By Andrew Smith
Feiwel and Friends Copyright © 2011 Andrew Smith
All rights reserved.
saint fillan's room
What would you hear if my words could make sounds?
And if they did, what music would I write for you?
They call me Stick.
* * *
I am six feet tall, an inch taller than my brother, Bosten, who is in eleventh grade.
I'm thirteen, and a stick.
* * *
My real first name is Stark, which, in my opinion, is worse than being called Stick. It was my great-grandfather's name, and I suppose my parents were all into connecting with our roots or something when they decided to put it on me. My great-grandstick lived and died in Ireland and never once set eyes on me in his entire life. But I'm pretty sure he'd call me Stick, too, if he ever had.
A lot of times, after people learn my name, they'll say things like, "Oh. What an unusual name," which, to me, sounds the same as, "Look at that poor, deformed boy."
And when they learn that I don't care to be called Stark, they'll offer some consolation.
"I'll bet you come to like that name when you're grown up."
The only things I can think of that people like more after they grow up are alcohol and cigarettes.
My parents smoke all the time.
I am as unremarkable as canned green beans.
It bothers me when people stare at me. Most of the time, they can't help doing it on account of my missing right ear.
Besides that, with first names like ours, my brother and I may just as well walk around waving signs saying LOOK AT US. At least where we grew up, in Washington State, boys were all pretty much expected to have names like "Chip" or "Robert."
But not Bosten and Stark McClellan.
* * *
The world sounds different to me than it does to anyone else.
Pretty much all of the time, it sounds like this.
* * *
Half my head is quiet.
I was born this way.
Most people don't notice it right away, but once they do, I see their faces; I watch how they'll move around toward that side — the one with the missing part — so they can see what's wrong with me.
So, here. Look at me.
* * *
When you see me at first, I look like just another teenage boy, only too tall and too skinny. Square on, staring into my headlights, and you're probably going to think I look nice, a handsome kid, even — green eyes, brown hair, a relaxed kind of face (from not smiling too much, probably). But then get around to that side, and you see it. I have what looks like the outline of a normal boy's ear, but it's pressed down into the flesh, squashed like potter's clay. No hole — a canal, they call it.
Nothing gets into my head that way.
I can't easily hide it because my dad won't let me grow my hair long. He yells at me if I wear a hat indoors. He says there's nothing wrong with me.
But I'm ugly.
You see what I'm doing, don't you? I am making you hear me.
The way hear the world.
But I won't do it too much, I promise.
I know what it can do to you.
I know what it can do to you to not have that hole there.
Humans need that hole, so things can get out.
Things get into my head and they bounce around and around until they find a way out.
My mother never talks about my ear. She hardly ever talks to me at all.
I believe she is sad, horrified. I think she blames herself.
Mostly, I think she wishes I was never born.
On a Friday afternoon in March, everything started changing.
* * *
Next to Bosten, my best friend was Emily Lohman. She was in eighth grade, too, and she was the only kid I knew who never made fun of me.
Her perfection amazed me.
* * *
It was the end of winter.
We lived by the sea.
When Bosten was younger, the three of us would walk from my parents' house down to the beach. We'd go beneath the pier and tip over rocks, catching crabs that we'd bring home in coffee cans dotted with rusty scabs; and then wonder at how they'd die so quickly in our care.
At sixteen, Bosten said he was too old to hunt for crabs with me and Emily anymore. I believed he still wanted to, sometimes, but there were other pressures on him now, other things my brother was looking for.
He was wild and rebellious, like a horse that would rather die than submit to being ridden. He could make me laugh, too. Real laughter that tickled me inside and made my eyes wet. And over the years, Bosten got too many bloody noses by sticking up for me.
I never cared about being picked on even a fraction of how much I cared about seeing my brother take a beating on my behalf.
There is something in the late winter gray of the Washington sky that makes you feel wet inside, buried under cold rotting leaves, like you can't ever get dry and warm.
My jeans and boots were soaked with seawater. Somehow, grains of sand had migrated inside my socks, settling in, between my numb toes.
Coming home with wet feet always meant trouble from Mom. I was already devising a plan to stop somewhere in the woods so I could throw away my socks.
"I hate winter," Emily said.
She walked on my left side; never said anything about that habit. We headed north, away from the pier, the black, sawtoothed water of the Puget Sound pushing me toward her whenever I had to escape the occasional wash of the sea.
"So do I." I watched as my words turned into fog in front of my face. "Here's a good one."
A fat, dark purple crab with yellow claws spidered out onto the muddy sand from between two jagged lava boulders.
There is a trick to catching crabs. If they see you, they will usually run and wedge themselves in impossible cracks between the rocks. And you need to get them quick, confidently, from behind and above, at a perfect angle of attack.
My angle of attack was off that day.
The crab pinched right into the tender flesh that webbed between my thumb and first finger.
I yelped like a Chihuahua with a stepped-on paw and flailed my hand.
The crab went airborne toward the water.
I said, "Shit!"
Then I laughed, too.
She was the only person, besides Bosten, that I was never ashamed about anything in front of.
We walked across a jagged field of gray and white driftwood, toward a line of dark trees where Bosten and his best friend, Paul Buckley, had built a plywood fort with me two summers before. The fort was half-buried in the ground, a subterranean bunker that protected us from everything we imagined was out there.
It began to rain.
Emily tipped her coffee can at the water's edge.
"I'm letting them go," she said.
We only had two. But they were big ones.
I zipped my jacket all the way up and pulled the wool cap down on my head until it made a horizon of black just at the top of my eyes.
I sighed. "Let's get under the trees, Em. My mom ..."
"It wasn't supposed to rain today."
"Welcome to winter."
We hid in the fort, next to each other on a stolen redwood picnic bench, and I could feel the tap-tapping of the rain through the damp wood as I sat on my hands to make them warm.
It was Friday afternoon. There is a kind of drunken happiness that kids our age feel on Friday afternoons.
I needed to wipe my nose, and every so often the sound of the rain encircled me. And I listened.
"So. Next year. High school. You ever think about that, Stick?"
Most of the kids around Point No Point dreamed of things like growing up or places like California.
I sighed. "I won't have any friends. I'll be beaten up regularly."
Emily laughed. She knew I wasn't really afraid. "You need to learn how to fight."
I couldn't hear what she said, because of the rain and how we sat. It sounded like something about burning and night.
"If you just beat up one of those key guys, nobody would ever give you crap again," she said. "Look at you, Stick. You're the tallest kid in eighth grade."
"You keep a list of key guys?"
I shifted. My hand got a splinter in it.
She never made me nervous.
"I think I need to get home. Bosten and me are going to the basketball game."
"That's what I mean," she said. "You should play basketball. I've seen you play."
"I'm no good."
"Don't be dumb."
"Want to come with us?" She smiled. She had a way of smiling that said no musically.
Emily didn't like going to high school games. And Bosten and I never played sports on teams with other kids, but we'd go see the games because Paul was on the team.
I began unlashing the rawhide ties on my boots.
"I need to throw away my socks," I explained.
She knew what my mother was like at times.
My feet were pale. They looked exposed and startled, like those salamanders without eyes you find living in the permanent night of sunless caves. And when I leaned forward to stretch that second sock away from my skin, Emily did something that would have made me run and scream in anger if it had been anyone else but her — or Bosten.
She pushed the edge of my cap up with the tips of two fingers and touched my ear.
The place on the side of my head where a normal boy's ear would be.
She'd never done that before.
And when I jerked like I'd been shot, she pulled her hand away and quickly said, "Sorry."
"What are you doing?" I couldn't help sounding annoyed. People don't touch me. I could feel it, the sound came around the other side and it mixed with the lightness of her fingertips and swirled, trapped, inside my head.
It made me shake.
"I'm sorry, Stick. I just —"
I tied my boots so tight they hurt my bare feet.
I couldn't look at her; I was too embarrassed.
And she was perfect.
* * *
There was nothing between me and Emily that wasn't held steady by the anchor of our friendship.
I didn't think about girls the way other boys did. I didn't know that either of us was ready for that. We liked catching crabs and hiding in Bosten's fort.
Kids in eighth grade liked nipping at you. Worse than cornered crabs, even if you weren't missing any parts.
And for some reason, Emily wasn't like that. She never put up with the kids with claws.
But that day, Emily planted a miracle in me.
"What are you all smiles about?" Bosten whispered. His eyes squinted when he wanted to joke around or play tricks on someone.
I didn't realize I had been smiling. I'm sure it wouldn't look like a smile to anyone else but my brother.
He glanced back over his shoulder. He was looking for Mom. I stood, shivering and wet, barefoot in the mudroom. Bosten's cheeks were red. He skated toward me across the polished floor in his thick white socks.
"I should have come in the secret way. It was too muddy, though."
"That's why you're happy?"
"No. Don't be dumb, Bosten."
I took off my beanie. It dripped in my hand.
We called the storm doors on the side of the house our secret way into the basement. Sometimes, on summer nights, we would escape through them. We would only come back when the sky began to lighten.
Bosten said it was like being vampires, and I always liked that.
"Come on," he said.
We snuck down the dark and narrow stairs to the basement.
They creaked, no matter how softly we'd step, but she didn't hear us.
I was the only one in our family whose bedroom was down there.
"Take your clothes off. I'll see if I can put them in the dryer without her busting me."
Bosten carried my wet things, all wadded up in a heavy and twisted mass, across the open expanse of the basement's concrete floor from my bedroom to the little laundry alcove beneath the staircase.
I could smell the cigarette smoke drifting down from above us.
* * *
"Can I use the car tonight to take Sticker to the game, Dad?"
Whenever Bosten called me Sticker, I knew he was planning on doing something crazy. It was our code, the only thing Mom and Dad hadn't figured out yet.
We had finished dinner. It was my job to clear the dishes from the table.
"Not the Pontiac. The Toyota." Dad smoked a cigarette and still wore his tie. The Pontiac was the work car, for his realty clients.
Mom said, "Which one of you boys was using the dryer downstairs?" She knew it was me.
She placed a lit cigarette in the ashtray beside her napkin.
She was not happy.
I looked at Bosten.
He said, "I did."
"No." I shook my head. "It's my things. I got wet walking home after school with Emily. Bosten just put them in the dryer for me."
My father exhaled smoke through his nostrils.
"Now there's dirt in the dryer." Mom looked disappointed. This was how she usually began tirades.
"It's a waste of electricity," Dad said.
I turned on the water and rinsed our plates so I couldn't hear. But some sounds don't get killed easily.
"I don't work seven days a week ..."
I felt vibrations of footsteps on the floor coming up through my legs. I didn't turn around. It was better to play deaf sometimes.
My mother reached over and shut off the water. Then she put a white spray bottle of 409 and a rag on the counter beside my hand.
She held her cigarette backwards between her index and middle fingers. I liked how she did that. I always thought if I ever smoked that I would practice holding a cigarette like that, too.
"You'll have to clean out the dryer before Bosten and you can go to the game."
"Okay," I said. "Sorry."
"Don't do that again." Her voice was tough, cold, like leftover meat.
"Maybe they don't need to go," my dad said. "They're both big enough that we shouldn't have to be treating them like goddamned babies all the time."
Bosten began to plead, "But, Dad ... Paul's playing. It's Friday night."
My dad inhaled. "You're not allowed to go anywhere else. I'll be checking on you two."
"We're just going to Crazy Eric's with Paul after the game. And his mom and dad," Bosten added.
I knew he was lying. Crazy Eric's was the burger place where the high school kids hung out. I knew we weren't going there.
My mom grabbed my shoulder, like she didn't think I was listening.
"And do something with your wet things," she said.
Mom and Dad liked everything to be perfect.
* * *
My wet clothes lay on the floor in front of the open dryer, scattered. I shook them out, carried them into my room to find corners, shelves, anywhere I could hang them so they'd dry. So they wouldn't make her mad at me.
The spot on the floor where they'd been dropped was covered with a cold, wet mark. I thought it looked like a map of Greenland.
I had to kneel down in the middle of it to clean the dryer.
There were dark rings on the knees of my jeans where they'd gotten wet on the floor, and I smelled like the bathroom at a gas station. The 409 made me sneeze when I put my head inside the dryer to wipe it down. I couldn't see any dirt in it, but I cleaned it anyway.
"Want any help?" Bosten stood at my bedroom door and watched.
I brushed off my knees and looked apologetically at my brother. I didn't want to make him late.
"You need to change your pants?"
"It's water, not piss."
Bosten smiled. "Okay. It'll dry. I'll crank the heater on you."
* * *
In the dark, with the driver's door open and his feet hanging out in the gravel on the side of Pilot Point Road, Bosten bent backwards with his head up beneath the dashboard and grunted.
I knew what he was doing.
We always did it.
It was the exact distance from home as a round-trip to his school.
And I couldn't hear the sound at all, but knew by the way Bosten's shoulders tensed and then relaxed that he had slipped the odometer cable out from the back of the dashboard.
We were free.
Dad never knew where we went after Bosten found out how easy it was to rig the car. The only risks were that my brother had no way of telling how fast we were going, because the speedometer would sit flat, and, sometimes, we'd forget to reconnect it and one of us would have to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and slip the cable back into place.
Bosten climbed back into the driver's seat, slammed his door, and started the Toyota. Then he leaned all the way across the gear shift and said, "Let's rip it up, Stick."
He pulled a U-turn right across the wet highway and we headed back toward the high school, David H. Wilson Senior High.
I don't have any idea who David H. Wilson was.
Bosten grinned and reached his hand down under the seat between his legs.
"Look what I found."
He pulled up something thick and heavy, and dropped it in my lap.
"Where did you get this?" I asked.
Bosten slapped the steering wheel and laughed, loud. "I found it in the Pontiac. It's Dad's."
There was something exciting and terrifying at the same time in holding on to the cool slickness of a Penthouse magazine. One that belonged to our father.
I opened it and flipped through the pages.
I gulped. My throat felt tight. "Yeah."
Bosten laughed again, and he kept looking over at the magazine in my lap as he drove.
My hands shook and my mouth hung open. I thumbed the glossy images back and forth, one after another. They showed everything, without shame, and the pictures were so big. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Stick by Andrew Smith. Copyright © 2011 Andrew Smith. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
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