Authors: Adrienne Stoltz,Ron Bass
My name is Sloane Margaret Jameson. I’ve never punched anybody named Devin Cruikshank in the mouth because I’ve never met anyone named Devin Cruikshank. Plus I’m not a puncher. I’m more of a head butter.
I roll over and stare at the dull stars on my ceiling. They are the kind that glow in the dark, so when it’s not dark, they just look like jaundiced stickers. I bought them and a package of astronaut ice
cream on a field trip to the Boston Museum of Science. How did they ever think to dehydrate ice cream, those brilliant rocket scientists?! When I got home from the field trip, I carefully studied the constellations and did my best to re-create Orion. I then decided it was more fun to make my own. There’s Stella the Horse, who talks like Mr. Ed. She has a sharp tongue and can’t be trusted. There’s El Delicioso, the grand Nutella crepe in the sky. I ran out of stars halfway through making an elephant, so he kind of looks like a teacup. But I call him Rooibus (which is my favorite African tea) and imagine the stars in his trunk went supernova a zillion years ago and disappeared.
The noise of my family downstairs annoys me in the way a mosquito can be more distracting than a jackhammer. Lately, I’m always the last one out of bed in the mornings. It’s been a long time since there was something that I was eager to get out of bed for. Actually, it’s been a year.
I’m not depressed. At least not clinically according to my Internet research. I clearly have a few issues. Having a huge secret like I do makes life a little lonely. Lonelier still being surrounded by people, wonderful people, so close each day and not being able to tell them. I imagine that being a double agent, or a cheating wife, or in the closet must be similarly lonely and tiring.
I’m not an actress like Maggie is in my dream, but I think I do a pretty good job of convincing everyone I’m okay. And really, I am okay. Really. Not every day feels this heavy and hard.
The anniversary of my best friend Bill’s death is coming up. And it conveniently coincides with my seventeenth birthday. I hate attention anyway. I’m so uncomfortable being the focus of anyone’s
attention. I squirm when I’m in the spotlight. I like to be behind the camera.
Luckily, the annoying buzz of my family downstairs is preventing me from wallowing in my pity puddle. Soon enough my feet hit the hardwood and I’m in the bathroom waiting for the water to get warm.
Downstairs smells like coffee and pancakes and eggs and my mother’s freshly washed hair. I guess she got to the hot water before I could. And then I catch the scent of decaying sea animals. My seven-year-old brother, Max, has covered the entire table with his haphazard and negligently constructed “science project.” It is apparently a diorama of our local coastline (giving Max the benefit of the doubt), including real dead mussels, eelgrass, part of a bird’s nest, the indescribably gross shell of a mangled horseshoe crab, all not quite held together with Elmer’s wood glue, which now disfigures our entire kitchen.
I love Max. He is scrappy and puckish and capricious. He has a brilliant imagination and used to let me play his weird games with him. He would walk into a room, intertwine his little fingers through mine, and pull me into hours of running around. Once worn out, he would snuggle his fuzzy head into my cheek so that I could feel his warm body breathing against mine, and we’d read books.
Then, about a year ago, he and his cronies reached the decision that girls have cooties. So now I’m no longer his sister, but a
My mother is cooking for too many people, which is fewer than usual. She really overdoes all the homemaking stuff. There is ridiculously meticulous attention to cleanliness, for example. Not that cleanliness is a bad thing, unless you turn it into one by hiding
behind it. For example, she’ll spend half the morning cleaning up Max’s crap, none of which would have been necessary if she actually disciplined him for once and told him not to make a mess in the first place. I bet if the consequences had to do with video games or snacks, he’d listen. I wonder from time to time if she lets him make a mess to give herself one more thing to do. She’s got the fullest schedule of anyone in southeastern Connecticut or probably the Free World. I think she does it to make herself feel better for “temporarily” abandoning a promising career in marine science to give birth to my older brother, Tyler. On staff at Woods Hole, she used to study the dynamics governing the transport of fine-grained sediments in coastal and estuarine waters. I’ve listened to my dad tell me how much she loved that work. But she never went back to it. After Tyler, she was pregnant with me before she knew it. Once you’re out of the game, there aren’t a ton of employment opportunities in the area. I suppose our family just grew roots. Deep roots stuck in the Mystic soil.
My mom and I used to be a lot closer. She didn’t suddenly get cooties, but this last year things have been really bad between us. I know it really hurts her. I just don’t know what to do about it.
Without turning from the stove, she says in her sunniest, most innocent voice, “Morning, sweetie. You know I was thinking?”
Uh-oh. “Thinking” is a euphemism for “I’m about to throw something out there that I know is probably going to piss you off.” The fact that she isn’t even using a normal tone of voice makes me resent that she clearly feels like she has to walk on eggshells around me.
“This Saturday might just be the perfect time for us to zip up to
Providence to start looking for your prom dress. What do you think?”
I think you’re deliberately trying to provoke me.
“Since I have no intention of ever going to something called a
,” I snap before I have time to think this through, “I wonder whatever would we do with a dress?”
“Sounds like someone’s brushing up on her irony.”
My dad has entered the kitchen and butted in, in his customary good-natured and completely fair way. I’ll have none of that this morning.
“Dad, Mom knows how I feel about going to this prom. And instead of engaging me in a direct conversation about it, she throws in a passive-aggressive attempt to manipulate the situation, with complete deniability. This is what we call the ‘I’m just saying’ syndrome, where we don’t take responsibility for saying things we shouldn’t.”
“Fascinating.” My dad takes a maddeningly calm sip of his coffee. “A straight-A English student with no understanding of the term
. Which actually applies to your statement rather than your mother’s.”
Other than the fact that he is completely right, he is way out of line.
“Sloane,” my mother says through pursed lips. “Will you step outside with me for a minute?” She doesn’t sound exactly angry. Or hurt. She sounds determined and purposeful. At least we might have a real conversation for a change.
“Sloane,” she says. “You’re absolutely right, I was afraid to bring the prom up with you because I thought you might react this way.
But let’s cut straight to the chase. You and I both know there’s a lot more involved in this than the junior prom.”
I’m kind of speechless. This is a combination of firmness and genuine concern that I thought I’d been longing for. But now that we’re actually talking, I realize the things I want us to talk about are of course impossible.
“When you were fifteen, you hounded me to let you begin dating. And I insisted that you wait until your sixteenth birthday. You were so patient, but now an entire year has gone by and I don’t think you’ve had one proper date in all this time. What happened?”
I look down at my feet. Hating myself for feeling awkward and inadequate to come up with a smoothly convincing lie.
“Nothing happened. There still isn’t a particular guy I want to date. I guess I just didn’t understand your stupid rule and wanted to see if I could get you to change your mind.” My eyes burn as I say the words so I focus on the grass. I feel her watching me and just want to be out of her spotlight. I look up and surprisingly have the grace to say, “And I’m really sorry for being such a snide little brat.”
“Again,” she says, bending down to pull out a weed from the bed of daffodils.
Who knew she had a sense of humor.
I’m about to head for the bus stop when Gordy texts me, offering to pick me up. This is an unusual treat since my house is not on the way to school for him. I then get a second text with a request for some of my mom’s breakfast leftovers and figure he must just be hungry and broke. Gordy is my best friend since birth. Our parents are good friends and used to force us to play together as kids, but our forced friendship turned into a real bond.
With a tinfoil-wrapped Jameson McMuffin in hand, I wait on the corner for my ride. We live in an old house on Gravel Street, dating back to 1834. Some guy named Daniel R. Williams built it and sold seine fishing nets from the basement. The basement is ten feet deep and was a station on the Underground Railroad, which I love. And Matilda Appleman Williams, old Danny’s wife, used to hold weekly séances in the front parlor. I’ve dabbled with a Ouija board in her honor.
The house sits sideways to the street, and I’m sure when it was built, there weren’t any other houses around blocking the view of the Mystic River. Now we have a partial view from the front of the house. We can see the Dyer Dhows and their colored sails spinning around in front of the seaport. Sunsets swirl pastel along the moving water. The egrets, night herons, laughing gulls, and sweet little plovers all go about their business and we get to watch.
Gordy’s truck pulls up, and before I even climb in the cab, I can tell the ride to school is going to cost more than breakfast. Something’s up. He doesn’t wait for me to ask.
“Sloane.” He has his serious voice on. “Coach Manard told me last night that the school is organizing a memorial for Bill. A big service, down on the football field so everyone can be there. He asked me for your number because he wants you to say something. I knew you’d think it’s lame and you’d probably just hang up on him or say something snide. So I told him I’d ask you myself.” He turns to me. “Will you please do it?”
I want to throw up.
“You mean stand up on the football field in front of the whole school—not to mention Bill’s family? What would I say? That Bill
was an extraordinary human even though lots of you didn’t know him at all and virtually none of you really knew him well?” Gordy is used to my rants, but this must be hard for him too.
“You won’t be alone up there,” he says, taking a hand off the steering wheel and putting it gently on my back. “I’ll say something, and your brother is coming home from school for it too.”
coming home for this?” How could Gordy think that would make me feel any better? Tyler drives me bananas. He always has. Nothing he could say about Bill’s death would make me feel better. He is six-four, sort of good-looking if you like really conventionally boringly “handsome” types. A lot of my friends think he’s cute. He never worries. He has no problems. His life has always been good and easy, at least when it comes to the conventionally boring expectations that he seems maddeningly satisfied with. B+ average? No problem. He bragged about it like he was valedictorian at MIT. First-string quarterback on the third-worst team in our league? Loved it. Was beating off cheerleaders with a stick. No kidding.
“Tyler wants to be there. He and Bill were tight, Sloane. Not like you and me and Bill, of course.” He slides a look in my direction. “You weren’t his only friend.” He says this last bit softly. And it feels like a piano crashing on my heart.
Bill and Gordy and I were a tight threesome. But I guess, sometimes, I feel territorial about our shared grief. And it’s not fair of me. In the past year Gordy and I have wobbled like a tricycle missing a wheel. We haven’t figured out a way to become our own bike.
I take a deep breath and stare at the bright green trees blurring by. Maybe somebody does need to stand up and tell everyone that an irreplaceable human life is gone, and the empty expressions
of “so sorry for your loss” make me want to start pounding those phonies to jelly. The worst ones pretend it was their loss. As if sitting next to Bill for one class and never talking to him except to borrow an eraser makes them authorities on what kind of guy Bill was. I mean, I actually heard Mia Wallace brag about how “close” she’d been to him because he’d kissed her once at a keg party two years ago. She was sobbing, telling the story of that kiss like it was a soap on Telemundo, while her girlfriends flocked around comforting her, eating it up like vultures. Bill told me she’d basically jumped him and shoved her tongue down his throat. Of course, he added that she was a nice girl, because Bill was incapable of trashing anybody.
But Gordy isn’t one of the phonies. And it isn’t fair of me to take it out on him. I tell him I’ll think about it, thank him for the ride, and fib that I have a test first period and need to get into class.
At lunch with Lila and Kelly, I decide not to even mention the memorial. No matter how much I love my girls, I can’t really talk to them about Bill. I’ve just never been able to.
Lila can’t stop indirectly asking me to set her up with Gordy, which she knows is an absolute nonstarter, even though I love her to death and Gordy would be so much better served dating sweet Lila than the cheerleader sloppy seconds that my stupid brother Tyler left behind.
Gordy is an athlete too, wide receiver and quarter miler, and thereby unfortunately friendly with Tyler. He is sort of gorgeous, and if I am to be honest, also in a conventionally boring way, but on him, I don’t mind it because he has a good soul. He sits with the Abercrombie-and-Fitch-looking crew at the bottom of the hill. Sometimes I sit with them. Sometimes I sit with Lila and Kelly or
with the nerd herd from most of my classes. Most often I just sit up on the hill and see who sits with me. I’m kind of a social floater. I don’t really belong to any one clique but can navigate most of them (except for maybe the hard-core metal heads).
Kelly is on a relentless mission to get me to double with her and Chuck to the prom, which is coming up sooner than I want to think about. Today she reveals Chuck has several candidates prescreened to be the lucky man who wins my hand in promitude. It is true that Chuck isn’t an athlete (boy, isn’t he); however, he is a burner, a slacker, and completely unworthy of brilliant Kelly, except that he is cute and a really fun guy. His friends are just stoners. They usually stumble into lunch a little late reeking like they just rolled out of Scooby-Doo’s van. Kelly spends twenty minutes waxing poetic about their depth of character, and I pretend that I’m not in danger of losing my lunch at the thought of a good-night kiss from Brad “The Weed” Wilcox.