Michael DeGeorge’s Dream:
The noise! The rush! Everybody in the hallways, bustling around, buzzing around, slamming locker doors, laughing, even screaming sometimes.
I stare at the photograph I have taped inside my locker: my mother and me standing on the top of a snow white dune where we went last summer, in New Mexico. The White Sands National Monument--an impossible place with its hills of gypsum crystals. The blinding white of the dunes, the blue sky. I try to remember the silence. Not even a breeze that day. Just the dunes. The heat. The silence.
It’s no good. Dani Spaziani walks by, cackling over some lewd comment the boy next to her made. I know I just need to wade through the chaos to get to health class at the end of the hall. I don’t want to move, though. Something in me can’t endure the noise anymore. I hug my books to my chest, try to take a deep breath and move away from my locker. The thought of the journey overwhelms me, but if I don’t go soon, I’ll be late. I can’t be late.
The index finger on my right hand spasms, jerks straight up. I look at it, wondering if this is some new sign of my anxiety. Is it going to stay like that, beyond my control? No. I can move it. I can lower it. And as I do, the sound in the hallway lessens. I lower it more; the sound dissipates further. I bring my finger all the way down, curl it in next to the middle finger, and the hallway is entirely quiet. The movement continues as frantically as ever—Ben Langley shoves Zander Poalino into a locker; Zander shoves him back. Mouths move as if speaking, shouting, laughing, even puckering for a kiss near the double doors to the cafeteria. But it’s a silent movie, not even with piano accompaniment.
Spooky. I lift my index finger again, slightly, and the noise returns, just to the level of a whisper. I feel the tight spring in my chest loosen. I even smile slightly as I walk to class. Once in the health room, I see that Miss Tingdale hasn’t arrived yet, so it’s the usual bedlam with this class of 30. Normally, I would duck my head and practically run to my seat as if I were trying to get to shelter from a hailstorm. Today, with my finger controlling the volume, I walk toward my desk at a normal pace.
Half-way there, Danielle Schaffer jerks away from Jimmy Sanderson’s pinch; she bumps me and I instinctively put my hands out to avoid hitting a table. The noise of the room comes back in a terrible rush; my internal organs quickly huddle inside me. I remember the trick with my finger. I look at my right hand; sure enough, my index finger is again pointing straight up like a dowser’s rod. I clench my hand. The room goes silent. I can breathe again. My insides can go back to their appointed places. I make my way to my desk.
Once there, I close my eyes and sit in the beautiful silence. The image of my mother and me amidst the blue of the sky and the white of the dunes comes back. I almost feel entirely transported when someone taps on my shoulder. Dalene Konkle, one desk over, is speaking to me. At least I assume she is. Her eyes fix on my face. Her mouth moves. Only the most essential element of speech is missing--the sound of her words. Though I’m reluctant to let go of the silence, I lift my finger to hear what she’s saying. Unfortunately, along with increasing Dalene’s volume, I bring up the racket in the rest of the room, and I still can’t hear what she’s saying--something about last night’s homework. As I lean in closer to Dalene, I make an automatic, annoyed gesture with my left arm, a sweeping motion toward the class. Everything to my left goes quiet, as if I had just cast a net over that half of the room. Now I can hear Dalene easily.
“I didn’t get even half of it done,” she says. I assume she’s talking about the homework, probably making her usual plea to copy mine last minute, but I ignore her for a moment to experiment further. I sweep my left hand toward the rest of the room; it goes quiet, too. I feel like an artist making brush strokes of silence across the space. Now I can hear only Dalene.
“What was that?” she asks.
“You just, like, moved your hand. Was there a fly near my head?”
“Um, yeah, there was.”
“Ew, is it still there? Where is it now?”
“It’s gone. Totally gone, don’t worry.”
“Okay. So anyway, listen, did you get the home…” But before she can ask to cheat off me, Dalene’s gaze shifts to the front of the room. “Crap, here she is.” I turned to look. Miss Tingdale has come in. “Forget it,” Dalene says.
“All right.” I pretend to yawn, stretching both arms out to let the sounds of my health class return to normal.
As the day proceeds, I get more skilled with my powers. I find, with subtle gestures, that I can make nuanced changes to my environment. In math, I’m cold. I waggle my fingers and feel the temperature rise as if I’m sitting next to the woodstove at my grandparents’ cabin. Dale Gosling--who weighs 300 pounds and always wears shorts--doesn’t complain, though normally anything above 60 degrees makes him sweat. When I have to go outside for gym class, the glare off the snow makes me squint. I sweep my right hand across my eyes and the glare lessens. I sweep my hand three more times until my eyes are completely comfortable. Around me, the kids who don’t have the luxury of sunglasses suffer and swear about going snowblind.
In history, when Mr. Draper impatiently lists off everything that will be on the test tomorrow, his explanations impossibly fast, I slow him down by tracing a counter-clockwise circle with my right finger in the center of my left palm. I calmly take notes while all around me kids scribble furiously or raise their hands in futile attempts to get him to stop charging ahead.
And for the first time in my life, I look forward to walking into the mess of noise and movement known as a school pep rally. In the past, these events were the perfect trigger for my anxiety--loud, claustrophobic, full of unpredictable shouting and something bordering on mass hysteria. Today, in the middle of it all, I delight in being able to snap both fingers and have the whole chaos freeze. The drums, the crowds in the bleachers, the squealing microphone, the cheerleaders--all go, in an instant, from ear-shatteringly loud to nothing. From raucous party to mute sculpture, from out-of-control to perfectly-controlled, from ugly to beautiful. My nerves no longer skitter inside me; they’re calm, peaceful, moving slowly as white sand in a slight breeze. I sit in this frozen moment for what feels like ten minutes, yet when I snap my fingers and bring back the bedlam, no one seems to have noticed the pause.
The day is an orchestra, and I, with my powerful hands, conduct it.
Reality Check: Dream 27
ü From nurse’s log: “Michael DeGeorge, feeling an impending anxiety attack. As per his IEP, he meditated in curtained-off corner of the room for ½ hour before returning to class.”
Dalene Konkle’s Dream:
She’s there in biology, sitting there next to Phil Edwards. He keeps leaning over and whispering to her. She keeps touching his arm, his shoulder, leaning into him and laughing, then glancing around to see who’s watching. Heather Clough. So stuck up. So totally into herself. What are you going to do next, Heather? Why don’t you just hold up a frigging sign: “Phil and Heather, the IT couple of the month”? Like it will last. Once he figures out what a bottomless pit of “look at me” she is, he’ll dump her. Or if Phil’s lucky, she’ll dump him when he forgets to bow down and kiss her feet.
Oh, now where’s she going, Miss Princess? Oh, wonderful. She has to sharpen her pencil, and I get the privilege of having her walk by me on the way to the back of the room. Christ, Phil, turn around and face front, will you? Do you really have to watch her ass the whole time? And to think, he used to be a good kid. Used to be my neighbor. Still is, but when was the last time he gave me even a nod of his head? Fourth grade, maybe, before I learned just what a sweetheart Heather could be.
Good old Phil. Great shoulders on that kid, and a smile that’ll make your knees weak. The whole male package, just a hundred yards down the street from me all these years. His parents worked; my parents worked. How many times did I see him opening his door at the same time I was opening mine? How many sweet hours could we have spent together if only….
Are you kidding me, Heather? You have to do the hair flick just as you walk past me, you unbelievable skank? Is that supposed to mean you’re better than me? Just because you can toss your hair in my direction when you walk by, am I supposed to fall down and worship you? I’m sooo jealous! Right. Go flick your disgusting mop of hair somewhere else. Go sharpen your pencil, Heather, and then, for fun, why don’t you just jam it in your eye?
What is this? What is this brown speck on my desk that I could swear was...oh, God, it is moving! I open the equipment drawer and take out a magnifying glass to look at the disgusting thing wriggling around on my desk. As little as I paid attention in health class, the bug under my magnifying glass definitely looks familiar, but what is it doing on my desk?
Don’t tell me. My fourth-grade nightmare comes back in a rush--the itching, the humiliation, the nights of going to bed with my hair soaked in olive oil and wrapped in a shower cap, the checking, the nagging about not using other kids’ hairbrushes, and then, of course, when I did get back to school, the weeks of whispering about me still having cooties. And who was the leader of the whisperers, of course? That bitch snuggling up to Phil, leaning her head on his shoulder, putting her hand on his leg. Reaching up to scratch the top of her head.
Wait a second. I haven’t been itching. I know what it feels like to have them crawling in your hair. By the time they get to be as big as the disgusting creature under my microscope, that means you have a major infestation, and I haven’t felt a thing. It landed on my desk, but it didn’t come from me. No. It landed on my desk because she flicked her hair. I carefully slip a sheet of paper under the bug, which has become a beautiful gift. The only question is, how do I play this?
I walk toward the front of the room with my prize sandwiched between the paper and my magnifying glass, purposely slowing down near Heather and Phil. I bump my hip against her shoulder.
“Oops, oh, Heather, I didn’t even see you there,” I say sweetly.
“Get lost, Freak,” she says.
“Hey, Phil,” I say and keep walking.
“Uh, hey,” he says, even though I’m sure Miss Thing is giving him the evil eye. It’s all good, though. Let the bitch be bitchy.
When I get to Mr. Gunderman’s desk, he looks up from the labs he’s grading and asks me what I need. “Um,” I say, sounding all innocent, “I was just wondering if you could identify something for me.”
“Dalene, you’re supposed to be working on your own. I need to…”
“This is kind of a public safety thing, Mr. Gunderman. Or, you know, public hygiene, right?”
Mr. Gunderman sighs and looks through my magnifying glass at the wiggling thing on the paper. I can tell from the way he’s leaning in that I have his attention, and I can tell from the way his face is getting a little pale that he’s not too pleased with what he sees. “Where did this come from?” he whispers.
“What is it?” I whisper back.
“It’s a louse, Dalene. Did this come from you?”
“You mean…” and here I get really loud and shocked sounding. I’m going for my best horror film moment. “You mean Heather Clough has lice?” I shout.
The next few seconds are absolutely perfect. Number one, I’m ready with my cell. I whip it out and hit video mode. Do you think the footage might just end up on the Internet? Could be. Everybody turns to look at Heather, and she is doing the absolutely perfect thing--scratching behind her ear. Now, normally, you reach behind your ear and give a little scratch, nobody’s going to pay a bit of attention. But if somebody yells you have lice and everyone in the room turns to look at you just at the very second you happen to be scratching behind your ear--well, it looks exactly like a confession. Like I said, a gorgeous moment, all on film.
Next thing, Phil’s backing away. Next thing, everybody’s jumping back from Heather like she’s suddenly caught fire. Next thing, and nobody could have planned this better, she’s starting to panic, shaking her head and making her hair fly around her face. I can’t tell whether she’s shaking her head to say “no” or because she suddenly understands the itching and she wants to get rid of the lice (no way--it’s going to take days of nit-picking and hair treatments--yee-haw!). Whatever Heather’s thinking, she’s grossing everybody out, especially when Peter Reede actually finds another one of the creepy crawlies on the floor and shouts, “She’s spreading them all over the place!”
Now look, lice are gross. Lice are annoying. Lice will turn a good day into a bad one very quickly. They’re not deadly, though.
Tell that to the crowd of kids backing up against the wall as Heather keeps shaking her head and screaming (and crying, I’m happy to mention), “Stop it! Stop it! Get them off me!” By this time, Mr. Gunderman has come from behind his big teacher’s desk holding a yardstick in front of him like a sword. He’s trying to sound calm and everything: “Heather, it’s all right. Heather, you need to calm down. Heather, now...Heather!” Even though he’s trying to sound all collected and everything, everyone can see that Mr. Gunderman doesn’t want to get any closer to Heather than the length of that yardstick, and he’d probably rather be working with a flame thrower.
Heather moves her show to the floor. She collapses into a bawling ball beside her desk. Everybody stays back until Jan Thorsten can’t get over her curiosity. She goes in close to look at Heather’s head and reports, with all her usual tact, “Ew, you can see them crawling around on her head.” And then, swear to God, Mr. Gunderman starts using the yardstick like a cattle prod--so appropriate since he’s dealing with a cow--poking Heather and saying, “Up! Get up! To the nurse’s office! Go on! No, don’t shake your head! Keep your head still! Go on!” And out the door they go like that, the bitch and her handler on the way to get sanitized. I snap my phone shut and say a silent prayer to the Goddess of Revenge.
The classroom cheers. Everybody gathers up their stuff to leave, knowing there’s no way anything remotely resembling biology class is going to happen today. I’m just about to the door when Phil gently takes hold of my arm. I turn to find myself staring into the eyes of my long-lost neighbor. “Um…” he says.
“Thank God you did that. Huh, who knew?”
“Yeah. Pretty gross.”
“Once everybody’s, you know, taken off, would you mind…?” Phil’s holding the magnifying glass in his hand, and I understand.
“You want me to check you out?”
“If you wouldn’t mind. Neighbor.”
So we stay behind for a while. I check him out. He checks me out. Once we’re both sure we’re clear of the little beasts, we stay and check each other out a lot, lot longer.
Reality Check: Dream 28
ü Nurse’s report: “As per state recommendation due to increased incident of lice infestations, have conducted a check over the past three days. Sent home with lice eradication pamphlets: Delia Arkin, Meredith Sutton, Greg Matherson, McKenzie Silver, Dalene Konkle.”
Phil Edwards’s Dream:
Phil Edwards’s Dream:
“Look at this place. Look at ‘em all—bunch of lemmings.” I’m sitting in the Senior lounge, watching the crowds go by. Max Jackson gets up to leave. The kid can never just sit and relax.
“Yeah, well, I guess I better go join the herd. See you later,” he says, leaving just Jonny Hoff sprawled on the chair beside me.
“Bunch of what? Lemons?”
“Jesus, Jonny.” I like the kid all right, but he’s dumb as a frigging post.
“What?” he says.
“You’ve never heard of lemmings? You know, the little animals that follow each other off cliffs?”
“Why do they do that?”
“Fashion, dude. They follow the crowd.”
Jonny nods his head, pretending to think about the concept.
“Yeah, I hate that,” he says after a few seconds.
“What do you hate, Jonny?” This ought to be good.
“All this fashion crap. I don’t go for it.”
I look at him sideways. “You’re immune from fashion, huh?”
“Do I look like a fashion guy?” Jonny says, pointing to his clothes.
“We’re all fashion guys, Jonny.”
“Not me, Dude. Not me,” he says.
“You sure about that, man? You prik-tack sure about that?”
“You prik-tack sure you’re not a fashion guy?” I ask again.
“Prik-tack?” Poor Jonny looks confused.
“You heard me,” I go on. “I’m thinking you and every other kid in this whole prik-tacking school is a fashion guy.”
“What are you saying?”
“What the hell is prik-tack?”
“You’re kidding me,” I say.
“You did not just ask me that prik-tacking question.”
“Well…oh, forget it.”
“Seriously, dude, did you just ask me what a prik-tack was?”
“I said forget it. Just prik-tacking back off.”
I smile and lean back.
By the end of the day, the whole prik-tacking school is full of prik-tackers saying prik-tack, texting prik-tack, tweeting prik-tack and having no idea what the prik-tack prik-tack means.
But Jonny’s no fashion slave, no sirree.
Reality Check: Dream 29
ü Above urinal, upstairs bathroom: “Go prick-tack yourself, prick.”
Max Jackson’s Dream:
I walk over to the usual gang hanging near our lockers—Henry, Isa, Moe, Daniel. They give me a look and move away without saying a word. “What’s going on?” I ask. They just keep walking, except Daniel turns for a second and says, “You fake.”
I head to first period, to American History. I get back my essay test from three days ago. It’s got a big red “F” on it, and Mr. Draper has written down at the bottom, “You don’t know the first thing about the Civil War, and your writing is barely above that of a first grader. I’m ashamed to have you as a student.” All around me, the other kids are pointing and whispering. Some of them want me to hear what they’re saying: “Idiot.” “Moron.” “Why does he even bother coming to school?”
In math, after he calls me up to the board to do a math problem and I skip a step, Mr. Bluthen yells, “Mr. Jackson, I don’t know how you made it to being a junior in high school! Anyone who can skip a step like that should be demoted! Or better yet, shot! Get back to your desk. Do not make a peep. Sit there and stay out of our way. Go!”
Ms. Warren tells me I’ve got no business trying to analyze poetry since I clearly have no clue what I’m doing. In Industrial Arts, old Mr. Henderson walks up behind me and whispers, “You know, I thought I’d seen shoddy in my day, but that little collection of wood you’re putting together right now completely takes the cake. Go sit in the corner before your hurt somebody.” The woman at the window in the cafeteria can’t believe I gave her a twenty to pay for a sandwich that costs $2.75. She keeps my money but won’t give me the food.
All day long, when I catch a glimpse of Kristen, she turns in the other direction or hides behind a stack of books in the library to avoid me. Finally, when I sit down next to her at lunch, she can’t help but acknowledge me, even though it’s little more than a slight glance in my direction. She suddenly seems extremely interested in the texture of her bread.
“Kristen, what’s going on? Is it something I’ve done? Why have you been ducking me?”
“Don’t ask, okay?” she finally says. “I’m not up for this right now.”
“This? What do you mean? You’re not up for what?”
“Drop it. Please. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Hurt me? Why do you think you’re going to…?”
“All right, Max, if you have to know, I’ll tell you. Are you sure you want me to?” This is the first time since I’ve sat down that my girlfriend has finally looked right at me. Her expression registers something between pity and disgust.
“Please tell me what’s going on.” Kristen shakes her head and takes a deep breath.
“I don’t know how I ever ended up with you, Max. This is totally wrong, our whole relationship.”
“Well, tell me what’s wrong. I’ll try to fix it.”
“You can’t fix who you are! That’s what’s wrong. You! You want the ugly truth, Max? I’m too good for you. There, you made me say it. I’m not going to keep selling myself short by going out with you. We’re done.” She gets up and walks away. Her final words to me, over her shoulder as she leaves, are: “Leave me alone.”
All around me in the cafeteria, the looks on the kids’ faces tell me, “We know about you. We know how stupid and useless you are. Just crawl in a hole and die, why don’t you?”
They’re on to me. Just to be sure, I try to go and sit at other tables. No one will have me. The best I can do is stand against the wall near the supervising teacher, Mr. Anderson. He walks over to tell me that he’s rescinding the A he gave me last year in band. “It may not be fair, Max, but I’ve decided you need to learn how to get along in life without relying on charity. You didn’t deserve above a C. That’s what I’m changing your record to reflect.” I nod, lower my head and spend the rest of the lunch period looking at the floor.
The whole rest of the day, nobody tells me “good job” for trying hard or gives me a pity grade of B+ or congratulates me for making progress. They know what I know and they tell me: I’m incompetent. I’m an idiot.
I don’t feel sadness, though. Mainly, I just feel relief.
Reality Check: Dream 30
ü In yearbook, voted All-Around Nicest Guy: Max Jackson.
ü On final page of Max Jackson’s diary: “In case I get the courage to do it, here’s my note. I’m sorry I was such a disappointment.”