The Tower Journal

Emily Eckart


 Peanut Butter

    

               There were four ways to kill someone with peanut butter.  Beth had listed them herself.  So it was practically her own fault, Anna reasoned, that the last way was so easy.

            Gym was the best time, when she had easy access to Beth’s lunchbox.  In the midst of the dodgeball melee, Anna frowned, rubbed her stomach, and muttered to the male gym teacher about a certain time of month, earning a blush and unlimited bathroom rights. On her way to the lockers, she paused to watch Beth run from a boy who slung ruthless dodgeballs at the weak.  Beth escaped him, but she wouldn’t escape this.  

             Anna crept into the changing room and opened the locker that she shared with Beth.  She opened Beth’s backpack, unzipped her lunchbox, and took out one of the two hummus sandwiches, tossing it into the trash.  She replaced it with the decoy from her own lunchbox. She’d made it to look just like Beth’s: wheat bread, neatly folded plastic wrap, hummus smeared around the edges to disguise the peanut butter.  She shoved the sandwich into Beth’s lunchbox and zipped up the backpack.  She slammed the locker shut and left.


            Five months prior they sat at lunch, discussing who among the pretty girls was most

expendable.

            “Alyssa thinks the fate of the universe depends on her hair,” Jamie said. “She just spent, like, twenty minutes fixing it in the bathroom.”

            “Sophia’s practically illiterate,” Anna said. “She says The Hatchet is too hard.”

            “I came up with a new list,” Beth said. “Four ways to kill someone with peanut butter. One: Stuff it in their nose and mouth, asphyxiate them. Two: Buy it in a glass jar, bash them over the head. Three: Lace it with arsenic, offer them a bit."

            “What’s the fourth way?” Jamie asked.

            “Use it on someone with a peanut allergy.  Like me.”

            Anna and Jamie sat quietly, unsure whether to be amused or concerned.  They had always spent lunchtime disparaging normal girls, or “clones,” but Beth’s recent outbursts had turned violent. It was only two weeks into eighth grade, and she had already invented several lists for unlikely murder weapons, including microwaves and spoons.

             “Look, another sheep joining the herd,” Jamie said. At the next table, a new girl, led by Sophia, sat to squealed greetings. Her skinny jeans, tiny purse, and sleek ponytail disguised her like clever camouflage, and a moment later she was indistinguishable from the others.

            “Speaking of clones,” Beth said, “Anna, what are you wearing?”

            “My mom got them,” Anna said, denouncing the skinny jeans she had secretly chosen herself.

            “Tell your mom not to buy you such sexist clothes.  They make you look like them!”

            “Is that such a bad thing?”  Anna had grown tired of hiding inside baggy sweatshirts and behind glasses. At home she took off her thick frames in front of the mirror and examined her face. Logically speaking, she looked no worse than other girls.  If she got contacts and smoothed her hair, she might appear normal, perhaps even attractive—but that would betray her friends, who strove so valiantly not to be like everyone else.

            “Yes, it’s a bad thing!” Beth said. “Do you want to be objectified?”

            A retort rose in Anna’s throat.  Just because Beth wanted to dress like a hobo didn't mean Anna had to.  But before she could defend herself, the bell rang, and the girls scurried to science.

            Beth had always been dictatorial.  Once, when Jamie wore a hot pink shirt to school, Beth said, “You look like Barbie.”  Jamie never wore the shirt again.  After Beth had become vegetarian, no one could eat meat for lunch.  She said Anna’s ham sandwich smelled like dead animal, and ever since then Anna had brought plain cheese to school.  


            She revealed Anna's punishment for wearing skinny jeans in science class, when Miss Bennett announced it was time to pick lab partners for the year.  As the selection process erupted, chairs scraping and students scrambling, Anna looked at Beth.  Their friendship had survived other conflicts in the past—a history class rivalry in fifth grade, a battle over robotics team strategy in seventh.  But instead of returning Anna’s gaze, Beth looked down.

            “Jamie and I are partners,” Beth said.  “We decided this morning.”

            Annoyed, Anna stared at the remainders.  Everyone already stood next to best friends and crushes, leaving only three to mill in uncertainty.  One was the girl with raccoon makeup and black fingernails.  One was the boy who once told Anna she looked like a witch because she had a pimple on her nose.  The last was the new girl: the latest sheep in the herd.

            She wore skinny jeans and a pink chiffon top.  Her ponytail was high and sleek.  She caught Anna's eye and smiled.  Beth would judge.  Beth would complain.  But now that Anna thought of it, she didn’t know why she allowed Beth to boss her around in the first place.  There was no reason to obey her anymore.  

            “Want to be partners?” Anna said to the new girl.

            “Sure,” she replied.  “I'm Krysta.”

             They got three test tubes from Miss Bennett’s desk, each with a mystery solution.  They had to identify the elements using a flame test.  Anna expected Krysta to ask for help, but she turned on the Bunsen burner with practiced ease.

            “The school website mentioned a robotics club,” Krysta said, holding the test tube over the flame with tongs.  “Do you know anything about it?”

            “Yeah, my friends and I are in it.  We do the FIRST challenge.”

            “Really?” Krysta asked, eyes wide.  “We did FIRST at my old school!  Can I join?”

            “Sure,” Anna said, surprised by her enthusiasm. 

            Overnight Krysta's judgment somehow superseded Beth's in importance, and Anna decided to wear her skinny jeans for the second day in a row.  The next day, she led Krysta to the lunch table like an exotic wild beast. 

            “This is Krysta,” Anna said.  “She wants to join robotics.”

            Beth stared.  Miss Bennett's robotics team was the domain of her three-girl clique, forbidden, in the off-chance that they might want to join, to all clones.  Last year she had declared it a feminist robotics club, so even nerdy seventh grade boys were accepted only reluctantly—and when Miss Bennett wasn't watching, made to feel their inferiority through forced counting of Lego kits.

            “I saw you with Sophia yesterday,” Beth said.  “Sure you want to sit with us?”

            Anna glared at her, but Krysta didn't seem to mind.  “Sophia wasn't my type,” she said.  “But maybe you are.”

            Beth rolled her eyes, then turned her attention to her second sandwich, which she wolfed as hungrily as the first.  She brought two sandwiches to lunch each day, always with unusual combinations: hummus and cucumber, banana and fluff, Swiss and grape jelly.

            “You’ll have to get Miss Bennett’s permission.  It’s her club.  She’s done stem cell research, at Harvard.  Beth stared at Krysta, as though expecting her to be intimidated.

            “Really?  That’s amazing!”

             Beth shrugged, and to Anna's surprise, stopped trying to dissuade her.

            In her first robotics meeting that afternoon, Krysta discovered that using a color sensor helped the robot bring “groceries” back to base, a task that had stumped the team for some time.  As Anna watched, she felt a warm swell of admiration.  “How'd you do that?”

            “I built off Beth's idea, using the light sensor for the fishing task.”  She smiled at Beth.  Instead of making a sarcastic remark, Beth pursed her lips and looked away.

            “She’s actually okay,” Beth admitted later, while she and Anna waited outside for Anna's mother to pick them up.  For Krysta to have been pronounced “okay,” despite using mascara, wearing skinny jeans, and carrying a pink purse, was unprecedented.  Anna grinned, feeling as though Krysta's victory over Beth’s edicts was her own. 


            In October, Miss Bennett announced a new project: Adaptation Island.  Each pair of lab partners would combine two animals to invent an imaginary creature.  They would research animal behavior and write weekly about how the animal adapted to natural disasters.  To Anna's delight, Krysta invited her to work on it at her house after school.  The next day she followed Krysta to her bus, gripping the pink bus pass like the key to a forbidden castle.

            Kryta’s room had a queen-sized bed draped with a chiffon canopy.  The book shelves were stuffed double with glossy science books.  There was a poster of the Andromeda galaxy—and on the floor, a pair of twisted purple panties. 

            “Oh god, that's embarrassing,” Krysta said, scooping them up and stuffing them under the comforter on her bed. 

            Discovering a shared interest in entomology, they invented a creature called the “flant,” a combination of a butterfly and an ant.  They finished by four o' clock, but Anna's mother wasn't coming until five thirty.  After playing checkers, Krysta reached across the board and took Anna's glasses off.  Anna blinked.  Usually she hated when other people touched her glasses, but Krysta's gesture didn't bother her. 

            “You're really pretty without glasses,” Krysta said.  “Have you ever worn makeup?”  Anna shook her head, feeling her cheeks grow hot.   

             “I bet some mascara would really bring out your eyes.”  Anna tried to hold steady while Krysta brushed mascara on her lashes.  She took out a tube of pink lip gloss, smeared some onto an index finger, and brushed it across Anna's lips.  The light pressure of her fingertip was pleasant and smooth.  It tasted like strawberry.

            Each week Anna and Krysta researched the habits of butterflies and ants.  They documented flant migratory patterns after a volcanic explosion, and reported how it preyed on other creatures in times of famine.  In the spare time before Anna’s mom came, Krysta taught Anna how to use makeup, styled her hair, and let her try on clothes.  One week, she said, “Let's play dress-up.”  She opened her closet at one end, revealing colorful party dresses, and started to change right in front of Anna.  Anna watched as she flung her shirt off, then blushed and stared at the floor, wondering why she hadn't looked away in the first place. 

             “Done.”  Krysta posed.  The one-shoulder emerald dress seemed awfully revealing, showing her entire shoulder, her graceful arm. 

            “Try this.”  She shoved a bundle of fabric toward Anna.  Anna fumbled with the button of her jeans, feeling nervous even though Krysta had turned away.  There was no way she'd ever look as perfect as Krysta did—tan and sleek, almost air-brushed.  Anna was skinny in all the wrong places, arms and legs jutting out awkwardly like they weren't really hers.  She took off her clothes and pulled the white dress down over her head, shifting it into place.  It actually fit well.  She held the glittering tulle skirt out as she turned back and forth in front of the mirror. 

            “You look adorable!” Krysta said, grabbing Anna’s hands and spinning her around.  “Now you need accessories.  You can borrow anything you want.”

             Anna ran her fingers through the necklaces dangling from pegs on the wall, admiring pearls and silver chains.  She choose one with a golden starfish charm.  “What about this?”

             Krysta frowned.  “That was my grandma's.  I don’t want anything to happen to it, you know?”  Embarrassed, Anna let go.  She was relieved when Krysta changed topics by holding up earrings to either side of her face.
            Anna shook her head.  “My ears aren’t pierced.”  She told Krysta how, in fifth grade, Beth had ranted about how it was ridiculous to punch holes in your body for hanging decorations, especially since boys didn’t have to. 

            Krysta laughed.  “Beth would say that.  There's nothing wrong with being pretty, but I like how she's not afraid to be different.”

            “You’re a lot more different than she is.  She dresses to show her personality, just like everyone else.  You don’t care about that.  You're unpredictable.”  Anna paused and looked away.  “I think that's really cool.”

            Krysta tilted her head, and her earrings glittered against her hair as they fell sideways.  “Really?  Aw, thanks.”  She held out her arms.  “Give me a hug?”

            She wrapped her arms around Anna and pressed close against her.  The scent of something flowery made Anna feel dizzy and warm.  She had always liked boys, but for some reason, the desire to kiss Krysta flitted briefly through her mind. 


            “Who wants to go on a field trip?” Miss Bennett said, waving a stack of flyers in the air.  Anna snatched one eagerly as she passed them out.  In bright red and blue type, she read that it was a weekend FIRST conference in Boston.  Students from participating schools could meet NASA engineers who built real robots. 

            When Anna and Krysta sat down to complete their PowerPoint on world food supply for the presentation segment of the competition, they hunched close together.

            “Look, this says we'll be staying in the Park Plaza Hotel,” Krysta whispered.  “It's an overnight field trip.” 

            “It would be our first ever,” Anna said, pressing her leg briefly against Krysta's.  She thought of the time last week when Krysta, whispering into her ear, had accidentally licked it. 

            “Do you think Beth will be able to go?”

            Anna frowned, unsure why Krysta would ask that.  A moment later, there was a crash and a shriek from the other side of the room, where Jamie and Beth had been doing practice runs with the robot. 

            “Oh no!  Krysta!”  Beth’s voice was desperate and high-pitched.  “I broke the attachment you built!”  Anna and Krysta rushed over.  The robotic arm Krysta made for bringing in the groceries was lying shattered on the floor, but the rest of the robot remained suspiciously intact.  Anna crossed her arms and stared at Beth, who loved to fabricate drama in order to get attention.

            Krysta swooped down to pick up the pieces. 

            “Oh, oh, don’t worry, it’ll be easy to fix,” she said.

            “I ruined it!” Beth wailed.

            “No you didn’t, not at all.”  Dropping the Legos on the table, Krysta hugged Beth. 

            It took Anna a moment to figure out why she felt so stung: she thought she was the only one who had gotten a hug from Krysta. 


            At home, she shoved the permission slip at her mother, who frowned as she read it. 

            “That’s when your grandmother is visiting.”

            Anna’s heart sank.  “But I’ll see her at Christmas!” she whined.

            “She's getting older, and she wants to see you.”  Nothing could change her mind, not even promising to do all the chores in the house for a week, including her brother's. 

            Anna relayed the news while they stood by their lockers, hoping Krysta would be as heartbroken as she was.  At the very least, she might get a hug out of it.  But Krysta just frowned and said, “That really sucks.  I'll tell you all about it when I'm back.” 


            At the minute the school bus was scheduled to leave—8:35 on Saturday morning—Anna clicked through all of Krysta's Instagram pictures.  Most were close-ups, solemn-eyed shots Krysta had taken herself.  Anna reached out to touch her computer screen, but it felt nothing like Krysta's face.  She moped in her bedroom all weekend, checking each time her phone pinged with an Instagram update.  Beth was updating regularly.  None of the photos contained Jamie—only Beth and Krysta.  There was a picture of her and Krysta hugging.  There was a picture of them smiling over a plate of spaghetti in a restaurant, grinning cheek to cheek.  One showed them both holding a small robot, hands touching.

            Anna tried to reassure herself.  Beth hadn’t tried on dresses at Krysta’s house, or worn her makeup and jewelry.  Krysta was probably just being nice to her because she was good at robotics.  Anna texted Krysta repeatedly, but she never replied. 


            That Monday at the lockers, Krysta smiled and hugged Anna. 

            “I missed you!” she said.  Anna felt warm with happiness.

            But later in the bathroom, Beth was smug.  “We met engineers from NASA.  One of them told me I should consider MIT.”  She smoothed her hair in the mirror, a gesture Anna had never seen before.  She was wearing a necklace with a starfish charm.  Beth never wore jewelry, but the pendant looked familiar. 

            “That necklace,” Anna said, pointing.

             “Yeah.  It was Krysta’s grandma’s.  But she let me borrow it.  She trusts me.”

             Anna frowned and crossed her arms, hoping that Beth was lying.  “I knew her first.” 

             “So?”

             “So, I know her better.  She's my friend.”  Beth needed to understand that Krysta was Anna's friend, her property, possibly even more.

             “Yeah.  Friend.  And that’s what you’ll always be. 

             Anna smacked the sink.  “What does that even mean?”  She had the feeling that she was about to discover something she had already suspected, sensed in moments when Krysta didn't respond to her texts, or mysteriously couldn't hang out because of other commitments. 

            Beth smiled and whispered, leaning forward so that the starfish charm dangled out from her chest.  “We kissed.”

            “You’re lying!” Anna said.

            Beth took out her iPhone and showed her a picture: Beth grinning into the camera while Krysta kissed her on the cheek. 

             “That doesn’t count.”

             “Oh yeah?”  Beth scrolled through a few more pictures, Beth and Krysta cheek-to-cheek, Beth and Krysta actually kissing, on the lips.  “You can be Krysta’s friend.  But you’ll never know her like I do.”

             “You—”  Anna knew what she wanted to say, but she had never said it out loud before.  “You bitch,” she muttered.

             “What was that?” Beth said, holding her hand to her ear.

             Anna stormed out of the bathroom, banging the door against the wall outside. 

             The rest of the day, she fumed at her desk, thinking about what she'd like to do to Beth.  She could sneak up behind her at lockers and grab her hair.  She could steal the periodic table from inside her locker, rip it up and stuff the pieces back inside.  But then she got a better idea.

             Back in elementary school, Beth had accidentally eaten a candy bar with peanuts.  Her face turned red, she wheezed, she cried.  It would serve justice, to turn one of Beth's own revenge schemes on her.  She deserved it: to feel how Anna felt, to have this knot in her throat, to be on the edge of crying.  

             That night at home, Anna took two slices of wheat bread from her parents' loaf on top of the refrigerator.  She got the jar of peanut butter from the cabinet.  She spread a generous layer on each slice of bread, keeping the peanut butter away from the edges so it wouldn't show.  She filled the outer part of the bread with hummus, so that it would look like Beth's.  She took out a swath of plastic wrap and folded it tightly around the sandwich, just like Beth did.  This would teach her right. 


            After gym was over, and everyone else rushed to the cafeteria for lunch, Anna ducked into the bathroom and hid, terrified of what might be happening at the lunch table.  What if Beth had already eaten the sandwich?  Would Anna hear screaming?  Would someone know to look for the EpiPen Beth carried in her library volunteer tote bag?  The worst possibility crept into Anna’s mind: what if Beth died?  Beth’s allergy wasn't fatal—but now that she thought of it, she’d heard peanut allergies could suddenly get worse without warning.  People died like that all the time.

            If Beth did die, would they be able to trace the origin of the sandwich?  Would Anna go to juvenile hall, with all the delinquent boys?  She could barely breathe.  She considered staying in the bathroom for the entirety of lunch, but the uncertainty was too awful to bear.  If Beth had chosen the safe sandwich first, there still might be time to stop her.

            Anna strode into the cafeteria.  Beth and Krysta were not at the table.  Jamie was sitting quietly, alone.

            “There you are,” Jamie said.  “I was worried I’d have to eat all by myself.”

            “Where are Beth and Krysta?” Anna asked, afraid she’d missed it all.

            “In Miss Richard’s room.  They wanted to talk about starting a book club or something.”

            An ambulance came wailing into the parking lot.  Students squealed and flocked to the front window, which was soon blocked by the growing herd.  Anna and Jamie rushed to join them, but Anna could see nothing.  She jumped up and down, trying to catch a glimpse over the heads of her classmates.  She saw pieces in slow motion: the principal, the teachers, EMTs wheeling someone in a stretcher.

            Hysteria rose in her throat.  “Oh my god!”  She caught a glimpse of the person on the stretcher, but she couldn't tell who it was.  She jumped again.  An EMT blocked the view.

            Someone tapped her on the shoulder.  She spun so fast that the person took a step back.  It was Beth.

            “Oh my god!” Beth wailed.  “Krysta!” 

            Anna stared at her, unable to understand what was happening.

            “Where is she?”

            “She ate my sandwich.”

            “What?”

            “She forgot her lunch, so I gave her one of mine,” Beth sobbed.  “She started getting all red and choking.”

            “So the ambulance—”

            “It was peanut butter.  She’s allergic.  I have no idea how it got there.”

            The enormity of what she had done hit Anna like a dodgeball to the stomach.  That the sandwich might fall into someone else’s hands, someone with a peanut allergy, someone she’d never hurt in a thousand years—Krysta—had never occurred to her.

            Meanwhile, Beth cried as vehemently as she gave her righteous speeches, in great gulps and sobs until she was red in the face.  The sight of Beth tear-ridden and broken was somehow terrifying, and Anna felt the urge to hug her.  But she decided not to be the first to make a move.  It would be up to Beth to change things, to undo the damage.

            Beth took a step toward Anna.  Then she paused, turned, and hugged Jamie instead.


            Within a few days, Krysta reappeared in homeroom, pale but well-dressed as usual, wearing an almost-sheer black chiffon top that showed glimpses of her bra.  While Beth and Jamie rushed desperately toward her, Anna hardly knew what to say.  She avoided Krysta for a week.  Then, one day, she ran into her in the bathroom. 

            “Anna,” Krysta said.  “I am so glad you're here.  We need to talk.”  She glanced under the stalls to see if anyone else was there. 

            Anna stared at her feet, scared that Krysta knew.  “About what?”

            “Beth,” Krysta whispered.  “I'm scared.  What if she did it on purpose?”

            “Wait.  You mean the sandwich?”

            “Yeah.”

            Anna paused, trying to wrap her mind around this new development.  “Why would she do something like that?”

            “We were—well, we were kind of dating, a little.”  Krysta looked at her, as though to judge her reaction.  Anna nodded neutrally.  “It was nothing serious, at least for me.  But Beth was getting all intense about it.  She hated that I was hanging out with you so much.  One day, I told her to stop being so possessive, and she got really mad.”

            “So you think she might have done it on purpose?  Like, for revenge?”

            “Yeah.  You hear these stories about controlling people.  You know, 'If I can't have you, no one can.' ”  Krysta's eyes were wide and beautiful, filled with trust.  “Should I tell someone?”

            “You're telling me,” Anna said.  She could hardly believe her good fortune—that suddenly, Beth was considered dangerous, while she, Anna, was the harbor to which Krysta returned.    

            The bell rang, and they moved toward the door.  They reached for the handle at the same moment, brushing hands.

            “Why don't you come to my house today?” Krysta said.  “We can talk more there.”

            “Definitely.” 

            Anna held the door open and let Krysta go first.  As she admired Krysta's graceful walk, swinging ponytail, and tiny purse, she felt a surge of pride.  Everything had turned out so wonderfully, so well.        

 
Copyright © 2015 Emily Eckart


Emily Eckart stories and essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Nature, New World Writing, Potomac Review, and elsewhere.  She studied music at Harvard University and is currently at work on her first novel.  Find her at www.emilyeckart.com or @emily_eckart.

The Tower Journal
Spring/Summer 2015