Jarrod Towne’s Dream:
Solving for Grammy
“Are you sure about this one?” asks Mr. Bluthen. He’s beside my desk and pointing at number 7 on my worksheet: If x + 8 = 10, then 4x + 1 = 2.
I don’t need this, not today. I mean, Mr. Bluthen is pretty nice and everything, but I just want to be left alone. I don’t care if I got number 7 wrong. I don’t care if I got them all wrong.
I just care that last night I was visiting Grammy Peters and she didn’t make sense. She was practically my best friend from before I can remember up until seventh grade. She read to me and painted with me and took long walks with me. She taught me to ride a bike by having me push off again and again from the lowest step of her deck to pedal across her lawn. She listened to the lame songs I made up before I even knew how to play the guitar. She’d record them. I went over to her house, just last year, and what did she have playing on her stereo? Fifth grade me, strumming all the wrong notes, singing these god-awful lyrics about butterflies and bumblebees. I mean, I came into her house--she didn’t know I was coming, and that’s what she had playing on her stereo.
“Take another look,” says Mr. Bluthen. “What are you solving for?”
“Really?” By the way he says “really,” I know I’ve done something wrong, but I’m not seeing the algebra problem. I’m seeing Grammy Peters, sitting in that ratty orange chair in the nursing home. The place smells like piss. When I first came in, the nurses had her tied to the chair with padded restraints to keep her from wandering away. A week ago, they found her out in the woods a half mile from the home, digging at the leaves. She said she was harvesting potatoes. They brought her back, and now they have to keep her tied down unless someone is right there with her. I should be there. She doesn’t know me half the time, but at least I could keep her from walking away. They wouldn’t have to tie her down like that.
“Jarrod, are you with me?” He’s trying to be patient, but the little edge to his voice tells me I’ve got to snap back to algebra. Algebra, right. I look at the problem again, and I can’t figure out what Mr. Bluthen is complaining about. This is stupidly simple: x + 8= 10, so x is obviously 2. I want to shout to my teacher to just move on and bother somebody else. Go talk to Greg Wallace over there. I’m sure he could use some help, and his grandmother isn’t going crazy in a nursing home! As if these numbers matter to me, as if they’re ever going to matter to me. Mr. Bluthen keeps talking to me. “You’re making a common mistake. Focus for a second and you’ll see it. Look at the whole problem.”
Fine. Mr. Bluthen is obviously not going to get off my back until I answer his stupid questions. I close my eyes for a second, trying to get Grammy Peters’s image out of my mind long enough to get this man crouched at my desk away from me. When I open my eyes again and look at question 7, my error jumps off the page. The problem is still crazy easy, but Mr. Bluthen was right; I hadn’t looked at the whole thing. Knowing that x was 2 was just the first part. The problem is calling for me to transfer the 2 to the other side of the equation and do simple math to come up with 9. I erase the 2 and put the 9. Mr. Bluthen gives me a quick pat on the shoulder and says, “Good. Stay focused.”
As I watch my teacher walk away, my thoughts of Grammy Peters suddenly convert into this weird algebra problem in my head. It’s like x is her age and y is her experiences and n is her illnesses, and it all comes together to equal her behavior. The amazing thing is, I know how to solve for all of the variations! I see it, just as clearly as I saw the answer to question 7 was 9, not 2. Grammy hasn’t lost her mind. Her age has just rearranged it. She’s still functioning with logic, but my family and I haven’t followed the transition. It’s like, for all the years we’ve known her, x equaled 42, but now it equals 24!
I know her again, or at least I know how to know her again. The fact that she went out into the woods a half mile from the nursing home to dig up potatoes--that makes perfect sense to me now. I know why she doesn’t eat. I know why she doesn’t recognize her own family sometimes. I know what she means when she looks at me out of the blue and says things like, “The Mormons sometimes wake me in the middle of my compost.” There is no more out of the blue. I see the way the code goes together.
I’ll go home and let my family in on it. Maybe they’ll understand and maybe they won’t, but no matter. I get her now. I can be her translator. And as long as she lives, she won’t drift away from me. As long as she lives, she’ll stay my Grammy Peters. The nurses won’t have to tie her down anymore because I’ll be able to explain her thinking to them, and I’ll be able to explain their thinking to her, and Grammy won’t be a problem anymore. She’ll just be my grandmother, my friend, the person I could always count on to love me.
Reality Check: Dream 68
ü Note to office: “Please excuse Jarrod Towne from school for the next two days. He will be attending his grandmother’s funeral. We hope he will be ready to return after that. Will keep you apprised. Thank-you, Meredith Towne.”
Greg Wallace’s Dream:
I’m late for school because my father got drunk last night and he hit my mother so she called the cops on him. I was up until two in the morning, couldn’t sleep because of the lights from the cop car and the yelling and the crying, the typical bullshit. So I’m late for school. My father didn’t get hauled in this time. My mother said she didn’t want to press charges, so he was at the house and he gave me a ride to school--late, like I said.
When I walk in I think everybody’s dead. The school feels dead, quiet except for the hum of all the electricity it uses. Then when I see the frozen people I realize they’re not dead. If they were dead they wouldn’t be like this, like statues. The secretary that always asks me why I’m late and no matter what I tell her, she just puts an x in the box marked “unexcused”—she’s frozen behind her desk.
I’m thinking some kind of weird-ass virus, or maybe something got loose from the chemistry lab and gassed everybody. Statues everywhere I look. I wave my hand in front of Jen Brooks’s face. Nothing. Not a blink, not a flinch. She’s out in the hall where she usually is this time of day, waiting to meet up with her boy Carl. I look up and he’s there, coming down the stairs, frozen half-way down with that crooked grin he gets when he’s thinking about Jen or any other chick, like he’s going to get laid right there in the hallway or something.
I take a tour around the school. Everywhere it’s the same. I wander into places I’ve never been before—the whole place is suddenly the high school wax museum and I’m the only visitor. Come see the statues! Get as close as you want. Touch them, even. I do. Not much, but I do. Room 225, where all the smart kids sit for Advanced Placement something-or-other, I pass up and down the rows and look over shoulders and read the notes. Most of them are boring as hell. One pretty girl—her name’s Crystal, I see from the top of her worksheet—has drawn some sweet doodles in her notebook with a couple different-colored pens. I touch her cheek. She’s warm, definitely not dead.
I think about other places on Crystal’s body and I’m about to reach there when I hear this sound, really hushed. At first I think it’s just the pipes from the a.c. or something, but then I recognize some words. Or I think I do. They’re like the shadows of words, they’re so soft. I lean in towards Crystal’s mouth. Her lips aren’t moving. Words just kind of leak out from her mouth, seep out like steam over the edge of a pot. I bring my ear so close to her mouth that her lips touch my skin. The words say, “Last week I tried to kill myself with sleeping pills.”
“Jesus,” I whisper and back away.
I walk up to the front of the room where Mr. Draper is leaning on the edge of the desk, looking like the king of all knowledge or something. I wonder if any words leak out of his mouth, too, and I lean in to listen. Sure enough, there’s that hiss as I get close. With my ear less than an inch from his mouth, I hear, “I poisoned the dog. I hated that little thing. It took my wife’s attention so I killed it.” I step back, trying to figure out if this is me going nuts or if this is actually happening. I mean, here’s this guy with his coat and tie, marker between his fingers, glasses part-way down his nose. The teacheriest-looking teacher you’ve ever seen. I lean in close to hear more. “She cried for days. I covered my face a lot to look like I was upset, too, but I could barely keep from laughing. That damned mutt was ruining my life.”
I go from room to room, from person to person: They’re all spilling out secrets. Some are pitiful. This one blonde chick lets out the words, “I told my mother I loved her last night before I went to bed, but I really didn’t like her at all.” That’s it? Whatever has turned everyone in the school into statues has also injected some sort of truth serum that makes them spill their deep, dark secrets, and that’s the worst this girl has to offer? She told her mother she loved her when she didn’t?
I listen to a bunch of these confessions about jerking off in the closet and wanting to hit little brothers and other tiny shit. What would that be like, to have your secrets be that innocent? By the time I was in sixth grade I had secrets ten times worse than any of that little stuff.
Others blow me away. Joy Estes has been raped three times, once by her uncle. Jeff Freed drops acid. This mousy little kid in gym class, holding a basketball that looks like it takes all his might just to lift up--he gets off on torturing cats. And good old Mr. Connelly, the dude who’s lectured me more times than I can count, who’s threatened to expel me? How about if I posted in the school newspaper his little problem with popping pills? I wonder how that would fly with the school board.
After an hour of wandering the wax museum, I see the party’s winding down. The words stop dripping out of people’s mouths (I don’t have time to listen to them all, but nobody’s immune from drooling out stories they never want told), and slowly the statues thaw. They start to quiver a bit, like their bodies are shells and they’re chicks trying to peck their way out. Then, all of a sudden, everybody busts out of the deep freeze.
It’s over in a second. Everyone looks around, like they’ve just been caught falling asleep, and then they go back to their business. I’m caught standing in the middle of the wrong classroom. Ms. Tingdale says, “Young man, can I help you?”
“Nope, nope, I’m all set; just...passing through,” and I take a quick walk out the door. The teacher, kind of pretty if you’re into older chicks, admitted when she was a statue that she had an abortion last week and never told her boyfriend because it wasn’t his baby.
Not that I would turn around on the way out the door and yell that. No, I’m not going to blackmail anybody. I wasn’t writing anything down, so I’ve already started to lose track of who diddled who and who stole what. But as I walk down the hall headed to second period, I’m walking tall. My father’s a drunk; my mother’s a junkie. I’ve been beaten, and I’ve done some beating myself. I used to feel alone because of things like that.
Reality Check: Dream 69
ü In Principal Connelly’s notes: Suspended Greg Wallace for 5 days (2nd offense) for fighting with Scott Dundee. Two days for Scott, first offense. Greg claims Scott made an insulting remark about Greg’s father. Letters sent home to both families.
Jeff Freed’s Dream:
Just a Game
I open the door to my Western Civ. class and get blasted full in the chest with a bazooka round. Virtually cut in half, my blasted remains slam against the lockers outside the room. I am, of course, dead. Dead in an odd way, though, a familiar way: I know I’m dead, and I know I’ll be back. My vision goes black. I feel a brief shaking. When I open my eyes, I’m standing in front of the classroom door again, resurrected, and I know what to do. First, I duck to the side so I can get a look into the room. I scope out the situation, see where Mr. Draper stands with the rocket launcher. He’s covered head to toe in armor. I note a tiny triangle on the front of his helmet. A couple more quick glances left, right and down show me the dead bodies of my classmates scattered around. Blood-and-brains-spattered walls. More of Draper’s arsenal behind him on the desk: pistols, rifles, grenades. I’ve seen all I need to see.
When I enter the room, I immediately dive to the left. As I roll, Draper’s bazooka shell obliterates the door I just came through. I snatch two guns off the floor, knock over some desks and crouch behind them. Draper has his rocket launcher down on the desk, trying to jam another shell into it. I stand quickly and fire two shots. One bounces off Draper’s armored back, but the other does the trick; it hits the firing mechanism on the bazooka, making it useless.
“You’ll pay for that, sucker,” Draper says in a robotic voice. By now, I’m back behind my barricade of desks. Draper fires off several rounds from his pistols, but the bullets just ping off the obstacles. Three, two, one, I count in my head, then stand and take aim. Draper gets off one more shot; it grazes my shoulder. I’m using just one pistol now so I can focus. I squeeze the trigger. A millisecond later, Draper’s head explodes and he topples over. As I suspected, the emblem on the front of his helmet was the weak spot. My bullet precisely found it to end the level.
My classmates, the few who remain, come up and clap me on the back, congratulating and thanking me. Since Mr. Draper is dead, we have nothing to do but shoot the shit for the rest of the period, and we leave without homework.
Phys. Ed is pitiful. One glance into the gym and I’ve got the level figured out. The multi-colored, spike-covered basketballs that bounce around from wall to wall and floor to ceiling all follow a predictable pattern. A couple of freshmen lie splattered on the shiny floor. As I watch, Max Jackson navigates across the gym with ease, hopping and ducking at all the right moments. He’s seen the pattern, too, just like anybody would with half a brain. Suddenly, a brilliant blast of light comes from the right corner of the gym. Max bursts into flame, shrieks, and dies.
I look over to see Coach Callahan holding a laser. I watch a while longer as two more kids get killed, one by Callahan, another from a spiked basketball to the groin. Stupid moves got them both. Even Callahan follows a set pattern--if you make an extreme move left or right, she fires. Keep the moves subtle and she doesn’t. Like I said, pitiful.
I walk in, make a few simple countermoves to avoid the spiked balls and easily get to the center of the gym floor. I have to roll one of the splattered freshman--I think his name might’ve been Dale--to retrieve the circular mirror on the floor. Once I get it, I move a few more feet, then make my one planned leap to the left. Coach Callahan fires, right on cue. I hold up the mirror, bouncing the laser back at her. Flash of light, burst of blood, end of level.
The rest of the day is just about as easy. Rock hard burgers knocking kids’ heads off in the caf, a white board monster in Spanish that suffocates you if you don’t keep track of how many marker explosives you had left, Mr. Bluthen spinning razor-sharp protractors around in geometry. I’ll admit I got killed three times, but those were more out of boredom than lack of skill. Leave it to the school: They finally figure out how to make classes at least a little appealing to us gamers, but they don’t bother to put together quality levels that’ll hold our attention for more than a few seconds. I spend most of the day just hanging out after I’ve killed off the teacher in each round.
Last period of the day: computer science. I scope out the room before entering. Weird. It looks normal. Crap. They probably ran out of budget so I’ll have to end with a complete non-event. I walk in and have a seat in front of the ancient, three-year-old PCs they have. Carl Moore says “hey.” I say “hey” back. He asks me where Mr. Dhamrait went.
I’m in the middle of telling him I have no idea when Carl is suddenly yanked forward. His rolling chair flies out from underneath him; his face is flattened against his computer screen like his cheek is metal and the monitor is some kind of incredibly strong magnet. The machine makes a slurping sound as it pulls him in. In a few seconds, the computer spits Carl back out as nothing more than a shrunken bag of skin with some bones sticking out here and there. I feel the pull myself. Interesting, I think, but that’s my last thought before my head is hurtling toward the computer screen and I, powerless, have my innards liquefied and sucked out.
A few seconds later, I’m sitting in front of the computer again, saying “hey” to Carl. I look down to see the tally on my arm--four hashmarks, four deaths. The number 6 is tattooed up near my elbow. Two to go and I’m gone for good. I look around to see other kids’ heads jerking toward their computer screens. What the hell? How does this level work? And where is Mr. Dhamrait? The teacher has always been the enemy, but I don’t see him this time.
Carl dies beside me. I try to stand, but my butt is glued to the chair. I weave my upper body left and right. No good. I feel the pull on my face again. At the very last moment before I get my insides devoured, I turn to take in as much of the room as I can. There! In the corner, a flash of green that I’m pretty sure is Dhamrait’s sweater. And then I’m gone again.
Once back at the beginning of the level, I glance down at my arm again. Hashmark #5 is there, and now the tattooed six is glowing bright silver. This is it. Even before my classmates’ faces start hurtling toward their monitors, I rotate my torso. The wheeled chair spins around. Dhamrait is there, control box in his hands, happily pushing buttons. Distracted by his destruction, he doesn’t notice me. I test my feet against the floor. I think, though I’m glued to the seat, that the chair will still roll. I hear Carl’s cheek thwack against his monitor. I’m out of time, so I thrust for all I’m worth with both feet. The chair rolls, and I’m heading right at Mr. Dhamrait. But what am I supposed to do when I get to him?
He looks up, and now I know I’m in trouble. My chair slows very quickly, pulled from behind by my computer. The chair stops. I’m about to be yanked across the room to my final death, this time going in back-of-the-head first. I look around quickly and catch a glimpse of something skittering by on the floor. It’s a computer mouse, but it’s moving like a real one, erratically skating across the tile. I reach out and grab its cord-tail. As I’m flying backwards, the computer hungrily pulling me in for one last meal, I spin the mouse above my head and let it fly, right at Dhamrait’s wide-mouthed grin. Dhamrait’s eyes widen. His mouth opens in surprise, and in flies the mouse. Just as I feel my head make contact with the computer screen, Dhamrait’s face implodes toward his nose and then, with a satisfying pop, his heads caves down into his neck.
Level over, game over. I have conquered school.
Reality Check: Dream 70
ü General e-mail to staff from Mr. Dhamrait: “Due to his inappropriate computer use for on-line gaming, Jeff Freed is prohibited from accessing the school network for any reason.”