Kids Like Us
“This is what I used to do when I was alive,” says Curtis. “I would find a good spot where no one could see me. For instance, I would hide behind the billboard for the big church.”
“Where we are now,” says Bobby.
“That’s right,” says Curtis. “Don’t interrupt. So I would set up behind a billboard or in the tall grass. And my old backpack would be stuffed full of soft things like toilet paper, cotton balls, stuffed animals, and socks with worn out elastic. It was like a home-made bean bag. I would put that on the ground and use it as a seat. Since I couldn’t carry two backpacks without looking like a jerk, I would bring my equipment in a grocery basket.”
“Like the one you have there?” says Bobby.
“Shush. It was the kind you get at the grocery store when you know you can’t afford enough food to fill a cart. In the basket there was my radar gun. There was my college-rule notebook and standard blue pen. There was a spare pen also in case the first ran out. There were my binoculars. There were three car magazines stolen from the Greatclips nearest my house. There was a Polaroid camera, which had been discontinued, and I only had so many pictures left, so I was scared to take any pictures, and I saved all my film for something really important, like a crash, but there was never an important crash, so I still have all the film.”
Curtis pauses here and waits for Bobby to offer some input.
Bobby says, “What did you do with your equipment?”
“I told you not to interrupt,” says Curtis. “What I did was I took notes and made observations. I used the radar gun. If a car was going too fast, say ten miles over, I wrote down its plate number and a general description. That’s what the stolen magazines were for. They reminded me of basic terminology and brands. Each week, at the end of the week, on Friday, I would compile my findings, copy them at the FedEx-Kinkos, and leave them at the police station in an anonymous brown envelope sealed with packing tape. I put the envelope against the door so someone would have to see it and touch it to get inside.”
“Wow,” says Bobby.
“As far as I know they never used my information,” says Curtis. “Do you want some snacks? I have off-brand Slim Jims, bottled water, and beers I stole from my father.”
“What kind of beer?” says Bobby.
“No thanks,” says Bobby. But he does take one of the Slim Jims. Curtis scans him with the radar gun while he chews. He isn’t chewing very quickly.
“Do you miss being alive?” says Bobby.
“Naw, man,” says Curtis, “I’m glad they did me. My parents let me get away with everything now. They feel so bad for me because of it. I stay up as late as I want, watching TV and downloading music. I never listen to the music but I’ve filled up our computer and a whole bunch of thumb drives. I don’t ever do my English homework anymore. I don’t clear the browser history after I look at sexy stuff online. Nobody says a word. I don’t mow the lawn or do the dishes and I never take the dog out to do his business. I write bad words on the bathroom mirror with my fingers. I’m finally free to be me.”
“I’m really sorry that we never used to hang out before you got shot,” says Bobby. “I can see now it was really shallow of me.”
“No problem,” says Curtis. “Being dead is great, I think everybody oughtta try it once.”
There have been four stories about Bobby in the local paper. The first was really about his father, a high school quarterback who went to college on a scholarship, met a special girl, flunked out, got married, moved boxes on the night shift for UPS while his wife finished her degree, inherited some unexpected money, made several wise investments, and was now, long story short, returning home to open a used car dealership in a city that had only three. The story is also about Bobby in that he appears in the accompanying photo, wherein his massive, grinning father appears prepared to throw newborn Bobby like a pigskin.
The second story marks the day on which Bobby, like his father before him, became a high school quarterback. The accompanying photo is not a picture of Bobby, but rather of another boy, Tad, who was on the same roll of film, and who appears at first blush more physically gifted, in fact more like Bobby’s father, though Tad’s bulk is mostly cinnamon ice cream and buttermilk ranch dressing.
The third story is about the time that Bobby won a national contest. The contest was to see who could destroy his bike by the most dramatic (while still arguably legal) method. How Bobby won was he made a girl fall in love with him completely. He took her out every night and talked with her on the phone and online whenever possible, so that she was only ever thinking about him, to the detriment of her school work, friendships, and family life. Every day they made new promises to each other, committing to future marriage, to three children, to be wealthy together, to see the world, to see the world according to a particular itinerary, to see the world beginning with Paris and ending with a second visit to Paris to see how the experience of their intervening travel would change it. He involved his bike in their relationship deeply, giving her rides on the handlebars, rhapsodizing about the pleasures of bike ownership until she bought her own, then riding everywhere with her, and intentionally allowing—then fostering—an increasing insecurity in the girl regarding whether he loved her or the bike more. One night he “forgot” his bike in her garage, catching a ride home with another football player. The next day he broke up with her by means of an email as brief as it was cruel. She took his bike out into the back yard and went to work on it with all her father’s tools. She didn’t know that Bobby was hiding in the neighbor’s yard. He filmed what she did to the bike. That footage won him the contest. The prize was a truly cherry replacement bicycle, which he straddles in the accompanying photo. As for the girl, not named in the story, though it was really her destructive ingenuity that won the bike, she was grounded for the summer; just as her father’s tools ruined the bike, so had the bike destroyed her father’s tools.
The fourth story describes how twenty-three people, most of them high school students but none Bobby’s friends, were shot and killed by two teenage boys, who also shot and killed themselves. It was one of the first stories, and as such its timeline is hazy, several names are misspelled, and one student’s death is misreported as “a nonfatal gunshot to the eye.” In the accompanying photo, Bobby is pictured holding the collapsed, lifeless body of a boy named Ernest. The way this happened was the body, newly made, fell onto him. Everyone who ever read the story made sure to tell Bobby how sad it all was. Then they waited as long as they could stand to say the second thing: that he did look truly handsome in that tragic picture.
One difference between the dead and the living is the dead can’t own anything. Most dead students carry dozens of pens and pencils, especially on test days, because no living student hesitates to take the dead kid’s pencil, even if the dead kid has no spares. What the living students say is, “Can I have that pencil?” Then they take it from the dead kid’s hand. The dead kid doesn’t get it back. If they ask to get it back the teacher shushes them.
Bobby says, “Jenny, can I borrow your camera?” He takes it from her hands.
“This is what I used to do when I was alive,” says Jenny. “I took pictures of boys.”
Bobby is clicking through the camera’s pictures. Its batteries are running low, and the screen flickers between each image, threatening to give up and go dark. Here is a boy from behind, anonymous apart from the crusty swirls of his elbows. Here is a boy resting his chin on his hand in a way that means he is thinking. Here is a boy with eyelashes so long they bend against the insides of his glasses. Here is a boy lifting his shirt so that you can’t see his face—only his soft, brown tummy and dark nipples. Here is a boy doing tricks with a yo-yo. The string is invisible but the yo-yo is everywhere.
“What I liked to do is walk up to a boy, any boy I wanted, and ask him had he ever tried modeling. They always said no, which I loved. Really what I loved is how they said it. With this little tremble. Young men get tons of praise for a lot of stupid things but no one tells them how pretty they are. I did tell them, and right away they were kittens. I asked them why they’d never modeled. I asked them would they like to try it out. I said, ‘I’m building a portfolio. I want to be a fashion photographer someday. You would be doing me a favor.’ Nobody ever said no. Nobody ever asked for money. I liked to do it in their bedrooms. Especially if their parents were home, like if their moms were in the kitchen, making dinner. Their parents never objected to me going into their rooms because I’m fat with no breasts and nobody likes looking at me. Most of the photos were clean.”
Now Bobby finds a picture of a boy wearing one anime t-shirt and zero any kind of pants. The boy is trying and failing to rub his own penis to life. His face is a carpenter’s face: this is his craft.
“Most,” says Jenny, “but not all.”
Bobby says, “Which ones were your favorites?”
“I liked skinny boys with bad mustaches and long, greasy hair,” says Jenny. “Jenny, can I borrow your astronomy textbook?”
“But it’s my favorite subject.”
“Sure,” says Bobby. He unzips Jenny’s backpack and reaches inside for the book, which is the same one he already has. He leaves the backpack open.
“You should always say what you’re thinking when you’re talking to me,” says Jenny, “because I don’t care, which makes me a good listener.”
“You never asked me if I had tried modeling,” says Bobby.
“I didn’t want to take your picture.”
“Do you want to take it now?”
He gives back the camera.
Jenny removes the lens cap, aims the camera at Bobby (neglecting the viewfinder), and makes it flash until he walks away and the batteries die. Her astronomy textbook is tucked under his arm. Now he has twice the stars and she hasn’t got any, apart from those she makes herself.
Bobby took a history test one week ago. He just received it back with several comments and a failing grade. He is reading the test and chewing his tongue.
The first question is, “Explain my resurrected body.”
“Your body is the same way as it ever was,” wrote Bobby. “The only difference between a dead body and a living man is the living man has obligations. No one expects a body to work nine to five. He’s allowed to sleep all day if he wants to. No one will complain. If you think the school can’t go on without you then you’re wrong. Stay home and get to know your television. Did you know the Game Show Network is twenty-four hours? They have years of Wheel of Fortune.”
Mr. Baumer deducted five of five possible points for this answer. He wrote, in red ink, “Why do you want me to leave? Teaching is the only thing I’ve ever been good at. Where else can I go? I was here before you. Maybe you should stay home. A young football star is like a dead body. Nobody expects him to show up for class.”
The second question on the test is, “Am I changed externally? Mirrors don’t want me inside them. Provide at least two specific examples.”
“No sir,” wrote Bobby. “You haven’t changed at all. You still look exactly like my fat, gay uncle. He’s always sucking his own mustache and nibbling the ends the same way you do.”
Mr. Baumer deducted two of five possible points. He wrote, “The other students agree that I am little changed, but I asked for two specific examples; you gave only one.”
The third question is, “I was a Christian believer.”
“That isn’t a question,” wrote Bobby. “This isn’t an answer.”
Mr. Baumer deducted five of five possible points. He gave no reason why.
“This is what I used to do when you were alive,” says Bobby. “For two years, I wrote you letters that I never sent.”
He shows the home-schooled girl a binder. On the front cover, slid behind the laminate attached for this purpose, there is a color pencil drawing of Tom Brady, head tucked and running, his outlines obviously traced and shading badly overlabored. Inside the binder there are one hundred plastic sheet protectors. In half the sheet protectors there are handwritten letters. The other half, the latter fifty, are empty.
“Dear home-schooled girl,” begins the first letter. “I don’t know your name, and I guess that doesn’t matter. If it did I would have asked someone by now.”
The home-schooled girl isn’t allowed to cut her hair. She wears it in a soft, glossy braid that nearly reaches her waist. She has big glasses. Her teeth are perfect. She isn’t allowed to eat sugar. They are alone together for the first time. They’re in Bobby’s house; his parents are out for the evening. He knows exactly when they’re coming back.
“These letters could have been written to anybody,” says Bobby. “They’re not really about you. They’re just things that I wanted to tell you. I wanted you to hear the things I said and say nothing back. You looked like you might do that for me if I asked. I never asked because if you said no it would make me so angry. I don’t ever like to let a girl see me get angry. They get full of themselves if they think it’s for them.”
Bobby says, “You can read one if you want. Pick any letter you like, especially if it’s this one.”
“Dear home-schooled girl,” says the letter. “Today your mom was late picking you up. Nothing feels worse than when your mother ignores you. I watched you from my car. I couldda driven you home. I bet you’re not allowed to ride alone in cars with guys. There are a lot of good reasons for that.”
The letter says, “Someday I’m going to be a complicated man.” It says, “I let other people do most of my feeling for me.”
It says, “When a girl likes you it means that you don’t have to like yourself.”
The home-schooled girl opens her mouth.
“Don’t interrupt,” says Bobby.
He says, “If you were still alive, we’d be in love now that I’ve shown you my letters.”
He says, “I’m so sorry I was too shallow.”
The home-schooled girl only came to school for half the day. She took math and science classes because her parents were too innumerate to teach her and because they didn’t have a lab. The school was also supposed to make her less afraid of other people.
Bobby says, “I don’t even know what I mean when I say shallow. You were probably beautiful then.”
The home-schooled girl does not interrupt. She wears a sweater she knitted for herself before they shot her. The yarn has some loose ends but it’s the best she could do; it’s many-splendored because she never buys the same color twice.
Bobby says, “Do you want to kiss a real live boy?”
He says, “I bet you’re not allowed.”
She says, “I’d rather read your letters.”
“When I finished one, I always put it in this binder right away. I used to throw my letters away when I was done writing them. But it’s best to keep them close. That way you know you had something to say, and that you were alive.”
The home-schooled girl flips through the binder’s plastic page protectors. She counts the ones with letters inside. She says, “We can prove that you lived fifty times in two years.”
The dead don’t speak to each other. None of them is interested in what the others have to say. Bobby asks the nice one why that is. The nice one has long, pretty eyelashes and longish center-parted hair that won’t stay tucked behind his ears. He has buck teeth and a black t-shirt with a the breast pocket scissored off. He blinks as if to demonstrate his lashes. He says, “I don’t want to hear them talk because they always say the same thing I’m thinking. All our words are really the same word, and it’s a really bad word.”
They are seated at a table in the psycho killer’s parents’ basement. The psycho killer’s drawing Spider-Man climbing out through a high window. The nice one is “inventing an explosive, working bomb with only common, everyday household ingredients.” This means that he is whisking laundry detergent, baking soda, and lighter fluid in a bowl that’s meant for mixing cookie dough. His t-shirt has brown spots from being laundered too many times.
Bobby watches and drinks a beer that he brought in his backpack. He thought the other two would want beer but they say it doesn’t interest them. He’ll have to drink it all himself.
“This is what I used to do when I was alive,” says the nice one. “I also drew tactical maps of the school. They were always to scale because I used a grid and my own measurements, which I made after hours. I also liked to read.”
“I liked eating Hostess snack cakes,” says the psycho killer, who has bleached, spiky hair and the best crater face of all time. “My parents won’t buy them for me anymore because they say I shouldn’t be rewarded for my bad behavior. Lemon was my favorite because I liked sour. I liked reading too. My favorite thing to read was comic books. I like Marvel and I don’t like DC. Superman is a jerk.”
“What I liked to read was romance novels,” says the nice one. “Some of them will teach you history and how to talk to women. Women like a man who listens. My problem was I had small hands.” He puts them palm-down on the table and spreads his fingers to show what they’re like. “I call them my little Christmas mittens.”
They call him the nice one because he was overheard apologizing to a student before he shot her, and because he has gentle eyes.
They call the psycho killer what they do because he wore mirrored glasses and talked like the Terminator the entire day of the shooting.
“I thought that everything would change after what we did,” says the nice one. “I thought that people would be different. But it’s all the same as it ever was. School is the government’s teeth and they use it to chew us.”
“Oh,” says Bobby.
“We never had any friends then either,” says the nice one. “It was just me and him. His parents used to love me. Their names are Susan and Jeff. I had an open invitation to dinner. I came over every day because my house is a hole and my family only eats frozen food. Susan used to make us hamburgers and hotdogs, chicken parmesan, and other classic dishes. Now she’s too busy sewing inspirational cross stitch for the victims’ families, so they mostly order in.”
“After dinner,” says the psycho killer, “I used to get into my cage for the evening.”
He stands, and in standing thumps the table’s edge.
“Be careful,” says the nice one. “My explosives.” He is adding pumpkin pie mix to the bowl.
“Here’s my cage,” says the psycho killer. He sits down in a large, white, plastic laundry basket. He lifts another up and rests it on his head. The top and the bottom baskets are like an open clamshell; their lips do not quite touch. “I’m not allowed to do homework in my cage. I can watch television through the bars, but I’m not allowed to choose the channel. Buttmunch over there chooses it for me. He mostly chooses science fiction and sometimes PBS.”
Bobby says, “I’m sorry I was never kind to you.”
“That’s okay,” says the psycho killer.
“I was too shallow to see you for who you are,” says Bobby. “I learned a valuable lesson. I’ll never be that way again. I’m sorry it’s too late for us to be friends now.”
“That’s okay,” says the nice one.
“How did you choose who to shoot?” says Bobby.
“That’s a funny thing,” says the nice one. “We had a whole hit list, organized in order of importance. Guys like you were at the top of the list. It was going to be like regicide. When the kings of the school were gone, the people could choose their own leaders. It would be like a fresh start. And we would be dead, and we knew that, but the new royalty might be good kids like us, and it would be like we were ruling with them. But then the big day came and we didn’t want to shoot anyone on our list. Instead it was the kids like us: the weirdos, the weaklings, the losers and fags.”
He puts his little Christmas mittens on the table again. “They just looked like such natural victims,” he says.
“What did I look like?” says Bobby.
“Gosh,” says the nice one. “I don’t think I ever saw you that day.”
“I never did either,” says the psycho killer.
Bobby really was there. He saw them and what they did. But he knows from experience: when you’re doing the most exciting thing in the room, you don’t have to see anyone else. Everyone else has to look, and it’s their job to watch, and it’s their job to remember, and it’s their job to tell you what you looked like, and it’s their job to judge that you were good or you were bad. All you have to do is be.
Bobby licks his lips. He says, “What’s it like being dead?”
The nice one stares at him and so does the other. They stare and stare until he has to check his teeth. They stare and stare until he has to cough. They stare and stare and it feels like they will never stop.
The psycho killer’s parents call the boys for supper.
“Did you want to go home?” says the nice one.
Bobby says, “Of course not. What are we having?”
“It’s Friday,” says the nice one, “so his parents bought pizza. But you can go if you want. They don’t expect you and they didn’t buy any extra.”
The psycho killer’s mother sets the table with paper plates and yellow napkins. Everybody gets a plastic fork but she’s the only one who uses hers. Bobby, the father, and the dead eat with their hands.
Bobby refuses to watch the dead eat but he can’t help hearing them chew. The nice one smacks his lips with each bite. They shouldn’t have it. They don’t need the food and it won’t make them bigger. Nothing’s going to make them bigger.