Chapter Two: Divide and Conquer
“Do you have to do that every time?” I watched over my plate as Mark stacked jelly and creamer packets into an increasingly more complex structure.
“You know I only chose this place for the building materials.” The place in question was a greasy little diner on the outskirts of town, a place near the on-ramp, mainly for truckers. Bad service, somewhat creepy atmosphere, and questionable sanitation, but free jelly and creamer at every booth. My brother had his priorities, and pretty much everything was second to condiment-based architecture.
I guess I can’t talk – normally, I’d be working right along side him on a competing structure, fighting him for pieces when our buildings got to about the fifth floor. Today, though…
My eyes, as they had been doing since we took our seats, slid over toward Nick without first asking my permission. I’d never had that problem before – not with a girl, not with a guy, not with anybody – but I wasn’t thinking about the implications just yet. No, I was busy thinking about the way his cheeks were still red, even inside, away from the cold winds. I mean, I’d heard the expression “rosy cheeks” before, but this was the first time I had ever really seen and took notice of it. In Curson, where the weather seems to alternate between “cold and grey” and “warm and grey”, most of the people are kissed by that Midwestern mortuary look – pale enough to read a newspaper through if you hold them up to a bright light. Nick, though…
He looked up and caught my eyes with his. I felt something catch in my lungs, and opened my mouth to say something. I was thinking that it isn’t that weird to be looking at someone if you’re about to talk to them. Of course, since my brain was busy working up that brilliant little strategy, it wasn’t coming up with anything worth saying.
“Uh…” I cleared my throat. “You’re a sophomore, right? I don’t think you’re in any of my classes.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s because I’m only part-time at Curson Public.” He said. “I’m home-schooled for most classes; I just go there for art and music and stuff like that.”
“Your parents think public school’s too easy or something?”
“No, they say it’s…” He rolled his eyes. “’Not a good moral environment.’”
“Morals? No shit?” Mark said, looking up from his building. I shot him the Evil Eye. He responded by raising his eyebrows and glaring in his classic “Whatcha gonna do about it?” expression. Nick must have caught the exchange, because he choked back some laughter behind his water glass.
“So…why’re you here? Columbus, I mean.” Mark asked, reaching over and stealing a few more jelly packets from the empty table next to ours.
“My art teacher entered me in some inter-school, inter-state art show, where we have to stand next to our projects and be really, really bored for a few hours.”
“Did you win?”
“It wasn’t really a contest. Mainly an excuse for teachers to show off, and art school reps to walk around flashing scholarships to see who jumps. That jelly thing you’re building is the best art I’ve seen all day.” He looked over at me. “Unless you count that angry pirate thing as performance art.”
Mark laughed and mumbled something that sounded like “shiver me timbers”. I felt my cheeks heat up. He had been on the other side of the building – was it really that loud?
The waitress came by, gave us the check, and saw Mark’s structure. She rolled her eyes and walked away, not saying anything. Probably the best response we could have hoped for.
The talk turned toward the more usual stuff – what movies we wanted to see, who got away with doing what in the back of a classroom, where to hide the body of a murder victim. Yeah, that’s considered part of the usual when Mark’s around. He says you can tell a lot about a person based on where they would hide the body. I don’t think it did much for the “we’re not kidnappers” image that we’d been going for, though.
That conversation carried us outside and into the car. Nick and I had started to come out of our shells, and Mark, who has never seen the inside of a shell in his life, was being himself, leaving us barely any time to breathe between thoughts. He was talking, I was talking. At some point, Mark dropped out of the conversation to concentrate on driving and listening to the radio, but we barely noticed. I was in the back seat, riding pretty high on that new-friend wave, where everything you say seems to be “on” and the conversation gets to winding around in weird directions, synapses snapping off in rapid-fire recognition, taking each new topic with a thousand different thoughts at once. With each sentence that could have been a throw-away line, one of us would have a story to go with it, and since we didn’t know all of each other’s stories yet, every one of them was interesting. I felt almost…”giddy”, I guess would be the word. And let me tell you, I do not get “giddy”. Ever. Cynic from birth, remember?
By the time we ran low on things to say (or maybe just low on breath) we were nearly home. It was amazing – we had managed to talk for the entire trip. Mark was taking us off of the interstate and into the city. The sun had set, and strangely enough, I felt spent. Just from a conversation. I’m normally a pretty quiet guy, and this was the most I’d talked in a long time. My mouth was dry, my head was ringing. Maybe socializing is like a drug, and if you haven’t worked up a tolerance, something as powerful as that can really hit you hard.
The rain had followed us. I looked up at the windshield wipers slashing their way across the glass, but not accomplishing much. No wonder Mark had stopped talking; it was tough to see through that.
“Where are we dropping you?” Mark called back to Nick.
“One twenty-seventh and Garret.”
“What, just on the intersection?”
“Yeah. I’m right on the corner.”
“All right.” He sounded a bit skeptical, and with good reason: that wasn’t a residential part of town.
On the way there, I agonized over whether or not to ask for a phone number or something. I didn’t know the etiquette for stuff like that. I was hoping that maybe Nick would ask me for a phone number and bypass the whole thing, but that didn’t happen. In the end, I did what came naturally in social situations: chickening out, followed by regretting it later. After all, it was a solid system, built on many years of practice.
We pulled to a stop on Garret Street and said goodbye, giving each other the usual “I’ll see you in school, maybe” routine. He got out, into the rain, and lifted one glove-covered hand to us as we drove off. Now his hair was wet again. I didn’t know how he could stand it.
“Wow, wasn’t expecting that.”
“Huh?” My trance shattered.
Mark caught my blank expression in the mirror. “Didn’t you see the building he went into?”
I whipped around, but we were too far off for me to see. “No, what was it?”
“No way! Reverend Brimstone?”
“Should’ve known. His last name’s Patton, just like the Rev. I bet he’s his son.”
Reverend Terry Patton was known throughout Curson as the leading figure in protestant religion. He was an independent Baptist – we knew that because that’s what it said on the side of the re-painted school bus that he drove around – and his services were televised on the public access channel on Sunday mornings. “Brimstone” was our Dad’s nickname for him, but Curson’s secular community had plenty of others. The best one I ever heard was “Pastor Downer McHellfire”, but it just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Brimstone”, so it never caught on. Aside from the nicknames and the lumbering, traffic-obstructing bus, he was known for hosting such cheery events as the burning of “rock music” (anything that wasn’t a hymn) and the picketing of video rental stores that had adult sections. For the most part, he was viewed as a weird, but mostly harmless, part of Curson culture.
“Wasn’t expecting that at all.” Mark repeated. “I mean, he seemed normal to you, right?”
“Er…yeah.” Except for the way his cheeks were always glowing and his eyes were so big and…well, you know. Stuff.
“Can’t believe it. Brimstone Junior, right here in my own heathen-mobile, and it didn’t burst into flames or anything.”
“Hey, come on. Don’t say stuff like that.”
“About Nick. He’s…” I wasn’t sure how to finish that thought. “He’s okay.”
“Yeah...I guess so. But I can still make fun of his dad, right?”
“Of course.” I paused. “Just…not in front of Nick, okay? He probably gets that all the time.”
“Give me some credit, man. Just ‘cause my socks don’t match doesn’t mean I’m an asshole.”
“God, we’re not back to the sock thing again, are we?”
“No time. By now, the school’s already called and informed the parents. We’ve got to come up with a plan.”
I checked out the window, noticing that the landmarks were looking familiar. We weren’t much more than ten minutes from home.
“We? You shanghaied me. You need a plan, not me.”
He ignored that. “We need some strategy. How about…divide and conquer? I’ll take Mom. You go in, talk to Dad, and just act incredibly pissed off at me. Keep telling him that it’s all my fault.”
“It is all your fault.”
“Keep that attitude and this plan just might work.”
The inside of the house was hot – I could feel the heat grabbing at me as soon as I opened the door. I could hear Dad in the kitchen, so I headed that way while Mark set off to find Mom.
Dad was cutting something when I entered the room. He had a knack for that. Every time one of us came home late, or got in trouble at school, or had been up to no good, he’d be in the kitchen with a knife in his hand. Now, we knew that he would never actually gut us, but my guess is that he liked us to remember that if it came to gutting us, he had the means.
My parents run a small diner in the business district, where all the attorneys and bankers end up going on their lunch breaks, and where my brother and I end up scrubbing dishes for less-than-minimum wage whenever we’re on break from school. You would think that after working in a restaurant all day, the last thing he would want to do is come home and cook stuff, but he likes to try out experimental recipes at home, where he has the time to really mess around. That, and it gives him an excuse to hold a knife.
He turned to face me, crossing his arms and leaning back against the counter without saying anything. Now, my Dad’s not a large man – Mark has a few inches on him, in fact – but he’s intimidating. He has this air of confidence that let’s everyone in the room know that he’s in charge before he even says a word. Normally, whenever Mark and I work out some sort of plan to get out of trouble, it falls apart at this point, sliced up by that knife in his hand before it even reaches his ears.
“Mark kidnapped me.”
“He offered me a ride to school. I accepted. He drove me to Columbus. There was nothing I could do.”
“I couldn’t even call you guys, because I don’t have a cell phone and I didn’t think to bring any change for a pay-phone, since I thought I was going to school.”
This time, I responded to his silence with silence. Go on, try your mind games – I’m being completely honest this time.
He let out a breath and set down the knife.
“So, he drove you to Columbus.”
“He wanted to pick up a friend there. He said he wanted me to navigate and keep him company, since it’s such a long drive.”
“And is this the same story he’s telling your mother right now?”
“Probably not, since this one makes him look bad.” No need to stop with the honesty yet.
“What did you miss in school?”
“No tests or anything. Oh, I was supposed to meet with Dixie to work on a history project, but it’s not due for a few days.”
“You want to give her a call, see what’s going on?”
An out. He gave me an out. That meant it had worked. Well, for now, at least. I didn’t know what Mark was working on, or how it would affect me, but for the moment, I was free. I nodded and left the room, grabbing the phone from its cradle on the way out.
I punched in Dixie’s number on the way to my room. Dixie isn’t her real name – it’s short for Dictionary, a nickname she picked up in middle school after winning all the school and state spelling bees, and even going to the nationals a few times. I once asked her if it bothered her, the way everyone abbreviated a nickname that implied knowledge into a nickname that implied membership in a certain all-girl southern rock trio. Her reply? “’Least it’s better than ‘Dick’.” I’ve been trying to convince her to make that her yearbook quote, but no luck so far.
“Hey. Where were you?”
“Right.” She laughed.
“I stole my brother’s car, drove over the border, and smuggled back a bunch of cheap prescription drugs.” I heard her groan on the other end of the line. “Don’t get upset, I saved you a couple.”
“You left me alone in History. Do you have any idea how boring that class is when you’re not there to throw things at? And we were supposed to work on that paper.”
“You can make it up to me tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow’s Wednesday, isn’t it?” I knew where this was going, and I didn’t like it.
“I’m still not going.”
“Come oooooon.” She whined. “You’re a better writer than I am. I’m just there because I have to be, but you’d like it.”
She had been trying since freshman year to get me to join the Cursives, our school’s competitive writing team, with her. They meet every Wednesday, which means that every Wednesday, I have to put up with her begging me to go with her. I like to write, but the idea of joining the team sounded incredibly dull. Not to mention that walking around with a writing team jacket is just a little better than walking around with a math team jacket, which is barely preferable to going naked.
“You’re seriously going to do this every week until we graduate, aren’t you?”
“Not if you go tomorrow.”
“I don’t have to wear one of their jackets, do I?”
“You don’t get a jacket until you’ve been to a tournament. You know, if you kind of squint, they look like football jackets. Maybe you could pick up near-sighted girls. You know, from a distance.”
“I’d just have to think of dates where I can stay twenty feet away from them.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem. Staying twenty feet away from girls is kind of your specialty, isn’t it?”
“It’s not that I’m staying away from them, it’s that I accept that they want to stay away from me.” Er…wasn’t it? I didn’t like where this was headed. “I guess I’ll go. But just this once, and just because I owe you.”
“I knew it! My powers of suggestion win once more!” She paused. “Did you really skip today?”
“Yeah. But I went to Columbus, not Canada, and I didn’t get any drugs.”
“But you stole Mark’s car?”
“Well…I was in Mark’s car. He was driving, but-”
“So he skipped, and took you with him?”
“Yeah, that sounds more like it. See you tomorrow.”
“Later.” I hung up.
Ugh. Now I was obligated to go to a Cursives meeting. I wondered briefly if Nick was in any extra-curriculars, then wondered about why I was thinking about him at all.
I headed back toward the living room, putting the phone back on its charger on the way. Mom and Dad were talking quietly while Mark waited off to one side. He had finished pleading his case, apparently. I waved him over.
“What’d you say?” I whispered as we stepped into the hallway.
“To Mom? Played the ‘lost childhood’ card. You know, the usual story about how you’re growing up so fast, and how you’ve been acting older than your age for so long, being pre-maturely adultified by The Machine and what not.”
“That’s the usual?”
“Hey, it works. You know Mom always goes for that kind of thing.” It was true – Mom used to be, for all intents and purposes, a hippy. Maybe not a conventional, tie-dyed, pot-smoking hippy (at least, I can’t picture her that way), but a hippy none the less. She mellowed a lot after meeting and marrying Dad, but she still stood by certain principles, and always carried around an understated desire to fight The Machine. I didn’t like the fact that Mark had her convinced that I was a product of The Machine, but I guess if it works, it works.
“You told her that I’m a stuck-up robot, and it somehow got you off the hook?”
“I told her that you needed to do certain things before it was too late. Skipping out of school and going on an unplanned road trip to an art show was something that you’d never done, and I let you experience that.” He caught what I was about to say and pre-emptively replied. “Yes, we went to an art show. I may not have known that’s what it was until after we had already left, and we may not have stepped inside, but we went to one. It counts.”
“And you had me act like I was mad at you…”
“…To enforce their view of you as a run-down, depressed young adult, yes. So uptight that you even see getting a day off of school as a negative.”
I would have argued, but it was sounding more and more correct. Maybe I was part of mom’s arch-enemy, The Machine. I followed the rules, I acted my part, I always wore matching socks. A cynic, a pessimist, a complainer.
Mom called Mark’s name. He ducked back into the living room, while I stayed leaning against the wall in the hallway. From my position, I overheard the sentence: Grounded for the weekend, and no driving for a week, in addition to whatever the school gave him. Me? It sounded like I’d get off. Mark had slid me a Get Out of Jail Free card. All he’d had to do to get it was point out how depressing I was.