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Reality boy, p.23
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       Reality Boy, p.23

           A. S. King
 
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  She says, “I always wanted a big family.”

  I don’t know if this is some weird hint about babies and our future, but I don’t care. I can’t think of one seventeen-year-old guy who wouldn’t be freaked out by this. But I’m not. I can totally see us having a big family. I can totally think of our future—how we’ll do what we want and be what we want. Surrounded by aquariums, eating cookies, not being pushovers.

  58

  Dear Nanny,

  I know this will disappoint you, but I am not writing you this letter from prison. I am writing to you from a chalet where I am vacationing with my girlfriend, Hannah, and my only friend, Joe. The reason he is my only friend is because after what your television program did to me, it was pretty impossible to make friends.

  I went to an anger management coach for a while and we used to write you letters, but none of them were really about what I wanted to say to you. They were about what he thought I should write. Mostly about my anger. I had a lot of anger. I know you know that because I had it long before you ever got to my house with all your crew and cameras and chore charts, but I was angrier after you came.

  My sister Tasha did horrible things to my sister and me. She tried to kill us a lot. I think you knew. I’m not sure why you didn’t report it or do more about it, but I know it’s on your conscience, not mine. Lisi is okay. She lives in Scotland now. I am also okay.

  I hope you remember how fun I could be. I was playing with a five-year-old last night and I remembered being five and how much fun it is because when no one is chasing you trying to hurt you, the world is pretty much a land of fun. I was fun, only they edited that part of me out of the show.

  I met a woman last month who recognized me and she hugged me and said she wished she could have taken me from my house and taken care of me back when your show aired. I told her that I wished she would have, but that I’m okay now.

  That’s why I’m writing to you. I’m old enough to get away from all those people in my town who believed what you showed them and were too shallow to see any deeper. Why do you think they do that, Nanny? Do you think they liked watching me suffer because it made them happy to see a little boy suffering? Do you think it’s because it took attention away from their own suffering? Do you think that they were just dumb and loved schadenfreude?

  Because we were suffering.

  Lisi and I told you.

  You asked and we told you.

  And even though you knew and didn’t do anything to help me, I’m okay. And I want you to know that I hope you’re okay, too.

  Sincerely,

  Gerald Faust

  Hannah called her mother while I was writing. She went outside and paced while she talked. Her mom asked her aunt to find them some help, including help for Hannah’s mother’s increasing mental issues. The aunt went to a few places and thinks she’ll be able to find some solutions. Anyway, Hannah’s mom isn’t sending her a hundred crazy texts a day anymore.

  I call my dad in front of Hannah. This is what she hears.

  ME: Yeah.

  ME: Okay.

  ME: Huh. Okay.

  ME: I guess.

  ME: Yeah, I’d do that.

  ME: Are you? Does it make you happy?

  ME: She probably just didn’t want to get involved in the drama. She’ll talk to you again. Don’t worry.

  ME: What day is it again?

  ME: I guess by Thursday if we leave today.

  ME: Thanks.

  When I hang up, she stands there waiting for the story, but instead of telling her, I hug her and say, “I told Joe I’d meet him in the barn. I’ll be back in an hour.”

  “But are we leaving? Today? Didn’t you just say that?”

  “If you want to, then yes. If you don’t, then no. We can do what we want.”

  59

  “YOU JUST JUMP,” Joe Jr. says. “And hold on to the bar.”

  He’s sitting in a chair on the edge of the makeshift ring. Thirty feet below me.

  I’m standing on the tiny platform with the bar in my hands. My sweaty hands. I hook the bar to the hook at the side and I cover my hands in chalk for the fifth time.

  “Come on,” he says. “There’s a net. Nothing to be worried about.”

  I close my eyes and see Lisi on the other side. I promise myself ice cream if I do this. Any flavor I want. All I have to do is jump. My hands get too sweaty again, so I hook the bar up and rechalk. This happens at least four more times.

  Joe Jr. starts to play on his phone and has stopped encouraging me. He looks so small down there, in his tiny chair. His phone is the size of an ant. He is the size of a large spider. The net is so far away.

  I look at my hands. Very chalky, but not shaking.

  I look at the other platform—across the rigging. Snow White is sitting there with her bluebird. She also looks small, but not as small as Joe Jr. or his phone. She is superimposed—unreal. Not really there. She’s just a projection.

  I sit down on the platform and think.

  I have a conversation in my head. It’s about never having to see Tasha again because I demand that.

  I demand to never see Tasha again.

  Tasha has a screw loose and no one knew what to do about it, so they hid it, fed it, and then ended up a slave to it.

  I feel bad. For me and Lisi. For Dad. For Mom, even. Maybe even a little bit for Tasha, who has the loose screw. I feel bad for everyone involved.

  And now the conversation in my head is about Hannah. About how having her in my life changes everything. Before Hannah, no one would ever love me. I was too angry. Too violent. My past was too fucked up. My future held no hope.

  No one ever said it. But they meant to. I look forward to your letters from prison.

  But Hannah changes everything.

  I stare down at the net and then at Joe Jr., who looks up periodically to see if I’m standing again. Then he goes back to his phone. I look back at the projection of Snow White, and all that’s left is her bluebird. If the bluebird could talk, it would tell me what it sees. Chickenshit.

  I stand up, chalk my hands one last time, and grab the bar—and then I jump. All in one motion. One split second. Just like how I ran away. Rash decision. Hasty action. Off the top of my head. Not Prescribed by a Medical Professional. I just get up, hang on, and jump.

  My first swing is when I realize those girls in the Monaco video must be stronger than Clydesdales. I can barely make the rig swing. In fact, I have no momentum at all. I try, but I look like I’m having some sort of fit. In mere seconds, I am a straight, rigid seventeen-year-old hanging still from the end of a trapeze bar in the middle of a circus barn in Florida.

  It’s kind of fun, except my shoulders are about to separate.

  Joe Jr. laughs. “You did it! You $%#*ing pussy! You did it!”

  This makes me laugh a little, but laughing makes me weak, so I stop. Then I realize I’m hanging twenty-five feet above the ground.

  I demand to trust the net.

  But I don’t trust the net.

  My chalky hands have a firm grip on the bar. In fact, they feel like they are the bar. My hands have become the bar. And that’s fine because I’m not letting go.

  “You ever coming down?” Joe Jr. asks. I bet he’s done this a hundred times before. No big deal to Joe—just dropping into a net that barely seems there.

  “No,” I say. “I think I’ll stay here forever.”

  “Your shoulders are going to $%#*ing burn soon. And your wrists.”

  “How do you know?”

  “I just do,” he says.

  “And your fingers are going to peel off one by one and you’ll drop. No stopping gravity, man. It’s $%#*ing science.”

  “Shut up,” I say.

  “I’m going to go and make out with your girlfriend,” he says, then gets up and walks toward the door. “When you finally decide to let go, drop ass-first. Then roll to the edge,” he says.

  I laugh because Joe Jr. is funny. I’m also terrified that the
net is broken and I’m about to willingly fall to my death. For the first time in my life I don’t think this is funny. I don’t shrug off dying as if it’s some dare. I don’t want to die. I have a plan.

  I let go.

  Falling feels like Gersday. I think I scream, but I’m not sure. As I fall, I unravel from my plastic wrap. It floats through the air above me because it’s lighter, and I see it twisting there like smoke hangs in the air above Joe Jr.’s cigarettes. I land in the net with a small bounce. I lie there for a few minutes, staring up at the bar, now suspended in the middle of the rig. It looks so small. After a while, I hear things happening outside. A truck or a tractor or something. I hear yelling. Big Joe screaming “$%#*, $%#*, $%#*!”

  I roll to the edge of the net and flip myself over it and onto the floor. I think about climbing to the platform again, but I know I have to drive home today.

  “About time,” Joe Jr. says when I walk into the chalet. Hannah is there, packed and ready to go. “She wouldn’t kiss me, dude. You’ve got yourself a $%#*ing gem there.”

  I deserve a $%#*ing gem.

  60

  IT’S A SURPRISINGLY easy transition. Dad sends Mom and Tasha on a four-day all-inclusive vacation, and we move out over the weekend while they’re off getting suntans or pedicures or whatever loose-screw people get in all-inclusive Mexico.

  “I think it’s the only way,” he’d said. “Your mother hasn’t really heard anything I’ve said in years.”

  Dad and I talked about everything last night. Then we called Lisi and told her what was going on. She told me she might come home for Christmas if she could stay with Dad and me in the new house. When I hung up, Dad and I talked about Tasha. How she used to hurt me and Lisi. How she probably still hits Mom. He looked numb and didn’t say much, and just listened. He had a tear in his eye when he hugged me at the end. He told me he was sorry.

  “Your mother always said it was just you two exaggerating,” he said.

  “I don’t really want to talk to them again,” I said. “Is that okay?”

  He said it was okay, but I guess we both know there will be times I have to talk to them again. I can almost picture the day my mother is on her deathbed and I say something kind and poignant like “I know you never meant to hurt me. I know you were doing the best you could with what you had.” What woman looks down at her pregnant belly and expects a psychopath?

  We’re moved in by Sunday night. Dad wasn’t a pussy about it, either. He took what was his. The car. The gym equipment. The stereo system. We emptied his man cave into the truck, and we emptied the entire contents of my bedroom and the guest room, which will be Dad’s new bedroom suite. He took all of his clothing and the Ping-Pong table. He even went into the attic and took everything that came to him from his parents. He got his mother’s engagement ring out of Mom’s jewelry box. And her two quilts from their closet.

  My new room is closest to the pool. This morning I swam some laps and sat in the hot tub for fifteen minutes before I took a shower. I was at the breakfast bar before six thirty. Dad bought frozen waffles and real bacon. He stuffed the fridge full of shit Mom would never buy. I eat four waffles and three strips of bacon. He eats the same thing. I will be fat in three months. I pretty much don’t care.

  We leave at the same time for work and school. It’s a shorter drive to Hannah’s from here. It’s a shorter drive to everywhere. There’s no security guard to give me judgmental looks on my way out. At night, from the third-floor deck, you can see endless stars because the sky isn’t polluted with gated-community security lighting. And no one knows us here. No one cares. I have no idea why we ever stayed in that other house for so long after Network Nanny. It’s like no one ever thought about how freeing it would be to get the hell out and start over. Or maybe some of us didn’t want to.

  When Hannah gets in the car, we kiss good morning. She smells like berries. This makes me smile like crazy.

  She writes in a new little book—one that isn’t waterlogged. When I bought it for her in Virginia, on our way home, she told me she was sorry that she had kept her family a secret from me. I didn’t know what to say, so I just hugged her.

  We all have secrets, Hannah.

  I missed six days of school, but I don’t have that much to make up. Dad will come in later today for a final meeting with the guidance counselor, Fletcher, and me. I’m going to college. I’m taking the first step by getting back into regular classes. Best Monday ever.

  But in SPED, I feel like I’m leaving behind a whole family. Fletcher tells them I have something to say and I get up and sit on my desk and say, “I’m leaving today.”

  “I thought you left last week,” Kelly boy says.

  “Yeah,” Jenny says.

  Taylor is rocking.

  “I don’t mean leaving Blue Marsh. I mean this room. I’m going into other classes,” I say.

  “About fuckin’ time,” Deirdre says.

  Jenny looks like she’s going to have a fit.

  “I’m still going to come by and say hi, you know?”

  “Bring cupcakes,” Karen says. “It’s the least you could do.”

  “Yeah,” someone agrees.

  “Just go, Gerald,” Jenny says.

  I see Deirdre’s foot has come off her footrest, so I kneel down and put it back where it belongs. When I stand up, there’s nothing left to say. I pick up my backpack and head for the door.

  Fletcher says, “I like chocolate cupcakes, Gerald.”

  I nod and close the door behind me. When I get outside, I’m scared to death. My first class is Language Arts and I have to talk about Romeo and Juliet and I’m not sure I can be what they want me to be. But I’ll try.

  “You okay?” Hannah asks me at lunch.

  “Fine,” I say, but I’m smirking like crazy and she smirks back and it’s really hard not to ask her to marry me on the spot. Slow down. Slow down. Slow down.

  “Craptastic got a girlfriend! You know what to do with her?” It’s Nichols. We ignore him and keep smiling at each other.

  “I want a rematch in Ping-Pong soon,” she says.

  “Why bother? You’re playing two guys whose entire third floor is home to a Ping-Pong table.”

  “Because it’s fun,” she says. “It’s not about winning all the time, you know.” She’s eating a sandwich that we bought at Quik Mart on the way to school. “I was distracted last night. I think I was worried about impressing your dad.”

  On our way home, I drive her to the new house and we play two games of Ping-Pong. Then we break rule #5. Then I take her to the deck.

  I think, I demand that we get married. I plan on thinking this for a long time before I ask it. But it feels nice having a goal and working toward it. If I think about it, Nanny taught me that with all her stupid charts. And Hannah taught me that with her little book.

  It’s never a bad thing to have a list of demands.

  61

  THE PEC CENTER is crowded on Wednesday for Dollar Night. Hannah and I come straight from school so we’ll be early to pay back Beth for being so cool with us leaving her short for over a week. We tell her what we did after she gives us a warning about how she’ll have to fire us if we ever do that again. Lucky for us, there’s a pool of cashiers to choose from at the PEC Center. It’s not like we’re highly trained brain surgeons.

  “Sounds like an adventure,” Beth says while she hands me the large ketchup containers over the counter. Hannah organizes the other condiments and then sets to work wrapping the first batch of hot dogs.

  She’s at register #6. I’m still at register #7. I told Dad I was going to be coming home late. He’s all over the place since Mom came back from Mexico and found us gone. She goes between threatening to take him for all he’s worth to sobbing into his voice mail for ten minutes at a time and I know he sees it now—that up and down. The instability she worked so long to pretend wasn’t there.

  “Gerald swung on the trapeze,” Hannah tells Beth. “We stayed in a chalet.”
r />   “A chalet?” Beth says. “Sounds fancy.”

  We don’t tell her that it is just circus jargon for a prefab house.

  “We went skinny-dipping,” I say.

  “Not quite,” Hannah says. “It was more of a rescue mission.”

  Beth shrugs, and shakes her head as if she’s thinking, Those madcap teens.

  The night is a blur of Dollar items, complaints about Dollar items, and running out of liquid cheese, like, three times. Beers. A lot of beers. Beth has me tapping my own now and I tap Hannah’s, too, because she doesn’t look eighteen, even with the extra black eyeliner she’s been wearing.

  Beth lets us go out during second period. Hannah gets her new little book and starts to write in it in the smokers’ alley. I stand there with my hands in my pockets, feeling the cold. Christmas is coming. Dad and I decided on no tree in our new pad. Hannah says she’s going to bring us a small one anyway because everyone should have a Christmas tree.

  “What are you writing about?”

  “Just stuff,” she says.

  “Good,” I say. I say that because I like when she writes in her book.

  I lean against the freezing brick wall and take a deep breath and exhale the fog into the alley. Gersday is warmer. Lisi is in her leotard and about to swing high on the trapeze and I’m in the ring watching. Hannah is next to me. Holding my hand. Breaking rule #5. I can see it from here, so I don’t have to go in. Gersday is like a show now.

  “How much longer do we have?” Hannah asks.

  I shrug. “As long as we want, I guess. Break should be soon, though. So—”

  She grabs me around my neck and kisses me and I grab her around the waist and kiss her. We become one person when this happens. One warm person.

  Then the door opens and it’s a smoker. Only it’s not just any smoker—it’s Hockey Lady.

 
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