Authors: Ann Redisch Stampler
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Social Themes, #Physical & Emotional Abuse, #Dating & Relationships, #Thrillers & Suspense
“What happens if you pause the game?”
Calvin doesn’t take his eyes off the screen. “I’ll lose my trident.”
“I’ll buy you a new one. Come on. Get me out of Nevada. Some way I don’t fail senior year.”
“Good luck,” Monica says. “People with
to go in this mind-numbing hell don’t get why a few more weeks is such a big deal. Don’t you want all your Jack Manx end-of-year whoop-dee-do? Don’t you want to see your name on
fake gold plaques?”
I resent the hell out of the fact that, thanks to Don, I can’t stick around and collect my fake gold plaques. But some guy was in my house, tripping the motion detectors, taunting me, and he wins. The only question is whether my future has to be the spoils of war.
“How can two people who despise Pueblo so much not get this?”
“If whatever you do works, can I come?” Monica says, cuddling up to Calvin as if I weren’t there.
“This isn’t a joke! This is my life!”
Monica and Calvin snap to attention.
“Damn,” Calvin says. “Go with that. Suppressed rage. Very black raincoat.”
Monica yelps, “That’s not funny, Calvin! Just because—”
“That’s the point,” he says. “That’s why it’ll work. Scare them. Go all Manx on them.”
Monica is too embarrassed to look anywhere but her lap. “In case you don’t know, Manx, that’s not how anybody thinks of you.”
“Ignore her,” Calvin says. “That’s what everybody thinks.”
Tell me something I don’t know.
• • •
The headmaster always stares at me like I’m slime that snuck into his school when my application got stuck to someone else’s admission folder. The last time he had to hand me a trophy, his look could have melted it down.
So here I sit in his office, using my slimy lineage to my advantage.
“Do you think it would be okay if
my seniors up and left before graduation?” he asks.
“No, sir. But I can’t take the
. I need to be outside, not around
people. . . .
“You can’t go camping in a few weeks?” But he looks worried as hell.
I get his point, but this guy’s a douche. He treats me like a criminal fuckup: hello, meet the criminal fuckup.
I say, “I feel like I’m going to
You can tell this is why he didn’t want me at El Pueblo in the first place, because I’d turn out to be the kid who exploded all over study hall and CNN.
“Should we call Dr. Biggs?” He’s reaching for his landline, hoping he can foist me off on the counselor before I combust.
“I had counseling when my father died. No more—
I can’t take it.
Well played: Headmaster Enright looks like something’s stuck halfway down his throat.
“If I call up your teachers, they’re all going to tell me your final papers are in?”
“One left. I’ll have it on your desk tomorrow.”
“And you’ve got this camping trip planned out—we’re not going to find you stoned and playing video games somewhere?”
Insult me some more. Six years of honor roll, and you think I’ve been waiting for the day I could get stoned and play Call of Duty Black Ops II for a month in my room? Yes, sir.
“No, sir. Zion. Then Yosemite. Then Mercer freshman orientation.”
I watch him balance the pain of doing me a favor against the pleasure of getting me out of his school. I watch him start to beam as pleasure wins.
Now that I’ve got the burner, the whole time I’m planning my field trip to South Texas Tech, Galkey, I’m distracted by terror (good) and obsessed with how easy it would be to call Olivia (bad).
Back when the broken pay phone by the Five Star was front and center in my fantasy life, the fact that I couldn’t call home was a lot clearer. Half the little silver number buttons and the entire receiver on that phone are gone.
End of story.
Plus, according to
Law & Order
, you can trace pay-phone calls to a shed in a field full of sheep in Romania if you know what you’re doing.
But it’s a different episode of
Law & Order
that clinches it.
I sit on the saggy king bed I’m supposed to be making, wanting the police not to be able to track the villain’s burner so bad, I can hardly bear to watch.
The villain gets away.
I tear out of there in broad daylight, pedal the red bike as far into the ranchland on the edge of town as I can go and still get a couple of bars. I’m clutching the phone so hard, I’m afraid it’s going to crumble into black and silver plastic shards right in my hand.
I have to squeeze the words out individually. “Are? You? Alone?”
My heart is blanched white, the blood wrung out of it. Not because of my situation, for once, but at the realization of my complete lack of self-control.
Her voice drops to a whisper. “Where are you? What’s going on?”
Collapsing lungs. Constricting throat. Eyes full of tears that sting worse than at the eye doctor.
“I just want you to know I’m okay. I’m sorry. Then I have to go.”
“You can’t do that!” Olivia yelps. “
are you in rehab? Steve’s acting like you were cheering on crack.”
? Steve’s acting like
? Rehab because
? Three hits of marijuana in Ann Arbor last summer and maybe
too much party beer? The only thing I did in the backseat of the Camaro that
make Steve go ballistic is I turned down a whole pharmacy.
Before I remember that it doesn’t matter what Steve says.
Before I remember that even though Olivia is rattling on as if everything’s the same as always,
is the same.
She’s the person I talked to about everything—cheats-before-spring-formal Connor, and Steve’s antiquated ideas of how girls should act, and what I was wearing to school the next day. Now she can’t know anything.
I never, never, ever should have called her.
“Nick! Come on. ‘Hello, I’ve been kidnapped by aliens, but I can’t talk about it, bye.’ Where
you? Did you run away from rehab?”
I might not have told her one or two things before, but never in my life have I
to Olivia. Not when she got breasts before anyone else and she wanted to know what people said (only she’ll never know the worst bits—vow of silence). Not when we both liked Zak Myer, and she held his hand, and I wanted to slap her. Never.
“All right. I ran away, but if Steve finds me, he’ll drag me back there. They made me sleep on a cement floor when I wasn’t cooperative.”
This could happen. If someone stuck me in rehab, I wouldn’t cooperate.
“Do you need me to send you money? You’re not, like, living under a bridge, right?”
Hearing her voice, it’s like there’s the possibility I could sit next to her in history again, close enough to pass her notes, and hang out with my friends by my locker. I’m not sure if the actual
possibility makes it better or worse.
“Can you delete this number?”
She says, “Why can’t I call you back?”
“Liv! I can’t be found!”
She clucks. “I’ll tell Steve on you. I have
much on you. You and the creepazoid in that Camaro burning rubber out on Bayside Road.”
“You know I wouldn’t! I’ll smash my cell at the landfill in Kerwin if you say to. Just don’t disappear.
When are you coming back?”
I let her pretend that we’re still girlfriends like before.
I pretend to myself that I’m going along with her because I’m afraid she’ll break down and spill to Steve or the police or the Pastors if I don’t. When she says she’s buying herself a burner, too, I pretend I don’t stop her because I’m afraid she’ll get upset and tell someone.
But I know that isn’t why.
I grab the phone out of my mom’s hands before she can say hello.
I carry the phone into the dining room and shut the door. “Fuck you, Don.” I have to tell him yes, save him and my mom, get Yeager off my back, and become a monster in a single syllable: Yes. But my mouth tastes like puke, and I can’t stop picturing my mother’s hair in flames. “We had a fire.”
“Did you consider at least giving me a warning about . . . fire prevention?”
Don snorts, as if I’m amusing him. “Do you think I
?” he says. “Am I God? Can I read minds?”
“What’s wrong with you? What kind of moron gets in bed with people who’d do this?”
He ignores this.
“I told you everything you needed to know about
,” he says. “Just do what I told you and . . . you know, Jack . . . find yourself a girl.”
Then he chuckles as if this were a real conversation, big brother encouraging me to get a prom date on Tinder. It’s like he thinks if I set the range at four thousand miles and swipe fifty million times, Nicolette Holland will turn up, mine for the taking in her cheerleader skirt. It’s amazing how reasonable he sounds if you don’t know what he’s actually saying.
“Think about the fire,” Don says. “Life is short. Anything can happen.”
I picture myself pounding the punching bag in the garage, bare-knuckled, running at the bag and kicking, bruising the outer edges of my feet.
“Threatening me isn’t going to help me find a girlfriend.”
? Do this for me. Like we’re one guy in two bodies.”
“Don’t fucking say that to me!”
“Be cool!” Don says. “Find the girl.” There are more chuckles, as if he’s morphing from a lowlife thug to a drooling psycho with phone skills.
I’m doing it!
I get the point. I’m hitting the road. I hope all your friends with an interest in my social life know that. But”—I go for
menacing without a hope in hell of success—“you’d better make sure there aren’t more fires. Or anything
a fire. That would distract me. I can’t look for a girlfriend if I’m distracted.”
Don goes, “Mmmmmmmm,” smooth and ambiguous.
By this point, I’m yelling at him. “What does ‘mmmm’ mean? Did you hear what I said?”
“Like I said, I’m not God.” There’s a new tone, raw and even scarier maybe because he sounds scared himself. “
don’t control natural disasters.”
to do with—”
“Moron! Shut up! You need to get this done. Because someone controls lightning—but it isn’t me.”
I slide the gun into the trunk of Don’s shitmobile, between the rucksack and the cooler.
Then I drive nineteen hundred miles east, playing music so loud, it blocks out rational thought. It takes two and a half days. There might be scenery, but all I see is a loop of Nicolette’s face, Yucca Valley Correctional, Connie Marino shooting hoops in the driveway of my dad’s spread, and my mother’s house on fire.
In the middle of this, there are flashes of my dad coming at me, going,
. But I’m too busy trying to stay awake in a peeling-plastic bucket seat to think.
Anyone, anywhere, anytime. The world ends. I whimper like a little girl. Connie dies. Bang.
At the point when I realize my mind has turned to the kind of
mush that steers cars into the center divider, I pull off and sleep in the front seat, parked at a desolate rest stop in Kansas. I don’t have any real dreams, just reruns of what I did to my mother right before I left, and the promises I made that I’m not going to keep.
It started off practical. I said I was leaving. She said my car wouldn’t make it.
“I could use Don’s car.” His uglier-than-shit car was mounted on blocks in our garage, waiting for him to finish up his two-to-five. “He has no use for it.”
Pain flashes across her face. Very fast, she turns away so I won’t see it. I see it, her sorrow and her mother-love for my thug brother.
“Why are you doing this?” she says. “I don’t understand.”
“I’m eighteen. Guys my age are in the Marines.” This is lame and nonresponsive, but at least it’s true.
The reaction on her face is bad enough, and then she starts to talk. “Jackson, Marines are
. Grown-ups don’t waltz out of town on a whim. Grown-ups are
can you say I’m not responsible? In this family, isn’t it enough that I don’t hold up convenience stores? You act like it’s a felony that I want to take a road trip. Don
felonies, and you treat him like the Second Coming.”
“Don doesn’t have your gifts. Jack, sit down. Be
. You’re a serious person. Now act like one.”
I feel like the exploding guy I pretended to be in Enright’s office.
“I want to skip graduation, so I’m Public Enemy Number One?”
Even as I sleep by the interstate in Kansas
, be good be good
pounds against the inside of my skull like the clapper of a deafening bell.
“No, wait, didn’t you
Public Enemy Number One? Maybe you’d like me better if I screwed up
. Maybe then you wouldn’t be so obvious about worshipping
“I left Don with your father,” she says in her unnaturally calm voice. “It was the worst decision of my life. And don’t you ever talk to me like this.”
Naturally, her worst decision was a Don-decision.
“Don wasn’t the one he was trying to
. I was. You sat there for
and let him do it.”
She reaches out to pat my arm, but I’m two feet back before her hand can touch me. “There are no words for how sorry I am,” she says.
This would be my opportunity to be decent, forgiving, kind. I could dream a different outcome and wake up without my gut braided like a Boy Scout lanyard. But it’s as if I’m turning into the hard guy everybody always thought I was no matter how