Home > Be the Girl(3)

Be the Girl(3)
K.A. Tucker

“What other flavors are there?” Mom yanks the bag from my grip and eyes its contents, finally pulling out an oatmeal raisin. She takes a bite. “Mmm … She was right. These are good.”

I help myself to the double chocolate. “So, Cassie’s different.”

“Yes, she has autism,” Mom says, dusting crumbs off her shirt.

My eyes trail after the girl, who climbs the porch steps of their house with the caution of an elderly woman. “She seems so social though.” There were a few kids with autism at my last school. I don’t remember ever saying much to any of them. One boy named Michael spoke in a stilted voice and moved in slow motion and never made eye contact with anyone, but he won races on the school’s swim team. Another boy named Robbie couldn’t talk at all and had a service dog to keep him from running off school property.

And then there was that guy who showed up halfway through the year. I can’t even remember his name. I overheard a teacher talking about how his parents were in denial, refusing to have him tested because they didn’t want him labeled, even though there was definitely something off about him. He made people nervous with what he might blurt out. Apparently, one day in class, he wouldn’t stop frowning and pointing out a giant zit on Sue Collins’s forehead that she had tried in vain to cover with concealer. Finally, she ran out of the classroom in tears and he was suspended for bullying. And then there was the story about how he hated the sound of toilets flushing—like, pacing-screaming-hitting-himself-in-the-head hated. He’d tell anyone in the bathroom with him that they couldn’t flush until after he’d left. Of course, that didn’t go over well with a bunch of teenaged boys.

After a few weeks, he stopped coming to school.

“Yes, she’s always been overly friendly, according to Aunt Connie. She used to spend a lot of time visiting. Almost every day, after school. It made Aunt Connie happy, having a little girl around to dote on again.” Mom hands the cookies back to me and closes the trailer. “She seems like a lovely girl and I’m guessing she could use a friend. And you don’t know anyone around here. It’d be great if you got to know her.” Mom looks expectantly at me.

“I’m sure I will.”

“Good.” Mom throws her arm over my shoulder, pulling me into her as she smoothly snatches the bag of cookies from my grip again.

3

Dear Julia,

I’ve survived the first few days living in Eastmonte. I finished painting my room last night and my new mattress was delivered this afternoon. Plus, Mom took me shopping for bedding and lights, and cushions for the window seat. My room’s actually cozy. Still hot as hell, though. Uncle Merv promises I’ll be complaining that it’s too cold come winter. Can’t wait.

Uncle Merv is okay, for an old guy. He says “damn” a lot, and groans even more than he says “damn.” And I think he might have a drinking problem. Mom says it’s because he’s been so lonely. She’s been rationing his whiskey and making him drink tea after dinner, which has made him grumpy. Grumpier. He complains a lot, too. He saw all the salad in the fridge and started mumbling about rabbit food. But he could stand to eat some rabbit food. His stomach is big enough to be carrying quadruplets. It can’t be healthy.

Mom’s had a parade of cleaning ladies and servicemen marching through here. The Bell guy tried to sell Uncle Merv a PVR. He told him to go to hell. That was kind of funny, in a totally mortifying way. Still waiting on the plumber. The toilet in our bathroom doesn’t work properly. We have to jiggle the chain to get the tank to fill so we can flush it.

Let’s see … what else can I tell you about? Oh, I boiled and peeled, like, ten thousand tomatoes so Mom could can them for the winter, for sauce. And all that work for, like, FIVE jars. And then I had to help her put them in the cold cellar—a scary, spider-infested room in the basement that I’m never going back into. I don’t even like tomatoes.

Cassie’s been around a lot. She shows up in the morning and hangs out, following me around and blurting out whatever pops into her head. Usually it’s something about a neighborhood dog or her brother or her brother’s girlfriend, whose name is Holly—and is apparently really nice and really pretty and Cassie’s best friend. That or she drills me with questions about dogs and brothers. She asked me if I had a brother. I lied and said no, because I don’t feel like answering a thousand MORE questions about my dad’s new family. Something tells me she’d have a hard time grasping the details of that mess.

It’s Labor Day weekend. School starts in two days and I’m nervous. Cassie said I can go in with her and Emmett, whose plane is landing tonight at 6:32 p.m., by the way. She’s kind of obsessed with her brother, in case you couldn’t tell.

Anyway, that’s about all that’s going on. Told you this would be boring.

~Aria Jones still practicing

“That pot roast was damn near as good as Connie’s.” Uncle Merv leans back in the kitchen chair, rubbing his swollen belly.

I eye the chair’s frail legs as it groans in protest under his weight. If it breaks and he goes down, I doubt my mother and I together could haul him off the floor.

“It was her recipe. I haven’t made it in forever.” Mom’s lips curve in a small, tight smile. It’s the one she gives when she’s proud, but doesn’t want to appear smug.

“You know, when your mother was here during the summers, she’d spend all day puttering around the kitchen with Connie,” he muses.

“I didn’t think she could cook.” I scoop a second helping of mashed potatoes.

He sets my mother with an incredulous stare. “What on earth have you been feeding this girl all these years, Debra?”

“Howie did the cooking,” Mom admits sheepishly through a sip of red wine. “But usually we ordered in.”

Uncle Merv grunts his disapproval. “Connie always said you worked too hard. I guess that’s a lawyer’s life, though. Too bad. She would have liked having you visit once in a while.”

Mom flinches but recovers quickly. “That’s not our life. Not anymore. Right, Aria?” She reaches out to squeeze my hand.

Uncle Merv’s droopy eyes flitter to the clock on the wall. “It’s past my bedtime.” He groans as he pulls himself out of the chair and hobbles over to the kitchen cupboard. He pulls out a bottle of pills.

The rattling sound sends a ripple of tension through my spine.

“Where did you get those?” Mom’s panicked eyes flash to me.

“Huh? Oh, I asked Heather to pick them up for me. For all these aches and pains I didn’t feel at night when someone wasn’t hiding away my whiskey,” he says, his tone thick with accusation.

There’s a long pause and then Mom asks in a strained voice, “Aria, are you finished dinner?”

“Uh … sure.” I shovel the last two mouthfuls of potatoes in and begin collecting dirty dishes.

Her hand presses against mine, staying it. “I’ll clean up. Why don’t you finish unpacking those boxes in your room?” she says with a forced smile.

I duck out and ever so slowly climb the stairs, my ears perked.

“Merv! That’s aspirin!” my mom whispers. “You can’t be pulling that out in front of Aria like that!”

I can’t hear whatever she whispers next, but I don’t need to. I know the gist of the conversation.

There’s a long moment of silence. “I wasn’t thinking,” Uncle Merv says in a low, grating voice. I doubt he could whisper if his life depended on it. “I’ll hide it away.”

With a resigned sigh, I climb the rest of the way and disappear into my bedroom.

My eyes are closed and rhythmic music pulsates through my earbuds when a knock sounds on my bedroom door.

“Come in!” I hit pause on my playlist.

The door eases open.

“Hey, your mom asked me to—bring these in.”

I bolt upright in bed as a towering guy with wavy chestnut brown hair strolls in, his arms loaded with two cardboard boxes, his lips pressed together firmly as if trying not to laugh.

Cassie trails him, her mouth splitting wide with a grin when she sees me. “Your face is green!” she declares with a bark of laughter.

And burning red beneath this mud mask.

“Why is your face green?”

“It’s just … nothing,” I mumble.

“Is it a face mask?” she presses.

“Yes.”

“Where do you want these?” the guy asks, having the decency to avert his gaze.

“Over there?” I croak, pointing to the shelves by the window, desperate to tunnel beneath my sheets. As if the mask isn’t bad enough, my hair is piled messily on top of my head and I’m wearing an old cotton T-shirt with my former high school’s logo and boxer shorts that, while comfortable beyond compare, are far from cute.

“This is my brother, Emmett. He just got home from the United States,” Cassie introduces proudly as he leans over to set the boxes on the floor, giving me a great view of his muscular arms and the shape of his broad back, straining beneath the weight. “This is Aria with a green face. She likes dogs, just like me, and she hates tomatoes, just like me.” The introduction comes out in one long string of words, using her slightly offbeat inflections.

Emmett eases to his feet. “Hello, Aria with a green face who likes dogs and hates tomatoes.” His smile is wide and broad, and shows off his perfect white teeth and two deep-set dimples in his cheeks. His eyes are a rich, dark brown and they complement his olive-toned skin. His nose is angular and in perfect proportion. His jawline is square and solid, any hint of boyishness gone.

Much like my ragged ensemble, this guy is far from cute.

He’s gorgeous.

I swallow my embarrassment. “Yeah. Hey.”

“Look what Emmett brought me!” Cassie holds up a stuffed animal in a burgundy jersey with a yellow “M” across the front. “His name is Goldy Gopher. He’s a hockey mascot. I love mascots. Do you like mascots?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?” What I do know is that I really don’t want to carry on a conversation about mascots with my hot neighbor and his sister while I look like this.

“So, we’ll … uh …” Emmett casts his thumb toward the door.

“Yeah. Good. I mean …” I shake my head, cringing at myself.

“You have stars!” Cassie’s wide eyes lock on the stickers above my bed.

“Yeah.” More humiliation to add to tonight’s collection. Mom “stumbled upon them” in the wallpaper section at Home Depot. Truthfully, I think she went looking for them. She’s like that when she gets something in her head. I plastered on a fake smile instead of telling her I’m too old for glow-in-the-dark stars.

“I like your room. It looks different.” Cassie’s eyes drift, scanning the space as if memorizing it.

“See you around, Aria.” Emmett ruffles Cassie’s hair on his way past, and then hooks an arm around her shoulders and steers her toward the door. She stiffens. “Come on. Let’s give green-faced Aria some privacy,” he mock-whispers, earning her burst of childlike laughter.

He pulls my door shut, but not before turning back to offer one last devastatingly handsome look, his brown eyes twinkling with amusement.

And in that moment, beneath a cluster of tacky glow-in-the-dark stars, my face green with clay and red with embarrassment, I fall hopelessly in love with the boy next door.

As soon as the door clicks, I flop back into my bed with a groan.

My mom pokes her head into my bedroom at nine on Monday night to find me curled up on the window seat. She smiles. “I knew you’d like that spot.”

I tuck my bookmark into my page. “Did you get hold of the electrician?” My new ceiling fan is sitting in a box in the corner.

“Not yet. It’s a long weekend. But I did speak to the plumber and he’s coming tomorrow afternoon. I’m hoping he can hook up the new washer right away, for the sake of my sanity, and so Uncle Merv can see that laundry machines shouldn’t move halfway across the room when they’re running.” She bites her lip. “You ready for tomorrow?”

I nod toward the new jeans and red top I laid out over my desk chair, as if that’s adequate armor for the first day at a new high school.

“Oh, that is a nice outfit.” My mom smiles as if picturing me in it. “Cassie will come by around eight to get you. And, listen, I told Heather you’d be willing to walk Cassie home after school. Emmett apparently has hockey every day.” She shakes her head, as if the idea of that is unimaginable. “It’s less than fifteen minutes. You’re good with that, right?”

“Sure. I guess.” It’s not like I have anything else to do.

She hesitates. “I was also thinking, Dr. Covey passed along a name of a therapist, not too far from here. About a half hour, I think. I could call and—”

“No, Mom. I’m good. Seriously.”

“But you should keep talking to—”

“No! That means a new doctor and going through it all again. Dr. C. helped me. She was good. I’m good. It’s been more than a year. I want to move on.”

Mom’s brow furrows deeply, as if she wants to push but isn’t sure if she should.

A chorus of shouts sound from outside. “What’s going on out there?” She wanders over to peer out my window.

“Emmett and his dad are playing road hockey.” I assume it’s his dad, anyway. The man is about the same height and he has a similar stride as Emmett, and he’s thrown his arm around Emmett’s shoulders twice since they hauled an enormous hockey net from the garage and set it up under the street lights in the quiet cul-du-sac an hour ago.

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