Friday, November 1, 2013

Alt

It was December Holidays when he came to stay. He was tall, a whole foot taller than me, which made him a giant, and only barely shorter than my dad. The boy who came to stay, he, didn't speak very much.

He'd follow me up to dinner when mom shouted, "It's soup!"

On this particular evening, I heard her and nodded to myself, unseen in the top bunk. I carefully re-sleeved my comic, set it on my night stand and hopped off the top bunk. The night stand is something my dad built to go with the bunk bed --he's always building clever, weird, useful, or useless things. He builds things out of wood, out of metal. Sometimes he makes string instruments out of dried gourds and computer parts. They look funny, like this:


and it's hard to play them without breaking them. Once, my friend Mercedes came over and she's a violinist, and she was playing one very gently and it broke.

Mercedes started to cry immediately, and my mom looked at her and patted her on the shoulder and said, "It'll be okay, honey. Mister Metzger will fix it, and if he can't, he won't mind anyhow."

My family is from Germany, but we've been in America since my grand parents, who came here way back in the 60's. I suppose that's how it came to be that he joined us, that weird, tragic winter.

The time Mercedes broke one of Dad's instruments, her makeup was running fiercely down her cheeks, and my mom wiped it away and told her she didn't need to cry over broke gourd. I think mom was trying to make a spilled milk joke, but it fell flat. Mom's jokes always need explaining.

Anyway. My dad makes stuff. He made a really useful bedside table, and I gave him the lower bunk because its easier to get up to pee, and because the top bunk is really close to the ceiling, and  because he's so tall.

The first night I heard him say more than a few words was that night I mentioned, when mom shouted, "It's soup!" instead of, "Dinner time!" and I hopped down and twisted my ankle just a bit --so much for sticking the landing-- and he followed me up to dinner.

Mom was carving up a large, mouth watering turkey she'd saved for when he arrived. One of his favorite foods was turkey, so read his profile. It also read that he was sixteen, fluent in English, French, and German, and could read Chinese, too. It didn't read anything about his jet black hair, chiseled abs, or thick biceps. It read nothing at all about his love of swimming pools and saunas and the uniquely brash, very European, way he carried himself in locker rooms.

So mom was carving the turkey, using a big, antique fork with a real bone handle, and a real silver carving knife that always seemed to have too many teeth, to me. Mom's dad --Der Gross Vater, we call him, GV, for short-- gave her and Dad, as a wedding gift. The mashed potatoes were steaming to drown the chandalier, and the greens and carrots were summer storm vibrant when I rounded the corner into the dining room. "Oh." I said. I could feel my brows raise and my eyes go big.

"Where is the soup?" He asked, his eyebrows the opposite of mine.

Mom laughed. "It's an expression." she told him as she knifed slices of turkey onto his plate. "It just means: the food you're expecting is now ready."

"Huh." He said. His eyes are such deep blue. Its like staring at the best summer sky, even in winter. (Just as warming.)

"So, William," He said, looking at me. "What year are you in?"

"Oh," I said, blushing, "I'm almost sixteen."

He frowned. "Sixteenth year?" His accent always thickens when he is confused, or thinking about something, or puzzling something out.

"Honey," Mom said, "I think he's asking what grade you're in."

"Oh!" I said, I could feel my blush spreading. "I'm a sophomore."

"What number does sophomorestand for?" His eyebrows are so thick! So strong.

"Ten. Tenth Year. Tenth grade. I'm not ten." I said. I didn't know what else to say, so I stuffed my mouth with mashed potatoes and immediately regretted it: the gravy was still boiling hot. Refusing to spit it out, I sipped some milk instead. It went down my windpipe and I started to choke, which pulled a lump of potato into my windpipe, too.

The blush turned purple very quickly because before I could start flailing for the Heimlich maneuver, there he was, pulling me out of my chair, calmly wrapping his thick arms around me. I could hear the blood pounding in my ears, but his accent cut straight through it. "I've got you." He said, in my ear. He pumped. He even thought and turned me away from the table. The potato and milk splurted onto the wooden floor with a polypy, creamy thud.

"haaaaaaaaaaaaaaauuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu." I said, by way of thanks.

He patted me on the back.

"Will!" Mom said, frowning at me. "Are you okay?"

I nodded.

"Well." He sounded very solemn. He was staring at his plate. "Personally, I like your mother's potatoes."


02.
I couldn't sleep that night. He had wrapped his arms around me and saved my life. Not that that mattered. "I could die happy, now." I thought.

"Pardon?" He said, in the darkness.

Hadn't I thought that? Had I said it out loud? Before he came, I never blushed. I'll prove it!

It was the second day of school. Mercedes and I were walking home. We had a long walk, but it was sunny. It was warm. Mercedes had lost the coin toss and was carrying our coats. My letter jacket and her Mindless Self Indulgence hooded sweater.

We were cutting through the bus loop, planning to hop the stream that separated one of the high school buildings from the other three, and then through the baseball fields --hop the fence and through the woods. It's a nice walk, usually peaceful. Not today.

"So she was all, like, how do you get your hair to do that? And I didn't know if she was serious or trying to start something, ya know?" (I nodded) "So I'm like, well, you know how people used to rat their hair out in the 80's? And she's all, No. So I Googled 80's big hair. I showed her and said: that's called ratting. I rat my hair out, and it just stays." (I nodded again) Mercedes continued, "So, I still don't know if she was messing or not --"

"Hey!" I shouted.

I'm about to get in a fight with Jon. Jon is a legend. Jon is unknowable. Jon is a senior. Jon is twenty-one years old and this is Jon's final semester. Everyone will be happier when Jon graduates, even Jon's school friends. Jon hates freshmen. You'll see.

Jon picked up a short kid with a parental side parted hair cut. "Why don't you have my money, Jay?" Jon asked. Jay wriggled, his fists pattering uselessly off Jon's callused hands. Jon dropped Jay, who stumbled a bit, but remained standing.

Jay dusted himself off. His voice quivered a bit. He asked, "How do you even know my name?"

"You look like your sister Mary. Jay. Mary hasn't paid her debt to me, so you've got it now."

"Inherited it." I called out.

Jon and Jay turned toward Mercedes and I. I waved. Mercedes shook her head, a hand on her forehead. Mercedes said (asked?), "Really.(?)"

"Just shout if you see security coming, okay?" More loudly, I called, "That doesn't even make sense, Jon. This isn't the middle ages."

"Sure it isn't." Jon said. He dramatically turned cracked his knuckles in my direction. "What's it to you? Ya freak." I watched him take me in. I shrugged.

Jay huffed as he landed on the far side of the stream --a pretty good jump. I said as much. Jon turned and growled --actually growled-- after the scampering freshman. He made to go after him, but Mercedes and I hadn't stopped approaching and I laid a hand, heavy, on his shoulder as he turned to give chase.

Then, Jon threw the laziest punch he would ever throw at me. No sucker punch, no dirty-fighting kick. I had so many choices. I decided to jam the shoulder I had my hand on away from me. Sure, this accelerated Jon's punch, but I stepped in, and kneed him fully in the crotch, just like kick boxing cardio instructors and Brazilian MMA fighters teach. It was textbook and he crumpled, gasping. I stepped back. I wasn't expecting the fight to continue, but he tackled me --I huffed as he drove his shoulder into my guts, trying to touch the ground through me. Then he was reeling backward --still straddling me, mind you-- reeling backward and bleeding from his upper lip and nose.

Mercedes has one of the biggest shoe --Listen. If shoes were records, Mercedes would be the envy of ninety-nine percent of DJs, around the world. And not just those, "I've got my two hours of authentic big band, why would I need to own more than that?" kind of loose DJ's, either. The really tight ones who make a point of knowing all the ins and outs of all the genres that get played at public events. The ones that never phone in a set. The ones that can DJ with broken arms, but not sprained fingers. The serious record collectors who travel to major cities and po-dunk towns, sniffing after rumors and amazing deals and unassuming, treasure trove, estate sales. The kind who know why they live less than two hours from Detroit. Those kinds of DJ's would envy Mercedes until they were blue in the face, if her shoe collection were records. Lucky for them her shoe collection is shoes. Lucky for her she's always nervous the first few weeks of school, so she wears protective, unseasonably big, but distinctly utilitarian boots. These boots are goat toe. Their buckles are so shiny and the grooves on the soles are so thick. I can see all this because it's like the world froze for a moment --I'm not looking up her matching skirt, I swear, I know she wears boy-shorts undies anyway-- when her toes connected with Jon's face. Time slowed as his head pitched back and time froze as the splay of blood passed its apex.

Then time restarted.

"What the --" Jon's outburst was cut off. Mercedes put her boot heel on his forehead and --it was more a foot shove than a kick. Jon sprawled out, kicking his legs so as not to sprain anything, and I was on him. I wrapped my hands in his t-shirt. "Don't mess with Jay. He's mine." I said and smashed my forehead into his nose.

Mercedes shouted, "Security, coming fast." And tossed her backpack and our coats across the river.

My eyes were watering from the headbutt. "He's mine." I said again, then I was off and over the stream and sprinting to catch up with Mercedes.

Faintly, I heard Jon shout, "You're dead!" and something else after that, but I didn't care. My heart was pounding, my limbs all tingled and I couldn't stop grinning.

"We're heroes!" I said, wasting breath as I caught up to Mercedes.

She panted, "We're suspended if they catch us. Don't look but back! Just get over the fence!" It loomed there, suddenly in front of us. Seven feet high, a barbed Y shape stretching forward and backward around the campus property line. In a week or two the weak spots would be found and pried back like so many snack size candy bar bag corners. But this was the first week of class. "Toss our bags!" Mercedes panted. She tossed her hooded sweater over the fence. She looked at me, her dark eyes flashed. Despite her panting, she grinned. "This is still gonna effing hurt." She said. Mercedes never actually swore. I tossed our bags and laced my fingers, squatted a bit.

"Stop right there!" All the security guards sounded the same through their bullhorns. The mosquito whir of the golf cart's engine emerged.

Mercedes hopped, pulled, ouched, and tumbled over the fence.

I looked over my shoulder. It was Bill, the grizzled, acne scarred security guard. Rumors were he had graduated high school and immediately started working as a security guard here. At first, they used him to bust the smokers who hung out by the tree stump. He'd wear a coat or a sports jacket and everyone assumed he was cool until he pulled out his detention ticket pad. Now he was older than a lot of the teachers, but savvier than a lot of them, too, in a very high school sort of way. There was a new person, too, someone with short red hair. That's all I got though --just a glance, remember?-- before I was hoisting myself onto Mercedes's hooded sweater. I kicked and swung my lower body over, as if getting out of a pool. My palms popped and I felt blood bead out. I had to used my knees to push over the edge, too, and ripped my pants and shins. I landed clumsily scrambling with my hands and feet in the loose forest dirt.

Someone rattled the fence, "Get back here! Stop! You left your sweater!" They --it was so husky I couldn't tell if it was a feminine man or a masculine woman who shouted a few other things as I jogged into the light, honeysuckle scented forest, trailing Mercedes by a goodly distance. "We'll find who you are! You'll get yours!" What a strange thing for a security guard to shout, eh? It'll make horrible sense eventually, I promise.

See? Not a choking on mashed potatoes kind of guy. Not until he came to stay.

Back in the darkness, with me fighting not to pitch a tent, he said quietly, "Are you awake, William?"

"Uh." I said.

"I like it here. It is warmer. There are no ditches to dig."

I said, "Oh."

He continued, "I have angst. I am sorry I did not have presents for you or your family. I only found out about your holiday when I arrived here! I had no time to shop." I don't think he meant for me to hear it, but my blood was rushing so much. He added, so softly, "And not the money."

"It really is okay!" I said. I could explain this to him, at least. "It isn't about having, being obligated, to buy people presents. It's about the act of giving without expecting anything in return. That's what Mom and Dad say. They tell me I shouldn't expect to get any gifts. Secretly, I know they will get me gifts, or Santa will bring them, or who ever it is that leaves presents by the couch or under the tree or where ever, but really. It's just about the act of giving. Of thinking about what someone might like, or need, and giving that to them, so they're happier." I stopped. He was silent, so I added, "It's just awesome that you're here."

I lay there, going over my words in my head. Had I said too much? Was he laughing at me, in the dark?

It seemed like an eternity before he said, "Thank-you. Dankeshon, William." He gently kicked my bunk and my pulse soared.


03.
New Years Eve! No, New Year's Eve eve eve. The twenty-eighth. Whatever. He and I are at the rec center, we were getting dressed after swimming two miles. My legs were willows, and I felt pale --it was a hard, good, pace, we


But before all that --you need to know about Jay. I think you need to know about Jay. Without Jay, his sister wouldn't have known who I was, wouldn't have invited us to The Black Party. I was in my math class, quietly reading a book on my laptop. I had a tab up for each page of my homework assignment and whenever the teacher passed by, I'd tab, and then I'd close the previous window. That and the disappearing dock meant I looked like I was working. And I was: I was reading! I was done with my math homework.

Jay was in my math class, though we didn't sit next to each other and I didn't think he recognized me, which is weird, because I'm taller than most of the basketball players. And, well, you know.

I got this email:
You're friends with Mercedes Baker:
__ Yes
__ No

I √'d yes and sent it back. I shrugged and went back to reading. A few minutes later, another email:
Can I eat lunch with you guys?
--Jay R(obinson)


My response:
I'll get back to you tomorrow.


I went back to reading and didn't get another message. The tone beeped and everyone got up and filed out of the classroom. The teacher was the first one out the door --she walked very purposefully through the milling students and disappeared.

This was your average, clean, classroom. It was in a huge, but very average high school. This room, the floors are tan, the walls are darker tan. The desks are too small to really hold a computer. Whatever. It's public school. You do your time, play the game, and get into a good trade school or college. It was clean it was well lit. It had a window, if not a door, to the outside. As always, I was the last one out. Which, made it easy for Jon to punch me in my ear as I left.

I stumbled, intentionally sprawling onto the floor, knocking into a gaggle of students chatting around a locker. They shouted at me, angry I interrupted them, that I touched them that I could try and break their bubbles so physically. Or something.

Anyway, my ears were ringing and I stumbled again, more accidentally this time, and then I fell backward, unto my butt --more than the twinge in my tailbone, I winced at the sound of my laptop hitting the floor.

The wake of students spread again, parting. A path between Jon and his victim. Wide eyed, I tried to stand up, but he was already on me. I felt my nose very clearly break and pull down under his boot heel. Eyes streaming, blood flowing I covered up; Jon battered my forearms with a few kicks. He tried to stomp on my leg though --big mistake.  I exhaled and kicked. Jon fell in many directions, his kicked ankle rolling, touching the floor next to his foot. His stomp went wild and his arms flailed but he still fell. He started screaming and groping at his ruined ankle.

I stood up and wiped away my tears. I leaned forward, not wanting the blood to get on my clothes, and wavered toward the bathrooms.

"That totally sucked, what he did to you back there." Someone said to me while I stuffed my nose with toilet paper. "He had got what he deserved."

"Not sure." I replied. My voice sounded thick in my ears.

"And where was security?" The student asked. "I mean, seriously."

A shiver rolled down my body. Where had security been? It wasn't a million round fight or anything, but they're usually really quick. And where were the other teachers? There were plenty of other classrooms on that hallway. I got a concerned pat on the back, and heard the door open and close with a heavy woosh-thump.

I cleaned up as best I could and was only a minutes late to class. The teacher saw my bloody face and asked me to stay after. "I'll write you a note," He said, eyes resting on top of his frameless glasses.

"Sure thing." I said, I smiled but the teacher's frown momentarily deepened, before he began the day's lesson with a grand gesture and some youtube videos. I will be honest: I don't remember the lecture. Or the talk I had with him. It was sweet of him to be concerned, but I didn't really know him. I told him I'd tripped and smashed my face. I laughed, hollow, told him I thought I was going through another growth spurt. He laughed at this too.

I thought: "You're being paranoid." As I threw my coat out the doorway, but it sprang the trap anyway and, somewhat triumphantly, I shouted, "Hey! Give me my coat back!" Jon looked at me with a scowl, his fists balled in the hood of my jacket. The teacher, stepped into the hallway, pen in hand, an apple in another.

The teacher looked at Jon with a cocked eyebrow. "Give William his coat back, please." He said. Jon glared levelly at him, silent, unmoving. The teacher took a loud mouthful of apple and chomped it around in his mouth. They stared at each other. The teacher swallowed, his eyes flickered narrow and Jon flinched. The teacher smiled, slid the pen into a breast pocket and held out his hand. He made a two twitch come-hither gesture.

Pouting, Jon handed my letter jacket to the teacher, who returned it to me. He said, "You're sure you're okay?" I smiled again, felt something shift in my nose, and carefully put my coat on.

"Yes thanks." I said. I sounded stuffed up, like I had one of the worst colds in the world.

Jon was still standing there, quiet, waiting.

The teacher said, "Are you going to the cafeteria for lunch?"

I said, "Yes, I'm meeting a friend there."

"I'll walk with you!" The teacher said, brightly. "We can take the teacher elevator." He turned his back on Jon, patted me on the shoulder and started walking.

"See you later, Metzger!" Jon shouted after us. Without turning around I threw my hand in the air, politely, vigorously waving goodbye to Jon.

The teacher elevator was also the alternative access to all the floors. The teacher pressed the button. Far below, the elevator beeped. He said, "Three, two, six, four."

"Three, two, six, four?" I parroted.

"Shoot." The teacher said, and looked down, ran a hand through his hair. "Are you going to memorize that?"

I grinned and this time it must've touched my eyes. The teacher awwww'd. "You just did, didn't you?" He said. I nodded agreement. "Well," he leaned in closer, and looked over his shoulder. He whispered, "Well then, I won't tell you that's the passcode to get to the roof." Our eyes met. His grin overtook my mine, despite its noticeable growth. "Well, here it is!" He said. The door dinged open. A student in a full function wheel chair looked at us through fish tank lenses. His helper said hello and we smiled and nodded as we stepped in. The helper and the teacher made small talk as the elevator trundled down to the lunch room. We said our goodbyes. I thanked the teacher again and scanned the edges of the tables for Mercedes.

The second building lunch room is a gigantic, cavernous, cathedral of a room. The ceilings are vaulted and curved and huge windows stretch bench tops to ceiling, letting in enormous amounts of light. Despite the huge windows, the kitchen and service areas are still lit with fluorescent lights and out of direct sunlight. The lunch room is where winter pep rallies, and most formal school functions --dances, detentions, guest speakers-- are held. The tables fold up and stack along the outer wall, blocking not very much of the light, but providing some privacy for pricey speakers or proms.

Mercedes was sitting on a corner, in the corner by the far windows, close to the fire exits. She stood up and waved when she saw me. She raised a rainbow colored eyebrow as I walked toward her. She shouted, "Hey!" and pointed at me. I turned, raising my hands in front of me to cushion whatever was coming.

It. It was Jon's lunch tray. He was throwing it at me. I noticed there was an apple juice and a milk carton, both very open, and very full. There was, I hoped only, ketchup floating in both of them. I pushed the tray down and away from me, shrugging away from the thrust.

The tray clattered down, and the cavernous lunchroom quieted around us like a reverse shockwave. Clearly disappointed, Jon shouted, "Hey jerk! Watch were you're going!"

"So sorry!" I shouted back. I backed away from him, put the spilled tray between us. "Look, I'm really sorry. Let me buy you another lunch. Since you smashed my face in and all, its the least I can do. Did I get any blood on the sole of your sneaker?"

"I hope not." Jon said. "You buy me another lunch, now, too."

"Sure, here." I said. I dug in my pocket and pulled out the five dollar bill I had for lunch out of a back pocket. "Here." I said. "That's my lunch money. We okay now?" I held it out and Jon snatched it from my hand.

"Thanks." He said.

I nodded.

Slowly, keeping eye contact, Jon walked by me. He muttered something, but I didn't hear it. I turned and watched him walk into the kitchen.

I jumped forward, hands coming up defensively again, turning. Mercedes laughed at me, her hand on my shoulder.

"Come on," she said, "I've got an apple and a half, and some caramel left over here." Her smirk widened, and she finished, "And a new best friend."

I said, "I have something for you, too, but not until after school. It's pretty awesome." We walked slowly back to the prison grey table. I smiled at Mercedes's friend, Jane,. I sat down across from Mercedes the two of them. I turned. I asked, "How are you Jay?"

"I'm good. My sister has A lunch, so she said I should sit with you. She's a senior. She's awesome. She already has an internship at a restaurant in the city, you know, ("So, I don't want to disturb you," Mercedes said, "But it looks like your face got stomped in, a bit. Just a tiny bit." She held her fingers up.) and she's going to go to school in the city, too, as soon as she graduates. This one time --wait you know that cooking show? With Gordon Ramsay? Well, there was this one episode where he totally went to a prison on Christmas, we're Jewish, (I nodded, "Yeah, turns out that Jon guy took offense to me--" Mercedes cut me off, "Us." she said.) but it was still a cool holiday episode. And in this prison Gordon wasn't scared of the prisoners because he knew they're people too, and most of them are sorry for what they did. ("Us" I corrected myself. "So he jumped me outside third hour and yeah. Shoe meet face." I scowled.)So he was in prison and there was a cook there, and everyone said that he was this amazing knife guy so guess what Gordon did! Gordon totally challenged him to a vegetable cutting contest! They had to cut like, I dunno. They had to cut maybe two onions and a few carrots or something and Gordon bet the guy a job! A job at one of his restaurants that he couldn't slice the vegetables quicker than Gordon could, but you know what? (I continued, "And now. And now thank-you very much for lunch!") That prisoner totally beat Gordon Ramsay! He cut his vegetables just a bit quicker than Gordon did and Gordon looked up and he said sincerely: When you get out come to one of my restaurants. Tell 'em your name and I'll give you a job. But you know what? ("Does it hurt much?" Mercedes asked. "It looks like it hurts."  "You know what?" I said, "I can't even feel it. I don't know if that's good or not, but! This thing! I have to tell you a thing! It is really, really cool.") My sister totally tried it too. She brought her computer to the kitchen and raced those two guys and she beat them both! Fair and square. So she should have a job at one of Gordon Ramsay's kitchens, too. She's going to be a chef, she says, or maybe she'll be a school cook, she isn't sure yet. ("As long as you're okay." ) She wants to make sure kids like us eat healthier, she says. She's really good at cutting things. Like this other time, she peeled an onion with just her finger nails, and each layer of the onion only had (Yeah, I smiled, and for some reason that time my face hurt. I said, "That should be the end of it, right?") a single cut."

Mercedes and I both turned and looked at Jay. We both blinked.

Jay blinked right back at us. He kept talking: "She does. She's a senior this year, and she gives me a ride to school so I don't have to ride the bus, which is nice. We could give you guys a ride. I mean, look at William! His face is, like, pummeled. I don't even know how, I saw him --he's in my third hour and he was fine, and now at lunch he's pummeled!" He stopped, his train of words seemingly run into a wall. "I think that'd be okay. It should be okay, if she gave you guys a ride! She drives a really nice, four door car. It has heated leather passenger seats, too! For winter!"

Mercedes smiled at him. "Maybe in the winter, Jay." She dipped and chewed another apple slice before continuing. Jay waited. Mercedes continued, "We walk to school." Jay's face went pale. Mercedes said, "We live in the sub division just behind the school."

"But that's dangerous!" Jay said it so loud that the adjacent tables paused for a moment. There was a collective chuckle when they saw who Jay was concerned about, then everyone went back to their lunches. "Seriously!" he said, earnestly. "There's that flasher stalker guy who almost caught those joggers. And look at William!"

"I get it," I said. I chewed a piece of apple and swallowed. "I got surprised, okay? This is a freak accident, like a lightning strike."

Mercedes frowned at Jay. She said, "You're a freshman, right?"

Jay's mouth moved a few times before he managed a, "Yup."

"That's okay then." Mercedes smiled at him.

"What's okay?" Jay asked, some sweat appeared on his forehead.

Mercedes smiled at him. She reached over and patted him on the head. She said, "That you don't know who we are. Have you heard of 'The Vengeful Two' ?"

Jay nodded.

Mercedes Tilted her head toward me, then nodded. When Jay's jaw dropped, Mercedes's smirk threatened to take over her face. The two of them nodded in time. I chuckled and nodded, too.

"Oh." Jay said. He wiped and wiped again at the sweat on his brow. "In the stories --they say you have dreadlocks."

"That got boring," Mercedes said, and fluffed her boisterous hair. "This suits me more, I think."

Jay just nodded. "Sorry he said." He started to stuff his lunch back into his washable, Star of David, lunch bag. "I'll just."

"Just what?" I said. "You're here. Stay."

Jay's hands went limp mid-stuffing. "My sister must know who you are." He said. He stammered: "You guys are dangerous."

"Sometimes," I shrugged.

"But not to people we like." Mercedes grinned, toothily.

"Usually." I said.

"Well, on purpose." She said.

We both laughed.

The tone for fifth hour rang.

"Come on" Mercedes said to Jay, who was shaking a little. "We like you. I'll walk you to your fifth hour. Okay?"

Mutely, Jay nodded.

"I gotta jog," I said. And I did. I said, "I'll catch you after sixth as usual?"

Mercedes nodded and waved.

I got up and headed to the door closest to the bridge. It was me and a loose baker's dozen more students, all walking purposely to our class. Some of us more death marching than others. The sky was clear and, thankfully, I didn't need my coat.

"Metzger." Someone Bullhorned my last name. I kept walking. I made myself aware of my breathing. The sinking feeling caught up with me despite my effort. "William Metzger. We need to talk to you." The voice through the bullhorn sounded familiar, but I couldn't place where. It wasn't any of the security guards I knew. I sighed. I stopped. I turned toward the sound of the voice.

It was the red haired person from yesterday. He, or she, was alone this time, though. "Metzger. Come here. You're coming with me."

I still couldn't place a gender.

I walked to the golf cart, but stood far enough away that I could see the driver's face. I still couldn't place the gender. The driver could be a very well shaven, delicate young man, or a strong young woman. "I'm Phoenix McHaine. You can call me Phoenix. The Vice Principal wants to have a word with you."

"Am I in trouble?" I asked.

"I don't know." Phoenix said, eying my hands. "Are you?"

"No!" I said, with a smile. "I don't think so. I mean, I haven't done anything wrong."

"Well, hop on and let's go." Phoenix said with a smile. Despite the weather, Phoenix was wearing a thick, royal blue bomber jacket; a crew cut fit for the military and a lopsided, always toothy grin.

The ride to The Vice Principal's office was silent but for the whir of the golf cart and the indistinct chatter of students hurrying to class.

"I trust you're going to where you're suppose to?" Phoenix asked without looking back at me.

I nodded.

"Well?"

"Oh, haha, yeah. Sorry. I nodded." I said.

I slid through the office door and strode purposefully through the reception area and through the Vice Principal's door without stopping. "Metzger." The Vice Principal said. "Less than a week and here you are."

"Sir." I said. I remained standing.

"Listen. No one saw anything, but a certain student had their parents submit a formal notice of aggravated assault against you and a friend of yours. Security confirmed that they chased two students roughly matching the description of you and your friend Mercedes Baker --"

I interrupted, "Why isn't she here?"

"The complaint was directed at you specifically, with only a cursory mention of an accomplice."

I made a bored duck face at him.

The Vice Principal continued, "Anyway. Security confirmed that two students matching your description fled over the south west fence and into the forest. They found this," He paused dramatically and pulled out Mercedes's torn hooded sweater. "What even is this?" he asked.

I shrugged.

"Whatever it is, it looks like gang stuff to me."

I nodded.

"The only reason the police and everyone's parents aren't here is another student lodged a complaint against your accuser. His complaint said that you stopped an altercation between the, your accuser and him --the --this second person. Heavens, William!" He sighed heavily. "Don't kick any hornet nests this year, would you? Last year was enough. Seriously. The accuser of your accuser said that they were with you until they dropped you off at your house, and that they had other people that would speak on your behalf. You're lucky, this time, okay?"

I nodded.

The Vice Principal stared at me for a while. I stood, rooted like an oak tree. "You know you're already a legend on campus? Security tell me people talk like you and Mercedes are summonable karmic demons."

I chuckled at that, a guilty smirk slipped onto my mouth.

"NO LAUGHING. You are a sophomore. Try to make it through the next three years peacefully, would you?"

At the time it was a reasonable request.

The Vice Principal continued: "Look. Certain things are best left untouched, okay? Unmolested. You can't affect the tide, son, and soon, things  will," he coughed ad dramatis personae, "graduate out onto other people's concerns."

I nodded again. Suddenly it was very, very easy not to laugh. "Sir," I said, "Are you saying --"

"I'm saying you shouldn't kick things bigger than you. You should mind your elders and your betters, and that you should count your lucky stars." Very, very quietly he added, "I can't help you with this, okay? Understood?"

Solemn, teeth clenched, I nodded.

"So," The Vice Principal said, "How was your summer?" He gestured to a chair next to his desk. I sat, and we chatted about the summer past, some of Dad's projects, and my classes this semester. The tone sounded and I stood.

I said, "Thank-you, sir."

"Get out of my office, William."

I did.

Sixth hour was a blur. The teacher was still talking about the syllabus and course expectations. I sat straight, listened, regurgitated an answer when called on.


"What was that about?" Mercedes asked as I was passing through the door.

"Seriously?" I asked.

Mercedes shrugged, "News travels fast." We started our stroll back to my house. My house was in the subdivision behind the school. The back gate was past the track and football fields, and the incredibly bright, metallic bleachers.

"Sheesh." I said. "We're okay thanks very much to Jay."

"Oh?"

"Someone accused us of aggravated assault."I said. "Someone else accused our accuser of aggravated assault. That accuser then claimed we broke up their altercation --principal's words-- and escorted le accuser a la their abode."

"Well then."

I said. "Lunches on us." I fidgeted a bit.

"No doubt." Mercedes said. We walked quietly for a while, preoccupied. Too preoccupied.

"Hey!" Jon shouted at us from behind. "Hey! You two!"

Mercedes and I turned around, masochists for confirmation, I suppose. It was Jon, flanked by three other students, all blonde, all wearing identical  light grey hooded sweaters. The four of them were sitting on paired down bicycles: matte black single gear things without brakes and mud guards. "Seriously?" Mercedes whispered.

"Run?" I asked.

"Run." She said.

We ran, and came howling after us, Jon in the lead, the clack of loose chains and flying pebbles proceeding him; he leaned forward over his handle bars, gritted his teeth and peddled harder. We were half way between the bleachers and the gate when I turned back;  Jon was almost on me. Without thinking, I kicked at his front tire. My leg sang, but the bike crashed, the wheel jolting starkly and momentum took over.Jon's face as he flew over the handle bars was a froth of rage, incomprehension, frustration, and fear. There was more screeching and swearing as the other three swerved away from their leader, knocking into each other --whatever. I was already sprinting toward the gate. That beautiful gate, with its bike posts and s-path so drunks and hoodlums couldn't get their motorcycles onto school property unbeknown to The Security.

I weaved through the gate and saw Mercedes climbing into the back of a bullet grey, tinted window sedan. I shouted at her, where was she going, and she shouted back: "Get in!"

"Hi!" Jay said as I slid into the back seat. Mercedes was already buckled in and I did the same as the car pulled away.

"Hi, Jay." I paused, "And Jay's. . . mom?"

"Hi!" A soft, immaculately manicured hand waved at me. The woman in the driver's seat wore huge, face hiding sun glasses, but had a tiny, freckled button nose. Her hair was tied back in a gossamer scarf that matched the car's paint job.

"Jay-jay asked to wait for his new friends, since its dangerous to walk home these days."

"It really, really isn't." Mercedes said. She shot me a glance, and shrugged minuscule, at me. "I mean, who would mess with us? William is huge."

"Who were those young men on bicycles?" Jay's mom asked.

I said, "Playful friends." And chuckled. Before anyone else could say anything, I said: "Thank-you for the ride. I live just around here." I gave her directions to a house a few blocks from mine, and felt bad for lying. "The key is hidden in the back yard, thank-you!" I said as we pulled to a stop.

"Thank-you again Misses, uh, Jay's mom."

"Trumble" Jay's Mom said, "But you can call me Vernie."

"Thank-you Vernie," I said. I smiled and got out. Mercedes and I waved at the car's tinted windows as it drove away. We walked around the side of the house, "That was . . . a thing." Mercedes said, quietly. Then, she said, "Are we cutting through backyards, then?"

I said, "Yeah, I think Jon and his friends are coming after us, so the less time we're on roads, the better."

"Makes sense."

"So, what do we do now that we've accepted a ride from Jay's mom?" I asked

Mercedes chuckled and asked, "Was she m-i-l-f cute?"

"Couldn't tell." I sighed. "You want to eat over tonight?"

"Sure."

"Cool."


Dinner was pleasant. Before dinner Mercedes and I did our homework, chatted about crushes and objectified students in our classes. We made fart jokes and talked about television shows. Somehow, on all the social media, Jay sent us friend requests. We accepted, since we either share accounts, or communicated in private groups anyway. We made the requisite hello there new friend(!) posts. And during dinner, Mom mentioned that we were going to be hosting a German exchange student for winter semester. I nodded, and asked where he was going to stay. Mom told me Dad was making a bunk bed, and that we'd be sharing a room.

"I wonder if he's cute." Mercedes said, and made her eyes big at me. "I mean, maybe we'd have to fight over him." She stuck her tongue out at me.

"Maybe I'd let you win, this time." I said and stuck my tongue out at her. Mercedes stared at me her mouth a horizontal cane, her eyebrows jagged.

After dinner, after we'd loaded the dishwasher, I asked Mercedes if she wanted a ride home. She refused, smiled at me and cracked her knuckles. "I'll see you tomorrow for breakfast sweetie." She said, and kissed me on my neck (its as high as she can reach, even in platform sneakers.)

"See you tomorrow!" I said.

I finished my homework and went to bed.

Of course, Mercedes missed breakfast. I ate my cereal enthusiastically. And when the warning tone sounded, I downed her scrambled eggs and hash brown patty --with far less enthusiasm.

The day was a montage of bad signs:
  1. I stopped getting mobile phone reception
  2. First hour, a guy who usually tried to rattle me, who called me names was quiet,  and had a split lip and a deeply, deeply blackened eye. 
  3. My third hour teacher was absent, the substitute teacher was the androgynous security guard, Phoenix. Phoenix kept looking at me and smirking. Phoenix only called on me to answer questions. I got a few wrong.
  4. Jay wasn't at lunch.
  5. Mercedes wasn't at lunch.
  6. I was waiting in line, fidgeting. 
  7. Jon and two of his friends came up to me, cutting in line. He had an arm in a sling and a black eye. "You look pretty beat up, what happened?" I said. My glumness overtook my mock joviality.
Jon grinned. He asked, "Where's your friend? I thought you two were always there for each other." One of his friends, laughed and patted him on the back.
"Seriously, though. You look horrible." I said.
"That's okay, you're gonna buy me lunch. That'll cheer me up." He said. He lowered the tone of his voice, "I"m very hungry today." 
I sighed. I looked at him, square in the eye. "I bought your lunch yesterday."  
He giggled, "Because you knocked it over. And I said you could buy me lunch." 
I nodded, "And I did."  
"I meant for the rest of the year." He giggled again and adjusted his D Detroit baseball cap. "Didn't you know that's how it works?" 
"Move along or order something, please." Said an exasperated line cook. 
"I'll have the mashed potato bowl" Jon said, without breaking eye contact with me. 
"I'll have the same" I said, I leaned in and down until our noses were almost touching. 
The less exasperated and more concerned line cook said, "Here you gentle men go!" Too brightly as she slid two bowls over the sneeze guard.  
We said thank-you in unison and my stomach churned. "Today I will buy you lunch because there was a misunderstanding." I said. "Tomorrow onward, I will not be buying your lunch." I finished. 
Jon giggled. 
I paid for our lunches. Laughing, Jon and his friends made a show of throwing out the meal I had bought him, and walked off, jovial as elves. I sat and ate by myself.
I decided to skip my last two classes.

As soon as I was off school property, my mobile exploded with two voice mail messages and three text messages. The first three were from Mercedes's mom. The last two were from Mercedes. She was home from the hospital; she could use some company.

I sprinted all the way home and Mom's angry face melted when I couldn't explain more than my need to get to Mercedes's house. "Okay, honey." She said. Mom very, very rarely calls me honey. I narrowed my eyes and long-sniffed, my mouth roiling.

04.
"I'm sorry! Sorry." I sniffed and burst into tears again, slumped on the side of her purple futon.

Mercedes patted my head with the fingers of her right hand. Her left hand had too many finger splints for her to do anything with it. She couldn't talk because the neck brace extended all the way to her jaw. Her mouth twitched upward. "Es oh kah." She managed.

I sniffled again. "Was it him?" I asked.

Mercedes bobbled her body; winced. Wiggled her right toes, outside their cast.

I nodded. I sniffed my last sniff.

05.
[Excerpt from Student Policy Handbook]











I received my letter jacket for track and field. I was both a sprinter and a long distance runner. I was proud of my sprinting.

I was late to every single class for the rest of the week.

I was also waiting outside every single one of Jon's classes. Sometimes I would walk by or right behind him. Sometimes I would trail him, but I always escorted him to his next class. He said stupid, hurtful things to me. I never said a word. I never smiled. I never stopped staring at him.

When my teachers asked me what was causing my sudden tardiness I very quietly explained that my friend Mercedes had been beaten up severely and I had reason to believe that Jon was the assailant's next target and I wanted him to be safe.

Phoenix, who was still the substitute teacher for my science class was the first one to assign me detention. I was to come in for two hours on the coming Saturday.

I said, "Fine."

By Thursday Jon only walked quietly to class. He swatted at his friends when they joked at him and looked back at me and wiped his brow often.

Friday. Friday. Friday on our way to his fifth hour class, Jon snapped. He stopped in the middle of the wide walkway between the two major schools. "Faggot. If you wanna do me, here's my number!" he said, and threw a crumpled piece of paper at me. I stopped. The paper bounced off my forehead and fell to the ground. I stared, flat faced, at Jon, whose fists were balled. The wind took his number and tossed it into the stream for me. I hooked my thumbs into my belt loops and spread my legs a bit. I slow blinked. I let the fire I had been carrying in my belly for the last three days spread through me.

"Me and my friends don't like being harassed, you know. This is harassment. I could sue you and your family." Jon continued, talking some confidence into himself. "You're nothing, you know that? You're a lug. You're a huge idiot. You're nothing. You're just a sophomore. You're a speck."

I narrowed my eyes. I faux-quietly asked, "Why aren't you in a retirement home?"

Jon charged at me with a yell --a weird, animal keening-- just as clouds covered the sun. He swung; and swung and swung; he kicked and swung, kick-kick-kicked and swung, and he missed every time. He panted and looked at me. I stood, knees slightly bent, thumbs still hooked my belt loops.

"That's enough you two." Security bustled through the ring of students that had surrounded us. (I admonished myself for loosing track of my surroundings so easily --when had the crowd gathered?) It was an older, male, Security. He looked like he should have been a rock star. Last year, he and I had built something close to a sense of respect for each other. If you listened very carefully, you could hear traces of the lisp and the stutter that stopped him from being a rock star. "Jon, hop on the cart, you're coming with me. Metzger, if we need you, we'll get you." He turned to Jon, who was sitting, sulking on the back of the Security Golf Cart. "What is with you?" I heard Security ask as he drove away.

The late tone sounded and the other students hurried to class. When I was alone, I smiled for the first time in a week. I walked to class.

After school, I sprinted home. It was the first time since the texts from Mercedes and her mom I did anything other than trudge. The sprint made my lungs burn and my legs queasy, but it was good to run full out like that.

Mom looked at me and smiled. "You're happy." she said.

"Things could be worse." I said. I shrugged. "I almost got in a fight with a bully today, but instead I avoided it, and he got taken away by Security. I hope he gets expelled."

Mom asked, "Wow. Is that possible?"

I nodded, "It is, and he's a big bully, too. It's that Jon guy Mercedes mentioned at dinner a few nights ago."

"Oh. The older boy?" Mom asked.

I replied, "That's him. He . . ." I trailed off. Mercedes hadn't said anything about who had beaten her up, just guys in motorcycle jackets. No one at our school wore motorcycle jackets. "He had been bothering a --" I stopped again and Mom looked up from chopping carrots. Was Jay a friend? Why wouldn't he be? "He was picking on a friend, and I decided to teach him a lesson."

"Was it your place to do that?" Mom asked.

I said, "No one else was doing it."

"So you did." She said, and went back to methodically chopping carrots.

I stood there for a while, feeling like I was missing something, and that I should be embarrassed because of that. "I guess so." I said.

Mom kept chopping carrots. Eventually she chopped a few potatoes too. The rhythmic sound of it was comforting, and I leaned against the dark, marble top, breakfast bar. When the vegetables were in a huge pot on the stove, Mom said, with a fresh smile, "Your dad finished the bunk bed! He stayed home from work yesterday and finished it."

"Really! It's ready?" I asked.

"Go see!" Mom said with a grin. She snapped a dish towel at me. "Go!"

The bunk bed was amazing. The frame was painted to look like the solid, simple, wooden lower base turned into an intricate, gun metal, wire cage for the upper bed. The ladder was a series of wire globes with foot holds bent into the wood and wire at the foot of the bed lower bed --they looked like planets an astro giant had walked on. The lower head board was a simple nine panels alternating the wood and metal colors. The upper head board looked like a strange, dream catcher made of spun handguns and brass watch-workings. It was weird. It was beautiful. It was perfect.

. . .


Monday's start was blissful: No Jon. Jay was quiet at lunch. He messaged me over the weekend, but I was busy with homework and a book about social roles I was reading. We chatted a bit. When I told him Mercedes's condition, there was a long pause before his response message appeared.

I was on time to all my classes, despite picking up homework assignments and presentation links from Mercedes's teachers.

Then, during sixth hour, the school's intercom buzzed to life. I was standing at a urinal when the tone went and, "William Metzger." Came the robotic, distorted voice, "You are to report for detention directly after class. At the tone, proceed directly to the second building lunch room from your class, for your three hour detention."

I sighed. Honestly, I had forgotten I had detention. Spanish did not come naturally to me, and the thought of my first real detention ruined my concentration for during the test.

Everyone watched me like eagles eyeing a field mouse as I came in and sat at my desk by the window. Outside, it was cloudy and wind rattled the loose window frame. I finished my test a few minutes after the bell, and was the last one to leave. My teacher frowned at me as I handed in my test. I shrugged. I said, "Its because I was late to all my classes last week." I plodded out of the classroom and stopped, thinking about which way I wanted to go to detention. It would be warmer if I stayed in the buildings longer, but the winds were a comfort, and I would be stuck inside for a few hours. I needed to call Mom and let her know I'd be late. I decided to walk outside and send Mom a text letting her know I was okay and I'd be home later than usual.

The Marching Band practice field has Elm trees growing in its corners and the middle of the imaginary lines those corners make. I decided to walk along a short edge and listen as the band practiced. The sun was out, but distant, and the wind wormed eagerly into my unbuttoned coat. The field was damp and freshly cut, the aerosol smell of fresh, smeared, paint tingling in my nose along with the ozone and grass blood.

The tree leaves were still bloodless, summer apple colors.

I finished texting my mom and smiled.

I stopped smiling immediately on entering the lunch-slash-detention room. Phoenix looked up from a paperback book, closed it carefully, pushed a strand of red hair away and said, "Welcome to detention mister Metzger. For being late, you will be held here another hour."

"What?" I started to protest and was cut off.

Phoenix finished, "You and everyone else."

There were groans and a smatter of swearing from the other dozen or so students; a bell curve of sulking bad-bad-days volleyed in the wrong direction on through through to repeat offenders, who looked far too comfortable in the lunch table pen. I recognized some of the students.

"Have a seat where ever you like. You can read books, and write your homework, but nothing more technological than pencil and paper. Understood?" Phoenix's ears pipped back, like an angered cat. I nodded and scanned the makeshift room, looking for a place to sit.

In order for the cooks to prepare for the morning, the kitchen hired student workers and let students interested in culinary arts volunteer cooking food after school ended. To keep the lunch room open, but not disturb the would-be chefs, the lunch tables were folded upright and turned into a large square area, with some unfolded tables in the middle for us delinquents to sit at . If you can't imagine what a fortress built of tables looks like, here, it works like this:

Then, the tables are wheeled together and locked in place, penning us in the center.

I waved at a girl from my math class, a tiny little girl with braces and sunken, though strangely vibrant eyes, no matter how much makeup she caked around them. I should have sat by her, but I didn't. Instead, I sat at an unoccupied table in the middle middle, took out my Spanish textbook and busied myself with the week's homework.

The slam of two textbooks slamming into the table jolted me from my cultural understanding reading and I frowned up at the person who had interrupted me.

My mouth fell open: It was Jon. He smiled, all his stupid white teeth shining, and pushed his expensive aviator sunglasses onto his forehead. He unzipped his green bomber jacket and sat down across from me.

I sighed.

"They gave me a one day suspension, and one day of detention because of you." Jon said. He pouted a bit. "Boo hoo. But at least now you and I can spend the next three hours, here, together." He made a exaggeratedly happy face. He said, "I know! You can help me with my math homework!"

I sighed. I looked him squarely in the eyes and said, "Sorry, but I need to finish my Spanish homework."

"You can do that after you help me."

"I don't want to help you." I said. Keeping my eyes on Jon's nose, I put my notebook in my textbook and gently closed it. "I don't like you. You're mean to me and my friends." My heart raced, and my feet tingled, My face tingled, too. "I'm sorry." I said, "Maybe one of your friends, or someone else can help you?" I looked around and my jaw dropped again.

The sole occupants of the detention pen were Me, Phoenix, Jon and two of his friends, who stood behind him, their arms folded against their chests. Jon called out, "Em Phoenix, Metzger says he won't help me with my math homework."

"Sounds like harassment to me. We should write him up for that." Phoenix (em?) said blandly, without looking up from the paperback book. "I think you should beat him, then we can write a report about how he attacked you and we had to subdue him. I'll have to taser him, too, he's such a big, oafish brute of a sophomore. No more brains in him than a football."

One of Jon's friends spoke, which surprised me. He said, "We're gonna beat you, nazi boy. We're gonna beat you  lie--"

Jon elbowed him in the groin, without taking his eyes off me. "That's enough." Jon said.

Talkative huffed and doubled over. Talkative said, "I'm okay. I'm okay." Over and over between dry heaves. He wheezed, "Good one Jon, good one."

"Really?" I said. "You're just gonna admit to," I paused and let the red drain from my vision, "admit to doing that? To me?"

"We didn't admit nothing, nazi boy." Jon's other friend spoke. If this kept up I was going to have to learn their names. The thought frightened me, a little.

I asked, "Do you even know what a nazi is?"

"Shut up, Metzger." Jon barked it so loud that against my best intentions, I flinched. He caught the flinch and stretched it out, laughing and laughing, giggling, until tears rolled down his cheeks.

Phoenix looked at the four of us. Phoenix stood up, the click as the taser safety catch coming undone was impossibly loud in that pen of tables. Phoenix said, "Stand him up."

I started to say, "No need to --" But my sentence was choked off before I could finish it. Three rough sets of arms were on me: one around my neck, putting me in a choke hold, the other two around each of my arms. I was dragged roughly off the bench --my knees knocked against support bars. "Ouch." I finished. I stammered, "You really, really don't have to do this."

Phoenix smiled at me and pointed the taser at my chest. I tried jumping, I tried sitting, but my three captors held me. I screamed, "HELP" at the top of my lungs, right until the electrified fishhooks dug into my chest and sucked the gumption from me. I stood there, held up by three invisible people while Phoenix smiled and kept the trigger pulled. My legs stopped working, then, my bladder control stopped working. I moaned. They dropped me. I decided I wasn't going to move. I'm not sure I could have anyway.

"You pissed yourself." Jon said, "And now I'm gonna --"

"Hi there." Clearly a woman's voice. "Is he okay? Is he going to be okay?"

Phoenix answered, "Yes, he just had a seizure, I'll make sure he gets to the school nurse."

The new voice, "Okay, well, I burned this batch of cookies, but not badly. I'll just leave them here for you. He looks really bad, and I just talked to Michelle in nursing, she's still here doing paperwork. You should take him there right now."

"We were just about to."

If I could have, I would have smiled at the strain and frustration in Phoenix's voice. Instead I felt the piss in my pants cooling and spreading down, around my knees. Someone's hand wrapped itself in my hair. Phoenix whispered in my ear, "You are incredibly lucky that stupid cook showed up when she did. You are incredibly going to be tone cleaning up your piss when you get back from the nurse's office. This isn't over."

I turned my head toward Phoenix and vomited. The puke sort of weak pumped itself out of my throat, but didn't clear my mouth, it drooled down my face. out my slack mouth.

"You disgust me." Phoenix said and stood up. "Take him to  Nurse Michelle's office. Then you're free to go. Enough excitement for one period."

The three people dragged me silently, roughly through the school up a flight of stairs, through two sets of doors and tossed me in the waiting room of the nurse's office. I wondered if I was going to have to clean up the slug's trail of body fluid.

"Oh my good goodness!" Nurse Michelle said, dropping to her knees and rolling me onto my side. "What happened?"

"I," I paused. I choked and curled into a messy ball. I said, "I had a seizure. During detention."

"Huh." Said Nurse Michelle. "I can't lift you, let me get you a blanket and a pillow." She returned moments later with a pillow and a laughably small blanket, which she draped over my shoulders. "I'll be back with another blanket for your legs." She said. She asked, "Are you okay?"

I nodded.

"Okay, here." Nurse Michelle said.

I felt another blanket cover my legs. I tried to smile, but it hurt; my throat burned.

"I'm afraid I don't have spare clothes that will fit you. What's your name? You're William Metzger, yes?"

I nodded. She was gone for a few minutes, though the next hour was very much a blur. Dad and Mom showed up and Dad carried me in his arms to his van, a black thing with automatic doors. All black, with a red stripe that swooped into a spoiler. Yes. A spoiler on a van. Dad is a geek, like I've said. I sat and stared and blinked out the front window. Mom buckled me in. They asked what happened and, weakly, I told them I had had a seizure. Their faces told me they didn't believe me, but they didn't push the issue. I could feel a lump of digested something stuck between my lips. I couldn't be bothered to pick it off. That made me laugh. My laugh came out as a dry chuckle and a wheeze. I rubbed away some drool. "Sorry." I murmured. "I'd like to shower and go to bed." I nodded to myself and hugged the blanket around me.

Then it hit me: I didn't have my back pack! My home work, but worse, Mercedes's homework. She wouldn't be able to do her school work. I'd let her down. Tears leaked out my eyes and down my cheeks. "I'm sorry." I said again. Mom turned around, asked what I said. I said it again, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." I couldn't stop apologizing. I hugged myself and rocked and apologized and apologized for apologizing and on an on until we were home and Dad was carrying me gently inside.

He carried me into the bathroom and set me on the toilet. I started apologizing again and he laughed. Dad said, "Well, me too, son." And stroked my hair back. He started the shower, all seven nozzles, and pulled my filthy clothes off me. He set his mobile in the middle of the sinks and stood in the --he stood in the shower holding me up, letting the hot water and the steam fill the bathroom, blot the windows blind. I don't know how long we were in there, and I didn't hear Mom come in, but our robes were waiting for us, when we got out. Dad helped me to the toilet. He said, "Sorry." As he set me down. He dried me off and slid my arms into my robe.

I said, "I'd like to go to bed now."

Dad nodded and helped me down the stairs, down the hall and into my new bed. He sat me on the edge and I studied the rug --so many tiny curls-- while he pulled the sheets back. Dad cradled my head and lay me softly down. "Sweet dreams." he said. I took one of his hands in mine.

I said, "Sorry dad."

He smiled again, but his lips quivered. He said, "I love you. Sweet dreams."

"Dad?"

"Yes?"

I said, "I'm sorry."

He said, "I forgive you then, son."

And I slept.

And I dreamed while I slept. In the dream, everything was black and white, except instead of black it was white and instead of white it was red. Shades of white faded to red around the streetlights off in the distance, glowing over treetops, out on the main road. I was in the field below some pylons, close to Mercedes's house. I floated in the air and hummed with electricity. Below me, the white resolved to blood shadows as my eyes adjusted. There were five people, arrayed like dots on a dice. Like hearts on a playing card. The one in the middle kept getting shoved into the others, like a drunk pinball. The resolution kept improving. Some of the red was starting to take a scabbed tone, outlining things. I recognized the middle dot as Mercedes and all the reds started to throb like a bumped head. Two of the others grabbed her and threw her to the ground and my pulse was like a struck funny bone. I shouted: "NO!" They didn't hear me.

I couldn't stop floating above them. I struggled against my useless gravity.

One of Mercedes's attackers stomped on her leg and she yelped. I remembered I hadn't brought her homework with me. I sank. I hit the ground like lead. Like Uranium. Three of the others turned toward me. I tilted my head and raised an eyebrow. I reached out and my hand was big as my father's. My hand fit around the head of an other. I squeezed and felt his cheeks cave in, felt hot fluid splash against my palm.

Possibly the smartest fled.

The fourth had yet to notice me. He stomped on Mercedes's arm, hard scab heel into pink flesh; I heard something snap. The other raised a foot again but before it came down, I burst  out of the ground, clumps of blood falling from me, clotting sweetly in my mouth and ears, tasting like so many spices as I grabbed a dry blood ankle and yanked it down; the other --this other-- collapsed to the ground, pink fingers clutching at a jagged, scabby protrusion. The last other was running away now,  too, and Mercedes was gasping. Cotton candy steam coiled  from her body. I grabbed the ankles of the two Others still here and scissor kicked, and pushed up with my hands --I swam into the darkness of the dirt under the field, dragging the others with me. They screamed and screamed until their heads broke the surface; the everything was perfectly still, Perfectly silent. I let go of the others. I tilted my head to the other side and floated up and away. As I floated away, colors shifted themselves back toward the normal spectrum; white faded to black, red to white, then other colors started to seep in. There was a flash of blue that sounded like a car door slamming shut and I woke.

It was Tuesday. It was dark. I was drenched in sweat and had a nose bleed seeping down my left nostril, onto my lips. My blood tasted like dirt and salt. My whole body ached, but I had seven minutes before my alarm clock went off. I wiped the blood away on my wrists.

I put my robe on and padded down the hallway and down the stairs. Mom and Dad were sat in the kitchen, around the high, glass table; they stopped talking as the last stair squeaked under my foot. Mom got up and wooshed me into a hug. She wrapped her hands around my neck and nuzzled at my jaw with the top of her head. I smiled.

"How'd the new bed treat you?" Dad asked.

I told him, "I had the strangest dreams."

"Oh? What were they?" Dad asked, then, "Do you want some coffee?"

"Decaf?" I asked.

"Half and half." Came Dad's reply.

Mom asked me, "Eggs? hash browns?"

"Yes please," I said to Mom. To Dad, I said, "Sure, but just half a cup, thanks." I sat on one of the metallic, high back, long leg chairs that surrounded the table and smiled at Mom as she smiled at me from behind the preparation table in the middle of the kitchen. The oven was already on. "I dreamed I was in a red world." I said. "And I saved Mercedes from being beaten up by these four shadow men. It was weird. At first I was trapped, floating and just watching, then something made me sad and I dropped like a lead weight. Then I stopped the other people from hurting Mercedes." I sighed. I said, "I woke up before I could take Mercedes to the hospital, though." I crossed my arms on the table and rested my head on them.

"That's interesting." Dad said. He pushed a cup of coffee toward me. Dad adjusted his tie and strode over, kissed Mom on her cheeks and neck. "I'll see you both tonight." He said, and was gone.

"He's very worried about you, you know." Mom said, as she whisked eggs. She faced away from me. "I'm worried about you too. Of course."

"I know. I don't think I'll have another seizure. I'm pretty sure it was a one time thing. It sucked though. I can't imagine living with the possibility of those happening any time!"

Mom turned around, her lips were thin. She asked, "What do you think brought this one on?"

I paused. I sat up and looked down, through the table. I lied, "I don't know. Probably stress and confrontation. Jon showed up to detention. He's not expelled." My shoulders hurt, suddenly knotted. I took a minute to stretch them out, rolling the joints and slow tugging the muscles. "He's not even suspended any more." I said. Suddenly, my coffee tasted sweeter. "He was just there, at detention, and he." I stopped again. My legs were aching, and I felt cold and I was sweating. My nose throbbed. My knees hurt, too. I stretched my legs, but the fatigue lingered. "And he tried to make me do his homework. I didn't."

Mom asked, "Wouldn't that have been easier?"

I blinked at her. I frowned. I asked, "Seriously?"

Mom sat down with me. Mom set a plate of scrambled eggs and sausage in front of me. "Eat." She said. "You need food after what you've been through. Seizures take a lot out of a person. I'm surprised you're up, honestly. You could probably take today off school if you don't feel up to it."

I ate some eggs. "Hum." I said. I drank a few slow swallows of coffee. I ate some more eggs.

Mom said, "You can go if you want to."

I carefully halved and halved and halved my sausages. I mixed them with the eggs. I took a few bites. In my head I thought about, then practiced what I was going to say. I said, "I think I want to go to school." my voice was steady when I said it.

"Okay then!" Mom said. She said, "I'll drive you, okay?"

I swallowed my mouthful of food, but it was painful. I nodded. I said, "Yes, thank-you."

Mom packed me a lunch, sausage slices and mustard sandwiches, apple slices, some potato chips and a Thermos of coffee. "No sugar." She said, gravely.

We didn't talk while she drove me the few blocks to the back gate, but it wasn't uncomfortable.

My classes were a blur. Passing time was a blur.

I was on time to all my classes. Even Phoenix didn't give me any trouble, during fourth hour. The tone sounded and I decided to take the elevator. I held the door for the student in the full function wheel chair and his helper thanked me. I heard more than saw the smile. I was having a hard time looking up. I practiced the phrase, "The ground is fascinating, thank-you." In my head as I walked out of the elevator and into the lunch room.

I saw an empty table and broke into a sweat. My vision started to tunnel and I had to lean against a wall for a moment. I thought I heard Mercedes's voice shouting my name. I sighed. I smiled. I opened my eyes and there was Mercedes, standing, waving at me. One arm in a cast, but the other completely free of restorative restraints. My eyes must have bugged out, because she laughed. She shouted, "Hey, I saved you a seat!"

I fast walked to the table where she was sitting. Her eyes were fine. Her legs weren't in casts. There were no wheel chairs hidden or tucked away anywhere. "What gives?" I asked.

"Huh?" She said, "What do you mean what gives? What do you give?"

"Sausage sandwiches?" I asked.

Mercedes scrunched her face around her button nose, "Ew" she said. "Really?"

"Apple slices, too, if you want some." I said. I sat. I said, "So, where are your finger splints?"

"My what?"

"Your finger splints. You had a broken arm and a hand full of broken fingers. I saw you not two days ago. You had a broken leg, too."

"Yeah, and you didn't bring me my homework yesterday. What's up with that?" She jabbed an apple slice at me. "Seriously though. You're messed up today. What happened to you? You look like you need this mouth full of sausage more than I do." She handed me one of my sandwiches. "I mean, I got messed up, sure, but not that bad, just this broken arm." She waved her casted arm at me again. "And some heavy bruises. Seriously, though? Broken fingers? Nah. I scared those motorcycle jacket jerk offs off!" She grinned at me, but it didn't last. "You though. Man. You look drained all out today."

I grinned back. "I'm fine. I had a rough detention yesterday. I'm glad you're here, anyway." I said.

Mercedes said, "I Know."

"Hey," I leaned over the table toward Mercedes. I asked, "Do you have a test next hour?"

"Nah, why?"

"I've got a secret for you." I said, standing. "You're really going to enjoy this, too. Come on!" I took her hand and dragged her through the mostly quiet kitchen. Two chefs and the serving staff eyed us as we crossed through to the elevator, but none of them said anything.

Mercedes limped after me, "Slow down!" she called out. "I've got a sore leg."

"Better than a broken one."  I called back, "Hurry up!" I pressed the button and shifted foot to foot, foot to foot until the doors opened with a ding.

Mercedes said, "The stairs are faster, you know." and entered with me.

I waited until the doors were shut then pressed the buttons all together: three, two, six, four. Nothing happened. I pressed it again, and held the door closed button and with a small shake and no mechanical voice, the elevator started moving.

Mercedes's eyes were big when I looked at her. "Where are we going?" she asked.

I smiled at her. "It's a surprise!"

"Like Willy Wonka?"

"Not that cool, no."

"Oh." Mercedes crossed her arms, mock defensively. "Not interested." But the door opened out onto the roof just as she finished her pout and she hop stepped onto the roof. "Oh my god." She said. "How did you get that?"

The rooftop was a huge, rectangle, with a small square off to one side, where the garden sat on the roof of the second floor. A few pyramid shaped skylights dotted the roof, going into hallways and by the elevator were all the air conditioning, air purification, and other HVAC machinery. We leaned against, then sat on one of the gigantic silver tubes that disappeared like a diving worm three quarters across the roof.

"It's a bit weird actually." I said. I swung my legs, mindfully not kicking the tube we were sat on. I rooted around in my brain for his name. Mister Heissluft gave it to me."

"Your fourth hour teacher? Tall swimmer guy?"

I asked, "He's a swimmer?"

Mercedes nodded.

I continued, "Yeah. So him. It was a couple weeks ago when Jon was really pushing me around? Jon had my coat and Heissluft made him give it back. So he did, but he then he just stood there, fuming, so Heissluft took me to the elevator and down to the lunch room, but while we were waiting he kind of sing-songed some numbers and then he looked at me and got grown up fake serious. Like, haha, oops. But not really oops. So now I know it." I shrugged. "It's nice up here, you can see all the water towers."

"Yeah. Thank-you." Mercedes said. She bumped her head against my shoulder and said, quietly, "I forgive you for not bringing my homework."

"Thanks." I said. I bonked her head with my brow and we smiled at each other. "Hey!" I said, "Have you seen Jay recently?"

"You know, I haven't."

We both sat up. Mercedes asked, "Was he at lunch yesterday?"

"I honestly don't remember." I said, truthfully. "I don't know. He wasn't in math class, either."

Mercedes frowned, "We should check on him after school. Would your mom drive us to his house, do you think?"

"Do you know where he lives?"

"I can find out." Mercedes said, somewhat cryptically.

"Oh?" I asked.

"Well, yeah. Friend in the main office? Duh?"

Mercedes had way, way more friends than me. I nodded at her. "Cool. We'll do that then." I nodded. I leaned back on my elbows and closed my eyes, enjoying the cool breeze and brisk air and bright sun. I could feel Mercedes doing the same thing, next to me. We sighed, then chuckled, in unison.

"Oh Will." Mercedes purred.

"Oh Mercedes." I parroted.

We napped until the bustle of students woke us. I looked at my watch. "Oh, haha!" I said, gently shaking Mercedes, who startled and woke. "Its the end of the school day."

"We missed two classes?" Mercedes asked, rubbing her eyes.

"Yup."

"Cool." She said, stretching her body and the word. She smiled at me. "Thanks, this is cool."

"You're welcome." I said.

We smiled. The elevator ride down was very quiet, very peaceful. The door dinged in the lunch room and we walked out, right into Phoenix, who feigned surprise. Phoenix said, "Oh!" Phoenix's eyes went momentarily wide, and a slate grin pushed at her lips. "What floor are you two coming from?" Phoenix asked, "I didn't hear the elevator beep."

"The third," Mercedes said and started walking. Phoenix grabbed Mercedes's good wrist, but Mercedes shrieked --my blood went cold-- and snapped her hand down and away. Mercedes leaped backward like a cat out of water. "You never touch me again." Mercedes hissed. "We clear?"

Phoenix's hands were up shoulder height, fingers spread. "We are definitely clear. I was just curious is all. If the elevator's broken I need to know about it, to fix it."

There were two chefs watching us, now, an older, Eastern European woman, and a young, red haired girl with glasses and an ill fitting, lopsided chef's hat.

"Elevator's fine. Come on William." Mercedes heel-spun and strode away. I hurried to catch up with her. We didn't say anything the whole way home.  I pocket texted my mom, letting her know I was walking Mercedes home.

As we loped through the field field under the pylons, I asked her, "Your fingers and your leg, though, they're okay?" I looked her in the eyes. I could see her fingers were working fine, Mercedes was walking fine. I asked anyway.

"Yeah, man," Mercedes wiggled her fingers under my nose and I batted playfully at them. She shouted, "Ow!" And instantly I was sorry.

"See?" I said, "I knew your fingers were messed up."

Mercedes just laughed --an honest, hearty guffaw. She said, "Nah." She asked, "Why are you walking me home?"

"Its a nice day." I said. I shrugged, huddling just a jot tighter in my coat.

"And?"

"And," I paused. The silence grew tense. I thought a bit, ignoring Mercedes's glare. Finally, I said, "And I don't want left overs for dinner. I love Dad's soup, but it looses something special when it has to go in the fridge over night."

Mercedes nodded. She said, "Like the opposite of the flavors falling in love, huh?"

I repeated her: "Huh?"

Mercedes puffed her cheeks. "It's like. . .  My mom says that good cooking allows the flavors of the different ingredients to fall in love with each other, and that natural love brings a fullness to left overs. It sounds like your dad doesn't know how to match make."

"My dad is the king of poorly arranged culinary marriages." I said. I liked the analogy, and continued, "It's like they look good together, like they'll really complete each other, but they don't have enough in common and just like the soup goes cold, so does the love."

"Heating it up doesn't fix it, either?"

"I've only ever heated up his left overs in the microwave."

"Maybe if you reheated it in the oven it'd be better. Everything tastes better when you don't nuke it." Mercedes nodded, firmly.

"I've never tried that, honestly. Who has time to wait for an oven to heat?"

Mercedes stopped abruptly. She said, "Seriously." then, "Seriously?"

I turned back and nodded at her.

"You are such a virgin sometimes." she said. Mercedes hugged me, then squeezed me. My ribs throbbed. "Come on, you --its cool out here."

We didn't talk the rest of the way back to Mercedes's house, either, but Mercedes switched sides and wrapped her good arm around mine, and we smiled at each other now and then. It was a really nice walk, ya know?

"Mommy we're home!" Mercedes shouted before the door was even closed. "What's cooking?"

"Hello to you too!" Mercedes mom, Mrs. Swanson to me and anyone else not her children or husband, Was a wiry woman, never without a colorful headband and a more colorful apron. Mrs. Swanson's fingers were like beautiful branches and everything else about her accentuated her treelike appearance --boney elbows certainly, maybe less so her "Hi William! You look tired." Mrs. Swanson waved at me, very close. We were basically eye to eye, and it felt like she was peering through mine (eyes). "Did you break your nose?" She asked.

"I did." I said. I looked for Mercedes, but she had disappeared down the hall and around a corner --to the steel and glass kitchen or the bamboo living room, I wasn't sure. Maybe the bathroom? I was sure she hadn't sprinted up the wrought iron staircase just to the front door's right, and she wasn't lounging in the airy music room foyer --only their gigantic orange cat lounged in there, a paw draped faux seductively off the edge of the (closed) white baby grand piano.

Mrs. Swanson asked, "How?" she took a towel out from the back of her apron and dried her hands unnecessarily. "You're not in trouble too, are you?"

"Trouble?"

"Mercedes fell and broke her arm in a grass field and you get your nose broken. Smells like trouble to me. Has your mother said anything?" She looked at me, her thumbs hooked in her apron strap, legs planted, spread. Mrs. Swanson looked like nothing so much as a samurai. "Well? You in trouble? More importantly, did you get my daughter in trouble?" I blinked and looked away, and at the floor.

The toilet flushed and a moment later Mercedes burst around the corner. "Sheesh Mom! Its not at all William's fault --"

"It never is." Mrs. Swanson said through pursed lips.

"Seriously mom! What's up?" Mercedes drooped forward. "What's for dine near?" She asked again, higher pitched this time.

"Well, I was thinking spaghetti, but since William is joining us," her imperious gaze rained down on me, "You are joining us for dinner, aren't you, William?"

I stared at the floor behind Mrs. Swanson for a moment, then looked her in the face and nodded positively.

"Since William is joining us, why don't we order out?"

"Oh! Chinese food?" Mercedes asked.

"If my baby wants Chinese, we can get Chinese, sure." Mrs. Swanson bent and wrapped her branch-ni-arms around her daughter. "Will that stop you getting in trouble?" She asked, but before Mercedes could answer her mother kissed her forehead and said, "I'll order, and your dad can pick it up on his way home. You two go do homework upstairs, where I don't think," she chuckled, "Where I don't think you can get in any trouble."

"Is there internet upstairs?" I asked.

Mrs. Swanson narrowed her loving eyes, "You're pushing it, mister." she said, "Go! Get to the homework I know you've both got!"

I said, "How do you --"

"GO!" Mrs. Swanson bellowed with a smile. "To your homework!"

We scampered, hands and feet, up the steep spiral staircase to the refinished attic where Mercedes slept and kept her things. (I hesitate to call it a room --you'll see in a moment. It's awesome!)

Mercedes's room covered the entire top of the Swanson's house. There were a total of four sky lights that alternated sides on the steeply curved walls. They were low, and I had to duck or sit or crawl whenever I visited Mercedes. Not every time, I thought. When I'd visited her last week Mercedes had been in their guest room on the second floor, a stark, white room with sharp green plants hanging and draped around the bed. Mercedes's room was different. The floor was unfinished wood, covered with Kiwanis and second hand rugs. Her bed was a tatami mat covering a thin Ikea mattress. Not the most comfortable way to sleep, I thought, But I didn't know. I slept in the antibacterial white guest room when I stayed too late. Despite being a literal attic, it was warm, even in the winter, thanks to Mr. Swanson. He taught at a local university, thermodynamics and advanced polymers, and thought very little of my tinkerer dad. I didn't ever bring Dad up directly when I was at Mercedes's house. Mercedes's room was warm in the winter and cool and dry in the summer. In the middle, furthest from the spiral staircase was a low desk --customized, one of the few projects our fathers had worked on together, when we first became friends-- and plush sitting pillows. There were Hanging closets, made of sheets and brass rods from reclamation shops on the city's outskirts.

Mercedes organizes her clothes by length, then by color. She likes textures.

Mercedes's room is lit by seven paper silhouette lamps.

Wrapped tightly with Velcro, strapped to the skylight window frame closest to her tatami mat is a rope ladder long enough to hop silently into her backyard.

"I'm going to look up Jay's mom's phone number. Just to make sure he's okay." Mercedes said.

I nodded and grunted affirmatively, thumbing through my Spanish textbook. I did a few exercises, glossed over the reading, and nodded to myself a few times. I reread the cultural awareness section and finished the homework, writing out the sentences even though the teacher had told us we didn't have to. Writing things out helped me remember them.

Mercedes clicked and typed and double clicked and clucked her tongue, and hissed at her computer; waggled her fingers maniacally, magically, and chuckled. She swore once. I nodded, only vaguely paying attention to her incantations and mutterings.

"Ah hah!" Mercedes said: "Hi. Hello? Yes, Hi Ms. Trumble. Vernie, yes, so sorry! Hi Vernie, how are you? That's good to hear! Tea em eye, there, but okay. . ." Mercedes chuckled. "Vernie, is Jay okay? We haven't seen him lately. Oh. I see. Wow. Cool, then, okay. We'll look forward to seeing him tomorrow. Thank-you!" Mercedes closed her laptop. Mercedes chuckled. "You'll never believe this." She said.

"Is Jay okay?" I asked, stone faced.

Mercedes nodded. "Yeah. He got in a knife fight --"

"What?!" I shouted. My eyebrows were trying to disappear into my hairline. "What! Jay! A knife --"

"Let me finish? Please?" Mercedes said. She continued, "His sister was teaching him to cut carrots and, apparently, he wasn't. Remember, these are his mom's words. Jay wasn't, and I quote, handling his sister's knives sensually enough, and she cut him. Yup."

"That is." I stopped.

"Tea em eye." Mercedes said. She continued, "So anyway, he's fine, he's got stitches in his right eyebrow and cheek, and across the backs of his hands, but those are bandaged now."

"Wow." I said. "That is just. That is serious double-you-tea-eff-ery." I shook my head.

"It gets better." Mercedes said. "Apparently his sister lost a pinky and half an index finger."

I gagged a little, then had trouble swallowing it. "Are you serious? Was that the accident?"

"That wasn't the accident, that was part of the knife fight. She lost two thirds of her left pinky. She can still cook, obviously, but she's technically handicapped now."

"Handy chopped." I said, fighting giggles to get the phrase out, then I lost to the giggles.

To my credit, so did Mercedes. "Did you seriously just say that?" Mercedes asked when she could finally gasp out a sentence. She wiped tears from the corner of her eyes. "Woo boy. Sometimes William." She chuckled. "We don't even know his sister."

"Its true, but she cut him, too."

"He didn't loose limbs, though!" Mercedes said, indignantly.

"I'm not sure whose fault that is." I replied, struggling to keep a straight face. I said, "I guess you could say I can't put a finger on it."

"Oh! My! Goodness!" Mercedes shouted, through her laughter.

Mrs. Swanson's brazen holler stopped our laughing mid giggle. "Homework! Now! Or I'm coming up!" She Bellowed.

Mercedes and I looked at each other, laughter and fear wrestling on our faces. We decided studying was the better part of valor and managed close to an hour of actual homework before Mr. Swanson's head appeared in the stairwell. "Hi guys," He said. He had such a deep, soothing voice. Such an amazing mouth in general. I would never, ever mention these things to Mercedes.

"Hi," We said. I waved, somewhat limply.

"Hello William." Mr. Swanson said, with his rich chocolate voice. "How are you?"

"Very well, sir, thank-you. How are you?" I tried to be polite, but I felt like hard wood instead of smooth chess whenever I talked to Mr. Swanson. I imagined Mercedes rolling her eyes at her monitor.

"I'm okay. Starving! Do you guys like dumplings? Because we sure have some dumplings downstairs." He smiled, then laughed. "Mercedes! Wait for your --" but Mercedes was already squeezed past him, clanking down the staircase.

My heart dropped. There was a clank-thud-thud-thud from somewhere below.

"I'm okay! Come on slow pokes!" Mercedes shouted a long second later.

"My dear." Mr. Swanson said, and smiled at me, nodded in a come hither sort of way and disappeared quietly down the stairs.

"Yes sir." I said. Then, I sat and collected myself for a minute before skipping my way to dinner.

Dinner was indeed full of dumplings. "I love dumplings!" Mr. Swanson said, around a half chewed, steamed curry-chicken dumpling. "Pass the Broccoli, Love?" He gestured, politely, at Mrs. Swanson, who raised and eyebrow and hesitated a few moments before stretching and half standing to pass her husband the large, waxy red with white writing box of broccoli.

"Leave some for lunch tomorrow." She said, eyeing Mr. Swanson's plate.

"Love, we will have to see." Mr. Swanson said with a smile. He winked, and it felt like it was directed at me. I have never wanted to be what you eat than broccoli, at that moment. (Shh)

"I brought you a present from work, my dear." Mr. Swanson said after a few minutes of dedicated, silent eating.

This eating happened around a very low, very long table. Mr. Swanson and Dad designed it and built it on a rainy Saturday, many years ago, but it aged well. The idea was that pillows are more comfortable than chairs, but lots of Americans aren't used to sitting cross-legged, or on their knees. So The table folded in for people, like us now, who could eat sitting cross-legged, then you could add leaves, creating an "every-other-person" seating arrangement so more traditional westerners could stretch their legs out straight under the table without their feet accidentally sitting in someone's lap. The Swansons also had chairs with backs and without legs, but they kept those in the basement except for special occasions. My dad has bad knees, always has, and long-long legs, so to accommodate all this, the table was quite wide. It was a darkly stained cherrywood, with near white swirling designs carved into it --everyone who ate at the table wrote their signature in silver paint pen, then sometime, Mr. Swanson carved out the signatures, filled them with a silver analog and re-lacquered the table. Somehow, no matter what was served, the faintly salty tang of cardamon hung apparitional in the air.

It was an impressive table.

"Make sure it fits." Mr. Swanson said to Mercedes, who was standing, holding what looked for all the world like an exoskeleton with square bones trying to hide in an eggshell brown pea coat with too many, mostly chunky, zippers.

Mercedes looked a touch pale. "Thank-you, daddy." she said quietly and slipped on the coat.

"Okay now, here's one of the cool things." Mr. Swanson said, "You feel the tab in the cuff of your left sleeve?" (Mercedes nodded) "Okay, get ready, and press it." He nodded.

Mercedes set her jaw and did something.

With a hiss, the coat vacuumed itself to her, there was a whir and I watched as the bones aligned and flattened a bit. Mercedes and I both gasped, but I don't know which one of us was louder.

"This is amazing!" Mercedes said. She spun. "It's snug!"

"Nope. Absolutely not." Mrs. Swanson shook her head ponderously from side to side. "My baby is never going to be seen in something like that."

"Love!" Mr. Swanson protested. "It's --"

"Mommy! It is SO COOL." Mercedes cut her father off. "I mean, and it feels warm, and I'll be there's a ton of features I don't even know about. Aren't there daddy?" She sat down again, without taking it off.

The coat clung to her like a very determined, very wet t-shirt.

I ate my broccoli in silence. In silence I marveled at Mr. Swanson's patient negotiation skills, which he squeezed between Mercedes's cajoling and crooning.

After the two of them were mostly spent, Mrs. Swanson said slowly, "Mercedes can wear it under her current coat, which is just fine for this winter."

Mercedes Cheered, her dad smiled and carefully put his last piece of broccoli on his tongue. He closed his eyes, savoring it, and said, "Thank-you, love. It is incredibly protective."

"Awesome!" Was my contribution to the conversation. With the jacket negotiations over, conversation shifted to our studies, our work, what boys in which class were google-y eyed over Mercedes. No she didn't have any crushes or secret admirers. After dinner I hopped up, and swiped the plates. I ran water and left them to soak in the sink. I found, filled, and set the kettle on the stove --I knew that Mrs. Swanson always had green and ginger tea after dinner.

"May we be excused?" Mercedes said just as I was sitting down.

"You may clean up the left overs, but yes. You're free to leave the table." Mrs. Swanson said. She dabbed the corners of her mouth with a napkin and set it above her cleared plate. "Thank-you William." She said.

I nodded. I said, "The kettle will boil soon."

"Thank-you William." Mr. Swanson said.

I smiled at him, alternately staring at his mouth and his chin. "You're welcome Mr. Swanson." I said. And stood again; carefully, I grabbed the handles of the take out boxes Mercedes hadn't taken and set them on the kitchen counter. Mercedes and I were efficient: she found the right size glass container for whatever I gave her, then I organized the rice into a single container and the dumplings into a single container.  We scrubbed the dishes, sharing the Swanson's restaurant sized sink. We splashed each other's sleeves and Mercedes laughed when the water beaded and rolled right off her new coat-top.

The kettle boiled just as we finished the dishes. I turned the burner off and let it sit for a minute before pouring the water into the tea pot --a stainless steel, glass lined thing with a mesh filter just before the spout. Mrs. Swanson had once explained to me that loose tea leaves steeped better, and that green tea leaves burned, turning the tea sour  if the water was boiling when poured on them. I let the tea set for the five and half minutes Mrs. Swanson liked, then poured it into the glass cups veined with metal that spurted out of the glass in a torrent and formed the handle.

"Thank-you, William." Mrs. Swanson said with a smile, after she inhaled the steam, eyes closed, and sat, thinking for a moment.

Mercedes and I said our see-you-laters to Mr. and Mrs. Swanson, and clambered back up the spiral staircase.

Down the staircase was the basement, which had another guest room done in purples and creams, the laundry room, a bathroom, and the workshop that Mr. and Mrs. Swanson shared for their art. Under the purple (pull out bed) couch was a trap door that lead into the sewers. It was a double door with a numeric lock and a vent that lead to the garden. Mr. Swanson and Dad had installed it just before they stopped being friends.

Back in Mercedes room, she lit some incense and smiled and sprawled on the couch. "I am almost so full." She said.

I flounced back onto the bed, too and smiled. "Me too, I said."

"Oh?" Mercedes propped herself up  on an elbow. Her eyes looked huge in the candlelight. She licked her lips. "I could be six inches fuller." she whispered.

I stood up. "Its dark." I said. "See you tomorrow."

I shouted goodbye as I dashed out the front door, still pulling on my coat. I was crossing the street a block down when my phone went off --Mercedes. I ignored it, set my phone to silent and hurried homeward.

Crossing the field under the pylons the ground felt lumpy and soft under my feet.

I keyed the code to the garage door and slipped through the spot where Dad's car should've been. I closed the garage door then unlocked the house door with my keys. Inside, the lights were dim, which meant Mom was either asleep or watching a TV or upstairs in bed, reading a book. I called out, "Hello," But didn't get a response.

I locked the door and hung up my stuff. Sure enough, Mom was sat on the couch in the living room, reading a book while a orange fire hissed in the black marble fireplace.

"How are you?" Mom asked, without look up. "How's your nose doing?" She was wearing a pair of low light glasses Dad made for "them" on an anniversary a few years ago. They only really fit Mom's head.

I said, "It's okay. I hadn't thought of it until you mentioned it."

"A good break then" Mom said. She turned the page in her book. In the gloom I couldn't read the title.

"Maybe just a fracture." I said.

"Thanks for the text." Mom said, folded a page in half, then half again, and closed her book. "Your father is with a client tonight, making some adjustments. He said he would be home in a few days. I packed your breakfast and lunch for tomorrow, and your laundry is clean on your bed."

"Wow." I said. "Thank-you."

Mom smiled at me and her eyes were hazel and warm in the half dark.

I said, "I'm going to read in my room for a while. Goodnight!"

"Good night." Mom said.

I poured myself a glass of instantly condensate-ing water and walked slowly to the stairs, then down into the basement. I stood in the hallway and let my eyes adjust, but it didn't matter: pitch black is pitch black. Not that I really needed to see. I walked confidently through the dark, found the door handle without flailing and opened it. I stepped in and shouted, "Ouch!" My toe stung from where I'd stubbed it against something.

I nudged my toes around the boxy shape, reached up and set my drink on the night stand, then turned on the lamp. There was a small wooden crate just inside my bedroom. It had three locks and heavy hinges. It was made of light tan,  rough wood. I couldn't lift it. There was only the red ^ This Way Up arrow on the sides --no note. No instructions.

I stared at it in the gloom for a while. I thought I felt a draft, but it was just my imagination, I told myself. I sat heavily down on the lower bunk. I drew in a few breathes. I exhaled the breathes. I looked at my phone. Seven new text messages and one voice mail. Mercedes. Mercedes. Mercedes. Mercedes. Mercedes. Dad. Mercedes. I read the message from Dad first:
Hey Love. Won't be home tonight or maybe tomorrow. Big client project that needs some more fine tuning. TTYL <3 blockquote="">The texts from Mercedes were almost all apologies. I stared at them for a while. I stared at them for a while longer. While I was still staring at the latest text, another one popped up:
DUDE OMFG. This coat is AMAZING. Call me?
We are dorks. I called her. She didn't even say hello, just started rattling off features of her coat. "My dad sent me an email with all the cool things this coat has." Mercedes said. "It's amazing. I'll forward you a partial list."

"A partial list?" I asked.

Mercedes said, "A girl has to have some secrets, William."

I nodded, my mouth and brows scrunched. "Yes." I said.

"Hey." Mercedes said, "About earlier tonight."

"No, hey! It's cool. Just ah. Just not so much? Okay? I'm sorry." I said, "It really. I just. Its cool."

"You sure?"

I asked, "Do you still want to eat lunch with me tomorrow?"

"Duh!"

"Well then," I said. "We're good."

"Good. Night. William."

"Good night Mercedes. Thank-your parents for dinner, from me, please."

"Maybe." She said and something smacked wetly against her receiver. "See you tomorrow --!" Mercedes said and hung up.

"Good night." I said.