“Did you hit that yet, or what?”
“My friend, you are a total and complete pig. And I’m just having a good time.”
“Obviously not too good a time.”
Roamer comes up to bat, which means we have to pay attention, because not only is he the school’s star baseball player (second only to Ryan Cross), he likes to aim right at us. If it wouldn’t get him in trouble, he’d probably come over here now and smash my head in with the bat for nearly drowning him.
Sure enough, the ball comes flying at us, and, cigarette between his teeth, Charlie steps backward once, twice, once more, as if he’s not in any hurry, as if he knows he’s got this. He holds out his glove and the ball falls right into it. Roamer yells about fifteen hundred expletives as Charlie sends it flying right back.
I nod over at Mr. Kappel, our teacher, who also happens to be the baseball coach. “You do know that every time you do that, you make him die just a little.”
“Kappy or Roamer?”
He flashes me a rare grin. “I do.”
In the locker room, Roamer corners me. Charlie is gone. Kappel is in his office. The guys who haven’t left yet fade away into the background, like they’re trying to go invisible. Roamer leans in so close, I can smell the eggs he had for breakfast. “You’re dead, freak.”
Much as I would love to kick the s**t out of Gabe Romero, I’m not going to. 1) Because he’s not worth getting into trouble for. And 2) because I remember the look on Violet’s face at the river when she told me to let him go.
So I count. One, two, three, four, five …
I will hold it in. I won’t punch him in the face.
I will be good.
And then he slams me into the locker and, before I can even blink, punches me in the eye, and then again in the nose. It’s all I can do to stay on my feet, and I am counting like hell now because I want to kill the son of a b***h.
I wonder, if I count long enough, whether I can go back in time, all the way to the beginning of eighth grade, before I was weird and before anyone noticed me and before I opened my mouth and talked to Roamer and before they called me “freak” and I was awake all the time and everything felt okay and somewhat normal, whatever normal is, and people actually looked at me—not to stare, not to watch for what I’d do next, but looked at me like, Oh hey, what’s up, man, what’s up, buddy? I wonder, if I count backward, whether I can go back and take Violet Markey with me and then move forward with her so we have more time. Because it’s time I fear.
I’m afraid of me.
“Is there a problem here?” Kappel stands a couple of feet away, eyeing us. He’s got a baseball bat in his hand, and I can hear him at home telling the wife, “The trouble isn’t the freshmen. It’s the older ones, once they start working out and hitting those growth spurts. That’s when you gotta protect yourself, no matter what.”
“No problem,” I tell him. “No trouble.”
If I know Kappel like I know Kappel, he’s never going to take this to Principal Wertz, not when one of his best baseball players is involved. I wait to get blamed for it. I’m all set to hear the details of my detention or expulsion, even if I’m the only one bleeding. But then Kappy says, “We’re done here, Finch. You can go.”
I wipe the blood off and smile at Roamer as I walk away.
“Not so fast, Romero,” I hear Kappy bark, and the sound of Roamer groveling almost makes the pain worth it.
I stop at my locker to get my books, and sitting on top of them is what looks like the Hoosier Hill rock. I pick it up, flip it over, and sure enough: Your turn, it says.
“What’s that?” Brenda wants to know. She takes it out of my hand and examines it. “I don’t get it. ‘Your turn’? Your turn for what?”
“It’s a private joke. Only the really sexy, really cool people know what it means.”
She punches my arm. “Then you must have no clue. What happened to your eye?”
“Your boyfriend. Roamer?”
She makes a face. “I never liked him.”
“Shut up. I hope you broke his nose.”
“I’m trying to rise above.”
“Wuss.” She walks with me, chatting away: Are you totally into Violet Markey, like the forever kind or the she’s-interesting-for-right-now kind? What about Suze Haines? Didn’t you used to have a thing for her? What about the three Brianas and those macramé girls? What would you do if Emma Watson fell from the sky right now? Would you even want to feel her up or would you tell her to leave you alone? Do you think my hair would look better purple or blue? Do you think I need to lose weight? Be honest. Do you think any guy will ever have sex with me or love me for who I am?
I answer, “Right,” “I don’t think so,” “Of course,” “You never can tell,” and all the while I’m thinking about Violet Markey, lock picker.
Mrs. Kresney folds her hands and smiles her too-broad smile. “How are you, Violet?”
“I’m fine, and you?”
“I’m fine. Let’s talk about you. I want to know how you’re feeling.”
“I’m good actually. Better than I’ve been in a long time.”
“Really?” She’s surprised.
“Yes. I’ve even started writing again. And riding in a car.”
“How are you sleeping?”
“Pretty well, I think.”
“Any bad dreams?”
“Not even one?”
“Not in a while now.”
For the first time, it’s the truth.
* * *
In Russian lit, Mrs. Mahone assigns us a five-page paper on Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. She looks at me, and I don’t mention anything about Extenuating Circumstances or not being ready. I copy down the notes like everyone else. Afterward, Ryan says, “Can I talk to you?”
Mrs. Mahone watches as I walk on by her. I give her a wave. “What’s up?” I say to Ryan.
We go out into the hallway and are swept along with the sea of people. Ryan takes my hand so he doesn’t lose me, and I’m like, Oh God. But then there’s a little break in the crowd and he lets go. “Where are you headed next?”
We walk together, and Ryan says, “So I just wanted to let you know that I asked Suze out. I thought you should hear it from me before it got all over school.”