And then she lit a cigarette and sucked on it so hard for so long that I thought the entire thing might burn off in one drag. She exhaled and read to me:
“ ‘He’—that’s SimOn BolIvar—‘was shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams was at that moment reaching the finish line. The rest was darkness. “Damn it,” he sighed. “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” ’ ”
I knew great last words when I heard them, and I made a mental note to get ahold of a biography of this SimOn BolIvar fellow. Beautiful last words, but I didn’t quite understand. “So what’s the labyrinth?” I asked her.
And now is as good a time as any to say that she was beautiful. In the dark beside me, she smelled of sweat and sunshine and vanilla, and on that thin-mooned night I could see little more than her silhouette except for when she smoked, when the burning cherry of the cigarette washed her face in pale red light. But even in the dark, I could see her eyes—fierce emeralds. She had the kind of eyes that predisposed you to supporting her every endeavor. And not just beautiful, but hot, too, with her breasts straining against her tight tank top, her curved legs swinging back and forth beneath the swing, flip-flops dangling from her electric-blue-painted toes. It was right then, between when I asked about the labyrinth and when she answered me, that I realized the importance of curves, of the thousand places where girls’ bodies ease from one place to another, from arc of the foot to ankle to calf, from calf to hip to waist to breast to neck to ski-slope nose to forehead to shoulder to the concave arch of the back to the butt to the etc. I’d noticed curves before, of course, but I had never quite apprehended their significance.
Her mouth close enough to me that I could feel her breath warmer than the air, she said, “That’s the mystery, isn’t it? Is the labyrinth living or dying? Which is he trying to escape—the world or the end of it?” I waited for her to keep talking, but after a while it became obvious she wanted an answer.
“Uh, I don’t know,” I said finally. “Have you really read all those books in your room?”
She laughed. “Oh God no. I’ve maybe read a third of ’em. But I’m going to read them all. I call it my Life’s Library. Every summer since I was little, I’ve gone to garage sales and bought all the books that looked interesting. So I always have something to read. But there is so much to do: cigarettes to smoke, sex to have, swings to swing on. I’ll have more time for reading when I’m old and boring.”
She told me that I reminded her of the Colonel when he came to Culver Creek. They were freshmen together, she said, both scholarship kids with, as she put it, “a shared interest in booze and mischief.” The phrase booze and mischief left me worrying I’d stumbled into what my mother referred to as “the wrong crowd,” but for the wrong crowd, they both seemed awfully smart. As she lit a new cigarette off the butt of her previous one, she told me that the Colonel was smart but hadn’t done much living when he got to the Creek.
“I got rid of that problem quickly.” She smiled. “By November, I’d gotten him his first girlfriend, a perfectly nice non-Weekday Warrior named Janice. He dumped her after a month because she was too rich for his poverty-soaked blood, but whatever. We pulled our first prank that year—we filled Classroom 4 with a thin layer of marbles. We’ve progressed some since then, of course.” She laughed. So Chip became the Colonel—the military-style planner of their pranks, and Alaska was ever Alaska, the larger-than-life creative force behind them.
“You’re smart like him,” she said. “Quieter, though. And cuter, but I didn’t even just say that, because I love my boyfriend.”
“Yeah, you’re not bad either,” I said, overwhelmed by her compliment. “But I didn’t just say that, because I love my girlfriend. Oh, wait. Right. I don’t have one.”
She laughed. “Yeah, don’t worry, Pudge. If there’s one thing I can get you, it’s a girlfriend. Let’s make a deal: You figure out what the labyrinth is and how to get out of it, and I’ll get you laid.”
“Deal.” We shook on it.
Later, I walked toward the dorm circle beside Alaska. The cicadas hummed their one-note song, just as they had at home in Florida. She turned to me as we made our way through the darkness and said, “When you’re walking at night, do you ever get creeped out and even though it’s silly and embarrassing you just want to run home?”
It seemed too secret and personal to admit to a virtual stranger, but I told her, “Yeah, totally.”
For a moment, she was quiet. Then she grabbed my hand, whispered, “Run run run run run,” and took off, pulling me behind her.
one hundred twenty-seven days before
EARLY THE NEXT AFTERNOON, I blinked sweat from my eyes as I taped a van Gogh poster to the back of the door. The Colonel sat on the couch judging whether the poster was level and fielding my endless questions about Alaska. What’s her story? “She’s from Vine Station. You could drive past it without noticing—and from what I understand, you ought to. Her boyfriend’s at Vanderbilt on scholarship. Plays bass in some band. Don’t know much about her family.” So she really likes him? “I guess. She hasn’t cheated on him, which is a first.” And so on. All morning, I’d been unable to care about anything else, not the van Gogh poster and not video games and not even my class schedule, which the Eagle had brought by that morning. He introduced himself, too:
“Welcome to Culver Creek, Mr. Halter. You’re given a large measure of freedom here. If you abuse it, you’ll regret it. You seem like a nice young man. I’d hate to have to bid you farewell.”
And then he stared at me in a manner that was either serious or seriously malicious. “Alaska calls that the Look of Doom,” the Colonel told me after the Eagle left. “The next time you see that, you’re busted.”
“Okay, Pudge,” the Colonel said as I stepped away from the poster. Not entirely level, but close enough. “Enough with the Alaska already. By my count, there are ninety-two girls at this school, and every last one of them is less crazy than Alaska, who, I might add, already has a boyfriend. I’m going to lunch. It’s bufriedo day.” He walked out, leaving the door open. Feeling like an overinfatuated idiot, I got up to close the door. The Colonel, already halfway across the dorm circle, turned around. “Christ. Are you coming or what?”
You can say a lot of bad things about Alabama, but you can’t say that Alabamans as a people are unduly afraid of deep fryers. In that first week at the Creek, the cafeteria served fried chicken, chicken-fried steak, and fried okra, which marked my first foray into the delicacy that is the fried vegetable. I half expected them to fry the iceberg lettuce. But nothing matched the bufriedo, a dish created by Maureen, the amazingly (and understandably) obese Culver Creek cook. A deep-fried bean burrito, the bufriedo proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that frying always improves a food. Sitting with the Colonel and five guys I didn’t know at a circular table in the cafeteria that afternoon, I sank my teeth into the crunchy shell of my first bufriedo and experienced a culinary orgasm. My mom cooked okay, but I immediately wanted to bring Maureen home with me over Thanksgiving.
The Colonel introduced me (as “Pudge”) to the guys at the wobbly wooden table, but I only registered the name Takumi, whom Alaska had mentioned yesterday. A thin Japanese guy only a few inches taller than the Colonel, Takumi talked with his mouth full as I chewed slowly, savoring the bean-y crunch.
“God,” Takumi said to me, “there’s nothing like watching a man eat his first bufriedo.”
I didn’t say much—partly because no one asked me any questions and partly because I just wanted to eat as much as I could. But Takumi felt no such modesty—he could, and did, eat and chew and swallow while talking.
The lunch discussion centered on the girl who was supposed to have been Alaska’s roommate, Marya, and her boyfriend, Paul, who had been a Weekday Warrior. They’d gotten kicked out in the last week of the previous school year, I learned, for what the Colonel called “the Trifecta”—they were caught committing three of Culver Creek’s expellable offenses at once. Lying naked in bed together (“genital contact” being offense #1), already drunk (#2), they were smoking a joint (#3) when the Eagle burst in on them. Rumors had it that someone had ratted them out, and Takumi seemed intent on finding out who—intent enough, anyway, to shout about it with his mouth jam-packed with bufriedo.
“Paul was an asshole,” the Colonel said. “I wouldn’t have ratted on them, but anyone who shacks up with a Jaguar-driving Weekday Warrior like Paul deserves what she gets.”
“Dude,” Takumi responded, “yaw guhfwend,” and then he swallowed a bite of food, “is a Weekday Warrior.”
“True.” The Colonel laughed. “Much to my chagrin, that is an incontestable fact. But she is not as big an asshole as Paul.”
“Not quite.” Takumi smirked. The Colonel laughed again, and I wondered why he wouldn’t stand up for his girlfriend. I wouldn’t have cared if my girlfriend was a Jaguar-driving Cyclops with a beard—I’d have been grateful just to have someone to make out with.
That evening, when the Colonel dropped by Room 43 to pick up the cigarettes (he seemed to have forgotten that they were, technically, mine), I didn’t really care when he didn’t invite me out with him. In public school, I’d known plenty of people who made it a habit to hate this kind of person or that kind—the geeks hated the preps, etc.—and it always seemed like a big waste of time to me. The Colonel didn’t tell me where he’d spent the afternoon, or where he was going to spend the evening, but he closed the door behind him when he left, so I guessed I wasn’t welcome.
Just as well: I spent the night surfing the Web (no porn, I swear) and reading The Final Days, a book about Richard Nixon and Watergate. For dinner, I microwaved a refrigerated bufriedo the Colonel had snuck out of the cafeteria. It reminded me of nights in Florida—except with better food and no air-conditioning. Lying in bed and reading felt pleasantly familiar.
I decided to heed what I’m sure would have been my mother’s advice and get a good night’s sleep before my first day of classes. French II started at 8:10, and figuring it couldn’t take more than eight minutes to put on some clothes and walk to the classrooms, I set my alarm for 8:02. I took a shower, and then lay in bed waiting for sleep to save me from the heat. Around 11:00, I realized that the tiny fan clipped to my bunk might make more of a difference if I took off my shirt, and I finally fell asleep on top of the sheets wearing just boxers.
A decision I found myself regretting some hours later when I awoke to two sweaty, meaty hands shaking the holy hell out of me. I woke up completely and instantly, sitting up straight in bed, terrified, and I couldn’t understand the voices for some reason, couldn’t understand why there were any voices at all, and what the hell time was it anyway? And finally my head cleared enough to hear, “C’mon, kid. Don’t make us kick your ass. Just get up,” and then from the top bunk, I heard, “Christ, Pudge. Just get up.” So I got up, and saw for the first time three shadowy figures. Two of them grabbed me, one with a hand on each of my upper arms, and walked me out of the room. On the way out, the Colonel mumbled, “Have a good time. Go easy on him, Kevin.”
They led me, almost at a jog, behind my dorm building, and then across the soccer field. The ground was grassy but gravelly, too, and I wondered why no one had shown the common courtesy to tell me to put on shoes, and why was I out there in my underwear, chicken legs exposed to the world? A thousand humiliations crossed my mind: There’s the new junior, Miles Halter, handcuffed to the soccer goal wearing only his boxers. I imagined them taking me into the woods, where we now seemed headed, and beating the shit out of me so that I looked great for my first day of school. And the whole time, I just stared at my feet, because I didn’t want to look at them and I didn’t want to fall, so I watched my steps, trying to avoid the bigger rocks. I felt the fight-or-flight reflex swell up in me over and over again, but I knew that neither fight nor flight had ever worked for me before. They took me a roundabout way to the fake beach, and then I knew what would happen—a good, old-fashioned dunking in the lake—and I calmed down. I could handle that.
When we reached the beach, they told me to put my arms at my sides, and the beefiest guy grabbed two rolls of duct tape from the sand. With my arms flat against my sides like a soldier at attention, they mummified me from my shoulder to my wrists. Then they threw me down on the ground; the sand from the fake beach cushioned the landing, but I still hit my head. Two of them pulled my legs together while the other one—Kevin, I’d figured out—put his angular, strong-jawed face up so close to mine that the gel-soaked spikes of hair pointing out from his forehead poked at my face, and told me, “This is for the Colonel. You shouldn’t hang out with that asshole.” They taped my legs together, from ankles to thighs. I looked like a silver mummy. I said, “Please guys, don’t,” just before they taped my mouth shut. Then they picked me up and hurled me into the water.
Sinking. Sinking, but instead of feeling panic or anything else, I realized that “Please guys, don’t” were terrible last words. But then the great miracle of the human species—our buoyancy—came through, and as I felt myself floating toward the surface, I twisted and turned as best I could so that the warm night air hit my nose first, and I breathed. I wasn’t dead and wasn’t going to die.
Well, I thought, that wasn’t so bad.