Chapter 4 - Alex
An exasperated sigh tore me away from my textbook as my best friend Gemma sat down across from me. Alexandra’s best friend Gemma. Alex’s best friend sat ten tables behind me, inhaling artery-clogging cafeteria pizza and probably talking with his mouth full.
“Why are you always studying?” Gemma groaned, dumping her bag beneath the table and sitting down, unzipping her lunch box. “Ugh. Plain carrots. Yum.”
She pulled a plastic tupperware of sliced carrots out of her bag and popped it open as I shut my book and pulled out my own lunch.
“You know why,” I said, unfolding the top of my paper bag and pulling out the bagel I’d packed for myself. Cream cheese and cucumbers. My favorite.
“I don’t understand why you’re so stubborn about it,” Gemma said, munching on a carrot as she rifled through the rest of her lunch for something fun. She always searched and always came up empty. Her mom was crazy about healthy food. On her birthday Gemma got a carob chip cookie but that was as out-there as it got. I tried to pack extra Oreos for her. “Just go to the stupid college your dad wants. It’s the same education and you won’t have to worry so much about scholarships.”
“No it’s not,” I snapped, taking a bite of my bagel and using the time it took to chew to calm myself down. “It’s not the same. It’s the difference between science classes taught by scientists and science classes taught by priests who think humans were majicked into existence by a big man in the sky.”
“You gotta talk to your dad, girl,” Gemma said, shaking her head. “He’s gonna find out eventually that his baby girl is an atheist. Might as well tell him now while he’s still legally obligated to love you.”
“Mm-mm,” I said, mouth full of bagel. I chewed and swallowed, taking a sip of water. “I’m just gonna ride it out to the end. Kick school’s butt and get a whole bunch of scholarships and it won’t even matter that he won’t help me pay for it. I’ll be able to make it on my own.”
“Ugh, well you still talk like a church girl,” Gemma snarked. “Do you have chips or something? I’ll trade you for these… homemade fig bars?” She held up a waxpaper sandwich bag containing a thick slab of something gooey and brown. It could’ve been a brownie but we both know it wasn’t. Gemma’s mom didn’t believe in dairy products, so decent brownies were off the table. Gemma came from a family of crazy hippies. I came from a family of crazy Christians. We made a good pair.
“Hey, Aly! Hi Gem!”
The words made me grin, and I scooted over on the bench to make more room for my brother. Tom climbed into the seat beside me, setting his lunch on the table before him.
“Did you wash your hands?” I asked as he started digging through the paper bag.
“Yeah, Aly,” he muttered, blushing furiously. My brother might be a little bit behind, but he was a still a guy and quick to embarrassment and exasperation at my mother hen routine.
“How’s your day going?” I asked, and alarm bells went off in my head when he bent his head over the bag, clearly avoiding my gaze.
“Fine,” he said, pulling out the bologna and cheese I’d thrown together for him that morning.
“Is everything okay?” I asked, leaning back and scanning him for any sign of injury or distress. Most people liked Tom, but there were some guys who still gave him trouble if they caught him alone.
“It’s fine,” he mumbled.
“You’re a terrible liar,” I said fondly, pressing a hand to his back, leaning close and speaking softly. “Will you tell me later?”
He nodded, eyes flicking up to Gemma who was, bless her, effectively pretending not to hear our conversation. Gemma’s a good friend.
“Well my day’s going crappy,” I said, infusing some levity into my voice as I sat back. “Mr. Quinn keeps calling on me in Civics class.”
“Yeah, cuz you know the answer,” Gemma said, rolling her eyes. “Your sister is a smartass, Tom.”
Tom laughed at the curse word and I glared at Gemma without much heat.
“She’s the smartest smartass,” Tom agreed, his voice jovial and proud. Sometimes life is a slog. Sometimes it hurts and feels pointless and too painful to endure. Sometimes, though, it’s not so bad.
* * *
“We’re home!” I yelled, hooking my keys on the ring and toeing off my shoes while Tom shut the door behind us.
Our house was as pristine as ever. Momma kept it that way. I think that was her way of keeping herself together. She couldn’t control my dad and she couldn’t control the world, but she could control the house and the dust. She could control where we put our shoes and which rooms we were allowed to eat in. “Momma?”
“In here.” Her voice wound through the stale, conditioned air and Tom and I followed it to the living room. She sat in her chair, eyes glued to the television. I glanced at the screen and saw some sitcom re-run. The sound of a laugh track crackled out of the speakers, but if you just looked at Momma you’d think she was watching a documentary about how post-it notes are made. Her gaze was far away, and no part of her looked happy or entertained.
“How was school?” she asked, looking away from the screen as we sat on the couch.
“Good!” I said, brightly, like I always did. I had it in my head if I was cheerful enough some of my happy would seep into her. All I ever got was a pinched smile, but that didn’t stop me from trying. I felt like if I stopped I’d sink right down into the gray that had swallowed her up years ago.
“Good,” Tom echoed, but he didn’t sound so bright. He watched Momma’s face, always searching for something that he never found. His mother, probably. The woman who had disappeared, leaving us alone with a husk that looked just like her and the man who had chased her away.
“Why don’t you have some snacks and do your homework,” Momma said, turning her attention back to the TV. “Dinner will be ready at five.”
Tommy opened his mouth to argue, but I stood, tugging him to his feet behind me and dragging him from the room.
I set Tommy up at the desk in my room with an activity book and a box of colored pencils before pulling my textbooks out of my bag and hopping up onto my bed. It was Thursday, but I didn’t have much homework. Twenty math problems, five pages of civics textbook, and a chapter of Ethan Frome for English. If Tommy stayed busy, I could finish it by dinner time.
I tried to stifle my excitement at the thought of getting out to the spot early. It’d probably be another long, lonely night, I reminded myself. Lately, Nate had been showing up less and less frequently. He was a good friend -- my best friend -- so I didn’t think he was blowing me off for a stupid reason. I wasn’t angry that he wasn’t showing up. I was angry he wouldn’t tell me why.
Math was my best subject, and I flew through the problem set with ease. The familiar rhythm of the work pulled me away from the world and I felt myself relax into the patterns.
“So what happened at school today?” I asked after a while, flipping my pencil over and erasing a minus sign I’d erroneously carried.
“Nothing,” Tom said after a long pause, scribbling furiously at the notebook and pointedly not looking at me.
“C’mon, Tom,” I said, tapping my pencil on the paper and looking up at him. “Don’t lie to me.”
“It was just Freddy,” he grumbled, shoving a hand up into his hair.
“Don’t pull on your hair,” I said sternly, trying to hide the acid that burned in my veins at his words. That jerk Freddy was always messing with Tom and it made me want to scream. I’d confronted him once but he just laughed at me and said I didn’t have any proof and, sadly, it was the truth. He and his friends always managed to corner Tom when he was alone. No witnesses. “What did he do?”
“C’mon, Tommy. I can’t fix it if you don’t tell me what happened.”
“You don’t need to fix it,” he said, his voice picking up a little. “It’s fine.”
It’s a common emotional affliction for people to feel like they just don’t have the answers. That’s never been my problem. My problem is that I have all the answers, but nobody will listen to me. Momma won’t talk to me about what’s making her so empty. Tommy won’t talk to me about his bullies. Nate won’t talk to me about whatever the hell it is that’s keeping him away from me.
I knew I could have fixed it all, if they would only give the chance.
I resolved to check in on Tommy between classes for the next week or so. If he didn’t want to tell me what was going on I’d just have to find out myself.
We worked in silence until dinner, and I was just finishing up my English reading when Momma’s hollow voice summoned us downstairs.
Dinner was quiet. Daddy said a prayer like always. I hated his prayers. He talked a lot about God and Jesus and how we should all be thankful, but he never really went into much depth on what we should be thankful for.
As I always did, I tacked my own silent, shoddy prayer onto the end of Daddy’s. Gemma thought I was an atheist, but I didn’t believe in nothing. I believed something was listening when I closed my eyes and poured my heart out into the void. I just didn’t think it was a wizard man in the sky.
Thank you for saving Tommy’s life. Thank you for Momma who loves me and Daddy who helps people. Thank you for making me smart enough to want the stars. Thank you for giving me the spot. Thank you for the food and the roof and for letting me laugh. I’ll find a way to pay it all back someday, I promise.
I kept Tommy entertained with funny faces as we slowly worked our way through dry chicken breast, unseasoned green beans, and boxed mashed potatoes. Nobody said anything about the meal not being very good. Not even Daddy. We all knew better.
After dinner, Tommy went to enjoy his hour of Playstation time, Daddy went to his study to work on his next sermon, and Momma and I did the dishes.
“Hey, Momma?” I asked, bussing the last of the plates to the counter by the sink and pulling open the dishwasher.
“Yes?” she asked, absently, listlessly spooning leftovers into little plastic containers.
I hesitated, flipping the sink on and rinsing the dishes, hoping that I could mask the depth of my question by asking it on top of the everyday task. “Are you okay?”
“What?” Her tone had a bite to it, and she stopped working. I glanced at her over my shoulder.
“I’m just wondering if you’re okay,” I said, turning back to the sink and running another plate under the faucet. Streaks of mashed potato, chicken juices, and watery bits of green been slid off the plate and down the drain and I wished life was so easy to clean up. “You seem kinda sad and--”
“I’m fine, Alexandra,” she snapped, cutting me off. Tears bit at the back of my eyes and we didn’t talk at all, after that. Momma shoved the leftovers in the refrigerator and left me to finish tidying up. I put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, washed the big pots by hand, and wiped down the counter. I was just finishing up when Momma came back in. She stared at me for a moment, something powerfully sad shining out at me from her hollow, tired eyes. The fingers of one thin, graceful hand worried at a button on her crisp white blouse.
“I shouldn’t have snapped at you,” she said, tears brimming in her eyes.
I didn’t really understand why she was crying. She snapped at us often enough. It wasn’t a big deal. Usually it was justified. Me and Tommy could get pretty raucous.
“It’s fine, Momma,” I said, drying my hands on a towel. “No big deal.”
“It is a big deal,” she argued feebly, stepping forward so that she stood right in front of me. I was already a couple inches taller than her, but I felt small when she pressed her soft palm to my cheek, peering up into my eyes.
“You’re a sweet girl, Aly,” she said. “My sweet, smart, beautiful girl…” she trailed off, choking on tears and I didn’t know what to do.
“Momma, are you okay?” I asked, every muscle but my mouth frozen.
“I’m okay, sweetie,” she said. Her arms went around me, one hand pressing on the back of my head, gently pushing my face into her shoulder. I returned the hug, on the verge of tears myself. I felt relieved. I guess I thought I’d brought her back. That it was that easy.
I should’ve known better.
* * *
I got to the spot just after ten. Of course, it was abandoned. Nothing but the me, the stars, and the swirling mist that hung over the water.
Over the years, the spot had accumulated a healthy pile of comfort objects. There was a cooler buried in the mud beneath the cave. Two lawn chairs were hidden in a pile of vines in the roots of the oak tree. Nate and I hung a swing from one of the branches of the oak, and the next day when I took Tommy out there, I acted like I was as surprised to see it as he was. He thought it was magic.
Nate knew my brother and I came here during the day, but Tommy didn’t even know Nate existed. Sometimes I wanted to tell him, but I didn’t. Tommy wasn’t much good at keeping secrets.
I was starting to wonder if Nate had the same problem, though. He’d grown increasingly less careful about our pact of secrecy over the last year or so. In a way, I understood. I felt the same pull. We were closer to each other than to anyone, and it was strange to see him at school and pretend I didn’t know him.
It had to stay the way it was, though. To be honest, I was afraid to let Nate meet Alexandra. I knew he liked Alex. Sometimes I thought maybe he loved her as much as she loved him. But what if he hated Alexandra? What if he hated the make up and the constant studying and the fierce need to be liked by everyone? Alexandra was as much a part of me as Alex, and if he came to hate one it was only a matter of time before he came to hate the other.
I couldn’t take that risk. Not with my best friend.
I didn’t bother to put my shoes back on after crossing the stream. I left them in the sand and climbed up onto the rock, stretching out on my back.
I’d grown since discovering the spot. Back then I could lay on my back with only my feet dangling over the end. Now my whole lower leg hung down against the front end. Now, when Nate was with me, we had to lay pressed against each other to avoid rolling off opposite sides. I didn’t mind the change.
The moon was full so there weren’t many stars up. I lay, staring at the washed out sky, and worried.
I must have fallen asleep, because the sound of Nate’s voice startled me awake. I jolted upright, pressing a hand to my heart, and he laughed, crossing the stream in one leap, sending up a spray of water up that misted my bare legs.
“Hey!” I grumbled, laying back. “Be careful.”
“Sorry,” he said, but I knew he was smiling. I could hear it in his voice. Just like I heard the disappointment as he splashed over to the cave and opened the cooler. “What the hell, Alex?” he said, his tone bereft as the lid thudded shut. “No food?”
“Well you haven’t been showing up,” I said, trying not to sound as guilty as I felt. “I’m not just gonna lug food back and forth for no reason.”
In reality, I wanted to make a point. I wanted him to know that I was angry. The plan had felt better in theory than in execution, though. Something about the way his stomach growled as he crossed the stream and climbed back up onto the rock beside me. Or maybe it was how quickly he sank into remorse.
“I know, Al, I’m sorry,” he mumbled, stretching out beside me, the warmth of his body pressed against mine from shoulder to knee. His foot knocked into mine gently. “I swear I tried to come. Don’t be mad.”
He’d have known even if I hadn’t made a point with the empty cooler. Nate always knew when I was mad. Mad, sad, happy, nervous… he always had a finger on the pulse of my emotions. The only one he couldn’t seem to detect was the warm, fluttering excitement that ghosted through my veins every time we touched. Every time our eyes met. Every time he laughed at something I said.
Sometimes I thought maybe he saw it, and sometimes, when the moonlight was just right, I thought I saw the same want in his eyes when he looked at me.
Most of the time, though, we existed in this perpetual state of comfort. Comfortable touching. Comfortable conversation. Comfortable, constant bickering. I guess there are worse things than comfort and safety.
“I’m not mad,” I muttered, and I knew he knew I was lying.
“Yeah you are. I’m sorry I couldn’t come, Al. Something came up where I live.”
“What came up?” I asked, turning my head and studying his profile in the moonlight. His jaw clenched as he blinked up at the sky and I knew he felt my scrutiny.
“Just some stuff, Al. Nothing serious. I just couldn’t leave, that’s all.”
I sighed, but didn’t press him further, and we both stared up at the few stars bright enough to pierce through the light of the moon.
“Any constellations tonight?”
“Uhh,” I squinted up at the sky, studying the the little flecks of light. “You can kinda see Draco.”
“The dragon?” Nate asked, shifting close to me as I pointed, like that would somehow help him see what I was seeing. He smelled like equal parts cheap soap, fresh sweat, and the clean, heady scent of the forest that lingered on both of after we spent the night in the fresh air.
“Yeah, that’s his head, see?” I traced the four stars before shifting my finger to the dragon’s belly. “And that one, sorta nestled in there, is Ursa Minor.”
“The bear,” he said skeptically, angling his head on the rock so that it touched mine.
“Or the little dipper,” I said.
“That I can kinda see,” he said brightly. “I see a dipper. Not a bear. Definitely not the dragon.”
“That’s cuz you’ve got no imagination,” I said, trying to breathe through my mouth because the scent of him turned my insides to jelly and made it hard to think.
“Maybe,” he said with a shrug. “Hey, thanks for your help with that question, today. Mr. Quinn is a dick.”
“You shouldn’t sleep in his class,” I said, pulling a way and propping myself up on an elbow. He grimaced at the sky as I poked him in the shoulder. “You’re smart, Nate. You need to shape up and stop being such a jerk. Actually study.”
He laughed at that, the sound cut short as he shifted uncomfortably on the rock, wiggling his shoulders against the surface and wrapping a hand around his middle. When he finally spoke he sounded thoughtful, his voice uncharacteristically serious. “If I get my ass in gear,” he said, “we could hang out at school.”
My turn to laugh.
Our school was heavily stratified. There were the athletic guys who played football and basketball and the athletic girls who played soccer and field hockey. There were the pimply-faced nerds who played dungeons and dragons in the library during the lunch hour and the girls who wore short skirts and platform heels. There was me and me cluster of oddballs who kept to ourselves and completed our homework and didn’t bother anybody or impress anybody. Then, finally, there were the kids who didn’t really belong in school. Kids who looked a little older than they were, who wore ragged clothes and smoked in the parking lot and cursed at teachers. And their ringleader wanted to be my friend? In real life?
“That’s funny,” I said, flopping onto my back and poking his ribs with my elbow. He hissed and pulled away like I’d actually hurt him. “Can you imagine what your friends would think if you started hanging out with the goody two-shoes preacher’s daughter?”
“That I’m a lucky sonofabitch,” he muttered angrily. Then, before I could work up the courage to ask what he meant by that, he sighed and shook his head. “Forget I asked. How’s your mom doing?”
“Still sad,” I shrugged, thinking of our strange breakthrough. I didn’t want to jinx the progress by talking about it. “Let’s talk about something fun. We’re bumming each other out tonight.”
“Okay,” he said thoughtfully. “Best case worst case?”
My spirits lifted, and I nodded. Best case worst case was my favorite of the games we’d made up.
“I’ll start” I said, squinting at the stars. “Best case scenario, Mr. Quinn gets fired for stealing school supplies and both of us actually survive eleventh grade civics class.”
Nate laughed at that, the sound dripping over my nerves like honey. “Worst case,” he said, “his replacement is a crotchety old wind bag who keeps us after the bell.”
“Best case, the crotchety old windbag and I form an unlikely bond and she mentors me and helps me with my college applications.”
“Worst case, she convinces you to abandon your passion for science and convinces you to study politics.”
“Best case, I become a high level politician, get a security clearance and learn that aliens are real.”
“Worst case, your first day on the job the aliens attack. Everyone’s dead. Way to go, madam president.”
I laughed, humming thoughtfully as I tried to think of a way to spin the story. Nate was better at playing the best case side than me. He could make anything sound good. Then again, maybe I was just biased. “Best case,” I said hesitantly. “I survive the apocalypse and finally have some peace and quiet.”
“Worst case…” Nate trailed off, folding his hands behind his head. I shifted, resting my own head on his arm. Just because there wasn’t much space on the rock. Not because I liked the way it felt. Definitely not. “Worst case,” he said again, his tone brightening. “The quiet drives you crazy and you start talking to inanimate objects.”
“Best case, my best friend’s name is Melanie. She’s a deflated basketball, mounted on a broomstick and she’s a good listener.”
He laughed again and I had to fight not to press a hand to the warm feeling that settled into my belly. “Worst case, Melanie is an alien imposter. She’s been using your crazed ramblings to learn about the human race.”
“Uh, you lose. That’s a best case,” I said, laughing. “I got to meet an alien.”
Nate laughed again, and we fell into silence.
“I’m sorry I didn’t bring food,” I said finally, exorcising the guilt that had been gnawing on me since he arrived. “I’ll bring some tomorrow.”
“It’s okay, Alex,” he said on a sigh, reaching across his body to poke me in the ribs. “I don’t come here for the food.”