Authors: Erin Jade Lange
For Matt, who somehow keeps me grounded and lets me soar all at once
I had a foot on some guy's throat and a hand in my pocket the first time I saw Billy D. He was standing across the street, staringânot even trying to be sly about itâjust staring without a word, without even blinking.
“What are you lookin' at?” I called.
His mouth fell open in a silent little O, but he didn't respond. He didn't leave either, just kept on staring.
Something gurgled inside the throat under my foot, and I glanced down. The guy looked like he might be struggling to breathe, but his face wasn't red yet, so I turned my attention back to the other boy.
“Get out of here! Or you're next!”
That was kind of an empty threat. Even from across the street, I could tell by his vacant expression, that slack jaw, and
the strange way he hunched his shoulders that he was differentâprobably in special ed. And I didn't beat on those guys.
“Hey, you deaf or something? I said
He hesitated, shuffling first to the left, then to the right. He looked once more at me and at the boy under my boot, then moved his gaze to the sidewalk and stomped away.
The hand in my pocket closed over a piece of gum. I popped the stick in my mouth and refocused on the task at hand. Below me, surrounded by sidewalk grit and gravel, that face was definitely turning a little pink. I lifted my foot and kicked a loose bit of rock so it pinged off the guy's shoulder. It must have stung because he winced between gasps for breath.
“You think that hurt? That's nothing compared to what I'll do to your
if you mess with me again.”
He hadn't found his voice yet, which was lucky for him because he was probably just dumb enough to say something to piss me off even more. He pulled himself up to a sitting position and crawled along the sidewalk toward the street, where the door to his bright red Mustang still hung open. It was restored vintage, from back when Mustangs were still cool. He was halfway across the pavement when I called out.
“And you better find another way to school. If I see your car on this street again, you'll have a broken windshield
a broken face.”
The guy finally pulled himself up into the driver's seat and turned just long enough to glare at me before slamming the door shut. I responded with a raised fist, and even though I was
still on the sidewalk and couldn't possibly touch him, I heard the door locks click. I had to laugh.
What a pussy.
The Mustang roared around the corner and disappeared. I scratched my palms out of habit, but it wasn't necessary. The itching had evaporated with the car.
It always started like thatâwith the itch. I would feel it in the center of my palms, a buzzing sensation I couldn't ignore. If I did try to ignore it, the itch would spread like a spiderweb, radiating out to the edges of my hand, tingling down to my fingertips. Closing those fingers into a fist and giving that fist a landing pad was the only way to scratch the itch.
I never knew what would trigger it. It could be as subtle as a guy rolling his eyes when I spoke up in class or as obvious as some asshole in a bright red Mustang rolling down a window and asking why I couldn't afford a car. Not much I could do about the formerâI was this close to getting kicked out of school as it was. If it wasn't for my good grades, they'd have shoved me out the door already. But the latter would get a guy dragged out of his car for a lesson in sidewalk humility.
I would have done more to the Mustang moron, but the freak across the street had distracted me. Something about his eyesâkind of slanted and round at the same timeâunnerved me. I felt like I was being judgedâa feeling that normally made my palms itch. But in the case of the slack-face kid, it made me want to scratch my head instead of my hands.
The turd in the red Mustang was right about one thing. What kind of self-respecting sixteen-year-old didn't have a car?
I kicked rocks aside as I shuffled down the sidewalk. I wasn't
the only junior at Mark Twain High without a car, but I was one of the few. Columbia, Missouri, wasn't exactly the home of the rich and famous, but most families could at least scrape together a few bucks for a clunker.
I turned the corner in the opposite direction the Mustang had gone. Haves to the right. Have-nots to the left. I pulled myself up a little straighter, as if the guy in the Mustang could still see me. Who needed four wheels when I had two fists?
The farther I walked, the more overgrown the yards became, the deeper the peels of paint on the houses. My street was the last one before those houses and yards became trailers and gravel driveways. I rounded the corner and spotted the now familiar moving truck parked directly across the street from my own house. That thing had been there for almost a week, blocking my view of just about everything else from my bedroom window.
How long does it take to unpack a U-Haul?
I cocked an eye at the house next to the truck, wondering what kind of lazy neighbors were moving in to drag the hood down even more, and pulled up short. On the front steps of the house, another set of eyes met mineâeyes so distinct in shape I recognized them instantly. Just like before, the kid watched me without blinking. Maybe it was because he was a safe distance from me, or maybe it was because he was too dumb to sense the danger, but he didn't look away when I caught his gaze.
“It's rude to stare,” I challenged him.
He adjusted his backpack in response, shifting it higher on those strangely curved shoulders. He was short and a little
bulky, so the move, combined with his awkward, stooped posture, made him look top-heavy. Actually, everything about him fell sort of heavy, from his eyelids to his arms. I waited a moment to see if he'd tip over, so I could get a good laugh, but he held his balance.
to stare,” I tried again.
What was that? Fear? Mocking?
I waited for the itch, but it didn't come. It was tough to get mad at someone when I had no idea what he was thinking. Finally, I pointed a warning finger in his direction.
“You're lucky I don't beat up retards.”
A shadow passed over his faceâa glimmer of emotion.
“I'm not a retard.” He said it with some force, like he actually believed it.
Even his voice made it clear he wasn't like other kids. It was a little highâ
still waiting for puberty, this one
âand it sounded like his teeth were getting in the way of his tongue.
“I'm not a retard,” he repeated, louder. He stamped his foot for emphasis.
“Fine, fine.” I turned my pointed finger into a hand held up in surrender. I wasn't looking for a fight with some challenged kid. I just wanted him to stop eyeballing me. “But enough of the ogling, got it?”
I turned toward my own house and was halfway there when his voice rang out again.
“Your clothes don't match!”
I spun around. He had his arms folded across his chest in a smug gesture.
, he must have thought, was the final word in insults. Inexplicably self-conscious, I glanced down at what I was wearing. How could jeans and a hoodie not match? I looked back up to ask himâgenuinely ask himâwhat the hell he was talking about, but the steps where he'd been standing were empty. I got only a quick glimpse of a backpack disappearing into the house.
I slammed the front door closed to announce my homecoming and tossed my backpack in a corner. The next stop was usually the remote control, but today I reached for the curtains covering the front window instead. From this angle, the U-Haul blocked most of my view, but I could see half of the first- and second-floor windows of the house across the street. I squinted, trying to see inside those windows, but they were dark.
“What are we looking at?” Mom perched on the arm of the couch and pressed her face right next to mine, peering out the window.
“The new neighbors.”
She was so close that when she smiled, I felt her cheek lift up to touch mine. “Oh, goody, where? I've been trying to spot them all week.”
“They're inside now.”
“You met them?” She pulled away from the window and flopped backward onto the couch.
“Well, one â¦ kind of.”
“Who is it?”
“Some hunchback with a staring problem.”
I finally wrenched my face away from the window and let the curtains fall back into place. Mom was frowning now.
“That's not nice, Dane.”
“Good thing no one ever accused me of being nice,” I said, taking over the sofa cushion next to Mom.
“That's what you always say.”
“That's because it's always true.”
Mom laughed. “Okay, Mr. Mean, go shave your face, and I'll make dinner.”
“Come on, please? For Mommy?”
We were both laughing now.
“No way,” I said, fingering my chin. “Stubble makes me look tough.”
“It makes you look like a hoodlum.”
“Who says âhoodlum'?”
“Grown-ups, that's who,” she said.
“Oh, you're a grown-up now?”
It was just a tease, but Mom's face tensed up, and I immediately wished I could take it back.
I used to think it was cool that my mom was younger and better-looking than other moms, until guys my age started
staring at her in a way that made me sick. But as embarrassing as that was for me, it was worse for Mom.
Once, when my facial hair first started coming in, we were out at a restaurant, and the waiter asked us how long we'd been togetherâas in,
. I don't know who was more grossed out, me or Mom, but on the way home, she stopped at a pharmacy to buy me a razor and a can of shaving cream. She told me what she could about how to do it, but shaving your legs is a lot different from shaving your face. I got thirteen cuts that night. I'd thought they made me look tough, but Mom had cried. It was months before she started nagging me about the stubble again.
don't look as âgrown up' as you think,” she said. She reached out to flatten the chunk of my hair that always stuck up in back. “Not with this little baby cowlick you've got going.”
I shook her hand away and reached for the lock of hair myself, smoothing it down out of habit.
“My own Dennis the Menace.” She smiled. “You get in any trouble at school today?”
“Good.” She patted my leg and stood up.
I followed her into the kitchen. “Mom, I wanted to talk to you aboutâHey, why are you cooking dinner, anyway? Don't you have a class tonight?”