Pumpkin (Dumplin' #3) by Julie Murphy



One


Ten years from now, when someone asks me how to survive life as a fat gay kid in a small West Texas town, I will tell them to become best friends with the school nurse. I learned from a very young age that the best way to brave the mean streets of Clover City was to endear myself to as many adults as humanly possible. Sure, being made fun of behind my back doesn’t exactly fill me with joy, but if being teacher’s pet saves me from merciless lunchroom politics, swirlies, black eyes, and boys chock-full of toxic masculinity, I’ll gladly do my time.

“Ms. Laverne!” I call with a fresh cafeteria churro in my fist. “It was shirts and skins day again,” I mutter just loudly enough for her to hear. “The shirts don’t fit and I resent that showing skin is my only other option.” I mean, honestly, if I’m going to show skin in gym class, it will be because I want to and have deemed the gym class worthy of my skin. Not because it’s my only option during our basketball unit. Frankly, the fact that I’ve lasted through all four years of high school without having to once don a shirt or strip to skins is a testament to my resolve and inventiveness. That’s the kind of thing colleges should be looking for in prospective students.

The nurse’s office is empty as far as I can see, the curtain around the cot drawn shut. I creep closer, careful not to let my gym shoes squeak against the linoleum. Knowing Ms. Laverne, she’s taking a little afternoon siesta—and with only two months left in the school year, who could blame her?

I yank the curtain back and say, “Wakey, wakey!”

Ms. Laverne, who stands with her back to me, shrieks and twirls around, her gloved hands holding a jar of ointment and a wooden applicator.

The churro falls from my hands and hits the floor as I let out a gasp. Sitting right there on the cot without an ever-loving shirt on is Tucker Watson. He’s got the kind of farmer’s tan that I should find totally gross, leaving lines around his arms and neck so that his skin transitions from white to whiter. His medium-brown hair is freshly cut, and it’s the kind of hair that really needs an extra inch or two to adequately express itself. When he’s past due for a trip to the barber, you can see wild waves start to take shape. With eyes more gray than blue and full lips that only seem to smirk or slightly frown, he might seem a bit on the boyish side if it weren’t for his tall, muscular frame. Not that I’ve noticed.

“Um, wow. I am so sorry. I thought that—you wanna know what? I’m going to wait in the hallway.” And die. I’m going to go out into the hallway and die and then I’m going to tear open the floor with a jackhammer and dig my own grave. I’ll spend my afterlife haunting the halls of Clover City High and warning all the other quietly gay boys that straight boys won’t love them back and that there is probably a whole great, wide world out there to discover full of perfectly suitable bachelors and dream careers. But I will never know, because I am dead. I am dead in the hallways of CCHS.

“Yes, Waylon,” says Ms. Laverne. “Why don’t you go ahead and wait out in the hallway for me? I’m nearly done with Tucker.”

Tucker smirks, because of course, and the way his two bottom teeth gap a little makes my guts rumble. To Tucker, I’m just Waylon, the same kid he’s gone to school with since we were hugging our respective moms’ legs as they dropped us off for our first day of kindergarten and the same guy he ditched mid–group project sophomore year. I try not to travel outside of my own very small social circle, and group projects are a perfect reminder of why I shouldn’t ever bother.

I wait out in the hall, and surprisingly, I do not die. A few minutes later, Ms. Laverne opens the door, and Tucker and I do an awkward tango as he tries to exit and I try to enter.

“Excuse me,” I grumble, my voice way deeper than it normally is.

“Sorry,” he grunts without bothering to make eye contact with me.

I don’t even try to respond before Ms. Laverne shuts the door, because if I open my mouth, I might hiss at him.

Ms. Laverne, a Black woman around the age of my grammy with soft brown walnut-shaped eyes and the most perfect Cupid’s bow I’ve ever seen, plops down on the cot. I take her chair, twirling in a circle, like I’m some kind of office chair figure skater. (I can find the glamour in anything. My twin sister, Clementine, swears it’s a gift.)

Shaking her head, Ms. Laverne says, “You really did drop that piping-hot churro on my floor, didn’t you?”