Truth is a powerful thing. When you have it, you have the world at your fingertips. When it’s kept from you, that’s when the world has you at its mercy. The more truths that you can acquire over the course of your life, the better the position you’ll find yourself in when all is said and done. Two very important truths that I learned very early on in my life are that time moves forward, and children grow up. These things are unavoidable.
For most, becoming an adult is a terrifying ordeal. I, however, decided a long time ago what kind of man I wanted to be. I want to be a man of facts, and knowledge. There’s no time for me to waste on things like fantasy and daydreams, not when there’s so much for me to learn about the way that the real world ticks. Especially not when reality has so much more to offer to me than a story does.
Today is Hemmingway High School’s College Fair. As I look around the room, I would be lying if I said that the sheer number of booths here didn’t surprise me. Surprise and intimidation, though, aren’t close to the same thing. I came in here today with a plan at the ready. I already know which types of schools are for me, and which types just aren’t. I already know exactly what the future has in store for me.
In a few months, I’ll graduate, and go off to college. Once I’m there, I’ll apply for a realistic major, in a field that deals with the real world in no uncertain terms. Perhaps that field will be history, or perhaps it will be science. Maybe it will be something else entirely. Right now, the “what” is secondary to the “how”. All I really need to know at the moment is that it will just be one more step on my path to figuring out how reality really ticks. Step one is simple: I have to pick a school.
The reality of the situation is this: I have a perfect GPA (more than perfect if you count my AP courses). I could probably receive a fairly substantial scholarship no matter which school I applied to. Honestly, though, have no desire to attend a prestigious school; not yet. The plan is to start small, most likely some no-name community school, where I’ll take a wide variety of courses before deciding what it is that I actually want to do with my life.
Once all that’s in the books, and I’ve made up my mind, then I’ll do some research and pick out whichever school is best suited to teach me how to excel and advance in the field of my choice. While most of my classmates spend the day stargazing at big, flashy banners, and impressive statistics, I’ll just do my own thing like I always do. They’ll be looking at selling points. I’ll be looking at price tags. Like I said, simple. Or at least it was supposed to be.
“Mr. McArthur!” a lively, familiar voice booms over the crowd as I make my way to the back of the over-stuffed gym. I recognize theatrical bass immediately as the voice of my English teacher, Mr. Tanner. Not wanting to be rude, I turn around to greet him. After all, it’s not as though I’m in any huge rush. My plan shouldn’t take very long to execute.
“Hey, Mr. Tanner,” I say. “Was there something that you needed to talk to me about?”
“You know,” Mr. Tanner answers me with a hard to place kind grin on his glossy face, “I just finished grading the stories that I had the class write last week. I have to say that I was actually pretty surprised by you.” He folds his hands behind his back. I’m not sure what to make of the gesture. It doesn’t really seem as though it’s positive or negative. It just seems exaggerated. Then again, so does everything that Mr. Tanner does.
“Why’s that, sir?” I ask, taking the bait. I’m sure that I completed the assignment exactly as instructed, but I humor him. The teacher has a way of saying what he wants to hear instead of saying what he wants to say. “Did I do something wrong?”
“Not at all, actually,” Mr. Tanner says, shaking his head, and wagging his hands apologetically. “I probably should have been more specific. Don’t tell the other kids I said this, because I’m not supposed to ‘play favorites,’ or any of that spiel, but yours was actually the best story in the entire class!”
“Is that really so surprising, sir? Haven’t I always done well in your class?”
I become instantly aware that my ego is showing now, but backtracking isn’t going to do me any favors. I let it slide and hope that the teacher does the same. It’s not as though I meant to come off as conceited. I’m just a realist, and I know what it is that I’m realistically capable of. In all honesty, I’m just surprised that my being at the top of any of my classes would still come as a shock to any of my teachers at this point.
“Well, yeah,” Mr. Tanner replies, apparently completely oblivious to my prior sarcasm. “But that was always just with the rules, and practical stuff. Memorization, not application, you know? Whenever it came to the actual stories, you’ve always just seemed kind of indifferent toward them as far as I could tell. So, when it came to the real thing, if you’ll excuse the sentiment, I was half expecting you to just phone it in. I was pleasantly surprised though. Your parents would have been very proud of you.”
The words come out of nowhere and catch me from behind. They were intended as a pat on the back, but for a brief moment they feel more like a knife wound. There’s a sharp twinge somewhere deep inside of me, as something painful catches in my throat. Then, I collect myself and deflect the comment.
“All due respect, sir, but the ‘practical stuff’ is the ‘real thing,’ isn’t it?” I use my finger tips to draw quotation marks around the appropriate words. “The rest is all just fantasy. It isn’t really the story that matters, it’s how it gets there.”
The English teacher looks me up and down in a strange, confused sort of way, making a point of scratching dramatically at his graying brown head of hair before asking. “You really believe that, don’t you?”
“Well…it’s the truth, isn’t it sir? Stories are just words on paper; kind of like a distraction from the things that really matter,” I say it matter-of-factly, because that’s what it is. It’s a matter of fact. It seems absurd to me that a man who teaches English for a living could think otherwise.
Some might call me biased on the matter, but any attachment I had ever had to that type of thinking had been buried along with my parents. It’s always been amazing to me that there still adults who still seem to cling to such a childish way of thinking.
“Walk with me for a sec, James?” Mr. Tanner asks me. It’s less of a question, and more of a polite command. As he does so, he makes a sort of bowing gesture which seems to indicate the direction opposite of where I’d been heading before he’d stopped me.
He must see my eyes dart towards the community college booths, because he says, “Don’t worry, you have my word that this won’t take long.” The man draws an imaginary cross over his heart, as if to accentuate his point. “I just have a quick favor to ask of you.”
After another quick glance backwards, I hesitantly follow him. A large part of me just wants nothing more than to get on with my day. there’s another part that’s curious what it is that he could possibly want from me. As far as I know, I’ve never been the teacher’s favorite student. I’ve always done my best in his class, but nothing I do ever seems to satisfy Mr. Tanner. He’s never outright mean, but it always seems like he expects more out of me than he does the other students.
I cast another darting glance toward my intended direction. The practical thing would be for me to politely excuse myself and get on with my plan. Against my better reasoning though, curiosity wins out. And so, I follow. The community college booths will still be there when I get back.
“You know, there are two ways of looking at things,” Mr. Tanner declares as he leads me through the crowd, toward our unknown destination. “The first way of looking at things, which I’m pretty sure is the way that you look at things, is that reality inspires fantasy. Am I right?”
I give him a polite nod, and try not to roll my eyes. I’m starting to get some small idea of where this conversation is going, but I don’t interrupt him. The more quickly he gets through this, the more quickly I can move past it.
“The second way of looking at things,” Mr. Tanner goes on, “is that fantasy inspires reality. Tell me James, what do you make of that idea?”
I stay silent for a moment, making sure that the question isn’t rhetorical. Noticing this, Mr. Tanner gives me a not-so-subtle nod, indicating that I should answer. I take another moment to collect my thoughts. It’s one thing to disagree with somebody, but I have no intention of outright offending the man. My parents taught me better than that, and if nothing else I want to abide by what they taught me.
“Well…” I say carefully, “It’s kind of silly, isn’t it, sir?” It’s the wrong phrasing, but it seems to have been exactly what the teacher had been hoping to hear.
Mr. Tanner’s left eyebrow slowly rises in an amused sort of way. For some reason, this leaves me feeling more than a little bit flustered. “Oh?” the teacher chuckles. The sound is deep, and earthy, and frankly more than a little bit irritating at that moment. It’s not meant to be condescending, but I feel as though I’m being talked down to all the same. “And why is that, may I ask?”
“I mean, it’s simple, isn’t it?” I ask, now feeling a bit more defensive than I’d like to admit. “You can’t be inspired by something that never happened, can you? It just doesn’t make sense. All inspiration has to come from somewhere.”
“So, the chicken has to come before the egg, is what you’re saying?” Now it feels almost as though Mr. Tanner is just humoring me. The longer this conversation goes on, the more frustrated I find myself getting.
“I don’t know if that’s exactly how I’d put it, but yeah, I guess,” I reply, now doing my best to keep my cool. I really don’t enjoy feeling as though I’m being talked down to. Still, disrespecting a teacher might result in detention, and I have better things to do with my free time than spending an afternoon doing nothing in a silent classroom. With that in mind, I bite my tongue.
“Interesting,” Mr. Tanner smirks. “Let me ask you something. The light bulb, indoor plumbing, television, space travel; what do all these things have in common?” His arms are folded behind his back again, and his eyes are trained on me expectantly.
“They were all major advancements in society,” I say. I don’t hesitate; the answer is an obvious one. I’m confident that my response is the correct one. At least, until the teacher lets out that low, earthy, irritating chuckle.
“They all started off as just an idea,” Mr. Tanner says in a hushed tone, as though he’s telling some great secret. “Before any of them were reality, they were all just a spark in the back of someone’s mind. They all started off as just fantasy. So tell me, Mr. McArthur, which came first, the idea or the reality?”
“That’s…I mean…” I trail off. I’m not entirely sure what to say to that. I’m also not used to being left speechless. The English teacher looks a little bit too pleased with himself.
“Without imagination,” Mr. Tanner continues, “we’d all still be living in caves, crapping on floors in the dark. Kid, fantasy is the greatest reality that has ever existed. Some people may say that that’s just an opinion, but I know better. That’s a fact. Your parents knew that. They lived it. So, I guess the favor that I’m going to ask you isn’t so much for you or me as it is for them.”
There’s a long moment of silence before I realize that the two of us have already been standing still for quite some time, now. The teacher reaches over to his right without taking his eyes off of me, and he picks a pamphlet up from the booth which we’ve stopped in front of.
“I read your story, James,” Mr. Tanner says, a serious look now on his face, replacing the light-hearted smirk that had rested there moments before. “You have the same spark that your parents did. Even if you deny it, it’s there. I’ve seen it. This is a pamphlet from Edington University. They have the best writing program in the entire country. I graduated from it the same year that Christian and Penelope did. I’d like for you to give it some consideration. Can you do that?”
I stare blankly at the teacher’s face for some time, and for a time longer I stare down at the pamphlet that the man is holding out to me. With a trembling hand, I accept the piece of paper. I’m not sure what else I can really do.
“Thanks,” Mr. Tanner says.
As I sit on the front steps leading into Hemmingway High, I considered the bounty in my hands. There, I hold exactly what I had gone in search of when I first got here; a collection of pamphlets representing most of the community colleges stationed throughout the city. Of course, there was one more; one which didn’t belong. Moments earlier, as I sat waiting on the school’s grand marble steps, I had turned on my phone to look into Edington University. What I’d found was none too impressive, in my opinion.
Edington is a private university which focuses heavily on the arts. To phrase it bluntly, it is the exact opposite of everything that I’m looking for in a school. It’s expensive, specialized, and entirely unrealistic. Art is a fanciful pursuit, and one which I want nothing to do with. It’s not just that, though. As I sit there, I feel as though I’ve been coerced. Mr. Tanner had used my parents to make his point. At the time, it had seemed innocent enough. Now though, I can’t help but feel tricked and slighted.
I give the Edington pamphlet a long, hard stare. I stare for so long that I eventually lose track of time altogether. After a while, I realize that the only thing I know for certain is that I don’t know for certain what to make of the gesture. Until this afternoon, I’d never even been aware that Mr. Tanner had been acquainted with my parents. There’s something about that information which gives me pause, even though I know that there’s no reason for it to.
Intellectually, I’m well aware of the fact that I want nothing more than to tear the pamphlet to shreds, and leave it at that. Something though, something that doesn’t seem to be coming from anywhere in my conscious train of thought seems to be stopping me. So as I sit there on those steps, thinking about ripping and tearing, all I can do is stare my long hard stare; for some reason, my body will let me do nothing but that.
“This is ground control, paging Lieutenant Jimmy McArthur. Lieutenant McArthur, do you read?” a voice says from somewhere behind me. My cousin Tyler is now sitting next to me, all red hair and freckles, speaking to me as though the two of us are communicating via radio. “Actually, that was a dumb question. Seems like all you’re doing is reading. Probably should’ve asked if you copy. Lieutenant McArthur, do you ̶ ̶̶̶̶̶̶ ̶”
“Ty,” I say pointedly, cutting him off.
“He’s alive, ladies and gentlemen!” Ty exclaims, raising both hands into the air in an exaggerated celebratory motion. “What can I do for you, buddy? Do you need a drink? A snack? Maybe something a little bit more… ‘exotic’?” on this last word, Ty wiggles his eyebrows comically.
“Stop talking,” I say flatly, though I make no attempt to hide the smirk which is forming on my face. “And I’ve told you a million times, it’s James, not Jimmy.”
“Come on, man,” Ty says, wrapping his arm snugly around my shoulder. “I’ve been calling you Jimmy since before we were even old enough to talk! It’s like, a tradition, or something. You can’t change tradition, man. Because that’s blasphemy, and blasphemy is wrong…! At least, I think that it is. Blasphemy, is wrong, right?”
“Ty, do you remember that thing I said a minute ago about not talking?” I ask.
“Yeah,” says Ty. “What about it?”
“Maybe let’s actually try that this time around,” I reply.
“Whatever dude, you know you love me,” Ty smiles. “Come on, bring it in for a hug!” he opens his arms up wide, waiting for me to embrace him. As I have so many times before, I remain perfectly still, staring at him with a raised eyebrow and a blank expression.
“We’ve been living together for more than a decade, Ty. Has that ever actually worked?” I ask with a heavy sigh.
“No,” Ty answers with a shrug, “but it will one of these days, and when it does, I’m not going to be the one to miss it. Anyway, what were you so focused on just then? You just looked completely gone, man.”
“It was nothing important,” I lie, finally crumpling the unwanted pamphlet. “Some guy just handed me a flyer while I was waiting for you. A new Chinese place opened up. I was thinking about going, but then I saw the prices. Not worth it at all.” I stand up, and toss the ruined paper behind me, not giving it a second glance. “What took you so long?”
“Two words,” says Ty, jumping up to his feet and following behind me, “Hot. Transfer. Student.” Ty counts the words off on his hand, holding up three fingers.
“I would tell you everything that’s wrong with that statement,” I groan, “but I honestly don’t think that you care, do you?”
“Wow, it’s almost like you’ve known me my whole life,” Ty winks. He knows just how to get on my nerves, and he loves the fact that he knows he can get away with it. Still, my cousin can be so annoying at times, that it almost transcends irritation, and becomes a kind of charm...almost.
“You’re incorrigible,” I smile, finally allowing myself to laugh. “Come on, let’s just go home.”
“Oh yeah!” Ty exclaims as the two of us make our way over to the bike racks in front of the school. “That reminds me, Mom and Dad have been asking me about what you want to do for your birthday. You got anything in mind? If I toss them a bone, they might finally stop hounding me. See what I did there?”
“It’s jokes like that one that make me ignore you fifty percent of the time, you are aware of that, right?” I ask him.
“C’mon,” Ty pleads, stepping in front of me. “Tomorrow is your eighteenth birthday! The big one-eight! There’s got to be something you want to do to celebrate this weekend. You can’t possibly be that antisocial.”
Wanting nothing more than to just be done with this topic, I attempt to walk around him, but if Ty is two things, those things are annoying, and persistent. Give him a chance to be both of those things at once, and that’s when he really shines. He steps in front of me four separate times before I have no choice but to answer him. I breathe an exasperated sigh, already knowing how he’ll take it.
“Ty, I’m not antisocial, I just don’t care. It’s only a number, and next year, it will be another number, and it’ll be the same the year after that. Getting older isn’t an accomplishment. It’s just a way for people to make sense of the passage of time. People celebrate birthdays to distract themselves from the fact that they’ve just gotten one year closer to dying. Call me nuts, but I think I’d rather spend my time focused on my impending life than on my impending death.”
Ty stares at me for a long, awkward moment with his eyes wide and his mouth agape before he’s able to find the words to respond. “Dude, that is grim. That is like, really, seriously dark. Seriously.”
I step around my cousin, who now appears to be too shocked by my words to continue blocking my path. “Tell Uncle Bobby and Aunt Clarice that I said thanks, anyway.”
“Dude, you don’t get it, do you?” Ty asks, snapping out of his stupor and matching my pace. “You’re setting the standard right now, man. My birthday is in a week. If you don’t want your eighteenth birthday to be a big deal, then Mom and Dad are going to think that I don’t want my birthday to be a big deal. And I really do, Jimmy. I want it to be a huge deal.” Ty waves his hands over his head for dramatic effect, but I do my best to pay him no mind.
“Do I even want to ask if you realize how selfish and childish you sound right now?” I ask him. As the two of us reach our bikes, I dig around in my pocket for the key to my lock. Ty hadn’t even bothered to secure his to the rack.
“That’s the point though, Cuz! This is the last birthday where we get to be childish. After this, we’re adults. After this, we don’t get to pull the kid card anymore. I don’t know about you, but I like the kid card. Do you have any idea just how many times the kid card has gotten me out of being grounded, Jim? A lot of times! Is it really so wrong to want to bid it farewell with a bang?”
Ty had somehow managed to make his entire argument in one breath. As a result, his face had gone from its usual pale, freckled hue to a bright shade of beet red. As he takes a moment to collect himself, I can’t help but try to recall the last time that I had witnessed my cousin remain silent for this long. Other than sleeping and eating, nothing immediately springs to mind.
After taking a few deep, heavy breaths, he finishes by asking me, “do you see the point that I’m trying to make here?”
“That you’re an idiot?” I say simply, as I hop onto my bike and ride off toward home.
“C’mon, Jim!” Ty calls after me, following on his own bike, which is in a relative state of disrepair.
“Oil your chain, Ty!” I call back to him, “your bike sounds like a swarm of crickets!”
“I know!” he shouts. “I like it; let’s people know I’m coming.”
Even though I don’t look back at him, I can still imagine the broad grin that I know is spreading across his face at that moment. Knowing Ty as well as I do, I do the only thing that I can do. I groan, and I keep riding.
At home that night, my aunt and uncle ask me about my birthday at dinner, but they don’t push the same way that Ty had. Rather, when I say no, they look a bit disappointed but not surprised. This isn’t the first time that we’ve had this conversation over the past couple months, so they know what I’m going to say before the words cross my lips. It’s clear, though, that some part of them was still hoping that I’d change my mind. Regardless of what I say, I know that they’ll plan something in spite of it; it’s unavoidable. With that in mind, I’m not sure why they still continue to ask. I guess it’s just another mystery of human nature.
As I lay in bed later on, I can’t help but think of all that the two of them have done for me over the past thirteen years. It occurs to me that my eighteenth birthday might mean more to them than it does to me. Even though I don’t necessarily agree with their reasoning, I know that I owe them. I resolve that, when they do throw me whatever party that they have planned for me that weekend, I’ll act grateful for their sake more than for my own.
It’s seconds to midnight now, and I find myself staring at the digital clock on my night stand, accompanied by the familiar sound of Ty snoring in the bed next to me. It’s silly; after all, age is just a number. Despite my beliefs though, a large part of me is aware that this number does mean something. When that clock strikes twelve, it will mark the beginning of the rest of my life.
I lay and look, wondering if, when Monday turns to Tuesday, I’ll feel any different; whether adult James will somehow be wiser, or more insightful than teenage James. I wonder whether I’ll suddenly look at the world through different eyes, understand all of the things that have evaded my comprehension for all of these years. It’s ten seconds to midnight now, and I begin to unconsciously count down with the clock.
Nothing. I quietly laugh at myself aloud, unsure of what I must have been thinking. As much as I value reality, sometimes glimpses of fantasy still sneak their way into my thoughts while I’m not paying attention. I need to work on that. I look up at my bedroom ceiling, and it looks the same as it ever did. Nothing has changed. Why should it have? After all, age is just a number.
I close my eyes, the sound of my cousin’s snores ringing in my ears. Most people would probably find them obnoxious, but I’ve gotten used to them. The thought of sleeping without them one day seems foreign to me, but I know that it must happen. That in mind, I take them in while I can. I know that it’s strange, but we are each entitled to our own little abnormalities. It’s only human. Tonight though, there’s something else mixed in with their familiar rasp and wheeze. It’s a soft, rhythmic sound.
Bump, bump, bump.
I sit up in bed, listening closer for it. For a moment, I think that I’ve just imagined it, but then I hear it again.
Bump, bump, bump.
I nudge Ty softly, waking him. “Ty?” I ask him. “Ty, do you hear that?”
He rolls over, and rubs his eyes with a low yawn, listening for a short moment. As he answers, I can hear the sleep still in his voice. “I don’t hear anything, man. It must be in your head. Go back to sleep, birthday boy.” With that, he rolls back over and is snoring again within seconds.
Maybe he’s right. Maybe it is just in my head. I’m probably just exhausted. After all, it’s been a long day. Once more, I close my eyes and attempt to sleep. I’m sure that it must have been nothing. Then, I hear it again.
Bump, bump, bump...