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At the end of July, back when I was still fun, I bought Vicks two tufts of fake armpit hair from Jokes-A-Plenty. They were like Band-Aids with fur. She cackled and wore them all day, calling herself She-Woman of Fantastical Florida, and she kept them on for her date that night with her boyfriend, Brady McKane. She wore a camisole.
She told me the next morning that Brady nearly spit rocks when he saw her, although she was probably just making the story good. Brady adores that girl and wouldn't care if it was fake nose hair she was sporting. Heck, he'd adore her even if it wasn't fake.
I'm thinking about that as I pull into the parking lot of the Waffle House, where me and Vicks work. The armpit hair, not how much Brady adores Vicks. 'Cause I remember that jokey girl I used to be, and I remember how easy it was with me and Vicks, making each other laugh and being best buds. Now there's something off between us, and I can't stand it.
Part of it's me, I don't deny it. Ever since Mama first found the lump, I haven't been myself. That was seventeen days ago, which is a long time to stomp around all pissy and full of secrets.
But Vicks has also gotten herself into a big ol' funk, which I pin on the fact that Brady left town almost two weeks ago. Still, can't she look past her own troubles and see that I'm hurting too? Besides, it's not like he left the country. He's in Miami, not Timbuktu.
I want Vicks back. I need her back, especially now.
I cut the engine of Mama's sherbet green Opel and gear up to go into the restaurant, even though Friday's my day off and by all rights I should be lounging on the sofa and watching one of those birth stories on Lifetime, where the baby almost dies but at the last second is saved, and everyone is full of tears and happiness and second chances. Life is good, and look at those eensy perfect toes and fingers. What a blessing. Praise the Lord.
It's just that these days, there hasn't been much in my life to praise.
"Oh, babe, I must'a pissed God off something serious," Mama said to me last week when she got the official news from the oncologist. She laughed, but her eyes were holes of worry ringed with jet-black liner.
And I'm obviously filled with worm rot, because what I shot back was, "Yeah, I guess you did."
This came the day after the wet T-shirt contest, mind. My mama, my mama, in a wet T-shirt contest! With truckers spraying her boobs with ice water! And R.D. standing there all proud, I'm sure. Grinning and nudging his buddies and saying, "That's my woman. Ain't she something?" No doubt serving Icee Gator Aid from his frozen drink cart, which he thinks gives the truck stop a touch of class.
Well, I am here to say that there is nothing classy about the goings-on at that truck stop.
Mama claims she knew what that fancy clinic doctor would be telling her, and that the contest at R.D.'s Trucko-Rama was her chance to give "the girls" a final whirl.
Plus, it won her a hundred bucks. Doesn't that mean she'd taken something sour and created something sweet?
Um, no. What it means is that R.D.'s a perv, Mama's a sinner, and those horny truckers are pervs and sinners for going along with it.
I wish I could erase the entire last week: Mama, the lab reports, and most definitely R. D. Biggs, who yesterday left me a twenty-dollar tip for no reason at all, other than I'm Mama's daughter and apparently he wants to share the love.
I used to like R.D., or at least I liked him more than some of Mama's other boyfriends. I liked his belly laugh, and I liked that he'd play Pictionary with me and Mama on our weekly game night. But I no longer want him around, his worried eyes following me as I deliver eggs, toast, hash browns, grits. And waffles, of course. The Awful Waffle, that's what me and Vicks call this place. Though the waffles are actually delicious.
"Listen, Jesse," he said, after he'd practically licked his plate clean. He leaned in, his expression all fatherly, and I could tell in a fl ash I did not want to hear what was coming. "Your mama's experiencing some hard times."
"No. Uh-uh." I got real close and lowered my voice to a furious whisper, 'cause no way did I want anyone hearing our business. "You do not come talk to me about hard times, not after . . . what you made her do!"
"Jesse, what the . . .?" He splayed his greasy fingers on the counter. "Are you talking 'bout the other night? I didn't make her do nothing. She's a grown woman—ain't she allowed to make her own choices?"
I stalked away 'cause he's not worth my time anyhow. But when I got home, I informed Mama I didn't want that fool in my trailer no more.
"Your trailer?" she said.
"Why'd you have to tell him, anyway?" I said.
"Tell him what?"
I glared. She knew. Stupid R.D., coming in and blabbing about her medical woes.
She sighed. "Baby . . . when you're hurting, you lean on your friends."
"You call him a friend? Making you act all nasty in front of his trucker buddies?"
"I wasn't . . . he didn't—" She broke off . "Listen, Jesse, maybe he's not the friend you'd pick for me, but he's still a friend. More than a friend. And you know what? I'll take them any way I can get them."
"You'll take anything any way you can get it," I said under my breath.
"'Scuse me?" She put down her dishrag. I walked out of the trailer's dinky kitchen and into the equally dinky living area, which smelled like dogs. She followed me and grabbed my arm.
"You think it helps my situation knowing how you're taking this?" she said. "Knowing my daughter thinks I'm a . . ."
She sucked in her breath.
I couldn't believe I'd said that—though I didn't take it back.
"God, Jesse," she fi nally said. "R.D. was right there. No way was he going to let anyone disrespect me. If he can stand by me, why can't you?"
"You shouldn't take the Lord's name in vain," I said.
She stared at me like she didn't know who I was, this daughter who would act so hateful.
"I can't fix this," she finally said. "You can't fix this. We just gotta hope for the best, that's all we can do."
"And pray," I said.
She barked out a laugh. A laugh!
"Fine," she said, "you pray for me. That'd be nice. Know what'd be even nicer?"
I stood there, feeling trembly.
"If you'd live your own damn life instead of passing judgment on mine. I mean, I swear, Jesse. You're so set on following God's rules that you've turned into a goddamn Goody Two-shoes."
"No. You act like you're so special, like you're racking up points in heaven by being so good and looking down on the rest of us, but all the while, you're missing out here on Earth."
I looked away. She grabbed my head and turned me back.
"I mean it, Jesse." She kept ahold of her voice, but just barely. "You better live this life of yours while you can—real living, the kind where you get a little dirt on your halo—'cause, babe, not one of us knows how long we got."
Fine, Mama, I said in my brain. Not then, but later once the heat of it had turned to a hard, fierce, teary ache. If that's what you want, then fine.
The midmorning sun toasts my skin through the windshield. I spot Vicks inside the restaurant, and I can just bet she's sweating up a storm. Four eggs, over easy. Waffle on two. Three hash browns, scattered, smothered, chunked, and diced. She's the only fry cook who's a girl, and the only cook under the age of twenty. She's seventeen like me, but I just wait tables. Anybody can wait tables.
From my primo parking space, I can also see the new girl, Mel. Mel's been hostessing here for just two months, meaning she's got less rank than anyone. But she doesn't act like it. Not that she's out and out rude, but she watches everyone with her big blue eyes, and I can see the thoughts running through her head about how redneck we all are. How redneck I am, because I don't wear four-hundred-dollar jeans.
For real, four hundred dollars! I noticed them right off . See, our uniforms consist of black pants and a gray and-white-striped shirt. The shirts we get from Waffle House, along with the butt-ugly bow ties. The pants, however, are our own. Most people buy a pair at Kmart or Mervyns and don't think another thing about it, 'cause they're going to be filthy by the end of the shift anyway.
My pants are bad. I admit it. They snap shut too high on my waist, and they've got these dorky pockets that fluff out and make me look fat, which I'm not. Put me in a pair of cutoff s and a tank top, that's the real me.
MeeMaw—that's my grandma—likes me better in church clothes, but I'm not wearing skirts and dress-up shoes on my days off . I can be close to the Lord in shorts just as well as in a skirt, I figure.
Anyway, last week Mel showed up in a new pair of black jeans, and I told her they were cute. I was trying to be nice, since Vicks had gotten on me for being sosnarky.
"Thanks," Mel said. She seemed surprised I was talking to her.
"Where'd you get them? I have the hardest time finding good jeans in this town."
"Um . . . ," she said. She tugged a strand of her hair and drew it to her mouth, like maybe she didn't want to go sharing her jeans secrets.
"Well, what brand are they?"
She twisted around, searching for a label. "Um . . .Chloé?"
Chloé? That was a brand of jeans?
That afternoon I took the bus to the public library and used the Internet to look up Chloé jeans. No stores in Niceville stocked them, but I could order them from some place called Bergdorf Goodman for the low low price of three hundred and ninety dollars, plus shipping. I felt like an idiot, knowing that's why Mel didn't tell me.
The next day I asked Mel why she was even working here. It just slipped out, and Vicks shot me a look like, Cripes, Jesse. Be a little cattier?
But c'mon. We'd all seen Mel climb out of her dad's silver Mercedes, and the diamond studs she wears glitter in a way my cubic zirconias never do. Plus I'd heard Abe, our manager, making conversation with her about the African safari she'd gone on before she started working here. Mel had fidgeted, but she confessed that yes, she'd seen actual lions and zebras and giraffes doing their thing in the wild.
Me? There's no call for any trip to Africa. Mama's got a zillion and a half boarder dogs stinking up our trailer on any given day. That's my wildlife adventure.
Anyway, that's when I finally asked Mel what I'd been wanting to know since the day she started: Why was someone like her working at the Awful Waffle?
Her answer: "Um . . . because no one I know would ever eat here?"
Vicks thinks she didn't mean it the way it sounded, but those were her exact words.
I climb out of Mama's Opel, and the door squeaks when I shut it. Mama's going to be madder than tar that I took it without asking, but tough.
I tug at my shorts and smooth down my tank. I push my fingers through my hair, combing out the tangles. One thing I've got on Mel—not that I'm counting—is my corn silk, ultra-blond hair.
Mel's longish brown hair is cute enough, but she keeps it in a ponytail 24/7, so it's not like she gets any mileage out of it. Same with her face. Cute enough—maybe even pretty—but a touch of eyeliner and a swipe of lip gloss would go a long way. As for her body . . . well, fine. She's hot. Sure she folds her shoulders in like no one ever told her to stand up straight, but she's like a size two and has one of those athletic bodies that's probably from years of private tennis lessons. Goody for her.
Vicks is so much cooler looking. She might not see it that way, but she is. She's got this awesome shaggy haircut that she did herself, and she dyed it jet-black with a couple streaks of white. The black came first, and then she got sick of it and was like, "Think I'll bleach it out." The streaks frame her face and make her dark eyes stand out. Plus, unlike Mel, she isn't afraid of a little eyeliner.
The bell on the door jingles as I step into the restaurant. The smell of waffles and bacon hits me hard, and suddenly those stupid tears are back.
"Hey there, Jesse!" Abe calls, glancing up from the cash register. "Just can't stay away, can you?"
"That's right," I say. I blink and paste on my smile. "I need my toast burnt like only you can do it."
"Uh-uh," he says. He steps out from behind the counter and makes as if to swat me, and I sidestep the blow.
I call out "hey" to Dotty, who's got two All-Star Specials balanced on her arms, and say, "Hola, amigo," to T-Bone.
"You looking for Vicks?" T-Bone says from the griddle.
"Yeah, she was just here. Where'd that girl get to?"
"She's on break, but it isn't on the schedule," Abe complains. "Tell her to quit ruining her lungs and get back here, will you?"
I head for the back exit, then stop and turn. "Hey, Abe. Can I have tomorrow off? Sunday, too?"
"You gotta be kidding," he says. "Tell me you're kidding."
"It's just . . . I need a break, that's all." My heart starts pounding. What if he says no?
"Aw, Abe, take a chill pill," Dotty calls. "I can cover for her. I was supposed to have the kids this weekend, but Carl Junior's taking them to Disney World. Did he ask if he could take them to Disney World? No, he did not. Did he stop and think for one second that maybe I was taking them to Disney World? No, he did not."
Disney World! I think, which is a sign of how twitchy my brain is. I've always wanted to go to Disney World, especially Epcot, which stands for "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow." I've seen the brochures, and the whole thing's done up like a miniature world, with itty bitty countries snuggled up side by side: France and Germany and China and all those amazing places. There's even an Eiffel Tower stretching clear to the sky.
Miami, I remind myself. Miami's the thing to focus on, not Epcot and the Eiffel Tower. Geez, girl, get your head out of the clouds!
Out loud, I say, "Thanks, Dotty."
"You bet." She deposits a side of bacon in front of a woman in a pink T-shirt. "I've told Abe a dozen times—ain't I, Abe?—that you've been working yourself too hard these past few weeks. I been worrying about you, darlin'."
She wipes her hands on her apron and heads my way,and I sense I'm in for a hug. Which would undo me.
"Well, don't," I say sharply. Right away I feel bad, 'cause she knows about Mama's health problems, and she knows I know she knows. She and Mama play bingo together, and of course they get to talking. It's just that no one else at the Awful Waffle knows: not Abe, not T-Bone, not even Vicks.
Mama doesn't understand why I haven't told Vicks. I don't know why, either. Not in a way I can explain.
"I'm fine," I say to Dotty. I don't like the way she's looking at me, so I let my gaze slip off sideways. "Really. So, uh . . . see you kids on the flip side, 'kay?"
I find Vicks in the back parking lot, leaning against the concrete wall with a cigarette between her fingers. Beside her is Mel. I suck in my tummy, because that's how Mel makes me feel.
"Jesse!" Vicks says. She pushes off the wall and slaps my palm. "What's up, toots? Thought you didn't work today." Her smile is big, like she's genuinely glad to see me, and it makes me wonder if I've imagined all the weirdness between us lately.
"Hey, Jesse," Mel says. She's got some kind of accent that I haven't figured out yet. Up north or something, somewhere snooty.
"Hey," I say back. I angle my body to shut out Mel, though not enough that anyone could call me on it. "Listen,Vicks. I've got an idea."
"An awesome idea," I say, thinking about Vicks and Brady and how she'll jump at the chance to go see him for sure. Brady left early for the University of Miami because of football workouts, though by now he's probably started classes and everything. He's a freshman, and he's playing for the Miami Hurricanes. Pretty cool. Heck, Miami in general sounds pretty cool.
Niceville, on the other hand, hosts the "world famous" Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival. Now there's a whomping good time. You can eat fried fish while cheering on your top picks for Baby Miss Mullet, Junior Miss Mullet, and Miss Teen Mullet, which I was in the running for once, but I couldn't figure out a talent, so too bad for me.
Vicks flicks me. "So are we going to hear this awesome idea?"
"Oh. Right. Well . . . how's Brady?"
She looks at me funny, like I'm changing the subject. But I'm not. I'm just warming up to it. "He's busy," she says. "Practice starts every morning at six, then they run them again in the afternoon."
"It's not good," Mel says, all sympathetic, like she's got the inside scoop. "I can't believe he's only sent her one pathetic text message since he left."
What? This is news to me, and I don't like it. I especially don't like that Mel's the one reporting it.
"That true?" I ask Vicks.
"The U rules, wish you were here. Heart ya!'" Vicks says. She looks uncomfortable, like she knows she done wrong by me. When you're best friends with someone—even when things aren't quite right—you give her the inside scoop. Not some new hostess girl.
"He sent it at two A.M.," Mel goes on. "When he knew Vicks would be asleep."
"Whatever," says Vicks. "I'm not going to be some whiner-baby girlfriend, all freaked out because he doesn't check in every morning and every night." Her tone is ballsy—classic Vicks—but her brow furrows as she draws on her cigarette. And her foot, which is pressed against the concrete wall, is tap-tap-tapping away.
"But . . . how can he not call you?" I say. "You've been going out for almost a year."
She sighs. "Tell that to him."
I'm floored. Whenever me and Vicks and Brady went out for wings this summer, or when the three of us went to the movies, Brady would hold Vicks's hand and give her little kisses and not care a whit that I was looking on. "You are just gone over this girl, aren't you?" I said once. Brady just smiled.
"No, listen, you tell him," I say to Vicks. 'Cause this is my great idea: to drive to Miami so Vicks can see Brady. "Let's go down and see that bum in person. The U is only six hours away."
Vicks snorts. "Six? Try nine."
"You know he loves you, Vicks. We'll kick his behind for not treating you like he should!"
"How would we get there?" Vicks says. "Take the bus? That's classy. I'd hop off the Greyhound, all grubby and smelly, and be like, Dude, it's me, your stylin' girlfriend.
Wanna take me with you to Freshman Composition?'"
"I've got my mom's car," I tell her. "I've got it for the whole weekend."
She snorts again. She's no stranger to the Opel.
"Don't be rude," I say. I'm trying too hard, and it's making me sweat. "Think about it: you and me and the open road. We can do whatever we want, whenever we want to do it. And I got the radio working again, so we'll have music."
"I need to find a good radio station around here," Mel puts in, as if we're all three having a conversation.
"All I can find is country, so I pretty much just listen to my iPod. Hey, does your mom's car have a built-in iPod?"
I glare at her.
"No iPod in the Opel," Vicks says. "I regret to inform."
"Is there a CD player?" Mel asks, and I glare harder.
Plus my cheeks heat up.
"No, o innocent one, the Opel is a minimalist outfit," Vicks informs her. "No power windows, no AC, no cup holders, no CD player, and definitely no built-in iPod."
Now I glare at Vicks.
"And the windshield wipers are kaput," she adds.
"They are not kaput!" I protest. "They get a little sticky sometimes, that's all. Anyhow, who needs wipers?
We're in Florida! The sunshine state!"
"The sunshine state,'" Mel says. "I like that." She blinks and smiles, and it's like she's trying to smooth things over or something. Which is so not her place, it's not even funny.
She gazes at me with her too-blue eyes and says, "That's so cool that your mum's giving you the car for the entire weekend."
"Mum?" I say. Who says "mum"? I turn to Vicks.
"So . . . you up for it?"
Vicks stares into space.
Mel fidgets. Out of nowhere, she goes, "Um . . . I am."
I'm speechless. Did anyone ask her to go with us to Miami? Did anyone ask her to go sticking her nose where it isn't needed and sure as heck isn't wanted? I mean, really. Where does she get off?
With my body I shut her out for real.
"C'mon, Vicks. A little bit of fun before school starts? We can swing by—" I almost say Disney World, but I don't, 'cause I don't want Mel knowing I've never been, or even just guessing. Mel's traveled to Africa, and I've never crossed the state to Disney World? That's sadder than a hound dog who's lost her pups.
"We can swing by that museum place you told me about," I improvise. "See the giant lizard."
Vicks crushes her cigarette and flicks the butt on the ground. "It's not a lizard. It's a gator. Old Joe."
"Fine, see Old Joe," I say. "We'll make a road trip out of it, go to any of those tourist sites we want!" Vicks adores that crap. She's got a whole book of roadside attractions involving mermaids and albino squirrels and monkeys wearing Beatles wigs.
Vicks checks her watch. "I've got to go back in."
"But . . . what about my idea?"
She sighs. "Who would I get to take my shifts?"
"T-Bone. You know he needs the extra cash."
"Yeah, and speaking of—how would we fund this adventure?
I bet you've got, what, all of fifteen dollars?"
"Thirty!" I reply indignantly.
"And I've got maybe ten dollars, tops, since I blew my entire last paycheck on booze and Lucky Strikes."
"You did not."
"But I did buy Brady a laundry hamper for his dorm room, the kind that stands up on its own. The rest I socked away in my college fund." She shrugs. "Sorry, Jesse. We can't go anywhere on forty dollars."
"We can if we want," I say. There's a wobbling in my chest. I drive my fingernails into my palms.
Mel clears her throat. "Um . . . I've got money. I can pay."
I turn and gape.
"Fuel, snacks . . . whatever." She gives an awkward hitch of her shoulders. "I could get us a room at a hotel."
I throw up my hands, because she is insane. "Why?!"
"I want to see Old Joe?" When Vicks and I stare, she juts out her chin. "What? I do."
This isn't the way it's supposed to play out. Mel's ruining everything. Except the truth is, Vicks isn't helping much, either. And when I think on that, my insides twist tighter. After all, she's the one who's been on me for being a wet blanket—so why's she being like this? Can't she see how much fun we'd have, dang it?
Then I realize how to make it happen. It's a gift from God, which proves it's true, I guess, that He works in mysterious ways. Mysterious, annoying, Chloé-clad ways, but who am I to go against His will?
"Fine," I say to Mel, knowing there is nothing Vicks hates worse than not being Tough Girl Numero Uno.
"We'll go to Miami. It'll be awesome."
Mel looks slightly alarmed that I've accepted her offer.
I turn to Vicks, trying to stay cocky. "So what do you say? You in?"How to Be Bad. Copyright © by Lauren Myracle. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from How to Be Bad by E. Lockhart, Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.