11. Summer's Last Breath

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The rest of September passed more or less harmlessly. News from the mine quieted down. The three injured during the cave-in recovered and went home, while the pair who had been declared dead and later announced alive were declared dead again, and their names—Gabriel Vasquez and Mike Richards—were shouted over the shoulder of a media that was already busy chasing down fresher meat. Mention of the two men stirred up dark and stormy feelings of dread inside me, but my internal weather always involved some thunderclouds, so these emotions were little more than passing shadows. My night at Sawtooth County Hospital and the still-squirming bodies I had seen taken down to the morgue remained casketed deep in my mind. Meanwhile, if a few black Humvees were spotted around town or patrolling the highest regions of the Road closest to the mine, no one put much stock in it. Just like no one put much stock in the increase in road kill (mentioned only in passing in the local paper), or the rapid decline of nature throughout town. It wasn't widespread, you see. For every oak whose bark was sloughing off or lawn that withered up, acres of foliage remained healthy. Each time your gaze passed over a shriveled form in the woods and you felt a tickle of unease, the green was there to massage that unease away, to reassure you with its uniformity.

We had our own distractions as well.

School was getting into full swing, and by that I mean its spanking arm shook off the rust of summer and started putting on hard muscle. Our English teacher assigned us a novel, Bibbit I think its name was, about some painfully boring guy who liked nice bar soap and embroidered hand towels and other chick stuff. Every time I opened Bibbit, I thought about the fairy godmother in Cinderella and kept wishing she would bibbity-bobbity-boo Bibbit right out of my life. I hadn't even watched Cinderella since I was in diapers, so that shows what kind of effect that book had on my mind. Then there was Algebra. My God, if there's a devil, he must spend his vacation time as a variable in a quadratic equation. And Spanish. I wasn't enrolled in P.E. for obvious reasons, but shooting hoops in Bitchmaster would have been a comfort next to sitting in Spanish II, listening to the audio tapes SeñoraVenezuela (her name was actually Mrs. Jones or something plain like that) put on for the class. I could never quite pick out what those muddy voices were talking about, and the harder I focused the more I thought I heard them mumbling, "Dios mío, Dios mío, Dios mío," which made my stomach knot up for reasons I couldn't explain. At least Physics I didn't mind so much. Mr. Bertrand could be a tightwad, but he had his lessons polished down to the shining bone, and he didn't seem to care if we cared one way or another, something I always found refreshing in a teacher. There's nothing worse than a loser who brings his/her why-don't-you-looooove-me? insecurities to a classroom. Students aren't wall sockets. We're not there to charge up the old self-fulfillment batteries. We're there because we have to be there, and listening to all this right now, you're probably thinking, man, this guy sure is bitter. But I'm not. I swear. I just don't appreciate when people shove something down my throat and act like I should be thankful for it.

All right, maybe I am a little bitter, but if you ever had to solve for X while your legs are twisting themselves inside out and some kid is rubbing dirty jokes on the back of your wheelchair with a jumbo pink eraser, you might understand. The truth, the real honest truth, is it hurts thinking about school. About everyone at school. It hurts for a lot of reasons, and the bitterness is wrapped up in that hurt like caramel in a piece of chocolate. I chew and I chew and it sticks in my teeth, all of it, and I can't tell where the bitterness stops and the sadness begins. I can't tell and maybe I don't want to, because it's easier to swallow the bad together than it is to pick it apart. To really taste it.

Don't get the idea things were all terrible, though. They weren't. Honaw High was only six hours a day, which left us another eight for being fools. We spent our afternoons cocooned in Ash's loft, soaring high on heavy-metal wings. In there we were giants. We were the black-hatted Black Sabbath, and we were the caged-headed Iron Maidens, and we were Metallica, decked in leather jackets and dark sunglasses and biker tattoos. We cut clouds wide open with our guitars and we gave the earth a heartbeat with our drums and school was always, always out for summer. On weekends when her parents moved out of earshot, we packed up the CDs and upped the irons ourselves. Ash sang vocals and Nip slashed away at the Gibson and I banged on the drum set, because of course I did. Meanwhile my arms thickened up from a diet of ladder climbing and bologna sandwiches, Nip burned through a dozen more books (spoonfeeding me the story to all of them on the side), and Ash ranted about the ghost of Leonard Higgins until our ears leaked ectoplasm. She was convinced history was repeating itself sinisterly through Billy's father, Carl Rascoe, who she insisted wasn't missing but dead and buried by his own hand in the mine, and that any day now his voice would turn up whimpering next to Leonard's on her radio. She was wrong on pretty much all accounts there. Leonard Higgins wasn't a ghost . . . he was something much more horrifying than that. And Carl Rascoe wouldn't ever moan to us through the speakers in the loft, but others would. Many, many others.

"So, what happened?" you're asking. "What happened to Honaw?"

And I'll tell you. Soon.

But first you have to hear about the talent show, and to truly know what the talent show meant, you have to see us on our worst day of high school. In the dictionary under 'adolescence' you'll find a bunch of stuff about transitional periods and developmental phases, and that all may be accurate enough if you're writing a paper for Health class, but only one word defines 'adolescence' and that word is 'earthquake.'

Adolescence is an earthquake, one that feels like it will never end while you're living it, and eventually there comes a choice. You can crawl under your desk and hide, or you can stand up on top of that shaking desk and dance.

____ ____

Author's Note:

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Coming up, a nasty encounter leads Ash to make a drastic decision . . . 

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