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Reality boy, p.10
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       Reality Boy, p.10

           A. S. King
 
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  I still have the tribal drumming in my head from my drive to school. It feels silly today. I’m no chief. If I was a chief, I’d have gone to Philly with the circus on Saturday night. If I was a chief, I’d kiss Register #1 Girl. I’d get out of SPED class. I’d kick Tasha out myself. This morning she was up early and she said, “Have a nice day, loser,” as I walked out the door. Mom was standing right there. What amount of war paint can cover that up? How loud do the buffalo drums have to be to drown out the sound of that?

  After second block, the SPED room splits up. Some go to other classes, some go to early lunch. I pack up my backpack and head toward the locker room for gym. Nothing stupid happens in the locker room, and gym is bearable because Nichols has started ignoring me on account of having a new kid to talk to. The new kid just moved here from New Mexico, I heard. He’s really good at indoor soccer.

  We play with what looks like an oversize tennis ball. It’s fun because the ball moves fast on the smooth, varnished wood floor. I take defense. I always take defense because offense is too much like trying to pick a fight. If I was up there by the goal right now, I’d probably put the ball in the net, but I’d probably accidentally punch someone to do it. And then jail. And then teen-jail TV. Young Jailbirds. Boys Behind Bars.

  So I play fullback. Luckily, my job is easy because the teams are unevenly matched and our offense keeps scoring and there’s barely any action back here by the net.

  When gym’s over, we go back to the locker room and New Kid says, “Hey, Crapper. I remember you from TV.”

  Nichols laughs.

  “You were one sick motherfucker, man,” New Kid says.

  I don’t say anything. I go to my locker and start to change. But New Kid doesn’t stop. “Do you still do it?” he asks. “Shit on stuff?”

  I don’t say anything.

  “Just so you know, you can’t take me, okay? I might be crazier than you.” He pokes me to get me to look at him. “Just so you know, okay?”

  We have a crazy-eyes stare-off. He stares. I stare. He makes crazy eyes. I make crazy eyes. Eventually I win, and he walks off.

  I finish getting dressed and I go out into the hall and aim myself for the cafeteria.

  “Gerald!” I hear as I’m coming out of the locker room door.

  I look up and see Register #1 Girl. “Oh, hey,” I say.

  “Hi,” she says.

  “Hi.”

  She tips her head to the side and frowns at me a little. “You okay?”

  “Yeah. Sure. Gym sucks, that’s all.”

  “Mightily,” she says. “Indeed.”

  Who else would say that? Gym sucks mightily indeed. I love her.

  “Uh—you still here?”

  “Yeah,” I say. “Going to lunch. You?”

  “Lunch also. Shall we sit together and make all the freaks talk about us?”

  I have so many answers to this. The first that comes to mind is: Are you sure you want to do that? The second is: Are you sure you want to do that? Why is she acting like I’m not Gerald “the Crapper” Faust?

  “Okay,” she says. “I’ll take that as a no.”

  “No no no,” I say. “Yes. Take it as a yes. I just—uh—never sat with anyone at lunch before. And you know, I’m—uh—well, you know.”

  “No. What? You’re what?” she asks.

  “I’m, well. I’m,” I try. “I’m not very popular.”

  She smiles. “Welcome to the club, Gerald. I’m also not popular. I’d go one step further and say I am rather unpopular. I’m okay with that. Aren’t you?”

  By this time, we are in the cafeteria and Register #1 Girl is walking toward a small booth at the side of the caf. Booths are cool. Makes the lunch experience feel less like school and more like a diner. Plus, there is only so much space in a booth. No one can intrude. She tosses her two backpacks into the seat first and then sits and I do the same.

  We both pull out our packed lunches and she says, “Do you know my name?”

  “Sure,” I answer.

  “So how come you never use it?”

  “Hannah,” I say. In my head I say Hannah Hannah Hannah Hannah.

  She looks relieved. “Oh, good. So now we’re on a first-name basis. What you got there?” She points at my lunch. Mom packed my favorite for me today. Chicken salad sandwich.

  “Chicken salad,” I say.

  “And an apple,” she adds. “And what’s that? Soup?”

  “Protein shake,” I say, holding up my thermos. “My mother believes in the power of protein.”

  “Ah. I see.” She empties her brown bag onto the table. There are two packs of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, a small bag of Doritos, a Ziploc bag of Girl Scout cookies, and a Coke. “As you can tell by my lunch, my mother believes in nothing.”

  I nod and smile because she’s hilarious. “I’ll trade you half my sandwich for one of those Reese’s,” I say.

  “Deal.” She puts her hand out and I give her half of the diagonally cut sandwich and snag an orange packet. She bites into the sandwich and talks with her mouth full. “Jesus! Is that apple in there?”

  “And grapes.”

  “Fuckin’ A,” she says, as if she’s never eaten anything but what’s spilled out in front of her.

  We eat for a while. She asks to taste the protein shake, and I warn her that it’s vanilla, which tastes like nothing, and she says she still wants to taste it and then complains that it tastes like nothing. I drink it anyway while she slurps down her can of Coke.

  I save the Reese’s for last because it was always my favorite candy before Nanny told Mom we should all give up sugar.

  “I really liked your friends,” I say.

  “Nathan and Ashley? Yeah. They’re the shit.”

  “Where do you know them from?”

  “Ashley worked at my last job. She was a waitress. I was a busgirl. Our boss was an asshole. We bonded and lived happily ever after.”

  “Cool,” I say. I think about bonding. I don’t think it’s something I can do inside all this polyethylene.

  And then I realize that for twenty whole minutes, I haven’t felt the need to kill anyone. Maybe longer. Maybe all day. I don’t know. I didn’t feel like killing New Kid in the locker room even though he was being a douche bag. I didn’t feel the need to kill Nichols, either.

  After five minutes, the silence at the table is killing us. I can tell it’s driving her nuts, and I can’t come up with anything clever to say, so I don’t say anything. I chew everything maybe fifty times. I start to sweat from the pressure.

  She finally says, “So you know my name and we almost ran off with the circus together, but I can’t tell if you’re my friend or not.”

  “Sure,” I say. “I’m your friend.”

  “You don’t say much.”

  “I’m not used to having to say anything, I guess.”

  “But you’re my friend?”

  I want to tell her that she’s my girl, but it seems wrong. Roger would not approve. So I nod.

  “If you’re my friend, then you need to know that I carry this with me all the time and you’re never allowed to look at it,” she says, pulling her little notebook from her back pocket.

  “I’ve seen you write in it before. At work, remember?”

  “And?”

  “I don’t want to look at it. I mean, if that’s what you were asking,” I say.

  “I wasn’t asking you anything. I was telling you that if we’re friends, that’s part of the deal,” she says. “And some of my old so-called friends had a problem with it, so I figured I’d get that part out of the way.”

  “Oh,” I say. “Why’d they have a problem with it?”

  She’s already got it balanced on her knee and is writing. “They thought I was writing about them,” she says.

  “Oh,” I say.

  “And I was. But it’s still none of their business,” she adds. “And before you ask, yes, I have written in it about you, too. So you’ve been warned and if you’re fri
ends with me, you’re friends with me and the book, okay?” She looks down again and continues writing.

  “Fine with me,” I say. That’s all fine with the Crapper, Hannah. I have a minute to think while she writes. I figure since we’re making deals and putting it all out there, I should say something. Anything. Because she’s treating me like a normal person and she must know by now that I am Gerald. Youngest of three. Reality Boy.

  “Hannah?” I ask. She looks up. “So, if you come with the book and we’re still friends, I have to make sure of something.”

  She gestures for me to continue.

  “So you know that whole shit that happened when I was a kid, right? Like, the TV show and what people call me and why I’m a freak and all that? You’re okay with that? I mean, not with me being like that, because I’m not—like, not for a long time—but I mean, you know—you’re okay that that was me once? And stuff?”

  She smiles at me but doesn’t say anything. So I allow my nerves to say, “I mean, I’m not supposed to trust girls or go out with them because my anger management coach says that girls are probably not a good idea and I’m thinking that that might even mean as friends. I mean, it’s cool and it’s not like I’m going to hurt anybody but—I—uh—oh, shit. None of this is coming out right.”

  She leans forward. “I know who you are. And I don’t care. You’re a nice guy,” she says. “I have a shrink, too, and mine says I should dress more like I care, but I’m not sure what she means by ‘care.’ Dress like I care? About what? You know? Care about what?”

  “You have a shrink?” I ask.

  “Doesn’t everyone?” she says.

  “I don’t think so,” I say. Roger isn’t exactly a shrink. But I guess it’s kinda the same thing.

  “Well, I do and you do, so that makes two of us, and that’s all the friends I got, so as far as I’m concerned, yes. Everyone has a shrink,” she says.

  Hannah looks at the big clock on the wall and goes back to writing in her book. Up until now I thought I was the only kid in Blue Marsh with enough problems to see a shrink—or Roger, who acts like a shrink. When I look around the caf, I can’t see anyone else who is remotely as messed up as I am. Not even Hannah. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe most other people are messed up, too. It just wasn’t aired on TV or, you know, aired on Tom What’s-His-Name’s face.

  My phone vibrates in my pocket and it’s a text from Joe Jr. A picture. It’s the clown dentist with the huge pliers in the ring, pretending to pull his own tooth. I enlarge it and show it to Hannah.

  She says, “I’m telling you, dude. We made the wrong choice.”

  “I don’t know,” I say.

  “Now we have to think of another plan to get us the hell out of here,” she says, then goes back to writing in the book.

  “Is that what you’re writing about?”

  “Yes.”

  “You’re writing a plan to get us out of here?”

  “Yes,” she says. “We’re going to kidnap ourselves.”

  I laugh a little because I think she’s joking.

  “I’m not kidding,” she says. “I’m writing my list of demands as we speak.”

  31

  THANKFULLY, HANNAH’S NEXT class is upstairs, because I really don’t want her to see me going into the SPED room. And I think about that feeling through last block while we do more linear equations.

  I am not retarded.

  I learned to read late, yes, because nobody taught me, but I can read fast now. I read all the time.

  I used to love math until third grade and that stupid asshole teacher who yelled all the time and made me so nervous I started eating paper and other bizarre things like chalk and erasers. Because that’s what you get when you’re famous, right? Even if you’re eight?

  I used to love school until everybody got old enough to point and laugh.

  That’s when Mom started to push for special ed. “Face it, Doug. I’m pretty sure he’s developmentally delayed in some way.” Not I’m calling the principal about that teacher. Not Let’s pull him out of public school or Let’s move away to a place where no teachers will pick on him. No talk about Tasha, who was trying her best to flunk out of her first year of high school. Just this shit about how I had to be retarded.

  As Kelly boy fights linear equations one by one, I think about the doctors we went to and the school psychologists. I think about how my mother ordered medications, as if little pills could make our past go away. As if little pills could make me go away.

  As I zone out in Fletcher’s class I try to think of my own list of demands. I picture a note made of cutout magazine letters:

  DeaR FAuSTs, We HAVE YoUR SON.

  HeRE are 0UR DeMANdS:

  But I can’t fill in the demands.

  I doodle in my math notebook. I write: Freedom.

  Duh.

  I write: A second chance.

  Shit. That’s not a demand, it’s a pipe dream. I can’t get it, so I can’t demand it.

  I write: Shit. Then I scribble over the doodles so no one can read them.

  I don’t have any demands. I don’t know how to demand. Demanding isn’t something I do. What I do is: I want. And so far, all I want is stuff I can’t have. Like someone murdering Tasha, or having a mother who might buy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for my lunch instead of protein shakes. Or Hannah. I want Hannah.

  “You, you, you, Gerald. That’s all you ever think about,” Roger used to say. “You see yourself through a Gerald lens. What about other people? Can you care about other people without it relating to you?”

  I look around the SPED room and I know I care about other people. I’ve known Deirdre for two years and I care about her. I’ve known Karen and Jenny for that long, too, and I care about both of them. Last time Jenny had a fit the size of Utah, I was the one who made sure her head didn’t splatter on the floor when she slipped out of her chair.

  And I care about Hannah now. But I don’t think I should. She probably thinks I’m a loser for not running away. She will probably just turn into another Tasha in my life. I will always be drowning in my own pathetic inability to breathe underwater.

  “Yes, Gerald?”

  Only when Fletcher calls on me do I realize my hand is up. I don’t know why my hand is up.

  “Can I have a lav pass, please?”

  He points to his desk and I get a lav pass and walk to the nearest bathroom. I look at myself in the mirror and ask, “What are your demands, Reality Boy?”

  My reflection doesn’t have any demands.

  All demands have been removed from my reflection. Roger, my professional demand-remover, has done a spotless job.

  Should is a dirty word. No one should do anything for you. You deserve nothing more than what you earn. Reality Boy is still angry, though. Because Reality Boy knows he deserves all kinds of shit he never got.

  The longer I stare at myself in the mirror, the more I want to punch myself. Right in the face. I want to break my nose. Split my lip. Bite a hole in my cheek. I want to beat some sense into me. Instead, I punch the toilet stall door. It swings in and slams into the toilet-paper holder. My hand is numb. But not as numb as the rest of me.

  32

  EPISODE 2, SCENE 15, TAKE 2

  WE WERE SUPPOSED to be making chicken Parmesan for Mom and Dad’s anniversary dinner, but Nanny didn’t really seem prepared for cooking. She was agitated. As we sloppily prepped food she kept saying Mind my shoes! Don’t splash on my dress!

  She handed me a Ziploc bag full of bread crumbs and cornflake crumbs and flecks of seasoning that Tasha had mixed together. She said I would shake the fillets of chicken around in there. She called them fill-its.

  Tasha corrected her. “Fill-ays,” she said.

  Nanny gave her a look. “Don’t be cheeky,” she said. Then she plunged a chicken fillet into the bag I was holding and secured it.

  “Now give it a good shake!” she said. And I shook it because she and the director acted out how to shake a chicken fillet
in a bag.

  Then Lisi took charge of the cheese-and-sauce part, and laying the fillets into a shallow ceramic dish, and Tasha, who’d preheated the oven to exactly 350 degrees, put the whole thing in and set the timer.

  I still had the lump on my head from two nights earlier, when Tasha had pushed me down the stairs.

  Mom and Dad were at a movie. We’d gone shopping that afternoon, and Nanny would be taking care of us while Mom and Dad ate a romantic dinner and did stuff parents do when they’re alone. Hold hands, presumably.

  At least for the cameras.

  Because I don’t think Mom and Dad held hands. Or kissed.

  In fact, it was that afternoon when I realized that Mom and Dad didn’t seem to like each other very much. They’d fought a lot while the kitchen was being remodeled. And before that. And before that, too. I vaguely remembered them fighting when I was really little. I vaguely remembered Dad once saying he was leaving.

  Part of me—the six-year-old me—still daydreamed about that. I daydreamed that he’d take me with him. I wasn’t sure if I’d made it up in my own head or if Dad had really said it. It would be one of those things I’d ask Lisi when we finally talked.

  If we ever talked.

  When Mom and Dad came in from their movie, they acted so surprised about the chicken Parmesan. Nanny and Tasha had checked it in the oven a few times to make sure it was perfect. We’d chilled a side salad. We’d made garlic bread. We served it all up to them and I even pulled Mom’s chair out for her.

  We kids went upstairs with Nanny, who said it was time to get ready for school in the morning and to get ourselves ready for the week. She told Tasha to go into her room and gather her homework and make sure she had her laundry put away and organized. Then Nanny took Lisi and me into my room along with a cameraman. She looked at her watch. “We have an hour to play any game you want,” she said. “Then Nanny has a hot date.” She kicked off her very un-nanny high heels and loosened the belt on her dress and sat down on the floor at the end of my bed.

 
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