Authors: Heather Smith Meloche
Always up for a challenge, Juliette moves to stand squarely in front of Sam. Sam's got a good six inches on her five-foot-four
height, but right now, Juliette seems infinitely taller. “Well, Sam Kearns, it also seems like, as the son of this city's mayor, you might consider contributing a little more to this school instead of pissing all over it.” She gives a backward wave at
F O O T B A L L B L O W S
, her eyes not leaving his.
Jack clears his throat. “I do have to mention that not a single ounce of piss was used during the preparation of that stunt over yonder.”
Carver snort-laughs and slaps Jack on the back in a good-one-buddy kind of way.
But none of this is funny. Because Principal Levy is now talking to Vice Principal Barnes, who turns her stare our way.
Juliette seems unworried. “So, what's the
stand for, Jack S. Dalton?” she asks.
“Sinister.” Jack winks at her.
“Of course.” Juliette sits back down, unimpressed.
Sam taps Jack's shoulder. “Hey, we should probably find somewhere else to be.” He nods toward Levy and VP Barnes. “They might be onto us.”
Jack nods, but then he steps toward me. He offers his hand to shake again. “So, hi. I'm Jack.” His face is annoyingly beautiful, his body tall with hints of sinewy muscle beneath his offensive T-shirt. But my glance darts again to Principal Levy as both he and VP Barnes point up toward us.
“Um, Jack, dude,” Sam says, sounding a little more urgent.
I should really stand and walk away from this guy. But I didn't do anything wrong. This was my school before Jack showed up. And that's my boyfriend on that field. So I turn my back to him instead.
Jack taps me on the shoulder until I turn around. His dark
eyebrows lift, then lower above his long-lashed eyes. His hand gets closer. “Go ahead. Shake it. I know you want to,” he says in almost a whisper.
And weirdly, terrifyingly, he looks beyond
me, like he seriously does know what I want, can see my secrets, pinpoint every flaw. Like he knows the wicked things I do.
My body tenses. Then I catch myself, remember he's never met me before, doesn't know a thing about me. So I paste on a fake smile. “You know,
, you have no idea what I want. Besides, I really have no idea where that hand has been.”
He flashes straight white teeth. “Fair enough.” He leans down, whispers in my ear. “But one day, if you're lucky, I'll tell you exactly where my hand has been.”
A chill wracks me. Maybe from the heat of Jack's words, or the panic at the idea of spending any more time with a guy who looks at me too deeply and finds making trouble a thrill.
Jack backs away, and I let out a held breath. He and his friends scramble up the bleachers, head for some other boat to rock and no doubt sink. I turn to see that VP Barnes has disappeared, and Principal Levy is now across the field repositioning football fans, filling in the spaces Jack and his friends made.
On the sidelines, Seth high-fives a fellow player before looking up at me, causing the past couple of minutes of Jack “Screw-Off” Dalton to fall away. I sit up straighter under Seth's gaze and wave. When he waves back, I glue on a delighted smile.
Sam, Carver, and I sprint up the bleachers to a high walkway, then come down a set of side stairs to head through the school parking lot. What Carver has dubbed “The Bleacher Attack” went off better than I'd hoped. But odds are, the principal from Hallend High has already called to give this new principal of mine the rundown of my previous transgressions. So I should have bolted before Principal Levy could lay his eyes on me.
Instead, I got all snagged up by that girl with the long blond hair and lips pouty perfect, like some anime artist drew them on her. But beyond that, standing behind them, I heard her and her friend Juliette talking about how she doesn't want to be at this game and how she doesn't want to go to the college she's expected to go to. I saw how super-freaking-tense she was. And underneath all that pretty, I saw a desperation to be out of her current situation. Like she wanted to crawl right out of her own skin. I totally jive with that. I mean, I have days when I wish I could scrap this whole life thing and start over.
Still, she tried to ignore me, then glared at me all disapproving, not quite appreciating the hilarity of my latest stunt. But
whatever. I don't need that girl's judgment or another high-and-mighty person looking at me like I'm a loser. I get that about once every sixty seconds.
In fact, my latest minute is almost up.
The vice principal, a linebacker of a woman, each tit the size of Mount Kilimanjaro, was leaving the field area as we ran out of the bleachers. She's more than likely on the hunt for us now.
Moving ahead of me between two lines of parked cars, Carver picks up speed and shakes his long, shaggy head, chanting, “Oh, shit. Oh, shit.” Sam keeps up with Carver, shooting a glance behind him every two seconds.
But I keep my pace slower. Because even though I know how the VP's going to treat me, all suspension-worthy and juvie-bound, this is the part I like the best. The chase. The catch. I want to be stopped.
“Jack, pick it up, dude, or you're in for it!” Sam calls. “Ironrack Barnes is right behind us.”
I glance over my shoulder at the hulking VP stepping into the lot.
“Gentlemen!” Her voice is as deep as the devil's.
And I get the rush. The thrill. A smile spreads across my face. I take in a deep, cleansing breath, and turn around to face the fight.
“Oh, shit, shit, shit,” Carver says, stopping and turning around. Sam also rotates to face VP Barnes. They could have run, hidden behind cars. But I dig how they're not abandoning me. Even though I know how this interaction will play out. I just have to stay clear. Focused. What my motherâa lawyerâcalls
. I've heard her say a million times, “Don't let emotion get in the way. Stick to the facts and you'll always win.”
But I've tacked on my own addendum: “If the facts are against
you, make up new ones.” I swallow whatever small fear I have of tonight's consequences, coast on the adrenaline, and wait until the VP is directly in front of me.
She's two inches taller than me. At least a foot wider. “Mr. Dalton,” she says, “I don't think we've been formally introduced. I'm Vice Principal Barnes.”
I give her a formal bow. “I'd tell you my name, but it seems you already know.”
“And it seems you've been playing Scrabble with the bleachers. Am I right?”
I shrug. “Spelling
my favorite subject, but I have to say I'm stronger in math. Why do you ask?”
“Don't play stupid with me.” She glares, a slew of wrinkles sprouting around both eyes.
“I assure you, Ms. Barnes, I'm not playing. I really am stupid.”
Her arms cross beneath her massive iron rack. “The report from your previous school says that's not true at all. But it also suggests you have a tendency to get into some trouble.”
Stick to the facts.
“And yet, nothing was ever proven.” I lean in, set my voice to a whisper. “Do you know why?”
She cocks her dinner-plate-size head, studies me. “Tell me.”
Make up new facts.
“Clearly, I was a victim of a vast conspiracy.” I nod. “Thankfully, this school has a much more judicious leadership team that would never dream of implicating an innocent student such as myself in any of the nefarious activities of which I was previously accused.”
Behind me, Carver whispers to Sam, “What the hell does any of that mean?”
“Google it, Mr. Malowski,” VP Barnes shouts at Carver. She juts her leathery face into mine. “Believe me, Mr. Dalton, if I get
the slightest proof you've disrupted a major school event, you will get detention. Or, better yet, suspension.”
I offer up a wide smile. “Will detention give us more time to get to know each other? Because it's been such a pleasure to meet you.”
She sighs. “The principal over at Hallend High told me you were like this.”
“You mean excessively witty and amusingly jovial?”
“Not exactly.” Her nostrils flare. “We're done here.”
I point toward Sam's car across the school lot. “Yeah, we were sort of trying to be done when you came out to chat with us.”
“Stay out of trouble, Mr. Dalton. And I suggest you head straight home to make sure that happens.” She turns, lumbers back toward the football field, where fans shout as the game begins.
“Ms. Barnes,” I call out, “if we discover the culprits of tonight's outrageous insolence, we'll be sure to notify you immediately.”
Ironrack Barnes gives me a backward wave, her hand swatting as if I were a fly. I'm now her latest annoyance. And that's fine. Because I got out of it again. Like I have over and over. I choose the right words to bend and twist the situation so that in the end, I walk away. It's the wild, strategic game of making myself untouchable.
That's where the rush is.
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
The guys didn't want to go home. They wanted to cruise around town, find some hot, inebriated, and/or willing girls to talk to.
“You see,” Carver explained, “Sam just has to let it drop that his mom's the mayor, and the girls think he's Pineville royalty. Their panties explode off them if they think there is the slightest chance Prince Charming will fall for them.”
Girls with disintegrating panties sound pretty good to me, but the truth is, Sam and Carver are sort of
. Janet Kearns, Sam's mom, was in law school with my mom way before she became mayor. She'd told Sam to make sure I wasn't alone, so Sam started hanging with me last week on the first day of school. Carver, Sam's close friend since elementary school, became my hang-out buddy by default.
These two are okay, I guess. Pretty much all my friends in Hallend disappeared four years ago when my family fell apart and rumors spread about the reasons why. But whatever. I don't need companions. I like being alone. People annoy me. They can't think for themselves. They follow the crowd too often. They're so easy to manipulate. And since it wasn't worth the stress, I stopped giving a shit about acceptance and approval after the hundredth time people pointed and whispered about what a drunk Mom was when I walked down Hallend's streets with her.
Truthfully, Mom is the biggest reason I turned down a Pineville chickfest tonight with Sam and Carver. Leaving her for over two hours kind of scares the shit out of me. She seemed fine earlier when I left, but things change fast in her head.
So I drive past the huge houses, past the less huge houses, then turn my fixed-up 1973 orange Dodge Dart down the unlit dirt road where the houses slump like a line of drugged animals. Most are tiny and falling apart. I turn into the driveway. The nine-hundred-square-foot block of a house I now call home sits completely dark.
But the lights should be on. Mom never goes to bed this early. Panic splinters through me.
I bound up the three concrete steps, then swing open the rusty storm door and wooden front door. “Mom?”
“Mom, where are you?” My heart ramps to Mach speed. I flick on lights, hope she's still in the house and hasn't done anything to hurt herself. Her illness along with her past emotional blows, I know, make her overwhelmed and sad. They are more than most people could handle.
A subtle pounding fills the air. When I realize it's not my heart, I head toward her bedroom. I knock only once before pushing the door open.
She stands by the window in the dark, her short, puffy hair messed and swirling like a nimbus cloud above her head. Her frail, petite form leans against the windowpane. Her fist
thuds, thuds, thuds
against the glass as she watches something outside.
I go to her, put my hands on her shoulders, and take a deep breath of relief. She doesn't move. Doesn't even blink. Her eyes stay fixated on a man with long hair and a beard next door. His house is over a half acre behind ours, his property butting up against the woods in our backyard. He's stacking cut wood against the back of his house by the faint light of a camping lantern sitting on a tree stump. The orange glow of a cigarette hovers in front of his face.
“Do you know him?” I ask Mom softly.
“You've never seen him?” She keeps her gaze on the man.
I look at him again. Nothing about him looks familiar. In his jeans and flannel shirt, he looks like a million other guys in construction or landscaping. He could be anyone. “No. I don't know him.”
She turns around, her deep-set eyes filled with a frightening intensity. “Good. I don't want you to get near him. At all. No talking to him. No getting his attention. Do you hear me? Because I'm
sure he's watching us, Jackie. Watching all the time. I can feel it. That man next door is spying on everything we do.”
I cinch my eyelids shut and try hard not to get pissed. At her. At our life now. I feel myself coming damn close to tears with how sick, frustrating, and pathetic it all is.
Because, despite everything, Mom's so damn smart. My aunts said she aced her Catholic high school classes and did well in law school, even though she'd started drinking a little. Before she and my dad divorced, open legal manuals and a slew of her notes always covered the dining room table. She would build the perfect defense while building an exceptional buzz. Eight vodka and grapefruit juices later, she was passed out at the table, her pen still in her hand.
The next day, I'd ask, “How did the case go in court today?”
She'd look at me all conceited and say, “I got everything my client asked for.”
She was that good. And sometimes still is.
So figuring out that Mom was losing her mind actually took me a while partly because I didn't want to see that someone as brilliant as her could go crazy. And partly because I swore it was the vodka messing with her brain. I mean, I don't drink or drug. Ever. Why touch that shit when I know it's already screwing my life through my mom? But if I happen to be hanging with people who are tripping and ultra-wasted, sometimes they blather on about phantom mice or faces morphing into scary circus clowns. So when Mom downed a bunch of vodka and then said she thought she saw demons on the street or tiny people whispered to her from the air ducts, I didn't think it was any different.
different. According to her psychiatrist, it's paranoid-schizophrenia-with-serious-delusions different.
I pull Mom away from her bedroom window, get the man next door out of her line of sight. “You seem tired tonight,” I tell her, hoping to force sleep.
“I guess so,” she says.
I guide her to her bed, help her glide her thin body under her sheets. I washed them yesterday. I've taken on the laundry, most of the cooking, and any housecleaning I have time for along with my one job at the car wash and the other as a delivery/maintenance/janitor guy for the tiny family-owned flower shop I've worked for since I was twelve back in Hallend.
“You're a good boy, Jackie,” Mom says. She takes a massive sip of her grapefruit-vodka cocktail beside her bed, then fluffs her pillow beneath her head.
“I'm just helping. Family helps family,” I say. Then I pick up her drink and set it on the floor, out of her reach. I've learned not to yank it away or fight about it. It just upsets her too much.
“You certainly didn't learn that bit of sweetness from your father.” She closes her eyes, wincing in her own darkness.
I ignore her dig at Dad. “I learned it from you.”
She gives me a look with so much genuine love. Nothing delusional about it. Then presses her cold hand to my cheek, smiling for a moment. My heart hurts looking back. I'd give anything to have her sane.
Her hand quickly falls. Her expression becomes grave in the dim light of her bedside lamp. “The whispers are getting louder.”
A silent curse screams inside my head, but in front of her, I just clear my throat. “I don't hear whispers. But, hey,” I say gently, “did you take your meds today?”
“I did. And I know the whispers are getting louder.” She
glances, annoyed, at the air duct. “Can you tell them to be quieter, Jackie?”
“Sure.” I grit my teeth and think of what might calm her down and get her to sleep. “Do you want me to play some music for you?”
Her face brightens. “Would you?”
I nod, then step across her creaky floor, through the postage-stamp-size living room until I reach my room. Most things are still in boxes. I've been busy helping Mom unpack and have had zero time for my own stuff. But my favorite flea market findsâmy violin and bowâstand propped in the far corner. The second I saw the instrument all beat-up in the cluttered kiosk, it reminded me of the pre-punk British band Doctors of Madness and the 1980s' Dexys Midnight Runners. Both used the violin with the usual sounds of guitar and drums, and people thought,
That's pretty cool.
Because it is. The violin is unique. I respect that.
I grab them, head back to Mom, running my fingers over the wood I'd cleaned up and the strings I got from the music store in Hallend in exchange for fixing their fritzed-out indoor speaker system. In between pissing off my teachers and vandalizing public property, I'd taught myself how to play from free online lessons. And in the process, realized, as an absolute bonus, that the violin calmed Mom down.