Prose: Rae Perkins
We Are Fourteen
Pat Helen had a plan. She’s got legs, she knows how to use them, sheer energy legs, we sang, slamming our lockers. It was Friday. Only one more class separated us from two days of freedom.
I drew a picture of a half-deer half-human on the back of my notebook while Mrs. Olan spluttered on about tangents and cosigns. The creature had one leg. It’s got one leg, it knows how to use it.
Finally, the bell.
Pat Helen and I were not the type to linger in the hall making plans for the football game. This was not our world.
At the arcade, Pat Helen recognized Eddie’s potential right away. For one thing, he was playing Ms. Pac Man. She didn’t even wait for his game to end, just walked right up and asked if he wanted to play her. He smiled.
“Sure.” Eddie looked twelve but swore he was sixteen. “Just look at my arm hair.” We did and were convinced. When he said he was from Farmington, I wanted to maybe say that I’d been to Farmington with my grandparents once to buy peaches. I opened my mouth and everything to say it but no words came out. That happened to me sometimes around boys.
Eddie met most of her requirements, so Pat Helen asked him if he wanted to party. This was part of the plan. He looked surprised, but not too surprised, like maybe he figured this was what happened in the big city, not that our mid-sized suburban sprawl of a town could really qualify as such.
The arcade was in the basement of the mall, across from the fountain. As we headed towards the food court, I tossed a penny into the water and made a wish. Pat Helen was saying, “You’ll just die, Eddie. You will.” She pushed open the heavy glass door. There was the dirty grey sidewalk and the cold smell of traffic. “Eddie, you’re just gonna love it, I swear. It’s exactly like going on a mini-vacation.”
Eddie seemed excited until we got to the unlit alley. We followed Pat Helen to the fire escape and as she started up it, Eddie stared at her ass until it was over the ledge. Then he shrugged, after school special style, and followed her, climbing fast, as if the whole world was watching. The fire escape was ancient and rusty and with Eddie yanking on it like that, I was sure some of the bolts must be coming loose. When it was my turn, I took my time, clutching each filthy rung.
The roof was sandpapery and cluttered with antennae, satellite dishes, bird droppings, a shoe, a rusty lawn chair. Pat Helen and Eddie were already squatting on a few broken cinder blocks, having some kind of conversation.
“I guess it is kind of nice up here,” I heard Eddie say as I approached. He paused while Pat Helen took a small bottle of Jack Daniels from her backpack. “Oh my gosh you guys, this one time? Me and my cousin found some unopened cans of beer by the creek next to our house? It was really warm but it tasted pretty good.”
She tossed him the bottle and he caught it, unscrewed the cap, and chugged it as if it were milk from the carton. “Jesus Eddie, breath.” She grabbed the bottle, positioned it in the center of the circle, and gave it a spin. When it stopped, it was pointing straight at Eddie.
“Truth or dare, Eddie?”
“Um, truth?” he said squirming under her leveled gaze.
“Ok. How many times have you had sex?”
“Um, like, five or six?”
It was pretty obvious he was lying, not that I, for one, cared. I hated this game. It was stupid and boring but it was part of the plan. My policy was to always choose truth. One time, in fourth grade, I hadn’t and ended up in my underwear riding a broomstick.
Eddie spun and it landed on me. I said truth and Eddie asked me what my favorite food was. After thinking about it for a really long time I said macaroni and cheese and Pat Helen was all, “You guys suck. You don’t even know how to play this game. Spin it, Loraine.” I spun and it landed on Pat Helen who, of course, chose dare. It took me awhile to come up with something.
“I dare you to spit off the edge of the building onto someone’s head.” I thought this was really good but she said it was for babies. Still, she stood and went over to the ledge and we followed her.
“You have to release it before the other person is right under you. It’s all about timing,” she explained. It wasn’t very easy to understand what she was saying after that because of the spit wad accruing in her mouth. She waited until a man with a comb-over appeared on the sidewalk below. From up there, it looked like he was made up of two circles: a bald head, streaked with dark wisps of hair, and under that a protrusion of belly, encased in yellow tee shirt. Pat Helen pursed her lips and leaned out so far that I automatically lurched to grab her, but she was already back and the ball of spit was wobbling towards its mark. The man must have sensed something because he looked up the moment we ducked away, slouching against the ledge, laughing like idiots.
“That was so awesome,” said Eddie and the next time the bottle landed on him he chose dare. Pat Helen dared him to kiss me, which he did, but only on the cheek because I turned my head at the last minute. His lips were dry and cool and he smelled like whiskey and fabric softener. It was over very quickly and then it was Pat Helen’s turn. She chose dare again. Eddie dared her to kiss me, on the mouth. Pat Helen shrugged like it was no big deal. All part of the plan. I was amazed it was actually working just like she said it would. She kissed me like we’d practiced in front of the mirror. It was supposed to be our secret weapon, our tool for enslaving boys and men. “Trust me,” she’d whispered, “girl on girl, they have no power over it.” But at that moment I couldn’t remember why we wanted to enslave boys and men in the first place.
By the time we left the rooftop, we were definitely a little drunk. Because of this, Eddie refused to drive, which made Pat Helen mad since gaining access to a vehicle had been one of the main reasons she’s picked him. The streets were already empty, though it wasn’t even nine o’clock. Pat Helen and I knew these streets and we were fast walkers, but that didn’t keep us from carrying on an in depth conversation.
“Who are the Magic Boys?” Eddie asked at one point.
Pat Helen just looked at him. “How can you not know about the best band in the whole United States?”
Eddie liked the Smashing Pumpkins. He ran to the end of the block and karate chopped a bush, then tried to climb a telephone pole.
We were the youngest people at the party, which was something Pat Helen and I were used to, but you could tell it made Eddie a little uncomfortable. It took us awhile to find Derek. He was standing in the corner of the crowded front room, taking to a girl we’d never seen before. When he finally noticed Pat Helen, who was standing there just staring at him, he smiled and held out his hand. Pat Helen just looked at it. I could tell she was in no mood for the secret handshake, which she’d taught me even though she wasn’t supposed to. They probably teach it to everyone they screw, I’d joked and she’d been all, No they don’t, Loraine, no they don’t.
“Hey Derek,” said Pat Helen, as if she’d just happened to run into him. She put her arm around Eddie. “I want you to meet Adam from that L.A. band I was telling you about? Adam is going on tour in Europe.”
It was hard to tell from the way Pat Helen had styled Eddie’s hair and propped up his collar if he was supposed to be Derek’s competition or some kind of boy toy offering to the god of rock, that of course being Derek, in his own mind.
Derek was the lead singer for the Magic Boys. I thought he was pretty gross but Pat Helen totally worshipped him. He looked Eddie / Adam up and down and said, “Nice to meet you.” Then he turned his gaze to my friend. “Patty Hell, you look amazing tonight. I was just thinking about you. I’d very much like for you to meet Monica.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d felt invisible around these people. I looked at Derek, who was dressed in his usual semi-ironic uniform of spandex leggings and an open suit vest with nothing under it, and couldn’t believe that Pat Helen actually thought this guy was her soul mate. Meanwhile, Pat Helen was giving Monica a big, fake smile.
“You look pretty,” said Pat Helen.
“So do you,” said Monica.
“Derek, can I talk to you for just a sec?” He sighed but stood and followed Pat Helen, leaving me and Eddie alone with Monica, which was not a situation I was thrilled by, so I excused myself to go to the bathroom. As I walked across the crowded room, the skirt Pat Helen had made me wear felt way too short. (I maybe forgot to mention that Eddie wasn’t the only one who’d had to change clothes behind the dumpster. Pat Helen said my jeans were the wrong cut and wash.) The bathroom door was locked but luckily there was a full length mirror on the back of the door. Everything seemed to be covered, but the eye make-up I’d been forced to put on was a little smeared. I was trying to do something about that with a spit dampened finger when I felt someone come up behind me.
“Did I scare you?” Ogre had a beer in one hand and a bucket of freshly chopped wood in the other. Everyone called him “Ogre” because of his looks, but he was basically one of the nicest people on the planet.
“Ogre, hi. What’s all the wood for?”
Duh. I knew that. The magic boys lived in a run down Victorian with several large fireplaces which they used for heat and even cooking since they didn’t always pay the bills.
“Cool. So, how are you?” Awkward I adjusted my skirt again, and prayed there wasn’t something hanging out of my nose. Ogre had always gone out of his way to be nice to me, and I liked him.
“I’ve been better,” he said. I knew from Pat Helen that at the last party, which had been a few days before and that I hadn’t been at, Nick, the lead guitar player, had made Ogre wear red lingerie and dance in front of everybody. Nick was supposedly like this musical genius or something, but basically he was just a dick. By day he worked as a lab rat, a paid volunteer for case studies. Sometimes he’d blame his jerkish behavior on some new growth hormone they’d given him or the latest sleep deprivation study he’d undergone.
Ogre was looking at me like he expected me to say something so I asked him what he was going to be for Halloween.
“Santa maybe, because think about it… If you just move the N in Santa and put it on the end and you’ve got Satan. And they both wear red?”
The bathroom door opened and Pat Helen came out, followed by Derek. “Loraine, we’re leaving,” she said.
Pat Helen came over to my house after school and we sat around in my room, bored out of our minds. It had been awhile since my mom had gone to the grocery store and there wasn’t much to snack on, not that Pat Helen would have done so anyway. She’d been subsisting on cucumbers and candy corn ever since breaking up with Derek the week before. She kept trying to get me to do the hippie. “Do the hippie,” she kept saying. I was staring at the carpet, which, to a microscopic life form, would probably seem like an impenetrable jungle. “Do it, Loraine.”
Finally, I hoisted myself up and began limply flopping my arms around like a drug addled flower child. Pat Helen’s laugh was a slow segmented exhalation from her nose. She picked up another handful of candy corn, even though I’d already told her it was supposed to be for trick or treaters, and crammed it into her mouth all at once. She chewed slowly, with a disgusted look on her face. Toad is what we called it when we got like this. Sometimes, being toad could last hours, even days. We’d just lie there, wall eyed, weirdly devout.
“I’m hungry,” Pat Helen said after awhile. “Let’s order a pizza.”
“But I thought you were on a diet.”
“But we don’t have any money.”
“Well, what we’ll do is when the pizza man comes we’ll open the door naked and he’ll be so surprised we’ll be able to just take the pizza and close the door.”
“That’ll never work.” To distract her, I reached for the calculator. This was another one of our games. I’d ask her to add three and four digit numerals in her head using no scratch paper, while I checked her answers with the calculator. This was Pat Helen’s least favorite game.
“Nine hundred and seventy plus two hundred and thirty seven.”
“Um…. Twelve hundred … and nine.”
“One thousand and forty five plus two thousand and thirteen.”
“Hold on… Let me see… eight, five, ok, goddamn it, three thousand and … fifty eight.”
“Good. Four hundred and ten plus seven hundred and nineteen.
“I hate this game.”
“I haven’t even given you any hard ones yet.”
“Do you think I did the right thing? Breaking up with Derek?
“You toad did the right thing,” I said for the hundredth time. (Toad could also be used as an abbreviation for “totally.”)
“I know.” She sighed. “I deserve to be with someone who doesn’t expect me to be friends with all his other girlfriends.”
“Dude, you deserve to be with someone who doesn’t even have other girlfriends. Besides, you’re fourteen and he’s like twenty three.”
I got up to turn the radio on. It was Night Ranger singing “Sister Christian.” What’s your price for flight? I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye but it was already too late. Pat Helen came at me from an angle and before I could do anything about it, she had me pinned to the floor.
“I’m bigger and fatter and weirder than you!” she hissed in her evil dictator accent. We hadn’t played Evil Dictator since we were little and at first I was sort of laughing, but then I wasn’t laughing because she was seriously pinching my elbows under her sharp little knees and it hurt.
“Get off me!”
“Ha ha! Now that I have you in my powerful grasp there is no escaping for you!” She released her full weight onto my chest. I wanted to kill her, overthrow her, but she really had me down.
“You’re hurting me.”
She showed me a spit wad, sucking it back up the second before it plopped onto my face, her way of letting me know that if she wanted to, she could let it drop.
“Say mercy,” she said.
“Mercy,” I said. I hated her.
“You’re a homunculus.” She stood up and went to change the station.
Halloween. I secured permission to stay out until midnight even though it was a school night by convincing my mom that everyone else’s parents were letting them stay out that late. Pat Helen wanted to go to the Magic Boys show. She had a plan. I, for one, would rather have gone trick or treating or even toilet papering which used to be Pat Helen’s favorite sport, but now she just laughed at those kinds of suggestions.
We went to my house after school to get ready. Pat Helen was going as a clown prostitute. I was zombie Abraham Lincoln. My mom stood in the bathroom door while we adjusted our facial hair and make up. “Don’t forget about the buddy system tonight,” she said, then shifted up a gear into her super excited voice, which was not a good sign. “Hey, I know! You should take Clyde with you so he can get out of the house for awhile.”
Pat Helen gave me a quick look that meant do something. “That’s ok,” I said. “We don’t want to.” My tone was chipper, but firm.
“But he’s been so depressed. And he could really use the exercise.”
What she said was true, but I stuck to my guns. “He’ll weigh us down.”
“Just take him trick or treating then bring him home before the party. I can give you a ride. Where does your friend Mandy live again?”
Mine was a single, overworked mother who usually did whatever I wanted her to do, but not all the time. I’d told her we were going trick or treating then to a party at the house of some girl named Mandy, who did not actually exist. Pat Helen stopped crimping her fake eyelashes and gave me another look.
“But he doesn’t even have a costume,” I said.
“Oh, yes he does! Just look at him.”
That’s when I looked down and saw Clyde, our aging, pudgy terrier, dressed in a red cape and black felt horns. Pat Helen sighed. Neither one of us had what it took to fight this battle. We’d just have to leave Clyde in Eddie’s car with the window cracked.
The cold air gnawed at our faces. I thought about those kids in the tropics who would never know the despair of having to cover up a costume they’d spent hours making with some ugly winter coat. But then again, would it even really feel like Halloween in a place with palm trees?
Eddie was waiting for us at the end of the street, as planned. He was all, “Is that a dog?” which made us laugh.
Pat Helen patted Eddie on the back. “Don’t worry, guy. Hey Loraine, we should have told your mom we were having a sleep over. Then we could all have sex later.” It was her way of reminding Eddie just what was at stake here. She got in the front seat and me and Clyde climbed in the back. Eddie put his seat belt on but didn’t start the car.
“Why don’t we just all have sex now?” he asked.
“Oh my god, Eddie, you’re getting smarter.” She rolled down the window.
“You can’t smoke in here,” he said.
“Relax. It’s just a candy cigarette.” Eddie started the car, an aging but well maintained burnt orange Cutlass Sierra. “Nice wheels,” said Pat Helen.
“It’s my parents’ car, you guys. Ok? They’re kinda old, ok?”
Eddie was a nervous driver, which made me nervous. Pat Helen wasn’t helping. She was singing with the radio, even though she didn’t know the words to the song, some jam band garbage Eddie probably thought was awesome. She picked a rubber Ronald Reagan mask off the dashboard.
“Eddie, Is this your costume?”
In the back seat, I couldn’t stop thinking about sex. I knew my first time would be magical, nothing like Pat Helen’s. Her first time was creepy. It happened in Derek’s basement, a scary, dark maze of dirt floors and exposed insulation. That’s where they did it, on a nest of blankets in front of the furnace. She told me all about it the next morning on the bus. I asked her what it felt like and she said she didn’t even know. “It was like I wasn’t even in my body or something. Afterwards we just sort of stared into each other’s eyes? It was really beautiful except for after awhile he started making these, like, weird little noises? It was funny at first but then it was kind of scary, like a baby bat searching for its mother’s juicy teat.”
I remembered that morning well. I’d looked out the bus window at the greying edges of yet another day. Pat Helen was sprawled out over two seats in the back where we always sat, light flickering across her skin in code, underwear showing. Outside the window was a blur of ranch houses, chain link, yards full of dog toys, dogs barking, dogs on leashes. This was our kingdom, and at one time it had been enough. The backyard had been a mysterious wonderland that we’d have gone to war to defend. Pat Helen would hold an invisible walkie talkie up to her mouth and shout in a hoarse voice, Relay your coordinates! We got sniper fire out here! Over. Shit, Sergeant, d’ya read me? Over! and we’d lop one last grenade at the enemy before getting gunned down in a field of weeds.
A shaft of white light pierced the stage, illuminating Derek, who blinked like a thing just hatched, a beast born to graze upon the night. He always looked startled at the beginning of a show, like even he wasn’t sure how he’d suddenly arrived there in front of all those people. He stretched his arm up into the light, fingers tensed in a quivering claw. He wore tight fitting yellow spandex and a striped vest over bare, doughy skin. Frizzy, colorless hair hung down to his shoulders, framing a face already shiny with sweat. A quivering, high pitched wail came out of his stretched open mouth and we pummeled our bodies towards that sound. This was what we’d been waiting for, for music to rend reality and lift us up into the dense vein of sensation where we belonged. Pat Helen, gyrating like a mad woman, looked over at me approvingly as I grooved limply at her side. She too opened her mouth as wide as it would go, letting out a raw, guttural screech. It was loud and lasted a long time and people were staring but she didn’t care. She raised her arms then squatted down to slap the dirty floor, raised them up again and slapped them down.
Pat Helen’s plan was for us to dance enticingly in the front row where Derek would be sure to notice. She had originally wanted us to make out, but I told her no way, not in front of the whole universe. I had agreed to the dancing, though, and was actually getting a little bit into it. And it was working. Derek lurched into a ballad called “Chicano Robot,” gazing into Pat Helen’s eyes the whole time.
“Let’s go back stage,” she said at the break.
“You go. I better check on Clyde.”
Eddie was standing at the back of the bar, looking uncomfortable. We’d had to sneak him in, since he didn’t have a fake ID like we did. It was easy; he’d just climbed a chain link fence and waited behind the dumpster for us to open the back door, then Pat Helen drew an X on his hand with a black marker she’d brought in her handbag. I asked him if he was having fun and he said yes. He’d pulled the Reagan mask back so it rested on the top of his head like a second face. I asked him for the keys so I could check on Clyde and he said he’d come with me.
“Is that weird singer guy like Pat Helen’s boyfriend or something?”
“Yeah.” Then I had to explain the whole situation to him because Eddie could be pretty dumb sometimes. Derek was twenty three but he was under the impression Pat Helen was sixteen, which still made it illegal, but whatever.
“Do her parents know?” he asked.
“Her dad lives in Alaska. She never talks to him. And yeah, her mom doesn’t know, but even if she did, I doubt she’d care. She’s very liberal.”
Clyde looked super happy to see me. He was still wearing his costume. He ran up to a tree and starting peeing on it and that’s the moment Eddie chose to say, “Loraine, you know the other day when I kissed you? It was nice.”
I turned to look at him to see if this guy was serious. “That was just a stupid game, Eddie,” I said. “Let’s go back in.” I whistled for Clyde, but Clyde was gone. At first, I didn’t totally freak out because Clyde was always running off, but then I was freaking out because I thought about how Clyde wasn’t used to being downtown and could easily get hit by a car or something. Eddie assured me we’d find him and we started down the street, whistling and calling.
“That’s cool that we both dressed up like presidents tonight,” said Eddie after a minute. I just looked at him. “I mean, you did put a lot more work into yours,” he said. I called for Clyde again. “So is Pat Helen like your best friend?” he asked.
“Um, yeah. I mean, sometimes I hang out with these other girls at school, but really, I hate them.”
“How’d you meet?” he asked.
So I told him. I told him how I’d been playing alone in the backyard, drawing with a stick in the dirt and how first I saw her shadow, then looking up saw her pointy little face. She seemed about my age and was wearing short-shorts and a lime green tube top. She said, My name is Pat Helen. It’s a double name. It’s not Pat and it’s not Helen. She wore white patent leather sandals that had a small raised heel and an open toe, the kind I always wanted but my mom would never buy for me because she said they were too racy for a little girl. It turned out we were almost the same age, but she was nine months older, which at the time seemed like a lot. Wanna see a cartwheel round-off back walk-over? she asked. I did. She took off her sandals, ran across the lawn, and did a perfect cartwheel round-off back walk-over. That was great! I said. I know, she said, I’ve been taking gymnastics for pretty much my whole life. Pat Helen knew a lot about gymnastics, boys, swear words, rock and roll, and make-up. She wanted to be a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys when she grew up, either that or a professional mud wrestler because they made a lot of money. She said she’d already French kissed a boy and believed that God was a golden haired mountain goat on the tallest mountain. She had scars that her schizophrenic ex-step-dad had given her and she wore them like glistening sapphires. She said she had seven super powers and I believed her. One of them was being able to talk with her mouth closed, like a ventriloquist.
We turned into the parking lot of an office park and there was Clyde, sniffing around the dumpster. His horns were gone, but he still had his cape and the leash dangling behind him.
We took the long way back to the bar. Neither one of us were in a big hurry to go back inside. The air was cold, but the walking and fear of losing Clyde had warmed us. Eddie pointed at some big plastic garbage bins and said, “See those garbage cans? One time I rode one all the way down that hill at Lindsay Gardens?”
In the dim light of the street, Eddie looked sort of cute. “You’re so weird,” I said.
The haircut dream was always the same: a bad street in a bad neighborhood in a world of dirty concrete where everything is boarded up except for this one barber shop. There was a mirror and a long cylindrical jar full of blue water and combs. I could see the hands of whoever was cutting my hair, but not the face.
I slept in so my mom gave me a ride to school. Pat Helen was already at her locker. I could tell immediately that something was wrong.
“You totally abandoned me last night,” she said.
I tried to explain about Clyde etcetera, about how when we walked back to the bar and I went in to get her, she wasn’t there. She wasn’t anywhere. The Magic Boys had finished their set and the next band had already taken the stage. I saw Ogre and he told me not to worry about Pat Helen because she’d gone back up to the house with Derek.
“I tried to find you,” I said.
She refused to talk to me the rest of the day and after school, I didn’t see her anywhere so I went home alone, determined not to call her. I mean, how many times had she abandoned me? Too many to count. Finally, I called her, just to make sure she was ok, but her mom said she wasn’t there.
I dialed the number Eddie had written on my hand the night before but regretted it as soon as his sister started yelling at him to come to the phone. I almost hung up but then he came on and I found myself saying hi. When he said hi back it was in a deeper voice than usual, which made me smile.
Pat Helen was calling me at work even though she knew she wasn’t supposed to. “So are you and Eddie all boyfriend girlfriend now?”
“I don’t know. How are things going with Derek?”
“Really great, thanks for asking. I’m really good friends with Monica now. It turns out she’s a very caring person.”
“That’s great,” I said. A customer came up to the counter. “Hold on, I have to help somebody.”
I put her on hold. I took the blender from the customer and got to work wrapping it. I loved my job, I really did. The best part was shredding the ribbon with those special little slicers. The foundation, of course, was the actual wrapping paper. I called it the “wrap job.” I was really good with corners, and after curling the plastic ribbon and adding a wedding bell or a pink or blue rattle or a sprig of mistletoe, I always carefully placed small pieces of scotch tape here and there so the ribbons wouldn’t slide. That was my trademark. I’d thought of it all by myself. I really took my time which was something you might think people might appreciate, but usually they just sighed and tapped their fingernails on the counter.
“Your job is retarded,” Pat Helen said when I got back on the line. “So tell me about you and Eddie. I bet you guys are getting real good at dry humping by now.”
“Well, I for one just found out all this stuff about Sammy Davis Junior like for example how he went to Linda Lovelace and asked her to teach him how to do a blow job like she does? Afterwards he got in a car crash and his eyeball popped out but he put it back in himself and ran to the hospital? Can you believe it? Also, what a lot of people also don’t know is that he’s a devil worshipper.”
“That’s crazy,” I said.
“I know.” There was a pause. Lately, we didn’t really know what to say to each other. “Hey,” she said. “I’m bored. I’m coming over.”
I heard a click and the line went dead. I could feel her out there, moving towards me through the wide, grey streets. Pat Helen wasn’t at all afraid of my boss who she always said could easily be killed with a dry piece of toast. It was true that he wore sweater vests and talked with a fake British accent, but it was also true that if I got in trouble one more time, he would definitely fire me. I needed that job because my mom didn’t make enough money to give me an allowance, and Pat Helen knew that.
The last time she’d visited me at work, I’d been wrapping a present for a customer. I’d asked her what color ribbon she wanted and she said silver and that’s when Pat Helen, who was leaning against the counter, said, in the accent she used when making fun of my boss, “Splendid choice, Veronica.” The lady smiled, nervously. Everyone was quiet while I did the ribbon, a pink and white profusion that made me proud. Pat Helen then told the customer that she liked her hat. The customer wasn’t wearing a hat and uncomfortable silence ensued. Long story short, a complaint had been filed.
The door swooshed open and there was Pat Helen. How did she get here so fast?
“She’s got one leg. She knows how to use it. Sheer energy leg,” she sang.
“Dude, my boss is in his office with the door open?”
Pat Helen was quiet for about three seconds. “This job is killing your soul. Look at you. You’re making sculptures out of scotch tape.”
The pink head of my boss appeared from around the corner. Pat Helen ducked down under the counter just in time. A muzacked version of “Hey Jude” leaked out of unseen speakers.
“Loraine, I’m going to get a pretzel,” said my boss.
This meant he’d be gone for at least forty five minutes. He left and the top of Pat Helen’s head slowly emerged from behind the counter. Nose still hidden, she peered at me over edge with large, glassy eyes. She turned slowly, keeping at the same level, and slunk toward the foyer that separated the gift wrap area from the frilly foliage of the lingerie aisle. She was now a floating log with a crooked hand that was quickly becoming a claw, an alligator approaching a frumpy middle aged customer shopping for bras.
“Hi Nancy,” said the alligator.
“I’m sorry, but my name isn’t Nancy.”
The shopper moved away quickly and Pat Helen, a girl once more, walked back over to the desk. She didn’t even look at me, just plopped down on the orange pleather bench.
“I feel like a small town beauty queen, like I got shredded coconut stuck in my teeth,” she said. Still seated, she started doing the Milli Vanilli dance, which is sort of like running in place. She stopped suddenly. Her eyes widened. She turned her head but was still looking at me out of the corner of those stretched sockets. The claw was back but she wasn’t moving, just sitting there, tensed. But then she was moving, towards me, but slowly, as slowly as plants grow. She no longer had ears to hear when I said stop, she no longer had a human heart with which to feel mercy. She opened and closed her mouth, clicking teeth together.
Christmas Alligator was what we called it. It had started as a joke, this split personality thing that always happened around this time of year. It was brought on by having to listen to the same stupid carols over and over everywhere you went. Sometimes it was just the hand that turned, then the hand had a life of its own, a crazy life. But lately, Christmas Alligator had been taking over more of my best friend’s body.
Mr. White turned off the lights and we laid down on the floor. About once a week he let us do “creative visualizations” for the last fifteen minutes of class. We called it “nap time” amongst ourselves, but secretly I thought it was pretty cool. He’d play this tinkly New Age music on the cassette player and tell us to take deep breaths. Creative Writing was supposedly my favorite class but sometimes I hated it, like the day before, when we had to do brainstorming. Clustering also sucked, and Mr. White was big on clustering. He advised us to cluster every time we set out to write or even do anything. Last time, he’d called on me to draw the cluster on the board, which did make me feel sort of special, which was the opposite of how I’d been feeling ever since the double date Eddie and I went on with Pat Helen and Derek.
Twice during dinner Derek turned to me and said, “What’s your name again?” Also, I had to pretend like Eddie was Adam the whole time. As for Eddie, he’d been instructed by Pat Helen not to say anything, just to keep his head tilted to one side because it made him look cool and older. She’d also made him wear suspenders.
The whole time we were at the Spaghetti Factory, Pat Helen wouldn’t stop talking about Kubica, her imaginary friend from childhood. Kubica lived in a tree in her backyard and was as old as the hills. When she was a little girl, Kubica promised her he’d give her a trampoline if she did some things she might not necessarily want to do, like jump off the roof, for example. She’d done it, sprained her ankle, and hadn’t been at all surprised when a mini tramp appeared mysteriously on her lawn the next morning. Now Pat Helen was saying that Kubica was back.
“What does he look like?” asked Derek, who seemed fascinated by the whole thing.
“Taut, peachy skin stretched over a cow-like skeleton, and antlers,” she said. She drew a picture on the placemat. I shuddered.
It freaked me out a little when Pat Helen talked about Kubica. I knew it was just a figment of her imagination, but that didn’t explain the trampoline, or how Kubica knew things Pat Helen didn’t. It had been Kubica’s idea for us to become blood sisters. He had told Pat Helen how to do it, how to sterilize the knife in fire. We’d performed the ceremony in Pat Helen’s shed, after a ritual meal of shrimp flavored Cup of Noodles and Gatorade. Pat Helen had lit one of her mom’s old, dusty candles with a sulphur tipped match, and I watched as the black wick uncurled to meet the flame.
Now I lay in the dark classroom, trying not to think about Pat Helen or Kubica or Derek or Nick or Eddie. Finally, the bell rang. Pat Helen was waiting for me at my locker. Outside, the afternoon was unseasonably warm. We decided we needed to get back to nature for a few minutes.
At the park, the dead grass was bouncy and had a dusty, comforting smell. I took off my sweater and tied it around my hips. The sun was shining and for a minute it seemed like that might be enough.
We walked through the playground, the same one we’d played in when we were kids, only now crawling all over us were the eyes of men, dads pushing kids on swings, dads sitting on benches. Pat Helen started running toward the ducks huddled on the edge of the pond, flailing her arms and making weird warbling noises. The dads looked away, but not the ducks. The ducks saw her coming and went berserk.