Humor is a tool to deflate the lies we tell ourselves. Those who campaign against humor are in love with their own bullshit.

- Listening to My Own Voice
by Dina Gallagher

ix. ninth grade apocrypha

With a mother’s infallible sense for her child’s moment of greatest vulnerability, Gracie materialized in my bedroom the next morning, seven am sharp, steeled for conflict.

"Dina, honey, you awake./?"

"Only in the strictest technical sense."

Gracie plopped down on the bed beside me, half to indicate that I had no hope of escaping the ensuing conversation, and half because human legs were not designed to support anything approaching Gracie’s considerable frame for more than a few minutes at a stretch.

"You stayed out pretty late last night./?"

"That’s an understatement," I answered with undue candor. "The last time I did that much bouncing around, my tampon compressed into a diamond." I started groping around for my glasses, dimly hoping the pink blur causing the time/space distortion around my bed would turn out to be an alcohol-induced hallucination.

"Well, your father and I were literally worried to death about you./?"

"I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, actually. I’m glad you brought it up." I coughed a few times. "It turns out ‘literally’ means ‘in actual fact,’ not ‘figuratively, but with emphasis.’" Obviously, the all-important part of the brain dedicated to filtering out impolitic comments hadn’t warmed up yet – in direct contrast to the portion of the brain devoted to snide remarks, which friends tell me sometimes functions even while I’m unconscious. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes to avoid witnessing Gracie’s patent-pending expression of poignant maternal despair.

Undaunted by my clever avoidance of eye contact, Gracie merely reformatted her impromptu performance art piece into an audio presentation, sighing heavily.

"Listen, Honey – your father and I have been talking. You’re not going to grow up to be one of those authors who revenges herself on her parents by writing about how awful they were, are you./?"

"What if I was?" Damn!! In my mind’s eye, I saw Lauren doing "the pinkie thing." Get out of my head, bitch!!

Then Gracie surprised me. "I remember you once told me that if someone evades an accusation rather than refuting it, the accusation is probably accurate./?"

"Yeah, but I didn’t think you were paying attention!!" Suddenly I was completely awake. The tiniest gap in my parents’ usually unassailable lack of interest in anything I had to say always came as a sobering and profound shock.

"I know your father and I haven’t been the best parents in the world, but airing the family’s dirty laundry to the world like that... that’s just wrong./?"

I pulled an old sweater over my head, sat up. Lauren had made a special point of teaching me to be at eye-level or higher with whomever I’m arguing with. And I intended to argue.

"So all the ways you’ve hurt me – a lifetime of verbal abuse, emotional absence and maneuvering me into the role of parent – are all Dr. Spock-compliant and above-board. But for me to fight back with the one strength I have is somehow dishonorable."

I hopped out of bed and started pulling together what I needed for school. Being woken up after only two hours of sleep had put me in a funk, helping me warm to the argument.

"Just like turn-of-the-century women withholding sex from their husbands is ‘dishonorable.’ Just like poor kids taking a bit too long to cross the street in front of a rich man’s car is ‘dishonorable.’ Isn’t it funny how those in power always define the little strengths of the powerless as ‘dishonorable.’"

Gracie’s honey-glazed eyes suggested that, as when yelling at a dog, my tone was understood, if not the actual words.

"Dina, all I’m saying is you should give your father and me some respect./?"

"Yeah, well that’s the one thing you can’t bully out of me, Gracie. "

I grabbed my book-bag and made for the door. "If you want my respect, you’ll need to earn it."

"Dina, Honey... wait./?"

I stopped with one hand on the doorknob.

"I was thinking about that story you told me, when you were twelve... that terrible thing Lauren told you, about how writing books is pretty much for rich people? I guess writing must be your dream, huh./?"

My throat was too dry to swallow.

"Well, I noticed at work that if one of the girls has a good idea, the boss will steal credit for it./? But if the girl already has credit for it, and the boss likes the idea enough, he’ll share the credit with her./? It’s like, it’s her idea, but he gets credit for having discovered that she had a good idea./?

"Couldn’t you do that./? Write a book so good that a rich person would be willing to share credit for having ‘discovered’ you./? Isn’t that how the Beatles got famous even though they were broke – by being ‘discovered’ by Brian Epstein./?"

A particle of dust or something lodged in my eyes, and they started to mist up.

"You know, it isn’t always easy for me to talk about this kind of thing, Dina... about our lives./? Not when our lives are something that may have... disappointed us./?

"Last night, when you didn’t come home, I thought... well./? I thought maybe if it’s so important to you, I could try./?"

I sat back on the bed, took her by the hands. "It’s not just the abstract discussion, Grace. Part of building family is being brave enough to transcend our programming to only express affection through little acts of kindness. Part of family is saying how you feel out loud, in words."

Gracie brushed a lock from my forehead. Her mouth quavered.

"Sweetie, I..../?"

You can do it, I uncharacteristically allowed myself a weak moment of belief. My grip tightened around her hands.

"...I packed you a lunch./?"

"And the groundhog saw her shadow," I said, rising to leave, "And winter crept on."

Lauren, having enjoyed no more sleep than I, appeared in homeroom looking like one of those Olympic athlete/model/Rhodes Scholar women routinely held up by women’s magazines as someone to feel inferior to. She proudly wore her "baka desu" pin on the lapel of her tastefully appointed Donna Karan jacket, the glass vial of ash hanging from a thin silver chain at precisely the correct length to remind the foggy-of-memory just how fabulous her breasts were. The sunlight seemed to make a special point of fussing over her flawless honey-blond hair.

Glancing at myself in Beth’s locker-mirror earlier that morning, I hadn’t been surprised to discover that I could easily have landed the title role in I Was a Teenage Undead Ghoul without burdening the special effects department in the slightest. The bags beneath my eyes tended toward the blackish-gray, lending my eyes a bulbous, insectile quality. My skin was an especially green pallor, calling to mind a programmer friend of my older brother’s who has reportedly never actually experienced direct sunlight. And my features, despite my best efforts to the contrary, seemed frozen in an expression suggesting that I was contemplating the violent and grisly death of all those around me (which, while accurate, was hardly the air I felt a young girl should project).

Oh, but I’m ingraciously withholding the most fabulous part: the hallucinations. Somehow the sleep deprivation and alcohol and pot and all the other neuropharms I had contributed toward living down to my mother’s worst fears in a single evening had conspired with my limbic system, producing some really first-class fata morgana. Imitation being the sincerest form of dementia, they lingered somewhere between Alec’s neural nets and Lauren’s Notizenspielen. To each senior’s "sycophantic buffoon" button was affixed a luminously spectral sticky-note, Lauren’s emotional fulcrum scribbled thereon. Ghostly tethers of bubblegum ran from moron to idiot to patsy, forming a psychedelic cat’s cradle that choked the corridors and classrooms like mammoth cobwebs. A few times I was lucky enough to be present at the precise instant Lauren finagled someone into wearing the pin, a glorious pif noise echoing through my skull like the hangover that qualifies this as a mixed metaphor.

I looked up from this fabulous spectacle to notice Lauren hob-nobbing with Mr. Burton, our homeroom advisor and would-be "world’s hippest teacher." Burton was a cult figure for the unofficial but universally-recognized Underclassman Guild of Art Fags. He wore anarchy shirts on occasion, frequently reminisced about the sixties, and mocked Dickens.

"...guess you noticed the pin everyone’s wearing," Lauren was saying. "We’re not supposed to tell the teachers what it means, but... well, I guess you know you’re my favorite teacher."

I felt my heart leap, knowing Mr. Burton would laugh at this obvious attempt at manipulative flattery and send Lauren scurrying back to her chair with her Machiavelli between her legs.

"Well," Mr. Burton began, blushing, "I do try to keep up with what the young people are into."

My stomach rumbled in protest.

"Yes, Sir," Lauren continued. "That’s why I wanted to let you in on the pin thing. They mean ‘I’m an idiot’ in Japanese. It’s one of those ‘irony’ things."

"Oh, sure," Mr. Burton said, doing a little snap to indicate that he was hip. "We used to have that in the sixties. Like calling something bad meant that it was good."

Lauren smiled winningly. "Right," she said, without missing a beat. "Wow, you’re really with it!! I probably shouldn’t do this, but..."

Mr. Burton leaned forward in his little metal chair, his pupils dilating with expectation. "But...?"

"Well, I’d kinda like you to have one. In recognition of how in touch you are and everything."

"Well..." Mr. Burton said, taking the pin from her hand like a delicate and precious butterfly. "I guess if... if that’s what the kids are into." And, carefully and with obvious pride, he pinned it onto his dark gray trenchcoat.

pif.

"Yoshi and I got a ride in with Beth," I murmured to Lauren as we headed out to our next class. "You know neither of them is wearing the pin. Neither is Andrea."

Lauren smiled affably. "Not yet."

"Well, maybe you should devote a bit more energy to her, instead of wasting effort on the staff." I jabbed a number two pencil in the air to emphasize my point. "The bet is only that every senior will wear the pin."

Lauren smiled, opened the door to her next class. "When have you known me to squander energy, Dina?"

I stood dumbly in the hall for a minute before running back to Mr. Burton classroom and watching through the window as his next class filed in. Two of Corey’s friends, insufferable protégés of Mr. Burton, noticed that their hero was wearing the pin, dredged a few out of their own mottled trenchcoats and followed suit.

pif pif.

Out in the hallway, I managed to snap my pencil in half just before the bell went off to indicate that I was late for my next class.

My next encounter with Lauren was Reading Period, or more accurately Glance Through Cosmo or Sports Illustrated Period, depending on the gender of the future rocket scientist in question. In any case, verbal communication was forbidden.

I make a habit of eavesdropping before Reading Period whenever possible, as my classmates have demonstrated a markedly higher incidence of including actual information in their dialogue under the pressure of the bell going off any moment and silencing them for an entire forty minutes.

Beth was inexpertly trying to pin Andrea down to an actual assertion, a Herculean task seldom achieved even by qualified experts.

"Um, Andrea? Last night you kind of implied that you’ve had plastic surgery, but I’m not sure you ever gave me a straight answer. Have you, or not?"

Andrea paused just long enough to suggest she hadn’t heard the question, but not quite long enough for Beth to ask again – a favorite tactic of hers for throwing interrogators off the scent.

"Some of us don’t need plastic surgery."

"Oh," Beth said slowly. Several seconds passed before a sharp intake of breath suggested she was about to attempt a further unsuccessful excursion into "No Straight Answer Land."

Just then, the bell rang.

Bobby Drescher drifted in with studied nonchalance and flung himself into a seat opposite Lauren. He had wisely avoided the pre-bell speaking period, no doubt because he wasn’t wearing the pin and wasn’t eager to debate the issue. He smiled in a way which one might describe as not un-shit-eating.

As Bobby slid into his chair, Lauren raised one graceful eyebrow. She produced her brightest lipstick and wrote a message in enormous, so-even-the-kids-in-the-back-can-read letters across a page of her notebook, then held it up:

"We had a deal."

Bobby just shrugged, as if to say, "Too bad."

Beth and I made eye contact and shuddered. Most of the underclassmen began inching away from ground zero, and I think Billy Hammock wet himself.

Despite our rivalry, I naïvely felt a momentary pang of sympathy for Lauren. What’s the use of callously manipulating people into shotgun promises if the dishonorable bastards refuse to keep them? As though in response to my inner dialogue and without unlocking her targeting system from Bobby, Lauren scratched her left elbow. b*girls injargon for A contract is only as good as your ability to enforce it.

Ah, of course. Lauren had only alluded to the agreement as groundwork. To flay her opponent without the risk of blood, viscera or culpability splashing up on her spotless, white-gloved reputation. This is the same basic idea as the cowboy on the marquee growling, "Don’t force me to hurt you." The audience buttock-crawls up to the edge of their seats, knowing beyond a doubt they’re about to vicariously enjoy causing grievous bodily harm to another human being, the rather dubious projection of all their fears and doubts, without acceding even the smidgen of blame that tends to stain an otherwise perfectly-good homicide. Because the Villain Forced Them To Do It. Ah, to be forced to enact your greediest, most infantile fantasy. This is the reason the movie-goer circled the advertisement, drove through traffic, shelled out eight bucks.

The soft, white-noise hush of a television in the next room weft through the class as the emotional cannibals known as high school students collectively held their breath. They had already proxied onto Lauren, already emotionally distanced from Bobby. He was the virgin on the edge of the volcano. The sacrificial lamb.

I bahhed, but think only Billy Hammock understood.

Lauren produced a tiny, earthenware Coptic jar from somewhere in her purse and placed it squarely on the table between them. Bobby’s normally jock-vibrant skin took a quick turn for the pasty, and a thin trail of sweat ran down the left side of his face.

Lauren smiled. Bobby seemed to actually shrink a few inches, and in the periphery I became dimly aware of Ms. Merteuil frantically failing to notice what was going on.

It was several moments before I could remember the exact circumstances surrounding the last time I had seen the Coptic jar. In third grade Bobby had stuck gum in Kelly’s hair. In revenge, Lauren challenged him to a game of marbles. The provision was that if he won, she would surrender her lunch money for a week. But if she won, he would have to breathe into a jar.

"That’s it?" he asked incredulously. "Just breathe into a jar?"

"That’s it," Lauren said sweetly, knowing even then how to smile like the devil stuffed into an angel costume.

Lauren won the game, then surprised everyone by producing an ornate, ancient-looking Egyptian affair of a jar. She had a weird glow in her eyes as Bobby fulfilled his half of the bargain.

For the next several weeks, Bobby asked after the jar whenever the opportunity arose. "What’s the jar all about, anyway?" he’d ask, or "You think I’m scared? Is that what you think? It’s just a stupid jar!!"

Lauren always smiled in her evil, mysterious way. When questioned directly, she agreed that it was just a silly game and didn’t mean anything. She refused to produce the jar again, however.

Several years later, after one of Andrea’s frequent and allegedly precognitive "psychic" episodes, Lauren told me, "The only way to use the supernatural to your advantage is if you can (a) lay the groundwork far ahead of time, and (b) avoid making any explicit (and therefore vulnerable to logic) claims."

Now, watching Bobby quiver with fear at a tiny earthenware pot, I could imagine what he thought he’d given up when he breathed into it. And I knew how stupid it would sound if said aloud. But it was never said aloud.

Bobby reached out for the jar, but Lauren snatched it away. She replaced it gingerly in her bag and waited, impassive, while Bobby docilely fished his ‘Baka Desu’ pin out of his jeans and put it on his sweatshirt.

pif.

Lauren held up another lipstick-sign: "Kirk, too."

Bobby nodded, grateful. More inaudible-to-anyone-else piffing.

The "You may go" bell sounded and Lauren cornered Beth.

"Beth, listen – I’ve been meaning to tell you, Dorea gave me a copy of her original manuscript for Hearts of Desire, back when we worked at the bar together." Lauren produced the talisman, and Beth’s eyes grew bright as she ran a hand over it. "I know how crazy you are about her stuff, so I was thinking maybe you should have it..."

Beth actually jumped in place and clapped her hands, making me wonder if girly-girls practice this stuff or it just happens. A few moments passed before she realized that Lauren had left a qualifier hanging in the air between them, and her face darkened a little.

"But?" she asked finally.

"But it was a gift, so I’m not sure it wouldn’t be disrespectful to just give it away to someone else, even someone who would adore and treasure it as much as you would."

Beth met my eyes, looked back at Lauren. Evenly, and with a hint of defeat, she asked, "When do you think you might decide?"

"Oh," Lauren said airily, "Probably by the end of school day."

Beth produced the Baka Desu pin from her bag, scowled lightly, and put it on. As Lauren turned to go Beth met my eyes, formed a silent onomatopoeia and let her eyebrows tack on the question mark.

I nodded. The opposite of loneliness is rapport.

Lauren’s next stop was the pay-phone outside the cafeteria. Fascinated and repelled, I forewent lunch period to discover whatever horrible and unforeseen machination she was setting into motion next.

"Hello?" Lauren sweetly cooed into the phone.

"Matt, is that you? Long time no hear!!" There was a happy percolating noise on the other end.

"Oh, you know, just hanging out talking about you boys!!" Lauren winked at me. In response, I made a little gesture with my upper lip that I hoped expressed sublime and withering contempt. There was the vague drone of a boyscout story on the other end, and I decided that as this could theoretically occupy infinite time, I may as well eat my lunch.

"Listen, you remember those pins everyone was wearing last night? Well, turns out they’re a big hit!! Everyone is wearing them, and they’re giving our first day a real sense of school spirit!!"

Let’s see... a banana... a sandwich (tuna)... a piece of paper that was not a napkin....

Just then Yoshi appeared with a bag lunch and a quizzical expression. "Oh, here’s the cafeteria!!" she said, looking over our shoulders. "Lauren, I thought you told me it was on the other end of the building!! I’ve been wandering around for five minutes!!"

Lauren handed Yoshi the phone. "It’s for you," she said amiably, smiling.

Yoshi looked puzzled. "Hello?" More bubbling. "Oh, yes, hello Mattie!!"

How can some couples go on a single date and already have nauseatingly cute nicknames for each other? I almost tossed my lunch, but I hadn’t quite finished it yet.

"Yes, I miss you too, Sweetie. How is university?"

Lauren plopped down on the stairs beside me, extending one hand ritually without looking away from the floorshow she had set in motion. I dropped a banana into it. Lauren always got whatever fruit appeared in my bag lunch on general principal (writers eschew overly nutritious food in favor of cigarettes and scotch).

"What’s that?" Yoshi was saying into the phone. "The pins? Oh, yes, they show a great deal of school spirit." Without looking away from the phone, Yoshi snapped twice, made a little gesture that meant "throw me one." Lauren obliged by tossing her a pin.

"Oh, yes, of course I’m wearing one," Yoshi said, settling the little pin into her prim little jacket. "Yes, I think girls should show a lot of school spirit too." I blinked as the phantom sticky-note shimmered into hallucinatory pseudo-existence.

Losing interest in Yoshi’s fledgling attempt at phone cooing in English, I explored the Thing Which Was Not a Napkin which my mother had smuggled into my lunchbag.

"I’m sorry it’s so hard," it said in her unmistakable golf-pencil. "I love you."

Our last class period before the big opening-day rally was the "Eco-awareness Freethinking Seminar," one of Mr. Burton’s staggeringly ill-advised attempts to "get in touch" with "the concerns of today’s youth." As it was non-mandatory Lauren and I drifted in only towards the very end, so as not to miss Andrea’s traditional histrionic tree-hugging diatribe, which she invariably delivered from atop her desk.

"... will be completely depleted in only five years!!" she was screaming. "If we don’t do something about it now, we won’t have a planet to inherit!! The corporations don’t care!! The government doesn’t care!! And frankly, I don’t see many of you caring!! How many of you recycle? How many walk or bike to school instead of driving? How many only flush when the smell gets so bad that you experience difficulty breathing?!?"

There was a smattering of half-hearted applause, chiefly from the male art-fag coalition who (correctly) believed they might someday have an opportunity to get in her pants.

Andrea threw Lauren a quick wink as we arrived, a good trick if you ever want to alienate by exclusion all but one of your audience. "If the world’s wealthiest one percent just cut back on non-essential luxury items," Andrea continued, "That money could feed every man, woman and child on Earth."

Lauren cleared her throat, and the room heeled like a well-trained Doberman.

"Of course, if all the hippies in the world stopped buying laughably overpriced retro outfits, hair styling products and patchouli to wear to anti-corporate demonstrations in hopes of getting laid, that money could also feed every man, woman and child on Earth."

Andrea’s sudden pallor was not unreminiscent of recycled toiled paper.

"I believe it was Mr. Burton’s class on advertising..." Lauren nodded obsequiously to Mr. Burton, once again endangering my ability to retain my lunch. "...Which taught us that you gain cooperation by creating opportunities for heroism; that vilifying your audience for their past actions makes them adversarial to your stated platform.

"Doesn’t that suggest that your ostensible agenda is a sham? That your crusade is really about inflating your own self-importance by creating an association between yourself and a ‘crucial’ issue, even at the expense of the environment, the poor and the downtrodden in general?"

Lauren paused to gauge audience reaction. They were struggling for comprehension to the best of their limited abilities, the poor dears, but squinting like senior citizens negotiating the Autobahn.

Lauren tossed out a flawless, dripping-with-pretend-concern Clinton smilefrown. "...Including but not limited to cute little puppies?" she warbled, shamelessly cracking her voice like one of those voiceover actresses for tampon commercials who always seem on the verge of sobbing. This did the trick, prompting mournful cooing from Andrea’s female classmates and manfully disapproving glares from the boys.

Andrea’s eyeballs buffed to a sanitarium inmate gloss, and her ass, slowly and without her awareness, slid subtly to her left.

Seconds ticked by as we silently awaited her response, eyes glued to her derrière as it oscillated like a threatened cobra. I thought she might start uprooting tables again, commenced jury-rigging a makeshift bomb shelter from unoccupied desks.

"Listen, Captain Criticism," Andrea began at last, her voice measured and even. "All leaders enjoy leading. Does that make what they fight for any less noble? Does that reduce Martin Luther King to a power addict? Or Abraham Lincoln? Or... that short guy, who talks like a cashier from Speedi Mart...?"

"Gandhi?" I suggested helpfully.

"...Or Gandhi." Andrea climaxed with a flourish of transparently counterfeit austerity. She didn’t bother intoning a question mark, as she considered invocation of the patron saint of selflessness sufficient to elevate her train of thought (caboose, really) from a meandering question to an irrefutable assertion mid-sentence.

Lauren tilted her head slightly to one side, as though considering an important point for the first time. Slowly, like charcoal briquettes taking to flame, an expression of quiet awe spread over her face.

"You know, Andrea... I always had you pegged as one of the little people. But maybe I was wrong about you. Maybe you’ve got what it takes to be a Player."

The bell rang, indicating that we were to convene in the auditorium for the first-day orgy of indifference commonly known as "Spirit Day."

As Lauren wandered from the room, her expression still tinged with camaraderie and just a touch of awe, Andrea absently climbed down from her desk and into a chair.

"A Player..." she repeated under her breath. Then she took the pin from out of her pocket and, with a starry-eyed reverence, put it on. A coterie of art-fags followed her lead.

pif. pif pif pif.

Happily, I was in a sufficiently sparsely-populated section of the room that I was able to aim most of my lunch into the wastebasket without spattering anyone.

Beth met me at our long-cherished position on the bleachers adjacent to the entrance to the gymnasium. From this hallowed and strategic location Beth could check out the guys as they poured in, Lauren and I could make catty remarks about this year’s crop of freshpersons, and Andrea could keep half an eye out for administrative types who frowned on the reading of Spock’s Further Adventures on the Planet of Poorly-Written Plot Contrivances, or whatever she had her nose buried in at the time.

Andrea and Lauren were conspicuous by their absence as Beth plopped down beside me, sending a little shudder of protest thrilling through the bleachers. "Boy, I’ve put on a few pounds since we’ve visited the old bleachers!!" she said, noticing the slight depression she caused in the reinforced steel seating. A characteristic of Beth’s I’ve always felt particular disdain for is her tendency to describe time as an expression of weight. For instance, when I asked when she had her room re-painted, she said "about fifteen pounds ago." Or when I ask when she’ll be done with her English paper, she’ll say "two or three pounds from now." I think she’s assuming a pound per month (not to be catty, but from visual evidence alone, I’d guess her net gain at closer to 1.6 pounds/month, or 19.2 pounds per annum. At that rate in ten years she’ll weigh over 350 pounds. This information is proffered for scientific interest only, and in no way intended to belittle our close friendship).

"Seen Lauren?" I asked with badly-feigned nonchalance.

"Not since first period." A sudden inspiration made its way into Beth’s eyes. "And when I had my first period, I was twelve!!"

I made a face which might have been interpreted as less-than-charitable. "Beth, listen – I’m the funny one, okay? You’re the overly-apologetic one."

"Oh, right. Sorry."

"You’ve also got the shining for arranging colors – you don’t see me spending an hour every morning ensuring that my socks and underwear match, do you?"

Beth dubiously gave me the once-over. "They don’t?"

"No Beth, they don’t. No one wears matching socks and underwear, except you and Mary-Lou Henninger on evenings in which she plans to get laid, which come to think of it is every evening. But what kind of socks match thong underwear, anyway? Little bits of black string between each toe?"

As I trailed off, I became vaguely aware that Beth’s eyes were clouding over, but that she was too overly-polite to cut me off and demand a point.

"Hey, look," I said weakly. "Mr. Burton." I did my patented Mr. Burton-looking-concerned-face, throwing in, "Well, I guess if the kids are into it..."

Beth, undaunted by the many thousands of times she must have seen this imitation by now, burst out laughing. As the crowd of people filtered into the gymnasium, I became dimly aware that Mr. Burton himself was among them. He noticed my imitation, looked glum for a moment, then glanced at the pin on his lapel and returned instantly to high spirits.

"Suddenly I don’t feel so good," I managed to squeak. "Beth, you don’t know whether the cheerleaders are all wearing Lauren’s stupid pins or not, do you?"

"As if," Beth answered distractedly while her eyes evaluated the competition potential of the freshman girls. "The cheerleaders will be pouring out any moment. They’d never add an element to their outfits which would compete for attention with their breasts."

At this, I felt a sudden moment of affection for Beth. I was simply too indifferent to the market value of décolletage to notice this excellent and obvious flaw in Lauren’s plan. Beth, having specialized in this area, was able to perceive currents and eddies in the ocean of cheerleader cleavage which to me were invisible.

"Excellent point," I said, trying to remember how to muster a warm smile. Some renegade cluster of brain cells in the back of my head conjured an image of an undead zombie attempting to smile warmly and ran it on the main projector, fazing me for a moment. But Beth has always credited intent as well as success, so I pressed on. "I wonder if Brooke is ever going to catch on that Kirk is sleeping with Mary-Lou Henninger?"

"Oh, didn’t you hear?" Beth’s eyes flooded with the predatory air of a gossip who has just located fresh meat. "They broke up last night!! Brooke received an anonymous note at the party that said ‘Kirk is shagging Mary-Lou.’ It was signed ‘A Friend.’"

"Was it." The tectonic plates in my brain were shifting, causing new land masses to spring up while others were plunged into oblivion. On a hunch I pulled Beth upright, lead her towards the girls’ locker room.

Beth droned on. "So Brooke dumped Kirk, and Mary-Lou dumped Corey to go out with Kirk. This was like right after you and Lauren left last night. But I heard that Kirk already dumped Mary-Lou this morning. He said he couldn’t abide a girl who wears toeless black socks."

"Beth, quick –" I grabbed Beth by her sweater in the place sensible people wear lapels. "What does Brooke do when she’s heart-broken?"

"Um... she’ll usually eat a chocolate bar."

"Really? A whole one?"

"Well... she won’t keep it down."

I considered this for a moment, dismissed it as irrelevant. "Anything else?"

"After she dumped Bobby Drescher last year, Brooke immersed herself in women’s magazines, followed all their instructions. It meant a minor increase in mid-year wardrobe spending for cheerleaders last winter because, as you know, that whole crowd imitates Brooke’s every..." Beth trailed off, slightly frightened by the burgeoning manic gleam in my eyes, combined with the fact that I had yet to release my grip on her sweater. "Dina? Are you...?"

"That’s it," I whispered. "That’s gotta be it."

The girls’ locker room doors chose that instant to burst open, deluging the room with cheerleaders who tore through us like a plague of bouncing, giggling locusts who had just read a news article about the bulls at Pamplona and didn’t wish to be outdone in the excessive enthusiasm department.

And every one of them wore the pin.

"Aiieeee!!" I screamed, fushia bits of sweater coming loose in my hands. I listed toward the girls’ locker room, paused in a moment of abject terror, and pushed my way inside.

Lauren looked up, popped a bubblegum bubble and returned to filing her nails.

I tried to leverage the fatigue and defeat in my voice into derision and contempt, was only half-successful.

"You bitch," I murbled.

"Hiya, Dina," Lauren said pleasantly. "I hope you’re wearing lip gloss."

I pushed past Lauren and into the room. It was littered with women’s magazines. The cover models were all wearing pins with Japanese characters on them, and each cover included a blurb expounding the timeliness and man-catching virtues of such pins.

Suspicious, I examined a Cosmo in detail. Could Lauren have cut a deal with Conde Nast? At this point it hardly seemed impossible. But it hardly seemed efficient, either, and Lauren was nothing if not efficient. After careful exploration, I realized the cover had been pasted on. I clumsily peeled it off to reveal an identical cover underneath – identical save the absence of the Japanese pin.

"Boy howdy, take a gander at this." My voice was thick with dementia. "It looks almost as though some idiot has actually gone to the trouble of using a computer to alter all these magazine covers."

Lauren looked up from her nails with vague disinterest. "Really."

"This looks like the sort of thing my brother could do – say as a favor for someone he’s had a crush on since he was fifteen."

Lauren casually walked over to consider the magazine, curled her mouth into the upside-down smile of deliberation. "You think?"

With a falsely cavalier nonchalance, I dropped the magazine to the floor. "Which leaves us with only one... last... senior." I smiled weakly, pinning my hopes on a final, desperate gambit.

"Does it?"

I attempted a posture indicating confidence and triumph, à la Linda Carter as Wonder Woman, but settled for a more-or-less upright position.

"Me. I’m a senior, and I’m sure as Hell not wearing a pin. Now, you might call this a technicality, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to..."

"Dina," Lauren said softly. "Look at your backpack."

It was with the grimmest sense of duty, rather than curiosity, that I pulled the thing from my shoulders, turned it over to inspect the back..

As it happened, one almost couldn’t see the back, as it was worried with fist-sized red pins reading I’m an idiot. In English.

Lauren clenched the hem of her bubblegum between her teeth, pulled the rest towards me in bionic slow-motion.

chi chi chi chi.

She pressed the damp, pseudopodinous end into my glasses, affixing it with the basso profundo of a cheesy sound effect played at one-quarter speed.

chi chi chi chi.

And of course it stuck. And of course I just stood there, the pink wet rope slowly drooping to the skanky floor between us, never quite breaking. As if to prove that even the laws of physics were secretly on Lauren’s side.

pif.

Lauren faltered for a moment, her eyes wet, before pushing past me and throwing open the doors to the gymnasium.

Mechanically, I ambled after her. The roar of Buffalo Creek’s assembled student body fell to silence as Lauren and I moved towards our positions in the center of the proscenium. With a gallows humor I realized that they knew, every last one them; they knew something tribal and savage was about to happen, though the details were as mysterious as they were irrelevant. Even the teachers sensed it, and some animal law of conduct that predated civilization dictated that they would not interfere until it was over.

Lauren took her position in the center of the basketball court, her carriage more erect and her bearing more regal, even, than usual. A ghost wind blew through the room, brushing her hair from her shoulders and casting her perfect features in a flattering but softly terrible light.

I could feel a thousand eyes on me, the lowly slug of a girl who had dared to tangle with gods. My feet seemed impossibly heavy as I dragged them the few final inches towards the sacrosanct altar of my humiliation.

As Lauren pushed her perfectly round, inhumanly flawless ass out towards me, as my back arched to bring me into the correct posture of subservience and worship, I noticed Andrea and Corey from the corner of my eye. Smudged and human, faces suffused with joy, arms entwined and meeting each other’s eyes with a perfect and unstainable love.

The End



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After Kelly ©1995 by Kristen Brennan