Authors: Francine Pascal
Gaia smiled and put down her hands. “Not so much,” she said. Jake picked up his bag. She nuzzled up to him and interlocked her arm with his. It was a complete about-face, an instant switch back to Soft Gaia. In fact, the way she looked up at him, with doe-like eyes, was so vulnerable that Jake had a flashback of his Ã¼berinsecure girlfriend from freshman year, Kristen. Weird. “Before this little sparring session gets out of hand, I have a request,” Gaia said. “Could we go out for dinner tonight? Like a real date, you know? I promise I'll dress up and be civil andâ¦ Gaia-like.”
Jake nodded. He was still waiting for the catch or some sort of punch line. “Well, there is this sushi place on Seventh Avenue. I've been wanting to try. Do you like sushi?”
“Sure,” Gaia said.
âThen it's a deal,” Jake said. “We'll do sushi.”
“Like a normal New York couple,” Gaia said.
“Exactly.” Jake smiled at her. Gaia smiled back.
“And then we can finally have our talk,” Gaia said with a pursed-lipped smile. “How does that sound?”
“That sounds excellent,” Jake said, and meant it. He still couldn't get past the sensation that something was wrongâsomething she wasn't telling him. But he should probably get used to it. If he was going to
be the significant other of Gaia Moore, he should be prepared for erratic behavior. He should know better than to be surprised.
THE HALLWAYS OF THE VILLAGE School were so empty that Gaia could not only hear her left sneaker squeaking, but a faint echo after each squeak.
This is so pathetic.
For reasons unclear to her, the moment school had let out, Gaia had become suddenly terrified by the thought of returning to her suffocating, boxlike, cockroach-infested room. So she spent a good twenty-five minutes talking world politics with some mousy girl from her AP American history class. But the girl had finally left, and Gaia's fear of going home had returned. What next?
She could go to a coffee shop, but she didn't feel like reading or sitting there alone, sipping. Jake would get out of karate practice soon, but they already had a dinner date. She didn't want to pull a
With such limited social options, Gaia found her feet walking toward FOH Central again. It was pitiful, of course, but she couldn't come up with the gumption to
stop herself. The FOH cluster of lockers had a sort of magnetic draw for her. Gaia wondered whether the addition of fear to her psychological repertoire had triggered some bizarre flocking instinct. The sad thing was, the chances of someone actually being there were next to nil.
Gaia turned the corner and peered down the hall to where the FOHs would have been. No one in sight. Gaia laughed.
Congratulations, Gaia Moore! You're a bona fide desperado!
“Are you laughing to yourself?”
Gaia turned around, wide-eyed. It was Liz Rodke. She was wearing a one-piece jumpsuit with a zip-up front and a bunch of pockets, made from drab green army fatigue material and tucked into suede leather boots. That and her trademark tortoiseshell glasses were all Liz needed to outdo Gaia's lackluster attempt at chicness by a factor of four.
“You caught me,” Gaia said. “I do a little one-woman comedy show sometimes for myself. Standing ovation every time.”
Liz laughed. “Sounds like you're as bored as I am.”
“Yeah,” Gaia said. “I just spent half an hour listening to a monologue about the fragile state of the world today. Some girl from my history class.”
“Oh my God!” Liz grabbed Gaia's arm affectionately. “That reminds me. I've wanted to tell this to
someone all day long. In my English class some girl did an oral presentation on Beat poetry, like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and all that. She started reading some poem, and she got up on Mr. MacMullen's desk and writhed all over it. She was just starting to take off her shirt when Mr. Mac jumped in and made her stop. It was unbelievable! Her eyes were all rolling back into her head like she was on the verge of an orgasmâ¦”
“Wow,” Gaia said. “All we did in my English class was work on vocab. So what happened?”
“I don't know,” Liz said. “I think Mr. Mac took her to the principal's office.”
“Wonder what the standard punishment is for overinterpreting Beat poetry?” Gaia said.
“Hey, wait a second. I just thought of something.” Liz started rifling through her red leather bag. “I have something for you. I was going to slip it in your locker, but since you're hereâ¦” She pulled out a giant envelope. The envelope was sealed with wax that had a fancy
stamped into it. On the other side
Ms. Gaia Moore
was written in calligraphy.
“What's this?” Gaia asked.
“An invitation,” Liz said. “To a party that my dad's throwing this Wednesday at Capitaleâthe poshest and most architecturally beautiful club in Manhattan. It's where P. Diddy had his big fashion week party. I know you're not into all that crap, but I think you'd love to see the place. The food will be delish, and
knowing my father, the place will be wall-to-wall with beautiful people.”
“Wow,” Gaia said. She was flattered and petrified at once. What the hell would she wear? Her best jeans? She hadn't worn a dress in months, maybe years, and this was definitely a dress occasion. Which would mean she would have to shop, and she hated shopping. The chances of her conjuring up the energy to go shopping for a nice dress before Wednesday were minimal.
“The only problem isâ¦” Gaia tried to look disappointed. “I'm supposed to meet my dad for dinner that night. And he'll only be in town for one night.” It was the quickest lie she could come up with.
“Oh. Well, that's too bad.” Liz put her hand on her chin like she was thinking. “I guess I'll just invite Megan, then. Because I'm only allowed one guest. I was seriously hoping it would be you.”
The sincerity of these last words hit Gaia in the gut. She wasn't used to half strangers being so open and nice. That type of person wasn't very common in New York. And she was doubly charmed by the fact that Liz had chosen her over everyone else. Exclusivity felt good sometimes.
“My dad and my brother will be bummed you can't come,” Liz said. “But if your father's only here one night, Iâ”
“I'll go,” Gaia said.
“I will. I'll just tell my dad I'll meet him in the afternoon, after school.”
“Yes!” Liz did a little victory leap. “That's right. Forget your dad!” She laughed. “Kidding. But seriously, I don't think you'll want to miss this party. It won't just be stuffy people. There's supposed to be some hot DJ.”
“Cool. Looking forward to it.”
Gaia realized she was smiling again. She didn't quite understand her sudden urge to socialize, but it seemed to be working. Because running into Liz had already put her in a better mood. This “posh” party was a tad beyond the range of what Gaia considered fun, but there was something exciting about having an event to attend. Getting the whole VIP treatment. Gaia realized she was no longer afraid of being alone or of her jail cell of a room. Maybe there was something to this flocking instinct after all.
“All right,” Gaia said. “I should probably be getting home now. Thanks for the invite.”
“No prob,” Liz said. “Call my cell Wednesday after school.” She took out a pen and wrote her number on the back of the invitation.
“Will do,” Gaia said. “Bye.”
“See you Wednesday,” Liz said. “Be psyched.”
Besides sleep, showers were one of the few activities that didn't incite fear.
think I'm suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Honestly. I have been shaking like a leaf for over an hour, sipping chamomile tea and listening to smooth jazz on my clock radio. I did a little Web research and found out that most people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) served in Vietnam or the Gulf War or were brutally beaten as children. Not me. I swear I have PTSD from trying to get up to my room.
It started today when I got home from school. Just before the front door to the boardinghouse closed, I heard, “Hold it, please!” I did. It was a man. A man with a Doberman. A black-and-brown beast with blank eyes and a whiskered muzzle concealing incisors the size of rhinoceros tusks. Normally I would have just petted him. I've even met the dog before and remembered his name is Petey. But today, I swear I almost soiled myself. Trust me on
this: a confrontation with a moody Doberman is a great way of gauging fear.
“Hey, Petey,” I said. I looked up at his owner, whose name I couldn't remember. He's this old guy who I've seen visiting Suko before, with a salt-and-pepper beard and a singsong Irish accent. Judging from the way Suko interacts with him, I'd say he's a respected member of the international intelligence community. The old wizard type. “Such a cute dog,” I said, hoping that would somehow gloss over the fact that I wasn't petting it.
“Sometimes, yeah,” the man said. “But ol' Petey can be a handful.”
I nodded. Then silence. I felt myself backing away from the dog. I started thinking about how ridiculous I was being, not petting Petey just because I was afraid. I mean really-what the hell was I worried about? It wasn't like he would try to eat me. Fear is just a fiction your
mind creates to trick you into being safe. An age-old defense mechanism that rarely applies in our modern, domesticated world. In trying to save your life, fear predicts false outcomes.
To test myself, I stooped down and offered two fingers for Petey to sniff-a technique I'd seen dog-friendly people do at the Washington Square Park dog run. Petey made a shy motion toward my hand. Then he did something entirely unexpected. Petey curled his pink fleshy lip up, bared his teeth, and let out a guttural growl from the depths of his stomach.
I jerked my hand away and stumbled backward. My eyes shot open. Heart pounded. Breath forced its way through my nostrils. My entire body was suddenly moist with sweat. It was awful. Sometimes fear sucks ass.
“Petey!” the man yelled, smacking Petey on the snout. “I'm so sorry,” the man said. “He's a little mischievous, and he eats like Bigfoot, but he's usually
well behaved with strangers. I'm really sorry about that.”
“It's okay,” I said. “I understand.”
And I really did understand. I understood that Petey could smell that I was scared and that his snarl test had proved his canine suspicions correct. I was bugging too hard to appreciate the normalcy of this situation. The very normalcy I'd been seeking all along. God, that feeling!
That wide-eyed irrational sniff of death. I knew it might be a little much to explain this to the nice Irish man about my freak-show fearless life and the gene therapy that had just reversed it, but I wished I had some nugget of conversation to blanket that awkward silence.
The man introduced himself as Courtenay. He spelled it for me. I said my name. But I was too afraid to shake his hand, because that furry, snarl-conceal ing snout was between Courtenay's hand and mine. I just pasted myself against the
wall and eyed Petey's striated thigh muscles. Courtenay gave me a condescending look, suggesting that human owners can sense when their dogs smell fear. He made some joke about putting the beast back in its cage. I forced out a nervous laugh. As they walked past, with that fuzzy little butt wiggling up the stairs, I let out a lungful of relief.
I speed-walked up to my oppressively small, tiny little pinprick of a room. I locked the door and double-bolted it. I leaned against the door, chest heaving, like an actress in a horror movie who has finally found safety. My room felt suddenly a hell of a lot homier than it ever had before. I poured out a glassful of flat, tepid Coke from a flimsy two-liter bottle. I had just cozied into my makeshift milk-crate love seat to watch some bad dating show when the doorbell rang downstairs. I had never heard it before. The shock from that penetrating ding-dong sound almost blew me off my chair.
For some reason, it made me kind of panicky. I turned up the volume on the TV. What if it was one of Oliver's operatives? I paced. I traced the perimeter of my burnt-orange shag carpet. Tiptoed toward the door, as if the slightest sound would send whoever was out there into a violent frenzy. The doorbell rang again, more insistently this time. I went downstairs to answer it since no one else was home, and noticed it had a peephole. I'd never used peepholes. But it seemed like a good time to start.
It's probably just Suko,
I thought, my mind racing.
It's probably just Zan.
I looked through the peephole. It was a man! A man decked out all in brown. I didn't trust people in monochrome outfits. Was it some sort of uniform? Had Oliver started putting his stooges in uniform?
“UPS,” the man said.
I exhaled. Why would the UPS
man be allowed inside the boardinghouse? It struck me that UPS delivery man would be a convenient disguise. “Who is it addressed to?” I asked.
“It's for a Gay-uh Moore.”
“Who's it from?”
“It's from a Mr. Moore. No first name. C'mon, lady, just open the door.”
I unlocked the door and undid the double bolt. But I couldn't convince myself that the man in the brown suit wasn't some sort of assassin. So I did something I would never have thought about a few days before.
“No, honey, it's okay,” I yelled back to my invisible roommate, who was apparently either my husband or my boyfriend. “It's just the UPS guy. I've got it.”
I opened the door. The UPS guy glared at me. I grabbed the envelope and inspected it. It didn't look much like my dad's handwriting. The address was fake as always, some Native American-sounding town in
Wisconsin. Wasn't Dad supposed to be in Syria? Still, I could vaguely picture him skulking out of a windowless van to drop the letter into a blue mailbox in some anonymous strip mall parking lot in Somewheresville, U.S.A.