“Mrs. Hollister, I really need an extension on my writing assignment.”

She looked up from her papers, flicked eraser crumbs off the blotter, and peered over her turquoise-framed reading glasses. Her desk smelled like White-Out and Sharpies, which was doing my foggier-than-normal head no favors.

“What would be the problem today, Mr. Thompson?” she growled. “Another hangnail?”

I hated when she brought that up. I used that excuse once on a dare. It was never supposed to be taken seriously. Who knew she was regional chair of the Correcting Unclipped Nailbeds Trust?

Of course, things didn’t get any better when that Schweikert kid found out and told everyone she was head C.U.N.T. of Southwest LA. He’d always been such a quiet kid.

“No ma’am, the nails are great, thanks. Your cuticle oil is aces.” She stuck out her bottom lip and blew her bangs off her forehead.

“Look, I’ll cut to the chase, Mrs. H. I’ve had this really bad sore throat sinusey thing. Mom thinks it’s esophageal cancer. Alleve wasn’t cutting it so I’ve taken a bunch of codeine. It’s nice. Pain’s a little duller, but everything’s in slow motion.”

“Back to your desk. Start writing.”

She’s so mean.


“There’s nothing to worry about,” Hal promised. “They walk in and say ‘you’re negative’ before you can even sit down.”

He sips his lukewarm Sprite, trying to swallow down another wave of nerves.

The door marked “Staff Only” squeals open. A middle aged black woman reads “WX 4723” from her clipboard. She looks like the cafeteria lady who used to give him extra fish sticks every Friday.

He double checks his receipt, whispers “Bingo,” and rises.

He’d gotten the number last week when he and Hal came in for blood tests. His first, Hal’s third. Hal lived in San Francisco before moving home to Fayetteville and had learned a lot more about the “big bad world” than Tom had.

She gives him a warm yet practiced smile and motions him into the room. “Hi, I’m Betty.”

He musters a half nod and enters. “Tom.” So much for the anonymous clinic.

The room’s stark. Two plastic chairs, a laminated table, a phone, and a box of tissues. It smells like Pledge and smelling salts.

“How you doing?” Betty asks as she sits down and opens a folder.

“Uhm, you tell me.”


“So we have your results …”

Everything goes into slow motion.


“Why do you sit like a girl?”

I’m at a picnic table, tying knots for a merit badge test. We’re in the Sierra Nevadas, on a hiking trip with my Scout troop. I’m probably 10 or 11.

I look up. “Huh?”

Three older guys loom over the other side of the table. I squint to keep the bright sun from melting them into the mountains.

Their ringleader, Dave, asks the question again. He’s tall and muscular. Has a driver’s license. Shaves with a real razor. I only pretend, secretly scraping Gillette Foamy off my face with the back of a comb. He has thick black hair, on his legs as well. He is, I would learn the term a few years later, dreamy.

“What do you mean?” I ask, honestly having no clue.

“Look at your legs.”

I lean back and peer under the table. My ankles are crossed, the toe of my left hiking boot on the dirt and my right ankle resting on the back of my left Achilles tendon.

“Girls cross their knees, not their ankles,” I instruct them, and return to practicing my knots.

“I guess you’d know,” one of them snickers as they walk away.