Read “Teenage American Dream” Chapter 5

Note: The current state of Teenage American Dream is a work-in-progress. I’m posting Chapters 1-5 as a sample for things to come, but keep in mind that these are still in rough draft form and do not necessarily represent the final product. I will update this page with revised versions as they become relevant.

Teenage American Dream is currently in the drafting stage. It was previously scheduled for release on April 30, 2016, but due to other projects cutting into development time, this date has been changed to June 30, 2016. As of now, this, too, is tentative, as my life is a bit crazy at the moment.

Anyway, enjoy the preview:

Chapter 5

That night, before Eric went to bed, his dad knocked on the bedroom door. Normally he’d just barge in, but after a certain hour he’d generally show Eric a bit more respect than that, largely because he couldn’t get into any trouble if he were fast asleep. Eric told him to come in.

“Just reminding you tomorrow is the big day,” his dad said. “You find out what the principal wants us for?”

“No, I tried asking, but he was busy avoiding a starving kid today. Couldn’t get to him.”

His dad thought about that a moment.

“Was the kid asking him for food?”

“Yeah, more or less.”

His dad shrugged.

“Sounds like a real winner of a guy.”

“Yeah, good luck tomorrow.”

His dad pointed his index finger at him.

“You mean good luck to you. You could be grounded by noon, you realize. I should ground you for the TV blowout earlier.”

“What’s your motto? ‘We’ll just see what the day brings’?”

“Um, no. I plan ahead. That’s why I need to know what the hell this guy wants to see us for. For someone who likes to defy authority as much as you do, I must admit I’m disappointed at how little reconnaissance you’re able to give me on this.”

“Can we just talk about it after the meeting? You and I both know you’ll have more to complain about after you find out what I did wrong.”

His dad tapped the side of his door. Offered Eric a gentle wink and a nod.

“Sleep tight, son. Hope I’m not driven to kill you tomorrow.”

His dad crossed his fingers for an emphasis on luck.

***

            Eric didn’t sleep tight. He had spent most of the night restless in bed, unable to shake the thought that maybe he really was about to fall into serious trouble. He’d had run-ins with the principal before, but was usually found innocent when the accusing party offered no evidence to the contrary. It was possible that someone was finally able to present a solid case against him. Maybe the sins of his past were caught on camera and the footage finally found, or maybe they were linked to some other forensic proof. The possibility that Eric could lose all of his student rights was very real, and he was upset at himself for waiting until now to realize that. If he had thought about any of this before, he could have at least made some effort to investigate the truth, find out if he had a genuine problem. The idea that an anonymous party could potentially surface and divulge all the secrets that he thought he had buried left him sweating. Sometime in the middle of the night, he ran to the bathroom and vomited.

He wanted to hold back the clock, or find some wall to hide behind that was thick enough to stop the sun’s advancement. But it was no use. Morning was inevitable, and when it arrived, he had to face whatever trouble it was ready to deliver. Eric tried to regulate his breathing as he moved through the house gathering his daily essentials: shower, breakfast, homework still strewn on his desk, and so forth. His breathing was shallow; his heart was irregular. By the time he was dressed and ready to leave, he vomited again. Once his system was cleared, he grabbed the lunch bag his mom had packed for him from the fridge—something she’d picked up from Burger King the night before by the look of it; Eric groaned at the idea of eating fast food for lunch—and he headed out the front door.

When the bus rumbled to a stop before him, the driver pulled the door open, swiveled in his seat to gather his morning assessment of the cabin, and then shook his head at Eric. He had a thin-lipped expression on his face.

“Sorry, man,” he said. “Looks like Randy Sims brought all of his cousins with him today. No room this time.”

In the past, the bus driver would allow Eric on anyway, even though he’d become the seventieth passenger, because the rules used to state that no child should ever be left behind. But safety concerns had overpowered the demand for quantity lately, and the bus driver had since been required to refuse pickup of anyone who exceeded the sixty-six body limit. Because families in the neighborhood were getting larger and larger by the year, the bus’s seating maximum constantly got pushed. Now it was a dice roll to see who would wake up in time to catch the bus and who would be stuck begging a neighbor for a ride to school. Because Eric was among the last in line for pickup, he was often the passenger who would get screwed.

Eric waved at the bus driver as he closed the door on him and drove off. Then he checked his neighbors’ driveways to see who was home and who he hadn’t asked a ride from in a while.

Mr. Peters, the old retiree who was up at six every morning with nowhere to go, was next on the rotation, so Eric went to his house and knocked on his door first. When the old man didn’t answer—sometimes he couldn’t hear it—he went to Kyle Maverick’s house. Kyle was a twenty-four-year-old college kid who lived with his parents and smoked a lot. When Eric knocked on his door, it took Kyle nearly two minutes to answer. When swung the door open, he did not look pleased to see him.

“Dude, you woke me up. What do you want?”

Kyle was bleary-eyed and his hair was all over the place. He was also in just his boxers. He had a lit cigarette sticking out of his mouth.

“I need a ride to school,” Eric said.

“Bus ditch you again?”

Eric gave him the thumbs up.

“Dude, why don’t you just get your license already? Aren’t you eighteen yet?”

“No, and my parents can’t afford to get me a car even if I did have it.”

“Must hurt to live. Hold on, let me get my keys.”

Kyle drove an old beat up Toyota with patches of rust on the hood. There were times when Eric wasn’t sure the vehicle would make it all the way to school. He really didn’t want this as an option, but the other neighbors were still fresh on the transport list. He didn’t want to bother anyone else yet, so he waited by the car without complaint. He knew he had to get to school somehow, especially with his future hanging in the balance. If the principal were about to share his latest discoveries of Eric’s past school crimes with his parents, then Eric didn’t want to give either party additional ammunition, and that included truancy from school. He needed to get there however possible. Riding in Kyle’s junkmobile was still better than walking four miles.

Kyle came back out of his house with the keys hanging loosely between his fingers. He closed the front door behind him but didn’t bother to lock it. It popped open slightly as it hit the doorjamb. He paid it no additional attention. He climbed into the driver’s side first and popped the passenger lock open from the inside. Eric opened the door and brushed a pile of ash and a few lettuce leaves out of the seat. Then he sat and waited for Kyle to turn the ignition.

“Heard it through the grapevine that you got Neanderthal Ninjas yesterday,” Kyle said, as he put the key into the ignition switch.

“Er, where’d you hear that?”

“Grapevine. So, the deal today is that you let me borrow it in exchange for the ride.”

Eric leaned back in his seat, stared out the window, and grabbed a fistful of his own hair as he considered the proposition. He was no fan of lending out other people’s things. But sometimes he was put in a position of negotiation and had to deal with it. His other option was to negotiate an alternative plan. He thought hard about other things he could put into play.

“For every second you take to think about it,” Kyle said, “is one more second you’re gonna be late for class. You sure you want to give your parents something else to be mad about?”

Eric looked at him.

“Who’s giving you your information?”

“Come on, agree to my terms. You can have the game back on Monday.”

“Why can’t you get your own copy? You have a job, don’t you?”

Kyle smirked at him.

“You dream too much. I’ll take you as far as your driveway. Whether we go past your driveway will depend on whether you go inside and get me the game.”

Eric growled on the inside. But then he remembered that the television was out of commission for the time being, and he wouldn’t have anything to play it on anyway. He agreed to Kyle’s terms.

“I also need to borrow the PS4,” he said.

“What? No, come on, man. You said you just want the game.”

“I want to play the game.”

“So, play it on your own system.”

“Can’t. Set fire to it on accident a couple weeks ago.”

Eric shook his head.

“The agreement is I let you borrow the game, which isn’t even mine, by the way, for a ride. That’s it. No other deals.”

Kyle smacked him on the side of the arm. He kept his teeth clenched over his cigarette as he smiled.

“You’re a tough negotiator, little buddy. I like it. But you’re not tougher than me. You give me the game for the ride. But you give me the PS4 to keep me from walking you to class when I drop you off.”

Eric considered this new arrangement. He didn’t like the idea of Kyle springing a new threat onto him. And he certainly didn’t like the terms of the negotiation. But he respected the power play. Kyle was, after all, still wearing just his boxers.

“Fine,” Eric said. “Just don’t break either of them.”

***

            His first class that morning was 3D Art & Design, which was basically the schoolboard’s upgraded branding for its original “art” moniker that ultimately came down to the same type of class. Even though he wasn’t talented at designing things, he still had fun doodling pictures of violent landscapes involving Martians and robots on the school’s dime. His teacher often pressured him to “try harder,” which was to say to concentrate less on juvenile images and more on “expressions of fine art,” or pictures of still life to be more accurate. He had never once seen any of her own work on display—she was fiercely protective of her intellectual property, something none of the students fully understood—but he imagined she painted a lot of pottery (and pictures of pottery) in her day. But he never tried harder. It wasn’t in his DNA. Art to the Bachners was equivalent to justice for a crime family: two things that didn’t mix well together. The only reason he signed up for the class was because his alternative was to file papers in the school office for a “peer counseling” credit, even though no peer would ever choose to come to him for counseling. Peer counseling was essentially a free hour, but one he had to spend in the company of administrators, which had the potential for danger in his line of work. Too much potential for school justice. He thought hiding in the corner of an art class was a safer bet for staying under the radar. Mrs. Fogarth was generally keen to leave him alone. She preferred interacting with the star pupils, like Mary.

But the one thing she could not tolerate, no matter how badly he approached his idea of art, which she had made known time and again was far different than her idea of art, was tardiness, and Eric came waltzing in ten minutes after the bell rang. Even though there was no real lesson to be had today, as the curriculum this late in the year was mainly about fulfilling the hands-on applications of those styles they had learned about from September to December, and therefore no lecture to interrupt, the idea that he could come in any time he damn well pleased was a show of disrespect in Mrs. Fogarth’s eyes. Adding to that the general disregard he had to the appreciation of fine art, and Mrs. Fogarth had no choice but to label him a miscreant, and according to her syllabus, she didn’t like miscreants one bit.

Fortunately, he was used to showing up late to her class, so he knew how to play this game. Without saying a word, and without making eye contact, he simply strolled up to her easel, set the picture he drew of the coffee cup on top of it, and headed for his workstation in the back of class. Mrs. Fogarth, who was also well versed in this play of clashing ideals, didn’t bother saying a word to him. She had already expressed her feelings about tardiness for the first three months of class, back when his lateness had actually interrupted a lesson. The only response she gave anymore was that look of disappointment in him when he finally did make eye contact, some three or four minutes after taking his seat.

This, at least, was the way he had seen it play out in his mind when he approached the classroom door. Opening the door, however, created two unexpected realities for him. One, the class was not diligently at work on the next project, as was the norm since January, and two, Mrs. Fogarth was not about to play their usual game of cat and mouse today. As soon as he popped into the classroom, doing his best not to draw attention to himself, he discovered that the entire class was focused, not on whatever drawings they were assigned to work on, but on the front of the class, at Mrs. Fogarth, who had a piece of chalk in hand.

She was actually teaching this morning. Eric suddenly felt a cold sweat forming around his neck.

Due to the sudden change in environment, Eric had to adjust his methods for assimilating into a class in-progress. Instead of coming up through the middle where all could watch, he snuck around the edge of the classroom, trying his best to keep behind the dressing curtains that Mrs. Fogarth used for hiding sculptures that were irrelevant to today’s lesson. But he knew, even as he danced around clay figures shaped like rocks, that she wouldn’t let his attempt at stealth go ignored. He just didn’t expect her to take it to the extreme that she did. Instead of calling him out by name, which he figured she’d do, she chose to wait for him at his table when he emerged from behind the row of dressing curtains. His heart pounded when he made eye contact and saw the disappointed look in her face.

“Did I not warn you to be on time today, Mister Bachner?” she said, when he covered the last five feet to his station.

Eric closed his eyes in thought, tried to remember the last conversation he had had with her. When that produced fuzzy results, he thought back to their previous session, tried to determine if something in her voice had triggered instruction, and if that instruction had something to do with what she was talking about now. But nothing came to him. He shook his head.

“Maybe?” he said.

She held out her hand.

“You have an assignment due.”

“Yes, yes, I know. I have it.”

He scrambled to set his bag on the table and then rummaged through it for the coffee cup picture. When he found it and passed it over, Mrs. Fogarth clucked her tongue at what she saw.

“This is in crayon,” she said. “You were supposed to paint it. With oil.”

Eric raised his eyebrows at her while he tried zipping the bag up.

“Really?”

She slapped the half-assed picture hard on the desk, making the rest of the class jump. It was clear she had had enough of his shenanigans.

“I don’t believe in detention, Mister Bachner, but I do believe in community service. My garden. Saturday. Be there or fail this course.”

Eric took his seat, a three-foot high stool. He cupped his hands together as he gave this some thought.

“You don’t want to fail, do you, Mister Bachner?”

Eric looked up into her graying eyes, but said nothing. He was certain of the answer in his head, but he didn’t feel he had to justify every thought he had, or share any of it. That was for him to know. Her job was mainly to get him thinking about it.

She broke eye contact and returned to the front of the room where she resumed the first lesson she had given since December. Eric had no idea what she was talking about, or if the subject even had anything to do with art.

“Now, as I was saying,” she said, “Muriel Cosmetics offers a great opportunity for entrepreneurs of all ages, and your earning potential is unlimited. And best of all, signing up is easy.”

***

            After class, Mary threw a wadded paper ball at Eric’s face. It hit him in the forehead. He saw it coming and tried to swat it out of the way, but his hands were caught under the straps of his bag. He compensated by head-butting away. She threw another one at him.

“What the hell, Mary?” he said.

“No, Eric, what the hell back,” she said, as she stomped across the hallway floor to reach him. “Don’t you know the fire you’re playing with right now?”

Eric shrugged.

“Graduation is around the corner,” she said, “and you are about to miss it. Every class I have with you, you treat like a joke. Stop!”

Eric wrinkled his brow. Since when did she care?

“It’s not cool,” she continued. “It’s stupid. You were actually smart in middle school. You actually cared about your work. I don’t know what happened, but you’ve played this game long enough.”

“Er, not to sound ungrateful to whatever point you’re making, but why are you making it?”

“That is none of your business. Just start acting like an adult, okay? You’re really pissing me off. I mean, don’t you want to graduate?”

Again, Eric didn’t feel like he had to justify his thoughts to anyone, so he simply shrugged.

“Just, just stop using drugs, okay?”

Eric’s eyes widened. Stop using what? He was about to open his mouth in protest, but she turned her back and jogged off for her next class before he could respond. He’d never even seen a drug outside of aspirin his entire life, and now she was accusing him of using? What the hell?

He was about to follow her and refute her statement, but the tide of students between them swelled to an impassible thickness. He’d have to correct her viewpoint of him later.

This was not at all how he’d thought the day would begin, yet he was already making an enemy of his art teacher and a disbeliever out of one of the most popular girls in school, and his parents still hadn’t had their meeting with the principal yet.

His nerves started taking over his stomach again. He ran for the bathroom to vomit out his tensions. But the door was still locked with that OUT OF ORDER sign loosely taped by the handle. It had been up there for three weeks now. The school had lost its janitor back in March. No one in administration had ever told the students why. Administration still hadn’t found an appropriate replacement. Eric had to vomit in a trash bin instead. He had to search five classrooms to locate one that wasn’t already overflowing.

Advertisements

The stuff that keeps me awake at night.

%d bloggers like this: