Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales

ONE




Everyone in school knows about locker eighty-nine: the locker on the bottom right, at the end of the hall near the science labs. It’s been unassigned for years now; really, it should’ve been allocated to one of the hundreds of students in the school to load with books and papers and forgotten, mold-infested Tupperware.

Instead, there seems to be an unspoken agreement that locker eighty-nine serves a higher purpose. How else do you explain the fact that every year, when we all get our schedules and combinations, and lockers eighty-eight and ninety meet their new leasers, locker eighty-nine stands empty?

Well, “empty” might not be the right word here. Because even though it’s unassigned, locker eighty-nine ends most days housing several envelopes with almost identical contents: ten dollars, often in the form of a bill, sometimes made up of whatever loose change the sender can gather; a letter, sometimes typed, sometimes handwritten, sometimes adorned with the telltale smudge of a tearstain; and at the bottom of the letter, an email address.

It’s a mystery how the envelopes get in there, when it’s rare to spot someone slipping one through the vents. It’s a bigger mystery, still, how the envelopes are collected, when no one has ever been spotted opening the locker.

No one can agree on who operates it. Is it a teacher with no hobbies? An ex-student who can’t let go of the past? A bighearted janitor who could use some cash on the side?

The only thing that’s universally agreed on is this: if you’re having relationship issues and you slide a letter through the vents of locker eighty-nine, you will receive an email from an anonymous sender within the week, giving you advice. And if you’re wise enough to follow that advice, your relationship problems will be solved, guaranteed, or your money back.

And I rarely have to give people their money back.

In my defense, in the few cases that didn’t work out, the letter left out important information. Like last month, when Penny Moore wrote in about Rick Smith dumping her in an Instagram comment, and conveniently left out that he did it after finding out she’d coordinated her absent days with his older brother so they could sneak off together. If I’d known that, I never would’ve advised Penny to confront Rick about the comment during lunch the next day. That one was on her. Admittedly, it was kind of satisfying to watch Rick perform a dramatic reading of her texts to his brother in front of the whole cafeteria, but I would’ve preferred a happy ending. Because I did this to help people, and to know I made a positive difference in the world; but also (and maybe even mostly, in this case), because it pained me to drop ten dollars into Penny’s locker all because she was too proud to admit she was the one in the wrong. Problem is, I couldn’t defend myself and my relationship expertise if Penny were to tell everyone she didn’t get a refund.

Because no one knows who I am.

Okay, I don’t mean literally. Lots of people know who I am. Darcy Phillips. Junior. That girl with the shoulder-length blond hair and the gap between her front teeth. The one who’s best friends with Brooke Nguyen, and is part of the school’s queer club. Ms. Morgan-from-science-class’s daughter.

But what they don’t know is that I’m also the girl who hangs back after school while her mom finishes up in the science labs, long after everyone else has left. The girl who steals down the hall to locker eighty-nine, enters the combination she’s known by heart for years—ever since the combination list was left briefly unattended on the admin officer’s desk one evening—and collects letters and bills like tax. The girl who spends her nights filtering strangers’ stories through unbiased eyes, before sending carefully composed instructions via the burner email account she made in ninth grade.

They don’t know, because nobody in school knows. I’m the only one who knows my secret.

Or, I was, anyway. Up until this very moment.

I had the sinking inkling that was about to change, though. Because even though I’d checked the halls for stragglers or staff members like I always did barely twenty seconds ago, I was thirteen-thousand percent sure I’d heard someone clear their throat somewhere in the vicinity of directly the fuck behind me.

While I was elbow deep inside a very much unlocked locker eighty-nine.

Crap.

Even as I turned around, I was optimistic enough to hope for the best. Part of the reason why I’d gotten by without detection for so long was the locker’s convenient location, right at the foot of a dead-end, L-shaped hallway. There’d been close calls in the past, but the sound of the heavy entry doors swinging closed had always given me plenty of notice to hide the evidence. The only way someone would be able to sneak up on me was if they’d come out of the fire escape door leading from the pool—and no one used the pool this late in the day.