Monday brought an air heavy with tension and apprehension. There would be no hiding the disdain of returning to school today. Everywhere I went, their eyes followed. The accusing stares of jocks, the baffled and slightly disgusted looks from the preppies; no point in trying to deny it, by now the rumor was sure to have made its way throughout the student body; damage control would be about as useless as an umbrella in a hurricane. Though you'd never see it for yourself, it wouldn't be too far a leap to imagine some of the teachers whispering amongst themselves like gossiping old ladies under the hairdryer in the sanctuary of the faculty lounge, God knows everybody else was doing more than their fair share.
Did you hear?
Oh my God, I know, right?
That's like, totally crazy.
Even for him, that's pretty fked up.
That last one stung the most, even though it was all old hat now. After two days of cockeyed glances and raised eyebrows from the family, the opinions of some loudmouthed mountain of pimple-studded muscle in a jockstrap held next to no importance. The only opinions concerning me now were housed inside the other four members of Systex and were sure to surface at practice this afternoon, especially the ones who hadn't seen me since the events of Saturday took a sharp decline. There were sure to be questions and explanations, both of which would be hardoh hell, just come out and say it, Richardimpossibleto avoid.
That Murphy sure had my number big time, damn him and his stupid law.
The rest of the day moved along at a snail's pace, taking a portion of my energy with each passing hour as the number of slack-jawed gawkers and behind-your-back whisperers grew. Even Mr. Ballard's English Lit class wasn't spared. Ballard, a moon-faced grey-hair who commanded respect for both literature and himself, might have looked like a friendly old dwarf, but woe to the naive student who forgot his homework or worse interrupted his monotonous droning about the allegories of Animal Farm or the overuse of adverbs in composition. And if you were caught sleeping or not paying attentionwell it was best to make sure you didn't have any after school activities planned, because your butt would be in detention before you could blink.
MISTER Demin! Ballard's nasally English accent barked from the blackboard with enough ferocity to startle half the pupils. A quick gathering of the scattered papers on my desk and I was upright in my seat. Are you paying attention?
Yes, Mr. Ballard.
The kindly dwarf eyes narrowed to hazardous slits. Then perhaps you would like to straighten up in that desk and look the part, hmm? It was hard not to roll my eyes. Why didn't he just come out and say what he really meant? Shape up or ship out. A subdued wave of snickering came from a few more daring students and ended just as quickly as it began when the evil eyes turned to face them. Mr. Ballard didn't call me out again that class but I could feel his unfriendly stare watching my every move. I obliged to an extent and sat up straight, damned if I was going to look interested though. I couldn't care less about anything else and everyone knew it.
By the time final bell came, I felt like I was wearing cement shoes while trudging through the hall towards the nearest exit. A rather large gathering of girls stood off in the corner of the hall, giggling like evil witches about something I could have cared less about. When one of them looked up and made brief eye contact with me, she gestured to the rest of her coven and the giggles stopped just like that. Silent, cautious eyes followed me down the hallway and out the door. I didn't return the courtesy, if one could call it that. My already torturous high school life now felt like a full-length feature of Beneath the Microscope, starring Richard Demin as that guy.' Swell.
Instead of the usual saunter down Clark Road, I took the long route to Adam's house, guiding myself along well worn paths from years of foot traffic along the dense forested areas that surrounded half of the city like a dark green cloak. I'm not stalling, I told myself, walking across a small bridge that hung over a babbling creek. Then why was I walking this new path today, of all days? I knew deep down, the more I walked, that any other answer would just be another lie. How fking shallow was I, avoiding my band matesmy friendsand for what, a dumb little misunderstanding gone wrong?
(Coward, you're not fooling anyone)
I ignored the voice and shut it out of my head. The opinions of a conscience with a cruel streak was the last thing I needed right now, choosing instead to focus on the fate of our music. We'd been playing some pretty intense music for weeks now, and to be able to keep our noses against the grindstone took a lot of physical and mental conditioning, it was all too easy to strain an arm muscle or get a bad case of whiplash; there was plenty of headbanging going on in the garage. We were all careful to avoid the word heavy' when it came to describing our music, it almost felt too confining.
Calling Systex heavy metal was like handcuffing the band to only one particular sub-genre for the rest of time, a thought which didn't sit well with any of us. If anyone was to ask what genre Systex fell under, the answer would be a simple one: We're just motherfing Systex. And that would be that.
That is, if the questions were to be about Systex after today.
Music was blaring from the garage when I finally arrived at Adam's house, heavier bass, unintelligible lyricsdeath metal was my best guess. Death perhaps, or maybe Possessed, hard to say. Unlike past practices, the door was raised open, the grease-stained rope used to open and close it dangling from the ceiling like a stalactite. Adam's pickup sat parked in the driveway, Adam himself standing in the cab, unloading boxes into the waiting hands of Mitchell. I wondered what they were unloading; doubting it was anything Systex-related, no mention of new equipment had been made. Unless Hey Adam, Mitchell, I called when I got closer to the truck, trying to sound casual. Adam turned around, took a quick look at me and dropped the box he was holding. Mitchellit was Mitchell helping him outsaved it from tumbling to the concrete with one quick swoop of his hands. A small sound of crinkling plastic came from inside.
Richard! Good God man! he said, climbing down from the truck, lifting the tailgate up and slamming it into place. He looked surprised and appalled, and rightly so. The sight before him would be shocking to anyone. The lower half of my eyelid was swollen in a muddled swirl of purple and green with thin traces of black running through it, while specks of dried blood dotted a nasty scratch that seemed to curve under my bruised eyelid black eye ended, along my cheekbone and ending almost parallel with my left nostril.
Damn Richard, have an accident? Mitchell asked, his mouth curled in an O shape as though he were about to whistle.
Nah, I already had one, but thanks anyway. Both of them stared blankly at me. It's a joke? I said. They didn't seem to find it funny.
What the hell did you do? Adam asked, following me into the garage. I promptly replied that it was an accident. Jason wasn't anywhere to be found. Considering I hadn't seen the blue compact parked anywhere nearby, I guessed he wasn't here yet. Mitchell looked concerned but kept to himself, lugging the packages from Adam's truck to the far corner of the garage, stacking them on top of one another on the workbench in a cubic pyramid, three in total. They contained no markings or labels of any kind, anyone's guess what they contained.
Well what kind of accident gives you a black eye and a face that looks like a cat clawed it?
Oh thanks lots, Adam.
I'm sorry I didn't mean it like that, justwell shit, it's quite a shock. What happened?
Did we manage to locate that microphone? I asked, avoiding Adam's question. Mitchell, who tasked himself with hunting down my vital piece of equipment if it meant going to every pawn shop and used electronics store from here to Vancouver Island, faced me with a less than optimistic look and a quick shake of the head.
Eh sorry Richard, no; I try everywhere, even checked bulletin boards in Contrast and Cage, but no good. His eyes showed concern, worry, but also a sense of understanding. My only other thought is try school. Otherwise it's buy a new one or be S.O.L.
S.O.L. is what Systex would have to settle for. Microphones, even the cheapest, least effective models on the market sold for at least a couple hundred, to say nothing of the extra patch cords that were also necessary. Damn, I said. I thought for sure we could find something. Maybe if we Never mind. It didn't matter with what suggestion I finished the sentence. That kind of money just wasn't there.
Adam refused to be drawn into the conversation, standing on the spot where the smooth, paved garage concrete merged with the rough, porous driveways', keeping his arms crossed over his chest, covering half of the shirt's rather patriotic graphic, leaving only a maple leaf and the word Can' exposed. Well? he said.
Are you gonna tell us what happened or not? Gauging his tone, it was easy to see Adam wasn't going to let this go until he got an answer and a credible one at that. Nothing wouldn't cut the mustard with him. His heart may have been in the right place but the nobility of one's actions was the last thing on my mind today. Mitchell made a point of busying himself with the pyramid of boxes, acting as though they required his immediate attention and he wasn't really trying to eavesdrop on a conversation he'd rather not hear.
I slipped off my skateboard, I said, point-blank. Hit a loose pebble just off of Kent Street, bailed into a truck, that's all.
Adam seemed to think this over before answering, Well that would explain the black eye, but
But what? That's all it was man, accidents happen. Not like it's the first time I've tumbled.
I suppose not. His words were rigid and skeptical.
What, you don't believe me?
I didn't say that.
Come on, why would I lie about something like this? I said with slight indignation, hooking my foot around the leg of the rickety stool close to me and taking a seat, lifting my hand to my face, gently tracing the outline of the deepest scratch just below my eye.
Like what? asked a small voice behind me. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Kayla standing on the steps leading into the house, a bottle of water gripped tight in each hand. Hi Richard, she said when our eyes met, just a passing glance before she jumped the last step, landing on the old couch with the nimble grace of a parkour artist. A small cloud of dust erupted from the cushion and circled around her head. She coughed and waved it away from her face, grabbing her cherry guitar from the ground and cradling it across her lap, plucking strings without any intent of making melodies. Her face registered neither the slightest shock nor surprise when she laid eyes on me.
Kayla. You're looking good.
She snorted to herself, a kind of dismissive yeah right, most girls seemed to give me when I tried to show any sort of politeness. You're too kind. The corners of her mouth turned up, hardly a genuine smile and that was alright, she didn't have to say or do anything. She knew what really happened.
Kayla's eyes kept bouncing between me, the cigarette' and the pack it came from, which now sat forgotten on the ground just shy of her skateboard. Interesting smelling cigarette you got here, Richard. I didn't know Du Maurier made green ones.
This Saturday was quickly going to hell in a hand basket, same reluctance and feelings of upset knotting my stomach combined with the desire to crawl into a hole. My secret, (was it really a secret though?) was out and there was nowhere to turn. Any excuse I could muster would just be cast aside like yesterday's newspaper.
What are you, some kinda dealer? Kayla asked, looking impatient, tossing the joint between her hands like a ball. The pack lay forgotten on the ground just shy of her skateboard. Indignantly, I replied I certainly was not. As for why I even had the joint with me? Well
It's not what you think, Kayla.
No? What do I think it looks like? Let me guess. It's not yours; you're just holding it for a friend.
Kayla, come on. Do I look that stupid? To this, she said nothing. Sighing, out of frustration and despair, I took a more reasonable tone, borrowing a page from Mitchell's book. Look, I'm no deadhead, I just, you knowlike to dabble. Is that a crime? It's not like you see me showing up to practice all high or anything.
My attempts to avoid coming off all defensive were not working, Kayla looked less impressed. Hell, I don't care if you smoke pot or salmon, she said. You think you're the only one who likes to dabble' in the band? I blinked. You know about Mitchell too? I thought he kept that stuff to himself.
Upon hearing his, Kayla's eyes grew wide. Mitchell's a stoner? All I could do was stand there and feel stupid while my heart plummeted into my stomach. Her mouth, formerly a rigid line turned into a coy smile that seemed to stretch across her face from ear to ear. No way! she laughed. What does Jason think of that?
What's Jason got to do with anything?
Duh! Mr. I-don't-even-smoke? I'm amazed he's able to put that behind him. She seemed to be waiting for some answer from me. When none came, her face lit up as though something inside her had thrown a switch. Oh my God, he doesn't know, does he? Mischief brewed in her eyes, all I could do was curse for being so loose lipped. He doesn't! Oh man, unbelievable. I can't wait to see the look on his face when he finds out he's in a band full of stoners.
You wouldn't dare? I was astonished.
Hey, it's no secret he ain't crazy about me, she said. You'd have to be blind not to see it. I'd bet money he's still harboring a grudge for me telling him to change his tuning.
No, no, this couldn't happen. I wouldn't let it. You can't tell him, I insisted.
Well why not?
Will you think? For one thing, it'd be inviting a heap of trouble. Secondly, we're not a stoner band; I barely touch the stuff
He said, hiding the joint in a cigarette pack.
I ignored her interruption. A debate on hypocrisy could wait until later. and neither does Adam.
Adam? Oh hell I wasn't talking about him.
It took a minute for the other shoe to drop. You.
Me, Kayla said, just as blandly before giggling again. Now that would be a bit much for our cowboy friend to handle, wouldn't it? If she honestly expected me to answer such a bloody obvious question, she was mistaken. This felt like some awful living nightmare, like I was staring at some evil doppelganger from the shy, pink-haired girl crying on the sidewalk, desperate to awaken.
Oh don't worry Richard. She brought a hand up to my face, tracing a thin finger along my jaw line, my face turning hot in the process. I don't want to see anything bad happen either. Your little secret's safe with me She ran the tip of her tongue along the back of her teeth, allowing me a brief glimpse of the silver in her mouth and for a brief moment, I began to think that was true. All hope faded with her utterance of If
There it was, I knew it was too good to be true. If what? I asked, hesitant.
Kayla lifted up the joint and balanced it between thumb and forefinger. Perhaps you would do me a favor and share some of your cigarettes' with me.
What! Her audacity shocked me. I'm no trafficker, Kayla, don't be silly.
I don't want a full pack, silly, she said, as if this was all a big joke to her. She tried to make a cute face at me. Surely you could convince your source to part with a second one whenever you
I didn't let her get another word in, saying no, and held my hand out. I don't do that shit. Find your own. Now give it back.
She pretended to think about it and then shook her head, holding it above her head in a ridiculous attempt at playing keep-away. Five feet even Kayla didn't hold a chance against six-four me.
I'm asking you nicely to give it back to me, Kayla. Please. I'm not in the mood for games.
Who's playing? She tucked the joint behind her ear and crossed her arms in defiance. I don't think I'm asking too much, are you? It's a fair trade.
Anger started bubbling away inside. This isn't fair. I did you a big favor getting you into Systex, I had to bust ass to get the guys to give you a second chance.
She smiled at me; not a happy grin but one of smugness, which only added fuel to the already churning fire. And I'm obliged to you for that. But now, it would be fair to say you're also now obliged to make sure that this little secret of yours stays just that.
I made a move, swinging my hand out to grab it from her fingers. Her right hand came up and swatted my hand aside. Deep within me, something began to short-circuit. I said give it back! Again, I tried to take the joint from her. Instead of pushing my hand aside, she delivered a sharp blow to my sternum, knocking the wind out of me. Oof! I cried, doubling over and clutching my stomach. That cocky smile of hers was no more; instead a stone-faced mask stared at me.
Before I knew what was happening, the pot boiled over and a throaty roar escaped from me. Kayla started to jump away in surprise when I shot out and clamped onto her wrist, yanking her back towards me with my free hand moving towards her head. My fingertip touched the warm spot of flesh where her ear joined her skull when the lights suddenly went out in a flash of brilliant pain. My left eye began to throb, and my hands instinctively shot towards my face, clamping over the damaged orb as something sharp tore across my face. I was falling next I knew, back onto what felt like the dusty patch of dried grass and dirt I'd been sitting in after my death-defying leap from the speeding convertible's path of death. My best guess was all but confirmed when my head lolled back from the force of my sudden landing, striking something hard, smooth and coldthe pole.
With only one working eye, I looked up at Kayla, her face contorted in a snarling grimace, a smear of red across her fingertips. Something wet and sticky began to run down my face and for a moment, I thought it was coming from my eye.
Don't, she hissed, Ever. Try that again. Her words were slow and deliberate. She turned away from me, flipping her skateboard right-side up. To my shock, I heard the words you bitch escape through my own clenched teeth. She turned her head, looked me over once and then shrugged my epithet off like she'd heard worse.
Just think it over. See you tomorrow, Richard. I can't wait to hear those lyrics of yours. She smirked contentedly, hopped on her skateboard and was halfway down the street before I had time to think. When I finally managed to pull myself together and made sure my eye was not seeping blood or any other fluids and I could see reasonably well, I headed home, angry and embarrassed, my sadistic monster of a conscience chimed in with its two cents.
(Well, well, well. Good job, Richard. You've opened a real Pandora's Box here. What are you going to do now?)