If You're Out There(8)

“What?” he said. “I’m just saying. Do-gooder volunteer trips abroad? I can see kids using it as a photo op. Or, I don’t know, a quick résumé builder for college applications. Is that who we want to be?”

Yaz and Anushka frowned into their shared screen, and Priya sat up tall. “Look. I hear what you’re saying, but I think we can make this a big enough commitment that people don’t treat it that way. And why not let people use their privilege for good? We could be fostering the next generation of people like my mom.” I could tell Yaz and Anushka were intrigued, judging by their growing smiles.

I gave Priya a nudge. She had this in the bag.

She shot me a smile and returned her focus to the screen. “From a practical standpoint, this would help us get grants from larger organizations that might not otherwise notice us. Suddenly we’re not just a dwindling fund. We’re a multifaceted nonprofit, creating opportunities for cultural exchange.”

“Our girl has a point, Ben,” said Yaz into the camera as Anushka nodded along. “We’ve been spreading ourselves thin—taking on more schools than ever before. Qualifying for new grants could certainly help.”

When their conference ended, I stayed for dinner, and afterward we did homework in the attic. I rarely brought up Priya’s mom. It was a kind of loss I couldn’t possibly understand, and I never wanted to cause her pain. But that night I thought she should hear it. “Your mom would be really proud of you, Pri.” I looked up from my page and she bumped me with her body—a silent Thanks. Then she went back to her textbook.

I find GRETA in my contacts and hit the button, ripping out grass as the phone rings and rings. Tempted as I am to stir up drama with a mass reply, it’s clear she doesn’t want me there. And this is hers. I’ll tell them I can’t go. It’s not a good time. I can’t raise the money. They might know I’m lying. The GRETA ladies are practically aunts to Priya. They probably know her side of things.

“Zan?” says a happy voice that must be Anushka’s. “That you, sweetheart?”

“Oh,” I stammer. “Anushka, hi.”

“We’ve been sprucing up the office. The new phones have caller ID.”

“Nice,” I say. “How’s, uh, how’s everything?”

“Oh, you know us. The job never stops. Did you see my email? Got some fundraising ideas already?”

“Oh, uh. No, not exactly.”

She tsks into the phone. “How’s life apart? Are you and Priya surviving?”

“Well . . .” So she doesn’t know. “It’s been . . . strange.”

“I can imagine. You poor things. There’s no one quite like a best friend. Yasmine here is giving me a look, but it’s no secret I’m her everything.” I hear murmuring in the background. “Watch your mouth, Yaz. We both know you don’t mean that.” Her chuckle turns to a listless sigh. “Tell Pri to give us a call, will you? We haven’t talked since she had bacon cupcakes delivered to the office for my birthday. They were somehow both disgusting and delicious and she was incredibly pleased with herself.”

I laugh under my breath. “Sounds about right.”

“Listen, dear, we’re actually about to jump on a call with Ben. Was there something you needed?”

I sniff and straighten up. “You know, it can wait.”

When we say goodbye, I have to pull myself together. Inhale, exhale . . . More and more, the stinging eyes and heavy chest come uninvited, out of my control. I guess some part of me hoped Anushka might know. Might slip and tell me everything. Or at least give me a hint.

My phone vibrates with a text and I wipe my eyes with the sleeve of my hoodie. It’s Samantha.

Out sick with cramps from HELL. Annnnnd I wasn’t the only one to bail so we have no servers. AHHH! I know it’s your day off but please say you can sub when you’re out of school?

I start to reply when I notice the clock and look up. The hill has mostly cleared out, a few stragglers hurrying inside. “Crap,” I mutter. I must have missed the bell. I grab my stuff, dust off my shorts, and bring my trash to the boxy bin by the school entrance. I check my schedule and groan. Even if I hoof it, there’s no way I can get to the other end of the building in time.

I hear scuffling behind me and turn around. In the distance, a tall boy trails a much smaller woman on the gravel path. It appears she’s straining to drag him by the arm with both hands, like a sack of potatoes over the shoulder.

“Jesus Christ, Bonnie. Would you let go of me? I’m not a little kid.”

“Well, you act like one sometimes,” says the woman.

“So I took a long lunch. Can we please talk for one second?”

“Nope.” She harrumphs and resumes pulling, though it’s clear he’s letting her. “I didn’t go to all this trouble getting you here so you could sit on my couch and watch Judge Judy all day.”

As they draw closer, I realize that it’s him—the lanky blond kid from Spanish class. He didn’t come back yesterday. I was actually a little disappointed he’d switched out.

“Don’t you have a job you should be at right now?” he asks. They stop a moment and he pulls himself gently from her grip. “Look,” he says. “I can’t figure out how, but people know.”

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