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One foot in the grave, p.9

One Foot in the Grave, page 9

 

One Foot in the Grave
 


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  After school, I hurry to my locker and then head to Principal Hall’s office. The front office checks in with her, and she agrees to see me.

  I walk into the office. My nerves are strung tight, but I keep thinking about what Candace said to Kelsey. About how unfair it was that she is being punished for something she wasn’t responsible for.

  Ms. Hall looks at me and frowns. No doubt at my black eye. She waves at the chairs across from her desk. “What can I help you with, Riley?”

  I don’t sit. I swallow down a nervous breath, even feel it lodge behind my breastbone. “I’m wondering why Kelsey isn’t in school today.”

  “Both she and Candace are suspended for three days.”

  I frown. “So you didn’t consider what I said about Kelsey being blameless? She was standing up for me.”

  “I considered it, but we have a very strict no-fighting rule. You were only free from punishment because both girls said you were trying to stop the fight.”

  “But Kelsey didn’t fight either,” I say.

  “She admitted to getting in Candace’s face.”

  I lift my chin. “Okay, she got in her face, but are you aware of what Candace said to Kelsey?”

  Ms. Hall looks taken aback. “That didn’t come up in the discussion.”

  “Maybe you should have taken it upon yourself to find out.” I lift my chin a notch, feeling a tad more confident. “Candace put Kelsey down for being part black. That’s racist. I’m amazed Kelsey didn’t go bat shit crazy on the girl.”

  I bite my lip when I realize I said shit. The black eye really is giving me a case of badass.

  Principal Hall tilts her head a little to the left and lifts an eyebrow. I’m not sure if it’s because I said shit or because of what Candace said to Kelsey.

  • • •

  I’m driving home. Ms. Hall asked me if I had anything else to say, preferably without bad language, then dismissed me. I’m almost to my neighborhood when I spot Kelsey’s street. I’m tempted to see if she’s home, but then I remember her insistence I had something do with the insurance letter.

  Is it wise to get any closer to her?

  But she’s in trouble because she stood up for me. I turn around and head to her house.

  After I park in her driveway it takes me a few minutes to get the nerve to go to her door. But I finally do. I knock on her door and mentally scramble on what to say to her.

  She doesn’t answer. I hear a cat meowing at the door.

  I knock again.

  Still no answer. But then I think I hear footsteps.

  “Kelsey,” I say her name. “I just want to talk, please.”

  I stand there a few more seconds. I’m about to leave when I hear footsteps behind me, followed by a voice. “Yeah, well that’s all I wanted when I knocked on your door.”

  I turn around. She’s standing right behind me. Well, damn, she must’ve known I was home that day. “I’m sorry.”

  She stares up at me. “Shit. She got you good.”

  “Yeah,” I say and touch my cheek.

  She moves up the porch. “It was meant for me. You shouldn’t have gotten between us.”

  “Yeah, and you shouldn’t have stood up for me either.”

  “Okay, so we were both stupid.”

  “I wouldn’t put it that way,” I say.

  “How would you put it?”

  I hesitate. “I don’t know. I’m just sorry you got in trouble. I’m sorry about what she said, it was uncalled for.”

  She doesn’t say anything, so I continue. “I tried telling Principal Hall yesterday that it wasn’t your fault. Then I went back to see her this afternoon.”

  Her almost-friendly expression disappears. “You told her what Candace said?” Kelsey’s accusation seeps out between her clenched teeth. “That’s why she just called my mom and said I could come back to school tomorrow.”

  “Uh, yeah. I was trying to help.”

  “Then stop trying!” she blurts out and starts toward the door.

  “I thought if she knew how rude Candace was then she’d . . . back off on your punishment,” I say to her back as she grips the doorknob.

  She swings around. “Why? Because she’s black like me?”

  The question stuns me. “No. I never thought . . . I just . . . It was so rude.”

  “So was what Candace said to you. Did you tell the principal that? That she was making fun of what your dad does for a living?”

  My mind starts reeling and I’m beginning to see why she’s upset. “Uh, no. I just—”

  “Well, I didn’t tell her what Candace said to you either, because it wasn’t any of my damn business! So keep your nose out of mine. I can handle people making comments about my race. I’m proud of what I am, but it shouldn’t be used to get me out of trouble.”

  She storms past me, walks into her house, and slams the door.

  I stand there feeling like shit. I had good intentions when I went to Principal Hall, but damn, now I kind of understand why Kelsey’s upset.

  I start down the steps, then stop. Damn it. I just want to say I’m sorry.

  I swing around and knock on the door again.

  Chapter Eleven

  For a second, I think Kelsey isn’t going to answer the door. But then it swings open.

  “What?!” she snaps.

  “I’m sorry. You’re right, I shouldn’t have gone to her, but I didn’t do it because she was black and I wasn’t using it get you out of trouble. I just thought what Candace said was extremely rude. I thought I was helping.”

  She stares at me. “Fine. You’re forgiven. Now go away.”

  She starts to shut the door and I don’t know what possesses me to say it, but I do. “Can I come in?”

  She studies me.

  “For what?”

  “To talk,” I say.

  “Like we’re friends or something?” she asks and makes a face.

  “We could be. Maybe. Let me come in, please.”

  She rolls her eyes but backs up.

  I step inside. The room is small. A comfortable-looking, green, overstuffed sofa and two chairs fill the room. Two cats come running up and circle my ankles. The smell, herby but still a little sweet, like a garden, fills my nose. It reminds me of how Bessie smelled. I wonder if she’s still here, or if perhaps the house just still clings to her scent.

  “It’s not as big or as nice as yours,” she says as if thinking I’m judging.

  “It’s great. Homey.”

  “You want a Coke, or something to drink?”

  “Sure,” I say.

  I follow her into the kitchen and she opens the fridge. “We’ve got Coke, Diet Coke, or water.”

  “Coke,” I say.

  She pulls out two sodas and hands me one. “You know, friends don’t lie to each other.”

  In a flicker of a second, I know she’s talking about the letter. I actually consider telling her the truth, but come to my senses. “When have I lied?”

  She studies me. “The letter.”

  I palm the cold can, then pop the top. I concentrate on the fizzy noise and allow it to fill the silence while I try to come up with something to say. I force out the words, “I told you I saw it on the sidewalk and put it in your mailbox.”

  She doesn’t look convinced.

  “I mean, I don’t understand why you would even think I’d send that letter. How would I have known your grandmother had life insurance?”

  She frowns. “I haven’t figured that out yet.”

  “Well, when you do, explain it to me.” I take it upon myself to sit at the kitchen table. Kelsey sits across from me.

  Like the living room, the kitchen feels like a home. Not like our house. I don’t even think the house we had in Banker ever felt like a home either. The one in Dallas? Yeah, that was home.

  That was where Mom lived, too.

  It was part of the reason I didn’t want to leave it. Because sometimes I could imagine her there. Or maybe I actually remembered h
er there.

  I realize Kelsey and I are just looking at each other and not speaking, so I throw out a question. “Do you have any siblings?”

  “No. Only child. You?”

  “No,” I say. “So it’s just you and your mother living here?”

  “Yeah.” She looks around. “Feels weird without my grandmother.” She exhales. “I swear, sometimes in the corner of my eye I think I see her. But that would be crazy. Ghosts don’t exist, right?”

  I nod and take a long sip of soda. It burns my throat. “You get along with your mom?”

  “For the most part,” she says. “She can be a pain in the ass sometimes.”

  “Did she get mad about you getting suspended?”

  “Yeah.” She frowns. “I had to hear a lecture on how she wasn’t letting me go down the same road she did.” She exhales. “She thinks because she screwed up, I’m going to, too.”

  “Sorry,” I say.

  “Yeah. What’s it like with your dad? I mean, he seems okay.”

  “Yeah, he’s . . . okay. I mean . . .” I’m not ready to bare my soul to her about the drinking stuff, even though for some reason I confided in Hayden.

  Kelsey is looking at me, waiting for me to finish to offer something personal. So I do. “We butted heads about my boyfriend when I lived in Dallas. He didn’t like me dating. But I haven’t dated anyone since we moved from there a year and a half ago, so there’s really nothing to argue about.”

  She turns the soda in her hand. “Do you still talk to him, the boyfriend?”

  “No. He stopped calling when he started dating someone else less than two months after I left.”

  “Asshole,” she says.

  I grin. “You got a boyfriend?”

  “Had one before I moved here, but not since. Everyone here seems to have a stick up their ass.”

  I laugh.

  “So what did you do to piss off Jami?” she asks.

  “Nothing. Well, Jacob and Dex had stopped off to see my car when I was at the car show. Jami and a friend of hers walked up a few minutes later and Jacob was talking to me. She glared at me as if we were kissing or something. They walked off to look at cars and she ducked back, called me a bitch and told me to stay away from him.”

  “She’s the bitch.” Kelsey takes a drink of her soda. “Are you really taking auto tech?”

  “Yeah. How did you know?”

  “Everyone was talking about it at school yesterday. I’m sure that has Jami all kinds of pissed off.”

  “She broke up with him,” I say.

  “Seriously?” Kelsey asks.

  “Yeah. Well, I don’t who broke up with who, but he told me today that they broke up.”

  “Shit. Is he hitting on you?”

  “No,” I say and tell her about his “stupid” comment.

  “He could just be playing it cool,” she says. “He did stop by to see you at the car show.”

  “He stopped by to see my car, not me.”

  “Maybe,” she says.

  I recall thinking she might have something for Jacob. “Why don’t you go for it?”

  “Go for what?”

  “Jacob.”

  “Me and Jacob?” She laughs. “That so isn’t going to happen. You can have him.”

  I give her a direct stare. “You said he was nice to look at.”

  She hesitates as if trying to recall that conversation. “I said if you were into his type. He’s not my type.”

  “Tell me you weren’t sitting out there enjoying the view.”

  She makes a face. “Okay, I was enjoying the view, but it wasn’t Jacob I was enjoying.”

  “Dex?” I ask.

  “Yeah. But . . .” She gives me the evil eye. “If you say anything, I’ll blacken your other eye.”

  Her threat seems harmless. “I wouldn’t say anything. But why don’t you go for Dex? Or is he going out with someone?”

  “No, but . . . I’m not his type.”

  “What’s his type?” I ask.

  “White.” She frowns.

  I make a face. “Do you really think that matters?”

  “Not to me. I’m proud of it. I wish my skin was darker. But it does matter in this backwoods town.”

  She changes the subject really fast. We talk about our teachers. About why I like to work on cars—a necessity, not a passion—and we go back to talking about old boyfriends. It’s really nice to chat with her. And much to my surprise, I really think we might become friends.

  My phone dings and it’s from Dad. “Crap,” I say. “It’s my dad. He’s says he on the way home. I told him I was going to fix dinner. I should go.”

  I stand up and she walks me out to the porch. I’m about to walk down the steps and then I turn around. “Do you want a lift to school tomorrow?”

  “If you don’t mind, that would be great,” she says.

  “I’ll pick you up around 7:20.”

  “I’ll be ready.” She smiles.

  Yup, I think we will become friends. And that feels nice. Really nice.

  When I step off her porch, I see Jacob sitting on the tailgate of his truck. He jumps off and starts walking across the street as if he saw my car and was waiting for me.

  I look up and see Kelsey standing at the edge of the porch. “Go get him.”

  I make a face at her and keep walking toward my car.

  “Hey,” he says, as he steps onto the driveway.

  “Hi.”

  “You and Kelsey friends?” he asks.

  “We’re working on it,” I say.

  “You live around here?” He scrubs his shoe on the concrete.

  “Yeah.” I pull my keys out of my pocket.

  He dips down and looks at my car through the driver’s window. “You should take me for a ride.”

  “Sure,” I say. “But later, I need . . . I gotta go.”

  “Okay.” He backs up. “See you tomorrow.”

  “Yeah.” When I drive away, I look at him in the rearview mirror. He’s standing there watching me. Or watching my car. That has to be it, because it’s a stupid idea to think he has something for me. But dang, he really is nice to look at.

  • • •

  I hurry home and heat up two cans of chili and stick some frozen garlic bread in the oven. Thankfully, Dad’s not picky.

  While we eat, I tell him about learning to change out the brakes. “And Jacob, the guy I’m teamed up with, said the brakes on my car are even easier.”

  “I could have taught you that,” Dad says.

  “I know, but now you don’t have to.” Then I tell him about Kelsey getting suspended and how I went by to see her. “I think we might become friends,” I tell him.

  He looks up, holding a spoon of chili close to his mouth, and kind of frowns. “Becoming friends with a girl who just got suspended. Uh . . . I don’t know.”

  I counter his frown with my own. “Dad, I told you the only reason the whole thing happened was because she was standing up for me. I think that makes her good friend material. And I thought you’d be happy. You’ve been telling me I need to make friends for over a year!”

  He sets his spoon back in the bowl. “Okay, I’m sorry. I just don’t want you to get mixed up with the wrong crowd.”

  “She’s not the wrong crowd.”

  “Okay. Time will tell.”

  I frown at him again. Time will tell about him, too. If he’s drinking, sooner or later I’ll know.

  When I glance up, Dad changes the subject to the upcoming car show.

  We’re both eating a second helping of chili when I feel the chill surround me. I’m scared to look back, afraid it’s Abby.

  Dad looks up. “I swear something’s up with the heater in this house. It’s as cold as my morgue.”

  Duh, I think, but don’t say anything.

  I’m just about to scoop up another bite when I notice her. Abby moves around to the other side of the table and stands right behind Dad so I can’t help but see her. It’s not a pretty sight. Sh
e’s still bloody and without Dad’s makeup job.

  Her presence makes it hard to keep up a conversation with Dad. Not that she says anything, but just the sight of all that blood makes me feel queasy and guilty—as if I’ve let her down.

  If she’ll just leave and come back later, I’ll tell her I’m going to risk really pissing Dad off and taking a road trip to the state park.

  She moves closer to the table. I finally drop my spoon and look away.

  I’m tempted to run off to my room, but I worry about Dad being alone. Instead, I jump up and start cleaning the kitchen. “You want to watch another episode of the series we started last night?” I ask him, not looking back.

  He agrees and we settle down in the living room. Pumpkin, freaking because of Abby, comes and crawls up in my lap.

  Abby finally disappears, but when I get up to grab a Rice Krispies Treat, Hayden is sitting at the table again watching the TV with us. A somber feeling tightens my chest. I wonder if he’s lonely.

  He smiles at me. Damn, he does look lonely.

  Before I can stop myself, I smile back. Before I can stop myself, my heart hurts for him. Before I can stop myself, I wish he wasn’t dead. I wish I could let myself like him.

  Chapter Twelve

  When I walk to my room an hour later, Hayden is stretched out on my bed. I should really tell him that it’s not acceptable, but I don’t have the heart.

  “Your eye’s even prettier today,” he says. Pumpkin, who’s following me, jumps up on the bed with him.

  I turn and look at myself in my dresser mirror and frown. It looks darker now. “Ugh,” I say.

  “Any more fist fights?” he asks.

  “No. I actually think this makes me look a little scary. People are giving me a wide berth in the hall.”

  “It’s not just the black eye,” he says. “It’s how you’re rocking it. Most girls would have tried to cover it up with makeup or at least wear a pair of sunglasses. But not you. It’s like you own it and aren’t afraid to get another one, if push comes to shove.”

  I chuckle. “Actually, I figured trying to hide it would just make it more noticeable.” I open my backpack and pull out my English and math books to do my homework. Because it feels weird crawling into bed with him, I drop my books on my desk and sit down.

 
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