11.2 Summer's Last Breath - Continued

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On went Ash's headphones and on they stayed, the volume so loud I could hear it from the front of the class. Who was she listening to? Sabbath? No. Something more chaotic, more destructive, light on the vocals and heavy on the screams. There was a whole chasm of Metal I hadn't ventured into yet, an underworld of blood-slickened caves and breeding shadows. When the bell rang for lunch (Honaw High had a rotating lunch, and on this day ours landed right after math), she exploded out the door. I didn't bother going after her. Bitchmaster wasn't up to the task, and besides, I knew where she'd be headed.

Nip was waiting for us in our nook between the lockers. He closed his book when he saw me coming alone.

I shook my head. "It's another drum day."

Last week in Algebra, Ash had taken a break from her usual rant about Leonard Higgins to give our peers a lecture on subsidence and poisoned well water. While she was going on, Kory Yenders swiped her Nalgene bottle and hawked into the water without either of us noticing. Then she took a drink and gagged on his radioactively bright snot, at which point he'd shouted to the thrill of the class, "Oh no! The mine got her!"

Nip winced. "What happened?"

"More KY Jelly."

"Ugh." He got up and re-tied my sweatshirt around his waist. "What was it this time?"

Nip would find out anyway if I didn't tell him, and who knew how the story would have evolved by then. "He swiped a note she wrote me and did a reading of it to the class."

Nip's voice became almost unnoticeably softer. "What kind of note?"

The word heart, crossed out by one neat horizontal line, flashed inside my head. "A joke," I lied, without knowing exactly why. "Just a joke."

"Doesn't sound so bad."

"Yeah. But everyone'll take it for real." I looked at the line curling away from the lunch window. Maybe me giving Ash a few extra minutes of privacy would be a good thing. "You go on ahead. I'll grab us lunch."

And that decision, ladies and gentlemen, is how I earned my own nickname.

The cafeteria worker passed three chicken sandwiches (one not spicy because Nip was a wimp) out to me on trays. Those trays came in two colors, ugly blue and uglier green, and one size: stupidly big. I set the first pair on my thighs and balanced the third on top of them, slouching to make my body as table like as possible. The stack wobbled dangerously as I turned Bitchmaster. With slow careful pushes I steered through the lunch space, avoiding the spots where the cement had cracked and staying far away from the kids tossing around a football. Sunlight touched the long curling teeth of the bear on the gymnasium wall. I had just about made it around that wall and out of sight when guess-who spotted me from a nearby table.

"Look!" Kory shouted. "Meals on Wheels!"

KY Jelly. It's the stuff jerk-offs are made of.

The band room was our getaway. The music teacher or director or whatever he was called had written us a blank check, which we cashed in on his equipment whenever we needed a fix to hold us over until the loft. He was a cool guy, Mr. Brickley. He had a little girl Maria who went to the elementary school. On minimum days she would get out early and walk to Honaw High. She liked to stretch out on her stomach and listen to us play, and she would always clap when we finished a song. One time I helped her with her math homework, only not really because I got half the answers wrong, and she wrote me a letter, I'm not kidding, she wrote me a three-page complaint letter in godawful Purple Mountain Majesty crayon, and her dad . . .

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