Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Malignant: Part 9

Echoes from The Incredibles filter down the hall, but they do not peak my interest. I am sprawled out across Brandon’s queen-sized bed. My fists are squeezed between my chin and the comforter, supporting my head. My eyes scratch against the inside of my eyelids, so I open them. The pale light from the floor lamp in the corner provides the only illumination in the room. The blinds have not yet been drawn, but the window is only a vast black rectangle.
            Brandon is sunk into his oversized, chocolate brown bean bag on the ground, with his legs spread across the floor. He has his arms folded behind his head, with his hands resting on his neck. His eyes are level with mine.
            “So, after you wrote the note, you just walked out?”
            “Yeah. I couldn’t… I needed air.”
            I roll over onto my left side and prop my head up by pressing my left palm to the side of my head just behind my ear. With my fingers on my right hand I trace the tan and brown stripes on the comforter. The ticking of the clock on the wall gets louder, so I let my gaze leave the lines and move up to the clock’s face. Brandon insists on using not only an analogue clock, but one with only four small squares where the twelve, three, six, and nine should be.
            I sigh. “What time is it?” My eyes rest on Brandon’s face.
            Brandon lifts the corners of his mouth slightly before answering.
            “Just after ten. You tired?”
            “No.” I don’t tell Brandon that every time I close my eyes all I see is words¾stage III, treatment, immediately¾ swirling menacingly across my brain and drowning all other thoughts.
            I sit up quickly and toss my feet off the edge of the bed. “Let’s watch a movie.” I glance toward the door. It sounds like Syndrome is monologuing. I turn back to Brandon. “In here.”
            “OK.” Brandon rolls sideways in order to dislodge himself from the bean bag and stands. He takes several steps over to his DVD tower. “What do you have in mind?”
            I stand, but I don’t move from the bedside. “I think I need a dose of Josh Lucas. Mind if I run home and get Sweet Home?”
            Brandon turns toward me and rolls his eyes.
            “You’re going to make me watch that junk?”
            I smile. “Yep,” I say. “I’ll be right back.” I lean down and fish my house key out of a small pouch inside my duffle bag. I stuff the key into my pocket.
            Brandon tosses his hair. “Alright.”
            I leave the room and walk down the hall. I turn into the living room. Mrs. Lane is sitting in the leather chair in the corner under a light, working on her latest crochet project. She glances up and smiles at me when I stop in the doorway. Mr. Lane looks up from where he is sandwiched between Devon and Luke on the couch.
            “What do you need, Reese?” he says, and begins to slide out from between his sons.
            “Oh nothing. I’m going to run home really quick. I’ll be back.”
            “All right. We’ll see you in a minute then.” He sits back and Devon and Luke snuggle up to him once more.
            I can feel my face turning green at the sight of Mr. Lane and the boys. I wait until my back is turned to scrunch my eyebrows and purse my lips.
            There is a slight breeze that plays with the wisps of hair around my face as I walk past the four houses between Brandon’s house and my own. The house is completely dark and the trees in the front yard cast shadows over the house. My parents are probably asleep. I walk up the steps to the front door and pull the key out of my pocket. I turn the lock as quietly as I can and slide the door open just enough to admit myself.
            I leave the door open and stand in the foyer until my eyes adjust to the darkness. I walk down the hall toward my bedroom, trying to avoid the creaky parts in the wooden floor, but my efforts are in vain. The squeaking sounds are like thunder to me, but I do not hear anyone stir.
I walk into my room and straight to my closet. I squat in front of the low shelf that holds all of my movies. It takes me a moment before I find the one I’m looking for. I pluck Sweet Home Alabama from among the twenty-or-so other DVDs. I really ought to organize them sometime.
            I stand and start back down the hall. I stop in the bathroom and grab a plastic bag of hair ties out of the top drawer. I stand outside of my parents’ door for a moment, staring at the doorknob. It’s an antique purple glass knob that my mom found at a thrift store once a few years ago. Dad hates it but he lets her keep it because she loves it so much. I reach out and grasp it, but the coolness of the glass against my fingertips makes me recoil quickly. I tip toe out of the house, lock the door, and walk down the steps to the sidewalk. I begin to run because I feel the weight tugging at my ankles.
            I run up the steps to Brandon’s front door and fling it wide. It hits the wall before swinging back toward me. Mrs. Lane, Mr. Lane, and the boys look up from their various occupations. Brandon sits up from his place in the middle of the floor.
            “Sorry,” I say.
            “It’s all right, Reese,” Mrs. Lane answers. Her eyes are wide. “I just didn’t expect that.” Her eyes shrink back to their normal size. I notice that she glances toward the wall, probably to make sure that I didn’t dent it.
            I nod before turning to Brandon. “Ready?”
            “As ready as I’ll ever be.” He smiles and stands up.
            I walk down the hall and hop onto his bed.
            Brandon follows me into the room. He swings the door mostly closed behind him but leaves it open just a crack.
            The television is on, and the Samsung DVD logo is bouncing around the screen.
            “Give it here and I’ll put it in.” Brandon extends his hand toward me, and I give him the DVD case. He glances at it before opening it.
            “I kind of liked this one didn’t I?” He turns his back toward me as he fiddles with the machine.
            “Yeah you liked this one.” I smile. I reach down and grab a plastic bag full of hair ties out of my duffel bag.
            The movie menu comes up on the screen as Brandon comes and crawls across the bed to sit beside me. He reaches across me and picks the remotes up from the side table. He selects “play movie” from the DVD menu and the theme music begins.
            I scoot back against the wall before pulling a hair tie out of the plastic bag. I set the bag down on the side table and pull some hair from the top of my head. My fingers separate the hair into three chunks, and I begin to braid. After only a moment, my fingers are tangled in my hair. I drop the strands. I can hear what my mom always says when she braids my hair. ‘Reeses, this is something you need to learn to do yourself.’ Especially now. I take some hair again, but I am no more successful this time. I drop my hair and slap my hands down on my lap. I only sit for a moment before raising my arms and trying again.
            After several more attempts, my arms are burning from being raised behind my head. I lower my arms and tap my fingers on the comforter. I turn and watch Brandon’s face. He turns his head and looks at me.
            “Yes?”
            I glance up at the mop of brown on his head.
            “Can I braid your hair?” As soon as the words come I love the idea. I grab the bag of hair ties from the table. Then I lean over the side of the bed and dig my comb out from my duffle bag.
            “See? I’ve got hair ties and everything.” I hold them up for him to see.
            “Uh, OK.” Brandon sits forward. I scoot behind him. I look up and can’t see Josh Lucas.
            “You’ll have to sit on the floor by the bed so I can reach your head and still be able to see the TV.”
            “Alright.” Brandon scoots across the bed and lowers himself to the floor so that his back is against the bed. Thankfully he is tall enough that he is about the right height for my project.
            I giggle and begin to comb out his hair. I pick out some hair ties and set them beside me. I take a tuft of hair from the crown of Brandon’s head and make the skinniest braid I can.
            “I’m going to make braids until I run out of hair or hair ties.”
            “Good,” Brandon says. He tilts his head back to look up at me. “I’m going to have a fro when you’re done aren’t I?” He smirks at me.
            “Oh yes you are.” I grin.
            By the time I am finished, the braids on Brandon’s head are sticking out in all directions.
            “Let’s go show your mom,” I say and jump to my feet on the bed.
            “OK,” Brandon says as he stands. He turns and smiles at me. “How do I look?” He puts on a cheesy grin and lifts one eyebrow.
            I burst into laughter. “Wonderful, Weird Al!” It’s fun to feel taller than him for once.
            I jump down to the floor and we walk down the hall toward the living room. Before we reach it, Brandon stops.
            “Do I have to show them?” he asks.
            “Yep,” I respond, and continue into the living room. I sit down on the ottoman and turn my attention toward the television screen. Elastigirl is pressing buttons on the remote that controls the robot and trying to figure out which one Mr. Incredible wants her to push.
            Brandon walks into the room and calmly sits down in the floor near my feet.
            Mrs. Lane bursts out laughing. “Brand, your hair. Wow.”
            Mr. Lane lets out a guffaw. The boys giggle on both sides of their father.
            I turn to look at Mrs. Lane. She grins at me. “Nice work Reese. Very nice.”
            “Well thanks. I couldn’t braid my own hair, so I decided to braid his. My mom always does my hair.” I look down at the floor and bite my lip before looking back up at her.
            Mrs. Lane makes eye contact with me. She smiles. “I’m sure you’ll get the hang of braiding your own hair soon.”
            “Hey, Reese,” Mr. Lane says.
            I turn to look at him. He has an arm around each of his two younger sons.
            “The boys and I are thinking about going to the beach tomorrow to do some sand crab catching. Do you want to come with us?”
            “Sure,” I say. “I’ll have to run home and get my suit in the morning.” That means I’ll have to see and talk to them. I guess I need to anyway. I glance at the television. The credits are rolling up the screen.
            “Tubular,” Mr. Lane says.
            I turn back toward Mr. Lane, and I giggle.
            I see Devon rubbing his eyes. Luke yawns.
            Mrs. Lane seems to have noticed as well, because she puts down her crochet and stands up. “It’s getting late, boys.” Mrs. Lane says. “Let’s get you two in bed so you aren’t grumpy tomorrow.”
            She takes each of them by the hand and walks them down the hall toward their room.
            “Hey I’m coming tomorrow too. I haven’t caught any sand crabs in a long time.” Brandon says, and he grins at me. Then he turns to his dad. He points toward me with his thumb. “I have to show this one how it’s done.”
            I laugh. “Oh I know how it’s done.”
            “You’re on,” Brandon says. “The person who loses buys the other one a fried twinkie.”
            I smile. “It’s about time I had another fried twinkie.”
            Brandon chuckles and shakes his head at me. The braids twist together on the top of his head.
            Mr. Lane picks up the remote and clicks off the DVD player. The sound of the television makes me jump.
            “I think I’m ready to go to sleep too,” I say. I stand up and stretch my arms behind my back. My left shoulder pops.
            Brandon stands up. “Let’s go see where my mom wants you.” He puts his hands on my shoulders and pushes me down the hall in front of him. Luke and Devon are in the bathroom brushing their teeth.
            We reach Brandon’s room. Mrs. Lane has just begun putting a new set of sheets on Brandon’s bed.
            “You can sleep in here, Reese. It’ll give you more privacy. We’ll put Brandon on the pull-out bed in the living room.”
            “No that’s OK,” I say. I look from Mrs. Lane to Brandon. “I can sleep on the couch.”
            “No it’s cool. You sleep in here,” Brandon says. He grabs his pillow off the bean bag in the floor. “Sleep well, Kid,” he says and leaves the room.
            I watch him go. “Night,” I say after him. I turn back toward Mrs. Lane. “Thanks for everything, Mrs. Lane.”
            “It’s no problem, Sweetie. We enjoy having you here any time.” She smiles at me. She pulls the comforter straight. “There you go. Sleep well, Reese.”
            “You too,” I say. I plop down on the bed as Mrs. Lane leaves the room.
            “Would you like the door shut?” she asks.
            “Yeah, thanks,” I say.
            Mrs. Lane closes the door behind her.

            I think about going to brush my teeth and wash my face, but I don’t really care. I pull off my jeans and crawl under the covers.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Malignant: Part 8

I sit up and look around. I don’t know how long I’ve been crouched in the garage, but there is no-longer light coming in from the small diamond-shaped windows along the top of the garage door. I stand up and wipe the hair out of my eyes and mouth. I run the tips of my middle fingers under my eyes and look at them¾they are black from running mascara. I open the door and let it swing shut behind me as I walk into the house and down the hall. I peek into my parents’ room. I see my mom stretched out in her recliner with the cordless phone still in her lap. She is asleep. I sigh loudly, hoping to wake her, but she doesn’t stir. I don’t know what I would say to her if she did wake.
            I turn and continue down the hall toward my room, beginning to stomp my feet harder as I draw closer to my door. I clench my jaw. This is ludicrous. How dare they tell her she has cancer?
            Once inside my room I don’t bother to turn on the light. The last rays from the sun are shooting in the window, lighting the room enough for me to see dimly. I grab a duffle bag off the floor of my closet and cross the room to my dresser. I open the top drawer and shove a pair of pajamas, a couple pairs of underwear, and a bra into the bag. I slam that drawer shut and open the drawer below it. I grab two tank tops and stuff them into the bag as well. I shove that drawer in, ignoring the corners of clothing that are preventing the drawer from closing properly, and open the third drawer. I throw several pairs of jeans onto the floor behind me and dig out a particular pair¾the old and worn Levis with holes in the knees and strings at the heels¾and put them in the bag on top of everything else. I slam that drawer shut too.
            I get my pillow off my bed and walk down the hall to the bathroom. I pluck my toothbrush out of the cup on the counter. I grab my hairbrush out of the top drawer in the counter and push the drawer shut. I continue down the hall and stop in the kitchen only long enough to write a note: Went to Brandon’s. Be back Sunday night. I stick the note to the counter near the grocery list where my mom will see it and go out the front door.
            The walk to Brandon’s takes about twenty seconds. I burst into the front door and yell, “Brandon!” My throat burns, but I leave my mouth open. Devon and Luke, who are once again at the computer, look up at me as my voice vibrates through the walls. The front door swings shut behind me. I drop the bag at my feet. Brandon rounds the corner from the hallway. His eyes touch my face and he rushes forward, stopping just inches from me.
            Mr. and Mrs. Lane come into the foyer from the kitchen, but remain standing a few feet from us.
            “What’s happened?” he says.
            I put my hand in my pocket and feel the crumpled piece of paper there. I take it out and drop it into his hand quickly, withdrawing my fingers as soon as the paper leaves my palm. I stand stiffly, watching his face as he reads. I clench my jaw. My eyes start to water.
            Mr. and Mrs. Lane come forward and read over his shoulders.
            I lower my eyes to the carpet, making no sound and not looking up when I hear Mrs. Lane gasp.
            Brandon takes a step closer and wraps his arms around me. I lean into him and close my eyes.
            “Oh Reese, I’m so sorry,” he says.
            I feel a hand on my arm so I open my eyes.
            It is Mrs. Lane’s hand touching me.
            I raise my eyes to her face, but I can barely see her through the water standing in my eyes.
            “Stay with us as long as you want, Honey.” She pats my arm. “Are you hungry? Dinner will be ready soon.”
            I nod, and the walls of water in my eyes collapse down my cheeks.
            Mrs. Lane nods and walks away from us into the kitchen.
            “Come on,” Brandon says. He holds out his hand, and I take it. Brandon propels me forward, not letting go of my hand as he leads me to the couch. He sits down and pulls me down beside him. I lie down on the couch with my head just touching the side of Brandon’s leg and curl my legs against my chest. He strokes my hair away from my face. I sob into the cushion until I fall asleep.
            When I wake up, I am alone on the couch. I sit up slowly. My neck makes a popping noise as I turn my head. I can hear the Lanes in the kitchen, and I move in that direction, straightening my shirt as I go. I round the corner to find them all sitting at the dinner table. Their plates are almost empty. There is a place set for me at the foot of the table, next to Brandon.
            Mrs. Lane smiles at me as I come around the counter, pass the barstools, and sit in the place set for me.
            “I’m glad you’re awake,” she says. “Here, I’ll get you some food.” She lifts my plate and piles on mashed potatoes, braised carrots, and a piece of barbecued chicken.
            Despite the dull pain in my stomach, I smile at the portions she has given me. Mrs. Lane always expects me to eat as much as Brandon. I scoop up some potatoes with my spoon, but before it crosses my lips, Mr. Lane speaks.
            “Now Reese, it’s really best if you mix your carrots and potatoes.” He smiles at me.
            I look down at his plate and notice that his mashed potatoes are an orange hue, and that they are full of small chunks of carrot.
            “Eww. Gross!” Devon exclaims.
            I look over at Devon’s plate. The potatoes are as far away as possible from the carrots on his plate. The napkin beside his plate is stained yellow from trying to wipe carrot juice off his plate.
            Luke quickly scoops up some mashed potatoes on his spoon and adds a piece of carrot with his fingers. He brings the spoon to his mouth and pauses for a moment before enclosing his mouth over the spoon. “No, it’s good. Right Dad?” Luke says. He looks at his dad and is rewarded with a smile.
            “Yes it is, but it’s OK if Devon doesn’t like it.” Mr. Lane looks at Devon and winks.
            Devon smiles at his dad before turning to his brother and quickly sticking out his tongue.
            “Boys,” Mr. Lane says.
            Both Devon and Luke lean forward over their plates and concentrate on their food.
            I glance at Mrs. Lane’s plate. All of the types of food on her plate are neatly separated. Brandon’s plate is a mush of potatoes, carrots, and pieces of chicken which have been pulled off the bone I see lying on the table beside his plate.
            “OK I’ll try it,” I say, ignoring the slight crawling sensation in my stomach. I pick up a couple pieces of carrot with the pointer and thumb on my left hand and place them on top of the potatoes on my spoon. There is no way I’m mixing all of my potatoes and carrots until I am sure I like them together.
            As soon as I swallow my first bite I speak.
            “This is actually really good,” I say.
            “Mmhm.” Mr. Lane grins at me and takes a huge spoonful of orange potatoes himself.

            I mix all my carrots and potatoes.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Malignant: Part 7

“Go tell your dad that dinner is ready,” Mom says.
            I set the last cup on the dinner table and move through the kitchen. I walk down the hall and pause in front of the door to the den before going in.
            Dad is standing behind his desk, glancing over the titles of the books on his massive cherry bookshelf. He turns to me and smiles.
            “Hey Reese, how was your day today?” He moves around the desk and gives me a hug.
            I squeeze my arms around him and hold on for just a moment longer than normal.
            “It was OK. Felt long though,” I say. I withdraw from him and cross my arms over my chest. “Dinner’s ready.”
            “Good. I’m starving,” he says. He rubs his hands together. “Let’s eat.”
            Dad takes long strides out of the den and back down the hall toward the kitchen.
            I follow. The back of his neck is sunburned.
            I am behind Dad when he enters the kitchen. I stop under the arch that leads into the kitchen.
            Mom is standing at the counter adding croutons to our salad.
            Dad goes up to her and gives her a light squeeze on the shoulder.
            “Dinner looks great Carol.” He smiles at her.
            Mom’s whole body tenses up and she stops adding croutons to the salad. She turns to him but does not smile. She gives a small nod of her head.
            Dad’s hand drops to his side. He points to the casserole dish steaming on the counter.
            “Is this ready to go to the table?” he asks.
            Another head nod from Mom. She begins tossing the salad to mix in the croutons.
            Dad picks up the dish and sets it on a hot pad on the table. He glances at the counter, which is now empty except for the salad Mom is tossing, and sits in his place at the table. She sets the tongs in the salad bowl and carries it to the dinner table.
            I can’t do this. I clench my jaw, then relax it again.
“I’m not hungry,” I say. I pivot and walk toward my room, picking up speed as I go down the hall. I rush into my bedroom and slam the door behind me. I throw myself on my bed and clutch my tan micro-suede body pillow. I look up at my door and stare at the round brass handle, willing it to turn. Five minutes pass... ten... fifteen. The door handle is frozen in place.
#
“So you see,” Mr. Liddle says, “that the amount of light a plant gets is crucial. Brandon’s cactus for example, which is actually called Ferocactus, will do well in the windowsill.” Mr. Liddle is standing at the end of the long table near the front of the greenhouse. He is wearing a lime green short-sleeved button up shirt with white palm trees along the hem. I have yet to see him wear the same Hawaiian shirt twice. Our plants are spread out along the table. He is in the middle of placing them around the room in the environment best suited to their needs. He has already placed my fern on a counter on the edge of the room where it will get plenty of early morning light.
            “Alicia’s orchid should be in a bright, sunny, warm location, like near the broken pane of glass over there,” Mr. Liddle picks up the purple flower and points with his other hand to the back of the room, where a pane has been knocked out of the greenhouse wall. At the mention of her name, Alicia looks up from her group of friends, who have made it a daily habit of cloistering themselves in the corner by the door rather than coming any farther into the classroom. She plasters a fake smile on her face and looks at Mr. Liddle. He grins in return and continues describing the needs of the plants by telling us that poppies must have direct sunlight for most of the day but that begonias prefer the shade.
Rays from the sun flood in through the hole in the glass wall and create a warm, outlined square patch of light on the floor. This illuminated spot contrasts with the rest of the room, which is brightened only by the diffused light that filters through the foggy glass panes that make up the rest of the greenhouse walls and ceiling. Two industrial lamps hang from the ceiling, but Mr. Liddle told us the first day of class that “neither lamp worked well enough to warrant giving them a daily allotment of electricity.”
            I turn to Brandon. “Want to bet that tomorrow we’re going to talk about watering each of our plants?” I roll my eyes.
            Brandon lifts one corner of his mouth into a half smile. “No, because I’d lose that bet.”
            I smile at him, then glance over at Mr. Liddle. He is climbing on one of the counters to place someone’s plant in one of the pots hanging from the ceiling. After he places the spider plant in the pot, he turns around. He loses his balance and leans forward as if he is going to topple off the counter onto the soil-smeared cement floor. A hushed “oh” comes from several students in the room, but no one moves to help. A small laugh escapes my lips. Mr. Liddle is such a spaz.
            Mr. Liddle gains his balance, then crouches and jumps down from the counter. “Close one.” He laughs as he looks back up at the plant. “Maybe I ought to lower that so Michael doesn’t have to climb on the counter to tend to his plant.” He pauses, studying the plant hanging in its suspended home. “I’ll do that later... Anyway, the spider plant will like it up there because it can grow and grow without hitting counters, tabletops, or any other thing,” he says. “And, the bugs will have to work harder to get to it, which is always good.”
            I look down at the handout for our project. I’ve hole-punched it and placed it haphazardly into my three-ring binder. The next piece of our assignment is a three page paper on light, water, and feeding needs for our plants. It’s due Monday¾lame. Dad can help me with that. He knows all about plants. I can ask him if he can give me some information when I get home.
#
I am sitting at my desk. It is freezing cold in the classroom. Why is the air conditioner always on so high in here? I can’t do geometry if my teeth are chattering so loud I can’t hear myself think.
The girl sitting in front of me hands me the blank test over her shoulder. I grab one and pass the rest behind me. I stare down at the paper on my desk. Chatter chatter. How do I do sine again? Soh cah toa. Sine is opposite over hypotenuse. The point of my pencil hits the paper and I get to work. The answers flow onto the page more quickly than I thought was possible, at least for me. Maybe that math violence Brandon threatened to use on me really is effective. I smile to myself as I work. Note to self: Brandon is an excellent math tutor.
When I finish the test, I flip through it. Satisfied with my answers, I take the test up to Ms. Lang’s desk and hand it to her. Then I return to my desk. I pull a copy of Dracula out of my book bag and flip to the dog-eared page where I left off. Van Helsing has just finished using Arthur’s blood to give Lucy a transfusion. When are they going to figure out that she’s being sucked dry every night by a vampire?
            As soon as I leave the geometry classroom, the sunlight hits me and warms my skin. I feel a chill up my spine and can’t help but shiver. I head toward the lockers and open mine with a spin of the lock.
“Hey,” Brandon says. He’s taking his history book out of his locker and putting it in his book bag. I stuff my math book into my locker and shut the door.
“It feels so good out here,” I say. The chattering has finally stopped. “It’s still freezing in geometry.”
“Lame,” Brandon says. He closes his locker and comes over to me.
“But guess what? I think I nailed that test.” My smile reaches my eyes. “I didn’t know I could do math that fast.”
“Well,” Brandon says as he strokes the peach fuzz on his chin. “You had a great tutor.”
“Yeah, I think I ought to pay him more.”
“Pay? We can stop at Taco Bell on the way home. I’m craving nachos.” He nods his head at me.
“Not!” I say. I shake my head. “No way.”
“But I heard something about payment.”
            I take a step closer to him and pat his arm. “There you go. One payment pat.”
            “That’s not nearly enough,” Brandon says. He grabs me and wraps his arms around me in a hug. My arms are pinned down at my sides, and my face is buried in the front of Brandon’s shirt. “From now on, all payments are to be paid in hugs. Cool?” He lets go of me and I pull away.
            “Well... OK Unless you smell gross. Then you can forget it.” I laugh.
            Brandon raises his arm and smells. “I think I’m good today.”
            “Yeah, you’re good¾today.” I smirk at him. “Let’s go.”
#
As we approach my house, I notice that the garage door is open. I don’t see either of my parents in the front yard.
            “Weird,” I say. I shrug.
            “See you tomorrow,” Brandon says as I walk up the driveway and into the garage.
            I turn and wave before pushing the button to close the garage door and walking inside the house. My eyes adjust to the darkness quickly. I set my book bag down in the entry to the living room and walk down the hall. I peak my head into Mom and Dad’s room. Mom is standing looking out the window, listening to someone on the phone. The light from the window usually creates a square patch on the carpet, but Mom’s shadow falls across the middle of it, separating the patch into two smaller shapes. I keep walking down the hall toward my dad’s den, but there is no light coming under the door. The door is ajar, so I push it open and go inside. At first I don’t see my dad, but then I notice that he is buckled over in his desk chair so I can only see part of his back over his desk. I hear sobbing.
            “Dad?” I ask.
            The desk chair slides away from the desk toward the wall, and Dad sits up. Tears are streaming down his cheeks. He wipes his face with the back of his hand, then looks at me.
            “Reese,” he whispers, his voice husky.
            “What’s going on?”
            Dad lifts his hand and motions for me to come to him. He slides his chair farther away from his desk so that his chair is almost hitting the bookshelves behind him.
I move around the desk and stand next to his chair. I don’t take my eyes from his face. Dad’s eyes well up again. He clears his throat and tries to speak, but no noise comes out.
He lifts a paper off his desk and hands it to me. Then he stands up and moves toward the door.
“Where are you going?” I ask. I look at him, the paper dangling from my hand.
“I need a glass of water,” he answers, then leaves me alone in the den.
I know what I am holding. Before I even bring the paper up to my eyes, I know. My hands start shaking, but I have to look. I hold it up with two hands and scan the page. Results: positive. Stage III. Contact the doctor immediately to discuss options for treatment. Immediately? This isn’t right. It can’t be right. I scan the top of the page and see the words Patient: Carol Lane. Tears well in my eyes and race down my cheeks. My mom has stage III cancer? What does that even mean? Stage III. This can’t be real.
“NO.” I don’t realize I am speaking aloud until the word flies from my lips. “DAD!” I shove the paper into my pocket and run out of the den and down the hall to the kitchen. Dad isn’t getting water. I jog to the garage and fling the door open, but the garage door is almost closed. I can see the tires of Dad’s car moving away from me before the door shuts completely. It makes a dull thud as it settles against the concrete.

I plop down to the floor in the garage and let the door close behind me. I draw my knees up to my chest and burry my head in my arms. My hair sticks to my face. Sobs from deep within my chest wrench my body. I cannot see. I cannot hear. I cannot breathe.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Malignant: Part 6

“So to find the hypotenuse I use this side divided by the sine of this angle?” I ask Brandon, using my finger to point at parts of a certain triangle in my geometry book.
            “Yeah that’s right” Brandon says, nodding his head. We are leaning so close together to see the examples in the text book that we bonk heads.
            “Ouch.” I make an exaggerated gesture of rubbing my temple.
            “Sorry,” Brandon says. He rolls his eyes.
            I laugh and glance back at the book. “Cool. I think I get it now,” I say.
            “Yep,” Brandon says. “I beat it into you. Maybe I ought to do that more often.”
            “No, I think not,” I say. I smile at him and he winks back. “Math beatings are the worst kind of violence.”
            I hear the front door open and close.
            “I’m home,” Mr. Matthews says.
            “I’m back here,” Mrs. Matthews says from somewhere down the hall.
            Mr. Matthews walks into the kitchen and sets his computer case down against the wall. When he sees Brandon and me, he beams at us.
            “Oh, hi Reese. Hey Beej. What are you two up to?” he asks.
            “Just homework,” I say. I smile up at him.
            “How was it today, Dad?” Brandon asks. He smiles at his dad.
            Mr. Matthews gets a purple plastic cup out of the cabinet, puts ice in it, and sets it out on the counter. He grabs a Coca Cola out of the fridge and fills his cup. He holds it in his hand as he talks.
            “Well, I had planned to stay at the county office today and order some upgrades for the computers there, but I ended up having to go over to Daly High and wipe a computer in their computer lab. Somehow it had a nasty virus on it. I don’t know if it was an accident or a prank. Anyway, the computer teacher called me when the computer started deleting some of the students’ files and replacing them with spam.” He takes a gulp from his cup.
            “I’m going to go say hi to your mom,” he winks at Brandon, scoops up his computer case, and leaves the kitchen.
            I slide off the barstool. “I’ll be right back,” I say, and I walk across the kitchen.
            “Where are you going?” Brandon asks. He raises an eyebrow at me.
            “Bathroom,” I say, and walk down the hall.
            I can hear Mr. and Mrs. Matthews whispering as I approach the master bedroom.
            “I love you too,” Mr. Matthews says. I hear a kissing noise, then silence. After a moment, Mrs. Matthews speaks.
            “Jason, can you go talk to the boys about relieving themselves in the backyard? It’s just not appropriate.”
Mr. Matthews lets out a loud guffaw before speaking. “Sure, Gorgeous,” Mr. Matthews says.
            I hear Mrs. Matthews giggle. The floor creaks. I hear a struggle going on down the hall in Devon and Luke’s room. Luke is laughing.
            I walk faster and reach the bathroom, shutting the door behind me. The light coming in from the skylight casts a cool tone on the walls. I do not turn on the light switch. I hear footsteps pass the bathroom and go to the end of the hall, toward the sound of struggling and laughing. I push in the door handle to lock the door and press up against the bathroom door to listen.  The painted door is cool against my skin. I close my eyes. I can see the whole scene playing out in my head.
            “Hey guys,” I hear Mr. Matthews say. “Whoa, Luke, don’t sit on your brother’s head like that.”
            “Hey Dad,” Luke says through giggles.
            “Hey Daddy,” Devon breathes out. Luke and Devon are wrestling on the carpeted floor of their room, surrounded by Tonka toys. Luke has the upper hand. He is squashing all the air out of Devon.
            “What’re my two boys up to?” Mr. Matthews asks. I hear the squeak of a mattress. I suppose that Mr. Matthews is sitting down on the edge of one of the boys’ beds.
            “Wrestling,” Luke says. I can see him smiling up at his dad, proud that he won the match.
            “Devon?” Mr. Matthews says.
            “Wrestling,” Devon says. He sounds more like he can breathe now. Devon is sitting up, his face fading into its normal shade from a purplish red hue.
            “Did I ever tell you guys that I wrestled in high school?” Mr. Matthews says. The mattress squeaks again. Mr. Matthews moves to the floor to sit next to his boys.
            “Awesome,” Luke says.
            “Really?” Devon says. Luke and Devon have moved to crouch around their dad, listening intently.
            “Yeah, let me show you some moves,” Mr. Matthews says. He prepares to grab one of his sons.
            Devon and Luke giggle and Mr. Matthews laughs with them.
            “See, Devon, you move your arm like this and pin him ... like this,” Mr. Matthews says between chuckles.
            “Cool,” Devon says.
            Luke squeals. Luke is the victim, and Mr. Matthews is showing Devon how to win future wrestling matches.
            “Dogpile!” Devon yells. I can see the ball of limbs in my mind. Only the laughing and giggling I hear is real.
            “Oh, and by the way, boys, Mom said you guys peed in the back yard. Next time you need to go when you’re outside playing, come inside and use the bathroom OK?”
            “OK Dad,” Luke says.
            I hear footsteps come down the hall and past the bathroom. I flush the toilet and run the water in the sink for a few seconds to make it sound like I am washing my hands. I open the door and walk back up the hall toward the kitchen. Devon and Luke are settling down to a game on the computer in the living room as I pass. The hair on both boys’ heads is tussled, and they are smiling. I do not see Mr. Matthews. He must be in the master bedroom.
            When I enter the kitchen, Brandon is putting away the peanut butter.
            He glances at me as I cross the kitchen and round the counter to where the barstools are.
            “So do you want to do a couple more problems or call it quits?” he asks.
“I think we’ve done enough practice for now,” I say. “My brain is fried from too much math.” I fold the paper I was practicing on, shove it into my geometry book, and close it. “Thanks for your help.” I pick up my book bag and slide my geometry book into it. “I think I’m going to head home.”
“Want to stay for dinner?” Brandon asks. He rounds the counter and starts to put his homework materials in his book bag as well.

“No, thanks,” I say.
#
I don’t hear any noise as I walk into my house and close the front door. I set my book bag on the floor in the living room and walk toward the hall. I peek around the corner and see light under the door of Dad’s den.
“I’m home,” I yell down the hall. I don’t hear a response.
I turn and walk back past the front door to the kitchen. The scrape of the potato peeler reaches my ears.
When I turn the corner into the kitchen I see my mom sitting on a stool next to the sink, peeling potato skins into the garbage can she has pulled out from under the sink.
            “Hey Mom,” I say. I walk up behind her and tap her shoulder.
            She jumps and turns her head. Her eyes are red.
            “Reeses. I didn’t hear you come in,” Mom says. “I figured when you didn’t come home you were at Brandon’s.” Her face looks a little pinched as she speaks.
            I move to her side so she can see me without twisting on the stool.
            “Yeah. Brandon was helping me study for my geometry test tomorrow,” I say. “Mom, are you OK?”
            “Oh, yes,” Mom says quickly. “Are you ready for your test?” She glances up at my face, then continues peeling the potato skin into the garbage can.
            “As ready as I’ll ever be,” I say.
            “Good,” Mom says.
            She stops peeling and lowers her head.
            “I did some more research today,” she says.
            I don’t speak. I don’t move. The grains in the wood floor are all I see.
            “I know it’s hard, but I have to be ready... we have to be ready. Just in case.”
            I nod.
            “If I have cancer. . .” she clears her throat, then rushes through the rest. “If I have cancer, it could be far along. I’ll have to have surgery to see what stage I’m in. I’ll have lots of options for treatment.”
            I have cotton stuffed down my throat and grit in my eyes. I look up at Mom.
She is looking at me.
My mind freezes. None of the cogs are moving. What do I say? Cancer, surgery, treatment. The words flash through my mind but I do not know what they mean. I want to run away, but that job is already taken care of.
I clear my throat and try to speak. “Hem... Mom, you won’t... you won’t have cancer,” I choke out. “You can’t.” I throw my arms around her shoulders and hide my face in her hair. Her curls tickle my nose, and I move my head to sneeze. She lifts one hand and squeezes my arm.
            “Did you tell Dad?” I ask. I pull away from her and look at her face.
            Her face goes blank and she goes back to peeling potatoes.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Malignant: Part 5

After my last class of the day¾Geometry¾I meet up with Brandon at our lockers.
“How’d it go?” Brandon asks.
“I forgot we have a test... tomorrow,” I sneer at the contents of my locker and roll my eyes. “It’s not going to be good. I’m still having problems with the whole Soh Cah Toa thing.”
Brandon slides one final book out of his locker into his backpack, then shuffles over to where I’m standing. I shove my history book into my locker and slam the door.
“Math is such a waste of time,” I say. I look up at Brandon. I am baiting him because he loves math. He ignores the look.
“You could come chill at my house when we get home, and I’ll help you out. My mom likes to have us hang out at our house.”
“OK My mom will figure I’m with you if I don’t show up at home anyway,” I say. “Let’s book.”
We move out of the row of lockers and push our way through the mob of retreating high school students, across the parking lot, and past the tennis courts toward home.
“Reese Witherspoon’s new movie is coming out in seventy-four days,” I say.
“You’ve been saying that since July,” Brandon says.
“I know, but it’s co-staring Michael Vartan!” I say.
“Well, World War 3.0 comes out around then too,” Brandon says. He flexes his left arm, but it doesn’t move. He mimics Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I’m going to pump you up.” He hits his chest as he says this.
I cover my mouth, but can’t help but let out a loud laugh.
“Ooo, burn,” Brandon says. He purses his lips, lowers his eyebrows so his eyes are scrunched, and turns away from me.
“Come back here,” I say between laughs. “I’m sorry.”
Brandon turns back toward me and smiles.
“It’s all good, Shorty.”
“Hey,” I say. I grab the front of his shirt and pull his head down toward me. I exhale my breath in his face. He turns his face away.
“Gross,” he says.
I let go of his shirt and he stands to his full height again. 6 feet tall compared to my 5 feet 2 inches.
“You mean the burrito I ate for lunch didn’t make my breath minty fresh?” I say.
“Right,” Brandon says. He pokes my stomach with one finger.
I squeal and flit away.
#
We pass my house and go four doors down to Brandon’s. The tidy Tudor-style house is painted pale yellow with white trim. A well-rounded shrub sits below the front bay window, and there are flowers growing along the walkway up to the front door. Brandon pauses and allows me to walk ahead of him up the stepping stones. As I reach the front door, I can hear Mrs. Matthews’s voice. She sounds flustered.
“I don’t care what game you’re playing. If you have to use the bathroom you need to come inside and use the bathroom. Mommy’s fuchsia bush is not a bathroom,” she says, loudly enough that I can hear her even though she is somewhere inside the house.
I pause to listen for just a moment before opening the door and stepping inside. Brandon follows close behind me and shuts the front door.
The side table in the entry way is covered in stacks of mail, several sets of keys, and Mrs. Matthews’s bulky brown leather purse. We turn left and head toward the kitchen. I keep my eyes on the floor as I walk, trying to stifle my laughter at what I heard.
Mrs. Matthews’s voice gets louder as Brandon and I enter the kitchen. She is at the sink doing dishes while she lectures her two sons, who are sitting at the bar stools behind the counter facing her. Their shoulders are slumped and their eyes are on the floor, but they both look up at us when we enter the room.
Luke’s face lights up in a big grin. “Reese, Reese,” he says.
Devon waves at me and gives a shy smile.
Mrs. Matthews looks over her shoulder at us.
“Well hello, Reese. It’s good to see you.” Her eyes flutter over my face and settle on Brandon’s. “Hey, Brand,” she says. Then she turns back to her younger sons, who are both wiggling on their stools.
Luke and Devon freeze.
“I want you both to go to your room for a little while,” Mrs. Matthews says. “You can play in there.” Mrs. Matthews places the final dish in the washer and closes it.
Luke and Devon jump off the barstools and trudge around the corner out of the kitchen.
Mrs. Matthews follows, drying her hands on a towel, and leans around the corner after them. “Wash your hands before you start another game, boys,” she says. She rolls her eyes.
Brandon and I move around the counter and settle ourselves on the recently vacated barstools. He and I always sit at the counter when we’re here. I plop my book bag on the counter and pull out two books. Several papers stick out of my math book from my attempt at studying during class. My paperback French book flops onto the floor and I slide down from my stool to get it. I put my book bag on the floor and settle myself back on the stool with my French book and notebook in front of me.
Brandon pulls a history book and his binder out of his book bag. He rips a sheet of paper out of his binder and flips his book to a certain page.
Mrs. Matthews turns back to us and smiles. Her strawberry blonde hair is frizzy and disheveled, and her sleeveless purple blouse is wrinkled. She reaches her hands up and tries to smooth her hair. “Those boys. I’m doing dishes and I glance out the window to check on them and they’re peeing in the fuchsia bush. What if the neighbors had seen them?”
I cover my mouth with my hand to hide my laugh.
Brandon’s eyes sparkle as he turns to look out the window at the offended bush.
“So, how was school today?” Mrs. Matthews says.
“It was all right” I say. “I’ve got a test in geometry tomorrow. Brandon’s going to help me study.”
“That’s great,” Mrs. Matthews says. “Do you want some snacks to help you study?” She moves toward the refrigerator as she asks this and pulls out three green apples. She opens the cabinet and pulls out a cutting board. She sets the apples on the cutting board, then peeks around the counter. “I wonder what they’re doing back there,” she says, and leaves the kitchen.
“Sure,” Brandon says, just as Mrs. Matthews falls out of sight around the corner of the kitchen. Brandon and I wait a moment to see if she will come back, seemingly suspended where we sit, but I only hear her stomping down the hall away from us.
“Oh well,” Brandon says.
He hops down from the stool, circles the counter, and selects the peanut butter from among the many cans and jars in the cabinet. He opens a drawer and grabs a butter knife, then comes back around the corner and settles himself on the barstool again, setting the peanut butter and knife down between us. He goes back around the counter and slices the apples himself. His apple slices are unusually shaped.
“Nice job,” I say. I give him thumbs up and a smirk.
Brandon looks up at me with a straight face and one eyebrow raised. “I’d like to see you do better.”
“Naw, thanks for the offer, but I’ll pass.”
Brandon throws the pieces of apple core down the disposal in the sink and rounds the counter, holding the cutting board with apple slices in one hand. He sets the cutting board down on the counter near the peanut butter, then slides back onto his barstool.
“Do you want to work on math now or do some other homework first?” Brandon asks.
I look up from my book and turn toward Brandon. “J’ai beaucoup de travail pour la classe fran├žaise d’abord,” I say.
Brandon raises his eyebrows without looking up from his work. “All right. Get started then,” he says.
Mrs. Matthews re-enters the kitchen. Her hair has been smoothed and pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck. “Sorry about that,” she says. She leans on the counter and peers over at what we’re working on.
“Qu’est-ce que tu fais?” I ask Brandon, and I smirk at him.
“Study guide for history,” Brandon responds, again without looking up from what he is writing.
My eyes widen. “How’d you know what I said?”
“Well,” he says, looking up this time. “You ask me the same question all the time and I’ve finally remembered what it means.” He smiles at me before going back to work.
“Reese, your French sounds so good,” Mrs. Matthews says.
“Thanks,” I say, and I smile at her as I pick up the knife and stick it in the peanut butter. I eat several slices of apple and peanut butter before going back to work.
“That reminds me,” Mrs. Matthews says. “Are you two looking forward to actually starting working with your plants?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Two weeks of basic plant care out of a textbook is thrilling and all... ” I roll my eyes. “But seriously, it’s about time.”
“No kidding,” Brandon says. “But now you’ll have to get your hands dirty.” He holds up his hands and looks at me.
I shrug. “So? There are sinks in the greenhouse, you know.”
Brandon shakes his head and goes back to reading. He attempts to put peanut butter on his apple without looking up, but a glob of it falls off the apple and into his book.
“Yuck,” he says, and grabs for a napkin.
I let out a loud laugh.
“You want some of this?” Brandon says, holding the soiled napkin out toward my face.
“Eww, no,” I say, leaning back and away from him, but he keeps leaning toward me.
My barstool wobbles, and I grab at his arm in order to keep from falling backward off the stool.
“Stop,” I squeal.
He guffaws and balls the napkin up in his hand. He tosses the napkin across the kitchen into the garbage can.
“All right,” he says. He nods his head as if he is bowing for an audience.
I laugh at him and he grins back, his cheeks tinged pink. “Nerd,” I say.
“You two are so silly,” Mrs. Matthews says as she laughs at us. “I’ll be right back. I’m going to get the mail.”
            She leaves the room and I hear the front door open and close. Moments later the door opens and closes again, and I hear the rustling of papers.
            “Oh I got a newsletter from the school,” Mrs. Matthews says, reentering the kitchen. She waves a marigold flyer in the air before leaning against the counter to read it.
            I’m in the middle of conjugating the verb “pouvoir” when she squeals and moves around the counter and sets the flyer down on top of my homework paper.
            “Look Reese,” she says, pointing to an announcement at the bottom of the page. “They’re having a Sadie Hawkins formal this November instead of a traditional Christmas formal. I used to love Sadie Hawkins dances. Don’t you?” She looks up at me with smiles in her eyes. She nudges me with her elbow.
            “Huh?” I ask. A Sadie Hawkins winter formal? Seriously?
            “Awesome,” Brandon says. “That means I don’t have to think of anyone to ask.” He gives a cheesy grin and winks at me when I scowl at him.
            “Yeah, Mrs. Matthews, that sounds fun,” I say, and I smile at her without showing my teeth.
            “So, who are you going to ask?” She leans her elbows on the counter and waits for me to answer.
            “I, um, well... ” I say. “This is the first I’ve heard of the dance, so I don’t know.” That is a safe answer.
            “Of course you’ve heard of it. We parents are always the last ones to hear about these things. Didn’t you have a crush on someone last year you can ask? Billy? No, Bl... ”
            “Blake. He went to visit his dad in North Carolina for the summer and I haven’t heard from him since,” I say.
            I roll my eyes and look down at my French book hoping Mrs. Matthews will drop the conversation. Out of the corner of my eye I see Brandon run his fingers through his hair. He bites his lip.
            “Oh,” she says. “That’s too bad. He sounded like a cutie.” Mrs. Matthews giggles and turns to Brandon. “Well I’m sure there’s someone you wish would ask you.”
            Brandon looks up at her and turns bright red.
I can’t help but giggle at his tomato-red face.
He glances at me.
            I shrug and cover my mouth with my hand to suppress my laughter.
            Brandon elbows me and tries to hide his embarrassed smile behind the back of his hand.

            “Uh, no,” Brandon says. “No one.” He runs his hand through his hair again. Flip.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Malignant: Part 4

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.
“Nothing.”
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 two AM.”
            “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.
            “Huh?”
            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.