“No, I didn't solicit any licking. Not today. Maybe Monday. We'll see.”
“Right, pace yourself,” said Stew. “Asking a girl to lick you so early in a relationship is dicey. I know this.”
Duncan doubted whether Stew, in fact, knew this. Not a player, Stew. Nice guy, excellent bassist, steady friend. Player? No. Lech? A little.
“How 'bout some big ups for your favorite drummer?” asked Jess. “I opened the door to the Carly Garfield home for wayward boys, y'know.”
“Props to you,” said Duncan, bowing just slightly. “It was a bold lie. That could've gone badly.”
!” she said. Jessie opened the Volkswagen and hopped behind the wheel. “I can't believe you didn't ask me to wreck your face years ago, dude. That girl has a total victim complex. She's a whale-saver. A tree hugger. No, she's not just hugging treesâshe's doing even more graphic things to trees. That girl is looking for things to protect. If you want her to be interested in you, then you have to appear endangered. Like that tiny freshman this morning.”
“Or like me, with my face bashed in.”
They squealed out of the lot.
“Where to?” asked Jessie. “Casa del Boone? We can graze on Oreos and Diet Squirt, then jam awhile, and then go to the football gameâI'm thinking our friend the Pear Bear has some aggression to release on unsuspecting ball carriers. Or we could just graze, jam, then go to Duncan's basement for some no-life club.”
No-life club meant PlayStation, MP3s, and further grazing.
“I vote no-life,” said Stew.
“Seconded,” said Duncan.
“That was democratic of us,” said Jess.
“My house it is,” said Duncan.
Jessie wove through after-school traffic with reckless ease, pounding her hands on the fur-covered steering wheel in time to the car's stereo. Stew bobbed his head, pounded the dashboard, and sang badly. He was not allowed to sing with Fat Barbie. He could mouth words, but never sing.
Duncan spent the short ride home sitting in the backseat thinkingâon the verge of worry, actually. He considered Jessie's comment: “You have to appear endangered.” She'd recognized this fact immediately, almost intuitively. The simplest way to get Carly's attention was clearly to play on her endless reserve of compassion. It didn't seem reasonable to go to school with fresh injuries every day, though. Which meant that he had a very narrow window of time in which to impress Carly with something other than the fact that he'd been recently victimized. (Which, of course, he hadn't been. Not really.) And his various injuries were probably going to improve over the weekend when he'd have no opportunity to see Carly. For the time being, he needed the black eye and the various lacerationsâit was the essence of his victim-ness, which was the essence of his appeal to his do-gooder, rodent-saving dream girl. If he showed up at school on Monday in good health, the consequences were dire: no more walks to class with Carly; no more lunches with Carly; no more fawning from Carly, period.
They pulled into Duncan's driveway, exited the car, and walked toward the front door. Jess and Stew were engaged in a game in which they attempted to have a semirational conversation using only song titles; this quickly degenerated into a Smiths versus Fall Out Boy showdown. Duncan threw open the screen door, yelled hello to whoever might be listening, and headed for the kitchen. Jessie helped herself to the Oreos and soda. Talia skipped through, inquired about Duncan's face, then left. Duncan's mother rushed in and snatched her keys from a wall hook near the fridge. She gave Jessie a sharp look, which was ignoredâJessie being lost in the bliss of sugar and saturated fatâand then addressed her son.
“How was school today, dear? Still feeding at the trough of self-pity?”
“No, Mom. All better now. How was your day?”
“Principal Donovan is the lowest form of amoebic scuâ” She stopped, smiled coyly, and then said, “It was delightful. Another perfect day. Nothing to report. Need anything from the store, honey?”
“You're low on Oreos, Mrs. Boone,” said Jessie.
“I'm glad you feel so welcome here, Jessica.”
“Okay, Mrs. Boone,” she said through a mouthful of cookie. “I'll give you one âJessica' since I played a small role in breaking your son's head. But that's it. Anyway, you're low on Oreos.”
“Noted,” said Duncan's mom as she left.
Duncan sat pensively for a moment while Jessie and Stew foraged in the walk-in pantry. He felt his swollen eye, then his lip and nose.
“So,” he said, “what happens when my face heals?”
“Then you go back to being ugly for all the usual reasons,” said Stew.
“No, I mean . . . well, yeah, that, sure. But what I mean isâ”
“âwhat happens with Carly,” said Jessie. She bit into a stack of cheese-flavored chips.
“Exactly. I won't look like this for long. I'll recuperate. And then she'll forget about me again.”
“But you've got a foot in the door, dude,” said Stew.
“His foot's in a door marked âHelpless Victims,' though,” said Jess.
“Yup,” agreed Duncan. “Once my face heals, she's indifferent to me.”
“Join that TARTS thing,” said Stew. “I mean, unless they're too political. I don't wanna be in a band that's totally political. We're not, like, flower children. Our message is loud and simple: rock, motherfâ”
“Dude! My little sister is giving her Barbie a makeover in the next room.”
“Right. Our message is this: rock, people of the western suburbs.”
“Anyway, I did join TARTS. Sort of. I filled out the form on the back of a pamphlet. I might send it in.”
“But you need to stay beaten up,” said Jess.
“Yeah, that's what I'm thinking. At least for now.”
“Easy enough,” said Stew. “The best way to provoke violent assaults is to keep pissing off Jess. She'll give you beat-downs as needed.”
“Right,” said Duncan. “Because that's so enjoyable.”
“You need a different assailant,” said Jessie, a spray of orange crumbs flying from her mouth. “I'm not crossing Carly, man. That girl fights back. Ask Hurley.”
“But you agree that I
need an assailant, right?” asked Duncan. “I need a thug.”
Jessie and Stew stared at him for a long, silent moment.
“It's hard to tell if you're kidding, Duncan, because your face is so bashed up,” said Jessie. “You
“No.” He returned the stare. “At least I don't think I'm kidding.”
to get the crap kicked out of you?” asked Jessie. “Repeatedly? To impress the only girl on earth who might actually be impressed by this?”
“I think I do. I mean, it would be nice if I didn't actually have to suffer any more facial injuries.”
“But you'd accept, say, a broken femur?” asked Jess. “Or a lacerated spleen? A ruptured appendix? Broken fingers?”
“No, not the fingers. Can't play guitar with broken fingers.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Stew. “We might have to cancel a gig. Or maybe the entire Asian tour. That'd sure suck.”
“Anyway, I don't actually want to get
. But we laid the groundwork for me being terrorized by a thug, and Carly ate it up. This victim thing is my in with her.”
“And so you're thinking you need to provoke some scary thug?” said Jessie. “Maybe get him to chase you around the lunchroom or something? Hmm. That's some crazy-in-love desperation right there, Duncan.”
“You said to take radical action.”
“That I did. But what I really meant was, y'know . . . try
to the girl. Write her a note, maybe. Or go the secret admirer route. I didn't mean that you should risk injury.”
“Well, I don't actually want to get hurt. I'm not that self-destructive âit's my tragic weakness as a musician. Well, that and not being able to master any Satriani arpeggios.”
“So what are you thinking?” Jessie asked.
Duncan fidgeted for a few seconds. He tapped his foot against the kitchen floor and rubbed his temples, then looked up.
“I'd like to hire a bully,” he said.
Jessie and Stew stared again. Jess placed the chip bag on the counter and wiped her hands.
“Okay. Let's have a look at the yearbook.”
They sat perusing the glossy pages of yearbooks, suggesting potential goons who might be willing to assault him for profit. Names were written on a kitchen chalkboard, then erased, then new names proposed. Some were deemed too unattainable given their position in the social strata (like Perry); others were judged too inadvisable because they were criminally unhinged (like Erik “the Yeti” Slutzer). Ultimately, all EFTHS goons presented the same insurmountable problem: despite their goonishness, they had friends. All of them. Eventually, they were likely going to discuss Duncan's plan with these friends. And if word leaked that Duncan tried to recruit a bully to fake-attack him so that he could elicit sympathy from Carly Garfield, that would obviously doom his chances with her. So if Duncan was going to choreograph any acts of bullying,
could find out. This was imperative.
And it seemed impossible. After twenty minutes spent vetting various candidatesâand ruling all of them outâthey were interrupted by Duncan's father, an ample man dressed in a red Izod shirt and dark brown Dockers.
“'Lo,” he said, whistling.
“Evenin', Mr. Boone,” chirped Jessie. “Did you see what I did to your son's face?”
“Mmm-hmm,” said Mr. Boone. He scanned the pantry shelves. “No Oreos?”
“Mom's at the store,” said Duncan.
“Mmm.” He turned, opened the fridge, and withdrew a package of gray sausages, then strolled outside.
“Your dad is complex,” said Stew.
“A serious thinker,” agreed Duncan. “He's what Mrs. Kindler would call âan archetype.' ” Duncan ran his hands through his hair, then sighed. “So hiring a thug is hopeless, I guess.”
“Hopeless?” said Jessie. “No. But there are many risks, and the only reward is that your dream girl will think you're a doofus.”
“She loves doofuses.”
“We know that she loves
them. We do not know that she loves
“Right,” said Duncan. “But Carly never said a word to me until I was oozing blood, and now she can't get enough of me. That ends if there are no more assaults. It'd be nice just to stage something. Nothing hugeânothing that leaves me dismembered. I just need a little victimization.”
“If you're asking me to attack you again, the answer is still no,” said Jessie, grinning.
“And I'm totally nonviolent,” said Stew.
Talia raced through the kitchen noisily. A yellow Nerf bullet followed her, just missing her feet as she zigzagged between chairs. Emily entered the room breathless, a purple-and -orange semiautomatic Nerf gun in her right hand. She paused, staring at Duncan.
“Oh, sweet!” she said, huffing. “It's true! You really do look awful! It couldn't happen to a bigger turd!” Emily popped off two Nerf bullets at Duncan. He blocked one with his hand, but the other clipped his left ear. Emily scurried off.
“Evil gnome!” yelled Duncan.
“She's a charmer,” said Jessie.
“You two share an affinity for hitting me with stuff.”
“She's in Talia's class?” asked Stew. “Really? She seems too big.”
“No, she goes to Reagan Math and Science. Private school brat. She gets picked up by a bus full of . . .”
“Duh!” said Jessie, standing. “Another school.”
Duncan and Stew stared at her with blank faces.
“We're looking for Duncan's bully in the wrong school,” she said. “We could find someone at Maple North, maybe. If it's too risky to use one of our fellow Owls, then we'll get a Maple North Viking. It's perfect.”
“We don't know any thuggy Maple students, do we?” asked Stew.
“Nope,” said Jessie. “But there must be some. We'll scout them in the visitors section tonight.”
“Because you think that all the Maple North thugs attend the away football games?” Duncan asked.
“No, but we could still poke around a little, compile names, ask who the thugs are.”
“How weird is
?” said Duncan.
“So you'd rather forgo this pretend-to-be-bullied ruse,” snapped Jessie, “in favor of the old approach: stalking Carly and always doing something idiotic when you're around her?”
Duncan drummed on the kitchen table for a moment.
“Okay,” he said. “We talk to Vikings.”
They returned to EFTHS, where Duncan discovered that he very much enjoyed the anonymity of the visiting team's sideline. The threshold for embarrassing oneself was extremely highâespecially when those around you were being led in cheers by a shirtless ax-wielding kid in plastic horns and a Viking beard. Jessie, pretending to represent the Elm Forest student newspaper, the
roamed the sidelines badgering Maple North students, ostensibly for a “Know your rivals” feature. Stew took notes. It had been decided that Duncan's bruises made him a liability in a face-to -face interview. Neither Jess nor Stew had any actual affiliation with the school paper, although Jessie had once written a strongly worded letter to the editor (unpublished) excoriating them for recommending a Ryan Cabrera song as prom theme. She peppered Maple North students with questions like “Who's the hottest guy in school?” (no clear winner) and “Who's your creepiest teacher?” (by an overwhelming margin, a History teacher named Dr. Ween) and “Do you know where Vikings came from?” (most said Scandinavia, though two said “Viking Land”). The only question that really meant anything to the questioners, however, was “Who's the toughest kid in school?”