I’m in a stranger’s bed

 

a college guy from the cigar shop at the mall. He smells like

tobacco, tastes like mints. He pulls my shirt over my head, weaves his fingers

through mine to pull me down. And I get the same thought.

Every time. The same. I shouldn’t be here.

But the bedroom is dark. Warm. So distanced from everything I hate.

His lips find my neck, seeping heat through me, a simple sedative.

I slump against him. His fingers run up my spine, rest at the base of my

skull, bury in my hair. I shouldn’t be here.

I move a leg toward the edge of the bed.

“You’re so beautiful, Steffani,” his voice soaks into my ear.

And the rush comes. Blood and adrenaline and a surge of power.

I lie still. Think of the things that don’t matter anymore.

My pathetic home. My lame grades. How dying,

at least for this moment, doesn’t seem like the best option.

My phone on the corner table chimes, light and innocent as a church bell.

“Who is it?” he asks, untwining himself from me. I glance quickly

at the phone’s face, but I already know. “My boyfriend.”

He waits for me to answer. To make a choice between him and the voice in the phone.

But I’m too far gone to choose. The choice is his.

He nods, wraps his fingers in my hair, pulls me to him.

I drop the phone onto the shag rug. Because this, right now, is all that matters –

his lips like a bandage against my own, his legs wrapped around me like gauze, this

simple fix to get me through the day, to curb my voracious need,

my steady craving, my F’d-up thirst for

him.

~

“Where were you today?”

 

Seth’s question is expected, but my pulse

races when it hits me.

“When?”

I keep my voice as light as the

early spring sun pouring down on us in the park.

“When I texted earlier.”

A million senses flash in my head – I smell the tobacco shop guy,

taste him, feel him all over me. I soften my eyes,

crinkle the corners to caring, grab Seth’s face –

beautiful chin, pupils floating in super blue irises,

perfectly angled nose. I kiss him until

he smiles.

“Library,” I say. “For that killer report due tomorrow.”

(The one I finished last week.)

He nods. Satisfied. We lean back against the park bench,

watch children hang by their knees from iron bars.

“Marshmallows or sprinkles?” he says, and I flood with

happiness. I love Random Question Time.

“Sprinkles, totally.”

“Uh, hm.” He nods, agreeing. “Doberman or Shi-tzu?”

“Doberman. Definitely.” He smiles, eyes the playground.

Then his finger flies up, points at the

upside-down children. “Let’s do that!”

“What?” I ask. He takes my hand, drags me

to the monkey bars, makes me giggle

like crazy as he flips me upside-down

and hooks my knees over the bar.

He finds his own bar next to mine. We stare at each other,

our heads toward the ground. Swinging. Laughing.

And I think how upside-down and

backwards we are in so many ways.

How I’ve cheated on him so many times.

And he doesn’t even know.

How I’ve lost several boyfriends

because they suspected, accused me

of lying even though they had no proof besides

the hollowness in my eyes.

But Seth is different. Never suspects too much. Never accuses.

Trusts. Loves. Makes me feel good without even touching me. It’s a precarious balance,

being who I am and being with him. But I want to hang on to him.

I want to be carefree like this. Relaxed

and swinging wild. I want to be

upside-down with

him for a long,

long

time.

~

Before her debate practice

 

Juliette stops by. Slumps on my bed. Sprawls across the aqua comforter.

“I really like Weber Graham.” She sighs, staring at my ceiling.

“I know.” I hover over my open math book.

I’ve drawn dancing figures and swirling flowers in the white

spaces between the numbers, overlapping some

of the crisp, straight integers until they blur into art. I can’t stand

the rigidity of numbers. Can’t stand how definite they are. You

are either right or wrong. I’m usually wrong.

I’m more comfortable when things are grayer.

 

Juliette rocks at math. Like she rocks at most things.

“I want to kiss Weber Graham,” she says.

“I know,” I tell her.

“Why won’t he even look in my direction?”

Her head lifts, her face rising like a pale flower from the aqua bedding behind her.

“Am I ugly?”

“No way!” I tell her. “He’s just blind.”

And she nods, knowing, as her best friend, I’d say that. I smile, but

there are many things I can’t tell Juliette, like how far

I go, who I go there with, how often I’m there. And I can’t tell her

now that Weber Graham is far from blind. It’s that he sees

her too clearly. He sees she is definite and strong, like the numbers

in my math book. As perfectly angled as a seven, as ripe

as a nine. She knows where she stands – University of Michigan-bound, oldest

child of two world travelers, a moral compass as solid

as steel. Her success mere steps in a forward direction.

Weber Graham can see that for sure. Can see she’s as true

as x. As right as any square root. He can see she’s as pure as Pi,

and she never gets it wrong.

But Weber Graham likes it gray. Most

guys like it gray. Otherwise,

they wouldn’t agree so freakin’

quickly to blur the lines when

a girl like me

catches their eye.

~

The phone rings

while I’m getting ripped into.

My step-dad’s got me in a corner. It’s a doozy

of a night. Apparently, I’m stupid, irresponsible,

and a bitch. His eyes are glassy. His words

are slow. I’m going to say… um, eight beers.

Maybe nine tonight. He loses strength after ten, has to

sit down to yell at me. But tonight he’s hovering.

Somehow backed me against the wall with his words.

 

My sister, Breanna, locked herself

in her room hours ago.

She’s conditioned. When she was

super young, my mother and I

would hide her away when the first shouts came, shuffle her off, play

Sesame Street CDs to cover up the craziness. Now that she’s

older, it’s a habit — hear the yelling, close the door. Purely Pavlovian.

 

My mom went to bed during a lull,

thought the fighting was done for the evening. But apparently,

my step-dad was just reloading with two beers and six

more reasons why I suck. So now

I’m left alone to deal with it.

His breath is rank. His gestures — swinging arms

and hands — are close to being blows. But the chime

of the phone stops him short.

“Who is it?” He asks me like I’m telepathic. Like

the receiver isn’t half-way across the room.

“I’m stupid, remember?” I say. “I don’t know.”

“Shut up,” he says and stalks into the bathroom to pee.

 

When I answer the phone, the voice is familiar. “Steffani?”

“Hey.” It’s this guy from Coffee Haven. I met him last month.

He’s called several times now. Which is good. The attention,

I mean. But I can’t get close. He knows that.

I have Seth.

“Can I see you?” The silence on the other end waits for

me to think, to make a choice.

I shouldn’t.

But I’m weak tonight. Stupid. Irresponsible. And a bitch.

So I write down his address. Grab my car keys. Head for my coat.

Slip out before my step-dad stops me. Think of what

I’ll say if Seth calls and I’m not here.

~

I choose

 

my locations carefully, as carefully as I choose the guys.

Can’t meet them too close to my hometown. Can’t meet them

anywhere where Pineville High students frequent.

Rumors are whirlwinds through school. And I have to maintain

my image – passable student, good girlfriend to Seth, not a trouble-maker.

So I choose guys living several towns away,

I make the drive to feed the habit.

Huh… funny I call it a habit. Like I’m into crack,

all syringes and snorts. Like I can’t get enough Jim Beam

or I live for vodka shots.

 

I mean, I’m not jittery or anxious.

I don’t have withdrawal symptoms. I’m not my step-dad.

I just hate myself more than usual when I’m not with a guy for a while,

when I can’t press someone’s lips to mine,

when I don’t feel arms around me hard enough

or hands gripping my back or words that seep

out breathy and half-sincere like “You’re amazing” or

“God, you’re beautiful.” Or sometimes, if the guy’s

super weak and things are going really well, a

loose “I love you.”

I can coast on those comments for days, lick

at the residue of their echoes in my

skull like they’re chocolate

batter in a cake bowl.

It may not be cooked or whole

or done, but it’s

still

delicious.

~

My heart jerks hard

 

when I pull into Coffee Haven guy’s apartment complex and realize

this place is unsafe. I’ve been here before.

With a friend who has cousins living in Building 203. If I’m seen,

that’s a problem. I pick up my cell, call him.

“Let’s go somewhere else,” I tell him. “I’m outside right now.”

He slips through the building door, slides through the night and into

my passenger’s seat. “Hey,” he says, looking

clean-shaven, smelling like a mix of cigarettes and fresh moss. “Where?”

“Just somewhere else.” My voice is urgent. I sound on edge. Try

to slow my heart. Try to forget I’m doing something I shouldn’t be. Think

natural. Think organic. He likes me. I like him. It happens. It happens.

 

He points to the main road. “Take a left. We’ll go to Coffee Haven.”

I hesitate. That’s not safe either.

He smiles, knows we’re undercover. “We’ll go in the back way. I have a key.

We’ll bolt to the basement store room and no one will see us.”

No one will see us.

So I slip the car into drive and ease through the darkness.

~

His keys jingle

 

way too loudly outside the back door of the coffee shop.

His             hands             are shaky.                         He             fumbles for             the                         right

key on                         a key             chain of                         twenty                         or more.

“Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” I say. Watch a car with the stereo blaring

P!NK weave through the back lot before easing toward the front.

I pull my hoodie over my head,

hide my face.

“Got it,” he says as something clicks. He glides the door open. Light spills

onto the ice-covered concrete in front of me. Inside, a girl

giggles super loud. A coffee grinder drowns her out. I follow

him in, past shelves of Styrofoam cups, plastic

lids and piles of fake sugar packets. The smell of coffee

grips my nose, makes my nostrils flare. My eyes

dart sideways. My heart beats fast.

It always does beforehand. But tonight,

I don’t feel right. Tonight is too dangerous. Still, I follow

him down a flight of stairs, leave

the giggling girl, the steamy gurgling of coffee behind.

~

His fingers twine

around mine. He pulls me down the stairs, down, down

where it’s black, and I realize there’s a moment, every time, when

I reach a point of no return, when I’ve gone far

enough that it doesn’t seem to matter anymore what

I do after. I’ve come here.

Into the darkness.

I’m already

far enough. I’ve

already crossed

the line. And I’m

not leaving

now.

~

It’s so completely dark

 

that we bump against boxes like pin balls. His fingers scrape a wall, finding a trail in the

dark to someplace. I wonder where he’s going. Then his lips are on mine, his tongue flicking

against my own for a long minute. His breath beats warm and fast against my face before he

slides away from me. First his lips and then his hands slipping over my back and arms before

he disappears completely.

 

I’m left flailing in the darkness. I try to see him, wish my eyes could adjust to the dark,

but there’s not a shred of light to help me. It’s a weird feeling, when your eyes are wide

open but everything is still black.

 

My hand reaches out to find him. His fingers find me first, curl around my thighs as my hands

fall against his head now hovering near my stomach. He is seated in front of me. With a groan,

he pulls me onto his lap. My knees dig into firm cardboard as I straddle him. He lies back,

yanks me to him to kiss him more, and my mouth finds his smiling in the blackness.

“Told you no one would see.” His voice is husky.

“I can’t see a thing,” I say.

He laughs. “Just feel then.”

So I

feel my jeans slide off.

feel he’s got decent biceps for being on the thinner side.

feel his tongue trace a warm line behind my ear.

feel a twinge of guilt before I

feel that feeling that brought me here. That ripping,

crawling

howl inside my gut, a starvation for something I

can never quite feed enough. I wish I knew why

it rises out of nowhere when I least expect it. I wish

I knew why Seth – amazing, sweet, loving Seth – is never enough,

why no matter how many times he tells me he loves me, I still find myself

in my beat-up Civic at 9:30 at night driving

two towns over to get my fix from a stranger.

~

In the middle of it all

 

a toilet flushes. A door swings open. Light

sprawls across boxes of coffee stirrers, bags

of sugar, my bare legs and back. Coffee Haven guy sits

up from underneath me, peers around my torso as I turn

to see Ty Blevens – basketball player at my high school, the

guy who sits behind me in Social Studies. His half-wet

hands clutch brown paper towel. His eyes widen as he

realizes what he’s seeing – my bare

skin, this guy

beneath me, the most

private of acts.

~

And

the

moment

explodes

with

Seth’s       face

flashing

like a strobe in my head and every muscle

tensed and rock hard, the anxiety buzzing, spilling

out, overflowing, the way it might feel for a soldier on the ground

to watch a dropped bomb fall toward him, starting in slow motion, then

moving closer, closer for a long time. And the knowing. The anticipation.

Waiting. For the moment when it all combusts. I’ve been moving so, so

slowly toward this moment. Waiting. Knowing it would come.

And now, for the first time, I’ve been caught by someone

who knows me.

~

I lunge

 

for my hoodie as Coffee Haven guy jerks out

from underneath me.

“Wow,” Ty says. I can hear the smile, the amusement

in his voice. “This is unexpected.”

I slide on my jeans, flip the hoodie over

my head, down over my face as far as I can

even though it’s too late.

I can’t hide now.

“Steffani. Wow,” Ty says again,

everything sinking in, his eyes blinking,

adjusting to the dimness, and I yearn

for the blackness again, yearn

for the moment when my eyes, when

everyone’s eyes were wide

open but no one could

see a thing.

~

I turn

 

to face Ty. My head still half-covered.

My hands, my legs, my organs and bones, shaking from

the impact, from the silence that’s crawling like spiders out from behind

the cardboard boxes. There is nothing to say. Nothing to explain.

I just have to get out now. Get out now.

 

“I have to go,” I say.

I take the basement stairs two at a time,

push the back door open,

plunge into the night.

But nothing seems dark anymore.

Everything is hyper-bright,

as if the parking lot, the trees,

the towns for miles around,

as if the whole freaking world is

blowing up around me.

~

At home

 

as soon as I walk in, Breanna’s bedroom door opens. She stomps

down the hall toward me. “Where were you?” Bree says.

She pushes close to me, accusing, as aggressive as the paparazzi until

I fall back against the pea-green couch covered

in booze stains and cigarette burns.

“You left.” Her face is streaked

with dried, salty lines. “You left and dad came after me.”

The spike of guilt lodges in my chest.

“And Seth called four times,” she says.

I check my phone. He texted, too.

“Four times,” Breanna says again, like an annoying conscience,

like a moral compass that I want to knock off-kilter.

“Shut up, Bree.”

She looks shocked, then bugged. “Don’t tell me to shut up.”

I rise from the couch, wanting to leave, wanting to stop the accusations.

Bree steps even closer. Unafraid. She doesn’t see the bombs

blowing up around me. She doesn’t see the fight or flight craziness in my eyes.

She says, “You were out with someone else, weren’t you?”

“Shut up, Bree.”

“Seth’s a good guy, Steff. Why are you screwing it up?”

“I said shut up!”

“You can’t make me,” she says, lifting her chin in defiance.

And I don’t think. I just lunge. Grab her by the shoulders.

Shake her. “Shut the hell up!”

Her head snaps back as I dip her down. It slams

against the cheaply padded arm of the couch. She grunts in pain.

I let her go, shell-shocked. She stumbles forward, grabbing

the sofa she just cracked against to help herself stay upright. And her eyes

burrow into me,

hurt, shocked, confused.

Get out now, my head demands.

Get out now.

I run to my room, slam and lock the door before I melt against the aqua comforter,

huddle against the fake pink rosettes, wait

for the bombs

in my brain

to stop

dropping.

~

The bloody tissues in the bathroom

 

trash can the next morning send me to the toilet

to puke. Not because I can’t stand blood.

But because I know they came from

Breanna’s head, from my pushing

her against the couch, from my

anger, my guilt, my fear.

I wretch and wretch,

try to purge it all, but I still

feel the same when I stand up, slip

out of the bathroom, want to slip out of the

house and get to school way early so I won’t have to

see anyone – not my parents, not Seth, definitely not

Ty Blevens, not even Juliette – before I absolutely have to.

~

I head to my Civic,

 

my keys jangling in my fingers, but

I stop cold in the driveway. My step-dad is already

in his truck, classic rock belting

on the radio. Across his mud-stained jeans rests

his grease-streaked metal file box filled with today’s

schedule and invoices – a lawn sprinkling installer’s briefcase.

 

He looks up at me. His eyes are dark, tired. His face sags. It’s early for him, too. He looks

like I feel.          And I wonder if he feels           this every day.

I wonder if          cracking me into a corner          every night

with his You Bitch! and his Fuck You! with his flailing arms and fiery eyes makes him

feel as if he’s drawn blood. I wonder if he grinds me down, slams me down over and over

because he          can’t stop whatever the hell          he’s feeling. I

wonder if          pretending like everything          is fine the next

morning makes him want to stay in one of the deep, muddy pits he digs every day in the front

yards of the rich and frivolous. We stare at each other, really looking for a minute until he

blurts, “Have a good day, Steffani,” and drives away. And a feeling of nausea so thick bursts

through me that I bend and puke against the wheel of my mother’s Subaru. And still, when I

stand up and stumble into my car, I don’t feel the slightest bit of relief.

~

Raw

 

Yes, I am. Like every nerve

is exposed. Like I’ve been third-degree-burned beyond

recognition. I walk zombie-fashion through the school halls. Avoid

the hallways that I know Seth strides through,

the ones Juliette marches down to get

to class. But while my body trudges, my eyes dart around, hyper-fast. I

wonder what Ty has told people.

I watch every muscle in every face, try

to read lips, wonder what’s been said, who knows what.

I gauge the gazes that fall on me, try to read if the shooter of the look is

sickened by me, disgusted, amused,

suspicious. But all the looks blur together. Or maybe

it’s my head that’s blurred, that can’t process the way it should.

 

When the hour for Social Studies comes around, I’m too tired

to try to get through it, too scared to make myself move toward

the classroom. I can’t make myself sit in front of Ty Blevens and face

whatever will be on his face or tongue. So I go to a far

bathroom, the one by the back exit that the girls never use because

the toilet paper is always out and it always smells like whatever

disgusting low-grade concoction they’re cooking in the cafeteria on

the other side of the wall. I sink down on the grimy floor, my back flush with

the cool, cracked wall tile.

 

I’ve never skipped class. I don’t skip class. Giving my step-dad another

reason to call me shit is not on my priority list. I want to

follow rules. I need them. Even now, as I’m skipping, I don’t have

the guts to leave the school. I hang in the bathroom so any minute, if

I change my mind, I can go to class. Can do the right thing.

 

I check my phone. Over fifteen texts and calls from Seth. A sorrowful text

from Juliette about how she overheard someone saying

Weber Graham is going out with a girl from a neighboring

school. The first thing I think is that I’ll have to be even more

careful where I choose my guys. And then I hate myself for not

caring more about how crushed Juliette must be.

 

I bounce my head hard against the wall tile, feel the pain pound

into my skull, the pain that I deserve. I’m a crap friend.

“But I’ll be ok,” Juliette has written. “I’m Xtra solid at the core! BTW, where R U today?

Can’t find U.”

I almost laugh. “When you find me,” I say to Juliette, to the reeking bathroom air,

to myself, “let me know.”

~

I trace the blackened grout between

 

the floor tiles with my finger nail, think of how much I’ve broken the rules

lately.                                                 My step-dad’s.

The school’s.                                     Even my own.

I think of Bree’s blood staining the white tissues in the bathroom trash. I think of how

opposite I am                                     from Juliette,

how the inside                                            of me is

hollow, empty, endless. How whatever a guy does to fill me up just drains so fast,

empties me                                     again so quickly.

I think of                                     how, if I could

step into myself, I could jump into my gut and fall for years, nothing to catch me.

 

Then, the bathroom door swishes open. I look up, expecting

to find some chick with a cigarette, ready to smoke, or even

someone who legitimately has to pee. Instead, I see Ty Blevens. My heart

stops. The nausea I’ve fought all day tramples in my stomach.

“Someone said they saw you go in here,” he says. His tall, lanky body looks

odd in the girls’ bathroom. I’m sure the guys’ bathroom

looks the same as this one, but he’s out of place. So out of place.

“What are you doing in here?” I think of running. I think of pushing

past him and bolting back to class or even out of school. But he’s

blocking the door with his wide shoulders.

“I wanted to check on you.”

I stare at him, suspicious. He doesn’t owe me anything. Why would

he care? He steps closer. I press hard against the tiled wall.

“I haven’t told anyone what I saw.” His words should be like a steel

beam lifting off me, but I’m so used to feeling crushed and afraid, it takes me

a second to realize I don’t have to worry right away. That people

don’t know. That Seth doesn’t know. At least not yet. But Ty is looking

at me oddly, his lips curling, his eyes lazy and lax.

“Why not?” I ask.

He shrugs, steps closer. “Why should I? What you do is your business, right?”

And then he’s next to me, sitting on the ground right beside me, his thigh

pressing against mine, and I am throbbing with remnants of the fear that people

know who I really am and what I do, with anger at myself for being so careless, so stupid,

with guilt over shedding my sister’s blood. And it’s like he knows. He knows.

“What anyone does is their business.” His eyes look into mine. “Right, Steffani?”

His hand slips over my knee. And he’s so close. So close. His body is warm. I

want to soak up every heated cell and sponge it intomy system. I want to

fill myself up. I am so empty. So raw.

His face gets close. His nose touches mine. “Right, Steffani?” he says again.

His hand slides from my knee to my thigh. And my hand, as raw as the rest of me, reaches up and presses hard and fast

against his hot, flushed cheek.

~

When it’s over,

 

I stumble toward the door of the bathroom. Adjust my clothes, but I can’t feel my skin. Can’t feel my face. My brain is way, way

numb. The line of what’s right, my line of rules – no skipping class, no hooking up with someone I know, in a place where I could

get caught – that line is so blurred, so far away, I can’t even make it out. What have I just done?

 

Ty is behind me, at the door. I think his hand is on my shoulder or resting on the back of my neck. But I can’t feel it. Can’t feel a

thing. The door swings open to the gray of the hallway. So gray. And there, stopped and staring, a bright pink hall pass in his

hand,

is Seth.

~

And I am frozen. I am

ice for bone, frost for

blood. I am the girl

whose world has

ceased. In one

second, I’m a

tundra of

what I

used

to

be.

“Why?” Seth whispers, or maybe yells. I

can’t tell. And I can’t answer him

back. My mouth won’t move.

My vocal cords are glacial.

My lips are too heavy,

too cold. Somewhere

in my head, the truth

of what I’ve done

trickles like a

tiny current

through

the

ice

in my brain. But I can’t retrieve

it, can’t wade past the freezing,

the clogging to gather it.

And if I collected it,

if my lips could

thaw instantly,

what would

I say to

him?

 

What would I say?

That I’m a skank? A slut? A cheater?

A goddamn bitch? That I suck?

Just like my step-dad says I suck.

A thousand times over.

~

The school bell rings

 

around us. But Seth, Ty and I stay frozen, a triangle of deceit,

an electric fence of emotion connecting us while all the

students pour                                            from the classrooms.

Eyes focus,                                                             connect,

hook on us.                                            On me.

Knowing.                   Knowing.

Finally, knowing.

~

I think

 

I’m on my knees.

I think I hear Juliette.

I think the sun is on my face.

I think I’m thawing.

 

“It’s going to be O.K.,” Juliette says. “Seth was awesome, but he

was just not the right one for you if you felt attracted to Ty.”

I look at her eyes, clear as zero, endless as Pi. So right versus

wrong. So cut and dry. I love that about her.

Respect it.

Need it.

But it’s so far from the way things are.

“I wasn’t attracted.”

My brain rushes faster, the folds of tissue unfreezing, the truth surging

forward, finding my nerves,

dribbling to my throat,

dripping down to my tongue.

“What? Then… I mean…why?” she asks, her eyes spilling against mine.

 

The truth lodges like an ice cube in my stomach,

tumbles out between us, cold and pure and clear.

“I can’t help it.”

Juliette’s forehead crinkles. Her eyebrows bend in confusion.

“I need it,” I say. “Sometimes, I just need

to be with someone… like that. Like in that way.”

Juliette shrinks from me, wilting

in the opposite direction, even as she nods, her mind

processing, crunching the factors for my indiscretions, carrying the

enormity of it all from one column to another, assessing

the remainders, finding the ultimate solution.

Finally,

she spits out, “You need help, Steff.

You know, like a therapist or psychologist. If you

can’t stop, you need to go figure out how.”

At first I think she’s copped out by passing

my problem to someone else,

that I’ve stumped her, given her

too much gray to work with, left her lacking

a solution.

But then I realize she’s probably right. It could be

that black and white. It could be the inevitable

answer to my absurd,

spiraling,

uncontrollable

x.

~

Two hours past

 

the time I usually get home, but I needed

talk-time with Juliette. So much to talk about. My step-dad

is singing limericks in the shower when I walk in, a sure sign

he’s boozed up and the night will suck. Breanna’s door is closed,

but she’s not in her room. I go outside, find her

on the swings of our ancient play set, the metal hooks

and chains super rusted from years of Michigan weather.

Breanna won’t look at me. I sit on a swing next to her, sway

in the same rhythm she does. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s over, Steff,” she says, her eyes on the gravel of our driveway.

“Let it go.”

Hide it away. Close the door.

And I want to fight it. In some ways, I want to make her talk

about it, the way I’ve been talking about it all afternoon with Juliette.

I want to tell her I’m thinking about asking Mom to take me to a shrink,

that maybe she should go too. Just to let some things out of ourselves,

let some things out of our house. Open the door, even just a crack.

But her face is turned from me. She’s done talking.

We all have our habits.

 

Inside, the phone rings. Mom comes out holding

the receiver. She smiles when she sees Bree and me

together, swinging like we are little again.

“My sweet girls,” she says, more to herself than to us. Then

she holds the phone out to me.

“Steffi, there’s a boy on the phone for you.”

I stop my swinging, my lapse into childhood sloughing away quickly.

I feel the lilt of excitement, the rush the unknown boy brings.

It’s a conditioned yank and pull — my step-dad slurring

already, the night promising to be full of shards and rips and prickling insults, the yearning clawing up from my gut, a guy waiting for me.

It could be Seth.

It could be the guy from the movie theater concession stand or

the one from Game Hut or Ten Lanes Burger and Bowl

or the car wash. It could be any boy.

Any boy.

I take the receiver from my mother, walk away from

my family and get ready to speak.

Inside the house, my step-dad swears loudly,

slams something hard.

“Hello?” I say into the phone, in a voice

as sweet and as sexy as I can muster.

And I wait for the guy to answer, wait for the vibrating current of his voice

to drip and drain into me, feel my spiking thirst for it.

Because, well,

because

some habits

are really hard

to break.

 


My only disappointment with [Him] was I couldn’t read beyond what was submitted. From the start, “Him” took me to a different world. The writer is one of those rare talents who can create a realistic setting and characters with few words. Aside from those attributes, I felt an instant compassion for the flawed main character, despite her bad choices. That is no easy task. Bravo!
—Kimberly Wills Hold, 2011 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge