“Come over tonight,” Tyson said for at least the third time that day.
Noah tried not to let his wince show on the outside. It was the third Monday of their freshman year of high school. He hadn't been to his best friend's house since school started. The first bell for third period had already rung and they were still in the hallway, which meant just standing here talking to Tyson was going to get him in trouble.
“I gotta go,” Noah said.
“Come over tonight. I want to show you something.”
“I have two lates to Spanish already.” Noah shifted his backpack to his left shoulder. “I can't get another one.”
“Come on, man. I mean it. I need you to come over.”
“The baby gives me a headache.” And he had homework, which wasn't an excuse Tyson Monroe would let him have. Not without an even worse headache.
What the hell? You think Spanish homework means something? Don't be such an asshole, Kincaide.
Tyson stopped walking. He looked at Noah like he'd had eaten his last Twinkie or something, and Noah felt his resolve to go home and study start to crack. No real reason for him not to go to Tyson's house after school. No good one, anyway. None that were worth having his only friend pissed off at him.
Tyson could be unpredictable when he was mad. Noah had learned when they were maybe five years old that it was easier, and usually more fun, to just go along.
His grandmother wouldn't have a clue where he was, and wouldn't care.
He could do his homework during sixth period if he told the PE teacher he didn't feel good.
It wasn't just the homework, though. That damned baby never stopped crying and all Noah really wanted was to chill in his room with a joint and Family Guy reruns.
He was about to agree to show up anyway, because he could tell he'd blown off his friend maybe once too often, but Tyson threw up his hands and said, “Fuck you, then.”
“Yeah, whatever. I was just about to--” But Tyson was gone, and Noah was talking to himself. “Fine.”
What an asshole. Tyson didn't meet him for lunch after fourth period, either. He ditched without him, and now he probably expected Noah to show up at his house anyway, to make sure everything was good between them.
Noah went into the cafeteria and got into line. No one spoke to him, which was fine by him. It could have been worse.
“Pizza stick,” he mumbled when he reached the lunch lady. She was at least sixty, tall and skinny and hard looking. Noah knew that look. He saw it on his grandma everyday. Lunch lady probably didn't get out of the school parking lot without taking a taking a hit of whatever she was strung out on.
“That it?” She asked.
He nodded and recited his student number to her. She handed the stuffed bread stick to him, wrapped in a brown paper towel. It had been in the steamer tray too long and was soggy. Not that he cared. He and Tyson usually ate outside, but today Noah grabbed the pint of chocolate milk that came with his free lunch and stayed inside, leaning against the back pink-and-white tiled wall of the cafeteria.
Pathetic as his life was most of the time, he always felt worse when he was fighting with Tyson. It made him feel pathetic and friendless, which was worse. And now he was still a little hungry.
He had a ten in his pocket that he'd taken from his grandmother's purse that morning, but it wasn't for food.
He threw his paper towel in a big green trash can and walked through the cafeteria to the bathroom by the boy's locker room near the gym. He washed his hands three times, waiting for the small crowd of kids to filter through the big gimp stall and out again, until it was his turn.
Ransom sat on the back of the toilet with his feet on the seat and his backpack open in his lap. The better to flush the shit down, if it came to that.
“Dime,” Noah said.
Ransom held out his hand, and Noah put the ten into it and took the pre-weighed baggie.
What did it say about Gold High School that Michael Ransom had been selling whatever he could get his hands on from this same location for going on five years?
Noah closed his hand around the baggie, feeling the bud crunch between his fingers, as he walked out of the bathroom. He had English fifth period. His favorite class, even though he'd never admit it out loud. They were reading this book about a bunch of kids who got stranded on an island and totally lost it. He'd never talk about it, but it was a good book. It gave him a lot to think about—especially how much this kid named Roger reminded him of Tyson.
Noah shoved his hand, with the baggie, into his hoodie pocket. Maybe reading the end of the book tonight after he smoked would make him feel better.
Noah turned too quickly and slipped on something slick on the linoleum. He barely caught himself without falling on his face, but when he pulled his hand out of his pocket for balance, the dime bag went flying. Noah fumbled for it like he might be able to hide it before the woman who'd called his name noticed, even though she was looking directly at him.
The librarian, Miss Wilson, was barely taller than Noah, and kind of hot, although he would never admit that, either. Ever. He might be able to live down either liking books or having a crush on the librarian. But not both. “Noah.”
“Yeah,” he said, going for all casual, like she was going to ask him about his next class or something. She just kept looking at him with these blue eyes that made his stomach feel weird. She looked at him like she'd just seen him rob the 7-11 or something. He shoved the plastic baggie back into the back pocket of his jeans.
Miss Wilson held out her hand, and for a minute, Noah was sure he was going to faint. Or puke. Or both. Faint in his own puke.
He looked at her chin, to avoid her eyes. “What?”
“Come on, Noah,” Miss Wilson said. Her voice wasn't as nice as it usually was. It was disgusted. She was disgusted with him. “Give it to me.”
For a hysterical moment, he could only think of the raunchy double meaning of her demand, and laughter bubbled up his throat. What in the hell was wrong with him? He shook his head, and did what he could to pull it together.
“Seriously, what?” The boys bathroom was two doors behind him. He hadn't bought much. He could flush it, even though she obviously saw him toss the bag in the air a minute ago. It would be pretty bad if he took a teacher right to Ransom sitting on his throne, but maybe she wouldn't go into the boy's bathroom. “I gotta pee.”
“I don't think so.”
“No, really. I gotta.”
She held her hand out again. Her fingers were stained with blue ink. “It's okay, Noah, let's just get this over with.”
“I don't know what you're talking about, but I really have to go.” He danced in place a little bit, trying to make it look like he was about to piss himself.
She looked over his head and her face changed. She looked sad. Noah's legs felt weak, like someone had kicked him behind the knees. He looked over his shoulder and saw a school police officer coming toward him and another officer leading Ransom out of the bathroom.
“It's okay, son,” the cop said a minute later. “I just want to talk to you.”
He had his hand on a canister of pepper spray at his hip. In the middle of the hallway, with a growing audience of kids who already thought Noah was a freak.
That was Tyson's fault, too.
They'd been friends since they were babies playing together while their mothers smoked cigarettes and less legal substances in front of the TV. Now, they were like a two-headed monster, impossible to separate.
And Tyson had problems. Serious ones. Noah had known that since they were eight and he watched his friend shove a stick through the eyes of a coyote that was already two-thirds roadkill.
Still, there were two of them, and that usually made life at least a little better. Made the trailer trash cracks easier to take, anyway. Plus Noah made Tyson a little less weird than he might otherwise have been. And Tyson made Noah seem positively normal.
The cop and Miss Wilson each took him by an arm and acted like they had to wrangle him into the principal's office, even though he just walked with them like it was nothing. The baggie of weed was burning a hole in his pocket though, and he really did feel like he was about to piss himself.
“I still gotta go,” he said again, but the cop was too busy screwing the librarian with his eyes to respond.
From the way Principal McClure glared through his office door, not being able to reach Noah's grandmother was pissing the old man off pretty good. Noah slouched in his hard, plastic chair and tried to ease the pain that was building in his lower back. He'd been sitting in the same spot for more than four hours.
The school secretary had to keep stopping her work to tell McClure that no, Bernice Kincaide had still not answered.
“I really need to get home, Mr. McClure. My kids, you know?” she said the last time the principal called her desk. Then she sighed and said, “Yes, sir,” hung up and dialed up the same number she'd been trying since lunch.
Noah felt for her. At least part of his discomfort was that he really did have to pee now. Plus he was legit hungry. He could have told them that Bernice was never going to answer the phone. Not this late in the day. They'd had a chance at noon, but by four in the afternoon, she was past the point of talking to Noah's principal or anyone else for that matter.
It was kind of fun to watch the vein in McClure's vein throb every time he looked at Noah. He smiled and waved a little at the principal, just to see his face turn red.
In the end, Holloway, the school cop who took his stash, had to come back to the school to give him a lift home. McClure probably decided it was time to get home for dinner.
“I still need to talk to your grandmother,” McClure said as they walked outside to wait for Holloway.
“I'm not kidding.”
Noah sat on the curb. “Am I getting a vacation?”
“Stand up.” Noah rolled his eyes and held his ground for as long as he dared. Not real long. He was already in a lot of trouble. McClure waited for him to stand up again before he kept talking. “This isn't a joke. You're a smart kid, Noah. You just need to make better choices.”
Holloway pulled up and saved Noah from more preaching. He got out of his school police car and nodded at McClure before holding the backdoor open. The backseat was just like the backseat of any car. Noah slide to the middle, so he could see between the front seats.
Holloway and McClure talked for a minute in the headlights in front of the car, then the principal walked away and the cop got into the driver's seat. He glared at Noah through the rear view mirror. “Seat belt.”
Noah thought about refusing, just to see what would happen, but decided it wasn't worth the trouble. He moved to behind the passenger seat, pulled the belt across his chest and hooked it by his hip.
He'd never been in the back of a squad car, not even a fake school one. On the inside it looked like just about any old car, except he could see the control panel and a tiny computer screen that Holloway tapped before starting the engine and taking off. No barrier between the front and back seats, like on the cop shows, but it was still pretty cool.
What would it be like to be taken in for questioning for espionage or some other James Bond thing? Or maybe for robbing the U Serve where he and Tyson bought Mountain Dew and Milky Ways sometimes.
It would be bad ass, that's what.
Noah leaned back in his seat and gave the back of Holloway's head a stone cold stare. The fake-cop said, “You're lucky you didn't buy more, you know.”
Like Noah was too stupid to know how much was a misdemeanor and how much was a felony? “Whatever.”
No, kidding. The guy looked and sounded like he had a stick shoved so far up his ass it was about to turn him into a unicorn. Noah chuckled at that image, and earned himself a glare through the rear view.
When Holloway pulled up in front of Bernice's trailer, Noah let himself out. Could you just let yourself out of a real police car? Probably not. Otherwise guys would be jumping out at red lights all the time.
Noah started toward the trailer his grandmother had lived in since his dad was a little kid. He was preoccupied with being glad that the backpack he hitched onto his shoulder, the same one his mom bought him for the sixth grade, didn't have something stupid like Pokemon on it. How stupid would that have looked with Holloway watching him every step? The stupid thing cut into his shoulder. He had to carry all his books with him.
Tyson never brought his to school at all.
McClure took out the lockers three years ago. It was legendary at the middle school, where the kids who'd been looking forward to lockers in a few years were at least as pissed off as the high school students who lost them had been.
Something about keeping drugs off the school grounds.
“I'm going to need to talk to your mother,” Holloway said.
Noah turned back and saw that the fake cop had gotten out of his fake cop car. “Yeah, good luck. She's dead.”
That made the officer look uncomfortable at least. “Then your father.”
“Good luck, again. If you can find him, ask him to give my grandma a call. We could use the child support.”
“All right,” Holloway said, obviously thinking Noah's lack of parents was a situation designed just to piss him off. “Your grandma.”
Good luck, Noah thought, but he didn't say it again. He walked to the door and opened it with Dudley Do-right on his heels. A noise came from the couch. His grandmother was face down on the sofa with her bare feet splayed wide open. Her blue and white striped house dress was hiked up to just under her butt.
What had probably been her stories on the television when she passed out was now an infomercial for some kind of miracle facelift. She was definitely passed out. No one could sleep through that volume. Noah picked up the remote and turned it off.
Holloway said, “Ma'am, are you ill?”
As if the empty wine bottle on the floor next to her didn't give him a clue. Noah sat his books down on top of the tinfoil pipe a few feet away and crunched it flat.
“Hey, I was watching that.” Bernice struggled to get herself to a seated position, showing off a pair of red lace panties that no boy should ever have to see his grandmother wearing.
Kill me now.
Holloway turned his face away from Bernice's crotch and looked toward the kitchen instead. The sink was piled with dirty dishes. “Ma'am, your grandson was caught buying marijuana on school property today. I've brought him home.”
She blinked at the cop, then blinked again about foot downward at Noah. “What?”
“Your grandson is in some trouble, Ma'am.” Noah wondered what Bernice thought about being called 'Ma'am' every ten seconds.
She rubbed her hands over her face and then looked back at Holloway. “No, he's a good boy. Tell him, Noah.”
Noah batted his lashes at the cop and said, “I'm a good boy.”
“Shut up.” The cop went down on one knee and picked up the wine bottle. “How much have you had to drink, Ma'am?”
“Don't know what you're talking about,” Bernice said. “I was just taking a nap.”
It didn't occur to Noah until right then that he might not be allowed to stay at home with his thoroughly baked grandmother. “She's okay, really. She's been sick, that's all.”
“Yeah, sick,” she said. “Sick and tired of all this--”
“She's on some medication. It makes her—”
Bernice belched and Holloway sighed. Noah took the bottle from him and shoved it behind the couch. Not that the cop didn't see him do it, but maybe out of sight, out of mind.
“I'm going to have to put a call into DCFS.”
“Ah, man. Are you kidding me? You don't have to do that.” Noah felt like he might be sick.
Holloway's radio, attached to his shoulder, squawked and a dispatcher called his name.
“Sounds like you have more important things to do,” Noah said.
“Don't move.” Holloway stood up and went outside.
Noah took his grandmother by the shoulders and gave her a shake. “Are you crazy? You flashed a cop. Get up. Wash your face or something. Sober up for fuck's sake, or they're going to take me . . . I don't even know where.”
Smith didn't have a juvenile hall. Noah had literally no clue where they put kids they couldn't leave at home. Foster care? The reform school out in Bowler? That was a hundred miles away, though. They wouldn't take him there tonight.
The county cell maybe, since he was caught buying weed.
That, at least, would be a good story to tell Tyson. Still, all in all, he'd rather just stay at home.
“Tell him you're sick, okay? Tell him you have the flu.” He went into the kitchen, took a paper towel from the almost empty roll on the counter and got it wet. When he came back to the living room, she was lying face down again. “Come on, get up! Wash your face, grandma!”
“I told you not to call me that,” she said, struggling to right herself again. “It makes me feel old.”
“Fine, Bernice. I don't want to go to jail. Pull yourself together!”
He sat next to his grandmother on the couch and put his arm around her as she patted the damp towel on her cheeks. When Holloway came back in Noah said, “My grandma's had the flu. I need to take care of her. Make her some chicken noodle, you know?”
The officer looked more distracted than he had before. “Someone will be in touch with you soon.”
“Really, officer,” Bernice said, “Noah is a good boy.”
She smiled at Holloway like she thought she might flirt him out of causing them a problem. Jesus. The cop's face screwed up, like he might have thrown up a little in his mouth.
“You just keep yourself out of trouble,” Holloway said. Could have been to either of them. Or both. “And get this place cleaned up. I'll be back to check on you myself, Kincaide.”
After Holloway finally left, Noah leaned back against the thirty-year-old couch and groaned. “Why can't you just be a normal grandma, Bernice?”
She stood up, stumbled one step toward the television, and smoothed her hands over her dress. Noah was pretty sure she'd been wearing the same one for at least three days. “Normal, for your information, is not being woken up by a cop in your living room because your idiot grandson bought pot at school. What were you thinking, you little bastard?”
About getting stoned. Duh. He didn't say that. And he didn't point out how stupid it was for his father's mother to call him a bastard. Son of a bastard would be closer to the truth. “I guess I wasn't thinking.”
“I guess you weren't. And now I got to deal with the cops and the state and God only knows what else. What if you end up in Drug Court? You think they're going to let you go to court every week alone? And who are they going to blame if you don't make all your meetings or have a bad piss test? I already done this with your daddy. I don't want to do it again.”
She staggered backward a step and looked at the floor at the base of the couch. For her wine, which she'd already finished. Noah pulled the bottle back out and handed it to her.
She looked at the empty bottle like she was really trying to figure out how it got that way. “You drank my wine?”
“I've been at school all day.”
“Don't be smart with me. And don't drink my goddamned wine.”
Noah wondered if he could scrape together enough bud from old baggies to make at least a skinny joint. “I'm sorry. Can I go to my room now?”
“You know what? I'm going to let them do whatever they want to you. Put you in foster care. Put you in jail. I don't care. At least I'll get my life back. I'm done with this. Done.”
“That's just great. Grandma of the year.”
She cracked him one right across the cheekbone before he could move out of the way. He didn't see that coming and the sharp pain combined with the stress of the afternoon brought tears to his eyes.
Bernice gave a sharp, witchy cackle. “Oh, my God. Are you going to cry now?”
Noah wiped his eyes with his sleeve and kept his mouth shut. There wasn't anything he could say that wouldn't piss her off, or make him sound like a whining idiot.
Bernice shook her head, which caused her to lose her already iffy balance, so she had to take a sideways step. “You aren't a kid anymore, Noah. You're old enough to stay out of trouble.”
Yeah, he didn't need this. He picked up his backpack, exposing her crushed pipe. “Next time, I won't cover for you, Bernice.”
She picked up the ruined foil off the floor, almost face planting in the process. “Now I got to make a new one, you little shit.”
He opened the front door. “Have fun with that.”
It had taken McClure so long to decide to let Holloway drive him home that it was nearly full dark and the temperature had dropped to almost cold. He still had his coat on, though, so he walked down their empty driveway and just kept going.
When you live in the armpit of America, in a place so isolated that you can't get out without a car and so tiny that the one movie theater changed its show twice a month, there was only one way to run away from home.
Noah headed back toward the school, then past it into the mountains behind. He had to slow down as he picked his way through the brush. Dusk took away his depth perception, and a couple of times he fell on his knees, but he didn't care.
He kept going until he reached the clearing.
Since it was a Tuesday night and not Friday or Saturday, he expected to find it empty. Kids came to party here on the weekends. They sat on logs, arranged in a circle around a fire pit, and passed around blunts and pipes and whatever bottles or pills they could steal from home. There were always old sleeping bags around, even a couple of pup tents set up for when they wanted to pair off. He and Tyson had come to the clearing once or twice, but not too often because they didn't really fit in.
He'd camp here tonight and maybe the next night. And the next. Let Bernice drink herself into a coma or overdose just like his mom had. What did he care?
When he pushed through the last of the short, shrubby trees, though, he stopped abruptly. There was a fire in the pit. The clearing was already occupied by Sandy the Sketch. Smith’s only true homeless person. That was what his mother used to call him when he asked her for money outside the grocery store. She always gave him a dollar.
Sandy could have been anywhere from 30 to 130 years old. There was no visual way to tell. His teeth were black and rotting, and his face had the sunk-in, wobbly look of a tweaker. Drugs stole any sign of his actual age.
Noah had never seen anyone who smoked or snorted meth regularly who didn't look like a geezer from the neck up. Sandy really looked bad. He stood up and held his pipe behind his back when Noah crashed his one-person party.
“Sorry,” Noah mumbled, automatically stepping back.
Sandy reached one hand out to him, as if to stop him leaving. “Hey, what's this? Ain't you a little young to be up here this time of day?”
“Not really.” Noah didn't back away again. Where else was he going to go? Not home. Screw that. He had as much right to the clearing as Sandy did. “I'm not leaving.”
Sandy nodded his head, and then kept nodding for a while, like he'd gotten stuck. “Okay, okay, okay.”
“I won't bother you,” Noah said, to stop the weird loop Sandy had fallen into. “I just need a place to crash.”
“Nothing like the great outdoors, right?” Sandy stretched his arms up to the sky, glass pipe and all, and answered himself. “Right.”
Sandy shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he leaned in closer to Noah and pointed at his face. “I remember you. You gave me pizza once. That was you, right?”
It was him. Coming out of the gas station a few months ago with one of those frozen pies they baked up and sold for five bucks. He shared a slice when Sandy asked for change, even though he was pretty sure, homeless or not, he had more money than Noah and could have bought his own pizza if he wanted to. “Yeah.”
Sandy tapped his right temple. “Memory like a bear trap. What's your name?”
Noah thought about refusing to tell him, but only for a second or two. What was the point? “Noah.”
Sandy thrust the thumb of his free hand at his chest and said, “Sandy.” Noah didn't need to hear his name though. Everyone knew who he was.
“So, I'm just gonna sit, okay?” Noah said. “You just do whatever you were doing.”
Sandy held up his pipe, as if he’d found some kind of treasure. He wasn't using it to get stoned. Noah knew that immediately. “You party?”
Noah had never tried dope. He smoked weed, sure. Who didn't? And sometimes he got buzzed on Bernice's wine or whatever he and Tyson could steal. He'd taken a Vicodin or sleeping pill a few times. But meth—that was his grandmother's thing. It was his dad's thing, too, before he bolted. And his mom's before she died. McClure was always at Noah about thinking ahead. Maybe he didn't, so much, about a lot of things. He did when it came to meth.
He didn't want to be a tweaker.
He also didn't want to look like an asshole, though, so he just shrugged.
Sandy laughed. It whistled over his gums and caused spit to spray from his cracked lips. “You never did it, did you?”
Noah shrugged. He never had, but he wasn't going to say it out loud.
“Here, try it. It'll take all your pain away.” Sandy shoved the pipe, a glass tube with a bulb at the end filled with a tarry residue, toward Noah. “Go on.”
“It's okay.” Noah didn't reach for the pipe, but he didn't back away either. “I'm good.”
Sandy pulled the pipe back. He went from overly-friendly to paranoid in two seconds flat. “Who sent you up here?”
Not good. “No one. Just getting away from my grandma, that's all.”
“Who's your grandma?”
“Bernice Kincaide. Look, I just need a place to crash.”
“Bernice. Bernice.” Sandy's put his free hand to the side of his head. He looked like he was thinking so hard, that bear trap might send long, greasy blond hair and bits of brain flying all over. “Your daddy named Jubilee?”
Now it was Noah's turn to be suspicious. “You know my dad?”
“Yeah, if he's Jubilee Kincaide. I remember he had a hot little mama. She still hot?”
“Jubilee Kincaide. I haven't thought about your daddy in about forever. He still in Smith?”
“No.” His dad hated his name. Noah could hardly blame him. What was Bernice thinking, anyway, naming a boy Jubilee. For as long as Noah could remember, his dad was called Lee, but that didn't stop some people from always using his whole name anyway. “How do you know my dad?”
“We was in school together,” Sandy said. “Till I dropped out, anyway. Eleventh grade. Best thing I ever did. Free advice, kid, high school is for pussies. Get out as soon as you can.”
For the first time in his life, Noah was suddenly certain he would stay in school. “Okay. Thanks. I'm just going to--”
“I knew your mama, too,” Sandy said. “Tara was in school with us. Sorry to hear about her.”
Noah looked at the two small tents pitched not far away. One looked like it had a working zipper. He resisted the urge to call dibs. Instead, he just moved a little closer to it. “Okay. Maybe I better --”
Sandy thrust the pipe at him again, more aggressively this time. “Your daddy would never forgive me, I didn't give you some of this shit.”
The real shame was Sandy was probably right.
It was really dark now. Sandy had started a fire in the rock ring in the center of the clearing, which provided the only light and the only warmth. Climbing back down the mountain tonight wasn't going to happen.
Going home in the morning was looking better and better, though.
“Go on. This is some good shit, I promise. Got it from a dude out of Susanville with a real gift in the kitchen.” Sandy laughed again. He really cracked himself up.
Despite an urge to run in the opposite direction of doing anything his parents or grandmother did, Noah couldn't help being curious. Once wouldn't hurt, would it? Then he'd know what was so great about the shit they all chose over him.
Tyson wasn't talking to him. Sometime soon, Noah would probably be in real trouble for buying a dime from Ransom. He was definitely suspended, and maybe expelled, from school. When Noah did get back to school, Ransom would probably kick his ass all the way back to middle school.
His mom was dead. His dad was a deadbeat. His grandma was probably passed out again. Literally no one on Earth cared where he was right now. Or what he smoked.
His life was officially shit. What difference did it make if he got wasted tonight with Sandy the Sketch, the homeless guy who knew his parents? He was practically a family friend, right?
“I don't know how,” he finally said.
Sandy showed him. The first hit went right to his head, and Sandy was right. He didn't feel any pain for the rest of the night.
He also didn't sleep. He sat on a log, in front of the fire, and used a stick to draw pictures in the dirt. He listened to Sandy talk, but lost track of what he was talking about. He made a plan for getting back to the trailer, back into school, fixing things with Tyson.
When the sun came up, he felt like he'd solved the world's problems and could fly home, right over the tops of the short little pine trees covering the mountain.
“All right, kid.” Sandy stood up and stretched. “I'm out.”
“Yeah.” He probably should get back, too. He wasn't hungry, though. And he felt like he might never sleep again. Still, there was an off chance that Bernice would wonder where he was. Maybe not this early, but at some point.
And, at least technically, he had school today.
Sandy headed down the same path that Noah took into the clearing. Noah stayed for a while, walking around and around the log ring, counting his steps and trying to figure out what he was going to say to Bernice to make her not take his head off when he got home.