He argued that four wasn’t enough, and his stubby-fingered jabs at the brochure left smudges of marinara sauce daubed on the glossy page. Thursday night, Italian night. “Let’s up it to eight boxes,” my dad had said, rubbing at a spot of stubble on chin. “A pretty girl selling chocolate? As good as done, if you ask me.”
I was lost in coiling spaghetti around my fork. “I don’t think it works like that,” I said.
“Eight’s not that many,” he insisted. “Anyway, it’s a good number.” He made a quiet clicking noise with his tongue as if to say, Good thing I’m around to safeguard against these mistakes. Triumphantly, he scrawled over what I’d previously written in, then forced the brochure aside and tapped our chicken-shaped shaker over his plate, the specks of white disappearing into a hillside of pasta.
“Salt?” he offered, and I said mine was fine.
The following week, unlabeled boxes were delivered to the homerooms with instructions taped on the flaps. Mrs. Sedgwick hastened through our list, calling out names and quantities in her stonewashed voice. When she announced my name, she hesitated before specifying the number of boxes. She looked down the list, then back up at my name. Cleared her throat like she was starting a car. “Ms. Calaway,” she repeated, then: “Eight boxes.”
Bell’s face was obstructed by the cartons I lugged back to my desk, but I could still hear her. “Way to be a go-getter,” she said from the seat in front of me, snorting. Ninety-six chocolate bars were heaped in the cartons, individually sheathed in white and gold wrappers. Twice as many as I’d wanted in the first place.
“You said you’d get the same,” I said to Bell, parting the towers of chocolate.
“Six-inch voices,” Mrs. Sedgwick reminded the class. If it was first period, her request might have been granted, but the minute hand was inching toward noon. One of the girls in the back was already nibbling on baby carrots from a semi-concealed ziplock, eating so slow and determinately that she might have been carving something out of them.
“Right,” said Bell, “but then I talked with my sister, and she said that when her class did the fundraising, they…” – here’s where she sucked air through her teeth – “aw, crap, I forgot to tell you. I thought I did. I was going to.”
“So, what? Nobody sold any?”
Mrs. Sedgwick squinted her small, cyan eyes at the class as she announced again that it was getting too loud. Someone in the back row hiccuped, and tittering erupted. Mrs. Sedgwick sighed and picked at a spot on her arm.
In a game of charades, it’d be easy to act out our homeroom teacher: just slouch, wring your hands extensively, get that engine-revving guttural noise down pat. Bell, I’m sure, itched for a beauty magazine intervention. I wouldn’t have put it past her to xerox an article – something like Strutting: The Secret Beauty Trick! – and slip it into Mrs. Sedgwick’s mailbox in the teacher’s lounge. Seventeen was Bell’s veritable guide to life; month after month, she combed through it, highlighter hovering above the page for tips and tricks. Later, she’d relay her top ten to me over the phone whether I asked for them or not.
My guess was that Mrs. Sedgwick didn’t adorn her coffee table with Seventeen or Mademoiselle. I imagined her pacing around in a yolk-colored house attacked by ivy, high shelves of books in the living room, tubes of expired lipstick lying next to the bathroom sink, sweaters draped over the arches of chairs. If I squinted, there might be a few South American figurines, a bowl of sunflower shells abandoned on the kitchen table, VHS tapes from Blockbuster.
A few minutes after calling my name, she called Bell’s, drawing out the l’s. I forced my notebook into my backpack, which leaned lumpy against the sticker-dressed leg of my desk, and got that pestering sense that I’d forgotten something that morning.
Gym shirt. That was it. It was probably still in the dryer at home. Which meant I’d have to dig one up from the spare clothes bin in the girls’ locker room. Just thinking about it, I could already start to smell the fruity-body-spray-and-dried-sweat brew.
Bell sat down on the only clear corner of my desk, holding a carton of chocolate open. Twisting toward me, she held one of the white and gold bars out in front of my face.
“Toffee nugget,” she said. “Huh. Maybe they’ll actually sell this year.” She poked my shoulder with it and snapped her gum.
By the time last period rolled around, I had chocolate stuck to my back molars and donned a poorly fit but decent-smelling shirt fished out of the bin in the locker room. Both Bell and I were gung-ho on the school’s alternative to the standard flag-football-run-a-7-minute-mile-drop-and-give-me-fifty P.E. course. Instead of “Phys Ed”, our flimsy schedule cards had “Body Awareness and Fitness” typed into the eighth period slot. Watch a yoga tape, bypass the bench press in favor of calf raises? “Works for me,” our instructor would reply, then add cheerfully, “As long as you get excited about fitness.” She looked and acted as if she’d popped right out of a Richard Simmons video.
We’d taken advantage of that open-ended stipulation. Multiple times. But that week we huffed and puffed around the track in the testy air of winter’s end. Something in one of Bell’s magazines must have gotten to her; she started going on about rates of burning calories, optimal workout durations, that kind of stuff. My ribs started to burn after the second lap.
“Shouldn’t have eaten the chocolate,” I blurted out.
“I had two after lunch. Those candy…bars…evil.”
“You’re supposed to sell them, silly.” She slowed down a step, brushed the stray auburn hairs off her forehead.
“Taste…tests,” I barely made out. My eyes watered from the cold. For a second, our footsteps were in sync. Thoughts of all that wet, chewed up chocolate sloshing around turned my stomach over.
I sucked air in fast, hit my feet harder on the rubber. After the sixth lap, we crumpled onto the withered grass beside the track. It was dry, dying. I leaned out to grab my toes and couldn’t reach as far as I thought I’d be able to.
“Twenty-six days until the trip,” Bell said. “I can’t wait.”
“I think my dad wants me to bring traveler’s checks,” I said.
“Come on, you know what he’s like.” I stretched again, grabbed my shoelaces this time.
“We’re not even leaving the state. Did you hear about the chaperones?”
“What about them?”
“The phone calls about dress codes? It’s really stupid. They just can’t–” Bell squinted at my shoulder, letting her face wrinkle up.
“What is that?” she asked. I assumed “that” was something like a bug or a sweat stain that resembled Madonna. But Bell said it was dark red, caked on.
“Is it shaped like anything?” I asked, and she gave me a funny look.
“I would have lent you a shirt,” she said. I twisted my neck with the same strain I’d feel later on when getting a better look in the mirror.
“I have that one from the bonfire in my locker,” Bell continued. “The Bagels shirt. Remember? With the hole in the neckline? If you had asked, I would’ve let you wear it.”
“Is it horrible?”
“No, this. This…thing that’s on me.”
“God, Casey. Stop worrying about it.”
“It’s just that you made that awful face. I know that face.”
“Forget I said anything.” She turned away from me. “But ask me next time before you start digging through that crummy bin, okay? And Sedgwick just came outside, so at least act like you’re stretching.”
Mrs. Sedgwick was followed by a sophomore – Lars something, husky and curly-haired. He kept his arms folded across his chest and leaned against the stucco wall, avoiding eye contact. Mrs. Sedgwick animated her arms as she talked, punching the air. Her voice wasn’t carrying.
I flattened out on the grass, feeling my body temperature begin to drop to its pre-jog state. As nauseous as I’d almost made myself thinking about it, half-digested in my gut, chocolate was beginning to sound tempting. That self-indulgent treat would be a welcome distraction.
Bell, gasping, dropped to the ground.
“Casey,” she demanded, wide-eyed.
“She just slapped Luke.”
So I’d been wrong about his name. Wrong to pull my attention away.
“Luke started talking back, I think,” she continued, breathlessly. “He might have called her something. I don’t know. But then she just let him have it! Slapped him. Smack! I can’t believe you didn’t hear it. Why weren’t you watching, Casey?”
“Jeez, don’t get mad.” I didn’t want to tell her what I’d been woolgathering over. “You aren’t kidding?”
By then, the two of them were gone.
Bell said, “I want to know what he did. What he said.”
“Would it make any difference?” I asked, but she was lost, staring off.
We rolled off the crunchy grass, where blobby patches had entirely flattened under our weight, and padded back to the locker room, silently blending into the swarm of other girls. Most of them had spent the last forty-five minutes in the wrestling building with a portable TV and a kickboxing video; a few of the girls were still practicing their punches, kidding each other on their form.
“Hey, Billy Blanks,” one of them called out. “Watch it with those fists!”
“Someone have face wash? I can’t find mine…”
“–sneaking into the mall at night–”
“…said that at the last pep dance. Who even cares?”
“Seriously? Luke Bradley?”
The mirror ran the entire length of the wall, framing a reversed iteration of the locker room. I was standing with my back to it, neck twisted, still unclear about what exactly that enigmatic red splotch was on my shoulder, but my eyes darted away from the stain when I heard Luke’s name.
Bell was huddled against the corner lockers, running her hands over her ponytail. Another girl was facing her, manicured hands on her hips.
“Uh-huh. L.B.,” Bell said. “Crazy, right?”
She shifted her focus for a second and caught my eye in the mirror. For a second it was just the two of us in the room. Her, smoothing down flyaways, and me, spraining my neck over something I could have easily just tossed aside and been done with. She looked away first.
“Are you going to tell someone?”
“Or Mrs. Daniels. I don’t know. Someone.”
“They might not believe me.”
“What–because you have an ax to grind with Mrs. Sedgwick?”
“No, I just…” She was silent for a while. “Maybe I saw it wrong. They were sort of in my periphery.”
“You seemed awfully sure of it at the time.”
“Look, what’s with badgering me? I’ll deal with it.”
“Fine. I’ll drop it. What else is new?”
More silence. “Well, the March issue of Elle came in the mail today. Hold on.”
I almost expected to be greeted by a new homeroom teacher that Wednesday. Something in me assumed that when Bell had said “I’ll deal with it,” she had meant that she’d go to Mr. Ludlow, tell him what she’d seen, and our class would be fed some vague reason why Mrs. Sedgwick’s desk was cleared out. There’d be rumors circulated, mutated, and then forgotten.
She was still there, hunched over, clearing her throat throughout attendance. During third period, she maintained an expression that I couldn’t decipher. It could have been a preoccupation of hunger, but that was probably my own feeling projected onto her: bathroom mirror checks now included inspection for cocoa-stained lip corners; one glance at those gold and silver wrappers and my stomach moaned.
At home, my bedroom floor had metamorphosed into a wasteland. Every consumed candy bar produced two pieces of evidence: the smooth white exterior that bragged the flavor and fine print, and the protective gold wrapper guarding the chocolate. Later on, when I was feeling really desperate, I’d start licking the second wrapper, sweeping up any wayward particles and rendering the wrapper damp and defeated.
One box was done with. Emptied, devoured, shoved somewhere under my bed. Now the second box was open on top of my dresser, propped up like a display in a drugstore.
I was in the kitchen on the hunt for something to drink when I heard the garage door open. Dad walked in, muttered hello, and passed through to his study. It was four-thirty; he usually didn’t get home for another hour or hour and a half. When he reappeared, he leaned against the doorframe of the kitchen and rubbed his eyebrows.
“Looks like you’re going to have to pay for this trip yourself,” he said. “Goddamn layoffs.”
He flung open a cabinet and searched aimlessly through glassware.
“I mean, I’ll find something else. I know firms that are hiring,” he said, forcing a smile. “Hey, chin up, hon.”
“Just remembered something,” I mumbled, and sped up to my room. My intention was to get all of the wrappers into a trash bag, throw the rest of the boxes into my backpack and out of sight, maybe even take a couple out door-to-door to try to bandage up what I’d done. All the good intention in the world was there. Instead, I ripped open a bar and shoved the chocolate in my mouth. I chewed, swallowed, opened another.
He called my name out once more, then fell mute. I wiped my mouth off on the back of my hand. My head was pounding. I heard Bell’s doubtful voice, cycling over and over: I saw it wrong, maybe I saw it wrong.
It was clear and cold that weekend. Only because it kept me warm, I had on the most unfortunate looking thing in my closet: a wool turtleneck sweater the color of mucus and ragged with snagged threads. In the backyard, dad raked the last of the leaves and periodically stopped to rub his lower back. He’d been hired at a competing firm but now came home an hour later and smelled of cigarettes. I waved to him as I walked away from the house, readjusting the backpack strap on my shoulder. He called something out to me and flashed a clumsy thumbs-up.
The streets were barren for several blocks. At the light I turned north, passing under a neighbor’s overgrown dogwood tree. My fingertips were beginning to numb. In the middle of the next block, a mother sat on a bus bench with her two children in tow. Her neck was wrapped in a crimson scarf that kept sliding off her shoulders.
“Don’t be silly, Jonas. Your legs aren’t sweaty,” she said.
“Yes they are. They’re hot,” he insisted.
She pulled up his pant leg. Laughed. Shook her head.
“Let’s read this book, huh, kiddos? The bus won’t be here for another five minutes.” She pulled out a large hardcover and adjusted the younger boy on her hip.
“Mom, he’s licking the pages again.” The little one was pressing his face against the pages. Heroically, the older boy tried to pull the book away but lost his grip. I passed them, kicking a pine cone on the sidewalk.
“Jake, stop it. No, no, stop. Don’t lick the pages,” the disembodied voice pleaded behind me.
The bus that they had been waiting for passed me after a while. Olive Point, the destination sign blinked. Somewhere I’d never even heard of, yet the bus looked nearly packed. Maybe I could catch the next one, see where it went. It sounded nice: Olive Point. I imagined it to be full of flora, smelling salty and warm.
A voice came from my right without warning. “Hullo, there,” it said.
She was short, dark haired, wrapped in layers of mismatched clothing. “Are you lost?”
I told her I wasn’t. I readjusted my backpack strap and mumbled something about fundraising and chocolate.
She said, “Speak up, girly. My hearing’s shot.”
“I’m, uh – I’m selling chocolate. For school.”
“Well,” she said. “Come inside for tea.”
I wasn’t sure if that meant she was agreeing to buy any, but my other options were looking dismal, and the chill was working its way up to my knuckles. I urged opened the fence gate and followed her up the path.
She already had two cups set out on the counter with sugar cubes tucked into the saucers. I hadn’t had sugar cubes since I was seven or eight years old, when I’d sneak them out of the kitchen and stow them chipmunk-style in my mouth, running my tongue along my teeth afterward in hunt of sugar crystals.
“Let me guess,” she said. “Peppermint?”
It wouldn’t have been my choice, but I nodded anyway. I sat.
“I’m Tia,” she continued. “I guess they probably already told you that.”
“Lindsay left a couple books when she was last here. You wouldn’t mind giving them to her, would you? I’d give them to her myself, but you’ll see her first, I imagine.”
“Oh,” I said. “I–”
“Here’s your tea, dear.”
She was hovering over me, holding out the cup and saucer. Her hands shook, just barely, but the light clink of ceramic rang in my ears.
“Well,” Tia said, “about this chocolate of yours. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth anymore, but I have plenty of friends who do. And, of course, I want to support you girls after all you’ve done for me.”
The numbness had worn from my fingers, but now I was rubbing them together anxiously.
“You know,” I said, “I think I actually might’ve forgotten my boxes.”
“Mmm.” She blew on a spoonful of tan-colored tea and brought it to her lips. Her eyes, slightly milky, remained focused on me. “Next time, then, Lindsay.”
“Sure,” I said quietly. “Next time.”
Interrupting herself as she blew on another spoonful, she broke into a grin. I hadn’t noticed it before, but she was missing two of her teeth, right at the corner of her mouth. Apart from that, her face was ruddy, kind, impressed with soft wrinkles.
“I’m sorry…Tia. I think I’m going to have to take off.”
“Of course. I’ll see you again soon.”
“Thank you for the tea.”
“It’s raining,” Tia said without looking out the window. “Borrow a coat from the closet.”
“Thank you, but I’ll be fine.”
“Take a coat.” This, I could tell, was going to be non-negotiable.
I tried, anyway. “But what if you need it later?”
“It’s raining,” she said, “and it’s going to get worse.”
The rain did, as she’d predicted, come down harder as I ambled away from her house. I’d chosen too hastily – the jacket I’d put on, cut from a print of big blue dahlias, shrouded my already shapeless figure and didn’t include the luxury of a hood. A troop of pigeons shot me beady glares, then scattered as a metro bus sped by. I dug my hands into the jacket pockets. In the left one, a folded slip of paper poked my palm. I pulled it out, unfolded it. The pen marks looked like nonsense at first, swooping in indecipherable ways. The impressions were deep, though, so much so that when I flipped the scrap of paper over, another image was visible in their reversal. It was a drawing of a girl standing in the street, rain drizzling, the girl’s face cloaked by her jacket’s hood.
On Monday morning there was no Mrs. Sedgwick seated at the front of homeroom. Mr. Kessler was in her place, who dressed as if he took fashion cues from a detective novel and bared his bottom teeth when he talked. He scrawled Read Chapters 8 and 9 across the whiteboard and sat at the desk with his face lowered, aiming his lustrous bald head at the class.
Bell passed me a note, folded in perfect quarters. Kessler’s wearing a clip-on. Saw him put it on before class.
You were here early? I wrote back. Uh… spying?
She wrote something, scratched it out, and then started again. When she slipped the note back onto my desk, it said, Sedgwick fired. Luke told. I quickly folded the paper into eighths and buried it in my pocket. Since Bell had denied it, since nothing had happened for a whole week, I’d convinced myself that it had all been a misunderstanding. A slip in perception. I’d done it myself – passing a mirror, thinking there was more than just myself moving by. Thinking I knew whomever was in the passenger seat in the next highway lane over.
Bell slipped me another sliver of paper. The lettering was more slanted, sloppier than before. Race each other in P.E.? Mile?
Another two weeks nudged us into spring. Bell cut and dyed her hair; we looked like twins out there on the track, tying our unofficial races. I discovered an untapped sugar-deprived clique in the cafeteria to sell all but one of my remaining cartons to. When I made a second trip to Tia’s house, tardy and coat in hand, she asked, “Are you sure this one’s mine, darling?” I left with crystalline sweetness raiding my mouth and an unanticipated fondness for the place.
The morning of the trip, after shoving our luggage into the guts of a school bus, I slid into the emergency exit seat next to Bell. Everyone else in our class was bouncing around the bus cabin, colliding into each other, drowsy and keyed up. It was seven thirty in the morning and would be a three-hour ride.
A ball of paper flew through the air, ricocheting off the ceiling, and for a second I thought I might have seen a blur of metallic, but I convinced myself that I was barely awake. Bell was ferreting through her purse, earphones already tucked into her ears. Outside, the light was sharpening. The bus lurched forward and I watched as all the details spilled by in reverse, speeding up and bleeding together.