Robert wondered why he’d even bothered to come to school today. At the very least, he should’ve skipped advanced biology. His temples hammered, breaking his clear thoughts into shards. And Mr. Sailers did what he could to stain those shards with his usual environmentalist theology.
“It should be obvious by now,” Mr. Sailers lectured, “to anyone with eyes to see, and a mind to comprehend, that we humans are a suicidal species. Homicidal and suicidal. We give more abuse and visit more horrors upon our environment—our generous nurturer—than we heap upon ourselves. We seem to be sick. It is no wonder some philosophers have equated human beings with a disease spreading, crawling on and under the skin of the planet Earth, living off of the planet to its detriment.”
There was no way this was appropriate for a public school setting, but Robert would be the last to protest. Outside of calculus and physics, he got his highest marks in biology. But today, did he have to suffer abuse from without as well as from within?
“The discovery and perfection of our ability to make fire was the beginning and end of modern human civilization,” Mr. Sailers said. “We’re inconsiderate, careless creatures who don’t think or plan much beyond dusk. Seeking only to acquire what it takes to engage in carnal pleasures in the dark, we forget the Earth turns, new light comes, and with the return of new light, we see, dimly, that our nighttime actions have destructive consequences for the near future.”
He wasn’t sure of his headache’s source, but the pinch in his rear, prompting him to stand and head for the door, was conscience. And shame.
The hallways during third period featured only a handful of sleepwalkers—those who were cutting class but unsure of where to go or what to do. Their numbers usually increased after the lunch periods. Robert was rarely among them. He couldn’t go home, and he didn’t want to go anywhere else. He’d a brief thought of hopping in his ’Stang and going to the nearest pharmacy for something stronger than aspirin, but anything stronger could interfere with his acne medication. Rather than head for the exit, he climbed the stairs and headed for the second-floor window overlooking the parking lot.
Leigh had parked next to him. Or had he parked next to her? If the latter, it was a mistake. He was in such a damned fog today, but one thing was clear: that dent on his passenger’s side door wasn’t there yesterday. Even from this distance, he saw the red paint in the dent’s groove. Red in black. Leigh’s Volkswagen Beetle was red. Her outfit today was ebony and red. “Black and cherry,” she’d said at some point this morning when he was hearing but not listening. She’d been hinting.
Davin had once hinted. During that one crazy, stupid time last year he’d talked Robert into going to a “party” hosted by some girls he knew in the city. Davin knew from the outset “party” was a euphemism for “orgy.” Neither participated at first; they just watched, pointed, and commented. But Davin took a few tokes of something and was soon getting into it. Robert had wanted to leave, but he got caught up in the mood, in the haze; it wasn’t too long before he got caught up in a tangle of arms and legs. After some time into it, when his and Davin’s shoulders happened to brush, Davin leaned over and whispered. He had an idea…and it turned into a mistake, one never spoken of or hinted at again. But Robert saw it in the cracks of anything incongruous, read it between the lines of anything poetic, heard it in the breaths that were the pauses between misspoken words. The mistake wouldn’t escape him.
It struck him again last night when Davin’s mom—the only parent home at the time—looked as if she wanted to strike Robert. She stayed her hand, but not her mouth, chewing Robert out left and right as she worried over Davin’s unconscious body. What’d you do to him? Why didn’t you take him to the hospital? What’s wrong with you? The last thing she said after placing Davin in the minivan was, “It was a mistake for you two to ever be together.” She then slammed the driver’s door and sped off for the ER.
In the parking lot below, a few cars down from his, two girls were leaning against a Camaro making out. Robert sighed. They were asking for it. But maybe they couldn’t help it. Maybe one of the girls was like him. Every other step he took was a mistake. How could it be otherwise? He was a mistake.
He’d known it for years, ever since his five-year-old self had wandered from his bedroom to the living room where his parents were hosting one of their wine-night get-togethers. He innocently asked his parents to keep it down. In return, his mother blurted out her guilt while spilling red drops on the cream-colored carpet. She’d never wanted a damned kid. She’d never wanted to be a damned school nurse. She’d wanted to be a jazz singer. Unwanted and unplanned, Robert had ruined her life. And Robert’s dad, a “towering bully” in her words, had ruined her life. And both of them were ruining her life at that moment, trying to stop her from speaking her mind, trying to stop her from telling her wine-party audience what she really thought about herself and about them. The damned men in her life were trying to stop her from saying all the things she could never take back.
Even at that age, Robert understood mistakes; he made them all the time. It seemed he couldn’t get out of bed without doing so. What he didn’t understand was the anger behind his mother’s words, the rage behind her eyes when she looked dead into his. Maybe he wasn’t meant to understand. He sure as hell never saw that look again, nor did he ever hear her use that tone of voice. After that night, his mom and dad never drank again, not even a sip of bubbly on New Year’s. His mother never got angry at either of them again. She spoiled them both, often unreasonably, until she was gone.
Robert wasn’t about to go back to class. He wasn’t in the mood to take another minute of Mr. Sailers’s crazy rants. He stayed at the window, letting his gaze drift from the parking lot to the football and soccer practice field, coated now with at least two inches of hardened snow. His mind followed the lead of his eyes, drifting this way and that, as they regarded the sun rays filtering through the gray above to dance with the snow’s diamondlike crystals. He saw shimmering apparitions here and there; the thoughts nearest and dearest in his mind shaped them into vague outlines of human figures. It was a party, with two figures standing out among the others. His mom and his dad, dancing…fighting…plotting…whatever. A murder of crows descended on the field and shattered the entire reverie.
Damn, those are big birds. Big black birds on a sea of white. Had someone scattered crumbs out there? Had the birds seen something else appetizing that Robert couldn’t? A half-buried rat’s carcass? They didn’t seem to be pecking for food. They weren’t even walking or hopping around. Their beaks and their eyes were all oriented in one direction—Robert’s.
He turned away and shook his head. From last night’s snow-warrior incident to this morning’s light skeleton to this. It all had to be a side effect of his new acne medication; that was the latest and most plausible theory. At least the pounding in his head had finally gone away. He’d take hallucinations over headaches any day. Still, he could do with a splash of water in the face. He walked to the nearest restroom.
Shit, again. Wrong room.
Howard Phillips was a relatively peaceful high school. It was nothing like the war zones in the city. Still, it was a public high school. Each hall corner, each section of the parking lot, each lunchroom table, and each bathroom belonged to some clique. Robert was cool with many and didn’t give a shit about most; he generally went wherever he pleased. But there were some groups who didn’t give a shit about him either. There were even some who would’ve loved to kick it out of him, given the opportunity. Wandering into cutter territory alone, Robert had just given them one.
Mostly white, with two or three light-skinned Hispanics, the cutters were body-art enthusiasts. Tattoos, piercings, what have you. They were also total assholes. In class, they often wrote obscenities and slurs on their palms, flashed them to friends or foes, then licked off the evidence with a studded tongue. Their main reputation, however, rested on knives and razors, the blades everyone knew they carried but that no teacher or security guard could ever find. They passed through the metal detectors each morning without so much as a blip. And they always passed the pat-down test. And yet, whenever they needed it, they always seemed to be able to slip a razor blade from under their tongue or pull a knife out of their ass.
Of the seven boys in front of Robert, the five youngest tossed their cigs into the urinals and flicked switchblades at him. The two who were Robert’s age gave him the stink-eye but kept right on puffing.
Robert gave the stink-eye right back to all of them, not even flinching at the switchblades. His flight response was rabbit-punching his gut, and his fight response was crouching somewhere in his backside, but his head fought both instincts. He’d do what he came to do then leave. He turned an indifferent shoulder to the menaces as he walked toward the middle sink.
“You lost?” Nate asked before taking another puff of his cancer stick.
“No.” Robert turned the cold water knob. “But I think you are.” Nate was actually an honors student. Both he and Hank, the other boy who kept on smoking, were in two of Robert’s classes. Hell, Hank was the vice president of the French Honor Society. The two were smart, and “cut-ups” in more ways than one.
“Oh yeah?” Hank said. “We’re in the men’s room. This ain’t the place to powder your nose.”
“Maybe not.” Robert splashed a second handful of water into his face and turned around. “But it might be a good place to paint yours red.”
Two of the knife-wielders stepped closer, both of them freshmen, one of them muttering. “Jig…”
Robert looked him in his eyes. “I’ll be happy to dance. On your broken neck.” He didn’t want to fight—his head didn’t—but he stepped closer to the boy, his instinct kicking him in the ass.
“Hey…hey…” Nate, the nicotined voice of reason, held up his hands and took a step closer to the boys, ready to save them from themselves. “Not today. Not this day.” A sentimentalist, not wanting to see his buddy get his nose split on Valentine’s Day.
But it appeared the freshmen didn’t want to go out like punks. Not around these older boys. Not when most of them—they hoped—had their backs. They stopped advancing but continued to brandish their knives. Robert could see it in their eyes. Tough fronts, but they really didn’t want to take it further.
Robert glared for a moment then turned to spit in the sink before walking out. He wasn’t sure why he’d done it, but the gesture had felt right. He was sure they’d gotten the message. And they’d gotten his blood hot. He’d be clenching his fists, trying not to pound his desk for the rest of the day, just waiting until wrestling practice. He hoped stress wouldn’t make him explode before then.
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