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Reality boy, p.21
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       Reality Boy, p.21

           A. S. King
 
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  When she surfaces, she’s laughing. Or crying. Or both. I point to where the book went in and she swims downstream toward something else. She swims out of the light. I get scared that she’ll drown, so I start to take off my clothes, too.

  I have no idea if I could save her, but at least if she drowns, I can, too.

  And then we’ll have solved pretty much all of our problems, right?

  Or I can tell Beth I skinny-dipped and maybe she’ll think I’m cool.

  I jump in where Hannah did and there are no rocks. There is also no riverbed to get my footing, so I tread water for a minute and get my bearings. I can see her, about twenty feet away, heading for a series of rocks. The waterfall is about thirty feet behind us. It’s so loud, it sounds like I’m next to a helicopter.

  She sees me and her mouth moves like she’s yelling something and then she swims away—toward the rocks. I think about eddies. I learned about eddies in eighth grade, sitting next to Tom What’s-His-Name, before I ate his face. Eddies live near waterfalls and can pull you under in a second.

  Hannah starts to scream and I can’t see her that well. I swim to her to save her, but when I get there, all I find is her, clutching her tiny book above her head, crying and smiling—the same way she was when she first jumped in.

  This is the first time I realize how cold I am.

  I mean cold like the temperature, but I mean cold inside my heart, too. I can feel it beating in there for the first time in years. My whole life, it wanted to beat for real. It wanted to experience what happens after. Even if it was jail. Even if it was Nanny punching me back. Even if it was Tasha finally drowning me. Even if it’s me drowning in this river, right here, right now.

  It’s like my life has been a chain of dull disappointments. One after the other. And I grew so cold I could eat What’s-His-Name’s cheek right off his face. I grew so cold because the climate in FS is downright arctic. They say angry people are hotheaded, but we’re not. We’re cold. All over.

  I look around at my surroundings. How the hell do we get out of here?

  Hannah floats on her back downstream a little. She finds a clearing on the shore. There is a pair of shoes there. This indicates to me that we are not in some way-out place where no one will find us if we drown. We are in a well-lit, popular bathing spot. I guarantee you a few people have broken rule #5 on this very shore.

  Hannah sits there naked. Soaked. But still smiling. Even at me, which is weird considering I’m the asshole who threw her book in the water. As I approach, I see her staring under the surface and I see a familiar look. She’s talking to the fish—even the ones she can’t see and the ones she hasn’t named.

  “I’m sorry,” I yell as I pull myself onto the rock where her feet are.

  She stares past me into the water.

  We sit there, naked and cold, for a few minutes before I figure out how to pull us back to the edge we jumped off. I stand up and work my way around to a place that seems like a rock ladder. It’s slippery, but it works. Hannah keeps staring into the water, so I don’t even care that my dick is the size of a peanut. I start to climb and in five steps, I am able to pull myself up. I walk over and pick up our clothes and I meet her back where I climbed out. I call her name a few times, but she can’t hear me over the waterfall.

  I dry myself with my T-shirt and put on my pants. Then I sit there until she’s ready to go. It seems like a half hour, but it isn’t. She just holds the wet book and stares into the water. And then she gets up, climbs most of the way herself, and then she takes my hand and I pull her the rest of the way.

  She gets dressed while she’s wet. Her mood is unclear.

  When she starts to walk, I follow her.

  “Come on,” she says.

  “But—” I say. But what? What are you going to say?

  “Come on,” she says again, and she takes my hand and walks me quickly back toward the path we traveled to get here. I don’t understand why she isn’t yelling at me. I don’t understand anything. We get in my car and I drive us back to the motel. She doesn’t say anything and just combs through her wet hair with her fingers and looks at the road ahead while quietly allowing tears to drip down her cheeks. I don’t say anything but I don’t go to Gersday, either. I am 100 percent here.

  When we can see the motel up the road a ways, I clear my throat. “You’re sure you don’t just want to drive home?” I ask. “We could pick up our stuff and be back by tomorrow.”

  She lets a minute pass. “I thought this was, like, the perfect idea, you know?” she says. She sniffles.

  “Okay,” I answer.

  “I was serious when I said I thought I loved you. I meant it.” I notice the past tense in this sentence. I dread what she’ll say next. “I don’t know if running away was the answer, but I’m not going back. Not today, not tomorrow. I have needs, you know?” she says.

  “Yeah. I know. That’s why we did this.”

  She starts to cry again and I start to cry, too. I think she’s surprised. I’m not sure she knows what to do with a crying boy.

  In nature, crying is okay. Waterfalls cry all the time.

  We hug each other when we pull into the motel parking lot. We cry until nature makes us stop crying. A pressure has released from my chest. I feel lighter. Hannah doesn’t look like she feels lighter, though. She still looks worried.

  We get back to the room and change into drier clothing. Hannah turns the heating unit on and places her wet book on top, standing it up so the pages will dry. She doesn’t say a word to me about it. I turn off all the lights except for the bathroom light, and I leave the bathroom door open. Hannah sits at the table in front of our stupid, pointless list of half-witted demands.

  “My mom’s probably tracking me with my phone,” she says. I walk over and squat next to her chair and put my arm around her back.

  “Let’s turn it on and see if she’s texted today,” I say.

  “I already did.”

  “So?”

  She hands me the phone, text messages from her mother lined up like battlefield soldiers. Hundreds of them.

  Where are you?

  Come home now!

  I need you!

  Where’s the milk?

  Where’s the cereal?

  Where are my pink-and-blue-striped socks?

  Your father has a headache and I can’t find the aspirin.

  I’m calling the police.

  I think you were kidnapped.

  Were you kidnapped?

  Is it your brother?

  Did he come to get you?

  Both of you get back here now.

  Your father needs his asthma medicine, where did you put it?

  The police say I can’t report you missing until I know for sure you’re really not at work. I called that place, but your boss won’t tell me if you’re there.

  Your boss is a bitch.

  They don’t believe me that you were kidnapped.

  KIDNAPPER! Give me my girl back!

  I need her!

  Don’t do anything bad to her! And if that’s you, Ronald, get your ass home and bring Hannah with you.

  Where are you?

  The police say they can trace you with your phone.

  They told me to tell you that.

  Don’t tell the kidnapper.

  Where’s my white bra?

  And Dad’s striped sweat socks?

  I forget how to turn on the stove.

  Can you call and tell me how to turn on the stove?

  Hannah eats cold chicken fried rice while I sit on the edge of the bed and scan through the texts from her mother. I stop a few times and look at her, realizing that this goes far beyond Cinderella jokes and junkman’s-daughter CDs. I don’t think I ever realized that Roger was right when he said that I can’t see anyone but myself. I thought it was something we could work on. But it’s not.

  I never thought anyone could have a worse life than the Crapper. I never thought anyone would have as good a reason to run away
as the Crapper. I never thought anyone would have as much reason to cry as the Crapper. I know about the starving kids in Africa and war-weary refugees and women getting stoned to death for stepping out their front doors. But they have always been at arm’s length. As I stare at Hannah’s phone and the texts from her mother, I realize I am a selfish asshole. But so is everyone else.

  “What’s she saying here about your brother?” I ask.

  Hannah just nods as if there’s music playing inside her head.

  “No pressure. You can tell me whatever you want when you want. Plenty of shit I haven’t told you yet.”

  She keeps nodding to the imaginary music and wiping silent tears between bites of Chinese food.

  “Want me to tell you something first?” I offer. She keeps nodding to the music. “Tasha tried to drown me in the bathtub when I was three. Maybe more than once. I don’t know. She did it to Lisi, too. She used to try and suffocate us all the time.”

  “Shit,” Hannah says.

  “Yeah. Lisi says she’s a psychopath.”

  “Shit,” she says again.

  She keeps nodding, so I start nodding, too, as if the same song is playing inside both of our heads. She stops eating chicken fried rice.

  “My brother went AWOL before he got shipped to Afghanistan. He’s down here somewhere. In the South. We haven’t heard from him in over a year.”

  “Oh,” I say.

  “He’s mentally—uh—slow—just a little,” she adds. “So we weren’t sure if, you know, he just got lost or really ran away. Or if something… else happened. No one can tell us.”

  I demand that Hannah and I get do-overs.

  “It’s why I hate the word retard.”

  I demand that no one uses the word retard again.

  “It’s why I do all that stuff for my parents,” she says. “The whole thing kinda drove them crazy.”

  I keep nodding until she comes and sits on the bed next to me. There are two beds with rust-colored bedspreads that are stiff from being new or from being unwashed; you choose. We break rule #5 again. And again. And again.

  55

  HANNAH FINDS A radio station that plays 100 percent 1960s Motown music on our way through Georgia. Hannah seems to know a lot of the words to Motown songs. I find this surprising for the punk rock junkman’s daughter, but maybe nothing is quite as it seems.

  Just like me.

  Hannah puts her hand on my thigh as I drive. It makes me think of what happened in our motel room. It makes me want to get another motel room. It makes me want to get married. Slow down. Slow down. Slow down.

  Once every hour, she pokes me in the leg and says, “I can’t believe I saved my book” or “I can’t believe we jumped into that river” or “I can’t believe you threw my book into a fucking waterfall, you asshole.” I tell her I’m sorry every time, but she doesn’t care because she has it in her pocket, dry and safe, although some pages are illegible. She’s not mad, and I find that impossible. How can she not be mad?

  I want to talk to her about my plastic-wrapped heart and how I think she’s unwrapping it, but I think it’s stupid. Anyway, it’s more than my heart that’s wrapped. My mouth is wrapped. My brain is wrapped. That’s how it works when you grow up in the land of make-believe. To survive, you wrap and wrap and wrap until you’re safe. Gersday is full of shit. Nothing is real.

  The sky is bright and blue and the clouds are huge. The sun is warm. I was cold at the 2-4-1 Crab Shack yesterday, whereas now I’m hot. I roll my window down a bit more. Hannah keeps singing what I think is Little Stevie Wonder. Something about everything being all right.

  I demand that everything be all right.

  My phone rings and Hannah says, “It’s your dad.”

  “Shit,” I say. “Just let it ring.”

  She turns down the music. “I’m starting to feel bad.”

  I find a place to pull over on some empty back-country Georgia road. I kiss her—nothing slobbery like last night. Just a love-kiss on the lips to make her feel better.

  “Are we really going to ever finish that list?” I ask. “I don’t want to go back. Nothing is ever going to change.”

  She looks at me and smiles. “I left it at the motel. In the trash can.”

  “Good,” I say.

  “None of our real demands are sane enough to write down, right? I mean, how can I write please stop going crazy and using me as your house slave for everything?” she asks. “How can you make your sister not a psychopath?”

  “I really only have one demand after last night.”

  Hannah looks intrigued.

  “I want you to be my real girlfriend.”

  “Oh, that.” She seems blasé.

  “I want to trust somebody. You know? I want to be trusted by somebody,” I say.

  She nods.

  “I want a normal life,” I say. “Does that make sense?”

  She looks at the road and answers. “I want to be Nathan and Ashley. I want to have a job and a house and cookies and aquariums,” she says. “Remember, like playing house when you were little?”

  I never played house when I was little. Unless you count playing people in your house want to drown you.

  “I never liked aquariums until we went there,” I say. “We never had pets.”

  “Fish aren’t fucking pets,” she says. “They’re, like, birds, but in water or something. Manifestations of freedom.”

  “In a tank.”

  “But they don’t know they’re in a tank,” she says.

  “Right. But we do.”

  I feel her staring at me when I say this and I smile a little. It would be nice to be a fish and not know I’m in a tank. It would be nice to share my tank with Hannah. It would be nice to grow gills so I can breathe underwater.

  “Can I drive now?” she asks.

  The back roads of Georgia are bumpy and sometimes they twist. Hannah handles them all at higher speeds than I would and she puts in the Gerald/Junkyard Daughter CD and cranks it and tries to give me a punk rock education, but I can’t hear her over the loud music and the bluebirds on my shoulders.

  I haven’t been to Gersday all day and I don’t want to go. The bluebirds have come to fly me back, but I ignore them.

  I find I like punk rock music. It’s a sort of sound track for my life. I think the screaming guitars and the yelling, incoherent singers would fit perfectly over those YouTube videos of the Network Nanny me—acting out, punching shit, crapping, and crying.

  I text Joe Jr. and I lie. Dude, I’ll be in FL in a few hours. Near you. Can we visit?

  I see my dad has texted me again.

  Some woman called saying that you kidnapped her daughter. Just come home. We can work it out, I promise.

  I read that one to Hannah. She expresses surprise that her mother had the capacity to even find Mom and Dad’s number.

  “It’s unlisted,” I say. “So she must know someone.” Then I think. “Or my dad is lying. That wouldn’t be a first.”

  She turns up the music again. I position myself so she’s the only thing in my view. She’s shed her leather jacket and has on a men’s white T-shirt and those same ripped-up jeans and a pair of round-toed boots. She has her sleeves rolled up because it’s hot. With the windows open, her hair is flying around and it’s wild. Her face is perfect. Cheekbones high. Eyes big. Lips full. Looking at her knocks the air out of me sometimes.

  I watch her like she’s a TV. No. That’s insulting. I watch her like she’s a great work of art in a big museum. I stare and try to figure out the mystery.

  The mystery: There are other beautiful girls with perfect skin and big eyes and all that shit. Why Hannah?

  Why do I feel like I can’t breathe without her?

  Some kid did a speech on pheromones in tenth grade. I think maybe this is why I love Hannah. She smells right or something. Not the berries, but the Hannah. The Hannah smell.

  I turn down the music. “Do you believe in pheromones?”

  “Isn’t tha
t a little like believing in oxygen?”

  “But do you believe that they bring people together?”

  “I guess. That’s what they say, right?”

  “Yeah.” I turn the music back up, but I know it’s more than that. More than science. I love Hannah. I need her the way she needs me. She’s here to save me and I’m here to save her. And somehow, the Creator of the Universe put her at register #1 and me at register #7.

  56

  WE STOP AT a diner right outside Marianna, Florida. I have this dumb idea in my head. I want to talk to Dad. I want to see what he’s really so willing to do. Or maybe, more accurately, I want to tell him what I’m not willing to do. I want Hannah to call her mom and make sure the police aren’t after us. I admit I got a horrible feeling in southern Georgia when I saw a police car and reminded myself of the Gerald mantra for the last three years: No jail no jail no jail.

  I demand a better mantra.

  Hannah is eating grits with her all-day-breakfast eggs and bacon. I am eating a BLT and potato chips.

  “I want to call my dad,” I say.

  “So call your dad.”

  “I was waiting until I had the list,” I say. “But then we ditched the list.”

  “The list was stupid. We can’t demand anything. We’re the fish in the tank, Gerald.”

  “We are?”

  “Yeah.”

  “But we know we’re in the tank,” I argue.

  “Exactly.”

  “So what the hell do we do? Just keep running?”

  “We have to go back,” she says.

  “Shit.”

  I demand to grow gills.

  “Yeah,” she says. “So, will we call them at the same time?” She checks her phone. “There’s decent reception here.”

  “I don’t know,” I say. “I wanted something symbolic to send to him. Something that means I’m serious.”

 
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