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Reality boy, p.16
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       Reality Boy, p.16

           A. S. King
 
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  “Sorry.”

  “Eh. Life just sucks right now. Things will get better when Ronald gets home.” Ronald’s her brother. The one in Afghanistan.

  “How so?” I ask.

  “Well, as long as he doesn’t come home in a bag, then my mother might get off her ass again. That would be a start.”

  We drive the rest of the way to school in silence. Content-birthday silence. Looking-out-the-window silence. Ignoring-the-lingering-pain-in-my-week-old-maybe-broken-ribs silence. When we pull into the parking lot and into my spot, she unzips her backpack and pulls out a small, wrapped CD-size box and a small card. “Don’t open them until I’m gone,” she says. Then she zips her backpack up and gets out of the car and walks into school.

  I open the present first. It’s a CD she made with a really classy-looking cover that says Songs That Make Me Think of Gerald, by the Junkman’s Daughter. I know I don’t have enough time to listen to it now, so I stick it in the glove compartment and open the card.

  Her tiny writing—perfected from years of writing in her tiny book, I presume—lines the entire interior of the card and I realize I don’t have time to read it now, either. But some words catch my eye as I close it. In the bottom right-hand corner, I see them. There’s something about those words that forms a recognizable shape. Even in tight, tiny printing, which is how she writes. Then I close the card and stick it in the glove compartment along with the CD.

  At lunch, she looks shy. “Hey.”

  “Hey,” I say.

  We spread out in the booth and she dumps out her bag. Two Kit Kat bars, a bunch of peanuts in the shell, a lollipop, and a stick of beef jerky. I dump out my bag. I’m completely embarrassed. Mom has wrapped all my lunch items in wrapping paper. She even put a ribbon and bow on the sandwich, which is on a roll, not on bread, so it’s twice the size.

  “Aw!” Hannah says.

  We begin to unwrap my lunch. I shake my head because this is what my mother did this morning. She wrapped my lunch, when she could have been going to therapy or kicking Tasha out or reading a self-help article about how messed up she is. She could have been writing I love you on a birthday card, like Hannah did.

  Instead, she wrote: Who loves ya, kiddo?

  If it was a birthday e-mail, I’d have been able to hit REPLY and write I don’t know. Who?

  “Did you open my card?” Hannah asks as she chews on half my chicken salad sandwich.

  “I didn’t have time,” I lie. “I figured I could do it later… before work.”

  “Cool,” she says.

  “Thanks, though. It was really nice of you.”

  She pulls out her little book and starts to write in it and her hair falls in front of her face so she can’t see me smiling at her.

  “I did open the CD, though. The cover is awesome. Did you make it?”

  “I did.”

  “It’s really great,” I say, even though I’m thinking of her card the whole time. She can’t love you, Gerald. You are unlovable and you know it. She’ll find out soon.

  “Thanks. Our Lady of the Junk appreciates compliments.”

  She’s still hunched over, writing.

  “So if I told Our Lady of the Junk that I think she’s beautiful, that would be okay? She wouldn’t come after me with a rusty old fender or a piece of farm machinery?”

  She looks up between her strands of curl. “No. She wouldn’t come after you with a rusty fender.”

  “Good. That’s good,” I say.

  She looks at me for another second, then goes back to writing. She has on her glasses—they’re fake with no prescription lenses. She wears them at the PEC Center now because she says people treat her better when she wears them. She told me this on Saturday. I didn’t believe her at first, but now she shows me the chart she’s been making.

  “See?” she says, flipping open her little book. “On average, I get treated like shit thirty-one percent more often when I don’t wear these.”

  “Is that what you do in your book?” I ask.

  She puts it back in her pocket. “Yeah. And other stuff.”

  I leave lunch early because I want to see Fletcher on his own to ask him if he thinks I can get out of the SPED room and try to work on getting to college. I don’t tell Hannah this. I tell Hannah I have to go to the bathroom.

  “I’m going to hit the bathroom,” I say.

  “Don’t hit it too hard,” she says, still scribbling.

  Deirdre is in Fletcher’s room eating lunch by herself. She eats slowly and slurps soup through a straw from a thermos. We try some small talk, but she keeps talking about TV, and I keep telling her I don’t watch TV.

  “What’s your fuckin’ problem, anyway?” she asks after a minutes-long bout of silence.

  “Meaning?”

  “Why are you in here?” she asks. “You seem smart.”

  “It’s a long story,” I say.

  “I’ve got all day,” she says. “Nowhere to go.” She flails her arms around her wheelchair as if to say: See? Nowhere to go.

  “I don’t know. I’m embarrassed. By—you know.”

  She looks at me, head cocked in that Deirdre way, a little bit of her food stuck to her lips while she tries to chew faster so she can say something. She asks, “What do you have to be embarrassed about?”

  “Dude,” I say. But that’s all I say. She gives me a look like she might cry… or kill me. I don’t know which.

  “I have to shit in my pants, Gerald. Do you know that? I have to wear fuckin’ diapers. They call them briefs to make it sound better, but shitting in your pants is shitting in your pants.”

  “Sorry, Deirdre. I didn’t mean to piss you off,” I say.

  “You didn’t piss me off. You just made me aware of how embarrassed I should be if you’re embarrassed.”

  It takes me a minute to figure out what this means. While I’m figuring it out, Deirdre says, “You know what you look like to me? You look like a kid who gets off on disappointment.” She adds, “That’s what you’re embarrassed about.”

  I laugh through my nose. Not a ha-ha laugh. More like a wow-she-totally-called-that laugh. “Shit.”

  “You’re all jacked up on being the world’s biggest loser when really you could be kicking life’s ass. What a fuckin’ waste.”

  I think about kicking life’s ass. I realize I have no idea where to start.

  “Shit, you could be a TV star,” she says.

  I laugh again. A ha-ha laugh.

  “Seriously. You’ve already got experience. You already have a name and people know you. You’re fuckin’ famous.”

  “I’m famous for shitting in my mom’s shoes and for punching someone on TV. That’s not going to get me a job in TV,” I say.

  She rolls her eyes. “You obviously don’t watch enough TV.”

  Fletcher arrives right when the bell rings, so I can’t talk to him about anything, but talking to Deirdre helped me more than I thought it would. I can always talk to Fletcher tomorrow.

  When we get in the car after school, Hannah asks, “Can we take the long way to work?”

  The answer is yes. It always will be. Yes. Yes. Yes. I nod, and then I reach over to the glove compartment to get the card and CD and she stops me.

  “Not yet,” she says. “After work, okay?”

  “But I want to hear the songs that remind the junkyard girl of Gerald.”

  “Dude, it’s the junkman’s daughter,” she says. Then she opens the glove compartment and hands me the CD. “Just wait on the card. It’s a lot of reading.”

  I can see, though, that she’s noticed the open envelope.

  45

  WORK IS CRAZY busy.

  Hannah moved to register #6 and Beth runs for us because she keeps telling us that we’re “fun,” which means that no matter how many hungry hockey fans are lined up in front of us, and no matter how many trays of fries she has to fetch from the hot table for us, we still make jokes and act goofy sometimes. Beth likes being goofy, too. I want to ask
her what it’s like to skinny-dip.

  Close to closing time this guy comes to #6 with his girlfriend and asks Hannah for two beers. Hannah asks for his ID and he laughs as he gets it out of his wallet.

  “I’d like to see your ID,” he says to her. The hairs stand up on my neck when he says this. His tone is all wrong. I step away from my cash register and toward Hannah’s. I become ready for confrontation. I am Gerald and I was born ready to kick your ass.

  He gives the ID to Hannah. Beth moves over to tap the beers. “You need help doing the math, kiddo?” he says.

  Hannah looks up over her glasses and says, “So you’re twenty-two. Congratulations.”

  “They say men get better looking with age,” the guy says.

  Beth finishes tapping the beer and looks at the guy’s girlfriend, who’s staring into space like a bunny. “Really? I think women do, too.”

  “So what’s your excuse?” he says.

  As Beth hands him the beers I hope she spills one on him. Or drops them. Or throws them in his face. Hannah is just processing it. I can see her frown processing it.

  “Time isn’t going to do shit for you, asshole,” I say. See? I’m good at this. I have a switch and you can switch me on.

  He puffs up and says, “What’d you say to me, kid?”

  “I said,” I say. Then I raise my voice so the veins in my neck pop. “Time isn’t going to do shit for your ugly asshole of a face, you big fucking tool.” I smile. “Did you hear me that time?”

  He stands there holding his two beers. His girlfriend says something I can’t hear. Let’s go. Come on. We’re missing the game. He doesn’t hear it, either. He’s just staring at me.

  He has no idea how fast I could put him in the hospital.

  He puts the beers on the counter. “Where’s your fucking boss?”

  Beth raises her hand.

  “I can make this a lot easier for you and just hit you first. You want that?” I ask. I really want to hit him, so I get right in his face.

  He looks at Beth. “I want him fired.”

  Beth moves her ear closer and cups it. “I’m sorry. I’m far too ugly to hear you. Can you say that again?”

  He stares at the three of us for a few seconds and then he picks up his beers and leaves.

  Beth high-fives me. “You okay?”

  I nod. “You’re totally a babe,” I say. “Don’t listen to that asshole.”

  Hannah agrees. She’s in some weird state of shock, though. I can tell by how she’s still frowning. Like she’s still living in a minute ago. I know time travel when I see it.

  On our way to the parking garage, she says, “You scared me in there.”

  “What?”

  “You scared me,” she says. “You’re—um—a lot more. I don’t know. Nothing. Forget it.”

  “I’ll forget it if you forget it,” I say. I know neither of us will forget it.

  We walk the block quietly.

  She looks at me as we walk under a streetlight. “You’re really handsome, you know that?”

  I don’t know what to say. I don’t think anyone uses the word handsome anymore. I feel humbled by it. Because it’s old and grandmothers say it, it seems classy and real and I feel… handsome. It makes me smile. And it makes me really want to kiss Hannah, but I don’t.

  In the car, I get to the glove compartment first and I pull out the card before Hannah can swipe it from me, which is what it looks like she wants to do.

  I start to read the tiny writing.

  Dear Gerald,

  I know it’s a little early for me to be saying this, but I think you’re probably the best friend I ever had. This isn’t saying much because I’ve never had a best friend. Once I thought I had a best friend, but then she started to get interested in clothes and we ended up not being friends anymore.

  I like you a lot because you give a shit, Gerald. You really give a shit. I know we don’t talk much about some stuff because of the rules, but I never felt like anyone could give a shit about Hannah McCarthy. Everyone knows I’m the junkman’s daughter and I decided a while ago that I was okay with that because there’s nothing I can do about it. And you are the boy from TV and there’s nothing you can do about that. And today you turn 17 and I think it’s about time that you know that you’re the boy from TV and until you leave here, you will always be the boy from TV and I will always be the junkman’s daughter. And I feel a bond with you because of this. Because neither of us is happy here and I want to find a way out. Of Blue Marsh. Of my life. Of my house, of my family. I want a way out. And it looks like you want that, too.

  I know this girl from my old job and she wanted out of her family, too, and so she married a guy when she was 17. Don’t worry. I’m not about to propose to you. But I also think that maybe we could find a way out early. I can’t handle senior year. I can’t handle another day as Cinderella. I can’t handle one more day of living like the junkman’s daughter. I want to be Hannah. And I want you to be Gerald and not some kid from TV.

  Anyway, Happy Birthday, and know that I think you’re my best friend and I hope that doesn’t freak you out because I need you in my life right now more than I ever needed anyone. Because I’m pretty sure I love you.

  Hannah

  It’s a small card and I hold it close to my face to read and I keep it there for a half minute after I’m done reading while I think of something to say.

  “Ugh,” she says. “I’m so embarrassed.”

  I put the card down between the bucket seats. “Don’t be embarrassed. You’re my best friend, too. I never had one, either. I’m just scared because if we go too fast, we could—you know—wreck it.”

  “Shit.”

  I look at her. “I think I love you, too, Hannah. Okay? I’m pretty sure, even. But let’s just go slow.”

  We pause and look down for a few seconds. Hannah looks like she wants to say something.

  “Is something wrong?”

  “You scared me in there,” she says. Again. I heard her the first time, on the way to the car.

  “And?”

  “And I can’t love someone who would, like, you know. Hit people and shit.”

  “Jesus,” I say. I say it because I instantly feel like the Crapper.

  “I’m sorry.”

  “It’s my birthday,” I say.

  “I know. I don’t want to kill your buzz.”

  “Too late.”

  “But I’m serious. I’m not ready for visiting someone I love in jail, you know?”

  “Jesus!” I say again. “What the hell are you trying to do?”

  “I’m just telling you.”

  “Well, I heard you, okay?”

  “Okay.”

  She looks scared now. Fuck. “And I’d never hit—like—you or anything.”

  “Shit,” she says. “That’s not what I meant, Gerald.”

  “I think it is.”

  “It isn’t,” she says, and I can see the tears welling up in her eyes, because the parking-garage lights are reflecting in them. “Look. Let’s just try this again.”

  “Let’s,” I say.

  “Come on. Don’t be mad.”

  “Dude, you think I’m going to hit you one day. I think that sucks. It would suck for you if you were me, I guarantee it.”

  “I didn’t say that.”

  “You didn’t have to.”

  I pull out of the parking space and take off down the parking-garage ramp. Hannah starts to cry a little. Happy birthday, Gerald.

  Once we get out of the garage and start driving toward the bridge, she starts to ramble. “Look, that was my fault and I’m sorry. But you scared me. I could see you nearly killing that guy. You had a vein popping out of your neck. And I know that your chest is still all messed up from boxing and it scared me and I didn’t know you boxed and I don’t like boxing because it’s so violent and I don’t understand why anyone would want to hit another person, so all of those things scared me, okay? And before you say it again, I don’t think y
ou’re going to hit me,” she says. “I think we’re soul mates. Soul mates don’t do shit like that.”

  “Now we’re soul mates?” I don’t know why I’m being so sarcastic. But I am. And I’m hurting her. And I can’t stop. Because you’re an asshole.

  “Actually, I thought that as far back as three weeks ago.”

  “Three weeks ago we weren’t even talking to each other,” I say.

  She pulls out her little notebook. “I can prove it. Want me to read you that part?”

  “No,” I say. “I believe you.”

  “So you’re not mad?”

  I sigh. I’m mad. Zip code 00000. But not at her. “I was just having a nice birthday and I didn’t want to scare you. I was just playing around. I’d never have hit that guy.” ←That is a complete lie.

  “I’ll read it to you,” she says. “It’s right here. Three weeks ago to the day.”

  I put my hand up. “Don’t do it. That breaks rule number—what’s the no-reading-the-book rule? Why didn’t we number that rule?”

  “Because it’s a sacred rule.”

  “So then you can’t read it to me. Put it back in your pocket.”

  Neither of us talks for a while, but she puts her hand on my leg again—near the knee—and it stirs me again, too.

  I say, “Soul mates, huh?”

  She says, “Yep.”

  I smile.

  If she is my soul mate, then I have just saved myself years of searching. But I can’t tell if she is or not, because I am wrapped in a lifetime of polyethylene lie-wrapping that denies me any possibility of knowing the truth.

  We pull up to her driveway. She says, “You write your list of demands yet?”

  “I tried to start,” I say. “Big fail. Nothing I demanded made any sense.”

  “So? Do it anyway. If I was you, I’d have a long-ass list by now.”

  “I guess I’m not really good at demanding.”

 
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