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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer


                 Clarabelle showed up at Multioak High School at the beginning of Spring semester, a dry and bitterly cold time of the year. She’d moved to Multioak from somewhere, maybe Heavenburg. Anton wasn’t sure, but Heavenburg was what he’d heard. He was attracted to her, sure, but he was also intrigued by her in a way that was harder to pin down.

At lunch, Anton and his friends would be eating and chatting about something – video games, feuds between professional basketball players, the latest clueless behavior from the health teacher, Mr. Irthing – and then Clarabelle would walk by.

                “There she goes again,” one of them would say.

                “Yeah, does anyone know for sure where she moved from yet?” another of them would ask.

                “I heard Heavenburg,” Anton or someone else would say.

                Then she would sit down or round a corner or otherwise pass from sight and Anton and his friends would return to their previous conversation.

Clarabelle was pretty, but not gorgeous. Anton didn’t know anything about her personality or her tastes. Her clothes were trendy but not particularly stylish. He had no classes with her and had not heard any reliable reports as to whether she seemed smart or not. But something about her made Anton want to go on a date with her. A date, he thought, would be a good opportunity to find out if Clarabelle the real person was worthy of all the brief verbal exchanges she’d inspired among his friend group.

One day at lunch, as Clarabelle walked past with a half-eaten tray of food, Anton’s friend Brendan stopped in the middle of explaining why he was more afraid of small dogs than big dogs to say, “Here comes that Clarabelle girl.”

Anton, who was seated at the end of the table and directly across from Brendan, swiveled in his seat, smiled, and said, “Hey, Clarabelle.”

She stopped, tray balanced on the palm of one hand, and reflected Anton’s smile back at him. “Hi,” she said, seemingly unconcerned that Anton knew her name despite having never met her.

“Will you go on a date with me?” asked Anton. He expected a reaction from his friends, but they remained silent, possibly out of respect for his boldness.

“Yes,” said Clarabelle. “I’ll go on a date with you.”

“That’s awesome,” said Anton. “Give me your number and we’ll figure out the details.”

Clarabelle recited her phone number to Anton as he punched it into his phone. Then she walked on, conveying her tray to the opening in the wall where the lunch ladies waited in their hair nets and latex gloves with sprayers in hand.

“Does anyone know where she’s from yet?” asked Trey, another of Anton’s friends.

“I heard Heavenburg,” said Brendan. “But I don’t know.”

                “That’s what I heard too,” said Anton.


                On Friday night, Anton picked Clarabelle up at her house. He shook hands with both of her parents, then escorted Clarabelle down the front walk to his waiting car and held the door for her as she slid inside.

                As they pulled out of the driveway, Clarabelle said, “I like your car, Anton.”

                “You do?” said Anton. “What do you like about it?”

                “It feels like a car that takes people to fun places,” said Clarabelle. “And that the people have fun on the way too.”

                “I hope so,” said Anton. He took Clarabelle’s comment as a cue to turn up the radio. The pop station was playing a light, tinkly song, but Clarabelle made devil horns with both hands and began to headbang ironically. Anton laughed and Clarebelle headbanged more wildly. Her hair was long enough that some of it hit Anton in the face as he drove. He was glad he knew the streets of Multioak as well as he did because Clarabelle’s performance was distracting. When the song was over, Clarabelle correctly surmised that the joke had run its course. She knew when to stop. Anton found that appealing. He turned the radio back down.

                The teenagers made pleasant conversation for another ten minutes, and then Anton pulled into the parking lot of Carloses’ Restaurant. “Carloses’” was both possessive and plural not because it was owned by two men named Carlos, but because the one Carlos who owned it saw the restaurant as an expression of two distinct sides of himself: the food-lover side and the businessman side. Inside, Anton and Clarabelle sat down, gave their drink orders to a waiter that Anton thought looked familiar, and began to peruse their menus. The restaurant was dark and loud. A light hung low over Anton and Clarabelle’s booth, gently swaying back and forth as if one of them had bumped it, although neither of them had.

                As Anton and Clarabelle focused on deciding what to order, a group of 4 adults sat down in the booth directly behind Anton. He couldn’t help but overhear one of them say, “We saw the funniest thing on the way here tonight.”

                “What was it?”

                “Well, not the funniest thing, but it was funny.”

                “What was it?”

                “We were at a stoplight and I glanced over at the car next to us. There was a girl in the passenger’s seat and she was just, I can barely describe it, but she was just going crazy.”

                “Going crazy how? Was it scary?”

                “No, no, it was funny. I pointed her out to Justin. Justin, how would you describe it?”

                “She was head banging. She was whipping her head back and forth. Like, to music.”

                “Could you hear what they were listening to?”

                “No, but it must have been some kind of hard rock or heavy metal or something. She was making that hand sign. With the fingers like this, I think?”

                “That means ‘hail Satan.’”

                “Oh, no it doesn’t. Don’t be so dramatic.”

                Anton sent a playful smirk across the table at Clarabelle. “Are you hearing this?” he asked in a low voice. “These people behind me are talking about you.”

                Clarabelle glanced up from her menu and said, “Yeah, I heard them. Do you know what you want yet?”

                “Uh, yeah, probably the nachos,” said Anton. “But isn’t it weird that they’re talking about you and they’re sitting right next to us? What are the odds that they would end up at the same restaurant as us?”

                “I guess, yeah,” said Clarabelle. “But I’m used to it. I was considering the nachos too, but I’m worried they’re gonna be huge. I feel like most of the time when I order nachos, it’s way too much food.”

                “What do you mean you’re ‘used to it?’” asked Anton.

                “People talking about me,” said Clarabelle. “I’m used to it.”

                “Isn’t that kind of a conceited thing to say?” asked Anton.

                “No,” said Clarabelle. “It’s just true. I didn’t say I’m used to people saying only good things about me.”

                “But you’re saying people are interested in you,” said Anton. “Good or bad.”

                “I’m just saying that other people talk about me a lot,” said Clarabelle. “It’s a statement of fact.”

                Anton set his menu down on the table and was about to speak when the waiter returned with his and Clarabelle’s drinks and took their orders. After the waiter left with a promise that the food would be out soon, Clarabelle said, “Let’s talk about something else.” She smiled and swirled her soft drink with her straw. Her fingernails were painted blue.

                “Something else?” asked Anton.

                “Something other than what we were talking about before we ordered,” said Clarabelle.

                “Oh, OK,” said Anton. “But I’m sure you’re just being paranoid. People aren’t talking about you as much as you think they are. People mostly talk about themselves.”

                Clarabelle’s smile was strange. “I’m not saying people talk about me all the time. I’m just saying that when I overhear people talking, they’re talking about me.”

                “You probably hear them talking about, like, general things that could apply to anyone,” said Anton. “And then you assume they’re talking about you.”

                “No,” said Clarabelle. “That’s not it. And I said I wanted to talk about something else.”

                “Well, that’s fine,” said Anton. “We can. But it’s a weird thing to claim.”

                “I know it’s weird,” said Clarabelle. “That’s why I want to talk about something else.”

                Anton didn’t know what to say. He and Clarabelle lapsed into silence, their eyes averted from each other. The group in the booth behind Anton continued to chatter away.

                “My son says there’s a new girl from Heavenburg in his physics class at school. He said that this new girl told his teacher that they teach physics totally differently at the school where she came from.”

                “How do you teach physics differently?”

                “I don’t know, that’s just what my son said that this girl said.”

                “Isn’t it just memorizing formulas? That’s all we did in my physics class in high school.”

                “That’s what I thought to, but apparently this girl thinks differently.”

                Anton looked at Clarabelle and she nodded as if she already knew his question. He asked it anyway. “Are you in physics right now?”


                “Who do you have? Mr. Berweg?”


                “And you told him they teach physics differently at your old high school in Heavenburg?”

                “Yes, because they do. I didn’t say it was better, though. Just different.”

                “So they’re talking about you again,” said Anton. “That’s what you’re saying.”

                “You tell me,” said Clarabelle. “Are they talking about me again?”

                “I don’t know,” said Anton. “Maybe the son they’re talking about doesn’t even go to Multioak. Or maybe you’re lying to me, maybe you didn’t really say that to Mr. Berweg. Maybe you’re not even in physics. Maybe you’re not even from Heavenburg.”

                “You do it too,” said Clarabelle.

                “I do what?”

                “You talk about me when I’m nearby,” said Clarabelle. “Every time I’ve ever walked past you and your friends at lunch, you’ve always been talking about me.”

                Anton’s first impulse was to deny this. It couldn’t be true, could it? Every time? But then it struck him that it probably was true. “OK, but we’re not talking talking about you. It’s just simple stuff. Like, oh, there she is again.”

                “I know,” said Clarabelle. “I hear you.”

                “And it’s always for, like, two seconds,” said Anton. “And then we go back to talking about whatever else.”

                “Yeah, once I’m gone,” said Clarabelle. “I just know what I hear. And what I hear is you guys talking about me. And not just you guys, everyone else. For my whole life. Whenever I overhear people talking, they’re talking about me.”

                As another silence descended upon their date, Anton heard a voice behind him say, “Wow, I really like that girl at the next table’s nail polish. I’m going to ask her what it is.”

                “Don’t bother her, she’s eating.”

                “She’s not eating! She doesn’t even have her food yet.”

                Clarabelle did not look triumphant, but she didn’t look apologetic. She mostly looked like she’d rather not continue the date. A woman in her early 40s materialized next to the table. She was plump and wore many inexpensive rings. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice your nails. I love that color. Do you mind if I ask what it is?”

                Clarabelle smiled and told the woman the brand, the shade, the online store she’d ordered it from, how much it cost, how much shipping had cost, and several other details before the woman thanked her profusely and returned to her seat.

                Anton spoke loudly about himself in a nearly unbroken stream for the remainder of the meal. Even he hated being on a date with him.


                On Sunday, Anton ran to Forton’s Foods early in the evening to buy toaster pastries, an item he had to supply for his breakfasts because his mother refused to buy them on health grounds even though she was the one who had supplied them all through Anton’s childhood, conditioning him to feel as if breakfast was incomplete without them. It was while he was trying to decide which flavor of toaster pastry to purchase that Brendan tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hey, Anton, what’s up?”

                “What are you doing here?” asked Anton, giving his friend a hand-clasp greeting that was not a handshake but looked a lot like one.

                “I drove my mom here,” said Brendan. “She’s over looking for the soonest date on the milk because she thinks it motivates us to drink more milk ‘cause we have to drink it faster.”

                “Does that work?” asked Anton.

                Brendan shrugged. “Who cares?”

                “Yeah, true,” said Anton.

                “So I haven’t heard from you since your date with the new girl,” said Brendan. “How did it go?”

                “Uh, well, not good,” said Anton. “Pretty bad, actually.”

                “I guess that explains why you didn’t text me about it,” said Brendan. “What happened?”

                “It just got weird,” said Anton.

                “Weird how?” asked Brendan. “She did something weird?”

                “Sort of,” said Anton. “I don’t really want to talk about it.”

                “About what?” asked Brendan.

                “About her,” said Anton. “I don’t want to talk about her.”

                “Why not?” asked Brendan. “Come on.”

                “She told me that everyone talks about her,” said Anton. “She said that whenever she overhears people talking, they’re always talking about her.”


                “So, that rubbed me wrong,” said Anton. “It’s a conceited way to look at the world.”

                Brendan shrugged. “I guess that’s weird. What brought it up?”

                “We heard some people talking about her in the booth next to us,” said Anton.

                “So she was right.”

                “No, she was right in that one case, but she said she always overhears people talking about her,” said Anton.

                “So she exaggerated,” said Brendan.

                “Yes,” said Anton. “She exaggerated to make herself seem more important or interesting or something. She tried to make me think that everyone’s obsessed with her.”

                The boys paused and, perhaps compelled by the same sensation of being observed, turned to look in the same direction down the aisle where they saw Clarabelle give them a thin smile, drop a box of granola bars in her basket, and disappear around the corner.

                “Do you think she heard us talking about her?” asked Brendan.

                Anton would not answer the question, would never answer that question.

                When he got back to his house and walked into the kitchen to stash the toaster pastries in the cereal cupboard, Anton’s mom said, “You were gone a while.” She was sitting at the kitchen table and transcribing something from her phone onto a notepad with lavender-colored pages.

                “It wasn’t that long,” said Anton.

                “Why are you in such a bad mood?” asked his mom.

                “I’m not,” said Anton. “I just wasn’t gone that long. I ran into Brendan at the store and talked to him for a while.”

                “Was he there by himself?” asked Anton’s mom.

                “Yes!” said Anton. “He was the only person I talked to!”

                Anton’s mom looked up from her phone and notepad. “I didn’t ask if you talked to anyone else. I was just wondering if you saw his mom. I’ve heard her new hairdo is awful, but all the pictures on social media are suspiciously dark. Are you sure you aren’t in a bad mood?”

                “Why would I be in a bad mood?” asked Anton.

                “You’ve been cranky all weekend,” said his mom. “Ever since you got back from your date with that new girl. What was her name again?”

                “Stop,” said Anton. “Mom, be quiet.” He rushed to the kitchen window and looked out into his dark back yard. He did not see Clarabelle, but there were many places to hide. Or she could have left already, having heard just enough of Anton’s conversation with his mom to confirm that they were talking about her. But he wasn’t talking about her, only his mom was. He knew Clarabelle wouldn’t see it that way, though. She’d view it in whatever way was most flattering to her.

                “Don’t tell me to be quiet,” said Anton’s mom. “I knew you were in a bad mood.”

                “I just don’t want to talk about…that,” said Anton.

                “I don’t know why you’re being so secretive,” said his mom. She went back to her transcription project, but ten seconds later she said, “Clarabelle! That was her name. I remember because when you first told me, the name made me envision – you’re going to think this is so random – but it made me envision a bell. A bell with a girl’s face on it!”

                Anton said nothing. If he said nothing, then Clarabelle couldn’t accuse him of talking about her, even if she had silently picked the lock on the front door and was eavesdropping from the hallway, even if she had bugged every room in the house.


                It did not take Anton’s friends long to decide it was hilarious to irritate him by mentioning Clarabelle whenever they saw that she was within earshot. Clarabelle never acknowledged it, which Anton appreciated until he realized that she was probably not acknowledging it in order to show how used to it she was. Anton tried to get his friends to stop, but there was no good way to do it without talking about Clarabelle, even indirectly, and his friends would always try to bait him into talking about her more directly by saying things like, “Stop talking about who?” or “What are some of the specific things you don’t want us to say about her?”

                One day when Clarabelle walked past during lunch, Anton’s friend Theo said, “Uh oh, watch out guys, don’t talk about you-know-who, she might overhear us. Nobody mention her, don’t even allude to her!” It got a big laugh from everyone except Anton and Clarabelle, who didn’t even glance at the table full of chortling teenage boys as she breezed on by.

Anton sat stewing in his friends’ mirth for a few moments, then sprang from his seat and hurried after Clarabelle, catching up to her right as she delivered her tray to the washing station. “Clarabelle, hey, hold on a second.”

“What’s up?” asked Clarabelle, giving her hands one last wipe before crumpling her napkin and throwing it in the gaping mouth of a big, black garbage can on wheels.

“It doesn’t count,” said Anton. “They only talk about you because I told them what you said. They do it on purpose whenever they see you. If you hadn’t told me that, then I wouldn’t have told Brendan and he wouldn’t have told everyone else and we – they – would have stopped talking about you whenever you walk past a long time ago.”

“OK,” said Clarabelle. “Is that all you wanted to say?”

“Yes,” said Anton. “But, I mean, do you acknowledge that what I’m saying is correct?”

Clarabelle said nothing. Two freshman girls walked by on their way to the washing station with their trays. “Ha ha, look at that girl’s face,” said one of them. “She does not want to be talking to that guy.”

The other girl snickered and said, “Shhh! She can hear you!”

“I can hear you too,” said Anton.

The freshman girls, by all appearances, did not care.


That night, Anton went to the theater by himself. He bought a ticket for a movie called Beneath the Moon Yet Above the Flames. A quote on the movie’s poster called it a “heady thriller.” Anton hoped that meant it would be confusing. As he stood in line for popcorn, Anton happened to see a couple in their early 20s standing by the straws-and-napkins station at the end of the snack bar. The couple was talking to each other, and Anton couldn’t be sure, but he thought he detected them shooting the occasional look at him. Were they talking about him? He tried to dispel the thought as soon as it entered his mind, but he couldn’t. Wondering if someone was talking about him was not the same as assuming they were. And besides that, the thought that the couple was talking about him had occurred to him because he had observed evidence that they might be: they had shot a few looks at him. Hadn’t they?

Anton stopped watching the couple, ordered and paid for his drink and his popcorn, and then walked past the couple as if he had forgotten about them completely, or maybe even never noticed them at all. And sure enough, they stopped talking while he walked by them. So they were talking about him? No, he couldn’t be sure yet. Clarabelle, he knew, would take the fact that the couple fell silent as confirmation that they had been talking about her. To her, that would be case closed. But not to Anton. He needed more than that. He wasn’t that conceited. He stopped at a bench, set down his concessions, and put his foot up on the seat so that he could pretend to tie his shoe. But now that he was looking, his shoe actually did need tying, which Anton considered a stroke of incredible luck. His ruse would be impenetrable to anyone suspicious of his motives. As he tied his shoe, Anton looked back in the direction from which he’d come and saw that the couple was still standing in the same place, but now they were talking again. Of course they were. He was out of earshot. But their backs were to him, they didn’t know he’d stopped, they didn’t know he was watching them, they didn’t see him leave his concessions on the bench and saunter closer to them on silent, sneakered feet, pretending all the while to peruse an article on his phone, an article which he had actually brought up in case someone were to accuse him of doing something other than perusing an article on his phone. The article was about how to tell if a neighborhood is going down the tubes. Within seconds, Anton was back within earshot of the couples’ conversation, but they were none the wiser. Neither of them was any the wiser.

“He’s so arrogant,” said the young woman. “I can’t stand it.”

“Me neither,” said the young man. “He thinks the world revolves around him.”

“Excuse me,” said Anton. The young couple turned to face him. They looked neither shocked nor embarrassed to see him, of all people, standing right there. “You’re wrong about me,” Anton continued. “You don’t understand me at all.”

“Um, we don’t know you at all,” said the young man.

“Exactly,” said Anton. “So maybe don’t talk about things you don’t know about?”

“We weren’t talking about you,” said the young woman. “We were talking about someone else.”

“Who?” asked Anton.

“Mind your own business,” said the young man.

“You were saying someone is arrogant,” said Anton. “If that was about me, then it is my business.”

“We weren’t talking about you,” said the young woman. “But if the shoe fits…”

Then, it occurred to Anton that the young couple had probably not been talking about him. “I should get back to my concessions,” he said. “And then get to my movie too, of course.” As he walked away, the young couple began to speak to each other again, although this time Anton was definitely the topic of their conversation. From what little he heard, it did not sound flattering. When Anton got back to the bench where he’d left his concessions, something looked different about them. He was hesitant to consume them, but he did, in the end, consume them.


Clarabelle knew it was some kind of stunt, but she was too curious about the ridiculous details of Anton’s scheme to refuse him. If he really wanted to apologize for his behavior, why couldn’t he do it at school? Why did it have to be at Carloses’? That was what Clarabelle wanted to find out, and she never would find out if she admitted to Anton that she knew his apology meet-up was a scam. So she responded to his texts as if she had no reason to suspect any ulterior motive whatsoever, which worked perfectly because Anton was so fixated on tricking her that he never imagined that she might be feigning her naiveté in order to trick him into going through with whatever embarrassment he was planning despite the fact that she was onto him.

On the way to Carloses’, Clarabelle stopped for gas. Anton had sent several very insistent text messages telling Clarabelle to arrive at the restaurant at exactly 7:30, but her gas gauge had been on “E” for a while, and if she didn’t get gas now, she might not make it to the restaurant at all. As Clarabelle pumped her gas, she overheard an elderly man on the other side of the pump talking on his cell phone. “I don’t know why it isn’t working for me. There’s a girl here using the same pump on the other side and it’s working fine for her. She’s having no problem with it, but I’ve been trying to make it work for ten minutes."

Clarabelle returned the pump to its cradle, got back into her car, and drove to Carloses’. As she waited for oncoming traffic to pass before she turned left into the lot, Clarabelle saw a scene playing out on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Before she saw Anton, she suspected it had something to do with him, and as she completed her turn and parked, this suspicion was confirmed. Anton stood a ways down the sidewalk yelling, “I’ll only be another minute!” at a group of angry Carloses’ employees and customers. As Clarabelle got out of her car, she saw that Carlos himself was among those shouting at Anton. She recognized him from the illustrations on the restaurant sign. She wondered if this was food-lover Carlos, businessman Carlos, or perhaps some third Carlos who was not usually associated with the restaurant.

Anton caught sight of Clarabelle as she crossed the lot toward him. “You’re late!” he shouted.

“Don’t let him leave,” shouted one of the guests. “I called the cops!” But no one approached Anton.

“I have to go now,” called Anton. “But don’t leave yet. Go inside! Mingle! Listen to what people are talking about! Listen to who they’re talking about!” He turned, ran a few steps, then stopped to turn back and shout, “And I’m not apologizing! I never intended to apologize! You’re the conceited one!” Then he turned and ran again, darting around the side of the building and out of sight. He must have parked in the lot of some other nearby business.

Clarabelle walked over to the group of angry customers and employees. Carlos was talking to a distraught server as she gasped and fanned her face with her hands. As Clarabelle got closer, she heard Carlos saying, “You need to calm down. He’s gone. There’s no danger. Just calm down.” Carlos glanced at Clarabelle and furrowed his brow at whatever he saw on her face before turning back to his employee and saying, “Breathe slower. Slower! You’re not gonna feel better if you keep breathing so fast.” Nothing he was saying had anything to do with Clarabelle. Carlos could have said the exact same words in the exact some order to the exact same employee if Clarabelle had never shown up, never moved to Multioak, never existed at all. Of course, Anton wouldn’t have done whatever it was he had done if Clarabelle hadn’t existed, but still, Carlos was not talking about her. Clarabelle stood there on the sidewalk, letting the overheard conversation lap against her like tender waves on a beach. Tentatively, she opened her ears, letting her listening range expand. She heard more voices.

“It happened so fast. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and then he was out the door.”

“I was in the bathroom when it happened. All I saw was the aftermath.”

“I’d just gotten my food when he walked in. I’m entitled to a refund.”

Clarabelle turned in a slow circle, straining to keep her smile inward. Or small, at least. She felt anonymous, invisible. She felt lifelong clumps and knots inside of her body beginning to loosen. She saw people inside Carloses’ crowded in the windows, looking out at the scene on the sidewalk. She saw their lips moving, but could not hear what they were saying.

“Why did he wait out here before he ran away?” The voice came from behind Clarabelle. She turned and saw that it belonged to an old man wearing a scarf to conceal an ugly scar on his neck, although it was failing to do so.

“He was waiting for someone,” said a woman wearing dark glasses.

“Who was he waiting for?” asked someone else.

“Her,” said someone else. “She’s right there.” Clarabelle didn’t need to look to see she was being pointed at.

“That is her,” said someone else. “Why was he waiting for her? Didn’t he yell something at her before he took off?”

“Someone should ask her,” said someone else. “She’s right there. Ask her if she knows what’s going on.”

“She doesn’t know anything,” said someone else. “Look at her. She’s as confused as the rest of us.”

Clarabelle wasn’t confused, though. She was sad, happy, grateful, bitter, but not confused. The people were wrong about her, as usual. As always.

Discussion Questions

  • In the time that has elapsed since you answered question 2, is it possible that some people who were not talking about you before have begun talking about you now? Look at everyone. Scrutinize. Let’s say they ARE talking about you. What do you think they’re saying?

  • Why are certain people so obsessed with you? Isn’t that actually kind of creepy?

  • Are there any mouths which your name is not being kept out of in spite of your repeated requests? To whom do they belong?

  • Are there any heads in which you are living rent-free? To whom do they belong?

  • Take a moment to look around you. Do you see anyone who MIGHT be talking you?

  • Is someone near you talking about you right now? If your answer is “yes,” how can you be sure? If your answer is “no,” how can you be sure?