Something was bothering me. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew it was bothering me, because I couldn’t sleep. At first I thought it was because I had slept so much on the drive to Columbus. But, thinking about it, I knew that like any self-respecting teenager, I could easily sleep for eighteen or more hours a day. This was definitely mental.
I went over the day’s events in my mind over and over again. Every time, something stuck out, but it was hard to get a handle on exactly what it was. It was something my brother had said about running out of time, not having enough time to do things, losing my childhood, stuff like that. There was something that felt off about it, but I couldn’t keep my mind on it long enough to really get it. I kept thinking back to Nick, for some reason. Was it normal to think about guys you just met while you were lying awake in bed?
I kept tossing and turning, kicking off the blankets and then pulling them back on. I was just about to fall asleep when it hit me. I pulled myself up and groped around in the dark for a pair of pants. I made my way out of the room and over to Mark’s without turning on any lights. I had to flip on his light, though, since there was no way of telling what you might step on in there. He was asleep, which made sense, since it was after two in the morning.
I gave him a sharp poke in the shoulder and tried to both whisper and shout his name at the same time, which never works. After a few tries at that, I moved my fingernails across his exposed arm and whisper-shouted “Spiders!”. He slapped hard at my hand, jumping up and looking around, eyes bulging.
“I’m…gonna to kill you.” He said, sinking back down onto the mattress.
“Are you dropping out?”
“Wha?” He groaned, covering his eyes with one hand.
“Are you dropping out of school?”
“No. What’re you…”
“The stuff you were saying about me losing my childhood, not having time to do everything. That wasn’t just about me, was it?”
“Uggghh…” He rolled over. “Sleep.”
“You’ve been talking to the guidance councilor, too.”
“How’d you know that?”
“There’s a pile of guidance passes right there on the table.” I pointed to a stack of blue slips of paper.
“And the road trip. You always said that we’d take a road trip when you were done with school. That’s what today was about, wasn’t it?”
“I’m not dropping out. I’m graduating early. Go to sleep.”
I knew the school had a program where you could get out early if you had enough credits, either by an entire year or by one semester. I’d been planning on doing it, thinking that the less time spent in Curson Public, the better. I hadn’t even known that Mark was considering it, though.
“Why? Are Mom and Dad going to let you? When? Come on, you can’t just give me that and drop it.” I jabbed him in the shoulder again.
“Tomorrow. Sleeping.” I think there were some profanities in there, too, but by that time he had rolled back into his pillow, so I couldn’t really tell.
I could have harassed him some more, but I figured I could wait until the morning. I flipped off his light on the way out and went back to my room, where it still took me a long time to get to sleep.
That morning, I cornered Mark in the bathroom. I guess he remembered my waking him up, because I didn’t need to say anything.
“All right, here’s the deal.” He said. “I’m graduating early. I’ll be getting out on the fifth.”
“Do Mom and Dad know?”
“They already signed the papers.”
“Everybody knew but me?”
“I was going to tell you yesterday. Really. Just…I don’t know. It’s like, if I told you, it’d be real, you know? It’s easy to tell Mom stuff like this, and then she broke it to Dad, and the paperwork was nothing, but if I told you…”
“Yeah. I guess that makes sense.” I’d done the same thing with him. “But why do you want to do it? I mean, it makes sense for someone like me to do it, but you’ve got a bunch of friends and stuff. You’re going to miss prom and graduation and everything.”
“Prom’s not so great. I went last year, remember? And graduation ceremonies suck.”
“Yeah, but you’re not doing this just to get out of those.”
“I’m going to college.”
“Yeah. Uncle Joe called last week.”
Dr. Joseph Armistice Polowski, Mom’s older brother, had a PhD in something-or-other, and taught part-time at a university down south. We saw him on holidays and sometimes during the summer. Personally, I thought he was the coolest adult in our family.
“He said that there’s a job down there, and that he can get me in. And if I work for them, I can get huge scholarships and stuff. I don’t know exactly how it works, but it comes down to either going now and saving, like, tens of thousands of dollars, or waiting one more semester and paying a hell of a lot more.”
“So you’re going to go?”
“I pretty much have to. You’re going to get all kinds of scholarships for your grades and stuff, but me…I do all right. Good enough to get in, but not good enough to pay for it, you know?” He started working on his toothbrush. “So I’ve got to go while I’ve got the chance.”
“When do you leave?”
He nodded, brushing.
I shouldn’t have been too upset. After all, I knew that he’d be heading to college pretty soon. I just thought it would be in September, and not in two weeks. I’d expected to have a lot more time to get used to the idea of being the only one in the house not old enough to vote. To get used to not having my older brother around.
He’d always looked out for me. When I was six, and he was eight, we stayed up late and snuck out to the living room to watch all the Child’s Play movies on TV. He loved them. I hated them. When he noticed how scared I was, he ended up sleeping on the floor at the foot of my bed, cradling a baseball bat, saying “Anything tries to get in here, I bust their skull, ‘kay?”
Even though we hadn’t really been hanging out together since I started high school, I guess I always counted on him to be there with a bat, ready to crack whatever skulls I needed cracked. And, in a way, he always did. He taught me how to talk a teacher into giving me more time to finish a project, how to use toothpaste as a last resort way to clear up a pimple, how to get through a jammed hallway and open a jammed locker. I wondered what kind of stuff he wouldn’t be able to teach me, now that he was leaving.
Curson is not known for high intellectualism. We don’t have a college, or a research lab, or any famous thinkers in our ranks. We do have a library, but it’s not that great. Local legend says that it only has two books. The first is said to be a condensed version of the Bible, reading only “He came, we saw He was Jewish, and we killed Him.” The other? Well, some joker already colored in all the pictures in that one. Obviously, joining the high school writing team wasn’t exactly hopping on the fast train to Coolsville. It wasn’t even a cut-rate bus to Obscurity Town. Yet, there I was, standing outside the door to room 214.
There was a sign in the window – yellow construction paper with “Cursives” written on it in magic marker. Not written in cursive, but printed. I stared at it for a few seconds, wondering whether or not they were trying to be ironic, until Dixie gave me a shove toward the door. I stepped inside, taking it all in.
There were a few guys playing one of those collectable card games with all the complicated rules, and a few others watching. Everyone else was gathered up into smaller groups, talking amongst themselves. At least half of them were wearing shirts with computer jokes, bad puns, or Nintendo characters on them. It was the most unrepentantly geeky room I had ever entered.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m no geek basher. I’m about as geeky as you can get without consciously trying. The thing was, I was still in the closet about it. You know, it started the usual way – some strange attraction to big words, sneaking peaks at the thicker, older books whenever I could find them, maybe fooling around with a friend’s video games in their basement once or twice. I kept thinking that I’d grow out of it, get bitten by a radioactive cheerleader and wake up wanting to watch a football game or buy a fifty dollar tee-shirt from one of those trendy places in the mall. So long as I never admitted my geekiness to myself, I thought maybe I had a chance.
It was actually Dixie who had convinced me. Years ago, the subject of geekitude had come up, and she looked me straight in the eye and asked “How many batteries are you carrying right now?” It was a loaded question; she knew I always had batteries. That was how we met in the second grade. The batteries in her pocket spellchecker had died, and I had the right kind of replacements in my backpack. Still, the point was made, and since then, she’s been trying to get me in touch with my inner geek, which I’m sure was her motive in dragging me to a Cursives meeting.
She led me around, introducing me to some people. It was a laid-back environment until the teacher walked in. I guess her official title would be “Coach” if you count the Cursives as a team or “Advisor” if you count it as a club, but the way the room quieted down and fell into order on her arrival made it feel more like a class than anything else. Ms. Lowe was head of the English department, teaching classes like Honors English and Contemporary Lit for upperclassmen, so I had yet to meet her. Everyone sat down and took out their notebooks and pens, facing forward.
Beautiful, I thought, it’s like taking an extra class, except I’m not getting any credit for it.
Her eyes swept around the room, pausing on me for a second. Damn, spotted.
“I see we have a few new faces with us today.” A few? I looked around. “Would you two like to introduce yourselves?” She motioned to me.
“Um…” I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to stand or not, so I gave the room a quick half-wave. “I’m Brandon. I’m a sophomore.” I wasn’t sure what else to say.
“What brings you to our meeting?”
“She did.” I motioned to Dixie. Ms. Lowe’s smile tightened.
“Okay. And what about you?” She turned to someone on the other side of the room.
His hair was short, almost shaved, and he wore a black shirt with the letters “AAA” slashed across in red paint. That was under a dark green jacket full of patches that were held on with safety pins instead of stitching. They caught the light at different angles while he spoke.
“I’m Corey. Senior.” He shrugged.
“Okay.” She tilted her head to one side, as if she were trying to smirk, but unable to isolate the needed muscles. “Moving on. As you know, the next tournament is in January, after break. So, we are going to do a practice prompt today, so that I can decide which of you will be representing our team. The prompt is ‘What if George Washington were alive today?’. You have forty-five minutes to write, beginning now.”
All around me, the Cursives were starting to scribble like crazy. I started straining for ideas. Little by little, it started to come together, and I took to writing. It was a compelling thriller, starring a retired history professor forced to take up arms against wave after wave of the ravenous undead, led by none other than the flesh-eating reanimated corpse of the General himself. It was a bit slow at times, and the ending was totally rushed (hidden cache of silver bullets in the card catalogue), but I didn’t think it was too bad at all, given the time constraints.
When time was up, Ms. Lowe had everyone read their stories out loud and critique them. I grew a bit more nervous with every passing reader, since it looked like I was the only one taking the zombie approach. Everyone else was so serious and dry. There were some about George admiring our current government, some with George discussing where our current government went wrong, a few where George tried to get a job. They all had some kind of political message and an attempt at a deeper meaning. No one else had chosen the obvious angle of zombie-Washington. At least, not by the time they had gotten to me.
I read my story the way most high schoolers read things aloud during class – completely expressionless, with an “I’m being forced to do this” undercurrent to the whole thing. Unfortunately, I think my deadpan reading made them think I was being completely serious, rather than just throwing together a stupid zombie story. Ms. Lowe didn’t seem impressed.
“It’s an original style, but I don’t think the judges would appreciate it.”
I nodded. Okay.
“They usually expect you to follow the prompt more closely – your substitution of ‘undead’ for ‘alive’ would have lost a few points.”
I nodded again. I got it. Not a judge-pleaser.
“The problem with writing comedy pieces is that the judges will all have different senses of humor, and some of them might not find your piece funny. If you write something serious, and with a strong message, even if they don’t agree with it, they’re more likely to award higher scores.”
Now, normally, I’d let it go. I’d nod and sit quietly. But today, I was feeling a little off. I was tired from being up all night, anxious about the future, and bored out of my mind from sitting through that meeting. So, I spoke up.
“Doesn’t that get boring, having every paper being basically the same?”
“I think you misunderstand. I’m not saying every story needs to be the same.” She drew herself up, clicking over into automated speech mode. “Individuality is fine. There’s nothing wrong with marching to the beat of a different drummer, but-”
“Everybody does that.” Holy hell, did I just interrupt a teacher?
“The marching to drummers thing.” This was an old rant of Mark’s, one that he used on anyone to ever use the “different drummer” line on him. I’m not sure what made me say it, but it felt great. “It’s boring, everybody always marching to drummers all the time.”
I looked over at Dixie, who was starring back wide-eyed. She had heard Mark deliver this particular speech as well.
“How many different drummers can there be until everybody starts doing the same thing again? Why can’t we, say, strut to a variant piano? Or meander to an alternate…uh…help me out here, Dixie?”
“…Mandolin?” She looked like she was still in shock.
“Yeah, mandolin.” Truth be told, I had no idea what a mandolin was. The image that came to mind was something like a violin, but more manly. Maybe with camouflage paint, and plucked with a spent shell casing. “Point is, everybody talks about individuality, but they keep doing it in the same way, until it isn’t individual any more.”
I looked around the room. Nothing but blank stares – the usual result from one of Mark’s rants. Ms. Lowe looked fairly upset. She drew in her breath, about to say something, but I beat her to it.
“I…think my ride’s here, I’ve got to go. Bye.” I scooped up my stuff and headed for the door, still unable to believe that I had just done that. Dixie was going to kill me. Ms. Lowe, who I would probably have as a teacher in the future, was going to remember me as the kid who interrupted her writing club with a bunch of stupid stuff about instruments and zombies. The entire geek population of Curson Public probably thought I was a huge jackass. All that, and for some reason, I felt good.
I stopped at my locker to get my coat, realizing that I’d probably have to sit around for a while, waiting for the late bus. I wondered, was that what Mark feels every time he goes off on one of his weird one-man debates? Granted, it wasn’t tossing a wooden shoe into the gears of the system, but to me, it was huge.
“Hey.” I straightened out, snapping out of my trance as soon as I heard his voice. It was the other new guy from the Cursives. Corey something. “That was pretty cool.”
I wasn’t sure how to answer that. “Uh…thanks.”
“Not just the drum thing, but the story, too.”
“Oh. Well…thanks again.”
“This is going to sound kind of weird, but I’ve got to ask you something.”
“What?” I’d just met the guy, and he already wanted something?
“I’m in this band. Well, we were a band for a while, anyway. We ended up not doing anything with it, because none of us can write. We can all play, but without words, nobody wants to listen, you know?”
“Anyway, I went to that Cursives thing to see if I could find someone who could write lyrics for us.”
“I don’t really-”
“After hearing all of that, I think you’re the only one there we could stand being in the same room with.”
He smirked. “So, what do you think? Interested? We could pay you. Not a lot, but…”
“I don’t really know anything about writing songs.”
“Well, you don’t have to decide right now. Just…here, I’ll give you my number, and if you’re up for it, call. If not, don’t worry about it. But seriously, with that whole different mandolin stuff you did in there…I think that’s exactly what we need. Anarcho-revolutionary kind of lyrics.”
“Call if you feel like it. Maybe come down, see us play, get a feel for what you’d be writing for?”
He handed me a slip of paper with his number written on it before walking away, safety pins clinking against each other. Me, write for a band? Not likely. I wasn’t even into music all that much. I’ve never denied my tone-deafness, I can’t dance, and to tell you the truth, dudes with that much zinc pinned to their shirts are kind of unnerving. On top of that, the only reason he wanted me was because he happened to hear me parroting one of my brother’s weird arguments and pegged me for a rebel. Way off course, there.
I caught a ride home on the late bus, with all the detention victims. There were still a few hours before Mom and Dad would get home. Mark’s car was in the driveway, under about six inches of snow. Looked like an igloo.
I was surprised to find that he wasn’t the only one in the house. When I kicked off my shoes at the door, I noticed an extra pair next to Mark’s, and an extra coat hanging on the wall. On my hook. Not wanting to be a bad host, I left the guest’s coat where it was. I lifted Mark’s coat from its hook, dropped it on the floor, and replaced it with my own.
I could hear the TV in the living room, so I headed that way to see who Mark had over. I usually stay clear of Mark’s friends – personally, I can’t figure out why he doesn’t do the same – but I liked to know which of them was around, so I knew exactly what level of avoidance I needed to use. Some were merely annoying, to the point of “I’ll go hang out in my room for a while,” while others were closer to “I think I’ll go shovel the driveway for a while.”
When I got to the living room, I was surprised to see who it was. Mark was stretched out on the couch, but seated in the recliner was not one of his annoying friends, but Nick. He turned as I came in, and I felt hot water shoot through my core when he smiled and said “Hey.” Probably since I had just walked in from the snow and the ten-below wind chill factor. It just took my body that long to realize that I had gotten inside.
Realizing that I was standing there with a not-too-bright look on my face, I went in and sat on one of the other chairs. “Hey. What’s up?”
“Rembrandt left his painting locked in my trunk,” Mark said, nodding to Mark. “And the warden’s got my keys. Grounded from driving, remember?”
“Oh man, I completely forgot that was in there.” I said.
“Yeah, me too.” Nick said.
“I actually remembered, but didn’t mention it, so that I could lure him back here and steal his wallet.” Mark said, sitting up.
Nick sighed and reached for his back pocket. “Fine, but all I’ve got is a card for that video place that closed down a year ago.”
“That’s it? I can’t believe I took a painting hostage for that.”
“I know, who’d have thought an artist would have no money?”
“Oh yeah, speaking of no money,” Mark turned back to me. “How was writing club?”
“It either went really good or really bad. I haven’t decided yet.”
I explained what happened, but left out the part with safety pin guy’s proposition. Mark grinned.
“You ripped off my different instruments speech?”
“Yeah. If you want, I could go back next week and give her a Source Cited page.”
“Hell no. I’m going to be out of there pretty soon, and I want you to carry out my legacy.” Just then, his phone went off in his pocket. He jumped up and answered it, waving to us as he left the room, leaving me alone with Nick.