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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Spinning It

Photo by Christoph Aigner
I would not want to besmirch acquaintances’ reputations by suggesting they may struggle with truthiness. But really, a fair number of Facebook statuses, Twitter twits, and holiday letters prompt me to scream, “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” Because sometimes I know that ain’t how it happened.
Like when a friend and I both wrote our first novels. We signed up for a writers conference, expecting to be overrun by publishers, editors, and agents clamoring to sign us for million-dollar book deals. (By the way, the chances of going home from your first—and often subsequent, and next, and the one after that—writers conference anything other than depressed, in career/existential crisis, and planning a bonfire for your manuscript are more miniscule than getting hit by lightning on the same day you win the lottery and receive a proposal of marriage from Ryan Gosling. In my experience, anyway.) Later that year, while I still licked my humiliated wounds, my friend sent out her Christmas letter and wrote, “I’m meeting with a literary agent in April to discuss publication of my novel!”
What the—?!?
Yeah, I looked into it and found out she’d signed up for another writers conference the following spring. So technically, she wasn’t lying in her year-end update.
But come on.
This dressing-up of the facts does, however, seem to be a widespread trend, especially with the proliferation of social media. So, rather than buck the system, I have given much thought and study to the creation of alternate forms of descriptive reality.
Some call it “spin”.
Just as we spiff up our resumes, put concealer on our pimples, and sweep the crud under the rug when guests come over, here are some ways to re-cast that life of yours and make all your friends and associates jealous about the perfection that is you:

Husband and I had a huge fight. I threw a dish at him and it shattered on the wall, taking out a chunk of drywall. He then peeled out of the driveway, hit the curb, and blew a tire.
As a result of Husband’s and my communication skills we’ve shed some material possessions that we don’t actually need. And I’ve discovered a real talent for spackling and painting! Found a great Bible verse (“Husbands, love your wives”) to do in calligraphy on our newly repainted kitchen wall. AND we’re trying out the one-car family challenge. Think green!
My child failed and will repeat sixth grade.
The school has requested that my child serve as an experienced mentor to younger students by coming alongside them in a cohort-style educational program!
I was fired from my job for stealing office supplies and embezzling petty cash.
The efficacy of my Redistribution of Assets strategy led to the de-necessitation of the position I filled in the office.
On to bigger and better things!
My boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife left me.
My partner and I decided that a mutually-exclusive alliance-construct was in neither of our best interests.
As a result of my string of DUIs
I’ve been sentenced to an
alcohol-rehabilitation program.
R & R coming up! Going to a top-rated resort for four whole weeks! Don’t bother trying to contact me, as I’ve decided to cut off phone and email till I get back. Bon voyage!

If you’ve been floundering through your updates, feeling insecure and intimidated by the enviable and unbelievably wondrous lives of others, I hope this little tutorial will speed you on your way to joining the ranks of the veridically-dubious sugar-coaters.
Of course, this system also works in reverse. Next time you read about your college roommate’s kid who can do Calculus derivatives in his head while flying like Superman and curing cancer with his saliva, try to take the assertion with a grain of salt. The truth could be that he fell off the roof of his dorm in a drunken, drooling stupor and has become an idiot savant who pays his bills by serving as a professional guinea pig for a pharmaceutical company.
The truth is out there. Even if it’s spinning like an LP set on 45 rpm.
And if Ryan Gosling is reading this, I bet he has no idea what that last sentence even means.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Deo Volente

In a shameless act of wanton advertisement, this week’s blog installment at Wasting My Education comprises the first chapter of my newly released novel Deo Volente. Deo Volente is the second in the DRAWN series of three books about Juliet Brynn, an artistic prodigy who discovers that her artwork can predict the future.



The five words at the top of the poster, painted fuzzy-stem green and tipped in fat drops of blood, made me even more desperate to do what I already wanted to do, which was turn and run.
It’s only a new school. Just one more cruddy part of the cruddiness that is your life.
My eyes scanned the rest of the poster that someone taped off-center and cockeyed over the glass front door.

Auditions:  January 12, 1983
Sign-ups in Mrs. Shively’s Room

“And it’s a play, not a prophecy,” I assured myself as I pulled open the door with my half-frozen, mittened hand.
Because I knew something about prophecies.
Inside the foyer I dug the new schedule out of my jeans pocket. My first class was on the second floor.
Across the foyer a blue sign with white letters hung over the entrance to a hallway: Fine Arts Wing. As I passed under the sign I got that weird déjà vu feeling. Alternating blue and yellow lockers lined both sides of the hallway, interrupted at regular intervals by classrooms. The tile on the floor and the clocks that hung perpendicular to the walls looked exactly like Parnell’s, where I should’ve been that day.
A stairway split the end of the hall into Up and Down.
The bell rang and far behind me the front doors burst open, filling the foyer with footsteps and voices.
Another urge to flee swelled up in the pit of my stomach.
“Chill,” I told myself as I started up the stairs. Just breathe.
Room 218 stood across the hall at the top of the stairs. The nameplate on the wall next to the door read Mrs. Shively, Honors English.
I checked the schedule in my hand and noticed what I hadn’t before. Honors English. Honors Math. Honors Social Studies.
I didn’t sign up for honors classes. Would they let you change your schedule around after school already started?
Chaos came up the stairs behind me, voices and laughter and stomping. I ducked in the door to homeroom.
The student desks stood in a large, perfect circle around a central table stacked with books. The teacher’s desk tucked into the back corner, catty-cornered next to the window. Mrs. Shively sat there, head bowed over a wide, red-bound grade book.
I cleared my throat.
She looked up and smiled, like me just being there made her day. “Good morning. You must be Juliet. Welcome to Sandy Creek.”
Schedule clutched in my fist I shook my head and forced my feet to take me over to her desk. “There’s been a mistake.”
“Has there?”
“I didn’t sign up for honors.”
She raised her eyebrows and just looked at me.
“I should be in regular classes.”
Surprise melted into a chuckle. “Why?”
“I’m not an honors student.”
“You’re Juliet Brynn, aren’t you? From Parnell?”
“The school that took the state Academic Olympics?”
She knew about that?
I tried to explain. “The Olympics. Um, that was just…”
“I’m sure your team was devastated to lose you right before nationals. What a shame.”
Yeah. The whole team, including Damon, would go to Chicago in less than two weeks. For three whole days. Without me.
Just another gift from my parents’ divorce.
A couple of kids came in the door and sat down in the circle.
“Take a seat, Juliet.”
“Julie. I like to be called Julie.” It didn’t look like I’d be getting out of honors today. “Are seats assigned?”
“Sit anywhere you like.” She pointed to the table laden with books. “Everyone, grab one off each stack.”
I got the three books—English Grammar and Structure, 8th Grade; Read to Learn, fourth edition; and The Little Prince—and sat down at the desk nearest Mrs. Shively’s. I had the exact same copy of The Little Prince on the shelf in my new bedroom, but filled with highlights and notes from last semester.
Other students filed in a couple at a time, till all but two of the desks were occupied. The empty ones flanked both sides of me. Only thirteen kids. I’d never been in such a small class.
“Good morning, all,” Mrs. Shively said with the bell. She ticked off names in her book. “We’re light this morning. Does anyone know anything about Margie and/or Blake?”
“Margie’s still skiing in Canada.”
One of Mrs. Shively’s expressive eyebrows curved.
“I heard Blake has the flu,” said a boy in a T-shirt with a fake tie printed on it. He glanced at me, then dropped his eyes to his desk when I looked back.
“Thank you, Chad.” Her hand tapped my shoulder. “We have a new student. Would you introduce yourself?”
I took a deep breath and forced a smile. “Hi. I’m Julie. Hi.”
“Julie comes to us from Parnell. She was on the team that won the state Academic Olympics this year.”
If I could have fit beneath my desk I’d have slid under it.
Thanks a lot, Mrs. Shively. Why don’t you just tattoo “NERD” on my forehead?
But everyone in the class smiled. Kids nodded. Then they clapped.
What kind of egg-headed place was this?
“It was our first year to try, and we didn’t even make it past the morning rounds,” she told me. “I’m sure Mrs. Houser will want to talk to you about getting next year’s team ready.”
Talk to me?
“Let’s all introduce ourselves to Julie.” Mrs. Shively sat down in one of the empty student desks. “I’m Mrs. Shively, welcome.”
Then, one by one, the kids all introduced themselves to me. Suzie, with the elfin features and flippy hair. Vinny, who seemed shy. Gina with tea-brown skin and eyelashes a mile long.
“Chad,” the boy with the tie-shirt nodded and smiled, but didn’t meet my eyes again.
“Hey. I’m Peter.”
Will and Jenny and Kevin.
They all smiled.
“Hey, Julie. I’m Grace.”
“Kari Ann.”
They were all so… friendly.
“I’m Aisha, nice to meet’cha,” rhymed the girl with a zillion tiny cornrows tasseled in silver beads.
“My name is Mai Yung.” She had a child’s voice, and an innocent smile, and two little barrettes holding back the sides of her straight, glossy hair. Purple-rimmed glasses made her look like a little girl in sunglasses at the beach.
“All right,” Mrs. Shively said. “Welcome, and welcome back, to Honors English, semester two. Please open your grammar books to page seven.”
“What about our essays?” Peter asked.
“I’ll collect them on the way out. Thank you, Peter.”
Essays? I already have late homework?
“Mrs. Shively?” I raised my hand.
She just looked at me.
Aisha snorted. “You don’t have to raise your hand in here, girl.”
I shoved my hand under my desk. “I guess I missed an assignment already?”
“Mrs. Shively doesn’t believe in vacations for her students,” Peter whined.
Mrs. Shively shot him a dirty look.
At my old school Peter would’ve gotten sent to the principal’s office.
“What Peter means is that I believe in making productive use of time, and that the winter break is an excellent opportunity to practice one’s writing skills.”
“We had to write about the most significant thing that happened to us over Christmas.” Grace caught her breath and turned to Mrs. Shively. “I mean winter break.”
“I asked for five hundred words, but since you’re just joining us, how about you turn in three hundred? Say, by the end of the week?”
Three hundred words about my Christmas? I nodded.
We spent the rest of the class looking at sentence diagrams, but I planned my essay.
Over the holidays my parents split up, sold our house, dragged me across town, away from everything and everybody I know, and made me choose between them.
But the most significant thing that happened to me?
That was easy.
Damon Sheppard finally kissed me.

* * * * *

Kari Ann showed up again second hour, in art. Sandy Creek didn’t offer special art electives, just one class per grade, so Art 8 here made for a much bigger class than Advanced Painting did back at Parnell. I didn’t recognize any other faces, but Kari Ann slid into the seat right next to mine.
“Hey again.” She dropped her bag on the floor and grinned at me.
“Have you met Hap yet?”
Then Hap walked in.
His ponytail, gray and tied with a strip of leather, hung down further than my hair did. He wore tan Birkenstocks with matching wool socks. His pants looked like teacher pants, but in kelly green, and they frayed at the bottoms where they skimmed the floor and probably got trampled under the Birkenstocks. A brown and green flannel shirt, untucked, would’ve looked all right with the pants if he hadn’t worn it with a pink—yes, pink—waffle-weave Henley under it.
“Yo-ho, my aged students.” He dropped a huge portfolio on his desk. “So good to be back in nearly-adult land. Those second-graders kick my proverbial you-know-whatsit.”
Kari Ann leaned closer to me. “He’s really an amazing artist. Really.”
Then Hap noticed me, and pointed. “Hey!”
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.
“You I do not know. Right?” He picked up a sheet of paper from his desk. “Student list. Art Eight, Semester Two.”
“This is Julie, Hap. She’s new,” Kari Ann told him.
“All right. Excellent. Momentarily afraid I’d gone senile at the tender age of fifty-seven.” He ran his finger down the paper he held. “Julie? Juliet, this says. Brynn. That you?” He looked up.
I nodded.
“I’m Monseigneur Patrick Happernetzger, your friendly neighborhood art guru. You may call me Hap.”
“Where you from, Julie Brynn?”
“Here. I mean, I just moved. Houses. From Parnell.”
“A defector! Most cool.” He leaned against the desk and crossed one ankle over the other. “So, why did you sign up for my class?”
Why did I sign up for art?
“What led you to choose such a vocation, or avocation, at this juncture in your educational path?”
“I like art.”
He scowled. “Not a spirit-moving riposte.”
Okay. I pulled a sentence off an art history quiz from last semester. “I want to investigate the underlying truths of the human condition, as explored through creative media.”
“It quotes Nyland. Excellent.”
“I’m not an ‘it’.”
“Certainly not. You are a muse. And amusing.” He went to the cabinet behind his desk and pulled out a big roll of butcher paper. “Come hither, one and all. Tear off as much as you can fill in during the next forty minutes.”
“Fill in with what?” Kari Ann asked.
“The last thing you remember dreaming.”
Everyone stood and headed for Hap’s desk. Kari Ann giggled.
“What’s so funny?”
“The last thing I dreamed about was Bobby Russell,” she whispered.
I smiled. “Who’s that?”
“Dreamboat.” She sighed. “Football player. Basketball player. Baseball player. Boy Scout. And my future husband.”
“He’s your boyfriend?”
She unrolled the paper and tore off a square sheet. “Right,” she said. “I told you I dreamed about him. He doesn’t know I’m alive.”
“That might be a problem if you want to marry him.”
She twirled a lock of reddish-brown hair around her finger as I tore off some paper. “I can’t draw him, anyway. Hap randomly posts stuff in the hallways.”
“So? Then Bobby Russell might find out you’re alive.”
Kari Ann’s eyes got huge. “Are you crazy?”
“Paints, ink, crayons. Blood, sweat, and tears,” Hap called over the din of students tearing paper and discussing dreams. “Any medium you like. Except fire. Let’s not use fire today.”
Everyone started to work. I sat staring at my chunk of brown paper. The temptation to draw Kari Ann and Bobby Russell together—and speak it out as I drew, so the picture would come true—almost gave me the giggles. But I hadn’t seen Bobby Russell yet, and the ability I had, this Gift of Artistic Prophecy as Pam called it, still felt very strange, and more than a little outside my control. I knew what made it work: the words I spoke as I described what the sketch showed. But if the pictures went away when I tried to draw, if my mind went kind of fuzzy or foggy, then I couldn’t do it at all.
That forgetting, or blanking out, just started happening in the last few months. My memory had never failed like that before; in the past, before I got the Gift, if I’d ever seen it, I’d remember it and could draw it, exactly as it was.
“Can’t think of any dreams?” Kari Ann asked.
“I’m trying to pick one.”
“Good one, or bad one?”
I shrugged. There’d been lots of bad ones recently, ever since I found out about the divorce. I still dreamed about the accident, too. The motorcycle skidding on its side down the road, and me with it, as gravel spewed up and peppered me all over. Lying there, in my blood and Adam’s. Pressing on his head as hard as I could, so Damon wouldn’t lose his brother too.
“Draw anything,” Kari Ann suggested. “Hap won’t know the difference.”
An idea hit me then, something that did come out of a dream. “Is there any cardboard?” I asked Kari Ann.
“Probably.” She pointed to a box in the corner, under the window. “Hap keeps all kinds of junk in there.”
I found a good piece near the bottom, thickly corrugated and wide enough that I’d only need to move it three or four times as I worked. I slid it under the butcher paper and grabbed my sharpest pencil. It dulled quickly as it stabbed through the paper and into the cardboard, ten, fifty, a hundred, three hundred times, and I had to sharpen it over and over again.
“That’s a cool way to do pointillism,” Kari Ann admired.
Hap came up behind me. “Nice balance.” He moved left, then right, and tilted his head. “Can’t make out the image yet. Abstract?”
“No.” I shook my head. “Do you have any tissue paper?”
“What color?”
“Lots of colors.”
“I’ll see what I can find, Dame Demanding.” He shuffled over to the metal cabinet behind his desk.
Completely sucked into the process, I went to that place where nothing but me and the piece in front of me mattered, and the art seemed to make itself. I tossed the pencil back into my bag and looked around for a knife.
“Got your colors.” Hap laid a stack of tissue paper on the empty desk beside me.
“X-Acto knife?” I asked.
He pulled one from his pocket and handed it to me.
I looked up at him. “You keep it with you?”
“One never knows when a rabid chunk of cardstock might attack.”
I shook my head and started to slice nicks and gashes into the paper. They made motion lines and wavy hair, rim spokes, thready clouds and a broken fence.
“I’m dying to know what this is,” Kari Ann said.
Finished with the knife, I gave it back to Hap and turned the butcher paper over. I shredded small strips of tissue paper and laid them around the piece, darker ones like grays and browns at the edges of the piece, lighter ones moving gradually toward the center. The bike I did in steel-gray and Egyptian blue. The eyes needed no tissue paper at all.
“Can I use some tape?” I asked Hap.
“I get what you’re doing,” he said as he squinted at the reverse side of the image. “Glue’s better. More permanent.”
“But it shrivels the paper.”
He nodded. “A scotch for the lady,” he said and brought me the tape dispenser from his desk.
When I finished I held it up to the light.
“Cool!” someone behind me said.
The fluorescent bulbs shined through the tissue paper over the holes and slits and lit up the piece.
Hap laughed. “Jesus on a Harley! What’d you eat before having that dream?”
“It’s a Suzuki.”
“His eyes are like, I don’t know,” Kari Ann said.
“They’re so bright,” someone else said.
Hap took the piece. “This needs real light.”
I followed him over to the window where he hung it on the glass with more strips of transparent tape. He stepped back, and the sun slashed through the paper.
Kari Ann gasped. “Cool, Julie. Look,” she said to Hap and several others who had followed us to the window. “It’s all over her.”
The paper’s shadow covered me, but the pinpoints and stripes of light on my cheeks and forehead sparkled and tingled.
I tugged my right cuff further down my wrist to hide the jagged edges of the scar there.
“Parnell’s loss is our gain,” Hap said, and crossed his arms over his chest. “That’s show-worthy.”
“You don’t think it’s sacrilegious?” I asked.
Hap snorted. “Who cares? Art and sacrilege go hand in hand. And anyway, if Jesus were around today, he’d probably be on a chopper. Not many donkeys to be procured in 1983.”
“I wish I could do stuff like that,” somebody behind me said.
No, I thought. I’m pretty sure you don’t.

* * * * *

Third hour was science. Just plain science, not honors. Everyone sat in pairs at two-person, black-top tables. I stood in the doorway and waited for the other kids to sit down.
Aisha, from homeroom, grabbed my arm as she walked in. “Come on. My partner moved, and I’m not doing labs by myself this semester. Sit by me.”
I saw two more people from homeroom, besides Aisha. Chad sat one row over, catty-cornered behind us next to a kid who looked just like Alfred E. Neuman, and Grace waved two fingers at me from across the room.
The teacher, Miss Dupree, held her attendance book against one forearm and checked off names.
“Ackerman. Brynn. Bugler, Caprio…”
A paper airplane sailed forward from the back of the room and hit the chalkboard next to Miss Dupree’s head.
“Oakley, Otterman, Russell…”
Another airplane coasted to the front of the room and struck her just below her collarbone.
Miss Dupree bent down, picked up both airplanes, and tossed them in the trash.
“Hey, I spent like five minutes on those,” came a voice from somewhere behind me.
A group of boys snickered.
She finished attendance and sat down at her desk. “Open your books to chapter seven and read.”
“Read how much?” Chad asked.
“Till I tell you to stop,” Miss Dupree twittered, then sat down at her desk, opened a notebook and started to write.
I raised my hand. “Excuse me, Miss Dupree? I don’t have a textbook yet. I’m new.”
She opened the deep, lower drawer of her desk and pulled out a fat, hardbound book with an enormously close-up picture of a snail on the front.
I went to get it from her. “Thanks.”
In the back of the room a group of four boys clustered around a table. They whispered and laughed. The two with their backs to the front slipped around to the other side of the desk then, and all four stood up. They simultaneously drew back their right arms and launched four white airplanes in perfect unison.
Three of the planes flew straight forward together, lined up like a trio of Thunderbirds. The fourth one, however, peeled off, did a loop-the-loop, arched toward the ceiling, then spiraled straight down into my hair.
The boys roared, and one of them slapped another on the back. “Yo, Bobby! You got the new girl!”
I detangled the plane from my hair and laid it on Miss Dupree’s desk as Bobby grinned at me.
The tallest of the four, with careless shocks of wavy, blond hair that flopped across his forehead and over his ears, had to be Kari Ann’s Bobby Russell.
Miss Dupree scowled. “To the office.”
“But we’re studying flight,” one of them argued.
Bobby elbowed him and shook his head. “Come on.”
“Flight’s science, right?” Another one of them shrugged and turned up his palms.
Back in my seat, I watched the four file out of the room. Bobby turned back and mouthed, “Sorry,” to me. I shrugged and grinned.
Aisha looked at me across her shoulder. “Don’t fall for him,” she whispered.
“I’m already going with someone,” I told her.
“But anyway, why not?” For Kari Ann’s sake, I hoped Bobby didn’t have a girlfriend.
“Half the chicas in the school like Bobby.” She rolled her eyes.
I grinned. “Including you?”
“Please, girl.” Aisha turned a page in her book. “I date high school guys.”
“Is Bobby one of those jerks who sees how many girls he can go with?”
“No, not like that. Bobby’s okay. He’s really a sweetie. He’s just kind of clueless.”
“So why the warning?”
Aisha shook her head at me and grinned. “For your own good. Bobby breaks hearts and doesn’t even know it.”
That settled it. If God let me, I’d do whatever I could to help Kari Ann catch Bobby Russell.

* * * * *

You could almost call Sandy Creek’s gym uniforms stylish. As we filed out of the locker rooms in matching red and white striped shirts, and blue running shorts with the Sandy Creek Shark mascot on them, we looked like we’d fit in at the winter Olympics.
Two high nets stretched across the center of the gym. I didn’t have a lot of athletic ability, but I did okay with volleyball.
A whistle squealed from across the gym. “Line up and sound off!”
My jaw fell open. Conan the Barbarian had a teaching job at my new school.
“If you want to build some muscle…” he yelled.
And the kids sighed and moaned back, “We must learn to really hustle.”
“I can’t hear you! Unless you want to all be chumps…”
“We will let you bust our humps.”
“Two laps walking, three laps running. And… go!”
Chad, from homeroom and science, moved up beside me. “Bock barks.”
“Mr. Bock. He doesn’t actually speak. Ever. He just yells.”
Mr. Bock, a body-double for Arnold Schwarzenegger, jogged around the gym, blowing the whistle in time to his footfalls.
“I’m Chad.”
“I remember.” I reached up to feel the crystal heart and bike lock key that hung from a guitar string around my neck. I hadn’t taken it off in weeks. “I like your shirt. With the tie on it.”
“Less talking, more walking!” Mr. Bock shouted. “Arms up. And out. And up. And down.”
We looked like a bunch of orchestra conductors circling the gym.
“So, how come you moved here?”
Geez. Get right to the point, Chad.
“Sorry. I mean, I just wondered.” He looked straight ahead, as if fascinated by the victory banners on the wall. “Usually when someone changes schools, it’s because they got kicked out or something. But that can’t be you.”
“Why not?”
He laughed. “Because you won the Academic Olympics.”
“Brainiacs can’t get in trouble?”
“We usually don’t.”
I didn’t want to tell him I wasn’t actually a brainiac. But I did want to tell him every shocking thing I’d ever done. Like getting caught in the woods by the police after an illegal party, and running away from home on a train.
“So?” Chad asked again.
“My parents divorced. We had to move.”
“That sucks.”
I checked out the banners on the wall. Ian Callaghan held a lot of athletic records. “Yeah. It kind of does.”
Mr. Bock blew his whistle again. “Now run! Two laps! Impress me, or I’ll make it five!”
“What happened to your arm?” Chad asked.
Without a long sleeve to pull over it, I couldn’t hide the twisted, lumpy scars all over my right forearm. Almost two months after the accident, the skin still blotched with red and purple bruises.
“Did you get burned?”
“Road rash.” That’s what Adam called it, anyway. He had a couple of his own.
“Geez.” Chad’s eyes followed my arm as it moved in unison with everyone else’s. “Did you get thrown out of a car?”
His eyebrows shot up.
“All right, chickens,” Mr. Bock barked as we finished our last lap. “Line up against the wall and count off by fours.”
Mr. Bock broke us into four teams and assigned us places on both sides of the two volleyball nets. Chad got put on team two, while I ended up on three. Teams one and two went to opposite sides of one net while we faced off against four across the other. I didn’t know anyone on my team. But Mai Yung, from my homeroom, and Bobby Russell stood on the court across from me.
 Their team served first and lobbed it easily over the net and into the back row of our team. I turned around and kept my eye on the ball till it bounced off someone’s fingertips and into the front row, right to me. I wasn’t tall enough and couldn’t jump high enough to actually spike it, but I whammed it with the inside of my wrist and it arched over the net at Mai Yung’s head.
Mai Yung squealed and ducked.
“Sorry!” I called to her. Geez, I didn’t hit it that hard.
“It is okay,” she said, and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “I am not very good at sporting games.”
The ball came back over to our side, bobbed around four times then came back to the front row. The guy next to me spiked it hard, right onto the floor. It bounced up into the second row, straight into Bobby’s hands.
“Point,” our server called.
Bobby threw it back with one arm.
“Serving one to zero.”
The padded white ball skimmed the top of the net, aimed right at Mai Yung again. The guy beside her reached for it, and knocked her with his shoulder in the process. She fell down onto her hip, and her glasses dropped to the floor.
The guy who ran into her only grazed the ball with the side of his hand, and it rose just a few inches before it fell again.
Bobby dove right at Mai Yung. I figured he’d plow her over to keep the ball in play. But he didn’t. Instead, he crashed down onto one knee right behind her, scooped up her glasses with his right hand and flicked the ball just enough with his left hand to get it back to the guy in the front row, who then flipped it up and spiked it into the middle of our team.
“You okay?” Bobby asked Mai Yung, and offered her his hand to help her stand up.
Mai Yung took it, stood up, and reached for the glasses he held out to her. She put them on and stared up at him, this tiny little porcelain doll next to tall, rugged, blond Bobby.
I knew that look. I’d felt that look.
Mai Yung just fell hard for Bobby Russell.
“I am okay. Thank you.” I could almost see the stars flit out of her eyes like bedazzled butterflies.
He grinned at her and jogged backward to his position. His eyes went back to the ball, still going, and he hit it my direction.
I lobbed it back and watched Mai Yung and Bobby. She stole glances at him every chance she got. Bobby never looked away from the ball.
He had no idea. No idea at all.
Are all guys so completely dense?

* * * * *

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a whole apple and a Ding-Dong made an okay lunch, but my mouth watered at the trays of hamburgers, French fries, applesauce, and buckeyes that Grace, Kari Ann and Mai Yung brought to the table.
“How’s your first day so far?” Kari Ann asked as she popped the buckeye in her mouth first.
Aisha walked by with a girl who looked just like Heather Locklear. “Hey, chicas,” Aisha lifted her chin at us as they went over to a table in the center of the cafeteria.
“Eesh,” Grace muttered.
“What?” I asked.
Kari Ann shook her head. “The other one.”
“Her name is actually Heather?”
“Heather Moody.” Kari Ann bit the end off a fry. “She’s hideous.”
I unwrapped my sandwich. “How so?”
“She just is. You’ll see.”
Heather and Aisha sat down with a girl in a cheerleading uniform.
“Aisha seems nice.”
Kari Ann nodded. “Yeah. She’s cool.”
“Maybe a little too cool,” Grace muttered.
“It’s just Heather. She’s so…”
“Yeah. I think every school must have a Heather,” I said.
Grace cut her hamburger down the middle and picked up half. “Were you the Heather at your old school?”
I almost choked on my sandwich. “Me? Hardly.”
“So who are you, then?” Grace asked.
Mai Yung squinted. “She is Julie.”
“You’re so cute,” Grace said to Mai Yung.  She looked me up and down. “I mean, where do you fit in?”
Just then Bobby Russell walked past our table, without a glance at any of us. Kari Ann and Mai Yung stopped eating and followed him with their eyes until he sat down at a table of guys near Heather, Aisha, and the cheerleader. I recognized two of the guys as the paper airplane pilots from science class.
I glanced at Grace. She looked at Kari Ann and Mai Yung and shook her head.
“Julie’s an artist,” Kari Ann said, once she got her mind back to our table. “You should’ve seen what she did in Hap’s class. Hap said it was show-worthy.”
“Happernetzger is such a freak,” Grace said.
“He’s cool,” Kari Ann argued. “He’s the best teacher.”
“He made us finger-paint last year. In seventh grade.”
Mai Yung giggled.
“Seriously,” Grace said. “I did a tree with a rainbow over it. Just to be stupid.”
“Hap called it ‘aggressively minimalist’.” Kari Ann bit into her hamburger.
What would Grace say if she knew a whole school of professional artists practiced finger-painting as a serious art form?
Mai Yung’s hamburger made her hands look even tinier. “You are very good at sporting games, Julie.”
“Not really,” I said. “Volleyball is okay. Maybe hockey, too. But otherwise I have two left feet.”
Her eyes ballooned. “Your feet are both left?”
“It means she isn’t good at sports, Mai Yung,” Grace explained.
Mai Yung nodded. “Very sorry,” she said, mixing l’s with r’s. “My English is very weak.”
“Mai Yung moved here last year,” Kari Ann said.
“In China my English is very good. Here, not really very good.”
“How do you like America?” I asked.
A smile lit up her face. “Very well. I like American TV, and McDonald’s. And American people.” Her eyes flicked over to Bobby’s table again.
Though I’d kind of made up my mind to try to help Kari Ann with Bobby, Mai Yung’s expression made me second-guess myself. I didn’t want either one of them to get hurt.
But if only one girl could have Bobby, all the others had to get hurt, didn’t they?
“I feel like I know you already,” Kari Ann said.
“How come?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Kindred spirits or something, maybe.”
“You’re so flaky, Kari Ann,” Grace said.
“That’s kind of harsh,” I told her.
Grace put a spoonful of applesauce in her mouth. “I meant it in a good way.”
There’s a good way to be flaky?
I looked over Grace’s shoulder and saw Chad, at a table all by himself. He held his hamburger in one hand and a paperback in the other. When he flipped a page he took a bite and glanced over at me. I bit into my apple and turned back to the girls at my table.
“What do you have after lunch?” Grace asked.
“Study hall. Then math and social studies.”
“That’s cool. I have social studies seventh, too. Honors, right?”
I nodded, but didn’t tell her I planned to get out of it if I could.
“I go to math in sixth hour,” Mai Yung told me. “I hope you will sit beside me.”
No, I could not do anything to hurt sweet little Mai Yung. Kari Ann would have to get Bobby Russell all by herself. “Sure. Thanks.”
“We study multivariate operations.”
Oh, crud.
“It is very so interesting.”
The bell rang and everyone rushed to put their trays on the cafeteria conveyor or to throw their trash away in the tall, wide cans spaced at regular intervals around the room.
“Where’s your locker?” Grace asked me.
“I haven’t found it yet. It’s 745.”
She nodded. “That’s in the science hall. It’s close to mine. Come on, I’ll show you.”
I followed Grace out of the cafeteria and around two corners into a short hallway that seemed almost sound-proofed.
“There’s nothing down here but the science rooms and supply closets,” Grace explained.
I pulled out my schedule and locker combination and twisted the dial several times to the right.
Grace’s locker stood just a few down from mine. She opened it, pulled a lip gloss out of a magnetic bin inside the door and checked the mirror to put it on. “I saw you at the Academic Olympics, by the way.”
“You did?” My combination worked and the locker swung open.
“I was there. We lost our first two matches, but Mrs. Houser made us stay for the whole weekend, since we already had a hotel room and everything.”
“You watched the finals?”
Grace nodded.
“That’s cool. It was really fun. A lot more fun than I expected, actually.” I stacked the morning’s books on the top shelf and stowed my coat on a hook.
“The guy you sat next to—the one who picked you up and hugged you when you won—was that your boyfriend?” She closed her lip gloss and tossed it back in the bin.
The thought of Damon reopened that hole in my stomach, the one that reminded me of home, and him, and the fact that I’d moved away from both of them forever. I glanced up at the clock. Twelve twenty-two. Damon would be in science. I would have been in art.
“Yeah,” I said.
“He looked a lot older.”
“No. Damon was fourteen.” I tried to slur the word was. Grace didn’t need to know about his time in juvie, and that it put him back a year in school. Or that his fifteenth birthday had been just a couple of weeks after the Olympics.
“Really?” she asked.
“He’s just tall.”
“And hunky.”
I grinned and shut my locker.
“Are you still going with him?”
“Uh-huh.” I steeled myself to hear the same thing everyone else said: You can’t expect a long-distance relationship between teenagers to last.
“That’s cool.” She closed her locker and leaned against it. “How are you going to get to see each other?”
Not one other person had ever asked me that.
I pushed my locker door shut and twisted the dial on the lock. “I’m not sure. Bikes, maybe. But it’s a long way. They have a snowmobile, but that only works if there’s snow, right?”
“Cool. I’ve never been on a snowmobile.”
We started back down the hall, toward the cafeteria. “It’s fun. He’s totally into bikes and that kind of stuff. His brother, too.”
Grace hugged her books against her chest, then took a breath and held it.
She shook her head. “Nothing. I’ve got to get to get to math.”
“Don’t you have honors math sixth hour?”
“No. I’m really bad in math.”
I nodded. “Me too.”
“Guess I’ll see you in social studies.”
She headed up the stairs to the second floor and I turned the corner back into the cafeteria. Kids filtered in, sat down here and there, and took out homework.
“There aren’t assigned seats.”
I turned around to find Aisha and Heather right behind me.
“You can sit with us, if you want,” Aisha offered.
Heather looked me up and down, then looked at Aisha.
“She’s cool,” Aisha told her.
“Aisha,” Heather said. “Always taking in the strays.” She sat down and flipped her long, blond waves behind her shoulders.
Why do all the snotty, popular girls have such great hair?
I sat down opposite Heather and Aisha and pulled out a piece of loose-leaf. I wrote Honors English 8, Christmas Essay, and my name on the top two lines.
“Is that for Mrs. Shively?” Aisha asked. “Do yourself a favor. Don’t put the word Christmas anywhere on it. It’s Winter Break.”
“Why is that?”
“Because she’ll have a total cow and lecture you on the stupidity of religious mythology.”
My jaw dropped. “Are you serious?”
“Totally serious.”
I turned my pencil upside down and laid the pink eraser against the capital C.
Don’t erase it.
That voice came, deep inside my head, still and small, but ever so clear.
After all I’d seen and all that happened, I knew. I needed to leave it. I needed to be who I was. I needed to claim the truth of what I’d lived.
But still, despite everything, I felt so small and alone and untethered. I needed friends, and a place to fit in. I didn’t want to be the weird one, the outcast, the doesn’t-quite-fit-in girl.
Heather and Aisha both watched me.
And I rubbed out Christmas.