Down With the Sickness
by Lindsey Peters Berg
It’s a Tuesday night and Chase IMs me. His away message is on, but he still says hey. We only talked once at school today, when he and Nick asked me and Shelly which of the eighth grade girls we think has the biggest boobs. I thought the question was gross but I wanted to talk to Chase. I said Sadie and they laughed. I don’t know why.
I write hey back to Chase and he tells me my buddy icon is stupid. It’s a drawing of a green soda can underneath the words Do the Dew that I downloaded from badassbuddy.com. His icon looks very similar but has something to do with paintball. I tell him that his is dumb too, because I am trying to hold my own. We exchange jabs until I say jk and he says i know.
He IMs me that his friend from another school started cutting and he’s afraid she will die. I think I love him. He asks what he can do. I don’t know the answer but I want to. I say, Sometimes I pray about things, and that helps. He says lol, but then he says thank u. We talk about his plans for next weekend and he calls his paintball gun his baby. He doesn’t ask me about my weekend plans, but I don’t care—I want to hear about him.
At school, I’m a child of Christ. I’m signing the cross over my Uncrustable at lunch, making the girls at my table feel like sluts if they don’t, too. Chase is across the room, huddled over the American Pie DVD case with his friends. He’s pointing out which actress he wants a handjob from. He eats an uncut Wonder Bread sandwich and Ruffles chips out of a brown paper bag every day. My mom puts an ice pack in my lunch box.
We’re in the same Spanish class after recess. Chase sits in the back row with his head on his desk and I’m always taking extra notes for the kids who were sick that day. He passes me a note that says suck up. I write one back and he doesn’t even read it. I decide I’m done with him. I write Shelly a note: I hate Chase. At my locker, he grabs my shoulders from behind and pretends to push me in. I scream, then we both laugh. He’s wearing a rubber band as a bracelet. His teeth are so white for some reason. My shoulders feel hot for the whole next class period. He sharpens his pencil in the front of the room and I suck on an eraser, looking at him. He looks at me too.
AnGeL_AbBy7 is typing…
AnGeL_AbBy7: did u do the social studies hw
XdownwitdasicknessX: why do u always talk about homewor k
AnGeL_AbBy7: Cuz Im a *good* student unlike someone lol
XdownwitdasicknessX: durrr congrats
AnGeL_AbBy7: thank u
AnGeL_AbBy7 is typing…
AnGeL_AbBy7: but seriously your mom doesn’t care if you get bad grades?
XdownwitdasicknessX: why do u assume I get bad grades
XdownwitdasicknessX: im getting an 89 in langauge arts
AnGeL_AbBy7: *language lol
XdownwitdasicknessX: I don’t care
AnGeL_AbBy7: and that’s not really a good grade lol
XdownwitdasicknessX: whatever its stupid to care abt grades
AnGeL_AbBy7 is typing…
AnGeL_AbBy7: r u going to the dance on Friday
XdownwitdasicknessX: ya my mom is making me but its gunna suck ass
AnGeL_AbBy7: I kinda like dances tho cuz I get to dress up lol
XdownwitdasicknessX: is your dress short
AnGeL_AbBy7: lol. Not TOO short ;)
XdownwitdasicknessX is typing…
XdownwitdasicknessX: we didnt get 2 dance at the last one remember?
XdownwitdasicknessX: u were in the bathroom when i tried to find u
AnGeL_AbBy7: i know!! My hair was frizzy and I was fixing it lol
XdownwitdasicknessX is typing…
XdownwitdasicknessX: well this time i’ll find u
XdownwitdasicknessX: ur annoying but ur pretty cool
My parents are in bed reading after closing the house down for the day. I’m in the basement, where the only noises I hear are the hum of the computer fan and the chime of his message. A dusty metal lamp projects a small orb of light into the room, reflecting half of my face in the glass of the window in front of me. I tilt my head and look at myself, parting my lips.
The cubed keys clack when I type, Doritos crumbs bouncing between my fingers. I write back, you’re cool too.
Shelly and I are playing The Sims on her family computer, in her dad’s home office that he never actually uses. Morgan, Shelly’s Sim, has short brown hair with a curled bang, and she’s wearing a white crop top, mint green shorts, and loafers. Shelly makes Morgan kiss her boyfriend, Brad, three times in a row.
“My brother taught me a cheat code that lets you see them naked. Should I do it?” she asks.
“Ew, that’s weird,” I say, even though I want to see.
Shelly burps. “You’re right, this is boring.”
We watch Morgan and Brad take a dip in their backyard pool.
“We should go on AIM,” I say, drinking the last of my Sunkist.
“O-M-G, yes!” Shelly says. “I wonder if Nick’s on.”
Shelly has a crush on Nick, and I’m afraid to tell her I like Chase again. The thick pleats of my uniform skirt scratch my thighs as I scoot closer to the computer. Shelly double clicks the AOL Instant Messenger icon on her desktop and types in her screen name, BlondeBeachGirl91. We live in suburban Illinois but whenever I see BlondeBeachGirl91, I imagine her lying on a towel in the sand and I feel warm.
She scans her Buddy List for her crush and doesn’t know that I’m doing the same. They aren’t online and we pretend not to care. In hot pink letters, she updates her profile with an inside joke we made earlier that day. We laugh just thinking about it again. The sound of a door opening comes through the computer speakers. My breath stalls somewhere in my lungs. It’s Chase.
“Let’s talk to him,” she says, double clicking his screen name. “It’s better than nothing.”
BlondeBeachGirl91: hey whats ^
XdownwitdasicknessX: nm u
We stare at the screen, waiting. Shelly turns to me with her mouth open. “I know,” she says. “Let’s ask him if he likes you.”
My neck blooms red. “Why? He doesn’t.”
Shelly types as she says, “Cause we’re bored, biotch. And I think he probably does.”
BlondeBeachGirl91: do u like Abby
“Shelly!” I yell, slapping her shoulder hard.
“God!” She looks at me, taken aback. “What’s wrong with you?”
At the bottom of the chat box we watch XdownwitdasicknessX is typing… appear and disappear and reappear.
XdownwitdasicknessX: u’ll tell her wat i say
BlondeBeachGirl91: no I wont
A minute passes and I take a long, fake sip of my empty Sunkist, squeezing the can.
XdownwitdasicknessX is typing… appears, disappears.
“This is so stupid,” I say. “I don’t even care.” There’s a framed photo of Shelly’s family in Door County above the computer monitor. I stare at her mom until I hear his message chime.
XdownwitdasicknessX: no i don’t like her
XdownwitdasicknessX: she’s a jesus lover n thinks she’s better than ppl
XdownwitdasicknessX: i only like eighth graders anyway
Shelly looks at me. I watch her features soften, then harden.
BlondeBeachGirl91: ur a jerk
She signs out and Chase is at his home, hearing the sound of a door slamming through his speakers.
“Well, he sucks. Good thing you don’t like him anymore.”
I say, “Yeah.” My throat is tight and twisted, my eyes hot.
I’m dancing to “Hey Ya” with my girls, purposely avoiding him. Shelly grabs my hands and lifts them into the air. Our matching glitter nail polish glints in the reflection of strobe lights. Shelly’s wearing a scoop neck top with a lace cami underneath and a cap-sleeved shrug over her shoulders. Her asymmetrical skirt hits mid-calf, and I feel sexy next to her. Two strands of stiff curls frame my face and I smell like Love Spell.
The boys are lined up shoulder to shoulder, leaning against the gym’s navy wall padding. Their mouths are moving but they’re all looking at their black or tan loafers. The girls are in front of the DJ booth, shaking it like a polaroid picture. Tina, the shortest girl in the class, is making us laugh by dancing like she’s an old lady with back problems. She folds her lips over her teeth and croaks along to the lyrics. She’s hamming it up and I’m doubled over, thinking about how I don’t need anyone but my friends.
The lights change to a soft pink as the music melts into the beginning of “I’m With You.” The girls shuffle to the corner of the gym, strappy sandals catching on the vinyl floor. I pull on the hem of my dress and push my hair behind my ears.
A nerdy guy walks up to a nerdy girl and asks for her hand. She is taller than him, but she smiles at her friend over the boy’s shoulder as they slow dance. A few more couples join them and I am trying so hard not to look at him. The song’s first verse is almost over and I have almost given up hope when I see him walking over. Shelly unzips her Dooney & Bourke crayon hearts wristlet and pulls out a tube of baby pink lipgloss. She nods seriously as she hands it to me. I’m sliding the plastic applicator across my bottom lip when Chase asks me if I want to dance. I say, “Sure,” looking at my nails.
In my kitten heels, he and I are the exact same height. His hands form claws that rest against my hips and mine rigidly cup the tops of his shoulders. I’m worried that my deodorant isn’t strong enough to cover my stench. I sweat when I dance. I sweat when I’m with him. His hair is grown out, curls tucked into his glasses. He smells like Axe Body Spray, like a tree made of cinnamon. My dress is pale yellow and his button down is navy blue.
“We’re like night and day,” I tell him.
“Our clothes,” I say. “Never mind.”
He looks amphibious with his wide-set eyes and round nose. I want to touch his cheek and see if it’s slick. My gaze lands on Becca, an eighth grader, dancing with her hands clasped around the neck of one of the A-Team basketball players. There’s less space between their bodies than ours. I curl my fingers inward, inching towards Chase’s collar.
“Want some gum?” He removes his hands from my hips and reaches into his pocket, pulls out a pack of Big Red. He shakes two sticks out before I answer.
He unwraps a piece and puts it on his tongue. He laps it up like a communion wafer. My arms are down now as we stand across from each other, not moving, the music still playing around us. He unwraps the second stick and drops it in my hand. There’s dirt under his nails, but I don’t mind. He’s chewing and looking at me when I put the gum in my mouth. I bite down and the flavor is so strong that it hurts. We put our hands back on each other, no words said between us.
The song fades out and turns sharply into “Goodies.” The girls scream and run to the middle of the dance floor. Chase drops his hands from my waist and nods his head, mumbles, “Thanks,” as he starts to walk back to the wall pads. His eyes drift away from me and I see them trace Becca’s legs as she dances, her white ruffle skirt swishing with each sway. The music pulses in my chest and I pass the gum between my molars. It’s starting to taste bitter mixed with my nervous saliva. My tongue is coated in something artificial when I say to him, “Wait,” and grab his hand, pulling him back to me.
I hold his hand and turn his palm to the ceiling. He relaxes in my grip. I tell him, “I don’t like your gum.” Everyone is in the middle of the gym, singing, as I reach my hand in my mouth. I’m looking at him as I take the gum between my fingers and put it in the center of his palm. It’s shriveled like a raisin. He looks at the gum and is quiet. My body is sticky and electric, charged with vague feelings. He closes his fingers around the gum and walks across the gym. I am dizzy and unmoving. He stops at a trashcan in front of the folded up navy bleachers and opens his hand over it. The gum sticks to his palm until he shakes it off. He dries his hand against the leg of his dress pants and walks out the doorway to the hall, without looking back.
XdownwitdasicknessX: wtf was that
XdownwitdasicknessX: yesterday at the dance
XdownwitdasicknessX: the gum
AnGeL_AbBy7: I didn’t like ur gum :P
XdownwitdasicknessX: its not funny
AnGeL_AbBy7: i didn’t say it was
XdownwitdasicknessX: that wuz disgusting
XdownwitdasicknessX: it was nasty
AnGeL_AbBy7: ok jeez I’m Sorry???
AnGeL_AbBy7: take a chill pill I was joking
XdownwitdasicknessX: wel its not funny
XdownwitdasicknessX: don’t touch me ever again
AnGeL_AbBy7 is typing…
AnGeL_AbBy7: im sry. i didn’t mean 2 offend you. I wish we could be friends.
XdownwitdasicknessX is typing….
XdownwitdasicknessX: well I don’t want too
AnGeL_AbBy7: why not?
XdownwitdasicknessX: y do you care
AnGeL_AbBy7: Because I do
XdownwitdasicknessX: well don’t
XdownwitdasicknessX: stop talking to me
AnGeL_AbBy7 is typing…
XdownwitdasicknessX signed off at 9:36:44 PM
At school the next Monday and the day after that, I don’t look at him. He doesn’t look at me.
He IMs me then, five days into our silence. I don’t know what made him change his mind. He asks me what’s up. I hover over the X in the corner of my Buddy List window and contemplate, like I think Lizzie McGuire would. Deep down I know that it’s just for dramatic effect. I guide my mouse back to his chat box. I type, nm u. He says nm but then we talk for forty-five minutes: about a South Park episode, the Jackass movie, paintballing, and Slipknot.
In Social Studies, I hear that Chase is dating a girl from another school, the one who cuts. It rains during recess so we can’t go outside. Our teacher makes us play Heads Up Seven Up and I walk past his thumb, to a different boy’s. Another girl pushes his thumb down and Chase guesses it was me. I say no, and I’m smiling. In Spanish, we watch Harry Potter dubbed over and I say to Shelly, “Draco’s sexy.” Chase makes fun of his face for the rest of the movie. We get our yearbooks in eighth period and Shelly overhears Chase tell Nick that I look hot in my picture. The dismissal bell rings and I sling my backpack over my shoulder. I can’t wait to get online.
Lindsey Peters Berg lives in Los Angeles. Her short fiction has appeared in HAD and Rejection Letters. Currently, she's at work on her first novel. Follow her on Twitter and IG @lindspetersberg.