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I decide to go to Cece’s and tell her about the Miller-driving-me-to-the-hospital incident when Bristol comes over on account of Daddy being out of the house and Mom not working at Foodland. Bristol talks to Mom about married life and her new apartment in town and how Rob is going to try to get a job soon and that she’s not pregnant yet. Mom tells Bristol that Sophy has joined the choir at school and gets to wear a cute little uniform. It’s free so Daddy is in favour of it. Now Sophy sings all the time in her squeaky voice and makes us all laugh, but sometimes she doesn’t stop and it makes us all really irritated instead.
When I’m getting ready to leave for Cece’s, Bristol says to me, “So how are you holding down the fort without me?”
I want to ask her what I should do about Beckie sneaking out at night. Beckie tells Mom she’s on cheer squad and the girls always have sleepovers and important things to discuss that cannot be discussed over the phone. But she’s lying. Beckie used to be a cheerleader before her attendance dropped and her grades became non-existent. I tried to get her to knock it off once by hiding the ladder she uses to get back into our room, but she went out anyway and instead of finding the ladder in the barn, she tried to climb the tree outside our window. All I could think about was Pollyanna and her twisted legs and her broken doll, so I put the ladder back myself. But I look at Bristol drinking tea out of a Marineland mug at our kitchen counter, and say, “Alright, I guess,” instead.
I walk to Cece’s house, because it’s just down the road before the Wilsons, and we sit around her room and listen to sentimental Connie Francis songs on her grandpa’s record player. We do this every time she breaks up with a boy. We eat ice cream sandwiches and she puts her hair into a 1960s up-do and lip-syncs to “Frankie”, and then we watch Gilmore Girls on Netflix.
Cece claims not to remember any boy named Miller Stott from the newspaper. She just keeps asking me what he looks like and if he has any brothers worth pining for. I know about the diner, his uncle and the Olympics and the swimming pool, and that he’s got a brother who either joined the army or works on a farm. But I don’t tell that to Cece. She’s too busy ranting about how she’s going to get fat like her mom and die as an old maid.
Going to Cece’s house always makes me depressed because if she’s going to get fat like her mom and die an old maid, what does that mean for me? Cece’s never been single for more than a month in her whole life. I’ll probably die young. Probably fatter than Cece’s mom too.
Ever since Miller drove me to see Grandma he’s been following me around school, smiling at me and trying to get me to talk to him. He walks around with an entire head above most students and he caves in his swimmer shoulders so he doesn’t bump into anyone unintentionally, while holding onto the straps of his backpack. Today he chases me all the way down the science hall and two sets of stairs, past the staff room and my locker. He finally catches me on the way to the library.
“Hey,” he says, all out of breath because of the hunt.
I say hi and keep walking. He follows me and asks me what I’m doing, so I say, “I’m going to the library.”
He immediately asks me why. My answer makes me sound like a nerd, but I say it anyway, “Homework.”
“But it’s lunch,” he says.
I want to say No, it’s an extra meaningless hour I’m stuck at school, but I say, “Yeah, so?”
“Aren’t you going to eat?”
I stop in the middle of the hallway and stare at him. “Not really.”
“Maybe we could eat together.”
“Because you drove me to the hospital?”
“Because you don’t have any friends and because I don’t have any friends.” He laughs like he thinks he’s telling a joke, but of course I’m offended.
“What makes you think I don’t have friends? And I don’t believe you don’t have friends. Don’t guys like you always have brainy little sidekicks?”
Now he’s offended. “What do you mean guys like me?”
I want to say You know, that tall guy who is a prime candidate to be an athlete in high school and could be really popular if he wanted to be, but he’s not that kind of athlete, so he hangs around his dorky childhood best friend or even his cousin, and they, too, in turn could be popular simply by association. But I stop at the library door and say, “I don’t eat in the cafeteria.”
Miller tells me that he doesn’t eat there either, and I give him a look which says I don’t believe you.
“Fine,” he says, twirling his car keys around his finger. “I was gonna offer you a free burger and fries, but hey, suit yourself, bookworm.”
“I’m not a bookworm,” I say, thinking about free burgers and fries.
Miller walks backwards, holding out his hands while he shrugs. “Time’s a-wastin’.”
I really don’t want to go to the diner because Ben Wilson and guys from the football team go there at lunchtime, and I don’t want them to see me. I’m not embarrassed to be seen with Miller Stott, I’m just embarrassed to be me. But I agree to go. I say it’s the awaiting free home-style burger and fries, and not Miller’s smile that makes me do it. But he smiles alright. I have to run to catch him at the end of the hall, and I’m self-conscious because his smile makes me smile, so I look at my feet while we walk outside.
We pass a group of kids smoking beside the NO SMOKING sign on the stairs to the parking lot, and I spot Miller’s small, blue car amidst the half-ton trucks instantly. When I get inside his car the Beatles are playing again and we only get halfway through “Come Together” before we’re facing the back of Stott’s Diner. The drive from school to the diner is literally less than a few minutes, depending on the crosswalk and the traffic light.
Through the side windows of the building I can see Ben and some jocks occupying the corner in the restaurant. I know if I go in there Ben will crack some kind of joke that’s either racist or sexist, and I’m not really in the mood to hear the obnoxious laughter of our school’s football team.
“Are you sure you can eat here?” I ask Miller as he parks and shuts off the car.
“Yeah, that’s my name on the sign in the front,” he says.
“No, I mean, aren’t you, like, super-athletic?”
He looks at me like I’m speaking a different language.
“I read the newspaper,” I say. “Don’t you have a regime or a diet or something?”
“Oh, yeah, but it’s my cheat day. I get one day a week to eat whatever I want.”
I want to say That totally sucks, but I take a deep breath and get out of the car. I go for the diner’s glass door, dreading the moment when I pass through it and Ben and his buddies stop eating and look up.
“Hey,” Miller says loudly on account of being by the other end of the building. “This way.”
I take a glance at Ben through the window and gladly leave him behind. Miller opens what looks like a heavy fire door, so I see straight into the restaurant’s kitchen.
“Did you not hear me before?” Miller asks, gesturing for me to enter first. “My name’s on the sign; we get the red carpet treatment.”
Inside, I immediately hear the snap of grease and sizzle of meat on a grill.
“Hey Molly?” Miller says into the room.
“Miller, thank God,” a woman says, still out of sight. “Could you stack those boxes somewhere out of the way? I’ve been tripping over them and pushing them and kicking them.”
I look around, but I can’t find any face to accompany the woman’s voice. The kitchen is a small area; a stove, some deep-fryers, a walk-in refrigerator. Fresh produce covers a wooden island in the middle. There is an open door to the dining room, and I can hear Ben and the football team now.
Miller spots cardboard boxes blocking a walkway and begins moving them. “Is my dad here?” he asks, shouting in the direction the voice came.
“Not at the moment. He ran out to get some of that…” A woman walks into the kitchen and stands at the island, stopping mid-sentence to stare at me.
Miller stops moving boxes, looks up, and says, “This is Alex.”
The woman wipes her hands on her vegetable-stained apron and grins. “Alex,” she repeats. “Why haven’t I seen you before?”
I stutter, but before any real words come out, Miller says, “She’s from school. And it’s lunch. We’re hungry.”
“I’m Molly,” the chef says, offering me her hand. I shake it and Hi, how are you her. She stands over the grill, squishing some beef patties with a long spatula. “Is your uncle gonna rip my head off if I feed you again?” she asks Miller.
“I can’t promise anything,” Miller says, leaning against the counter when he finishes stacking the boxes. “But it’s not illegal. It’s my cheat day.”
Molly fixes two hamburgers and prepares two plates. She slides on some steaming hot fries, hands the plates to Miller and says, “You said that on Monday.”
Miller smiles and accepts the meals. “This way,” he says to me, nodding toward the back of the kitchen. We walk through a skinny doorway into the break room/ pantry. There’s a small bistro set in the middle, surrounded by shelves of bread and fat cans of tomato paste and Costco-sized condiments.
Miller puts the plates on the table and sits down. I stand there, watching him, thinking this looks a lot like a date. Eventually I slide stiffly onto the other chair and stare at the sesame seeds on the burger bun.
“What’s up?” Miller asks because my apprehension is obvious.
“Are you sure this is alright?” I ask. “I mean, I don’t have any money.”
Miller has already downed two enormous bites. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Really? Because these meals are, like, 7.95.”
He laughs. “And it costs, like, a dollar to make it.”
I suck on my bottom lip as the crispy fortress of fries looks up at me.
“Drinks,” Miller says, half-standing. “Milkshake?”
He points his finger at me. “Chocolate?”
He dashes out of the room and I’m stuck in there, eating beautiful greasy food, wondering how in the world I got into this situation. Then I hear him talking to someone and it’s not Molly the Chef. I think it must be his father.
“Two milkshakes, Miller?” I hear from behind me. “Does Kevin know?”
Miller comes through the skinny doorway and puts two Styrofoam cups on the table, bringing his father with him. Over my shoulder, I smile at him like I smiled at Molly, and he, too, looks dumbfounded by me.
“Miller,” he says finally. “Are you hiding girls in the pantry again?”
Miller sits down and drinks some of his shake. “Dad, this is Alex.”
“Nice to meet you,” I say, waving. “You make really good food here.”
“Thank you very much. So, Alex. Where do you live?”
“Dad,” Miller snaps, picking up the small remains of his burger. “Don’t be weird.”
“I live about six houses down from the fire station on Rhettlynch,” I say.
“Oh, okay. Good stuff.”
I look back at Miller and catch him silently protesting for his dad to get lost.
“I’ll leave you alone,” Miller’s dad says, obeying hesitantly but still smiling.
I keep at the fries when we’re alone, watching Miller devour the last of his burger. “I take it you don’t bring girls here a lot,” I say.
He winces playfully. “Harsh judgement.”
“No, not like that. I didn’t mean that you couldn’t get girls to come here…I meant that you don’t.”
“It’s okay. You’re right. I don’t.”
I cough on purpose. “So you’re a swimmer? Or diver? I can’t remember.”
He sits back like it’s going to be a long explanation, so I lean back too, thankful that he’s going to be the one filling the awkward silence. “Both actually, but I stopped diving when I was fourteen. I had a growth spurt so I changed directions. Focused on swimming. I tried to go back to diving a couple of years ago, but since I stopped gymnastics I wasn’t up to par. I do short-distance swim now.”
“Like the butterfly and the backstroke?”
He nods, picking slowly at the fries on his mostly empty plate. “Uh huh.”
“You’re on the school team, right? I saw you at the pep rally.”
“Yeah. I’m surprised anyone notices us. There are only, like, six of us so we’re easy to miss.”
Miller Stott is not easy to miss. I stare at his shoulders, rolled forward like he’s trying to appear smaller, and I’m reminded of his height even when he’s sitting down because he easily shrinks the bistro set.
“How tall are you?” I ask.
“I tell people I’m six-three so they don’t freak out when I tell them I’m six-five.”
“Are you really?”
I smile when he smiles, but I get the feeling he’s embarrassed so I change the subject again. “You’re in the newspaper a lot.”
“Yeah, our town gets bored when it’s not football season. Don’t go into the dining room, the articles are framed everywhere. What do you do? Any teams?”
I inhale slowly and look at my half-eaten burger. “No teams.” I try to think of something else to say, but nothing can rival being in the newspaper or owning a diner. Then again: “I work at the harbour across the bay,” I say proudly. “I wait on club members and check out rental kayaks.”
“Yeah, I know,” Miller says, emptying a ketchup packet onto his plate. “The rowing club practices on the lake. I see you at the docks sometimes.”
“The rowing club?”
“Would you like to see the newspaper clipping?”
We both laugh.
“I joined when I took a break from swimming last year,” he explains. “Dad said if I’m going to throw away my scholarships, I need to keep up extracurricular. He tells me St. David’s has a crew team and I should keep that in mind. I didn’t argue. I love anything with water. I’ve been a Kayak and Canoe member since I was five. But I really wanted to drop out of school, become a sailor, join the Navy—I’m kidding—but really. I wanted to sail around the world so someone could make a documentary about me.”
I like boats and swimming and water too, but I didn’t make a sport out of it. No teams. No scholarships. No newspaper clippings. I know he was kidding about the documentary, but it doesn’t seem too farfetched. I look at my food and suddenly don’t feel like finishing it, but it was free so I feel like I have to. Then there’s some commotion in the kitchen. Miller’s dad is there and someone who sounds just like him.
Miller suddenly panics. “Oh, no,” he says, scrambling.
He picks up his plate and slides the rest of his fries onto mine.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Just don’t say anything,” he whispers, putting his plate underneath my plate. He sits back and crosses his arms, nonchalant.
A man comes into the room and says, “Hey buddy, your dad said you’d be back here…” He stops when seeing me: same look of astonishment.
“I’m Alex,” I say.
“Alex?” The man looks at Miller for clarification. Then to me: “Very nice to meet you.”
“This is my uncle Kevin—my coach.” Miller makes his eyes go wide.
“Oh. Hello. I’m here, eating. He’s not.”
Coach Kevin looks at Miller through narrowed eyes. “Don’t get your girlfriend to lie for you.”
Miller and I exchange confounded glances and then we both begin to explain that I am not—by any means—his GIRLFRIEND. But Coach Kevin stops us. “No, I don’t want to hear it.” He leans over the tabletop and points at my plate. “Do you know what this is?”
“Protein?” Miller says.
“It’s fat and grease. And this!” He picks up a French fry.
“Carbs—it’s a mountain of carbs!”
Miller looks down in defeat. “It’s my cheat day.”
Miller’s dad comes in and Coach Kevin glares at him. “It’s his cheat day,” he says in defense, and father and son laugh.
“I can’t watch it.” Coach Kevin leaves and Miller’s dad snatches a bag of burger buns off a shelf and follows his brother back into the kitchen.
Miller mutters sorry, and I say that it doesn’t matter. He takes out his cell phone to check the time and asks, “What do you have after lunch?”
“Nothing. I have a spare. I usually just hang out here until last class.”
“Oh, well, I’ll walk back.” I stand and take my milkshake with me.
“I can drive you,” he insists, standing too.
“No, it’s okay. Thanks for lunch. It was really good. And it was fun, too.” I’m awkward and insincere, even though I’m trying hard not to be.
“I’ll see you around.”
I wave and back out the door, sucking on my milkshake straw. I run away from the building, my head leading the way and I almost tumble over myself. When I pass the front window, Ben looks up so I look down and speed walk back to school.
I go to the library for my spare, last period of the day, and I stare at my English binder open to today’s notes and read them so many times over my handwriting doesn’t look like handwriting anymore and there is no way I can tell Mr. Gordon what T.S. Eliot was actually trying to say when he wrote Prufrock. I’m too busy thinking about newspaper clippings and cheat days, about burgers and fries and Miller’s smile. I decide to go to my locker and get my history textbook to finish that homework instead and on the way Mr. Tollers stops me outside Student Services.
A twitch of unease runs through me when he asks me to come into his office. For a moment I think it’s about Colton Glasby shoving Grant Danson into a locker. I even recite a short speech in my head about how there was nothing I could have done and I did eventually tell Mr. Tollers about what I had seen.
Mr. Tollers folds his hands together and leans over his desk when I sit down in the chair in front of him. He asks me how I’m doing and I tell him I’m fine. I even ask how he’s doing, but he doesn’t answer. He gets right down to business.
“How’s your sister?”
I want to sigh and roll my eyes, stomp my foot, run out of his office—anything to show him just how annoyed I am by How’s your sister.
“Beckie?” I ask.
“Yes, Beckie,” the teacher says. “Is she here today?”
I inhale and let it out slowly, apparently letting my silence speak for itself.
“Has she been at home lately?”
“How are things at home?”
“Fine.” I answer this time because I don’t want student services calling social services. And it has been fine. Mom and Daddy haven’t been fighting which means Daddy has been getting his prescriptions refilled on time and Mom hasn’t said anything about Bristol’s husband not getting a job, and they still don’t know that Beckie is gallivanting around town with a drop-out named Johnny.
“Good,” Mr. Tollers says. He picks up a pen and clicks the end several times before dropping it, intertwining his fingers and leaning over the desk again. “Beckie’s attendance hasn’t been very…pristine lately. It’s not a very good start to the school year.”
“Yeah,” I say slowly.
“Do you have any idea why she hasn’t been in class?”
I want to say Because she’s a teenager and she hates school like the rest of the kids here, but go with, “No.”
“Do you think your parents would have any idea why?”
“Please don’t bother them about Beckie.”
Mr. Tollers relaxes, satisfied, and I look at the ceiling, convinced I’ve just betrayed my sister. Then: “I know things have been…tough at home lately…”
How does he know that things have been tough?
“I thought you could help me before we need to take any…drastic measures.”
“Do you think you can get Beckie in class tomorrow?”
I shrug and mutter some sort of an excuse.
“Because if you can’t, I’m going to have to contact your parents and tell them what’s been going on.”
I look up and meet his eyes. “Okay. Yes. I will. I’ll do it.”
“Thank you. Do you have a class?”
“No.” I rush out of his office and dart down the hall, making a beeline for the library. I barricade myself in one of the cubicles in the corner. I sit and stare out the window that overlooks the parking lot. The sight of Miller’s car by the fence makes my heart race. But I force my thoughts back to the task at hand. Beckie. And with the image of her face blinding me from everything but Mr. Tollers’s threat, I see Johnny the Drop-Out smoking a cigarette by the parking lot stairs.
I don’t take much time to think, I burst out of the library and down the stairs, tearing my way to the parking lot. I tap the guy on the shoulder. He turns and blows out a puff of smoke in the opposite direction.
“Oh, hi, you’re…” He winces when forgetting my name.
“Right, right.” He drops the cigarette and stomps it out with his worn-out Converse sneaker. “I’m Johnny.”
I shake his hand when he offers his and I roll my eyes, wondering why a sixteen-year-old boy is bothering to shake my hand. “Yeah, I know who you are. Is my sister around?”
“I haven’t seen her today,” Johnny says.
I squint, trying not to cough in the smoke. “Are you lying?”
“No,” he says, laughing. “Why would I lie? Is she in trouble?”
“Yes, she’s in trouble. She hasn’t been in class.”
The guy looks at the ground, serious. “She never said.”
“You mean she’s not with you all this time?”
He shakes his head and shrugs. “No. We hang out at lunch and after school, but not during classes. I told her she should go because she sure doesn’t want to end up like me.” He manages to laugh.
I stand beside my sister’s boyfriend, feeling the September wind and a jab of remorse rush over me. “If you see her before I do, tell her that Alex needs to talk to her. Tell her it’s important. Please?”
Johnny nods, apparently concerned. “Absolutely.”
I thank him and walk back into school. The bell rings and I breathe a sigh of relief because the day is over. I go to my locker, gather my things and head for the buses in the elementary school parking lot across the street. As I blend into swarms of students, I know I won’t see Miller again today. But I tell myself that I don’t care, not now with more important things to worry about.
I climb the short steps onto the bus and say hi to my bus driver. I slump down into a seat near the middle of the bus and a few kids walk on after me. I lean against the window, watching other kids get on other buses and I think about how I have to check the mouse traps in the basement and empty the dehumidifiers or they’ll overflow because they don’t work right.
Then the air beside me moves and someone plops down on the seat next to me. Ben Wilson is there, looking me up and down.
“What do you want?” I ask.
“Was it you I saw walking away from Stott’s today?” Ben asks, like it was unimaginable.
“I guess so.”
“What were you doing there?”
He laughs like I’m telling a joke, and relaxes in the seat.
“You’re not sitting with me the whole way, are you?” I ask.
Ben gets excited and moves so his whole body faces me. “Did you walk down?”
“To the diner.”
“No, I had a ride.”
“That’s none of your business.”
He looks like he wants more of an answer and I know he won’t leave me alone until he gets one. Do I dare tell him?
“Miller,” I say.
I look at Ben like he’s the stupidest kid on the face of the planet. “Stott.”
“Oh!” he says, pieces falling into place. “The, uh, uh—water polo? Is he the guy on the water polo team? I’m just kidding.” He elbows me in the ribs, trying to get me to laugh as he smiles that wide handsome smile. I look away after glaring at him.
“So, listen, I’ve been seeing Beckie around…”
Her name makes me look up. I listen closely for any information I might not have already.
“She’s been hanging around that Adams kid, what’s his name?”
“Johnny,” I say.
“Yeah, that’s it. Are they serious?”
I look at Ben and glower. He. Is. Not. Dating. My. Sister. “Very serious.”
“Oh, that’s so cute—trying to keep me for yourself?”
“Ew. No. Get out of my seat.”
Ben grins and winks at me as he inches off the seat and into the aisle. “You used to be pretty, Podolski,” he says, gently whacking me on the side of my head. I pull away from his touch instantly. “What happened?” He winks again.
I ignore him as he leaves for the back of the bus and a small group of his friends welcomes him loudly.
Ben is beautiful, confident and different, and popular because of it. He inherited his mother’s skin and his father’s height, and he’s nice and smart when he wants to be. I try not to take his comments to heart, but I unexpectedly want to cry in embarrassment, hoping no one on the bus was listening to what he said. I wonder if he means it, if he thinks that I’m not pretty because I don’t wear my hair down anymore or because I don’t wear short skirts or tight shirts—that I gave up trying to get attention a long time ago. I curl up against the bus window, shove my hands into my jacket pockets and try to forget that today ever happened.
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P.S. The paperback is coming. Shh. (I’m quietly clapping my hands, if you couldn’t tell.)