Kevin’s anticipation pressurized to unbearable limits the closer he got to his bus stop. When the bus stopped in front of his apartment complex, it was all he could do to keep himself from barreling down the aisle and topple kids over into the bench seats. His feet tap-danced as he made excruciating progress behind the shambling line in front of him. He felt like he was in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. The one where Tom scrambled up a disintegrating escalator to heaven, only to have the steps fade away at the last moment, plunging him into a boiling cauldron tended by a satanic bulldog. A cold, wet panic seized Kevin. He was sure his window to get off the bus was about to close forever. The bus driver would slam the door shut and force Kevin to return to school. His school mascot was a bulldog.
The front of the bus pulled away nauseatingly like a shot from an Alfred Hitchcock film. Then everything went black.
When Kevin opened his eyes, he was standing at the threshold of the tall, coffin-like door. The features of the world outside were blasted away into a whitewashed nothingness. Kevin took the short hop into overexposed oblivion. The impact of his sneakers hitting the pavement sent a tingle all up Kevin’s body. He closed his eyes, lifted his face to the sky, and felt the sun burn away the dross of accumulated miseries.
The world resolved into color and shapes. Kevin took the tentative first steps of someone unaccustomed to freedom. The crippling anticipation Kevin felt on the bus transmuted into something sweeter, something to be savored. Kevin had longed for this day ever since moving to Piedmont, a suburb outside Atlanta. He held a mental picture of the exact moment he would walk through his front door, take off his sneakers, and be at rest. It was a feeling as much as it was an image. What started as an abstract hope gained substance and weight as the last day of school drew near. By the end, it was a scene Kevin could replay down to the most minute sensory detail. He knew the moment, with all its pregnant expectation and bittersweet longing, would be consumed by the jealous demands of the present the instant he entered the apartment. And so he took his time. If Kevin were older and more experienced, he would have recognized it as a kind of foreplay.
He made his way to the mail shed with its banks of aluminum cubbyholes. Kevin slipped his Jansport backpack off one shoulder, unzipped the smaller compartment, and grabbed his keys. He rubbed his fingers clean of the fine grit and lint melange found only in the bottoms of backpacks. Kevin opened the door to his mail cubby and saw a satisfyingly thick deposit of mail. His face brightened with an unexpected smile. Folded over the sheaves of bills and past due notices was a copy of Electronic Gaming Monthly. The polybag covering the magazine was mangled and burnished opaque. Kevin could hardly make out the cover. It was the April issue that should’ve arrived two months ago.
Like a pilgrim, Kevin climbed the stairs to his apartment in reflective silence, his mind quiet and expectant. He found the smooth, rounded apartment key on his key ring. The key eased into the lock with the faintest resistance. He felt the rubber seal on the bottom of the door stick as he pushed it open. The apartment beyond had the undisturbed stillness of a tomb. Kevin crossed the doorway into his sanctuary and let out a breath he had held for months. He kicked off his sneakers and walked down the short hallway.
The apartment was dark. Even lengths of soft, golden light spread from the gaps in the closed blinds. The main space consisted of a living room, kitchen, and dining area. Doors led off to the two bedrooms. The apartment was clean, but exceedingly spare. The dining area contained only a low, lacquered wood table. The kind you had to sit cross-legged on the ground to use. On this table, Kevin took his meals, did his homework, and created countless worlds endlessly preferred over the one he lived in. An off-brand TV sat on an identical table in the living room. Next to the TV was a dusty SEGA Genesis video game console. Three flat, square cushions on the ground served as a sofa.
Kevin dropped face down onto the cushions and lay there unmoving. Minutes passed. He felt the toll of the extrapolated years. Due to the unique time dilation that all kids experienced in school, the past five months felt like a lifetime. And it was curious how it all now seemed so far removed, a kind of phantom pain in his memory. He tried to recall details of this distant past life that was the source of so much angst.
Before his first day of school, Kevin kept himself up all night, memorizing his locker combination and visualizing the optimal route to his classes—a photocopied map of the school practically seared on the inside of his eyelids. He had visited the school earlier with his mom to enroll on a cold, gray day in January. A guidance counselor gave them a tour. Kevin was relieved that class was in session, yet he still held his breath when passing each classroom. Walking down the halls with his mom and a guidance counselor would only draw the wrong kinds of attention. The tour ended just as the bell rang. Kevin urged his mom out the door as students poured out of the classrooms.
The tinny alarm on Kevin’s cheap wristwatch went off. He was already awake. He had barely slept, but still buzzed with anxiety. His younger brother Jason stirred on the ground next to him. It was still dark. And cold.
Kevin’s teeth chattered as he washed up and got dressed for school. His mom was waiting in the kitchen with a steaming mug of instant soup. She handed it to him as he shuffled over. She smoothed the collar of his shirt as he took careful sips of the over salty soup. Kevin shrugged off and slouched on the ground in front of the low table. He stared ahead as he drank his soup.
“You have everything?” asked Kevin’s mom.
“Mmm,” Kevin grunted in acknowledgement.
Kevin turned and gave his mom a curdled look. She gave a weak smile in apology.
Kevin’s mom walked over and picked up the empty mug. “Okay. Have a good day at school.” She stood and hesitated, holding out her hand to touch her son, but pulled it back and walked to the kitchen instead. Kevin picked up his bag and put on his sneakers in the entryway.
“I love you.”
“I love you?” Her voice quavered.
“Okay,” Kevin snapped. He slammed the door.
Waiting for the bus, Kevin thought about the way he left the apartment, but he sure as hell wasn’t sorry. He felt a twisted kind of vindication. It was his mom’s fault that everything was this way. She made them move here, away from everything he had ever known. The other kids at the bus stop gave him the most cursory of glances before looking down at their feet. Kevin did the same.
The rest of the school year was an accumulating ledger of slights and humiliations interposed with the mundane drudgery of schoolwork. There were a scant few debits of reprieve: letters and calls from friends back in New Jersey, becoming friends with Daryl, art class, and not much else. The last day of school drove him far into the black, the reserves of bitterness an embarrassment of riches.
Kevin’s face was still buried in the cushion, the fabric under his mouth damp with his exhalations. The memories of the school year flashed by with the juddering acceleration of a flipbook before coming to an abrupt and final stop. With a sudden howl, Kevin flopped over in a violent fit and thrashed the air. Just as suddenly, he stopped, limbs frozen in place before letting them settle soft as feathers to the ground. He fanned his arms and legs as if he were making a snow angel. Kevin made one last, explosive stretch and let out a squealing sigh. This was all he wanted. All the injuries and injustices Kevin suffered at his new school weren’t forgotten, but their power was broken.
His first act of freedom was to tear off the plastic bag covering his prodigal issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly. He threw away the tattered plastic and adjusted two of the cushions in the living room until they were lined up at perfect right angles to the wall. He sat down in the center of one cushion. He set the magazine in the center of the other and gently turned the cover, reading each page from top to bottom, even the ads. Kevin absorbed every square inch of information, except for the reader letters, which he thought were a waste of time and space. However, he did linger on the envelope art section, where amateur artists submitted their renditions of popular video game characters. Kevin liked to see how well his own skills stacked up to those printed in a national publication. He could never bring himself to submit his own envelope art, paralyzed by the endless choice of subjects and his own insecurity.
The phone rang and shook Kevin out of his reverie. He marked his place with a piece of mail and laid the magazine flat, cover side up. He picked up the phone that was on the kitchen counter above the sink.
“Hi, this is Daryl. May I speak to Kevin?” Daryl spoke the greeting, with its specific diction and structure, reflexively.
“Yeah, it’s me,” said Kevin.
“Hey.” Kevin responded after the silence grew too uncomfortable, even for him.
“Hey, uh, I’m sorry about today,” said Daryl.
Kevin was quiet for a long time. He was annoyed. The undercurrent of anger that persisted from earlier encroached on the fragile peace he cultivated since coming home. “Sorry for what? Them spitting or you ditching me?”
Another long pause.
“Both, I guess.” Daryl’s contrition was sincere. “But I didn’t ditch you. You left before I could say anything.”
“Why do you even hang out with those guys?” Kevin admitted to himself that Daryl hadn’t chosen his other friends over him, but he was still upset that Daryl hesitated. Why was it even a choice?
“I dunno,” Daryl said lamely. “We’ve been friends since kindergarten. They weren’t always like that.”
Kevin doubted that. Most bullies were born with congenital meanness that only worsened with age. Daryl probably received his share of abuse from his old friends, but time had long since dulled their cruelties towards him. Kevin didn’t have that luxury.
“It’s whatever now,” said Kevin.
“Okay, cool.” Daryl let out a sigh. The tension on the line drained away.
Kevin couldn’t stay mad at his only friend in Georgia. Besides, he’d been guilty of even worse betrayals since moving here. He remembered what he did with a sudden stab of shame.
Lunch was the period Kevin dreaded most. His metric for choosing a seat was based on which table would be least likely to make him get up and leave. The cafeteria also served as the school’s auditorium. On the stage were three lunch tables, from which the 9th graders literally looked down on everyone else in the school. At ground level, it was anything goes, though by the time Kevin transferred to the school, the tectonic regions of students had settled into place.
On his first day, Kevin stood near the cafeteria doors for almost the entire lunch period. He carefully observed the procedure to buy a school lunch for fear of messing up and holding up the line. When the line was down to the last few students, Kevin stood at the end, grabbed a tray, some silverware, and a square bag of chocolate milk from a plastic crate. He handled the bag of milk as if it were a dead jellyfish. There were no glasses. How was he supposed to drink this?
He took a plate with a rectangle of cheese pizza substitute and a small bowl of tater tots. There was something that looked like a smashed peach pie, but Kevin didn’t know how much food was included in the set lunch price. He handed his money to the lunch worker at the end of the line and sat at a table where he wouldn’t have to sit next to anyone else. The bell signaling the end of lunch chimed over the PA system as Kevin started eating. He crammed the rest of the drywall with orange sauce and white eraser bits (pizza) down his gullet and stuffed his cheeks with tater tots. The mass of half-chewed, processed foodstuffs moved glacially down his throat. He really needed a drink. Kevin took one last appraising look at the bag of milk before tossing it in the trash. The water fountain would have to do.
As days passed, Kevin streamlined his lunch routine down to its barest elements: get in line, pay for food, take seat, ingest food, return tray. He would always sit in the end seat at the table closest to the cashier. Kevin quickly decided there was no point wandering around the cafeteria each day looking for a seat he wasn’t even welcome to. At peak efficiency, it took him five minutes from the moment he stepped in the cafeteria to dumping his try off at the tray return. That left him almost an entire period to, well, sit by himself in silence.
Kevin started drawing at lunch instead of reading his Dungeons & Dragons manuals. He kept blank copy paper in the clear front pocket of his binder. Kevin had never known the simple pleasure of having a Trapper Keeper. He never bothered asking for one, knowing what his parents’ response would be.
His latest work was a battle scene between several Marvel and DC Comics characters. Two students sitting nearby cast glances over at his drawing. He didn’t know them. They were a grade younger and looked to be even lower on the social pyramid than he was. Kevin hated to admit that their attention wasn’t unwanted. They looked like the purest distillation of every nerd stereotype ever. The irony of labeling them as nerds wasn’t lost on him. Kevin was in gifted classes, carried role-playing game books, and sat alone at lunch every day, but at least he didn’t look like a nerd. Back in New Jersey, he was even one of the more popular kids in his grade. Not these kids, though. Not by a country mile.
Both kids were beyond skinny. They reminded Kevin of starving kids on a TV infomercial. One of them had quarter-inch thick glasses that gave him the probing, unyielding stare of a deep ocean fish. He reminded Kevin of Nosferatu from the old silent film—high, stooped shoulders, pale skin, and a mouth that didn’t seem to close over a splayed tangle of teeth and braces. The other kid’s distinguishing features were bangs cut straight across, stopping well short of a forehead pinpricked with tiny bumps of acne and a yellowing polo shirt buttoned to the top. Kevin took in all these details while looking down at his drawing.
“Hey, come look at this,” said the kid with the glasses. He motioned the kid with the bangs over. “Did you draw that?” The kid with the glasses pointed at Kevin’s drawing.
It seemed self-evident that the person holding the pencil drew the picture in question, but Kevin heard this question more times than seemed reasonable. It didn’t annoy him or anything; he just found it odd. “Yeah,” said Kevin without looking up. Actually, the question did annoy him a little.
“It’s really good,” said the kid with the bangs.
“Thanks.” The two kids sat and watched Kevin with quiet attention until the bell rang. Kevin put the unfinished drawing back into the sleeve on his binder. He left without saying a word.
The kid with the glasses was Scott Healey. The kid with the bangs was Tim Reed. Kevin didn’t ask for their names; he overheard them addressing each other at lunch. He confirmed this information by looking at the name tags on their backpacks. Kevin had resigned to sitting near them at lunch every day.
Kevin felt a mix of embarrassment and exhilaration the day when Scott and Tim sat down next to him without preamble. He looked over to see the two of them with wide, toothy grins. Kevin turned back and suppressed the urge to sigh. Despite the quality of the company, Kevin couldn’t help but feel a little buoyed that someone had taken an interest in him.
“Hey, did you ever finish that drawing?” asked Scott. The thick glasses intensified his stare until there was no escape from the gravity of his magnified eyes. The braces made his speech wet and hissing.
“Yeah.” Kevin slid his binder over. Scott and Tim shifted in their chairs to get a better look.
“Whoa, this is so cool,” said Scott in a hushed voice. “I can’t even draw stick figures.” Kevin had heard that stock response hundreds of times before. “I’m Scott. That’s Tim.” Scott held out his hand. Tim nodded.
“I know,” said Kevin. He hesitated before shaking Scott’s hand. It felt cold and moist.
“Wait…how?” asked Scott, his face scrunched with confusion. Scott and Tim both looked up from the drawing. Kevin thought their mannerisms were cute in a small, woodland creature sort of way.
“I saw it on your backpacks.” Kevin pointed to their bags on the table.
“Oh, okay.” They returned to studying the drawing. “You’re pretty cool,” said Scott.
Kevin raised his eyebrows. The unsolicited statement seemed both random and untrue.
It turned out that Scott and Tim only looked like nerds. They weren’t in any gifted classes, and their interests were pretty prosaic. They watched shows like Saved by the Bell, rooted for the Braves, and their knowledge of the X-Men came largely from Saturday morning cartoons. About the only thing Kevin had in common with them was their low standing in the social hierarchy, joined together by mutual undesirability. The only kids lower on the totem pole were the Special Ed kids, but they had the sense to not even care. Special Ed kids seemed content whatever their place was, even if it was at the butt of the entire school’s jokes; something true of Special Ed kids at any school.
Tim took two milk pouches and pressed them against his chest. “Do you think this is what fake boobs feel like?” He stood up, wiggled in a suggestive manner, and made wooing sounds.
“Sit down, you idiot!” Scott stood up and slapped at the milk pouches Tim was holding. Tim made a high-pitched moan of protest. They all laughed.
While Scott and Tim continued to horse around, Kevin saw a kid from one of his classes, Kurt, snickering at him. Kurt gave a look that asked, “Why are you sitting there?” Kevin shrugged. Kurt shook his head and went back to eating.
After a few days, Kevin worked up the courage to sit at the table with Kurt and other kids from his class. They all looked up, said “hey” or nodded, and generally didn’t make a fuss that he was sitting with them. Kevin had walked halfway around the cafeteria to avoid Scott and Tim, but he felt their stares tracking his treacherous orbit across the room. Kevin barely registered the conversations going on around him; he was too focused on being invisible.
Bryce Timm walked over with a sack lunch and stopped when he saw Kevin sitting at the table. “Who said you could sit here?” Kevin froze mid-bite and didn’t look up. If he ignored the situation, maybe it would go away. He felt a hard shove on his back. “I said, ‘who said you could sit here?’” Kevin turned and saw Bryce’s eyes wide with anger.
“Just si’down,” said one of the kids at the table. Then others joined in. “Yeah, sit your ass down.” Cowed by their remarks, Bryce took an open seat on the other side of the table.
“But he took my seat,” said Bryce. “That’s my seat.”
“But he took my seat,” repeated one of the boys in a mocking tone. “Shaddap, queer!” The table broke out in scattered chuckles. Bryce’s face turned red and shook with fury as he stared at Kevin with unblinking hatred across the table. Kevin did his best not to look up.
“Why do you sit with those losers?” asked Kurt.
“Huh?” It took Kevin a second to realize someone was talking to him. He looked at Kurt. After giving the question some thought, he shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t really have anywhere else to sit and just got used to it.”
It became easier after a while—abandoning his friends. Scott. Tim. Were they even friends? Kevin tried to justify things by telling himself that they were in a lower grade and only acquaintances. He didn’t owe them anything.
Kevin no longer felt the tension of doing something that wasn’t necessarily wrong but shameful all the same. He walked past his old table without realizing it. Tim twitched his head in Kevin’s direction. Scott turned around. When he saw Kevin, he bolted out of his chair, and got up in Kevin’s face. Kevin backed away with an irritated expression.
“Why don’t you sit with us anymore?” accused Scott.
Kevin’s irritation turned to something more contrite. He gave a sheepish shrug and tried to walk around Tim. Tim moved to block him.
“Answer me, damnit!”
“Chill out.” Kevin hissed, looking Tim in the eye. “I sit with my other friends now.” Kevin’s expression hardened. It’s not like they were really friends. Kevin stared at Tim to move out of the way.
The indignation evaporated from Tim’s face; he knew his place now. Tim moved aside. Kevin saw Tim’s eyes grow red and watery around the edges, but he looked away and kept walking. He hoped Kurt and the others didn’t see what happened. Kevin felt a sudden hollowness, but the die had been cast.
Kevin heard the slight suction of the front door opening and felt a warm spill of humid air. His younger brother Jason had come home from school. There was the heavy sound of sneakers hitting the ground. Jason walked into the living room with a playful jaunt. He was clutching a fistful of ribbons and candy in his hands.
“Who are you talking to?” Jason asked. Kevin ignored him. Jason walked over and looked Kevin right in the eye, their foreheads almost touching.
“Get out of here!” Kevin scowled and gave his brother a hard shove that sent him stumbling to the ground.
“Why won’t you tell me?” Jason pleaded. Kevin got up and cocked his fist. Jason cringed, waiting for the blow.
“I said get out of here!” said Kevin through clenched teeth. Squealing, Jason scrambled to their shared room and slammed the door.
“Was that your brother?” asked Daryl on phone.
“Yeah,” said Kevin. “He’s so freakin’ annoying.”
Jason was eight years old, five years younger than Kevin. Their relationship was neither close nor affectionate, given their age difference amongst other things. Jason was talkative and carefree, while Kevin was insular and given to brooding. Jason was quick to make friends at his new school and didn’t seem phased by the move and attendant turmoil; something that Kevin resented fiercely. Jason was too old to be considered cute and too young to share in Kevin’s interests. Kevin’s attempts to teach Jason how to play Dungeons & Dragons usually ended in actual combat and tears.
“Do you want to come over tomorrow?” Daryl asked. “Maybe you can sleep over.”
“Yeah.” said Kevin in a conspiratory tone. “I’ll ask my mom when she comes home.”
“Cool. We can walk to the video store and rent a game. Maybe a Japanese cartoon.”
“I’ll bring over my D&D stuff and comics, too,” said Kevin.
“Hopefully your brother doesn’t cry this time,” said Daryl.
“Seriously,” said Kevin with a groan.
The first and last time Kevin went over to Daryl’s for a sleepover, Kevin’s mom had to pick him up early. Jason was crying and couldn’t sleep because Kevin wasn’t there next to him. Kevin’s mom called Daryl’s house and explained the situation to his parents. Kevin and Daryl were standing in the kitchen, trying to understand why Kevin’s mother was calling at 9:00 at night.
“Kevin, your mom is coming to pick you up,” said Daryl’s mom.
“What? Why?” Kevin and Daryl protested in unison.
Daryl’s mom had an apologetic smile. “Kevin’s brother crying because Kevin not at home.”
Kevin could feel the anger form a hard knot in his brow. He couldn’t believe what was happening. “I’m sorry, Kevin,” said Daryl’s mom. “Mom will be here in twenty minutes.”
Kevin felt like stomping out of the kitchen, but he couldn’t. This wasn’t his house. He had no outlet for this unexpected surge of anger. At home, he would have punched a hole in the wall or broken something. He almost smashed his comic books into the bottom of his bag as he packed up, but they were too valuable a commodity.
“This sucks,” said Daryl. He threw a LEGO across the room.
Kevin crushed the straps of his backpack in his hands. “That stupid baby ruins everything. I can never do anything by myself.”
“Yeah, little brothers are the worst,” said Daryl, who was an only child.
“I’m going to beat the crap out of him when I get home,” Kevin cursed, more to himself.
Kevin and Daryl heard a knock at the front door. They heard Daryl’s mom open the door, then loud greetings and laughter. The two moms apologized to each other for the inconvenience. Why the hell is she so happy? Kevin thought. His anger flared to consume his mom as well in its hateful blaze.
“Kevin, mom is here,” called Daryl’s mom.
Kevin made no attempt to hide his malcontent as he walked into the living room.
“Look at him,” said Daryl’s mom. “You have to let him stay.” For a moment, a piercing bolt of hope shot through Kevin’s foul mood. Kevin and Daryl’s faces immediately transformed into simpering, pleading looks.
“No, no,” said Kevin’s mom. “Jason won’t stop crying. Maybe next time.”
“Next time,” agreed Daryl’s mom.
Next time, Kevin thought, always next time. His life lately seemed to be a never ending series of disappointments with relief perpetually deferred to some nebulous future. Kevin’s scowl intensified to the point of blindness. He said a terse farewell to Daryl and his mom and walked out the door. He could hear his mom saying a bright, cheerful goodbye. She was smiling.
Kevin opened the door of the car, ready to punch Jason, but he wasn’t there. “Where is he?”
“Jason?” Kevin’s mom gave a wary look. “At home.”
“By himself?” Kevin continued to search the car, still expecting to find his brother.
“Mm,” said Kevin’s mom. “I didn’t want to bother your friend’s parents and make them drive you home. He’s okay.”
That didn’t explain why his mom left Jason at home, but Kevin let it go. His brother’s well-being was the exact opposite thing that was on his mind. He sat in the passenger seat and hugged his backpack to his chest before slamming the door shut. His mom looked over and was about to say something but stopped. Nothing short of letting Kevin stay at Daryl’s would change his mood. She sighed and started the car.
They drove home in silence. Kevin kept his eyes open until they burned and breathed noisily through his teeth; he needed to keep his anger stoked until he got home. When the car stopped in front of their apartment, Kevin didn’t slam the door or stomp up the stairs. Instead, he pressed his feet so hard into each step that they creaked in protest. He was going to smash his brother into dog food.
Kevin headed straight to his room after taking off his sneakers. He expected his brother to jump on him like an excited puppy as soon as he opened the door. He’d hug his brother and pull him close. But instead of letting go, he’d tighten his hold and hug-hit Jason; a move Kevin had long perfected. He’d lure his brother into a false sense of security by hugging him with one arm and then pound on his back with the other. He could feel the satisfying, percussive impacts of his fist against Jason’s back even now. Then he’d drop Jason to the floor and drink up the sound of his delicious cries.
But Jason was asleep.
Kevin cursed. He was asleep this whole time? He threw his backpack down and dropped next to his brother’s sleeping form, fist high in the air, ready to crash down savage blow after blow.
But he didn’t.
He noticed Jason’s quiet breathing, saw the slightly parted lips and flushed, round cheeks. This was still his baby brother.
Kevin let his fist fall to his side, his anger leeching out impotently into the dark room. He hit his pillow in frustration, then laid down on the floor next to his brother and looked at him for a long time. A small movement caught his eye. He saw two dark lines glide away through the gap under the door.
“Cool. I’ll call you later after I talk to my mom.” Kevin hung up the phone. He and Daryl had mapped out their weekend down to the half-hour, modifying and amending their plans several times over. Kevin felt the urgent need to maximize his summer vacation to make up for the awful school year he just endured. He settled back down on the cushions and picked up his place in his magazine. Summer vacation was finally here.