By Steve Brezenoff
Fuck fuck fuck fuck . . .
“Wait,” I say through my clenched teeth, and I shift around on the floor and grab at the bunched-up beach towel under me. It doesn’t do a great job making the tiles of the third-floor girls’ bathroom comfortable.
“Christ, Jelly!” Izzy snaps at me as she flinches. Jelly, by the way, is me. You don’t have to know my real name. No one at Central High School gives a shit what my real name is, so why should you care? “Could you keep still for like ten seconds so we can do this already?”
She’s pissed at me, which is fair. I somehow convinced her to “borrow” her older brother’s piercing gear and a bottle of Bactine and come up here with me when we’re both supposed to be in Weaver’s math class. Anyway I think we’re supposed to be in math. I can’t even see the clock from here.
“Just wait a second,” I say, pushing myself up onto my elbows and craning to see the caged clock over the door.
“Holy shit, Jelly,” Izzy says. “Lie back. It’ll be done in like two seconds if you just chill.”
“Fine, fine.” So I stretch out on the towel, take a second to get it smooth underneath me, and adjust my bag that I’m using as a pillow. “I’m ready.”
“Good,” Izzy says, and she rubs more Bactine on me as I stare up at the bleak flickering fluorescents. “Now for Christ’s sake don’t move.”
The piercing clamp pinches my belly button—it’s cold as hell, so I suck in a breath and Izzy takes it to mean I’m in pain already. “If you can’t handle the clamp, maybe this ain’t a good idea.”
“Just do it.” I close my eyes and bite my lip and then it’s in. “Holy shit!”
“Done,” she says, but I can feel she’s still monkeying around down there.
“Can I sit up?”
“Not yet. Putting in the stud. Tightening the balls.”
“Let me clean up the blood.”
“Oh, come on, Izzy!”
“There’s a lot of blood.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” And I sit halfway up to check, and there’s stupid-ass Izzy grinning at me from behind her tangle of bright-white hair and pinching a cotton ball between her fingertips. It’s got about as much blood on it as a mouse gets on her mensies. “You’re hilarious.”
“And you’re a pussy,” she says, getting to her feet. “Anyway you’re all done. Check it out.”
I get to my feet and go to the sinks to check the mirror and Izzy comes up next to me. “Looks all right, yeah?”
“Looks good,” I admit, looking at myself in the mirror and the dumbbell in my belly button. “It’s pretty red.”
Izzy pats me on my back and hands me my shirt. “Won’t be forever, but it won’t heal completely for like three months. Keep it clean.”
“With what?” I say, watching her in the mirror as she cleans up the towel and her brother’s junk.
Now I turn around to look at her. “Seriously?”
“Mmhm,” she says. “Don’t you remember your ear piercings?”
I shake my head. I’ve had my ears pierced pretty much forever. My mom took me to the mall for those when I was four. Her idea.
“Anyway I’ll get you a bottle,” Izzy says. “Alex has cartons of the stuff in his van.”
“Thanks,” I say as I follow her toward the door, still holding up my T-shirt and staring down at my belly and the foreign object stuck into it. The door swings open as Izzy reaches it and a pair of freshman girls come in. So now we’re standing here in front of the wide-open door to the third-floor hallway, where our lovable schoolmates at Centro are on their way from first hour to second, me with my T-shirt pulled up.
“Oh damn, baby,” says the classiest of the bunch, gawking at me with his hand over his mouth. I don’t know his name. Don’t care. He gets the whole slackjawed crowd hooting, though, so what choice do I have? I either duck back into the bathroom, with my face going red, or I step up and teach this boy about respect.
If you think I give the first of these options even a moment of thought, you don’t know me very well.
Mr. Oh Damn has his back against the wall in about two seconds. Boys like him never know when to turn around and make themselves scarce because when they see me coming up—no matter how viciously pissed I look—they always seem to think they’re about to get lucky. Boys like him are pretty damn stupid.
“You say something to me, you dickless piece of shit?” I’ve got the collar of his shirt—it’s ghastly, this thing: sky blue, with a fat collar and I-kid-you-not sequins swirling all over the place—in both my hands and I’m right up in his face, close enough so he can probably smell the liquor on my breath.
You didn’t think I just let Izzy stab me in the navel without a little help from my good friend Peppermint Shnapps, did you?
“Whoa,” he says, palms up and out and a shit-eating grin on his face. I want to clear up right now, it’s not a handsome face. It’s not even cute. It’s a little busted, to be honest. Zitty. Also he smells like body spray. So don’t go thinking this is the beginning of some kind of flirty exercise you see in the movies. It ain’t.
“You should apologize.” That’s Izzy, her head popping up from behind my right shoulder to offer the idiot a little advice. Meanwhile the crowd has circled us, and they’re muttering and egging me on. One of them coughs into his hand: “Dyke.”
I don’t care. Izzy and me, we hear that all. The. Time. And we don’t care. Maybe we would care if we were gay together or whatever. I don’t know.
I give his collar a little shake so his head smacks the wall behind him, like an exclamation point for Izzy’s advice. “Ow! God, I’m sorry, shit.”
“Thank you,” I say, and I let him go just as Mr. Andestic stalks out of his classroom around the corner and calls for order in the halls. By clapping twice. Somehow this is for the most part effective.
“Okay, people,” he barks. “Let’s get to class or wherever we’re supposed to be.”
Which is when we bail—Izzy’s gotta get the gear back to Alex’s van before he heads out to open the shop, and I’m the one with a car. I could have asked Alex to do the piercing himself, I guess. He might have done it. I’m not eighteen, which means strictly speaking my freaking mom would have to be present when he did it. Which, no. And maybe he would have done it anyway, like after hours in the back of his van—as a favor. But honestly I’m not super into getting into the back of dudes’ vans and asking favors of them after hours, even dudes who happen to be older brother to one of the few girls at Centro I can bear to be within five feet of for more than fifteen seconds.
Getting out of school during school hours is no trouble if you know how to do it, and by the time you’re a junior like me and Izz, you better know how to do it. There are fire exits all over the place on the first floor and in basement. Most of them scream like crazy if you pop them open, of course. But there are two in the basement that don’t close right, so the alarms have been switched off. Permanently. I don’t know if school security hasn’t been informed because school maintenance is jacking off in a janitor’s closet someplace, but whatever. The point is that me and Izz have no trouble at all getting to the parking lot.
I want to tell you about my car. You probably don’t give a shit, but I want to tell you about it anyway. I don’t have much—an iPod shuffle my ex gave me, pre-loaded; a room in the apartment my mom rents in a quadplex on Minnehaha Avenue; a few good pairs of jeans; and now this barbell in my belly button—but the best thing I have is the most beautiful thing I have, and the most beautiful thing parked in the Centro parking lot.
It’s a silver 1979 Pontiac Firebird Formula, with a 301 cu in V8 engine and a four-speed manual transmission and the famous Firebird paintjob on the hood with red leather interior. It’s the hottest thing you’ve ever seen, and it gleams in the midmorning sun—gives me a little flutter in my heart every time I look at it. Today, though, it’s not alone.
“Jelly!” shout the pair of gorillas leaning on the driver’s side door—Wiener and Cheese. I think Wiener is an actual name, but Cheese has been called Cheese for as long as I’ve known him and I won’t give him the satisfaction of asking him why.
“Get off the car, assholes!” I shout back. They don’t budge, so when I reach them, I throw an elbow into Wiener’s ribs and he says “oof” like a dying breath. Cheese is bright enough to back off before I punch his arm.
“Give us a ride, Jell,” says Cheese.
“How’s it going, Izzy?” Wiener’s already moved around to the passenger side to cut her off. He’s got a thing for her, I guess. Maybe he’s got a thing for anyone with legs and tits who’ll talk to him instead of running away screaming.
Izzy doesn’t answer him. She catches my eye over the top of the car. “Jelly, we have like ten minutes.”
“You guys, leave us alone, alright?” I say, fiddling with the keys. “I’ll hook up with you later, I promise.”
They press and prod—Where are we going? Why can’t they come? That kind of thing—but we just climb in and I gun it so the tires screech as first gear catches the pavement and we’re gone.
Ten minutes, it turns out, is plenty of time to drive about two miles, even on the hellish stretch that is University Avenue. Alex’s van is there, but the cargo doors are open and Alex is inside, rummaging around.
“Shit.” Izzy slides down in the passenger seat. “Fuck it, Jelly. Just get out of here. I’m already busted. No reason to stick around.”
So I get ready to gun it, but Alex pops his head up and spots us. He shouts something and this time I leave an inch of burnt rubber on the street when we take off.
“Holy shit, Jelly!” Izzy shrieks, holding on to the door handle like she’d be tossed upside down without it or something. “Are you insane?”
Because I just squealed around the corner onto Prior Avenue and I’m doing sixty in a thirty. I’m not even smiling, though it’s fun as shit, because I’m concentrating so hard. My lip’s probably going to bleed because I’m biting it so hard.
“Is he behind us?”
She turns to check. “Yes.”
So I can’t slow down now. Instead I pick up speed as we hit the Pierce Butler Route. It’s almost like a highway, though the speed limit is still only forty. I think. But I’m doing seventy as we zip under the Snelling Avenue overpass. I’m not some kind of stunt driver, but I can manage a decent handbrake turn, and I bust one at Griggs.
“I hope he didn’t see that,” Izzy says, and I laugh, like he would do anything besides yell at us anyway. A couple of blocks off the PBR is a community center or something with a little parking lot, so I pull in and park and switch off the car. Izzy knows why, and she pops the glove box and finds my cigarettes and takes one and gives me one and we both light off her Bic. “Holy shit, Jelly.”
I laugh again.
“You’re fucking crazy.”
So we’re sitting in the parking lot, halfway down a couple of Camel Lights, when Alex’s van pulls right in. I can hardly stand it—I just bust up laughing as he struts up to the Firebird, his face all scrunched up and mad, and I say while I’m laughing, “Hey, bro.” Izzy punches my arm for that.
I’m not drunk. You probably think I’m drunk. I’m not.
“Jelly, why the hell did you take off like that?” Alex says, leaning down to glimpse his sister next to me.
“Izzy told me to.”
“I did not!” she says. “I didn’t, Alex. I totally didn’t.”
I nod gravely. “She did.”
He pulls open the door. “Get out.”
“Excuse me?” Because no one tells me to get out of my car. Maybe a cop. Maybe.
Alex leans his head in. “Izzy, get out.”
She pops her door and I give Alex a little smack in the back of his head, which is stupid because he lingers like that, with his head stuck in the door and his face hovering over my belly button, which my T-shirt—chosen special for the occasion—doesn’t hide. “Jesus,” he says.
He sighs at me, sick to death of me, and takes his huge head out of my car to go chat with Sister Izzy, so I close the door and turn on the radio to wait while they shout at each other. Izzy can hold her own.
After a few minutes Izzy gets back in, huffing and pissed, and Alex appears at my window again. “You have to pay me for that.”
“Okay,” I say, reaching into my pocket. I don’t pull out cash, though. I pull out a middle finger and waggle it in his face. “Fuck off, Alex. You didn’t do shit. You’re not getting shit.”
“Come on, Jelly,” Izzy says. “He’s going to call the cops.”
“You broke into my van, you stole my equipment,” he says, counting off the charges on his fingers, “and you let my sister mutilate you in the school bathroom. Plus you’re what do you call it—truant.”
“No,” I say, and I start the car. “I can’t even with this right now.”
Izzy puts her hand on the gear shift. “Come on, Jelly.”
“How much does he even want?” I ask her all quiet-like, as if Brother Alex won’t hear me—as if he isn’t even here.
He answers anyway. “A hundo, baby.” I can hear his sneer.
“You gotta be fucking kidding me.” I’m still looking at Izzy. I can’t even look at this puke right now. “It’s only thirty in the goddamn shop. And he didn’t even do anything.”
“I chased you bitches all the way down here,” he says. “And I’m gonna be late now opening. Besides,” he goes on, leaning in the open window on both his arms like he’s comfy and we’re buds, “you’re not just paying for my gear and my effort anymore. You’re paying for my silence.”
I take a deep breath and reach across Izzy for another cigarette. I light it and blow it in Alex’s face. He doesn’t even cough. I think it turns him on, actually. He’s super old, before you get any ideas. Thirty, I think. Or almost. Izzy’s a perfect little accident with a different dad—some guy her mom hooked up with for like two hours some drunken Saturday night at the Pig’s Eye or Jimmy’s Shack or Vic B’s. I don’t know. I made most of that up. But I do know her dad is a black guy that she’s never met, and her mom is Alex’s mom, and Alex is straight-up Vietnamese. I don’t know what happened to his dad, either. I can make some shit up if you want, I guess.
“I’ll tell you what,” Alex says, pulling out his own pack of cigarettes. Something green, which means menthol. Not my thing. “We don’t have to make a big thing about it. Seventy-five bucks.”
“I don’t have seventy-five bucks.”
“Izzy does,” he says.
“No she don’t,” I say, and I look back at her. “Do you?”
She shakes her head and crosses her arms.
“She can get it from Mom,” he says. “Get it from Mom, give it to me. Seventy-five bucks. You know she ain’t gonna notice.”
“Fine,” Izzy says, and she pulls on her seatbelt and crosses her arms again. “Just go, Jelly, alright?”
“Fine, fine,” I say, shoving her brother with my elbow so I can pull out.
“I’m not kidding, Izzy!” Alex shouts after us as we pull away. “Today. Like, right now.”
“Fine!” she shrieks at him out her open window. Then she settles back in her seat again. “Fuck.”
I take it easy now. I honestly don’t know what got into me before—the schnapps or the rush of the piercing. I hear that can happen. But whatever it was, it’s gone now, and I drive about twenty along Thomas Avenue into Frogtown and to Izzy’s mom’s place on Victoria. She lives next door to a hip little Vietnamese restaurant and the first time I went to Izzy’s house like a hundred years ago she said to me when I walked in, “If you smell anything you want, it ain’t coming from my kitchen so don’t get excited.”
She’s not home at ten on a Thursday, so Izzy lets us in the back and tells me to wait in the kitchen, so I do. I also check the fridge but it’s looking pretty miserable. She comes back while I’m standing there gaping at three almost-empty shelves. “I got a hundred.”
“Don’t give him a hundred,” I say, closing the fridge and following her to her room at the back of the apartment.
“It’s not all for him,” she says. “She only had twenties so I took five.”
“Wanna get high?”
Of course I do, so we do, and we end up lounging on her bed for about an hour, listening to Circle Takes the Square and just generally forgetting everything about the morning. Of course we get hungry, and we have twenty-five bucks to eat with, so still buzzing a bit, we cross University Avenue for a couple of banh mi, which become a couple more banh mi, because they’re small and cheap and amazing.
So by the time we get back to my car, I’m full and slow and still pretty stoned. Izzy’s having one of her paranoia kicks, so she’s got both arms around my waist and I practically have to pry her off and shove her into the passenger seat. I even do her seatbelt for her.
Wicked strong mothering instinct, right?
As I turn onto University, leaning way back in the driver’s seat, I say, “Where to?”
She catches her breath, like she’d forgotten to breathe for the last few minutes. “The shop,” she says. “Alex’s shop, remember?”
How could I forget?
The shop’s in the 612—Minneapolis, over by the university campus in the neighborhood called Dinkytown. I don’t know.
I park in front. “I’ll wait here.”
Izzy climbs out and I turn the music, and a minute later she’s at my window to tell me the shop door is locked.
“So go around back.”
She looks up and down the sidewalk. “Come with me.”
There’s an alley that runs behind just about every building in Minneapolis-St. Paul. I don’t know if it’s a typical city design, but it definitely puts people in sketchy situations a lot. Izzy and I walk around back and find the alley and head down. It’s lined with dumpsters and beat-up vans and two little pizza delivery cars. Alex’s back door is at the far end, and before long we can see the heavy metal door propped open with a cinder block.
“See?” I say.
Izzy’s all wrapped around me again and I flinch a little when her arm grazes the new piercing. She unwraps quickly and crosses her arms. “Sorry.”
“No worries.” I pat my butt pocket. “Shit. I left my ciggies in the car. Be right back.”
And I turn to run back to the car, but Izzy freaks. She grabs my wrist and shrieks, “No, don’t leave me here alone!”
“Why?” And I realize finally that this isn’t about the pot anymore. She’s not just having some kind of paranoid stoned freak-out. She’s scared. “Is something going on, Izz?”
She pushes her head against my shoulder like a housecat and shakes it no. “I don’t know.”
“No or you don’t know?”
“I don’t know.” Her voice is muffled because she’s talking into my arm. I can feel it as much as I can hear it. “Alex is in trouble. I think.”
She laughs through her nose—a scornful laugh. “What do you think, Jelly?” she says, glaring up at me so her cheek presses against my arm.
“Money, I guess?”
She gives me one of those nostril-and-lip-snarl Duh faces. “Where do you get your pot, Jelly?”
“You.” After a second: “I mean, sometimes Wiener.”
“Where do I get it?”
“Where does he get it?”
I have no idea. “South America?”
Izzy hits me again. That’s like four times today, but I let it go.
“So you think he owes someone money?” I say, thinking about the eighty-odd dollars in Izzy’s bag.
She shrugs and takes my wrist and we start up the alley again. I keep my eyes on that propped-open door. “Just seventy-five bucks,” I say. “Doesn’t seem like anyone could get in real trouble over that much. It’s not like he asked for a thousand.”
Izzy doesn’t answer, but as we get closer to Alex’s back door we can hear voices: Alex’s and another, yelling at each other. I feel like I should hold Izzy back, like we’re walking into something very, very bad. But she’s tugging me along now, worried for her brother, and in a minute we’re at the back door, staring in at Alex on the pleather couch near the front door, squirming there, his arms up and his face twisted and scared. He’s pleading. Sobbing. I can’t even understand the words. There’s a man standing over him—a big man with a little gun, and Izzy shrieks.
They both turn and see us. Alex’s eyes go wide. His face’s contorted wrinkles fall away and his sobbing stops. He looks positively serene for the split second before the gun goes off and Izzy shrieks again.
I don’t know what to do, so I run. Izzy’s hand is still in mine, but after a moment it’s gone, pulled away from me, and I’m racing past dumpsters and pizza cars when the gun goes off again. This time there’s no shriek from Izzy. There’s nothing. But I don’t stop. I can’t stop. I get to my car and it starts the first time. My heart is pounding and my ears are ringing and my hand shakes on the shifter as I scream away from the curb. I don’t even know how fast I’m going, and I don’t care.
I don’t care when two police cars cut me off at Hennepin because I didn’t see the flashing lights behind me. I slam on the brakes and pull over and let the car jerk and kick when it stalls. I don’t care. When the police pull me out of the car and press me against the door, two of them with guns drawn, I’m sobbing and I’m trying to tell them everything, but I don’t know what happened. Not really. I don’t know what happened to Izzy. But they do.
They arrest me. They take me to central booking and they think I’m involved in all this. They ask me about Alex and the gunman and the girl lying dead in the doorway. I tell them what I know—what I can guess—while I sob: that I didn’t want to be there, that I don’t know the guy, that I hardly knew Alex, that Izzy is my best friend.
Eventually they let me go home, and eventually I’m out of trouble, all the charges dropped besides the reckless driving. But Izzy’s still gone.
It’s two months later—two months of hardly sleeping, two months of sobbing into my pillow at night and into my hands at school—when I’ve cried all I can. It’s Tuesday, and I step out of the shower in the morning and light a cigarette right there in the bathroom and stare at myself in the fogged up mirror. My eyes are dead. My mouth is dead. And the barbell in my belly reminds me of Izzy. I’ve taken care of it, like she told me to. It’s not red anymore.
I pick up my eyeliner pencil and start in on my right eye. If I can’t cry anymore it doesn’t mean I have to forget. When I’m done, my right eye looks nearly blackened, and there’s a trail of black leading to a single black tear on my cheek.
Every morning I’ll do it again. I’ll step up to the fogged-up mirror and pick up that pencil and draw it again and think about Izzy.
Steve Brezenoff is the author of young adult novels “Guy in Real Life”; “The Absolute Value of -1”; and “Brooklyn, Burning,” as well as dozens of chapter books for younger readers. He grew up on Long Island, spent his twenties in Brooklyn, and now lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Beth, who is also a writer for children, and their children Sam and Etta. You can find him online at www.stevebrezenoff.com.