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Sluffing by Zachary Cole

01/25/2010

A smell of gym clothes and pot hangs over the front lobby. Kate passes the marble bench adventurous freshman sometimes make out on in the morning, three dusty cases of basketball and lacrosse trophies a generation old. Further down the hall, sleepy-eyed janitors push discarded papers around with their brooms. She’s in the lobby because she’s leaving. Skipping out.
     “Bye dear,” a secretary calls out from behind the office window. Kate waves. She faked some serious cramps back on the bleachers, rolling back and forth as chubby cheerleaders stumbled through their dance routine. Girls get excused for that sort of thing, Kate knows. The principal leaves fliers about menstruation in the bathroom.
     Kate feels a shock, momentary but strong, when she steps outside. It’s actually after noon; no matter what time the school clocks report, inside every hour feels like nine am. Knox High's main entrance is actually on the side of the building, facing the parking lot, so it takes Kate a few minutes to pass by the front doors. No one’s been allowed to use them since the last bomb threat.
     Kate hears hollers and screams as walks under the gym's high-set windows. Even from outside the music is thumping, one of those dance tracks usually played at home games. Just as she's about to pass the last window, flour falls down on her like snow, settles on her backpack and her shoulders. A clump of it gets in her hair. Kate wasn’t the target—every year, a few twelfth-graders, most of whom will graduate in three weeks and spend the rest of their lives blasting Led Zeppelin on their father's lobster boats, buy packs of all-purpose flour and dump it on the Life Lessons kids. The soon-to-be lobster men also throw dog biscuits and try to make the slow kids eat it. Last year when she was a sophomore, Kate sat with the retards even though she takes normal classes. She closed her eyes when she thought the flour would come, but it never did. Probably the seniors realized that she was different.
     It doesn’t take Kate long to leave Knox behind all together. There are two ways to reach Broadway Street; the winding, cracked school road, or a thinly-forested path to her right. Kate takes the path, passing the school’s skateboard park. The other truants ignore her. These skaters are their own group, self-contained and small considering the low number of shredders in town, but are not known to talk to losers. Of course, the skaters are smoking pot, too. Everyone Kate knows smokes something.
     In third period this morning, Kate received a “?” on her English paper. Her teacher this semester has a long European name so everyone calls him Mr. Puff. Some of Kate’s classmates thought he kept dirty magazines in the closet beside the chalkboard, but she checked one day in Study Hall and all he had were weight-lifting magazines. Mr. Puff’s true talents lie in connecting physical fitness to boring books from the fifties. Kate approached him after class.
     “It bothers me, miss, more than you know,” Mr. Puff said, “that your writing is so melodramatic.” Mr. Puff then explained that, unless she handed in something “level-headed” about her life, he’d be forced to mark her paper with a failing grade. This is why Kate is leaving school early, why by tonight she’ll be with Amanda, who she rediscovered on a social networking site.
     The path isn’t easy, and by the time she enters the woods her boots are covered in mud. All the trees here are small and crooked so everything’s covered in sunlight, every fallen branch and used condom. Kate rolls up her pant legs a little.
     She wrote that English essay at the town library. Knox High had computers, but their search filters blocked almost everything on the ‘net. In the library, Kate could view whatever she wanted, as long as she browsed with her back to the windows. If she used the computers that faced the rest of the room, staffers would notice the smut she browsed and ask her to log off. When she’d looked at enough moaning faces, Kate would move on to whatever paper she'd been assigned to write. These usually took her less than thirty minutes. Bullshit bullshit bullshit. She basically typed up whatever she remembered from the textbook.
     To get to her house, Kate has to traverse another path; this one connects Broadway and Fulton, her dead end street. The whole path is made treacherous by jagged bits of granite hiding under dead leaves. More trash, everywhere. Beyond the path Kate can hear a child's raspy cries, a television turned on too loud, and someone trying to start up their weed whacker.
     Kate’s English paper had taken longer than thirty minutes to finish; she spent most of the afternoon pounding the keys. She wanted to get the words right so Kate wrote the same sentences over and over again, changing how each one read. Also, she didn't know how to write about home, about her mother Darlene.
     Fulton is one of the few streets in town that’s still dirt; in fact, a lot of locals don’t consider it a real street at all. Most of her neighbors are crusty veterans who can’t hear shit, or middle-aged guys who ran off stupid—convinced they were meant for big cities but stumbled back into Judson years later, with little money and more shame. Most of her neighbors work at Wal-Mart, like her father used to, like Kate herself did this past winter until she up and quit. She told friends that they’d replaced her with illegals. As she travels down the street Kate kicks away a green beer bottle with ants crawling inside. She doesn’t look up much after she sees Darlene’s house.
     The final draft of Kate's essay ran eleven pages, double-spaced like Mr. Puff wanted. She was so proud of that paper and actually felt like she’d written something. She paid the library a dollar fifty to print her paper out, then used their three-hole puncher and one of her old binders from Science to make her work seem more official.
     There’s some guy twitching on her front porch. Kate doesn’t know his name, doesn’t know the name of any of the guys who show up. Some are her father’s relatives from Burnt Factory, where Kate's father still lives, but most are those relative’s boyfriends and husbands. Others are just from around. She counts three trucks parked out front, flattening what little grass has sprouted on the yard. The twitching man has all of his teeth but they’re ruined, and his eyes are shot with red. When she reaches the front steps the twitching man speaks up.
     “Where you been where you been?” She’s never spoken to this man before.
     “School. I just got out.”
     “I like that that’s good. Just waitin’ for Sam.” Kate doesn’t know who Sam is, either. “We headin’ out.”
     She brushes past the twitching man and heads inside, ignoring the clustered crowd in the kitchen playing cards. Darlene passed out on a bean bag chair in the corner of the living room, a tabloid spread over her lap. She has not opened her eyes since yesterday.
     The only thing Kate needs is in her room. Her wallet is buried beneath the carpet under her bed, along with a bunch of stuffed animals she doesn’t like anymore and torn-up posters of boy bands that have all turned gay. She has three hundred dollars in fifties, leftovers from her Wal-Mart paychecks. She empties her backpack of schoolbooks and class binders and the polyester shorts she wears for gym. Kate throws the wallet into her backpack, along with a few shirts, a handful of underwear and a pair of skinny pants. She stands in front of the mirror and brushes the flour out of her hair with a dirty comb. Kate’s in and out of her home in less than three minutes.
     Kate's English paper focused on the last time Darlene injured herself. Darlene had been talking about the demons that lived under the basement and told Kate to leave, so she did. She went to the playground on Johnson Street, which is where she always went when home life became unbearable, and gathered up scraps of bread others had left, waiting for an eager flock of blue jays to sweep in. That day no birds made an appearance so Kate came back home early, hoping that Darlene had calmed down. But she hadn’t and was still going, was showing herself to some guy, a fat stranger with long hair who sat on the couch and blinked a lot. Then Darlene went into the kitchen, tried to make omelets but couldn’t finish because she wanted to show herself off again. The guy on the couch didn’t say anything or move, which creeped Kate out more than the constant blinking. Then Darlene cried out, claiming she heard the devils, and darted down the basement steps. She shattered her arm punching the ancient water heater down there. When she came stumbling back up the stairs, Darlene wouldn’t stop moving her crooked arm around, could not leave it alone. The couch guy ended up taking her to the ER, and even now Kate’s mother can’t close her left hand all the way. Kate didn’t know how to finish the essay, so in the last paragraph she explained that Darlene’s gums bleed so much that they leave droplets on the pillow which look kind of beautiful, like kitten tracks except smaller.
     The last house Kate passes on Fulton used to belong to the Reids. Amanda was their oldest daughter and went to a private school the next town over. When things got bad with Darlene, Kate would stay at Amanda’s. Her parents’ floors were wooden and their family ate supper together. One day Amanda brought Kate out into the tent Amanda’s sister used to pretend-camp and took off her shirt. Kate cried a little when Amanda removed her bra but she held Kate’s arm, a little awkwardly, and said they weren’t doing anything bad. They weren’t caught that time, or the other times, even though Amanda’s parents seemed to be home at all hours. But then the Reids moved, of course they moved.
     As Kate leaves Fulton Street she flips off the old lady who doesn’t know to drive, the old lady who now occupies Amanda's house.
     It will take Kate another hour to reach the newly-constructed train station behind the Dairy Queen. She doesn’t come back to Judson for another three years, after she moves with Amanda Reid to Rhode Island and then Florida. In both states, Amanda works so many clubs, where she's ostensibly a waitress but is asked to talk and walk a lot like a prostitute. Kate bags at a grocery store where co-workers tell her “Don’t question the shift leader”, even though the shift leader has an oily face and paws through Kate's locker during her shift. Besides her time with Amanda, the apartment they rent out together, the only good moment Kate has out of state is when she volunteers for a month, kinda on a whim, to help out slow middle schoolers in a loud, overcrowded school outside Tampa. She doesn't get paid and the other volunteers are bitches, but the kids are alright.
     What lures Kate back from Florida is news, through the extended family grapevine, that Darlene tried to kill herself. One of the strangers (the blinking man, Kate thinks) threatened to move out. In response, Darlene ran into Kate's room, which had been converted into storage space for all the crap Kate's mother bought at flea markets, and sat down on Kate's bed. Darlene put the blinking man's pistol pistol into her mouth and pulled the trigger. But her aim was poor and the bullet came out between her eyes, obliterating her nose and sinuses. The blinking man tried to stop the blood but he couldn’t still his hands.
     Before Kate comes back, she and Amanda pack light.

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Zachary Cole has previously been published in Off the Coast, a poetry journal, and on the2ndhand. He lives in Maine.

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