11.1 Summer's Last Breath - Continued

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Some days start off okay and head downhill until you're neck-deep in shit. October 3rd skipped the hill part altogether and jumped straight for the sewer. Before first bell Nip got shoved into a urinal while pissing by some push-and-run asshole. That alone might not have been so bad, but Nip was wearing these white corduroys (why he owned white pants at all is a mystery that, unlike the mystery looming over Honaw, will never be explained) and he splashed bright yellow down the right leg. Nip had two set responses for misfortune: laugh, and laugh harder. That morning he laughed so hard his eyes filled with tears. It was chilly outside—nippy, one might say. The wind blowing through Honaw would soften up and warm by noon, but with the sun still hiding behind the mountain, it sliced across the school's grounds like a razor over bare skin. I offered him my coat so he could wrap it around his waist and let the sleeves dangle over his legs, and that helped, sort of, except a pack of wrestlers leaving the gym from an early practice saw me take it off and hand it to him.

If you've ever hung out with high-school jocks, especially small-town high-school jocks, you'll find that "fag" makes up about eighty percent of their vocabulary. This group was no exception.

"Oh whook, wittle faggy wet himself."

"And now wittle faggy wants to play dress up."

"Don't you all have semen to wipe off your mats?" said Ash.

"Lick it up, fag-dike," shouted the stockiest of the bunch, and the goblin on his right gave him an approving punch on his shoulder.

My hands tightened involuntarily in my lap, and I earned the attention of troll number three. Lucky me.

He pointed gleefully. "The cripple wants a go!"

It's funny. You think you understand pain, that you've explored every inch of its scarred terrain, and then something comes along to show you there's another side to the map, new valleys and ridges and deep howling caves.

I went for them. I did. No thought, just impulse. I started pushing on my wheels, and Nip and Ash grabbed my chair to hold me back. I kept pushing, my teeth bared, my human brain swapped out for a mad dog's. The wrestlers went crazy with laughter, I mean nuts, hands on stomachs and bodies doubled over, staggering and clutching onto each other to keep from falling. Then the wind cut me down into shivers and I collapsed back into my chair, which rolled back into Nip and Ash and nearly toppled them.

Still laughing, the trio moved off.

We did not.

A green flier twirled through the air, like my lost map on the first day of school, and landed in front of us. I don't know what made Nip bend over to pick it up. I'm not even sure he knew he was doing it. In a flat voice, he read, "Calling all Grizzlies to the Bear Den for the annual school talent show on Thursday, October 8th. Be sure to sign up—"

Ash swiped the flier from Nip's hands and shoved it in her back pocket. She touched my shoulder softly. "Joel . . ."

I said nothing.

That was how the day got started.

Key word, started.

Ash sensed it in me, in my silence. She heard the buzz deep down inside the lump of rock that I became, and she tried to crack me open before I cracked myself open, again.

Her plan backfired.


For a couple weeks I had been finding notes on myself. In my backpack, in my coat pockets, once in my left shoe, sweaty from the sole of my foot. Little pieces of notebook paper with things written on them like,

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