“It took guts to tell him,” I said.
“I have guts, just not when it counts. Will you—um,” and she sat up straight and then moved toward me, and I raised my arm as she collapsed into my skinny chest and cried. I felt bad for her, but she’d done it to herself. She didn’t have to rat.
“I don’t want to upset you, but maybe you just need to tell us all why you told on Marya. Were you scared of going home or something?”
She pulled away from me and gave me a Look of Doom that would have made the Eagle proud, and I felt like she hated me or hated my question or both, and then she looked away, out the window, toward the soccer field, and said, “There’s no home.”
“Well, you have a family,” I backpedaled. She’d talked to me about her mom just that morning. How could the girl who told that joke three hours before become a sobbing mess?
Still staring at me, she said, “I try not to be scared, you know. But I still ruin everything. I still fuck up.”
“Okay,” I told her. “It’s okay.” I didn’t even know what she was talking about anymore. One vague notion after another.
“Don’t you know who you love, Pudge? You love the girl who makes you laugh and shows you porn and drinks wine with you. You don’t love the crazy, sullen bitch.”
And there was something to that, truth be told.
WE ALL WENT HOME for Christmas break—even purportedly homeless Alaska.
I got a nice watch and a new wallet—“grown-up gifts,” my dad called them. But mostly I just studied for those two weeks. Christmas vacation wasn’t really a vacation, on account of how it was our last chance to study for exams, which started the day after we got back. I focused on precalc and biology, the two classes that most deeply threatened my goal of a 3.4 GPA. I wish I could say I was in it for the thrill of learning, but mostly I was in it for the thrill of getting into a worthwhile college.
So, yeah, I spent a lot of my time at home studying math and memorizing French vocab, just like I had before Culver Creek. Really, being at home for two weeks was just like my entire life before Culver Creek, except my parents were more emotional. They talked very little about their trip to London. I think they felt guilty. That’s a funny thing about parents. Even though I pretty much stayed at the Creek over Thanksgiving because I wanted to, my parents still felt guilty. It’s nice to have people who will feel guilty for you, although I could have lived without my mom crying during every single family dinner. She would say, “I’m a bad mother,” and my dad and I would immediately reply, “No, you’re not.”
Even my dad, who is affectionate but not, like, sentimental, randomly, while we were watching The Simpsons, said he missed me. I said I missed him, too, and I did. Sort of. They’re such nice people. We went to movies and played card games, and I told them the stories I could tell without horrifying them, and they listened. My dad, who sold real estate for a living but read more books than anyone I knew, talked with me about the books I was reading for English class, and my mom insisted that I sit with her in the kitchen and learn how to make simple dishes—macaroni, scrambled eggs—now that I was “living on my own.” Never mind that I didn’t have, or want, a kitchen. Never mind that I didn’t like eggs or macaroni and cheese. By New Year’s Day, I could make them anyway.
When I left, they both cried, my mom explaining that it was just empty-nest syndrome, that they were just so proud of me, that they loved me so much. That put a lump in my throat, and I didn’t care about Thanksgiving anymore. I had a family.
eight days before
ALASKA WALKED IN on the first day back from Christmas break and sat beside the Colonel on the couch. The Colonel was hard at work, breaking a land-speed record on the PlayStation.
She didn’t say she missed us, or that she was glad to see us. She just looked at the couch and said, “You really need a new couch.”
“Please don’t address me when I’m racing,” the Colonel said. “God. Does Jeff Gordon have to put up with this shit?”
“I’ve got an idea,” she said. “It’s great. What we need is a pre-prank that coincides with an attack on Kevin and his minions,” she said.
I was sitting on the bed, reading the textbook in preparation for my American history exam the next day.
“A pre-prank?” I asked.
“A prank designed to lull the administration into a false sense of security,” the Colonel answered, annoyed by the distraction. “After the pre-prank, the Eagle will think the junior class has done its prank and won’t be waiting for it when it actually comes.” Every year, the junior and senior classes pulled off a prank at some point in the year—usually something lame, like Roman candles in the dorm circle at five in the morning on a Sunday.
“Is there always a pre-prank?” I asked.
“No, you idiot,” the Colonel said. “If there was always a pre-prank, then the Eagle would expect two pranks. The last time a pre-prank was used—hmm. Oh, right: 1987. When the pre-prank was cutting off electricity to campus, and then the actual prank was putting five hundred live crickets in the heating ducts of the classrooms. Sometimes you can still hear the chirping.”
“Your rote memorization is, like, so impressive,” I said.
“You guys are like an old married couple.” Alaska smiled. “In a creepy way.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” the Colonel said. “You should see this kid try to crawl into bed with me at night.”
“Let’s get on subject!” Alaska said. “Pre-prank. This weekend, since there’s a new moon. We’re staying at the barn. You, me, the Colonel, Takumi, and, as a special gift to you, Pudge, Lara Buterskaya.”
“The Lara Buterskaya I puked on?”
“She’s just shy. She still likes you.” Alaska laughed. “Puking made you look—vulnerable.”
“Very perky boobs,” the Colonel said. “Are you bringing Takumi for me?”
“You need to be single for a while.”
“True enough,” the Colonel said.
“Just spend a few more months playing video games,” she said. “That hand-eye coordination will come in handy when you get to third base.”
“Gosh, I haven’t heard the base system in so long, I think I’ve forgotten third base,” the Colonel responded. “I would roll my eyes at you, but I can’t afford to look away from the screen.”
“French, Feel, Finger, Fuck. It’s like you skipped third grade,” Alaska said.
“I did skip third grade,” the Colonel answered.
“So,” I said, “what’s our pre-prank?”
“The Colonel and I will work that out. No need to get you into trouble—yet.”
“Oh. Okay. Um, I’m gonna go for a cigarette, then.”
I left. It wasn’t the first time Alaska had left me out of the loop, certainly, but after we’d been together so much over Thanksgiving, it seemed ridiculous to plan the prank with the Colonel but without me. Whose T-shirts were wet with her tears? Mine. Who’d listened to her read Vonnegut? Me. Who’d been the butt of the world’s worst knock-knock joke? Me. I walked to the Sunny Konvenience Kiosk across from school and smoked. This never happened to me in Florida, this oh-so-high-school angst about who likes whom more, and I hated myself for letting it happen now. You don’t have to care about her, I told myself. Screw her.
four days before
THE COLONEL WOULDN’T TELL ME a word about the pre-prank, except that it was to be called Barn Night, and that when I packed, I should pack for two days.
Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were torture. The Colonel was always with Alaska, and I was never invited. So I spent an inordinate amount of time studying for finals, which helped my GPA considerably. And I finally finished my religion paper.
My answer to the question was straightforward enough, really. Most Christians and Muslims believe in a heaven and a hell, though there’s a lot of disagreement within both religions over what, exactly, will get you into one afterlife or the other. Buddhists are more complicated—because of the Buddha’s doctrine of anatta, which basically says that people don’t have eternal souls. Instead, they have a bundle of energy, and that bundle of energy is transitory, migrating from one body to another, reincarnating endlessly until it eventually reaches enlightenment.
I never liked writing concluding paragraphs to papers—where you just repeat what you’ve already said with phrases like In summation, and To conclude. I didn’t do that—instead I talked about why I thought it was an important question. People, I thought, wanted security. They couldn’t bear the idea of death being a big black nothing, couldn’t bear the thought of their loved ones not existing, and couldn’t even imagine themselves not existing. I finally decided that people believed in an afterlife because they couldn’t bear not to.
three days before
ON FRIDAY, after a surprisingly successful precalc exam that brought my first set of Culver Creek finals to a close, I packed clothes (“Think New York trendy,” the Colonel advised. “Think black. Think sensible. Comfortable, but warm.”) and my sleeping bag into a backpack, and we picked up Takumi in his room and walked to the Eagle’s house. The Eagle was wearing his only outfit, and I wondered whether he just had thirty identical white button-down shirts and thirty identical black ties in his closet. I pictured him waking up in the morning, staring at his closet, and thinking, Hmm . . . hmm . . . how about a white shirt and a black tie? Talk about a guy who could use a wife.
“I’m taking Miles and Takumi home for the weekend to New Hope,” the Colonel told him.
“Miles liked his taste of New Hope that much?” the Eagle asked me.
“Yee haw! There’s a gonna be a hoedown at the trailer park!” the Colonel said. He could actually have a Southern accent when he wanted to, although like most everyone at Culver Creek, he didn’t usually speak with one.
“Hold on one moment while I call your mom,” the Eagle said to the Colonel.
Takumi looked at me with poorly disguised panic, and I felt lunch—fried chicken—rising in my stomach. But the Colonel just smiled. “Sure thing.”
“Chip and Miles and Takumi will be at your house this weekend? . . . Yes, ma’am. . . . Ha! . . . Okay. Bye now.” The Eagle looked up at the Colonel. “Your mom is a wonderful woman.” The Eagle smiled.
“You’re tellin’ me.” The Colonel grinned. “See you on Sunday.”
As we walked toward the gym parking lot, the Colonel said, “I called her yesterday and asked her to cover for me, and she didn’t even ask why. She just said, ‘I sure trust you, son,’ and hot damn she does.” Once out of sight of the Eagle’s house, we took a sharp right into the woods.
We walked on the dirt road over the bridge and back to the school’s barn, a dilapidated leak-prone structure that looked more like a long-abandoned log cabin than a barn. They still stored hay there, although I don’t know what for. It wasn’t like we had an equestrian program or anything. The Colonel, Takumi, and I got there first, setting up our sleeping bags on the softest bales of hay. It was 6:30.
Alaska came shortly after, having told the Eagle she was spending the weekend with Jake. The Eagle didn’t check that story, because Alaska spent at least one weekend there every month, and he knew that her parents never cared. Lara showed up half an hour later. She’d told the Eagle that she was driving to Atlanta to see an old friend from Romania. The Eagle called Lara’s parents to make sure that they knew she was spending a weekend off campus, and they didn’t mind.
“They trust me.” She smiled.
“You don’t sound like you have an accent sometimes,” I said, which was pretty stupid, but a darn sight better than throwing up on her.
“Eet’s only soft i’s.”
“No soft i’s in Russian?” I asked.
“Romanian,” she corrected me. Turns out Romanian is a language. Who knew? My cultural sensitivity quotient was going to have to drastically increase if I was going to share a sleeping bag with Lara anytime soon.
Everybody was sitting on sleeping bags, Alaska smoking with flagrant disregard for the overwhelming flammability of the structure, when the Colonel pulled out a single piece of computer paper and read from it.
“The point of this evening’s festivities is to prove once and for all that we are to pranking what the Weekday Warriors are to sucking. But we’ll also have the opportunity to make life unpleasant for the Eagle, which is always a welcome pleasure. And so,” he said, pausing as if for a drumroll, “we fight tonight a battle on three fronts:
“Front One: The pre-prank: We will, as it were, light a fire under the Eagle’s ass.
“Front Two: Operation Baldy: Wherein Lara flies solo in a retaliatory mission so elegant and cruel that it could only have been the brainchild of, well, me.”
“Hey!” Alaska interrupted. “It was my idea.”
“Okay, fine. It was Alaska’s idea.” He laughed. “And finally, Front Three: The Progress Reports: We’re going to hack into the faculty computer network and use their grading database to send out letters to Kevin et al.’s families saying that they are failing some of their classes.”
“We are definitely going to get expelled,” I said.
“I hope you didn’t bring the Asian kid along thinking he’s a computer genius. Because I am not,” Takumi said.
“We’re not going to get expelled and I’m the computer genius. The rest of you are muscle and distraction. We won’t get expelled even if we get caught because there are no expellable offenses here—well, except for the five bottles of Strawberry Hill in Alaska’s backpack, and that will be well hidden. We’re just, you know, wreaking a little havoc.”