Jackson Cruze’s Dream:
I open the door to the staff room. All the students think it’s some super-mysterious place, but I’ve been in here in the summers when I’m working on the paint crew for the school district. The teachers’ room has mismatched furniture and one ugly-ass long table that was a classroom reject from 30 years ago. There’s a microwave, a small refrigerator, some boxes with old files in them: definitely nothing special.
Today I’m not coming in to paint, though.
I walk in, plant my feet shoulder width apart, and point. Right at Mr. Paul Draper, History Teacher, who’s got a mouth full of what looks like egg salad. Draper raises his eyebrows, crooks his finger toward himself. The five other teachers in the room look at him, then back at me. I snap my fingers and say, “Chop, chop, Paul. I need to see you.”
“I’m eating my lunch.”
“Thank-you so much for clarifying your situation, Paul. Here I was thinking that I was opening the door to the staff room where you would be eating your lunch, and now you have gone and verified the obvious. Nice of you to provide such insight.” Draper puts his sandwich down while the other teachers laugh. “I believe that the appropriate time for you to come with me, Paul, would be exactly now.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Draper says, reluctantly shoving his lunch back into his paper bag. He mumbles something about being hungry.
“Uh-uh. I’m not entertaining any commentary at the present time, Paul. Let’s go.” Draper shuts up and follows me out of the room.
Behind us, one of the other teachers calls out, “Ooo, Paul, you’re in for it now!”
“Shut up!” Draper yells over his shoulder.
“Let’s go,” I growl at him.
We walk silently for a few seconds, headed toward the exit at the far end of the hall, but Draper can’t stand it. He stops. “Look, what is this all about? How is that you feel you have the authority to…”
“We have two ways to do this, Paul,” I cut in. A bunch of younger kids are out in the hallway with tape measures and notebooks. The only one I know is Pete Reede; he must be taking the class over. I remember doing the same lame project for science when I was a sophomore, something about measuring the tiles and coming up with an average. They all stare like prairie dogs. Draper glances at them.
“Eyes here, Paul,” I say, pointing at my own face. “I need your full attention right now. Do I have it?”
“Hey, what did I do to deserve this? This isn’t fair. I’m the teacher!”
“And by continuing to talk when I have clearly asked for your undivided attention, I see you have chosen to make this a public event, Paul. We might have done it privately, but you chose otherwise.”
“Stop interrupting.” He opens his mouth, but I shut him down with a sharp “now!” The prairie dogs jump, but they’re too fascinated to scuttle away.
“Don, you need to straighten up and fly straight. Your behavior in the classroom has become totally unacceptable. You lose stuff: papers, tests, even the point of your lessons. One day you’re trying to be everybody’s buddy; the next, you’re playing Hitler. You dress like a slob. Look at you! The back part of your tie is longer than the front!”
He fumbles with the tie. “I...this is kind of hard to…”
“Don’t tuck it in! How low-class can you be? Tie it right!”
“I try! It’s a long tie!” The prairie dogs laugh at that.
Draper spins on them. “You guys shut your mouths!”
I step between him and the measuring-tape kids. “And right there, Paul Draper, you just demonstrated the very worst of your problems. You’re a bully. You pick on people smaller and less powerful than yourself just to ease your own discomfort, don’t you?” Draper’s lower lip starts to quiver. “Don’t you?!” I yell.
“They’re always picking on me!” Draper bawls. His face is red and puffy, his eyes full of tears.
I take my voice way down and step in close. “Well, that may be, Paul, but you’re the teacher. You’re supposed to be the mature one in the room. So when you’re feeling hurt and vulnerable and incapable, do you think it’s the right thing for you to take all that out on your students, like you did with my girlfriend Gail yesterday? Do you think that was right?”
Head down, he softly says, “No.”
“Again, Paul--do you think that just because you’re picked on for being disorganized, sloppy and generally bad at your profession, does that give you any right to bully people like Gail? Does it? Speak up, man!”
“No! No!” he yells, and the tears are running down his face in satisfying rivers.
“And what do you think you should do about your poor behavior, Paul?”
“I should apologize. I should say I’m sorry.”
“That would be a good start. Why don’t you go do that right now?”
“But I don’t know where she…”
“She’s in Biology, Room 167. Go there now. And don’t think I won’t be checking with Gail to find out if you did it.”
Draper wipes his eyes with his poorly-tied tie, sighs deeply and says, “Okay.” As he slumps away, headed toward the biology room, the prairie dogs turn their stares on me.
Draper wipes his eyes with his poorly-tied tie, sighs deeply and says, “Okay.” As he slumps away, headed toward the biology room, the prairie dogs turn their stares on me.
“You let that be a lesson, right?” They nod their little heads. “Boo!” I shout, and watch them scurry away.
Reality Check: Dream 49
ü Text exchange between Paul Draper and his wife:
“Going to be late. Another flat tire.”
“Come on, Paul. You can do better than that.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m supposed to believe you’ve had a flat tire for the last four nights?”
“I have! Some kid, probably.”
“I have! Some kid, probably.”
Formula for Success
The pink slip. My first step-dad used to always talk about “getting the pink slip.” I didn’t know what he meant for a long time. “Got to get going before they give me the pink slip,” he’d say as he headed out the door. The phrase was part of one of his standard lectures: “Learn some decent habits, boy, unless you want to be next in line for the pink slip.”
My mother sometimes mentioned a pink slip, but she was talking about something girls wore under their dresses. “What did I do with my pink slip?” she asked while she pawed through the huge pile of laundry on the living room floor. I was pretty confused until I was probably ten years old. Nobody actually taught me the difference. I just figured out that my mother’s pink slip was something she didn’t want hanging below her dress and my first step-dad’s pink slip meant he was fired from his job.
The pink slip they use here at the high school is definitely closer to my first step-father’s definition. It comes from the office, usually delivered by one of the student stooges. Little Chucky Langlois gave me this one. I only know his name because I’m a regular customer. The pink slip’s got my name on top, and in the section where it says who you’re supposed to report to--the nurse, the guidance counselor, the secretary--the check-mark is next to Principal Connelly. I’ve had pink slips like this quite a few times, with the same check-mark next to the same name. I wonder what it’s going to be this time.
Trudge. That’s what you’ve got to do. Trudge to the front of the room to show the teacher the pass. Trudge out the door, down the hall, to the secretary to show her your pass. Trudge into Connelly’s office, trudge to his chair. Keep the mouth shut, keep the feet moving, trudge along.
Things feel a little weird this time. Crowded. It’s usually just Connelly and me, sometimes the guidance counselor--the lady with the wrinkly boobs who should never wear outfits that show the tops of them but she always does and I have no idea what her name is. Never anybody else in the office, just Connelly and Wrinkly Boobs. Well, unless they want to throw a real party and have my mom in. That’s always a treat and a half. As I glance around today, it’s standing room only. Connelly, Mom, Wrinkly Boobs, three suits--two ladies and a man--I’ve never seen before. This could be the pink slip of all pink slips.
“Peter,” says Mr. Connelly. This is getting weirder by second. The way he’s saying my name just isn’t normal. He usually barks it or sighs it; this time, it’s like a question, like he’s not sure how to handle the situation.
“Peter,” he repeats, “thanks for coming down.” Thanks? As if I had a choice. Suddenly, I’m scared. The thought pops into my head about how people feel warm just before they freeze to death, and I’m thinking maybe I’m about to die. Maybe Connelly does this “thanks” thing just before he says, “We’ve decided to take you out back and shoot you.”
“I know, in the past, I’ve usually had you here to...well, to try to motivate you to do better. Mrs. Shreve and I (Shreve! That’s Wrinkly Boob’s name.) have interpreted your behavior as...as….”
“Interpreted, I think, is the key word here, Peter.” This comes from one of the suits, the guy. He and the other two look starched. When he speaks, Mr. Connelly looks at his feet.
“I’ll just, uh, defer to you, then,” Connelly says to the suit. “Peter, these three people are from the Department of Educational Research. They have some findings they want to…”
“Thank-you, Mr. Connelly. We’ll explain,” says one of the female suits. Her tone says she doesn’t think Connelly knows his ass from his elbow and he should just sit down and shut up. Which he does. The male suit starts in again while the other two hold up some charts I don’t understand.
“The fact is, Peter, we at the Department of Educational Research have been gathering data from thousands of schools both within and without the boundaries of our district. Our goal has been to find the approaches--sociological, pedagogical and individual--that lead students to both maximum output and satisfaction.” He goes on like this for the next ten minutes, every sentence so crammed with stuck-up vocabulary that all I end up hearing is one long blah.
I’m practically asleep when he finishes and asks, “Do you understand?” Everybody in the room is leaning toward me like I’m a frog they’re about to dissect. I just look back at them for about an hour.
Finally, Mom says, “Peter, the point is, you’re perfect.”
“That may be just a bit of an exaggeration,” the so-far silent suit says, “but mothers tend to do that with their children, don’t they?” My mother and the suit do a little smile exchange. “On the other hand, it’s not too far from the actual truth. Do you have any questions?”
I look around at all these adults focused on me. This looks like trouble. This smells like trouble. This feels like trouble. And you know what they say about a brown pile you find on the ground--if it looks like crap and smells like crap….
“So….what’d I do wrong?” You’d think I just cracked the biggest joke ever, the way everybody laughs. Nothing wrong with that if you’re doing stand-up, but I still don’t have the faintest idea what the hell is going on.
After everybody’s tucked in their chuckles, Wrinkly Boobs (I forgot again) says, “Peter, what we’re here to tell you is that you are a model student. Based on their studies, these people”--she waves toward the suits--“believe that your approach to school is exactly what every student’s should be. Your sense of balance, the amount of time you spend on homework, your test scores all match the standards determined by the…”
“But I thought I was, like, a slacker.”
“Where did you get that idea, Peter?” says one of the woman suits, suddenly very serious.
“Well, you know, teachers and shi… other people say I don’t work hard enough.”
“We apologize for that, Peter,” says Mr. Connelly quickly. “To you and your family.” He stops to smile at my mother. She has her arms crossed and doesn’t smile back. “And we appreciate this opportunity to, uh, correct our errors and proceed as we should, fully respectful of your high standing in this school, and we’re very appreciative that your mother has not...will not need to pursue litigation.”
“At this time,” Mom pops in, and the three suits nod toward her.
“At this time, of course,” Connelly backpedals. “Not at this time. Thank-you.” High standing? Model student? What does this even mean? Am I suddenly the valedick-whatever and I’m going to be taking harder classes? I definitely don’t need that.
“What do I have to do?” I ask.
Connelly and Wrinkly Boobs breathe a big sigh of relief. Wrinkly Boobs says, “Peter, obviously we’re going to correct your transcripts, have them reflect the straight A’s you deserve for dealing with schools effectively. How would you feel about becoming an in-school educational consultant? Rather than continue to take courses, you could advise students on how to, well, be more like you. Because, though your mom may have been exaggerating a tad, you are as close to perfect as this school…”
“As any school in the state,” says one of the suits.
“You are as close to a perfect student as we have found. You know how to do school, Peter, and we could use your help in teaching others,” Wrinkly Boobs finishes.
I sit and stare. The silence makes Connelly nervous. He says, “You needn’t come in every day of the week. Four days would suffice.”
I stare a bit longer, the truth of the whole gig sinking in. I’m not getting the pink slip. It’s more like getting a freaking golden ticket! And clearly, seeing how Connelly’s falling over backwards to make sure nobody sues his ass, I’m holding all the cards.
After a long pause I say, “Four days a week?” Connelly and Wrinkly Boobs both nod. I wait some more, then say, “Make it three and you’ve got a deal.”
Normally I hate shaking hands. It feels stuck up. Right now, I have to admit, Connelly’s hand in mine feels pretty damned good.
Reality Check: Dream 50
ü Comments on Peter Reede’s report card: “More effort needed.” “Assignments often incomplete.” “Smart but undisciplined.”
Charles Langlois’s Dream:
The Unknown Knight
She does not know my name. She is unaware of me walking several feet behind her. I am not in her sphere; she is far above me, unreachable, dwelling, as it were, in the clouds, yet her name echoes through the chambers of my heart like a song eternal. Zoe, Zoe. Her black hair shimmers with the light privileged to touch it. If I had my desire, I would not allow her to walk through such drab, unworthy hallways. Nay, I would festoon her traveling paths with flowers, adorn the walls with stars, make certain every one of her sacred footfalls met with softness, or, even more befitting an angel, with air.
“Whoa, now there’s a piece of ass I could really get into,” speaks a vulgar voice behind me, and another replies with equal crassness, “You got that right, Bro. Shake it, Sweetheart.” I turn to face the heathens. They tower above me.
“Of whom do you speak?” I ask.
“Whom the hell are you?” asks the taller of the two; the other laughs in derision.
“That matters not. Of which lady do you speak with your tasteless, prattling tongue?”
“Who wants to know?”
“I, defender of the purest and most precious in this land, Lady Zoe, wants, nay, demands to know.”
“Who’s Zoe?” asks one troll of the other.
“That hottie I was just talking about, dude.”
I have set down my pack and squared off against my foes. “Do not utter her name again. I will warn you only once.”
The tallest of the despicable duo turns to the other and says, “The little turd will warn us only once. What are we gonna do?”
The other replies, “Golly, I guess we’re just gonna have to shit our pants.” The two laugh at what, for reptiles, passes as wit.
“Speak no more, foul beasts, and pledge that never again will you defile the sacred name Zoe.” Behind me, I sense a crowd has gathered, but I dare not turn lest the creatures in front of me think my focus is anything less than entire.
“Hey, punk,” says one of the slavering dogs, advancing upon me. “For your information, I’m not a big fan of having some little freshman dink call me a foul beast. Are you a fan of that, Robbie?”
“No, I ain’t a fan of that, Scotty.” Apparently, the slime have advanced sufficiently to have names for one another. My twin nemeses are Robbie and Scotty. So be it.
“I care nothing for your preference. I care only that you no longer show disrespect for whom I and all civilization should revere.”
“What are you even saying? What is your problem?” At this, Scotty pushes me. From even this momentary contact, I sense that I am vastly outmatched in both weight and strength. No matter. Should I not prevail, I shall die in the effort!
Robbie says, “Don’t you get it? This little germ has a hard-on for Zoe. Isn’t that right, little germ?”
Behind me, impossibly, comes the voice of my goddess. Even more unbelievably, she speaks in defense of me. “Hey, leave the kid alone.” I am acknowledged! I am transported! And my fate is sealed.
“Whoa,” growls the filth called Scotty, “she wants you, too! You’re a lucky little turd. Tell you what, why don’t you take her out back, right? Whore like that, what she wants is for you to…”
I strike. Lo, had I but a weapon forged for the task of defending the honor of my lady! It would be a mighty sword, a gleaming blade with a noble lineage, one designed and destined for only the righteous to wield in only the most honorable of conflicts. Alas, I have only my bare hands for this battle, but though my weapons be inadequate, I pray to the gods they be accurate! I punch toward Scotty’s midsection, stopping him in the midst of his putrid desecration of my lady’s name. My aim is slightly low. Scotty doubles over but does not fall.
“Oo, Jesus, he tagged me in the junk!” Scotty moans.
Before I have time to react, the Robbie-troll’s massive fist collides with the side of my head. I stagger to the wall, grasping for support. Scotty has recovered enough from my attack to launch his own rejoinder--crude, blunt, but powerful. His fist lands square upon my nose. I can do naught but fall.
The blows rain down upon me. I know my end draws nigh, but I will not surrender! I may be severely out matched, yet only physically. My spirit--bolstered by the memory of Zoe’s visage, even more by her voice sounding like a crystal bell in my defense--these heathens will never come close to matching the power of my burning spirit! I kick, landing a blow to Robbie’s knee. He cries out and falls. I see his furious face near mine, feel his demon spittle flick against my cheek as he shrieks, “You’re gonna pay for that!”
I do pay. With my life. When the two gargoyles have finished with me, I have scant few breaths left in this world. I will spend them as any hero must--contemplating and worshipping his cause. Above me, like the very sun providing sustenance and light to the unworthy Earth, appears Zoe. Tears spill from those dark and perfect pools of her eyes. I know they are for me. “Someone get help!” she pleads to those around her. I raise my hand to touch her cheek. It is my dying effort. I try to speak, can only produce a whisper. Zoe bends her face to mine. Her breath! I feel her breath upon my lips. I need not die to be in heaven. It has come to me.
“Trouble not yourself, my dear Zoe. I am beyond help, yet you have saved me,” I whisper.
“No! Please,” she says, but quiets when I breathe out, “Shhh.” For a moment, for an eternity, the world is us--a hero and his lady.
“I don’t even know your name,” says the Princess Zoe. “Tell me your name, sweet Prince.”
“My name is of no consequence, Zoe. Of me you need only know that my love for thee…” I cough weakly. I am very near the end. “My love for thee...was undying!”
Reality Check: Dream 51
ü Police report: “Responded to Chase home, report of intruder on the premises. Saw someone running away, could not apprehend. No evidence of vandalism or stolen property. A dozen roses found hanging from garage door.”
Zoe Chase’s Dream:
Now You See Me
I stand in front of Ben Langley, close enough to kiss him, my lips less than an inch from his, but he keeps talking about what an idiot Mr. Gunderman is and how he’d like to drop-kick his biology textbook through the window.
Ben’s breath is mild, his teeth just brushed before coming to school. I say to him, “Thanks for brushing your teeth; you’ve done everybody a favor. The other night your breath stunk of beer and pizza. It made me want to vomit when you forced your tongue into my mouth.” He just keeps talking until Jon Meacham comes up behind him and grabs him in a full nelson like he does every morning; they wrestle like little boys.
The bell rings for first period. Ben says, “On to the crapper!” He jogs down the hall to Mr. Gunderman’s class, and I run beside him, then get just ahead and let him pass through me as if he were a whisper and I were a bubble, a film of soap, nothing more. I watch his face for the slightest reaction when he passes through me and I think I see his right eye twitch slightly.
As they’re heading into the science room, April Marriott says, “Where’s Zoe?”
“Guess she’s absent,” Lilly Chester replies. I run through them all to stand in front of Ben again.
When his legs just begin to pass through mine, I step back in time with him stepping forward. We dance as he walks, his eyes locked on his desk. He reaches out to punch Devon’s arm and Devon punches him back. Both of their fists pass through my body—Ben’s through my stomach, Devon’s through my left breast.
I sit in Ben’s lap. I blow on his face. I blow on it again, harder. I think of the Big Bad Wolf and the house of straw, the house of sticks, the house of bricks. I inhale and blow as hard as I can. Ben blinks and turns his face. By the minute, I’m learning how to haunt Ben Langley. If I pinch and pinch with all my strength, my fingers passing through his arm, he flinches. He looks around, wondering if anyone else is bothered by these strange pin-pricks coming from nowhere.
Mr. Gunderman calls my name. I shout, “Here! I’m here, you just can’t see me!” I dance to the front of the room, twirling around and swinging my hips outrageously until I’m at the front of the room, standing a foot from Mr. Gunderman. He lifts his coffee cup to his lips. I swipe my hand down as hard as I can. It passes through his cup and on through his desk but the cup slips an inch from his grasp and he spills his coffee on his tie. Ben laughs his cruel laugh from behind me. I think of the other night, how that laugh became a growl in his throat as he put his hands under my shirt, down my pants.
I sprint through everyone, tear through the whole class, picking up speed, lifting my hands as I run, lifting them and clenching them above my head and then, with all my speed and with all my strength I bring my hands down in a double fist, down like the hammer of Thor, straight through Ben’s head. “God!” he says and blinks from the sudden jab.
“Dude?” Devon says. Ben waves him off, feeling the top of his head.
Throughout the day I hone my tormenting skills. I punch my hand through Ben’s sandwich and straight through his mouth, past his teeth and out the back of his head. He chokes. I kick at his shin all through English class—kick, kick, kick in the same spot. Not hard. Measured. Kick, kick, kick, nothing he feels at first, not for the first ten minutes while Ms. Warren lectures about Hamlet and the symbolism of poison. After fifteen minutes, it builds to an ache he reaches down to rub, then a charley-horse he tries to stretch out. When he asks to go see the nurse, Ms. Warren says, “What’s the issue?”
“I don’t know. My leg…it just started hurting.” Ms. Warren tells him class is just about over, so he has to sit back down, and I go back to kicking and kicking.
By the end of the day, Ben limps and rubs his sore arms. He looks around frequently, suspiciously. He skips baseball practice. As he drives home, I sit beside him and punch through the side of his face. I have learned the best way to do it so his eyes water. The tenth time I bite his hand on the steering wheel, he almost runs off the road. He pulls over, just sits there with the car running and the tears flowing from his eyes.
I scream at him, “Don’t you ever, ever, EVER touch me again!”
“Zoe?” he says, looking frantically around the car. I am satisfied.
I will go home and sleep. Sometime during the night, I will turn visible again.
Reality Check: Dream 52
ü Number of girls Ben Langley sexually assaulted during the school year: 10
ü Number of sexual assault charges filed against Ben Langley: 0
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