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Authors: Andy Behrens

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BOOK: Beauty and the Bully
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8
“Question: Could that have possibly been a
bigger
waste of my time?” Duncan leaned his head against the Volkswagen's window while Jessie drove. “Answer: No.”
“Oh, stop,” said Jess. “We met a pretty cool guy.”
“We met a guy who looks like serial killer but is, in fact, a Boy Scout. And more importantly, he's a Boy Scout who's too busy—and too nice—to help me.”
“We made a friend and had some day-old curry. Tasty day-old curry, I might add. And we learned a lesson.”
“What's that?”
“That you can't judge a book by its cover.” Jessie sighed contentedly.
“Or a sloth by its fur,” said Stew. “Or something.”
“I already learned that one,” said Duncan. “In kindergarten. Everyone learned it in kindergarten.” Duncan's head fell into his hands.
“So you didn't prejudge Sloth as a thug just because he was huge, allegedly crazy, and his name was
Sloth
?” asked Jessie.
“Of course I did. But I knew I
shouldn't
prejudge him. Fear just took over. So I really didn't learn anything—at best, a lesson that I didn't need was reinforced.” Duncan lifted his head and looked toward Jessie. “The only thing I really learned today is this: I'm screwed. Utterly screwed.”
“Just chill. First of all, Sloth was only our first attempt to find you a thug. Don't give up hope—there are plenty of nasty dudes out there just waiting for us to solicit them. And secondly, your face still looks like total crap, so Carly isn't going to just forget about this bullying stuff by Monday morning.”
“The puffiness is already going away,” said Duncan. He poked at his purplish eyelids and cheek. “See, this would have really hurt yesterday. I'm getting better. Which sucks.”
Jess pulled the car into Duncan's driveway.
“And it's only Saturday afternoon,” he added. “So I'll be healing for another forty hours or so before Carly sees me.”
“Well, whatever you do, dude, don't ice yourself. There's no way that eye's gonna look human again by Monday morning.”
“Would you still walk a guy to class if he had this eye?”
“Duncan, I can't imagine
what
condition a guy would have to be in for Jessie Panger to walk him to class and carry his stuff. He'd probably have to be blind, armless, not unattractive, and a pretty big fan of eighties hardcore. A black eye wouldn't really inspire me. I can't relate to Carly, dude.”
“Right. Of course. I was a fool to ask.”
“Practice tonight, then reconvene no-life club?” asked Stew.
“I have a vicious God of War addiction to feed,” said Jess.
“Sure thing,” said Duncan. He sighed.
Jessie patted his back (hard, like a golfer pats another golfer). “Buck up, buddy,” she said. “Or use this period of personal misery to craft achingly sweet, emotive rock anthems. Whatever.”
Duncan moped out of the car and Jess squealed off. He retreated to his room to catch up on homework. After reading not quite a full page of
Gatsby,
he realized he'd absorbed nothing. Duncan attempted to reread the passage, but instead fell asleep. The book fell to the floor. Hours passed.
He awoke to a sharp rap at his bedroom door, then his mom's voice: “Duncan, are you in there? Hon?”
“Mmmblugh,” he managed.
“Your father and I are taking Talia and Emily out for dinner, ” she said through the door. “We're either doing Chuck E. Cheese or Olive Garden. Do either of those sound good?”
Duncan clutched his pillow. “Is death an option?” he said.
“It's a metaphysical certainty, honey,” replied his mom. “But not for dinner. Tonight we decide between pizza and pasta. Are you coming with?”
“And be trapped with that slug-eater Emily? No chance, Mom.”
“Suit yourself, sweetie. Can we bring you anything?”
“Pepperoni if you go pizza. Chicken marsala if you go Italian.”
“You're a predictable boy, honey.”
“You have no idea, Mom.”
He listened to his mom's footsteps down the hall, then the stairs. She jingled her keys, called the girls, then slammed the front door shut. Duncan reached for his phone to check the time. 6:58. He called Jess. She answered quickly.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he said sleepily. "C'mon over. Practice begineth.”
“Right, cool. We're really going to play, right? We're not just arguing set lists or arcane band philosophy or dissecting the subtleties of your latest eye contact with Carly?”
“No, just practice, sans bassist.” He yawned. “But if you would just do what I say, when I say it, there'd be no arguments. ”
“A band can't be a dictatorship, dude.”
“If only. That's really the problem with bands. I may have to launch the solo career.”
“You'd be lost without me, dude. Like Mick without Keith. You ever hear one of those Mick Jagger solo efforts? Not pretty.”
“Right. But I bet that band works so well because Keith does what he's told. Just collect Stew and come over,” Duncan said.
Click.
He snatched his math textbook and a notebook from his desk, then ambled downstairs to snack and read. But first he examined himself in the mirror of the downstairs bathroom. “Approximately eight percent less puffy,” he said of his eye. “Dang.” Duncan sulked as he entered the kitchen. He blindly grabbed a bag of chips from the pantry, then pulled himself up onto the kitchen counter and threw open the book. He really had zero interest in homework, complex problem sets, or any aspect of his education. He needed to wallow. And vent. And wallow again. He yawned, then stuffed a handful of chips into his mouth. Then he closed the book, tossed it aside, and descended into the basement.
He grabbed an acoustic guitar and strummed lightly. Distracted and dejected, he threw himself down onto the couch to brood. Jessie soon hopped downstairs.
“What's the matter, rocker?” she said.
“Oh, hey,” said Duncan. “Feel free to let yourself in.” He sat up. “No Stew?”
“Sleeping. His mom didn't seem to want me to wake him, either. I don't think she trusts me. What is this effect I have on moms, anyway?”
“They sense wickedness,” said Duncan. He stood and sighed. “Should we go practice?”
“But you seem so glum.”
“You're not the sit-and-listen type of girl, remember? So let's just jam. I'll work through my teenage angst-crap musically. ”
“Well, luckily this situation does not call for me to sit and listen, Duncan—which is not really my thing, as we've discussed —because I know what's wrong with you. It's rat-girl.”
“She's not just a rat-girl. She's protecting all the rodents of the world. There are, like, over a thousand different kinds— and not just mice and rats. That's what the big pharmaceutical companies and their lobbyists
want
you to think. Or at least that's what Carly wants me to think the pharmaceutical companies want me to think. Anyway, squirrels are rodents, for example. So are marmots, beavers, prairie dogs, porcupines, muskrats, woodchucks, and a lot of other things I've forgotten. And Carly loves them all—it's sweet, really.”
“You're telling me that labs are performing experiments on beavers?”
“Maybe. I don't know. I'll ask. But the point is that they
could
be experimenting on beavers, because no one's protecting them.”
“Except Carly and her beaver club.”
“Let's not call them that.”
Jessie tucked her legs underneath her, then wrapped a quilt around her shoulders.
“In any case, I'm willing to allow some discussion about how to proceed with you and Carly if we can't find you a bully.”
“There is no me and Carly without a bully. The bully is the flint to ignite the fire that
is
me and Carly. Without the flint, no sparks. Without the sparks, no big roaring inferno of—”
“—of Duncan and beaver-girl. I get it.”
Duncan glared at her. “Because you've been trying to help me—which I appreciate—I'm gonna let the beaver talk go.”
“You're in no position to threaten me, dude,” said Jess, grinning.
“So we were going to discuss my wooing Carly.”
“Right,” said Jess, shifting slightly. “You know, we do have a few other thug names from our systematic sampling of Maple North students. We could try 'em.”
“Sloth was their king, though. Those North kids are soft. And I couldn't endure another stakeout.”
“Me either, really.” She thought for a moment. “Ooh, here's an idea: we'll call administrators at other high schools—not just North—and pretend to be military recruiters. Then we ask for the names of the most disruptive and troubled kids. I'd bet we'll get good leads.”
“Don't you think there might be something illegal about pretending to be military recruiters? Like,
seriously
illegal. Like they throw you in a small cage in a secret island prison and put electrodes on our shaved heads.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Jess said, sighing. “We could go to Tacos de Paco downtown and look for bullies. It's been my experience that thug-looking guys really enjoy the cheap burritos.”
“Dude, all men are drawn to burritos. They call to us.
‘¡Cómame, amigos!'
they say. And we obey them. They are not simply for thugs.”
“Oohhhh-kay.” She raised an eyebrow.
“Mrs. Kindler would call that anthropomorphizing,” Duncan said. “The talking burritos.”
“Right. So we don't look for bullies at the burrito place. Fine. There must be other ways to find them.” Jess frowned, thinking hard. “How 'bout we dress Stew up as some kind of übergeek—the thick glasses, the button-down oxford—and we use him as bait. Maybe take him to a mall and wait for someone to antagonize him. Then, when they do, you and I swoop in and offer to hire them.”
“Number one, that's a lot to ask of Stew. Number two—and this is really the deal-breaker—if these mall thugs somehow managed to hurt Stew before we could get there, Carly would start lavishing attention on
him
. We can't have that. It would lead to friction, mistrust, and general band discord.” He tapped his fingertips together. “Let's face it: things are hopeless. ”
“You could just try being honest with Carly,” Jessie said. “Maybe express what you're actually feeling.”
Duncan chuckled. “You're high, Jess. It's waaaaaay too early in the relationship for honesty. Once you've played the honesty card, it's over. There are no more cards to play.”
“So honesty is only to be attempted after you're completely out of BS? Is that how it works? Hmm. Interesting.”
“Kinda. At least in this case. I was hoping to save honesty for, like, last week of senior year. Unless Carly and I were ever drunk together, which seems even less likely than our dating.”
Jessie fumbled with the collection of remotes hidden in various chair crevices. She turned on the TV, then the game system, then grabbed a controller. She and Duncan continued discussing his bully/Carly options while she gamed. Eventually, they began to hear upstairs noises: keys, the front door, indecipherable conversation, giggly kids.
“Food's here,” said Duncan. “Finally.”
Jessie grunted at the TV, swerving to duck some pixelated missile. Duncan leapt up the stairs.
“Hey, Mom,” he said. “Jess is over. She's gaming. Where's dinner?”
“Missed you, too, son,” said his smiling father, angling past him on his way to the fridge.
“There are several pizza slices in a Styrofoam container,” said Duncan's mom. “The wait at Olive Garden was ninety minutes. We went to Chuck E.”
“I won a plastic butterfly!” said Talia, hopping. “It lights up!”
She squeezed it. It lit up.
“Emily won sparkly stickers and Silly Putty!” Talia said. Emily stretched the Silly Putty and grinned.
“Fantastic,” said Duncan. “That's great news, T. Now, where's the pizza?”
Emily handed him a Styrofoam box. Duncan looked toward his mom.
“You let the troll handle the food?” he asked incredulously.
“It was in the backseat,” said his mom, flipping through mail.
“And the troll was also in the backseat with the pizza, doing who-knows-what?”
Talia squeezed her butterfly. “Stop calling my friend a troll!” she said.
“Duncan, stop calling your sister's friend a troll,” said his dad. The troll smiled quietly, gripping the pizza.
“Mom,” he said, “did the food really ride with Emily? Really? The whole time?”
“I guess so, honey. But I'm sure the pizza's fine. Emily is a lovely girl.” She nudged him with the pizza box.
“Have some,” Emily said, grinning wider. “If you're feeling lucky.” She snickered.
Duncan grabbed a bag of chips and went downstairs. “I'm really not,” he said. “Not at all.”
9
The remaining hours of the weekend passed uneventfully. Fat Barbie's Saturday practice consisted of Duncan picking at the acoustic guitar while Jessie made fighting noises—“AAY-YAH! ” and “BWAP!” and “KEE-YOW!”—in response to video games. On Sunday it drizzled. Duncan spent the day completing problem sets, writing Spanish paragraphs, reading more
Gatsby,
then journaling about it as he'd promised Mrs. Kindler in his previous entry. At regular intervals, he checked on the size and coloration of his assorted facial injuries. Every time he did this, his reaction was the same: Oh, not good. Getting smaller. Crap.
BOOK: Beauty and the Bully
3.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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