After
Author:Kristin Harmel

I grinned, and for the next forty-five minutes, I slowly went through the equations and formulas we’d talked about in class, and sketched little diagrams to demonstrate everything to her. I was used to this; Jennica always had problems absorbing things in class, and she usually needed some extra explanation, especially in math and science. Her dad, Mr. Arroyo, had been calling me “Miracle Worker Mann” since I helped Jennica bring up a D-plus to a B-minus in seventh-grade earth science.

But I didn’t mind at all. I kind of liked my role as her unofficial tutor, especially now, because it gave me some uninterrupted time with her, without Brian nibbling at her neck or trying to slip his arm protectively around her. It felt like it used to feel when it was just the two of us. I wished I could slow down time or freeze the frame so that I could savor it. But like everything good, the moment was fleeting and would be gone before I knew it.

“You got anything to eat?” Jennica asked after she’d successfully completed a problem.

“I’ll look.” I crossed the kitchen and swung the refrigerator door open. “Not really.”

“You must have something in there,” Jennica protested. “I’m starving.”

I frowned at the illuminated shelves. There were a quarter carton of expired milk, five Diet Cokes, three eggs, some carrots, and two slices of pizza left from Saturday night’s dinner. Dad used to do the grocery shopping, and after the accident, Mom just forgot sometimes. She worked long hours in Boston, and most nights when she got home, she was too tired to cook.

I’d thought it would get better in July, after the vehicular homicide trial ended. The woman who hit us had been high on drugs. The police couldn’t figure out what she was doing in our neighborhood; she lived nine miles away, in North Carver. Mom had gone to the trial every day and had even spoken at the woman’s sentencing, but she’d only gotten four years, a suspended license, and a fine. I couldn’t believe that was all my dad’s life was worth.

I’d hoped that after the sentencing, Mom would have a little bit of closure and would go back to acting somewhat normal. But instead, she’d just started working even more. We hardly ever saw her. She had Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and Fung Wa Chinese in the #1, #2, and #3 spots on speed dial; most of the time, she called from the office to ask me to order food because she wouldn’t be home in time for dinner.

I cracked the pizza box and inspected the slices. No mold growing on them yet. I shrugged and pulled the box out. “How about pizza?” I asked Jennica. “What kind?”

I checked out the slices more closely. “Pepperoni and sausage, I think.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t eat meat anymore,” she said. “But I guess I could pick it off.”

I stared at her. “You don’t eat meat anymore?”

“I’m trying to lose weight,” she mumbled.

“Since when?” I asked. Jennica had always had curves I was jealous of, and she stayed in great shape, thanks to swimming. I’d had enough Twizzler and Doritos binges at sleepovers with her to know that she’d never been concerned about stuff like that in the past.

She looked down. “I just don’t want Brian to think I’m fat.”

“Did he say that?”

“No.”

I paused, unsure what to say. “So why are you worried?”

She didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, in a voice I could barely hear, she said, “I don’t know. What if that’s why my dad left my mom? Because she got fat?”

“Did your dad say that?” I asked.

She shook her head. “It’s just my dad started dating Leanne, like, right away and she’s super skinny. And now my mom’s put on, like, thirty pounds, and Leanne keeps shrinking. And he’s always talking about how beautiful she is.”

I took a deep breath. I knew it made me a terrible friend, but I had trouble hearing about Jennica’s problems with her mom and dad. I felt bad for her that they had just gotten divorced—they had separated just a month after the accident—but the way Jennica talked about it drove me crazy. It was like her world was ending because her mom and dad no longer lived under the same roof.

But at least they were both alive.

I didn’t say that, though. I didn’t tell her that her problems paled in comparison to mine. Because that would make me a really horrible friend, wouldn’t it? So instead, I pasted on a smile. “I’m sure that had nothing to do with your parents’ divorce.”

“How do you know?” Jennica asked.

I paused. “I just do,” I said. “Besides, that has nothing to do with you and Brian. He’s totally in love with you.”

Jennica looked down again. “Yeah,” she said softly.

I microwaved the pizza for Jennica. After she’d eaten it, dutifully picking off all traces of meat, we did some more sample questions for the trig quiz. She left around five; Logan came traipsing through the front door at six after making out with Sydney in the driveway; and Mom called around seven to say she wouldn’t be home for a few hours and to go ahead and eat without her. Like that was anything new.

I ordered fried rice, sweet-and-sour chicken, and beef with broccoli from Fung Wa, and Logan, Tanner, and I ate in silence, none of us making eye contact. After dinner, the boys retreated to their rooms, shutting the doors behind them. I cleaned up the kitchen table, put the leftovers in Tupperware, and loaded the dishwasher. Then I sat down to crack open my fortune cookie.

The one you love is closer than you think, the fortune read. At first I snorted, thinking it meant some guy I loved. And since I didn’t love any guy, that was impossible. Then I wondered if it meant something else. I glanced at the ceiling, imagining Logan and Tanner in their rooms, with their stereos on, already entirely separated from the reality of our family. I thought of Mom, forty miles away in Boston and a thousand miles away emotionally.

Finally, I thought of Dad. “The one you love is closer than you think,” I said aloud. I looked up and wondered why I didn’t believe the words. Well-intentioned adults always told me that my dad was in heaven, watching over me and my mom and brothers. It was an easy thing to say, but if it was true, why couldn’t I feel him anymore? Why couldn’t I feel anything?

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