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Authors: Andy Behrens

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BOOK: Beauty and the Bully
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After a thorough canvassing of Viking fans, Jessie sat on an empty patch of bleacher near Duncan. “We've established the identity of the alpha-bully at Maple North,” she declared.
“And he is . . . ,” said Duncan with mock anxiousness.
“A boy named Sloth.”
“Is he slow-moving?” asked Duncan.
“What?” asked Jessie.
“Sloths are slow. It's their diet. All leaves.”
“No,” said Jessie. “Doesn't sound like he's a leaf-eater. As I understand it, he's just furry.”
“Thus, Sloth,” said Stew.
“A nickname,” Jessie said. “Real name, Ted Gleeman. He's a fifth-year senior, rumored to be as old as twenty. Possibly psychotic. Regarded by most as totally unapproachable.”
“Totally?”
“Well, no one approaches him at school,” said Jessie. “And he's rarely called upon in class. An assistant dean told me—off the record—that the faculty is determined to see Sloth graduate. He scares them.” She paused. “So we'll confront him away from school grounds. Tomorrow. I have a lead on his residence.”
“That's some fine journalism,” said Duncan.
“I have a way with people,” she said. “I'm a bubbly gal when you get right down to it.”
Duncan shifted uncomfortably.
“Don't worry,” said Jessie flatly. “I make the initial contact. I'm just an unthreatening girl. What's the worst that can happen?”
“He crushes your skull, then eats your entrails,” said Stew.
“You forget my way with people,” she said.
A simple Web search back at Duncan's confirmed Jessie's lead: “T. Gleeman” indeed lived at the Mallard Brooke apartment complex in Maple Grove. On Saturday morning, after a late night of no-life, Duncan, Stew, and Jessie hopped back in her car, bought coffees, and staked out Mallard Brooke Apartment 312. It was located in a recently annexed section of Maple Grove, near a cluster of industrial buildings. They sat anxiously in the late-morning light, sipping.
“So we'll just observe Sloth,” Duncan said. “In his natural habitat. If we don't think he can help, we move on.”
“To what?” asked Stew.
“There's always a plan B.”
“I'm guessing plan B involves Carly tied up in the back of a rented van,” said Jessie.
Duncan laughed. “Don't be ridiculous,” he said. “I'm not old enough to rent a van.” He slid down low in the front seat and stuck his feet outside the window.
“All feet must be inside the car, please,” said Jessie.
“Why, do you have sexual fantasies that involve the passenger-side front window?”
She flicked Duncan's ear with her finger. “No, I do not. But I've seen lots of films where cops go on stakeouts, and I've never once seen a fictional detective sit with his feet out the window. It's not done.”
“Um . . . we're not cops.” Duncan removed the plastic lid of his coffee and swirled it with his index finger. “I was just trying to be casual in case anyone noticed us.”
“Like who?” asked Stew. “The Mallard Brooke security force? Not likely.”
Duncan looked up to the apartment in which he believed Sloth resided. Sunlight glinted off the tiny windows and the brown metal balcony. A gray stairwell was strewn with discarded beer cans and fast-food bags. The shrubs were overgrown. The grass was beige.
“The Gleeman family doesn't seem to be doing well,” he said.
“This place has perks,” said Jess. “See, there's a pool.”
She pointed toward a small rectangular pit that was covered by a layer of dead leaves. A lifeguard's chair was on its side. The pool was surrounded by a padlocked fence.
“If I ever do have that sex on my hood, get pregnant, drop out of school, and get kicked out of my house, I'm totally moving in here.”
They sat in the Mallard Brooke lot until nearly noon, surveying the infrastructure. No one bothered them. In fact, very few residents or visitors appeared.
“We should leave,” Duncan eventually said. “This is insane.”
“Oh, c'mon,” said Jessie. “I thought you were
in love
.” She made exaggerated smooching sounds in Duncan's direction.
“I'm getting uneasy,” he said. “I'm also getting hungry. But mostly uneasy.”
“About what? About this incredibly twisted, desperate plot to deceive the girl of your dreams through an unnecessarily complicated act of trickery? One that can't possibly end with her happy and you guiltless, by the way.”
“No, no. I'm cool with that.”
“Oh, good. I thought you were getting all weenie on me.”
“No, I'm uneasy about Sloth.” Duncan crumpled his empty cup.
“Let's suppose we eventually do see a large, young, furry dude. What then?” He shifted in his seat. “I'm just uneasy.”
“I've got your back,” said Jess.
“No offense, since you've recently kicked my ass, but I'd feel better if I had more backup than a tiny punk rock girl and a nonviolent bassist.” Duncan turned to face Stew, who was sprawled across the backseat. “Bassists are supposed to be notorious brawlers, by the way.”
“I took tae kwon do for six months,” he answered.
“We were seven,” said Duncan.
“I broke a board with my elbow.” Stew made a slow chopping motion in Duncan's direction.
“Can we please just get some lunch?” Duncan pleaded. “We can come ba—”
A gray-green Chevy screeched into a parking spot on the opposite side of the lot. A name appeared across the rear window in Old English script:
Stew bolted upright.
Hmm said Duncan.
“Looky!” said Jessie. She grinned at Duncan. “I'm gonna go introduce myself!”
Duncan gripped her arm before she could open the door.
“To who?” he asked. “The driver of that car? We don't know that's Sloth just because it says ‘Sloth' on the window. That could be a family member—his mom borrowing the car, maybe. Or it could be . . .”
“. . . a different Sloth altogether?” said Jess sardonically. “You're right, Duncan. That could be any old Sloth.”
“Well, let's just wait a second,” Duncan said. “There's no sense getting out and walking over there until we know that it's . . .”
An astonishingly hairy person wearing a red flannel shirt emerged from the car. He seemed to roll out. He scratched his prominent gut and shrugged his shoulders as he stood beside the open door. His arms angled away from his massive chest, as if ready to draw guns. Or bring down a foal and drag it to his cave.
“Oh,” said Duncan.
“That's our boy,” said Stew.
Jessie wrenched free and opened the driver's-side door. She began walking quickly toward the Chevy. Duncan and Stew soon followed. Duncan felt a jolt of fear as Sloth beheld them for the first time. His unkempt beard began high up on his cheeks and continued down his neck. He wore a backwards Cubs cap and scuffed work boots.
“Hey there!” shouted Jess, sounding uncharacteristically perky. Sloth twitched, saying nothing. “You don't happen to go to North, do you?”
Slowly, almost robotically, Sloth's lips began to move. “Yee-aay-ah,” he grumbled. His eyes narrowed.
“So you're Sloth, then? Like it says on the window. Do you prefer Sloth or—”
“Sloth'll do,” he muttered.
“Great,” said Jessie. An uncomfortable pause followed. “So,” she continued, “we have a favor to ask. Actually, it's more of an arrangement to discuss.” She stepped aside and swept her arm out toward Duncan. “Sloth, meet Duncan. Duncan, meet Sloth.”
Sloth spit a loogie onto the asphalt. “Hey,” he said.
“Hi!” said Duncan, sounding squeaky and nervous. “Hi,” he said again in a deliberately lower-than-usual tone. “Hi,” he repeated, finding his normal voice.
“So, Duncan?” said Jessie, urging him to make his pitch.
“Right,” he said. “My friends and I have become familiar with your reputation. It's impressive.” Sloth's face was totally still. Duncan reasoned that it couldn't be easy to identify any emotions, no matter how strongly felt they were, in someone so scary.
“My reputation,” Sloth repeated.
“Yes,” Duncan said. “As your school's preeminent tough guy. Um . . . tough person. Person of toughness.”
Sloth simply stared. He was several inches taller than Duncan, and at least a foot wider.
“Tough,” said Sloth, yawning.
“Yes,” said Duncan. “That's the opinion of your classmates. We took a poll.”
“So you don't go to North?” Sloth asked.
“Nope,” said Stew. “But we hear it's nice. Except for that Dr. Ween.”
“Yeah, he's a weirdo,” said Sloth, nodding.
“Anyway,” said Duncan, his voice wavering, “we've heard a lot about you.”
Sloth took a step forward, causing Duncan to recoil. Sloth looked at him curiously, then reopened his car door, removing a backpack.
“Is there somethin' you need, Duncan?” Sloth asked. He pointed at Duncan's battered face. “If you want someone to protect you, you've got—”
“Oh no!” said Jessie. “He doesn't need protection. He needs another beat-down.”
“Well,” said Duncan, “not a
real
beat-down, but a sort of choreographed beat-down that doesn't injure me so much as make me seem helpless and weak and, um . . . sad.”
Sloth stared.
“That's messed up,” he said.
“Yeah, well, I can see why you might think that,” said Duncan. “It is kind of messed up. You're absolutely right.” He began to sweat.
“Duncan is in a unique situation,” said Jessie. “He sort of needs to get bullied in order to get this chick he likes to pay attention to him.”
“Is she hot?” asked Sloth.
“Kinda hot, I guess,” said Jessie, sneering. “If you're into—”
“She is undeniably hot, yes,” said Stew. “Devastatingly, breathtakingly, mind-bendingly hot. Yes.”
“What kinda hot chick is into beat-up dudes?” asked Sloth. “That's sick.”
“I'm with you, brothah!” yelled Jessie, throwing her hands up.
“An incredibly sympathetic, compassionate girl,” said Duncan. “That's what kind.”
“And she's hot?” asked Sloth.
“Oh, sorta,” said Jess, “if you can overlook—”
“Yes,”
said Duncan. “Any reasonable heterosexual would tell you she's hot, yes. And fantastically nice. Like a kitten.” He paused. “Does it matter that she's hot?”
“Nope,” said Sloth, yawning again. “That just sounds messed up.”
“Yeah, well, on the surface, maybe,” agreed Duncan. “I'm not here to argue that. But could you still help? I'd pay you. Or I'd write a paper for you.”
“Threaten you?” asked Sloth.
“Yup,” said Duncan.
“'Fraid not,” said Sloth. He began to walk slowly toward the stairwell. “You guys wanna come up? I've got leftover squash curry from this Thai place.”
Duncan, Stew, and Jessie stared at one another, confused.
“Well, we don't want to disturb your family.”
“I live alone,” said Sloth, trundling off.
Duncan shuddered. Sloth lures us into his lair, he thought. Then he carves us up and leaves our bones at the bottom of the pool. Then he . . .
Jessie and Stew were already on Sloth's heels, following. Duncan shuddered again, then ran to catch up.
“You live
alone
?” Jess asked. “How cool.”
“Not very,” said Sloth. “I work third shift, which sucks. I get home from school, go to bed, get up at ten, go to work, then to school again.”
“Eek,” she said.
“I'm too busy to threaten you, Duncan. Sorry. And I'm not really the threatening type anyway.” He fished in his pocket for his keys.
“But just about every North student—and more than one faculty member—agreed that you were the scariest guy in school,” said Jessie.
“A convenient reputation,” said Sloth. “I don't discourage it.” He yawned again.
“So you really won't attack me?” asked Duncan.
“Sorry.”
“Really, I'm willing to take on homework,” offered Duncan. “I can write a pretty mean comparative essay.”
“Me, too,” said Sloth.
Duncan wilted.
Sloth opened the door to his apartment. The decor was tasteful and bright. Framed pictures of family members sat on end tables. “Leave your shoes by the door, please.”
BOOK: Beauty and the Bully
13.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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