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One Red Sweater
They’re laughing at me. Sure, they’re trying to be discreet about it, but I have practice. I can tell.
I look down and fiddle with my T-shirt. How is it possible that even though everyone’s wearing the exact same shirt and jeans with sneakers they still look way cooler than me? It’s not fair. We’re supposed to be helping people, not being petty. If I’d known this was how things were gonna be I wouldn’t have wasted a week of my Easter vacation this way.
I sigh. Damn that Hannah. She’s right there, laughing with them because she thinks everyone loves her. If only she knew what they say behind her back – that she’s a control freak, that she’s taking this way too seriously. I don’t care. It’s the truth. She treats us all like we’re her employees or something. I mean, if she’s gonna give us instructions, she could be a little more polite, less bossy, you know?
And why’d she ask me to come if she didn’t want my company anyway? I know her parents made her invite Monica, who is currently talking to some of the younger kids. At least someone’s having fun. I hug myself. It’s so cold – I would’ve brought my sweater if it hadn’t been so hot this morning. I stand and go sit down with Monica’s little group. She’s helping the kids decorate some crosses, distracting them while the adults discuss abortion.
Almost no one likes Monica. She’s really sweet and means well, but hugging people so much has sparked rumors that she’s a lesbian. That’d be ok if our school was normal, but since it’s girls-only we hardly care about our appearance, and most of us are uncomfortable with having our uniform shirts halfway open to escape the heat around someone who sees us… well, like sexual beings.
I look out the window. There are thin stripes of wood going diagonally across it – to let the air in and keep some of the rain out, I presume, since no one here can afford glass. This church is falling apart, but it’s something. Hell, we should be glad there’s a decent floor. The brick sides are painted white, the ceiling’s made from the leaves of palm trees and there are a few cheap little figures of saints and the Virgin with cracked paint. We’ll touch those up with markers tomorrow morning – we’ve even hung a huge rosary on an empty wall for decoration.
That’s what we’re here to do. Spread the Word of God and all that. Some of my friends looked at me funny when I told them I was coming, but it would have been much worse if our school (and city, actually) weren’t so deeply Catholic. Whatever. It’s not like preaching’s the only thing we do here. I mean, we’re actually helping these people. Mrs. Smith was taking on the role of marriage counselor with a couple just three hours ago. Besides, there are no maps of this tiny town’s layout, no records of how many families live here or people, even. We bring doctors, dentists – we even called someone to report a dangerous power line on the ground.
I don’t know why I feel like I have to defend myself for making this decision. My mother’s an atheist and I’m obviously not, so maybe that’s the reason. She let me come without questions, though. I love that about her.
Loud laughter from Hannah’s group startles me, and I’m raging again. I can’t believe I actually considered her my friend before this. What was I thinking? She’s oh-so-happy with Ashley and her venomous little friend Vicky. Well, I’m certainly not gonna burst her bubble and tell her what they think of her, even though she’s the one that made me get a crush on…
No. I squeeze my eyes shut. I have got to stop thinking about him. He’s laughing along with them, after all. But, ugh, he’s got the coolest brown hair. He’s the handsomest, politest, most wanted boy in the whole grade and, damn him, he knows it. Hannah was lying when she said I have a shot. Yeah, I’m kind of pretty, but that’s not nearly enough to get a catch like him and she knows it.
Mr. Lopez walks by and grins, slapping him in the back. “Blessed are you among women, eh, Shane?” he says, quoting the Hail Mary and referring to the fact that he’s got three girls fawning over him at the same time. I’d be impressed if it wasn’t such an unoriginal thing to say.
Now Shane looks uncomfortable, but he still gives the older man a smile. Hannah smiles at me and I make myself reciprocate. I feel like the hugest fake in the world.
One of the moms – all the women here are someone’s mother, the rules say to get in you have to be a whole family – stands in the center aisle and asks us all to help move the pews to the deserted street outside the church. Now I’m excited. We all help out, Shane more than anyone, as he’s the only teenage boy around and impossibly strong. He’s the captain of the soccer team, though, so that’s no surprise to anyone.
Finally, we all get to settle down and Hannah takes the children – missionaries and townies alike – and takes them to the nearby park to draw or something. I smile, and this time it’s not fake. I won’t have to look at her anymore.
Monica comes over to sit next to me while the grown-ups set up their stuff. I look at the church’s façade, then higher, at the stars. There are so many, out here where it’s so dark. My mom used to tell me they were broken hearts, finally happy. She’s such a hopeless romantic. I tell this to Monica, desperate to shatter the silence between us, and she gets all gushy and giggles.
The movie is called “The Student.” I know this only because Shane said so today when we were all having lunch at the public school that acts as our headquarters in another town. His best friend Derek wasn’t assigned to the same place as us, and he rolled his eyes and said they were gonna watch it, too. So I said I hadn’t seen it yet, and they all looked shocked until Shane smiled and told me I was gonna cry.
By the time the ending credits are projected on the church door, the only sound that can be heard over the crickets is my sobbing. Crying doesn’t even begin to cover it. I bury my head in Monica’s shoulder in an effort to be quieter, but this silence is the kind you find in a morgue, and it’s broken too easily. Monica puts an arm around me as everyone stands. I’m a freezing, sniffling mess, and miraculously Ashley and Vicky come over to talk.
Shane arrives soon after, asking whether anyone wants his sweater. Monica is hugging me for warmth, painfully obvious about the fact that we’re both freezing, but she doesn’t say anything. I think she just might know I like him. I wipe away a tear and tell Shane that I do, just as he is turning away. He hands me the reddest piece of clothing I have ever seen and I promptly slip it on over my French braid, grateful for the warmth. I’m dying to smell it, then tell myself to do it when there are less people around.
Finally, it’s time for dinner, which the people of the town are providing so they can feel like they have stuff to share, too. We eat quickly, standing up, and Shane asks riddles and I solve one and my heart just flies away to meet the others in the stars. I’m so happy I’m still grinning when everyone starts piling into their vans to go back to the headquarters.
Hannah gets in a car with Ashley and Vicky, so Monica and I don’t really know who we’ll convince to take us back. And then Shane smiles and asks if we need a ride, and I really don’t care if the girls are laughing at me not ten meters away. I smile.