The Indifferent Children of the Earth
Journal Entry, per Doctor Lumley’s request, Thursday 18 August
Dear Doctor Lumley,
You want me to tell you who I am. This is waste of time. Just because Mom and Dad think—
I have nothing to say, nothing I want to—
Fine. I was born in West Nyack, New York, to Josué and Esperanza León, 29 June, 1995. There. That’s something true. Something I can share with you, in the ‘safe space’ you’ve created for me with this moronic—
My name is Alex—
My name is Alejándro—
You think keeping a journal will do what? Show me a part of myself? Help me be honest with myself? Help me remember what happened in the accident? Two weeks in a coma wasn’t enough to help me forget. Hell, the rest of my life in a coma wouldn’t be enough. Dreams. Aye, there’s the rub.
Honesty. Right now, I’m too honest with myself. I know who I am. I know what I did. Why my parents look at me the way they do. The silences, thick and fatty as the chuck roast growing cold on the dining room table. The mania for gardening. The incessant click-click-click of that damned old-fashioned type-writer in the study, day after day without a single page to show for his efforts. Pats on the shoulder that make both of us cringe. There, are you getting enough? Enough insight for one day? What does Freud say, tell me? What of Lacan? There aren’t even words for—
Fine. Twenty minutes of staring at this damn page, line after line. Here we go. Lock me up after you read this, or give me pills that will turn me into one of those drones that wander the big-box stores. Either would be a relief.
It was my fault that he went there, that night. My fault that I didn’t stop Christopher earlier. I was blind, you see, blind because of—
Here. Here it is. On the tip of my tongue. Unpack my heart with words, like a—
This is the part of the story you never hear. This is the story of the hero who lived when he should have died. But I’m not a hero, I’m—
My name is Asa Alejándro León. I was the most talented quickener to be born in a hundred years, with the exception of Christopher. I crafted my first focus when I was twelve. In a single night, I rode a quickening from New York to Los Angeles, and then from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. I burned like a falling star across an ocean darker than wine. I shattered the moon with a word. I killed my best friend. I killed my brother. Or I let him die. They’re the same, really.
I am sixteen years, one month, and twenty days old.
I am broken.
I need a car. I need a girl. I need a life.
Chapter 1, Friday 19 August
“This is Asa Alejandro Leon,” Mrs. Nadel said, with all the grace one might expect from a needle-thin spinster, her red hair in a tight braid. Too bad she was married. No luck with the accent on my names. Hell, I was lucky she’d managed the jota without making it an American j. I sunk a bit lower in my seat, embarrassed for both our sakes. I was three days late for the start of the school year, and I was the new kid on top. But, then, a coma will make you late for all sorts of things.
“Everyone say hello to Asa,” Mrs. Nadel added. “Help him feel welcome in our classroom and our town.” There was as much welcome in her voice as there is in an emergency room.
“It’s Alex,” I muttered, but if Mrs. Nadel heard me, she did not correct herself.
A mumbled chorus of hellos and welcomes pressed in around me, tight and suffocating, a sweater knit by an aunt who didn’t realize I’d grown. I shifted again, head down, and took low, deep breaths. The prickly sense of being watched lasted too long. In its own way, it was worse than the high-school equivalent of the walk of shame. You know what I mean, if you’ve ever moved schools. That first day, showing up and walking down the hallway, trying to look like I know where I’m going, lost as hell, but praying no one offers to help me. If you haven’t felt that, you don’t know what it means to be new, but you’ll feel it someday, and then you’ll understand. Anyway, the walk is bad, especially in a small school like this.
And it is a small school. West Marshall Senior High School, Home of the Hawks, boasts a shockingly high number of students for such a piddling town. 2011 graduating class: 118, I had been informed by the secretary. Proudly, I might add. Times four, that makes for a high school with a little less than five hundred students. With staff and teachers, probably an even five hundred. That had to be almost a quarter of the town. Ok, maybe not a quarter, but a good chunk.
Back to class. Anyway, that too-small, scratchy wool sweater welcome is a hundred times worse than the walk of shame. Why? Because it’s just me against eleven strangers, with nothing between us but some over-washed denim (and too much of it) and that thin-as-paper obligatory welcome.
“We’ll start today by continuing our group discussions of Hamlet,” Mrs. Nadel said. “Asa, you’ll be with . . . hm . . .” She glanced around the room.
Cheeks hot, I seized the opportunity. “It’s Alex.”
“What?” Mrs. Nadel asked.
“It’s Alex. I go by Alex.”
“Well why didn’t you say something earlier?” She bent over the desk and scribbled a note, her body sharp as a paper-clip. “Now, let’s see.”
I followed her gaze around the classroom. Even with eleven students, it was easy to spot the different groups. Four jocks—a disproportionate number, but to be expected in a small town—sat together. Identical, for all intents and purposes. Big, muscled, and wearing faux-boutique t-shirts and jeans worth more than probably my entire wardrobe. They sat at the back.
Next to them, distinctly out of place, a girl with dyed-black hair—her forehead still had smudges of purple—and a big jade-colored lip ring. Goth or emo or punk or hipster. Hard to say without talking to her, but I can’t imagine she would have liked that. Talking, that is.
One girl, clearly the pretty girl of the class, sat in front of the jocks. The way she sat, straight-backed, breasts perky and catching my eye, told me she knew the boys behind her were watching, but her copy of Hamlet was dog-eared and marked up. If she wasn’t smart, then she knew how to get help from someone who was. Blonde and with that almost-orange tan that screamed California, she had to be one of the most popular girls in town. In a place like this, she was probably the Corn Queen, or something equally ridiculous.
And then there were two girls and a guy sitting ahead of me. They looked normal. Probably middle-class families. Clothes from those mid-range department stores, names I recognized but nothing popular. Girls were pretty, but with a nerdy vibe—enough to keep them from competing with blondie on the other side of the room. The guy looked like he played soccer or ran track—or at least, he would have at my old school. Did they even have soccer here? Anyway, a less popular sport, not baseball or football. Probably did something in elementary school that locked him out of the popular crowd for life. Wetting his pants in kindergarten, maybe? Or biting after it was no longer cool to bite? Who knows.
That left me and one other guy. Dark straight hair that was too long. Pale skin like videogames or too much reading or, if he thought he was cool, low-level, low-risk hacking. A shapeless olive green t-shirt and black jeans. Not the cool, black-grey, this-will-stain-your-furniture black, but jet-black, 1980s black. If this kid wasn’t at the bottom of the totem pole, my first two years in high school had taught me nothing.
“You’ll be with Wyatt,” Mrs. Nadel said.
Black-jeans looked up, blinking in surprise.
If I’d still wanted friends, I would have let out a groan. Mrs. Nadel, the spinster-who-was-not, had just condemned me to social death. And on my first day. As it was, I felt nothing but muted pleasure at not having to worry about fending off new friends. One less thing to have to deal with in this hellhole of a new town.
“Get into your groups,” Mrs. Nadel said. “And keep working through the worksheet I handed out. The second half of the class we’ll be discussing the questions.” She sat down at her desk and did that fake teacher-work on her computer that really was probably more like learning how to be a screenwriter or how to get a chauffeur’s license for a night job or something equally pathetic. The kind of things teachers do to earn 90% of their state-funded salary.
The jocks split up, with some grumbling. Seems Mrs. Nadel was smart enough to know not to keep them together. That much testosterone and the room might explode. I changed desks, there were plenty of extras, and sat next to Wyatt. He stared at me, dark eyes as expressionless as his face. Not a hint of welcome there. Good. I just wanted to be left alone.
“I’m Alex,” I said.
“I know. She just introduced you, you know.” He gave one of those extra-nerdy giggles, the kind that is half-swallowed, but totally superior.
I shrugged and scanned the worksheet. Nothing I hadn’t seen before. Poor Hamlet. Over-taught and completely ruined by most high school teachers. As much as I hated literature, having a poetry professor for a father made it hard not to know something about it. Especially when he used to drill me and Isaac about it every night at dinner. Isaac always had the best answers; he was a much more creative reader than I was.
“I’m Wyatt,” he said.
I bit back my first response. Better not make enemies; just glide through high school, unseen, unnoticed. “Nice to meet you.”
“Where’re you from?”
“Cool,” Wyatt said. A hint of envy. “In the city?”
“A suburb,” I said. When I saw the flicker of disappointment, I had to add, “But it was easy to drive in. Half an hour or so.”
“That must have been so cool. What was it like? Why did you ever move here?”
Hospital bed, everything white or steel, both shining too bright in the summer morning sunlight. Antiseptic. Cheap detergent of the hospital gown. Ozone and smell of broken stone, lightning in the darkness of that abandoned subway station.
“It was nice,” I said. “Lots to do.”
“I bet,” Wyatt said. “There’s nothing here.”
“There’s got to be something to do.” I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want friends; I wanted to be alone. But years of social training kept me moving, an automaton mechanically paddling through the treacherous waters of high school life. “Fishing, or something like that, right?”
“Yeah, fishing,” Wyatt said. “Thank God for the internet. WoW is my life. Do you play?”
I had no idea what wow was, so I just shook my head. Internet. So computers. Either videogames or some weird hacking code I’d not heard of. Not books. That meant—
“How’s this going?” I held up Hamlet.
He shrugged. “Who cares? Written five hundred years ago, and people will just say whatever they want about it. That’s why this is such a blow-off class.”
I bristled a little; the part of me trained by my dad took issue with the idea that you could just say whatever you wanted about a play. But the irritation was just a flicker, more of a reaction than anything. Who did care? Not I.
The rest of class was uneventful: my trying to answer Wyatt’s questions without really thinking about New York or what had been my home; pretending to flip through Hamlet to get a few moments of silence; catching one of the not-quite-pretty-enough girl’s eyes before she returned to work with her group. And, of course, class discussion. I don’t remember much about it, really—trite questions, trite answers. Input output. Until I heard pretty-and-smart girl say something that cut through the haze.
“Hamlet’s just acting like a spoiled child,” she said. “I mean, he’s a prince, you know? And he acts like he’s got this terrible life just because his dad died. If he’s really so sad about it, why doesn’t he do something?”
I spoke before I even realized it. “He knows what he wants to do. He wants to die. He just doesn’t know how to do it.” I could feel the words falling into the center of the classroom, pulled away by the whirlpool of social currents.
There. I’d done it. First impressions, you know? I was the kid who was either suicidal, or obsessed with death, or both.
I guess they’re right, at least in part.
That most merciful of sounds, the long buzz that marked the end of class, came not much later. Even Wyatt avoided me as we left the room; can’t say I blame him. No point in letting himself get dragged down any further. With people rushing to lockers and then to class, the halls were surprisingly full—surprising for such a small school. It had the same feel as my last high school, the mixture of racing to get to class before the bell, but while still going slow enough that no one thought you really were in a hurry to get there.
No one approached me, fortunately. I found my locker again, got it open, and looked at the schedule. It took me an extra few minutes to find the next classroom; the school had a strange layout, a long, wandering central hall, but with all sorts of wings branching off, and the classroom numbers assigned arbitrarily.
I slunk into history; the door was at the front of the room of course, teacher’s desk and blackboard right there. Like any good high school movie will show you. A thin, leathery-faced balding man stood in front of the board. Too-short black shorts and a white polo with the West Marshall Hawk embroidered on it. A coach. Perfect.
“—a new student today,” he was saying as I entered.
“That’s him,” one of the jocks said.
I nodded. “I go by Alex.”
“Take a seat by Chad,” the teacher said.
Chad turned out to be the most annoying of the four jocks. Strawberry blond hair that caught my eye more than once, but a personality worse than a skunk that had been stuffed in a sack and then beaten. Of course, he turned out to be the ringleader of the group. Mr. Cherrie, with all the rigor one might expect from the mummified remains of a high school coach, let them get away with everything. It was like trying to learn while sitting in a comedy club. A bad comedy club.
The jocks were the only holdovers from the English class, not that it would have made much difference. The rest of the students were all cut from the same bolts of cloth—nerds or outcasts, the populars, and some of the middling ones who would go on to have normal, successful lives and forget high school. All the exact same; Henry Ford couldn’t have done it better himself.
The rest of the day would have been equally blurred if it weren’t for two things. Both at lunch.
I found the cafeteria easily, a long room with painted cinder-blocks (off-white, of course), and the greasy smell of cardboard-style pizza. Tables with built in benches, the kind you’d see in an elementary school, that you could fold up and roll away. And every student in the school, it seemed, all talking and laughing, the volume of their conversation vibrating at the base of my teeth. Two steps in and I saw down at the table closest to the door, grateful it was still empty. Mom or Dad had packed me a lunch—they hadn’t done that since I started high school, but I guess they figured, new school and all that. More likely, they didn’t trust me. I hadn’t been the most cooperative patient.
An apple. PB&J. A small bag of potato chips. Even juice. Not quite a juicebox, this was one of those fancy, adult, vegetable-and-fruit purees, but still. It was the basic equivalent of what a kindergartner would take. Perfect.
Before I could dig into the bounty, I heard someone say, “Alex.”
I looked up instinctively. Wyatt sat four tables down with a couple of kids who looked familiar. He gave a wave and then beckoned me over.
Why should I care? I didn’t want friends. It wasn’t like hanging with Wyatt would hurt my chances at popularity. On the other hand, I didn’t want friends. I wanted to be left alone, in that tiny space I had carved out for myself. Driven more by Wyatt’s frantic gestures than by anything else, I got to my feet, gathered my lunch, and clomped over to the table. Only open seat: next to a stout girl with pretty dark hair. I recognized her now; she was in history with me.
“I’m Mary,” she said as I sat down.
“And this is Taylor,” Wyatt said, pointing to the other girl. Pretty, pale, but dark eyes set a bit too close together for my taste.
“Wyatt tells us you’re from New York,” Taylor said. “Oh my God, that’s so cool.”
“Thanks.” What do you say to something like that?
“Why’d you move here?” Mary said. Wyatt rolled his eyes, and she leaned forward. “I’m not being rude, Wyatt, but I mean honestly, this place is so boring. Your dad decide he wanted to be a farmer, or something?”
“A writer, actually,” I said. “He said the peace and quiet would help him get more done.” Night after night of Mom crying in the living room. Their fights just at the edge of my hearing—I was too sick, according to them, too weak; they didn’t want to upset me; things were going to be ok. We could be happy again. It would be alright. West Marshall, a town adrift on the sea of Midwestern corn and obscurity, was the panacea. “I think he’s always liked the country, too. My grandfather lived here for a while. My dad too, I guess, but he was a baby. They never sold the house, so we just had some contractors fix it up and moved in there.”
“Oh my God,” Taylor said again, her close-set eyes widening.
At almost the same time, Wyatt said, “The Lion House?”
“Is that a pun or something?” I asked. “Cause of my last name?”
“Don’t be stupid,” Mary said to both of them. “They’re talking about this old house on the north side of town, just past the old downtown. They call it the Lion House because it has these ridiculous stone lions out front. People say it’s haunted.” All this delivered with the nonchalance of old news, of gossip set in the sun to dry.
“Yeah, that’s it,” I said. “It costs too much to get the lions moved, so they’re staying there.”
Mary’s mouth fell open, revealing an unappetizing remainder of sandwich. I would have said something else perhaps—that social automaton moving me through the routine steps of damage control, to put them at ease—when I saw Christopher across the cafeteria. Christopher, who I killed.
It was only a moment before I realized it wasn’t Christopher, but it took some time before my heart started beating again. Sandy-blond hair, tan. The curve of his cheek seen in profile, just below the eye, when he gave the lunch-lady a ridiculously winning smile. He straightened, picking up the lunch tray, and turned. No, definitely not Christopher. This guy was taller and more muscular, filled out across the shoulders. But the same hair, cut in that smooth, swooping wave across his forehead, like you’d see on any number of teen pop stars. I realized my mouth was hanging open in imitation of Mary and I clapped it shut.
“What?” Wyatt turned to follow my gaze. I felt my heart pound; if they’d seen me staring at that guy, what would they think?
“Olivia,” Taylor said, throwing a quick glance over her shoulder toward the guy I had been staring at. “Don’t worry, she does that all the time.”
I blinked; they thought I was looking at something else. But what? Then I saw her. Dark brown hair, emo or hipster bangs, it was hard to tell. And a camera that she was holding up and snapping pictures with.
Pictures of me, I realized with a start.
She let the camera down, and I was struck by how pretty she was. Not the tan, music video make-up look that so many of the girls here seemed to be shooting for; not really the vintage clothing, poor personal hygiene of the hipsters either. Something in between. Unique to her, the way her lips curved, the fit of the ripped jeans at her hips. I realized I was staring and opened my lunch.
“Ooooh,” Taylor said.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Me. Because when Taylor said that, I blushed. I ripped off a piece of crust and stuffed it in my mouth, giving myself time to think. The girl was pretty, and different, and I found myself intrigued. Who brought a camera to school to take pictures of the lunch room? And why of me? Sorry, but I hadn’t cut my hair since the coma, and unless thick, chunky brown hair that’s semi-curly and semi-straight is your thing, and you also happen to like off-brand jeans and t-shirts, then I’m probably not model material.
“She’s always been kind of different,” Taylor said. “You know, artsy.”
“Taylor,” Mary said, “be nice.”
“She has,” Taylor insisted. “But it’s been worse ever since her brother.”
“Whose brother?” a new voice asked. A deep voice.
A dark-haired guy sat down next to Taylor. I could practically see the letterman’s jacket hanging in the air behind him; spiked up hair and the all-athletic-brand clothing that he wore told me everything I needed to know about this guy. That, and the way Taylor leaned up against him as he sat down.
“Shawn,” he said, putting out his hand to me. I shook it.
“We’re in a class together,” Wyatt said.
“Yeah?” Shawn said. “My brother showing you around then?”
I realized the question was directed to me. It hit me. Wyatt was his brother. Same dark hair, same eyes. But otherwise completely different. And then it made sense why Wyatt was sitting with two girls who seemed, if not popular, then still far above his social standing. He was there by grace. And so was I.
“Yeah,” I said.
“We’re talking about Olivia’s brother,” Taylor said.
“Man that blows,” Shawn said. “Brady is a good guy, but man, that just sucks.”
Mary leaned over toward me. “Olivia’s brother Brady hit a kid with his car a couple months ago. Eli Green.”
I shoved the rest of the sandwich in the bag and tried to swallow the too-dry bread in my mouth. So I wasn’t the only one.
“Where is he?” I asked.
“He didn’t go to prison, if that’s what you mean,” Wyatt said. “Mr. Green even went to the trial and spoke in Brady’s defense; said Brady was a good kid, shouldn’t have his life ruined because of a mistake.”
“He has epilepsy,” Taylor said. “And had a seizure while driving. Hit Eli head on. Poor guy, doesn’t matter what Mr. Green says, his life is ruined.”
Shawn shook his head. “He’ll go to college in a few years, after the community service and therapy is over. No one will know about it there. He’ll move on with his life.”
The peanut butter stuck to my throat, choking me. No one will know about it there. They didn’t know, of course. Not about me. They couldn’t know. Just like they couldn’t know that the worst part wasn’t the way other people looked at you after something like that. It’s the way you look at yourself.
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