(In November I attempted National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo. Didn’t get very far, but I do sort of like this first chapter. If You guys give me some feedback and suggestions, maybe I’ll try to continue my novel chapter by chapter on the blog.)
Chapter One: Lions’ den ain’t no place for cowboys
The body is sprawled out like an Egyptian in hieroglyphics. Bloodstains flash between bright and black in the spinning siren lights. Even from behind the police tape I can tell he didn’t die quick. Neck hacked to bits by something dull, jaw broken off. It takes real brutality to kill someone like that. Or anger. Or desperation. Or madness.
“What do you think?” Sasha asks, laying three terribly exquisite fingers on my arm.
“I think I want to know,” I say. I clench my teeth until my jaw hurts.
Sasha is quiet for a minute.
“You’re not a cowboy, Jackson,” she says finally. I turn to stare at her — she’s so damn unreadable — until she qualifies her statement. “You’re a sixteen-year-old kid. You can’t just ride into town, solve everyone’s problems, and head for the sunset. The police will handle it.”
“I want to know,” I repeat. “For myself.”
“What makes you think you can find out?” Her voice is neutral, not skeptical. Just a question.
I shake off her hand and point. Her brown eyes follow my finger to the crime scene guy lifting a slim rectangle maybe a foot long out of the big, sloppy pool of blood. He gives the thing a shake and red goo drips off viscously.
“That,” I say. Sasha draws in her breath and steps closer to me, close enough to smell nice.
It’s a computer, a cheap one too, thin metal with crisp edges. You’ll never cut yourself on it by accident, but drive anything into human flesh hard enough and enough times and eventually you can draw blood. On the back there’s a sticker with a coat of arms: books and pens and a house and idiot latin writing. Same coat of arms engraved over a doorway. Same coat of arms I see every day.
Going to high school was like getting a concussion. Walk through the doors and everything slows down, chokes up, smolders to a crawl. Whatever you were pondering or planning just hits a big fuzzy brick wall of can’t-do. You think you’re still thinking all those things, but you aren’t. You feel like your brain should still be able to remember the capitals of eastern European countries, the lyrics to Tibetan pop songs, and the first fifteen million primes, but it can’t. Packets don’t switch. Queries don’t query. Ringing silence.
It’s enough to make me want to drink myself into a stupor, just so I can forget how much I’ve just forgotten.
But I’m not the self-destructive type. Not me.
Right now Principal McJohnson is explaining to me all the different ways I can get on his shit list.
“If you are caught skipping classes without a waiver. If you are caught trespassing on faculty workspaces, storage rooms, or maintenance areas. If you are caught possessing or under the influence of any scheduled substances — there is a list in your student handbook — without a doctor’s note. If you are caught exchanging dangerous financial instruments with other students — again, there is a list in your student handbook, but I’m sure you know the kinds of investments I mean. Designing financial products is also prohibited, unless you do it under the auspices of the economics club. If you are caught fighting with or bullying other students. If you are caught behaving disrespectfully towards faculty or other staff. Any of these things will result in disciplinary action. There’s a full list of school rules in your student handbook, but the main thing is, use a little common sense and you’ll probably stay out of trouble. Sound good, son?”
I nod. Yeah, common sense: don’t get caught. McJohnson smiles at me with pink fat lips a couple pinkish-white teeth. There’s a strawberry soda on his desk.
“We place a lot of value on common sense here at Bob Dole High. We also place a lot of value on hard work. Now, I know that a young man like you won’t have much trouble with a lot of our coursework—” Like you was an angry sore and a sour taste in his mouth. “—but we believe that working hard even when we don’t necessarily have to instills good habits and character. So I hope that you will be thorough in all your studies, no matter how easy you find them.”
I mumble in assent. So don’t get caught, and don’t make it look like you don’t have to try. Baller.
Principal McJohnson pats mindlessly at his scalp. His hair is a shade too blonde, an obvious fake — as fake as his last name. Glinting strands shift and I see the little white skid marks of a surgical scar. Nothing like the zeal of the converted.
“Well, Mister Foote, are you excited for your first day here at Bob Dole High?” McJohnson forgets to look like he gives a damn. He takes a pull of his strawberry soda to cover himself, and the sucking sound rings in my ears.
“Yessir,” I say. I’m on autopilot, the little baboon tribes of my mammalian brain directing me through the social graces of smiles and agreements. Below, between my jaw and the hair on my neck, reptiles scratch and hiss for fooddrinksleepsex. Neither faction cares about the oppressive lack of bandwidth in this building, that rag of ether pressed over my face, or the pathetic and censored trickle outside. In a way I find that comforting. I am human. Lizard plus monkey plus frontal cortex plus computer plus network. Strip away a layer and I soldier on a less civilized, more ornery creature, all the way down to the biting, tearing, gnawing, fucking thing at the top of my spine.
“Excellent!” The principal stands up and extends a hand. “Well, don’t let me keep you from your first class.” The monkey shakes and leaves.
The halls are all occasionally sticky gray tile and too soothing pastel plaster punctuated by wooden archways. Kids joke and jostle in both directions, from coat lockers into classrooms and bathrooms. I feel the nudge of networking requests as I pass a few of the students, but I ignore them. Whatever social services the enclave allows in here probably aren’t worth bothering with. I feel eyes on me, too, and these I don’t ignore. Body language, that’s where the real action is around here. Amidst stock footage of casual disinterest, faces flash me single frames of anger, worry, jealousy, regret, fear, suspicion, occasionally hope and sexual eagerness. I record what I can, putting instincts to faces.
Autopilot steers me into a classroom and sets me down in a desk near the back, sickly tan composite thing and too ergonomic for its own good. Look around at the other students: content and discontent smiles, haircuts fashionable but less than edgy, most school uniforms buttoned and tied toward the provocative end of the spectrum, an assortment of genetically guaranteed good looks with a few outliers, racially diverse. At least half of them twiddle on school issued computers, which means that either they aren’t interested in getting hardware, or their parents have prevented them. If they had the kind of hardware that I have, that gives my brain access to the web, that lets my thoughts dip in and out of the vast and silver seas of human knowledge and creativity and commentary — if they had my hardware they wouldn’t need a screen or a touch interface. But then, if they had my hardware they technically wouldn’t need to be here at all.
The kids who don’t have computers with them, who will sit, glossy-eyed or playing with rubber bands, how many of them will be taking notes in their head, and how many just don’t care? There’s no way of knowing without faking a lice exam to check their scalps.
In the seat next to me a smallish redheaded boy, no computer on his desk, stares over at me. I let him catch my eye, and he grins. It’s a disarming smile, and my monkey coos pleasantly. He jerks his head towards the teacher busily preparing at the front of the classroom.
“It’s not that bad. Just lie back and think of England,” he says, and runs his hand through his hair.
“That work for you?” I ask.
He looks a little sheepish. “Actually, I like Math. But in History, yes. Except when we are talking about England. Then I have to lie back and think of Brazil.”
I chuckle a bit despite myself. The teacher clears his throat, a primate dominance move, and starts explaining the syllabus.
“I’m Tim. Timothy Franklin,” the kid says.
“Jackson Foote,” I say.
“Seriously, try it. Just think happy thoughts and all this goes away.” He grins again. I turn in my seat to glance around the room. Eyes lazily tracking swirls in the ceiling paint or staring down at limp hands. Behind Tim a round-faced girl with almost too big anime eyes and dangly black bangs glares at me. They do seem contented, most of them, but that’s never been my style. Back home, in the 120, before we moved to this enclave, this godforsaken Stepford town, this reactionary cult compound, this suburb of the past, curled up and cringing in the harsh spotlight of the singularity’s light cone, back home zoning out got you hustled or hurt. Tim seems like a sweet guy, but past the lawns and balconies of this idyllic little reservation there’s a whole world of decay and violence and terrible technological triumph that will eat him alive before long.
These kids right here, playing games and thinking nothing, undressing each other with their eyes — marks, every one of them. Could I rule them, if I wanted? Maybe, but it’d be a sorry sort of army. Still, I’m not the type to relax too much. Those endorphins aren’t my preferred poison. The better plan is to watch them, record weaknesses, find kryptonites, be Batman to their Justice League. Just in case.
But by the end of my second class I’ve stopped caring. Being choked off at the synapse from the wider web still has me irritable, but my paranoia has been dulled by boredom. So I take Tim’s advice. The computer listens, the monkey sits and fidgets, the lizard sleeps. My cortex is left to drift about in fractal daydreams, and after a while I am almost, pathetically, at peace.
Everything here is an imitation of a cliché reconstructed from undeserved nostalgia. Middle aged conservatives pretending it’s 1990, teaching 2040 knowledge using 2010 educational techniques — all with the goal of protecting kids far smarter than them from the big scary world of complex identities and world wide minds. They are Civil War reenactors without the obsession with accuracy or Ren Fair nerds with different sexual hang ups. The students are their props and costumes for four years, and then we’ll be turned out into the world to be swept along by singularity or dragged down by poverty or both all the same. They pretend. We pretend. Harmless cosplay. Changes nothing. I’m philosophically opposed, but not enough to argue or scold.
So I sit in class on the first day of school and listen to an introductory lecture about the importance of understanding American political history. But in my head I’m running over rooftops at night, my feet gripping wavy corrugated steel through thin, split-toed sneakers. The Jericho wall of skyline to the north dimly illuminates the clouds and grays the shadows of the few working street lamps. There’s music all around me, chatter from screens and people, and the shuddering thump of two pairs of footsteps. The air pricks with ozone. Lightning’s coming, and probably a fight, but in my fantasy I chase a laughing girl forever through the flats. Two years of living in my head? I think I can live with that.
Math, History, Robotics, Literature. In the afternoon I’ll take Gym, Design and Physics. There is no learning to be done here, not when the bandwidth outside this building is fast enough that the difference in latency between remembering facts and googling answers is negligible. So why clog the mind with knowledge when wisdom, wit, and judgement are much less abundant commodities? No, I am not a student. I am a monk, meditating on a shadow play, fading away in a stone garden, still and overgrown at the end of the world.
I’m wandering to lunch when a thick hand comes down on my shoulder and shoves me through a door to my right. The tile inside is slicker than the hall and wet, but with a second’s flailing I get my balance. Ugly lighting, smudged mirror: bathroom. My monkey pilot hoots, and the lizard snarls. My adrenal gland stirs, and my cortex snaps to attention. So much for zen and daydreams.
“Hey kid. You new here.” Caucasian with a smug scowl. I want to deck him, but I don’t. Bringing down the biggest, meanest lug around on your first day might be a good idea in the prison yard, but here it’ll just bring more trouble. The man just wants a private word, I tell myself. Nothing wrong with that. Besides, he’s taller than me, and his bulk tells me he’s on a couple of whatever stupid sports teams we have here at Bob Dole High, and probably steroids. I see sweat stains yellow his white shirt and crows feet cracks in the rubber of his shoes. He and his two identically constructed friends are leaning against the door, hands stuffed in their pockets.
“Yeah, just moved into the neighborhood,” I say. I’ve got my bearings now, and I’m kicking myself for letting my guard down. Enclave kids probably all grew up together. New guy like me stinks up the place like blood in the water of a shark tank.
“Where you from?” He’s got short dark hair and a hash of scars above his forehead, some of them pretty jagged. Best guess is he got sketchy tech put in and taken out again. And then put in again. Not smart, but dangerously persistent.
“The South 120,” I reply.
This wasn’t exactly true. I had lived right along the district border in adjacent South 117, which has a much more modest reputation, but I’d spent my formative years slipping past checkpoints to find more exotic bandwidth. It’d been a brief childhood of rap battles in warehouses, running from cops, and gaming curled up on the floor in case of sudden drive-bys, and now I considered myself more ideologically aligned with the 120 than anywhere else. Former home sweet fucked up home.
“You deal?” he asks.
“Not any more.”
“Not from strangers in bathrooms,” I snap. It gets his attention.
“I’m Jonathan Wilkes. Call me ‘Booth.’”
“Really?” What is it with this place and stupid names?
“You don’t like it?”
I decide to let it go. “Jackson. Jackson Foote. With an ‘e.’”
Booth holds out five fingers, plump and soft like baby arms. If he’s done much fighting, the knuckles on these unscarred sausages sure don’t show it. I take his hand and squeeze. Hard.
He doesn’t wince, but I see a muscle between his eyebrows clench. I let go.
“So you buy?” he asks. I turn and walk to the sink. Got to get this skunk’s grease off my hands. The water is icy when I flip the H knob, so I wait and peer at Booth in the mirror. I wonder whether he only asked at first because I claimed 120 heritage, or whether he’s really dumb enough to try to sell to every new runt shows up. Or maybe I just seem like a seedy kind of fellow.
“Sorry,” I lie, “I got a guy.” He doesn’t look that broken up. By now he probably figures I’m more trouble than I’m worth, but doesn’t want to shy up in front of his boys. Crisis fucking averted.
But when I step towards the door, the two goons rumble in their places. Booth takes a step forward and straightens another inch over my head, almost towering. The lizard spits and hisses.
“You ever been whipped, kid?” I can smell his breath, pepperminty over bad oral hygiene. This is not going as well as I had hoped. But then, I’m not much of a hopeful sort of guy.
“Yup,” I say, keeping my voice flat, disinterested.
“If you’re buying, I think you’re buying from me.”
“Say you beat me up, and I go tell the principal?” I suggest. Might as well ask.
“Good natured hazing. Builds character.” Booth turns up the corners of his mouth and shows me some teeth. It’s the kind of smile you give to a mugshot. Not much of a smile at all.
“Say I beat you up? You going to go tell the principal?” The not-smile disappears.
“Listen, Foote.” He steps forward again, speaking like he’s practiced his speech in front of a mirror, flexed his muscles to it. “You in the lions’ den here. Don’t fuck around. You give me your business, I’m sure we’ll be big time friends.”
“Right,” I say, and I grab him around the neck and pull him down. My knee swings up and shoves into his belly, and a gust of hot, peppermint wind pours out of his mouth with a huff. I don’t really have business to give Booth; but the adrenalin has me more awake than I’ve felt all day, and I like it.
I push the doubled up Booth left into thug number one and go to work on thug number two. Shots to the body and a kick to the shins, nothing that’s going to show walking around school. I’m feeling pretty good about the situation when he gets one in, and I hear the metal in my head rattle. For a second I black out, and I’m back in the flats forever, light flipping up over me from beneath, pouring out of the gaps between shacks as I follow tinkling giggles and singsong taunts. Then it’s gone, and I’ve got several sets of knuckles trying to bury themselves in my ribs. Monkey rage boils over the careful fighter in me, and I lash out, hard and blind. My hand connects awkwardly, but I find hair and pull it in towards the nearest other body. There’s a thud and a couple groans, and I lurch towards the door.
Then it’s over. I’m skidding into the hall, Booth and his goons glowering at me as the bathroom door swings closed. I book it down the hall, passing under a wooden archway carved with the school’s coat of arms and into the lunchroom clamor, the right side of my face throbbing.
That was stupid, and I got lucky.
If this was the 120, I’d have gotten more than just a shiner.
They’re probably going to try again.
That was fun.
I hope they do.