Just Wreck It All
1 Autumn, Now, Thursday Morning, the First Day of Eleventh Grade
STANDING AT THE BOTTOM OF the rocky path that led up to where Bett and her mother lived now, standing there at seven horrible thirty in the morning, Bett wasn’t sure which kids would be on the bus heading her way, but that didn’t matter. She knew she’d know them all. Salt River was large in land area but small in population, and Bett and her mother had stayed within the town boundaries when they moved this summer. And the truth was, any kid filled Bett with terror and anxiety, with their looking at her and their thinking their thoughts.
Bett’s own thoughts raced. Better if it’s boys on the bus? Or girls? Boys. No, girls.
Oh, neither. Why did I wear shorts?
Could she quick go back up the hill and change into jeans? But all Bett had time to do was stand there and worry, one hand clasping her opposite arm at the elbow, because the bus was heaving into view in front of her, diesel-stinking and loud. The folding door opened. Bett looked up. Driver’s fist on the handle that opened the door. Bett stared at the driver. The driver stared at her.
* * *
She recognized him at once, thickset and sketch-looking with grayish hair and a stained baseball cap on his head. Eddie Pisca.
It was clear Eddie recognized her, too, and he must have read her thoughts. “Yeah. It’s me. Two jobs. This and the vet center. Mind-blowing.”
Then his face reddened. Bett knew why and the knowledge pulled all her own thoughts about being fat to the front of her mind again and brought with them the beginnings of tears.
Calm down, idiot! she told herself. Stop it right now! Be reasonable. Eddie hadn’t seen her in years, couldn’t know she was even fatter now than she had been when school ended last June. And that had already been super fat.
But there he was, staring at Bett with eyes that had some kind of film on them.
“So you’re the girl who lives up there?” He nodded toward the slope. “The girl going to the school?”
Bett nodded back.
The red was fading from Eddie’s face. “Then get the hell on my bus.”
Bett got the hell on his bus.
The first person she saw was Dan, a skinny redhead with chin whiskers and an Adam’s apple with a zit on it. He glanced up, then nodded hello at her.
But Bett couldn’t nod back, even though Dan was an okay-enough kid. He was kind of techy and did a lot with the wood- and metal-shop crowd. The next person on the bus, also a boy, was staring out the window. Mutt. Ugh. Mutt was an ass, but at least she didn’t see any of his friends on the bus. Mutt was always worse with a crowd, the kind of kid who threw Kool-Aid on you the day you wore white pants in the fifth grade. He was just the teen version of that now. He looked as if he were made of meat, like what people thought of when they thought of a movie high school boy.
The last kid on the bus was also a boy, smaller with tufty brown hair, bent over sideways with one arm stuck in his backpack, eyes on the ceiling as he rummaged around. He looked too young to be in high school, so he must be the lone junior high schooler on the bus, maybe seventh grade. Mutt and Dan were going into eleventh, like Bett.
No girls. Good. Right? Oh, I don’t know!
Bett’s face grew warm. She spent hours cutting up old men’s jeans into shorts like these, shredding them just so and squeezing them over her thighs and butt. Her sweater
was just as bad as the shorts. It had been the ugliest one in the thrift shop, which made her put it back on the rack at first because did its ugliness actually make it cool? But then she had seen it again for what it was, mannish and hideous, and had plunked down her three dollars and taken the sweater home with her. Wearing it today was a good proactive act against any positive thing she might do or imagine later—anything too Plus, as Bett thought of it. A Plus was any good feeling or action, and there was no Plus Bett would let herself countenance, not once she had recognized it as one.
“Sit somewhere in the first five rows,” said the bus driver loudly. His face was reddening again, too. Why? Was it because he could see her rear in his mirror? “No one sits in the back of my bus. There’ve been incidents.”
But Bett obeyed and passed Mutt where he sat behind Eddie and took a seat four rows back for herself. She sat down cautiously because what if something awful happened, like her sitting down made the seat rip? All these eyes on her were horrible enough.
“And buckle up.” The bus driver shifted the bus into gear. It pulled away from the side of the road and heaved itself forth as the bus driver glanced at her in the mirror to make sure she did up the buckle. Despite the heavy sweater, Bett was freezing. Who’d have thought it would already be this cold in September?
“BETT!” shouted the bus driver.
Bett jumped. So did the boys.
“Jesus,” said Mutt, sitting ahead of her with his gaze still fixed out the window.
“That’s her name, guys,” said the bus driver.
“We know,” said Dan. “Bett’s not, like, new-new.”
“Are you going to scream at us all year again, Eddie?” asked the smaller boy. Now that he was out of his knapsack and she could see his whole face, Bett saw it was Dan’s little brother, Ranger, with the same oval-shaped head and the same eyes as Dan, but brown-haired and smooth-skinned. He had found a plastic knife and fork in his bag and was using the knife to somewhat ineffectively peel an apple, eating the slices of skin as they fell into his lap.
“Yeah,” said Eddie. “I am. Unless you clowns have gotten your acts together over the summer. Which you have not.” He picked up speed and the bus lurched around the corner. Bett jostled unevenly in her seat.
“I’m pretty much the same,” Ranger admitted, swallowing a piece of apple peel. “I tried out new ways to be interesting, but it hasn’t really worked outcakes yet.”
Outcakes? Bett cocked her head and looked at him. He looked back at her.
“Shut up with the ‘cakes,’ Ranger,” said Dan, but Ranger did not shut up.
“Nocakes,” said Ranger, eyeing Bett. “I’m testing it out. It’s my new thing.”
“Jesus!” said Mutt, louder this time.
“Why do you do this?” Dan asked Ranger. “Why do you find new ways to be an ass? Why don’t you shave off the ass parts of you instead of, like, developing them?”
“I’m not an ass. Shut up,” said Ranger, glancing sideways again at Bett. He blushed. “Cakes,” he added defiantly and finished the last of his peel. “What do I do with the rest of this?” he asked the bus at large, holding his denuded apple between thumb and forefinger.
“Same thing you did last year with all them wasted apples. You wait until you get to school and drop it in a proper receptacle.” Eddie shook his head.
“I think the flesh is grosscakes,” Ranger said.
“Who raised you kids?” Eddie asked, tilting his head toward them but keeping his eyes on the road. “You got a new girl there, I tell you her name and not one of you introduces yourself.”
“We have known her since kindergarten,” said Mutt, voice strident now, though his eyes were still focused out the window. The bus route ran along the river, which was high today and rushing around the rocks studding its stream. The houses they passed were old, with cars out front with missing wheels, rusted swing sets on the side lawns. Bett rubbed her wrist.
Ranger furrowed his brow, considering. “Wait. You’re kind of right, Eddie. I don’t know her really much. Sorry.”
“So tell that little girl your name right now!”
Ranger’s brow furrowed further. “What little girl?”
Bett slid down in her seat.
It was the “little girl” that threw Ranger, Bett knew. Why couldn’t she stop eating all the time? But she couldn’t. Stopping was worse. No, not-stopping was. Oh, she couldn’t think about that now.
Ranger finally turned to Bett. “I’m Ranger,” he said. “Dan here is my brother. Cakes.”
“It doesn’t work if you don’t make it a real suffix,” said Dan. “It just sounds like a word you’re saying, otherwise. Wait, why am I giving you tips?!”
“You’re rightcakes!” said Ranger. “I have to wait until it’s a habit. Thankscakes.”
“Besides, I think everyone else got done with the ‘cakes’ thing about a hundred years ago, Ranger. You sound like Mom trying to be cool.”
“I’m doing ‘cakes’ differently,” said Ranger. “I mean like, real actual cake.”
“What the hell are you even talking about,” said Mutt. Although he was sitting, it was clear he’d grown even taller over the summer. He had wide-set eyes and a zit on his chin.
“NAMES!” screamed Eddie.
“She knows us!” yelled Mutt. He caught Bett’s eye in Eddie’s rearview mirror so she could see his mouth as he talked. “What the hell, Bett? In fourth grade you kicked my
ass in hockey every time. You used to be an athlete.”
Bett folded in her lips and blinked.
Her cheeks felt huge and her upper lip like there was a rim of grease on it, body nothing but a blob. Don’t you dare cry! she told herself. Don’t you dare! Sure, she had good hair, brown and thick and almost to her waist, but what was the point? She just jammed it into a fat messy bun on the top of her head every morning. She certainly knew how to do her makeup, but she never would, not since—no.
Ranger stared at Mutt. Then he stared at Bett. Then at Eddie.
“One more statement like that and you’re off the bus, Mutt,” said Eddie. “One more. I’m sorry some of these kids are buttwipes, Bett. I’m sorry they can’t be trusted to open their damn mouths.”
Bett swallowed and counted the scrapes on her legs from the sharp grasses that grew around the house she lived in now. If you could call it a house, given it was the size of a SIM card.
“I’ll have you kids know that this is exactly why I’m thinking about having a silent bus this year,” Eddie said.
Mutt turned from the window again. “What the hell!”
“I mean it,” said Eddie. “I’m not spending another year with bullshit.”
“Silent, like, not even music?”
“Not even nothing.”
“Mutt, say you’re sorry!” Ranger urged.
“What do I care?” said Mutt. “I don’t need to talk to you fools anyway.”
“I don’t care about talking,” said Dan. “But I need music. Ban Mutt, Eddie, not music.”
“The hell you don’t care about talking,” Eddie said. “You and your brother talk nonstop. Nonstop! All the time back there with your antics and semantics.”
“No way,” said Dan. “Ranger talks. I shut him up. I do, like, a service for you.”
Eddie started drumming his thumbs on the wheel. “I’m trying to do this right,” he said. “I’m trying to get your asses to that school in one piece and you behave like jerks.”
“Hey!” said Ranger. “Not me! I was nice. Cakes,” he added. “Nicecakes.”
“Fine,” said Eddie. “We’ll do it this way. You can talk. Especially the girl. But not Mutt. Mutt, you’re banned from talking. And no music for anyone. I never should’ve let you listen on here in the first place. Against school policy.”
It was true. Salt River K–12 School had a ban on phones and music players during school hours on school property, but everybody brought them anyway—Bett’s phone was in her backpack right now. People were pretty strategic about when they took them out, though, and usually buses were safe.
Bett took a deep breath in and exhaled as slowly as she could. Most boys in the high school were just longer,
bigger-footed versions of the ones Bett had been on sports teams with for years when she was younger, right? All of them with bags of sweaty clothes and play-punching. She didn’t do sports now, of course. No way. No—too good; too Plus. And physical action was the most Plus of all, so of course Bett would never let herself do anything like a sport.
Mutt, though. The pre-bus anxiety pit in her stomach grew until Bett couldn’t bear it, couldn’t wait for the end of the day and home.
She might be able to fix it if she were home.
“At least put on the radio,” pleaded Dan.
“No,” said Eddie. “I hate all that crap you kids listen to.” His hand shot out and bashed the bus stereo’s on button.
There was a two-part moan from Dan and Ranger, but it was too late.
“Eddie,” Dan said plaintively. “This is, like, vintage. It’s a cassette.”
“In the lah-ahng run . . . ,” The Eagles sang, and Bett felt like she was trapped in the car with her own mother and Aunt Jeanette. Who could stand this eighties crap? The awful singing. The painful way the vocalists replaced every vowel sound with “ah.”
“. . . we’ll fahnd out . . . in the lah-ahng run . . .”
Awful. More so because before she could cut off the thought, Bett was imagining herself taking a long run and getting away from these kids and the spectre of school,
jumping off this bus even as the sun hid behind a cloud and it began to rain on the windows, a sharp, bleak rain she imagined slicing into her face but she wouldn’t care. Anything was better than this morning and that music and the smell of this bus, wet and moldered over in the new September raw. But that was the point. Bett knew she’d never do it. She hadn’t let herself run in forever. And even just thinking about it was another Plus she would have to undo later.
Even though Eddie had just threatened them about their phones, Bett couldn’t help it. She slipped her phone out of her bag and put one earbud discreetly in her right ear, the good ear, the one that didn’t go out all the time like a bad stereo speaker.