8. The Missing Man

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Billy's seat was empty the next day, and tell the truth, so was mine. In body I was there, sure. But upstairs my head was one big attic, dust on the floor and bats hanging from the rafters. The taste of grapes rested sourly on my tongue. I had siphoned off several glasses of wine before bed from the box on my aunt's kitchen counter. Some nights a little spinning helped me sleep. Last night had not been one of those nights.

Through Algebra I could feel Ash's eyes on the back of my neck. I did not turn around once. When the bell rang, I pushed up to the teacher's desk and had her explain one of the problems until Ash was gone.

I spent my lunch camped out in a handicap stall.

I did not go to English.

A kid in my position, a kid as inconspicuous as me, doesn't have many choices when it comes to cutting class. He can't climb fences, and he can't simply book it out of the front gates shouting "sayonara!" over his shoulders. And it wasn't like I could hop in a car and head for the hills either. I could have called my aunt, no doubt. She would have come to pick me up if I asked. She was there for me. But having someone there for you all the time is exhausting. It weighs on you, like water on the ocean floor.

So, what did I do?

I slipped out the back gate as sneaky as could be and headed down to the old football field to be alone.

But I was not alone for long.

Gravity was at work that day, and not the good kind. The bad kind. The kind that wants to see you bleed.

I lay atop the bleachers, gray sky above and gray metal below, and watched the end of last night replay itself. Ash turned the radio off and the lights on, maneuvering around me on tiptoes. A little while later Nip announced, gratefully, that his mom was there to pick him up. And me still sitting there as he walked to the ladder, my body not my body, just this block of wood carved in my shape. So what, my brain going, so what if it hurts, so what, so what? . . . until finally Ash said she'd start the van and left me to make the climb down on my own. Cold rungs and wooden steps and smoky wind, followed by a long wait as she fetched my wheelchair. Then a quiet ride home, me in the backseat, the CD player back to being busted. My aching arms. My throbbing legs. My aunt with the punch line:

"Well. She's cute."

"Yeah," I replied, watching Ash drive off, "If you're a lesbo."

Which was a mean thing to say, since Aunt Sandy was totally a lesbo.

"Well."

It took me awhile to process that the voice was not in my mind, that it sounded nothing at all like my aunt's. I turned my head. At the bottom of the bleachers beside my wheelchair (I had been forced to abandon it before dragging myself up the steps) stood Billy Rascoe, dressed in a pair of ripped denim jeans and the same How-to-Pick-Up-Chicks t-shirt, now featuring a brown stain on the stomach. That smile. If faces were real estate, his smile would have been Walmart.

"Here I am . . . here I am . . . wandering around without a clue in the world what to do, and who do I find?"

"I don't know," I said, sitting up on the bench. "Who?"

Billy laughed. In one smooth motion, he pulled a paper carton out of his pocket and thumbed out a cigarette. "Your name is Joel?"

I nodded.

"Joel." He lit his cigarette, breathed in long and slow, and exhaled smoke through his nose. "You know I'm going to kill you, right?"

"Yeah, I've been told. Can I bum one of those?"

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