- Pages: 416 Pages
- Series: Nearly Boswell Mysteries
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Speak
- ISBN: 9780142424513
An Excerpt From
Most scientific laws can be boiled down to a simple mathematical if-then equation. If you follow the rules, then you get the desired result. If you deviate, then there is a consequence. The rules of law don’t concern themselves with why.
My mother really only had three rules: A) no bad grades, B) no trouble, and C) no touching. A + B + C = admission to a good college. In her mind, this was an incontrovertible direct mathematical proof. It wasn’t a theory. It was the only possible outcome.
I used to believe that too. But that was before I started to wonder why.
Sometimes, the only way to find a solution is to break the rules.
“Who can tell me the purpose of Dr. Schrödinger’s experiment?” Mr. Rankin paced between the rows on the other side of the classroom.
I huddled over my open textbook, concealing the Missed Connections ad in the personals section, dissecting the words again for some hidden meaning. Newton was wrong. We clash with yellow. Find me tonight under the bleachers. It read like a science riddle, and I couldn’t seem to stop looking at it. Stupid.
“Anyone?” Rankin’s chalk-smudged slacks paused beside me. I inched my arm over the ad. I’d never been so careless to read them during class. Especially so close to the end of the semester, with finals only a few weeks away. Stupid. No personal ad was worth losing a scholarship over.
He passed on, and I tucked the folds of the Missed Connections tighter under my textbook.
At the blackboard, Rankin underlined the words DEAD OR ALIVE. He’d scrawled them there yesterday at the end of class, along with a reading assignment, a disturbing preview of today’s lecture.
“Dead or alive? This is the question quantum physicists havewrestled with since Erwin Schrödinger first devised his experiment in 1935. Mr. Petrenko, do you care to enlighten us?”
Every head turned to the back of the room, where Oleksander Petrenko reclined, his feet crossed at the ankles, fingers threaded behind his head. The laces on his black high-tops were red, which always seemed out of character to me. Everything else about him—his buzz cut, the sharp angle of his jaw, his brusque Ukrainian accent—was clipped, stark, and ascetic.
He shrugged beneath a dark hoodie. “What is the point?” The consonants rolled off his tongue, stopping abruptly against his square white teeth. He blinked gray eyes, sharply outlined in dark lashes. His lids were hooded, making him look bored when he finally answered. “Schrödinger was a physicist. This is AP Chemistry.”
I suppressed a smile. I didn’t have one thing in common with Oleksa, but I couldn’t agree more. Schrödinger’s experiment wasn’t about chemistry or even physics. It was a matter of philosophy, and philosophy had no place here. Hard science follows rules. Its assertions are quantifiable and concrete. Clamp down the facts under a bright light and magnify them to the 10x power until the details are so clear, the truth isn’t a matter of debate. It justis.
Rankin raised one eyebrow and approached Oleksa’s desk, drumming his fingers on the surface. Oleksa regarded them coldly, as if he might enjoy breaking them.
“As usual, Mr. Petrenko, you are smarter than you are industrious. This is indeed Advanced Placement Chemistry. I assume this to mean you have the capacity to appreciate the broader implications of Schrödinger’s experiment. I am continually amazed that someone with such a large brain can be so small-minded.” I cringed, feeling the sting of Rankin’s insult. I wasn’t small-minded.
Oleksa crossed his arms and slouched lower in his chair.
“Anh Bui, care to take a stab at it?” Rankin turned, and heads shifted to my side of the room. Anh’s throat cleared beside me.
“It’s a thought experiment,” said Anh. “Schrödinger presented a scenario in which a live cat is sealed in a box with a toxic substance to prove that you can’t know for certain if the cat is dead or alive until the box is opened.”
Rankin waggled a finger in the air and surged to the blackboard. “Proof!” he exclaimed, making Anh and me jump in our seats as he scrawled frantic letters across the board. “Proof by contradiction! An indirect proof by which a proposition is proved true by proving it is impossible to be false.” He slapped his chalky hands together. “Schrödinger places a cat in a steel chamber with a device containing a vial of hydrocyanic acid. If a single atom of the substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip a hammer, which will in turn break the vial and kill the cat. But how do we know for certain?” He paused, looking expectantly from face to face. “Schrödinger presents a paradox. The cat cannot be both alive and dead at the same time, and yet to the universe outside the box, earlier theories of quantum mechanics suggest the cat would be both—dead and alive.”
“The cat’s dead,” muttered TJ behind me. Rankin’s eyes swung in his direction, and the class turned collectively to look at him. The brace on his outstretched leg bumped my chair as he shifted in his seat. Five years ago, TJ’s mom had locked herself in her Saab inside their garage with the engine running. As far as TJ was concerned, if you poisoned something and put it in a box, it was dead.
“Many would agree with you, Mr. Wiles,” Rankin said, brushing over the awkward pause and drawing heads back toward the front of the room. All except TJ, who was staring a hole through his lab table. “Schrödinger himself knew this idea was absurd, and yet he argued that we cannot know the true state of the cat until the box is opened. Until we can prove it.”
TJ grumbled something unintelligible. Beside me, Anh’s lips turned down. She’d stayed home sick when we’d dissected frogs in biology class, and done extra credit assignments for a week to make up for the grade. Anh was a vegetarian whocaught spiders in cups and put them outside rather than killthem. It didn’t matter that we were lab partners, or even that we were friends. If Rankin made us do something horrible to a cat for our lab final, I’d be on my own. Which, as much as I hated to admit it, might not be such a bad thing. Our cumulative scores for the year were a little too close for comfort.
I doodled a dying frog on the upper corner of my newspaper, an exaggerated tongue hanging out of his mouth and eyes rolled back in his head, then tipped it toward Anh so she could see it. She clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle, drawing Rankin’s attention toward our end of the room. I slid my textbook to cover the exposed edge of the page.
He frowned at us but didn’t bother with reprimands. Instead, he checked his watch and sighed. “Speaking of absurd, there is a pep rally for the soccer team in the gymnasium nextperiod. Lab report scores will be posted on Monday as usual, and we will reconvene to discuss your upcoming practical exam, in which you will design a chemistry experiment that demonstrates your understanding of proof by contradiction. That, Mr. Petrenko, is the point.”
Slamming textbooks and shuffling papers muffled his final instructions. Rankin raised his voice. “Mr. Petrenko, please come prepared to participate next week. And Leigh Boswell, please leave the personal classifieds in your locker, lest they become a distraction in my class.” The bell rang and Rankin reached for his mug. “Dismissed.”
My lungs collapsed as if the breath had been kicked out of them. I’d made it almost the entire year, and Rankin picked now—the tail end of the fourth quarter—to call me out in front of everyone.
Anh glared at Rankin, hunched over his desk. “Don’t worry about it, Leigh. I’m sure no one was paying attention. But you really should consider leaving the love connections in your locker. You’re going to get us both in trouble.”
I wiped my ink-blackened fingers on the front of my pants. “They’re not love connections.”
“Whatever.” She rolled her eyes playfully, like she knew something I didn’t. I adored Anh. Really, I did. But the last few weeks, it had been hard not to resent her crisp white shirts, her hair cropped to perfection over each neat eyebrow, the way she never broke a sweat before a test.
There was only one chemistry scholarship, and I was a fraction of a point behind her, which meant Anh stood between me and a chance for a new life. Alphabetically fated as lab partners for the last three years, we’d been setting the curve since. Which meant that we needed to help each other as much as we needed to crush each other. Most days, the thought of crushing Anh just hurt. And yet, I wanted to out-seat her so bad, I could taste it.
I hated myself for the thoughts I hoped she couldn’t read on my face. I felt like Schrödinger’s damned cat. It was stupid to think there was more than one possible outcome. To wish we could both come in first. To think of our situation as anything but black and white.
I jammed the Missed Connections into my backpack, scooped up my books, and then paused. There was graffiti on my desk that hadn’t been there yesterday. I’d been in such a hurry to check the paper, I hadn’t noticed it earlier. The letters were blue and bold, and exactly mirrored the words Rankin had written on the blackboard yesterday afternoon. DEAD OR ALIVE? I looked up, cradling my books. The room was almost empty.
“I thought I’d go to the library and study for our trig test. Are you going to the pep rally with Jeremy?”
Anh stood waiting beside me. I paused, trailing a finger over the letters. They felt creepy and intentional. The blue ink didn’t smudge, but I could still smell a hint of indelible marker fumes. Probably the same blue markers we used during labs. Someone must have been sitting in my seat before class and thought it’d be funny to freak me out. It wouldn’t have been the first time a classmate pulled a practical joke at my expense. This one seemed harmless enough.
Anh was still waiting. At this point, I wanted nothing more than to be as far away as possible from Mr. Rankin and the gossip-worthy morsel he’d just served up to my entire chem class. As if they didn’t already have enough to chew on. “Pep rally. Sure. See you at lunch.”
Jeremy waited outside my class, leaning against the wall and fiddling with his camera case, his baby-blond bangs falling limp over his eyes. He paused his tinkering to push his wire-rim glasses up his nose with a long, slender finger. Someone bumped into him, and when he looked up, his pale gray eyes found mine. He smiled.
I wanted to smile back, but my mood was too dark when I walked out of Rankin’s class and I couldn’t make myself return the greeting.
“Hello, sunshine.” He tossed me a pouch of Twinkies. Jeremy’s smiles felt brighter lately. Anh insisted he only smiled now when he was with me. The simple fact that I felt responsible for them made those rare smiles feel like spotlights. And I’d already been under enough spotlights this morning.
He looked past me, over my head, and frowned. “Is Anh coming?”
I dropped the World News section of my paper into his waiting hands, and kept the rest for myself. World news mattered to Jeremy. His world was bigger than mine. His parents owned time shares in Aruba and the Cayman Islands. I, on the other hand, never saw much sense in concerning myself with global headlines when my entire world fit inside a tin can trailer and the front seat of Jeremy’s Civic.
I handed him back a Twinkie and scarfed mine down in huge bites as I put distance between the lab and me. His camera case bounced against his chest as he tried to keep up.
“Good morning, Jeremy,” he mumbled through a mouthful of cake. “Great to see you. How was your morning? Fantastic,Nearly, thanks for asking. Hey, that’s great. Mine too.”
I flinched at the sound of my given name. Back in middle school, we’d had a writing lesson about eliminating unnecessary adverbs, and the class had latched on to my name: Nearly Boswell. I became an adverb. Expendable.
Jeremy had decided a new name would make me feel stronger. So he came up with Leigh.
Not that it had mattered. I’d gone from being “Nearly A Freak” in grade school, to “Nearly Has Boobs” in middle school, and now “Nearly Invisible” to most of West River High.
Jeremy never called me Nearly unless he wanted to make a point.
He looked me over thoughtfully. “Don’t let Rankin get to you. He’s not going to mess with your grade just because you were reading the personal ads during lab.”
“You heard that?” I glanced around to be sure no one was listening.
“Should I be jealous?” he chided. “Reading the personals used to be our thing. Since when did you start reading them with Anh?”
“How long were you standing out there? Why weren’t you in class?”
He waved a pink slip. “Excused absence. Friday morning therapy with Dr. Matthews.”
I didn’t break eye contact to double-check his excuse. He’d been seeing Dr. Matthews since he’d tried to OD on a bottle of cough syrup when he was twelve. “So why weren’t you in therapy, then?”
Jeremy fanned his fingers and a second pink slip appeared behind the first. “Excused absence. Illness.”
I gave him a quick head to toe. He definitely wasn’t sick. But he was smiling the same wide-eyed smile he wore the first day he picked me up for school, right after his father forbade him from driving his car anywhere near my neighborhood. The same reckless twinkle in his eyes he’d worn when I dragged him through the back window of my trailer on Friday nights while my mom was at work so our nosy neighbor wouldn’t see.
Normally just the thought of cutting class would have had him scrambling for a Xanax. He’d spent his whole life doing exactly what his parents expected of him—well, except for the time he spent with me. His father was wound way too tight for Jeremy to risk anything else. And yet, he was smiling—like he’d tasted his own free will, and he liked it.
“How many sessions have you skipped?”
He ignored my question and started casually toward the gym.
I trotted after him, taking two steps for each of his, growing more anxious when the smile slid from his face. “You’re going to be in serious trouble if your mother discovers you bugged out on your shrink appointment.”
“First she’d have to care,” he grumbled. “She didn’t even notice that I paid your rent with my dad’s poker money . . .”His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed the rest, as if only just realizing he’d said it out loud.
My eyes flew open wide. “You did what?”
“It’s no big deal,” he said, tucking me under his arm as he walked. “Dad came home from his game last night drunk with a lot of cash. Vince’s dad lost big.” He arched a brow conspiratorially. “So I snuck a few hundred and gave it to my mom. I told her it was your rent payment. It should keep her off your mom’s back for a few days.”
“You shouldn’t have done that, J. What if you get in trouble?” His parents were our landlords, and ever since my dad left, they hated us. Probably because we always seemed to be late with the rent.
“It’s no big deal.”
He pasted on a paper-thin smile, but he was holding something back. I didn’t see any of the telltale signs that he and his dad might be fighting, but Jeremy’d always been good at concealing the occasional bruise.
My fingers fidgeted in my pockets, wanting to touch him but not wanting to pry. If he wouldn’t tell me, then touching him skin to skin was the only way to know for sure what he was feeling. But it felt wrong, like sneaking around in someone’s room, or taking something away from them that wasn’t mine to take. I’d feel his emotions, taste them like they were some tangible thing I’d consumed.
The first time I touched Jeremy, we were twelve. It was an accident, our fingers grazing as we both reached for the last cookie on the silver tray in Jeremy’s kitchen during our dads’ poker game. Up until that night, we hadn’t really spoken on those Friday nights when my dad dragged me to Belle Green with him so he could play cards with Mr. Fowler. I’d felt out of place in his house. It was filled with delicate and breakable things. Things I shouldn’t want to touch, but did, because they were so different from my own. But when I’d touched Jeremy, we felt the same. Alone. He was in his own house, in his own neighborhood, and still didn’t fit. I recognized that kind of loneliness, because it was mine too.
We split the last cookie that night, and everything else since. Being together didn’t get rid of the loneliness, but somehow, it made it sweeter, because we shared it.
I pulled my hands out of my pockets, and gently took his, letting a painful lump of his emotions swell in my throat. His depression tasted like a dry salt paste. It would have been choking and hard to breathe through if it weren’t muted by the antidepressants Dr. Matthews prescribed. Still, my eyes burned like I’d been crying, and I swallowed the knot until it was a clenched fist inside my chest. “What’s going on? You can tell me.”
Jeremy shook his head. “It’s nothing.”
But it wasn’t. It was strong, with a bitter after bite that I could feel trying to claw its way up. He was angry, and burying it deep. It seemed to burrow under my own skin.
He shrugged it off and didn’t look me in the eyes. “I got into it with my mom again this morning. That’s all.”
I gave his hand a squeeze. Whatever it was, he would tell me when he was ready. “I’ll pay you back the rent money, I promise. I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
He squeezed back, and the brief pulse of affection was laced with doubt. I let go of his hand, and pushed my glasses up my nose, bringing his tight smile back in focus, knowing I’d seen him more clearly a moment ago and wishing I hadn’t.
“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” he said, as if he could see through me too.
We neared the gym, and the hall erupted with clappinghands and the steady stomp of feet against the bleachers. West River High’s varsity soccer team had made the championship playoffs. The athletes gathered by the trophy cabinet to check their reflections in the glass and worship at their own altar before rushing the gym floor. I skirted around the clog of blue uniforms, trying not to touch them.
I ducked and held my breath as a soccer ball soared low over Jeremy and smacked into the wall. The rebound caught the side of his head.
“Relax, man. It’s just Fowler.” Vince DiMorello recovered his lost ball and dribbled it back through the crowd.
“Do you mind?” I hollered.
“Blow me, Boswell,” Vince called back, following it up with the finger. I bit back a mouthful of choice insults that would have been completely wasted on Vince’s stunted vocabulary and pathetic IQ, and watched as a manicured hand smacked the back of Vince’s head. Hard. To anyone else, it might have seemed like a casual flirtation, but I knew this particular cheerleader, and the look on Emily Reinnert’s face wasn’t romantic.
“Don’t be such a dick,” she muttered as she stepped out from behind him to head toward the gym.
She didn’t look at me when she passed. Not directly. Instead, the corner of her mouth turned up, curling the Wild Cats logo on her cheek. The throng of people narrowed around us and pressed into the wide gym doors. She discreetly slipped a note into my hand and I shuddered at the unexpected contact. Awave of her complex emotions rippled through me. A nauseating prickle I attributed to stage fright. Then the cool wash of gratitude that followed.
I crumpled the note and pulled my hands inside my sleeves while Jeremy watched the hem of her cheerleading skirt disappear into the gym. “Is it just me, or is it shorter than usual?”
“Jeremy!” I tugged on his camera strap. “Why don’t you take a picture? It’ll last longer.”
“I plan to take a few dozen,” he said. “You know, for the school paper. Think she’d give me an interview?”
I snorted. “Sure, if you can get past her boyfriend. For your next reckless act of rebellion, you can ask TJ’s girlfriend out on a date. Then we can see how long it takes him to beat you to death with his leg brace.”
“You wouldn’t let that happen.”
He said it quickly. Easily. Like he didn’t have to think about it. Jeremy was a pacifist—the opposite of his dad—where I tended to react for both of us. When we were fourteen, I’d stood in his kitchen, holding his phone, waiting for social services to answer. Jeremy’s hand was on mine, his wrist ringed in bruises, tasting remorseful and uncertain, like maybe he’d deserved it. Drowning out my own feelings and making me uncertain too. I hung up the phone, and Jeremy let go, and I still hated myself for it.
“Are you coming?” he asked, shaking me from the memory. Music and shouts blared behind him, a sea of blue-and-white jerseys and pom-poms.
“No, it’s not my thing. Anh’s working the store for her brother after school. I wish we could hang out. Just the two of us,” I said hopefully. Maybe if it we hung out like we used to, then he’d open up and tell me what was wrong.
“I can’t. I’m covering the game at North Hampton.” He held up his camera case and waved an apologetic good-bye. People crested around him in blue-and-white waves, and his blond head bobbed over them like the sun. I squeezed my hand where I’d held his a moment ago, and hoped he’d be okay without me for a while. I waved back, walking backward as the gym swallowed him up.
Emily’s note crinkled against my palm. I ducked into the nearest girls’ bathroom and opened it. Everything about it bubbled, from her loopy letters to the obnoxious circles under multiple exclamation points.
79% on my algebra test. I passed!!!
I sighed, crumpled her note, and tossed it in the trash.
It was almost a thank-you. A passing grade meant she could keep her place on the squad, her seat in the social pyramid. Unfortunately, her passing score would do nothing for mine, even though Ihad been the one to tutor her after school.
For three months.
Community service. Five days a week. One hour a day. A mandatory requirement of all scholarship candidates. Students with cars and bus money got to volunteer in labs, or hospitals, or at the Smithsonian. Oleksa’s dad hooked him up cracking math codes for some government agency. Meanwhile, we who were vehicularly challenged had to tutor students after school.
Of course, it would all have been worth it if they’d paid me. If I didn’t have to slip money from my mother’s tip jar for my newspaper and depend on Jeremy’s Twinkie donations for my junk food fix
I closed my eyes and thunked my head against the wall, which didn’t do anything for the tension headache blooming inside it. Touching Jeremy had stressed me out. The headaches, the nausea . . . they were the reason I’d stopped touching my mother after my father left five years ago. I’d tried, thinking that I could fill the void. That holding tightly to her might ease her pain, and maybe ease my own. But I wasn’t enough, and she’d turned so bitter that when we did touch, the pain stayed with me for days and the taste of her made me vomit. I lost weight and missed school, withdrew under blankets and hid inside long sleeves. Worried, my mother took me to neurologists who told her there was nothing physically wrong with me. They suggested I was suffering from stress, that I was emotionally fragile because my father had left us. Relief clung to the stench of my mother’s grief—maybe, at least partly, because the doctors had given her one more reason to blame him.
But she was wrong. They were all wrong. What I was feeling wasn’t my father’s fault. It wasn’t coming frominside me. It was coming from anyone I got close enough to touch. I wasn’t exactly sure how it worked—it’s not like they teachthis stuff in AP Physics—but I had a theory. Emotion is energy, and if energy is strong enough, it can travel between two points. Maybe I was like a channel, someone other people’s energies could pass through. I was somehow experiencing truths about people that others just couldn’t. Most of those truths left a sour taste on my tongue that made me wish I’d never gotten close to them at all. So I didn’t. I didn’t do sports, I avoided parties and crowds, and I didn’t date.
And I never told anyone.
I washed two aspirin down with a palm of tap water. Then I leaned on the sink basin and looked hard in the mirror, the bits and pieces I remembered of my father staring back at me through cross sections of my mother’s face. Almost, but not entirely either one of them.
I was still just nearly.
After school, I spread the newspaper out on my bedroom floor. I wasn’t interested in the whole paper, just the section of personal ads called Missed Connections. I’d only had time to skim them, sparing glances between labs and lectures, and I clung to the possibility that maybe I’d missed something important.
“What do you think, Doc? Will I find him this week?” I asked the poster on my wall. It had been a birthday gift from Anh, who thought it was hilarious that Albert Einstein was the only guy who’d ever been in my bedroom, until I’d pointed out that this accounted for one more than had ever been in hers.
I’d never told Anh about all the Friday nights Jeremy and Ihad spent sprawled across my bedroom floor, eating Twinkies and cackling over the personals when we were younger. Thatwas before the two of us had become the three of us.
Looking at the paper now, I saw that the few ads that had resonated with glimmers of hope that morning turned out to be nothing more than empty pick-up lines.
I saw you on the Blue Line. You got off at Van Dorn. You have red hair and a great rack. I think you might havenoticed me too. If so, same time, same place tomorrow. I’ll save you a seat.
I snorted into my hand, careful not to attract my mother’s attention through the paper-thin walls of our trailer.
You dropped your stamps at the post office on Wythe. I picked them up for you. I was too nervous to think of something to say. If you’re out there, tell me what I was wearing so I know it was you.
I fell backward on the threadbare carpet with an exasperated sigh. Five years gone and still no sign of the man who spent every Saturday with me at Belle Green Park, pulling dandelions out of thin air and making quarters vanish with a wave of his hand.
I reached one hand under my mattress until I grasped a small plastic bag containing a carefully folded personal ad dated five years ago, a worn brown wallet, a gold wedding band, and a train ticket. The wallet and the ring were all that was left of my father’s personal effects. My mother’d found them in his car, abandoned in an airport parking garage.
I’d watched Mona cut up the IDs and credit cards and toss everything, even his ring, in the trash. While she wept, locked in her bedroom, I’d fished the remaining scraps of my father out of the wastebasket and tried to tape them back together. There had been far too many pieces. They fit together like a puzzle and when I was done, I had four driver’s licenses, each with a different name, all of them similar in looks to my father, but only one of them was him. I’d had all these theories about why he had those phony IDs. I imagined he’d been swallowed up by the Witness Protection Program and that’s why he had so many aliases. We lived close to Langley and the Pentagon. I told myself he could have worked covertly for the CIA. My father wouldn’t have just left. He must have had a reason. And I believed that one day, he’d come back. That it was all some necessary sleight of hand, and he’d turn up like a card in a trick, right back where he was supposed to be.
I’d returned the broken pieces of the phony IDs to the garbage can and tucked everything else in a plastic bag.
The personal ad was something I’d found when I was in middle school. Jeremy and I read the ads every Friday night while our dads played poker together. I’d always assumed we were drawn to the ads because of our common loneliness. That maybe we were both searching for something. But then one day, about a year after my father left, I found this particular ad that changed everything.
Careful of the brittle paper, I eased it open. I didn’t actually need to read it. I’d memorized every word.
N—I’m here and I’m okay. I’ll always be near you.
I love you,
I had no proof it was my dad. Jeremy insisted N could be anybody. But I knew this ad was mine. I knew it was from my father, without proof or probability, all the way through to my soul. My father had known about our Friday ritual, and he must have thought it was the perfect way to contact me discreetly. He’d even included the word near, a safe way to refer to my name without actually using it.
After that, I didn’t want to share the ads anymore. I didn’t find them funny, didn’t laugh at the desperation. I was searching for something. I was desperate. Jeremy didn’t really believe my dad had sent me a message, and the only thing I cared about was finding another one. Jeremy stopped bringing the Missed Connections, and I started buying my own. It wasn’t our ritual anymore. It was mine.
I spent every Friday looking for another ad. Once, I’d thought for sure I’d found him.
It’s been nearly a year since my last ad. I’m in town and want to see you. Meet me at our old hangout next Saturday.
I’d gone to Belle Green Park just after sunup. Spent all day watching the parking lot and the trailheads, the neighborhood parents watching me suspiciously as they pushed their kids on the swings. These are the kids you should be making friends with, my dad had said when I’d asked him why we came to this park every Saturday instead of the one at the end of our street. Their parents looked at me now the same way they had looked at me then. Like I didn’t belong there. They were right. At dusk, I walked home alone. And a week later, I found the response to the ad, confirming it wasn’t him.
When I was younger, searching the Missed Connections had always been about finding my father. But now? Sometimes I’d see an ad that so perfectly expressed my own loneliness that I’d clip it out and save it. Study it, searching for whatever it was that made one ad yield a reaction, and another go unanswered. I wasn’t exactly sure who, or what, I was looking for anymore, but sometimes it felt like I was looking for a missing piece of myself.
I read the clipping again and carefully folded it back into the bag, slipping it deep under my mattress. Then I flipped to the ad that had haunted me all day, the one that got me busted in chem lab.
Newton was wrong. We clash with yellow. Find me tonight under the bleachers.
Nothing like the saccharine pleas I’d come to associate with Friday mornings, this ad left an acrid taste in my mouth. Something about it was just . . .wrong. Not dirty-pervert-at-the-bus-station wrong. Not even unrequited-lovesick-nerd wrong.This was something different. Something I’d never seen in the Missed Connections before.
“Nearly!” My mother banged on my door and I jumped. I cursed under my breath and leaped to my feet.
“Nearly, open the door!”
I scrubbed my hands against my shorts, leaving trails of dark smudges.
Breathing deep, I flipped the lock and cracked the door, blocking the narrow opening. Mona stood in the hall holding an empty coffee mug and a full pack of menthols. A full pack meant she hadn’t checked the cookie jar yet. My shoulders relaxed, but only by a fraction. My petty larceny of her tip jar was just a necessary reallocation of household funds—I needed my newspaper fix more than she needed to smoke. But even though my addiction wouldn’t kill me, I still had no intention of getting caught.
She raised a thinly tweezed eyebrow. If I didn’t look at her face, I could pretend her frayed robe concealed flannel pajamas with teddy bears and hearts. If I ignored the rhinestones glued to her eyes, she could be anyone’s mother. But she wasn’t anyone else’s mother. She was mine.
Mona lit up and exhaled a long ribbon of smoke. “I’m going to work.”
I paused, torn between slamming the door in her face and locking us both safe inside.
“Jeremy says we’re late with the rent again.”
She was slow to answer, and for a moment I worried there really might not be enough money this time. Jeremy had bought us a day with his dad’s poker money, but I knew I had to pay him back. Where would we go if his parents evicted us? I looked at her, the what-ifs written all over my face. Her brows drew together, scrunching up the rhinestones and deepening the lines around her eyes.
“Jim hired a new girl and my shifts got cut back,” she said. “I’ll have the money tonight. You can take a check to school on Monday.” Mona looked past me to the personal ads spread across my floor. Her laugh was derisive like she was coughing up bad memories. The same cutting laughter that made me want to keep the loneliest parts of myself hidden. I pulled the door tighter around me, blocking her view of my room.
“They’re not worth it,” she said. “I don’t know what it is you think you’ll find in those papers, but there’s not a man in this world you can count on to fix your life.”
I wanted to tell her the same thing. That the money they threw at her wasn’t worth it. That taking her clothes off for strangers hadn’t fixed anything. But we both knew this argument wasn’t about just any man. It was about the one who’d left us overextended on credit, without money for bills. About how he was the reason their only car was repossessed and Mona would never be able to leave her job at Gentleman Jim’s, the only job she could walk to that paid enough to hold on to the lease on our trailer.
We had the same argument every Friday—about how men can’t be trusted and if you depend on them, you’ll be left alone with more problems than you started with. It was the same argument that drove me to buy a train ticket to California two years ago, because I’d started to believe her. “Even if he did come back, it would only make things worse,” she said.
“Look around, Mona. Could it really get any worse?”
She sucked in a thoughtful drag. “Be careful who you put your faith in,” she said in the sultry deep rasp that sounded ancient and sad, but had everyone else fooled. “You’re lucky. Born with a head full of brains. Don’t make the same mistake I did.” She pointed her cigarette at me. “Your education is the only thing you can count on to get you out of this trailer. If I’d spent more time on mine instead of chasing after a boy, neither of us would be here.”
Lucky . . .she thought I was lucky. Of course she couldn’t accept the possibility of my father’s genetic contribution to my intelligence. He was dead to her. And some days, her grief and anger hurt me more than his absence.
Ash balanced precariously from the tip of her cigarette. She looked tired, and so much older than her thirty-five years. “A diploma. A college degree. That’s the only thing that’s going to get you out of here.” She shook her head and exhaled a long smoky sigh, the ash falling to my floor.
I sighed and pointed at the sign I’d tacked to my door. “Do you mind? This is a non-smoking room.”
Mona raised a brow, and amusement tugged at the corner of her mouth. Her smile was painted on and clung outside the natural line of her lip, making it look fuller than it was. But I knew better. Beneath the gloss, she had forgotten how to smile when my father left.
“Don’t you ever wonder where he is?” I asked, tossing my own hope at her as though it were a life raft. “If maybe he’s thinking of us?”
She leaned against the door. “He’s never coming home, Nearly. That much I know.” She stubbed out her cigarette in her empty mug, the life raft abandoned and drifting in the murky waters between us. “Get your studying done.”
I pushed open the door of my trailer, pausing to look up and down the street before dragging the full trash bag onto the front porch and down the rickety wooden steps. Sunny View Mobile Home Village was shaped like a fish. Or at least the decaying remains of one. Run-down trailers lay in parallel rows alongside short alleys protruding like ribs off Sunny View Drive. The crooked backbone of my neighborhood began as a dead-end street, a rutted narrow blacktop that hadn’t been tar-coated since the 1960s. Almost as old was the playground, a skeletal collection of rusted metal wrapped in remnants of yellow police tape where the fish’s tail would have been. On the other end, Sunny View Drive spit into an intersection of a six-lane highway, and beyond that, the parking lot of a run-down strip mall: Anh’s parents’ store, a coin Laundromat, Ink & Angst Tattoos, Gentleman Jim’s, and a video store that would have been obsolete had it not been for the red curtain room at the back. A half-dozen small businesses feeding the addictions of the chewed-up residents of Sunny View.
Our trailer sat on a corner lot, right in the middle of Sunny View Drive. The trailers across the alley were staggered, set back from the street, and from my front porch, I could see all the way to the traffic light at Route 1. Mona had almost reached the end of the street, the sashes of her long coat dangling beside her heels. I slung the trash bag a little too hard and the dented metal cans rattled together before toppling over. The echo bounced off wall after wall of rusting aluminum. My neighbor’s window blinds were drawn shut, her cautious hands prying them back to check the noise.
Mona turned her head, wary eyes checking over her shoulder, heels purposeful over the ruts and loose gravel. I watched until she reached the brighter streetlights at the intersection.
She’d worked nights at Gentleman Jim’s as long as I could remember. When I was younger, I’d slept on Jim’s couch in the back while she waited tables. Now Jim’s phone number was on a yellow sticky note, taped to the phone in the kitchen. I’d called her once when we’d run out of peanut butter for sandwiches. Jim said he’d leave a note in her dressing room, that she was on stage—not waiting tables—and he’d have her call me back between sets. He never gave her the message. And I never called again.
A car turned onto Sunny View Drive, the blue-white halogen beams blinding me. I shielded my eyes until the lights swung back onto the road, and when I looked up, Mona was gone. The car continued its approach, a lean black older-model Mercedes with diplomatic tags that was obviously lost. It drifted down the street, and I waited for it to make a clumsy three-point turn in the alley beside our trailer. It didn’t. I stared at the driver’s window, surprised to see Oleksa Petrenko slouched coolly behind the wheel. Our eyes met for a brief second as the Mercedes ghosted by, barely crunching the gravel as it eased into a parking space a few doors down beside Lonny Johnson’s Lexus.
Lonny was a second-year senior, not that he cared. He was a businessman, not a student, home again after consecutive stints in juvie. He’d been gone longer than usual this time and when we passed each other at the mailbox earlier that week, he was taller. Thinner. Eyes deep set and dark. He had new tattoos that climbed up his neck and met the shadow of a beard that hadn’t been there before. A silver bullring hung beneath his nostrils. It matched the barbell under his lip.
A screen door slammed and a security bulb snapped on, illuminating him in a wide halo.
Lonny raked his bleached hair back with tattooed fingers and scanned the street to both sides. His eyes skipped over me like I wasn’t there. But when he leaned over Oleksa’s window, he angled his back to me, blocking my view of the exchange between them. I could see the glint of metal tucked inside his waistband, a reminder to mind my own business.
I turned around and stooped to pick up the overturned cans, crinkling my nose at the scattered debris. A few feet from the cans, tucked just under the lowest porch step, was a small cardboard box. I picked it up, expecting it to be empty, but something shifted inside. It had been loosely taped shut, and a soft scratching sound rasped against the inner walls of the box when I shook it. I held it under the dim porch light, a strange feeling twisting in my gut.
FOR NEARLY, it said in bold blue letters that felt oddly familiar.
I glanced over my shoulder. No one was there except Lonny and Oleksa, still deep in hushed conversation. Pulling at a loose corner of tape, I slowly opened the top.
I dropped the box and clapped a hand over my mouth. The small mound of rotting flesh was stiff with rigor mortis. Her white throat was crusted with blood.
A dead cat.
The words DEAD OR ALIVE were written in blood inside the lid. The letters had dried and crackled like finger paint, but the blocky handwriting was the same as the blue letters on my lab table.
I’d seen the feral calico coming and going from a hole under Mrs. Moates’s trailer. I looked down the street at her window but her lights were already off and I didn’t see any sense in waking her. The poor thing had probably been a stray anyway.
I held my breath and used the box to scoop up the tiny body, dropping her inside the closest trash can and lowering the lid. I breathed through my sleeve and backed away, eyes blurring and throat working from the smell, and stumbled over the other can. The lid crashed to the pavement and wobbled, reverberating through the alley. Oleksa and Lonny stared with narrow eyes. My neighbor peeled back her curtain again when her security light flashed on, her dog barking and scratching through the window. I untangled myself and raced up my front steps, throwing the dead bolt behind me.
Reaching for the metal bat my mother kept propped behind our front door, I slid to the floor, crouching in the dark until the Mercedes’s lights passed over the frayed sofa and peeling walls, tossing the room in one quick pass, then dropping it into darkness. I listened for feet on gravel or a rustle against the window. It was silent except for the cars on Route 1.
Leaving the lights off, I crawled into bed with my clothes on and pulled the blankets to my chin. I lay there, unable to get the smell out of my head. Unable to shake the image of the letters written in blood.
I reached down between the mattress and the box spring for my father’s wedding band, one ear alert for Mona coming home. But I knew I wouldn’t tell her about the cat. I couldn’t let some jerk from school freak her out enough to miss her weekend shifts just to stay home with me. We couldn’t afford it. Besides, it didn’t matter what Schrödinger thought. I’d opened the box and the cat was dead, and there was nothing Mona or I could do for it now.
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