"Jason, see me after class." That's all Mrs. Parker had written for a grade. "See me" combined with the gallon of red ink in misplaced accent marks and encircled words and arrows--it could infuse terror into any tenth-grader's heart. Jason folded the paper, hoping the other students had been busy enough with theirs that no one had looked at his.
He didn't hear any derisive snickers in the vicinity, but he frowned. He snuck a peek at the title again--he'd even enjoyed this assignment. "The scavenger hunt." The weekly Italian essays were always mind-freezingly boring: my day at school, four plants I like, my favorite month. This one--give a tour of your home. Jason had delayed the project until he'd found the gimmick that made it fun, made it different from twenty-six other students'. While classmates went home and described their kitchens, Jason described the 19th floor of ISO headquarters in a walking tour that began in his bedroom and ended in finding Chief Anderson's gun.
Jason had looked up dozens of words for the assignment--and apparently gotten most of them wrong, he thought as he flipped through the paper. Possibly Mrs. Parker didn't like his gimmicking everything--but she'd laughed at his funny dialogues, the "what will you do next summer?" that he'd written as if he were heading to prison instead of to the beach.
Jason found a pen and sat with it in his hands. With low-lidded eyes, he slid the essay back into his notebook, and he listened to more vocabulary than he wanted to hear. Fifty minutes. Followed by another fifty minutes. A life lived in not-quite-an-hour chunks.
The bell rang to end this segment of Jason's life, and he bolted for the door. Mrs. Parker caught him.
"Can we talk about your essay?" she said.
"I've got to run," Jason said. Ten doors down the hall. In ten minutes. But she was only going to tell him he was a failure at everything, so why make it easy for her?
"How about after school?" The other students gave him side looks as they pushed into the ten-minute freedom of passing period. "I had a question about why you chose to write the essay that way."
Jason didn't meet her eyes. An after-school conference would probably get more involved than one during passing period. "I know I used a lot of wrong words." He shifted his weight, his still-growing body awkward in its somewhat long proportions. He raked a hand through short brown hair.
Mrs. Parker saw a student waiting by her desk, paper in hand. "I'm more concerned," she said, "with the end." She looked at the waiting student, then at Jason. "Please come after eighth period."
Jason moved into the noise of the hallway. Current events was eighth period. He'd be able to--
--no, he couldn't. Jason stopped cold and got bumped in the back. He hadn't read the article assigned for today. He probably didn't even have it with him.
"Damn." He moved to the side of the hall and rummaged in his backpack. No--damn. Damn.
He went to the water fountain. I'm always forgetting stuff, he thought. I wish I wasn't so stupid.
Someone yelled, "Lookout, Jason!" as a hand landed on his back and shoved his face into the water.
Jason whirled and caught the person by the shoulder and whipped him into the wall. The kid's head smacked into the plaster--did Jason even know him? With a gasp, Jason wrenched him back and gripped him at arms' length so he could look him in the face.
One of his classmates--easily recognized behind the huge eyes and the blood gushing from his nose. Jason shoved the kid backward and then punched him in the stomach. Someone jumped on his back, and he threw him off, then flung the kid onto the floor and stood over him, fists clenched.
"It was just a joke, man!" A third kid had pushed between Jason and the other. "Lay off!"
Jason's mouth had set. Blood dripped from the kid's nose as he looked up from where he lay sprawled, hardly prepared to defend himself, probably not thinking clearly enough to try getting away. Detached, Jason felt the Chief's voice in his head telling him where to hit, how fast to strike, when to time his movements. The kid tried to stand. Only then did Jason notice the silence in the hall--everyone had formed a wall around them, but instead of cheering, only silence. Fights weren't funny when they ended this way.
"All right." Mr. Osmond, the current events teacher, had emerged at the shouting followed by silence. He looked at the nosebleeding student, looked at Jason's stance over him, and told the crowd to disperse. The other kid got to his feet, wiping the blood around his face uselessly.
"Go clean up," Osmond said to the nosebleed. "I'll see you in detention."
Jason looked at the ground. The kid had bled like a pig--a few drops had landed on the floor. He'd done that to someone.
"Do you have an explanation?" Mr. Osmond said.
Jason didn't reply, only fingered the strap of his backpack. His heart still raced from the motion, the feel of using those practice moves in real life. Maybe Chief Anderson was right--he ought to practice more often.
"You see me in detention too," Mr. Osmond said. "Now come inside."
Jason took his assigned seat, trying to look over someone's shoulder to see their copy of the article. Literacy and the decline of absolutism, or something--some op-ed piece. He sat forward, eyes down. Mark took this class, too, and he entered now, a moment before the bell rang.
Doubtless, Mark had read the assignment.
Jason waited for this fifty-minute segment of his life to end, prepared to spend it penciling sketches of cars in the margin of his notebook. He looked up as the lecture began, only to find shortly that he had been singled out to summarize the article. Jason burned--if only he hadn't fought the kid--but he wouldn't have if he hadn't been looking for the article--and he wouldn't have looked if he'd remembered to read it.
Jason kept his eyes and voice level as he declined.
"Well," Mr. Osmond said, "that gives you something to do after class today, doesn't it?"
Fifty minutes passed. Then detention--what everyone called ninth period, almost a regular class for some.
Mr. Osmond had ten kids in his detention, including the kid formerly bleeding from being smacked into the wall. Jason grinned at him, but he gave that up and turned to his assignment. Mr. Osmond had a practical nature--learn your schoolwork, learn a job skill at the same time in case you failed out. He had Jason type the article onto one of the school's clunky word processors.
I'm an idiot, Jason thought. This takes longer than reading, only I can't remember the assignments, can't get around to them when I do, can't finish them once I start, can't get them right once I've done them.
Jason felt it hard to look up. He typed as steadily as he could, but the weight on his shoulders increased. His eyes hurt, and it felt hard to breathe.
That Italian essay--he'd had a good time, only Mrs. Parker didn't like the content. Squeamish bitch probably was vegetarian, too. So he shouldn't try to make it tense--shouldn't try to make it special or individual. Not that he was one of those anyway. She didn't like him. That was all.
Well, you're not alone. Jason banged at the keyboard for a while, but that made more mistakes than taking it steadily, and it also got him nasty looks from the others.
Let her wait for me. Breathing had gotten really difficult, and his eyes stung. It had been a good idea to trace a path from his room to Anderson's, from there to the gun. He'd even dropped hints at what he'd find, built tension the way they said in English lit.
I don't even care, Jason thought, finishing his typing. I'm a total failure.
He went the long way through the school to avoid passing Mrs. Parker's classroom, and from there he walked to UN Plaza and ISO headquarters.
Jason's room had too few shelves, too few drawers, too cramped a desk. The small window didn't let in enough light even when he managed to remember to open the shade in the morning, but it seemed he'd forgotten every day this week. He flung himself over the clothing scattered on his bed--no hangers, just clothing--and closed his eyes. 4:30. Dinner in an hour.
Jason sat up. Thursday. Damn.
He grabbed a notebook and ran the hall to the double doors of the on-site classroom, Anderson's conference room. He was out of breath. Anderson glowered as he walked in. "Detention, Mark tells me."
Jason slid into the end seat of the conference table, the one he usually avoided because of the glare from the window. Even with an overhead up and the lights dimmed, Jason could see the tightness in the Chief's eyes. Keyop had his own end of the table, and Anderson let him work independently at exercises the older kids had gone over four or five years ago--similar concepts, but at the level a ten-year-old could understand. Keyop's large eyes fixed on Jason in an unabashed stare. In the next seat, Princess didn't look at Jason. Mark glanced sideways, but Jason couldn't determine the motive: gloating or apology?
"And I hear," Anderson said, imposing in his oxford shirt and tie, "that you got into a fight."
Jason said, "I believe you only call it a fight, Chief, if the other person fights back."
Jason's chest felt tight. His eyes had narrowed, and it felt hard to breathe again. Why bother? he was thinking, and Push him.
Anderson folded his arms. "What you've been taught could kill someone unprepared to defend himself." Trying to look malignant, Jason met Anderson's gaze. Anderson didn't flinch. "If I hear about it again--"
"It won't happen again," Mark said. "The other kids will keep away from him now."
"Stay out of this," Anderson said. "To top it off, Jason, both your Italian teacher and your school guidance counselor left messages for me. I can't imagine what you've accomplished this time."
Jason's ears rang. He looked down. His mouth trembled. He'd brought the wrong notebook, too. His hands shook as he opened to a blank page near the back.
His Italian essay was jammed between two pages. A scavenger hunt, he'd titled it. Find your foster father's gun.
"You'll have to catch up later," Anderson said. "Right now I'll go on teaching Mark and Princess, since they're prepared."
Jason squinted at the page. He couldn't see the lines, but he didn't want to rub his eyes and give himself away. Tiny? he thought, and then remembered that Tiny had soccer on Thursdays, and he made up Anderson's lessons later. Jason would sit in on that if Anderson had his way, even though it would keep him from his car class at NYU. I don't care.
Jason thought he didn't have a pen, but no, there was one in his jeans pocket. And then he noticed a crumpled bit of paper on the blank page of his notebook. When Anderson had turned to the screen to explain some bit of the lesson--Jason hadn't heard a word so far--he opened the paper. Princess had drawn him a funny face. Without a look at her, he crumpled it between two fingers and snapped it across the room.
Jason did his best to at least look attentive. Anderson's words kept falling apart in his mind--they were still on meteorology, right? Currents in the air, storm systems, but there was a storm right here in this room, and no one ever notices, and I wish I knew what was going on but I don't any longer. I don't even care. None of this matters. There's a scavenger hunt going on, only I don't know what to find or where anything is, and all the rest of them already know, and I'll never catch up. But there's one thing I do know how to find.
Mark looked up near the end of Chief Anderson's lesson. He'd copied all the information from the overhead, but the other two still wrote. He snuck a look at Jason.
Printing slowly. Eyes hollow but calm. His hands had stopped holding his pen in a death grip. His head had bowed completely over the paper; hunched over the notebook, he wrote like a prisoner composing memoirs on death row with the guards outside his cell.
Mark looked again at the Chief, who paced the room as they copied the information. Princess looked up. Keyop nibbled at his eraser while staring at his paper.
Anderson gathered up the pointer and his notes. "That's it for today." He glanced at Jason, eyes not so tight as earlier. There was a quiet resting over his face, a soft set to his mouth as he studied the boy, and Mark wondered at the questions he could see there. "I have a meeting until six. When you're done, you can go."
Mark returned to his room and pulled out his assignment pad--not too much work tonight. He'd have a couple of hours free if he started now. He settled himself at his desk, adjusted the lamp and selected a pen before opening his looseleaf binder.
A knock on his door. Princess slipped inside and sat on his bed, fingering the bottom of her sweatshirt. "Could you go talk to Jason?"
Mark made a face.
"He really looked upset." Princess tucked up her knees and gathered her hair back in both hands. "I heard he broke a kid's nose at school today. I thought you could go get him to come play a video game or something--Keyop's got some new ones he borrowed, and that might cheer him up a bit."
Mark pulled his math textbook from the bookshelf. "You go."
"He got mad when I tried to send him a note. Just do it, all right?" Princess returned to the hall. "You've known him longest, anyhow."
"Two years longer," Mark said as she shut the door. "It isn't all that much."
He went anyhow. The nineteenth floor was divided into three suites, and the kids had their bedrooms in a cluster at the end of one corridor: his and Jason's on one side, Princess' and Keyop's on the opposite, Tiny's on the end near a minuscule room used for storage. At the other end of the hall, the corridor forked around their gym--Mark had wondered a couple of times how much pull the Chief had to have in order to get quarters with a gym, moreso since the gym jutted up into the twentieth floor. They had their showers, kitchen, TV room, and library along the right corridor; to get to Anderson's office or bedroom, the classroom, or the elevators, you went left.
Jason didn't answer a knock at his door, and Mark opened it only to find the room empty. He walked toward the TV room next, but Jason hadn't planted himself on the couch. The gym remained unused. Mark didn't bother checking the library. Jason must have forgotten Anderson had a meeting and gone looking for him. Mark turned up the other branch of the hall.
--and bumped into Jason, who dropped whatever he'd been carrying. With a bang, a newspaper and something else landed on the tiled hallway floor. Jason scrambled to pick it up. Mark bent to help him. "I wanted to find you."
Jason had grabbed the newspaper from the floor, but Mark had seen what lay under it.
"Oh my God--" Mark stepped back. "What are you doing?"
Jason's hollow eyes darted to avoid looking at Mark, and he bolted even as Mark shouted for him to stop.
At the fork of the corridor, Princess came out and saw them running. "He's got a gun!" Mark didn't turn, didn't hear her send Keyop to get the Chief, didn't see her run to call security. He followed Jason through the double doors into the gym--Jason had stopped in the center, staring through him, staring at a person Mark had never seen in his mirror. The high overhead lights gave a yellow cast to his pale cheeks, and for an instant Mark felt the largeness of the room like the presence of an attacker, making them small, keeping them apart.
Mark flung himself forward at Jason, who breathed in gasps, who shook so violently he had trouble lifting the gun. Mark closed with him, grabbed his wrist, set himself to strike one of the pressure points the Chief had shown them--and then let go. He couldn't hear anything. The gun had gone off.
Crumpling, Jason dropped the gun; it clattered on the scuffed green floor, echoing through the whole gym, but Mark never heard. He felt a scream catch in this throat, and his stomach lurched. Blood welled around Jason. Jason.
The door opened, and Princess gasped. Mark ripped off his shirt and lifted Jason's head, pressed hard against the side all the blood came from. It had soaked through his brown hair. Jason's eyes were closed, his breath shallow and rapid.
Mark grabbed the gun and hurled it across the gym floor. Using both hands, he raised Jason's head into his lap, ignoring the warmth spreading through his jeans. Princess approached.
Keyop and the Chief were there, then, but Mark didn't look up, didn't attempt trusting his voice. Chief Anderson settled next to him, took Mark's shirt away and probed Jason's skull, looked at Jason's pupils, felt for his pulse; he replaced the cloth so part of it covered Jason's eyes and then applied pressure himself. Mark didn't notice anything breaking the silence until the paramedics arrived.
The soft spot on the roof of your mouth, that's where to aim it. Don't blow off your jaw--you have to hit the brain, so take the time to aim properly. Do it in the bathroom, on tiles, with the shower running, so there will be less to clean up when they find you. Do it the right way. Don't get caught--the most important thing is you mustn't get stopped.
"Jason, please see me after class."