Friday, August 31 The worst part of working fast food is the name tag because there's always somebody's mom with coupons who thinks they are somehow being cheated by the teenager at the register, and their eyes always dart down to your chest to look for a way to be in charge. "Listen," she says, and I see her eyes laser in, search out my name. "Alicia. You overcharged me for my mozzarella sticks. Now, do I need to ask for the manager or are you going to make it right?" Make it right. Ever since last year, everything sounds like justice or its burning absence. She thinks she's been done grievous wrong by the two dollars extra on her waxy receipt and my mouth is supposed to be apologizing but my mind is on everything else: * the whole school/world calling me a whore * Sarah cutting me out of her life like a tumor * my parents, the wood chipper of their life between them In the end I just say, "Ma'am, I'll do my best. I'll do my very best." We both know she'll still call the manager over, will still make the world a witness to all the things she thinks she deserves even with my smile so bright it shatters. It's my last weekday shift before school and it's just girls on the clock, no creepy manager, no too-old guys pretending they're still in high school and eyeing you over curly fries. Slow day. No construction workers, no cops expecting free food, no guys in suits who refuse coupons because they want you to know they're rich: just teenage girls who don't go to the same school, carrying different gossip not about each other and thus unimportant. Stephanie is the shift manager and she's only twenty-one so when there's no customers she lets us turn up the lobby music and all of us sing along. The final day of August is like a guillotine separating September from the rest of the summer in one clean slice, the red sun bleeding out over my feet as I circle the school in my Meat Palace uniform one more time before I start junior year. It's empty. No one but me would ever come to school while the freedom summer drops like gold confetti still sparkles on our shoulders. But I like it like this, the quiet, the way the beige bricks drink up the sunset, taking on a color that reminds me of a desert. Dry, baked, vicious. I've never been anywhere but here. My feet take me to the track, like they miss it. Maybe they do. Maybe they remember how it felt to transform from girl to mustang with grateful lungs heaving. Freshman year I could fly. Then sophomore year happened. I look back at the pink bricks, settling into a deeper shade now that the sun is sinking. I'm sinking too, down onto the bleachers, the metal warm against my thighs. This school is empty of people and full of memories and I don't want any of them. My mother offers to iron my school uniform and even though I want her to, I say no, because sometimes in this place where I am it feels good to refuse help, because saying yes to even something like an iron feels like saying yes to everything else when my whole life has become a pipe bomb full of pieces that explode in a furious no. Tuesday, September 4 The school bus stops on my block but I don't get on. I've been taking the city bus all summer and I like the way it makes me feel like I'm living in a different world than the people who are supposed to be my peers. What's the difference? At least on the city bus I can pull the string, and it makes me feel like I'm in control. I can get off whenever I want wherever I want even if my destination is predetermined. On the city bus I can still wonder what the people there think about me, whereas at school once I walk through the door I already know what they're all thinking, what they're all going to say about all the versions of me they think they know, laid alongside all the girls I was before in stark contrast. Flashbacks They are like ripples on a pond and they begin in my earliest memories of myself: Playing in the fountains at Elwain Park with no shirt on, five-year-old bird chest Eight and pointing at bras in Target, my brother wearing them like hats while my mother shopped and I laughed Sarah getting her first bikini, me ten and silent and feeling a brand-new envy grow in like ivy Me eleven Me twelve Me thirteen Me fourteen Curious and curious Me warming up Me sneaking to buy my first thong Me excited for someone anyone to notice Me kissing Michael Strong the day I got my braces off just to feel what someone's tongue felt like sliding across new teeth Me hearing about what good girls do and think and say and always feeling like a neon opposite even if only in shadow. Me thinking I had secrets until last year when I learned what it meant-- what it really meant-- to hide. There's always a white kid who says "Why do the Black kids sit together in the cafeteria? They segregate themselves." And I'm a white girl too so what do I know but I think the answer is so obvious in a school as white as this one where Halloween parties still feature blackface and redface where the student council only barely voted (5-6) to maintain a special events calendar for Black History Month and the cheerleading squad is all white but shouts yas queen, werk! between routines. Dawn of Day 1 and we're all in the cafeteria waiting to be dismissed, the swell of the student body heaving as if on a ship at rough sea, all of us deciding where we fit, where to squeeze in, if anyone we hate or love has rendered certain sections unsittable. The girl who says it this year is skinny and blond, a sophomore, and her whole table murmurs and laughs, casts glances at the three tables where the couple dozen Black students, the half-dozen kids from Mexico and El Salvador, all take refuge in each other's presence. Why wouldn't they when to sit anywhere else in this sea of narrowed eyes and fake laughs would be like throwing yourself overboard? I'd never say that I consider my pain equal but I can say I know how it feels to step onto a ship and be confident that everyone on board is watching you, thinking that you're not a sailor but a creature from the deep. The only text messages I get are from coworkers. Mariah: can you take my shift tomorrow Alicia: what time Mariah: 3:30 Mariah: . . . ? Alicia: I'm in school, sorry. Yes I'll take it. Mariah: I thought you were dropping out Alicia: I wish And from random dudes. Him: Thinking about you Alicia: I know what that means Him: yeah;) Him: free tonight? Alicia: tomorrow Day 1 was a success in the way that surviving a haunted house is a success: I walked through the halls and saw lots of ghosts but never the Devil himself. The garage is full of smoke and someone who doesn't live in this gray house might think something is on fire. If they looked closer they would know nothing is, the smoke they see only the last remains of what has finally ceased to burn. What's left of my family is a cold smolder. Divorce is only white-hot for so long. If you've ever watched a fire you know it eventually gives way to a gray zero, smoke coming from nothing, piles of ash. The smoke is my mother sitting in a lawn chair cigarette in hand, coffee can next to her for the ashes. She talks to her mother or her sister sometimes a friend from college and from where I stand in the kitchen I can hear the low blur of her voice, the clink of the can when she taps, the slide of a beer across the concrete. It's only the two of us. My brother and my father have become heavy apparitions. They exist but on a different plane. My mother is here with me but she's also somewhere else--on nights like tonight the garage is a distant universe I would need time travel to cross. Sometimes I stand at the door and try to listen while my leftovers spin in the microwave. Occasionally she laughs, but mostly she cries. My parents met when my father was still mid-divorce with his first wife, one child already somewhere in Montana. He was 31 and my mother 20 and she was dancing at a college party when he saw her, her hair the same black as fresh asphalt but softer, and swinging, and he never danced but that night he danced for her the way birds in the wild spread feathers and perform. But like geese and not doves, my father takes many mates and even when my mother still waxes romantic about love at first sight (even now) and the way the music slowed when their eyes met, sometimes I wonder (since the divorce) what he was doing at that party in the first place. Portrait of a day Dawn and toast. Bus and its flickering yellow light. School and its silent rivers of judgment. Boys and their fingers in my belt loops even when we don't know each other. No Sarah. No nobody except a girl in physics who talks to me, but she talks to everybody. Weeks 1 and 2 down and I skipped art both weeks to avoid the hallway where "it" happened. Lots of ghosts, but no Devil. Bus. Meat Palace. Repeat. Thursday, September 13 Sometimes people put notes in my locker's grille Sometimes one word, sometimes several, never more than a sentence. One at the end of last year said sex isn't a hobby and I had so many questions, the first of which was is putting weird notes in people's locker a hobby? But that's the voice in my head that says I'm too mature to let these things bother me. That voice is a little overconfident. Still, I had to laugh when I looked up hobby in the dictionary app on my phone: hobby: (n) an activity done regularly in one's leisure time for pleasure. The note-leavers didn't waste any time this school year so when I see the paper poking out from down the hall, my stomach sinks, even as the mature voice in my head says something tough like let's see if their handwriting has improved. It has. Neat blue pen. Circles dot i's. But this one doesn't feel like the others. It says: WHAT'S DONE IN THE DARK WILL BE REVEALED IN THE LIGHT and if I didn't know Sarah was twelve miles away at her new school, I'd think it was her issuing one last barb--it sounds just Bible-thumpy enough. There are more words on the back but I don't read them. I may be a lot of things but a masochist isn't one of them. Friday, September 14 I have two shirts for work and only ever wear one. Terry is the new manager of the restaurant--transferred in when Joey got caught setting up a fake robbery, emptying the safe into the backseat of his car. No bag or anything. Shit for brains. But I would rather have Joey than Terry, who is older and goes to church and wears a tie every day like he doesn't know this is a Meat Palace in a nondescript part of town. He lurks in drive-thru while I'm working, tells me to take my nose ring out. He pretends he has to stand very close to me to see if I'm wearing it or not. He thinks because I am sixteen that I don't know every trick in the book. Maybe I don't. But I do know there is a book and that Terry pulls pages from it when he leans close to see my nose ring slips close behind me when he's restocking napkins stands close when the cashier steps out to take her break Close close close Never quite touching. I know it will come--it always does when men like Terry take your silence for consent or better yet total ignorance. They know if you can claim not to know that they can too, like a hand down a teenager's bra is just a mistake a slip in a puddle an agree to disagree. I can hear my (ex) best friend's voice now, Sarah: "If you hate it so much then quit." "If it really bothers you then why haven't you said anything" At the time (before she cut me off) I didn't have the words that I have now. I didn't know how to say "This world is full of wolves. I've already met worse wolves than Terry. Terry is just a dog. Running from a dog At this point, at this juncture in my career with wolves, feels like admitting I'm a rabbit when every day I feel more like a bull. Sometimes wolves hunt bulls and they win. But sometimes they get the horns." The first wolf I remember was bagging my mother's groceries. I was fourteen and we'd just come from the pool. (That doesn't mean I was wearing a bathing suit. That doesn't mean I was wearing shorts. People always wonder what I was wearing. Why when it comes to girls and wolves do we let our brains look for reasons why she deserved to be prey before we notice his fangs?) His name was Adam. He was twenty-one-- I learned this later. At the time he was scanning my mother's broccoli and bread and when her eyes lowered to her purse his rose to me. Sometimes I remember the way the blush felt crossing my cheeks and wonder if I was to blame after all. After all I was pleased to be noticed. An older boy, a man, someone with perspective. Not many people really noticed me at school (before "it"). But Adam did. I thought he saw something my peers didn't see. I thought maybe in that moment under the fluorescent lights I had transformed into something worthy. My father came back then from buying a lottery ticket and if he saw Adam's eyes he pretended not to. My father never liked conflict. He avoided it like chewed gum on the sidewalk. Maybe if he were different everything else would be too. You are the ghost in the ghost town when people pretend you are dead. When I started sleeping with guys, my friendship with Sarah became an hourglass. Excerpted from Dear Medusa: (a Novel in Verse) by Olivia A. Cole All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.