For a second, I can’t remember what he’s talking about. Then, too late, I start nodding. “That’s right. He did. I meant before he died.”
He is frowning at me, but instead of calling me a liar, he says, “I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with this in your life.”
I want to bawl, but I tell myself: Disguise the pain. Don’t call attention. Don’t be noticed. So with every last ounce of energy—energy that will cost me a week, maybe more—I say, “He does the best he can. I mean he did. When he was alive. The best sucks, but at the end of the day, it’s got more to do with him than me. And I mean, let’s face it, who couldn’t love me?”
As I sit across from him, telling my face to smile, my mind recites the suicide note of Vladimir Mayakovski, poet of the Russian Revolution, who shot himself at the age of thirty-six:
My beloved boat
is broken on the rocks of daily life.
I’ve paid my debts
and no longer need to count
pains I’ve suffered at the hands of others.
The misfortunes and the insults.
Good luck to those who remain.
And suddenly Embryo is hunched over his desk staring at me with what could only be called alarm. Which means I must have said this out loud without meaning to.
His voice takes on the slow, deliberate tone of a man talking someone off a ledge. “Were you in the bell tower again today?”
“Jesus, do you guys have, like, security cameras up there?”
“Yes, sir. But I was reading. Or trying to. I needed to clear my mind, and I couldn’t do it down below with all the noise.”
“Finch, I hope you know I’m your friend, and that means I want to help you. But this is also a legal matter, and I have an obligation.”
“I’m fine. Believe me, if I decide to kill myself, you’ll be the first to know. I’ll save you a front-row seat, or at least wait till you’ve got more money for the lawsuit.”
Note to self: Suicide is not a laughing matter, particularly for authority figures who are in any way responsible for you.
I rein myself in. “Sorry. Bad taste. But I’m fine. Really.”
“What do you know about bipolar disorder?”
I almost say, What do you know about it? But I make myself breathe and smile. “Is that the Jekyll-Hyde thing?” My voice sounds flat and even. Maybe a little bored, even though my mind and body are on alert.
“Some people call it manic depression. It’s a brain disorder that causes extreme shifts in mood and energy. It runs in families, but it can be treated.”
I continue to breathe, even if I’m not smiling anymore, but here is what is happening: my brain and my heart are pounding out different rhythms; my hands are turning cold and the back of my neck is turning hot; my throat has gone completely dry. The thing I know about bipolar disorder is that it’s a label. One you give crazy people. I know this because I’ve taken junior-year psychology and I’ve seen movies and I’ve watched my father in action for almost eighteen years, even though you could never slap a label on him because he would kill you. Labels like “bipolar” say This is why you are the way you are. This is who you are. They explain people away as illnesses.
Embryo is talking about symptoms and hypomania and psychotic episodes when the bell rings. I stand more abruptly than I mean to, which sends my chair clattering into the wall and onto the floor. If I’m suspended above the room, looking down, I can see how this would be mistaken for a violent act, especially as large as I am. Before I can tell him it was an accident, he is on his feet.
I hold up my hands in a gesture of surrender, and then hold out my hand—an olive branch. It takes him a good minute or two, but he shakes it. Instead of letting go, he jerks my arm forward so we are almost nose to nose—or, given our height difference, nose to chin—and says, “You are not alone.” Before I can tell him, Actually I am, which is part of the problem; we are all alone, trapped in these bodies and our own minds, and whatever company we have in this life is only fleeting and superficial, he tightens his grip until I worry my arm will snap off. “And we are not done discussing this.”
The next morning, after gym, Roamer walks by and says, “Freak,” under his breath. There are still a lot of guys milling around, but I don’t care. To be more accurate, I don’t think. It just happens.
In a flash, I have him up against the locker, my hands around his throat, and I’m choking him until he turns purple. Charlie is behind me, trying to pull me off, and then Kappel is there with his bat. I keep going, because now I’m fascinated by the way Roamer’s veins are throbbing, and the way his head looks like a lightbulb, all lit up and too bright.
It takes four of them to get me off him because my fist is like iron. I’m thinking: You put me here. You did this. It’s your fault, your fault, your fault.
Roamer drops to the floor, and as I’m being dragged away, I lock eyes with him and say, “You will never call me that again.”
My phone buzzes after third period, and it’s Finch. He tells me he’s waiting outside, near the river. He wants to drive down south to Evansville to see the Nest Houses, which are these huts woven out of saplings that were created by an Indiana artist. They’re literally like birds’ nests for humans, with windows and doors. Finch wants to see if there’s anything left of them. While we’re down there, we can cross the Kentucky border and take pictures of ourselves, one foot in Kentucky, one in Indiana.
I say, “Doesn’t the Ohio River run the entire border? So we’d have to stand on a bridge—”
But he keeps right on like he doesn’t hear me. “As a matter of fact, we should do this with Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio.”
“Why aren’t you on your way to class?” I’m wearing one of his flowers in my hair.
“I got expelled. Just come out here.”
“Let’s go. I’m wasting gas and daylight.”
“It’s four hours to Evansville, Finch. By the time we get there, it’ll be dark.”
“Not if we leave now. Come on, come on, get on out here. We can sleep there.” He is talking too fast, as if everything depends on us looking at nest houses. When I ask him what happened, he just says he’ll tell me later, but he needs to go now, as soon as possible.
“It’s a Tuesday in winter. We’re not sleeping in a nest house. We can go Saturday. If you wait for me after school, we can go somewhere a little closer than the Indiana-Kentucky border.”