Earworm: Part 25 — Belonging

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 24 — The One Thing 

William saw Jimmy Ringwald standing in the hallway with Paul Drake and some other kid that William didn’t know. They were laughing about some “loser” not being able to get his locker open. Jimmy looked over from the kid struggling with his combination to William.

Jimmy and William stared at one another for a moment.

A slight, wry smile touched William’s face. Jimmy, on the other hand, looked for a moment as if he was going to be sick. Without a word to his compatriots, he disappeared down the hall. His friends called after him, but he didn’t look back. William didn’t care much where Jimmy was going. William only thought about getting to math class to see Hope.

He arrived at Ms. Bradford’s door, bracing himself for that initial leaping of his heart whenever he first laid eyes on Hope. He also needed to figure out the best way to act. Should he be confident or humble? And should he venture to say something to her today? Initiate a conversation? Yeah, right. Who was he kidding? Hope always turned him into Harpo Marx. There would be no confidence here. But why? After all, he did give Hope the one thing she wanted more than anything else. Perhaps it would be adoration in her eyes today when she saw him. Maybe it would be a look saying, Oh, William, thank you, thank you for bringing me to my father. I don’t know how to thank you. I love you. I love you. That’s what he really waited for, the look conveying those three words that could make both their dreams come true. Maybe she’d sit beside him today. Or would she sit in her usual seat, looking back with adoring eyes, and maybe, just maybe, she’d mouth those three words. I love you.

William sat at his desk, straightening his things, waiting for Hope to arrive. He took out the new mechanical pencil Greta had bought for him Saturday when she went shopping. He clicked out the lead and then pushed the lead back in. He repeated this a few times to occupy his time when he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. He looked up to see Hope standing, as if frozen, in Ms. Bradford’s doorway. She stared at him. There was no gratitude in that look. Instead, there was a look that William couldn’t quite read. It was the look of a young child coming upon something she didn’t quite understand. Hope turned and ran from the room.

Her emotional hardwiring was shorted out somehow. Since she’d awaken from that dream about her father, intense emotions—feelings of extreme joy and extreme sadness, of gain and of loss—gripped her at random moments. She tried holding back these flashes like one holding down dry heaves, but any stimulus—seeing her father’s favorite coffee mug in the kitchen cabinet, seeing his pictures hanging along the stairway—caused her to tightrope the edge of tears. And the act of stepping into the classroom and seeing William Knight

It was William that brought you to me.

was like someone hitting her in the face with a shovel.

Hope burst into the nearest girl’s room. She braced herself on the counter and took a deep breath, regarding herself in the mirror. She noticed in the reflection, two ghostly shapes in a haze of cigarette smoke. Janice Bogart and Helen Murphy stood behind her like ships in a fog.

“You okay, Hope?” Janice said, casually blowing a stream of smoke.

Janice and Helen (“Helen Ready to Fuck,” Tara called her) were the remedial tough-girls, but even with the casual disinterest of Janice’s exhale of smoke, Hope detected concern in the girl’s eyes.

Hope forced an all is well smile. “I’m fine.”

“You sure?” Janice said, nodding toward the door, “No one’s fucking with you, are they?”

“No.” Hope smiled again, “I’m fine.”

In the Galapagos of high school Darwinism, Hope and Janice couldn’t be more different. Hope the girl-next-door, Janice more the take-no-shit type. But there was a time, not all that long ago, when Hope and Janice were close friends—a time before different interests and self-perceptions carried them in opposite directions like drifting continents in a widening ocean.

“All right, then” Janice nodded, exhaling a puff of smoke. She flicked her cigarette into a toilet and walked up to Hope, studying her in the mirror. “Let me know if you need help with anything.” Janice gently touched Hope’s back in that way good friends do to comfort one another. At that moment, Hope wanted to turn around and hug Janice. Burst into tears and let her old friend comfort her—as she did six years ago when Hope’s father died. But Hope didn’t hug her. Instead, Hope flashed another quick smile, the one she used to hide behind.

“Yep, thanks,” Hope said. When Janice and Helen Ready to Fuck left the bathroom, Hope looked into the mirror again. She let out a deep breath and said, “Okay, pull it together. It was a dream. What’s the matter with you? It wasn’t real. That kid, William, has nothing to do with it. Knock it off and stop acting like you’re a five year old.”

And with that, Hope headed back to class.

William was sitting in math class, Ms. Bradford standing in front of the chalkboard, writing, in large, shaky letters: CHAPTER 3 TEST FRIDAY. She turned to face the groans of the class with her pseudo-smile. “That’s right, my little chickadees, that’s the last day of this week.”

“But we just had a quiz,” John Doherty whined.

“Well, then that was good practice for you, wasn’t it?” More groans and hisses met her statement. “Now, listen up,” she said. “Each of you will pair with the person beside you and review the chapter.” She surveyed the pairings, glancing at William in the back of the room. William looked at the empty seats around him.

“William,” Ms. Bradford said.

Everyone became silent, turning to look at him.

“Why don’t you work with… let’s see…”

As if by fate, Hope stepped into the classroom.

“Oh, Hope,” Ms. Bradford said, “Glad you could make it. Perfect timing. You get to work with William.”

Hope froze for a moment. She glanced at William, again with that look of an unsure child. She then walked to the desk beside him and dragged it closer to his. He didn’t meet her halfway. “Hi,” she said to him.

“Uh…hi,” he said. His heart felt as if it was about to launch from his chest.

“So what are we supposed to be doing?” she said, her dark eyes seeming unable, or unwilling to focus on him.

“Um… we’re supposed to review for a Chapter 3 test on Friday.”

Hope clucked her tongue. “Friday?” she said.

William shrugged. There was silence between them. William’s heart pounded as he tried to think of something to say. Something to break this overbearing silence. He felt compelled to say, Did you enjoy seeing your dad last night? But he was able to keep from saying it, not wanting her to run from the room again, this time probably screaming as she went. He figured he was better off starting off with something a little simpler. But what? What did he know about her that wouldn’t tip off the fact that he could steal into her dreams each night? “I… uh, saw you cheering this weekend at the game. You did real good—well—you did well. Cheering, you know.”

“Thanks,” she said. The unsure expression in her eyes became a little surer.

There was more awkward silence.

She said, “So did you do anything else this weekend?”

“Me? Uh… no. Not really.”

There was nothing to hide behind. The room was a wasteland of desks. More awkward silence. He nervously pumped the lead of his mechanical pencil. Say something, he thought.

“I got a new pencil.” He held up his pencil, his heart still thudding.

Did I just tell her I got a new pencil?

Hope stared at him a moment, as if trying to solve a puzzle, and then that unsure look drained from her eyes totally. She broke into laughter. The laughter was soft and light, relieved almost, and her eyes became tender. “Exciting,” she said. She then regarded him as if expecting more from him.

He wasn’t sure how to act, how to work his body properly, how to sit the right way in his seat. He couldn’t even get his voice to work, never mind think up something halfway intelligible to say.

Her gaze lingered on him. “You know, I had…” she started to say, but stopped. Her eyes dropped to her book. “Nothing,” she said.

William didn’t pursue the subject.

At the front of the room, Ms. Bradford said, “Why don’t you work with Hope and William.”

Their names used together was like music.

William and Hope looked up to see Debbie Roderick standing beside Ms. Bradford’s desk with a late pass in her hands. She made her way to the back of the classroom to William and Hope, pulling a desk up to their desks.

“Hi, Debbie,” Hope said.

“Hey, Hope,” Debbie said. Debbie regarded William with a noncommittal expression on her face. “Hey,” she said to him.

William wasn’t sure if the word was a greeting, or if it was the beginning of a sentence like, Hey, what are you looking at, loser? But after a brief pause, he ventured to respond, “Uh… hi.”

Debbie sat down and said, “I gotta tell you two what just happened.”

You two? William felt a surge of satisfaction over being included in something—especially something with Hope.

“What is it?” Hope said.

“Donna Marrison and Mandy Bryant got into a fight,” Debbie said.

“No. Really? When?” Hope said.

“Right at the beginning of this period. That’s why I was late, I was getting the story from Jennifer Waltson.”

“Where did it happen?” Hope said.

“In the girl’s locker room. They were getting changed for first period gym class.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, really. They were practically naked, rolling around on the floor, and Mandy bit Donna’s tit,” Debbie said.

William’s jaw dropped.

“Shut up,” Hope said, causing Ms. Bradford to crane her nonexistent neck.

Hope and Debbie bent down, lowering their heads and their voices. William listened, mouth open, imagining the two girls wrestling, half-naked, their nude skin wrapping and touching and heaving and… William tried to brush the thoughts from his mind as he felt a stiffening below the waist. He looked at Debbie and Hope as if they knew what was going on inside his tightie-whities.

“Are you coming, William?” Hope said.

William—sitting bent over, shoulders hunched, hands clasped between his knees—snapped from his thoughts. “What?”

“Are you coming on Saturday?”

“Saturday?”

Hope smiled. “The game. Are you coming to the football game on Saturday?” She spoke to him as if they’d been friends for years.

“Uh… I don’t know.”

“Sounds like there’ll be a major cat-fight.”

“Yeah,” Debbie said. “Maybe they can battle it out as part of the halftime show.”

“I think Donna could beat up Mandy,” Hope said.

“That’s who I’d put my money on,” Debbie said.

“How about you, William?” Hope said. “You want action on that bet?”

“Uh… I wouldn’t bet on girls.”

“Why’s that?” Hope said.

“They always seem to do what you least expect.”

“Smart man,” Debbie said.

There was a brief silence as they tried catching up with what they were supposed to be reviewing. Hope doodled on a loose piece of notebook paper, Chapter 3 Review written across the top. William watched her scribbling.

Debbie said, “I can see it now. Donna getting into the ring with a robe saying, The Kick-Butt Slut on the back.”

Hope and Debbie broke into laughter.

William joined them.

“You three all right back there?” Ms. Bradford said. They could only answer with giggling nods. The rest of the class turning to look at them, all of them witnessing William Knight laughing with two of Bayview’s most attractive girls. He, for once, belonged somewhere. Hope invited him into her world, as he had invited her into his. Only, somehow, Debbie Roderick was better than anything William could ever conjure in his dream world. Debbie Roderick was real.

“All right, play time’s over,” Ms. Bradford said, “Back to your seats, we need to go over a few things before the bell.”

Desk legs grated across the floor.

“Here you go, William,” Hope said, handing him the notebook paper she doodled on. “You might need that to study.”

“Thanks,” William said, regarding the paper.

“Bye, William,” Debbie said, returning to her seat.

“Uh… bye.”

Hope started toward her seat. She stopped and turned to face him. She regarded him with her dark eyes, opened her mouth as if to say something, but stopped. She then said, “You really should come to the game on Saturday.”

“Uh, okay,” William said.

Hope returned to her desk.

William sat in shock, looking down at the loose piece of notebook paper, Chapter 3 Review written across the top, Hope Ferretti’s doodles along the side. He folded the paper, slipping it into his math book like a savings bond into a safe.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 26 — Boxers at the Bell 

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