Oprah, Maslow, and Me
by Amy Emm

Overall First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Jell-O lady is the best one so far. Janice. You can’t be a mean lady and be named Janice. She calls me hon, even though I just told her my name is Melanie. I imagine Janice sitting in a bright cubicle farm, framed ad posters on the walls, shiny plants everywhere, neat desks and new light blue carpets. Maybe she gets free Jell-O on her breaks, any flavor under the sun. Cool and soft, so easy to eat, she doesn’t even have to move her mouth to chew. Lucky.

“So hon, can you describe the defect for me?”

“Well, when I opened the box, there was a red packet inside…but the outside of the box showed green Jell-O.” With my free hand, I tore open the closed end of the empty box, flattened it against my knee and flipped it over. Green cubes in a white bowl.

Just don’t look over at the nightstand, just neveryoumind about my container of green Jell-O sitting pretty there, under the lamp. Just look away. I myself study the ceiling.

Kind Janice, sweet kind unknowing Janice, has me read the codes printed on the flap. BF021, that is my code. Probably for one of the factories, the day of the week, the manufacturing line, what have you. Par for the course.

“Ok,” I can hear typing as she pauses, “For your trouble I’d like to send you a coupon for a replacement product.”

This is where I have to hang up. Because there had not been a red packet of powder in this particular box, the one with the green cubes on the front. There had been a green packet, all green sugary crystals, the promise of green Jell-O dutifully fulfilled. The container on the nightstand is all sorts of proof.

“Hon? Hon? Where might I send the coupon?”

I almost laugh. Where. The thin polyester bedspreads aren’t talking–not that you’d want them to. The long gray curtains covering the windows block out the parking lot sign, and the phone cord doesn’t let me reach that far to push them aside. Where was here?

Room 113 at the Motel 6? Or was it room 6 at the Super Eight? Is this a Rodeway Inn? A Ho-Jo? No matter. By the time the coupons chase us down, we’ll be gone.

With my finger I depress the telephone’s little bar to disconnect, as gently as I can, on kind Janice. Maybe she’ll think I wanted to say goodbye, but was cut off by mistake. Have fun at break, Jan, and have some Jell-O for me.

 

Praise J that 1-800 numbers are a free call, and that someone always answers. I like the routine the best. It is always the same: state your problem, then the apology, then the offer of coupons. No matter whom you call, the beer company, soda company, cookie company: tell ‘em your beef, they say sorry, you get coupons. Except I never want the coupons. There are so many other good things: thinking about where I was calling, listening for other workers in the background, imagining what the customer service person looked like. Sometimes I got someone who asked about me, where I was calling from, what the weather was like. Those are my favorite. That is my hope, always, that I’ll get that person.

Plus, no one ever questions me. No one ever says, “Really? Are you sure there was a blue corn chip inside your yellow corn chip bag?”

It’s because I am never outlandish. I never say I found a mouse in my soda, never a severed finger in a cheese block or an earplug in my soup. No nonsense, you know? No, my complaints are just things that maybe could happen. The foil lid to my yogurt is askew, creating a dangerous entry point for foreign bacteria. (Hey, biology was the last subject I paid attention to, I know what I’m talking about.) Perhaps I found a clump of chips molded together, all deformed and mutated. Hey, anybody can get stale M&M’s out of a vending machine, anybody at all. Maybe me!

 

I am halfway through my green Jell-O and just getting into an old Hitchcock film when Corinne comes busting though the door with her supplies.

“Am I on? Am I on?” Her plastic bags slide against each other as she dumps them on her bed while kicking the door closed behind her. She leans in to see the TV while shrugging off her coat. “What’s this? More black and white?” She stands still and gives me a look, “Come on, Mel, it’s after five!” She’s still got one arm in her puffy coat but manages to motion for the remote by flapping her hand.

“Aw, Cary Grant was just about to do something good.” I toss the remote onto her bed. She wants the news, she can change the channel.

“You and Cary Grant,” she says, lunging across her bags for the remote, “He was probably a scoundrel. Hollywood cheater.”

“I just like his voice.” I did. Smooth, capable, debonair. You don’t see debonair much these days.

I head to the long dresser to cover my Jell-O while my sister furiously clicks through the channels. I wonder if Janice has any kids at home, or if they’re older. Maybe she has an extra bedroom she’d like to rent out.

The first time I saw Corinne’s face on TV I thought she had won something. But no. No no no no lol no. I don’t know why I was surprised, really. We hadn’t exactly been angels. And by we I mean her. And dad. But at least he’s not still on the news.

When she finally finds the local station there’s a cheerfully plastic yet serious woman really belting out the news, like it’s her job, which I guess it is. Theresa Dewitt. With a fresh blast of music, her name swirls around the screen and comes to rest at the bottom, signaling a new news segment.

“Well isn’t she special,” Corinne says.

I had to agree Theresa delivered the news in a smug You’ll-Have-To-Deal-With-This fashion.

“Yeah, she could be a little more detached.” I expected her to shake her head sorrowfully as she reported on a yet another shooting in Syracuse. She practically sighs. She uses her Thankfully-I-Live-Elsewhere voice.

“Looks like she likes to shop. Look at that hair! Find out where she lives, k, Mel?”

“Yeah her hair does look a little too shellacked.” Like it’d break right off if you tried to bend it. I don’t comment on tracking her down because I am not doing it. She probably has cameras and a little dog with sharp teeth.

“Shhhh! Shhh!” Corinne waves her hand at me. “This is us!” She turns up the volume.

I wasn’t even talking.

Theresa Dewitt can barely conceal her repulsion: “The girl, known as The Ghost, is suspected to have been operating in the Cazenovia area and may have been spotted in the Manlius and Fayetteville areas. If you have any information—“

“Blah blah blah don’t use fountain pens, we know Theresa, we know.” Corinne talks over the part she knows Theresa’s going to say. “Ugh! What a snob. We should find out where she lives. I bet right in her precious Manlius. She looks like a dumb cluck. Probably won’t even take her own advice, thinks she’s safe. Serve her right.”

Corinne turns down the volume and drops the remote onto the bed. She reaches for her plastic bags, shakes everything out. I watch for a Reese’s to come sliding out. Nothing. “You open this.” She tosses me a bottle of pale pink nail polish remover. “None of that acetone-free shit this time.” Corinne thinks she is bad-ass, and I did too, I thought we both were, but that was four months ago when it was September and the sun still actually shined.

Corinne peels the sticker off a new plastic sandwich container and pries off the top, sets it on the nightstand. I pour in the nail polish remover.

“Which one do you want to do?” She reaches into her back pocket and comes back holding three checks like a card dealer. “You pick. Oh wait,” she says, using her thumb to push one out, “How about this one? National Parks.” Lightly imprinted on the check’s background is red flowing lava, black rocks, and a small bit of sea. Hawaii Volcanos National Park. “Closest we’ll ever get.”

“Whatever, Corinne. Just do it.”

With tweezers meant for plucking eyebrows, she slides the check under the liquid, swishes it around. The solvent turns from pale pink to light blue with dissolved ink. “Thank youuuu, Opraaah,” she sings.

“Poor Oprah.” I bet she never imagined this.

“Yeah, poor Oprah,” Corinne says. Her voice doesn’t quite match the sentiment.

“Corinne, she lives to help people. It’s like, her mission.”

“Well this is irony at its best, then, isn’t it? Or maybe we’re the ones she’s helping now?”

The nail polish remover gets bluer by the minute.

“I doubt…” I lean over to read the unfortunate soul’s name who happily mailed their National Grid bill this morning, “that Mrs. James Anderson would agree.” Mrs. J-A had a heavy hand because the J in what used to be January is taking forever to dissolve.

“Well, Mrs. James Anderson should have: A – memorized Oprah’s survival tips from 1985 like I did, or B – listened to Theresa Dewitt’s snotty warning tonight. Oh wait. Too late!” She laughs. And swishes.

Corinne has twisted Oprah’s helpful survival tips beyond recognition. She is obsessed with the eighties (hence catching that old rerun episode) and Oprah (thinks she should be inducted into the National Woman’s Hall of Fame) but has warped Oprah’s good intentions something fierce. The episode that landed us here featured tips on surviving a plane crash (wear sneakers, sit in an exit aisle), warding off an attacker (poke the eyes), and protecting yourself from check-washing criminals (don’t use inky pens). That last bit I guess didn’t stick with many people from 1985 (or those who caught the rerun), cause people still use inky pens and then put their checks in their mailboxes, out there for the taking. Sitting ducks, we call them.

“Yeah, well, you had better hope I don’t call Oprah and tell on you.” I am only half joking.

“Yeah, well, as soon as Oprah shows up with my new car all wrapped up with a big red bow, we can talk.”

“Hey, she came from humble beginnings. She worked for what she’s got.” I get up for a towel. When I get back Corinne is whispering.

“You get a car,” she whispers slowly, in Oprah’s cadence, recalling another rerun where Oprah gave out free cars to every audience member, “You get a car.”

That episode always killed Corinne. Hey, maybe the audience were military moms or retired schoolteachers, maybe they were more than deserving. I usually argued the point, but eh, not tonight.

“Should have listened to Opraaaaah,” Corinne sings, louder and herself again, as she lifts Mrs. James Anderson’s now-blank check into the air. Fat blue drops drip back into the container. I lay out the towel and Corinne places the check carefully on top. Hawaii National Park looked better than ever.

 

“The Ghost likes to court trouble,” Corinne says, pressing on the gas as the light changed to green, “Oh yes she does. Head on a swivel, k, Mel?”

“Yeah, Corrinne, I’ve got eyes wide open. I totally bet Theresa lives here. I bet she doesn’t live in shots-fired Syracuse,” I said, “But do you think we should be here, I mean, they just mentioned us on the news last night.”

“Don’t be such a chicken. Did you see that picture they had of me? That was like three haircuts ago. Let’s just poke around, k? No mailboxes today.”

“Yeah ok fine.” I slide down in my seat anyway.

Manlius, so far, is pretty fancy-schmantz. We pass a shiny Ethan Allen showroom, a Lexus dealer, and a Talbots perched on a high snowy hill, where even the models in the windows look warm and satisfied.

Apparently the Manliusans are very proud of their swan pond, as evidenced by the flags hanging from every light pole. A sparkly snowflake decorated one side of the pole and a flag depicting a pond hung on the other. We found the pond, easy-peasy, right in the center of the village. We park and hunch our shoulders against the cold, to get a closer look and to read the sign. Every summer the pond is stocked with two specific and clipped-for-flying swans, enclosed in a black wrought-iron fence six feet tall.

“Eh,” Corrine says, “Big deal.”

“Probably looks better in the summer,” I said. Broken spider webs flap between the fence rails.

The swans are gone, the fountain off, the little island in the middle covered with snow, the whole pond mostly iced over, just a puddle of open water left. A laminated sheet stapled to the wooden sign explains that the swans overwinter in a local farmer’s barn, safe and sound. “See you in May!” the sheet proclaims. It is signed by the swans, Manny and Faye.

“Come on,” Corinne says, “Let’s get hot chocolate.” She heads to the walk-up coffee/ice cream stand next to the pond.

I manage to reach out and pull her sleeve. “What’re you, nuts?”

She spins. “Oh come on, you think everyone watches the news? Come on, I’m freezing.” She pulls her sleeve from my grip and reaches up to pull her hat down further on her head. “It’ll take two minutes.”

I pull my hat down, too, and my hood up, just in case, and follow her. I can’t turn down hot chocolate.

Freedom of Espresso’s outdoor counter had a sign taped to the window: No Hundred Dollar Bills Accepted. I am not making this up.

“Looks like we’re in the right place.” I nod toward the sign.

“Yep,” she says, reading it, “But they can’t do that, hundreds are legal tender. If I had one on me now I’d pay with it, just to make ‘em squirm. They’d have to take it. Maybe we’ll come back later.” She pauses and sticks her nose up in the air. “After Theresa’s.”

Before I can protest a man in a knit cap and fingerless gloves slides open the to-go window. “What can I getcha?”

“Two hot chocolates,” Corinne says. I watch Knit Cap for signs he recognizes her.

“Five-fifty,” he says, and slides the window closed. I watch him through the glass, make sure he doesn’t reach for the phone or pause to press any red emergency buttons he’s got back there.

He doesn’t. He slides the window open to exchange two cups for Corinne’s money. Sweet mercy.

“Why the swan jail?” Corinne asks, nodding to the pond.

“Years ago some kid got in there and killed one of the swans. Wrung its neck. Up went the fence,” he says, pouring coins onto Corinne’s mitten-coated palm, “They mate for life, you know.”

“Unless one dies,” Corinne replies, shaking her head and puffing air from her nose, “Then no more mating.” I know she is thinking about mom but seriously? This is not the time to bring it up.

“Yeah….” The guy looks a little too long at Corinne as she turns away. I grab the back of her arm like my dad used to do to us to get us to move along.

“Let’s get the hell out of here.” I walk faster.

“Yeah, yeah,” she says, matching my pace but turning to look back at the No Hundreds sign, “But we are definitely coming back.”

 

Corinne said no mailboxes but she loops through the streets behind the swan pond anyway. I cannot even imagine the jobs these people had. Neurosurgeons – no – Head Neurosurgeons. These guys did ten-hour brain surgeries. Who else? Judges? College Deans? Top lawyers – yes – all the partners lived here, right next to each other, when they weren’t working late into the night.

We usually go for the middling neighborhoods. We don’t want curving brick driveways, brass knockers, tall clumps of waving grasses, gates, cameras. Nope – we want something riiiiight in the middle. Nothing like our old neighborhood, either—no crooked posts, no rusty metal rods, no duct tape—and definitely no molded plastic. If Corinne spots even one of those giant green one-piece Rubbermaid mail boxes she’ll press on the gas and shake her head.

“Looks like a garbage can for your mail. No taste,” she’ll say, nodding her head in the direction of the offending box, “Bank account’s probably already overdrawn.”

Here there are fancy scrollworked metal boxes, with little doors in the back that can only be opened with a key. “Mmm-mm,” Corinne says when we cruise by a box like that, “Wish I could get some-a what’s in there.” But we can’t. So we go for the easy ones, for the houses of big-box store managers and real-estate agents who leave home early, the high-heeled ladies putting their mail out and their flags up, little red beacons for us. It’s better in the fall, when we could hear them coming from our lookout spot, the click-click of their dress shoes on driveways. “Sounds like money,” Corinne usually said, wiggling around in her seat for a better view.

Corinne reaches for her hot chocolate and brings it to her lips. “Too hot.” She lowers the cup and bangs it around the holder till she fits it in, not taking her eyes off the road. “Let’s get outta here. It looked clear up north. And it’s only noon.”

“Yeah, ok,” I say, even though in winter I think we should cool it. Footprints, tire tracks, the snow belt. You have to watch the weather every morning to see if you can leave your house and not die in a whiteout.

My idea is to follow the sun, like snowbirds. Back and forth, up and down the coast, right when the air turned chill – boom, we’d fly. No heavy coats, no mittens, no hats and the ridiculous hair that went with it, just sandals all the time. If we can do the check thing up and down 81 why can’t we do it up and down 95, spend a couple days in Key West, under some palms, let me dip my freezing feet in some sand, you know? But no, Corinne feels safer up here. She knows people. The car! The car! Her old high-school friend Bobby and his shop. So fine. I can do my Jell-O thing easier in the winter anyway. Back in September I had to bury the container in the ice machine. Now I just leave it outside the room and hope nobody kicks it.

By the time we get far enough away from swan-proud Manlius it’s too late, there are no red flags, mail must’ve already come, and everything’s too empty, we’re running parallel to the highway, small town USA. It’s too hard to tell where the bigger cities are, and there’s no such thing as a neighborhood up here, just random houses super far apart, horses and cows huddled in alternately muddy and snowy fields.

We drive by a house with the number spray-painted in neon green on the mailbox. “Yeah no,” Corinne says.

Just as well, we still have the other two checks and I am not in the mood to jump into a snowbank for what might be a handful of baby-shower invites.

“So back to 81?”

“Yep.”

“North or south?”

“North, let’s not go back toward Manlius and Theresa Dewitt, please.” Not to mention Knit Cap and his searching looks.

I should say south, and can we just keep driving and driving until we splash into the Gulf of Mexico?

Corinne turns and turns and turns, following the highway signs. Each turn I think we’re going to see 81 but alas, another sign, more fields, more horses.

We pass a two-storied white-pillared high school, a wedding cake of a building. Port Byron, Home of the Panthers. Everyone in that frosted building already home. Says it right there on the sign.

I can feel Corinne looking, too. “What’s over there?”

“Just a pretty high school.” I bet in spring they have tulips around the flag pole, newly greened soccer fields, and their own cross-country trails threading through the distant woods.

“Hmmmm.” Corinne feels around for her hot chocolate, grabs it.

“Makes me miss ERA.” East Rochester Academy. I was a Spartan.

“Homesick for high school? Impossible.” She sips her drink and holds out the cup for me to fit back into the holder. “Finally cool enough. Geesh.”

At first I liked this whole bit, this outlawish, Mad At The World bit. I loved that Corinne moved back home. I loved standing up in that last calc class and tossing my test over my shoulder, a good-luck grain of salt. The rhino-skinned tough girl had finally arrived, and she didn’t take calc. She hung with her sister. But now I miss everyone, even the people I hated. Gossipy, judgmental types that could take you down for a spot on your jeans, lest you infect their clean-eating, ironed-hair lives. Maybe I could have hung on, I could have asked someone (was there a counselor I missed?) for a couch. People love a stringy-haired hungry girl, right?

Corinne finally finds an onramp and is solidly on 81 North before we see it – blue black clouds straight ahead. And it’s snowing lightly.

“Oh shit,” she says. It’s snowing harder. In the past two seconds, yep.

“I thought you said it was clear up here!” I grip the door handle as if it will help.

“I thought it was! Get out the map, Mel, how far is the next exit?”

“If we hit the wall we are fucked, Corinne!” I pop open the glove compartment, rifle through napkins and straws and grab for old maps. When I look up – it’s snowing even harder and the roads are covered. The car in front of us has disappeared. Corinne takes her foot off the gas.

There’s this wall, it’s more like a shower curtain of snow, and it’s terrifying. One second it’s clear and sunny and the next you cannot see the car in front of you. Because of the curtain, and the band behind it. Lake Effect.

“I know what the next exit is.”

I have the map unfolded and am mad flipping it around.

“What?”

And then I know, without even looking at the map.

The Tug Hill Plateau. I have only heard about it on the news. It’s snowing on the Tug, they’ll say. Three inches an hour, they’ll say. Once it snowed eight feet in one day.

My arms fall heavy on the map. Corinne’s profile is stone, concentrating. “Remember the eight feet?” My throat squeezes tight on eight feet and it comes out panicky.

“That only happened one time, Mel, calm down—”

“But you can’t—” I can’t see anything. There used to be a forest on the side of the road.

“—Calm down! Hit the hazards!” She is white-knuckling the wheel.

You can never find the fucking hazard button when you need it.

Next I cheer on Corinne, the next stage of Lake Effect driving. First is anger that you’re even in this situation, then there’s panic that someone’s going to spin out and kill you, then acceptance, then you start the you’ve got this type sayings.

“Ok, we have the hazards on. See the reflector things? Stay between those. Ignore that guy! Ignore him!” There’s always an SUV buzzing by in the passing lane, thinks he has Four Wheel Stop. “You’re doing great!”

There’s no sound in the car (except for the map crinkling on my lap), there’s not even slush hitting the wheels, and I’d kill for slush right now, as she pulls off 81 and onto route 11. Corinne drives into the parking lot of the first thing we (barely) see, a gas station surrounded by 4×4 pickups driven by unworried people, probably. Snowmobiles in trailers and in pickup beds abound.

“Let me go ask about a hotel.” Corinne leaves the car running and jumps out before I can even offer to do it.

I get out and brush off the lights as much as I can but my skinny arms and wooden brush are no match for Lake Ontario. I get back in and throw the snowbrush into the back seat. Pathetic. Corinne comes back and plops down in a rush of swirling snow. She stress-laughs, a defeated heh. “It’s across the street. You should see the guys in there. Standing around with their coffees. Not a worry in the world.”

I knew it.

The motel is called The Snowed-Inn. You cannot make this shit up.

 

Whenever I get pissy I try to picture the Domestic Help-Line pad at our old doctor’s office. That pad was always empty, a telltale line of leftover glue at the top. Always just the cardboard backing left, imprinted with the same phone number and message as, presumably, the rest of the missing sheets. Every time I went into the bathroom, I checked on the paper pad, hoping that it’d be full or just a few sheets missing, only a little of the glue strip showing. But no. Always empty. Full glue strip. So either people were feverishly tearing away at the help line sheets or the nurses never replaced the spent pad. In either case, Mel, there are people worse off than you so Shut. UP.

I try to remember the Domestic Help-Line pad now but my head is itchy, my hands will not warm up, and my wild and desperate side is dangerously close to the surface.

And the smell in this no-tell motel is Not Normal. My best guess is that it’s a fishing in summer/snowmobiling in winter lodge. The wood-paneled walls must’ve soaked up the smell from every sweaty man that has ever slept in these beds. The only good thing is that we spotted a Pizza Hut across the street, the glow of the sign recognizable through the snow, and all we need now is a blank check and a nervous kid or an overworked mom at the register.

Corinne sits at the little table dipping a check with a Mickey Mouse background. I flip through my Ikea catalog. It’s wrinkled and battered but it helps me plan for my someday apartment, everything clean and tidy, smooth and Swedish.

“I am sick to death of this sweatshirt.” Ikea’s not working tonight. I mean, I can be earthy. I recycle. I don’t litter. I don’t wear deodorant so that I don’t add more plastic to the landfill. Or spend an extra dollar. But this GD sweatshirt has crusty sleeves from I don’t know what.

Corinne could bitch with me, commiserate, complain about the cold and the snow and being stuck. She says nothing, just continues swishing her check. I look at shelving units.

I don’t want it to slip out but it does, in the smallest voice: “It’s not fair.” I hope Corinne doesn’t hear me because she will jump. Her head swings around. She heard me.

“Oh really? And you think I’m having a party? You think I wanted China to undercut the penicillin prices?”

Ohmygod not China and the penicillin again. I peruse the lighting section. Corinne goes on about her lost job, about the factory that made eighty percent of the world’s penicillin, until the Chinese cut safety and quality corners – and the price. Her factory could barely keep the lights on, blah blah, until it closed and she was turned out, I have heard it all before. She is the world’s oldest twenty-five-year old.

“…well good luck with that!” She finishes up and I tune back in. I have no idea what she just said.

“I just feel like we’re pretty low on the hierarchy of needs, right now.”

She fixes me with a look. “Are you talking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?” Her voice is level. She lifts Mickey out of the plastic container, lays him on the towel. Must’ve been some nice ink on that one. Easy.

I press on, matching her smooth tone. “Yes, Corinne, I think we’re okay with food and water but I’m a little concerned about safety and housing, it’s essential—”

“Are you wondering how we’re going to get to the tippy-top of the pyramid?” Her voice is weird now, sweet and sing-song-y, like how you’d talk to a baby. She jumps off her chair and bends over, her hands on her knees and her face even with mine. “Are you concerned about self-actualization?”

I actually wasn’t. I thought I’d get to that when I was, like, fifty. “No, Corinne, right now I’d like a clean t-shirt that I don’t have to wash out in the sink. Maslow said­—”

Corinne slaps her thighs with both hands so hard it must hurt.

“I know about Maslow! You think I don’t know about Maslow? I went to college!” She straightens up and paces around. “Not that I needed to, because you learn that shit in high school if you pay attention! And I did pay attention, Mel, I did, I was third in my class and summa cum laude at Colgate.” She extends her arm and points at the door as if Colgate is across the street. “Do you know what summa is? That means my GPA was over 3.85. I worked my ass off for those grades and that job. You think I wanted this to happen to us? That I want to be here with you?” She is breathless. I think she is shocked I knew enough about Maslow to bring it up.

“If only you spoke Spanish!” I say, and she turns and runs for her shoes and coat. I knew that would get her, because next up is her second favorite topic, Puerto Rico and all the pharmaceutical jobs down there, if only she spoke Spanish.

“That’s right!” She pushes her feet into her shoes. “I could be in Puerto Rico RIGHT NOW!”

“But you fucking took French! Didn’t you! Good one Corinne!” I get the last word in as she yanks open the door and slams it behind her. I see her pass in front of the window, raising both her arms, and I hear her too, “She tells me about Maslow. Me! Me! I invented Maslow!” Her voice fades as she heads to the concrete staircase at the end of the building. “Fucking French!” is the last thing I hear. Even though I’m mad I hope the staircase isn’t covered in ice. Her sneakers have no tread. They are no match for the way she bounds around when she’s mad, even on a dry day. Maybe in a minute I’ll peek my head around the corner, make sure she didn’t slip and is laying there all unconscious. That’s all I need.

I should rip up the clean check and leave it on her pillow but I want Pizza Hut more than I want to piss off Corinne. Or do I? She’s the one who ran out. Tiny pieces of Mickey would show her who’s boss. I weigh Corinne’s reaction against my stomach. I leave the check alone. The Hut wins.

 

When Corinne doesn’t come back I open the door and peer down the hall. Nothing but blinking fluorescent lights and air so cold it feels abusive. A couple of idling rigs ring the edge of the parking lot. A line of snowmobiles sit closer to the building, lights on and steaming. I hear a woman laugh, a sharp smoker’s cackle, but all the riders are out of sight. Now I have to go check the stairs.

After I push my feet into my sneakers (who thought of grabbing boots in September?) and get my coat (Salvation Army – I don’t want to talk about it) and my key-card, I head for the staircase, praying Corinne’s dumb old head is not laying there bleeding. I’d really hate to step on her.

The staircase is empty. So is the lobby, but a bunch of big guys in snow pants and black jackets stand outside the main glass door. They stamp their feet, helmets under their arms, laugh. I should totally run upstairs and rip up Mickey’s face. No, Mel, remember the pizza.

The blonde at the front desk examines the ends of her long hair, and as I approach, before I can say anything, she pulls on a single hair, making two hairs out of one.

“Split ends,” she says, raising her head.

“I…I…” I forgot what I was going to say. I look away. I didn’t know it was possible, to pull split ends like that.

“You have great hair,” she says, presumably looking at my hair. I have no idea. I am busy counting ceiling tiles.

“Oh…a good haircut will fix you right up,” I say to the ceiling.

“Oh no way, I been growing this hair out two years now.”

Of course. Always an excuse.

The guys out front laugh and stomp again and someone revs an engine. Corinne I hope you’re as smart as you say you are because I am not in charge of you. I head for the lobby’s back door.

I take the concrete steps two at a time and know that I am a No Excuses kind of girl. At least I was. Corinne was, too. We wore plaid skirts to elementary school and each classroom posted this sign: No Excuses! But then we slip-slided to here, and along the way we gathered so many: why we couldn’t keep the house — ok that was easy, Dad was up in Clinton Correctional, aka Dannemora, which is what I like to call it, sounds like a resort — but before that, why we couldn’t fix the bb hole in the front window, why we couldn’t screw the doorknob back on the bathroom door.

I once overheard a conversation between two women in a sub shop that made me realize that excuses were really just faulty logic. One lady complained that she wanted a baby so badly she could taste it, but her boyfriend wouldn’t marry her because she had collected an enormous number of dolls and he was allergic to dust. Weird baby-tasting cliché aside, the answer was so clear to me but invisible to her: get rid of dolls, vacuum the hell out of house, make way for boyfriend and baby. But no, there was just this circular argument: I want a baby but I also want these dolls and my bf is allergic so we can’t get married or live together but I want a baby with HIM but I also want these dolls so we can’t live together as a family, around and around we go…remember ninth grade logic, those IF/THEN statements? Yeah, apparently this poor woman didn’t remember a thing.

Like the lady at the front desk: I do not want split ends. A haircut will cure split ends. But I do not want a haircut. I walked under the blinking fluorescents and tried not to have a mini-stroke from my beating heart and the lights and the fury of ignored logic.

 

When I get back to the room Corinne is there, sitting on the bed. She’s watching the local news, snug as a bug, while I’m off getting practically kidnapped and positively grossed out. A blue ribbon crawls across the bottom of the screen: Lake Effect Snow Advisory Warning. Three beeps as I unbutton my coat.

“Can you do the check?”

“Yeah.” I leave my coat on and my shoes, too, and I hope I soak the floor and she steps in a wet spot in her socks. At midnight.

Excited voices throw the news to a very excited team of weather people. A deep blue wedge signaling Lake Effect shows up on their map. One weatherman, all hopped up on meteorological fervor, points at the west to east band. “This band will move south during the night as the winds off Lake Ontario shift in that direction.”

“We are socked in,” Corinne says.

“Of course.” I rub my hands together to warm them. Cold signatures never look right. “You didn’t see this, this morning?” I keep my head down but tip my pen in the direction of the TV.

“This morning it was just a watch. I remember now.”

Summa cum laude my ass. I cannot believe I have to sleep in the same bed as her tonight. I hope I don’t kick her in my sleep.

“Ok. Done.” I get up and hand her the check, Ms. Morgan Jackson’s new signature right over Mickey’s face. It’s on Corinne tonight, and she had better pray for a newbie at the register.
“We should walk.”

“Fine.”

All the idling vehicles have gone, and it’s quiet except for the retreating sounds of snowmobile engines. We don’t die crossing the street, and I have to admit the snow is pretty, mesmerizing, even.

Ms. Morgan Jackson of 193 Waterford Lane treats us to dinner. Praise J.

 

Two days later we decide to make a run for it. 81 South. The weatherman’s face this morning looked decidedly less excited, less like he’d been up all night studying maps and wind directions.

“Let’s bust on through.” Corinne clicks her seatbelt, determined.

“Yeah – and the next place? No sweat scented wood paneling, please. Let’s do this!” We kind of have to, even though it is still snowing. We are tougher now, baptized by a three inch per hour snowfall rate. Plus, we are down to one check, and that means a bank run. Cash. Never easy.

We need a city with a hospital, a research center, a defense laboratory, anything with neighborhoods, with money making, bill paying people.

From the highway I keep my eyes peeled. Closed closed closed. Everything. Modern-day ghost towns. Once busy highways now swept right by plywood-windowed factories, empty loading docks, parking lots filled with snow instead of cars.

We did this one town, a couple months back? Gloversville. A whole town named after one thing – the glove factory. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket. So now it’s closed, right, the workers and the leather and the thread and the paychecks all gone somewhere else, to China, probably, with the penicillin, and now what do they have? A couple of blinking traffic lights, a pizza shop (there’s always a pizza shop), sagging houses, and clinical depression.

Even the baby food factory, the one you can see from 81, is silent and still.

I turn up the radio, hoping to distract Corinne, get her singing, keep her from noticing the fading Beech-Nut logo.

“What, is China making baby food now too? We can’t make baby food here?” She notices.

“I don’t know, Corinne, maybe they just moved south, like we should.” I lean my head into my hand, against my window. Hopefully she’ll get the hint.

“I know shit,” she says, jamming on her directional to exit, “At least I used to. It’s not my fault I got so specialized, that this is all we have,” she sweeps her arm toward the crumbling brick factory, “What, we all have to code for Google?”

“So you’re saying you can’t find something similar to what you had?”

“I am a Chemical Engineer, Melanie,” she says, in this snotty voice, as if I just met her and speak a different language, “But do you see any chemicals around here to engineer? No! There are just dollar stores and laundromats for miles.” She juts her chin into the air. “And I am not stocking shelves with Chinese tampons and generic Band-Aids just because it’s honest. Where has honesty ever gotten the two of us?”

Another small town, it looks like. A strange mix of McDonalds and grain silos. It’s snowing again and Corinne is taking corners like the roads are dry.

“I was honest.” She points at herself. “You were honest.” She points at me. “Yet here we are.”

We are in the drive-through bank teller in a sleepy town, hoping for a sleepy teller, one that just wants to go home.

 

We get that careless teller and we get more Jell-O. Later I should totally call Jan.

All dollar stores have Jell-O. It’s a staple of the American diet. Plus, every hotel room, even the fleabaggiest motels, have coffeemakers. You make hot water in the coffeepot. Tip: run one pot through first, unless you want coffee flavored cherry Jell-O. You empty the packet into your plastic container (get one with a tight-fitting (I mean it) lid), pour the hot water in, put the top on, and shake to dissolve. Donezo.

My container fits perfectly on the railing outside our room. I scrape snow from beside it, nestle it in good.

On my way back to bed I wonder if there are any vitamins in Jell-O. Would it kill them to inject some vitamin C in there, maybe a little D for winter?

I want to nap but Corinne is flipping channels. I toss and turn and finally stare at the ceiling. No dice on the nap.           “Corinne, do you miss our house?”

“Hells no.”

“I do. I miss the records.”

“Mel, those records are what got us in this mess.” She exhaled. “Those records and stupidity.”

“Oh. I always thought he used CDs to DJ, or mp3s, like on a computer.”

“Whatever. I’d break every last one of them if I knew back then what I know now.”

“Maybe he didn’t do it, Corinne, maybe he was set up.” I flip onto my side, wedge my pillow under my arm.

“You have watched too many movies. He wasn’t set up. The courts know all this stuff. He was selling, both at night and from the house. Don’t you remember all the cars coming by?”

I didn’t. “But why?”

“I have no idea. That is the million-dollar question.”

I sit up, pile my pillows behind me.

“I loved the company parties.” Bausch and Lomb had the best – a sprawling corporate park, huge company parties every summer.

“You did.” She laughs. “You ran around like a crazy woman!”

“I played EVERYthing!” I bounced in the blow-up house, I tied my leg to Corinne’s for the three-legged race, I played kickball, egg toss, origami, you name it, I did it. I even got the back of my shoulder painted, right next to my tank top strap, a big bright yellow sunshine, every year with that sunshine, since I was ten. “Remember the balloon toss? I was in it to win it!” I can still feel the water balloon in my hand, the fragile potential, the cool squishiness.

“And when we won the rabbit and raccoon stuffed animals? You practically fainted from happiness.”

I had a thing for woodland animals. Still do.

“We came from somewhere, Corinne.”

“Yeah but now we’re here. Fallen from a great height.”

We have. Our neighborhood had rusty duct taped tilting mailboxes but it also had us, and it wasn’t so terrible. We had a carpeted basement and air hockey and those plaid elementary school skirts until it closed down, and we had dad, Manager of Research and Development.

Corinne flips to an old movie and leaves it.

Vertigo.” Unbelievable. Cary Grant and she’s not changing it. “Wait. Mute.”

Voices outside have me out of bed and peering through the peephole.

“No one is going to touch your Jell-O.”

Up on my tiptoes I see a couple people move on down the hall. The Jell-O is safe. Behind my container the parking lot is filling up with snow.

“Dude. You should see it out here.” It’s coming down so hard it is like the sky is mad.

“Again with the Lake Effect?” Corinne says. “It’s like Lake Ontario is giving us the finger. The middle one, you know?”

“Yeah. I don’t know why anyone lives here, or anywhere near here. So can we go south now?” The parking lot lights are a barely visible faint orange. Cold air rushes in under the door. I leave the Jell-O to the snow.

“You know why we can’t go.”

“Yeah yeah, Bobby can fix the car, I know.” I hope she can hear the eye roll in my voice. I hop back up onto my bed, bury my feet under the covers.

“And?”

“And I could take my GED and enroll in some college with palm trees in their logo.” I motion for the remote. A diamond-encrusted Hollywood lady looks like she’s going to jump into the ocean. Where’s Cary now?

“Mel. Look at me. That is a reason why we CAN go. What is a reason why we can’t?”

“And there are bound to be jobs for a summa cum laude voulez voulez vous, like you!” I am not going to take the bait.

“Still a reason to go. And why we can’t?”

And nothing. She can fish all she wants. I am a master at holding grudges. You will need to send me flowers and cakes and balloon bouquets and heartfelt cards and dedicate a song to me on the radio every day in order to me to thaw out. It is because I am part Italian (so is Corinne but she doesn’t let it affect her) and we are not known for forgiveness and moving on. Instead we invented the mafia, which is all about grudges and payback.

“I can’t believe you want to stay here. Aren’t you mad, didn’t you just want to break all the records?”

“Yeah I can be mad and at the same time want to visit. It’s called complexity?”

“You are really harshing my may-o.”

She shakes her head. Dad taught us that phrase. When I was a kid I couldn’t say mellow, and I’d say may-o instead.

“We should go ask him why he did it, you know?”

Corinne just played her ace. Why give up free food and sunshine on your shoulder, bounce houses and squishy water balloons for part-time DJing and selling? Why put all that on the line? Why put us on the line?

“Corinne, it’s been four months, now we’re going to show up? Besides, if the roads are bad here, what do you think they’re like up north? It’s probably an Arctic tundra.”

“Yeah Mel, there are polar bears around every bend.”

Dannemora was a stone’s-throw from the Canadian border, so it was probably true.

“Besides, we’re no better, we’re going to go up there all righteous and ask why? Why are we doing what we’re doing?”

“We got pushed here. I’m not in love with this either.” She doesn’t mention Chinese penicillin or generic tampons or her Colgate transcript, praise J. I cannot get on that merry-go-round again.

Silent Cary runs his hands through his hair, grimaces, all his usual debonair gone. Bad guys afoot, probably.

“Look,” Corinne says. She unfolds a sheet of torn notebook paper, hands it across the beds.

Waterford Lane. Shalimar Lane. Mrs. James Anderson. A whole list.

“I’m going to pay them back as soon as I get my voulez-voulez-vous job, and you enrolled in that palm-tree school. Just wait.”

I hand back the paper. “You are lucky, Corinne, because I was just about to call Oprah on you.” She smiles and refolds the paper.

Even though I’ve unmuted Cary and he’s back to calm debonair, I can hear Corinne over on her bed, softy to herself in Oprah-cadence, “You get a car, you get a car…”

 

I once saw this illustration of a cartoon fox in his wintertime den – a cross section, if you will. He was lying face-up on his couch, wide-eyed staring at the ceiling, a book open on his stomach, a striped scarf wrapped around his neck. This fox, he even had a steaming cup of tea on the table next to him and two fuzzy bunny slippers strewn on the floor. The best part wasn’t even that he had a roaring fire in a woodstove, vented via a silver pipe that extended through the room into the ceiling and into the earth above him, even though that looked so cozy. I liked that you could see the whole picture, the snow piling up outside, the dark sky, too, and him on the couch, still and patient, doing his best, with his book and his fire and his scarf and his tea, waiting. I wish I had a real copy of this illustration, because I am like this fox. Except without the cute scarf and hot tea. Oh and forget about the woodstove and bunny slippers – ha! Me and this fox, we are doing the best we can. Under piling snow and darkening skies, there’s me, wide-eyed and still, waiting.

 

THE END

A Proud Family of Sneezers
by Sandra Nickel

Picture Book Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Opening Illustration: A portrait of a large melting-pot American family of all ages and types, including seven-year-old Wills, Uncle Sol, Gramma Bee, and Momma Weezer. Each has a prominent nose and holds awards from sneezing contests. Next to them stands a roman bust of Weezer the First. Above them a banner reads: The Weezers! #1 Sneezers!

 

The Weezers were sneezers. They had won medals and trophies and been World Champion Sneezers since the first Weezer out-snooted Caesar!

Wills was the best of the Two-Tooters. He always sneezed twice. Never more. Never less. Uncle Sol was the Champion of the Extraordinary Three-zers. And, Gramma Bee held the World’s Record for the Longest Single Snoot.

When Momma brought baby Snookie home, the whole family crowded around to see the newest prize-winning sneezer.

“She’ll be a Two-Tooter like me,” said Wills, giving Snookie’s nose a tap.

“That sneezer’s a three-zer, if ever I saw one,” said Uncle Sol.

“A snooter that will out-snoot me,” declared Gramma Bee.

Gramma Bee opened her locket and took out a pinch of sneezing powder. “Only The Test will tell,” she said.

As the entire family gathered around, Wills held his nose. Uncle Sol held his camera.

“Shouldn’t we let her sleep first?” asked Momma.

“There’s always time for that later,” said Gramma Bee, and she sprinkled the powder under Snookie’s nose.

She sprinkled a little more. She sprinkled a lot more. But all Snookie did was yawn.

“Something’s wrong with her nose,” said Wills.

“That sniffer’s terribly small,” said Uncle Sol.

“Call the doctor!” cried Gramma Bee.

When the doctor arrived, she examined Snookie’s nose inside and out. She poked and pinched and prodded, and finally declared, “There’s nothing wrong with this little girl. You just need to show the nose how to blow.”

“A swig of cough syrup?” suggested an aunt.

“Pull out a nose hair,” said a cousin.

“I’ve got it!” exclaimed Wills. “The sun! That makes everybody sneeze.”

The Weezers scooped up Snookie and hurried outside.

The sun shone and shone. It gleamed and dazzled. But, Snookie only yawned.

“I’ve got it!” exclaimed Uncle Sol. “Feathers!”

The Weezers scooped up Snookie and hurried inside.

“Foolproof!” declared Gramma Bee, once a fluffy mobile twirled above Snookie. “Feathers never fail.”

But no matter how many feathers whirled above Snookie, no matter how many whooshed onto her pillow, Snookie didn’t sneeze. She only stretched open her mouth and yawned.

The aunts came running with perfume, black pepper, pansies, and peppermints. The cousins wheeled in chocolate, chalk, and chili powder. The uncles lugged boxes of ferns, fans, and fizzy drinks. The Weezers tried every sneeze-making secret they knew. Still, Snookie didn’t sneeze. Instead, she closed her eyes and fell asleep.

“It’s a mystery,” said Wills.

“It’s her snoozer,” said Uncle Sol, nearly in tears. “It’s just too small.”

“I never thought I’d see the day,” sniffed Gramma Bee. “A Weezer who’s not a sneezer.”

Snookie snuggled into her covers. But then, her nose twitched. It wriggled. Snookie let out a zn-zn.

Everyone stopped and stared.

“She’s going to do a two-tooter,” said Wills.

zn-zn-zn, repeated Snookie, louder.

“A three-zer,” said Uncle Sol, grabbing his camera.

zn-zn-zn-zn, came the noise from Snookie’s crib.

“That little snooter’s going to out-snoot me,” said Gramma Bee.

Snookie sniffed. She snuffled. And then, she hooted a honking . . .

ZNOOOAAAAAAAARRRRRRRR!

The aunts, uncles, and cousins covered their ears. Uncle Sol dropped his camera.

“That wasn’t a two-zer,” said Wills.

“That wasn’t a three-zer,” said Uncle Sol.

“That,” said the aunts, uncles and cousins, “was definitely NOT a sneezer!”

“But she did out-hoot me!” cried Gramma Bee. “This little snooter will be the most stupendous snorer the world has ever seen.”

“She’ll win ribbons!” exclaimed Wills.

“Medals!” shouted Uncle Sol.

“Trophies!” cried Gramma Bee.

And she didn’t even have to get out of bed.

 

Closing Illustration: Snookie sleeps with a giant blue ribbon on her blanket. A banner above reads: The Weezers! #1 Sneezers AND Snorers! Next to the roman bust of Weezer the First stands a second bust, Snookie the First.

The Gifts of Ratoncito Pérez
by Joe Baillargeon

Middle-Grade Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

I had been playing with my loose tooth for a month when I could finally flap it flat with my tongue. I stood on the porch of our living quarters at the Estancia del Rivero. My father had just come in from caring for the ponies after Señor de Rivero’s sons had practiced their polo, and he was taking maté with the other gauchos. I loved the bitter drink, but this was their time to be with each other after a hard day of work, so I stood at the edge of the porch and played with my tooth.

“Perpetua,” my father called, after handing the cup back to Antonio. “Let me see that tooth.”

“No,” I said, and snapped my hand over my mouth.

“Don’t worry. I won’t do anything.” He turned on his stool and faced me, his knees and arms spread wide.

“No,” I said, backing away. “You’ll pull it.”

“No, no. I just want to see how much longer it will be. Come here,” he said, and he called me to him with flapping hands. I walked closer but stayed just out of reach and Antonio laughed.

“Perpetua,” he said. “You act as though your father is sin vergüenza, some kind of shameless man.” The others laughed and slapped their knees or leaned back on their stools. “He is the head gaucho for Señor Enrique de Rivero, one of the largest estancia owners in all of Argentina. He is not to be doubted.”

I looked at my father, his head tilted now, the tips of his moustache turning out with his smile like the wings of a small bird. He turned his palms up, as if to cup my face. I stepped closer and put my hands on his knees and his baggy trousers slipped along his leg under my weight as I leaned toward him. My father held my chin in one palm and reached up to wiggle my tooth with the fingers of his other hand. Before I knew it, he held the tooth in front of my eyes.

“Look,” he said, his eyes as wide as mine. “It came out right in my hand.”

The others laughed and I stood holding the tooth my father placed in my hand. I looked again into his face and saw wrinkles around his eyes I hadn’t noticed before. His smile continued as he flicked the tip of my nose with a finger and sent me off to the kitchen to have my mother wash the tooth and prepare it so Señor Ratoncito Pérez, El Raton, might come that night and leave me a present.

The following morning, I woke before the sun and reached under my pillow. My fingers curled around something hard and pulled it into my palm. It had many sharp corners that poked my soft skin and sent tingles up my arm. I moved to the window and held it between my thumb and finger. Where light grew in the sky, it glinted off of the sides that joined to form the points, and where the world was dark, it appeared I held nothing at all. That was seven years ago. I am twelve now, no longer a little girl, and I don’t believe in El Raton anymore, nor do I look for presents under my pillow. The crystal, however, remains on my windowsill, where I sometimes watch the colors of the night dance off its many sides.

###

Standing inside the doorway of Romero’s, a pizza house across from Plaza Arellano, I sip from my iced maté and watch the Delgado’s three-legged mastiff work the tourists. Ouzo is a beautiful dog with steely gray fur that hangs on his body like an old blanket. He lost his leg when he was a pup and fell out of the back of Señor Delgado’s pick-up, catching his leg in the tailgate. From then on, Ouzo learned to get around on three legs and charm handouts from the tourists who eat their lunches under the shade of the trees in our square.

From the doorway of the pizzeria I can see Don Rivero’s Land Rover that my father often drives into town to pick up supplies. It is parked in front of the church. I like to go to church at San Antonio de Padua. Inside are lovely paintings on the walls of many saints. My favorite is of Saint Perpetua, for whom I am named. She stands in a large stadium, blood running down her face and arms, her dress soiled and torn, a bull standing behind her with its forelegs bent, dragging its nose in the dirt. But Perpetua’s face is blissful. That is all I can think. A glow radiates from her face and she is smiling as she bends over and picks her friend out of the dirt.

I wonder why Papà would be in the church now. It is Tuesday, and while I know it is time for the other gauchos to be resting, Papà normally goes to Señor Martin’s Goods for the rope, nails, wire, fencing, and anything else a person might need to keep an estancia running. I sip my maté and sit down on the threshold of Romero’s Pizzeria.

“Why are you out here, Perpetua,” Señora Romero says as she leans out and throws a bucket of water on the walkway to keep the entrance cool. The water arcs in a solid mass and sparkles in the sun, like the crystal on my windowsill, then hits the ground and shatters into dots of gray on the hot sidewalk that quickly evaporate under the summer sun. She looks toward the square where the dogs chase each other between the trees, and then toward the church. My father is on the front steps now, a young woman I have seen before holding his arm. She is from a tourist company in Buenos Aires. She came out to the estancia the other day to speak with Don Rivero and my father about some gaucho demonstrations. Her hair is big. It does not fall naturally along the sides of her face, or lie over her shoulders like a gentle hand. It surrounds her head in sweeping, twisting curls like the streamers we hang for parties at the estancia. She kisses my father on the cheek. He looks around, reaches across and takes her hand from his arm and shakes his head, then leads her around the truck and opens the door for her.

“Come in, Perpetua,” Señora Romero says and taps me on the shoulder. “I have fresh breadsticks and some prosciutto bits for you.”

“I know that woman,” I say. I sit at the counter and eat while Señora Romero cleans the counters.

“¿Si?” Señora Romero says. “And how do you know her?” she asks, but she does not turn to face me.

“She came in a bus from Buenos Aires the other day with a group who wanted to see a working estancia. She talked long with my father and the other gauchos before they left.”

“Ah,” Señora Romero says, “then I am sure your father is helping her to see the important places of our town.”

“Mmm,” I say and finish my breadsticks and maté. I thank Señora Romero and go out to my bike.

Leaving town, I cross Puente Viejo, the old rose colored bridge that begins the road to our estancia six kilometers away. As soon as I cross the bridge, I feel the sun I know I cannot escape until I get home. There is one place to pull over and rest under a small grove of trees that grows along the side of the road, so I ride slowly, saving my energy and riding just fast enough to create my own breeze against my face.

As I ride along the river, I think about my father and the young woman. I understand Don Rivero asking my father to show her around. Don Rivero has talked in recent years about going the way of the other estancias and opening his place to the tourists. The estancias are not making the money they used to, and the tourists want to come see the land, the gauchos, and our pretty town. So it is an honor that my father was chosen to show her around the town.

But the woman kissed my father.

My mother kisses my father like that sometimes, on the cheek, quickly, and with a little smile or a pat on the bottom. It isn’t much, but it shows me she loves him. I think it shows him, too. I know what they do when the lights go out. Marisol de Rivero told me what that was about, and she showed me pictures from a magazine. I don’t like to think of Mamà and Papà doing that, but I know it is what people do when they are in love. Marisol told me I will do it one day, and that she wants to do that with Roberto Castro, the principal’s son from her school. I have seen him play fútbol. He is a pretty boy, and very kind, so I don’t think he will do that with Marisol yet.

Halfway home I am hot and ready to rest. I see the grove ahead. From here I can see the taillights of Don Rivero’s Land Rover off the road and behind the trees. As I get closer, I slow down and look at the windows, but I see no one is in the car. I stop and drop my bike on the ground, and the young woman’s head appears in the back window. My father’s head pops up too, and then I see a hand reach up, an open hand patting the window, as if asking me to wait. I turn and pick up my bike quickly, put one foot on the pedal and swing my other leg over the seat, and soon I am pedaling fast down the road. My legs pump hard as I watch only the road in front of me, and they don’t slow down until I park my bike behind our house.

###

I am reading when my father comes home. He greets Mamà with a kiss and comes over to me in my chair.

“Hola, Perpetua,” he says, and gives me a nod of his head.

I don’t respond and my mother looks at me. A sickness rises to my throat, like when I watch the castrating and the branding of the young steers, but I can’t look at Mamà. I feel her looking at me though, and then she goes back to the kitchen.

“Perpetua,” my father says. “let us go outside and talk.”

“Are you sure, Papà?” I say, and I look up at him as he stands above me. Mamà comes back out to put a dish in the cabinet. Papà turns to her, then back to me. “Are you finished showing the young tour guides around our town?” I ask.

Papà looks quickly at my mother now, but her back is to us. Her arm stops moving, the dish in her hand hovering above the shelf. Then she places it inside another dish, closes the cabinet door, and goes back into the kitchen.

“Yes, Perpetua,” he says, not looking at me. “I am finished.”

I raise my eyes from my book and he turns to me. “I need to go help Antonio with the fires for dinner. We are eating with the others tonight, and we will have a wonderful meal outside, under the stars. We can talk then.” My father walks away and I put my book in my lap. I wait for my mother to come out, but I hear only her shuffling feet and the slap of a wet towel as she wipes down the counters.

###

We eat with the entire estancia this night, for the summer solstice. Don Rivero and his family and many friends eat in the large screened off pavilion, away from the bugs, and we are out back near the cooking fires. Every kind of food is roasting tonight. We have the asado, large slabs of beef ribs and young goat spread wide and hung on metal stakes that surround the fire, a fire as wide as one of the small gazebos on the grounds, and almost as high as me. And then there is the parilla. A grill set two hand widths from the ground and fed constantly with coals from the asado. This is where my favorite pieces come from. Here Antonio turns the bife loma, the most tender pieces, the chorizo sausages, and the chicken legs that he has coated just in salt and rosemary, and that he splashes with lemon when they come off the grill.

Our families eat after those in the main house and their guests, the older girls taking turns serving wine or coffee to those in the pavilion. As we eat, there is much chatter. We have six families that work here on the estancia, and our tables are crowded, friendly, and there is always much laughter. My father sits next to my mother and Señora Vazquez, Antonio’s wife, while Antonio tends the fires. Antonio loves to cook, and he will never leave this job to anyone else.  And as he loves cooking, his wife loves talking. She keeps my mother and father busy with chatter, but she is funny, and they like her.

Normally, I sit at the children’s table, but tonight Mamà has asked me to sit with the adults. She says that with all the little ones, and now with little Gustavo needing his own chair and not his mother’s lap, it is time for me to make room. So I sit at the far end of the table, away from my mother and father and next to Angelica Diaz who had her 14th birthday last week. She is nice to make room for me, and lets me pick first from the tray Antonio brings around. I choose a small piece of chicken and put some bread on my plate. But as I watch my father laugh and put his arms around the chairs of my mother and Señora Vazquez, my chest tightens, and I have no stomach for food.

The girls chatter next to me, and the boys across the table look at them, whispering, and laughing. Some of the smaller children leave the table and come ask me to sit with them again, but one of the mothers sends them back and tells me not to worry about it. Antonio brings another tray around, but I refuse until he insists and puts a piece of bife loma on my plate, red juices drip from where he has stabbed it with the fork and soak into my bread. I turn away from my plate and see my father. He is still laughing and he tightens his arm around Señora Vazquez as she slaps his thigh and laughs.

My father sees me, and his smile fades.

I step away from the table and walk out past the low line of rosemary and bay trees that separate our yard from the vast pampas grasslands and beyond. In the dark I can still hear them laughing and the children shout after me. I catch a few words “nervous…big table,” and walk farther away, out into the dark, into the field and the still air of the evening. Papà is soon beside me. We stand, silent in the dark. Papà holds a beer by the neck of the bottle. I keep my hands in my pockets and wait.

“The pampas are beautiful at night, no?” he says, and turns his head to me. He points his bottle at the sky and sweeps it wide in front of him. “Especially the stars. One can see all the constellations out here.” He turns from me. “Perpetua,” he says after a moment. “What you saw is nothing. It means nothing. I am a man. That is all. Your mother…she understands this.”

I say nothing, just nod my head in the dark. I look toward the house. The glow of the fire hovers over the tips of the shrubs like a settling fog.

“There,” my father says, and he points toward the sky. “Do you see it? It is Taurus.” He turns to me then, holds the bottle of beer towards me and waves me in with it. “Come here, Perpetua. Let me show you.”

I go to him. He puts his arm around my shoulders, the cold wet from his bottle dripping down my arm. “Right there,” he says, pointing up toward a sky I’ve seen many nights before. Near the horizon the stars race across the sky, a thick flood of light that, if I wanted, I am sure could sweep me up in its current and carry me with it. This is the belt of fire we call vía lacteal, a milky path. I follow this path with my eyes as it streams as far as one can look in either direction. These stars are undetectable from each other, like the water thrown from buckets in the square, a cascade of light that allows no darkness in-between.

Elsewhere, away from this glowing river, blackness fills the space between the stars, a blackness like looking down an empty well. These separate stars shine bright, glinting now and again like the crystal on my windowsill. But the blackness is what I see now, what I feel. What my father spoke about, what I know of him, it is not nothing as he says. It is something. It will always be there, coming back, off and on, like the dark between these stars that fill our summer sky.

“Do you see it, Perpetua? Can you see Taurus, the bull?”

I look to the loose cluster of stars where he points.

“Can you?” he continues, and his hand tugs on my shoulder, pulling me closer to him.

“Si, Papà,” I say. “It is very clear.”

The Angel Age
by Val Howlett

Young Adult Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

 

It always comes full-on, the memory. Complete with scenery—the beige rug, the mauve seats of the auditorium. I don’t just get an echo of the pumped-up slow-mo feeling of looking at Dani Aguilar. I see you, consumed by that feeling. Squeezing the cushion on the flip-bottom of your seat. It’s like you had coffee, you’re so awake.

It isn’t the first time you ever saw her, but it’s the first time you’re really watching. It’s one of the early stage crew meetings, and four eighth graders run the crew and she’s the only girl. She’s sitting on the stage’s edge, leaning back on her arms, talking to the eighth grade boy in charge of the meeting, who is taller than your grandpa. Between her thighs she holds a bag of Chex Mix that she occasionally plunges an arm into and scoops a handful from, like it’s totally fine to inhale a big bag of anything onstage in front of three rows of sixth grade girls. Everything seems brighter, louder. She is making the boy smile and popping those Chex pieces into her mouth over that full bottom lip.

She’s a million roundnesses—linered, crescent eyes, kid cheeks, tiny zigzag curls that fall to where her breasts start to curve back into her. You’re not thinking the word “breasts,” but you’re staring. For a good long minute before you catch yourself and it’s all why are you doing that? What’s wrong with you?

No one is looking at Dani Aguilar like you. You get that, right away. You’re surrounded by fellow sixth grade girls and they’re texting, waiting for the meeting to finally start.

The girl who played Cinderella last year, in fifth grade, is sitting right by you. One seat away. You were the evil stepmother. Her backpack’s on her lap and she keeps finding reasons to rummage through it. She pulls out her phone and checks it, slides a compact mirror onto her lap and checks her face for who knows what. She doesn’t look like she’s wearing makeup. Her hair is glossy as ever.

Then, from the stage, the boy who runs things—Cole Something—calls out in his guy croak, “Listen up, stagehos!”

He’s grinning. What is he talking about? He’s talking about you. The group of you. Stagehos—like stagehands but not. Actor-hopefuls, actor girls who only joined crew so Mr. Rosen will remember your faces when he casts the play next year. There’s an awkward giggle rising up from some of the girls in your group. Definitely not you.

You’re queasy. You’ve got that same uneasy nausea that came about a week before, when you walked into your room and lying at the foot of your bed was a thin book, paper bag brown. You knew it wasn’t yours right away, knew from its prominently subtle placement on the bed that someone had left it for you.

The title was in faded scripted pink. You had to lift it close to make out the words You Are Changing.

There were those frantic moments of wondering who the culprit was. Of looking for a written name on the inside cover, a note scribbled on one of the musty pages, any sign that it had once belonged to someone else.

It didn’t seem like something Mom would leave you. Mom was a nurse. Her explanation of where babies come from got you in trouble in kindergarten. If she wanted to talk to you about body stuff, she would just talk. Probably.

Which left Gran. Or Grandpa. It seemed like the kind of book Gran would save. And she probably didn’t mean it like that, but having to approach the book and read the words You Are Changing was like finding a mean note taped on your locker. Like You Are Changing and the Whole World Notices. Even your Gran is thinking about your zits, or your BO, or your boobs growing, or something. There must have been some reason she left you that book.

And being called “stageho” is like the same thing is attacking you again—that something everyone must see when they look at you, except you. You can’t see what it is.

Cole Something is still chuckling at his own joke. Dani Aguilar’s mouth is wide open with laughter. She says a word to Cole, then punches him in the arm, a playful punch. There’s a half-second when her dark eyes glance out at you—all of you, all the stagehos—at once, on their way down to her Chex Mix bag. That’s how much you mean to her. You’re not worth watching, not even if someone makes a joke about you and you’re right there. Dani Aguilar only cares about the people on the crew who are for real.

So when Cole asks if anyone wants to go up to the loft where the prop room is and look for things from his list, you say, “I will!”

Everyone is suddenly looking at you. Cole says, “Woah, alright.” You didn’t just volunteer—you shouted. Like a little kid who wants ice cream. You can’t bring yourself to meet Dani Aguilar’s eyes. You pull the list from Cole’s outstretched hand and practically run backstage left.

When you get to the prop room—ascend the ladder to the loft and walk three steps to the wall and open the groaning door—you see an angel. It lies hunched on the rug, its head slightly, shakily lifted, its black coils of curls tangled in the dirty, ragged feathers of its wings.

*

What if I could break right through my memory and talk to you then? To you, at the very start of The Angel Age. You, A.A.

The girl who had gasped and backed out of the prop room and swayed standing on the platform, who while waiting on the school steps, while riding home with Gran, was stuck in that recognition moment—the dawning that what was in front of her wasn’t an animal (even though its limbs were splayed on the ground, its head lifted like a colt). The girl who couldn’t stop seeing that dirty robe, the hairy human leg kicked out underneath it, the head that was like a person’s but not round enough—too oval, with too-long lips. Yellow owl eyes. Dark feathers drooping off the long thick bones that protruded from its back.

The girl who is wondering who she even is.

Back when you were rehearsing for Cinderella, you always hammed up the scene where you and the stepsisters had just returned from the ball. You danced around the room as you told Cinderella about the ball, speak-singing in an opera-ish voice, so everyone who watched you laughed. Then one day, Cinderella interrupted you, breaking character and freaking out. “Stop it, stop it!” she’d shrieked. “Why do you have to be so crazy?”

You had laughed with the stepsisters for a full month about how jealous she was. But now the Angel Age you is hugging your pillow, letting Cinderella’s question loop and loop around your head.

Why do you have to be so crazy?

What if you are crazy? What if the normal part of your life is over? What if you wind up in a mental hospital, trapped in never-ending fantastical nightmares that only exist in your mind like Dorothy in Return to Oz?

There’s a lot I could tell you. But I don’t know if telling you would make a difference. Don’t worry about the angel? How many things have you been told to not worry about, and when has that ever made you worry less? I could tell you not to go to the loft again, but now, I can’t imagine life without the angel.

I think it would have appeared somewhere else anyway.

The only advice worth giving would be small, I think. Suggestions of things to avoid so your life won’t be worse than it has to be. Like don’t hop on the computer and google “seeing angels” and then spend an hour trying to figure out how to erase the browser history. None of the adults in your house actually check the browser history. Don’t stare in the mirror for an hour trying to figure out if your face is what an insane person’s face looks like.

And don’t, definitely don’t, look for answers in You Are Changing.

*

You Are Changing, introduction:

It all started when the flat lips on your chest puckered—the first sign of your breasts beginning to blossom. Or perhaps it began when you stopped playing kickball with the boy next door . . . and started wondering if he liked how you looked.

You are changing. You are in the midst of that ever-confusing, heart-flutteringly exciting phase of life between childhood and adulthood. And that’s where my little book comes in.

Perhaps you picked it up because you’re eager to become a woman. You’re the type of girl who wonders when your menses will finally arrive, who dreams in exquisite detail about your first kiss. You want to get each and every question answered, all the whys and, of course, the when.

You might, however, be the opposite—a girl who prefers to live in the past, who doesn’t understand the change. You might cry at night, wondering where the former you has gone, the girl who used to play with toys and didn’t spend hours in front of a mirror. You might not even have purchased this book yourself, but instead received it from a concerned parent or trusted friend.

If you are the latter, I say: chin up, young lady! There is so much to love about this new phase of your life, when your beauty starts to emerge—inside and out! It’s a time of discovery and gaiety, too, a time when you start to become who you truly are.

*

When you wake up the next morning, you decide that none of it happened. That all of it—the angel, your ensuing panic, was imagined—a hazy result of an off-mood, bad cafeteria food, something.

In the kitchen, you greet Gran and your sister with midday hyperness. You slather cream cheese on your bagel and drop blueberries and grapes on top. You listen to your sister’s stories about fourth grade, nodding with a full mouth. You are aggressively normal.

But sooner than you’d like, it’s time for stage crew and it’s harder. Walking to the auditorium, it hits you that you never returned to Cole Something and Dani Aguilar yesterday with props from their list. They might be angry, or waiting for you.

You hover outside the auditorium double doors, read the fliers taped to them, the cast list. All those seventh and eighth grade names you barely know. The hallway is emptying. You could go home, drop stage crew, and forget about the angel, but the list’s right there with roles listed in order of importance and real people’s names next to them. Your name could be there next year if you stay.

You push the doors open, walk down the aisle where actors are standing tall, singing melodic ah-ah-ahs. No one’s looking for you. No one from crew is even there.

You head backstage right—the opposite side from the loft—and eventually think to push through the double doors to the adjoining tech room. There are the sixth grade girls, surrounding a giant table covered by a canvas. They talk to each other mostly, half-heartedly painting the canvas dull beige. The eighth graders aren’t there.

You sit on a stool near Cinderella, who is in a group of girls from a different elementary school. She doesn’t look at you when you sit, but one of the girls gives you up-down eyes. You wonder if there’s something wrong with your outfit.

You lift a paint roller, dip, roll.

Then Dani Aguilar enters with the boys. They are wearing black, talking urgently, looking important. You bend close to the canvas. Their voices grow.

“Rosen’s gonna talk to us tomorrow about our design for the recess scene.”

“He better like it.”

“He probably hasn’t looked at it.”

“Oh, the Rose-man. Rose-dawg.”

“The prettiest flower.”

A laugh.

“He’s probably just gonna ask about props.”

A groan from one of the boys.

“Hey,” says a thick, loud girl voice. “Didn’t we send someone on a prop run already?”

They’re quiet. They don’t know who went, you realize. They don’t know your face. You all look the same to them.

“It was you, wasn’t it?”

Dani Aguilar’s standing over your shoulder.

You turn and your eyes are in line with her chest. You have to tilt your head up at an unnatural angle to meet her gaze.

She recognizes you.

“Yeah,” you hear yourself say.

“Well?” asks Cole Something. The boys are behind her, but you can’t focus on them with Dani Aguilar looking at you. You can’t tell if she’s mad. She’s not smiling. Her hair is falling forward, curtaining her cheeks, so you can only see the middle of her face, her pursed lips. “Did you find anything?”

You didn’t actually set foot in the prop room. You try to picture what was beyond the angel staring from the floor.

Shelves. You saw shelves. Probably there were props on them.

“Yup,” you say, for some reason. You sound like your grandpa.

Cinderella’s girl-group is watching you now. Cole Something is annoyed. “Why didn’t you bring them down?”

“It—there was too much to carry.”

Cole Something looks at Dani like you are an agonizing chore, like why are we even talking to this stageho?

“Alright, alright,” Dani says to Cole, as if they have been arguing. Then she turns to you. “I’ll go with you.”

It takes you an extra minute to understand, to recover from the fact that Dani Aguilar is talking to you.

“We can bring them down together,” she says. She’s not smiling, but she doesn’t sound mad about it either.

Then Cole asks, “You think you can get it all?”

“What?” Dani Aguilar’s voice turns sharp. “You think I can’t?”

Cole makes surrender arms. “Just asking a question.” He’s smiling, like he’s used to this, but Dani is giving no hint that she is not actually angry.

“Who brought out all the fresnels yesterday?”

The other boys are laughing.

“I’ll give you a hint,” she goes on. The ends of her lips curve into a slight smile. “It wasn’t someone named Cole.”

You’re standing up. You’re so in love with this universe, this You and Dani Aguilar Against the Haters universe. You picture yourself in the prop room, just with Dani—no boys allowed—joking while you scan the shelves. Lifting heavy things together. You’ll be strong, loud like her, the exact opposite of how you felt when you saw the angel. You’re already amused about yesterday, like you can’t believe you actually imagined an angel and worried about it through the evening into your nightmares.

But then a cool voice says, “I can help.”

It’s Cinderella, polite and nonchalant. She’s smiling that infuriating smile that had been on her face throughout the whole ball scene last year, the tiny one, with her eyebrows raised, like she was making fun of the prince.

Why does she even want to come? She’s been texting her way through every rehearsal. She doesn’t even care about stage crew.

If anyone’s a stageho, it’s Cinderella.

Dani Aguilar should see that, but she doesn’t. She takes in you and Cinderella like the two of you have blended into this single amusing thing and says, “Sure!” all huge. She faces the boys. “The more the merrier!” she says, and once again they’re laughing and it feels like they’re laughing at you but you can’t put your finger on why.

“Come, stagehos!” she cries, raising her arm with actor flourish. She marches backstage, leaving you and your rival facing each other, struck.

You turn away, follow Dani. You don’t need to share a moment with Cinderella.

The backstage lights are off. The actors are in shadow, lit only by the faint glow of the house lights onstage. You tunnel around them, trying to keep up with Dani Aguilar, but Cinderella has somehow gotten ahead of you, her shiny hair swishing beside Dani’s curls. When you have to pass single file behind the stage to get to backstage left, she’s between you and Dani. She’s not even keeping her voice down. There’s a rehearsal going on right in front of you and she’s still talking as if she’s the star of the show.

“Have you been in stage crew since you came to this school?”

“Did you have Miss Hart when you were in sixth grade?”

She’s trying to annoy you.

And Dani Aguilar is answering like Cinderella is normal instead of awful. She’s murmuring, so you can’t hear what she’s saying, but her murmurs sound friendly.

It doesn’t make sense, because she called you stagehos just a minute ago. Cole Something asked her in a totally polite way if the two of you could carry all the props and she freaked out, but now she’s being nice to someone she doesn’t even know.

You turn the corner to backstage left, which seems darker, for some reason. Maybe because it’s less crowded? It’s just two actors, waiting by the front to go on, and the loft ladder before you, looming in a shadow.

Dani Aguilar stops at the ladder and just stands there, watching Cinderella wander toward the actors, looking around like she’s lost.

“I can’t see anything,” she says, too loud. “Can someone turn on the light?”

The actors stare at you.

“Shh,” you want to say, but Dani Aguilar says it first. The sound is soft, velvety, like something you could eat.

She’s laughing to herself. Her face looks different when she smiles—sweeter. Like she’s not so much older than you.

You walk toward her so when Cinderella turns, she’s looking at the both of you, side by side. She seems genuinely confused, like she really doesn’t know why Dani shushed her.

“You have to be quiet backstage,” you explain.

She doesn’t respond. She gazes up at the ladder. “That’s where the prop room is?”

It looks so different with the lights off. Like a reverse ocean, dark-to-black as it moves up. You can’t even see the top.

“Yeah,” says Dani, “You’ll see the door on the side, right when you get to the top of the ladder. But if you go back farther, the loft takes you to the catwalk. You can walk over the stage on that.”

“We’re supposed to climb that ladder without any light?” Cinderella asks, her voice more wavery now.

“You scared?” asks Dani Aguilar. It’s less taunting than it is surprised, like she’s wondering if Cinderella is real.

“You want me to go first?” you offer with sugar concern. “I’ll go first.”

You step onto the first thin ladder rung, then the second, and that pole feeling against your shoes brings you right back to the angel. And you’re sweating. You can smell your own stench as you lift each arm to climb closer to the angel, because what if it is there? You were so stupid to volunteer to return after last time, to think one day could cure you of your crazy, to think you could be anything like Dani Aguilar. Now there’s no light and you’re still you. You’re more you than ever. A sloppy body, kid-scared of the dark.

Your foot hits the platform with a soft clang, and then you bring your other leg up, hoist your body into nothingness. You know from yesterday that there’s about seven feet of platform from the ladder to the prop room door, so if you step to the left you should be fine, but you still feel like you’re on the edge when you do, like you’re hovering over the stage.

Between you and the door, something is moving.

You can’t step back, because then you’ll be blocking the ladder, but what if it’s the angel? It doesn’t sound like the angel. It’s softer. Rustles. Suctioney sounds.

Dani Aguilar steps behind you, so close that if you lean back a little you’ll fall into her.

The rustles stop.

“Someone there?” A girl’s voice.

The sound is a person. People. Thank god. The darkness starts to form their shapes, now that you know what they are. The girl is so much shorter than the boy. They are pressed against each other and the prop room door.

“Nobody,” Dani stammers. “We’re just here to get props.”

The couple rustles as they move so that your path to the door is clear and they are deeper in shadow. You take a step, but you don’t want to walk beside them, so close. Dani doesn’t seem to either. She stops next to you, half-whispers, “Your friend’s still climbing.”

“She’s not my friend,” you say, then regret it immediately.

Dani Aguilar lets out a laugh. “Woah.” But then she says, in a to-each-his-own sort of way, “Okay.”

She’s right there, hand-holding distance, breathing distance. The couple is kissing a foot away. You and Dani Aguilar are listening to their lips.

Cinderella clangs onto the platform. There’s a pause for a moment before she asks, shrill, “Are those people making out?”

No one answers. Then Cinderella shakes her mane and says, “Ew.”

It’s amazing how easily her judgment comes, like it’s almost automatic, like there’s no question in her mind that she’s on top and can say things like that.

“What’s your problem, princess?”

Dani Aguilar has whirled around. Her roar is punishing. You almost feel like Dani is yelling at you. It’s startling, how fast she turns.

“You don’t have to be up here if you don’t want,” she goes on. “You can just climb on down that ladder.”

The making out couple has stopped. They’re listening too.

“You gonna get those props or what?” says the guy. The girl giggles.

Cinderella doesn’t say another word. You just feel her moving away from you, the soft pats of her shoes whimpering down the ladder. Your stomach rolls because now it’s just you and Dani, and it’s what you wanted, and it’s scarier.

Dani Aguilar barrels toward the prop room like she wants to get away from all of you, throwing open the door, flicking on the dull yellow light. It makes the shadow-couple more contrasty, with dark bits and light bits. Now you can see that the girl is standing on her toes, lifting herself up. Her head’s tilted back, her lit hair swaying like a flag in the darkness because their heads keep moving, fast-then-slow. You’ve never seen anyone kiss like that in the movies—so messy. You can see their tongues.

“Prop Girl!” you hear. Dani Aguilar’s voice.

Is she talking to you? Are you Prop Girl?

You walk into the prop room, shut the door.

She is standing by the shelves, the angel at her feet. The angel. It’s there, on the dirty floor, holding itself up with its arms so the wing bones are its highest part. It’s looking at you, right at you, with its too-round yellow-black eyes that make you want to run.

But you don’t, because Dani Aguilar is right behind it, looking at you too. She’s marvelously angry, standing with her weight to one side, her arms crossed under her breasts. Her face looks like a model’s, impatient and a little pouty, with her hair up except for one perfect calligraphic curl curving in under the silver hoop in her ear.

“You gonna show me what you found?” she asks.

She doesn’t see the angel.

You are the only one.

Below her, horror movie slow, the angel stretches out one milk-white too-long arm. Toward you. So disgusting your eyes start to water.

You almost pivot out of the room, but you can’t. Dani Aguilar asked you a question. She’s waiting for you, and if you don’t answer, if you walk away, it’ll make her notice, it’ll make your craziness real.

You force yourself to look up at Dani, to step in a wide circle around the angel toward where she is standing in front of the prop shelves. Because for some reason, she thinks she needs you. She sees something inside you that’s not the angel, that’s the opposite even, something you don’t see. And whatever it is has caused her to raise you up above the mass of stagehos and crown you Prop Girl.

*

From You Are Changing, Chapter 4: Boy Ups and Boy Downs:

It may seem, at times, that all your girlfriends have found a steady and you can’t get a boy to look at you. Every woman feels that way at one time or another. And in those times, it is important not to focus solely on your personal appearance. While it never hurts to look presentable, your personality can also factor into a boy’s attraction for you. It is true that not every young lady (or grown-up lady, for that matter) is beautiful. But loveliness is something we can all strive for.

Of course, there are young ladies with the opposite problem, who do not yet have feelings for the opposite sex. If you are one such character, I say: don’t be perplexed by your friends’ new fixation. In time, boys will become a hobby of yours as well. It’s simply inevitable. Meanwhile, your girlfriends will appreciate your support, and will return it in kind when they are dating and you finally experience that uncomfortable first crush.

*

When you were in the prop room with Dani and the angel, you could barely speak, let alone remember what props were on Cole’s list and look for them on the shelves and point them out to Dani as if you had found them the day before. The angel hovered by the doorway and Dani stood so close her presence almost engulfed you—her powdery smell, her leftover roughness from yelling at Cinderella—so you only pointed out three props. Three. You could have carried them yourself. Climbing down the ladder after Dani was like feeling her disappointment rise up and settle into your skin.

Upon getting home, you tear apart your backpack and coat pockets, looking for the prop list. If you could only find the list to work from, maybe you could find more props somewhere else.

But the list isn’t anywhere. You wind up making your own, sitting at your dining room table, combing every page of the script. Your little sister wants to watch talk shows and Gran asks you to set the table for dinner and you tell them both, “I’m sorry, I can’t, I have to do all this work for my show.”

You gobble your dinner and return to the task. It is slow, soothing work. It’s easy to list the props—what takes awhile is finding and recording the scenes when each prop is used. But at least all the information is there, in a packet in front of you. All you have to do is find it.

You switch to homework shortly before your mom comes home from the hospital. You’re hastily scribbling equations as she stands behind you for a minute, looking down at your work.

“Long day, huh?” she says, but it sounds like she’s talking to herself.

*

It’s hard getting Dani Aguilar alone. She’s chatting, businesslike, with another crew boy, then with a candy cane thin actor girl. They part and she starts to walk backstage and you have to work against your muscles that don’t want to move toward her, your heart doing puppy beats you can feel.

“Hi,” you say. She’s looking at you, surprised. Does she recognize you? Is it possible that even after yesterday, she doesn’t remember who you are?

You hand her the paper without even explaining. She looks down like it’s alien and you rush to say, “I made a new prop list. I mean, I know you have one, but I noticed a few things were missing from your list…”

You follow her dark eyes as she reads, her long lashes starting to cover them as she gets to the bottom of your paper. You can feel yourself sweating. Again. You have to take a non-obvious small step back so she doesn’t smell you. How can you live in a world where she also exists, with her so gorgeous and you so disgusting? Not that you’re attracted to Dani Aguilar in a crush type of way. It’s just that she’s one of those magnetic people that you want to be friends with, that you can’t stop thinking about.

She turns toward stage right. “Hey Cole,” she calls. “Come see this!”

Cole Something strides out. Dani hands him the paper like she forgot you’re here.

“It’s a prop list,” she says. “It’s better than yours.”

His eyes slide across a few lines. Then he says, uncomprehending, “Who did this?”

“Her,” says Dani Aguilar.

And now their attention is all on you. Cole looks at you for a moment before turning back to the list, and that look tells you he doesn’t understand who you are, why you made this. He doesn’t like you, either.

Dani grins as if you’re a kid trying to act grown-up, like she’s barely repressing a laugh. You were so stupid to think she’d be impressed by your work. It was too much. The list is too much.

But she says, “This is good.” To you.

Cole is still staring at your paper.

She says, “You think you can find some of this stuff upstairs?” and loses some of that awful smile.

You nod before it sinks in, what she’s asked you. You’ve been sent back to the prop room.

You go. Backstage left, up the first rungs of the ladder. You have a strategy in mind for the angel. You’re just going to walk around it, fast, like it’s not even there. Focus on the props. But someone’s already on the platform, above you. More than one person.

It’s not like the softness you heard from yesterday. There’s more sound. Low animal groans and the same high note again and again—mmm, higher than a girl’s voice should be.

You don’t move. You can’t interrupt. But then you’re even more creepy, just frozen on the ladder, listening. You climb as softly as you can, one foot above the other, slower than the rhythm of the sound.

But then your feet hit the platform like cymbals and everything stops.

“Someone there?”

It’s the same girl from yesterday, breathy. She was making that too-high sound. You’re frozen for a full minute before you can choke, “I’m just here for props!”

“It’s Prop Girl!” The boy.

“Oh, hey Prop Girl!” The girl, laughing. How can she laugh like that, like what she’s doing is normal, like it’s fine that you heard it up here, the three of you standing above the entire cast and crew?

You practically run into the prop room and slam the door and when you turn on the light, you’re not ready for the angel. Its eyes snatching at you, its arm outstretched.

Walk around it. Don’t look, you tell yourself, maybe out loud, and somehow you’re doing it, heading for the shelves. You take the list out of your pocket. You just have to be fast.

And then there’s a screech, a piercing scream that makes you jump, that makes you look, it’s coming from the angel. The angel is moving toward you, kneewalk-crawling in white-and-gray jerks. You back up, round a shelf to the next row. You’re panting.

Ignore it.

Look up.

Another rabid high cry. You can’t help it. You glance. It’s rounded the shelf, it’s coming down your row, eyes cutting you open, its black hair dragging with its robe in the dust of the floor. It can’t touch you, you can’t let it. You flee again, yanking the prop room door open so hard the making-out couple turns. You hear the girl call, “Bye Prop Girl!” as you climb down the ladder.

The angel is not going away. It is getting worse. You are getting worse. You can never go into the prop room again. Never ever ever ever ever.

You have to tell Dani you want to find props somewhere else. Our props are cheap-looking, you could say. You could say you don’t mind buying new ones. Props you buy yourself can be changed. You can paint them bright colors, so the audience will see them better.

Maybe you’ll sound dedicated—like the opposite of a girl who sees angels in lofts. Maybe Dani will be impressed, start including you in crew meetings. Maybe.

You begin that evening. You rummage through your basement, searching for props on your own. But it’s hard to focus when you keep hearing sounds in your head, those mmm moans of the making-out girl. It’s their realness you can’t shake, their untouchable private-ness. Like if you made a sound like that in class, everyone would make fun of you. The guys. Girls, at all levels of popularity. You heard something no one else was supposed to hear, except for maybe the making-out guy, and if girls can actually make those sounds in places besides the movies, in real life, can you?

You go upstairs to the bathroom and lock the door, turn on the shower and step into the steam, listen to the shh sound of the water which drowns your voice as you try to make the sound, yourself, in your throat. A moan. Finally.

You don’t sound like the making-out girl. The sound is lower, foreign in your mouth, like something inside you is being twisted loose.

I am so screwed up, you think, and moan again. It’s a quiet sound but it feels too big for standing still. You press your hands on the glass, even slide them down a little. It is so unsatisfying. You wish there was something in the shower you could actually hold—an edge, a handle. You need to grip, clutch, tighten.

*

You can’t put your quest for Dani Aguilar’s approval into words, but I can. It’s about her contradictions, the boy and girl of her, the meat of her voice coupled with the way the white stitching on her black hoodie rounds her shoulders and circles toward her waist.

Plus there’s the inherent danger of getting on her bad side. If Dani Aguilar was all over you, if she lauded your ideas with enthusiastic approval, if there wasn’t that unclear note in the way she calls you Prop Girl, that faint hint of maybe derision, would you care so much?

Because when you present your prop-gathering idea, she doesn’t finally see your brilliance. She looks at you like you’re a little weird, again, and says, “Well, yeah, you could do that, but it’s a lot more work. You really want to do all that work?” Her frown is inscrutable, and maybe beautiful because of that, like there’s this whole Dani Aguilar you still don’t know.

So you don’t give up. You don’t quit crew or fade into the white noise of the other sixth graders, barely trying. You say, “Yes. Yes I do,” like a soldier. And you get to work, so there’s no danger of her ever calling you princess.

Over the weekend, you convince your grandpa to drive you around so you can scan the streets for yard sale signs. You visit three. Grandpa buys a bookshelf from the second place. You buy a bucket of children’s toy food, two wiffle ball bats, three brooms, and four baseball bats.

You ask Gran to drive you to school Monday so you can bring it all in. You get there early, thankfully, so most people don’t see you hauling garbage bags full of props to the auditorium. Mr. Rosen doesn’t seem to know who you are, but when you explain, “These are props for the show,” he blinks, then smiles. “Leave them in the tech room,” he says.

After classes, you sprint to rehearsal, so you can be painting props when Dani Aguilar comes in. Everyone looks at you—the stagehos, all confused. Cinderella comes in with a few friends and takes in the bats lying on the tech room table, you are painting one of them red. “Is that, like, our job right now?” one of her friends asks, and you shrug, because you’d rather Dani Aguilar see you doing it on your own.

She finally strides in, swigging a Diet Dr. Pepper. You keep your head close to the table even as you watch her gaze move from the spread to you. It’s a lot of props.

“You can get paid back for that stuff, you know,” she says, and that hint of critic in her voice pulls your eyes right to her. Her attention is all on you, her soda bottle dangling forgotten at her side. “We have a budget for props.”

“You do?” you ask, like an idiot.

But then Dani Aguilar walks around the table over to you and you can smell her powder and she says, “That’s a good color. Can you make all the bats that color?”

“Sure,” you say, and your nonchalance comes out perfect this time and Dani Aguilar doesn’t walk away. She says, “Or maybe, like, the bats for one team that color and the bats for the other team different, like blue or something?” And Cole Something walks in at that moment, sees the two of you talking, and nods as he passes. He’s nodding at both of you.

It’s the smell and the nod that carries you through two weeks of staying late to paint props and going home and sending out emails to the stagehos begging them to look for props you still need and doing your actual homework late into the night. Of rubbing your eyes and inhaling all those paint fumes as the stagehos sit near you and gossip and text and the stage crew boys walk by you too. Of Cinderella asking, “So are you like a crew person now?” sounding almost nice she’s so relieved.

The angel haunts you. In the rare moments when you have to go backstage left, you hear faint screaming coming from the loft ladder. It’s almost as if the screams are coming from the ladder itself, as if the angel is shaking it so hard it hurts.

But you don’t look. You barely look. Looking would mean thinking about the angel, and you want the sight of it stumble-crawling—feathers quivering—with those yellow eyes steady on you to dim into a nightmare impression, until it doesn’t seem like it really happened.

When your props are mostly present and painted and Dani Aguilar says, “It’s probably time to set up the prop table,” you say, “Let’s put it backstage right,” as far from the ladder as possible. She pulls her neck back and stares at you. You’re not sure if she’s surprised by your confidence or the fact that you know the difference between stage left and stage right.

“There are more props for actors who enter on that side,” you explain, and she says, “Okay, Einstein,” and looks into your eyes when she smiles.

She lifts one end of the table and you lift the other. She hollers, “Coming through!” and you share a grin as the actors and stagehos scatter, just like that.

She walks backward so you’re looking at her the whole time. The weight of the table strains your arms but you bend your knees and hold it up like Dani, and the resistance makes you feel strong. You’re almost sad when it’s time to set it down.

“Sunday is tech day, you know,” Dani Aguilar says. “So you got to wear black.”

*

From You Are Changing, Chapter 8: Down in the Dumps:

Young ladies, you must cling to your optimism! Even in the midst of your loneliest, grumpiest mood swing. Mother Nature herself is optimistic. You only need observe flowers blooming after a brush fire or a rainbow following a storm to understand that Providence wants you to go on.

I am not so naive as to think you will turn to my little book to solve every problem that flits through your adolescent life. There are situations that may seem complex or specific, that you may need to talk to someone else about. I certainly endorse conversation! You might even find, after a good long gab session, that other people’s problems are not unlike your own!

But don’t just turn to your friends for advice. Consider your parents. I know you want to say, “Those fogeys don’t know anything about my modern concerns!” But I guarantee you’ll be surprised. Remember, parents were teenagers once. And not in the dark ages, as you might think!
But if your mother and father are not available for one reason or another, I recommend finding another adult—a clergyman, perhaps, or a teacher—that you can trust.

*

On the evening before tech day, you can’t sleep. You keep thinking about your only black pants, jeans from last year. What if they look too fifth grade? You get up, grab the pants, and step down the stairs toward the bathroom to try them on.

You start to pass through the living room, but Mom’s on the couch. She turns from the TV and calls your name, pats the cushion next to her.

You sit. She smiles at you like you’re a friend she wants for company.

She’s watching a hospital show. It feels good to take it in—safe. The doctor characters walk very fast in scrubs and have dramatic conversations with the other doctor characters.

“This is not what it’s like,” Mom says, which is what she always says during every hospital show. She raises her eyebrows and looks right at you, like you’re adults sharing a sarcastic secret.

You want to cuddle up to her, put your head in her lap, have her tangle her fingers in your hair while you pour out everything about the angel. You want her to laugh in her hearty, sympathetic way and tell you it’s normal to see angels, that everyone does at your age, that she’s sorry she didn’t warn you. That you’ll grow out of it in time.

But you don’t. You can’t. You watch a doctor duck into a side room and covertly kiss a nurse. The kiss is passionate and pure—their heads perfectly tilted, the music swelling to crescendo—and you know you’re supposed to sit there with your mother and appreciate this moment instead of anxiously hooking your fingers in and out of the loops of the pants on your lap, wondering if that’s what love is supposed to be.

*

Early in the morning, before the actors show up, Dani Aguilar helps you set up the prop table. She shows you how to divide it by scene by sticking masking tape around an edge, then pulling the roll in long quick strips to make boxes. You label each, covering index cards in clear tape and then pressing them into their making tape squares, small squares for scenes with two or three props, a huge block of space for the baseball scene.

You put the props on top and take a step back and just stare at your table, your work. After all those hours of researching and scrounging and emailing and painting, it’s weird how it only takes up one little rectangle of space.

Then Dani Aguilar assigns you a job: to stand by the table all day like a guard, making sure the props return to their correct places.

“The actors’ll mess them up,” she says, “If you’re not here.”

She claps you on the back and strides off to her job. She’s working lights with the boys. You’re still feeling that hand press as the actors trickle backstage and the lights are turned off. The dark is thicker than it’s ever been, because onstage there’s no more big generic light—there are special lights, spotlights and lights on focused spaces. You hear Cole Something’s voice calling to the actors, “Move a little to the right… stop” and then muttering tech jargon back and forth with the boys and Dani Aguilar before the light onstage shifts slightly. You’re so far away from it, next to your table against a wall, that even the actors don’t see you. They walk past you in a different dimension. It’s like you’re dissolving into the darkness, like the agony and secrecy of it are overtaking your physical body. You’ll separate soon, spread apart, until you’re nothing but floating anxious feelings in the dark.

The silence grows. You listen for Cole Something’s voice and don’t hear it. You’re the only person backstage right.

Maybe everyone took a break and forgot to tell you?

You inch forward, taking baby steps toward the stage to peek out. There’s a spotlight onstage. It looks like there’s a girl sitting in the spotlight—maybe rehearsal isn’t over? Maybe it’s a solo scene? You’re not sure if you should be this close to the stage. You’re supposed to be by your table. Someone in the audience could see you—what if Dani Aguilar is watching by the light grid and sees your head poke out of backstage and thinks, “Stupid actors, don’t they know not to inch up that far?” and then notices it’s you and regrets everything she’s done for you?

But you don’t want to be backstage by yourself. You’ll just look for a second.

The girl in the spotlight is leaning back, twisting to see you. It has yellow eyes.

It’s the angel.

It has been looking for you.

It starts animal-running toward you, on hands and knees. It’s rodent fast. You back up toward the prop table but you don’t want to be pinned. A screech hits you and you run, sprint, behind the stage to backstage left.

There’s no one there either. Empty except for that stupid loft ladder. How did the angel get down that ladder? You’ve never seen it stand up, let alone fly.

You step on the first rung as you hear the angel turn the corner, scamper toward the ladder. You climb faster, feeling for the rungs above you. You can’t see anything.

You’re getting near the top when you hear a familiar rough voice.

“Hang on!”

You freeze. It’s not the making-out girl. It’s definitely Dani Aguilar.

“We gotta go down soon,” she says. “Break’s almost over.”

“Okay, okay!” Cole Something’s voice—gruffer and easier than you’ve ever heard. “Hey, where’s your shadow?”

Aguilar laughs. “She’s probably, like, painting the whole stage for us or something.”

They’re talking about you.

“You know what I think?” Cole’s voice. “I think she has a crush on you. I think you have, like, a little lesbo follower.”

“Ew,” Dani Aguilar squeals. “You have a sick mind.”

“She wants to take you to the prop room and scissor.”

“Stop it!” she squeals, the way Cinderella would squeal. The way girls say stop when they don’t mean it, when they really mean keep going.

You hear her giggle as you climb down two, three rungs before you stop again. The angel’s at the bottom. There’s nowhere you can go.

And you’re so stupid. Stupid and crazy. Any normal person who sees an angel would run away, but you had to stick around. You had to get yourself noticed by Dani Aguilar. You should’ve known she’d never like you. That you could never be like her.

And the worst part is she’s still beautiful. Her voice still makes you picture her face, her cheeks, her lips, and your body is responding like she’s the whole world, like you still want so desperately for her to like you. But she doesn’t. And now you know she doesn’t, and you know why. You’re so crazy, you’re a joke, and Dani Aguilar knows you’re a joke, and that truth is so unbearably ugly.

You look down. The angel is waiting for you at the bottom of the ladder. It straightens and pulls its head back when it sees you, like it’s prepping for another bird roar.

You could roar right back. You look down at its purple pale face and you see red. Because why you? Why this angel? Why couldn’t you have gotten one of those nice angels you read about on Google, who know how to speak and tell people things like, “Be not afraid?”

Your angel would never say that, even if it could speak. It would probably say the opposite. It would probably say, “Be afraid. Be afraid of everything around you. The boys, the girls, changing. When you are changing, it’s not just you—everyone around you changes. The way they see you changes. There are intimidating angels you don’t want to talk to and beautiful angels you want to talk to but can’t and glorious angels that get in the way of everything. When you are changing, everyone around you looks a bit like me. And they all kind of make you want to scream.”

*

This is it. The moment where I actually could change things, if only I could talk to you.

Because I know this moment in The Angel Age so well. I know that right now, your biggest wish is for your consciousness to disappear, evaporate into dark.

I know you’re going to climb down the ladder as quietly as you can so Dani Aguilar and Cole Something won’t hear you, and when you get to the bottom where the angel is rearing, you will look the other way, you will walk fast in that direction, and when the angel screeches, you’ll run.

I want to tell you that you don’t have to run.

You don’t have to unofficially quit stage crew by never setting foot in the auditorium again, or to choose not to audition for the school play next year in an effort to avoid the angel. And when the angel comes looking for you, when you inevitably see it in classrooms and hallways and the cafeteria, you don’t have to look up away, pretend not to hear it screaming for your attention.

You don’t have spend high school distracting yourself with homework and bad dates, telling Mom and Grandma and your kid sister that everything is okay when it’s not. You don’t have to turn away every time the angel appears, until the middle of college when you’re exhausted from finals and a hangover and just can’t do it anymore.

Instead, when you reach the bottom of the props loft ladder, you can look down and meet the angel’s animal eyes.

It won’t hurt. It’ll surprise you with its softness, actually—that first moment of looking. The angel will stop screaming just from the shock of your met gaze, close its lips. Closed, they won’t look so uncannily long. They’ll just look like human lips, purpler than most—like the angel is a homeless person watching you walk on a frigid night. Stark. Entreating.

Don’t turn away. Stand there. Look. Even though fixing your gaze makes your body feel rigid and too too open to fear and heat and revelation. Even as the angel’s cold bird eyes turn into something else, something so beyond human sympathy that your eyes fill to teeming. Even as you realize you’re shaking.

The angel won’t break its gaze, but it will move, slowly getting to its knees, lowering its spider hands to the floor. And at first you will recoil like it is going to crawl toward you, but instead it will push itself back onto its feet and rise.
And rise. And keep rising, until it’s taller than you—Cole Something tall, tree-tall. So tall that the dim backstage light will seem to have ascended with it—the angel should be shrouded in darkness, but it’s not. It looks down at you with its boy-thick jaw and delicate mouth, its curtain of curls falling toward you. If it were stern, it would be monstrous, but it’s not. It seems concerned, like it’s wondering how you’re doing with all of its glory, if you’re okay.

You will realize that you are.

You will feel yourself smile as the angel’s wings stretch out and lift it up and you will laugh because the wings are whole new miracle. How wide they are, how marble white in the middle, how their former dusty raggedness has become a grand outer layer now that you can see the long ovular shape of each individual grey-black feather. The swooping thunder rhythm of their beat. How it looks like they are constantly changing colors, but it is really the light that’s moving, rolling along the wings in shimmering waves. You will understand that beauty is continuous movement, is one thing flowing into the next—lights changing on a stage, in-and-out kissing, a girl doing cartwheels, a dance.

If you want it to, the angel can put firm hands on your waist, lift you up, fly you above the ladder to the loft where Cole Something and Dani Aguilar are laughing at you. They’ll stop laughing when they see you in the air, hovering above their heads like a vision. They’ll scream. You can say things like, “You are the worst!” and “You are not actually in charge!” and “I am not a stageho! I am not a prop girl either!” You can tell them your name.

And when you’ve said your peace, you can bellow, “Do you understand?” like you’re God.

And you will get to hear their chorused reply, that single, deep note that will reverberate through your body until it is a part of you: an immediate, pleading yes.