But I am so not.
I go inside, into the kitchen, and Gracie’s eyes are huge, like she’s trying to warn me. Blake shoves past and goes to his room. Mama comes around the corner, sees me, and stops. She looks so disappointed.
“Mama,” I say. “Can we please talk about this?”
“You had me worried sick. Where were you all day?”
“Just wandering around. I’m sorry. I couldn’t do it—”
“Ethan, I want you to promise me you’ll go to your classes tomorrow.”
“But I have some ideas.”
“Like what?” She doesn’t look very open to them.
“Like, you could homeschool me. Or maybe I could get a tutor.”
She shakes her head and sighs. “I’m not cut out for homeschooling, and we just can’t afford a tutor right now.”
“I could get a job. I could help pay.” I plead with my eyes.
“No. You need to focus on studying and catching up in school. Believe me, Ethan, I’ve tried convincing your father, okay? It’s not going to happen.”
“Then I’ll quit school.”
“You can’t,” Mama says. “Besides, you’re smart. You’re just overreacting to one event that everyone’s forgotten about already. And you don’t even know yet if you’ll be in freshman classes. Just take a deep breath and handle it, Ethan! You know you can do it.”
I stare at her. Not really sure what to say.
She puts her hand on my shoulder. “Honey, sometimes you just have to suck it up, like everyone else has to.” And then she walks past me into the kitchen and starts pulling stuff out of the fridge for dinner.
I look at Gracie and she just shrugs at me. “Suck it up,” she says.
I’m hiding in the basement when Dad gets home, but he doesn’t come after me. We don’t discuss my skip day at dinner, either, and I’m thinking maybe Mama took care of things. I’m kind of thrilled about that, but it’s freaking me out a little wondering if Dad’s going to spring something on me. The yelling is really getting old, and I think I’m going to have to try to follow the rules for a while, just to keep the peace. I can’t keep disappointing Mama when she’s sticking her neck out for me. I pick out some more picture books from a box and start reading, just to get something calm going in my brain. This angsty crap is making my chest all weird and congested.
Blake has another assignment for his science class and he makes an exaggerated effort checking my earlobes and marking everybody on the chart as either attached or detached. I kind of remember this stuff from middle school and it was sort of interesting. Maybe school won’t be so bad after all. I wonder if I really was making too big a deal out of it.
After dinner, Dad and I work on my new bedroom some more. We get the frame totally done and hang the drywall and mud it, which is cool, because he just teaches me how to do stuff and doesn’t yell. And all he says about today is, “Let’s start fresh tomorrow with school, okay?” And I’m like, “Yeah,” and I give a big sigh of relief. I’m glad, really. I am. And I’m going to give it a try. Just suck it up.
I bet Cami will like that.
After Dad goes to bed, I start going through the photos, pulling out all the ones I like. I think I’m going to make a collage for my bedroom. I lay out all the photos on the pool table and arrange them the way I want them, like they tell a story. And I see how happy we were, Mama and Dad and Blake and me, and I get this lump in my throat. Because I want that.
Ellen didn’t take many pictures. She’d get one of those disposable cameras now and then, but lots of times it would just sit there for a year or two because we didn’t have the money to go get the film developed. I wonder if she’s gotten them developed now, or if she just threw them all away. Like she threw me away.
I work until I can’t keep my eyes open anymore.
Morning comes too soon.
Cami looks glad to see me at the bus stop.
“Well?” she demands.
“Quitting is for losers.” Just saying the words makes my gut hurt.
“You’d better not wander off again like yesterday.”
I glance sidelong at her. “Maybe you should hang on to me, then. So I get inside all right.”
She blushes and lowers those long lashes. “Don’t be dumb.”
“I’m not dumb. I’m desperate.”
She laughs, like she thinks I’m joking. I like that. It makes me think that maybe I am, too. Like maybe I really can handle it.
I make it through. And it’s nowhere near as bad as I thought.
A few people ask me if I’m okay, and I search their faces, suspicious. Are they mocking me? But they seem sincere. At lunch, J-Dog apologizes and I let him. But I sit by myself. I can’t deal with him yet. Maybe not ever, who knows? All I know is that this little town of Belleville is full of some pretty decent people. Nothing like I’ve ever seen before.
After school I invite Cami to come over and see the progress of my new bedroom. She spends a long time looking at all the pictures I laid out on the pool table. Remembering things. She’s in a few of them. At least I think it’s her. We lean over and look together.
“That’s you, isn’t it?” I ask, pointing to one where I stand at the dining table working the sno-cone machine. Blake’s just a toddler, and a girl holds a cup, catching the shaved ice.
She smiles, laughs a little. “Yeah, I remember that!” And then she looks at me like she said something insensitive. “Sorry . . . Is any of it coming back?”