Authors: Paul Fleischman
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For Honey and for Pearl
Brent turned toward his clock. It was five thirty-five. He hated the hours before a party. A nervous energy whipped back and forth inside him. He focused again on the computer's screen and careened through the video game's dark passages, firing at everything speeding toward him, borne along by the never-ending music.
His mother's voice echoed up the stairs. Brent paused the game. The firing and explosions ceased as if a window had been closed on a war.
He played on, chewing up the minutes that stretched before seven o'clock. Why couldn't you fast-forward through time the way you could with a video? He flicked another glance at the clock. Five forty-one. Real time was a drag.
He went downstairs. His parents had started eating. When they'd moved to Chicago a few months before, they'd suddenly begun dining in the kitchen, where they'd put a small TV. Brent served himself at the counter, then took his stool at the island and watched with his parents.
The Friday sports news was on, annotated by his father's grunts and snorts. Brent had learned to judge his mood from these. He reconnoitered his father's long, handsome face and studied the wrinkles, fine as if scratched in with a burin, feeding into his eyes. The promotion within his car-rental company had rescued them from Atlanta's heat, put Brent into a private school, bankrolled Brent's mother's furniture-buying spree, but hadn't seemed to improve his own spirits. The caustic complaints about work had begun again. Lately, Brent had begun to feel sorry for him.
The news ended. His father reached for the remote, which Brent's mother always put to the right of his fork when setting their places. He dodged commercials, serving the rest of the family a finely ground visual hash. Switching the control to his left hand so as to take a bite, he inopportunely dropped it when the screen showed the victims of an African famine. A child crawling with flies was wailing. Brent's father scrambled for the remote. A white woman now faced the camera. “This tragedyâ” she began, then was cut off.
“Let's go there for our next vacation,” said Brent's mother. The remark drew no comment.
“I'm going to a party tonight,” Brent spoke up.
His father dismissed from the screen a male newscaster, then a woman selling detergent. Brent found himself thinking of his parents' former spouses.
“I wish I was,” said his mother.
All three watched a commercial for the new Jaguar.
“What do you say, Brent?” said his father. “Nice lines, huh?”
“Very nice,” Brent replied.
He examined his father's words for signs that a Jaguar might now be in reach with his new salary. He imagined himself driving it, observed by the assembled student body, adding to the daydream a Calvin Klein shirt from the advertisement that followed. He put his dishes in the sink.
“Write down where you'll be,” said his mother.
He skipped upstairs and showered, scrubbing himself with medical thoroughness. Though he was in his junior year, he still only had whiskers on his upper lip and chin. He shaved his whole face anyway, then applied aftershave. He put on deodorant and gargled with mouthwash. Taking his comb, he parted his straight blond hair down the middle, confronted the mirror, then combed it straight back, like the models in
He worked in the mousse, imagining the hands raking his hair were Brianna's. Next he inspected his left ear's gold earring. At his school in Atlanta, it had been the right ear. Likewise in Connecticut. But at the Montfort School, in the western suburbs of Chicago, it was the left. His father's corporate climb had demanded four moves in the past seven years. Earrings were one of the first things Brent checked.
He returned to his room and flipped on the radio. Discerning what stations were considered cool was another of his moving-in tasks. No spell-chanting shaman knew better the importance of precise adherence to tradition. And keeping the right music flowing, using headphones between house and car, was as vital as maintaining a sacred flame. With the room now prepared, Brent set about dressing. It was May and no longer rib-rattling cold. He considered his large collection of T-shirts, weighing their logos, color, and condition. To impress without risking being made fun of was his mission, the latter especially important in the case of a party at Chaz's. Especially when you hadn't actually been invited.
He chose khakis and his Chicago Bulls T-shirt. He attached his wallet chain to a belt loop, tucked the wallet in his back pocket, then couldn't decide whether or not to wear his Vuarnet sunglasses. He finally stuck them in his shirt pocket as a compromise, then looked at the clock. It was six-thirtyâstill too early to leave. For half an hour he played video games, losing all of his lives in short order, the radio booming over the games' noise, his mind elsewhere. At seven he took off.
He drove to Jonathan's and honked. His friend bounded out, lanky and loose-jointed as a clown, wearing a Cubs cap backward and a pair of shredded jeans. Instantly, Brent regretted the choice of his neatly ironed khakis. They drove off.
“So how come you need a ride?” Brent asked.
“Forgot to pay my car insurance,” said Jonathan. “My dad took the car for a month. âThere are consequences for our acts, my boy.' Like having to show up in your Studebaker instead of my Mazda MX-6.”
“It's a Chevy, not a
Jonathan winced wearily. “No kidding.”
A sense of humor was a luxury that Brent had never been able to afford. He was always the new kid, stumbling through the maze, never quite rich or good-looking or athletic enough to join the elite. Unless he played his cards right at the party tonight.
“So how do you get there?”
“Get on 355,” said Jonathan. “I'll show you.”
Brent drove through Glen Ellyn's maple-lined streets. Chaz lived all the way across the city, in Wilmette, on the lake. Montfort drew from all of Chicago. It was Brent's first private school. He'd cheered when he'd heard that his father would be making enough money to afford the tuition. Then, when they'd moved from Atlanta in March, he'd found that, measured against his new peers, he was suddenly a lot poorer than before. Getting any respect at Montfort was going to be like climbing a glass mountain.
“Get on the East-West Tollway,” said Jonathan. The new song by Rat Trap was on the radio. He turned it up until the dashboard vibrated. “Then we'll take the Tri-State north. Then we'll cut over. I'll tell you where.”
“And you're sure it's okay, me coming?”
“Trust me! I'm
friend. Therefore, you and Chaz are friends. As was proven by theorem 50 in chapter 6. Stop worrying! It's party time!”
Jumping from one freeway to another, they zigzagged across Chicago. Brent had his doubts about Jonathan's logic. But at least he was certain Brianna would be there. This was a chance to be with her without risking actually asking her out, to be seen with her, to make a statement. To take the next step. Maybe more than one.
They found the house, clustered with cars as if it were a magnet. Cherokee, Honda, BMW, another Cherokee. Brent knew all their models and prices. Judging by the crowd, he figured they were on the late side, which was fine. It gave the impression he had other, more important things on his schedule.
He parked and put on his headphones. They approached the stone house. It was vast and turreted, looming above them like a castle. Brent reached for the knocker, but Jonathan opened the door as if it were his own.
“Hey, it's a party. Remember?”
Inside, the rooms seemed too large, the ceilings too high. Brent felt out of scale. No one seemed to be around. He trailed Jonathan through the labyrinth, at last emerging onto the back patio. Music was booming from a sound system to their right. Below them, in the tennis court and on the grass and inside the gazebo, lounged the cream of the junior class. Brent felt he'd gained a glimpse of Olympus.
It was dusk. They wandered toward the others. Then Brent noticed something. He grabbed his friend's arm.
“Is there a dress code or something?”
Jonathan stopped. Then he saw it too. Everybody was wearing either all white or all black.
“Jesus!” Jonathan smacked his head, then grinned. “Forgot again.”
Brent knew the panic had shown in his voice.
“We were supposed to wear white or black, like chess pieces. Chaz has some big party game dreamed up.”
Brent glared at his friend. He felt he'd been tricked. Fury rose up in him from a deep well. He'd been a head-banger as a toddler and still threw tantrums when he didn't get his way. He knew he couldn't afford a tirade here. He pulled off his headphones and tried to form his reply.
“Relax,” said Jonathan. “Chaz always has a theme. Check out the tennis court. It's a big chessboard. Must have used chalk. He loves this kind of thing. He's in Drama Club. Figures.” He eyed Brent. “Don't sweat it.”
He moved on, robbing Brent of his lines. Without Jonathan next to him, Brent felt conspicuous. Everything about the party made him nervous. Then the thought hit him that he could leave. He stuck out enough already without the added business of the clothes. This was the time, before the party game started, whatever it was. Down on the tennis court, two figures in white were rollerblading. He debated, teetered toward flight, started to leaveâthen sighted Brianna. The balance swung. He trotted and caught up with Jonathan, walking beside him as if nothing had happened. Then each felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Chaz.
“A yellow shirt and blue jeans?” he inquired. He affected the headmaster's English accent, sternly surveying Jonathan. He was tall and long-jawed, his sandy curls topped by a gold crown. “Really, Mr. Kovitz. This will lower your grade. Learning to follow directions is vital both to your success at Montfort and in the wider world beyond. Regardless of what pathetic, godforsaken piece of it you occupy.”
Jonathan smirked. “I thought school was
” He viewed Chaz's crown and fingered his black cape. “Not to mention the Middle Ages. Anyway, I don't have a car at the moment, so Brent here drove me. I figured you could use an extra pawn or two.”