Popularity is like a disease. You catch it at someone’s birthday party, or come back from Christmas vacation with it, and for awhile it’s even okay. It’s what you wanted, kind of like a new jacket or a tan. But then, it starts to get old. You try to comb it out of your hair or scrape if off your shoe, but it doesn’t budge.
In the mirror over the sinks, I can see most of the locker room. Behind me, Kendry is braiding Palmer’s hair. They’re talking about calories.
“But protein,” Palmer says. “Maybe not beef. But, like soy? How many calories does tofu have if it’s baked?”
“I don’t know, but it’s supposed to be good for your boobs—I heard it makes them huge. Waverly knows, right?” Kendry says it over her shoulder, giving me an ironic look.
I laugh because that’s how the script goes, the little joke, the little giggle. I have no breasts to speak of. I open my locker and get out my cross-trainers and my running shorts.
Autumn Pickerel is sitting alone on one of the low benches, staring down at a battered notebook with paper flowers decoupaged all over the front. The laces of her sneakers have been wrestled into sloppy bows, grimy from being stepped on. She looks floppy and defeated.
Autumn is slow. Not in the sense of being stupid or special—I have no idea about her mental capacity—but her cross-country times are terrible.
I’ve changed into my warm-up clothes and I’m just lacing up my shoes when, behind me, Palmer says, “Wow, that’s really interesting.”
The words are innocuous, but the tone promises misery to the recipient.
When I turn around, the bloodletting is already underway. Autumn Pickeral is standing in the middle of the locker room, with her shoulders slumped and her ankles crossed awkwardly.
When the florescent tube in the ceiling flickers, she looks like someone out of a cheap horror movie—the girl who gets killed in middle. Not the smartest or the prettiest or the most virtuous, but everyone thinks she’s basically okay and they’re sad when she’s dead.
“Why are you always so mean?” she mumbles at the floor. “Can’t you just quit?”
“God, Autumn,” says Kendry. She’s holding Autumn’s notebook. “Do you always take everything this personally? You don’t have to be so lame about it.”
Autumn doesn’t answer. I think I catch her looking at me, just from the corner of my eye, just for a second, but then she glances away, letting her hair fall in front of her face.
“Yeah,” Palmer says, flipping her hair in a shining arc. “We were only joking.”
Autumn just looks at her with the same flat, sleepy expression she always has. Then she nods. “Oh. Oh, yeah, I get it now.” Her voice is soft and husky. “No, that is funny. I think you might have messed up the punchline a little, though. I think the way it actually goes is Bite me.”
For a second, I’m almost sure that something is going to happen and I have no idea what it will be. Autumn looks mysterious, but not the way that other girls look mysterious when they’re trying catch boys or keep secrets. Nothing about her face tells me what’s coming. She’s not angry, not anxious or hurt or apologetic. I don’t recognize her expression, and that scares me.
“Come on,” I say, taking the notebook back from Kendry, turning Palmer by the elbow. I smile and it’s slow and controlled and thirty degrees. My eyes are lasers, beaming out subtext, saying get a move on as I shove Palmer toward the door.
In the hierarchy of our glossy, snarling pack, I’m the beta. I don’t know when that was decided exactly. Long before boy-girl parties or high school or we knew who would have breasts and who would only be stuck with the brains, my best friend Maribeth Whitman plucked me from obscurity and made me her second, and now it only takes a stare and a smile and all the rest of them fall in line.
It lacks any sort of nuance, or subtlety, but it always works. It’s so heavy-handed that I want to scream.
Palmer looks away. She huffs once, then catches hold of Kendry, dragging her out of the locker room.
When they leave, the room gets so quiet it feels like it’s starting to rust.
I splash some tap water through my bangs and push them off my forehead, using a strip of pre-wrap as a headband.
As I’m tying the ends of the pre-wrap, Autumn comes up behind me. When she speaks, her voice sounds low and almost drugged. ““I’m done,” she says.
It takes me a second to realize that she’s talking to me. I finish adjusting my hair. Then I turn around, leaning against the counter. “Done with what?”
“With being nice. With having a big fricking target on my back.”
We stand in the locker room, facing each other, and I don’t know what to say. She’s different now, in the empty room. Her expression is cool and alert. She’s taller than me, with a good build and long legs. I wonder why her times are so bad.
The face I maintain is carefully neutral—my mother’s psych face. “Okay. And when did you decide that you were done being nice?”
“Friday, when they tied my hair to the bleachers when I wasn’t looking, And Saturday at the meet, when they asked me if I ever made birthday wishes that I wasn’t such a huge lame-ass loser—’just kidding.’ Oh, and last Wednesday, when they threw my socks in the shower. And every other day, and every other damn minute.”
She tosses her hair out of her face and turns to the mirror, picking at her bottom lip. “You know how when you’re little and people make fun of you, and grown-ups always tell you to just ignore it? Just be the better person, let it bounce off?”
I nod. In the mirror, Autumn’s reflection looks stoic and mean.
She meets my eyes in the glass and smiles. “Yeah, well it’s not like that. It doesn’t bounce. It’s like a holding tank. They just keep pouring in their stupid screechy laughs and their just kidding, and now it’s full.” She shrugs and twitches away from the mirror. “So, I’m done.”
“Then it sounds like maybe you need to do something else.”
Autumn nods. “That’s the general idea. So, you want to get in on it?” She’s still smiling and it’s not as tentative or as friendly as I would have expected. “Just think of it as a project. Like, a social project. Don’t worry—I’d be doing the work. You’d just be like the officer in charge of strategy, or whatever.”
“What are you talking about?” It comes out halfway between a laugh and a cough, and I put my hand over my mouth. “I think you’re ignoring one vital obstacle. They don’t like you.”
“That’s why I need your help—to get me in with the cool kids. You know the passwords and the handshakes. You know the lay of the land.”
But what she really means is, I know how to make them do whatever I want and think it’s their idea.
“Maybe, but why would I help you?”
Autumn grins, sort of, only it’s more like she’s baring her teeth. “I know your secret.”
I have this weird, guilty thought that she’s talking about the power I have over them. Not the obvious dog-pack one, but that second kind of po
wer. I know them too well not to know their weaknesses.
I cross my arms over my chest. “What secret?”
“That you’re the smart one.”
When I laugh, it sounds almost relieved. “Everyone knows that. They print the honor roll on the back page of the Courier every quarter.”
“I’m not talking about grades.” She waves her hand at the empty locker room. “I’m talking about this. The dances, the teams, the clubs. You know it’s bullshit, and you play anyway.”
I don’t say anything.
We stand looking at each other over the carved-up benches. She’s wearing so much eyeliner that it’s starting to flake off in waxy pieces, like crayon.
Autumn smiles again, sweeter and more thoughtful than before. “If you help me with this, you get to find out exactly how smart you are.”
That wide-eyed, guileless expression is a little much. Her idea of manipulation is intuitive, but raw. It needs some fine tuning. And I’m just the person to do it. My father works in advertising.
I’m only even considering this because sometimes Palmer goes too far and needs to be taken down a notch or two.
Oh, who am I kidding? I want to see what happens.
“I have to go,” I say. “We’re going to be late.” I grab my warm-up jacket and start for the door. I’m almost out in the athletics hall before I turn back to face her. “Just one thing. Why did you pick me?”
“Because I think you might be the only person who can actually do this.”
I nod and pretend to consider that, but in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, you have no idea what I can do.
Photo by iampeas