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Skinby Adrienne Ma Vrettos
Karen almost jerks my shoulder out of its socket dragging me out of the house and onto the front stoop. We stand huffing on the top step in the February air for a second. I nod at her, impressed. She nods back and bends over, hands on her knees. We're like athletes. Sprint runners. Sprint runners specially trained to run into burning houses to rescue orphans. Except we don't run into houses, we run out of them. And our house isn't burning, at least not with fire. We're out here because Karen freaks out when Mom and Dad fight. She always has. As soon as one of them so much as cocks an eyebrow, Karen is out the door. She grabs me by the wrist and drags me out after her. She's done it since we were kids.
She says she used to keep an old and smelly lunch box by the door, filled with a spare diaper, a bottle, a box of crackers, and these earmuffs that were shaped like teddy bears. She'd make me wear the earmuffs, even in summer, because I was always either getting or getting over an ear infection. She thought the teddy bears helped. Over the years we lost the earmuffs, but I kept the ear infections. We have much better provisions now. I reach over the side of the steps and slide out the loose brick. I pull out the tin box, replace the brick, and sit on the top step. Karen sits next to me and hands me my science book. She'd be the best and worst person to have with you if your house actually were on fire. She'd tear you out of the house before you got a whiff of smoke, but the only thing she'd rescue besides you is your homework.
She opens her Spanish workbook, and I open the tin.
"What do you want?" I ask.
"Do we have any caramel chews left? Zip up your jacket."
"No caramel. There's peanut, though," I say, zipping my jacket to my chin and burying the bottom half of my face in its high neck.
"Fine," she says, reaching over and yanking my hood up over my head. She zips her own jacket and takes a handful of the peanut candies from me. I go to work on a half-eaten box of Valentine's Day chocolates left over from last week. I can tell Karen's listening to Mom and Dad, pretending to be reading. She would never bring us farther than the front steps. We go far enough so that we don't have to see it up close, but we're close enough so nothing really bad can happen. They know we're out here.
It's already almost too dark to read my science book. I open it anyway and let my eyes unfocus on the page until the ink and the paper blend together. Then I slam the book shut and look at Karen. Her nose has turned bright red from the cold.
"I'll make you macaroni later," she says, not looking up from the book that I know she can't see. She used to tell me this to calm me down, to keep me from banging my fists and my knees against the front door, trying to get back in. She always made good on her promise. When they were done fighting, when Dad had sulked off and Mom had locked herself in the bathroom, we'd slink inside. Karen would make macaroni and we'd pretend it was just us living there.
I rest my chin on the edge of my book and start thinking about how if I were in the woods, way up on a mountain, instead of on my front steps, this time of night would be really scary.
Especially if something went terribly wrong with the mission that me and the rest of my highly trained team of secret service assassins were on. We made camp for the night in a small clearing, surrounded by towering pine trees that swayed and creaked in the cold wind. I am on first watch with Harley, the most loveable screw-up I've ever served with. Midway into our shift, I elbow him in the gut to wake him up and tell him I'm going to take a leak. I step outside of the circle of firelight and go to the edge of the woods. Midstream, the reflection of the fire suddenly disappears from the leaves I'm peeing on. I finish fast and turn around to whisper-yell, "H! You asshole. What'd you do? Piss on the fire? Harley? Stop dicking around and bring some wood." I curse under my breath while I relight the fire. What I see as the fire slowly lights the camp makes me drop to the ground and pull out my gun. They're gone. My whole team, all of them. Harley. Everybody. The tents have been slashed, the sleeping bags are empty, and there are drops of blood on the ground leading out of our campsite and into the woods. I remember Captain's words during training. He called me the wild card, a loose cannon. If it were up to him, I'd be guarding some eighth-term-senator's grandmother, not the president's daughter. But it's not up to him. Me and the president go way back, further back than I'd ever be able to tell a soul without turning up dead somewhere. The president wanted me on this, and now that his daughter has been kidnapped, it is up to me to save her. Captain would want me to do the safe thing: wait till morning. I can hear his raspy voice, There's no telling what's in these woods, soldier. "Only one way to find out," I say aloud. I grab my night-vision goggles and my pack, and head into the darkness.
Up, up out of the woods and back to where my butt has frozen to our top step, Karen's actually looked up from her book to watch a crooked rust-red pickup truck that's parking at the house across the street.
"Must be the new people," I say. Mom said someone had moved in. I just assumed it was another old couple, like the one who lived there before. The two of them had looked like brother and sister; twins even, except they were married. Creepy.
A really big guy in a parka you'd wear if you were climbing polar ice caps is getting out of the driver's side of the truck. He looks like one of those guys that builds houses. Or tears them down. Either way, he'd do it with his bare hands. He stretches when he's out, and sees us watching from across the street. He waves.
"Hiya." His voice rolls like rocks across the street. The passenger-side door opens, and a soccer ball falls out and rolls under the truck. The big man picks it up. Karen and I are both watching to see who gets out. I'm hoping for a kid my age, someone I could hang out with all weekend, till school on Monday when he finds out I'm a leper and pretends not to know me. The truck door opens farther and someone gets out. It's not a kid my age. But it is the most beautiful girl I've ever seen. Roll your eyes if you want. You think of a better way to say it when you see someone and every single part of you stops for a second, and then starts up again, but in a way that will never be the same.
Karen's already standing. She pulls me up by my jacket sleeve.
"Hi. I'm Karen," she calls as I stare at the girl crossing the street toward us. Her hair's pulled back in a ponytail and she's wearing a soccer uniform under her jacket. She's been sweating.
"This is Donnie," Karen says, nudging me with her elbow. "Did you just move in?"
"Yep. I'm Amanda. You live here?" Her socks are doubled down, showing her shin guards. She's got a scab the size of a dime on her right knee. The skin around the scab is lighter than the rest of her.
"Yep," I say. I can't look her in the eye. So I look at her chest until Karen elbows me in the ribs.
"Yeah, we live here," Karen says, as if my answer wasn't good enough. I hate it when she does that.
"So...what are you guys doing out here? Aren't you cold?" Amanda asks, resting the toe of her cleat on the edge of the step. I stare at the lines of her leg muscle and wonder how Karen will answer this one. From inside we all hear Mom yell, "The hell I don't!"
"Family tradition," Karen says quickly. Good answer. Amanda nods and smiles.
"What grade are you in?" Karen and Amanda ask each other the question at the same time and laugh.
"I'm in tenth," Karen says.
"Me too," Amanda says. "I start at Kennedy on Monday. I just met with the coach for the indoor league."
Karen nods toward me. "He's in — "
"I'm in eighth," I interrupt, and Karen snorts. Amanda smiles at me and I try to tuck my entire head inside my jacket.
"Dad and I just got Chinese food if you want to come over. It'll be warmer inside than out here."
"Sure!" I say. That's a lie: I don't say it, I practically scream it from inside my jacket.
Amanda and Karen both look at me.
"Sure," Karen says. "Thanks."
I don't notice that it's gone quiet inside till Mom opens the front door and comes out wearing her stupid fake smile and talking in her stupid fake voice.
"Hi there! I'm Karen's mom."
Apparently Karen's an only child.
"You must have just moved in across the street."
"Yes ma'am. My dad and I did."
"Well, tell your dad we would love to have the two of you over for dinner sometime real soon."
Mom's eyes are red-rimmed and glassy. Through the door I can see Dad pacing. He's not done yet. We all stand there for a second, looking at our feet.
Amanda says, "I actually just asked if...they wanted to eat at our house tonight. We're having Chinese. There's plenty."
I hold in my mouth the taste of Amanda including me, and watch Mom.
"Well, sure, Karen can eat at your house. Donnie, you don't want to hang around girls all night, do you? You'll stay here with us."
I look back inside the house. Dad's standing still now, watching us from the living room. I look back at Karen, trying to grab onto her with my eyes. I think Don't leave me, don't leave me, don't leave me. She leaves me.
"Okay. Bye, Mom. I'll be home later."
"Nice meeting you, Donnie," Amanda says.
I watch them walk down the driveway; their heads already tipped toward each other, Amanda linking elbows with Karen as if they've been best friends forever. I'm left to follow Mom into the house as she is answering Dad's demand, "Who was that?"
I don't blame Karen. I would have left too, if I could have.
Copyright © 2006 by Adrienne Maria Vrettos
I have goose bumps from the air conditioning. Dad's managed to make it feel like winter in the car, instead of the first day of our summer vacation. Mom keeps staring at the console and then fluttering her hand up, like she's going to change it.
"It's fine, Diane."
Even with the air on there is a sheen of sweat on Dad's forehead. Mom is sitting with her arms folded in her lap, moving them occasionally to rub her upper arms. I can see she has goose bumps too. She shakes her head and looks out the window.
It started this morning, with Mom walking through the house a second time to make sure everything was closed up and turned off and unplugged. Dad and Karen and I were already waiting by the car, loading in our magazines and music and the car-game books that we'd found in the attic. With the car loaded I stood on the back bumper, balancing my weight on first one foot and then the other. Karen leaned against the hood with Dad.
"What's she doing?" Dad looks at his watch and then scowls toward the hills. The highway's on the other side. I can see him calculate how many more cars are going to be on the road for every second Mom makes us wait.
"Probably calling Aunt Janice again," Karen mumbles. Dad doesn't answer. He's still mad. Aunt Janice, Uncle Dan, and my cousin Bobby were supposed to have shared the lake house with us this summer, but Uncle Dan had to get an emergency hernia operation so now they can't come. Mom cried when she found out. I could hear her whispering on her bedroom phone, saying, "I need you there, Jannie." Dad's just mad because it was too late to get a smaller lake house, so now we have to "pay for way more house than we need." Cousin Bobby and I were supposed to have shared a room. For the past few months I'd been trying to imagine what it'd be like, but I could never get a clear picture in my head. Whenever Bobby visits, I have the urge to wrap myself around his leg like I did when I was a little kid. Back then I did it because it was fun to sit on his foot while he dragged me around the house, but now it'd be to get him to stand still, to stay longer, to stay forever. I still pretend we're brothers, and that next time he comes he'll stay for good. He'll go to my school and be my best friend, and everyone will see how cool he is and then they'll know, if he's friends with me, then I'm not the loser they think I am. When we found out that none of them were coming, Karen snorted and said, "Sucks for you, Donnie," and then in the same breath, "Can Amanda come up then? We have room now."
"I don't know what Mom's doing," Karen answers.
I lose my balance and step heavily onto the driveway.
"Donnie, go get Mom."
"You go get her!" I step back up onto the bumper, back up onto the narrow rod of metal that I have to cross to reach the little kid that's trapped in the burning school. I'll have to walk across, like a tightrope walker. This is for the tightrope championship. If I can walk across this line, over the pit of snarling tigers, I will be declared the best tightrope walker ever.
"Honey? You about ready?" Dad calls, still leaning against the car, trusting his voice will make it through the open front door. Mom finally comes out with a jolly face and tired eyes.
"Just checking everything!"
Mom opens up the passenger-side door and then looks over the roof of the car at Dad, who's giving one last yank on the cord holding our possessions to the roof rack.
"Did you unplug the TV?" Mom's biggest fear is that one of our appliances will burst into flames while we're on vacation.
Dad doesn't answer. He just stares at her, blank faced and blinking.
"I'm just going to go double-check," Mom says, already rushing back toward the house.
I'm about to take my last step, the step that will make me tightrope champion, but decide it will be more exciting to fall into the pit of tigers and have to fight them off with my kung fu skills. I jump onto the driveway and kick my leg up high, almost as high as the roof of the car. Karen watches and rolls her eyes, so I kick again, this time close to her face. I forget how quick she is when she wants to be and she grabs my foot mid-kick and holds it up, laughing her head off while I hop around and shout, "You think you have me, evil sister? Just wait till I demolish you with my signature black falcon flying kick!"
But I can't really kick, so I pull a hair out of her arm instead, which on the good side makes her drop my foot, but on the bad side, she's put me in a headlock before I can finish telling her that I just got her with my unbeatable yanking-hair torture. I'm really happy Dad's too busy glowering at the house to yell at us to stop. But after a second he makes us get in the car, and once we get in, he turns the key in the ignition. I look at Karen, wondering if we're just going to go on vacation without Mom, leaving her to check and recheck that she unplugged the iron and the toaster and the microwave. Karen shrugs and puts on her headphones, which means Don't talk to me, I'm busy looking moody.
"Dad, can we go fishing up there?" I lean forward so my body is wedged between the two front seats.
"If we ever get there, yes we can go fishing," he answers.
I ignore his tone.
"Cool," I say. "We can catch dinner."
Dad smirks and nods his head. I have an urge to ask, "Hey, Dad, why do you have to be such an asshole all the time?" I actually get as far as "Hey, Dad," but Mom gets in the car before I have the chance to see if I have the guts to say the whole thing.
Dad's hands are tight on the steering wheel and he won't look at Mom. He just twists around so he can back the car out of the driveway.
"Ready?" Mom asks as she turns in her seat to grin at us. We smile at her, both of us. But it's the look you give someone you feel sorry for, a smile that barely makes your mouth move and doesn't affect the rest of your face. Mom turns around and leans forward to adjust the temperature. Dad glares at her, and turns the knob back to where it was. She looks at him, and then pulls her book from her bag and starts reading. That's how it got so damn cold in the car.
After an hour Karen pulls off her headphones and says, "Dad, Donnie's turning blue."
Dad glances at me in the rearview mirror. I'm not turning blue, but he turns down the air anyway and looks at Mom. He winks at her and she wrinkles her nose at him.
Karen rolls her eyes and takes out a deck of cards. We all understand what just happened. They made up. Now we can stop ignoring each other.
"Donnie, let's have a good summer," Karen says, loud.
"Yeah," I say. Just as loud.
Mom and Dad ignore us.
"So...when's Amanda coming up?" I try to say it like I don't really care, like I'm just making conversation to pass the time.
"Next week. After soccer camp."
"Hmm," I say.
"Chris and Bean aren't coming?" Karen asks.
I answer quickly, "They're at camp all summer."
Karen raises her eyebrows. I ignore her and look at my cards. I know she is trying to solve the same riddle that's in my head. The riddle is this: What happened between me and my two best friends to make them scrape me out of their lives like dog crap off a sneaker? I think about last summer, trying again to find some sign of what was to come.
"This is for the championship."
I give the ceremonial bow to Chris and Bean, who sit on deck chairs sharing the last crumbs of a bag of chips. Bean is wrapped in three towels and an afghan that Chris's mom keeps out here for him. Bean's what they call a "fragile" kid. That's why he and Chris make the perfect odd-couple combination. Bean's about the size of a mini Tootsie Roll and Chris is the only kid going into the eighth grade who buys clothes at the Big and Tall store at the mall. They're best friends with each other, and I'm best friends with the two of them at the same time. Not individually, though, because they already have each other.
I step onto the diving board, my eye on the sun as it bleeds red orange into the horizon. I wait till only a sliver of the burning disk can be seen above the hills. I want to hit the water right when the sun on the last day of the best summer I've ever had slips behind the round edge of the world. I hold my arms over my head and curl my toes over the edge of the diving board. I bounce once, readying myself mind and body to steal the cannonball championship trophy (aka a giant stick of beef jerky Chris's dad sent him from Texas) from its proud perch on Chris's desk.
I give a silent count, Three, two,...
"ALL EYES ARE ON DONALD LEPLANT!" Chris's shout almost makes me fall off the board; I windmill my arms till I get my balance.
"Knock it off!" I shout, laughing, at Chris. Bean tries to stuff one of his towels into Chris's mouth, yelling to me, "Do it, Donnie! You've worked all summer for this! Do it!" and then "Get off me!" as Chris sits on him. I count down again. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Bean squirm free and take off into the backyard. I jump, curling tightly into a ball, tensing my back for the slap of the water. As I go in, I see Chris and Bean look up from where they're wrestling on the grass. It's a big splash, I can feel it. I push off against the bottom of the pool and come up to hear Bean clapping and hollering and Chris rolling on the ground, shouting, "I demand a rematch!" I pump a victory fist in the air and go back under, pushing myself down till I hover just above the pool bottom. I don't want this summer to end. I want to keep coming over here every day. I want to keep eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chips on the deck every day for lunch. I want Chris to keep imitating his mom after she yells at us for splashing water out of the pool. I want the summer to stretch out in front of me forever. I hold my breath till it gushes out of me, and I rise to the surface.
"I'm glad they're not coming. Those guys are pricks," Karen says.
I'm so deep in the memory I almost say, "No, they're not," but I stop myself, because I know she's right. They turned on me. I wish they'd just sat me down at the beginning of the school year and said, "You're out," instead of deciding together to drop me and waiting to see when I'd notice. If they'd done that, sat me down and told me, I would have laughed in their faces. I would have gotten up and walked away and left them sitting there to realize what they'd just done. It's not like there's a whole line of kids waiting to be friends with us, clamoring to take my place. We're the end of the line. We're the ones that people look at and think, At least I'm not them. Kids get a death grip on their friends when it looks like they might be slipping down to where we are. It's like a kick in the balls, when people use you as a threat, when you hear someone say, "Stop being such a douche bag or we'll make you go sit with LePlant and the other freaks." If someone asked why it was us, why we were the bottom of the barrel, I'd say, "Open your eyes, dumbass." Nothing about us is right. We're the wrongest kids you've ever seen. Our faces are wrong with zits, we have the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, and I think that we might be ugly. Our families are wrong because none of us are rich, our bodies are wrong because we suck at sports, and there's something really wrong with all of our personalities, because nobody likes us, not even the teachers. Teachers make fun of us too, and think we don't notice.
It's other things too. It's the time everyone saw Bean crying on the phone to his mom in the office, or when Chris split his pants from back to front bending over to pick up a dropped chocolate bar, or the month I had to have cotton stuffed in my ears every day because yellow puss was leaking out of them and whenever I was around, everyone was doing these really exaggerated imitations of what they thought deaf kids sound like when they talk. They basically made grunting sounds and found different ways to flip me off using their own brand of sign language, even though I kept saying that I could hear fine. They would yell it back at me, in their fake deaf voices. I finally just ignored them, pretended I was deaf, and when I got better and the cotton came out, they went back to ignoring me. Bean washes his hands before and after every class and turns door handles with an elbow or a foot instead of touching them with his hands. Every once in a while he'll run screaming down the hallway while someone chases him with a pencil they say they stuck in a full toilet. Chris keeps pitching tents in his sweatpants during gym. And there's other reasons that I don't even know how to name, because for the life of me I can't tell what they are. Something has to be really wrong with us that we can't see, for us to be where we are in the school cool chain. Because for everything that's "wrong" with us, there's some other kid with the exact same affliction who somehow still manages to have a good life.
For whatever reason, Chris and Bean decided that for all the things wrong with them, whatever was wrong with me was even worse. They started to act like I was bothering them, tagging along like a little brother. I already knew what that felt like. They'd be talking in the hall and I'd walk up to them and Chris would say something like, "Donnie, why do you have to follow us around? Go get us a table for lunch." So I should have just dumped them, right? Stopped hanging out with them. Found other friends. But there were no other friends. No one moved up from where we were. You stayed there till you dropped out or transferred or graduated and didn't get invited to any graduation parties. So I'd go save us a stupid table for lunch and maybe they'd come, and maybe they wouldn't. But they never cut me off altogether. They always left me a little hope that things would be the way they were, to make sure I stayed around. I guess I do know what happened. They just realized that crapping on someone could make them feel better about being crapped on themselves.
I was spending more and more time out on the front steps while Mom and Dad fought. If Karen was home, she'd take me over to Amanda's with her, but most times she didn't even come home after school. She just went straight to Amanda's. I'd see how long it took her to look out Amanda's bedroom window and notice me sitting in front of our house. She'd come over, stomp past me up the steps, and practically kick open our front door. She'd never go inside. She'd just lean in and yell something like, "Mom! It's six thirty and Donnie needs his dinner!"
I'd mumble, "I'm not a three-year-old, you know."
Mom and Dad would shut up for a second, and then Mom would yell back something along the lines of, "Why are you telling me? Am I the only one in this family who knows where the kitchen is? Everyone in this house turns into the village idiot whenever there's actual work to be done! 'Uh, what do you mean, cook something? A vacuum? What's that?'" This is directed at Dad.
Karen waits and listens till she hears Dad mumble something and Mom yells, "You worked all day? Housework is work! Donnie! Come inside. It's cold out."
On her way back down the steps Karen would say, "Tell her I'm eating at Amanda's."
Every time, I'd kind of hope that Karen wouldn't come over. I wanted her to let me take care of Mom and Dad in my own way. I wish she'd let me sit out there till Mom and Dad finally noticed and had to chip away the ice that'd formed on me while I waited.
Copyright © 2006 by Adrienne Maria Vrettos
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