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Reality boy, p.20
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       Reality Boy, p.20

           A. S. King
 
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  Hannah makes a noise in the back of her throat. The noise says Gerald, you know we have to go back.

  She takes out her notebook and starts to scribble something in it and I rest my head in my hands and close my eyes and think about what I demand.

  I ask myself: What do you demand, Gerald?

  None of my answers are possible.

  I demand a different childhood.

  I demand a mother who cares.

  I demand a do-over.

  When I look at Hannah, she is Snow White. She smiles and has a bluebird on her shoulder. The bluebird tweets.

  I demand my own bluebird that tweets.

  Snow White hands me the LEGO Star Wars set that Mom and Dad took away from me eleven years ago after I crapped on the kitchen table the last time. It’s the Millennium Falcon. It’s real. I wonder how I will explain this to Hannah—the Millennium Falcon appearing out of nowhere.

  “Great,” I say. “That’s great.”

  “What’s great?” Hannah asks.

  I don’t open my eyes. Or maybe my eyes are open and I can’t see Hannah, because Snow White is clearly still sitting next to me on the bench.

  “Gerald?”

  I open my eyes and it’s Hannah. No Millennium Falcon LEGO set. No Snow White.

  “Shit. Sorry,” I say.

  “Where do you go?” she asks.

  “I don’t know,” I say. “I go where I’ve always gone. This cool place.” Do not tell Hannah about Snow White and the bluebird.

  “What’s so cool about it?”

  “Tasha isn’t there,” I say. “And there’s ice cream. And a trapeze.”

  This makes us both laugh and I feel like I got away with something.

  I demand to stop getting away with things.

  I grab another hush puppy and pop it into my mouth. I think about how messed up my mom must be. My mom has a screw loose. I take a second to pity her.

  Holy shit.

  My mom is pitiful.

  Maybe hush puppies can change your life.

  53

  WE’RE DRIVING SOUTH. I check my phone again to see if Joe Jr. wrote back, but he didn’t. All I know is to aim for Bonifay, Florida, and I hope, if he doesn’t get back to me, that they’re listed in the phone book. It can’t be so hard to find a circus in its hometown, can it?

  Mostly, we’ve been listening to music, but Hannah turns it down from time to time to badger me about letting her drive or to ask a question. She’s tiptoeing around rule #3 since we talked about our dumb demands at the 2-4-1 Crab Shack.

  “About my mom,” I say, somewhere around the South Carolina border. “And Tasha.” I don’t know what to say afterward.

  “Yeah?” Hannah says.

  “Like—you could tell in the show that something was wrong? Like—when you watched it?”

  “Oh yeah.”

  “Could you see that Tasha was nuts?”

  “She was such a passive-aggressive. Totally. I could tell,” she says. “It’s complete Schadenfreude, dude, so most people are just watching for the thrill of being better off than the people in the show.”

  “Schaden-what?”

  “Schadenfreude,” she says. “It means when people take pleasure in others’ pain or humiliation.”

  “Oh.” Jesus. I had no idea there was a word for what I’ve suffered for my whole life. It’s like being asthmatic but no one telling you until your seventeenth birthday the name for why you couldn’t ever breathe. “I didn’t know there was a word for that.”

  “It’s German.”

  “I gathered that.” I paused. “Did my mom look nuts, too?”

  “I don’t know. I never thought about it,” she answers. “Is she nuts?”

  I sigh. “Yeah. Pretty much.”

  “Isn’t this breaking rule number three?” she asks.

  I keep my eyes on the road and stay quiet for a second. “A lot gets cut out,” I say. “From the show. Like—you only saw what they wanted you to see.”

  “A lot?”

  “Like, almost all of it,” I say. Including all the shit that was important.

  We both stay quiet for a little while.

  Then I ask, “Did Tasha really look crazy on the show? Because I couldn’t understand why they didn’t show that more.”

  “I’ll be honest,” she says. “They didn’t make her look all that bad. It was really you they focused on. You know. You were kinda the star of that family.”

  “Great.”

  “Nothing you didn’t already know, though, right?”

  “Yeah. Still. It’s such a bummer.” My life. My life is such a bummer.

  After looking at the map while Hannah drove, I realized that Bonifay, Florida, is in the Panhandle, so we decided to get off I-95 and go west. We find a motel in western South Carolina.

  Still no word from Joe Jr.

  My dad has tried calling three times but didn’t leave messages after the first time. The message he left is the one thing making me feel like this plan could work—kidnapping ourselves, demanding shit until something changes.

  Isn’t this what Nanny taught me? Isn’t this the foundation of parenting responsible children? You demand proper behavior. And when they disobey, you punish them. I have done what any responsible parent should do… to my parents.

  I demand their punishment.

  Anyway, what Dad said in his message makes me feel like this might work.

  We can work this out, Gerald. Any way you want.

  I haven’t even sent my list yet.

  Dad doesn’t know I’m in some motel in South Carolina about to have a shower for the first time since yesterday morning. He doesn’t know I got my ass kicked in his living room last night. He doesn’t know that my life has been a series of fails that could have been wins. Nanny’s coming! We’re saved! Nope. Hannah likes me! I’m saved! Nope. Run away with the circus! I’m saved! Nope.

  “Gerald?”

  I hear Hannah say that, but I keep staring out the motel room window, thinking about everything. We can work this out. Any way you want.

  “Gerald?”

  “Yeah?”

  “You wanna take a shower together?”

  I look at Hannah. She’s naked.

  I can’t find anything to say, so I sit there and stare.

  And as sick as it sounds, I can’t get those thoughts of Tasha and my dad and my life out of my head. How can Hannah just stand there naked and not think about her junkman family? Is she a robot? Or am I just too emotional?

  I demand to know if you are a robot, Hannah.

  “Gerald?”

  I stand up and strip off my clothes and we walk to the bathroom, where the shower’s been running. It’s like walking into a foggy dream. A good, foggy dream.

  I can’t come up with words for what we do. Kissing, touching, loving all sound too intimate. We are not intimate people, but we fit, you know? We are breaking rule #5. Bouncing off each other. Like balloons.

  And the best thing about being in a shower together is no one has to say anything.

  54

  “I SHOULD CALL my mom,” Hannah says after we eat the Chinese food we ordered. “She’s probably freaking out.”

  “Isn’t that the point?” I ask. I’m sitting at the small, round table in our room with the paper from the 2-4-1 Crab Shack with our lame demands written on it. I’m trying to think of more.

  “You don’t understand. My mom can’t live without me.”

  “Shit,” I say. “You never put it that way before.”

  “It sounds so dramatic,” she says.

  “Do you have to give her special shots or something?”

  “No.”

  “So she’s not going to technically die without you?”

  “No. But she’s going to freak the fuck out,” Hannah says. “And I don’t want the police to come while we’re sleeping.”

  “That would suck.”

  I break out in a cold sweat at the thought of what I just got us into. We are in a mo
tel in South Carolina. We just took a shower together. The police could be looking for me because I beat Jacko’s face into roadkill again, in my parents’ living room. I dragged Hannah into this.

  “That would suck?” she asks.

  “Yeah.”

  I admit, I’m not all here. I’m picturing Hannah watching me get arrested outside this crappy motel in the middle of the night. It’s playing like a movie in my head. A young Martin Sheen plays me.

  Hannah goes out the door and stands at the railing that overlooks the kidney-shaped motel pool. It’s closed for the season and they have a cover over it. I watch her through the front window of our room and I slip into Gersday, where nineteen-year-old Gerald knows what to do with a girl’s body. Seventeen-year-old Gerald had some trouble with that back in the shower.

  “We all learn as we go along,” Snow White says. “I thought the whole thing was quite romantic.”

  I don’t know where I want Snow White to take me. I don’t want to go to the trapeze. I don’t want to talk to Lisi about taking a shower with Hannah. That would be weird.

  So I walk down the street by myself in Gersday. I am eating a strawberry soft-serve ice-cream cone. I don’t have a family or any friends. At the end of the street is Hannah. She has a bluebird on her shoulder. She’s wearing her leather jacket with the safety pin holding the sleeve together, and she hasn’t brushed her hair.

  Halfway down the street, Tasha walks out from an alleyway. She’s pointing her finger at me and yelling horrible things in that insufferable Tasha voice. Then she pulls out a gun.

  Shit.

  Snow White, I demand you bring my ass back to reality.

  When I look up from the table, I see the real Hannah talking to me. I realize she might be yelling. Her face is contorted with anger. I can’t hear her.

  She grabs her jacket and her phone and walks out the door, slamming it behind her. I tried to read her lips. I think they said I’ll be back in a minute.

  I sigh. I check my phone. I sigh again. I check my phone again.

  I text Joe Jr. Call me! Then I erase the text before I send it.

  I walk around the motel room. There is nothing to do except watch TV. And I don’t watch TV, so I walk around more.

  I go outside and look into the night. I make a mental note that if the pool was open for swimmers, I could jump from the balcony railing and land right in the middle. I wonder how many people have done that before.

  Then I go back inside.

  I am tackled by my own thoughts.

  I try to find some pity for Tasha. I don’t have any. I try to steal some from how I feel about my mom, but there isn’t enough to share it.

  I scream, “Fuck this shit!” and kick the chair over. Then I go looking for Hannah.

  I check the motel property first. Vending-machines area, fitness center, lobby—not there.

  I start to walk along the dark highway, and I realize about ten minutes into the walk that this is stupid and Hannah could have been kidnapped or something, so I jog back toward the motel. When I get there, I get my car keys and start driving.

  I see a few people walking down the highway, and it makes me nervous. It’s a Saturday night. I don’t know what kind of a place this is. Is it the kind of place where girls who smell like berries could go missing?

  I drive around for a half hour. I do not go to Gersday because in Gersday, Tasha has a gun and is trying to kill me. I do not go to Gersday because Gersday is the problem between me and Hannah. I can’t go there anymore. I have to be here if I’m going to take showers with a beautiful girl, be in love with a beautiful girl, and run away with a beautiful girl.

  Snow White can’t be my guidance counselor. The roads will no longer contain pecans or chunks of bubble gum. I can’t fly on the trapeze.

  I finally find Hannah walking down a country road about a mile away. She has her earphones in and is rocking her head. I slow down and drive next to her and she gives me the finger without looking at me.

  “Come on, Hannah,” I say. I know she can’t hear me.

  “Hannah!” I say.

  She keeps her finger raised, then she takes a left onto a smaller road and I miss the turn because she does it at the last minute.

  I yell, “Damn it!” and turn the car around.

  She’s walking down the middle of the road when I get there. She won’t get out of my way. I beep my horn. A lot. Little beeps, long beeps. She raises her finger again and keeps rocking out to whatever is playing in her ears. The road narrows. I stop and look around and realize that the road is about to become a path. I leave the car and follow her on foot.

  She starts to jog. I start to jog. It’s starting to feel creepy. I just want her to stop, but I know I can’t physically reach out and stop her. We start to jog side by side. It’s dark. We both trip a few times.

  “Come on!” I yell.

  She keeps jogging.

  So I reach over and tug on the earphone wire and pull it out of her ear. The other earphone follows. She reaches down and unplugs them from her phone, so I’m left holding the earphones.

  “Hannah, come on! I’m sorry! Okay?”

  She stops.

  “I’m really sorry,” I say. “I get it. I totally get it, all right?”

  “You don’t get anything.”

  “Just come back to the room,” I say.

  She walks toward a streetlight that’s beyond the path. I can’t figure out why a streetlight would be in the middle of what seems like wilderness.

  “I trusted you,” she says.

  “I know.”

  “I don’t have anyone but you.”

  “I know.”

  “Stop saying you know!” she yells. “You don’t know!”

  “Okay. I don’t know,” I say.

  She throws her hands up. “Jesus!”

  We walk—her two paces in front of me—through the last of the shrubbery and into the light. We have arrived at some South Carolinian version of paradise. There is a river with a series of perfect waterfalls. The streetlight illuminates a state park type of sign with a paragraph of information on it for tourists. She doesn’t seem to notice paradise. She just sits down on the concrete, pulls out her book, and starts to write in it. I feel my face get hot.

  “Hannah, I want to talk to you.”

  “Sorry, Gerald, I’m eating ice cream in my happy place right now.” She keeps writing.

  “Not fair.”

  “Nothing is fair,” she says.

  “I meant not fair that you used that against me.”

  “I know. And nothing is fair. So whatever,” she answers, scribbling wildly.

  My skin gets hotter. I sit down right across from her and stick my face in her face. “Hannah, let’s talk. Stop writing. Come on. This is stupid.”

  She looks at me and even though she’s glaring, I can imagine her in the shower, only two hours ago.

  “You want to know what’s stupid?” she asks. “What’s stupid is me thinking a fucked-up kid like you could ever be my boyfriend. What’s stupid is me thinking a fucked-up kid like me could ever be anyone’s girlfriend.”

  I don’t know what to say.

  “So you want to talk?” she asks. “Talk.” Then she goes back to writing in her book.

  “I’m really sorry,” I start. “I know I’ve been hard to talk to. I know I’m an asshole and stuff. I mean, I know I can’t do that anymore. I have to stay here. I can do that. I don’t want to be anywhere else.” I want to tell her I love her, but I don’t.

  She keeps writing.

  “And all that shit that happened to me, you don’t know all of it, okay? There’s more than you know and it’s weird and fucked up and who doesn’t come from a place that’s fucked up, right? I just—” I stop, and watch her writing. She’s not listening. My face gets hotter. “I just want you to listen to me,” I say, and I snatch the book from her.

  Her first reaction is to hit me—right in the chest where my ribs are still bruised.

  I
start to walk away with the book, and she screams.

  “Give me the fucking book!”

  “Not until you talk to me.”

  She walks over and tries to grab it from me, but I move it around my back.

  “Give it here.”

  “Not until you talk to me. Look. I said I’m sorry,” I say.

  “You’re not sorry enough,” she says.

  I stop and look at her. She’s still beautiful, but this whole thing has taken the shine off her. She’s human. Sometimes she can be a jerk. Sometimes there is no why.

  I am also human. I toss the tiny book into the river like it’s a Frisbee. Shocked, we both watch it fly in some sort of slow motion.

  I can’t believe I just did that. She can’t believe I just did that.

  When it hits the water’s surface, neither of us says anything. We just stand there. The waterfalls are loud, but I can hear her breathing to stop herself from crying.

  “Why did you do that?” she asks. Then she hits my arm really hard. I don’t mind her doing that this time. I wish she had a silver Sharpie marker and could write ASSHOLE all over my face.

  “I don’t know,” I answer.

  She stares at me and I look past her toward the waterfalls. I wish I was the water. I wish I was the rocks. I wish I was the gravity that makes the combination of the two so beautiful.

  Nature is so lucky.

  People can look at it and think nothing. No one analyzes it. No one blames it. No one underestimates it. Most people respect it. When we look at an ocean after an oil spill, we don’t smirk and say, “Well, look at the shithole you are now!” We pity it. We wish it hadn’t happened. We hope it gets better and that the fish who live there don’t die or grow babies who have two heads.

  Maybe if we all saw ourselves as nature, we’d be kinder.

  Hannah wipes her face with her sleeve. I sigh.

  “I’m really sorry,” I say. “Let’s just go back now.”

  “I don’t want to go back,” she says. “I want my fucking book.” She strips off her clothes and jumps into the river. Just like that. All I can do is stand there, my mouth open, but nothing coming out of it.

  I have a bunch of completely unrelated thoughts. I wonder if she’ll drown. What does Beth look like naked when she skinny-dips? Are there rocks under the water? Should I jump in and save her? Is that why she did this? Why did I throw her book in the river? Why am I such an asshole? Should I stay up here and point to where it landed so she can find it? Can she find it? What if it’s fifty feet deep already? What if she drowns?

 
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