Never Slow Dance with a Zombie
Author:E. Van Lowe

chapter Two

The following morning I still couldn't get the thought of Amanda being jealous of me off my mind. I imagined her envious eyes following as I strolled the carnival grounds on Dirk's arm. The thought had me giddy with delight.

Sybil and I were halfway through the fifteen-block walk to school. We rarely took the bus. The bus was divided into cliques, and was yet another reminder of my failure. The cliques included Amanda and her twigs--a.k.a. the Twigettes or it-girls; the Goths; the emos; the jocks; the girl jocks--a.k.a. girls who think skintight warm up suits with writing on the butt and matching tennis shoes are cute (they're not); the preps (rich kids headed for the Ivy League); the stoners; and lastly the stoner nerds. Stoner nerds are kids who think getting stoned will make them cool. It won't. A nerd is a nerd. When Sybil and I rode the bus there was a ninth clique: two cute girls who were too cool to be subjected to this junk--us.

"Cliques are so unnecessary," said Sybil as we walked.

"I know" was all I could muster. The school's cliques were

Sybil's one pet peeve. Normally I'd indulge her outrage, but today I was too excited to even fake it.

"You never really gave me an answer last night," she suddenly said.

"Answer? About what?" Yes, I know it's the only thing I'd been thinking about. But I've got my pride.

We were crossing Maple Street when Sybil stopped and eyed me knowingly. "Margot, this is me. I know you've been thinking about it."

"All right, you got me. I can't get it off my mind."

"And?"

And why not ask Dirk out? I thought. If he says yes-hallelujah. If he says no, it would be a request from some strange girl he'd probably never remember. I would be shielded from all embarrassment. I envisioned me and Dirk at the carnival, riding rides, eating cotton candy, holding hands. There was a third person in that imagined picture that made it seem perfect--a person whose jealous eyes would be on me all night.

"All right," I finally said. "Let's do it."

Sybil smiled.

I smiled; then I mentally began preparing myself for gym class, or as I like to call it, forty-five minutes of hell.

"Margot Jean Johnson!" Mrs. Mars, my gym teacher, bellowed in her deep, hoarse tone. "I don't care how many notes you bring from home. If you don't pass the state endurance exam you are failing PE, young lady." She waved my most recent excuse note in my face.

I was very proud of that note. It was my best creative effort so far:

Dear Mrs. Mars,

Please excuse our daughter and the apple of our eye, Margot, from participating in gym class today. We had dinner at Captain Pete's last night where she accidentally swallowed a fish bone, and we fear all that running and jumping you force the kids to do may cause her to puncture a lung.

Sincerely,

Mrs. Trudi Johnson

"Ow, ow, ow!" I screeched from my perch atop the bleachers where all the girls with notes sat. I clutched at my chest. "Physical activity could kill me." I coughed feebly for effect.

"Poppycock!" snarled Mrs. Mars. "You'll pass the state en-durance exam, or you'll be right back here next semester. Same bat time, same bat channel."

Mrs. Mars was the gym teacher from hell, an ancient leftover from the seventies when breaking rocks with sledgehammers was considered exercise. She dressed in long pleated skirts and industrial-strength tennis shoes as if she were teaching gym class in Bulgaria. Her hair was cinched back into a tight bun, and around her neck she wore a hideous blue scarf. While she may have thought of it as a fashion statement, I was certain the scarf was there to hide the chicken skin that rippled along her throat.

"I want to work out, I really do. But I'm all my parents have got"

A few snickers erupted from the group on the gym floor. I stiffened, knowing who they were from. My eyes moved to Amanda Culpepper and her crew. Amanda tossed back a lock of blond hair and smirked in my direction. She and her crew were already in their gym uniforms.

The uniforms were hideous, puke-green monstrosities that billowed on our frames like sails, making most of us look like Spanish galleons, sailing across the gym floor in search of treasure--or a decent change of clothes. Yet somehow Amanda managed to look cute in hers. The uniform didn't billow on her frame at all. i bet she starches hers. I find it hard to like someone who can look cute in a gym uniform.

"Margot Jean Johnson," Mrs. Mars called, dragging my attention back. She cocked her head to one side. "I don't care if you are your parents' last hope. Tomorrow morning, note or not, we start getting you in shape."

"But-"

'That will give us just enough time to get you ready for the state endurance exam. So, tomorrow you're mine, same bat time, same bat channel." And then she chuckled, as if she'd said something funny.

It was sad really, knowing that a woman entrusted with the lives of so many young people couldn't care less if I lived or died. But I sucked it up. Mrs. Mars, or even Amanda Culpepper, couldn't ruin my day. I was going to ask Dirk to the carnival with me. Okay, I wasn't going to ask him--Sybil was going to do the asking--but if he said yes he'd be saying yes to me.

Later, as Sybil and I approached our lockers we saw him-- Dirk Conrad, standing alone putting some books in his locker, and looking oh-so handsome. Dirk had already distinguished himself as the best player on the varsity basketball team, and was a finalist at last year's science fair. He was cute, tall, intelligent--everything I wanted in a boy. I was suddenly finding it hard to breathe.

Sybil glanced at me. "Are you okay?"

"Yes. It's ... hot in here." My palms began to sweat and itch as if I'd rubbed them in a patch of poison ivy. A lump formed

in my throat. I don't know how I managed to speak. "Well... there's Dirk." The words crawled from my throat.

"I see him." She glanced over at him for like a nanosecond before turning her attention back to her locker.

"What are you waiting for?" I nudged her in his direction. He was twenty feet from us, wearing a gray varsity jacket that highlighted the blue of his eyes.

"Margot, you're standing right here. Am I supposed to walk over to him and say, 'Hey, my friend over there wants to go to the carnival with you?"

Yes, I thought. But I knew that's not what she was looking for. "No, no, of course not," I replied. "I was merely bringing to your attention that he's standing just twenty feet away."

"I see that, Margot."

Note to self. Picking up on hints is not one of Sybil's strong suits.

"Okay, so what's the plan?" I asked, eager to hear the clever scheme she'd concocted for approaching him and popping the question.

"Dirk is in my World History class and you're not. I'll go up to him right after History."

"And?"

"And ask him if he wants to go out with you."

So much for ingenuity.

"After History?" I said, screwing up my face. "Then I won't get to see the expression on his face when you say my name."

"I know."

"I won't see if his eyes fill with bliss or horror."

"I know."

"History is eighth period. I'll have to wait ALL DAY."

"I know!"

Dirk finished at his locker and moved away. He didn't

glance in our direction. My doubts about the whole dating thing returned.

"Sybil, I've been thinking, maybe I should ask him myself."

"Oh, no! You're just trying to get out of it. Remember the manifesto? Boyfriends?"

"Yeah," I said weakly. "But we're just two months into our junior year. We've got loads of time."

"Margot, just let me do this for you, okay? I'm your best friend. I won't mess it up."

I wasn't worried about her messing it up. Dirk hadn't looked in my direction. We were a mere twenty feet away and I didn't even rate a glance. I realized then that even if he said no to Sybil, the embarrassment would still be mine to bear.

"Okay. Do it," I said with a sigh. But my mind conjured up the husky voice of Mrs. Mars saying, "This is a mistake, Margot Jean Johnson. A big, fat mistake."