WHERE ARE we going? Dixie would ask.
The forest, I’d say. Or, Space.
She never questioned me.
We need to pack survival rations, I’d tell her.
Food and water and gum and stuff.
She’d help me make butter-and-jelly sandwiches on soft, white bread. If we had chocolate chips, we’d sprinkle those in, too, and mash the bread down hard so they wouldn’t fall out. I’d lift her to the kitchen sink so she could fill a bottle with water, and I’d roll up a beach towel; then we’d put it all into the picnic basket that was really just a paper grocery bag on which I’d drawn a basket weave pattern with a green marker—badly, crookedly.
We would put on our jackets and shoes, and I’d make her close her eyes and I’d lead her around the apartment and spin her in circles and then say:
We’re here. Open your eyes.
I knew, and she knew, we weren’t in space or the forest or Narnia or anywhere other than our shitty apartment. Still, when she opened her eyes, they’d go big and bright. She was good at make-believe. My favorite thing was how she always skipped into whatever fantasy place we’d gone to. As soon as her eyes were open, she’d start skipping all around the living room and up and down the hall.
We’re in space, I might say. You can’t skip in space.
Okay, but you can only skip really slow in space because there’s no gravity.
Mid-skip she’d switch to slow motion and try to make her arms and legs more floaty. Then she’d get tired of it and get hot in her jacket and say it was time to go home.
No, we’re not going home. We’re never going home. I don’t remember when I started saying that part.
She’d stop squirming. What about Mom? And Daddy?
We’ll leave a note.
Then we’d spread the beach towel on the living room floor and if I forgot to bring crayons or markers to space I’d run into our room and get them, and we’d draw a good-bye note, our stick figures flying up to the moon and holding hands as we waved good-bye forever to our parents. Dixie liked to draw stars behind our heads like halos.
She used to play along. She used to believe everything I told her, and do anything I said.
She used to need me to take care of her, and I liked doing it. I liked doing it because, then, I thought I was the one who could. Even though nobody was taking care of me.
They were the last of what had been left in the jar of laundry money that Dixie and I kept in our room, the jar that had never quite lost the smell of pickle relish. I counted and recounted the quarters in my pocket with my fingertips as the lunch line moved forward, as I’d counted and recounted them through English, physiology, and government. I counted because things in my life had a way of disappearing on me, and I’d learned not to trust what I thought was there.
What was there wasn’t enough—three quarters short of the cost of lunch—but I stayed in the line anyway as it moved me toward the food. Lunch roulette. Luca, the cafeteria worker on the register, might find seventy-five cents for me in his pocket. Or someone else in line might cover it, out of impatience or pity, which were just as good as kindness on a day that hungry. I hadn’t eaten more than a candy bar since the potluck in my fourth-period Spanish class the day before.
Denny Miller and Adam Johnson—freshmen—stood right in front of me in the line; Tremaine Alvarado and Katy Plant, juniors like me, stood behind. Tremaine was on my PE volleyball team. She’d stare through me on the court, or jostle me while we rotated to the serve, without saying sorry or excuse me or anything else that showed she thought of me as an actual person with a name. Katy Plant thought it was funny to call me “Jim” and got other people to do it, too. I don’t know what’s worse—people acting like you don’t have a name, or them saying it wrong on purpose. The point is I wouldn’t be asking Katy or Tremaine for a handout.
Not that I wanted to ask anyone for a handout. But being hungry—I mean really hungry—had a way of erasing a lot of the embarrassment. And Denny and Adam were easy, being the kind of undersized freshmen who still looked more like seventh graders.
“Denny,” I said.
Both Denny and Adam turned around. I could see them wondering how I knew his name. I knew it because they were both listed on a program from the last band concert, and it was posted in one of the display cases outside the counseling office, under a picture of the band. I spent a lot of time there. I knew not only their names, but that Adam played clarinet and Denny played trumpet and had a solo in “Stars and Stripes Forever.” They both had floppy hair and bad skin. Adam was taller, which helped me tell them apart.
“Can I borrow seventy-five cents?” I asked quietly.
“Me?” Denny pointed to himself.
“Either of you.”
The line moved and the smell of ravioli and garlic bread got stronger. My stomach seemed to fold in on itself.
“I use a lunch card,” Denny said.
“Yeah,” Adam said. “Me too.”
They turned their backs to me. Just because their parents loaded up cafeteria cards with money didn’t mean they didn’t also have some cash. I checked on Katy and Tremaine behind me; Katy was busy showing Tremaine something on her phone. I leaned closer to Denny. “But maybe you have some change or something?”
He drew back and shook his head. I wondered whether I’d tell Mr. Bergstrom about this in our appointment later and if I did, how I would describe it in a way that made me not look too bad.
I tried Adam. “Do you know Dixie True?”
That got his attention. “Um, yeah.”
“She’s in our social studies class,” Denny added, facing me again. “And English.”
“That’s my sister.” Maybe if they knew that, I would seem more interesting than weird.
They exchanged a glance.
“Really?” Denny’s voice cracked on the end of the word. Adam laughed through his nose.
“Ask her next time you see her.”
They wouldn’t, not boys like this, zit-faced and probably still playing with action figures in secret. They might sneak looks at Dixie but they wouldn’t dare say a word to her.
Denny pulled a wrinkled dollar bill from his pocket. “You can pay me back tomorrow, though, right?”
“I’ll look for you,” I promised, taking the money.
A couple of minutes later I had my tray of ravioli and garlic bread, a sad iceberg salad with two croutons, and a carton of milk. When I got to Luca at the register, he shook his head. “I saw that.”
I handed him the bill plus eight of the quarters. He shifted on his stool, the sleeves of his green school jacket swishing against his sides while he rang me up. “If you don’t have money,” he said, “you should get your parents to fill out the form online so you can get free lunch. How many times I gotta tell you?”
I stared at the peeling yellow school logo over his heart. Half of a lion’s mane, a third of its face. “Okay.”
“‘Okay,’” he said, imitating me. “You say ‘okay,’ then you’ll be back here hustling quarters in line tomorrow, these poor little freshmen.” He wasn’t talking loud but not quiet, either, and I imagined Katy hearing every word.
“Those are my sister’s friends,” I said, and decided that’s what I’d tell Mr. Bergstrom if it came up. “I’m going to pay him back.”
“You always had money in the fall. What happened?”
“I saved from my job last summer. That’s all gone.”
His hands hovered around the register drawer for a second. Then he said, “Here’s your change.”
“But—” I was sure I’d given him three dollars exactly.
“Here’s your change, Gem,” he said again, putting four quarters in my palm.
He waved me away, and I took my ravioli to a quiet corner to eat.
“Is that supposed to be me?”
Mr. Bergstrom had gotten a new whiteboard. He’d drawn a stick figure, falling. I knew it was falling from the way the stick arms and stick legs pointed slightly upward, like gravity was pulling on its stick middle.
“I’m not a great artist but, yes, it’s meant to represent you. Here . . .” Bergstrom added some strands of hair that flew up, then capped his dry-erase marker and sat back down. “Is it at least close? Is this how you feel?”
“I don’t know.” In the way that she was alone, maybe, but even falling she looked more free than I felt. I got up and held my hand out for the marker. I drew a box around the falling girl. That didn’t look right, either. “This is dumb.” I picked up the eraser and wiped it all away.
“Maybe.” He smiled. He had a good smile and a good face, and a way of looking right at me without making me feel like I was being studied in some lab. He was way better than old Mr. Skaarsgard, the school psychologist he’d replaced at the beginning of the school year. Skaarsgard would always furrow his white eyebrows at me and make me feel like nothing I said made sense. Maybe it didn’t, but at least Mr. Bergstrom tried.
Normally I saw him a couple of times a week, not always on the same days, sometimes after school and sometimes during it, depending what was going on. I know it was a lot. Some kids at school could go a whole semester, even all of high school, without seeing him once. But right at the beginning of freshman year I sort of had this incident in pre-algebra, and my teacher referred me and then I was on the permanent rotation, first with Skaarsgard, now Bergstrom.
“What’s the box?” he asked. “That’s what it was, right?”
“You feel . . .” He trailed off and I knew I was supposed to complete the sentence.
“I mean, you can’t put me on there with nothing else,” I said, pointing at the blank whiteboard. “You have to draw Dixie and my mom, and our apartment and school.”
“Earlier, you said you felt alone.”
“I do.” My hands curled up on my knees, my nails pressed into my palms. This office was always hot and small. I shook my head, not knowing how to explain feeling alone but also trapped in the middle of people and places that didn’t let me move or breathe.
Mr. Bergstrom had plain brown eyes, a little bit small for his face, but I could almost always see sympathy in them, like now. “It’s okay, Gem,” he said. “I know it’s hard to put into words.”
I opened my hands and took a breath.
“Do you want to update me on things with your mom?” he asked.
“Fine? Last time we talked you seemed pretty worried about her. And Dixie.”
Sometimes, at our appointments, I’d tell him a lot, and it felt good in the moment, finally saying the things I’d had stuck in my head all that week. But then I’d be in bed those nights, and a smothering kind of panic would settle on me that I’d said too much. Like I’d given away something I needed and couldn’t get back.
“You said not to worry, so I stopped.”
“Well. I think I said it wasn’t your job to worry about your mom, it’s her job to worry about you. But I know it’s not that simple. Especially with Dixie.” He smiled again. “And I know you didn’t just stop worrying, Gem.”
I looked at the clock. “I have to go to detention. My bus was late this morning.”
He nodded. “Okay.” He wheeled his chair back. “We’re not scheduled again until next week, but come say hi anytime.” That’s how he always ended our meetings. Come say hi anytime. I liked knowing I could.
By the time I got home, it was twilight. Detention had made me miss my bus connection, so I’d walked, the chill and damp of Seattle a force I pressed against with every step. It was March, and things would get better and lighter soon, just not yet. Having to walk meant I missed my afternoon cigarette, too, on my bench in my park. The smoking time, which no one but me knew about, was when I didn’t feel the cage or the box or whatever it was. It made space for me and my thoughts. Without it I felt like part of me was left behind, trying to catch up.
The security gate at the front of our apartment building stood ajar despite the signs all over the entryway reminding residents in capital letters to MAKE SURE the gate stayed LOCKED SECURELY because there had been CRIMINAL INCIDENTS. The dark corridor between the gate and our stairwell always scared me, especially when the gate was left open.
I pulled it closed behind me, then checked the lock. Then I checked the lock again and told myself I could stop checking. But halfway down the corridor I went back to check it again. Then, grasping the pepper spray on my key chain, I went up the three flights of stairs—past all the handwriten notes old Mrs. Wu left everywhere about noise, garbage, pets, smoking—and into our apartment.
Dixie was home. She had the TV on and a sandwich in one hand, her phone in the other, homework all over the floor where she sat. She’d changed clothes since I’d seen her at school that morning—from jeans and a hoodie to shorts over tights and a green V-neck T-shirt that showed a lot. I had on baggy jeans and a plain blue sweater that would have hidden everything if there’d been anything to hide. As usual, she looked like the older sister.
She looked up. “I heard you stole money from some freshman today.”
Dixie had ways of knowing nearly everything that happened to me at school.
“Borrowed money,” I clarified.
“Why’d you have to tell them I was your sister?”
“You are my sister.”
“Thanks for embarrassing me.”
In our bedroom I put my backpack on my pillow with the straps toward the wall. My keys went on top of the cardboard box on its side that I used as a sort of nightstand. My shoes went inside the box, laces hanging out. I hung my jacket on the closet doorknob and put on the thick socks I always wore around our apartment. Whenever Dixie saw me doing this stuff, or checking the gate lock more than twice, she’d tease me and say I had OCD. But Mr. Bergstrom asked me a bunch of questions about it and said I didn’t fit the diagnosis, that it was more like I had a few rituals that helped me feel in control, and they didn’t interfere with my life, and it wasn’t the same thing. “Plus, from what you’ve told me about where you live,” he’d said, “checking the gate lock sounds like plain common sense.”
I confirmed one more thing—that my stash of cigarettes was still under the bed—then went back to the living room. The onion smell of Dixie’s sandwich made me salivate.
“Did you get that from Napoleon?” I asked.
She chewed and stared at me like, Obviously. Napoleon was the older guy who worked at the deli down the block and had a crush on Dixie—like a hundred other guys.
“Can I have some?” The ravioli from lunch seemed forever ago.
“No,” she said, but held it out anyway. I sat on the floor next to her and took a bite. Then another. Roast beef. Avocado. Cheddar cheese. Thin-sliced red onion and a hard sourdough roll. It was perfect, as if all of Napoleon’s craving for Dixie had been slathered onto that sandwich. I swallowed huge pieces of it, half chewed and sharp with mustard.
Dixie watched me eat. “You can finish that if you’ll go down and get the laundry from the dryer.”
“You did laundry? With what money?”
“Money I had.”
“I’m not going down there at night,” I said.
“It’s not night.”
She tried to take the sandwich away from me; I held it out of her reach. “It’s dark, though.”
“I washed some of your clothes, too, Gem. Do you want them to get stolen?” She lunged again for the sandwich.
“O-kay,” I said. I finished it and went the five steps to the kitchenette to throw away the white paper it had been wrapped in.
“Did you see your shrink today?”
“He’s not a shrink. He’s just a school psychologist.” I opened the fridge. There were a few stale corn tortillas, an opened bag of green beans, ketchup, and a white plastic butter dish with maybe a teaspoon of butter left, crumbs stuck all over it. Same as that morning.
“You should get him to send you to a real shrink. Say you need Adderall. You could sell it at school and then you’d have some money.” I’d heard that Dixie helped some seniors sell their prescriptions at school. I didn’t want to know. “I can tell you what symptoms to have,” she said.
I imagined going down to the laundry room. The lights could have burned out again. Sometimes there were noises that might be a zipper clanging against the dryer door, or might be rats or a creepy neighbor.
“Let’s go get the laundry together,” I said to Dixie.
She looked up from her homework. “You always do that.”
“‘What?’” she repeated, in a bad imitation of my voice. “I already took my shoes off.”
“So did I. Put them back on.”
I went to the bedroom to get mine. When I came out, Dixie stood by the door forcing her flip-flops over her tights.
“You’re going to fall down the stairs and die,” I said as she shuffle-walked to me.
I knelt to tie my laces. “Where’s Mom?”
“I know. Out where?”
“Work, I guess?”
I straightened up and we faced each other.
“Do you think Napoleon would give me a sandwich?”
She laughed. “Well, you might have to flash your boobs.”
“Is that what you do?”
“No! I’m joking, Gem, obviously. Do you really—” She shook her head. “You never get my jokes.”
It didn’t matter. I knew exactly why Dixie got sandwiches and why I wouldn’t.
Dixie is pretty. No one in our family is beautiful the way movie stars are beautiful, but she’s the type of girl who gets second, third, fourth looks—as many looks as people can get away with before she stares them down. She’s soft in the sense of being curvy, and hard in the sense of not taking any shit. She’s cute—her hair, her clothes, the faces she makes when she’s surprised or mad or thinks something is funny. And intimidating. She exudes a sexuality, but in a way where it’s like it’s for her, not for anyone else. It started in junior high, and by the time she got to high school, people couldn’t spend five minutes with Dixie before they wanted to give her things, feed her, touch her, get her to smile, be her friend, be her boyfriend. She got sandwiches, she got her cell phone bill paid, she got attention when she wanted and deflected it when she didn’t.
Whereas I still hadn’t figured out how to make and keep a friend.
I stared, she stared back. For her it was a game. She thought I was trying to get her to look away first. But really it was me trying to see who I was through Dixie’s eyes, me wondering if she evaluated me and my face and clothes and body, the ways I made it through the world, like I evaluated hers.
Did she look for herself in me, the way I looked for myself in her?
Finally she broke, and laughed. “You’re such a weirdo, Gem,” she said. “You probably scared that freshman with your creepy eyes.”
I didn’t want her to see I couldn’t take a joke, so I bugged my eyes at her to make them even creepier.
“Ew,” she said with an exaggerated shudder. “Let’s go downstairs before the rats come out.”