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I wake up scared. Chills shudder down my body and my mouth tastes bad, like old sandpaper mixed with—what? Spaghetti sauce? Diesel oil? Rancid sour cream? I shut my lips tightly and try not to smell or taste or breathe, just fall back asleep, but my heart beats too hard, too fast, too crazy quick from whatever nightmare it was that woke me. It feels like when Dakota Dunham goes ballistic on the bass drum when someone gets a three-pointer at a basketball game.
The moment I think of Dakota Dunham, I know it’s no use. I’m not going to fall back asleep. My hands are clutching my quilt as I open my eyes. My glow-in-the-dark stars have faded into the ceiling, which means it’s past midnight—way past midnight.
Something thuds downstairs. I reach out to turn my light on and then think better of it. Because what if it’s some sort of demonic serial killer who attacks the single women of Milford, New Hampshire? What if he’s down there right now, stepping past our little yellow love seat, making his way toward my mom’s bedroom? Maybe he wields a machete or a chainsaw or has claws for hands, or something else all stereotypical serial killer, and he’s heading straight for my mother’s bedroom, ready to …
I whisper, “Mom?”
No answer. I try to think of a weapon capable of fighting off a demonic serial killer. My iPod Nano? Hardly. My pom-poms? Pshaw. My lamp? That could work. I reach out and grasp the light stand. It’s heavy enough.
Then comes her voice. It travels upstairs to my bedroom, loud and pinched. “You better not try it!”
You better not try it?
That is not the sort of thing Mom normally says. She’s the kind of mom who acts like a church secretary. She mouses herself down, you know? No makeup. Baggy clothes. Quiet voice. It’s like she’s hiding from the world. Not that the world is even noticing or anything.
I try again. “Mom?”
I let go of the lamp, pull the covers off, and haul myself out of bed. It is not easy. My mom says I’m a sound sleeper and a lazy waker. An oak tree once fell on our house during a blizzard; I slept right through.
Shuffling across the floor, I can’t see anything. My leg bashes into the edge of my dresser. Pain shrieks up and down my shin. Great. That’ll bruise and look lovely when I’m cheering. Fumbling for my doorknob, I find it and turn it, pulling the door open, and … Light! Horrible, awful light smashes into my eyes. My lids shut.
Moaning, I struggle to open them again, to adjust. Blink. Blink again. Okay. I stagger toward the stairs and pad down them. The runner on the steps bristles against my naked toes.
“I am serious!” Mom yells.
I make it to the bottom of the stairs and wait there a second. The front door window shows a world of blackness. Mom stands in the middle of the living room. Her narrow back quivers with emotion. She’s not in her pajamas even. She is still wearing the same long, hippie skirt and sweater she had on earlier today … I mean, yesterday.
“Hey.” I whisper-say the word, not sure if I should interrupt.
She whirls around, snapping the cell phone shut. Her hair is wild, glamorous in a celebrity red carpet way, and her eyes match.
I can actually see her make her body relax. Her shoulders slump again and she smalls herself down. She seems more mom-like. “Honey? What are you doing up?”
“You were yelling.”
Her eyes get big and innocent. “Yelling?”
“Into the phone,” I add, leaning back against the wall and yawning. I am not the sort of person who does well when they randomly wake up in the middle of beauty rest time. Obviously.
She rushes over to me and wraps her arm around my waist. We’re the same height now, which is wild really. It is so bizarre being eye to eye with your mom.
“You need to go back upstairs to bed right now, young lady.”
“Do not go all official mother on me, because you are avoiding the issue,” I say, but I snuggle into her and we trudge back up the stairs. My calves ache. I’m so tired from all the touchdowns at cheering practice. Each step is hell. “Who were you talking to on the phone?”
“Crank caller.” Some pitch in her voice makes me feel like she’s lying, but Mom never lies. Still, it doesn’t make sense. She’s not a person who gets mad that easily, and as we get to the top of the stairs, I still can’t quite understand what just happened.
“Why did you keep talking to them then?” I ask.
She flicks on the light to my room and guides me in like I’m still five years old. She does a slight shrug. “I didn’t want to let him just get away with it. It isn’t okay to harass innocent people in their homes. If he does that to us, who else is he doing it to? I can just imagine poor little old ladies, grabbing their phones, disoriented in the middle of the night. Their first thought would be someone has died. It’s cruel.”
She says this all quietly but with force, and then she motions for me to get in my bed, which I do. She pulls my covers (penguin sheet, penguin blanket, second blanket, comforter, quilt) up to my chin, leans in, and kisses my forehead. Her small fingers smooth the hair away from my face. It feels nice. She gives me a tiny smile and says, “You have a good sleep, Mana.”
“Don’t worry about anything,” she insists. “No being a little stress monkey.”
“I am not a little stress monkey,” I lie. My mom thinks I don’t handle stress well enough; she wants me to start yoga or meditate. Like I have time for that. She says my stress comes out in nightmares—typical, boring nightmares about being defenseless and having little gray men abduct me, or being naked at school, that kind of stuff. And she goes on and on about how I need to keep my heart rate down and be mellow.
“You, my little sweetie, are getting all crinkly faced. That means you’re worrying.” She stares at me with mom-radar eyes and then tucks the quilt around me even more tightly before she adds, “I’ve got everything under control.”
My mind can’t wrap around what she’s saying, because I’m too busy trying to remember my last nightmare, which involved voices in my head, I think telling me the wrong answers for a computer science test. “Huh? What do you mean?”
She smiles at me. I smile back, and my eyes start to close, and I’m already thinking of Dakota and how his forearms look when he drums.
“I will always keep you safe,” she says, which is what she has said to me every single night since I can remember the actual tucking-into-bed process. Mom tends to baby me a bit.
I lift up my arm and wiggle my hand, but I’m so sleepy it’s barely a wiggle. She knows what I want though. She wraps her fingers in between and around my fingers.
“I love you, Princess Jelly Bean,” she says, placing my stuffed penguin next to me. I have a thing for penguins. This is normal, despite how much I get teased about it. Penguins are adorable. They mate for life. They waddle. They have built-in tuxedos. “I love you the whole world.”
I smile. “I love you, too.”
She squeezes and lets go. I fall back asleep before she has even shut off the light. Poof. Just like that … I am off to Beddy Bye Land with the Kissy Penguins. At least, that’s what she always used to call it when I was little. Back then, she would tell me a story before I went to bed. It would always be about a girl hero, conveniently named Mana, and how she would rescue the world from space monsters. I would snuggle up against Mom and listen to her soft voice and fall right asleep every single night. I was such a baby back then. Now all my good dreams are about Dakota and his forearms.
* * *
Mom and I head to a cross-country meet on Saturday, not because we are runners but because Lyle, one of my two best friends, is competing, and we like to support him whenever we can. Plus, to be truly honest about it, a cross-country meet is much quicker than winter and spring track meets with their multiple events that take all day. So we try to get all our supporting done in the fall. Next year Lyle will be up at Dartmouth. My heart kind of sinks when I think about him going off to college and me still having a whole other year of high school.
But Mom is obviously not thinking about these sorts of things, and is her usual happy, caffeinated, wiry self as she pulls the car into a parking space by the field. She taps me on the knee. “How are you feeling today? Everything working well?”
“All body parts in regular working order.”
Lyle thinks it’s amusing that she phrases things this way. “She makes you sound like a machine,” he always says, and I always tease back, “I am a machine. A tumbling machine of awesome.”
We are sarcastic goofs. We have been sarcastic goofs forever, friends since I moved into the neighborhood in lower grade school, back when he was super awkward and gangly and his head seemed too big for his shoulders. He is not like that now. I spot him in his warm-up pants and windbreaker, and his shoulders stretch out the fabric of the jacket; his thigh muscles even stretch out his warm-up pants. He has gotten so-o-o huge. It’s kind of stunning. He waves and I go up on tippy toes, waving back.
Mom hooks her arm into mine. “That’s an awfully big smile, young lady.”
Lyle starts jogging over.
“Don’t give me that scoffing face. You know what I mean,” she teases.
“I have no idea,” I answer. Actually I have sort of an idea, but this peculiar jumble of feelings I have for ancient friend Lyle is not what I want to diagnose or even poke at right now, especially since Lyle is already with us.
“Hey.” He smiles. “You came.”
“Of course!” I bounce on my toes again and reach up to get a twig out of his thick, brown hair. A tuft of it bumps up in the back. I resist the urge to smooth it down and instead give him the twig. “Are you playing Grim Dawn out in the woods instead of on your laptop?”
“I wish!” He turns to Mom and greets her, and she presents him with a tin of cupcakes, which pretty much makes him explode with happiness. “Seriously? You are the best! Mana, your mom is the best!”
Lyle holds the tin delicately in his long-fingered hands. When we were little we used to call them wizard fingers, but his palms have caught up in size, so now I think they’re just manly. I try to process this thought: Lyle is manly. Lyle is manly in a way that does not fit how a cheerleader is supposed to think of her best male friend. Lyle is manly in a way of defined quad muscles and big hands and—maybe more manly than Dakota Dunham—more than—
Lyle interrupts my thoughts. “I’m going to bring these back there.”
“Don’t eat until after the race!” Mom calls after his retreating back. “We don’t want any cramps impacting your performance, young man!”
“No worries!” he yells to her, and then he shifts his focus to me as he strides forward, not watching where he’s going. Other runners skitter out of his way and he calls to me, “See you after, okay? Scream for me!”
“Always! Like I’ve just witnessed a disembowelment!” I yell, and he turns, and I’m stuck watching his retreating back as he returns to the rest of the team. A couple other people wave and I wave back, like a normal person does. People give Mom thumbs-up signs indicating their love of her cupcakes. “You should just be a baker.”
“I should! It would be much more fun. Not as many work trips.” She laughs and pats her belly. “But you would have two times the mother you have now.”
As the male runners disrobe and start trotting over to the starting line, I hip check my mother, who laughs and does it back. She waves to other parents if they wave first, but she stays with me, which is okay.
“I should make you those penguin cookies with the salted caramel,” she announces. “I haven’t made you those in a long time.”
When we get near the starting line, Lyle gives me a little wave/salute thing and I arrange my features into an overexcited smiley face for him, just as his mom walks toward us. After she does the small talk with my mom, she offers me a sip of her Coke, but I don’t even get a chance to decline.
“Mana is allergic,” Mom says, which Lyle’s mom knows. She has known me forever.
“I always forget!” she titters just as the bell goes off. “All the children with all their quirks. Caffeine allergies. Latex allergies. Peanut allergies. It’s funny how we’ve managed to survive so long as a species.”
Lyle instantly breaks away from the pack. I’m not sure how he does it, because I’m not much of a runner, but he makes running seem effortless—just all loping, quick legs and loose arms. He’s not even trying.
“He’s holding himself back,” Mrs. Stephenson says as the runners head into the woods. “He always does.”
“He’s a good boy,” Mom answers as the crowd starts to move to a better vantage point.
“He should do his best. College recruiters want to see what he can do.”
He has already gotten in early to Dartmouth, so this is a ridiculous thing for her to say. I can’t stand Lyle’s mom sometimes, and I say, before I can help myself, “He PRs by seconds every race, and he will do his best at states. He always does.”
Mom touches my arm. Then she nudges me into motion, calling good-bye to Lyle’s parental unit as we head toward the railroad tracks. You can see runners at the mile and 2.7-mile points from there. We get there just before Lyle strides past, still in the lead, still not sweating. He gives me a cheesy finger point. I give him one back.
“I’m glad he’s your friend,” Mom says out of nowhere.
And it is such a silly thing to say, but such a Mom thing to say, that I can’t help but smile even as I clap for some other students I know. “I’m glad you’re my mom.”
“Oh! Sentimentality alert!” She blushes. “I should record this and play it back to you the next time you’re mad at me for hassling you about your homework, or leaving socks on the couch, or eating all the cookies for the boosters table at the basketball game before the game even starts, or failing to put the cap on the toothpaste.”
I ignore this little litany.
“Mana is all lovey-dovey. Yes, I am.” I announce this to her, and it gets the appropriate Mom smiling response. Happiness settles into my chest as we wait for Lyle to appear again, running fast and strong toward us and the finish line.
He crosses and smiles, entering the chute where they funnel the runners post–finish line. It keeps them all in order. The wife of the coach takes his number off Lyle’s chest and people give him congratulatory back slaps, high fives, and fist bumps. He has a personal record. Again. He doesn’t even seem winded. Again. He trots over to us and gives me a huge hug. I inhale. Not even smelly. My hands touch the muscles of his back. Not even sweaty.
“PR!” He swings me around and I laugh. My feet leave the ground. My mother rather conveniently disappears and starts picking up discarded water bottles. She’s pretty environmental like that.
“You were amazing,” I tell him as he sets me back down.
His head bobs up and down. “I was, wasn’t I?”
“Amazing and humble,” I tease.
We fist bump and make explosions.
“You know what I was thinking about when I was running?” he asks. “I was thinking about that time in sixth grade that you were in the Les Mis play for show choir.”
“I hated show choir,” I interrupt.
“I know. But do you remember, you played Whore Number 2, and we went to music class and Mr. B. could not remember your name, and he actually called you Whore Number 2?” Lyle starts laughing, remembering while I pretend to pout. “That was beautiful. And you? You just turned bright red and answered anyways. Brilliant!” He fist bumps me again. “I was remembering how awesome that was and I just forgot about running. I totally lost track of time. It was the best race ever.”
“Cool,” I say, but I kind of want to say, “Yay! You were thinking of me.”
The rest of the day I am so ridiculously happy that I actually doodle penguins and hearts on my mom’s grocery lists and on the to-do list, and try really hard to not think it means some sort of amazing thing. When it comes to liking your best friend, life can be kind of disappointing. You think things mean more than they do. You search for signs in the way his lips move, in how quickly he smiles, in the way his hip bumps into your side when you walk. And usually? The signs don’t mean anything at all.
Anyway, if it turns out to be nothing? Well, there will always be Dakota Dunham.
* * *
Two mornings later and nothing has changed in my best-friends-with-Lyle status. I wake up and Mom is gone before I get up for school. She has pushed a note underneath the kitchen timer shaped like a chicken. It doesn’t work, but she won’t throw it away. Lyle got it for her at the animal refuge zoo place he interns at during the summers. She wrote on the note in big, green magic marker letters:
DEVELOPMENTS AT WORK. HAD TO GO IN EARLY. I’M SO SORRY. THERE’S A BAGEL IN THE FRIDGE. I MADE CHOCOLATE-DIPPED PRETZELS FOR YOUR FUNDRAISER. LOVE YOU!!! SEE YOU AT THE GAME.
She drew a big heart on the side, too. Sometimes, she is just too sweet. Sometimes, like when she’s yelling at me about how I tend to put the wet towels on top of the rest of the laundry, she is just annoying.
I open the fridge to pull out the bagel. My report card falls off the door. Yes, it is up there, stuck with a magnet of a Scottish Highland cow thing. Yes, that is geeky. That is my mother. I take the magnet and the report card and anchor it again. There.
When everything is back just the way it’s supposed to be, I thrust the bagel in my mouth and chew. After I shuffle out of the kitchen and up the stairs into my room, I pretty much just stand there for an extra second and gawk at the piles of clothes that are strewn all around my floor. I have to get ready for school and I don’t want to because it’s going to be just another boring stressful day in the otherwise boring stressful life of me. The getting-ready process goes quickly and before I know it I’m back in the kitchen where I seize the Hello Kitty pretzel container. There is a cute penguin sticker on there now, amid all the happy kitties, which Mom must have put there. Lyle says she spoils me. September, my other best friend, says Mom babies me. I can’t say that most of the time I mind. Shoving my bag over my shoulder, I head out.
September has parked her truck in the driveway and is waiting.
“Hurry,” she yells. She is tall and long. She’s one of my bases for cheering, and even though her arms are about as thick as those pretzel sticks, she is super strong, like a farm girl, which she is not. Her mom is a doctor. Her dad is a nurse. They own no mammals or poultry. They do have a fish, Mr. Awesome.
I pull in a big breath. The cold, gray winter sky bleaks me down despite Hello Kitty, chocolate-dipped pretzels, and the new penguin sticker. I’m tired again today. For a second I wonder if I could pretend to be sick, but it’s game day, so I hike my bag higher on my shoulder and balance the pretzel container in my hand.
“Mana! Hurry!” September yells again. The sun glints off her skin. Kids use to call us Oreo when we were little because Seppie is so dark and I am so undark. I used to pray at night that I could resemble her instead of a ghost. That was before I understood about racism and how when some idiots gape at Seppie they don’t see someone beautiful and funny and brilliant; they see “other.” Idiots. Sometimes people think about me that way, too.
I rush down the cobblestone path to our driveway and haul myself up into her truck. Yes, she has a huge, gas-guzzling, black pickup truck. Do not ask me why.
“We’re not that late,” I say, slamming my bag down next to my feet. “You always get so stressed about being two minutes late. You don’t always have to be the orderly and perfect student.”
“Yes, yes I do.” She shakes her head. Her pigtails flail about and then she reverses out of my driveway like Satan is after us.
She pulls into the Stephensons’ driveway, which is barely worth driving over to since our houses are so close, and we wait. She honks. “Where is he?”
Lyle, all Gap clothes and smiles, comes barreling out of the house, slamming the door behind him. “Sorry! Sorry! I was engrossed in something.”
“I am so going to kill you if you make me get a tardy. Three tardies equal detention. Detention equals poor academic record. Poor academic record means bad college. My fine self is not going to a bad college because you were climbing a tree.” Seppie executes a perfect K-turn while Lyle buckles up. His face is all smooth, squeaky clean like he just scrubbed at it with a wet facecloth. He always appears that way, and he smells that way, too, like mint-scented soap, the same kind my dad uses.
When I was super little, my dad taught me to hunt and to wash my hands after hunting, after being in public places, after touching raw meat or going to the bathroom. He’s that kind of guy—the kind that can kill a deer but still worry about germs. Lyle is not like that. I can’t imagine him ever killing anything. And germs? He eats Skittles he finds on the sidewalk.
A gash from shaving mars Lyle’s cheek just to the right of his nose. He has a new cut every morning, I swear. I want to put little Band-Aids on them.
“We aren’t really going to be late, right?” His shaggy brown hair flops over his eyes. Lyle nods at Seppie, then lifts one eyebrow over his dark brown eyes and asks me, “She will kill me one day, won’t she?”
“What if we just left without you?” Seppie asks. “Did you even think about that?”
Lyle doesn’t answer. Just for the record, Seppie and I are both cheerleaders, which Lyle helps with, too, actually. He’s an overachiever. Running is his big thing, but he helps cheer at competitions and important games because we need him for the ridiculous stunts where a good amount of upper-body strength is involved. A lot of kids in my school do multiple sports. I do not, but I am an underachiever. Seppie and Lyle are all about getting into Ivy League colleges. It’s one of our essential differences. They worry about college; I do not. They get amazing grades; I get by. They will have scholarships; I will have loans. Lyle has claimed the window side, so I’m smashed between the two of them in the truck cab.
“My feet are freezing,” I say as Seppie swerves around a pothole. Her elbow knocks into me, so I smoosh closer to Lyle.
“You should wear socks,” she says. Like she knows. “It’s almost winter. It’s getting cold.”
“Seppie, have you ever worn a sock in your life?” Lyle asks, stretching out his long legs, which he can do because he’s not stuck sitting in the middle. “You are the Sockless Wonder. That would be your superhero name: the Sockless Wonder, whose excessive foot odor thwarts all foes.”
“Shut up. You’d be Geek Boy. Cheerleader by day; Doctor Who watcher by night. Unable to match a single outfit even if his mama picks them out for him the night before. Permanently attached to his little online game. What’s the name of it? Lounge Lizards Take on the—”
They keep bickering. We drive through our subdivision and out onto Back River Road, with all its curves and supermarkets. I turn up the music. I close my eyes and try not to think about Lyle’s leg pushing against mine, or the test I have today that I totally forgot about, or Lyle’s minty smell, or why I am thinking about Lyle this way. Lyle of playing Doctor Who in the woods when we were seven, Lyle of the gaming fixation, Lyle of the newly developed chest muscles, Lyle of the—
Lyle’s voice interrupts my thoughts. “And then I professed my undying love to her and Mana just stared at me and said, ‘But I only love khaki-wearing koala bears who are into drumming and rolling up their sleeves to show off their forearms, Lyle. You would never do. You are far too manly-macho.’”
I open my eyes, blinking away all these random thoughts of Lyle and me growing up together, and sputter, “What?”
He starts laughing and punches me in the arm. We pass a school bus on the right—totally illegal, totally Seppie.
“She’s really out of it.” Seppie turns off Back River Road and onto the highway. “What is up with you today?”
I shrug. My shoulders bump against them. “I didn’t sleep much last night.”
“What, were you out late partying?” Lyle asks. “Partying on a Sunday night?”
“Funny.” I punch him. He punches me back. “I’m just tired.”
“Do you want some of my coffee?” He picks up his metal no-spill thermos.
Seppie snarks at him. “You know she can’t have caffeine. It makes her wild. You’re just tormenting her because you know she loves the smell.”
“I don’t actually remember ever having caffeine,” I say, whiffing in the warm, nutty scent. “Is that hazelnut? Wow. That smells good. I mean, that smells really good. I grab it and take a micro sip. It’s warm and sugary and nutty.
“Well, you’re not starting now.” Seppie reaches across me, takes the thermos, gulps, and says, “Yep. Hazelnut.”
“And you call me cruel?” Lyle snatches back his thermos and turns his attention to me. I swallow hard, which is ridiculous. My pulse rate seems to be getting higher. I lick the coffee off my lips as Lyle asks, “Why didn’t you sleep well? Are you getting sick?”
He puts his hand on my forehead. It feels nice, like all the tension is just oozing out of me and into his hands. We slow down, pull off the highway, and head toward the school parking lot.
“No fever,” he announces, and then goes into nerdy speech. “I declare this specimen devoid of fever.”
“No fevers. I just had more nightmares.” I stretch up. Lyle moves his hand away and I want to snatch his wrist and pull it back to my forehead. I kind of miss it. Seppie turns into the school parking lot and pulls the visor down to check out her reflection in the mirror instead of actually trying to find a parking space or anything like that.
I rub at my forehead. All the tension is back. And I swear I feel sweaty, like I’ve just run a marathon. “I don’t want to go to school.”
“Does anyone?” Lyle asks.
Seppie clears her throat.
Lyle goes, in a too-high, fake Seppie voice, “School is a magical place to find potential mates, enjoy learning, and practice my social networking skills that don’t involve the actual Internet.”
We all start laughing. The truck hits a frost heave in the parking lot. Lyle bashes his head against the ceiling because of the bump. This makes us laugh more, for some reason. By the time we get to school, my bed feels a long way away.
Lyle helps me out of the truck. It’s pretty high, and he and Seppie always take care of me because I’m shorter—and the whole flyer thing. “You seem better.”
His hands linger on my waist for an extra second and I so do not know what to think. “I feel better, except I think the coffee made my pulse rate go up.”
“The magical power of coffee. I don’t think you’re actually allergic. You’re probably just hypersensitive to it or something,” he says.
“Mm-hmm,” I say. “Right.”
“What? Do you want me to say it’s the magical power of friends that makes you feel better?” He smiles and lets me go.
But the truth is, that is it. It is the magical power of friends. I stand there, full of energy, so much energy suddenly, and jump into the air, possibly performing my highest back tuck ever.
“Whoa … that was almost—unnatural,” Seppie says, eyeing me.
“I feel so hyper!” I giggle, hugging her.
“And this,” she says, “is why your mom probably never wants you to have coffee. You didn’t drink any, did you? You were just pretending, right?”
“Right!” I shout a little too loudly.
She cocks her head and speed walks toward the school, yanking me along. “You are the worst liar ever.”
“I don’t think it even counted as a sip,” I say. “Just a taste. And now I’m all hyper. Coffee is wonderful!”
We make it into the building just as the first bell rings, and Seppie bolts off, Lyle following after her. They have to go to first period in the language wing, which is pretty far away. I watch them go and try not to feel all alone. Hyper and lonely is an unusual combination. I close my eyes and try to will myself to calm down. I already want more coffee. Maybe the real reason my health food nut of a mom doesn’t want me to have coffee is she knows that I’d be addicted after one tiny sip.
Copyright © 2016 by Carrie Jones