“He’s gay. For sure.” Sky’s sitting on the backrest of the bench, right behind Alissa and me. It’s just the three of us. The rest of the park is deserted.
“Don’t think so.” Alissa takes out her wallet. “How much do you want to bet?”
I have no idea who my two best friends are talking about. Their conversations often pass me by, like I’m on the other side of a wall.
Alissa waves a five-dollar bill around. It reminds me of the first day of junior high. I thought Alissa had made a bet then too.
She came up to my desk that first morning and asked if the seat next to me was taken. Alissa was the kind of girl who could have sat anywhere. She was so incredibly beautiful. Her eyes were the color of the sea on the Italian coast, where I’d spent the summer. I looked around suspiciously. Where were her giggling friends, laughing at me from a distance because I’d fallen for it?
But there was no one else there. We were the only ones in the classroom.
Sky’s voice brings me back to the present. “Let’s bet for a pizza,” he says. “And Miles can deliver it. Perfect.”
So they’re talking about Miles, who works at the pizzeria with Sky. I’ve never seen him before, but Alissa’s mentioned him a few times.
A girl with blond hair and a red scarf around her neck comes jogging into the park. As she passes us, she flashes me a quick smile.
“He’s on his way, so now we just have to wait and see.” Sky puts his phone in his pocket and casually rolls a cigarette. He never has actual packs of cigarettes. Sky always does everything just a little bit differently from everyone else.
“Did it hurt?” I hear Alissa ask. I’m back on the bench in the park. What were they talking about now?
I follow Alissa’s gaze to Sky’s eyebrow piercing, which he had done a while ago. When he turned up at school the next day, the skin around the piercing was red and swollen. I touch my own eyebrow, which also hurt for a few days.
At first I thought it was a coincidence, but then when Alissa broke her wrist in gym, mine was painful for weeks too.
Can I feel other people’s pain? Is that possible? It feels supernatural, weird. And if anyone finds out, I’ll get even more of a reputation for being crazy.
Sky points at his eyebrow. “So much gunk came out! I could have made it into a smoothie.”
Alissa gives him a shove and he nearly falls off the back of the bench. “Stop! You’re going to scare me out of it.”
Since when has Alissa wanted a piercing? I try to imagine what it would look like on her, a little ring through her eyebrow.
A couple weeks ago in Textile Studies, we had to make dresses out of garbage bags. Alissa pulled hers over her head, grabbed hold of it on one side, and shot a staple through the plastic. Then she paraded around the classroom like she was on a catwalk. Some of the boys started whistling. Even in a garbage bag, she was stunning.
“Where’s that pizza?” Alissa asks impatiently.
“Miles has half an hour to get here. After that, the pizza’s free.”
A few minutes later, a scooter with a big blue trunk on the back drives into the park.
Sky grabs my wrist and looks at my watch. “Bang on time. Typical Miles. You see? He’s a punctual gay guy.”
My stomach’s churning, like I’m about to take an important exam.
“Stop it.” Alissa quickly straightens her T-shirt. It’s a small gesture, but I can tell she’s nervous.
Miles brakes in front of our bench and gives Sky a wave. When he lifts the visor of his helmet, I see two bright-blue eyes, like Alissa’s. But there’s something cold about these eyes. They have nothing to do with the Italian sea, but are more like icy water. I get a weird feeling that I can’t quite identify.
“One pepperoni pizza?” The boy takes out a pizza box. The scent of melted cheese makes my mouth water.
“Yep. It’s for us.” Then Sky points at Alissa. “She’s paying.”
“You think?” Alissa looks at the boy. “Hey, Miles.”
I don’t like it when people know my name and I don’t know theirs. Feels like I’m down 1–0.
I’ve seen this girl before. She meets Sky after work sometimes. I noticed her immediately because she has the same blue eyes as me. Dad used to say I was the only one except him with blue peepers like this, but he was wrong. This girl’s eyes are hypnotic.
Did Sky tell her my name?
The girl smiles. “Want a slice?”
I hesitate, because I really need to get going, but something about her voice makes me stop.
It’s only then that I notice the other girl on the bench. She’s leaning forward slightly, with her straight hair hanging over her face like two curtains. She doesn’t quite seem to belong.
“It’s almost time for your break, isn’t it? Come on, have some.” Seems the girl with the blue eyes knows not just my name, but my work schedule too.
I can see part of her bare neck.
What would it feel like to kiss that soft bit of skin?
I’m startled by my own thought. After Karla, I made up my mind never to feel anything for a girl again. It’s easier to reject them all than to let anyone get close. Because when they get close, they start asking questions. Questions I can’t answer.
I know I should go, but somehow I find myself taking off my helmet and sitting down beside her.
“Here.” The pretty girl passes me the box. As I eat my slice, I dare to sneak a closer look at her. There has to be something about her that’s disappointing, something that’ll help me to forget about her later.
But her voice sounds like she’s singing. Her eyes are an endless blue. And she smells like autumn sunshine.
I’m not sure I want to forget her.
I swallow the pizza. “And who are you?”
We’re sitting so close that Miles’s leg is touching mine. He’s looking at me as if he hopes to find something in my face. His eyes scan every inch of my skin.
I’ve never talked to Miles, but whenever I go to meet Sky at work, I watch him from a distance.
Miles stands out, not because he’s good-looking, but because he doesn’t seem to want to be. It’s as if his looks torment him somehow. And that’s something I recognize.
Boys like to check me out, and it drives me crazy. Andreas is the last boy I kissed, and I really did like him. But after our kiss, I heard him bragging about it like I wasn’t even a person, just some “hot” girl.
Sky’s handsome too, but his rough-and-tough exterior scares a lot of people off. Which seems like a great idea to me.
At home, I sometimes stare at myself in the mirror. I don’t dare get a tattoo, but how about a piercing? Once I put a dot on the side of my nose with a Sharpie. The thought of a stud in my nose instantly made me feel stronger.
“And who are you?” asks Miles.
“Are you gay?” Sky asks.
I get why the teachers say he’s direct. He’s like a bulldozer sometimes.
Miles shakes his head irritably. “No, I’m not gay.”
Sky lights his cigarette. “No need to get pissed. Gay people are cool.”
Miles puts the last bit of pizza into his mouth and stands up. “Got to go.”
Is he leaving because Sky asked that question? I realize that I’m riled up. I want Miles to look at me again the way he just did. It was like he could see much more than my exterior.
“Sky’s paying for the pizza,” I say. “And the tip.”
I curse to myself.
Alissa likes him.
I thought this was just about a bet, but Alissa smiled at Miles the way only she can. Her boy-slaying smile.
When I get home, I turn the amp for my electric drum kit up high. Drumming always works, but not this time. Even after playing for half an hour, I still feel angry. I pull off my headphones.
Why can’t I shake it off?
Alissa doesn’t have a clue that I only started dating Caitlin to divert attention.
Caitlin’s in our year at school. If I squint, they even look a bit like each other. But Caitlin’s blue eyes don’t match up to the real thing.
I fall back onto my bed and look at the group photo on my nightstand. Having it there makes it hard for me to sleep, but it’s even harder without it.
I pick up the photo and hold it close to my face. There’s a small worn patch where I sometimes press my lips to it. We’re standing close together, our arms touching.
I’d really like to cut everyone else out of the photo, but this way Alissa can come into my room without realizing what’s up. There’s no need to worry about Mint. She spends half her time floating in another dimension.
“You belong with me,” I say quietly to the photo. “You just need to see it.”
“You coming?” I ask Mint as she gets on her bike.
“To get the piercing?”
“Now?” Mint smiles. She knows I have no patience. When I have an idea, it has to happen right away.
“What do you think?” I ask yet again when we’re both on our bikes.
“Nice.” Mint went so pale as the needle sank into my nose. It was like she was the one who was suffering.
A few minutes later, we’re riding our bikes into the upscale neighborhood where Mint lives. The first time I went to her house, I couldn’t believe my eyes. But Mint’s dad is a lawyer, so he obviously earns way more than my dad, who works for the fire department.
At the door, Mint reaches for her keys, but the light in the hallway goes on and her mom opens up.
“Where were you?”
I know Mint’s mom can get, like, totally panicky, but it still shocks me every time. She talks to Mint like she’s a little kid. My younger sister’s nine, and not even she gets treated that much like a baby.
“Mom . . .” Mint blushes.
Mint’s mom gives me a quick nod but then turns back to her daughter. “A deal is a deal.”
My dad’s already in his firefighter uniform when I come into the hallway.
“What’s that in your nose?”
I turn my face from left to right. “Do you like it?”
Dad tries to look stern, but then he bursts out laughing. “I think it’s cool. Hey, your mom will be home soon. Ruben and Koby are upstairs. Will you give Fenna a hand with her math homework?”
He kisses me on the forehead and closes the front door behind him. I watch through the glass as he rides his bike out of the front yard.
When I was little, I used to spend hours awake in bed, waiting for my dad finally to come back safe from work. I didn’t dare close my eyes until he was home. Sometimes I didn’t manage to stay awake. Then I’d wake up with a start in the middle of the night and run barefoot to my mom and dad’s room. When I saw the lump on his side of the bed, I’d sneak back to my room, feeling relieved.
These days I do sleep, but never very deeply.
Certainly not since last Christmas.
One night, when Dad was on duty, four people died in a fire, including one of his fellow firefighters. A beam burned through and collapsed on the guy’s head.
The people who lived in the house were in the bedrooms on the second floor, and no one could reach them. Dad tried to get through, but it was too dangerous. In the end, all he could do was stand and watch helplessly as the whole house burned down.
Absolutely none of it was his fault, but the accident still changed him. Dad stayed home from work, wandering around the house like a ghost. Even the firefighters who’d been with him that night couldn’t get through to him.
Dad used to scream the whole house awake. Nightmares, Mom said, but that was an understatement.
Fenna would climb into my bed, terrified, whenever Dad started screaming. I’d hold her until she fell asleep.
I hated that Fenna had to go through that. I really wanted to do something to help, but I didn’t know what.
So when a documentary maker asked me if I’d do an interview about the effects of the fire on our family, I said yes immediately. The documentary was broadcast on a kids’ channel, and I hoped I’d be able to help someone, even if it was just one person.
It got loads of positive reactions from all kinds of young people, which pulled me through that tough time.
The situation with Dad seemed to be going on forever, but at a certain point it gradually started to get better. They gave him medication to calm him down. He saw a psychologist and, with the help of the other firefighters, he was even able to go back to work for half days.
After a few months, he went back full-time and seemed to have forgotten it all.
But I haven’t forgotten.
Now and then I watch the documentary again. I see the dark circles under my eyes, which look anxiously into the camera.
Even now, I still feel that scared sometimes.
Alissa. Every pizza I deliver for the rest of the evening, I’m thinking about her. As I ride my scooter home, I can still see her bare neck.
I don’t realize where I am until I’m almost at the front door. This is my old street.
How is that possible? All this time, I’ve never gone the wrong way. I settled into our new place immediately.
My heart skips a beat when I see that nothing’s changed. The sidewalk is lower in one place, where I could always ride over it on my bike without bumping the back wheel.
In the window of number 39, there’s still a line of wooden cows on the ledge. I used to spend ages looking at them when I was a little kid. Dad stood patiently beside me as I counted them and gave them all names.
The memory’s painful.
Nothing’s changed here, and yet everything has changed.