In honor of The Ugly Truth’s protagonist, Seth, who’s birthday is today (June 17!) I am sharing chapters 1-4 of his book. Hope you enjoy!
The Thing About Being Alive… Well, Kind Of…
When I become conscious of myself, the way I am now, it isn’t like the idea of waking. I’m stretched thin, not exactly in the physical world or in the spiritual one, but somehow in between. My physical body is locked, but my spirit, what I appear to be now, moves beyond the confines of my bone, muscle and skin. I hover like a breeze in the flutter of a curtain. I dart back and forth between people and follow them while my physical body remains where it is, a shell that once housed me. I don’t know how I got here.
Time doesn’t function like it once did. In this space between space, it seems to have collapsed into the slow motion of time lapse. I don’t know how long I have been here, but the longer I’m like this, bits and pieces flash like images spliced together and sound bites in vignettes.
The wail of the siren.
Words: “Stay with us, Seth.”
The wail of a woman (I think she is my mother).
Beeps and blips of equipment speaking.
If I measure time by the woman I think is my mother’s tearful clinging to me, I don’t think it has been very long. Her tears and sobs come in great gusts of emotion.
A man enters the room, remaining in the doorway. A haze of familiarity lingers in my consciousness. I think he is my father. He isn’t dressed like a doctor or a nurse instead in worn denim and a button-up flannel over a white t-shirt. He hesitates at the door, taking in the scene. His face is drawn, pale and heavy with the burden of emotion. I watch him take in the scene from the doorway and imagine how he might see the space from my corner of the room.
It’s a very plain space, clean and sterile, a blanket the color of the sky over my physical body. My dark hair looks strange against the pillow, a stark contrast to the whiteness of the bed. The paleness of my face that seems to blend into everything else aside from the beautiful blue and purple bruises, blooming flowers, on my face and the dark cuts that crisscross my forehead. A tube protrudes from my mouth, tubes from my arms, and the loud click and whir of the machine causes my chest to rise and fall with a regular rhythm like a ticking clock.
The woman, her back to the man, holds my hand. “Seth. Honey. Momma’s here,” she says through tears and I think: that’s a first.
This is a thought that shocks me, a reflexive one that is as natural as breathing and I consider it. Bitterness tastes like something old and stale and I want to rinse my mouth, wash the bitterness that seems to dispel fermented hostility like the color of putrid yellow-green staining the atmosphere.
The man walks into the room from the doorway, the sound of his footsteps announcing his arrival. As he crosses the room, I shrink back and away from him. My mother’s back straightens, completely rigid while the essence of me tightens up and folds in on itself until it’s so small it can’t be folded anymore. It’s a response I don’t understand. I retreat into the upper corner of the room as I can without passing through the wall. Again, I’m struck with this visceral response that isn’t connecting. I don’t remember. This inexplicable response is confounding. Add it to the confusion of being disconnected from my body and fear has planted several seeds.
The man puts his hand on my mom’s shoulder. She shrugs away from his touch as though burned. “Kate?” He asks and this exchange solidifies he is my father. His voice sounds different than what my unreliable memory insists is characteristic of him: it’s too shallow and lacks thunder.
Something in my psyche reacts to this interaction though I can’t quite name what it is I feel. I know it doesn’t feel quite right. It’s like putting on a new shoe that isn’t formed to the foot yet. Her miniscule rebellion and his muted response are unfamiliar. I search for what seems more familiar and imagine her acquiescence in his unrelenting storm.
“I won’t speak in anger in front of Seth,” she says. It’s more of a whisper really. “He can hear. The doctor thinks so.”
“I understand you’re angry. I’m angry too.”
She swivels in her chair with acute force and levels a stare on him that makes him take a step backward. “You’re angry?” she asks through clenched teeth, the sound more like a hiss.
I stretch in my corner of the hospital room, toward them, revelation like an electric shock moves through me. My father has seen something in my mother’s look that stays him. His face says it all, the stupefaction, the denial, and then the pain. He turns away, unable to hold himself up under her gaze and leaves the room.
I follow him, curious. There is something different about this man – it’s foreign, frightening and strangely freeing. He’s shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and shuffles down the hallway. This father isn’t recognizable but is broken like a car that needs a new spark plug.
He enters a waiting room filled with people. Emotion rushes at me in a variety of colors: blue, red, orange, green, yellow, purple, brown, black and shades in between. Each person in the room exudes color, some with multiple hues. I don’t know what the shades mean, but I sift through the spectrum to find where the feelings emanate. As I scan the room, I freeze on one face. I know this one: Abby. She is surrounded by an aura of light blue tinged with darker flecks of blue and gold.
My form is filled with warmth and then chased by regret. I remember her smile and her laugh. I remember the way she made me feel: safe. I reach for a memory that causes the cooling grief, but there is only blackness. “Abby. I have to tell you something,” I say but my memory stalls not able to grasp what I know I need to tell her. She doesn’t indicate she’s heard me. “Abby,” I try again anyway.
“She can’t hear you,” a voice from an invisible entity says.
I whirl around the room. “Who said that?” The origin remains hidden and the voice silent, so I return to Abby.
I’m in front of her, hovering as though standing on my own two feet. I study her, free to do so. Her brown eyes are rimmed red. She’s been crying and her usually brown face is pale, her inner-light diminished. She’s crossed her arms over herself as though holding something in. “Abby?” I try again, but she doesn’t hear me.
An awareness I don’t want to recognize dances on the peripheral of my being. I want to turn away from it but I can’t. It’s like an angry jester dancing within me flashing a terrible smile. Looking at Abby, anguish wraps its arms around me and panic infiltrates my life force. I know I don’t want to be like this - in between. “Abby! Help me!” I yell.
She shivers as if she is affected by my cries, but looks right through me.
Someone next to her - a young man - puts his arms around her. When I’m able to focus on him through the soft light reaching toward me, I recognize him: Gabe. A flare of anger rushes through me, fire and hot, that angry jester taunting me with his awful dance again - instinctual. When I really focus my former friend, I see he’s been crying, his eyes defined by sadness. I notice the bruising on his face and my spirit cracks open. A cool blue washes me and the red steams away. My own perception of things aren’t ringing true, a little flat, like the note needs adjustment. I’m missing something.
“You!” The word is like a shot startling me. It sounds like a curse.
Abby looks up.
I swivel around.
My father exudes black and red. I remember this man. One of his dragons appears ready to burn his intended victim with its internal fire. He’s pointing at me, but I realize he can’t see me. He sees Abby. “This is all your fault,” he yells and takes three menacing steps toward me - her. “You changed him!” He stalks through me to Abby with purpose.
A man I don’t remember but seems familiar moves in front of Abby. “Hey now,” he says. At the same time another man dressed in a black suit and a cleric collar appears at my father’s elbow.
“Jack,” one of them says, I don’t know which. “You’re hurting.”
The words break a dam. My father shudders and collapses into the supporting arms of the two men. They help him to a seat near the window in the room.
Shaken by what I’ve witnessed, I return to my body.
My mother is still there, holding my hand and humming a quiet lullaby through her tears:
When the traveller in the dark…
Thanks you for your tiny spark…
The world around me begins to spin, as though someone has swiped at a table-top globe. The room rotates on an axis and the colors rush together in a blur. I’m compressed and suffocating and though I work to focus on my mother’s song, I can’t find a focal point. This place where I’m in between isn’t freedom. It’s a trap, a prison, and I’m stuck.
Wake up! Wake up! I think. I squeeze myself shut attempting to disappear in order to reappear in the awake world. But nothing happens. The spinning slows. The space around me coming back into focus. I still hover in the room listening to the quiet hum of my mother’s voice who’s accompanied by the percussion of the life support.
He could not see which way to go.
If you did not twinkle so.
Twinkle, twinkle little star.
How I wonder what you are.
The Thing About Time…
I may not have access to my thumbs in this in between, but twiddling my thumbs is exactly how I feel. The clock goes around and around never going anywhere, and I wait. Nurses flutter in like bees hovering about my body stinging and taking, the doctors like butterflies, fluttering and majestic with their mumbled giant words. I hear some of it:
“…Sustained injuries . . . wonder… abrasions…inconsistent… older wounds…”
Later, when my father arrives, he doesn’t announce his presence right away. Instead, he waits near the entrance and watches. At first, I think he watches me. I imagine he’s off balance because of his outburst earlier.
I’m still thinking about my mom and the doctor’s comments but move closer to my dad, changing my perspective. I realize he’s watching my mother. The question mark curve of his shoulders weighs on him. His face looks heavy, his brown eyes drooping at the corners and his mouth lined with more than sadness.
My mother’s back straightens, tense. The moment he notices her reaction to him he says, “I’m here.”
Without a word she stands, ignoring him, and moves through the room to leave. My father grabs her by the arm as she walks passed him. “Kate,” he says, and the energy of her name as it leaves his lips bends my spirit. “Please.”
“Please what?” She asks. Her voice is no longer a whisper. It’s as if she’d taken a bicycle pump to her confidence.
My father lets her go while at the same time asking her to stay.
“Because, I need you,” he says.
“Need me.” She looks away her gaze resting on my body. “Need me for what purpose, Jack? How have you ever needed me but to be your dutiful wife to clean for you and cook for you and watch you break our family? Break our son?” Her voice catches on the last words and she sobs. Guilt climbs onto her back as she slumps forward. My father wraps his arms around her.
A sensation whips through my ethereal form that I don’t recognize. It hurts. Hurt like the pins and needles of a limb that has gone to sleep and is beginning to burn with wakefulness as blood rushes in like sunshine. I can’t remember a time my father put his arms around my mother in affection. Her words brand me: break our family… break our son.
“Let go of me!” My mother pushes him away. “I told them. Everything. This,” she points at my body, “is your fault. If you hadn’t pushed him, hadn’t hurt him, he wouldn’t have gotten into that car. He wouldn’t have been so upset. He wouldn’t have gotten into the accident.”
The word grips me in a vice and it feels like I can’t breathe. A vibration and consistent hum awakens in the space around me. Something dark tries to grab onto me as I reach for the memory, but it doesn’t materialize. What does she mean? Something isn’t right.
“What? Told them what?”
“The truth. They know. The doctors figured it out. They could see his bruising, the breaks, the abuse you’ve heaped on him.” She sobs. “And I let you. I let you.” She pushes past him and rushes out into the sterile hallway.
The Thing About Spirits . . .
Memories of my father come rushing back like a hurricane whipping around me and my fear of him is clear. His drinking like the deluge of rain as it comes in with an unrelenting storm. His anger is like the billowing wind capable of tearing trees from the roots leaving scars in the earth. His violence whips through, maims and leaves debris strewn and scattered in all directions. The trepidation of the clean up and what we might find in the rubble. Though I have no means in this form to physically feel nauseous, it overcomes me and I’m dizzy with it. His ugly words toward my mother and I. His fists against my body.
When he’s gone and mom returns, I hover in the room, watching her. I cling to her, as if I were a baby needing comfort. These memories have torn me down the middle leaving my spirit dangling, wounded and without anyway to bandage it to stave off the bleeding. If I could tear at myself, I would until there was nothing left of me. I glance at my body and wonder about what happened to me, the accident, but the word tastes wrong.
The next time my father arrives he sways and slurs. My mother looks at him with disgust and I follow her out of the room. She walks to a tiny chapel tucked away in a corner of the hospital. I don’t follow her in, though. I’m unsettled and fidgety, so I wait in the hallway.
While I wait a vibration moves like a wave slamming against me. It pulls at me like a current, but I fight it. Another spirit slides passed me. It is a bright blue, like the color of the ocean I’ve seen in pictures of remote and exotic places where the bright sunlight is a mirage against the blue that rises up to meet white sand. The spirit is person, but translucent, shifting and pulsing with color and light as it floats through the hall, pulled by the vibrating current. It doesn’t speak though it looks at me, and I see a face in the color cloud as though it is an aura around it’s features. The spirit smiles, completely content but it doesn’t stop. It looks away, looks forward and keeps moving.
I follow it, but it is barely a thought when a bright white-hot light bursts in the middle of the hallway, beaming. Its pulse and hum are overpowering. I’m lulled toward it, but resist. The blue spirit hesitates in a sputter of movement, but then moves forward toward the glowing mass. Energy radiates like exposed dendrites seeking connections. The light, bright yellow with flecks of gold and white, moves and swirls. Then, as though it has grown arms, it reaches toward the blue spirit. When the lightning bolt arms have the blue spirit, it draws it into the core of light, pulls it in, and through. The bright light dissipates like a switch is turned off and both the light and the spirit are gone.
A rush of feeling moves through me like a quickening, a flash of movement that effervesces like bubbles ready to burst in my center. I don’t know if it’s from fear or longing, but it isn’t unpleasant. It’s so strong I shudder.
“You’re new here,” a voice says.
I recognize it as the one I heard before, in the commotion of the waiting room, and turn around to find its source. It seems a lifetime since I’ve interacted with another being and the loneliness is like tight joints and creaking bones that need to be moved.
“You’re the first hoverer I’ve seen in a long time.” The voice is masculine.
“A spirit that lingers. I’m a hoverer,” he says and suddenly comes into view. He’s the color of a sunrise, shifting and changing like the sun climbing above the mountains from pink, to orange, to yellow, to white. I can see his face, wide and large, an enormous bushy mustache that turns up at the ends it’s main characteristic. He smiles and I feel comfort.
“Why are you a hoverer?” I ask.
“I don’t want to leave.” The spirit disappears and I think that I’m alone again, but then it reappears. “Do you have a name?”
“Seth,” I say.
“Bertie,” I repeat as though the idea of a name is foreign.
The spirit chuckles, “It is a name my beloved calls me with a smile on her face. So that’s the name I like though others call me Bernard.”
“How long have you been here?”
“I don’t know. Long enough for the tears of my loved ones to stop. You, on the other hand, are new. Your mother weeps with passion.” He disappears into the chapel and then reappears in a split second.
“What was that light thing?” I ask.
“I call it the gateway. That is where most spirits go when they depart,” Bertie says, “if they aren’t hoverers like you and I.”
“So there are others?”
“Sure. But not many. Most move on, like you just saw. Those that hover stay close to their physical forms, or near their loved ones. The rest pass on, through the gate.”
“Where does it go?” I ask.
“Hard to say since I haven’t passed through and I’ve never spoken to a spirit who has, so I’m not exactly sure. What I can say is that any spirit that passes through doesn’t return. I have seen some spirits reconnect with their physical bodies when those bodies heal. Others don’t. They hover or move on when their physical body dies. Then their loved ones leave them behind. In both cases though, the spirit passes through the gateway.”
Hope burgeons within in me. “Do you know how to wake up?” I ask optimistic Bertie might have answers. “Like how can I reconnect with my body?”
Bertie’s form hovers. He’s quiet and then says, “You don’t. Can’t. You’ve already crossed the line between life and death. That’s why you’re here.”
“But you just said people wake up.”
“Yes, but if you were still connected, you’d still be in your body. The only way back is through the gate.”
Panic rips through me as though it were a beast eating my insides. “But you don’t know where that goes.”
“Right. I don’t.”
“And you don’t know if I’ll wake up.”
“Right, again. I don’t.”
I suddenly understand why Bertie is a hoverer. Why risk the chance of saying goodbye forever? Without assurances, why take the risk?
My mother emerges from the chapel and I follow her leaving Bertie behind. I return to my room with her, my father gone and look at my physical form. I wish my soul back into it, but it doesn’t work.
Time passes, but I can’t keep track of it. For me, I just am, in this space. I only know that it continues to move forward because people come and go.
Nurses. “He needs to rest.” Nurses. Nurses. More Nurses.
Mother leaves. She returns. She looks different. I can’t exactly say what specifically it is. Her back is a little straighter. Her face is still her face, but it seems clearer, as though she’s shone a light on it so that one can see it more clearly. She’s still sad, but she moves around my body with movements that seem charged with positive energy. “We’re going to get through this, Seth. You’ll see.”
A doctor enters the room. She stands tall.
“We’re doing what we can…” More words. “We aren’t sure on his brain activity…” His words paint a picture: “A decision might need to be made.”
“No.” My mother says emphatically, shaking her head. I imagine her saying it this way to my father. It never would have happened, but in that moment I could imagine it. “He just needs more time,” she says.
The doctor clears his throat. “Mrs. Peters. I would like to say beyond a shadow of a doubt that your son will wake up. That’s the difficulty with brain trauma. While the rest of his body is healing, and the swelling is beginning to go down, we’ve slowly been removing the medicine keeping him in the coma. He hasn’t yet responded. It’s difficult to predict-”
“But we will give him a bit more time,” she says and turns away from the doctor back toward me.
I would like to applaud the resolve in her backbone, but that isn’t what lingers with my consciousness. No, the only thing that seems to be replaying over and over the space where I exist reverberates so loudly: He hasn’t responded. I’m not waking up on my own. Bertie is right: I’m disconnected from my body.
I glance at my mother whose backbone is no longer straight. She’s standing slumped now that the doctor has left the room, tears stream down her face. I realize I only have as much time as my mother needs the courage to say goodbye and let me go, and then hovering won’t be an option anymore. That, or I choose to go through the gateway.
“Excuse me. You can’t be in here,” a nurse’s voice says.
My mother and I turn to see to whom the nurse is speaking.
Abby is standing in the doorway.
“It’s okay,” my mother says through her tears and holds out her hand to Abby. “She’s with me.”
Abby takes tentative steps into the room, and stops when she sees my body atop the bed. She takes my mother’s hand.
“You can stay. If you’d like,” my mother says and leads her to a chair on one side of my. She walks around the bed and takes up a place on the other side of my body.
Abby hesitates and I wonder if she thinks that she’s crossing some unwritten boundary, but then she sits opposite my mother and takes my hand in hers. I long to feel her skin, can imagine it, but the memory pales in comparison to the reality.
“I remember you,” my mother says. “From all those years ago. Not at first. You’ve grown so much. You and Seth had so much fun when you were little. He used to come in and chatter non-stop about the games you’d both play in the back yard.” She smiles remembering. I feel her smile like warm sunshine in the spring as I remember it too. We were little. Abby had come with her family to spend time with her grandmother. We’d played in our backyard, spies, built our secret clubhouse, acted out Avengers. I’d always been Iron Man, she’d been Scarlet Witch.
Abby moves a thumb back and forth across the back of my hand. I wish I could feel it.
“He was always a good boy. Until-”
Abby stands as though electrocuted. “I should go.”
“Don’t misunderstand me. Please.”
“This is my fault,” Abby says. Her chin quivers and I see that she’s trying not to cry.
“What? No. What are you talking about? I didn’t mean-”
“I’m sorry.” Abby leaves the room. I follow her. Her fault? I want to stop her. Take her shoulders and shake her. “No!” I would say. “No! This isn’t your fault. This is mine!” What? Mine? I would tell her… What would I tell her? What is the truth?
But I can’t touch her. I can’t talk to her. I can’t help her to understand that she shouldn’t be blaming herself. She rushes through the hall and boards the elevator. The doors close bearing her away.
I turn back toward my room and then I see it. It’s the bright light of the gateway, humming, like a vibration that I can feel at the core of whatever I have become. It calls me, but not with words. It’s a gravitational force drawing me towards it. The swirling color vortex is between the room where my body lays and me. I shrink away from it and go down a different hallway until I can’t feel the vibration anymore.
The Thing About Liars . . .
If I were being honest with myself, if I were one to tell the truth, then I would admit that I’m sitting in this truck to pick a fight with my dad. But I don’t tell the truth. It’s a secret that I refuse to acknowledge out loud because the path of lies is so much easier. It is wide, open and easy to traverse, especially if you are good at it. I’m especially skilled. I’ve been doing it a long time. The first lie I remember telling was an attempt to save my mom from a beating. I don’t remember what it was for, but knowing my father, it was probably for something as stupid as his food touching on the dinner plate, or a bit of leftover mud on the floor near his boots. Really important stuff. Depended on his mercurial mood that particular day and how much booze he’d had to drink. It hadn’t worked and we’d both received the brunt of his anger. I think I was around six, maybe seven at the time. The lies, though, became about survival and I’ve had many years to excel at it.
Sitting in my parked truck, I watch the last of the students moving into the building and consider why I’m sitting here instead of headed into the building like them. When the school called home last March, I’d gotten a stern talking to: “This is unacceptable, Seth. What are you doing to be tardy this often?” He’d been rather cool and collected about it. I’d come up with some lie to pacify him. Of course I knew it was unacceptable. If I cared was another matter entirely. When my report card arrived at the onset of summer, he’d seen the level of my tardiness, realized I’d ignored his edicts, and flipped out. I’d hidden the bruises under a shirt and avoided the lake and the beach until they’d healed.
I glance at the old pocket watch that swings from the rearview mirror telling me that the tardy bell is about to ring. It’s time, and still I don’t move. Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I think there is a truth I’m avoiding in there, but I don’t think I want a different result. I want to piss him off. I want to start a fight. I think on some level, I want to get the beating of my life, and maybe give him the beating of his (I’ve fantasized about it). If I were able to tell the truth, maybe I would say that me sitting in my truck playing the odds that I’ll lie my way into an excused tardy isn’t really about the art of lying at all, but instead about the art of wanting to get caught. Maybe that does make me insane.
The long hand moves forward. I’m officially late. I grab the backpack from the bench seat, climb out of the truck and slam the door to make sure it latches. Time to set up the lie. I run between the parked cars in the parking lot toward the entrance of Cantos High School and push through the attendance office doors with a hurried flourish. Only after I’ve been seen do I slow my pace authentically breathing hard after my sprint into the building. Mrs. Timmons looks up from her desk, her brows knit together. “Good morning,” I say bent at the waist working hard to catch my breath. If I can pull off this lie, then I have something to brag about, not that I would tell. If I don’t, then I’ll have to face my father.
“Seth.” Mrs. Timmons clicks her tongue behind her teeth. “Do you have a note?” She reaches for the tardy slips on her desk, but not the blue ones, the yellow one that denotes an unexcused tardy. She’s watching me with her beady black eyes.
The lie. “Sorry, Mrs. Timmons. I had to help my mom jump-start her car this morning and in the rush – she was late for an appointment – I didn’t get one.” The trick to lying is to always mask it with a partial truth. This partial truth is that I did have to help my mom with her car. It just wasn’t this morning. There is always a price to being a liar however: guilt nicks my insides leaving hash marks under my skin to remind me that I’m a bad person. My insides feel so brutalized by my guilt that if I were turned inside out, I’d look like hamburger. I try to smooth the shame away in the name of self-preservation.
“You know better.”
“Yes ma’am,” I say. “I do. I should have remembered to get a note. We just got so rushed.”
Mrs. Timmons eyes narrow as she studies me a moment, her hand hovering over the yellow unexcused tardy pad. I keep my eyes locked with hers and do my best remorseful kid impression. It rarely works on The Dragon, but to my surprise, she changes her mind and picks up the blue pad. “This is your one free pass of the year, Mr. Peters,” she says. “Since it’s early in the year, I’m feeling rather generous.” I don’t know whether I’m relieved or disappointed due to the fact I got away with it, or that my father will never know. For some reason however, it still feels like a win, somehow, like a big Fuck you, Dad. She writes the information on the lines provided. “I’m glad you were able to help your mom.”
“Yes. Me too. I was just getting ready to leave when she waved me back.” I say on auto-pilot.
“Get right to first period.” She signs her name on the blue slip.
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.” I take the paper from her, force a smile and then go to Spanish. I’m pragmatic enough to know that this can’t continue, but stupid enough to do it again.
Spanish class is mierda. Besides being Spanish, a language at which I’m terrible - what makes it worse is Gabe Daniels – The Freak I made – is in that class with me. Just one more reason to not want to look in the mirror.
After Spanish, I dump whatever is in my backpack into my locker. My friends are talking about some new girl they saw earlier that morning. I’ve been hearing about her for over an hour since they couldn’t shut up about it during class. “Would you can it about the new girl, already,” I say. I close my locker, math folder in hand. “Reality is always so disappointing.”
“Just wait until you see her. I have, and reality is fucking hot,” Williams says and reaches into his own locker. “You’ll pop a chub for sure, and I will be laughing my ass off saying ‘I told you so.’”
“Whatever Willy.” I push him into his locker and he punches my shoulder as I pass him to go to my next class. I walk down the hall and find myself irritated that I’m thinking about this new girl my friends can’t shut up about, but then again, I shouldn’t be surprised. Anything new is novel in Cantos, the devil’s butthole, so it’s typical that this fresh piece of meat is getting the attention of some very hungry stray dogs. I doubt my boys are accurate, and given a few weeks, this girl’s notoriety will fade. It always does.
I turn at my name and regret it. Sara is walking through the hall toward me, my off and on summer fling. I shouldn’t have messed around with her, even knew that drunk and did it anyway. Stupid. “Hey.”
She bumps against me with her shoulder. “My parents will be out tonight. Want to come over to study?”
For a hot second I think about it. I know damn well that she’s hoping we won’t be studying, but as soon as I consider it, I toss the idea out the window. Sara is as clingy as a leech. “Sorry. Can’t. My dad’s pretty strict about weeknights during school.” A great partial lie. He’s is a freaking Nazi about it when he isn’t passed out drunk.
“Too bad.” She intertwines her fingers with mine. “I really wanted to spend some QT with you. It’s been over a week.”
I free myself from her grasp. Confusion paints her face. “Look Sara,” I start.
Her body tenses and her features harden. “Look, Sara? Nothing good starts with that phrase.” I notice that her blue eyes have iced over.
I don’t like being a dick; I want people to like me (It’s one of the reasons I’m so good at lying). I get that I deserve her anger for thinking with the wrong head. But I also know that I don’t want her as a girlfriend. An aside: I also don’t want to expose anyone to my father and mother, and for certain, if I did, it wouldn’t be this girl.
“You’re breaking up with me?” There’s a strange desperation in her question. It isn’t the first time I’ve heard that tone. I’ve ended my share of flings, so maybe I’ve led a few girls on for some action. I feel a little dirty with the realization.
“We aren’t really together-together,” I say. It’s an ugly truth – which is usually the only kind I tell – those truths that shock, maim and destroy. I'm a jackass. I have been using her all summer despite what my conscience has been telling me. I should have stayed away from her, could have ended things before it even started, but I hadn’t. I rationalized it by telling myself that she was into it without the strings, but that’s a lie; we never made an agreement. She has every right to slap me, but she doesn’t. She just looks stricken.
I turn away from her ignoring the tears that have started in her eyes. I've got nothing more to say, so I leave her there in the hall to go to class. I don’t look back. I feel bad. I do, but not enough to change it.
When I finally sit at the lunch table after math class, I’ve forgotten about the hallway incident with Sara, that loose end tied in a knot, at least for me anyway. I roll my eyes at my friends continued discussion of the new girl. “Come on. She can’t be that hot.”
“Dude. Hot is an understatement,” Williams says.
“Brody was talking about her in bio last period. Guess he has her in his history class. Said she’s like a frickin’ Sports Illustrated model. Name’s Anna or something like that.” Carter takes a bite of his sandwich.
“That’s got to be her,” Brennan says. His voice sounds weird, like a whoosh of air.
I look at her, and understand why they haven’t shut up. She’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen and it hits me like a shot in the crotch. She’s Athena, shredded like a warrior, her skin kissed by the sun, golden brown and exotic, and her long dark hair is streaked with honey highlights. She glances around the cafeteria and then moves across the room to an empty table near the windows. I can’t take my eyes off her, but remember that I have an audience. Then again, it’s almost as if a magnet draws me in and even if I wanted to look away, I can’t. I shake my head to break whatever just happened to me. When I come to my senses, I see that my crew is waiting for my assessment. I shrug. “She’s alright.”
“Bullshit. You’re full of it,” Carter says with a laugh. “You’re catching flies in your mouth because that girl is a freakin’ 15 out of 10.” I force myself to refrain from looking at her the rest of lunch.
After lunch, we stoop to stalking, and I’m disgusted with myself for doing it. Though I justify following her as my friends’ idea, I’m willingly along, curious to see what class she has next.
She’s walking up ahead with the welcoming committee: Hannah Fleming. Every step Athena takes rocks my body deep in my gut. I concentrate on the end of her long straight hair brushing the small of her back right above her ass. I breathe to keep control of myself. It is a chore and I find myself sweating.
She and Hannah disappear into Bilson’s English classroom and I keep going to the science wing. My science class moves like a snail, so when the bell rings, I jump from my seat and return to where Athena had disappeared. By the time I get there, the classroom is filling up for the next class, and I’ve missed her. I’m disappointed and annoyed with myself for acting so desperate. I’m freaking Seth Peters, after all, not some beggar looking for handouts.
I take a deep breath. Don’t be stupid, I think, and go to my last class for the day. When I walk into art, I stop short. She’s there, across the room sitting by herself, framed by two empty chairs. My eyes meet hers, and her brows draw together but not the way that says, “Fuck off,” but the kind with the wrinkled brow – the thinking kind. Butter Ball, a guy on my soccer team raises a fist and chants my name. I play along, but my mind is across the room thinking about what I want to say to her. Can I say anything without my tongue tripping over itself?
I sit down in the chair to her left. She glances as me again, and I see the chocolate layer cake that is her eyes. She offers a familiar smile. I have the urge to hug her and ask her how she’s been. I check the weird impulse and instead slouch lower in my chair. Got to play it cool even though it isn’t near what I feel as my heart thumps away like a runner’s feet striking a gravel road. It’s a lie with my body instead of words from my mouth.
The second bell rings and Gabe Daniels steps into the room. I adjust myself in my seat, uncomfortable as guilt rears its ugly head, but I push it down. He deserved everything he got, I think even if I know I’m lying to myself. He sits in the only remaining seat next to Athena. Two classes with him! For real? Unfuckingbelievable.
“Welcome back, arteests.” Mr. Mike says artist strangely to get our attention. “Let’s take a bit of time this afternoon to continue getting to know one another. Names again. And this time,” he pauses for effect, “a little known fact about you. I’ll model: I’m Mr. Mike; I play the guitar in a garage band, and I don't mean the video game kind.”
A few in the class snicker.
Burrows - a stoner - who I’ve known since Kindergarten says, “Mr. Mike. No one plays that game anymore. It’s ancient.”
He chuckles. “Laugh all you want. One day you’ll join me in the garage band ranks. Let’s start with you, Kara.” He holds a hand out to Kara Liu.
Like we start every class, the introduction moves around the room. Students share their name and a new fact. When it gets to me, I play it smooth. “I’m still Seth Peters, and my fun fact is that I surf.”
“That isn’t ‘little known,’” Butter Ball says.
“That’s cause I’m an open book, Ball,” I say and smile. “I’ve got nothing to hide,” I lie.
Gabe makes a noise and I ignore him.
I look at Athena to my right and she’s staring at me with that look again – the one that makes me feel like I’m under a microscope. I’m uncomfortable, because I feel like she can see straight into my black, lying soul.
Mr. Mike cues her: “Next.”
“Oh. Sorry. Abby Kaiāulu,” she says and adds, “I just moved here from Hawaii."
“Nice to meet you, Abby,” Mr. Mike says.
Abby? Hawaii? She can’t be, I think. And I look at her through a different lens, one that studies her like I know her. She’s turned away from me to look at Gabe.
“Gabe Daniels,” he says and I’m irritated just hearing his voice. The thing is, I know he doesn’t deserve my irritation. The truth might look more like self-hatred for what I’ve done to him, but having an object for self-hatred is so much easier.
A random voice blurts, “Freak,” just loud enough so that the class collectively stifles a laugh.
Mr. Mike scolds us for our collective abuse of Daniels. I sink lower in my chair and tune everyone out.
As introductions continue and, I use the opportunity to study Abby - again. She’s looking at Gabe. I ignore the jealousy slithering through me and instead reach over to Abby’s open notebook and write a note in the margin.
Have you been to Cantos before?
Could it be her?
She looks away from Gabe and Mr. Mike and then down at her notebook. My heart is bouncing around in my chest like a Ping-Pong ball. She writes back:
I reach a hand over and my arm brushes against hers as I write. Warmth seeps through my skin turning my insides into magma.
Did you come from Hawaii to spend time with your grandma? Nana Bev?
A smile brightens her face and she writes:
YES! You’re Nana Bev’s next-door neighbor, Seth? I thought I recognized you!
I look at her and she smiles, and it transports me back to all those summers spent at her Grandma’s before the woman moved away. Abby, the little girl who knew the secret about my Dad! Abby, my first crush!
“I can’t believe it,” I say with a shake of my head when Mr. Mike sets us free to look at art books for an assignment to find our favorite.
“I can’t remember the last time-” she says and turns the page of a Van Gogh coffee table book.
I watch her and notice the beautiful soft slope of her neck as she looks at a picture. “Six summers,” I say on autopilot - no thought given to my response, no measuring of my words, no lie. I’m surprised by it and a little shaken. It makes me feel exposed and vulnerable.
“That’s right,” she replies and returns to the pages of the tome. “Nana Bev moved to Arizona six years ago.”
I look at an equally large book about Rembrandt and listen as Abby talks. I remember her as a girl and I realize I probably wouldn’t have recognized her without the clues – a girl no longer. Awareness nags at my nerve endings. I wonder if she thinks I’ve changed. We’d spent so many summers chasing one another into trees or trying to ditch her brothers.
“So do you surf?” I ask.
“I do." She glances at Gabe who's flipping through a volume about Salvador Dali. He looks up, a scowl on his face as his gaze dances between Abby and me.
There’s a part of me that wishes I could walk back across the bridge before I hurt him, before I destroyed our friendship, but another part of me that understands that the bridge burned a long time ago. I refocus my attention on Abby. "Here’s a good one," I say and point at one of the Van Gogh paintings. I lean toward her and our shoulders graze. Her perfume is clean and reminds me of the ocean. Desire and something else, something more honest, awakens in me. The Rembrandt book forgotten, I follow Abby on a journey through Van Gogh land and we reacquaint the us of then with the us of now.