I’m not a bald freak, Amarea thought.
A boy searched the crowd. He found her eyes and stared at her.
Amarea walked between her parents. Maybe that would make her less obvious. She noticed him across the courtyard, big brown eyes and messy brown hair. She blushed when she looked at him. She knew even the top of her skull would be pale pink; that’s the trouble with being bald.
Stop looking at me, she thought. The boy looked away.
The gaggle of freshmen and their parents were squashed into the gym. The gym smelled of losses, victories, and week-old socks.
After a stimulating twenty minutes of welcomes from the principal and assistant principals, students were corralled into their homerooms, girls on one side of the hallway, boys on the other. The parents remained for more information on how to be a parent.
Once inside the classroom, no one said anything to Amarea. Small town mentality, she was the outsider. Everyone had known each other since first grade. She sat by herself in the corner and could see people glancing back at her, whispering about her.
She was used to the whispers. Cancer treatment doesn’t play nice with anyone and she’d been playing with treatments for a long time. It was worse when she tried to hide it. Wigs and scarves just drew more unwanted attention. Amarea looked down at her body. She looked more like someone who survived a concentration camp than a high school freshman.
I’m not contagious, she thought as a girl carefully placed a piece of paper on Amarea’s desk. The paper contained her schedule, locker combination, and vague instructions on how to open the lock.
The hallway was loud and crowded. Amarea squeezed up to her locker and attempted to open the lock. It proved to be especially troublesome. 32-22-1. She spun it right three times, left twice, and back to the 1, nothing. She spun it four times to the right to reset it and tried again, nothing. The boy from the courtyard came to her rescue. The lock opened easily with his skillful touch.
“It’s four times around to the left, then three times to the right, twice to the left, and stop on the one,” he said with a smile.
“Thank you,” Amarea said. What a cute smile, she thought.
“You’re welcome,” the boy said blushing. “Do you need help finding your classes?”
“That would be great,” she replied. She wondered if he was always this nice.
“Yes, I am,” he admitted.
“Are what?” Amarea asked.
“Always this nice,” he replied.
“Oh,” Amarea said. I wonder if I said that out loud, she thought.
“Yes, you did,” he said.
Amarea stopped walking and looked at the boy.
“I’ve got to go find my parents,” she stammered as she turned and walked quickly down the hall.
“Oh, ok, I’ll see you on Monday,” he called after her.
“Who was that young man?” Mrs. Dustin asked.
Amarea shrugged. Joey Moore, came to her mind. “I think his name is Joey,” she replied.
At 9:30, Amarea couldn’t take it any longer. She typed Moore into the city directory page. There was only one Moore listed in the city. The walk was long, about two miles, or so the printout said. She was amazed at how easy it was to find his house.
As she stood outside his window she really didn’t know what to do. What exactly do you think to get someone’s attention?
Hello, she called out in her mind.
Pssttt, Amarea thought.
Cough, cough, Amarea thought, trying to make her thoughts louder. How do you yell in your mind? A light came on in an upstairs bedroom.
Hello? It was more like a question.
Hello! Amarea wanted to scream. Can you hear me?
No, the voice replied.
Then why did you answer my question? Amarea thought. Maybe this guy wasn’t the sharpest crayon in the pack.
Fluffy? the voice asked.
I’m definitely not fluffy, Amarea thought. She looked down at her frail, skinny body.
Who are you then? The voice asked.
Fluffy is a person? Amarea asked.
My cat, the voice replied, shakily. She’s dead.
Are you Joey Moore? Amarea asked. Amarea heard something break inside the house. The light went out.
Joey, Amarea thought.
Joey, Amarea thought harder.
Nothing. She grabbed a handful of pebbles and started throwing them against the upstairs window.
Go away, the voice said.
No, Amarea replied.
Who are you? The voice asked.
The ghost of your dead cat, Fluffy, Amarea replied, she laughed in spite of herself.
What was that? The voice asked.
Joey, look out your window, Amarea commanded.
The window slid open about half an inch.
Seriously? You are scared of a dead cat? Amarea thought. Whooo. Whoooo.
The window slammed shut.
Joey? Amarea thought. My name is Amarea. Amarea Dustin. You helped me with my locker at school today.
The window slid open. Joey’s head popped out. “Amarea?” Joey said. “Were you just in my head?”
I think so, she thought. Joey jumped back. A second later, he opened the front door and walked to Amarea. He had a dazed look on his face.
How did you do that? Joey wondered.
How did you do that? Amarea countered.
You just said what I said, Joey thought.
No, I just thought what you thought, Amarea replied.
Joey laughed. “This is really weird.”
Remarkable, I’d say, Amarea thought.
You’d think, Joey corrected.
“What?” Amarea questioned.
“You thought, remarkable, I’d say, but you didn’t say it, you thought it,” Joey replied.
“What’s the difference?” Amarea asked, between thinking and saying?
Joey just looked at her. “I don’t know.”
They stood in silence for several minutes. Amarea tried to stifle a yawn.
“How did you get here?” Joey asked.
Walked, Amarea replied.
“Was it far?” Joey asked.
“Around two miles,” Amarea replied. She yawned. “I’m sorry, this is just a lot. It’s been a long day.”
“It’s late,” Joey began, “Let me walk you home.”
Ok, Amarea replied.
“Just a sec,” Joey said. He went into the house and came back with a pair of shoes.
They walked in silence most of the way. Amarea’s head was swimming with things to say, but Joey didn’t seem to want to talk about things.
“Could you hear any of that?” Amarea finally asked.
“Any of what?” Joey replied.
“I’ve been talking away about how weird this is, how can it be happening, how does it work? I’ve been talking in my mind nonstop since we left your house,” she huffed.
“Sorry,” Joey replied, “I didn’t hear you.”
Can you hear me now? She asked.
Yes, Joey replied.
Then why couldn’t you hear me when I was talking to you before? She questioned.
“I don’t know,” Joey replied. “Maybe I wasn’t listening.”
Boys are so stupid, she sighed.
“I heard that,” Joey replied. Amarea blushed.
They walked in silence until they arrived at Amarea’s house. “Let’s get together tomorrow and figure this out,” Amarea said.
“Ok,” Joey replied. “Do you know where Grayson Park is?”
“You can take the number 12 bus there. It runs right past your house and goes by the park, so you won’t need to walk,” Joey said.
Amarea nodded again, “I’ll meet you at Grayson Park around noon.” I think I’ll sleep in tomorrow.
Good idea, Joey said. See you tomorrow.
Amarea went inside and fell asleep the minute her head hit the pillow. She hadn’t walked four miles in a long, long time. She was exhausted. Joey sat on her front lawn and tried to hear her thoughts. After an hour he gave up.
Amarea woke up earlier than she had hoped. Her head was pounding, she felt a cold coming on. She looked up the bus schedule and was surprised to find it passed by her house every 30 minutes, was free to ride if you were a student, and had a stop at the end of Joey’s street. The ride to the park took less than fifteen minutes.
Joey was sitting on a park bench throwing rocks in the lake when he noticed Amarea on the far side of the lake.
Can you hear me? She questioned as she waved.
Yes, Joey replied
Is this the first time you could hear me? Amarea asked.
Um, I heard you yesterday, Joey shrugged.
No, silly man, Amarea laughed, I’ve been calling your name since I got off the bus.
Oh, Joey replied, I wasn’t listening.
Amarea frowned. How exactly does this work?
Maybe we have to see each other? Joey thought.
No, because last night I was talking to you while you were in the house, Amarea said.
Come over here so we can talk like normal people, Joey said.
Amarea walked around the lake. Why did I have to walk around the lake? She frowned.
“I didn’t think about that,” Joey said. “Sorry.”
Amarea sat next to Joey. They sat in silence for several minutes.
This is awkward, Amarea thought.
“You can say that again,” Joey replied.
“Out loud?” Amarea asked.
“Huh?” Joey said.
“Do you want me to say it again out loud or in my head?” she repeated. Joey just shrugged.
“I don’t understand this,” Joey finally said after a few more minutes of silence.
You can read my thoughts, Amarea said. She clutched her knees to her chest, shaking slightly. Stupid cold.
Are you cold? Joey asked.
A little, Amarea admitted. Joey took off his sweatshirt and handed it to Amarea.
“Thanks,” Amarea said. She pulled the sweatshirt over her head. It was three sizes too big and smelled wonderful.
They sat in silence.
What’s wrong with you anyway? Joey thought.
“That was subtle,” Amarea said.
“Sorry,” Joey said. “It was just a thought.”
“Something I’m sure lots of people think,” Amarea laughed bitterly.
“Is it contagious?” Joey asked.
“Yes,” Amarea replied, scooting closer to Joey. She laughed at his expression.
What’s wrong with you? Joey thought.
You thought that already, Amarea replied.
“I’ve got a brain tumor,” Amarea began. “I’m being treated for cancer at the children’s hospital. I have no hair. I have no friends. I’m new to this town, and everyone treats me like I’m radioactive. People already think I’m strange. And to top it all off, for some reason, I can hear the thoughts of some random guy.”
“Oh,” Joey replied, staring down at his feet.
“Didn’t you hear me?” Amarea asked after several painful moments.
“I’m sorry,” Joey began, “I didn’t. Did you say something?”
Amarea laughed. “I thought a whole bunch of things.”
Joey shrugged, “I guess I wasn’t listening.”
“Were you thinking anything?” Amarea asked.
“Not really,” Joey admitted. This is just weird.
I know, isn’t it? Amarea replied.
“You heard that!” Amarea exclaimed.
“Yes,” Joey said, “You said, ‘I know, isn’t it?’”
“Why do you think you heard me that time?” Amarea questioned.
“I guess I was listening,” Joey admitted.
“What does that mean?” Amarea asked.
“I don’t know,” Joey replied. “I know you were thinking before, and I didn’t listen, so I listened, and I heard you.”
There was a long awkward silence.
“It’s weird,” Amarea began, “but it’s real. What do we do now?”
“Has this ever happened to you before?” Joey asked. Amarea laughed. “I’ll take that as a no. Do you think the cancer did this?”
Amarea laughed sarcastically, “The cancer did all this to me,” she waved her hand over her body, “so why not one more thing.”
“How about experimental treatments?” Joey asked.
“Yup, I get regular injections of adamantium,” she replied bitterly.
“Let’s just deal with it the best way we can,” Joey replied.
“What is the best way?” Amarea said sarcastically.
“Why are you so angry?” Joey asked.
“Why do you assume it’s me?” she shot back. “Maybe it’s you.”
Joey looked at her, wide eyed, and blinked. “Maybe it’s both of us.”
Amarea looked at her feet. “Ok, so it’s both of us. What now?”
“Well, if we tell people, they might want to experiment on us or something,” Joey said.
“You watch WAY too many sci-fi movies,” Amarea laughed. “But, you do have a point. So let’s just keep it our secret.”
“That’s a great idea,” Joey replied.
There was a long pause. Joey stared out at the water and watched ripples appear.
“Did you hear any of that?” Amarea asked.
Joey looked up, confused, “Any of what?”
“Ok,” Amarea began, “I’m going to think something really bad about you, so don’t listen.”
“What? Why?” Joey questioned. He listened intently.
You’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts, Amarea sang.
“What are you talking about? I don’t have any coconuts!” Joey exclaimed.
I didn’t say anything; I thought it, and you were listening, Amarea said.
“Right,” Joey replied, “I was listening, sorry.”
“Why are you sorry?” Amarea asked.
“Because you told me not to listen,” Joey said.
Silly man, I knew you would listen if I told you not to listen, Amarea smiled.
“So to make this work, I have to want to hear what you have to say,” Joey pondered.
I think so, Amarea thought.
“And if I don’t want you to hear what I’m saying?” Joey asked.
I don’t know, Amarea admitted. “Why don’t you think something, and then try to block my listening?”
“Like what?” Joey asked.
I don’t know. Maybe just sing your favorite song, Amarea thought. Boy, this kid is a little slow.
“Ouch,” Joey said, “that was mean.” He stood up.
Amarea turned a bright pink, “Sorry.” She reached out to touch his arm. Joey pulled away.
“I’m not contagious,” Amarea blurted out.
“Only your sarcasm,” Joey retorted.
I bet you can’t even spell sarcasm, Amarea thought.
S-a-r-c-a-s-m, Joey replied as he turned and walked away.
“Joey, wait,” Amarea called after him, but he was walking too fast. She caught up to him at the bus stop. When she sat down, he turned his back to her.
Don’t you think you are overreacting just a bit? Amarea thought. Joey didn’t move. I know you are listening to me.
Joey huffed. How do I turn you off? He thought.
“I could tell you how to turn me on,” Amarea said, shocked at her own brashness.
Joey looked at her. They both broke out in laughter.
“So does this make us friends?” Amarea asked.
Joey just shrugged his shoulders, I’m not sure I want to be friends with a bald freak.
Amarea elbowed him hard in the ribs. “I heard that!” she cried out.
Joey smiled, “Just checking.”
The Northbound bus arrived and took Joey away. Amarea tried to keep up a conversation, but after several minutes, the “signal” just dropped. When her Southbound bus came, she was ready to go home and crash. All this excitement was too much for her. At least she had the rest of Saturday and all of Sunday before school began.
Monday morning hit like a bucket of ice water. The first couple of days, Joey ignored her. She found herself following him around like a love sick puppy. It wasn’t until a group of kids were laughing and pointing at something behind him, that Joey noticed Amarea.
He glared at the kids in the hall. They quickly dispersed in different directions. He waited for Amarea to catch up. During next few days, he noticed her more. He went out of his way to walk with her and sit by her at lunch and assemblies. By the second week, she was positive the only reason he was around was because he felt sorry for her. Amarea felt sorry for herself.
It didn’t help people saw her as a pale, hairless weirdo. They avoided her in the halls. They pretended she didn’t even exist. It was horrible. Joey was her only...only what? Friend?
She wasn’t sure Joey knew what it meant to be a friend. By the time Saturday rolled around, she was sick of everything. She was sick of being pitied. She just wanted to hurt someone, make them feel as miserable as she did. So, when Joey invited himself over on Saturday, she sat on her porch and waited for him.
Look out for the hole! Amarea called out.
What hole? Joey swerved to miss the nonexistent hole, his handlebars jerked, locking in the frame. Joey flew over the handlebars landing with a thud in the grass.
Now that was entertaining, Amarea giggled, her feet swinging beneath her.
Joey looked back at the sidewalk, there was no hole.
That was really mean, Joey said from flat on his back.
No, that was entertaining, Amarea replied.
Joey looked at Amarea’s front porch. She was sitting on the swing giggling. When he stood, blood ran down his leg.
Joey don’t be mad at me. It was only a joke; I didn’t mean for you to get hurt, Amarea said, not the least bit sorry.
Whatever, Joey retorted. He bent down and picked up his bike and started walking it back the way he came.
Joey, please. I’m sorry, Amarea said lamely. She stood and walked toward Joey.
Just wait, I’ll get you back, Joey spat. Amarea could feel the venom in his thoughts.
Joey kept walking. The cut on his knee had crusted over by the time he walked into his driveway. Joey expected to have at least 100 emails, text messages, or voice messages. He was disappointed to not have a single one. What was she thinking anyway?
“I hate it here,” Amarea said to her mother, the following day. “Why did we have to leave? I have no friends, and everyone thinks I’m some kind of contagious nothing.”
That’s an understatement, Joey laughed.
Shut up, Joey, Amarea hissed.
“You know why we moved here,” her mother said, “the best cancer research hospital is here. We wanted the best for you.”
“So taking away all of my friends is in my best interest?” Amarea put her head down on the table and started to cry.
“Hun, it’s not that bad.”
“Yes it is! You don’t know what it’s like to be a bald and have no friends!”
“Marea, you’re friends with that one boy, James, aren’t you?
“His name is Joey,” Amarea sniffed. And he’s not really my friend.
I’ll remember that, Joey huffed and rolled his eyes.
Where are you? Amarea asked.
In your backyard, Joey replied.
Why? Amarea looked out the back window.
I don’t know; maybe I was in the neighborhood, Joey laughed.
Well, you can’t come in; that would just make my mom right, Amarea sniffed.
That’s stupid, Joey replied.
Whatever, go home. Amarea wiped her nose on her sleeve.
Nope, Joey teased.
“Crap,” Amarea said as the doorbell rang. Amarea tried to get to the door first, but her mother beat her to it.
“Who could that be?” her mother wondered aloud.
“Hello,” Joey said, extending his hand to Amarea’s mother as she opened the door. “I’m Joey, Amarea’s friend.”
“Nice to finally meet you, Joe,” she said, shaking his hand, pulling him into the house, “Amarea has told me all about you.”
I’m sure you have. Joey laughed.
Argh! Amarea rolled her eyes.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Joey said with a big cheesy grin. “Hey, Amarea!”
Shut up. Amarea hissed.
“Hello, Joe,” Amarea replied aloud.
I hate that name. His smile wavered slightly.
I’ll remember that. Amarea smiled devilishly. How about Joseph? Amarea ventured.
My mom calls me Joseph when I’m in trouble, Joey replied.
Got it, Amarea grinned.
“You two go watch TV, and I’ll make you some cookies,” Amarea’s mother said.
“Wow,” Joey cooed, “That would be wonderful! Come on Mar!” Joey hooked arms with Amarea and pulled her along.
You don’t even know where the TV is, Amarea whined.
You better lead. His smile returned.
They stood in the doorway, staring at the couch, loveseat, and oversized rocking chair.
Silly boy. Are we even? Amarea smiled sheepishly.
Not even close. Why do you hate it here? Joey turned to face her.
I don’t hate it here. I just miss my friends. Amarea turned away.
You have friends? Joey smiled.
Amarea elbowed Joey in the ribs.
“Ouch, that hurt,” he said rubbing his side.
The silence was thick. “It just seems like you aren’t really trying hard to make friends,” Joey said.
“Nobody wants to be my friend,” Amarea shot back.
Can you honestly say you’ve been trying to be friends with anyone? Joey said.
“Why should I? They all think I’m contagious and defective,” she said softly.
“I think that’s what you think,” Joey replied. He didn’t want to ask if she ever had friends, but it popped in his head.
I had one friend, a really good friend; her name was Tracy. Amarea looked away; she stared at the pictures hanging on the wall.
Was? Did she change her name? Joey laughed at what he thought was a joke.
Tears welled up in Amarea’s eyes.
“What?” Joey asked, turning her to face him. He looked down at her. “What?” he repeated.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she replied. She sank into the over-sized couch.
Joey grabbed the remote off the coffee table. He sat down on the other side of the couch and asked, “What do you want to watch?”
Something simple, Amarea thought meekly.
“Something simple?” Joey asked.
“You know,” she replied, “something you can watch that doesn’t require you to think or feel.”
Joey began flipping through the channels. “There’s a documentary on sharks.”
Too scary. Amarea shivered.
Golf? Joey asked.
Too boring. Amarea faked a yawn.
Music videos? Joey tossed out.
Amarea turned and gave him an “are you serious?” look.
Cartoons? Joey shrugged. He was drawing a blank on remaining options.
Amarea grabbed the remote and pressed “Fav1”. The television changed to a cooking channel.
You’re serious? Joey looked offended.
No thoughts involved, Amarea replied.
“I thought you’d like some popcorn while the cookies are baking,” Mrs. Dustin said, entering the room with a big black bowl.
“Thanks, Mrs. D,” Joey said. She’s the best, like a mom from one of those shows from the 70s.
I know. “Thanks, Mom,” Amarea said. She stood up and took the bowl. She used to be normal.
Normal? A questioned look furrowed Joey’s brow.
She used to work before I got sick, Amarea drew in a deep breath. She used to be normal. Now she’s like supermom. This is the 487th batch of cookies she’s baked since the beginning.
“You’ve kept track?” Joey blurted out.
“Shush,” Amarea said. At first I thought it was nice. Then it got weird. Like I couldn’t do anything anymore. And all the cookies. Who’s going to eat all those cookies?
I will! Joey grinned. He grabbed Amarea’s hand and pulled her closer to him.
Two hours, a bowl of popcorn, and a couple of dozen cookies later, Joey sighed, I don’t even know what we’re watching.
Exactly, Amarea smiled.
It’s not so bad here is it? Joey asked.
I don’t have any friends, Amarea replied honestly.
Joey turned to face her. What am I, dog vomit?
You aren’t that gross! She laughed.
What happened to your friend, Tracy? Joey asked.
She died, Amarea whispered, tears welled up again.
How? Joey asked.
Drunk driver, Amarea stated bitterly.
That’s horrible! I hope the guy got thrown in jail for life! Joey exclaimed.
The driver was Tracy’s mom, her tone still bitter.
Oh! Joey replied.
And yes, she’s in jail for a very long time, she said the last three words very slowly.
I’m sorry, Mar, Joey meant it.
My parents try to tell me the reason we moved was because of the hospital. The main reason was to get me away from all those memories, Amarea admitted, weakly.
We’ll make new memories, Joey said cheerfully.
Amarea looked at Joey, he smiled, “Friends?”
“Friends,” she replied.