Mrs. Pine was decorated like a Christmas tree, it seemed. All she needed were some blinking lights and a star to top her tragically anachronistic beehive and she’d have been the most festive theatre teacher this side of the Mississippi.
“You have to feel the rage, feel the sadness, sugar, or the whole scene falls apart.” Mrs. Pine patted Theo Jackson on the arm and ambled to the end of the badly lit stage. Shadows grew so long near the back that Theo could hardly see the other actors snickering at him. If the past couple of days had taught him anything, it was how to ignore them.
“I don’t get it,” Theo said. They had been rehearsing for a couple of weeks and he was certain he wasn’t right for the part. All the Broadway ambitions he’d carried home from New York, burned to ash under the scorching lights of a real stage. When he’d attempted to drop the class, in spite of Charlie’s encouragement, Mrs. Pine refused to sign the drop form, and that was that.
“His father’s dead. His uncle has usurped his throne and wed his mother.” Mrs. Pine flung her arms around the stage as she talked; it was embarrassing to watch. And yet, Theo admired how unselfconscious she was. “Hamlet is pissed, and rightfully so.”
Theo glanced down at the script in his hand. It had take him a while to learn to wrap his clumsy tongue around Shakespeare’s ballet of words, but he still fretted over memorizing the whole thing before opening night in December. Rome was not built in a day, and Theo did not believe three months could turn him into Hamlet.
“I get that,” Theo said. “But why doesn’t he just take off?”
“It’s his home.”
“But if his life sucks so bad, wouldn’t it be worth running away?”
“There are things for which any pain is worth enduring,” Mrs. Pine said. “Your job as an actor is to figure out what those things are and channel them into your character.”
“Yeah, but Hamlet was nuts.” The glare was getting too much for Theo, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the chorus of whispered jeers from the wings of the stage.
Mrs. Pine smiled a secret smile, a smile for Theo and Theo alone. “Sugar, you haven’t got to go mad to play Hamlet, but it couldn’t hurt.” She twirled around in her garish outfit, her earrings jingling like bells, eliciting a round of derisive laughter from the shadows. “From the top!”
Theo often compared his mother’s shape to a papaya. He’d never actually eaten one before, but her small head and narrow neck, which melted into her wide, round body reminded him of pictures he’d seen of the fruit. Not that Theo spent much time thinking about his mother’s shape, it was just that, during prayer, he had to do something to keep his mind off the heavenly smells of dinner, which cooled on the table while Mrs. Jackson thanked the Lord Almighty with an endless mouthful of predictably unimportant praise.
It might have been a trick of the light, but Theo was willing to bet a chicken leg that his father was asleep. They each dealt with Mrs. Jackson’s mealtime prayers in their own unique way, Theo supposed, and did not begrudge his father his nap. Especially since, if Mrs. Jackson caught him, there would be trouble. The Bible doesn’t mention them, but there are worse punishments than Hell.
If a sweeter word in heaven or earth existed, Theo did not know it, and he knew many words. He kicked his father under the table while his mother wasn’t looking and smiled as Mr. Jackson’s eyes fluttered open. Theo’s chicken leg was safe this evening.
The Jackson’s ate dinner at the table every night at exactly 5:30 in the evening. It was so deeply carved in stone that it was practically an 11th commandment. Mr. Jackson worked at the Grady Paper Mill doing the books, and arrived home at ten past five. Theo was the only variable, what with track practice and theatre, but he was still expected to eat dinner with the family as often as possible.
Dinner was a quiet affair, mostly because Mrs. Jackson was one of the best cooks in all of Blackpool, but also because Theo had learned over the years that idle conversation was a slippery slope into a bottomless chasm of troubles. He loved his mother, but she viewed the world through different lenses than her husband or son, and had a sharp, unsympathetic tongue.
Theo pulled the crispy skin off a chicken thigh and munched on it, washing it down with a spoonful of silky mashed potatoes. This was his favorite meal; the meal he’d ask for if he knew he was going to die. The only thing missing was spinach, but Theo kept his mouth shut because he didn’t want to hear about the argument that had led to her being banned from the Captain’s market. It was the best place for fresh, local vegetables, and Mrs. Jackson simply refused to buy the trucked in crap from the grocery store.
“Vice Principal Mathers phoned me at work today,” Mr. Jackson said, laying his fork across the top of his plate. Anyone looking at Theo’s father might be tempted to let their gaze slide right over him, to discount him as a bald, paunchy, waste of human flesh, but that would be their mistake. Mr. Jackson was certainly all of those things–his red hair had fallen out in college, and sitting at his desk for 9 hours daily had robbed him of his youthful physique–but under the layers of dust and age, was a warrior itching for a fight. “Told me there was some commotion in the lunch room yesterday?” The corners of his mouth tightened.
“It was nothing,” Theo said. He scooped up a bite of mashed potatoes but they tasted like burnt rubber now.
Mrs. Jackson sighed and pushed her plate away.
“Was it the Wolfe kid again?”
“Dad, I said it’s nothing.”
“I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s going on.” Mr. Jackson raised his voice. “What happened, son?”
There was still a piece of chicken on Theo’s plate, but he couldn’t touch it, didn’t even want to look at it anymore. “Dad–”
Mr. Jackson slammed his fist on the table, causing the plates to jump. “Damn it, Theodore. Tell me what’s going on.”
“Language, Henry,” Mrs. Jackson said. Her voice was even and low. Like they were discussing the weather. But Theo knew better. He knew his mother was soaking up every word, waiting for the right moment to give them both a proper earful.
The smells that had made Theo’s stomach rumble earlier now made him sick. The taste and sight and even the sound of the oil frying in the pan, were rancid to him. He thought if he told his parents what had happened, he’d forever tie the memory of it to this meal–his favorite meal–and he’d never be able to eat his mother’s fried chicken again without remembering the incident.
But his father wasn’t going to back down. Theo didn’t know what twisted version of the story Mathers had told him, but Theo knew it wasn’t the truth.
“Someone stole my clothes during gym, while I was in the showers,” Theo said. Gym had always been terrifying. All throughout middle school, he had refused to take showers, but high school was different, and he couldn’t stand the idea of sitting through his afternoon classes smelling like swamp-ass. Theo had devised a system, though. Most of the guys were in such a hurry to get to lunch, which fell immediately after gym, that they rushed through their showers, and Theo learned that if he hung back, he could wash up after everyone had left and still have plenty of time to eat.
Mr. Jackson’s face was darker than an oncoming storm. He was fury, and he didn’t even know the whole story yet. “Your vice principal said you streaked through the cafeteria with something written on your chest and back?”
“Theodore!” Mrs. Jackson said. Her hand flew to her mouth in shock. Theo nearly cracked a laugh. He knew for a fact that his mother had done much worse when she was his age. Before she found Jesus, she found more trouble than Theo could have gotten into in two lifetimes.
“It didn’t happen like that!”
“Then what happened?” Mr. Jackson asked. His voice wasn’t raised anymore. It was eerily devoid of emotion.
Theo tried not to remember. He’d written it down in his journal and sworn that he’d never think of it again. But the hurt was too fresh and his parents were going to pick at the new scab until they exposed the gangrenous wound underneath.
“Someone stole my clothes,” Theo said again. “And they wrote something on me in black marker and threw me into the cafeteria.” He couldn’t look at either of his parents. Instead, he stared at his plate of food, remembering everything, knowing that he’d never eat this meal again without wanting to throw up.
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t lie to me, son.”
“I don’t know!” Theo shouted. “They wore masks and grabbed me in the shower. They wrote ‘Theatre Fag’ on me and pushed me into the lunch room, blocking the doors so I couldn’t run away.”
He wasn’t going to cry. Not now. Not in front of his parents. He hadn’t cried then either. Not until he got home. And crying hadn’t been enough. Screaming and yelling and throwing his track trophies against the wall hadn’t been enough. The pain hadn’t even begun to subside until he drew the razor he kept in a shoebox under his bed across the paper skin of his upper arm. As the drops of blood welled to the surface and dripped down, down, down, Theo tried to imagine all his anger bleeding out too. It had taken five cuts to release all that hate. Five gaping mouths slashed across his skin before he felt calm enough to bury the event in his journal.
“I told you not to take that class,” Mrs. Jackson said. “I told you that you were asking for trouble.”
“Jesus Fucking Christ, Carolina! Your son is the victim here.”
“Don’t use that language with me–”
“Our son was humiliated, and you’re blaming him! I’ll use whatever language I damn well please!” Mr. Jackson stood up, throwing his napkin on the table. The angrier he got, the more his accent slipped out. Theo could always tell how much trouble he was in by how much his father sounded like he was talking around a stick of butter.
Mrs. Jackson’s face was steely. She was immune to intimidation. “I’m not blaming Theodore,” she said, “But when he runs around town flaunting his alternative lifestyle…well, things like this are bound to happen.”
Theo slipped away from the table as the perpetual embers of their long standing fight fanned into to flames again. These arguments always ended in a stalemate after which neither spoke to the other for a couple of days at a time. The fighting had long since stopped being about Theo, and his continued presence benefitted no one. It wasn’t like he could take sides. He didn’t agree with his mother, but he knew that she had his best interests buried somewhere in her frozen heart. Sometimes he even thought she was right. Maybe if he were more like Charlie, if he stayed hidden, Jed Wolfe would leave him alone.
Outside the house, Theo sat down on the porch steps and watched the sun finish setting. The memories his parents had dredged up still floated on the surface. There was no doubt in Theo’s mind that it had been Jed Wolfe who had kidnapped him. Jed who had carved those words into his skin for everyone to see. Jed who had whispered in his hear that he was lucky they weren’t going to show him what a real man was like. Jed who had shoved him into the cafeteria, naked, for everyone to laugh and point and stare at.
Even though he wore a grisly zombie mask, Theo knew it was Jed. He didn’t know who the others were or even their exact numbers, but he could guess. He only…he prayed that Charlie hadn’t been one of them.
When Jed had shoved Theo into the cafeteria and blocked the door, he hadn’t had time to look for Charlie at his usual table. All those eyes felt like ants on his skin, their pincers shredding his flesh, filling him with venom. The only thing Theo could think about was getting out of the lunch room as quickly as possible. Instinct kicked in and Theo ran across the cafeteria to the far door, and didn’t stop running until he was in Minnie’s car. He spent the rest of the day hiding there, waiting for school to end.
There was no way Charlie could have done that to him, not his Charlie.
Minnie Reynolds’ cup of frozen yogurt had more Butterfinger bits in it than actual frozen yogurt, but Theo pretended to ignore it so that she didn’t leave his ass on the side of the road, which she’d do if he pissed her off badly enough. Gone was the dark eyeliner and stench of death. Instead of grotesque band shirts, Minnie wore a shirt with a black clad comic book hero silk screened across her heavy breasts. She’d gone from goth to geek, though Theo wasn’t sure it was an improvement.
“We should take a road trip,” Minnie said. “Head out west until we run out of gas. Maybe pick up a hitcher and have a freaky, peyote-induced threesome.”
Theo grimaced. “I hate peyote.”
“You’re no fun.”
“I’m plenty fun,” Theo said. “Besides, I’m saving myself for Jesus.”
“The Chesne’s new farmhand?” Minnie asked. “The one with the bushy mustache?”
Theo slapped Minnie’s arm. “Gross!” He dipped his plastic spoon into his swirl of chocolate and strawberry frozen yogurt. Not particularly hungry, he watched the pink and brown melt into a bland slurry.
“We should take a trip anyway,” Minnie said. “Get the hell out of Blackpool.”
“And why the fuck not?”
Minnie rolled her eyes heavenward. “I know for a fact that you’ve got enough cash in your mattress for three road trips.”
Theo spooned in a mouthful of froyo, rolling the flavors around on his tongue before swallowing it. “I’m saving it.”
“My sex change operation, Minnie,” Theo said. “I’ve always dreamed of having a big brown beaver like yours.” He shoved the cup away.
“Ha, ha.” Minnie snorted, snatching up Theo’s abandoned frozen yogurt. “Can you at least spare a couple of bucks for a movie this weekend? The theater in Luther’s playing the new Captain Slaughter flick.”
“You hate comic book movies.”
“I tried to get you to go see Aqua Guy with me last year, and you refused.”
“First off,” Minnie said, “the only thing gayer than a superhero who talks to fish is you.” She picked up the froyo cup and drank the melted remains. “Second, I was at a concert that weekend.”
“Right,” Theo said.
“I was!” Minnie said. “Poophole Loophole was playing in Knoxville.”
Theo shrugged, valiantly holding back a grin. “At least I know where I rank on the Minnie Scale of Friendship. Slightly above painting your nails but below a band with ‘poophole’ in their name.”
Minnie held up her fist. “How about I stick this up your poophole and use you as a puppet?” Minnie’s voice was so loud that a couple of tables looked over at us. I recognized some of them from school.
“Can we get out of here?”
“Now.” Theo didn’t wait for her to answer before pushing his chair back and walking to the car. He tried to ignore the whispers as he passed, but it was difficult when there didn’t seem to be a mouth within shooting distance that wasn’t flapping away, pretending to be discrete about it and failing miserably.
When Minnie got to the car and drove out of the parking lot, she said, “Fuck those people. They’re idiots.”
Theo fiddled with the broken A/C vent. It only blew hot air and always shot straight up into his face. It wasn’t so bad during the winter, but made the summertime unbearable. “Someone put pictures on-line.”
Theo didn’t answer, nor did he really need to.
“Assholes!” Minnie smashed her fist against the steering wheel and fired off an impressive string of profanity, spraying the windshield with spit. When she calmed down, she said, “At least you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”
“How do you figure? There are naked pictures of me on Facebook. It doesn’t get much more shameful than that.”
Minnie glanced at Theo sideways and motioned at his crotch. “No one’s gonna be calling you Tiny Tim or nothing.”
Theo sat up straight and gave Minnie his and-how-the-fuck-would-you-know-that stare.
“Remember the time I walked in on you in the shower?” Theo nodded. “And I told you I didn’t see anything?” Theo nodded again. “I saw everything.”
“What?” she said. “For skinny-ass dweeb, you’re packing some pretty serious artillery.”
Theo jerked at the door handle. “Lord, I can’t be having this conversation with you.” He picked at the thin scabs on his upper arm, willing them to bleed. His skin felt tight, like an overfilled balloon, and he just needed to let some of the air out.
“You’re gonna make some lucky boy limp one day.”
“Let me out of the car.”
Minnie glanced at Theo and started laughing when she saw the look of horror on his face. Her laughter filled the car, it filled Theo’s ears. Minnie laughed so hard that she drifted off the road and nearly ran into a ditch. She stopped the car and laughed until she didn’t have enough breath left to make any sound. Theo hopped out of the car and sat on the hood. It was warm but he didn’t notice. Didn’t even care. A minute later, Minnie sat next to him.
“They laughed at me too.”
“But I’m allowed to,” Minnie said. “I’m the only one who’s allowed to laugh at you, Theo.”
They sat on the hood under the night sky. There were no street lamps on the old dirt road and the only lights were from inside Minnie’s car and the stars above.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there,” Minnie said.
“It’s not your fault.”
“If I hadn’t gotten detention…”
“I mean, what happened. You didn’t strip me and write ‘faggot’ on my chest and chuck me in the cafeteria stark fucking naked.”
Minnie put her arm around Theo’s waist and pulled him to her so that his head rested on her shoulder. “No, but I know who did. It was Jed and his asshole friends. Will and Charlie and Rob.”
“And I know Mathers won’t do fuck all about it.”
“Let it go,” Theo said.
“The hell I will.”
Theo spoke slowly, willing her to get it through her thick skull. “Let it go.”
Minnie ground her teeth hard, so hard Theo thought he could actually hear her molars disintegrating. “I don’t get you.”
“I know.” Theo sighed. He slid off the hood and said, “Come on. I gotta get home and do some schoolwork or my mom’s going to skin me alive.”
“No getting grounded before Friday. I refuse to see Captain Slaughter alone.”
Theo sucked in air and flinched as he remembered he’d already made plans. “This Friday?”
“No, Friday next year.”
“It’s just that, I have somewhere to be this Friday.”
Minnie laughed until she realized that Theo wasn’t joking. “Where? I’m your only friend.”
Theo kicked at the dirt. “I can’t tell you.”
Minnie got down off the hood. “More secrets. I thought we didn’t keep secrets from each other.” She opened her door but didn’t get in. Theo knew she was waiting for an explanation, but he didn’t have one to give her. He wanted so badly to tell her the truth, to tell her that he was going to be with Charlie Friday night. Shit, there were so many things he was dying to tell her about Charlie Hudson. Charlie, his boyfriend. Minnie hated Charlie because she lumped him in with Jed Wolfe and his friends, but she didn’t know Charlie the way Theo did, and keeping secrets from her was killing him.
“Whatev. Let’s go.” Minnie had shut down and Theo knew she’d let him back in when she was ready, and not a second before.
They got in the car and headed toward Theo’s house, driving most of the way in silence. Theo almost missed the shrieking yell of her old death metal music. Not enough to find a tape to play, but almost. Instead, he dug around in the glove box for the little glass pipe he kept stashed there. Keeping it at his house would have been asking for his mother to find it during one of her search and destroy missions, and Minnie’s parent’s weren’t involved enough to care.
Theo packed the pipe, watching Minnie out of the corner of his eye. She pretended to ignore him, but he knew she wouldn’t be able to resist a hit or two. Wordlessly, he handed her the pipe and took the wheel, steering for her as she took a long, deep drag. Over the next couple of miles of dark back roads, they traded the pipe, letting the soft hiss of air and the smell of smoke do their talking for them.
“You’re my best friend,” Minnie said all at once, letting the words tumble out into the car and careen recklessly about. “And I’ll kill anyone who fucks with you.” She took her eyes off the road and looked at Theo. In the dark, her face was a patchwork of shadow and murder. Right there, Theo believed her capable of anything, and he loved her for it.
He raised the pipe to his lips one last time, practically smoking the resin from the bowl, when their black world lit up neon blue and red. It took Theo a second to clear his brain of the marijuana fog and realize that there was a Blackpool Sheriff’s car trailing them.
“Fuck, Theo!” yelled Minnie. “What do we do?”
Theo put the pipe on the dashboard and took a deep breath. “We pull over.”
Minnie eased the car to the side of the road and put it in park. Her hands shook as she worked the gear shifter and she began to sweat as the cop pulled up behind them. Theo should have been scared. He should have been pissing his pants. But he wasn’t. In fact, after what had happened in the cafeteria, he wasn’t sure anything would scare him ever again. Maybe it was stupidity, or maybe Theo had finally found his madness. Theo liked that, the idea of being mad, and a smile spread across his face.
Theo was still wearing that smile when Deputy Northrop came to the window and asked him to step out of the car.