The bus is abuzz with gossip when I step on. Boone heads back to his usual group and though they immediately start talking, I kinda doubt it’s about the same thing as everyone else. Boone’s never seemed like the gossipy sort.
Unfortunately for me, some of Anna’s friends are.
We plop down in an aisle across from Haley Zuelch and Monica Demanski. They start chattering away before we’ve even settled in. For the most part, I can handle the two of them. They’re decent people. But once a piece of gossip is on the wind, they can’t help but spread it as far and as fast as humanly possible. I slump back against the window and Anna squeezes my hand. I can’t tell if it’s an “I’m sorry about this” kinda hand squeeze or a “hang in there” or just “I felt you slip away a bit and didn’t wanna let go”, but I give her a quick squeeze back. Neither of us is huge on public displays (it’s really only fun when you’re trying to make people uncomfortable and that’s not what I want Anna and I to be), but we’ve labeled handholding as PG enough for both of our tastes.
“—like she thought it would never get out or something.” Monica’s already on a roll.
“And of all the music they could’ve been doing that to, why did they pick Alice in Chains?” Haley makes a face as she says it, as if music about drugs and self-loathing is somehow inappropriate.
Anna laughs. “Haley, did you even know that band existed before you saw their video?”
“Well…no, but I do now and I just don’t get it.”
Anna’s not one to spread gossip and she likes to give people who do a little bit of shit, but she’s a more socially normal high school student than I am. The latest rumors hold some intrigue for her. Which is fine, the only reason they don’t interest me is because I find most people intolerably boring so why would I wanna hear second-hand stories about their boring lives?
“And,” Anna continues, “of all the things for you to be worrying about here, the music is what you pick?”
Haley sighs, clearly a little off-put by Anna’s difficulty. “No, I think you know what I’m most concerned about in all this—”
I don’t say “spreading meaningless bullshit about people’s personal lives that won’t matter to anyone in a couple days” out loud because last time I was rude to Anna’s friends she got so far up my ass I felt her using my lungs as speed bags. Apparently the difference between what she does and what I do is that I’m a bit of a dick. Oh, and I’m not actually friends with them so it just comes off as mean. Who knew?
“—everyone knew they weren’t gonna last. I don’t know what made her think making a video like that was a good idea…”
I’m getting so tired of catching random snippets of conversations that I’m tempted to just ask what the hell they’re talking about. I’d much rather just tell them to shut the fuck up, but once again, frowned upon by the pretty young woman who is currently slumming it with me. So, rather than having to spend the entire bus ride tuning the world out, I decide to give being a normal high school student a try.
When Monica and Haley both stop to take a breath, I jump in. “So what are you guys talking about?”
Both of them give me a wide-eyed look like I’ve just asked who the Beatles are. Then again, they probably find being behind on the latest school news far more blasphemous. Anna just stares at me in a mixture of shock and dismay. If I wasn’t already so sure that I’m gonna regret asking, I would sure as shit know it now.
“Elizabeth Lauter and Raj Sharma broke up yesterday. Apparently it was apocalyptic. I mean, they always fought,” Monica tells me this as if I obviously already knew it, “but this time she threw his iPod at him and chipped one of his front teeth before leaving. Later that day, Raj posted a video of them online. It was the two of them, Liz giving him a lap dance and then the two of them having sex. All of it completely on camera.”
And, like, isn’t that just the most scandalous thing you’ve ever heard?
Instead I ask, “What song was playing?”
Anna snorts and rolls her eyes, but Monica and Haley just look at me like I’m not nearly as funny as I think I am. I get that look a lot.
I offer a sheepish smile that only Anna can tell is fake. She squeezes my hand again and purses her lips to hide a smile. “Just curious. You mentioned Alice in Chains earlier.” I shrug. “I went through a grunge phase awhile back.”
“Is the music really what you’re most worried about?” Haley turns a little pink when Monica scolds me.
I just shrug. “Mostly. I don’t care what they do with their personal time and it’s no skin off my ass if they’re dumb enough to make a sex tape.”
I can tell Monica is looking for a polite way to stop talking to me. Apparently I’m not very much fun. That’s okay. I’m not all that interested anyway. Tried to be normal. Didn’t give a shit.
I put one earbud in and spend the rest of the bus ride stroking Anna’s knuckles with my thumb and listening to Alice in Chains.
When we pull up to the school I hold Anna back a second to let her friends get a head start. She smiles at me. “You almost gave the two of them brain aneurysms.”
I shrug. “I don’t get why you’re such good friends with them when pretty much all they do is gossip.”
“That’s just all you see them do. They’re really sweet most of the time. You should actually spend some time with us.”
I try not to bristle at her using “us” to describe the three of them and not the two of us. This whole being in a caring relationship thing comes with a few obnoxious side effects—like being extra sensitive about “us” stuff. I’m not a big fan of being sensitive about anything. Sarcastic and irritating is so much easier.
“I don’t know what you guys do for fun…” But I doubt it’s my kinda thing.
“Well, it’s getting warm enough for the pools to open up.” Anna smiles like she knows exactly what I was thinking. “But I don’t want you to feel obligated or anything…”
I stop for a second and try to think of anything I wouldn’t do if it involved Anna in a bathing suit.
Nope. Not a damn thing.
Fridays in Modern American History class is article day. Two people bring in recent news articles, stand in front of the class, summarize, and then give their thoughts on the matter. I’m one of today’s two, me and Emerald. Emerald, unlike me, is ridiculously smart and ridiculously interested in school work. Her little report is gonna be way better than mine (and I don’t mean that just because I picked the first article I saw last night), so I volunteer to go first. I may not care all that much about school, but no one wants to follow Emerald.
I stand and deliver a monotone spiel about a failed attempt to free a political prisoner being held by North Korea. It’s not that I don’t care about personal liberties or the poor treatment of prisoners, I just hate that Mr. Karimov thinks he can make me care by assigning a grade to this shit. When I finish, I give a little bow (earning a few snickers and eye rolls) to lethargic applause, and sit back down.
Emerald steps to the front of the class and reads her headline.
“Murder of Post-Human Teen, Dennis Reaves, Being Investigated as a Hate Crime.”
Okay, how was that not the top news story when I was online last night?
Emerald continues. “So, this is one plenty of people are probably unaware of since it happened a little after midnight. But a high school kid from the Bluffs was killed last night. The police found him with ‘Restore Balance’ carved into his back in an alley a few blocks from his house. For those who don’t know, Restore Balance is a radical anti-post-human group that takes actions similar to the Weather Underground that Mr. Karimov mentioned in class the other day. What makes this unusual as well as tragic is that Restore Balance, like the Weather Underground before it, doesn’t generally commit violent crimes directly against people. They’ve vandalized, sabotaged, and even leaked secrets, but before today they were bloodless extremists.”
That’s an awfully civilized title for an organization built on a foundation of hate crimes.
“No official statement has been made by Restore Balance to take credit for the killing—”
I snort loudly enough to break Emerald’s train of thought for a second. She frowns at me.
“—but police are working under the assumption that what you see is what you get. OPHR has also been called in to aid in the investigation, but hasn’t released a statement of its own.”
She takes a deep breath, like maybe she’s steadying herself for another skeptical snort. When she starts back up, her words tumble out fairly quickly.
“Personally, I’m not convinced Restore Balance is actually responsible for this. While I am in no way sympathetic toward the cause, this is the first connection to or even allegation of murder connected to their organization. I just figure that if they’re going to change their MO all the sudden, they’d broadcast their reasons for all the world to hear.” She purses her lips and nods. “Thank you.”
The applause is even more sporadic for her than it was for me. She clearly did a better job, but she did a better job on a touchier subject. I’m sure there’s at least one person in the room who isn’t all that fond of post-humans and there’s probably a couple people who are hardcore pro-post-human activists, but the vast majority of people just wanna get by without getting involved. It’s that group that doesn’t want to clap too loud for fear of being labeled as having an opinion or something.
The school’s wi-fi barely covers this building, but at least I don’t have to worry about Karimov catching me on my phone. He’s up front, pacing and lecturing and gesturing at his PowerPoint, and as long as I look up from time to time and turn the page of my notebook, it’ll just look like I’m being vaguely studious. Which would probably look suspicious if Karimov wasn’t so focused on his lecturing.
It doesn’t take me long to find the article. Turns out, hate crimes make for good news. The first site reports it the same way Emerald did and I wonder if this isn’t the site she got it from. When the next two sites are all nearly identical I’m about to give up on finding out any breaking developments.
Ugh. Why do the police even bother investigating crimes if they can’t solve them within a couple hours?
My knee starts bouncing without my express consent and when I stop it from bouncing, my fingers start drumming on my desk. I’m neither Batman nor a private investigator, but I’m still having to fight off a nearly overwhelming urge to go out and try my hand at some detective work. Which is unwise on a number of levels. For one, I’m not a detective. I am, in fact, the exact opposite of a detective: some random, untrained teenager. And, more importantly, last time I went out in broad daylight in costume I couldn’t go five feet without being gawked at or chasing people off. Guess I’m gonna have to sit around and wait for this to get resolved like a normal person.
I refresh each of the three news sites I’m on five times.
No new updates.
When I get back to the house, Susan’s waiting. Which isn’t the same thing as her just being home. It’s easy to tell when someone’s walking with a purpose and this is the same thing. She’s home with a purpose. When she hears the door, she pokes her head out into the hall and when she sees me, she waves.
“Wes, can we talk?”
No one ever asks to talk unless at least one person won’t like what’s gonna be talked about.
“Certainly seems like it.”
Susan sighs. “No, I mean really. Can I talk to you about something?”
“Fine. But whatever it is, I’m reasonable sure this time that I really didn’t do it.” Which is only a half-lie, since from the second Susan caught me sneaking into the house in-costume I’ve felt uncontrollable guilt every time she tries to have a talk with me about anything.
She gives me a pained look and clenches and unclenches her fists spastically for a second. “Wesley.”
I purse my lips and remind myself that with all the shit she puts up with from me, I probably owe her a few minutes of serious conversation, painful though it may be to admit. “Okay. Whatcha got?”
“Well…I’m not really sure where to start with this…I don’t know what you know…I haven’t actually had much time to think about how I want to say this…”
Oh God, just say it. Whatever it is can’t be as uncomfortable as this build up.
“But word has gotten around that two of your classmates made a…personal video and…I thought this might be a good time to talk to you…”
No! No, go back to the build up!
“You and Anna are both good, smart people, but I know how things can be at your age…”
I can’t possibly have done anything to deserve this!
“You’re both fairly young still and I know you…feel certain things and think a certain way right now…but I really hope you two are…”
While she grasps for a word, I wonder if it’s possible for my face to get any redder without being water boarded with auto paint. I can feel wavy lines of heat radiating off of my ears like asphalt on a hot day. If I could pay a post-human criminal to bust into my house and start a fight right now, I would. Without hesitation.
My only consolation is that Susan can’t actually know what Anna and I are up to. Not that we’ve done anything sex tape worthy, but still. If I could keep Susan from knowing we even held hands, I would.
Susan digs her thumb into the palm of her hand. “I don’t want to sit you down and shove a lesson down your throat. My parents did that and it never worked. I got mad and stopped listening. They got frustrated and started yelling. And after it was all said and done…I usually went out and did exactly what they told me not to. Even if I hadn’t planned on doing it before.”
Huh. That’s new information. I didn’t really figure Susan for having a “fuck you!” side. Then again, I’ve never really considered that Susan might’ve been a teenager at one point in her life.
“I think we can both agree that I’m fairly lenient with you and Boone. I may get on your case about your…costumed activities, but I let you guys get away with a lot. You come and go as you please, so long as you leave a note or let Paul or I know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. We don’t harass you about homework. We look the other way on profanity. We respect your privacy. And by this point I think you know Paul and I talked you up a bit to Anna’s parents when you two started dating.”
I feel real guilt well up, not the almost compulsive kind from earlier. When she lays it all out like that, I feel like an asshole for giving her any trouble at all.
“And I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt here as well. Paul and I talked about how we wanted to handle things when Boone started dating. Admittedly, some of the same precautions don’t apply to him…”
What with the difficulty of him getting pregnant with another guy.
“But the principles remained the same. We wanted to trust him and we want to trust you. Plus, unless we want to lock you in your room, we can’t stop you from going out and doing what you’re going to do. And I think in your case, even locking you in your room wouldn’t work.” She smiles a tight smile that can’t decide whether it means she’s okay with that fact or if it still stresses her out. “So I’m going to struggle to tell you the same thing I struggled to tell Boone: we trust you, please use your best judgment, and be respectful.”
If I weren’t such a manly man, Susan telling me she trusts me would make my eyes feel a little hot and wet. But I am, so my rapid blinking is just because something flew into my eye at an inconvenient moment.
I swallow and nod. “Thanks Susan.”
She hesitates for a moment before reaching out and giving me a hug. I let her, awkwardly returning her hug with one arm just before she pulls back. This time, when she smiles it’s closer to her normal levels of cheeriness.
“Oh, and since Paul couldn’t get home in time to do his part in this, I’ll have to do it on his behalf: sex is a natural, wonderful thing and you should enjoy it.”
Yup. There’s a surefire way to torpedo my libido.
“I’m really not a fan of this socially conscious thing you’ve got going on here.”
“Fuck off, Boone.”
Susan sighs. “Would you two stop?”
Paul throws a piece of popcorn at Boone. “Yeah. Don’t discourage his interest in the daily goings on around us. If he isn’t nurtured, he might wanna stop watching the evening news and if that happens then I have to stop watching the evening news. I like having a television majority.”
Boone rolls his eyes. “I’m just trying to do him a favor here. The whole ‘I’m too cool to try at school, but secretly I actually care about things’ bit is all kinds of cliché.” He looks up at Paul with his most innocent, concerned look. “And you wouldn’t want to raise a cliché, would you?”
Paul holds a finger up to his lips, shushing Boone. “I’m too busy getting my way to pretend I believe you.”
Susan tries hiding a smile and swats Paul’s shoulder. I take a minute to figure out if I can give Boone the finger without anyone else in the room noticing. Victory without mockery is a hollow thing indeed. I don’t quite manage it. Paul throws a piece of popcorn at me and rolls his eyes, but he’s wise enough to know it’s useless trying to keep us from getting after each other.
It doesn’t take long for the news to get to the murder and when it does I’m left a little cold.
Bad enough that there’s a radical organization that thinks people like me are abominations. Being a part of any kind of minority earns you some degree of animosity. Worse still that said organization might be willing to murder some kid for being what they see as an abomination, but again, there are some bastards looking for any excuse to gun down kids of a different color.
And then there’s this. Some macho high school showdown gone wrong. Two kids never got along and it didn’t get any better when the blatantly anti-post-human guy found out what the other guy was. Not that similar things haven’t happened before. Gang affiliations, sexual orientation, and race have all led to violent situations like this. But I guess it doesn’t really matter that this stuff also happens in the real world, it’s still the worst option of the three.
Those groups, those are adults. Adults dedicated to hate. But people my age? Most of them aren’t dedicated to anything. Most of them probably aren’t capable of real dedication.
But this kid? He’s dedicated now. They’ll probably try him as an adult. He’ll be that guy who committed a hate crime. And murder, at that. He’s buried himself way behind the eight ball as far as making up for high school mistakes goes. Might end up being easier for him to just roll into the mistake. Especially if he serves time.
I can’t tell if I’m sadder or angrier about this.
And then it occurs to me that in an attempt to get away with it, he mutilated the other kid’s body. Anger takes the lead.
I manage to excuse myself without swearing and walk up to my room without storming off, so when I get up to my room I feel rather entitled to some sort of outburst. I’m sorely tempted to put a hole in the wall, but I know I’d just feel bad about it later and patch it up myself. Even still, I consider it. It’s not even nine o’clock, but if I’m not gonna punch something here I might have to head out and about to find something to punch.
Have you ever had one of those lives where everything seems to go wrong?