Not until a month later does your mother ask about Hannah, and even then you are able to deflect her easily. She’s been out of school a lot, you say, and it isn’t really a lie. Hannah has missed some school. That isn’t the reason you haven’t talked about her to your mother, nor is it the reason you haven’t gone to her house for a sleepover since the one in February. And it certainly isn’t the reason you’ve been looking away from Hannah eating alone in the school cafeteria.
You have thought about how much better it would be if you could go to a different middle school. Just so you wouldn’t have to see her there, eating alone, most days. Your lunch periods are still the same, you and Hannah and the girls who shut you out of the clique last year and the white-trash boys who smoke cigarettes and hunt squirrels on the weekends. Travis Putnam got killed doing that on New Year’s Day. Didn’t come back to school after winter break. Shot in the head.
Serves him right, your mother said. Then, with a guilty glance: that’s a private opinion, Bess. Don’t tell your friends I said that.
I won’t, you said. You don’t think it serves Travis right. But you don’t really know. There’s a lot your mother knows that you don’t, and you don’t really get why Travis died, anyway, so maybe she’s right. This possibility is why you worry so much about what you did to Hannah. Your mother might think it serves you right to feel so bad. She might know about it already, might just be waiting for you to tell her. Like your dad did with the black plastic film canister of your baby teeth, which you liked to keep in your bedroom and rattle and look at in fascination, their smallness, their collected bone – he hid them, when you were eight, and waited until you confessed you’d lost them to tell you he had them all along.
You don’t remember the last time you said something that surprised your mother.
She knows so much.
Maybe you could invite her over next week, your mother says. Not this weekend, I have too much to do. It’s a pigsty in here.
Yeah, maybe, you say. You ease a sliver of crud from under your fingernail. She isn’t watching, so you transfer the crud to your mouth. Salty. Granular. Unidentifiable.
I’ll clean up when I’m finished with this chapter, she says.
Maybe, you say. You toothe more junk from under your nail. She’s gone for the moment, inside the white type on the blue screen before her. What is that place like? Is it Mathemagic Land, except with the alphabet? Does it resemble where you go when you read, or is it a country on the other side of the world?
Mmm, she says.
You go to your room and put on “Linger” and stare at the ceiling.
The week before, Hannah wore a pink baseball cap in Geometry. Mrs. Hoeffer pointed a fat finger at her and told her to take it off, and Hannah said she had special permission from the principal to wear it in school.
“No one can wear caps in school,” said Mrs. Hoeffer. “Take it off and put it away.”
“Mr. Ragland said I could,” said Hannah. She made no movement. She was not exactly straight-backed and defiant, but she did not supplicate, either. Gentle certainty. He said I could.
You used to sit next to Hannah, but lately you’ve been sitting back in the corner, next to the window, behind an empty desk. You do not like the back of the room. But you can’t sit where you used to.
“Hannah, I’m not going to argue with you. Take the cap off.”
“Mr. Ragland said I could wear it. Ask him, he’ll tell you.”
Mrs. Hoeffer sighed. “I can’t leave class to see Mr. Ragland about a cap that I know very well you’re not allowed to wear. I’m in the middle of a problem. Take the cap off now.”
“I have special permission,” said Hannah.
Mrs. Hoeffer made her way, with difficulty, between desks. She stood akimbo before Hannah, her bulk impinging on the neighbor desks’ edges. “If you don’t take it off, I’ll take it off for you.”
“No,” said Hannah, and she covered the hat with both her hands. She was so thin, her hands so small. Mrs. Hoeffer, stouter and more certain, took hold of the bill of the pink cap and yanked it from Hannah’s head, pulling it between her palms and skull like a magician with a tablecloth.
Her hair was so much worse under the classroom’s fluorescents than it was in her bedroom’s nightlight. She looked sick. All the hair around her ears and forehead was still there, but it was mostly gone around the top of her head. She looked like a weird kid monk.
The class giggled. Kind of. The air sparked with oddness.
“I’m sorry,” said Mrs. Hoeffer, and gave the hat back. You’d never seen such a red face. She went on with the problem, Hannah replaced the hat, and most of the class stared at Hannah’s pink cap and the errant hairs dangling from beneath its edge.
You cannot believe you heard Mrs. Hoeffer say she was sorry.
That was Monday. The prior Saturday, you rode your bike across busy Lafayette Boulevard to the cozy, hilly neighborhood where Marina lives. (On the side of Lafayette where you live, there’s an apartment complex, an unlaned road with half & half houses & trailers, and a public park with a desultory swing set. On Marina’s side, curved driveways and shaped hedges. The landscape tailored to suitability.) You and Marina played badminton in her backyard on the pop-up net she got for her birthday. Then you went inside and dug into her toy box. She had a thing for Polly Pocket, and owned tons of fold-up sets with miniature universes inside, tidy and portable and complete. Complete except for one fuzzed black dog that had been included in the Pet Parade set she showed you three weeks earlier.
“I was supposed to bring it back,” you say.
“I don’t want it,” Marina says.
“You can have it back. I just forgot.”
“It doesn’t matter. It was a present.”
“I know,” you say, although you don’t actually know anymore. You don’t know if Marina told her mother you’d taken it, if Marina’s mother asked about it and Marina lied to cover herself, if Marina’s mother dislikes you and lied to your mother, if Marina and her mother schemed to embarrass you, if if if if. You don’t know. You don’t know.
Your mother drives across Lafayette to get you, but your bike won’t fit in the car, so you ride and she drives the five minutes back. You cross half the boulevard first, wait in the turn lane for her. She edges forward, in the black Hyundai she yells at for its crappy back window and obtrusive A-pillar; near-misses have sprung from its poor visibility. You edge forward. You smile at each other through the car window. (Relations aren’t so strained now as they were two weeks ago, while you were still grounded.) Like a game, she edges. You edge. The blare of a horn distracts you from her grin back to Lafayette Boulevard, where an F-150 has barely missed the front tire of your bike. Her face, through the window, is transformed.
You wait until the boulevard is completely empty before you pedal (sedately) across the blacktop and up the entrance to the apartment complex. She takes a shorter driveway around the other side and is sitting in the Hyundai, door ajar, when you walk your bike up.
Her face is drained. “I’m sorry,” she says.
“Mom, nothing happened.”
“But – you—” and she actually bursts into tears, the only time you will ever see a human being do this. She sits half in the car and half out, her knees open, the fabric of her dress sunk between her splayed legs, as if someone carrying her has dumped her there with no regard for the arrangement of her limbs. She sobs as if sobbing is screaming.
On the previous Tuesday, good old Courtney Sikes walked up to the table where you and Marina were eating lunch. (Hannah was not in school that day.) A clump of straight-haired girls, laden with sparkling treasures from Claire’s and reeking of Juniper Breeze, followed Courtney and hung behind her a little. You got birthday scrunchies from half of them in September; you no longer know which boys they would list as potential husbands on their MASH sheets.
“What’s up,” said Courtney. “Hey, Marina.”
“Hey,” said Marina.
“I was looking at your hair,” Courtney said. “It’s, like, reflective. I could see it when I came in.”
Marina’s mother pulled her hair back so tight and shiny that her scalp did not recognizably sprout individual hairs. (Your hair was still growing out from a cut so disastrous that your best hope was to go altogether unnoticed until it hit shoulder-length.)
“I bet you have a headache,” said Courtney. “I got a headache just looking at you.”
The hangers-on tittered.
Because you and Courtney were best friends once, Marina glanced at you. You glanced back, helpless. You had no information to convey. No strategy for stalemate or victory. Courtney Sikes, with her slanted little eyes and straight blond ponytail and chipped nail polish, is Genghis Khan in ripped jeans.
“Can I touch it?” said Courtney. She did, without permission. Marina recoiled. “Oooh! It’s so greasy!”
“It’s mousse,” muttered Marina.
“I knew you’d be greasy,” Courtney said. She leaned forward and her nostrils flared. “You smell like refried beans all the time. Even in gym. Like you’re sweating Mexican food.”
Marina got up and slammed her backpack on the table. She muttered some more as she put her books away.
“What’d you say, grease girl?”
“Chinga tu madre,” spat Marina, with a torrent of Spanish too rapid for you to understand. (You understood the first three words because she’d taught them to you in a whisper one afternoon at her house, while you half-listened for her mother’s footsteps.)
“Yo quiero Taco Bell,” Courtney called at Marina’s retreating backpack, and her crowd fell all over themselves laughing.
You kept your head down until she left. Clutched the small black dog in your pocket. Courtney’s sword has been at your neck too recently for you to be fearless.
The Sunday before that Tuesday was your last grounded day. The last time you could excuse the Hannah-shaped hole in your social life with that reason, being grounded. You read Bruce Coville and listened to the Cranberries in your room and said nothing to your mother, who spent the entire weekend murmuring quietly at her computer.
I’m so glad your dad didn’t come up this weekend, she said over dinner on Sunday. (Rice-a-Roni and leftover chicken breast.)
I miss him, you said.
I know you do, sweetie, she hastened. And I miss him too. I just meant the place is such a mess, and I’ve got so much work to do. I don’t want him to see us like this.
He loves you just the way you are, you said. He wouldn’t care about a messy apartment.
Oh, said your mother, I know that’s true. In a way. But he loves me more when the apartment’s clean. You should always present the nicest face to the people you love most.
That doesn’t make any sense, you wanted to say. But you weren’t sure. And your mother knows so much more than you do. So you chewed the rubbery chicken and sang “Dreams” in your head. All my life is changing every day, in every possible way.
You can go see Courtney next week if you want to, your mother said. Grounding’s over, dum duh-duh DAAAAA!
Maybe, you said. You couldn’t remember if you told her about Courtney, and she forgot, or if you didn’t tell her. Either way could be so.
Or Marina, she said. Has Marina talked to you since you took the dog?
I didn’t take it, you said.
She sighed. Bess, she said, I wish you’d just tell the truth about the dog. I’m tired of hearing you lie. Especially now that the grounding’s over. Dum duh-duh daaaaaaa.
You reach in your pocket, touch the black dog with a fingertip. You’ve kept it in your pocket every day.
In all my dreams, it’s never quite as it seems. Never quite as it seems.
The prior Wednesday, you get to the cafeteria early, and Hannah comes to sit at your table. She wears a broad hairband on the front of her head and keeps the hood of her sweatshirt up over the back. “Hey,” she says.
“What’s up,” you say. You glance around the caf. Only the white-trash boys are here yet, and it’s because they skipped the last class. They have no interest at all in you or Hannah. They pass car magazines and enormous bottles of Mountain Dew around the table nearest the doors that lead out to the parking lot.
“Do you want to come over this weekend?” she says. “I found something great in an old Cricket. It’s a story about a girl who turned into a sunflower.”
“I can’t,” you say. “I’m grounded.”
“It’s nothing,” you say. “Forget it.”
“Um,” she says, “all right. What about next weekend, then? Will you still be grounded?”
“No.” You are allergic to lying, now, after the black dog. In no situation does it seem like a good idea, not even sitting across from Hannah right now.
“Do you want to come over then? We can watch The Little Mermaid like you wanted.”
She has a really big TV. All her VHS tapes are in clamshell boxes. Not on labeled Memorex tapes, three movies to a tape, with commercials haphazardly edited out. Bought. One movie per box.
“I can’t,” you say. You stare at your Capri Sun as if you could set it on fire with your mind. “I’m sorry.”
She is silent a moment. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” you say, and look up at her. That doesn’t work and you look back at your Capri Sun. The white-trash boys laugh in the background, Travis Putnam not on their minds today. “Nothing’s the matter. Just not next week. My mom’s not…I mean…maybe later.”
Her silence flays off your skin. You clench both fists between your thighs.
They made fun of you in elementary school for being short. They called you shrimp. In line at lunch one day, they teased and teased and teased until you snapped and attacked them with your fingernails. They stayed away from you after that, but some others became they, and the new they teased you for being crazy. For fighting back in a red haze. You didn’t care as long as they didn’t call you shrimp.
Now you wish you were a shrimp. Or a seahorse. Or a tadpole. A tiny swimmy creature with a microscopic brain. So small it could slip through the crack between tables in this cafeteria and be lost. So small and dumb that Hannah wouldn’t want to be friends with it at all.
“Let me know when you want to hang out,” she says, and gets up and walks away.
She leaves you sitting there skinless. Exposed. The white-trash boys bray and haw. You stare at your Capri Sun until Marina sits down across from you and says your name.
The Saturday before, you rode over to Marina’s in the afternoon. She’d said on Friday that she had a new Polly Pocket set to show you. First you raided the kitchen for the cheese crackers and Dr. Pepper that her mom stocked (you’d be eating carrot sticks at home), and then you broke out the Cranberries CD you’d been listening to for a week straight. Marina had only heard “Linger” on the radio. You put it on the boombox in her room, skipped to “Dreams,” and turned it way up. She frowned and turned it down. This hurt your feelings, but you paid attention anyway when she opened the purple dog-headed case that sat in the exact middle of her made bed.
“It’s the Dazzling Dog Show,” she said.
“Dazzling” was not the word you would have chosen. Only Polly and a single black dog lived inside the set. But the dog caught your attention, for no reason you could explain. It was a hard plastic object not more than an inch and a half long, covered in black fuzz from head to toe, one foot raised as a show dog prancing, tail poised over its body as a scorpion striking. You liked it. You picked it up and it fit in your hand.
You and Marina played with her Polly Pockets, mixing and matching sets and accessories and then rearranging them properly. The Cranberries played and then played again. Marina liked some of the CD but not all of it. “I still like ‘Linger’ best,” she said.
“You can tape it if you want.”
“Nah, I’ll just get the CD.” She opened the top of her boombox and the music halted mid-note. “It’s almost dinner,” she said.
This wasn’t true, but Marina is very particular about how long people stay at her house. “I should go,” you said.
“You want to keep the dog?”
You looked down at your left hand, where the black dog had been comfortably enclosed for most of the afternoon. “Oh, jeez. I’m sorry.”
She shrugged. “You can have it if you want it.”
“No, I mean…you just got it, right?”
“I have a bunch. There’s another set with two dogs. I can just put one of those in.”
You wavered. It didn’t seem right to take a gift she’d just gotten. But you really liked the dog. For no reason you could explain. “Really?”
“Yeah, keep it.” She closed the Dazzling Dog Show and replaced it in her toy box, and then put the Cranberries CD back in its case with equal precision and presented it to you.
“Wow,” you said. “Thank you. I really like it.”
“I can tell,” she said, and grinned.
When you got home, you put the black dog on the kitchen table. It stood watch while you did your homework. Your mom got up from her computer about an hour later.
“Oh, man, I’m beat.” She peered into the fridge. “And there’s nothing for dinner. How was Marina’s house?”
“Fine,” you said.
“Hey, what’s that?” She picked up the black dog.
“It’s from the new Polly Pocket set,” you said.
“She really likes that stuff, huh?”
“Yep. She just got the set on Thursday, so she wanted to show it off.”
She turned the dog over in her fingertips. “This came from a brand-new set she got?”
“Yeah.” You couldn’t figure out how to explain why you liked the dog, so you kept examining a diagram in your social studies textbook. Balance of powers. President, Congress, Supreme Court.
“Bess,” said your mother, “did you take this from Marina?”
“Did you take this dog?”
“I…I took it from her house,” you said. “I brought it home with me.”
“Without her permission?”
“Oh, no! No, she gave it to me. I really liked it, and she gave it to me.”
Eagles don’t stare down mice as hard as she stared at you. “She gave it to you? Of her own free will?”
“She gave it to me.”
“You didn’t talk her into giving it to you?”
“What? I liked it, and she said I could have it if I wanted it.”
Your mother put the black dog down and went into the bedroom. You heard her on the phone.
Your stomach shriveled.
After talking to Marina’s mother, she called your father. With the door closed.
After talking to your father, she came back with her arms folded. By now your stomach had emptied. Dinnertime had come and gone. The dog’s front leg was still lifted, its tail still curved.
She sat down at the table. “Bess,” she said, “I don’t know why you’re lying to me about the dog. I’m going to give you one more chance to tell the truth. Did you take the dog from Marina?”
You took a deep breath. “No.”
She put her hand over her eyes and sighed. “All right, then. You’re grounded for a week. And you need to give the dog back to Marina. You’ve got to learn to tell the truth to me when I ask you to.”
“But I am telling the truth. Marina gave me the dog.”
“Bess, just…” She left her hand where it was. “Stop. Just go to bed. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
“Go. I’m through talking to you for tonight.”
You picked up the black dog.
You went to your room.
You put on “Linger” and stared at the ceiling.
The dog fit in your hand nicely. Felt good there.
Your mother microwaved some pasta for herself and went back to her computer.
That was Saturday; on Friday, you spent the night at Hannah’s house.
This is the second time you’ve spent the night with Hannah. She likes books almost as much as you do, and you’re amazed (a second time) at how many of her possessions are things you wish you had. Gone with the Wind and The Little Mermaid, all the Wizard of Oz books, and a couple dozen CDs, only a few of which are country. She plays Gloria Estefan and Weird Al and Mariah Carey, and you play Yahtzee and hand-slap games and do up MASH sheets. She’s going to marry Tim Crosby, the lucky duck, but they’ll live in a shack.
Her mom hovers a little bit, but eventually she leaves you alone. She gives you a couple of special smiles that show she likes you.
“Do you like badminton?” you ask.
“Isn’t that the thing with the little racquets?”
“Yeah, and a birdie.”
“I haven’t played it.”
“You have to come to Marina’s sometime,” you say. “She’s got a pop-up net. It’s really fun.”
“Is Marina nice? She seems kind of uptight.”
“Nah,” you say. “She’s mostly nice. She can be a little bit uptight, but not about people.”
“Okay,” says Hannah.
The evening passes through Truth or Dare (you call Tim Crosby and hang up and then collapse in a storm of giggles) and Never Have I Ever (Hannah hasn’t ever tried using a tampon, even for practice). Finally you lie on her floor and she lies in her bed and it’s dark and sleep should be the last thing you’re going to do together before tonight becomes tomorrow.
But you are always the last to go to sleep. So you whisper to her. And she doesn’t sound sleepy either.
So you trade secrets: about your father, about her stepsister, about the baby blanket you still sleep with, about what she heard the white-trash girls saying about their boyfriends in study hall one day.
Finally, “I have another secret,” says Hannah.
“Tell me,” you say.
Sleep is more distant than ever.
“You can’t tell anyone,” she says.
“I won’t,” you say.
The nightlight glows steadily. Her ballet-slipper clock ticks.
“I have these fits,” she says.
Secret has changed meanings between there and here, you discover.
“They’re called seizures. I kind of…black out, and I pull my own hair out.”
You can think of nothing whatsoever to say.
“It’s not catching,” she says.
“Are you awake?”
“Um…so that’s my secret.”
“Does it hurt?” you ask.
“No,” she says. “I don’t remember. I just wake up later and there’s less hair than there was. I’ve been wearing a wig lately, or hats, but you can see—” She tips her head into the nightlight’s beam. You can just see a shimmer of scalp, and a few patchy places where the even fall of her brown hair straggles and fails. Her head looks like a field of sickly wheat.
“Wow,” you say.
“I’m losing so much hair that I don’t think I can wear a wig anymore,” she says. “They’re really itchy.”
You are still at a loss. A prickly sensation waves across your skin, and you realize it’s fear. Is it Hannah you fear? She’s the same girl as she was twenty minutes ago.
“Wow,” you say again. “That’s kind of awful.”
“I’m probably going to pull out my eyelashes and my eyebrows too,” she says. It’s as if the words are water and she’s dammed them back until now. “I don’t like it, but there’s not much I can do.”
“Wow,” a third time. You are definitely a moron, but your mind is only coming up with things you can’t say. I can’t believe that. You’re going to be so ugly. How did this happen? Why can’t a doctor fix it? You should figure out how to stop doing that.
“Yeah,” she says. “It’s bad, but it’s okay. We all have stuff wrong with us. Everybody. It’s just different stuff.”
“I guess that’s true,” you say.
Hannah drifts off to sleep very soon after. Her undamming has brought her peace. Her voice, as she explains her malady, is happy.
You still feel prickly, and now cold.
Sleep does not come.
You wonder what’s wrong with you.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials, an SPD bestseller. Her work has appeared in Ms., The Washington Post, BOMB, The Rumpus, Conjunctions, LARB, and many other places. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida.