Connor

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1 - Tuesday

Out from among the chorus of heated shouting leapt a sound. A hard, packing sound. Then another. And another. Until the sounds became a series, and the series almost fell in to rhythm with the ebb and swell of the surrounding voices. They were young voices, filled with a kind of awe, laced with a little pain, and belonging to a gathered throng of teenagers. Maybe one or two of them was crying. Others cringed.

The teens were gathered around in a ring, and for a moment, the sound seemed to chase around inside, varying in frequency. It seemed to fade in and out. Then it stopped altogether, replaced instead with a faint, mournful cry. It sounded like whispering, and tears, and caused the crowd to grow quieter in response.

One boy stood from the center of the circle, staggered, wiped the blood from his lip with a closed fist like they do in old kung-fu movies. He looked at the crimson stains across his knuckles, smiled. Shook his head.

On the ground near his feet lay another boy, maybe two years his junior. This one didn’t move, though, save for the involuntary convulsing his body undertook as he sobbed quietly, curled up into a fetal position. The way his hand blocked his face, he might’ve been sucking his thumb. If anyone had seen him, he might have been unrecognizable, disfigured, ugly. His face burned. His entire body ached.

Some in the crowd began to chant, though at first the words were muffled and strange. Then they began to take form, sounded like “or.” But then that changed to “more.”

“More.”

“More.”

It wasn’t a cry for an encore, though it may as well have been. They chanted “Moore.” It was a name, belonging to the victor, the one with the bloody knuckles.

Richard Moore, who stood there inside of the ring, above the boy who sobbed against the concrete, staggered. At the moment, he was nearly giddy and grateful at the sound of his name, and the rush of pride he felt swallowed the exhaustion he would otherwise be abed with…

That’s when Jake cut in with, “Abed? Really? Who says crap like that?”

“Are you listening or what?” I asked.

“You wrote this?”

“Yes, Jake. Shut up and listen.”

I cleared my throat and kept reading.

The other boy, the one who couldn’t hear his name, the one who lay embarrassed and defeated in the middle of the school parking lot next to the puddle of his own blood and tissue, wished beyond hope – prayed with every tired fiber of his being – for the ground beneath him to just open wide and swallow him, to hide him from the wounding, mocking eyes just long enough for the crowd to go away.

To leave him, defeated and broken. Only then would he be safe to cry in the gathering dark of solitude.

“Wait,” Jake cut in again. “Why did you write this?” His voice was tinny and crackled through the telephone line.

“It’s a journal entry,” I said with a grin and half a laugh.

“Right. Yeah, the journal thing.” There was silence, however brief. “If you told me before, I’m sorry. I forgot, I guess. What is the journal for?”

“Or you weren’t listening,” I said. “You never listen.”

I leaned back in my chair, propped my feet up on the desk. One hand held the cordless phone to my ear, the other a pencil which scratched up and down against the side of my head idly as my gaze drifted to the ceiling.

“It’s for my Creative Writing class,” I said. “He wants us to keep a daily journal, write in it every night before bed. Just an exercise to get us writing on a regular basis and expand our creative mentalities…or some crap.”

“I couldn’t keep a journal, Conman. Too tedious. Plus, I mean, what do you have to write about every day?”

“It doesn’t matter. Mr. Anson said to write memories of childhood or recent events, stories…whatever, I guess.”

“So…memories then?”

“Well, not just. Corey Pearce is doing reflections on current events in the media, the talks of war and the impacts of an oil shortage…”

“Boring.”

“…and Trish Adams has just been keeping her dreams.” I shrugged. “Ya know, just something.”

“So long as you keep writing. Yeah, yeah. Is this the class you have with Alicia?”

With Alicia? You say it so nonchalantly…like we’re best friends or something…”

“You know, you could be. All you have to do is…”

“Not this again, bro.”

“Friggin’ talk to her, Connor. It’s not that big of a deal.”

“No. Not to you.”

“Well, I don’t worship her or anything like someone,” he said.

“I don’t worship her…”

“You framed her yearbook photo.”

I glanced down at the desktop, the little oak frame and the model-esque blonde smiling out of it. “What, no big deal.”

“Dude, face it. You’re obsessed.”

“I am not.” My tone maybe sounded more defensive than I meant it to.

“It’s okay. Guys dream about girls. They fantasize. Can’t help it.”

“Like you and Audrey?” I said.

“That’s a different thing. See…I talk to Audrey.”

“Barely.”

He was silent for a few breaths, just long enough to let me know that, for once, he didn’t have a comeback. “Audrey’s just better friends with you,” he said eventually. “Which reminds me, when you gonna hook me up?”

“Hook you up? You want me to hook you up with one of my ex-girlfriends? Not likely, sorry.”

“I didn’t think you’d mind. Besides, it’s not like you’re still into her.”

“Not minding and hooking you up are two different things.”

“How so?”

“In not minding, I don’t have to do anything.”

“Good point,” Jake said with a chuckle.

“But you’re welcome to try to help yourself.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What?”

“Try. You said, ‘Try to help yourself.’”

“It doesn’t mean anything.”

“You don’t think I’m good enough?”

“I didn’t say that. You’re my best friend, Jake. Why would I say something like that?”

“Cuz she’s your best friend, too.”

“It isn’t like that. I just…I’m just not sure you’re a good, oh…match?”

“Ha, ha. No.”

“What?”

There was silence on the line. Jake drew in a sharp breath.

“Holy shiitake. You still like her,” he said.

“What?!”

“You still have feelings for her. Geez, you didn’t tell me you were in love with her.”

I took a deep breath, sat up in my chair to face my desk. “Whatever, man. It isn’t like that.” My glance fell to the open blinds on my window, the street outside at dusk. I saw Audrey’s house, across the street and two doors down, a faint light glowing in her bedroom window maybe a hundred yards away.

“You still there, Conman?”

“Huh? Yeah.” I looked down at my journal, lying open on my desk. “I just don’t want to see either of you get hurt, ya know. You’re both my friends.”

“You sure you don’t still have feelings for her? I mean, I’ll drop it. I won’t…ya know. Bros before hos.”

I shook my head, as if he could see me, and laughed quietly. “Jake, it isn’t like that. If you like her, go after her. Knock yourself out. You have my blessing…”

“Just not the hook up?”

“You gotta do this on your own, man,” I said.

“Really? You’re really sure?”

“I’m gonna hurt you. Shut up. It’s been like three years. Yes. I’m sure.”

“Alright,” Jake said. “Maybe I’ll ask her to the dance.”

“Homecoming?”

“There another dance I don’t know about?”

I laughed, leaned over the desk, elbow propped, and looked at the words etched onto the journal pages. “No. Only one, I suppose.”

“Yeah.” Silence. “You should ask Alicia. We can double.”

“Ask her what?”

Jake’s laugh was unmistakable. “Nevermind, Conman.”

“No. I’m not asking her. Why would she go with me? She’s got Moore.”

“Nuh, uh. Buzz is they broke up.”

“What?”

“Yeah. You didn’t hear that? It was all over school by sixth hour.”

“So…who dumped who?”

“From what I hear,” he said, “She dumped him. But hey, I gotta go. It’s getting’ late. We doin’ somethin’ tomorrow?”

“Huh? Oh yeah. Let’s get a movie or something.”

“Cool. I’ll see you at school then, ’kay?”

“Yeah. Night.”

I clicked the phone off, set the handset down on the desk beside my journal and stared vacantly at the entry, remembered the fight, the aftermath. Finding Marcus…

The crowd had gone by the time I’d arrived. The boy lay alone and forgotten, just a puddle crowning his head and staining the white lines of the parking lot. The crowd had gone, piled in to old rusty cars and pick-ups, leaving nothing but the hint of exhaust fumes.

“Marcus? Is that you? What happened?”

He moaned, said nothing.

I knelt over him, dropped to a knee. “Marcus?” I said again. Even with his hand blocking his face, I could still see the damage: the purple, swollen tissue around his eyes, the split lip, the wet, red teeth. “Can you hear me?”

He stirred, his eyes shifting, trying hard to focus. They found me. “Connor?” His voice was weak and quiet, shaky like a leaf in a wind storm.

“Can you stand? We need to get you inside.”

“I’ll…try.”

He was Bambi-on-ice shaky, but after a minute, I managed to help him to his feet. Still, he wobbled. His eyes caught mine reluctantly as he lowered his hand from his face. He watched me for a reaction. I tried hard not to give him one.

“Is it bad?” he asked.

One eye was nearly swollen shut, the other was cut and bleeding freely over bits of gravel that had been pressed into the cut. His bottom lip was split. His left cheek was raw and mottled, scraped against the blacktop. His smashed nose bled.

“It looks bad,” I said, somehow keeping my voice friendly. “Moore really did a number on you.” I gave him a weak smile. “Let’s get you into the nurse.”

He nodded, put his arm around my neck. My arm was around his waist. Together, we moved in a slow walk toward the school.

“You must’ve been the only one in our class not watching, huh?” Marcus said.

I’d seen it. Well, the end of it. But I didn’t want him to know. I felt guilty for not stepping in to help out. “Probably.” We fell into silence for a few concentrated steps. “What happened?”

Marcus was already staring at the ground when he said, “I was talking crap. About him…and Alicia.”

“Well, don’t worry. Moore’s just a bit insecure, I think.”

“Man. I hate that guy.”

“Yeah,” I said.

***

The ringing of the phone brought me back to the present. The clock read 10:20 in brilliant, red digital numbers. I snatched it up, hit the button.

“Yeah, Jake?”

“Hey,” said the voice. It was female, definitely not Jake.

I set my pencil on the desk and closed the journal. Standing up, I stretched and crossed the room to the window. “Oh, hey Audrey.”

I cast another glance at her house, at the light still burning in her window. Imagined she was sitting next to me. Maybe smiled a distant smile.

“Sorry, I know it’s after ten,” she said.

“It’s okay. What’s up?”

“I saw the stars. Have you seen them?”

“Not really.”

“Oh,” she said. She sounded maybe a little disappointed. “I thought you would have seen them. Maybe in your telescope. Perfect night for that.”

“I just finished my journal.”

“Yeah? What’d you write about tonight?”

“Richard and Marcus.”

“Oh my gosh, I heard about that. How’s he doing?” There was genuine concern in her voice. Her heart broke for everyone.

“Better. His leg’s messed up from where Moore stomped on him, but he’ll be okay.”

“That’s good.” She was silent for a minute. “Did you hear what the fight was about?”

“Marcus said he was talking crap about Moore and Alicia.”

“It’s a sensitive subject, I guess. For Moore, at least. You know, she dumped him today.”

“That’s what Jake said.” I was quiet for a minute, walked over to the bed, threw myself onto it, and stared at the ceiling absently. “You know why?”

“No,” she said, maybe a trace of regret in her tone.

“Oh.”

“You gonna ask her out?”

Not exactly the question I was expecting. It caught me off guard.

“I hadn’t exactly planned on it.”

“Connor…don’t be an idiot. Everyone knows you like her, and she’d be stupid not to give you a chance, you’re so…”

“What do you mean, everyone knows?”

“You’ve had a crush on her for years.”

“So you just called to ask me that?” I felt a smile spread across my lips. “If I was going to ask her out? Do you know something I don’t?” Alicia and Audrey were both on the cheerleading squad. I didn’t know them to be the best of friends, but Audrey knew Alicia better than I did.

“Just that you’d be stupid not to take a chance, Connor,” she said with a sigh. “Because you want to, and I want to see you happy. Okay?”

“Okay,” I said. “If the moment presents itself…I’ll think about it. So what have you been doing tonight?”

“I’ve got a big test tomorrow. Been studying.”

“Test, huh?”

“Yeah, Chemistry.”

“Fun.”

A big of nervous laughter. “Not really. I should get back to it, though. I didn’t do so well on the quiz last week, and if I do well enough on this test, it’ll balance out.”

“Alright, Audrey.”

“See you tomorrow, maybe?”

I knew I wouldn’t. I never saw her at school. We didn’t have any classes together. We had different lunches.

“Sure,” I said.

“I work at four. Come by, I’ll get your dinner.”

“Deal.”

I hung up the phone and just stared at the ceiling. I imagined, instead of the ceiling, I was watching the stars, like Audrey said. I was too tired to get the telescope out, but the stars on my ceiling were brilliant and everywhere, like eyes. Like bright, speckled jewels.

There were more stars than I could remember seeing…at least this close to the city with the light pollution. The sky was rarely ever this clear, and as I looked over the sky, I found Orion’s belt, even though I knew it was too early in the season. It wouldn’t be in the real sky until winter, but I still saw it as I looked past the ceiling and saw the stars.

I thought of my eleventh birthday, when my father bought me the telescope. We spent the entire night, it seemed, staring up through the lens.

“Look here, Connor,” my dad said, pointing to the northern sky, “See those three stars there?”

It took me a minute, but I found them. I told him so.

“They make up the belt of Orion. See the two above those? The two below? Makes almost an hourglass figure.”

“I see them.”

“Those are his feet and shoulders. The head’s in the middle there, a little harder to see, and if you look just right, you can see his raised sword and shield.”

I found the stars after a minute. “Dad,” I said. “How do you know so much?”

“Well,” he said with a laugh. “I guess because my father knew. And maybe grandpa’s dad told him.” My grandfather was a farmer, had a lot of cattle. He spent a lot of time outdoors.

I watched the stars for a minute before asking, “Who’s Orion?”

My dad shrugged. “A long time ago, the gods gave a baby to a peasant man. He grew up to be a great hunter and warrior.”

I listened the way a child does. As I watched the sky, I felt so small. “Was he real?”

“Well, it’s a story. Ancient people didn’t have science like we have today. They made stories to explain nature. Their greatest heroes were set in the stars for all to remember.”

I could always find Orion easily after that. It wasn’t hard to find the three stars of his belt. I always liked that story, too. For the few minutes in ninth grade when Audrey and I were dating, we used to lie under the endless sky and watch the stars, I would always tell her the stories my dad told me and point out the constellations.

I fell asleep thinking about that and pretending to watch the stars.

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