A sudden flutter in my stomach wakes me up on Monday morning before my 6 o’clock alarm. It starts low, but then creeps upward into my throat, causing a cool sweat to break across my brow. I shudder as I sit up, the glowing numbers from my alarm clock next to my bed casting neon green across the room. It’s dark except for that kryptonite glow and the streaks of early dawn pushing through the blinds covering my window.
I hear the voices of birds outside, and I want to hold my breath and just listen to them for a few seconds, but the nausea makes me forget they’re even there. Pale light filters through the crack beneath my door—Dad is up and in the kitchen downstairs. He’s the early riser between the two of us, never sleeping past 5:30, even on the weekends. I smell the bitterness of our morning coffee.
Is it stronger than normal, or is it just me?
I cover my mouth with one cold hand and yank the covers away from my body with the other. My Victoria’s Secret PINK pajama bottoms stick to my damp thighs as I run across the beige carpeted floor. I try not to make too much noise as I hurry to the bathroom across the hall and fall onto my knees in front of the toilet. I heave a few times, my stomach clenching into a knot, and when the spasms settle, I lean back against the porcelain bathtub and wipe at my damp eyes.
“That was lovely, Sarah.”
The nausea lingers, but I stand up and wash my hands, then splash cold water on my face. I stare at my pale reflection in the mirror, my chin-length and normally straight blonde hair ratty and twisted from sleep. Other than my eyes appearing dull like aging moss in comparison to their normal vibrant green, I think I look okay. I take a deep breath and wait, watching as my cheeks slowly blossom back into their natural peachy hue. I brush my teeth and take a shower, then finish getting ready for school before going downstairs.
“Hey there, sunshine,” Dad says.
He’s sitting at our small round dining room table, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper. Current technology hasn’t swayed him from keeping to a tradition. I cross the living room, setting my school bag on the sofa, and walk into the kitchen.
“You feeling okay?” he asks.
From the corner of my eye, I see him looking at me. I turn and smile, “Yeah. Why?”
He takes a sip from his coffee mug, then looks back down at the newspaper in front of him, probably the financial section by now. “I thought I heard you throwing up earlier. That’s all.”
The top of his freshly shaved head is still shiny from his morning application of skin tonic. He was in his late 20’s when he’d finally given up hope of ever having a full head of hair. He’d been shaving his head ever since. He’s a big man, 6’4 and thick. When I was little, he had more muscle than fat, but with each passing year, his belly more and more slips over the edge of his jeans. I don’t mind his expanding waistline, though. He’s always been like a big teddy bear to me. The excess weight just makes him more snuggly.
“No, Daddy. I wasn’t drinking last night.”
He smiles. “Well, why the heck not?”
He tells everyone I don’t drink because I’m smarter and more mature than most of my classmates, and maybe I am, just a little (I’ve had straight A’s my whole life), but that’s not the real reason. The first time I went to a house party and drank was the last time, and Dad knows it. I was in 9th grade. It was after a football game. I’d tasted beer a few times—a sip here and there from Dad’s Pabst Blue Ribbons. I didn’t like the taste of it, but everybody at that party was drinking, and my best friend, Megan Cochran, and I didn’t want to look like wimpy freshmen, even though we were. We ended up doing beer bongs, and I threw up for three days. That was it. I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol since.
I take a coffee mug from the cabinet and set it on the counter—feeling mildly less hung over than I did in 9th grade, despite drinking nothing but a Coke last night—and pull the pitcher from the machine. The black liquid swirls around and around inside, and I swallow against the rising vomit in my throat as I put the coffee pitcher back in its place, the warmer sizzling as though pissed I didn’t take my morning’s share. On any other day, I would’ve. I love my coffee, the sweetness of the vanilla creamer and my one single scoop of sugar—not the artificial kind Dad uses, but the real stuff. Pure. White. Refined. But the sight of the coffee this morning—not to mention the pitchy odor of it—makes me want to puke again.
I take the loaf of sourdough bread from the refrigerator and cut a piece of it in half, then drop the two slices into the toaster before sitting at the table.
“You sure you didn’t have a few wine coolers or something last night?” Dad asks. “Definitely not like you to skip your coffee.”
I push the thought of sipping on a wine cooler from my head as I pull the community section from the newspaper and stare at the headline—Time Again for the Kalispell High School Spring Fair!
“I promise, Daddy.” I don’t meet his eyes. “Alcohol was not a part of my study session with Megan last night.”
Would’ve been tough, considering I wasn’t with Megan last night.
“Alrighty, then,” he replies. He rises from the table with his coffee cup and empty plate and walks into the kitchen. “Want me to put butter on your toast?”
If I didn’t tell him not to make breakfast for me, he would. He only stopped cooking me eggs and bacon and toast every morning when I turned 16, but only because I asked him to. I was too old to not be taking care of my own breakfast. If he had his choice, he’d baby me for the rest of my life.
“You’re the best, Daddy.”
He winks and smiles, then pulls a slice of toast from the toaster and tosses it back and forth between his fingers before dropping it on a plate. Watching him reminds me of a game we used to play—a soccer skill—when I was little. The ball was a “hot potato”, and the point of the game was to keep the soccer ball from hitting the ground by continuously bouncing it on our feet. We’d count how many times we kicked the ball without it dropping, and whomever had the highest amount of kicks, won. It took a few years of practicing the skill before I finally beat him. To this day, though, I think he let me win, just so I’d work harder every time thereafter.
He walks into the dining room and hands me the plate of toast.
“Thanks, Daddy,” I say. I pick up the section of newspaper he’d been reading. “Anything worth looking at today?”
“More people out of work, housing market continues to tank. Plenty to read, sunshine, just not good news.”
“It’ll get better,” I say.
“Not with you-know-who still in office.”
It’s not President Obama’s fault, Dad.
I didn’t like Barack Obama at first either, but not because of what he was or wasn’t doing for the country. I didn’t actually follow the man’s campaign. Why would I have? I was 15 years old when he was elected. All I cared about then were my friends and boys, weekend parties, playing soccer in the fall and skiing in the winter. I didn’t like President Obama back then because Dad didn’t like him. And wasn’t that normal? I don’t know many kids at my school whose political views aren’t shaped by their parents. Dad has his reasons for not liking the president. For one, Obama’s supposedly a threat to gun owners, and Dad owns a gun shop. But that isn’t his main reason.
“Eat up, sunshine,” Dad says. “We’ll roll in ten minutes.”
He walks through the living room and up the stairs. I take a small bite from a corner of a slice of toast, but it becomes thick and sticky in my mouth, and I gag as I swallow it. I drop the remaining toast into the garbage can, cover the wasted food with a paper towel—because I hate wasting food and somehow covering it makes me feel less guilty—then walk into the living room and grab my cell phone from my school bag. There are three text messages—one from Megan and two from David.
Megan’s been my best friend since the end of 5th grade when she moved to Montana from Minnesota. During recess one day, I watched her dribble a soccer ball between her knees, the mess of curly black hair on her head bobbing up and down. I knew how to dribble a soccer ball like that, but she was better. When I asked her if she could show me, she tucked the ball under her arm and looked up at me—she’s a foot shorter than I am—and smiled. We’ve been soccer teammates and skiing partners ever since, and there’s really nothing that can come between us. Girls are girls, though, and we’ve had our “moments”, but we always seem to find a way to work through them. I have other girlfriends—mostly my soccer teammates and a few of the other ski bunnies—but over the years, each of them showed her ugliness in one way or another. Whether it was talking behind my back and then denying it to my face, or pretending not to be interested in a boy I liked, only to sneak off into the woods with him at a party when I wasn’t looking. I think the fact I didn’t drink made it easier for them. They’d used the “I was drunk” excuse, and I had to give them some slack.
But for the past two years, the girlfriends I walked away from were the ones who pretended to be just fine with me being friends with the three black boys at our school, but then mocked it in front of anyone else who questioned it. There were a few rumors that spread about David and me after we started seeing each other, but we denied it, and because we’ve been keeping our relationship a secret for over nine months, it’s tough to argue our denials.
Miss you already.
And I love you.
“You ready, sunshine?” Dad says from the upstairs landing.
I slip my cell phone into the front pocket of my school bag and zip it shut. “Yep.”
“You kids and your text messaging,” he says as he descends the staircase.
“Megan’s quizzing me on our economics exam,” I say. I lift the shoulder strap of my bag over my head. I hate that I have to keep lying to Dad. Before David, I never hid anything from him.
“Well, then, maybe text messaging does serve a purpose.”
I follow Dad out the front door and to his old blue Chevy truck parked in the driveway. On the ride to school, I watch our neighborhood pass by. It’s one of Kalispell’s oldest—small, square, two-story homes with wrap-around porches and cookie cutter A-frame roofs. I’ve never lived anywhere else. Neighbors have come and gone, and with the newer ones came changes. Some of the houses have new paint or prettier yards, or there’s been a garage added or a bedroom or a bathroom, but our house hasn’t changed a bit. For all I know, it looks the same as when Dad bought it after we moved to Montana from Alabama when I was just a few months old.
Dad pulls into the drop-off zone in front of the high school and stops the truck behind a Volkswagen unloading the Marshall twins.
“You’d think with all the money they have, they’d make them boys cut their hair,” he says.
Tim and Jonah Marshall are freshmen at Kalispell High—bleached blonde snowboarders with Southern California, laid-back surfer attitudes. They moved to Kalispell from San Diego the year before after their parents decided snowboarding was safer for the boys than surfing. On a Saturday bus trip to Big Mountain last December—the ski resort 20 miles north of Kalispell where I learned how to ski and where Megan and I spend every Saturday from opening day to the start of soccer season—I overhead the boys say David was “the shit”.
“He’s the next Jerry Rice,” they’d said.
They were sitting in the seat in front of Megan and me. I don’t know the boys that well, but they were talking loud enough for me to hear. I think they wanted me to know they approved.
“Have a good day, Daddy,” I say as I slide out of the truck.
“Need a ride home after school?”
“Megan’ll drop me off.”
“You can use the truck tomorrow, sunshine,” he says, “if you want. I won’t be needing it during the day.”
I smile. “That’s okay. Megan can take me home.”
I love Dad more than anything in the whole wide world. He’s the only family I have, and I know there’s not a single father on the planet who’s more amazing than him. But no matter how wonderful he is, there’s a part of him I don’t understand, and I’m not sure I ever will. Two years ago, I didn’t notice it so much. I didn’t care about the Confederate flag bumper sticker on the back of his truck. But at a spring track meet that year, Megan walked up to Jalen Parker and Reggie Powell and introduced herself. I remember trying to grab her arm to stop her. I didn’t have a reason, other than I thought I wasn’t supposed to like the boys, and when they reached out to shake my hand, my body trembled, but I don’t really know why. If Megan and I had never become friends with them, and eventually David, I might’ve been just fine driving Dad’s truck. Not caring. Not knowing.
The bumper sticker makes some people laugh—people who know Dad and like him. I’m pretty sure they think it’s an old sticker left there by the person who owned the truck before us, but I know better. It makes other people angry, just as his gun shop does. But those people don’t speak up much. It’s only obvious because of an occasional grumph or curse, too quiet for anybody to really hear. And to another group of people altogether, the bumper sticker is praised. Those are the people David and I need to keep our relationship from, and as much as the other groups make up the people we see everyday—parents of classmates, teachers, coaches—so does this group. Joe Berger’s father is in this group. Last fall, he deliberately tried to get David kicked off the football team, saying David had given his son a black eye following a practice, but everybody knows it was Randy Cooper who punched Joe in the face after he called David a nigger.
Randy was the first of my classmates to become friends with Reggie and Jalen. He’d actually volunteered to show them around the school on their first day, and he’s kept by their side ever since. And when David moved to town, Randy was thrilled to find out he played football. Randy lost a handful of friends because of Reggie, Jalen and David, including Joe Berger. Randy and Joe were inseparable in elementary school, but Joe had no interest in hanging out with “blacks”, and Randy had no interest in remaining friends with a racist. After Randy punched Joe in the face, David asked him why a skinny white cowboy would give a shit about a black outsider.
“Cause my daddy didn’t raise me that way,” Randy had replied. “He taught me that everybody deserves to be respected. We’re all God’s children, no matter what the color of our skin. You ain’t done nothing to Joe to deserve his bullshit. And you been nothing but a friend to me.”
Randy told Reggie and Jalen the same thing when they asked him why he volunteered to show them around. They both thought it was some kind of joke, and Randy’s response had been, “Why you judging me based on my hat and boots? I ain’t judging you.”
But Joe Berger and Joe Berger Sr. aren’t the ones I worry about. Their intolerance is obvious.
“Hey Mr. McKnight!”
I recognize the voice behind me. It’s Alex Mackey.
“Hey Alex,” Dad replies. “I’ll see you at 4 o’clock, right?”
I keep my eyes on Dad. He wrinkles his forehead and makes a twirling motion with his finger, indicating he wants me to turn around. I roll my eyes, but I follow his gesture anyway. Dad can’t stand it when people are rude.
“Hi Alex,” I say.
He smiles at me. He’s thin and pale, his buzzed black hair making his ears, eyes and nose appear bigger than they really are. Both of his cheeks are pock-marked with acne scars.
“Hey, Sarah. How’s it going?” he asks.
“Good.” I try to keep eye contact with him, but his silence makes me nervous, so I look down at my feet.
“Okay. So, bye,” Alex says. He takes a few steps back before turning around and walking away.
“You could be a little nicer to him,” Dad says.
I turn back to the truck and place my fingers on the window ledge. “I know, Dad.”
“Things ain’t real easy for him,” he says.
Everybody knows Alex’s home life is a mess. His father’s drunk more than he’s sober, and his idea of a fun Friday night is putting his wife in the hospital. According to rumors, Mary Mackey always had an excuse. One time, she apparently told the ER doctor she fell down a flight of stairs. When the doctor expressed his surprise she hadn’t broken an arm or leg, Mary said she was carrying a load of laundry. The clothes must’ve provided a cushion.
“And you’re rescuing him, right?” I ask.
“Well, somebody should. I’m just giving him a place to feel safe, Sarah. And he’s earning some extra cash while doing it.”
Alex had been working at the gun shop for two years—stocking supplies, keeping the place clean, running errands. Dad even put a cot in the back room so he could sleep there if and when he needed to. The only reason why Alex hadn’t yet been invited to the house is because he’s had a crush on me since the 5th grade, and it makes me uncomfortable. We were friends back then, the way lots of kids are before they get older and wonder why, and by the time I turned 13, I didn’t want to be Alex’s friend anymore. I wasn’t trying to be mean to him. It just…happened. But Alex has never stopped paying attention to me, and he’s made it more obvious this school year than ever before. He’s always looking at me, and when I catch him staring, he turns his head real fast. He reminds me of a peeping tom, or worse, a rapist checking out his next victim. I’m not afraid of him, though. He’s harmless, but he nevertheless gives me the creeps.
“I had somebody in my life who helped me,” Dad says. “And if it hadn’t been for him—”
“I know, Daddy. You might not be here at all.”
I didn’t know my grandfather, but from the little Dad’s told me, he wasn’t much different than Chuck Mackey—drunk, abusive, mean. He died when Dad was 18 years old. By then, Dad had already left and was living with the man he said saved his life—a man named Clive Sanders. But that’s all I know about him. His name.
“Alex is a nice boy, sunshine.”
“I know, I know.” I step away from the truck. “Love you.”
Dad waves and drives away.
I hear the familiar tone of my cell phone telling me I have a new text message. I pull it from the front pocket of my school bag. It’s from David.
Meet me at our spot?
I type back, Be there in a minute.
David’s and my “spot” is an empty space the size of a large closet beneath the south staircase, just outside of the senior hallway. The south doors open to the staircase, and unless you’re a senior, you wouldn’t walk into the adjoining hallway. At the end of that hallway is the senior cafeteria. All of the classrooms are upstairs.
All of our friends—those who think it’s cool we’re a couple—stand as a shield in front of our hiding spot so we can, every once in awhile, have the chance to act like every other couple in the school. It wasn’t our idea. Reggie and Jalen came up with it, and the rest of the group agreed. I thought it might get old for them after awhile, but nobody’s ever complained. Truth is, I never thought I’d have to be jealous of the girls who can openly hold their boyfriend’s hand or make-out with them in the corner of the cafeteria at lunch, but I am. Beyond our secret spot, David and I are just friends. I know there’s other kids at school who probably don’t care we’re a couple, but they don’t publicly show they’re okay with it. I’m not mad at them, though. In high school, reputation is everything. And for the most part, Reggie, Jalen and David aren’t treated any differently than anybody else, as long the mingling of blacks and whites stays within the boundaries of friendship. But for me to be dating one of them?
By the time I make it to the south entrance, the senior hallway is full, and Megan, Randy, Emma Morgan—another soccer teammate who moved to Kalispell from Seattle at the beginning of the school year—Reggie, Jalen and David are all gathered next to the staircase.
I glance at my watch. Five minutes before the first bell.
I see David move behind the group and under the stairs, so I greet everybody and knock knuckles with Randy and Jalen. I can’t get away from Reggie without a hug, so I wrap my arms around his neck and squeeze. He smells like Old Spice, musky and sweet—always just a bit too much, but he wouldn’t be Reggie without it.
“It’s my love potion,” he always says.
When I finally sneak behind the group and below the staircase, I press my lips to David’s. His hands are on my cheeks as he kisses me, his tongue warm. Familiar butterflies erupt inside my stomach, and as we continue kissing, the flutter moves down and below my belly button where it settles. I want to be alone with him, somewhere, wrapped in his arms, the warmth of his body pressed to mine. But when the tingling doesn’t fade from my stomach, I pull back from him, the queasiness of nausea overwhelming.
“Baby, what’s wrong?” David asks.
I take a deep breath. “I don’t know. I feel…sick.”
He laughs. “Gee, thanks. Don’t think I’ve ever done that before.”
My skin is clammy and warm. I feel light-headed.
I place my hand on David’s cheek. His eyes are the color of cinnamon, a good two shades lighter than his skin. Reggie and Jalen both have eyes like black coffee, so when I first met David, I couldn’t stop staring at him.
“Don’t be a jerk,” I say.
Reggie shouts, “Heads up!”
That’s our cue we need to come out, which always means me leaving first and moving behind the boys until I’m up next to the girls who are standing the furthest away from the hiding spot. David follows 10 to 15 seconds later and cuts sharply left so he’s at the opposite end from me.
Reggie’s warning this time isn’t really a warning at all. The bell is about to ring.
“You gonna be okay?” David asks.
I nod, but I’m not really sure. I kiss him one more time before stepping out behind Reggie and Jalen. Megan and Emma walk with me to my locker so I can drop off my bag and grab my calculus book. At the sound of the first bell, we hurry back down the hall and up the stairs.
“See you guys at the break,” Emma says as she ducks into Mr. Grey’s economics class.
Megan and I share first period calculus with Jalen. The three of us drop into our seats just as the second bell rings. I open my book and stare at the black scratches of lines and numbers and graphs, the mess of ink swirling oddly across the page.
What the hell?
I lift my eyes to Mrs. Keatley. She’s writing on the chalkboard, her kinky brown hair pulled into a puffy ball on the back of her head. It looks like a round of yarn freshly attacked by a thick-clawed cat. As I’m watching the blob of ratty hair, the wave of nausea strikes again, stronger than before and deep enough to cause my body to shiver. My skin is damp with sweat.
I jump from my desk and run out of the classroom and toward the open door leading to the staircase. On the landing is a garbage can. I know it’s there. When I round the corner, I lean over the edge of it just in time to throw up into the trash bag.