Out in the backyard, my breath puffs in steady clouds of condensation as I bounce the soccer ball from one foot to the other. It’s the first day of the New Year, and my one resolution is this: to be okay again. I’m starting small, kicking a ball around the yard, keeping it tight and close. I’ve missed the solid whunk of a good kick, the feeling that the sound alone is enough to make it lucky. I could use some of that luck for tomorrow, when I transfer to Prospect. That’s when I’ll find out if it’s easier to be okay in a place where no one knows anything about me. Where no one knows about Chase.
“We’re waiting for you, James!”
Lizzie is standing on the back patio, shivering as she hugs her arms around her chest. She turned eight on October fifth, which was the same day as the meeting about me. I remember because I didn’t come downstairs all evening, and I listened from my room as my parents sang “Happy Birthday, dear Lizzie” without me. I’m not proud about that now. It wasn’t her fault.
“Go back inside,” I tell her. “I’m almost done.”
She huffs as she turns away, and I go back to my juggling drills.
Finally, when I can no longer feel my face, I stow my ball in the garage and kick off my cleats by the door. It’s cold, even for Massachusetts winter, but still no snow. Inside is warm, and in the kitchen Mom is making dinner and explaining to Dad why we should stop calling Lizzie “Nugget.”
“Children who are nicknamed for unhealthy foods are twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes,” she says, vigorously mashing a pot full of potatoes. “I was just reading that today.”
“Does that mean you don’t want me to call you ‘Carrot Cake’ anymore?” Dad asks her, winking at me as I pour myself a glass of milk.
Mom keeps working away with the potato masher. “I think that’s a little different.”
Dad touches her arm. She looks up at him, they kiss, and I politely remind them of my presence with a loud gag.
Mom whacks me with the oven mitt. “Oh, go set the table.”
Grown-ups tell me that I look like my mom. We’re both tall, with the same red-brown hair and slightly downturned mouth. Mine tends to stay that way, frowning, while Mom is sunny and cheerful. Even after the meeting, when I wouldn’t talk to her or Dad or Lizzie for three weeks, she stayed positive. “I’m way more stubborn than you are, James Burke,” she would say each morning as she dropped me off at school. But then I came into the kitchen one day and found her crying over a strainer of frozen peas, and I realized that she was actually scared.
We’re talking now, but it isn’t quite the same.
By the time I set the table and fill my plate at the counter, my family is already seated. Mom is helping Lizzie take the bones out of her chicken, while Dad checks the label on a bottle of ranch dressing.
“A hundred and forty-eight calories per serving,” he says. “That’s unconscionable!”
Dad’s New Year’s Resolution is to lower his cholesterol. Mom and I mostly ignore him, but Lizzie, who inherited Dad’s nose, nearsightedness, and weakness for ice cream, takes it all to heart.
“What’s ‘unconscionable’?” she asks, eyeing the dressing.
“It means ‘delicious,’” Mom says. She scoots her chair in and sends a pointed look at Dad, who sets the ranch down beside Lizzie’s bowl of baby carrots. Lizzie won’t touch a vegetable that hasn’t been dressing-dunked beyond recognition.
“So, James,” Dad says, topping his potatoes with a curl of low-fat margarine. “Are you ready for the big day tomorrow?”
“It’s not that big,” I say. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most, actually. Everything just normal.
Lizzie pipes up. “Are you going to run away again?”
“Lizzie!” Mom exclaims.
“What? I just…”
The salad-dressing bottle farts as Dad squeezes it over Lizzie’s bowl.
Lizzie giggles. “Do it again!”
Mom looks exasperated. “David.”
“I won’t run away,” I tell them all.
Lizzie swirls her carrot in the dressing, while Dad reaches over and squeezes my forearm. “We know.”
For a few moments, we are all very interested in our vegetables.
“I wish I could go to another school,” Lizzie says. “Then I wouldn’t have to hear about Perfect Sarah Nan every day. Did I tell you what Sarah Nan said…?”
Sarah Nan is Lizzie’s best friend. She says “good evening” to adults and wins ribbons in gymnastics competitions. Lizzie, meanwhile, hides behind the coat rack when company comes, and she still falls down the stairs approximately once a week. She and Sarah Nan have known each other since preschool, which means that by now they are equal parts friends and rivals.
“…I keep telling her that I can’t do a cartwheel, and she makes me do one anyway!” Lizzie finishes, her voice rising shrilly. “One time I landed on my shoulder, and it really hurt.”
“Sarah Nan shouldn’t treat you that way,” Mom says, lowering her fork. “Maybe I should talk to Mrs. Rothman.”
“Right,” I say. “That’ll help.”
My parents glance at each other. Mom is the speech-language pathologist at Lizzie’s elementary school, which was formerly my elementary school. As a “speech teacher,” she’s all about communication; I think sometimes she takes it too far. She’s the one who scheduled the meeting with all my teachers last October.
Mom opens her mouth to respond—but then the phone rings.
“I’ll get it.” I push back my chair.
“We’re having dinner,” Dad says, but I’m already at the phone.
“Hi.” The voice is a woman’s, and it sounds tentative as she asks, “Is this David?”
“This is James,” I say, surprised but relieved to be mistaken for my dad. Not too long ago, I answered the phone and someone thought I was Lizzie.
“Oh—hello,” she says again, now with more warmth. “This is Sayla Wilson, from the Wendover Bicycle Alliance. I was calling to find out if you and your family have given any more thought to the ghost bike.”
“Uh…” I don’t think I heard her right. “The what?”
“Ghost bike?” she repeats, as though she’s asking me. When I still don’t respond, she adds, “The memorial for your friend Chase.”
I still get a visceral reaction when Chase comes to mind unexpectedly—an electric surge that leaves every nerve in my body thrumming. I see him on the sidewalk ahead of me, his white T-shirt ballooning out behind him with the wind, his helmet glinting. He came out of nowhere…!
“…completely up to you if you want to be involved,” the woman is saying. “If you wanted, you could speak at the ceremony, or if you just wanted to do the ride…”
My parents are watching me, and at this I see them exchange a glance. “Who is it?” Mom asks, but I turn away while the woman continues.
“We bring the bicycle to the intersection and install it there. It’s usually very lovely and moving—everyone rides together.” When I don’t respond, she adds, “We thought you might like to be a part of it. Since he was your friend.”
The phone buzzes as her words repeat in my mind. Memory. Ghost. Your friend.
“James?” the voice asks.
“James!” Mom shoves back her chair. “Look at him, he’s gone white—” She snatches the phone out of my hand. “Who is this?”
Dad is out of his seat too, handing me his glass of water. “Sit down. Drink this.” He ushers me back to my place at the table, and I drop down in my chair.
“Who is it?” Lizzie asks. “What’s going on?”
“No—we were waiting,” Mom says shortly. “He’s thirteen years old. Do you have any idea what he’s been through?”
The woman tries to respond; her voice, from across the room, is high and tinny.
“We’re having dinner,” Mom interrupts. “Please don’t call here again.”
She hangs up, hard, and then she exhales, staring at the wall. “She had no right to call here,” she says. She turns back to us the table. “James? Honey? Are you all right?”
They look at me, just as the refrigerator motor starts up, giving us all a jolt. Now the words repeating in my head are Mom’s: Do you have any idea what he’s been through?
“I’m fine,” I say.
“We were waiting to talk to you about it,” Mom says. “You have so much going on…”
“I could have handled it,” I say. “I’m not…” I don’t manage to finish that sentence. Not what? Not messed up anymore? If I wanted to prove that, I just lost my chance.
“You shouldn’t have to handle anything.” Mom pulls back her chair and sits down again. “You should be able to just…”
“Who was it?” Lizzie wants to know.
“Eat your carrots,” Dad says, which means the conversation is over.
Later, at night, I’m lying back in bed, flipping through the pages of the latest book in J. S. Pierce’s Dark Ocean series: Fathoms Deep. I’m only sort of paying attention, though: mostly I’m straining to hear my parents’ conversation down the hall while they brush their teeth.
“Maybe it would be good for him,” Dad is saying.
“Not now,” Mom says. “Not with everything else. It’s too much.”
The water runs. “He won’t know what’s too much if he doesn’t try.”
“I know that. But not now.”
Dad spits into the sink. “It’s a shame it had to happen tonight,” he says. “When he was already feeling vulnerable.”
Vulnerable. I shrink down under the covers.
“I hope he can get a fresh start at Prospect,” Mom says. “You really don’t think a therapist…?”
Her question hangs in the air while Dad gargles, then rinses. “Until James wants to talk to someone, it will only be counterproductive. We have to wait for him.”
I hear the light switch click as they head to bed.
I try to finish J. S. Pierce, but my eyes won’t stay focused on the page. After dinner, while Lizzie watched her nature show, Mom and Dad sat down with me and told me about ghost bikes. It was what the woman on the phone had said: people gather to install a memorial bicycle at the place where someone was hit. I went online afterward and saw the pictures: bicycles painted all white, even the spokes and gears, chained to streetlamps or signposts or whatever else was nearby. Sometimes there’s a plaque too: A Cyclist Was Killed Here.
I also looked up the woman who called me—Sayla something. There wasn’t much, but I found out she works at the Town Hall, in the Department of Planning. I don’t know why she’d be planning a memorial for Chase. She didn’t know him.
Then again, I did know him, and I didn’t even go to his funeral. My parents tried really hard to make me go, without making it seem like they were trying hard. Dad offered to sit with me in the church parking lot; Mom asked me to think about whether I would someday regret missing it. Then I punched the door and cracked it, and they left me alone. As it turned out, I did regret it—not because I wished I’d been there, but because it was the last chance I would ever have to see Chase’s parents. They moved away two weeks later, to their other house, in Maine. I didn’t think they would do that. I thought I would still get to see them.
I thought they would still want to see me.
A knuckle raps softly on my door. It opens, and Mom, in her nightgown, stands in the doorway. “It’s late.”
I pick up J. S. Pierce from where it lay flopped against my chest. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“Well, this won’t help.” She flips the overhead light off, and then she pads across the carpet and sits on the side of my bed. “Are you nervous about tomorrow?”
She pushes the hair back from my eyes. “You sure that’s not the armor talking?”
I shrug. Mom mentions that a lot, my armor. She calls it a coping mechanism, but she says she wishes I could let people see past it sometimes, to what’s really inside. I don’t wish for that.
“You know you can go to the guidance office anytime,” she says. “If you need a break.”
She’s still trying, even after what happened before. I see the outline of her figure in the darkness, waiting for my response, and I feel a little sad for her. She still doesn’t really understand what made me so upset that day I ran away. “I won’t need a break.”
Her fingers are cool on my forehead. I close my eyes. “I bet he’s asleep now,” I say.
Mom’s hand pauses. She knows who I mean. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he were awake too,” she says. “Imagine if you had to live with what he does.”
I open my eyes. “He deserves it. I hope he never sleeps again.”
Mom doesn’t respond to that. We’ve had this conversation before. “He has to go on with his life, just like we do—but he will always be changed. So will we.”
I don’t want him to go on with his life, I think, but I don’t say it. “I guess.”
She pulls the covers up to my chin and tucks them around me. “Will you be able to sleep?”
“Don’t worry,” I say.
She leans over and kisses my forehead. “You have such a good heart, James,” she tells me. “Don’t hide it away.”
I watch as the door closes behind her, and the tiny crack of light shrinks to nothing.
I try my best to fall asleep. I lie on my back, on my side, on my stomach. I make a list of good things about tomorrow: a new locker that I already know how to find, a bus ride to school instead of showing up with my mom, soccer in the spring. But I keep picturing the big cafeteria I saw when I toured back in December, and I wonder, Who will sit with me?
When I finally check my phone, it’s almost 1 a.m.
I flop back against my pillow, defeated. The phone glows from its place on my bedside table, a blue, ghostly light. I pick it up again. Maybe tonight.
I tap through to the last video—my last video of Chase. The thumbnail shows the front tire of my bicycle against the cracked asphalt of the school parking lot; the time says forty-seven seconds. Maybe if I finally watched it—if I could see him again—then I could sleep.
My finger hovers over the screen, my heart thudding. It would be so easy.
But then it would be over.
Finally I give up, like I always do, and drop the phone. Now I know I won’t be able to sleep. I lean over the side of the bed and reach under my mattress for the bottle of Night Relief.
They come spilling out like M&Ms: round discs, coated with pastel blue. Mom gave them to me for a little while after Chase died, when my head throbbed constantly and I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing him swept under that pickup truck. She’d bring them to my room, two at a time, with a glass of water. She doesn’t know I’ve kept on taking them.
Carefully I separate two from the bunch and funnel the rest back inside. I don’t have any water, but, in case my parents are still awake, I decide against a trip to the bathroom—which is where I found the bottle one night, tucked in a drawer beside the sink—and swallow them both at once, dry.
Beside me my phone glows, then abruptly blinks out to darkness.
Mr. Kinnell looks like he might play football. His arms are as wide around as telephone poles, and his chest is broad and solid, as though someone tried to button a pinstriped shirt around a refrigerator. When I see him standing in the doorway of my English class, blocking half the entrance with his wide frame, I stop so abruptly that the kid behind me steps on my heel.
“Oh…!” she says, but I’m already stumbling into the classroom, my shoe flopping off as I duck my head and slip inside, heart racing. What is he doing here?
Everything until now has been going fine. I found my locker exactly where I remembered it from my tour back in December. My homeroom teacher introduced me without a lot of fanfare, then assigned me a “buddy” who rushed off to meet his friends as soon as we were dismissed—so I was free to find my own way in the halls, with my head up and nobody staring at me. People are staring now, though. A girl in front leans to whisper to her friend, who gives me a sidelong glance. I shrink into an empty seat in the back.
“Good morning,” Mr. Kinnell is saying to each student who enters the room. “Good morning, good…”
Mr. Kinnell was a substitute teacher at Hillcrest, my old school. I only had him one time—he covered my Spanish class and played a video that got a little steamier than he expected; I remember him stammering as he hit “fast forward”—but he was around the building a lot. Maybe even on the day I ran away. Would he recognize me? Most teachers at Hillcrest recognized me. I didn’t want them to.
Mr. Kinnell pokes his head out into the hallway one last time, then closes the door. “Good morning,” he says again, to all of us. “My name is Mr. Kinnell. I’m thrilled to—”
At the side of the room the radiator resounds with a loud, metallic clang!, and Mr. Kinnell jumps. People laugh; he manages a confused smile. I’m glad no one saw me jump too. The heaters at Hillcrest never did that.
When the room settles down, Mr. Kinnell notices a girl in the front row with her hand up. “Excuse me,” she asks, “but where’s Mrs. Stark?”
“Mrs. Stark is going to be absent for a few weeks, as I believe Ms. D. discussed with you,” Mr. Kinnell says. Ms. D. is the assistant principal, who gave me the tour of the school back in December; the “D” stands for something long that ends in insky. “I’ll be filling in until she comes back.”
A gust of wind rattles the windowpanes, vibrating the cutout paper snowflakes that someone taped there before the holidays. Did he say weeks?
“Do you know where she is?” another boy asks.
“I don’t know any more than what you were told,” Mr. Kinnell assures us. He picks up his clipboard. “Now—attendance! Say ‘here’ if you’re here.”
I’m suddenly wishing I weren’t here.
As if reading my mind, the boy beside me calls out, “What do we say if we’re not here?” He’s tall, like me, with dark eyebrows and an aquiline nose. His feet, in black combat boots, are stretched out into the aisle, and when he turns and smirks in my direction, I smile back without thinking. I wonder if he meant to smile at me.
Mr. Kinnell hesitates. “If you’re not here, say ‘Ashtabula.’” It’s a joke, but no one laughs. He clears his throat. “Okay, here we go—Leslie Cunningham.”
“Less-lie,” she corrects him. “Not Lez-lie.”
“My apologies.” I can see shadows of sweat growing under his arms. “Julia DeNorscia.”
“Here!” sings the girl in the front row.
The boy next to me shoots another smile. “Ashtabula.”
Seventh-grade attendance is a unique kind of torture. The Leslies make a big deal about how to say their name, the tough kids like Bailey Schwartz say “Hey” instead of “Here,” and there’s always someone, Curtis this time, who misses when he’s called and only jumps to attention when everyone around him shouts, Curtis! They were doing attendance at Hillcrest the day I ran away, counting us outside while we waited for the fire drill to be over. I was standing behind Katie Nichols, trying to think of something smart to say to her, when she looked past me and asked, Isn’t that your mom?
“Last but not least,” Mr. Kinnell says, and my heart jumps a little—this must be my name, penciled in at the end. But instead he says, “Ally Wiseman.”
I see her before he does. She’s sitting over by the windows, watching with a wide-eyed alertness that, along with the dark plume of her ponytail, makes her look a lot like a squirrel. Her hand is raised, the fingers just slightly uncurling. I think she was the one who stepped on my heel.
“Ally?” he says again.
“She’s over there,” several people burst out in unison. Ally blushes.
“Oops! My mistake.” Mr. Kinnell smiles at Ally and makes a check on his list. “Now…”
“Mr. Kinnell?” The girl in front, Julia, has her hand in the air again. “You missed someone.”
The room stirs as every head turns, marking a path toward me like airport runway lights. I realize that I made a huge mistake. Not only am I the new kid halfway through the year; now I’m also the weirdo who came in and sat down without saying anything.
Mr. Kinnell follows their gaze. “Hello, there!”
I feel my armor closing in. Be normal, I tell myself. “I’m James,” I say. “I’m new.”
“James…” he repeats, flipping his page to see if there’s a back side. There isn’t. “I’m sorry, I can’t seem to find…”
Before I can say anything, Julia raises her hand yet again. “He’s probably not on there,” she says, tilting her head so that her blonde braid swings from one side to the other. “He’s, like, new today.”
Mr. Kinnell looks up at me. “Today?”
I feel every person’s eyes on me like twenty pairs of needle pricks. I manage a nod.
“Oh! Oh.” He falters as he grasps the full situation: new kid, first class, first day. Possibly a psycho. “Well… welcome to Prospect, James!” he exclaims, recovering. “Are you finding your way around okay?”
It took them half an hour to find me after I ran away from Hillcrest. I took side roads, turned corners at random, and only got caught because some lady saw me hurdling her hedges and called the school. A few minutes later, Mrs. Sachs drove past and caught me in a nearby cul-de-sac. I didn’t try to get away. I knew I couldn’t.
“I found my way here,” I point out now.
Beside me, Daniel lets out a snort. I’m surprised; I wasn’t trying to be funny.
“You certainly did.” Mr. Kinnell smiles, a broad, dopey grin that shows off his front teeth. He could build a beaver dam with those things. “So, where are you coming to us from?”
My stomach sinks. I brace myself, then say as evenly as I can, “Hillcrest.”
“Hillcrest!” he repeats, ignoring the rush of whispers around him. “I’ve been there! Have you—”
“Are their lockers really double-wide?” someone—Curtis, I think—asks from up front.
“They’re twice the size of ours,” Bailey says, brazenly chewing on a wad of gum, which Mr. Kinnell does not tell her to spit out. “I’ve seen them.”
“And they have air-conditioning,” Leslie says longingly.
“The lockers have air-conditioning?” Mr. Kinnell jokes, trying to lighten the mood.
Then someone calls from the far corner, “Didn’t that kid who died go there?”
Suddenly the room feels hot.
“Oh my God.” Julia turns around in her seat. “Did you know him?”
When people find out that I’m a seventh-grade English teacher, ninety-five percent of them say, “Wow—that’s a challenging age,” or “Seventh grade was my worst year ever,” or even just “God bless you.” To be fair, my own seventh-grade experience is not one I look back on with great nostalgia, but now, on the other side of things, I can truthfully say that I love seventh grade, and seventh-graders, a lot. It’s the year when the world becomes a more gray and complex place: adults are increasingly fallible, friendships shift and crumble, and the answer to “What is right?” becomes much harder to divine. My novel, Waiting for the Real James, is written for and inspired by my seventh-grade students—their complexities and their ongoing struggle to decide whom to trust, and who to be.
One week before the start of his seventh-grade year, thirteen year-old James watched from the sidewalk as the driver of a pickup truck killed his best friend, Chase. Now, four months later, James is transferring to Prospect Middle School, where he hopes that a fresh start will prove to his parents and to himself that he’s okay again—even if it means pretending the whole thing never happened. But when a local organization unexpectedly invites him to participate in the installation of a “ghost bike” memorial for Chase, James begins asking questions about the crash, mobilizing his community in an effort that eventually leads him all the way to a crucial and contentious Town Meeting. James must decide if he truly wants to put his grief and loss behind him, or if part of being “okay” means honoring and seeking justice for his friend.
With this novel, I strove to create a cast of characters who would ring true for my students: a male protagonist with complex, genuine thoughts and struggles; savvy parents who, in spite of their best intentions and wisdom, fall short of understanding their child’s world; an imperfect teacher who turns out to be just what one student needs. James is a young person who ends up having a powerful impact on his community, but he also faces the ordinary struggles of middle-school life, from locker jams to cafeteria-seating crises to the warm clumsiness of a first crush. Waiting for the Real James is as much about seventh grade as it is about one seventh-grader, and while most of us would not wish to repeat that year of our lives—I know I wouldn’t—this novel is an attempt to celebrate the singular experience of being thirteen and to affirm for middle-school readers that they are more powerful than they realize.
Karen Wilfrid lives in Newton, Massachusetts. She received her B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and currently teaches seventh-grade English. Waiting for the Real James is her first novel.
Embark, Issue 4, April 2018