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Where I Go
Author's note: Many kids don't read because they can't relate to the story so they get bored. However, with Zack Allen there is something everyone can relate to whether it's his experiences or the honest way he tells his story. He's just a normal thirteen-year-old boy, and maybe you can see a little bit of yourself in him.
I hate Mondays. Why do we even have them? The calendar should just skip from Sunday to Tuesday. Honestly, nobody wants to get up on Mondays. It's just a sign the weekend's over, it's time to go back to work, back to school. School. Normally it's not so bad, I guess. Today's a different story though. My parents just got divorced, so my mom moved out. She took my brother and me with her. They say things will be better this way. Better for whom? I'm not so sure I agree.
Now I have to leave my friends, my old school, my home, and everything I know. They say they're not doing this because of me. It's not all about me. I know that. Just because it's not about me, though, doesn't mean it doesn't affect me. Why do I have to give everything up because they can't go one night without fighting? How am I supposed to live between two houses only seeing my parents one at a time only half the time only when I'm at home? How is this better?
Well, nothing is looking too good right now no matter what it is my parents are doing because it's Monday. It's not just any Monday, though. It's the Monday of my first day at my new school.
I suppose you’d like to know who’s talking to you. Truth is, so would I. I am nobody. My name is Zack and that’s all I am. Just Zack. I’m not Zack Allen, the superstar athlete. I’m not on the honor roll. I used to have some friends, but then I moved. My mom thinks I’m special, but she has to. She’s my mom.
I’m standing outside Southside Junior High School staring up at the third story window as the rain splashes down on my face. Kids with umbrellas rush past me like the wind. I’ve got to stand my ground or else that wind is going to carry me away because right now I just feel like a little speck of dust. I’m so small, so insignificant; nobody even knows I’m here.
I wish I was back at Meadowbrook Middle School right now, or better yet, back in bed. There it’s warm, it’s comfortable, and it’s safe. Alright, well, I guess Mom would’ve dragged me out of bed an hour ago anyway. I could at least be at Meadowbrook where there are 300 familiar faces I’ve known for eight years all smiling asking, “How was your weekend, Zack?” And now I’m here with 3,000 people. How many do I know? Big. Fat. Zero. And how many were smiling? I didn’t see a single grin. Not even a smirk. Not a glimpse of pearly whites for miles.
The crowd is long gone now. The bell rang ten minutes ago, and I'm still in that same spot. Frozen. My legs feel like lead as I climb the steps and push open the front door. I kind of hoped it would be locked, but it creaked open echoing through the empty hallway.
Mom told me I had to go to the main office to get my schedule and to have somebody show me where my classes are. Problem is there are three hallways to pick from, and I haven't got a clue which one leads to the main office. So I do what any kid in my situation would do. "Eeine Meenie Miney Moe!” To the left it is!
It wasn't to the left.
I've been wandering these halls for hours. My watch says it's been twenty minutes, but I swear it's been hours. When I'm finally ready to give up and call it quits, I see this kid walk by. He’s got some sort of pass in his hand, but he goes right past the bathroom. I figure he's got to be going somewhere, so I follow him. I really don't want him to know that I'm following him, though. That would be creepy. Instead I decide to do it James-Bond-style. I let him get a little bit in front of me and then start walking. I hide behind the walls waiting for him to turn the corner, and then I run after him. I really want to do that cool ninja rolling thing but decide that might draw too much attention.
Sure enough, the kid walks right into the office. I wait outside the door for a couple of minutes before going in.
That door creaks even louder than the one out front, so I shut it quickly behind me hoping that at least the sound would be shorter. The door kind of slammed, though, and the lady behind the desk jumped a good foot out of her seat.
"Who are you?" she said in a raspy voice.
I told her, “Zack Allen,” and she slid her glasses down her nose to glare at me over the top of them. Her eyes were dark and intimidating so I looked up at her hair instead. It was dyed what I'm guessing was supposed to be a reddish brown color, but it looked kind of purple. However, she seemed like the kind of lady you should tell that her hair looked nice, even if it was slightly purple. It might save your life.
She stared me down for a good two hours. My watch said it was about thirty seconds. It lies.
"You must be Zack," said the voice of an angel come to save me from this creepy purple-haired lady.
I turned around half expecting to see someone in a white gown with a little halo over his head. He was just a regular kid, but in that moment he was an angel to me. He wore a yellow striped polo shirt tucked in to baggy blue jeans that would've fallen off his four-foot-seven frame if he didn't have a belt holding them up. He brushed the curly mess of dark brown hair away from his eyes, adjusted his glasses, and smiled at me, his braces gleaming in the fluorescent light.
“Hi, I'm Milo. Welcome to Southside. Come on, I'll show you around."
I didn't need to be told twice. I couldn't wait to get out of that office. He grabbed a copy of my schedule from the purple-haired lady. He gave her a grin and as we walked out the door he said, "Have a nice day, Mrs. Bergmann!”
“You too,” she laughed.
"Goodbye, Mrs. Bergmann," I said in an attempt to be polite.
“Just get to class, Mr. Allen."
what did I do? I haven't even gone here an hour and I'm already on her bad side. Oh well, I guess there's not much I can do about it right now. I'm on my way to math in room 217.
We walk by Mr. Thomson’s class and I think I’ve gone deaf. I can’t hear a thing. There should be somebody teaching a class in there, people asking questions, writing problems on the board. I should have listened to my Mom when she said not to turn my iPod up so loud all the time. I know she warned me, but I didn’t think it could happen so fast. Please, just give me a second chance! I’ll do anything!
“Zack, are you okay?”
Okay, I’m not going deaf. “Oh… yeah, just a little confused, that’s all. It’s so quiet in there.”
“They’re doing algebra on a Monday morning. My guess is that they’re all at least half if not completely asleep. There’s only so much Mr. Thompson can do to try to make it interesting.”
Great. That’s my math class. I can already tell this is not going to go well. Seriously, math at 8:00 in the morning? That shouldn’t even be legal! It’s like cruel and unusual punishment or something. Well, maybe I’ll be able to catch up on some sleep anyway.
We pass Spanish in room 342 with Senora Igelsia. Milo can’t tell me much about her. He speaks French. However, he seems pretty sure that I am “absolutely going to love English” because “Mrs. Evans is just an incredible teacher.” I have to believe him. I’ve got nothing else to go by.
Next he shows me my study hall. That’s a pretty ironic name if you ask me. For one thing it's not in the hall; it's in the cafeteria. Since the first word of it is study you’d think that's probably what you do in there, but everyone I see is just sitting around and talking. One kid almost has “Uno” and another just went down the longest slide in “Chutes and Ladders”. There is one kid with his nose buried in a math book sitting in the corner all by himself. Even he is looking pretty restless though. He'll give up and join the Monopoly game any minute now.
We walk by Art class with Mrs. Bellaide in room 143, History with Mr. Grant in 238, and P.E. with Mr. Jacobs. By now I'm starving, so thank God it's lunchtime. Milo goes through the line with me and we get our mystery meat. As I sit down at a table, he tells me he has to pick up all the work he missed this morning, but he'll see me around.
I watch him walk out the double doors and then sit back and survey the empty chairs surrounding me. Just like that I'm a speck of dust in the wind again.
Soon I get to thinking about what got me into this mess. My parents getting divorced? No, that's not really it. It was time and money.
Time and money: there just never seems to be enough of either of them in my family. When my dad got promoted to the head of the public relations department of his company, Mom couldn't have been more excited for him. When the boss told him he had to travel the country to spread the word about antivirus software and that his office was being moved an hour away from our house, the smile faded from her eyes. That was five years ago.
Every couple of months there was always a new project Dad had to start. He started working really late every night, sometimes even on the weekends. He would promise to spend time with us, but work always came first.
He completely missed my eleventh birthday party. That's when the yelling really started. At first it was just once in awhile, in other words, when Dad really messed up. Over time, though, they kept arguing more and more often until eventually it was happening every night. All night long all I would hear would be, "Well, maybe if you spent a little bit more time with your family,” or “What could be more important than Zack’s first band concert? He practices that clarinet every day. You make plenty of time to watch Seinfeld and every single one of Bryan’s baseball games.” Bryan’s my older brother, the one Dad cares about.
He tried to make up for that one by getting me an Xbox. I liked it, but Mom wasn't too happy that she couldn't buy groceries for the week. “You go out buying useless things like these video games and big screen TVs so you can watch Monday night football, but you're leaving your family without food on the table. Zack is growing an inch a day it seems. He's going to need new clothes. I can’t keep using the credit card. We’re already in debt. What don't you understand?”
And then Dad would say something back, and then Mom would get mad, and then dad would get mad, and it would just go on like that for hours every night. They wondered why I was always tired when they would come to wake me up for school in the morning. Gee, I don't know.
That is the reason I have decided that when I grow up, I am going to be rich. That way I won't have to worry that if I buy an Xbox, my family won't eat for the next week. I can watch TV and not get yelled at for it. Best of all, there would be no arguing about it. There would just be peace and quiet.
My parents think they've given us peace and quiet. It is pretty quiet, I guess, without all the arguing. I wouldn't call it peaceful though. There’s still that tension in the air, the stress. There still isn't enough time or enough money.
I'm going to fix that. I don't know how I'm going to do it. I don't know when it will happen or how long it will take. I don't know what it's going to take to make it happen. All I know is that I'm going to be rich and give my family all they ever wanted: a roof that doesn't leak, a big-screen TV, our own backyard, an indoor swimming pool, just everything.
A bell is ringing and everyone around me is standing up, shoving chairs aside, and shuffling towards the door snapping me out of my daydream. It’s time to come back to Earth, time to go to history. I’m not ready for it to be over, though, so I sit back down in my chair. It would be good for me to let my imagination run wild for just another minute before I have to face my new world. I tilt my chin towards the ceiling tiles and close my eyes. Right now, it's alright that I'm all alone.
In the week that I have been here, through extensive thought and observation, I have come to one conclusion: I am invisible. Nobody talks to me. Nobody looks at me. Teachers don’t call on me in class. Even when I’m standing right in front of them they just look right through me and walk right by me like I’m not even there at all. There’s still a person staring back at me when I look in the mirror. I know. I check at least a couple times a day just to make sure. Milo waves and smiles when we pass each other in the hallway. Maybe he’s just got some special super power like the Ghost Whisperer. I’m still working on that piece of the puzzle.
I’m standing in the lunch line and all I can see in front of me are red pigtails swaying back and forth. I realize I do know one person here, whether I want to or not. It’s Mollie McCarthy from Camp Carter. Oh God, please don’t let her turn around and find me. For two weeks last summer she followed me around, tried to grab my hand, filled my sleeping bag with flowers, and left little cards with hearts all over my cabin. Then she gave me all these orange M&Ms so I’d have “something to remember her by”. The girl wouldn’t leave me alone. Don’t turn around! Don’t turn around! Don’t see me! I’m invisible. Everybody else knows that. I’m invisible. You can’t see me.
“Zack? Zack?!? Is that you?”
She turned around. She saw me.
“Oh my Gosh! You never told me you go here.”
“I just moved.” Why? Why? Why?!?
“I can’t believe this! This is so great! I’ve missed you so much.”
“Yeah, me too.” Lies.
“So how have you been? How do you like it here? Oh my gosh! I can’t believe we’re going to the same school. Isn’t this so exciting?”
“Yeah, sure.” If that’s how you want to look at it, I guess.
“So are you going to Camp Carter again this summer?”
“I don’t know.”
“ Well, you should. It’ll be buckets of fun. Buckets! And it just wouldn’t be the same without you, so you have to promise me you’ll come. Promise!”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you’ve promised… So now we seriously need to catch up, like seriously. I haven’t talked to you in like forever.”
“It hasn’t been forever.”
“Seven whole months! That is totally like forever.”
That is not even close to forever. Forever doesn’t end that fast.
“How come you never called? You must’ve been really busy.”
“So what’s been keeping you so busy?”
“Well, you know, stuff.”
“Just stuff? Is that all?”
“Well, no. I’ve also done… things.”
“I’d love to hear about all of this stuff and these things you do.”
“Of course you would.” Was that as sarcastic as it sounded inside my head? That wasn’t supposed to come out. Hope she didn’t notice.
“Where are you sitting?”
Nope. She didn’t. I point in the general direction of my empty table.
“Oh, who are you sitting with?”
Should I tell her? What if she makes me come sit with her?
“Do you have anyone to sit with?”
She’s on to me now. I waited too long to answer. Now she’s going to invite me to come sit with her and not stop bugging me till I agree.
“You should come sit with us. I won’t take no for an answer.”
See what I mean? “Alright.” What’ve I got to lose? At least she’s someone to sit with. Better than being all alone, right? What’s the harm in it? It’s not like I have to go out with the girl. I’m just going to sit at her lunch table. Maybe I’ll look like less of a loser.
Now we’re walking through an ocean of tables and chairs and people and any one of them could be the one she sits at. I stop once in a while to try and figure out where it is she’s taking me, but she won’t slow down. She grabs me by the hand and just keeps walking faster and faster. There’s so much spring in her step she’s practically skipping. This is exactly what I was afraid would happen.
Suddenly we’re directly in the center of the cafeteria, and she stops on a dime. Her sneakers squeak against the tile floor. I bump into her shoulder nearly knocking her over. There are three girls at the table in front of me wearing cheerleading uniforms. I keep looking back and forth between them and Mollie. This can’t possibly be where we are actually sitting. I’ve got to be dreaming. Then I notice she’s wearing the same thing they are. Maybe this won’t be so bad.
“Everybody, this is Zack,” Mollie said beaming from ear to ear.
They stopped their conversations for about a second.
“So anyway, what did he say, Amber?” asked one of girls who had perfectly straight bleach blonde hair and a perfect tan even though it was the end of March. I would have thought the girl across the table staring back at her was her reflection if she hadn’t had her eyeballs bulging in anticipation.
Maybe I can try to join their conversation.
“Did you see what he did today, Ashley?”
“No, I missed it.”
“Well, during history he started, you know.”
“And then he-”
“Omigod, don’t say it. He didn’t!”
“Oh no! Was she-”
“I can’t believe that he’d—Oh, that little-”
“I know. And then she started-”
“And then Mr. Grant-”
“Ooh. So now are you-”
“Isn’t she gonna be-”
Wait, hold on, what? I would’ve needed GPS to follow that conversation. I’m so lost. I do not speak girl. Do they just read each other’s minds? I mean, how is anybody supposed to know what she’s talking about if she never even finishes a sentence? My head hurts.
There were three other guys at the table. The one next to me is on another planet with his girlfriend. His face is about an inch away from hers. This is really awkward. I tune into the conversation going on across from me.
“Did you watch the NBA game last night?”
“Yeah, we’re not gonna talk about that.”
“Five seconds to go, top of the key, between the legs crossover, around the back, left-handed dunk at the buzzer! Pacers win by two. In your face!”
“Shut up, Tony.”
“Man, Murphy is nasty!”
“Yeah, he’s all they’ve got though.”
“Mark, the Pacers’ bench could take on the Lakers’ starting five any day of the week.”
“Oh yeah? But who’s in the Final Four?”
“Just wait, you’ll see. Last night was the start of a winning streak. They’ll crush everybody from here on out. They’ll be in the Final Four and beat the Lakers again. So you’d better be ready for this.”
“Dude, that’s crazy. They won’t even make playoffs this year.”
“Oh, they will.”
“Not a chance!”
Well, I know what they were talking about at least. Basketball’s not exactly my forte though. The extent of my basketball education ended in fourth grade when it was a huge accomplishment just to hit the rim. I know some of the rules, but other than that, there’s nothing. Like I said, I’m no superstar athlete.
“Tony, what was going on with you and that kid in math today?” Amber asked the boy next to her. She sounded more curious than concerned.
“Who? Milo? Oh, nothing,” he replied.
Milo? I stop sliding the greasy glob around on my tray. What’s going on with Milo?
“We were just having a little fun is all. Relax, Amber,” said Mark.
“Well, I don’t know, you looked a little-”
“Scared,” said Ashley.
“Scared? Please! The kid is practically a legal midget.”
“He started using big words,” Mark butted in. “Tony’s tiny brain couldn’t handle it.”
The girls laughed.
“Shut up, man. You wouldn’t know what he’s talking about either. I mean, look at him!” Tony pointed across the room and there was Milo eating a tuna fish sandwich and reading a book at his own table. “The kid reads the dictionary in his spare time.”
“Well, what were you doing?”
“We were bored. I saw his huge calculator just sitting there on his desk so I took it and hid it when he got up to go to sharpen his pencil. He probably wouldn’t have even noticed if Mark didn’t start laughing the second he sat back down.”
“He took it from under my chair and just kept writing equations like nothing even happened.”
“Course we were still bored.”
“So the next time he went to go use it, I snatched it away real fast like this.” Tony grabbed my milk carton from the table. “And I held it over his head. He just kept jumping trying to get it.”
“Dude, I almost fell out of my chair I was laughing so hard.”
“And he just kept jumping and jumping and his face was turning all red. His little fists were all balled up.”
“That was when he started using big words like delinquents and juvenile. They just kept streaming out of his mouth. Upchucking the dictionary. Ha! What a loser!”
“Then Thomson came back from the bathroom, so when he opened the door I said, ‘Here, Milo, you can use my calculator,’ and put it back on his desk.”
“Then he just sat there mumbling under his breath for the rest of class. It was great!”
I can feel that mystery meat churning in my stomach. I think I might throw up. I look over at Milo just sitting there calmly reading his book lost in his own little world where it’s nice and safe. Then the bell rings, and he’s gone. He’s out the door before anyone else is even done grumbling that they have to go back to class.
I'm spending the weekend with my dad and his new house. I'm looking forward to it like you look forward to going to the doctor knowing that you're getting a shot. You know they're going to say, "this won't hurt a bit,” but they leave off the “tomorrow”. Of course you'll be fine when it's over and you’ve forgotten about it!
I haven't stopped whining like a little girl since I got in the car. Mom says, "You'll be fine, Zack. It'll be fun.”I can't remember any time I've had fun all alone with my father. Come to think of it, I can't remember a time I've ever been alone with my dad. Bryan has always been there with me.
Bryan is never around anymore though. He got his license two months ago I’ve barely seen him since. Not that I did much before. Ever since he got to high school, it's like he thinks he's too cool to talk to his little brother. He's always with his friends, and even when he is home, he’s locked up in his room doing who knows what.
This weekend Bryan decided to sleep over his friend Jimmy's house. I'll bet they'll go to the mall or the movies or some other place with pretty girls and then throw a wild party with them all. I overheard Bryan talking with Jimmy on the phone last night. Jimmy's parents won't be home till Monday.
We pull up to a white house with green shutters. It's a little bigger than the one we all used to live in together. I wonder what he does with all that house to himself. There are bushes lined up alongside the house and the yard. There are freshly planted yellow and purple flowers lining the driveway and the brick walkway that leads to the front door. A big tire swing hangs from a thick branch of an oak tree that's thirty feet tall. If I was actually going to live here, I'd build a huge fort in that tree with a rope ladder, slide, stereo system, and a bridge to my bedroom window. I’d have a little basket on a pulley with a string attached so that I could bring things up there with me like orange soda and potato chips and Oreos. I'd stay up there for days and never have to come down. It would be great. Too bad we don't have a big tree like that at mom's apartment.
I watch my mom's red SUV roll down the driveway. I wish I was still sitting beside her in the passenger seat even if it meant I could only listen to the all country station on the radio. But now the SUV has turned the corner, and she is long gone with it.
I drag my feet all the way up to the front door and ring the bell. Nobody answers. I ring it again. Nobody answers. Is this even the right house? It's got to be. It says “ALLEN” on the mailbox. I'll bet he's not even home. It wouldn't be the first time he's forgotten about me.
My heart skips a beat and I jump mile. Good thing I wasn't inside. My head would've hit the ceiling. My dad walks around the corner wearing giant headphones that look more like earmuffs and is carrying giant hedge clippers.
“How's it going?”
He's yelling. I'm guessing it's because his music is blasting. He tosses the hedge clippers aside and opens the door. He tells me that my room is upstairs, the first door on the left, and he'll be in once he's done trimming the bushes. I don't bother saying anything back because I know that he won't hear me anyway. I just close the door behind me and walk straight up the stairs.
I open the door to my new bedroom. The walls are dark blue and they have plastic stars glued all over them. I drop my backpack at the door and flop down on the bed by the window. It's covered with rocket ship sheets. How old does he think I am? I bury myself in the astronaut blankets and drift off to sleep.
I wake up to the sound of the weed whacker slicing through the grassy area around the mailbox. The clock on the dresser reads 9:38, but there is no way I can sleep through this so I might as well head downstairs.
When I get out into the hallway I can smell the delicious aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, so I follow my nose to the kitchen. I was shocked to see what I found there. I found a plate of cookies alright, and then my eyes followed the hand holding that plate up the arm across the shoulder up the neck to perfectly straight, gleaming white smile surrounded by red lipstick. My head starts to spin. What is this strange woman doing in Dad’s kitchen? She offers me a cookie in a smooth soprano voice as she flicks her wavy blond hair over her shoulder. She doesn't look a day over twenty-nine.
Then Dad walks in wiping the sweat from his forehead. I can see his eyes light up when he sees the woman standing in front of me.
“Oh, have you met Monique?”
Well, I have now.
“So this is Zack, huh? Your dad has told me so much about you and your brother. I'm so glad to finally meet you!” She’s talking to me like I’m six.
“Thanks, sweetheart,” says Dad taking a cookie and kissing her on the cheek. “I'll be right down. I just need to go take a shower.”
I grabbed a cookie and took a bite. It was crunchy, not chewy like mom’s. It did not melt in my mouth, and the chocolate chips were completely solid. I still ate it though.
“So,” began Monique. There was a long, awkward silence. “How are you?”
“How old are you?”
“Oh, that's exciting. So you must be in, what? Seventh grade?”
“Very cool. How do you like that?”
“Do you want me to be honest?”
“That would be nice.”
“Yeah.” Another awkward silence.
“So your brother is out with his friends for the weekend?”
“How about you? Do you have any big plans this weekend?”
“Were your friends all busy?”
“I don't have any.”
There was another long, awkward silence. Monique decided she needed to put some plastic wrap over the cookies before they went stale from sitting on the counter for too long. I wasn't trying to be rude or anything. I mean, she seems nice enough, and at least she's trying to talk to me and get to know me. She is Dad's girlfriend though. Dad can't have a girlfriend. He loves Mom, and she loves him, and they promised it would stay that way forever. What happened? Did he just forget about her? How could he? They’ve only been apart for two months. Does she even know? Did he tell her? Will he ever tell her?
About ten minutes later Dad walks downstairs holding a baseball in one hand with a glove on the other. “Come on, Zack, let’s go outside. Grab your glove. We’ll play catch.” I don’t even own a baseball glove. He says he’s got an extra in the garage. I can’t believe he is seriously going to make me play catch with him. That has got to be the biggest cliché of all father-son activities. I don’t even like baseball. This won’t go well.
We start off about twenty feet apart and it’s not so bad. I’m managing to catch about half of what he throws at me. Then he says, “Okay, throw me a pop fly,” and he backs up all the way to the edge of the yard. I’m pretty sure I can’t throw that far, but I guess I’ll have to try. I wind up and let that ball fly… straight up… into a tree branch. I knock a squirrel right to the ground. Dad and I stand there stunned as it gets up and scampers away.
“Okay, who wants lunch?” Dad takes my glove and the ball and practically sprints back inside. This is why I don’t play sports.
I microwave myself a huge plate of nachos with everything: extra hot salsa, jalapeños, black olives, peppers, onions, and three kinds of bubbling cheese. Mom would never let me eat this for lunch at home, so I’ve got to make the most of it while I’m here. Dad might not know anything else about me, but at least he knows the food I like. He tells me I can go play X-box downstairs and even bring my nachos down there with me. Nice! I get downstairs and hanging on the wall right across from me is a 60-inch plasma screen TV. I’ve never seen a TV this big outside of Best Buy let alone in my dad’s basement. The X-box is hooked up to it and there’s Halo, Call of Duty, and Rock Band. Rock Band is the only one Mom would ever let me play even if we kept the X-box at our house, so of course the first game I slide into the console is Call of Duty. Just because I think blowing everything in sight to smithereens is fun in a video game doesn’t mean I’d do it in real life. Mom just needs to chill.
I’ve unlocked twenty-two new weapons today. Now I’ve got my second sniper rifle: the Dragunov. I’m at level twenty-two: Master Gunnery Sergeant. Hold on I’ve almost got this guy. Just a little to the left. And three, two, one, BAM! Direct hit! I plan on making Lieutenant General by sunrise. I’m going to save my progress now and see what’s for dinner. The nachos were gone hours ago.
Dad and Monique walk into the kitchen the same time I do. He’s carrying a brown paper bag and I can smell the pork fried rice. We loaded our plates with egg rolls, lo mien, and jumbo fried shrimp. I don’t bother reading the fortune in my cookie. They always sound like Yoda. If you can understand what they’re talking about then may the force be with you.
It was nice out for an April night, so I take my plate to the porch. It’s really quiet out there. It’s sort of peaceful after hours of having surround sound of helicopters and gunshots. I see the tire swing hanging from the big oak tree. I haven’t been on one of those since I was about seven. I go over and sit in it. It’s one of those truck tires like they have at parks held up by a two-inch thick rope. It’s sturdy, and it’ll never fall down or break. Not in a million years. I slide around in the tire until I’m perfectly balanced, slowly swaying back and forth. I let go of the rope, take a deep breath, close my eyes, and disappear. I’m far from my dad’s front yard.
I am standing high on a mountain. I can see for miles and miles. Behind me you can see the big city with its giant clump of skyscrapers and ten story buildings where everybody is rushing to get to work and to school. Then the closer it gets to where I’m standing the further apart everything spreads, the buildings, the people. Then there’s a wave of green coming towards me, breaking at my feet. Green is my favorite color. I just stand there on that mountain. There is nothing to worry about. I can just watch the sunrise over the horizon into the pink and orange sky.
Suddenly I hear a scream and I’m brought right back to Dad’s house as I hit the ground with a thud. Then I hear laughter.
I stare into the kitchen window from where I’m sitting and see Monique and my dad standing at the kitchen sink. Monique’s shirt and jeans are soaked, and she’s got the sink sprayer aimed at Dad. He’s trying to use a soy sauce covered plate as a shield, but he still looks like he’s been ambushed by a kid with a Super Soaker. They’re both doubled over in a fit of laughter. Monique drops the sink sprayer and walks over to him. Now they’re kissing. Gross. Now I’m averting my eyes.
I’ve never seen Dad act that way. This is weird. I know Mom would never have a water fight with him in the kitchen and laugh about it. At least not now anyway. I wonder if they ever did. I mean, I don’t think I ever saw them that happy while they were in the same room. I wonder if they ever were.
I go inside since it’s really dark and Dad might wonder where I am. Might. I doubt it, though.
Another day, another day, another day goes by and none of it gets any better. I sit at the same lunch table another day, and they have the same conversations, and I still can't follow any of them. I've been up on the mountain for most of the lunch period. I haven't touched my hamburger. It would've tasted like rubber anyway no matter how much ketchup I drowned it in.
Then I hear somebody call my name, and I'm dragged back to the South Side Junior High cafeteria. Mark and Tony are sitting across the table staring at me. What did I do? How long was I spacing out? Was I drooling? I wiped my mouth and chin just in case.
“So, are you in?” Mark asked.
The wheels in my mind were turning at 100 miles an hour. Was I supposed to know what he was talking about? “For what?”
“No, man,” said Tony turned to Mark, “he doesn't care. He wasn't even listening. He doesn't want to come.”
Were they trying to include me in something? They haven't spoken a word to me since I got here. This is my chance, my chance to actually fit in some place. “Yes I do! Where are we going?”
“To Mark's house.”
“Nice! What are we gonna do? Just hang?”
“We're doing some-”
“Painting,” Mark butted in.
“Yeah, painting. That's what you'd call it.”
“Like the kind they make us do in art class or like on a wall?”
“A little bit of both.”
Painting? Is that seriously what the cool people here do? Alright, I guess I've got a lot to learn. At least they're talking to me. The bell rings, and I get up to go to History.
“Oh, and Zack,” Tony smirked as I turned to face him. “Make sure you wear all black.”
What? Why would I have to- Oh well, whatever. I will.
I show up at Mark’s house after dinner. Both he and Tony are standing on the front porch waiting for me. “Ready?” Mark asks as they walk around the house into the back yard.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“Just down this path. We’ll be there in no time,” Mark replies.
We walk down a dirt path in the woods our only light coming from Tony’s flashlight and the full moon. It shines off of the tree branches casting eerie shadows. I swear I can see glowing green eyes staring out at us from the darkness at every turn. I can’t see the branches hanging in across the trail, but I feel them catching my t-shirt and scratching the side of my face. I might be bleeding, but I can’t tell. Less than five minutes later, we’re in our school’s parking lot.
“What’s it gonna be this time, Mark?” Tony asks. “Show me the design.”
Mark pulls a sketch pad out of his backpack. “I came up with this last night. I think it’s one of my best.”
He holds the flashlight up to an intricate, very detailed drawing. A smirk slides across his face as he sees my jaw drop to the ground. I can tell he’s itching to tell us what this crazy thing is all about. I’m wondering what it has to do with us being in the school parking lot in the dark.
“You see, I’ve got the brain up here, and it’s got paint oozing out of it. That’s me. The fist crashing through the ooze, that’s you Tony. You see how the hand is covered in paint? That’s because we’re connected like brothers. Do you see it?”
“What’s with the eye in the middle of the brain, there?” I ask.
“That? That’s the all-seeing eye. It sees the past, the present, the future, everything. That, my friend, is you. You’re our lookout tonight.”
A smirk creeps across his mouth again, and the light of the distant street lights glows yellow in his eyes. They are not the same eyes I’ve seen when he’s laughing at the lunch table. Or even the excited ones I saw just minutes ago. No, they’re not even his. They belong to a monster ready to cause destruction, to break every rule in the book. I don’t like that look. Something tells me I should run now while I’ve got the chance. Too bad there’s nowhere to run to. Home is miles away.
“Where do you want to do this?” Tony asked, his flashlight slowly rotating around the parking lot like a searchlight.
“I’m thinking around the back. They’ll see us from the street anywhere else,” Mark replied.
“That’s why I’m the brains.”
We walk around to the back of the building in silence. I’m jogging to keep up with Tony’s long strides because if I fall behind, I’ll be left alone here in the dark. I fight to stay in that little pool of light.
Mark stops by the wall next to the dumpster. I can smell last week’s fish sticks rotting inside it and hear the rats nibbling away at them in a puddle of sour milk. He drops his backpack and it makes clinking noises against the pavement. Oh my God. I know why we’re here.
Mark pulls out green, black, and yellow spray paint cans and a plastic bag full of nozzles each one a different size and shape. He pulls out a black ski mask and pulls it over his head. I turn around to see Tony pulling up the hood of his sweatshirt.
“Where’s yours, Zack?” Mark asks.
“Well, you need something to cover your face. You’re going to get us caught.”
“You didn’t tell me this was what you were bringing me here to do.”
“I could give him my sweatshirt,” Tony offered. “It’s not that cold out.”
“No, then you’ll get us caught, you idiot. You’re the one who needs it most. The cops would recognize you if they came.”
“The cops?” Oh, God, what have I gotten myself into?
“Remember that kid you punched out two months ago?”
“Hey, he started it!”
“It doesn’t matter. They know your face. Zack can have my mask.”
“Wait, then wouldn’t you get caught?” I ask.
That evil little grin creeps across his face again. “I never get caught.”
They tell me my job is to stay out in front of the dumpster and to give them a signal if I hear anything or see anybody coming. They also tell me not to let anybody see me. I don’t know how that’s supposed to work if I’m standing in front of the dumpster, but Mark says there’s never anybody around at this time of night anyway. We just have to make sure.
So I stand at my post and Mark starts his masterpiece. I’ve been standing out here for forty-five minutes (for real, that’s what my watch says.) I look back at Mark and Tony on occasion. I can tell Mark has had a lot of practice with that spray can. Every green wrinkle in the brain is highlighted by a little bit of yellow. Each shape is perfect. It looks exactly like his drawing in the sketchbook except it’s ten times bigger.
As he’s about to spray the color into the center of the eye, a light flicks on in a second floor window. I don’t even get the chance to flash the signal before they’ve pulled me backward. Tony’s flashlight has rolled under the dumpster, and I can’t see it anymore. He’s got his hand over my mouth and is holding me against the wall. I can’t move a muscle. I can’t catch my breath, and my heart is pounding in my ears. The window opens and I inhale the scent of floor cleaner as it trickles down towards our hiding place.
Suddenly my cell phone starts to ring in the pocket of my jeans. Tony’s grip tightens around me so I can’t even reach into my pocket to shut it off before someone inside hears it. It’s too late for that, though. The janitor sticks his head out the window. “Who’s there?” he yells. I try with all my might to disappear into the brick wall behind me.
After a few seconds he gives up, and his head is gone from the window, but we’re frozen where we are. None of us dare to move.
Just when I think we’re safe, I hear sirens wailing in the distance. Tony lets go, and I fall to the pavement, my head smashing into the wall. Before I can even sit back up, he’s run all the way to the edge of the school yard and climbed the fence. Mark is frantically trying to shove all of his paints back into his backpack. “Don’t just sit there! Help! Haven’t you ever seen those CSI shows? They can get DNA off of this stuff”
We collect every last can of spray paint and Mark zips up his bag. He pulls me to my feet, but I fall right back down. I’m dizzy from the pain in my head. He drags me away from the dumpster, and I can see blue lights flashing down the street. “Come on, Zack. You’ve got to stay with me here. Come on, get up. Get up! We have to get out of here.”
I stumble to my feet as he drags me by the arm through the back parking lot. The sirens are getting louder and louder and there is blue light shining on the ground just a hundred feet to our left. We crawl through a hole at the bottom of the fence. Mark is still dragging me along as we run through the woods. He trips over a tree root and falls hard taking me down with him. He lies there for a while breathing heavily, but his breathing slows with every second that passes. We’re safe now.
He says we should head back to his house to get cleaned up and that Tony probably ran home. I tell him that I’ll just go to my house, but thanks anyway. He shrugs and walks off to the path we took to get to the school. I sit down on a rock. My jeans were caked with dirt and blood is soaking the torn knees.
I take out my phone to call home, and I see that I have one new text message. It’s from Mom. “Hope you’re having fun. Call me when you need a ride home.” Oh, yeah, I am just having the time of my life right now. This has been such a great night. So great that I just want to go home and never leave. Ever. Because this is so fun that I never want it to happen again. How did I even get myself into this mess? As I start to dial, I realize that when Mom picks up I’m going to have to explain that to her. She’s going to want to know how I got to be in the woods behind my school and why my jeans are torn and why I’m all dirty. She can’t know about this. Never. I’m not going to tell her. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. I’ll just call Bryan and have him pick me up. Then Mom will never have to- Wait, how is he going to do that? I’m in the woods. I can’t go back out to the school. It’s crawling with cops. They’ll know what I was doing with Mark and Tony. Then they’ll tackle me to the ground and handcuff me. I’ll have to sit in the back of the squad car. They’ll throw me in jail, and make me wear that orange jumpsuit. My picture will be lined up with all these other criminals, and that janitor will point me out. “That’s the one.” Then I’ll rot away in prison forever, and it’s not my fault. I didn’t know what they were doing till it was too late. Please, just let me go!
I walk through the woods until there are no more trees anymore. I know I’m in the park now. It’s only four blocks from the school, but that’s far enough. I take the ski mask off and toss it in a trash can. I dial Bryan’s cell phone number. I really hope he’s already out and not at home. I don’t want Mom to ask where he’s going. It rings seven times before he picks up.
“What do you want, Zack? I’m trying to drive.”
Oh, thank God. “Since you’re out already, can you pick me up?”
“Can’t you just get Mom to do it?”
“Fine. Where are you?”
“I’ll be there in five minutes.”
I get in the passenger’s side of the car when he pulls up. His eyes bug out to the size of quarters when he sees me. I must look worse than I thought.
“What were you doing?”
I didn’t really want him to know. I didn’t want anyone to know. “Playing man hunt.”
“Then why do you look like you’ve been mugged?”
My eyes dart around the car. I don’t know how to answer.
“You weren’t, were you? Did you have any money on you? If they stole something we have to report it to the cops.”
“No!” I can’t let him keep making assumptions. He’s going to tell the cops, or worse, Mom. I tell him everything, but make him promise to keep it a secret. Mom can’t find out. I’ll be in debt to him now till the day I die. And longer.
Today I think I’ll look for a new lunch table to sit at. I need some time away from Tony and Mark. I don’t want a repeat of what happened Friday night or anything like it. At least not today.
I walk through the double doors and stare across the barren desert of unfamiliar faces. I recognize a few from my classes, but don’t know their names. I could meet a hundred of them on the street and never know that we went to the same school unless they told me. Mark and Tony are the only ones I know; the only ones who have ever talked to me here, the only ones that keep me convinced that I’m not invisible.
Then I see one boy sit down at an empty table near the window. He pulls out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a book. Everyone is walking past his table, but nobody sits down or talks to him. He’s invisible too. Why can’t we be invisible together?
“Hey, Milo,” I say as I sit down. He peers out at me from behind his book.
“Oh, hi, Zack! Do you need help with your homework or something?”
“No, I just needed a place to sit. Is this seat taken?”
“Never is… Where’s your lunch?”
“I don’t have any money.”
“You put it down somewhere and then it was gone?” How’d he know? “Happens to me all the time. Would you like half of my PB&J?”
He hands me a triangular half of his white bread sandwich with the crusts cut off. Then we eat and talk. I can actually follow the conversation, and he listens to me and cares about what I have to say. That half an hour goes by in a flash, something I wish would happen most days. Today was different, though. I was laughing for the first time since I came here. I didn’t want it to end.
I sit down in my seat in History and drop my backpack behind me… on a girl’s foot as she walks by. She trips and almost whacks her head on my desk, but I put my arms out to try to catch her. We both fall to the floor and her books are scattered all over our row. I immediately start to apologize. I could have just cracked her head open, but she’s just sitting on the floor laughing.
I pick up all of her books and put them on her desk for her. She thanks me and asks if we’ve met before. I’ve only been sitting next to you for a month now. “I’m Zack.”
“Kayla.” She smiles, brushing a strand of her short, brown hair away from her big brown eyes.
At that moment Mr. Grant walks in and tells us to put our books away. The room begins to buzz with panic. There’s one kid in the front row about to duck for cover under his desk. I asked Kayla what was going on. She told me we were about to have a stand-up pop quiz. It’s something Mr. Grant does where he’ll tell one row to stand up and he’ll ask those kids questions. You can’t sit down until you get one right. Some kids have stayed up the entire class period.
“Back row,” Kayla’s head whips around at Mr. Grant, her eyes widened to the size of quarters. “Stand up.”
The second I leave my chair my mind goes completely blank. What have we been learning about? What class am I even in?!? History, get a grip, Zack. I can’t remember a thing though. I think we’ve been learning about some war. But which one? There are so many! If people would just get along I wouldn’t be having this problem.
“Mr. Allen,” he stands towering over me staring down his long nose, “who was President of the United States when the Civil War began?”
“Uhh…” Oh, God. Why now? Why me? Everybody’s staring. This isn’t even a hard question. I just, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“Yes.” Wait, was I supposed to say no? How do you answer that question?
“Abraham Lincoln,” Kayla says as she sits down.
Mr. Grant turns back to me and leans over with his hands on my desk. “Mr. Allen,” his black eyes lock on mine, “have you studied at all this week? Be honest now.”
“Yes?” Well, I was a little preoccupied Friday night and just plain unmotivated the rest of the weekend.
“I can tell you’re lying to me, Mr. Allen. Your eyes are darting around the room. You are panicking because you know that you do not have any of the answers. Perhaps you should pay more attention in this class instead of daydreaming.”
A smile emerges from the black goatee. I swear I see fangs. “Very good.”
He kept going down the row asking questions. Some people had the same trouble that I did and had to answer a bunch of them. Mr. Grant never seemed to get mad at them, though. One by one they plopped back down into their seats with sighs of relief. With just a minute left of class, the girl at the end of my row got to sit down. I’m the only one left standing. Mr. Grant turns on his heel and begins walking back towards me, each step of his steel-toed boots echoing through the silent room. “Mr. Allen.” He stops and leans over my desk again. “Where was the treaty that ended the Civil War signed?”
The bell rings and everybody starts to get up to go to their next class. “Nobody move! You’re not leaving until your classmate answers the question.”
We’re all doomed for detention. We’re going to be here all night. I didn’t know the answers to hardly any of the other questions. Now I'm under even more pressure because everybody else is going to be punished for me being terrible at pop quizzes. I can feel a bead of sweat slowly rolling down the side of my forehead. It's so quiet in the room that I can hear my heart beating, and it just keeps getting louder and faster. What am I supposed to do? Then I feel a sharp pain in my ankle. Kayla just kicked me under the desk. I glare over at her and she points to something written on the cover of her notebook.
“Appomattox Court House?” I whisper as I read. That sounds vaguely familiar.
“What was that, Mr. Allen?”
“Appomattox Court House.”
“That's correct. You may go.”
Everyone packs up their books and practically sprints out of the classroom. I don't even get the chance to thank Kayla. Right now I'm just hoping that I don't get into trouble with the gym teacher for being late. If I run, I might make it just in time.
When I walk in, Mr. Jacobs is in the back room getting the floor hockey sticks so he doesn't notice me. I make a break for the locker room so he doesn't catch me, and I change fast enough so that I'm out right as he's calling my name for attendance. The red team gets stuck with me for floor hockey since I'm one of the last people to be picked. I start off sitting in the bleachers because it's always the first people who get picked who get to play the whole time. Not that I mind. I’m much less likely to humiliate myself sitting over here. Milo seems to have the same idea, so I go over to sit and talk with him. I tell him all about what just happened with Mr. Grant and ask if he is even allowed to do that. Milo says that it's his classroom and he can do whatever he wants. Personally, I think that it is totally not fair.
The buzzer goes off signaling the end of the first period. Mark and Tony come over and sit in the bleachers with us.
“Zack, where were you today?” Mark asks. “You weren't at the lunch table.”
“What are you doing talking to this loser?”asks Tony.
“Excuse me,” says Milo, “but I believe that you, sir, are the loser in this situation because it just so happens that my aspirations extend beyond stocking shelves in the back of Wal-Mart for the rest of my life."
“Well, at least I can make a shot.”
“Let's see how far that gets you in life.”
“Come on, Zack, stick with us or you’ll catch the nerd disease.”
“Zack can talk to whomever he likes.”
“Yeah, if he wants to be a loser too.”
Okay, now what? Mark and Tony are going to shut me out if I keep talking to Milo. Is losing one friend worth keeping another? Maybe I can still talk to Milo without those guys thinking I'm a loser. What they don't know won’t hurt them, right?
Kayla moved her seat next to mine in Math the other day. That worked out quite well for me because she is really smart, and algebra is really hard. She’s been helping me get through all of the work that Mr. Thompson has been giving us. I think the teachers just team up to maximize the torture. I mean on Tuesday Mr. Thompson gave us thirty-eight problems to do for homework. Maybe you’re thinking hey, kid, that’s not that bad, but those thirty-eight problems covered four pages in the math book. On top of all of that, Mr. Grant assigned us a five-paragraph essay on the effect the Emancipation Proclamation had on the Civil War. It’s due by the end of the week. I can’t write five paragraphs in a week! That’s crazy! Does he think that I’m some sort genius? Or like a high school student or something? It’s not just five paragraphs either, because I keep on having to write rough drafts until he thinks it’s good enough to pass in for a grade. Nothing I do is ever good enough for him!
I’ve been ranting to Kayla about this all math class, but I really don’t think she’s listening to me because this was her reply: “Do you want to go the movies with me on Friday night?”
Where did that come from? “What are you going to see?”
“I don’t know. What do you want to see?”
“Well, I was supposed to go see Warp Speed with my brother, but he already went with his friends, so I guess we could go. The commercial had a car chase and ninjas in space.”
“Oh, okay. Do you want to get some dinner before the movie?”
“Let’s see, on Fridays Mom makes meatloaf so yes. Definitely.”
“Okay, so will you pick me up at six thirty?”
Then she starts giggling and turns to the girl behind her and squeals. What did I do? That conversation wasn’t that funny. I still don’t get girls. They both whisper to each other and look over at me and giggle some more. This carries on through the rest of class.
I tell Milo about how weird Kayla is acting when I get to English. I invite him to come to the movies with us. He just smiles and shakes his head and says, “I think you two would be better off if I left you alone.” I don’t see why that is. We’re just a couple of friends going to watch a ninja car chase movie. Besides, Kayla doesn’t really strike me as a high-speed, kick-butt ninja battle in space movie kind of person. I need somebody there to share my excitement with. Milo says we can rent it at his house once it hits video stores. I guess we could do that, but why wait?
Milo tells me I should just go back to reading now so I’ll have less to do for homework. He says he’ll help me with my history essay if I finish before the end of class.
Mrs. Evans stands up at the front of the class and starts talking about the book and asking questions, which means Milo’s not available to answer mine anymore. He’s too busy being the only student involved in the class discussion.
I sit back in my chair and wait for the bell to ring.
We’re driving down the road to go pick up Kayla, and Mom is singing along to some old country song on the radio. I’m pretty sure she’s making up half the words in the verses because they don’t make any sense at all. Then she belts out the chorus for the entire world to hear. Thank God the windows are closed. I wouldn’t want them all to have to suffer this much. My ears may be permanently damaged. I’d never tell her that though.
We pull into Kayla’s driveway, the front door flies open, and a woman comes running towards the SUV. As soon as Mom gets out, she throws her arms around her. Then they both laugh and start talking in that weird girl-talk language that I don’t understand. Then she turns to me.
“This must be Zack. He’s gotten so big!”
“Zack, you remember Donna, right? She and I used to work together.”
Mom’s been working in the same doctor’s office since before I was born. Donna could have found a new job when I was a baby for all I know. Have I ever even met this woman? Who is she, and what’s she doing at Kayla’s house?
She invites us inside where there are pictures of Kayla and her siblings hanging on the living room walls. My mom knows Kayla’s mom already. Great. They’ll be setting up play dates in no time. I sit down on the couch, and they sit down on either side of me when there is clearly another chair to sit in just five feet away. They just lean over and talk around me like I’m not even there, so I pretend I’m not. However, one little excited comment from Donna brings me right back.
“I can’t believe our babies are going on their first date together!”
What? Date? Who said anything about a date? This is not a date.
“I know,” Mom replies, “they grow up so fast.”
No! We’re just two friends going to dinner and a movie. It’s not a date.
Then Kayla walks down the stairs slowly and quietly, maybe hoping to sneak past the moms. She’s wearing a skirt and a blouse and her usual converse sneakers have been replaced by fancy open- toed shoes with heels. She’s wearing lipstick, and her hair is curled. Mom gasps when Kayla steps on a creaky stair. “Oh, Donna, your daughter looks so beautiful.”
I barely recognize her.
Donna whips a digital camera out of her pocket. “Okay, get together, you two. I need to get a picture.”
I get up and stand next to Kayla.
“Oh, come on, now. Pinch in a little closer. Like you like each other.” She pulls us together until our arms are touching and puts my hand in her daughter’s. “Much better.”
“That is so precious. Can you email those pictures to me? This is just one of those memories you want to cherish forever,” Mom says as her eyes well up with tears.
“Don’t you cry! You’re gonna’ make me cry!”
Donna runs to get a box of tissues from the kitchen, and that’s when Kayla and I decide to make our escape. We slip out the front door and into the back seat of the car. We’re both too mortified by what just happened to speak. I completely forget to ask Kayla why nobody told me I was going on a date tonight.
A few minutes later we pull into the parking lot of Stanley’s Steakhouse. When we walk in, there are only two tables open, and they’re on opposite sides of the restaurant. Mom gives me forty dollars and tells us to have fun as she follows a waitress to the back corner. Another waitress comes to get Kayla and me. She’s about seventeen and has layered black hair and a nose ring. She stares down at us from behind her pad of paper and says in monotone, “Welcome to Stanley’s Steakhouse. Our specials today are the beef sirloin and the barbeque baby back ribs. The soup of the day is French onion. May I take your order?”
I order an orange soda, a twelve ounce steak, and waffle fries topped with cheese and bacon bits. Kayla orders a Caesar salad and a water. She says she’ll eat popcorn and candy at the movies anyway so there’s no need for a big dinner. Her dinner in fact was very small. I don’t think it could’ve even passed as a side salad with its three croutons. My steak, however, was a hot, juicy slice of heaven in my mouth. The cheese fries were good but could not compare with the sweet and tangy burst of flavor in every bite of steak. When the waitress brings the hot fudge sundae I ordered for dessert, Kayla’s eyes bulge and I can see her mouth start to water. I tell her I’ll let her have a bite, but then she keeps coming back for another taste until she’s eaten half of my whipped cream, rainbow sprinkles, and even the cherry on top!
After I pay the bill, we meet Mom and Donna out in front of the restaurant. We drive to the movie theater and go our separate ways after leaving the ticket counter. They’re going to see some movie with a sad love story that is bound to make them cry. Why they would pay to have someone make them cry is beyond me. That’s why we’re going to see Warp Speed.
We sit down near the back of the theater right in the middle of our row. The movie’s been in theaters for three weeks now, so I don’t think many more people will come in. I’ve got my Sour Patch Kids, and she’s got her M&Ms. The large Mountain Dew with two straws is in the cup holder between us, and the bucket of extra buttery popcorn is on Kayla’s lap. The previews begin just as we finish organizing our snacks. The first one looks pretty funny. I can’t really tell what it’s going to be about, but a guy gets whacked in the face with a frying pan. That is some classic cartoon humor brought to life. I love it! We agree that we both want to see it when it comes out in October. The rest don’t look like they’re going to be worth the $8.50 for the ticket, even if it is Mom’s money. The movie starts and the ten other people in the theater go quiet.
A black BMW races around an Orlando street corner fishtailing into a lamp post, but it’s indestructible. It keeps on driving without a scratch as the red corvette behind it crashes through the window of the office building on the other side of the street as it swerves to avoid an oncoming 18-wheeler.
I lean over to take a sip of the Mountain Dew without taking my eyes off the screen. Apparently, Kayla was thinking the same thing. During a two car, high speed, head-on collision the left side of my forehead smacks into hers. I’m not doing that again.
The BMW turns onto the highway to head for the Kennedy Space Center where the driver and his partner will be launched in a rocket to complete their mission and save the galaxy from the evil space ninjas.
I keep trying to grab popcorn from the bucket, but it’s like she’s watching me. Every time I stick my hand in, she does too. As the rocket takes off, she grabs my hand. Her fingers are intertwined in mine. My right arm isn’t long enough to reach across my body and into the popcorn bucket, though. Great. Now I can’t have any.
The rocket zooms past Alpha Centauri when it is bombarded by an army of sleek, black ninja starships. They take over the ship threatening to cast all of the crew members into space if they do not become followers of the Ninja King.
She won’t let go of my hand! This is making it very difficult to eat my Sour Patch Kids. I have to pour them straight into my mouth from the bag. I reach the bottom where there is only sugar. I know I won’t be able to sleep later, but I decide to eat it anyway. That was a mistake. It spilled all over my face, and one particularly large grain fell into my eye. It began to water and burn so badly that I had to run to the bathroom to wash it out.
Fifteen minutes later, I come back and sit down. Zephyr Phoenix is staring intensely at the Ninja King. Kayla is giving me a similar intense stare. Even though she's not holding a ray gun, it’s still kind of scaring me. Why is she looking at me like that? This is very uncomfortable. Now she’s slowly leaning toward me. What's she doing? This is really distracting. I'm trying to watch a ninja battle here. When her face is just inches from mine, she comes right at me and kisses me on the lips. I can feel the lipstick residue rubbing off all over my mouth. It reminds me of my grandma's. With her it's usually covering my cheeks and forehead, though.
She pulls away and smiles, but I don't smile back. The Ninja King just fell off the edge of the space station in slow motion. I missed the most intense ninja battle of the century! I sit back in my seat with my arms crossed. She asks what's wrong, but I just want to watch the rest of the movie so, I don't bother explaining it to her.
When the movie is over, we stand outside the theater in silence until our moms come out ten minutes later. On the way to Kayla's house, neither of us says a word while Mom and Donna talk and laugh. Kayla opens the car door on her side and steps down onto her driveway.
“Zack,” Mom says, “you should've opened her door for her.”
“That's okay, Mrs. Allen. I think I can handle it,” Kayla replies. She closes her door and starts walking toward her house.
Mom turns back to look at me. “Well, aren’t you going to walk her to the door?”
“Why? It’s like fifty feet away?”
“Zackary Michael Allen, you get out of this car and walk that girl to her front door! Do you hear me?”
I get out and run after her so that we can walk the last three steps together. Then I just stand with her on the doorstep. I don't know what I'm supposed to do.
“Umm… well, I had a great time tonight. We should do this again sometime.” It's what they say in the movies in these kinds of situations. I figure if it works for all those guys, then it'll work for me.
She agrees with me, but she doesn't go inside yet. It's like she's waiting for something. What do I do now? Am I supposed to kiss her? No, I can’t. Mom’s watching us. That’s weird. A hug maybe? No, that’s not what you do after a date that wasn’t supposed to be a date in the first place. That never happens on TV. They always kiss the girl, but their moms are never waiting for them in the car.
And I turn and walk away without looking back.
Today I’ve decided to make an expedition. I will venture in forbidden territory and battle rough terrain. I face the danger of an avalanche or even a sinkhole. I may never find my way out. It will not be an easy task, but I am determined to return with the treasures that lay buried in this place. Wish me luck as I journey through this mysterious place we call Bryan’s bedroom.
I want to listen to Bryan’s Steele Wolf CD while I do my math homework, but I know he won’t let me borrow it because I’m not cool enough to use his stuff, or so he says. However, I know he won’t notice if it’s gone for an hour or two, so I’ll just find it in his room.
I see from my room that his door is open. This is a very rare occurrence since he usually just locks himself in. I seize the opportunity while I have the chance. I roll through the open doorway James-Bond-style, just because I can. There’s nobody here to judge me for it. I do my best to step around papers, books, and clothes. They’re covering the entire floor, though. I look through the pile of CDs stacked under the McDonald’s cup on the night stand, but Steele Wolf isn’t in there. I check the box in the closet, but it’s not in there either. I check under the bed, but it’s too dark. I can’t see. I run back to my room to grab a flashlight and shine it under the bed. The CD is all the way back against the wall, but something else catches my attention. I pull out three silver beer cans.
Then Bryan walks by. “What are you doing in my room?” he demands. “Get out.”
I hold up one of the beer cans with one eyebrow raised at him, and all the color drains from his face.
“Where did you get that?” His voice is an octave higher than usual.
“I think you know that. Where did you get it?”
“Like I’d tell you!”
“Well, what are you doing with it?”
“What do you think I’m doing with it?”
“I’m telling Mom. M-”
“No!” He covers my mouth. “If you tell her about this, I’ll tell her what you did last Friday.”
“You can’t! You promised.”
“And if you don’t put those back where you found them I’ll be breaking more than just a promise. Got it?”
I put the cans back behind the blankets and take the Steele Wolf CD back to my room. Bryan slams the door when I leave.
At dinner Bryan won’t even look at me. I’m used to him not talking to me much, but this is weird. Mom is trying to get him to talk, but it’s not working. She says she wants to change the sheets in all the bedrooms and do some spring cleaning. This changes Bryan’s mood. He’s glaring at me now, but he doesn’t have to worry about me. I don’t want to disappoint mom any more than he does, even if my mistake was unintentional unlike his.
I get a text from Mark when I’m halfway done my spaghetti. “Party at my house. 7:00. Be there.” I ask Mom if I can go, and she says she’ll have to pick me up at nine because it’s a school night. I don’t really care. I need to get out of this house so I don’t have Bryan watching my every move all night long.
Mom drops me off at Mark’s doorstep, and I ring the bell. Nobody answers, but I can tell they are there because I hear music coming from downstairs. I just walk in and follow the sound of the drum beat to the basement. There are about twenty people there. I recognize most of them from lunch or my classes, but there are a few whom I’ve never seen before. The music is blaring, but nobody is dancing to it. Everyone is just standing around, eating chips, and yelling to each other because they can’t hear. That’s all they do for a solid hour. I’m bored out of my mind, so I call Mom to come pick me up. She says she’ll be there in fifteen minutes.
That’s when one girl decides that we’re all going to play “truth or dare”. The room goes dead silent, and everyone sits down in a circle. We all stare at each other waiting for the first person to dare someone to do something totally crazy. This is some serious business.
After a couple of minutes, Mark speaks up. “Katie,” he points to the girl directly across the circle from him, “truth or dare?”
“Truth,” she replies without hesitation.
“Okay, would you rather lick a bus seat or Tony’s foot?”
“You have to pick one.”
“Fine, Tony’s foot.”
Mark seemed satisfied with that answer. Katie got to pick the next person.
“Nick, truth or dare?”she asks.
“Is that even a question? Dare.” Nick replies.
“Oh, you think you're a tough guy, Nick?” Mark asks. “I dare you to go lick Tony's foot!”
“I don't want him licking my feet!”Tony piped up.
“What makes you think I'd want to? No way, dude. I'm not doing that,” Nick says.
“But you have to,” says Mark, “I dared you.”
So Tony took off his shoes, and socks and Nick licked his foot. He had to run to the bathroom afterwards to wash off his tongue, but he did it.
All the girls that got picked chose truth, and it was all boring stuff like, “who do you think is the cutest boy in school?” or, “What's the last secret you wrote in your diary?”. Tom got dared to kiss Emily, but that's hardly even a dare. She's his girlfriend.
I was content just sitting back watching all this go on around me. Then Mark called me out. “Zack, truth or dare?”
I have to pick dare. All the other guys did, and I know if I don't they'll make fun of me. None of them really want to know which girl I secretly have a crush on. Mark pulls out a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket, and every jaw in the room drops.
“Where did you get those?” asks Katie.
“My brother turned eighteen last week. He bought some. I found them. He won’t notice if one is missing.” He says this like it's a pack of gum or a dollar bill. “Zack, I dare you to smoke one of these.”
“What are you, chicken?”
“No, I just…”
“I double-dog-dare you.”
Oh, man. There's no getting out of a double-dog-dare. What do I do? I can't smoke a cigarette. Mom would kill me if she ever found out. All these people are watching me, though. Mark is clucking like a chicken, and all the other guys are starting to do it too. They'll make fun of me for the rest of my life if I don't do something right now.
He pulls out a lighter, and I watch the flame dance as the tar begins to burn. I ask him if he knows what he's doing. He says he's seen his dad do it a million times, so how hard could it be? I shut my eyes tight as I bring the cigarette towards my lips. My heart starts beating so loudly in my ears that I can't hear anything else around me. I take a breath and the smoke burns my throat. My eyes begin to water. I feel like I'm choking. I start to cough, but I can still feel it in the back of my throat.
“Zackary Michael Allen!’
I open my eyes and my mother is standing over me. She grabs me by the arm and drags me up the stairs and out to the car. Nobody says a word. I know I'm in trouble now. I'm just waiting for her to explode and scream, “What were you thinking? Do you understand how bad that is for you? What else have you been doing behind my back? You're grounded for life. You'll never see outside the walls of our house again. I forbid you from seeing any of those friends of yours.”
I just keep waiting for her to say all these things. I want her to say all of that because I know it's true. How could I be so stupid? I deserve to sit in my room with absolutely nothing to do but think about what I've done. I want her to yell and scream and tell me what I did was wrong. She should be furious, but she just sits there in the driver’s seat, not saying a word. Ten minutes later when we pull into the driveway, she stops the car but doesn't get out. Tears start to roll down her cheeks. This is worse than any punishment she could’ve possibly come up with. My heart sinks practically into my stomach. What kind of horrible person have I become? All she has ever done is care for me and love me with all her heart, and now she's sitting next to me crying because of something I chose to do. It takes every ounce of strength that I have to hold back my own tears when I see her like this.
“I'm sorry, honey. I guess I haven't been doing a very good job with you boys lately.”
“What are you talking about, Mom? I'm the one that messed up, not you. It's my fault.”
“No, it's mine. You and your brother need a male role model to show you what to do. Obviously, all that I can give you just isn't cutting it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I was cleaning the sheets today in Bryan's room and I found…”
Oh, no. Bryan’s secret is out. Does that mean he told her mine too? Did he keep his promise? Not that it matters much after this. I wonder what happened to him when she found out. Did she freak out, or did she react just like she did to me? I hope, for Bryan’s sake, that she screamed until she was blue in the face because this is so much worse. I would much rather be scared of what she was going to do to me than feel this bad.
“I think it would be best,” she says looking straight out the windshield, “if you and Bryan went to live with your dad for a while.”
Mom had to drag me out of bed this morning, literally. When my alarm clock went off, I unplugged it and threw it on the ground before burying my head back under the covers. It wasn’t just that it was a Monday, and the weekend was over. It was my last night in Mom’s apartment, and it went by way too fast. I wish I could just stop time so it could stay that night forever. I wish I could go back and change things so none of this ever would have happened. I want a do-over! Where’s the reset button? If anybody finds it, let me know.
For the first time in my life, the school day flew by. Before I knew it the final bell was ringing in Gym class, and everyone was running to catch their buses. Soon I was back at home cramming everything I could into my suitcase.
Now I’m sitting in the passenger’s seat of Bryan’s car. The radio is turned off, the windows are rolled up, and we haven’t said one word to each other since we kissed Mom goodbye. All I can do is stare out the window and watch the other cars zoom past us. Bryan usually drives at least ten miles an hour over the speed limit, but today he’s moving at a snail’s pace. While we’re stopped at a red light, I stare out ahead. There is a black cloud hovering just above the trees. A raindrop splashes down on the windshield. It is followed by another and another, but Bryan doesn’t turn the windshield wipers on. He just sits there staring at the raindrops until all the cars behind him start honking.
When we pull into the driveway, Dad is standing on the front lawn waiting for us. Bryan takes all of our stuff out of the trunk, and we carry it towards the front door.
“I’ll take those,” Dad says, holding out his hand.
Bryan hands his suitcase to him.
“Not the bags, your car keys. You’ll get them back when I feel that you’ve earned them.”
The light vanishes from Bryan’s eyes as he slowly reaches into his pocket and takes out his keys. He holds them out, and Dad snatches them away.
We trudge up the stairs to our room. Yes, I said our room. We’re sharing. There is an extra bedroom here, but Dad’s turned it into a personal gym with a bunch of workout machines. There’s the bed that I’ve been sleeping in every time I’ve come here, and on the other side of the room there’s an old, grape soda-stained futon. Bryan throws his suitcase from the doorway onto the bed, claiming it for himself. That means I’m stuck with the futon. It looks lumpy, and one of the metal springs is sticking out on the side. How long will it be until he moves out and I get the bed? Bryan pulls a roll of duct tape out of his bag and makes a line with it dividing the room in half.
“Look, this is my side, and that’s your side. Under no circumstances are you to step foot on my side of the room. Got it?”
The door is on his side of the room. He’s going to have to give up some of his territory so I can get out. Right now he’s looking for the X-box, though, so I’ll have to attempt to make some negotiations later. I can hear Bryan stomping up the stairs now. I didn’t think coming to live here could possibly get much worse, but apparently he’s found something that’s made it so. He flings the door open so hard that it makes a dent in the wall.
“I can’t believe it! He hid the cables! There’s a console and all kinds of games but nothing to hook it up to the TV.”
“Oh, come on, Bryan. You can live without X-box.” The question is, can I? What am I supposed to do here if I don’t have that? It’s how I’ve entertained myself for the past month.
“It’s not just the X-box! He’s taken my car so I can’t go anywhere. The computer is locked in his room, and guess what, there’s no cell phone service! What is this, prison?”
For once I agree with him. Dad’s taken everything fun out of our lives. Not that it was much fun here to begin with, but there’s no chance of turning things around now. This is going to be terrible.
We finish packing and head downstairs for dinner. A huge casserole dish of homemade lasagna is sitting in the middle of the kitchen table. The cheese on top is burnt to a crisp. Monique is pouring milk into all of the glasses. Dad walks in, takes one look at the lasagna, smiles, and tells her it looks delicious. I wonder if eating Monique’s food makes you go blind because it barely looks edible to me. I peel off the burnt cheese before I take a bite. I blow on it, expecting it to be hot, but it’s not. The middle of my piece is practically frozen. I cut the rest of it up, and push it around the plate with my fork.
“What’s the matter, Zack?” Monique asks. “Don’t you like it?”
“I just don’t really like lasagna that much.” But maybe I would if you knew how to cook it.
“Oh, that’s okay. I made my grandmother’s famous apple crisp for dessert. I haven’t met a man yet who didn’t love it.”
She wasn’t lying. The apple crisp is sweet and crunchy but warm and fruity at the same time. It’s heaven in your mouth. In fact, it was so good I went back for a second piece.
Dad is sitting next to Monique now holding her hand in his. He clinks his fork on his glass of milk and says, “I have something to say.”
Yes, I’d like to propose a toast. What is he doing? There are only four of us here. All he has to do to get our attention is say “Hey!”
“Monique,” he says turning toward her, “I’ve been waiting for the perfect moment to ask you this, and what better time is there than now? I’ve got my family here to share my happiness. I must be the luckiest man alive to have found someone as special as you. You have made me happier than anyone else in the world.” He gets down on one knee next to her chair and pulls out a little black box. “Monique, will you marry me?”
I spew my apple crisp across the table and it covers Monique’s fingers and the ring. I charge towards Dad practically climbing over the table.
“No! You can’t do that! What about Mom? Did you just forget about her?”
“Zack, your mother and I aren’t married anymore. You see, we-”
“So you’re trying to replace her?”
“Nobody is going to replace your mom, Zack,” Monique says.
“Okay, so you expect me to believe that this lady that you’ve only known for three months is not taking my Mom’s place.”
“Okay, first of all we’ve known each other longer than three months.”
“Michael!” Monique is turning a deep shade of red. She looks like she might burst into tears.
“What do you mean you’ve known her for more than three months? You and Mom split up three months ago.”
“Michael, what were you thinking, telling your son that?” Monique growls through gritted teeth, her eyes beginning to bulge.
“Wait, you lied to me about why you and Mom split up? Well, I ought to be used to it by now. You lie about everything else.”
“I never lied to you.”
“Oh yeah? Hey, Dad, are you gonna’ come to my band concert? ‘You bet I will, son!’ You never showed up. Where were you the night of my eleventh birthday? Working late? I bet you were with her. Were all the times you were working late a lie?”
He falls back down into his chair completely speechless.
“Well, let me ask you this. Did you ever once, just once, think to ask if I was okay with this?”
He has no answer.
“Of course not. You never think of me. You don’t even know me.”
“Of course, I do.”
“Oh yeah? What’s my favorite band?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s Steele Wolf. Who’s my best friend?”
“Timmy moved to Connecticut when I was seven. See, you don’t even know that?”
“That’s not important, though. All I need to know is that you are my son, and I love you.”
“Well, you don’t act like it! You never spent any time with me. You never really talked to me. I mean, you’ve played catch with me every time I’ve come here, and you didn’t even take the time to ask what I wanted to do. I don’t even like baseball. You just assume that I’m like Bryan because he’s my brother or maybe you just want me to be more like him. Maybe you like him better than me. I don’t know. All I know is that you don’t care enough to get to know me like you know him or like you know Monique. So I hope that you guys are happy together. As for me, I’m just going to leave you alone because you obviously don’t care whether I’m here or not. I’ll just make things easier for you. Have a great life without me!”
I throw the chair to the ground as I turn and run out the back door. I leave them all behind, Monique in tears and Dad and Bryan wide-eyed in shock. I run to the edge of the yard and try to climb the fence, but I slip and fall back down to the ground. The rain splashes down on my face, and I just lie on there on my back unable to move.
I close my eyes and imagine I’m on the mountain. It’s not the same, though. I can’t see anything in the distance. The black clouds are blocking my view. There is nobody in sight. For the first time in my life I feel truly alone. Even the sun will not come to dry the tears rolling down my cheeks.
When I open my eyes again it is completely dark. All I can see is the light in the kitchen. Dad and Monique are still sitting at the table, but Bryan is not with them. He’s out here sitting next to me. I can’t see him, but I feel his hand on my shoulder. He doesn’t have to say a single word. I know that at least somebody is on my side. I know now that we’ll find a way through this together. That’s all I need.
In English, Mrs. Evans tells us that we should discuss the reading we did last night for homework in small groups before we all talk about it as a class. That means before she talks to Milo about it while everyone else daydreams. Milo and I are paired up since we sit next to each other, but I have much more important things to talk about than Oliver Twist. I tell him everything that happened last night. He can’t believe nobody came out to find Bryan and me or made sure we were okay. He said that’s what he’d do. You see, that’s what makes Milo different from Dad and Monique. He cares about me. Monique did call our names a few times from the back door, but Dad didn’t do a thing. He just sat there at the kitchen table the whole time staring into space. After an hour, we went inside on our own because we were freezing, but he didn’t even talk to us. I haven’t spoken a word to him since dinner last night.
He asks why I don’t just go back and live with my mom, and I freeze for a second.
“Swear that you won’t tell anyone about this,” I whisper so Milo has to lean in closer. Nobody can hear this. I don’t want the teachers or anyone to find out what I’ve done with Mark and Tony.
“Not a soul,” he replies, his eyes growing wider with every second that passed.
I’d never told anyone what happened that night behind the school or what they made me do at Mark’s party. Bryan and the people who were there are the only ones who know. I never told anyone how scared I was. I was afraid of what other people would think. I know Milo won’t think any differently of me, though. He’s not like that. I can tell him anything I’ve ever thought or done, no matter how embarrassing it is, and I know he’ll still talk to me afterwards. I can’t do that with anyone else, especially not Mark and Tony. I’m not sure those guys even hear what I’m saying when I’m talking to them.
Mrs. Evans stops our discussions to talk about the book just as I finish telling Milo my story, so I sit back and relax. I don’t have to keep the secret anymore. I feel like I can finally breathe again.
I walk to the cafeteria to meet Kayla in study hall at the end of the period. When I get there, she’s waiting by the double doors with a sweet smile on her face. We sit down together at the closest table and I take out my math book. I need her help with solving polynomial equations. They’re as big and confusing as the name implies.
Problem number seven is especially difficult. I’ve gotten it down to X plus Y minus two divided by the square root of Z plus four times X. Now I’m stuck. I tap my pencil on my notebook as I try to figure out what to do next. Without any warning or explanation, someone grabs the pencil out of my hand.
I look up to see Mollie standing over us. Her face is so beat red that I’m afraid her orange hair may catch fire when the steam starts to shoot out of her ears.
“Zack, what are you doing with her?” she demands pointing her finger so close to Kayla’s face that she could probably smell her freshly painted, pink nail polish.
“I happen to be his girlfriend,” Kayla replies as she slaps Mollie’s hand out of her face.
“Girlfriend? Is that true, Zack?” Mollie asks.
“What? No! We went to the movies once. That doesn’t make you my girlfriend.” I brace myself as I say it. I’m not sure what either of them are about to do.
“Yes it does!” says Kayla indignantly.
“No, it doesn’t. I didn’t even know it was a date until you kissed me.” I say.
“Well, you should have known! I asked you to dinner and a movie all alone. That’s a date.”
“You have to admit, that was pretty obvious,” Mollie agreed.
Okay, when did Mollie join Kayla’s side? I thought they were fighting two seconds ago.
Kayla adds, “And you said that you had a good time and wanted to do it again some time.”
“I spent half the movie trying to wash Sour Patch Kids sugar out of my eye because of you. That wasn’t exactly fun for me. The whole night was actually kind of awkward. I just thought that was what you’re supposed to say.”
“Not if you don’t mean it!” Kayla practically throws her chair backwards as she gets up to leave.
“She’s right, you know,” Mollie tells me as she begins to follow Kayla to a table across the room. “Oh, and by the way, I’m not talking to you anymore. Not after what you did to Kayla.”
What did I do? What the heck just happened? The girls have gone from enemies to best friends in a matter of seconds and somehow I ended up on the losing end of a battle that wasn’t mine to begin with. Now I’m left here sitting alone with problem number seven and much more confusion than I came here with.
I’m sitting in art class twenty minutes later with a big, white piece of paper in front of me and a ruler in my hand. Our teacher, Mrs. Bellaide, tells us to draw two lines to divide our paper. I make one going straight across and another straight up and down. Then she asks us to hold up our papers so she can see that we did it right.
I look around the room at everyone else’s papers. Mark’s has an X going through the center. Tony’s has two lines straight across. Milo’s has one diagonal line and another going from the center of the first line to the edge of the paper. The teacher tells us that we’ve all done it perfectly. Looking around the room I see that nobody has the same thing as anyone else on their paper. How could we all be right?
Mrs. Bellaide explains that she’d given the same directions to all of us, but we all had made different designs. Not one of us is right or wrong. We all just think and see things differently. That’s why we have art. It gives us a way to express what makes us unique.
We continue to draw curvy lines and zigzags on our paper. By the end of class we are filling the spaces between the lines with different patterns. The more we work on them the more different our projects become from the one next to us.
Kayla is already there when I walk into History. When I sit down, she starts building a barrier between us using all of her books, notebooks, and folders. She stands a binder up on top of the pile so I can’t even see her on the other side.
Mr. Grant tells us to work on our immigration projects. Kayla’s already done with ours. It’s about the Irish and how they came to America to escape the potato famine. It has fancy diagrams and everything. Since she isn’t talking to me, I guess I have nothing to do.
My mind wanders back to art class. Mrs. Bellaide had a point. Our projects all look different because we’re all different. I’m different from Mark and Tony; Kayla’s different from Amber and Ashley, and Milo’s different from all of us. Nobody at this school, or even in the world, is the same as anyone else. Yet, we all try so hard to be exactly like everyone else. We all want to fit in, to be part of a crowd. It doesn’t make any sense! Why should I pretend to be something I’m not to be accepted by other people? I know I don’t like to do the same kinds of things as Mark and Tony and their friends. I shouldn’t have to. They should just like me for who I am. I shouldn’t have to change to try to make them happy. Maybe I just don’t belong with them. I’ve always kind of felt that way, but I’ve just ignored that because they were people to hang out with. I thought having a group to belong to would make me happy, but it didn’t. It just made me do things that I regret.
Maybe Milo is the only one of us around here that’s got it right. He doesn’t change for anybody. He does what he wants to no matter what the other kids say. He doesn’t care what everybody else thinks. I think more of us should follow his lead. I will. Starting now.
I put on my shorts for P.E. in the locker room and then head back out to the gym to stand in line for attendance. Once we are all checked off, Mr. Jacobs announces that we are going to play dodge ball today. This news is greeted by cheers from every boy in the class except Milo. His eyes grow wide, and his knees begin to shake.
Mark is selected as captain of one team while some girl whose name I don’t know is selected for the other team. She picks all of the other girls in the class for her team. I am Mark’s second to last pick. Milo and a girl named Ally are the last two left on the line. Mark picks Ally, and Milo slowly and timidly walks over to the other side.
Mark gathers all of the boys into a huddle under the basketball hoop to discuss our team’s strategy. “Okay, guys,” he says, “this is the plan. We take down the strong ones first. Then once they’re down to two or three, we’ll start collecting all the balls over here. Leave the midget until the end. He’ll never be able to stop us. We’ll all just throw it at him at the same time.”
The other guys, who are mostly baseball and football players, nod in agreement, but I can’t watch them do this.
“No!” I say to him.
“Excuse me?” Mark was as taken aback as I was that I had actually tried to stop him.
I take a deep breath. “That’s terrible. You can’t single Milo out like that.”
“There’s no rule against it. Why do you care? What is he, your boyfriend?”
“Look at him! He can’t defend himself against all of you. You’ll kill him.”
“That’s the point.”
“What did he ever do to you?”
The whistle blows and everybody rushes to mid-court to grab a rubber ball. I stay behind the basket where it’s safe. I can’t throw or catch to save my life. Every time someone gets hit, Mr. Jacobs blows his whistle and tells him or her that he or she is out. I watch the girls on the other side leave the court one by one. Eventually there are only two boys left over there. My team still has most of its players. Mark picks up every ball that rolls past me and places it in a pile. Finally, the other team is down to one man.
Milo stands frozen at the foul line while Mark hands out the balls he has collected. They all line up at mid-court, and Mark yells, “Ready? On the count of three! One! Two!”
Every head turns as my voice echoes through the gym.
“I’m not going to let you do this.”
“Try and stop me,” Mark says.
I stare him down as I walk to the other side of the line. I stop right in front of Milo and stand perfectly still, blocking their shot at him. If they were going to try to hurt him, they would have to get past me. The bright light burns like the sun on the back on my neck. My heart is pounding in my throat.
Mark stares straight ahead and yells, “Three!”
They all whip the dodge balls towards me, but I don’t duck or try to move out of the way. I let them hit me. Mark’s ball hits my face so hard that I fall backwards and slam my head on the ground. I hear the whistle signaling the end of the game, but I can’t get up. My head is spinning, and I can’t open my left eye. Blood is dripping from my nose. Suddenly I feel a cold ice pack covering my eye.
I hear Milo say, “It’s alright, Zack. You’re going to be okay.”
I believe him.
Even without a car, Bryan has still managed to escape from Dad’s house for the entire weekend. Our father cannot take away his friends’ driving privileges. Jimmy picked him up last night before dinner, and I’m sure I won’t see him again until Monday morning when Dad drives us to school. I can’t blame him for wanting to get out of here, even though he is leaving me all alone. If I could, I’d be doing the same thing. Unfortunately, my friend can’t rescue me that easily, but he’s found a way to do it.
Mom has been telling me for months now that she would take me back up to the mountain. We used to go as a family every other weekend in the summer before Dad got his new job. I haven’t been there since. She told me she would take me and a friend on Sunday, so I asked Milo to come with us. He came up with an even better plan.
We could have a sleepover on Saturday so that I wouldn’t have to be stuck by myself with Dad at all this weekend. I warned him that he might be bored since we couldn’t play X-box. He told me it was fine and that he wouldn’t know how to play any of the games anyway. He doesn’t have an X-box at home. I wonder how he survives with all that time after school. Then again, he actually does his homework.
The only obstacle I had left to overcome was to get Dad’s permission to have Milo come over. I suppose my living with him is an indefinite period of grounding, so I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to have friends over or not. I was allowed, but there was a catch. I had to help Monique clean the entire house before dinner time.
Now I’m sitting on the couch next to Monique folding socks and underwear. She’s had the same soap opera playing since seven o’clock this morning. They must be having some sort of marathon on that channel. I’ve seen Silvia fall in and out of love with Ricardo while her brother plotted against Ricardo’s cousin. They’ve been in more hospital rooms than I can count, and there’s been lots of yelling and crying. Monique doesn’t seem to like Silvia very much. She thinks Ricardo and Maria should be together. I think we should just change the channel.
Finally five thirty rolls around and the house is spotless. I get into Monique’s blue Volvo so that we can pick up Milo on our way to meet Dad at Stanley’s Steakhouse. As I buckle my seatbelt on the passenger’s side, I look over at Monique. I’ve spent all day with her, but this is the first time I’ve noticed it. She’s not wearing the ring Dad gave her. When I look back up, our eyes meet for a second, and she smiles. Neither of us says a word, but we don’t need to. I know she’s on my side.
Milo climbs across the backseat before Monique can even park the car in the driveway, and before I know it, we’re at the restaurant ordering burgers and fries. It’s a good thing Dad picked tonight to go out to dinner. I wouldn’t want Milo to have to suffer through one of Monique’s home-cooked meals. He’s also saving me from having to eat in silence. Even when Dad makes some sort of attempt to include me in a dinner table conversation, I tend to not know what he’s talking about. Milo and I talk and laugh while we wait for our food and the check but not while we’re eating. You don’t talk while you’re eating a Stanley’s Steakhouse bacon burger. You have to savor every bite.
As soon as the car stops in the driveway, I look back at Milo. He nods, and we fling our doors open at the same time racing toward the front door Milo tackles my legs, and I fall over. The impact with the ground knocks the wind out of me. He tries to run by, but I grab his ankle and drag him down. He rolls over wildly kicking his leg trying to shake my hand off. I start to get back up, but then he sits up, pushing me back to the ground and pins me down. He’s a lot stronger than he looks. I easily throw him off of me since I’m used to wrestling Bryan who is twice Milo’s size. We roll around together for half an hour, laughing the entire time. My knees and elbows are bruised, and I have a scratch from Milo’s glasses above my left eye, but I don’t care. I’m having too much fun.
When we walk into the kitchen, Monique is making brownies. She gasps when she sees us and drops her mixing bowl. Its contents splatter all over the floor. It’s probably for the best. She would’ve burned the brownies anyway. She asks what we’ve been doing, why our jeans are covered in grass stains, and why I was bleeding. She’s obviously never had brothers. We shrug and walk to the freezer to take out the ice cream. She chases after me with a damp washcloth trying to wipe the blood off my forehead.
Milo and I sit down on the couch in front of the TV with our carton of ice cream. We watch Comedy Central until our spoons scrape the bottom of the carton. In a sudden sugar high, we find the energy to start wrestling again. However, this only lasts a few minutes before Dad comes downstairs to break it up. He wouldn’t want anything to happen to his plasma screen. He brings a pile of blankets down with him and tells us to go to bed. There is no way either of us can sleep right now, though. Milo begins draping the blankets across the couch and closing the corners inside doors. Within twenty minutes, we’ve built a blanket fort that stretches across the entire basement. It has multiple rooms and a window in front of the TV. Light shines through the blankets so that their multicolored patterns are reflected upon the white sheets covering the floor. This has got to be the coolest blanket fort I’ve ever built. I haven’t done this since I was in fourth grade. I feel like such a little kid, but I love it!
Soon we’re asleep on the floor.
The alarm I set on my watch goes off at six in the morning. I stumble over to the bathroom to brush my teeth and throw on a clean t-shirt. Mom picks us up ten minutes later. She’s got warm, toasted bagels and cream cheese waiting for us in the car. The sun casts an orange glow behind the houses that slowly fades as it rises higher in the sky. As we leave the city and the suburbs, the scenery around us becomes greener. I can taste the cold, clean air as it rushes in from the open window. The closer we come to the mountain, the louder the chatter between us gets. There is an atmosphere of adventure and excitement.
There are only a few other cars in the dirt parking lot when we get there. Before Mom can even grab her backpack out of the trunk, Milo and I are already running toward the trails. We choose to follow the path marked by red arrows. That was the hardest one to climb when I was younger, but it was always the most fun. The path takes us over many large boulders and past steep ridges. We sometimes feel like we are walking in circles trying to find the faded red arrows painted on the rocks.
When we are about halfway up, we stop by a stream. I kneel by the side of it and splash the ice-cold water on my face. It tastes sweet and clean like the summer rain. Milo washes some wild blueberries that he picked from the bushes along the trail and gives me some to eat. They’re a little tangy since it’s only May. After our short break, we resume hiking until we reach the summit.
I run to the ledge and look to the horizon. I can see all the way back to the city. The skyscrapers become houses, and the houses become farms, and the farms become trees. The forest comes in a wave that breaks at my feet. It’s exactly like I remember it. The sun beats through the back of my sweaty, black t-shirt, and the gentle breeze strokes my cheek. I feel like I’m on top of the world. I’ve left all of my problems behind. Everything is perfect.
Milo and I sit on a rock and eat the sandwiches Mom made while she takes pictures of everything around us. Once we’ve taken in all of the sights of the summit and enjoyed our lunch, we decide to head back down the mountain.
I scale parts of the ledges when we come to them, and Milo follows me. Mom tells us to be careful from the safety of the trail. Whenever there is a big boulder, we race each other to the top of it. I won the first race, but Milo beat me the second time. He totally cheated. We come to a third boulder by the stream we drank from earlier, and on the count of three, we take off. I sprint forward and jump over the stream. Milo tries to follow but falls short and lands in it soaking clothes and shoes. I feel the splash on my back, but I keep running. I’m in the lead, and I’m not about to give that up. I need to redeem myself from the last race. Once I hit the boulder, I see two ways up. The one by the ledge looks shorter, but the one closer to the trail looks easier. I go for the easy one hoping I might get through it faster. Milo chooses the other one. I’m just feet from the top now. I know I’m going to win and break our tie. I look over to see how far ahead I am, but I can’t see Milo. He’s gone.
His foot slipped when he tried to climb the rock and he fell down the ledge. I see him about twelve feet down lying in the blueberry bushes. He’s not moving. I run down there as fast as I can and call for my mom. There is a big cut across the side of his head, and his leg is twisted at an unnatural angle.
Mom tells me to stay there while she goes to find help. I watch her sprint down the trail as I kneel next to my best friend, his head in my lap, trying to soak up the blood with my t-shirt.
I pull Milo over to the stream and try to wash away the blood, but it doesn’t stop. All of the color is drained from his face. His eyes are closed and his mouth is hanging wide open. I splash the water on his face, but he won’t wake up. His clothes are soaked and his skin feels cold. I begin to worry that we’ve lost him. Oh, God, Mom, hurry!
An ATV skids to a stop up on the trail, and Mom climbs down to us with the park ranger. He takes off his jacket and wraps it around Milo’s limp body as he carries him back up to the trail. We all climb on the back of the ATV, and I hold Milo steady on the back as we speed down the mountain. I duck down to avoid tree branches and cover Milo’s face with my hands to protect it. My eyes begin to well up with tears. I can’t tell whether that’s from my fear or the dust the ATV is kicking up.
We roll to a stop in the parking lot where an ambulance is waiting for us. Two EMTs rush over and take Milo out of my arms. I don’t want to let him go. They strap him to a stretcher and roll him over to the ambulance. The ranger sits up front while Mom and I climb in the back. One of the EMTs shuts the door as he climbs in with us and the other starts the engine. The siren blares as we speed down the highway. The EMT sitting next to me is wearing a nametag that says “John”. His black hair is flecked with blood and dirt, and his tanned, clean-shaven face is tense with concentration. He can’t be more than a few years older than Bryan. I ask him if Milo is going to be alright. He says “yes”, but I can see the panic in his eyes as he bandages Milo’s head and places an oxygen mask over his mouth.
Twenty minutes later, the two men are wheeling Milo into the emergency room. I can’t leave his side. I try to follow them in, but the doctors tell me that I’m not allowed in the room.
“I can’t leave him alone in there,” I tell them, but they won’t listen. Don’t they understand? He must be so scared. I know I am. If it was me, I’d want my best friend by my side.
“We have to let the doctors do their job, Zack,” John says as he grabs my shoulder and leads me to the waiting room.
I watch the doors swing shut, and Milo and the doctors disappear behind them. All that’s left for me to do is sit here and wait to hear whether or not he’ll be okay. There’s absolutely nothing I can do. I hate this.
A woman with curly, dark brown hair runs past us in high heels. She bursts through the double doors leading to the emergency room. Nobody tells her to leave. Why should she be able to just walk right in there and see somebody when I have to sit out here and wait until the doctor’s decide they feel like letting me know what’s going on? Mom tells me that it was Milo’s mother. “If it was you in that room, there wouldn’t be anybody in the world who could stop me from getting to you.”
We keep sitting there waiting. Forever. Patients and families and doctors walk in and out giving each other news. Some get news about a new life. Others sink down into the wooden chairs with the red fabric seats as they grieve the loss of a loved one. The rest of us just sit on the edges of our chairs waiting in anticipation as to what the doctors will say when they come out. Part of me wants them to get here faster, but another part is dreading what they might have to say when they do. I stare down at the white tile floor as the lights above me flicker casting fleeting shadows of every other frantic person that passes by. Mom tells me that we should probably get something to eat or get up and go for a walk. I’m not leaving until I know what’s going on with Milo, though.
I ask the lady at the front desk if I’m allowed to go in and see him yet. She tells me that I can and that he was moved to his own room upstairs an hour ago. Wow! Thanks for letting me know! I’ve only been sitting here for two hours.
Mom and I take the elevator to the third floor and walk down the hall to room 317. The door is open, and I can see Milo lying motionless on the bed. He has an IV attached to his arm, and there is a heart monitor beeping in the corner. His mother is sitting by the window. She greets us with a forced smile and tears in her eyes. My mom asks if they’ve told her anything yet, and she shakes her head. Mom walks over to her and takes her by the hand.
“Come on, I'll get you a cup of coffee.” She leads her down the hall, and I'm left alone.
I walk over and kneel by Milo's bed. I grab his hand and hold onto it with both of mine. It's cold and clammy.
“Come on, Milo. Wake up, buddy. You're going to be okay. I need you to hold on, alright?”
The stitches on his forehead stand out against his pale skin. There are dark, purple circles beneath his eyes. He doesn't respond to my touch. I feel like I'm choking on the lump in my throat. Hot tears burn in my eyes.
“Don't leave me now, Milo. Come on. You can't leave me. You're the only one I could ever really talk to. You listen to me. You understand me. You’re the one person in this world that keeps me convinced I'm not invisible. And I know I'm nothing special. I'm just Zack. Your fine with that, though, and it makes me believe that it's okay. Just Zack is more than enough. Just stay here with me, okay. I can't let you go. You're the best friend I've ever had. I know we haven't known each other that long, but it feels like I've known you forever. I don't want to live without you. It wouldn't be living at all. So just keep fighting through this. When it's all over we’ll be together every day. I'll never leave your side. I'll never let go, so don't you.”
I feel a warm hand on my shoulder. The touch is tender and comforting. I look up to see Milo's mother standing over me.
“Your mom had to leave. I told her I'd stay here with you as long as you like.” Her voice is soft and smooth. “Let's get you something to eat.”
I get up and follow her to the cafeteria where she buys me a bowl of soup and some hot chocolate. As I sip my drink, I slowly begin to warm up. I hadn't realized how cold I was. My T-shirt and jeans are still damp from the stream. She just sits and watches me as I eat my soup. Her gentle smile eases my tension, and I melt into the chair across from her. She's very pretty. Her bright blue eyes sparkle even though they have bags underneath them. She can't be much older than thirty. The silver name tag on her wrinkled, black, button-down shirt says Ms. Ellen Brooks and has a Holiday Inn logo on it. She raises her coffee cup to her soft pink lips and I ask, “Do you think he'll make it?”
She pauses for a moment before answering, placing the cup back on the table.
“Milo is a real trooper. I mean, we've made it through all this time together. I raised him all by myself. I had to work two jobs, and it was hard on both of us, but he never complained. Not once. He's taken it like a champ. He always finds a way to make it all better, even when I can't. He'll fight his way through.”
“But what if he can't?”
“I know you don't believe that. I heard what you said to him back in the room. You really love him, don't you?”
“Yeah,” I reply, “I do.”
“I understand you're scared of losing him.”
“Don't be. The ones we love never really leave us. Even when you can't see them, they are always with you. Right in there.” She places her hand over my heart. “Now I want you to go back upstairs and tell him that.”
She gets up to throw the cups away as I run out into the hallway and sprint up two flights of stairs back to room 317. I slowly push the door open. It's dark in the room now, so I turn on the lamp on the table. I kneel beside the bed and take Milo's hand in mine like I had earlier.
“Milo,” I say, “I don't know if you can hear me, but I want you to know something. You're my best friend, and I'm going to make you promise. I will always be there for you, no matter what, like a brother. Even after I'm long gone, I'll be with you, forever standing by your side. I love you.”
Suddenly I feel pressure on my hand. He's squeezing it. He heard me! His eyes flutter open, and his lips utter a whisper that's barely audible, but I hear it loud and clear.
“I love you too.”