It was Wednesday after school and Shelly was at the mall, hanging out at the northwest corner of the giant water fountain over by Café Café and Stamps Stamps Stamps. She was 13 and had recently reached a certain level of cool. Not popular but definitely known. As far as the social pecking order of Trilby Junior High was concerned, it was a good place to be.
Shelly was a good time but man, what a spaz. She didn't seem to have control over her face or any of her limbs. She laughed too long. She talked too much. Sometimes, unprovoked, she took a gulp of air. Her father was a drunk, also quite vocal, who had informed her that wasn't all that pretty or smart but funny.
"Use it," he said.
Still, Shelly was affable. Her and her best friend Jocelyn were liked by the other kids in their school for being goofy and daring and ready to try anything.
The girls sat perched on the low cement pillars that surrounded the water fountain, forks in hand, hunched over the recently discovered, most delicious food in the world: a taco baked potato. Sloppy dollops of brown chili, orange cheese, white sour cream, a healthy sprinkling of black pepper. The colors, the flavors, the salt, the carbs - everything from Potatoes, Potatoes, Potatoes was dripping with style. So much cooler than french fries.
A boy. Erik Murphy. Murph. Murph the Smurf. He was looking right at them, walking across the shiny, varnished bricks. His pants sagged. His golf hat was tipped to the side. His Adidas had complicated laces. Braces. Acne. Beauty. All the girls at Trilby loved him. Shelly and Jocelyn were no different. He smiled. They froze. The potato they were sharing saw it all.
"Ladies," he said.
With hearts racing the girls turned their faces and postures slack. This was no big deal. They weren't even impressed.
Lazily, they moaned, "Hey, Murph," in perfect unison.
The only difference was when Shelly spoke, she couldn't bear to look up, and a clear, slow thread of spit fell from her mouth and into the potato.
In an attempt to rectify the situation, she repeated the greeting as if the first one had never happened.
"Hey, Murph," she droned.
Again, she kept her eyes averted and again she drooled. Since when was the word "hey" and saliva control such a impossible tasks? And why the hell couldn't she make eye contact? She gulped air. Pepper. Sneeze! Snot. Snot on her face. Snot on her hand that tried to block her face. Snot on the potato. Jocelyn let her have the napkin.
Mortified, she kept her gaze glued to the tuber. Her fluids had made pools on the peaks of sour cream like pattern of lakes in some snowy alpine village. Her mind took her there. She walked lakeside with Murph, hand in hand, bundled up in winter clothes. They were a team. They were smiling like people in love in a movie. Now the lake was frozen! Now they they were skating on the lake! Now they were sharing secrets and shoulders and cocoa and tears.
When she finally looked up, Murph was saying goodbye and Jocelyn was smiling at Shelly with pity disguised as "it's okay."
On Monday, word circulated that Shelly was so on drugs. That she was a mess - a weed smoker or a pill popper or worse. That she had an older boyfriend named Derek with a truck and a mustache two towns over in Maple Heights. He got her all the drugs she needed and she needed a lot.
As no one hated her, Shelly neither confirmed nor denied what was being said but let the rumors grow like moss. The boring truth was covered, muffled.
Known and liked. It was all that mattered.
All Images - Seph Laweless