But there was still the small matter of getting to shore before the sun rose. First, to determine my position vis-à-vis the shoreline. If I tilted my head too much, I felt my whole body start to roll, and on the long list of unpleasant ways to die, “facedown in soaking-wet white boxers” is pretty high up there. So instead I rolled my eyes and craned my neck back, my eyes almost underwater, until I saw that the shore—not ten feet away—was directly behind my head. I began to swim, an armless silver mermaid, using only my hips to generate motion, until finally my ass scraped against the lake’s mucky bottom. I turned then and used my hips and waist to roll three times, until I came ashore near a ratty green towel. They’d left me a towel. How thoughtful.
The water had seeped under the duct tape and loosened the adhesive’s grip on my skin, but the tape was wrapped around me three layers deep in places, which necessitated wiggling like a fish out of water. Finally it loosened enough for me to slip my left hand up and out against my chest and rip the tape off.
I wrapped myself in the sandy towel. I didn’t want to go back to my room and see Chip, because I had no idea what Kevin had meant—maybe if I went back to the room, they’d be waiting for me and they’d get me for real; maybe I needed to show them, “Okay. Got your message. He’s just my roommate, not my friend.” And anyway, I didn’t feel terribly friendly toward the Colonel. Have a good time, he’d said. Yeah, I thought. I had a ball.
So I went to Alaska’s room. I didn’t know what time it was, but I could see a faint light underneath her door. I knocked softly.
“Yeah,” she said, and I came in, wet and sandy and wearing only a towel and soaking boxers. This was not, obviously, how you want the world’s hottest girl to see you, but I figured she could explain to me what had just happened.
She put down a book and got out of bed with a sheet wrapped around her shoulders. For a moment, she looked concerned. She looked like the girl I met yesterday, the girl who said I was cute and bubbled over with energy and silliness and intelligence. And then she laughed.
“Guess you went for a swim, huh?” And she said it with such casual malice that I felt that everyone had known, and I wondered why the whole damn school agreed in advance to possibly drown Miles Halter. But Alaska liked the Colonel, and in the confusion of the moment, I just looked at her blankly, unsure even of what to ask.
“Give me a break,” she said. “Come on. You know what? There are people with real problems. I’ve got real problems. Mommy ain’t here, so buck up, big guy.”
I left without saying a word to her and went to my room, slamming the door behind me, waking the Colonel, and stomping into the bathroom. I got in the shower to wash the algae and the lake off me, but the ridiculous faucet of a showerhead failed spectacularly, and how could Alaska and Kevin and those other guys already dislike me? After I finished the shower, I dried off and went into the room to find some clothes.
“So,” he said. “What took you so long? Get lost on your way home?”
“They said it was because of you,” I said, and my voice betrayed a hint of annoyance. “They said I shouldn’t hang out with you.”
“What? No, it happens to everybody,” the Colonel said. “It happened to me. They throw you in the lake. You swim out. You walk home.”
“I couldn’t just swim out,” I said softly, pulling on a pair of jean shorts beneath my towel. “They duct-taped me. I couldn’t even move, really.”
“Wait. Wait,” he said, and hopped out of his bunk, staring at me through the darkness. “They taped you? How?” And I showed him: I stood like a mummy, with my feet together and my hands at my sides, and showed him how they’d wrapped me up. And then I plopped down onto the couch.
“Christ! You could have drowned! They’re just supposed to throw you in the water in your underwear and run!” he shouted. “What the hell were they thinking? Who was it? Kevin Richman and who else? Do you remember their faces?”
“Yeah, I think.”
“Why the hell would they do that?” he wondered.
“Did you do something to them?” I asked.
“No, but I’m sure as shit gonna do something to ’em now. We’ll get them.”
“It wasn’t a big deal. I got out fine.”
“You could have died.” And I could have, I suppose. But I didn’t.
“Well, maybe I should just go to the Eagle tomorrow and tell him,” I said.
“Absolutely not,” he answered. He walked over to his crumpled shorts lying on the floor and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He lit two and handed one to me. I smoked the whole goddamned thing. “You’re not,” he continued, “because that’s not how shit gets dealt with here. And besides, you really don’t want to get a reputation for ratting. But we will deal with those bastards, Pudge. I promise you. They will regret messing with one of my friends.”
And if the Colonel thought that calling me his friend would make me stand by him, well, he was right. “Alaska was kind of mean to me tonight,” I said. I leaned over, opened an empty desk drawer, and used it as a makeshift ashtray.
“Like I said, she’s moody.”
I went to bed wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and socks. No matter how miserably hot it got, I resolved, I would sleep in my clothes every night at the Creek, feeling—probably for the first time in my life—the fear and excitement of living in a place where you never know what’s going to happen or when.
one hundred twenty-six days before
“WELL, NOW IT’S WAR,” the Colonel shouted the next morning. I rolled over and looked at the clock: 7:52. My first Culver Creek class, French, started in eighteen minutes. I blinked a couple times and looked up at the Colonel, who was standing between the couch and the COFFEE TABLE, holding his well-worn, once-white tennis shoes by the laces. For a long time, he stared at me, and I stared at him. And then, almost in slow motion, a grin crept across the Colonel’s face.
“I’ve got to hand it to them,” he said finally. “That was pretty clever.”
“What?” I asked.
“Last night—before they woke you up, I guess—they pissed in my shoes.”
“Are you sure?” I said, trying not to laugh.
“Do you care to smell?” he asked, holding the shoes toward me.
“Because I went ahead and smelled them, and yes, I am sure. If there’s one thing I know, it’s when I’ve just stepped in another man’s piss. It’s like my mom always says: ‘Ya think you’s a-walkin’ on water, but turns out you just got piss in your shoes.’ Point those guys out to me if you see them today,” he added, “because we need to figure out why they’re so, uh, pissed at me. And then we need to go ahead and start thinking about how we’re going to ruin their miserable little lives.”
When I received the Culver Creek Handbook over the summer and noticed happily that the “Dress Code” section contained only two words, casual modesty, it never occurred to me that girls would show up for class half asleep in cotton pajama shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops. Modest, I guess, and casual.
And there was something about girls wearing pajamas (even if modest), which might have made French at 8:10 in the morning bearable, if I’d had any idea what Madame O’Malley was talking about. Comment dis-tu “Oh my God, I don’t know nearly enough French to pass French II” en franCais? My French I class back in Florida did not prepare me for Madame O’Malley, who skipped the “how was your summer” pleasantries and dove directly into something called the passé composé, which is apparently a verb tense. Alaska sat directly across from me in the circle of desks, but she didn’t look at me once the entire class, even though I could notice little but her. Maybe she could be mean . . . but the way she talked that first night about getting out of the labyrinth—so smart. And the way her mouth curled up on the right side all the time, like she was preparing to smirk, like she’d mastered the right half of the Mona Lisa’s inimitable smile . . .
From my room, the student population seemed manageable, but it overwhelmed me in the classroom area, which was a single, long building just beyond the dorm circle. The building was split into fourteen rooms facing out toward the lake. Kids crammed the narrow sidewalks in front of the classrooms, and even though finding my classes wasn’t hard (even with my poor sense of direction, I could get from French in Room 3 to precalc in Room 12), I felt unsettled all day. I didn’t know anyone and couldn’t even figure out whom I should be trying to know, and the classes were hard, even on the first day. My dad had told me I’d have to study, and now I believed him. The teachers were serious and smart and a lot of them went by “Dr.,” and so when the time came for my last class before lunch, World Religions, I felt tremendous relief. A vestige from when Culver Creek was a Christian boys’ school, I figured the World Religions class, required of every junior and senior, might be an easy A.
It was my only class all day where the desks weren’t arranged either in a square or a circle, so, not wanting to seem eager, I sat down in the third row at 11:03. I was seven minutes early, partly because I liked to be punctual, and partly because I didn’t have anyone to chat with out in the halls. Shortly thereafter, the Colonel came in with Takumi, and they sat down on opposite sides of me.
“I heard about last night,” Takumi said. “Alaska’s pissed.”
“That’s weird, since she was such a bitch last night,” I blurted out.
Takumi just shook his head. “Yeah, well, she didn’t know the whole story. And people are moody, dude. You gotta get used to living with people. You could have worse friends than—”
The Colonel cut him off. “Enough with the psychobabble, MC Dr. Phil. Let’s talk counterinsurgency.” People were starting to file into class, so the Colonel leaned in toward me and whispered, “If any of ’em are in this class, let me know, okay? Just, here, just put X’s where they’re sitting,” and he ripped a sheet of paper out of his notebook and drew a square for each desk. As people filed in, I saw one of them—the tall one with immaculately spiky hair—Kevin. Kevin stared down the Colonel as he walked past, but in trying to stare, he forgot to watch his step and bumped his thigh against a desk. The Colonel laughed. One of the other guys, the one who was either a little fat or worked out too much, came in behind Kevin, sporting pleated khaki pants and a short-sleeve black polo shirt. As they sat down, I crossed through the appropriate squares on the Colonel’s diagram and handed it to him. Just then, the Old Man shuffled in.
He breathed slowly and with great labor through his wide-open mouth. He took tiny steps toward the lectern, his heels not moving much past his toes. The Colonel nudged me and pointed casually to his notebook, which read, The Old Man only has one lung, and I did not doubt it. His audible, almost desperate breaths reminded me of my grandfather when he was dying of lung cancer. Barrelchested and ancient, the Old Man, it seemed to me, might die before he ever reached the podium.
“My name,” he said, “is Dr. Hyde. I have a first name, of course. So far as you are concerned, it is Doctor. Your parents pay a great deal of money so that you can attend school here, and I expect that you will offer them some return on their investment by reading what I tell you to read when I tell you to read it and consistently attending this class. And when you are here, you will listen to what I say.” Clearly not an easy A.
“This year, we’ll be studying three religious traditions: Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. We’ll tackle three more traditions next year. And in my classes, I will talk most of the time, and you will listen most of the time. Because you may be smart, but I’ve been smart longer. I’m sure some of you do not like lecture classes, but as you have probably noted, I’m not as young as I used to be. I would love to spend my remaining breath chatting with you about the finer points of Islamic history, but our time together is short. I must talk, and you must listen, for we are engaged here in the most important pursuit in history: the search for meaning. What is the nature of being a person? What is the best way to go about being a person? How did we come to be, and what will become of us when we are no longer? In short: What are the rules of this game, and how might we best play it?”
The nature of the labyrinth, I scribbled into my spiral notebook, and the way out of it. This teacher rocked. I hated discussion classes. I hated talking, and I hated listening to everyone else stumble on their words and try to phrase things in the vaguest possible way so they wouldn’t sound dumb, and I hated how it was all just a game of trying to figure out what the teacher wanted to hear and then saying it. I’m in class, so teach me. And teach me he did: In those fifty minutes, the Old Man made me take religion seriously. I’d never been religious, but he told us that religion is important whether or not we believed in one, in the same way that historical events are important whether or not you personally lived through them. And then he assigned us fifty pages of reading for the next day—from a book called Religious Studies.
That afternoon, I had two classes and two free periods. We had nine fifty-minute class periods each day, which means that most everyone had three “study periods” (except for the Colonel, who had an extra independent-study math class on account of being an Extra Special Genius). The Colonel and I had biology together, where I pointed out the other guy who’d duct-taped me the night before. In the top corner of his notebook, the Colonel wrote, Longwell Chase. Senior W-day Warrior. Friends w/Sara. Weird. It took me a minute to remember who Sara was: the Colonel’s girlfriend.
I spent my free periods in my room trying to read about religion. I learned that myth doesn’t mean a lie; it means a traditional story that tells you something about people and their worldview and what they hold sacred. Interesting. I also learned that after the events of the previous night, I was far too tired to care about myths or anything else, so I slept on top of the covers for most of the afternoon, until I awoke to Alaska singing, “WAKE UP, LITTLE PUHHHHHDGIE!” directly into my left ear canal. I held the religion book close up against my chest like a small paperback security blanket.