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Authors: Laurie Halse Anderson

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Social Issues, #Depression & Mental Illness, #Love & Romance, #Historical, #Military & Wars

The Impossible Knife of Memory (10 page)

BOOK: The Impossible Knife of Memory
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good morning want 2 go 2 paris?
“Who’s that?” Dad asked.

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34
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Small, ancient men lead us up the mountain to their village. I can’t speak their language. My interpreter claims he can.

Yesterday, the enemy set up grenade launchers on the flat roof of a house here. They fired at our outpost, corrected the angle and fired again. And again. Every shot looked like a small, red flower blooming across the valley. They rained destruction on our heads, distracting us so that we weren’t ready for the men who poured into our camp, weapons blazing.

Nine of my soldiers had to be evacuated. Two died before they made it back to base. We killed four insurgents and captured four more.

At the end of the battle, our air support fired missiles through the front door of the house, turning it into a hole in the side of the mountain.

The old men take us there. A tiny hand, stained with blood and dust, pokes out of the rubble. The old men shout at us.
“What are they saying?” I ask.
“We got the wrong house,” the interpreter says.
We blew up a house filled with children and mothers and toothless grandmothers. The insurgent house sits empty, a stone’s throw away.
The ancient men yell at me and shake their fists.
I understand every word they say.

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35
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“Fifty people saw you at the game,” Topher said. “Stop lying.”

The first-period cafeteria was quiet, everyone in mourning for the death of another weekend.
“I’m not lying,” I repeated. “The whole thing was weird. He’s weird. Isn’t he, G?”
Gracie nodded, absently chewing on a fingernail. Something was up with her; she had no makeup on, her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and it smelled like she hadn’t brushed her teeth.
Topher reached across the cafeteria table and tore a piece off my muffin. “He said he tried to text you a million times.”
“He exaggerated,” I said. “He texted me twice. Then my phone died.”
(I was not about to explain how.)
I’d spent the rest of Saturday watching cooking shows. Dad stayed by the fire, his back to the house. When I woke up at noon on Sunday, a brand-new phone, expensive, sat on the kitchen table next to a note that read
Sorry
. He came home a few hours later, his arms heavy with grocery bags. I put the food away and made a pot of chili. He watched football, the volume turned up loud enough that I could hear it in my room, even with my music cranked as high as it would go.
I knew that he was waiting for me to say thanks, but I didn’t want to. Buying me a new phone we couldn’t afford was pathetic. His “sorry,” didn’t mean anything.
Enough.
Thinking didn’t help anything.
I pulled myself back to real time. “It doesn’t matter what Finn told you,” I said to Topher. “We were not on a date. He’s making it all up.”
“Typical guy,” Gracie murmured, starting in on a thumbnail. “Lies and more lies.”
“Babe.” Topher gently pulled her hand away from her mouth. “You promised you weren’t going to do that anymore.”
Gracie glared at him. “Shut up.”
There was something not-good going on between the two of them. I pretended to study Chinese words for breakfast foods.
Gracie pointed at me. “Don’t you say anything, either.”
“Babe!” said Topher. “Relax.”
Before I could open my mouth, Finn plopped himself down on the seat next to me.
“Hey,” he said.
“Um,” I responded, articulate and witty as ever. He was wearing a tight black T-shirt with the logo of a band I’d never heard of, jeans pulled a little low, and new sneakers. He had cut his neck shaving. He smelled like spice.
“Um,” I repeated.
“I hate it when you call me ‘babe,’” Gracie said to Topher. “I’ll chew my nails if I want. When did you become such a jerk?”
“Whoa!” Topher raised both hands. “Sorry, it’s just—”
“It’s just nothing.” She blinked back tears, got up, and ran for the door.
“What’s up with her?” Topher asked me.
“Probably her period,” Finn suggested.
“Do you have any idea how insulting that is?” I asked. “Do you know how much women loathe it when guys think every show of negative emotion is tied to our menstrual cycle, like we’re sheep or something?”
(From a poorly lit corner of my brain came the thought that picking a fight with Finn about the stupid things boys say about periods when girls are acting weird might be a bad decision. This was drowned out by the next thought, which screamed loud and clear that if he was dumb enough to think that periods were the root of all female aggravation, then I wasn’t going to waste my time with him.)
(But, damn, did he look good in that shirt.)
I switched my attack to Topher. “Did you guys have a fight this weekend?”
Topher shook his head. “Not me. It’s either her period or her parents.”
“It’s not her period,” I insisted.
“Well, she won’t talk about it.” He stole another piece of my muffin. “I took her to the movies Friday night? She didn’t say one freaking word. Didn’t want to, you know, do anything after, either.”
“Don’t you think you should go find her?” Finn asked, motioning toward the door.
“Why?” Topher asked.
“Because you’re her boyfriend, douche bag. You’re supposed to help. See what she needs.”
“Really? I should do that?”
“Yes, Toph, really,” I said. “Go. We’ll watch your stuff.”
As soon as he left, a horrifying silence fell over the table.
I could feel Finn sitting next to me. Smell him, too. It wasn’t just the faint hint of spice, he had definitely brushed his teeth. Maybe used mouthwash. Would that be a good conversation starter, asking about his preferred mouthwash brand?
Probably not.
“So.” His voice cracked and he hit a soprano note. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Right. So when are you going to turn in the football article?”
I had not thought about it all weekend. “Do you really need it today?”
“Sort of. As soon as you turn it in, the paper will have a grand total of,” he frowned and counted silently on his fingers, “a grand total of two articles. We could have an official staff meeting this afternoon and figure what else we want to write about.”
“No, thanks.”
He was fumbling with his container of chocolate milk, trying to open the wax cardboard top. “You have something better to do? A bank to rob? Small nation to invade?”
“Something like that.”
“Will you come to the meeting if I give you ten bucks?”
“You still owe me nineteen from the football game.”
“I’ll make it an even thirty. But not a penny more.”
“Do you pay everyone on the staff?”
“Why, is that a bad thing to do?”
“How many people are working on this thing?”
“Counting me? And you? Two.”
I laughed. “You are the worst high school newspaper editor ever, aren’t you?”
“My proudest achievement to date.” He finally opened the milk and gulped it down. When it was finished, he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “So do you hate me?”
“Because you said a dumb thing about women’s periods?”
“I was thinking more about the fact that you didn’t call or answer my texts after Saturday morning.”
“It was my phone.”
Finn groaned. “Come on, Blue Girl, something original, please.” He took a deep breath. “I know . . . I was . . .” He sighed. “I ambushed you with the date thing. I’m sorry if it pissed you off.”
“Pissed me off?”
He leaned forward and banged his forehead on the table three times.
“Stop that!” I put my hand between his head and the table. “Are you crazy?”
“Certifiable,” he said.
“Look. I wasn’t making it up.” I dug Dad’s guilt-present phone out of my backpack and handed it to him. “My old phone was killed on Saturday, just as you were texting me. I got this one yesterday and I don’t have anyone’s numbers and I couldn’t ask Gracie because, well, things at my house were weird.”
“Weird with your dad or weird with the 10th Mountain Division?”
“With my dad,” I explained. “And those guys were the 101st, out of Kentucky. They left early Saturday morning.”
Finn perked up. “So you weren’t ignoring me because you hated me because I lied to you about Friday night and, in fact, if you recall our conversation, offered to pay you for what turned into a date?”
I hesitated while I picked through all the clauses he’d shoved into that question. “Ignoring you, no,” I said. “And we agreed that it was an anti-date, remember?”
He relaxed and laughed. “Excellent! I was starting to feel a little less than confident about the whole thing. But!” He pointed at me, then leaned so close that my vision blurred and made two faces of his one. “Now the truth can come out. You were on a secret mission all weekend. Black ops. Which was the real reason those soldiers were there. Don’t worry,” he sat back up, “you don’t have to explain the details. I understand everything.”
“Everything?”
He opened his second container of chocolate milk. “I spent the weekend contacting sources and bullying reluctant suspects. I know it all: your years working for the British secret service, the favor you did for the Swedish royal family, and the fact that you speak twenty-seven languages fluently.”
I took the chocolate milk from him and sipped. “Twenty-eight.”
“What?”
“I speak twenty-eight languages. You probably forgot Udmurt. Most people do.”
“Udmurt?” He laced his fingers together behind his head, showing a shocking amount of bicep and pec definition under the thin material of his shirt. “You are flirting with me, Miss Blue.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” I muttered, blushing so hard I expected the sprinkler system to activate.
“Oh, yeah,” Finn said, grinning. “I’d like to go on record as stating that if you come to your senses and decide never to talk to me again, I will cherish this moment forever. Udmurt. That was awesome.”
Before I could deconstruct that sentence and figure out if he was mocking, teasing, or paying me a compliment, Topher burst in through the door and ran over to us.
“You better come,” he said, panting. “She is seriously freaking out. In the bathroom.”

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36
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Based on his panic level, I expected the hall to be filled with a SWAT team and hostage negotiators. Instead, I found a group of girls standing in front of the bathroom door, waiting like excited spectators at a medieval hanging.

“You can’t go in there,” the tallest one said to me, stepping in front of the door.
“Yeah,” chimed in the one wearing pajama pants and furry boots. “Our friend needs some privacy.”
Inside the bathroom, Gracie sobbed.
“Your friend?” I asked.
“She’s having a really hard time,” said the third girl, her voice oily with drama.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“She’s depressed,” said the tall one.
“Suicidal,” said Pajamas.
“Or it could be her period,” said the third one.
The slack-faced, highlighted zombies stared at me, trying on the different expressions of concern and self-righteousness they’d memorized from reality shows. I looked around, hoping to see someone who actually knew what to do in a situation like this, but found only Topher and Finn, a few steps behind him.
“Do you know her name?” I asked the girls.
“What?” asked Pajamas.
“What’s your friend’s name?” I asked. “The one who is in there crying?”
“Her name is Gwen,” said the third one. “I think she’s in my gym class.”
“Get out of my way.” I pushed between them and opened the bathroom door.

Gracie raised her head as I entered. She was sitting on the floor by the radiator under the window that was guaranteed never to open.

“Go away.” She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her brown sweater.

I thought about it and said, “I don’t think I should. What’s up?”
She shook her head, closed her eyes, and leaned back against the radiator.
“Do you want me to get the nurse?”
She snorted. “Because a Children’s Tylenol and a glass of orange juice will fix everything? Right.”
The bathroom smelled like cigarette smoke, vomit, and perfume. Two of the three stall doors had been removed. I dampened a paper towel in the sink and handed it to Gracie.
“What’s this for?” she asked.
“Put it on your eyes,” I said. “It will feel good.”
She did as I asked, sighing a little when the cool paper touched her skin. Out in the hall, Topher was arguing with the drama zombies.
I sat next to Gracie because I didn’t know what else to do. From the floor, I could see the bases of the three toilets and the undersides of the sinks. Couldn’t tell which was more disgusting, but I was pretty sure that the biology and chemistry teachers never needed to pay for mold or bacteria kits again.
“He cheated,” she murmured.
“Topher?”
“No.” She squeezed the paper towel and watched the drops puddle on the dirty tile. “My dad. He cheated on Mom.”
“Are you sure? I’ve been to your house. Your parents are perfect.”
“They’re good at pretending. This has been going on for a long time. It’s a cycle—he cheats, gets caught, they fight, go to counseling, fall in love, he takes her on a romantic vacation. Six months later, he finds a new girlfriend and starts the whole thing over again.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“You could say it’s really shitty,” she suggested.
“That’s really shitty,” I echoed.
“You bet it is,” she said quietly. “And it’s gross, especially the sex part. Who wants to think about their parents having sex? You don’t want to hear them fight about it, either. Trust me.”
“I trust you,” I said.
“He says he loves Mom. Last Christmas they renewed their vows. Garrett and I had to stand up there with them in front of everybody, all of us pretending. Sometimes I wonder if he cheats on us, too, if he’s looking for new kids who won’t disappoint him.”
“I never thought about anything like that,” I said.
“I wish I could stop thinking. They keep saying, ‘High school is so important. You have to get serious, Grace Ann, this affects your entire life,’ and then they get drunk and shout at each other for hours.” She sighed and let the paper towel fall to the floor. “The whole weekend sucked. Last night was the worst it’s ever been. I thought for sure the neighbors would call the cops.”
“Did he hit her?”
“My dad? Never. She threw a coffee cup and hit him on the nose. And then she felt awful, because she really, really loves him, you know? She felt bad because she hurt him,” she sniffed, “and then she felt worse because it doesn’t matter how much she loves him, he’s not going to change.”
Gracie’s father was an engineer, her mother, an accountant. I couldn’t picture either one of them yelling or throwing things or having affairs. I could see my dad doing stuff like that. Trish sure did. But Dad carried a war in his skull, and Trish was a drunk. Gracie’s parents didn’t have anything like that to deal with, but their daughter was falling apart on the bathroom floor.
“Why can’t they just be parents?” She sniffed again. “They used to be awesome. They’d tease each other and kiss in front of us, and Dad would write silly poems and Mom would bake him muffins, and now  .  .  .” Her voice pitched up on the last word and her bottom lip quivered and, as her face crumpled into sadness, she looked over at me and for the first time, I remembered her; I saw her the way she looked in kindergarten the day she’d fallen off the monkey bars and scraped up both knees.
“Oh, Gracie.” I opened my arms and she leaned toward me and sobbed against my shoulder. I smoothed down her hair, and whispered, “Shh  .  .  . shh,” rocking us back and forth until she quieted down. By the time the bell rang, her tears had stopped and she was breathing regularly. As we stood up, she laughed a little and reached over to wipe away my tears.
“Why are you crying?” she asked.
“Allergies.” I sniffed. “So what happens next?” She looked in the mirror and used the corner of a paper towel to mop up the eyeliner rolling down her cheek. “Mom said this was the last time. She’s going to a lawyer.”
“Yikes.”
“She tried to explain to Garrett what divorce meant this morning. He’s in second grade; why does he have to understand a word like that? He got so upset that he puked up his breakfast and hid in Dad’s closet.” Her lower lip quivered and she blinked quickly. “If it was just me, I could deal with it. I don’t want to live in two houses, but if it means the screaming ends, then let’s do it. But the look on my brother’s face . . .”
The stampede was underway in the hall. The door opened a few times, but Finn or Topher stopped whoever it was with a line of BS and pulled it closed.
“Do you want to go home?” I asked.
“Ha!” Gracie laughed, shaking her head. “Only if you have a time machine.” She bent over the sink and splashed water into her face. When she stood up, I handed her more paper towels. “It doesn’t matter where I go, I don’t want to be there. And then I get to the next place, and I don’t want to be there, either.” She reached in her purse and pulled out a small tin of mints. “Want one?”
She opened the tin and held it out to me. I started to reach in, but then saw what was inside: large oval pills the color of a robin’s egg. “Those aren’t mints.”
“Duh. Mints wouldn’t do much good right now, would they?” She set the box on the edge of the sink, swallowed a pill, then took a swig of water from the faucet. “It’s okay, they’re legal. One of my mom’s prescriptions. You should take one. It might make math fun for a change.”
I stared at the pills and then at her. She still looked like kindergarten Gracie around the eyes, but around the mouth, under the zits and the makeup that didn’t quite hide them, she looked like someone I didn’t know at all.
I closed the box. “No, thanks.”
She looked at me in the mirror. “Can I go to your house after school?”
“Can’t. I have to go to the nursing home for my service hours.” I closed the box and handed it to her. “Come with me.”

BOOK: The Impossible Knife of Memory
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