On one of those stupid first-day-back-at-school-after-the-holiday days that falls on a freaking Friday, I open my locker door. The faint buried scents of sweet honeysuckle and earthy sage drift out. With them come the painful memories, hitting me like concrete blocks. Thud. Thud. Thud. There’s only one thing worse. One day they’ll be gone, like her.
“That’s him!” my BFF says. You know when Sandy’s coming. After her baby sister arrived, her Viva la Juicy gave way to baby powder.
“Him who?” I shove the hurt back into my locker with the scents and paw through my junk. “Blasted book is in here somewhere.” Since Grandma’s death, the locker is now an experiment in chaos theory. I’ve filled it with insignificant things: scribbled notes on a napkin, battered show and music programs. Insignificant but not insignificant, each small item might trigger a huge change for someone in the future.
“Daniel. The guy who killed his half-sister,” Sandy says in her I’ve-got-the-whole-scoop voice.
“For real? A guy killed his sister?” Then, “Got it!” I yank the book by its spine. We both pause, listening for a clinker.
For every item put into the locker, I include a different colored marble as a control. As the junk pile shifts, the marbles sometimes rattle down the vertical interior cupped door tracks to the metal base with a clunk. Sandy calls them clinkers, and has attached unscientific portents to them.
Nope, not this time. Life goes on like we’d never stopped to listen.
“Yesss.” Sandy’s been extending her ending ‘s’ soundsss for agesss—same with exclamation points when she texts. By threatening her life and my forever ire, I’d weaned her from emoticons.
“Daniel was home from military school visiting his dad and his half-sister,” Sandy says. Military school equals delinquent to everyone at our high school.“She found his drug stash and did herself in.”
“Did herself in? Have you been watching the film noir movies I lent you?”
“Hey. I’m hooked! That’s all I did over holiday break. Your fault.” Sandy leans in close to re-emphasize her point. “He did, though. Kill his half-sister. She overdosed on his drugs.” I glance over at the guy. He’s scruffy with an army buzz— not a combination that works well without ink, and he doesn’t have any. Suicide isn’t unheard of at our school, and it’s sad, but…“If she committed suicide, how did he kill her?”
I shove the escapee items back into the locker. Again, we pause to listen for a clinker. None. Then I snap a smartphone photo of my newly shifted junk pile—my research data.
Sandy shoots me a look that relegates me to our classes’ bottom half. “Kamiii!”
Yes, she likes extending my name too.
“Didn’t you watch any news over Christmas? Daniel was dealing stolen prescription drugs. His half-sister swallowed them and killed herself. Amy said he was arrested right by the grave! They took him away in handcuffs!”
“Then why is he here?” This sounds like the ten percent of gossip Sandy gets wrong. On the phone, I swipe back to the last photo of my locker and compare how the mess has rearranged itself. Fascinating.
“Dah. He’s waiting trial and can’t leave town. Julia Jamison was a freshman here. Everyone loved her!”
Julia Jamison? The name rings a bell even in my dense brain—Jamison of Jamison Industries. In our town if you don’t work for the college, you work for them, and the family’s worth millions. I doubt Sandy ever met Julia. The freshmen have their own separate entrance and they don’t mix with juniors. Sandy reaches over and slams my locker door shut. Even angry, she pauses, as I do, to listen for a clinker. Nope. Then she flutters her hands in front of my locker like a bird with broken wings.
I say, “Do you want to spit at it too? You can’t wave and make it disappear.”
“Well, if I could, then I’d wipe away your stupid—Chaossss Theory in a five-by-one-by-one foot experiment.” Her hands flutter again. “This is the craziest idea you’ve ever had.”
She’s ticking me off now. “Don’t knock it. Chaos Theory explains how a .02 of a thousandth in data can make huge changes in the end result. Do you know how tiny .02 of a thousandth is?”
“I know!” She flaps those hands in my face. “That’s what my hands are doing!!! A South American butterfly flaps its wings and causes a tornado in Texas two years later.”
I knock her hands away and she thrusts them onto her hips, puffing up like an angry songbird.
She says, “I get your locker experiment. I’m sick of it!”
Definitely ticks me off now.“This study is going to win the state science competition, and if I am lucky the regionals…” “And then you’ll get your precious full-ride scholarship to any college but here in Iowa. WHERE I’M GOING TO BE, BY THE WAY.”
I ignore the last part, not wanting to get into that argument again. “It can be in the Midwest, but MIT would be nice.”
“You have a one-track mind.” Sandy takes off to share the scandal with someone else. I wasn’t properly shocked by her announcement. That and she gets morose when college plans come up.
I check out the guy again. With his size and muscle, he should look big and scary, but he acts like he might run for it. His broad shoulders hunch over as he holds the dredges of those damaged and scuffed up textbooks left over after everyone else has their choice. Do memories thud, thud, thud out of his locker like mine?
# # #
My favorite study hangout isn’t at high school; it’s the college library. I slip by students in the lobby and disappear behind a nondescript metal door that leads to a narrow stairwell. My footsteps echo on the metal mesh steps—eight flights of them. My hideaway’s behind a dark, cramped area in the stacks that smell like dust and mold. The odor lingers in the stairwell. I missed that over the holidays.
At the first landing, my phone vibrates. It’s a text from Sam, a Sheldon Cooper look-alike, a forever friend, and popular school blogger.
Buzz. About what happened?
What happened? I pass landing two. Buzz. After band class?
Nothing happened after band class. Landing three and then four, I shift my heavy backpack and keep climbing. Four flights up and behind a creaking fire door and past floor-to-ceiling bookcases is my hideaway. A crank moves them to access shelves hidden from view—engineering awesomeness.
Buzz. It was an accident.
Sam’s lost it. Landing six now. Grandma, a retired college librarian who died in August from cancer, had told me about this secret place between chemo barfs.
Landing eight—AC to AZ—categories: Encyclopedias, Dictionaries, back issue Newspapers and Periodicals, Yearbooks. On the snow-covered ground below, coat-bundled students will be racing along the cleared sidewalks, deftly negotiating ice patches to duck into heated buildings, completely unaware of me looking down on them.
Buzz. You’re killing me here.
Not now, Sam.There’s barely room to squeeze through the towering bookcases with my backpack. Ahead is my place, with its four study carrels, two on each side. Behind them is a leather sofa, perfect for cuddling up with my laptop, a sixties crap steel coffee table, and two easy chairs. Someday, they’ll have to cut them into pieces to remove them.
My phone vibrates with Sandy’s ratta-tat-tat alert. I sigh, back-step out of the tight space, and check the screen again.
Sandy: Accident??? Three questions marks.
Sam: No, but not like that. I wanted our first kiss romantic.
Wow. I check the address area. Sam meant to text Sandy. Instead, he’s used an old one for Sandy and me. Curiosity keeps me on the wrong side of the bookshelves waiting for the next reply.
Sandy: Dah!!! Three exclamation marks. You texted Kami too?
Busted. I text: BFF remember? No secrets.
Sandy: Kami—take a hike.Sam—meet me at my locker—NOW.
Sam: Arghhh. So embarrassing.
Sandy: No, it’s sweet. Now stop texting. Private—you & me.
Go away Kami!!!
And the texts end. About time that kiss happened. I squeeze through the bookcases into my private sanctuary.
# # #
It isn’t private anymore. Drug Guy sits at a study carrel. His massive back is to me and his military-buzzed head hunches over his laptop. It isn’t right. Before she died, Grandma, a retired college librarian, gave this place to me!
He’s keyed in “teen drug arrests” in our small town on Google. His feet scrape as he wraps them around the chair’s base and leans closer to the monitor, blocking my view.
I set up at a carrel behind and face away from him, staring at my Google homepage.Then, jumping onto the same search he had, read away. There are a lot of arrests, most at the local skate park.
I shove my chair back. It hits something, and I look straight up into Drug Guy’s face. He stands there with his bulging backpack over one shoulder. His large, heavy-duty hands on the strap tighten, loosen, and tighten, making hard fists. Every time he does it, his keychain strikes his pack’s zipper.
Clink. Clink. Clink.
His fingers are long and elegant for a guy, but strong. The nails trimmed short and well kept. No dirt underneath them. Like his military buzz without ink, they don’t match his scruffy clothes—nor does the hint of Irish Spring soap and pine trees. He’s blocking me from getting up. Screaming is useless, unless someone’s searching old periodicals—read: never— no one will come. Above his dragging pants, he has a lean, muscled chest. This Drug Guy can do damage. I ease my legs under me and prepare to fight. Like Sensei tells us in defense class, don’t threaten, but don’t back off either.
Drug Guy turns and disappears into the stacks. The heavy metal door on the other side creaks as it closes. I let out a long, slow breath. He made his point. Stay away. Back off. Whatever. He warned me without saying a word.
# # #
It’s twenty-five miles to my martial arts class. On Monday after school, I find a parking spot and yank my gym bag out of EB’s trunk. Inherited from Grandma, the car is E – Electric, B – Blue—obnoxious color, but free. I text Sandy again: Where are you? There’d been no texts or phone calls since Sam’s screw up. And for my BFF, a full weekend without contact is just wrong.
Sandy, the woman of many words, at last replies with a single word: Busy.
And doesn’t that say it all: “Bug off, Kami.”
We need to talk, I text, feeling compelled to know more rumors about Drug Guy.
The entrance leads into an atrium with crappy fake grass and palm trees. Fountain water splashes beneath a skylight. On the right is the yoga center and on the left is the martial arts complex.
For me, yoga is a prelude to my martial arts class and not about nirvana. It’s for battle. Starting with judo and karate in middle school, the beauty of jujitsu drew me in, and the violence of taekwondo became a logical companion. Since I was decent competitor, but not a great one and lacking the size and strength of most male students, Sensei suggested a yoga class. He said it would prepare my mind. He’d been right. With proper focus, I have more intent than his other students. I’m top class now. With that comes respect.
In the locker room, I change into my white Dōgi and head back to the atrium, where I sit with legs crossed behind the fake fauna until my class starts. Sinking into my meditation mantra, my hands rest like cautious birds on my knees. The sun warms my face through the skylight. My senses and breath attune to the fountain’s gentle splashing.
# # #
Clink. Clink. Clink.
Cold replaces warmth—a shadow between me and the sun. His clothes rustle as he shifts his weight. I catch a whiff of his pine forest smell. When I look at Drug Guy, I’m centered and ready. We aren’t alone this time. Students tromp through the entry. Sensei is in his classroom. Screaming is an option. People will come. Again, an odd detail pops out: his leather Doc Martens clash with his loose gang/rapper look; expensive Nike skate shoes would have been a better choice. He says, “Are you stupid enough to follow me?”
“One, I’m dressed for class. Two, you’re in street clothes.
And three, I’ve been here an hour.”
He ducks under the fake palms, heading for the MA doors. I whisper after him. “Your shoes don’t match. Disguises start from the underwear out.”
He pauses, but I close my eyes, dropping back into my meditation mantra, “Kick ass. Kick ass. Kick ass.” Yeah, I’m not seeking nirvana. There’s fifteen minutes before my MA session and two classes at 6:15—the one for elementary kids and my advanced group. He’ll be in mine. Stay centered.