"A Cool Dry Place"—part 6

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“Hi,” Mandy says softly. The tight smile she forces to her face gets stuck there. Her muscles work on their own, she needs to retain no consciousness of them.

“Hi, Nicole,” Mandy’s Mom says. “How are you?”

“Good, Mrs. Logan. Out for dinner with the family?” She is very sweet.

The food in Mandy’s mouth grinds to paste. She sips her orange soda, but everything inside her is thick and gluey.

“Yes. Every Friday unless there’s a game Mandy wants to go to.” Mom smiles. The things that are harmless for adults to say always astound Mandy. Something curls up inside her. The last thing she needs is for Nicole to know more than she already does.

“That’s nice.” She turns on Mandy. “Mandy, me and the other girls are over in the corner. You should come over to our table and say hi.”

“Go ahead, honey,” Mom says. “Not too long, though—your food will get cold.”

window_frost From the corner of her eye, Mandy sees Nicole smirk. Her mother would dismiss it as a simple smile if Mandy were to mention it later (not that she will). Mandy knows Nicole better. She slides out of the booth and follows Nicole. She is amazed she is able. Her body is so heavy.

She would rather stay with her family. She looks back; just a small glance. Lara looks into her eyes, watches as she walks away with Nicole. Lara knows. And that does not require words.

“Hey, guys! Look—Mandy’s here. With her family!”

Giggles. “Cool,” says Tara. Mandy knows it is not cool. But it’s not the validity of her family on the line here. It is uncool that she would rather be with them than with the girls. Not that she was invited. And she doesn’t want to be with them, so it’s a relief she wasn’t invited. But it’s not okay not to be chosen. There is a longing, mournful feeling that she is missing something. At the same time she knows she is missing nothing of which she wants to be a part. She has been included enough times to know.

But still.

“So, what’re your plans after this?” one of them asks Mandy.

“Um. Nothing really,” she shrugs. She’s going home and Dad will start a fire in the wood stove and she and Lara will have bowls of ice cream and Mom will make herself a cup of hot tea and they will watch Friday night TV. This is the kind of thing she likes. She knows it’s not the right thing. Liking your sister best of anyone, wanting to be with your Mom and Dad at Friendly’s and in front of the TV on a Friday night. None of this is right and she knows it. She also has a vague and undefined idea that she should not, at her age, be expected to have “plans.” It is an unnamed feeling I am too young, I am not ready for plans.

“Oh. We’re going to the Mall.” The Mall is adjacent to the restaurant. She says Mall with a weightiness she attempts to temper with nonchalance.

This is all new as far as Mandy knows. She knows they would have talked about it at school if they had done this before. She knows it will be the Big Topic on Monday.

“Cool,” Mandy says. All she can think of is getting away, back to her table. “Well, I should finish my food before it gets cold. And I’m really hungry. See you guys.” She turns back and adds, “Have fun at the Mall!” She hopes this comes off as breezy and I don’t care what you guys are doing! I’m really busy myself! But she hears a pinched tone in her voice and knows they, too, with their preternatural ability to hear things like that, to know what others are thinking, hear it. She knows they will talk about it later, as they paw through racks of clothes, through top-ten audio cassettes, through the latest teen magazine photos of heartthrobs over whom they will loudly exclaim. Ever eager to call attention to themselves, ever hungry for eyes to be upon them, ever needing to soak in all the available energy around them.

She won’t look back at them, even though her skin burns for a quick look. As she rounds the corner she risks a glimpse. Their heads are close together, they laugh loudly. Mandy walks faster to her table. She sees her family talking and smiling and Lara sips her root beer.

And she feels better.

crescent_moon_over_pines She slides in next to Lara. The girls start to disappear a little, they start to fade around the edges. And they float on the air. Float off on the french fry and chocolate ice cream smelling air of Friendly’s. She watches as the faded color pieces of the girls float away. She looks out the smooth cool glass into the night. Watches the air clear of it until all that is in front of her is the black black sky with its sliver moon and pinpoint stars. The blackness stretches out and out.

She wonders where it all settles.