The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World
THIS ISN'T ANY OLD FIRST day of school. First of all, it’s my first day of senior year, which is supposed to be some kind of Big Deal, like a rite of passage or something, except I don’t really see myself or most of my classmates changing much anytime soon, and isn’t that what a rite of passage is supposed to make you do? As far as I can tell, most people in Fog Harbor stay the same until they die, except instead of being in high school, they’re working at BigMart or the prison. So senior year isn’t so much about growing up as it is about doing a bunch of illegal things before you can get a permanent police record. But I have no interest in drinking and doing drugs, and I don’t know any other, cleaner options that sound any good. I’m not cool enough to be straight-edge, and I’m not smart enough to be a nerd, so mostly I’m just sober out of fear, which is my motivation for most things when I think about it. Grandma’s been telling me since before I can remember that addiction is in my blood and I’m a junkie waiting to happen, and I figure going through withdrawal once as a baby is more than enough. Plus, I’ve heard enough horror stories watching the AA channel on TV that drinking and doing drugs don’t really seem worth the trouble.
The whole Big Deal of senior year pales in comparison to
the Really Big Deal: that the high schools of Carthage and Rome will be combined this year. Things are tense, to say the least. Even before my uncle got famous, even before Carthage’s Unicorns vs. Dragons connection, Rome and Carthage have had a rivalry as long as anyone can remember. This is one of Grandma’s favorite topics of conversation, in addition to “environmental terrorists” and “fake news.” The rivalry started sometime in the early 1900s, with a sordid story involving opium-crazed mill workers and a serial killer named Hilliard Cod, who was also the first mayor of Rome and was supposedly into witchcraft and put a curse on both the towns right before he was executed. For years, the biggest night of the year for both towns has been the annual Carthage High versus Rome High football game, which has the highest official violent crime rate of any night all year. But since Carthage High is closed down due to dwindling enrollment numbers and being condemned for a rabid raccoon infestation and literally the whole thing being a giant, crumbling box of asbestos, that particular night won’t be a problem anymore. But now the whole school year might.
Until just a few years ago, most people only knew about us for having the highest per capita heroin deaths in the state and the most foggy days per year of anywhere in America and one of the worst rates of unemployment after all the logging jobs disappeared. We’re also known as West Coast Appalachia, which sounds kind of fancy to me but apparently is not a compliment because the one time I asked Grandma what it meant, she yelled and chased me around the
house (but slowly, due to her bum knee and arthritis and diabetes and a few dozen extra pounds) and threatened to smack my chin, even though these days, smacking chins is mostly considered child abuse, which she claims it wasn’t back when her actual children—my mom (RIP) and uncle (estranged)—were kids. But look how they turned out (not good).
But Rome is famous now for something way bigger than fog and heroin and unemployment, and that big thing is my uncle, Caleb Sloat. The WELCOME TO ROME sign when you drive into town got replaced last year with a new sign that says WELCOME TO ROME—YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN, which is the title of the song that catapulted Rainy Day Knife Fight (my uncle’s band) into fame three years ago. If you ask me, it was a kind of hasty decision for Rome to make a whole new sign to commemorate a hometown hero, especially one who’s only been famous for three years and isn’t even dead yet, but I guess they were desperate for a hometown hero. The funny/tragic/ironic thing is that “You Can’t Go Home Again” is basically a song about how much Caleb hated growing up in Rome, which is what most of his songs are about and pretty much all he ever talks about in interviews, and if you think about it, the sentiment that “you can’t go home again” is maybe not the most welcoming thought to have on a town’s welcome sign.
So that’s what Rome, Washington, is famous for—my uncle Caleb, who I haven’t seen in five years, back when I was twelve and he was a twenty-two-year-old starving musician busing tables
at Red Robin in Seattle and sharing a one-bedroom apartment with his bandmates. He came back to Rome for a couple of holidays but left both times screaming out the window of his junk car as he drove away, while Grandma stood at the front door screaming back, and I just sat in the house watching TV with the volume turned way up. Then Caleb got famous and stopped coming at all.
I feel weird even thinking about Caleb as my uncle these days. Sometimes I wonder if my real memories have been replaced by things I’ve seen on TV and online, and most of the things I think I know about him are based on stories he’s told in interviews, which Grandma says are all lies. Then, of course, there’s all the celebrity gossip about how he’s a junkie and hasn’t written a new song in two years, which I don’t want to be true but I think probably is.
I don’t know who to believe (Grandma and Caleb and celebrity gossip are all notoriously unreliable sources), so I try not to think about it too much. One thing I do know for sure is that old-timers like Grandma can’t stop being nostalgic about a version of Rome none of the young people ever got a chance to live in. Not me. Not Caleb. Not my mom (RIP). None of us saw what it was like when, according to Grandma, our neighborhood was actually nice, back when everyone had good logging jobs. But then all the trees got cut down, and so did the people, and now our street is just one of many full of dilapidated houses with overgrown lawns and faded FOR SALE signs, in a part of town everyone calls “Criminal Fields.”
But it’s my home, so I have to love it. I love how everything is
green all year and never dries out. I love how the air is fresh because it’s always getting cleaned out by the ocean. I love how most everyone who lives here has lived here forever, so you always know what people are up to. I love how I can walk everywhere I need to go. I don’t know much, but one thing I’m sure of is that happiness is all a matter of perspective.
So, in my humble opinion, Rome and Carthage have plenty to be happy about. Rome has my uncle, and Carthage has Unicorns vs. Dragons, which, if you ask me, makes the towns about even, but I guess no one’s ever satisfied with what they have, even if what they have is the most famous rock star in the world and/or the most successful teen book and movie series in the world. One thing that really didn’t help the rivalry was when Rome High changed its mascot to the Unicorns right after the first Unicorns vs. Dragons book came out, even though everyone knows the books mostly take place in Carthage. The city of Carthage actually sued the city of Rome for that, but some judge threw it out. Carthage High had to settle for the Dragons being their mascot, which they never quite got over, but when you think about it, aren’t dragons way tougher than unicorns? And isn’t it cooler to breathe fire than ice? But I guess when you think someone stole something from you, it makes you want it even more.
With the school merger, the mascot of the new Fog Harbor High is changing to the Lumberjacks, so now nobody’s happy.
Honestly, I’m feeling pretty relaxed about everything, though
Grandma suggested I bring a steak knife to school today “just in case.” One perk of being a loser is that I’m not all that attached to things staying the same. Where else were the Carthage kids supposed to go? Plus, Rome High has plenty of room because the town’s population is about one-third the size it was when the school was built, since everyone who can moves away. I figure this is an opportunity for things to change a little, maybe end the town rivalry once and for all. Grandma says that’s ridiculous, but she is against change in general as a principle, so I’m not putting a whole lot of stock in her opinions on the matter.
Besides practicing gratitude, another useful thing I’ve learned from therapy talk shows is to keep my expectations low and my acceptance high. That way, I won’t get too disappointed. So I’m trying not to get my hopes up too much about this whole school merger thing, but I can’t help thinking that maybe this year I’ll find someone to eat lunch with besides Mrs. Ambrose, who spent all last semester telling me about her college year abroad in Prague a million years ago and harassing me to start a Gay-Straight Alliance club, and I couldn’t break it to her that I’m not gay because I was afraid she’d be disappointed, like maybe my fictional gayness was the only thing she actually liked about me, and if I broke the news to her that I’m straight, she wouldn’t want me eating lunch in her classroom anymore, and she’d throw me into the hall to fend for myself, which I am notoriously not good at, and that would definitely increase my getting-shoved-in-lockers numbers for this year.
Who knows? Maybe this year will be an opportunity to meet some new people. Not that I necessarily need to meet new people. I’m grateful for the people I have: Mrs. Ambrose, even though she mostly talks about herself the whole time; Grandma, even though 97 percent of the time she talks to me, she’s saying something mean or ordering me around; that homeschooled girl across the street from my house whose family’s in a cult who I think is my age and I say hi to the rare times she’s allowed outside, and sometimes I even get a whole sentence out before she runs back into her house, and that’s kind of like a conversation. But maybe it would be nice to know someone I can say more than hi to. Maybe it’d be nice if someone said something back that was more than just telling me what to do, or getting mad at me for something that’s probably not my fault, or pressuring me to start a Gay-Straight Alliance club, or making fun of me, or asking if they can meet my rock star uncle. Maybe it’d be nice if I could find someone who actually wanted to listen. Maybe then I could figure out what I wanted to say.