“Thanks, Mrs. Findley.”

She sprinkles a handful of chopped pecans on top of the cake and says, “Sit with me a minute and chat, Annemarie.”

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So I do. Talking to Mrs. Findley is as easy as talking to Elaine or Celia, but in a different way. She listens and nods, and she makes you feel safe.

When I told Mark that my mama was a whole lot prettier than his, I was only five, so what did I know about anything? It may be true that Mama’s prettier, but Mrs. Findley has a warm kind of beauty few people will ever be able to fully appreciate or comprehend. It’s in the way she touches people, looks at people like they’re something special even when they’re not.

Her hair is light brown and beginning to gray at the crown of her head. Her eyes are the color of Daddy’s bourbon, wise and gentle. Mrs. Findley is a few years older than my mother, and I suppose I should mention that she is not from the South. She’s from the Midwest. This may seem like a trivial detail, but somehow, it matters. She is different; she is unique.

Mark will never know how lucky he is to have been born to a lady like Mrs. Findley. People who have it that good rarely do.

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I get so comfortable talking to Mrs. Findley, I sort of dread the thought of walking into a den of boys. There is something about walking into a room full of boys that makes you feel exposed and somehow all wrong. You feel inadequate, like you come up short in every way that matters. It didn’t used to be like this, and I don’t know when it changed, but now it feels like it was always this way.

That’s why I’m relieved when Mrs. Findley suggests that I bring the cake down to the rec room. It gives me some sort of purpose, a reason to be there. Plus, it’s always easier to walk into a room carrying something—a purse, a cake, a baseball bat. Anything to make you look like you belong.

The boys don’t even look up when I come into the room. I am carrying the cake, and plates and forks underneath it, and when I say, “I’ve got cake,” they finally look at me. I am wearing an old yellow sundress of Celia’s, and I have tied my hair back with green ribbon. I think I look real nice. And all they see is the cake.

Mark says, “All right!” He grabs the cake and sets it on the coffee table. “Hey, where’s the knife?”

I glare at him. “It’s your house. You go get the knife.”

That bum Jack Connelly says, “Aw, pipe down, Annemarie. You’re the girl. Well, sort of.” He smirks. “Girls are in charge of the food; that’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s always gonna be. You better get used to it.”

“You’re a pig, you know that? Oink, oink. You just roll around in your own feces all day thinking stupid thoughts.” I laugh at my own joke.

“Why don’t you go home and play with your Barbies?” he snaps. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

I hate Jack Connelly.

I’ve hated him ever since the third grade. It was lunchtime, and this was when we still had assigned seats in the cafeteria. Jack was bragging about how he had been tested for his IQ, and the doctor had told him he had a genius IQ of 300. I told him that I knew for a fact that he didn’t have an IQ of 300, that a genius IQ was 140, that Albert Einstein himself only had an IQ of 160, and besides, Jack could barely spell his own name. Jack got mad, and before I knew it, we were kicking each other’s chairs, and I kicked so hard he fell out of his chair and I stubbed my toe. The cafeteria monitor yelled at us, and we both had to skip recess that day. From then on, we were sworn enemies.

Every day at school we would try to outdo each other. He told everyone that I was born with both girl and boy parts. I told everyone that his own parents had tried to sell him on the black market, but nobody would take him cause he was so ugly. Then one afternoon he tripped me on the playground, and to this very day, there is a tiny scar on my left cheek. You can barely see it anymore, but it’s there, and it’s all because of Jack Connelly.

We’re still snarling at each other when Kyle Montgomery says, “Hey, thanks for bringing the cake down, Annemarie.”

Tommy Malone says nothing. His eyes dart back to the video game that has been paused.

Mark says, “Let’s eat the cake later; I wanna finish this game.” Then he finally seems to notice me. “Why are you wearing a dress?”

“Because everything else was dirty. It’s Celia’s.” My face feels hot.

He shrugs, and he and Jack and Tommy return to the TV while Kyle cuts into the cake with a fork. He cuts five lopsided pieces, and slides them onto the plates. I sit on the couch with my arms crossed and watch him silently. I wish I could think of something smart to say.

“So, who’s your homeroom teacher?” Kyle asks, passing me a plate. I rest the plate at the edge of my lap to hide my scabby knees.

“Mrs. Simone. Who’s yours?” I take a big bite of cake, careful not to let any crumbs fall. They do anyway.

“Same. I heard she’s nice.”

“Yeah.”

I wish Elaine was here. When it comes to boys, Elaine is confident and supremely sure of herself. Maybe it’s because she’s from New York, but Elaine can flirt with the best of ’em. She acts like she’s hot stuff, and everybody believes it. It’s a trick of hers. I know she would have had Kyle Montgomery feeding her cake by the end of the afternoon.

Why oh why is it so much harder to talk to boys like Kyle? It’s not that he isn’t nice, because he is, nicer than most of the boys my age. There is just something disarming about good-looking people. They make you feel all fluttery and nervous, and you hardly know where to look. I settle on staring at a freckle under his right eye. The freckle makes me feel better, knowing that a good-looking person like Kyle Montgomery can have freckles and still be good-looking.

He asks me which honors classes I’ll be taking in seventh grade, and I say all of them. I ask him if he’s gonna try out for the basketball team, and he says yes. Before long, we’re talking.

I lean back into the couch. This isn’t so bad. Sure, I’m no femme fatale, and sure, the boys aren’t swarming around me, but it’s not so bad. I’m sitting next to Kyle Montgomery and I’m holding my own. I’m a woman in my own right.

We talk about Mr. Romano’s honors math class, and playing softball, at which point Tommy comes and joins us on the couch. Tommy is uneasy around girls, but he likes sports well enough. So I keep the topic on sports, we eat cake, and everything is fine. I check to see if Mark has noticed, but he and Jack are too busy with their dratted game.

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