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malicious14: ur pathetic. bye!

I shut down the computer and shoved back my chair. It was on wheels, so it rolled back several feet before ramming into the coffee table.

“Jane,” Mom warned from the kitchen.

“Sorry,” I said.

We went through this at least once a day, all because Mom refused to let me put the computer in my room. She did it for my own good, so that I wouldn’t become a raving sex maniac with the screen name “Foxxxie LaRue.” This, from my thirty-nine-year-old thong-wearing mother.

She walked barefoot into the den. “All done with your homework?” she asked.

“Didn’t have any,” I said. “But I found this awesome site called ‘jailbait.com.’ Grown-ups visit it, not just kids, and I can sign up to be penpals with someone in prison. That would be okay, right? I could, like, give back to the community.”

She sat on the worn sofa and patted the cushion beside her. “Come sit with me. Tell me about your day.”

I rose from the computer chair and joined her.

“So what’s new in Jane Land?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said. She scooched over her legs, and I leaned against her. “Alicia’s trying out for cheerleading. She really, really, really wants to make it.”

“Do you think she will?”

“Um, that would be a big fat no, sadly enough.”

“Why not?”

“Because the more you want something, the less likely you are to get it. Anyway, she’s kind of a spaz.”

Mom stroked my hair. “Jane. You don’t truly believe that, do you?”

“I’m not saying it to be mean. She’s just not all that coordinated.”

“No, that you never get the things you want.”

I started to reply, then let my mind drift off as she traced circles on my scalp. It was like being little again, when she used to brush my hair after a bath. I’d smell like my special kid’s shampoo that came in the fish-shaped bottle, and after the tangles had been combed out, Dad would wrap me in a hug and call me his mango-tango baby.

Mom kept caressing. After several minutes, she said, “Phil called, by the way. He didn’t leave a message. He said it wasn’t important.”

“Okay,” I said. Phil was my best boy bud. My safety date, not that I ever went on dates with him or anyone else. He’d kind of had a crush on me since we met in seventh grade—he tutored me in science for extra credit—but the good thing about Phil was that we could go on being friends and never really deal with it. I knew Phil would always be there for me.

“And your dad called,” Mom continued. “He was sorry he missed you.” Her fingers slowed in my hair. “He’s flying to Zimbabwe tomorrow. He’s going to stay in a thatched hut.”

“Great,” I said.

“Jane …”


She sighed. Now it was her turn not to reply.

I stared at the ceiling with its spiderweb of cracks. I listened to our breaths. Finally, I pushed myself up.

“Guess I better go to bed,” I said.

Mom smiled up at me, although her eyes were sad. “Love you, Jane,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Love you, too.”

Upstairs, I pulled the teddy bear from my backpack. I stroked its fur, then lightly touched its nose.

It wasn’t true, what Alicia had said about Dad. I didn’t feel abandoned, boo-hoo-hoo. Because Dad hadn’t abandoned us. That was giving him too much power. He’d just gone on a very long trip.

“Jane, your father needs some space to figure out who he is,” Mom had said when Dad left three years ago. “He needs to do a lot of thinking. Nobody can do the work for him.”

“But … what about us?” I’d asked.

“We’ll be fine,” Mom said. As in, case closed.

But another time I’d overheard her talking to her friend Kitty, who’d come over bearing beer and brownies. By that point half a year had gone by, and while Dad sent us checks to cover the bills, he still hadn’t come home.

“Carol, you need help,” Kitty had said. “Your gutters are in desperate need of cleaning, and the entire house could stand to be painted. Inside and out. Do you want me to send Dan over to take care of it?”

“No, thanks,” Mom said. “I can handle it.”

“Obviously you can’t,” Kitty said. “And you shouldn’t have to. Honestly, Carol, this is getting ridiculous.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Mom replied. She was using her “marching bravely onward” voice, meant to keep pity at bay. “Yes, the house is falling apart. And yes, Carl should be here to take care of it—among other things, god knows. But I have to remind myself that things could be worse. At least he’s not dead.”

“Dead would be worse?”

Big silence. I could imagine the look Mom gave Kitty, because I’d received it often enough myself. But Kitty pressed on.

“Already you’re without a husband, and poor Jane is without a father,” she said. “Think what kind of damage that does to a kid.”

From my spot on the stairs, I’d felt a welling of shame. Damaged goods, was that how Kitty saw me?

“Well, Kitty, life is messy,” Mom said brusquely. “We don’t always get to choose what happens to us, do we?”

“No, but we do get to choose how to respond.”

I’d stood up, because I’d heard enough. Kitty was right: We did get to choose how to respond. And my response was to say screw it. Dad made his decisions, and I’d make mine, and nobody got to say I was damaged goods but me.

I still believed that, although believing it in my mind and believing it in my heart were sometimes two very different things. Because by staying away for so long, Dad didn’t exactly make me feel as if I was worth sticking around for.

I turned the teddy bear upside down. It had soft felt pads on the bottoms of its paws, a detail I would have loved if I were still eleven. I opened my dresser drawer and dropped in the bear. I closed the drawer.

In the middle of the night, my eyes flew open. A dream, or a corner of one, had jerked me from sleep. Something about cheerleading. Something about a boy. A boy in a raincoat.

Crap. It was Henry Huggins. Henry Huggins, from the Ramona books. He was Beezus’s friend, the one with the paper route and the dog named Ribsy. And when Ramona was in kindergarten, he was the traffic boy that helped her cross the street. One stormy day she trudged into a muddy construction site and got stuck, and Henry lifted her straight out of her boots to safety.

The next day, Bitsy approached me at my locker. She wore a plaid micro-mini and a white Oxford with the sleeves rolled up. Her white knee socks were scrunched around her ankles, and on her feet she wore clunky Doc Martens. Her hair was tied back in doggy-ears.

“Hello, luv,” she said.

My head jerked up, and I dropped my math spiral.

“Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” she said. “Can’t a girl say hello?”

I bent to retrieve my notebook, cheeks burning. Chatting with Mary Bryan was one thing—and far weird enough to last for several days. But Bitsy? Bitsy was a junior, a full two years older than me. And she was British. She used expressions like “brilliant” and “pet” and “you stupid cow.”

“Mary Bryan did talk to you, right?” Bitsy asked.

I nodded, focusing on her Hello Kitty hair elastics so I wouldn’t have to meet her eyes. She was scarily hip.

“It’s not a done deal, of course,” she said. “We do have to test you.”

“You do?” I felt like I was going to faint. I had no clue what she was talking about.

Bitsy tilted her head. “We’re extremely selective, pet. We have to be. But we think you’re the one.”

The one what? I wanted to say. But I was too busy hyperventilating. Anyway, where was Alicia? We always met at our lockers first thing in the morning. If Alicia were here, she could tell me if this was really happening. And what it meant. Where was she?

“Wear something semi-nice,” Bitsy said. “Not too tarty.” She took in my T-shirt and jeans, which I’d worn over my everyday Jockeys for Her. I’d reverted to my pre–shopping spree basics, but I’d chosen my faded Sesame Street shirt with care, thinking it was maybe retro-cool.