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  “We should go see her,” I say. “Right now.”

  “Now?” he says. He doesn’t move off the steps.

  “Let’s get ice cream. Let’s go say hi to Elissa. You have time, right? The first show isn’t until ten forty, right?”

  “Right,” he says. But he looks torn. “My aunt’s out, though. I should stay here.”

  “But there’s no movie playing.”

  “Someone might want to buy an early ticket….”

  “Hardly anyone ever does. Besides”—I force myself to say it—“there’s always Austin.”

  “True.”

  “Also! You really want to see Elissa, don’t you?”

  “I guess…”

  That’s all I needed. In seconds, I’m dragging Jackson across the street to Taco Juan’s. A guy’s got to eat, right?

  “Oh, hey,” Elissa says when the bell over the door jingles and we step in.

  Things about Elissa: She’s pretty but not too pretty. She doesn’t look fake. She tries to keep her hair neat, but it’s so curly that’s hard to do, and right now I want to go behind the counter and fix it. I hope Jackson doesn’t want her to be a Rita Hayworth—you know, perfect every second of the day, glamorous. I hope he just likes her for her.

  “We’re here for ice-cream cones,” I tell Elissa, taking full control of the situation. “Two scoops on waffle cones with extra sprinkles. I want chocolate-chocolate chunk and mint chunk. What flavors do you want, Jackson?”

  Jackson is taking way too long to pick—I mean, seriously: pistachio, vanilla bean, mocha swirl, rocky road, strawberry, lemon-lime, chocolate this, chocolate that, just pick one—and before he makes up his mind, Elissa answers for him.

  “I don’t think Jackson really wants an ice-cream cone,” she says.

  “Yeah, sorry, Dani,” he says. “But you should still get one.”

  “Why not?” I say. “It’s perfectly normal to have ice cream for breakfast in the summer. It’s like, you know, yogurt… just way better.”

  “He can’t have ice cream,” Elissa tells me. “He’s lactose intolerant.”

  “Oh,” I say. Just hearing her say it out loud, it’s almost like proof of something.

  Jackson shrugs. “It’s true,” he tells me. “I can’t eat dairy.”

  There’s an awkward silence as Elissa starts scooping and Jackson just stands there, watching. Also, notice how they’re talking to me and not to each other.

  I’m reminded of the times before the divorce, when my dad still lived at home and we’d all have dinner together. When we’d sit at the table and my mom and dad would barely say a word to each other, so Casey and I would have to talk for them.

  We’d talk about the stupidest things. Favorite flavors of soda. Soccer. TV shows. YouTube videos. Teachers at school. That annoying girl who rides our bus.

  It didn’t matter what we said so long as we kept talking. And I guess I should have figured something was wrong by the way Mom would talk directly to me or Casey but never to Dad. And how we’d ask Dad a question and he’d sit there, rolling a meatball around on his plate, and we’d say, “Dad! Dad! Are you even listening? Dad!” And then at long last he’d look up from his meatball and see us and go, “Huh?”

  But I didn’t see anything wrong. I was too naive back then. I was only twelve. I know a lot more now.

  I turn to Jackson. “Is it fatal?” I ask. “If you eat ice cream, I mean.”

  “What?” he says, laughing. “Of course not.”

  “But you can’t have milk?”

  “No,” he says.

  “Or cheese?”

  “Nah. I get sick.”

  “Like how sick?”

  “Just—You don’t want the details, okay?”

  “But it’s not like you’d die,” I say carefully, “if you had, I don’t know… pizza.”

  I hold Jackson’s eyes. I want to say there’s a flicker of recognition there—like he knows who he’s up against now: me. But no flicker. Not even a blink. He just says, “Nope.”

  Elissa’s made herself busy building my waffle cone. She’s also made an ice-cream-free sundae for Jackson: sprinkles, crushed Oreo, and nuts all mixed up in a waffle bowl. We take a table in the back, and Jackson and Elissa speak directly for the first time:

  “So what time do you get off today?” Elissa asks him.

  “Ten?” Jackson mumbles.

  “At night? I thought you said you had the night off.”

  “I didn’t say that.”

  “You did.”

  “You must’ve heard me wrong. I never get Monday nights off.”

  “Ooooo-kay.”

  “Don’t be like that.”

  “Like what?”

  “Like you’re being. Right, Dani? Tell Elissa she shouldn’t be like that.”

  I get a jolt from the sound of my name and spill a drop of ice cream on the table. “Oops,” I say. I head off for the counter—away from them—to get a napkin. Once at the counter I take my sweet time pulling out a napkin from the dispenser. I wiggle and finesse it out, as if I want the smoothest, most wrinkle-free napkin ever in the history of Taco Juan’s. As I do, Elissa and Jackson whisper, and I strain to hear them.

  Elissa’s mumbling. I think she says, “But you’re never around when you say you’re going to be around.” Or else she says, “But you never wear brown when you say you’re going to wear brown.” Let’s go with the first one.

  To that, Jackson mutters under his breath and I catch the words “not true” and “you’re exaggerating.”

  Elissa whispers something I can’t hear except at the end, when she says, “Do you?”

  Jackson answers her forcefully, and with a whole hidden meaning that’s way over my head, “Yes.”

  I wonder what she asked him.

  A few silent seconds pass, so I return with my napkin and clean up my mess.

  They’ve completely stopped talking. Elissa picks out a chunk of Oreo from Jackson’s bowl and eats it. Jackson chews up a walnut. Elissa cracks off an edge of the waffle bowl and places it absently on the table. Jackson flicks it off.

  What’s going on here, someone tell me, please!

  That’s when I notice his hand. He keeps shaking it out. And there’s a purplish splotch on it, like he either smeared it in the raspberry sauce or he’s got a bruise. Maybe it’s from, oh, I don’t know, punching a hole in the wall when he said he didn’t?

  “What happened to your hand, Jackson?” I say.

  “Huh? Nothing,” he says, standing up. “I should run. Gotta get the reel ready.”

  He walks off but then turns back. I figure he’s about to say something to Elissa, something really cute and surely embarrassing that boyfriends say to girlfriends that I wouldn’t have wanted him to say to any other girl in my presence before today.

  (I once had a boyfriend, in seventh grade, for almost six days. He obviously didn’t know how to be one because he’d say things like “Maybe I’ll see you later at your locker.” Or “Are you gonna sit with me at lunch or what?” That was pretty much it.)

  But Jackson only says, to me and not to Elissa, “The Big Sleep—you seen it yet?”

  I shake my head.

  “Lauren Bacall and Bogie,” he says. “You know who Bogie is, right?”

  “Humphrey Bogart,” I say.

  He grins, like, bravo! Like this isn’t the most obvious of movie-star questions he could have asked. Then he says, “See you there.” And is gone.

  Elissa finishes Jackson’s leftover Oreo crumbs and dusts off her hands. “I should get back too,” she says, and heads up front.

  There’s not a customer in the store—it’s too early in the morning for anyone to want a burrito or ice cream, I guess—but Elissa looks alert behind the counter.

  What just happened?

  I head up front with the rest of my cone and lean against the glass case. I’m making hand-streaks across the fogged glass, drawing jungle animals, which means she’ll have to wipe them all off with a
rag before her boss sees, but she lets me do it.

  “What’s going on?” I say finally. “With you and Jackson, I mean.”

  I’ve just finished tracing out the shape of a Saharan elephant on the glass case. I decide to give it a little friend and begin tracing a giraffe.

  Elissa shrugs. She tries her usual smile, but it doesn’t stick. Then all of a sudden she lets out a breath and says, “I have no idea. You thought that was weird too, huh?”

  “Yeah,” I admit. “Like, so weird.”

  “I swear he said he had off on Monday nights. You believe me, right?”

  I nod. I do believe her.

  “It’s not like he’s the only projectionist who works at the Little Art,” she says. “There’s some old guy who comes in too, right?”

  “Yeah,” I say. “Larry.”

  “I know he said Monday,” Elissa repeats. “And now he’s acting like he never said it. It’s like he’s hiding something, don’t you think?”

  “What?” I say. “What could he be hiding? What do you think it is, what?”

  (Think I sound nervous? That’s ’cause I so am.)

  Elissa lets out a heavy sigh. “I have absolutely no idea,” she says.

  I realize that she has no clue about the girl in the polka-dot tights, none. Elissa is blindfolded in the darkest part of the theater. And here I am, I could pull off that blindfold. I could hit the lights. I could open my mouth. I could…

  So why don’t I? I guess I just need to be sure.

  I start tracing a new animal on the glass case. The animal has a long, lean body, and a tail, and sharp claws. It’s a great big cat—a panther, maybe.

  “Remember when you and Maya used to come here all the time and just hang out?” Elissa says.

  It’s such an abrupt change of subject—maybe she doesn’t want to talk about Jackson anymore. Maybe she doesn’t want to know.

  “Yeah.” I give the animal spots—it’s now a leopard.

  “You guys used to be in here every weekend, I swear,” she says.

  Maya’s a sore subject. She hasn’t called in more days than I’m going to count. I made at least three comments on her page online and I can’t remember the last time she made a comment on mine.

  And the thing is, she only moved to Poughkeepsie a few months ago. How can she have this whole other life in so short a time and I’m still moping around in mine?

  “It was so sad that she had to move,” Elissa continues. “Do you know I was at her house babysitting her brother I think the week before she left?”

  “Yeah?” I say.

  “She was so upset. She said she’d have to find a new best friend in her new school. She said she’d miss you so much.”

  “Yeah, but why?”

  “Why? Because you two were so close. Of course she’d miss you.”

  “No, I mean why does she have to find a new best friend? I didn’t.”

  “I don’t know. I guess maybe it’s lonely to be in a new place and not have someone to talk to?” She shakes her head. “It doesn’t have to be a best friend,” she adds. “Just a friend.”

  Is that a hint? Well, I’m not taking it.

  What I’m going to do is go all Rita Hayworth in Gilda: I don’t need anyone or anything. That’s what I want people to think. I want to turn my shoulder and walk out of the room and not look back, no matter how desperate I am to keep looking.

  “Whatever happened to Taylor?” Elissa says. Another change of subject.

  “She’s around. I saw her the other day. She broke one of my toes.”

  “She did what?”

  “Joking.”

  “You two used to be in here all the time too, remember?”

  “That’s ancient history,” I say.

  I’m not sure where she’s going with this. Is she trying to say there’s no difference between Maya and Taylor? That I should just flit from one to the other like best friends grow on trees? Well, I know this is Shanosha, and we do have a massive amount of trees, but best friends are a once-in-forever kind of thing. You can’t just forget them when they’re gone.

  Besides, just because Maya’s down in Poughkeepsie doesn’t mean she’s vanished for good. She might be too busy to chat online, or send me a text, or leave me a message, or any other kind of human communication, but she still exists. I just wish she’d call sometime.

  “Hey, Dani,” Elissa says softly. I look up. She points down at the glass case, where a trail of chocolate has destroyed the giraffe. Not to mention the mudslide of ice cream that found its way to the front of my shirt. “You’re dripping,” she says.

  10

  Glue Poisoning

  I stand in the street, covered in chocolate, going over my options. The movie will be starting soon, but if I run home—almost ten minutes each way—I may miss the beginning. My mom’s newspaper office is just one block away. She might have an extra shirt there that I can borrow. She also might give me a hard time about eating ice cream for breakfast. That’s a chance I’ll have to take.

  When I walk in, my mom’s preoccupied with some girl. They’re talking all serious near the window, their backs to the room. I notice that my mom has her arm around the girl’s shoulders. She’s so up in this girl’s business, she doesn’t even notice her own flesh and blood standing here in dire need of attention, not to mention a clean shirt.

  I clear my throat.

  My mom turns around. “Danielle!” she says. She looks guilty. I don’t get it until I take a closer look at the girl.

  Taylor.

  I think there’s some unwritten rule that once you stop being friends with someone you can’t hang with their mom. If not, there should be.

  “Sorry,” Taylor says to me. I wonder if she has any idea what she’s apologizing for. She slips out from under my mom’s arm and stands up. My mom stands beside her.

  “Oh, Danielle, is that your new shirt?” my mom says, her eyes alighting at last on my reason for coming up to her office.

  “Wow, what happened?” says Taylor.

  “It’s chocolate,” I say.

  “It sure is,” Mom says.

  My shirt, which happens to be bright yellow, a color that sets off chocolate really well, is obviously ruined. I want to get it off as soon as possible. But when I ask my mom if she has an extra shirt, she says she doesn’t—I’ll have to go back home to get one. And I just lost precious minutes by taking a detour up here to check.

  “What are you doing eating ice cream this early anyway?” Mom says.

  Quick, I need a diversion.

  So I change the subject to my old standby—movies. “The Big Sleep is playing today,” I say. “Bogie’s in it, you know.”

  Mom doesn’t look too impressed. I have a feeling she won’t forget the ice cream.

  “I have a shirt you could borrow,” Taylor speaks up. “I was going to go tubing later and change into it after, but… You can have it if you want.”

  “Since when do you go tubing?” I say. The Taylor I knew didn’t even like to get her hair wet, let alone dunk herself in the river and go hurtling down the muddy rapids.

  “Since when do you like Bogie?” she challenges me.

  I guess a lot has changed in the year we’ve been apart.

  “You two should go tubing together!” my mom says.

  “I am not going tubing,” I say. But… “But I’ll take your shirt,” I tell Taylor.

  She smiles and whips it out of her bag. It’s black, which is great. But on the front is a fuzzy iron-on of a tiger head. It’s geeky beyond belief, and I can say that, even if I was the one drawing jungle animals on the ice-cream case just minutes before.

  “Is there something wrong with it?” Taylor says.

  “No…” I flat-out lie.

  “Just tell me,” Taylor says. “You don’t like the tiger?”

  “You know how I feel about iron-ons.”

  “Then wear it inside out.”

  “Good idea, I will,” I say, and stomp off to the bathroom
.

  Inside, I change quickly and then stand very still to listen. I am positive they’re talking about me. Just when I have my ear suctioned against the wood of the door, someone knocks in that exact spot and busts open my eardrum.

  “Ow!” I yell involuntarily. “Who is it?”

  “Your mother.”

  I open the door a crack.

  “That wasn’t very nice,” she says quietly.

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “Let me in,” she says. I roll my eyes and open the door so she can squeeze into the small bathroom with me. She closes the door behind her and then gives me this look. You know, the look. “Taylor offered you the shirt off her back,” she says. “You didn’t have to insult her by saying you’d wear it inside out.”

  “She told me to!” I say.

  My mom just shakes her head.

  “Sorry,” I mutter. Though, in my defense, the shirt was in Taylor’s bag, not on her back. And also? I think I should get points for doing Taylor a favor and letting her know how lame her shirt is.

  Mom does not agree. “You should tell Taylor you’re sorry, not me. And…” Her eyes settle on the shirt I now have on inside out.

  She doesn’t have to say it. I quickly remove the shirt and put it on right side out. With that iron-on tiger head snarling out to the world.

  The drama with the shirt almost made me forget what my mom was doing snuggling up to Taylor when I came in. “Why’s she here anyway?” I ask.

  “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that,” Mom says.

  I lean up against the sink, waiting.

  “She spent most of July at her grandma’s house and now she’s back. And the summer’s so quiet… and she hasn’t had much to do…. And so she came by to ask, well, if the newspaper needed an intern.”

  I wrinkle my nose. I’ve heard of interns. They work all day for free at jobs other people do for money. They don’t get to sit around and watch movies whenever they want or eat ice cream whenever they want or hang out on rooftops pretending to get suntans. What a thing to volunteer for in the middle of summer. Taylor’s become even weirder than I realized.

  “Which gave me an idea,” my mom says. “About what you could do with the rest of your summer.”

 
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