Miss Me Not (Page 3)

Instead, I did what I always did—look down, and let my hair fall across my cheek, blocking my face from view. Even with my head down, I could feel his eyes on me. Finally, after a moment, he started talking about notes again.

"Ms. Jones gave me a new study guide," he said, pulling out a crisp sheet of paper from one of his folders. With anyone else I would have rolled my eyes at how ridiculously organized he was, but it seemed right with him.

"Um, okay," I said, reaching out to grab the study guide, and feeling like a complete imbecile.

"I figured we'd do it together," he said standing up.

No, no, no, no, no, I thought, Panicking when he came around to my side of the table and sat in the chair next to me. Our shoulders bumped as he slid his chair back in, and I jerked away in response. Bumped shoulders definitely fell under the "do not touch" category.

Without looking at him, I tried to move my chair over inconspicuously. I already had the reputation of being a social leper. I didn't need to add paranoid or psychotic to the list. If Dean noticed my sudden desire to put a Gulf of Mexico-size distance between us, he didn't comment. He situated the study guide on the table so we both could look at it.

"Okay, so the first question is 'what was the initial trigger of World War II?'" he said, opening his book to the right section. "This is kind of a trick question. There are many things that triggered World War II, but they're looking for the answer that brought the U.S. into the war, which would be when Pearl Harbor was attacked," he finished, looking up from the book.

I've never really been the type to flush from embarrassment, but I was pretty sure I'd been staring at him with open fascination. What the hell was wrong with me? I didn't stare at guys. I didn't admire their features, and I definitely didn't think about their lips. Especially all-American pretty boys who could spoil their reputations just by looking at me. I was an outcast, the wild child, the one that had tried everything at least once. I could deny it, but it was true. It's amazing when you think of the things a person would do to get noticed by the ones they looked up to, but that was all ancient history now. I stopped trying to get attention years ago, and really, I didn't care what anybody thought of me. But for a moment, as I studied Dean, I kind of did care what he thought. Had he heard all the rumors about me? Did he know what I had done in junior high that had ruined several people's lives? Probably. Everyone knew. It was my cross to bear.

"Do you want me to fill it in for you?" he asked, looking puzzled. This time I did blush. Nothing like making myself look like a moronic ass on top of everything else.

"Uh, no, I got it," I said, moving the paper closer to me. At least my hair once again covered my flushed face from view, but just to be sure, I took my time jotting down the right answer.

"All right, the next one is 'How many American civilians and soldiers were lost in the bombing of Pearl Harbor?'" he said as he turned the page in the text book. "Okay, since they want the overall number, it's twenty-three hundred," he said, watching me write the correct answer.

I kind of felt bad that he was doing all the legwork. I knew how to look up answers, but I liked hearing him talk. I'd always been fascinated with dialect and forms of speech. I was a sucker for accents, and had watched every Hugh Grant movie just because I liked his accent, but I would never admit that to anyone. Dean didn't have any kind of accent, but he had a deep voice that could only be described as a radio voice. Maybe that was why he was so popular. His voice dragged you in, making you forget everything else. I think I even heard some guys ribbing him one time, calling it a "panty dropping" voice. As a girl, maybe that should have offended me, but actually, it was pretty dead-on, and I couldn't help replaying the phrase over and over in my head. Not that I thought about that stuff anymore, but I did allow myself the luxury of labeling Dean as Panty Dropper after that.

We worked together for the next hour until the librarian started switching off the lights, ready to head home for the day. I was amazed the hour had passed so quickly. Dean kept up a running commentary as we worked. I was surprised to discover that he had a wicked sense of humor, and that his sarcasm matched many of the thoughts I had. Several times my lips even threatened to curve up into a smile, but I held it back. I gathered together my books and the half-completed study guide as the librarian switched off the lights above our table. I shoved the items in my bag and stood up. "Thanks for the help," I mumbled, turning to leave.

"Same time tomorrow?" he asked, catching up to me.

"Uh, I thought Ms. Jones said this was just a onetime session," I stuttered out.

"I'm free the whole rest of the week. Might as well help you pass the summative, so you can put World War II behind you," he said, smiling at me as we exited the library together.

I wanted to tell him I didn't need his help. That I could do it on my own, but the words died on my lips. Spending the last hour with him had been the best hour I'd had in—I didn't know how long. I didn't deserve to be happy, but I found myself agreeing. "If you don't mind," I said as he held the door open that led to the student parking lot.

"It's no problem," he answered, making my pulse race. For a moment, I was confused. I felt like I did the one time I tried crystal meth, jittery and excited at the same time. My palms even began to sweat. I wiped them hastily on my jeans.

"Um, okay, well, I gotta go," I said, hurrying away before the telltale signs of the high I was feeling would give me away. My short experimental phase with drugs had left me feeling the same kind of high at first. The problem was that afterward, I would come crashing down and get violently sick, which pretty much ended that ride. Of course, that onetime drug foray had resulted in rumors of my supposed usage for almost two years. Moms and dads throughout our community glared at me with a mixture of contempt and pity, convinced I would corrupt their own children just by looking at them. I wondered if they ever figured out that their precious kids had done a pretty good job corrupting themselves without my help.

"Hey, wait," Dean called after jogging over to join me. "I was going to offer you a ride," he said, indicating the used gunmetal-colored jeep behind him.

"That's okay. I like walking," I lied. I hated walking. Walking was slow and annoyed the hell out of me. Some days I left my backpack behind in my locker and opted to run the short two miles to my house. On days like today though, I was forced to carry the bane of my existence.

"You sure?" he asked dubiously, looking at the bag on my back that was digging into my shoulders.

"Yep," I said, scooting away before I caved to the silent voice that was taunting me to take his offer. Distance is what I needed right now. He'd already gotten under my defenses enough for the day. I turned back to look at him as I walked through the opening in the chain-link fence. Surprisingly, he was still standing there watching me. Not that he was watching because he was interested or anything. I know that. I was just an oddity. I didn't conform to any social molds, and it had obviously sparked an interest in him. He'd lose interest soon enough though. There's just nothing of substance to a shadow.

Chapter four

James was perched on my front door step, reading a book, by the time I finally made it home. "You could have gone in," I said as he handed me the key.

"That's okay. I didn't mind waiting," he answered, trailing behind me through the house. "Besides, what if your mom would have come home?"

"Did hell freeze over when I wasn't looking?" I asked, tossing my backpack on the floral print couch that made me puke a little every time I looked at it.

James laughed. That's why I hung with him. He understood what I meant without even having to ask. "That couch is fucked up," James said, sitting on one of the barstools at the high counter in the kitchen.

"Tell me about it. Hey, maybe if I hurled on it she wouldn't have any choice but get rid of it."

"It'd be an improvement," he said, taking a swig of the Coke I handed him.

"Pizza?" I asked, pulling a coupon out of the drawer.

"I don't have any dough," he said, looking down. I wasn't surprised. His father kept him on a short leash, never giving him cash or letting him get a job. He was a prick.

"It's on Donna," I said, referring to my mom as I picked up the house phone and dialed the number from memory. "What's up, Al? Can I get a large pepperoni?" I asked, looking at James questioningly.

He nodded his approval.

"Sure thing, Madison. Give us about thirty minutes, okay?"

"Sounds good," I said, hanging up the phone.

"They should make you part owner by now," James teased as we headed back to the living room with our drinks.

"It's only three or four times a week," I said, shrugging like it was no big deal.

"Seriously? I didn't realize it was that much," he said, propping his feet up on the oval glass topped table in front of him.

"It's either that or frozen," I said, sitting on the other side of the couch.

"You could learn to cook," he suggested as I flipped on the TV.

"No way, I like ordering out."

"At least you'd be eating better."

"I'm fine. I like pizza," I said, not liking the direction our conversation was going. I knew my existence was dysfunctional, but it didn't mean I wanted to talk about it.

James dropped the subject. "How was tutoring?"

"Bearable," I said, taking a long drink of my Coke.

"Did you get stuck with a freshman?" he asked, focusing on the mindless sitcom I had turned on. Reruns of "Saved by the Bell" never seem to get old for some reason. Maybe it was the early nineties hairdos the cast was sporting, or A.C. Slater's balloon pants, who knows.

"Nah, a senior," I said, not wanting to fess up to who it was.

"That's cool at least," he said, already sucked into the TV show. He chuckled at something one of the characters said. At moments like this, I almost envied James. He could momentarily forget about his shit life and find enjoyment in small things, like some TV show. I couldn't do that anymore, and maybe I never would again. I watched sitcoms so I could get a dose of what life could have been like. I didn't enjoy them as much as I idolized what they stood for.

One large pizza and three sitcoms later, James reluctantly stood up.

"Time to go?" I asked.

He nodded solemnly. He'd stopped laughing at the sitcoms by the time the third one rolled around and started fidgeting around as he continually checked the time on his watch.

"Maybe you'll fall asleep before he gets home," I said, following him to the front door.

"Yeah, maybe," he said in a dead voice, making it clear the likelihood of that happening was zilch.

"See you tomorrow," I said, watching his retreat down the sidewalk. I was at a loss on what to do. This was the relationship we had. When we had made our dual-suicide pact, this arrangement seemed fitting. Knowing we were now facing actually living, I felt inadequate as a friend. I stayed on the porch, studying his demeanor. His slumped shoulders and drooped head made him look like a death row prisoner heading to his execution. He never glanced back at me as he pulled the car out of the driveway and headed toward his house. God, life sucks sometimes—most of the time! I didn't sign up for this. I was ill-equipped to give him what he needed. I was too broken to help him.

I was still feeling pissy as I headed into the house. I straightened up the living room and then headed to the kitchen to throw away our trash. Once the kitchen looked like it did when June, our cleaning lady, tackled it, I opened up the freezer and pulled out an ice cream bar. I didn't even acknowledge the endless stacks of frozen meals. The contents of our freezer never changed much. Frozen meals and ice cream bars that were replenished once a week when June did our shopping and cleaning. I knew without even opening the fridge what was inside. Milk, soda, ketchup and the Greek yogurts Donna couldn't live without. The content of our pantry was even bleaker with spices and baking supplies left over from when my dad still lived with us. This was my life. It was a sham of a life, but I only had myself to blame for it.

I snagged my ice cream bar and another soda from the fridge before heading down the hall to my room.

All the tension from the day seeped away as I stepped into my sanctuary. I'd worked hard to create a space that reflected me. It was simple. No posters littered my walls. No knickknacks cluttered my bookshelves. My dresser, bookshelves and two end tables were painted a plain flat black. They used to be white, but three summers ago, I painstakingly stripped off the old paint and sanded everything down for hours until they were once again a blank canvas. I hung shelves on either side of my large bedroom window, and underneath the window, placed a cedar chest that I covered with a plum colored throw blanket, creating a mock window seat. My walls matched the deep plum color of my throw blanket. At first glance, they appeared almost black until you compared them with the large wrought iron bed frame, black furnishings and black satin sheets that adorned my bed. The TV perched on top of my dresser represents the only real pleasure I have. I love my TV more than I should, and I couldn't help feeling guilty when I had splurged on it two years ago with my Christmas cash.

Cash was how Donna and I did Christmas after my dad left. For the last four years, an envelope with cash sat on the kitchen counter waiting for me on Christmas morning. The arrangement worked fine with me since it ended all pretenses we had put up the previous years.

Christmas had always been a weird holiday for me. I really could never figure out what all the hype was about. When I was little, it had more of a meaning as I sat sandwiched between Donna and my dad for Christmas Eve services listening to the sermon on the birth of Christ. The words were meaningless to me, but I was content to actually be allowed in the big people's church instead of being shuttled to daycare. Happy to be sitting between both my parents on this rare occasion, I always fell asleep halfway through the service. The following morning I would receive presents from my parents. Santa Claus was a taboo subject. My parents were serious churchgoers, and never allowed anything that would spoil the sanctity of Christmas. After the gifts were unwrapped, we would head back to church for the Christmas Day sermon.

I was six when I realized just how different our Christmases were from the other kids my age. I watched them from afar as they excitedly talked about Santa visiting their houses and the treats they'd leave out the night before. I remember being upset that I was somehow getting the shaft, and I confronted my parents, demanding to know why this jolly fat man never visited our house. Donna informed me that Santa was nothing but a made-up character that parents had been using as a crutch for years to get their kids to behave. "The idea of Santa is evil and takes away from the true meaning of Christmas," she'd informed me, making it clear that he was as bad as Satan himself.