Sometimes We Tell the Truth
JUST A GENERAL PROLOGUE
My mother drives me to school like I’m little again, and I stir awake when she turns off the engine. It’s still nowhere close to sunrise, and my classmates huddle under the streetlamps in the parking lot, some staying warm by smoking. I pray to God my mom doesn’t notice them.
No such luck. She peers through the windshield, and a familiar look of pain flashes in her eyes. She doesn’t get super upset, though, just gets dead serious and whispers, “Do you have your meds?”
I tug the zipper on my backpack’s pocket, show her I know how to pack and triple-check the important stuff, and, by implication, have everything else under control.
“If anything happens, no matter what time, no matter where you are, call me, and I’ll come right away.”
“Everything’s fine, Mom.”
“Take your pillow,” she says for the millionth time.
“Love you,” I say, which means both good-bye and no way in hell.
And she lets me go.
* * *
I shuffle toward the group. We’re well into April, but at this hour it’s cold, so I tuck my hands in my sleeves.
My breath mists, but I have nothing on the chain-smokers exhaling those vast clouds. A part of me would love to try it, but the whole (now) only child with asthma situation makes a boy promise certain things to his mother.
I catch Pard watching me. He exhales sideways, like a parent just caught him in the act. Something in his face, some trace of a question left over from last week, makes me turn my back on him.
I focus on my pack and duffel, make sure I’ve got my shit together. No one has said hi to me yet.
They would have if Cannon were here, but Cannon isn’t coming. Not today.
I nod to myself like I’ve confirmed packing what I meant to pack, and then edge closer to Reiko and that circle of girls. Her friends are recapping prom, which is just another reminder of how popular she’s become.
“Hey,” I manage.
She takes in my groggy face and gives me a little squeeze. “Aww, Jeff.”
I grit my teeth and smile. We dated our freshman year, but now she treats me like I’m a kid—like she has matured and I haven’t.
The girls go on talking, cheerful despite the hour, and start chatting up their latest admissions offers. Reiko’s going to Penn, or maybe Georgetown. She says she’s going to check out the campus again while we’re in D.C. this weekend. I nod and wonder if she’d let me tag along, since I got into Georgetown too. Maybe now is my chance to ask her.
“You look so sleepy,” Reiko says, and pats my cheek. If she likes touching me so much, then why did she break up with
me? Except I know the answer to that already.
I just nod, because sleepiness excuses social ineptitude.
The girls go back to discussing their college plans while clutching pillows and putting on lip gloss, which is hot to watch and generally looking like my dream slumber party come true. Being invisible is sometimes a pretty sweet deal. I wonder how I can sit next to any of these girls for the six-hour ride. Maybe share a pillow . . .
But then Frye strolls up. I’m hoping he’ll decide to mooch a cigarette, like he mooches a ride every day to get to school, and leave us nonsmokers alone. Instead, he parks himself right in Reiko’s physical space and says, “Whoa, how can you look this good this early in the morning?”
He’s probably not hitting on her. I mean, Frye gets in everyone’s space. There have been a couple times when I even wondered if Frye were coming on to me, but then realized he gets thatsuperclose to everyone. Still, I smell his mouthwash from here.
I sneak my hand over my mouth and quietly check on my own breath.
Reiko ruffles Frye’s hair. She has to bend backward to do it, because he’s that close to her, leaning over, palm-tree style. She laughs, and he laughs, and then she laughs some more. When did this thing start? He’s saying something about these YouTube videos teaching him how to give massages, and the girls are like, Show us! So he slides his hands over Reiko’s shoulders, and I pretend to check my phone, because I can’t watch.
The yellow bus pulls up the same time Mr. Bailey does. He’s toting a huge thermos of coffee. No wonder he’s smiling.
“Hey, kids! Let’s do this!”
Everyone reaches for their packs, and I wonder for the hundredth time who will sit with me now that Cannon isn’t coming.
On cue, my phone vibrates, for real. At 5:15 a.m.
U on the way?
I text him back. Lining up. Sucks you aren’t coming.
Yeah, I text. Unfair. Of all the days to be suspended, it had to be today.
Don’t worry. I have a plan. Revenge!
My breath catches. Cannon always has a plan, and while I miss having him here, his plans sometimes scare me. Especially after the senior prank. How do you tell your only real friend that he went too far? He’d only say what he’s said countless times before: that I need to get out of my shell. Can’t argue with that.
What plan? I ask.
His reply’s as cheerfully cryptic as a fortune cookie. I’m going to kidnap you. :)
I think of all the things Cannon has pulled off—high stakes poker matches, parties with insane amounts of alcohol, and then, yes, hacking—and I’m nervous. He means well, but still.
What?? I text back.
Pick you up when u get here. Meet some G friends. Party.
G friends could mean girlfriends, or not. He’s still on this mission to make me go to Georgetown. He’s been talking up this guy who will get me connected to the scene there. But I don’t buy his plan to meet me in D.C. You’re going to drive six hours just to show me around Georgetown?
Not going to. I’m HERE. Gonna help you make connections for next year. Introduce u, have fun. I’m gonna pass out. Later.
Suddenly my chest feels tight, and it has nothing to do with the smoke. I don’t know what Cannon has planned. Yes, I got into Georgetown, and he’d said he knew someone there I should meet. Was he really going to introduce me to that guy? It’s kind of nice he wants to help, except I’m not sure who this guy is, or what he’d expect from me. I never fully know what to expect from Cannon. It’s never just fun with him. He’ll get you into a party, the kind you see in movies, and then at some point he has a signature he wants you to copy, and you don’t know whose it is or what it’s for, but you sign a check, a really small amount, just a prank, but you feel like maybe you shouldn’t. You just do your little part, and then he does what he does with it.
Quintessential Cannon. I know somehow that he’ll have Mr. Bailey’s itinerary, and he’ll be there, but running off to meet his friends is risky. He knows I can’t have any trouble this semester, that I actually want to get into the schools where I’m wait-listed, so why would he do this to me?
I look up and see that I’m alone outside the bus.
I climb the iconic rubber-tread steps that seemed so huge in
second grade. Come to think of it, the steps still feel huge. Buses are just weird that way.
I hesitate just inside, front and center, and it’s like being onstage without a script as I scan for a seat that will not lower an already shaky social standing.
Front left, Reeve faces the back of the bus with his knees on his seat, so I get an unwanted view of his scrawny ass. He whips around to stare me down with his unibrow power. He’s a pretty weird sight, and I wouldn’t mind telling him so, but he’s poised with his clipboard to record every offense against him and every breach in school regulations. He’s been class treasurer for two years and founded the school’s Discipline Committee (a committee of one), which basically makes him a modernized hall monitor.
I can’t sit at the front of the bus.
I try to look confident, like I’m actually going to be a famous author, and one day the popular guys in the back will say to their kids and grandkids around the Thanksgiving table, “Jeff Chaucer, you say? Yeah, back in high school, he wrote my paper on Virginia Woolf—I still have it.”
Reeve returns to his spying position as I pass him. Luckily, there are a couple free seats farther back . . . except when I get there, it turns out these spaces aren’t free after all.
Plugged into his headphones, Mace is slumped alone where I couldn’t see him before.
And, like fate, Pard has the seat across the aisle. His shoes
are propped on the seat, and he’s curled around his sketchbook so I can’t see it, but it’s there, and he’s drawing, like always. The little Band-Aid he’s been wearing on his finger is gone. I’m still not used to him without his hat—he looks just like he did freshman year, like we’re in a time warp, but of course, everything has changed. He doesn’t acknowledge I’m right here staring.
Now I have a dilemma. When a person walks this far into a bus, you can’t turn back. It’s social death. Sitting near Reeve would suck, but sitting near these two guys from my past would also suck. Mace cracks his knuckles like he wants to crack my head. Even if I wanted to risk that, I won’t risk Mace’s epic acne, facial flakes, and eyebrow dandruff.
That leaves Pard, who alternates between nibbling his pencil and sketching with his head down in an I don’t see you standing right there pose. I don’t ask for favors, not from him, not standing in the aisle, where people are watching. But I’m Cannon’s friend. I can do this.
“Move over,” I tell his scalp. Pard’s hair is still wet from the shower and combed, but so thin I can see his head underneath, even paler than his hair. Kind of weird-looking, yet vulnerable—just like his face, which has never seen a shave. I’m not exaggerating either. Not one shave, and he’s almost eighteen. No wonder I’m thinking of freshman year when I see his face frozen in time like that.
His head snaps up, and his brown eyes are proof that he’s not albino (though let’s not rule out the possibility that he’s wearing
contacts). They also reveal the soul of a Balrog. Right now those furious eyes say how much he hates me, even as he puts his feet down and signals for me to climb over. I try to creep past without touching him, but the backs of my calves awkwardly brush his knees. The unwanted contact makes me scoot so far over that I’d fall out if it weren’t for the window, permanently shut.
Pard rolls his eyes and then goes back to his sketchbook, always angled so I can’t see, like he does when we’re both in the library with our doctor’s notes excusing us from PE. I don’t know why Pard never has PE, but I’m out whenever it’s too strenuous. (Yes, my mother made this happen.)
“Okay, everyone,” Mr. Bailey says. “It’s a six-hour drive, plus breaks. Let’s just relax and enjoy the ride, okay?” He delivers the rules: no getting out of your seat, no eating, no drinking, no this, no that. “Any questions?”
Of course, this is an open invitation.
“Are we there yet?”
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
“Can we get a commemorative tattoo when we get there?”
This from Alison, sitting like a queen bee, back center with her two football stars on either side. With one leg propped over Rooster’s huge knee, she’s leaning back into Kai’s shoulder. From his right, Kai’s girlfriend, Briony, casts spitfire looks, but Alison doesn’t notice. Briony must lie awake at night wondering what guys see in Alison Chavez. Unlike Briony, with the blond hair, the bikini body, the baby blue eyes, Alison isn’t that kind of
pretty. But she’s got your attention like no one else. I don’t just mean clothes, though today’s outfit is cowboy boots, red stockings, and a lacy baby-doll dress, all on a five-foot-eleven-inch body. I mean her. When Alison flashes that gap-toothed smile like she’s up to something, you want to be up on it with her. You want to be the one who says the funny line that makes her tip her chin and laugh with nothing held back. And maybe I love her with something like tenderness, because in this large, lonely world, she’s the only girl who has ever grabbed my ass.
As the bus starts moving and pulls away from campus, the back row breaks into stupid songs and starts churning like a mosh pit. A suspiciously shaped balloon bounces over our heads, and Bryce shouts, “Whale condom launched!”
Male voices chant, Keep it up, keep it up!
Poor Mr. Bailey. He’s a young teacher, and I think young teachers get hopeful that we’ll like them, and we do. But that doesn’t mean we won’t give them crap. Nothing personal.
But Mr. Bailey hasn’t looked at us in the same way since the senior prank, like any kid he sees might be one of the hoodlums who trashed his house in a night of pizza and revelry, while he was at the all-weekend civics teacher conference. We didn’t trash it that badly and thought he’d take it in stride, maybe even see it as a sign that we think he’s cool, but he was furious. He doesn’t have enough to convict us, only suspect. Pard’s done detention but seems to have told nothing. Yes, there was evidence, but it pointed only to Pard, not to Cannon. Or to me. And the guys
on the bus think the only secret to keep is trashing his house, so we’re safe there, too.
Cannon’s right. Everything is fine.
“Keep it down!” Mr. Bailey shouts, and the guys give a deflated aww when he snatches the balloon away.
Once the bus hits the freeway, Rooster whips out his ukulele, and it’s hilarious to see this gigantic redhead with this itty-bitty uke, but for a linebacker, Rooster’s playing well. Alison sings some inappropriate lyrics, bodies sway into each other, and people have more fun than they should be having on a bus. Bryce passes me a plastic cup without explaining, and one sip burns all the way down. I ignore Pard’s jealous glances.
The noise picks up, and there’s a crash in the back row. An empty beer bottle rolls down the aisle.
So it begins, even before we’ve left quaint Canterbury, Connecticut.
“Pipe down!” Mr. Bailey holds his hands like a victim in a stickup, and then, prompting the driver to pull over but not waiting for the bus to park, he grips the seats as he makes his way down the aisle. He traps the bottle under his foot and emits the mighty sigh of a severely put-upon adult. “I am this close to turning around.”
Cookie, curled in the back corner as if he’s one of the popular kids (but really just because he’s thoroughly baked), says all dreamy-like, “It wasn’t ours, man. It was on the bus when we got here.”
Mr. Bailey raises an eyebrow. “The driver told me his normal rounds are with kindergartners.”
Cookie’s mouth hangs open before he manages to reply, “I love Goldfish.”
Mr. Bailey gives us all this constipated look, as if he’s straining to connect the trashing of his house with the bottle in his hand. He grips the back of Mace’s seat and points his nose toward the rowdy back row like he means business. “All right. We are going to behave ourselves and not give me any more trouble. I have this.” He brandishes the bottle as evidence of our collective sin. “And between this and your little prank”—he glares at Rooster’s faintly purple-yellow forehead, like it might be the reason for the dent in his bedroom door (it is)—“I can get some of you suspended. I mean it. You’ve pushed me way too far.”
Suspended. That can’t happen. Not while I’m wait-listed at Cornell and the other low-level Ivies. Yes, I have Georgetown in the bag, unless a suspension could ruin that, but I’m not sure I want to be a lawyer or a civil servant or whatever politics-happy Georgetown alums tend to do. I want a couple options before my whole life is paved in front of me. It’s already a problem that I’m not doing so well in Mr. Bailey’s class. Suspension would blow my chances.
Mr. Bailey lifts his chin with grim satisfaction. He has our attention and pauses, apparently considering what to do with us. He looks badass somehow, crossing his arms while holding the bottle. “I have an idea,” he finally says. “I need all of you to be
quiet and respectful on this ride. To keep us busy, we’ll play a game. We’ll pass the time telling stories. It will be a competition. One story for each of you. You’ll all pay attention to each other—no zoning out on phones. Whoever tells the best story will get a free A in Civics, and all detention and suspension material forgiven . . . even if I find out what happened that night. And I will find out. So, play to win a free A. Or act out on this trip and be disqualified, and potentially suspended.”
We all soak this in. It’s so quiet I hear another bottle rolling around somewhere.
“All right, then. Let’s do this. Maybe you’ll learn something from each other. Remember, you all have brains—”
“And if we work together, we can solve the world’s biggest problems!” the class chants in unison, with a hefty dose of mock cheerfulness.
Mr. Bailey gives me an encouraging, pep-talk look, and then I watch his face sour as he notices the cup beside me that I’m failing to hide. There’s iron in his eyes, like he’s deciding what to do. He extends his hand for the cup, sniffs, and frowns.
He addresses everyone, while looking right at me. “You all might want to think hard on the story you’ll be telling. Jeff, I’ll talk to you later.”
My heart pounds, and I’m relieved when Mr. Bailey breaks that stare.
I’ll probably get suspended on my own, without Cannon’s help.
Kai raises a hand. “What kind of story? Our life story?”
Kai is the most popular senior there is, all quarterback awesome and sandwiched between Briony and Alison, like, all the time, yet he suddenly looks nervous about telling his life story, even though everyone would totally want his life.
Mr. Bailey does that let me carefully consider your question teacher thing with his eyebrows. “Well, you can talk about yourself as a way of introduction, but I’d like each of you to come up with a fictional story. Modern times, ancient times, based on real life or not at all—doesn’t matter. Just something really interesting to hold our attention.”
Briony sulks. “What’s the point? Jeff will win.”
Everyone looks at me resentfully. All those eyes.
“I—I’m not as good as everyone thinks,” I stammer.
Choruses of Yeah, right rise all around. Apparently, I’m supposed to be a genius just because I wrote that Morpheus story about dreams and desire and death. When it came out in The Southwarks last spring, it was like the school exploded. Teachers congratulated me. Popular kids started being nice to me, and not just for being Cannon’s friend. More like they thought I had some power to put souls onto printed pages. And I kind of thought I could. It was so magical. Writing that story happened by itself. It’s like all my years with Sandman and old myths just turned on the tap. It was the best thing to ever come out of me. The absolute best. My dad wept. He wept.
And now it’s gone. The tap’s off. I look within me, and there’s nothing there.
The bus lurches back onto the freeway.
Seated again in the front now, Mr. Bailey asks Reeve for a spare sheet of paper, so we can have a drawing of our names to see who goes first. Reluctant to lose a sheet from his clipboard, Reeve complains until Mr. Bailey offers a few extra credit points.
“What have you been writing lately?” Pard asks me in that cynical, unnerving way he has. His voice, like his smooth face, somehow missed out on puberty.
“Oh, I started something.”
The peach-fuzz corner of his mouth quirks. “And?”
“I’m working on it. It got a little away from me.”
Pale eyebrows lift in a fancy that look of contempt.
“What’s the title?”
“ ‘The House of Fame.’ ”
“Fame,” he repeats, all hollow-like. “How autobiographical.”
Rooster stops playing his uke when Mr. Bailey draws a name from his hat. I’m watching, glued, while the silence and the word “fame” take a choke hold. I’m praying that Mr. Bailey doesn’t call on me, praying my name slips out of the hat and disappears, because I know today I’ll lose Mr. Bailey’s game, my college prospects, and my reputation. Pard’s words sting. I do want fame. I want these guys to think I’m good. But they’ll either figure it out right now, or within the next six hours, that I have no story. Those sequels they’ve asked for? New stuff? I have nothing.
Mr. Bailey draws out a slip of paper.
“Kai, you’re up!”
Thank you, God, I semi-pray. The back two rows go wild. Kai high-fives Rooster. How can anyone be delighted at being sprung with telling a story? But he’s too cool to freak out.
“Awesome. Can I tell any kind of story? Like, can I tell a war story?”
Mr. Bailey waves a permissive hand. “Sure.”
Kai nods, like ideas are already starting to form. “Okay, hold on, I just need an angle. You know, like, should these be Navy SEALs or Trojans or what?”
Bryce leans into the aisle, and his forked beard hangs for all to see. Yes, Bryce sports a wicked black forked beard, which makes him look like Satan on Xanax. Or maybe he’s on the brownies Cookie had for breakfast. “Dude, do zombies! You have to do zombies!”
Kai’s eyes lose focus while all the story’s pieces lock into place. Finally, he says, “Zombies. That’ll work. I like it.”