PART I. Lip gloss, Leggings, and a Scarf

1

 

TRAVISE JENKINS and me lean against the oak tree on the corner at the Baker Street bus stop. Leaning makes us look way cooler than just standing would.

“I found your math book underneath a bus seat yesterday afternoon, Eric. How’d you get your homework done last night, huh?” Emily Monterey has morphed into a second mother. Like I need another mom.

I tug on my left earlobe. It hurts worse than the time I fell off my skateboard riding down the stairs in front of the library and rammed my front teeth through my bottom lip. Ever since Lily Lee pierced it with an ice cube and a needle on Saturday afternoon, it’s never been right. If it doesn’t quit swelling up, I’m going to pull the goddamned golden hoop out—it makes me look more like a pirate than a gangsta anyhow.

“Maybe I didn’t do the friggin’ math homework—so sue me.” I know how to sound meaner than my backyard neighbor’s dog when I hang out too close to the fence. But Emily is sensitive when it comes to backtalk; even though I snap at her so she’ll chill with the lecturing, I wink so she doesn’t have a meltdown.

The wink works too good—Emily keeps right on yapping. “Mark my words, Eric, you’re so going to get another detention for not passing it in.”

She points this out like I don’t already know how shit works with Mr. Carr. What Emily doesn’t know is I wouldn’t have a clue how to do the math problems even if I had my math book. Maybe I forgot it on the bus accidentally on purpose.

“Whatever,” I say, and then I yawn so nobody thinks I give a shit if I flunk out. Then I step right up behind the girls who’re standing on the sidewalk next to the Kinkaids’ fancy painted mailbox. I unzip Emily’s backpack and pull out my math book, even though I wish it had disappeared the way anything good I ever left on the bus did before—like my headphones and my baseball glove.

And right now it’s as if my eyes got minds all their own. They make me look past Emily and up the walkway at the huge yellow house, and at Joey. As usual his butt is planted on his front doorstep, and, as usual, he’s got his nose stuck in a book. Joey Kinkaid, the genius of the eighth grade, could’ve helped me figure out how to do my math problems last night, and I know this for a fact because I know Joey like I know too-hot pizza will burn the skin off the roof of my mouth and make it tingle for three days.

Why can’t I turn off my brain when the memories of how it used to be with the Baker Street kids and Joey start playing like a movie in my head?

“Chase me!” Joey yells, and Emily and Travis and Lily and me run after him down Baker Street. We all make fish faces and wave our arms around ’cause Joey says we’re really sea creatures swimming in the ocean.

Like always Emily runs too close on Joey’s heels. All I can do is hold my breath and wait for her to give him a flat tire, and like always, it makes Joey trip on his dress and fall flat on his face. After me and Travis help him up and dust the pebbles off his knees, Emily shouts, “Don’t blame me—I can’t help it I run up the back of Joey’s legs! I run the fastest ’cause I’m the only one who’s already turned seven around here!”

think Em’s just mad ’cause she never gets to be the Little Mermaid.

When we used to chase Joey around the neighborhood, he’d start singing about how he wanted to be part of our world, and it was like he almost turned into Princess Ariel for real. It made me forget he was Joey—I really thought he was the girl who had everything.

I can’t be daydreaming in public about how Joey was our princess, so I shake my head a couple of times. When my mind comes back to the real world at the Baker Street bus stop, Travis is giving him crap. “Hey, Josie! Whatcha reading?” When Travis calls him Josie, it twists me up inside.

Joey glances up from his paperback book and tilts his head, so there’s no doubt he heard Travis’s question. A whoosh of breath gushes out of my mouth, and I hope Travis doesn’t hear because he’ll say I care. And I can’t care about Joey anymore, but I also can’t miss that he’s still as pretty as he was when we were kids and hung out together every day after school, except for Tuesdays, when he had clarinet lessons. Back then his light-blond hair fell loose and scraggly around his shoulders, but now he wears it combed real neat and held back with a soft black hairband. Somehow that velvety band pulling his hair off his face makes his eyes and nose look round and cute and innocent, like a baby seal’s in a National Geographic magazine… and his lips are so damned pink. There’s no other way to slice it—Joey looks more like somebody’s sweet little sister than ever, even if he’s thirteen now and wears nerdy boys’ clothes instead of his mom’s dress.

“Answer me, Kinkaid!” Travis demands, his eyes bulging and his face turning red. If Joey wasn’t sitting on his doorstep, and if we all didn’t know his mom was watching out the window like his guardian angel, Travis would be up in Joey’s face. “Answer me, girly-boy, or I’m gonna make you eat dirt!”

“Why do you care so much ’bout what he’s reading?” I ask Travis, but my voice comes out sounding too high and shaky for my own safety. Everybody knows when you’re calling another kid out, you got to sound like you got balls. Lily gawks at me like I’m from Pluto—and it’s not even a planet anymore—because Travis has grown to be the biggest dude in the whole eighth grade by a mile, and nobody messes with him. He’s as strong as The Rock, and worse, he’s a hothead—like “punch first, think later” is his life’s motto. But I’ve known him longer than anybody else in Wild Acres, and once in a while, he still listens to me.

Not this time, though—Travis is pissed off at me now. He grabs me by my third-day-of-school new white T-shirt and shoves me backward, hard. I live ready for moments like this, so I don’t stumble, but I already know I’m not going to push my luck anymore. “Maybe I wanna know what a genius reads when he’s hiding on his doorstep like a big wuss.” He squawks a couple times like a chicken. “What’s it to you anyhow, Sinclair?”

“It’s nothing.” I don’t spend too much time defending Joey from the entire student body of Wild Acres Middle School anymore. Back in seventh grade, I used to try to look out for him sometimes, but it didn’t take long until I figured out it was a total waste of energy. On a Monday I could tell everybody “Joey’s not a princess” until I was blue in the face, and then on Tuesday he’d show up at school wearing nail polish and a charm bracelet, and he’d be the princess of the middle school again. Mom always says, “God helps those who help themselves,” and since Joey Kinkaid isn’t doing himself any favors, why the hell should I?

Too bad I can’t forget what a perfect kind of princess Joey made when we played together on Baker Street….

“I am going to swim up to the surface now.” Princess Ariel says it like she’s a teacher giving directions to the orange group—loud and clear and slow—and I know it’s time for me to be Prince Eric and fall off the boat and start drowning. I crawl about halfway up the slide behind Lily’s house and fall from there ’stead of dropping down from the very top. Mom would have my head if I broke my neck ’cause I was playing make-pretend. She’d tell me, “Trips to the ER aren’t cheap, Eric.” The thing is, even when I fall from halfway up, it hurts like heck when I land on the ocean floor hard on my butt.

“Ooooh,” I groan super loud. Princess Ariel swims over to me and smiles—she likes it that I groan when I’m drowning. She just doesn’t know that sometimes I can’t help it.

Back when Joey was Princess Ariel, he was so pretty and smart—sometimes he made me forget Mom’s rule that kisses are for family and hugs are for friends. It was a stupid rule, anyhow. But I shiver because the truth is, if anybody else knew what I was thinking, I’d be sunk in a deep pile of crap, and I’d probably get stuck there forever.

I seriously hope there isn’t a secret mind reader at the Baker Street bus stop. Nobody’s looking at me funny, though, so I figure I’m safe.

Like every morning when the bus pulls up, Mrs. Kinkaid opens the front door, shouts a cheery goodbye, and then watches Joey get on like she’s trying to make sure he’s safe. Whether or not Joey’s safe when he’s stepping up onto the bus, I’m not too sure, because Travis gets a big thrill out of tripping Joey any time he gets a chance, and I think he’d get bonus points for making Joey fall out of the bus. All I know is this: if Joey is safe right now, it’s the last time he’s going to be safe all day.

Tiny goose pimples pop up all over my arms because it’s so risky for Joey at school, and I’m honestly scared for him. I take the tall step onto the bus right behind him so Travis can’t, and I got three things on my mind—none of them good. Number one is I’m pissed off at myself for being such a traitor to the same Joey Kinkaid I used to be best friends with. He never did anything to me. Number two is I’m worried about whether today’s going to be the day I step up to the plate and defend him, killing my own chances of surviving eighth grade.

And lately number three lives in the back of my head pretty much all the time, and it’s got nothing to do with Joey. I wonder if Mom will be home after school today. I haven’t seen her in days, and I figure she must be wondering if I’m still alive.

Joey plunks his butt in the seat behind the driver, where he thinks he’ll be safest. I plant my butt two seats in back of him so I can keep an eye on the kid, even though it’s not my day to babysit.

 

 

 

2

 

I GOT no clue how I ended up in World Geography with a bunch of brainiacs from the grade-school blue group. It’s like the school administrators were doing shots when they set up the eighth-grade class schedules on the office computers, because they messed it up royally. And I usually like to fly low under the radar, but I raise my hand because I got a question that could mean life or death to my grade.

“Excuse me, Ms. Paloma, but has there been some kind of major, like, malfunction with the scheduling computers, ’cause I’m not usually stuck in class with the smart kids?”

Almost everybody snickers, but I know they’re wondering the same damned thing.

“No, Mr. Sinclair,” Ms. Paloma replies in her I-think-I’m-God voice. “In World Geography this year—just like in the real world—we will be learning together in a heterogeneous group.” Her tone gets sweeter, like she’s going to try to sell me something. “This means that children with different levels of academic capabilities will all be cooperating to discover our wonderful world.”

Oh, I get it now.

In plain words, when living and working in the real world, the brainiacs have got to carry the weight of the dumbasses, who have to make the brainiacs laugh or be looked at as wastes of space.

And so here I am, right in the middle of an academic shit show where the super smart dudes are sitting next to the seriously dumb dudes, surrounded by all the average dudes who live in fear of being called dumb. But everybody already knows where everybody else falls on the big brain curve—it’s not exactly a secret. We all remember who was blue and red and orange and purple in grades one through six, and who slid into levels one through five in grade seven. Nope, not a secret at all—and stuff like somebody’s brainpower doesn’t change over time either. Nobody morphs from orange to blue unless he knows how to cheat like a pro on spelling tests. And probably on math tests too.

“No worries, Sinclair,” whispers Chad Walker, who spent most of grades one through six in orange with me until his mother called the principal and he somehow morphed into being red. “On the brain curve, your black X falls somewhere between the kids who memorized the dictionary over summer vacation”—he nods toward the front of the room, where brainiacs always sit—“and the kids who haven’t quite figured out how to read.” He turns around and looks at the kids who sit in a single row across the back, trying to look mean.

Sad fact is, I know for sure my black X falls way closer to the reading-challenged kids in the back. “So what does that make me, Walker?” I ask in a hushed voice because I’d definitely like to know. I don’t expect an answer, though, and he doesn’t give me one. All I know is, in elementary school, it made me orange. In seventh grade it made me level four in all academic classes. Now it just makes me pray I get a seat near the back of the classroom so I can hide.

And the worst part of Ms. Paloma’s hetero-whatever grouping is Joey is in my class. While she passes out a paper that outlines World Geography’s academic expectations, I let my brain wander back to the beginning of last year. Seventh grade was a big deal because we were too grown-up for elementary school, which made us officially not little kids anymore. And the very beginning of last September was when I figured out I had to quit playing kids’ games with Joey if I wanted to survive in the middle-school wing. By the end of the first week of seventh grade, the Baker Street gang had dissolved like a cherry Lifesaver in a glass of Coke. Real quick, Travis and me got the picture that we needed to be cool, and Emily and Lily got that they were girls and we weren’t.

But Joey never figured out any of this stuff.

And when he came to my house in his mom’s dress after the first day of grade seven, I knew better than to answer the door. If I got caught hanging out with “Josie,” I was dead meat. For the rest of middle school, I’d be stuck sitting next to Joey on his front step, waiting for the school bus with my nose in a book and a target on my forehead, and I don’t even like to read.

“Okay, class, please refer to the handout you have just received. Who can tell me what Roman numeral one says? Anybody?”

“Be punctual!” the brainiacs all call out, like they know something the rest of us don’t. But no shit, Sherlock, because we can all read off a paper. I’m still thinking about foreheads, anyhow. Sometimes when I look at Joey, I still remember the time he kissed me smack-dab on the middle of mine in his backyard. And I liked it.

That memory could get a guy killed, so for a few seconds, I make myself think about sounds whoopee cushions make when you plant your ass on them to clear my brain, in case there’s a mind reader in World Geography. Farting sounds make kids laugh, but forehead kisses from other boys make kids dead.

It’s not like I hate Joey—why should I? I just keep my distance. I don’t have a death wish, so I don’t have a choice.

I zone back in at the end of her lecture. “…. And that wraps up what I expect of my students this semester in grade eight World Geography class, which will provide for a smooth transition into freshman world cultures.” When Ms. Paloma sends us her superior smile, I notice that there’s a streak of brownish-red lipstick covering one of her front teeth. It makes her look like somebody slugged her in the mouth and a tooth got knocked out. I have to stick my hand over my mouth so she doesn’t see me smirk because, for the most part, teachers friggin’ hate smirks. “The good news is that you needn’t go it alone. I have taken the liberty of selecting study buddies for each of you. Your buddy will be your right hand.”

A few guys giggle and mumble stuff like “but I’m a lefty,” and the rest of us look around the room to predict our possible partners. Shit like who you work with in class matters in grade eight.

“Your study buddy is the one you will contact if you forget to write down the homework assignment in class, or if you want to review the spelling of states and capitals for a quiz. He or she will be there to help you with your projects and give you reassurance when you need it, because World Geography is a very challenging class.”

I lay my head down sideways on the desk, waiting to find out who my right hand is going to be, and five minutes later, wouldn’t you know it?

“Joseph Kinkaid, your study buddy is Eric Sinclair. Eric, please join Joseph at the desk beside his with your belongings.”

“Damn it to hell and back,” I mutter, but not loud enough for Ms. Paloma to hear. And for the record, I don’t feel as guilty for swearing as I used to because Grandma’s gone, and she was the only one who cared. And if there’s ever been a good time to say “damn it to hell and back,” it’s right now. But I’m the kind of guy who follows the rules, so I toss my backpack over my shoulder and head to the front of the classroom where Joey’s sitting with the other brainiacs and their new dumb partners.

“Hi, Eric,” he says. I look away but can feel Joey gawking at my face. He’s probably hoping to catch my eye and use his bewitching blue-eyed stare to hypnotize me into longing for the stellar best friendship we used to have.

And the sad fact is I haven’t really talked to Joey since two summers ago. “Hey, Joe,” I mumble. I call him Joe, even though in my head, he’s still Joey. Joe sounds more grown-up. And less girly.

Princess! You used to call him Princess! my insides scream, but I tell them to shut the hell up.

“So I guess we’re study buddies now,” he says. I can hear the smile in his voice. My belly tightens into a ball and rolls over. This situation is risky.

“Looks like it.” I’m fairly sure he’s still watching me, but I decide it’d be better for both of us if I don’t make eye contact with him at all. As in never during this entire semester. Because when I see those sparkling blue eyes, I feel guilty and rotten… and some other stuff. Whatever.

I tug on my earlobe to give me something to do. It still feels like the left side of my head got hit by a train in the general vicinity of my earlobe. On the bright side, the pain shakes me up and helps screw my brain back on straight.

“Maybe you could come over after school sometime, and we could study together and eat my mother’s brownies like we used to,” Joey suggests, probably looking all kinds of hopeful, but I have no proof of this, seeing as how I’m staring at a chewed-off pencil eraser on the floor between my feet.

What’s so messed-up is that I sort of want to say, “Sure, dude, I’d be super pumped to come by some time. I missed hanging out with you so much I can’t even put it into words, and I’d kill for one of your mom’s ass-kicking brownies.” If I did that, I’d probably end up with an A in geography. Plus Joey was a decent friend way back when, so maybe I’d even end up happy. But here at Wild Acres Middle School, dead meat, even happy dead meat with an A in geography, can’t go to the boys’ room without getting the living crap beat out of him.

Mrs. Kinkaid sure knew how to bake brownies good enough for the president to eat, though.

“Want a snack?” He asks me this every day after school.

And I pretty much always want a snack. Ever since spring, Mom says I been growing like a weed and eating her out of house and home, and since she boots me out the door to play pretty much the second I get home from school, there’s no time to grab food. Not that we have much in our cabinets to grab, but Grandma makes sure we always got some apples and peanut butter and a loaf of bread. And sometimes Oreos.

Mom says Grandma’s got a sweet tooth like me.

Joey goes outside right after school every day too. It’s the only time his mom lets him wear a dress.

“Uh-huh,” I say. “A snack’d be good.”

These stupid memories aren’t going to get me anywhere except maybe to a serious guiltfest because I dumped Joey quick, and then I pulled a cut and run like he had a catchy disease. I glance down at my desk and study the words kids before me carved into the wood, hoping for a distraction. Most of the words I see are ones Grandma didn’t allow me to say, and probably wouldn’t even want me to think. But she’s living in Rhode Island at an old folks’ home near Uncle Dave now, so I suppose she’ll never find out. After I read them all, I take a deep breath and say, “I’m pretty sure I can’t come over to study… seeing as I’m too busy playing soccer this fall.” It’s a lame excuse. I know it, and he knows it.

I don’t wait around for Joey to start begging me, even if it’d feel good. I sit down at the desk beside him but pivot my chair in the opposite direction. “Heya, Travis!” I call across the aisle. “Lily’s your study buddy? Good luck with that.”

“Well, you got the Princess of Baker Street for your buddy! Maybe you can chase her down the hallway after class!”

This is going to be a very long year in World Geography.