I was in my bedroom, trying to decide what would be the absolutely safest place to hide my diaries, when I heard a knock on my door and Alex softly saying, "Miranda?"
Even though I hadn't touched a thing, and my diaries were as hidden as they ever are, I instantly decided I needed to find an even better place for them. That was after I finished jumping at the sound of a strange boy's voice.
"Yeah," I said, which didn't come off quite as friendly as it should have. "I mean, hi Alex. What do you want?"
He stood in the doorway until I gestured for him to come in.
"I hope I'm not bothering you," he said. "I was wondering if you might have some clothes Julie could borrow. Just for the time we're here."
"Oh, sure," I said. "Julie's smaller than I am, but we can work something out." Syl already has half my wardrobe. Julie could have the other half.
"Thank you," he said. "It'll mean a lot to her."
"Do you want me to ask Matt if you could borrow some of his clothes?" I asked. Why should I be the only naked one in the house.
"That would be great, thank you," Alex said. "It's just for a few days, until Julie's rested up enough."
"There's no rush," I said. "I'll see what I can find."
Alex looked around my room. "You have a lot of books," he said.
"Not that many," I said. "And I've read all of them three times by now."
"I miss reading," he said, taking my copy of Pride And Prejudice off the shelf. "I miss learning useless things. Latin. Calculus."
"I miss friends," I said. "Friends. Family. Food. The 3 Fs." I smiled, but Alex didn't smile back.
"I miss home," he said. "And the feeling you got in a library carrel, like nothing in the world mattered except the book you were reading." He put Pride And Prejudice back on the shelf. "I miss pride. The sin of pride."
"I don't think it's a sin to be proud," I said, looking at my skating trophies. "Not if you've worked to achieve your goal."
Alex shook his head. "You don't understand," he said. "It's different for you. You work to keep your house clean, and you take pride in how it looks. That's not what I mean."
It annoyed me that Alex thought my only accomplishment in life was in the war against ash. "I take pride in lots of things," I said. "Like how my family has come together. How we've fought to keep alive. To keep our hopes alive. I take a lot of pride in that. Do you think that's a sin?"
"No, of course not," Alex said. "But that's not the kind of pride I'm talking about."
"Oh," I said. "You mean like vanity. Being proud because you're good looking or rich."
"That's not it exactly either," Alex said.
"Then what is?" I asked.
He gazed out my window, at the perpetually gray landscape. "All right," he said. "Maybe you'll understand better if I tell you about the coin jar. We had to pay for our school uniforms, so my mother kept a coin jar. Every day we emptied our pockets and whatever change we had went into the jar. One day she caught my father taking out a handful of quarters. He was short on beer money. She went crazy. It was the worst fight I ever saw them have. My mother had ambitions for us. Every penny we saved was important to her." He paused for a moment. "My father picked up the coin jar and threw it across the room. The coins flew all over. My mother got down on her hands and knees to pick up the change, but my brother Carlos shoved me onto the floor. It was my fault, he said. I was the one they were fighting over."
"That must have been awful," I said. Mom and Dad at their worst always let us know we weren't to blame for their problems.
"I vowed I would never feel shame again," Alex said. "But the shame wasn't because my parents fought over me. It was the shame of crawling on the floor, sweeping pennies and nickels into a pile to pay for clothes other kids took for granted. The next day I got a job, started working whenever I could, finally got regular work at a pizza parlor. I paid for my own uniforms after that, and my books too. No more coin jar. My mother found some other way to pay for my sister's uniforms. And I felt proud. Proud I was smart. Proud that people noticed me, respected me. Proud that I was ambitious. Proud that I was too good to end up like my parents. And now I beg for clean clothes for my sister. I beg for every bite of food we eat."
"You don't have to beg here," I said. "We're happy to share."
"No one is happy to share," he said.
Alex looked down then, or I looked up. I don't know how it happened, but we made eye contact, and for a moment, I was drawn into his soul. I could see everything, the depth of his sorrow, his anger, his despair.
I feel sorrow and anger and despair. I don't think there's a person alive who doesn't. I sometimes feel like my sorrow and anger and despair burns inside me like the sun used to burn on a hot July day.
But that was nothing compared to what I sensed in Alex. His sorrow, his anger, his despair was like a thousand suns, like a galaxy of suns. It physically hurt me to look into his eyes, but I couldn't break away. He turned his head first, and then he apologized, or maybe he thanked me. For Alex, I think they're the same thing.
He bolted out of the room, leaving me to stare at my bookstore and think about the sin of pride and the sin of prejudice and all the other sins I'd left behind.
ETA: What Alex no doubt said was "my sisters' uniforms," referring to Bri and Julie. But since Miranda only knows about Julie, she hears it as "my sister's uniforms."
Miranda is very much an unreliable narrator in This World We Live In. She knows only what people tell her, and people don't necessarily tell her all the details.