Authors: Marie Rutkoski
Still, how can you trust your memory when it has so many holes?
How can you interpret the behavior of others when you’re a mystery to yourself?
As the morning went by, I didn’t see him again. I began to breathe more easily, and my eyes stopped darting up and down the halls.
Bio was fine, though Lily and I gagged when we found out we’d have to dissect a fetal pig. Pre-Calc was worse,
worse, but Raphael and I weren’t too worried because we had Jims’s notes from last year.
I was feeling iffy about lunch. As Raphael and I pounced on one of the small round tables, I couldn’t help doing a visual sweep of the cafeteria. He wasn’t there. I let out a slow breath and unpacked my crinkly brown lunch bag.
Jims and Lily joined us, Lily looking slightly traumatized from her PE class last period. The four of us slipped into the usual dance of our conversation as if three months hadn’t gone by. Lily and Jims had spent the summer at a Young Scientists camp in Wisconsin. Never mind that they liked science about as much as I’d like to lick the inside of a used petri dish. Mr. and Mrs. Lascewski (Jims’s parents) and Mr. and Mrs. Chen (Lily’s) worked at a Department of Energy lab, and were practically clones. They lived next door to each other. They carpooled. And they ignored what their children wanted with pretty much the same level of intensity.
As for Raphael and me, we’d been working fifty-hour weeks—him at his parents’ gas station, me at the Jumping Bean Café. He sometimes came by for a black Americano, and twice we took the train to Chicago for the day. We had fun, but it wasn’t like when we were all together. It wasn’t the same.
“New Boy’s a senior,” Jims announced, jerking my attention right back to where it had been for most of the day.
“I didn’t ask you to do recon on him,” I said.
“You didn’t have to.” Jims waved a lazy hand. “I know you’re curious. I’d be, too, if he’d locked eyes with
in front of the entire student body. He’s a quiet kid. Dull as dishwater, if you ask me.” Catching Lily’s disbelieving look, Jims rolled his eyes. “Oh, all right.
And that was when, just as I was about to laugh, the very subject of our conversation walked into the cafeteria. The laugh caught in my throat. My pulse stuttered.
He eased across the cafeteria smoothly, as if on ice, and never once glanced my way. Taylor Allen raised her slender hand in a flirty wave, and he was gone—sucked into a seat at the long, rectangular table owned, stamped, and certified by the elite of Lakebrook High.
My friends, of course, missed none of this.
Jims shook his head. “We are the Borg. Resistance is futile. Your life as it has been is over. From this time forward, you will service us.”
“Jims,” Raphael moaned. “No Star Trek references while we’re eating.”
“Listen, the Borg isn’t simply an alien cyborg race that roams the universe in search of people to conquer. The Borg is really about human society.”
Lily raised her eyes to the ceiling, begging it for patience.
“Seriously,” Jims said. “The Borg is a commentary on the way humans form cliques, and how cliques, when they find someone they like, do their best to make him just like them. See? The popular crowd is the Borg.”
“He was like them already,” said Raphael. “That’s why Taylor invited him to sit at their table. Birds of a feather.”
“Catch avian flu together?” Jims supplied. “We can hope.”
“Misanthropy suits you,” I said, doing my best to keep up with the conversation—and, above all, act as if what had happened didn’t matter one bit.
“Misanthropy. Is that, um, turning into a werewolf?”
. Misanthropy is the hatred of people.”
“I don’t hate Taylor’s followers. I just like avian flu more. Is it so wrong of me to want it to thrive and prosper? Viruses are living things, too.”
Jims launched into a tirade about how we were virus-phobes, how he bet we used antibacterial soaps, too, and did we ever stop to think that flu shots meant that, every year, sad viruses had to watch their babies suffer? I was the worst, he said. “Darcy never gets sick. She’s where the common cold goes to die.”
I let his words wash over me. I smiled when it seemed appropriate. I tried to never once show on my face what I was thinking, which was this:
Typical. This was just typical of me. A normal girl would have been giddy at the thought that a beautiful stranger had noticed her. Me, I had felt instantly threatened. And now it seemed that I had made a huge drama over nothing.
I told myself I was relieved. But relief doesn’t feel like a chunk of lead in your heart.
I was stepping through the door of AP English, weary and glad that this was the last class of the day.
Then I froze.
He sat in the exact middle of the class, tracing a long finger across his desk, lost in thought. He frowned, then raised his dark blond head. His eyes flashed to mine.
My nerves sparked and flared. I should have been prepared, I thought. I should have guessed he might be in a class that mixed juniors and seniors. If I had, maybe I wouldn’t have been so easily snared by the intensity of his gaze.
Then his eyes skipped away. His expression cooled. Gone was the gunslinger from this morning. Gone was that curled smile. He looked, if anything, bored.
I edged toward the back of the room, sank into a seat, and barely listened as Ms. Goldberg asked us to introduce ourselves. I wasn’t the only girl staring at him, and maybe they, too, had noticed that he wasn’t quite so perfect up close. His nose had been broken.
Somehow, though, even that—that slight crookedness—was appealing.
And then it was his turn.
“My name is Conn McCrea.” He spoke in a low voice, as if those three syllables were the most unimportant on earth. Despite the spelling, which I saw at a much later date, his last name was pronounced “McCray.”
Taylor Allen, who was sitting right next to him, gave him a coy look. He didn’t seem to notice. He slouched at his desk, but there was something a little calculated in his slumped shoulders and stretched out legs. I got the impression that he had riffled through his closet, found his Typical Teenager costume, and was trying it on.
And now we come down to it. My suspicion: Conn McCrea wasn’t exactly normal.
My reasons? Let’s just say it takes one to know one.
Ms. Goldberg leaned against the blackboard, ignoring the chalk that dusted her clothes, and said, “Our first text will be ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ by T. S. Eliot.”
poem,” muttered Jason Sloane. He added in a falsetto, “Smooooochies!”
The class tittered.
“Do you have a problem with that, Mr. Sloane?”
“Nope. I like smooches.”
“Then you may be disappointed to know that there are none in this poem. You might wonder, in fact, if there is any love at all. The main character, J. Alfred, can’t decide if he should tell a woman how he feels about her, but he’s just as concerned about whether he belongs to a world of dirty one-night hotels or to the chic society of tea parties.” Ms. Goldberg opened a slim book and began to read:
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky…”
I wish I could say I was instantly wowed by “The Love Song.” But the truth is that I was inventing a poem of my own:
I will not think of Conn McCrea.
I will not, cannot, in any way.
Gradually, though, “The Love Song” crept under my skin. I listened as J. Alfred Prufrock wandered down deserted streets. I didn’t forget about Conn, but I forgot to forget about him, and let myself study him as Ms. Goldberg’s voice rose and fell.
I was in the back. He couldn’t see me.
Why, then, would I have bet anything that he could
me, could sense my stare on the nape of his neck like I had his in those minutes before the first bell?
“So, what do you think of him?” Ms. Goldberg closed the book. “What kind of man is J. Alfred?”
“He really likes tea,” someone offered.
“He likes Michelangelo? Or hates Michelangelo? I don’t know.”
“He repeats himself a lot.”
“Why doesn’t he quit moaning? J. needs to man up.”
“He cares about the way he dresses.”
When Ms. Goldberg came to Conn, he hesitated. Finally, he said, “He’s uncertain.”
I couldn’t help puzzling over Conn’s answer as if it were a clue to his character and he was a poem that needed to be interpreted. Uncertain? About what?
Startled, I glanced at Ms. Goldberg. The awkward silence told me she had been calling my name for some time. I might have blurted out something random, but then I noticed that Conn had tilted his head slightly. Like a listening hawk.
I thought of J. Alfred walking on the beach with the bottoms of his trousers rolled, and how these lines of the poem weren’t the last, but might as well have been:
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
“He’s lonely,” I said. “And he’s given up.”
Conn didn’t turn around. He didn’t look at me.
Taylor, however, did.
Who would have guessed it? As things turned out, Taylor was absolutely right.
The last bell rang. Jason slapped Conn on the shoulder, saying, “C’mon,” and the two of them strode out the door with Taylor leading the way.
I walked home. Where there weren’t trees or raised-ranch homes, I could see far and wide around me. The land here is as flat as the palm of my hand. Illinois is tornado country.
I always stayed outside in a tornado long after anyone sensible had gone down into a basement. I loved to watch the sky go green and brown and dangerous. The wind thrashed the trees, and sometimes, if I was lucky, I’d spot the cyclone twisting in the sky. Afterward, I’d walk around and survey the damage: willow branches lying in whips across the sidewalk, and gutters rushing with leaves and the stringy bodies of drowned worms.
The arrival of Conn McCrea at Lakebrook High made me think of a tornado—of the aftermath, and how the world looked as if it had been spun in a blender. Most of all, it reminded me of the very start of a storm. Of the alluring risk, the winds muscling against me as I waited to see if that cyclone would touch down, and where, and when.
* * *
I unlaced my boots and lined them up by the door.
Marsha’s place was your typical ranch home. The front door opened up into a living room that connected to the kitchen, with nothing to separate the two spaces except a brassy metal strip on the floor that marked the border between the carpet and the linoleum.
The house was cozy. And cutesy. An oil portrait of a raccoon hung over the television. There was a wall rack of forty-nine silver spoons with a different state bird painted onto each handle. Marsha had told me with great satisfaction that she had bought only one: the spoon with the Illinois cardinal. “The rest are gifts from friends,” she explained. “Once I get the willow ptarmigan from Alaska, my collection will be complete.”
Her pride and joy was the fish tank, which stood by the hallway leading to the two bedrooms. It had a bed of blue rocks, a treasure chest that burbled open every few minutes, and a crew of angelfish. Marsha called them each by name, though if she was too busy for individual hellos she might simply wave and say, “Good morning, my angels.”
I fed the angelfish, watching them dart after rust-colored food flakes. Then I launched myself onto the leatherette sofa and called Jims.
“Hey, sister.” He was chewing on something. “What’cha building?”
“A garden that grows ninja warriors.” I swung my legs over the armrest. “You?”
“A rocket ship fueled by chocolate sauce. No! A rocket ship that
For endless conversation about nothing at all, Jims was the best.
He began pestering me to see a band called the Flippin Idjits play in the city that weekend.
“Not sure.” I wagged my feet. “They sound a little too dance-y to me.”
“Nuh-unh. They sound like men with lean hips who know how to shake ’em.”
For pure distraction, Jims was the best.
He added, “Just like Conn McCrea.”
“He’s in my American History class,” Jims said. “Right after lunch. The boy knows jack about the presidents. He said JFK died of a brain tumor!”
I pushed myself off the couch and strode into the kitchen. “I don’t care.”
“You don’t care because you prefer your men sweet and empty, like one of those hollow gumballs you can buy for twenty-five cents from a dispenser in the grocery store.”
“No.” I paced the linoleum floor and lied through my teeth. “I don’t care because I’m thinking about my art project, and want your advice.”
“Yeah?” I could almost hear him rubbing his palms. “Sure thing, young grasshopper. You want wisdom, you’ve come to the right place. Jims to the rescue. So, what’re you planning?”
“Um…” Since up to that moment I’d been planning a big, fat Nothing, I scrambled for a response. I reached past the butcher block of knives resting on the counter, opened a cabinet, and rummaged through Marsha’s baking supplies. I looked at a green bottle. “Maybe something with vegetable dye?”
“Ah, avant-garde. I like it, I like it.”
I reached for a tea canister. “Or tea leaves?”
“I sense a food theme. I am an expert on that topic!”
I opened the canister. Inside was a thick roll of money.
“Jims. I’ve got to go.”
“But we’re just getting started—”
I hung up.
The label on the tin was for Lapsang souchong tea, which tastes like charred wood. Even the smell of it made me want to throw up. And Marsha knew it.