Catherine Banks sometimes called Robbie spoiled. And he was, in a way. He was used to generally getting what he asked for. But then, he didn’t really ask for much. His mother, though, Robbie had long thought, was spoiled, too. She expected him to never betray signs of imperfection—to shout or cry or sulk. If he did, she yelled at him, burst into tears herself, said he was selfish and ungrateful, and acted as abominably as he ever had.
On the subject of school picture day, Catherine had gone into her customary histrionics.
“A tee-shirt? You’re going to get your picture taken in a tee-shirt?”
Robbie didn’t answer. No matter what he said, he knew it wouldn’t be the right thing to say.
“Robert, I’m talking to you. I asked you a question, and it’s impolite to ignore a direct question.”
“I don’t know,” Robbie whispered.
“You don’t know. Of course not. You never know, do you?”
He couldn’t look at her face. He was terrified of what he might find there.
“I know exactly why you did it,” Catherine continued. “Because you just don’t give a damn. I do my best to clothe and feed this family, and you couldn’t care less. Could you? Don’t you know what it looks like when you show up to school on picture day in a ratty tee-shirt?”
Sullenly, Robbie shook his head, still not looking at her.
“It looks like we aren’t capable parents. It looks like we can’t afford to have our child look decent and not like he lives on the damn streets.”
Silently, head down, Robbie went to his room. He changed into the sweater his grandmother had bought him last Christmas, an ugly affair in itchy brown wool, and he stepped outside to wait for the school bus.
Catherine went into her bedroom, locked the door, and cried hard for five minutes. Then she dried her face and quickly fixed her mascara and eye shadow. She walked down the driveway to her car and stared at the back of her son’s head. She wanted to tell him, “I’m sorry, baby.” She wanted to say, “I love you.”
“Have a good day, kiddo,” she called out, before getting into her car and driving off to work.
Robbie didn’t really notice her leave.
When the school bus came, he got on and sat beside Stacey. He was so involved in self-pity that it took him several moments to notice that there was something different about her.
“You’re wearing make-up!”
He looked closely at her. There was definitely blush, some eye shadow, and the slightest amount of lip-gloss. It made her look a few years older and unmistakably, strangely, feminine. Robbie frowned thoughtfully. He didn’t like it. He didn’t know why, but he didn’t like it.
“You know what I hate most about this crap?” Stacey asked him rhetorically, after the silence began gnawing at her. “It isn’t that it’s sticky—which it is, by the way. It isn’t even that I feel ridiculous in it.”
“You look fine.”
“Shut up.” She gave him a fierce glare. “Anyway, as I was saying, it isn’t even that I look stupid in it. It’s the fact that my mom paid forty dollars for all this just so I can look natural.” It was with the utmost contempt that she pronounced that hated word. “That’s what the lady at the make-up counter said. This is natural make-up. Designed to enhance my natural beauty. Bet you didn’t even notice it at first, did you?”
Robbie had to admit that he hadn’t.
“Yeah, neither did my big brother. He’s home from college this whole week for fall break. When we got home and Mom asked him if he noticed anything different with me, he said I’d cut my hair. The natural look. Like coating my face with paint is natural.”
At this point, he changed the subject and asked her if she did her homework. She had, and in turn she asked him if he’d done his. He had. Most of it, at least.
When the bus dropped them off and they parted without saying good-bye, Robbie reflected on the many mysteries of make-up. He decided that the reason he liked Stacey better without it was that she was, somehow, less threatening that way.
The entire morning was one long nap. There was the unspeakably boring science, with the disillusioned Mr. Herbert letting his students basically do whatever they wanted to. After all, they probably wouldn’t understand the material anyway, because American youth was growing stupider and more degenerate every year, and all society was a mass of rotting flesh, and good old American values had gone down the drain, et cetera, et cetera. Then there was social studies, as taught by Ms. Morgan, with its endless memorizations of dates, names, places, and semi-meaningless facts.
The only break in the day’s monotony came with the taking of the school pictures. All the classes, divided into groups, filed down to the cafeteria at the appointed time. Robbie did not see Stacey there but spotted several other classmates he knew. There was Bill, the older Weaver son, who was the tallest sixth-grader in the school. Standing on top of the stage, telling jokes to a bunch of eighth-grade girls, was Joe Carmichael, the principal’s nephew and the football team’s best linebacker. Even though he was in the same grade as Robbie, he was a head taller and considerably wider in the shoulders. The only other person that Robbie recognized was Cyndi Pinkerton, a girl in his computer science class, an honor roll student who was beloved by all her teachers and had consistently gotten first-place in her age group at the annual Middleton Science Fair.
Robbie hated Cyndi Pinkerton.
As soon as his picture was taken and over with, he ripped off the itchy sweater, and the bell rang for lunch. He went through the lunch line, then met up with Stacey in Mr. Klein’s room.
Stacey and Robbie had gotten into the habit of eating their lunches there. The major reason for doing so was to escape the cafeteria, ruled with an iron fist by the chain-smoking eighth-graders. The second and subordinate reason was because Mr. Klein was the only teacher both of them liked. They had his English class at different times, but both felt that he was the only honest, intelligent teacher they’d yet encountered.
Klein, of course, did not suspect of his exalted status in their eyes. He thought they were just two shy kids who liked to avoid social interaction.
Strangely enough, the two seldom conversed with the teacher. They whispered between themselves, and Klein silently worked on his computer. Today, however, he decided to try to draw them out of their shells. He chose the most benign topic he could think up.
“Say, either of you two like football?”
“No,” said Robbie.
Stacey shrugged. “It’s okay, I guess.”
Klein cleared his throat. His first attempt already wasn’t going well. “Why not? We got a pretty good team at Middleton, you know.”
“I know.” Robbie didn’t look up from his lunch tray. “The principal’s nephew—Joe Carmichael—is the star linebacker of the team. Practically wins every game on his own.”
Stacey rolled her eyes. “Oh, he’s the star linebacker all right. Just ask him, and he’ll tell you so himself. In last week’s game, he did this. In the game before, he did that.”
Klein tried not to smile. “You two aren’t big fans of Joe Carmichael, I take it.”
“He’s all right,” said Robbie, “but all he talks about is football.”
“And himself,” added Stacey.
“Which,” concluded Robbie, cracking a grin, “mostly involves football.”
Making sure to keep his face blank, Klein went back to grading papers. In the back of his mind, however, plans were already beginning to form. These two children, who haunted his room every lunch period, they were not unintelligent. They were irritable, admittedly, a bit too jaded perhaps, but that was fine by him. As long as they had the brains. Not many of today’s kids had brains. Oh, enough of them could take the tests, spout out the right answers, and memorize formulas until they were blue in the face. But they couldn’t think, they couldn’t reason, they couldn’t see the bigger pictures in life.
Could these two? Klein wasn’t sure, but he found himself wanting to find out.
The rest of the lunch period passed in quiet. After they had left for class, Klein sat back in his desk chair, musing about his new extra-curricular project.
Meanwhile, in next period, Robbie sat through his beginning foreign language class. The first nine weeks were reserved for Spanish and the last nine for French, since the class only lasted a semester. Robbie had an innate ability for languages and quickly learned new vocabulary. While Mrs. Suarez cracked down on the other, less-fortunate students when they failed to pay attention, she showered praise upon Robbie, no matter if he was on task or not.
Mr. Jacobson was the art teacher, whom Robbie had last hour for Introduction to Art. As far as anyone knew, he was unmarried, had been that way his whole life, and lived in a mobile home with his pet cocker spaniel. Naturally, all the Middleton students thought he was homosexual—and Mr. Jacobson did have a tendency to gesture with his hands in a wildly effeminate way—but Robbie liked him nevertheless. Besides Mr. Klein, Jacobson was the only bearable teacher he knew. He had the most hilarious way of raising his left eyebrow whenever a student asked him a stupid question, like “Where are the scissors?” five minutes after he’d told everyone where the scissors were.
Mr. Jacobson didn’t mind a lack of artistic talent in the class, even expected it to some degree, but he couldn’t tolerate idiocy. Robbie appreciated that.
After working for an hour on a terribly misshapen clay bowl, it was finally time to go home. Robbie stepped onto the bus, tripped over the purposely-outstretched legs of an insolent but hulking sixth-grader, and made his way to the back where Stacey sat. He saw that Stacey had washed all her make-up off.
“It just wasn’t me, Robert,” she explained, answering the unspoken question in his eyes. “You know what I mean?”
“Yeah.” Robbie nodded like a wise old man. ”I know what you mean.”