“Because we all have to die someday. I just want to be prepared.” This isn’t the reason, of course, but it will be enough for him. The truth is, there are a lot of reasons, most of which change daily, like the thirteen fourth graders killed earlier this week when some SOB opened fire in their school gym, or the girl two years behind me who just died of cancer, or the man I saw outside the Mall Cinema kicking his dog, or my father.
Charlie may think it, but at least he doesn’t say “Weirdo,” which is why he’s my best friend. Other than the fact that I appreciate this about him, we don’t have much in common.
Technically, I’m on probation this year. This is due to a small matter involving a desk and a chalkboard. (For the record, replacing a chalkboard is more expensive than you might think.) It’s also due to a guitar-smashing incident during assembly, an illegal use of fireworks, and maybe a fight or two. As a result, I’ve agreed involuntarily to the following: weekly counseling; maintaining a high B average; and participation in at least one extracurricular. I chose macramé because I’m the only guy with twenty semihot girls, which I thought was pretty good odds for me. I also have to behave myself, play well with others, refrain from throwing desks, as well as refrain from any “violent physical altercations.” And I must always, always, whatever I do, hold my tongue, because not doing so, apparently, is how trouble starts. If I f— anything up from here on out, it’s expulsion for me.
Inside the counseling office, I check in with the secretary and take a seat in one of the hard wooden chairs until Mr. Embry is ready for me. If I know Embryo—as I call him to myself—like I know Embryo, he’ll want to know just what the hell I was doing in the bell tower. If I’m lucky, we won’t have time to cover much more than that.
In a few minutes he waves me in, a short, thick man built like a bull. As he shuts the door, he drops the smile. He sits down, hunches over his desk, and fixes his eyes on me like I’m a suspect he needs to crack. “What in the hell were you doing in the bell tower?”
The thing I like about Embryo is that not only is he predictable, he gets to the point. I’ve known him since sophomore year.
“I wanted to see the view.”
“Were you planning to jump off?”
“Not on pizza day. Never on pizza day, which is one of the better days of the week.” I should mention that I am a brilliant deflector. So brilliant that I could get a full scholarship to college and major in it, except why bother? I’ve already mastered the art.
I wait for him to ask about Violet, but instead he says, “I need to know if you were or are planning to harm yourself. I am g*****n serious. If Principal Wertz hears about this, you’re gone before you can say ‘suspended,’ or worse. Not to mention if I don’t pay attention and you decide to go back up there and jump off, I’m looking at a lawsuit, and on the salary they pay me, believe me when I say I do not have the money to be sued. This holds true whether you jump off the bell tower or the Purina Tower, whether it’s school property or not.”
I stroke my chin like I’m deep in thought. “The Purina Tower. Now there’s an idea.”
He doesn’t budge except to squint at me. Like most people in the Midwest, Embryo doesn’t believe in humor, especially when it pertains to sensitive subjects. “Not funny, Mr. Finch. This is not a joking matter.”
“No, sir. Sorry.”
“The thing suicides don’t focus on is their wake. Not just your parents and siblings, but your friends, your girlfriends, your classmates, your teachers.” I like the way he seems to think I have many, many people depending on me, including not just one but multiple girlfriends.
“I was just messing around. I agree it was probably not the best way to spend first period.”
He picks up a file and thumps it down in front of him and starts flipping through it. I wait as he reads, and then he looks at me again. I wonder if he’s counting the days till summer.
He stands, just like a cop on TV, and walks around his desk until he’s looming over me. He leans against it, arms folded, and I look past him, searching for the hidden two-way mirror.
“Do I need to call your mother?”
“No. And again no.” And again: no no no. “Look, it was a stupid thing to do. I just wanted to see what it felt like to stand there and look down. I would never jump from the bell tower.”
“If it happens again, if you so much as think about it again, I call her. And you’re going to do a drug test.”
“I appreciate your concern, sir.” I try to sound my most sincere, because the last thing I want is a bigger, brighter spotlight directed at me, following me throughout the halls of school, throughout the other parts of my life, such as they are. And the thing is, I actually like Embryo. “As for the whole drug thing, there’s no need to waste precious time. Really. Unless cigarettes count. Drugs and me? Not a good mix. Believe me, I’ve tried.” I fold my hands like a good boy. “As for the whole bell tower thing, even though it wasn’t at all what you think, I can still promise that it won’t happen again.”
“That’s right—it won’t. I want you here twice a week instead of once. You come in Monday and Friday and talk to me, just so I can see how you’re doing.”
“I’m happy to, sir—I mean, I, like, really enjoy these conversations of ours—but I’m good.”
“It’s nonnegotiable. Now let’s discuss the end of last semester. You missed four, almost five, weeks of school. Your mother says you were sick with the flu.”
He’s actually talking about my sister Kate, but he doesn’t know that. She was the one who called the school while I was out, because Mom has enough to worry about.
“If that’s what she says, who are we to argue?”
The fact is, I was sick, but not in an easily explained flu kind of way. It’s my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other recognizable disease just to make it simple for me and also for them. Anything would be better than the truth: I shut down again. I went blank. One minute I was spinning, and the next minute my mind was dragging itself around in a circle, like an old, arthritic dog trying to lie down. And then I just turned off and went to sleep, but not sleep in the way you do every night. Think a long, dark sleep where you don’t dream at all.