Outside I see two girls kissing. I snap the blinds shut quickly and finish vacuuming. They have been doing this every day around the same time. I can see why—our house is where the street turns, not quite a corner. It is quiet and two trees conceal part of the backyard.
Ever since my principal suspended me, I’ve seen all kinds of things.
I’m in the living room folding when Mom comes in early. I am still thinking about the girls.
“You’ll get a job,” she says. She hasn’t said much to me since the day the principal sent me home. I make dinner before she gets out of work and leave it in foil in the oven, Febreeze the curtains, oil the furniture.
She grabs the end of the sheet I am folding, and I step back so it can billow out between us. We step toward each to touch corners, and I notice the creases underneath her eyes are heavier.
“Okay,” I say, grateful.
The next morning, I take a walk into town. On the way, I see the playground where I hit Lesley Tamer over the head with a toy truck. I don’t remember it, but everyone talks about it. It was funny because you were such a good kid, Mom always said. You were the type of kid to tie other kid’s shoes.
I see a hiring sign in the window of a bar & grill. I enter, and there is a young man with large ears eating a quesadilla at the bar. There is a speck of cucumber on his collar and pieces of parsley on the ground.
“Daniel,” a voice says. It is incredibly loud since the restaurant is empty. The boy jumps. A woman steps out of the kitchen. She looks like she’s about twenty and has curly black hair that springs out of her hairnet. When I see her, I am afraid. I am scared to look at her because her eyes are so intense.
“Jesus,” he says. “I was just taking a bite.”
“We had a call out—”
I take a step, and the wooden floor creaks loudly under my weight.
“We have a customer,” she says like it’s a disappointment, then smiles faintly. There is something about the way she is gripping the bar stool that makes me want to apologize.
“I’m looking for a job,” I say.
She looks at me closely.
“For anything,” I say.
“I’ll get the manager,” she says and disappears.
“Don’t worry about Isabel,” the young guy says in a calm voice. “She was just promoted to the kitchen manager and now she thinks she’s so important. I guess college does that to you.”
He leans in to take a drink of his soda.
“Want some?” he asks. When I nod, he hands it over.
“Ten dollars,” he says after I take a sip. Then he laughs when I nearly spit it out. “Just kidding. Don’t you know—all the girls drink free here.”
As I approach home, it is nearly dark. Margie is holding my copy of Sorcerer and the Stone on her lap, smoothing the crease on the book flap.
I sit next to her on the stoop, not close enough to touch.
“Hey,” she says.
“Hey,” I say.
“I just want to know why you did it,” she says. “You should have told me if you were falling behind.”
“I got a job,” I say.
“Kids at school are talking,” she said. “And Ben’s still pretty upset.”
Math has always been my worst subject and in the last year, I opened my book only a handful of times. It was only two weeks into the semester that I failed my first test. It made me want to throw up. I hid it between my other papers and promised my teacher to get a tutor but never followed through. When Margie started dating Ben, I noticed his scores were nearly perfect. It was easy to write his answers down when we were all hanging out at Shake Shack, especially when he and Margie were so absorbed in each other and he left his papers out. I thought I would stop—I intended to stop and I was getting the hang of it. But the last take-home test—the one with the impossible word problems—I just couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t just ask him; I already felt like the silly third-wheeler he was good-humoredly suffering. I barely made an effort to change my wording. Maybe I wanted to get caught, I don’t know, and my math teacher turned detective. He scoured through my old homework and I was called into the office. It seemed almost beside the fact that I had failed.
Margie is chewing on the edge of her thumb. She did this when we were kids whenever she was upset.
I think about how she is always more of a crier. When my dad died, I called her and could hear her sobbing into the phone. My dad had been sick since I was five, all my life pretty much. I thought I had grown used to bad news, so it surprised me how much her sobbing hurt, as though she was a ventriloquist doll, and all the sounds she made were actually coming from somewhere inside me. When I told her we might be moving because my mom had lost her job, she sat on my bed and cried until I hugged her and patted her back and made soothing noises. When my mom got a new job, a better job in sales, she cried and I said, “but this is good!” and she wailed, “I know. I’m happy!”
She doesn’t cry now. Instead, she slaps the book into my lap.
“I just didn’t expect this out of you.”
She stands up quickly. I have never seen her like this. Since my dad died, she showed up at my house with coffees in styrofoam cups for our walk to school and asked me things quietly. The more she tiptoed around me, the ruder I wanted to be. I remember making fun of her pink backpack and her laughing but her eyes sad.
“It’s not the cheating,” Margie says. Her hands are shaking and she is looking over my shoulder. “I just feel like I don’t know you right now.”
I don’t watch her leave. When I step inside, my mom is watering the plant on the porch. She jumps.
“I got a job,” I tell her. She smiles a little in a way that I can tell she heard everything.
“That’s great,” she says. “That’s really great.”
I show up to work early. I have a week before my suspension runs out, so I have nowhere else to be. I sit in the back doing paperwork on a small metal table pushed up against the lockers with unlocked doors. The fan forces them closed with an uncomfortable slam, slam, slam. I enter the office.
“We were just talking about you!” the manager says. Isabel is sitting in a chair across from him.
I look from one to the other.
“Good things,” the manager says. “Promise.”
Isabel doesn’t look at me. I wonder if it really was just all good things.
“I’m finished,” I say, handing him my paperwork.
“Oh great, great,” he says. Then he pauses.
“You know, I’ve got to ask. Why aren’t you in school?”
Excuses run through my mind—sickness, holiday, independent study.
“My dad died,” I say.
“I’m sorry,” he says. There is silence. I’m staring at Isabel. She looks back at me and because she doesn’t apologize or try to say anything comforting, I strangely feel some sort of relief.
“I’m going to the front,” I say. “Thank you.”
When I start back to school, I sit alone at lunch. I know Margie would never not let me sit with her and the other girls, but I just don’t know what to say to them. Ben sits with them, looking anywhere but me.
I have a lot of catching up to do. Biology and Spanish and English. I hide in the library or the hallways in between classes. When I get home from school and work, mom and I play scrabble in the dining room. Neither of us can sleep and sometimes it’ll go to one ‘o’clock in the morning. She talks to me differently now, gently, but also like I am older. When my father was alive, she made a considerable effort never to burden me, but now she sends me to grocery stores with large lists and has me paint the cracks in the bathroom walls while she budgets and cooks lasagna. We live like two spinsters in a quiet house. We realize together while we were scrubbing the kitchen tile that it’s been a year and a half since Dad died.
A month into working at the restaurant, I stand at the hostess stand when I see Isabel looking at me. It is painfully slow, no has come in for an hour, so I go to the bathroom. I can feel her behind me and just as I turn around, she kisses me. My eyes are wide open. She calls me a tough kid, tough girl, tugging my hair and whispering all these things. I answer very quietly and move awkwardly. At one point, my elbow knocks into the stall door and it springs free of the latch. A week ago, I turned fifteen and I’ve never been with anyone, but I don’t want her to know that. After, she washes her hands, goes back to the kitchen and doesn’t talk to me for several days. I watch every time she enters the room. I steal her apron and shirt and smell them at night.
On Friday, my manager lets me off early because I’ve been doing a decent job. He hands me my paycheck too.
“You’ve earned it,” he says. “Now get out of here.”
It is still afternoon and I consider going to the park and reading, but then I wonder if I should go to the bank. My head hurts and suddenly, I just want to go home and take a nap. At night, I can’t sleep. Instead, I watch reruns of Seinfield on low over and over with my toes pressed into the coffee table while eating dried cranberries I found in the back of the cabinet. My mother will call from upstairs, “Going to sleep soon?” and I’ll say “sure” to comfort us both. Eventually, I’ll become so restless I’ll put on my sneakers and tuck my pajama pants into them. I will run through the empty streets, the slap of my soles almost embarrassingly loud, glancing at the quiet, dark houses as if they might reprimand me. I’m not a real runner, so I always hope no one catches me. Even after months of doing this, I still get out of breath at the same blue house. There is a single light on in the attic of the house and I think every time for this crazy second, maybe if I knock, just maybe the person will come down and let me in.
I shake myself. Isabel is standing in front of me. She is wearing jeans and a tee-shirt, which is jarring. After all the time I’ve spent wanting her to notice me, I feel shaken by her presence.
“I got off early too. Marty must be feeling generous. Want to come over?” She says it so fast I barely catch it. She looks away for just a second. It’s hard to imagine she could be nervous, but I see her shifting her weight back and forth.
“Sure,” I say.
We take the bus in silence. Her knee bounces against mine and I shift away. We climb up a few flights of stairs to her apartment and when we go inside, she gestures to a navy futon in the middle of the room. I sit down and she sits next to me. When I turn to look at her she kisses me.
I put my hands up. When I am alone, I can’t stop thinking about her hands. But when she touches me, it feels funny like a burnt tongue.
“Okay,” she says. “I’ll back off.”
I stand up and start wandering around her apartment. I go over to her bookshelf and examine them. Jung, Freud.
“I’m studying to be a psychologist,” she says. “It’s my first year at community college.”
“You want to be a counselor?”
“Oh no,” she says. She laughs. “I want to write papers. Theories, studies, statistics. That’s more my thing.”
“I had to delay a year going to my dream school,” she continues. “My mother’s got a new boyfriend, and he’s a sponge, so there went my tuition. Community college’s the only thing I could afford.”
“I’m not complaining,” she says. “Don’t think that. I just didn’t expect it, you know. And I had already saved up my half.”
I feel for my paycheck in my back pocket. My parents had always told me not to worry about paying for college—that they’d help but now that it’s just my mom, I wonder if I shouldn’t start thinking about it. I don’t know where I want to go or even if I want to but I’m afraid not to have the option.
“I think I’ll be able to transfer next year,” she says. “It’s far away from here and I’m itching to get out. I need to be out of this town. God.”
“I’ll stop talking about myself now. Tell me about you.”
I shrug. “I don’t know what there is to tell.”
“Come on,” she says and sounds a little desperate. She stretches her arm around the back of the couch and the tip of her finger brushes my shoulder. I take a deep breath.
“I always wanted to move to Amsterdam,” I say. “I watched this documentary about it when I was a kid and I became obsessed. The canals and museums and bike riding. Margie and I were going to go after we graduated. Margie’s my best friend. Or she was.”
I realize that it had been months since Margie had mentioned the trip to Amsterdam. She had moved on without me slowly and then all of a sudden. While my life slowed down, hers accelerated. Whenever I saw her with Ben, all I could see was the nights I spent alone, reading useless books on dealing with grief.
“What happened?” Isabel asks.
“She got a boyfriend,” I said.
“Psst,” Isabel said. “Bullshit. That’s not a reason.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, nobody changes because of a person. They already wanted to change and then, you know, they find a person.”
This time, when Isabel kisses me, I don’t turn away.
That night, I leave the window open.
A rock hits my window. I jump up. Isabel?
I open the window and lean down.
“Hey,” Margie says. “Can I come up?”
I nod and she grabs the low-hanging branch like she did back when we were kids and climbs the tree close to my window. I hold her hand, and she hops into my room. Her hoodie falls back and her face looks freshly washed as if she had just gotten ready for bed.
She sits on the edge of my bed.
“I didn’t see you in school today,” she says. “Mr. Brenden said you were sick.”
“Mom fell at work. She broke her foot.”
“Oh,” Margie says.
The wind whistles into the room so I shut the window quickly.
“Don’t want to wake her,” I say.
“You could have called,” Margie says. “I was worried about you.”
“I’ve been working.”
“I broke up with Ben.”
I turn to her.
“It just wasn’t working out,” Margie says. There is a tightness in her lips. In all the time we had hung out together, I had never imagined Margie was anything but happy with Ben. I thought if something were wrong, she would have told me. Suddenly, I think of the time she tried to talk about missing BBQs with our families when my dad was healthier. I told her that she was childish, and for some reason, I laughed. The expression on her face was small, as though I had slapped her. If I could go back, I would tell her: I’m just sad. That’s why. It’s not you, I am just sad.
“I’m sorry,” I say now.
I sit on the bed beside her, and she grabs my hand.
“I’ve started…seeing someone,” I tell her.
“Her name is Isabel.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“What’s she like?”
“I don’t know. Scary. Smart. Nervous.”
Margie looks at me and nods and it is the patience in the nod that helps me understand. At school, we still won’t sit next to each other. She is different from the girl I used to know.
Margie slings her leg over the window sill and onto the branch.
“You seem older,” she says before she climbs down.
I wake up early and take a run. Everything is different in the morning; the way the trees look bare and still, the absence of people feels more like a pause than an abandonment, the spring air has a sting. I notice that I am faster than I’ve been before and I feel a pleasant heat and stretch in my thighs. I pass the restaurant with all the lights out and the chairs overturned. I feel a pang when I remember that it was once just a place my mom and I passed in the car on the way home from the grocery store. I keep going and I’m further and further out, I feel my phone vibrate but I don’t answer, something has changed and nothing has ever felt as good as this, the running and the heat and the morning, and I just want to go a little longer, just hold on to it.
Kate Leffner is a freelance writer and educator in Boston, MA. She loves all things writing–from crafting short stories about grieving girls to copywriting for vacuum businesses. She lives with her girlfriend and their two cats, Orchard and Pheobe.