“Explain,” he said, and I sighed.
“I don’t know if I can,” I told him. I glanced back at the dining room, looking for Kristy, a distraction, but she and Monica and Bert were gone, the table now deserted. “When my dad died, it was like everything felt really shaky, you know? And trying to be the best I could be, it gave me something to focus on. If I could just do everything right, then I was safe.”
I couldn’t believe I was saying this, not here, at a party packed with classmates and strangers. In fact, I couldn’t imagine saying it anywhere, really, except in my own head, where it somehow made sense.
“That sucks, though,” Wes said finally, his voice low. “You’re just setting yourself up to fail, because you’ll never get everything perfect.”
He just looked at me. “The world,” he said, gesturing all around us, as if this party, this deck encompassed it all. “The universe. There’s just no way. And why would you want everything to be perfect, anyway?”
“I don’t want everything to be perfect,” I said. Just me, I thought. Somehow. “I just want—”
“Curfew,” I heard from beside me, and I looked up to see Monica standing there, blowing her bangs out of her face. She gestured to her watch, then to the kitchen, where I could see Bert and Kristy waiting for us.
“Saved by the bell,” Wes said, hopping down off the rail. I slid down too, taking my time, my last three words still hovering in my mind. Here was a boy who liked flaws, who saw them not as failings but as strengths. Who knew such a person could even exist, or what would have happened if we’d found each other under different circumstances? Maybe in a perfect world. But not in this one.
Oh, how I hated the info desk.
Before, it had been bad. Boring. Stifling. So quiet I was sure, if I listened hard enough, I could hear the blood moving through my veins, the plates of the earth shifting, time literally passing. Even if my day was going well, all it took was pushing open the doors of the library for everything to just stop. Sink. And stay that way for the full six hours I was stuck there.
One day, I was crossing to the periodical room, carrying a stack of moldy old Nature magazines. I’d just passed one of the stacks when I heard it.
I jumped, startled. Not scared, since it had been more of a whisper, a low-key gotcha, which made sense once I stopped and leaned back, craning my neck, and saw Kristy. She was dressed in a white pleather skirt, a pink short-sleeved fuzzy sweater, and her white go-go boots, her hair pulled up high on her head. She was also wearing sunglasses, huge white ones, and carrying a fringed purse. She looked like she should be at the rodeo. Or maybe dancing in a cage. But not in fiction A-P, which is where she was.
“Hey!” she said, entirely too loudly: a man at the next shelf, whose arms were full of books, peered through at us. “How’s it going?”
“What are you doing here?” I asked her, shifting the magazines to my other arm.
“Monica needed intellectual stimulation,” she said, nodding across the library, where I could see Monica, chewing gum and looking exhausted, examining some books in nonfiction. “She’s a total bookworm, inhales them. I’m more of a magazine gal myself, but I came along to see how you spent your days.”
I glanced over at the info desk, where I could see Bethany on the phone, typing away at her keyboard. Amanda was beside her, looking at us. Or, to be more specific, at Kristy. “Well,” I said, “this is it.”
“Who’s the braid?” she asked me, pushing her sunglasses up onto her head and staring back at Amanda, who was not dissuaded. I wondered if she thought we couldn’t see her or something.
“That’s Amanda,” I said.
“Right.” Kristy raised an eyebrow. “She’s quite the starer, isn’t she?”
Kristy crossed her eyes at Amanda, who seemed taken aback, quickly dipping her head down and opening a book in front of her. “I have to say, though, I’m digging that twin set. Is it merino wool?”
“I have no idea.”
“I bet it is.” She hitched her purse up on her shoulder. “So look, Monica and I are going to that new wrap place for lunch. You want to come?”
“Wrap place?” I asked. Now Bethany was off the phone, and she and Amanda had their heads together, talking. Every once in a while one of them would look up at us, then say something to the other.
“Yeah. It’s at the mall. They’ll put, like, anything in a tortilla for you. I mean, within reason. Can you come?”
I glanced at the clock. It was 11:45. “I don’t know,” I said, as Amanda pushed back from the info desk in her chair, sliding sideways, her eyes still on me, “I probably shouldn’t.”
“Why not? You do get lunch, don’t you?”
“And you have to eat, right?”
“I guess so,” I said.
“So what’s the problem?” she asked.
“It’s complicated,” I told her. “They don’t like it when I take lunch.”
I nodded toward Amanda and Bethany.
“And you care about that because . . .” Kristy said slowly.
“They intimidate me,” I said. “I’m a loser. I don’t know, pick one.”
Kristy narrowed her eyes. “Intimidated?” she said. “Really?”
I fiddled with the magazines, embarrassed I’d even admitted this. “It’s complicated.”
“I just don’t understand,” she said, shaking her head. “I mean, they’re so . . . unhappy. Why would they intimidate you?”
“They’re not unhappy,” I said.
“They’re totally miserable!” She looked at them, saw them staring, and shook her head. “Look at them. Really. Look. Look right now.”
“Look.” She reached up, cupping her fingers around my chin, and turned my head. Bethany and Amanda stared back at us. “Can’t you see it? They’re all milky and uptight-looking. I mean, I like a twin set as much as the next person, but you don’t have to wear it like you have a stick up your ass. Clearly all the smarts in the world don’t translate to good fashion sense. And God, what’s with the staring?” She cleared her throat. “What,” she repeated, her voice carrying easily across the room, “is with the staring. Huh?”