm the best person ever, but I'm not! I'm not smart like Emma or talented like Alicia or even... even confident like you."
I put my arms around her and squeeze her tight.
"Oh, stop that," she says, smiling.
"Well, for me, you'll always—" I try to sit up straight to be able to look her right in the face instead of in the neck, but somehow I mess up and end up toppling us both over instead. I end up sprawled on the couch with Rose on top of me. I write and twist a bit under her weight. Rose gets her arms free and pushes herself up off me.
"No, don't get up," I say. "I think I like this."
"You like being squished?" She smiles.
I pull her down again. Her body presses into the whole length of my body, and her mouth is right above my eyes. I blurt out, "I want you to hold me down and kiss me and rub yourself against me and touch me in my..."
Rose turns bright red. "You mean like sex?" she giggles.
"Yeah, like sex!" I say. Although obviously it won't ACTUALLY be sex because we're both girls. "You can pretend to be a boy and push me down and stuff. Then I can do you after if you want."
A minute later our clothes are strewn across the room. The couch turns out to be too awkward, so we just go on the floor. Rose pushes me over on my back and kisses me hard. Her weight forces me down into the thick carpet.
"Grab my wrists," I whisper. She takes my wrists in her hands and pins them to the floor. I twist my body against her body, but I can't get away. It feels really intense.
Rose lets go. "What do you want me to do now?" she says.
"Well, if you..." I say. I take one of her hands and put it between my legs.
"You want me to, like..."
Rose's face looks distracted above me. I feel her wiggle a finger inside me and push around a bit. "Is that good?" she says.
"I guess so," I say. "Keep going."
She tries. I guess it feels kind of nice. It isn't really like I hoped it would be, though. I think I liked the other part better.
I tell Rose she can stop now. She pulls out her finger and rolls over to sit next to me. She stares at her finger for a moment and then wipes it on the carpet.
I scramble up into a crouch next to her. "Your turn," I say.
She hesitates a bit and then lowers herself down. I didn't know it was possible to have good posture while lying flat on your back with no clothes on, but Rose does it. Her body is long and lean and smooth and all laid out just for me. It actually feels a little intimidating. I'm a lot smaller than she is and I slouch all the time and bite my nails.
"This doesn't feel right," I say.
"You don't have to do it if you don't want to," she says.
"You did it for me," I say.
"I'm not sure I'd like it that much anyway," she says.
I sit back down on my butt. Then I say, "You should tell me what you DO like. I want you to enjoy this too."
She sits up in a smooth motion and puts one arm over her knees and stares into space. The way she's sitting reminds me of one of those sculptures of naked boys from the Greeks or whatever that we looked at in books in Art class. And that makes me notice that she's actually kind of muscular, too, in a subtle sort of way. I think she tries a lot harder at P.E. than I do, anyway. If Ms. Jarvis wasn't so strict then I would probably spend the whole period reading books or something.
"I'm not really sure what I like," says Rose.
I help her up and we go and cuddle naked on the couch.
"In books when people have sex the boy always touches the girl's breasts," I say.
"You want to try that?" Rose puts a hand on my chest. Her hand is really soft, but mostly it just feels weird.
"It feels kinda weird," I say.
Rose takes her hand away. "Maybe it's because yours aren't completely in yet."
I try hers. I'm jealous of how firm they feel under my hand. I rub a little and wait for her to respond, but she just kind of stares into space. "How is it for you?" I ask.
"Oh, I don't know," she says. "Maybe we should just get dressed and do something else."
"Why get dressed?" I say.
So we don't. It's much more comfortable to be naked, anyway. We spend a while playing cards. Rose usually wins when we play because she's a lot smarter than I am, but that's okay because I don't mind losing. I usually do a little better when we're playing at my house because Rose always forgets that the Four of Spades and the Ten of Hearts are missing from my deck, but this time, she beats me every game anyway. She's really good at cards.
In the middle of our fifth game, there's a ringing sound. I jump.
"It's just my phone," says Rose.
"I didn't know you had a phone," I say.
She smiles. "I've only had it since last month. My parents gave it to me because they said I've been very responsible." She digs her phone out of her bags and answers it. She exchanges a few words, and stops smiling. Then she puts the phone away and starts getting dressed in a hurry.
"What is it?" I say.
"Katherine," says Rose.
"What about Katherine?"
"She's... she's not in good shape."
"Uh..." I say. I don't see why that means Rose has to run off on me.
"She's my friend! Leah's my friend! I need to go help them!" Rose looks like she's going to cry.
"Okay, okay," I say. I still don't get what Rose is so upset about, but I don't want to make her cry.
"Are you going to come?" says Rose. "Katherine would want you there."
I didn't know Katherine liked me. I've only met her a few times. Or maybe it's just Rose who thinks that. Either way, it looks like Rose wants me to come, so I start getting dressed and ready to go.
It's starting to get dark when we get to Leah's house. Rose and I walk up to the front door and ring the doorbell. A call of "Come in!" echoes from somewhere inside the house. Rose hesitates for a few seconds, so I just walk up and open the door.
The inside of Leah's house looks like it was designed by someone who never had a sad moment in their life. It's not like Rose's house, where everything is shiny and pristine and dignified. It's all big rooms and pastel colors and fuzzy carpets. Even some of the WALLS have fuzzy carpets on them. I run my hand through one of the wall carpets while we walk.
Pretty soon we get to the room where everyone else is. In the bigness of the room, it doesn't look like such a big group, but there's a lot of people there. There's Katherine, of course, sitting on a soft chair, and Janet with her eyes closed and her arms wrapped around Katherine, and Leah on the floor next to them with a box of tissues. Even Maureen is there, and a few other girls I don't know, and a shy-looking boy who looks like he must be Leah's brother. I feel like I'm intruding on something. I'm the one who's weird and different. I bet none of THEM is failing their classes and having to go see a psychiatrist.
Katherine keeps crying quietly for a while. I don't know what I'm supposed to do while she's just crying. I go and sit down next to where Maureen is sitting. Rose goes and sits next to Leah. Then Katherine starts trying to talk. She keeps starting to say something, but then stopping and crying again. It's really annoying. I wish she'd either wait and calm down first, or just get on with it. I try to whisper something to Maureen, but she just shushes me.
Katherine says, "She's leaving in three days." We wait. She goes on. "Mom's been packing lots of stuff. She tried to take one of our lamps. Old, fancy ones. I think Dad brought them from Germany. She was holding it in her hands while they argued." She stops again.
Leah grimaces. "Don't tell me they broke it."
"She said 'you can keep it' and she dropped it on the floor," says Katherine. "I saw Dad staring at the pieces. And then he... moved. I thought he was going to hit her. I tried to step in and make them calm down." She swallows. "I remember Dad saying, 'Don't interfere with this. We can lock you in your room if you interfere.'"
I feel myself shaking. Did he really say that? Did she really break the lamp? They're crazy!
"Chloe, are you alright?" Maureen whispers.
I picture my mom breaking our TV, my dad going to hit her, my dad threatening to lock me up. I feel like everything is falling apart.
"And then I just broke down and ran," Katherine continues. "He's going to apologize for saying that tomorrow. He's going to think better of it and apologize. He always does."
And Katherine just says it out loud, that it's happened more than once, and the world still hasn't ended.
"Chloe, your eyes got really wide," whispers Maureen.
"I'm such a wreck. I can't deal with it anymore. Three more days of this," Katherine sobs. "I don't know what they're doing now. I hope they're not fighting. I should have stayed there and made sure they don't hurt each other. I'm just not strong enough. You're all much stronger than I am."
"THAT'S NOT TRUE!" I yell.
Everyone looks at me.
"Well, it's not!" I say. "I wouldn't be able to handle it for a minute! I'd have run away when your mom broke the lamp. Or before that! You're so strong. You're RIDICULOUSLY strong."
They all just stare back at me for a moment. I wish I knew what they were thinking.
Leah says, "Chloe said it. I think we're all thinking that."
"Yeah," Janet murmurs.
I can't believe it. They actually all like what I said. They're not telling me to be quiet or anything.
Katherine's expression changes a little after that. It's not that she's magically all better, but she isn't so choked up between every few words, and she manages to tell us a lot of the other really awful things that have happened in her house recently without crying very much.
"I'm really glad you're all here," she says after a while. "When Leah started calling people I didn't think you'd all have the time for me."
She looks better, too. She's sitting up straighter and moving around a little, instead of being all limp and frozen like she was before. I didn't like it when she was limp and frozen-looking.
Eventually we start to break up. Katherine tells everyone that she's feeling a lot better now and the rest of us can go back home if we want, even though she's going to stay with Leah for a while. Rose says right away that she has a lot of homework to do for Monday, and leaves. I'm a little disappointed because I was hoping she'd come back with me, but she's an eighth grader and I know she has lots of homework.
I stick around for a while and chat with Leah and Katherine and Maureen until I get tired. Katherine seems almost back to her usual witty self, and I feel good about the way we all got together to help her. I smile to myself while I walk home in the dark. I'm a person who helps her friends. I like that.
The little plaque on the desk says Alice Fawcett, M.D. I'm staring at it because it's shiny and I don't want to look at Mom and Dad. We get stuck waiting for a few minutes before the real Alice Fawcett hurries in and hangs up her coat.
"I'm very sorry, Mrs. Martin, Mr. Martin," says Dr. Fawcett breezily. "And you must be Chloe. Your parents have told me so much about you."
She doesn't look the way I expected her to. Mom told me I should be on my best behavior when meeting Doctor Fawcett, so I had thought she'd be really uptight and formal, but Mom and Dad are more dressed-up than she is.
"So, Chloe, do you know why you're here?"
"Yes," I say. "My parents brought me."
Dr. Fawcett smiles at me. I don't like it. "And do you know what they brought you here for?"
I don't want to say something that my parents wouldn't agree with. I glance over at Mom. "I've been having trouble in school, Dr. Fawcett," I say hesitantly.
Dr. Fawcett frowns. She asks me a few more stupid questions like that and then asks my parents if she can talk to me alone. They say it's okay.
Dr. Fawcett brings me through a door into another room. This room is nice. It has a bookshelf on one wall and a few cushioned chairs. Dr. Fawcett sits down in a chair and points out another chair for me, then picks up a notepad. I sit down. The chair is comfortable, but I'm really nervous about what we're going to do.
"How are you feeling?" says Dr. Fawcett.
"A little nervous," I say.
"Is anything I'm doing making you nervous?"
Everything she's doing is making me nervous. "No," I say.
"Is there anything in particular you're worrying about?"
"You're gonna say I'm weird. Like, messed-up. Not like the other kids."
Dr. Fawcett pauses. "Do you think you're like other kids?"
"Do you want to be like other kids?"
I don't like that question. I want to be like Rose. But I don't want to be like just any other kid. "I guess not," I say.
"Do you think you're 'weird'? Or 'messed up'?"
Dr. Fawcett smiles in the way I don't like. "Then I can't tell you that you're any of those things," she says. "That's for you to decide. I can tell you things that might help you or your parents understand how you function, as long as you work with me. Do you understand?"
I guess I sort of understand. "Yes," I say.
There's a bit of an awkward silence after that.
"Well,” says Dr Fawcett, “Your mother tells me there was a situation where you knocked over a desk during class. Is this true?"
"Can you tell me about what happened?"
I tell her about how Maureen hurt her leg and how Miss Williams was really mean to her and how I yelled at her and tipped over the desk.
"So when the teacher said those things to your friend, that made you angry?" says Dr. Fawcett.
"I wasn't angry like I wanted to hurt her," I said. "I just wanted it to stop."
"But you thought she was making your friend's pain worse, and that was distressing to you."
"Keeping your friends from getting hurt is important to you."
"Of course it is," I say. What exactly is she trying to get out of me? "That's how being friends is supposed to work."
"Was there anything else that was distressing you at the time you yelled at your teacher?"
I'm getting tired of these questions. I try to remember. "Yeah. The room was way too hot and the sun was glaring in my eyes."
"Do you think you would have thought or behaved any differently if the room hadn't been so hot and bright?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
"Have you heard the phrase sensory overload?"
"Sensory overload is when a person is experiencing something that is too bright, or loud, or otherwise too intense for them to easily handle, and it makes it hard for them to think or use their other senses. Does that sound like it describes what you were feeling?"
I think about it. "I guess it does," I say. It also describes how I'm feeling right now. I hate these questions and they're getting harder and harder for me to handle. It's like Dr. Fawcett expects me to remember exactly what happened AND be able to figure out what kind of answers she's looking for.
"So you were distressed by the heat, and the light, and your friend's pain, and so you shouted at the teacher."
"Yeah," I say. I look at the books on the bookshelf.
"What happened immediately after that?"
I keep answering the questions, but I'm paying more attention to the titles of the books on the bookshelf than to whatever Dr. Fawcett is going to say next. I don't want to be here.
The crowd thunders in the stands above us. The high school girls' soccer team is facing off against the team from a nearby town. It's not a very important game, but the other town is an old rival of ours, so everyone here is really excited about the outcome. Rose made sure to tell me all that beforehand so I knew.
We're kneeling right next to each other, nearly touching, looking out between the same two rows of seats. The game has started out really well. Our team scores the first two goals in ten minutes and everyone on our side is really excited. But it doesn't last, and by the end of the first half the score is 9 to 3 against us.
"This sucks," says Rose. I giggle. I've never heard her say sucks.
Rose pulls her head out from between the seats and sits back on her butt in the dirt. The mud has come and gone since last time we saw a game like this, and the ground is all thawed out now. And this time she's wearing jeans instead of a dress.
I drop back with her.
"Forget the game," I say. I pull her close to me.
She blushes and looks around quickly.
"No one'll see us," I say.
I lean in and kiss her. She kisses me back and pushes me to the ground, like she always does. The moist dirt feels slightly cool through my shirt. Suddenly it seems kind of stupid that I'm wearing a shirt. I reach my arms around and lean upwards a little and manage to yank it off. The dirt feels really nice on my skin, and it also makes me feel rebellious, like I'm breaking lots of rules by getting dirty.
"It would be so hot if you rub dirt in my face," I say.
"I can't kiss you if there's dirt on your face," says Rose.
"Well, you don't have to kiss me if you don't want to," I say. I think it's kind of silly that she cares that much about a little dirt, but I wouldn't really like it if she was doing something she didn't want to do.
Rose holds my head back with one hand, so I can barely see what she's doing while she digs out some dirt with a hand and brings it up to my face and smears it around. I bet I look really pathetic, half naked and with dirt all over me. I feel completely in Rose's power and I love it that way.
When we're finished, I halfheartedly brush the dirt off my skin and then put the shirt on again. I don't really care who sees it because everyone knows I get dirty all the time anyway. Rose is trying to clean the dirt out from under her fingernails though.
I look up through the bleachers again. I can just barely see the scoreboard from here. It says the score is 10 to 6, with two minutes left in the game.
"How is it?" says Rose dully. "Leah will hate me if she finds out I wasn't paying attention to the game."
"We're not losing AS badly," I say.
Rose gets up and leans heavily on the supports. She looks exhausted.
"You want to come back to my place?" I say.
Rose frowns. "I've got a huge essay due for English on Friday," she says.
"Screw the essay," I say. "It's almost the end of the year. You'll probably get an A in English if you don't write the essay at all."
"I told my parents I was going to be working on it this evening. They'd ask questions," she says. "I'm really sorry."
Maureen runs up to me grinning. "Guess what!" she says. "Leah's having Rose's birthday party at her house!"
"That's great!" I say. It's also great that Rose was born in the spring. We get to celebrate her birthday right after school gets out. I'm kind of sad that she'll be in high school and I won't see her during school for another year, but I'm sure we'll find plenty of time to meet.
The other great thing about the spring is all this warm weather. I love going outside in short sleeves again, or in a tank top when I can get away with it. The Assistant Principals are all so uptight that they make me change when I'm wearing one, but I can usually just run away or hide when I see them coming in the hallways. And I love running outdoors with my arms bare and my hair flapping behind me. The adults from the school are all stupid.
One day I'm running in the halls and I run straight into Maureen. She tumbles over with a shriek. I bend over her. "I'm so sorry," I say. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," says Maureen. I help her to her feet. "Wow, you're fast!" she says. Then she leans towards me with a clever little smile, like she knows a secret. "You look really good when you run like that," she whispers. "All the boys are looking at you."
"Are NOT," I say. "They're looking at someone with breasts. Like Lindsay." But just in case, I glance around to check. Maybe there's ONE person looking at me. I guess I can't tell for sure because it's kind of crowded.
In the next few days, the buzz about Rose's birthday party is all over the school. It hardly seems like any time before it's the last Monday before school gets out. This is when we get our final report cards. For some reason there's another two days and the last day is Wednesday, but obviously nobody cares about those days because we already have our final grades. It's probably just so that there's time for you to return the signed report cards anyway.
My grades aren't great, but they're actually pretty good compared with my usual. I passed History for the year, and I even got a B minus in math! I feel like someone's lifted a weight off of me. The other weight, the meetings with Dr. Fawcett, is still there. I had another one last week, and they haven't been getting any better.
I can't wait to see Rose's grades since I know she's been hard at work all this month, so I wait for her at her locker. She shows up in a hurry. She keeps trying to slip between people in the crowded hallway, but she's not little enough to really slip between people anymore. I think she's had another growth spurt recently, and now she's one of the tallest kids at the school. She keeps running into people and apologizing over and over again. She's carrying her report card as if it's hot.
"Don't look at it," she says.
I take it and fumble a little before I'm holding it in a way where I can fold it open. I put it out in front of me and read down the column for the fourth quarter: REPORT CARD FOR ROSE C. DAVIS ..... English ..... A+ ..... History ..... A+ ..... Mathematics ..... A ..... Science ..... A+ .....
"You're letting people see it," says Rose anxiously.
I look up from the long column of "Conduct: Excellent, Effort: Excellent," and sure enough, there's already someone looking over my shoulder to get a look. I reluctantly fold up the card and hand it back. I look up at Rose's face. It's a bit softer now, but her deep blue eyes are still anxious looking. "What's wrong?" I say. "This is great." I'm only a little jealous.
"Shh!" she says. "I don't want to be that smart kid."
"But you're smart," I say. "Don't you want people to know that?"
"Nobody will like me if they know I'm getting straight As."
"Come on," I say. "I still like you!"
"You're different," she says.
I know I shouldn't be, but I'm really jealous! How come Rose gets to have straight As and doesn't even LIKE it? I'd be just fine with having straight As, but I don't get them. "Well," I say slyly, "If you didn't want these grades, you could've done less work!"
Rose stuffs the report card in her backpack and hurries to class.
"Chloe! Chloe, look!" Maureen runs up to me, waving her own report card. "I got a B in Math!"
I reluctantly show her mine.
"Oh," she says. "That's stupid. You're way smarter than I am. How come they don't give you good grades?"
"Well, I don't try very hard. It's just that the rest of you are being way more mature about it."
Maureen gives me a strange look.
"What? Is there something weird about me saying that? YOU should know I'm not a very mature person!" I say. "What's the matter?"
"That's just like what Katherine said," she says.
Dr. Fawcett sits in her chair with her notepad, the way she always does. "So, we finished up last week talking about how you feel that your parents don't say what they really think about you," she says.
"I don't want to be here," I say.
Dr. Fawcett hesitates. "What makes you feel that way?" she says.
"I don't like being stuck in this room. I don't like talking about school. I don't like it when you smile at me."
"How does it make you feel when I smile at you?"
"Bad. Like you don't care about me," I say. "I'm not just a thing that it's funny for you to look at."
"Would it make you less uncomfortable if I were to avoid smiling during our talks?"
"Only a little."
"Have you felt this way in all of our sessions, or only today? Is there some time you started feeling differently?"
"All of them," I say. Dr. Fawcett doesn't answer right away, so I go on, "I just didn't say so because I thought you wouldn't like it. And I thought Mom and Dad wouldn't like it."
"Hmm," Dr. Fawcett says. She looks over her notes. "Would it be helpful to you if we were to meet in different locations?"
"I don't want to meet," I say.
Dr. Fawcett puts down her notepad.
A few minutes later, we're out in the waiting room with my parents.
"Mrs. Martin, Mr. Martin," says Dr. Fawcett. She hesitates. "Your daughter and I have talked, and she doesn't want to continue these sessions with me."
"Oh, but Alice..." begins Mom, "We only want what is best for her."
"Under the circumstances, I think the best thing for her is for us to respect her wishes on the matter. She will be able to make a fresh start in the eighth grade."
"Of course, of course," says Mom. "I wouldn't dream of disagreeing. But eighth grade can be a difficult year. What if she has more trouble?"
"Your daughter is an intelligent girl. I believe the best way to handle any situation that comes up is patiently, and with respect for Chloe's way of understanding the situation," says Dr. Fawcett. "This is not to say I'm closing the door completely now. I'll still be available for you to call if you need advice or if new issues emerge. But I have no compelling reason to believe that the causes of the behavior we've discussed are medical in nature."
On the car ride home, my parents are quiet and I don't know what they're thinking. I think I'd usually be worried about what they're thinking. I'm not worried. On the inside, I'm smiling. I feel like I've done something right.
The big afternoon comes. I arrive a little late to the party. Everyone is there already, and Leah must have invited practically everyone from the whole school. Leah's dining room is HUGE and it's still crowded. Luckily, I'm still small enough to slip through crowds really easily. I get to the front and put my present on the pile they've already made on the table. Between the height of the table and the height of the pile, it's almost up to my head.
Rose and I have this little joke between us where we always give the same white T-shirt back and forth for each other's birthdays. The only difference is that we draw a new silly thing on it each time in permanent markers. I wasn't sure what to draw this time, so I just drew a bunch more hearts on it. There were already lots of hearts, but now there are a bunch of red hearts to go with the black hearts and the pink hearts. From the other years there's a bicycle (Rose drew that, obviously – she's way better at drawing than I am), and a boa constrictor (Rose's favorite animal!), and a giant black hole with lasers shooting out of it that I drew in fifth grade when I was reading a lot of science fiction, and a whole bunch of other stuff. I've wrapped it up in some wrapping paper that says HAPPY BIRTHDAY on it over and over again and has multicolored pictures of balloons and birthday cakes on it and stuff.
There's a yell from the next room. Leah's having a bit of trouble with the cake. Katherine and someone else run in to help her with it, and everyone else hurries out of the way as they carry the giant cake into the room and set it on the table. It really is gigantic. It's got three layers and the top one has this big circle of candles at the top. There must be fifteen of them, but I don't really have a good enough view to count. And Katherine looks really good carrying it. She's been really upbeat again in the last week or two. Someone told me she's started visiting her mom in her new home on the weekends, which I guess is good, although I don't know what there is to like about her mom.
Then I see Rose at the head of the table. She looks great. She's wearing her favorite white dress, and really nice silvery shoes to go with it. Her hair is hanging loose around her shoulders, and she's smiling like she really means it. I love it when she smiles like that. It makes me feel really proud to be her friend.
"Make a wish!" says Leah.
Rose takes a deep breath and blows hard across all the candles, but three of them stay burning anyway. "Oh well," she says. "I hadn't come up with a very good wish anyway." Then she smiles sweetly and blows out the rest of the candles.
Leah cuts Rose a huge slice of the cake. Rose laughs and pushes it away, so Leah cuts a smaller slice for her. Once she's started eating, Leah holds up the big slice and asks if anyone wants it, so I dart forward. I love cake. I don't understand why Rose would ever want less cake. It's her birthday! Oh well, more cake for me, I guess.
I don't pay attention to most of the presents because they're mostly silly girly things that I don't care about. There's always a few that make me look up from my cake, though, like Leah's present. Leah always gives the best presents. This year she's gotten Rose a stuffed boa constrictor. It is one of the most awesome things I've ever seen. I wish Leah was my friend, too. Nobody gives me anything that awesome for MY birthdays.
Finally, the presents are all opened. "Pool party!" yells Leah. Suddenly all the guests are scrambling to get out their swimsuits. I saw the pool on the way in. It's really great. It's like two giant circular pools put together, and there's loads of deck chairs along one side.
Rose smiles with amusement. "I don't really get a choice about what happens at this party, do I?" she says quietly. It's noisy enough that only I and a couple of others hear her.
"You're not going swimming?" I ask.
"I feel nice and warm and dry," she says. "And I like wearing this dress. Maybe I'll watch everyone else having fun."
She looks really happy. "Maybe I'll watch them with you," I say.
Afternoon drags into evening. From the middle of the pool, Leah directs everyone else in a bunch of games. Some of the games are pretty ridiculous. Rose sits in one of the deck chairs next to me, and she laughs and smiles a lot. The cake sits well in my stomach.
The sun starts going down. The guests slowly make their ways out of the pool and dry off and head indoors. Everyone is smiling and laughing. Rose hugs a lot of people.
We all head indoors. Everyone splits up into little groups and plays different games on the floors all over Leah's house. The evening drags on. I find Rose talking to Maureen in a corner. Maureen gets a deck of cards from Leah and we play Rummy for a while. The trouble is that I keep winning and Rose keeps losing, so we eventually give up on it.
Somehow, I lose track of Rose after that. I'm pretty sleepy. I look around and run into Janet playing a silly hand-clapping game with a boy I don't know. "Hey, where's Rose?" I say.
"I think she went up to bed," says Janet. "Leah gave her the guest room."
Leah is busy with the others, so I go upstairs and look around. At first I'm afraid that I'll have to peek into all the rooms to find out which one is the guest room, but it's pretty obvious when I get there. I find the guest room and step in.
It's a really nice room, like all the rooms in Leah's house. There's a big window on one wall, which must have a great view in the daytime when it's not just reflecting the light from inside. The only light right now is from a little desk lamp that's built into the fancy desk in front of me. I recognize Rose's shoes lying on the carpeted floor next to the desk. To the left is a bed, and Rose.
I had meant to say goodnight to Rose, but she's already sleeping. The bed looks really soft. I kick off my shoes and pull the covers aside, then sit down next to Rose's head and stroke her hair a bit. She looks really peaceful, lying there on her back. Her face is relaxed, almost with a faint smile. I really love how she is.
I slip under the covers with her and put one arm around her and nuzzle into her shoulder. I'm asleep within moments.
The next thing I know, I'm in a half-awake haze. There are people moving above me, and hushed voices. I think I hear Rose's voice among them, but that can't be very important compared with the dream I was just having. I hardly ever remember my dreams, so I try hard to get this one back, but I don't manage it. The voices and footsteps soon move away and I roll over and go back to sleep, with the bed sheets wrapped all about me.
I wake again before dawn. Rose is gone and I'm restless. I haul myself out of bed and step out into the hall.
I stand at the top of the stairs. From here, I can just barely hear some of my friends' voices. I'm only wearing socks, so I step quietly down the stairs. They must be in the next room, but why do they sound so hushed and so serious?
"It's been happening for a month?" says one of them.
"Shh. Give her a chance to respond."
"You should have told us before," says the first.
I step around the corner and look into the room. I almost miss the cluster of kids sitting on the floor. They have stopped talking and are staring up at me. I recognize Katherine, Maureen, and Leah. I feel really self-conscious because of all those faces pointed at me, all looking unfriendly, but I don't really care because the important thing is Rose. Rose is sitting in the middle of them. She is still in her white dress, but her long legs are splayed awkwardly on the carpet. Her hair is wild and tangled and her face is red and puffy. There is a pile of crumpled-up tissues lying next to her, and she's looking down.
I hurry towards them. "Rose, what's wrong?" I ask. The faces are still staring at me. Have they hurt her?
Leah says, in a strained voice, "Chloe, I think it would be better if you left us alone." Rose shoves out a clumsy arm to cut her off.
Rose swallows. She lifts her head a tiny bit, but then lets it hang again. "Chloe..." she says into the floor. "I didn't like the things we did. I didn't want to. I..." She buries her head in her hands.
"I don't understand," I say.
Rose sobs and doesn't answer. Leah leans over her and asks, "Do you want to go somewhere else?" Rose nods clumsily and the others get ready to go.
Maureen stands. "I'll stay and talk to Chloe," she says.
The others give Rose some space and escort her down a hallway. Katherine gives me one last angry glare as she steps out of sight, leaving me and Maureen alone in the room. Maureen keeps looking down the hall after they leave. I sit down in a hard wooden chair and look at her. She's shorter than I am even when I'm sitting down. She's not smiling.
"Chloe," says Maureen. She paces up and down the room. The thudding of her little feet on the carpet fills my ears. She doesn't look me in the face as she talks. "Chloe, you're my friend. I like you. You're brave and loyal and fun to be around. I couldn't ask for a better friend."
I look out the window. The path leading up to Leah's house is lined with little lights. There's a little pinwheel stuck in the ground near the path. A car goes by, too fast, on the road outside.
Maureen stops pacing. She stands at the window and stares out, the same way I'm looking. "Chloe," she says. "Chloe... you've done a bad thing."
The pinwheel spins from a gust. The shades rattle.
"A bad thing," I echo.
"A really bad thing," Maureen says, so quietly I can barely hear her.
The night drags on until the gray morning light falls over everything in the room. I sit on the hard wooden chair until it hurts, and I don't bother to move or to stop myself from biting my nails down to the skin. Maureen is telling me everything Rose said, about how she feels like her own body doesn't belong to her, about her dreams and flashbacks of unwanted touch, about how she had thought everything was her own fault because she was too weak and afraid to say no. I don't really hear it. The girl who's sitting in the chair, listening to Maureen, doesn't feel like me. My body isn't the body that lay with Rose all those nights. My mouth isn't the mouth that told Rose to do those things. I don't feel like that girl at all.Approximate readability: 2.14 (64211 characters, 16332 words, 1615 sentences, 3.93 characters per word, 10.11 words per sentence)