Cary's third day at school was, if anything, worse than the first. His fifth period class, just after lunch, was Gym. The day before there had been no teacher and the class had been introduced to the school's principal, a brusque, thickset, blowsy, redheaded woman named Beverly Jenson. Principal Jenson was back the second day; the thin-rimmed glasses she wore, with tiny linked chains which ran from the frames in a loop behind her neck, hanging above her fluffy blouse. She was pink faced, despite her age and assortment of wrinkles. Cary, sat in the bleachers staring at the floor beneath. He hardly registered her words. He was quite surprised to see a different person with the principal the next day.
A very short man with crisply shaved hair and tiny, hardened brown eyes stood before the assembled teens. Principal Jenson glanced nervously at the man, shrugged and left. He wore very short gray shorts with a noticeable bulge in the shape of a can of chewing tobacco in the front pocket. Another noticeable bulge pushed against his lower jaw, just above his chin, giving him the look of a person about to follow his thrust-out chin into a silent movie fight.
“Let's get this straight, children.” the man barked, much like a drill instructor. “This class is for YOUR health. Not MINE! I am in perfect shape.” The man flexed his muscles. Though he was small, an inch or so shorter than Cary even, he was muscled to the point of absurdity, everywhere but his extremely narrow ankles and calves. “As such, everyone in this class will dress out EVERYDAY. PERIOD. NO EXCUSES! And everyone will PARTICIPATE!” The man pulled an empty water bottle out of his back pocket, opened the plastic screw cap and spit something into it. The wet, squelching sound made Cary's stomach rumble dangerously. Several other kids winced.
“My name is Coach Mandy.” Some kids snickered at Mandy's name. Mandy clearly could not see where the snicker had come from, so he settled for glaring at them all. “You runts will address me as Coach Mandy.” He waved his arm towards a set of doors in the back of the gym. “Now go get dressed out!”
Cary didn't move when everyone else filed obediently out. No one seemed excited, yet Cary went cold with fear like what he used to feel around Bird and Lana, he looked around furtively to see if anyone else was remaining still. No one.
As Cary neither got up to dress out nor raised his head, Coach Mandy sauntered up and stood before him, hands firmly planted just above his hips. “And what ARE YOU WAITING FOR BOY?” Coach Mandy said. Spittle flew from his mouth and a brown glop landed at Cary's feet. Cary gagged and shivered simultaneously. A hundred responses floated into Cary's mind but he could not get any of them out. Coach Mandy jumped on to the bleachers and ascended the several steps between himself and Cary until he loomed, despite his short stature, over a seated Cary.
“Are you deaf, boy? Everyone dresses out in my class! I don't care if you're missing a pinky-toe to go along with pigeon chest! You WILL DRESS OUT! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
Cary continue to shiver as Coach Mandy hollered, but he neither looked up nor moved. Distantly, a voice in his head chattered warningly, but it was just one of the multitude. Cary could not make out the words in his own thoughts. Taking a different tack, Coach Mandy leaned down so his square-face and bulging chin were horrible inches from Cary's own face. He spoke in a strained whisper, his face flooded with red, the bulge under his lower lip quivering. “Or are you some namby-pamby panty waste?” When Cary said nothing Coach Mandy chuckled. “Well, between you and me, I think you are and I've got nothing for you, nelly. So either get your girly ass in the locker room or I'm going to drag you by your ear myself.”
Cary shook and could not stop. Coach Mandy's words rang through his head, bounced around, were magnified until it was as if those words were shouting at Cary from within his own head. He put his hands to his ears and shivered harder. Coach Mandy laughed, an echoing, distant sound, and forcibly pulled Cary's left hand away from his head. Cary let out a pained yelp as Coach Mandy pulled him upright by an ear. He was still shaking, shivering. They made their way down the bleachers and towards the locker room door, Cary trying very hard not to fall or stub his toes on the wood of the bleachers. At the locker-room Coach Mandy opened the door with his free hand and all but tossed Cary bodily into the room. Cary stumbled and fell to his knees inside. In front of him were about twenty boys in the process of changing, most shirtless.
Once he had gotten to his feet Cary blushed furiously and looked away, wrapped his arms around his chest and rocked on his heels. The laughing started right after. Cary got to his feet and with his head resolutely down made his way towards the back of the musty room, where there were far less rowdy boys. He sat on a bench and stared at the floor, trying to catch his breath.
Slowly, the laughing wore down and the others got dressed in their white t-shirts emblazoned with the Happy Endings Comet on it and the accompanying dark blue shorts underneath, leaving Cary be. When the entire room was gone and Cary heard no noise, save the turn of the air-conditioning fan, he pulled out the clothes the Principal had issued him the day before. Nervous the whole while as he changed; carefully folded his own clothes and placed them into his backpack. When he was done he went out of the room, slipped out of the door and slid along the wall, head down, hoped not to be seen.
He was seen.
“YOU.” Coach Mandy hollered in his direction. Cary stopped, just about to slip underneath the bleachers. “GET OVER HERE.”
Cary didn't move. Coach Mandy sauntered over and stood, lip quivering with tobacco rage, before Cary. “Do I have to... convince... you, AGAIN?”
He moved, towards the large basketball court, Cary's path followed a tattered piece of colored tape on the floor. Coach Mandy had split the boys into two groups, one of which had their t-shirts off. Coach Mandy smiled evilly at Cary and said, “Over there with the Skins.” Cary didn't want to understand.
Don't move. Ignore him. He'll disappear. Go away, please. HELP!
Coach Mandy shoved him in their direction and Cary moved over to the group of feet nearest him. When he neither looked up, nor removed his shirt Coach Mandy lost it.
“Do you all see this waste of a boy?” Coach Mandy leered inches in front of Cary. "Afraid to take his shirt off! Afraid to look me in the eye! I guess we all know WHAT THAT MEANS?” Coach Mandy paused as if waiting. Weak laughter from the assembled boys. Cary shook gently, arms crossing over his chest again. His eyes traced patterns on the floor as his mind wandered away, disconnected.
This floor needs to be replaced...the wood is all chipped....and all the painted lines are cracking....I wonder what makes paint crack...is it air or wetness from shoes....and does pressure make it worse..all those feet slamming onto...
Cary did not look up or react beyond shaking. Coach Mandy moved closer until tip of his nose was pressing right against the top of Cary's head. “Are you SLOW or something?”
“What ARE you doing?” came a man's deep, querulous voice.
Cary looked up.
I know that voice....
The Physics teacher, Mr. Clearing, Cary's friend, had come into the Gym with an armload of papers. His glasses were askew, hanging off his nose and his beard had bits of breakfast in it, he looked lost, confused as if he could not quite understand how he had ended up in the Gym with his papers. Cary saw Coach Mandy's eyes narrow and he knew Clearing was exactly the kind of man who would irritate Coach Mandy beyond reason: fat, a bit sloppy, distracted, and worst of all: bookish.
Coach Mandy seemed to forget Cary as he glared at Clearing. Clearing reached them, his eyes ablaze, the papers in his arms making a gentle rustling sound as he shook.
“Surely we don't talk to students in that manner?” Clearing said, confused and irritated. Coach Mandy bristled.
“Maybe not in your wishy-washy classes, man, but this is my Gym and I do what I have to in order to get these kids in shape! Don't you know fully one-third of American kids are obese?”
Coach Mandy eyed Clearing up and down. Clearing harrumphed. “Be that as it may, sir, I don't think you should be calling any of them slow or allowing the others to laugh at him.”
Clearing whisper-shouted and leaned in close to Coach Mandy, so Cary was the only kid who heard what was said. Cary was thankful for that, as he knew having a teacher back him up would have only made the other kids dislike him more. Coach Mandy pulled out his water bottle and with rather exaggerated slowness spit a huge gob of tobacco juice into it. He never stopped eying Clearing. Clearing shuffled the papers in his arms and pushed his glasses up his nose, he also stood up straighter, his normally hunched posture going rigid. He was much taller than Coach Mandy yet the smaller man was not daunted and it appeared Clearing might be, though maybe he tried to fight it.
“I hardly think that is appropriate in front of the children...” Clearing said, shifting from balancing on his left foot to his right.
“FINE!” Coach Mandy grunted, turned away and picked up a basketball, handed it roughly to one of the shirtless teens standing pointedly away from Cary. The Coach's eyes moved past Cary as though Cary no longer existed. Clearing harrumphed again, gave Cary a meaningful look and twittered off.
Cary stood the entire period against a wall, eyes transfixed by the floor, pondering the lines of the wood's grain, while the rest of the boy's played half-court basketball, the girls played volleyball. The screams of Coach Mandy startled Cary every time, never enough for him to glance up though.
“Smalls! Quit hesitating! Moreland! You throw like a girl! Christer! Don't be afraid to check the fat kid with your body! Mecklin! Is there something wrong with your arms? Get 'em up guy! UP!”
The screaming and noise washed over Cary as his brain whirled with thoughts. He stared at the narrowly planked, shiny wooden floor, shifting his position every few minutes. When Coach Mandy blew his whistle Cary darted out of the Gym not bothering with the locker room at all, sure he couldn't handle whatever might be waiting for him there. He rushed down the hallways towards a bathroom, found an empty stall and changed - uncomfortably in the small space - out of his gym clothes and back into school clothes. If anyone noticed or cared Cary never knew.
After seventh period, during which Cary neither spoke nor looked up from his desk, Clearing called him over after he dismissed the class, as Cary lingered away from the other student rushing to exit.
Once they were alone, Clearing said, "Cary. I know things are hard for you, but... I want you to know I'm still your friend and even if you don't believe that...I urge you to feel comfortable talking to me if you need to.” Cary heard something he couldn't identify behind these words. He immediately thought of Jonathan and the hours upon hours they had spent playing video games at Clearing's house.
How does he know Jonathan won't talk to me? He must have talked to Jonathan and asked him about me and Jonathan said we were not friends anymore...
Cary sighed, did not look up.
Clearing sighed as well. “So, I'm going to start working on something at home, and I was hoping you would help me, Cary.”
Cary's head slowly came up a bit. “Help you?”
No one ever wants my help...they order me to do things and make me but ask for my help, never.
“I'm building a new computer for some physics modeling I need to do and I could use an extra pair of hands. I daresay you'll enjoy it and you'll learn quite a bit about computers doing it. If all goes well we might even have enough spare parts to build you a small machine of your own. Sound good?'
Cary gulped. It did sound good.
Too good. Clearing will get tired of me like Jonathan did. He'll decide I'm no good at building computers and then force me to stop coming over. Maybe he will realize I'm weird. That I can't think straight. That I talk to myself. That I play with dolls and action-figures and not want me near.
Other worse thoughts bombarded Cary, but Clearing's voice drew him back. The man touched Cary lightly on the shoulder. “It will be fun, Cary and I promise not to push you.”
Still, Cary nodded before he could think too much about it. “OK.” he said. Clearing smiled and pushed his glasses up his nose.
“That's settled. I'll see you this Friday night. And try not to let that...that SOB Mandy get you down, OK? He's just a bitter, disaffected little troll. Unhappy, and unwilling to keep it to himself. So don't you go letting him get to you, OK?”
Cary nodded, head down. “Alright, well you can go.”
Cary shuffled out. The school had emptied. He walked down the halls until he heard raised whispers from a classroom ahead. He stopped, curious, head nervously sweeping the area. The first voice he knew right off from Gym the first day of school.
The second seemed familiar as well, but it took him a bit to place it, as he never expected to hear it at school. “...can't give you that information, it would violate about a hundred different laws.” Jenson said tensely.
“Must we go through this again?” the other voice said. “I have been gone for a month Beverly and you have decided your lesson requires relearning. So be it.”
A muffled scream of pain came from the room. Cary wanted to back away but found he could not. He was cemented to the spot, head bobbing up and down. Another muffled grunt of pain sounded.
“Now, Beverly, I'll ask again, where are those records?” It was then Cary recognized the second voice. His neighbor, Lurlene Darxis, whom he had though gone on a holiday somewhere. Cary was surprised not only that she was at the school, but that she was apparently torturing the high school principal. Principal Jenson panted loudly.
“Uh, uh, uh... I've moved them to my house, I wanted to hide them from..from you.” More panting. It boggled Cary's mind imagining Lurlene torturing Principal Jenson.
Why? Didn't Lurlene SAVE me that time from being beaten half to death?
And that wasn't the first time either. She had stepped in before. She wasn't ever really nice to him: she treated Cary as coldly as she did everyone else. Still she had intervened several times in recent memory alone...
“Well I suppose we'll be taking a trip to your house, then, Beverly. I must tell you I am very disappointed in you. All my work to find what I seek and you have the nerve to try and stand in my way...”
Cary sensed they were about to come out so he ran for it. He did not look back to see if he was followed. By the time he made it off school grounds, Cary gulped hard breaths from the effort. He paused, hands on his knees, bent half-over, panting. His mind swirled. He now had to try and understand what he had just overheard and whether or not he was going to tell anyone.
My own computer? I am going to learn how to build a computer?
Clearing's promise breezed in. It seemed so far-fetched, so too-good-to-be-true Cary was unwilling to let himself fully accept it. He didn't need more disappointment. This had been his strategy for survival-living with Bird and Lana.
They can't take happiness away if I don't allow them. Cary suspected this was a capital T “truth” but even as he thought it he found it hard to accept. The thought sounded utterly ridiculous even in his own thoughts. Cary's feet took him back to his house without much direction, as his brain was occupied by a torrent of questions. Alongside the multitude of others which seemed to always be present. He was completely engrossed when he ran smack into a group of teens standing across the sidewalk, talking.
“What the...” Troy Smalls barked as Cary nearly toppled into him. The tall, lanky swim team Captain was flanked by Jonathan and Tommy, the two other friends of Lana's from before she went all Pentecostal. All three glared daggers at him. His mind spiraled and he lowered his head, stared at the concrete unsure what to do, wrapped his arms around his chest. Worse, it was like he could feel Jonathan standing just a few feet away. The way you could feel the sun with your eyes closed, radiating.
“If it isn't little Ickie Queenie Carver.” Troy mocked Cary. Tommy laughed and Jonathan joined in a beat late. Cary tried to catch Jonathan's eye, but the older teen studiously avoided contact. Cary gave up, shook angrily and started to walk on, hoping to pass them. Hands grabbed him about the shoulders and stopped him. Cary didn't resist, nor did he look up.
“I bet you liked Gym class today, huh, Ickie Queenie? Got to see me and Troy shirtless!” Tommy Christer mocked. Cary hadn't even realized either boy was in his Gym class. Both boys were older and thus should be in classes with older kids.
Why are they in my class? Did they fail a year? Were there lots of older kids in Gym? Why....
Questions roared through Cary's brain, seeking answers. His toe tapped the concrete, agitated. A hand shoved him and the electric feel of it told him it was Jonathan. “Get out of here Ickie Queenie. And try not to spank thinking about us later!”
Jonathan's tone rooted Cary to the spot more than anything else would have. It was so derisive and cruel. Hearing Jonathan's voice speaking that way both hurt and intrigued Cary. He needed a moment to process, understand before he tried to react, but another shove pushed him. Cary nearly toppled to the ground but he recovered, started running, keeping his head down.
He was wiping off the tears when he reached his house and was greeted in the driveway by Lana, who clutched a Bible large enough to be a breastplate across her chest. She frowned at him.
Jonathan was mean to BOTH of us now. Too bad she hates me. We could...
“Cary.” Lana said tersely, interrupting his thought. “You really ought to come to church with me. They wouldn't pick on you then. HE would shelter you and HE would root the demons out and then bullies wouldn't want to bother you.” This statement made Cary look up from the concrete of the driveway and stare fiercely at Lana. His mind quieted even as he totted up the rising anger. That Lana clearly believed her words was imprinted on her face, her faith was obvious. It was as though everything Cary despised had been given form and shaped into Lana's form.
“I. HATE. YOU!” Cary screamed and launched himself at Lana. Totally unprepared for the attack, Lana wilted under Cary's fury. She was still much stronger than him and though he knocked her to the ground and sat on top of her feebly swinging his impotent fists, Lana quickly recovered. She threw him off. He smacked his butt hard on the concrete. Lana hovered over him, trembling. The anger fueling him seeped away and he was crying, sniveling. His body curled, almost involuntarily, into a semi-fetal position. Lana perched above him like a denim-clad avenging angel or raging demon. Her face was scarlet with a trail of blood and her expression feral.
The blood drained from her face and Lana relaxed, pulled herself upright. She breathed hard, exhaled in loud, rough grunts.
“You're lucky Pastor doesn't approve of fighting, Ickie. But don't think this is over.” Lana moved away in a rustle of ankle-length skirt and went inside the house, slammed the screen door behind her.
Resigned, Cary waited before he trundled inside as well. Lana must have gone directly to her room and shut the door. Cary heard the sound of some religious music blaring from her CD player. He went to the guest bedroom and unloaded his things on the bed, set about his chores.
Two hours later Cary was finished with his chores. There was no sign of Bird, not unusual these days. In an effort to forget the day, to forget having been humiliated by Troy and his cronies and getting into a fight with Lana, he decided to actually do his homework for once. He was lost in this when Bird came to the doorway, tottering and red-faced. A belch alerted Cary to his foster-father's presence. Cary's head whipped up in surprise. Bird glared down through watery, bloodletting eyes.
“You're in trouble, boy.” Bird slurred and lurched. He moved at Cary and nearly fell over. Cary looked away, not feeling much need to try and flee. Bird could hardly hurt him if he could barely stand up straight.
Where could I go? What would I do? I'm stuck here and I...
Bird seemed to have this exact same thought thought. He growled something under his breath and straightened himself by leaning against the doorjamb.
“You're grounded, you little shit. And you're damn lucky that's all, trying to attack your sister, I oughtta to call the cops, I really oughtta.” Bird rumbled. He paused and wiped spit from the corners of his mouth with the back of his hand, swaying as he did so. “Damn lucky. You ain't to leave the house 'cept for school...for a month.” Bird pronounced. With another hard glare to make sure Cary got the point, Bird turned slowly around and walked away.
At first Cary just stared at his foster-father's back and the hallway, not caring until he realized he actually had something he wanted to do.