Any girl who’s been there knows seventh grade is seriously the worst grade of all. Full-blown puberty is the main issue. Your breasts become the criteria by which every boy decides how beautiful you are. Whatever grade you get in that regard (A, B, C, D, Double D), you totally fail—fail to find a guy who won’t lowkey solicit you for a free feel or make up some stupid ditty about your having nothing to feel—“riddle me this, riddle me that, why is your chest as flat as your back.”
School cheerleading try-outs begin, sports become the foundation of the social construction. Should you find yourself lucky enough to have a natural desire to do any of that stuff, there’s no guarantee that you’ll actually make the cut for the team.
I guess the start of seventh grade wasn’t noticeably disastrous for me. I made a few friends, though I couldn’t totally relate to them even if I wanted to. (They spoke German during lunch period, and at the time, my German was still one step above remedial.) I wasn’t blatantly miserable, but happiness seemed a pipe dream.
Yasmin Navarro arrived second semester of seventh grade, showing up the first day with a white ribbon holding up her high swinging ponytail. She wore green glitter on her eyelids and fingernails, breaking the second rule of the dress code, but I guess she slid by that first day on her bubbliness. Her smile never failed, causing me to notice how the blue, green, and white rubber bands of her braces matched her uniform. I wondered if she had planned it that way.
She was placed next to me in Earth Science. With her eyes sunken into a microscope, she introduced herself to me as Mimi.
In. Perfect. English.
She didn’t need say another word. She literally had me at “hello,” which sounded like sweet talk in comparison to the German hah-low.
The whole first week she attended our school, I didn’t catch her without a smile, which made me think I’d eventually hate her. To me, phoniness is a cardinal sin. It ranks with murder, if you think about it. You basically kill your real self when you try to be someone else.
My assumptions about Mimi changed the next week when she stomped into homeroom, her face seemingly naked without a smile. She plopped down beside me, her lip jutted out in the most dramatic pout.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My fucking mom.”
I looked around, making sure Mrs. Graziadei hadn’t heard.
Mimi’s eyes widened, as though she had just heard her own foul language. “I’m sorry. I’m just so mad at my mom. I got a B+ on the Math quiz, and she laid a major guilt trip on me this morning about how when I don’t do my very best, I’m dishonoring my parents. To dishonor your parents is the same as dishonoring Allah.”
Her eyes widened again. I understood well her paranoia. I smiled softly, signaling that she could rest assured her secret was safe with me.
She scooted her chair closer to mine and leaned in toward me, setting her elbows on my desk. “She only says that because my dad died when I was a baby, and she’s gonna feel like she didn’t give my father his dying wish if I don’t do something important with my life. The truth is that she just wants me to make a bunch of money so I can take care of her when she gets old. Plus, you see this?” She held her hand up in front of me, flashing a braided silver ring. “It’s a purity ring. You know, like one of those things Selena Gomez used to wear. Well, my mom told me I had to stop wearing it because it’s too flashy. She’s all like, Muslim girls aren’t supposed to show off their virginity like that. Seriously, do you know the one thing that’s worse than an overbearing Muslim mom?”
I almost said an overbearing Jewish mom, but Karina Stein was sitting on the other side of me, and she probably wouldn’t have gotten that it was just a joke, that all religion was the same as far as I was concerned.
“A fake, overbearing Muslim mom,” Mimi said. “It’s the worst.”
Little did she know, I understood the fake Muslim parent more than anybody else. My father drank wine, ate pork, and only went to the mosque for funerals. On top of that, he was a totally fake pro-feminist. He claimed God gave several rights to women that men didn’t have the right to take away. The very fact that my father believed God gave women a list of enumerated rights made it hard for me to look him in the face.
Mimi’s face brightened suddenly, like sunshine piercing the clouds.
“But it doesn’t even matter because I’m wearing the ring, no matter what she says.” She pointed up with her ring finger, looking around mischievously and laughing at how much it looked like she was flipping the bird. “This ring is staying on my finger. Capeesh?”
As I now hold her beloved silver ring up in front of my eyes, I can’t help marveling at the fierce irony of this situation.
On the side of the road beside me, Mikey and Grayson shout at each other over the traffic. Jenna is characteristically silent, her face knotting up like cauliflower as she tries to hold back her sobs. My insistence on calling the police has already been starkly rebuffed. Grayson had yanked my cell phone from my hands as I was beginning to dial.
Now, Grayson is trying to sell Mikey and me on the seriousness of the ransom note.
“We can’t play around with this,” he says. “This is—dude, that’s real blood! Can’t you smell it? I’m not taking a chance of a psycho killing Mimi.”
“How do we know she’s not already dead?” I push my hair back from my face, closing my hand over Mimi’s ring. “Or almost dead? How do we know we’re not being duped? We don’t even know if this is Mimi’s hair or even her ring.”
Jenna idles at the trunk, staring at the bloody, knotted hair. “It’s definitely Mimi’s,” she says quietly.
She says it with the conviction of the one person who spent long hours with Mimi here in Arabella Park while the rest of us went off for the summer—me with my mother in San Diego, Grayson and Mikey attending soccer camp together in Miami.
“It’s hers,” Grayson yells over the traffic. “We can’t take any chances with this. You want her to die, Kameron? Is that what you want? Is it?”
“Don’t yell at me, Grayson! You’ve got no idea what the right thing to do is, so stop acting like you—”
“He’s not saying he knows what to do, Kameron,” Mikey interjects. “He’s just trying to do the right thing. Everybody is. Don’t start going crazy.”
“So, now you’re with Grayson on this, Mikey? Why don’t you just—” A violent shake ripples up from my feet to my face. Through labored, hiccupped breaths, I manage to say, “You both make me sick! Just…just take me home.”
Grayson reaches forward to quell me, but I tear away, gripping Mimi’s ring so tight it brands my palm. Figuring that they can do nothing to soothe me, Grayson and Mikey fumble around for a full thirty minutes changing the tire. I stare at Jenna as she looks out at the road. I wonder if, like me, she has given her silent permission to handling this situation Mikey and Grayson’s way.
Grayson and I neither speak nor look at each other as we move across the lawn to our house.
Our house is a large beige traditional German-style home on a vast plot of green land with the Appalachian Mountains as its backdrop. It reminds me of a gingerbread house I made in pre-school when I was three years old, a year before my dad married Grayson’s mother Laura.
The inside reminds me of something I drew in the kindergarten. A zoo.
Laura, like my father, has an obsession with antique furniture, on which she spares no expense to transport into our house when she finds the perfect item. The furniture pieces are quite mismatched—an ivory divan, a blue serpentine dresser, a green-cushioned Chippendale chair, and a mahogany writing desk. Our house has always had a peculiar dusty, perfumey smell from all the used pieces. Today the smell makes me feel as though I might vomit. I hold my hand over my stomach, another bout of dizzy disbelief claiming me.
When we enter the living room, Ash Wednesday is bouncing on a pogo stick in her white First Holy Communion dress and Grayson’s lime green ski cap.
My kid sister Ash Wednesday is seven years old with white-blonde hair, crystal blue eyes, and a frame so slight she is frequently mistaken for a kindergartner. She is the only child of my dad and Laura and ultimately, the pride and joy of our household.
“Mommy and Baba, Kameron’s home now!” she yells out before hopping to me as I place my backpack on the ground beside the divan with shaking hands. “Kameron, we have discovered your extraordinary news. We’ve all gone mad over it. We shall have a party. I’m most certain of it.”
She is nodding, speaking with a British accent. Ash Wednesday attends Montessori school, and it seems she’s gravitated to theatrical studies.
Laura and my dad descend the stairs. Laura quietly hands me my piece of opened mail. Laura’s notorious for looking through other people’s mail. It was a tremendous grievance when I first started receiving mail, but these days I’ve made an exception for mostly all of Laura’s little kinks. As human beings go, she’s proven herself to be an overall stellar one.
“It says that Columbia wants to welcome Kameron for the May semester as an early admittance,” Ash blurts out, not leaving any air between her words. She slaps her hand over her mouth and falls off her pogo stick, tumbling to the ground and rolling around, laughing.
“Dude,” murmurs Grayson. It is an obligatory congratulations “dude” to keep up pretense.
Soon, I’m overtaken by the band of blondes. Ash Wednesday jumps to her feet and circles her hands around my waist, hugging me from behind. Laura plants sweet kisses on my left cheek. On my right, Grayson gives me a listless pat on the shoulder as he stares at the ground. I lose my breath, feeling I might faint.
My father stands in front of me with a small, rock-hard smile which probably took him all day to figure out how to fake. That smile doubly increases my nausea. We all know he hates the thought of me becoming a career woman like my mother. He prefers women to be recklessly pretty, relatively uneducated, and utterly financially dependent—women like Laura, whose claim to fame, despite all her coolness, was getting a GED at sixteen, a few months shy of Grayson’s birth. As my mom says, there’s nothing like equality to breed contempt among the sexes.
My father pulls in his lips, at last muting that ugly smile.
“Thanks, everybody,” I reply, blinking quickly to clear away my tears. “Look, I need to— ” a gust of breath leaves me like a deflating balloon. I swallow. “I need to go to my room, to think about everything.”
“Not so fast, little one,” Laura says. “Not before you eat your congratulations dinner. I didn’t spend two hours in that kitchen for nothing.”
Underneath the dinner table, Grayson squeezes my knee cap to halt the motor trembling of my leg.
The plates of macaroni, oven-baked chicken, and mashed potatoes on top of the mammoth mahogany table serve as a great divide between me and Grayson on one side and Laura and Ash Wednesday on the other. On their side, there is blissful ignorance, swinish slurping and licking of fingers. On our side, there is a miasma of misery, stone cold silence, and twiddling of silverware. My father made his lucky escape when he was paged to the hospital five minutes before the oven timer went off.
After wiping Ash’s face with a napkin, Laura looks up at me. “Did you get a chance to call Robert and tell him the news yet? I’m surprised he didn’t come over here to celebrate. He knows he can come over here whenever he wants, right?”
For fear of vomiting if I open my mouth to answer, I simply shake my head. I wonder how come Laura hasn’t figured out yet that Robert broke up with me, considering I’d come back from summer break a baby elephant. The culprit? All those second helpings of chelow kebab and badejam while visiting my mom in San Diego.
Ironic. My weight gain and the breakup had consumed every thought for the past few days. Now, they are child’s play compared to what we found in Mikey’s trunk. Grayson’s hand clutches tighter my knee, as though he’s afraid that if I open my mouth, I’ll give away our secret. He’s probably right.
Ash Wednesday’s brows suddenly furl and her nose clenches in a vivid show of concern. “What’s wrong, Gray?” She turns to Laura. “Mommy, Grayson is going to cry.”
“No. I’m good,” Grayson replies through the loose hand he holds over his mouth. The wispy blonde hairs on the back of his hand are standing at attention. “My eyes just hurt a little.”
“Are you sick?” asks Laura.
“I’m the one who’s sick,” I burst out. I push out my chair and stand. “I mean, I don’t feel well. I really, really need to go to my room. Please.”
“What’s the matter, Kameron? Is it the food? You’ve barely eaten any of it.”
“Don’t feel bad about your food Mommy. It’s de-light-ful.”
“It’s not the food,” I say. “It’s nothing. I need to go to my room.”
Laura’s probing is cut short by the ringing of the doorbell. I rush to answer the front door, hot, salty tears dripping down my face.
“For Grayson Graham and Kameron Kasparov,” says the delivery man at the door.
The man holds a potted plant so tall I can’t see his face. Through the cellophane, I see the plant is made up of a long stem with a series of magenta nodes. At the end of the magenta nodes, there are round white bulbs whose centers are a crusty black, like a sequence of eyeballs pointing out in every direction.
As my knees turn to liquid, Grayson materializes beside me. He quietly signs for the plant while holding me up by the elbow.
Upon closing the front door, he ushers me into the bathroom and shuts the door behind us with his foot. Straight off, he plucks the small note from the bouquet.
He reads. “’In case you miss Mimi’s doll eyes staring at you, here is a replacement. Remember that I’ll carve out those eyes one at a time if you open your pretty little mouths. Me.’“
Gray looks up at me, and I begin to sweat. Not just in fear. I am angry, angry that anybody can make me this afraid. I pull my phone from my pocket.
“That’s it, Grayson, I’m calling the cops. I’m not going to waste another minute being tortured.”
“Wait, Kameron, just wait!”
He snatches the phone from my hand, inciting my fury further. Borrowing from the moves I used on him when we were children fighting over our shared iPad, I swing my fists at him windmill style. To block me, he holds up his free hand, the one that isn’t balancing the devil plant and my phone. Using his preoccupancy to my advantage, I kick him in the shin, paralyzing him long enough to contact his mouth with my fist. He falls into a drunken stumble, the plant falling from his hand as blood gushes from his punctured lip. My stomach bucks at the sight of his blood, though my attention is soon stolen by glass tube that rolls out from the plant pot. It is a vial, maybe three inches, filled to the top with a red liquid, like mercury in a thermometer. Printed on the tube are words in black marker.
Grayson kneels down, picking up the vial to solemnly inspect it. He reads, “It’s me, Mimi. Here’s a little of my blood, shed just for you.’”
Any sensible thought eludes me as I stare at the vial.
“Don’t call the cops, Kameron,” says Grayson, his eyes pleading once more. “Please. This isn’t a joke. I’m telling you, the cops can’t do anything that we can’t. Trust me. You ever heard of the Lindbergh baby?”
“This dude knows our address. You don’t think it’ll be one minute before he knows we’ve contacted the police. This isn’t just Mimi’s life on line. This is our life and everybody that lives in this house, from your dad to my mom. And Ash Wednesday. “ With the back of his hand, he wipes the blood from the corner of his mouth. “Give it a day. That’s all I’m asking.”