After I flunked tenth grade, I went to an alternative school for two years until I tested out. Now I’m at a high school with a college track. My guidance counselor is Mr. Peboe. I think he might have a crush on me because he is always calling me into his office. He has scaly red boils on his neck, and lately he’s been pressuring me about applying to colleges. In his office I cross my legs and hold my books to my chest and try not to look at his neck.
“What happened on Friday?” he says, his eyes bugging out at me.
“I can’t do Fridays.” He just keeps looking at me until I say, “My mom needs me at home.”
“Maybe I should call her,” he says.
I don’t say anything.
“Ms. Conklin tells me you’re a very slow learner.”
“It’s math,” I say.
“Katy, do you want to go on to college?”
I don’t want to go to college. I can barely get through a single day of high school. The only reason I go at all is to see Shay, my chemistry partner. He has bleached-blond hair, a mean mouth, and pearly black eyes. It’s not always easy to look into his eyes because he is the type of person who looks past you, but sometimes our eyes meet, and it is like the ground tilts. There is something in his eyes. I think it is sexiness. I have studied him from all angles. Just looking at the back of his neck or the blue veins on the smooth insides of his arms makes my chest hurt.
I uncross my legs and lean forward to look at Mr. Peboe’s watch. It’s a pain that he has no clock. There is a pale circle of clean paint like a full moon on the wall where a clock used to be. I guess he thought everyone was more interested in the clock than in him. I really don’t want to be late for chemistry. In fact, I’d like to have time to brush my hair before I see Shay. In class I always handle the glass tubes and beakers, measuring and pouring and dripping, while Shay does the hard brain work, writing everything down on paper and putting my name next to his in big, dark letters. He writes so hard that he often breaks pencils. I steal his pencils, especially the broken ones, casually sliding them into my pocket. He has never noticed.
“I’m having trouble understanding,” Mr. Peboe says, moving his arm so that I can’t see his watch. “Is there trouble at home, Katy?”
What troubles me is that rash on Mr. Peboe’s neck. It could be contagious. I start to feel itchy. “Can we talk later? I should get to class.” I stand up, and Mr. Peboe lets me go. He has caused me to miss my smoke break. I won’t have time to smoke and brush my hair.
As I step out of his office, the class buzzer goes off. People pour into the hallways. I hate these halls and everyone in them. I focus my thoughts on Shay and make it to my locker in time to brush my hair, which is my best feature. I want Shay to fall in love with my long, straight hair and then with the rest of me.
He is late to class. While we work, I let my hair fall onto the counter, and he pushes it out of the way. I can’t believe he touched my hair.
“Watch out,” he says, like you would to a dog.
Watch out, I hear him say again and again as I sit in my next class. Watch out. The words crash in my mind. You watch out, I think.
Besides chemistry, we have two other classes together, English and algebra. Shay is popular with both students and teachers. Our hippie chem teacher is always saying, “Hey, man,” and patting Shay on the back as if it’s a special honor to have him take his class, as if there was another chemistry class but Shay has chosen his especially. Ms. Conklin, our algebra teacher, likes to call Shay to the board for the extra-credit problems no one else can do. She wears plaid skirts and high-buttoned collars and makes little cooing noises while he works a problem.
Sometimes I imagine he feels something for me. I wake with his name on my lips. Shay, I think, as soon as my eyes open. Earlier in the term he didn’t come to class for three days in a row, a Wednesday through Friday, and that next Monday was a teacher workday. For six whole days he was out of my life.
Winter vacation will be the worst. It always snows just before the break, and I will be stuck at home alone with my mother. She is a chain smoker and so lonely that she talks to herself. I don’t mean mumbling either. I can actually hear her all the way down the hall from my bedroom. “Wow,” she will say. “Look at that snow. Winter is here already? Where did the time go?” As she keeps talking, she starts to worry. “What if the snowplow doesn’t make it out here? What will I do then?”
The only way I get through nights and weekends is by lying in bed with my eyes closed as much as possible, so I can be with Shay in my mind. I can feel him, smell him. I fall asleep wondering if he can feel me thinking about him.
We are watching a movie today in chemistry, because we have a substitute. I should be happy, sitting in the dark next to Shay, but I feel dread. I have to get him to like me before the break. Because what if I don’t get him for a lab partner next term? What if Mr. Weber decides all of a sudden to throw away the alphabetical seating chart, just to shake things up? Teachers think they’re being so creative when they’re ruining your life.
I look at the back of Carolyn Kirby’s head. She has streaky blond hair that is annoying. She thinks she’s hot, wearing low-cut T-shirts and always hugging people. Nothing stops Carolyn from flirting. She shows off her cleavage to anyone.
It turns me on that Shay is sitting so close to me. Sometimes he doesn’t seem to notice that my arm is almost touching his. Or maybe he does notice and he likes it. His bare arms are naturally brown. I can’t get over his arms. Carolyn better not try anything with him. If she somehow gets to be his lab partner next term, I will have to kill her.
Shay starts to fidget. He looks out the window, so I look too. I see the snow, a few flakes swirling in the air, as if they don’t know where to land. Shay breathes in. “Snow,” he says. “I hope it snows so much they shut the school down.”
“Yeah,” I say, hoping the world will end, and Shay and I will be the only people left.
I have PE last period. I don’t see the point of this class. I have skipped so many times, one more absence and I flunk. I’m contemplating flunking. How bad would it be? At the alternative school we didn’t even get grades.
The PE teacher is named Ms. Powell, but she pronounces it, “Pal.” She’s short and stocky with wiry gray hair.
Bad-weather days are the worst, because we have to do something inside, which is almost always volleyball. “Set!” the girl next to me screams. I put my hand over my ear and scowl at her while the ball bounces on the floor between us. “Loser,” she hisses, and she spends the rest of the class shoving me aside to get the ball, sliding to her knees at times, arms stretched out in front of her, continually screaming, “Set!” and, “Spike!” and, “Mine!” even when the ball is nowhere near her.
Ms. Pal claps her hands. “Way to hustle, Kraxberger!”
After class Ms. Pal stands outside the showers with a clipboard, marking us off as we go by. We get points for showering. I file into the showers, circle around without taking off my towel or getting wet, and exit. Ms. Pal erases my shower point.
Outside it is no longer snowing, but the sky is dark like it might storm. I have on a black hooded sweat shirt and fingerless knit gloves. I ride my bike off school grounds and down the alley behind the row of stores we call “downtown.” The air is so cold I can see my breath. It’s a two-mile ride home. I stop along the way, lean my bike against the brick side of the library, and smoke half a cigarette, putting the butt in my pocket for later before getting back on my bike.
As I’m riding on the highway, a few cars whoosh past, and then I hear an engine slowing until a truck pulls alongside me, a jacked-up red four-by-four. It’s Shay. He pulls to the side of the road ahead of me, and I coast to a stop. My fingers and cheeks are numb.
“Hey, Neptune,” he says, leaning out the window. He refuses to acknowledge that I have a first name. Once, I asked him to call me Katy, and he said, “I never use first names, but even if I did, I’d still call you Neptune.” Sometimes he calls me Pluto or Uranus. He says Uranus like “your anus.” He thinks it’s pretty funny.
“Hop in,” he says. “It’s freaking cold.” I think how stupid I must look with my hood tied under my chin. He gets out to help me put my bike in the back, and I’m so nervous that my eyebrow twitches.
The cab of his truck feels small and intimate. I push my hood off, smooth out my hair. Then I put my hands in the pockets of my sweat shirt so he can’t see them shake and try to think of something to say. Your anus is all I can think. It seems like the quiet will go on forever.
“Oh, make a right up here,” I say, relieved to have broken the silence.
“I know where you live,” he says, the same way he told me to watch out in class.
I can hear the rocks hitting up underneath his truck when we turn off the highway, and I hope he won’t notice that I am trembling. His smell is everywhere, like earth. A few grains of sleet hit the windshield.
“Here it comes,” he says.
I glance over. He smiles. He has never smiled at me before. I’ve seen him smile, but not at me. It’s the most personal thing he has ever done, just now. He doesn’t know that I’ve already licked his lips and touched him all over and breathed and shivered and broken into tiny pieces on top of him in my mind.
When we pull up to where I live, I notice for the first time that the trailer sags in the middle, as if something heavy is weighing it down. There’s the archway from when we had a fence, but there is no fence anymore, just the arch that we still walk through, out of habit. And the worst thing, I realize, is the stoop. Oh, my God, we have a stoop. Not a deck or a porch. A stoop. I feel my cheeks get hot.
“How do you know where I live?”
“Don’t you know where I live?” he says.
Shay’s family lives farther up the mountain in a big new house with huge windows and a deck. Their trucks and four-wheelers fill the circular driveway. They are a noisy, rich redneck family. If you are outside in the winter and hear the whine of snowmobiles, it’s the Molinas tearing through the wilderness. If you go out to the gravel pits, the craziest boys on the nicest dirt bikes are the Molina brothers. Shay’s father owns a construction company, and they have logging money in their family.
“Do you want to come in?” I press my knees together.
“Nah. Some other time, maybe.”
Part of me knew he would say no, but the rest of me can’t understand why he doesn’t feel what I feel. I pace around the trailer until it gets dark, taking off my clothes to look at myself in the mirror without mercy. Nah, Shay said. So casually.
So casually he cut me dead.
I put on my mother’s silk robe, the only nice thing either of us has to wear, and sit on the stoop and smoke. The cold air blows through the robe, and there are tight sprinkles of icy rain. When I see headlights over the hill, I know it’s Shay, coming back. I go inside and lean against the door.
The car stops. Could it really be him? Out the window I see the gleam of his truck through the darkness, and I am unable to move as he gets out, his bleached hair white in the light from the cab. He shuts the door. I close my eyes.
The knock is loud. He’s on the stoop, hunched in a down jacket.
“Jesus, Neptune,” he says when he sees me. “What are you wearing?”
Oh, yeah. The robe.
“You want your bike?” he says.
My bike. It’s still lying in the back of his truck. I don’t care about the stupid bike! I want to scream.
He looks past me, inside the trailer, and then his eyes flick over my body. “That’s something else,” he says. He means the robe. It is crimson with black flowers stitched on the lapels.
“Do you want to come in?” I ask. “My mom’s not home. You can come in just for a minute.” The words rush out of my mouth, as if I have to hurry before I lose him.
As he steps across the threshold, I notice the trailer smells like stale cigarette smoke. There are newspapers and records stacked in the corners, a pile of shoes that he trips over by the door. Our furniture is old and faded. The carpet feels cheap under my bare feet. I take his coat and drape it across the arm of the sofa.
“Wow,” he says, looking around.
“What?” I say.
“Nothing,” he says.
I turn up the thermostat in the living room. “We’re having a house built for us in California,” I say. “This is just temporary.”
“Oh, yeah? California, huh?”
“Yep,” I say. I don’t want to talk anymore, but I can’t seem to stop myself from talking. “We go to California all the time. On business. Plus, my dad lives there.” I shove a pile of magazines away with my foot. “Excuse the mess,” I say.
“Maid’s day off, huh?”
We stare at each other. I feel this crazy bubbly feeling in my stomach that I think is happiness. He wants me. This I know for sure. At this moment I am the luckiest girl in the whole world.
“Where’s your mom?” he says.
“She has the late shift tonight.”
“Oh, yeah?” He closes the gap between us. I feel dizzy when he puts his hand on the back of my neck. His breath on my face is warm, and then we are kissing and kissing and kissing. He pushes me down onto the sofa. The scent of him is the best thing I have ever smelled. He is perfect even though it hurts. I squeeze my eyes shut so he can’t see the tears.
He gets off me. I wish we could just lie here for a while, but he grabs his jeans. I sit up. He reaches over and pulls my robe closed.
“I gotta go,” he says.
“I know,” I say.
I watch him drive off with my bike still in the back of his truck. His truck gets smaller and smaller until it is gone. There is a hole inside of me. It is all I ever wanted, to be that close to him. I wanted it to last forever. But it was like smoking too many cigarettes.
I fall asleep on the sofa covered by a quilt that smells of cat pee, even though we don’t have a cat. Sometime during the night it storms, dropping two feet of snow before morning.
There’s a lot of snow all through the winter. The fat snowflakes fall, piling higher and higher. The sky turns dark without warning, and the darkness brings Shay and me closer. I understand we are a secret. If anyone found out about us, he wouldn’t want me anymore. But I feel safe while the nights are so long, like we are undercover. My bike is in Shay’s garage, but I am afraid to ask him for it. It is the one thing that links us, besides our secret. So when school starts again after winter break, I ride the bus, which is only for freaks. I sit up front and don’t talk to anyone. Sometimes I go to town with my mom, but mostly I wait for Shay to drive me somewhere, anywhere. Because my mom is almost never home, we have sex at my house. Standing up, lying down, on the table, on the floor, on my bed, in the shower. When I am not with Shay, I read my mom’s magazines that tell you how to make a man happy sexually. You would be surprised.
When the snow melts, there’s mud. Shay takes me four-wheeling, and we do it in the mud. That is the magazine’s number-one rule: Be spontaneous. Mud gets in my hair, cakes over my skin. He drops me off at my house afterward. He has to get home.
Little by little, Shay gets busy. He has track after school. I insist on waiting for him, standing behind the school, smoking.
One Saturday morning I step outside the trailer, blinking in the light. The sun is bright and hot, shining over the road. And there is my bike, leaning against the stoop. What does it mean? Did someone find out about us? Is he dumping me? Why would he dump me? I have followed all the sex rules. Not even Carolyn Kirby would do what I do. Would she?
I won’t let him fall in love with someone else.
I go inside and stare at the phone for a while. Then I go back out and look at my bike as if it were a secret message. I call his house. His mother answers. “I don’t know when he’ll be back,” she says. “I’m not sure where they went.”
They? The word fills me with fear.
When I call again, my hand is shaking. I hear his mother say, “Hello?” so I disguise my voice. The next time she answers, I just hang up. The last time I call, a deep male voice says, “Who is this?”
I put down the receiver as soft as I can.
In the bathroom I cut my hair. It falls jaggedly into the sink. I pick up a strand and let it slide through my fingers. It doesn’t seem like my hair. It looks blacker than mine. I scoop the hair out of the sink and throw it away on top of tissues and Q-tips.
The day takes so long. Every minute feels like hours, and I hurt all over. It is like having the flu. Shay, I think. “Shay,” I whisper out loud. I read somewhere about a psychic who protected people by envisioning a shield of light around them. I close my eyes and picture Shay inside a light bubble, filling it with love so that he can’t forget me. I want Carolyn Kirby to double over in pain when she feels my love surrounding him like an electric fence.
I lie down on the sofa and smoke, flicking ashes on the carpet, hoping the trailer might go up in flames, but there is not even a burn. I stub out my cigarette on the carpet, then stick the butt between the sofa cushions.
In the night I wake up sweaty. I can smell a cigarette being smoked in my mother’s room, so I know she’s home. I can’t stand it. I can’t bear to be awake in the middle of the night with my mother.
I grab a lined jean jacket from one of the hooks on the door and squeeze my feet, still wearing socks, into a pair of flip-flops. Then I get on my bike and ride. I ride up the hill and down, coasting with no hands, my bike light shining in front of me. I pedal hard on the highway, leaning over the handlebars like a racer, shifting gears as I climb the mountain, my legs pumping faster and faster. I breathe in the icy air. The moon is a sliver. Stars are everywhere. They are so bright. The sky is lit with stars until I turn onto Shay’s dark, wooded road. There’s the sound of the river and my breathing and the swishing sound as I pedal. Sometimes I see the stars through the trees. And then there’s Shay’s house.
When I lean my bike against the side of the garage, a dog barks. More dogs bark until they are all howling together. I hold still, terrified. Then I realize the dogs are locked in the shed. They bark awhile and then stop. As I make my way across the driveway to the porch, I see a light on upstairs. Should I knock? What if Shay’s redneck dad kills me with a shotgun?
I step carefully onto the porch, as quiet as a thief. I am surprised at how well I can see in the dark. I take off my flip-flops and put them next to some big black boots and several pairs of dirty sneakers. Then I try the door handle. It opens.
Inside, a dim light shines over the stove in the kitchen, which makes it easy to find the stairs.
I go up, not making a sound in my socks, trailing my hand along the railing. There’s another light from underneath one of the doors. Shay’s bedroom. It just has to be his room. I can’t wait to peek in and see for a tiny moment what he is like when he thinks no one is watching. The hallway is wide and long. I open his door and look in. He’s reading in bed.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he says, dropping the book.
I close his door until it clicks, then lean back against it. “I just came to say hi.”
“What happened to your hair?” he asks.
“Does it look bad?”
“You just walk into my house at midnight?”
“Is that what time it is?”
“What’s wrong with you?” He’s talking in a normal voice, not whispering. He will wake his parents.
“I just wanted to see you,” I whisper, hoping he will take the hint.
He stares at me. If I didn’t know better, I would almost think he was afraid of me.
“Hey, listen,” I say softly, moving toward him. I have come this far, so why stop now? I sit down on the edge of the bed. He holds the covers over him, his chest and shoulders peeking out. I want him more than ever, even though he is looking at me like a trapped animal and his parents could come rushing down the hall any minute with firearms.
He’s naked under those covers. I know it. I need to touch him. “Can’t I get in bed with you?” I beg. My hand reaches out to touch his, but he is fast. He grabs my wrist, squeezing tight. “Go fuck yourself,” he says. I can’t believe how mean he sounds.
I try to pull my hand away, and he lets go.
“Get out, Katy,” he says. “Now.”
“I still like you a lot,” I tell him.
He shakes his head. “You have no reason to like me,” he says.
I go out the way I came in, softly. In the kitchen I stop. Shay’s textbooks are on the table. I have the same ones. It makes me feel better to see his books and think that sometimes we are thinking the same thoughts.
I open up his chemistry book on the top of the stack. There’s a piece of paper inside the cover. It’s a picture — Carolyn Kirby’s senior picture, taken in the cafeteria in front of a fake waterfall backdrop. Turning it over, I read what she has written: To Shea, Your a nice friend. What an idiot. There’s a pen on the table, and I use it to poke out her eyes.
I don’t want to leave. The smell inside the house is Shay’s smell. I wish I was a cat and could live in this house and never leave. I trail my fingers along the counter, touch a cup, a dish towel, someone’s reading glasses. There’s a pie covered with plastic wrap. It’s a whole pie on a glass plate. The crust is golden and untouched. Why would you bake a pie and not even eat a slice? Why wouldn’t you eat it all right away?
When I leave, I take the pie. It is hard to ride my bike and hold on to the pie, but I make it all the way back to the highway before I crash. There is a hard lip between the gravel road and the pavement, and when I hit it, it’s all over, just like that. The pie is broken. I sit on the side of the road. My palms are scraped, but what hurts is seeing the pie, oozing dark filling over broken glass. And no one even tasted it.
It rains on Monday. The drops streak down the windows. Shay is not in any of our classes. He’s out again on Tuesday. He shows up Wednesday in the afternoon, and I’m glad, but he is quiet, even for him. The silence rings in my ears.
“Hey,” I say finally. People look over at me. Was I loud? “How are you?” I whisper.
“So, what’d you do this weekend?” I ask as we put on our white lab smocks.
“Shut up,” he says.
He bends over the textbook. He will have to forgive me. There’s only the rest of this week and then spring break. He has to talk to me before then. Glancing away, I lock eyes with Carolyn. I make a face at her, and Shay catches me and kicks my foot. I have to write my own name on our assignment.
After school I wait for him in the parking lot by his truck. “Can I have a ride?” I ask.
“Didn’t you ride your bike?”
“No,” I lie.
“Katy,” he says, “I saw you. I saw you on your bike.”
“Please,” I say. “I’m tired. I had to run in PE.”
“You had PE last semester.”
“I flunked,” I say, which is not a lie.
He smiles. “Really?”
He doesn’t say anything as he drives. I keep thinking he will yell at me or something, but he doesn’t talk. When he used to like me, when we were on our way to have sex somewhere, he always tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, and I knew he was happy. I knew I could scoot close to him and put my hand on his leg. I wonder if he will ever tap his fingers in front of me again.
“Are you mad?” I ask.
“I was,” he says, “but not anymore. It’s no use being mad at you.”
“What do you mean?” I say. I don’t like the sound of it. “What do you mean?” I say again when he doesn’t answer.
When he ignores me, I think that there is no reason to live. I look at him, sitting so far away across the cab of the truck. Look at me, I think. Just once. I would do anything. Anything.
“Do you like Carolyn Kirby?” I ask. My voice is shrill, like my mom’s when she talks to my dad.
“Christ,” Shay mutters, turning off the highway.
“I have to know,” I say. “Come on. Tell me. God, are you in love with her or what? Tell me. You have to tell me. Please.”
“You get so worked up. I just started talking to her.”
“You talk to her? Do you like her better than me? She can’t even spell your name, you know.”
He slams on the brakes so hard I have to grab the dashboard with both hands. We are stopped in the middle of the road, bright blue sky all around. He leans across my lap, and I think that this is it: he is overcome by desire for me. I can even hear his heart pounding. I touch the back of his head, feel his silky blond hair between my fingers. I don’t ever want to let go.
He opens the passenger door. “Get out,” he says.
After Shay kicked me out of his truck, I walked the rest of the way home. It was the kind of spring day that felt like summer, early summer, before you’re tired of it. It wasn’t so bad, walking along the highway.
I dropped out of high school. It was so easy, I never realized: you just leave and don’t come back. I spent the next week drinking soda and sunbathing while summer got closer and closer. My perfect tan went unnoticed by my mom until Mr. Peboe managed to get ahold of her. She got hysterical on the phone with him, but apparently he calmed her down, because he took her to dinner, and now they’re dating. I can’t tell if he is creepy or nice.
They tried to push me to go to summer school. “You only need eight more credits to graduate,” Mr. Peboe said, scratching one of his boils. My mom gazed at him across our kitchen table. They wanted me to sit at the table with them, but I slouched against the counter.
“You’re so gifted,” my mother said.
I had to laugh. It was like she and Mr. Peboe had merged completely. Her mouth moved, but his voice came out. I wondered if she would get his skin problem too.
“It’s our job to help you be the best person you can be,” Mr. Peboe said, looking meaningfully at my mom.
My mother reached out her hand, and Mr. Peboe thought she wanted to hold hands, but she grabbed her cigarettes instead.
“I’ll think about it,” I told them.
And I have been thinking. Mostly of Shay. I have no reason to like him. That’s what he told me. But his name is still on my lips when I wake in the morning. It hurts, the familiar ache of him. Like a phantom limb. I roll over to look out the window, and there is the blue sky. I can’t help but wonder: Do I need a reason?