one hundred ten days before

Keeping up with my classes proved easier than I’d expected. My general predisposition to spending a lot of time inside reading gave me a distinct advantage over the average Culver Creek student. By the third week of classes, plenty of kids had been sunburned to a bufriedo-like golden brown from days spent chatting outside in the shadeless dorm circle during free periods. But I was barely pink: I studied.

And I listened in class, too, but on that Wednesday morning, when Dr. Hyde started talking about how Buddhists believe that all things are interconnected, I found myself staring out the window. I was looking at the wooded, slow-sloping hill beyond the lake. And from Hyde’s classroom, things did seem connected: The trees seemed to clothe the hill, and just as I would never think to notice a particular cotton thread in the magnificently tight orange tank top Alaska wore that day, I couldn’t see the trees for the forest — everything so intricately woven together that it made no sense to think of one tree as independent from that hill. And then I heard my name, and I knew I was in trouble.

“Mr. Halter,” the Old Man said. “Here I am, straining my lungs for your edification. And yet something out there seems to have caught your fancy in a way that I’ve been unable to do. Pray tell: What have you discovered out there?”

Now I felt my own breath shorten, the whole class watching me, thanking God they weren’t me. Dr. Hyde had already done this three times, kicking kids out of class for not paying attention or writing notes to one another.

“Urn, I was just looking outside at the, uh, at the hill and thinking about, um, the trees and the forest, like you were saying earlier, about the way—” The Old Man, who obviously did not tolerate vocalized rambling, cut me off. “I’m going to ask you to leave class, Mr. Halter, so that you can go out there and discover the relationship between the um-trees and the uh-forest.

And tomorrow, when you’re ready to take this class seriously, I will welcome you back.”

I sat still, my pen resting in my hand, my notebook open, my face flushed and my jaw jutting out into an underbite, an old trick I had to keep from looking sad or scared. Two rows behind me, I heard a chair move and turned around to see Alaska standing up, slinging her backpack over one arm.

“I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit. You can’t just throw him out of class. You drone on and on for an hour every day, and we’re not allowed to glance out the window?”

The Old Man stared back at Alaska like a bull at a matador, then raised a hand to his sagging face and slowly rubbed the white stubble on his cheek. “For fifty minutes a day, five days a week, you abide by my rules. Or you fail. The choice is yours. Both of you leave.”

I stuffed my notebook into my backpack and walked out, humiliated. As the door shut behind me, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. I turned, but there was no one there. Then I turned the other way, and Alaska was smiling at me, the skin between her eyes and temple crinkled into a starburst. “The oldest trick in the book,” she said, “but everybody falls for it.”

I tried a smile, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Dr. Hyde. It was worse than the Duct Tape Incident, because I always knew that the Kevin Richmans of the world didn’t like me. But my teachers had always been card-carrying members of the Miles Halter Fan Club.

“I told you he was an asshole,” she said.

“I still think he’s a genius. He’s right. I wasn’t listening.”

“Right, but he didn’t need to be a jerk about it. Like he needs to prove his power by humiliating you?! Anyway,” she said, “the only real geniuses are artists: Yeats, Picasso, Garcia Marquez: geniuses. Dr. Hyde: bitter old man.”

And then she announced we were going to look for four-leaf clovers until class ended and we could go smoke with the Colonel and Takumi, “both of whom,” she added, “are big-time assholes for not marching out of class right behind us.”

When Alaska Young is sitting with her legs crossed in a brittle, periodically green clover patch leaning forward in search of four-leaf clovers, the pale skin of her sizable cleavage clearly visible, it is a plain fact of human physiology that it becomes impossible to join in her clover search. I’d gotten in enough trouble already for looking where I wasn’t supposed to, but still…

 

After perhaps two minutes of combing through a clover patch with her long, dirty fingernails, Alaska grabbed a clover with three full-size petals and an undersize, runt of a fourth, then looked up at me, barely giving me time to avert my eyes.

“Even though you were dearly not doing your part in the clover search, perv,” she said wryly, “I really would give you this clover. Except luck is for suckers.” She pinched the runt petal between the nails of her thumb and finger and plucked it. “There,” she said to the clover as she dropped it onto the ground. “Now you’re not a genetic freak anymore.”

“Uh, thanks,” I said. The bell rang, and Takumi and the Colonel were first out the door. Alaska stared at them.

“What?” asked the Colonel. But she just rolled her eyes and started walking. We followed in silence through the dorm circle and then across the soccer field. We ducked into the woods, following the faint path around the lake until we came to a dirt road. The Colonel ran up to Alaska, and they started fighting about something quietly enough that I couldn’t hear the words so much as the mutual annoyance, and I finally asked Takumi where we were headed.

“This road dead-ends into the barn,” he said. “So maybe there. But probably the smoking hole. You’ll see.”

From here, the woods were a totally different creature than from Dr. Hyde’s classroom. The ground was thick with fallen branches, decaying pine needles, and brambly green bushes; the path wound past pine trees sprouting tall and thin, their stubbly needles providing a lace of shade from another sunburned day. And the smaller oak and maple trees, which from Dr. Hyde’s classroom had been invisible beneath the more majestic pines, showed hints of an as-yet-thermally-unforeseeable fall: Their still-green leaves were beginning to droop.

We came to a rickety wooden bridge — just thick plywood laid over a concrete foundation — over Culver Creek, the winding rivulet that doubled back over and over again through the outskirts of campus. On the far side of the bridge, there was a tiny path leading down a steep slope. Not even a path so much as a series of hints — a broken branch here, a patch of stomped-down grass there — that people had come this way before. As we walked down single file, Alaska, the Colonel, and Takumi each held back a thick maple branch for one another, passing it along until I, last in line, let it snap back into place behind me. And there, beneath the bridge, an oasis. A slab of concrete, three feet wide and ten feet long, with blue plastic chairs stolen long ago from some classroom. Cooled by the creek and the shade of the bridge, I felt unhot for the first time in weeks.

The Colonel dispensed the cigarettes. Takumi passed; the rest of us lit up.

“He has no right to condescend to us is all I’m saying,” Alaska said, continuing her conversation with the Colonel.

“Pudge is done with staring out the window, and I’m done with going on tirades about it, but he’s a terrible teacher, and you won’t convince me otherwise.”

“Fine,” the Colonel said. “Just don’t make another scene. Christ, you nearly killed the poor old bastard.”

“Seriously, you’ll never win by crossing Hyde,” Takumi said.

“He’ll eat you alive, shit you out, and then piss on his dump. Which by the way is what we should be doing to whoever ratted on Marya. Has anyone heard anything?”

“It must have been some Weekday Warrior,” Alaska said. “But apparently they think it was the Colonel. So who knows. Maybe the Eagle just got lucky. She was stupid; she got caught; she got expelled; it’s over. That’s what happens when you’re stupid and you get caught.” Alaska made an O with her lips, moving her mouth like a goldfish eating, trying unsuccessfully to blow smoke rings.

“Wow,” Takumi said, “if I ever get kicked out, remind me to even the score myself, since I sure can’t count on you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she responded, not angry so much as dismissive. “I don’t understand why you’re so obsessed with figuring out everything that happens here, like we have to unravel every mystery. God, it’s over.

Takumi, you gotta stop stealing other people’s problems and get some of your own.” Takumi started up again, but Alaska raised her hand as if to swat the conversation away.

I said nothing — I hadn’t known Marya, and anyway, “listening quietly” was my general social strategy.

“Anyway,” Alaska said to me. “I thought the way he treated you was just awful. I wanted to cry. I just wanted to kiss you and make it better.”

“Shame you didn’t,” I deadpanned, and they laughed.

“You’re adorable,” she said, and I felt the intensity of her eyes on me and looked away nervously. “Too bad I love my boyfriend.” I stared at the knotted roots of the trees on the creek bank, trying hard not to look like I’d just been called adorable.

Takumi couldn’t believe it either, and he walked over to me, tussling my hair with his hand, and started rapping to Alaska. “Yeah, Pudge is adorable / but you want incorrigible / so Jake is more endurable / ’cause he’s sodamn. Damn. I almost had four rhymes on adorable. But all I could think of was unfloorable, which isn’t even a word.”

Alaska laughed. “That made me not be mad at you anymore. God, rapping is sexy. Pudge, did you even know that you’re in the presence of the sickest emcee in Alabama?”

“Urn, no.”

“Drop a beat, Colonel Catastrophe,” Takumi said, and I laughed at the idea that a guy as short and dorky as the Colonel could have a rap name. The Colonel cupped his hands around his mouth and started making some absurd noises that I suppose were intended to be beats. Puh-chi. Puh-puhpuh-chi. Takumi laughed.

“Right here, by the river, you want me to kick it? / If your smoke was a Popsicle, I’d surely lick it / My rhymin’ is old school, sort of like the ancient Romans / The Colonel’s beats is sad like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman / Sometimes I’m accused of being a showman / ICanRhymeFast and I can rhyme slow, man.”

He paused, took a breath, and then finished.

“Like Emily Dickinson, I ain’t afraid of slant rhyme / And that’s the end of this verse; emcee’s out on a high.”

I didn’t know slant rhyme from regular rhyme, but I was suitably impressed. We gave Takumi a soft round of applause. Alaska finished her cigarette and flicked it into the river.

“Why do you smoke so damn fast?” I asked.

She looked at me and smiled widely, and such a wide smile on her narrow face might have looked goofy were it not for the unimpeachably elegant green in her eyes. She smiled with all the delight of a kid on Christmas morning and said, “Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.”

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