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By TRAVIS THRASHER
David C. CookCopyright © 2010 Travis Thrasher
All rights reserved.
Half a Person
She stands behind two other girls, one a goth coated in black and the other a blonde with wild hair and an even wilder smile. She's waiting, looking off the other way, but I've already memorized her face.
I've never seen such a gorgeous girl in my life.
"You really like them?"
The goth girl is the one talking; maybe she's the leader of their pack. I've noticed them twice already today because of her, the one standing behind. The beautiful girl from my second-period English class, the one with the short skirt and long legs and endless brown hair, the one I can't stop thinking about. She's hard not to notice.
"Yeah, they're one of my favorites," I say.
We're talking about my T-shirt. It's my first day at this school, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't think carefully about what I was going to wear. It's about making a statement. I would have bet that 99 percent of the seven hundred kids at this high school wouldn't know what Strangeways, Here We Come refers to.
Guess I found the other 1 percent.
I was killing time after lunch by wandering aimlessly when the threesome stopped me. Goth Girl didn't even say hi; she just pointed at the murky photograph of a face on my shirt and asked where I got it. She made it sound like I stole it.
In a way, I did.
"You're not from around here, are you?" Goth Girl asks. Her sparkling blue eyes are almost hidden by her dark eyeliner.
"Did the shirt give it away?"
"Nobody in this school listens to The Smiths."
I can tell her that I stole the shirt, or in a sense borrowed it, but then she'd ask me from where.
I don't want to tell her I found it in a drawer in the house we're staying at. A cabin that belongs to my uncle. A cabin that used to belong to my uncle when he was around.
"I just moved here from a suburb of Chicago."
"What suburb?" the blonde asks.
"Libertyville. Ever hear of it?"
I see the beauty shift her gaze around to see who's watching. Which is surprising, because most attractive girls don't have to do that. They know that they're being watched.
This is different. Her glance is more suspicious. Or anxious.
"What's your name?"
"Good taste in music, Chris," Goth Girl says. "I'm Poe. This is Rachel. And she's Jocelyn."
That's right. Her name's Jocelyn. I remember now from class.
"What else do you like?"
"I got a wide taste in music."
"Do you like country?" Poe asks.
"No, not really."
"Good. I can't stand it. Nobody who wears a T-shirt like that would ever like country."
"I like country," Rachel says.
"Don't admit it. So why'd you move here?"
"Parents got a divorce. My mom decided to move, and I came with her."
"Did you have a choice?"
"Not really. But if I had I would've chosen to move with her."
"Some of our family lives in Solitary. Or used to. I have a couple relatives in the area." I choose not to say anything about Uncle Robert. "My mother grew up around here."
"That sucks," Poe says.
"Solitary is a strange town," Rachel says with a grin that doesn't seem to ever go away. "Anybody tell you that?"
I shake my head.
"Joss lives here; we don't," Poe says. "I'm in Groveton; Rach lives on the border to South Carolina. Joss tries to hide out at our places because Solitary fits its name."
Jocelyn looks like she's late for something, her body language screaming that she wants to leave this conversation she's not a part of. She still hasn't acknowledged me.
"What year are you guys?"
"Juniors. I'm from New York—can't you tell? Rachel is from Colorado, and Jocelyn grew up here, though she wants to get out as soon as she can. You can join our club if you like."
Part of me wonders if I'd have to wear eyeliner and lipstick.
"The misfits. The outcasts. Whatever you want to call it."
"Not sure if I want to join that."
"You think you fit in?"
"No," I say.
"Good. We'll take you. You fit with us. Plus ... you're cute."
Poe and her friends walk away.
Jocelyn finally glances at me and smiles the saddest smile I've ever seen.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't terrified.
I might look cool and nonchalant and act cool and nonchalant, but inside I'm quaking.
I spent the first sixteen years of my life around the same people, going to the same school, living in the same town with the same two parents.
Now everything is different.
The students who pass me are nameless, faceless, expressionless. We are part of a herd that jumps to life like Pavlov's dog at the sound of the bell, which really is a low drone that sounds like it comes from some really bad sci-fi movie. It's hard to keep the cool and nonchalant thing going while staring in confusion at my school map. I probably look pathetic.
I dig out the computer printout of my class list and look at it again. I swear there's not a room called C305.
I must be looking pathetic, because she comes up to me and asks if I'm lost.
Jocelyn can actually talk.
"Where are you going?"
"Some room—C305. Does that even exist?"
"Of course it does. I'm actually heading there right now." There's an attitude in her voice, as if she's ready for a fight even if one's not coming.
"Second class together," I say, which elicits a polite and slightly annoyed smile.
She explains to me how the rooms are organized, with C stuck between A and B for some crazy reason. But I don't really hear the words she's saying. I look at her and wonder if she can see me blushing. Other kids are staring at me now for the first time today. They look at Jocelyn and look at me—curious, critical, cutting. I wonder if I'm imagining it.
After a minute of this, I stare off a kid who looks like I threw manure in his face.
"Not the friendliest bunch of people, are they?" I ask.
"People here don't like outsiders."
"They didn't even notice me until now."
She nods and looks away, as if this is her fault. Her hair, so thick and straight, shimmers all the way past her shoulders. I could stare at her all day long.
"Glad you're in some of my classes."
"I'm sure you are," she says.
We reach the room.
She says it the way an upperclassmen might answer a freshman. Or an older sister her bratty brother. I want to say something witty, but nothing comes to mind.
I'm sure I'm not the first guy she's left speechless.
Every class I'm introduced to seems more and more unimpressed.
"This is Christopher Buckley from Chicago, Illinois," the teachers say, in case anybody doesn't know where Chicago is.
In case anybody wonders who the new breathing slab of human is, stuck in the middle of the room.
A redheaded girl with a giant nose stares at me, then glances at my shirt as if I have food smeared all over it. She rolls her eyes and then looks away.
Glancing down at my shirt makes me think of a song by The Smiths, "Half a Person."
That's how I feel.
I've never been the most popular kid in school. I'm a soccer player in a football world. My parents never had an abundance of money. I'm not overly good looking or overly smart or overly anything, to be honest. Just decent looking and decent at sports and decent at school. But decent doesn't get you far. Most of the time you need to be the best at one thing and stick to it.
I think about this as I notice more unfamiliar faces. A kid who looks like he hasn't bathed for a week. An oily-faced girl who looks miserable. A guy with tattoos who isn't even pretending to listen.
I never really fit in back in Libertyville, so how in the world am I going to fit in here?
Two more years of high school.
I don't want to think about it.
As the teacher drones on about American history and I reflect on my own history, my eyes find her.
I see her glancing my way.
For a long moment, neither of us look away.
For that long moment, it's just the two of us in the room.
Her glance is strong and tough. It's almost as if she's telling me to remain the same, as if she's saying, Don't let them get you down.
Suddenly, I have this amazingly crazy thought: I'm glad I'm here.
I have to fight to get out of the room to catch up to Jocelyn.
I've had forty minutes to think of exactly what I want to say, but by the time I catch up to her, all that comes out is "hey."
Those eyes cripple me. I'm not trying to sound cheesy—they do. They bind my tongue.
For an awkward sixty seconds, the longest minute of my sixteen years, I walk the hallway beside her. We reach the girls' room, and she opens the door and goes inside. I stand there for a second, wondering if I should wait for her, then feeling stupid and ridiculous, wondering why I'm turning into a head of lettuce around a stranger I just met.
But I know exactly why.
As I head down the hallway, toward some other room with some other teacher unveiling some other plan to educate us, I feel someone grab my arm.
"You don't want to mess with that."
I wonder if I heard him right. Did he say that or her?
I turn and see a short kid with messy brown hair and a pimply face. I gotta be honest—it's been a while since I'd seen a kid with this many pimples. Doctors have things you can do for that. The word pus comes to mind.
"Mess with what?"
"Jocelyn. If I were you, I wouldn't entertain such thoughts."
Who is this kid, and what's he talking about?
And what teenager says, "I wouldn't entertain such thoughts"?
"What thoughts would those be?"
"Don't be a wise guy."
Pimple Boy sounds like the wise guy, with a weaselly voice that seems like it's going to deliver a punch line any second.
"What are you talking about?"
"Look, I'm just warning you. I've seen it happen before. I'm nobody, okay, and nobodies can get away with some things. And you look like a decent guy, so I'm just telling you."
"Telling me what?"
"Not to take a fancy with the lady."
Did he just say that in an accent that sounded British, or is it my imagination?
"I was just walking with her down the hallway."
"Yeah. Okay. Then I'll see you later."
"Wait. Hold on," I say. "Is she taken or something?"
"Yeah. She's spoken for. And has been for some time."
Pimple Boy says this the way he might tell me that my mother is dying.
And a bit spooky.
I realize that Harrington County High in Solitary, North Carolina, is a long way away from Libertyville.
I think about what the odd kid just told me.
This is probably bad.
Because one thing in my life has been a constant. You can ask my mother or father, and they'd agree.
I don't like being told what to do.CHAPTER 2
Milk at Midnight
The scream is loud and low and scares me right out of bed.
I fumble in the darkness, trying to remember where I am, why it's so cold, and why the ceiling is slanted and hitting my head as I stand.
I can see the cold moonlight reflecting off trees that wave to me through the window.
Another scream comes, and this time I wonder if it's Mom. Yet it doesn't sound like her.
It doesn't sound human.
I race out the door and down the stairs and hear another scream, and this time I know it's Mom.
The light in her bedroom blinds me. I find her in the corner of the room, shaking, her hands waving at something in the air, her eyes glaring.
She sees me and screams again.
I've never heard a bloodcurdling scream before in my life, but now I know where they got the name.
I hold her in my arms.
"Mom. It's me. Mom. It's Chris. Mom."
I say this over and over again as I hold her. It feels strange, I think, that this person so much shorter and smaller than me is my mother.
Eventually she calms down. Then starts to cry.
We sit at the small breakfast-dinner table. She's drinking a glass of milk.
"I hope I didn't scare you," Mom says.
"It takes a lot to scare me."
She knows this is true.
"What were you dreaming about?" I ask.
"The thing is ... I don't ... I didn't feel like I was dreaming. I know I was. It's just ... it felt so real."
Mom looks at me, then shakes her head.
"I don't know. It's nothing."
But the look on her pale face says something else. Maybe she's not lying. Maybe she just doesn't want to say because she thinks it might scare me.
Or make me scared about her sanity.
My mom's not crazy. In fact, she's the sanest person I've met in this insane world.
My dad's the crazy one. Crazy for not loving her, crazy for leaving her, crazy for letting the divorce happen.
I don't want to talk about him or them. I want to talk about her.
Tara Buckley is a cool name if you ask me. I like Chris, but I love Tara. It sounds both classic Southern and also modern and hip. Buckley is my dad's last name, but Mom is going to keep it. She lost enough in the divorce. She decided she'd stick with the name she'd carried around for eighteen years.
Mom is thirty-nine but looks ten years younger. If I had a dollar for every time someone has expressed disbelief that she is my mom ... well, I'd be a rich kid. Which at this point in life would be nice. I think she's beautiful.
She used to complain about her upcoming birthday—the big four-oh—until she had other, more pressing things to think about. Sitting across the table from her, I see dark lines under her eyes. They're new. So is the lack of spark in her green eyes. And how thin she looks. And how faded her blonde hair seems.
I notice all these things now under the cold light above our little table. The first thing that I'd like to replace about this tiny little cabin are the lights. They seem like they'd be more appropriate in a dank prison than in a cabin nestled in the mountains of North Carolina.
The cabin is small. It doesn't have the dining room over here and the family room over there and all that. Basically, when you enter the cabin, you have the living room and dining room and kitchen all to one side. It's small. Cozy, my mother said. It had been large enough for Uncle Robert, but it was never meant to be a place a family lived in.
But it was the first, and only, place she thought of going after the divorce was final.
Mom grew up around Solitary, though she says she doesn't really remember it much as a kid. I wonder why she would want to come back to a place this remote, especially if she doesn't remember much about it. But she said that it's the only place where she still has family.
If you can really call them that.
The only real family member is Robert, and he's been missing for over a year. Sometimes I think she came back to find her brother and take him away from Solitary. Then again, I think a lot of things.
My mom is strong. At least, so far she's been strong. I know that deep down, underneath it all, she's sad. But sadness gets you nowhere in life. I think she would say that if forced to.
Sitting across from my mom, the lady known as Tara Buckley who has come to live in a cabin her brother abandoned for some unknown reason, I wonder if there will be more nightmares.
And I wonder what sort of visions brought out the screams.
Excerpted from SOLITARY by TRAVIS THRASHER. Copyright © 2010 Travis Thrasher. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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