For seven women will take hold of one man in that day, saying, “We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach!”
By Kim’s accounting, the study session with Tristan could certainly have gone a lot worse. For one thing, he didn’t even try to feel her up once – not once! That was definitely a point in his favor, although it made Kim wonder if he really was a normal high school male, with normal male hormones. For another thing, he seemed to actually know Spanish and taught it to her better than the teacher at school, so Kim actually came away understanding the material better. Finally, he seemed like a genuinely normal, nice guy, if somewhat shyer than Kim expected. “Let’s give him another chance,” she said aloud. “Why am I talking out loud? There’s nobody here.” Sometimes at home Kim had talked to their cat, before Father got rid of it, claiming he was allergic.
The thought of Father made Kim clench her jaw. Last night, when she’d gotten home from the study group, she’d found Father yelling at Evie. Why? Because the littlest Benson had said she missed her Mama, and asked when Mama would be home. Father would have been happier, Kim felt sure, if Mother’s attempt had succeeded. Then he wouldn’t have to sneak around – if taking secretaries out to eat at places Father and Mother were known by name, and not returning home at least one night a week could, in fact, be considered “sneaking.”
After Father had stormed out of the house, having firmly impressed on Evie never to ask after Mother again, it had been up to Kim to comfort her wailing younger sister. Kim had wanted to chase Father down and slap him, not cuddle and comfort the impressionable young girl he had just verbally beaten, but Evie needed her more than Kim needed retribution. One day she’d find a way to make Father pay, but until then, she’d just do the best she could.
Continue reading.Now, sitting across the breakfast table, Kim looked at Leslie. “You want to do what?”
“Go to the dance. Come on, who doesn’t? I mean I know you just dumped Austin – which was awesome, by the way, all my friends kept talking about it all day – but I want to go. It’d be fun.”
“Thanks. But seriously, you? A dance?” Leslie had never shown any interest in boys before, and Kim couldn’t imagine her starting now. Then the key question: “With who?”
Leslie smiled, a strange nervous but defiant grin. “You’ll never guess.”
“I won’t even try, so how ’bout if you just tell me?” Kim hated guessing games; she had no sense of intuition and refused to let anybody, even her sister, draw her in.
“If you don’t know, I won’t tell you.” Now Leslie was playing coy, an act Kim hated almost as much as guessing.
So, to cut to the chase, Kim put on an act of her own. She said, “Fine. I don’t care,” and munched a mouthful of puffed Kashi as if it was the most delicious meal in the world. “Evie, how’s your breakfast?”
Evie shrugged, not looking up from her Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes. Her eyes had dark circles under them, as if she had hardly slept, and remained puffy from last night’s crying. She went to school puffy-eyed and exhausted so often Kim worried that Evie’s teacher would say something or even call the state. Kim sighed. If only she could do something else…
“Fine,” Leslie said, “But promise you won’t tell Father.”
“He’s going to figure out you’re going to the dance anyway,” Kim warned, “Even if I don’t say anything.”
“I know, but he doesn’t have to know who I’m going with.” Suddenly Leslie looked really nervous. “Oh, ever mind. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Wait, what?” Now Kim was confused. First Leslie wanted to go…then she didn’t? What was going on here?
Leslie closed her eyes and Kim saw her jaw clench. In a rush, she whispered, “I wanted to go with Colleen.”
Silence descended as Kim digested that. Leslie didn’t eat while Kim thought about it. Finally, Kim asked, “As a friend, or as an actual date?” Lots of girls went as pairs or in large groups, if they didn’t want to be saddled with irritating boys.
“As a date.”
More silence. “I won’t tell Father,” Kim said, reaching out to squeeze Leslie’s hand. The palm was damp with cold sweat. “You should be able to go with whoever you want.” Leslie seemed to breathe again, color returning to her face. She picked up her spoon, but only twiddled with it.
“You’re not…weirded out? Or something? You still like me?” Leslie withdrew her hand and wiped her palms on her jeans. Love was a precious commodity around the Benson household, and Kim had to make up for what Mother and Father didn’t dole out.
“You know, not really.” Kim thought about it. She really wasn’t sure how to deal with a situation like this, but she took her best guess. “I guess we all have parts of ourselves nobody else knows about. I’m honored you’d share that with me. But…won’t the whole school know when you get there? I’m sure it’d reach Father or Mother eventually.”
“We’ll just go as friends. Neither of us is ready to tell everybody yet.” Leslie looked down at her soggy cereal. “I don’t really feel like eating this.”
“Don’t bother. I’ll get you a donut at the cafeteria. We’ll celebrate.” Catching Leslie’s eye, Kim amended, “Without telling anybody or, you know, having any fun.”
Leslie smiled. “Sounds like a normal Benson party.”
“My Mickey’s ears are too small.” Kim and Leslie both turned to Evie, who had revived from her reverie and was now poking at her pancake unenthusiastically. “And I wanted powdered sugar not maple syrup.”
Kim smiled. Now this was something she knew how to deal with.
“Hi, Tristan!” Tristan’s heart nearly stopped when Kim waved and greeted him in passing. Lottie, who always seemed nearby when he didn’t want her, nudged him sharply in the ribs and made suggestive noises. For his part, Tristan managed to squeeze out a surprised smile and a quick wave in return.
“I didn’t think the tutoring session went that well,” he told Lottie.
“Uh-huh. And Dad’s little talk last night didn’t discourage you at all?”
Tristan groaned. The “little talk” had taken over an hour. In it, Dad had explained to Lottie and Tristan that although their virus wasn’t easily transmissible through the air or surface contact – which was why they could go out in public – any exchange of “bodily fluids,” as he put it, would almost certainly result in infection.
“Like what?” Tistan had asked, “Blood?”
“Blood, yes,” Dad had agreed, “But also saliva, tears, and, er, um…” There had been an extremely awkward pause. Tristan, who caught the drift immediately, decided to let Dad sleep in the bed he’d made. Eventually Dad said, “You know, other, uh, more, uh, manly bodily fluids.” For all his scientific acumen, Dad floundered like a novice swimmer in high seas when it came to anything sex-related.
“And brains?” Tristan had said, trying to lighten the mood. “I guess I should stay away from her brains, too, huh?”
“Definitely don’t eat a girl’s brains if you like her,” Dad agreed.
“So…you and Mom. How’d that work? Was Mom normal? Did Mom become a zombie because she loved you so much?”
“Your mother was never normal, per se,” Dad said, earning him a mostly loving smack fr
om Mom as she puttered around the kitchen, keeping the other kids out. “But yes, Mom was normal. I had to tell her eventually – she’s a sharp enough tack she figured out I seemed to get sick awfully regularly. Never try to get something with a pattern in it by an accountant. I confessed the whole thing to her, and she had to make her own choice.”
Lottie spoke up at last. She looked at Mom and asked, “How’d you decide?”
Mom smiled gently, giving Dad a look of such love that Tristan felt embarrassed for them and Lottie made audible gagging noises. “Hey, now,” Mom said, “I loved your Dad enough that I decided it was worth it. Women do all sorts of crazy things for the guys they love. They convert religions, they move across the globe, they take up bizarre hobbies. I guess I saw it as a reasonable trade-off for being with your Dad for the rest of my life.”
“I’m pretty sure nobody will ever feel that way about Tristan,” Lottie said, snickering, and Tristan had glared.
“Speak for yourself. At least it’s not my personality that drives people away…”
“OK, kids,” Dad intervened. “Tristan, Lottie, do you understand what I’m telling you? You can’t even kiss somebody without infecting them. You have to exercise more self-control than any of your peers have, and you have to rule your hormones even when you really don’t want to. You must not infect normal people without their knowledge. We could have a pandemic on our hands in no time. This is really important.”
“Yeah, we get it, don’t we?” Tristan had said, suddenly feeling sullen and miserable. This sucked.
“We get it.” Lottie had nodded. “I guess that means no more making out with boys behind the bleachers…”
Dad and Mom both gasped, “What? ‘No more’?!” and Lottie had laughed. Tristan knew she didn’t care about dating or any of that stuff yet. She was too lighthearted and ended up hurting boys’ feelings.
Now, walking down the hallway at school, Tristan sighed. For all Lottie had made light of the situation, Tristan understood that this meant he’d never have anything approaching the normal teenager’s experiences. By now a good number of his friends had already gotten laid, or pretended they had. His parents had waited awfully late to tell them, he thought, but then neither he nor Lottie had shown any inclination in that direction before.
“Oh, Tristan?” Kim’s voice, cutting smoothly through the babble in the hallway, stopped him dead, as if he’d reached the end of a leash.
Turning, he said, “Yeah?”
“Be cool,” Lottie whispered, “And don’t think about brains.” Of course, as soon as she said that, Tristan started imaging the juicy, delicious brains all walking around him right now. For an instant all he could think of was hot, salty, sweet, fresh human brains, a delicacy he’d only ever dreamed of. Nobody in his family could, of course, consume human brains ethically, but that didn’t stop them from drooling at the thought. Now he had to wipe his mouth quickly with the back of his sleeve as Kim made her way back to him.
“What’s up?” Tristan tried to actually be cool, but he was pretty sure Kim had caught him wiping his mouth, and he felt really stupid.
“Would it work to meet up again tonight for more Spanish? I don’t have cheer so I could do it right after school.”
“Uh, sure, you bet.” Tristan’s mind raced. He’d promised to help Max with a diorama for school, but he could always do that later. “Same place?”
“No, let’s go to the actual library. There’s too many people” – by which Tristan knew she meant classmates of theirs – “in the Starbucks right after school.”
“OK, but I’ll have to catch a bus there…” Kim seemed to read his mind, though, and knew he was really fishing for another ride in her car.
“Just meet me around the corner and I’ll give you a ride. I’d take you straight but I don’t need any more hassle in my life right now, you know?” In fact, Tristan could already feel the curious eyes and feel the waves of gossip spreading like ripples out from around them. If this was part of what being popular meant, he was suddenly glad he hadn’t achieved that prize.
“Sure. I’ll be there. See you then!” Tristan practically skipped down the hall, walking on air. Sitting down in his History class, he withdrew his notes and looked around. Wait a second. None of these were his classmates… Leaping up, he hastily gathered his things and rushed out. “Wrong class,” he muttered, scarlet-faced.
Tristan had always liked the public library. It smelled comfortingly of old book bindings, and there were lots of big, smart brains around here that he could just imagine would taste so delicious. He shook himself. It was almost that time of month, and he had work to focus on the task at hand. Not giving himself away was much more difficult between his normal hormones and the virus rushing around doing screwy things with his brain. Brains… No. Listen to Kim’s conversation.
When he really focused on Kim, tuning out the brains and hormones, Tristan could sense something was wrong. She was upset, hiding something, and he wanted to help, but didn’t know how. What could he, practically a monster, do for a girl like this, who seemed so perfect?
But when he asked in Spanish how she was doing, instead of saying “Muy bien, gracias,” as he expected, she burst into tears.
For an instant Tristan sat frozen, not sure what to do; then his natural responses kicked in, guiding him around the table to the chair next to her. Putting his hand on her shoulder, he softly asked, “Do you want to talk about it?”
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Kim said, sniffling and wiping her eyes and nose. “I hardly even know you. But it’s just that you’re so nice and, and normal, and I feel like such a, a liar, pretending to be OK…” Tristan sat, nodding, saying nothing. She continued, “Things are so awful at home, and I keep having to keep going, and going, and nobody understands. I have to keep pretending to be normal, and I’m not, and I just don’t know how long I can keep it up.” She looked at him through the corners of her eyes, a pitiful glance that melted his heart. Suddenly she wasn’t Kim, Queen of the cheer leaders and most popular girl in school; she was another hurting soul, seeking hope and reassurance.
Pressing gently on her arm, Tristan said, “It feels like you’re having to walk around with a secret all the time, wearing a mask and never sharing who you really are with people. Like none of your friends know the real person you are inside.” He spoke from his heart, expressing at last his own feelings, and Kim sensed his sincerity. She turned to face him fully.
“Yes, that’s exactly it. How did you know how I felt?”
“I feel the same way,” Tristan replied honestly.
“Really? I thought I was the only one. I just want to be real with somebody, you know?” Kim scrubbed her eyes, smearing her mascara into black splotches. Glancing at her dirtied fingers, she said, “Oh, God, I must look horrible.”
Without thinking, Tristan replied, “You look wonderful. I hope you feel like you can be honest with me, at least. You can trust me.” When he said that, a powerful longing to taste her brains surged through him. It took all his self-control to remain still and not let the urge show.
“You know, I don’t know why, but I feel like you really do care for me, and I don’t even know you. Like I can trust you.” She took a Kleenex Tristan proffered and began dabbing at her ruined make up.
“Try me.” Tristan’s heart clenched. Would she actually open up her brains – no, not her brains, her heart. Would she open her heart to him, or would she just bring the conversation
back to safe, impersonal topics? His intuition, which increased in strength as his infection waxed,
For no explainable reason, Kim found herself, instead of studying Spanish, sharing everything with this junior she hardly knew. He said “Try me,” and something in his voice said she could trust him. And she so wanted to feel like she knew somebody. So the whole story came spilling out.
“On Monday, my mother tried to kill herself.” She watched Tristan blink rapidly, clearly surprised, but reserving judgment. This spoke well of him, that he didn’t feel like he needed to say something immediately. “My little sister found her, and she told me. Mother survived…this time. She’s tried before. She’s an alcoholic, although she and Father won’t admit it. It’s the only thing they agree on, you know? They’ve been breaking up for ages, I wish they’d just finish already. It’s tearing us apart. I mean me and my sisters. Plus Father is always yelling at us, when he’s not off with some other lady, calling us stupid and ugly and making Evie cry. I wish he’d just run off with one of his secretaries and get done with it. I try to make it OK for Evie and Leslie, but I can’t – I can’t control anything and I can’t fix everything, when Mother and Father hate each other and take it out on us. I just feel like I can’t control anything, and everything about me is a total lie, like I’m pretending to be so perfect and really everything is totally not perfect.” Kim laughed bitterly through fresh tears. “My family – it’s like we’re monsters, pretending to be normal.”
She took the new Kleenex Tristan offered and took a deep breath. She smiled weakly. “I guess that’s a lot to digest, huh?”
Very softly, Tristan replied, “I know what you mean about the monsters thing. Being a monster and just pretending to be normal. That’s my life, too. I wish I could help you somehow.”
“The Kleenex helps,” Kim said, trying to lighten the mood at least a little bit. “And listening helps. Thank you for listening.”
“It’s the least I could do. I really do know just how you feel, and I’ll be here for you. Even if all your cheer leader friends don’t know the truth, I will. I’ll help carry that burden with you even if I can’t actually do anything.” He paused and shoved his unruly hair back out of his sea-green eyes. “I guess you probably don’t feel like Spanish now, huh?”
“Not so much,” Kim agreed, and then, feeling a wave of affection for this ungainly but kind redhead, added impulsively, “Do you want to go to the dance with me?”