Authors: Alex Flinn
For my family:
Katie, my muse
Meredith, my good-luck charm
and Gene, who let me find my way
Happy birthday to me.
The metal door slams behind me. I am on the outside. Mom starts to hug me but draws back when the guard shoves my release paperwork across the desk for me to sign. Two years ago, Mom filled everything out for me. But now I am an adultâat least in the eyes of the law. Old enough to be held fully accountable for my actions.
Some people say age doesn't matter. I should have paid more for what I did, even though I was only fifteen.
Maybe they're right. But they don't know what I've paidâinside my head, where it matters.
And doing the right thing isn't always easy. Maybe it's just been too long since they were in high school. Maybe they don't remember what it was like.
Or maybe they didn't go to school with someone like Charlie Good.
I was a misfit. If you'd asked me, I'd have guessed school uniforms were a good idea. Like camouflage. I'd have been kidding myself. On registration day, in my blue regulation crested polo and khakis that cleared my ankle despite fitting the week before, I knew I'd never fit in at Gate-Brickell Christian, my new school, in Miami, my new town.
I stood in the registration line, squeaking the vinylized wood gym floor against my Top-Siders. (The student handbook mandated “conservative” shoes. Also, “traditional” haircuts and “no piercings, except females, who may have one hole per ear only.”) I tried to look shorter. At fifteen, I was already six one, skinny, and my dark head stuck out above the swarms of mostly blond ones. They greeted one another passionately after a long summer or, more likely, a long night. I watched themâthe girls especiallyâtrying to pretend I wasn't. A blond with glasses cornered a redhead.
“What'd you do this summer?”
The second girl, who managed to have breasts even in the hideous plaid jumpers the girls wore, shrugged. “Didn't do jack. Just vegged in Europe, then vegged here while the 'rents busted on me for wasting my youth.”
The blond rolled her eyes. “I hear you.”
A guy approached the blond. “Vamp 'do, Kirby.”
An insult, from her reaction. Hard to tell. Their English was foreign, and I struggled to understand. Suddenly, I had the feeling I wasn't alone.
“You look confused.” Someone behind me.
She meant me. I turned but said nothing.
Her hair was the best thing about her. From the rear, she could have been beautiful. Dark ringlets hung down her shoulders, gypsyish. The hair was a waste. The face, downright ugly, a screwed-up little face with eyes like raisins sunk in rice pudding, all hidden behind enormous glasses. She stared me down. She was skinny and almost as tall as I was. I realized she'd been watching me awhile. “Can you talk?” she demanded. “I mean, are you physically able to speak? I'm not being sarcastic, just curious.”
I glanced around to see if anyone was listening. No one was. “I'm not confused.”
“It speaks.” She smiled, sort of a Mona Lisa thing she was trying for. Apparently, word hadn't reached her that she wasn't a supermodel. “You look confused. Around here, looking confused is as bad as being confused. Worse, maybe. Any sign of weakness, they eat you alive.”
“Oh.” Was talking to her a sign of weakness?
“I'm Binky Lopez-Nande.” She stuck out her hand, sort of a weird thing to do.
I took it. “Paul Richmond.” Her ridiculous name sunk in. “Binky?”
“Short for Belinda. Couldn't pronounce it when I was little, so my parents called me Binky. It's the bane of my existence.”
I doubted that.
“What are you confused about, Richmond?”
“Nothing. I'm just figuring out a schedule.”
“You're new here? We don't take well to newcomers unless you're someone important. Are you?” Her raisin eyes said I didn't look it.
“No. I mean, I'm going here because my mother works here.” Hoping maybe that would end the conversation. Two guys my age had gotten in line behind us.
“Best reason I've heard for coming here.”
“I'm trying to decide between Spanish and art.” A few steps sideways, away from her, leaving only a toe in line.
“Depends. Are you college bound or running out the clock until some big trust fund kicks in?”
“Well, there's no trust fund.”
“Didn't think so.” A few steps toward me. “What sort of classes did you take at your old school?”
I shuffled, considering my answer, not wanting to reveal, even to her, that there was no old school. I'd been home-schooled and felt younger than the other sophomores, despite my height. I mumbled something about moving a lot because Dad was in the army. That was true, at least. I glanced back at the two guys. They paid me no attention. Why should they? They were part of things, normal. I tried to listen in. The bigger guy, who looked like a refugee from World Wrestling Federation, with arms threatening to bulge through the bands of his uniform polo, had said something to insult his friend.
“You're a bastard, Meat,” the friend said. “Know that?”
“Watch your language,” the big guyâMeatâsaid.
His friend, even taller than me, but not clumsy, let fly a string of obscenities that would have offended a rap group. Meat took a swing. I thought they were kidding around, but next thing I knew, they were on the floor, hurtling into my knees, and I was a human missile. My nonskid shoes didn't help. My legs flew past my head, my butt hit ground. They stood, laughing, leaving me where I'd fallen. I sat a second. When I was pretty sure they'd forgotten me, I stood, edged back into line. I ignored Binky's averted eyes.
“Apologize!” A voice from nowhere.
I froze. Did he mean me? “What?”
“Not you,” said the voice. I dimly recognized there was a person connected to it. Whitish hair, white chinos, white polo. He turned toward the guys, and I understood he was their leader. “Apologize to the kid.”
“Aww, Charlie, we don't have to,” Meat said.
The better-looking one nodded. “Not like geek-boy's going to do anything.”
“Boys, boys.” Charlie folded his arms. He was much shorter than his friends, but he didn't look up. Rather, they backed off to make eye contact with him. “When we crash into people, custom calls for an apology. No matter who they are.” He nodded at each of them. “Meat? St. John?”
And the subject was closed. Their unison apology sounded more like a curse. They walked away, heads down.
Charlie turned to me, and I, like his friends, found myself backing to meet his eyes. They were brown, which seemed just right with his light hair. Short though he was, Charlie wasn't fat or fragile or childish like short guys usually are. Rather, he was just this small person, as if everyone else was a waste of materials. He wore sneakersâforbidden by the handbookâand his polo was nonuniform. It said
WIMBLEDON TENNIS CHAMPIONSHIPS
“Charlie Good.” He didn't extend his hand. “No
, just plain Good.”
He expected a response. “Paul Richmond.”
“Word of advice, Paul. Be aware of your surroundings. You're not from around here, are you?”
I shook my head.
“Well, this can be a dangerous place. Very, very dangerous.”
He smiled and walked away. Did the crowds part for him? Must have been my imagination. I turned to Binky.
“Who was that?” I asked, feeling more confused than ever.
She pulled me forward, took a card for the Spanish class and handed me one. “That's trouble.”
Mom broke the silence in our car. “So, how was registration?”
I grunted. I didn't want to upset her. I didn't want to lie either.
“That's not an answer, Paul.” Mom yanked a blond hair from her head.
I tried not to notice. I stared out the window, at the strip malls, gas stations, and convenience stores. The car's air conditioner was broken, and the humidity through the open windows pushed the air from my lungs. I felt Mom watching me. Finally I said, “The kids were sort of rich. They had Rolexes and stuff.”
And she said what I'd known she'd say. “We have to try not to think about money.”
She said it as we reached the parking lot for our building, a graphic reminder of the money we weren't thinking about. We parked and walked through the peeling-painted breezeways to the elevator. A sign on the bulletin board advertised
, but someone had crossed out
and substituted a synonym. Mom looked away. I ripped the sign down. Mom said, “I'm sorry. I didn't want it to be like this.” She pulled another hair and sighed. “I suppose everything happens for a reason, sweetheart.”