Rhonda got home first and she brought pizza.
"What kind?" I asked.
"Don't worry - it's veggies galore! Green peppers, black olives, artichokes. No meat, you weirdo. Have what you like and can you toss me one of those Dr. Peppers?"
I sat at the kitchen counter with her and rolled a can of soda her way.
"How was your day?" she said, biting into a slice and getting sauce on her chin.
"It was a lot of fun," I said. "Wait until you see my dress. It's gorgeous."
"I'm so glad you found something," she said, wiping her face with a paper napkin. There was something in her tone that made it seem as if she meant something more but I wasn't up for following the clues. If she wanted to tell me something, she would eventually.
"What did you end up doing today?" I asked.
"I went to a movie at the Cineplex. By myself. And ate a plate of nachos. All by myself."
"Rhonda," I said in a voice that made it clear I would not feel sorry for her.
"Geez, Ash. Don't worry. I'm not attempting to extract pity from your cold, cold heart. The movie was good and I liked seeing it alone and not having to share my nachos. So there." She took another bite of her pizza and followed it with some Dr. Pepper before continuing. "By the way, your boyfriend called. He thought he was supposed to come over today, but I told him you preferred to spend the day with pretty lesbians."
"Rhonda!" I said.
"Just kidding! Geez. I told him you were out with your friend Betsy and I'd tell you to call him once you got in."
"Thank you," I said. A moment passed before I said, "So you admit you thought Betsy was pretty! Ha!"
She shook her head.
"You have no witnesses - you can't prove I said any such thing."
"We both know you said it, Rhonda. It's only a matter of time before you end up fixed up on a date with my new friend. Don't you think you ought to surrender now?"
"We'll see," she said with a wink and hopped off the barstool, pizza slice in one hand and Dr. Pepper in the other. I followed her to the living room to eat our dinner in front of the television together, our usual ritual for nights when we were the only two home.
Later I gave Todd a call back, but he was out. I left a message with his father for him to call me when he got in. I assumed he'd just gotten tired of waiting for me and gone out with his friends, so I said to let him know that we could get together Sunday afternoon.
"I'll let him know, Ashley," his dad said.
"Asha," I corrected him.
"Right," he said and laughed. "Can hardly keep Todd's lady friends straight? I'll let him know you called."
I hung up the phone, unsure of how to take Mr. Rossi's comment.
Monday morning at school, I skipped homeroom and sat in the parking lot trying to finish a song I'd begun working on over the weekend. I was also waiting for Glenn to drive up so that I could talk to him. But by the time the bell rang for first period, he still hadn't shown up.
I started to feel a little worried when he wasn't in Spanish class, either. By the time we started conjugating verbs and he still hadn't walked through the door, I excused myself to go to the nurse's office. Instead of heading there, though, I went to the cafeteria and used the pay phone.
"Glenn," I said into the answering machine, "I'm just calling to see what happened to you today and why you aren't in school. I'm just gonna keep waiting for you to show up and if you don't, I'm dropping by your house tonight."
Then I headed back down toward my class, but when I passed by the staff lounge I heard a voice that made me stop in my tracks. It was my mom's voice.
I stood there, stiff, wondering if she had seen me. The voices in the staff room stopped and there was applause. Then, I heard the squeaking and scratching of chairs as they were pushed back and the rush of shoes on linoleum. My heart just about leaped into my throat and I scurried down the hall to find somewhere to hide. But just as I was just about to duck into an empty classroom, I heard my mother's voice.
"Betsy?" she called. I felt my stomach lurch, my hands start to shake and I took in a deep breath. I clenched my fists. Then, slowly, I turned around to face her.
"Betsy, what are you doing out here? Aren't you supposed to be in class?"
"Yes," I said, stammering a little. "I was going to the nurse's office. I was feeling a little sick."
Her heels clicked against the floor as she rushed toward me.
"Sick? Sick how? You feel like you need to go home?" she said. She wasn't acting upset with me at all. She walked over to me and felt my forehead with the back of her hand.
"I - I might be fine. Maybe it was something I ate," I said. "I have a test today. I can't just go home."
"What test? For what?"
"Algebra," I told her.
"Mrs. Campanelli will understand, I'm sure. I'll give you a note. You really do look quite pale. Do you -"
"Mom, it's ok! I think I'll be fine."
"But do you feel that this might be -" she began and then lowered her voice to a whisper, "psychological? I mean, because of these - well, some kids can be cruel about things that don't really mean anything."
I froze. I literally felt the hairs on my arms stand on end- I always thought that was just an expression but it really happened. I could feel my blood drain from my face, too - apparently that's not a myth, either.
"Betsy, you really do look pale. And you feel warm," she said, dropping her hand from my head. "Whatever the cause, I think you should take yourself home. I'll get your work from your teachers. We're having another meeting of the school board here today and then I can meet you back home for lunch. I'll check and see how you are then."
"Um -" I said. I couldn't bring any other syllables forth. I was struck dumb, muted by the strange things my mother seemed to be saying. Somewhere in the back of my brain were the words she knows, she knows, she knows but I was coming to the realization that she didn't believe it. It was probably denial, which meant that when the truth came out, she wouldn't exactly be supportive about it. I was having trouble processing the new information. It was what I expected and yet somehow, not at all what I expected.
"Go ahead and get your things from your locker. Want me to bring you lunch home?" she was saying.
I nodded. I was afraid of what would come out if I actually opened my mouth.
"Ok, then. Wendy's sound good? How about a cheeseburger and fries?"
I nodded again, forgetting that I'd been thinking of becoming a vegetarian like Asha. I decided it was best not to introduce this idea right now anyway.
"Alright. I'll see you in a few hours."
Again, I nodded. I was on automatic pilot. I turned and headed down the hall. But when I got out to my car I started to remember that I hadn't seen Glenn today and what if he showed up after my long answering machine message to see that I had gone already? My shoulders sagged at the thought but what could I do? I started the engine and sped out of the driveway.
Back at home, I know I must have sat in my car for a good twenty minutes staring straight ahead before I managed to get myself out. I just left my bookbag there on the seat and once inside my bedroom, I considered packing a bag. I couldn't be too sure it wouldn't come to that. I knew that if my mom asked me point blank, I would not be able to deny it. I was an atrocious liar.
Instead, I decided to take a nap - but I brought my phone next to my bed in case Glenn called. With my head under the covers, I tried to shut out the light and the world, but before I could drift into even the lightest sleep, the phone rang. I picked it up on the second ring.
"Betsy?" The voice said. It wasn't Glenn - it was his mother.
"Mrs. Balaban?" I said.
"Yes, hello. I was calling to see if - if you had seen my son today?"
I shot up in bed.
"What? No! What do you mean?"
"Betsy, it looks like Glenn is missing. We don't know what happened. He was very depressed last night and -" she sounded like she was about to cry, but instead she swallowed hard. "He wasn't here when we got up this morning. We- we made - made waffles!"
At the last word, she started to sob and I wasn't sure what to say.
"I wish I'd seen him, Mrs. Balaban. I swear I'll let you know as soon as I do." I realized as I said it that it was assuming that I would hear from him. But I really couldn't be sure. Why would he contact me? He probably thought I hated him. That's when I remembered my message to him.
"Wait," I said. "You didn't get my message on his answering machine? I was wondering why he wasn't in school. I called him from the cafeteria pay phone."
"No," she said. "Oh my god, I hadn't even thought to check his machine. Hold on." She dropped the phone and I could hear her climbing the stairs. I was crossing my fingers that my message wasn't the only one on that machine and that it would offer some clue as to where he was.
I stayed on the line, waiting for Mrs. Balaban to come back to the phone, and I thought about Glenn's calls on my machine all weekend. Never in my life had I felt so terrible and guilty. Then there was a rustling and Glenn's mom was back on the line.
"Betsy, do you know of a boy named Ben?"
"Um, someone Glenn would have hung around? No, I don't think so. The only Ben we know is a guy at school who is a...a tuba player in band. I've never really spoken to him."
"There are only two messages on his machine. This guy's and yours."
"It couldn't be Ben Morgan. I don't think Glenn knows the dude is alive. I mean -"
"I don't know who it is, Betsy, but the message said his name was Ben and he wanted to make sure that Glenn was still meeting him today."
I was completely baffled. Why wouldn't Glenn mention this? I mean, even before the weekend and our falling out? What was going on?
"Mrs. Balaban, I'm going to check on something and I promise, if I hear anything at all I will let you know."
"Thank you Betsy. I'll do the same."
When I hung up, I dialed the school. It was the only place I could think of. The secretary for the principal answered and I made up something about how I wanted to ask my mom a question. She was in her meeting, but she stepped out to take my call.
"Mom," I said, unable to believe I was actually calling her, "I need a huge favor. Glenn's mom called and said Glenn is missing."
"Oh no! Did you see him in school?" she said.
"No, not at all. Look, can you do me this favor? Mrs. Balaban seems to think that Glenn's friend Ben Morgan may know where he is. Is there anyway you can see if he is in school and can tell you anything?"
"Yes, of course. I'll see what I can do."
"Please call me or Mrs. Balaban as soon as you know something. And mom?"
"Thanks." We hung up and all I could do was sit around. I sank back underneath the covers and ended up falling asleep without meaning to. When I awoke, I had no idea what time it was. There seemed to still be light outside, but I had to check my alarm clock to see that it was after four. I got up and I wandered through the house, but found that it was empty. Where was my mom? Why hadn't Mrs. Balaban called back?
I sat at the kitchen table and had some crackers, unable to make myself get up and eat anything else. I felt so completely worn out. Maybe it was psychological and I really had made myself sick with worry. The phone rang suddenly, making me jump. I got up and answered it.
"Betsy, it's mom. I wanted to let you know the update. Sorry I didn't call earlier, but a lot has been happening."
"What happened?" I said.
"Ben wasn't in class so I got ahold of his parents. They thought he had just left early for school this morning, but when they heard he wasn't in classes today they freaked. We think that Ben and Glenn are together. You knew nothing about this?"
"N-no," I said, catching the somewhat angry and accusing tone in her voice.
"Betsy, this is serious. Was this guy Glenn's....boyfriend? His mother told me - well, she said that Glenn is gay. And you never told me this. If you are lying to me, Betsy Leigh Reynolds, so help me -"
"Mom! I'm not lying! Why would I lie? I'm as upset as you are! My best friend is missing!"
"You have no idea how upset I am."
I sighed. I knew that now was not the time to have a fight with my mother.
"If Ben is his boyfriend, he never told me," I said. "I don't know why. But Glenn and I did have a fight on Friday and then he called me over the weekend but I didn't talk to him."
"Ben's parents didn't know about Glenn," she said. "They found some notes in his bedroom that seemed to indicate a correspondence between the two boys and they had plans to go to some rock concert in St. Louis. We think that may be where they are."
"So they'll be back," I said.
"We think so, and then both boys will probably be grounded. Though I feel like Ben's parents may be more upset about the letters than the concert. If you asked me, I'd say both boys needed counseling - but I am not their mother." I got the meaning of that tone loud and clear, but said nothing.
"I'm just glad they're going to be okay," I finally said. I'm sure my voice sounded shaky. I was really scared to say anything else.
"I should be home in the next thirty minutes. I still have to stop and get us dinner like I said," she told me. The edge to her voice had started to flatten out and I hoped that meant she would give me a reprieve tonight. "How are you feeling?"
"A little better," I said, which was true. "I'm not sure I should go tomorrow, though."
"That's fine. An extra day for recovery might be good for you," she said. "Get some more rest and I'll be there soon."
I hung up and hugged myself. Once I was "recovered," I was sure I wouldn't be able to go on avoiding the dreaded topic with my mom. Since she knew about Glenn, there was less to hide behind. I had no right to blame it on Glenn, though - and I was glad he was most likely safe. Glenn and Ben, I thought. Leave it to Glenn to make a love connection sound like a Dr. Seuss rhyme. I wasn't entirely sure how to take the news that he'd hidden it from me. I had to hand it to him, though - he did a good job of being stealthy. So did Ben Morgan for that matter. I'd never seen them so much as acknowledge each other's presence.
When my mom got in, I was watching afternoon soaps and she joined me, handing me a greasy bag of food. She watched me while I ate and I tried to ignore it, concentrating on the TV.
"How's your cheeseburger?" my mom said, finally.
"Fine," I said, not making eye contact. "How was your weekend?"
"It was nice," she said. "Yours?"
"Mine was...nice, too."
"Really?" she said. "What did you do?"
I took a bite of my food in order to mull over what I should say.
"I went to the city," I said. "I met up with a friend and we shopped for prom dresses."
"That does sound nice," she said, sounding both surprised and pleased. "You're going to prom? Did someone ask you?"
"I'm going with Glenn. He wanted to go, but didn't want to go alone."
"Oh, with Glenn," she said. She was nodding but she sounded disappointed.
"It's better than waiting for someone else to ask me," I said. That part was true, but I knew she would take it differently than I meant it. At least it would buy me more time.
"I suppose that's true. I remember waiting around for someone to ask me," she said. "It was torture."
I was finishing up my fries when the doorbell rang. I was happy to be saved by the bell and got up to answer it, but not without grabbing a handful of fries first. I swung the door open with about four of them in my mouth - and almost choked. There, in the doorway, were Ben and Glenn.
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