My bag slipped on my shoulder as I walked toward the front doors of the school. I'd been looking forward to this for weeks, my anticipation dimmed only by recent events. Junior year was bringing me one step closer to my eventual freedom from so many problems. The idea of leaving my family behind and never looking back was a sweet dream, but the longer I stayed the more I feared I would never realize it. In fact I looked forward to school, if not to some of the people there. School was generally much safer than home.
“Hey, Jackson! Looking good!”
The name was like a slap in the face, and I turned suddenly. I felt stupid. I had reacted as if my brother – my twin – might actually be there. Feeling like a fool I recognized Kevin Haskins, he of little brain and less social grace, as the speaker. He was looking at me with a malicious grin.
“Oh, sorry. You look just like him, Ethan! All except the dead part.”
“Fuck you, asshole,” I said quietly, hitched my bag and moved on. Kevin could always be counted on to say the crudest, crassest things. He was also three inches taller and forty pounds heavier than I was. I might have an opportunity to get even later, but in the meantime I had to try not to let the idea simmer too much. It wasn't easy, though. Anger and humiliation were barely in check, only held back by my survival instinct.
I glanced to my right as Mason Gerhardt fell in beside me. Mason looked as he always did – completely put together, with matching clothes, sharp haircut, killer tan and razor sharp blue eyes that missed very little. He tossed his head to move his blond hair off his forehead.
“Hey, Mase,” I replied. I'd never tell him how pleased I was to see him. I felt my resentment at Kevin bleeding off with Mason close by.
“What did that douche say?”
I sighed. “Called me Jackson.”
I nodded in agreement, adding nothing else. Mason and I had been friends for what felt like forever. He was one of the few genuinely, unreservedly good things in my life, and I cherished him more than he'd ever realize. We separated for homeroom, and I sat down next to my other friend, Marissa Caracala. “Morning, Ris.”
“Ugh. Why do you always look so good in the morning?” she asked.
“You need glasses, maybe?” I asked.
“The weird part is you look like shit by the end of the day,” she said, teasing.
“Yeah, love you too,” I said with a wan smile. Ris is someone I've known for years but only became close to in the last couple. I'm not sure close is the right word. We're comfortable. IS there a word that means more than comfortable, but not quite close? Like I don't tell her everything. I don't really tell anyone everything, but she knows more than most, excepting Mason.
After attendance we were released to our first period classes. The first day of school has been like Groundhog Day as long as I can remember; I get a seat with my back to a rear wall, provided there is no silly seating chart. Each teacher provides a syllabus, and a couple jackasses will assign homework immediately. Despite the familiarity, it was one of the most exciting times of the school year as we got a window into what we'd be learning and who our teachers would be. The student body had been assigned laptops the previous year, a new feature at our school, but only about half the kids seemed to have them. I floated through my classes, ignoring the odd looks – either curiosity or pity – and focused on the various hand-outs for each class.
I spotted Kevin in the hallway, and my anger from that morning bubbled up. How awful do you have to be to call someone by their deceased twin's name? Jackson and Kevin had been acquainted. I hadn't known how well – nor had I cared. Now, though, I wondered. How well had he known Jackson? Did Kevin have anything to do with Jackson's death? Did he have information I didn't? I had no way to find out. It's not like I could just ask the jerk.
My last class of the day was Gym, and that worked out well, because I had practice right after school. I'd been on the school soccer team for the past five years, starting in middle school with the modified program. I was competitive, but not elite by any means. The school teams had their lockers set aside early in the year – before school started. Mine was in the right rear corner of the large, square locker room. Our school was old, but well kept. The locker room had one of the more interesting features of the school – a whispering arch. The way it works is if you stand in one corner and someone else is in the opposite corner and speaks normally toward the wall, the sound reflects perfectly and you can hear what they say even though you are nowhere near them. It was particularly interesting considering all the rows of lockers between those corners and how sound could just bypass them. I wasn't overly interested in my classmates’ drama; I was amused by the feature just because it existed and by the fact that you couldn't see who was speaking.
Mr. Kincaide had been the soccer coach since the school opened in 1923, according to rumor. His hair was snow white and thick, and that went along with the rest of him. He was a bear of a man, one who'd look more at home on a football sideline than anywhere else.
“Okay. Lace things up, put your junk behind a cup, and get your lazy jocks out on the field. Stretches, captains! Then laps – one mile to warm up.” This was met with a collective groan. “Two. Want to try for three?”
He glared around, but seemed satisfied with the level of acceptance. He wouldn't make us run the two miles. He wanted us warmed up, not worn out before we got to drills. Mason slipped in beside me as the captains led us through our stretches.
“I need to get laid,” he said.
I glanced at him. “Good luck.”
“Don't be like that. It's just a dry spell.”
“For your dick,” I said.
“All muscles need regular exercise.”
“Sure. You can get yours rubbing out some knuckle children,” I said to him, the corner of my mouth curling up.
“Priming the yogurt cannon has its place,” he said, cracking a smile of his own.
“If you're high it's weed whacking,” I told him and we both chuckled.
“Says the guy who doesn't touch anything,” he said with a grin, referring to me not partaking of substances. “Fuck, I need a drink. Did I tell you what Conrad did?”
Mason always referred to his parents by their first names behind their backs. Respect wasn't something he generally showed in abundance for them, at least not between us. “No.”
“So his phone dings while we're at the table, right? So of course Sara Jean eyeballs him, kind of daring him to interrupt dinner. So of course he does – probably just to piss her off.”
“Not your dad,” I said sarcastically.
“I know, right?” he said, grinning. “So then she wants to know who texted and he says nobody, which riles her up more, and next thing you know she's accusing him of cheating and he says she's dramatic, so she says, ‘Then let me see the texts.’ I mean, total shit show.”
“You always have such fun meals,” I replied. Mason and I got on because we came to realize everyone's family is some sort of fucked up. It didn't matter that I was a working class kid – lower class, scum-of-the-earth type, really – or that his parents definitely lived in the nice end of town. We both understood that universal truth that every family is dysfunctional in its own way. It seemed like an advantage to have that kind of knowledge.
“Maybe Marissa will take you back,” I suggested.
“Fuck you, Eats. She'll come around, eventually,” he said.
I hate his nickname for me. Rather than respond, since it would give him an opening to bust my nuts, I say, “You know she doesn't like the small D.”
“It's a medium D,” he said, sounding a little injured. “I can talk to dead people with it. Get it?”
“You're an idiot,” I said with a chuckle. We broke up for the running portion of our warm-up. One thing I liked about running was concentrating on a different part of my body as I moved. Sometimes it was my feet – paying attention to the bend of my toes as I pushed off, or the adjustment I made automatically at the ankle to propel myself. Of course if I focused on those things too hard I could screw up and stumble. I was weird, I guess.
Practice was intense. Rumor had it coach was going to retire in the next few years, but he wanted to go out on top. He put us through some punishing agility practices before breaking us up for half-field scrimmages. That way the offense or defense never really got a break, unless the ball went out of bounds. It was intense, and by the time the final whistle blew I was a sopping mess. Plopping down on the grass with my water bottle, I was lost in the pure pleasure of guzzling from it – I jumped when ice-cold water hit my head and ran down my back.
“Ah!” I cried out, turning to see Mason grinning as he started to drink from his bottle. “Don't stop, I'm hot, Mase,” I said, just so he didn't think he'd gotten one up on me. He just grinned wider around the end of the bottle, so I guess he was unconvinced.
Coach started digging into the details of our practice, observations, tips and warnings about how much time we'd spend on the bench if we didn't listen. He spoke for about ten minutes before letting us go, and we gathered up our stuff.
“Waxing the dolphin,” Mason said as we walked toward the parking lot. “Can you imagine? Who'd come up with that, and does he have a fin on the back of his dick?”
We both laughed as he unlocked his car. The ride home was too short, and I thanked him as I climbed out. Mason pulled away and I watched him go for a second, then dismissed him from my thoughts. I took a breath and then turned to face my front door. Behind that door was someplace very different from school, from Mason's car or just about anyplace else I'd been. As I took a step toward that front door I took a slow breath and focused on settling my body down, mentally preparing for the oppression that hung around my house like a dead rat in the walls. You don't know exactly where it's coming from, but you can smell it everywhere.
Speaking of smells, my home has a series of complex smells. Depending on what's going on, one of them may be stronger than the others for a bit, but none of them ever completely go away. Cigarette smoke is probably the first one, and it's usually fairly strong. Underneath it is the sickly sweet smell of pot. Tonight the stomach-churning tang of recent throw-up was in the air, and I wrinkled my nose as I crossed through the hall to the living room.
The TV was on loudly, and my mother was in an armchair, passed out. She'd thrown up on herself, but she'd been sitting up so she wasn't going to choke to death. What a way to go. I wonder what sorts of signals the mind interprets from the body if you're stoned and choking on your own sick? Is there a dim sense of something being wrong? Is it like a nightmare you're trying to wake up from, but can't? Like swimming too deep, looking up and seeing light but unable to reach the surface? She snorted and smacked her lips before settling again. I'd wake her, but then I'd have to talk to her, so I let her be.
I dropped my bag in my room and picked up clean underwear before heading to the bathroom. The walls were stained with rust and mildew. I cleaned it once a month, but that stuff grew back pretty quickly. I showered, and started to laugh as I looked down at my dick and tried to imagine a pink dorsal fin along it somewhere. The things people called jerking off were pretty odd. Mason and I checked in on a running list on some message board or something where people were listing euphemisms for jacking off. There were a lot of duds, but some priceless ones, too.
Beating the bishop. Flogging your dong. Choking the chicken. Jerking the gherkin. I guess Mason and I liked to amuse the twelve year old inside each of us.
After drying off I pulled on the clean underwear, dropped my sweaty clothes in my hamper and headed to the kitchen. I found some leftover pasta and scarfed it down quickly before retreating to my room. My room is...hard to describe. The way it feels, rather – as rooms go, it's nothing special. A rectangle with a single bed, desk with chair, and dresser with two of the drawer fronts missing. There is more room than I need, strictly speaking, but that's due to things that are missing.
The carpet tells the story. There are indentations where another single bed used to be, and the carpet is lighter where another dresser used to be. I crossed the room silently in my bare feet and stared at the indentations. For a moment I rubbed one with my toes, feeling the tight weave of the carpet. For a moment that was my world: staring at the ends of my toes and feeling the short, rough carpet and the divot that was all that remained as evidence that the room had ever held more than it did right now.
I have no idea why the bed and dresser were taken out of the room or where they'd gone. I mean, normal people might have removed them when the person they were meant for died, but there isn't anything normal about anyone in this house. I can't imagine they were valuable enough to sell or that anyone cared about Jackson enough to get rid of them so as to not be reminded of him. In the end, who really knew?
I knelt down to examine the divot with my fingers, as if to remind myself that there used to be a bed, a dresser and a boy who looked just like me, once upon a time. A trickle of sadness raced through me, and I clamped down on it without mercy.
I heard the front door bang shut, and it startled me from wherever my mind had gone. I picked up my bag and carried it over to my desk, a used model with a fake wood-grain top. I pulled out my folders with the various syllabi and skimmed through all of it to find the few jackasses that had assigned homework. One was World Studies, who'd assigned two chapters of reading, and American Government had assigned a worksheet with terms to memorize.
I sat down, opened my school laptop, and accessed the assigned reading. I scrolled through the pages, figuring the teacher – Mr. Perkins – would probably spring a light quiz on us just to emphasize that if he assigned homework, he intended for us to do it. I'd had him three years ago in middle school, and I remembered his tactics well. It was okay. I didn't mind him moving up to the high school; he was a known quantity and I liked that better than new faces.
My phone buzzed in my bag and I fished it out. Marissa was texting me, telling me that Mase was hitting on her.
He's so hot, but so gross, she said.
He's just horny, I told her.
That's what he means when he says he's been petting the one-eyed snake too much lately?
I snorted in amusement. Yeah. The bigger problem between them was being uncertain. If you're looking for someone to be intimate with, romantic, go all 'giving your heart away' and that sort of crap – you have to be sure. I can see a certain amount of tire kicking, a certain amount of dating to see what you like, but Ris and Mason.... The problem was they were too good looking. Mason is really well put together, and Ris is pretty damn stunning. If they had kids, they'd be models. Probably come out strutting down a runway. Problem is, they don't know each other that well, not really. Getting involved would be a mistake.
Speaking of mistakes, my door opened and I looked over to see my father, dressed in dirty jeans and an open button up with a dirty undershirt. He looked around the room quickly, nodded once and was gone. He didn't make eye contact with me. I have no idea what he was doing, but it was even odds that he didn't either. He and my mother didn't belong together, but I'm not sure who else would have them. I didn't think either of them had been sure about the other.
Did you get homework? she asked.
Yeah, I replied.
Fuck Perkins. It didn't seem like a response was needed. I probably could have told her he'd likely quiz us tomorrow, but Ris was a girl who liked to make her own mistakes. Besides, she'd probably cuss at me for telling her something she wouldn't be happy to know anyway. Telling her seemed like the very definition of a stupid idea to me.
What do you think I should do about Mason?
I glanced at my reading homework and sighed. Depends. Do you want to get laid? I set my phone down and tried to get back into the chapter while I waited for a reply. I was kind of distracted, though, because she was taking an awfully long time to respond, and it was hard to focus when you anticipate being interrupted. Who knows, maybe I'd just pissed her off by suggesting she'd enjoy sleeping with him. She'd had no complaints about that when they'd hooked up, just how much...Mason continued to be Mason afterward. It was sort of funny. I guess she'd expected Mason to magically change, somehow. She must have thought it was more than hooking up, I guess.
I managed to put her and Mase out of my head and finish the reading. The worksheet was fairly basic, and I just looked up the words Mrs. Burns wanted us to get familiar with. She was a fixture at the school, but I disliked that I didn't really know her yet. I stretched, went out to the bathroom to pee and brush my teeth, and headed back to my room. As I turned the knob to open my door, I heard the squeal of Tina, my sister, opening her door. I didn't look back at her, but rather closed my door and turned the lock on the knob.
After killing the lights I stretched out on top of my covers and focused on relaxing each muscle. I thought back to Kevin Haskins and his crude comment, and turned my head to look across the dark room. The only light was from the crack under the door, but even so there was a void where Jackson's bed should have been.
The next few days were a litany of getting used to new teachers and their quirks. It was a strange time as the teachers evaluated us as much as we did them. I thought of it as kind of like looking down a microscope only to find an eye looking back at you. Homework became a bit more of a certainty in my classes and practice got more intense.
Thursday I met Ris and one of her friends, Valerie, in the library. I knew Valerie a bit, but not as well as I did Ris. I pulled out my science worksheet and glanced down the list of questions.
“Ethan. Do that at home,” Ris said with a little chuckle. “You're sitting with pretty girls; you should pay attention to us.”
I raised an eyebrow at her.
“You better agree we're pretty, damn it,” she said, matching my eyebrow.
I tilted my head as if thinking, knowing it was driving her mad. “Gorgeous is what I was thinking,” I told her and she gave me a satisfied smile. I leaned back a bit in my chair, tapping the back against the wall behind me. “So why do you need compliments from me?”
“Girls need these things,” she said as if I should have realized. She turned to Valerie. “Isn't he good at that?”
“Pretty slick,” she agreed. She pointed toward me lazily and asked, “Why are you single?”
“By choice,” I said. I glanced at Ris. “You have this same worksheet, you know. You could be copying off me.”
“Oh! Damn! You're right,” she said pulling her bag around and starting to dig through it.
“That kid gives me the creeps,” Valerie said while wrinkling her nose.
I scanned the room, more to know who was there than in response to her statement.
“Who?” Ris asked as she pulled a crumpled form from her bag. “Nope, not it.” She resumed digging.
“That little rat over there. Nathaniel,” she said, overemphasizing the name. I glanced around, only seeing a short boy shifting out of my view and down an aisle. I'd seen him, but unless I interact with someone, I rarely recall who they are. I can't bring myself to care.
“So Marissa,” Valerie said in a teasing tone. “How're things with Mason?”
“Ugh!” Ris grunted, pausing long enough to look up at Valerie. “He's so fucking hot, but such a douche.” Ris narrowed her eyes at me. “Why are you friends with him again?”
“He's so fucking hot,” I mimicked her. She flipped me off.
“Seriously,” she said, resuming her search. “Is he just nice to you because he's not trying to get in your pants?”
“How do you know he's not trying to get in my pants?” I asked in a bored tone, having had this discussion before. Thinking of my worksheet I pulled my science book from my bag and began flipping the pages, looking for the current chapter.
“What?” Valerie asked in mild shock. “Mason swings both ways?”
“No,” I said in a bored tone. “I only say that because Marissa is stupid about boys.” I looked up at her. “He's not changing for you. You can accept him how he is, and he may grow. Or not. Right now, as far as girls are concerned, he's a nice looking dick waiting for whoever wants a piece of him.”
Ris pulled the sheet out in triumph and then glared at me. “He's too hot not to try for.”
“There you go, then,” I replied, bored with the conversation.
“There he is again,” Valerie whined. Ris turned, but I kept my head down and tried to focus on my work.
“That little guy? Kind of scruffy, you ask me,” she said.
“He's from the trailer park. One of them, anyway. I heard he ate a live lizard on a dare.”
I glanced up, marginally interested, only to see the blur of the guy disappearing again.
“A lizard? Like, how big?”
I tuned them out and went to work on my science sheet, figuring Ris would just copy off me later. That Ris found Mason attractive was nothing new, nor particularly interesting. I found them both to be attractive, but in different ways. Still, they both had to make changes and I wasn't sure either ever would. Ris had to open her eyes instead of looking at Mason with her vagina, and Mason needed to figure out Ris was a person and not a walking dick holder.
Ris and Mason had been circling each other for months, though. I was pretty sick of it, honestly. It was distracting, too, when I was trying to work, so I had to redouble my focus to get this worksheet done. I was nearly finished when a voice boomed across the library, startling me.
I looked up at Kevin's malicious smile amid the shushing of the librarian.
I frowned and held my hands out in question. What was his problem?
“Oh, you're not him.” He grinned again and headed out the door as if he were cool or something. I was up like a shot and crossed the room in a fast walk, my jeans whispering as I came just short of running in time to catch him in the hallway.
“Haskins!” I said in a stage whisper that carried in the hallway. He'd stopped to look in a classroom window, and turned to face me. “What the hell?” I demanded.
He tilted his head slightly. “Should have been you. Jackson was cooler.”
“Better luck next time, asshole,” I snapped and turned back toward the library as my common sense reminded me I couldn't win a straight-up fight with Haskins. I needed an edge.
“You better be careful,” he said threateningly. “Jackson could take care of himself. I'll crush you, you little pussy.”
I stalked into the library and put all my things away in a rush, anger bubbling up inside me.
“Eth? What's his problem? Are you okay?”
“I'm pissed off,” I said calmly. “I need to walk.” I left them behind, stewing about something I couldn't yet control. I would have to do something about Kevin at some point, him and his inconsiderate comments. For one thing, if I didn't do something then others would stupidly imitate him. Secondly, it was getting under my skin. It was bad enough to have him doing this to me, but what made it worse was that I didn't even know how Jackson had died. He was just dead, and that's all I knew. I didn't feel...sadness exactly. More like something that had always been there wasn't anymore. It was complicated in ways I wasn't sure I understood. I took a few deep breaths and focused on the muscles of my legs as I walked, clamping down on my emotions until I felt like they'd learned their lesson.
After Gym I changed out for practice. I studied Mason for a moment, trying to understand why Ris was so obsessed. They were both attractive people, but Mason clearly had no real feelings for Ris, outside the sexual ones – or hid them very well. Why couldn't Ris let go? Or was she actually seeing something I was blind to? Mase only ever spoke to me about having sex with Ris, but then he wasn't given to statements about anything that might mean anything to him. I'm not sure what sort of event it would take to change that.
The thought distracted me as I went over my homework that night. It's not that I disliked the idea of sex, and it wasn't like I didn't want someone by my side I could fully trust. The problem was I needed to know someone completely, to have the opportunity to build trust and loyalty. People went into relationships, though, based on looks and the idea of getting laid. That shit should come later, but no one had told Ris, Mase or most of the human race.
Fridays were kind of a downer for me in general. During the summer we'd had Saturday practices, but with school in session those had been shelved. Weekends had too much loose time – unstructured my teachers would call it. Too much could happen, too much uncertainty, too much free-floating danger. I wasn't a fan of weekends.
“Eats, it's Friday!” Mason said, clapping a hand on my shoulder. I sighed inwardly, wondering how to break him of the nickname.
We walked into the locker room for gym and I plopped down in my corner. I toed off my sneakers and reached for the combination lock on my locker when I heard my name clearly. I looked around, but Mason was talking to someone else and no one was looking at me. I frowned lightly.
“Ethan Miller,” the voice prompted.
I looked around and then remembered the whispering arch. I looked up, like an idiot, as if I'd see who was speaking to me.
I waited, wondering who was on the other end and why they were choosing to talk to me this way. A moment later the voice said, “Kevin is taken care of.”
I jerked my head back in confusion.
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