Shug Page 1

Author: Jenny Han

Genres: Young Adult

Chapter 1

It is the end of a summer afternoon and the sun will be setting soon, our favorite part of the day. We’re eating Popsicles, cherry ones. My shirt is sticking to my back, and my hands feel sugary and warm, but my lips are cool. The sun is turning that fiery pink I love, and I turn to Mark the way I always do.

I look at him, really look at him. We have sat under this tree, our tree, a hundred times or more, and he’s always been the same Mark—the Mark I have known since we were five years old and I told him my mama was a whole lot prettier than his. But today, at this very moment, he is different, and it’s not even something I can explain. But I feel it. Boy, do I feel it. On the outside, everything looks the way it always does, but on the inside, it’s like some little part of me is waking up.

His hair is hanging in his eyes, and his skin is brown as toast. He smells the way he always smells in summer—like green grass and sweat and chlorine. He’s watching the sun turn its different colors, and he’s all quiet and hushed up. He turns to me and smiles, and in that moment he is so dear to me I hurt inside. That’s when I feel it—like my heart might burst right out of my chest. This is it; this is the exact moment when he is supposed to kiss me, the kind of moment movies are made for. He’ll look at me, and he’ll know, just like I know.

Everybody knows that twelve is the perfect age for your first kiss.

Except, he isn’t looking at me anymore. And he’s talking; the big jerk is talking when he should be kissing. He’s going on about some mountain bike his dad is going to buy him for his birthday. “Man, it’s gonna be sweet. We’re gonna go on the Tuckashawnee trail—”

“Hey, Mark,” I interrupt. I’m giving him one last chance to make this moment up to me, one last chance to see me the way I see him. I will him to look at me, really look at me. Don’t see the mosquito bites on my legs, don’t see the ketchup stain on my shorts, or the scabs on my elbows. Don’t see the girl you’ve known your whole life. See me. See me.

“Yeah?” He’s looking at me, and he doesn’t see me at all. I can tell he’s still thinking about that bike and hasn’t even thought of kissing me. His mouth is cherry red from his Popsicle. He looks like he’s wearing lipstick.

“You look like you’re wearing lipstick,” I say. “You look like a girl. A girl with really bad taste.” I laugh like it’s the funniest thing in the world.

He flushes. “Shut up, Annemarie,” he says, wiping away at his mouth furiously.

“I bet Celia has some eye shadow that would look terrif with that lipstick,” I continue. Celia is my big sister, and probably the prettiest girl in our town, maybe even the state.

Mark glares at me. “You’re just jealous because Celia’s prettier than you.”

I bite my lip. “You should let Celia give you a makeover,” I say. My eyes are starting to burn. When the two of us get started we don’t quit until one of us leaves crying. Usually it’s Mark, but this time I am afraid it will be me.

Please, please don’t let it be me.

“You’re the one who could use a makeover,” Mark says cruelly.

“You are really ignorant, Mark, you know that? You’re a real troglodyte. You’re so ignorant, I bet you don’t even know what that means.” It means a primitive person who lives in caves. I only know because I looked it up after Celia called me one when I tried to eat grapes with my toes.

“So what? I bet you don’t know what it means either. I bet you copied it off your mom or your sister.”

“I did not. I happen to be gifted. I never copy off of anybody, unlike some troglodytes I know.”

Last year I caught Mark copying Jack Connelly’s homework on the bus. He pretended like it was no big deal in front of his buddies, but when I threatened to tell his mama, Mrs. Findley, he started boohooing like a little baby. The dumbest part is that Jack Connelly is easily the least smart person in our grade. If Mark’s a troglodyte, Jack is king of the troglodytes.

Mark gapes at me and shakes his head disgustedly. “Geez, Annemarie, why’d you have to bring that up? You started it.”

“I was just foolin’, and if you weren’t so dense, you’d know better than to criticize a girl’s looks. It’s degrading, and it’s, well, it’s sexist.” I raise my eyebrows high and dare him to disagree.

“What a load of crap. You can say whatever you want to me, and I can’t say jack to you?” Mark says, shaking his head again. “That’s dumb.”

“That’s the way it goes,” I say. “And anyway, you didn’t have to rub it in about Celia. I know she’s prettier than me.”

My sister Celia is the kind of girl whose hair curls just right in a ponytail. She is smaller than me, the kind of small that boys want to scoop up and hold on to real tight. I am too tall for even my daddy to scoop up anymore, much less a sixth grade boy. Boys like Celia; they go crazy for her sneaky smiles and sassy strut. They are always calling the house and making Daddy frown. Mama just smiles and says, “the boys buzz around my Celia because they know she is sweeter than honey.” I sure wish boys would buzz around me.

On every Valentine’s Day since the fourth grade, Celia has come home with pink carnations and solid milk chocolate hearts and at least one Whitman’s Sampler. She always lets me eat the square ones with caramel inside, even though they are her favorite too. The most I ever get on Valentine’s Day are the valentines the class got for one another because they had to, the Scooby-Doo or Mickey Mouse kind that come twenty-four to a box at the drugstore.

Mark gives me his “I’m sorry” look—his half grin–half grimace that’s supposed to look like real remorse. He looks like he always does when he has messed up, like a puppy that’s peed on himself and is sorry, but will inevitably do it again. Mark Findley has been saying sorry to me his whole life.

“Sorry, Annemarie,” he says.

I scowl at him. “Yeah, well, you should be.”

He’s still giving me The Look, and then he gets on his knees. “Forgive me, Annemarie! Please, please forgive me!” he begs, swaying back and forth with his hands clasped in prayer.

He is so dumb.

The thing I hate worst about Mark is that I can never, ever stay mad at him. I can hold a grudge better than anybody I know, but with Mark it is truly impossible. He always finds a way to make me laugh.

“Oh, get up.” Trying to hide my smile, I tear a handful of grass out of the ground and throw it at his head.

He sees the smile that got away and looks satisfied. Then he shakes the grass out of his hair the way my dog Meeks does after a bath. “Where is Celia, anyway?” Mark asks oh-so-casually, falling back onto the ground.

Mark has had a crush on Celia since we were little kids. He’s never said so, but he doesn’t have to. He knows I know.

“She’s at the mall with Margaret Tolliver, and then they’re having a sleepover at Margaret’s house.” Margaret Tolliver is Celia’s best friend, and sometimes they let me come along. Today was not one of those times.

“Oh,” he says. It hurts to hear so much disappointment in that one little word and I know he still likes her. Celia’s sixteen, and we’re twelve, so you’d think Mark would know he doesn’t have a prayer. And I guess he does know, but he still hopes. Next to the high school guys that like Celia, Mark looks like a little kid. I guess he knows that too. But he still follows Celia around the same way old Meeks does when he’s hoping for scraps.

We don’t say anything for a minute; we just watch the sun disappear. Then Mark stands up. “I guess I’d better go home,” he says. “You wanna come over for dinner? I think Mom’s making spaghetti tonight.”

Mrs. Findley’s spaghetti is the Best Ever, capital B, capital E. She makes the sauce from scratch and everything—roasted tomatoes, fresh basil from her garden, sweet Italian sausage. Her secret ingredient is honey; it adds a sweetness to the sauce. Mrs. Findley’s spaghetti is my favorite. I know this is Mark’s way of making it up to me, and I want to say yes, but instead I say, “Nah, Mama’s probably already fixed somethin’ special for me.”

This is a bald-faced lie, and we both know it. Mama hates to cook, and the only time she ever really bothers is when my daddy is at home. Daddy is in Atlanta on business for another week, so the best I can hope for is a peanut butter sandwich. And that’s only if Celia bought bread today.

But I sure as heck won’t admit any of that to Mark. I’ll probably be dining on Extra Crunchy Jif tonight, but at least I won’t have shamed my mama. Not that she would even be ashamed, but I know for a fact that she doesn’t like the neighborhood knowing our family business. Mama’s big on pride. She’s always telling me that a woman without pride is no woman at all. I know that I’m not a woman in the places that really count, but I can at least get the pride part right.

Mark shrugs, and says, “Are you gonna go to Sherilyn’s pool party next Saturday?”

“Yup.” Our friend Sherilyn Tallini has a pool party at the end of every summer, right before school starts. It used to be typical kid stuff—hot dogs and Sharks and Minnows and neighborhood moms wearing one-pieces with terry cloth cover-ups and matching terry cloth slippers. All except for Sherylin’s mom, who only wears string bikinis with maybe a sarong. All the other mothers smile and pretend to like Mrs. Tallini, but really they think she is “attractive in a used up, tanning bed kind of way.” I know because I heard Mairi Stevenson’s mom say it at the Fourth of July parade last year.

Mrs. Tallini does have a tanning bed but, as I’ve heard my daddy say, she is “still one good-lookin’ woman.” If my mother heard him say this, she would skin him good, but fortunately for us all, Mama does not attend neighborhood functions.

I know what the other mothers think of Mama. They think she is stuck-up and pretentious. They think she thinks she is better than they are. And it’s true; she does. My mother, Grace, is very tall and very beautiful in an intimidating sort of way, the kind of way that says she knows it but doesn’t give a hoot. Mama’s hair is the color of wheat, the kind that gleams red and gold in the sunlight, and her eyes are dark green. My daddy calls her Grace Kelly, which Mama turns her nose up at because according to her, it’s far too conventional, but I know she secretly enjoys it. She says that Daddy is no prince, and if she’s gonna be compared to anyone, it had better be Lauren Bacall.

Daddy thinks that Mama is everything a woman should be: beautiful, clever, charming. Beauty has a way of making the bad things tolerable. When Mama tilts her green eyes at you, it’s hard to remember why you were mad in the first place. That’s her special gift.

My mother is unlike every other mother in our neighborhood—she went to college up North, and she had the nerve to come back “all citified, puttin’ on airs like she’s Princess Diana.” (If you’re wondering how I know all this, it’s because adults think that kids can’t play and listen at the same time.) Mama grew up with a lot of the other mothers in our town, and you can just bet they were smug when she had to come back home.

Mama reads Foucault, not Danielle Steel, and she makes martinis, not green bean casserole. In the kitchen, there are poetry books where the cookbooks should be, and she doesn’t have a dish towel with mallard ducks on it or a ceramic magnet that says “Home Sweet Home” on our refrigerator. Mama is always telling Celia and me that we are worth twelve of this town, and that she’ll disinherit us if we don’t leave as soon as we graduate high school. Mama is halfheartedly invited to neighborhood parties like the Tallini’s, but she never fails to graciously decline and the other mothers never fail to be relieved.

Last year was the first year Sherilyn’s pool party was different. None of the other mothers were there, and Mrs. Tallini only came outside to serve lunch. I ate two pieces of fried chicken as opposed to my standard four, because none of the other girls were eating anything. We didn’t play Sharks and Minnows, and all the other girls wore two-piece bathing suits and lay on deck chairs while the boys tried to splash them. I was the only one who wore the same one-piece bathing suit I had worn the year before. I told the other girls it was because I think bikinis are offensive and degrading to women, so I guess that means I’m stuck wearing my one-piece again this year.

“You wanna walk over to Sherilyn’s together?” Mark asks.

“Yeah, okay,” I say.

“Okay, then, see you later.” He pauses. “And, Annemarie, sorry about what I said before. I didn’t mean it.”

He meant it. Some girls are pretty, and it’s like they were destined for it. They were meant to be pretty, and as for the rest of us, well, we get to exist on the outer edges of life. It’s like moths. They’re the same as butterflies, aren’t they? They’re just gray. They can’t help being gray, they just are. But butterflies, they’re a million different colors, yellow and emerald and cerulean blue. They’re pretty. Who’d dare kill a butterfly? I don’t know of a single soul who’d lift a finger against a butterfly. But most anybody would swat at a moth like it was nothing, and all because it isn’t pretty. Doesn’t seem fair, not at all.

Mark heads for home, and I watch him go, feeling the lump in my throat grow. I never knew love felt like cancer of the throat. Before he turns the corner, he waves and I wave back.

It’s not like I’ve never liked a boy before. There was Sherwood Brown, who I met at camp last June. He was staying with his grandma all summer, and we smiled at each other every day at camp. He and his friends would splash me and my friends in the pool, and sometimes he even sat next to me on the bus when we went on day trips. When I told him I liked him, he said he kind of liked me too, but his grandma would whup him good if he ever brought home a white girl. I went home and told Mama, and she laughed until tears ran down her face. She said Sherwood Brown had better learn to stand up to his grandma, or he’d be a little girl his whole life. I decided then and there that I wouldn’t be talking to Mama about boys, not ever.

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