ISBN 10: 0147517648 / ISBN 13: 9780147517647
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This year is going to totally rock,? I told Lee. We were sitting on the top step of her front porch, badly bloated and overfed from the heaping platters of an outrageous Labor Day cookout hosted by her parents, attended by mine, and peppered with a rotating assortment of both families? coworkers, friends, and neighbors. My folks loved Lee. Her folks appeared to tolerate me, though I had a feeling it would be a good idea not to turn my back on her father if we ever went hiking near the edge of a cliff. Dads are excessively protective of their daughters. I think my parents were pretty smart to have nothing but boys, even if they were less than smart about the spacing.

?I admire your enthusiasm,? Lee said. ?It?s cute.?

?You?re thinking of the wrong Hudson.? I pointed to the curb, where my parents were loading my somewhat amusing but essentially useless and frequently damp baby sibling into the backseat of the car. ?Sean is cute.?

?Agreed,? Lee said. ?But there?s no quota on cute. And there?s a strong biological argument for shared traits among siblings. Sean?s cute. Bobby?s cute. You?re cute. It?s a Hudson thing. Suck it up and deal with it. What?s wrong with being adorable??

?That?s for puppies and toddlers,? I said. ?We?re sophomores now.?

?Don?t stay out too late, Scott,? Mom called after she?d clicked the seventeen buckles and tightened the half-dozen harnesses that locked Sean?s Kevlar-reinforced car seat securely in place. ?You have school tomorrow. It?s a big day. You want to be ready for it.?

?I know, Mom. Thanks. Bye.? I waved and watched my parents drive off. I wasn?t concerned about tomorrow. I?d spent my freshman year mastering the art of functioning without sleep. I?d survived a series of stupid decisions, and scattered brushes with death and destruction. What a difference a year makes. Last year, I?d been clueless. This year, I had a clue.

The door opened behind us. ?Big day, tomorrow,? Lee?s dad said.

Lee and I exchanged amused glances, but she didn?t protest. ?See you in school,? she said, giving my hand a pat. She closed the book she?d been reading, but kept her place with her finger. Of Mice and Men. That was our summer-reading book. She was near the end. I?d already read it, on my own, years before it had been assigned. Twice, actually.

?What are you wearing tomorrow?? I asked as I got up from the steps.

?What?s the matter? Afraid we?ll show up in the same outfit??

?I think that would be the first sign of the apocalypse,? I said. Lee had a fondness for dark, disturbing horror-related T-shirts, which she alternated with dark, disturbing obscure-band-related T-shirts. For the picnic, she?d made her parents happy by wearing a solid brown shirt, adorned with nothing except one tiny Jack Skellington pin. Her hair, which had started the summer a bright orange, was now a muted shade of deep purple.

?The apocalypse has been here for a while,? Lee said. ?Have you been to a bookstore or a movie theater recently??

?Quite a few. Good point.?

?Thanks. And I actually haven?t given school clothing any thought yet,? she said.

I took one last look at summer-vacation Lee, then headed for home. When I?d met her last October, she had so many piercings, I was surprised her spine hadn?t snapped under the weight of all the metal. Most of this summer, she?d only worn a handful?I mean, a faceful. Wait. ?Faceful? sounds like a lot. But ?handful? sounds like a little. I guess I?ll settle for saying she had a handful of piercings on her face.

With Lee, I was never sure what sort of personal questions were okay, and what sort would earn me an I-can?t-believe-you-just-asked-me-that glare, or a bucketful of scalding sarcasm. But curiosity was killing me. I thought back to last week, when she?d come over to show me the camera her parents had given her for her birthday, and I?d finally asked her about it. ?You?re wearing a lot fewer piercings.?

?Your powers of observation remain impressive.? She didn?t look at me. She was busy snapping her 235th (by my rough estimate) photo of Sean?s hands. But I didn?t detect any sign of annoyance in her tone. I decided to press on.

?Is it because . . .? I paused to find the right way to phrase my question.

Is it because we?re hanging out a lot?

No. That sounded presumptuous.

Is it because we?re sort of dating?

Nope. That was probably even more presumptuous, and slightly delusional. Besides, I couldn?t honestly call our relationship dating. I?d taken her to one dance. I guess that was a date. But dating implies an ongoing relationship. This summer, we?d mostly hung out in town when she wasn?t working. In my mind, we were more than just friends. Or, at least, close to being more than friends. Though, at the pace things were going, our next real date would coincide with our tenth high school reunion.

?Is it because of what?? she asked.

I grasped the next thought that floated through the vacuum chamber of my mind. ?Because your current social clique sports far fewer piercings?? Zero, to be exact.

She pointed the camera at me and captured my digital soul. ?Do you think that would be a good reason??

?No. Absolutely not.?

?Neither do I.? She switched on her flash and fired several shots at my retinas. ?I almost put everything back on right after the dance. I didn?t want people to think I?d been motivated to make some sort of drastic change in an effort to gain social acceptance. But I try not to let people?s assumptions guide my actions. So I left them off because I didn?t care whether people thought they knew why.?

As twisty as that might seem, I got it. Though all she?d told me was what didn?t influence her. I still didn?t know her motivation. I realized it didn?t matter. I liked Lee. I didn?t care how many piercings she had. Though, if I wanted to be totally honest, I liked her more without the excess. But even if she decided to wear an iron mask, I wouldn?t mind.

No. That?s a lie. An iron mask would bother me. I liked her face. I liked looking at it. And I liked the way looking at it made me feel.

While Lee could be indecipherable at times, my friend Wesley was just the opposite. He?d been the most feared kid in the school, last year. But he was totally open about his thoughts and goals. Like most guys, he followed a self-created code of honor. Wesley could knock out pretty much anybody with one punch, and he had no problem exercising that ability when a situation called for it. But he would never hit you from behind.

My thoughts about Lee and Wesley carried me for several blocks. It?s a little less than two miles from Lee?s place to mine. I enjoyed the silence of the suburban streets. Things were rarely quiet at home these days. Sean managed to blow a fair number of decibels out of his tiny lungs and miniature larynx. And when a baby appeared, as Sean had in May, it seemed like every person in the universe had to stop by at some point, spout gibberish along the lines of ?kitchee kitchee coo,? and fabricate remarks about the adorable nature of such unremarkable, unadorable fabrics as crocheted blankets, quilted bibs, and knitted caps.

My parents were waiting for me in the living room when I got home, perched on the couch that faced the front door. The last time I?d seen them both sporting mingled expressions of joy and fear, they?d just found out Mom was pregnant.

?We have great news,? Mom said. She had Sean cradled in her arms. He was asleep. Car rides were his kryptonite. They knocked him right out. Resistance was futile. I wish we lived in a tour bus.

?You?re not . . . ?? I pictured our house slowly filling up with babies, while a convoy of dump trucks carted off the diapers that spilled out the doors and windows.

?No!? Dad said, after a brief pause to fill in the dots.

Mom?s head snapped toward him as if he?d just spewed a half-dozen swear words, instead of a single relief-filled negative. ?I?m not pregnant, if that?s what you were thinking,? she said. ?Not that it would be so terrible.? She beamed a fond gaze at Sean. I think babies get their vitamin D from gaze-beams.

?It would be great. Totally super. The more, the merrier.? Now that I knew it wasn?t happening, I could be generous with my enthusiasm, and my clichés. ?What?s the news??

?I?m opening my own garage,? Dad said. ?You know that little place on Sibert Street, between the Taco Shack and the dry cleaner??

?The two-bay service station?? I asked.

?Yeah. They have to rip out the old pumps. Instead of installing new ones, the owner decided to sell the place. It?s perfect for a repair shop. And the price is reasonable.?

?That?s awesome.? This really was good news. Dad ran the repair department at Linwood Mercedes in Allentown. He?d always wanted to open his own garage. He was an amazing mechanic. He could figure out most problems with cars just by listening to the engine. ?I thought you needed to save up a lot more money before you could do that.?

?I got a partner,? Dad said. ?We?ve been working on plans for a while. He?s handling the financing and the paperwork. I just got off the phone with him, and we definitely have a deal. I didn?t want to tell you until I knew it was really going to happen.?

?But we?re still going to have to economize a bit,? Mom said. ?I?d planned to go back to work last year, but that got sidetracked.? She flashed another gaze-beam at our little sidetrack.

I didn?t see how any further economizing was possible. We were already funneling all the family?s extra money into diapers and baby food. From what I?d seen, a baby?s digestive tract is a sort of specialized ecosystem that serves merely to turn money into crap.

?What are you going to do?? I asked. ?Rent out Bobby?s room??

Mom and Dad looked at each other with calculating eyes, as if this was actually an excellent suggestion on my part.

?I hadn?t thought about that,? Dad said. ?Rental rates are pretty high around here. We could probably charge a decent amount.?

?Stranger danger!? I shouted. ?You want a stranger bringing diseases into the house? There are a lot of sketchy people out there. And you don?t want Bobby to feel like he has no place at home. At some point, he?s going to need that room.?

That seemed to yank them back from the fantasy of becoming wealthy landlords.

?We?ll manage with what we?ve saved so far,? Dad said. ?I?ll work at the dealership through the end of the year. The garage goes on the market in January. After we buy it, I?ll give notice at the job, so they have plenty of time to find a replacement. We?ll fix the place up this winter, and we can open in March.?

?Who?s the partner?? I asked.

?He doesn?t want me to tell anyone until after the contracts are signed,? Dad said. ?He has another investment he needs to sell, first, to help fund this. It?s good to keep quiet about these things. He told me you never want people to know you?re motivated to sell, or you won?t get a good price. But I think you?ll be pleasantly surprised when you find out.? He tossed in a wink.

I could tell Dad was excited. I didn?t ruin the announcement by sharing my thoughts. It was great he was going to make his dream come true, but the timing was terrible. Mom was busy with Sean. Bobby just started the second month of a six-month tour with his band. That left me as the go-to guy for any tasks that didn?t require a six-foot reach, an intimate understanding of socket wrenches, or a driver?s license. As for Bobby?s room, I still had hopes of eventually turning it into the site of a slot-car track.

I went up to my room to get ready for tomorrow. As I was digging through my desk drawers for blank notebooks, I found my journal. I hadn?t touched it all summer, but the memories rekindled by my encounter with parental announcements inspired me to flip it open and start writing.

September 1

School starts tomorrow, Sean. I know I said I was finished with these journals after you were born. But when parents spring exciting news like ?we?re going to be even poorer next year,? it?s a hard habit to break. So I guess I?ll keep it up. Though I?m not expecting anywhere near as much drama this year. I don?t think anyone needs a sophomore survival manual. Juniors and seniors will be less of a threat. I?ll have a whole class of freshmen who get to suffer the role of buffer.

Hey, that was a halfway-clever phrase. I guess I sort of missed this. It feels good to be writing in my journal again. And, just to be clear, this is not a diary. It?s actually not a journal, either. See if you can figure out what it is. I?ll give you a couple days to think about it. I need to get ready for tomorrow. Which basically means I have to put some notebooks and pencils in my backpack, and remember to zip it up.


I was trying to cross a six-lane highway. Cars shot toward me from both directions. Just after I leaped over the center divider, the highway turned into a football field. Cars converged from all directions now, as if I?d wandered into a demolition derby.

Horns blared.

What the heck!

I sat up, and tried to blink away the darkness. But it remained blinkproof. I checked my clock. 5:30. A horn blared again. I stumbled to the window. There was a delivery truck at the curb. Bongo?s Bagels. Both the o?s in ?Bongo?s? were made of sliced bagels. And the l in ?Bagels? was a knife with cream cheese smeared on it.

I saw upstairs lights flick on in two of the houses across the street. I suspected lights might also be turning on in houses on either side of us.

A guy wearing a white cap got out of the bagel truck and headed for my front door. Even from above, I knew that walk. It was Wesley. My pal. My scary, dangerous, awesome friend. And, apparently, my friend with no concept of time or adolescent sleep requirements.

I opened my window, and tried to get Wesley?s attention with a whispered shout before he started pressing the doorbell. ?What are you doing??

He craned his head back and waved at me, then pointed at the truck. ?I got a new job. Delivering stuff. To the school. How?s that for a lucky break? I can give you a ride every morning, just like last year. So you don?t have to take the bus. Come on down. I?m running late.?

Teeth unbrushed. Bladder unemptied. Stomach unfed. Eyes unfocused. Brain unactivated. No way. ?Thanks. But I?m running late, too. I?ll call you after school.?

?You sure??

?I?m sure.?

?Hey, a couple bagels spilled out when I hit the curb. They?re still hot. I?ll get you one.?

?That?s okay,? I called. But he was already sprinting back to the truck. He leaned in through the passenger window and grabbed something from the foot well. I was still sliding up the screen when he chucked the bagel, flinging it at me with the form and force of a champion Frisbee thrower. Both my hands were occupied. The bagel hit my head, then ricocheted into the room.


It felt like a salt bagel. At least he hadn?t been delivering pies. Or bricks.

I slid the scree...

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