Author’s Note: Welcome! This is a head’s up to look to the top of each post for recaps of previous chapters and special notes from me. - J.C.
They made me sit right there between them. One girl clutched a wad of brown, industrial-strength paper towels to her bloody nose, the other one sucked her teeth as she examined the damaged seam of her tank top. I stared straight ahead, holding the sack of groceries to my chest. It left wet marks on the lap of my jeans.
When I’m freaking out I try not to show it. “It takes a lot to rattle your cage,” Gram said once after she watched me win the eighth-grade geography bee. It came down to me and Spencer Gold, who eventually cracked after 90 minutes in a hot auditorium filled with our bored and squirming classmates and their parents. He let the pressure get to him and burst into tears of combined devastation and relief after missing a question on South American vegetation. The thing is I was probably just as nervous. I was just better at hiding it. Instead of biting my nails or shaking my leg, I have this habit of chewing on the inside of my right cheek. It's disgusting, but no one notices it.
Sitting there in the front office I could taste blood.
I’d been through enough first days of school to know better than to expect something good to happen. No jock posse was going to stop fast in the hallway and mumble, “Whoa, what happened to her?” I didn’t spend my summer teeth bleaching and clothes shopping and crunching my way towards six-pack abs so I could throw on a mini skirt and walk down the hallway in slow motion.
I spent it watching cooking shows with Gram while she healed from hip surgery. And when I wasn’t doing that I was dusting shoe displays at Colson Leather for minimum wage.
“Why do you look like a serial killer today?” Jackie had asked that morning when she saw my outfit.
She was, as always, ready. I’d watched Jackie do her make-up at least 500 times, so I knew she was wearing foundation that covered the tiny zits she got around her eyebrows. But her skin looked perfect. Her natural curls had been blown into soft, relaxed waves. She had ironed her jeans – not just any jeans, but the jeans that were purchased after weeks of research, the pair that would best minimize her thighs and butt. She had hemmed them herself to fall at the perfect length so that they didn't drag against the ground but showed the acceptable amount of stark white tennis shoe. Jackie Donnelly wasn't the prettiest or skinniest girl in our class, but she was definitely the most put together.
“I think serial killer is a little harsh,” Liz said, rattling a sour cherry candy around in her mouth.
“Says the girl who lives in sweat-wicking fabric,” Jackie countered. She turned back to me. “What happened to everything we bought at Sephora? I showed you how to contour, remember? You need to play up the heart shape of your face. Your cheekbones are missing.”
There were things I didn’t love about my face – my nose is too wide, and I’ve hated the cleft in my chin ever since first grade when a kid at my bus stop started calling me “butt chin” – but Jackie managed to find issues I never knew I had. Missing cheekbones: not on my radar.
“And you’ve got to play up your eyes,” Jackie went on. “They’re your best feature. A little gold-toned shadow would bring out more of the hazel than the brown. They’d really pop.”
“I didn’t have a lot of time this morning,” I said, arranging a stack of new notebooks in my locker. “I’m still practicing that contouring thing,” I added, trying to appease her.
Jackie sighed. “It takes as much time to put on a cute outfit as an ugly one, Charlie. Those clothes are circa muffin top. What was the point of losing ten pounds?”
The truth was I hadn’t really done anything to lose the inch or two of blubber around my middle. The stress over Gram’s injury had gotten rid of it for me.
“I know but I slept late and I had to hit the grocery store first thing,” I said.
“Oh,” she said flatly, glancing at the sack of groceries at my feet. “Right. That.”
My independent study was number 427 on my list of life choices that didn’t get the Jackie Donnelly seal of approval.
I probably should have joined the debate team with Jackie in the eighth grade (they’d gone on to win the state competition two years later, just as she had predicted) or started playing softball as a fetus like Liz, who’d gotten a million scholarship offers. But by the time I realized you needed A Thing, it was too late to get one. School was almost over, college applications were due in a few months, and I was completely unremarkable.
I had good grades and decent SAT scores, but everyone had those. All my community service was required to graduate, and who cared about being able to balance a part-time job and school?
My biggest fear was being rejected by every single one of the colleges I applied to, even my safety schools, and having to spend the rest of my life in this town, selling shoes. I worried about being trapped by my own unremarkbleness, and then being forgotten by everyone else who had A Thing and got to start their real lives. I was up against kids who spoke three languages, and I knew this one guy who led a youth humanitarian effort in Haiti.
I mean, I did sort of have A Thing. Maybe half A Thing, mostly because no one knew about it, and the whole point of A Thing was its power to justify your existence to college admissions offices.
I had Moledy Verses. Pronounced like “moldy,” as in “moldy cheese.” It was a reference to my favorite Moleskin notebooks and the name of an Instagram account that no one knew about. No one real, anyway. Last time I checked, 379 strangers were following me, sometimes liking my poems, which I wrote out in pen and photographed. Jackie and Liz had no clue it existed. Or if they did, they didn’t know it was me. They saw me scribbling all day, but it was easy enough to pretend I was writing something for class. It was my fault they didn’t know. It was basically impossible to share a secret I’d kept for so long.
Writing a cookbook for my independent study was a compromise, I guess. Or maybe a cop-out. The thought of showing Mr. Clark, my advisor, the actual stuff I wrote was horrifying. He’d been a high school guidance counselor for like 20 years and still didn’t get why kids laughed when he jiggled chalked in his hand or called us “eager beavers.”
Food was safe. Everyone liked food.
“But you don’t cook,” Liz had pointed out. It was a Friday last May. We’d reached the point in the year when teachers stopped caring if you were actually working, as long as you were quiet and didn’t damage school property. The three of us sat on the file cabinets by the window and ate handfuls of popcorn from a microwave bag Jackie had somehow managed to heat up in the teacher’s lounge. It was the final day to submit independent study proposals. I had finished mine around 3 a.m. the night before and convinced both Mrs. Trousseau in the English department and Mrs. Riley in home economics to sign on as subject matter experts that morning. I’d snapped the seven-page printout into a plastic report cover and was doing one last round of proofreading.
“Actually, since Gram’s been out of commission, I’ve done all the cooking,” I said.
“So, you’ve cooked all the spaghetti? All the Hot Pockets?” Jackie said, picking a kernel from her teeth.
“I’ll have you know that two nights ago I made fettuccini alfredo with broccoli,” I said.
“So, spaghetti,” Jackie answered with a smirk. Liz snorted and took a swig from her water bottle.
“Gram has all these old-school recipe cards,” I said. “I’m going to update the recipes and write little essays about each dish,” I explained. “Maybe a poem here or there,” I added.
“Poems?” asked Jackie. “You’re going to write poems?”
“What rhymes with alfredo?” Liz asked, tilting her head and squinting an eye. “Oh! Potato! Or tomato…”
“Not poems like that,” I muttered. “Anyway, I’m doing it. The proposal is signed, I just have to turn it in.”
“So you still have time to back out,” said Jackie.
“And do what?” I asked, my voice cracking.
Four months later I was still trying to convince them it was a good idea.
I grabbed the bag of groceries and headed toward the home ec room. There I found two dozen nervous freshmen anxiously waiting to start their first official day of high school. I stared at them. They stared back. I backed out of the room and into the hall.
Mrs. Riley rounded the corner.
“Good morning, Charlie,” she said. Mrs. Riley was like a grown-up Jackie. Everything was in place, from her perfectly manicured, gray bob to the silk scarf around her collar, knotted just right.
She always made me think of the word Topiary. I could so easily picture her swinging around a giant set of hedge trimmers.
“I think they double booked the room,” I said, handing her my class schedule.
She pulled a leather glasses case from her shoulder bag and snapped it open. She unfolded a small pair of reading glasses with one hand and reached for my schedule with the other.
“It appears they did,” she said as she peered down her nose. “I wonder when I’m supposed to fit you in. You're not even on my schedule.”
The clanging sound of impact on aluminum rang out behind me. I swiveled around in time to see two girls slide against a locker and down toward the floor in a swirling mass of hair and elbows.
“Stupid bitch,” one of them grunted. The other tried her best to throw a punch but her fist just barely grazed the other girl’s ear.
“Hey!” Riley yelled and rushed towards them. “Stop it! Stop!”
The one who’d thrown the punch managed to slide out of the other girl’s grasp. Her opponent took a moment to catch her breath before diving for her again.
“HEY!” Riley yelled again, grabbing both of them by the wrists. In one motion she yanked them apart like a couple of tangled socks.
“Front office. Now,” she said sternly. She whipped her head back towards me, her grey bob flipping. “You too, Charlie. Let’s go.”
And that’s how I found myself, on the first day of my senior year, sitting between two female cage fighters with an assortment of spoiling food products in my lap.
The little bell that hung above the office door jingled and Mr. Clark walked in wearing his signature goofy grin.
“Hey Charlie,” he said, glancing back and forth between me and the other girls. “Looks like an eventful first day.”
“Yeah,” I said, biting down on my cheek.
“Um, yeah. There was just a mix-up with the room assignment for my independent study.”
“Oh, yeah! The cookbook!”
I could feel the stares from the two other girls.
“Excited to get started?” Clark asked. His goofy grin was genuine, which made me feel guilty.
No, I wanted to say. I think I’ve made a mistake.
I was a fraud and I’d taken things too far. A pan of fettuccini didn’t make me a cook, and 379 Instagram followers didn’t make me a writer. Jackie and Liz were right. I wasn’t the type of person who stood out for any reason – even the school’s computer system forgot about me. The only thing worse than not having A Thing was desperately scrambling for one. As far as explaining all that to Mr. Clark, with his novelty neckties and corny jokes, I didn’t know where to start.
“I, um. I’m not sure,” I said.
“Well, no turning back, now,” he responded a bit more seriously as he peered into my bag of groceries. “You already bought the eggs.”
No Turning Back - @MoledyVerses
it can’t be
can’t be the name of a real city
more like a joke from a Dirty Uncle.
who remembers you always as 9
Not 12 and hearing the hushed adult laughter.
I get the joke.
Either way, Kissimmee is real.
And I am going there if I live through this.
Jackie’s parents have things like timeshares
and say things like,
“You can bring one friend,”
like it’s a restriction.
I’m that one.
And should have luggage like Jackie’s.
And say things like,
“I’m so excited!”
I am excited, but not like Jackie.
I stare at the two-tone illustrations of
our impending death
tucked behind polyester netting.
We could turn back.
I almost say it out loud
Our speed is intentional
so that we can better break through barriers
of sound and time.
“We could turn back.” (I say it out loud this time.)
but Jackie’s got new headphones.
And by then our traction is gone.
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