Carter started at Danton High School in low spirits, having come from an Elementary and prior nursery environment that hadn’t really understood his humour or challenged his intellect. He had been the butt of teacher’s attentions, sure, but there had been little to suggest that they really cared about how he turned out at the end of it all. Perhaps they had thought him special or gifted or even autistic, and were jealous. Whatever had been on their minds though, it hadn’t really made the prospect of Monday morning an enticing one for the young David Carter.
But he knew that things would be different in high school, despite ingrained pessimism. High school was where kids became known to other kids; where they made the friends that they might keep for a lifetime, or perhaps for a weekend. It was where, in the complex world of academia, the school bully, or practical joker, or cigarette-smoker, was just as much an identity, and a sought-after one at that, as that of the know-it-all teacher’s-pet. Carter quickly found, after he had started, that there were other kids like him who were plenty intelligent enough to pass their exams, and with distinction too, but who would just as readily flunk them for the look of the thing. It was all about the here and now, in high school. It was all about the reputation that you made for yourself. Who cared if the future was going to suck worse than a flaming bag of shit on your doorstep? This was the modern world. Good grades didn’t necessarily buy you success anymore. And besides, who wanted to be successful, aside from in winning the race to get laid?
Unlike many individuals who recall such times, Carter could not clearly remember his first day of school. It was not something that had really struck him at the time, and so it did not now in retrospect. He perhaps remembered being introduced to his teacher for the year, topics for the term, and an exercise where they had to move around blindfolded. The first person you bumped into; they would sit next to you at your desk for the term.
Carter crashed into the back of Armand ‘Arms’ McGellert, and proceeded to crash into the same boy the next two terms and then every year thereafter, usually with the help of a pre-planned route beforehand in the later years, to ensure their continued partnership. Why he and Arms hit it off, Carter wasn’t entirely sure, even now. He had been a large boy, even in first grade, and one you would hesitate to approach on your first day, for fear that he may already reign over the group with an iron fist; a big one. They shared little in common, with Arms finding his interests lay, fittingly, with armaments. Carter remembered in later years that his friend would carry up to three kinds of knife with him on the streets when they had been hanging out. And mainly, they were just for the look of the thing, as Arms proved when he had shown them off to the gang. As to the weapons he packed for protection, Carter did not know, and didn’t want to. Weapons had seemed pointless to him at this stage; they were an excuse for the cops to bust you, and it was only in later life that he had started to see the appeal that Arms saw. Nonetheless, Arms was, like him, fed up with trusting teachers to guide him on the path of education, and was looking to take matters into his own hands. He also liked to read, and listen to decent music, which Carter found unusual and liked in a boy who was so blatantly school-bully material.
Gangs, mainly of boys, tended to form at Danton based on where you lived or where you were born, and the like. However, as with all groupings, it wasn’t unusual for racial or other minority individuals to huddle together, as if for warmth in a world of cold stares. Carter and Arms both lived in the same bit of Greenbury Park; Arms just across the park itself, about three blocks away street-wise. They were joined in their particular huddle by several others, although Carter forgot the names of those who quickly switched allegiances, or moved schools, or got expelled. Those who stuck around were himself, Arms, Levi and Bradley Candle.
Levi lived just a block over from Carter, and was the son of some food magnate. Though in America this made the man a huge success, this status was wasted on his son, who was often the scruffiest of their lot. More often than not, his tracksuit-bottoms or jeans would be heavily frayed at the ends, and slashed at the knees, although his Adidas shoes were always immaculate. Carter remembered spending a lot of time around Levi’s house in the summers, and too that their dad’s were good pals, and went to football games together at weekends. He recalled two other things; that Levi was black, and that he was also the most consistently volatile of their lot, which could become useful during the scraps they ended up getting involved in. It was not surprising that he often promised to stab anyone who called him by his full name; Leviticus Josiah Oswald. Then there was Bradley. They never had a nickname for him. That was because he was insane.
However, you would never have thought it, to look at the kid. Bradley Candle had been by far the smallest and slightest in their gang, even more so than the wannabes and the rejects. Where figures of authority were in charge; where their superiority was undoubted and unchallengeable, he would smile glowingly, and be the politest guy you could ever care to name. Often, in these circumstances, he would offer to hand out the text-books, or the protractors, or whatever. But, if the teacher were to leave the classroom, if the cops were to round the next corner at the mall, if his parents were to leave the house for a second, something lit a fire inside his head, and the world burned red. This wasn’t an exaggeration. They were circumstances where it was better to be Candle’s pal than his foe.
There was one time, which Carter recalled the clearest, where they had been hanging around in the parkland, up where the hills started, stone footpaths winding between the mounds, and the four of them had been loitering near a wooden gazebo, smoking. A couple of rangers had walked past, and regarded them carefully, causing Levi to swear, Arms to fold his big arms and Bradley, of course, to smile and wave to them, until they disappeared around the bend. Then he turned to the other boys.
“Fucking pieces of trash,” he had snorted, once their green-jacketed backs had vanished. The three friends had nodded, now careful themselves, with some idea of what might be coming. It soon became clear, as Bradley reached into his pocket, found his disposable lighter, and stamped it flat onto the floor of the gazebo. The huts were white and aged, designed for the elderly to sit in and enjoy the park-life. Bradley Candle though, clearly disregarding all of this, flicked his cigarette onto the patch of gas, which instantly caught and began to burn.
Levi had laughed, profusely at first, and then less so as the flames quickly spread to the banisters and seats, and then not at all as the roof caught and the hut started to collapse in a blazing heap.
Bradley Candle’s face never changed. That was the oddest thing. You never got the impression that he felt he may ever have over-reacted or misinterpreted something. His look was permanently impassive.
“Lets get out of here…”
This particular act of vandalism made the local papers, though no-one ever ratted Bradley Candle out. After all, you never knew what he would burn next. Your bag. Your books. Your garden. He was what modern psychologists call a ‘pyromaniac,’ and the name Candle, which was as genuine as the nose on his face and not a nickname, suited him to the inch. And so he completed and, Carter would have to admit, led, a motley gang, which while never causing serious injury or damage, got itself into some trouble that could easily have been avoided.
What with dissolution from his parents and obsession with girls on the horizon, there were difficult times for Carter ahead, but he remembered that, until he first fell for Shanade, nothing had thrilled him more than visiting the mall with his new chums. It had given him a sense of superiority that up until this point he had not experienced, and he found that he enjoyed lording it over smaller, more isolated shoppers, and especially over other guys from other high schools. There were a number of different scraps that Carter remembered getting into in that part of his life, with more than one at some point involving the cops to break it up. But it was all put down to youthful spirits, and no-one was ever seriously injured. That was, of course, unless Bradley happened to get a hold of something sharp or heavy.
It was at lunch, one day in second grade, or as Carter called it following Elementary, eighth grade, that Carter first happened to glance around at the table opposite from where he, Arms and others were sitting, and see a group of girls. Girls had started to interest Carter at the end of the previous year, but he had found himself quite choosy, and had only asked one girl out on a date to this point, and that hadn’t led to anything. He had found her too needy, and that she moaned too much about too many things, when he would have preferred her to focus on him. But one of those girls; there was one at the next table who could say whatever she liked to him, anything at all, and he was willing to tolerate it.
To be fair, Shanade had never been the sort of girl to feel needy or moan about other people and problems. However, she replaced this with a perfectionist’s eye for style and manner and popularity. If you were not part of a certain group that she in her head deemed to be ‘well-known’ enough, she would not converse with you, even to answer a question. Sometimes, she even ignored the teachers, if they were particularly stuffy and careless, and oddly, they didn’t seem to mind too much. Coupled with this vanity, Shanade was also very intelligent, more so, Carter thought, than himself and his guys, and she knew that any prospective boyfriend may well become something more and would anticipate how that guy would affect her life by being around her in future. In short, she was a hard person to know.
And yet, she sat, effortlessly, at the centre of a group of girls who, while not all cheerleaders, were certainly a majority of that contingent. There were also the girls who organised the events; the fashion shows, the raffles, the discos and the prom-nights, the events where the popular get in for free and the unknowns wait outside for scraps. They were, together, a popular and influential crowd, and a difficult one to please.
Carter figured he was known to Shanade, and so to this group, by way of gossip. He was in two of Shanade’s classes; Math and Social Studies, and he sat just across from her in the latter. They had spoken, briefly, usually when she wanted to know what he had written for a certain answer to a question on a test. She had seemed to trust his judgement in class, over that of other, better-studied and more industrious students. Carter had hoped that this meant she liked him. But he now saw that it was only the first rung on an ever-shifting ladder of Shanade’s good-books. It would not have been an easy climb that would have followed, that much was certain. So Carter hatched a plan; a sort of elevator to take him straight to the top. It was just the sort of thing he was in his gang for, only his previous plans of action usually centred on them making an escape, or surprising another gang, or, more often now than before, stealing from shops. Now, though, he was forming one to help himself. That said, he knew that he was going to need some help from his group to pull it off.
“Hey,” Carter leaned in to Arms, who was chewing slowly on something, “I want that chick.”
“Who,” Arms turned, rather less discreetly than Carter would have liked, “Point her out, son.”
Carter didn’t need to; he just remained sitting still. Arms turned back, incredulous.
“Shanade?!” he uttered, fortunately too shocked to exclaim her name to the whole cafeteria. He wiped his mouth then with the back of his hand, tilted his head and laughed into his dish.
“Man,” Levi muttered, leaning in, “she’s poison, Cart. Fuck that shit. I know someone nice; could set you…”
“No dice, Viticus,” Carter answered, grinning as Levi took a swipe at him, “I want her. And I’m going to get her.”
“Dude, he’s right though, yeah? I heard she dumped this last jock so heavy he cried snot for like an hour. She’s the devil in Prada man, forget it.” Arms turned back to his lunch. Levi glanced at him.
“’The fuck you talking about. Devil wearing what, now? Carter, son, you listen to me, right? There is no way that chick is gonna go out with one of us. You know how it works. I know you got smarts, but a few cushy little Social Studies conversations ain’t gonna get you in her pants, right?”
Carter had had to admire Levi at times. There were people who knew more than they let on, everywhere. But this kid had always seemed to know that and more; for instance, what Carter had thought about in the dark corners of his mind. That guy came closer to reading him than any technicians at NASA ever did.
“I get it, yeah.” Carter looked over his shoulder. Their group was undisturbed. Every student had collected their lunch and was already eating. It was safe.
“Supposing,” he said, turning back, “I could, I don’t know, impress her somehow.”
Arms looked up again, interested, “Go on.”
“I’m gonna jack Lakeman’s Vette.” Carter said it quickly, in case he lost his nerve.
“Get out of here, you serious?” Levi and Arms looked at each other, both wondering whether to call him a genius or an utter fool. The seriousness of this crime hooked Bradley Candle from where he was sitting, and he leaned in too.
“Okay, Cart, that’s cool,” he muttered, “so, what then? Burn it?” There was a glimmer of hope in his eyes. Then a laugh from the end of the table.
“No, listen. Here’s how its gonna go.” Carter collected his thoughts, eyes drifting once again to the back of Shanade’s head, “I’m not going to do it yet. That’ll happen today after the bell. We’ll come to that, be a cinch. But what I want her to think is that I took it at the weekend or some shit. So I need us to walk past her outside in the corridor after this, and I need you guys to be all like, congratulating me, calling me a legend, shit like that, as if I just told you now that I took it. Loud, like, so she can here. Then hopefully that might, I don’t know, bring about some reaction, maybe after Social Studies later on. Then I give her a lift home in my shiny new Vette.”
Carter looked at their faces. Levi was smiling, but Arms looked unsure.
“You sure she’ll bite though, Cart? Thought she didn’t really date jocks now, and that Vette is a jock’s ride if I ever saw one. Plus, didn’t she date Lakeman?”
Lakeman was a guy in the year above, and he was just about the biggest jock in the school. He could be a cool guy to know, particularly if you needed something, him being older, but the amount of pranks and jokes he pulled was unbelievable, and he lacked any concept of tact. The kid was in detention more than he was in a chick’s pants, and Carter happened to know he would be in detention that day, after the bell, when he would jack his shiny red car. See how he liked that.
“Yeah, but I heard they broke up pretty sticky. Not the best of pals anymore. Think he tried to finger her in class or something.” Carter was still thinking, and said the words automatically. Levi banged the table in a fit of raucous laughter.
“It sounds like you’ve thought of everything,” Bradley Candle piped up, in his dangerous, sing-song voice, “but what’s in this arrangement for us?”
“You get hooked up with cheerleaders. Just take your pick. But I’m going after the big fish, even if I fall flat on my face. I want that chick.” He was still staring. There had been another laugh from the other end of the table when Bradley had spoken. This time, his eyes swivelled.
“I like the sound of this, Cart, and I’ll certainly help. Give me a second though…” Candle got up and made his way down the table, stopping at the boy who had laughed. Carter, Arms and Levi all looked away, simultaneously, and huddled.
“I’m in too, bud. These hard times for getting laid, and you gotta help a brother out,” Levi said, with a grin. He slapped Carter on the back, as Bradley was upturning a plate over the laughing-boy’s lap. Levi saw and flinched, “Specially with that chick.”
“Yeah, whatever, I’m cool,” Arms agreed, “So what, we just make you sound righteous, and you take it from there?”
“Sure,” Carter nodded, relieved, “Just need you to check he’s in detention too, later, before I take the Vette. I’ll call you guys to let you know if it worked or not. Hey, by the way, any of you know a Chevy garage where we can get it sprayed after?”
They chuckled; Levi punching his arm, then looked up. There had been a loud clatter as Bradley Candle had dumped the laughing boy on the floor, who proceeded to crawl away at high speed. Hush descended on the hall as it always did when Bradley lost it. He didn’t seem to notice, and shouted after the guy, “Not so fucking funny now, huh?” before sitting down and breaking the silence. The chatter about the hall had resumed.
“Sorry about that, Cart; we on?”
It all went off a treat. Possibly, it was the greatest of the plans that he ever thought up, but then, that may only have been his opinion. It was also to be one of his last.
Outside the cafeteria when lunch had ended, Carter quickly spotted Shanade standing talking in a small group. He made to lead the three others past her.
“Dude, that was some mean shit, dog. He’s gonna fucking crap himself when he finds out!”
“That is something special, Carter, you are sure to go down in the Danton history-books for that one; fucking awesome!”
“You fucked him up.” That was praise enough from Bradley Candle.
“Fucking Vette, man. Musta cost that sucker a fortune…” Levi trailed off as they fell out of earshot. They rounded the corner and stopped by the lockers.
“That was sweet, guys,” Carter said, embracing them, “Now I’ll see you guys, soon as I’ve fucked her.” He left them, laughing, and made his way to his next class. It wasn’t until later, in Social Studies, when Mr. Goodman had taken a guy outside to punish him in some way, that Shanade caught his eye.
“Word is you stole a Vette,” she said, her head tilted slightly to one side. Carter shrugged and grinned, slightly embarrassed. For all his planning, he hadn’t thought of what to say here.
“Its true,” he said, glancing around for inspiration, “but don’t tell anyone right? Trying to keep it on the down-low. I’ll give you a ride home in it, if you like, if you don’t tell anyone.”
He knew as soon as he had said it, he had found his elevator. He had pulled the right levers, found the right formula, devised the tight structure, and now that ladder that had seemed so tall that morning had been reduced to a few meagre steps. Shanade had coloured, ever so slightly. Before or since, he had never been able to make her blush like he did then.
“Maybe,” she said, which meant yes, he could tell, “so what have you written for 4c?”
Later that day, when the bell was about to go, Arms signalled across the classroom at him, as the teacher was writing something on the blackboard. When it went and they filed out, he slapped Carter on the back.
“I’ll leave past the hall. Soon as I come out I’ll nod or shake my head. Then you’ll…”
“Man, just come tell me. What are we, spies?”
Carter shouldered his bag and shuffled through the milling crowds in the corridor, pretending to pause at his locker, only to wait until the throng had lessened. Then, when only a few stragglers remained, he doubled back, and made instead for the lot in the quad. Here was something Danton prided itself on, something the prospectus mentioned before it got to the I.T. suite or the sports facilities. An enclosed area where students could take their breaks, eat their lunch, and a zone where the older kids could park their cars away from the street outside, which was busy and had brought complaints in the past from parents and students alike. Now, you drove the other way around Danton, pulled in and parked in the quad, where it was nice and safe. No chance of you getting your wing clipped, or paint scratched and keyed in here. Carter smiled as he thought this. There was a small crowd in the quad, but it quickly dissipated as the one in the corridor had before. Soon, it was practically empty. The gate at the far end swung, a hinge squeaking annoyingly. Arms suddenly clapped him on the shoulder.
“Lakeman’s doing half an hour, according to Travis. Met him down the changing rooms on the way back. Looked in anyway, and he’s there alright. Just be careful doing this, yeah? Serious. Rumours this place has hidden security cameras…” Arms conveniently let this most crucial sentence hang before brushing past and out towards the gate, which he kicked open and vanished through. Carter found the car from where he was standing, noted the hood was down gratefully and made for it, shaking his head at Arms’ fears. Still, it showed the guy cared.
There was no such surveillance in the quad, this Carter knew. The school had run out of money after completing the wrap-around layout in the centre of the building; so much so that they had had to have several fundraisers following the construction. Plus, Carter had walked through here dozens and dozens of times and never seen anything. He had been to the principal’s and janitor’s offices, and there were no recorders or receivers for closed-circuit TV-cameras. It was all talk.
One hand on the door, Carter leapt into the driver’s seat, and placed his hands on the wheel. It was then that it had hit him; the value of the item he was taking. This wasn’t a packet of Oreos or a video-tape or even a Rolex. This was a prized and sought after ride; the sort the rich kids in LA, in Beverly Hills, would buy to show off to their friends. He even then considered getting Lakeman in on the act, and promising to give the car back in an hour or so when he was done with it, but somehow he knew the older student would not agree, at least on such short notice. And definitely not without Carter doing something in return.
Chiding himself for even considering hesitation, Carter unzipped his bag, and pulled out a screwdriver and a pair of rubber gloves. Levi had taught him how to do this thoroughly, and Carter was familiar with the car’s layout, but he couldn’t remember whether the gloves were necessary, so he had brought them along from Arts and Crafts anyway. He had thought about swiping Lakeman’s keys, but the guy would surely have noticed when opening his locker.
Carter did not recall exactly the method Levi taught him to hotwire a car. He remembered levering off the plastic casing beneath the ignition, and, being careful not to scratch or dink anything, searched for the wires Levi had drilled into his memory. They were the ones taped into pairs, so four lengths of wire became two, with the ends disappearing behind another piece of plastic. Then he had cut the ignition wires wearing his gloves, using a pair of scissors he had lifted from Arts and Crafts that day. When he had rubbed the two ends together, nothing happened at first. He almost panicked, took a breath, and tried again, throwing the gloves into the back. This time, there was a rumble and the engine burst into life.
It had been noisy. But there were other sports cars in the quad, mostly belonging to the teachers and hall monitors in ninth grade, and it would be difficult for Lakeman, down near the sports hall, to distinguish his from the others. That didn’t stop Carter, now drowning in adrenaline, ramming the shifter back and reversing out onto the road as quickly as he could. As he righted the front end, the grille of a Dodge Ram pickup nearly went straight over the windscreen, but the driver braked just in time. Carter had frozen, while the driver rolled down his window and shouted obscenities, until he realised he wasn’t about to be crushed, stuck his V’s up to the guy, and roared off through the town.
He found Shanade on the sidewalk relatively close to where she lived, up in the high-rent district near Pailers Mason, on the other side of Greenbury Park to the school. It was an area that Carter would become familiar with in the coming months. He had been lucky; normally, Shanade would walk home with friends or her sister, or might also be picked up by her parents. That day, she was alone, and walking slowly. Perhaps she had been disappointed not to find Carter waiting for her in the yard as she had left. Well, he had thought, she was about to be pleasantly surprised.
She looked round, as Carter gunned the engine. There were cars parked on the verge, and he swerved to avoid them as he drew level with the lone girl.
“Sorry, I must have missed you before,” he shouted, over the vibrating dash.
She tutted, putting a pearly hand to her face, eyebrows heightened. Carter felt an unfamiliar feeling of lightness, which made him go weak in the knees. He almost knocked the bumper of another parked car, but swerved again.
“Smooth,” she noted, as he pulled alongside once more, “stop then. I’m not gonna jump in, am I?”
He had obliged and taken her home; a short drive, that effectively ruined his high school rep such as it had been, ruined his friendships, ruined his grades, ruined his relationship with his parents and ruined his life. But he got the girl. Even when she immediately guessed whose car it was. He got the girl.