What happens when everything you’ve got to give isn’t enough to save someone you love?
It’s Maine. It’s winter. And it’s FREEZING STINKIN’ COLD! Dinah is wildly worried about her best friend, Skint. He won’t wear a coat. Refuses to wear a coat. It’s twelve degrees out, and he won’t wear a coat. So Dinah’s going to figure out how to help. That’s what Dinah does—she helps. But she’s too busy trying to help to notice that sometimes, she’s doing more harm than good. Seeing the trees instead of the forest? That’s Dinah.
And Skint isn’t going to be the one to tell her. He’s a helper guy too. He’s worried about a little boy whose dad won’t let him visit his mom. He’s worried about an elderly couple in a too-cold house down the street.
But the wedge between what drives Dinah and what concerns Skint is wide enough for a big old slab of ice. Because Skint’s own father is in trouble. Because Skint’s mother refuses to ask for help even though she’s at her breaking point. And because Dinah might just decide to…help. She thinks she’s cracking through a sheet of ice, but what’s actually there is an entire iceberg.
Skint’s in the Pit because of Dinah. So she figures she better get cracking and effect his speedy release.
She’s lurking in the janitor’s closet, waiting for everybody else to leave. From here she has a clear view of the Pit—otherwise known as the Aile Quarry High School detention room—located diagonally across the hallway. The Main Office is just a bit farther along past the lockers. So from here Dinah can keep an eye on things. She can plot. Strategize.
She opens the door a crack and peeks out, even though it’s a risk with the hallway full of screaming, just-released kids. She needs the air. Between the reek of the custodian’s old mop water and the fact that she is all suited up in her parka and gloves, she’s about to suffocate. Carrying her coat isn’t an option; it is freezing outside with about a foot and a half of snow on the ground, and she can’t count on having time to put on her coat if she winds up having to run.
Let’s get a move on, she thinks at her peers as they bang about in their lockers. What’s taking them all so long? If she and Skint were free to go, they’d have been out the door before the final bell even stopped ringing. Today is the last day of school before February break and Dinah is so glad for nine days free of this place she could pop.
At last the final bunch of kids bashes its lockers shut and boils out the door. Dinah creeps stealthily forth. She’s nearly to the Pit when the hair of the teacher on duty appears in the door window. Whose? It’s not gray lunch-lady hair (which is lucky, given their crime), but it’s not the thin, damp strands of the dean of discipline, either. Wait. It’s better. In fact, it’s the best AQHS could offer in this instance. It’s the frazzled, dyed locks of Ms. Dugan.
Ms. Dugan is the gym teacher and has known Dinah since Dinah was a tiny kid. Ms. Dugan loves her. Ms. Dugan knows what’s what. Ms. Dugan can be counted on. Dinah can taste their freedom already. She slips around the doorjamb, careful to avoid being spotted by the Office.
Ms. Dugan glances up. “Dinah Beach, you old cupcake,” she says, and turns back to her newspaper. Skint, the only inmate in the room, snaps to attention from his spot at the far desk by the window. Excellent. Behind him the snowy gray trees at the edge of the playing fields bend and sway.
“Hullo, Ms. Dugan,” says Dinah. “I didn’t know you had detention duty.”
“I don’t.” Ms. Dugan is fifty with a fast-talking gravel voice, New England flat with a lot of glottal stops. And can she ever tell a story. She looks out at a person from narrowed eyes, slits out her cigarette smoke, and lets a body have it. The cigarette thing bothers Dinah but Ms. Dugan has tried to quit a million times and just can’t, even though fitness is practically her middle name. She has a killer bod to show for it, too, which makes her the subject of a lot of non-sports-oriented conversation around AQHS. Some of which is started by Skint.
“I let the kids off track practice today so I figured I better offer to take over detention. Keep the first cancer stick of the afternoon at bay for a while.” Ms. Dugan fixes Dinah with a look. “So what brings you here, Beach? Did you want to add a little finishing touch to this?”
She waggles a piece of paper at Dinah. On it, a hastily drawn but very sinister cartoon bird wields a knife and fork in each wing, an unhappy woman speared on the end of each utensil. The bird is recognizable as the execrable Turliff the Turkey, the Aile Quarry High School mascot, and the women as the two lunch ladies who run the school cafeteria. LET THE TABLES BE TURNED, thunders Turliff from a speech bubble jagging out from his beak.
“It was all my idea,” says Dinah. “Skint shouldn’t even be in here. I made him draw it.”
“I wanted to,” says Skint from the back of the room. “I was honored.”
“I don’t even get it,” says Ms. Dugan. “What the hell is it supposed to mean?”
“What do you mean, what does it mean?” Skint cries, raking his fingers through his dark hair. “What’s not clear about the fundamental hypocrisy it illuminates?” He removes his hands, but his dark hair remains in raked formation, poking out all over.
“What fundamental hypocrisy?”
“Everybody’s! The cafeteria’s!” Dinah cries. “They have that huge banner of Turliff hanging over the steam table in there and they were serving turkey tacos for lunch yesterday! What were we supposed to do?!”
“About what?” asks Ms. Dugan.
“About the cafeteria’s promotion of the symbolic cannibalism of its students!” Skint bangs on his desk. “We’re holding a mirror up to them! And surprise, surprise, they don’t like what they see!”
“Pipe down,” says Ms. Dugan. “I don’t want the Office in here.”
“I don’t either,” says Dinah.
“Those two ladies don’t order the food, you guys,” says Ms. Dugan. “They just serve it.”
“Well,” says Dinah, “someone should be on the job.”
Skint’s skinny frame slumps over the desk. “Nobody in this town cares about anything but winning sporting events.” He stops and sits up straight again. “I mean, I know you work hard coaching, Ms. Dugan—”
Ms. Dugan waves away his apology.
“Nobody pays attention, is what I mean,” says Skint. “Nobody notices.”
“We do,” says Dinah.
“Barely,” says Skint. “Who’s wearing her skirt backwards? Again?”
“That’s on purpose, jerk,” says Dinah. “The zipper looks ridiculous in the front. And that’s some way to talk to someone who is risking punishment by—”
Ms. Dugan raises her hand. “Don’t say it. I don’t want to know what you’re up to. Speaking of punishment, Dinah, why aren’t you in here, too? This stunt has you written all over it.”
“I know,” says Dinah. “But I did my time yesterday. When they caught us. Skint couldn’t.”
Skint shrugs. “Appointment.”
“Your dad?” asks Ms. Dugan.
Dinah freezes. Oh, no, she thinks. Why can’t people stop asking Skint about his dad?
“Can we go?” she interrupts. But Skint has already turned away and is looking out the window. “The whole thing was my fault, Ms. Dugan.”
“I said don’t involve me, Dinah,” says Ms. Dugan. “How’d you get caught, anyway?”
Dinah shrugs. “Skint’s drawing style is pretty distinctive. And everybody knows we are always in cahoots.” This is true. She and Skint are in the ninth grade. They have known each other since they were tiny, before they were even five. Skint moved away to Kentucky when they were in kindergarten, but he came back again in sixth grade and he and Dinah have been best friends ever since. “We barely got all the posters taped up before they hauled us in and yelled at us and forced us to apologize.”
“But you know what the worst of it was?” Skint asks, turning back to the conversation. “It wasn’t even what we were saying in the cartoon that made them mad! It was because Dinah snuck into the teachers’ lounge and used the copier. The principal said he punished us because we wasted paper.”
“Well, I’ve seen better work from you,” says Ms. Dugan, squinting at the drawing.
“Ugh!” Skint drops his head into his hands.
Dinah clears her throat and looks steadily at Ms. Dugan, who looks steadily back at her.
“What would you do if it wasn’t me in here?” Ms. Dugan asks.
Dinah shakes her head.
“Tell me,” says Ms. Dugan.
“You said not to involve you,” says Dinah.
“Yeah,” says Skint, lifting his head. “We don’t want to make you an accessory after the fact.”
Or before, thinks Dinah. She has to fish Skint out of detention kind of regularly, and it’s nice to have a plan in reserve. He is usually Pitted for skipping or excessive absence. He is very organized, though, and always manages to keep his attendance just above the number of days that would mean repeating a class or a grade or, God help him, cause some guidance counselor to take action and call home.
“Come on,” says Ms. Dugan. “You can tell me. I won’t take this duty again for months.”
Skint meets Dinah’s eye and shrugs.
“Fine,” says Dinah. “Throw a soda bottle against the lockers. Teacher comes out, I slip in. Then me and Skint out the window.”
“Out the window?”
“It’s just a three-foot drop, Ms. D.,” says Skint.
Ms. Dugan puts the drawing down. Then she picks up her newspaper again and snaps it open in front of her face. “Do what you have to,” she murmurs, staring intently at an article. “However. If you get caught, I know nothing. I saw nothing. And I do not help you. At all.”
But Skint is already up and out of his chair as Dinah skims across the room and grabs his backpack. Skint flings opens the window and Dinah tosses the backpack through and then they hurl themselves up and over the ledge, and bam—out they pop onto the snow below.
“Thank you!” Dinah calls back to Ms. Dugan. Skint says nothing, but only because he’s glanced back through the window and is distracted by the sight of Ms. Dugan’s considerable knockers rearing forth from under the edge of her paper.
“What is the matter with that stupid school?” mutters Dinah as they huff across the frozen field toward the road. “The whole thing with cannibalism is that you’re supposed to eat your enemy’s heart, not your own, right?”
“If I thought it was a sly commentary on the fetishization of basketball in this town, I’d have been all over it,” says Skint. “But no. Just more Aile Quarry witlessness.” His voice chitters in the cold and his knuckles are purple. Skint refuses to wear a coat this winter, or even a hat. No mittens, no gloves, no scarf. They irritate him, he says, but that doesn’t make sense. This is Maine. It is February and very cold.
“You need a coat,” says Dinah.
“You need a brain,” says Skint.
“Shut up,” says Dinah. “I am stuffed full of brains.”
“Tchah,” says Skint. “You haven’t even cracked the cover of that Disposable People book and I gave it to you a week ago. It’s important, Dinah! There are more slaves in the world now than there were before the Civil War! And it’s our own stupid fault. All people want to do is buy shit. For cheap. And who pays? The workers!”
“I have been busy,” says Dinah evasively. “Planning our social lives.”
“Inasmuch,” Skint mutters. They’re on the main road now, passing all the tiny old houses that have been turned into real estate offices and hair cutters and pet grooming businesses. Clumps of their classmates gather in various parking lots along the way, smoking, laughing, kicking sideways at each other’s rear ends. All of the kids wear boots and various kinds of jeans. Dinah herself never wears jeans. Pajamas or stripy tights or, if none of her skirts are clean, a pair of her dad’s old tweed trousers rolled over at the waist so they stay up. But never jeans. Skint shares none of her views about teen fashion, however, and is himself clad today in a pair of those tight black jeans that make people’s legs look like a couple of earwig pincers.
A couple of girls glance at Dinah as she passes. Laley and Sue, who’ve been in her class since kindergarten. Sue mutters something to Laley and Laley laughs. Skint eyes Dinah and bashes her shoulder with his. “Remind me what’s on the docket, Dinah von Beachface.”
Dinah stops short, so Skint, who has continued on, is forced to wheel around and stop, too.
“I hate when you do that,” he says. “Drives me up a wall.”
“What’s on the docket?” Dinah cries. “What’s the matter with you? How could you forget? Why do you think I went to all that trouble to fish you out of the Pit?”
“Just tell me, dork.”
“Walter, Skint! Walter is what is on the docket!”
“Walter!” cries Skint, slapping his forehead with his palm. “How could I forget!”
“Exactly,” says Dinah. This evening is slated to be the latest installment in what Dinah and Skint call their “Fantastic or Excruciating?” adventures—FoEs, for short. An FoE is an entertainment where you can’t tell beforehand whether it will be fabulous and surreal or only just a misery-making fiasco that will make you ache for the performers involved because it is all so awful and the performers are unaware. Or maybe they are aware. And then it is even worse. Dangling in the balance between possible delight and possible agony has become a habit Dinah and Skint can’t break, and Dinah spends a lot of time combing the papers and the Internet for promising events for them to attend. Two weeks ago, for example, they went to an exhibit created by a local biologist that cast visitors in the role of dirt passing through the magnified cloaca of a giant earthworm (Fantastic). The month before that, they saw a group of grim-faced former Girl Scouts, now grown, play popular tunes with spoons on glasses of water (Excruciating). And before that it had been a middle-aged couple who flamenco-danced in full costume, accompanied by their children on too-big instruments (Double Fantastic).
Tonight’s FoE, however, is Walter. The show is billed as Walter the Dancing Donkey, and Dinah and Skint have been looking forward to it for weeks. It’s being held at the St. Francis Church in the town center. HE DANCES! the posters promise, and also music. But Dinah is terrified that, instead of the hoped-for sonatinas on a hurdy-gurdy and medicine-show patter, it’ll only be a spirit-crushed donkey made to stand on his hind legs for cash. She can’t help it, though, and neither can Skint. They have to go.
“But it doesn’t start until seven,” says Skint. “So why did you have to spring me? Not that I’m not grateful,” he hastens to add.
“Skint! So we can spy,” says Dinah. “What if the man in charge of Walter is a jerk to him? What if he keeps him in a too-small cage and only lets him out for the performance? What if he doesn’t feed him? I want to go over to the church and catch him unawares! See what Walter’s life is really like!”
Dinah always frets like this before FoEs. Skint is used to it.
“And what’re you going to do if he’s a jerk?” he asks. “Punch him?”
“Punching,” says Dinah, “would be a start.”
“I think if he’s cruel we should just steal Walter and rear him in your home. Think of it: hide-and-seek in the house with a donkey! Beagie would love it.”
Dinah’s baby brother, Beagie, dearly loves horses, and she imagines he would love an indoor donkey even more. The image of Beagie scampering away from a counting-to-ten donkey makes Dinah almost hope that she will be forced to steal Walter.
“Well, let’s go, then,” she says.
“I can’t,” says Skint. “Sorry, Dinah B. I have to go home.”
“Skint! We planned!”
“I can’t,” says Skint again. “Besides, you don’t even know if they’re over there yet. They may be staying somewhere else.”
Good point. “But—”
“Look,” says Skint, “if the guy seems like an ass—”
“That’s a horrible pun,” Dinah interrupts.
“But fully intended,” says Skint. “Anyway, if we sense something’s up with him during the performance, we can reconnoiter afterwards. Take action. Or you can do it on your own now and report back to me.”
“No. I don’t want to go by myself. I need an accomplice.” Dinah is deflated. “Can you at least hang out a little now?”
“No,” says Skint abruptly. “I told you. I have stuff I have to do.”
But Skint doesn’t answer her. “I’ll meet you there at seven,” he says, and slouches off toward home, hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched against the cold, while Dinah stares after him, wishing she could convince him to put on a stupid coat.
Named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start, N. Griffin received her MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s the author of the critically acclaimed The Whole Stupid Way We Are and Just Wreck It All, and lives in Seattle, Washington.
"Skint's life is spinning out of control, and Dinah's desperate efforts to stop the spin only hasten it. This is a story that is so furious, so heartbreaking, and at the same time, so shiny, that by the last line, I realized that everyone here, including the reader, can be their own boss of light. A thing of beauty, that's what this is."
– Kathi Appelt, author of The Underneath, a Newbery Honor book
* "When readers meet 14-year-old Dinah, she’s plotting to get her best friend Skint out of detention, which is Dinah all over: she’s a loving worrier, loyal even to the people and things she’s ambivalent about, like the Girls’ Friendly Society, a service group whose members have dwindled to three older women, Dinah, and the technically ineligible Skint. The Girls’ Friendly tries to help people in its small Maine town, but never in the way Dinah and Skint wish. And the truth is, Skint, whose father has early-onset dementia, could use some help himself, not that he’d take it. First-time author Griffin is good at depicting a small town where the many interconnections make it hard to know what to overlook and when to intervene, and she is equally tuned into the different ways people, adults and teens both, fail each other. It’s impossible not to like clumsy, warm-hearted Dinah, even as her best intentions turn Skint’s family upside down; Griffin’s portrayal of Dinah and Skint’s sense of injustice, frustration, and rage is wrenching and difficult to forget."
– Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Readers who invest in this quirky set of characters and circumstances will be rewarded."
– Kirkus Reviews
"The theme of missed opportunities for real connection is reminiscent of Perkins’ Criss Cross (BCCB 9/05), so steer readers who loved that book to this one. This title, however, offers more action, action that is sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating, and sometimes painful as readers realize along with Dinah and Skint that not everything in life is fixable, and that we must make room for sadness and loss."