Chapter Nine: Class
“What happened to your face?” Dixie raised one hand to my temple. I pulled back, not because I didn’t appreciate it, but because it looks weird to have somebody touching your face in the middle of the hallway between classes. I was cleaned up now, with no blood or anything, but my bottom lip was a little swollen and I had a black eye. It wasn’t terrible, but it was conspicuous.
“Remember what you told me about getting hurt at concerts?”
“You went to another one?”
“Yeah. Last night. But if my parents ask, I was doing homework with a friend.”
She smiled and nodded to me. “You rebel.”
I shook my head and pointed a thumb at my chest. “No, jackass.”
“You can be both. So, you’re okay?”
“Really tired, and my face hurts…” I paused, just in case she wanted to use the old “Well, it’s killing me!” line. She didn’t. “But other than that, I’m fine.” That wasn’t entirely true – I still had no idea where I stood with Alex. After he had stormed out the previous night, he unloaded all of the band’s equipment from his van and drove off, and no one had seen him since. I didn’t want to get into that, though.
“That’s good.” She said. “So, are you doing anything on Saturday?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Cool. I got into this writing tournament with the Cursives. It’s on Saturday, and…uh, do you want to come?”
“Just for support. It’s a district-wide thing, so I’m the only one going from our school.”
“You’re representing us?”
“Yeah. I won the qualifier last month, so they’re sending me.”
“Yeah, sure, I’ll go with you. Where is it?”
“Weldon-Taft.” That explains why she wants some company. The Weldon-Taft Learning Academy was Curson’s most renowned private school. All the big-shots sent their kids to Weldon-Taft: doctors, lawyers, city council - even the mayor had both of his kids enrolled there. The students there were notorious for being stuck-up and spoiled, but I’d never met one, myself, so I couldn’t say.
“When do we leave?”
“Seven, Saturday morning. My Mom’s driving.”
“Seven? Aw…I had plans for seven on Saturday.”
“You can sleep in the car.” She knew me well.
The warning bell sounded, and we filed into class. I was too tired to concentrate on much of anything. I spent most of the day waiting for it to end, so that I could get home and go to sleep. Alone, in my own bed, above ground. But, unfortunately for me, it was Wednesday, which meant going to driving school. An extra four hours added to my sentence.
My spirits fell even lower when the instructor announced that this was our last class, and that we would be taking the official written test. If we passed, we would be allowed to take our road tests and get our licenses. If not…well, I’d be walking.
Luckily, it was easy enough to pass while my brain was running on sleep-starved auto-pilot. It was all about lanes and signals and things that Dad had been drilling me about while we were practicing driving in the cemetery. Plus, being a quick reader, I’d gone through the Bureau of Motor Vehicles’ new driver handbook a half-dozen times, so I had no trouble with most of the test. Mom drove by to pick me up afterwards.
“What happened to your face?” Mom asked as soon as I climbed into the car.
“You know, I’ve been getting that a lot today. If I wasn’t so bruised up, I’d be insulted.” I joked, trying to lighten the mood. It didn’t work. She was still looking at me expectantly. “I tripped.”
“And, what, fell into a doorknob? You don’t get black eyes from tripping.”
“Well, I tripped after somebody hit me in the eye.”
“Who hit you?”
“I don’t know. It was an accident.”
“How do you accidentally punch someone in the eye?”
“He didn’t punch me, it was his elbow. He was facing the other way, and he pulled back his elbow when I happened to be standing there. He didn’t even see me until I was on the floor.” I said. “But he helped me up and got me to the b...office. Really, it’s no big deal.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yep.” I pulled a sheet of paper out of my backpack and showed it to her.
“Certificate of completion.” I said. “I’m done with driving school.”
“Well, congratulations! Now you can take the road test, right?”
“Do you want to do that this weekend? It’s supposed to be nice outside. No snow.”
“The Bureau’s closed on Sunday, isn’t it? And I already promised Dixie I’d go with her on Saturday. She’s in some kind of tournament at Weldon-Taft.”
“Oh, okay. You know, we probably have to make an appointment, anyway. Do you still have that book they gave you? I’ll call down there and see if we can get set up.”
“Thanks,” I said, handing her the book. It would be cool to have my license. I wanted to be able to go places on my own without having to walk through Curson’s not-quite-pristine weather.
It had been a while since I had talked to Mark, so I gave him a call that night. I meant to tell him about being close to getting my license, to find out when he was coming back for Spring Break…stuff like that. Casual conversation. But, when it comes to Mark, I can’t hide things. I hadn’t told anyone else about myself and Alex, but with him, it just came pouring out. It seemed like he was the one person that I would always end up confessing everything to. I’d have to keep that in mind if I ever murdered anyone.
“So, what’s he hiding?” Mark asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he got really defensive when you started asking him personal stuff, right?”
“Yeah, but that’s just how he is. I mean, the other guys told me that he doesn’t like to talk about himself.”
“Yeah. You realize how weird that is, right? For a seemingly happy, somewhat popular teenager to not want to talk about himself?” He said. “I mean, come on, you’re supposed to think that you’re the center of the universe at that age. And I should know, since I am that age, and I am most definitely the center of the universe.”
I laughed. “That’s ‘cause you’re an egomaniac.”
“Even so. Whatever this guy’s hiding, it has to be big enough to make him want to walk out on you, instead of answering your questions and then trying to make a move on you again.”
“Okay, so what is it?”
“I don’t know, that’s what I asked you.” He paused. “What’d you ask him? Right before he ran off, I mean.”
“His last name.”
“No, he told me that. Then I asked…where he lives, if he has a job, why he doesn’t go to school…stuff like that.”
“Ah, there you go. You got into some financial stuff.”
“That’s not too personal, is it? To ask somebody who’s trying to get you in bed?”
“Well, you might have come off as shallow, asking about money while he’s trying to seduce you.”
“I…didn’t mean it to sound like that. I was just trying to say that I didn’t know him well enough to-”
“Dude, I know. I’m on your side. To tell you the truth, if he’d touched you, I would have had to kill him when I got back. And after hearing this, I still might.”
“No killing.” That’s the second time I’d had to say that in only two days.
He paused, and the line was quiet for a few seconds. “You know, maybe he’s embarrassed.”
“When you started asking where he lived and stuff. Maybe he’s from the poor side of town, and he doesn’t go to school because he has to work full-time.”
“Oh.” Now that I thought about it, it seemed like it could be right. It all fit. He was embarrassed about where he lived. “That would make sense. So…what do I do?”
“You don’t have to do anything. Just because he’s poor doesn’t give him a free pass to treat you however he wants.” He sighed. “But, since I already know you’re going to forgive him…”
“Hey, I’m not that predictable!”
“Yeah? What color are your socks?”
I glanced down. Ordinary grey work socks.
“Bright red. With polka-dots.”
“Heh. Both of them? Predictable.”
“Don’t be upset. Somebody’s got to keep the system running.”
“I am not keeping the system running!”
“Right, sock-matcher. Hey, I hate to change the subject, but before I go, I’ve got to ask you something.”
“What do you use as a bookmark?”
“Huh? What kind of question is that?”
“It’s for a survey. I’ve got to ask twenty people by next week. Apparently, you can tell what someone’s like by their bookmark.”
“Well, like, if they fold over the page, then they don’t really care about preserving the book for a long period of time – they plan on just reading it quick and then moving on. If they memorize the page numbers, they read their books really quick, in one or two days, always keeping their progress in their mind. And, if they put something between the pages, then they can take their time, and it also keeps it in good condition so they can read it again later or give it to someone else.”
“Does that work?”
“I don’t know, it’s part of a team project I’m working on. So, what do you use?”
“You memorize the numbers?”
“No, computer memory. Remember the sticks of RAM that we replaced when we upgraded? I’ve got ninety-six megabytes in my history book, and one-twenty-eight in the novel I’m working on.”
“Bran, you’re the most spectacularly geeky person I know. And I mean that in an awed, reverent kind of way, not an insulting kind of way.”
“I’ve got to go. Call me and keep me posted, huh?”
“Sure. Later.” I hung up.
Even though my mind was cranking away, I was tired enough that I had no problem falling asleep that night.
Corey found me at my locker the next morning, before school.
“Hey, where are you sitting at the assembly today?”
“Upper left corner, if you’re facing the banner.” Nearly every group of friends at school, whether an organized clique or a loose association, had a spot staked out on the bleachers for assemblies. We were always told to stick with our classes, but everyone got conveniently lost as soon as they entered, and went to their preferred spot so they could talk to their friends rather than actually listen to the speakers. Dixie and I had a pretty nice piece of real estate staked out, but thanks to being a two-person team instead of a large congregation, we could fit almost anywhere.
“Okay. I’m going to be right across from you. Keep an eye on me right when it’s about to start.” He grinned. “I guarantee you the best assembly ever. I’ve been planning this since the last one.”
He held up a finger, silencing me. “Shh…it’s a surprise. But spread the word: best assembly ever.” He nodded before walking away. I shrugged to myself, and spent the rest of the day wondering what was going to happen.
The assembly started at one o’clock, and was set to run until two, when we were dismissed. This was where the teams for the spring semester were introduced, one player at a time, while the cheerleaders and dance team bounced around to generic hip-hop beats. Curson Public wasn’t huge on school spirit. At least, none of the students were. The faculty tried their best to get us into it, but we preferred our system of breaking up into social groups and talking amongst ourselves.
When the assembly was about to begin, I was on the way to my usual spot when I ran into Nick. It looked like he had gotten separated from his class, but judging by his expression, it wasn’t done intentionally. Now he was looking around for a seat. I tapped him on the shoulder and he spun around to face me. It was too loud to talk in the middle of the crowd, and people were already shoving to get us out of the way, so I motioned for him to follow me.
We pushed our way to one of the upper levels, where Dixie was waiting with her coat thrown across the bench, saving a seat for me. Luckily, there was enough room for Nick, too.
“Hey,” Dixie said, as we got situated.
“Dixie, this is Nick. Nick, Dixie.” They nodded to each other.
As the assembly started and everyone got into their seats, I spotted Corey. He was on the other side of the gym, across from us, but his tall frame and shaved head made him stick out. I pointed him out to Dixie.
“That’s one of the guys in the band,” I said. “I think he’s going to do something.”
“Is he the bassist you were telling me about?” She asked.
I shook my head. “No, drummer.”
“Ha! I knew it. I told you drummers are always hot.”
“Eh?” I looked back and forth between Dixie, the small, quiet, spelling bee champ, and Corey, the big, anti-authority skinhead. If that’s her type, it’s no wonder we never went through any childhood-crush phases with each other.
“Hey, what’s he got?” Nick asked.
I looked back to see that Corey’s head was down, and he was holding something in his lap. Something that was getting gradually bigger. When he pulled away, it became clear what it was – a now-inflated beach ball. He looked around, put his fingers to his lips, and whistled loudly. All of a sudden, from three other directions as well as his own, beach balls floated up into the air above the bleachers.
That was the day I learned how easy it was to set off a gymnasium full of high school kids. Apparently, four beach balls in strategic locations is enough. People started batting the balls back and forth, spiking them at each other’s heads, pushing each other out of the way to get a clear shot, even chasing them onto the gym floor when they fell out of reach of the crowd.
“Wow.” Nick said, the three of us watching from our isolated corner. “You know what they’re going to do now, right? They’re going to have to ban balls from the gym.”
The teachers were already chasing the balls around, demanding that they be handed over, but that only gave the previously disorganized crowd a mission: keep the balls away from the teachers. Whenever a teacher got close to one of the balls, someone nearby would grab it and hurl it to the other side of the gym, and those who saw it would applaud. I looked over to where Corey was sitting. He was leaning back with his arms crossed, a satisfied smile on his face.
A teacher grabbed one of the balls. As he carried it away, people shouted at him, booing and calling him “no fun” and “fascist”. One by one, the other balls were collected and carried off, with the same response from the student body. The Spring semester sports teams, stuck standing on the gym floor in their suits and ties, looked upset about having missed out on the excitement.
Eventually, things got quiet enough for the actual assembly to begin.
“Whoa,” Dixie whispered. “That was amazing.”
“I know.” I said. “Best assembly ever.”
The three of us talked for a while, occasionally stopping to play “In Bed” with the small group on the bleacher directly below us. It’s a classic game – everybody in the nearby area plays, interjecting the words “…in bed” into the speech being delivered. That’s a game that transcends cliques and sub-cultures. It doesn’t matter who you’re sitting with; they’ll join a game of “In Bed”. Some of the highlights of that days game included “This team’s been playing extra hard (…in bed),” and “Our pitcher, Riley, has the fastest arm in the state (…in bed).” Sure, it’s immature, but nobody can act mature all the time.
At some point during the assembly, I found myself looking at Nick again. I hadn’t looked at him in that way in a long time. His eyes were reflecting the gym’s high-powered lights, and were conveying his smile every bit as much as his lips. Smiling, during the Spring sports assembly. It was like he could find something to be happy about no matter where he was. It must have been contagious, because I felt a smile of my own starting to break through.
He looked over at me, and I knew I’d been caught staring, so I said the first thing that came to mind.
“What do you use as a bookmark?”
“Whatever’s around. Right now I’m using one of the free rulers that they gave us in drawing class.”
“Oh. Cool.” I felt my lips curling up into a smile.
He laughed. “What’s that about?”
“Nothing.” I shrugged. I looked over at Dixie, who was giving me a funny look. “Uh, how about you? What do you use for a bookmark?”
“Nothing. I stop at the end of a chapter, and remember that.” Mark hadn’t mentioned that option. Seems like it would be a lot easier to memorize a chapter number than a page number, so she’d be able to wait a decent amount of time between readings, but at the same time, she’d have to set aside enough time to finish a whole chapter before she sat down to read.
“What about you?” Nick asked.
“Uh…” I wasn’t sure I wanted to sound “spectacularly geeky,” as Mark had put it, in front of Nick.
“He uses RAM.” Dixie said.
Gee, thanks, I thought.
“The computer thing?”
“Yeah. It’s pretty flat, so it works.” She said.
“I’ve never seen the inside of a computer,” He said, “So I don’t know what that looks like.”
“Really? Show him, Bran.” She nudged me. “You’ve got a book with you, right?”
Mentally, I sighed. Physically, I nodded and unzipped my backpack. I opened up my History book to the marked page, where a green stick of RAM was lying nestled between the pages. Nick leaned over to look.
“Oh, cool.” He picked it up and flipped it around in his hand.
“Don’t encourage him.” She punched me lightly on the shoulder, smiling. “He’s just doing it to look smart.”
“Well, yeah, but he is smart, so it’s okay.” Nick said, dropping it back into my book. “I think it’s cool. More, uh…personal than a regular bookmark.”
I felt myself blushing, so I bent over to slide the book back into my bag and zip it closed.
“Seriously, though, what’s this bookmark stuff about?” Dixie asked.
“Oh, some project Mark’s working on at school. A survey or something. I told him I’d ask around.” That was mostly true.
The band started playing the school’s fight song, and everyone stood up. When it ended, we were all dismissed. Dixie, Nick, and I stayed in our corner until the main rush of students cleared.
As we were leaving, I heard Corey call to me. He was leaning against the outside of the building, and ran up to us.
“How’d you like it?” He asked.
“Very nice.” I said. “Your first public disturbance?”
“Nah, but definitely my most efficient.” He said. “After last year, I decided I had to do something during the Spring assembly. I call it my ‘Riots of Spring’.” He spread his hands for emphasis. I looked back, blankly. “Get it? ‘Riots of Spring’? Like ‘Rites of Spring’? You know, the band? Mid-eighties? DC scene? Nothing? Awww…” He groaned. “My references are wasted on you, man.”
I shrugged. “Maybe next time.”
It was only then that he noticed that I wasn’t alone. “Hey, who’s this?”
“Corey, this is Dixie and Nick.”
“Dixie…hey, the Dictionary girl, right?” Corey asked. Dixie smiled and nodded, obviously glad not only to be recognized, but that someone had actually called her Dictionary for once. Corey turned to Nick. “And you look familiar, too, but I can’t quite remember. Sorry.”
“’S okay.” Nick said, shrugging.
“You guys want a ride home?” He asked.
I looked at the others. Dixie nodded.
“I’ve got someone coming to pick me up,” Nick said, “So I’ve got to go with them.” He said goodbye and headed for the parking lot.
“Okay. Just you two, then?”
“Oh! No.” Dixie said. “I let somebody on the bus borrow my Math book this morning. I’ve got to get it back for tonight. I’ll see you later.” She waved and left in the direction of the busses.
“All right, then. Just us?”
I nodded and followed him to his car. We talked about the riot he incited, the band, the show they had played – typical car-ride conversation. Then, he brought up Alex.
“He’s still got our equipment in his van. He took off with it the other night, so he’d better be there for practice tomorrow, or I’m going to be pissed.”
“He’s always there on Fridays, isn’t he?”
“Almost always, yeah. So I’m not too worried. I don’t think he’d rip us off or anything.”
“Do you know where he lives, so you can go get the stuff if you have to?” I’ll admit, I was still curious.
“You’ve known him for this long and you’ve never been to his house?”
“Um…” He turned to me, his expression serious. “Look, this stays between us, okay?” I nodded. “I mean it. This is major, confidential, top-secret stuff, okay?”
“Alex lives in his van, dude.”
“What? Seriously?” I had been looking out the window, but at that, my head snapped around to face him.
“Yeah.” He seemed so nonchalant about it.
“Does he need help or something? I mean, what, did his parents kick him out?”
“One question at a time. His parents probably kicked him out, yeah. He doesn’t talk about it. The one time I asked, all he said was ‘They’re assholes’, and he changed the subject, so I think it’s a pretty good guess. Second, no, he doesn’t need help.”
“Um…does he work?”
“Work? Hell no. He’s living the life. You ever read ‘Days of War, Nights of Love’?”
I shook my head.
“What about ‘Recipe for Disaster: An Anarchist Cookbook’? Or ‘Steal This Book’?”
“Man, I thought you said you read. Ah, never mind. Point is, there’s no reason to have a job. You can get free food easily. Same with clothes and stuff. When it comes down to it, there’s nothing that you can’t find, make, or steal.”
“I guess, but…”
“And I help him out whenever I can. It’s not like he’s on his own.”
“Do the others know? Scott, Sarah, Carl?”
“No. And we’re trying to keep it that way. I know they wouldn’t rat on him, but you know how it is – the more people who know about it, the harder it is to keep it a secret. If the wrong people find out, he could end up as a ward of the state. Plus, even though he tries to play it off, like he’s going against the system and doesn’t need anybody…I think he’s still embarrassed about it. If the others started asking, he’d probably tell them, but for now, it’s kind of a need-to-know basis.”
“And you think I need to know?”
“Well, you guys are going out, right?”
“Not really, no.”
“Really?” He asked. “I could’ve sworn you two had something going on.”
“Maybe, for a while. Not anymore, though.”
“You’re not dumping him because he’s homeless, are you?” He took his eyes off the road long enough to shoot me an intense look. “Because that’s pretty fucked up. He’s already on his own, so-”
“No!” I had to cut him off. “It was over with already.” I didn’t bother to tell him that Alex had actually been the one to break it off with me.
“Oh, okay. Sorry. I just…get kind of protective. You know.”
“I know. It’s cool.”
We pulled into my driveway.
“So…thanks for the ride. And for telling me.” I said, stepping out. “Oh, and for the riot.”
On Friday morning, Mom told me that she would be picking me up after school. She had scheduled my road test for that afternoon, and was cutting out of work early to drive me there. This made the day drag on, but at least it gave me something to be anxious about other than how I would react to seeing Alex. I’d be taking my test during the time when I usually met with the band, so it looked like that particular awkward moment would be deferred.
I passed the test, but the government red tape kept me from getting my license right away – all I got was another certificate. It would still be a while until I could drive on my own.
Saturday began with the worst of all ways for a Saturday to begin – with my alarm clock buzzing. I stumbled through the motions of getting dressed, brushing my teeth, and getting my stuff together for school. Then, I realized that it was Saturday, dropped my stuff, stripped off my clothes, and jumped back into bed. Just as I was about to fall asleep, I remembered that I had to go with Dixie to her tournament at Weldon-Taft, groaned loudly, and put my clothes back on. I grabbed my backpack and stuffed in Mark’s portable CD player and the stack of “inspiration” discs that Alex and Corey had given me. I figured that I had better have something to keep me from falling asleep, since I was sure that attending this competition mostly involved standing around while rooms full of people write.
At seven, I heard a knock at the door. I grabbed my coat, threw my pack over my shoulder, and stepped outside. I followed Dixie to her mom’s car, where she got in the front seat to re-read the instructions and tips that she had been given for the tournament, while I climbed into the back seat and fell asleep.
Weldon-Taft was a huge, modern-looking building with a lot of glass and smooth white walls. We went to the main lobby, where everyone was meeting, and looked around. It was immediately obvious who the public school kids were, compared to the private school kids. The publics, like Dixie and I, were dressed in regular street clothes. Not ripped, faded, sloppy-looking clothes, but just regular, maybe slightly dressy clothes. The private school kids were all wearing immaculately pressed and cleaned school uniforms, with the crests and logos of their schools emblazoned on their chests.
The public school kids also had much smaller cheering sections. Like Dixie, a lot of them only brought their parents and one or two friends. The private schools apparently thought of this tournament as a social event, and so each of their contestants had an entire entourage with them, including not only their parents and other students, but the other students’ parents, as well.
There was an announcement made that the first round was about to take place, and the contestants were all given room numbers. Dixie’s Mom and I waved to her as she disappeared down a hallway.
Now, things got awkward. This was a classy affair – not the kind of place where I could just slip on some headphones and phase out. I felt completely out of place, and I could tell that Dixie’s Mom did, too. We hung near the back and talked, eventually merging with some other small groups of public school patrons while the suit-wearing, hob-knobbing types commandeered the center of the room. It was one of the longest, most boring, and most uncomfortable events I had ever attended.
Between the rounds, the contestants would come back out, so I got to talk with Dixie. That wasn’t so bad. But, those between-round intermissions lasted only fifteen minutes, compared to the hour that each round was given. Halfway through the third round, I slipped out of the lobby to look for a restroom. Even the restrooms were classy at Weldon-Taft. They had wallpaper, and cloth towels, and real bars of soap instead of that slimy kind that you have to squirt out of those metal dispensers. As I stepped out, I nearly ran into someone. I started to apologize, but my voice caught when I saw who it was.
It was Alex, with his hair neatly combed, his suit immaculately pressed, and the Weldon-Taft crest embroidered on his chest.