three days before

On Friday,after a surprisingly successful precalc exam that brought my first set of Culver Creek finals to a close, I packed clothes (“Think New York trendy,” the Colonel advised. “Think black. Think sensible. Comfortable, but warm.”) and my sleeping bag into a backpack, and we picked up Takumi in his room and walked to the Eagle’s house. The Eagle was wearing his only outfit, and I wondered whether he just had thirty identical white button-down shirts and thirty identical black ties in his closet. I pictured him waking up in the morning, staring at his closet, and thinking, Hmm…hmm…how about a white shirt and a black tie? Talk about a guy who could use a wife.

“I’m taking Miles and Takumi home for the weekend to New Hope,” the Colonel told him.

“Miles liked his taste of New Hope that much?” the Eagle asked me.

“Yee haw! There’s a gonna be a hoedown at the trailer park!” the Colonel said. He could actually have a Southern accent when he wanted to, although like most everyone at Culver Creek, he didn’t usually speak with one.

“Hold on one moment while I call your mom,” the Eagle said to the Colonel.

 

Takumi looked at me with poorly disguised panic, and I felt lunch — fried chicken — rising in my stomach. But the Colonel just smiled. “Sure thing.”

“Chip and Miles and Takumi will be at your house this weekend?…Yes, ma’am…. Ha!…Okay. Bye now.” The Eagle looked upat the Colonel. “Your mom is a wonderful woman.” The Eagle smiled.

“You’re tellin’ me.” The Colonel grinned. “See you on Sunday.”

As we walked toward the gym parking lot, the Colonel said, “I called her yesterday and asked her to cover for me, and she didn’t even ask why. She just said, ‘I sure trust you, son,’ and hot damn she does.” Once out of sight of the Eagle’s house, we took a sharp right into the woods.

We walked on the dirt road over the bridge and back to the school’s barn, a dilapidated leak-prone structure that looked more like a long-abandoned log cabin than a barn. They still stored hay there, although I don’t know what for. It wasn’t like we had an equestrian program or anything. The Colonel, Takumi, and I got there first, setting up our sleeping bags on the softest bales of hay. It was 6:30.

Alaska came shortly after, having told the Eagle she was spending the weekend with Jake. The Eagle didn’t check that story, because Alaska spent at least one weekend there every month, and he knew that her parents never cared. Lara showed up half an hour later. She’d told the Eagle that she was driving to Atlanta to see an old friend from Romania. The Eagle called Lara’s parents to make sure that they knew she was spending a weekend off campus, and they didn’t mind.

“They trust me.” She smiled.

“You don’t sound like you have an accent sometimes,” I said, which was pretty stupid, but a darn sight better than throwing up on her.

“Eet’s only soft i’s.”

“No soft i’s in Russian?” I asked.

“Romanian,” she corrected me. Turns out Romanian is a language. Who knew? My cultural sensitivity quotient was going to have to drastically increase if I was going to share a sleeping bag with Lara anytime soon.

Everybody was sitting on sleeping bags, Alaska smoking with flagrant disregard for the overwhelming flammability of the structure, when the Colonel pulled out a single piece of computer paper and read from it.

“The point of this evening’s festivities is to prove once and for all that we are to pranking what the Weekday Warriors are to sucking. But we’ll also have the opportunity to make life unpleasant for the Eagle, which is always a welcome pleasure. And so,” he said, pausing as if for a drumroll, “we fight tonight a battle on three fronts: “Front One: The pre-prank: We will, as it were, light a fire under the Eagle’s ass.

“Front Two: Operation Baldy: Wherein Lara flies solo in a retaliatory mission so elegant and cruel that it could only have been the brainchild of, well, me.”

“Hey!” Alaska interrupted. “It was my idea.”

“Okay, fine. It was Alaska’s idea.” He laughed. “And finally, Front Three: The Progress Reports: We’re going to hack into the faculty computer network and use their grading database to send out letters to Kevin et al.’s families saying that they are failing some of their classes.”

“We are definitely going to get expelled,” I said.

“I hope you didn’t bring the Asian kid along thinking he’s a computer genius. Because I am not,” Takumi said.

“We’re not going to get expelled and I’m the computer genius. The rest of you are muscle and distraction. We won’t get expelled even if we get caught because there are no expellable offenses here — well, except for the five bottles of Strawberry Hill in Alaska’s backpack, and that will be well hidden. We’re just, you know, wreaking a little havoc.”

The plan was laid out, and it left no room for error. The Colonel relied so heavily on perfect synchronicity that if one of us messed up even slightly, the endeavor would collapse entirely.

He had printed up individual itineraries for each of us, including times exact to the second. Our watches synchronized, our clothes black, our backpacks on, our breath visible in the cold, our minds filled with the minute details of the plan, our hearts racing, we walked out of the barn together once it was completely dark, around seven. The five of us walking confidently in a row, I’d never felt cooler. The Great Perhaps was upon us, and we were invincible. The plan may have had faults, but we did not.

After five minutes, we split up to go to our destinations. I stuck with Takumi. We were the distraction.

“We’re the fucking Marines,” he said.

“First to fight. First to die,” I agreed nervously.

“Hell yes.”

He stopped and opened his bag.

“Not here, dude,” I said. “We have to go to the Eagle’s.”

“I know. I know. Just — hold on.” He pulled out a thick headband. It was brown, with a plush fox head on the front. He put it on hishead.

I laughed. “What the hell is that?”

“It’s my fox hat.”

“Your fox hat?”

“Yeah, Pudge. My fox hat.”

“Why are you wearing your fox hat?” I asked.

“Because no one can catch the motherfucking fox.”

Two minutes later, we were crouched behind the trees fifty feet from the Eagle’s back door. My heart thumped like a techno drumbeat.

“Thirty seconds,” Takumi whispered, and I felt the same spooked nervousness that I had felt that first night with Alaska when she grabbed my hand and whispered run run run run run. But I stayed put.

I thought: We are not close enough.

I thought: He will not hear it.

 

I thought: He will hear it and be out so fast that we will have no chance.

I thought: Twenty seconds. I was breathing hard and fast.

“Hey, Pudge,” Takumi whispered, “you can do this, dude. It’s just running.”

“Right.” Just running. My knees are good. My lungs are fair. It’s just running.

“Five,” he said. “Four. Three. Two. One. Light it. Light it. Light it.”

It lit with a sizzle that reminded me of every July Fourth with my family. We stood still for a nanosecond, staring at the fuse, making sure it was lit. And now, I thought. Now. Run run run run run. But my body didn’t move until I heard Takumi shout-whisper, “Go go go fucking go.”

And we went.

Three seconds later, a huge burst of pops. It sounded, to me, like the automatic gunfire in Decapitation, except louder. We were twenty steps away already, and I thought my eardrums would burst.

I thought: Well, he will certainly hear it.

We ran past the soccer field and into the woods, running uphill and with only the vaguest sense of direction. In the dark, fallen branches and moss-covered rocks appeared at the last possible second, and I slipped and fell repeatedly and worried that the Eagle would catch up, but I just kept getting up and running beside Takumi, away from the classrooms and the dorm circle. We ran like we had golden shoes. I ran like a cheetah — well, like a cheetah that smoked too much. And then, after precisely one minute of running, Takumi stopped and ripped open his backpack.

My turn to count down. Staring at my watch. Terrified. By now, he was surely out. He was surely running. I wondered if he was fast. He was old, but he’d be mad.

“Five four three two one,” and the sizzle. We didn’t pause that time, just ran, still west. Breath heaving. I wondered if I could do this for thirty minutes. The firecrackers exploded.

The pops ended, and a voice cried out, “STOP RIGHT NOW!” But we did not stop. Stopping was not in the plan.

“I’m the motherfucking fox,” Takumi whispered, both to himself and to me. “No one can catch the fox.”

A minute later, I was on the ground. Takumi counted down. The fuse lit. We ran.

But it was a dud. We had prepared for one dud, bringing an extra string of firecrackers. Another, though, would cost the Colonel and Alaska a minute. Takumi crouched down on the ground, lit the fuse, and ran. The popping started. The fireworks bangbangbanged in sync with my heartbeat.

When the firecrackers finished, I heard, “STOP OR I’LL CALL THE POLICE!” And though the voice was distant, I could feel his Look of Doom bearing down on me.

“The pigs can’t stop the fox; I’m too quick,” Takumi said to himself. “I can rhyme while I run; I’m that slick.”

The Colonel warned us about the police threat, told us not to worry. The Eagle didn’t like to bring the police to campus. Bad publicity. So we ran. Over and under and through all manner of trees and bushes and branches. We fell. We got up. We ran. If he couldn’t follow us with the firecrackers, he could sure as hell follow the sound of our whispered shits as we tripped over dead logs and fell into briar bushes.

One minute. I knelt down, lit the fuse, ran. Bang.

 

Then we turned north, thinking we’d gotten past the lake. This was key to the plan. The farther we got while still staying on campus, the farther the Eagle would follow us. The farther he followed us, the farther he would be from the classrooms, where the Colonel and Alaska were working their magic. And then we planned to loop back near the classrooms and swing east along the creek until we came to the bridge over our Smoking Hole, where we would rejoin the road and walk back to the barn, triumphant.

But here’s the thing: We made a slight error in navigation. We weren’t past the lake; instead we were staring at a field and then the lake. Too close to the classrooms to run anywhere but along the lake front, I looked over at Takumi, who was running with me stride for stride, and he just said, “Drop one now.”

So I dropped down, lit the fuse, and we ran. We were running through a clearing now, and if the Eagle was behind us, he could see us. We got to the south corner of the lake and started running along the shore. The lake wasn’t all that big — maybe a quarter mile long, so we didn’t have far to go when I saw it.

The swan.

Swimming toward us like a swan possessed. Wings flapping furiously as it came, and then it was on the shore in front of us, making a noise that sounded like nothing else in this world, like all the worst parts of a dying rabbit plus all the worst parts of a crying baby, and there was no other way, so we just ran. I hit the swan at a full run and felt it bite into my ass. And then I was running with a noticeable limp, because my ass was on fire, and I thought to myself, What the hell is in swan saliva that burns so badly?

The twenty-third string was a dud, costing us one minute. At that point, I wanted a minute. I was dying. The burning sensation in my left buttock had dulled to an intense aching, magnified each time I landed on my left leg, so I was running like an injured gazelle trying to evade a pride of lions. Our speed, needless to say, had slowed considerably. We hadn’t heard the Eagle since we got across the lake, but I didn’t think he had turned around. He was trying to lull us into complacency, but it would not work. Tonight, we were invincible.

Exhausted, we stopped with three strings left and hoped we’d given the Colonel enough time. We ran for a few more minutes, until we found the bank of the creek. It was so dark and so still that the tiny stream of water seemed to roar, but I could still hear our hard, fast breaths as we collapsed on wet clay and pebbles beside the creek. Only when we stopped did I look at Takumi. His face and arms were scratched, the fox head now directly over his left ear. Looking at my own arms, I noticed blood dripping from the deeper cuts. There were, I remembered now, some wicked briar patches, but I was feeling no pain.

Takumi picked thorns out of his leg. “The fox is fucking tired,” he said, and laughed.

“The swan bit my ass,” I told him.

“I saw.” He smiled. “Is it bleeding?” I reached my hand into my pants to check. No blood, so I smoked to celebrate.

“Mission accomplished,” I said.

“Pudge, my friend, we are indefuckingstructible.”

We couldn’t figure out where we were, because the creek doubles back so many times through the campus, so we followed the creek for about ten minutes, figuring we walked half as fast as we ran, and then turned left.

“Left, you think?” Takumi asked.

“I’m pretty lost,” I said.

“The fox is pointing left. So left.” And, sure enough, the fox took us right back to the barn.

 

“You’re okay!” Lara said as we walked up. “I was worried. I saw the Eagle run out of hees house. He was wearing pajamas. He sure looked mad.”

I said, “Well, if he was mad then, I wouldn’t want to see him now.”

“What took you so long?” she asked me.

“We took the long way home,” Takumi said. “Plus Pudge is walking like an old lady with hemorrhoids ’cause the swan bit him on the ass. Where’s Alaska and the Colonel?”

“I don’t know,” Lara said, and then we heard footsteps in the distance, mutters and cracking branches. In a flash, Takumi grabbed our sleeping bags and backpacks and hid them behind bales of hay. The three of us ran through the back of the barn and into the waist-high grass, and lay down. He tracked us back to the barn, I thought. We fucked everything up.

But then I heard the Colonel’s voice, distinct and very annoyed, saying, “Because it narrows the list of possible suspects by twenty-three! Why couldn’t you just follow the plan? Christ, where is everybody?”

We walked back to the barn, a bit sheepish from having overreacted. The Colonel sat down on a bale of hay, his elbows on his knees, his head bowed, his palms against his forehead. Thinking.

“Well, we haven’t been caught yet, anyway. Okay, first,” he said without looking up, “tell me everything else went all right. Lara?”

She started talking. “Yes. Good.”

“Can I have some more detail, please?”

“I deed like your paper said. I stayed behind the Eagle’s house until I saw heem run after Miles and Takumi, and then I ran behind the dorms. And then I went through the weendow eento Keveen’s room. Then I put the stuff een the gel and the conditioner, and then I deed the same thing een Jeff and Longwell’s room.”

“The stuff?” I asked.

“Undiluted industrial-strength blue number-five hair dye,” Alaska said. “Which I bought with your cigarette money. Apply it to wet hair, and it won’t wash out for months.”

“We dyed their hair blue?”

“Well, technically,” the Colonel said, still speaking into his lap, “they’re going to dye their own hair blue. But we have certainly made it easier for them. I know you and Takumi did all right, because we’re here and you’re here, so you did your job. And the good news is that the three assholes who had the gall to prank us have progress reports coming saying that they are failing three classes.”

“Uh-oh. What’s the bad news?” Lara asked.

“Oh, c’mon,” Alaska said. “The other good news is that while the Colonel was worried he’d heard something and ran into the woods, I saw to it that twenty other Weekday Warriors also have progress reports coming. I printed out reports for all of them, stuffed them into metered school envelopes, and then put then in the mailbox.” She turned to the Colonel. “You were sure gone a long time,” she said. “The wittle Colonel: so scared of getting expelled.”

The Colonel stood up, towering over the rest of us as we sat. “That is not good news! That was not in the plan!

That means there are twenty-three people who the Eagle can eliminate as suspects. Twenty-three people who might figure out it was us and rat!”

 

“If that happens,” Alaska said very seriously, “I’ll take the fall.”

“Right.” The Colonel sighed. “Like you took the fall for Paul and Marya. You’ll say that while you were traipsing through the woods lighting firecrackers you were simultaneously hacking into the faculty network and printing out false progress reports on school stationery?

Because I’m sure that will fly with the Eagle!”

“Relax, dude,” Takumi said. “First off, we’re not gonna get caught. Second off, if we do, I’ll take the fall with Alaska. You’ve got more to lose than any of us.” The Colonel just nodded. It was an undeniable fact: The Colonel would have no chance at a scholarship to a good school if he got expelled from the Creek.

Knowing that nothing cheered up the Colonel like acknowledging his brilliance, I asked, “So how’d you hack the network?”

“I climbed in the window of Dr. Hyde’s office, booted up his computer, and I typed in his password,” he said, smiling.

“You guessed it?”

“No. On Tuesday I went into his office and asked him to print me a copy of the recommended reading list. And then I watched him type the password: J3ckylnhyd3.”

“Well, shit,” Takumi said. “I could have done that.”

“Sure, but then you wouldn’t have gotten to wear that sexy hat,” the Colonel said, laughing. Takumi took the headband off and put it in his bag.

“Kevin is going to be pissed about his hair,” I said.

“Yeah, well, I’m really pissed about my waterlogged library. Kevin is a blowup doll,” Alaska said. “Prick us, we bleed. Prick him, he pops.”

“It’s true,” said Takumi. “The guy is a dick. He kind of tried to kill you, after all.”

“Yeah, I guess,” I acknowledged.

“There are a lot of people here like that,” Alaska went on, still fuming. “You know? Fucking blowup-doll rich kids.”

But even though Kevin had sort of tried to kill me and all, he really didn’t seem worth hating. Hating the cool kids takes an awful lot of energy, and I’d given up on it a long time ago. For me, the prank was just a response to a previous prank, just a golden opportunity to, as the Colonel said, wreak a little havoc. But to Alaska, it seemed to be something else, something more.

I wanted to ask her about it, but she lay back down behind the piles of hay, invisible again. Alaska was done talking, and when she was done talking, that was it. We didn’t coax her out for two hours, until the Colonel unscrewed a bottle of wine. We passed around the bottle till I could feel it in my stomach, sour and warm.

I wanted to like booze more than I actually did (which is more or less the precise opposite of how I felt about Alaska). But that night, the booze felt great, as the warmth of the wine in my stomach spread through my body. I didn’t like feeling stupid or out of control, but I liked the way it made everything (laughing, crying, peeing in front of your friends) easier. Why did we drink? For me, it was just fun, particularly since we were risking expulsion.

The nice thing about the constant threat of expulsion at Culver Creek is that it lends excitement to every moment of illicit pleasure. The bad thing, of course, is that there is always the possibility of actual expulsion.

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