Authors: Laurie Halse Anderson
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Social Issues, #Depression & Mental Illness, #Love & Romance, #Historical, #Military & Wars
The dining room table was covered with newspapers, cleaning rods, a double-ended breech-brush, used patches, and rags stained with barrel oil, solvents, and gunpowder.
* * *
Daddy’s guns—the rifles, the shotguns, and the pistols— were nowhere in sight.
Why would he clean all of them at once?
I capped the barrel oil.
Does he think he’s going to need them?
I headed down the hall, flipped on the overhead light, and knocked on his bedroom door. “I’m home.”
“Okay,” came the groggy answer.
“Out back on the chain.”
There was a circle of grime around the doorknob from Dad opening it when his hands were greasy. A shredded spiderweb strung from the top-right edge of the door frame to the shade of the overhead light in the middle of the hall. The house was looking more and more like a place that squatters lived in, instead of what it was: a home that had been in Dad’s family for three generations.
“Did you eat anything today?” I asked.
What is going on?
“What do you want for dinner?” I asked.
Why were you cleaning the guns?
“Did you hear what I just said?” he asked.
“I think we have some chicken.”
Were you up all night again?
“Let me sleep.”
“It’s two thirty in the afternoon
.” Who are you afraid of?
“Can I throw out the newspaper? On the dining room table?”
There was a pause so long that I began to think he’d fallen back asleep, but finally he said, “Yeah. Sorry about the mess.”
I fed Spock and put away the tools. The tang of gunpowder lingered in the house, so strong that I wondered if he’d opened a couple of shells for the hell of it. Freakish visions crowded in—
Dad smearing gunpowder on his face for camouflage, Dad pouring a thick circle of gunpowder on the floor, sitting in the middle of it and lighting a match, Dad . . .
The only way to get rid of them was to open all the windows and clean the table.
How many of the girls in my gym class had to clean up gunpowder and barrel oil after school?
Maybe that was why I want to slap so many of the zombies; they had no idea how freaking lucky they were. Lucky and ignorant, happy little rich kids who believed in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy and thought that life was supposed to be fair.
I scrubbed until my hands ached and I was out of breath, then I found an ancient bottle of lemon oil and rubbed it into the tabletop. The scent of the lemon warred with the gunpowder smell and made my eyes water.
Spock and I went for a walk until the fumes cleared.
I hitch a ride back to the outpost in a truck filled with ammunition, pork chops, and two guys from Bravo Company. Private first class Mariah Stolzfuss drives, telling me about Jaden, her dancing toddler in Arkansas. We follow a Humvee that is filled with boys barely enough old to shave.
A star goes supernova in the middle of the road. We fly. Wingless birds.
Shock waves ripple through metal, glass, and flesh. Bone
crumbles. Skin explodes. Nerves snap. Brains slosh and spill in dented tin skulls. Arteries spray like high-pressure hoses, painting the world a bright, sad red.
I swim through the smoke. Private Stolzfuss still sits behind the wheel. I wipe the blood off her face to find her mouth, make her breathe. She doesn’t have a mouth. She doesn’t have a face anymore.
Boys pull me away, strong boys with faces and mouths. They help me sit in the dust and try to get Private Stolzfuss out of the truck. Her arm comes off in their hands. Her blood trickles, drips. Her heart exploded in the middle of her story.
In Arkansas, her son dances, waiting.
Either I never turned my alarm on or I turned it off without realizing it, because what woke me up was not a buzzing phone, but the sound of the bus rumbling down the street.
I swore and threw off the covers.
a. walk to school.
b. wake up my father and tell him he has to drive me
and use that warm, fuzzy time together in the truck to ask why he cleaned all the guns.
c. stay home because he’d probably sleep all day again
and he’d never know the difference if I snuck out a little before two and made a lot of noise “coming home” half an hour later.
Option C had some long-term consequences, but the good part was that they were long-term, so I wouldn’t have to deal with them for a while, or at least for a couple of days. C was the winning option, right up until the doorbell rang.
I shouldn’t have answered it. I should have gone back to bed. In my defense, I was half asleep and not thinking clearly. I knew it was too early for the mail. Gracie drove in with Topher these days, so it wouldn’t have been her. I didn’t even think about Trish until I was already pulling the door open.
“Good morning, sleepyhead!” shouted Finn.
Thankfully, I’d left the chain on. As I went to close it
in his face, he wedged his foot between the door and the frame.
“Ouch,” he said.
“Move your foot.”
“Glad to see you, too.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“You missed the bus,” he said.
“Need chicken soup?”
“Actually, it’s my period,” I lied. “Killer cramps.”
“Chocolate and heating pad?”
“How do you know that?”
“I have an older sister and my mom is a kick-ass feminist,” he said. “I’m probably the only guy in school who can buy tampons without having a seizure. Look at that, I can even say the word. ‘Tampon, tampon, tampon.’ If you say it enough, it stops sounding like a word, know what I mean?”
“Keep it down,” I warned. “My dad is still sleeping.”
“Then who just left in the pickup truck?”
Finn removed his foot so I could close the door, free the chain, and open the door wide enough to see the empty driveway.
“Big white guy, huge arms, right? Yankees cap, scary sunglasses? I was parked up the block. Watched him pull out of the driveway and head for the city. That’s why I figured you needed a ride.”
Dad always told me when he picked up a job because it meant the new beginning, the fresh start that was going to change everything right up until the moment a day or two later when it came crashing down around him. Could he have gone to the VA to make up one of the missed appointments? Was he looking for a liquor store that opened early? When would he be back? More important, what kind of mood would he be in?
Option C was no longer an option.
“So,” Finn continued, “were you going to put on some pants or go to school pretending that your T-shirt there is a dress?”
I hadn’t paid much attention to Finn’s car when I bummed the ride from him on Tuesday. At one point in the distant past, it had been a Plymouth Acclaim, but there wasn’t much left to shout about. It had four bald tires, four doors, a trunk that had to be wired shut with a twisted coat hanger, a dented roof, and more rust than paint.
“Somebody must really hate you,” I said.
“Awesome, right?” He patted the roof. “Bought it on my
The engine started without catching fire. Finn backed down the driveway and shifted into drive. We drove down the road slowly. Part of my head was trying to figure out where Dad went and why. Another part was trying to figure out if it was better to stare out the windshield or to look at Finn and pretend I knew what I was supposed to say in a situation like this. Another part of my brain was trying to figure out what that stench was.
“How much body spray did you put on today?” I blurted out.
“Too much?” He braked for a stop sign.
“You qualify as a hazmat site.”
He snorted and laughed and, for some reason, the sound drowned out everything that I was worried about. He turned to look at me, still chuckling, still ridiculously stopped at the stop sign and I realized that for a tall, skinny dude with shaggy hair, he was a little hot. Maybe it was the way he blushed, or the silver hoop in his right ear, or the fact that he had green eyes, the same color green you can see in the summer if you lie under an oak tree and look up at the sun coming through the leaves. And they slanted up a little. And he had killer eyelashes. Just the right amount of beard scruff on his chin.
You know how some babies are blessed by good fairies when they’re born, fairies with names like Beauty and Brains and Kindness and Laughter? I was blessed by their evil underworld troll cousins, Gawky and Awkward. I stared at him and my troll fairies whacked me upside the head with their pointy wands, making me spectacularly. . . . gawkward.
I was dressed like a bag lady. Probably smelled like one, too. I hadn’t showered, of course. My plan had been to stay in my pajamas all day. I hadn’t brushed my teeth, either. I just threw on clothes picked out of the laundry heap, ran a comb through my hair, swiped deodorant on my pits and ran.
OMG, did he put on extra body spray because I smelled this bad on Tuesday? Then why would he let me in his car again?
My good sense bitch-slapped my estrogen and told her to get a grip.
I sniffed the air again: a lethal amount of body spray, a little of my stank, and . . . something that was definitely coming from the engine.
“Do you smell that?” I asked.
“I get it, Hayley. Too much body spray. Point taken.”
“No, I’m serious.” I sniffed again. “When was the last time you checked under the hood?”
“What? When was the last time you checked your fluids?”
He accelerated. “That sounds perverted.”
“It’s not. You’re burning oil.”
“I thought that was coming from another car.”
“Pull over for a second.” I leaned toward the dash as the car rolled to a stop. “See that?” I pointed to a wisp of white smoke rising from the edge of the car’s hood. “You probably have oil leaking from a valve cover.”
He reached for his key. “Is it going to blow up?”
I shook my head. “That’s not much smoke, don’t panic. Just check the oil the next time you get gas.”
“You’re sure it’s safe to drive?”
“A couple drops of oil hit the exhaust manifold. We’re fine. But remember to check it.”
He drove in silence.
“You do know how to check the oil, don’t you?” I asked.
“Liar.” I pushed the button on the armrest to put down the window. Nothing happened. “Are the windows broken, too?”
“No.” He jabbed at a button on his armrest. My window screeched down two inches and stopped.
“I thought you said it wasn’t broken.”
“Well.” He braked to a stop as the green light in front of us turned yellow. “It might be a little broken.”
“A little broken is still broken,” I pointed out.
As he pulled away from the light, I leaned my head against the shoulder strap and took a deep breath of October morning air. Maybe my blood sugar was low, but it felt like I was in a bubble, a perfect, shimmering bubble moving forward with my eyes closed, air soft as cold silk brushing over my forehead, smoothing back my hair.
And then Finn ruined everything.
“So,” he said as we pulled into the parking lot. “That article. You wrote it, right?”
The bubble popped.
“Oh my God, are you still on that?” I asked.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“’Cause it’s stupid! Nobody gives a crap about the resources in the library. Why is that even a word, ‘
’? It doesn’t mean anything.”
“That’s not the point.”
“You promised that you would do it.”
He pulled into a parking space between a Lexus and a minivan. “I’ve given you two rides this week.”
“I only asked for one. Why are you such a pain in my butt? You don’t even know me. Do you always bully strangers into doing stuff they don’t want to do?”
As the words came out, I knew I didn’t mean them but I couldn’t figure out how to unsay them.
Finn shifted to park and turned to look at me. “Were you going to blow off school today?”
“Why do you care?” I crossed my arms over my chest. “This place sucks.”
“No kidding. You have any homework for Cleveland?”
“Didn’t do it. Spare me the lecture.”
“What’s your average?”
“Can a negative number be an average?”
“How about this—I’ll do your math if you write the article. Right now, in the cafeteria.” He cut the engine. “Then we’ll be even and I won’t bug you anymore.”
I wrote the stupid article.
I made up names of databases, I put in quotes from students who didn’t exist (Paige Turner and Art T. Ficial), and devoted a paragraph—deep in the story—to the “special shelves” where all the banned and challenged books were held. (“‘ That’s where you find all the sex stuff,’ said Art T. Ficial.”) By the time I was finished writing (and cracking myself up), I was actually in a less-than-cranky mood. The fact that Dad had woken up before noon and taken off in the truck was a good sign, I decided. A great one. He was coming out of the dark place where he’d been hiding for the last few weeks. It was all part of the big adjustment of living normal instead of moving around the country like we were being chased by phantoms. He was having a good day and I was going to have a good day and before I knew it, I’d written a sidebar piece to the library article filled with the URLs of made-up websites for students who wanted help with their homework.
Finn did my math, though I wasn’t quite sure how. Every few minutes a new horde of girls would buzz over and bug him about tickets or T-shirts or swim practice. I put in my earbuds and cranked the music.
“Are you a man-whore?” I asked as the loudest group of them teetered away on their high heels. (High heels? Really? At seven thirty in the morning? Shouldn’t you actually have breasts before you start wearing heels?) “Or does that stink spray make you irresistible to baby-zombie-bitches?”
“Yes.” Finn grinned, eyes glued to the b-z-b butts. “A nd yes.”