Chapter 1

 

 

“MOM, I can’t wear this,” I complained.

She glanced up at me while sitting at the kitchen table, cradling her chin in her hands. A strand of unkempt strawberry-blonde hair covered one of her bloodshot eyes as she looked at me, uncomprehending. Without response, she fumbled for her Bic lighter.

“What?” she moaned, then slid a cigarette between her frail, cracked lips and lit it.

“I can’t wear this shirt,” I repeated. “It’s got a big stain on it… and… and it smells.”

She stared at me, unimpressed, and exhaled, spewing a cloud of gray smoke into the air. I blinked, taking a step back, awaiting her reply.

“Baby, I’m sorry. You know, I had a busy day yesterday. I didn’t have time to wash clothes….”

“Mom, I did laundry. I washed this shirt myself, but I can’t get the smell out!”

Exasperated, she pushed her chair back and attempted to stand. Cigarette dangling from her lips, she grabbed hold of the table to steady herself. “You know, Todd, I’m not a miracle worker.” Her words were slurred, “miracle” sounding more like “mewukel.” “I don’t know what the hell you expect me to do.”

“Well, if you hadn’t puked all over it, it might not be ruined!” I felt anger surge within me, and in spite of my vow to be a better son and try to support my mother, the words just tumbled from my mouth. “You’re pathetic,” I spat. “You’re nothing but a lush—a filthy drunk!”

The sound of her cry pierced my soul as I spun around, refusing to look at her one second longer. “I’m sorry,” she moaned. “I’m sorry I’m not perfect. I’m sorry I’m such an embarrassment….”

“I’m sorry too, Mom,” I said quietly, my tone dripping with sarcasm. “You make me sick.”

I hated myself, but only briefly, as I stormed into the bedroom. I’d told her two weeks ago about the awards ceremony. She knew how important it was to me, but obviously she didn’t care. I couldn’t walk up on that stage wearing a ragged T-shirt, and this was my only dress shirt—but she’d ruined it. She’d vomited all over it one night after coming home drunk and crashing into the dryer where all my clean clothes were neatly folded and stacked. It had taken me two hours the following morning to clean up the mess. She probably didn’t even realize she’d done it. As usual, she didn’t remember.

I knew it wasn’t entirely her fault. She couldn’t help herself, and I swore I’d do a better job of helping her. Of course it wasn’t easy to raise a kid on your own as a single mother. It didn’t help when she lost her job at the hospital and had to go back to waiting tables. Before that, things had been a lot better. At least I got a few new school clothes every year and we had plenty to eat.

For as long as I could remember, Mom drank, but it didn’t use to be this bad. When I was young, she pretty much just drank on the weekends, and I don’t ever recall having seen her really wasted. Nowadays, though, it was hard to remember what she was like sober. When I left for school in the morning, she usually was still sitting at the kitchen table with a stack of empty beer cans in front of her. She was gone by the time I got home in the afternoon, working her second-shift job at the diner.

I really wanted to help her, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how to talk to her anymore, and when I did need to discuss something with her, it was challenging to even find a time where I could catch her clearheaded.

During the afternoons, when she was at work, I’d clean the house and try to find something to eat. Sometimes she brought leftovers from the restaurant and left them in the fridge. Other times it was peanut butter and jelly or ramen noodles.

I peeled off the stinky dress shirt and tossed it on the floor, then hurled myself facedown on my twin bed. I wished I didn’t even have to go to school. I wished I could just quit. People don’t realize what it’s like being made fun of every day. I knew the mean things they said about me. Fuck, half the shit they said right to my face. It wouldn’t matter to any of them that I’d won this award. It’d just be another excuse to mock me, especially if I had to get up there on that stage looking like a homeless person.

I debated cutting. What I really should do was just quit school and get a job. During summer break I mowed lawns and washed dishes at the same diner where my mom worked now. I saved up almost eight hundred bucks, but the money was now gone. Mom had needed help with the rent a couple times, and over the course of a few months, the remainder dwindled. The point, though, was that I could make money. Obviously going to school was pointless, and I hated every second of it.

As I rolled onto my back and looked around the tiny bedroom, taking in the wood paneling and yellowed bedsheet that hung as a curtain on my sole crank-out window, I knew I wanted more. I knew quitting school wasn’t the answer, and rejecting this award would be the worst possible thing I could do. I didn’t want to wash dishes and clean toilets for the rest of my life, especially not when my grades were so good. I was maintaining a nearly perfect grade point average, and my guidance counselor had informed me I’d definitely qualify for a range of grants and scholarships.

My grades would be my ticket out, and now, with this award for my essay, getting into a good college would be even easier. I just had to figure out a way to make it through these next two years. These next few hours, actually, were going to be my biggest challenge. But I knew I couldn’t give up.

I dragged myself off the bed and stood in front of the full-length mirror on the back of my bedroom door. The kid I saw staring back at me didn’t match the person I knew myself to be. My mop of silken auburn hair framed the angular face I wished didn’t look quite so innocent. Boyish, that’s what it was. And I hated the freckles. I hated my narrow shoulders and slender frame. My arms, like twigs, hung awkwardly at my side, and as I reached up to swipe the hair from my eyes, I took note of my own ephemeral gesture. My wrist and fingers moved with such grace—too much—softer and far less manly than they should.

This wasn’t who I was, not on the inside. I was more than this meek, defenseless victim. I had something within me that was stronger than the sum of all my unacceptable parts. I knew I was destined for greatness—or at the very least something greater than the trailer trash I was today.

And perhaps that was why I hated her so much. I hated her because of the person she’d made me into. I hated her failure, her weakness, yet at the same time there remained a piece of my heart that ached for her. Pity, that’s what it was. I pitied her. And even in her stupor of drunkenness, she’d nailed it. I was embarrassed by her, and I felt sorry for her. I felt sorry for me.

But now was not the time for pity. I had to come up with a solution to my dilemma, so I trudged over to my dresser, heaved against the drawer, pulled it completely out of its compartment, and dumped the entire contents on my twin bed. One by one, I sorted through the shirts. Finally I settled on a polo. No, it wasn’t a dress shirt, but at least it had a collar. It was a size too small, but I’d make it work. At least it was an attempt not to look like a complete hayseed, and most likely I’d be standing behind a podium anyway.

My heart skipped a beat as I imagined it. I had a natural fear of public speaking. I hated getting up in front of people, yet at the same time a wave of excited anticipation washed over me. All those kids, my peers, would see me. Whether they wanted to or not, they’d hear my words as I read my award-winning essay. In spite of myself, my heart swelled with pride.

This was probably the most important thing that had ever happened to me, and I knew Mom wouldn’t even be there. Seeing her in her current state, I knew there was absolutely no way she’d sober up in time for the assembly. In a way, it was a relief. I didn’t want her there—not looking like that. I wondered how it would feel to be like most of the other kids I knew. I wasn’t naïve enough to believe the only type of legitimate family was the two-parent model, but it would have been nice to have at least one parent who gave a shit.

Sadly, I knew she did care, but she cared far more about something else: Coors Light.

I left the mess on my bed and gathered up my book bag, checked my appearance one final time in the mirror, and then slunk down the hallway toward the living room. As it was, I didn’t even need to sneak. She was already passed out on the sofa. I was surprised she’d even made it that far. I sighed and set the backpack down, then stepped over to her. Better make sure she didn’t leave a cigarette burning. I grabbed a throw that was draped over the threadbare rocker-recliner and spread it over her.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I whispered. A pang of guilt ripped through me as I stared down at her hardened face. “I’m sorry I don’t know how to help you.”

 

 

IN SPITE of the anticipation that weighed heavy upon my heart, I went about my morning routine as normal, blending in, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible. That’s what I did. It was who I was, the invisible man. For the most part, I remained unnoticed. It wasn’t so much that I was completely ostracized and bullied all the time. I just was one of those kids everyone seemed to know was there but didn’t really care about.

Believe me, this state of nonexistence was no small feat. I’d worked hard at it. All it would have taken was one inappropriate gesture, crossing paths with the wrong person a single time, or doing something utterly stupid and taboo—and I’d have been branded for life. I’d seen it happen. I knew the kids who were targeted.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I didn’t endure my share of ridicule. Every day someone said something mean. I’d been shoved into lockers, tripped, laughed at. When they did say something to me, it was never nice. And the only time my name was brought up by the popular kids was when they mocked me. But for the most part, they didn’t really have a bone to pick with me. I stayed out of their way, and they were fairly content with the reality that I was a nonentity.

It was the kids who shot their mouths off, or who were just so obviously different, who got the brunt of the abuse. The flamers or the burnouts. The fat kids. The guys with really gnarly zits or the Goths. Most of these kids didn’t care. Often they embraced their roles as outcasts. They were the rebels.

In my case, I had no desire to make a name for myself, which was why this award ceremony was so nerve-racking to me. It really didn’t make much sense, because it was a combination of my worst nightmare and my dream come true. God knows I didn’t want to do anything to draw attention to myself, yet on the other hand I couldn’t help fantasize about what it’d be like to be admired.

I’d never be the captain of the football team. I’d never be the class clown or the teenage heartthrob who made all the girls swoon. I had zero fashion sense, and even if I did, I’d never be able to afford the designer clothing. I wasn’t a trendsetter or even an übersmart computer geek. I was just an ordinary kid. Very average. I just was.

So much of who I considered myself to be was a mystery to everyone else, even my own mother. Shannon, my so-called best friend, was the person who probably knew me best, but even she didn’t know everything. She didn’t know the me who dreamed of things far bigger and better than Lakeland, Florida. She didn’t know the me who yearned to write Pulitzer prize-winning articles for the New York Times. She didn’t know the me who lay in bed each night fantasizing about Galen Caulfield.

Nobody would ever know that me. Not even Galen.

Galen was 100 percent my antithesis. He was the opposite of invisible. He dressed sharply, had lots of friends and a personality that exuded confidence. Everyone admired him, so I guess it really wasn’t that weird that I was jealous of him. I wondered what that would even feel like, to be someone like that. I couldn’t imagine looking at myself in the mirror every morning and knowing that dozens—perhaps hundreds—of other people wanted to be like me.

In spite of Galen’s popularity and confidence, he never really came across as a snob. He was the kind of guy who was nice to everyone, and it was perhaps this single quality that drew me to him. He’d actually spoken to me one day while in line at the cafeteria. As fate would have it, I found myself standing directly behind him, and having no other option but to stare at his back, I took in the breadth of his broad shoulders, his torso tapering down, V-shaped, to his narrow waist. He had a body that exemplified masculinity, unlike my own stick-figure physique.

It didn’t matter what Galen chose to wear. Whatever it was, he looked great, even if it was something that didn’t coincide with the current trends. People admired him for his individuality. If I, on the other hand, attempted to go outside the box and wear something totally different, I’d get laughed out of school. So would most people, but when you were as cool as Galen, you could get away with it.

“Mac and sneeze or tuna poodle casserole,” he quipped, assessing the options on that day’s menu.

I stared at him as he spun around to look me in the eye. I couldn’t believe he was actually directing his attention at me, and my nervous gulp surely confirmed to him exactly how socially inept he must have known me to be. Unfazed, he gave me a wink as my heart did a somersault in my chest.

That tacky comment, which 99.99 percent of the normal kids at Lakeland High would have considered lame at best, meant the world to me. The mere fact that Galen Caulfield had noticed my existence was monumental. It was the very affirmation I’d been longing for, and later that evening, as I lay alone in my stuffy prison-cell bedroom, I relived that feeling. I saw the sparkle of his bright blue eyes, the confident and cocky grin that transformed his expression into something seductive and alluring. I felt like a cheerleader swooning before the star quarterback, and in spite of my awkward self-awareness, I was rock hard. I stroked myself, dreaming of those wistful eyes, fantasizing about how it would feel to have those perfect, luscious lips pressed against my own. I could still smell his cologne, and I could all but feel the softness of his golden hair as I imagined carding my fingers through its silkiness.

Within seconds, I had a mess to mop up, followed as quickly by a sense of shame. I didn’t know why my thoughts always led me down this path. I didn’t know why I found myself attracted to this other boy. To any other boy. I couldn’t explain it, really. It wasn’t that I considered myself gay, and it certainly wasn’t as if I wanted to have sex with anyone, male or female. But for some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking of hard pecs and penises. When I became aroused, my thoughts did not gravitate toward big tits and moist vaginas. In fact, the very thought of such things nauseated me.

What did it mean, and why in particular did I crumble into a pathetic heap of helplessness when I thought of Galen? Why did he make my pulse quicken and my dick throb? Maybe I was gay after all. Or maybe I was just a mess. A screwed-up confused lowlife. A product of my mother. Trailer trash and a pathetic wannabe.

Even if I were actually gay, it didn’t matter. Even if Galen and I both were gay, it wouldn’t matter. Surely someone as perfect as him, with his designer clothes and quick wit, would never notice a guy like me. He had turned to me that day and made his snide comments about the slop we were being fed simply because I happened to be there. He’d have said as much—probably more—to anyone else standing behind him.

Coincidentally, Galen happened to be one of the first people I saw the morning of the awards ceremony. As I emerged from the crosswalk and stepped on campus, I watched him pull into the parking lot. How fitting that he drove a sports car, and of course he was not alone. Yvonne Herbert, Barbie to Galen’s Ken, accompanied him. Yvonne was Galen’s female equivalent, and equally popular. She dressed right, had perfect hair, and was perhaps the most popular girl in school. I shouldn’t have been surprised she was Galen’s girlfriend.

Strange as it might sound, seeing them together didn’t really change anything. I never thought Galen was gay. I didn’t even know for sure I was gay myself, and if I was, my attractions certainly were not directed toward the stereotypical homosexual. The very attributes that drew me to Galen were those almost anyone would associate with heterosexuality. His muscular build, his commanding voice, and his unfaltering confidence exuded an air of masculinity that personified the alpha male.

The fantasies of intimacy I secretly harbored about Galen contradicted the very characteristics I admired in him. I saw him as a straight, athletic ladies’ man. In my mind’s eye, he was not gay, and yet I had gay visions of the two of us together. Galen was gay only in my daydreams, and I honestly would have had it no other way.

Shannon was waiting beside my locker as I made my way inside. I spotted her as I wove through the throng of students congregating in the hallway. Smiling, I nodded in her direction.

“You ready for today?” she asked. It warmed my heart to realize she had remembered. She was probably the only person, other than me, who even cared.

I shrugged, trying to act casual. “What do ya mean?” I played dumb.

“Your award, silly,” she said. She gave me a playful shove, pressing her palm against my shoulder. I smiled in spite of myself.

“Oh, that,” I said lamely. “It’s no big deal.”

“It’s a huge deal,” she corrected me. Shannon had shoulder-length, raven-colored hair. She was beautiful, really, with her dark-brown eyes. At times I wondered why we were such close friends. “Anyway, you should be proud. Is that a new shirt?”

“Nah,” I said, opening my locker. “It’s one I had last year. Haven’t worn it in a while.”

“I like it.” Her smile seemed sincere. “I was worried about you.”

I stopped, then turned to face her. “What do ya mean?”

“I figured you’d be nervous, and I didn’t want you to wimp out.”

“Shan, like I said, it’s no big deal. It’s just some dumb award. I’ve gotta read my essay… no biggie.”

“In front of, like, a million people,” she reminded me.

“Who won’t really care. They probably won’t even listen. It’s just an excuse to get out of sixth period….”

“Well, I’ll be listening,” she assured me. “And you’re not fooling me. I know how important this is to you.”

I paused for a second, debating whether to continue with my charade. “Thanks,” I said finally with a smile, opting for sincerity.

“Let’s go for ice cream after school,” she suggested. “My treat. We have to celebrate.”

I laughed. Only Shannon would offer such a flimsy justification for consuming calories. I didn’t care, though. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll meet you here after the assembly.”

 

 

IT WAS Ms. Krummell who first sparked my interest in writing. Well, that statement wasn’t exactly accurate. I started writing long before I composed my first essay for her tenth-grade composition class. I’d kept a journal since the sixth grade.

The first writing of mine Ms. Krummell sampled was the autobiography she assigned back at the beginning of the semester. I dreaded even trying to tackle it, because let’s face it, I haven’t exactly had an exciting life. It wasn’t as if I could go on about the fun-filled summer vacations I’d experienced, being that I’d hardly ever been outside Lakeland.

The only time I’d even been out of the state was when I rode along with Mom to a Tupperware conference she was attending. She had been trying to start her own business as a Tupperware agent. The testimonials had promised her tremendous success. Within a year, they said, she’d likely be making six figures. As it turned out, she spent most of her profits on more Tupperware for her sales kit. She never was able to generate enough sales, living in the trailer park, to net a profit sizeable enough to be lucrative.

When I thought back, I recalled a series of failed attempts in my mom’s life. It had not been for lack of trying that she’d remained in this slump. She’d spent the better part of a year trying to build her own housecleaning business. Although she made a decent hourly wage, it was never enough. She didn’t have reliable transportation and had to turn down jobs that were not within a few miles of home. She didn’t have good enough credit to get a car loan, so the cleaning enterprise went belly-up rather quickly.

For as long as I could remember, my mom had drifted from one low-paying job to the next. Her mainstay was waitressing. It was what she always fell back on. When she finally landed the housekeeping job at the hospital, things started to at last turn around for us. She never told me the reason why she got fired, but I assumed it had something to do with the smell of alcohol on her breath. I used to think the reason she drank so much was to try to forget what a rotten life she’d had, but the truth of the matter was she used any excuse to get drunk. She drank to celebrate when she was happy. She drank to try to feel better when she was sad or depressed. She drank when she was angry, when she needed a pick-me-up, or when she was bored. I wondered sometimes if she drank because of me. My existence in her life had to have made things harder on her. Maybe it was her way of escaping me.

So how would someone like me go about writing an autobiography? I’d never been anywhere. I’d never done anything. Saying I loved to read and watch a few specific shows on television would not make for an interesting story. I couldn’t write about the crush I had on Galen. I couldn’t tell Ms. Krummell about my secret fantasy to take him in my arms and—I couldn’t even say it. I couldn’t say it because I didn’t exactly know. I just knew that when I saw him in the hall, my heart skipped a beat. The sound of his voice, the dreaminess of his bright blue eyes, the breadth of his shoulders, and that rock-hard chest of his… the whole package nearly made me swoon. I couldn’t tell Ms. Krummell any of that.

So I did what any aspiring writer would do. I made something up. I wrote the most spectacular story about this amazing kid named Todd. He’d traveled to almost every state in the country and had even gone to Europe a couple times. He liked mountain biking, rock climbing, and wind surfing. He’d tried exotic cuisines from all around the globe, had gone white-water rafting, bungee jumping, and even skydiving. The fictional Todd knew how to ride a bull, play all kinds of sports, and was very popular.

It was crazy. Once I started writing about all of these fantasies, it was like I couldn’t stop myself. I just kept writing and writing, and sixteen pages later, I realized I’d never be able to turn in my assignment to Ms. Krummell. It was ridiculous, not only because it was so lengthy but also because it was so patently fake. When she asked the class to turn in our homework assignments the next day, I sat there like a bump on a log, and to my horror, she called me out in front of the entire class.

“Todd, didn’t you get the assignment done?” she asked. I glanced around, unable to believe I was the only person in class who’d receive an incomplete. I felt my face redden.

“Um… well, I started something, but….”

“Do you have it with you?” she asked, her voice lilting up a couple octaves. She smiled sweetly at me. “It’s okay,” she said, “I don’t expect a masterpiece. I just want to get a sample of everyone’s writing, and I want to get to know a little bit about you—all of you.” Her comment was directed toward me specifically, but she glanced around the classroom as she spoke.

“Uh….” I shifted in my seat nervously. Finally, I reached into my backpack and pulled out my notebook. She held her hand out, waiting on me. “It’s not real good, and it’s a bit long. I’m sorry, I guess I kind of rambled, and….”

“It’s okay,” she assured me. “I want to see it.”

I heard snickers behind me as I tore the pages from my notebook and thrust them into her hand.

“Wow,” she said with an affirmative nod. “I think we have a writer in our class.”

That was that. She didn’t say another word to me for the remainder of the class but acted like the whole thing was no big deal. The next day, when she handed back our assignments, the first thing I noticed was the large red “A” on the top of the page. I quickly scanned through the booklet of pages, looking for comments. She’d made several—none of them critiques on my grammar, punctuation, or writing style—but more like words of encouragement. “Wow! How exciting!” and “LOL! I love it!” Finally, on the last page, there was a short paragraph written specifically to me.

“Todd, you’re a very gifted writer, although I hope you’ll forgive my skepticism. This doesn’t seem like a legitimate autobiography. Please see me after class so we can discuss your obvious talent.”

I felt a mixture of emotions. Elated that she’d given me the highest grade, I was also worried. It was clear she knew I had made up my life story, but I couldn’t figure out why she hadn’t failed me. I hadn’t completed the assignment, at least not correctly. Actually, I’d lied. I created a fantasy life instead of writing about my own.

That was the longest hour of my life as I sat there waiting, worried about what I was going to tell her. After the other students had finally finished filing out, I approached her desk. She looked up and motioned for me to have a seat. She then got up, walked around her big metal desk, and took a seat next to me in one of the student desks. Before she could say anything, I blurted out my defense.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Krummell, but I just have a very boring life. I know I shouldn’t have made all that stuff up, but, well, I didn’t know what to say about myself.”

She smiled and reached over to place her hand on my forearm. “Todd, the purpose of the assignment was to give me an example of your writing skills and also to help me get to know a little bit about you. I think you gave me exactly what I was looking for.”

“But that’s not me,” I admitted. “I haven’t done any of those things.”

She wore her cranberry-colored hair in a short, boyish cut, but it was layered, adding a feminine touch. Her hazel eyes seemed to sparkle when she smiled, her entire face lighting up. I could feel the excitement in her voice. “But that’s the wonderful thing about fiction!” I thought for a second she was going to bounce in her chair and start clapping her hands. “With both fiction and non, you have to write what you know. But the amazing thing about fiction is that it’s so much more than that. You not only can write what you’ve learned and experienced, but you can write about anything you can possibly imagine. Fiction is make-believe—”

“Like my wannabe life,” I muttered.

“Todd, look at me,” she said, reaching over to place her fingertips beneath my chin. She raised my head until we made eye contact. “Do you think your life as it is now is all you will ever be?”

I felt emotion swelling within me as I stared into her eyes. Slowly I shook my head. “I want so much more.” My voice was hoarse, barely a whisper.

She nodded, still smiling. “Yes, yes, of course you do. Todd, you’re fifteen. You have the whole world ahead of you—an entire lifetime.”

“If you only knew,” I said. “If you only knew what my life is really like now.”

“Todd, I can’t pretend to understand everything, but I do remember what it’s like to be a teenager. I’m not that old… really.” She laughed, her high-pitched giggle making her indeed seem youthful. She had to be in her mid to late twenties. “I know things can be pretty tough when you’re fifteen, but if you ever need someone to talk to about it….”

I shrugged, not sure what to say. I felt as if I were about to lose it.

“I have a question for you,” she continued. “I’m assuming, after reading your sixteen-page novella, that you also enjoy reading.”

“I love to read,” I admitted. “Usually two or three books a week.”

“Do you ever go on the Internet and read fanfic?” she asked.

“Fanfic?” I’d heard of fanfiction but wasn’t exactly sure what it was. I didn’t have Internet access at home.

“Fanfiction,” she clarified. “Stories that are based upon other literary works, movies, TV shows, et cetera.”

“I don’t have Internet,” I explained, “which is why I write out all my assignments longhand. When I have something that has to be printed, I have to use the computer lab.”

She shook her head and frowned. “Hmm, you know there is a program for students like you—honor students. We might be able to get you a laptop.”

“Really?” I asked, feeling excitement rise within me. I wondered why I’d never heard about the program before. “But wait. It wouldn’t do me any good without Internet.”

“You can use a laptop anywhere that has Wi-Fi,” she explained. “Starbucks, even McDonald’s. And you can download the stories you want to read, then use your laptop to read them anywhere.”

“But Ms. Krummell, why? Why do you want to help me like this? And why fanfiction?”

“A lot of amazing writers got their start through fanfic. I don’t know for sure, but I have a feeling you’d really like it. Let me give you a website. You can pull it up