runners ericka clay

A Little Bit of Runners

Music has prompted my writerly brain to keep concocting, particularly this song:

Now for the result. A sneak peak of the novel I’m currently working on, Runners:

The first thing I do when I wake up is think, Well now now, don’t you look like a whored up clown? because that’s exactly what the mirror tries to tell me. I have these boots Mareck swiped from the Good Will which is across from the Piggly Wiggly where he works obnoxiously long hours, like I’m talking until ten at night. He’s nineteen, still a senior though, but he can work late because he’s not an “underling” like me.

Anyway, these boots, they’re the bane of Mom’s existence and so are the fishnets, the Catholic school girl skirt, the Insane Clown Posse t-shirt that is pretty rank no matter how many times I wash it. And the makeup? The makeup is like a piece of food trapped in Mom’s teeth. Thick eyeliner, red lipstick, glitter on my eyelids. They can’t even tell me not to dress this way at school because two years ago a girl slapped White Smoke High with a lawsuit claiming they were stifling her freedom of religion by threatening to expel her if she kept wearing a t-shirt that said “Satan Lives.” She won.

So just looking at me has to cramp up Mom’s stomach worse than a plate of enchiladas from Los Gallos, but she does this pursed lip thing as if to say, “I’m not worried about this. You’ll come to your senses soon.” And really, that’s what makes me laugh the most.

In the mornings, she and Jimmy leave before me even though she thinks the opposite is true. I swipe a pudding cup and a metal spoon – mmm, breakfast – and head down the staircase of our apartment building after throwing her a few air kisses. I get on my bike and pedal around the back of our complex and wait until she takes off in the “GrandDamn” to Hattie’s before I return to the stairs. I sit under them and wait for Mareck to meet me, scraping chocolate pudding onto the spoon and coating my tongue.

“Your father loved chocolate pudding,” Mom told me once when I was, God, I don’t, know ten maybe? I had already known that about Dad but hearing it out loud was like flypaper. Weird, the things that stick with you. To you, really.

“There she is, Miss America!” Mareck says and he’s all sound. His pants are lined with zippers and chains, a thick one that hooks from his wallet to his pants, pat-pat-patting the side of his leg. He kisses me hard on the mouth and licks the taste of chocolate from his lips.

“Ready to set this shit on fire?” Mareck asks and he means am I ready to walk down the hallways of White Smoke and give those bitches hell.

“Fuck, yeah,” I say but don’t believe it. My stomach hurts, more than usual, because today I’m supposed to annihilate Leslie Buell who’s going around saying she gave Mareck a BJ like the dirty whore she is. I mean I may look the part, but at least I’ve got boundaries, you know?

Mareck takes my bike and straddles it, and I sit up on the handle bars. It’s easy for me because I’m tiny as a crackerjack, just five feet and thinner than a whipping rod like Aunt Tammy says or used to say when we’d head back to Helena and eat turkey and listen to them hero worship Dad. Dead, he became a god to them. Living? Not so much.

It’s cold and it batters me. My coat’s too thin for this. But things have gotten murky lately with the finances so no new coat. Mom and Jimmy could just up and leave tomorrow, and there’d be no one, and I’d be okay with that, just Mareck and me scorching the night hopped up on glue and Skittles and the beer his brother gives him to stay quiet about the drug deals he does inside their trailer. I’d be just fine.

Because really, when it comes down to it, Mareck loves me, you know. But on the other hand, I can’t always be completely sure about that. “You think I’d willingly put Senor Stud in Buell the Mule’s mouth?” Mareck said when I had asked him if it was true and then he started braying like a mule. But he didn’t say no.

We skid up to the front of the school, and I jump off and don’t look anyone in the eye. It feels like a play, like I’m Juliet or the one I like better, Ophelia, and I’m taking my crazy to the stage. But no one applauds, just gape like fish even though they see me do this dance every frigging morning.

“Late,” Principal Zinberg says, and he hands me and Mareck tired slips of paper from his pocket. Detention slips. They smell like sweat and boxer shorts.

We cattle call in with the rest of the last minute crowd and head to the locker we share. It’s Mareck’s and it’s against the rules to share lockers, but beside the soiled detention slips for arriving late, no one really gives a monkey’s ass about anything at White Smoke.

“Spanish, right?” Mareck says and his blue eyes flash across my face. They’re not a grown up’s. They belong to a little boy and that’s what I like about the bits of blue and grey flecked tight into a ring. They make me remember we’re kids.

I nod and Mareck kisses me on the mouth – another broken rule – and heads to his homeroom. I take the books I need and launch them into my empty backpack. I slam the door shut and as I turn around, whose ugly mug is inches from my nose? Buell the Mule’s.

Her face is nearly touching mine when she says, “You look like a whored up clown.”

Told you.

#

Classes are match strike fast because of my system. I sit in the back which is the best place for people watching even if that means having to take in Jeremy Hunt shedding his dandruff with his long, dirty fingernails. Take for instance, Senora Howser’s class. She’s up there muttering in gibberish, smacking her doughy hand with an unsharpened pencil while I examine the back of Claudette Pinski’s bubbly blond head. I match her up with Mr. Dandruff and draw in the blue lined margin of my notebook what their baby would look like.

It’s not as weird as it sounds.

Look, babies are cute okay? Babies are what happens before life up and smacks you hard in the face. I’ve been obsessed with them for awhile. Like when I was younger and my mother dropped me off at Little Chicks for preschool and, apparently there was a baby there, Helen, and I’d called her “Baby Helen” and would scream and cry and threaten to propel myself into the busy parking lot when my mother wouldn’t take her home with us.

Okay, not really. I was kind of a quiet kid. But that’s what my insides always said.

Anyways, I’ve always wanted siblings. But it’s more than that. Maybe I just wanted them because my mom couldn’t have them. And I know, I know, it’s not her fault, never Saint Elena’s fault.

I didn’t mean to say that.

So really classes are just a blur of poorly drawn babies and dirty hair until it’s lunch time, and I find my phone without even realizing what I’m doing. It’s cheap, like drug deal pre-paid burner cheap. Mom didn’t even want to touch the thing (“money’s tight” being her favorite two words of all time), but she hates that I love Mareck and broke down and bought it on the off chance he bops me over the head and tries to cut me into little pieces. I told him that part when we were camped out in his brother’s truck, shoving pork rinds into our mouths while his brother, Travis, scored off some itchy white trash couple tripping for crank. He laughed.

I take the phone and I go to the bathroom, not the one on the ground floor where the seniors are packed sardine style but the one in the basement off the cafeteria where nobody takes a shit unless you’re Principal Zinberg and are convinced it don’t stink. I go into the spacious wheelchair stall where the rest of us are forbidden to piss because Melissa Stowe lost a leg in a four wheeler accident last year, and I lock it, slide my back down the cold tiled wall.

I don’t call her. I can’t hear her voice.

Any news? I type like I’m asking how she likes her new highlights. I stare ahead of me at the thick lime green streaks of paint covering the penciled in graffiti on the stall walls. It’s weird because the walls are blue so the green is a frank wide block of color, a memorandum for the “shits” and “fucks” students just don’t give.

It dings at me, the burner. No, not yet, Mom writes back.

I don’t know how I know, but I do. I think because when I read it, that simple worded strand, it reminds me of when my mother said once and only once, “This doesn’t have anything to do with you.” Right there, my face peering into my father’s casket, hovering like Peter Pan with her hands around my waist. A lie.

Mom’s lying to me. And it hurts my heart.

The door slams open. There are two sets of feet and I can tell they belong to two preps because they’re fitted into ballet slippers, a silver pair and a purple. Their ankles are long, slender and I think of mine in my dirty boots. Thick as bricks.

“You can’t be in the retard stall,” a lazy voice says from one of them, maybe the silver pair and I roll my eyes.

“Just leaving,” I say and pop open the stall, barely missing a short one with red hair. Her eyes go wide, and I know she’s a freshman which automatically means fun, and the fact that she’s obnoxiously pretty will make it that much sweeter.

“Fuck off,” I growl and she backs up as I preen myself in the mirror. I do it for her benefit, so she remembers my face, and for mine, too, so I can see what she’s wearing and remember it for later when I’m lying in bed.

I do this thing where I think of the clothes I see the preps wear and imagine what they’d look like on me. It’s not weird either.

They huddle the two of them, the other one taller but wider eyed, and I laugh, a loud obnoxious laugh and try not to think about my mother, her lifelong sentence. My damaged heart.

#

The most horribly pathetic thing about The Mule is that she’s the most popular girl in school. And she really plays the part, I mean like puts a ton of effort into it. She’s one of the preps and has this purse she claims is a real Louis Vuitton but all it looks like is a bottle of mustard and a diaper full of poop threw up on it. Her mom is the manager of the Dairy Queen and her dad is a cop so there’s no way that bag is real unless they’re not working with a full deck. Which, by the looks of The Mule, could be true.

“You’ve got this, you know. I mean look at you, you’re short but you’re a scrapper. She gets that. Bet she’s shittin’ herself right now,” Mareck says, rubbing the last centimeter of Chapstick against his lips.

“Sure,” I say. He was supposed to have met me in the girl’s locker room during lunch. We sit across from the shower stalls and pick at our food, another pudding cup for me, a bag of chips for him. But he didn’t show and this is the third time in two weeks, and we just don’t talk about it. I don’t want to be a harpy and I don’t want him to be a liar.

We go outside and trek around the side of the building to The Yard, me on the bars of my bike while Mareck wobbles it along a patch of dry, cold earth. The Yard is basically a square inch of pavement reserved for the seniors. You can smoke out here and people sit around, making out or talk about keying the teachers’ cars but a lot of times it’s used for a fight so they chain it up once the last bell rings. I jump over the gate.

The Mule is already there with two of her cohorts, Donkey and Horse Face. Those aren’t their real names, one’s Alice and the other starts with a “w” – Wanda maybe? – but it’s a lot easier to keep track of sluts when you label them appropriately.

“There’s Clown Whore now. We were just talking about ya. Ready to get the beating of a lifetime?” I have to admit, looking at The Mule, I believe she’ll be doing just that. She’s tall, five-ten maybe and her hands are kind of manly. The nails are painted though, a bright cherry red and the sweater is knitted, navy with a tiny whale sewn into it above her right breast. I’ll have to remember it for later.

“Cut the crap, Leslie,” I say. It comes out soft like I’m talking to a kitten. I hate my life.

“Cut the crap, Leslie? That’s all you got? You know what that limp dick told me?” The Mule says, and she moves her beautiful blue sweater into my personal space. “He said you’re nothing but a prude, and he just uses you for your money.” She takes a step back to look at my face, and I give her a full shot of me laughing. My money?

“Yeah okay, bitch. That right Mareck? You all on me so you can hang out at my mansion?” My arms are wide like Jesus welcoming the little children, and I turn around. Mareck is gone. And so is my bike.

“Now that’s just awesome,” The Mule laughs in my ear and I think about it, about my bike, about Mareck strumming through my life with picky fingers. About my father and how everyone thinks my mother killed him, and what Mom said to me this morning before I grabbed my pudding cup and walked out the door. “It’ll all work out.”

And then before you know it, my fist is in The Mule’s face and there’s a sharp pain currenting up my shoulder until it snaps inside my brain. I look down at my jacked up boots, a line of plaid skirt edging my knees and think, Maybe it will.

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