Chapter 5

November 29, 2010
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Or at least she would have. But it was a very good book.

I examine the jar of multicolored jimmies dubiously. They are coated with a fine layer of dust that has gathered in the baking section of our pantry, a graveyard of high-sugar, low-fiber items that Mom forgot to trash during her spring cleaning. The sprinkles are left over from her cookie-decorating phase, pushed back into the very corner. I don't tell her that I'm taking these sprinkles, or the frozen cookie dough stashed in the back of the freezer. She would never eat it anyway. She has to keep fitting into those designer jeans. Can't buy them twice.
I didn't tell her much about the babysitting gig either. Not after the fight that she and Dad had two weeks ago. Her hair was uncharacteristically frizzy the morning after, and she had forgotten to put all-natural concealer on the bags under her eyes. That meant that she was really out of it. I didn't want to tell her that I was taking care of two little kids, alone, three miles away. She would have fallen apart over her organic wheat toast, so I just said I had set up a job babysitting Cameron. For six hours. Saturday and Sunday. Every week. She ate it up.
Unfortunately, that meant that I don't have a ride there and back, because I can't tell her that Brianna has suddenly moved to a low-income, predominantly-Mexican neighborhood. At about eleven-thirty, I shoulder my bag of cookie-making ingredients, strap on my helmet, and wheel a bike consisting 75% rust out of the garage.
Wow. I haven't ridden a bike in two years. We used to go on the weekends, Dad and me racing, skirting piles of leaves and feeling the sharp juddering of under-pumped tires whip through our bodies, hands shaking on the handlebars and eyes watering from the nasty wind. Mom would come behind, pulling -- nevermind. Too long ago.
The memories converge on me as soon as I press my feet to the pedals, both of how to ride and other nightmares that I try to push away. Luckily, I don't kill myself or other innocent pedestrians.
There is Señora Iglesias, more fragile than ever in a well-worn two piece suit, her dark eyes anxiously scanning the neighborhood. I can tell she thinks I won't come, another backstabbing American. I'm here to prove her wrong.
"Hi." I sling my backpack off my shoulder and awkwardly hunch with Señora Iglesias. She's half a foot shorter than me, like I'm the adult and she's the child.
"Thank you very much, very!"" She rolls her 'r's with wide eyes. A timid Gabriela peeks out from behind her skirt.
"You'll come back at six?"
"Yes, and here are- are- number to call?" She holds out a list of emergency numbers. "And Gabriela, she cannot eat-eat the nuts, yes?"
"All right. I'll make sure she won't. See you at six."
"Yes. OK. Thank you." She shuffles down the driveway, and as soon as she heaves the door of her paint-scratched pickup shut, a surprisingly strong six-year-old tornado grasps me around the waist.
"Hey, Miguel."
"Hi! Hi!" He's practically jumping up and down with excitement, like popcorn in a microwave. Gabriela shrinks beside him, poised to flee.
"OK, guys, you wanna show me around?"
So, with Miguel in front and Gabriela behind, I head off into the uncharted wilderness. There is only a child to guide me.

"Miguel, careful with the knife, please!" My voice cracks on the last syllable. It's been an exhausting five hours, and I keep telling myself that there's only one more to go. The kids were going to lead me around the house, but they got sidetracked by the blocks in the living room. Blocks led to trucks and trucks to dolls, dolls outside, and by the time we were done with hide and seek it was five.
Seeing the state of the kitchen, I probably shouldn't have told them that we were going to make cookies. It's a pigsty in here, dishes piled in the sink and spilling onto the counter, bowls from lunch still on the table and beans and rice on the floor. It's not clutter. There is simply no space. I don't know how Señora Iglesias does it. There's barely room on the counter to slice the cookies off their limp log, especially with Miguel and Gabriela fighting over the sprinkles.
"No, Miguel. Don't touch that!" My tone is harsher than I intended, and it reflects in his soulful eyes.
"I'm sorry to sound like that, but the knife is sharp and it can hurt you."
"Mama doesn't let us touch them either." He sighs pitifully. "So what can I do?"
"Just hold on a sec while I turn on the oven, 'K?" It's ancient, pre-1990 probably, with a mess of knobs and buttons. Which one means temperature?
"O-ow!" Miguel shrieks. I whip around from the oven, streaks of blackness racing across my vision. Not again, not like this. I expect to see blood on the floor and a limp little boy like him gone, curl on the carpet, roll, the soap on her cheeks like tear tracks. No. No. It's only his finger.
Gabriela watches me solemnly as I hunt for a Band-Aid. "He was playing with knives." She informs me.
Miguel examines the wounded finger with interest. "I can show Mama this! She'll think I'm so brave! I didn't even cry!"
"Don't show your mom, please. She'll think I'm irresponsible. And Miguel, please don't touch the knives again. See what they did?" I take deep breaths to calm my galloping heart as I bandage his finger. Just a cut. Just a cut. I promise I will never turn away from him again.

The sun might not set till eight, but its heat dissipates before four. And it just gets colder after six, when I've safely seen Miguel out of daycare. Now I dash into the tiny yellow bathroom to change for the run. I shake so hard that I can barely put my shorts on, whether from fear of excitement I don't know. My legs are so white, like shy little animals that only venture out n the night. Goosebumps make their sparse hairs stand up sharply. The brown is harsh against the paleness of my skin.
I can't do this. I'll fall apart in front of Quinn, and how will that look? I only a run a mile three times a year, for fitness testing, and I sometimes have to walk that. I've seen Quinn run all long and smooth, sweaty but effortless. There's no way I can do that. Quick, Mariah. There's still time to run and hide, tell him you were busy--
But there he is, kind of shy at the door of the day care. His body looks like it's been threaded on a string, and the string yanked by an inexperienced puppeteer, all tense and drawn through his torso. What makes him look like that?
When I open the door and he grins at me, I realize that I too had been held tightly by a string.
"Hey."
"Hey." He's holding his backpack. Is he going to run with that?
"Um, do you want to put that inside?"
"Please. You'll be able to get in later?"
"Yep." I was so surprised when Mrs. Ramirez gave me the keys.
"Cool." It sounds so unfamiliar with his crisp accent. He slings his backpack onto a daycare table and turns to me.
"You ready?"
"Kind of. What exactly are we doing?"
"I was thinking we could go for half an hour." I can feel my jaw drop. "Five minutes run, one minute walk, six times. A light workout to get you started, you know?"
"Oh." I say feebly. "OK." I don't know how I'm going to survive.
The first steps are fine, pleasant, even We are soon out of sight of the daycare, past the high school, and pounding out into the residential area. Before we pass the first block of houses, my body starts to complain. It doesn't like the jarring way that my feet hit the pavement, the burn creeping it sway up my caves and into my thighs, or the breath that catches and stutters in my throat.
We take a breather at the first crosswalk. I cough hard, about ready to curl up on the ground and die of asphyxiation. Quinn hasn't even broken a sweat. He stands loosely, hands on hips, chest rising and falling calmly. Even in my death throes, I notice how sweetly his hair falls over one brow.
"OK, great. That was five minutes. You're doing really well." Five? Five? It felt like an hour at least. I focus, taking shudder gulps of air, willing the crosswalk signal to malfunction and stay on a glaring red hand forever.
But, of course, it turns, and we are off again.
I have seen joggers in my neighborhood, on the track at school, and they always look like they would rather being sticking a rusty fork in their eyes than grinding out another agonizing mile. I would too. I can't stop wondering why my lungs, organs that have never bothered me before, now, suddenly, won't take take in air, why me legs have turned to lead, my stomach a roiling pit of lava from the handful of Cheez-its and snack time.
I sneak a glance at Quinn, and immediately have a strong desire to strangle him and shove him in a closet. Why is it so easy for him? It looks like he's just skimming the ground, just brushing the earth, a British angel. Who knows? Maybe he is.
At the end of the run I judder to a halt, legs protesting. The world spins around me as I gulp rough bouts of air through my raw throat.
"Whoa," Quinn says worriedly, "you all right? Need a drink of water?" I barely have the strength to nod.
"Maybe we should have gone for less time." He muses, handing me a Dixie cup full of precious liquid. "Running doesn't come easily, especially when you don't have prior experience. You fought hard, though."
I grunt dully. My hair hangs in sweaty tangles around me flushed face and my legs tremble. I feel like someone had stormed up and yanked out all my energy, hand over hand until there is nothing left.
I take a drink, studying Quinn as I do. He's examining some of the colorful shelves, politely allowing me to deal with my agony. His hair looks like he's forgotten to cut it for a while, ragged and jet-black and endearingly messy. His nose is crooked and slightly large, ruining an otherwise-perfect face. It's a changing face, not boy, but not man either. The angles are there, the clean adult lines, but there's a softness lingering around his eyes and mouth.
"Mariah? Are you OK?" I realize that he's asked me a question. "Sometimes you go inside your head, and it takes a lot to bring you back." He shakes his head wonderingly. "Did you hear me?"
"No, not really. Sorry." Why do I always act so stupid when I'm around him?
"Did you like it?"
God, no! I want to scream. It was awful, worse than gym! Why'd you make me do it? I go for the diplomatic, "It was definitely a unique and interesting experience. I hope I can get used to it."
He snorts inelegantly. "Hated it that much, huh?"
"Why do you like it?" I burst out, whiny to my ears.
"I didn't used to." He says thoughtfully. "when I started a few years ago, it was just so I could be better at football. Soccer, I mean. At first it was torture. But after a couple of months, it got better. And now-it's beautiful. Beautiful torture, sometimes, but always beautiful."
Beautiful torture. I like the sound of that.

"Class," Ms. Eggert proclaims solemnly, "you didn't all do as well as I'd hoped on the test. In fact most of you didn't attain a passing grade." she paces, military-style. Strange for a plump woman wearing a flowing skirt and dangling peace-sign earrings.
Normally I'd tune out after this part, but I'm jittery and just the slightest bit nervous. Usually I don't study for tests and quizzes, but after the run last night, physically tired as I was, my brain was whirring. So, believe it or not, I studied. For an hour. And then I researched my Humanities assignment, and worked on my Bio lab. Mom says she found me asleep cradling my textbook like it was a child.
"One of you, however, exceeded expectations." My heart is speeding up faster than when I ran, useless, though, to be nervous. Nothing will come of it. Nothing ever has.
"It's obvious that this student put in a lot of hard work over time, and I'm proud to announce our only A+ student, Quinn O' Donnell!"
It wasn't going to be me. I knew that. Still--
My test paper flutters hesitantly onto my desk. I pinch it between trembling fingers. I remember this feeling, theheart pounding and the stomach roiling, from when I used to care.
A B+. Oh my God, a B+! That's like an 87-89 on a test, right? The red pen that usually eclipses my problems merely ornaments a few where I forgot to show all my work or mark a graph. I feel like jumping up and shouting, doing a victory dance. I won't, of course. He's the one who should be doing that.
An A. I'd like one of those. To see that brilliant letter, scrawling 100%s written boldly across the top of my paper, maybe a smiley face or a star. Juvenile, I know, but so rewarding.
As we file out of the classroom, Ms. Eggert smiles widely at me. "Good job, Mariah. You improved a lot. Keep up the good work."
I tingle all over, like I've had a jolt of caffeine. I try to hold on to that warm feeling, the pride. Because, honestly, I could get used to it.





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