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Reality boy, p.12
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       Reality Boy, p.12

           A. S. King
 
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  “I’m going to watch last night’s episode of Dumb Campers that I recorded. Can’t wait to see who got voted off. Bye, Gerald.”

  “Bye.”

  I think, Rule number three: No talking about reality TV. Ever.

  I sit there for a minute and smile.

  When I open my door to return the phone to my parents’ bedroom, Mom is at the top of the steps.

  “Who was that?” she asks.

  “Just a girl from school,” I say.

  “That’s what she told me. But how’d she get our number? I thought we only gave out cell numbers, remember?”

  “Yeah. Sorry. I think I gave it to her by accident. We were in a rush,” I say.

  “A rush?”

  “Yeah. She needed help with linear equations,” I lie. “It was the end of class. The old number just came out, I think.”

  I walk through her bedroom and return the handset. She’s still at the top of the stairs when I get back. “Linear equations?” she asks.

  “Yeah. Who knew?” I say. Then I go back to my room and close the door. I lie on my bed and close my eyes and I jump back into Gersday, where I want to tell Lisi about how I have a girlfriend. I want to be on the trapeze, catching her as she catches me. I want to be the joint that she smokes so that we can finally talk about everything without having to use words, because I will be a drug in her brain. I want peach soft-serve ice cream. I want to be peach soft-serve ice cream.

  I whisper, “I demand to be peach soft-serve ice cream.”

  35

  EPISODE 2, SCENE 0, TAKE 0

  “DON’T YOU DARE say a word,” Tasha said in my ear.

  She had her knee pinned right in the middle of my back. The neighbor kid, Mike, was still naked in her bed, lying there smiling.

  “I’m twelve now and I can do what I want,” Tasha said. “And you’re gay anyway, so you should just get out of here and go dream of wieners or whatever gay little retards dream about.”

  Before I could run, she grabbed me by the collar of my polo shirt, and I could feel the button against my throat. “If you tell them, I’ll kill you.”

  Then she let me go and I ran to my room and locked the door behind me.

  Five minutes later, I could hear their noises from my room, so I sneaked downstairs to where Lisi was reading a book. This was the one day Mom trusted Tasha to babysit us while she went and trained for that weekend’s walk for multiple sclerosis or cancer or whatever the reason. She would only be gone an hour and a half, she’d said. Mike was in the house five minutes after Mom left. He lived two doors down.

  This was our week off from cameras and Nanny. It was the perfect week for Tasha to bring a boy into the house through the back door. A perfect week for Mom to leave her in charge in the first place. We were all sneaking now.

  I asked Lisi, “What does gay mean?”

  She looked over her book and sighed. “You’re not gay. Tasha’s just mean.”

  “But what does it mean?” I asked. I was six now. Lisi was eight. Tasha had had her twelfth birthday a few days after the chicken Parmesan night with Mom and Dad. She had wanted a sleepover party and invited ten of her friends, but only one came. Lisi said that was because she was a bitch to her friends, too.

  Lisi sighed again. “Gay means two things. Technically, it means boys who like boys or girls who like girls. But a lot of people say it and mean stupid.”

  “So, Tasha’s just calling me stupid?” I asked.

  “Tasha is calling you both, I think. She says it to me, too.”

  “Huh,” I said.

  “She’s just being nasty. Six more years and she’ll be gone,” Lisi said.

  “Six?” I asked. I did the math on my fingers. It meant that when I was twelve, I’d be free of Tasha.

  “Yep. She’ll be at college or something. Which will be good for us.”

  “Yeah.”

  “Do you want me to read you some Harry Potter?” she asked.

  I snuggled up next to her and she read until Mom came home. Mike sneaked out the back door while Mom showered, and Tasha said she had to shower, too. Back then, I had no idea what she and Mike had been doing. I didn’t know anything about sex, and I didn’t understand that twelve was probably way too young to be doing it.

  So far, Tasha’s Disney World dream was close to coming true. I’d stopped crapping anywhere but the bathroom. We all did our chores. Sometimes Tasha was even nice to us. She’d offer to play a board game or do something fun. But then she’d go back to her usual self and haul off and hit me or half suffocate me and call us names. Lisi told me that Tasha was hormonal. I had no idea what that meant, but Lisi said it made Tasha worse than she already was, so we should just try to keep to ourselves.

  That day when freshly showered Tasha and freshly showered Mom had a huge screaming match upstairs about something, we crept up the steps and peeked into Tasha’s bedroom and saw what Tasha was doing.

  I remember my eyes going so wide I couldn’t blink. Lisi’s jaw dropped.

  Tasha had Mom pinned up against the wall, her hands around Mom’s neck. She shouted, “Bitch! I hate you! I wish you never had me!”

  Mom tried to say something, but Tasha was squeezing too hard. Then she realized she was squeezing too hard and let Mom go. Then Tasha slapped her roughly, right across the face. I lived that scene over and over in my head for years. I thought about how I should have saved Mom. How I should have stopped it somehow. But I knew I couldn’t, because I didn’t fully understand it. I didn’t know the word psychopath when I was six. But it would have been helpful.

  I could still see the mark on Mom’s face when we all sat down to dinner that night. Lisi pointed at it to remind me. Dad didn’t come home until later, when Mom was already in bed.

  36

  I WAKE TO find that my facial bruise from Jacko’s lucky right hook didn’t surface. It’s just a little red. My ribs? My ribs are another story. They’re purple and blue and yellow and black.

  If my ribs were my face, I’d be in serious trouble.

  But no one is going to see my ribs, so I just take a few headache pills and go to school. I get to my car without seeing anyone. No Mom. No Tasha. I skip the drums and the war paint. After beating the fake Jamaican in the ring yesterday, I feel like it would be disingenuous.

  At lunch, Hannah finds me at the door to the caf and we walk in together and we sit in a booth and stuff the other half of our seats full of our books. She pours out the contents of her bag and I give her half my ham and cheese sandwich in trade for a pack of Oreos from her mountain of weird junk food. She even has Pop Rocks. I didn’t think they made them anymore.

  “Rule number three,” I blurt. “No talking about TV. Especially reality TV.”

  She stares at me. “But that’s all I do.” Then she can see I’m hurt or concerned or whatever I am and she says, “I mean, I have to watch what my parents are watching because we only have one TV, and that’s all they watch. But it’s not all bad, Gerald.”

  “I’m not telling you what to watch or what not to watch, but just don’t talk about it with me. I don’t watch TV. At all.”

  “Wow,” she says.

  “It’s not as hard as you’d think,” I say. “There are plenty of other things to do, you know.”

  She pulls out her notebook and flips to the blank back page. “So rule number one was no saying retarded,” she says, then looks at me. “I still can’t believe you’re okay with that word.”

  “You’ll understand one day, I promise,” I say. Shit. I’m not sure I even understand it, so I have no idea how I’ll explain it to her. Maybe a letter. Dear Hannah, I’m not really retarded. My mom just insisted that I be retarded for some reason I can’t figure out yet. Love, Gerald.

  “What was rule number two?” she asks.

  “No musicals.”

  “Right,” she says, and scribbles. “And rule number three is no talking about TV or reality TV.”

  “Right.”

  “Like, can I mention
that I watched it?”

  “Nope.”

  “And I can’t share a funny part?”

  “To me, there are no funny parts,” I say.

  She nods. “I get it.” She stares at the list. “So, I guess rule number four is that our parents can’t know and my brother can’t know.”

  “Or my sister. Ugh.”

  “Right. Or your sister,” she says. “Didn’t she go back to college or something?”

  “She lives in our basement. And I’d rather not talk about it,” I say. “But that’s not a rule. I will want to talk about it, I guess. Just not now.” She nods. “And what’s with your brother? Will he come after me and chop my dick off?”

  She chuckles through her nose. “He’s in Afghanistan. But he’s very protective of me, and my parents are, too.” She sighs. “They seem to think that I’ll become a statistic.”

  “Oh,” I say. “So that works with my next rule. Number five. No physical contact for two months.”

  She looks at me. “What the fuck? Seriously?”

  “You think that’s too long?”

  “Um—yes?” she says. “Two months is, like, sixty days.”

  I shrug. “I have trust issues. You do, too. We see shrinks and shit. I think we should take it slow.”

  “But two months? You’re on crack,” she says. Then she leans in close to me. “I was hoping to kiss you later. Or maybe on our date. Or maybe at work on Wednesday. Dollar Night, right? Who couldn’t use a kiss on Dollar Night?”

  “I still stand by rule number five,” I say. I just don’t want this to go wrong. I want it to be real. Not sure how to express this to Hannah. Dear Hannah, Up until now, my only choices were jail or death. Love, Gerald.

  “Look,” she says. “I’ll write it in, but I think it’s excessive. And I think it’s a rule we can break. Deal?”

  “Deal.”

  She closes her book. “Can I ask you a question?”

  “Sure.”

  “Is reality TV real?”

  “Are you seriously asking me that?” I ask while simultaneously thinking, I can’t believe she just asked me that.

  She nods innocently and I look at her for a minute, feeling my broken ribs throb underneath my shirt. Have I told you yet about her freckles? “It’s so far from real, you have no idea,” I say.

  “So, you weren’t anything like the kid I saw on TV?” she says awkwardly. “Like, you didn’t do those things or you did?”

  I take a deep breath. “I did those things. But you guys never saw the real us. You only saw what they chose to show you to make it more entertaining. The nanny wasn’t even a real nanny. She was just some actress. Did you know that?”

  “Did you really punch her?”

  That episode was widely publicized. “Yes,” I say. “And I’d do it again, too.”

  “I’ve seen it on YouTube. The punch scene. Man, it’s funny,” she says. “Like, six million views so far.”

  I shrug.

  She says, “For a six-year-old kid, you had a hell of a right hook.”

  “This is breaking rule number three,” I say.

  “Oh, come on. Have a sense of humor,” she says.

  I give her a stern look and feel my face go hot with anger. And there it goes, asshole. Didn’t even last twenty-four hours. Told you so.

  37

  AFTER SCHOOL, HANNAH finds me at my locker and asks for a ride home. I’m still mad at her about saying that thing after lunch. Have a sense of humor. Just thinking about it makes my face heat up again.

  “Sure,” I say. I don’t say anything else.

  When we get outside, it’s colder than it was this morning and I’m suddenly freezing without a coat on. As I wait for the heater to come on, Hannah sits in the passenger’s seat, reading texts on her phone. I open my phone and check my texts, too. There’s one from Lisi, which is a first. What do u want 4 ur bday? Shld I just get u a gift card?

  And one from Joe Jr. We leave today for SC. Then FL. Dentist clown still not funny.

  I text Joe Jr. back: See you soon. Send me your FL address.

  Then I text Lisi back. Send shovel for bd. Digging tunnel to Scotland.

  That’s the best I can do for Lisi. Joking. I know she knows I miss her. I don’t think she knows how much I need her, though. I know it’s selfish, but sometimes I don’t know how it was so easy for her to leave me here with these people. How could she do that and then not even call me?

  I ask Hannah, “What’s your number?”

  She tells me and smiles at me when she says the numbers and I feel my anger subside. Maybe I do need a sense of humor. I add her number to my contacts and I write her a text. Just because I made rule #5 doesn’t mean I don’t want to.

  Her phone jingles and she reads it and adds me to her contacts and then texts back. I know.

  “So, you remember how to get to my house?” she asks me once we’re free of the school parking lot.

  “Yep.”

  “Not an easy place to forget, I guess,” she says. “Nor is the fact that you are now dating the junkman’s daughter.”

  “You aren’t the junkman’s daughter,” I say.

  “I know who I am. You don’t have to break it to me, you know. I’ve lived there my whole life,” she says. “It’s a huge pain in the ass.”

  I nod.

  She adds, “Do you know how many parents send their girls to the junkman’s daughter’s house for a sleepover party? None. Do you know how many parents send their kids over to play? Yeah. None. And how many come trick-or-treating? That would be… none.”

  “Trick-or-treaters are a pain in the ass, anyway,” I say.

  She nods her head and asks if I want to hear her punk rock song about being a junkman’s daughter and then she sings it to me without my saying yes. I’m not sure it can qualify as a song because all it is, is yelling and some screaming in the middle and then more yelling and a lot of swearing in the middle and then a big scream—like a death scream—at the end.

  “Very cool,” I say.

  “You should hear it with a guitar. It’s way better,” she answers.

  “You play guitar?”

  She fiddles with her hair. “Uh, no. Uh—my ex did.”

  “Oh.”

  “Sorry.”

  “It’s cool,” I say. “It’s not like neither of us had lives before now.”

  Although when I say that, I realize that I haven’t had a life before now. Well, I guess I did have a life but—uh—Have a sense of humor, Gerald.

  Once we’re on the road Hannah asks me, “Are you sure you don’t want to stop at the baseball park and make out?”

  “I really don’t think we should break a rule on the day we made it,” I say. “That would just kill the viability of all future rules.” Truth: I can’t imagine the pain of making out right now. My chest feels like it’s going to collapse and I can’t wait to get home to Mom’s medicine cabinet. I plan on hitting her prescriptions for this pain.

  “Do you want to park and just talk?” she asks. “Because I don’t feel like going home yet. My to-do list is way too long today. I’ll be up all night, I bet.”

  “Really?” I ask as I pull into the baseball field’s parking lot. “I forget regular classes get so much homework.”

  “I already did my homework,” she says. “The to-do list is the usual Tuesday-night bullshit. Wash, mostly. Then dinner. Then dishes. Then folding wash, some leftover review homework, then cleaning. Then bed. Before midnight if I’m lucky.”

  “You do your own wash?” The idea of it makes me feel babied. My mom still washes everything of mine. She folds my boxer shorts into perfect little squares.

  “I do everybody’s wash,” she says. Then she laughs. “Fuck. I do everybody’s everything. I’m a full-service junkman’s daughter.”

  I smile at her while feeling like a mama’s boy for the boxer-shorts squares.

  “Except the junk,” she says. “I don’t sell junk, deal in junk, stack junk, buy junk, or have any fuc
king thing to do with junk. But everything else, I do.”

  “Huh.” I think back to Nanny’s 1-2-3 lectures about responsibility and how chores make you independent, but this seems excessive. “Why?” I ask.

  “They’re too busy watching TV and waiting for the phone call that never comes about my brother being dead.”

  “Wow.”

  “Yeah,” she says.

  A minute slips by. “Is that why you see a shrink?”

  She shrugs. “Nah. My mom thinks the shrink will help me be—uh—less weird.”

  “You’re not weird.”

  “We’re both weird,” she corrects. “What you mean is, There’s nothing wrong with being different.”

  “Totally.”

  “Yeah, my shrink doesn’t buy it. She’s, like, the Martha Stewart of shrinks or something. She’ll have me dressed right and scrapbooking in no time.”

  I laugh. “No scrapbooking. We should make a rule about that,” I say. “And don’t listen to your shrink. You’re perfect just like this.” I look at her for a second too long and she gets self-conscious and looks at her lap.

  “I guess we should go,” she says. “Or we could go to Ashley’s house and I could say hi to the fish,” she adds.

  I really want to do this, but I can’t skip my meeting with Roger. I tell her, “I have my shrink appointment in an hour. Maybe tomorrow?”

  I pull out of the baseball parking lot and drive down her road. When we get to her mailbox, she says, “Just drop me here.”

  She leans in as if to give me a quick good-bye kiss, then pulls away and says, “Psych.” Then she slams the car door shut.

  I blast the heat and take off for my meeting with Roger. I don’t know why I’m so cold. Then I look at the passenger’s seat and there’s Snow White holding an industrial-size tub of peach ice cream.

  “Jesus,” I say. “You scared me.”

  “Scared you?” Snow White laughs. “Why, I don’t think I’ve ever scared anyone in my whole life, Gerald.”

  “Shit,” I say. Then I look at her and she’s smiling at me and I feel bad for cursing in front of Snow White.

 
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