A SINGLE piece of paper was supposed to keep me out of jail. My heart pushed against my spine like it was trying to drill out my back and run for it. A little voice that lived inside my head said, You’re an ass for even trying it. No one wants a loser. You’re going to juvie, and you deserve it.
The grimy tiled hallway was attic-room dim. Someone had turned off most of the lights, probably to save money. They had shut the AC off too, and it was close to ninety degrees in there. Sweat ran down my back as I scuffed down the corridor, eyes lowered. The laces on my shoes were knotted twice each because they’d been broken a couple of times. That made them a bitch to tie, so I usually just shoved my feet into them like old slippers and pretended I didn’t want to play basketball with my friends anymore. Previous friends. I didn’t seem to have many current friends.
At the end of the hallway was the bulletin board with the great and powerful paper on it. If my name was on it, I was in the clear. If not, clang went the bars. Fear dried my mouth and dampened my hands. You hear stories about what it’s like in juvie, the stuff they do to new kids. I was sixteen but short and on the skinny side. I’d be someone’s shower boy for sure.
I passed some doors and got to the end of the hall. The bulletin board had a bunch of flyers on it that shouted stuff like Summer Stock Seminar and Youth Counselors Wanted and Have You Seen This Dog? In the middle was a brand-new sheet, white as a grin, with the words Teen Scenes Cast List: The Importance of Being Earnest at the top. The fear jolted through me. The list. My probation officer said I either had to get a job or find a summer program, or she would recommend to the judge that my probation be revoked and I spend the next two years at Maximus Boys Training School, which was a fancy name for teen prison. There were no jobs in Ringdale for teenagers, thanks to the toilet economy, and like a dick, I’d put off looking for a summer program. Yesterday I was in the library hoping they might be hiring for the summer—they weren’t—and I saw a flyer for summer theater tryouts, which my watch said I had just enough time to make.
I knew zip-shit about theater, but by then I had nothing to lose, so I ran across the street to the Ringdale Community Art Center. In ten minutes I was on a stage pretending to be some weirdo from England while the director pushed her glasses up her nose and whispered to a guy scribbling on a clipboard.
Today was the absolute, last-ditch, no-shit deadline. Unless I called Ms. Blake this afternoon with good news, I was heading for shower-boy hell.
I was panting like an overheated dog. My eyes started to travel down the cast-list sheet, and suddenly I couldn’t stand it. Not knowing was better than finding out. I didn’t care what Ms. Blake said. I spun around to run away—
—and crashed straight into someone else. It was like hitting a suitcase filled with hammers. I said, “Oof!” and went down. The floor rocked. I shook my head like a cartoon character who’d been whacked with a Ping-Pong paddle.
“Geez, are you okay?” A hand stuck itself into my field of view. “Let me help you.”
“Yeah, I’m—” I looked up and totally stalled out. The guy standing over me was about nineteen. His hair made me think of a blackbird, and his eyes were green, like the first day you mow the grass in May. His jaw was long, and his nose turned up at the end a little. My insides twisted around, feathery and fluttery at the same time, and all my words ran away. It felt weird, and I didn’t know what to do.
The guy pulled me to my feet, and I could feel the strength in his arms. He wore a crisp T-shirt, and the cuffs around the lower sleeves were filled with muscle. Way more than my skinny-ass arms. I ran my hand through my hair. It’s ordinary brown, always a little too long, and so thick it’s hard to comb. At least my eyes are a decent blue.
“You’re in a big hurry for someone who didn’t even check the board,” he said.
My brain kicked back into gear. His name was Peter. He had auditioned too. The director had called us up onstage to read together, in fact. My words came back, and they tumbled around like a bag of oranges spilling across a table. “I didn’t—I mean, you were—wow!”
“I was wow?”
Shit. My face grew hot, and I wanted to fade into the wall behind me. “No, I mean you were good. Yesterday. Really good. You did… a good accent.”
Aw shit. In my head I was putting a pistol to my temple.
“Thanks.” He held out his hand again. “Kevin Devereaux, right? I’m Peter Finn.”
“I know! I can’t forget you… I mean, how good you were.” Bang. “They put the cast list up.”
Peter tried to lean around me to see it, though he had half a head on me. He smelled like sweat and sunlight. “So did you check it?”
“I didn’t have to. I sucked. I’m gonna go to—” I stopped myself. “Go home, I guess. Uh, you probably got a lead, though. You really had me believing you were from England and stuff.”
“What part were you hoping for?” Peter asked.
“What does it matter? I didn’t get it.” I leaned back against the bulletin board, refusing to look at it. “You probably got Jack. The lead. Or Algy, the other big role. I just… I figured I’d get the butler or something. But I didn’t. I sucked.”
Peter grinned at me, and all the stars came out. While I was recovering from that, he pushed me aside. In my head I said something witty, maybe even a joke with a pun in it. What came out was, “Hey!”
“Dude, I want to know.” Peter examined the board with his hands behind his back. He wore brown cargo shorts and sandals, and that made me feel better because no one wore cargo shorts anymore, and it meant he was less than perfect. I chewed my thumbnail.
“Well, you were right,” Peter said with a sigh. “You didn’t get the butler.”
My knees wobbled, and only the wall kept me from falling over. The voice in my head said, What did you expect, dipshit?
“T-told you….” My throat was thick. The air was close, and I needed to get out of there.
“You got Algy,” Peter finished.
It took a second for that to sink in. The idea flowed across my mind like blueberry syrup. Peter was grinning his bring-the-stars grin and pointing at the bulletin board.
Teen Scenes Cast List: The Importance of Being Earnest
Jack Worthing (Earnest)…. Peter Finn
Algernon Moncrieff (Algy)…. Kevin Devereaux
Lady Bracknell…. Melissa Flackworthy
Cecily Cardew…. Meg Kimura
There were more, but my eye kept going to the second line on the list. I couldn’t move. If I did, my name would disappear.
Peter clapped me on the back. “Congrats, dude.”
That broke the spell. I jumped up a little and punched the air, so light with glee and relief I didn’t think I’d come back down. “I’m saved!” I yelled, and then I flung both arms around Peter. “Omigod, omigod, I can’t believe it!”
“Yeah.” Peter’s voice was a little muffled by my shoulder. “Great news.”
I realized what I was doing and froze. Peter had really broad shoulders. I slowly released the land mine I was holding and backed away. “Uh… sorry,” I mumbled. My face was hot enough to set ice cubes on fire. “Got carried away.”
“It’s okay, dude.” Peter leaned against the wall. “We’re gonna spend the next month together in close quarters anyway. You know how it goes in theater—the play becomes your life, and the cast becomes your family.”
“Oh, um… actually, I don’t know.” I found myself scuffing the floor with one shoe. “I’ve never done a play before.”
Peter raised dark eyebrows. “You haven’t? Geez. Algy’s a huge part too. That’s—”
“The cast list is up!”
A herd of teenagers thundered down the hallway toward the bulletin board. I swear the tiles shook. Peter and I leaped out of the way only just in time.
“Did I get it?”
“You got it!”
“Les Madigan is stage manager? What a creep.”
“Who got Jack?”
“Meg Kimura? Who the hell is that?”
“Omigod! I’m Lady Bracknell!”
Peter grabbed my arm and drew me away. “I thought cattle calls came before the audition. Let’s get out of here.”
“Aw man—I didn’t even get the butler.”
I trailed after Peter like a dumbstruck duckling. Okay, I wasn’t going to jail, and that still made me rubber-legged relieved, but I didn’t even know what the hell a cattle call was. What was I getting into?
Outside, the hard June sun made me flinch after the soft darkness in the backstage area. A few trees leaned over a tiny parking lot behind the Art Center—the lot with a sign that said Cast and Crew Parking Only. Most of the slots were taken. The metal door clanged shut behind us.
“Where’s your car?” Peter asked.
I glanced away. It was really hard to look at him, especially out here in broad daylight. “I rode my bike. Over there.”
Before I could get more embarrassed about it, I stalked over to the bike in question—I had chained it to the cast and crew parking sign—and fiddled with the lock. My bike was a Schwinn POS I got from a police auction for ten bucks, and I spent more time repairing it than riding it. I don’t know why I bothered locking it up, especially since my hi-tech security system was just a hunk of chain and a rusty combination lock.
The sun was breathing down my neck, and I was sweating worse than inside. Summers in Michigan are brutal, and they start fast. One day you’re fighting off polar bears to take the trash out, the next you’re frying grilled cheese on the sidewalk. And it’s so humid you can get a drink by inhaling hard. It’s crazy.
“How about I give you a ride home?” Peter said behind me. “We could talk. About the play, I mean. Algy and Jack are best friends, and we need to figure out—”
“No!” I rounded on him, the lock and chain wrapped around my fingers. “No. I don’t need a ride!”
He blinked. “Hey, it’s no big deal. I didn’t mean—”
“I’m fine! Just fine!” I was almost yelling but couldn’t seem to stop myself. “I don’t need a ride!”
The theater door slammed shut again. “There’s my guys!” Iris Kaylo trotted toward us between the parked cars. Her dark hair was pulled into a loose bun with two pins the size of knitting needles stuck in it. She wore square dark-rimmed glasses over her nose and a pencil behind her ear. She also wore a purple polo shirt with Teen Scenes written in white where the pocket would be.
“You saw the cast list, right?” she continued.
“Iris,” Peter said. “Yeah, we saw. Geez, thanks for giving me Jack.”
“You deserved it. And you, Kevin.” She gave me a sudden kiss on the cheek. My face went hot again, and I felt squirmy. “I couldn’t believe your audition. Brilliant! Where have you been all my life? What did you think, Peter?”
Peter grinned. “I couldn’t take my eyes off him. No one could. He walked right into the role.”
“Uh…” was all I could manage.
Okay, here’s the thing. I kind of got what they were talking about. When I walked into the cool darkness of the theater auditorium yesterday afternoon and looked at the scenes Iris handed out, something sort of took over. I read how Algy and his best friend Jack accidently-on-purpose put together this elaborate game of fake names and let’s pretend, and I got it. I understood Algy, knew what he wanted, who he wanted to be, what flipped his switches. In a weird way, Algy became real, became me. My own self, my real self, retreated into a shell painted with “Algy” on the outside, so when Iris called my name and I climbed up the steps to the stage, it wasn’t me, Kevin Devereaux, up there. It wasn’t Kevin pretending to be Algy either. It was Algy himself, with a seed of Kevin inside him. If that makes sense.
Earnest is a buddy show about two best friends, Jack and Algy. They lived in England in the 1800s, when society was super strict. Jack has a bunch of embarrassing secrets, like that he has no money and that his parents left him in a handbag at the train station when he was a baby, so he grew up a poor orphan. He likes this girl named Gwendolen, but she won’t date a poor guy, so he tells her he’s a rich guy named Earnest. But then they fall in love, and the longer they stay together, the harder it gets for Jack to tell her the truth. Meanwhile, Algy—that’s me—falls in love with Jack’s cousin Cecily, but it turns out Algy says his name is Earnest too. Then all four of them end up at the same country house for the weekend, and stuff gets awkward. A guy named Oscar Wilde wrote it. Iris said Earnest was like a sitcom, and I guess she was right. Even though it’s like a hundred years old, it’s still funny.
Anyway, Iris called Peter up onstage too, but I didn’t see him. I only saw my best friend Jack. I didn’t see a bare stage with a few pieces of old furniture scattered across it. I saw a drawing room in an English manor in 1865. I totally swallowed myself and became someone else. And since Algy wasn’t knocked flat by Peter’s—Jack’s—looks, neither was I.
“My dear boy,” I’d said to Jack, “I love hearing my relations abused. It is the only thing that makes me put up with them at all. Relations are simply a tedious pack of people who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live nor the smallest instinct about when to die.”
Everyone in the audience who was waiting to read died laughing, including Iris. Peter—Jack—made his own lips a hard line so he wouldn’t laugh too. The part of me that was curled up inside the Algy shell spun like a Ferris wheel, discovering a new kind of glee. Holy shit! They laughed! This is awesome!
Peter, as Jack, said, “Well, I won’t argue about the matter. You always want to argue about things.”
“That is exactly what things are made for,” I said and made a little face that cracked everyone up again, and my inner self did handstands. It was incredible fun.
But when I walked off the stage at the end of the scene, Algy disappeared, taking his brains and self-confidence with him, and my own self emerged like a worm crawling out of the ground after the rain. I realized everyone was laughing at how awful I was, how dumb I looked. I even checked to see if my fly was open. Peter might have called something out to me, but I didn’t hear because I was already leaving.
I got what Peter was talking about when he said I walked into the role, but that didn’t make me an actor. What did I know about acting? Still, I had loved it on that stage and wished I could stay up there forever.
Iris was saying, “You’ve never done theater before, Kevin? Most of the Teen Sceners have done three or four plays by your age.”
“Nope.” I was feeling self-conscious with Iris and Peter staring at me and really wished I could get out of there. Liquid heat poured down from the sun and flowed back up from the parking lot. The air shimmered with it. A trickle of sweat ran down Peter’s forearm, pressing against the faint dark hairs and following contours of muscle.
“What made you try out, then?” Iris asked.
Their twin spotlights landed on me like headlights on a deer. Say something, my little voice said. Your mom was a famous actress, and this was her dying wish. You read the play and had to get in on the action. You’re a double agent masquerading as a teenager and need cover for the summer. Anything!
I scuffed the tarmac again with my shoe. “I… just thought it might be a good idea.”
Lame lame lame!
“Well, I’m glad you came in.” Iris sketched a wave and headed back for the theater door. “See you tonight at seven sharp.”
Peter turned to me. “You sure you don’t want that ride? It’s getting hotter by the minute.”
I looked at his green eyes, cooler than autumn water, and nearly shouted yes. Algy would have. But that would have been stupid. I grabbed my handlebars. “No, thanks. I gotta go.”
“Okay, sure. See you tonight.” He chirped open a brand-new blue Mustang and peeled out of the lot without even looking back. That made me feel weird and hollow, and I didn’t like it.
To get home I had to pedal past the Genevieve Morse Memorial Library and down what looked like a gentle country lane, even though it was in the middle of west-side Ringdale. Lush trees stood around perfect lawns like giants having tea. Houses straight out of Killionaires Magazine were sprinkled among them. See, Ringdale is home to Morse Plastic and the Morse family. No one outside of Ringdale had ever heard of either one, even though Morse made like a third of all plastic used in the country. Toss a spork in the trash, and chances were Morse created the raw material. All that plastic in your computer and your pop bottles and your car? Morse, Morse, Morse. And Morse Plastic put a lot of rich people in Ringdale. Hell, that Mustang Peter drove probably meant Peter’s dad or mom—or maybe both—were Morse higher-ups.
I passed a wooded area and a big rustic-looking sign that said Morse Nature Center at the beginning of a wide trail with wood chips on it. Morse Plastic contaminates the water, pollutes the air, and poisons the ground, so the family bribes the city with stuff like nature trails, a huge library, big parks, school grants, and summer programs for teenagers.
But there’s still the stink. Some days it’s rotten-egg sulfur. Other days it’s oil and diesel fumes that hang on the air in greasy droplets. Sometimes it’s the sharp smell of burned plastic. There’s always something. But no one complains about the smell because the wind carries it to the east-siders, and who gives a shit about them?
I crossed an old one-lane bridge over the Hellburger River and coasted onto a narrow road that wove between a golf course and yet another park. Guys in weird pants and half gloves whacked white balls and buzzed after them on electric carts. I climbed a little hill and emerged onto the sidewalk next to M-127, a busy road that tries to be a highway. I had crossed out of the west side into the east side.
The farther I rode, the smaller and shabbier the houses became. Out here, the roads crossing M-127 don’t even have numbers. They have names—Two Mile, Three Mile, Four Mile. No one cared enough about the people even to give the streets nice names like Whisperwood Lane or No Bankruptcy Drive. Today’s east-side stink featured toasted tin foil with a hint of lighter fluid.
Was Peter a west-sider? Had to be, with a car like that. He probably didn’t even know where the east side was.
I pushed harder on the pedals. Cars rushed by, leaving exhaust behind. I could still feel the heat of his touch despite the hot sun above me. God help me, I wanted to jump in his car, and not because it probably had AC. Stupid. Sure, take me home, I’d say. Or just take me! Wonder how he’d react to that?
I turned down Six Mile, a badly-paved road with ruts in it. The houses down here flop in their yards like old dogs. Dirty, broken toys litter old grass, and a couple-three always have Realtors signs out front with Price Reduced printed hopefully across them. The one saving grace is that it’s a lot of old woods and farmland between the houses, so if you look in the right direction, it’s kind of pretty, especially when fall turns the trees into a fireworks show.
My bike found the driveway by itself—dirt and ruts, just like the road. A bunch of trees made a dark space over my house. Well, it wasn’t really a house. Yeah, I lived in a single-wide, and if that made me trailer trash, then fuck you too. At least me and my dad kept the place up, and better than some of the real houses up the road. The lawn might have been patchy because of all the trees, but there was no junk anywhere, and we painted last year. We didn’t do flowers and shit because, you know, that was girly, but the grass was raked and mowed, and Dad built a decent little wood porch for the front. Dad’s truck was old and rusty like my bike, but there was nothing we could do about that.
Still, there was no way in nine kinds of hell I was going to let Peter see it. I’d rather ride naked through a poison ivy farm.