Read The Book of Bad Things Online

Authors: Dan Poblocki

The Book of Bad Things (7 page)

T
HE NEXT MORNING
, Cassidy woke to find that she had only a half hour to shower, devour a small breakfast of toast and jam, brush her teeth, and get dressed before they had to be on their way to the art class. She was so frantic that the previous night’s events sat squarely in the back of her mind.

After saying a quick hello to both Dennis and Deb, who were also running out the door, Cassidy tossed her backpack into the backseat of Rose’s hatchback and rolled in beside it. Rose sped through the hills with the windows down and the stereo turned up, playing an old Joni Mitchell album, nudging at Joey playfully every now and again to sing along with her. Cassidy felt a strange emptiness as she watched him lean his head against the window, obviously wanting nothing to do with what must have been an old ritual. Even though she didn’t know any of the words and could only discern bits of the melody, Cassidy opened her mouth and did her best to sing backup. Rose glanced over her shoulder, smiled and then held out a hand, palm up, toward the backseat. Cassidy gave her some skin, smacking her host-mother’s hand loud enough to rustle Joey momentarily from his reverie.

The campus of Western New Jersey State College was all green fields and brick buildings connected by sprawling concrete paths. Rose walked with Cassidy and Joey through the brightly lit halls of the art school until they came to what appeared to be the correct classroom. Inside, the tables were arranged in a circle, with a single desk in the center. Most of the tables were already occupied with other kids their age, all chatting with one another. A bearded man who looked young enough to be a college student welcomed them inside. He was dressed in a simple white collared shirt and paint-splattered khaki pants. He pointed Cassidy and Joey to a table by the far window. Joey huffed as he slid into his seat. Cassidy pressed her lips together and reminded herself that Joey would not become a
Bad Thing
. Maybe she’d have time during class to tell him what she’d seen the previous night. That might change everything between them, reforge their bond. Rose waved good-bye from the doorway and mouthed that she’d meet them out by the car when the class was over.

The young-looking man introduced himself as Vic. He explained that he was a graduate student at the college. On each table, he’d already set up a tray of pencils, erasers, and a few large scraps of thick poster board. Vic told them that since they were already intermediate-level students, he was skipping all the boring “talky-stuff” so they could jump right into drawing.

Vic asked that one person from each table bring something up to place on the desk in the center of the room. This pile would be the subject of the day. Some of the other kids took off a shoe, a hat, brought up a book, a wad of tissue, the wrapper from a hastily eaten breakfast snack. “What should we put up there?” Cassidy asked. Joey stared at the table and shrugged. Squaring her jaw, she got up and placed her backpack on the table. But as she sat down next to Joey again, she wished she’d removed her notebook first. She needed it closer now.

“Thank you, volunteers,” Vic said, heading to the still life, spreading out the items, leaning them against one another in a dynamic way. “Let’s get started.” He turned on a stereo that sat on a shelf by his desk. Quiet, ambient music filled the room, the sounds of bells and chimes and softly plucked guitar strings.

Watching from the corner of her eye, after a few minutes, Cassidy noticed the lines on Joey’s page coming into a discernible shape; her own drawing looked like a blob of goop sitting on a cold stone slab. Vic strolled around the circle, commenting on various drawings, making suggestions. Cassidy was sure that when he came by her table, he wouldn’t be able to contain his laughter. But she didn’t care about that right now.

Joey was focused on what he was doing.

“That’s really good,” she whispered.

“Thanks.”

Cassidy sighed. “Is something wrong?”

“Nope. I’m fine.”

“That’s cool.” Seconds ticked by, every moment like a little bomb going off. “Hey, remember when your mom used to make us go up the hill in your backyard to find different shaped leaves? And we’d bring them back to her and we’d do rubbings of them with crayons? And that one time we picked poison ivy and she totally freaked out and made us both take showers?” She pushed out a laugh that sounded like a bark. Several students glanced up at her. “This kind of art is totally different than that, isn’t it? It’s harder. Maybe it’s ’cause we’re older now.” Joey breathed heavily, hunching over his paper. Cassidy waited for a response until her skin felt like it was on fire. “Listen,” she said finally. “I know you’re mad at me.” In her mind, she heard his voice from yesterday, wafting out into the backyard — the argument he’d had with his mother about her.

“I’m not mad at you,” Joey said, turning to look at her. His eyebrows were screwed up in anger.

“But you’ve been … acting different.”

“Things
are
different this summer.” Joey pressed against the page so hard, his pencil broke. “Fart,” he whispered, reaching for an eraser and a small sharpener.

Cassidy blinked, a gurgle of laughter creeping up her throat. Joey had always made the funniest exclamations. Maybe he wasn’t so different now after all. She bit her bottom lip so that she wouldn’t smile. “I just wanted to let you know that I’m sorry. About what happened.” He groaned, and Cassidy’s humor was released like air from a popped balloon. “I know it was my fault. If I hadn’t suggested we go over to Ursula’s house —”

“Forget it,” Joey said harshly. “I don’t want to talk about that.”

Cassidy nodded slightly. A burning sensation crept up from her stomach. “Well … if you ever do want to talk about it, I’m here. I understand.”

“Right.”

“Yesterday, I noticed the drawings of him on your desk. You’ve been thinking about him a lot. I have been too. But I’ve also been thinking about you.”

“And
now
we’re supposed to be thinking about this.” He opened his hands over his page, presenting his work as if he were in an art gallery.

Cassidy blushed, and as she turned back to her own drawing, she felt her hand shake. She placed the pencil carefully on the desk. “So, even though I’m apologizing,” Cassidy whispered, those old feelings crawling up her spine, knocking the room off-kilter, “and even though I am really,
really
sorry for what happened, you’re telling me you just don’t care? That I can’t do anything to make things better?”

Joey closed his eyes and shook his head. “All I’m saying is that you have no idea what I’ve been dealing with since you left last year. None. Nobody does. And all of the apologies in the world, from you or my mom or dad — even from Ursula Chambers herself — none of it would change how I feel.
Okay?

“Okay,” Cassidy said. Her fingertips tingled, pins and needles caressing her arms, working their way up to her shoulders and neck. Her throat felt tight. She stuck out her bottom jaw, as if it were a lever to keep tears away.

Vic passed by their table. He praised Joey for his line-work. When his gaze fell upon Cassidy’s drawing, he bit his lip and nodded. “Keep going,” he said. “I like this.” Not what she’d expected to hear. It made her feel good. Strong. So once the teacher had moved on, Cassidy worked up the nerve to say what was really on her mind.

“I know you’ve seen Lucky.” She squeezed out the words. Joey froze. A statue. Clay. Dried and fired. So much easier to talk to this way. “I believe you because I’ve seen him too.”

“W
HAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?
” Joey said, whipping his head toward her, a bright blaze in his eyes.

“I saw Lucky,” Cassidy answered. “Last night.” A couple kids at the next table glared at her. All this talking must be annoying them, but she finally had Joey’s attention. Cassidy pretended to concentrate on her paper, tracing some of the lines she’d already put down. She lowered her voice and shared what she’d seen in the middle of the night. As she spoke, she glanced up a few times to find his gaze glued to her. She went on about hearing the rattling sound, about the strange humming, about seeing the figure limping up the street toward the cul-de-sac. About the dog that followed.

When she finished, Joey’s face went blank. Then he stood, knocking his stool over. It tumbled to the linoleum floor, clanging out into the otherwise quiet classroom, a strange accompaniment to the music emanating from Vic’s speakers. He tossed his pencil at his paper, marking it through with a severe dark line and then he bolted for the door. Seconds later, he’d disappeared into the hallway.

Everyone was looking at Cassidy. She scooted her chair back, too shocked to speak. “Everything okay?” Vic asked, easing toward her.

She stood and crossed to the center of the room, pausing before the still life display. She reached for her backpack, and then realized that if she snatched it away, she’d ruin the assignment for the rest of the class. But she would not leave the bag here, not with the notebook inside. Her stomach clenched. She didn’t have time to be careful. Joey was who-knew-where thinking who-knew-what about her.

“This is … mine,” she whispered as she lifted the backpack from the table, disrupting the still life. The hat and the shoe fell to the floor. Vic’s jaw dropped in shock, and he choked out a weird croaking sound. Cassidy hastily reset the objects. “Sorry. I just really have to …”

Everyone stared at her, their eyes blazing with uncomprehending fury.

She rushed to the door, clasping the backpack’s strap in her sweat-slicked palms, and slipped out into the hall as quietly as possible.

She found Joey sitting on the floor in front of the boys’ room in the art center lobby. His head was tucked between his knees. His shoulders hitched and shook. When she realized that he was crying, she ground the toe of her sneaker into the floor, preparing to spin around, leave him alone. She wasn’t used to seeing other people cry, especially not boys. Especially not Joey. She didn’t know what to do, so she stood in the hall and stared at the floor.

After a minute, he said, “You’re being creepy.”

Her sneaker squealed against the tile and Cassidy cringed. No running away now. “I just wanted to make sure you didn’t, like, jump out a window or anything.”

Joey sniffed sharply. She couldn’t tell if he’d just laughed or if he’d scoffed at her bad joke. He wiped his nose with his wrist.

“Are you coming back to class?” Cassidy asked.

“Uh, no.” He scrunched his feet closer to his butt and squeezed his ankles. “It’s a nice thought, what you said. About last night. But you really don’t need to make up stories just to make me feel better.”

“I didn’t make anything up. I really saw someone out on the street last night. She had a dog with her.”

“Just stop!” he shouted. Joey shook his head. “That girl, Ping … She thinks she knows what she’s talking about because we live next door to each other. She keeps telling everyone how much of a freak I am.”

“That’s not how she put it.”

“She thinks she’s helping, but she’s not.”

“Ping is nice.” It was a lame thing to say, Cassidy knew. She’d only just met her. Besides, this wasn’t about Ping.

“For the past year, all the adults have been telling me: There’s no such thing as ghosts. Especially not ghost
dogs
. It’s all in your head.” He stood up, crossed his arms, and slammed his back into the bathroom door. “Don’t say a word about Lucky to my mom, or she’ll sign you up to talk to a doctor about it too.” The door swung open behind him, and he slipped inside.

There was no way she was following him in there. Especially not after
this
conversation.

Cassidy thought of her notebook and the bad things it contained. Maybe later she’d tell Joey about it. Maybe she’d share her secret about the night she’d met her neighbor, Levi Stanton, so Joey would truly understand. Then, maybe he could make a notebook for himself.

“Hey,” a voice called from the other end of the hall. Cassidy turned to find Vic peering out from the door to the stairwell. His mouth was puckered tight with what might be annoyance or concern. “I fixed the still life, but we could really use your bag again. You two coming back to class?”

Cassidy’s entire body burned with embarrassment. Still, she shook her head. “I’m really sorry about that, really, but we just … can’t,” she said, loud enough for Joey to hear her through the door. “Not today.”

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