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 Chapter 11
The Spark of Life

I
       Many of my peers had failed a fundamental human task over our years at
Collingston—to get out of bed and walk to a toilet before lying in a puddle of their
own urine. I came close that morning to being added to the list. My bladder at
first told my brain to get up and then three hours later my bladder issued a red
alert, blaring sirens and screams up my spine to the stubborn boss in my head. I
could hear the warning—barely. The loud shrieks in my head were no more than a
whisper in the distant void below.
        But it was enough—even after only three hours of sleep—to bring me out
of my drunken coma. I pulled myself out of bed, using muscles I didn’t even know
I had, my eyelids lifting only to a small slit, my stomach holding up a do not enter
sign, my head throbbing like it had been in a vice overnight. I stumbled my way
along the short trek through the hallway to the bathroom, stubbing my toe on the
staircase pole along the way. The pain didn’t register.
       I sat on the pot like a woman, unable to keep my balance long enough to
maintain a male stance. I fell asleep there and my father woke me by accidentally
ramming the bathroom door into my legs. I pulled up my shorts, running first into
the sink and then continuing my zombie stagger into the cabinet.
       Pops stood in the doorway smiling, holding in his hand the folded black
and white newspaper that accompanied him daily to his morning ritual. “Rough
night last night huh? Oh, that’s right, Thanksgiving weekend. It’s been a rough
one for years. You better get cleaned up, Ma is already on her way to pick up
Sally.”
      “Sally. How long?” I’m sure the words didn’t come out in English.
      “She’ll be back anytime. We’re leaving in thirty minutes. You better not
make us late. You know how she is about being on time.”
      I dressed myself and emptied out a few items from each of my dresser
drawers into a duffel bag. Was I still drunk? No a voice came from inside my
head. You never feel this bad when you’re drunk. It was Thanksgiving and the
thought of food made my throat contract, yielding no vomit, just a loud mucousy
noise like the sound of an alligator choking. My mouth tasted like I’d been licking
a dog’s ass all night.
      Sally sat on the couch downstairs, her hair and makeup done, but the
camouflage was not good enough to fool me. Maybe it was her eyes that gave it
away. Under that glowing skin and mascara was an individual as hurt as myself. I
got ready with the belief that I would be able to sleep a little before our departure,
but Ma hurried us out the door before I could even say good morning.
      It was a two-hour drive to Indianapolis, and I slept at least one hour and
fifty minutes of it, hearing Ma comment on my snoring as I drifted in and out of
consciousness. I awoke in my grandparents’ driveway, already smelling the aroma
of the holiday before anyone opened a door. My stomach did a flip, still holding
up the do not enter sign. The sleep had done some good though. My head only
felt like someone used it as a jackhammer now, a vast improvement from the vice.
      “I hope you’re ready for this,” I said to Sally as we got out of the car.

II
       Roman Swivel and Carl Stumot sat in the yellow cab. The taxi made a left
off of Illinois Route One onto a small gravel road that wound through the forest
and eventually came to an opening. Buttworst’s house was a cabin, a spacious
two-story building made of light mahogany logs. Only an acre of actual lawn sat
around it. A freshly killed deer hung by its neck from the rafters of the barn
directly west of the house. A long three-car garage graced the east side of the
house. The rest of the property was untouched by the woodsman.
      Carl had already had a few nips off the flask on their journey north. I was
informed on numerous occasions at the Tavern that the only one hundred percent
effective way to cure a hangover was to start drinking again. There will be people
that tell you its dehydration or a lack of Vitamin B in your system, and maybe it is
a little of those things, but more than anything it’s because of withdrawal. You’re
literally going through the shakes.
      Carl was not hungover however. The man never got drunk in the first
place. Carl drank because he liked to drink, not because he had to. And more
importantly he drank because he could. There wasn’t an office desk waiting for
him Monday mornings or a bitchy wife telling him to go clean the gutters.
Roman exited the taxi on the driver’s side, but was stopped short of paying
the man by Carl. He never let Roman pay for anything when he was present.
     “Goodness, what a hell of a place,” Carl said as the cab pulled away.
     “You wouldn’t mind living in a place like this would you? Away from the
city and all the noise.”
     “Hell yes I’d live here. Those goddamn crack whores couldn’t track me
down this far out sure as shit. Say, you think he built this place by himself like the
pioneers?”
     “I doubt it. I think it’s only a log cabin on the outside. I bet the inside is
furnished pretty well.”
      “It’s a goddamn log cabin it is.”
       “I know but...never mind.”
       Mr. Buttworst greeted the pair of unlikely friends on the front porch,
genuinely happy to see them. Buttworst still had on his fatigues with the
occasional orange band around his arm or leg. The green tones he wore were
eerily similar to that of Carl’s clothing.
      Buttworst shook Roman’s hand. “How are you, Roman?”
      “I’m good sir. And you?”
     “Can’t complain, snagged me an eight-pointer just before sun up. Can’t
remember a more beautiful moment.”
     “Killed the bastard, huh? Did the fella run off when ya shot him?” Carl
said still marveling at the house.
      “Actually he only got about fifty yards; I got him pretty clean. You must
be Carl.” Buttworst shook Carl’s hand.
      “Ah, yes indeed. Many thanks for having us over to such a fine home. My
apologies, but I forgot your name.”
      “Call me Bill.”
      “Say Bill, did you build this house yourself?”
      “No, but I did help. My brother builds houses for a living so he gave me a
pretty good deal on this one. Come on in, let me give you guys the dime tour.”

III
      Me and Sally sat in the dining room at the main table. It had so much food
on it there was hardly any room for a plate in front of you. You had to be
somebody to sit at this table. I had a suspicion that my status was only elevated
because I brought a guest. Until now I always had to sit at one of the other tables
that were scattered through every room in the house. It had to be that way. There
were probably fifty people present, seated in the different rooms of the house by
rank. The main criteria was age. You had the three or four kiddy tables, the
teenage table which I should have been at, the twenty-through-thirty table, the
middle-aged table where my parents ate, and then our table—the table reserved for
the elders of the family: my great-grandma, my grandparents, and a host of great
aunts and uncles.
       A barrage of kisses and hugs greeted us earlier. If you were lucky you got
the “one on each cheek” kiss, the same kind the Mafia does in the movies. There
was always someone that got ya right on the smacker though. I didn’t get the
cheek kiss and was still wiping the slobber off my mouth from Granny—my
ninety-four-year old great-grandmother.
      At a Falcone Thanksgiving the food selection was a little different than the
norm. Sure we still had the turkey and dressing and all that shit, and yes
everybody ate at least a little of it, but all that was just show, a way for the old-
timers to remind themselves that they weren’t living in the old country any more.
They lived in America now. The real meal was all the homemade Italian stuff—
the spaghetti, linguini, sausages, the alfredo and parmesans, the scallops and clams,
you name it.
      Granddad sat directly across the table from me, stuffing his face, seemingly
unaware that the food would never run out, and the entire time staring at Sally to
my left. He hadn’t taken his eyes off her since the moment we walked through the
door. He was sure to give her a long, tight hug too. Granddad was in constant
trouble from Grandma for sneaking in dirty magazines, something she referred to
as “that porno”. As in “I caught your father trying to sneak in some of that porno
again the other day.” My father thought it was a riot and so did I. Granddad
wasn’t a pervert or anything. You have to remember it wasn’t everyday that he
saw someone as young and good-looking as Sally, in person anyway. He didn’t
mean any harm by it. And as he often said, “I might be old, but I’m not dead.”
      Granny sat next to me on the right, slouched down in her chair almost
unable to see over the table. I swear every year she shrank a little more. She bit
off a sausage, removing not only the fork from her mouth but also the top row of
her false teeth. Unfazed by the event, she removed and separated the fake ivories
from the remaining meat, and set them politely next to her plate. She looked at me
and laughed.
      “Oops.” She twirled her fork in some spaghetti. “I can eat without those
damn things anyway.”
      I nodded my head in agreement.
      “You don’t look right.” Granny studied me from head to toe. “You’re all
bones. You know if you catch pneumonia the doctors won’t be able to bring you
back on account of you losing so much weight.”
       I don’t know if Granny was a few marbles short, or she just thought I was
thin in comparison to everyone else in the house. I was five ten and a hundred
seventy pounds—not exactly skin and bones. Short maybe but not thin. I humored
her anyway.
      “Why would I catch pneumonia Granny?”
       “Well I don’t know, people still can catch it can’t they?”
        Granddad spoke to me out of nowhere. You were always carrying on
multiple conversations at the same time in this family.
      “So when you gonna make an honest women out of Ms. Richards here.”
       “Excuse me?” I said.
       “When you getting hitched?”
       “I’m not even graduated from high school yet Granddad.”
       Just what I needed. I’m getting ready to dump her and he’s shoving us
down the aisle.
      Sally blushed even though she knew there was no way. Surely she didn’t
think I was going to marry her. The thought couldn’t have been further from my
mind.
      “She’s not even Italian,” Granny chimed in.
      “How do you know, Ma?” Granddad asked. “Just because her name
doesn’t end in a vowel doesn’t mean she’s not Italian. Remember Silvy Donaldson
that owned the meat shop on Fifth Street. He was Italian.”
      “He was an Irishman,” Granny rebutted. “He only lived in an Italian
neighborhood.”
      “We’re not getting married,” I said trying to kill the conversation.
      “Anthony’s getting married?” my aunt Norma cried from the end of the
table.
      “Which Anthony?” my aunt Fran demanded.
      “No Anthonys are getting married,” I said loud enough to hopefully squash
the confusion.
      “Mussel?” Granny held the half shell right under my nose. It took
everything I had not to gag. Spaghetti, maybe even some turkey, but not the slimy
mussel. I would never eat that thing even when I wasn’t hungover.
     “No thanks, Granny.”
      “You need to eat before you shrink to nothing,” she said back.
      Granddad pointed at me with his fork. He always did that during
conversations at the dinner table. “You have a beautiful young bride here is what
I’m trying to tell you.” Granddad thought he was whispering but he wasn’t. “They
don’t always keep those nice firm breasts and tight little asses.” He motioned his
head toward Grandma. “You gotta get ’em while they’re hot.”
      Grandma slapped him hard enough to knock the food out of his mouth.
      “Watch your mouth at the table. You’re just a dirty old man.”
      “Leave me alone woman, I’m trying to give the boy some good advice.”
      Granny returned to the conversation. “The Good Book says you aren’t to
marry across races. Good way to go to hell, breeding with not your own kind.”
Sally covered her mouth trying to hide her laughter.
      Granny changed gears on us. “Did I ever tell you all about the time I was
in New York on the Ferry? Well, the boat had a leak, hit a rock maybe I don’t
know, and before we knew it we were all up to our waists in water. Every last one
of us gals started our period right then and there. I guess it was because of the
panic. I don’t know for sure.”
      On and on it went.
IV
      Carl tore through the first deer steak in a matter of seconds, eating like he
had been fasting for weeks. When there was nothing left, he picked up his fork
and stabbed another steak out of the tray in the middle of the table. Buttworst was
a meat and potatoes kind of guy and that’s exactly what you got at his house.
There wasn’t a big selection, but there was enough steak and baked potatoes to last
the three of them at least a week. Buttworst and Carl both drank beer with their
meal. The host offered Roman one, but he insisted on water.
       The number of windows in the room and the glass doors that led out to the
back deck eliminated the need for artificial light. Deer and moose heads looked
down from their permanent home in the wall as luminous red logs cracked and
snapped in the fireplace. A sweet burning smell resonated through the
spaciousness of the room, a fragrance that brought you home no matter where you
lived. Mr. Buttworst looked up from his plate from time to time, checking his
guests’ body language, making sure they were comfortable. He smiled while he
ate—a feat that not everybody could do.
       Somehow it was still Thanksgiving here.
       Roman dabbled with his food, taking slow, deliberate bites not because it
tasted bad—in fact it was very good—but because he just wasn’t hungry.
      “You don’t like it Roman?” Buttworst said.
      “It’s great sir. I just don’t have much of an appetite for some reason.”
      “Good,” Carl said. “We ain’t lettin’ it go to the dogs.”
Carl stabbed Roman’s steak, swiped it onto his own plate, and cut it with
his knife all in one motion.
     “What do you call this anyway?” Carl asked.
     “Deer,” Roman said sarcastically.
     “Always a wise guy in the bunch let me tell ya. I mean the fancy name.”
     “Venison,” Buttworst answered.
     “No tisn’t.”
     “He’s right, Carl. Venison.”
     “Damn it, we called it something else back then. What was it? Ah to hell
with it.”
      Buttworst watched as the pace of Carl’s jaws started to slow; eventually
hitting a wall, he was unable to finish the last three bites of his steak. The teacher
hopped up expecting to collect all three of their plates and the two trays for the
meat and potatoes, but Carl and Roman pitched in. Between the three of them they
were able to clear the table in one trip.
      They all stood at the sink: Roman washed, Carl dried, and Buttworst
replaced the plates and utensils in their proper resting spots. Afterwards Carl
smoked his pipe. Buttworst resisted the urge to light a cigarette. He conditioned
himself to smoke only outside; not that he minded what the smell did to his house,
but he thought he would break the habit if he inconvenienced himself with a trip
outdoors. That was fifteen years ago. He still went through a half a pack a day,
come rain or shine.
     “Say Bill, ya ever run into anything out there, in your travels through the
forest? They love vegetation, they do.”
Buttworst looked at Roman with wide eyes. “I’m not sure I understand the
question Carl. I run into plenty of squirrels, deer, even the occasional wolf.”
      “He means aliens,” Roman said.
      “Like ET you mean?”
      “Much bigger than ET. Much bigger.”
      “Nope. Never saw anything like that out there,” Buttworst answered, still
unsure if he was going to be the butt of some kind of joke.
      The small talk eventually moved away from aliens. Buttworst learned that
Carl was a career service man, retired for more than twenty years. Carl learned
that Buttworst taught at the high school, teaching his students a math called
calculus and algebra. The man who had the most to tell stayed silent, listening to
two opposite souls, marveling that the more diverse their lives were, the more they
seemed to have in common.

V
      I’d fully intended on breaking up with Sally come Monday, but right now I
was busy feeling every inch of her naked body on top of mine. The kisses on my
neck and the places her hands touched made me feel guilty—but only for a
second. The testosterone in my blood stream always had a neat way of washing
away feelings of blame.
      We were alone in one of the spare bedrooms—the room my father grew up
in when he was kid—on the floor, wedged between the bed and the window. A
spot like that seemed to come natural for us given our prior history of
interruptions. Everyone else was either gone, already asleep, or talking downstairs
over a nightcap of decaffeinated coffee. The huge Falcone family wouldn’t miss
two of their number. Besides, what I had in mind would take no more than fifteen
minutes tops.
      Sally had whispered little comments in my ear throughout the day,
comments that would make a hooker blush. It was like a slow torture for me,
hearing promises of what the night would bring. Each time she hinted at
something new to look forward to, I would go through my mind searching for a
place in the house where we could be alone, and every time those places were
packed to the walls with relatives. I would look at the clock wishing for night to
come—an eternity seemed to pass—but the hands would only move minutes from
the last time I’d checked.
        Whether it was her body or just any good-looking female form, I wasn’t
sure. But I was sure I would never get tired of this, not in a thousand life times; the
smooth skin, the hair dangling in my face, the hard nipples on soft breasts, the
curves of the hips, the wet warmth between legs, the undeniable smell of a
woman. And this was it. Break up or no, love or not, we were finally going to do
it.
      The door opened ushering in two pairs of soft footsteps on the carpet. They
were slow and staggering, but there were definitely two people heading in our
direction. Sheer terror showed in Sally’s eyes. She pulled a shirt over us, as if that
would cover our presence. I was panicked yes, but also surprised at how good I
was beginning to handle this all-too-familiar situation. I covered Sally’s mouth
with my hand, and reassured her with my eyes that everything was going to be
okay.
      The bed creaked as the two people lay down, the mattress bowing and the
box springs compressing. Maybe we could wait it out. We’d wait until they were
asleep, grab our clothes, and crawl out of the room. The bathroom lay just outside
the door. There was a series of snorts and odd sounds that only old people make
before sleep. They were old. That still didn’t narrow down who it could be.
      “What do you think you’re doing?”
       It was the unmistakable voice of my Grandma, but was she talking to us?
       There were still no eyes peeking down at us from the corner of the bed.
       “Tryin’ to relive my youth, woman. What does it feel like?”
      “Oh, Vigo,” my grandmother answered with a pleasurable moan.
A series of slobbering kisses and gurgled breaths progressed from atop the
bed, and just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, granddad’s underwear
came flying off and landed on Sally’s head. I pressed my hand as tightly as I could
over her mouth, thinking if I let up at all her scream would ring through the house.
       I had managed to slowly kill the stomachache from my hangover
throughout that day, even forced down a little spaghetti and turkey, but what filled
my belly now was much, much worse. Trapped in a room with two people about
to do it was one thing. Hearing every moan of your seventy-something
grandparents and watching every thrust indent into the mattress beside you was
another. There was no doubt about it. I was going to puke.
       A deep breath. Then another. Cool heads had to prevail here for the love
of everything sacred. Get to the door. Get to the door. I moved Sally off to the
side, careful not to make a noise. I took two fingers and pointed them at my eyes,
instructing her to watch me, and then got on all fours and gathered my clothes up
quietly. I looked at Sally and motioned my hand flat to the ground, hoping she
would stay low. We turned the corner of the bed, crawling like naked babies on
the floor.
      “Did you hear that?” my grandmother asked.
      The motion in the bed stopped.
      Me and Sally froze in out tracks.
     “Of course I heard it woman, I’m the one making it.”
      The urge to puke returned at once. Sally had heard enough and passed me
on the left, double-timing her crawl to the door. Her cute ass bounced as her knees
scooted across the carpet. I followed her through the door, making a right into the
bathroom and shut the door slowly. I never thought I could feel such freedom in
such a small room.
       Needless to say Sally threw on her clothes right away, despite her
trembling.
      We slept in opposite rooms of the house.

VI
       December was supposed to be a good month. With all of its lights, the
energy at the malls, cookies baking in the oven, eggnog, kids held in such suspense
you were sure they were going to pass out from anticipation or exhaustion, peace
on earth, good will toward men, the long-haired guy ringing the bell outside Wal-
Mart, baby Jesus and the rest of it.
      Collingston High used to be that way—garland dangled in the hallways,
classrooms had Christmas trees, the choir and band performed pieces about the
hope of the world wrapped in a little baby, students exchanged gifts, teachers gave
out candy canes, and even the big pine by the clock tower was draped in gold and
shimmered with light—but not anymore.
      This was prison now. The only thing that graced our halls was abstract
art—most of it a bunch of blobs and smears unrecognizable to the eye—that
Principal Hartman said was supposed to invoke thought. It invoked boredom. Just
another control to keep the inmates subdued and dreaming about something other
than freedom.
       The holiday cheer was squashed way before I made it to Collingston High.
It took three sets of parents a few times of bitching about their kids’ rights to
eliminate Christmas altogether. Their kids weren’t Christian, or Jewish, or
Arabic. They weren’t anything. They had no religion, yet Saint Nick intimidated
them. Principal Hartman never even let it go to the school board. He obliged the
minority opinion and gladly halted all the festive proceedings, returning the cheer
of the season to the same drab landscape it was every other month of the year.
      Now the name of Christ was a swear word. People were written up for
praying. Inmates routinely omitted one line in the pledge of allegiance, often
praised by administration for doing so. The word Xmas was not even allowed
because of the resemblance between the first letter of the word and the shape of the
cross. Teachers went through the school day focused on the curriculum, oblivious
to the holiday season outside. By refusing to acknowledge it, the institution could
prevent Christmas from happening. At least that’s what they thought.
       Hell hath no furry like a women scorned, especially during Christmas.
       Especially if her name was Heather Hawthorne and the guy she wanted had
successfully ignored her for the duration of a weekend, not answering the phone, or
the knock at his door, or responding to the notes she slipped into his mailbox. She
was in unfamiliar territory with this one. Heather got what she wanted the majority
of the time and with men she’d gotten it one hundred percent of the time—until
now. It took a skinny kid that spent his nights as a janitor and started out as a geek
in the corner of the lunchroom, to end Heather’s flawless streak.
       Gone were the graceful days of Heather walking to the pop machines with
her hips swaying back and forth, making her ass dance to the beautiful rhythm of
her footsteps, turning every male gaze into fantasy land. Now she walked to her
destination with small steps, barely lifting her feet off the ground, scooting along
with the sex appeal of a turtle. She slammed her tray on the table, taking the seat
next to me. She’d given up trying to sit by Roman.
      Heather blew the straggles of hair out of her face so she could see me. Her
eyes looked me over with piercing accuracy. If she were capable of heat vision, I
would’ve been on fire. She shook her head in disgust at me, unable to put into
words her anger. She popped open her Mountain Dew and drank it down with
such force, it seemed she was trying to inflict pain on the yellow liquid. I knew
better than to even ask. It could be a number of things. More than likely it was
Roman. I pretended to ignore her. That might have not been the best route to take.
       Roman sat unaware of the radioactivity floating from her body, reading a
book, and eating a small bowl of spinach. He knew the only way he could escape
her—the way he always escaped dire situations—was through the doorway of a
book. It still amazed me how fast he read. Every fifteen seconds or so the page
turned.
      Heather had enough of my indifference. She turned and looked at me,
opening her mouth then pausing briefly. “Are you just going to sit there and not
say anything?”
     I looked at her, hoping it would be Roman the question was aimed at. No
such luck. “I didn’t know you wanted me to talk. You never said anything.”
     “You broke up with Sally?” she said the words like it was a trick question
or like it was more of a statement. Before I could respond she started again. “You
know she was up crying the entire night and didn’t even come to school today.
You broke her heart.”
     “We were never that big a deal,” I said.
     “Not that big a deal, huh? Maybe that’s why she raved the whole weekend
about how much fun she had with your family, and how good it felt to be there
with you, and what a great time the two of you had. Why would you break up with
her?”
     “I’ve gotta start getting ready for baseball.”
     “So you can’t have a girlfriend and play baseball at the same time? That’s
the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
      Heather’s volume level ascended with every word she spoke. No one paid
much mind. They had all heard the tirade before. She did, after all, spend three
years at the table with Johnny the Killer. The only virgin ears were Roman’s. I
saw his brown eyes peek over the pages of his book from time to time, too scared
to lower the book from his face, but too interested not to watch.
      “Yeah that’s right, I can’t train and put up with her Mickey Mouse shit at
the same time. I lose my focus. Besides she’ll get over it. It’s not like she was in
love or anything.”
      Heather’s eyes squinted and her upper lip curled like a Rottweiler about to
snarl. The pretty face we all knew and loved was gone. “You’re nothing more
than a male chauvinist. You know that? You think women are no more that two
breasts and a vagina, put on earth to keep your penis happy.”
      “Damn she told you Tony,” Pick Bryant said.
      The rest of the table was watching now.
      “No, Heather, I think there’s a lot more to women besides boobs and a
vagina. Their asses for instance. I’ve always considered myself to be an ass-man,”
I said.
      All the guys laughed, and an uncertain smile made its way to my face.
      Heather stood up and slapped my face all in one motion, an act she seemed
to be perfecting. It wasn’t a love tap like the one at The Tavern; this one knocked
my head sideways, sending a sharp pain down my neck. I laughed trying to mask
the pain.
      She looked at Roman who still sat with the book in front of his face. She
raised her voice and talked to me but what she said was for the janitor. “You
wouldn’t know love if it kicked you square in the nuts.”
     I lowered my hands down over my crotch, just in case Heather got the urge
to do any further bodily harm toward me. In the end though she sat down and
started in on her salad. The snarls melted away, returning the glow to her face as if
none of it had ever happened.
     Two tables over the prison guards interrogated a Junior. The student did
not go quietly and got the attention of our table as well as most others. One of the
teachers grabbed him by the arm, the other tore off his Santa Claus cap. The
student lunged for the cap but was held back by the one who had his arm. The
perpetrator finally conceded to leaving the table after several more of Hartman’s
henchmen surrounded him.
     “What the hell was that about?” I asked the table in general.
     “Can’t wear Santa Claus hats no more,” Sam Peterman responded.
     “Yeah, Hartman’s really cracking down on this Christmas thing on account
of the atheist’s rights being violated,” Pick Bryant added.
     “Wh-wh-wh-what’s the atheists got against S-s-s-santa Claus?” Brunno
stuttered.
     “That’s just it,” Heather began. “They don’t have anything against it. All
this is because some parents bitched at Hartman a few years back. They just
wanted their fifteen minutes of fame that’s all. They sure don’t have a problem
taking days off school for holidays though do they? And what about my rights.
What about my right to celebrate Christmas?”
       “Hartman will never let it happen. Christmas is dead at Collingston High
School,” Sam Peterman responded.
      “Maybe it’s time to resurrect it,” Heather said.
      “Oh boy here we go,” I said.
     “What do you have in mind?” Pick rubbed his hands together, and smiled,
always jumping at a chance to be an agitator.
     Roman lowered his book down. “You’ll never win. Separation of Church
and State,” he said to Heather.
     “We’ll see,” Heather replied.
VII
      My after-school trips to Roman’s had stopped. He had gotten steadily more
distant not only from Heather, but also myself, closing himself off from everybody
that cared about him. The fascinating but useless information he spouted—facts
like two rats mating could lead to 15,000 rodent offspring in a two-month time
frame—came to a stop. Eventually during that December, Roman stopped coming
to lunch, opting for the solitary confines of the janitors’ breakroom. I’d see him
from time to time in the corners, hidden in the shadows, watching as his life passed
him by. I’d talk to him only briefly, trying not to push him further away. I was a
firm believer that sometimes a person just had to work shit out on their own. Who
knew what demons lurked in a brain like his and what ghosts haunted his dreams?
Roman had lost what my grandfather referred to as the spark of life. And Roman
was the only one that would be able to find it.
      I had a task of my own to worry about. My after-school activities were
limited because of my training. I hit the weight room after the last bell everyday,
ran at least a mile and sprinted ten sixty-yard dashes in the fieldhouse. Guys like
Pick and Sam would do the same, but only for a couple of days. After that they
would show up from time to time, and then eventually not at all. I enjoyed any
company I could get.
      Such training wasn’t for everybody. And while it was hard for me to focus
on the activities of everyday life, it somehow wasn’t hard to focus on baseball.
Sure I made sacrifices for it. Early nights, heading to bed on account of being tired
cut down my social life and poker games. Sore legs made the usual quick ascent
up the stairs of Collingston High feel like the quest of climbing Everest. The
bench pressing and tricep work made the simple act of washing my hair a daily
torture session in the shower. And there was definitely no more drinking beer with
friends until two in the morning.
      The sunset of my high school days was closing in; it was my senior year
and I had no college offers on the table. If a college was interested in you, they
talked to you during your Junior year. I couldn’t prove much more on the field: I
led the conference in hitting, threw out ninety percent of base stealers, and got
down the line in close to four seconds. One of the games this year could very well
be the last time I stepped onto a baseball field as a player, or strapped on the
catching gear, or felt the bat in my hands. I’d play until they told me I couldn’t
anymore and that was okay because at least it was them not wanting me, instead of
me not wanting the game. I’d go out and play my hardest and do the things I
always did. And when the dust finally settled and there was no baseball for me in
college, then at least deep down I would know that I gave it my best shot.
      Heather was climbing her own mountains. I’m not sure if it was actually
the idea of Christmas being attacked that drove her, or just the fact that she had a
lot of anger toward Roman to redirect. Whichever the case, Heather was more
than focused on her new goal. She began to rally the troops.
     Most students, myself included, really could give a damn about whether
Christmas was or wasn’t recognized at Collingston High. And if it was any other
person leading the insurrection, I’m sure it would have never got off the ground.
But this was Heather Hawthorne, the student body president, the captain of the
cheerleading squad, the captain of the debate team, an Illinois State Scholar, a girl
who somehow had no enemies, a face that everyone knew, a rich girl that related to
people in all walks of life.
      The first order of business was the petition. Our table signed their names
without a second thought, then our entire lunch hour, then every student in each of
Heather’s classes, then all the athletic teams. A week into the drive Heather had
over a thousand signatures, a little fewer than half the student body.
      Revolting against the system was an idea that wasn’t hard to talk us inmates
into. So when Heather brought up wearing Santa hats to the lunch table, we
obliged. And every last one of us served a detention. On the following day, the
table next to us joined in and served detentions as well. By the end of the week
there were more red and white Santa Claus stocking caps bouncing through the
halls than there were normal heads of hair. The number of detentions clogged up
the administration’s daily routine and eventually the reprimands stopped. Elf
costumes started showing up, along with white beards, wise men, and a few angels.
       At Heather’s insistence, Mr. Buttworst brought in a real tree and let the
class decorate it. Soon fake trees were sprouting up all over the place, some big,
some small. Even a few miniature mangers made their way into our confines.
Candy canes, holiday fudge, and cookies in the shape of snowmen and reindeer
were consumed during class. Mistletoe hung in entranceways. Hot chocolate and
eggnog were drunk out of thermoses. People cut snowflakes out of folded paper.
Red and green garland and paper chains hung in the hallways. Silver glitter was
scattered on the floors. Presents were wrapped and exchanged. Even the prison
guards were receiving gifts
        Heather paid for five hundred dollars worth of decorations, and paid just as
much to a tree trimming service to decorate the big pine tree in front of the clock
tower. The choir and other students met nightly in front of the tree, singing their
Jingle Bells and Silent Night songs. Traffic stopped on Stephenson Street,
admiring the glimmering lights and silver bells of the evergreen.
      Two nights before Christmas break Heather organized the mother of all
caroling sessions. She called the papers and the radio. Grandparents, aunts and
uncles, relatives visiting for the holiday—they all bundled up on that cold night
and stood a thousand deep around the tree. The police had to cordon off
Stephenson Street.
      I think every person I knew in town was in attendance. Roman stood far
above, looking at the crowd from the clock tower windows, leaning against his
mop. Johnny, Bobby Dukes, and Boochie Anderson sat atop a car in the parking
lot across the street. Carl stood and smoked his pipe, never taking his eyes off the
tree. Mr. Buttworst handed out hot chocolate and coffee. Steam drifted from
Brunno’s shirtless body and the words “Christmas Rules” were painted on his
chest and stomach. Sally managed to find her way through the massive crowd.
She stood next to me and grabbed my hand. For some reason I didn’t pull it away.
Ma and Pops even made it out, wrapped in what looked like Eskimo attire.
      Heather couldn’t keep the smile from her face even while she sang. The crowd
exceeded her expectations.
      That night, in that cold central-Illinois city, in front of its only high school,
a swarm of people converged on a giant evergreen tree that was full of shimmers
and hope. Candles and lighters were raised in the air. The voices of many united
as one. Somehow there was truly peace on earth.
     And then the lights went out.
     The singing stopped, followed by a murmur running through the crowd.
     The clock tower doors opened and out came principal Hartman with a
megaphone in hand. “You can all go home now. The party is over. Anyone not
making an effort to vacate will be arrested for trespassing.” Several police officers
followed Hartman out of the doors.
     The crowd began to disperse immediately.
     “Don’t leave. He can turn out the tree, but he can’t stop Christmas,”
Heather shouted at the top of her lungs.
     The crowd continued to dwindle. Heather looked all around thinking
maybe she could stop every person individually. Seeing her efforts were futile, she
ran toward Hartman. I grabbed her in a bear hug, but her kicking and screaming of
obscenities at the warden continued. After Hartman went back inside, she regained
control of herself and I let go.
       “It was the neatest thing I’ve ever seen in this town. You did good
Heather.”
      “Thanks.” She walked to her car. Her voice had failure in it.
Just before I opened the door to the Pinto, I looked back to see if there was
anyone left. The lot was empty that quick, not a soul to be found. My eyes drifted
to the top of the clock tower.
      In the window stood the silhouette of a man leaning against his mop.

VIII
      For seventeen straight days Heather had been escorted to the dean’s office,
written up for insubordination, and threatened repeatedly that if her course of
action did not change she would be suspended. Heather taped each of the
detention slips to the front of her locker, transforming the simple metal door into a
mosaic of her crimes. It seemed she used her sessions to brainstorm for the next
day’s high jinx.
      She arrived that day at our lunch table in a better mood than when I had last
left her. After a night of reflection Heather was proud of herself despite Hartman
crashing the party. Whatever fate awaited her at the end of the day was minuscule
compared to what she had accomplished.
     “So what’s on the agenda today boss?” I asked.
     Heather opened her mouth and then stopped short of the words coming
out. “I don’t know. I’m out of ideas. Maybe we’ve done all there is to do. I’m
happy just knowing that Christmas will be alive until we go on break.”
      “Regardless it’s been one hell of a ride. I would’ve never believed we
could have pulled something like this off. You did real good Heather,” I said,
patting her on the back.
     “Strength in numbers,” Pick commented.
     “What do you think Hartman’s thinking right now?” Sam asked. “You
think he’s beating his secretary?”
     “Hell no, his secretary could kick his scrawny ass,” I answered back.
That got a good chuckle.
     “No, I guarantee he’s thinking long and hard on what my punishment is
going to be,” Heather said.
     “You haven’t even done anything wrong,” Pick protested. “What’s he got
on you really, that you made people celebrate Christmas? I didn’t see you holding
a gun to anybody’s head. That’ll never stick.”
      “I’m sure seventeen detentions is grounds for suspension,” Heather said.
      “Tomorrow’s the last day before break right? I think we should go out with
a bang. There’s gotta be somethin’ we can do,” Pick said.
      “W-w-w-we should have a c-c-c-concert,” Brunno said and then began to
sing. “J-j-j-ingle Bells, Jingles Bells, j-j-j-jingle all the way.”
       I would have hated to see how long it would take him to finish the song.
      But before anyone could comment on the idea, two of Hartman’s henchmen
stepped behind Heather. It was two vice-principals. Hartman had skipped the
usual call note or even the lowly prison guards, and gone straight to his lieutenants.
     Heather stood without a word from her arresters, gathering up her back
pack, careful not to bite in two the gingerbread man that hung for dear life between
her front teeth. One of the guards walked in front of her, opening the door to the
stairwell; the other beside her, like an imperial guard protecting an ambush from
the flank.
IX
      Hartman sat quietly at his desk, his face pale with and emotionless. But
underneath his eyes Heather saw the anger, maybe more than she wanted to see.
Hartman dealt with just about every kind of prank and school violation one could
imagine. This time was different. This time the protest had been against the very
policy that Hartman had imposed. The protest was against him.
      The one thing Hartman cherished more than anything else was the squeaky
clean image he portrayed to the school board. In the eyes of the board, whether the
students agreed or not, they still obeyed him. He had accomplished many things at
the high school, at a job he’d thought would be a quick steppingstone to
superintendent of the district. He got rid of open lunches, virtually cutting the
absentee rate of the last two hours of school down to nothing. He implemented the
SSS, or Saturday Supervised Study, which was basically detention on Saturday
mornings for those who committed medium offenses. He suspended more people
in his eight years than any principal in the history of Collingston High and saw the
violent acts committed drop by eighty percent over his tenure. He also stopped
Christmas.
      Heather sat across from the Warden’s desk, calm, with the poise of a high-
priced defense attorney. She looked him straight in the eye, unblinking. She took
her Santa Claus cap off and laid it neatly on her lap, but the elf ears remained.
     “Miss Hawthorne,” (despite his efforts the blood vessels in his cheeks
opened and they flared red for a moment), “you’ve had seventeen detentions over
the last seventeen days, you’ve been warned repeatedly to stop your misbehavior—
more than any other student would have been warned mind you—and yet you
continue this insurgence. This is very unlike you Miss Hawthorne. I went through
the records; you have never even had a detention in your four years here until this
month. You make straight A’s, you’re the student government president, and
you’re well respected among your peers. This isn’t the kind of behavior a leader of
the people exhibits. Have you anything to say for your actions?”
      “It’s exactly the kind of behavior a leader of the people exhibits,” Heather
stated. “If you’re looking for an apology, you’re not going to get it. I have every
right to celebrate Christmas, a right guaranteed to me in the First Amendment.”
     “You’re correct, you do have the right of freedom of speech and religion,
but not at the cost of stepping on other peoples’ rights in the process. The Supreme
Court has made this abundantly clear.”
     “I haven’t imposed on anybody’s rights. In fact,” Heather unzipped her
backpack producing a folder, and out of the folder pulled a stack of about fifty
papers, “I’ve got signatures from every student at Collingston expressing their
wishes to be able to celebrate Christmas.”
     Heather shoved the stack across the desk. Hartman flipped through the
pages briefly, uninterested in the names.
     “How many signatures did you say there were?” The principal faking an
impressed look.
     “Two thousand and seventy-six,” Heather responded.
     “There are only two thousand and seventy-four students enrolled currently
at Collingston.”
     “I know, two teachers also signed. That’s two of your faculty.”
Hartman slid the papers back across the deck “It matters not. The rules do
not change because of your petition.”
     “So you’re basically saying the students aren’t smart enough to make
decisions on their own? That somebody else has to tell them what’s in their best
interests? You know, in the not-so-distant past, there was a rule stating that
women couldn’t vote, and that men could own slaves. Thank God people didn’t
stand by and let people like you make decisions for them.”
     “I didn’t bring you in here to debate politics, Miss Hawthorne. I’m giving
you the chance to apologize and make all of this go away. If you cannot see the
error of your ways, you will be removed from your presidency of the student
government, and suspended from this institution.”
Heather sat in silence.
     “Come out into the hallway and let me show you something,” the warden
said, rising from his seat.
     Hartman put his hand on her back as they walked to the door, a peace
gesture he thought.
    “If your hand is still touching my back when we pass through this
doorway,” Heather said, “I’m going to slam the door on it and make sure you never
touch anything again.”
     Hartman took the hand away.
     In the hallway, the day shift janitors were busy. They stood on ladders
taking down the garland. They ripped pictures off the wall. They swept up the
silver glitter. Garbage bags full of Santa caps stood against the wall as if awaiting
their execution.
     “You see, Miss Hawthorne, with or without you, all of this is over. When
your classmates arrive tomorrow the only thing they’ll be able to gawk at outside
the clock tower, is a plain green pine tree. The way nature intended it. Christmas
at Collingston High is over.”
     “This isn’t about Christmas or the Bill of Rights,” Heather began. “This is
about you suffering from little-man disease. You’ve spent your whole career
aspiring to be the best at what you do, to supposedly lead and educate people. The
only problem is that your job requires you to deal with people on a daily basis, and
you’re not very good at it because you’re not very good at being a person. You
think the way to deal with people is to lay sanctions on them and throw your power
around until they submit. You’ve got your Ph.D., you’re articulate, smart, but
none of it matters. Because when you walk out of these walls every night into the
world, you’re just a sad little man with the same cracking voice you had as a
teenager, unwilling to enjoy what really matters in life.”
      “That’s just your opinion,” Hartman’s efforts to contain his lisps only made the words worse.
      “I don’t have an opinion remember? Not in your world anyway.”
      Heather walked down the hall and left through the front door.
      The janitors had already moved their demolition to another hallway.
      Hartman stood alone outside his office door.
X
      I decided to skip my after-school workout and put myself through a
different torture. I ran to Roman’s house. It was all downhill for the most part—a
four-mile journey—but by mile two I was holding my side and the cold air felt like
razor blades on my lungs. By mile three I found myself walking, gasping for
oxygen, and thinking of the warm fieldhouse and weight room. By the time I
eventually got to Roman’s door my legs had been stumbling on sidewalk cracks,
and I now found my hands on my knees as I tried to lift my carcass up his porch
stairs. It had taken me over an hour to get there, and the only thought that kept
playing in my mind was how great it was to be a baseball player instead of long-
distance runner.
      Roman opened the door with book in hand, not looking up from the pages,
and not with so much as a hello. The house was immaculate as always. I walked
toward the kitchen for some water, realizing I could see my reflection on the hard
wood floors. Even the tiny Christmas tree on the table next to his bed was
obsessive, the rows of lights evenly spaced, the star on top pointed exactly toward
the ceiling. Roman had way too much time on his hands. Just once I’d like to
open the door and see a cushion hanging off the couch, or some dust on the coffee
table, or his bed unmade.
     I guzzled down three glasses of tap water before returning to the living
room with a fourth. Roman sat on the couch, transported through paper and ink to
another time and place. I sat down on the opposite end of the couch, not letting my
back touch it on account of my sweat.
    “How’s it going anyway?” I said.
     Roman didn’t acknowledge the question. He wasn’t being rude—that was
the last thing Roman wanted to be—he honestly didn’t hear me because of that
goddamn book.
     I spoke a little louder this time. “So I had Ms. Petway bent over one of
those stools in the Chemistry classroom. She’d been given me the bedroom eyes
for at least a month. Anyway I’m just poundin’ it, slapping her on the...”
      Roman raised his head from the book, at first looking straight ahead like it
took him a second to escape the story’s grasp, and then turned to me with his
eyebrows raised. “What?” he asked.
     “I’m just pullin’ your leg man, trying to get you to respond.”
     “Oh.”
     “It’s good to see you too.”
     “I’m sorry. How are you?” Roman got up and went into the bathroom,
retrieved a towel for me, and placed it against the couch.
     “I’m good except for my fuckin’ legs and lungs. I thought it would be a
good idea to run over here. I’m an idiot.”
Roman didn’t argue.
     “So what’s your story, you just fadin’ into the sunset or what?”
     “I don’t understand,” Roman said.
     “You know. Cashed in your chips, bit the bullet, took the dirt nap.”
     “I am still alive.”
     “You’re alive all right. You’re just not livin’. I wish you could’ve met my
grandfather, the one on my mother’s side. He thought he was some great
philosopher always talking about the meaning of life and shit. Grandpa said that
everybody in life was on this train, travelin’ from one coast to the other. The train
stopped every so often but at unfamiliar places. The places were beautiful though,
gorgeous scenery, mountain ranges and canyons. Half the people got off at every
stop because they just had to get a better look, but not all of them always made it
back. The other half never got off because they were scared of what happened to
the people that got off, thought they might have been killed or some shit, even
though it might have been that they just chose to stay instead of getting back on the
train. What no one ever realized was that eventually that train was either going to
run out of fuel or rail. The train can’t go on forever.”
     Roman looked at the wall. I got up and walked toward the door. There was
no need for me to explain grandpa’s parable to a person who understood better
than I did.
     “By the way, Heather’s waist deep in shit. Hartman revoked her title of
class president. Suspended her indefinitely. And he’s stripping the big pine too,
probably tonight sometime. Had the janitors tear down all the Christmas
decorations and shit. And can you believe this one? Of all people, Brunno said
today at lunch we should have a concert of Christmas songs. Funny how ambition
rubs off on people. Thought you might care.”
      Roman just sat there though; he either didn’t care or was too far gone to
hear me. I turned the doorknob, but was stopped short by the voice of the janitor,
now standing behind me.
     “I dreamed that Agent Johnson showed up here with my parents’ bodies.
He shot you and Heather, killing you both. I couldn’t stop him because he’d hit
me with a tranquilizer dart.”
      “All this is over a goddamn dream? For a genius you’re pretty fuckin’
stupid.”
      “It’s not just a dream.”
      I turned to Roman and got right in his face. “You’re right. That dart
Johnson shot you with did tranquilize you...completely out of your own life.
You’re still frozen. But only because you wanna be. Whether you’re gonna be
one of those people that just sits on the train and watches the scenery go by instead
of gettin’ off and enjoying it makes no difference to me. Either way I’ll be able to
look at myself in the mirror, because I at least made an attempt to bring you out of
whatever funk it is that you’re in. But I am not gonna spend the rest of my Senior
year watching you waste yours.”
      I stood there looking in his eyes for several minutes, trying to see behind
them, but with Roman it was never easy. Maybe because I just didn’t know what
to look for with him. Eventually I walked out, only to find myself re-entering the
house a second after I’d closed the door.
     “Damn. You mind if I borrow your bike? There’s no way I’ll make it
home.”
     Roman nodded.

XI
      Roman walked to work, cutting a path through the harsh December air. He
kept his hands in the pockets of his flannel, and turned the collar up against his
neck. The cemetery was more dead and cold than he remembered. Most house
lights were already out on Stephenson Street, and not one single car passed him on
the road.
      He took an extra minute to look at the big pine before entering, admiring
the decorations and also the headstrong girl who made it happen. At the top of the
tree sat an angel. Roman could’ve counted every bulb on the nights before, but
now it was dark, and the tree looked more black than green. He knew the feeling
that gripped him all to well. It was the boney fingers of regret wrapping around his
chest, trying to suffocate him.
XII
      Boss Chatterling whistled, “Joy to the World” at the end of roll call,
something Roman thought he would never witness.
     “You better get going Swivel, you’ve got a long night ahead of you,” she
said.
     “Yes, ma’am.” Roman grabbed his cart and started out the door.
     “Before you go, I thought you might be interested to know that all your
girlfriend’s stuff is boxed up down by the boiler room. Hartman wants it pitched.”
     “I understand,” Roman replied softly.
     “No, janitor I don’t think you do.” Chatterling walked over and put her
hand on his shoulder, looking down at him from under the rims of her glasses. “I
had two of the first shift guys that needed the overtime stay over and take care of
your floor. I thought you might have something else to make right here tonight.”
     “Thank you ma’am,” Roman said with a smile.
     “Don’t get all mushy on me now, Swivel. Just make sure I don’t see any of
that stuff come January.”
    “Not a problem ma’am.”
XIII
     Bob’s Tree Service arrived at 10:00 that night to un-decorate the tree they’d
decorated three weeks before. The crane of the truck was extended toward the
angel when Roman jogged out of the clock tower doors and stopped at the driver’s
door. The driver looked at the red stitching on Roman’s shirt.
    “You’re a little young to be a janitor aren’t you son?”
    “Maybe sir,” he said, emptying all the money out of his wallet and placing
it in the man’s hand.
    “What’s this for? We’ve already been paid in advance.”
    “Think of it as your Christmas bonus. Keep the other money too. But
leave the tree alone. There has been a change of plans.”
     Roman watched as the crane descended and the truck pulled away. He
could hardly hold a thought in his head.
     There was a brief spark as he plugged the cord into the outlet; in the same
instant the light from Heather’s tree was alive and everywhere.
XIV
     The phone was ringing. I’d hit the button on my alarm clock four or five
times before I knew what it was and then picked up the receiver. I looked up at the
time, thinking I might be dreaming.
    “Yeah.”
    “Tony, are you awake?”
     I looked at the clock again. “Roman?”
    “Yes.”
    “Are you all right?” I asked him.
    “I’ve never been better.”
    “Hell no I’m not awake. It’s two thirty in the morning. What in Christ’s
name’s goin’ on?”
     “I need you to do me a favor.”

XV
     Hartman didn’t notice the tree as he drove by it on up Stephenson the next
morning. He didn’t notice it when he parked, though he was facing it. He didn’t
notice it after making half his walk through the lot. But he froze all at once, a
terrible sense of dread overtaking him, almost demanding that he look.
     He took his glasses off, stared up the big pine, and rubbed his eyes as if he
was seeing things. The lights were there, bright as the night of the massive
caroling, and it seemed as if they were laughing at him. Had there been a
miscommunication between him and the tree service? Maybe they thought it was
tonight they were supposed to tear down the decorations. But what about the
lights? Who’d plugged them in? A tactical error made by Chatterling’s staff
maybe?
     His heart sank even further as he entered the main hallway. There in all of
their splendor were the hundreds of decorations he’d seen torn down not twenty-
four hours ago. And there was something else. A giant banner hung overhead, its
large letters hand-cut out of red poster board spelling the words Merry Christmas.
Hartman looked to his right, down the hallway next to the first floor lockers.
Glitter covered the floor, the lockers were strung with green fluffy garland, light
from Christmas trees glared through classroom doors, and candy canes hung from
the knobs. Every last bit of it was restored, plus some.
      Hartman started toward his office at a brisk pace, as fast as a suit like him
could travel without degrading himself by running.
     “Chatterling!” he shouted.
     “Chatterling!” he yelled again.
     The name echoed through the empty hallways in front of him to no avail.
     He went up the first flight of stairs, and on the second floor found the landscape
had sprouted with the spirit of Christmas even more. Mangers, wise men, Frosty,
Rudolph, mistletoe, Santa Claus—they all looked on and seemed to smile.
    “Chatterling!”
    Just before reaching the third floor, at the top of the stairs, stood a paper
sign. It read: North Pole and an arrow pointed to the right. Hartman dropped his
brief case, grabbed the artwork, and shredded it into strips and then again, until
there were no pieces left to shred. They floated down the stairwell like snowflakes
falling to earth.
    “Chatterling!” He screamed this time.
Hartman stopped in front of his office door, scrabbled through his keys and
then dropped them. He snatched them up off the floor, mumbling to himself.
When he finally inserted the key, his eyes focused on the picture on his door.
It was the Grinch, teeth showing, grinning from ear to ear.
XVI
    “Tell me one more time what the hell is going on,” Heather said, slouched
down in the passenger seat of the Pinto, biting her fingernails.
     “I honestly don’t know. Roman called me at two thirty last night and asked
if I would help him out with something.” I pushed the gas to the floor. It wasn’t
the first time I’d been late for school, but it was a little more than that today.
    “And?”
    “And nothing. Roman said to make sure I went and picked you up for
school. He said don’t worry; it wouldn’t be hard to get you in. Jesus, listen to us,
we’re actually going to smuggle someone into school. That’s whattaya call it...
you know?”
    “Ironic?”
    “Yeah ironic. That’s it.”
    “He had to say something. Did he mention anything yesterday during
school?”
    “I’m tellin’ ya, I’m as much in the dark here as you are. I haven’t really
talked to him since Thanksgiving. I did go over there last night though and bust
his balls a little about what a fuck he’s been lately. I also mentioned that you were
in some trouble, but that was it. He just sat there listening and didn’t respond.”
We were on Stephenson now and I could tell something was up. Heather’s
tree was still decorated, and it was lit. I think that would have been enough in
itself to please her, but it was only the beginning.
    We entered through the clock tower doors. We both stopped and marveled
at the hallway’s decorations.
    “He put them all back up,” Heather said, entranced.
    “Yeah. But what’s missing?” I asked her.
    “I don’t know. What?”
    “People”, she said. “Where is everybody?”
    We started up the hallway, passing classroom doorways. Every one of
them dark, the occasional tree inside their only illumination.
    “It must have taken him all night,” Heather said.
    “Don’t get mushy just yet. There’s not even any teachers here. What in the
blue hell is going on?” I asked.
    “Shush. Do you hear that? It’s real faint.”
    “Yeah. Comin’ from the other side of the building.”
    “The auditorium?”
    “Yeah, the auditorium. It all makes sense now.”
XVII
     Principal Hartman sat leaning over his desk, his hand propping up his
heavy forehead, his eyes closed. Chatterling would have heard him yell. She’d
have been at school before him too, always was. Didn’t respond to his pages or the
intercom either. This is a conspiracy, he thought, and a lot of people were going to
pay. Chatterling was first on his list.
    Hartman jumped out of his chair, jolted out of his thought like the
boogieman himself had just goosed him. He pushed a button on his phone.
    “Miss Penny, do you hear that?”
    “Hear what sir?”
    Hartman refrained from answering, listening to the distant sound.
    “It sounds like singing, sir.”
    Hartman ran for the auditorium.
XVIII
    The last chorus of “Frosty the Snowman” finished as we opened up the
double doors to the auditorium. A sea of red and white Santa stocking caps sat
before us, following the slight decline of the floor. The spotlights were focused
toward the stage. The broadcast journalism class had at least four cameras rolling.
The place was filled to capacity, not an empty seat, not even in the balcony.
      Teachers stood, as well as a few students.
      On stage sat a black baby grand piano and on top of it a microphone.
Roman sat on the bench in front of the white and black keys. He looked towards
where we stood, squinting through the high beams of the spotlight. He was a
flannelled Ray Charles, holding court in the local club, unable to see us for sure,
but he knew we were there.
     “Ladies and gentlemen, the lady of the hour, Heather Hawthorne.”
     The heads turned in unison, a thousand pairs of eyes looking up the aisle.
     “Come on down guys, Mr. Buttworst has got two seats saved for you down
here in the front row.”
     They clapped and cheered for Heather as we walked down. The only thing
she could do was smile. I was in a fog, amazed that Roman was playing the piano
in front of the entire school.
     “All right. What’s next?” Roman asked.
    “Something for Heather,” a voice suggested from the back.
    “ ‘Oh Christmas Tree’,” another voice echoed.
     Roman touched the keys, fingers dancing lightly across the ivories. Despite
the bad voices and people not knowing the words, some how harmony won out.
The students and teachers of Collingston had one voice, and sang one song.
     “Stop playing.” A voice thundered over the speakers.
Hartman had his own microphone and walked with it down the center aisle.
     “You stop right now,” he repeated. “You are in violation of this school’s
code of ethics.”
     But the sound of the piano did not cease, nor did the singing.
    “I demand that you stop this instant and walk away from the piano.”
     The celebration continued.
    “You pompous son of a bitch, who do you think you are?” the principal
shouted at Roman.
     The voices in the crowd fell silent, but the notes of the piano still pounded
out.
     “Teachers, I want you to physically remove Mr. Swivel from the piano.
Now.”
     Not one of them moved. The music played on.
Hartman’s tie had worked its way undone and the hair covering his bald
spot now spread out wildly on all sides.
      “I will see that every last one of you incompetent imbeciles are fired if you
don’t get that insurgent off the piano. Mark my words.” The principal uttered the
last part in a threatening tone.
      Nobody moved.

    Roman started a new song, one chosen especially for Hartman, and this
time everyone joined in singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
    “None of you are going to pass,” the principal shouted in anger. “You’re
all suspended, every last one of you.”
    Hartman turned at the end of the aisle, heading for the steps at the far end
of the stage. He passed by me and I couldn’t resist. He tripped over my leg and hit
face first. His microphone sent out a deep bass thud. A few chuckles mixed in
with the singing. Hartman rose to his feet, his face a dark almost purple-red, one
of his lenses broken in its frame. He huffed his way to the stairs only to be stopped
by the person standing in front of them.
    “Move out of my way you goddamn Amazon,” he said to Boss Chatterling.
She only continued to sing. “He knows when you’ve been bad or good so
be good for goodness sake.”
    “Have it your way, you fat bitch.”
    The principal took two small steps back and then charged. He hit the big
janitor with his head down, elbows out like an offensive linemen, feet rotating
almost continuously on the ground, like he was on a treadmill.
    The Boss didn’t budge. At most Hartman was an annoying gnat. His feet
flailed against the auditorium carpet. His legs moved back and forth in the same
place like the Tasmanian Devil on a sheet of ice. Hartman went nowhere. Finally,
like a matador holding her cape, Chatterling stepped quickly aside. Hartman hit
the steps head first, breaking the remainder of his glasses and bloodying his nose.
He scrambled up the stairs and almost waddled onto the stage, cupping his nose in
his hand.
     Once on his feet, his eyes flickered from side to side, searching for
something, anything, to stop the music. He ran to the wall by the stage and pulled
off the fire extinguisher, the color of the device a bit brighter than the blood on his
shirt. He held the red canister over his head and staggered rapidly toward Roman.
Roman’s hands moved away just before the red cylinder crashed against the keys,
striking an intrusive chord in the holiday song. The ivories fell in layers to the
floor like the broken teeth of a boxer.
     “I’m in charge here,” he roared at Roman. “You’ll be gone. They’ll all be
gone. But I’ll still be here. I am Collingston High School!”
     Hartman hoisted the extinguisher once again and swung it at Roman.
     Roman ducked.
     Again.
    Roman ducked.
    After missing the third time, Hartman let the canister fall to the ground.
    His arms burned with exhaustion, and his rapid breathing lifted up his weathered
suit coat up and down. He put his hands on his knees searching for air and looked
into the crowd.
    Hartman looked at our faces, at the teachers, and then at the cameras that
were still rolling, like he’d just awoken from a bad dream, like someone else had
been in charge of his body over the last five minutes. Hartman stood up, adjusted
his tie, sucked the crimson snot back up his nose and combed the long wild hairs of
his head back over the bald spot with his fingers.
    Hartman lowered himself off the front of the stage, threw his shoulders
back in their correct posture, walked up the aisle and out the auditorium doors.
    The shock hovered over us for several seconds, and then a voice from
somewhere in the crowd started to sing “Joy to the World.” Then another voice.
   And another.
  Heather walked up on stage as the singing continued. The crowd began to
file out one by one, like a church procession without the organ. Roman still stood
in the center of the stage. Heather ran to the middle and hugged him.
   “All this for me?” she asked.
   “For both of us,” he said.
   “Why? What changed your mind?”
   “The advice of one friend and the strength of another.” Roman paused. “I
love you.”
    They kissed.
    Alone in the spotlight.
XIX
     Roman sat in his living room with a book in hand. Reading by candlelight,
he flipped pages of the book as fast as most people would read through a couple of
paragraphs. His index finger ran from line to line down the dusty white pages
stopping only to go back to the beginning of the next. Eyes wide, following his
fingertip, Roman seldom blinked. The finger scrolled, the eyes followed, the pages
curved, and in a matter of minutes Sun Tzu’s Art of War was finished.
     Roman lifted up from his seat, grabbing a cup full of water from the table
next to him. He walked to the window, taking a sip. His eyes scanned the
landscape in front of him, the smooth white sea of snow that blanketed his yard
and the neighbors’ yards as well, the white fluffy clouds on both sides of the walk
that he’d created as he shoveled earlier in the day, Carl’s house dark and empty
except for the single candle on the window sill of his bedroom, and the crystal-
looking trees that in summer shaded the neighborhood, but ice-covered now, only
reflected light from the street lamps.
     A snowplow lumbered down the street, scraping with its metal blade and
sending showers of snow off to the side. The perfect snow-sea before Roman was
now tainted with brown slush and black mud. Roman frowned but continued to
look. Christmas Day was only a couple of hours from being over now and with it
the hope of being in the company of loved ones. Just before Roman turned his
gaze away from the window Heather’s Mustang pulled up.
     She popped out of the car wearing a long beige trench coat, something
Roman was not accustomed to seeing her in. Heather slipped in the back seat to
grab something. Roman put on his boots leaving them untied and went to help her.
Heather handed him a round covered tray and a clothing bag. Balancing
the tray on one forearm, Roman threw the clothing bag over the same shoulder,
then gently grasped her with his other arm. They walked together to the porch.
Before he opened the door Heather said, “Are there any vacancies at the inn
tonight?”
     Roman smiled and opened the door.
    “Can I take your coat?” Roman asked.
    “No thanks, I need to warm up for a while,” Heather said. “I brought you
some food, leftovers from my parents’ house. Are you hungry?”
Roman took the wrapping off the tray.
    “There’s enough here to feed an army,” Roman said. “Do you want some?”
    “That’s okay, all I’ve been doing is eating all day. I’m stuffed. The plate
should still be warm. I nuked it before I left home.”
     Roman grabbed a fork from the kitchen and plowed into the food. The
plate was full of turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing, chicken and noodles, and
deviled eggs. Heather smiled as she watched him eat.
     Roman swallowed hard. “I don’t remember the last time I had a meal this
good, especially on a holiday.”
     Heather pressed her lips together tightly. “Does it make you think of your
parents, Roman?”
    Roman continued to chew although his jaws slowed.
    “It does,” he said and swallowed again. “But not bad times, only the good
times, like Christmas, like now.”
    As quickly as Roman dove into the food he was full, leaving half of it
uneaten on the tray. Heather walked over and wrapped the plate back up and took
it to the fridge. She came back in and noticed the pile of books stacked neatly on
the floor against the end of Roman’s bed.
    “Been doing some reading?” Heather asked.
    “All day,” Roman said as he wiped his mouth with a napkin.
    Heather shook her head in delight and started to walk toward Roman who
was now seated on the edge of his bed. “I don’t know if I could ever get tired of
all that knowledge in your head.”
    “Give it some time,” Roman said.
    Heather stood in front of him, her lips full of anticipation, like the cat that
ate the canary. “I want to give you your Christmas present.”
    “Hold on. Yours first,” Roman said and grabbed the small package off his
nightstand.
   “You shouldn’t have. I thought the auditorium was more than enough.”
   “It’s nothing spectacular, but I thought of you when I saw it. Go ahead.
Open it.”
    Heather pulled the gold ribbon off the box and tore into the purple paper.
    She removed a small object snuggled in tissue paper. She unrolled the gift out of
its wrappings and turned it over in her hand. The ceramic figure was cloaked in a
long coat, carried a clipboard in hand, and wore a stethoscope around her neck.
   “She’s beautiful, Roman. Thank you.”
   “Just don’t leave it in your locker.”
Heather sat the doctor statue down. Her smile shifted to an expression of
seriousness and concentration. She stood in front of the naive genius.
   “Close your eyes,” she whispered into his ear.
   Her soft command shut Roman’s eyes, his heart beating nervously.
Heather untied the belt around her waist and dropped the beige trench coat to the
floor.
    Heather took Roman’s right hand and put it firmly on her left breast. She
leaned in and kissed him, slow and soft at first, and then mouth opened with
aggressive grace. Roman’s hand trembled on her chest, nervous and unsure.
    Heather took off Roman’s shirt and kissed his lips again, then his neck. Roman
quivered with a mixture of fear and anticipation. Heather unbuckled his belt,
tearing off the remainder of his clothing.
   “I’ve never done this before,” Roman’s voice cracked as he fell backwards
to the mattress. The courageous warrior was defenseless, the brain that knew too
much, completely empty.
    Heather straddled him now, grabbing him with her hand, sliding on slowly
until he was completely inside of her. A quiet moan filled his ears, sending a
shiver down his arms and legs.
   “Do you love me, Roman?”
   “Of course.”
   “Then that’s all that matters,” Heather said.
   She leaned forward laying her chest on his and began to kiss him again.
Roman’s fingers found their way down the long golden curls of her hair,
descending to the arch of her back until they found her bottom. The trembling was
gone now; his hands were firm and sure, holding her as they embarked on the
bumpy but welcome journey.
    There was no foreplay. It had been going on for months now anyway,
since the time Roman had seen her face light up at finding that her grandma’s
precious cheerleader had risen from the dead; when they sat on the dock at Sam
Peterman’s and watched God’s fireworks display; when he saved Tony in the
Hollow; when she danced with him despite the popular status quo; when they
watched each other eat over soft candle light in his kitchen; since the first time
their lips had met in Scott Jakowski’s closet; when they kissed in the spotlight in
the auditorium.
    Roman thought of none of this now though. He only saw her, the way she
smelled, the way she looked moving on top of him, her soft smooth skin, and the
slick warmth inside of her. Roman held on as long as he could. He released
against his will, clenching the bed sheets in his hands. Sharp cramps started to
seize the muscles in his calves, but Roman fought back, wiggling his toes.
Heather slid over to lay beside him, bodies naked, breathing hard. Roman
looked in her eyes. She smiled back, but Roman knew she was not content.
    “I can go again,” he said.
    Heather pulled him on top of her. This time there was no trembling, no
fear, only the two of them. And as the white winter night went on and the coldness
kept the city streets silent, Roman and Heather tossed and rolled in the bed, their
friction warming the small house. Between sessions there was talking and
laughing and hugging. Roman went to get a drink of water for both of them at one
point. Under the covers, Roman laid his arm under her neck, resting her head just
below his. She ran her fingertips gently across his chest. Roman’s eyes were wide
open staring at the ceiling, unbelieving the prior events. Heather closed her eyes.
    “Will it always be like this, Roman?” she asked as she drifted between
consciousness and dream.
    Before Roman could answer, quiet snores came from her nose, her exhales
tickling his ear. Christmas had finally found him. It had traveled across time,
dodging the wrath of Ed Pentoch, escaping the cellars of Bravo, triumphing over
the bleak odds at school. It had washed him clean; his guilt floated away in the
distance.
    But to answer her question, to say that it would always be like this, the two
of them together, was a question Roman knew the answer to: no matter how much
he wished he could tell her yes, he knew that the answer was no. No, because the
day would come when Agent Johnson would track him down, pursue and
eventually catch him, stuffing him in the back of some car or van with tinted black
windows and government plates. In everyone’s life at one point or another time is
the enemy, but for Roman time hung always on the horizon, dark and black, like a
storm ready to unleash its fury.
    For now, though, a peaceful calm filled him. He scoffed at the looming
threat. Johnson was somewhere in the darkness, searching, planning, the imminent
tide of fate. Eventually that tide would come in, that wave would crash against
Roman. Then there would be no more hiding, there would be no more running.
Roman would stand and fight, win or lose. So be it. Let it all come.
    Let him come.

 

 

           


 

 

 

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