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Authors: Shelley Pearsall

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BOOK: All of the Above
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RHONDELL

Maybe I notice things about Sharice that no one else sees. Nobody else seems to realize how different she is after coming back from Christmas vacation. Before vacation, she asked unstoppable questions and talked more than anybody else except my Aunt Asia. She organized the Christmas party, and we did all the decorating together. But after coming back, she is mostly silent and lost somewhere inside herself. She is like one of the small tetrahedrons after they are folded up and glued together.
Withdrawn
is the college word I'd use for her.

I wonder if there is something wrong in her family. Maybe somebody who has let the devil take hold, as my mom says about families who fall into drinking or drugs. But then I realize that even though I've told her all about my mom and how she is a religious person who directs the Sanctuary Baptist Church choir on Sundays, and I've talked about my dad who left when I was two years old, and I've even told her about my Aunt Asia (who wears gold nail polish and has different hair every time you see her), Sharice has kept herself a mystery the entire time.

I don't even know what kind of family Sharice has. I can't remember whether she ever talked about a mom or a dad or even other brothers and sisters. In fact, the only thing I know about her family is the street where they live—Fifteenth Street, because she takes the number 209 bus with me sometimes and I see her turn the corner there when she gets off at the stop.

“Is there anything bothering you?” I try to ask her one afternoon at math club when we are sitting down to work. The words come out of my mouth nervously.

“No. Why?” she answers, and I can't think of what to reply except to say that she seems different all of a sudden. Her eyes flash me a look of suspicion. “What's wrong with different?” she asks.

A day or so later, while we are riding on the school bus, I try to find out more about her family. I choose a question carefully and ask it while I'm talking about my mom's job at the downtown hospital and all of the hours she works. “Where does your mom work?” I inquire, as if it is just an ordinary question. But Sharice turns her face toward the bus window and tells me that she doesn't like talking about her mom.

There are other things I notice, too, and I feel embarrassed for noticing them—as if I'm being prying, and I don't think that's a good word to be. But I can't help noticing how Sharice's face is too ashy-looking and dry and her eyes are shadowy and tired, as if she's staying up way too late. Her hair isn't kept up the way it used to be, either. It straggles out of its twists in fuzzy wisps that she's always reaching up and trying to smooth down with her hands.

In math club, she acts strangely now whenever we are ready to leave. After we walk outside, she is always forgetting something in the building and asking Mr. Collins if she can run back to get it—her purse, her homework, her keys, her gloves.… “Don't wait for me,” she'll tell us.

Each time, Mr. Collins sighs and shakes his head. “You need to be more organized, Sharice. I shouldn't let you back in the building if I'm not there.” But she'll always duck inside the door fast, before he can say any more. “I'll remember next time,” she always promises. Only she never does.

Sometimes I have the feeling that Sharice is hiding more secrets than any of us really knows.

MR. COLLINS

An important fact to remember about tetrahedrons:

Although the large tetrahedron appears strong and stable, it should be noted that its pieces are joined together only at the smallest of points. The edges and faces remain largely separate and unconnected.

JAMES HARRIS III

My brother's friends start in on me the minute I walk through the door one afternoon. I check out the living room but there's no sign of my brother DJ. Course that's nothing unusual with DJ these days. Three of his friends—Anthony, Markese, and Leon—lounge on the floor with CDs and burger wrappers scattered all around them.

“Where you been, little brother? You late,” Markese says, grinning and looking at me with his sharp switchblade eyes. He is half-crazy on drugs most of the time. You don't mess with Markese because you never know.

“Nowhere, man,” I answer, trying to slip past them into the kitchen, without looking like I'm slipping past.

Anthony throws a wadded-up hamburger wrapper at my back. “Hey, you still working on that math thing with Collins? That why you late all the time?”

“Why?” I answer, cutting my eyes back at him.

Another burger wrapper nails my back. “Hey, just asking. Chill.”

But the switchblade eyes are curious now. Markese sits up and leans back against the couch. He folds his arms across his chest. “What math thing?” he says in a slow voice.

I can feel my stomach tighten up exactly like it does before a fight or when you think somebody is about to come after you. Last thing I want to be doing is talking about a school math project with Markese.

“Nothing,” I answer, trying to duck out.

But Anthony, who's in eighth grade at Washington because he flunked a year, jumps in and gives Markese all the details. He tells him how Collins’ classroom is building something that looks like a pyramid. “It's different colors, and they're trying to break some world record, that's what I heard,” he says.

Markese's eyes slide over to me. “That true about the pyramid?” he asks, with a curious smile spreading across his face.

I shrug. “Maybe. Who knows?”

Markese's eyes sharpen. “Can anybody go and see it?”

“Yeah, whatever…,” I answer, trying to say as little as I can, but still saying too much, I feel like. Like I said before, you don't want to mess with Markese.

“Hey, if you wanna see it sometime, I'll get you into the school.” Anthony grins, looking over at Markese. “You know me. I'm up for anything —”

Even after I go into the kitchen, the three of them keep on talking and laughing behind me. The warning feeling stays in the pit of my stomach. I pour a big bowl of cereal that I don't feel like eating and tuck a can of Pepsi under my arm.

In the room that me and DJ share, I shut the door, put on my headphones, and turn up the music as loud as it will go. Stretching out across my bed, I smack open one of my notebooks and start drawing whatever comes into my head. I do a whole page of clenched fists—ones that are getting ready to slam into somebody's face if they get too close. I'm good at drawing hands. Half of my notebooks are filled with them. But no matter how many fists I draw slamming into windows and walls and faces, I still can't get rid of the bad feeling I have about Markese.

SHARICE

I get tired of always finding excuses for staying later, so finally I ask Mr. Collins if I can work extra on the tetrahedron, after the math club leaves. I make up a big story and tell him how my foster mom's hours at work have suddenly changed and nobody's home until five or six. “My neighborhood's real dangerous with break-ins and all,” I say. “It's safer here.”

The truth is that Jolynn isn't coming home until midnight or later some nights because she's out with her new man. “Better stay with some of your school friends tonight, Sharice,” she'll holler from the bathroom while she's doing her hair in the morning. “I'll be out late again.”

“I'll just come home when you get back,” I always insist.

“It'll be awfully late, honey,” she'll answer. “Sure you don't want to stay overnight at your friend's house if you're already there?”

What friend's house?

I don't know what Jolynn thinks I'm supposed to do. I have friends at school, but not the kind I want knowing all my business. For instance, what would Rhondell think if I turned to her and said, “Girl, would your mom mind if I stayed over your house this week because foster non-parent #5 isn't coming home?” So I try to stay at school as late as I can, and then I usually find another place to sit for the rest of the time.

Mr. Collins says if I'm going to stay later, I have to be out of the building when the basketball team leaves at six. And it's my responsibility (he stretches out this word to emphasize how important it is) to turn off the lights and pull the classroom door shut when I do. “Twist the knob and make sure it's locked.” Mr. Collins shows me.

But I never leave anywhere close to six o'clock. Usually it's seven or eight. A few times, even nine o'clock. The custodians don't come upstairs to clean until way after eight. I know because I asked one of them, “What time do you get to cleaning the third floor?”

The old custodian, Mr. Joe, covered his mouth with his hand and whispered, “Girl, with all there is to do in the place, sometimes we don't ever get up to the third floor.” (Which you could tell by looking around, I guess. Same chocolate bar wrapper stuck in the same water fountain for a week sometimes.)

I've got my own little way of doing things, once everybody in math club leaves. I turn off the first two rows of lights and ease the door shut. Mr. Collins’ door has a shade, so I pull that down, too. No one can tell I'm sitting inside the room because I've stood in the hallway and checked.

After that, I take my supper out of my backpack and set it neatly on a white paper napkin as if I'm sitting in a fancy restaurant. Usually supper is half of whatever I had for lunch (a squashed cheese sandwich, or tater tots wrapped up in a napkin—something like that), a soda pop, and a candy bar from the vending machine. I prop my feet up on one of the desk chairs and eat slowly to make it last.

After I'm done with dinner, I try to work on my homework a little to keep my Gram happy in heaven (because you know she's probably watching). Although there are always some nights when I can't make myself care, and I take out my homework, look at it, and slide it back in my bag without doing a thing.

After that, I fold the little tetrahedrons and listen to music on my headset the rest of the time. It's the only part of the day I like, to tell you the truth. When I'm sitting by myself in the math room and my fingers are flying (folding, gluing, folding, gluing) and music is playing in my ears, I can't worry about all of the things that are going wrong in my life, so maybe that's why I like it.

The tetrahedron is getting closer to the top every day—mainly with all my extra work. We're only a few thousand pieces away from finishing. Everybody's always asking me how I get so many done, and I have to bite my tongue to keep from telling them if they were at school until eight or nine, they'd get a lot done, too.

I like looking at the big tetrahedron at night when nobody's around. I walk around it, squinting at the colors and spaces from different angles, fixing places that have come unstuck here and there. At night, the colors seem to glow more than they do during the day—shimmering purple, red, orange, yellow—one color blending into the next, like James said they would.

Sometimes I turn out all the lights and perch on the top of the heater, tilting my head from one side to the other, studying the pyramid. With the streetlights shining through the iced-up classroom windows behind it, the tetrahedron changes from paper triangles into something that looks more like lace. It reminds me of the point of a big snowflake, the way it looks so delicate and fragile in the darkness.

If I stare at it long enough, sometimes I can kinda pull myself inside that tetrahedron snowflake, and imagine all the starry edges and points floating in the air around me. I can drift through the night sky just like one of the tumbling snowflakes outside, thinking about my mom and my Gram who died, and everything I don't let myself think about during the day usually. (Good thoughts, not bad ones.)

And maybe that's what happened on the last night of January when I drifted out of the room without remembering what Mr. Collins told me to never forget. I left for home at about seven o'clock, and I never turned back to check the door.

MR. COLLINS

In random number sequences, it is impossible to predict the number that will come next. There is no pattern. What happened to my students’ math project was random and patternless in the same way. It was early on a Wednesday morning when Joe Hill, our school custodian, stopped me at my classroom door. He told me that something had happened during the night. That someone had broken into the math room and vandalized our project. Nothing of the tetrahedron—not a single piece, he said softly—was left standing.

RHONDELL

There are no words—college words or any words—for what I feel when I see the empty space where the rainbow tetrahedron used to be, and look at the crumpled pieces of paper covering the entire floor, and remember how hard we worked to make those pieces every afternoon for months. It is as if everything shrivels up inside me, like a caterpillar turning to dust inside its cocoon. I stand in the middle of the room, still holding on to my books, trying to understand how it could be gone.

Next to me, Sharice is silent. Even Marcel, who is always teasing and joking, has a frozen look on his face.

Mr. Collins tries to talk to us about what happened. “I know all of us worked hard on this project and this is very difficult —” His voice catches in his throat and he has to pause. “Very difficult to understand …”

BOOK: All of the Above
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