Ever since her older brother Andy died, Alison's life has been just as dark as her home in Tacoma, Washington.
Her mom is in perpetual mourning, her father ran out on them, and after hanging out with Andy's hard-partying friends for a year, Alison's reputation is trashed. She planned on taking the path of least resistance during her senior yearhanging out with her punk rocker boyfriend and trying not to flunk out of schooluntil a massive fight with her mother pushes her over the edge, and she runs away.
At first, joining a group of radical environmentalists who are occupying a Washington State forest is just about having a place to crash. But the ancient woods prove to be as vibrant and welcoming as they are vulnerable, and for the first time, Alison realizes that she might be more powerful than she thought. As tensions in the forest mount and confrontations with authorities get physical, Alison has to decide whether she's willing to put her own life on the line to fight for what she believes in.
In this stunning literary work, Jessica Blank uses the anti-establishment and radical mood of the 1990s to show a girl grappling to find the strength and courage to do what's right . . . for the world . . . and for herself.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
My brother, Andy, pulls me downstairs and into his room. “What—?” I start to say, but “Shh,” he answers, serious. I clamp my mouth shut, thinking some- thing must be going on. He takes one look at my solemn face and bursts out laughing.
For a second I want to kick his ass for tricking me, but I can’t be mad: that laugh’s my favorite sound in the entire world, warm and rich, full of secrets that he’s just about to tell you. Something alive, and bright, right here in stupid rainy, gray Tacoma.
He clicks the door shut behind me—“C’mere”—and I feel lucky. His room is on the bottom floor of our split-level, almost underground. Through the row of tiny windows near the ceil- ing you can see the moss and grass and mushrooms where the soil meets the air. It’s like a lair in here: guitars, speakers, milk crates full of tapes. His walls are postered floor to ceiling: Jane’s Addiction, Pearl Jam, the Led Zeppelin hermit guy dangling his lantern over the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven.” Each one of those posters is like a world, a place that I could go, a universe that Andy knows and might explain to me. I know I’m already fourteen and I’m supposed to think he’s annoying, but mostly I just want to know everything he knows.
He waves me over to his navy futon couch, green eyes twinkling beneath his rust-colored stocking cap. “Dude,” he says, digging under the futon. “Listen.” He always calls me dude, or man, or Allie—nicknames, carving out a little space for me and him. Even at school. We’re three years apart, so this year’s the first time we’ve gone to the same school since I was eight. He’s basically the most popular senior, and he makes sure everyone knows that I’m his sister, and suddenly I have a lot more friends than I ever did before.
Andy’s, like, the perfect guy to everyone; it’d be annoying, if it wasn’t just the way he actually is. Teachers love him: he gets straight A’s without even trying; he’s an Eagle Scout; a million girls crush out on him, but their parents like him too. None of the grown-ups know he’s where the sophomore stoners go for weed, or that when he says he’s at the game, he and his friends are really streaking too fast down Pearl Street, bouncing beer cans off store windows, zigzagging through flat, low concrete buildings, blazing through the cold gray wet. Or that they bring me along.
He pulls out two six-packs of Olympia, sweat beading on the blue-and-gold cans. “So check it out.”
“Okay?” I say. “It’s beer.” Everyone at school drinks, but I’ve never seen the point. It just makes you talk loud and smell gross the next morning. And when I’m out with Andy and his friends, driving with the windows down, stars flashing fast like fireworks, I don’t want it to be blurry. “So what.”
“I graduate in June,” he says. “As of then, you’ll be on your own. Which means”—he pulls a can out of the plastic rings—“you’ve got eight months to learn to drink properly without making an ass of yourself.”
I just look at him. “Beer is gross.”
“You think I drink this shit ’cause it’s delicious?” I grin despite myself. “No.”
“You’re gonna need to know how to keep your shit together when I’m not there to look out for you.” He cracks the tab.
I don’t want to think about that. Most kids at our school don’t go to college afterward, and the ones who do mostly stay near Tacoma. But Andy has a scholarship. To UC Santa Barbara. Which is like a thousand miles away.
“C’mon,” he says. “Lemme be a good big brother.” “Fine,” I groan.
“Okay,” he says, starting the lesson. “So how much have you ever drunk at once?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Like, a beer? Some schnapps?” “Okay, first of all,” he says, “stop drinking schnapps. That shit is embarrassing. Plus, you’ll wind up with your stomach pumped.” That did happen to some girl who partied behind the bleachers once; it’s like a legend at our school.
“Don’t worry,” I tell him. “I’m not into puking peppermint.”
“Good,” he says. “So how many do you think you can handle? Five?”
It kind of scares me when his friends drink that much. Not that I would ever tell him that. I don’t want him to think I’m scared of anything. “Why would I want to drink five beers?”
“You need to know your max. How much you can drink before you black out, get stupid. Guys can be assholes, okay? Plus, I don’t want my kid sister ruining my stellar reputation in my absence.” He smirks. “Go ahead,” he says. “While I’m still here. Figure out your limits.”
I roll my eyes, but then I crack the beer and take a sip. “No, you gotta chug it,” he says, “like this,” and downs his in one gulp.
I hear our parents’ feet clomp upstairs as I drink like he showed me. Cold flushes the inside of my chest; my head pounds like I ate too much ice cream. “Ow.” I put my hand to my temple.
“Here.” He grabs my wrist and holds a can to the inside part, where the veins are. “Diverts the blood flow.” It does feel better. He turns up Pearl Jam. “You know I saw these guys in Seattle once? I was, like, a year older than you.”
“Really?” It’s 1994, and Pearl Jam is, like, the hugest band ever, aside from maybe Nirvana.
“They were called Mookie Blaylock then. Nobody’d ever heard of them, but Vedder was already amazing. I held up his leg when he stage-dived.”
“Too bad they just play stadiums now, or I’d take you.” He holds out another can. “Okay, next.”
He downs another beer, then pops the tab on his third and we chug together. I finish before him. “You beat me!” he says. “Badass.” It’s nice to hear him call me that. “They better watch out—you’re gonna turn out hard-core.”
Then he pounds another. Then one more.
When the van pulls up in the driveway, the sun’s already set. It’s raining, the kind of steady wet Tacoma’s famous for: moss lines the seams of our waterlogged roof, mounds of wet green straining against the black. Drops thump on Scott’s sky-blue Chevy van, and when he shuts off the ignition, the windshield wipers stop midstroke.
I’ve known Scott since he and Andy were skinny ten- year-olds; he still has the same freckled bony frame, but man-sized now, like all of them. Scott cracks the driver’s door, and I see past him to three more: Dave and Mike in the backseat, Brandon on the passenger side with a bottle of knockoff Jack Daniel’s. They’re all drunk.
“Alison!” Brandon slurs.
“ ’Sup, sis?” Scott grins at me.
Andy pulls his army jacket over his plaid flannel, tugs his stocking cap toward his bloodshot eyes. “Dude,” he tells Scott, “you’re drunk.”
“So?” Scott laughs.
“So,” Andy says, and grabs at the keys in the ignition, “scoot over.” He pushes Scott toward the passenger seat, missing the keys the first time. Then he swipes again, stumbling a little. This time he catches the keys. He turns the van off, pulls the keys out, clutching them in his hand. “You aren’t driving.”
“What, you’re better off than me?” Scott grins again, and the other guys laugh. I look at Andy, trying to calculate the difference between five beers and however much fake Jack Daniel’s is gone from that bottle. I’m not that good at math. “Whatever, man, I can hold it better,” Andy says. Mike exhales weed in the backseat. “And I haven’t smoked. Scoot over.” Andy nudges Scott with his shoulder, swaying. Scott moves into the passenger side; Brandon ducks into the back.
Andy gets in the driver’s seat. Musical chairs.
“Andy, maybe you shouldn’t—” I start to say, but I don’t think he hears me. He settles in behind the wheel.
“Come with, Al!” Brandon hollers at me from the back. “We’ll get something to eat.”
Andy puts the key in the ignition.
I stand there, rain pelting my shoulder blades, wanting to say something, knowing they’d just laugh at me. Not wanting to be laughed at.
“Pancakes!” Brandon yells, sloppy.
Dave swats him: “Cheeseburgers, man.”
Andy takes his stocking cap off and puts his seat belt on. I look at our house, Mom and Dad inside, homework and TV; I look at the van, full of wind and speed and Andy’s friends and Andy.
I can feel what three beers did to me; he had more. But he’s done this before, every weekend, even. He knows, right? He knows what’s okay.
Andy turns the key. Rain sticks my hair to my cheek. “You coming?”
His hands are too loose on the wheel. I want to tell him not to go; I want to say, Get out: it’s stupid, it’s not safe. But I know what would happen if I did: they’d laugh and Andy’d be embarrassed; he’d turn to them and say, “Sorry, man, she never really drank before. She doesn’t know.” And he’d be right. I don’t. Time stretches, raindrops beating on the metal roof.
I finally say, “I’ve got a ton of algebra.”
“Suit yourself,” he says. “Enjoy the buzz. Good job, Al, your first real drinking.” The van rumbles as he turns the key and guns the engine, his friends’ too-loud laughter fading under the hum of the engine. He smiles at me through the windshield, then backs out.
It’s the last time I ever see him.
I sit in fifth-period trig, digging my pencil into the soft pages of my notebook. Ms. Hudock drones on about equations and I take notes, trying to hold the abstract tangle of symbols in my brain. I hate math. All those symbols don’t mean anything. All I want is something real. Something you can hold in your hands and touch. Not numbers and transcripts and grade point averages, not starting salaries or hourly wages. My mom says I have no idea how lucky I am that UCSB is letting me use Andy’s scholarship, how she wrote them a letter and begged, how she never had anyone do that for her; she had to waitress her way through school when Andy was three, when she was pregnant with me. But it doesn’t make me feel lucky. It just makes me feel like I’m following some path they charted out for someone else.
After fifth period, I stand at my locker, unloading point- less math books from my backpack, loading in pointless history. My locker’s not decked out; no pinup boys for me. I’ve got a PETA bumper sticker, a mirror, and a Melvins poster, and that’s it. Designed for maximum efficiency and minimum time in the halls. As I reapply my Wet n Wild #501—burgundy so dark it’s almost black—Naomi Gladstone and her popular- girl acolytes cluster by Naomi’s locker. Smirks turn to sneers on their painted-pink mouths when they see me. Naomi shakes her shiny blond hair and leans in to one of her girls, a short one in pegged jeans, permed hair, and Keds. Naomi whispers something in her ear, then looks at me, and they titter like a pack of tiny toy dogs.
Girls hate me; they all have, since freshman year. That’s what happens when you have a “bad reputation.” Even the cool-girl art chicks brush by you in the hallway with their Smiths T-shirts, fading back into the safe tangle of each other, leaving you alone to stare down the guys. It’s not that I care so much what people say, not anymore. The thing I can’t stand is the loneliness. People only see a story, a rumor, what their friend heard last week. They never see you. I wouldn’t mind being a pariah, if it didn’t make me invisible.
As I’m zipping up my backpack, a pack of varsity-jerseyed muscle barrels down the hall. Lacrosse or football, I can’t really tell; all I know is that my heart starts thudding. It’s weird how guys can look down on you and want to sleep with you at the same time. I should be used to it by now, but even after all this time it kind of scares me.
I look around; they’re too close for me to slip away without them noticing. I brace myself. Team Naomi’s voices trill up at the sight of them, hoping for their attention, wanting to be looked at. But the guys ignore them, and they stop at my locker instead.
John McDonnell looks me up and down, mean, his spiky brown hair and freckles giving him a redneck kind of edge. His friends cluster behind him; one of them elbows John. “Check it out, man; she’s alone. Today might be your lucky day.”
“ ’Sup, Alison?” another one says, a leer in his voice. Then he chuckles, deep and throaty, insinuating, like my name means something dirty.
It’s not like I don’t know how it got this way.
When Andy died, it wasn’t just him that went away: the first three months, my mom hardly even talked, and my dad was literally trying to keep her from killing herself, so it’s not like he could pay attention to me. My own friends got weird, distant, like I had some strange contagious death disease and they’d catch it if they got too close.
Andy’s friends were the only ones who got it. They were in the van with him that night. So we were together in this survivors’ club we never had to talk about. And they just took me in, folded me inside like I was one of them. Beers and speeding and skipped class, curfews crumpled up and tossed out windows, matted to the pavement by the rain. I was everyone’s kid sister, and as long as I was there, we could pretend it never happened. I could still be safe, and they could still be strong. They clung to me, protected me like a kid clutches a teddy bear, comforting themselves by taking care of me.
Then that spring I got boobs.
I’d known Scott since I was seven. I slept with him in April, and then I slept with Dave in May. Then Brian, then Brandon, then Mike. The actual sex part was whatever; I guess I couldn’t really feel it. I just liked having someone so familiar be so close. It kept me safe. Like someone bigger than me was looking out for me. I don’t know what I thought would happen—that they’d all be my boyfriend, that even one of them would. I guess I thought that it would make them never leave.
That June they graduated, moved out, started to get jobs. By the end of summer they were gone, and by the time school started, everybody knew. The way people looked at me after that almost made me miss the pity.
John McDonnell starts at my Doc Martens, working his way up. His eyes linger on the holes in my jeans. “Wish that one went up higher,” he says, nodding at the rip on my left thigh. He takes a step in, a full foot taller than me.
“You’re an asshole,” I tell him, the hard of my voice covering the flutter of my breath beneath.
His friends laugh. I cross my arms, armoring myself. Team Naomi stare daggers from ten feet away. One of them whispers: Why is he talking to her? Another rolls her eyes: Why do you think? They’re jealous of me. Which is insane. If they knew the things that happened to add up to this moment, they would not be jealous. They would be so terrified they’d shut their mouths and turn back to their mirrors and put on their pale pink lipstick and go back to pretending people like me don’t exist.
Wind bites my face as I speed down the hill on my bike. This is my favorite part: when you’ve pedaled and pedaled till your thighs burn, till you almost can’t push any further, but you press on to the top and then tip over the hill and start hur- tling, fast and faster, and the wind rushes your ears and bites your skin and it’s so fast that you couldn’t stop even if you wanted to, not even if a bus was headed toward you, not even if a person stepped into the street. It’s the only time you feel unstuck, alive, breath racing in and out of your lungs, your body made of motion, like a storm or a wild animal. It’s the only time you feel like you could go anywhere, be anything, or at least something more than the dead ends that have piled up in front of you, and you move so fast the air turns to a tunnel around you, a space where you could change, slip off your skin like a superhero and put on another face, another voice, another life.
Except eventually the hill bottoms out and gravity slows you down and you open your eyes and here you are, in Tacoma, the cranes at the container port towering spin- dly and black above Puget Sound, squat concrete buildings dingy with accumulated smog, rusty cars and mossy roofs and cheap vinyl siding curling off of crappy houses. And farther out, the strip malls: the monster Goodwill and the Quik-Mart, the Chili’s and McDonald’s, parking lots full of identical SUVs, cul-de-sacs full of identical houses, asphalt and plastic and endless, endless gray. On a good day you can see Mount Rainier poking its snowcapped, craggy head up in the distance, but most days it just fades into the dirty, pasty sky.
When I was a kid, my mom used to tell my dad that some- day we’d have a house with a view of Mount Rainier. That would be the big prize, the sign they’d finally made it, the symbol of the perfect life she’d planned. “Just think,” she’d say, “a window where you can look out and see the moun- tain from your living room.” That was a long time ago, back when she used to imagine things. When my dad still lived with us, and Andy; when there was such a thing as “we.” Now all there is is her, her pain like a heavy wool blanket laid over our house, blacking out the windows, trapping everything inside.
A year ago, when she emerged from her room for one of her brief fits of activity, she nailed up a cheap landscape painting of Mount Rainier in our entryway. Purple acrylic for the mountain, titanium white for the snow. It’s covered in smudged Plexiglas, framed with fake lacquered wood. She hung it on top of a big ugly gash in the wall, angled to cover the hole. Within a week it was covered in dust, like the rest of our house.
I lean my bike against the wall in the front hallway, unlace my boots, and stare at that stupid, crappy painting, cracked plaster peeking out at the bottom, the broken wall showing through everything.
I dart down the stairs, hoping she won’t hear me. She usually doesn’t. Usually she’s in her room, checked out, watching Maury Povich or Montel Williams or crying. At the funeral, she didn’t even hug me; her face stayed buried in her hands. When we came home, she cried constantly, too raw for me to look at; she said she didn’t want to live. What was I supposed to say to that? Hey, Mom, my brother died and I don’t know what the fuck to do. Could you maybe help me out here? She couldn’t even help herself.
So I just repeated what the guidance counselor told me: she was in shock, it would wear off, normalcy would return. But the months went by, her face red and wet, and it never got normal again. My dad tried to save her; I spent every night alone. One night through the door I heard my dad beg her to keep hanging on: they still had me, and wasn’t that enough? She told him no. He told her he knew what she meant.
Eventually he gave up, started staying out at night, leaving me at home to pray to a god I didn’t believe in that she wouldn’t do something stupid and leave the world. And then his stuff got packed beneath the stairs, cardboard boxes stacked with the life we used to have, and he moved up to Edmonds. He didn’t try to take me. She got so bad, he wanted to forget it all, close us up in a box he could leave behind, me and her and her pain, the memory she wouldn’t let fade.
Once he left, I started living on Lean Pockets and Tater Tots, cut class with Andy’s friends, stayed out way past mid- night, slept with all of them. Do what you want, Alison. I don’t care.
I slip into my room, click the door shut behind me, turn the lock. I have trig homework, but I don’t want to do it. I could read ahead in Beowulf, but I’ve got a solid B in English, it’s not going anywhere. Besides, I already got into college. Not that it was my doing, not really. My mom engineered the whole thing.
It’s all she’s really talked to me about in the last two years, the only thing that brought her out of her room and, however briefly, into the realm of the living. Calling UCSB, finding someone in admissions, telling them our story, writing letters about how all I want is to have the education that my brother never got, and she’s a single mom now, and my dad left, we have nothing, and would they please allow me to receive his scholarship. In his honor.
UCSB’s a party school, huge, full of frat guys. Andy wanted to be by the beach, sun beating bright on everything. Golden. That isn’t me; it won’t be, ever. But she wants me to go, so she can pretend he has some kind of legacy. And I know what’ll happen if I tell her no: she’ll fall apart, like I’m taking away her life, his life. Like I’m taking him from her. Again. I applied and got in.
But I also did another thing. At the guidance counselor’s, where I hide sometimes from Naomi and the jocks, there are these catalogs no one ever looks at, and I found one: for Antioch, this school in Ohio, tiny and weird, no grades, no majors. I saw the pictures, all the kids freaky-looking and different, and for some reason I imagined that school might be full of people like me, the ones who are alone because they have to be, because nobody else is strong enough to under- stand or help. I filled out the application secretly. I told my whole story in my essay. And I got in. It’s not like I can really go: tuition costs like fifteen thousand dollars. My mom doesn’t have the money; she wouldn’t pay it even if she did. But there’s something comforting about having something that belongs to me, something she doesn’t know about, even if it’s just a place I go to in my mind.
I go to the full-length mirror propped against the wall. I keep the letter folded up behind the mirror, tucked inside a notebook, where she can never see it. Dear Alison: We are thrilled to invite you to join the Antioch community. Reading it, two things twist inside me: the comfort of knowing someone somewhere wants me, and the knot of knowing that I can never say yes.
That knot swells till it’s a dull, hot pain between my ribs. I fold the letter back up and look at the nine tiny rings lined up in my left earlobe. There’s just enough room for one more. I flick my lighter and hold the flame to a safety pin till the tip glows orange, then black. I let it cool for a second, and then I stretch out my earlobe and jam it through. No ice; I like the pain. My eyes water, hot; the knot unties, my cheeks flush, and I feel like I do hurtling down that hill on my bike: for a second, alive.
I’m closing the safety pin around my ear when she knocks on my door. I don’t answer. I wipe the tears from my eyes, the snot from my nose, and sit down on the rug. I screw open a tiny bottle of Wite-Out and start painting it on my finger- nails, feigning calm.
“Alison?” she says, knocking again.
I don’t answer. I don’t want to talk to her.
“Alison.” She pounds on the door now—“I saw your bike; I know you’re home”—and then she tries to turn the knob. I wipe a glob of Wite-Out on my jeans. My earlobe throbs, hot.
She jiggles the handle. “Is your door locked?” Pause.
“Alison? Is this door locked?” “I guess so.”
Pause. Jiggle. Click.
“Well, could you unlock it, please?” “My hands are kind of full.” “Alison.”
“Open the door.” “Hang on.” “Open the door.” Pause.
I screw the clumpy cap back on the Wite-Out and unlock the door; she walks in. Her dishwater hair grazes her skinny shoulders, light denim jeans skating up her flat hips to her waist. We have the same build, long-limbed and lanky, but when Andy died, she lost her curves, and mine came in six months later. So we don’t look the same. She’s wearing half the made-up face she had this morning: dried lipstick rings the edges of her mouth, orange powder clings to her cheeks, mascara smudged beneath her eyes. She painted it all on before work: her mask for the world. For strangers, she tries. But not for me.
“Here.” She thrusts a thick envelope out. It’s heavy, like the Yellow Pages. “This came.”
“What is it?” I pick at the edges, trying to keep the Wite-Out from getting smudged. She stands there watching.
“I’m opening it! Jesus.”
It’s the UCSB catalog. Of course: the only reason she ever talks to me.
I look up at her. “Really?”
“What do you mean, ‘really’? Yes, really.” “Thanks.” I pick at the Wite-Out on my nails.
She stands there like I’m supposed to do something that will make her feel different. I feel her eyes on me, wanting something I can’t give her. I can’t fix what’s inside her. No matter how excited I pretend to be about Andy’s fucking school, it will never fix her, I’ll never be him. I’ll always fail.
“You could at least act appreciative.” “I said thanks.”
“Alison.” She just stares at me. “What.”
“Do you have any idea how hard I worked to set this up for you? You’re going to college.” She looks at me like I’m supposed to suddenly say, Oh my God, you’re right, I forgot, you saved my life, thank you so much. I don’t say what I want to say, which is I don’t want to go to that stupid school.
“Jesus, Alison, you have no idea how hard it was. You have no idea. I waited tables at that shithole for years so I could get a degree and a real job—”
“What, in your stupid shipping company’s office, filing papers?” I picture the office she works in, its tan carpets and beige-painted cabinets, its metal desk. Piles of papers tracking imports and exports, meaningless inanimate objects passed back and forth between anonymous companies, the numbers on her charts a brittle, empty shell around the void underneath. “That’s what I’m supposed to want?”
“You know, Alison, your brother never talked that way to me.” Her voice is sharp, like she’s jabbing it at me, poking me with it: You’re not him. You aren’t good enough.
“Trust me, I know,” I tell her. “He was perfect. And he’d be excited for this stupid catalog and throw his arms around you and say, Oh my God, thank you so much for bringing this to me and you’d be proud and everything would be perfect if I was him but I’m not, okay? I’m not him.” That knot between my ribs is back again, hot and tight and growing, and I wish I could say what goes beyond those words: and it’s all my fault, I didn’t stop him, and I know you think that if I do what he was supposed to do, it’ll close some kind of circle, but it never will, it’ll never get better, I broke it, it’s broken, and nothing I ever do can ever put it back together, so stop fucking asking me to, stop asking me to fix it. My cheeks burn and I feel like something wants to explode.
I throw the catalog at her feet.
It lands face-first, half open, spine split. The pages crumple. She doesn’t say anything. She just bends to pick it up, to smooth the crushed corners: careful with it, gentle, slow. I wonder what it would have felt like if she’d looked at me like that three years ago. If she’d touched me the way she’s touch- ing that stupid catalog, trying to put things back together. My eyes well up. For a second I imagine her looking up at me that way: like she cares.
But she doesn’t. She keeps her eyes down on the book and turns to leave.
“She’s an asshole,” I say into the phone. “Come get me.” “Fighting with the Man again, huh?”
“Or the Woman.”
“Right, right. But can a woman be the Man, though? See, I don’t know, ’cause the dynamics of authority—”
“Shut up, Jeff,” I say, and laugh, grateful for the fact that he can talk about it all like it’s some abstraction.
He laughs back. “Okay. I’ll be there in a minute. Cool?” “Cool,” I say, and we hang up.
I’ve been with Jeff since before rainy season started, the beginning of October. He’s nineteen. We met at Point Defiance Park; I was riding my bike and he was eating lentil mush with a bunch of punk kids near a sign that said “Food Not Bombs.” It had a picture of a hand clutching a carrot like a weapon. Jeff came up while I was catching my breath and offered me some food from the big communal vat.
I waved off the food; it reeked of cumin and looked gross. But I kept my eyes on him. “Thanks, though,” I said, trying to keep him there so he’d sit down. He had a lip ring and a black hoodie with a canvas patch of a bomb stitched to the back, blond spiky hair and a skinny body, razor cheekbones. Super cute.
He did. Sit down. And smiled. The first person in practically two years who’d come up to talk to me, and not to give me shit. “Tacoma’s bullshit, huh?” he said.
“Yeah.” I smiled back.
“That’s why I got outta here.” He ran his hand through his hair. His hands looked strong. “I dropped out my junior year, a couple years ago. Got my GED, though. Wanted to go to Evergreen State, y’know?”
I didn’t know, but I nodded.
“Yeah,” he said, shoving lentil mush into his mouth. He pushed his lip ring aside with his tongue. “Evergreen wasn’t as cool as I thought it’d be.” I traced the tribal tattoos on his arms with my eyes. “It’s supposed to be this alternative col- lege, which I thought meant they would actually present some kind of actual alternative to the capitalist lifestyle. No such fuckin’ luck, man.” He was nothing like the guys at school. “Yeah, well,” I stalled, trying to think of something to say that would make him think I was as fascinating as he was to me, with his tattoos and piercings and blue eyes that were different from anyone I’d ever seen. The best I could come up with was “Everybody’s gotta go to the mall, right?”
He squinted at me, wondering if I was serious, and I squirmed under his punk-rock gaze. I was about to backtrack, pull the uncool move of explaining I didn’t really think everyone should go to the mall, when he realized I was being sarcastic.
He laughed. “Totally,” he said, and my shoulders dropped. “Once I moved into the dorms, I realized it was just a bunch of hippies wearing too much corduroy and playing hacky sack. I couldn’t hang with people who just got high and sat around philosophizing, y’know?”
“Yeah,” I laughed, fake-brave, like I knew exactly what he was talking about. “I guess it’s easier to talk about things than to do them.”
“Damn right.” He looked at me, something like respect in his eyes.
Nobody’d looked at me like that since Andy.
“So what’d you do?” I leaned up against a tree, bark rough against my back, trying to look comfortable.
“I dropped out, man. Fuck hippies. Laziness is just another form of conformity, y’know? I moved back up here a couple months ago. I’m crashing in my dad’s basement till I can find a squat or something.”
My mom would hate him. Which I loved.
. . .