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I feed a furnace in my belly with a constant cache of coal. It never gets low and I never burn out. It sizzles and sears; it expands and it ebbs. Still, I am in control.
I get a letter from the principal's office. I am a candidate for valedictorian.
In fifth grade Jenna Penney bet me fifty cents I couldn't get straight As for the marking period. Straight As, every period for eight years with interest, inflation and so forth: Jenna Penney owes me about seventy bucks.
Pocket change. Piddly squat.
I made seventy last Tuesday, when I sold Jimmy Chang, the wise-ass, his bi-monthly stash.
I go home and I tell my mom about the valedictorian thing.
"Mom," I say. She looks at me. She's shocked. "It's between me and Charlotte Carr for valedictorian."
She cries, but not because she is proud.
Masochist is what the guy said, that dumb therapist that she made me see a few years back. Dr. Douche is what I call him. So masochist is what he said. But I say unique. To-may-to, to-mah-to.
There are four months left. Four months to either earn the title of valedictorian or to pilfer and swindle from Charlotte Carr. So poetic, the 'pilfer' and 'swindle'. I'm like Robin Hood, except I lack the moral code. There are no poor to serve. It's goddamn high school -- there are just repugnant rich boys and chirpy cheerleaders. So I find Charlotte Carr.
"Hey Char," I say. I use my sit-in-the-front-row, raise-my-hand-for-every-question voice. "How 'bout we partner up for the final Chem project? It would really help our GPAs."
Charlotte stares at me. I think she's pissed, and she probably has reason to be, if that kind of crap mattered to me. Last May at the junior prom, Charlotte was up for Prom Princess or whatever the hell the title is. I couldn't stand the desperate labels, the tween drama of it all. So I set the ballot box on fire. Charlotte saw me go into the room, and she's at least fairly intelligent -- she's up for valedictorian against me, after all -- she must have deduced that I was the arsonist, adding one and one to make two.
Charlotte fixes a smile. Good girl.
"Sure," she says. "Let's meet in the library after school."
I see Lockley Moore heading into the bathroom with a group of friends before sixth period. Lockley's holding a liter bottle of minty mouth rinse. Lockley Moore. His parents must have been assholes to give him a name him like that. Asshole parents or not, there are tastier ways to get drunk, and I happen to be the school's very discreet, very in-demand peddler of said resources. I tell Mr, Logan, the vice principal and, as far as he's concerned, my BFF, that shit-for-brains Lockley Moore and friends were stumbling and acting peculiar and, as the class do-gooder, I'm concerned so could he check it out?
Twenty minutes later, L. Moore and posse stride out of the main office, the only punishment for their transgressions being the removal of the breath freshener. Typical rich-boy consequence. I'm waiting for him as he climbs the west stairwell. I'm leaning against the wall, all casual, all jaded.
"Hey, Lock," I say.
He nods and step, step, pause, he turns. "Yo, Shoe," he said. That's what they call me. "You got any booze?"
"You know it."
We go back to my locker and I toss him a water bottle. Vodka. The cheap stuff. It's fifty for 12 ounces, which is basically pure profit, but L. Moore, et. al. are pleased to oblige.
I say unique because I try to keep them all guessing. The guys in my class realize my worth because I deliver the goods. Cigs, dope, liquor ... girls, if they're desperate and have enough cash. The girls don't care either way about me, which is boring but necessary. And teachers? I'm the mother-fucking crown prince, as far as they're concerned. Dr. Douche asked my mom about forty questions about my father, like that would explain anything. Like, if my dad were absent, or if he beat me or something, then my "uniqueness" made sense. The doc must have studied bad '80s movies when he researched father/son relationships. Here's the truth: my home life could double as the set of Leave it to Beaver. Except for me, of course.
I'm not Wally or the Beav. I am rage.
When I enter the library after school, Charlotte Carr is already there. We find an empty side room, one of the rooms where a school club can meet and talk without bothering studying students. As soon we're in there, she locks the door and draws the shades over the glass windows that look out onto the library.
This is unexpected.
"Listen up," she says, whipping around to stare at me. "I'm been working toward valedictorian my whole life, dammit."
The swear is clearly forced and tastes strange in her mouth, I can tell. I flinch, because it's the reaction she needs.
She walks toward me and I back away until I slam into a table. She's going for the upper-hand. I'll indulge her.
"I saw you last year, you know," she goes on. "With the ballot box at prom. I know it was you. And I'm not afraid to tell Mr. Logan. I'm not afraid."
But she is, or she wouldn't have said it twice.
"Char," I say, but she keeps speaking.
"And now you think I'll partner with you on some project? I sense sabotage. I don't know what you're up to, Shoe, but I'm not getting involved. I'm no idiot."
Jeez. Talk about showing your hand. Her refusal is an annoyance, and it forces me to create an alternate plan on the spot, which I loathe. So bothersome and odious, I think, if she were a guy -- Lockley Moore, say, or Jimmy Chang, the wise-ass -- I would hit her. But this is how I know Dr. Douche is wrong: I won't hit a girl. Not even a bitch like Charlotte Carr.
I'm thinking fast. I'm unique. I'm not a jock with a thick neck and short fuse. I'm not a nerd who lacks social skills. I'm not a punk with an authority problem. I'm none of those caricatures that fill the halls of high school every day.
She finally shuts up and waits for my reply. We stare and if this were one of those movies I hate where all the cool kids party at someone's house and then have to rush to hide the mess, all culminating in a happy and nostalgic, yet didactic ending, then I'd have some character-forming moment here. A moment where I'd stand up to her, or she would sufficiently bully me, and it would seem there's no hope, but then a time-lapsing montage would begin, showing me studying or volunteering or whatever these dipshits did with their time, and a growing crescendo of chill-inducing music would lead to the final scene: me being announced as valedictorian. God, I hate those movies.
So instead of doing any of those things, I grab the back of her neck and we meet in the spaced in between our bodies. I plant my mouth on hers and I stick my tongue down her throat. I don't jab or thrust because that's what would be expected of me. They'd all think I'm a novice at this, but I'm not. So she wriggles for a second but then she stops and enjoys it. And I pull away here, because that's what she needs.
She stares at me again. I wonder if I can blush on command. Probably not, but it's something to work on. Could come in handy in the future.
"Oh, Char," I say. "Wow. I guess I've wanted to do that for a long time."
"What?" She's touching her mouth.
"I don't know, I guess I was just hoping that the project could be a way for us to spend time together before this whole thing is over."
She's still staring, like she suddenly lost her ability to process sounds into words.
I stick my hands in my jeans pockets, trying to look all "Gee, golly".
"Last year at the prom, I went into the room to stuff the ballot box with your name, because, you know, I just thought you'd be so pretty as the Prom Princess."
She blinks. "Prom Perfect."
The hell? That doesn't even make sense. "Yeah, yeah, Prom Perfect," I say. "So what do you say? One more project? It would be such a great way to end our senior year ... together."
She stares, probably deciding if I'm for real or not. But how could I not be? What kind of a person would kiss a girl and confess a fake crush for the purpose of stealing the title of valedictorian?
A unique guy, that's who.
She smiles and a flush creeps up her cheeks. "Shoe, I had no idea."
I take her hand.
And that's where it ends. For her, I mean.
One night I almost blow my cover. I'm at some party and the football team is there. They walk in, altogether, looking like a pile of shit stains in their uniforms. It's March, and football season has been over for months, and yet a group of sixteen to eighteen-year-olds -- the future leaders of our nation -- made a conscious decision to dress alike for a party. Anyway, there they are, a sea of white and brown, and I've had a few drinks. I mean, sure, it's cliche to drink at a high school party, but there is no way in hell I can get through one without it. So I've had a few and they all come in dressed like a horde of Girl Scouts, and I can't hide my sneer. Jimmy Chang, the wise-ass, heaves a finger in their direction, all "j'accuse!" and slurs out some fighten' words. I practically have to jump on top of his arm to get him to stop making a scene, but damn Lockley Moore, who is of course captain of the doofball team, gets in his face. And then Jimmy Chang, the wise-ass, tries to blame me and says I rolled my eyes and called them a bunch of dung-flingers. I wish, because that shit is brilliant. I had no idea Jimmy Chang was so eloquent. We could've had a beautiful friendship.
So Lockley stares at me, and I almost see hurt in his eyes, as though he's remembering all those good times we had together, trading goods and exchanging money.
"Lock, he's drunk," I say.
"That better be it, Shoe," he says.
My stupid reflexes are slower and I'm not on top of things the way I'd like to be, all due to the sweet nectar of life that fills the plastic cup in my hand, so I concentrate everything in me on not making a face at Lockley. It must work because he backs down.
Charlotte Carr takes that moment to skedaddle on over and grab my arm.
"Oh God, you again?" I say, because in my beer-induced euphoria and the adrenaline rush of the Jimmy Chang/Lockley Moore fiasco, I've completely forgotten about her.
"What?" She steps back. Lockley is staring at me and Jimmy Chang, the wise-ass, starts giggling.
"I mean, Char," I turn my voice into concern. "Don't run up in the middle of an argument. You could've gotten hurt."
She turns away and I can't see her face to read the expression. I don't know if she's buying it. When she turns back, her make-up is smudged and her cheeks are tear-moistened.
"I'd really like you to take me home, Shoe."
And hell, if I'd known that starting a fight would get me out of parties quickly, then we would've been the on-again, off-again high school couple, instead of the goody-two-shoes model.
In the car, I'm all apologies and I tell her to take as much time as she wants, even the whole weekend. I repeat that about thirty times because my weekends have been nightmarish blurs of hand-in-hand gaiety ever since the day in the library.
By the time I drop her off, Charlotte is smiles once again.
It all seems so easy that I bring Charlotte home. I tempt fate. I beckon the discovery of my deceit. But I am so sure of myself, so convinced of my abilities, that I don't care.
I spend an afternoon telling Charlotte the horrors of life with my family, the difficulties, the lies, the manipulation -- and she buys it.
At home Charlotte and I are in my room when I hear my mother come home. Charlotte looks at me, eyes wide, and we trudge downstairs.
"Mom," I say. "This is my friend, Charlotte Carr. She is the other candidate for valedictorian."
My mother sits at the kitchen table, a mug of tea in front of her. She warms her hands on the mug, and her eyes are darkened by the years of trepidation she has attributed to me. My masochistic tendencies. If only she realized that I was unique, she might not be so unhappy. Charlotte doesn't see what I see. She sees a hung-over woman who has most likely spiked her hot tea with whiskey or bourbon or whatever she could get her hands on.
My mother looks at Charlotte with those eyes of hers. She is so tired and hopeless.
"Hi, Mrs. Shoe," Charlotte says.
Mrs. Shoe. Classic. My mother doesn't understand what the hell Charlotte is saying, which only works more in my favor.
"What are you doing to this poor girl?" my mother says.
I raise an eyebrow. I'd been doing quite a lot, actually. It surprised me what Charlotte Carr was willing to have done to her.
I turn to Charlotte. "She's drunk again," I say.
Charlotte takes my hand.
My mother is not finished. "I pray that one day you'll meet your match," she says to me.
I direct Charlotte out of the kitchen, away from my terrible, alcoholic mother.
"I have, Mom," I say, over my shoulder. "I just wish you were sober enough to meet her, too."
Turns out, I would have become valedictorian without the partnership with Charlotte. When we work on the Chem project, she has so many problems with it that the best grade she can hope for is a B-minus. She doesn't know this, of course.
I offer to hand in our project early, for an even better grade. I make one small change before doing so. Ms. Nash has seen us in class; she knows that her two favorite students have been dating for some time. So when I hand in one project by Charlotte and a separate one by me, there are no questions, just a smile at my chivalry, my charm. And then one week later, I pick up both projects after school one day. I get an A, and poor Charlotte only gets a B. I throw out my project, add my name back to Charlotte's and we celebrate our grade.
She will never know.
When I am announced as valedictorian, Charlotte is happy for me. It almost makes me feel guilty.
I keep Charlotte around for a week longer than necessary, just to make sure there is no suspicion. We break up two days before graduation. Unfortunately, this is not unique, and that's what kills me about the entire affair: the whole deal with Charlotte was so typical, so common. The dates, the parties, the sex and the fights: we could have been any couple in our class.
On graduation day, I climb the podium, speech in hand. I stare at the sea of people. Parents, grandparents, teachers, students, all of them watch me. The ends, they justify the means.
So they wait and they watch, and I watch them, too. The teachers smile and think of my hard work. The students stir in the heat, impatient bastards. It will all be over soon enough.
My mother cries, but not because she is proud.
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