Chapter 15 - Nate
What kind of loser wakes up happy?
I usually wake up pissed off at something. Sometimes I’m angry at whatever ghost visited me in my dreams. Sometimes I’m wrapped up in what happened the night before and sometimes I’m worried about what the day will bring. The reasons change, but I always wake up angry.
Not that Monday, though. That Monday I woke up with a shit-eating grin on my face and a bubble of something I couldn’t identify-- I’d later come to realize it was sheer pride and happiness-- expanding in my chest.
That Monday, I woke before my alarm and fixed breakfast for the kids. Usually I just threw cereal in a bowl and called it good. That morning, they had bacon and eggs, purchased not stolen, thank you very much. I even made enough for Tim and Marsha, and we sat around the wobbly kitchen table and ate like some kind of family. A demented kind of family, where the little kids cringe when the adults move and the oldest daughter won’t even make eye contact with the oldest son.
After breakfast, Deb and I got Trish and Paul ready for school and bustled them off to the bus stop with Ronny. Then Deb marched off without a backwards glance, but I couldn’t even bring myself to worry what stick she had up her ass.
I had to coax my beat-up old truck into turning over, but that Monday the awful clunking sound and the heady smell of diesel didn’t bother me.
I pulled up outside Alex’s house five minutes early, and there followed one of the greatest moments of my life. My girl-- my girl-- opened her front door, morning sun shining on her face, walked down her drive, and climbed into my car. My car.
Finally, at long last, we were together in the light of day and let me tell you-- Alex in the sunshine is blinding.
Those first few minutes, it was almost like we didn’t know each other.
“Hey.” I greeted as I pulled out onto the road, my heart hammering in my chest like I was picking up some girl I’d never met and desperately needed to impress.
“Hi,” Alex answered, equally awkward. She fidgeted with her bag and stared out the window.
“How are you feeling?” The bruise on her forehead was a fun combination of yellow and green, and she wore a small white bandage over the row of stitches. Her cast was covered in doodles, mostly by Tom, but all the rest of her was just as prim and proper as it ever was in the daylight. She wore dark black jeans and a loose white shirt. Her hair hung in shiny curls that I longed to run my hands through.
And why couldn’t I?
Glancing between her and the road, I reached out and combed the hair away from her face. “Al?” I asked, brushing my thumb over her jaw. “Are you okay?” She’d never answered my original question.
“Yeah, I’m good,” she said, flashing me a weak, fake smile. “I’m just nervous.”
I feigned ignorance. “Don’t be nervous,” I said, placing both hands on the wheel. “I’m a good driver, I promise.”
She reached out and slugged me in the arm with her cast. “You know that’s not what I mean. Although you are speeding.”
I glanced at the speedometer. “Five miles over isn’t speeding, Al.”
“It’s over the speed limit, therefore it’s speeding,” she argued.
“Christ. Are you telling me you drive exactly the speed limit everywhere you go?”
“Of course! We’re not all hardened criminals, Nate. Some of us abide by the law.”
I groaned dramatically, shaking my head. “Remind me never to let you drive. Ever.”
“Well you won’t have a choice after they take your license away for too many tickets.”
Just like that we were back to normal.
* * *
Alex was surprisingly confident when we pulled into the parking lot, hopping out of the car before I had a chance to do all that chivalrous, door-holding bullshit I wanted so badly to do for her.
My friends stood in a gaggle by Kevin’s shitty old Grand AM, and they fell silent when Alex met me in front of my truck and took my hand without hesitating. None of them had really believed that the rumors were true. Except Deb, of course. She knew and, for some reason, it pissed her the hell off. The rest of our friends stood in slack-jawed awe as Al and I walked past them toward the school. Deb glared, leaning against the hood of Kev’s car, gnawing on a wad of gum, arms crossed beneath her boobs, pushing them up so they damn near spilled out of her tank top.
I’d have to talk to her at some point. As much as Deb pissed me off, she was family and the rift between us was killing me. Later, though. Deb could wait, because Al was tugging me along toward school, her hand steady in mine and a look of fierce determination on her face.
It was still warm, so students gathered in the grassy area in front of the school, clumped into cliques and clusters while they waited for the bell to ring. The second we rounded the corner, conversation ceased. It was as if we’d sucked the air right out of the yard. Their faces all turned to us as one, eyes wide and expectant. What did they think we were gonna do? Start fucking right there in the grass?
Not a terrible idea.
“C’mon,” Alex grumbled angrily, quickening her step. Instead of fleeing into the relative sanctity of the school like I expected, she dragged me to an unoccupied spot by the wall of the school. She dropped her bag and sat down, leaning back against the brick.
“Uh…” I looked around. “What are you doing?”
“I always sit here and read before the bell,” she said. The front of the school faced east, so she was squinting up at me in the bright yellow of the morning sun. She raised her good hand, blocking it. “Are you gonna join me or not?”
Grinning, I dropped my own bag and slid down the wall beside her. “When did you get so chill?” I asked under my breath as she pulled a book out of her bag. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. One of our books for AP Lit, but we weren’t going to hit it for months. She must be reading ahead. What a nerd.
“The branch I hit must have jolted something loose,” she said, bumping my shoulder with hers. “Or maybe you did?”
That unfamiliar swelling feeling in my chest grew even more pronounced, until I felt like I couldn’t breathe past it. The stupid, shit-eating grin was back too. Trying to hide it, I pulled out my own book and flipped it open, trying to concentrate on the words and not on the fact that I was living in a goddamned fantasy.
“Hey Nate?” Alex asked after a few minutes. I looked up from the page, which I’d read twenty times and still hadn’t absorbed.
“What’re you reading?”
“Cat’s Cradle,” I said, showing her the cover. I liked Kurt Vonnegut. He was pessimistic as hell, but his words made me laugh. I liked that back then, when I was laughing my way through hell as a matter of necessity.
“That’s not on the reading list,” Alex said, frowning. I could see the lecture bubbling inside her, and I didn’t even try to stop it. I loved the way her brow furrowed and her voice got hard when she was berating me. I saw it as evidence that she cared. To most everyone else, she was sweet-as-can-be. Not to me.
“I know,” I said, goading her.
“We have the test on Wuthering Heights today,” she said, clearly starting to panic on my behalf. “Nate you already sleep through the whole period. Mrs. Parker is going to kick you back to general if you don’t do the readings.”
“Who said I didn’t do the readings?” I asked, making a show of going back to my book. It was rare I had the opportunity to show Alex up. I was going to milk it for all it was worth.
“Did you do the readings?”
“Finished them over the summer,” I said, glancing over to see her face. She stared at me, one finger stuck in her book to mark her page.
“Don’t mess around,” she said, clearly frustrated. There was a pencil in her hair, because Alex loved to annotate her books. It felt like blasphemy to me to mark up someone else’s writing, but she’d underline passages and make notes in the margins, pouring her soul into the space between the lines. Someday I wanted to see those notes and discover what passages she’d found especially poignant. There was one, in Heart of Darkness, I knew she’d have noted and taken to heart.
“‘Even extreme grief may ultimately vent itself in violence--” I quoted, “but more generally takes the form of apathy.’”
Alex’s mouth hung open as she flipped through her copy of the book, frantically trying to find a page while I watched. Sure enough, that passage was underlined in heavy black pencil with a scribbled, cursive note in the margin.
When she looked back at me, she was scowling. “You let me believe you were flunking the course,” she said. “I’ve been worried all year.”
“We’re like two months into the year, angel,” I teased. “That’s not that long.”
“Still!” she exclaimed, smacking me in the leg with her book. “Why didn’t you tell me you were reading ahead, too? We could have read the books together and talked about them.”
I thought of sitting with Alex at the spot, or out here in the shade of our brick school building, pouring over literature and discussing what we loved and hated-- what resonated with our lives and what confused us. I’d learn so much about her, that way.
Damn. When had I become such a fucking nerd?
“You’ve already read everything on the list?” Alex asked, and I nodded reluctantly. I wanted to lie and say no so we could have our little book club, but it was too late. “That’s okay,” she said. “I’ll just read what you’re reading. I’m far enough ahead already. It’s not like I’ll fall behind. Do they have copies of your book in the library?” She gestured at Cat’s Cradle, which sat, forgotten, in my lap.
“I dunno,” I said. “Mrs. Parker has copies, though, I think.”
“Great!” Alex said brightly, just as the bell rang. “I’ll start reading it tonight.”
* * *
The first week Alex was back at school, I was always on the hunt. Laying waste to my enemies had always been easy, because I had nothing to lose and acted without fear of repercussion. Suspension and detention were nothing to me, and the more people who saw me beat the living shit out of some asshole, the fewer would come at me in the future.
After Alex and I became public, though, the game got a lot harder. I no longer wanted to be suspended, because I desperately wanted to go to school. I could no longer afford detention, because that would mean less time for work which would mean less money in the bank for my fast-approaching launch into adulthood. I no longer wanted an audience, because then Alex would find out and I couldn’t have that.
So don’t fight, idiot, I hear you saying, but you have to understand that wasn’t an option. Alex wasn’t wrong to be worried about how people would react to what had happened between us. The girls I left alone, because I didn’t know how to fix that particular brand of cruelty. The guys, though? They were my prey. They might be lascivious and predatory, but to me they were prey, and I hunted them mercilessly.
In crowded hallways and pre-bell classrooms, I stalked and gathered intelligence. My ears picked up snippets of conversation. Certain words drew my attention like a blaring red light, lasering my focus into discussions about “tits” and “love to fuck” and “that ass” and “pussy.” If those conversations weren’t about my girl, I left it alone.
If they were?
I’d been at the same school for years. I knew everyone’s voice. So when Pat Curry, five feet behind me and pulling books out of his locker, told his friends he’d “bend the preacher’s girl over a desk and fuck her ’till she cries,” I pretended not to notice, made a mental note, and went on with my day.
Then, after school, I called in sick to work and waited in the near-abandoned parking lot until football practice released. When Pat reached his car, I came up behind him, grabbed him by the back of the neck, and slammed him face first into the hood of his shiny red beamer.
“What the fuck!” he cried out. He was bigger than me, but I had him at a disadvantage, bent awkwardly over the hood with his left wrist in my free hand. I twisted the arm up behind his back like the cops accidentally taught me to do, stressing his shoulder until he cried out in pain.
“I hear you wanna bend my girl over and fuck ’till she cries,” I hissed. He tried to rear back, and I let him have a few inches before slamming him back into the hood.
“Fuck you!” Pat growled, cheek mushed into the warm metal of his car.
“All I want is an apology,” I said, stressing his arm just a little bit more. He screamed. “And a promise you’ll keep your goddamned mouth shut. Give me that and I’ll let you keep your arm in working order.” I pushed again, glancing up just long enough to make sure we were still alone. We were.
“My dad’s a lawyer,” Pat groaned, hoarse and breathless. “He’ll put you away for years if you hurt me.”
“Okay” I said, pretending that notion didn’t turn my blood to ice water. Of course, if it was true, backing out now would be the worst thing I could do. If he wanted to play the intimidation game, the only way out was to win. “But even if I’m in jail, you’ll still be down a working shoulder. I don’t think those scouts are gonna look at you twice for college ball if you’re sitting on the bench with your arm in a sling.”
Pat went still in my grip. “Fuck you!” he growled again, but his voice was weaker, thick with tears of pain, and I knew I was winning. I layered it on.
“I don’t wanna go to jail, Pat,” I said, leaning close, smiling at the poetic justice of his position, bent double and crying in pain. “But even if I do, you’re fucked. Even if you tell me what I want to hear and tattle on me when I leave, you’re fucked. I’ve got friends in low places and if you go crying to daddy-- even if I wind up behind bars-- your shoulder is going to be the least of your worries. You understand?”
“Fucking fine!” Pat yelled, twitching in my grip. “I’m sorry, alright? I won’t talk about her.”
“You won’t look at her,” I added, squeezing the back of his neck hard enough to make him squirm.
“I won’t look at her.”
“And if your friends want to talk shit?”
“I’ll tell them to shut up,” he said.
“Good job!” I said sunnily. With one last nudge on his strained shoulder, I let him go and took a few steps back.
As expected, Pat launched off the car and came at me swinging. Fortunately, athleticism in one field doesn’t necessarily translate to another. Pat was a stellar quarterback with the upper body strength of a gorilla, but he threw a punch like a two year old-- eyes closed and flailing. I ducked beneath it, easily, and darted forward, hammering one, two, three strikes into his midsection before slipping away.
Pat collapsed to the ground, curling around his stomach. I pushed at his shoulder with my foot, nudging him onto his back. “You done?” I asked, but he didn’t respond. Just moaned and rolled around weakly. “You’re done,” I answered for him.
I left him there on the ground and strode back to my truck. By the time he got up and staggered to his car I was turning out of the parking lot and watching him in my rearview.
That was how I hunted. One by one, I picked off the predators, until rumor and fear took care of the rest. My days were pure bliss. My grades were improving, I spent nearly every waking moment with Alex, and for the first time in my life I looked at the future and saw something other than a bleak, gray struggle to survive. I felt strong and smart and happy. I guess that’s what makes me culpable for everything that came next.
I’m not much of a Bible guy, but I’ve read the thing a couple times. Once because there was nothing else to read, and once because Alex was reading it and we never stopped loving our book-club-of-two idea.
By and large, I’m not a huge fan of the Good Book. It’s kind of boring. There’s one passage that I carry with me everywhere, though-- Proverbs 16:18.
“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”