Dec 112013
 

Four days before he woke up in the hospital able to see and hear things he shouldn’t, Jonah stood on an unfamiliar street corner waiting for the bus that would take him to his first day at James Buchanan Regional High School.

He didn’t see his grandfather as he waited, nor any beautiful star-filled creatures shining with light.

4thWalnutIn fact, Jonah’s head was so busy imagining how the day might unfold that the list of things he didn’t see, hear, or feel as he stood at the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets was actually rather long: The tiny, curled-up body of a dead spider floating past on a silk thread. Half a dozen species of grass and weeds growing greenly between slabs of sidewalk. The man standing over his kitchen sink eating a peach as he watched Jonah out the window. The buzz of the lawnmower half a block away, and the buzzy thoughts of the white-haired woman pushing the lawnmower. Clouds of insects rising into the sunlight in advance of the Lawnmower of Doom. The neon “Bud Light” sign (with the “u” and “d” burnt out) in the window of the bar across the street. Hundreds of cell phone conversations passing through his body on invisible radio waves. Dozens of sugar ants maneuvering stealthily around his dangerous feet. The countless stars, planets, and galaxies spinning above his head behind a curtain of blue sky.

All of these things, never mind spirits and shadows, escaped his attention. James Buchanan Regional High School loomed far too large in his mind to allow room for anything else, whether ant or planet.

~ ~ ~

The assistant principal had shown Jonah and his mom around the school late one afternoon a few days before. The long, empty halls were lined with a couple thousand beat-up orange and powder-blue lockers. They reminded Jonah of coffins—or, worse, cryogenic chambers for storing students after hours. He could imagine thousands of kids emerging from those lockers at first bell, zombie-like after their frozen sleep.

When he shared this image with his mom as they drove away from the school, she just rolled her eyes.

“Okay, I get that you don’t want to start another new school, Jonah, and I get that you’re sad about leaving your friends, but the Zombie Apocalypse? Really?”

To which Jonah slouched lower in his seat and scowled out the window. It might not have been the Zombie Apocalypse, but James Buchanan Regional would be his third school transfer in three years.

He had been expelled for fighting the first two times. This time wasn’t his fault, though, so if anyone asked why he was transferring a month into the school year, he wouldn’t have to lie. He could tell them the truth, which was that his mom had taken a job that required moving halfway across the state on short notice. It wouldn’t be lying to not mention that she didn’t exactly have a choice, after being unemployed for eight months.

His mom kept glancing over at him in the car, but he wouldn’t look at her, in case it inspired another speech about positive thinking. She was all about positive thinking—it was something she had picked up from her survivors of domestic abuse support group and all the self-help books she was always reading.

She spoke up anyway. “Okay, so maybe it is the Zombie Apocalypse,” she said.

“Worse than. At least in the Zombie Apocalypse you get to bash a few zombies,” Jonah deadpanned.

She bit back a smile. “Yeah. Look, you’re totally right, okay? It’s not fair. It’s not fair to you to have to start over from scratch when you were doing so well. It’s not fair to me to have to take this meat-packing job. Okay. So, we agree. It’s totally unfair.”

Then she was quiet for so long, Jonah wondered whether she might be crying, or trying not to cry. He just kept staring at the tiny drops of mist collecting on the window, blurring his view.

But when she spoke again, her voice was strong and clear. “So what are we going to do about it? Go around angry for another month? I’m so, so tired of being angry, Jonah. Geez, your dad had plenty of good reasons to be angry. And he just got angrier and angrier, until that’s all there was left of him. And look where it got him.”

They stopped at a red light, and she leaned over and shoved his shoulder, trying to get him to look at her. When he did, he saw that although her eyes were wet, they were also hard.

“If you walk through the doors of that school with nothing more than a lot of well-justified resentment, you know exactly where you’re going to end up.”

She meant expelled again.

“So I’m supposed to fake being happy?” Jonah snapped. “‘La, la, la, oh how happy I am with my horrible life! Give me black coffee over sugar and cream any day!’ Not exactly authentic, Mom.” Authentic was a word she’d brought home from her group.

His goofiness made her smile, though. “I’m not saying we should be happy with the way things are, Jonah. I’m just saying that as long as we’ve both got all this anger to burn, we might as well turn it into rocket fuel so it can take us somewhere. But we’ve got to have somewhere to go. You know what Moon says?”

“Let me guess—something enlightening, right?” Moon was his mom’s all-knowing group leader.

“She says we won’t get everything we want in life, but we also won’t get more than we want. So we should want more.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Yeah, you do. What do you want, Jonah? If you could make your life anything from this day on, what would you want?”

“I don’t know.” Actually, he did know, but it was pointless to say he wanted things to go back to the way they had been a month ago.

The light changed, and his mom turned her attention back to the road again, much to Jonah’s relief. She set the windshield wipers going; the mist had become a light rain.

“You know what I want for you, Jonah? I want you to have good friends. Friends you can make good memories with. I want you to . . . to enjoy life. Like the way you did when you were little, and it was just you and me while your dad was away. Like this summer, when you guys started that band.” She hit the steering wheel with the palm of her hand. “We’re not settling for the stale crusts of life, Jonah. We’re going to suck the creamy goodness right out of the middle of its oatmeal crème pies. We’re not going to just live; we’re going to thrive!”

And that would be positive thinking run amok, Jonah thought. He couldn’t afford such high hopes; he wouldn’t be able to stand the disappointment.

“Yeah, you don’t ask for much,” he told her.

“Why not ask for it all, Jonah?” she said. “You don’t get what you don’t ask for.”

~ ~ ~

So now, watching the bus finally lurch around the corner, groaning and belching black smoke, Jonah tried to want more. He tried to imagine getting on the bus and being friendly, or walking into his homeroom and making eye contact—in other words, he tried to imagine acting normal, instead of retreating into the mental robotic exoskeleton that he usually wore in situations like this.

The bus shuddered to a stop in front of Jonah. The door slapped open. A bent old man sat in the driver’s seat, a blue cardigan sweater drooping limply from his bony shoulders.

“G’morning,” the driver said.

Jonah climbed aboard.

Pausing at the head of the aisle, Jonah scanned the bus for the best place to sit. Way in the back, a posse of large, loud, lanky boys spilled out of the seats. One of them sat high on a seat back, eyeing Jonah predatorily. He was muscular in a wiry way, with thin blonde hair and thin lips. Perched up there, he looked like a vulture.

“Take a seat!” the driver said.

Jonah was still making his way down the aisle when the bus lurched into motion. He stumbled a little, grabbed a seatback and swung unceremoniously into the seat behind it.

“Nice,” laughed Vulture Boy. Jonah glanced over his shoulder. The kid was smirking. Jonah met his gaze just long enough to warn him off, then turned away.

He’d landed next to a girl glued to her phone. She didn’t even look up as she scrunched over to make room for him.

“Mind if I sit here?” Jonah asked. That was him being friendly.

“You just did,” the girl pointed out.

“Well, do you mind?”

“If you don’t mind me talking to myself,” she replied.

Oka-ay, he thought.

He shoved his backpack under the seat. The bus bounced and pitched like a lifeboat on stormy seas, making the kids bob and sway. A lot of them had phones. Jonah thought about texting some friends from his old school, but they were probably already in first period.

He thought about it and realized that he hadn’t had actual, text-able friends before. That was how well things had been going at Thomas Paine Academy: three disciplinary write-ups in the first three weeks, a fight off school grounds in December (he remembered the kid’s red blood soaking into the white snow), but otherwise, nothing. Danny Peach, the class clown, had joked his way through Jonah’s defenses, and then he and Jonah formed a garage band with a couple other kids from their lunch table, Meagan Fogg and Mike Woo. The Panda Banshees, they called themselves. They’d spent large chunks of the summer in Danny’s garage, practicing and making up music. They weren’t actually any good, but they had fun.

But as of two weeks ago, that was all over. And now he was bouncing along on a bus with Vulture Boy and don’t-mind-me-I’m-just-talking-to-myself girl.

“Oh, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beautiful mankind is!” she was saying, with feeling. “Oh brave new world, that has such people in it!”

“What are you reading?” Jonah asked. Friendly, friendly.

The girl looked at him for a second as if weighing whether she could trust him with her answer, and for a moment Jonah wondered whether she was going to put him down. Something mischievous lurked in those green eyes.

“It’s Shakespeare,” she said, absently tucking a lock of auburn hair back behind her ear. “The Tempest. I’m auditioning for the play.”

“Oh.” Jonah didn’t know anything about Shakespeare other than it was supposed to be hard.

“You can help me, if you want, by reading the other parts,” the girl added hopefully.

Jonah shook his head. “I don’t even like giving oral reports.”

“You don’t have to be any good.”

Jonah shook his head more emphatically. Here was the problem with being friendly: people started expecting things from you.

“Then you’re just going to have to listen to me do all the voices, I guess.” She sighed as she turned back to her phone. “Have you started reading this yet? You’re in ninth, too, right?”

“Yeah, but I’m new. Today’s my first day.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Ohhh, that explains why I haven’t seen you before. I’m new too, but I started at the beginning of the school year. My dad’s job transferred him down here from Alaska over the summer.”

“Really? That’s what happened to me, but we didn’t move that far. Just from the city.”

“Well, if you’re in ninth, I hope you like Shakespeare, because you’re going to have to read it.” She said it like it was cafeteria leftovers.

“I thought you liked Shakespeare,” he said.

She scrunched her face. “No! When did I say that?”

“Well, you’re trying out for a part.”

She pushed her hair back. “That’s only because I always try out for the school play. Besides, the part I’m auditioning for, you get to fly around stage on wires.”

There were loud voices from the back of the bus, where Vulture Boy and companions were having a heated argument about Grand Theft Auto. They shouted and swore, like slobbery Labradors barking from behind a chain link fence just to remind everyone of their teeth. Jonah glanced back at them, and Vulture Boy caught his eye.

“Back in Alaska,” the girl was saying, “we did real plays—Grease, Oklahoma!, that sort of thing. Not Shakespeare. That’s why I’m going to write my end-of-unit essay on, ‘Why Shakespeare is the Dumbest Writer in the History of the World.’”

“Yeah, that sounds like an easy F.”

“Mr. Wordsworth says to bring it on.”

Jonah smirked appreciatively. He wasn’t sure what he thought of this girl—she was a little talky, a little strange, a little unpredictable—but he was glad to be talking to her. When you’re new, you’re glad to be talking to anyone.

He was about to ask how she was going to convince an English teacher that Shakespeare was the dumbest writer in the world when a ball of wadded-up paper hit his head, bounced off the seat, and dropped to the floor. Jonah turned and stared at the boys in the back.

Vulture Boy made a fake-sorry face and pointed at the grinning kid next to him.

“It wasn’t me. He did it,” Vulture whined. “He took my homework. Can I have it back, please?”

The three other guys in his posse guffawed.

Jonah reached down and grabbed the paper ball. He uncrumpled it enough to see that it was an old math worksheet, already completed. The name scrawled at the top of the page read Bull Grubinski.

Jonah crumpled up the paper again and tossed it toward the back of the bus, where it fell in the aisle.

“Hey, thanks!” said Bull. “Thanks for saving my homework, kid.” That got more laughs from his friends.

The girl was sliding down in her seat and looking at her phone again. “Just ignore them. They’re easily distracted.”

“Who are they?”

“Tenth graders without cars,” the girl smirked. “Your basic bullies and troublemakers. The leader is the state wrestling champion or something. Anyway most kids keep clear of him and his little gang.”

“I’m not afraid of them. I’d take them on,” Jonah said, and then he immediately regretted it. He was overreacting again; besides, no way would he stand a chance against four guys, all bigger than him. But he already felt the rush of adrenaline as his muscles tensed. Somewhere deep inside him, the feral animal his father had fed and trained for so many years was straining against its chains, wanting to get out and fight.

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” the girl said. She tapped away at the phone. “Just wait a sec . . . I want to show you something. If there’s anything good about Shakespeare, it’s his insults. . . .”

Jonah watched her tapping away at the phone, one ear tuned to Grubinski and company. She found what she was looking for and, smiling, showed him the phone. “Look at this,” she said.

Just then, a banana peel fell on her head, one of its three yellow lobes hanging in her face. She yelped in surprise and knocked it away with her hand. There was cheering and clapping from the back seats. “Score!” someone crowed.

Jonah grabbed the banana peel and in one fluid motion whipped it back at the boys. It pelted Bull Grubinski in the face.

“Hey!” Bull yelled. “Aw, that wasn’t nice!” He threw it back at Jonah, but it hit the window and fell to the floor.

Jonah reached down to grab it, but the girl grabbed his arm to stop him.

“Don’t,” she said.

“Why not?”

“Just don’t. You’ll get in trouble.”

Jonah shook off her hand, but he let the banana peel drop. This was him being good. Being the brand-new, non-fighting Jonah. The one who walked away. Now, if only he could unclench his jaw.

The green-eyed girl slid down in the seat. “Look at this,” she said again.

But Jonah was listening to the Vultures conspiring back there—he could hear it in the tone of their lowered voices. Something else was coming.

He didn’t have to wait long to find out what: slimy wet spitballs began dropping onto him and the girl, who sighed wearily and covered her head with her backpack.

Jonah jumped up and chucked the banana peel, but this time Grubinski ducked. Jonah got hit in the forehead with a spitball, though, and the Vultures howled with laughter.

All the kids in the back half of the bus were watching now, some of them laughing, others ducking irritably to avoid getting hit by stray spitballs. Jonah glanced up front to see whether the driver was watching; incredibly, he wasn’t. He must have been blind and deaf.

He could hear his father now: The world isn’t kind to the weak, Jonah, he’d say. His father had taught him to always be ready for a fight.

Jonah ducked down and unzipped his backpack, hunting for ammunition. He had plenty of notebook paper, but the straw on the foil pouch of fruit juice in his lunch would be too small for spitballs; besides, the Vultures had him outgunned four-to-one. He had pens, pencils, a calculator, a USB drive . . . he was striking out.

The green-eyed, Shakespeare-hating girl watched him from under her backpack as a fusillade of spitballs showered down on them. “I’m singing in the rain, just singing in the rain!” she sang, softly.

Jonah unzipped his lunch bag. The Vultures were all standing up or sitting on the backs of their seats now, to get a better angle on Jonah. “You’re not going to help me, are you?” he said to the girl.

She shook her head. “My family is Quaker.”

“Like the oatmeal guy? What does that have to do with it?”

“We don’t fight.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. We just don’t. Why are you taking out your lunch?”

“I’m hungry.” He scanned the contents of his lunch bag. An apple. Chips. Cheese. A ham and cheese sandwich. A foil pouch of fruit juice. It wasn’t much to work with.

And then, just as another spitball hit him, inspiration struck.

Quickly, he took the sandwich out of its plastic bag and shoved it in the lunch box. Next, he inserted the little straw into the pouch and put the end of the straw into the sandwich bag, and carefully began squeezing the juice into the sandwich bag.

It was like his own personal nuclear bomb: eight ounces of sticky juice that would explode everywhere. Even if he didn’t score a direct hit, he couldn’t miss.

The girl had been watching him curiously. Just as he was sealing the bag, her eyes went wide.

“Excuse me,” she said, snatching the sandwich bag out of his hands. “Don’t be stupid.”

“Hey! Give it!” Jonah tried grabbing it back, but she stood up, holding the bag out of his reach. He stood up, too, but she turned and began fiddling with the window latches.

Jonah reached around her and tugged at a corner of the bag.

“Don’t!” she warned. “You’ll get it all over both of us!”

And then she had the window down, and Jonah’s personal weapon of mass destruction was gone.

The boys in the back of the bus were clapping and cheering her on. Jonah dropped down into his seat.

But the girl wasn’t done. She glanced down at her phone, then at Bull Grubinski and his posse.

“You starvelings, you eel-skins, you dried neat’s-tongues! You bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish, you vile standing tuck!”

The back of the bus fell completely silent for a second.

“What?” asked Bull.

“If only you were clean enough to spit upon!” she continued.

“I think she’s trying to insult you,” said one of the boys.

“Shut up, McLacky,” Bull said. He eyed the girl. “Are you trying to insult me?”

“No. I’m insulting you and your friends. I’ve got the Shakespeare insult app right here, see?” She flashed the screen at Bull, then glanced at it again. “Here’s another one: ‘Off and away, you bawling, blasphemous, burping dog!’”

A bunch of kids laughed. Bull just stared at her uncertainly.

“Hey! ‘Your face is not worth sunburning!’” she proclaimed. “Okay, that one doesn’t make any sense. But how about this? ‘You cowardly shadow! Worms have more courage than thee, for they fear not thy grave as you do!”

“Okay, thanks for the English lesson, you can sit down now, weirdo,” Bull sneered. “Hey, you’ve got a spitball in your hair, there. I can come get it out for you if you want.”

“O vile braggart! Your abilities are too infant-like for doing much alone!” She gave Bull a pointed look. “Translated that means you’re a big baby who couldn’t pee his diaper without your friends’ help.”

Even more kids were laughing now. Jonah, who had been red-faced and ready to fight, laughed out loud. A few people clapped.

“Thank you, thank you,” she said. She bowed once, then sat down.

“That was sweet,” Jonah said.

She shrugged. “Now I can say I’ve done Shakespeare. But you owe me one for getting you out of a guaranteed detention.”

Jonah cocked his head toward the back of the bus. He was pretty sure that Grubinski wasn’t going to be embarrassed into submission by Shakespeare insults. If anything, the lop-sided battle of wits between the green-eyed girl and Vulture Boy would drive him to save face on his own terms.

The bus slowed, then squealed to a stop in the shadow of the sprawling complex of concrete and brick buildings that made up James Buchanan Regional High School.

The door slapped open and kids crammed into the aisle. Jonah let the girl go ahead of him while he reassembled the contents of his backpack.

He was halfway down the aisle when he felt a strong hand grip his shoulder and the side of his neck, hard. He could feel Bull’s breath on his cheek.

“It’s a good thing she didn’t let you throw that water bomb,” Bull said casually, his mouth by Jonah’s ear.

“It was a juice bomb, actually,” Jonah corrected, and Bull’s hand squeezed harder, pushing down on Jonah’s shoulder.

“You and your girlfriend hurt my feelings. I think you need to say you’re sorry.”

What an amateur, Jonah thought. If his father had been doing the hurting, he would have used two hands to grab Jonah all the way around the back of his neck, and he would have pulled up until Jonah was on his toes, denying him any leverage for fighting back.

Jonah bowed his head down as far as it would go.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

Then he fell into a crouch, breaking the hold on his neck. He grabbed Bull’s ankles with both of his hands and threw himself forward, jerking Bull off his feet.

“But not that sorry!”

Jonah heard the heavy thud of Bull hitting the floor and the surprised shout of Bull’s friends, but he didn’t pause to look back as he stumbled down the aisle.

As he flashed past the bus driver, the old man lifted a hand in farewell. “Have a good day, now.”

The way things were going, Jonah figured he would settle for mere survival.

 

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 December 11, 2013  Add comments

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