Brandon is waiting for me when I walk out of my English class. He smiles and points his open bag of Cheetos toward me. I smile and take one. I pop it into my mouth and lick the orange cheese off my finger.
“Lockers?” he says.
“Yeah,” I say.
We walk across the quad toward the rows of lockers. I can hear Brandon crunching on his cheesy snack. I glance over at him. He looks at me, and I tehee under my breath.
“What?” he asks.
Brandon rolls his eyes at me and pops another Cheeto into his mouth.
My locker is just down the row from his. I laugh as he fumbles with his Cheeto bag as he stoops down to reach his locker. His locker is on the bottom row, so he has to squat to open it. I spin the combination lock out of habit and open my locker before it stops spinning. The lock has been broken since I got it last year. My fern is lying sideways in my locker, on top of a messy stack of books and papers. It must have fallen over after I put it in here this morning. The contents of my locker are dusted with a layer of dirt. I pick up the fern and attempt to dump some of the dirt off the math book, which had been on top of the pile, back into the pot. I shrug, slam the locker door, and walk over to Brandon. His hands have left orange prints on his locker door and lock. His cactus plant looks kind of cute. It’s one small, peanut-shaped trunk, with sharp spikes everywhere. We walk across the quad toward the back corner of campus for horticulture class. It’s in an old, foggy-glassed greenhouse.
“Dad’s still avoiding talking about the test results,” I whisper, glancing at Brandon when I finish speaking.
“You guys found out?” Brandon asks. He stops and looks at me, his mouth open slightly.
“No,” I say. I shake my head. “But he won’t even acknowledge that Mom might... have it. I went to talk to him about it yesterday and he brushed me off.” I had gone into my parents’ bedroom to talk to him about it¾Mom had gone to the store¾and I needed some reassurance. He was sitting in the recliner reading the latest Joel Rosenberg novel. The lamp on the dresser to the right side of his chair was on, but the curtains were drawn over the sliding glass doors to my dad’s left, leaving the area of the room unreached by the rays from the lamp dark and shadowy.
I stopped in the doorway. “Daddy?” I asked.
“Yes, Reese?” He closed his book and put it in his lap. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I was thinking about Mom.” I walked toward him and sit on the arm of the recliner. “What’ll we do if she’s actually sick?”
“She won’t be.” Dad moved to pick up his book again, but I pressed him.
“Dad, really. What if Mom has cancer?” I put my hand on his book and looked down into his face.
Dad’s voice became cold and monotone. “She won’t.” He brushed my hand off the book and set it on the dresser beside his chair. His arm grazed my side as he stood.
I stood. “Dad…” I looked up at his face, and he looked back at me. One side of his face was illumined by the light of the lamp, and the other half was shrouded in shadow. His mouth was a thin line.
“I can’t,” he said, and left the room.
I shake my head to bring myself back into the present and start walking again.
“Every time Mom tries to talk to him about it he makes up some lame excuse about clients or plants and takes off. Last night he jumped in his car and went to Starbucks for a latte when she tried to tell him some of the ways to treat cancer. He was rustling around in his office until like .”
“That’s... yeah,” Brandon says. He nods his head.
My voice gets louder. “Ugh. It makes me so mad! Mr. lets-talk-about-everything-‘til-everyone’s-happy has morphed into any-time-anybody-brings-up-Mom’s-health-I’ll-take-off Man. I just want to yell to his face that if he’s not going to help he should just leave. Go sleep in a bag in the park or something.”
“You should. Talk to him I mean,” Brandon says. “Tell him he’s being a loser.” Brandon smiles at me, but his eyes aren’t shining. He knows how hard it is for me to see my dad like this.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I say.
We reach the greenhouse and walk inside. There are about five other students in the room, each one with a small potted plant in hand. I look at my watch. Five minutes until class starts. No wonder nobody’s here yet.
The greenhouse smells like fertilizer and cut grass. Plants hang from the ceiling and grow in pots on the countertops that line the room. There is a sink at both ends of all four spans of countertop. Some cardboard boxes are wedged into the storage spaces under the counters. Closer inspection reveals old, dirty, and broken trowels, chipped terra cotta pots, and garden shears. I see a couple pairs of craft scissors in the box.
“There aren’t any chairs,” Brandon says.
I straighten up and look around the room. Sure enough, there are two long tables down the center of the room, but there are no chairs.
The bell rings. A group of girls file into the greenhouse, clustering as near the door as possible. It’s Alicia and her friends¾the popular girls. Each girl is clutching some type of potted flower. Orchid, dandelion, begonia, gardenia.
“OK then.” I shrug at Brandon. I walk across the room to one side of the long table that is closer to the door and farther from the rickety podium near the front of the room. I pick up my feet unnaturally high when I walk in order to keep the dirt off my flip flops. Brandon follows, chuckling at my attempt to keep clean. I set my fern on the table in front of me and try to even out the dirt in the pot using only my pointer fingers.
Brandon laughs. He sets his cactus down on the table next to my fern, crosses his arms, and studies my effort to even out the dirt.
“Why’re you only using two fingers?” he asks.
I look up at him and wrinkle my eyebrows.
“I don’t want dirty hands,” I say.
“Wuss,” he says. He swats my hands away from the fern and sticks his hands in the pot. The dirt is even in about two seconds. He brushes his hands together and gets as much dirt off as possible.
“See,” he says, holding his hands out palm up so I can see them.
I take one and turn it over.
“You still have dirt under your fingernails,” I say.
“Welcome everyone,” Mr. Liddle says.
I drop Brandon’s hand and look up. Mr. Liddle is a short, balding man, and today he is wearing a pink Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. He bounces toward the podium with a slew of papers in his hands. Mr. Liddle plops the papers down on the podium, which sways under the weight. Some of the papers fall to the floor.
“Oh, geez,” Mr. Liddle says. He bends over to pick up the papers, and does his best to shake them free of dirt. I hear giggling from the girls near the door. I glance at Brandon, and he winks at me.
“Well, is everyone excited to start their plant project?” He smiles at us, and his eyes twinkle.
I smile back.
“Today we’re going to read through a handout on the project, and I’d like to write down the plant each person chose to explore this semester. I’m sure they’re all plant-tastic.” His grin widens.
I hear several groans from the gaggle in the back of the room. Brandon laughs, causing several of the girls to roll their eyes.
“Yes,” Mr. Liddle says, rubbing his hands together and raising his eyebrows. “Let’s start by getting these handouts passed around.”
I scan the handout as soon as I receive it. Sure enough, beside the dates of the first two weeks of class are the names of the various lectures he has given us on how to water plants, maintain proper soil levels, and select the correct types of plant food for the plants we all have bought. Why did he tell us to go get our plants the first day of school if we weren’t going to need them for two weeks? Thankfully Dad helped me keep it alive. I notice the final part of the project: a five page research and response paper on our plant of choice and what we learned from tending it all semester. Great. Well, at least Dad can give me some information about ferns.