The Fallout Chapter 3
“Well, it wouldn’t have done me any good if you had,” she says in that same singsong voice that Dakota used, and then she leaves, and I bite my lip until I taste blood.
It hurts less than what just happened here.
For the first time in four years at this school, I’m aware of the cafeteria like I’ve never been aware of it before. Greasy, overcrowded, hot and loud.
I can see everyone.
Those teen movies that use the cafeteria to present the social hierarchies of high school, the ones where the lunch tables become little islands, spaces for you and people like you and no one else, where the overlap is nonexistent—they’re all wrong. Franklin High’s cafeteria is only overlap. Cliques bleed into other cliques for lack of space, and there’s only one exception: Dakota’s table. It’s always been Dakota and everyone else.
And now me.
This must be what the first day of ninth grade felt like for people who didn’t have seating insurance. I scan rows of tables for an empty chair, but my gaze keeps drifting back to home base, where there are two —mine and Chad’s.
They’re all watching me.
Fourteen pairs of eyes track this moment where I’m lost and it’s obvious. I maneuver around tables with as much purpose as I can muster, pretending I’ve got somewhere to be until I find somewhere to be. I end up at the table at the back, the one next to the long line of garbage cans. It’s the Garbage Table.
It’s Josh Farro’s table. It’s nearly always empty because no one likes eating next to the garbage.
No one likes eating next to Josh Farro.
He’s hunched over a burger and Coke, writing in the Moleskine he’s constantly carrying around.
Josh Farro: Unstable Emo Writer Boy.
I pick at my fingernails and debate how to do this. Josh probably doesn’t want me to sit with him.
We have phys ed together and I’m sure that’s enough of me for him. It’s enough of him for me, but when I look up, he’s watching me. My face gets hot, but I go all fake-confidence on him and walk over. He closes the notebook and shoves it aside.
“Can I sit here?”
He doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t look at me. I decide it’s an invitation and sit. I pick my nails while he eats. I don’t actually eat lunch in the traditional sense; I dig into my pockets and pull out a pill.
Everyone’s eyes are on me. I can’t imagine what they’re thinking. This is Josh—longish, dark brown hair that always hangs into his pale blue eyes. His face is all sharp features, and he’s tall, broad shoulders, sort of built. He moved here during ninth grade, when his shrink mother decided to set up a practice in town. He came here quiet—not shy, but removed, above it all. Like he just didn’t care about us.
We tried to make him care. It didn’t work. So first we told everyone he was a creep. Stay away. We couldn’t even give a solid reason why, but because it came from Dakota’s mouth, that was good enough. He was a freak, and then his mother died in the eleventh grade and Dakota was thrilled; she finally had a solid reason.
Josh now: We got everyone to believe his mom’s death made him snap, and he’s a torturing-smallanimals kind of walking anger-management problem, that he’s on meds, and his Moleskine holds schoolshooting manifestos.
So this is going to be awkward.
I swallow the antacid dry. My throat is tight and it refuses to go down. I try again. The pill begins a slow dissolve over my tongue. I finally dredge up enough spit to force the thing down. The clock on the wall behind Josh’s head tells me there are twenty minutes of lunch period left. I’m not obligated to wait them out here, but a small part of me wants to do it to prove that I can.
Josh steadfastly ignores me, radiating the kind of tension that makes me want to go in on myself and stay there, until he finally looks at me and then past me.
“They’re watching you,” he says.
“I didn’t sleep with him,” I say. I don’t know why. “Chad, I mean.”
He stares at me like he clearly doesn’t give a fuck and wants to know why I think he should. It’s the kind of look that makes me feel every inch of my skin in a way that makes me want to claw it all off.
He hates me.
I twist around in my chair. The seven heads turned in my direction go back to their food, whispering. I can just guess what they’re saying.
“So how come they’re telling everyone you did?”
“I got set up.” I say it casually, but I feel every word in my gut, and it causes the kind of upset a pill
can’t reach. “By someone who I thought was my friend.”
Except Kara was never my friend. She was just one of those girls you have to throw a bone to because there’s nowhere else for them to go, and you’ve known them for so long, you can’t even remember how you met.
“Kara,” I tell him, even though he didn’t ask. Saying her name elicits a Pavlovian response from me.
My hands twitch, overcome with the urge to strangle her to death.
“I guess that’s what you get,” he says.
Our eyes meet. He stares at me, and I can only take it for a second before I have to look away. He looks like his mom. “She used to be really fat,” he says. “Kara.”
He shrugs. I know what he’s implying. I don’t care. It’s no secret.
Everyone knows Kara used to be fat until the second half of tenth grade, when she learned how to stick her fingers down her throat and started popping diet pills. She had to wear a wig in her class photo because she was losing her hair; you can see it if you look really closely. It was the pills or the purging.
And those were only suggestions, anyway.
It’s not like I told her she had to do that to herself.
Josh goes back to his burger. I try not to watch him eat, but I end up watching him eat anyway. It
always amazes me how people can relax enough in this place to do that—eat—and not care. He finishes it off with precious minutes of the period to spare. He uses those to study me, and I get that claw-my-skinoff feeling. I know he’s trying to make me feel so uncomfortable I won’t come back and sit here …
I have to do this all over again tomorrow. “I knew your mom,” I blurt out.
He blinks, surprised. I’ve surprised him. And then his eyes light up in the strangest way—like he hasn’t heard the word mom in a long time. It’s not exactly happy, it’s sort of curious—like, Mom. I know that word.
“How?” he demands.
“We—” For a second my head is full of her office, the way it smelted—sort of like coffee—and the walls were this pale blue. Her voice was soft and kind. “We were friends.”
I feel bad for the lie, but it’s not like I don’t want it to be true. I don’t know if his mom ever thought of me as anything but her patient, but I really liked her and I wish we had been friends. It’s horrible, but sometimes I’m relieved she died before she could ever find out what I helped do to her son.
“She never mentioned you,” he says.
“We were friends,” I repeat. He searches my face for the lie. I sweat it out until he concedes and says,
“Maybe.” The bell rings.
“Can I sit here with you tomorrow?” I ask. It’s humiliating having to ask permission to sit at the Garbage Table, and when he doesn’t answer me immediately, I pose the question again with the kind of urgency that makes me sound totally pathetic. “Josh, can I sit here with you tomorrow at lunch?”
“What if I said no?” he asks. My mouth goes dry. You can’t. The cafeteria is emptying. Ms. Nelson stands by the door, waiting for the last of us to leave, but I can’t leave without this one thing and he knows it. “Hayley, I don’t care where you sit.”
He grabs his things, gets up, and makes his way out. I stay, staring at the table until Nelson blows her whistle and tells me to “get out there.”