Page 73

    "Whitney doesn't get nervous," Heather, the other girl, said. She looked to be about my age and had short black hair, cut spiky, an...ariety of piercings in her nose and lip. "You know that."

    Kirsten an...xchange...ook. "What would you be nervous about?" she asked Whitney, who was sitting beside me, rummaging through the purse in her lap.

    "Reading," Jane told her, takin...ip from the mug in front of her. "She's signed up for tonight."

    "She had to sign up," Heather added. "It wa...oira Must."

    "Moira Must?"...aid.

    "It's something from our group," Whitney explained, pulling some folded papers from her purse and putting them on the table in front of her. "You know, like an assignment. Moira's one of my doctors."

    "Oh," Kirsten said. "Right."

    "So you're reading something you wrote,"...aid. "Like part of your history?"

    Whitney nodded. "Kind of."

    "All right, we're ready to get started," Esther said. "And first up, we have Jacob. Welcome, Jacob!"

    Everyone applauded a...all, skinny guy wearin...lack knit cap wound his way through the tables to the microphone. He opene...mall spiral notebook, then cleared his throat, "This is called 'Untitled,'" he said as the espresso machine hissed from behind us. "It's, um, about my ex-girlfriend."

    The poem he began to read started with images about daylight and dreaming. Then it began to build quickly, his voice rising until it was jus...taccato list of words that he spit out, one right after another. "Metal, Cold, Betrayal, Endless!" he was saying, as the occasional bit of spit arced over the mike...lanced at Whitney, who was biting her lip, then at Kirsten, who looked completely entranced.

    "What is this?"...hispered.

    "Shhh," she said.

    Jacob's poem went on for what seemed time before ending, finally, wit...eries of long, breathless gasps. When he was done, we all sat there fo...econd before deciding it was okay to clap.

    "Wow,"...aid to Heather. "That was really something."

    "Oh, that's nothing," she said. "You should have been here last week. He did ten minutes on castration."

    "It was disgusting," Jane added. "Compelling, but disgusting."

    "Next up," Esther said, "we hav...irst-time reader. Everyone, please, give it up for Whitney."

    Jane and Heather immediately burst into loud applause, and Kirsten an...ollowed suit. As Whitney walked up to the mike...atched the crowd reacting to her, their heads turning, then double-taking, at her beauty.

    "I'm going to rea...hort piece," she said, her voice kind of faint. She stepped closer to the microphone. "A short piece," she repeated, "about my sisters."

    I felt myself blink, surprised, and looked at Kirsten. I

    wanted to say something, bu...ept quiet, not wanting to be shushed again.

    Whitney swallowed, then looked down at her papers, the edge of whic...ould see fluttering, just barely. She looked scared, and it suddenly seemed too quiet. But then she began.

    "I am the middle sister," she read. "The one in between. Not oldest, not youngest, not boldest, not nicest...m the shade of gray, the glass half empty or full, depending on your view. In my life, there has been little tha...ave done first or better than the one preceding or following me. Of all of us, though...m the only one who has been broken."

    I heard the chime over the door sound, and turned in my seat to see an older woman with long curly hair come in and stand at the back. When she saw Whitney at the microphone she smiled, then began to unwind her scarf from around her neck.

    "It happened on the day of my youngest sister's ninth birthday party," Whitney continued. "I'd been sulking around the house all day, feeling alternately ignored and entirely too hassled, which was pretty much my default setting, even at eleven."

    Kirsten's eyes widened as, at the table next to laughed loudly, an...eard other chuckles as well. Whitney flushed, smiling. "My older sister, the social one, was going to ride her bike down to the neighborhood pool to meet some friends and asked me to come along...idn't want to...idn't want to be with anyone. If my older sister was friendly, and my younger the darkness. Nobody understood my pain. Not even me."

    There was another laugh, this time from someone across the room, and she smiled. So Whitney could be funny. Who knew?

    "My older sister got on her bike and headed for the pool, an...tarted to follow...lways followed, and once we were riding...tarted to get angry about tired of being second."

    I looked at Kirsten again; she was watching Whitney so intently, as if no one else was even there. "S...urned back. And suddenly, the road was empty ahead of me, this whole new view, all mine...tarted to pedal as fast a...ould."

    I could hear Heather's spoon clinking as she added another packet of sugar to her coffee, silent, unmoving.

    "It was great. Freedom, even the imagined kind, always is. But a...ot farther away, and didn't recognize what was ahead of me...tarted to realize the still going full speed, away from home, when my front wheel suddenly sank, flying."

    Beside me, Kirsten shifted in her seat, an...oved my chair closer to her.

    "It'...unny feeling, being suddenly airborne," Whitney said. "Just as you realize it, it's over, and you're sinking. the pavement...eard the bone in my arm break. In the moments afterwards...ould hear the wheel of my bike, ticking as it spun. Al...ould think was wha...lways thought, even then: that this was just not fair. To ge...aste of freedom, only to instantly be punished for it."

    I looked back at the woman by the door. She was watching Whitney with full concentration.

    "Everything hurt...losed my eyes, pressing my cheek to the street, and waited. What for...idn't know. To be rescued. Or found. But no one came. All I'd ever though...anted was to be left alone."

    I swallowed, hearing this, then looked down at my coffee mug, sliding my fingers around it.

    "I don't know how lon...ay there before my sister came back for me...emember staring up at the sky, the clouds moving past, and then hearing her calling my name. When she skidded beside me, she was the last perso...anted to see. And yet, like so many times before and since, the only"

    Whitney paused, takin...reath.

    "She lifted me up and settled me onto her be grateful to her. But as we pedaled toward angry. With myself, for falling, and with her for being there to see it. As we came up the driveway, my younger sister, the birthday girl, burst out of the house. When she saw me, my arm dangling useless, she ran back inside yelling for my mother. That was her role, always, as the youngest. She was the one who told."

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