I’m sooo bored.
We’re sitting here and waiting, and we’ve been doing it for… I don’t know, but it must be hours by this point. A couple people have gotten off and trekked to the next station, but Elijah’s dad insists we should stay here, wait for Metro to get things fixed. I kinda agree. I don’t wanna walk through a dirty, dark tunnel, who knows how many miles. But sitting here isn’t so boring.
Everyone else has their phones out and are playing games, but I only have a shitty old flip-phone, my dad got it at Office Depot and buys minutes for it every couple months. It’s got Tetris, that’s it, and playing on the tiny little screen gives me a headache. Well, I already have a headache from the stuffy air in here, but playing a game would make it worse.
So I’m sitting on the floor, leaning against a pole. Every once in a while someone will decide to move to the other end of the train, and I’ll have to scooch over to let them through. That’s what qualifies as excitement around here.
I rest my forehead on my knees and wish I could go to sleep.
I hate waiting like this. There’s nothing worse. It reminds me of that day.
It was back in middle school, seventh grade to be exact. I don’t remember exactly when, except that it was a few weeks after Christmas break, when the weather was at its absolute coldest.
Mom was supposed to pick me up after school so I could go to an optometrist—one of the cheap ones where you get an eye exam and two pairs of glasses for sixty bucks. Grandma was paying for it—I wasn’t supposed to know, but I’d heard Mom and Dad talking about it a couple nights before. Money was tight right then. Dad had gotten laid off back before Thanksgiving and still hadn’t found work, and Mom’s hours at J.C. Penney’s had been cut after Christmas. But I needed new glasses. I’d been wearing the same pair since fourth grade, and it was to the point I couldn’t see the board if I wasn’t in the front row at school.
When classes let out, I went over to the parking lot instead of getting on the bus like normal. Mom had to work until three that day, and it was faster for her to come by the school than to drive all the way to our apartment. School ended at 3:20, so I figured she’d be waiting for me when I got outside. As I went around the side of the building, I looked around for her car but I didn’t see it. Still, I knew traffic could be bad at this time of day, so I didn’t think anything was wrong at first.
There were a few other kids waiting to be picked up, so I went over and joined them. I didn’t know any of them, except Rina Michaels who was in my gym class. She kinda nodded at me but didn’t say anything. We all stood there in silence, shuddering in the cold wind.
“God, I’m freezing my titties off,” an eighth grade boy said. He was hoping for a reaction, but when nobody laughed, he sneered at us.
Rina was the first to get picked up. Her mom came in a big purple SUV, with a golden retriever staring out from the back seat. It reared up and pawed at the window when it saw Rina, and started yapping when she got in.
The eighth grade boy got picked up a few minutes later, then the others disappeared one by one until only me and a blond boy who had headphones on were left. I didn’t have a cellphone back then, and didn’t have a watch either, so I had no way of checking the time. I wanted to ask the boy, but the way he was bopping his head to his music, I thought he might get mad if I interrupted him.
But it must’ve been fifteen minutes already. I could understand Mom being a little late if traffic were bad, but this was a bit much. The buses had pulled out already, so I didn’t have any choice but to keep waiting.
I shoved my hands deep in my coat pockets to keep them warm and stared at the flag in front of the school as it whipped in the wind.
I wondered if anything had happened to Mom? Had she been in an accident? I strained my ears but couldn’t hear any sirens. But Penney’s was way over in Gaithersburg. There was no way I could hear that far.
Or maybe somebody hadn’t shown up at work. It had happened before, she got asked to cover for someone at the last minute. I didn’t think she’d do it today, not with me waiting for her. But we did need money. And if it was just an extra hour… maybe.
Of course, there was another possibility. One I didn’t want to think about. Even worse than an accident.
What if she’d forgotten me? She had a habit of forgetting appointments, and she’d gotten in trouble at work because she thought she had the day off when she was on the schedule. Plus there was the time last summer when she’d promised to take me to the bookstore and didn’t remember even when I reminded her.
But this was different.
She couldn’t forget to pick her daughter up, could she? That was too much.
I was sure she’d have a good excuse for being late.
She had to.
I heard a car approaching, and I looked away from the flagpole expecting to see Mom’s blue Corolla. But it was a silver Honda with a teenage boy at the wheel—a high schooler, I guess. It rolled to a stop in front of me and the boy with the headphones got in. The door hadn’t even closed when it sped away.
I was alone. I knew there were still teachers and people inside, but outside, the school grounds were deserted except for me. I thought about going inside, asking one of the office ladies to call my dad, but I was afraid Mom would pull up the moment I went inside.
She had to be coming. I just needed to wait.
I took my backpack off and pulled my book out—I remember I was reading a Stephen King novel, The Tommyknockers, about a town that’s taken over by aliens. I only had a couple hundred pages to go (which in a Stephen King novel counts as being almost done), but I never finished the book. After what happened that day, I’ve never been able to pick it up again. It’s still sitting on a shelf at home, but the bookmark hasn’t moved since that day.
Even that afternoon I wasn’t able to make any progress. It was too cold to take my mittens off, and turning the pages with them on was nearly impossible, even if the wind hadn’t been blowing so hard that any time I lifted my fingers, I’d lose my place. But I didn’t have anything else to do, so I forced myself to read, even if it took ten minutes to get through one page.
Every time I finished a paragraph, I’d look up, hoping to see Mom’s car coming. I’d peer down the street in both directions, and if I saw anything remotely bluish, I’d watch intently until I could be sure it wasn’t her.
The sky was overcast, and the streetlights started coming on.
Now I was getting worried. My appointment had been for four-fifteen, and it had to be long past that. Maybe I should try walking home? How far was it? The bus took ten minutes to get here, but a lot of that was spent picking students up and waiting at stoplights. The trip couldn’t be more than five miles, and probably closer to two or three.
I could walk that. Probably. It meant crossing some major roads, though.
The better idea would be to go inside before the school closed up and ask someone to call my dad. It’d be embarrassing though. Mom would kill me, making her look negligent. I couldn’t do that.
I headed towards the road, but then I stopped. Even if we couldn’t make the appointment, there was still a chance she might come. If I wasn’t there, she’d panic. She’d go into the school and raise hell. They might even call the cops.
I really should let someone know. An adult could figure out what to do.
A car pulled into the parking lot. For a second my heart leapt, but then I saw it was a purple SUV. It pulled up to where I’d been waiting earlier and parked. Nobody got out. A few minutes later another car came, then a van.
The door to the school opened and a bunch of kids came pouring out, all boys, all laughing and shouting at each other. I recognized a couple of them—Todd Sickles and Bryan Frazer—and knew they were on the basketball team. They musta been getting out of practice.
Most of the boys got in the waiting cars, but a handful stuck around, still laughing and horsing around.
I’d wandered halfway down the parking lot, and I didn’t want to go back now, not with them there. They’d want to know what I was doing out here and I didn’t wanna explain. Todd wasn’t too bad—I’d let him copy my math homework once and he’d given me a Jolly Rancher for it—but Bryan was always making fun of my hair and the way it frizzes out everywhere. At the beginning of the year in Social Studies, he’d been assigned the seat behind me and kept complaining that he couldn’t see the board, so Mr. Moreland had made us switch seats, putting me all the way in the back. Anytime I had to get up in class, he’d stick his foot out and try to trip me.
A van pulled in and Todd got aboard. He said something to the driver—his mom?—and then waved one of the other boys to join them. As the van left, Bryan said something to the two remaining boys and they laughed. Then one of them noticed me and pointed. Bryan made a comment and they all laughed again. I was too far away to hear, but I was sure he was making fun of me. One of the boys made a poof gesture around his head. Yeah, they were definitely making fun of me.
I leaned against a lamppost with my back to them and tried to read again. I knew the post couldn’t hide me, and I knew they were still talking about me, but I acted otherwise.
But it didn’t work.
Bryan and his friends blocked me in on three sides, the lamppost on the fourth.
“Hi,” I said.
“You know that’s rude.”
“You saw us standing over there, you didn’t come over to say hi.”
“Di’ncher momma teach you ta be polite?” one of the other boys said. He was more than six feet tall, and there were tiny, curling whiskers on his cheek.
“We can’t hear ya,” Bryan said. “Speak up.”
“I said, I guess.”
I looked down at my book, wishing I was at home in my room where I could read it in peace.
Bryan snatched it from me. “Tommyknockers? What’s that?”
“Sci-fi shit, huh?”
“You’re a whore?” the third boy said. He had red hair and so many zits that his face was almost the same color.
“Yeah, fi’ dollahs,” Bryan shouted.
“Whatcha doin’ back here? You gotta walk the streets you wanna get some tricks,” the tall boy said.
“Maybe she’s hopin’ to hustle some teachers,” the redhead said. “Betcha Mr. Morales would take her.”
Even though it was freezing out, my face was burning. I blinked five times quick, trying to keep the tears from building up behind my eyelids, but I could feel them squeezing into the corners of my eyes.
“I don’t know he could afford fiiiii’ dollahs,” Bryan said. “Make it two-fiddy for around the world, though…”
All the boys laughed.
“You’re never gonna make money like this,” Bryan said. “You gotta show some hustle. C’mon.” He grabbed me by the shoulder and tugged me towards the street.
I dug my feet in and tried to stay put, but the tall boy got behind me and shoved. I stumbled forward and had to keep going so I wouldn’t fall. They pulled me all the way to the street. Cars were whizzing by, and I prayed that this would be the point when my mother finally showed up. But of course she didn’t.
“Hey man, she fi’ dollahs!” Bryan waved at the passing cars while pointing at me.
The other boys thought this was the most hilarious thing ever.
“Hey, you’re never gonna attract no one you just stand like that,” the tall boy said.
“Yeah,” Bryan said. “You gotta flaunt it.”
“What’s she got to flaunt?” the redhead said. “No tits, no hips.”
“Booty’s not bad,” the tall boy said.
“You serious?” Bryan said.
“A great poet once said, ‘I like big butts.’” He turned back to me. “C’mon girl, shake it.”
What the hell did they want from me? If they were gonna spit in my face and call me names, I could’ve taken it. I’d been putting up with that since elementary school. But right then I wanted to run out into the street, I didn’t care if cars were coming or not.
“C’mon, just walk down the street. Walk to the corner and back.”
I did what they said.
“Nah, nah, you gotta swing that ass,” the tall boy yelled at me.
“Shake it so cars will stop,” Bryan said.
“Fi’ dollahs! Fi’ dollahs!” the redhead was shouting.
I reached the corner and turned around. The three boys were leering at me.
“Hey, you know what,” the tall boy said, “I got five bucks. Whatcha say?”
He pulled a wallet out of his pants and took out a bunch of ones.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I turned and ran back towards the school. I couldn’t wait outside anymore. I didn’t care if Mom showed up, I didn’t care if she got pissed that I wasn’t there.
“Now she’s shakin’ that thing,” the redhead shouted.
“Betcha she’s tiiiiight,” the tall boy said.
But they were satisfied with talking. They didn’t come after me.
I headed straight to the entrance, only slowing long enough to pull the doors open.
Custodians were mopping the lobby, and I slipped on the wet floor, planting my butt on the linoleum hard.
“Hey, no running in here.”
I looked up and it was Mr. Morales. He was my English teacher.
When he saw me, he checked his watch. “What’re you doing here? I didn’t think you were in any clubs.”
“I’m not.” I stood up. My legs were all wobbly now, and my heart was pounding a million times a second. I could barely breathe.
I wanted to tell him about Bryan and the other boys, but that would only create trouble. More for me than them. The worst that would happen to them was they’d get detention, if they even got worse than a lecture. But they’d want revenge on me. I could avoid the two boys I didn’t know, but I had three classes with Bryan. And he might repeat those things he was saying. He was part of the cool gang, so even if nobody actually believed him, they’d start repeating them too.
So instead I say, “My mom was supposed to pick me up. I have an optima—optora—oppo—” I couldn’t get the word right in my mouth, so finally I said, “An eye doctor, supposed to go see today.”
“When was that?”
“Supposed to be four-fifteen. She was gonna pick me up right after school.”
“It’s almost five.”
I’d known it was late, but that late? Now I was really worried. Something bad must’ve happened.
“You don’t have a phone?” Mr. Morales said.
I shook my head.
He pulled out his own cell phone. “What’s your mother’s number?”
I told him and he dialed. It rang and rang and finally went to voice mail.
“Uh, yes, Mrs. Kratstein, this is Mr. Morales from McClellan Middle. I’m here with your daughter, and she’s worried about you. If you could give me a call when you get this, thanks.” He hung up. “What about your father?”
“He doesn’t have a phone right now.” Well, he did, but he’d run out of minutes and couldn’t afford any more.
“Do you have a home phone?”
I shook my head.
He gestured for me to follow him, and he went to the office. He and the office ladies talked for a minute, then one of them got Principal Liu and they all had a chat. I hung back in a corner, as though the conversation had nothing to do with me. Every once in a while, one of the office ladies would glance over at me and smile sympathetically, which made me feel even more pathetic.
After about five minutes, Mr. Morales came back over to me. “I’m going to give you a ride home. Is that okay?”
“Yeah.” That’s all I wanted right then. To get home and see my father and find out what was going on.
Mr. Morales led me back to the parking lot. Bryan wasn’t around, but his two friends from the basketball team were still out there. For a moment when they saw Mr. Morales and me, they looked scared, but once they realized we weren’t heading towards them, their expressions relaxed. They started laughing. One of them made a cocksucking gesture—I didn’t know what it was back then; I only realized it in eighth grade when I heard some girls gossiping in the locker room. I’m glad I was ignorant back then, otherwise I would’ve broken down crying right there.
We got into Mr. Morales’ car, which smelled of cigarettes and air freshener. He docked his phone on the dash and it started playing classic rock, that song where the singer has a super deep voice and keeps repeating, “Breathe in, breathe out.” It was a good song to play. It reminded me to keep breathing.
I wanted nothing more than to zone out, but Mr. Morales didn’t know where I lived and I had to keep telling him, “Turn left here,” and “take the next right.” Once my mind drifted, and we missed a turn, had to go down a couple blocks and make a U-turn, but he didn’t get mad at me. Even though I was being a bother, making him do all this, he understood.
We finally got to the apartment complex. I thought he’d just drop me off in the parking lot and leave, but he insisted on coming up with me. I was kinda grateful. I didn’t wanna be alone. But I was afraid he was going to chew my dad out, and I didn’t want that. It wasn’t Dad’s fault he didn’t have a working phone. We didn’t have money for it.
When we got to my apartment, I reached for the knob, but Mr. Morales stopped me and knocked instead.
The door didn’t open, and there was no sound inside.
Mr. Morales tried again, louder this time, but it was no different. At last he nodded for me to open up.
The door was locked and I had to use my key. There wasn’t anything strange about that—there was a convenience store behind our apartment complex, and Dad walked down there all the time—but even so, my stomach did a flop. I knew right then, something was seriously wrong. He hadn’t popped out for a Slim-Jim and scratch-off.
The inside was dark and there was no sign of Dad at all. Two possibilities flashed through my mind. The first was that Mom had been in an accident and Dad had rushed to the hospital. But though that was the most realistic possibility, my brain fastened on the other one: What if Mom and Dad had run away? Money was tight, and a lot of that was because of me. Last fall Mom had been complaining about the cost of my school supplies, and that was when Dad still had a job; and one night around Thanksgiving, I’d heard her and Dad talking after they thought I was asleep, and Mom said she was worried how much it’d cost when I hit my growth spurt. They’d given me a good Christmas—I’d gotten five books, one of them a hardcover, not to mention two new T-shirts, a pair of jeans and a set of socks, though I suspected Grandma had paid for the clothes—but even at the age of twelve, I could sense that they overspent. Mom had cut back on beer and cigarettes, and Dad had stopped buying lottery tickets. The one time we’d ordered pizza recently, it was because we saw a commercial for a buy-one-get-one deal.
So could they’ve …?
Could they’ve ditched me?
Is that what had happened?
I knew it was ridiculous. They both loved me. But once the thought crossed my mind, I couldn’t shake it. It was all I could think about.
Mr. Morales was on his phone. I think he was talking to Principal Liu. “Yeah, I dunno… No, let’s not do that yet. I wanna go by her mom’s work first, see if they know anything… Yeah, I’ll keep you informed.” He hung up and looked at me. “You all right?”
I nodded, but I couldn’t open my mouth because I knew anything I’d say would come out as a sob.
“You said your mom works at Macy’s?”
“J.C. Penney’s,” I managed to squeak.
“The one at White Flint Mall?”
“Okay, let’s go over there.”
I followed him back to his car and we drove over to the mall. He kept trying to get me to talk on the way, but I answered anything he asked with a “Mmm-hmm,” or “uh-uh,” and after a while he gave up.
It was totally dark when we got to the mall, and the parking lot was mostly empty. Mr. Morales parked near the store and we went inside.
“Excuse me,” he said to the first employee he saw, a woman who was hanging up a rack of new clothes, “we’re looking for someone. Is there a Mrs. Kratstein here?”
The employee looked at him dumbly.
“What’s her first name?” he asked me.
“Karen,” I said.
“Oh,” the employee said. It was only a single word, but the way she said it was not good. She looked around and spotted another employee. “Wait here.”
She went over to the second employee and started talking. They were too far away for me to hear much, but I caught my mom’s name, and then the second employee looked over at us. There was something unpleasant about his expression, like he was looking at a piece of dog doo that had been left in the middle of the floor. He said something more, and then wandered off.
The first employee came back to us. “Sorry, could you just wait for a minute. We’re getting a manager.”
What did that mean? If she knew what had happened to my mom, why didn’t she just say so? Why did she need her boss?
“Is everything all right?” Mr. Morales asked.
“Everything’s … yeah.” She shuffled her feet and looked back at the rack she’d been putting away, like she wished she could get back to work, but wasn’t sure she should leave us alone.
After a couple of long, awkward minutes, the second employee reappeared with another woman. He pointed to us and she nodded, then both the employees went back to their tasks, though they kept casting glances our way.
The new woman was Mr. Morales’s age, with her hair done up in tight braids. As she approached us, she put on a wide, fake smile. “Hello,” she said with an accent I’d never heard before, “may I help you?” I’d never seen her before in my life, but I’d heard Mom talk about work enough to realize this must be the store manager, Miss Imelda.
“Yes,” Mr. Morales said and introduced himself. “I’m a teacher at Wright Middle. This is Persephone, one of my students. Her mom was supposed to pick her up today after school, but she never showed up. We’re wondering if you know what happened to her?”
Imelda’s smile turned extra fake. “You’re Karen’s daughter, eh? Well look at you, you’re so cute. Yes.”
I didn’t react. Neither did Mr. Morales.
“Yes, Karen was … there was an issue with her employment.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Karen no longer works here.”
“Did she quit or was she fired?”
“I’m not allowed to discuss personnel matters.”
“We need to know where she is.” Mr. Morales was getting pissed. He was using the same voice he used when people were goofing off in class. “If you won’t tell us, we’re going to need to call the police so they can start a search.”
Imelda looked over at the employee we’d first talked to. She was hanging skirts on a rack. Imelda stepped closer to us and lowered her voice. “The police know where she is. They have her.”
“What?” I said. That didn’t make any sense.
Imelda dropped her smile. “Your mother was caught stealing. She was reprinting receipts and using them to make refunds to her credit card. Our loss prevention supervisor noticed something was odd and he investigated. We had her arrested when she came in this morning.”
“No!” That was a lie. That was a fucking lie. My mother would never do something like that.
“Now if you are not making any purchases, I would please ask you to leave.”
After we left the store, Mr. Morales called Mr. Liu and told him what was going on, and Mr. Liu said he’d find out where my mother was.
While we waited, Mr. Morales took me down to the food court and bought me a slice of pizza. I didn’t feel like eating, but I could feel my stomach grumbling so I forced myself. I might as well’ve been chewing cardboard for all that I tasted it.
For his part, Mr. Morales only had a smoothie—bright neon red, I remember that clearly for some reason. He sat across from me, sucking slowly at it and not saying anything. I was so grateful. The last thing I wanted was to talk.
How could Mom get arrested? How could she be stealing? One of my earliest memories was of being in a 7-Eleven with Mom. She was buying some smokes, and when she wasn’t looking I went wandering down the candy aisle. I caught sight of some yummy looking candy—Gobstoppers, I think, or one of them that comes in a little bright box. I couldn’t’ve been more than three at the time, the age when you think everything in the world belongs to you, so I grabbed it off the shelf not knowing it was any big deal.
My mom yelled at me to get over to her, but she didn’t look at me, so she didn’t see I was carrying the box of candy. She grabbed my hand—the empty one, that is—and dragged me towards the door, lecturing me about how I had to stay with at all times. And that’s when the clerk started yelling. “Hey, hey! You didn’t pay for that.”
At first my mom didn’t realize he was talking to us and kept going, but the clerk went shouting, “Excuse me! Hey! Miss!”
Finally my mom looked back and saw the guy was pointing at me, and she looked down and saw I had the box in my hand. “What are you doing?” she said and she smacked me upside the head.
I dropped the candy and she picked it up.
“You don’t take things that aren’t yours.”
She put the box onto the nearest shelf, but that just got the clerk yelling at her again. “Hey, that doesn’t belong there.” Mom glared at him, then went down the candy aisle. It took her a moment to find the right spot, then she apologized to the clerk. “I’m so sorry. I should’ve watched her.”
“Uh-huh,” the clerk said.
She grabbed me by the shoulder and ushered me outside, then over to the car. She got me inside and buckled up, then she looked around to make sure nobody could see us, and she slapped me hard across the cheek. “What do you think you were doing? I’ve never been so embarrassed. You do not steal. Do you know what happens to people who steal?” She shook me by the shoulders. “The police come and arrest you and take you to jail, and you go in with all the bad people, and they do bad things to you. Do you want that?”
I remember her face was right in front of mine and she was screaming at the top of her lungs. I started to cry, but she slapped me again. “If you ever do that again, I will give you something to really cry about. Trust me on that.”
When we got home, she’d put me in my room and didn’t let me come out until dinner—and even then, only because Dad made her.
And now she’d gone and done this?
How could she be such a hypocrite? Had she even believed what she’d told me back then? Or was she just mad that I’d been caught?
The more I thought about it, the angrier I got.
I’d waited at school in the freezing cold.
I’d put up with Bryan and his friends.
I’d been humiliated in front of Mr. Morales.
Who knew what would happen if word got around school.
And it was all her fault.
All of it.
I should’ve been at home, watching Jeopardy with my brand new glasses while Dad fixed dinner. But instead I was gnawing on lukewarm pizza in a mall with my English teacher. Because Mom stole from work.
I looked down at my pizza. I’d eaten most of it. What was left was mostly crust. I sipped my soda to clear the grease from my mouth and wiped my lips.
“Done?” Mr. Morales said.
He checked his phone, but Mr. Liu hadn’t called back yet. “I think there’s a bookstore around here. Do you wanna go look?”
I didn’t wanna, but … I had no place to be, nothing to do.
We got up and I took my tray to the trashcan while Mr. Morales consulted a map of the mall. It turned out the bookstore was all the way on the far end, and we had to walk past practically every store in the mall to get there. Given how cold it was, and how soon after Christmas, the place was mostly deserted. There were probably more people working than actual customers.
When we got to the bookstore, I poked around the shelves, but in my mood nothing caught my eye. Horror was too dark, classics too dry. Fantasy was bullshit.
I wandered through the aisles in a daze, and eventually found myself in the rearmost corner of the store. I wished I could curl up there and go to sleep. Maybe when I woke up, everything would be gone—poof—a dream. It’d be nice, but I knew it couldn’t happen.
Instead I picked up a book from the shelf. Weird, it was backwards. The front cover had the plot description, and the back had an illustration of a girl in a funny outfit, it looked like something Donald Duck would wear, except she had a skirt on, too. The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan? When I opened it up, I discovered it was a comic of some kind, but I couldn’t figure out what was going on. The dialogue was all jumbled, like characters weren’t responding to each other.
“You like manga?” Mr. Morales asked.
I jumped. He’d been off in the main fiction section the last I saw of him.
“What’s that?” I said.
“Oh. They’re Japanese comics.”
“I think this one’s messed up. They have the dialogue in the wrong order or something.”
“No, actually. The Japanese read backwards. You’ve gotta start on the right and work your way left.”
“They probably think the same about us.”
I opened the book again and gave it another try. Forcing myself to go backwards took a lot of effort, but the story made more sense this way. Kinda. I was in the middle of the story, so I didn’t understand any of the plot, but the conversations at least flowed logically.
“Why don’t they just flip the pictures?” I asked.
“It messes some things up,” Mr. Morales said. “Everyone becomes left handed, maps are backwards, keyboards are backwards. Sometimes there are signs with English letters on them, those are backwards. Oh, and in baseball people end up running the wrong way.”
“Oh.” I guess that made sense, but it still seemed kind of annoying. “Do you read this stuff?”
“Some of it. A lot of it’s … kinda not good. But the good stuff is great.”
He examined the shelf and pulled a book off. “This one, for instance, is one of the best.”
The cover showed a simple line drawing of an wicked looking girl. She had on a button-down shirt with a loose, drooping bowtie around her neck. Why did all the Japanese girls dress so weird? The title on the cover said The Flowers of Evil. It sounded like the sorta thing I’d normally like, though I wasn’t much in the mood at the moment. Still, I took it from Mr. Morales and flipped through the first few pages.
There was this boy in middle school who liked to read weird books. Even his friends made fun of him for it. He had class with this beautiful girl who got good grades, and he had all kinds of dirty thoughts about her, even though she never talked to him. But there was another girl. She sat behind him, and she was a real freak. At the start of the story, the teacher yelled at her in front of the entire class for turning in a blank test paper, but instead of being chagrined or taking it meekly, she screamed back at him, “Shut up, shitbug!”—when I got to that line, I laughed despite myself. The teacher was so pissed at the girl that he went to slap her, but she stared at him so intently that he stopped himself and quietly told her to go sit down.
That girl was cool. I wished I could be that way. To tell off anyone who pissed me off. To stare down Bryan and his friends and make them run away in fear of me. That’d be cool.
“You like it?” Mr. Morales asked.
I went to put it back on the shelf, but he stopped me. “Here, I’ll buy it for you.”
“No, you don’t have to.” He was taking pity on me. I didn’t want pity. This wasn’t his problem. He’d already done enough by driving me around and buying me dinner.
“I insist,” he said.
We went up to the registers and checked out.
As we were leaving the store, Mr. Liu called, said he’d found my Mom.
We had to go back to Rockville to find my mom. It was the middle of rush hour and the highway was clogged, though since we were headed against the rush, things were less bad for us. We moved down 270 at a steady pace, while the oncoming lane was a frozen river of headlights.
We reached the jail in half an hour. Mr. Morales parked and got out of the car, but I just sat there. I didn’t want to go inside. I didn’t want to see my mother. I was going to cry if I did. Or yell at her. Or maybe both. I didn’t know.
Mr. Morales came around to my side of the car and opened the door. “C’mon, Purse.”
I unbuckled my seatbelt and got out. I trudged across the parking lot and to the front entrance. Mr. Morales held the door for me and we went inside.
The lobby was brightly lit, with the heat cranked up to make the room nice and toasty. There were brightly colored plastic chairs, and tables with magazines, just like any other waiting room. If you were magically transported there, you wouldn’t’ve realized you were in a jail.
As long as you ignored the people.
Despite the warm, cheery look of the room, you could feel the grimness the moment you walked inside. Like a dentist’s office where everyone in the lobby was waiting for a root canal. One taste of the air and I wanted to leave. Even if the only way I’d ever see my mother again was to come through this room, I would’ve preferred to never see her again.
But Mr. Morales ushered me over to the reception desk.
“May I help you?” a woman said in a tone that made clear she had no desire to help anyone.
“Ah, yes. I’m James Morales. I teach over at Wright Middle …” He trailed off, realizing the woman was barely listening. “I have a student here. She was supposed to be picked up by her mother this afternoon, but she never showed up. We’ve been told she might be here?”
“Kratstein,” Mr. Morales said.
The woman pecked at her computer, examined the scream. “Yup, she’s here.”
“What about my father?” I asked.
“Was he arrested too?” the woman said.
My face colored. “I don’t think so.”
“Then I wouldn’t know, now would I?”
The tears were about to come. Where was Daddy? Where the hell had he gone? Why had he left me?
Mr. Morales put a hand on my shoulder, but he misinterpreted what I was thinking. “Can she go back and see her mother?”
No! That was the last thing I wanted. Absolutely not!
“She needs a parent or guardian present.”
“As a teacher, I’m in loco parentis.”
“She needs a parent or guardian.”
“Jesus, woman. Do you have any humanity?”
The woman stared at him.
“It’s okay,” I whispered. I had to whisper. If I spoke up, my voice was going to crack.
I turned around. I needed to get out of there. I needed to get outside, where the air didn’t taste like poison. But I’d only taken one step when I noticed a man standing up on the far side of the waiting room. “Daddy?”
Mr. Morales turned around when he heard me.
Dad ran across the room, moving up and down aisles and dodging around chairs. “Persephone.” He dropped to his knees in front of my and hugged me tight. I wrapped my arms around him and buried my face in his chest and started crying.
There was another man with Dad, a lawyer from the public defender’s office. He had on a purple shirt with a Daffy Duck tie—even though we met him plenty of times over the next few months, that’s the outfit I’ll always remember him wearing. Dad introduced him as Mr. Freeman, but he insisted I call him Gabe.
They’d been having a conversation before I came in, and once I’d calmed down, we all went back to the rear corner of the room to talk.
“So as I was saying,” Gabe said, “the store’s accusing Karen of stealing one thousand and seventeen dollars. The threshold to make this a felony is one grand, so she’s just north of that. I’d almost think the company waited so they could bust her on felony charges. She’ll be arraigned tomorrow. I’d expect bail to be around 10k.”
“I can’t afford that,” Dad said.
“A bail bondsman will pay it if you put up ten percent, non-refundable.”
“I don’t have a job right now, man. I couldn’t afford it if it were a hundred bucks.”
“You have family you could get it from?”
Dad shook his head.
“Then she’ll have to stay in jail until the trial. Good news is, it’ll be counted as time served.”
“Yeah, that’s good news.” Dad snorted.
“I know it’s tough, but I’m trying to be honest here.”
“I appreciate that.”
“Since this is right on the threshold, our best hope is to argue this down to a misdemeanor. Even if we can’t prove her innocence, we only have to knock seventeen bucks off the charge. Or, we can plea bargain—that’ll be up to her, of course. I just wanna give you an idea of what you’re facing. For a felony conviction, she’s on the hook for up to ten years in prison, though as a first timer, it’d be more like eighteen months. If it’s a misdemeanor, eighteen months would be the maximum. Our best bet would be to strike a deal where she does the eighteen, but it’s written on her record as a misdemeanor. Most job applications only ask about felonies, so it wouldn’t destroy her job prospects.”
“Sounds good, I guess,” Dad said.
“I’ve told all this to Karen. She’s going to sleep on it overnight, make her decision in the morning.”
“Okay.” Dad rubbed his face. “Can Persephone get in to see her tonight?”
Gabe checked his watch. “Should be able to.”
I didn’t want to, but Gabe talked to the woman at the desk and arranged for me and my dad to go back. I expected it to be one of those rooms like you see in movies, with the glass partition and you have to speak into a phone, but they put us in a cafeteria-type room instead. Well, it was like a cafeteria if cafeterias had armed guards in the corner. We had to wait for five minutes before they brought Mom in.
“Honey,” she said when she saw me, “I’m so sorry. I meant to be there. Really, I did.”
I didn’t say anything.
“It’s just …”
I didn’t even look at her.
“I said shut up!”
Mom looked like I’d punched her.
“How could you do this to us?”
“It was for you. I needed… with your dad outta work…”
“You’re blaming me?” Dad said.
“You… you know one income’s not enough. We were struggling with two. Your unemployment’s barely enough to cover water and electric. We needed—”
“Don’t you do this,” Dad said. “Don’t you dare. Not in front of Purse.”
Mom looked at us, her eyes swinging from me to Dad and back again. “You think I’m the bad guy here?”
Dad sighed. “I think… it might be best if you don’t come home. You get outta here, go stay with your mom.”
“You can’t kick me outta my own apartment. Who do you think pays the rent?”
“That is not the issue.” Dad stood up. “C’mon, Purse.”
I stood too, and we headed back for the lobby.
“Don’t hate me, Purse,” Mom said as we walked away.
Mr. Morales gave my dad a ride back to the mall, where we picked up Mom’s car and drove home.
“You two going to be all right?” he asked along the way.
“I dunno,” Dad said. “Honestly, I don’t. Rent’s paid for the month, and all the bills, but February’s a short month. Even if I got a job tomorrow, I’d be lucky to have one paycheck between now and the end of the month.”
“What did you do before?” Mr. Morales asked.
“I was a loading dock manager. Made good money too. But then the company decided they didn’t need the distribution center, they let everyone go.”
“So you have management experience?”
“I suppose you could call it that. Mainly told guys to move their asses faster.”
“I might know something,” Mr. Morales said.
A couple days later, he asked me to stay behind after class and gave me a number to call. Turned out the head of custodial services for Parker Elementary had won the lottery—not the big jackpot, but like two, three million—and decided to quit, no notice. Mr. Morales was friends with the woman who did hiring for the school district, and recommended my dad to her.
The job didn’t pay half so well as his old one, but it did pay, and that’s what counted. We had to move in with my aunt for a while, though, and even when Dad could afford a new place, it was much smaller than the old one.
Not that it mattered. Mom pled guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to eighteen months. She got out after only four, but Dad wouldn’t let her come home. I didn’t blame him. I didn’t want her around either. She moved back with her parents and got another job, got fired, got another, got fired. She’d call Dad and beg for money, but he refused until she threatened to go to court—he tried to hide it from me, but in a tiny apartment there was nowhere he could talk on the phone without me hearing.
Eventually she started getting arrested again. Dad wouldn’t tell me what for, but I heard him and Aunt Sophie talking and they said Mom was charged with soliciting—I guess she was working as a door-to-door saleswoman and got busted for being in one of the fancy neighborhoods where they’ll call the cops on strangers walking around. I didn’t think that was a serious crime, but it counted as a probation violation and she had to go back to jail for the rest of her sentence. By the time she got out, she and Dad were divorced.
“Hey, whatcha doing.” Somebody kicks me in the thigh—only a little tap, but it jolts me back to reality.
It’s Ed. He’s towering over me.
I shake my head. “I dunno.”
“Hey, c’mon back with us.” He jerks his head towards the end of the car where Krissy, Tim and Jay are all gathered. Out of everyone on the train, they’re the only ones making any significant noise. Mrs. Hurlburt’s been back to quiet them down a couple times, but they start inching the volume back up the moment she leaves, and within a few minutes they’re back to laughing and shouting like before.
“I dunno,” I say.
“Whottsa matter? We got AIDS or something?”
“Then stop being a gloomy gopher.”
He extends a hand towards me. I don’t wanna take it, but I know he’s not going to leave me alone if I don’t, so…
I stand up on my own. My legs are stiff from sitting down too long, and I wobble on my way to the back of the car.
“Dude, you see lesbians everywhere,” Tim says. “Two girls hold hands or hug, you assume they’re lezzie.”
“Lesbians are everywhere,” Jay says. “All girls secretly are.”
“We are not,” Krissy says.
“Riiiight,” Jay says. Then he sees me. “Hey. Wallet, right?”
“Yeah. What do you say? You got a lesbian side?”
“Would you ever make out with a girl?”
I laugh. Like I’m ever going to have a chance to make out with anybody, boy or girl. I’ve thought about it. Some of my favorite manga are yuri series like Bloom Into You and Kase-san. If real girls were like that… “Yeah, maybe. I guess. I dunno.”
“Hawt!” Tim says.
“Pervs.” Krissy rolls her eyes. Then she glares at me for some reason.
“Okay,” Ed says. “So who’d you wanna do it with?”
“Like, out of all the girls here, who turns you on.”
“No one, really.” I’ve never actually thought about it in real life.
“Come on,” Jay says, “you and Faythe would be awesome together. Hot chick and dorky girl—” Krissy punches his shoulder “—is always hot.”
“Uh. Okay.” Why did I come back here? I don’t wanna be back here. I should’ve told Ed to leave me alone. And if he hadn’t, I could’ve gone to talk with my father, that’d scare Ed away, I’m sure.
“Oh yeah,” Tim says. “I’d pay to see that.”
I wish I could be anywhere but right here right now.
“Can you guys go five minutes without masturbating?” Krissy says.
“Maybe if I was getting a blowjob,” Jay says. “Maybe.”
I wanna turn and leave, but my feet are rooted to the floor. I feel like when Bryan and his friends were pushing me around. Please. Let me go. Let me go. Let me get away from here.
Suddenly the door next to us opens. A man comes through from the next car.
For a moment I think I’m saved. Maybe he’s a rescuer, or the driver come to tell us we have to walk to the next station, or just some guy who needs an aspirin. I don’t care as long as he gets me out of this conversation.
But then I get a good look at the man. There’s something wrong with his face. Half of it’s twisted in agony, but the other half is slack and expressionless. Blood’s dripping from his scalp, which has a bloody hole in it—a deep, deep hole—too deep, way, way, oh my God, is that his brain I can see?
“Therrrere,” he says and falls forward. He topples on top of me and I go down with him, his blood spurting across my face.
As I fall, I see something moving in the next car. Something big, with a lotta, lotta legs, and glowing green eyes.
To Be Continued...
The waitresses are looking at us funny. I can’t blame them. Twenty-odd teenagers dressed as anime characters crammed around a table—yeah, we’re freaks. Go ahead and snap some photos, post them to Instagram. “Hey, look at these weirdos who came into my work today! Can you believe these losers?”
I wish we’d gone home, straight home, when the convention let out, but my dad and the other chaperons wanted to grab coffee before getting on the Metro, so here we are. They’re all over at another table, chatting. They said they didn’t want to get in our way, but I expect they’re tired of dealing with a bunch of high-strung teenagers.
I know I am.
I’d rather be at a table by myself, reading some of the manga I’d picked up at the con, but my dad insisted I sit with the group. It’ll be good for me, he said. It’ll help me make friends. We can talk about our shared interests.
So now I’m sitting at a corner of the table, trying not to look like a loser who isn’t part of the conversation around her, even though I am, in fact, a loser who’s not part of the conversation around her.
“I don’t get it,” Elijah says. He’s in an old fashioned black tailcoat, looks like he should be helping a woman in a fancy gown out of a coach. “Why do they announce series so far in advance? I mean, they show these previews and we’re all like, ‘Whoa, that looks so a-mazing!’ then they tell us, ‘Yeah, it’ll be out in another two years.’ It’s like, I’m going to be in college by then.”
“If the world don’t blow up first,” Faythe says. She’s wearing a Sailor Moon costume, and even has her hair dyed blonde and tied up in dango buns. Somehow Faythe doesn’t look ridiculous dressed like that. She could probably wear a garbage bag and look good.
“The world’s not going to blow up,” Ed says. “That’s the Fake News media talking. They want to scare everybody into thinking the President’s screwing up. He’s not.” Ed’s dressed in an outfit from some mecha show—one of the Gundams maybe? I dunno, I’ve never liked mecha, and all the Gundams look alike to me.
“Ed, shut up,” Elijah says.
“How’re you guys doing?” Our waitress stops by.
We mutter, “Good,” and “Fine thanks,” in a jumbled response.
“More tea,” Faythe says.
“Another Coke,” Ed says.
“How ‘bout you, sweetie?” the waitress asks me.
“No, I’m fine.”
“You sure? You hardly ordered anything. If you don’t want an entrée, we’ve got dessert.”
All I’m having is a Dr. Pepper and an appetizer platter. Dad said I could get whatever I wanted, but I know he’s already blown a few hundred bucks on the convention, so I’m trying to go easy on his wallet. “I’m good.”
“’Kay.” The waitress moves down the table to take more refill requests.
“Oh hey,” Mandy says, “did I show you guys the pics I got with IKB-45?” Unlike most of us, she’s not in cosplay—her hair is dyed purple, but that’s normal for her, as is the black leather jacket she has on, and the fishnet stockings she’s wearing as gloves. Back in middle school she’d been a loser like me. We ate lunch together—or at least at the same table, though since we both read the entire time, we’d never really been friends. Back then she’d worn hand-me-downs from her sister, who was old enough that her clothes were out of fashion by the time Mandy got to them. Being an only child, I’d always had new clothes, even if my dad bought them from the clearance rack at TJ Maxx, and I’d actually felt superior because of that. But in the summer between eighth and ninth grade, Mandy had metamorphosed. She dyed her hair (green at first, then blue and red, and finally violet), gotten a barbell piercing through the top of each ear, and started wearing all black. Guys who used to make fun of her now thought she was freaky-scary and stayed away.
She takes out her cell phone and taps it a couple times before handing it to Faythe.
“What? How’d you get pics with them?” Faythe says.
“I ran into them in the elevator last night.” Unlike me and my dad, who’ve been going home every evening, Mandy, Faythe and the others have been staying in a hotel near the convention center. Most of the conversation today had been about the parties they went to last night.
Faythe flicks through the photos. “Jealous!”
“Come on, it’s not like they’re a real band,” Ed says. “They don’t even play instruments. All they do is dance and sing—and they aren’t even good at that.”
For once I agree with him. IKB-45 is a manufactured pop group. The members are interchangeable—literally. At any one time, there are forty-five of them—hence the name—and they’re divided into five teams that travel around doing concerts. If one girl retires, they simply promote an understudy to take her place. I read somewhere that there’ve been more than two hundred members over the years. That’s crazy.
How anyone can like music that’s put together on an assembly line, I can’t fathom.
“You know what I heard?” Chris says. Like me, he’s in a Survey Corps uniform from Attack on Titan. Judging by his ascot and the bandanna tied over his head, he’s supposed to be Levi. “The whole idol thing is a scam. The guy who runs the group makes the girls sleep with him to get into the band. He’s like Hugh Hefner.”
“Who?” Mandy says.
“He created Playboy,” Ed says.
“Yeah, so every night at his mansion, there’s this huge orgy, and he invites all the rich and famous men in Japan to come over and bang these sixteen year old girls.”
“That is not true,” Faythe says. She hands the phone to Elijah, who quickly thumbs through the pictures and passes it to Ed. Ed doesn’t even glace at it, hands it straight to me.
The first picture shows Mandy standing with five Japanese girls, all dressed in identical frilly skirts with matching jackets. The girls are all making peace signs at the camera.
They are cute. I can understand why guys like looking at them, but the popularity of their music is another matter. Anytime they do an anime theme song, I end up fast-forwarding through the credits. They sound like gerbils on helium.
“I dunno,” Elijah says. “There’ve been some nasty news stories about idol groups—remember the one who committed suicide last year? Or the girl who shaved her head after getting caught with a boyfriend?”
I flip to the next photo. It’s a two-shot of Mandy and Kyouko Tamura. Even I know who that is—she’s famous as the “tough” member of the group who supposedly got into all kinds of fights when she was in school. Looking at the two of them together, maybe it’s true. Kyouko isn’t even as tall as Mandy’s shoulder, but even though Mandy’s in her leather jacket, she doesn’t look half as tough as Kyouko.
“That proves my point, though,” Faythe says. “If that stuff were true, it’d be all over the tabloids. Anime News Network and Kotaku would report on it. But they don’t.”
I look at the remaining photos. They show Mandy posing with various members of the group. One of them is making a funny face, like she’s barking at Mandy.
“The companies that run idol groups are part of the yakuza, that’s why it doesn’t get reported,” Ed says. “Japanese media is afraid to touch the subject, and sites like ANN don’t do investigative reporting—they just repeat stuff from Japanese sites.”
“You’re making that up. You don’t know anything,” Mandy says.
“I so do,” Ed says.
I pass the phone over to Chris. “Ooo, can you text me this one?” He holds up the photo of the barking girl. “That’s super cute.”
“You’re not going to jack-off to it, are you?” Faythe says.
“Yeah, but don’t worry. Only to Hana-chan, not Amanda.”
“Don’t be gross,” Faythe says.
“What? I’m not good enough for your fantasies?” Mandy asks with mock-dramatics.
“I can fantasize about you any time.”
Faythe covers her ears. “Not listening! La-la-la-la!”
“Nope,” Mandy says. “I won’t text it to you unless you promise to imagine a three-way with me and that girl.”
“Okay, fine, as soon as I get home, I’m going to lock myself in my room and whack-off while imagining you lezzing out with this girl. That make you happy?”
“Yes, very much so.” Mandy preens.
“Here ... are your drinks.” The waitress puts a pitcher of tea in the middle of the table and hands Ed a glass of soda. She’s heard the conversation, or enough of it at least. If she’d been looking at us weird before, now her expression is that of a woman who’s discovered cockroaches performing The Sound of Music. “Let me know if you need anything else.” She moves down the table and hands out more refills.
“So,” Faythe says, “changing the subject. Anyone read the new Realist Hero yet?”
“I’m waiting for the books to get beyond the anime,” Mandy says.
“They did that like two books ago.”
“Really? I gotta pick it up then. You loan me a copy?”
“Sorry, digital only.”
I have no clue what they’re talking about. I think I’d watched an episode of Realist Hero—I watch at least one episode of everything on Crunchyroll—but I can’t remember anything about it. One of those stupid stories about a guy who gets stuck in another world, I think.
Further down the table, I catch snippets about Railgun, but they’re talking about the manga, which I’m not current on. I tune them out before I catch any spoilers.
“Hey.” Ed pokes me in the shoulder.
“I’m sorry, I’ve been wondering—are you a real anime fan?”
Huh? “Yeah.” Why else would I go to a convention?
“It’s just you’re dressed like that.”
What’s wrong with my costume? I though I’d done a good job with it. People had been coming up to me at the con and asking me where I bought it. They’d been amazed when I said it was homemade.
“I mean, Shingeki no Kyojin?” Why’s he using the Japanese title? “Even people who don’t watch anime know what that is. It’s on Cartoon Network, fer Christ’s sake!”
“Yeah, with the filthy casuals.”
The filthy what?
“Do you know any real anime?” he asks.
Isn’t Attack on Titan a real anime? It’s a cartoon. It’s made in Japan. Aren’t those the requirements? “How do you mean?”
“Have you ever seen OreImo?”
“Isn’t that the gross one where the guy wants to have sex with his sister?”
“You shouldn’t say it like that, it’s racist.”
“What? That’s not racist. Incest is gross.”
“The Japanese, they have different values than us. You can’t judge them by American standards. OreImo is a touching love story about a forbidden romance. If you’re a true anime fan, you embrace that. You learn to understand the Japanese culture that produced it.”
Wasn’t he badmouthing idols five minutes ago? That’s Japanese culture, too. “I can’t get into something like that,” I say.
“Okay, then what about mecha. What’s your favorite mecha series?”
I can’t stand mecha. All those shows have convoluted plot lines, and too many factions backstabbing each other. Though that one Urobuchi created, that hadn’t been too bad. “Aldnoah, I guess.”
“Oh come on! That’s another series for casuals. Are you really an ani—” A straw wrapper bops into his forehead.
“Oi. Ed. Leave her alone,” Mandy says.
“What was that for?”
“How many times do we have to tell you, don’t be a dick to people.”
“I’m not being a dick. I’m just asking her about her tastes.”
That felt more like an interrogation.
“Everything going all right?” Elijah’s dad asks.
He surveys the table. “Is everyone about done?”
“I think so, yeah,” Elijah says.
“Good. We should head out before the protest on the Mall ends. I spent the last three days in a convention center full of sweaty teenagers. Last thing I want is to spend the rest of the afternoon crammed on a train full of sweaty protesters.”
My dad had been watching the news this morning before we left for the convention, and they estimated there’d be half a million people on the Mall today. We’d seen a lot of them on the ride into the city, though we’d come early enough to miss the main flood.
“Everyone use the bathroom before we leave,” Elijah’s dad says. “Once we’re on the Metro, there’s nowhere to go.”
While our parents take care of the bill, we all head for the restrooms. The women’s room only has three stalls, and there are twelve girls in our group, so we have to wait while everyone takes a turn.
“Oh God, this is going to be so hard,” Maria says. She’s in a gothic-lolita dress that makes her look like an evil Alice in Wonderland. She has thick pettycoats underneath that make the skirt poof out. Sitting on a toilet with those must be a chore.
“I told you, you should’ve dressed in casual clothes today,” Destiny says. Yesterday she’d worn a harpy costume from one of those monster-girl shows, but today she’s in shorts and a halter top.
“Can you help me get my underwear down? How did women wear this stuff back then?”
“No, I ain’t helping you with no underwear,” Destiny says.
Maria enters the handicap stall—the only one wide enough to fit her in that dress—and locks the door.
“I just hope the seat’s clean,” Mandy says, “otherwise shit and piss is gonna get on her dress, and it’ll be rubbing against her legs the whole way home.”
“Hey, I can hear you!”
I wait for a chance to use the toilet, but every time a door opens, somebody slips in ahead of me. I didn’t have much to eat, so I could probably get away without going ... though I do feel a slight pressure in my bladder. Better not risk it.
In the end, me and Mandy are the last ones waiting. She’s leaning on the counter while Faythe washes her hands.
“You got plans for the night?” Faythe asks.
“Crash,” Mandy says.
“Yeah. Me too, probably. As fun as this was, I don’t wanna do it again any time soon.” Faythe waves her hands under the blow drier. It doesn’t come on. “Once a year is enough for me.” She tries again. Still no luck. “What about tomorrow? What’re you up to?”
“I need to go see JT. I’m almost out of ...” Mandy eyes me. “Y’know.” Like I can’t figure out they’re talking about drugs? I know they’re both stoners. Everyone knows they’re stoners. Even teachers know it—in Algebra one day, Faythe had been passed out at her desk and Mrs. Tang had been making jokes about her being stoned.
“Yeah, me too,” Faythe says. She gives up on the blow drier and switches to the paper towel dispenser. “I’ll ask Eli, he can give us a ride.”
“Gag,” Mandy says. “I do not want to be stuck watching you two make goo-goo eyes at each other all day.”
“We do not make goo-goo eyes at each other.”
“Yeah you do!” Krissy shouts from a stall.
“You’re just jealous you can’t get Chris to ask you out,” Faythe says.
“Why would I want him to ask me out? I like my guys skinny.”
“Uh-huh. That’s why you’re always flirting with him?”
“I do not flirt with him.”
“Oh Chris, aren’t you going to masturbate to me?” I guess that’s supposed to be Faythe’s imitation of Mandy, though it sounds more like Cookie Monster.
“You are completely misreading the situation.”
“Riiiiight.” Faythe finishes drying her hands and tosses the paper towel in the garbage. “I’ll be outside.”
Mandy gives her the finger.
“Love you, too.” Air kiss.
The room’s silent for a moment, then somebody lets out a loud fart from one of the stalls.
“Gross!” Krissy says.
“Don’t pretend that wasn’t you,” Mandy says.
Mandy busts out laughing. Even I giggle.
“So you do laugh,” Mandy says.
“Sometimes.” I laugh quite a bit. But only at things I think are funny. Which isn’t what other people find funny. I tend to like old comedies better than new stuff. I’ve never laughed at a modern episode of Saturday Night Live, but I’ve seen reruns from the ‘80s that are hilarious. The original Ghostbusters is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, but the remake only made me laugh once. I Love Lucy—genius. Family Guy—ugh. I’d learned early on that if I actually say that, though, people think I’m stuck up. So I pretend to be serious all the time. They still think I’m uptight, but they don’t take offense.
“I never knew you were into anime,” Mandy says.
“Yeah. A little.”
She squints at my outfit. “Yeah. A little.”
I cross my arms in embarrassment.
“Why didn’t you ever come to the club?”
Mandy and most of her group are part of the anime club at our high school. I’m not though. I’m only hanging out with them right now because I ran into them at the convention. Well, if you want the whole truth, I’m only hanging out with them because my dad’s the head of custodial services at Parker Elementary where Mrs. Hurlburt—that’s Faythe’s mom—teaches. If it weren’t for that, I doubt I would’ve done more than wave at everyone when we passed, but my dad had stopped to chat, and the next thing I knew, I was part of the group. Of course it helps that Mrs. Hurlburt used to be my teacher, so she knows what a loser I am. She probably thought she was doing a good deed by inviting us along.
I shrug. “I dunno.”
I’d thought about joining, back when I first started at high school. I hadn’t even realized such a thing existed until I heard it mentioned on the afternoon announcements. At first I figured I’d misheard—I mean, drama club or academic trivia team I can understand; those have practical applications. But anime? Couldn’t be. But a couple days later I saw a flier for the club on a bulletin board. I’d really wanted to go, but when I thought about it, I realized the sort of people who’d join an anime club would be hard-core fans who know all about voice actors and writers and directors. They’d be familiar with obscure old shows I’d never heard of, and know all about upcoming series.
If I walked in there, it’d be five whole minutes before someone would ask, “Why are you even here? You don’t know anything about anime. You haven’t even seen Princess Mononoke.” Just like Ed had done, in fact.
No, I didn’t want to get embarrassed like that. I’m sure the club had plenty of people. There was nothing I could add to it.
“Well, come out when school starts. It’ll be cool to hang out again, like in middle school.”
“Hey, don’t mind Ed. He’s an idiot. Everyone hates him. Most of the people in the club, though, they’re cool. You’ll have fun.”
A toilet flushes. After a moment Krissy comes out, comes over to wash her hands.
Mandy makes an after-you gesture.
“Thanks.” I go into the stall. The seat’s still warm when I sit down—I’ve always found that creepy, even at home.
I only have to tinkle, but I find myself sitting there after I run dry.
Should I take Mandy up on her offer? I’ve never thought of her as more than a vague acquaintance, and the way she is now is way different from how she’d been in middle school. But she sounded like she’d be happy for me to join the club. If there’s one person in the club who’ll welcome me, then ... maybe ...?
But did she really mean it? Maybe she was being nice. I don’t mind silence, but I know a lot of people get nervous if nobody’s talking. Once Faythe left, maybe she felt awkward standing with me and came up with some topic to fill the quiet. That seems more likely than her having fond memories of reading next to me in eighth grade. She was going through the motions, and if I actually show up to the club, she’ll think I’m an idiot for not having a clue.
That happened to me in fifth grade. A girl in my class had a birthday party and handed out invitations to everyone, but when I showed up at her house, she got mad. “I only gave you an invitation because my mom said I should give them to everyone. I didn’t really mean for you to come. How stupid do you have to be to think I’d want you here?” Her mom had intervened and let me come in, but none of the other kids (only the cool ones had shown up; the other losers had taken the hint and stayed away) would talk to me. When she opened my present—a princess comb-and-brush set—she’d laughed and asked if I got it from Wal-Mart. I had, but I said no. The worst part was, my dad was late picking me up, so I ended up staying there after the other guests had left. The girl had gone up to her room to play with her new toys, leaving me to watch a home improvement show with her dad.
No. Mandy probably didn’t mean the invitation. I shouldn’t go to the club.
I stand up and flush, pull up my pants. I go out and wash my hands. Looks like I’m the last one to finish. I hope they aren’t all waiting on me.
I step out of the restroom and immediately find myself face-to-face with Ed.
“Oh hey, I was just looking for you.”
“Sorry I took a while.”
“What? Oh no, there are guys still dooking in the men’s room, no worries.”
“I just wanted to ...” He crouches down until his face is on a level with my chest. What the hell?
“Mmm, yes.” He takes a scrap of paper from his pocket. I can’t see what it is, but he peels a sticker from it. He holds it up to my shirt. “Right there.” He smooths it onto the lower half of my right breast. It has a picture of a nipple on it.
“What?” I rip it off.
“It’s a game we were playing last night. Pin the Nipple on the Boobie. Guys have to guess where a girl’s nipples are and put the sticker on. I’m right, aren’t I? You’ve got droopy boobs, I can tell.”
“Way off!” I push him aside and head out to the lobby.
Though the truth is, he was only off on the horizontal, not the vertical. There’d been a two month period in seventh grade when my breasts had reached their full size and looked good. I’d thought, if I could lose ten or twenty pounds, guys might actually like me. But then they started sagging. And sagging. And sagging. I couldn’t ask my father for advice, so I’d went to my Aunt Sophia, and she’d taken me shopping for good bras. They didn’t make a difference, though. By the time I started high school, my nipples were pointing closer to the ground than the horizon.
I never take showers during gym because I’m afraid someone will notice and make fun of me—“Look at Purse, she’s got droopy tits!” It’d be like Carrie. Or worse—what if word got around to the guys? I mean, I’m not popular, but my unpopularity is at least neutral. People don’t notice me, which means they don’t make fun of me either. The last thing I want is something that draws attention to me.
“Is everyone here?” Mrs. Hurlburt asks when she sees me.
“Ed’s not,” somebody says.
“Great, let’s get away while we can,” Faythe says, which draws giggles from all the girls.
“Tim and Jay are still in the bathroom,” Elijah says.
“Drat!” Faythe snaps her fingers.
I go over to my father, who’s having a conversation with Elijah’s dad.
“You don’t think he’d do it, do you?” my dad asks.
“With that man, who the hell knows.”
“Who cares about North Korea? I don’t see why we can’t let them alone. Instead, we push them, they build nukes, we tell them they can’t have any, so they build missiles. It’s crazy.”
“Yeah. Kim Jong Un’s crazy. Our President’s crazy. It’s like Alice in Wonderland—we’re all crazy here.”
“I never thought I’d be saying this—” dad lowers his voice “—but I’d be down with a military takeover about now.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s not my ideal solution, but if the other choice is nuclear war, I say bring on the junta. Gotta be careful saying that, though. Some of these kids have parents—no one here, thankfully—who are total MAGA heads. You don’t want them spreading tales, you know what I mean.”
“Yeah,” dad says, “I read you.”
Tim and Jay come out from the bathroom area. They both stink of cigarettes, but the adults pretend not to notice. Ed appears right behind them.
“We ready to move out?” Elijah’s dad says.
“Yeah,” we all say half-heartedly.
We file through the door and into the summer heat. It had been eighty when dad and I left the apartment this morning, and the sun had barely been up. It must be twenty degrees hotter now. And the humidity ... a fish could swim in the air out here.
Elijah’s dad turns to the right.
“Shouldn’t we be going the other way?” Faythe says.
“Nope, this is the right way,” he says.
“The convention center’s back that way, isn’t it?” The Metro station was right under the convention hall, nice and convenient.
“Yeah,” Elijah’s dad says, “but that’s the Green Line. If we get on there, we have to transfer to the Red Line after one station. We can walk to that station, it’s only two blocks from here. That way we only have to wait for one train instead of two.”
“Yeah,” says Mandy, “but we’d be waiting in nice, air conditioned station. Instead of walking through an oven.”
“A little exercise never hurt anyone.”
“I think it has,” Chris says.
But we keep walking. Before we even get to the first intersection, I’m soaking with sweat. I take my jacket off, but that doesn’t help much. My shirt clings to me. Up ahead, Krissy’s T-shirt is so damp it’s turning transluscent, and Ed and some of the other guys are gawking at her back, even though all they can see is her bra-strap and shoulder blades.
Maria’s got it tough. Even though her outfit is made with modern materials and nowhere near as heavy as a genuine Victorian dress, it’s far from light, especially with all those petticoats. The sweat is pouring off her and she’s panting for breath. Her hair hangs like a rag. Elijah has a water bottle in his backpack, which he lends to her. She gulps it down in one go, but she’s breathing heavy again after a few steps.
Of course we’re drawing attention as we walk. Doesn’t help that it’s Sunday and this is a part of the city that’s virtually deserted on weekends. Of course the few people who are out and about are going to gawk at a small army trekking through the streets. They’d do it even if half of us weren’t decked out in cosplay. A couple people even stop to take photos of us as we pass.
“This is killing me,” Mandy says. “If I don’t make it home, tell my mother I’m sorry. She was right. No good comes from a grown child watching cartoons.”
“You could take your jacket off,” Chris says. “Leather and summer do not go together.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, I am not stripping for you.”
“Taking off your jacket isn’t stripping,” Chris says.
“Depends on your culture. Some places, they think it’s sinful to show your ankles in public. Taking off your socks is like pole dancing.”
“Yeah. We don’t live there. Take your jacket off and quit complaining.”
She doesn’t. “Whose bright idea was it to hold a convention in August? In DC! That’s crazy talk.”
“Hey, when I was your age, I walked everywhere,” dad says. Oh no. He’s going to start telling stories. “I used to walk down to the local mall every day during the summer.”
“Why? Did you have a job there?” Faythe says.
“No. To hang out.”
“At the mall?”
“Yeah. Everyone hung out at the mall back in the day.”
“That’s weird,” Faythe says.
“No, malls used to be cool,” Elijah’s dad says. “You’d go down there to play video games at the arcade.”
“Why would you go somewhere to play video games?” Elijah says.
“Believe it or not, there was a time when not everyone had a console at home,” his dad says. “And even if you did, you couldn’t play the best new games on it, like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter II.”
“So they had free video games you could play the mall?” Chris says. “Why would they do that?”
“No, you had to pay,” my dad says.
“How long could you play for?”
“Until you died.”
“Sounds like a ripoff,” Faythe says.
“Yeah,” Elijah’s dad says, “it was. The guys who owned those places were raking in the bucks from dumb kids who’d drop a quarter on anything. I’m glad the current generation is so much more discerning. You wouldn’t fall for some dumb fad like, I dunno, a heavy plastic pinwheel that you spin with your hands.”
“Not this again,” Elijah moans.
“How many fidget spinners do you have collecting dust on your dresser?”
“Like three. Four. I dunno.”
“Uh-huh. And how much did you spend on them?”
“A bit. Not much.”
“I seem to recall one was twenty bucks?”
“That one has LEDs, and it’s made of die-cast metal,” Elijah says.
“Uh-huh,” his dad says. “Well worth the money, I’m sure.”
Twenty dollars for a fidget spinner? How does he have that kind of money to blow? I’d been saving my allowance all summer so I could buy stuff at the convention—I’d even sold some of my old books at the used bookstore—and I’d only managed to put together seventy dollars.
“Hey look, we’re almost there,” Destiny says.
On the other side of the next intersection, there’s a black pylon that marks the entrance to a Metro station.
“Oh, thank you Lord,” Mandy says.
“Air conditioning. Air conditioning,” Faythe pants.
“Some place to sit,” Chris says, “that’s all I want.”
The number of people coming in and out of the station is surprisingly large considering all the other streets around here are empty, but as we get closer, I see it’s next to the National Portrait Gallery. I suppose with all the protesters on the Mall, tourists are coming over here to avoid the crowd.
“Everybody stay together,” Elijah’s dad says as we cross the street.
Thats easier said than done. We’re a large enough group that we end up clogging the sidewalk, and we get annoyed glares from people who find their path blocked. Ironically enough, I see a woman get separated from her husband and kids because we cut her off.
We reach the escalators and ride them down. At the bottom, Mrs. Hurlburt gathers us all around and takes a head count. Satisfied we’re all here, she asks, “Everyone have their tickets?”
Dad has mine. He pulls it out of his wallet and hands it to me. Everyone else pulls theirs out.
“Uh, wait … hold on … I know it’s here someplace,” Maria says as she searches through a pocketbook.
Ed snickers. He’s standing off to the side with Tim, Jay and Krissy. “I hope she takes better care of her Green Card.”
The other three laugh.
Maria pulls out a big pack of cards and shuffles through them. “Ah, here it is.”
“Okay. Is everyone else good?” Elijah’s dad asks.
We all nod, and he signals us to follow him through the fare gates. This would take a while under the best of circumstances, but things go wrong when Maria’s dress gets snagged on the gate. We can’t get it loose, so Elijah and his dad go to find the station manager, leaving the rest of us to wait. We try to stand out of the way, but there are so many of us that it’s kinda hard. Plus, it’s obvious from the way we’re dressed that we’re all part of a group with the silly girl who’s blocking one of the gates.
“Oh God, I’m so embarrassed,” Maria says. Jordan and Destiny are waiting with her, though Mrs. Hurlburt keeps telling them to get out of people’s way.
“You know,” I whisper to my dad, “we don’t have to wait here. We can just ... go.”
“Come on, you’re part of the group. Why don’t you go mingle?”
What planet is he on where I’m part of the group? We’ve been following the group around, sure, but my interaction with them has been limited to not strangling Ed, and a kinda awkward discussion with Mandy in the bathroom.
But dad’s got a delusion that the only reason I don’t have friends is because I don’t try. He thinks if he pushes me out the nest like a good papa-bird, I’ll spread my wings and become ... a social ... butterfly ... okay, that metaphor went wrong somewhere along the line. But you get the point. And I don’t want to disappoint him, not after the kind of money he spent on me this weekend, so I’ll make an effort to mingle.
I wander over to where Faythe and Mandy are talking.
“See, I think a woman Doctor Who is just weird,” Mandy says.
“But he can turn into anything. Why does he always have to be a guy?”
“That’s the problem, though. If he can be anything, why is he always a white guy? Why doesn’t he ever turn Japanese? Or Samoan? Why does he even have to look human? Once you go there, it raises all kinda questions. Like, why didn’t they ever go there before? You can’t introduce a random change to a story this old.”
“Sure you can,” Faythe says. “You can do anything. It’s Doctor Who. There aren’t any rules.”
I’m with Faythe here. I’ve watched the old series with my dad, and expecting consistency from Doctor Who is like expecting coherency from the President. But I don’t say anything. I’m afraid if I inject myself into the discussion, they’ll be like, “Why would we care what you think?” or “Yeah, old Doctor Who sucks. Nobody watches that crap.”
Instead, I drift away.
Chris and a couple other guys are debating whether the newest Star Wars movies are better than the originals.
“All I’m saying is, the thing with the new Death Star, or Peace Moon, or whatever the hell it’s supposed to be—it’s tacked on,” one of the guys says. Steve, I think his name is. We had English together last year. “There’s no foreshadowing at all. It’s like JJ realized, ‘Oh shit, I need an epic battle for the end of the movie. Better insert a new superweapon!’”
“Come on,” Chris says, “you’re going to tell me the X-Wings and Tie Fighters going at it in the snow isn’t the most awesome battle in the series?”
“Yeah. Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“Blasphemy!” the third guy says.
I agree with Steve. The new movies suck. What they’ve done to Han and Luke is unforgivable.
“Okay, okay,” Steve says, “we need a second opinion.”
“We’ve got second and third opinions,” Chirs says. “Majority rules. You’re wrong.”
“Nope, right of appeal. It’s in the Constitution. You, you, you.” He points at me.
“What do you think? Force Awakens. The ending kinda sucked, right?”
“Uh ... I dunno.” Should I tell them what I think? No. Probably not. “It was okay. I thought. I mean, pretty good.”
The guy’s face falls.
“Owned!” The third guy says.
“Nobody agrees with Steve. Same as always,” Chris says.
“Genius is not appreciated in its time.”
“Keep telling yourself that, man.”
I fake a laugh, then move on like I have somewhere else to be. Like I hadn’t been hoping to glom onto their conversation.
I should go back to dad, tell him I’m not cut out for this sort of thing. I know he thinks this is for my own good, and I don’t want to disappoint him, but I’d rather he accept me as a social failure and let me do my own thing. You know, sit in the corner and read. Why do I need other people? They only hurt you. You think he of all people would realize that, after what happened with mom.
But I know how much he works. We don’t have much, but he kills himself for it—starting next week, he’s going to be pulling overtime getting the school ready for the new year. He’ll work ten hour days and more. If he wants me to go out and make friends, I have to at least try.
So I wander through the group some more. But what am I supposed to do? Go up to someone and start talking? Force myself into a conversation? I see other people do that sort of thing, but I don’t understand how they pull it off. If I try, they’re gonna say, “Get lost, loser.”
I reach the end of the group and turn around for another pass. But when I do, I find Ed standing behind me.
“Hey,” he says.
“Um, yeah.” Okay, I need to talk to someone, just to show my dad I can do it ... but does it have to be him? Why couldn’t it be Elijah? Why not Chris? Or Mandy?
“This sucks,” he says.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“I said we should’ve driven down, but everyone was like, ‘No, we’d need too many vehicles, let’s go Metro.’”
I wish they had. It would’ve given my dad and I a reason to go home separately from everyone else.
“This is such a fucking pain,” Ed says. “Why do we gotta wait around because of some fucking Mexican, you know?”
“She’s Mexican?” I don’t know Maria very well, but we’ve had classes together off and on since second grade, and she’s always spoken perfect English without an accent. So did her mom, that one time she’d been a chaperon for a field trip.
“Mexican, Colombian, Puerto Rican, who cares. The point is, she doesn’t belong in this country.”
“Yeah, and now that we’ve got an actual American as President again, she’s gonna get sent back to Meh-hee-coh. I’m gonna laugh so hard when it happens. I hope they do a raid at school, round up all the Mexicans. Wouldn’t that be cool, having ICE agents walking into classrooms and telling people, ‘I needa see your Green Card’? Ha-ha-ha-ha.”
I don’t know what’s funny. “Uh, sure,” I say.
Luckily Elijah and his dad get back right then, and they have a Metro employee with them. The distraction gives me a chance to slip away from Ed.
The manager takes five minutes to get Maria’s dress uncaught. Part of it had been sucked into the machinery when the gate barriers retracted, and it’s totally chewed up when they finally get it loose.
“Oh man, my mother’s gonna kill me,” she says as she examines the damage. “We spent three months making this.”
“Didn’t I tell you not to wear it today?” Destiny says.
“Shut up,” Maria says.
“Argue later. We’ve got a train to catch,” Elijah’s dad says.
We gather up again and head downstairs to the platform. I’m halfway down the escalator when a glow appears in the tunnel.
Elijah’s dad, at the head of the group, turns to us. “Come on, guys, let’s hustle.” He starts walking down the escalator.
“But don’t rush,” Mrs. Hurlburt tells us.
“Okay, I’ll hurry slowly,” Ed says.
As we get to the bottom, by dad’s standing to the side counting heads. He’s barely finished when the train screeches to a halt. He gives Mrs. Hurlburt a thumbs up and we get on board.
It’s one of the new models, and ones that have been setup with almost all the seats turned towards the aisle. And the handful that aren’t are all occupied. I get carsick anytime I’m in a moving vehicle and not facing forward. While everyone else finds a place to sit, I grab onto one of the handles.
“You can have my seat if you want,” Elijah says.
“Mm-hmm.” Nod, nod.
With the way Faythe has her arm around his shoulder, I don’t think she’d be happy with me trading places.
My dad, of course, remains standing, and so does Ed, though thankfully he’s at the other end of the car.
As we get into motion, Ed grabs one of the ceiling bars and hoists himself into the air. It’s not a full pull-up—if this were gym, Mr. Buchanan would be yelling at him—but his feet are off the ground, and they tilt towards the back of the train as we accelerate.
“Inertia!” he calls out.
“Edward, you stop that,” Mrs. Hurlburt says.
“It’s a scientific experiment. It’s educational.”
She rolls her eyes.
The train reaches full speed, and his body returns to hanging vertically. He lets go and drops to the floor.
But we’re in the heart of DC right now, so we’ve hardly gone any distance when the train slows for the next station. Ed hops right back onto the bars, this time with his feet swinging towards the front of the train. “Inertia!”
Mrs. Hurlburt shakes her head, but she doesn’t say anything. Yeah, it’s probably best to let him wear himself out.
At Metro Center, a couple dozen people get on board, some of them tourists by the looks of them, but most being protesters. That’s still not a lot, though. Did the protests fizzle? Or are these just people leaving early to beat the rush?
Some of the protesters are in cosplay themselves—one woman’s dressed as the Statue of Liberty, and there’s a guy wearing an Uncle Sam outfit—so we don’t get too many funny looks. At least not until the doors close and Ed does his inertia demonstration again.
“He’s so embarrassing,” Mandy says.
We stop again at Farragut North and a few more protesters get on, along with a couple tourists. The train’s not quite crowded yet, but it’s getting there. I can still see Ed, but the back of the train is obscured from view by people.
“Inertia!” Ed shouts. By now nobody’s paying attention to him except the new arrivals, but that doesn’t deter him from trying one more time. Then we hit cruising speed and he drops to the floor.
But when he lands, he tilts to the side and smashes his head into a pole.
“Woo-hoo, yeah,” Mandy cheers and claps.
“Shush.” Mrs. Hurlburt stands up, but when she takes a step, she lurches to the side.
I’ve already noticed it—the train is shaking. Not the normal shaking of a Metro car in motion. This is something else. And it’s growing more intense. After a moment, even the people in their seats notice.
“What’s going on?” Krissy says.
“That an earthquake?” Elijah says.
“In DC?” Chris says.
The lights flicker.
“I don’t like that,” Faythe says.
Elijah puts an arm around her.
Behind me, my dad puts a hand on my shoulder.
Then everything goes black.
To Be Continued...