Fiction

Story: The Way You Cover

By: Emily Eckart

sadlooks

Greg had been watching Kayla for three months now, and he still wasn’t sure which of her details he liked best. She had her hair tied up messily. Her eyes were lined in dark makeup. Her skin, smooth and creamy, reminded him of dairy products: whole milk, ice cream, brie.

The neck of her ukulele poked up from the bottom of the screen. She sat against the usual yellow wall, a blank wall that betrayed nothing about her. As she strummed the strings, he noticed that her fingernails were painted light blue. Her voice got him every time. Usually he felt irritated by high, sweet voices, voices that seemed to be pretending, but hers was different. The way she furrowed her brows on the saddest words, the way she shook her head as she modulated up for the final chorus, how she laughed nervously as soon as a song was over, reaching up to shut off the webcam—all of these convinced him that, unlike everyone else, she was sincere.

After watching the song, he rewound to the spot at the beginning, the part where she bit the side of her lower lip. Other viewers had noticed too. Their appreciation was recorded in the comments.

0:34: sexxxxyyyyy!

What had she been thinking–was she nervous, or did she realize how alluring it would look?

“Bye-e,” she said, grinning and reaching up to shut off the camera.

Greg adjusted his pants and sighed. 100,000 views, maybe only fifty of them due to him. There were thousands of other people watching her, maybe thousands of guys. He expanded the video to full screen, so he didn’t see the number of plays. When she looked into her web cam, he pretended she was looking only at him.

*

“Come on,” Dylan said, holding the spray paint can out to Greg. “It’s just a little payback for all those hours we wasted.”

Greg shook his head. Dylan hadn’t told him they’d been driving to the cat shelter. He had no idea that Greg actually liked it. Originally it had been only to get community service hours, but then Greg had realized that he liked cats a lot more than people.

Dylan shook the can. A few weeks ago, when they’d discussed what to do before graduation, “something big,” it had been a long string of disasters: running away after chalking gigantic dicks on prudish Amelia’s driveway, tearing down the highway at ninety in Dylan’s ancient Camry until the frame rattled. But this—Greg hated this.

He tossed his spray paint on the ground and walked away.

“Hey! Where are you going?”

Greg didn’t answer. He shoved his hands in his pockets and started on the two-mile walk home, keeping on the grass at the edge of the road.

People were the reason Greg wanted to be a vet. He didn’t mind when the cats hissed or scratched. They did it because they were scared, small and vulnerable. But when people did something bad, Greg always felt disappointed. Recently Dylan had almost gotten kicked out of National Honor Society for plagiarizing an essay. Worse, the day before, driving both of them home from school, Dylan had purposely sped up to hit a rabbit that ran into the road. When Greg thought about it, his stomach twisted into a knot of sick anger. People were supposedly capable of reason and compassion, but from what Greg could see, they hardly ever used it.

Kalya was different, though. He felt sure of it. Back at home, he ran upstairs to his room. Sasha, one of his young tabby cats, was sitting in his desk chair.

“Hey, Sash,” he said, petting her. She purred and arched up against his hand. She was the friendliest of the three he’d adopted over the last year. His mom said he could adopt as many cats as he could pay for, not realizing how much money he’d saved from his newspaper job over the summer.

He clicked on Kayla’s YouTube channel. She had not replied to his comment on the new video, asking if she’d be willing to talk to him on Gmail. It was already buried under pages of new comments. Perhaps she’d never seen it. He wanted to talk to her, but there didn’t seem to be a non-creepy way to do it. He knew so little about her. He Googled hopelessly at first, not expecting to really find anything. “Kayla ukulele,” he typed. There was the old Huffington Post article from a few months ago, and a Gawker post that gushed about the “cuteness” of her “Boyfriend” cover.

Then, on the third page of the search, he found a PDF of a high school newsletter. It was new, just posted a few days ago, titled SENIOR PROFILES. “Kayla Ponterry’s first ukulele video went viral last year. Since then, she’s gotten millions of views on all her covers. She’s a homegrown star!” He searched for Lenfield Academy. It was in Massachusetts, a public school with a fancy name.

He looked up “Ponterry” in the white pages. He put the address into Google maps. A red teardrop marked her house. Of all the places in the world, Kayla lived in the town next door.

He still wanted to do something memorable before graduation, something big. This was it. He would meet her.

*

Kayla lived on a wide, silent street with houses blighted like rotten teeth: faded paint, crooked shutters, grass shooting through cracks in the crumbling driveways. Greg parked on the side of the street and rolled down his window. It was a yellow ranch house at the end of the bulb-shaped road, the wild lawn bordered by woods on one side and a rusted chain-link fence on the other. At the edge of the woods sat a battered red pick-up truck, its fender hanging down on one side. He stared. He’d always imagined her among topiary gardens and shining countertops, chlorinated pools and glass-doored showers. Maybe the address was wrong.

But then he detected the sound of an instrument: high, sweet strumming, coming from an open window on the second floor. He stopped breathing so he could listen. The chords sounded familiar. He gripped his sweaty car keys. It had to be her. Now, instead of the unbearable distance of a laptop screen, it was just a physical wall between them. He tried convincing himself to knock on the door. Maybe he’d say he was looking for a lost pet. But the music stopped, and a minute later, the front door opened. It was her.

“Shit,” Greg whispered. She wore a short yellow dress and a cross-body black leather purse with fringes and metal studs. She skipped down the front steps and climbed into the pick-up truck. It growled as she started the ignition, and black smoke sputtered out of the exhaust pipe. She pulled over the lawn and drove away, leaving behind two trails of mangled grass.

He hadn’t even seen her for thirty seconds, and now she was speeding away. He started the car. Up ahead, she was already turning. He slammed on the gas to catch up.

She turned into a neighborhood on the other side of town, a shallow cul-de-sac with a few houses around a wide circle of pavement. She parked by the curb. Greg pulled into the driveway behind her and waited until she left her truck. Once she disappeared around the corner, he parked behind her truck and jogged in the direction she had gone. He followed her into the next neighborhood.

This street had houses three times the size of his and glittering black SUVs in every driveway. Kayla walked up to a house where people milled under white awnings, plastic cups in hand. She slowed and rested one hand on her purse as she went across the grass. A girl with short hair waved at her, and together they walked to the back of the house.

Greg hurried after them. The back yard was a green expanse covered by throngs of people. He threaded his way through the crowd, circling the yard four times, but she was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she’d left already. He paused near the jumpy castle and sighed. Everything felt ridiculous sometimes. Working so hard to go to BCC. Following a girl he’d seen on YouTube only to end up, alone, at some stranger’s party.

A bunch of kids were squealing inside the castle, which jerked with their every jump. Enjoying the absurdity of his situation, Greg took his shoes off and threw them on the grass. He crawled through the front flap. Inside were six or seven kids, skinny as pencils, jumping as hard as they could. As he tried to stand up, he almost fell down, but he flapped his arms and regained balance. A little girl jumped over to him.

“Who are you?” she asked, poking a finger in his stomach.

“Greg,” he said. “Who are you?” The girl giggled and jumped away.

Greg laughed. He started to jump. When he landed, his feet sank deep into the plastic, and the kids shrieked, trying not to fall into him. Soon they were all laughing. With each jump Greg soared upwards, his head crashing into the soft top of the castle. He was just starting to forget his misery when, through the black mesh of the other side, he saw a girl in a yellow dress.

He bounded across in two leaps and bounced lightly near the side, pressing his face against the mesh. She was bending over, rummaging in one of the coolers next to the castle. She had a black bag, and blonde hair hid her eyes. It was definitely her. She took out what looked like a beer.

“Hey,” Greg said. She did not respond. “Hey,” he said, more loudly. But she had turned away to pop off the top of the beer against a wooden post sticking up from the lawn.

A middle-aged woman glided over, her grey dress flowing around her like wisps of cloud.

“Hello, Kayla.”

“Hey,” Kayla said. She put one hand on her bag, and with the other, held the beer awkwardly.

“Dear, remind me how old you are?” the woman said, her voice smooth and poisonous.

“My parents let me.”

“Well, this isn’t exactly your parents’ house, is it?” The woman looked around and laughed. “I’m not quite sure you could mistake the two.”

“Bitch,” Kayla muttered.

“Excuse me?” The woman’s mouth became a round O. Her plucked eyebrows looked like they were trying to leap off her face.

Kayla threw the beer down on the lawn, where it spilled out in a frothy puddle. She gripped her bag and strode away.

Greg scrambled over to the front flap and slid out of the castle. He grabbed his sneakers and ran after her. She was already at the side of the house.

“Hey, Kayla! Wait!” he said.

She turned around and looked at him, forehead wrinkled.

“Do I know you?”

“No,” he said, his face feeling hot. “I saw what happened back there. I heard her say your name.”

“Oh, her.” She slowed and walked next to him.

“Who is she?”

“My friend’s mom. Mrs. Mason. This is their fabulous ancestral home.” She swept an arm grandly and smirked. “That bitch hates me.”

Her hair was golden in the sun; she wore dark makeup and fake lashes, accentuating her blue eyes.

“How could anyone hate you?” Greg blurted.

Kayla smiled and looked at him. Her eyes felt like a hot light on his face. “Aren’t you sweet.” She shrugged. “ ‘Cause she thinks I’m from a trailer park. Thinks I’m corrupting sweet Natalie or something because I took her tanning. God, if they find out, they might kick her out of Tufts.

“She’s going to Tufts?”

“That’s so unfair,” Greg said, his voice vehement on both of their behalves. Of course a girl who lived in a house like this could afford to go.

“Exactly. What she doesn’t know is, Natalie’s the one who begged to go tanning in the first place.” Kayla swung her arms around, spinning her bag. “Want to see it? The ancestral home?”

“Sure.” He felt almost as pleased with himself as when he’d won the PETA essay contest last year.

He followed Kayla inside. A red shag carpet led down the hallway into a sunlit kitchen.

“Where’s your friend?” he said.

“Had to get makeup done for prom. Can’t do it herself, apparently.” Kayla glanced into the kitchen. “Everyone’s outside. Come on.” She ran up the two-flight staircase, sliding her hand along the gleaming banister. Greg ran after her, wondering if Mrs. Mason had seen them.

“Are you sure we should—”

“Relax. I’ve been here a million times.” She opened a door. “This is Natalie’s room.” Inside was a canopy bed, covered with sheer white drapes. “It’s a water bed,” she said, sitting down and leaning back on her arms. She patted the space next to her. Greg hesitated.

“Come on, it’s not like a guy’s never been on it before.”

Greg sat down, trying to keep his back straight. Kayla looked at him.

“What’s your name, anyway?”

“Greg.”

“I’m Kayla. Although I guess you already knew that.”

He tried to look at her without looking at her, but it might seem strange to peer at her sideways, so he chose a neutral spot on the floor instead.

“So, what are your hopes and dreams?”

“What?” Greg said, laughing.

“I know it’s weird, but it’s my ice breaker. I ask everyone. So tell me.” She look at him with wide eyes.

“Well…. I’ve always wanted to go to Tufts. I got in, but it’s way too expensive. Hell, even UMass is too expensive. So I’m going to Bristol Community College instead.” He twisted his mouth as he said this. It was surprisingly hard to say.

Kayla frowned. “That sucks.”

They were quiet for a moment. Greg wondered how to bring up music. He wanted her to talk about it, but it would seem too contrived. Instead, he said, “This is kind of recent, but I’ve been thinking about becoming a vet.”

“Aw, I love animals!”

“Yeah, lately I’ve been thinking how great it would be to help animals get better.”

“Oh, you should meet the cat. This’ll be the first test of your vetting skills.” Kayla sprang off the bed, brushing against his arm.

Greg laughed. “You’re adventurous.”

“She’s usually in Mrs. Mason’s room,” Kayla said, tiptoeing down the hall. “Come on,” she whispered.

In the center of the room was the biggest bed Greg had ever seen. The hardwood floors shone like the surface of a mirror. The furniture was of a matching dark wood; the bed had four wooden banisters with gold inlay and a red curtain hanging above. Several necklaces sprawled across the bureau. A congested wheeze came from the fancy pillow in the middle of the bed. Greg looked again and realized it was actually a cat—one of the expensive purebred ones, with blue eyes and the face pushed in. The cat looked at them with disdain.

Kayla giggled. “Meet Fabiola. Careful, she looks dumb, but she’s vicious.”

Fabiola?”

“Only the Masons,” Kayla said, shaking her head.

Greg approached the bed. Fabiola pricked her ears toward him. He paused so that she wouldn’t feel threatened. Kayla walked around the room, inspecting the furniture. She pointed to something on the nightstand behind him and laughed. Greg looked over and saw the object of her mirth: a crystal sculpture of a cat, tail erect and head lifted high, as though intended to appear noble. Greg laughed too, and Kayla caught his eye.

“You never said what your hopes and dreams are,” he said.

“That’s ’cause I don’t have any.” She touched the edge of the bedspread. Fabiola puffed up her tail. “You should feel this, it’s like, silk or something.” Greg did touch it. Fabiola hissed, showing her needle-sharp teeth.

“Jesus,” he said, drawing back. Kayla laughed.

“Come on,” Greg said. “I’m sure you have some hopes.”

She looked out the window and put her hand on her bag. “I wanted to go to Berklee. The music school.”

“What happened?”

“Same as you. Got in, can’t afford it. So it’s community college for me.” She went over to the bureau. “This is insane,” she said, holding up a glittering necklace. “I think it might be real diamonds.”

“What do you play?”

“I sing. And play piano, some guitar, and ukulele.” She fingered the necklace. “I could totally steal this and sell it to pay for college. But bitch probably has a GPS on it.” She put it down.

“I bet you’re really good at singing.”

“I’m okay.”

“Maybe I can see you sometime. See you sing, I mean.”

She looked at him from the corner of her eye. “So you do wanna see me again.”

“I wouldn’t mind it.”

“Maybe we can arrange that.”

He wanted to shout and pump his fist in the air, but instead, he took another step toward Fabiola. If he could convince the cat to like him, it might impress Kayla.

He edged forward slowly, holding out his hand while Kayla watched. Fabiola stared at him, looking offended. He froze. Her nostrils flared slightly, like she was trying to catch his scent, so he moved his hand imperceptibly closer. She stretched forward and sniffed at his hand. Gently, Greg reached forward and stroked the back of her head. She stiffened at first, but then relaxed, closed her eyes, and started purring.

“Wow, good job,” Kayla said. “That cat’s never liked anyone besides Mrs. Mason.”

Greg felt pleased. He really did have a knack with animals. “Good cat, Fabi. Nice kitty.”

One of the cat’s ears twitched. Suddenly, she drew back, hissed, and scratched Greg’s hand. “Shit!” He jumped back. He smashed into the nightstand behind him and heard a crash. He turned to see a million splinters of glass all over the hardwood floor.

“Run!” Kayla said. They dashed out of the room and down the stairs. They walked quickly across the front lawn until they were past the line of cars. At the end of the neighborhood, Kayla started running again, and Greg ran with her.

The sting of the three red scratches on his hand didn’t distract him from the realization that he was running with Kayla, and that they were laughing like good friends as they approached their cars. He imagined them together. She’d play ukulele for him in her room, and sing for him alone. Maybe she’d let him touch her hair. Maybe he would even get to kiss her.

Kayla giggled as they came to a stop. Her hair had gotten messy after running.

“That was hilarious,” she said. “I wish I could see the look on her face when she sees that stupid statue.”

“Yeah.”

“Hey.” She poked him with her elbow. “Want to hang out at my place?”

His legs felt weak. He’d imagined it would be the other way around, but here she was surprising him again, preempting his asking.

“Sure,” he said.

“Oh, shoot! Was your car back on that other street? I wasn’t thinking when we ran.”

“No, it’s right there,” Greg said, pointing. “Behind yours.” He thought the beat-up cars looked good together. Two of a kind.

Kayla stared at him.

“How did you know that’s my car?”

Greg felt like a black hole had opened up in his stomach.

“I figured, since we ran all the way here, and that one’s mine, and process of elimination.”

“Why did you park over here?”

“You know, shitty old car, didn’t want them to see it.”

She crossed her arms. “Were you following me?”

“No!” Greg said. “Why would I follow you?”

She stared at him.

“Have you seen my videos?”

“What videos?”

“Liar. Have you been stalking me for like, months?”

“No,” Greg said. “Only today.”

“Oh, only today. That makes it better.”

“No, that’s not what I meant. I just really wanted to meet you, you’re amazing—”

“God, what a creep. I was actually starting to like you.”

“I just wanted to meet you.”

“So you couldn’t do it in a more normal way, like, message me or something?”

“I tried to, but you never replied.”

She snorted. “Yeah, because everyone who messages me is probably like a rapist or something.”

“Oh, so that would have gone so much better for me, if that’s what you think. God, I just wanted to get to know you,” Greg said. “Is that so horribly evil?”

“How did you follow me?”

“I went to your house. I was gonna knock on the door or something, but then you started driving so I panicked and followed you.”

She frowned. “That might be kind of cute, if only it weren’t so creepy.”

“I swear, I just—”

“Isn’t that what all the murders say?”

“Come on, you honestly think I’m gonna murder you?”

“Never know. You did, stalk me on the internet, find out where I live, and follow me to a party.”

“Come on, Kayla, I–”

“I’m gonna drive away, and you better not follow me, or I’m calling the police. Got it?”

“Jesus, okay.”

She unlocked her door manually, and got in the car. He expected her to flip him off as she drove away, but she didn’t. She just looked at him out the window and stepped on the gas.

Graduation was lame. He had to listen to Julie Jackson, who’d beaten him for valedictorian by hundredths of a point, talk about how great high school was, and then he had to watch three hundred kids walk across the stage. It seemed like everyone except him had air-horn wielding fans, Frisbee-catching pranks, and friends to hug at the “kiss and cry” robe-return.

An empty summer languished before him. He had little to do besides watch movies, mow his neighbor’s lawn, and attempt to play the guitar he bought on eBay. When UPS dropped the box off at his door, he leapt up from his laptop to get it. He slit the tape and lifted the styrofoam packing sheet. The yellow wood of the instrument gleamed in the light, and when he brushed his thumb against the strings, they hummed warmly. He imagined playing melancholy songs in his room. He’d leave the window open, so that anyone passing outside would know how much he had lost. But despite all the instructional videos on YouTube, he couldn’t get even the easiest chord to sound right.

Instead he watched Kayla’s new video, a cover of “You Belong With Me,” posted a week after graduation. “Hey guys,” she said, with distressingly sunny smile. She was wearing a green T-shirt and her usual dark makeup. She closed her eyes and shook her head as she sang the chorus: “Have you ever thought just maybe—you belong with me?”

Greg smacked his hand on his desk.

“Of course I’ve thought that!” he said. He frowned and clicked away vehemently. But after a few minutes of skimming through junk Gmail, he watched the video again. He felt like he’d been turned inside-out and his guts had sunburned, but it was no use looking away. Her image had been seared into his mind. Wherever he turned, he saw her wide eyes, her irreverent smile, her white skin, smooth and pale like brie.

He watched the video so many times that it appeared as a suggested page when he opened a new tab in his browser. He leaned back in his rolling chair and slammed his fist into the wall. Even if he couldn’t see her in person, he wanted her to be happy. She was better than all the awful pop stars on the radio. She deserved to go to music school.

He remembered getting an email once about a fundraiser, some site where you could donate to a breast cancer walk-a-thon. Gofundme.com. He went to the site and read the instructions. It seemed simple enough.

His fingers rattled across the keyboard as he created the event: SEND THIS GIRL TO BERKLEE. Kayla is an amazing 18-year-old musician whose dream is to go to Berklee. She got accepted, but can’t pay the tuition. If you love music, and want to see her as a big star someday, please help! Goal: $40,000. He laughed as he typed the number. Most projects on the site asked for only a few thousand dollars. It was a ridiculous goal.

He embedded her four best videos. From Google, he saved her most heart- stopping picture: a selfie taken from above, Kayla smiling up at the camera, her eyes bright against the black makeup, her face pressed against the neck of her ukulele.

Skimming over his work, Greg frowned. Of all the thousands of pages, it was unlikely anyone would donate to his. But it couldn’t hurt to try. He posted the link on his Facebook page and on each one of her YouTube videos, then went to sleep.

Someone had posted the link on Kayla’s Facebook fan page; others posted it on Twitter. Thousands of people had donated with credit cards and PayPal accounts, some as little as two dollars, others up to fifty or a hundred. Hardly thirty days had passed, and Greg could barely believe that he had reached $41,250.92: almost enough to send her to college for a year. Once the money was in his Bank of America account, he wrote a check for $41,350.00, adding in a hundred dollars that he had left over from the summer. He added a sticky note. “College tuition, courtesy of Gofundme.com. Maybe it’s still not too late to accept the offer? —G”

He put it in a thick yellow enveloped and drove to her house. His knees felt weak as he crossed the lawn to her stoop. Had she told her parents about him? Would she call the police? He rang the bell and waited, straining to hear anything. But none of them were home. He stuck the envelope in the door and left, almost relieved.

He found out the result from her Facebook fan page. One of her friends had posted an announcement: “Kayla’s going to BERKLEE! Thanks everyone for all your support!” Greg swore when he saw it. They seemed intent on taking the credit for themselves.

A few days later, he got a text

hey greg its kayla. sorry i didnt text earlier. wanted 2 say thanks. should have sooner but it seemed so unreal… wanted to make sure it was real 1st… now im going 2 berklee 4 real! All thanks 2 u.

Sitting at his desk, Greg stared at his phone, double-checking to make sure the text was real. He resisted the urged to text back right away. He made himself walk to the next stand of trees before replying.

howd u get this #?

She texted back immediately.

google.

creeper.

He grinned. She had actually bothered to look him up.

learned it from u… think ur kinda obsessed w me, 2 do that.

well guess it doesn’t bother u. u looked pretty happy in ur last vid.

so u have been stalking. ur weird greg, kinda creepy, kinda sweet. anyway u think i never fake it in those vids?

it was fake happy?

maybe…well i wanna take u out 4 coffee to say thanks. in a public place where u cant kidnap me.

dunno, not sure if i should trust u.

well u shud bc im awesome. and ur the stalker not me.

maybe i can take a risk. today? 5:00, starbucks on main st?

k.

🙂

Greg stared at his phone. It was warm in his hand, and the screen was still lit. He hurried back to his room to get ready.

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