I HATE PAPER DAY. HATE. IT. But I still do it every week, sometimes twice a week, because my mom asks me to. I know I shouldn’t. I know it doesn’t help. But I do it because the only people in the world that we can count on is us. My dad’s just a frozen smile in a brushed-brass frame on our living room wall. And since he hasn’t jumped down to run to the office supply store for her in the last 17 years, it’s all on me.
I lug home three stacks of printer paper every week, even though it kills my arms. The office supply is on my way home from school and the store manager, Buzz, keeps it waiting for me by the register now. It’s 1,500 sheets of their cheapest paper, wrapped up in individual paper packages. Buzz used to ask me what we do with it all. I told him my mom was a writer, but I didn’t tell him about how all this paper ends up in storage garages, filled to the rafters. I don’t tell him that the reason I’m in this neighborhood, and at his particular store counter, is because our old house was so crammed with paper that we had to move. And I don’t tell him that my mom has never even finished one story.
But I think Buzz assumes my mom is a crappy writer anyway, because she has never published anything. It took a few weeks before he stopped making jokes about how we keep him in business, about how we buy enough paper to build a house out of it, and about how my mom sure must make a lot of typos. Now he just smiles and asks me how it’s going or we talk about things that don’t matter, like school or the weather.
Even with Buzz behind the counter, smiling and joking with me, I can’t stand handing over the money for three more stacks. The paper is why we don’t have a bank account. And it’s why two different shrinks have files documenting my mom as a compulsive paper hoarder and me as a captive enabler. The paper is why social services keeps threatening to have me removed due to the ‘hazardous conditions’.
My mom hates being labeled as a hoarder, she says it is grossly inaccurate, but it sounds a lot better than the label I have at school. A friend - it only took one, to show up at my house unexpectedly and to stare inside with a horrified face - started calling me The Waste. The name was all over school within a day. People were saying it to me casually in the halls. That’s what makes these stupid stacks of paper feel the heaviest. The Waste.
But I still stop on my way home.
And I still thank Buzz.
And I still fork over the money that could help pay some of our bills on time, because, you know, my mom says she needs this. Once, when I told her I wasn’t picking up paper for her anymore because it was too embarrassing, she almost broke down in tears. She told me that whether or not I helped, she would still get the paper and keep writing because it is important. When I said I didn’t care, she grabbed my hand and squeezed it and said, “Please Nali. I mean it. This is a huge responsibility. I have to do this. It’s for…all of us. It’s for mankind.”
There was something in her touch that tingled up my arm and into my brain. Like an adrenaline shot of belief. I know it sounds stupid. That’s why instead of telling my mom what I felt, I motioned to the stacks of paper that filled what was once our spare bathroom and made a joke about how much we do for mankind. After that, anytime there was something we didn’t want to do, we’d laugh and say, “Just do it for mankind.”
It’s a thirty minute walk home from the office supply on regular days, but it takes forty minutes on paper days because I have to stop and give my arms a rest. And today, my arms hurt so bad, I don’t feel like joking about mankind at all. I turn the corner of our street and see my mom waiting on the tiny slab of our front porch. Actually, she’s pacing. She does that when she needs her paper. Once she sees me, she meets me half way down the sidewalk and she takes two of the packages I’m carrying.
“I was getting worried about you. Everything okay?” she asks.
“I’ve got mid terms, you know.” I can’t help but snap at her. My shoulders are aching. I adjust the strap on my backpack to remind her of how full it is. “It stinks carrying all your paper home when I’ve got a big enough load already.”
“It is for mankind, after all,” she smiles. When I don’t, she winces. “Sorry.”
I sigh. I hate when she’s sorry for needing her paper.
“I know,” I tell her. "Just wish mankind weighed less."
“Hey,” she gives me another grin, “I’ve got cookies.”
I feel the hope nudge inside me. “Oh yeah? What kind?”
“Oh.” It’s stupid that I keep hoping my mom will surprise me with real cookies one of these times. The kind you make at home, with a wood spoon and a stove. It has never been possible, even after one of the more adept social workers made my mother remove a stuffed, cardboard file box from inside our oven. Once the social worker left, I could almost see the thought-balloon expanding over my mom’s head. She just disconnected the stove and filled it back up. She thought it was clever, since we only use the microwave anyway. I didn’t bother to mention that we only use the microwave because we can’t clear out enough paper to make real cooking safe.
My mom goes up the porch steps and holds the door open for me.
From the outside, our townhouse apartment looks normal. We live in a burnt-orange brick building, the middle black door in a row of five black doors. Every apartment looks exactly the same from the street. It is only by stepping inside that anyone can see how completely different we are.
I remember the first time I visited a friend’s house and realized that you are supposed to be able to walk into a house and cross the room and open a window, if you want. You should be able to see the living room furniture and be able to tell what color it is. It shouldn’t be a mystery, whether or not there is carpet under your feet or where the kitchen is or if there’s a staircase.
In our house, no one notices the tiny square of clean wood floor where we kick off our shoes. That little patch is lost in the blinding avalanche of white paper that hides the rest of the house. Heaps of it fill every inch of our living room, an efficient blizzard of orderly, white stacks. My mother’s teeny tiny scrawl covers every inch of every sheet, but when they are loaded into piles, all you see is the whiteness of it.
The living room is parted down the center, leaving a thin walkway that only allows one person through at a time. No one would ever guess that there is a dining room buried under the paper wall to the left and that the boxes that pour beyond it are really the edges of our foxhole kitchen. On the right side of the room, there are sharp, swirling pillars so high that they appear to be holding up the ceiling, but really, there is a staircase hiding behind them. Each step is flanked with loads of paper, leaving only enough room to maneuver up and down the stairs on tiptoe. Every once in a while, one of the stacks falls over and cascades down the steps, making what should be a simple walk up to my room as slippery and treacherous as scaling Mt. Olympus.
I drop my backpack on one of the two available couch cushions. There is enough room to seat my mom and me, but the end cushion is compressed beneath milk crates, filled with paper.
“So what’d you do today?” I ask.
“Write,” she says. It’s what she always says.
“Did you finish anything?”
“Not yet.” She looks away, hearing the insinuation in my voice. “But they’re all important, Nalena, remember that. Every single one of them.”
“I know,” I tell her, even though I don’t. My mom doesn’t write full poems or full stories or full novels or full anything. Instead, she fills pages with her miniscule print, listing shreds of plot ideas and characters. Her pages have stuff like: Christos DelMinos, 14, stabbed, instead of his 3 year old niece; Martin Fowler, 24, returned the money he’d stolen, but not all of it; Linda Hayes, 63, invited depressed neighbor in for long talk. Sometimes it even sounds sweet: Olga Zitov, doesn’t know her age, still believes in fairies. I probably started asking my Mom to finish a story when I was about 6 years old and I gave up begging when I turned 17, almost three months ago. The last time I asked her, I’d been specific.
“Could you finish this one?” I held up a piece of paper and pointed to one of the lines on the sheet. My mom leaned over my shoulder to read it.
“Grace, 1, saves us all,” she mumbled and then she smiled.
“This one’s not like the rest,” I pointed out. “This one sounds mysterious, you know? The rest of them sound like endings and this one sounds like it could be a great start. Saves us from what? What could the rest of the story be?”
My mom had just shrugged.
“I suppose that’s it,” she said wistfully.
“How could that be it? It’s only a sentence,” I argued. “Why don’t you make this one into something? It seems like it could really be interesting.”
“It already is something, Nali.” She tried to smooth my hair behind my ear but I moved away.
“I mean a whole story this time. Can you write this one? For me?”
“Sure,” she smiled the lie. “It will be a story. I promise. But it’s important that I write all of them in my head. I have to make sure I don’t forget anything.”
“Who cares about whatever else there is?” I’d said, grabbing a handful of sheets and holding it out to her. “What good will a million great ideas do if you never even finish one? If you’re not going to use any of these, why don’t you just let me throw some of this away?”
She shook her head and frowned.
“You can’t throw any of it away. Not one sheet, Nali. Promise me." She searched my face as if recognition just needed a minute more to surface. I dumped her paper back on the nearest pile.
“Oh, God bless it!”
“Exactly,” my mom chuckled, as she dropped a reassuring arm around my shoulders and gave me a tiny shake, like I’m a really good sport. “At some point, you’re going to understand your old mother. And why I do what I do. I promise you that.”
“What’s there to understand?” I’d grumbled, but I loved the warmth and strength I felt when she was near. I could never stay angry with her.
“Mankind,” she’d said and I had to nod and laugh.
She’s told me all my life that hoarding all this paper is important, but it wasn't ever my mom’s rationalizations that actually made things okay with me. It was what one cranky, overworked social worker who had once told me, as he looked through our thick file with a disapproving sigh, “I guess you can make ‘normal’ out of any old thing, if you’ve got enough of it.” At the time, I’d had a mental picture of my mom and me sewing our clothes, cooking our food and building a new house, all out of paper.
Although I get how McCranky really meant it, I still think he got it right. We spend a lot of time coming up with plans together to deflect visitors, so we don’t have to invite them into our paper cave. We compete in figuring out new ways to scrimp, so we can pay for storage units that handle the overflow. We laugh together when a pile of paper teeters over and crashes to the floor, reporting it to each other as ‘an upheaval of mankind’. We’ve gotten used to living in the tight spaces between all the paper stacks. This is who we are. And I get that it’s entirely possible that if my mom began finishing stories, it could change everything about us.
Understanding that is why, on the night I asked my mom to finish a story about the little girl, I also ended up vowing to myself that no matter how much I couldn’t stand our paper-stuffed life sometimes, I would never ask my mom to finish any of her stories ever, ever again.
WE HAVE BOLOGNA SANDWICHES AND COOKIES, everything right out of the packages and eaten over our laps, for dinner. As usual, we eat in silence, because I don’t want to talk about how my day was at school. When all the stories were about how I found ‘The Waste’ written on my locker in permanent marker, in my textbooks, and even across the butt of my gym shorts, my mom threatened to go down to school and find these kids herself and have a word with them. That probably would’ve gotten me killed, so out of pure self preservation, I did the smart thing and just stopped telling.
When we first moved here, I begged her to let me be homeschooled to avoid this. Mom refused, saying I needed to be out in the real world away from her, to get more socialization. She’d be horrified if she knew that all my interactions consisted of stuff like walking into homeroom and finding THE WASTE gouged into my desk. When she used to ask about the friends I’d made, I just said I take after her. She hated that.
“Then don’t take after me, okay?” she’d say. It’d sound like a joke out of her mouth, but the little worried crinkle between her eyes would sink even deeper.
“Nope, I want to be just like you,” I’d say, but I’d always add what made her happiest to hear, “Minus about 50 tons of paper.”
Then she'd squeal, Perfect! and throw her arms around me. “Mankind’s already got enough writers.”
When I was in elementary school, she used to tell me she was sorry there was no place for friends to come over and play. In middle school, she tried to explain the importance of her writing, saying it was something bigger than just us, something that the world needed. But now that I’m finishing my Junior year in high school, I can’t help feeling like the world could do without another storage shed stacked with her story lines and that we could do without the bill. Still, when my mom talks about the importance of every character she writes down, her belief is so super charged that it’s easy to get lost in her fog. Whether or not I can see the real importance stops mattering, once her eyes get that clear and the worry line between her eyebrows vanishes. All I can see then is her belief in what she’s doing and I can almost forget the food stamps, and ‘The Waste’, and single-file paths through our apartment, right along with her.
“Are you going to go run the track tonight?” she asks when we are through eating. I run almost every night even though I’m not on the school team. I’m not looking to win any medals. I just do it to be out of the house. She slides the bologna back into its plastic bag.
“Library,” I say. She doesn’t ask if I’m meeting anyone, because we’re both painfully aware that I'm severely lacking in the friend department.
The only place in our house for me to study is on my bed and sitting there, slouching over my books, gives me a backache. I had a hand-me-down desk once, but when her paper stacks began seeping into my room, I was still too little to understand everything I was giving up when we got rid of it. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if she’s considered how much more space there would be if we could rig up our beds on the ceiling.
She kisses me on the forehead when I pick up my backpack. I can smell the lavender-vanilla soap that I buy her every Christmas.
“Have a good time,” she says.
“Yeah right,” I tell her.
“Well, we both have a lot to do tonight, I guess. Might as well get to it.” She pats my arm although her voice grows serious. “Just be careful out there. Take a flashlight and don’t talk to anyone you don’t know.”
She says this almost every time I leave the house. Like a mantra is as good as pepper spray. All I say is, “Uh huh.”
I don’t bother to use the flashlight, because most of the way to the library is lit at intervals by streetlights or houselights, and I don’t mind the dark parts anyway. I like the idea of passing through the shadows without anyone seeing me.
I cut through the cluster of apartment buildings behind us, across the gap of a strip mall and follow the sidewalk that goes into what I call the Old Sub. The houses in the Old Sub were built in the 1920’s and they fill up their yards with add-ons and wrap around porches. Every single one looks either sparklingly restored or totally haunted, but all of them reek of stability, unlike our apartment complex, which is as transient as a birdhouse. I miss our old house, the way it could’ve been, if it wasn’t jammed with my mom’s mounds of one-line novels. I wonder if any of the houses here are filled with useless, unfinished stories as I jigsaw my way through the entire subdivision.
There is a shortcut to the library through the backyard of the creepiest looking house in the Old Sub. The place sits at the very end of the last street. The windows are only covered with a film of milky dust and the porch is as rickety as an old man’s mouth. No one’s lived there as long as I’ve been passing by it. There is a florescent orange sticker on the door warning trespassers that they could fall through the floor inside. This is the house that the neighbors want torn down and that little kids come to when they have to prove to each other that they’re brave. The rest of the traffic back here is from people like me, who want to use the shortcut that runs along beside the place, ducking through the tree line in the backyard, to the rear parking lot of the library.
There’s about three yards of woods in between the house and the library. I should probably use my flashlight, but in the twilight, the woods are lit enough that I can make my way.
Tonight, I run all the way through the woods, across the parking lot, and up the front steps of the library, just because it feels good. I’m proud that I’m not even breathing hard when I dump my books on the table in my favorite back corner.
This spot should have my name engraved on the chair. I’m buried at the end of the Ancient Ruins aisle, where no one ever comes, unless they are lost or want to make out. I’m almost guaranteed to never be disturbed.
The library is dead tonight too, just the way I like it. There was no one at any of the tables up front when I came in. Ms. Fisk, the head librarian, was perched on a stool at the circulation desk, trying to shield the cover of her Fabio romance from me. The only other person I saw on the way to my hideout was Julienne, the assistant librarian. She is always stuck with the crap job of wheeling around the return cart and re-shelving the books. True to the librarian code of silence, neither woman ever says much to me except a smile on my way in and a “Find everything?” on my way out. It’s going to be a peaceful night.
I’m hunched over my history book, re-reading a paragraph that just won’t sink in, when something catches me from the corner of my eye. I glance up, figuring Julienne has come to replace a book, but instead, there is a boy with a backpack over one shoulder, walking right toward me, like he knows where he is going.
I’m a little confused. My oasis is the only thing at the end of the aisle and he seems to be on a collision course. A boy like this, tall and thin with perfectly messy, jet black hair, has got to be coming to rendezvous with his girlfriend. He’s probably going to ask me to leave so they can have their privacy. It’s not the first time someone’s asked. The closer he gets to me, the more I brace to defend my sanctuary.
When he reaches my table, he momentarily disarms me with a grin.
“Is it okay if I sit here?” he dumps his backpack on the table before I can say it isn’t and pulls out the chair that is diagonal from mine.
“I’m not leaving anytime soon,” I say. He smiles at me. His teeth aren’t perfect but the way his lips frame them, they are. His eyes are bright and amused, like he wants to hear something I didn’t even say. I push my books out an inch, making the circle a little wider around myself. I don’t care if he looks like a homecoming king plucked from the Varsity basketball team. If he thinks he’s charming me into moving, he’s wrong. But instead of looking annoyed, he lets an amused chuckle escape from behind another smile. I hate that he keeps doing that because it makes me want to keep looking at him.
“That’s fine,” he says and takes the seat.
“If you’re waiting for somebody,” I whisper over the table, “there’s not going to be room for her.”
Oh. He’s gay. My heart sinks and I wince inwardly. I was hoping he wasn’t waiting for a girl but I’m embarrassed that it ever occurred to me that his sitting here might somehow be connected to an interest in me. I hadn’t even thought beyond that.
“Whoever you’re waiting for,” I correct. “There isn’t going to be enough room for anyone else and like I said, I’m going to be here for a while.”
“Good.” He nods and unzips his backpack, like this is finished business. He fishes out a worn copy of Brave New World that looks soft and gray at the edges. He leans back in his chair, opens up the book and starts reading. There’s a whole library full of empty tables up front, but this boy, with hair that would probably feel like soft twine between my fingertips, has to sit here.
I try to find the passage in my history book that wasn’t making sense before, but I can’t even tell which paragraph it is now. Without meaning to do it, my eyes flick to his face. He’s concentrating on his book. I go back to mine, but all I can do is skim, and the sentences run through my head like annoying news feed at the bottom of a TV screen.
I blink and I’m looking at him again. I quickly pull my eyes down to the bottom of the page in front of me. His skin is smooth and tan, like maybe he’s outside a lot. Maybe he’s in Track. This image of the two of us warming up and running side by side, drifts into my brain. I shut down the thought immediately. He’s got to be popular and therefore, he’s got to know that I’m The Waste. I shove the fantasy out of my mind and stare hard at the words on the page in front of me.
Besides, he might be gay.
Or maybe that’s not what he meant at all. Maybe he’s sitting with me on a dare. Or maybe he thinks he can make me leave just by sitting here too.
I don’t know why he’s here, but I force myself to go over the sentences in front of me again. I still don’t register one lousy word. Four more times I try, but the only thing in my head is me, telling myself not to look up at him again.
I fight to keep my eyes glued on my history book until they feel dry. It’s the same kind of ache I get as when I’ve been smiling too long. This is stupid. He’s just a boy sitting across from me. I tell myself to forget that he’s even there. Ignore him. He’s nobody. I’m nobody to him. But the second I let myself relax, I do a quick glance up and my breath catches in my throat because our eyes meet.
His gaze is centered and lazy, like he’s been watching me for a while. His expression doesn’t change when our eyes lock, even though I can feel the muscles in my forehead suddenly hike toward my scalp. It’s like he’s been studying me and doesn’t care if I know it. My stomach flutters and I suck it in, trying to keep myself motionless. It would doom me worse than I’m already doomed if he’s a Varsity jock, detecting me - The Waste - being fluttery about him.
I force my eyes back down into the crease of my history book. As if he’ll believe that my looking at him was random. Like I was just looking around and happened to trip over him, staring at me with his liquid blue eyes. Like I couldn’t help but notice him only because he was taking up the space where I was going to look anyway. I hope I look more random and uninterested and convincing than I feel.
I hear him stretch his legs under the desk. I hear the soles of his shoes slide over the nubby carpet and I swear I can feel the heat of his leg stretched out beside my own. The chair next to me nudges my arm and I flinch. I look up and there he is again. Smiling.
“What are you studying?” he asks. I fight to calm the involuntary shaking going on in my core. I remind myself that this is just a simple question. Maybe he’s baiting me for a prank. There is no other reason for him to care.
“History,” I say.
“English.” He flops down his book on top of his backpack. “I was supposed to have this done last week.”
“I’ve never read that,” I tell him. That’s it. He must be scouting for some brainiac to do his term paper. Knowing that, it’s easier for me to look back at my own work now, but he keeps talking.
“You won’t have to, unless you get Kale for English. If you’re lucky, you’ll get Mr. Ergnon,” he says.
“That’s not until next year.”
“I know,” he says, glancing at my history book. “But I hope you get lucky.”
“Mmm hmm.” I nod, dropping my eyes away from him, begging him, inside my head, not to ask anything else. If he doesn’t know me, I never want him to. If he ends up asking one of his buddies who I am, they’ll laugh and show him my locker with it’s unmatched shade of paint that doesn’t really hide the name. His friends will tease him the rest of the school year. He’ll probably be so embarrassed that he ever considered me at all...who knows what he’ll think to do to me then. Something, I’m sure, to prove to everyone that I’m nothing to him.
“What’s your name?” he asks. The excited waves rippling through my stomach, die.
“I’ll tell you what,” I say, jumping to my feet. “You can have the table. I’ve got to get going anyway.”
“I don’t want the table.”
“It’s fine. Really.” I crush a folder into my backpack.
“Don’t go,” his voice is inviting and soft, but I’ve already got my backpack slung over my shoulder. Whatever I can’t cram in, is in my arms.
“Seriously,” I draw a line in the air between us with my open palm. “No problem. We’re good.”
I turn and leave as fast as I can without running, ducking out of the history aisle before he has a chance to ask my name again.