Chapter Eleven: Reunion
When I got home on Wednesday, Mark’s car was waiting in the driveway. The mannequin was still strapped into the passenger seat, but now it was wearing a college sweatshirt. I grinned. After the heaviness of the last few days, seeing Mark again was a welcome change.
I had tried calling Corey a couple of times, but he hadn’t returned my calls. Alex told me that he was getting the silent treatment as well. I knew that it probably wasn’t my place to try to mediate this fight, but I couldn’t help wanting to try. Maybe it comes with a life of reading books and staying purposefully aloof – you start to think of yourself as a narrator, a formless force of more-than-nature that holds the universe together without ever getting personally involved. Or maybe it’s just because I never had that many friends of my own, so seeing any friendship end struck a certain nerve with me. Whichever.
I was glad that I could forget about that for a while. I stepped inside and hung my coat and bag by the door. Mark was in the kitchen, cooking.
He spun around, his mismatched socks sliding freely on the linoleum. He was cradling a large mixing bowl, stirring it with a wooden spoon. “Bran! Good timing - I could use some help.”
“What’re you making?”
“You know how to cook that? What happened to your ‘out of the can, into the man’ philosophy?”
“Perhaps there’s a point in every man’s life when he stops living according to things he’s heard in Hulk Hogan movies. Besides, I’ve been working in the kitchen at school for some extra cash.” He said. “Thought I’d show you guys what I learned. Toss me that, uh…green, shaky stuff?”
I handed him the oregano. “So, have you picked a major? Joined a fraternity? Been hassled by an uptight dean, and exacted revenge with a series of escalating pranks?” I’ll admit, everything I know about college I learned from 80’s comedies.
He counted off on his fingers. “No, hell no, a little, and not yet.”
“Wait, there really is an uptight dean?”
“Yeah. For a prank, I was thinking about setting him on fire. But then I got the job in the kitchen, and between that, work-study, and papers, who has the time? Besides, then I’d have to buy lighter fluid, a ski mask, probably at least one match, unless my theory on pyrokinesis pans out…” He shrugged, just as a timer started sounding. “Hey, grab that pot for me?
I took a boiling pot of noodles off of the stove and brought it over to where he was working. We spent the next few minutes assembling the meal, all the while comparing our experiences from the last few months. When we were finished, he pulled another noodle from the pot, testing its weight in his hand. He grinned.
I shook my head. “No way.”
“I’m sure it was cute when we were kids, but-”
He slapped me across the face with the noodle. It left a slimy trail of water running down my cheek.
“You can’t hit an unarmed man!”
“Fight like a man, or die like a dog!” He said, once again raising his boiled bludgeon.
“Who the hell would slap a dog with a noodle?”
“You know, you’re right. I wouldn’t hit a dog. Dogs are cool.” Another wet smacking sound rang out as I was once again hit with the thick slab of pasta.
“You’ve crossed the line, sir.” I reached for the pot and pulled out the other remaining noodle. It must have broken in half, because it was only a few inches long. “Hey, this is hardly fair.”
“My noodle. It’s considerably shorter than yours.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m older than you are.”
“What’s that have to do with…” My eyes went back to the limp piece of pasta in my hand. Before I had a chance to blush, I sent it spinning through the air in his direction. He tried to duck out of the way, but as it turns out, predicting the path of a flying noodle is more difficult than one might expect. It caught him in the neck.
“Nice shot,” He said, peeling it off. “Have you been practicing?”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “I’ve actually been asking people over to help me practice for our inevitable pasta-fight.”
“Sarcasm like that’s got to be worth at least twenty lashes.” He spun the noodle in his hand.
“I take it back,” I said, raising my palms.
“I forget – when we used to do this, how did we decide who won?”
“Mom and Dad always broke it up before it got to that. But they’re not getting home for hours, and I think our weapons are starting to dry out.” He shrugged.
Mark put the lasagna in the oven while I cleaned up the remains of our less-than-epic battle.
“Hey, your birthday is on Friday, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, wiping the noodle-prints off of my face. “Mom’s going to take me to get my license.”
“So you’ll be standing in line, taking tests, and filling out forms all day? That’s no fun.” He shook his head. “Nah. I’m taking you out tomorrow. Round up your people if you want.”
“Dixie, some dudes from the band you’ve been telling me about, whatever.”
“Uh…the band may be a bad idea right now.” Alex and Corey were the only ones I was actually close to, and getting the two of them together at that time seemed like a bad idea. And, likewise, inviting only one of them felt wrong, too. “I’ll check with Dixie, though.”
“Just the three of us? All right.”
“Um…” I glanced at the tiles. “Maybe I could invite somebody else, too?”
“I don’t know yet.” That was a lie, but to be fair, it was mostly a lie to myself.
“Well, whoever you want. Just bring them around tomorrow. I’ll pick you up from school.”
That night over dinner, Mom and Dad grilled Mark about his plans.
“Well,” He said, “I saw this detective show on TV, and thought it might be cool to be one of those forensic scientists.”
Mom and Dad nodded.
“But then I realized that you need to know math to do that.”
They stopped nodding.
“So then I thought about becoming a cop.”
They nodded again.
“But then I realized that I’d probably have to wear a uniform for that. Or, at the very least, a tie. So I was thinking, what’s a career where I wouldn’t have to wake up early, wear a tie, or do math?”
“Writer?” I asked.
“No, but I’ll keep that in mind as a backup.” He looked at Mom and Dad. “I want to be a stand-up comedian.”
Mom smiled and took Dad’s hand, which had begun moving toward his knife. I started to laugh, but one glare from Mom scared that out of me.
“But you’re going to stay in school, right?” She asked. “So that you have something to fall back on?”
“Yeah.” He nodded. “I won’t be able to do any ‘dropping out of college’ jokes, but I’m sure I can make up for it with ethnic stereotyping and observations about how men are different from women.”
I watched as Dad’s shoulders dropped about two inches lower.
“Well, as long as you stay in school.” Mom said. We all knew she was just saying that for Dad’s sake. Neither of them had gone to college, but while he had always regretted it, she wore it as a badge of honor.
“You were watching a detective show, so you were thinking about going into law enforcement,” I said, “and then, what, you got bored and flipped to some stand-up comedy, and decided to do that, instead?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much how it went.” Mark said.
“What would have happened if you’d changed to the animal channel? Or the surgery channel?”
“Animal surgery? I don’t think I’d make a good vet. I’m allergic to cats.”
“Yeah, but you wouldn’t have to wear a tie. At least, I don’t think so.” I said. “Seems like a tie would keep getting in the way while you were operating.” I pantomimed pushing a tie out of the way while slicing with my fork and knife, but brought it to a stop when I saw Dad looking at me.
“So, what about you?” He asked. “Any plans for the future?”
I didn’t know what I wanted to be in the future. Hell, I was having a hard enough time deciding what to be in the present. I shrugged.
“You’re almost sixteen, now. You should start thinking about that.” He said.
Change that number, and I think you’ve got a phrase uttered by every parent to every child at every one of their birthdays. “You’re almost six, now. You shouldn’t need a night-light.” “You’re almost thirteen, now. You shouldn’t need us to get you started on your homework.” “You’re almost old enough to vote, now. You should start paying attention to the news.” I wonder if it’s ever actually worked.
I met up with Dixie in history class the next day and told her about Mark’s plan.
“So, what are we going to do?” She asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think Mark knows, either, to tell you the truth.”
“Oh. In that case, I’m in.”
“I’ll meet you at your locker, okay?”
“Isn’t your locker closer to the door?”
“No. Well, yeah, but…”
She shrugged. “My locker’s fine.”
I exhaled a little too deeply.
“What’s got you so nervous?” She asked.
“Nothing. I’m not. Nervous, I mean.”
“You only fragment your sentences that much when you’re nervous.”
“I can fragment my sentences any time I want. To. Uh, fragment them.”
She smirked. “Right.”
Well, at least I learned that I speak like a scratched CD when I’m nervous. This is good, because I had just been thinking that I could use something new to be self-conscious about.
At the end of the day, I rushed to my locker, packed my bag, and threw on my coat in what must have been record time. Then, I headed toward Dixie’s locker. Now, Dixie’s locker was straight down the hall from where I was – a fairly short trip – but I decided that for today, I’d go through the art wing, which happened to be in the opposite direction.
The art wing is such a different place than the rest of the school. It always smells like cooking clay and hot glue, rather than the old ink and disinfectant smell that permeated the other halls. Instead of the school colors and gold trophies on all the walls, there’s a lot of smeared graphite and sun-faded construction paper. There are huge rolls of paper set up so that anyone can take as much as they need, and unlike anything else that’s offered for free in the school, no one tries to be funny by taking all of it. No one ever tries to leave graffiti in the art wing on the off chance that someone might decide to frame it, thereby removing all street credibility from the act of vandalism.
I’ve never been good at art, myself, but I could see the draw – the art wing was, much like the concerts I had been to, a radical shift in some of the core rules of existence. A constant reminder that no matter what you might have to put up with in ordinary life, there was always somewhere…different. Where things didn’t have to make sense any more. It figures that it was the one place where, via The Collier Rule, my brother had left his mark on the school.
I strolled through casually, like I had every reason in the world to be there, despite having never taken an art class. I paused at the drinking fountain, tied my shoe, took a few seconds to dig a pencil out of my bag and then took a few more seconds to put it back. I was almost ready to give up and head back when I saw a familiar coat with too-long sleeves emerge from a classroom. I added some speed to my walk, catching up to him and falling into step beside Nick. He flinched and jumped away before turning in my direction.
We apologized simultaneously. Nick smiled and started laughing, which caused me to do the same.
“Hey.” I said. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“And I didn’t mean to be scared, so we’re even.” He was still grinning. “But, next time, you can just call my name or something, and I’ll stop. You know, so you don’t have to chase me down.”
“I guess I could do that,” I said, “But then millions of years of primal hunting instincts will be going to waste. It’s not like I’ve got anything else to chase down.” It’s happened every time, but I’m still amazed at how at-ease I can feel once I start talking to Nick. All the nervousness that I feel leading up to it just disappears.
“All right, we’ll compromise – you call out to me, but I won’t stop. That way, you’ll still be chasing me down, and I won’t have any heart attacks.”
“Can I roar, instead of calling your name? Seems more appropriate.”
“No way. That’d desensitize me to roaring. Then, if I got attacked by actual lions, I wouldn’t bother turning around because I’d assume it was you.”
“But if a lion’s roaring at you, chances are you’re not going to get away as it is.”
“I may not be able to get away, but if I’m going to be devoured by something, I want to at least be able to turn around in time to see what it is. I’d want my last thoughts to be, like, ‘Aw man, I’m being eaten by a lion,’ and not ‘Hey, I wonder what just took a bite out of me.’”
“Huh. I always figured that if I got eaten by a lion, I’d know it.”
“Well, now you won’t take that for granted.”
I had almost forgotten why I’d come to see him in the first place, but as we neared the end of the art wing, I remembered. “Oh, yeah. My birthday’s tomorrow, so me, my brother, and Dixie were going to go do something after school. Did you want to come?”
“Really?” He looked flustered for a second, but then straightened himself out. “You…want me to go with you?”
“Well, yeah, if you want.”
He cleared his throat. “Y-yeah. Just give me a second. My mom’s here to pick me up, so I’ll have to let her know, but…yeah. Um, where should I meet you?”
“Mark’s going to be parked in the side lot, so we can wait for you there.”
“Okay, cool. See you there, then.”
He headed for the door, while I aimed myself at Dixie’s locker and went on auto-pilot, listening for lions the whole way. I met up with her and we walked out to the side lot, where Mark was waiting, leaning against his door. He waved as we approached.
“Is this it?” He motioned to me and Dixie.
“No, Nick’s coming, too.”
“In that case, I’d better make some room.” He walked around to the passenger side and unbuckled the mannequin, then carried it to the trunk.
“Nick?” Dixie asked.
“Chip off the ol’ Brimstone.” Mark said from the depths of the trunk.
“Shut up.” I turned back to Dixie. “Yeah, he sat with us at Spring assembly, remember?”
“Oh, that guy? Hm.”
.After a long wait, I saw Nick approaching. He hadn’t found us yet, and was looking around. I was seriously considering roaring at him when Mark shouted “Crowbar!” through his cupped hands, getting his attention.
“Yeah, I got one in my trunk.” A guy who had been passing by stopped and looked at Mark. “You got a flat or something?”
“No, man, I’d need a tire iron for that.” Mark said. “I was…never mind. Thanks, anyway.”
“…Okay.” The guy rolled his eyes and kept walking.
Nick glanced at Mark and Dixie, then walked up to me.
“I can’t go. Sorry.” His eyes were aimed at the asphalt.
“What? Why?” I took a few steps away from the others, and he followed.
“It’s my mom. She says she doesn’t know you well enough.”
“She knew us well enough to have us drive you from Columbus, though?”
He shrugged. “Don’t ask me.”
“Do you think it would help if we talked to her?”
He looked up. “I don’t know. No one’s ever tried it before.”
“Hey, Mark,” I called, “You want to try something no one’s ever tried before?”
“Hell yes.” Mark said.
“You won’t be able to say ‘hell’.”
“Uh…” I turned back to Nick and shrugged. “He’ll be quiet.”
“What are we doing?” Mark asked.
“We’re going to convince Nick’s mom that we’re not Satanists. You think you can act normal long enough to pull it off?”
“Why, Goodman Bran. Are you implying that I might speak out of turn? And in front of Goodwife Patton, no less? I dare say you make it sound as though I’ve been courting the devil his-self.”
“Yeah, see, that’s exactly what you can’t do for the next couple of minutes.” I said.
“Well, I think I just exhausted my supply of pilgrim-speak, so we should be fine.”
“Well, let’s do it.” Dixie said. “Lead the way.”
Nick nodded, and we followed him out of the side lot and in the direction of the front of the building, where his Mom was parked. Nick knocked on her window and motioned for her to roll it down. They exchanged a few words, but I was too far away to make them out. Then, Nick stepped to one side, and I saw Mrs. Patton for the first time.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but she wasn’t it. She looked…normal. Exactly how you’d expect someone’s mother to look. She smiled, and it didn’t look forced or insincere. For a moment, I thought that maybe she was being reasonable about wanting to get to know us before she let Nick come with us.
“Hello,” She said. “I’m Valerie Patton.”
We introduced ourselves. Dixie even used her real name. I thought we looked pretty non-threatening. Dixie and I dress like geeks, so there was nothing to worry about there, and Mark was wearing some plain jeans and his green shamrock sweater – nothing offensive there. Still, I noticed Mrs. Patton’s eyes stop on it.
“Oh, are you Irish?” She asked.
“Our Dad is.” I said.
“You aren’t papists, are you?”
“I’m not sure what that is.” I looked over at Mark, who shrugged.
“She wants to know if you’re Catholic.” Nick said, his eyes on the ground again. “Sorry.”
Mrs. Patton smiled. “Oh, good. I assume you’re simply lost, then?”
“Lost?” I looked around.
She nodded and turned to Nick. “You know what you need to do.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He said.
“Okay. I want you back before seven.”
She said goodbye to Nick and drove off.
“Sorry about that.” Nick said.
“What was that about?” Dixie asked. “What’s wrong with Catholics?”
He sighed. “Okay, when I say this, please remember that it’s not what I believe, okay?” We nodded. “Growing up, I was taught some weird stuff about Catholics. That they sacrifice babies to Satan, that they were behind communism, the mafia, the Nazis, the assassination of Lincoln…”
“What?” I started to laugh, but stifled it. “Sorry.”
“No, you can laugh at that all you want, ‘cause it’s ridiculous. Like I said, I don’t believe it. But they do, which is why she asked.”
“And that other stuff? When she said that you know what you need to do?” Mark asked.
“Oh. I’m supposed to witness to you. My Dad says that we’re not supposed to refuse to talk to…heathens,” His eyes rolled before dropping back to the ground, “But that if we have to talk to you, it should be about Jesus. But, you guys already know the story, right?”
“Yeah.” Mark said. “He died and came back to save everyone. Like RoboCop.”
“Close enough. So, can we just not talk about it any more?”
It was then that I realized that Nick hadn’t smiled since we had left the school. He looked so uncomfortable and out-of-place, so different from how he usually acted. It was like that encounter with his Mom had drained him. Was it always like that? When he was at home, did he walk around with his head down, mumbling?
We made it back to the car, where Dixie called “shotgun” – something that I’d never seen her do before. Mark and Dixie got into the car, but Nick pulled me aside.
“Look, I didn’t mean to…” His whole body seemed to be slumped toward the ground now, not just his eyes. “I can call for someone to pick me up, if you want. I’m really sorry.”
“Because I’m bringing everybody down. I shouldn’t have made you talk to my Mom, and I shouldn’t be…I don’t want to ruin your birthday, okay?” He didn’t just look uncomfortable – now he looked downright miserable. I felt my chest tighten up. More than anything, I wanted to hug him. Not in a romantic way – I just wanted to do something make him feel better. Still, I knew I couldn’t do something like that.
“I’m really glad you’re here.” I said. “If you want to go, you can, but I’d much rather have you come along.”
He looked up. “Are you sure?”
“Positive. Now come on, these drugs aren’t going to sell themselves.”
I grinned and opened the door for him. He laughed as he climbed in and slid over to the other side. I got in next to him and slammed the door on that whole incident.
“What took you guys so long?” Mark asked.
“Fighting over who gets the window seat.” I said. “It was a tie.”
“Oh, okay.” Mark started up the car and we took off.
“So, where are we going?” Dixie asked.
Mark didn’t answer. 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”. It felt strangely familiar.
“I still don’t jump out of moving cars,” I said.
“Well, I don’t know how much you’ve changed since I’ve been gone.”
When we came to a stop, we were parked in front of a building I didn’t recognize. When the doors were unlocked, we stepped out and followed Mark inside.
There were rows of pool tables lined up inside, along with dartboards and a few arcade games and a jukebox, all of which surrounded a large bar. The only other person in the building was a woman behind the bar, who was currently playing video poker and ignoring us.
“Damn, it’s deserted.” Mark said, turning to me. “I was hoping to find somebody to hustle you.”
“What?” I asked.
“Dude, you’re almost sixteen, and you’ve never lost a bet to a pool hustler.” He sighed. “Oh well. Looks like I’ll just have to school you, then.”
He walked up to the bar and handed the woman some money for a table, then walked back and selected a cue stick.
“Okay, how about teams? Who’s played before?” Mark asked.
Nick raised hand.
“Okay, so how about you and Bran against me and Dixie?” Mark said. “To keep the skill level a bit more even.”
“Sure.” Nick said. “Did you want to place a bet?”
Mark laughed. “Gambling? And here I thought we’d be the ones corrupting you.”
Nick grinned. “Losers buy drinks for the winners?”
“All right. But I’ll feel bad about taking Bran’s cash on his birthday. You guys can go first.”
Nick didn’t say anything, just kept smiling as he approached the table. He sank two balls on his first shot, called “low,” and proceeded to remove every low-numbered ball from the surface of the table, using his stick to judge angles and finding shots that I wouldn’t have even thought to try. The whole time, he had this adorable look of satisfied concentration on his face, occasionally closing one eye or pausing to lean back and survey the whole table. Finally, he pocketed the eight ball and turned to Mark.
“How…” Mark spread his hands and shook his head. “What just happened?”
“I think you just got hustled.” Dixie said.
“There’s a pool table in the church basement.” Nick said. “And we don’t have a TV, so…” He shrugged.
“How come I had to be on your team?” Dixie asked, looking to Mark. She reached for her purse, but Mark waved in dismissal.
“I’ve got it.” He pulled out his wallet. “Root beer okay with you guys?”
Nick and I nodded, and Mark walked to the bar to get the drinks. Dixie, meanwhile, wandered over to the jukebox and started flipping through the various selections.
“That was awesome,” I said to Nick. “You murdered him.”
“I didn’t want to show off or anything,” He said. “I just had to make sure I won, because I don’t have any money.”
“What? Then why’d you make the bet?”
“I, uh…” He looked away. “Wanted to get you something for your birthday. I mean, it’s just a drink, but…” He shook his head. “But I knew I could probably win, anyway, so it’s no big deal.”
“Really? Thanks.” And, for the second time that day, I had a powerful urge to hug him. “You didn’t have to.”
“I know I didn’t have to. You didn’t have to invite me. You didn’t have to go through the Baptist inquisition with my Mom. You didn’t have to talk me into staying.” It was difficult to tell in the dim lighting, but I think he was blushing. “I know I probably sound like a loser for saying it, but…you don’t know how much it means to me.”
I think that if Mark hadn’t come back right then, I might have actually put my arms around him. I don’t know what would have happened from there. No need to speculate on that, however, since Mark did choose that time to return with our drinks, and Dixie plugged a couple quarters into the jukebox to give us a little background noise.
After seeing Nick play pool, we knew that no one else had a chance, so we spent the rest of the time messing around with the arcade games – light guns, fighters, air hockey, trivia, and anything else that looked interesting. It soon turned into a bragging contest, in which the actual winner of the game didn’t matter nearly as much as the person who could come up with the best boasts about how badly they were going to beat the others. We had the place to ourselves, so we were free to be as loud as we wanted.
It went by way too fast – it felt like hardly any time had passed at all before it was time to go. We dropped Nick off first, then Dixie, then pulled into our own driveway. Before we went inside, I hugged Mark and thanked him.
I fell asleep that night with Nick on my mind. This time, I didn’t try to force the thoughts out with reason or skepticism or fear. I figured it wouldn’t do any good, now – I knew that from then on, I’d think of him whenever I drank root beer, played pool, or saw a lion. And while I didn’t do those things very often, the fact that I had so strongly associated him with anything was enough to mark myself as hopeless. Hopeless, but at least not in denial.