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Wednesday, March 26
Four metal speakers blared into the courtyard. Emma watched the perforated cones pulse in rapid succession, strained by the exuberance of a mariachi band. She tried to remember how to describe the tempo of a piece of music. Beats per measure? Time signature? She couldn’t remember anything from the two years she’d taken flute. If pressed, she could pick out “Lean on Me” on the piano, but that was all. She hated “Lean on Me.” And she hated the ranchero music the school played during lunch.
A handful of Mexican boys got up to dance, pulling their girlfriends behind them. Emma followed one couple with her eyes. The boy wore pointy cowboy boots and a silver-tipped belt. He had a large black mole on his left cheek. The girl he held was short and dumpling-plump, with long black hair and bangs three inches high.
The girl he held was short and dumpling-plump, with long black hair and bangs three inches high.
He cradled one of her hands in his and put his other around her waist. When he smiled, his teeth shone cloud-white against his brown desert face.
Emma and her friends sat at a picnic table near the front of the cement courtyard. Rachel Cooper occupied one side, long pale legs folded against her chest. When she ducked her head, waist-length red hair shielded her face from the sun. Emma and Via shared the other side of the table. Via Mebrete, half Ethiopian and half Dutch, was barely five feet tall. She swung her legs in lazy circles without touching the ground.
“What’s for lunch?” Rachel asked. “You know I eat vicariously through you.”
Rachel’s parents had divorced sophomore year. Since the divorce, she’d only seen her dad a few times. She and her mom lived with Rachel’s aunt and uncle, but were thinking of moving in with her grandmother instead. If they did, it would be the third place Rachel had lived in less than a year.
“Mom didn’t have much time,” Emma said. “My sister needed cupcakes for a party.” She opened her sack lunch, packed with a turkey and provolone sandwich, a sliced Granny Smith apple, two oatmeal cookies, Country Time lemonade, and a paper napkin folded in half lengthwise. Her mother had wrapped the soda can in foil so the condensation wouldn’t liquefy the paper napkin.
“Your mom is so cute,” Via said. “Mine just gives me money and tells me to go to the cafeteria.” She nudged the cardboard tray that held soggy fries, a plastic cup of apple juice, and a hot dog. “They don’t even have pickle relish in there.”
Via’s family was in even worse shape than Rachel’s. Her parents split up before she started kindergarten. It had been three years since the last card from her dad, and a few more since she’d seen him in person. Emma’s dad taught her to throw a football (she sprained a thumb), ride a bike (she fell off, mostly), and put things on the grill (there was a picture of her, shirtless, at age three, using tongs to turn hot dogs over the flame). ]He remarked on all unforeseen events by saying, “What are the odds? It’s like Lou Gehrig getting Lou Gehrig’s disease.” She couldn’t imagine life without him.
He remarked on all unforeseen events by saying, “What are the odds? It’s like Lou Gehrig getting Lou Gehrig’s disease.” She couldn’t imagine life without him.
“I don’t know,” Emma said. “Sometimes I’d just rather have a hot dog.”
“I can’t remember the last time my mom made anything,” Rachel said. “She keeps her purse in the oven.”
“Don’t your aunt and uncle cook?”
“They like Hot Pockets.”
At the far end of the cement courtyard, behind a folding table draped in plastic, a student council representative sold prom tickets. Rachel’s gaze drifted toward the line of people waiting to buy. Emma knew what she was thinking. It happened every time a formal dance drew near—Rachel picked out a mark and found reasons to stand by his locker. She smiled, twirled her marmalade curls, blinked her long lashes, and waited for her invitation. It always came. She’d been the only freshman to attend the junior prom. It didn’t matter who the boy was, or if he liked her. It only mattered that he was susceptible enough to her charms to offer the invitation. Rachel collected photos from school dances the way most girls collected Instagram likes.
It didn’t matter who the boy was, or if he liked her. It only mattered that he was susceptible enough to her charms to offer the invitation. Rachel collected photos from school dances the way most girls collected Instagram likes.
Sometimes Emma tried to convince herself she could do the same. Awake or asleep, though, the dream always ended when she saw her own face in the mirror. She lifted her hand and tapped the zit on her chin. Yep, she thought. Still there.
“Enough about food,” Via said. “We have a chem test tomorrow.”
Rachel groaned and rested her forehead on her knees. “I’ll lose four hours of study time at work tonight.”
“Call in sick. A few hours of slave labor at the Falafel Hut isn’t worth failing this test.”
“That’s slave labor plus tips. I have a car payment, you know.”
“I’m not taking any chances.” Via shoved her chemistry binder at Emma. “Quiz me.”
Emma scanned Via’s notes, smiling at the loopy letters that filled each college-ruled line from end to end. “Your handwriting exhibits a reckless disregard for margins.”
“We’re not tested on margins.”
“I might actually pass if we were,” Emma said. “Okay, here’s your question. The change in potential energy of a chemical reaction is a reflection of what?”
“Fuck, I don’t know. Start with something easier.”
Rachel swung her head toward Via, green eyes narrowed. “Was that really necessary?”
“I forgot you joined the morality patrol.”
“It’s a youth group.”
“You mean it’s where Tim hangs out.”
Via was the only one brave enough to say the truth out loud. Like Rachel, Via had a car and an after-school job, but Via also had a resume, two letters of reference, and this past Halloween, she’d driven to Santa Barbara by herself just to go to a party. On the scale of bravery, Emma topped out at killing small spiders.
On the scale of bravery, Emma topped out at killing small spiders.
She bit into her sandwich and felt a clump of wheat bread stick to the back of her teeth. She dislodged it with her tongue as she formulated the next study question for Via. “What is a coulomb?”
Via held out her index finger and tapped the air with each syllable. “A unit of electric charge.”
Tomorrow’s test, covering electricity, voltage, and half-cell potentials, was going to be hell. The whole year had been hell. Emma had already suffered through seven and a half months of Honors English, Honors chem, AP U.S. history, third-year French, pre-calculus, and P.E. She did homework every weeknight until bedtime and all day Sunday. Dark circles ringed her eyes like smoky eye makeup applied upside down.
Everyone told her she was smart enough to get into college, but being smart wasn’t enough. Good schools wanted kids who crowdfunded hospitals in Uganda, created social media startups when they got bored with the real ones, found the cure for cancer during a science fair project, and spent weekends neutering feral cats while teaching foster children to read. Some days it was all she could do to remember to bring her math book home at night. Maybe those other students are all mutants, she thought. With stainless steel skeletons that can stand up to the weight of all those expectations. When she thought about the coming year, it felt like Freddy Krueger was braiding her entrails. “You guys,” she said. “I’m scared.”
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