By Lelac Almagor
Doree Schultz raised her hand in class and said she was gonna write about a boy who never knew his own father. Everyone rolled their eyes or sucked their teeth because that was Doree for you and of course she had to tell everybody but they were also annoyed because that was actually a good idea and probably better than whatever ideas they had. By tomorrow three of them would be excited thinking they’d come up with it themselves. The teacher looked excited already. That was the purpose of Doree, she’d say something smart and then the teacher would write it on the board and it was fair game for everybody. Class Discussion. The teacher wouldn’t just tell us the answers but it was fine for Doree to do it.
Personally I couldn’t bring myself to hate Doree Schultz, but I hated her stupid story. This was the story we were supposed to tell: My mom was my hero, she had to take care of me all by herself, I only talked to my dad three times. Or I only talked to my dad on the weekends. Or my dad was an abusive bastard who drank up his paycheck and beat me with an electric cord if I got in his way. Woe is me, I ain’t got no daddy, nobody ever taught me how to be a man. Well, she could have it.
My boy Rico and I went to the store after school but he’d spent all his money on a Candygram at school for this girl he likes so there was really no point. The checkout guy at the store thinks he’s some kind of ninja. His favorite thing is to watch us in case we steal something, which makes it into a game against him, but if you lose then you get an arrest on your record so I pretty much won’t play. We went to Rico’s house to play Xbox and after that I went home to make dinner and I fell asleep watching TV. I didn’t think about that story for even one single second until the next day when I was back in that class.
Doree had gone home and started hers, obviously, and she raised her hand and asked if she could share it, which she thought made her sound like an important adult at a business meeting but actually made her sound like a kindergartner. The guy in her story got a huge tattoo of his name on his forearm, which was supposed to be a symbol of how messed up he was but mostly made me crack up because Rico was in that class too so that from now on till forever Doree Schultz was gonna be the girl who wrote her story about Ricard Jerome Tinsley even though she got super pissed and insisted that she didn’t even know he had ink. She was probably telling the truth, which made the whole thing even funnier, which made her get that much more upset.
Even after all that ruckus, we ended up with our notebooks open and a long blank slope of class time between us and the bell. I figured it was easiest to just get it over quickly right at the start. If I picked an idea that was funny or creative then the teacher wouldn’t care so much if it was short. I looked around the room trying to think of something to write that would get a decent grade without going too far to make the teacher look at me real serious and tell me about my potential.
Rico tried to catch my eye but I knew he would just screw around the whole period and so I looked away from him toward the front. Other kids were working a little, or talking, but Doree was lost in her own world. She was filling up the lines in her notebook with these round girly letters like she was lining up a row of M&Ms on a birthday cake and you could tell when she got to the last line she was going to turn the page and keep going without even a pause to congratulate herself. That was when I got the idea to start writing about her.
It was a joke, or like continuing the joke about her and Rico. Like when you draw a nasty picture of some girl in the class or a teacher but this was also technically doing the assignment. I knew it would make her upset and I wasn’t even sure that the teacher wouldn’t mind but once I thought of it I had to go with it. I sat and watched her with my pen touching my paper just like I was going to sketch her for art class, and then I started writing down what I saw. Her hair falling down over her face and the way she didn’t push it out of her way but left it hanging there like a privacy curtain. Her backpack on the back of her chair, hanging from both shoulder straps just like in grade school, but halfway unzipped so you could see the top of her biology notebook. She had BIOLOGY written on the corner in Sharpie and I would have bet a million dollars that there was a notebook in her bag for every subject in every different color but with that exact same writing on it. She didn’t look up from her paper, but in my story I had her keep looking over at the boy with the tattoo, the one who was also in her story.
I was concentrating and I got caught up in what I was doing until some other kids started to fidget and I saw it was almost the bell. I read back over what I had and thought it sounded pretty good—like a description of a girl in a real book, which was actually the boring part that I would usually skip. Nothing specific had even happened yet in my story, which meant it didn’t get me any closer to being done and turning it in.
I stared at the back of Doree’s chair and tried to think. First I thought it would be funny to just go crazy — to make her head explode, or have her turn into a zombie or start shooting everybody. But if you’re a guy, a certain kind of guy, you can’t play around like that at school. You can’t talk or joke about violence even if it’s like one percent of what they pay a billion dollars to make into a movie because someone will take it the wrong way and say you’re making a threat.
I don’t make threats, I make promises. That’s what my dad used to say and it sounds so tough that I was shocked the first time I heard it out of my own mouth.
Anyway I didn’t want to do the zombie thing because then my story would be stupid and even if people thought it was funny they’d think hers was better because of the tragic story of the not-actually-Rico kid. I wanted it to be something serious. Something everybody had to take seriously even though it was also a joke. And I’d read enough of those books they give us to know how it needed to sound.
I went about halfway back in my story, where I put in the notebooks with the neat Sharpie labels on the covers, and I added in that she had done it with the door closed and locked. This was what my teacher would call foreshadowing and what I would call making it seem like I knew what I was doing from before I knew I was doing it. And I started a new paragraph at the bottom of the page and I wrote that she was scared to go home and then the bell rang.
Me and Rico didn’t go to school the next day because it was freezing out and they said it was going to snow although it actually didn’t and then we kind of gave ourselves a long weekend. I wasn’t sure exactly when the story was due so I didn’t go to class on Monday but I saw the teacher after school and she gave me her tired-of-it-all face and I knew I had to get cracking. One day late is ten percent off which just means you have to try ten percent harder but any more late than that and your grade is basically hosed before you get started. I made sure my notebook was in my bag instead of under my bed and on Tuesday during art class and PE and lunch and part of math I just finished it as fast as I could.
The easiest way to do creative assignments is to rip off what you’ve seen on TV or read about in other books. You put it together with the details you make up yourself and it sounds like something somebody got paid to do and so it’s going to be much better than what other kids can do on their own.
So the girl in my story went home from school, and her dad was drunk-as-usual, and he started hollering at her and she went into her room again to escape, but she didn’t slam the door behind her because of what might happen to her if she did. Inside her room it was perfectly tidy and everything matched in that Doree not-quite-matching way. I didn’t know a lot of girl details to put in but I tried to make it sound like she had done everything herself, with maybe some money she earned from babysitting but nothing from her mean old dad.
That still didn’t count as something happening because there wasn’t necessarily anything happening next. So I decided she would run away from home. She had to have some kind of plan to get away. She would have a map and a printed-out list of places she could stay because her father didn’t let her have a nice phone. If it was really Doree she would probably have a notebook in some particular color with RUNNING AWAY on the cover but I didn’t put that in because by then I thought that any little jokes would take away from the big joke which was becoming the whole point of the thing.
What she really would have to have was cash. If she was going to get somewhere— maybe New York City, she might have family there, a cousin just a little older with an apartment or something—she would have to buy a bus ticket or a train ticket, and food on the way, and when she got there she would want to have enough money to get by until she found a job. By now Doree in the story was different from Doree in my class because Doree in my class probably had an actual checking account somewhere but the girl in the story kept her money in an empty box of Tampax in her desk drawer. If she kept it in twenties she could probably have around five hundred dollars in there. I didn’t say how she got it but she felt extra guilty about it and in my mind I was implying that she sold a little pot along the way.
I wrote about her packing her bag and tidying up anything she didn’t need and I had her move the money from the little box into the different pockets of her jeans plus a little into her bra. I figured she would wait until she was supposed to leave for school the next day and I didn’t think she would leave a note. I got a little bit stuck around the very end of the story because for a minute it stopped making sense—like why would she leave that day in particular, what would have happened to make her go, her dad was the same as he was every day. I thought for a minute about making it sound like some sort of gross sex predator stepdad thing but I didn’t want to add any more to the story or go back and make the beginning longer and by then I was almost out of time and so I just kept going. I had her walk out of her house with her school bag but all her clothes were in it and when she got up in front of the school she just kept on walking and I got into class and wrote THE END just as the class bell rang.
Doree wasn’t there.
It feels stupid even to write about it, it was stupid that I noticed it, but I had been thinking about her all day, and waiting for her, waiting for this moment, although I don’t know what kind of moment I had thought it would be. It was like some kind of showdown in my mind. My story against hers. It hadn’t occurred to me for a second that she might not be in class, or might not have her story ready, and I definitely didn’t think she was going to walk in late because the bells won’t ring until people like Doree Schultz are sitting in their seats in the front.
I didn’t expect the teacher to say anything—even kids like Doree have to go to the dentist sometimes, and I guess that just makes the teacher’s day a little harder, because she’s going to have to tell us all the answers herself. But when she got down the list to Doree’s name she actually stopped, and she looked seriously worried, and she said, “Has anybody seen Miss Schultz yet this week?” and that was when I thought about how I’d been out of this class since last Wednesday and I couldn’t say whether Doree had been in school one way or the other although I would never have imagined her to be anywhere else.
The other front row girls shook their heads, and they said they hadn’t seen her in a couple of days, one of them said she hadn’t seen her in weeks, which definitely wasn’t right, and they all sounded worried too, or fake-worried, meaning actually completely nauseous with excitement because if something horrible happened to Doree they’d all get to spend days being fake-traumatized and crying in the hallways and going to the counselor’s office when they were supposed to be in class. The teacher felt a little disgusted with them too, I think and she said, “I’m sure she’s just not feeling well,” and the girls all sat up a little like they were calling her a bitch to one another in their silent language which the teacher understood perfectly well because she had been a front row girl herself. She stared at them extra hard and then went on with the attendance.
What I felt was this completely sick feeling of guilt and shame. Like I had done some horrible thing and like Doree had been watching me do it. I had not felt this way at all while I was writing—I had felt like a champion, like a righteous man, like Doree and I were having a contest and I was going to win it, and she was going to be sorry, especially because she didn’t even know. I had thought of her sitting in her classes taking notes and doing her homework lying on her bed, which I now imagined the same as the bed in the room where my story girl lived, and she was working on her stupid story and having no idea how much better mine would be and how it would be about her.
But this whole time she hadn’t been at school, that was what I found out, and then I felt like she had just been watching me, reading my notebook, seeing what I wrote about her, and hating me, hating what I said about her. This did not make any kind of sense. It wasn’t like she was hiding inside my backpack or something. It wasn’t like I did something to her. But there it was. She was gone and I felt awful.
The teacher went over and asked me about my story, and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want her to read it. And then what if something had happened to Doree, and people thought it was my fault or I knew about it? What if I had to prove that my story wasn’t really about her when it was? The teacher was surprised when I shook my head. I told her I’d been sick, and she shook her head too, because she knew that I knew about the grade percents.
Rico wanted to go to the store after school but I didn’t. I told him I had to go fix my story and he just laughed and said “Okay, man,” which made me wonder if there was anything I could have said that would actually have surprised him, like I had to go practice my ice skating routine or donate my sperm to charity. He went off to wherever he goes and I went to the park, not the one that’s close to school but another one where I never see anybody I know.
For a while I was actually going to write a whole new story but I couldn’t get into it. I had already had my one good idea and even though I tried I couldn’t figure out something dumb to just get it over with. It was going to be too much work to write three or four pages if it wasn’t even about anything.
Then I tried to figure out what would happen if I didn’t turn it in at all. The quarter was almost over and what with winter break and midterm exams we hadn’t had that many other big assignments. I had a B without the story but I still didn’t think I could get away with it. Some kids figure they can afford to fail one quarter if they pass the others but that shows up on your transcript plus it just seems like too much of a risk. If something actually happens to you later in the year, then what?
I sat there with my coat zipped up all the way to my chin and my notebook on my lap and my big gloves on, even though I couldn’t really hold my pen that way, and I just wished that Doree would show up at school the next day like normal and I’d be able to turn in the story I already had. It would be a little awkward because maybe it would seem like I had written it after she disappeared, it wouldn’t be a joke anymore but more like I had used her for inspiration, but I wouldn’t have to show it to anybody except the teacher and if it made her think that I actually cared about Doree then I would just have to live with that.
But I knew that wasn’t the answer. Doree couldn’t show up like normal because normal was already five days overdue. If she was gone for a week, and the teachers didn’t know about it, there had to be some kind of reason, and a reason might be a month long or a semester, or she might never come back at all.
I couldn’t help it, this was the part of me that got into dumb stuff with Rico no matter how smart they kept saying I was. I couldn’t think of any other solution. I went to the 7-11 to get warm for a while. They gave me the stinkeye so I paid three bucks for a coffee, and then even though my hands weren’t thawed all the way I pulled my gloves back on and pushed my hat back down over my ears and headed over to the north side where Doree lived.
I didn’t know her exact address but I knew where to get off the bus because we’d crashed a house party in that neighborhood and one of the girls joked that we should walk over to Doree’s afterwards for last call. That girl knew Doree from track team—sports overlapped with Doree, drinking overlapped with me. I wondered how many kids like that you’d find at our school, connectors between one world and another. Kids who had been to Doree’s house and over to houses like mine. Except I didn’t ever have anybody at my house, not even Rico unless it was some kind of emergency like when we were in second grade and his mom went to the hospital for a month. He stayed most of that time with his uncle in Newtown but on the first night someone just dropped him off at my house which he knew how to find because he’d walk me there or I’d meet him out front. We slept on the floor in my room and I made macaroni and cheese for both of us and I guess it was okay because he never brought it up in any kind of weird way, but he was Rico and he never brought anything else up either.
I walked from the bus stop past the house where the party had been and then I kept going in the same direction because I thought that was where the track team girl had been gesturing. I looked real close at each of the houses but I don’t know what I was expecting to find—like there’d be some sort of tower with a moat around it and a Doree-shaped shadow at the top. Or a Doree photo poster like for a lost cat. At the end of the block was a four-way stop and I stood there feeling totally pointless and after a while I noticed the mailbox right next to my elbow which said The Schultz Family in curly black letters that a Doree type of person had probably stenciled there herself.
For a while I stood at the mailbox, trying to think of a plan that involved leaving her a note or maybe stealing her mail, or some other option for not going up to her front door and trying to explain myself to whoever answered. But then I started wondering if any of her neighbors were home in the afternoon and watching me and I realized I looked incredibly suspicious and then I thought about how actual house robbers go around checking people’s mailboxes and I figured I had to make myself look more normal or I’d be explaining the whole story to the police. It was too late to just walk away or else I think I would have.
Instead I went up to her front door on a little cobblestone path someone had planned and dug in and laid out so you wouldn’t have to walk on the grass. I couldn’t see any buzzer or doorbell but there was a knocker, so I used it.
I heard a dog start barking inside the house, just an ordinary mutt-type bark, and after a while I heard footsteps and soft human sounds and the dog settled down and clicked away. I never thought about this before but the downside to a dog is that you really can’t pretend you’re not home. After a long while, the door swung open, and it was Doree standing there.
She looked awful. She was in pajama pants and a CHS sweatshirt, and the sweatshirt had drips on it. Her hair was pulled back from her face but some of it was frizzed up over her head like a stink cloud. Then the worst was her face. It looked dry and cold, like a picture of a missing person, swollen at the lips and eyes. I didn’t really have a plan but I guess I was meaning to get Doree to go to school the next day so I could turn in my story. That wasn’t going to work. This Doree couldn’t go to school in a million years.
The dog came up behind her and it was smaller than it had sounded, a dingy yellow thing that would only be cute to its owner. She had to twist and turn to block it from going outside and I could see she was getting cold standing there so I just stepped in and closed the door behind me. She hadn’t said anything yet, not even Hi, and I wondered if she recognized me, or if she even knew who I was when I was in my usual seat in her classes. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she thought I was a stranger. She seemed like she would still have let me come in.
We both stood there, right inside the door, and the dog wandered off back into the house. I saw Doree’s bare pink feet on the cold tiles and then a row of shoes by the door so I started unlacing my sneakers and she moved over a little so I saw there was a wooden bench I could use. Sitting on it I had a weird moment of imagining that this was my house, that I was coming home from my job as a lawyer or a doctor and sitting on a special bench I bought and taking off my shoes. I put them in line next to the others.
This seemed to give her a cue, and she turned and walked back into the house. I followed her. “This is Eric,” I said, like I was talking to her on the phone, and I thought she nodded, but it might have just been her head moving while she walked. We ended up in a kitchen that I have to say was beautiful. Not the appliances or whatever but just the light in the room. One whole wall of that kitchen was a glass door that led out to the backyard and the sky was just starting to turn pink like it does in winter when you can’t believe the sun is setting so early. She didn’t turn any lights on and so the whole kitchen had this scared pale light like a strange early morning dream with our hands almost glowing on the table.
I could tell she had been sitting there a long time before I came because on her side of the table she had a mug and a spoon and a water glass and a little mini plate with some crumbs on it and a book and a magazine and even one of her notebooks from school. But it was all sort of splayed out like you’d do for a sick kid, spread all their toys on the bedspread and they’d just sleep in the middle of it. She asked me did I want anything. I said no thanks, but she got up and pulled a tall narrow glass from one of the cabinets and filled it up with water and ice from a tap in the door of the fridge and then she sat back down in her spot across from me.
After a while I got used to sitting there with her. It was peaceful in a way. She didn’t say anything and didn’t seem like she was about to say anything or like she expected me to say anything either. We just sat there together, and I let my thoughts drift off, so that it was almost like falling asleep. I didn’t think about school or about home or about what would happen to all of us next year. I don’t know what I thought about. Dream things. Colors and places and the dim glow of the chairs and the table.
Everything stayed the same, for a long time, and then one time I looked down and my hands were in deep shadow and I realized it was almost dark. “Do you need anything from school?” I asked.
Doree—the girl who used to be Doree—shook her head. She was too different now from the whole idea of Doree that I knew. I guess she didn’t really know me either. I wanted to do something for her before I left, to give her something, or fix up something of hers. I almost thought about leaving her a note in her mailbox, but I knew I couldn’t hang around the outside of her house again after I walked out the door. I wish she had asked me to bring her something for a class. I would have come back if she had.
Instead I pulled up the neck of my coat as best I could, because with the sun down it had gotten really seriously cold, painful cold, and I took two buses and got back to my house with just about time to make dinner and fall asleep.
I knew not to expect Doree at school the next day and so I didn’t think anything when she wasn’t there. At lunch I went to the library and found a weird, bad story online that some kid had posted on his blog. I typed it over in my own words without copy-and-pasting anything that anybody could ever find, and I printed it out and handed it in before class started, figuring a D on the assignment was still sixty points better than nothing. And nothing happened the rest of the week.
But I guess I imagined that she was getting better, that it would take some specific amount of time. That over the weekend she might be strong enough to wash up and get her stuff together and on Monday she’d be back, maybe a little pale, quieter, worried about catching up on her work and whether she’d missed the deadline for the French Club scholarship, but same Doree, same seat. I got a little tense thinking whether she would say something to me or act different and whether I would have to act different to her. And I told myself I’d never acted one way or another to her and I didn’t have to say anything at all.
So I did notice when Monday came and she still wasn’t there. I wanted to know whether she was still sick or she moved or something but I really could not think of a way to find out. In a book I’d be able to sneak into the guidance office and snatch a copy of her file but in real life those cabinets are always locked up. I did go over there during fourth period and I just hung around for a while but I didn’t overhear any important conversations or find her mother in tears in the waiting area or anything helpful like that.
I couldn’t ask one of the girls at school because they really didn’t know. After they got tired of being worried they went through a few days of making up rumors but by the next week they’d lost interest and moved on. I couldn’t ask the guys because none of them knew who she was and if they had they would not have cared. She was not the kind of girl guys would know.
The teacher must have had actual information—she’d started skipping her name in attendance, not even looking sad or anything, just jumping straight from Simon to West—but she wouldn’t tell me, and she’d remember forever that I’d asked, and she’d smile at me about it and I’d probably get arrested for punching her.
For a while the class stayed that little bit more dry because everybody was used to Doree answering when the teacher asked a question. But the teacher got to asking a little less, I guess, and one of the girls in the front who had always been a little on the weird side and wore the same type of sweater every day took over Doree’s spot and started raising her hand all the time. I did my work, and Rico messed around, and everything went on pretty much the way it always had.
I did think about going over there. I thought about going to her house again, and a couple times during school I even thought I would go on that particular day, when I didn’t have other plans. But I would go to the park first, or to the store with Rico, and then it would get late enough that maybe her parents would be home already. Or she would have moved and it would be some other family and they would not believe I used to have a friend who lived there and who I used to visit because I really didn’t. Or she would answer the door again and it would be that much worse than it had been, a week worse, a month worse, a whole year. Maybe nobody else had visited her and there would still be nothing I could do.
I never got to read Doree’s story. I probably would have hated it. I guess what I really mean is that she never got to read mine. She never knew I wrote about her or that anybody did.
Nobody ever read that story except me, and I put it back under my bed and didn’t read it again for a long time. But it was the first one I ever wrote, and I thought about it almost every day, so I guess every day I thought about Doree Schultz.
Special thanks to keen readers Kyla-Mechelle Petty and Deja Little. #pantherpride