Chapter One: Detours
That was the only warning that my older brother, Mark, had given before sliding full-speed into the bathroom in nothing but his boxers and two differently colored socks. I had just enough time to jump out of the way before he slid by, executing a half-turn midway through his fabric-aided linoleum glide. He slid to a stop just short of the bathtub and looked to me, raising one eyebrow. I held up seven fingers.
“Seven?” He sounded indignant. Not an easy way to sound at six in the morning. “Seven? That was at least an eight-point-five.”
“No way.” I said, removing the toothbrush from my mouth. “And I told you, I can’t do point-five fingers. Well, not without a pair of bolt-cutters and probably a lot of paper towels.”
“Yeah, but did you see that distance? I started at least three feet in front of the door, and I nearly made it tub-side. You’ve got to give me credit for that.”
“Don’t knock seven points.”
“I have yet to see you do better, and I remember giving you a nine once.”
“Not my fault that you’re too generous.” I nodded at his feet. “Your socks don’t match.”
“I know. The way I see it, I’ve spent the last seventeen years wearing matching socks. Seventeen years! So why not try it this way for a while?”
I quickly rinsed and spat before replying. “Is this some of that mild teenage rebellion stuff that I’ve got to look forward to?”
“No, I don’t think so. I mean, you’re what, eleven? Twelve?”
“You know I’m fifteen. That’s how many times you hit me on my birthday, remember?”
“Oh, that was your birthday?” He shrugged. “Like I was saying, you’re fifteen, and I have yet to see the slightest hint of rebellion. If it hasn’t started yet, I doubt that it will. The rebellion gene must skip a generation now and then.”
“I don’t know if two years counts as a generation.”
“As I was saying, these socks? That’s no rebellion, that’s a revolution.” He cocked his head to the side, his words obscured as his toothbrush bobbed between his lips like an orange plastic cigar. “Brandon, I’m revolting.”
I opened my mouth, but at the last minute, decided against saying anything. Seemed a little too easy, like a set-up for a set-up. I’d been through too many of these early-morning battles of wit to not recognize that as bait.
“Tell you what, Mark. You stay here; work on the plans for the revolution. I’ll go…reconnoiter the school. I’ll be wearing matching socks, but only to keep my cover.” I started out into the hall, raising my fist in a sign of solidarity. “Stay strong.”
“This is no laughing matter, kid. When the revolution comes, you won’t be spared just because we share a bathroom.” He flashed his reflection a smile and a thumbs-up before following me out. “You want a ride to school?”
“Yeah, sure.” I was a bit shocked. I usually took the bus, since Mark and I ran with completely different crowds. That is to say, he had a crowd, and I didn’t. His offer seemed a bit strange, but it was December in Curson, Michigan, and you just don’t turn down a ride when it’s December in Curson, Michigan.
Winter in Curson has always been, and will always be, completely miserable. It’s cold, the sky is in a state of constant gray, the sidewalks are coated with bumpy, uneven layers of frozen slush, and the wind always seems to be right in your face, no matter how you stand. When it snows, it comes down hard and heavy, making any trip on foot take about twice as long. The streets are always clear enough to keep schools open, though. The salt trucks see to that, painting the pavement with splotches of hope-crushing grayscale camouflage, like soldiers’ jackets in black-and-white war movies. A ride to school sounded a lot better than walking to the bus stop in that kind of weather.
Ten minutes of preparation later, and we were in Mark’s car. As we set off down the street, he kept slipping me these looks out of the corner of his eye. On top of that, he hadn’t turned on the radio. He’s the kind of guy that never drives anywhere without some kind of music playing. Still, I didn’t think much of it. I turned and looked out the window, phasing out of reality for a little while. It felt like it was taking a lot longer than usual to get to school. I checked the clock on the stereo display, but according to that, it was one thirty. I told myself to remember to set that for him, then turned back to the window. The scenery was starting to look unfamiliar.
“Where are we?” I turned to Mark.
He grinned, still looking straight ahead.
He nodded slightly, toward an upcoming street sign. It indicated that the turn-off for the interstate was coming up. He slowly took one hand off of the wheel and, with a dramatic flourish, hit a button causing every door on the car to lock with a dull “thud”. As if, had he not locked it, I would have flung the door open and leapt out of a moving car, just to be sure I wasn’t late to school. I mean, come on, I’m not that big of a geek. Or…maybe I am that big of a geek, but too big of a wuss. Minor geek or major wuss, the outcome was the same: I’m not diving out of any moving cars.
I wasn’t happy about being shanghaied like this, but I knew better than to try to talk Mark out of anything. I sank back in my seat, tossed my backpack into the back, and sighed.
“So, where are we going?”
“You’re going toward the interstate. I’m pretty sure school is in our state.”
“I never said it was going to be our school.”
I should’ve known better than to accept a ride from him. “So, what school is it?”
“Um…” He pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and passed it to me. I unfolded it. It was a hand-drawn map with a list of directions. My heart sank as I neared the bottom.
“Yeah. Hang on to that, you can navigate for me.”
“Why the hell are we going to Columbus?”
“A question asked by everyone to ever move in the general direction of Columbus.”
“Told my friend I’d do him a favor.” He stopped there, as if that were enough information.
“All right, you know Pete Enzer?”
“Um…heard of him, I guess.” Enzer was one of the hot-shot types that my brother hung around with. I think he threw something at me once, but that was about the extent of our relationship.
“Right. So, Pete has this cousin named Bill. He lives in Detroit.”
“Detroit. One hour away from Curson. As opposed to Columbus, which is like…what, five?”
“Yeah. Anyway, Bill got caught smoking something-or-other, and his mom told him that he had to do her a favor as punishment.”
“So Bill’s mom tells him that a friend of hers from Curson – Val something – needs to have her son picked up after school in Columbus and brought back home. He was competing in some kind of contest or something at this other school, and he found a ride down there, but he needs a ride back.”
“So she told Bill to pick up Val’s son.”
“Right. Now, Bill didn’t feel like taking such a long drive, especially since his license got suspended five months ago and he doesn’t want his mom to find out.”
“So he told you to do it?”
“No, he told Pete to do it. He figures since Pete’s from Curson, he’d be the best one to ask. Well, more ‘threaten’ than ‘ask’, but to a guy like Bill, it’s the same thing.”
“So, a week ago, I borrowed some cash from Pete. He said I could forget about paying him back if I did him a favor and picked up Nick.”
“Nick being the name of-“
“Pete’s cousin’s mom’s friend’s son from Curson, right.”
“This…you know, I’m almost following this. But why drag me along?”
“Couple reasons. First, because, like I was just saying this morning, you haven’t done anything rebellious, ever. Skipping school once will be good for you. Second, because it’s a long trip and I need someone – preferably someone smart, which rules out most of my friends - to hold the map. Third, because Nick’s in your grade, and I figure he’d rather ride back with someone his age than sit here in awkward silence with his mother’s friend’s son’s cousin’s casual acquaintance.”
“You think he’d rather ride in an awkward silence with his mother’s friend’s son’s cousin’s casual acquaintance’s brother? You don’t think that I’m going to be, like, entertaining or anything, do you?”
“I’d never set such high expectations. I think very little of you, you know that.” He said, smirking. I rolled my eyes.
“So you’re going to drag me along on a ten hour road trip just so you have someone to hold your map?”
“Yeah, that’s about it.”
I sighed and nodded to an upcoming sign. “Right turn, South on 75.”
“Paying off already. Now, put on some music.” He pointed to the large binder full of discs that he kept between the seats of the car.
I opened it in the middle and pulled out the first CD I saw – a burnt one with a white label. I slipped it into the CD player and hit play. The music that started was, oddly enough, Gregorian monks chanting covers of popular rock songs.
“What the hell is this?” I laughed.
“I don’t know. You picked it.”
“The label said ‘music and stuff’.”
“Are you saying this isn’t music? Or stuff?”
He had me there.
It was an hour into the drive. The Gregorian chanters had run out of songs to cover, and Mark was talking about his socks again.
“Think about it. Why does everybody match their socks?”
“Probably because they sell them in pairs.”
“Yeah, but why? Dig deeper. The government. The military.”
“Aren’t they kind of busy right now? You know, with the War on Things More Important Than Socks?”
“Have you ever seen a soldier who wasn’t wearing matching socks?”
“Sure. There was that G.I. Joe we had when we were kids. He only had one foot.” I pointed out.
“Oh yeah, Staff Sergeant Stumpy. Still, if he hadn’t lost that foot while serving bravely against those Transformers, I guarantee it’d have a sock to match the other one.”
“I think you’ve got it backwards. Army guys wear matching socks because everyone else does; we don’t wear matching socks because the Army does.”
“Either way, it comes down to segregation.” He began rapping his hands against the steering wheel to accent his words. “Keep the white socks with the white socks. The slipper-socks with the slipper-socks. The patched-heel wool work socks with-“
“I get it.”
“And as long as every sock keeps to its own kind, everything’s smooth, right? But mix them together, and people start looking at you funny.”
“You’re like Malcolm X. Except that he stood for stuff, and you’re trying to play off the fact that you forgot to do laundry and didn’t have any clean pairs of socks left.” I leaned back and closed my eyes. I didn’t get to sleep in on school days very often, and a few bumps in the asphalt weren’t going to stop me now that I had a chance. “Seriously, though. Keep fighting.”
I woke up when we pulled into a rest stop gas station.
“You have any money?” Mark asked.
“Maybe, I dunno.” I was just coming out of car-sleep, that layer of sleep right between drowsiness and consciousness that exists only in moving automobiles. No condition to talk numbers.
“I might need it.”
“Wha? Why?” That got my attention. I pulled myself up and unhooked my seat belt.
“I’ve got enough for either gas or food, but not both.”
I checked my wallet.
“I’ve got twenty and some change.” I’d been saving that.
“Cool. I didn’t want to have to call Dad and have him come pick us up on the side of the road somewhere. Which he probably wouldn’t.”
I lowered my voice into my Dad impression. “You want to skip school? You can skip your ass on home, then!”
Mark did the same. “Better skip fast, too – long trip, innit? If you’re late for work, I’m keeping this week’s pay and leaving your car down there.”
“Pob’ly get stripped by those street gangs, down there. They teach them kids how to strip faster’n a Dee-troit girl on Labor Day weekend.” My Dad-voice quivered into a strangled attempt to hold back laughter right around “Dee-troit”, both of us cracking up. Dad loved to compare things to girls from “Dee-troit”. Mom, being from Detroit, occasionally tolerated it.
Once we were sufficiently gassed up, we found our way back onto the interstate. The dashboard clock now read quarter after four. Once again, I told myself to set that for him.
“Ten Speed Artichokes.”
“Top Swedish Architects.”
“Teamster Seeks Alibi.”
“Terrorist Segway Attack.”
“Travel-games Suck Ass.”
“I think you win that one, even with the hyphen. That’s seven to five, you.” I said, raising a hand in defeat. “I give.”
“Good. One more round of license plate acronyms would have made me smash this bastard into a corn silo, just to break up the boredom.”
“Go for it. Free corn.”
Mark pretended to jerk the wheel to one side to fake me out. That used to scare the hell out of me back when he was first learning to drive.
“All right. Acronyms have worn out. What’s next?” I asked.
Mark stayed silent for a few seconds before saying “How about that alphabet game? I am going on a road trip, and I am bringing an Annoying sibling.”
“Okay. I’m going on a road trip, and I’m bringing a Bell jar and an Annoying sibling.”
“I’m going on a road trip, and I’m bringing my Cock-sucking brother-”
“Hey, how come I’m in all of yours?”
He shrugged. “I’m not bringing anything else.”
I never did like that game very much.
We got to Columbus by noon. It was raining hard. We spent the next two hours driving around, looking for this school through the slashed crescents of clear vision that the windshield wipers afforded us. We barely made it in time. Mark pulled into the front parking lot.
“Hey, how are we going to find this guy? He doesn’t know us at all, and we don’t know what he looks like, either.”
“All according to plan.” He reached into the back seat and pulled out two cut strips of poster board, each with the name “Nick Patton” written across in black marker. “We just stand at the two doors and wait for him.”
“Stand out there in the rain?” Wet hair was always a pet peeve of mine. I just can’t stand the way it feels, the way the water clumps it together into squirmy little tentacles that slither across your forehead and neck.
“Oh, right.” He reached back and produced a hat. “You can use this.”
“You can’t be serious.” It was a black pirate captain’s hat from a Halloween costume, the front adorned with a grinning skull and crossed swords.
“Hey, if you don’t want it, I’ll wear it. It’s the only hat I’ve got. I’m offering it to you because I know you’ve got that weird wet hair thing.”
I grabbed it and stuck it on, briefly checking my reflection in the rearview mirror. Yeah, it was as ridiculous as I had imagined.
“I like it.” Mark said, stepping out of the car and pulling his hood over his head. I didn’t say anything, just followed him to my position by the side door of the school. “All right, if you find him, come get me. I don’t want to be standing out here looking like an idiot holding this dude’s name while you’ve got him back in the car.”
“Yeah, I’d hate for you to look like an idiot.” I said from under my corsair cap. He went off to man his station, leaving me, a fifteen year old guy with a pirate hat and a sign, standing alone in the rain in front of a high school. On top of that, my nose had started running from the cold. But at least my hair was dry.
I stepped back a ways, allowing some space for everyone to get by, but staying close enough so that this Nick guy would be able to see me. As if anyone could miss me. I stuck out like…well, like a pirate in a high school, would probably be the most accurate comparison. After about ten minutes, I heard a bell ring from inside, and people started trickling out.
It was at this point that I made an interesting psychological discovery: The average adolescent does two things when he or she notices a guy with a pirate hat and an “I wish I wasn’t here” expression. First, they get the idea that they are somehow the first to think of doing something as witty as shouting “Ahoy, matey!” or “Aye aye, Captain!”, and second, they immediately turn to those they are walking with and give them a play-by-play of what they had just done, as in “Haha, I was all like, ‘Ahoy, matey!’ and pirate-boy was all like ‘DUDE!’ and – haha – what a fuckin’ dumbass!”. I tried my best to ignore it, but they just kept coming. More and more of them, all playing through the exact same script. It was really starting to grate on my nerves after about the fifteenth time.
Finally, when one of them came up and began to open his mouth, I’d had enough. Before he could get a word out, I snapped. I raised my voice and shouted, hoping to get the point across to everyone else as well. “Yes, I’m aware that I am wearing a pirate hat. Avast, ahoy, shiver my fucking timbers! I get it!”
“Um…” His eyes trailed down to the sign in my hand, then up to my hat, then off to one side.
“You’re…not Nick, are you?”
He nodded, glancing back up at my hat, no doubt wondering why a pirate was holding a hand-lettered sign with his name.
“Um…sorry about the…” I trialed off. There was no way to recover from that outburst, and I knew it. I noticed his hair was wet. It was hanging heavily across his forehead, curled up into commas that interrupted his eyebrows. His cheeks had gone red from the cold, and a few drops of rain had collected below his eyes, which were a deep brown. I couldn’t help thinking that was a weird thing for me to notice. I wasn’t even sure of my best friend’s eye color. “I’m Brandon. Collier. I’m here, uh…” What was I there for again? “Oh yeah! To give you a ride. Back. To Curson. Well, not me, but my brother, since he can drive.” Wow. I never considered myself any kind of social butterfly, but this was a whole new world of awkward.
He was still giving me that suspicious sideways look. He had really big eyes. That must be why I noticed them. If my eyes the size of softballs, people would notice what color they were, too. “You want me to just get in your car? Even though I’ve never seen you before?”
“Uh…” Now that I thought about it, he’d have to be pretty stupid to just jump into a car with strangers. “One second. Don’t go anywhere, okay?” I turned and walked quickly around the corner of the building and flagged Mark down with the poster board. He ran over. I looked back at Nick, who had his head down to keep the rain out of his face. A drop of water dripped from the tip of his nose. Did rain always do that? Why didn’t I ever notice that before?
“Hey.” Mark walked over to where Nick was standing. “You Nick?” He nodded. “Cool, cool. I’m Mark, this is Bran. We’re going to Curson. You coming with us?”
“I…don’t know.” He looked between the two of us. “I mean, I thought some guy named Bill was going to pick me up.”
“Nah, Bill sent us. Kind of. And with Bill’s record, you’re way better off for it. But if you don’t trust us, you can call the police.”
“What?” He said.
”What?” I echoed.
“Yeah, call the cops, give them a description of us and our car, and that way if we kill you, they’ll know it was us.”
“That’s the worst plan I’ve ever heard.” I said. “Even if the cops catch us, he’ll be dead. And what if he just dies in some freak accident? Then we’ll get blamed.”
“All the more reason for us to try to keep him safe.” Mark clapped me on the shoulder, jostling my hat. “Coming?”
Nick still looked a little nervous, but he nodded anyway. “I’ve got to pick something up first, so give me one second, okay?” He went back into the building. I wondered if he planned to come back. Or, if he was actually calling the police with our descriptions. Images flashed across the backs of my eyelids: Composite sketches of myself, with a wild look in my eyes, snarling from under the brim of a pirate hat. A news reporter, saying in that dull, objective lilt of theirs, “Caucasian male, mismatched eyes, possibly fleeing the scene in a stolen Spanish galleon.”
A few minutes passed, and a few more people shouted “Ahoy!” in my direction. Mark laughed and waved back to them. I turned away. After what seemed like forever (though my watch said it had been ten minutes), Nick returned, not with an armed escort but with a large frame, turned toward himself.
“Ready to go?” Mark asked. He nodded, and followed us back to the car. Mark asked him if he wanted to throw his stuff in the trunk, and he agreed. We circled around as the trunk popped open, revealing a faceless department store mannequin.
“Oh yeah.” Mark mumbled. “I’ll have to make some room…”
He reached in and took it out, revealing that it was cut off at the thighs. He took it to the passenger seat and propped it up, snapping the seat belt around it’s waist. “I got this last week. Sorry, Bran, but this thing’s got you out-classed. It’s riding shotgun.”
“Yeah, isn’t it great? Oh, give me that hat.” He grabbed the captain’s hat from me before I had a chance to protest and dropped it onto the dummy’s head before stepping back to admire his work. “Yeah-hah. My first mate. And to think, some people waste money getting spinners or decent sound systems for their cars, and just completely ignore the possibilities that a mannequin offers.”
I jumped into the back seat quickly, trying to get my now hatless self out of the rain. Once they had secured Nick’s picture frame in the trunk, he climbed in on the other side.
“Seatbelts, guys.” Mark called. “If I have to stop suddenly, I don’t want one of you guys flying up here and knocking the head off of my co-pilot. What do you think, should we stop to get something to eat before we leave, so we can just make a straight shot back?”
I flashed him a thumbs-up, which he saw through the rearview mirror.
“Okay with you, Nick?”
“Yeah, sure.” He seemed to be doing his best to melt into the door.
Man, that outburst of mine must have really given the wrong impression. I mean, I can be a smartass sometimes, but I don’t think I’m all that intimidating. I hoped he would see that, eventually. I don’t know why, but he seemed like someone I could get along with. It was strange, me thinking like that, since I’m admittedly a pessimist. My parents say that I was cynical from the second I was born – that I got out, took a look around, and said “Oh, great, now I have to deal with these people.” But come on, how am I supposed to have an optimistic view of life when the first thing they do is flip me upside-down and slap me on the ass?
I digress a lot when I get to thinking about stuff like that. You’ve probably noticed. My teachers hate it, but they’re not going to be reading any of this, so I’m going to digress the hell out of it.
I wanted to say something, start up a conversation, but I didn’t know where to start. Nick seemed really uneasy. Not that I could blame him. My brother did just pull a body out of his trunk. It seemed normal to me – just another one of Mark’s weird projects – but to Nick, who wasn’t familiar with my brother’s…”eccentricities”, that might just look creepy.
He looked over, and I remembered that it wasn’t socially acceptable to stare at someone while thinking about how you aren’t starting a conversation with them, so I turned to study the back of the seat in front of me as we pulled out of the lot. He really did have big eyes.