CORY SLUMPED ON the shaded bench at the school’s front entrance, hoping to avoid the rest of the girls leaving for the cross-country team tryouts. Leaning back deeper into the shadows, she watched the stream of girls jog down the hill, turn onto the road, and disappear. She’d intended to run with them, to try to make the team, but . . .
Why was it still so hot in September? Not at all like back home in Massachusetts. Home. It had only been three weeks since school had started, eight since her family had moved to Maryland. Except Dad. He had left her mom, Roni, and Cory knew her mom would sooner wear white shoes after Labor Day than be known as “the abandoned wife” among her friends back home in Wellesley.
Things would be different if she were still going to school in Wellesley. Cory recalled it was the start of the school season in Massachusetts when women removed their hot pink toenail polish, packed away the Nantucket wicker pocketbooks, and pulled out chests of mothball-infused woolen sweaters. In other words, in the fall. Here in Maryland school started in August.
A group of girls passed by, their rubber flip-flops flapping against heels, bare legs under short shorts. Cory tucked her legs under the bench. When she picked out the new shoes at the store she thought they looked great. Now she wasn’t so sure. She realized she stood out, and maybe not in a good way.
The buses were late. Cory unzipped the gym bag at her feet and pulled out a slim paperback of Candide. The words on the page swam before her eyes without comprehension. Over the top of the book, another set of eyes met hers.
The boy had on jeans with a slit over each knee, topped with a polo shirt. A lacrosse stick rested on his right shoulder. She recalled seeing him during lunch periods, but he wasn’t in any of her AP classes.
David Randall. Though she had only been at Glenwood High a few weeks, she already knew who he was. Everyone did. David, like the famous statue. He was always followed by a group of other guys who hooted and cheered when he slapped a girl’s butt or made jokes about some geeky kid. His own Greek chorus. But sometimes he was kind of funny. Yesterday in the cafeteria he invented a tater-tot tossing game. He lobbed ketchup-laden tots at the dropped ceiling, and allotted points for ones that fell directly in cups of water placed underneath. It was popular, that is, until the lunchroom monitor stopped him.
Cory dropped her eyes to the page, but every skin cell prickled on high alert as he approached.
“Hey, I read that.”
Cory lowered the book.
“Want to know how it ends?” he asked.
His brown eyes looked at her from under a sweep of overgrown bangs. She wasn’t sure what to say. “I read it already. In French class, last year.”
The confident look on his face seeped away.
“But I don’t remember much about it.”
“Slide over,” he ordered.
He sat on the bench and carefully propped his lacrosse stick against the arm. Her leg was nearly touching his, warmth permeated through his jeans. She studied the shape of his sharp knee jutting through a hole. He spoke in a low voice, leaning in to her as if imparting some confidential information.
“See, this guy, Candide—I thought that was a girl at first by his name—anyway, he gets caught by this girl’s father . . .”
His lips moved, telling a skewed and partially made-up version of a book she knew by heart. A shadow of stubble above his top lip changed in definition and hue as he formed the words. She fixed a look of interest on her face.
“ . . . and then Candide ends up marrying this girl, even though she’s turned into an ugly skank. Then, after killing all these guys to get her, they end up being farmers.”
David shrugged. Cory could think of absolutely nothing to say about his strange rendition of the story. She could point out it was a social satire on society at that time, but figured it would be lost on him. She couldn’t resist, however, remarking, “Ignorance is bliss.” David’s eyes narrowed.
A bus pulled in to the parking lot and angled into a slot. Other buses lined up nose-in facing the school like a herd of yellow wildebeests gathering at a watering hole. Students reached for backpacks and slowly made their way toward them. Cory shouldered her backpack and bent over to grab her gym bag.
“Only losers ride the bus. Look at them!” David sprawled on the bench, his left arm snaking behind Cory’s shoulders, his legs spread wide. “Just freshmen and losers. I wouldn’t be caught dead riding the bus.” He watched the lines of students boarding and shook his head.
Cory leaned back. She didn’t want to be thought of as a loser. She didn’t move as the kids on her route filed onto bus sixty-seven.
David’s attention snapped back. “Right. Hey, um . . . what’s your name?”
“Cory. Cory Iverson.”
“Yeah, Cory, you play sports or something? Got that huge gym bag and all.”
The bus began to pull out of the school’s parking lot. Her neighbor, Adam Hollis, had his face pressed against a window, staring out at her. Cory swallowed, wondering what the heck she was doing still sitting there and how she’d get home now. “Nope. I don’t play any sports.” She hurried to add, “Not at school.” She thumbed the pages of the novel. Her feet rested evenly on the pavement, her knees pressed together.
“What are you carrying in this bag then?” He smiled as he hooked the strap with one hand and hauled the partially open bag up onto his lap.
A twinge hit the bottom of her stomach, like a creature with a lot of little, hairy legs was crawling around down there. “Nothing. Really.” She pulled the bag gently over onto her own lap. “Gym clothes and stuff.”
He stuck his arm elbow-deep into the bag and fished around in it. His hand, rooting in the bottom of the bag, brushed against her thighs.
“What are these?” He pulled out her new running shoes. Not sneakers. She had begged for real running shoes in order to try out for the cross-country team. Her mom had gasped at the price, complaining that Cory already had perfectly good sneakers.
“In my day,” her mom said loudly in the shoe store, “we used things up, wore them out, or did without.”
Cory winced, recalling that embarrassing scene. Roni talked as if she had lived through the Depression or something. Truthfully, her mom never reused anything, not even a pair of pantyhose.
David stood, holding the new, neon-white, and incredibly expensive running shoes by their laces. He swung them back and forth, dangling from one finger. Cory reached out to grab them, but he snatched them away.
“Nice shoes. You run?”
“Yeah, well, kind of.” Cory used to run with her dad back home. He was the one who got her into it. She should have been at tryouts now, not ditching the practice because she was afraid she couldn’t do the 5K in time to make the team. When she looked at the shoes dangling in his hands, she heard her mom’s voice, “But you’re not exactly the athletic type, are you?” Maybe she wasn’t.
David took a few steps toward the parking lot with her shoes. Cory leapt up after him. He turned, smiled at her, striding backwards. He swung the shoes, tied together by their laces, in a wide arc.
“Hey,” Cory called tentatively. “Wanna give those back?”
A few faces turned their way. Some kids, waiting for rides, jostled each other for a better view. David’s smile broadened. His Adam’s apple bulged more prominently as he tilted his head back and looked up. In an instant, his arm swung, his shoulder muscle rippled under the light t-shirt, and at the top of the arc, his fingers spread open wide like a Chinese fan. He held that position, arm in midair. The shoes flew upward in a straight trajectory, like a pair of matched doves.
Cory lost sight of them for a split second when the sun’s glare caused her to look away. She anticipated the thud, signaling their return to Earth, but there was none. The shoes caught on the overhead power lines, one on each side of the wire. They spun in their individual orbits, hopelessly twisting the laces, entangled with the wire. They eventually stopped twisting and hung, toes down, like her sister’s ballet slippers.
“All right!” David pumped an elevated arm. “First try!”
“Why did you do that?” She stood on the spot, gaping at the trapped shoes. Explaining the location of her brand-new running shoes to her mother flashed into her head. “What am I supposed to do now?”
Laughter exploded behind her. She spun. Enter the Greek chorus.
“Hey, sorry,” he said in a way that showed he wasn’t sorry at all. “I’ve never got them up there on the first try before.” He walked over to the bench to retrieve his lax stick.
“Today’s your lucky day, I guess.”
A bright yellow car pulled up, and he yanked open the passenger side door.
“See you around, Carrie!”
“Cory,” she said under her breath as the car sped off.
In the distance, the first few runners circled back from the first lap of the cross-country run. Cory went back to the bench and stuffed Candide into her bag. She stared up again at the dangling shoes and had to turn away, as if the sun were in her eyes. She hefted her backpack on one shoulder, the gym bag on the other and headed down the sidewalk, anticipating how sore she’d be after the half-hour walk home.
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