Searching is not the same as finding. Right now I don’t want to do either. But right now isn’t about me. It’s about this crowd of most of the entire town, huddled beneath the pines, listening to my uncle Tom. It’s about the instructions he’s giving about how we’re going to look, and how we’re hopefully going to find. It’s about the who we’re trying to find. Or, depending on how you look at it, the what. It’s about Mary.
“So once we’re in the woods, stay as close as possible. Move as a line, and go slow. I can’t overstate that. Move like you’re looking for your car keys. If you find anything out here that seems like it doesn’t belong, or that might be Mary’s, you blow that whistle around your neck.” Tom looks us over and he catches my eye, holds it for a long moment, and then nods to the group.
We turn, take our places, and start walking.
It’s been a week since the Amber Alert went out, since the town began worrying for their “daughter,” and then as the days passed, started wondering if a killer’s on the loose. No one has slept or eaten or prayed without thinking of her. No one with a heart.
It’s been seven days since Mary fought with her boyfriend, Calder. Seven days and one hour since she fought with her dad, Reverend Matthison.
Now, I walk with my friend Charlie and my girlfriend, Beth, with Calder and Mary’s father side by side amid the reverend’s congregation, who are all holding hands. I’ve got my eye on Calder and Reverend Matthison. We do. The entire town does. Religious or not, they were the last to see her alive, and everyone knows that statistic.
“Hey, Avery, you all right?” Charlie asks, bringing my attention back to center, to the ground before me.
“No.” It’s all I can say, because what I’m thinking, what I’m imagining, are too much. If I said them, my uncle would have to lock me up for questioning just to appease everyone within earshot. Fortunately, Charlie nods, scratches his beard, and moves on.
Beth puts her hand in mine, squeezes tight. I squeeze back.
We keep walking, heads down, wordless, and soon step over a dead, moss-covered tree. It’s rained for a week straight, and we sink into the mud on the other side.
Charlie and Beth get free quickly, but my right foot is covered. “Give me a hand.”
They both offer one and pull me loose. My foot makes a sucking fart sound. Charlie smiles. I try not to, but fail. “Did you shit your pants, Av?” he asks.
I laugh and check my pants as a joke. “Nope, looks good.”
Beth laughs, too, but then to our left we hear deep male voices. “Quit messing around, Chase. We all know it’s just a shit show down there.”
“You wearing a fake dick today?” one of them says to me.
The jokes sting, but I refuse to look at these assholes. It’s what they want, and I’m long past giving anyone here what they want.
Charlie doesn’t mind speaking up. “We’re all here for one thing, right? Let’s just do that.” His voice is a growl.
“Your point?” another one of them asks.
Beth steps to them, her red hair snapping along her back as she does. “Really? You need it explained more?”
One of them says, “Whatever. Move on, you fucking freaks.”
I bite my lip and close my eyes, wishing them away. But we move on.
When we’re far enough away from them, Charlie whispers “Sorry.”
“Not your fault,” I say.
We step over wet leaves and patches of mud and heaps of pine needles. The only noise is the sound of cracking twigs and the occasional low voices. It’s maddening, all this plodding and silence. No one’s blowing a whistle or yelling about having found anything. Part of me hopes it stays this way, but the rest feels like an overwhelming truth: Mary’s out here. We wouldn’t be searching the woods if we were just looking for evidence of where she might have run away to.
The silence continues until we come to a bend of the stream that runs through these woods. One I know too well. I stop and I listen to the present and to the past.
Third grade is when I realized I wasn’t like the other girls. It was more than not wanting to play with their toys and hop in on their games of dress-up or playing “mommy” or gossiping. I felt a distance between us. An absolute difference in who they were and who I was. Nothing I had the ability to articulate, except in my drawings. In them I dressed myself like Dad, in a shirt and tie. Mary loved those drawings
But she didn’t love them when the other boys drew themselves that way. I think once they saw the cute, ponytailed girl giving me attention they copied me in hope of similar affection. It didn’t work that way. Mary liked that I, who looked like a girl, with my hair still long, drew myself as a boy. “Why?” she asked.
“Because that’s who I am,” I said.
“What do you mean?” She pressed into me, getting a closer look at my drawing. I loved that contact, relished how her face lit up at my answer.
And from then we were friends, not inseparable, but close. She kept to skirts and dresses while I cut my hair and wore jeans. I watched her while I played tag and capture the flag. She laughed and played her part in the girl drama of who liked whom and who was popular and who wasn’t, but always with an eye out for me. And when I’d go to her house, there was an effortless way about her that I couldn’t understand. So one day I asked, “Why are you different with me?”
“You mean than with the other girls?”
Her saying it that way didn’t even sting. Maybe that’s because I was still wondering who I was, or maybe it’s just because Mary had said it. Either way, I said, “No. You’re different with me than you are with anyone else. You don’t mind when I don’t want to play princesses. You let me be the dad when we play house.” I paused here. I remember how nervous I felt about what I was going to say, even though I knew Mary was fine with it. “You don’t laugh at me when I say I’m a boy. Why?”
She smiled and her cheeks tucked up around her eyes. “That’s because there’s no one else like you, Avery.”
And if there was any question as to whether I loved her it was obliterated by her smile, that answer.
But in eighth grade there was an intensity in Mary that I’d never seen before. She felt it, too; I could tell. The way I’d catch her looking at me told me so. She was seeing me with my short hair and my budding breasts flattened into nonexistence by my binder, and liking what she saw. Mary was looking at me in the way Beth looks at me now.
She was still willing to spend some of her summer with me, the times when her father was busy with work. Because if he so much as saw me coming up the driveway, I’d be banished from the house. So when he was busy with his flock, we’d hang out like we always had, cutting through the woods or keeping to the shadows of her property to stay cool, because I wouldn’t swim. Not until that day. And only because she asked.
“Come on, Avery. No one’s home. Mom’s out with my aunt, and Dad’s working on his sermon.” Mary sat on her bed and leaned forward with her pleading eyes.
Everything in me screamed no, but I said, “Okay.”
She bounced up and clapped. “Yay! It’s just so hot today. I need to get in the water.”
She went to her drawer and pulled out a bikini.
Mary saw the look on my face when she turned. “Oh, right. You don’t have a suit.” And she doesn’t have a brother. Yet, she held up a finger and scampered out of the room. I expected her to come back with one of her dad’s bathing suits, which would have been three times my size, but she held up a pair of board shorts.
“Are those Calder’s?” I asked, a little surprised, a little jealous. How could I not be? He had the official status of boyfriend.
She blushed. “Yeah. He left them last week.”
I turned away because I didn’t like how seeing her so excited made me feel so dispensable. “How long have you been together?”
“Three months, two days.” She giggled and I shook my head. I couldn’t be angry with her for being happy. But I could be frustrated that I wasn’t the one she was happy over.
“All right. Grab me a towel. I’ll change in the bathroom.”
Mary’s bathroom, fortunately, has only a small mirror, which I easily avoided. I wriggled out of my binder, immediately pulling my T-shirt back on. Calder’s shorts were a little loose, but they felt awesome on me, like I’d stepped into his skin for a moment.
And maybe that’s why things happened as they did, because I felt right, inside out, which has been a rarity my entire life. Or maybe it had nothing to do with Calder’s shorts and everything to do with Mary: how beautiful she looked in her bikini, her hair pulled back and eyes so open, taking me in. Or maybe it was her gentle way. Mary hopped into the swimming hole down the hill from her house, the one fed by the stream, and then coaxed me in. She had to, because I wanted to run away, back to the house and change and to stop feeling what I was feeling. I was overwhelmed in that moment, so much that the cold water did nothing to dampen the surging inside.
I dipped underwater to try and calm down, but when I came up, nothing had changed. Mary was staring at me with more desire than she ever had before. I don’t know what it was about that moment or how I looked to her, but it changed everything between us.
I didn’t stop her from moving away from the edge and swimming across to me. I watched her approach and I pleaded with my eyes, and she understood.
Mary kissed me. My first. And there are times when life sucks and no one sees me and I remember this moment, the first time a girl accepted who I am. Mary pulled me close and held nothing back. And I was hers, forever, even though I knew that could never happen.
Staring at the water rushing by, swollen with the rain, I am overwhelmed again. I move to the base of a tree and sit. The ground is wet and I will look like I shit myself, but it doesn’t matter. Mary’s gone. Some monster in this town got her. I feel it like I felt that moment, startling me awake.
“Who do you think it is?”
He squats down next to me. “What do you mean?”
I scowl. “Don’t pull that. You know what I mean.” Charlie and I became friends because of our interest in forensics. We’ve stayed friends because he’s as understanding as my father.
He sighs and looks deeper into the woods. “You know you shouldn’t think like that. She could have just run away.”
Beth clears her throat. “Listen to him. It makes sense. I mean, everyone loves her. She has no enemies.”
“That’s not true,” I say.
“What isn’t?” Beth asks.
“Everyone has enemies.”
Charlie shifts his position. “Name one.”
I have only one for Mary, but he’s too close, and I don’t know if the memory has been distorted because of all that has happened, whether I’m remembering correctly, or if I’ve unearthed only pieces and have left too much buried. But if I’m right, then he’s here, searching, and aware of whether or not we’re in the right place.
I pull into my driveway, cold and wet and sore. I dig into my car’s console and pull out my pack of mini cigars and lighter. The flame feels good in my cold hands and the smoke smells sweet. Both are welcome, because my body is numb and I am sick of the smell of mud and woods. It wasn’t as bad as last week when we slogged through the rain, searching. Then it was one useless excursion after the next, just like Tom said it would be. The rain poured so hard, visibility was for shit. Today, Tom called off the search party because it was getting too dark. At least we made it that long. But he also called it because we found nothing. Just like before. Not a trace of anything. That rain. One week of it could wash away anything.
I take a last puff of my cigar and flick it out the window, except it bounces back and falls into my lap. I pick it up and stare at the ember, feel the heat of it close to my nose. I say “I’m sorry, Mary,” and hear the high-pitched break, not the rasp I’m working on. I want to jam the ember in my eye to keep the tears back.
I rein them in and head inside.
Whatever Dad’s cooking makes my stomach growl. I haven’t eaten since breakfast, so I am compelled to open the oven. The heat and the aroma are heavenly.
“Hey, Av.” Dad stands up from his computer in the office nook across the room and makes his way toward me. “I am so sorry, buddy. Tom called me a little while ago. Told me it was a bust.” He wraps me up and squeezes so tight. I relax into his embrace.
After a moment I pull away. “It was. But we covered a lot of ground. We’ll cover more tomorrow.”
“That’s good. Tom okay?”
He still worries about his brother like I do Tyler. I like that Dad checks up on Officer Chase.
“I think so. I’m sure he’s exhausted.”
“He’s been exhausted for years.” Dad claps me on the shoulder. “Go shower, you reek of”—he sniffs—“vanilla?”
“Yeah.” I look at the floor.
“Exactly. You’re detracting from the aroma of my fine creation.”
I point at the oven. “Pot roast?”
“Yes! With this awesome seasoning from the farmers’ market.”
“All right. How long?”
Dad checks his watch and guesses a half hour. Mom’s schedule eludes us all. I grab a banana from the basket on the counter to tide me over and head back down the front hall toward my room. The door opens and Tyler bounds in.
“Av. Hey. Mom’s not home yet, is she?” He looks panicked.
“No, you’re good.”
He smiles at not being late for dinner, and then his face twists into a frown. “Shit, Av. I heard. Nothing? How could, like, the whole town be out there and find nothing?”
There are a lot of ways, but I keep them to myself. “Yeah. Nothing. But, hey, don’t swear. You got another year before high school.”
He shakes his head and sniffs like Dad. “And you got another year until you’re eighteen. You know, a real adult who can say shit like that.”
“Good point.” I rub his head and make my way to the bathroom. My clothes feel as if I’ve already showered in them, and I’m glad to peel them off my body. But my binder’s damp and that sucks because this is my favorite. I’ll have to settle for another while this dries.
I step in the shower and turn my back to the nozzle, waiting for the heat to untie the knots in my back. All the walking, all the memories, all the things I tried not to think have stitched me up inside out. And my body refuses to loosen. Because it knows. It always knows before I do. It always wants me on guard. For good reason.
But I try to give in to the pull and sit in the tub, letting the water cascade all around. I’m wrong about Mary. She’s out there, safe. She’s run away. Maybe she’s hiding out somewhere until she’s made her point. My lower back loosens, and I stretch out over my knees. My breasts brush my legs, but I ignore them. I have to.
Mary’s smart enough to have pulled it off. Maybe the fights with her dad and with Calder were on purpose. Maybe she was trying to throw all of us off her tracks. Maybe Calder knows the truth and is playing along. My shoulders slump, and I can practically kiss my shins.
Or not. Word is he wanted sex; she didn’t. Or, depending who you listen to, they already had and she didn’t want to do it anymore. Either way, she told her dad, thinking he’d help. She couldn’t have been more wrong. Ran from her house, screaming. He hurled insults from the door, and that’s the last time she’s been seen.
The heat of the water has thawed me out, and my brain’s working again. I don’t have to keep imagining Mary in a shallow grave, or worse, discarded under a tree or in a ravine. Because when I was searching in the woods, that’s all I saw wherever I looked. Her. Dead. Demanding answers.
I ease up to my feet and wash my hair and scrub the rest of me, all the parts that I could live with, and those I could certainly live without.
I rinse and towel off, and as I head to my room, hear my mother’s voice downstairs. I dress quickly and go with a sports bra and really loose T-shirt.
Mom stands at the bottom of the stairs. I don’t understand why she’s standing there, coat on, high heels still strapped to her feet. She doesn’t have her severe work face. She’s not checking her phone. When she looks up, I feel like a child, because whatever it is, her face screams that she wants to protect me from it.
Uncle Tom comes down the hall from the kitchen as I hit the bottom stair. Dad’s behind him and his eyes are filled.
I sit. And I shake. And I know.
Tom sits next to me. He looks down, between his knees, and then up and over. “There was this hunter with us today, knows that section of woods well.”
Each word paints a picture I don’t want to see.
“He, uh, he kind of deviated from the course because he had this feeling. Knew about this old access road.”
I want him to stop. I want to scream and to find this hunter and kick him in the balls for what he’s made real. But I sit, silent, and wait.
Tom swallows. “He was right, Av. Found Mary’s body. She’s dead.”
I stare into my palm, open and close the fingers around it, but the shaking does not stop. “You’re sure?”
The answer doesn’t come immediately. Tom doesn’t say, “Yes,” right away. There’s a pause, however brief, before he says, “It has to be.”
Mom asks something and possibly Dad, too, but their words are muted, background noise to what I see. Tom’s eyes are everywhere at once. The black stubble on his face is almost as dark as what I see in his eyes. Something brutal has happened. Tom is reeling from the evidence. He’s trying to get it to filter, to make sense, and is failing.
I look back down and into my palm. I know all there is to know about hiding and about being evasive. Tom is playing my game. He is not my uncle right now. He’s Officer Chase, delivering official news that even he does not understand. But I do.
“It wasn’t an accident, was it?”
He shifts, uneasy. “I’m not really sure what’s what.”
“That’s not what I asked,” I say.
“She’s dead, Avery. That’s enough for now.” He tries to stand, but I grab his wrist and pull him back down.
“No, it’s not. Tell me how.” My brain is charging through all the chapters I’ve read, all the websites, all the online chat groups, all the assignments for forensics. There are a million things that can be done to a body. I only want to know one.
But more than that, more than any forensic specifics, I need to know why this has happened to Mary. Because that moment almost four years ago solidified my truth. Who I am is not what they believe. Mary was the first to understand this.
Tom stares, his jaw set. And then he softens for an instant. “Someone killed her, Avery.” He stands and then the door opens and he goes through it, Dad with him.
The shaking that may have stopped, or that I may have only ignored, jars through me, reenergized. I try to stand, but can’t. Mom comes to me, but I don’t hear what she says. I feel the rough touch of the carpet against my cheek as I lie on the stairs.
I envision Mary out there in the cold and rain, just like I did today. But now there’s no censor, no need to tell myself I’m wrong. Because all that I saw is true. Mary’s naked eyes, wide and unseeing, rain pelting her skin, and all the parts of her that I loved. All of her, which someone decided could be discarded.
The shaking turns into a shudder, and my tears finally fall. And I hate every last one, because they don’t fall hard enough.
The footage of me squatting is horrific. Not my form so much, but my body. It’s like a baker’s piping bag, overloaded with frosting and about to burst.
Quinn slides weight onto the bar. “We’ll review later. Relax.”
“Yeah. All right.” What else can I say? Quinn’s been right so far, and I don’t want to screw this up.
If I can create a badass film portfolio using this transformation as a crucial element, then by this time next year, I’ll be accepted into a good school, and on my way. Possibly, if all goes well, I’ll be a skinny-jeans wearing beast, too.
But first, the workout.
Quinn slides the last of the weight on and then reaches to me. “Hand it over.”
I give him my phone and he steadies it to record. “You ready?” he asks.
I nod and get myself under the bar. “Set up?”
“Good man. Two steps back. No more. Remember to send your butt back first.”
I take a deep breath, brace my belly, and step back, one-two. This is a burnout set, max reps, and my ass already feels twitchy. I squat.
“Good, Greg. Keep that chest up.”
I stand and feel all right and I’m right back into the next. Sweat’s dripping and I think of it as fractions of pounds I’m shedding. I squat another handful of reps.
“Easy, Greg. That last one looked like dick.”
“Your dick, maybe,” I manage to say around the pressure. The bar feels wobbly, but shit, I just want to finish. I was hoping for at least twenty.
Q grabs himself and laughs.
I try to take a deep breath, but I’m tired and can’t and the laugh trickles out. It feels like I’m pinned to the floor and resisting a tickle torture. “Damn.” I rack the bar, slide out, and lean on it.
Quinn stops recording and slaps my back. “You needed to cut that. Your form was for shit.”
I nod and sweat flies off my nose. “Felt that way.”
“It’s good you’re feeling the difference.” Q starts stripping off the weights.
I join him, but moving makes my legs feel like Jell-O.
“A little hustle, G. I need to get my workout in, and no one’s saving me.”
“That’s because you like to kill yourself.”
He ignores me because I’m right, and we slide the weights onto the tree stand.
“So, two weeks in, ten pounds gone. That has to make you feel good.”
“It does. But the long haul, that’s the hardest. I have no stamina.”
I expect him to crack a joke because I realize I’ve left the door wide open, but he doesn’t laugh, just tilts his head.
“You hear that?”
Q raises a finger. “There it is again. Chanting?”
“Or some weird-ass music.”
We look at each other and it feels as if we have the same realization simultaneously. Quinn hands over my phone and we make our way to the practice gym doors.
I grab the handle, but the giant Warrior logo on the door doesn’t split in two.
Quinn tries, too. Same result. “That makes no sense. The bros are practicing now,” he says.
“Unless they locked it.”
Quinn looks past me. The noise from the bros has grown louder. “There’s an access door for the bleacher crank through that closet.”
I ask how he knows this, but Q ignores me, and in a moment, we’re passing through a supply closet and through another door that opens up beneath the bleachers.
It’s dark and dusty and tough to tell which way to go. The lights are dimmed.
“This one must be perfect. In unison, you shits.” Andrew Alva’s voice is instantly recognizable. We move toward it, stepping over the bleachers’ tracks and litter.
We emerge near the middle of the gym, thirty feet from ten guys on their knees in nothing but shorts. Another ten players stand behind them, holding their lacrosse sticks. Alva is in front of them all. He raises his hand. “Remember. Perfect.”
I hit record and zoom and can see the boys on their knees shaking. One has blood dripping down his side. Another looks like he might cry. What is this?
Alva drops his hand and the boys start chanting: Our allegiance is to the Warriors, our bodies weapons, ready for sacrifice. We will dominate at whatever cost to our opponent or to ourselves.
Some of the boys stutter through the ending and Alva flexes his thick biceps and shakes his head. Then he goes still. “Not. Good. Enough.”
I pan back to get the entire room.
Alva raises his hand again and the players raise their sticks. Alva drops his hand and the sticks fly, cracking into the backs of the kids in front of them. Some drop to the floor, others cry out. Some try to fight the pain.
“Get up! Get up, you stupid fucks! You want part of this team? You want to be a man? Get the fuck up!”
Alva’s words frighten me, and I’m thirty feet away. I cannot imagine how those boys must feel. I look at Quinn and he’s ready to run out there. But he can’t. They’ll kill him.
I grab his arm and he whips around. “No, Q!” I check to see if they’ve heard me, but they’re too busy screaming and bleeding. I point at my phone and Q nods. I motion to head back, but Quinn stays rooted in his spot. We have to go. The bros on a regular basis aren’t safe to be around. If we interrupt this moment, I honestly think everyone will find our bodies in the woods. And would look the other way.
Finally, Q turns and we pick our way back. Some kid’s voice asks them to stop, and Alva’s laughter echoes around us. I shut off my phone.
We pack our gear without speaking and head to Quinn’s car. I climb into the passenger seat and Quinn gets behind the wheel. We just stare out the windshield at the Warriors’ stadium, and say nothing. I shiver from the sweat now gone cold, or something else all together.
I find the thumbnail on my phone and press play. Alva’s screaming, the kids are being hit, and everything is so damn dark.
“The hell, man?” Q says and holds a hand to his mouth.
I hit pause and stare at Alva’s contorted face. The kid’s an animal. Always has been. Him being captain was the most logical event that I’ve ever seen happen around here. Which is one of the reasons I want out of this town. But, now, I feel safe with him on my phone, because he’s there, and not real in a way.
“I figured they did this kind of shit, but damn . . .”
“Yeah. We’ve got to let someone know.”
My response wriggles though my mind, and I feel like such an asshole for it. “No.”
“What do you mean, no?”
“Think about it. Who am I going to bring it to? Callaghan?”
“He’s our principal, first, their coach second.”
“You think that’s how it works? Besides, what did we really see?”
“I don’t know, but he has to do something, regardless of whatever that was. Let him make the call.”
I love how naive Quinn is, and I also hate him for it. He’s a good-looking guy, has an easygoing attitude, gets along with everyone, so he has no clue how the world works for the majority of us. The ugly, the nerdy, the obese. Especially the fat. We can’t hide under goth makeup or just be in with the nerd herd. Nope, it’s best we’re by ourselves.
The amount of shit that’s happened to me, that I’ve had to listen to and endure because principals up and down the line haven’t done shit could be its own documentary.
I look at Quinn. “In theory he has to do something. That doesn’t mean he will.”
Quinn squints. “What are you saying?”
“Do you trust Callaghan?”
Q scrunches his face some more. “Not really, but . . .”
“But with that evidence, come on, he has to.”
The gym door opens and the lax bros file out, Alva taking up the rear. It’s March and still cold, snow on the ground, but the boys are all wearing shorts and T-shirts. Through the zoom on my phone, trickles of blood stain their shirts and shine red. Alva barks something and the boys take off running, pounding up the hill, through the snow. He turns back, as if sensing us, but only pauses for a moment and then is on their heels. The last thing I want is for him to be on my ass. Well, any more than usual.
“You see that? They’re still bleeding.”
The shock of that scene from the gym has worn off, and I fully understand who we’re dealing with. That changes things. “Why do you care? The lax bros are assholes.”
Quinn looks at me like I’ve just shit on his mom. “So we just let that go because they’re dicks?”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“No. That’s exactly what you’re saying.”
I take a deep breath. “Fine. I am. But it’s not so simple.”
“Bullshit!” Quinn shakes his head. “You don’t want to help them because you’re afraid of the heat.”
“Maybe.” I don’t look at him when I answer. “Or maybe they don’t deserve the help.”
Quinn starts the car. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that. We know the truth. You’re scared to put your neck out there.”
He’s right. I am. But I have good reason. “We working out tomorrow?”
“Of course. But don’t change the subject.”
“I’m not. Let me get more of that on film. Not because I want to see them suffer, I just know one piece is never enough. But two. Maybe? Then we can take it to Callaghan, or someone else. All right?”
Quinn grunts. “I feel ya. A stronger case makes sense.” He looks back at the field. “Promise you won’t let them all hang just ’cause Alva’s psycho and you hate everything around here.”
“I promise,” I mutter. “Shit, why you gotta always do the right thing?”
“Unlike you, I’m not afraid of the truth.” Quinn starts the car and we roll out of the parking lot. The lax bros are running hill sprints, and their skin is already that cold color pink.
Chapter 1, excerpt
There is no doubt that one of us will die. I’m not hoping for it, just considering the probability: three of us, ten stunts, each “death defying.” At least that’s the plan: spend senior year completing one dare a month. Why? So we’re legends by the end.
Ricky’s driving and he looks at me, rocks his head to the music blaring, and says, “Ready, Ben?”
As if there’s any answer I can give but yes. I know how it works. He looks in the rearview. “John, ready?”
John gives a thumbs-up and gets the camera into position. “On you, Ben.” He slides out of the rear window.
I turn and look. Nothing but cornstalks and pavement, blue sky and puffy white clouds. Perfection. I focus on that image and the stillness, the quiet. If I don’t, I’ll chicken out. My mind’s already filling with scenarios for how this will end badly. But school starts tomorrow, and I agreed to this, however it goes.
I pull the ski mask over my face and slide out the window.
The wind whips even though Ricky’s only going like thirty miles per hour. I can’t hear what John’s saying. His mouth’s moving, but it’s like being in a dream, all background noise, nothing real. He jacks his thumb into the air, an obvious sign for me to get on the roof. I take a deep breath, steady my elbows, and push myself up.
My feet tingle and my heart hammers, but I keep going. I grab the roof rack and pull and am flat on top. The wind pours over me now, but the space around my face is calm. Unreal.
“Let’s do it.” John’s words are faint, but they’re enough to propel me. I grip the rack and slide my feet beneath me. Ten seconds. All I have to do is stay on my feet and count.
I stand but wobble and have to sit back down on my heels. Shit, maybe I can’t do this. No matter how much I convince myself. I look over at John for help, forgetting that the camera is on me. There’s nothing he can do. This is all mine. I’d love nothing more than to crawl right back in the window, but it would be on film, and Ricky would never let me hear the end of it. Just like before.
I’ve decided that’s not what I want, so I swallow, take another breath, and ease my way up.
I rock again, but only slightly. John raps on the roof to let Ricky know I’m up, and Ricky lets out a scream. I spread my arms and yell along with him because this is fucking insane. The road stretches before me, and one false move and I’m part of it. But Ricky’s smooth, and it’s like I’m on a skateboard without the rumble beneath my feet.
A car comes from the other direction and Ricky honks. The driver looks up and sees me and I look down at him and for a second our eyes meet. In his, pure panic. His mouth is dropped and his skin is paper-white. But then he’s gone and my heart is racing and it’s been ten seconds. I let out one more scream and tuck back to the roof rack.
John smacks the car again to let Ricky know I’m done, and I hear muffled cheering from within. I smile. It’s big and hurts my cheeks and my eyes water from the wind, but this is the most alive I’ve felt in forever, exactly like Ricky said we would. One dare down, nine to go.
When I went to bed at 2:00 a.m., there were thirty-five views. I woke up at 7:00 and there were thirty-seven. I just checked my phone and we’re up to a whopping fifty. Ricky talked about these videos being “the best senior prank ever” because they’ll last all year. I had to agree to the brilliance of the uniqueness. He also said that we’ll be “larger than Jesse Holmes” and his crew. I don’t know about that. One look at those guys, and it’s obvious they own our school. Handsome, suave, athletic. Considering either hopeful outcome, fifty views aren’t going to do jack.
John rolls up to my locker. “I’m still wrecked from yesterday. I kept dreaming about it. Woke up screaming.”
I picture John in his bed, all wound up in his sheets, screaming into the night. Doesn’t surprise me. He’s always had nightmares. Scared the hell out of me the first time he slept over in fifth grade. “You’ve got a month before the next one. Try to relax.”
He shakes his head and doesn’t say anything, but I know what he means. This isn’t our thing: trouble. That’s Ricky’s territory. But we’re only visiting, right?
We walk toward the cafeteria and go as unnoticed as usual. I watch the clusters and wonder what the hot girls are discussing, the übergeeks, the Bible-thumpers. I remember Ricky’s words: This is how we make our mark. You’ve seen all the stupid dares kids are doing. Cinnamon eating and vodka in the eye. Not us. We’re going balls out and will leave here legends.
Yet day one of senior year feels like we never left. Classes have been exactly as I expected. I’m Mr./Mrs. so-and-so, and this class will be difficult. You are a senior, so I’m not holding your hand. Here’s your first assignment. And off we go.
John and I grab trays and get served the miserable offerings and head to our table. Ricky’s already there.
“Hey, John, don’t trip!”
Ricky laughs at his own joke and chews on a French fry.
“You hit that pothole on purpose?” John sits but doesn’t touch his food.
“That’s one way of looking at it. Or maybe you wanted to end up on the windshield. Crying.” Ricky smiles. “Guess we’ll never know, huh?”
“I wasn’t crying,” John mumbles into his food.
He was totally crying, but who cares? It was good footage. Well, for our purposes.
I take a bite of the hamburger. “You think maybe the low numbers are because of the distortion?”
Ricky takes a sip of his drink. He looks calm, like this is all part of his plan. “We need the masks and the blurring so we don’t get in trouble. No faces, no identity match. We’ve been through this.” He leans in. “Don’t worry, I got this. Plan B, the old-fashioned route.”
“What are you going to do?” I ask. I don’t know how many times I’ve asked him this question. For all of high school, the answers didn’t include me. Until now.
Ricky laughs. “Ben, don’t worry, I’m going to make a PSA. You like those, don’t you?” He climbs onto the table and I kind of hate him.
“Shit,” John whispers.
Ricky looks around, smiling and waving. Some kids point. Others swear at him. But in a moment everyone is watching. He opens his mouth.
“Ladies and gentleman of the senior class, today is the beginning of our last year at this institution.” His voice is steady and thick and he pauses for the cheers that accompany anything about seniors. “It could be just another year, the same as the last and the one before, where we hope for something exciting to actually happen, but it never does. Or, we can make a decision. We can decide to make that excitement a priority.” He pauses dramatically and I wince. “That’s what someone here has done.”
The room murmurs and students look around at one another. I’m trying not to think of all the ways this could get us into trouble, but the infractions scramble my head.
“Do yourselves a favor,” Ricky continues, “check out Brookwood High Senior Year Dare Number One on YouTube. It seems like someone here has a plan for the year. Hopefully, you’ll see it and feel like I did: pumped. Hopefully it will get you excited for this year. Hopefully it’ll give you something fun to watch instead of just stalking one another on Twitter.” Ricky thrusts his fist into the air and nods his head while looking around the room. He’s gone too far. Most of the kids stare, while others start cracking jokes. A teacher motions for him to get off the table, and in a moment his big scene is over and people are back to their lunches. I’m quietly relieved.
“That was impressive,” John says, as Ricky gets down from the table.
Ricky’s jaw is set and his shoulders are pinned, and it seems he doesn’t know where to look or what to say. His PSA failed, like the video. Maybe he’s realizing that his ideas suck. This is nothing new, but the way he seems to feel about it is. I take another bite out of the hamburger, and it’s like putting my mouth around a sponge.
I am a pussy. I know this, and not much else.
A wet smack sounds in the next room. My mother cries in pain. “Please, Cameron, I didn’t mean anything.” He hits her again, twice, dense flesh on flesh.
“The fuck you didn’t,” Cameron, my mother’s boyfriend, slurs. She must have made some joke that he was too drunk to understand. Again.
So he’s kicking the shit out of her. Again.
I’m sitting on the corner of my bed, listening, but not doing anything, even though I want to. My muscles are all coiled, tight, like I’m ready to roll, but I won’t. Cameron is wiry, works construction, and could toss me across the fucking room. At least that’s what I tell myself about him, this boyfriend. I’ve had excuses for all the others as well, and an entire list of reasons for my father.
He hits her again, a dull thud, the sound of his fist hitting her head. “You gonna apologize or what?”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything.”
Another blow, and she hits the wall. The house vibrates. “Damn straight, you dumb bitch.” The door squeals as he pounds down the hall and the fridge opens. He’s grabbing a beer, or two. The can clicks and pops, followed by the sound of him falling into the recliner. The volume on the TV goes up: lots of screaming and yelling.
Fuck, maybe it’s over. I grab the back of my head and bury my face into the crooks of my elbows. I want to block out the sound of him and forget what I just heard, but my mom’s crying seeps through the paper-thin walls. I hate the noise, but more, I hate how common it is. How many times has she been like this? It’s impossible to keep track, there’s been so many.
Her cry lifts and then is muffled. She must be using her pillow. I hope so, because if he hears her . . . Hopefully she’ll be able to calm and then sit, red-faced and swollen, and wait for Cam get a sleepy buzz. Then, like always, she can ice or shower, depending on how bad it is. Once it started, it only took them three months to find this pattern. Not a record, but pretty fast.
Wonder how long it took for her and my dad?
He’s the reason I’m such a little bitch now, hiding out instead of stepping up. As a kid I never once went after him, just daydreamed about taking him out. In the end I didn’t have to; he just left. As have all the rest. But Cameron’s still hanging around, and this time I see myself stepping into her bedroom when he’s wailing on her. I grab his arm mid-swing and twist him around. He sees me and his eyes go wide, but then he gets that sneer like he always does. But before he can do anything, I head-butt him. He collapses to his knees, grabbing his face as the blood pumps out. I ignore it and put my fist into his jaw. No, through it. My mom screams, but I ignore her and enjoy his pain. He goes to speak but realizes that his jaw is shattered and I laugh, because I know in that moment I could kill him. I may not be big, but you don’t get beat your entire life without hardening.
I could take him out. I have the capacity, and that is enough for me, because I don’t want to actually do it and be like him, or the others. In my fantasy I help my mother up and walk her out of the room, away from the oozing mass in the corner. We step into a cleaner version of our life, where we’re not confined to our prison of a trailer and no one sees us as white trash.
It’s never gonna happen though, so there’s no point in wishing for it. I stand up and walk to the bathroom and the trailer wobbles. Or it could be I’m still amped and it feels that way. Or the fucking thing may really be falling apart. Why wouldn’t it? Everything else is.
I piss and brush my teeth. The TV blares and I listen: an announcer’s voice. Fuck. I peer down the hall. He’s watching a cage match. Two guys hop around a mat. One is all tatted up and has blood leaking out of his nose. The other is so thin that his abs look like individual plates. I don’t know how they can even be in the same weight class, but they throw jabs back and forth and then the tatted one kicks. The skinny one catches it, and the tatted guy’s eyes go wide. He knows what’s coming, and sure as shit the skinny dude latches on to the tatted guy’s leg like a monkey to a tree and takes him to the mat. The skinny guy squeezes on the tatted guy’s leg and arches his own back, every muscle popping. The ref hovers over them, wearing the same black latex gloves we wear at Vo-Tec, and the tatted guy screams as the blood pumps faster. He looks up, grinds his teeth, and then taps the mat. Fight’s over.
“Fucking leg bar.” Cameron tosses an empty can to the floor and then pops open another.
I head back to my room and have to shake away the fantasy rising again. I’ll stay awake all night if I don’t put it out of my mind. I sit on my bed and can hear my mom still crying. I lie back and pull a pillow over my head, but it doesn’t help. Her tears still seep through, and the sound of another fight beginning on the TV punches in.