Every school has them. The invisibles. Not liked, not disliked. How can you dislike what isn't there? It's a clue when you're standing in the lunch line trying to decide about a tuna sandwich and a girl runs right into you, spilling a glob of chocolate pudding on your shirt. This actually happened.
"What were you doing there?" she yelled, like he'd jumped out at her from behind a bush.
The place busted up laughing. You'd think they'd be laughing at her, but he was such an easy target. From the jocks' table came whistles and applause. Sky's face reddened, and you could see the beads of sweat at the base of his dirty blond crew cut.
You wouldn't think life could get worse than that. Except Alec Schuyler had another problem, as bad as being invisible. He was inaudible.
Hard to say how it started. He just started talking less and less. His grandmother had always accused him of mumbling, but it was well known that she was hard of hearing. In the past couple of years, though, teachers were saying it too, and then school friends. In Truscott's class he didn't speak at all.
Truscott was teaching Shakespeare this semester. Alec Schuyler hated Shakespeare. Who could blame him? You'd hate anything Truscott taught you. Lucky his best friends in the world -- all right, his only friends, just about -- Max and Suze, were in the same English section.
"Well, class, who can tell me the significance of Hamlet's last words?" Mark Truscott, handsome and erect, clasped his hands behind his back and rose onto his toes and down again, his brown wing tips gleaming.
"Uh-uh!" he said, holding up a warning finger. "No peeking!"
Half the students, including Sky, immediately stopped riffling through the play.
"Well, what are Hamlet's last words? Let's start with that. Mr. Schuyler, will you help us out?"
Sky's stomach churned.
"Do we need a hint? It starts, 'The rest is...'" He opened his blue eyes wide, ready to receive. "'The rest is...'?"
Max's hand shot up. "History?"
"The rest is history? Nice try, Mr. Rosen, but no, the rest is not history. And please refrain from answering until you're called on." He turned back to Sky. "The rest, Mr. Schuyler?"
Sky looked like he was choking.
"Darkness?" Suze called out without even raising her hand.
Truscott turned his undeceivable blue eyes on her, like a lighthouse catching a small boat in its beam. He smiled.
"Darkness. Very interesting, Miss Matheson. Not your answer, but the fact that you felt compelled to rescue your classmate. But you see, he doesn't need rescuing. The answer is on the tip of his tongue, is it not, Mr. Schuyler?"
"I see it there, about to take flight."
Gertrude Somerville tittered nervously, then blushed pink when Truscott looked at her. Steve Glass gave a snuffling smirk.
"The rest, Mr. Schuyler?" persisted Truscott.
Sky opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
"Exactly!" Truscott exclaimed.
The students looked confused.
"Silence!" crowed Truscott. "'The rest is silence.' Thank you, Mr. Schuyler! I was sure we could depend on you for silence."
General laughter erupted. Sky grabbed his books and bolted from class.
"'See, it stalks away!'" cried Truscott. "'Stay! Speak, speak! I charge thee, speak!'" He chuckled at the boy's retreating form. "And which character said that? Class?"
Max Rosen didn't even take his books. He just hurried after his friend.
"I wouldn't leave, Mr. Rosen, if you care about your grade."
"Screw my grade, Mr. Truscott," declared Max in a loud voice. A girl near the back let out a gasp as Max banged the door behind him.
Mr. Truscott seemed unperturbed. "You know the way to the principal's office," he called after him almost gaily. He shook his head. "This play certainly arouses strong emotions. Shall we go on? Miss Matheson, I'd like to see you after class."
Quite a morning.
Max found Sky in the courtyard outside the building that housed the art department and, on the second floor, the library. All the buildings of Harmon Prep looked the same, four connected piles of brick on New York's Upper West Side. Two of the buildings were on one street, the other two on the next. Between them, they surrounded enough space for a jungle gym, a basketball court, and a flower-bordered courtyard. You could pass the place on the street and not realize it was a school at all. The sisters Harmon started it way back in 1927, when this was a nicer area, as opposed to what you have to go through now just to get to the bus stop. They kept it going through the thin of the Great Depression and the thick of World War II, until now, in 1959, it had a citywide reputation. Max was there on a full scholarship; but Sky's dad, without his wife's expensive cancer to support, saw his income rebound in the two years he'd been a widower, and he had to pay the whole tuition. Not without grumbling.
Sky was sitting on a small white bench and staring at the scuffed toes of his loafers. He held a skinny paperback in his lap, a finger holding his place. Max had lent him the book last week. Shakespeare it wasn't.
"Hey," said Max.
Max sat down, joining his friend's silence. "Truscott's a bastard," he said.
Sky gave his friend a sharp look. "Say, what are you doing here?" His voice was soft to the point of a mumble, but Max was used to that. "The bell didn't ring."
"I wouldn't mess around with Truscott."
Max gave a bored shake of his head. "Not to worry. What do you think of our boy Larry?"
Sky opened the paperback to the poem he'd been reading.
His friend looked over and nodded. "'Christ climbed down from His bare Tree this year,'" he read in a loud voice, "'and ran away to where there were no rootless Christmas trees...'"
"Shh. Are you crazy?"
"'...hung with candycanes and breakable stars.'"
Sky snapped the book shut, but Max went right on. "'Christ climbed down from His bare Tree this year and ran...'"
"Max!" Sky shouted in a whisper.
"'...and ran away to where there were no gilded Christmas trees and no tinsel Christmas trees and no tinfoil Christmas trees...'"
He knew the thing -- a good hunk of it -- by heart. Sky had never heard of Lawrence Ferlinghetti or this new book of his, but Max was already memorizing it. He was far and away the smartest kid Sky knew. Well, maybe Suze.
"...and no Truscott Christmas trees..."
"Cut it out, you're going to get us in trouble."
"This is true. Unfortunately, we're already in trouble. There goes the bell."
"We can eat. Let's beat the rush."
Max and Sky hurried inside just as kids began pouring into the courtyard. To get to the cafeteria, they had to run up one set of stairs, cross a creaking hall into the next building, then thunder down two narrow flights into what, back in the 1920s, had been the servants' quarters. It was a crazy design for a school, but at least you got to work up an appetite. A long steel counter extended along one side of the room. Behind the steamed glass, ladle in hand, stood Big Meg, with her helper, a gray-haired lady whose name nobody knew.
"Whatcha got today, beautiful?" Max sang out in a cheery tone that grown-ups seemed to find charming, though Sky could never figure out why. It took a lot of -- he didn't know what. Phoniness, he was tempted to say, but revised it to chutzpah. Max certainly had chutzpah. What Sky's mother used to call "nerve."
"Creamed chicken," said Meg, "but we're not ready."
Kids were forming in a rowdy line. John Wunsch started pounding on Max's back, for no better reason than that Max was in front of him.
No one pounded, or would think of pounding, on Sky's back.
"You gonna give us some extra today, Meg?" said Max.
"Sure, I give extra." Finally, she gave the nod, and the masses surged forward, wedging themselves through the doorway and banging scarred silverware onto plastic trays. The noise quickly rose to an impossible level, although most kids hadn't even made it into the room. Max and Sky watched as Meg troweled creamed chicken onto biscuits. They grabbed dishes of sad-looking tapioca and cartons of milk and steered their way to a back table by the window, where they held a spot for Suze. It was late September, one of those overwarm Indian summer days you sometimes get in the city. A rectangle of sunlight lay like a glowing place mat in the middle of the table.
"They oughta get air-conditioning in here," said Max.
"Sure. Lots of people are getting it in their houses now. It's not just movie theaters."
"I know that." Sky had seen them himself. The first time was a couple of years ago in a rich guy's apartment on Park, puffing out a feeble stream of cool air while it groaned and sweated and took up half the window.
The friends dug into their lukewarm lunch. No sign of Suze.
"Hey, Jabbers!" called Steve Glass, school soccer hero, from the table across the way. He grinned at his jock friends. "Guess you told Truscott a thing or two."
"Yuk, yuk," Max called back on Sky's behalf.
Sky stared at the patch of sunlight in the middle of the table. Max did a little drumroll with his index fingers. He was always practicing his paradiddles.
"We playing this weekend?" Sky murmured.
"Think so. There's a senior party at Keller Prep. Suze is supposed to get us a sax."
ard"What do we need a sax for?"
"It's a hop."
Sky nodded. Their little trio was fine for "cocktail music," but for a dance crowd you needed a horn. Good as Sky was at the piano, his fingers would be sausage by the end of the night.
"We got Larry for bass?" Larry Gar was a Harmon senior, but musically, he was the junior member of their group. No genius, but dependable. Gar was one of the tallest kids in school, with an Adam's apple you would notice from across the street.
"Yeah," said Max, "Larry's cool for Friday."
Finally, there came Susan, easing her way through the crowd. It was hard to miss "Da Suze." She was the one who was always slightly out of breath, whose eyes were a little brighter than other people's, as if she were on to something and had to tell you about it. She'd always been like that, but there was a change lately. Over the summer she'd suddenly come into focus. Not everybody does, Sky realized. There were girls you'd bet would be really beautiful in a few years, but some feature or other never jelled. Or their smile, which had been maddeningly cute in eighth grade, began to turn hard, like they were trying to decide how to invest it, and you wondered why you'd been staring at the back of their heads all those months in homeroom.
Not Suze. Her cheeks had taken on definition, and the edges of her eyes did a crinkly thing when she smiled that they'd never done before, as if every thought she had was more complex now. Her black hair was shinier and cascaded over her shoulders. She'd also grown several inches in several directions, all of them good. Not that you could tell in the bulky sweaters she wore, and the pleated, below-the-knee skirts.
She thumped her Latin and geometry books on the table.
"Where you been?" said Max.
He nodded at her fuzzy blue pullover. "Aren't you hot in that thing?"
"Take it off, why don't you."
Her eyes did that crinkly thing. "I don't want to cause a riot."
Sky had no part in this exchange, but he blushed so hard a vein in his forehead pulsed.
"I mean," said Max, "you have a shirt under that, right?"
"That's for me to know," replied Suze.
"Say, wasn't Truscott a swine?"
"You guess? Were you there?"
"I was there longer than you were."
Sky looked at her with interest. Well, he always looked at her with interest. This time it struck him there was something she wasn't saying. "Um," he began, and cleared his throat. "So what happened, after, you know, we left?"
"Nothing. He seemed to get over whatever was biting him."
"He was the one doing the biting," said Max.
"Well, he was all right after that."
Suze looked at Max head-on. "I know you feel that way, but Truscott's really very smart."
"All right. Smart schmuck. Bet you can't say that five times."
She looked down. "I'm not saying he wasn't awful to Sky. I don't know why he does that. It's like something comes over him."
"The imp of the perverse," said Max.
"Anyway, he can actually be nice sometimes."
They were both looking at her. Was she blushing?
"Okay," she said.
"Spill," said Max.
Suze bit her underlip, then shook her mane of dark hair until it completely covered her face.
"Come out of there," said Max. "Tell us."
"You'll laugh." Suze's voice came from behind the curtain of hair.
"We're laughing already."
She swept her hair back with her fingers. "He thinks I can write."
"Of course you can write," said Max. "You're the lousy class genius."
"No, he wants me to be the editor of the Harmon Review."
"Jeez!" said Sky.
"But you're only a sophomore," said Max.
They had to let this sink in.
"Is that why you think he's such a great guy?" said Max suddenly.
"I didn't say he was a great guy."
"You said he was nice."
"Well, he was, to me!"
The table was silent. It was the only pocket of silence in the whole crashing, brain-jolting room.
"Hey, guys," Sky began, but nobody heard him.
"I guess," Max said, "we shouldn't be too rough on Da Suze. She's going to have enough trouble with everybody else in this idiot school."
"What do you mean?" she said.
"A lot of people aren't going to be happy about this editor thing."
"Seniors, because they're not the editor, and sopho-mores, because you are."
"They're already jealous of her," Sky put in.
"This is true. Damage is done," said Max.
Sky looked at her sitting there beside him, an armful of overwarm girl. He started to say something, but there was a surge of voices at the next table.
"So, Suze," said Max. He cracked his knuckles loudly. "Tell us about the gig."
"We're set," she said. "I got Johnny Moone on sax."
"Can we afford him?"
"The place is giving us a hundred. Best I could do."
"That's twenty-five each. Minus your cut as the manager."
"Except Moone wants fifty."
"He says he's got a name now. He won't work for less than fifty."
The boys looked at each other, each doing the math.
"Forget it," said Max.
Sky held up his hand. They looked at him. "Forty," he said. "Otherwise, it'll be a real long night for me."
"I'll try," said Suze.
"You can do it," said Max.
"When you talk to him," said Max, grinning, "just take off your sweater."
For a slim girl, Suze Matheson could punch your arm pretty hard.
Copyright © 2001 by Roderick Townley