Authors: A. M. Jenkins
ou're lucky he only hit you once,” Bailey said on the bus ride home that afternoon.
“Once was plenty,” I agreed.
“I think it's because you stayed down. That was a smart move. Good thinking, dude.”
“Yeah.” I hadn't stayed down because it was a smart move, or because I'd been thinking at all. I'd stayed down because it
It's been said that emotional pain is worse than physical pain, and I will agree that in general it lasts longer. But the moment when Reed hit me was much sharper than anything I'd felt before. If interminable emotional pain could be compressed into a split-second flash, I thought, it would end up feeling an awful lot like Reed
McGowan's right hook.
I didn't know why I'd even bothered. Why should
be able to turn him away from his self-chosen path? Instruction has never been part of my function. I don't get to teach. I don't get to influence. I don't get to affect.
What I get to do is receive and reflect.
I wasn't reflecting now, I was absorbing. I could no longer call this face
. The raw, throbbing pain in Shaun's left jaw was
. The nerve endings were
. The swollen lip was
This body was
I had to admit, though, that the problem with my encounter with Reed was that I hadn't acted enough like Shaun. That's what I was supposed to be doing: quietly acting like Shaun. I was lucky I hadn't attracted the attention of the higher-ups yet.
The more disruptions I caused, the sooner I'd be dragged out of here.
I'd have to be more careful. Try to stretch this puppy out as long as I could.
“You going to get off with me?” Bailey asked.
It took me a moment to fill the blanks in his question. What he'd really meant to ask was,
We are half a block from my bus stop. Do you still want to come to my house after school to play video games, and if so, do you need to go by your house first to take care of something and then walk to my house after
ward, or can you exit the bus with me and walk straight to my house
“I gotta go home and see if Jason wants to come,” I told Bailey.
I hadn't thought much of Bailey beforeâhe hadn't seemed to warrant much thoughtâbut now I was beginning to like him. After an initial knee-jerk negative reaction, he'd been willing to try seeing Lane Henneberger from a new point of view. He hadn't been angry when Reed shoved him. Now he didn't seem to care one way or the other if Jason joined us. He certainly was an easygoing fellow. He seemed to accept whatever was set in front of him with good humor.
And Shaun, I thought, could easily have included Jason in his activities before this.
The bus squealed to a stop, pressing my back against the seat.
“See you in a bit.” Bailey stood up and made his way to the front, then disappeared down the steps. He didn't look back or wave, although I watched. He just assumed Shaun was there, and would always be there.
Humans take so much for granted.
At my stop, I decided to try running home. As soon as the bus departed I increased my pace, walking faster and faster, until it felt natural to break into what might be
called a jog. My backpack jounced uncomfortably and my breath came harder and faster, but I sped up anyway, stretching and pumping my leg muscles to their limits, to see how it felt.
It felt good.
For about ten seconds. Then my lungs couldn't get enough air. It was as if a boulder had arisen in my chest. My legs slowed of their own accord, and my breath came in gasps.
I hadn't noticed how
air was. It rushed into my body the way I imagined water would flood into a desert.
When I walked into the house, Jason's backpack was on the floor next to the front door. The paper he'd forgotten was still on the coffee table. Jason himself must be in the kitchen; I heard rummaging sounds from there.
I picked up his forgotten assignment and walked into the kitchen, to find Jason standing at the counter, ripping open a bag that said “Chips Ahoy!”
“You left this here this morning,” I said, holding the paper out.
Jason looked around, stuffing a cookie into his mouth. He seemed a little puzzled at the sight of his assignment, but took it with a shrug. “Fanks,” he said through his cookie.
A sweet scent wafted out of the open cookie bag.
“Rich Chocolate Chips In Every Bite!” it said, in red print.
“Can I have one?” I asked Jason.
Mistake: Shaun would never have asked. He would have taken it without asking, even if he had to put Jason in a headlock.
I didn't want to put Jason in a headlock, but I
wanted a cookie.
“What happened to your lip?” Jason asked while I was thinking it over.
“Nothing.” I darted a hand out and got hold of the bag. Jason pulled it away, but a few cookies fell out onto the counter. I picked one up and took a bite as Jason retreated around the kitchen island with the bag.
Ohhh. Good. Crunchy at first. And then little bits melting on my tongue.
“Bailey's got Tectonic Warriors 2,” I told Jason, “and I'm going over there in a minute to play. You want to come?”
At the words “Tectonic Warriors 2,” Jason's eyes fastened on me. Then they narrowed. “Why?” he asked.
“Because it's fun.”
“No kidding. Why are you asking
“Because I thought you'd like it.”
Several emotions flickered across Jason's face, so
quickly that I couldn't follow them.
“No thanks, dickhead,” he finally said. He let scorn drip through his voice.
I picked up another cookie and took a bite. This time I didn't chew, but let my saliva dissolve it.
Not as much fun, I decided. Chewing was better.
I just needed to be careful chewing. My lower lip was a bit sore.
Jason was watching me from the other side of the kitchen. “You fall down or something?”
I thought about it. Shaun would have told him to shut up, or to mind his own freaking business.
“Reed McGowan hit me,” I told Jason.
“Reed McGowan? The guy who used to punch brick walls for money?”
Jason shook his head. “Idiot.”
“Me or Reed McGowan?”
What a moron! Were you
“No. I just made him mad.”
Jason rummaged in the bag and pulled out another cookie. I finished my own cookie and reached for the last one lying on the counter.
“How did you make him mad?” Jason asked.
“I think the thing that set him off was when I told him he had a small penis.”
Jason's laugh was harsh, almost rusty, as if he didn't use it very often. “You told
he had a tiny dick?”
“No. A small penis.”
“God. I can't believe he even let you live. Why'd you say that?”
“You're crazy,” Jason said, shaking his head again. But he was smiling. I couldn't quite follow his emotions. “Here.
put 'em up.” He tossed the bag onto the counter and headed out to the living room.
I took out six cookies, slipped them into my shirt pocket, then rolled the cookie bag shut and sealed it. As I was putting it back into the cabinet, I saw that Jason had left his late homework paper on the island.
I picked it up and took it into the living room.
Jason wasn't there. I stood in the middle of the floor. Where could he have gone? He always came in, got a snack, and sat in front of the TV.
A faint whirring sound came from down the hall.
The bathroom fan. He was in the bathroom.
I started to set his paper down on the coffee table. But he'd already forgotten it there once, and then again on the kitchen counter; it seemed unlikely he'd remember it this third time.
I unzipped his backpack, looking amidst wadded
papers and books with scribbled-on covers for a folder to put the paper in. There it was, worn and coming apart at the seams:
I pulled it out, put Jason's paper in one of the pockets, and stuffed the folder into the backpack. Then I zipped the backpack and put it on the floor again, right where Jason had left it.
Jason came out of the bathroom as I was heading down the hall to Shaun's room.
“Hey,” Jason said as he passed. “I guess I might go with you to Bailey's.”
This pleased me, but I didn't say anything. Shaun wouldn't have, and I had a grim feeling that I was still pushing the limits of Shaun's behavior in several ways.
I put Shaun's backpack in his room, and when I came out, Jason was sitting on the couch. The living room seemed different, somehow. I looked around, trying to figure it out.
The television wasn't on. Without it, there was no noise, no flashes of movement. Just Jason, sitting silent, waiting.
His hands were on his knees. He cast a glance at me, but didn't get up.
“Ready?” I asked him.
Jason nodded once, quickly, and stood, his mouth clamped shut.
He came hesitantly over as I opened the front door. “Are you nervous?” I asked.
“No,” Jason said, in that dripping-with-scorn voice. But he didn't say anything else. And I thought he might be lying.
It really wasn't like Shaun to socialize with Jason. I supposed Jason might be worried it was some kind of trick.
“Don't worry,” I told him, “we're just going to play video games.”
He threw another one of those glances my way. He didn't say anything, not the whole way to Bailey's house, but I noticed that he kept several feet away from me the entire time. Just out of arm's reach. And when I stood on Bailey's front porch ringing the doorbell, he hung back on the sidewalk and didn't greet Mrs. Darnell, Bailey's mother, when she let us in.
He didn't seem to relax until we were all on the floor in Bailey's room, controllers in hand. And soon, his body was rigid with concentration, his thumbs and fingers the only things moving.
Shaun would have been delighted to play this game, but I couldn't get very interested. The buttons were pretty colors, and it was mildly amusing to see what movements they produced on the screen, but I enjoyed looking around Bailey's room more. It wasn't like Shaun's room.
Bailey had a set of shelves crammed with books, many of the same color, with numbers on their spines. On the walls were advertisements for video games and posters of large-eyed cartoon characters bearing swords and various other weapons. In the corner, a guitar stood connected to an amplifierâbut unlike Shaun's guitar, Bailey's wasn't dusty; he played it fairly often. His room was much neater than Shaun's, too; no clothes lay on the floor, and his bed was made.
Still, I pushed buttons and tried to pay attention to the game. As Shaun would have done.
“Game. Over,” a voice intoned from the direction of the television. I set my controller down. Bailey set his down too, and stretched. Jason remained in a battle-ready position.
“Not bad, Jason.” Bailey said it in a matter-of-fact voice as he watched statistics flash onto the screen. “But Shaun,” he added in the same offhanded, not unfriendly tone, “you totally suck.”
“Ah well,” I said. “I shall have to live with the pain.” I stretched out on my back. Bailey's carpet was very soft, and thick, too, under my bare arms and hands. I thought I'd like to lie on it naked sometime, although I knew that was unlikely to come about.
Instead, I moved my arms, sliding them in a flapping motion along the carpet. Then I moved my legs, too,
together and apart like scissors. “Look, I'm making a carpet angel,” I said. “An
, ha!” I couldn't help but chuckle. I'd made a joke. A funny one, too.
Bailey just shook his head. “It's time to pick your guy, Shaun.”
“You and Jason play for a while. I want to look at some of your books.”
“I thought you hated manga.”
hated manga. But
wanted to look at it through physical eyes. The garish colors attracted me.
“I'll play in a minute,” I told Bailey, and while he and Jason began another game, I got up to peruse Bailey's shelves.
The books appeared to be perfectly arranged into series, but closer inspection revealed that a very few of the numbers in some of the series were out of order. The same books also tended to have a cracked and disheveled appearance along their spines. This, I thought, revealed which books Bailey read the most, and therefore liked best.
I pulled out one of the worn books and started flipping through. It was interesting to
the varying strokes of the pen. A thick, solid line here evoked a slightly different emotional response than a thin and jittery line there. The girls on the pages reminded me of the flawless women in Shaun's sports magazine, except that these had
impossibly long legs, and very large round eyes and heads.
I put the book back and let my eyes and fingers explore other items on Bailey's shelves. He had a coconut crudely carved into the shape of a face, with another piece of coconut tied on top for a lid. It was hairy and rough. Burned into the side of the face were the words
. The inside was hollow, containing many coins, plus a few bills of various denominations. I sniffed it. It smelled sweetly musty.
Hanging from a corner of the shelves was a fat bunch of beaded necklaces, each strand either purple, gold, or green, all glittery. I reached to touch them, and the second I felt the beads slide through my fingers, I was hooked. They swam and flowed and clicked and rattledâlike clouds, like water, likeâ¦something. I couldn't figure out what was so satisfying about caressing them, but caress them I did. Then I stepped closer to rub them against my face. That didn't feel the same as when my hands touched them. Against my face, they feltâ¦nubbly.