From a novel in progress.
His mother wanted him to speak first. He would not speak first.
“Well,” she said finally. She was sitting on the sofa opposite his, looking at the fire, legs pulled up cat-like beneath her hip. The soft light of the flames made her face seem prettier than it really was. Younger. She was a fixture in his life, a neutral—at most, perhaps, a reflective surface. He checked her face to make sure that he was loved, forgiven, approved of, amusing; he checked to determine if he was in trouble. He listened to the things she said that concerned him. He was the center of her life—he knew this—so most of what she said concerned him. And these things were true not because he was a bad child or an unusually spoiled child, but because he was a child still. It didn’t mean that he loved her any less.
“We could watch TV if we were in the rec room,” he said.
“Mmm.” She still looked at the fire, not at him. Her dark blonde hair, smoothed behind an ear, glinted. “That’s true. And yet, here we are.”
He looked around as if to confirm the fact, miming surprise, thinking she would laugh.
“They’re going to try to suspend you, Chris,” she said. “What on earth do you have to say for yourself?”
He choked a little on the cocoa he’d just sipped, surprised that she’d unleashed on him so quickly.
“Nothing,” he said. “I guess I don’t have anything to say.”
Her face sagged into distress. “Why did you do that to that girl? Was it—” She ran her thumb along the lip of her mug. “Did it go how the principal told me it did?”
Christopher remembered the instant when he’d looked down and watched his hand, as if from a distance, take up a wet, sloppy handful of his pasta. Then the memory shifted to sensation—the hard fling forward, the pull in his shoulder. Finally, a snapshot: the ropes of spaghetti spattering Emily’s shocked face. The act was in motion before Christopher could decide to do it. Which was not to say that he’d been possessed or out of control, that he hadn’t wanted to hurt Emily in that moment, because he had, and he’d felt good—damn good—when he did. For the instant. By the time Leanna had lobbed her chunk of garlic bread and Craig his chocolate pudding, and the cafeteria had erupted around them all in gleeful, frantic confusion, Christopher was already wishing that he hadn’t done it. He wished this as he threw the rest of his spaghetti, his own pudding and bread, his paper basket of iceberg lettuce and pink dressing—as he yelled, “You fucking freak,” and heard the chant echoed by the kids around him. What power he had! He hadn’t known until that moment.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” he said, and he meant it.
She exhaled. “Jesus. What a cruel thing.”
He blew on his cocoa though it had already gotten cool.
“I’d punish you myself if I thought it’d make a difference. But is that going to teach you to feel bad in your heart? Taking away your Nintendo? Moving you back in the house? You’ve made me sick with this, Christopher. I don’t know if I’m ever going to see you the same again.”
“Mom—” he started, but she made a curt gesture with her chin, and he knew to close his mouth.
“Please go to your room and think about this. I’m not coming in to take your computer. I’m not telling you what to do or not do out there. But spare a thought for that girl you were mean to. Ask yourself how it felt to be her today. Will you do that?”
“Yes,” he said.
She made a shooing motion. “Go on, then.”
He did as she asked. He didn’t turn on the computer or the TV; he didn’t idly spin the knobs on his foosball table, as he sometimes did when he was daydreaming or thinking through one of his English papers. He lay on his bed, pushed his tennis shoes off, and stared at the ceiling.
He remembered putting his hand on her neck in seventh grade, when she was crying over those stupid baked tadpoles. The same thrill and revulsion he’d felt today. The heat and damp of her skin against his palm.
The diamond of pale skin through the chain link, the gray-green eyes wide, the way she’d suddenly jerked back and run as if to go tell.
Leanna, still crouched in front of him: Oh my God, what was that about?
His eyes burned with sudden, hot tears, and though there was no one around to see him, he rolled over, hiding his face in a pillow. He didn’t know what frightened him more: the thing he’d done to Emily today or the reason that he’d done it.
Christopher Shelton and Leanna Burke were an inevitable coupling, one that the eighth grade class at Roma Middle School had anticipated ever since Christopher moved to town the previous year. Christopher’s father was a chemical engineer and senior consultant at Spector Plastics and Die Cast. The transfer to Roma had been accompanied by a moving stipend and a modest pay bump, but the real advantage, he’d explained again and again in the weeks preceding the family’s relocation, was in cost of living: they could live like royalty on a salary that would barely get them into a country club in Ann Arbor. Christopher had been doubtful, then morose, and his first weeks at the middle school were a misery. He’d hated the stupid, syrupy accents, the way that even the cooler kids still dressed themselves proudly in the silk shirts and Eastlands that were considered dated in Ann Arbor two years ago. He wouldn’t have known it would matter to him, but the school itself was also lousy: old—it had been a women’s college in the nineteen-twenties—musty, equipped with only one computer per classroom, and the basketball court was not even regulation-sized, which meant that all of the home games had to be played at the high school.
Then, inexplicably, Christopher wasn’t unhappy anymore. He’d gone to a junior high of almost two thousand students before, a school where well-dressed children of relative privilege were the norm rather than the exception, and he’d drawn no special attention. In Roma, he was watched, emulated; when he wore K-Swiss sneakers to school in the fall, half a dozen of his classmates returned from Christmas break in a pair. When, on Friday nights, he put in a Pearl Jam CD instead of Sir Mix-A-Lot or Tim McGraw or Salt-N-Pepa, his friends came to school shortly after showing off their own finds from the Sam Goody: Nirvana, Alice in Chains, the Melvins. He cultivated a reputation for smarts and ironic detachment. He liked to recline in his chair in class, slip his feet into the book basket under the desk in front of him, and look out the window as though he were daydreaming, as though he were above it all—but it was an act. When a teacher snapped at him with a question, trying to trick him, to get him to jolt in his seat—“And what do you think about that Christopher? We’re all really keen to get your take”—he’d madden her by responding correctly and politely, barely shifting his eyes from the window. His classmates loved it. And his teachers hated it, or wanted to, but Christopher ultimately won most of them over, too, because he knew just how far to push them, knew when to let slip some hint at regret or gratitude. “Most people let me get away with murder,” he’d told Mrs. Hardoby, the math teacher, when she kept him after class to lecture him about the importance of at least appearing engaged. “I respect you for calling me out on my B.S. I really do,” he’d said, and she’d beamed, perhaps even blushed a little, and Christopher had never had another moment’s trouble from her.
His was a contingent power. Some of it was money, some of it was novelty. In a class of eighty, most of whom had attended school together since kindergarten, he was an unknown, an X factor, a catalyst for needed drama. But he had the smarts, too, to spin the novelty into something more enduring, something that would carry him through high school graduation on the shoulders of his peers. It was this savviness that he recognized in Leanna, and it attracted him initially as much as her honey-colored hair and biscuit-colored legs and strawberry mouth. On the surface, she was the ultimate local; she was a fourth-generation Roman, her father a prominent attorney in town, the kind of guy who’d gotten rich on other people’s misfortunes, divorce and personal injury, mostly. He had an office on the square, and he dressed in the costume of a deeper southerner: seersucker and linen suits, bowties, fine-woven straw Panamas, affectations he’d likely acquired during his undergraduate days at University of the South. There were two kinds of success stories in Roma: the ones who got away and the ones who stayed to exploit their own. Johnny Burke was the latter.
Leanna was her father’s daughter: kinder than her good looks would require her to be, smarter, too—much smarter—and clever about when to extend favors. But she also knew how to be unkind, and it was this quality that most fascinated Christopher. Because he, more than anyone else at RMS, could see that her apparent goodness was a tool she used when and how it suited her, that her ability to manipulate lay in her ability to play with others’ shifting expectations of her, so that she merely had to subvert each new bottom line. If you thought she was a pretty face, she’d outsmart you. If you thought that she must be spoiled and cruel, she’d show you an act of unthinkable sweetness. But sweetness wasn’t her core. Christopher didn’t know what was, and he was as keen to figure this out as he was to undress her.
That latter preoccupation had dominated both their lives since last winter.
They had begun “going together,” to use the local lexicon, during Christmas break of seventh grade. Leanna’s dad had allowed her to host a boy-girl party in the basement of their home, which he’d had built brand new only a few years before: two-and-a-half stories with an in-ground pool and tennis courts, three acres of land, a long, paved driveway lined with crepe myrtles. Where Christopher’s house, his mother’s project, was antique, studied, and understated, Leanna’s house was delightfully gaudy, everything oversized and overwrought, a mish-mash of periods and aesthetics, high-end and low. Johnny Burke had cut corners in surprising ways. The dining room featured a giant crystal chandelier that had been imported from France, but the table underneath it was a too-shiny veneered cherry, the eight chairs upholstered in a black-and-green diamond print that looked like it belonged on a bad sweater. The flooring was wall-to-wall beige carpeting, linoleum in the kitchen and baths, but the electronics were all state-of-the-art: there was a fifty-inch big screen TV in the family room, another in the basement, and the basement also featured four La-Z-Boy recliners lined up side-to-side—one for each of the Burkes—plus a wet bar, a full-sized refrigerator, and a microwave oven.
Leanna’s mother and father had agreed to stay upstairs until 10:00 that night—rides home were expected by 11:00—so time moved in that dark-paneled basement the way it does only for thirteen-year-olds. Relationships began and ended, alliances shifted, one girl spent the night in a corner alone, trying to hide the fact that she was crying. When the evening finally culminated in the obligatory game of spin-the-bottle—and already they were on the edge of being too old for it, of feeling embarrassed by the pretense—Christopher had known that somebody would contrive to pair him with Leanna, that the seventh grade wanted it as much or more than the two of them did. And did he want it? He wasn’t sure. She was pretty, she intrigued him, but he didn’t know if he even liked her. For all her niceness, she had this way of holding her face when someone like Emily Houchens walked by: lips drawn into a slight smirk, eyebrow tilted upward a trace, a look of amusement that hid something harder, like disgust, even anger. Was she cleverly evasive or just fake? He didn’t know.
But, drawn with her into the closet after her spin of the RC bottle had landed more or less in his direction—the ones sitting around him had argued for it—he didn’t care. She smelled grown-up. Not like watermelon or cotton candy, the pink smells her girlfriends drowned themselves in, but spicy, like cinnamon and cloves. Red smells, he’d thought. She kissed him as if she’d kissed before, taking the lead, pulling his bottom lip between her teeth very delicately, letting him taste the tip of her tongue. When he hardened, she hadn’t shifted or pulled away. She’d left her hips planted firmly against his. So that was his first night as Leanna’s boyfriend, quivering in her heat and her smell, groin aching against her flat stomach, and he’d thought, that night, that it was probably only a matter of weeks before she’d let him do more. He wasn’t thinking about sex, exactly—but he wasn’t not thinking about sex.
That was almost a year ago now.
The compression of time that had allowed them to couple so quickly and easily that night in her basement was now agonizing, every week an eternity, every moment invested one that bound him that much more to her, even as he resented her for starting, stopping, giving, withholding. She strung him along with promises that almost always went unfulfilled—give me another month, give me until eighth grade, wait until my parents are on vacation—and with surprises that he hadn’t anticipated: the night, for instance, when she’d shoved her hand down into the waistband of his shorts, gripping him; or when she’d let him, just the once, touch her bare breast. Dear God, it had made him crazy: the silk of her skin there, the Braille of nipple, the scolding press of underwire against the back of his hand. He wanted her, he resented her, he feared her—this last perhaps most. She was playing him brilliantly, and he wasn’t even sure why. He didn’t think she loved him, that she did all of this to hang on to him. He didn’t think that she was afraid. Though he was certain that she hadn’t yet gone all the way, he knew that she’d already gone farther than he, and she didn’t seem upset or scared when he pushed her. Merely dismissive. He thought that perhaps she just liked having control over him—that if they weren’t a couple, the eighth grade couple, then they were rivals, struggling forces of old and new. By kissing him, she kept him in her sights. By not fucking him, she kept him in his place. He saw this, but he was helpless to do anything but surrender to it. This is what had led up to the morning of the food war.
Roma Middle School students didn’t have a playground or a recess, exactly, but Coach Guthrie usually let them spend the last twenty minutes of P.E. in “Free Activity.” This is when he’d open the equipment closet and the gym’s outer door, instruct the class to keep the noise down, and then retire to his office with a can of Mr. Pibb and the latest Sports Illustrated. Some of the kids would play a quick game of HORSE in the gymnasium, some would find a quiet spot in the bleachers to nap. Others wandered out to the tennis courts and the football field, not to play, but to stroll and talk, sneak cigarettes. Christopher and Leanna spent this time as they spent all of the time they shared outside of the sharp gaze of an adult: tucked into some out-of-the-way corner, making out.
“I’m thinking that I’m freezing my ass off,” Christopher said. He burrowed his fingers into the hem of Leanna’s sweater until he reached bare flesh, satisfied when she winced and sucked in her stomach.
They were outside today because they’d thought everyone else was indoors. It was chilly, in the low fifties, and most people hadn’t thought to bring their coats with them to P.E. Neither had Christopher and Leanna, but that hardly mattered. She had grabbed his hand the way she always did when Coach Guthrie disappeared into his office, given him a Significant Look—she’d worn that look so many times now that it was practically a parody of such a look—and pulled him, casting glances back along the line of her extended arm as though she were guiding a pony, to the gym’s outside entrance. He’d given her no argument. They’d ended up at the tennis court because there was a green canvas windbreak woven into the chain link; from the outside you were obscured, but from inside, if close enough to the weaving of the fence, you could usually spot someone coming in plenty of time to jump to a stand and tame down your mussed hair. It was a good hideout, one they’d used several times.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” Leanna had murmured against his neck as they pressed themselves into the fence, huddling and groping now as much for warmth as for pleasure. She said things like that a lot. Tell me what you’re thinking. Or, Look at us right now. Once, embarrassingly, I’m aching for you. She must have heard this stuff on television.
“I’m thinking that I’m freezing my ass off,” Christopher said. He burrowed his fingers into the hem of Leanna’s sweater until he reached bare flesh, satisfied when she winced and sucked in her stomach.
She pulled back and looked at him. God, she was pretty. She had dark eyes and brows, a faint dusting of freckles against her nose because her mother let her use the tanning bed once a week. Her pink lips were plump and flanked by dimples. He liked the way her wavy, dark blonde hair was tucked behind her small ears, which stuck out, adorably, just a bit too much.
“You want to go back in?” Her voice, as always, was double-edged: accommodating, flinty.
When she responded by grabbing his belt buckle, harshly, his first instinct was to push her away, his first thought that she aimed to hurt him. That lasted just a second. Then he watched, heart suddenly jack hammering, as she pulled the tongue of his belt loose, worked the button of his jeans free of its loop, drew down his copper zipper—it rasped against his erection, making him shiver—and then crouched down, smiling up at him. Every action was achingly slow, deliberate.
Her hand, cold as his own must have been, slipped into the front flap of his boxers. He jerked against her, feeling the throb down there echoing across his body, and he clenched his eyes shut, gasping, only to jerk again as the cold turned all at once to wet heat. He felt as though he were being unraveled from the inside out, and he threaded his fingers into the chain link behind him.
He was close when he chanced to open his eyes and thought he saw a pair staring back at him. He tried to make a sound of warning and felt Leanna nodding against him, her pace picking up, and he squinted, breath hitching, then felt himself start to convulse down there—he couldn’t stop it—and he grabbed Leanna’s hair and held her steady, needing to stop the ache, however good it was, and it was then, in the weakness of release, that he realized for sure who had caught them, who had seen it all. He jerked himself free and scrambled to zip his bluejeans closed again. “Oh my God,” Leanna said. She was wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, face thunderous. “What was that about?”
His hands were shaking too badly to work the tongue of his belt back through the buckle. His fingers were numb. “Someone saw,” he whispered breathlessly.
She drew to a stand, liquid, cool as lemonade. “Where?”
He pointed. There was a rustling, a high-pitched sound that might have been a gasp. A shadow moved across the windbreak on the far end of the court.
Leanna sprinted after.
It happened very fast. Leanna, gazelle-like on those long, pretty legs, outpaced him, and when he caught up, shirt tail finally tucked back into his trousers, he found exactly what he’d feared he would: Emily Houchens, jacketed arms clasped tightly across her chest, and Leanna blocking her entrance back to the gym.
“What the fuck,” Leanna said, not bothering with the mask of niceness. “What the fuck, Emily.”
Emily was looking off to the left and rocking nervously on her heels. It was—and Christopher felt guilty for thinking this—a stance he associated with her retarded brother.
“Well?” Leanna smiled in mock exasperation, turning to Christopher and fluttering her hands in a Would you get a load of this? kind of way. “What the fuck? You like to spy on people?”
Emily shook her head emphatically.
“Because this is just weird,” Leanna said. She was pacing now, her own arms crossed against the cold. Her short sweater had ridden up a bit in the back, exposing a mouth-shaped band of golden flesh and the scalloped edge of her underwear. She stopped. “Are you going to tell?”
Christopher looked at Emily carefully, but she didn’t move. She didn’t speak or nod. “Emily,” he tried in a voice that was gentler than Leanna’s. He knew she liked him. He’d been good to her, in the past. And if he’d called her a weirdo or a creep or something in class the other day, well, that couldn’t be helped now. What was he supposed to have done? Craig Wilson had elbowed him, snickering, and cocked a thumb back toward Emily. Her eyes had been on him, frank and adoring, her mouth drooping open a little—she was that unaware of herself, that spellbound. Craig was watching him. Craig expected a reaction.
“Emily,” Christopher said now, “Are you going to tell? Please don’t, OK?”
Her eyes met his now. They were gray-green, kind of pretty. It rattled him, having those eyes on him again. He’d recognized them immediately through the diamond of chain link.
Leanna followed his lead. “Please, Em? You could sit with us at lunch today—or all week. Or whatever you want.”
Christopher almost snorted. That was incentive?
“You could…” Leanna stopped, looking at him pleadingly.
Emily was waiting.
He went to her, touched her arm, left it there. “Remember Mr. Wieland’s class? I helped you that semester, right? With your project.”
She looked down at his hand on her arm, her upper lip twitching. He withdrew it. A cold wind whistled around the corner of the school building, rattling the pea gravel outside of the back entrance to the gym. It seemed to Christopher that they were all holding their breaths.
And then the bell signaling class change sounded. “Emily,” Leanna tried again, but Emily was leaving, bustling to the door with her arms still tight against her chest.
“Oh, no,” Leanna said, her voice breaking. “She’s telling. I know she is. Stop her, Chris, make her stop.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Oh, no,” Leanna repeated. They went inside.
Emily hadn’t blabbed between the gymnasium and the cafeteria. Christopher followed Leanna through the lunch line, holding his tray out for servings of food that he would have had trouble stomaching had he been downright hungry. The salad was a few leaves of iceberg lettuce, carrot shreds, and exactly two radish slices, which were positioned side by side like blank eyes. A sheen of grease floated on the top of the meat sauce.
“I could kill her,” Leanna was muttering ahead of him. “Where does she get off? And what now? She holds it over our heads?”
“Shh,” Christopher hissed.
Leanna pushed her wavy hair out of her face with a puff, handing the lunch lady her ID card and two dollar bills. “What kind of person just—just hovers like that?” Her voice had dropped into a hoarse whisper that was louder than her regular speaking voice. “She likes you, so she was probably into it—”
“Shut up! Jesus.” His tray of food was rattling. He took a seat quickly at their regular table, dropping it with a clatter. He couldn’t believe what they’d done, that it had happened less than a half-hour ago. Half an hour ago, he’d gotten off at the tennis court. Leanna had gotten him off.
She was clammed up, red-faced with anger, when Craig Wilson slid into the bench across from them.
“What’s up,” he said, jamming his fork into his pile of spaghetti. He pulled it straight to his mouth, leaning over to bite off the strands. His hair, which he wore gelled into spikes in the front, glinted under the cafeteria’s fluorescents.
Then Maggie Stevenson came, sitting next to Leanna so that they could link arms. They whispered to each other, giggled, and Maggie’s wide-set eyes got wider. Christopher felt his neck flush with heat.
She was probably into it.
The rest of their group was joining them. Monty Higgins grabbed Christopher’s shoulder for balance as he folded his long legs over the bench and under the table. Anita Page, Monty’s girlfriend, was complaining loudly about the C she’d gotten in Mrs. Mitchell’s class, as if hoping that Mrs. Mitchell, who was chaperoning lunch today, might overhear her. Under other circumstances Christopher might have joined her—he was no fan—but he could see that Emily had just approached the cash register, and Leanna was tensing up beside him. He could feel her arm harden against his.
“I swear to God—” she said, and he nudged her side with his elbow.
Emily was coming toward them now, her face unreadable. His heart resumed its jack hammering from the tennis courts, not only because Emily had seen him and could choose to tell on him, but simply because Emily had seen him, had seen that moment of his weakness and exposure, and what if Leanna was right? Was she into it? Was that why she’d watched? So she’d watched him, she’d seen him as she was never supposed to, but the thought he’d been trying to suppress these last few minutes—the thought, true as it was, that he couldn’t quite make sense of—was this: He’d watched her, too. He’d seen her eyes, recognized them, and finished anyway.
His stomach clenched around the two bites of spaghetti he’d managed to swallow.
Emily stopped in the aisle beside him. She was looking to the left again, and he could see the tremor in her hands supporting the tray.
“Your girlfriend’s here,” Craig said loudly. The table tittered.
“Emily?” Leanna’s voice was tight. “Are you sitting with us?”
Maggie Stevenson made a face of exaggerated disgust. “Is she sitting with us?” she said, eyebrows drawn into a peak. “God, I hope not.”
Emily’s eyes darted to Christopher’s, then away again. She shifted her weight between feet.
“I invited her to,” Leanna said. She scooted away from Christopher, toward Maggie, clearing an empty space on the bench. “Here, Emily,” she said, patting the seat. It was, Christopher thought, the way she called her dog when she was trying to get him to hop up beside her on the couch. “Sit here.”
The table—their crowd—was very quiet now. And the quiet was spreading to the nearby tables as other students picked up on what was going on and turned to see, fascinated, what would have possessed Emily Houchens to approach the popular kids, to stand there until Leanna Burke invited her to join them. Emily: dressed today in her regular costume of ill-fitting stone-washed jeans, oversized flannel shirt, Walmart knock-offs of Chuck Taylor sneakers, brown, limp hair stopping at her shoulders as though it had gotten there and simply given up, lost steam. Was it an elaborate prank? Why else would golden Leanna Burke be shifting to accommodate her, dark eyes imploring?
And why would Emily hesitate?
Christopher knew what he had to do. He had only to say, “Come on, Emily,” and pat the seat as Leanna had done, and she’d accept the invitation. She’d slide into the gap they’d made for her, eat her lunch in nervous silence, and Leanna would keep inviting her back until enough time had passed to make moot the issue of what Emily had seen at the tennis court. With every silent day Emily would have less of a hold on them; every moment she kept her mouth shut made her a co-conspirator. By next week, Leanna would be emboldened enough to tell Emily, politely or otherwise, to find another set of lunch companions, and she’d write the whole thing off to her friends as an experiment, an act of charity, a way to pass the time. Christopher knew all this. He knew how easy it could be, how necessary it was. He would be in huge trouble if this got to Mr. Burton, and Christopher didn’t want to even guess how his parents would react.
Emily was watching him, waiting. The space between Leanna and himself felt cavernous, like something he could fall into.
Come on, Emily. Sit with us. That’s all it would take.
He shifted, putting his leg into the space Leanna had cleared, pretending to stretch. “No room here,” he said loudly, and Craig hawked laughter.
“Christopher,” Leanna was pleading, but he couldn’t stop now.
Christopher turned. “Craig, you’ve got room over there. Can Emily sit with you?”
“Aw, no man—” He was grinning, spreading his legs wide. “Monty?”
“You can sit here,” Monty said, patting his crotch. “Don’t know what these guys are so shy about. Come here, sexy.”
She did an about-face, moving so quickly that Christopher barely registered her expression of dismay. She had made it to an almost-empty nearby table—its occupants were pulling away from her as though she carried something contagious—when he called out, “Emily! Hey, Emily!”
She turned, not knowing that the spaghetti was already in his hand. That night, as Christopher tallied up the many ways he’d wronged Emily, he decided that this moment, more than the ones that preceded and followed it, was worst. She had turned, he knew now, with a look of relieved expectation on her face. She’d believed, after everything, that he might still do right by her, that he’d call out, Just kidding, come back here. And she would have come, too.
There was something in the lunchroom in that moment: a manic charge that Christopher was emitting and getting reflected back at him. He felt delight, horror, incredulity—he felt his peers feeling these things, and beaming at him, giving him the strength to do something that they could never have initiated themselves—and then his arm launched forward.
There was a knock at the door of his room.
“Come in,” he called, still lying down, expecting his mother. When his father entered heavily, stomping on the front mat as he slid out of his suit coat, Christopher scrambled to wipe his face and right himself, jumping to a stand at the foot of his bed. His father hardly ever came in here. He worked long days, usually a few hours through the weekend, too, and he spent a lot of his time at home holed up in what he called his “office,” though there wasn’t much official about it by Christopher’s estimation: a worn-in leather recliner, a small television, his books—he liked True Crime stories, Tom Clancy, John Grisham—a dart board. It was the only room in the house where he smoked, so it smelled of sweet tobacco, perhaps also a little of body odor, or laundry that needed washing. It occurred to Christopher, watching his father survey this room as though he’d never been inside it before (he was rubbing his thumb over a medal Christopher had received for placing second in last year’s regional science fair), that he and his parents were like planets orbiting the sun: they were pulled toward the same center, but they lived in isolation from one another, their paths hardly crossing.
“I won’t stay long,” his father said. He sat at the computer desk, spinning in the chair and crossing his arms. Christopher could tell that he wasn’t angry, or very—and that he wanted Christopher to know that he wasn’t. He was doing that jovial “dad” thing: shifting around, picking random stuff up, lifting his eyebrows occasionally with interest. He did a quick ba dum dum on the tops of his thighs.
“So,” he continued, “Mom’s pissed. You’ll have to work that out between the two of you. I’m just worried about this suspension business.”
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
“Eh. Lot of good that does me. You didn’t throw your fucking green beans in my face, did you?”
Christopher shook his head.
“I’m not saying it was a good thing to do, mind you. It wasn’t. I never did stuff like that to little girls when I was your age. But, you know, I get it. Peer pressure, your friends gang up on you, everyone’s working everybody else up. And it washes off, that’s the thing. It’s not like you hurt her.”
“I think I hurt her,” Christopher said hoarsely.
“Physically, son. This isn’t Phil Donahue. This isn’t about what the girl’s going to tell her shrink in ten years. It’s about whether or not a group of kids, really good kids, ought to get their records fucked up for doing one shitty prank. I say no. Leanna’s dad says no. We’ll see what happens.”
They were silent for a moment, his father still spinning back and forth in the chair, Christopher leaned slightly against his bed.
“You can’t go back tomorrow—the principal’s put his foot down on that. Maybe a second day, too. But two days won’t mean much, and it’s not like this is high school, at least, thank God. That’s when you have to worry about your GPA.”
His father was already thinking about college, making plans, getting all jacked up when Christopher didn’t score high enough on the PSATs to qualify for the National Merit Program. Christopher suppressed the urge to roll his eyes.
“We’re fighting for you guys to spend the rest of the week in ALC instead of getting suspended. That’s more punishment to kids your age, anyway. You’d just be watching TV if you were home, and at least this way you can keep your mouth shut for a few days and really think about what you’ve done. And it’ll give that girl some time to readjust, too. And everybody can keep up with their studies, and nobody’s education suffers. That’s what Johnny’s working on.”
Christopher picked at a fingernail and nodded. He wasn’t sure how to feel. This was all good news, right? And no one from school had called about anything that happened at the tennis court, so Emily hadn’t even tattled. He didn’t know why she’d keep her mouth shut after what he and Leanna had done to her this afternoon, but she had. So far.
“Well? What do you have to say?”
“Thanks,” Christopher said. And, again, “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah.” His father stood, leaned over to squeeze his shoulder. “Lesson learned. OK, get some sleep. I think Mom has a bunch of chores planned for you tomorrow.”
“All right,” he said.
“We’ll work it out.” He stopped at the door. “You and Leanna still a thing?”
Christopher shrugged, embarrassed. Then he nodded.
“She’s pretty, huh?
His father cleared his throat. “You’re young to have a girlfriend. You don’t even have a car. You still get an allowance, for God’s sake.”
“We just hang out,” Christopher said.
“Yeah, I bet that’s all.” He was putting his coat back on. “Well, you be smart. And stick close to her until this blows over. Her dad’s the last person you want to piss off right now.”
“Night.” The door snicked closed softly.
It was cold in the room, so Christopher switched on the heater, almost enjoying the musty smell as the summer’s dust started to burn away. It was a winter smell, a Thanksgiving smell. The end of the year would be here in no time. He slid out of his clothes, considered brushing his teeth—shrugged, for no one’s benefit but his own, and decided not to—then slid between the cool bedclothes, shivering pleasantly. He was glad that his father wasn’t pissed, glad to not be going to school tomorrow. Glad, he had to admit to himself, for the promise of a day away from Leanna.
Still, he couldn’t help but drift to sleep remembering the tennis court, Leanna’s hot mouth on him, the thrill and shame of it. He moved his feet out of the pocket of sheet he’d warmed, flipped his pillow. The smooth cotton felt good against his neck. He was hard again, and then he was thinking about Emily’s face in the lunchroom, and he swallowed against a sudden rise of nausea. Tennis court, he willed. The slow pull of the zipper, the grasp of cold fingers, Leanna’s hot mouth on him. The pull, the sense that he was being unraveled.
You fucking freak. Emily’s shocked face. Her tears after.
Leanna was unbuckling his belt, her hot mouth was on him.
He drifted off, caught for half the night in that restless place between dreaming and wakefulness, caught between his memories of the pleasure of the day and the horror, building toward a climax that ebbed, always, into snapshots from the cafeteria—Emily’s tears, Mrs. Mitchell’s anger—and then, when he felt his conscious self finally intervening, dragging him back to the room, where his groin felt bruised against the faint pressure of the sheet, he thought at last of Emily’s eyes through the chain link, their bright shock, and he at last tightened his fingers into Leanna’s wavy hair, found his breath again, slept.
Holly Goddard Jones is the author of Girl Trouble (Harper Perennial), a collection of short stories. She teaches at UNC—Greensboro.
I love literary fiction that also tells a great story, and I’ve never had a problem with skillful genre writing. My favorite books often oscillate between literary and genre, and since I’ve been writing this novel in that spirit, I thought I’d list below some of my favorite recent literary page-turners:
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. A brilliantly paced thriller that doesn’t skimp on characterization, this is the kind of book that you can finish in a day but will ponder long after.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay ranks among my all-time favorite books, and though this one doesn’t quite make that cut for me, it’s a bold and affecting work of speculative fiction-meets-noir.
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. There hasn’t been a shortage of apocalypse novels and films—like vampire narratives, they seem particularly conspicuous these days—but Atwood is the kind of stylist who can make a tired form fresh. This book is prescient and endlessly inventive, and Atwood writes best about a world on the verge of madness, before “the flood.”