For Mark, Samuel, Suzanna, and Holly
Mo tosses a stick of gum into my lap.
“You need it,” he says.
I put it in my mouth. It tastes like dust and mint and aspartame. “You don’t think chewing gum is unprofessional?”
“You’re interviewing at Mr. Twister. Unprofessional would be refusing to flirt with the customers.”
“Right.” I crumple the foil wrapper and throw it at his face.
He ignores me. He’s too busy squinting out the windshield at the towering Mr. Twister sign. It’s a ten-foot grinning tornado-in-a-cone. With a mustache. “Unprofessional would be telling them your GPA is over 2.0.”
“It might not be.”
That’s the depressing truth. Less than an hour ago I was sweating under a strip of fluorescent lights, scratching nonsense formulas and equations onto a test thicker than my arm. By halfway through, my eraser had crumbled into little rubbery bits. Not that it mattered. I can guess wrong on the first try just as well as the second or third.
“So it didn’t go well,” Mo says.
“It did not.”
“Maybe chem’s just not your sport.”
“I’m over it.”
Mo says nothing. He should be mad about the hours he’s wasted tutoring me, but he isn’t, or at least he’s pretending well.
It doesn’t matter. Chemistry is not important.
This is important.
The mint flavor is gone, already leached from the gum, so I spit the lump into Mo’s empty Taco Bell cup and begin finger-combing my hair. It takes a while. My truck’s AC died three weeks ago, so I’ve been driving with the windows down and looking like a stray Yorkie ever since. A few good yanks and I give up, twisting my hair into a clip instead.
Mo jacks up the fan and angles the vents toward himself, grumbling something I can’t hear.
“Still broken,” I remind him.
A drop of sweat rolls over his temple, down his cheek. “Unprofessional,” he pushes on, “would be telling them you aren’t racist.”
“I’ll keep that to myself then. Is the horse dead yet or are we going to keep beating it for a while?”
Mo’s conspiracy theory du jour is that Mr. Twister is a white-supremacy cell. He thinks a quaint frozen custard joint is the perfect front for stockpiling weapons and racist propaganda. His only evidence: blond staff and the occasional confederate flag license plate in the parking lot. Like now, for example, there are three, all of which he made sure to point out as we pulled in. I argued that there are at least three confederate flags in every parking lot from Florida to Kentucky to Texas, not to mention that I’m the blondest person he knows and not a Nazi. He ignored that.
That’s not really why he hates it, though. Mr. Twister is all about the easy smile, and Mo can’t stand that. The colors are too Easter egg, the music is too snappy, and last time we were in there the girl working the soft serve couldn’t verify that the dairy was grass-fed. I’m not sure she even knew cows were involved in the product.
“Unprofessional,” he mutters, “would be walking in there with your Iraqi boyfriend.”
“Dead. Horse. Mo. Is the crankiness here for the whole summer or something that might go away?”
“Not sure. I’ll let you know.”
I rub gloss over my lips.
Mo is not Iraqi, and Mo is not my boyfriend. If I could just convince the God-fearing Christians of Elizabethtown of these two facts, I really think he’d be less paranoid about things in general. But people believe what people want to believe.
Seven years ago, when Mo moved here, it was hard enough for people to wrap their minds around the fact that a coffee-skinned, black-haired boy could be named Mohammed Ibrahim Hussein and not be Saddam’s secret grandson. Now, well now, everyone knows Mo. And despite what he likes to pretend to believe, they don’t think he’s a terrorist, and some of them do make an effort to remember he’s from Jordan and not Iraq. I wonder though, if he hadn’t spent the last seven years trying to prove the two points, maybe the chip on his shoulder wouldn’t be the size of, I don’t know, the Middle East.
It’s true though, that at the end of the day he’s still the nice Arab boy or that Iraqi kid, and no amount of time here will change that. We’re Hardin County, Kentucky. We specialize in Southern hospitality, bourbon, tobacco, and horse farms. Not political correctness.
As for Mo being my boyfriend, there are so many reasons that Mo and I will never be together, I don’t even know where to start.
“Are you going in or what?” he asks.
“Yes.” I take a big dramatic breath. “Yes, I am. I don’t have chocolate on my face or anything, do I?”
“I’d have already told you. Quit stalling.” He pulls his European History textbook out of his backpack and starts flipping through the pages, whistling a tune through his front teeth: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“You don’t have to stay in the truck, you know,” I say.
“What, and prove how overprotective the Iraqi boyfriend is?”
“Really? This cranky all summer?”
“Not if you get your AC fixed,” he says. “And I wouldn’t be cranky at all if I didn’t still have to study.”
I never question that line of crap. Mo is one final exam away from finishing his junior year with a zillion AP credits, but it’s never enough. It’s the great paradox: He does not have to study, and yet he is always studying. Like my Aunt Helen with the Botox.
“Do you want me to leave the car on?” I ask.
“No. I’ll take my chances with the windows down. Maybe I’ll get some cross-breeze.”
“Okay, I’m going then.” I kick my legs up and out the open window, hoisting myself through as gracefully as possible in a jean skirt.
The door hasn’t worked since the winter before last. But that and the recent AC issues aside, it’s a lovable machine—dark-blue exterior, soft tan leather seats, never needed a single repair. Mo can complain, but he knows she’s my baby. And it’s not like he has his own ride.
I tug my skirt down so it covers enough thigh. Mo’s mostly wrong about Mr. Twister, but they do hire a certain type of girl—the cute but wholesome type. Sweet but not slutty. “Aren’t you going to wish me luck?”
He glances up at me, then back to his textbook. “Sure, but don’t come crying to me when you realize it sucks taking orders from your intellectual inferiors.”
“I’m dumber than you think. I’ll be just fine.”
“I still say you should be applying at Myrna’s so you can get a discount on paints. That at least makes sense.”
I shake my head. He knows this isn’t about sense. This is about her, and there’s nothing of her at Myrna’s. “If my truck is gone when I come back out, I’m calling the police.”
“Are you ignoring my good advice?” he asks.
“I’m not going to steal your truck. Your dad would totally press charges.”
“Maybe, but you could use your time in juvie on an application essay. Just think of the sympathy points.”
He smiles. Finally. He has good teeth, straight and even like piano keys. Other things are crooked—his nose, the thin white scar that breaks his left eyebrow in half, the weird way he half shuts his right eye when he reads. But he’s got perfect teeth, and a nice smile when I can force it out of him.
“Why are you staring at me? Aren’t you late?”
If I can just get him through finals without the stomach acid climbing up and eating a hole in his brain, we’ll be good.
“Stop stalling,” he says. “Go.”
So I go, the stack of silver bangles on my wrist jingling with every step. Chris Dorsey brought them back from Mexico for me. That was last fall, two weeks before I broke up with him, which seemed like long enough not to have to return them. Mo thinks I’m heartless for wearing them, but I like the sound they make.
Besides, Mo doesn’t know why I broke up with Chris. I tell Mo almost everything, but he wouldn’t understand that. He doesn’t know what it’s like to be talked into doing something you don’t want to do. Mo never does anything he doesn’t want to do.
It took me a long time to be able to wear the bracelets. But I can do it now.
I look up. Mr. Twister has movie-set charm, a quaint yellow cottage-converted-to-custard-shop shaded by colossal white oaks. Ivy covers the entire west-facing wall, and there’s something shimmery and fairy-tale-like about the way light slices through the canopy of leaves. It makes me want to paint.
There are people on the lawn, on the steps, on the wide veranda that wraps around the cottage. I weave through them, smiling and saying hi to the ones who say hi first, trying to ignore the sudden sour taste in my mouth.
This is not a big deal, Annie.
Except it is. The sweat is starting to pool in the center of my bra. I can feel it dripping down my back too, rolling over my calves. The memory of humidity always fades over the winter, but then summer hits and I don’t know why I didn’t appreciate every dry day.
I force my feet up the steps and to the door. Almost there. I put a steadying hand on the brass knob and will my heart to slow down. Just an interview for a minimum-wage summer job.
Except not any job. Her job.
Without warning, the door swings open and I lunge back. A couple of seniors rush by, and in their wake, a blast of cool, sweet air rushes at me. It almost sucks me in. It’s butter and honey with a hint of vanilla, the smell of baking sugar cones, and I remember it. It’s what my sister smelled like.