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Never Forget: 9/11, ninth-grade scandals, and sins of pride

Editor’s Note: Civic Nebraska Writers Group member Astrid Munn occasionally shares short fiction about a young woman named Beatriz Lind at various moments of Beatriz’s life. In the following short story, the year is 2001, Beatriz is 14, and she has just begun her freshman year of high school. This short story contains mature themes. To read more of Astrid’s fiction featuring Beatriz, click here.

It was morning in her room again. Light crept over a worn stack of tapes – Lolita, Fight Club, The Color Purple – before splashing across a puddle of MAD Magazines and some Kerouac. When Beatriz finally opened her eyes, everything – her gingham sheets, her stuffies, her curtains fashioned from slip dresses dyed in Rit – was awash in golden light. She wanted to stay in this moment, maybe sink back into the sheets like Scarlett O’Hara had after that one scene, but it was time to get up.

Until recently, getting ready for school had always been an arduous chore with hair to tame and khakis to iron. But something had changed. Maybe it was Beatriz’s new neighborhood, where people seemed less concerned with cleanliness. These neighbors were not losing any sleep over their accent, their status, or their next paycheck, so having every hair in place was less important here. Or maybe it was the new millennium, which, instead of unleashing a worldwide digital meltdown, just made it more OK for the sweatshirts and jeans of casual Friday to creep into the following Monday. Yet again, maybe it was Beatriz herself who had changed. Not only had she emerged from layers of baby fat and chicken skin in recent months, but she had also learned to sew and thrift for her new willowy frame.

“Who do I want to be today?” Beatriz asked, studying her closet. “What is the costume for the day?”

Before getting dressed, Beatriz stood before her full-length mirror, careful to do it at an angle. The right side shone a normal girl, the line from her hip to her waist to her bust delightfully unremarkable. This girl could have been a diagram from a science textbook or a catalog sizing chart. But after admiring this half of herself, Beatriz made herself turn to the left. That girl had a long series of dark staple marks wrapped around her ribcage and up her back.

Frankengirl,” Beatriz whispered to herself.

That June, doctors had gone in and corrected her scoliosis. She would be just like Isabella Rossellini everyone told her. But Beatriz was doubtful the face of Lancôme ever had to strap a hard plastic brace over her carefully curated outfits and endure the first weeks of ninth grade feeling like a turtle.

Once dressed and thoroughly encased, Beatriz went to the kitchen in search of a frozen waffle. The rustling awoke her mother.

NENA? ARE YOU OFF? LET ME SEE WHAT YOU’RE WEARING IN CASE YOU GO MISSING.”

Beatriz rolled her eyes and trudged into Pilar’s room, waffle in hand.

“Ach. I keep forgetting you buzzed all your hair off.”

“I was tired of dying it pink, remember?”

“Are you wearing nothing but a dress slip under your brace?”

“Yes, but I’ve got this little cardigan, see? The straps don’t show. None of it is see-through. I checked.”

“I suppose it looks nice. Have a good day at school, mi reina.”

Although it was supposed to climb into the 90s that day, the High Plains air was still cool and dry from the night before. A breeze tickled the sun-bleached fuzz on Beatriz’s legs. She had stopped shaving her legs the year before. Not only did it let her feel breezes the way men were secretly feeling delicious breezes and not telling women, but she could also claim it was culture jamming.

“Who am I going to be today,” Beatriz whispered as she lumbered up the tree-lined avenue in her brace. “With my costume of the day.”

High school promised so much. A chance to reinvent oneself; and find kindred spirits. Beatriz had seen the tapes. Valley Girl. The Breakfast Club. Jawbreaker. The kids coming in from country schools did not know her. The Hutterites did not know her. Timo and Rémy did not know her. She no longer had to be Beatriz Lind, the nerdy wet blanket who reported the perv teacher everyone liked. She could be someone else. Someone whose boob had not popped out during swing choir auditions. Someone not remembered for failing the Presidential Fitness Test every year. No. She could be someone bubbly and sporty and ready to make friends.

“NICE STEMS!” a shaggy boy shouted from the passenger side of a beat-up GTO. “WANNA GO OUT?”

The car sped off before Beatriz could even respond.

“They don’t know me,” she pondered. “They just think I’m pretty.” She gasped. The reinvention was happening already.

Beatriz quickened her pace. Who knew what else the day promised? When she reached campus, Beatriz went in through the Brown Door. It was part of an age-old self-segregation of the students that everyone knew of but, whenever the press asked about it, school officials would always deny it. The Brown Door led to a hallway known as Gangsta’s Paradise, and the White Door led to Vanilla Island. As Beatriz made her way through Gangsta’s Paradise, she noticed it was surprisingly devoid of its usual groupings of cholas and vatos eating Funyuns in their steam-pressed Dickies. Across the way, Beatriz could see Vanilla Island similarly bereft of its orange-skinned preps and ringworm-addled farm kids.

“Where is everyone?” Beatriz asked Benny, the janitor. He motioned toward the cafeteria.

“Check out la tele, mija,” Benny urged in his trademark Spanglish. Her father was on a parish committee with him; he was convinced the man never learned either language entirely. “Someone hit one of las torres en Nueva York.”

With mild trepidation, Beatriz plodded toward the cafeteria, which at this hour belched its usual mix of bleachy dishwater and Hot Pockets vapor. She tried to picture what Benny meant. Maybe a Piper Cub had clipped a gutter. Did skyscrapers have gutters? Or did gargoyles typically carry the rain away? Beatriz had only ever been to big cities a few times, and even then, it was always to visit museums, not tall buildings.

MIRE MIRE MIRE,” someone shouted. “LOOK!”

A small “ope” slipped from Beatriz’s mouth as she stumbled into the whole thing.

After watching television all day and listening to her new teachers invoke 1993 and the USS Cole, Beatriz could not wait to get home. Her parents would know what to feel and think and do. There, she changed into overalls, grabbed a handful of Oreos, and opened her math textbook. Her father, in turn, changed into jeans, cracked open a Miller Lite, and started on dinner. Beatriz sat at the kitchen table and tried to solve for x while the din of cooking and public radio hummed around her. She kept waiting for her father to say something.

“So, Daddy,” Beatriz finally started. “How about it?”

“How about what?”

“The thing. That happened today.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“I … I don’t know,” Beatriz sputtered. She was not expecting her father to be so defensive. “’There, there’?”

Her father just rolled his eyes.

“Can I have a hug? Please?”

He sighed and went over to Beatriz, her arms stretched out like a toddler wanting uppies.

“There, there,” he cooed sarcastically before tapping the back of her brace twice; this was his signal that the hug was over and that Beatriz needed to let go. “You aren’t going to cry, are you?”

“I mean, I don’t think so,” Beatriz assured, swallowing the lump in her throat. “But why are you being so, like, blah? How can you be blah at a time like this?”

“Look, Bea, I am just one man. A man who – as you’ve pointed out in front of my secretaries on more than one occasion – drives a Plymouth and buys his pants at Ross Dress for Less.”

“Yeah. So?” Beatriz asked. “Daddy’s frugality is funny.”

Her father sighed and took a swig of Miller Lite.

“The point is, I am not the president. Or a Congressman. God only knows what would come out of the woodwork if I were to run for anything.” Her father looked out the kitchen window. He watched the FedEx truck roll away for the night before returning his attention to Beatriz. “I am not in a position to fix what you saw today, OK? And I have no idea what happens now.”

“Oh,” Bea mouthed, her face pained.

“I can only affect what’s in a six-foot radius of me. So, I am going to make you a balanced supper, listen to your mother complain about her coworkers, and show up to my job tomorrow.”

As he spoke, Beatriz’s father angrily peeled one potato after another, the skins rapidly accumulating in the sink. It reminded her of Beverly’s dad in Stephen King’s IT. That guy did not even flinch when thick blood burst from the pipes. Did not even notice that his kid was covered in blood, freaking out.

It was almost bedtime. Beatriz slipped into the TV room where Pilar liked to watch her true crime in the dark, alone. Beatriz knew to not stick around for long. A few months prior, a segment on Theresa Knorr had given her nightmares. Her father also kept his distance. He was not thrilled that Pilar had managed to fill the TiVo with shows about women finally snapping and killing their husbands.

“Hey, mami,” Beatriz said. “¿Cómo va?”

“Ay, just trying to clear my mind from everything we saw today.”

Beatriz lingered by the sofa in her pajamas but did not sit down. Tonight’s episode was about a Canadian pig farmer with several bodies on his property.

“How is this relaxing?” Beatriz asked.

“What do you mean?”

“You work with runaways all day, then you unwind with a story about a man killing runaways?”

“No, mija. The narrator says they were prostitutes.”

“Still.”

“I don’t know, Beatriz. It’s familiar, I guess, so it’s comforting.”

Beatriz scoffed and left the room. The glow of the TV lit her way.

“The runaways all say you’re gay, by the way,” Pilar called out. “Every day, they tell me, ‘Pilar! Did you know Beatriz is bee-seggs-ualle?’”

“I know, mami,” Beatriz called from the hallway, unfazed. “They’re gay, too. Why do you think they ran away?”

Pilar shrugged and nodded, then returned to her true crime.

Her parents were no help, so the following day Beatriz tried turning to the next best grownups – her teachers. Even though students were supposed to stay in the cafeteria or go off campus for lunch, Beatriz skulked through the second and third floors hoping to catch a teacher at their desk.

“Beatriz! Are you alright?”

Beatriz clutched her brace in surprise. It was Mrs. Moctezuma. A few years prior, she was just Miss Klug, the substitute teacher who ran the candied nut kiosk in the mall. But after a church mission trip to Quintana Roo, she was suddenly married and qualified to teach Spanish using papier-mâché, some Julio Iglesias, and a grainy copy of La Bamba. The press had been advised to direct any inquiries into her pedagogy to the superintendent’s office.

“I’m OK,” Beatriz insisted, trying to keep her cool after getting caught and startled. “I was just hoping to talk with someone about, uh, current events.”

“Bless your heart,” Mrs. Moctezuma said. “I have just the thing. Wait right here.”

Her blonde bob disappeared behind a sarape-draped cabinet and came back with a T-shirt.

“Hot off the press! I have dozens more, but I’m supposed to collect a donation. For the troops.”

The shirt was thin and starchy, with a United States flag waving across the chest. Superimposed onto the flag was a yellow ribbon and a cross. In Algerian typeface read the words “Proud to be an American.”

Beatriz’s heart raced as she processed these words and images.

“Troops?”

“Yes!”

“We’re going to war?”

“Probably!”

“Against whom?”

Mrs. Moctezuma’s cheer quieted. She looked at Beatriz as though she were an idiot.

“Against the people responsible, obviously.”

“So, Bin Laden? Al-Qaeda?”

“All of them, Beatriz,” Mrs. Moctezuma said, pulling her classroom door closed. “Now go back to the cafeteria. You can pay me later.”

Beatriz continued toward the social studies department. Mr. Fierro’s door was open. A sandwich holding what looked like alfalfa sprouts, pickled beets, and pimento cheese on rye sat, half-eaten, on the edge of his desk.

“Mr. Fierro?” Beatriz asked bashfully. “Mrs. Moctezuma gave me this shirt and says we’re going to war. Do you think we’re going to war?”

Mr. Fierro looked up from his Utne Reader and rubbed his forehead.

“Jesus Christ, Bea. That shirt looks like an ape made it.”

“I know.

“People like Mrs. Moctezuma are war hawks.”

“What?”

“Profiteers! Think about it. Who do you think cranked out those shirts so fast?”

“I dunno. Her dad at Klug Kreations?”

Mr. Fierro raised his bushy eyebrows and peered over his wireframes. Beatriz knew she was supposed to pick up on what he was throwing down, but she was not in the mood for hippie trash talk. Self-gratification of that variety was better reserved for the solstice and equinox potlucks that Mr. Fierro kept inviting her father to despite his voting for George W. Right now, she needed something else.

“H- h- how do you feel, Mr. Fierro, about all this?” Beatriz stammered. “Are you angry? Sad?”

Mr. Fierro groaned and reached for his sandwich.

“I’m not surprised by what they did,” he said, taking a bite. “There’s a lot about our country that sickens me, too.”

“Like Sex and the City?” Beatriz offered. “Or Wal-Mart?”

“That’s a good start,” he said, powering through a bite of sandwich. He took a swig of tea from his Thermos cup and swallowed. “But the thing is, Bea, they’re doing this because they feel small and they feel threatened. They’re a lot more scared of us than we are of them.”

“You make them sound like rattlesnakes.”

“That’s not my intent. But what do you do when you encounter a rattlesnake?”

“I dunno. Stay calm and back away?”

“You get it,” Mr. Fierro smiled, taking another bite. “So that’s what I’m trying to do. Now get out of here.”

That afternoon, Beatriz did not feel like going home. It was a Wednesday. This meant her mother worked the late shift and her father likely had a board meeting – United Way, maybe, or the Newman Center. It was all a blur of stuffy gladhandery to her. No one would notice if she came home late. She turned a corner halfway through her usual route and tromped toward the mall.

Oh, the mall. Even though JCPenney had relocated a few years prior and Main Street was on the mend – with little coffee shops and crystal healing studios sprouting between the hair salons and taverns – the mall was still the mall. Within seconds of entering, Beatriz could practically taste the cinnamon pretzels and wishing-well chlorine. Small yellow bulbs gave everything a Vaseline-rimmed softness, and the mauve marble columns reminded Beatriz she had stepped into what was supposed to be a sensual, luxurious space. The Muzak piped in a familiar tune from long ago:

Oh, these changing years
They add to your confusion
Oh, you need to hear
The time that told the truth

*BOM-BOM-BOM-BOM-BOM*

“Ugh,” Beatriz muttered to herself. “Level 42? Play something new already.”

Beatriz started every morning with both MTV and FM radio, so she knew what was old and what was new. Her favorite music video of the moment was Cake’s “Short Skirt/ Long Jacket.” She thought about the song and how it could someday pipe in through the Muzak. She would be very old by then. Thirty, maybe. But then her thoughts turned to the video, how it filmed people on the street in New York, how they had no idea what awaited them in the weeks ahead. She pictured the Naked Cowboy and his guitar – and all the other Times Square attractions – covered in ashes. A great flush of heat rushed behind her ears. Beatriz sidled up to the wishing well and hoped its mist might cool her off. When it did not, she threw a penny in and made a wish.

“I wish the universe would give me a sign of what I should do. Because nobody else is helping me.”

As she cast her wish, Beatriz was careful not to move her lips too much. Not only were wishes for babies, but wishes sounded like magic, and magic sounded pagan. Beatriz did not want to upset the Virgin Mary. Or Our Lady of Guadalupe. Or Saint Anthony. The whole team, really.

Satisfied that the well had accepted her wish, Beatriz did a lap around the mall. For nearly 10 minutes, she dug through a tub of butterfly clips at Claire’s before remembering her head was shorn and could barely hold a bobby pin. At Bath and Body Works, Beatriz sampled a handful of lip balms – cherry vanilla, kiwi strawberry, raspberry plum, and tangerine peach – before concluding they were too expensive to carry such a crayon-y undertaste. Then, upon discovering Sam Goody was a maze of Harry Potter displays that week, Beatriz made a point to turn her nose and walk away. She was a Roald Dahl girl and leery of the fervor. It wasn’t until she neared the Cineplex that something caught her eye.

It was the smirk that pulled her in. The rangy blond usher watched with some amusement as Beatriz tugged at her bookbag straps and deliberated whether to enter the arcade. She eventually made her way through the dark gauntlet of cabinet games and pinball machines to the prize counter. There, the usher awaited her, vest unbuttoned and hat askew.

“H-hey. Your nametag says Dignan. I’m Beatriz.”

“Oh, I know. You’re the dyke who ratted on Kanopolis.”

Beatriz’s ears felt hot again.

“OK, well, I’m trying to distance myself from that,” she said. “And, technically, are bisexuals dykes? There aren’t as many words for us, but dyke doesn’t sound right.”

The young man shrugged. “Eh. You’re probably right. So, are you a prude or something? You don’t dress like one.”

Beatriz could feel him studying her figure. Her too-snug, low-rise jeans, in concert with the back brace, formed the slightest of muffin tops.

“No! I’m not a prude!” Beatriz pleaded. She started to cover her hips but then stopped herself. She took a breath and remembered what she was striving for: bubbly, sporty, ready to make friends.

“It was a matter of principle,” Beatriz continued, more composed now. “Kanopolis was supposed to be teaching us how to convert fractions to decimals or whatever but showing the Culligan guy a parody porn of ‘The X Files’ in his office was more important, I guess.”

Dignan frowned and nodded.

“Now I’m kind of behind in math. I mean, my dad says that’s my fault, but the scandal didn’t help.”

“You’re a nervous gal, aren’t you?” the young man teased. He reached across the scratched glass counter and took her stubby brown hand in his. He pet it with his thumb, which had a wooden ring on it.

“You OK?” he asked.

“I‘m just, you know, working through the week’s events is all.”

“Feels as though the world’s about to end, doesn’t it?”

At this point, the young man was tugging Beatriz toward a storeroom.

“I just – I hate that nobody wants to say what they are thinking or feeling or what they hope happens next.”

“I know what you mean,” Dignan said, unlocking and opening the storeroom with one hand. “In times like these, it almost feels as though there might be no tomorrow, right?”

“I try not to go there,” Beatriz said as the storeroom lights flickered on. She looked around and found herself surrounded by hundreds of stuffies of all sizes and colors. They hung from every inch of the walls. “But, yes, things are feeling as though nothing matters.”

The beady, button eyes of a nation – teddy bears, Care Bears, Beanie Babies, and a few Teletubbies – silently witnessed as Beatriz tried to lower herself onto her knees without bending, lifting, or twisting. She was still under those doctor’s orders until October.

“So if the world ended tomorrow, what do you want to say you did before you died?” the young man asked. With an open palm, he tried to grab Beatriz’s hair, but it was too short. Beatriz was too lost in thought to notice.

“What are you thinking about?” Dignan asked.

Beatriz was thinking about the tapes in her bedroom and the young women on those tapes – Nabokov’s Dolores Haze, Alice Walker’s Celie, Palahniuk’s Marla Singer. They were all about her age when they were introduced to their respective storerooms. This was probably fine.

Third period was the worst. Even though her father already met with the school to ensure she was on a college prep track with special accommodations for her alleged giftedness, Beatriz had not applied herself in middle school math. For three years, she skated on raw intelligence while tween lusts and parody song lyrics occupied her mind. The seeming punishment for this slip from perfection was getting thrown into Algebra I with the Gen Pop. Beatriz, certain that poets and philosophers did not need math, flipped through a beat-up copy of “The Tao of Pooh” until she felt someone looking at her. It was Mrs. Ahuatl née Voight. She, too, had brought back a man from Quintana Roo.

“What?” Beatriz asked, annoyed.

Maybe it was her parents’ overreliance on Dr. Spock, or maybe it was the years of watching kids talk back on sitcoms, but Beatriz’s respect for elders was never a given; it had to be earned. And three weeks into the semester, Beatriz was not particularly impressed with how Mrs. Ahuatl ran her ship. Sitting port and starboard from Beatriz were pregnant juniors, jocks struggling to keep their 2.0 GPA, and kids imported from Prairie Preeminence, the now-defunct Bible academy that sat next to the Blockbuster. It had been a going concern until the county attorney decided their exorcisms met the statutory elements of false imprisonment.

“Beatriz,” Mrs. Ahuatl continued. “Maybe you could put your book down so we could solve for y together?”

“Sure,” Beatriz said. She peered at the chalkboard. It read 6/11 = y/3.  “We just multiply each side by three so y is by itself, right? So y equals 18 over 11. Because, you know, that’s how people think or talk. In elevenths.”

“Very good, Bea.”

“It’s Beatriz. Only Mr. Fierro gets to call me Bea.”

Instead of firing back, Mrs. Ahuatl simply looked at the floor before calling the next student. Beatriz doodled little polka-dotted snakes until she felt another set of eyes on her. It was Rhapsodee Harris. She counted among those liberated from Prairie Preeminence. Rhapsodee’s arms were crossed, and her underbite glimmered with more saliva than usual.

“Can I help you?” Beatriz asked. “You look mad.”

“I am not mad at you,” Rhapsodee said, slurping a little mid-sentence. “But I think what you did was wrong.”

Beatriz glanced at the Bakelite clock on the wall. It was only 10:40 a.m., but people already knew what she had done in the storeroom of the arcade. Her first inclination was to deny it, but that did not feel right. She was curious as to why this girl’s fishnets were in such a twist.

“OK, Rhapsodee,” Beatriz ventured. “What, exactly, did I do wrong?”

Before Rhapsodee could gulp her way to a response, Bethany – another Prairie Preeminence goth – spun around and glared back at Beatriz.

“IT WAS WRONG BECAUSE DIGNAN’S TAKEN, BEATRIZ.”

Mrs. Ahuatl stopped writing on the chalkboard and looked over at the commotion.

“Girls – is everything all right?”

“Everything is FINE,” Beatriz insisted, her ears growing warm. “You were saying – a train’s leaving Albuquerque at the same time a train is leaving Springfield? There are SO many Springfields! Which Springfield?”

“I don’t think it says,” Mrs. Ahuatl mused, checking her teacher’s edition. “My book just says they’re 830 miles apart.”

“Guys, everything is NOT fine,” Bethany announced. This caused the jocks and pregnant girls to perk up from their mid-morning slumber. Beatriz looked around and smiled nervously; this train was leaving the station, and there was little she could do to slow it down.

Within seconds, it was all out there. At a volume that guaranteed no one in the class would misunderstand, Bethany announced Beatriz’s offense to the class, then added the helpful reminder: “And DIGNAN is with AMBER!”

The class roared with boos and howls. Beatriz felt a crumpled wad of paper bounce off her head. She looked to Mrs. Ahuatl for crowd control, but she just squeezed her textbook and clenched her teeth, anxious for the wave of emotion to subside. When the lesson finally resumed, Beatriz turned to Rhapsodee for clarification.

“OK, yes, I did what I did,” Beatriz whispered. “But which Amber? Are you talking about Amber War Bonnet or Deaf Amber?”

“Amber Robidoux, dummy.”

“I thought she moved to Billings.”

“She came back.”

A gravelly “oh” escaped from somewhere deep inside Beatriz. She pressed her forehead squarely on her desk, but the cool Formica top offered little relief.

“This is not good,” Beatriz muttered to herself.

Amber Robidoux was the older, meaner, cooler half-sister of Holly Bissonette. In middle school, Beatriz and Holly had vied to be Ashley Aaberg’s best friend. Beatriz eventually struck out because Holly convinced Ashley that Beatriz was too tall, too bulky, and too much of a know-it-all for their sleepovers, which had grown increasingly sapphic over the years. Even though Beatriz liked her friends, she did not like them quite like that, so when it was time for lights out, she would sheepishly tiptoe down the hall where Ashley’s twin, Milo, slept. Milo never minded because it gave him something to brag about in tap class. He really did kiss that big brainy Spanish girl, he would tell them.

Milo was just practice, however, and Beatriz was truly crestfallen to lose Ashley’s bestiehood to Holly. In her grief and anger, Beatriz made the fatal mistake of confiding in Candace Cutler – the gossipy shot putter who insisted her tastes in snacks, shoes, and stationery were always more hetero than Beatriz’s. Before long, Beatriz found herself in the principal’s office, getting interrogated for calling Holly a lesbian. For this, Beatriz was sentenced to a day of out-of-school suspension, writing letters of apology to Holly and her family, and no Monday Night Football for a month.

The last part was the brainchild of Beatriz’s parents. They were so unaccustomed to disciplining their high-anxiety, low-maintenance child that they were at a loss for what to take away without breaking her. Depriving her of extracurriculars or the family computer seemed bad for her résumé, so they took Dennis Miller. It was that or the Adam Sandler albums.

Beatriz reflected on Holly, Kanopolis, and everything else that made middle school so awful as she trudged across the street to Fauster Park in search of Amber Robidoux. Fauster Park boasted a large pavilion where the most wayward students went to smoke, fight, make out, and buy drugs during the lunch hour. Next to the pavilion sat a small, well-manicured horseshoe court for doing the drugs. The school cop, Officer Bosman, was keenly aware of the goings-on of Fauster Park but refrained from citing anyone because at least the kids were within sight and subtle about it all. In a press release, this laxness was celebrated as Officer Bosman “building a rapport with at-risk teens.”

“Who am I going to be today?” Beatriz asked herself, spotting the top of Amber’s head in the distance. “I am going to be a big person.”

The din of the pavilion quieted when Beatriz appeared. She would have to snake past several crowds to get to Amber. To the right, a circle of husky Juggalos tried to recall the components of napalm and speculated on what caused the towers to fall so quickly. To the left, a stoned twink guffawed. Beatriz had to dodge to avoid the Doritos crumbs flying out of his mouth. The Prairie Preeminence goths and pregnant juniors from third period looked up from their nachos and menthols but said nothing. C.P. Didi backed her scooter up to let Beatriz through.

“Hey, Beatriz,” Didi wheezed. “What are… you… doing here.”

“I need to talk with Amber,” Beatriz said, unsure which of C.P. Didi’s eyes was the good eye to address. “What are you doing here?”

“The kids … here … are nice to me.”

Beatriz nodded and continued. When Beatriz finally reached the back of the pavilion, she found Amber atop the brick fireplace, casually leaning into Skinny Pauly’s lap as if he were a chair. Skinny Pauly had graduated at least three years prior, but he had a way of blending in with his Baja hoodies and BMX bike. Had Officer Bosman ever frisked him, a cornucopia of stones, flowers, and fungi would have rained from the young man’s patchwork corduroys, but then everyone would resent the police even more. So, Officer Bosman looked the other way. Today, Skinny Pauly was just furniture.

“I’m so confused,” Beatriz blurted, neglecting to say hello. “Are you with Dignan, or with Pauly?”

Amber looked on at Beatriz with half-closed eyes before answering from her bony throne.

“Don’t worry about what I’m doing.”

Beatriz was unsure how to negotiate with this honey-eyed, sangfroid creature.

“Well, you see, I may have done something with Dignan – “

“Everyone knows what you did, Beatriz.”

“Yes, but something I did not know is that he might be with you,” Beatriz chuckled. “So, it would seem an apology might be in order.”

Amber sighed and watched two freshman girls wrestle in the grass nearby. She scratched the taut skin above her belly ring before returning her attention to Beatriz.

“You had no idea who he was until yesterday, huh?”

“No,” Beatriz said. “Is he new in town?”

Amber scoffed.

“So, you have no idea where he’s been, who he’s been with,” Amber ventured. “Whether he might have AIDS or something.” Her wrists dangled from Skinny Pauly’s knees, which served as armrests. She pointed a slender, tanned digit at Beatriz.

You don’t owe me any apology. You need to apologize to yourself. And maybe get checked.”

Beatriz had seen the tapes – Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Kids. Had 10 minutes in a storage closet rendered her a tragedy? Her ears had never burned hotter. Several people were watching and listening, but Beatriz was in a fugue. Amber’s implications made her completely forget to be bubbly and sporty and ready to make friends. In that moment, she needed answers.

“But wait – aren’t you with him? Wouldn’t you know? Are you OK?”

Amber smirked and looked off into the distance again.

“Like I said, don’t worry about me.”

When Beatriz got home, she tried to distract herself with television, but everything had a way of reminding her of Amber Robidoux’s taunting words. General Hospital on any other day would be soothing, but today it just got her thinking of how she might end up in a hospital. She changed the channel to cartoons.  Sailor Moon seemed promising, but it felt too soon for a show about skinny girls damning each other with spells.

She flipped through the family’s 200 channels and mulled over her next move. She knew there was testing at the free clinic, but her mother was always taking the runaways there. Beatriz strolling in would likely raise eyebrows and get back to her mother. She could also ask to see the family doctor, but that old man liked to tell her father about every little rash and earache – he was the last thing she needed right now. She traced flowers and leaves in the carpet as her mind clickety-clacked toward a solution. Eventually, it became 6:30. Tom Brokaw spoke of body bags and cadaver dogs.

“How can you sit in the dark like that?” her father asked, climbing over her Mary Janes and her bookbag to reach the curtains. “You’re just like your mother.”

“Sorry,” Beatriz said. “The sunset causes a glare.”

“It’s fine,” he said, parting the blinds to watch the FedEx guy drive away for the night. “Supper’s ready.”

Before taking her seat at the kitchen table, Beatriz grabbed a coffee mug from the cupboard. Into it she spooned buttered noodles, steamed broccoli, and half a cutlet of chicken piccata. Portion control. Neither her father nor Pilar – perhaps too pleased with the compliments they received on Beatriz’s new figure – stopped her. She chewed in wait until her parents reached the halfway point of their Merlot.

“Um, Daddy? Are you still donating blood tomorrow?”

“It’s on the calendar, isn’t it?”

“Right. So can I go with you?”

Ay,” Pilar scoffed. “You’re only 14. The blood bank wants strong, healthy adults like your father. They don’t want some ishta who lives off Eggos and Yoplait.”

“Are you sure?!” Beatriz hurled. “Because I already donated three times for my surgery. Why couldn’t I give now? I have good veins, and they always need A positive.”

Pilar stabbed at her noodles and shook her head.

“She has a point,” Beatriz’s father said. “And they like me over there. I’m sure we can make it work.”

“Really?” Beatriz asked.

“Yes, but you’ll need to eat more than a cup of food.”

The following day, Beatriz’s father picked her up after school. He was in a good mood.

“I’m really proud of you, Bea.”

“Really? Why?”

“You’re taking the initiative to give blood like your ol’ dad,” he said. “Maybe you could add this to your résumé.”

Beatriz laughed nervously. “Of course! Why not?”

Her father still had no idea why she suddenly wanted to give blood. As the rusted Plymouth chugged up the hill, Beatriz fussed in her seat, tightening the straps of her back brace so it might squish the pit of guilt forming in her stomach. When they got to the hospital, her father grabbed a tape from the glove compartment.

“What’s that?”

“My blood jams!” her father beamed.

“Ew!”

“What’s wrong?”

“All I heard was ‘blood jam.’”

“Well, call them whatever you want. It’s a mixtape,” her father explained. “And if you’re a regular like me, they let you play music on the boom box while you donate. I saw Kiko Valdez doing it and asked if I could, too. Not to brag, but the ladies here like us a lot.”

Kiko Valdez. Beatriz got to see his Tom of Finland figure stuffed into a FedEx uniform every day after school. He sort of skipped the packages up people’s doorsteps. Whenever he called out to compliment Beatriz’s tights or scarf, it never felt lecherous. His words made her feel like a tree. A sturdy poplar Kiko wanted to dress, not undress.

“Kiko’s allowed to give?” Beatriz asked, surprised. “But, Daddy, everyone knows that – “

Her father shushed her as they walked into the blood bank. A half-dozen women in snug white scrubs clucked with delight.

“Oh no!” they teased. “Look who’s back! It’s Mr. Lind again!”

“What can I say? I couldn’t stay away!” her father joked. “I got my tape and my donor card, and Beatriz wants to give today.”

A phlebotomist with big platinum curls grabbed a clipboard and sized Beatriz up.

“How old are you again?”

“Fourteen.”

“Technically, if you’re not giving for a surgery, we’re not supposed to accept donations from anyone younger than 16, even with your father here.”

Beatriz slipped into another little fugue. She was ready to say anything to get tested.

“Well, technically, I’m the size of a 16-year-old, if not bigger, and that’s why you even have an age rule, right? To keep small people from passing out?” Beatriz pressed. “I’m in the 92nd percentile for girls my age. I drank lots of water, I remembered to eat lunch, and I even took a multivitamin. I promise I won’t pass out.”

Her father shrugged and smiled sheepishly.

“What’d I tell you, Deb? The bones of a lawyer right here.”

“I see,” the phlebotomist said, her eyes narrowing. “Mr. Lind, go ahead and make yourself comfortable and Jo will get you started. Bea, come with me for screening.”

As her father slid into a vinyl lounge chair so the leathery, husky-voiced Jo could dote on him, Beatriz followed Deb to a little office. Beatriz tried to warm up to Deb with a smile, but Deb was not having it.

“Now, if you recall from the last time, I have to ask you some questions.”

“OK.”

“Are you feeling healthy and well today?”

“Yes.”

“Any chance that you might be pregnant?”

“No.”

“In the past 48 hours, have you taken anything with aspirin?”

“No.”

“In the past three months, have you had sexual contact with a new partner?”

Beatriz hesitated.

“That, like, depends on what the meaning of ‘sexual contact’ is.”

Deb rubbed her brow just like Mr. Fierro had.

“Bones of a lawyer all right,” she muttered.

“What was that?”

“Why are you here, Beatriz? What did you do?”

The jig was up. Deb had seen right through her.

“If I tell you the truth, will you tell my dad?”

“I don’t know. It depends.”

Beatriz’s breath grew shallow. The beginnings of a cry stung her eyelids.

“I kind of went down on a guy,” she started, tears welling now. “AndhisgirlfriendsayshemighthaveAIDSandIknowyouguystestforthat.”

Deb cringed. “Oh, sweetie. I may have heard something about this. Was the girlfriend Amber Robidoux?”

“How did you know?”

“You know Rhapsodee Harris? I married her dad this summer. She’s my stepdaughter now.”

“Oh.”

“She and Amber and their burnout friends are all so mean. They’re just jealous of you.”

“OK,” Beatriz whimpered, not feeling much better. “But what about the AIDS?”

Deb studied Beatriz’s face. Beatriz studied Deb’s mascara.

“Hon, do you really think you got anything?”

“Amber said – ”

“Amber was just messing with you! She probably wasn’t expecting a little bald girl in a prosthetic to steal her man.”

Beatriz kept forgetting what she looked like to others. She scratched her shorn head and thought for a moment.

“I still want to know if I got anything. In an abundance of caution.”

Deb pursed her lips and stood up.

“All right then,” Deb said. “Let’s get a pint out of you. And if anything shows up, I’ll call the school nurse and leave a message asking you to call me back.”

Beatriz nodded and blew her nose.

“Th-thank you. I like that idea.”

“I’m sorry girls can be so mean,” Deb said, her tone kinder now. “Can I give you a hug?”

Beatriz held her arms out, but not like a toddler wanting uppies this time. Her arms were more of a weak, defeated shrug now. Deb came in and squeezed her tight, enveloping Beatriz in an AquaNetted mane that smelled deliciously of White Diamonds and the last smoke break’s Benson and Hedges. Beatriz had been craving a hug like this all week. She collapsed into Deb’s embrace and cried some more. She kept waiting for Deb to tap the hug to an end, but Deb simply let her weep.

“I know, hon,” Deb reassured. “You’ve had a rough week. But I think you’re going to be OK. You collect yourself and come out when you’re ready.”

When Beatriz finally emerged, her father was holding court while the boom box blasted his blood jams – U2, The Cranberries, Sinéad. As Deb started the draw, Van Morrison sang about walking down the street with one’s head held up high. Feeling her lifeblood literally draining from her body, Beatriz wondered if the day would ever come when she could walk with her head held high again.

Weeks passed. Deb never called. Beatriz’s hair could hold small barrettes now, and the back brace was no more. Third period grew significantly more bearable after Rhapsodee and Bethany got expelled. Prairie Preeminence had not prepared them for time constraints, competition, or actual grades, so their solution to avoiding an exam on ratios was to set the girls’ bathroom on fire. Their next stop would be an alternative school across the river, and the girls got a new bathroom. A win-win, really.

Dignan met a similar fate and was sent to a boys’ academy somewhere Down South. Rumor had it that he absentmindedly left an Excel spreadsheet open on the family computer, only for his parents to discover the break-evens for his and Skinny Pauly’s fledgling shroom venture. Skinny Pauly, meanwhile, tested hot while on probation and found himself at a work camp three hours away.

Amber Robidoux, suddenly without a boy to lean on, started talking to the military recruiters that ran a kiosk every day at lunch. At first, Beatriz thought Amber was flirting with the recruiters. After all, they were chiseled and gleaming like Mr. Clean, but then Amber started coming to school with her brassy locks in a tight bun that sat low on her neck. Soon, her nail polish chipped off and her midriff became a mystery.

Beatriz chipped at her own nail polish in homeroom when Mr. Fierro announced everyone had to go down to the gymnasium for a pep rally.

“What is a pep rally?” Rémy asked.

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Mr. Fierro started. “It’s, uh, it’s where we all get together and get excited for our homecoming football game. Also, we’re supposed to recognize all the seniors who’ve enlisted. I think some National Guard are supposed to be there, too. We’re shipping them off to Spain or something.”

“But I am told football is in the spring!” Timo said, making a fist.

“Dear God,” Mr. Fierro muttered. “Your football is in the spring. American football is right now. Just go to the gym, OK?”

While the rest of the homeroom filed down the stairs, Timo and Rémy hung back and whispered to each other. Beatriz hung even further back and tried to eavesdrop. Were they speaking German? Dutch? It sounded like English at times, but more…slippery.

“Pep rallies – pretty lame, right?” Beatriz butted in.

“More like scary,” Timo chuckled.

“Why scary?” Beatriz asked.

“There is going to be a lot of marching band music and gymnastics, no?” Rémy asked. “Maybe an address on how we are the best?”

“Yeah. Always.”

“Where I am from, that is not a ‘pep rally,’” Timo said. “Those are mass games.”

“What are mass games?”

“You don’t want to know.”

Timo and Rémy peered into the gym. The cacophony of cheerleaders, Sousaphones, and the school’s fuzzy mascot was all it took for them to turn around and head toward the doors.

“Hey!” Beatriz called, following them. “Where are you going?”

Rémy mimed the smoking of a joint.

“Can I come with?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Timo zipped up his black leather jacket and dug around for a scarf.

“We hear you are kind of a dangerous girl, Beatriz,” he said. “A girl like you should really be more careful about her reputation.”

“Excuse me?!” Beatriz cried from the steps. “I thought you guys were supposed to be European!”

But Timo and Rémy were already halfway to the horseshoe courts.

Beatriz stood there and thought about how nothing had changed since middle school. She remained inescapably scandalous. The wind cut through the weft of Beatriz’s sweater. It felt strange to experience air across her stomach again. Beatriz hugged her ribs and went back inside.

In the gym, Amber Robidoux took her seat on a portable stage alongside a handful of other enlistees, the quarterback, and some men in green. A giant United States flag hung from the rafters, and The Alan Parsons Project played overhead. Beatriz’s ears grew warm; she wanted to scream. It was as though everyone had decided to skip sadness and dive straight into whatever this was. Feeling deeply wronged, Beatriz went to her locker and grabbed her jacket.

“Beatriz!” someone called out as she neared the door. “Beatriz! Where are you going?”

It was Mrs. Moctezuma. She was wearing the ape shirt from Klug Kreations.

“I’m going to the mall.”

Mrs. Moctezuma looked confused and hurt.

“Don’t you want to support your classmates? Support your country?”

Beatriz’s hand was already on the crash bar. She thought about acquiescing and going back to the pep rally, but nobody in that gym deserved her pep. The people in that gym had abandoned her, messed with her. Saying nothing, she pushed the bar and left.