Ask the Passengersby A. S. King
Astrid Jones desperately wants to confide in someone, but her mother's pushiness and her father's lack of interest tell her they're the last people she can trust. Instead, Astrid spends hours lying on the backyard picnic table watching airplanes fly overhead. She doesn't know the passengers inside, but they're the only people who won't judge her when she asks them… See more details below
Astrid Jones desperately wants to confide in someone, but her mother's pushiness and her father's lack of interest tell her they're the last people she can trust. Instead, Astrid spends hours lying on the backyard picnic table watching airplanes fly overhead. She doesn't know the passengers inside, but they're the only people who won't judge her when she asks them her most personal questions . . . like what it means that she's falling in love with a girl.
As her secret relationship becomes more intense and her friends demand answers, Astrid has nowhere left to turn. She can't share the truth with anyone except the people at thirty thousand feet, and they don't even know she's there. But little does Astrid know just how much even the tiniest connection will affect these strangers' livesand her ownfor the better.
In this truly original portrayal of a girl struggling to break free of society's definitions, Printz Honor author A.S. King asks readers to question everythingand offers hope to those who will never stop seeking real love.
Read an Excerpt
Ask the Passengers
By A.S. King
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2012 A.S. King
All right reserved.
ASTRID JONES SENDS HER LOVE.
EVERY AIRPLANE, no matter how far it is up there, I send love to it. I picture the people in their seats with their plastic cups of soda or orange juice or Scotch, and I love them. I really love them. I send a steady, visible stream of it—love—from me to them. From my chest to their chests. From my brain to their brains. It’s a game I play.
It’s a good game because I can’t lose.
I do it everywhere now. When I buy Rolaids at the drugstore, I love the lady who runs the place. I love the old man who’s stocking shelves. I even love the cashier with the insanely large hands who treats me like shit every other day. I don’t care if they don’t love me back.
This isn’t reciprocal.
It’s an outpouring.
Because if I give it all away, then no one can control it.
Because if I give it all away, I’ll be free.
YOU’D HATE IT HERE.
MOTION IS IMPOSSIBLE. That’s what Zeno of Elea said. And though I’ve disagreed with the idea every day this week in humanities class, sometimes I think I know what he meant.
It’s Wednesday, which is lit mag day. Justin and Kristina are ten minutes late. They are always ten minutes late. This doesn’t bug me. I’ve learned to expect it. And if I run out of submissions, I can always work on layout or advertising or just sit here and read a book. Justin and Kristina have all kinds of stuff to do after school. I just have lit mag.
When the two of them finally arrive, they walk through the door holding hands and giggling. Justin has his SLR digital camera around his neck like always, and Kristina is in a pair of yoga pants and an oversize Yale sweatshirt. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail.
“Sorry we’re late,” she says.
Justin apologizes, too. “I had to take some candid shots of the usual suspects: Football practice. Cheerleading. Hockey team running their laps. Yearbook crap.”
“I went with him to help,” Kristina says. “Could Aimee Hall be any more obvious?”
Justin laughs. “She actually posed for me hugging her tennis racquet.”
“It was gross,” Kristina says, adjusting her ponytail by grabbing two sides and yanking on them to center it on her perfect head.
When the townies talk about her, they say: You know that’s her natural color?
They say: I bet her and that Justin Lampley will have some damn pretty kids.
They say: I can’t figure out why she hangs out with that weird neighbor girl.
“We’re going up to Sparky’s before they close for the season. You in?” Kristina knows the answer to this, but she asks it anyway. And she knows that I’d kill for a Sparky’s root beer float, too.
“Can’t. School night. You know the deal.” Jones family small-town rules: no going out on school nights unless for clubs, sports or other school-related activities.
“Maybe Friday, then? It’s their last night. It’ll be packed, but worth it,” she says.
“Uh, Kris, we have a double date on Friday night,” Justin says.
“Oh, shit. My bad. Can’t do Friday. Double date.”
It’s so cute, isn’t it? It’s so 1950s. When I hear them talk like this, I close my eyes and picture Kristina in a blue chiffon dress that poufs out right below her knees, pearls and satin heels. I picture Justin in tightly tailored pegged pants. They are at a sock hop, jitterbugging.
People say: Did you hear those two double-date every Friday night? Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?
Justin looks at his watch. “Are you done or what?”
I show him the empty submission box, and he pulls out his phone and starts to wander toward the door.
“You need a ride home?” I ask Kristina. She looks at Justin, who is already texting Chad. We know it’s Chad, because Justin gets this look on his face when he texts Chad.
“Sure,” she says.
Justin is laughing at whatever clever text he just received and doesn’t even hear us. By the time I turn off the lights in Ms. Steck’s room, we’ve managed to nudge him into the hall and lock up. When we say good-bye, he grunts, thumbs typing furiously on his little iPhone keypad. Kristina says she has to grab something from her locker before we go and she’ll meet me in the parking lot, so I stop at the bathroom and my locker, too.
By the time I get outside, I see Justin and Kristina standing by Justin’s car in the parking lot, talking to a gaggle of their sporty and popular friends. Everyone is nice to Justin because if he likes you, there’s a better chance you’ll end up in the yearbook. If he doesn’t like you? Let’s just say Justin can make you look really good or really bad in a picture.
Justin and Kristina have been doing this dating thing since mid-sophomore year, so the people-being-overly-nice-to-Justin thing extends to her. Sometimes, it even extends to me, too, if I show up at times like this when they are mobbed in the parking lot, but today I don’t feel like it. They’re all probably saying, “Hope you win Homecoming king and queen! You’ve got my vote!” and stuff like that. I decide to get in my car and wait for the activity buses to leave. I reach into the glove compartment for a bottle of Rolaids and shake out three to chew on.
We say good-bye to Justin once the buses clear, and drive down Main Street of Kristina’s historic town. I don’t call it my town because I don’t think of it as my town. I still remember living in New York City, and loving the smell of the sweaty steam coming through the subway vents, and the vendor carts full of boiling hot dogs. That’s my town. Not Unity Valley.
Unity Valley is Kristina’s town.
Unity Valley is now my sister Ellis’s town, even though she was nine when we moved and totally remembers life in New York.
Mom says: You two have a chance to really fit in here. Your father and I will always stick out because—well, you know—because of our education and our way of thinking. But you two can really be small-town girls.
Ellis bought this. She’s living it. As far as I can tell, it’s working for her.
Mom says: We have so much more space here! The supermarket is so big! The roads are safe! The air is clean! The schools are better! No crime! And the people here stop and say hello!
They stop and say hello, and then once you pass, they talk the back off you like you were nothing. They assess your outfit, your hairstyle, and they garble what you say so it comes out ugly. If I don’t hear it firsthand, I hear it secondhand.
About black kids: I hear that Kyle kid got himself a scholarship. Had to be black to get it. I can’t see how that’s fair. Jimmy Kyle got that scholarship to Villanova because he’s a straight-A student and wants to go to law school.
About the two Latino freshman girls: The parents don’t even speak English. This is America, isn’t it? Franny Lopez is third-generation American, and her parents don’t even speak Spanish. Michelle Marquez’s mother has it bad enough without having to learn a second language. Mind your own business.
About my family: Did you see they have birdhouses all over their yard? I don’t know about you, but that’s inviting bird shit, and who wants bird shit?
They say: It’s just not natural that he makes his girl use a hammer.
Maybe this sort of thing happens in your town, too.
“Wish you could come to Sparky’s with us tonight,” Kristina says.
“I’ll live without a root beer float until next summer,” I say.
We’re a block from our houses, in the prettiest part of town. I used to think the two-hundred-year-old redbrick buildings were so cute, you know? I used to think the cobblestone town center was quaint. It was different and new. And kinda forced on me, but it was cool, too, once I got over the initial shock.
“I can totally bring you a root beer float, you know. Not sure why that’s only occurring to me now,” she says. “What’s better than Sparky’s except Sparky’s room service?”
“That would rock so much, I’d owe you something big. Like maybe an ear or a toe or something,” I say.
She laughs. “You don’t have to give me your toe, dude.”
“Oh. Good,” I say, pretending I’m relieved. “I was planning on using mine for stuff later today, like walking. And standing upright.”
Kristina laughs again and even snorts a little. But then she gets that worried look on her face as we approach her house. “Do you think people know?” she asks. She’s so random.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” I say.
“I wish I could be as sure.”
“Don’t worry. No one knows.”
“You’re not bullshitting?” she asks.
“No bullshit. Promise. I am the ears of this town. No one knows.”
AUBERGINES, FOYERS, AND THE HORSE WHO LIVES UPSTAIRS.
WHEN I GET HOME and put my backpack on the desk in the quiet room, I hear Mom’s rolling office chair carving tracks into the wood floor upstairs. She rolls to the east side of the office and then rolls back. Each push makes a series of loud clopping sounds, as if there’s a dancing horse upstairs.
My mother wears expensive high heels all day while she works, even though she works at home. She wears full business attire, too, and makeup and earrings and has her hair perfectly styled, even though nobody ever sees her. When she breaks for lunch, she clip-clops downstairs to the kitchen and then clip-clops back upstairs—back straight, eyes focused just above the horizon, as if she’s still in New York City, walking down Park Avenue, being a big, important art director. When I hear her clip-clopping, I am immediately annoyed. At everything. At Unity Valley. At her. At this house and how I can hear her upstairs because the house is a million years old and there’s no insulation between ceilings and floors, unless you count centuries-old mouse nests.
We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my grandmother dying. Mom’s mom. She used to tell Ellis and me stories about growing up where there were cornfields and hills to roll down. On our last visit to her Upper West Side apartment, Gram mentioned to Mom and Dad that the house Gram grew up in—one of the oldest on Main Street in Unity Valley—was up for sale.
Even though Gram lived her whole adult life in New York City, she was buried back in Unity Valley, next to her mother, my great-grandmother. We drove by the house fifty times the week of her funeral, and one time we stopped the car and Mom got out and talked to a person walking down the sidewalk. The lady said, “They’ll never get what they’re asking. The place is too small, and the market is too slow.”
That’s all it took for Mom to call the real estate agent.
“It’s rightfully mine,” she’d said. “I remember visiting my grandmother in it when I was little, and always wishing I lived there,” she’d said. “We won’t move permanently, but we should buy it. It’s like an heirloom. I finally have a chance to buy it back into our family.”
So she did. A year later, when I was ten and Ellis was nine, we moved. Now we’re small-town girls. Except that we aren’t. And Mom is a hometown girl. Except that she isn’t.
Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop. She descends the steps, and I start to unpack my books onto the quiet-room desk to get ready for the trig homework I’ve been avoiding all day.
“How was your day?” she asks Ellis, who’s been sitting in the kitchen this whole time but hasn’t said hello.
“I’m starting against Wilson tomorrow,” she says.
“I suppose that’s good, is it?” Mom never played sports. So, Ellis’s field hockey is her introduction to words like starting, varsity and shin splints.
“It’s great,” Ellis answers.
“How great? Will we see you on the front page of the sports section soon?”
Ellis rolls her eyes. “It’s great for me. And the team. And maybe it means Coach Jane will start me more often.”
“I can’t understand why she doesn’t make you the star of the team. This whole fairness-to-seniors idea is so silly. If they backed talent no matter what age, it would get them further.”
I’m still in the quiet room playing invisible, but I want to explain to Mom that you can’t make a player star of the team by better advertising or better shelf placement, the way she does with her clients’ products.
“I think it’s fair to let the seniors start,” Ellis says.
“Well, it won’t help you get your name in the paper, so you’ll have to forgive me if I disagree,” Mom says. “Help me make dinner?”
Ellis deflates and claims homework time in her bedroom. Mom goes into the kitchen to make dinner without asking me how my day was, even though she knows I’m here.
The quiet room is technically the foyer. In our house, you pronounce that correctly.Foy-yay, not foy-er. We call it the quiet room because as long as the horse isn’t dancing upstairs and the door is closed, it is the quietest room in the house. It’s where my mother hopes to read classic novels again one day when she isn’t working nine days a week, and it’s where I do my homework because Ellis plays loud music when she works in her bedroom and I can’t concentrate. And I need to concentrate because trig is killing me.
When I signed up for trig, I certainly thought it would be more exciting than the deep study of triangles. Seriously. Triangles. That’s all it’s about. When I realized this upon reading the basic definition in the front of the textbook on the first day of school, every cell in my body told me to go to Guidance and change my schedule. I don’t need trig to graduate. I’ve taken plenty of math, and I got good grades. I even got picked for AP humanities—the only class in Unity Valley High School that requires teacher references.
I’m not sure if learning about ancient Greece and classical philosophy is going to get me anywhere, but it’s not like trig is going to get me anywhere, either. At least philosophy isn’t making me want to jump off the nearest bridge. Okay, well at the moment it kinda is, but that’s Zeno of Elea’s fault. And anyway, if what he said is true, that motion is impossible, then I wouldn’t really be able to jump off a bridge, would I?
At five thirty, Dad parallel parks in the space in front of our house and goes into the backseat for his briefcase. When he gets to our front walk, he hits the lock button on the car, and it sounds a little honk. He stops to make sure our two front birdfeeders are filled. He checks the water level in the birdbath. Then he walks in the front door to find me pretending to poke my eye out with a protractor.
“Trig?” he asks.
I put my head down in response. I stick my tongue out and roll my eyes back like I’m dying.
“Good luck with that,” he says as he heads upstairs.
I can smell the pot on his breath.
Mom brings the steaming casserole dish to the table and places it on a hot pad. “Aubergine casserole!” she announces. Yes, aubergine. That’s eggplant to us nonspecial, undereducated, small-town people.
She serves it with a cold salad and sprinkles walnuts on top of everything.
Halfway through dinner, Ellis tells Dad about starting against Wilson tomorrow. As she tells him the details, he nods and chews. When he finally swallows, he says, “What time does it start?”
“I bet I can swing that,” he says. “Even if I’m a little late.”
“That would be awesome,” she says.
Mom says, “I can’t make it.” Even though she works upstairs. And she can. Totally. Make it. “But if you want, we can go shopping this weekend.”
We all go back to eating aubergine casserole. For the record: The last time Mom took me shopping on a whim was never. And it’s not like Ellis has grown out of her clothes. The saddest part is that Ellis still pretends they have the perfect relationship Mom wants them to have. Because Ellis is her last chance, and they both know it.
“It would be nice to see you in the paper,” Mom says. “They’re always concentrating on boys’ sports or the kids who get scholarships.”
“I’m a midfielder,” Ellis says, which she knows Mom won’t understand, so I don’t know why she says it.
“But you’re talented,” she says. “I’m going to get in touch with Mike at the paper and see what he can do. We do each other favors. He could get you in there,” she says, pointing with her fork.
“I don’t really want to be in the paper,” Ellis says.
“Everyone wants to be in the paper!” Mom says. “And it’s not like it’s the Times. No need to be modest.”
I can’t figure out if that’s an insult or a compliment.
When it’s my turn to talk about my day, I share lit mag news.
“We got a few poems today that were half decent,” I say. “And there’s a kid in freshman AP English who writes these great fantasy short stories, and he submitted a few of them. I picked one of those, too.”
“Fantasy?” Mom says. “Seriously, Astrid. You’re the editor. You should set the bar.”
Instead of replying with my usual open-your-mind speech, I send love to my mother. Mom, I love you even though you are a critical, unforgiving horror show. This casserole sucks, but I like the way you roasted the walnuts.
“We’re starting the first unit of the Socrates Project in humanities next week, and I’m kinda excited,” I say. Mom nods, even though she has no idea what the Socrates Project is… because I haven’t told her. “I think I’ll just be happy to stop talking about Zeno and his dumb motion theories.” I haven’t told her about Zeno, either.
“And how’s Kristina?” she asks. She’s using the Kristina tone—a weird mix of jealousy and I-know-something-you-don’t-know because she and Kristina text each other a lot and she thinks I don’t know this.
“Any word on Homecoming?”
“We vote Friday.”
“I know Kristina’s really excited about it.”
“I think she has a real chance to win. She has all the right qualities,” she says.
I am annoyed that she thinks she knows more than I do about Kristina. Believe me, if she knew half of what I know, she’d probably choke on this awful aubergine casserole and die right here in her four-hundred-dollar shoes.
“What qualities are those?” I ask.
She takes a sip of her wine. “You know. She’s just such a great representation of what this town is all about.”
“True,” I say. Because it’s true. Kristina is exactly the opposite of what she seems, and that’s a perfect representation of Unity Valley.
Then Dad tells us about how boring it is to work in his new office cubicle all day, talking to people on the phone about microprocessors and systems analytics while looking over his shoulder for the outsourcing memo. (His last job lasted eight months before the company moved to Asia. The job before that lasted eleven.)
“To top it all off, while I was at lunch, someone borrowed my stapler and broke it.”
“Aw, poor Gerry,” Mom says.
“Hey, that was my favorite stapler. It was ergonomic,” he says.
Without a moment’s sympathy, Mom launches into her day (hellish clients, dumb photographers, bitchy magazine editors) between gulps of wine and mouthfuls of eggplant. She could go for an hour, I bet.
We all eat as fast as we can to get out of here.
Then, after the dishes are done and the kitchen is cleaned, Ellis goes for her nightly jog on well-lit Main Street with two of her small-town teammates, Dad sits down in the quiet room to read a book, Mom goes back to her office, and I go out into the backyard to talk to the passengers.
ASTRID JONES SENDS HER LOVE. FROM A PICNIC TABLE.
I MADE THIS PICNIC TABLE with Dad the summer before junior year. I was sick of making birdhouses. Seriously. How many birdhouses can two people make before they run out of things to say? Before they run out of space to put them? Our backyard was an ode to nesting and flight—part bird zoo and part art exhibit.
They’d say: It’s very unique.
Dad had the whole summer off on account of his temporary unemployment, and Mom was staying with friends back in New York City to do some well-paid consulting for a month. Ellis was at summer sports camp for a week, and it was just Dad and me. Dad hadn’t discovered pot yet. He was a late bloomer, I guess.
So we built the table and moved it to the back patio, and even though Mom hates eating outside, she lets us do it about twice a summer just to be normal small-town people, the way she wants us to be.
The rest of the time, the table just sits here with nothing to do. So I lie on it and I look at the sky. I see shapes in the clouds by day and shooting stars by night. And I send love to the passengers inside the airplanes. It makes me happy. Anyone looking on might think I was smoking Dad’s pot, I bet. Lying here, grinning.
But it feels good to love a thing and not expect anything back. It feels good to not get an argument or any pushiness or any rumors or any bullshit. It’s love without strings. It’s ideal.
Tonight I spot a small jet and I concentrate on it and I stare at it and smile. Its very existence proves Zeno of Elea wrong. If motion was impossible, there would be no such things as airplanes. Or departure times. Or arrival times. I send my love up in a stream of steady light and in my head I think: I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.
HEIDI KLEIN, SEAT 17A
NASHVILLE TO PHILADELPHIA
I stare at him because I can’t believe he just said that.
“What?” he asks.
“Did you really just say that?” It’s rhetorical, that question. I know what he said.
“What?” he says again, this time smiling that smile at me because he knows I can’t resist it. This is how he convinced me to let him move into our apartment. He said he’d rather sleep on the couch and pitch in rent than stay in that shitty dorm room with his dorky roommate. Then he smiled just like this.
“I’m fighting with you over how you can’t cook anything and how I have to come home from chem lab to a stinky apartment and no dinner and you tell me this now?”
“You love me?”
I can’t help but smile back at him. “We only met two months ago.”
“So you can’t love me,” I say.
“Because you don’t know the real me, right?”
“We’ve lived together for two months, Heidi. You make great coffee. You’re always late for work. You use moisturizer in your hair as mousse. I’ve washed your underwear.”
“Still doesn’t get you out of making dinner once in a while,” I say.
“But I still love you.”
I still can’t believe he’s saying this. “Why’d you choose to tell me this now?”
“I don’t know. I guess it just came out.”
“After two months,” I say.
“After two months,” he says.
I want to say so many things. I might even want to say… it. But instead, my head fills with signature Heidi Klein snark-and-logic combo. You can’t love me. I don’t have a soul, so I don’t believe in soul mates. We’re nineteen. Next thing you’ll be asking me to marry you. Seriously, did you forget to take some meds this morning?
He looks misty. The way my mother was when I left to go to college in September. I hated all that misty crap. Maybe I’m codependent and I’ve replaced my mother with Ron. Oh, God. Maybe I need all that misty crap. Shit.
“Can we save this for later?”
He smiles again. His dimples pop. “Let me out,” he says. “I need to take a leak.”
I get up and let him out and plop down in the window seat for a while. Clear skies—I can nearly make out the landscape below, but it’s still blurry. And then something crazy hits me and I say, “I love you, too,” without any reason to. It’s like I’m not in control of my mouth or something.
And on the one hand, I’m glad Ron wasn’t here to hear it, but on the other hand, I hope he gets back soon. I miss him already.
CLAIRE NEVER QUITS.
HUMANITIES CLASS IS a little like a shield I can put on every morning that will protect me from people like Aimee Hall and her pack of gossiping, tennis racquet–hugging compulsive hair-straighteners.
The room is filled with kids who either own Albert Camus T-shirts or read Kafka for fun on weekends. Okay—there are a few people here who just do it because it looks good on their college applications. But no matter what group you fit into, in humanities class you can speak your mind and Ms. Steck will listen. At the moment, we’re debating how I can’t accept that Zeno got away with questioning motion.
Every time we’ve talked about his “motion is impossible” theory, I do the same thing. I stand up. I swing my arms around. I say, “Motion is possible. Check it out!” Today is no different.
“Back it up with an argument,” Ms. Steck says.
I swing my arms more wildly and pretend to tap-dance in place. “Motion is totally possible! Hello!”
“That’s not an argument,” she says.
“I think it is. Imagine the argument was Astrid has two arms, but I had only one, and my right arm was a stump, and I could show it to you right here in your face. Wouldn’t that be proof enough to move on to the next argument? Wouldn’t the stump be argument enough to prove that Astrid had only one arm?” I ask. “So me standing here moving is proof that Zeno was wrong and silly and just wasting our time. Motion is possible, and everyone in this room knows it.”
Ms. Steck just looks at me.
I add, “Maybe saying motion is impossible was his way of getting out of doing chores. Maybe it got him laid or something. But it’s totally ridiculous. Look!” I swing my arms even more wildly.
Two kids—Zeno lovers—in the back row keep trying to explain to me. “That’s the point!” one says. The other nods. “To argue things out to the most absurd!”
Ms. Steck reminds me of the arrow—one of Zeno’s arguments. The idea is that an arrow shot at a target has to move through time, but since time is made of tiny moments, the arrow, in each tiny moment, is at rest and not moving.
“That’s like saying that if I take a picture of Clay”—I point to Clay, who is wearing his Kurt Vonnegut asterisk T-shirt today—“while he’s running hurdles and I freeze that moment in time… that he never really moved during the race.”
Ms. Steck says, “Yes. That’s a little like what Zeno was trying to say.”
“Which brings me back to: This is a waste of time! We all know Clay runs hurdles and wins medals. And he must have moved to get here today, right? Although, if I can use this as an excuse to get out of going to trig next, then I might just shut up.”
The class laughs, and I tell Ms. Steck that I am happy to move on from Zeno and his dumb theory. “I understand what he was doing, but I still think it’s stupid,” I say.
During free time at the end of class, while most people are writing their short paper on Zeno or finishing their homework for other classes, I hit the Internet, and I find someone who has something more important than “motion is impossible” to offer from around the fifth century BC.
Hippocrates. Father of Western medicine. He said this: “There are in fact two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.” Now tell me motion is impossible seems remotely important next to that shit.
After I make it to fourth-period trig (because I moved my legs to walk there, and motion is totally possible), I realize this is what trig sounds like to me: “Hgdj gehuoidah zdkgj szhdgouij fhhhf ldldfuhd. Ujfrekuhjd fhdy. Ksdihfh. 54 46 34 23. Iuhfg.”
I realize I only took trig because everyone else takes trig. I realize that I took trig because Mom said, “Well, of course you’re taking trig. You’re going to college, right?”
I tune out everything that Mr. Trig is explaining, and I walk through my options. I can change this. I have a choice. I decide to see the guidance counselor after lunch to set myself free. I decide to schedule something cooler for fourth period. Maybe I can still get into a yoga gym class, or maybe there’s still a spot in ceramics. Worst comes to worst, I can always take a study hall.
The bell rings. I don’t take down the nightly reading or homework assignment from the board. I leave my textbook and graph paper on Mr. Trig’s desk. I have mentally just quit trig. This makes me so happy, I smile through the rest of the day.
Eighth-period European history. I am still so happy about just dropping trig, it is impossible to stop smiling. But we are watching a documentary about the Holocaust. There are dead bodies piled up everywhere. Starving people in concentration camps. Gas chambers. This isn’t right, me smiling like this.
They’ll say: Did you see Astrid Jones in EH today? Smiling at those Holocaust films?
The film footage stops, and a youngish guy with an English accent appears on the screen. He seems to be sitting in a room of Holocaust artifacts. Skulls, hair, teeth. He’s telling us how the Nazis killed more than just Jews. Yes, six million Jews were exterminated, but five million other civilians were, too. He says we often overlook these five million. I think he’s right. I’d never heard of them before right now.
He lists them. The Poles, the Ukrainians, the Yugoslavians, and the Russians. The blacks, the Gypsies, anyone of mixed race, the mentally or physically disabled and the homosexuals.
“At least the Nazis had that right,” Kevin Herman says from the back row.
The rest of the back row laughs. The film goes on. Mr. Williams either didn’t hear Kevin or has become really good at ignoring him.
The man explains the imprisonment and murder of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and how they were forced to wear purple armbands. The footage is black and white, but I can see armbands. I imagine they are purple. He explains that while we might know that Jews were forced to wear yellow stars, we may not know that homosexuals were forced to wear triangles. Pink triangles.
It occurs to me here that though I am no longer interested in triangles, I am interested in pink ones. I’m just still not so sure how interested I am.
“The gas chamber was too good for them,” Kevin says.
The back row sniggers again.
I read books about schools that have gay/straight alliance clubs. These are fictional books. And so I believe gay/straight alliance clubs must also be fictional. We certainly don’t have them here. We have a sign in the entrance hall that says THIS IS NO PLACE FOR HATE, but that doesn’t actually make it no place for hate.
If we have anything, we have Holocaust deniers. We have neo-Nazis. We have the Ku Klux Klan. They leave invitations in our mailbox every few years with mints—individually packaged melty mints with the KKK symbol on the wrapper. It’s 2011 and we still have them.
This whole town is frozen in time. Stuck in one place. Motionless. Except for me, because I just quit trig, which proves motion is totally possible, even if it means I now have to go home and tell my parents and listen to my mother talk about how quitters never win and winners never quit.
“Look at me!” she says. “I wanted to quit art school in my first semester, but did I? No. I carried on and went all the way through and got my master’s. And that master’s is feeding this family now!”
The only good thing about this conversation is that Friday is pizza night and I get to eat slices of white pizza with broccoli and garlic and drink a birch beer while I listen.
“Couldn’t you get a tutor or something? I don’t think it will look very good on your school records that you quit something, will it, Gerry?” She pours herself another glass of red from the bottle next to her glass.
Dad sighs. “You’re not heading for the sciences, are you, Astrid?”
“Nope,” I answer. I’ve told them my plan a hundred times: Move back to New York City and be an editor.
“It was only pissing you off, dropping your GPA and making your life harder. It’s senior year. You’re supposed to be having fun.”
“Oh, my God,” Mom says. “You sound like a hippie!”
“Pass me the wine,” Dad says. He rarely joins her, but it’s Friday and the stapler-stealing-and-breaking person at work hasn’t come out to apologize yet and it’s driving him crazy.
He pours himself a glass and looks her straight in the eye. “Just because you don’t know how to have fun doesn’t mean the kids can’t,” he says. “Astrid knows what she wants to do. Who gives a shit if she dropped trig? She was never going to use it!”
“It’s quitting,” she answers. “And quitters never win.”
“Oh, my God, you’re like a broken record, Claire. You know, some quitters do win. Plenty of them.” He adds, “Why can’t you just be nice to her for once?”
The question hangs in the air for a minute. Ellis gives me a jealous look. As if it’s my fault that this whole family doesn’t revolve around her. Sheesh.
Mom looks at Ellis and me. “Go upstairs.”
We sit there for a second because we don’t know what to do. We’re not done eating yet.
Ellis quietly says, “But I’m not done eat—”
“Go upstairs!” Mom yells.
We go upstairs. But the two-hundred-fifty-year-old walls and floors are thin, and we hear the fight from our bedrooms. All the usual stuff. She can’t have fun because Gerry is a loser. Gerry doesn’t understand her needs. Gerry can’t even hold a steady job. Gerry never listens. Gerry cares more about “your fucking stapler than your wife.” Gerry is the perfect example of “quitters never win” because he quit law school.
After ten minutes of this, we hear Dad’s chair move. He doesn’t say a word and starts running the water for the dishes as she clip-clops up to her office because, you know, “someone has to work around here.”
I don’t like how pot has taken my dad away from me, but I like how it’s given him the balls to stick up for me like that. I send love from my bedroom. Dad, I love you for saying what you said at dinner. I know it was hard because Mom has chopped off your balls and baked them in a testes casserole, but thank you for trying. It means a lot.
Ellis comes to my door. Sometimes she’s like a real sister—the way we were when we were little when we’d watch The Wizard of Oz and she’d curl into my side when the flying monkeys would come. Sometimes she needed me, I guess. Not very often anymore.
“I’m sneaking down. Want me to bring you back some pizza?”
“Nah, I’m good,” I say, even though I’m still kind of hungry. “Thanks anyway.”
I WORK WEEKENDS.
I COULD HAVE PICKED any job—the usual fast-food places or playground summer positions. I could have stayed with friends of the family and interned in New York at some publishing house, as Mom suggested. But in June of junior year when Mom pushed (if you don’t get a summer job now, I’ll get one for you) I chose Maldonado Catering. Juan and Jorge (neither of them a Maldonado, for what it’s worth) are both really nice. Jorge interviewed me and gave me the job in about twelve seconds.
“Want to know why?” he asked in a thick Puerto Rican accent.
“Because you didn’t bullshit me and tell me that you know what you’re doing. It means we can teach it to you our way, man.”
Now it’s October, and I know three things. I know how to devein shrimp really fast. I know how to open clams really fast. I know how to do inventory. (Okay, I know a lot more than that, but some days I feel like that’s all I do. Especially the shrimp-deveining part.)
I start my day at 5:35 AM with inventory for next weekend’s jobs, which are listed on a roster next to the inventory clipboard. The walk-in freezer is full of boxes, and I sit on the one in the back corner and relax. I wish I could live in here. I’d put the bed there. It’s the only place I feel comfortable anymore. And a bookshelf there. I’m not nervous about what Mom would think. A dresser with a few T-shirts and jeans in the corner.
There is nothing else like the sound of a walk-in freezer’s door opening. It’s a loud clunk of the huge handle followed by an air-suck sound. It’s a big sound. Like something circus equipment would make. Logger sounds. Or those science-fiction bay doors on spaceships with air locks.
I pretend to look for a box of frozen pastry shells in case it’s Juan. But I feel my stomach twist because I know it’s not Juan.
“Need help?” Dee says.
“Just checking the dates to make sure I get the right ones. Damn, there are a lot of shells here this month.” I say this in case anyone is outside, listening. In case anyone knows.
Dee lets the door slam behind her, and it sounds even bigger than it does when it opens. The swirling white air dances around the caged freezer lightbulb, and she pushes me right up against the dappled stainless-steel wall and kisses me with both her hands braided into my hair.
This is not our first kiss.
Dee is my real best friend, I guess. Kristina doesn’t know about her, and Dee doesn’t know the truth about Kristina, and that’s the way I want to keep it.
Dee is the funniest person I have ever met in my life. Her laugh is big and confident. She’s laid back and doesn’t like to gossip. She’s also kissing me. A lot. And I’m kissing her back.
Before I met her here at Maldonado’s, I only knew her as the neighboring school district’s badass hockey star who would periodically get mentioned in small-town gossip. I think the first thing I ever heard was from Ellis. I’m pretty sure she used the word dyke in her description, too. Because if you want to be a small-town girl in U. Valley, that’s what you say.
The first time I saw Dee was at one of Ellis’s hockey games last year. She smiled at me, and I never forgot it. Or more accurately, I always remembered it. And I checked the hockey schedule and went to the away game at her school, too, just to see if she’d smile at me again, and she did.
I smiled back. That was right about the time Tim Huber broke up with me, too, so smiling wasn’t something I did very often.
I didn’t know she worked at Maldonado’s when I interviewed. Believe me, my first day of work was some sort of proof that everything happens for a reason. I’d thought about her smiles for eight months at that point. Probably every day.
On my second day of work, she said, “Anyone ever tell you that you’re gorgeous?”
I didn’t answer, but I asked myself the question for a whole month. She must have thought I was ignoring it or just thought she was joking around. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. I was considering it. Astrid Jones. Gorgeous. I’d never really thought about that. Tim Huber said things like cute or sweet or, one time, hot—which turned me off completely because I knew he was only saying it to see how far he could get me to go with him.
But when Dee said I was hot a month after she’d asked me if anyone had ever told me I was gorgeous? She meant it. “I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. You’re hot!”
That was the day of our first kiss.
Now she’s laughing while she kisses me. “You’re not going to tell me to back off again, are you?” she asks.
“Mmm. Hmm,” I manage while still kissing her neck, her ear. “Back off,” I say. I bite her earlobe.
So far in my life, Dee is the only person who wants to totally ravish me. I have to stop her all the time. I swear she’d do it right here in the walk-in freezer if she could. Right now. Before six AM. With morning breath. Next to a box of frozen taquitos.
“I dream of this all week,” she says.
“We have to find more ways to see each other,” she says.
“I know,” I say, but the best I can do is go watch Ellis play hockey for the one game where Dee’s school is the visiting team. Or, well, the go-to-Atlantis-with-Kristina-and-Justin daydream, but I haven’t told her about that yet. Because it’s stupid.
At the moment, we talk twice a week outside of work. Between her hockey schedule and my paranoia, that’s about all we can manage. Plus, her mom is a bit of a stickler about phone minutes, and Dee only gets fifteen dollars’ worth a week.
Anyway, not being constantly connected makes the whole thing more intense. It’s better that way.
Dee and I are washing fruits and vegetables.
“You done with the mushrooms yet?” Juan asks.
“Almost,” I say. I finish them, put them in a container and take them over to him. I stop for a minute to watch him slice them. He is like ballet with a knife. “You’re a natural, you know that?” I ask.
He says, “Natural? What the fuck? Nobody is born this good, man. Takes years of practice. Now get back to work.”
Either way, it’s beautiful to watch, even if he is a dick sometimes. I send love to him. My brain says: Juan, you are a wonderful, awesome human being and a complete natural at cutting mushrooms, and I love you.
An hour later, Dee is washing and prepping the strawberries and cherries while Jorge melts dark chocolate in a double boiler. I will spend the next half hour sticking the pieces of fruit with toothpicks, dipping them and laying them on waxed paper. Then, when the tray is full, I will take it to the walk-in freezer. I find myself wishing I were a strawberry. Imagine that: washed by Dee’s soft hands, dipped in chocolate and left in the freezer, where no one bothers you for an hour and a half.
If I were to explain to you how she really makes me feel, I’m not sure I could. Do I love her? I don’t know. Maybe. I love kissing her. I love the way she smells, and I love her lips. But Dee scares the shit out of me, too. Because she knows. And I don’t know.
We punch out at noon and walk to the parking lot, which is now full of cars. It was empty at five o’clock this morning. We want to kiss each other good-bye, but instead we wave like awkward dorks and get into our cars and drive away in different directions. She goes left. I go right.
DO WHAT FEELS RIGHT.
THE CLOSER I GET TO MY HOUSE, the less I want to go home, so I stop at Kristina’s house. I park in back so Mom won’t see my car.
“Oh, God. You smell like fish,” she says as I arrive in her room. The sun is pouring through the windows, and as I bounce on her bed to annoy her, dust rises and sparkles in the sunrays.
“And that’s just my hands,” I say.
“Ew. No, seriously. You stink.”
I continue to bounce and watch the dust dance. “It’s probably the brassicas.”
“Brassicas? What the hell?” Now she’s cranky. My arrival—and my bouncing—means that she can’t stay in bed all day.
“You know, brassicas? Broccoli and cauliflower? The cabbage family?”
She’s squinting at me now.
“Come on. Get up and talk to me. I’m bored. I’m hyper. I don’t want to go home to Claire and her hellish Saturday mood swings.”
“How long have you been up?” she asks.
“Oh, my God.”
“How late were you out?” I ask.
“Like an hour before you got up,” she answers.
“Justin’s mom thinks he stayed over here. He’s probably still out before Chad has to drive all the way home.” Chad lives about an hour away. He and Justin met online at some photography forum. It’s not as creepy as it sounds. “Justin said he’d call me when he was going home so I could call his house and pretend he left something here.”
“And how’s Donna?”
She smiles. “Awesome.” She sits up and sighs. “We’re going back to Atlantis tonight. You should come. You could drink. You could dance. It’d be fun.”
Dancing and drinking. Two things very low on my list of priorities, along with sex, kickboxing and becoming a rodeo star.
“Sounds fun,” I say. “But I need my beauty sleep if one day Prince Charming is going to gallop down Main Street and sweep me off my feet.”
“Wow,” she says. “You’ve been listening to Claire again.” Kristina is allowed to call her Claire, so that’s what we call her when we talk about her. I have to call her Mom to her face. “She’s so jacked up on that these days.”
She reaches for her phone and brings up a text message. It’s so Claire. Kristina, WHEN r u going to find a good boy like Justin 4 Astrid?
“I wish she’d just mind her own business,” I say.
Excerpted from Ask the Passengers by A.S. King Copyright © 2012 by A.S. King. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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