There comes a time in your life when you ask yourself: What genre is this? I mean, you can just kind of go for the bullshit answer of “non-fiction,” but that’s not true, is it?
So, here I am, testing the feel of the new gun in my hand, and I’m thinking, “What’s my genre?” I’m tempted to say action or maybe thriller. I like the idea that everything up to this point has been a tragicomedy—where everyone laughs until they die at end, or hurts until they figure out how to save everyone. I don’t mind the idea that I’m playing out a drama. Maybe even some indie movie with clever dialogue and chop-shop production values.
But no, the reality is far more terrible than all of that.
I load the cartridge.
This is a love story.
It was November, and Moxy had slung her jacket over the railing by the stairs up to the music hall, where she was eating lunch, alone, like usual. I grabbed the jacket and ran down the hall. She came after me, but just walked all slow and kind of calm.
Moxy had that way of staring that hit deep. She gritted her teeth and then her eyes went all soft. That look—I know it now—is how Moxy gets when she’s neck-deep sad about something. Back then, it just felt like an accusation, like what you were doing made her lose some hope in the human race. Like you were that fucked up example scraped from the bottom of the human shit-stack. I hated that look.
The jacket was this puffy brown piece of shit that looked like it had been mostly eaten by God knows what. I thought maybe she just didn’t give a fuck about me taking it, but I wasn’t too pleased that she didn’t react the way I wanted. I did the only thing I could think of: I threw her jacket in the trash and just glared at her, trying my best to be fucking menacing as possible, as she walked the rest of the way toward me. She wasn’t even making eye contact. She just looked at the trash can where I’d thrown her jacket.
I kept pushing. “You put your shit in the wrong place.” I made sure I was standing extra tall, which even back then—me being fifteen and Moxy about a year younger—was a solid five-eight to her five even. I was looking down into the curly brown explosion of frizz on her head that maybe passed for hair in some circles. “It’s rubbish, so I thought I’d trash it for you.” I was real pleased that I’d said something so clever, so when she didn’t respond, I took that as an insult too. “I mean, really, where do you shop? Or do the bums just give you the shit they’re too good for?”
She’d walked the entire way without saying a damn thing, and I just looked her over, trying to look all threatening. There was something about her that just got to me. Her pasty white skin was specked with freckles that would pool together in the ugliest places on her face. Most of the other girls had tits then, but Moxy was a board. She looked awkward as all hell, but she didn’t seem to know how to act it. That’s what really got under my skin.
When she was just a couple feet from the trash, I stepped in her way so she couldn’t get to the jacket. “God, your family must have really broken the bank to buy you those railroads you call braces.” They were these thick braces tied on by orange elastic, so bright it made her look alien when she smiled.
She wasn’t looking at me. She had her head lolled over to the right as she looked off to my left.
“I mean, don’t your family even care about you at all? Wanting you to walk around looking like shit all the time?” She wasn’t saying anything, so I kept going. “Your dad some deadbeat? If he even stuck around?”
And that did it. She snapped her head back up straight, looked at me right eye to eye. That was the first time I noticed, through these triangle-lens bug glasses of hers, how violent green her eyes were. They were like the color cartoons use for acid.
In those violent green eyes, where I expected to see hurt or tears or some shit like that, I just saw this hollow look, like there was nothing left to her.
“Okay, Howard,” she said. Her voice made me stand all on edge. I’d heard her talk a few times, and she would usually go off in either this lazy stroll of a voice, soft and maybe even dainty if it hadn’t been her using it, or a too-sweet voice, like somebody’d poured a vat of sugar into her words. This time, she was a damn stretch from both. Her voice didn’t go up or down, even. Each consonant went harsh, each vowel went short. “Well done. You’ve taken my jacket. It’s worth nothing, like you said, and my family is poor enough that we can’t afford another. I’m ugly and have braces.”
I would have maybe gloated. Maybe I would have felt like I’d won, but the way she talked cut pretty harsh.
She kept going. “But if you think for one second that I would trade this life of mine for yours, for your spiteful, little soul, you’re out of your mind. Now give me my damn jacket.”
I folded my arms. “Ally,”” I said—because that was her name then. Allison Carter. “If you ever try to tell me what to do again, I will lay you flat.”
She shook her head, not like she was mad, just like she was disappointed. She was giving up—on her jacket, on me being any kind of reasonable. She turned and walked away, didn’t say a word. And I just watched her, fuming, until she disappeared down the hall.
I didn’t find out until years later, lying in a hospital bed with Moxy hovering over me, that her dad had died just a couple days before all this. She’d gone to his funeral later that day, but without a coat. The Almanac says the mean temperature was 46.2° in Bloomington. Damn right that’s mean.
Moxy told me at the hospital that her father once worked as the manager of a call center, but he hadn’t been able to go in for about five years. He had M.S., and whatever the worst type is to have, that’s what he got dealt.
“My dad was at the point where he couldn’t dress himself,” she said. “He couldn’t move. He had a wheelchair for a while, but then he couldn’t even use that. He couldn’t talk, except by spelling out words with a blinking system we came up with, or by mumbling through and hoping we could guess what he was saying. He could hardly form thoughts anymore. So I don’t blame him. I would have done the same.”
It was December, about a week off from Christmas break, when I’d taken her jacket. I’m still not sure if Moxy planned her retaliation or if it was impromptu, but the day after I took her jacket, she took mine. Mine was a black leather getup, much more for show than it was for warmth, but still probably a bit nicer than the chewed-up thing she’d been wearing.
She walked right by where I was sitting in the cafeteria, swiped it from the back of my chair, slung it on—graceful as all hell, got it onto her arms so she wore it fit on the first time—and kept on walking. A few people turned, and one of my “friends” laughed at it. That’s what really got me.
I got up and started to chase after Moxy, but she just jaunted on, casually sticking her hands in the pockets of my jacket. When I caught up to her, right by the vending machines in the hall outside the cafeteria, I was ready to flip out. Knowing there was plenty of an audience, though, I just said, “Give me my God damned jacket back.”
“No,” she said.
“I swear, Ally, if you don’t—”
“Let’s not swear,” she said. “You swear too much, Howard. But you know what? I’ve got a better deal. I don’t tell you what to do, and you don’t tell me what to do.”
“Give me my God damned jacket.”
“I think I just said no.”
“Do you really want to make me mad?”
“I’m pretty sure I already have.”
“What the hell—” someone turned at my exclamation, so I quieted down. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Enjoying my new jacket, Howard.”
“I swear, you will regret this.”
“Oh, I might.” She crossed her arms over the front of her chest, her shoulders still back and down. “But I’m done, Howard. If you want to play, I’ll play, but I will by all means be on the field. Just you watch.”
And that moment right there—that’s when Moxy and me became enemies.
True to my word, I got all hell-bent on revenge. It didn’t even cross my mind that I’d taken her jacket first, truth to tell. We were categorically different—she was the girl, and I was the boy. She the freshman, I was the sophomore. So I took her backpack, contents and all, and threw it in the giant dumpster by the back of the school—and planned it so the dump truck was right there, ready to pick it up.
I was expecting her to come running up, intent on saving her things, but she didn’t. I guess all the way I’d run, she hadn’t chased much at all.
And true to her word, Moxy was ready to play the game. The next time I went to my locker, it was completely empty, except for a tiny note:
I think you’ll find this funny.
When you took my backpack, it had only one of my books in it.
Looks like you think the same way I do. It’s smart to keep all your things in the locker, isn’t it? Well, most of the time.
And she was dead on that I’d left most of my stuff in there. While I managed to get my assignments in—copying them from friends right before class—getting my books replaced took a lot more trouble. Steam coming off me, much worse than I had been, I started going for both my most creative and most incredibly cliche ideas to get back at her. I took her lunch, I tripped her in the hall, I filled her new backpack with the dissected remains of frogs.
When I took her lunch, her retaliation was a rumor that I was gay, which apparently got picked up by the football team. Most of them threatened or teased me, but the most disturbing was the gay football player who asked me to dinner. Her told me he understood how hard it was to be out in high school. I think he wanted me to start an LGBT alliance with him at our school, and he seemed to take my raging and screaming as me being in the closet, not me being straight.
But then it seemed like things were getting better. I started getting notes in my locker from a girl I like. Christie. I’d had a crush on her for years. The note instructed me to drop my response letters in a specific spot, under the alcove by the auditorium. I was skeptical (I’m not dumb), but the next time I saw Christie, she smiled at me and waved. The letters went back and forth for a few days, getting more sugar-sweet. We were cuddling with words. And then I got a letter that told me to meet her by the basketball court at lunch. I walked up, only to see Moxy there with a disposable camera in one hand and my love letters in the other. “Smile for the camera,” she said, before snapping a few pictures of me going batshit crazy.
And after I put the dissected frogs in her backpack, she planted alcohol in my locker— which she reported to the school police officer. She was right that she was playing the game, but what I never expected was that she would be so much better at it than I was. Her last move, planting the alcohol, landed me a three day suspension.
When I came back, she walked right up to me in the hall. “How was your break?”
“You little bitch.”
“What?” She sounded honestly shocked.
“I can’t fucking believe you. I swear, if we were alone now, I would put you in the hospital.”
“Are you threatening to hurt me?” Again, her voice dripped with surprise.
“You better believe it. Not just hurt you. Put you away. Seriously, seriously away. Like, six feet away.”
Then her voice went all hush. “Good,” she said. “That’s all I needed to know.”
She pivoted and moved down the hall, fast. I could tell she was scared, gritted my teeth in a grim satisfaction. Somehow, in my head, I thought I was winning. That feeling faded fast.
I was in my math class later that day when the school’s principal showed up. The principal was a medium-plump man, balding gray and with skeletally narrow cheeks. This man, Principal Wirscht, walked to my teacher, had a whispered, brief conversation, and then my math teacher said, “Howard?” She nodded for me to come to the front of the class.
I walked up, and soon as I got there, Wirscht said, “You may want to get your things.”
I felt my face do a spasm around the lips, like my animal instincts wanted me to start gnashing my terrible teeth or hiss at the guy. Because, see—I’d played out this scene before.
I shoved my book and folder into my backpack, fully aware of how everyone was staring at me—making only the most thinly hidden attempts to hide it. I marched back up to Wirscht, who motioned politely to the door. Outside was the school’s police officer, who didn’t even look at me. He had his hands clasped in front of him, and as I followed Wirscht down the hall, this school cop just stalked behind me.
Yeah. I’d played out this scene before. I knew what came next.
The first one was with Principal Wirscht, with this school cop standing there like an obelisk, like an ancient god trying to tower over everything.
“Do you know why we’re talking today, Sean?” he said.
“I thought I made this clear last time,” I said. “My name’s Howard.”
“Howard,” I said, looking up at him, feeling all dead in my face and eyes.
“Fine.” He raised his hands, palms toward me, like a surrender. “Fine. Howard. Do you know why we’re talking today?”
My teeth were tight against each other, so tight my jaw hurt. I shook my head.
“Very well,” said Wirscht. “You’re here because it’s been reported that you have repeatedly attacked and threatened one of your classmates. And that you even implied a death threat.”
“What the hell?” I said, trying to look offended and confused. Mostly I think my eyes just narrowed. “Who’s saying that?”
He breathed heavily from his gray-hair-infested nostrils. “I think you know perfectly well who’s saying those things.”
“Who, Ally?” I said, looking straight up at Wirscht. “That girl hates me. She’d say anything to try to get me in trouble. Like I said, she was the one who planted the bottle of—”
“I haven’t forgotten your claims, Sh—Howard. And as I promised you before, we take any such accusations very seriously. And we’re looking into them. Regardless of any such provocation, your behavior is neither justified nor excused.”
“But you don’t have any proof,” I said. “Anyone could make up shit like this.”
“I’m afraid, Howard, that’s not exactly right,” said Principal Wirscht. He nodded to the cop, and the cop set a manila folder in front of me. “Go ahead,” said Wirscht.
I opened it. Inside were the pictures Moxy had snapped with her disposable after she set me up with the fake love letters. “This is bullshit,” I said. “Ally knew what she was doing. She forged messa—she fucking forged letters to get me to—”
“You will watch your language, young man.”
“Well, you’re clearly not listening,” I said, shutting the folder briskly and shoving it across the desk toward Wirscht. “Have to get your attention somehow. And this isn’t proof. She set me up.”
“That’s not the only thing, Sean. Howard. Excuse me.” Wirscht reached to a tape recorder on the desk that must have been sitting there the entire time. Just hit the play button. There was a crackle of static, the sound of footsteps, then:
How was your break?
You little bitch.
I can’t fucking believe you. I swear, if we were alone now, I would put you—
“Okay, fine, enough,” I said. “Just turn it off.” Hearing that discussion again got me all hot under the skin. Wirscht hit the stop button. “Look, you don’t understand,” I said. “She’d planted that bottle of booze in my locker. She’d planted stuff before, too. She fucking—look, she stole from me. She stole everything from my locker. You can—you can check. I replaced my books back in January, because she’d taken them. Then she came up to taunt me. She was trying to get a reaction out of me.”
“Well,” said Principal Wirscht calmly. “I guess she succeeded.”
“I’m not concerned with your motives, Howard.” He had his hands together with the fingers interlaced, except his pointer fingers which were up and touching, like a little steeple. “What I’m concerned with is the safety of my students. For that reason, I’m sure you understand why your continued attendance at this school will not be possible.”
I just closed my eyes and gave a single grunt of a laugh. “The girl doesn’t even have the courage to come in here and face me herself. Tell the whole truth,” I said.
“Actually,” said Wirscht, “she specifically requested that she be present. It was my choice, given the nature of the situation and your history of unpredictable behavior, to restrict that.”
My mouth was filling with hot saliva. Maybe my body was trying to go all serpentine, spit acid or poison or blood. A part of me wanted to snarl. Show him just how unpredictable I could be.
“Your parents, of course,” continued Wirscht, “have been informed. As I understand it, they’re ready to take you home now. Officer Kent will escort you to your locker, following which time you’ll be taken to meet your parents.”
“What, you don’t need me to sign anything?” I said.
“No,” he said. “We can manage.”
“Hmph.” I got up, grabbed my backpack, then walked to the door. The school cop was right behind me. “Oh, and just so you know.” I turned back toward him. “They’re not my fucking parents. And it’s not my fucking home.”
Meeting number two was Kate and James Dalton, me, and Lori. Lori was my social worker. Kate and James were just another beautifully painted train car in a damn long trainwreck.
Lori, she was quite the looker. Brown hair, straight and long, down to half down her back. Always wore this sort of sundress in the spring, blue and green, falling just a couple inches above her knees. I had plenty of fantasies about that woman. They all started the same way. She would say, “Howard, I think you need to talk to someone.” Because she was always saying that to me, and volunteering. “Do you want to talk to me?” In real life, hell no I didn’t. And in my fantasies? No, there wasn’t any talking.
Anyway, Lori was sitting there, cross-legged, wearing that sundress, and she said, “Howard, I understand you’ve had another fairly major problem at school.”
“Yep,” I said.
“As I’m sure you can understand, the nature of the violence—and the threats of violence—are concerning to Mr and Mrs Dalton.” She spoke in this soothing, near-whisper voice.
“Yep,” I said.
“I’m really sorry about this, Howard, but the Daltons and I have discussed—well, there’s been an agreement that their home is not the ideal environment for you.”
“Yep,” I said.
“Howard, please listen. Mr and Mrs Dalton care very much about you, and would like you to be happy. But with your history of violence, as well as your … you understand, that the way you behave at home has raised some red flags for the Daltons.”
I said nothing.
“Howard,” Lori repeated, more pleadingly, trying to solicit a response, any kind of response, I guess. She put a hand on me knee, but I stayed still as I could manage. After a moment of hesitation, she pulled her hand away.
I looked at Kate and James. “I understand this is concerning to the Daltons. I understand why the Daltons don’t want me around.”
“It’s not that,” said James. He was a man with a black beard and a rough face, but who talked like the middle-class liberal he was. “Howard, what about Stacey?” Stacey was their daughter, their real daughter, and she was nine.
“What about Stacey?” I said it almost like I was echoing him. I was starting to feel numb. My voice sounded toneless.
“I think what the Daltons are trying to say is that they’re concerned for the welfare of—”
“Of Stacey,” I said, still monotone. “Yeah, I got that.”
“The good news,” said Lori, “is that we’ve found what we feel will be a very good home for you, and they live quite close to your new school.”
I let my face hover down, my fists resting right below my temples on either side. I was just listening. Just listening. Lori talked for a bit about the details of the shift, and paperwork, and the new family—the Pruitts—and how they had no other kids, just a dog. She built to the normal climax.
“You’ll be moving there gradually over the course of the next two weeks.”
“Yep,” I said.
I’d played out this scene before. At least this time the “parents” had the decency to sit in the same room with me. Before they sent me away.
Meeting three was Principal Dennis Williams of Freedom High.
“Well, Sean,” said Principal Williams. “We understand you’re in the middle of quite a transition. We hope to make that transition positive. We believe that your presence here will be healthy for you.”
“My name’s not Sean,” I said.
Williams smirked. “Sean McAvoy. It’s your legal name, and until such a time as you’re called something else in the books of law, it’s what you’ll be called here.”
“My name isn’t Sean.”
“I don’t really feel like repeating myself, Sean. I’m aware you’ve gone by other names in other schools, but here you will use your real name.”
“My real name is Tyler,” I said.
“Your name is Sean.”
“You don’t fucking listen, do you?”
Williams stood up and slammed a textbook against his desk. Got me bolt upright for a second. “In this school, Sean, you won’t use that kind of language.”
This story was written in Spring of 2012. The story is currently undergoing revisions and will be published as a novel (Spitt and Moxy) in early 2013.