I raise my hand again. “Can we choose our partners?”
“I choose Violet Markey.”
“You may work that out … with her after class.”
I shift in my seat so I can see her, elbow on the back of my chair. “Violet Markey, I’d like to be your partner on this project.”
Her face turns pink as everyone looks at her. Violet says to Mr. Black, “I thought if there was something else I could do—maybe research and write a short report.” Her voice is low, but she sounds a little pissed. “I’m not ready to …”
He interrupts her. “Miss Markey, I’m going … to do you the biggest … favor of your life.… I’m going to say … no.”
“No. It is a new year.… It is time to get … back on the camel.”
A few people laugh at this. Violet looks at me and I can see that, yes, she is pissed, and it’s then I remember the accident. Violet and her sister, sometime last spring. Violet lived, the sister died. This is why she doesn’t want attention.
The rest of class time is spent telling us about places Mr. Black thinks we might enjoy and that, no matter what, we must see before we graduate—the usual humdrum tourist spots like Conner Prairie, the Levi Coffin House, the Lincoln Museum, and James Whitcomb Riley’s boyhood home—even though I know that most of us will stay right here in this town until we die.
I try to catch Violet’s eye again, but she doesn’t look up. Instead, she shrinks low in her seat and stares straight ahead.
Outside of class, Gabe Romero blocks my way. As usual, he’s not alone. Amanda Monk waits just behind, hip jutted out, Joe Wyatt and Ryan Cross on either side of her. Good, easygoing, decent, nice-guy Ryan, athlete, A student, vice president of the class. The worst thing about him is that since kindergarten he’s known exactly who he is.
Roamer says, “I better not catch you looking at me again.”
“I wasn’t looking at you. Believe me, there are at least a hundred other things in that room I’d look at before you, including Mr. Black’s large, naked a*s.”
Because Roamer and I have been sworn enemies since middle school, he shoves the books out of my hands, and even though this is right out of Fifth-Grade Bullying 101, I feel a familiar black grenade of anger—like an old friend—go off in my stomach, the thick, toxic smoke from it rising up and spreading through my chest. It’s the same feeling I had last year in that instant before I picked up a desk and hurled it—not at Roamer, like he wants everyone to believe, but at the chalkboard in Mr. Geary’s room.
“Pick ’em up, b***h.” Roamer walks past me, knocking me in the chest—hard—with his shoulder. I want to slam his head into a locker and then reach down his throat and pull his heart out through his mouth, because the thing about being Awake is that everything in you is alive and aching and making up for lost time.
But instead I count all the way to sixty, a stupid smile plastered on my stupid face. I will not get detention. I will not get expelled. I will be good. I will be quiet. I will be still.
Mr. Black watches from the doorway, and I try to give him a casual nod to show him everything’s cool, everything’s under control, everything’s fine, nothing to see, palms aren’t itching, skin isn’t burning, blood isn’t pumping, please move along. I’ve made a promise to myself that this year will be different. If I keep ahead of everything, and that includes me, I should be able to stay awake and here, and not just semi-here but here as in present as in now.
The rain has stopped, and in the parking lot Charlie Donahue and I lean against his car under the washed-out January sun as he talks about the thing he most loves talking about other than himself—sex. Our friend Brenda stands listening, books clutched against her broad, broad chest, hair shining pink and red.
Charlie spent winter break working at the Mall Cinema, where he apparently let all the hot girls sneak in without paying. This got him more action than even he knew what to do with, mostly in the handicapped row in the back, the one missing armrests.
He nods at me. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Where were you?”
“Around. I didn’t feel like coming to school, so I hit the interstate and didn’t look back.” There’s no way of explaining the Asleep to my friends, and even if there was, there’s no need. One of the things I like best about Charlie and Bren is that I don’t have to explain myself. I come, I go, and Oh well, it’s just Finch.
Charlie nods again. “What we need to do is get you laid.” It’s an indirect reference to the bell tower incident. If I get laid, I won’t try to kill myself. According to Charlie, getting laid fixes everything. If only world leaders would get laid well and regularly, the world’s problems might disappear.
Brenda frowns at him. “You’re a pig, Charlie.”
“You love me.”
“You wish I’d love you. Why don’t you be more like Finch? He’s a gentleman.” There aren’t many people who would say this about me, but the great thing about this life of ours is that you can be someone different to everybody.
I say, “You can leave me out of it.”
Bren shakes her head. “No, I’m serious. Gentlemen are rare. They’re like virgins or leprechauns. If I ever get married, I’m going to marry one.”
I can’t resist saying, “A virgin or a leprechaun?” She slugs me in the arm.
“There’s a difference between a gentleman and a guy with no play.” Charlie nods at me. “No offense, man.”
“None taken.” It’s true, after all, at least compared to him, and actually what he means is that I have bad luck with women. Something about going for the bitchy ones or the crazy ones or the ones who pretend not to know me when other people are around.
Anyway, I’m barely listening, because over Bren’s shoulder I see her again—Violet. I can already feel myself falling hard, something I’ve been known to do. (Suze Haines, Laila Collman, Annalise Lemke, the three Brianas—Briana Harley, Briana Bailey, Briana Boudreau …) All because she smiled at me. But it was a damn good smile. A genuine one, which is hard to come by these days. Especially when you’re me, Theodore Freak, Resident Aberration.
Bren turns around to see what I’m looking at. She shakes her head at me, her mouth all smirked up in a way that makes me protect my arm. “God, you guys are all the same.”