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MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED
Less than five minutes into my triumphant return to the mall, I was targeted for assassination by a rabid spritzer from Bath & Body Works.
Before the ambush, I was as happy as anyone making minimum wage could possibly be. It was by far the best mood I’d been in since the night in late May when I’d landed in the ER with a teeth-chattering, bone-rattling case of mono. After six weeks of quarantine, I was finally reunited with my boyfriend, Troy. We had gone from seeing each other every day to not at all, and I could tell Troy was a bit discomfited by the space forcibly put between us. Luckily for him, I’d spent that time at home alone convalescing and contemplating the state of our relationship. By the end of my confinement, I’d come to a course-altering conclusion:
Troy and I absolutely needed to have sex.
The sooner, the better.
I was barely keeping it together on the short walk from the parking lot to our jobs at the food court.
“I missed you so much!”
I angled for a kiss as Troy turned his head to check his watch. I got a mouthful of earlobe instead of lips.
“Not now, Cassandra,” Troy said without slowing down. “I’m late for my shift.”
“We’re late for our shift!”
The Parkway Center Mall was home to 105 specialty shops, three department stores, and two movie screens. This 900,000 square foot monument to consumerism was Pineville, New Jersey’s, de facto downtown. Never referred to by its full name—always and only “the mall”—this capitalist mecca wasn’t the biggest or the best or the newest our state had to offer, but it was the closest. For that reason alone, the mall was the center of the universe for bored hordes of suburban teens with limited spending money and infinite time to waste.
The mall also provided summer employment for roughly half of our high school’s working class. The rest took their chances at Casino Pier in Seaside Heights. The pay was slightly better on the boardwalk, as were the odds that you’d lose a finger while operating the Tilt-A-Whirl because that’s what happened when hungover minors helmed heavy machinery. Troy and I had taken the safer route by getting hired by America’s Best Cookie: “Where home-baked goodness is as easy as ABC!” The recession had hit other businesses hard, but in times of trouble, Americans evidently comforted themselves with Chocolate Chippers and Fat-Free Fudgies. Troy and I had just completed our new employee training when I got sick.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep my hands off you when I see you in that sexy apron.”
I was half kidding. My boyfriend of two years was wholly mortified.
Troy was not an obvious target for lusty objectification. He was my cherry-cheeked cherub, whose angelic face often caused opponents in Mock Trial and Odyssey of the Mind to underestimate his devilishly clever brain. Also, I’d never been, like, an excessively horny girlfriend. When Troy and I made out, my mind often wandered. Would the collapse of the Soviet Union end the Cold War? Why did anyone think Urkel was funny? But forty-three days of social isolation and physical deprivation had taken a major toll. From the moment he had picked me up at my house in his Honda Civic, I’d wanted to grab him by the popped collar of his America’s Best Cookie polo shirt, press his body against mine, and break every rule we’d ever set against public displays of affection.
We passed Spencer Gifts, a store that sold smutty merchandise alongside kitschy novelties.
“Pity the naive child who enters Spencer Gifts for fake poop,” I joked, “and exits with cinnamon-flavored lube.”
Troy said nothing.
“Pity the pure babe who enters Spencer Gifts for a lava lamp,” I tried again, “and exits with glow-in-the-dark condoms.”
The mall had three main entrances, each located in front of a major department store. My family always entered the mall through Macy’s, but the first time Troy drove me to the mall, I discovered his preferred entrance was through Sears.
“If we’d parked at Macy’s, we’d be there already,” I teased, leaning in for a kiss.
He ducked, deftly dodging my mouth for the second time.
“Are you sure you aren’t contagious anymore?”
I almost couldn’t blame him for being so paranoid. He was more traumatized by the extremity of my illness than I was, if only because he could actually remember the details. Troy was the one who took me to the ER. He was there when Dr. Barry Baumann said my spleen had swollen to the size of “a small spaghetti squash,” which was an oddly specific gourd to choose from all of the more common vegetables he could have selected. After I was hooked up to various IVs and my temperature finally went down and I wasn’t in immediate danger of dying, Dr. Baumann said mine was the most severe case of mononucleosis he’d ever seen in forty years of practicing medicine.
“Overachiever,” I’d rasped. “Even when it comes to viral infections.”
Each word was more excruciating than the last, as if Dr. Baumann had removed my vocal chords with rusty garden shears, scrubbed them with bleach, and reattached them to the back of my throat with six blindfolded sharpshooter blasts of a staple gun.
“That’s not funny,” Troy had replied.
I disagreed. It was a little funny. If anyone knew anything about overachieving, it was us. We were the couple with the plan. The boy and girl Most Likely to Succeed, as voted by our Pineville High School classmates and forever immortalized in the yearbook superlatives. Troy and I studied hard—together—to get into our dream schools—together. I was set to attend Barnard College in the fall where I’d major in biological and biomedical sciences en route to med school. Troy would be right across the street at 116th and Broadway, an econ major at Columbia with both eyes on business school. We thought it very mature of us to attend different schools within the same university system. Our parents would cover tuition, but Troy and I were responsible for earning money for books and any nonacademic purchases very loosely described as “incidentals” that to me were anything but. It was all part of the plan.
We passed the One-Hour Fotomat where I would’ve gotten all my pictures from prom and graduation developed if I hadn’t been too sick to attend either of those events. Mono wasn’t fun any time, but it particularly sucked in June of my senior year. Troy made me feel better about missing prom by reminding me how anticlimactic it was, as these things predictably were.
“Prom only matters for those who don’t have anything better to look forward to,” Troy had said. “If you can’t go, I won’t go either.”
Of course, Troy was the type of boyfriend who would offer to stay home on prom night in solidarity. But I wouldn’t hear of it. He’d already bought the tickets, rented a tux, and put a nonrefundable deposit on a limo shared with a small group of friends. Plus, we both assumed it was only a matter of time before his own symptoms developed. So I stoically urged him to live his life before he was struck down.
I wasn’t disappointed about prom. Graduation was another story. If I hadn’t gotten sick, would I have been the senior class speaker instead of Troy? I was happy for him, of course, but while my classmates were celebrating in top-down, cherry-red convertibles and skinny-dipping in pristine swimming pools, I was building igloos out of blankets and waiting for my internal organs to shrink back to normal size.
Troy and I slowed down in front of a pyramid of Billboard Hot 100 CDs displayed in the window of Sam Goody. Among all the usual, commercially successful but terrible suspects—Color Me Badd, Poison, Wilson Phillips—I was pleased and quite surprised to see a poster promoting Morrissey’s newest release. The shot was taken from below, the photographer on his knees, the Moz all in black, rising up against the backdrop of a cloud, arms outstretched in a way that, for me—and I wasn’t religious at all—evoked a priest performing a benediction.
“I’ll drown myself in the Wishing Well if we don’t get tickets,” I said solemnly, referring to the chlorinated fountain where shoppers literally threw their money away. Pennies, mostly. But still.
Troy picked up the pace, easily overtaking a pack of power walkers. My wobbly legs struggled to keep up.
“It would be fun for us to see his show in New York City,” I said. “Not, like, fun fun, because, you know, Morrissey, but, like, depressing fun.”
Troy stopped so abruptly, his curls quivered. He looked to the Piercing Pagoda’s lone employee for reinforcement, but she was too preoccupied with a paperback Danielle Steel novel to take any interest in the teen relationship drama playing out right in front of her.
At last, his innocent blue eyes met mine.
“Let’s just get through the summer.”
Those were the final words I heard before taking a violent blast of cucumber-melon body spray
In the immediate aftermath of the assault, I expected an apology.
Of course, I assumed it was an accident, an honest mistake made by a trigger-happy Bath & Body Works newbie who would thank me profusely for not bitching to her boss because she really, really needed this job. But I was wrong. Oh, so wrong. There would be no apology, no gratitude from the itty-bitty blonde with the crispy bangs. Only this unmistakable battle cry:
“Die, Mono Bitch!”
Followed by two more shots to the face and one to the chest.
The tiny sniper struck all my important orifices—eyes, mouth, nostrils, ears—leaving me gagging and gasping for air.
“Hell, no!” Troy yelled. “Hell, no!”
At least that’s what I thought he was saying, but who could tell for certain with all my senses clogged by a cucumber-melon fog. Troy took me by the arm to the relative safety of the break room at America’s Best Cookie. I splashed cold water on my face at the Employees Only sink.
“Did you get a good look at the wild animal that did this to me?”
I wiped my nose and blotted my eyes with a rough paper towel. My sight slowly adjusted to the break room’s patriotic décor, a kaleidoscopic riot of red, white, and blue. Troy’s face was still too blurry to read.
I wish I could say I had figured it out at that point. But this was Troy. My trustworthy boyfriend, Troy, who had dependably called me every day, twice a day, during my quarantine. One call before work and a second call after. Like clockwork. Literally. The phone rang at 9:45 a.m. and 6:15 p.m., and Troy gave me a rundown of his day, regardless of whether he had anything interesting to share or not.
“So random, right?”
“It didn’t seem random,” I said. “She screamed, ‘Die, Mono Bitch.’”
“What?” Troy asked. “Are you sure?”
I held my head under the faucet, swished water around my mouth, and spit it out.
“Yeah. I’m sure.”
“No, it was definitely: ‘Try Melon Spritz,’” Troy replied. “Maybe the mono damaged your eardrums.”
I doubted very much that mononucleosis had damaged my eardrums. And that became obvious enough when I very clearly heard the killer right outside the door.
“I know you’re in there, Mono Bitch!” And then, most significantly, “I know you’re in there, Troy!”
“Open the door, Mono Bitch!” She pounded furiously on the door. “Open the door, Troy!”
I still hoped against hope that Dr. Barry Baumann had misjudged my recovery. Perhaps I was still gravely ill, unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. An aural hallucination had to be the only explanation for what was happening.
“You thought you could sneak around with Mono Bitch, and I wouldn’t find out? Well, guess what, Troy? I’m everywhere!”
“Just give me a second, okay?” Troy pleaded. “I can explain everything.”
Before I could process or protest his request, he slipped out the door to face the madwoman on the other side. There were a few seconds of incoherent shrieking, followed by sudden silence. Against my better judgment, I crept to the door and peeked out the small window. I half expected to see a cucumber-melon spritz murder-suicide crime scene. What I saw was worse.
My boyfriend of two years had subdued my executioner by shoving his tongue in her mouth.
My head got hot and fuzzy, like I was coming down with mono for the second time this summer. I definitely would’ve chosen another trip to the emergency room over this. Okay, maybe I had actually died from the mono and was now living in my own personal hell? Appropriately enough, that was when I heard the creepiest whisper in the underworld.
I turned around and would’ve screamed if I’d had the ability to scream. I was apparently being haunted by a female poltergeist pierced at the eyebrow, nose, and lip.
The monotone was equal parts talking calculator and the teacher futilely taking Ferris Bueller … Bueller … Bueller’s attendance on his titular day off. Her haunted appearance and affect were so at odds with her rah, rah, rah America’s Best Cookie apron that I laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of what my life had become. But Ghost Girl didn’t flinch. She kept her tray steady, right under my nose.
“They’re fat-free. And fudgie.” She swirled the tray beneath my nostrils. “Fat-free. And fudgie.”
Her tongue was pierced too. And her ink-black hair was swept up in a hairnet, which somehow enhanced the overall creepy occult vibe.
“Fat-free…” Swirl … swirl … swirl. “And fudgie.”
Troy reentered the room. And he wasn’t alone.
“Cassandra, we need to talk.”
He and the miniature murderess were holding hands. And by that, I mean all four hands, all twenty fingers tightly interlocked in a way that didn’t seem at all romantic, but more like an improvised form of restraint. The assassin smiled at me menacingly, but at least I could see that she was unarmed.
Troy turned to Ghost Girl.
“Zoe, can you give us some privacy?”
“Ms. Gomez,” Ghost Girl corrected.
Troy sighed. “Ms. Gomez, can you give us some privacy?”
Without further acknowledging Troy, Ghost Girl—aka Zoe, aka Ms. Gomez—set down the tray of samples on a nearby table. Then she floated toward me, pressed a cold hand on my shoulder, and whispered what I’d hoped would be words of wisdom from beyond the grave.
I don’t know why I expected anything different.
“Cassandra.” Troy stood straight and tall, projecting the matter-of-fact confidence I’d seen him use to great advantage as the lead attorney for the Legal Seagulls. “Meet Helen.”
My throat collapsed in on itself.
“Helen,” Troy repeated. “Like Helen of Troy.”
Troy had always loved that our names were heavily featured in Greek myths. Troy was the city fought over in the Trojan War. Cassandra was a princess of Troy, who saw visions of the future.
Clearly, I had not seen this coming.
“Helen,” he added, “whose great beauty caused the Trojan War.”
I choked. This Helen was not beautiful. She was tiny and terrifying like a feral Chihuahua with a horrendous home perm.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I somehow managed to ask.
“I thought it would be disrespectful to break up with you over the phone.”
“So, this is better?”
He shrugged and sheepishly looked at his feet. Helen bared her yellowed snaggleteeth. She was a smoker for sure. And her receding gums were common for a non-flosser. My parents would be appalled by her poor oral hygiene.
“So, you expect me to be okay with working next to you two all summer?”
Troy and Helen exchanged knowing looks. They released each other from their four-handed death grip, and Helen slid her palms into the back pockets of Troy’s pleated khakis.
“No,” Troy replied. “We don’t expect that at all.”
“Didn’t Zoe fire you?” Helen asked.
“She’s the assistant manager,” Troy said.
I leaned against the wall for reinforcement. Ten minutes into what was supposed to be my triumphant return to the Parkway Center Mall, I’d lost the job, the boyfriend, and—worst of all—the plan.
“I can’t believe this is happening.”
I wanted to return to my blanket igloo and never come out again.
“I’m sure you can get hired somewhere else,” Troy said.
“Maybe another Steve Sanders,” Helen offered condescendingly. “Or at least a David Silver…”
A rush of angry adrenaline shot through me. I seized Troy by the strings of his ABC apron and shook him. Hard.
“You told her? She knows the 90210 Scale of Mall Employment Awesomeness?”
Troy had let Helen in on what was by far one of our best inside jokes. This betrayal was even worse than the kiss or anything else they had surely done together. And by the overly familiar way Helen was massaging his butt right in front of me, I assumed they’d done a lot.
“We never meant for this to happen,” Troy insisted.
“I had a boyfriend when we met.” Helen stopped groping Troy and casually twirled a crusty curl around her finger. “I was only at the Pineville prom because I went with Sonny Sexton…”
This was just about the only part of this whole sordid situation that made any sense to me. Sonny Sexton was legendary at Pineville High for being the first twenty-year-old senior in school history. Obviously, we’d never had a single class together. But I couldn’t avoid passing him in the halls, this denim-on-denim dirtbag who reeked of weed and Designer Imposters Drakkar Noir even at a distance. Sonny Sexton and Helen made sense. Troy and Helen? I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
“It’s kind of funny,” Troy said. “If you hadn’t insisted I go to the prom without you, Helen and I never would have met.”
My ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend rested her head on his shoulder, releasing a brittle crunch of Aqua Net dandruff onto his ABC polo shirt.
“We have you to thank for putting us together…”
For thousands and thousands of years, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks, four types of body fluids—or humors—were believed to influence personality and behavior. Bad moods were blamed on too much black bile in the spleen. I got off easy with an IV and six weeks of bed rest. In the fourth century BC, Dr. Hippocrates might have treated a “splenic” temperament by surgically removing the bulging, bilious organ without the benefit of anesthesia or antiseptic. I know all this because Troy left a copy of Apollo to Zeus: Greek Mythology and Modern Medicine in my mailbox as a get-well gift.
Blame a buildup of bad humor for what happened next.
I grabbed the only weapon within reach—the tray of Fat-Free Fudgies—and chucked it directly at Troy. I only wish I’d felt more satisfaction when it smacked him right between his lying eyes.
Copyright © 2020 by Megan McCafferty.