The Shape of Things

by Ellen Steiber

Nonie tells me she’s going to die. "I’m going to go out soon," she says. She sounds perfectly casual, like she’s telling me she’s going to the store.

"You’re crazy," I say.

She gives me this sad smile. "I wish. Look, I don’t know how it’s going to happen. Or when. I just know I’m not going to be here much longer."

Nonie is given to making dramatic pronouncements. Last year she told me that Mrs. Socorro, our tenth–grade English teacher, would pay for her sins. Mrs. Socorro got in a car accident that very weekend. Nonie had nothing to do with it. She was at some religious revival meeting her folks made her go to, but she said she had a feeling.That there was a dark aura — like a black halo — around Socorro’s head, and she saw trouble coming.

Nonie can tell certain things like that. She sees things other people don’t. Ever since we met, when we were five, we’ve played this game that Nonie made up. It’s called The Shape of Things, and what you do is try to see the shapes hidden inside. Like the first day we had Socorro, she was all smiles, telling us how exciting the English language was,how we were all going to explore it together. After that first class, Nonie asked me what sort of shape I saw inside Mrs. Socorro. I thought about it, and to me she was like a bouquet of fake flowers. All bright colors but nothing real. Nonie said, "She’s worse than that. Inside her there’s something dark,something that got born out of anger. She keeps it hidden, but you watch — it’ll be there in everything she says."

And it was. No one in our class got too excited about the English language, and Mrs. Socorro got mean. Even if she was complimenting you, there’d be this put down inside whatever she said. It took a while before I realized that whenever I came out of her class, I felt like there was something wrong with me. Like I was dirty. For a long time what I didn’t see was that the shape inside her was hatred.

Later, when I heard about Socorro’s car accident, I remembered what Nonie said about the black aura around her. And because I’d had too much to drink when I heard the news, it spooked me and I tried to explain all this to my older brother Patrick. But Patrick rolled his eyes and said, "Nonie’s just a drama queen with a taste for the Gothic. She couldn’t tell you what was inside a cupcake without making it sound dire."

"Well, it is," I pointed out. "All those preservatives and chemicals and stuff. Eat enough cupcakes and you’ll get cancer."

"You know what I mean," Patrick said.

So even though Patrick is partly right, and I don’t want to encourage Nonie in all this death talk, I’m afraid I might be missing something, so I say to her, "You’re not planning to off yourself, are you?"

Last year, three kids from Greenleigh, one of the schools we play in football, made some weird devil pact and then they all drank a lot of beer and shot themselves with their fathers’ rifles. A lot of people have guns around here.

"No, of course I’m not going to off myself," she says. "Do I look suicidal to you?"

I look at her. Nonie’s pale and skinny, with long, straight brown hair, hazel eyes, and skin that’s broken out on her forehead.

"You look the same as always," I tell her.

She gazes around us. We’re on the hill behind the high school, where we come to have a cigarette before going home. The hill is actually a mound of brown dirt. It used to have trees on it, but a developer razed it five years ago to put up a shopping center. The developer went bust and left us with this mound of dirt that looks down on the high school and the road into town.

"I’m going to miss this place," Nonie says. "And that’s so weird. It never felt like the kind of place anyone would miss."

"Now I know you’re losing your mind." I stamp out my cigarette and start down the hill.

"Cam!" she calls after me. That stops me, because Nonie’s the type who never calls after anyone. She prefers you call after her. Her mother’s made a lifetime career of it, not that Nonie bothers to answer. Nonie considers her mother an inferior life form.

"Okay. I give." I turn around to face her. "What’s happening? Are you sick?"

"Not that I know of." She sits downs and wraps her arms around her knees. "I feel like always. School bores the hell out of me and I can’t wait to get out, and then I do and everything else bores me, too."

"So. . .you’re dying of boredom."

"Well, yeah, but no more than anyone else in this town." She lies down flat on her back and stares up at the sky. It’s been windy all day, and the clouds are traveling fast. "What’s the shape inside that big silvery one with the jagged edges?"

"A dragon," I say.

"Dragon’s teeth, maybe," she agrees. "Something that shreds you."

She sits up, and I notice that though she’s always been thin, she looks gaunt today, her skin almost transparent. "Cam, I’m going to die. It’s not something I want or something I’m planning. All I know is it’s going to happen soon. I want to give you my journals," she says. "I don’t want my mother to go through them when I’m dead."