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I brung Pedro home for Thanksgiving break and tomorrow I have to bring him back to school. You're not supposed to say brung. You're supposed to say brought. But I like the way brung sounds, like you're cold and ringing a bell. Brrrrunggggg. Nobody can kick your ass for what you think in your mind, not even your mom. Mine is stirring spaghetti sauce on the stove and shaking her head at me.
"Get that rat outta my kitchen," she says.
"Pedro's not a rat," I say. "He's a hamster."
My mom doesn't budge. "Whatever he is, he's not staying in my kitchen. I'm not gonna keep repeating myself, Jon. Take that thing outside. Now."
She always calls it my kitchen, same way my dad calls the TV my TV and the puffy chair my chair. My only territory is my bedroom. I guess my shed too, but that's in the woods and technically it belongs to Mrs. Curry. Everything else, in the house, indoors, belongs to my parents.
I take Pedro outside to the swing set even though I'm too old for it. He shivers.
"Come on, little guy," I say. "You're from New Hampshire. You can handle it."
The truth is, I don't know if Pedro was born here. Maybe he was born in Bermuda and got shipped here. This is my home, where I started. I was born at Derry Hospital outside of Nashua. Three days before Carrig Birkus. Sometimes, when he's kicking my ass, I think about how we were in the hospital at the same time. I picture us as newborns in nearby cribs. I see our dads waving at us. We were equals in a way. Back then you probably couldn't tell us apart. But now we're opposite. Carrig is a jock. One of those guys with buddies. His life is keg parties and girls. He cracks a joke and everyone laughs, and he knows how to speak to people, how to get to them. Last month his picture was in the window at Rolling Jack's, the sports store in the mall. He was ATHLETE OF THE MONTH. I'm not anything of the month. Chloe laughed when I said that to her.
"That's a good thing," she said. "The worst thing you can do is peak in middle school."
She always says the right thing, the nice thing. I can picture her photo and her name up at another store, PERSON OF THE MONTH. I'd never say that though. I know that much.
Tomorrow we go back to school, which means seeing her again, Chloe Smells Like Cookies. That's what I call her in my head. Every time my mom makes cookies, no matter what they are, oatmeal raisin or chocolate chip or caramel, they smell like Chloe. Chloe Smells Like Cookies doesn't make fun of me. She sits with me at lunch even though the other girls laugh at her and the other guys tell her she is wasting her time on a faggot.
Chloe hates that word. She says after high school she's gonna live in New York City where nobody uses that word. She thinks the people in our school have small brains and small hearts. She says New York is like Sesame Street for grown-ups, everyone has big hearts and you can be anything you want to be. She was there for Thanksgiving this week. Her parents took her to see the parade. She saw all the floats when they were shriveled and flat on the ground.
We've been texting a lot all week. She says I'd love New York.
It's so much bigger than New Hampshire even though it's smaller, you know?
I get it, Chloe. I wish I was there.
Of course you do. You always get it!
My mom yells: "Dinner!"
I write back fast: See you tomorrow.
She sends me a smiley face. That's code for Me too, Jon.
The house smells like spaghetti and broccoli, and my mom asks if I left Pedro outside and I tell her I did even though he's in my pocket. My dad picks up the broccoli and puts it in the microwave.
"What are you doing?" my mom asks. "It's cooked just fine."
"I can't stand that smell," he says.
"It's good for you, that smell."
My dad grunts. He's a burly guy who does drywall and plays pool. A lot of the guys around here think he's weird because he has a Scottish accent.
I sneak bits of spaghetti into my pocket. I almost get away with it but Pedro nips at my finger and I yelp and my mom slams her fork down.
"These damn schools. What the hell is there to be learned from taking a rat home at your age? Aren't you a little old for this nonsense?"
"We're mentoring a class at the elementary school," I tell her. "None of the kids in third grade could take him so I volunteered."
My parents look sad, like all this time they thought Pedro was here because he had to be here, not because I wanted him.
"A lot of people have pets," I say. "Carrig Birkus has a dog."
I shouldn't have said his name. They know I'm not friends with Carrig Birkus anymore. The last time he invited me to a birthday party was in fourth grade, when people still had parties with invitations, when your mom made you invite every kid. It was a Batman invitation so I showed up in my Spider-Man outfit but everybody else was in normal clothes. Sometimes I feel bad for my parents, like they'd do better with one of the other babies from that day, the kind who plays sports and wears the right clothes to a stupid party.
I look at my mom, right at her, like you do when you want something. "He's a clean animal," I say. "I promise he will stay in my room."
My mom cuts her spaghetti. She doesn't roll it around her fork like people in New York do on TV. Her name is Penny and she's from New Hampshire, so she talks the way people here talk and she grew up on a farm where the animals stay outside.
"It's your room," she says. "You want to live in a disgusting pig sty and let animals poop about your things, that's your business. Just don't go coming to me to clean up."
On the way upstairs I sneak a box of Oreos out of the cupboard. My dad is talking to my mom about the Patriots and the Super Bowl and my mom is talking about Giselle and how beautiful she is. They speak the same language only different. What comes out of my mom's mouth never affects what comes out of my dad's mouth. I think Chloe and I are better at talking. What Chloe says always affects what I say.
Upstairs, I put Pedro on my bed and bring an Oreo up to my nose and inhale, but Chloe smells like homemade cookies. I take out today's Nashua Telegraph and reread Pedro the headlines from this morning. Today is Sunday, the biggest paper of the week. I can't read the whole thing to Pedro, but I do my best. We make it to Section C, Lifestyles, and I think he likes it.
I love news. It reminds you that there's a whole world out there, a world of people who've never even heard of Carrig Birkus. Every day is new, every paper, every story. In a book or a movie you only get one story. But in a newspaper, you get happy stories, sad stories, stories that you can't understand about mortgages, scary stories about robberies, meth heads, that kid who got kidnapped in Dover.
Last Christmas my parents got me a subscription to the Telegraph. It was all I wanted. I was nervous they weren't gonna get it for me and I opened my last present, a sweater box. I was bummed. But I tore away the tissue paper and found a receipt for a subscription. I cheered and my mother laughed. I love it when she laughs, and it doesn't happen a lot. She said she will never understand me.
"I hate newspapers," she said. "Who wants to know about all the terrible things people are doing?"
"I want to know about everything," I told her.
"But it has absolutely nothing to do with you whatsoever, Jon," she said, befuddled. "Nothing in there is your business at all."
My dad was tearing the tag off his Patriots jersey. "Well," I said, "those Patriots don't have anything to do with Dad."
I never heard my mom laugh so hard. She hit the couch, and my dad flew into a light rage, telling me it's not those Patriots. It's The Patriots. We had ham and cake and peppermint ice cream and the only thing wrong about that day was that there was no newspaper. They don't publish on Christmas. Then again, it only added to the joy of the next day, when I woke up early to get the paper out of the special box my dad had installed next to our mailbox. It was good to see that the world was back on again.
When it's time to go to bed, I make a special place for Pedro. I use advertising flyers to build him a cozy bed. My mom is crazy. There's nothing dirty about him. If and when he poops, it won't even get on my sheets. "Good night, Pedro," I say. I close my eyes and I like the sound of him breathing, like it's a hard thing to do.The next morning my mom hits my door once. "School!"
It's what she says every morning. Pedro pooped in his advertising bed and I crumple it up and bring it downstairs and throw it in the trash in the kitchen. My mom points at the trash with a spatula. "Is there poop in there?"
"Yes," I say.
"Then bring it outside."
"But it snowed."
"And since when are you allergic to snowflakes?"
I take Pedro and his bed outside and look at the trees at the edge of our yard. My mom and dad don't know that it takes double the time for me to get to school every day because I have to go the back way, through Mrs. Curry's yard, with the thorns that branch out, then alongside her fence and through the mud clearing near the Dumpsters and then back through the Shawnee family's yard, by their swing set, and then finally down their driveway and onto Carnaby Street where my school is. It would be so much faster to walk out the front door of our house and turn left and walk down Birch all the way to Carnaby. That's what everyone on my street does. But I can't. Carrig and Penguin and those other guys, they come after me if I go the short way, they pound on me. They take my newspaper and smack me with it or they throw snowballs at me, black and brown and icy, the kind that hurt. When it's hot out, they jump me or knock my bag onto the ground.
Chloe Smells Like Cookies takes the bus. She knows about my back way bramble route to avoid Carrig Birkus. She knows everything, more than my mom or my dad or the teachers. She's the only person who knows about my shed, our shed.
I go there every single day after school and I bring Fluffernutters. Some days I hear her coming and my heart beats fast and then she comes in, throws her backpack down and starts complaining. Other days she doesn't come and it starts to get dark and I go online and see that she's busy with her other friends. But those days she does come, when I hear her in the woods, charging toward me, those are the ones that count.
Chloe always says we get along because we're both only children. She hates that phrase. "It's bad any way you cut it," she said once. "It's either like, 'Oh you, what do you matter? You're only a kid.' Or it's like you're just not enough because there's only one of you." And then she licked her lips and looked away. "We're not only anything," she said. "We're great." See, I have that going for me, being an only child. Carrig Birkus, he has four brothers and a couple sisters. Imagine living with all those kids. I can't, not really. Me and Chloe, we have more in common.
My mom opens the slider. She yells, "Breakfast!"
Inside, she made burnt eggs and bacon and my dad is reading the paper. He gets to have it first and he gives it to me section by section. I put the pages back together so that it feels new, like nobody has looked through it. The good thing is that most days he only reads the sports section.
"So, at the end of the year somebody gets to keep Pedro," I say.
My mom looks at my dad and my dad puffs out his cheeks and my mom groans and my dad looks at me. "You keep him out of your mother's kitchen, yes?"
"Yes!" I say, and I can't wait to get to school and tell Mrs. McMurphy that I want to keep Pedro. I can't wait to tell Chloe Smells Like Cookies. I think you can invite a girl over without weirding her out if you have a pet. I think that's why Carrig Birkus has a dog.
I can't get to school fast enough. I tear through the brambles and I'm out of breath as if I'm running from bad guys. I run too fast and a thorn snags me. My cheek bleeds. I stop. I take off my glove and put my hand on my face. There is bright red blood. Pedro is in my pocket, shifting. I take him out and now there is blood on him. I apologize.
I hear something in the bushes though there is never anyone else here. I turn around and my whole life doesn't flash before my eyes, just the past few hours, the headline on the cover of today's paper—CYBER MONDAY: IS IT WORTH IT?—and the smell of last night's broccoli against the morning eggs, Pedro's heavy breathing, the snow, my blood on Pedro's Ovaltine-colored fur.
But it isn't one of the kids from school coming at me. It's a sub we had last year or the year before. Mr. Blair. Nobody liked him. He wore his phone on his belt and he was losing his hair on the top of his head and people laughed at him all the time. But I didn't. I didn't.
He's coming at me fast and it turns out I am not the kind of kid who springs into action when it's time to fight. I freeze. I choke. Same way I do on the baseball field at recess.
The blow comes from high above and something hits my head. Brrrrungggg. Pedro runs when I hit the ground. He can't send help. He's an animal, and like my mom says, he belongs out here. I don't.
They can't find Jon. When he wasn't here, they called his mom and she said he wasn't home sick. She came to school, his dad too, and the whole school started to buzz. In that sick way, like when Kitty Miller got leukemia. People get excited about horrible things happening when they're not happening to them. I'm no better, I remember staring at Kitty, wondering what it was like to be her, as if she was a painting and you were allowed to gawk at it.
Kitty was loved, people made cards for her. With this situation, people are acting like it's news, like it's exciting, that Jon kid might be missing. The day is halfway over and he's not at school. He's not at home. He's not at the movies and he's not at the mall, but did they look in all the right places? Most kids who run away would go to a packie and rip off beers, get messed up and then go to Rolling Jack's and try out new hockey sticks. But Jon would never do that.
I told them to start in the woods, I told them how he takes a weird way to school. I didn't mention why. It's a hard thing, wanting to find him but also not wanting to look at a cop and be like, Jon had to take the long way through the woods because he was getting picked on at the bus stop. I think the cops get it anyway though. They're searching, but they still haven't found him. I wish the school day would end because when it does I'm going to the shed. I don't like the way everyone assumes the news is gonna be bad, they act like he's already dead. Like if he's not at the movies and he's not at the mall and he's not in the woods, then where could he be? You can feel what it would be like if someone else disappeared. Someone like me or Carrig. Someone people love. Jon Bronson was not loved when he was here and so he's not loved when he is gone. It's nobody's fault. It just is.
At free period, Noelle and Marlene and I meet up at our round table in the library. It feels wrong, acting like Jon isn't missing. He says things to me, things that don't count when they come from your mom, your dad. He thinks I'm special. I sent him a filtered picture of the floats in New York last week and he was so impressed. I laughed it off. It's not me, it's the filter. He was so serious. No, it is you. You used the right filter, framed them just right. Jon is my champion. That person who sees more than what's there. I sent the same picture to Marlene and Noelle and they just sent back heart emojis. And you need that too, people who don't put you on a pedestal. Everything between Jon and me is a secret. He wouldn't leave without telling me.
When I say this, Marlene and Noelle look at their phones.
"He's fine," Noelle says. "You need to chill."
Marlene says it's weird he didn't text me. "Is he mad at you about that thing with the frog picture?"
Noelle snaps at her. "Leave it alone."
The frog picture. The thing I've tried so hard not to think about all day. A few days before the Thanksgiving break, Jon brought this old stuffed animal to the shed, this frog, this soft green thing he loved as a baby. There was something painfully vulnerable about the whole moment.
"There," he said. "Shed sweet shed."
The frog was up there like taxidermy, as if this was a home, Jon's way of pushing us together. My heart was pounding. He was reading this book about Marshmallow Fluff and talking about the history of fluff, the machines, the secrecy surrounding the recipe. I couldn't process his words. I couldn't take my eyes off that frog. Is this what I want? We've never hooked up. Not even a kiss. Jon was reading a passage from his fluff book out loud and I was taking pictures of that frog. I put one up online. I knew what I was doing. It was a dog whistle to Carrig.Within a few minutes Carrig was at the shed, pounding on the door. Chloe, lose that faggot and come hang with us.
Carrig was with Penguin, saying terrible things about Jon. And then Carrig's BB gun went off. A single pop. No one was hurt. Nothing was hit. It didn't matter though.
"You gotta go," Jon said. "Don't worry about me, they just want you."
Now he's missing and this is the world without him.
Noelle shakes her head. "And what were you supposed to do?" she says. "Sit there with him until Carrig tore the walls down? Chloe, that whole thing has nothing to do with this."
I nod. Noelle is naturally authoritative. She says things and you believe them even if you don't. "I know," I say. "I just hope Jon didn't run away."
Marlene shakes her head. "He didn't," she says. "I mean, that kid would never leave you, right?"
On we go, a dark version of a normal day. Noelle digs up terrible facts, the odds of Jon being dead. She chews on her Dartmouth pen. Everything, everyone, reminds me of Jon. I look at Noelle, I remember telling Jon she hates The Middle. He said a sense of humor is like a sense of smell. Some people don't have one. See, that's why I miss him, why he's the best. He's funny. He gets it. What other kid, what other boy, would like The Middle? He says it's great because all the Hecks are smart and stupid at the same time. He says most other shows make you be one or the other.
"Shit," Marlene says. Her laces are tangled. That's Marlene in a nutshell. She cares about what's happening in front of her face, the laces on her shoes, the tennis balls on the court. It would be insane of me to expect her to be the kind of friend who cries with you. And the same is true of Noelle, Noelle and her Dartmouth pen and her class rank. They're both very intense. Jon is more like me, his heart spreads out in the stupidest ways. He cares about things easily, things that don't matter to anyone else, the history of the Marshmallow Fluff in his sandwiches, the class hamster.
"Listen to what Penguin just put on Snapchat," Noelle says.
Ugh. Penguin. Again I'm thinking of that night, the green frog beating in my mind like a slimy heart, the white and black of Penguin's trademark Bruins jersey, Carrig's scent, gunpowder, sweat.
Noelle drones on and what if Jon is here, in the library, crouched in the stacks and listening? What if he can see this, us being normal? Talking about Penguin, who is just a loser, he'd never move to New York like Jon and I will. Jon.
I remember in fifth grade, I told him how Noelle said I was pretty but not slutty pretty and he said I'm pretty pretty. But then he never said it again. And that's when things felt settled or something, like we were just friends. And I was young, I was fine with it. Noelle and Marlene and I were all young for our age, hunched over our bagged lunches, no idea how to talk to boys, and here we are years later, still no idea, the way Noelle gushes about Penguin. I squeeze my milk carton. I miss Jon. And he is missing. Is this real? Noelle winks at me calm down and Marlene pushes my milk carton with her ruler. They're not bad people, they just don't get it.
"Sorry," I say, shaky. "I'm just in shock."
Noelle sighs. "You can't act like this is your thing, C. You guys are buddies but you scribble Chloe Birkus all over your diary and I know you hang with those guys at Forty Steps."
My cheeks turn red. It's true. I hate that it's true. I hate that she can be mean and cold and right all at once. "Anyway," I say. "What did Penguin say?"
"Well," she says, all gossipy. "Penguin's dad's a cop and he told Penguin's mom that Jon's parents told the cops that Jon was sleeping in bed with the hamster." Marlene shakes her head. "I'm gonna pee."
When she's gone, it's just me and Noelle, like it was when we were little, before Marlene moved here and made us into three best friends instead of two. Noelle clicks her pen. "Chloe," she says. "Does Jon really sleep with the hamster?"
It's not a fair question. Jon loves Pedro. Carrig's family has a golden retriever. Nobody makes fun of him. You can love a dog, you can't love a hamster. I shrug. "No idea," I say. "Why?"
All day I am more aware of how close Jon and I are. He has nobody but me. Nobody knows him like I do and there's this pressure building every hour that he doesn't show up. The bell rings. Noelle pops her pen. "Hey," she says. "You know I'm only giving you a hard time because I know everything is gonna be okay. For the most part, everything is always okay. Your little friend is probably at Tenley's having a frappe."
I think of the red and white stripes on the Tenley's straws, the awnings. Jon likes it there. A lot of kids think it's for babies and old ladies. Every time you go, you hear "You Got It All" by The Jets at least twice. My mom always looks around. Didn't they just play this? Jon loves that song, the video too, it's all frappes and puffy clouds, sweet things, Jon things. When Marlene comes rushing back to grab her books, late, same as always, when we're walking down the hall, talking about nothing, it feels like Noelle is right, like everything will be okay.
After school I take the bus and get off at the stop closest to Mrs. Curry's. I sneak through the woods and I run. I want him to be in the shed, he has to be in the shed.
I knock on the door. "Jon?"
He doesn't answer, but then he knows I never knock. I remember this morning, the policeman asking me who else he could talk to about Jon, other kids.
"No one," I said. "Just me."
I open the door, but Jon's not there.
For weeks I harassed my mother about these bright white boots I found online. Jon knew about them. I showed him a picture.
And what will happen after you get these magic boots?
I'll wear them and I'll be happy.
And then what?
We were on the floor of the shed. It was a few days before Thanksgiving break. We were watching The Middle and talking about nothing. The question haunted me. And then what? I didn't have an answer then. I don't have an answer now.
The day before he disappeared, he sent me an article from the Telegraph, a meteorologist predicting less snow this winter. Show your mom and she'll get you the boots, he said. My mom broke down last night when she overheard me crying. So now the boots have arrived.
"This is a mistake," she says. "These boots will help for a minute and then they will only hurt you. They'll only remind you of this mess."
"You think he's gone, don't you?"
She doesn't answer me. We're both picturing the same thing, Jon dead.
She breaks the silence. "You better hurry."
We're going on a search party. It's Day Five and Jon is out there, who knows where. I feel the reflexive spike of adrenaline as I tear into the brown box, the scent of new shoes, the pleasing pink tissue paper, the shiny sticker, how easily it gives. The boots are as pictured, impractical, but I wanted them, and when your best friend disappears, you get what you want in other ways, lesser ways.
We haven't even started walking yet and I'm pretty sure I have a blister. The police are here, some people from town I don't know, some kids. The Girl Scouts made little sustenance brown bags, cookies and nuts and bottles of water so small you can down them in one gulp. Rolling Jack's donated hand warmers. I heard a kid from my algebra class say he only came for the free stuff. But people often say things like that to deal with their own fear. At least, I hope that's true.
Noelle glares at the boots as soon as she sees me. "Jesus," she says. "Are those the ones you showed me online?"
I wish I hadn't shown them to her. I wish the cop who heard her say that knew that I showed them to her before Jon disappeared. "Yes," I say. "Is Marlene here yet?"
Noelle rubs her hands together. "No," she says. "But there's a van from Channel 5."
Courtesy of Online Book Club