ONE MONDAY morning last fall, I woke up with an irrepressible urge to tie a red sheet around my neck. And I don’t mean a sheet that’s been twisted lengthwise into a rope so I could wrap it tightly around my neck like a noose; I wasn’t suicidal. I was also pretty sure that this urge I was experiencing was nothing to be worried about. At least, not in the short term. Anyways, what I had in mind was a flowing red sheet, fastened around my neck by a small, neatly tied knot at my throat.
You know… a cape.
And not a cape in the shawl-like sense, although I, personally, had nothing against a dude being in touch with his feminine side, not that I’d ever gone around school bragging about my open-mindedness.
The kind of cape I was jonesin’ for was more along the lines of… of what a superhero might wear.
I shit you not.
Now, before you go getting all doubting Thomas on my ass, ponder this for a moment: why on God’s green earth would I tell you something that would make me appear so supremely dorkish? There’s absolutely nothing in it for me, you know—in the sharing of this sensitive bit of personal information with you. Unless, of course, I’m having myself a little craving for some cruel public mockery, which I assure you is not the case.
Not to sidetrack our discussion, but I just managed to transition very effectively into part two of today’s fucked-up little confession, and my English teacher, Miss Libby, would be so damned proud she’d probably try to kiss me. Anyway, second only to last fall’s driving need to wear a cape is my current need to tell you this story.
To convince you that it’s true? To convince me that it’s true?
I’m not really sure which is the correct question, and I’m gonna level with you about something: I don’t feel like analyzing that part anymore. Been there, done that. Sick to death of it.
So, you ask me, why don’t you just cut to the chase, hmm? That’s perfectly fine with me. Here’s the simple fact: I’m here for one reason, and one reason only. And that’s to tell my story. To provide you with an honest representation of how everything changed for me during my junior year at Appleton High School. And I will admit that I’m hoping the mere recounting of my junior year (mis)adventures will encourage this story’s full meaning to come out of hiding.
For whose benefit—mine or yours? Does it really matter?
I lost you, didn’t I?
And you’re trying to tell me you want plainer words? No problemo.
Maybe I want to get myself a fucking clue about why shit went down the way it went down. In other words, I just want to understand.
SO MAYBE it did all start in late October, and yeah, if I was five years old, or maybe even ten… shit, even if I was twelve, experiencing a powerful urge to pull on blue tights and a red cape and be Superman in the days leading up to Halloween wouldn’t cause you, me, or the next guy to bat so much as an eyelash. But I was seventeen, a junior in high school, with no infatuation whatsoever with superheroes. You see, it’s like this: only the supergeeks were still into superheroes in high school, and I was definitely not a geek. Yes, every day at noon in the school cafeteria there was an entire lunch table filled with them, all wrapped up in swapping comic books back and forth, but I assure you, I hadn’t ever sat there.
You could ask anyone; I was pure jock. My mom had already sewn (well, in her case, superglued) six varsity letters on my school jacket, and I was only a first semester junior. But still, there I sat, scarfing down my bowl of Froot Loops at the kitchen table and speculating about whether or not Mom had thrown out that set of red sheets from my old twin-sized bed. Because, damn, I was havin’ me a hankerin’, so to speak, to wrap myself in a little something 100 percent cotton and scarlet…. Something that would billow behind me in the breeze.
“So Mom, I’ve got this, um… this school project thingy… in… let’s see… in puppetry! Yeah, that’s right—we’re doing a unit on puppetry in my performing arts elective—and we’re all supposed to ask our folks if we have any red sheets lying around the house… like… collecting dust. You know, for the… for a… a stage curtain.” Lying hadn’t ever been a big problem for me, but this morning I felt an unexpected pang of guilt. “And I was wondering… um, whatever happened to those old red sheets of mine?”
My mother looked up from the newspaper, lifted her chin to peer down her nose at me beneath her magnifying glasses, and then took a long sip of coffee. “The twin-sized red sheets from when you were nine years old?”
I nodded, feeling heat rise to my cheeks. Yes, Mom, those sheets…. And if I wasn’t imagining it, I was feeling more than slightly panic-stricken over what her answer might be, because, goddammit, I needed those fucking sheets.
She ruffled up her short grayish-brown hair as she racked her brain. “Jeez, Bry—those things were relics even back when you were nine—I’m pretty damned sure they were long gone before you turned eleven. Besides, when we gave the twin bed to your cousin in the fall of your freshman year, I tossed out all of the old sheets that were still kicking around here… that is, the one I didn’t rip into strips and use for window-cleaning rags.”
First, I cringed at the mere concept of using a perfectly serviceable red sheet as a household cleaning rag. Then the disappointment sank in. The regret I felt at this monumental setback was palpable; as in, it nearly brought me to tears… not to mention to my knees. How fucked-up is that? I dropped my head into my hands in an attempt to collect myself. “Crap!” My voice broke on the word. I sounded devastated, even to my own ears.
Call my mom perceptive, but she didn’t miss my near-breakdown. “If it means that much to you, Bry, I’ll run over to Walmart after work and pick you up a set. You want twin-sized or full?”
My heart sped up at the mere prospect of wearing a cape of brand-spanking-new red sheets, all crisp from the package. “Twin sheets should work.” I tried like hell to sound nonchalant, but I’m reasonably certain I failed. “You’d really do that for me?”
She nodded back at me, now completely dumbfounded, though who could blame her?
I got up and walked around the table to where she sat. “You are the world’s best mom.” I wished I had a lapel pin expressing that sentiment that I could fasten to her scrubs. (Mom’s a nurse.)
Her hand moved straight to my forehead. (Again, Mom’s a nurse.) “Are you feeling okay, Bryan? There have been a lot of severe viruses going around at the walk-in care center, and you spent all day yesterday shut up in your bedroom. Come to think of it, I didn’t see hide nor hair of you all day and now….”
Well, yeah, I’d spent all day in my room yesterday sleeping off a major-league hangover, as well as trying to ignore these very messed-up, but all-consuming, thoughts about superheroes that I hadn’t ever before experienced, even as a kid.
Pushing her hand away, I gave her an awkward hug. (I was definitely out of the practice of embracing my mother—I clearly hadn’t been dishing out enough squeezes lately.) “I’m fine now, Mom.”
My mother stared at me with her mouth hanging open as I headed for the side door. And right before the door slammed closed, I’d swear I heard her voice, probably talking into her iPhone. “Hi, Margie—it’s me, Helen. I just had the strangest conversation with my son. It seems that Bryan is very passionate about puppetry. Who the hell knew?”
AS IT turned out, I didn’t really need the red sheet so much as I wanted it. What I mean by that is, the urge for my very own red cape was actually only a preliminary impulse to what I experienced once I’d headed out the door. To put you in the right mindset, everything looked different to me this morning. The sun was still just coming up, but somehow it seemed to whisper a promise that it would shine brighter than ever today. The fall leaves fluttered in the cool breeze like rust-colored confetti, and my neighbors—some out for a morning walk, others dragging their trash to the road—well, they all seemed more… more neighborly. Even the street signs made me feel nostalgic. So much so that I actually wanted to sit down right there on the leaf-speckled sidewalk and write a little ditty about my quaint hometown, Appleton, New Hampshire.
Ditty? I was fairly certain that I’d never used the word “ditty” before in my life. I found myself checking my own forehead for a brain-scrambling fever.
Stranger still, I felt somehow responsible to keep it all quaint and neighborly and shiny around here.
When I saw Mrs. MacNamara struggling to roll her trash bin on wheels up the last few yards of her driveway, I almost tripped over my own feet in my hurry to get to her side. “Let me get that for you, Mrs. M,” I panted, out of breath from my short sprint.
She looked at me like I had three heads. “Bryan Dennison? You look a lot like Bryan Dennison, from a few doors down….” The way she was gawking led me to believe that I did not normally act as her knight in shining armor.
“Yeah! That’s me!” I dragged her bin to the sidewalk. “There you go, ma’am. Well, you have yourself a good day, now.”
Mrs. MacNamara continued to stare. “Thank you, Bry—you are Bryan, right?”
Ahhh, Main Street, I thought as I started walking again, a spring in my step and a smile in my heart. What a quaint and lovely name for the town’s… well, for the town’s main street!
I couldn’t resist. I said my next thought aloud in a resonating tenor voice. “Maple Avenue…. I wonder who the creative soul was who came up with a name that descriptive. I’d like to shake his hand.”
God, the fall breeze is refreshing in this part of New Hampshire. What a blessing to us all!
I’m not even slightly ashamed to admit it: I’d been thoroughly enjoying that morning’s walk to school when I heard it—a plea for help, an appeal for attention… a prayer for deliverance.
I’d swear to this on a tall stack of bibles, not that Mom and I owned even a single one (or a Torah, or the Koran, or even a pamphlet about horoscopes): each of my five senses snapped to alert attention. It was as if I was being summoned.
My feet started to move faster, pounding the sidewalk’s pavement purposefully. I responded to my suddenly uncontrollable urge to help the innocent, or so it seemed, by racing toward the biggest maple tree of them all, the legendary Big Ben on the corner of Maple and School Streets. The very monster that Mark Edgars, Gregory Waldorf, and Tina Lee had each attempted to climb in fifth grade and failed, to the tune of two broken arms, a fractured pelvis, and a dislocated shoulder. (Tina had tried and failed on two separate occasions.)
Warning: this next part is all fucked-up.
As I sprinted, my only thoughts were: Delicious egg scramble omelet that I get every single morning before homeroom, despite the fact I already scarfed down two bowls of Froot Loops at home, be damned! Tardy slip to homeroom that adds up to five already this semester, which will require me to serve detention, be damned! First-period calculus quiz that needs to be passed if I want to play preseason basketball, be damned too! This guy has a job to do!
And before my brain had fully engaged (and without even a small remnant of red fabric waving behind me), I was on my way up that tree. Fulfilling my purpose in life. (I told you it was fucked up.)
Several minutes later, a champion of the innocent, the helpless, the forsaken, descended the enormous maple tree, forearms adorned in bloody scratch marks, a white fur ball of a kitten tucked safely under one armpit. When my feet met with the spongy surface of the grass, and the tiger—I mean the kitten—had been deposited into the hands of a waiting little old lady, I experienced a sense of completion I had never known was possible. More than twenty-five points, ten rebounds, and six assists kind of satisfaction, even.
“Dammit, kid, I was trying to teach friggin’ Snowball a lesson. If he can get his puny ass up there, he’d better have a plan to get his puny ass down.” The LOL (little old lady) dropped the cat—who incidentally did land on his feet—pulled out a cigarette with her big, wrinkled mitts, and lit up with a sort of manly grace. “Cats always figure out a way to get their butts out of trees. When was the last time you saw a decomposed cat carcass fall out of a maple tree, huh, tell me that?” She shook her curler-covered head and stormed away without the cat. “Kids these days! What are they gonna come up with next?”
UH-HUH. I missed my chance to get an egg scramble omelet.
Tardy slip. Yup. Detention this afternoon.
But I got there in time for my first-period calculus quiz, which, in hindsight, I’d say I barely passed. (Maybe I should have arrived just a little bit later, so I could have had another day to study just a little bit more.)
Thank you, God, for changing my mind and not letting me sign up for AP Calculus just because Jackson wanted somebody to sit with. Although, come to think of it, it might have been nice to spend more quality time with Jack.
In that moment I realized I’d prayed more this morning than I had in the past decade, all combined.
Who are you, Dennison?
AT LUNCHTIME, I had to walk past the Nerd Table, the Goth Table, and the Burnout Table in order to get to the Wannabe-Jock Table, where for some reason this morning, I hesitated and kind of saluted my emulators. And then I scanned each of the faces at all these tables, checking for smiles… but strictly the kind that reached their eyes. (Yeah, I know, I know—what the fuck is up with that?) Almost everyone seemed pleasantly occupied by conversation or chewing, so I relaxed and moved on to the Superjock Table, right smack-dab in the center of the cafeteria. Yeah, front and center… where I’d always assumed I belonged.
Brandon Wilson started right in on me. “Hey… ho… hey! Bryan Dennison, champion of small, fuzzy animals everywhere….”
“Was it worth the detention for being late, dude?” Ever practical, that was Jack Jackson’s two cents.
Yes</>, I thought, it most certainly was… in fact, it was more than worth it.
I plunked my lunch tray on the table and dropped my ass into the usual seat, being careful not to make any type of an incriminating expression that would lead to the shelling out of more verbal crap in my direction. “How’d you guys find out?” I wasn’t really irritated. Almost nobody ever questioned me or the stupid shit I did. In fact, if I wasn’t the absolute highest man on the Appleton High School jock totem pole, thanks to my height and my ability to successfully shoot baskets from pretty much anywhere inside the three-point line, I was a respectable distance north on that pole. People actually followed my example, which, it just hit me, was a mighty scary thought.
I wonder if my mother meant what she said.
I shook my head to—
Is she really gonna pick up those red sheets for me after work?
—clear the random thought.
“Erin saw you. Her mother drove her to school, and when she got here she told everybody you were probably gonna be late, seein’ as you were three-quarters of the way up Big Ben, reachin’ for some pussy.” Brandon leaned back and then burped loudly for emphasis. All of the Superjocks laughed dutifully.
“Reaching for pussy, Dennison? That figures!” someone shouted. I blushed.
“What a guy won’t do for a little bit of that shit, huh?” Josh Javitt was more or less my social director. I’d been a close friend of his since first grade, and thanks to his association with me, he got to sit at the Superjock Table even though he was only on the golf team. “I’ve told you a thousand times, Bry, Karen Engleman won’t make you climb up Big Ben for it. All you’d have to do is climb up to the back of the bleachers any night of the week and she’d give you all the ‘pussycat’ you want.”
“Meow Mix!” Yup. The peanut gallery was paying attention.
And maybe I was feeling a tad irritated by these guys’ loose lips, which was strange for me. Normally, not only could I take shit, but I could dish it out with the best of them. “Why don’t you shut the fuck up and eat your lunch, assholes?” But I said it with a smile that sort of removed the sting from the words “fuck” and “assholes.” Doesn’t it?
“What the hell were you thinking, dude?” Jack clearly wasn’t finished berating me. He banged his half-pint of chocolate milk down onto his tray like he was a judge and it was his gavel, and then he looked at me sternly. “It’s almost b-ball season, and you go taking a frigging idiotic chance like that—to save a frigging cat!”
But it was so cute.
Though it was difficult, I held back from saying that thought out loud.
And it needed my help.
Kept my trap shut on that one too. Which was probably a wise decision.
“Whatever,” I said (always a safe retort). “So why’s that guy over there sitting all alone?” I pointed to a boy who sat at a table in the far corner. He was slight, blond, with small wire-rimmed glasses perched on his nose, and, I couldn’t help but notice, a rather defiant-looking expression (despite the fact that he seemed to be engrossed in a book), but maybe that was just the way he always held his chin. Although I racked my brain, I couldn’t place him in my memory. I could’ve sworn that I knew every single soul who attended this school. After all, hadn’t I been voted Mr. Appleton High School at last year’s homecoming dance, as a sophomore? (You gotta know people for shit like that to happen!) Nonetheless, this kid was nothing but a blank spot. “Maybe we should invite him over here to eat lunch with us.” All the Superjocks turned in unison to gawk at me.
Like they know something I don’t know….
“Good one, Dennison… sometimes I forget that you’re pure evil.” Brandon raised his hand for a high five, which I automatically reciprocated. Then he stood up, looked around to make sure no teachers were close by, and swelled up like the lanky linebacker that he was. “Hey, Beckett!”
The boy pulled off his glasses and then slowly looked up from his light-green plastic bowl of mac and cheese and his paperback. I couldn’t miss the wariness in his blue eyes as he examined Brandon.
“Yeah, Gay Boy, I’m talkin’ to you!” Immediately, the cafeteria got all hushed, like everybody was waiting for what would come next. “My pal Bryan here, you remember him from the other night, wants your skinny ass to join us for lunch.”
Beckett’s pale eyes slid from Brandon’s chest to mine, but he didn’t meet either of our eyes. And his expression didn’t change. Beckett’s face, which I’ll admit I found to be sort of adorable in a boyish way, remained blank, even stoic. And for some reason this whole situation was making me indescribably uncomfortable.
“You heard me, Scott…. Get your ass over here and break bread with my buddy, Bryan. It’ll be like a date.” A few kids made some woo-hooing sounds. Brandon laughed heartily and then took a couple of threatening steps toward Beckett. “Or do you need some help? ’Cause I volunteer to drag your tiny rump across the caf myself.”
Red sheet, red sheet, red sheet….
Every second that passed had me wanting that red sheet more. (No need to spell it out for me. I know my urge for a bed linen at that moment was fucked up.) “He doesn’t have to eat with us, Brandon. Not if he doesn’t want to.”
“You’re only trying to be his BFF, right Dennison?” Brandon said that really loud for everyone else’s benefit, but when he looked down at me for my approval, I shook my head at him vigorously in an attempt to shut him up. He then bent right down, so his face was almost touching mine, and spoke under his breath. “Have you lost your fuckin’ marbles, Dennison? No matter what went down with you two… and me… on Saturday night, that little pansy needs to know that he’s gotta keep his trap shut about it and do whatever the fuck we want him to do. That is, if he wants to survive his junior year.”
I was horrified by the words I’d just heard, and, I must admit, mildly concerned about what role I may have played in whatever went down “on Saturday night.” I still found it difficult to refrain from wrapping my fingers tightly around Brandon Wilson’s neck and squeezing, but I had this feeling that it wouldn’t help the situation. In addition, I experienced an instinct not to let my revulsion show on my face. I couldn’t help Scott at all (which seemed to be what I wanted to do) if I acted too rashly right now.
Thankfully, Jackson stepped up beside Brandon and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You and Bryan don’t need another visit to Principal Wells over bullying that kid, now, do you?”
Another visit to Principal Wells?
“And he didn’t say anything to anybody about Saturday night, so it’s all good. Just drop it with that little pussy.”
Brandon’s puffed-up chest deflated ever so slightly.
“Come on, sit back down and eat, Wilson. That loser’s not worth screwing up you guys’ basketball season, right?” Jackson was good at this calming-down shit.
Reluctantly, Brandon nodded and returned to his seat, and after sending a major evil eye in Beckett’s general direction, he stuffed a heaping spoonful of macaroni into his mouth. (No exaggeration, the dude basically stuffed the Mount Everest of macaroni into his piehole—if it hadn’t been so repulsive, it would have been impressive.) Then, rubbing his hands back and forth over his greasy brown hair as if to soothe himself, the purplish tint to his skin starting to tone down to its usual ruddy red, he looked directly at me with his beady eyes, swallowed down Mount Everest, and said, “Someday I’m gonna kill him….” He didn’t even blink. “Me and you’ll do it together, like we shoulda done Saturday night, huh?”
He didn’t wait for me to answer before he dove back into his lunch. And God knows, I couldn’t have formulated a response to what he’d just said if my life had depended on it. I watched as Scott Beckett, a boy I had absolutely no memory of from before lunchtime today, got up from his seat, straightened out the front of his button-down shirt, walked stiffly to the trash, dumped his uneaten lunch into the garbage, and then exited the cafeteria. His strides never sped up, not even slightly, but I somehow knew he was dying to get the hell out of there.
By then the urge was overwhelming. I wanted to go to him… to help him. More than I wanted those sheets, even, and let me tell you, I fucking craved those sheets. But what if the shit Brandon had just said was true? If things were as they should be, it sounded to me like I ought to want to find Beckett for no other reason than to beat him silly. Just the thought of doing something like that made me want to toss the little bit of my lunch I’d managed to put down.
Apparently Wilson was still pondering Scott Beckett, as well. “Fuckin’ loser, that little princess is.” A tiny speck of orange cheese flicked out from between Brandon’s two front teeth and landed on the backside of my hand. I stared at it. It didn’t gross me out or piss me off. It just made me realize that I couldn’t eat any more right now, because I had to think… to sort this out. Something major had changed in me overnight, or maybe, some aspect of my sanity had snapped. I was craving soft red sheets, saving kittens, hugging my mother, and having fucking enormous lapses in my memory. I was… like… like totally different today.
I glanced around to check out the faces of the kids sitting at the other lunch tables… at all the mouths that had stopped talking and chewing and now formed wide O shapes, waiting for what we’d do next. Some faces looked intimidated, and they shifted their eyes away as soon as they met with mine. A few appeared disgusted—I couldn’t miss that Josh Javitt was among this group—and still others seemed to think the little show we’d just put on for the lunchroom’s benefit was fucking hilarious.
Who the hell am I? I asked myself. And maybe, more importantly, Who the hell was I?
“Shit, I forgot—I’m supposed to meet Mr. Trasker about… about my history paper and…. Gotta head!” And I just jumped up and ran like I was the one with the football and some rugged dudes were chasing me.
I had to give him credit. Scott Beckett’s exit was far more graceful than mine.
I’D NEVER hidden in the high school boys’ bathroom, or any other bathroom, come to think of it, before. Not even once—from anybody or anything. I guess already being six foot two, and sharing no resemblance to a rack of bones, in my freshman year had kind of relieved me of the burden most ninth graders suffered of needing to hide from the terrible seniors—I’d already towered over most of them. But in more general terms, I didn’t hide because: A) I was too big to find any sort of a decent hiding spot in a men’s room, and B) everybody else was too busy hiding from me so all possible hiding spots were occupied. Nonetheless, here I was, cowering in a bathroom stall.
I needed to be alone for a few minutes. I needed to figure out what the fuck was happening in my life. I’ll put it this way: I was starting to get a sneaking suspicion that this weird personality change that had come over me went well beyond a desire for a red cape. Yeah, this was something far more complicated.
Inside the stall, the toilet had no lid to sit on, so sitting down on the toilet seat in a dignified manner, with my pants up, did not seem to be an option. On TV, I’d seen plenty of crafty characters hide in bathroom stalls by standing on top of the toilet seat so that if anyone looked under the stall to see if somebody was in there, no feet would be dangling down. But if I was to try that tack, I’d put my head right through the ceiling, as I’d grown at least two inches since freshman year. I guess six foot four wasn’t always an advantage. So I went with sitting cross-legged in front of the toilet. Unsanitary? Yes. Pathetic? Quite possibly. But it was the best I could come up with in the heat of the moment.
Strangely, when I finally got my long body folded into that bent-up position on the floor in front of the toilet, I could see that there was already someone curled up on the floor in the stall next to mine. So much for my solitary thinking time.
I directed my question to the lifeless body. “Excuse me… um… are you feeling okay?” I had no choice. I was called to respond to an insatiable drive within me to help those in need. And this guy had to be in major need or he wouldn’t be crumpled up into a fetal ball on the filthy bathroom floor. “Like… dude, want me to go get the nurse or something?”
I couldn’t see his face, as it was covered up by his arms. He didn’t make a sound.
“Is it your stomach? There’s a lot going around right now, I’d say. My mom is a nurse at County General Hospital and she told me that….” I let my words trail off, suspecting the guy wasn’t listening to me anyways.
“Just leave me alone.”
Well, that was a start, wasn’t it? I mean, we were communicating now.
Positive thinking, Bry.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that.” I was afraid too. I was afraid the new chivalrous part of me wasn’t gonna let me leave the bathroom until I had gotten this guy onto his feet and smiling up at me. And class started in ten minutes, which didn’t leave me a hell of a lot of time to accomplish my lofty goal. “At least tell me what’s wrong.”
“Like you don’t already know.” His response was both muffled and pissed-off sounding, but, again, it was communication, so I felt thankful. Thankful to whom? I had no idea. I was just thankful, period. (Try to hold off on the fucking analysis at this point, okay, reader?)
“Call me clueless, but I have no idea what is troubling you.”
He slid to the edge of my stall and stuck his head in. I saw a flash of blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses perched on an adorable nose—it was Scott Beckett, the kid from the cafeteria.
“Yeah, asshole, it’s me. So, go ahead, do what you came here to do. You going to give me a swirly? Make me lick the urinals…. What’s it going to be this time, Dennison?”
I had no idea how to respond. I’d never so much as laid eyes on this kid before, and he was acting like I’d been in on some kind of a bullying brigade directed solely at him. Either I had missed something major, or he had a very vivid imagination. “Refresh my memory, Beckett. Tell me what I did… uh, the last time.”
Still sprawled out flat on the floor beside me, directly underneath the stall divider, his pretty face screwed up into a tight knot, he squealed, “Fuck you, Dennison! Acting like you forgot is even more insulting than what you did to me in the first place. Like, I can believe that you and your buddy torture any kid who looks like an easy target, so you can’t rememb